Why I Have Not Been Blogging...

1. Between the regular job and translation/editing projects, there has just been no time (even with the snow days).

2. Since so much (actually, all) of the new work involves sitting in front of my laptop and pecking away, blogging is not as much of an outlet as it had been. When I have some time that I'm not sitting in front of the computer doing work, I'd rather read a book. Also, I have no idea how long my back will hold up if I keep hunching over the keyboard.

I wish I could say that it is temporary, or that I have nothing to write (I barely started writing up the Ezra shiurim; I've given three already, but have not gotten the chance to really write them up well). It's good to be busy, though.


Tu B'Shvat Higia

I put together a Tu B'Shvat Seder for school this year. I know that there are literally hundreds of these things floating around the internet and whatnot, but obviously, when dealing with a made-up holiday, everybody kind of has their own take. Here's mine. I admit that some of it is cannibalized, more from Uri and Yocheved Cohen's Princeton Tu B'Shvat Seder than anything else:

seder 1







seder 8


Brain Dump

  • I'm not related to Bobby.
  • This article, which Menachem recommended, is awesome. Reminded me that kugel has the same gematriyah as Shabbos. Ah, you'll say,even without calculating, it's plainly obvious that Shabbos has a gematriyah ver 700, whereas kugel is just 100something. The answer is - have some more kugel.
  • UMD-UNC is turning out to be a heck of a game. Is this the same team that lost to Virginia Commonwealth and American?
  • This is one doozy of a typo that appeared in a New Square publication, from what I understand. Take a look at the bottom-right



Ma'aneh le-Igrot

I own a copy of the infamous Shu"t Ma'aneh le-Igrot. I inherited it from my grandfather, z"l, and was actually one of the few seforim in his collection that, at the time of the chalukah, I did not own but was interested in. I was reminded of this sefer by a comment that was posted on the Seforim blog, linking to an ebay page where this volume was being sold for $350. After reading that, I had the sudden desire to see what condition my copy is in.

The Ma'aneh le-Igrot is a book of responsa which takes direct issue with and heaps scorn upon Rav Moshe Feinstein. It was written by Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, who, from what I understand, was a Satmar chassid. The book's layout is nearly identical to that of R' Moshe's Igrot Moshe, showing the author's clear intent to disparage the man who, at the time of the book's publication in 1973, was recognized as America's greatest poseik.

It's first entry is actually the first responsum I ever learned. In my early teenage years, I would walk/bike over to my grandparents' home every Friday, to visit and to sample the Shabbat menu. Also during my teenage years, I discovered girls. At some point, I started wearing very small knit kippot with my name crocheted on them, the handiwork of female acquaintances. The first time that my grandfather noticed this, he pulled out the Ma'aneh le-Igrot and learned the first siman with me. In it, the author maintains that the required shiur of a yarmulke is that it cover the majority of the head. This is in disagreement with Rav Moshe's responsum (the first in 0C vol. I - the second responsum I ever learned), where he says that there is no minimum yarmulke size. Needless to say, Zaydie was not interested in learning that responsum with me, even though I suspect he knew it full well. Interestingly enough, I had never worn a yarmulke that covered most of my head, and neither did Zaydie, or really anyone else in the family, as far as I can recall. He wanted to tell me that my yarmulke was too small (and it probably was); I doubt he realized that it was a status symbol (or perhaps he realized that it was the status symbol of a modernishe kid in a yeshivishe school and community).

Anyhow, I looked through it again today, thinking about my own memories of it, and realizing that it was actually that very copy that he had shown me 16 or so years ago. I checked to see if there was an inscription, and indeed there was. It was given to my Zaydie as a gift from his son, my uncle Moshe Aryeh, a"h, and it was inscribed with the date - Wednesday of Parshat Beshalach, 5748 - almost exactly 20 years ago.

My copy is not on the market just yet.



Since moving back to Israel last summer and listening to the radio regularly, I've been amazed at the amount of flat-out religious music that's being produced in Israel. I'm not talking about MBD-type stuff. I'm talking about regular pop music, played on regular pop radio stations, which is prayerful, soulful, and flat-out frum. Granted, a song with actual English profanity might be followed by a rendition of 'Shir La-ma'alot: Esa einai' (I actually heard that once), but that's neither here nor there. The point is, the station that the whole country listens to during its commute, galgalatz, plays an appreciable amount of contemporary Israeli music with strong religious overtones.

