Fakin' it for God

A long time ago, I wrote a post (twice actually; the first one was erased) entitled On Chumra. In it. toward the end, I addressed the original chumra of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva - eating chullin al taharat ha-kodesh, 'plain' unsanctified food in a state of ritual purity. It goes without saying that this was an androcentric chumra, as women weren't always capable of eating chullin be-tahara, but I digress. The point is (see the Maharsha on the Rabbi Safra story at the end of Makkot- if I get a chance, I'll post it in full) that this behavior wasn't simply a supererogatory act, but the product of a completely different way of looking at the world; one in which there's noi room for 'chullin'. When one sees God in every part of creation, then even the mundane realm of unsanctified food betrays God's Presence, and one must act accordingly. Even if one does not live in that state of consciousness year-round, we hope that during the 10 days of repentance, God is 'close' (kir'uhu behyoto karov) on the brain a bit more, and we are forced to evaluate the most minor of our actions by His Light (ori - is Rosh Hashana, ve-hamevin yavin, ve-acamo"l).

The impulse toward chumra during the 10 Days of Repentance must be seen in this regard. It's not about trying to make up for lost time, or about living according to some ideal for a temporary period, definitely not about trying to convince ourselves that this is the 'real' us, and most certainly not about trying to dupe ourselves, our firends or God. We're not that stupid, especially God.

The beloved Yerushalmi that calls the one who performs uncommanded a hedyot is making exactly this point. A hedyot is someone who is unspecial, regular, average. Behaving as though you live within a particular state of consciuousness without actually being there only calls attention to your mediocrity and misplaced righteousness. It's like a civilian Kohen dressing in the High Priest's garb; who do you think you're fooling, idiot?

May we be inspired to truly attain a more Godly worldview, to look at the world with God-colored glasses, as my friend Steg says, and allow that to be reflected in our behavior without contrived temporary norms.

Gmar Chatima Tova.


Parnassah from the Sitra Achra

We’ve all heard of the Gemara Beitzah 16a that man’s livelihood for the upcoming year is determined on Rosh Hashana. Many of us have also heard explanations of fabulous wealth as being money that came from ‘impure sources’, or the ‘sitra achara’, etc. See here for a rather mainstream example.

I think there’s something to this, and one need not resort to explanations like ‘medical bills’ to prove how got will ‘balance everything out’. I also don’t really believe up in Heaven there’s a ‘good’ ATM and an ‘evil’ ATM. In fact, I tend not to recognize the ‘sitra achra’ as an independent evil, but as the result of potential good which is not balanced by other potential goods.

As my last few posts have reflected, the judgment of Rosh Hashana stems from a comparison of what we ARE to what we OUGHT TO BE. We look at ourselves, as it were, from God’s perspective, and as part of a total picture. Part of that is a re-evaluation of priorities in life.

We all agree that there our lives are governed by certain cardinal values: family, livelihood, ethical behavior, personal growth, etc. If all is in proper balance, then livelihood ‘knows its place’ and will be determined, and somewhat limited, by its relative importance. One can take a job which pays less, but which allows one to be home more, and vice versa. If all is in harmony, then indeed, one’s livelihood is determined on RH, when this evaluation is made.

However, one may become driven toward imbalance. One may neglect all other concerns and pursue livelihood at the expense of all else. Sure, it’ll get him more money, but the price will be paid elsewhere – not that ch”v he’ll have extra medical bills or something, but in one of the other important areas of life, be it family, ethics, or personal growth. Unfortunately, the old adage that ‘cheaters never prosper’ is simply untrue. Cheaters prosper. But is that prosperity worth the price?


The Torah’s Appetizers

The following passage appears in Avot 3:18:

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג משנה יח

רבי אליעזר בן חסמא אומר קינין ופתחי נדה הן הן גופי הלכות תקופות וגמטריאות פרפראות לחכמה:

R’ Eliezer b. Chisma says: nests and menstrual onsets are the very corpus of halakhot. Astronomy and mathematics are appetizers for Torah.
The above translation is mine. You may notice a few peculiarities in my translation. Namely, that I translate gematriyot as ‘mathematics’ (though ‘geometry’ would be more accurate) and not as numerology, and that I translate parpera’ot as ‘appetizers’ (as evidenced by the Mishna in Pesachim 10:2). These peculiarities give a totally different picture of what the Mishna is talking about.

[While I was writing this, I came across this piece by one Jonathan Baker which pretty much says what I’m about to say. I wonder if this Jonathan Baker is the same as ThanBook.]

