Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy

CODES & CUSTOMS

Parashat Mishpatim focusses on the Jewish system of law.

The basis of this system is the Revelation at Mount Sinai which we read last week. The letter "vav" ("and") indicates that just as the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai, so were the laws of Parashat Mishpatim (Rashi on Ex. 21:1).

The written laws are not, however, the only expression of Jewish law. There are details of what is called Oral Law which were given to Moses at Sinai and worked out by the rabbis, plus the large body of "minhagim" (customs) which arise from what the people do.

Abraham Chill, in his book entitled "The Minhagim" (1980), explains that sometimes the original basis of a Jewish practice is not certain, and customary usage expresses "deeply felt and authentic Jewish values".

Custom is particularly evident in rites of passage. The way we carry out the happy and sad events in the lifetime of a Jew often varies from place to place, and that is where we take particular note of community practice.

GHOSTS

Q. Does Judaism believe in ghosts?

A. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the answer is No.

This applies regardless of whether the living try to summon up the ghost or whether the ghost appears on its own initiative.

The Jewish belief as summed up by Maimonides (Guide 3:46) is that when you die, your body is buried and your soul returns to God (however, Nachmanides is more inclined to think that in the afterlife, people have both bodies and souls).

In Maimonides’ view, your soul is immortal but as it no longer has a body, it can only "appear" in a spiritual or metaphorical way.

Joseph was unable to sin once he saw the "d’mut d’yukno shel aviv", "the appearance of his father" (Rashi on Gen. 39:11, based on Sotah 36b). The thought of his father Jacob came into his mind and steeled his conscience. His father had taught him morality and courage, and as his father’s son he could strengthen himself against sin.

Many people ask themselves, "What would my father or mother think (or say)?" and have a strong feeling of how the parent would handle a specific situation.

In folklore there are references to spirits and demons, but the rationalist tradition deny that they have any authentic physical shape, form or presence.

The Torah forbids enquiring to or of the dead (Deut, 18:11), though some say that communicating with the dead is not impossible though it is forbidden. Maimonides regards such communication as witchcraft and pagan.

It is true that the Bible reports contacts with the dead, e.g. King Saul using the Witch of En-Dor to summon the deceased judge Samuel (I Sam. 28), but whilst Hai Ga’on thought this was a one-of-a-kind miracle, Shmuel ben Chofni Ga’on said the witch was an imposter who fooled Saul.

Roaming ghosts figure in many traditions, but the stories are generally dismissed as imagination.

Even Australia has Jewish ghost stories such as Abraham Davis of Broome, who (as a tall bearded figure wearing a tallit) haunted his former house when it became the home of an Anglican bishop. After 1980 when the house was demolished there were no further sightings of the ghost.



OPPRESSING A STRANGER

One of the major ethical rules of Judaism is found in Sh’mot 22:20, "You shall not do wrong to or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt".

"Do wrong to" is explained by Rashi on the basis of the Midrash as, "torment with words". "Oppress" indicates "robbing their property".

Why does the Torah explain these prohibited acts as connected with the fact that we were strangers in the land of Egypt?

The Ramban (Nachmanides) says, "Don’t think that because strangers are not indigenous inhabitants they have no rights or dignity and no-one will stick up for them. Just as I heard your cries when you were in pain and persecuted in Egypt, so you should heed the cry of the stranger and underprivileged wherever they are."


DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT FREEDOM

If someone worked for a master in order to win back his independence and freedom, he would sometimes so greatly enjoy the food and other facilities which the master provided that he declined to accept his freedom as ordained by the Torah at the end of six years of servitude.

Freedom is such a precious gift that anyone who chooses to reject it is guilty of a sin. The punishment was that of having himself fastened by the ear to the doorpost for a day and being thus held up to public ridicule. Pinning him to the door by his ear indicates that he had failed to hear the Divine message of freedom.

The Kli Yakar commentary says that his punishment involved the door because the Torah had given him a way out of disadvantage and he had spurned the opportunity to go out through the door and resume normal life in the community.

Rabbi Dr. 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