An example which comes to mind, only because I heard it again during today's commute, is Shuli Rand's 'Ayecka' (listen here). You might remember Rand from his role in 'Ushpizin'. He's an Israeli actor/singer who was 'chozer be-teshuvah' some years ago; he's not a Breslover chassid. The movie clearly has Breslover overtones and in fact plays like one of Reb Nachman's stories (ve-acamo"l). The song also has clear Breslov overtones. A famous idea of Reb Nachman's (which I heard on several occasions from mv"r Rav Mendel Blachman) is his interpretation of the the phrase that we recite during kedusha in Mussaf - 'ayeh mekom kevodo'. Reb Nachman reads the line as follows - 'ayeh = mekom kevodo' - wherever a Jew, from the depths of his heart and soul, calls out to God and says 'ayeh - where are you?' - that itself is where God's Presence resides. This idea is in line with Reb Nachman's general approach to faith, which for him is at its profoundest and most meaningful specifically when He seems conspicuously absent. This paradoxical faith, where absence = Presence and Reb Nachman anticipates postmodernism, is what leads Art Green to basically call Reb Nachman the 'Jewish Tertullian', ve-acamo"l.

This idea of Reb Nachman, especially the way he reads it into that phrase, might seem a bit 'drushy' (though I'm told there's some sort of kabbalistic explanation). I think it provides a serious insight even on the textual level. It has to do with the difference between the words 'ayeh' and 'eifoh', which on the surface both mean 'where'.

The Mahara"l in Gur Aryeh at the beginning of Parshat Vayera explains that when the angels asked Avraham 'ayeh Sarah ishtecha' they were asking 'why is she not here', in order to draw attention to the fact that she was, as Rashi mentions, a modest person, remaining inside the tent. Nechama Leibowitz extrapolates that this is the general meaning of the term: whereas 'eifoh' is a request for a location, coordinates, 'ayeh' essentially asks 'why are you not here?' It's like when someone shows up 45 minutes late and you say 'where were you?' - you're not asking for a location, you're really asking 'Hey, I was expecting you a while ago; why weren't you here?'

Similarly, when, in Bereishit, God asks Adam 'ayecka?' (which basically means 'ayeh atah?'; the Shuli Rand song connects the terms as well), He's not asking for Adam's physical location; rather, He's asking a much deeper question - Adam, you were here with Me just a minute ago. Where'd you go? Why aren't you here anymore? The question itself points to the damage to Adam's relationship with God.

Finally, in kedusha of Mussaf, God's attendants who ask 'where is the place of His Glory?' are not asking for geometric coordinates. As Reb Nachman suggests, the question has a much more existential overtone - 'God, why aren't You here? Why is the place of Your Glory not right here with me?' Thus, the Mahara"l and Nechama Leibowitz meet Reb Nachman and Shuli Rand to shed light on a word which takes on a great deal of religious significance.

The Joys of Public Transportation

Think about all of those great stories which record conversations that various gedolim had with maskilim, freethinkers, of other erstwhile evildoers. There's a common denominator; they inevitably take place on some form of public transportation - a train, an airplane, etc. Why? I think it's because that would be the most likely venue for such a conversation to take place on equal footing, if at all. Where else would Reb Chaim be conversing with a Christian missionary, or Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky with an evolutionary biologist? You simply don't experience a small cross-section of society in an environment that is conducive to conversation, except under rare circumstances. Public transportation is such a circumstance. There's really nothing like it.

I often ride the #32 bus in Jerusalem. This bus originates in Gilo, where I work, and runs through the center of town before continuing to Ramot. I sometimes ride that bus from beginning to end, because it's often easier to catch a bus to Modiin from Ramot. The clientele of this bus shifts as it travels through the various neighborhoods. Gilo is largely traditional Sephardic, the center of town is a complete mixed bag, and Ramot is heavily Chareidi. Since it goes pretty much directly from the Central Bus Station to Ramot, it gets pretty full during peak hours - rush hour and when schools let out. Since I'm on the bus from the beginning of the route, I always get a seat.

A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, I was sitting on the #32, with a seat open next to me and 2 seats open across from me. At some point, 2 chareidi women, I'd estimate their ages to be about 45 for the one and 60 for the other, occupied the adjacent seat and one of the opposing seats. They began conversing in English. The older one began to complain that she wished she could relax in front of the TV that evening, but that there was nothing good on. At this point, I piped up that, in fact, it was Week 17 of the NFL and there would be some games with playoff implications beginning at 8pm, Israel Time. She countered that she's not much of a football fan, and would much prefer to watch basketball. She said that football was too violent for her - she had no interest in watching very large men beat each other up. I sympathized.

At this point, another woman, clearly chareidi, jumped into the conversation. She had been standing in the aisle, wearing a blonde sheitl and looking very pregnant. She offered that she would love to watch a football game as she was a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin. I was floored. I said that I didn;t think I had ever met anyone from Green Bay; in fact, I had no idea that there were any Jews in Green Bay, or any people, for that matter. After all, there are not even enough Green Bay residents to fill Lambeau Field (though they have no problem filling it with 'out-of-towners'). She had been to Lambeau in the winter, in the frigid climate that makes it one of the toughest places for a visiting team (at the New York Giants will probably find out this Sunday). Who'd have guessed.

