One Dilemma, Two Solutions (and a possible third)

At two different weddings that I've attended the past month, both at the same hall, the 'shtar tena'im' was missing or forgotten.

At the more recent one, the Mesader Kiddushin was a big-time Rosh Yeshiva, who proceeded to write out a shtar tena'im by hand. It was very impressive.

At the earlier wedding, the Mesader Kiddushin was calling around to get one faxed to the shul office, but in the meantime I downloaded and printed one up from here. Different approaches, same result.

It caused me to wonder if we're not experiencing a paradigm shift in how we judge accomplishment in the world of Torah. Mastery isn't what it used to be before the age of information. Knowing how to use the Bar-Ilan CD is probably more useful than knowing Mishnayos Ba'al Peh. So what will the standard be? How will talmudic accomplishment be judged? Solely on 'lomdus' - analysis, understanding, creativity? Doesn't the information age make 'da'as Torah', in some form, all the morenecessary? If everyone has access to the information, wouldn't it be necessary to posit SOMETHING which make the gedolim different, and which makes a 'teshuvah' from a bona fide different from the teshuvah of some guy who's good on the Bar Ilan?

Since I don't have Da'as Torah, the third potential solution to the 'tena'im' problem -i.e., skip the tena'im, it's meaningless anyway - isn't really feasible.

Oh, well.

Disengagement: One Issue or Two

For the record: I don't wear an orange bracelet, I don't wear a blue bracelet, and I certainly don't wear a half-orange/ half-blue bracelet.

There are really two separate issues, which are:
1) Disengagement
2) Evacuation of settlements

Is it possible to distinguish them? Does evacuation make sense without disengagement? Disengagement without evacuation (granted, that seems ludicrous, but if the settlers are prepared to stay and take on the Israeli Army, why wouldn't they be prepared to stay and take on whomever else may try to encroach on 'their' territory)? Which issue is REALLY the issue - the yishuvim or the disengagement? In every conversation I've had, the two issues are conflated - should they be?

January 20, 1961 : A Black Day

What happened on this date? And why would I care about it enough to post about it?

Well, it's the day that JFK was inaugurated president of the USA.
He had the distinction of being the first president to NOT wear a hat at his inauguration.
At that moment, one could no longer make the argument that wearing a hat is the social convention for solemn events, becuase there's no event more solemn within American culture as the President on the day of his inauguration.

Until then, wearing a hat was within societal norms, was a perfectly conventional thing for men to do, and therefore was obligatory when Halakha mandated soelmn attire, such as on Shabbat and festivals, or a groom at his wedding.

After that date, there were two responses; one was to continue with the social conventions, which, at this point, no longer related to the hat as a norm. The other was to insist upon doing 'what has always been done', i.e., the hat had taken on a significance of its own regardless of the cultural context. At that point, hat-wearing became reactionary, and, as such, particulars such as color and style became more and more specific to the particular population who was perpetuating this style.

I, for one, tend toward the former approach, that one displays solemnity and respect by employing the conventions of the prevailing culture (like burping at the table in China, if that's what it takes), and not by reactionism.

I entitled this post 'A Black Day' simply as a pun, with no attempt to pass judgement on either the 'black-hat' phenomenon or the Kennedy administration.


The Secret of Chareidi Fundraising

Walk the halls of the finest UO yeshivot in the world, especially the ones in America, and you wouldn't be able to help but notice that the money isn't coming exclusively from Orthodox Jews; not by a long shot. This phenomenon begs interpretation. What would move a person to contibute vast amounts of money to an institution which espouses values that he does not? To take a sharper example, why would someone fund a lifestyle - let's say a kollel lifestyle which isn't viewed as training for eventual participation in the broader community - that he doesn't even condone?

I'm sure there's no pat or simple answer, but I think there's a pathos which motivates the contributor and includes one or more of the following elements:

1) Guilt. The famous 'here - you go ahead and cross your father's name off the list' story involving R' Kahaneman is the prime example of this. The prospect of bankrupt institutions, hungry families, a world without Torah or Rabbis or Orthodoxy can have a very powerful effect on someone.

2) Buying a Slice of Heaven. For many non-Observant Jews whose Jewish worldview is still shaped by Orthodoxy, donating to a Yeshiva is like buying shares in a divine stock. It's not quite the sale of indulgences, but, needless to say, it doesn't reflect a very mature worldview.

3) Nostalgia/Perceived Authenticity. To my mind, this is the most powerful and effective (and untrue) element of successful Chareidi fundraising. There's this myth that's being successfully perpetuated by Chasidim (esp. Chabad) and Chareidim that the more distinct one looks, dresses, speaks, and thinks, the more 'authentic' their Judaism. In Me'ah She'arim, there are 'real Jews', like it oughta be! For second-generation Americans who yet remember the European generation, and who feel a strong nostalgia for their grandparents' Judaism even though they themselves haven't kept it up, contributing to institutions that they percieve to be the continuation of 'Zaydie's' Judaism can be very comforting. This is Chabad's bread n' butter, it's everyclean shaven 'g'vir' sitting next to the Rebbe at the tisch of whichever Chassidus, and it's much, much, more.

This latter attitude is the bane of serious, halakhic, non-Chareidi Judaism. For so much of the Jewish world, across the spectrum, UO is the standard by which the authenticity and validity of everything else is judged. Obviously, the fundamental flaw is in relating to UO as the continuation of the way things have always been and not as an invention of the last 1.5 centuries, like everything else on the contemporary scene (NOTE: that's not to say that all form of contemporary Judaism are equally 'authentic' , 'valid' 'legitimate' in my mind, simply that they're all roughtly the same age, and authenticity is judged by criteria other than age).

But we're not really talking about ideology; we're talking about marketing. And in that respect, they've done a good job.

More thoughts on gender identity and 'upsherin'

Previously (in the post linked to this one), I suggested that the idea of 'upsherin' is to dramatically differentiate a genderless 'babyhood' from 'boyhood'. These bright-line rites of passage can be very poserful, especially for a 3-year-old.

One may then ask why there's no female equivalent. After all, why don't we want to generate positive gender identities in our maidelach?

Perhaps a central element of the feminist critique - that in patriarchies women were essentially defined as 'non-men' - is true for the Halakhic tradition (though it's tough to prove such a claim from an isolated minhag, it may be a bit of evidence). In other words, becoming a girl equals growing up an not becoming a boy.

If there would be an attempt to find a rtie of passage into girlhood - a positively constructed girlhod - in the Jewish tradition, what form would it take? At first I thought, perhaps, ear piercing could be a good option. Let a 3 year old girl get her ears pierced. But then I heard that there's an opinion (can't remembre who/where) that girls get their ears pierced for similar reasons to the 'eved nirtza' - i.e., as a symbol of servitude. Ouch. Maybe not such a good idea. Any other ideas?


A Woman of Valor

I just saw (not in a store; on a person, and one who didn't even realize it) an apron with the first verse of 'eishet chayil' emblazoned on the front.

Is it just me, or does anyone else find this do be degrading to women, implying that they become the Proverbial (literally) 'woman of valor' only when in the kitchen? Bizarre.


Shabbat 33b - 34a: Part III - R' Shimon Withdraws

[sorry it's been a while since I've continued this series. still have a ways to go]

Withdrawing from the World

He and his son went and hid themselves in the Beth Hamidrash, [and] his wife brought him bread and a mug of water and they dined. [But] when the decree became more severe he said to his son, Women are of unstable temperament: she may be put to the torture and expose us.
So they went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and a water well were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves, prayed, and then put off their garments again, so that they should not wear out. Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave.

The story now focuses exclusively upon R’ Shimon b. Yochai. We can identify with R’ Yehuda’s role and R’ Yose’s role; they are making positive contributions to the contemporary Jewish community. Regarding R’ Shimon, though, it remains doubtful that he has any outlet for his Torah, that he can find an audience with whom to share his knowledge.
His first response it to withdraw into the ivory tower relate only to the elite of the Beit Midrash. He brings his son with him, hoping that his audience will consist of one member, at the very least. Perhaps in the Beit Midrash, R’ Shimon will find young minds eager to move beyond the constraints of contemporary culture and connect with R’ Shimon’s Torah of yesteryear.
He begins to withdraw from all social and cultural convention, gradually minimizing everything that connects him to the world of men. He has his daily visit from his wife – not much more than a modicum of family structure – he eats bread, the quintessential human food (see the opinion of R’ Yehuda in Brachot 40a, and the words of R’ Hamnuna in Brachot 58a) in that there are eleven human processes in the preparation of bread. He drinks from a pitcher of earthenware – not very fancy, but still man-made. In fact, earthenware often represents, both in Rabbinic literature and archaeology, the presence of some primitive civilization, but a civilization nonetheless.
However, withdrawing from human contact has actually magnified R’ Shimon’s opposition to the dominant culture, to the point that even the Beit Midrash becomes an untenable location for him to pursue his goals. He has withdrawn from the society of humans and become so absorbed in purely intellectual pursuits that he no longer trusts anything less. It’s somewhat ironic that he fears that only a woman would crack under torment because ‘Nashim da’atan kalot aleihen’. Not many people can withstand torture, men or women. R’ Shimon has come to regard any vulnerability, and intrusion of real life or real emotion into the Torah-world that he alone inhabits as ‘feminine weakness’, and he must withdraw even further, to the cave.


Making 'Brachot' on Non-Kosher Food

I will post an essay on this topic soon (I'm writing it up). But beforehand, I'm going to throw the question out to the readers. The Shulkhan Arukh (OC 196:1-2) is pretty straightforward, and he's basing himself on Rambam Brachot 1:18, which is also pretty straightforward (though the Ra'avad there disagrees).

