The “Miracles” of Beitar: A Reading of Brachot 48b

Today is was the 15th of Av, which is a minor Jewish holiday. Last year, I wrote about some of its calendrical significance. This year, I want to relate to the Gemara at the tail end of Taanit which discusses the different reasons why Tu B’Av became a holiday. The reasons I outlined last year correlate to the opinion that it was a wood-gathering festival. Right smack in the middle of the hottest, driest season is a ripe time to gather dead wood for the Beit Ha-Mikdash, and in general would be a good time for wood-gathering in preparation for the winter.

There’s another reason, which also comes up in Masechet Brachot; we know from the Mishna at the end of Taanit that Beitar fell on Tisha B’av. One opinion in the Gemara maintains that Tu B’Av was the day that the corpses of the fallen soldiers were finally allowed to be buried. This day became a holiday because God’s hand was seen twice in this event – in that the bodies had not begun to decompose, and in that the Roman authorities granted permission in the first place. Similarly, these two reasons are offered to explain why the Bracha of ‘Ha-tov Ve-hameitiv’ was added to bentching. God is ‘tov’ in that the bodies didn’t decompose, and ‘meitiv’ in that He arranged for the authorities to permit burial.

In the long list of holidays and miracles that the Jewish people celebrate, this one might rank all the way at the bottom. Beitar was an out-and-out massacre. The estimates for the number of dead from the Bar Kochba revolt are staggering – perhaps the greatest massacre of Jews until the Holocaust. Yet, the day that the Roman authorities permitted dead soldiers to be buried was a holiday. It was seen as divine intervention, despite the fact that it was those same Romans who perpetrated the massacres. This is like thanking God for influencing Germany to pay reparations.

Then there’s the fact that the bodies did not decompose. While this fact is admittedly quite miraculous, it hardly seems like the type of miracle that merits commemoration through a holiday or frequent blessing. If one is looking for some signal of Divine intervention in the wake of a national massacre, this seems to be a grasp for straws.

Looking at the Gemara in Brachot in a larger context can provide the key to understanding Chazal’s attitude toward the Beitar massacre. I wrote about it partially here (at the end), but the Gemara in Brachot (48b) stands on its own:

אמר רב נחמן משה תקן לישראל ברכת הזן בשעה שירד להם מן יהושע תקן להם ברכת הארץ כיון שנכנסו לארץ דוד ושלמה תקנו בונה ירושלים דוד תקן על ישראל עמך ועל ירושלים עירך ושלמה תקן על הבית הגדול והקדוש הטוב והמטיב ביבנה תקנוה כנגד הרוגי ביתר דאמר רב מתנא אותו היום שניתנו הרוגי ביתר לקבורה תקנו ביבנה הטוב והמטיב הטוב שלא הסריחו והמטיב שניתנו לקבורה:

Rabbi Nachman said: Moshe instituted the bracha of ‘hazan’ when the manna descended. Joshua instituted the bracha on the land when they entered the land. David and Shlomo instituted ‘boneh Yerushalayim’: David instituted ‘al Yisrael amecha ve-al Yerushalayim irecha’ and Shlomo instituted ‘al ha-bayit ha-gadol ve-hakadosh’. ‘Ha-tov ve-hameitiv’ was instituted at Yavneh for those who fell at Beitar, as R’ Matna said: ‘The day that the Beitar dead were allowed to be buried they instituted ‘ha-tov ve-hameitiv’ at Yavneh. ‘Ha-tov’ ­because they didn’t rot, ‘ve-hameitiv’ because they were allowed to be buried.’

Each bracha is linked by the Gemara with a certain event. These events capture the ultimate theme of each bracha. Never was it more clear that God feeds us than when the manna was descending on a daily basis. Never was our appreciation for the Land of Israel greater than when we first entered it (though 1948 would certainly come close). The newly built Jerusalem, and the newly built Temple, symbolized all of our hopes for God’s indwelling amongst us. Furthermore, there is a clear progression in the theme of each bracha. In the first one, God provides direct nourishment. As the brachot progress, we acknowledge God’s hand in the very productivity of our land, and ultimately in the epitome of our civilization, Jerusalem. The brachot move from the more basic through the higher levels of culture.

