Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond AppleLarry Brandt

Ask the Rabbi


Q. Are there any Jewish laws about which parent should have custody of the children after a divorce?

A. You can of course leave it all to the lawyers and the courts but it is better all round for you to agree on these crucial issues between you.

There is a general principle in Jewish law that all children stay with the mother until they are two. Thereafter the girls stay with the mother and the boys with the father, though at the mother’s request the sons can stay with her until the age of six.

However, the rabbis would agree with the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles, the glossator on the Shulchan Aruch) that if a different arrangement seems better for the children, the Beth Din can rule accordingly.

In all circumstances, both parents should continue to show an interest in every child and not to use the child as a way to hurt the other party, and both should consider the other’s financial needs and not make impossible demands. Nor should the grandparents on either side feel frozen out.


The sidra Vayetze ends with the words, "And he (Jacob) called the name of that place Machanayim" (Gen. 33:3). The name means "a double camp".

Rashi’s explanation of the name is that two bands of angels met there: the angels of the Diaspora who had accompanied Jacob until now, and the angels of the Holy Land.

Some of the other commentators see it as the meeting place of two worlds, the world of the angels and the world of human beings.

The Rashi view hints at the duality that makes up Jewish life – the Diaspora and the Land of Israel. Each of the two centres has its own nature and essence. Each one needs the other.

David Ben Gurion, for his part, was adamant that Israel was the only place to be a Jew and that the Diaspora meant the kiss of death to Jewish life and tradition.

Actually there are places in the Diaspora where Judaism is flourishing and places in Israel where it is threadbare, and the best approach is to see the two centres as partners that can and must fructify each other.

The second explanation of the name also asserts that there are two centres, one being heaven and the other the earth.

If we look for a lesson for day to day human life it is that there is God in each place, and there is a constant challenge to bring God down to earth to accompany His human creatures on all their paths, with another challenge to elevate human beings and let them taste the blessings of spirituality.

In the sages’ view, the Grace After Meals suggests that the unique moment to attain this height is on Shabbat, which is "me-ein olam ha-ba" – a foretaste of heaven, and heaven is "yom shekullo Shabbat", the day which is an unending Sabbath.


On his way into exile, Jacob slept with his head on a stone in place of a pillow (Gen. 28:11).

How many stones were there? Verse 18 says there was only one.

Rashi explains on the basis of the Gemara (Chullin 9b) that the episode started off with a number of stones but then they quarrelled with each other, each one wanting Jacob to choose it to rest his head. So God stepped in and merged the stones, putting them together so that there was now only one stone. The story is an example of the Jewish aversion to squabbles and conflicts.

Amongst the rabbinic commentators there is an additional view (also noted by Rashi) that the issue was not a substitute pillow but the problem of security; Jacob formed a ring of stones around his head to protect him from wild animals.


Why did the children of Laban criticise their cousin Jacob, who had come to live with the family (Gen. 31:1)?

Sforno says they were jealous of him. The Torah explains why. It says that he had become a wealthy man and the Laban family accused him of stealing some of their father’s possessions.

Laban himself had changed his formerly friendly attitude to Jacob and, according to D’varim 26:5, no longer wanted to be kind to the young man.

The passage in D’varim says "Arami Oved Avi", which can mean, "My father was a wandering Aramean": but the alternative translation favoured by Rashi fits into the narrative of our sidra, so that the Torah could be saying, "An Aramean (Laban) sought to kill my father".


A sentence in this week’s Torah reading gives us a lead-in to the Shema.

Jacob says, "If I come home safely, then HaShem will be my God" (Gen. 28:21). He is proclaiming that if he comes home in peace, that will show that HaShem was with him.

The words, "HaShem will be my God" are taken up years later when the Shema says, "Hear, O Israel (Jacob’s other name), HaShem is our God".

Why is the Shema so important? These are the nine things it says:

1. HaShem is the only reality.
2. We call upon the people of Israel (and mankind) to acclaim Him.
3. He is, and His existence is the great axiom.
4. He is our God, the Maker, the Ruler, the Giver of Meaning.
5. He is One – incomparable and unique.
6. As He loves us, we must love Him with all that we are and all that we have.
7. We must take Him to heart, i.e. seriously.
8. We must speak about Him at all times and places.
9. We must align our will with His.


Q. Why is the Anim Z’mirot hymn usually recited publicly in the synagogue on Shabbat by a child?

A. Usually sung responsively at the end of Musaf (in some places at the end of Shacharit, and in some just before Baruch She’amar), Anim Z’mirot or the Hymn of Glory (Shir HaKavod), is attributed to Yehudah HeChassid of 13th cent. Regensburg.

He was one of the Chassidei Ashkenaz, the medieval pietists of Germany, whose suffering brought out their saintly qualities.

Many colourful stories surrounded his name; he is said to have performed miracles, revived the dead and entertained Elijah to Seder. He was on good terms with the local duke and bishop and was even a good archer.

The most famous work attributed to him is the Sefer Chassidim, a popular ethical work inclined to asceticism.

The first and last four lines of Anim Z’mirot provide a prologue and epilogue, with an alphabetical acrostic in between these two sections. Each line, with 16 syllables, has two sections.

The whole poem is a liturgical meditation on the nature of God, skillfully utilising Biblical and rabbinic phraseology.

The title comes from the opening line, "Sweet hymns and melodies shall I weave; for towards You does my heart yearn".

These phrases come, firstly, from the Biblical description of David as N’im Z’mirot Yisra’el, the Sweet Singer of Israel (II Sam. 23:1), and then various words and phrases from the Psalms, e.g. Psalm 42:2.

The overall message of the poem is that humans cannot describe God as He really is – they can only use metaphorical phrases.

So intricate is the style of the poem and so sublime its content that some authorities, such as the Vilna Gaon, were against reciting it daily because on weekdays it would be said too hurriedly. They therefore limited it to Sabbaths and festivals, and in some places it was said only on Kol Nidrei night.

Our custom of inviting a child to lead the hymn is obviously based on the wish to encourage youth participation in the services and because the rhyme and rhythm are easy to handle.

But the poem is too difficult for most children and indeed for many adults. At the very least, rabbis should occasionally use a sermon or shi’ur to expound it and the other popular synagogue hymns.

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com