Kinim is the area of halakha which discusses what happens when sacrifices get mixed up with each other. The final Mishna in Kinim is the single most difficult Mishna in all of Shas (the first Mishna in Yevamot doesn’t even touch its bootstraps). It inspired a mathematical commentary by Prf. Moshe Koppel. It’s hard core stuff. Pitchei Niddah, while not quite as complicated, requires a pretty decent working knowledge of arithmetic and the calendrical system, which form the bulk of the content of these halakhot.

These two areas of Halakha require a working knowledge of ‘outside’ = non-Halakhic disciplines. Nevertheless, studying them is studying halakha – they are part of the Halakhic corpus. Mathematics and astronomy are, however, prerequisites – what the Mishna calls ‘appetizers’ – for these laws. If the gematriyot in question are numerologies, then we’re talking about cutesy things which can pepper Torah discussions. An appetizer is a much more serious part of the meal.

This also explains the two groupings – 2 areas of Halakha which rely heavily on non-Halakhic knowledge are nevertheless gufei halakhot, whereas the disciplines that must be mastered before the halakhot are ‘appetizers’ – part and parcel of the meal, necessary to get to the main course in the appropriate state of hunger, but still not the main show. This Mishna is thus an elegant paradigm for the relationship between Torah and Madda.

Colbert on ASY"T

This is funny as all heck.
I hope that all of my readers are mochel me if I've wronged them this year (or any other).

Avoiding Nuts on Rosh Hashana – a New Theory (which is Humorous, but Not Funny)

This is one truly out-of-the-box idea that can only come from the gnarled mind of a Rabbi with ADD. It grew out of an ongoing conversation that I’ve been having with Josh about these customs. There are certain obvious clues that something strange is afoot here, beginning with the fact that egoz is NOT be-gematria cheyt, and ending with the fact that there aren’t really many customs out there in which we avoid certain objects or practices because of their numerical value.

First, a brief word about magic. A ‘magical’ worldview (nothing to do with witches or Harry Potter) is one in which causality is not scientific (see here for a fuller definition). There are any number of specific magical laws or doctrines, but the basic thinking, that there’s some type of causal nexus between objects that are similar in some sense but physically independent, pervaded all human rational discourse up until the Enlightenment.

The famous doctrine of Ma’aseh Avot Siman Le-banim, as introduced by the Ramban in Bereishit 12:6, is a classic example of ‘sympathetic’ magical thinking. As support, Ramban invokes effigies and other practices that we would call ‘voodoo’ in support of this doctrine of ‘Ma’aseh Avot’. It’s important to realize that this was commonly accepted rational discourse in the Ramban’s day, and even much later on.

The practice of Simana Milta is a product of the same thinking. In it, the similarity between objects lies in the similarity of their names. As opposed to other systems, in which similarity was determined by, for example, shape (as propounded in the Doctrine of Signatures). Thus, nominal similarities become causal relationships, and by eating things whose names are auspicious, one can cause good things to happen during the year. Thus, the Gemara states that ‘simana milta’ – i.e., ‘these omens are real’, they work.

This brings us to the egoz. An egoz is not just any old nut, but a particular type of nut, in all likelihood a walnut (indeed, R’ Moshe Ha-Darshan, Josh tells me, reports that an egoz has 4 chambers). As has been mentioned here and elsewhere, there are 2 reasons given for avoiding egozim on Rosh Hashana:
  1. It has the numerical value of cheyt

  2. It increases phlegm
Nevertheless, it certainly seems that the avoidance of egozim belongs in the same category of practices as the simanim – certain foods are considered auspicious, and others are specifically considered inauspicious (the only other food that I know people avoid on RH is horseradish, because it’s called marror). The numerology would be a bit of a stretch from foods that actually sound like particular objects or occurrences, but still cut from the same cloth. I hope to explain how that happened.

The Roman physician Galen, based on the Doctrine of Signatures (see above), writes that the walnut is good ‘brain food’ – the shell is shaped like the human skull, and the nut is shaped like the brain. It’s good for the brain. We will return to this, but suffice it to say that the brain might not be the organ that we’re trying to bolster on Rosh Hashana, which is the anniversary of Adam’s Primordial Sin, which was a sin of da’at.

In pre-modern medicine, there were deemed to be four basic personality types, based on the balance of the four humors – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Each type had certain characteristics, was enjoined to refrain from certain foods and gravitate toward others, and was assumed to have a particular organ that was dominant.

An excess of phlegm rendered one phlegmatic. A phlegmatic personality was characterized by rationality, coldness, logical reasoning, curiosity, and skepticism. The dominant organ is the brain. I suggest that the ‘excess of phlegm’ that was caused by the brain-like egoz had nothing to do with making singing or blowing the shofar difficult, but with an imbalance toward hyper-rationalism.

