Author Archives: Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin

About Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

The Right to Privacy in Judaism

Reprinted with permission from Responsa in a Moment, published by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Question: It is common practice today for one company to sell the vital statistics of its clients to another company. It is also accepted that organizations–including rabbinic and philanthropic organizations–sell or give their address lists to other organizations. Computer software known as “spyware” frequently enters home and business computers and collects personal information about users without their informed consent. This information is then used for future advertising and marketing purposes.  Finally, Caller ID allows a company receiving a call to see the caller’s phone number on a screen. As a result, companies that receive orders via 800 numbers can sell their customers’ phone and credit card numbers to other companies. What is the halakhic attitude towards these practices?


At first glance, these questions seem trivial. What does it matter if someone distributes my vital statistics and as a result I receive junk mail and junk phone calls? Who does it harm? But on second thought, these practices symbolize a much more serious phenomenon–the inability of modern man to maintain privacy and confidentiality.

We live in an age of lack of privacy. There are many newspapers and “entertainment” programs devoted entirely to gossip and slander. Photographers and cameramen invade funerals and photograph the anguished cries of bereaved families. Our vital statistics and medical records are recorded on computers which can be invaded without too much effort. Through the Internet, one can break into the private computers of millions of individuals and companies.

Finally, eleven years ago we witnessed what was probably the greatest show trial in the history of mankind. A poll taken in February 1995 showed that 82% of the population of the United States planned to follow the O. J. Simpson trial, along with millions of people around the world.

Proponents of this massive invasion of privacy cited the “public’s right to know.” Yet there is no such “right” in Jewish law. On the contrary, as we shall see below, in Judaism every human being has the right to privacy and confidentiality unless he or she waives that right and allows someone to enter his home or reveal his secret.

What Maimonides Means to Me

By David Golinkin

This piece was written in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of Maimonides death, Jan. 1, 2005. Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

When Moses Maimonides died on the 20th of Tevet 4965 (December 13, 1204), public mourning was ordained in all parts of the Jewish world. For three days, Jews and Muslims held lamentations in Fostat.

In Jerusalem, a public fast was proclaimed. They read the Tokhekhah (rebuke) from Leviticus 26 followed by I Samuel 4:22: "The glory is departed from Israel, for the Ark of God is taken." An unknown hand wrote on his tomb in Tiberias: "Here lies a man and yet not a man; if you were a man, then heavenly creatures created you."

This reaction is not surprising. Moses ben Maimon was one of the great Jewish intellects of all time. His major writings include his: Commentary to the Mishnah, the Book of Commandments, the Mishneh Torah–his majestic 14-book compendium of all of Jewish law–and the Guide to the Perplexed. His "minor" works include his Eight Chapters–an introduction to Pirkei Avot (Ethic of the Fathers)–his introduction to Perek Helek, which includes his 13 principles of Jewish faith, his Epistles which brought comfort to the persecuted Jews of Yemen and Morocco, approximately 500 responsa (rabbinic legal decisions), and a slew of medical works. It is no wonder that people said: "from Moses to Moses there is none like Moses."

On my shelves in Jerusalem, I have many editions of the Rambam’s works in various languages. They are my constant companions. ButI would like to step back from the specifics of his works and ask a more general question: What does Maimonides mean to me as a Jew and as a rabbi? What general lessons can we derive from his life and works? I believe there are at least seven.

 Synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge: In his Eight Chapters, Maimonides says "accept the truth from he who says it." These were not mere words. In his epistle to the Sages of Montpellier (ed. Shilat, p. 481), Maimonides explains that he had thoroughly studied every book about idol worship available in Arabic. In his Laws of Sanctifying the New Moon (17:24) he utilized the books of the Greek sages: "Since anything whose reason is known and whose truth is known with proofs … we rely on the person who said it or taught it…whether they be prophets or non-Jews." Indeed, that is why his Guide and his medical works are a synthesis of Greek, Arabic, and Jewish science and philosophy.

