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Ask the Rabbi - 278

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17 June 2000 / 14 Sivan 5760; Issue #278

Jews at the Speed of Light


Michael Sultan from Alexandria, VA wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

In the Book of Numbers (2:9) the total census for the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun is given as 186,400. It is said that this group will "set forth first." I'm sure that someone somewhere has pointed out that 186,400 is approximately the speed of light in miles per second.

This almost makes too much sense. The Torah speaks of us being a "light unto the nations." In a way, it makes sense for the lead tribes to be likened to "light." I'm not sure what my question to you would then be. I suppose I should simply ask, "Well? What's up with this?"

Dear Michael Sultan,

It was certainly bright of you to notice this. (It's no wonder your parents called you "sun.")

Allow me to add to your brilliant comment: The Torah says that this group be positioned "mizracha," eastward. Literally, mizracha means "in the direction of the rising sun," from the root "zorayach" meaning "shine" and "give light."

Your comment brings to mind a thought I once had: Light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach us. When you look at the sun, you're not really seeing it; rather, you see light that left the sun eight minutes ago. So when you look at the setting sun, the actual sun has already sunk below the horizon, and you continue to see its light for eight minutes.

Now, here's my thought: The last eight verses of the Torah describe Moshe's death. Who wrote these verses? The Talmud gives two opinions: Moshe wrote them, in tears, or Joshua wrote them. So (poetically speaking) just as the sun shines for eight minutes after it sets, similarly, the "Five Books of Moses" enlighten us for eight verses after Moshe dies.

The above all having been said, my feeling is that -- although G-d is "multi-lingual" -- He "prefers" Hebrew, both in language as well as regarding weights and measures. If He wanted to "jockey" history to make the number of this group reflect (no pun intended) the speed of light, He would have done so in terms of "amot per rega," or something like that.

Graduated Observance


Mike Epstein from Greenville, SC wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

I belong to a Conservative shul, the most traditional shul within a hundred miles. I have kept kosher for the past year and try to observe the mitzvot. I drive to shul on Shabbos and holidays but do not work. This is my question. I am supposed to work this coming Saturday (the last day of school for teachers) and then attend graduation. I have explained to the school why I can't work and this is no problem. I am wondering if I can justify going to graduation? If I were fully observant, I know that the answer would be "no" because I would have to drive. But since I drive to shul anyway, would attending the graduation be wrong in itself? Thank you for any advice you can give.

Dear Mike Epstein,

First, I'd like to tell you that I admire your efforts to observe the mitzvot in Greenville, and I think you should be applauded and encouraged. I bet it's not always easy to keep up your level of observance.

Your question is an interesting one. The truth is that the actual ceremony might not involve any Shabbat violation, but sitting through such a ceremony isn't really in the Shabbat spirit.

And, as you know, Jewish law forbids driving to synagogue, or anywhere else, on Shabbat. Going to synagogue is certainly a good thing, but not at the expense of one of the Ten Commandments!

Each time you refrain from driving on Shabbat is a meritorious act in itself. The fact that you do sometimes drive to shul doesn't take away from the the merit of the other times when you don't drive.

Also, it seems to me that you've gone to lengths to explain to your teachers and colleagues why you don't work on Shabbat. Now, even if technically the graduation won't be problematic, you might get some very dubious looks from your fellow teachers. They might not understand whatever subtle differences there may be here, and they may view you as a hypocrite.

A story: Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky and a friend were walking one Shabbat morning when a car pulled up to ask for directions. "Good Shabbos," said the driver, thus identifying himself as Jewish. "Good Shabbos to you," they answered. The driver then asked for help finding his destination, to which Rabbi Kaminetsky gave very clear and detailed directions. The driver said thank you and drove off.

Rabbi Kaminetsky's friend was a bit surprised: "Surely we must help others whenever we can," he said. "But are we allowed to help a fellow Jew to violate Shabbat?"

"On the contrary, I helped him avoid violating Shabbat. If he gets lost, he will drive around looking for his destination, thus violating Shabbat much more. By giving clear directions, not only did I help him get straight to his destination, but I helped him do so with less Shabbat desecration."

Who Knows 18?

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 18?"
Write to

Here are some reader responses regarding previous numbers:

During the Passover Seder we spill 16 drops of wine. This corresponds to the 16 sided sword of HKB"H (see Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 31:717), which corresponds to the 16 aliyot (Torah sections read) during the week. Shemot 15:3 begins with a yud and ends with a vav (yud and vav equalling 16) and describes Hashem as a warrior. This quoted by Eliezer ben Moshe HaDarshan as an allusion to the sword.

Lucy and Eliezer Langer

Sixteen is the number of animals the kohen gadol sacrifices on Yom Kippur.

Yossi Klein

In Emes Veyatziv (the prayer after Shema) including the word "emes," there are 16 adjectives describing "Ha'davar Ha'zeh -- This Thing." This "Thing" refers to the 16 verses of the first two paragraphs of the Shema (including "Baruch Shem").

Jacob Floran

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



Your TOP 10 LISTS!!!

Anybody who thinks we Jews have no sense of humor needs to read these little gems!!!

Linda L. Tilley


I enjoyed your response to the reader who asked about the mechitzah-partion separating men and women worshippers at the Kotel (Western Wall). Isn't it true, though, that prior to the '67 war there was no mechitzah at the Kotel and therefore not at all prior to that year? I remember seeing photos after the war of the soldiers at the Kotel just as it had been reclaimed; they were kissing the Wall and there definitely was not a division. Please respond.

Mrs. Sandy Wasserman

Dear Mrs. Sandy Wasserman,

For approximately the last 1900 years, up until 1967, the Kotel was not under Jewish rule. So I don't think we can make any inferences regarding Jewish practice based on that period.

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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