So why is hyper-rationalism to be avoided on Rosh Hashana? Because it was associated with the Fall of Man. Since the minhag is an early Ashkenazic one, it could have originated a particularly anti-rationalist circle (like the Chasidei Ashkenaz) or culture (like 14-17th Century Ashkenaz). It could have also been seen as an impediment to prayerfulness, as the phlegmatic is less agitated than any of the personality types. This would have been the original reason for the minhag – to prevent the negative effects of excess phlegm (which have nothing to do with breathing passages) on the day that we are most sensitive to Man’s Original Sin of having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, at the instigation of the snake, the wiliest of creatures.

Thus, to make the connection between walnuts and sin stronger, someone came up with a mnemonic gematria – which, if you have a good shoehorn, works – to connect the two.

There’s one other piece that’s missing to this puzzle: a source that states that the fruit that Adam ate was an egoz.

Rosh Hashana and Pesach (Updated)

(Updated -and updated again!)

The first night of RH has become, along with Pesach and Tu B’Shvat, a seder. I’ve heard people here talk about the Rosh Hashana Seder. It's a real cultural phenomenon, even if you don't hold like the Hagahot Asheri (that Phoebus showed me) that one dips the heap of a sheep in honey (eeeewwwwww!)

I was thinking (out-of-the-box) that it’s almost the diametric opposite of the Pesach seder. For example, on RH we eat the head of a fish, and on Pesach we eat karpass. UPDATE #2: Also, on RH we eat sweet foods, and on Pesach we eat bitter foods.

UPDATE: If you, like me, can't stand the idea of eating fish heads, you may want to try this - after all, it's simana milta, a symbolic thing:

You can even chop off their little jelly heads!!


BAck in the MSM

No, I’m not such a media hound. Chanan interviewed me almost a year ago, but the article was just published in the Jerusalem Post today.


Rosh Hashana Entertainment

I went to the mikveh today, as I customarily do every erev RH and erev YK (I’m a two-day-a-year chassid, I guess). Outside this mikveh in Kiryat Sefer were a bunch of yeshiva kids raising money for various yeshivot and kollelim, except that one guy was SELLING POPCORN! I mean, he had one of those big popper machines!

I clarified with him that the popcorn was for AFTER the mikveh. I could just imagine spectators sitting there with their buttered popcorn, enjoying the show.


Losing Sight of the Forest for the Nuts

Josh has a good post on the no-nut minhag on RH. As my father is fond of saying, I believe in the name of the Klausenberger, we would do well to remember that chet also has the same gematria as chet. This flies in the face of the old 'you are what you eat' theory. REfraining from nuts seems a bit, well, nuts, and eating them seems perfectly sane.

In a similar vein, I try, when possible, to daven 'ke-vatikin' on RH, so that the Rebbetzin can go to shul for tekiot and mussaf. Inevitably, it means that I would nap at some point in the afternoon. Aha! But that will mean that my mazal will sleep this year, or that I'll have a sleepy year, or whatever.

Since when did this old wives tale become more important than the old wives themselves?

Happy Birthday Humanity

With Rosh Hashanah upon us, I wanted to explain some of the motifs of the day, but without the heavy ‘machshava’ that we’re accustomed to. Jewish holidays, like pretty much everything else, are designed to be intuitive. We tend to twist things in our search for ‘deeper’ meaning. More than any Sefer Machshavah, the best source for the meaning of Rosh Hashanah is the day’s liturgy, which represents how we’ve related to the day and its themes from time immemorial [note that relating to Rosh Hashana in this way brackets the question of the Biblical ‘Yom Teru’ah’].

Rosh Hashana is a Yom Teru’ah – a day of Shofar blasts. The Shofar was an instrument that served manifold functions – a herald, an alarm, a call to arms. One may ask which of these elements are represented by our Shofar, but that question misses the point; there’s no need to answer that question. The shofar is the shofar with all of its connotations and associations. The teruah is a teruah, with everything that carries. This makes Rosh Hashana very complicated and difficult to conceptualize into a single pattern.

Nevertheless, Chaza”l did attempt variously to see Rosh Hashana in a narrative framework, most notably as pertains to the creation of the world. As has often been noted, Rosh Hashana is seen not as the world’s birthday, but as man’s birthday, or, reading Adam as the archetypical human, Rosh Hashana is humanity’s birthday. Birthdays are ambiguous – they celebrate birth and remind us that we’re closer to death. They allow us to reflect upon past accomplishments but force us to confront what coulda, shoulda, woulda been. They can be happy, or depressing, or a bit of both.

Rosh Hashana is a birthday party writ large. Humanity as a whole takes stock of itself and is scrutinized. To what degree are we carrying out our mission on Earth, our charge from that very first day? To what degree are we close to completing that mission, restoring God’s Earthly Presence? These are hard questions to ask. They force us to relate to our distant past and distant future, both of which are characterized by the fullness of God’s Presence.