The fourth bracha is an abrupt shift from the themes of the first three. Halakha recognizes this shift (‘Amen’ after third and it’s not considered ‘semucha le-chaverta’), but it is clear in the theme as well. The first three are all optimistic, pertaining to an increasingly greater fulfillment of our ultimate vision. The fourth bracha was born in exile. The events that form the basis for this bracha are the product of a people who are searching for God’s Presence when it seems to be glaringly absent. It’s a worldview which seeks out God’s hand in the political machinations of powerful empires and in the silver lining of the darkest clouds.

Beitar was the final glimmer of redemption before the exile which has lasted two millennia. More than the Destruction of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt spelled the end of Judea, and eventually the land of Israel, as the center of Jewish life. This mandated a theological shift toward a search for God within the exile. The bracha of ‘ha-tov ve-hameitiv’ is that bracha which was never supposed to be, but which Our Sages instituted to mark that shift.

According to the Talmudic opinion that Tu B’Av commemorates this ‘double miracle’ of Beitar, this minor holiday is intimately connected with Tisha B’Av. If Tisha B’Av is the day when we lost God’s Presence, when we lived our own destruction, then Tu B’Av marks the day when we begin the quest anew, when we begin to pick up the pieces and to try to thrive despite an exilic existence, and when we begin our search for God despite His apparent absence.


Rav Lichtenstein, Ralph Branca, and Alan Dershowitz

(Indeed, baseball is on my mind, as one of my childhood heroes, Cal Ripken, is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today. A few posts on the topic may follow, but you can start with this one)

This is one of those stories that can only take place with people from a certain generation, when the world of American Orthodoxy was much smaller and centered in very few locations. It begins on the afternoon of October 3, 1951, when the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit his famous “Shot Heard Round the World” off Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher Ralph Branca. It is considered one of the greatest moments in baseball history, if not the greatest.

A few years ago, though I don’t know exactly when, a Jewish publication erroneously noted that the game was played on Erev Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre night. Rabbi T (name withheld upon request) of Yeshivat Har Etzion (a.k.a., Gush) remembered that a friend of his, and an observant Jew, claimed to be at that game, which would have been close to impossible if the game indeed coincided with the eve of the fast. Rav T went and asked Rav Lichtenstein, who is a bit older and would have a better memory of the day, whether this was indeed the case. Rav Lichtenstein responded that he remembers distinctly that the game was, in fact, played on Tzom Gedalyah, the fast day which falls a week before Yom Kippur (this calculation can be confirmed here). Rav T then commented to R’ Aharon how amazing it is that Thomson hit the home run even though he was fasting. R’ Lichtenstein responded that, to the contrary, Branca was the one fasting. According to Rav T (who is here in Camp Moshava this month, which has given me the opportunity to clarify some of the details of the anecdote), Rav Lichtenstein was extremely proud of his retort, and asked Rav T to repeat it to others.

I first heard this story from my chavruta when I was in the kollel at Gush. Several years later, I was back in the U.S., teaching in a Jewish high school in the south. The local federation had brought Alan Dershowitz to speak, and the event sponsors offered tickets to the speech and subsequent reception to all Judaic Studies teachers in the school (and I alone took up the offer). During his speech, it somehow came up that he remembered Bobby Thomson’s homer, and that it took place on Yom Kippur. At the reception, I called him on it. I waited in line, and when all of the old Jewish ladies finished kvelling and telling him how much they loved his speech and how they wish their grandkids would read his books, I approached his and said “I enjoyed the speech, but one thing you said was absolutely wrong.” This got his attention. He looked at me, ready for a fight, and said, “Oh, really? And what’s that?” I said (in this fashion, that only one who speaks the language of traditional Judaism speaks), “I have a mesorah from my Rebbeim that the ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ was on Tzom Gedalyah.” He put his hand over his chin in a brooding manner, and after a few seconds conceded: “You’re right. All I remember is that as soon as the game ended, we ran to shul and got there during layning. I assumed it was Yom Kippur, but now that you mention it, I must have been Tzom Gedalyah.”

I wonder how many other people Alan Dershowitz has conceded to. I know of one other, sort of – Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz. In a sense, that story is the continuation of this one (from my perspective, anyway), but it will have to wait for another post.

Midrash and Fan Fiction

(Moderate spoiler warning: some details of the conclusion of the 7th book will be revealed in this post, though the primary theme of the post is Torah-oriented))

Many of us now know how the Harry Potter series ends. We have followed the story of this young man from his birth all the way until fatherhood, a span of 36 years, with special emphasis on the seven years of his upper schooling. We have grown to love him.

