Ask the Rabbi: Can we give to G-d? What is levirite marriage?

The law of the first fruits teaches a basic principle of Jewish ethics, that we should have a sense of gratitude and appreciation.

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple ,

Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond Apple
Larry Brandt


Bringing some of the first fruits to the kohen as a mark of having entered the Promised Land is the theme of the opening section of the sidra.

Behind the law of the first fruits is a fundamental principle of Jewish ethics, that human beings should have a sense of gratitude and appreciation.

God has brought us into the land – therefore our blessings come from Him and should be acknowledged. God has protected us from the harshness of the elements – therefore our safety and security are Divine boons and should be appreciated.

That is one of the lessons we learn from the first fruits.

Perhaps you will say that it is natural to be grateful and it was hardly necessary for the Torah to command it. But all too often it seems more natural for a person not to show gratitude, but to take everything for granted, to think the world owes them a living, and to refuse to say even a simple thank you, either to God or to other people.

Hence an instructive piece of rabbinic commentary. We are told in the Psalms, "The earth is the Lord’s" (24:1), but a different Psalm says, "The heavens are the Lord’s heavens but the earth He has given to the children of man" (115:16).

The rabbis explain the contradiction: when a person shows gratitude for God’s bounties and says a b’rachah, that is when, as it were, the earth is ours to enjoy; but when a person who enjoys the bounties of the earth without acknowledging God, then the earth remains God’s property and those who fail to show gratitude are, as it were, trespassing on it.


Q. How can a Jewish State allow sculptures to be put on display when the Second Commandment bans making the form of anything?

A. This was the view taken by the Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel in 1960 in relation to the Rose art gardens in Jerusalem.

Deeming the sculptures to contravene the Biblical prohibition against graven images, the Chief Rabbinate called them "contrary to the spirit of Judaism and a profanation of the name and character of the Holy City".

The rabbis even forbade displaying sculptures within the walls of a museum, though they admitted that any protest flew in "the face of facts accepted by both the State and the public".

Those who disagreed with the rabbis’ stance argued that the sculptures were works of art expressing the creative spirit of the sculptors, not idols or images for worship, and nobody would misconstrue what they saw when they visited the exhibition.

Though sculpture is a more difficult halakhic issue than portraiture, it is on record that when Rav Kook lived in London during the First World War he used to enjoy visiting the National Portrait Gallery and was lost in awe and amazement when he studied Rembrandt’s paintings, including portraits.

A number of orthodox synagogues have rabbinic portraits on display and as far as I am aware no-one has demanded that they be taken down.


Q. Can you explain the law of yibbum and chalitzah?

A. The Torah provides (Deut. 25) that a childless widow is to marry her husband’s brother. The law is called levirate marriage.

The name derives from the Latin levir, a brother-in-law. In Hebrew, brother-in-law is yavam, and his marriage to her is yibbum.

If he does not wish to marry her, there is a ceremony of renunciation called chalitzah (literally, "removal", since it entails her removing a shoe from his foot).

The basis of the Biblical rule is the ethical duty to protect the woman and preserve the memory of the deceased husband through the birth of a child to the woman and her husband’s brother.

Some commentators (Nachmanides, Abravanel and others) regard this as a form of gilgul, reincarnation, and suggest that the soul of the departed returns by means of the new child.

Chalitzah has also been given a spiritual interpretation.

According to Malbim, the essence of the human being is his soul, but the soul cannot exist on earth without a body.

The body is symbolised by the shoe, since standing on the earth requires feet and they in turn need to be housed in shoes. When the childless widow removes her brother-in-law’s shoe it is as if she is saying that he has declined to allow his brother’s soul a new home on earth.


Summing up his long period of leadership, Moses says to the people, "The Lord did not give you a heart to know… until this day" (Deut. 29:3).

The Talmud remarks that a person does not understand the mind of a master until forty years later (AZ 8b).

Coming across this statement led me to contemplate how wise were our sages. For it is indubitably true that it takes many years to understand and appreciate full the quality of a good teacher, or, for that matter, a good parent or other person of influence.

What really matters is not the textbook information they impart, but rather the character, the ethos, the attitude, the way of thinking of the person. And not until you have been through many of life’s experiences, with all their knocks and challenges, do you realise that you have been exceptionally fortunate to have had a guide and mentor whose thinking has moulded your own instinct and approach.

Whether it literally takes forty years to recognise may be debatable, but what is certainly true is that not until years afterwards do you appreciate your parents and teachers to the full.

This is not quite what Yehudah ben Tema had in mind in Pirkei Avot (5:24) when he said that forty years was the age of understanding, but his observation gains added point when read in conjunction with the Talmudic comment we have quoted.

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and its leading rabbinic spokesman.