Friday, November 18, 2011

Organ donation: the heart or the brain?

As we explained last week, the issue of cadaveric organ donation in Jewish Law depends directly on the criteria applied to define death. First of all, as we said, there is a practical issue. Vital organs like the heart cannot be removed for transplant unless the heart is beating. And according to certain Rabbinical criteria, while the heart is beating, the patient is still alive, even if he is brain dead (see for example here).  The Biblical source for this opinion is that when man was created the Torah describes that God insufflated in Adam's innert earthly body a "breathing of life" (nishmat chayim), which indicates that life is determined by breathing.

Because of the complexity of this issue and its repercussions in Israeli society (hospitals, army, etc.), the Chief rabbinate of Israel issued a ruling a few years ago, indicating that in their opinion irreversible brain-death should be considered death, even if the patient is still attached to a ventilator, and his heart is still active.  They explained that although there seem to us that the patient is still breathing, once the brain-stem death is determined, the control-center of autonomous breathing is irreversibly deactivated and it has lost forever its control over the heart. They based their opinion on the same source in Bereshit: life is "breathing", meaning: autonomous breathing, i.e. the capacity to breathe. A patient with a dead brain who still breathes is not really 'breathing'. It is as if a decapitated body would be, somehow, connected to a ventilator: the heart would still beat because the hearth is an autonomous muscle and it could be kept functioning "mechanically" even when it is not controlled anymore by the brain-stem.  But, since there is no possibility for an autonomous breathing anymore, the patient is considered dead and under certain conditions, his organs might be removed for transplant. 
(to be continued...)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

God is one. Understanding monotheism.

The second principle of our faith is that God is One. Last week we explained that monotheism, is not just an arithmetic reduction of the numbers of gods.  It is, above all, a moral declaration. If only one God exist, then there is only one clear and exclusive set of moral values. The existence of numerous gods, on the other hand, justifies, or requires, moral relativism (see here). 
Monotheism also protected the Jewish people against extinction. 

In ancient times, assimilation did not mean social intermarriage. Civilizations clashed with each other, conquered and submitted to each other. When civilization A conquered civilization B, A would force B to accept A's gods. Still, it was not necessary for B to get rid completely of their own gods. From now on B, would adopt and worship the gods of A alongside its own gods. 
When two civilizations would somehow, live in peace with each other, one would graciously add the gods of the other to its own sanctuary. It was actually considered an act of politeness accepting and worshiping other gods. It showed that you were open minded and sophisticated. Needless to say, the constant wars and even alliances between civilizations were fatal for the original identity of those civilizations.  Once A and B became AB, it was just a matter of time until they will also adopt C or D's gods. Thus, the original identity, culture and values of A or B completely disappeared.   That is how all ancient civilizations: A, B, C, D, etc. diluted from the face of the earth....
This phenomenon is known as 'syncretism', and it prevailed among ALL peoples of antiquity except for the Jews. Only the God of Israel demanded 'exclusivity': YOU SHALL NOT HAVE OTHER GODS, OTHER THAN ME...says the second of the Ten commandments.  
(to be continued....)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rabbi Abraham de Sola (London 1825- NY 1882)

Abraham de Sola (1825-1882) was a Canadian Rabbi, an orientalist and a scientist. 

De Sola was recognized as one of the most influential leaders of Orthodox Judaism in America during the second half of the nineteenth century, at a time when the struggle between the Orthodox and Reform wings of the community was at an acute stage.

His father was rabbi David Aaron de Sola, and his mother the daughter of rabbi Raphael Meldola. 

In 1847 de Sola arrived to Montreal, Canada and there he served as the rabbi of  She-erit Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese community. 
Rabbi de Sola soon established himself at the centre of Montreal's English-speaking intellectual community. An eloquent, popular, and prolific lecturer and a man of broad interests. He frequently addressed the Montreal Mercantile Library Association, the Montreal Literary Club, the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Montreal (of which he was elected an honorary member), the Montreal Mechanics' Institute, and the Natural History Society (which he served as president in 1867-68), as well as several organizations associated with McGill College.
In 1848, De Sola was appointed lecturer, and in 1853 professor, of Hebrew and Oriental literature at Mac Gill University in Montreal, and he eventually became the senior professor of its faculty of arts.

In 1873, by invitation of President Ulysses S. Grant De Sola opened the United States Congress with a prayer.