Despite the thousands of pages that tell Harry’s story, there are gaps and unanswered questions. There are meanings which remain unclear, relationships which remain undeveloped, and back stories which remain unexplored. To fill that gap, hundreds of fans around the world have composed their own supplemental stories to fill in those gaps. This genre is known as ‘fan fiction’.

There are different attitudes that one can take toward fan fiction. One might say, as I do, that an issue that is not addressed has no answer. Questions like: “What happened to Harry’s grandparents? Did Neville and Luna wind up together? What did Harry do for a living? Who are Hugo and Rose named for? Do they have middle names?” are unanswerable. The author gave us no indication, so the answers don’t exist. The reality of the ‘Potterverse’ is a fictional one, and only elements that it contains are the ones created by its author. Attempts to fill in details or resolve contradictions are meaningless and fruitless – the story’s meaning it what it is. There are no answers.

Nevertheless, there are elements which can be penetrated, because they pertain to the storyline itself and either its internal meaning or its relationship with history and literature. For example, one may entertain whether the symbol for the Deathly Hallows, which Grindelwald used as his own symbol, is comparable to the swastika, given Krum’s reaction upon seeing it. One may ask what the turning point of each book is, when Harry became an adult, the degree to which names broadcast significant information about a character (like Xenophilius means ‘Lover of the strange’), and the like.

Others may counter that it indeed possible to fill in missing details of the book. The stories, once published, become the property of its readers, who may advance alternative theories, which remain valid unless dispelled by the author in a subsequent work. The fictitious universe may have been created by one person, but many inhabit it.

Of course, these same musings apply to Torah as well. Although this type of interpretive endeavor extends to every text, the most obvious parallels are with the attempts to fill in the details and meanings of Biblical narrative. What happened during the first 75 years of Avraham’s life, or the first 80 of Moshe’s? What went through Avraham’s mind during the three days of traveling toward the Akeida? What type of identity did the Israelites preserve in Egypt? And the list goes on. This is fan fiction at its best; the reader is so completely drawn into the world created by this work of literature that he feels compelled to complete it, to address loose ends. The Torah is not fiction, but it is not history either. It remains a work of literature and t invites readers to participate in the construction of the narratives, to relive its drama both through what is written (’black fire’) and that which remains unwritten (‘white fire’). Although the Torah is different from other works of literature – intrinsically and in the mind of its readers – it should come as no surprise that the types of response generated by these works are similar.


The Ten Commandments v. 1.1

The ‘Ten Commandments’ are listed twice in the Torah. They are recorded as part of the Exodus narrative in Shemot, and retold as part of Moshe’s valedictory address in Devarim, where he recounts the story of Sinai for the benefit of the next generation. As is well-known, the version of the ‘Ten Commandments’ which appears in this week’s parsha differs from the version which appears in Parshat Yitro in a number of places. Sometimes the differences consist of entire changed words and additional phrases, but usually the differences are limited to variant spellings. The best-known difference regards the opening word of the paragraph on Shabbat. In Yitro, it begin with the word ‘Zakhor’, and in Va-etchanan, it begins with the word Shamor, ve-acamo”l.

Earlier today, I noticed a particular difference regarding the tenth and final commandment, the prohibition against coveting. Below are the Hebrew and English of the two versions:

"לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ " (שמות כ', י"ג)

“Do not covet the house of your friend. Do not covet your friend’s wife, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else which belongs to your friend (Shemot 20:13)

" וְלֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ. וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה בֵּית רֵעֶךָ שָׂדֵהוּ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ"(דברים ה', י"ז)

“and you shall not covet your friend’s wife. Do not desire your friend’s house, field, slave, maid, ox, donkey, or anything else which belongs to your friend (Devraim 5:17)”

One difference, which I will not address here (but see Rambam Geneiva Ve-aveida 1:9-10) is the fact that the passage in Devarim replaces the word ‘tachmod’ with the word ‘titaveh’ in one instance, while leaving it unchanged in the other. Also, the list in Devarim includes your friend’s field, whereas Shemot does not.