To make this more intriguing, let's look at this from a couple of different angles:
  • What type of person does the Halakhic literature assume would make a 'Bracha' on non-Kosher food?
  • In a contemporary setting, are there people who aren't addressed by the halakhic codes? Does this matter at all in the decision process?
  • To take some examples - a person who is trying to increase their spirituality and God-awareness in the routines of their life, but doesn't yet feel ready or would cause terrible strife (e.g., a student who lives at home) is they went completely kosher.
  • Alternatively, one straying from youthful habits and routines, for whatever reasons, but not as an act of rebellion, but still feels 'connected' to certain practices, including 'bentching'.

I'm curious to hear thoughts on this issue; I don't expect everyone to know the Halakhic sources of this debate, but I will request that the discussion remain in a halakhic framework.

Review of 'Ushpizin'

If you've ever read or heard one of R' Nachman of Breslov's stories, and been amazed that it's really two stories in one - a 'surface' story and an 'inner' story - and wondered if it could be done through the medium of film, you can stop wondering. Ushpizin succeeds in spades.

The film itself is deserving of the acclaim it recieved. Part 'Monkey's Paw', part 'A Beautiful Mind', the struggles of this poor, childless couple with their past is compelling and beautiful. The setting is authentic and touching, the portrait of faith captures its simplicity and intensity, the rhythms of religious life provide a framework for the whole film and are beauifully done. The development of the main character, a true 'Chassid' with a turbulent inner world, constantly struggling with himself, and with a certain disdain for oblivious joy, though contrived at times, is stunning.

Watching a film which was made completely 'halakhically' is quite a treat, as is a letter of prohibition against unlawful duplication signed by the Gedolim in lieu of an FBI Warning. You can read all about that elsewhere. It's not yet available in the US, and doesn't yet have English subtitles, but it won't be much longer.

What toally blew me away about this film is its use of Chassidic metaphor and symbolism which transforms the 'surface' story into the inner struggle of the lead character, Moshe. The Etrog, symbolizing striving for beauty and harmony - sublimation instead of repression. The Sukkah - man's existential vulnerability, reliance upon God, and tenuousness of a redemptive or transformative experience. The 'Ushpizin' themselves - escapees from prison - the past that cannot be repressed but will continue to haunt, and the struggle that one has with them, trying to make space for them while not allowing them to overwhelm. I will leave it to the viewer to decide whether, in the end, they are 'sublimated'.


Chana vs. Eli part II: Change from Within

Lechora, the Google's correspondent has a good point in this post entitled A new Orthodoxy ? Not gonna happen .

Reading it put me in the mood to follow up an earlier post that reads this theme into a story in TaNach, namely, I Sam 1 - Chana and Eli. In it, I believe that the tension between the religious establishment and a potential 'threat' is palpable.

In the ensuing chapters, Shmuel's rise is contrasted every step of the way with the fall of Eli's house. What happens with to Eli, though tragic, is a lesson in the failure of a religious establishment. It was guilty of nepotism, exploitation, and complacence. But perhaps the greatest failing - one which is a subtext of these chapters - is the blurring of the lines between the Priesthood and God whom they are enjoined to serve.

For example:
  • 2:13 - the laws of Priestly gifts are called 'Mishpat Ha-kohanim' - paralleling the term used in Devarim 18:3 (as pointed out by Mahar"i Kara), but as a contrast - the Kohanim are taking advantage of their power to take that which isn't within their rights as ordained by the Torah.
  • Their taking of their 'gifts' before the chelev was offered (2:15) is very meaningful. The Torah sees the Matnot Kehuna as Lechem Elokeihem, i.e., when worshippers offer a gift to God, God, in turn, grants it back to His servants, the Kohanim, as 'payment' for their service. This is why the penalties for a non-Kohein eating the matnot kehuna are so much harsher than, say, stealing and eating the First Tithe from the Levi'im. Ve-acamo"l. Here, Eli's sons relate to the matanot as their 'due', threaten to take it by force, and don't wait even for God to 'consume' His share. They've 'cut out the middle man', or have ceased to differentiate between themselves and God. They see themselves as entitled to stand in for God. When the religious establishment begins to see itself as having a monopoly on access to God, exploitation of the naive masses is the next logical step. Though the institutions remain in form, they have begun to crumble.
  • Shmuel's mother keeps inventing othe ways to express her religiosity. In this chapter, she makes clothing for Shmuel. He remains apart from the others as he grows up, and this is his mother's way of guiding him even as he grows up in Eli's court. He is drawing from both Eli and Chana, from the establishment and the rebellion.
  • The first 3 verses of Chapter 3 are highly symbolic - Eli is blind - to what's going on with his sons. The 'candle of God' hadn't yet gone out - i.e., the end hadn't yet arrived, the religious institutions were still 'flickering' (see Radak). The word of God was rare in those days - because why shouldn't it be? People had no access to God. If they wanted, they could make pilgrimages to Eli & co., but it didn't seem to be doing the trick.
  • Perhaps the most surprising element here - a youthful Shmuel hears the word of God - the actual word of God - and mistakes it for Eli! Shmuel, in his own religious expreience, has conflated the word of Eli with the word of God! And had not Eli told him that it was in fact the word of God, Shmuel may have persisted in thinking it was Eli! I wonder what would have happened if Shmuel would have realized right away that it was the word of God - would Eli have believed him? Would Eli have seen him as another threat? Perhaps it HAD to be this way - Eli telling Shmuel that he can relate to God directly, and that Eli no longer needs to mediate.
Eventually, Shuel is responsible for ushering in the davidic era, of helping to forge a unified religious consciousness within Israel, etc. He is able to change things, but not by setting himself up as an alternative authority structure. He was in position to assume the mantle of leadership when the 'old guard' inevitably failed.

I'll hold off from applying this to a contemporary setting, though it should be obvious that there's what to be learned from this story.
Ultimately, over the long run things have an amazing way of working themselves out. Who knows, though, if we'll get to see it?

One Man's Korach is the Next Man's Moshe

I was asked to write something up for next week's parsha, so while I'm at it, I figure I'll post it. I'll hopefully get around to writing a more substantive account of the Korach/Moshe dispute as well. I addressed a different element of it here.

כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים ושאינה לשם שמים אין סופה להתקיים איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי ושאינה לשם שמים זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו:
Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will last, and that which is not for the sake of Heaven will not last.
What is [an example of] a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai.
What is [an example of] one that is not for the sake of Heaven? This is the dispute
of Korach and his group.

-Pirkei Avot 5:17

Korach, the villain of this week’s Parsha, who challenged Moshe’s leadership before his literal downfall, is immortalized by the above-quoted Mishna as the archetypal slick politician, exploiting a political agenda for self-advancement.

Reading the Torah’s narrative (Numbers ch. 16), however, leaves one wondering exactly what Korach’s platform was, and what exactly was wrong with it.
Surprisingly (but not shockingly), a pattern emerges in many explanations of the dispute; Moshe’s position is eerily similar to the worldview of the writer/speaker, while Korach’s position corresponds to a contemporary disputant of that writer/speaker. For example, I’ve heard explanations that insinuate Korach’s flaw to be his failure to adequately adjust and respond to emerging religio-political realities (wink-wink), and I’ve heard that Korach’s flaw was in his insistence on egalitarianism (knowing-nod). I found it bizarre that the respective ‘ideologies’ of Korach and Moshe could be almost completely reversed depending on who gave the ‘drasha’ before ‘Mussaf’!

The Mishnah’s critique of Korach, however, has nothing to do with his particular religio-political platform, as much as it has to do with his character flaws and lack of true conviction.

Given the difficulty and danger of trying to gauge whether one’s opponent is acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’, it would seem very presumptuous to identify any person, group, or ideology with ‘Korach’s band’. There’s much to be gained from studying the parsha, but without trying to determine who on the contemporary Jewish scene gets to play the part of Korach.
Fortunately, the Mishnah provided us with an alternative paradigm for dispute – Hillel and Shammai – to teach us that it is possible to engage in disputes, arguments, and battles of conviction while affirming the sincerity of one’s opponent.

Clarification to Ha'aretz Interview

Not that it matters to the article all that much, but Gush sent out a clarification about the Yeshiva's leadership structure. So in case it doesn't make it into Ha'aretz, here it is:

Regarding Yair Sheleg's excellent article about the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Harav Yehuda Amital ( A rare breed,this 'simple Jew' - June 12, 2005), please note that Harav AharonLichtenstein and Harav Yehuda Amital are not stepping down from their posts as Roshei Yeshiva at this time but, rather, Harav Yaakov Medan and Harav Baruch Gigi will be serving alongside them beginning in the 5766 academic year. Thus, next year, there will be four acting Roshei Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion. When Harav Amital retires, the Yeshiva will be headed by three Roshei Yeshiva. At some future date, with an eye to Harav Lichtenstein's eventual retirement, another Rosh Yeshiva will be designated to serve jointly with Harav Medan and Harav Gigito be endowed , in addition to all the other requisite qualities withwhat has been denominated "an American orientation" - i.e. significant knowledge of the American Jewish community and its culture. TheYeshiva trusts that these steps will ensure the orderly transfer ofleadership and provide, with the help of God, the proper balance ofcontinuity and innovation.

Shira Schreier
PR Dept.
Yeshivat Har Etzion


More on 'Amen' to "Ha-bocher'

This discussion has spilled over onto bluke's place as well. Check out:

The Jewish Worker: Not Answering 'Amen' to the Second Bracha of Shema: Explaining the Mishna Berura

The discussion here is incomplete without it.

I'm ready to admit that the first answer in the Beit Yosef maintains that Rambam and R' Yonah (who cites Ramban and Ramah as being in agreement) would advocate not saying 'amen' even to the Sha"tz's ha-bocher.
Nevertheless, I think I've demonstrated conclusively that the Beit Yosef's second answer is a more accurate prtrayal of that group of Rishonim.