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of how things had changed in Israel over the years - my 15 years being here on and off (I've been here for 9 of the last 15 years) being no match for their 25 and 35 years, respectively. We actually even discussed the phenomenon of separate-seating buses, agreeing that it's generally superfluous. They liked my story about my sister who, 8 months pregnant, refused to give up her seat on a Superbus in Kiryat Sefer to a man, and my subsequent dubbing her as 'the chareidi Rosa Parks'.

Indeed, if all buses were separate, how would some chareidi youngster have been able to offer his apple to a scantily clad young woman? How would the Chofetz Chaim have taught us not to speak leshon ho-ra about ourselves? Most importantly, how would I have known that a chareidi mother in Ramot will, this weekend, be trading her blonde sheitl in for a hat shaped like a block of cheese as she cheers on Brett Favre?


Segulah for Parnassah

There's a segulah for parnassah that is even more ancient than the recitation of 'Parshas ha-Man' today (Tuesday of Parshas Beshalach). Even more ancient than scanning the names of angels at strategic points during the prayers. In fact, this segulah is so ancient that there is a mesorah that Adam ha-Rishon was the first person to use it.

Unfortunately, this particular segulah for parnassah has fallen into disuse, and even disrepute, amongst large segments of our brothers, yirei shomayim and shomrei Torah u-mitzvos. Nebech, some have even completely discredited this segulah, despite its proven efficacy and despite the fact that Gedolim in nearly every generation approved of this segulah and even encouraged others to avail themselves of it (even though they often did not make use of it themselves).

And what is this segulah for parnassah? Why, going to work, of course.

The Angels Wished to Sing

There's a well known midrash in this week's parsha. It interprets the verse 've-lo karav zeh el zek kol ha-layla' (Shem. 14:20) to mean that the attending angels wished to sing before God at that moment, but He did not allow it, saying "My handiwork is drowning in the sea, yet you sing?!"

In truth, this midrash is presented in a number of places with subtly different meanings.

Perhaps the best-known appearance is in the Gemara in Megillah (10b). There, it is used as a prooftext for the assertion that God does not rejoice at the downfall of the wicked. Clearly, the meaning of the midrash is that the angels wished to sing when the Egyptians drowned, much as the Israelites themselves sang. God responded by asking, rhetorically, if it was appropriate to sing while His handiwork, the Egyptians, drowned. This begs the following question: why, then, were the Israelites allowed to sing? The standard answer is that they had experienced salvation themselves, had just been freed from Egyptian bondage, and thus had reason to celebrate. The angels, however, had not themselves experienced salvation, and it would have been inappropriate for them to rejoice when one nation is saved at the expense of another.

Another possible answer depends on a variant text of the midrash. The way it's recorded in Yalkut Shimoni, God's rhetorical question ends with the words 'before Me'. In other words, the issue was not the singing per se, but singing before God. He did not want to participate in a celebration of the downfall of men, no matter how wicked. The Israelites sang, but not 'before God'.

A second, different appearance of this midrash is in Eicha Rabbah (petichta 24), amongst other places. It lists three times when the angels wished to sing, but God did not allow it: during the flood, at the sea, and during the destruction of the First Temple. The same prooftext of 've-lo karav...' is used to support the second assertion. Here, it seems clear that the meaning of the midrash is altogether different. It is not discussing any 'extra' song that the angels wished to sing, rather the songs that the angels sing before God every day. Because of the dire situation of the Israelites during the night before the splitting of the sea, God did not wish to be sung to. Indeed, this interpretation fits better with the prooftext, which speaks about the night before the miracle. In this version, God's rhetorical question does not appear.

The 'moral' of each version is quite different. The moral of the first is that God and, presumably we should follow suit, would never view the destruction of humanity, no matter how evil, as a cause for celebration. It might be necessary, but it is with a heavy heart. The second version simply states that God is in no mood to listen to the choir of angels while His people sit in distress; it is an issue of solidarity with those in trouble, not of sensitivity toward the wicked.

My whole life, I only knew of the first version. I am curious if there are any sources which conflate the two versions or if the two versions are somehow related. It seems that they are not.


Why I Wouldn't Vote for Hillary

As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, I'd like to stick in my two cents (by the way, I think that Americans can weigh in on Israeli politics, too; I'm not one of those 'If you don't live here, you can't have an opinion' folks).

