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Ask the Rabbi - 276

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3 June 2000; Issue #276

Courage & Cowardice


Smile wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

In the Torah, where can I find a definition of courage?

Dear Smile,

The best place to go to get an answer to this question is the Mishna in Pirkei Avot: Ben Zoma said: "Who is a strong person? Someone who subdues his evil inclination, as we find expressed in the verse: 'Someone who doesn't lose his temper is better than a strong man, and someone who controls his spirit is better than someone who conquers a city.' "

The Mishna is describing a trait that applies only to people: Courage. Animals exhibit physical strength. But courage, spiritual strength, only applies to people.

Physical talent can be developed, but the potential is basically inborn. Either you have the potential to play professional basketball or you don't. The basic talent must be there.

But when it comes to spiritual strength, everyone has the same opportunity to excel. Wherever you stand spiritually, there is a challenge. Though some people, due to place of birth, education, etc., would seem to have it easier, in actuality each person has his own tests which are perfect for him.

An amazing story is recorded about Rabbi Chaim Vital (16th century) and the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria). The Arizal was the great teacher of Kabbala in modern times. Rabbi Chaim Vital was his primary student, who recorded almost all of the Arizal's teachings. Once Rabbi Vital asked the Arizal the following question: "If the Talmudic Sages with all their greatness and levels of holiness weren't able to bring the mashiach (messianic era), then how are we going to be able to?"

The Arizal's answer is even more understandable today that it was then. He answered: "In the time before the mashiach it will be so challenging to correctly observe mitzvot that the mitzvot done in those times will have more power than they did in the earlier times. Even though those mitzvot may not be done as completely, but because they will be so difficult they will have the power to bring the mashiach."

  • Tractate Avot 4:1


Contents wrote:
Dear Rabbi,

What is the probability of something going wrong during circumcision?

Dear Anonymous,

I spoke with the head doctor of the emergency department at Israel's Ma'ayanei Hayashuah Medical Center about your question. He said that complications are very rare. The most common problem is excessive bleeding, which needs sutures. He classified this as rare. Infection, he said is very, very rare, and he has never seen a case.

The danger of the mohel (certified ritual circumcisor) cutting too much, which is what most people are worried about, is basically unheard of. Nowadays the mohel uses a protective shield that makes this not only unlikely but impossible.

The Jewish people have been circumcising their young for around 3750 years. So far so good.

Man From Ground


Andy Keenan from Columbia, South Carolina wrote:
Dear Rabbi,

Why did G-d fashion man out of the ground?

Dear Keenan,

Because plastic hadn't been invented yet. (Just kidding.)

There are four layers of existence: Inanimate objects, plants, animals, and humans. Each level takes the level of life which is below it and elevates it. A plant derives its nutrition from the ground, elevating the ground and incorporating it into a higher level of existence. The same is true of all the levels. One reason we were created from the ground is to remind us that we can constantly strive to elevate every aspect of existence, even the lowly dirt.

Who Knows 16?

In the song at the end of the Pesach Seder we describe the significance of the numbers from one to thirteen as they relate to Jewish life and thought. "Three are the fathers, Four are the Mothers�12 are the Tribes of Israel�" What about the next 13 numbers? And after those? What significance do they have in Jewish tradition?

This week, we challenge to answer: "Who knows 16?"
Write to

Last time we asked: Who knows 15? Here are some reader responses:

Fifteen steps leading up to the Temple.

David Goodman

The 15 Psalms the Levites sang on the 15 stairs in the Temple.

Jechezkel Frank, Johannesburg

Rosh Hashana for fruit trees is 15th Shevat (known as Tu B'shevat)

Hilary Hurwitz

Fifteen words in the bircat kohanim, the priestly blessings.

Laya E Witty, Brighton MA

The 15 sections of the Pesach Seder, 15 morning blessings.

Shlomo Dovid Freedman, Baltimore

15 cubits that the flood waters covered the mountain tops.

Mike Turniansky

15 is the numerical value of G-d's name (yud and hey).

Sidney Stern, Highland Park, NJ

15 steps in the song "dayenu."

Rebecca Feiner

Fifteen generations from Abraham to King Solomon; then 15 generations from Solomon until the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple).

Randall Rowlett MD

Fifteen categories of women exempt their rivals from yibum and chalitzah.

Jacob Florans

The Haggadah only goes up to 13 because the next number, 14, is "dalet yud" -- which in Hebrew means "enough!"

Efraim Darom

The Public Domain
Comments, quibbles, and reactions concerning previous "Ask-the-Rabbi" features.


Re: WHO IS A BAGEL (Ask the Rabbi 274):

Regarding your definition of a bagel: I've been told that to "sleep a bagel" in slang means to sleep a full 12 hours; the shape the hour hand of the clock makes during this time would look like a bagel.

Rachail Deitsch

Another view of the bagel: To complement the optimist's and the pessimist's view of the ubiquitous bagel (the most beneficial invention ever invented), permit me to express the following: As you wander through life, Let this be your goal, Keep your eye on the bagel, And not on the hole.

Nathan Gold, Delray Beach, Florida

Written by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer, Rabbi Reuven Subar, Rabbi Mordecai Becher, Rabbi Baruch Rappaport, Rabbi Moshe Yossef and other Rabbis at Ohr Somayach Institutions / Tanenbaum College, Jerusalem, Israel.

General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
Production Design: Michael Treblow

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