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Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I was shocked to read an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper by a writer who made radical assertions — seemingly without much evidence to support his assertions — that circumcision (bris milah) was not a central ritual of ancient Israel. The writer, moreover, proposed eliminating circumcision from Judaism, seemingly reflecting his blindness to his own Jewish culture and religion. Is eliminating circumcision now a trend among some secularist Jews? What can we do to stop this trend?

Bris Defender in Bergenfield

Dear Defender,

While many Jews assume that circumcision is a universal practice among their fellow Jews, that has not always been entirely true. In the early days of Reform Judaism in the 19th century, some classical Reform Jews openly opposed all rituals, including circumcision. And today, as you suspect, there are some young Jewish Israeli parents who refuse to circumcise their sons.

I have a devout Jewish friend who was terribly upset when her son in Israel did not circumcise her new grandson last year. I observe that it is trendy now in some progressive communities in Israel not to circumcise baby boys.

The article you cited provides some rationalizations for those people, but it is based on dubious historical claims.

Such writings ought to be circulated and rebutted by those who wish to preserve our traditions. On both sides of this question, one thing is certain. There’s no sure way to verify in historical retrospect how prevalent a ritual was or was not.

Surely, though, since the time of Late Antiquity, circumcision has been seen by most Jews as a non-negotiable and irreversible marker of tribal membership.

Obviously, an infant child has no say in the matter of whether to have a circumcision. Usually, other markers of tribal membership are acquired as a child matures. A bar mitzvah commemoration at age 13 is seen by many analysts as a tribal rite of passage into a full adult membership in the Israelite tribe. From circumcision to bar mitzvah, children mostly are left alone, gradually receiving training in the skills and knowledge they will need as adults to be full members of the community.

Recently I saw an example of how some rabbis want to extend some tribal taboos and expand them to apply to children more extensively.

Rabbis at Yeshiva University sent out a featured lesson a short time ago discussing “Balloons, Beach Balls, Bubbles and Kites on Shabbos.” In the description of their inquiry they pointed out that “A number of kids’ toys and games involve the use of air or wind, which present a number of questions regarding their use on Shabbos. This shiur [lesson] outline will discuss the following questions: Is it permissible to inflate a balloon or ball on Shabbos? Is it permissible to blow [soap] bubbles on Shabbos? Is it permissible to fly a kite or release a helium balloon on Shabbos when there is a possibility that it will fly out of the eruv?” (An eruv refers to an area bound by a physical boundary that allows a religious Jew to carry an object in the enclosed neighborhood’s streets.)

Rabbinic laws decree that a child is not subject to certain restrictions in the same way as an adult. Even if you presume that the questions in this inquiry are asked pertaining to the actions of an adult playing with a child, is this whole analysis necessary?

A taboo-maximalist will answer with a resounding Yes. We would not want good Jews to violate any of the technical prohibitions of the Shabbos, would we? But a taboo-minimalist would ask whether we ought to use the talents of our rabbinic experts to work on weightier issues of the law, for the betterment of the ethical and moral life of our communities. We ought to let our kids be kids, to play with their balloons, bubbles, and kites.

The assumption of such a point of view is that children will have plenty of time to be inducted into the full tribal life of Judaism at a later stage of life.

Okay. If you opt to be permissive toward children, then perhaps you would argue that we should delay their circumcision until they are old enough to decide on their own how and whether to assume their full tribal credentials.

I am betting that the argument about allowing kites might fly, but I will wager that the contention about putting off circumcision (or skipping it entirely) is a way more sensitive matter.

Accordingly, you may convey to your friend that any change in this ritual is not going to find much support in the contemporary Jewish community at large, and that it is not a good idea to try modifying the ancient bris rite in any way.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My friend criticized me for using an English translation of the Talmud. He said that I should work hard and study the texts in the original Hebrew and Aramaic languages.

I’m not that good at language learning, and I am surprised that anyone would discourage the use of translations for reading, studying, and understanding our traditions.

I need to know what motivates my friend, and I want to know, what should I do?

Translation User in Tenafly

Dear Translation User,

You raised what seems to be a simple question. Why shouldn’t I use a translation? And in asking this, you inadvertently touched on a central nerve of our religion and culture. That’s why you got criticized.

Here is what I mean.