The difference which jumped out at me today regards the item which is singled out from each list. In each version, there is a single entity which is singled out, followed by a longer list. In the Shemot list, the friend’s house is singled out. The following list is all living things – wife, slave, maid, ox, and donkey. There’s clearly a regression in that list – from most to least intimate, and from a lesser to greater degree of ‘ownership’. The Devarim list separates the wife from the longer list. The longer list then contains three pairs of objects – real estate (house and field), human property (slave and maid), and livestock (ox and donkey). This method of separation calls attention to the fact that there is no parallel to the relationship between husband and wife; it’s sui generis. Of course, the fact remains that the Ten Commandments seem to be addressed exclusively to men – it never says ‘do not covet your friend’s husband’. And the fact remains that, in Shemot, the wife is still lumped together with the ox and the donkey. Nevertheless, there seems to be a shift in the woman’s status from Shemot to Devarim. In Devarim, the woman is incomparable. She doesn’t even get the same word – she’s ‘coveted’ and plain old property is ‘desired’; desire for one’s friend’s wife is completely different from desiring his material wealth. There’s something subtly romantic in that.

If I had to explain why this shift takes place between Shemot and Devarim, I would say that it has to do with Devarim’s greater attention to human nature. On an abstract plane, the ‘acquisition’ of a woman and the acquisition of an ox might be comparable; they might belong on the same list of things one can own. In human experience, however, the nuptial bond is experienced in a completely different way than ownership. Moshe’s address is closer to the human experience, because he was one of us. Similarly, Shabbat is linked to Creation in Shemot, but to the Exodus in Devarim; the former is an abstract idea – no human witnessed Creation. The latter relates directly to human experience.


Spoiler Warning

Do not read further if you don't want to find out too much about HP7. I finished reading the book on Monday afternoon, before the Tzom. I didn't want to be tempted.
Turns out, my predictions weren't so far off, though none of my truly bold predictions worked out. Here's a run-down:

Numbered according to the predictions here:
1) Nailed it.
2) Partially correct. Unclear what Harry winds up doing for a living, but he's not a Squibb.
3) Unclear; the tendencies in the Ministry is borne out, but there's no talk about restructure after the climax
4) Partial. RAB is Regulus, and the locket was with Mundungus, but Reg was not an animagus.
5) 4 of 6. Not bad. I was also correct that a Weasley would die, but I got the wrong one (1 in 7 chance). Missed some other deaths, though.
6) Nailed it, nailed it, nailed it.
7) Totally wrong.
8) 2 of 3 - unclear about Neville and Luna, though this prediction wasn't terribly bold.
9) Neville is barely tempted, though Voldy makes the offer. Neville also doesn't do Bellatrix in, either.
10) A little bit, but not really


HP7 Predictions

With just a few days left before my pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows arrives and I consequently devour it, I would like to make my own predictions of the outcome here. I just noticed that BZ did the same. Greg’s been doing it for years (yes, that’s one of his other blogs). I came up with most of these bef1re reading them elsewhere, but several of these are definitely conventional wisdom.

1) Harry/his scar is a horcrux. It’s clear as day. It also seems clear that Voldemort didn’t intend for it to be, but it happened anyway. Although there’s no record of accidental horcrux-making, the conditions were ripe, Harry was protected from death by his mother (‘Deathly Hallows’?), and the prophecy said that he would ‘mark him as his equal’. Also, the fact that ‘none can live while the other survives’ means that neither has known wholeness of identity since their first encounter. This leads me to my next prediction:

2) Harry will not die as a result of the destruction of the horcrux that is somehow a part of him. Rather, he will become a Squibb. Although JKR has denied it, I thought it would have been fitting for Squibb Harry to return to Hogwarts to teach Defense Against Dark Arts, having broken the jinx on the position and shown a great aptitude in both performing and teaching the subject. Alternatively, he’ll work for the restructured Ministry of Magic…

3) As I reread all of the books, I am noticing the very strong theme of xenophobia that runs through the wizarding community. It is most acute with the Slytherins and their obsession with ‘yiches’ (lineage), but really runs right through the entire ministry. The statue at the entrance to the ministry building really sums it up – werewolves, centaurs, and house-elves adoring a wizard. The suspicion against any ‘half-breeds’ is another clue. The final episode will see the dawn of a new order in the MoM, and Hermione will play a key role in that. As annoying as S.P.E.W. is, it will turn out to be the basis for much more far-reaching reforms. The reformed ministry will have various non-humans and half-breeds sitting on its Wizengamot – including giants (or half-giants), goblins, elves, centaurs, and werewolves – perhaps even a Squibb (Harry, by the end?) and a Muggle (Aunt Petunia?). Candidates to be minister are: Hermione (perhaps in the Epilogue; she’s too young during the book), Remus Lupin (helluva way to overcome unemployment, and he has the right temperament), Professor McGonagall (unless she’s Hogwarts Headmistress), and the, erm, dark horse pick, Firenze. It will become clear that, in a sense, Fudge was right that Dumbledore was trying to take over the ministry. Dumbledore, with the possible exception of Hermione, has been the most consistently egalitarian character in the series. The ministry will be recast in his image.

