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Ask the Rabbi - 282

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Ask the Rabbi

July 22, 2000 / 19 Tammuz 5760; Issue #282

Harry Potter


Zev Schwartz from Maryland, Baltimore wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

In America and the U.K. , the Harry Potter series of novels has swept millions of fans into their "spell." The popular books are about a young wizard and his friends who attend the distinguished Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Many states in America have officially banned the books from public school curriculum because of biblical injunctions against these two activities. May we read the books with a clear conscience?

Dear Zev Schwartz,

Isn't all mindless activity performed with a clear conscience?

What I mean is, life is like a business. A good businessman carefully takes inventory, buying more of the hot movers and chucking the duds. In life, too, we should weigh each activity as to its benefits and drawbacks.

Does reading this book benefit you? If it relaxes you, that's a benefit. If it strengthens your bond with your kids because you read it to them, that's a benefit.

But if it wastes your time, that's a drawback. If it weakens your bond with your kids, because you hide in your room and read it instead of spending time with them, that's a drawback. Every activity has the "opportunity cost" of what you could have done instead.

So, while there's no specific prohibition against "wizard" stories, the question is how much time, if any, to spend on them?

Direction Needed


Name@Withheld wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

I am a film director. I work in advertising. After much pressure and considerable preparatory work on my part, I reluctantly agreed to direct a TV advert. I felt very uncomfortable about my decision.

Meanwhile, although I had said "yes," no-one was in a position to reciprocally confirm the job as mine, i.e. the actual client had as yet to say "yes." A weekend passed. I then said I was declining to pursue the job. I was accused of unethical conduct.

I reasoned that my doubts and discomfort about the project's outcome would seriously impair my creative performance, and that it was in the client's best interests that I withdraw, even though such a withdrawal would constitute a serious embarrassment for me, the production company and the client's ad agency. Was I wrong?

Dear Name@Withheld,

This is a tough one. And since it is a financial issue that involves others, it requires a real live Rabbi to hear both sides I can just give you basic guidelines based on your side of the story: (In my answer, I will assume that you were not yet legally committed by implied contract or industry standard.)

The Talmud says: "Your YES should be righteous," meaning that a person should stand by his word.

The Shulchan Aruch rules that one who breaks a verbal agreement in a business transaction -- even if the deal has not been legally concluded -- is considered unfaithful and "out of favor" with the Sages.

So, for example, let's say I'm selling you my car, and we agree on a certain price. As you begin writing out the check, someone comes along and offers me more money. It would be unscrupulous for me to cancel my deal with you and to sell it to the newcomer, even if legally I am able to do so.

Now, your case appears to differ from a standard "business transaction." You aren't selling a car. Rather, you're "selling" your talent and creativity. According to your description, you agreed to take on the project thinking you would be able to put your creative talents to it, but later you realized that you don't have it in you. This is more like agreeing to sell someone a car which you later realize you don't own. In such a case, backing out isn't as much a lack of faith as a mistake made in the beginning.

So, if you think you can do a good job without harming the client's interest, you should reconsider in order to uphold your word. But if you can't, you can't. I'm sure you will make apologies to the appropriate parties, as well as a commitment to exercise more care in future agreements.

  • Tractate Bava Metzia 49a
  • Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 204:7

Who Knows Etc. ?

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?

Here are some reader responses:

18 is the amount of time it takes to turn matza dough into chametz (leaven).

Mazal Zirkind

19 is the number of years in a Jewish calendar cycle.

Stuart Wise

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


Re: ADDICTION TO MITZVOT (Ask the Rabbi #279):

ROTFLOL (Rolling On The Floor Laughing Out Loud)!!! I am sorry but I had to write and tell you how you made me laugh on a stressful day, thank u....I see you are addicted to be it with us all! Shalom U'brachot!

Madeline Ortiz

I know people who are so given to Torah study that they can't stop during davening (prayer time). The halachic works say you're not supposed to do that. That could be an addiction. We used to call it the "frumer yetzer hara."


In "Getting Up When You're Down," Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski M.D. (available at Artscroll.COM) notes that among religiously observant people, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) can often involve "religious" rituals. He cites the case of a woman who went to absurd lengths to keep her house clean of "chometz" (leaven) for Passover by refusing to allow any bread in the house all year round. Rabbi Twerski writes that OCD requires treatment; people who give counsel to others must be aware that there may be emotional disorders of a medical nature which require treatment!



Ohr Somayach, thank you for being there!! I very much look forward to your email.

Chuck Wintner

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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