He wrote on the history of Jews in England, Persia, Poland, and France; reported on cosmography and Sinaitic inscriptions; examined botanical and zoological references in the Scriptures. De Sola also wrote medical studies, on the rabbinical dietary laws and the use of anesthetics, which appeared in major medical journals and were reprinted as pamphlets. His chief works include: Behemoth haTemeoth, a 16-page pamphlet published by John Lovell containing an annotated catalogue of the animals pronounced unclean by the book of Leviticus.

Some of his writing:

  • 1848. Scripture Zoology
  • 1852. The Mosaic Cosmogony.
  • 1852. The  Cosmography of Peritsol.
  • 1852. A Commentary on Shemuel haNagid  Introduction to the Talmud .
  • 1853. Behemoth Hatemeoth.
  • 1854. The Jewish Calendar System (conjointly with Rev. J.J. Lyons).
  • 1857. Philological Studies in  Hebrew and Aramaic .
  • 1858. Scripture Botany.
  • 1860. The Employment of Anæsthetics in Connection with Jewish Law.
  • 1861. The Sanatory Institutions of the Hebrews.
  • 1864. Biography of  David Aaron de Sola.
  • 1869. Life of  Shabettai Tsevi.
  • 1870. History of the Jews of Poland. 
  • 1871. History of the Jews of France.
  • 1874. Hebrew Numismatics.
  • 1878. New Edition of the Forms of Prayer of the Spanish and Portuguese  Jews, with English translation, based on the versions of    David Aaron de Sola and Isaac Lesser.
  • 1880. Life of Saadiah Gaon.
  • Abraham de Sola also contributed actively to the Jewish press, a large number of articles by him appearing in "The Voice of Jacob," "The Asmonean," "The British-American Journal," and other contemporary Jewish journals. His articles on william Sawson's "Archaia," "Dawn of Life," and "Origin of the World" are specially noteworthy. He also edited and republished English's "Grounds of Christianity " and a number of educational works.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Barukh Shem Kebod Malkhuto le'Olam va'Ed

After we say the first pasuq "HaShem is our God, HaShem is one", we read a sentence which is not part of the Biblical text of the Shema Israel:  "barukh shem kebod malkhuto le'olam va'ed".  "May the Glorious Name of His Kingship be blessed forever".  We dare to utter God's Name, in the same way we pronounce any name. That is why we disclaim by this phrase that the understanding of His Name lies beyond our human capacity.  This phrase is considered a very high form of praise, where we praise God, by praising the glory (=the ineffability) of God's Name.  

The rabbis in the Talmud tells us that this phrase was first said by Yaacob Abinu: In his deathbed he gathered all his children to find out if all of them were following his footsteps. When they said: "HaShem is our God, HaShem is one", he replied:  "barukh shem kebod..." as an expression of gratitude, peace of mind  and praise to HaShem knowing that  all his children were following his ways. 

In the times of the Bet-haMiqdash, this phrase was said by the whole community of Israel gathered there for Yom Kippur, when the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) pronounced the ineffable name of God of four letters.  Besides being one of the highest expressions of praising to His name, barukh shem kebod...  also served to hide the Name of God, by saying it out-loud by all, while the Name of God was pronounced by the Cohen Gadol.   

Every day when we say the Shema Israel we read barukh shem kebod silently, whispering it. To signal that it does not belong to the original Biblical text. Except for one day in the year. On Yom Kippur we say barukh shem kebod malkhuto out-loud in remembrance of what took place in the Bet-haMiqdash. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Pidyon haBen: when does it take place?

Previously, we explained the Mitzva of Pidyon haBen (redeeming the first born male) and in which circumstances is done.  

Today we will discuss when does the ceremony of Pidyon takes place? 

In the Tora says: (Numbers 18:16) ufduyav miben chodesh tifde... ( from a month old, you shall redeem them...), which means that the Pidyon is done only after the baby is one-month old.  The Pidyon is celebrated on the thirty-one day from birth. 

The ceremony is done at night, when the day thirty-one begins. According to some opinions the Pidyon should be made specifically during the day (Shakh). In Sephardic communities, however, the Pidyon is done normally at night. 

To establish the day thirty-one, we consider as day number one, the day of birth.

It is essential to know, therefore, the exact time the baby was born to determine what was the day of the week the baby was born.   The date of the Pidyon would always fall four weeks and two days after the day of birth. If the baby was born on a Monday morning, for example, the Pidyon will take place on Tuesday night, since for the Jewish calendar Tuesday night is considered Wednesday. (As it is well known, the new day in the Hebrew calendar begins after the sundown of the previous day).  

Because all these considerations and other technical details, it is highly recommended to speak with a Rabbi to set the exact day of the Pidyon ceremony.