4) REB is Regulus Black – duh. The locket is in the possession of Mundungus Fletcher, who stole it from 12 Grimmauld Place. Regulus is still alive. I’m intrigued by the idea that he’s Crookshanks. Although it really doesn’t fit his profile, and there’s already a feline animagus (McGonagall), there’s good reason to believe that this is the case. Regulus and Sirius were both named for particularly bright stars. Sirius is known as the ‘Dog Star’ as it appears in the constellation Canis Major (the Big Dog). Regulus appears in the constellation Leo (the lion), and means ‘little king’. Thus, the idea that Regulus takes the animagus form of a cat – if the lion is king, then the cat may be a little king – is not terribly farfetched. Lions also have bottle-brush tails. Names often meaningfully convey information about the character throughout the series. Additionally, Crookshanks has shown incredible intelligence, has unknown origins (she chose Hermione after an extended stay in Diagon Alley), and got along well with Sirius in Book 3. JKR has denied that Crookshanks is an animagus, though.

5) The following is a list of characters who will be killed, kissed by dementors, or otherwise knocked permanently out of commission (like Lockhart or the Longbottoms): Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange, Snape, Hagrid, Peter Pettigrew, Bill Weasley (I don’t think JKR can resist a hysterical Fleur).

6) Snape has remained loyal to Dumbledore, who is really dead. When push comes to shove, Draco will be unable to become truly evil (though, as is often repeated, the world is not simply divided into good and evil, and Draco is certainly not good). Harry will collect his debt from Peter Pettigrew.

7) Voldemort will meet his demise through a dementor’s kiss. I believe the dementors will have a role in the dectruction of the horcruxes as well; Hary et al will discover that their soul-sucking abilities and desires can extend to horcruxes as well. I wonder if that’s how Harry rids himself of the scar…

8) The couples remain intact – Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and probably Neville and Luna.

9) Neville will get his revenge against Bellatrix, but then be sorely tempted to join Voldemort, having begun to feel his own power and gotten sick of being second-tier behind Harry, Ron and Hermione (much like Peter with regard to James, Sirius, and Remus). Unlike Wormtail, however, Neville will resist the temptation.

10) We will read about the nature of the soul, the afterlife, what lies behind the black veil, and why Harry didn’t die.


Lettered Packages on Shabbat

I recently witnessed a fellow educator demonstrating, for a group of students, the proper way to open a candy wrapper on Shabbat, i.e., being careful not to rip any letters. The sense that this is a requirement of Hilchot Shabbat is fairly commonplace. Yet, there are elements of it that I really don’t understand.

The problem with tearing letters is one of mocheik – erasure. On the Biblical level, only a constructive erasure – like preparation to write something else in – is forbidden. On the Rabbinic level, even non-constructive erasure is forbidden. The case of opening a package would be a Rabbinic prohibition at worst.

Additionally, in this case, one has no intent to tear letters. One is concerned with the contents of the package, not with tearing letters. Under normal circumstances, this would remove any prohibition. However, if a prohibited act is the inevitable result of some other act, that act becomes prohibited – a category of prohibition called ‘psik reisha’. The question is, what’s considered ‘inevitable’? If I can open that package, and one time out of ten not tear any letters, I think we can reasonably say that the result of tearing is not inevitable. But what about 1 in 100? 1 in 1000? 1 in 1,000,000? Etc. It there some kind of threshold after which something is treated as inevitable even if there is a miniscule chance of it not happening? If so, what is that threshold?

In the case of the packages, I think that one is within the threshold. There are other situations where tearing is truly inevitable – popping pills out of a labeled pod, for example (I take one where I have to open it by other means on Shabbat). There, opening it carefully won’t do the trick.

Let’s summarize. The question is about opening some type of wrapper where tearing letters is either inevitable or close to inevitable. We start with the proper question: Why should it be assur?