Torah scholars must work for a living: Maimonides was rabidly opposed to communal support for Torah scholars. "Anyone who makes up his mind to study Torah and not work but live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt… and deprives himself of the World to Come, for it is forbidden to benefit from Torah study in this world…" (Laws of Torah Study 3:11). After the death of his brother David, who had supported him, Maimonides began to work full-time as a physician, later becoming court physician to the Vizier. His famous letter of 1199 to Samuel ibn Tibon describes his daily routine. He treated the Sultan and his court until the afternoon, followed by regular patients at home until after nightfall. This means that he wrote his two major works, the Mishneh Torah and the Guide, after working more than 12 hours a day!

A person can rise above the vicissitudes of his life: Maimonides did not have an easy life. From 1148-1165, he and his family were constantly in flight from Almohad persecutions. They left Cordoba, wandered around Spain, settled in Fez, fled to Israel, and finally settled in Fostat, the old city of Cairo. His first wife died at a young age. As already noted, after his brother’s death, Maimonides worked as a full-time physician for the rest of his life. In other words, Maimonides did all that he did despite a turbulent youth and a very demanding profession.

Public servant: In addition to writing and working as a physician, Maimonides was the head of the Jewish community of Egypt, and some say he was the Nagid. It is clear that the Rambam did not live in an ivory tower. For example, he was actively engaged in Pidyon Shevuyim, the redemption of captives, and the Cairo Genizah contains a receipt for such a contribution in his own hand.

Tolerance: Maimonides suffered greatly at the hands of Muslim fanatics. He and his family spent years on the run and, according to some accounts, were forcibly converted to Islam. Nonetheless, in his Mishneh Torah (Forbidden Foods 11:7) and in his responsa (ed. Blau, no. 448) he classifies the Muslims as strict monotheists. Furthermore, in the Laws of Kings (11:4) in the uncensored editions, he says that Christianity and Islam help pave the way for the Messiah. 

Halakhic (Jewish law) flexibility: Maimonides was one of the greatest halakhists of all time. Like most great halakhists, he knew that Jewish lawmust be flexible in order to deal with new problems and new situations. For example, he was very disturbed by the fact that during the loud repetition of the Amidah people would talk and spit as if they were in the marketplace. He explained in his responsa (ed. Blau, nos. 256, 258) that those who do not know the Amidah cannot hear it in any case and he viewed it as a terrible hillul hashem (desecration of God’s name) in the eyes of the Muslims who pray with absolute decorum. He therefore abolished the silent Amidah and enacted that the entire congregation should recite the Amidah together. This remained the practice in Egypt until the days of the Radbaz (16th century).

 Inconsistency: Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Given the volume of the Rambam’s writings, it is not surprising that he sometimes contradicts himself. Prof. Saul Lieberman and others have pointed out some of the contradictions between his different works. This is as it should be. A great scholar is allowed to change his mind over the course of time.

These are only some of the lessons we can learn from the life and writings of hanesher hagadol, "the great eagle." His life and works will continue to inspire and challenge us for at least 800 more years.

Seven Reasons For Sukkah Sitting

Reprinted with permission of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.

The holiday of Sukkot has been blessed with many beautiful laws and customs: the recitation of Hallel, Ushpizin (welcoming our ancestors as honored guests), reading the book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], and, of course, blessing and waving the Arba’ah Minim–the four species. Yet, needless to say, the most basic mitzvah is that of dwelling in a sukkah. But why do we sit in the sukkah?

Biblical Reasons

The Torah itself gives two reasons, one agricultural and one historical.

The agricultural reason is found in two places in the Torah:

1) Exodus 23:16: “…and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field”.

2) Deut. 16: 13, 15: “After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days…You shall hold a festival…in the place that the Lord will choose, for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy”.

Thus, according to these verses, Sukkot is a holiday of thanksgiving for the harvest.

The historical reason is found in the book of Leviticus (23:42-43):

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths. In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…

Thus, according to Leviticus, we sit in the sukkah in order to retain a historical link with our ancestors and to remember all that God did for us when we left Egypt.

These are the simple reasons given by the Torah for observing this holiday, but Jews are never satisfied with the simple reason for anything! A few verses in the Bible were frequently expounded upon by later Jewish philosophers and rabbis. Sukkot is no exception.

