Is it right to criticise people harshly?…ask the rabbi

June 9, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Why do some synagogues sing Yigdal on Friday nights and others sing Adon Olam?

A. Samson Raphael Hirsch said that Jewish beliefs were seen in the parade of the calendar.

There is an alternative if you look at Jewish songs. What a Jew sings indicates what he believes.

Yigdal illustrates this. It is based on the 13 Principles of Maimonides, but critics objected to singling out these 13 items and said that the whole of Judaism is holy and there is no justification for singling out 13 principles and giving them extra status. It is for this reason that authorities such as the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) and Siddur HaG’ra omit Yigdal.

Adon Olam is better in that it not only speaks about God philosophically but emotionally, not only saying that God is, is eternal and unique, but good, forgiving and constant.


Q. I am embarrassed by “Pitum Hak’toret” and its mention of urine. Why is it in the Siddur?

A. This is a rabbinic teaching about incense (K’ritot 6a) which includes the words “mei raglayim”, “urine”.

Singer’s Siddur used to omit it; others such as Birnbaum left it untranslated. ArtScroll and the RCA Siddur bluntly say the phrase means urine. The Chabad Siddur delicately says “water of raglayim”.

“Mei raglayim”, “water of the legs”, is a euphemism for urine. Even if the Hebrew means something different (there is a view that there is a grass called Raglayim), the name still puts people off.

The Kol Bo, quoted in Baer’s Seder Avodat Yisra’el, says it is “impossible, God forbid”, that the text means “mei raglayim mammash”, “actual urine”, and thinks it denotes a place name, Ein Rogel (Josh. 15:7, 18:16; II Sam. 17:17; I Kings 1:9) or Ein Rog’lim (II Sam 17:27, 19:32), “the spring of the washer-man (or fuller)”, where the water contained chemicals that were good for washing laundry. This spring may be the modern Bir Eyyub (“The Well of Job”).

The link with “regel”, leg or foot, is that garments were trodden by foot to clean them. Feet were also a means of irrigation, e.g. Deut. 11:10, “you watered (it) with your foot” (maybe there was a device operated by the foot). “Ragal” can thus be “doing the washing”, or, metaphorically, going about as a talebearer.

Instead of “mei raglayim”, “urine”, the phrase might be “mei rog’lim”, “water used by the washer-men”, which was too dirty and impure for the incense even if it was not urine. Mishnah B’rachot 3:3 says “bad water or water used for soaking (flax)” is diluted by clean water to remove the unpleasant smell and associations.

Maybe urine was also used for cleaning; stale urine decomposes to form ammonia. The Talmud (Niddah 61b) lists it as a cleaning agent, able to remove blood stains (Zev. 94b-95b). The Romans used it to bleach clothes. Most authorities say that the text meant “mei raglayim” in the usual sense.

They say that the baraita is not advocating the use of urine but recognises its chemical content.


Q. Is it right to criticise people harshly?

A. There is a right way to criticise, and a wrong way.

The curse of the “Tochechah” in the Torah are read in a soft, almost inaudible voice. The Reader does not enjoy pronouncing harsh words or rebuke. He cannot imagine God derives any pleasure from the punishments He threatens.

God does not criticise out of hatred, but out of love; “whom the Lord loves, He chastises” (Prov. 3:12).

For those who enjoy belittling others and their deeds, there is a parable in Mendele Mocher Seforim, the “grandfather of Yiddish literature”, in his presentation of the old-time shtetl.

Mendele writes about the women’s wick-drawing circle, which meets in one of the poverty-stricken houses of the village. There the women draw out wicks for synagogue candles, while they improvise prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Hardly one of them can read or write. They know no Hebrew, apart from expressions incorporated into Yiddish. Yet they sway to and fro, repeating the words of a prayer-leader:

“Judge of the world, merciful God!

“These candles we make for the synagogue, for the sake of Your great and holy Name, and for the sake of the souls of all the holy ones-may they awaken the sainted patriarchs and matriarchs, and cause them to rise and intercede for us, that no evil, pain or suffering be visited upon us; that the light of our husbands and of our children be not put out before their time, God forbid…

“As we draw out this wick for our Father Abraham, whom You saved from the fiery furnace of Nimrod, so purify us from sin, that our souls may come before You unsullied as on the day we were born.”

“Now,” demands Mendele indignantly, “let him laugh who dares. Let him, if he can utter the words, say it is all foolishness.

“No! May there be more such candles, more of these pure utterances of love for Torah and for all mankind.”

And he proceeds: “And where do you find all this, I ask? Among women who seem coarse and ignorant, little souls of small account, women you would pass by in the market-place without a second glance!”

“Let the mockers hear them,” he cries; “let them know what a Jewish heart really is!”

And if the reader should say in surprise: “But you, Mendele, are the biggest of the mockers, the one who criticise the most!” – then Mendele replies, “But I criticise them out of love!”

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.

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