By destroying words, you are erasing. However:

1) There’s no constructive purpose to the erasure (making it a drabanan)

2) This is not the normal mode of erasure (Chavot Yair uses a similar svara to explain why one can eat foods with letters baked into them, though it’s possible to distinguish)

3) Erasure is not absolutely inevitable (especially if you throw in R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach’s psak that the problem is with destroying letters, not separating between letters)

4) The one doing the tearing doesn’t care about the torn results (so even if it’s a psik reisha, it’s ‘lo ichpat lei’, which may have the same status as lo nicha lei)

Where does that leave us? There is a definite case to be made that it should be prohibited if tearing is truly inevitable (perhaps one day I’ll get around to experimenting with a million Laffy Taffys to determine the inevitability of tearing letters). Nevertheless, there are definite reasons to be meikil (at the very least, it’s a psik reisha on a drabanan, on which the Shulchan Arukh brings meikilin). Would I be careful not to tear letters? Probably. Would I teach this as halacha? Probably not to people whose attitude to the Laws of Shabbat is, let’s say, underappreciative. There’s so much more to learn and understand first.


The Sefer Yereim and Hell’s Angels

The following is a sugya which I learned when studying for semicha. I was recently reminded of it, and was able to recall it because of a unique mnemonic device, which I will share at the end of this post. I do not remember exact citations; hopefully I’ll add that in after Shabbat.

In Hilchot Shabbat, there is a prohibition against wringing out wet clothing, as it is part of melabein – the laundering process. Similarly, according to the Gemara, one may not drench their clothing because of the fear that one will wind up wringing it out. There’s another Gemara, however, which seems to contradict the first one. It records that one may ford a river on Shabbat in order to greet one’s mentor.

The Ashkenazic Rishonim offer three different ways to harmonize the two Gemaras. The Rashbam says that presumably the clothing that one is wearing is clean. There is no melacha involved in laundering clean clothing since it is a completely superfluous act. The underlying rationale is that the Torah forbids ‘melechet machshevet’ – meaning that the prohibited act must accomplish something positive or constructive. Laundering clean clothing accomplishes nothing.

Rabbeinu Tam says that fording a river is ‘derech lichluch’. One does not ford a river in order to get his clothes clean; on the contrary, fording a river is a good way to soil your clothes. This is similar to Rashbam in that he sees this act as inherently different from the standard act of libun, but different in that he sees it as a fundamentally different act. Getting your clothes dirty cannot be conceptualized as a form of doing laundry, no matter how you slice it.

The final position is that of the Sefer Yereim (R’ Eliezer of Metz). He accepts neither of these answers and in fact maintains that under normal circumstances, fording a river is prohibited on Shabbat. But what about our student who is traveling to see his mentor? He was wearing clothing which is not laundered in water, i.e., leather.

I remembered this position as the ‘Hell’s Angels’ Yereim’, because of that image of the completely leather-clad dude, and that’s why I remember the sugya these several years later.


The Religious Value of Megabucks

Chaim B recently posted a dilemma – there is often a trade-off between wealth and scholarship. What should one opt for? Ayen sham.

I wanted to add a different dimension to the debate. I think that the answer would be different for the individual and for the community. Clearly, the community needs both its kemach and its Torah, so some are going to fall on either side of the debate. But it goes beyond that.

There’s making a living, then there’s being wealthy, and then there’s REAL MONEY - the kind of money that talks, not just on the communal level, but on the national and global level. Let’s call a spade a spade – the Jewish community’s influence in America, and consequently Israel’s standing in the international community, it a result of lots and lots of Jewish-American money being spent very prudently. Furthermore, throughout history Jewish communities have translated affluence into influence. Money talks, and it always has. But the kind of money that talks is not the kind that you & I make. We’re talking about a league where one needs to be worth nine or ten figures in order to enter the discussion. But the influence that kind of money can wield is enormous.

So the question jumps from being a question of individual comfort to communal power. I used to debate a friend about this, and over the years I’ve come to appreciate his position more and more. Generating that kind of wealth requires a lot of luck, and may even require that a lot of people aim for it – throw enough at the wall, something will stick. My friend contended that there is a need for members of the Jewish community to not just make a living, not just be wealthy, but become incredibly, fabulously wealthy; to generate the kind of wealth that stays around for generations, that builds buildings, that establishes foundations. He contended that this type of wealth benefits the entire Jewish community, not just because everyone benefits from their contributions, but because the political agenda that this money promotes is in the interest of the entire community – or at least can be. Obviously, this is not just true of the Jewish community, but of Christian communities as well.

