Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Your Questions Answered - #3

By Susan Esther Barnes

One of the fun things about getting website statistics for my blog is I get to see the search terms people use to get here. A lot of those search terms are questions. You have some great questions, and I think they deserve an answer. In February and April I answered some of your questions. Below are answers to some of the questions you have asked since then:

Can Jews Eat Pork Before Their Bat Mitzvah?
Jews are not supposed to eat pork, ever. I think this question alludes to the fact that when a person becomes a bat mitzvah (for a girl, or bar mitzvah for a boy), the purpose of the ceremony is to welcome that person as, literally, a “daughter (or son) of the commandments.” The community recognizes that this person has reached a point, by virtue of their age and, we hope, their education and wisdom, so that they are now responsible for following the commandments.

This does not mean they shouldn’t follow the commandments before then. It is just that, before the age of bat or bar mitzvah, they are children, and as such they can’t be held liable for their own actions. Of course, their parents or guardians are still responsible for them, and ought to be teaching them to follow the commandments all along, starting with the ones children are capable of doing, such as not eating pork.

Do I have to be Jewish to follow the Torah?
No, you don’t have to be Jewish to follow the Torah. Anyone can read the Torah, study it, read related texts, and follow the commandments. If you are not Jewish, whether or not you follow the Torah is voluntary. If you are Jewish, then you are commanded by God to follow the laws of the Torah.

Do Jews kiss after getting married?
Yes, Jews kiss after getting married, and do all the other things that married people do, including the things that can lead to having babies. Otherwise, the world would have run out of Jews a long time ago.

What’s the point of halacha?
The Torah contains 613 commandments that we are supposed to follow. Of course, we can’t follow about half of them, for reasons mostly having to do with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but that still leaves us with a few hundred commandments to follow.

Over time, various questions arose over what some of the commandments mean. For example, on Shabbat we’re supposed to rest, and not do work. But what constitutes work? Is it only something I get paid to do, or does it include volunteer work? Does it include folding the laundry, or carrying a book next door to my neighbor’s house?

In addition, the rabbis worried that if people only tried to follow the commandments in the Torah as written, they might break a commandment by mistake. For instance, if you are supposed to rest on Shabbat, and Shabbat begins at a certain time, you can work up to a fraction of a second before that time. But what if you lose track of time and go over? Or you miscalculate? Or your watch is wrong?

For this reason, the rabbis decided to do what we call “building a fence” around the Torah, adding rules to make sure we don’t come close to breaking a Torah law. If you’re told to light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before Shabbat actually starts, it’s pretty safe that you won’t lose track of time so long or miscalculate the time so badly that you’ll actually end up doing it after Shabbat has started.

Halacha is the system of laws the Jews established in order to take care of both of the issues above: To give guidance about what the various laws mean, and to build a fence around those laws to make it unlikely that anyone will break them by mistake.

Of course, halacha was written by fallible men, and there are all sorts of things we could say about how various improvements to halacha are long overdue, but the point of halacha is to help us follow the commandments.

Is soy bacon kosher?
Soy bacon can be kosher, if it contains no pork or other non-kosher substances, and doesn’t contain both meat and dairy. It isn’t the word “bacon” that makes bacon non-kosher; it’s the fact that it is a pork product. So if you make something with kosher ingredients and call it “soy bacon,” or “turkey bacon,” or whatever, it’s still kosher.

The objective of Jewish prayer
The English word “pray,” according to my Webster’s Dictionary, means to “entreat” or "implore,” implying that the objective of prayer is to ask God for stuff. The Hebrew word for prayer, T’fillah, means to judge oneself.

The objective of Jewish prayer, then, is to look inside oneself and to think about how we’re living our lives and what we can do to improve. It’s not that we don’t ever ask God for stuff, it’s just that asking for stuff isn’t the main focus. In fact, on Shabbat we’re not supposed to ask God for stuff; we’re supposed to be content, for that one day a week, with the world exactly as it is.

Keep those questions coming!
I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep going with those interesting search terms.


  1. Shalom Susan!
    My name is Anders and I found your blog today.

    You wrote: " If you are not Jewish, whether or not you follow the Torah is voluntary. If you are Jewish, then you are commanded by God to follow the laws of the Torah."

    I would like to comment on that.

    "הקהל (haqeheil; congregate—verb root of Qәhil•âh′) ha-am, the men, the women, and the tots; and your geir who is within your gates; so that they will Shәm•a′ and so that they will learn, and they will revere י--ה your Ël•oh•im′, and will keep sho•meir′ to do all of the matters of this Tor•âh′." - Deuteronomy 31:12

    (Torah akhat yiheyeh la-ezrakh; wә-la-geir hagar be•tokh•e•khem

    "One Tor•âh′ shall be for the citizen [i.e. native Yi•sәr•â•eil′i]; and for the resident-alien who resides among you)." S'hemot [Exodus] 12:49

    Both geirim - non-Jewish Torah-observant proselytes - and Jews are required according to Torah to keep the mitzwot to the utmost of their ability..

    Look up the terms זר (zar) and גוים (goyim) -non-Jewish persons whom don't keep Torah non-selectively to the utmost of their ability - in a Hebrew concordance to find out that these groups were and are not in a relationsship with the Creator; and that the only thing goyim are promised in Tana''kh is destruction. They are not promised ha-olam haba. These groups are also required to keep Torah according to Tana''kh and when keeping the minimum requirements and undertaking to observe Torah non-selectively before a beit din, they get the status of a geir toshav.

    [More information and further documentation of the above on this blog: Link and this glossaries definition: Link

    I wish you a nice day!

    Anders Branderud

  2. Anders -

    Thank you for your comment. What you say is one interpretation, however the interpretation in the Chumash (Torah Commentary) used at my synagogue (and this is a common, not an obscure commentary) says that non-Jews are only responsible for following the convenant with Noah, which is a subset of the Decalogue, or what Christians call the Ten Commandments.