Remembering the “Bad Old Days”

Philo was a Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the first century C.E. In his many works written in Greek, he gave allegorical interpretations to stories and commandments in the Bible. In his book De Specialibus Legibus, On the Special Laws (2:204, 206-211), he adds a number of reasons to those mentioned above. He writes:

Whatever Happened to the Ten Commandments?

Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

The Torah reading for Shavuot is the Ten Commandments. This is based on the opinion of one of the Tannaim (early Sages) found in three places in rabbinic literature (Tosefta Megillah 3:5, ed. Lieberman p. 354; Yerushalmi Megillah 3:7, fol. 74b; and Bavli Megillah 31a). This is, without a doubt, the result of the rabbinic belief that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot (Shabbat 86b).

Centrality of the Ten Commandments

Even so, it is very surprising that we only read the Ten Commandments in public on Shavuot and as part of the weekly Torah portions of Yitro (Exodus 20) and Va’ethanan (Deuteronomy 5). After all, the Bible itself considered the Ten Commandments of seminal importance to the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments are also quoted or paraphrased by the Psalms (50:7, 18-19; 81:10-11), by the prophet Hosea (4:1-2), and by the prophet Jeremiah (7:9).

Furthermore, Philo of Alexandria (first century C.E.) considered the Ten Commandments the essence of the entire Torah, which elaborates in detail what the Ten Commandments say in condensed form. A similar idea is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shekalim 6:1, fol. 49d):

“Just as at sea there are huge waves, with a host of little waves between them, so are there Ten Commandments, with a host of refinements and particular commandments of the Torah between them.”

Five hundred years later, Rav Saadia Gaon (888-942) wrote Azharot, or liturgical hymns, for Shavuot, in which all 613 commandments are distributed under the headings of each of the Ten Commandments.

A similar idea is found in Numbers Rabbah (13:15-16, ed. Mirkin, p. 71), edited in the 12th century. That midrash states that there are 620 letters in the Ten Commandments; 613 letters refer to the 613 commandments and the other 7 refer to the seven days of creation. “This comes to teach you that the entire world was created for the sake of the Torah.”

Dressing as Elijah & Pouring Out Love

In the traditional Passover Haggadah, a verse from Jeremiah (10:25) appears following the Grace After Meals, when the door is opened for Elijah the Prophet: "Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon the families that call not on Thy name; for they have devoured Jacob, yea, they have devoured him and consumed him, and have laid waste his habitation." In Hebrew, the verse begins, "Shefokh hamatkha…" Many Jews, especially in modern times, have had problems with the violent nature of this verse. The following article describes three customs, the last of which offers a creative alternative to reciting this verse. Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Quite a few scholars have already detailed the history of these verses, which are recited after Birkat Hamazon [the Grace After Meals] and before Hallel. We shall describe here three customs related to these verses:

Dressing Up As Elijah 

The apostate Antonius Margaritha (born ca. 1490) relates in his book Der Gantz Judisch Glaub, published in Augsberg in 1530, that when Jews open the door for shefokh, someone in costume enters the room quickly, as if he is Elijah himself coming to announce the coming of the Messiah.

R. Yosef Yuzpah Hahn (1570-1637) says, "how good is the custom that they do something in memory of the Messiah. One falls into the entranceway at the beginning of shefokh to show during the night of our first redemption our strong belief in our final redemption."

Apparently, someone would pretend to be Elijah coming through the door, and Rabbi Hahn thought that this was a wonderful custom. But R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach (1638-1701) was opposed to this custom: "But what the servants and maids are accustomed to make the figure of a man and the like, something frightening when the door is opened–this is only licentiousness and derision."

This custom clearly fits in with the Cup of Elijah and other Elijah customs at the seder. It may have been another tactic to keep the children awake. On the other hand, this may be a misunderstanding of the "wandering Jew" skit which took place, at many different points in the seder. 

Seder Scenes

Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Modern Jewish educators frequently use drama as an educational tool in order to bring a biblical or talmudic story to life, or to get a child more actively involved in the subject under discussion. 