My question is as follows: is this attitude one which is simply pragmatic? In other words, since fabulous wealth can help an entire community at the highest political echelons, it’s worth promoting individuals to pursue that wealth, or at least to respect it, but not to squelch it or denigrate it. Or is it a religious value per se? My friend contended that big money is the primary vehicle for becoming a ‘light unto the nations’. Not that the money is the ;light’, but that, to continue the ‘light’ metaphor, money is the power supply that keeps that light burning bright. Does the Torah itself, or Chaza”l, want to promote that kind of wealth, or it this a construction of exilic Judaism from the Middle Ages on? And does it really matter, anyway, if this is a lechatchila for a bediavad situation or an a priori lechatchila (yes, I realize that these last words are redundant)?


Early Shabbat?

I’ve always been baffled by one of the issues regarding accepting Shabbat early. Many congregations (especially in Israel) are makpid that plag ha-mincha falls between the time they daven mincha and the time they daven maariv.

The reason for this is fairly simple to explain. Mincha is the afternoon prayer. Maariv is the evening prayer. Although there is much dispute regarding the exact definition of ‘afternoon’ and ‘evening’, one thing is clear: they can’t be recited at the same time, because it’s a self-contradiction (‘tartei de-satri’). Thus, I might believe that the very late afternoon, after plag ha-mincha (1.25 adjusted hours before sunset), is already evening, but then I can’t daven mincha then. Thus, if one wishes to daven mincha and maariv consecutively, one must be careful that one of the potential dividing lines between afternoon and evening – plag ha-mincha or sunset – falls between the two services.

The question that I have is as follows. This line of reasoning makes perfect sense for weekday mincha/maariv minyanim. For Shabbat, however, another factor should come into play. On Shabbat, we have a concept of mosifin min ha-chol al ha-kodesh. We can voluntarily make Shabbat early, extending its sanctity into the Friday afternoon daylight hours. It seems to me that this acceptance should generate a significant enough ‘dividing line’ between the afternoon and evening. Once I accept Shabbat, it is a new day – it’s Shabbat, not Friday. The day itself generates an entirely new set of commandments and restrictions, including new obligations to pray special prayers. One can argue that it may be Shabbat, but it’s still not ‘evening’. I find that argument unconvincing; Accepting Shabbat means that the evening has commenced early (and if one forgot to daven mincha – or, better yet, davened the wrong mincha after plag, and must repeat it after having accepted Shabbat – what should he say? Weekday mincha? It’s not a weekday anymore! Shabbat maariv twice? It’s a tarti de-satri! Wait until after sunset and then say Maariv twice? It seems absurd that one would be in a situation that he CAN’T daven – and R’ Yochanan would certainly find that possibility repulsive! Shabbat Mincha? While that possibility may exist theoretically, it seems completely absurd. What’s the answer? Shabbat Maariv, and it’s not a tarti de-satri for the reasons outlined above). One can recite the evening services without concern that he is engaging in self-contradictory behavior, because the first service was before Shabbat, and the latter one is on Shabbat.


The Evolution of the Three Weeks

I’ve been doing a bit of research lately on the origins of the various customs which pertain to the three weeks. There’s no big chiddush that most of the customs are Ashkenazic, and relatively late, in origin. I’d assume that anyone who has ever looked at a Shulchan Arukh knows that.

What’s interesting is that the idea of ‘the three weeks’, or ‘Bein Ha-metzarim’ as it’s known in the halakhic literature, was seen as a significant time period from a relatively early stage (I’d say either from late in the period of Chaza”l or the period of the Geonim), even though the customs were not nearly as developed as they are now and in fact differed in tone. Allow me to explain.

There is a significant body of evidence that the period was seen as a unit:

1) 17 Tammuz and 9 Av are linked by the mishna at the end of Taanit which record the 5 terrible things that happened on each. The mishna goes on to conclude by saying that we ‘diminish joy’ during Av.