This has been a lot of fun. Amazing that I can post a 'chaburah', for all intents and purposes, and that it'll actually generate discussion.


Chazon Ish Shiurim

Thanks, Ben Chorin, for the enlightening post.

I heard a few years ago (from someone who is 'holding' but, unfortunately, must remain nameless) that none other than Sir Isaac Newton wrote a massive tract on Biblical measures. As it turns out, his approximations are ridiculously close to those of the Chazon Ish!

As to how he arrived at those numbers, I have a theory:

Sir Isaac was sitting under a tree, contemplating the cosmos, when all of a sudden this MASSIVE olive fell and clunked him on the head...


Must Read

Not usually my thing to post reccomended readings, but this interview was just so well done. Must read. Thank you, Menachem, for posting the link.



Mistaken Minhag - Not Answering 'Amen' to the Second Bracha of Shema: The Unabridged Version

[I’m going to trace this issue from the Gemara through the Rishonim, and then address the Acharonim, paying careful attention to where misunderstandings seems to have crept in. BTW – thanks, bluke, for keeping me honest. I’m going to paraphrase each source, for the sake of brevity, when I can.]

  • Gemara Brachot 45b (bottom): If one answers ‘amen’ to his own bracha, it’s disgraceful, except for the bracha of ‘boneh yerushalayim’.
  • Most rishonim (Rashi, Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah (henceforth TRY), Ritva, Rashba, Ge’onim, R’ Chananel) understand that it’s not just ‘boneh yerushalayim’, rather, any bracha which is the end of a series of brachot one should answer amen to his own bracha. The Gemara only mentioned to teach that it’s considered the end of a series, because it’s not at all obvious.
  • Tosafot (and Yesh mefarshim in TRY) explains that the popular minhag is only to answer amen after one’s own ‘boneh yerushalayim’.
  • Rambam (explained by Talmidei R’ Yonah 33b in Rif pages. The most relevant Rambam’s for this discussion are in the end of Chapter 1 of Hilchot Brachot) says that the issue isn’t that there’s a series of brachot, rather, concurrent brachot. If one makes two brachot or more back-to-back, then one would answer ‘amen’ to the last one. But if the two brachot are separated by time, even if they are technically a ‘series’ (like Baruch she-amar and yishtabach, or the brachot before and after kriyat shema, or the brachot at the beginning and end of hallel, or before and after one eats), one wouldn’t answer to his own bracha at all.

So what’s the difference?

  • For Tos’ position, it’s easy; there’s a ‘hekker’ that’s needed in this one instance, and not in any others. The ‘amen’ is a ‘hekker’, signifying a change from de-orayta to de-rabanan liturgy.
  • For what I’d call the dominant position, 2 explanations are offered in the Rishonim
    The Ritva explains that it’s because of ‘hefsek’ – that until you finish the series, answering ‘amen’ to your own bracha unnecessarily interrupts (mafsik) between the bracha and what follows – be it another bracha, eating (if it’s a bracha on food), doing a mitzvah (if it’s a bracha on a mitzvah), between a bracha and shemoneh esrei (when there’s a requirement to be ‘someich ge’ula le-tefillah), or between the brachot and the recitation of the shema (Note that he lists it distinct from ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’ and also lists it distinct from ‘bein bracha le-bracha). Genreal rule – if there’s a concern for hefsek, don’t say ‘amen’ to your own bracha.
    TRY explains that the issue is specifically because these brachot were composed as a series, and the word ‘amen’ signifies the completion of that series. If one says ‘amen’ to his own bracha when it’s not the end of the series, he gives the impression that the brachot that he’s saying are disconnected, when really they were instituted as a unit. He does not see the saying of ‘amen’ as a question of ‘hefsek’ at all, rather as an issue of when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to signify the end of a continuous series of brachot. He even explicitly recommends saying amen to one’s own bracha after ‘ga’al yisra’el’ – which teaches 2 things:
    1) That saying ‘amen’ is CLEARLY not a hefsek, even between ‘ge’ulah’ and ‘tefillah’
    2) That the 3 brachot of ‘kri’at shema’ are a single unit; otherwise, the bracha of ‘ga’al isra’el’ is independent and not the end of a series!
  • Rambam (Brachot 1:18) explains himself that the purpose of saying ‘amen’ to one’s own brachot is to signify to others (Rambam’s word it le-hodi’a) that he’s finished saying brachot (for one bracha, since it’s only one, there’s no need to signify). It’s not necessary for him (unlike R’ Yonah) that the brachot are part of an actual series. Rather, it’s any time there are back-to-back brachot. However, there are circumstances where this doesn’t apply because, even though he’s finished saying brachot, the brachot are directed toward some object. Saying ‘amen’, which signifies completion, is inappropriate here because he hasn’t actually completed what he’s doing. Rambam (1:17) gives 3 examples for this – the brachot before megillah, the brachot before lighting Chanukah candles, and the bracha before kri’at shema – where even though it’s a series of brachot, since the brachot are directed toward the subsequent mitzvah, it’s inappropriate to signify ‘completion’. Rambam isn’t talking about ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’ here – 2 of the 3 brachot before megillah and nerot Chanukah are not ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’. It’s about the clear connection between the bracha and the subsequent event (Rambam says ‘subsequent thing’, not ‘subsequent mitzvah’. Consistent as always, Rambam says (Brachot 1:16) that one would say ‘amen’ after the final bracha of Ma’ariv (shomer ammo…), but doesn’t mention Shacharit. This is because (as TRY and Kessef Mishneh explain) only at ma’ariv are back-to-back brachot. At shacharit it’s only 1 bracha!

To summarize for our issue, all Rishonim agree that one should not answer amen to his own bracha right before Shema, but for 4 different reasons:

  • Tosafot – with the exception of ‘boneh Yerushalayim’, we never do.
  • Ritva – it’s a ‘hefsek’.
  • Rambam – it’s not the ‘completion’ of anything since the bracha leads directly into the Shema
  • R’ Yonah – it’s not the end of a series of brachot.

It should be noted that the issue is saying ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha! This has nothing to do with saying ‘amen’ to someone else’s bracha, or the bracha of a ‘shli’ach tzibbur’.

However, looking at these 4 reasons, we can ask – would any of them apply equally to the bracha of the shaliach tzibbur?
For Rambam and R’ Yonah, that the purpose of answering ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha is to signify or conclude a string of brachot, the answer is that, obviously, this has no bearing on answering ‘amen’ to the bracha of someone else, where the purpose is to affirm his statement! In fact, Ramah, who R' Yonah holds to be in agreement on this with himself and Rambam, states explicitly that one WOULD answer the Sha"tz!
Same logic would hold for Tosafot.
The only question would be with the Ritva, who suggests that it’s hefsek. Perhaps it’s possible to suggest that Ritva’s logic would apply even to the case of answering ‘amen’ to the bracha of another?
Though this possibility exists theoretically, the Ritva himself (ad loc) explicitly rejects it! He states that one is REQUIRED to say ‘amen’ to the bracha of the ‘sha”tz’ and even specifically singles out the bracha before shema for saying ‘amen’ or ‘kel melech ne’eman’ which is an expanded form of ‘amen’!
He does bring circumstances where even ‘amen’ to the bracha of another would be a hefsek – like between ge’ulah and tefillah, during shemoneh esrei, between ‘hashem elokeichem’ and ‘emet’, between a bracha and the mitzvah it’s on (in the case of ‘birkat ha-mitzvot which, as is quite explicit and obvious, doesn’t include the bracha before Shema), or a bracha and the food it’s on.

Thus, within the Rishonim, it is implicit in all and explicit in some (namely, Ritva, Ramah, and as we'll see later, Rosh) that one must say ‘amen’ when the ‘shli’ach tzibbur’ says the bracha before Shema.

The confusion begins with a Responsum of the Rosh (4:19) that the Tur quotes in Orach Chaim 59. The Rosh’s Teshuvah is all about davening along with the Sha”tz, what one’s supposed to say and when, etc. It’s quite clear from the context that he’s talking about a situation where the sha”tz was saying everything out loud (kind of like what Sephardim still do). It’s also clear that this was necessary because there was no such thing as a ‘siddur’. There were manuscripts with the ‘seder ha-tefillot’, and perhaps the ‘sha’tz’ used them, but in general, nobody had siddurim, so the most effective way to keep pace, whether or not one knew the prayers by heart, was to recite along with the sha”tz. The Rosh adds, however, that it’s proper for one to finish up the bracha before the sha”tz so that he can answer ‘amen’, because it’s inappropriate to do so if he finishes along with the sha”tz (because then it would be like answering ‘amen’ to his own bracha which is wrong for any of the 4 reasons listed above). The Rosh furthermore doesn’t differentiate between the brachot of ‘yotzer’ and ‘ha-bocher’. The same practice should apply for both.

The Beis Yosef (ad loc – henceforth HoJo = House of Joseph) posits that this Rosh is in disagreement with Rambam and R’ Yonah that we addressed earlier, and even throws in the Ramah (R’ Meir HaLevi) and Ramban, that one should NOT answer ‘amen’ to ‘Ha- Bocher’.

HoJo explains that the bone of contention is whether or not the brachot before kri’at shema are connected to the Shema or not. According to Rosh, they’re not (or at least it’s not a ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’), so there’s no problem of ‘hefsek’ between the brachot and shema. According to the others, though, it is problematic as a ‘hefsek’. The dispute then is, acc. to HoJo, whether or not one should say 'amen' to his OWN bracha - and the Rosh is truly a 'da'at yachid' on this matter! Though the Rosh doesn't explicitly state this position, both Rema and HoJo understood him in that way.