The liturgical themes of Rosh Hashana embraces all of history – the distant past, the future, and a present characterized by periodic hierophanies in which God’s Presence recenters our mission. This triad (which corresponds to Takia-Teruah-Tekiah, Malkhiyot-Zichronot-Shofarot, Creation-Revelation-Redemption) recurs on Rosh Hashana. It is a day in which we try to reconnect with our humanity before God, reliving the creation of this strange animal called man, reaccepting Adam’s charge, reevaluating our success and failure of this past year with reference to God’s yardstick, not our own.

Everyone, have a blessed year and a happy birthday to the human in all of us.


The Place of Fire and Brimstone

Once again, a number of recent experiences have converged and coalesced into an idea that I’ve written about before, somewhat, but wish to describe further. It pertains to the realm of discourse which I’ll call ‘charismatic monologue’. Fire-and-brimstone mussar, demagoguery, aggressive kiruv, and dependence of the message upon its deliverer all fit under this umbrella.
For example, I was leaving through the Yediot Acharonot graciously provided by El Al, when I saw an ad (just below an exceedingly bizarre article about a possessed dog in Me’ah She’arim) for an organization called ‘Hidabroot’. The ad says nothing about the organization, and I don’t know a thing about it. I guess it has something to do with dialogue. But the ad features a very slick-looking Rabbi called Zamir Cohen, who will be on a lecture tour in the USA. What can I say, it makes me nervous. As Eliyahu Ha-navi learned the hard way, dependence on an individual’s charisma or ‘evangelical’ frenzy simply obscures, to my mind, the ‘still, small voice’ which is truly the Word of God. It’s hard to hear God when everyone is shouting ‘The Lord is God’.
In March, I interviewed with an organization (that will remain nameless) that’s doing some great things in Israel. This organization has some wonderful community-learning projects in Israel. It is the creation of a very well-known and charismatic teacher/preacher/Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I couldn’t help but notice that his picture is displayed at intervals of every few feet in the organization’s offices. It completely rubbed me the wrong way. People asked how the interview went, and I responded, ‘There are way too many pictures of Rabbi X’. It was said in jest, but I was dead serious (Perhaps the greatest lesson my father ever taught me was that there need not be any tension between jesting and being serious). By contrast, in all of Tzohar’s informational literature, the personalities involved in the organization (and there are some wonderful personalities involved – R’ Yuval Cherlow is probably the best known) are never even mentioned. It’s all about the movement, the goals, the vision – never about the personalities and their charisma.
A final recollection is of a meeting that I had last week in Israel with the head of a Yeshiva and related institutions which has sent a number of students to UMD. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the ‘educational’ (I use the term very loosely) methods used to try to ‘persuade’ students that YU would be a better choice than ‘secular college’. In particular, I questioned the efficacy of ‘Fire and Brimstone Mussar Schmuessen’ in this endeavor. In my experience, ‘shtarke mussar’ never really works as a technique of persuasion. It can reinforce a latent value that a group may have lost sight of (i.e., they already embrace that value, but have slipped in their practical fealty to it). Decorum during davening is a good example. Everyone knows your not supposed to do it. Harsh words can succeed in reminding the peeps of what they already know. ‘Fire and Brimstone’ can also succeed in inspiring a group to action. Take a group that hates Jews. A fiery speech might inspire someone to strap-on an explosive belt and detonate it on a crowded Judenstrasse, but it won’t really succeed in turning the Philo-Semite. Thus, I contend, that this Yeshiva’s approach is pretty much just alienating the students – a significant minority if not the majority – who haven’t absorbed the Rabbis’ table of values. This is not only the case with students who wind up attending ‘secular college’ (I insist on putting it in quotation marks because these Yeshivot tend to disparage the idea as a whole, without trying to differentiate between different campuses; for example, Penn is a very different experience from Iowa), but even those who attend YU. The Rosh Yeshiva told me about a student who regretted his decision to attend UMD after attending a summer orientation where student sexuality was a big topic. Here’s his own values conflicted with those prevalent on campus. A year of mussar schmuessen accomplished less than 10 minutes at an orientation. That’s the power of the still, small voice.