2) The Midrash Eicha which applies the verse which mentions ‘bein ha-metzarim’ to the period between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av, and notes that it is a time which is particularly prone to bad things happening

3) The well known schedule of haftarot, which is first mentioned in a psikta (all of the Rishonim quote the Psikta) that I cannot locate, includes 12 sections – 3 of ‘puranuta’, 7 of ‘nechemta’, and 2 of ‘tiyuvta’. Tisha B’av and the Yamim Nora’im are the turning points – from puranuta to nechemta and from nechemta to tiyuvta. It was clearly sculpted around the Jewish year, and the 3 haftarot of puranuta would always be during the three weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av (even if Rosh Chodesh Av falls out on Shabbat, according to the consensus of Rishonim).

4) There’s an odd Yerushalmi Taanit (4:5) which compares the 21 days between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av to the ‘ripening’ of an almond tree, based on Yirmiyahu’s vision (1:13-14) of a ‘almond rod=makeil shaked’, which happens to be from the first of the three puranutas.

The sense one gets is that the ‘3 weeks’ were indeed an acknowledged part of the year, but not as a time of mourning. Rather, it was a time during which bad things happened to Jews. ‘Puranuta’ is ‘misfortune’. The mishna is a laundry list of bad things that happened. ‘Diminishing joy’ during Av, the antipode to increasing it during Adar, takes the form in halakha of not doing business or adjudicating cases with non-Jews, because they w1uld have the upper hand during this inauspicious time.

The Shulchan Arukh states only 2 laws (unequivocally, that is; he also acknowledges that there are some who don’t eat meat all 3 weeks) that pertain to bein ha-metzarim: a) we don’t say ‘she-hecheyanu’; b) we don’t go out alone during certain hours of the day when the demon ‘Ketev Meriri’ is powerful (based on that Yerushalmi in Taanit). Here, too, we get the sense that the 3 weeks is an inauspicious time for the Jews (as the Arukh Hashulchan writes, the issue of saying she-hecheyanu is not one of sadness – indeed, there’s no prohibition against a mourner saying a she-hecheyanu. Rather, it is a bracha which acknowledges that a time is auspicious, when it is in fact not auspicious).

Even as recently as a century ago, the Arukh Hashulchan notes that the custom not to get married during the 3 weeks is because it’s an inauspicious time to get married. It’s a ‘siman ra’. Le-havdil, it’s like someone saying they wouldn’t get married on Friday the 13th (the Arukh Hashulchan actually permits getting married during the 3 weeks if need be. R’ Moshe Feinstein, half a century later, only permitted the night of the 17th o Tammuz, since he held the 3 weeks hadn’t started yet. R’ Soloveitchik didn’t even permit that).

At the same time, there has been a growing halakhic trend to see the 3 weeks as a time of aveilut. This has steadily replaced the perspective of ‘puranut’ as the dominant tone of the period. The extension of weddings to include other types of festive gatherings with music (‘rikudin u-mecholot’ = ‘dancing and playing instruments’, in the language of the Magen Avraham, who first mentions it in context of the 3 weeks), and the more recent extension of that to include any musical instrumentation, and the general stringency regarding shaving and haircuts during the three weeks, both of which parallel mourning customs, have taken hold primarily in the last few centuries but even more strongly and stringently in the last one.

Rav Soloveitchik’s relatively well-known chiddush about the ‘revese aveilut’ of the 3 weeks reinforced this conception. He says that the customs of the 3 weeks parallel the mourning customs of the 12-month mourning period, the 9 days parallel the customs of the 30-day mourning period, and on Tisha B’Av itself we ‘sit shiva’. This transforms the entire period into one of mourning – and this is a dominant theme of the Rav’s shiurim on the topic (admittedly, Tisha B’Av has always been linked to aveilut; the halakha goes so far as to say that one who is actually sitting shiva on Tisha B’Av can go to shul like everyone else, because we’re all mourners).

My point here is to acknowledge the trend. I find it quite fascinating to see that not only does halakha evolve – we know that – but that the meaning and observance of a particular ‘sacred time’ (I know, there’s no ‘kedushat ha-zman during the entire period; there is, however, an acknowledged time of year that is part of our collective consciousness) has been replaced over time (see what I wrote here about how we respond to the ‘Ship of Theseus’ dilemma). Why did this happen? Perhaps the sense of immanent danger during the three weeks gradually slipped away, and the need to observe a period of mourning, a temporal ‘zecher le-churban’ spot, took hold as a palpable sense of galut faded. Who knows? Does that even fit the time frames under discussion? Either way, it’s food for thought (which can even be eaten tomorrow) over the next few weeks.