HoJo then goes on to explain that perhaps there’s really no dispute here, and that all would agree with the Rosh that it’s desirable to say ‘amen’ to the sha”tz’s bracha, and the Rosh says nothing about one's own bracha.

From the preceding discussion, it’s most likely that HoJo’s second explanation is the correct one. It’s actually quite clear that the Rosh and the others are talking about different cases – Rosh about answering the Sha”tz, the others about answering one’s self, and there’s no dispute.
R’ Yonah, essentially, agrees with Rambam’s rationale as to why one wouldn’t say ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha before ‘kri’at shema’ – i.e., that it’s an inappropriate place to signify a conclusion – even though he argues with the Rambam about other aspects of this issue, i.e., whether one should answer ‘amen’ to his own bracha of ‘ga’al yisra’el’. Regarding the issue of ‘ha-bocher’, however, R’ Yonah and Rambam are in full agreement, and the Rosh, for whichever reason, most likely agrees with them.

HoJo concludes that the prevalent custom is not in accordance with the Rosh; rather, one would say the ENTIRE bracha with the sha”tz and therefore not say ‘amen’ to his own bracha. It seems clear that HoJo is obviating the entire issue – if there’s a machloket, even though the Rosh would say that you would answer ‘amen’ if you say the bracha along with the Sha”tz, we don’t pasken like him. If there’s no machloket, then everybody agrees that if one recites the bracha along with the Sha”tz, he should not say ‘amen’. Everyone, however, would agree that if one finished the bracha before the Sha”tz, that one would say ‘amen’, and he quotes the Ramah (who he earlier quoted as being in agreement with Rambam, R’ Yonah, et al) as saying so explicitly.

The Darkei Moshe (Rema – ad loc and in SA OC 61:2) says that the prevalent custom in his place is not like that. Rather, everyone answers ‘amen’ to the Sha”tz (seemingly, even if one said the bracha along with the Sha”tz, but it’s unclear). It should be noted that it’s possible that they don’t disagree about the halakha. Rather, HoJo’s custom was that everyone recited EVERYTHING along with the Sha”tz – from the beginning of the first bracha to the end of the second – and therefore by saying ‘amen’ would be answering their own bracha, whereas in the Rema’s locale people finished reciting the bracha ahead of the Sha”tz and therefore could say ‘amen’ without it going on their own bracha. The disparity in the law reflects a disparity of common practice, not an actual dispute! It should also be noted that this indeed describes differences in practice between Ashkenazi and Sephardi services which persist today!

In the Shulchan Arukh, OC 59:4, HoJo distills the discussion with the following ‘p’sak’:

The Brachot of ‘Yotzer’ and ‘Arvit’ (i.e., the first bracha of Shema), one
should say quietly along with the Sha”tz, and he should not answer ‘amen’ at
the conclusion of “ha-bocher…” because it’s a ‘hefsek’.

These lines in the Shulkhan Arukh, without proper context, are very misleading. He seems to be saying that one shouldn’t even answer the Sha”tz because of hefsek. However, with what we now know, it’s pretty clear that what he’s doing is paskening the Rambam straight-up, and this is what he means:
One recites all of the brachot along with the Sha”tz. Obviously, he wouldn’t say ‘amen’ to the first bracha, because one never answers ‘amen’ to his own bracha. However, the second bracha one might think you should, because the Rambam paskens (and the Shulchan arukh seconds this in 215:1) that at the end of a string of 2 or more brachot, one should even say ‘amen’ to his OWN bracha. However, in this case you wouldn’t, because it interrupts the link between the bracha and Shema (i.e., EXACTLY what the Rambam paskens, down to the very last detail).

By the way, you don’t have to take my word for it – look at the ‘Bi’ur Ha-Gra’! In his explanation why ‘one should not answer…” – he writes “because one who answers after his own brachot is a boor, because he disrupts between the bracha and what is supposed to come after it” , i.e., like the Rambam understands the sugya. In his next entry, he comments on the Rema. He understands that the Rema agrees with Rosh and Ramah that there’s no issue of hefsek (i.e., when saying ‘amen’ to the Sha”tz’s bracha, otherwise the inclusion of the Ramah – quoted in full in Tur 61 – who explicitly distinguishes between answering one’s self and answering the Sha”tz – doesn’t make sense), and then quotes the Rambam as talking about where one answers himself.
While there is some confusion in the Gr”a (as well as HoJo) about what he thinks is the position of the Rosh and what exactly is the disagreement (if there is one) between the Rosh, Ramah, and Rambam, it’s clear that he understood the Shulchan Arukh’s psak to be the opinion of the Rambam regarding answering ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha, and that all would still agree that if one DID finish before the Sha”tz, he would say ‘amen’ to the bracha of the Sha”tz and there’s absolutely no issue of hefsek at all.

Case closed.

However, the ambiguous formulation of the Shulkhan Arukh (and the Gr”a) has led a few (VERY few) acharonim (Elyah Rabbah and Sha’arei Teshuvah) to conclude that Rambam and R’ Yonah say (against Ramah and Rosh) that one shouldn’t even answer ‘amen’ to the Sha”tz’s recitation of the bracha, which we’ve demonstrated is a misunderstanding of their true position.
The Mishna Berurah himself, in the Biur Halacha (OC 59:4 s.v. ‘ve-lo’) presumes that HoJo understand the Ramah to be disagreeing with Rambam et al – a presumption that simply doesn’t make sense.
Nevertheless, this misunderstanding leads the MB to conclude that the reason that the HoJo advocates finishing along with the Sha”tz is to remove all doubt that may rise from having finished before the Sha”tz. As I’ve demonstrated, there IS no doubt about what to do in that scenario; the Mishna Berurah INVENTS a doubt about what to do in that scenario, INVENTS a machloket between Ramah and Rambam, and then reads it back into the Shulkhan Arukh! As I mentioned before, HoJo recommends saying the ENTIRETY of the 2 full pre-Shema brachot with the Sha”tz – not just the conclusions – because that’s how they davened then! With no siddurim then, they said everything aloud (though softly) with the Sha”tz. The Mishna Berurah’s ‘safek’ is non-existent! Thus, the idea that it’s in any way desirable to specifically conclude the bracha together with the Sha”tz results from a misunderstanding of the position of the Shulchan Arukh and should not become a basis for rejecting the practice of the Rema and the majority of Acharonim.


Reading of Shabbat 88a: God and Israel's Shotgun Wedding

Alternatively (this is what I'm calling it for the shiur tomorrow):
Freedom and Compulsion in the Giving of the Torah

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף פח עמוד א

שמות יט+ ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר, אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה - מוטב, ואם לאו - שם תהא קבורתכם. אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא. אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש. דכתיב +אסתר
ט+ קימו וקבלו היהודים, קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר. אמר חזקיה: מאי דכתיב +תהלים עו+ משמים השמעת דין ארץ יראה ושקטה אם יראה למה שקטה, ואם שקטה למה יראה? אלא: בתחילה - יראה, ולבסוף - שקטה. ולמה יראה - כדריש לקיש, דאמר ריש לקיש: מאי דכתיב +בראשית א+ ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום הששי, ה"א יתירה למה לי? - מלמד שהתנה הקדוש ברוך הוא עם מעשה בראשית, ואמר להם: אם ישראל מקבלים התורה - אתם מתקיימין, ואם לאו - אני מחזיר אתכם לתוהו ובוהו.

אמר רבי אלעזר: בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע יצתה בת קול ואמרה להן: מי גילה לבני רז זה שמלאכי השרת משתמשין בו? דכתיב +תהלים קג+ ברכו ה' מלאכיו גברי כח עשי דברו לשמע בקול דברו, ברישא עשי, והדר לשמע. אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מאי דכתיב +שיר השירים ב+ כתפוח בעצי היער וגו' למה נמשלו ישראל לתפוח - לומר לך: מה תפוח זה פריו קודם לעליו, אף ישראל - הקדימו נעשה לנשמע.

And they stood under the mount:16 R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,'If ye accept the Torah, 'tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.' R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.17 Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]:18 [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before. Hezekiah said: What is meant by, Thou didst cause sentence to be heard from Heaven; The earth feared, and was tranquil:19 if it feared, why was it tranquil, and if it was tranquil, why did it fear? But at first it feared, yet subsequently it was tranquil,20 And why did it fear? — Even in accordance with Resh Lakish. For Resh Lakish said: Why is it written, And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day;21 What is the purpose of the additional 'the'?22 This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, stipulated with the Works of Creation and said thereto. 'If Israel accepts the Torah, ye shall exist; but if not, I will turn you back into emptiness and formlessness.'23

…R. Eleazar said: When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hearken,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them, Who
revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels, as it is written, Bless the Lord, ye angels of his. Ye mighty in strength, that fulfil his word, That hearken unto the voice of his word:31 first they fulfil and then they hearken? R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What is meant by, As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, [So is my beloved among the sons]:32 why were the Israelites compared to an apple tree? To teach you: just as the fruit of the apple tree precedes its leaves,33 so did the Israelites give precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will hearken'.

NOTE: If you don’t have the patience, skip down to Levinas’ interpretation – the last one in this post. It’s the best interpretation, IMHO, by far.

