Is this all there is? Ask the rabbi

July 1, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Apple writes about reincarnation.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. What is the general Jewish view of reincarnation?

A. There is no question that reincarnation plays a role in Jewish thinking and it is not only mystics and Chassidim who accept it.

The Tenach (Hebrew Bible), however, contains no clear statement of the belief, nor is it certain that the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud deemed it essential.

It is only in about the 8th century that the doctrine entered Judaism, to the dismay of Sa’adia Gaon who thought it foolish.

Chasdai Crescas and his disciple Joseph Albo said the doctrine was opposed to the spirit of Judaism.

On the other hand Isaac Abravanel and Manasseh ben Israel supported it.

Abravanel thought it was logical and fair that another chance should be given to a soul that had become tainted by a particular body, that if a person died young their soul should have a chance to perform in another body the good deeds it did not have time for in the first, and that the soul of the wicked should sometimes pass into another body to be punished on earth instead of in the other world.

The Zohar says, “All souls must undergo transmigration, but human beings do not perceive the ways of the Holy One, how the revolving scale is set up. They perceive not the many transmigrations and the many mysterious works which the Holy One accomplishes with many naked souls…” (Mishpatim 99b).

Clearly, reincarnation is – like all things – possible for God. But opponents of the doctrine are bothered with the thought that a soul can have many identities.

How can one pray for the repose of a person’s soul when for all we know that soul has already been recycled? What happens at the time of resurrection – into which of possibly many bodies does a soul re-enter? Does the doctrine not suggest that the soul and body can never attain a unique, intimate bonding?

The fact that there are great sages on both sides of the debate shows that neither can be said to be normative.

There is a major difference between essential beliefs such as the Unity of God, the authority of the Torah and the coming of Mashi’ach, which everyone accepts as fundamental and binding, and the idea of reincarnation, which has respectable but not unanimous support.


Q. Someone told me that one is not allowed to cry on Shabbat. How is this possible?

A. As a day of joy and delight, Shabbat should be dedicated to happy experiences.

Sad feelings must, therefore, be pushed into the background. Hence one does not sit shivah on Shabbat nor pray for one’s needs and wants.

The rabbinic writings (e.g. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 288) discuss whether it is permitted to cry on Shabbat and conclude that crying is not appropriate – with the exception of people who derive pleasure, i.e. relief, from crying.


Q. You wrote recently about yeshivah students spending years immersing themselves in Jewish texts. Is there a quantitative limit to Torah study?

A. No. The Mishnah says, “These are the things which are without measure: … Talmud Torah (the study of Torah)” (Peah 1:1; cf. Kiddushin 40a).

The other items in the list are much easier to measure quantitatively. Leaving the corners of the field unharvested so that the poor can come and take what they need is a good example.

How do you measure a corner? How much are the poor entitled to? These are mathematical questions, as is the question of how much has to be brought to Jerusalem as the first fruits bikkurim).

But what does “without measure” mean when applied to study?

Does it mean quality, i.e. how hard a student must concentrate or how deep an understanding he must get, or quantity, in terms of the numbers of books, chapters and subjects he is to master?

Is every student judged by the same criteria? What about the student who has a quick mind but little “sitzfleisch” (the ability to sit) or the student with sitzfleisch but no great intellectual capacity?

There are more questions than answers.

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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