Much of the Pesach seder is also geared toward children, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of “v’higadita l’vinkha“–“and you shall tell your children” (Exodus 13:8). That is why the Talmud instructs us to distribute parched grain and nuts to children at the seder, so that they should ask questions and not fall asleep (Pesahim 109a). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that three sets of Pesach customs use drama in order to arouse the interest of children and bring the Exodus to life.

“The Wandering Jew”

Dressing up is one way to get into the Passover spirit.There is a widespread custom among Sephardic and Oriental Jews, according to which various members of the family at various points in the seder dress up as if they had just left Egypt. Other family members ask formal questions and “the wandering Jew” explains that he has left Egypt and is on his way to Jerusalem. These ceremonies differ in various details; what follows is a representative selection:

1) Benjamin II (Yisrael ben Yosef Benjamin) described such a ceremony “in Asia” ca. 1853. They dress up a young man in “kley golah” (Ezekiel 12:3: “gear for exile”) and before the recitation of the Haggadah, he appears before the participants with his staff in hand and his satchel on his shoulder. The father asks him:
“From where do you come, O pilgrim?”
“From the land of Egypt,” says the lad.
“Did you go out to freedom from the bondage of Egypt?”
“Yes indeed,” replies the lad, “and now I am a free man.”
“Where are you going?”
“I am going to Jerusalem,” he replies.
With great joy the participants begin to tell the story of the Exodus.

2) R. Ya’akov Sapir described the custom in San’a, Yemen in 1858:
The seder is observed as is the custom among all Jews. One of the members of the family takes a matzah and ties it in a scarf on his shoulder and walks around the house. The others ask him: “Why are you doing this?” And he replies: “So did our ancestors when they left Egypt in haste.”

A Megillah for Hanukkah?

Chanting the Purim megillah (scroll) is a central part of that festival. The author of this piece examines the history of a similar custom for Hanukkah and recommends enacting a modern version of this tradition: Reading the First Book of Maccabees, an ancient work that was not included in the canonical Hebrew Bible but which has survived and is studied by many scholars nonetheless. Excerpted with permission from the website of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

 There is one custom which we would expect to find on Hanukkah that is missing–the reading of a scroll in public. After all, on Purim we read the Scroll of Esther every year in order to publicize the miracle. Why don’t we read a scroll on Hanukkah in order to publicize the miracles which God wrought for our ancestors in the days of Matityahu [the priest central to the Hanukkah story] and his sons [the Maccabees]?

The result is that most Jews only know the legend about the miracle of the cruse of oil (Shabbat 21b) and not about the actual military victories of the Maccabees.

The Scroll

The answer is that, in truth, there is such a scroll that was read in private or in public between the ninth and 20th centuries. It is called “The Scroll of Antiochus” and many other names, and it was written in Aramaic during the Talmudic period and subsequently translated into Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages. The book describes the Maccabean victories on the basis of a few stories from the Books of the Maccabees and Shabbat 21b, with the addition of a number of legends without any historic basis whatsoever.

The scroll is first mentioned by Halakhot Gedolot, which was written by Shimon Kayara in Babylon ca. 825 C.E.: “The elders of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel wrote Megillat Bet Hashmonay [the scroll of the Hasmonean House]…” Rav Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) calls it “kitab benei hashmonay,” the book of the sons of the Hasmoneans, and he also translated it into Arabic. Rav Nissim Gaon (North Africa, 990-1062) calls it in Arabic “the scroll of the sons of the Hasmoneans.”

Ransoming Captive Jews

Excerpted with permission from the website of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which has the complete text of Rabbi Golinkin’s responsum (rabbinic decision) with footnotes.

Rabbinic Literature & Medieval Jewish History

Anyone who surveys this topic historically is struck by the fact that many thousands of Jews were captured and held for ransom throughout Jewish history and that Jewish communities went to extraordinary lengths to redeem captives.

Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) calls pidyon shvuyim a “mitzvah rabbah” (great mitzvah) and says that captivity is worse than starvation and death. Maimonides rules that he who ignores ransoming a captive is guilty of transgressing commandments such as “you shall not harden your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:7); “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16); and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

ransom in judaismAnd one who delays in ransoming a captive is considered like a murderer (Yoreh Deah 252:3). Indeed, Maimonides himself wrote letters exhorting his fellow Jews to redeem captives and collected money for pidyon shvuyim.