Points for Discussion:

  • There’s an abrupt shift in this passage. One minute it’s talking about the absolute necessity of the Israelites accepting the Torah. The existence of the world depends on it. The next minute, they’re praising the voluntary acceptance of the Torah. Which is it? Can it be both? Is it talking about two different elements of acceptance? Two different times?
  • One approach (Maharal, as he’s generally understood), is that the acceptance was voluntary, but then imposed. The goal was to make sure that the Israelites knew the importance of what they were getting into.
  • Tosafot distinguish between types of Torah. They talk about Oral Law vs. Written Law, but that type of distinction can theoretically be applied elsewhere (i.e., Biblical vs. Rabbinic, Chukim vs. Mishpatim).
  • The way I understood the Maharal (and which I think is a good idea even if it’s not ‘p’shat in the Maharal) is that, in the first instance, the Israelites were given a choice – Torah or Death. Just because one of the choices is obviously the right choice doesn’t mean that there’s no choice. Essentially, it’s a choice between good and evil. We know that we have that choice, between good and evil, life and death.
    Taking that one step further, think of this from God’s perspective. If the telos of creation rests upon this moment, then if the Israelites deny the Torah, they have essentially condemned themselves to death. With nothing special about them, they would go the way of so many other ancient civilizations. They would have died in the desert, only to be uncovered by curious archaeologists millennia later. If they accept the Torah, then they enter history. If not, they will die. Thisapproach dovetails nicely with the approach of the Meshech Chochmah –
  • The Meshech Chochmah really addresses the entire narrative – the moda’ah, the age of Achashveirosh, the problem of ‘punishment’ during the first Temple period, and the ‘compulsion’ issue. He explains that the compulsion derives from the basic inability of the Israelites at that time to deny God. Having ended centuries of slavery, having been miraculously brought to that point, they were in no position to reject anything that God had to offer. They were overawed and vulnerable. However, that situation continued right up until the end of the First Temple. The existence of prophecy, Jewish monarchy, continuous miracles in the Temple and through prophets, really kept God ‘in their faces’ – i.e., unable to deny His presence. That situation only begins to change in the times of Achashveirosh. Remember that Megillat Esther is characterized by God’s ‘absence’. At that point, an affirmation of the Covenant with God, the acceptance of the Torah, is strictly voluntary, and it remains so today in the sense that we are not ‘forced’, by any external pressures to adhere to the Torah.
  • Levinas’ take (in Nine Talmudic readings, the chapter entitled ‘The Temptation of Temptation) he asks the following question (warning: if you’ve never read existentialist philosophy, this will give you a headache): How does someone become responsible? If one chooses to be responsible, then one has already demonstrated responsibility by making that choice – therefore, he’s already responsible, and the question returns. If he’s forced to be responsible, then he’s not really responsible at all, because he’s compelled and therefore not acting autonomously, which true responsibility requires (read that a couple of times; it really does make sense). He solves this with our Gemara – in order for one to become responsible, there needs to be a prior compulsion of responsibility. Only after the fact, when one affirms their will to act in that way, does one truly become responsible. However, acting responsibly is a prerequisite for being responsible. Anyone who has kids knows that Levinas is dead-on: the way that our kids learn to make good choices is by NOT being given those choices when they’re very young. God, ever the Good Parent, will not give His infant child, the nascent Israelite nation, the ‘choice’ of what’s good for them. It’s only when the nation arrives at its collective adolescence, rebels, and insists on greater independence, that one can retrospectively affirm that which was originally compelled. The beauty of Levinas’ interpretation is that ‘na’aseh ve-nishma’ is a function of the EXACT same principle: the great ‘secret’ is that ‘na’aseh’ must be a prerequisite for ‘nishma’ – one can’t truly understand and integrate the Torah on a strictly theoretical level; it must first become routine, part of the patterns of life, before it can be understood and affirmed. Isn’t that the entire mitzvah of chinuch?

    I’d add that what’s true of Torah life – that Shabbat is learned by living it, not by reading ArtScroll books about it – is true of really any system of complicated rules. The best way to learn the rules of the game of baseball is to play. You’ll make mistakes, but it works a whole lot better than reading the rule book.

Chag Same'ach.

Answering Amen to the Bracha before Shema

In most shuls I've ever davened in, many people recite the last bracha before Shema at Shacharit and Ma'ariv along with the Shliach Tzibbur, and in some places (notably Chabad), the Sha"tz says those brachot silently. Either way, it's rare to hear someone answering 'amen' to those brachot.

I believe that these practices are based on a misunderstanding of a short Gemara in Brachot 45b. Surrounding that sugya is a dispute, basically between Sephardi and Ashkenazi poskim, about saying 'amen' to one's OWN bracha (see Rashi and Tos ad loc s.v. 'ha', Rambam Brachot 1:16). Sephardim, based on that Gemara, answer 'amen' to their own brachot for every bracha which is at the end of a series of brachot. For example - 'shomer ammo yisra'el la'ad' at ma'ariv is the final of the 4 brachot of shema. yishtabach is the end of the series which began with 'baruch she-amar'. the end of hallel - same thing. End of shemoneh esrei - same thing. Ashkenazim, starting w/ Rabbeinu Tam, hold that the only bracha to which this applies is 'boneh yerushalayim' - the (originally) final bracha of bentching. Since that's where bentching essentially ends, and the fourth bracha was added later, Chaza"l saw fit for one to answer 'amen' to one's owbn bracha, in order to distinguish the earlier, biblical part of bentching from the later, Rabbinic portion. These rules work perfectly with the guidelines that govern 'bracha ha-semucha le-chaverta' as well. ve-acamo"l. (See Shulchan Arukh OC 215:1, 188:1,2 and 66:7)

When it comes to the bracha before Shema - i.e., the 2nd of the 'Birchot Kri'at shema', the Rishonim address why one wouldn't answer 'amen' to their own brachot - namely, because it's not the end of the series, rather, the Shema itself was integrated into the series which only ends after the 3rd (shacharit) or fourth (ma'ariv) bracha. Thus, the Shema itself doesn't constitute an interruption of the series, and one need not say 'amen' to his own bracha.

It seems that this was misunderstood to mean that one should not answer 'amen' to that bracha at all. That doesn't make too much sense, as it's clear from the Mishna down to the Shulchan Arukh (OC 66:5) that an interruption between the first and second brachot and between the second bracha and the Shema itself are equivalent, and everyone says 'amen' after the first bracha, as is encouraged. I haven't been able to uncover where this misunderstanding originated (and Neklaf is no longer posting).

In the meantime, I make sure to answer 'amen' to the 2nd bracha of Shema conspicuously, because it's proper, and because, hey, being a contrarian Rabbi is what I'm all about...

Baskin-Robbins: Chalav Yisrael?

Why are some people careful to drink only 'chalav yisrael' and others not?

Historically, there are only 2 categories of milk: Jewish milk and non-Jewish milk. Non-Jewish milk was forbidden by the Rabbis out of fear that it's not 100% cow's milk, rather the (forbidden) milk of a non-kosher animal was mixed in.

Jewish milk was defined as milk which a Jew witnessed from the time of milking.

There was no 'middle category' of 'stam chalav' - it's either Chalav Yisra'el or it's treif.

R' Moshe Feinstein (IgMo YD I:46,47,48, 49. II:31,35,47,48. III:16. IV:5) explains that the threat of legal ramifications for adding non-cow milk generates a situation where we KNOW that the milk is cow's milk. What R' Moshe is saying is that in the USA, generic milk IS chalav yisra'el. There's no third category.

Those who would still be makpid on milk that was actually witnessed by a Jew the whole time, are doing so as a chumra. My question is - why? If R' Moshe's right, what would one gain by staying away from generic milk which is, essentially, itself chalav Yisra'el? Is it to cover the bases, since there are opinions which disagree with R' Moshe's? Is it 'middas prishus', a general impulse to restrict what we can eat?

One thing R' Moshe definitely didn't think it is: a status symbol.

I also find it incredibly interesting that Chalav Yisra'el, which is COMPLETELY supererogatory, is a very popular chumra, whereas Yoshon, which is an actual halakhic issue and a very problematic 'hetter', isn't nearly as popular. Same goes for 'gebrokts' - it's a fad to keep gebrokts, though it's a complete and total 'minhag shtus' (not my formulation), but try getting s/t certified KP if it's gebrokts. But Yoshon - pfff. Pass the cookies. I don't keep yoshon (perhaps I'll post about why at another time); I'm just intrigued by what gains currency in the world of religious one-upsmanship (ok now I'm rambling; this is getting into issues I discussed here).

So remember. You heard it here first. Baskin-Robbins is Chalav Yisrael. So is Friendly's (and Edy's, Haagen-Dazs, etc.) . I like the pistachio almond. Enjoy!


Reading of Shabbat 56a : David's Sin (or lack thereof)

This is the fruit of preparation for a shiur that I'll be delivering in the middle of the night tomorrow. I don't expect much of an alert audience then, so i'll post it here, in the hopes that there will be a wider audience.