Judaism is a deep, complex cultural system based on extensive tribal knowledge. Much of that is contained in our central sacred texts, the Tanach or Hebrew Bible, and in our semi-sacred texts, the Mishnah and Talmud, and the commentaries, codes, and responsa based on those texts.

Tribal knowledge is the composite of all the narratives and interpretations, the laws and the lore that are special to those inside a group and usually not known or disseminated to outsiders.

Jews who practice Judaism comprise a cohort of people who share a body of common knowledge. It is the collective wisdom of the people of Israel. And this corpus of learning must be guarded with care — and not shared with non-members of the tribe.

To be a good Judaic Jew you must know the core stories and beliefs and you must master the information needed to practice right actions.

Often that knowledge is not written down and formalized. It makes it special, and it also helps prevent it from leaking outside the perimeters of the group’s social borders.

One illustration of this type of knowledge is what Jews called the “oral Torah” — the traditions that supplemented the written scriptures and circulated orally from the time of the giving of the Torah through to the third century of the Common Era.

These teachings were handed down from generation to generation with no documentation, but with certainty that the knowledge was true and in fact inspired by the revelation of God to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Ultimately these teachings were published in writing in the Mishnah and Talmud, in a style that made them partially accessible to the public. To gain a fuller entry into that world of knowledge, a student had to employ a rabbi to facilitate his learning.

I pause here to emphasize that this insider tribal knowledge never was meant to be consumed by any outsiders. In the world of sociology, some scholars point out the existence of a so-called “tribal knowledge paradox.” That denotes the presence in a culture of conflicting beliefs that on the one hand, group success depends on the prevalent distribution of the shared body of knowledge, and at the same time, that the special knowledge must not be shared freely, willy-nilly, to just anyone.

To me, this prescribed, guarded attitude has been a source of contention throughout my life and career. I spent many years teaching Judaism at major public universities. And a big part of my teaching was explaining Talmud to my students, who often were not Jewish. I knew that my less liberal and progressive rabbinic colleagues frowned upon such audacity, though they were not so bold as to criticize me directly for it.

I recall that my father, Rabbi Zev Zahavy, who was a leading rabbi in New York City in the 1950s, sometimes would use a Talmud translation published by the Soncino press to help him in preparing for his sermons, classes, and lectures. But in that day and age it was bold to use an English rendition of the sacred books. Accordingly, he concealed this set of volumes on the bottom shelf of his bookcase, lest any visitor to our home see his bold acquisitions.

Nowadays some rabbis still object to the publication of English translations of rabbinic works, but that attitude has shifted and softened over the years. There now are sanctioned Orthodox Talmud translations that are available to the general public. Our leaders continue to maintain that the Talmud (preferably in its original languages) is core to our tribal teachings. Among many Orthodox Jews, daily Talmud study is a religious activity of great merit (even if it is studied in English), and a true expression of social cohesion among its privileged practitioners.

Accordingly, my answer is that you may go ahead without hesitation and use a recognized translation to help you study our sacred texts.

And as a footnote, no doubt you are aware that even in our progressive synagogues and temples, our prayers are recited mainly in Hebrew and Aramaic originals. Prayers too are core expressions of our tribal life, which, in its distinctive language and style, we insiders know and practice, to the exclusion of all others.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

Why are Jews better than non-Jews in so many pursuits? Why, for example, do we win far more Nobel prizes by proportion than any other group?

Proud Jew in Paramus

Dear Proud,

I will give you several reasons why this is not a good subject to talk about publicly or to write about.

First it is bragging, and by and large (with the noted exclusion of one prominent politician) Americans agree that boastfulness is bigheaded, conceited, immodest, and an act of bad taste.

Second, even if the reasons could be identified and compiled, it would be a violation of our tribal protocols to reveal the secret knowledge keys of our tribe’s success to an outsider.

Third, there’s no doubt that we already do have theological answers to this kind of question published in our scriptures. The official explanation is that by virtue of ancient covenants with our ancestors, we are God’s chosen people. (And you may also recall that at a child’s bris ceremony we explicitly note that circumcision is a signifier of our covenant with God.)

Okay. So we already did proclaim this openly in our Bible, which, when last I checked, is available to readers outside of our tribe. (It’s translated into many of the world’s languages.) Even though that is the case, it’s still not a good idea for us to publicize such matters any further.


Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as a professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published many articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details about his publications.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it in the Jewish Standard usually on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard office or email them directly to zahavy@gmail.com

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