The Exception to the Rule

It would seem from the above that pidyon shvuyim is an absolute mitzvah, which must be followed at all times. But there is one major exception, as explained in the Mishnah (Gittin 4:6 = Bavli Gittin 45a):

“One does not ransom captives for more than their value because of Tikkun Olam  (literally: “fixing the world”; for the good order of the world; as a precaution for the general good) and one does not help captives escape because of Tikkun Olam.”

This Mishnah was codified by the standard codes of Jewish law. The Babylonian Talmud (ibid.) gives two different explanations for this takkanah (rabbinic enactment):

A)    “because of the [financial] burden on the community”;

B)    “so that they [=the robbers] should not seize more captives”–i.e., paying a high ransom for captives will encourage kidnappers to kidnap more Jews and demand still higher ransoms.

Jewish Ethical Principles for Business

Abbreviated from Insight Israel 3:1 (October 2002), published by The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Some bibliographic references that have been eliminated here, as well as a bibliography on Jewish business ethics, can be found in the original version of this article, available on-line. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

In addition to all the laws mentioned [in the parallel article on specific legislation related to business ethics], the halakhah contains a number of ethical principles which go one step beyond what we would normally expect a businessman to do.

Beyond the Letter of the Law

The first principle is called “lifnim mishurat hadin”, which means “beyond the letter of the law”. Here is one classic case. According to Jewish law, a purchase has not been concluded until the buyer has physically “lifted up” the item being bought (Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:2). In light of this fact, the following story [from an early post-Talmudic code of Jewish law] is quite surprising:

“It happened that Rav Safra had some wine for sale, and a potential buyer came to him while he was reciting the Shema [required twice daily]. The customer said ‘Sell me this wine for such and such a price.’ Rav Safra did not answer [so as not to interrupt theShema]. Assuming that he was unwilling to settle for the price offered, the customer added to his original offer, and said, ‘Sell me this wine for such and such a price.’ Rav Safra still did not answer. [Presumably, this cycle was repeated, with ever-escalating prices.] Upon finishing theShema, Rav Safra said to him: ‘From the time you made your first offer, I had resolved in my mind to sell it to you. Therefore I may take no greater amount [than your first bid].’” (Sheiltot Vayehi, No. 38)

The Sheiltot went so far as to make Rav Safra’s behavior a halakhic norm for all Jews. It rules:

“There is no question if he said ‘I will sell you this,’ but even if he merely resolved in his mind to sell something [at a particular price], even if he did not articulate it, he should not go back on that resolution…”

Business Ethics & Jewish Law

Abbreviated from Insight Israel 3:1 (October 2002), published by The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Some bibliographic references that have been eliminated here, and a bibliography on Jewish business ethics, can be found in the original version of this article, available on-line. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.

Accurate weights and measures

We are admonished in the Book of Leviticus (19:35-36): “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest ephah [dry measure], and an honest hin [liquid measure]“.

The Mishnah (Bava Batra 5:10) rules that: “The wholesaler must clean out his measures once every thirty days and the householder once every twelve months… The retailer cleans his measures twice a week and polishes his weights once a week; and cleans out his scale before every weighing.”

Throughout the Talmudic period, the rabbis appointed agronomoi—a Greek word for market commissioners—whose job it was to inspect measures and weights and to fix prices for basic commodities (Babylonian Talmud [=B.T.], Bava Batra 89a). The agronomoi eventually disappeared, but the ideal was still there as late as the nineteenth century when Rabbi Israel Salanter [the founder of the musar (ethical self-improvement movement) wrote: “As the rabbi must inspect periodically the slaughtering knives of the shochtim [slaughterers] in town to see that they have no defect, so must he go from store to store to inspect the weights and measures of the storekeepers.”

Today, these laws are just as applicable as they were in biblical times. Wholesalers and retailers must check their scales and cash registers on a regular basis, not just because civil law demands it, but also because Jewish law requires it.

Ona’at Mamon (Monetary Deception)

This concept, too, is based on a verse in Leviticus (25:14): “When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another.”

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