Note: This isn NOT an attempt to come to grips with the episode of David and Batsheva. It's an attempt to understand that episode as it's understood in one Talmudic passage.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף נו עמוד א

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר דוד חטא - אינו אלא טועה, שנאמר +שמואל א' יח+ ויהי דוד לכל דרכיו משכיל וה' עמו וגו', אפשר חטא בא לידו ושכינה עמו? אלא מה אני מקיים +שמואל ב' יב+ מדוע בזית את דבר ה' לעשות הרע - שביקש לעשות ולא עשה. אמר רב: רבי דאתי מדוד מהפך ודריש בזכותיה דדוד; מדוע בזית את דבר ה' לעשות הרע רבי אומר: משונה רעה זו מכל רעות שבתורה, שכל רעות שבתורה כתיב בהו ויעש וכאן כתיב לעשות - שביקש לעשות ולא עשה. +שמואל ב' יב+ את אוריה החתי הכית בחרב - שהיה לך לדונו בסנהדרין ולא דנת. ואת אשתו לקחת לך לאשה - ליקוחין יש לך בה. דאמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל היוצא למלחמת בית דוד כותב גט כריתות לאשתו, שנאמר +שמואל א' יז+ ואת עשרת חריצי החלב האלה תביא לשר האלף ואת אחיך תפקד לשלום ואת ערבתם תקח. מאי ערבתם? תני רב יוסף: דברים המעורבים בינו לבינה. +שמואל ב' יב+ ואתו הרגת בחרב בני עמון, מה חרב בני עמון אי אתה נענש עליו - אף אוריה החתי אי אתה נענש עליו. מאי טעמא - מורד במלכות הוה, דאמר ליה +שמואל ב' יא+ ואדני יואב ועבדי אדני על פני השדה חנים. אמר רב: כי מעיינת ביה בדוד לא משכחת ביה בר מדאוריה, דכתיב +מלכים א' טו+ רק בדבר אוריה החתי

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: Whoever says that David sinned is merely erring, for it is said, And David behaved himself wisely in all his ways: and the Lord was with him.9 Is it possible that sin came to his hand, yet the Divine Presence was with him? Then how do I interpret, Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the Lord, to do that which is evil in his sight?10 He wished to do [evil], but did not. Rab observed: Rabbi, who is descended from David, seeks to defend him, and expounds [the verse] in David's favour. [Thus:] The 'evil' [mentioned] here is unlike every other 'evil' [mentioned] elsewhere in the Torah. For of every other evil [mentioned] in the Torah it is written, 'and he did,' whereas here it is written, 'to do': [this means] that he desired to do, but did not. Thou hast smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword:11 thou shouldst have had him tried by the Sanhedrin,12 but didst not. And hast taken his wife to be thy wife: thou hast marriage rights in her.13 For R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: Every one who went out in the wars of the house of David wrote a bill of divorcement for his wife, for it is said, and bring these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge ['arubatham].14 What is meant by 'arubatham? R. Joseph learned: The things which pledge man and woman [to one another].15 And thou hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon:11 just as thou art not [to be] punished for the sword of the Ammonites, so art thou not [to be] punished for [the death of] Uriah the Hittite. What is the reason? He was rebellious against royal authority, saying to him, and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open field [etc].16

Rab said: When you examine [the life of] David, you find nought but 'save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.'17

  • This passage never suggests - never intends to suggest - that Daivd didn't do anything wrong. It acknowledges that he did, but takes the position that he did not commit any 'mortal' sin (to borrow from our neighbors). That explanation extends to all of the examples in the broader Talmudic section (ayen sham, ve-acamo"l).
  • The opening discussion seems to revolve around the value of self-control in leadership. The true leader is one who can exhibit control; if David is experiencing success, if he’s a great leader, then it’s not possible that he can’t control himself. If you want to control others, you must be able to control yourself. That doesn’t mean there’s no ‘heart of darkness’ – getting to that type of purity of spirit is desirable, harboring secret desires is a flaw, but not a ‘fatal’ flaw. We all have them, and we all need to work them out; this is a struggle that faces any public figure. The ultimate goal is to sublimate, not repress those urges, and for that perhaps David deserves some criticism.
  • Regarding Rabi's 'forced reading' of David's legacy - it's crucial to understand that legacies aren’t about ‘history’; they’re about ‘memory’. It’s impossible to know what happened, but it’s possible to generate a plausible and honest reconstruction. There are constraints within which that can work, and personal or national ‘narratives’ are very prominent amongst those. R’ Yehuda HaNasi, a descendant of David and himself the Jewish leader of his generation, addresses the historical, objective record, but with an ‘agenda’. He’s not consciously or dishonestly choosing to whitewash David. It’s a natural defense mechanism which itself will interpret the world around it accordingly. This is par for the course – EVERYONE does it. Moreover, RYH yet acknowledges the basic HUMANITY of David – he struggles internally.
  • David should have judged Uriyah by trial, rather than outside the court system. Here, David’s failure is not in the execution, but in the method. The benefit of power is that you don’t have to wield it. Speak softly, but carry a big stick – you don’t have to use the big stick unless those who you’re dealing with are really unruly. Trust and value justice. That’ll go much further to consolidating the monarchy than repression. Here, David chooses to go straight to the big stick. Why? Did he not trust the justice system? Was he insecure in his own power? Can we suggest that he wasn’t really sure of himself and didn’t want to risk finding out?
  • You have married this woman – truly married, for she had been divorced. It mitigates David's sin by maintaining that all of David's soldiers conditionally divorced their wives before going into battle. The irony is harsh - Judaism doesn’t glorify war. It acknowledges its solemnity, comes to grips with its reality. In this instance, David exploits this element of Jewish military culture legally, but dubiously. An aspect of the greatness of Israel, here, is exploited to take another man’s wife.
  • Regarding the equation of the sword of the Ammonites with David, R’ Kook suggests the following: Ammon was a very proud people. Very close-knit, and paranoid of anything which seeks to undermine or weaken their tribe (which all derives from their incestuous origins). David, here, must employ a similar sensibility; he must work to shore up the integrity of the burgeoning monarchy. He can’t afford to let anyone or anything undermine his power. Just as David has no control over Ammon, so, too he has no control over the decision to kill Uriyah. If you've seen 'Anna and the King', the trial and execution of the King's youngest wife has some interesting parallels.
  • Rebellion - Uriyah places Yoav before David - There’s a danger in any society of the military counterculture. We’re seeing this today in Iraq – the army of the US can only be successful in its endeavor to spread American values if its military itself represents those values. The President must be Commander-in-Chief. David’s monarchy isn’t about power, but about building the ideal Jewish nation/society/culture. If the army threatens to leave his control, it threatens his entire endeavor.
  • Rav – takes a different approach. Rather than whitewash the sin, look at the whole personality. There’s always a general purpose, a pattern, and there are anomalies. True, the Uriyah episode wasn’t so praiseworthy, but in a 70 year lifespan, that’s all there is! Look at it in context!
Chag Sameach.


R' Tzadok vs. R' Chaim Schmulevitz on Yom Yerushalayim and the Road to Hell

I wasn't planning on writing a new post so soon, but since there's been a good amount of R' Tzadok talk, and since I was a bit bugged by R' Gil's post from earlier today to which R' Tzadok provides a counterpoint, I figured I'd write-up and analyze R' Tzadok's words. I think it's also particularly appropriate for Yom Yerushalayim.

This is from Tzidkat Ha-Tzadik para. 64:

Sometimes a person sees clearly that God is helping him and acquiescing to his actions. Nevertheless, this is no proof that his actions are truly upright. Regarding this it says 'He guides you upon the path you take...' tupon which Chaza"l expounded (BT Makkot 10b) "The path upon which a person wants to go, there he is led."
This can be seen regarding Eliyahu, about whose withholding of the rains was, according to our Sages (Sanh. 113a) overly harsh in God's eyes, God nevertheless assisted Eliyahu in miraculously eluding Ahab...
Regarding this it says 'It is not in Heaven' (BT BM 59b). Even though God assisted R' Eliezer by performing several miracles to show that the law accords with him, the contemporary sages felt that this was only because that was the path that R' Eliezer had chosen.
This is also the complaint of the Israelites against Moshe [after the Korach episode], "You have caused the death of God's people!" even though they had witnessed their exceedingly miraculous demise. Nevertheless, they thought that this was not a proof that Moshe and Aharon were correct, rather that they had chosen that path and had sufficient merit to cause the death of Korach's group...
The list of examples, espcially Moshe vs. Korach and the reading of the Tanur shel Achnai narrative, is incredible.

The logic of this insight - that just becuase God's got you back doesn't mean that you're doing the right thing - has a number of implications. God can be seen here as the good parent - who bails his kid out of jail or pays for college even though it's not his first choice. It's saying to the kid - don't confuse acquiescence with approval. That this would even extend to a case where the remification is loss of human life, like in the Korach example, is astounding.

It also seems to be saying that in order for God to get your back, you must really be sincere in what you're doing, and really believe it to be the right thing. If you are, then God may still cover for you. Lookng at the events of 38 years ago (the Six-Day war), and Israel's crushing - and miraculous - victory, the implication here is that the miracle is no proof of the rectitude of the State of Israel, only of its sincerity and it's 'zechuyot'. It was no 'ma'aseh satan'. But it's still no proof of its truth.

Perhaps that's the idea behind the miracle of the oil on Chanukah as well (R' Tzadok actually does suggest this, but I can't remember where): the victory doesn't prove anything. The gratuitous miracle that takes place afterward is God's seal of approval - not just acqiescence (R' Tzadok calls it a 'Gushpanka') on the endeavor of the Hasmonean revolt.

Regarding the story of the Sadducee, it makes sense that the corollary to R' Tzadok's proposition would hold true as well - one's failure isn't a proof that he's wrong or insincere (like Korach's boys, who died in an eerily similar way), especially if he's going up against someone equally sincere (like the Pharisees).

Shabbat 33b Part III - Markets, Baths, and Bridges

In our conversation, the Rabbis address three elements of Roman culture: Markets, baths, and bridges. As R’ Yehuda points out, each provides tangible benefits. As R’ Shimon points out, each can become a vehicle for exploitation. Each of these symbols represents a distinct element of culture.

An open market means division of labor, competition, free trade, and choice. It means variety and options. It means freedom. R’ Yehuda praises markets; he feels that this degree of freedom is a great asset to Jews in a foreign culture.
R’ Shimon counters that open markets don’t just fulfill the desires of the people, but they create new desires. Competition forces sellers to cater to man’s baser nature, slowly encouraging the consumer to gratify more and more of his desires. Everyone has a voice, but the voice of reason can seldom be heard in all of the din. Thus, the freedom of the market is an illusion; a child doesn’t stand a chance against a Big Mac commercial.