I'd like to see McCain become president. Giuliani would be my second choice. Amongst the Democratic candidates, I prefer Barack over the others. Don't press me for why; some candidates I just don't like, and others I just like. I guess I look for people who are 'real', and not just talking heads.

And then there's love-her-or-hate-her Hillary. I'm no fan of Bill, but one thing that Hillary said during her senatorial campaign which just totally summed up why I can't stomach her. She was asked whether she's a Yankee fan or a Met fan.

Before getting to her answer, some background: I hate the Yankees. I'm from Baltimore. My wife's from Boston. Before we decided which teams we'd encourage the kids to root for, we agreed that they'd be Yankee haters. Nevertheless, I can understand and respect that a New Yorker would be a Yankee fan (a non-New Yorker Yankee fan is a tail-rider, AFAIC). I have more respect for Met fans, because they choose to stick with a team that's the local underdog.

Back to Hillary's answer: "I like them both". No. You're not allowed to say that. You can't like them both. Clearly, she felt that she didn't want to alienate the fans of one team by saying she supports the other. See, but that's the point. She's a phony. She said what she thought would be politically expedient, not what she believes. I'm not so fickle a person that I wouldn't vote for Giuliani because he roots for a team I hate. He has his preference, and he doesn't try to hide it. He wears his Yankee cap everywhere and attends games. Had Hillary said "Gee, y'know, I really don't follow baseball much", I'd have understood and respected that. Not everyone's a baseball fan. But she didn't say that. She tried to please them all by, for lack of a better term, lying. I understand that politicians often must do this, but when it's so pervasive that it even extends to fundamentally trivial matters, it becomes abhorrent.



At the beginning of the year, I promised that I would serialize my classes on the book of Ezra (incl. Nehemiah). As it turns out, I will not be teaching Ezra this semester. Nevertheless, I've been meaning to start typing up my handwritten notes, if I can find the time. Last time I learned and taught it, I found that it issues and dilemmas have a very contemporary resonance. Ezra remains a somewhat underappreciated character even though, as a leader and lawgiver, he is second only to Moshe. If I can post one shiur a week, starting next week, I'll be happy.


Stockholm Syndrome

Throughout this week’s parsha of Vaera, the Torah repeatedly mentions the goals of the horrific plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians. These goals are consistently addressed to Pharaoh and the Egyptians: “you will know that I am God” (7:17), “you will know that I am God in the midst of the land” (8:18), and “you will know that there is none like Me in all the land” (9:14). Only the final three plagues, listed in next week’s parsha of Bo, include any mention that the plagues are to have some effect on the Israelites as well: “and that thou may tell your son and grandson what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the God” (10:2) “so that you know that God distinguishes between Egypt and Israel” (11:7).

The existence of so many goals for the plagues deserves its own treatment; clearly, the notion that the plagues were engineered simply to get the Israelites out of Egypt falls well short of explaining all ten. The harsh educational impact of the plagues were manifold and incremental – each new lesson built on the previous one. Yet, one may ask why the Torah was interested in teaching these lessons to the Egyptians. After all, the Israelites were the ones with a future as God’s chosen people; why was it important that Egypt, on the brink of destruction, be made aware of God’s existence and hegemony?

In certain cases, prolonged captivity or enslavement can produce a psychological phenomenon known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, in which the victim begins to identify and sympathize with the powerfully aggressive perpetrator. It generally applies to individual victims of a small group of abusers, but it can just as well pertain to large groups who are enslaved and robbed of their identities by a larger, more powerful group.

The Israelites in Egypt, or at least some of them, may have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. Indeed, a number of them complained, even after more than a year in the desert, that they would have been better of staying in Egypt, a land of ‘milk and honey’ where the fish was free (see Bamidbar 11:5, 14:3, and 16:13). The generation of exiles, despite everything, never completely freed themselves from their identification with Egypt.

Thus, a series of terrible (super)natural disasters to put the fear of the Lord into the Egyptians was actually the best way to get that message across to the Israelites themselves. If the Egyptian perpetrators were cowed into submission before God, then perhaps the Israelites could internalize the same messages. As they learned about God, they would gradually dissociate from Egypt and begin to identify with God, as His nation.

These sentiments were eloquently stated by John Donne in Holy Sonnet XIV:

Yet dearely'I love you, and would be lov'd faine
But am betroth'd unto your enemy
Divorce me, 'untie, or breake that knot againe
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you 'enthrall me, never shall be free
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me

Similarly, the finale of the Exodus narrative, when Israel beholds the drowning of the Egyptian military in the Red Sea, enables the Israelites to truly become God’s people:

…and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea-shore. And Israel saw the mighty hand which the God used upon the Egyptians, and the people revered God, and they believed in God and in His servant Moshe

(Shemot 14:30-31)