The Torah IS in Heaven

I write from my seat in an El Al 777, having just departed Newark for Lod, high above New England. The well-known words that we read this past Shabbat – the Torah is Not in Heaven (Lo Ba-Shamayim Hi) are part of a passage which insists upon human access to Torah. The Torah makes sense. It’s intuitive. It’s accessible. It’s intelligible. I find myself having to remind myself of this over and over as I see and hear those who would insist that there’s no room for anything ‘balebatish’ in Torah. That ‘Common Sense’, that which Everyman finds intelligible, and Torah, are two completely separate realms, and ‘never the twain shall meet’. And then I note the irony of the fact that since I have access to Torah, in the form of my Bar-Ilan CD, and the ability to record my thoughts, in the form of my laptop (and if I wanted to spend the money, I could even post from up here), from above the clouds, that the very accessibility of Torah can be summarized by saying that the Torah is in Heaven as well. Leit Makom Panui Minei.

[This, in turn, reminds me of the headline in HaModia after the surfacing of allegations that a particular chassidishe rebbele made inappropriate contact with a teenage girl on a flight from Australia – ‘The Torah is Not in Heaven’. Whomever came up with that headline deserves a Pulitzer.]

After a week in the states, this flight allows me to reflect upon the purpose of my travels. The organization that I now represent, Tzohar, is really all about being consistent with a Torah that is not in Heaven, that is fully earth-bound, and has what to contribute to all of our lives. It’s about letting the Torah speak for itself, without trying to interfere too much with its message, without trying to turn ourselves into the conduit for that message, without purporting to be a go between, kal va-chomer THE go-between between man and God. It’s about doing our best not to obscure the ‘ma’or she-bah’, and having faith that the Torah can speak for itself, without my help.

(which, of course, is part of the paradox of Torah She-Be’al Peh, being both the passive recipient and active contributor to the corpus of Torah. I prefer R’ Tzadok of Lublin’s resolution, namely, that creative contribution to Torah is not experienced by the contributor as a self-consciously creative act, ve-acamo”l)

I think about the various conversations that I had with people on this very theme, from mori ve-rabi, R’ Yosef Blau, as we lament the divestiture of the halakhic experience from everyday life and intuitive reasoning (and we didn’t even bring up R’ Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, whose book, not coincidentally called ‘Not in Heaven’, explores this very theme, to my conversation with a woman who created a dialogue group between those inside and outside the Orthodox community, whose slogan is ‘The Twain SHALL Meet’!

My thoughts are as scattered as the clouds outside my window, and my laptop battery will be stilled long before my mind. We’ll see how far I get.


Karaites and Marijuana

This is just too wierd. Earlier today, I got a hit from someone who did a Google search on Karaites and Marijuana. Why the hell would someone be searching about Karaites and Marijuana? Is some Karaite priest looking for some kind of responsum on the topic? Someone doing a research paper (Hey! I know! I'll write about drug use in the Karaite community!)?


Yad Ramah on Reading Aggadot Literally: Sanhedrin 38b

[UPDATE: I should clarify that this isn't really about Torah & Science or reading Aggadot. It's about a really cool Yad Ramah. That's it. I like this Yad Ramah.]

I came across this a few years ago, but was just reminded about it recently. The Ramah (R’ Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia, 12th Century, Toledo, Spain), one of the greatest of the Rishonim, wrote encyclopedic commentaries on several Talmudic tractates, most famously Sanhedrin and Bava Batra.

The following comments are on a section in the 4th Chapter of Sanhedrin which records many Rabbinic views on the creation and fall of man, a timely topic the week before the anniversary of both, namely Rosh Hashana. The Gemara (38b) records a pair of statements, one attributed to R’ Yehuda in the name of Rav, and the other to R’ Elazar. Here is the Gemara (though the Ramah seems to have had a variant text, the basic idea is the same):

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף לח עמוד ב

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: אדם הראשון מסוף העולם ועד סופו היה, שנאמר +דברים ד'+ למן היום אשר ברא אלהים אדם על הארץ ולמקצה השמים (ועד קצה השמים), כיון שסרח - הניח הקדוש ברוך הוא ידו עליו ומיעטו, שנאמר +תהלים קל"ט+ אחור וקדם צרתני ותשת עלי כפכה. אמר רבי אלעזר: אדם הראשון מן הארץ עד לרקיע היה, שנאמר, למן היום אשר ברא אלהים אדם על הארץ ולמקצה השמים עד קצה השמים, כיון שסרח - הניח הקדוש ברוך הוא ידו עליו ומיעטו, שנאמר אחור וקדם צרתני וגו'. קשו קראי אהדדי! - אידי ואידי חדא מידה היא.

R’ Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Original Adam was from one end of the world to the other, as it says, (Devarim 4:32) “From the day that God created Man (Adam) on Earth from the edge of Heaven…” . Once he sinned, God placed His hand upon him and shrunk him, as it says (139:5), “You have formed me front and back, and placed Your hand upon me.” R’ Elazar says, Original Man was from heaven to Earth, as it says, (Devarim 4:32) “From the day that God created Man (Adam) on Earth from the edge of Heaven to the edge of Heaven” . Once he sinned, God placed His hand upon him and shrunk him, as it says (139:5), “You have formed me front and back, and placed Your hand upon me.” These two verses contradict each other! No they don’t, they are identical measures (i.e., from Earth to Heaven and from one end of the Earth to the other).

