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Parashat Balak June 22, 2013

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Candle lighting time for Friday, June 21, 2013, 8:14 p.m.

Parashat Balak

14 Tammuz, 5773 / June 22, 2013
Triennial Cycle III: Numbers 23:27-25:9
Humash Etz Hayim, page 899
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8, page 915

  1. (23:27-24:9) Bilaam makes a third attempt. In this blessing, he says the famous words of the Mah Tovu.
  2. (24:10-25) Balak, infuriated, fires Bilaam. Bilaam throws in a fourth blessing, unsolicited, predicting Israel’s conquest of Moab.
  3. (25:1-9) The incident at Baal Peor.


Privacy and Human Dignity

By Rabbi Daniel Pressman

As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. (Num. 24:2)

Mishnah: In a courtyard that he shares with others a person should not open a door facing another person’s door nor a window facing another person’s window. If it is small he should not enlarge it, and he should not turn one into two. On the side of the street, however, he may make a door facing another person’s door and a window facing another person’s window, and if it is small he may enlarge it or he may make two out of one.

Gemara: Whence are these rules derived? — R. Johanan said: From the verse of the Scripture, As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe. This indicates that he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: Worthy are these that the Divine presence should rest upon them! (Talmud Tractate Bava Batra 60a)

An edict of excommunication [ḥerem] is enacted against reading a letter without the permission of the writer. (Takkanat Rabbeinu Gershom [c. 960-1040])

By extension, Rabbenu Gershom’s prohibition would extend to listening in on someone else’s phone conversations, or listening to personal phone messages intended for someone else. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)

Privacy is necessary for human dignity. The loss of privacy entails the fear that others will misjudge us and even harm us by using fragments of information taken out of context.… (Computer Privacy and the Modern Workplace, Responsum on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, written by Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff and Elie Kaplan Spitz, 2001)

Even if the ḥerem of Rabbeinu Gershom applies to email, Rabbi Yosef Karo has ruled in the Shulhan Arukh that the ḥerem of Rabbeinu Gershom against having more than one wife may be overridden when it prevents the husband from performing a mitzvah. Rabbi Moshe Isserles concurs that “the same applies whenever it is a matter of setting aside a mitzvah,” though he adds that some say the opposite. Thus, it would seem that both Rabbis Karo and Isserles would say that we could override the ḥerem of Rabbeinu Gershom regarding reading someone’s mail or email in order to perform a mitzvah.

And what mitzvah would allow the government to read our email? The mitzvah is that of pikuaḥ nefesh, or saving a life, which takes precedence over the Sabbath, kashrut, Yom Kippur and almost all the mitzvot in the Torah. If pikuaḥ nefesh takes precedence over biblical commandments, how much the more so does it take precedence over a rabbinic enactment from the Middle Ages?! If the NSA could have prevented the death of almost 3,000 innocent people on 9/11 via Internet surveillance, wouldn’t most people have been in favor of waiving the ḥerem of Rabbeinu Gershom and allowing such surveillance?

Thus, as in many cases in Jewish law, there is no simple solution to this dilemma. Privacy is very important, but saving lives is even more important. If electronic surveillance saves lives and is also regulated by laws and the legal system, I believe that Jewish law would sanction such surveillance.

The right to privacy, we may well conclude, is in Jewish law a vested right which is protected by injunction, restoration of the status quo and the award of damages, from the civil law aspect. Interference with the right also has its criminal law character, to be countered by penal sanctions. Generally, in this area, more perhaps than in other areas, two conflicting interests are posted—the right of the individual and the rights of society. The law must strike a fair and just balance between the two. (Nahum Rakover, “The Protection of Privacy in Jewish Law”, Israeli Yearbook on Human Rights, v. 5, 1975)


Minyan – Sunday 9:30 am & Monday – Thursday 7:00 p.m.


Friday, June 21: 7th Annual Pride Shabbat – 6:30 p.m.

Wednesday, June 26: General Board Meeting – 7:45 – 9:45 p.m.

Friday, June 28: Friday Morning Summer Talmud Study Led by Reuben Levy – 8:30 a.m.

Tuesday, July 2: Membership Committee Meeting – 7:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Wednesday, July 3: Shloshim Minyan for Alex Bauer – 7:00 p.m.

Monday, July 8: Career Havurah – 7:30 – 8:30 p.m

Wednesday, July 10: Social Action Blood Drive – 3:30 p.m.

Saturday July 13 – Sunday July 14Cancer Be Darned Relay for Life – Join Us For a Special Havdalah Service – 9:00 p.m.

Sunday, July 14: Hazak BBQ and Picnic – 2:00 p.m.

Sunday, July 20: Threads of Tradition – 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Tuesday, August 6: Jewish Heritage Night at AT&T Park – 7:15 p.m. – email Carol Weiss

SAVE THE DATE: Sunday, August 18: Electronic Recycling Event – 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.


Sunday, June 23: Silicon Valley Jewish Music Festival – 3:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Friday, August 16th – Sunday August 18th – Grief and Growing – A healing weekend. View Flyer