Do you know before whom you stand?

March 1, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi?

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. How does Judaism define the moment of death?

A. Before summarising the rulings of the authorities let me recall the day when I sat by the bedside of a certain patient whose life was ebbing away.

For just a moment my attention was distracted. When I looked back, she had become perfectly still. I called the nursing staff and they carried out the checks they were trained to perform.

As far as I was concerned, this was an example of a person becoming inanimate without bodily movement, respiration and heartbeat.

Historically, rabbinic authorities used the absence of spontaneous respiration and heartbeat as signs of death.

In more recent years Rabbi Moshe David Tendler and others have advocated a definition based on brain stem death even if there is some cardiac activity.

The situation is complicated by the ability of medical technology to maintain a degree of artificial functioning after brain stem death. This artificial functioning is called “life support” though it is questionable whether it is life that it is supporting. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate accepts the concept of brain stem death.

This ruling follows the view of halachic decisors such as the late Chief Rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu.

However, there are great halachists who maintain the traditional definition stated above.


Q. What shall I do if I am distracted by something during davening?

A. Judaism is an extended dialogue. God talks to man, man talks to God.

It is exemplified at times of prayer. Our davening is like Jacob’s angels which went up to God and came back with His response (Gen. 28:12).

In theory, this is what the siddur facilitates, but some people find their attention wandering.

The Rambam says, “Clear out all other thoughts and know that you are standing before the Divine Presence” (Hil’chot T’fillah 4:16). All very well, but it is hard to banish distractions.

In a parable, the Chafetz Chayyim said that a poor woman had a fruit stall in the market that made a bare living. Hooligans knocked over the stall and the apples went flying. A passer-by re-erected her stall and picked up some of the fruit, adding this advice: “When someone grabs your apples, snatch as many as you can and put them in another bag.”

The Chafetz Chayyim applied this to prayer. He said, “When distractions attack you, don’t give in. Overcome them with thoughts that outweigh the distractions.”


Q. Why do synagogues often inscribe over the Ark the words, “Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed”, “Know before Whom you stand”? Where do these words come from?

A. There are several versions of this Hebrew sentence. In the plural, it is found in the Talmud (B’rachot 28b).

It admonishes us to conduct ourselves properly in the synagogue and not to become so relaxed as to chatter, walk up and down and laugh and joke, forgetful of the reverence of the place and the moment.

From the spiritual point of view, it tells us that if we open our hearts, souls and minds to Him, we feel His presence – in the synagogue and everywhere else.

Maybe this is an answer to those who say they sense God better at the sea or in a garden than they do in the synagogue.

God is certainly to be found in places where we breathe the air and sense the grandeur of Creation, but there is no reason not to find Him amidst the sounds of prayer and Torah study.

“Know before Whom you stand” is a good principle for the synagogue, but it applies outside and beyond it too.

Abraham Joshua Heschel explains in his “Between God and Man” that wherever we go we must cultivate the art of awareness of God. We learn this in worship, but not only in worship.

To worship properly, says Heschel, is to expand the presence of God in the world. When we say, “Blessed be He”, we extend His glory.

When we say the Kaddish – “yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’mey rabba b’alma” – “Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world”, we imply, “May there be more of God in His world”.

To know that we stand before God wherever we may be is to rise to a higher level of living.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


2 Responses to “Do you know before whom you stand?”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    Know Before Whom You Stand comprises all. It seems to me stark, simple in its grandeur, giving an opportunity for truth and humility. Beautiful. Thank you for the discussion Rabbi Apple.

  2. Lynne newington says:


    When dealing with death as a volunteer many years ago, I learnt never to underestimate His bedside presence with the dying so much so no distraction was ever possible.

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