The Ramah asks:
This is very baffling, because it’s well known that the earth sits under the zenith of the dome like a rounded navel. Therefore, the distance from the Earth to the Heaven would be exactly half of the distance from one end of the Heaven to the other.

In other words, the Earth is flat, and the sky is a perfectly hemispherical dome over it. Thus, from the Earth to the Heaven, at its zenith, would be equivalent to the radius of the sphere, which is only half of the distance from one end of the Heaven to the other, which is equivalent to the diameter, or twice the radius!

He continues:
Yet, according to this Talmudic statement, it seems that the roundness of the firmament isn’t as wide as it is long, rather, it’s long and thin to the point that its width is equivalent to half of its length, and the Earth is in the middle of the firmament lengthwise, so from the Earth to the Heaven would be like from the edge of Heaven to the other edge, and this matter requires further thought.

So the Ramah is not satisfied with the suggestion of an oblong firmament. He would much rather stay with his original view, the ‘well-known’ one, namely, that the firmament is a perfect hemisphere. Thus, he concludes:

However, all of these things are in the language of nonsense (leshon havai), like when it says (Devarim 1:28) “Great cities, with fortifications up to the Heavens”. It means that the cities had very tall fortifications, and this is how we will explain these matters, with no other implication.

This piece has it all. An example of a Rishon who believes things about the natural world which have long since been discredited, though they were prevalent (he even says so) at his time. He is unwilling to take at face value a Gemara which flies in the face of prevalent contemporary belief. And so he radically reinterprets the Gemara to be a simple case of exaggeration (i.e., the Gemara is merely stating that Adam was very, very tall).

Chalk up another one for the ‘R’ Avraham ben Harambam’ camp.


When in Rome?

Until our car is paid for and ordered, we are renting from a place in Kiryat Sefer. I went to pick the car up today, and the place had moved, and it was the wrong place, and it was in general bad news. I schlepped 2 car seats, my tefillin, and a bottle of RC Cola all around Kiryat Sefer, on foot. Finally, my wife got through to our rental agency, and they went to pick me up at the store of their competitor. The woman who picked me up expressed concern to my wife that she wouldn’t be able to find me amongst all of the similar looking men. My wife responded, “It’ll be easy; he’s wearing a green shirt”.


Mitzvot of Recitation

I heard the basic gist of this idea from R’ Yosef Blau, at a shaleshudis at YU about 9 years ago. He said it in the name of the Rav, zt”l. I have embellished it with some structural observations.

The Book of Devarim can be divided into three basic sections: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The beginning gives the background for why we should keep God’s command, the middle gives the content of that command, and the end reinforces the obligation to keep that command (of course that’s an oversimplification). The beginning includes the first 3 parshiyot of Devarim. The middle starts in Re’eh and ends at with shlishi of Ki Tavo (it should be obvious where the end ends).

The last two segments before the end of the middle, legal section discuss the obligation to recite particular formulae when bringing bikkurim and at the end of the triennial ma’aser cycle.

Several questions can now be raised:
  • Why are these two mitzvot singled out to be accompanied by special recitations. Very few mitzvot have that property.

  • Why are these recitations chosen to conclude the legal section of Devarim?

  • Given that the divisions of our parshiyot are generally intuitive and thematic (as R’ Samet often points out), it seems extremely unintuitive to have the vast majority of the Parsha belong in the ‘end’, but include two relatively short segments that belong in the middle.

For starters, one may ask about the relationship between the mitzvah of bringing bikkurim and the accompanying recitation. Does the recitation deepen and explain the mitzvah, or does it provide something that the mitzvah itself cannot provide. R’ Samet takes the former approach (here). For several reasons, I think he’s off the mark, and I will take the latter approach.

The mitzvah of bikkurim is one of the most intensely personal mitzvot in the Torah. The individual farmer, who owns his own land, having labored all winter, finally sees the literal first fruits of his effort. He is enjoined to take that moment, naturally predisposed to be celebrated as a personal triumph, and dedicate those fruits to be an homage to God. It is strictly between the farmer and God. There are no others in this process.

Contrast that with the mitzvot related to tithing. The gifts to the Priests, the Levites, the poor, and to support the capital economy are all about social welfare. They are the types of obligations that one would feel duty bound, as a member of society, to be concerned with and to contribute to.