In the ancient world, baths were where one took care of his body. The bath represents hygiene, health, and sanitation. It was a place with running water, with sewage, that allowed every person to live with dignity, as a human being. R’ Yehuda sees this emphasis on health as an area of convergence between Jewish and Roman cultures.
R’ Shimon disagrees. In the Roman bath, he sees vanity epitomized. The human body is no longer a tool of the soul, but a pleasure-tool in its own right.

Bridges connect people. Everybody can find common ground if there are good bridges available. R’ Yehuda sees the up-side of bridges – a culture in which unity can be achieved, and hatreds overcome. Rome is great because Rome builds bridges.
R’ Shimon would consider R’ Yehuda extremely naïve. The more a culture is a ‘melting pot’, the more it’s possible to shape the emerging public. When a government or an empire builds bridges, connects people, it’s not for the sake of some kind of multicultural vision. Rather, says R’ Shimon, it’s a means to exploit the people.


An Alternative Reading of a Well-Known Midrash

Hashem gave us a present; Do you know what it was?
He gave us the Torah, and we must keep its laws
He asked some other nations, “Do you want this gift of Mine?”
They said, “No thank You, for Torah there’s no time”
The to B’nai Yisrael, Hashem did go
they said, “Na’aseh Ve-nishma” ‘cuz we love Hashem so!

The above lyrics are a contemporary paraphrase of a well-known story that appears numerous times in Rabbinic literature (including Sifri, beginning of Ve-zot Ha-Bracha, Mekhilta, BT AZ 2b, Eichah Rabbah 3, Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 41, etc.). The basic theme of this Midrash is that Hashem offered the Torah to nations other than Israel, who rejected it based on its contents. I’d like to address several points of this Midrash and then offer an alternative explanation based upon the writings of R’ Tzadok of Lublin and in light of the history of psychoanalysis. I felt it appropriate before Shavu'ot, and it's a favorite of mine.

First, the questions:

  • Depending on the version of the story, God offers the Torah to Edom and Ishmael, or to Edom, Ishmael, and Ammon/Moab. If it were only Edom and Ishmael, it could be relegated to textual considerations (i.e., the mention Se’ir and Paran in Devarim 33:2); the inclusion of Ammon and Moab in the Sifri – which is one of the oldest versions and the most fully developed in its literary structure and quality – suggests that the nations to whom the Torah was ostensibly offered is a specific list. Though there’s an ‘et cetera’ in which God offers the Torah to ‘all of the other nations’, these three are singled out. In the PDRE version, it’s offered to the rest of the world through Ishmael.
  • In response to the nations’ query “What’s written in it?”, God always responds with one of the Ten Commandments. It’s almost suggesting that a willingness to accept the Ten Commandments equals a willingness to accept the Torah; but why should that be the case?
  • Each of the commandments listed – adultery, murder, and theft – is included in the Seven Noahide Laws as well! Those nations were required to observe those laws regardless, and can’t possibly be the basis for their opting out of the Torah.
  • The final question, which always must be asked, is: given that this story DIDN’T REALLY HAPPEN, what were Chaza”l trying to communicate with it? What lesson is it suggesting? That non-Jews are simply incapable of observing the Torah? That they’re so irretrievably prone to sin that acceptance of the Torah would, for them, be futile? Can’t people change? Don’t humans have free choice to overcome challenges?

The way R’ Tzadok understands this Midrash (which he addresses in numerous places; it’s really part of his bread n’ butter), the central issue is not the ability of other nations to practice according to the rules that the Torah sets forth; rather, it’s about the Torah’s basic relevance to their national culture. The defining characteristic of Israel is the drive to do right by God, to commune with Him; thus, Torah is a concrete expression of Israel’s collective will, and it’s natural for Israel to carry forward whatever the Torah may demand. For other nations, other impulses drive their basic national character. As such, the precepts of the Torah would become a straight-jacket on national character.

In other words (this is my understanding of R’ Tzadok), the Torah is our Constitution – not just a set of laws, but a full expression of our national will. It’s not supposed to be experienced as a set of perfunctory laws, rather as an intuitive expression of the very core of our being. Granted, the absence of an autonomous Jewish culture has made it tough for, oh, 2000 years or so. But the will to do what’s right in God’s eyes hasn’t been replaced on the national level.

The three nations to whom the Torah is ‘proposed’ are all ‘cousins’, members of the Abraham’s family who, to some degree or another, are understood by Chaza”l as having had some connection to Israel. They’re all ‘could-have-been’s.

I’d take this in a slightly different direction. Psychoanalysis has posited that beneath all of the conscious choices that people make lies an unconscious will or impulse that essentially drives all of human behavior. This model, invented by Freud, is essentially an application of Schopenhauer’s theory of blind will and, especially, of Nietzche’s critique of rationalism and insistence that brute will is the true source for what ‘ought’ to be done. Freud understood that core to be the libido, or sex drive. His student, Adler, contended that the will to power was the prime unconscious motive for all of human behavior. Frankl felt that it was the desire to lead a meaningful existence. The common denominator is that each felt that whatever lies at the core of the human psyche is unalterable and that any attempt to deny or repress it would only create problems.

R’ Tzadok (who has many similarities to Nietzsche, ve-acamo”l) might be acknowledging different psychoanalytic models and even suggesting that they may be culturally constructed. For some, let’s call them Moabites, the libido is indeed the central impulse in their lives. For them, “Thou shall not engage in illicit sexual unions” undermines their very existence. As the Midrash explains, their very foundation, their very essence, is rooted in ni’uf. For others (what the Midrash calls ‘Edomites’) the need to subdue and control fellow human beings, the will to power, of which murder is the highest expression, “Thou shall not murder” is a straight-jacket. For others still, the accumulation of wealth or gross materialism is the all-encompassing drive. In the Midrash, they’re represented by Ishmael, for whom the prohibition against theft precludes from accepting the Torah. The fourth group, driven toward realization of the Divine within, is Israel.

I can actually buy this – that if sex, money, or power occupies the center of your existence, willy-nilly, the Torah is not for you. The use of the Aseret Hadibrot makes a lot of sense – these mitzvoth are the broad categories. Ramban likens them to the basic mitzvoth that one would teach a potential convert. When offering the Torah, it’s the basic constitutional principles that are either accepted or rejected, not the details.
The chiddush of this approach is that it accepts alternative psychoanalytic models, and, if the implications within R’ Tzadok are correct, actually posits that the psyche is itself a cultural construct. One is not ‘born’ with an all-consuming libido or drive to control or greed. The prevailing national culture is what determines, more than anything else, what really makes us tick. I gives all people what I would call ‘deep choice’ – the psychic model may be culturally determined, but it may be possible for a small group to resist even within that culture, or it may be possible – not easy, but possible, to go as far as to reconstruct that psychic core. More often than not, however, a shuffling of values toward a greater Torah orientation is grafted onto the foreign foundation of the prevailing culture. This perpetuates the sense that the Torah doesn’t address our every concern – that the application of Torah to life sometimes feels strained – a sense which we call Golus.


Shabbat 33b - 34a: Part II

The Conversation and its Aftermath

R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, 'How fine are the works of this people! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.' R. Jose was silent. R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.' Now, Judah the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which reached the government. They decreed: Judah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted. Jose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; Simeon, who censured, let him be executed.

This conversation must be understood on its own, but beforehand it must be understood in light of the following passage from Avodah Zarah 2a-b:[1]

׳דרש ר' חנינא בר פפא, ואיתימא ר' שמלאי: לעתיד לבא מביא הקדוש ברוך הוא ס"ת [ומניחו] בחיקו, ואומר: למי שעסק בה יבא ויטול שכרו. מיד מתקבצין ובאין עובדי כוכבים… נכנסה לפניו מלכות רומי תחלה… אמר להם הקב"ה: במאי עסקתם? אומרים לפניו: רבש"ע, הרבה שווקים תקנינו, הרבה מרחצאות עשינו, הרבה כסף וזהב הרבינו, וכולם לא עשינו אלא בשביל ישראל כדי שיתעסקו בתורה. אמר להם הקב"ה: שוטים שבעולם, כל מה
שעשיתם - לצורך עצמכם עשיתם, תקנתם שווקים להושיב בהן זונות, מרחצאות - לעדן בהן עצמכם, כסף וזהב שלי הוא…מיד יצאו בפחי נפש.

R’ Chaninah b. Papa, or, alternatively, R’ Simlai sermonized: In the future, God will bring a Torah Scroll and place it in His lap, and say “Whomever occupied himself with this may comeand claim their reward. Immediately, every nation gathered in…the Roman Empire entered first… God said to them, “What did you occupy ourselves with?” They replied, “Master of the Universe, we instituted many markets, we built many bathhouses, and we increased wealth, and only for Israel, so that they may busy themselves with Torah. God replied, “Most foolish ones! All that you’ve done was for your own needs: markets to place whores there, bathhouses to rejuvenate yourselves, and all gold and silver is Mine!...they immediately left dejectedly.