Yet, each accompanying recitation emphasizes the exact OPPOSITE of what the mitzvah itself emphasizes. The bikkurim recitation sees the individual farmer in the context of Israel’s foundational narrative. It’s not just about God and the farmer, there’s an entire national story that forms the background to this. That story is summarized, in the plural, before the farmer can get to the point where he can say, “and now I have brought the first fruits of the land…”. Lest the mitzvah become TOO personal, the national context is invoked.

In contrast, the ma’aser recitation reads like a laundry list of personal accomplishment. “I have completed…I have given…as you commanded me…I did not transgress and I did not forget. I did not eat…I did not give…I listened…I performed…”. The Torah is emphasizing that though the mitzvot of ma’aser might have tremendous social benefits, we must not ignore that we are still the commanded doing the Will of the Commander. The personal, private element – one man and God – can and must be present even in the most ‘socially responsible’ of all mitzvot.

Taken together, these two recitations have a common theme: neither the individual nor the collective can be ignored. We must not focus on the personal if it means neglecting responsibility to the community. Yet, one’s fealty to the community cannot come at the expense of one’s personal relationship with God. Both elements – the individualist and the socialist – are essential ingredients to carrying out the Torah’s ideal of communal structures which do not undermine individual expression, of becoming ‘communities of individuals’.

Thus, these segments serve as a segue into the final segments of the Torah, where the tension between the communal and the individual often come to the fore. It is with this balance that we understand the discussions at the end of the Torah of mutual and collective responsibility. Once the necessary balance between the poles of individualism and socialism have been staked out, a movement toward the appropriate attitude can be articulated and shaped in many ways.

Belated Social Observation/Dvar Torah on Shoftim/Ki Tetze

The Laws of Warfare are spread over the parshiyot of Shoftim and Ki Tetze, primarily. Though there are sections in Bamidbar and later in Ki Tetze, the primary locus spans 4 consecutive segments, but is interrupted by the laws pertaining to a corpse found near a city, otherwise known as eglah arufa. The question arises, why does this segment occur right smack in the middle of the laws of warfare?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered this question twice; once in the drasha of a local Rav, and once in a D’var Torah by R’ Samet (which can be accessed in translation here, though there’s more in the published Hebrew version). The local Rav was saying that these laws were there lest one think, reading the laws of warfare which includes the command to utterly annihilate the 7 native tribes of Canaan, that the Torah doesn’t value life, we see the lengths that the Torah goes to in the case of a single mysterious death. We therefore can’t say that the Torah isn’t being compassionate when demanding genocide; we simply don’t see the whole picture. But we know from experience that sometimes what looks like compassion results in cruelty. Kol ha-merachem al ha-achzarim, sofo le-achzer al ha-rachmanim.

R’ Samet (with whom I identify strongly on this issue) takes an almost opposite approach. He reads this entire segment as a form of protest against warfare, an implicit precursor to Micha’s idyllic prophecy (4:3) of a world where ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation’. Each of the sections about warfare, R’ Samet shows, is designed to sublimate, refine, and protect against the inevitable moral deterioration of the military, and to keep perspective of the things that are truly important. Eglah Arufa, he suggests, is a hedge against the inevitable outbreak of violence which occurs when soldiers return home from war. A greater sensitivity to acts of violence will prevent the returning soldiers’ temporary depravity from penetrating the rest of society, and assist them in their re-integration to normal life.


The Ganenet

Her name is Mazal. She’s probably in her 40s or early 50s, and has been running the nursery school that my two younger children attend for about 20 years. She is quite obviously of Sephardic descent, and though she is not observant, is deeply traditional.

We are finishing the first week of school, and she not only knows the names of all 120 kids in the nursery, but the names of their parents as well. She remembers the name of every kids who was ever enrolled in her nursery. She doesn’t just know them all, she also loves them all. She dispenses hugs freely, and makes sure that no kids falls through the cracks.

All in all, this is a brilliant, competent, caring woman who has successfully run a mid-sized organization for 20 years running. It makes me wonder what kind of opportunities were available to her when she was growing up? She easily has the tools to be a successful lawyer, accountant, or businesswoman, but somehow I tend to doubt that those options were available. So she runs a darn good nursery school. An enriches us all (but probably makes less).

A Wicked Game of Ping-Pong

Deep Breath In…Deep Breath Out
The kids are adjusting great. They’re making friends. They love school.
We made Aliyah for the kids. And they’re doing great.


Deep breath. Another deep breath.
The Kids. The Kids. They’re doing great. They’re happy. They’re adjusting. It’s all about the kids.


The kids are thrilled to be in Israel. They’re eating well and healthy. They have friends. They’re learning Hebrew. They’re learning Torah. This is where the future is. It’s worth sacrificing the present for a better future. The future. The kids.