Almost the exact same conversation which here is placed into the mouths of R’ Yehuda and R’ Shimon, is placed into the mouths of Rome and God, respectively. Were it not for the continuation of our narrative, it would be clear that the conversation recorded here is a critique of R’ Yehuda’s position. After all, he takes the position of the Romans themselves, whereas R’ Shimon stands with God Himself. R’ Yose, apparently, would remain undecided. However, since R’ Shimon’s attitude changes before we reach the end of the story, his identification with God’s position must be communicating something else.
The passage in Avodah Zarah addresses the objective question of ultimate worth. God passes judgment upon the nations of Earth, deciding whether they furthered His cause or detracted from it, whether their motives were pure or selfish. The three Rabbis face a situation that is far different; they must choose, given that they live in an alien culture, to what degree they will embrace or accommodate that culture, and to what degree they will reject it. That R’ Shimon maintains an idealistic, i.e., God’s position on this issue might mean that he takes a position of uncompromising idealism. He suggests that life in exile must be lived as a protest against reality, and that any culture which is not Torah culture is worthless.
R’ Yehuda, on the other hand, is willing to accept reality at face value without passing judgment. Features of the prevailing culture which further the Torah’s cause can be embraced regardless of their original intent. Indeed, he sees value in actively searching for means of accommodation and rapprochement, and in generating a modus operandi for Jewish life in an alien culture as soon as possible.
There would be no need to ascribe a position to R’ Yose had he simply been undecided between his illustrious contemporaries. R’ Yose’s silence, therefore, reflects the position of the quintessential ‘Golus Jew’ – lay low, keep quiet, and don’t draw attention to yourself. Questions of the value of cultural institutions are irrelevant for him. He will utilize elements of the prevailing culture when they meet his needs, but he will not allow himself to enter its mainstream and break his silence.

Analysis of this conversation would not be complete without addressing the fourth participant in the conversation, Yehuda ben Gerim. His proper name, Yehuda (Judah) is the paradigmatic Jewish name. It literally means ‘Jew’. At the same time, he is the son of converts or immigrants (the two terms are tellingly synonymous in Hebrew). He represents the contemporary generation, the audience to whom the religious leaders must address themselves. He is characterized by a strong but rootless Jewish identity, built upon an alien foundation. It is his perception which decides the fate of the three Rabbis, for he translates their words for public consumption. Not surprisingly, the words of R’ Yehuda alone resonate with this rootless Jew, and can construct a Jewish present for he who has no Jewish past. R’ Shimon, who has only the past and who denies the present, will have very little to say to the rootless child of the times.

The three verdicts are thus quid pro quo. R’ Yehuda becomes the Chief Spokesman. He is able to articulate a Jewish position that the authorities can trust. His rise to prominence reflects his ability to speak the language of the contemporary generation. R’ Yose goes into exile, where he can continue to survive and even thrive as a non-participant, where he won’t be bothered and won’t bother anyone. There, he can work to insure the survival of his people. There is no place for R’ Shimon, though; he remain the antagonist. The agitator for cultural independence who refuses to acknowledge military defeat becomes a public enemy who threatens the stability of the political order.

Though the framers of the Talmud set this conversation in a particular generation, their statements represent attitudes which recur in the Jewish experience until today; they may not even represent the full range of possible responses. However, in the aftermath of every revolution or migration, some resist, some deny, some accommodate - some perhaps become too accommodating, and some insist on silence. Meditating upon the experience of Eastern European Rabbis who made their way to the United States and Israel during the 20th century, a multiplicity of responses can be ascertained. It does not require a great imagination to see a contemporary Sepphoris in Lakewood or B’nei Brak.
Nevertheless, each avenue of response may, in fact, have its time and place. The accommodator in America might resist in the Soviet Union. It is thus impossible to draw conclusions from this narrative, and thankfully so, for history does quite repeat itself exactly. We can, however, gauge that there is a range of possible response, each with a strong voice, and, as we’ll see, R’ Shimon and the attitude that he represents will undergo significant changes before the end of this story.

[1] Cf. R’ Samuel Edels (Maharsha) ad loc. See also Rubenstein, who assumes that the passage in Avodah Zarah is earlier, an assumption which allows us to understand our passage in light of the other.

Alienation, Translation, and Reconstruction - A Talmudic Reading of Shabbat 33b-34a: Part I

Axiological Assumptions

Two conflicting tasks confront the Talmudic commentator: on one hand, his goal is that of the objective scientist, using objective methodological tools to unravel, to the greatest degree possible, the meaning of the text for its intended audience. Thorough knowledge of the language and culture of the composition, in their broadest sense, is crucial to understand the meaning of any text. By definition, objective text study, to the degree possible, means divorcing one’s self from the normative implications of the subject matter.
At the same time, Torah study[1] is the religious gesture par excellence. The sacred texts where God’s mind and man’s mind meet, and where man employs his God-given intelligence to understand, appreciate, and carry out God’s revealed Will, thereby become the focus of the ongoing relationship between the Creator and His elect.[2] One who studies Torah within this frame of mind will demand meaning and relevance from the text.
By ignoring the former goal, one would run the risk of rendering the Torah irrelevant. The meanings that had been invested in the texts would contribute nothing to any type of contemporary discourse. It would remain a closed book. Those who would purport to ignore objective tools in the name of preserving the integrity of Torah undermine the Torah’s intelligibility, the basis for the ongoing conversation between God and the Israel.
At the same time, ignoring the devotional elements of Torah study allows the Torah to petrify completely by consigning it to the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Studies. As long as the Jewish people lives, the Torah is its constitution from and covenant with God. Treating it as a dead-letter violates its very essence.
Reading the current segment of the Talmud, as any, is limited by these constraints. This particular segment is unique because it is reflecting upon the very tensions described in the preceding paragraphs. Therefore, the following presentation is both a description and an example of an earnest attempt to mediate the dual constraints of objectivity and relevance.

The Setting

Our story is set in the middle of the 2nd century, CE.[3] The three Rabbis who open the story with their conversation are all considered later students of the great Rabbi Akiba. Although Rome had been a major player in the local politics for nearly two centuries by then, it was only in that generation, after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, that the Jews living in the Land of Israel sensed that they were no longer sovereign over their own land, and that they were in a state of unredeemed exile and would remain so for the foreseeable future. For two centuries, Jewish and Roman cultures existed side-by-side, sometimes at war and sometimes at peace. With the failure of Bar Kochba’s revolt, Jewish culture was swallowed entirely into the Roman world, and forfeited its status as an autonomous culture. The task fell to the leaders of that generation to shape the proper attitude toward the newly dominating culture, and it is with this in mind that the story begins.

Mazal Tov and Shabbat 33b-34a

First of all, today is my 5-month bloggoversary, and it also marks the day that I will surpass 10,000 hits. Mazal tov all around.

Though it's a bit late for Lag B'Omer, but right on time for the Daf Yomi cycle, I will be posting my exposition of the R' Shimon b. Yochai narrative from BT Shabbat 33b-34a . Since it's a long Gemara and a long exposition, I'll be posting it piecemeal. For now, I'm going to post a translation of the Talmudic passage. Online versions can be found here (original) and here (Soncino English).

For those of less patience, here's the English translation, with linked footnotes:

Now, why is he [R. Judah son of R. Ila'i] called the first speaker on all occasions?
For R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them.
R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, 'How fine are the works of this people!15 They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.'
R. Jose was silent.
R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.'
Now, Judah the son of proselytes went and related their talk,16 which reached17 the government. They decreed: Judah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted,18 Jose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris;19 Simeon, who censured, let him be executed.
He and his son went and hid themselves in the Beth Hamidrash, [and] his wife brought him bread and a mug of water and they dined.20 [But] when the decree became more severe he said to his son, Women are of unstable temperament: she21 may be put to the torture and expose us.'22
So they went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred and a carob-tree and a water well were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves, prayed, and then put off their garments again, so that they should not wear out. Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave.23
Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, Who will inform the son of Yohai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?24
So they emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, 'They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!' Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up.
Thereupon a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, 'Have ye emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!'25 So they returned and dwelt there twelve months, saying, 'The punishment26 of the wicked in Gehenna is [limited to] twelve months.'27
A Heavenly Echo then came forth and said, 'Go forth from your cave!' Thus.'; they issued: wherever R. Eleazar wounded,28 R. Simeon healed. Said he to him, 'My son! You and I are sufficient for the world.'29 On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?' they asked him. 'They are in honour of the Sabbath,' he replied.30 'But one should suffice you'? — One is for 'Remember-' and one for 'Observe.'31 Said he to his son, 'See how precious are the commandments to Israel.' Thereat their minds were tranquilized.
R. Phinchas b. Ya'ir his son-in-law heard [thereof] and went out to meet him. He took him into the baths and massaged32 his flesh. Seeing the clefts in his body33 he wept and the tears streamed from his eyes. 'Woe to me that I see you in such a state!' he cried out. 'Happy are you that you see me thus,' he retorted, 'for if you did not see me in such a state you would not find me thus [learned].34 For originally, when R. Simeon b. Yohai raised a difficulty, R. Phinehas b. Ya'ir would give him thirteen answers, whereas subsequently when R. Phinehas b. Ya'ir raised a difficulty, R. Simeon b. Yohai would give him twenty-four answers.
Since a miracle has occurred, said he, let me go and amend something, for it is written, and Jacob came whole35 [to the city of Shechem],36 which Rab interpreted. Bodily whole [sound], financially whole, and whole in his learning. And he was gracious to the city.,37 Rab said: He instituted coinage for them.38 Samuel said: He instituted markets for them; R. Johanan said: He instituted baths for them.
Is there ought that requires amending? he39 asked. There is a place of doubtful uncleanness,40 he was informed, and priests have the trouble of going round it. Said he: Does any man know that there was a presumption of cleanness here?1 A certain old man replied, Here [R. Johanan] b. Zakkai cut down lupines of terumah.2 So he did likewise. Wherever it (the ground] was hard he declared it clean, while wherever it was loose he, marked it out.3 Said a certain old man. The son of Yohai has purified a cemetery!4 Said he, Had you not been with us, even if you have been with us but did not vote,5 you might have said well. But now that you were with us and voted with us,6 It will be said, [Even] whores paint one another; how much more so scholars!7 He cast his eye upon him, and he died.
Then he went out into the street and saw Judah, the son of proselytes: 'That man is still in the world!' he exclaimed. He cast his eyes upon him and he became8 a heap of bones.