Yet, today was a bit better than yesterday, no? Baby steps. And remember, it’s for the kids. The kids the kids the kids the kids the kids the kids the kids. What can possibly be more important?


The grass was not greener there. This is better for the kids. What if your grandparents had stayed in Hungary and Germany? Did they have an easier time when they reached American shores? Nevertheless, they did it because of what they knew would be better for their families in the long run. The kids.

“The great proof of madness is the disproportion of one's designs to one's means.”
-Napoleon Bonaparte

And as my grandfather used to say:
Ich bin in der Erd. Git in der Erd. = .אני בארץ. טוב בארץ


Literati King

I just scored 68 points for the seven-letter-word ‘mimetic’ across 2 double-word-scores, with the ‘e’ in the middle turning ‘mend’ into ‘emend’.

Shout out to Chaim Potok and, ybl”ch, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik. Couldn’t have done it without y’all!


Rambam on Renewal of Sanhedrin: Redux

After a bunch of skeptical comments, including from Prof. Wolff, I wanted to provide more evidence to strengthen my thesis that Rambam's position on the renewal of the Sanhedrin stems from a combination of his understanding of the mitzvah of Shoftim Ve-Shotrim and his political philosophy and not from any messianic agitation. It's true that he believes that a Sanhedrin will have to convene in order to appoint the Messianic King (see Hil. Sanhedrin 5:1), that doesn't mean that the reason to establish a Sanhedrin is in order to appoint a king. It's one of the many functions of a Jewish supreme court.

The proof (circumstantial, not direct, but still, to my mind, convincing) is in a very strange position that Rambam takes at the very beginning of Hil. Sanhedrin. He holds that the mitzvah of Shoftim Ve-shotrim is only in the Land of Israel. That's problematic because it goes directly against a Gemara in Makkot 7a. Attempts to suggest that the Rambam had a different version of the text fall short, as many of the commentaries point out.

However, the following progression would make perfect sense:
  • The Gemara in Sanhedrin states that Semikha can only be performed in the Land of Israel, though once administered, it grants powers everywhere.
  • Semicha, for the Rambam (again, this is clear from his discussion of semicha in both the Yad and the Sefet Ha-Mitzvot; see also Sefer Ha-Chinukh on Shoftim Ve-shotrim) is the mechanism by which the mitzvah of minui Shoftim is perpetuated.
  • Therefore, the Rambam can understand the inability to administer semicha outside the lant of Israel not as a procedural impossibility, but as the result of the fact that outside of Israel, there's simply no mitzvah to engage in that mitzvah, rendering that act meaningless. The source for Rambam's strange psak would seem to be the sugyot that deal with semicha outside of Israel.
  • The limitation ofthis mitzvah to the Land of Israel has an implication that we're not just interested in finding a way to adjudicate claims, but to set up a hierarchy of courts. In other words, for the Rambam, the mitzvah is not to set up courts, but to create a court system. This mitzvah devolves specifically upon Jews living in Israel.
  • Thus, absence of the original method of appointing judges does not absolve the population from the obligation to set up courts.
  • At this point, one may ask why the Rambam insisted that there must be another way to reinstitute the Sanhedrin. The answer might be from the predictions in Isaiah, the promise of the coming of a Sanhedrin-appointed Messiah, or simply that it was inconcievable to the Rambam that a mitzvah as essential as providing justice might be completely neglected on what basically amounts to a technicality. The Rambam therefore 'de-mystifies' semicha by understanding it as an act of appointment and not the conferral of some kind of special status.

The Hazing Continues

Still no car.

Still no lift.

Still feel like a ping-pong ball between banks, Bituach Leumi, Kupot Cholim, and the Interior Ministry.

It’s overwhelming at times, but usually manageable. Next week will be tough for the Rebbetzin with me away.

A few amusing observations about Israeli parlance:

1) Israelis use the term ‘mail’ to refer to ‘email’. It took me a bit to realize that. Someone told me they’d send me something by ‘mail’, and I told them that I prefer ‘doar electroni’ (or doa”l for short), the ‘real’ term for email, and I got a puzzled look in response. If you ask me, calling email ‘mail’ is kinda dumb, but that’s because I speak English.

2) The term ‘cable’, depending on the context, can mean different things. In Israel, cable television is called ‘kvalim’, and jumper cables are called ‘kabelim’. Ironic that the word ‘cable’ is originally Hebrew – just look at the end of Tehillim 149 (tomorrow at Shacharit would be the opportune time to do so).


Funny Outreach Speech

This is brilliant. Funny as heck. Really captures many of the BT/FFB tensions (that, if you've read this blog long enough and know my professional trajectory, I think about a lot). It's from njop.