Translating 'Emet'

The Hebrew word 'Emet' and its derivatives are invariably translated as 'Truth' (capital T, generally). This translation is so ubiquitous that it seems silly to even discuss. Yet, I believe it to be a mistranslation, at least in certain contexts.

Take, for example, the first chapter in Rambam's Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah, where he uses the term 'Emet', in its various forms, several times. There, translating 'Emet' as 'Truth' obscures the meaning and makes things difficult to understand. Rambam's goal in Halakhot 1-4 is to describe how God's Existence is dissimilar, independent, and non-contingent on the existence of anything else, whereas everything else's existence is contingent upon His. Thus, compare the following translations:

Halakha 1:

"All existants, in heaven and earth and everything in between, would not exist but for the Truth of His Existence"

"All existants, in heaven and earth and everything in between, would not exist but for the Realness of His Existence"

Halakha 3:

"All existents are contingent upon Him, but He, blessed be He, is not contingent upon them or any one of them. Thus, His Truth is unlike the truth of any of them."

"All existents are contingent upon Him, but He, blessed be He, is not contingent upon them or any one of them. Thus, His Realness is unlike the realness of any of them."

Halakha 4 continues this trend, but there is no need to belabor the point. The Rambam here is not talking about what is True, but about what is Real.

Aside from general accuracy, I think that the difference between the different translations is profound. 'Truth' is an abstract concept that we essentially borrowed from the Greeks. They invented or discovered (not getting into that here) logical rules and postulates which allowed them to categorize statements as being 'true' or 'false'. Something which is 'True' corresponds to some kind of Ideal Form, and something which is false does not.

At some point, the Hebrew terms 'emet' and 'sheker' came to correspond to these Greek concepts. As we got used to the Greek way of thinking, it was important to have the vocabulary to communicate it. The problem is obviously that it ends up 'Hellenizing' ideas and statements that appear in early Jewish works. Those early sources are not necessarily concerned with abstractions. The Torah and the Neviim, and Chaza"l in their wake, are amazingly concrete, often expressing abstraction in very 'earthy' ways. They were interested in what's real and what's fake, what's authentic and what's phony, what's orginal and what's imitation. The problem with lying is not the violation  of some abstract category, but the representation of something which is misleadingly non-real.

I'm not suggesting to stop translating 'Emet' as 'Truth', just that the other possibility be tried as well, because it might make a big difference.


End of Shabbat Poll

I just added a poll to the right-hand margin. I am curious to know if people would consider Shabbat over if they saw three mid-sized stars even if the publicized 'Shabbat Ends' time had not yet arrived. I'll leave it up for a week; I'm very curious about this.


Chana's Biblical Character Meme

I was actually just thinking about this. Here are my tentative answers:

Which biblical character do you feel you are most like? Korach.
Which biblical character would you marry? Gomer bat Divlayim.
Which biblical character would you want on your team (or on your side, during a war?) Yonatan ben Shaul.
Which biblical character would you want to be close friends with? Ezra.
Which biblical character do you think would make an excellent Disney villain? God (just kidding. Eezevel.)

The High Court's Decision Regarding Heter Mechira

The Israeli High Court's recent landmark decision to override the Chief Rabbinate's ruling to allow local Chief Rabbis to set their own kashrut standards for shemittah has caused quite a stir in Israel, and would be getting even more press were it not overshadowed by the Annapolis Summit.

The Ashkenazi Haredi public has lambasted the decision, calling it consistent with what they perceive to be the court's anti-religious attitude that they have been protesting for years. The secular public takes it for granted that the Supreme Court should be just that - the country's final arbiter- and that ultimately the Rabbinical Courts are answerable to it. The Religious Zionist public seems torn between agreement with the decision on one hand, and, on the other hand, concern that the court has entered into area of halakhic decision-making.

I remain sympathetic to criticisms of the court, namely, that it is a self-perpetuating oligarchy that ignores democracy in favor of self-defined 'democratic values', that it fancies itself to be an island of liberal, Western correct thinking in the heart of the souk. Nevertheless, in this particular case, I both agree with the court's decision and believe that this type of decision should be within the court's purview.

The idea that the Rabbanut should not be answerable or accountable to the Israeli public is absurd. Every rabbi in history was accountable to his constituency, and for good reason. The role of the Rabbi is not to be a psak machine, but to address the concerns of the people. The rabbi is entitled to take his own position on a matter, but, by the same token, the congregation then has the right to select a rabbi who is more in tune with their sensibilities. Either extreme - the rabbi being unaccountable or the congregation exercising total control - is unacceptable. Rather, the relationship should be one of constant dynamic engagement between rabbi and community to try to arrive at a place which is good in the eyes of both God and man.

Looking at this relationship on the national scale, the question becomes who is empowered, as the representatives of the people, to decide when the rabbis are not doing their job and need to be replaced. The most intuitive answer is the High Court. Absent any special committees or laws that give the Rabbanut its 'job description', it is up to some judicial body - ultimately the highest judicial body - to define the role of the Rabbanut. They based their definition on much history and precedent with regard to this issue. A national body like the Rabbinate cannot start changing major positions, still deemed viable by many, depending on which way the wind blows. The 'heter mechira' has a checkered history, but it is a venerable history nonetheless. The court need not pasken that the heter is valid. It merely must clarify to the Rabbanut what its role is and what its mandate is - and that includes not reversing the positions of a lifetime, especially when so much is riding on it.

It must be emphasized that the court did not require anyone to rule against his conscience. Rather, it mandated that when the local Chief Rabbi is unwilling to certify 'heter mechira' produce as kosher, another willing rabbi should be brought in to do so. This solution should be obvious, based on the communal model. Everybody knows that the 'heter' exists and that the Rabbanut affects it. If a particular local rabbi does not like it, fine. That's his prerogative. The problem was that he could take such a position without risk, without having to answer to the people who work in the food industry whose lives and livelihood they affect. Fortunately, these people had recourse to a constituted body who could remind these rabbis, on behalf of the citizens of Israel, that they must take responsibility for their choices. This is a great step forward in the creation of an accountable Chief Rabbinate.

Fantastic New Blog

After two recent posts about the Rashbam on this week's parsha, commenter AJ pointed me to a blog called Parshanut. It is awesome. He takes one commentary per year (at least for the past 4 weeks) and finds interesting comments on the parsha of the week. I wish him much luck. I read the month worth of archives, and it is really good.

Rashbam on Avraham's Guests

This week's parsha's opening scene has God appearing to Avraham as he sits at the door to his tent in the heat of the day. The next verse describes how three men approached him. The classic interpretation, which even has major ethical implications, is that Avraham interrupted his conversation with God in order to attend to guests.

Rashbam has a radically different interpretation. He says that the first verse is a 'headline', and the later story fleshes it out. In other words, he says that God appeared to Avraham - as described in the first verse - in the guise of three men - as described in subsequent verses. He sticks with that interpretation throughout the episode, even refining it somewhat. He says that 'God' in this episode speaks through the 'greatest' of the visitors. It is He who remains to speak with Avraham as the other two go to destroy Sodom. Looking at verses 21 and 22 of the chapter, it seems that when God says 'I will go down to see if they have acted as has been screamed' it prompts the other 2 'men' to leave for Sodom, while the third remains to converse with Avraham.

This gives a really interesting perspective on what angels are. It's almost like the 'agents' in the first Matrix movie, the form used by the matrix itself, the program which contains all within it, to appear to entities which exist in the program.

Rashbam on the Akeidah

There are some incredible Rashbam's on this week's parsha that ly in the face of conventional Jewish understanding of various episodes. The first is on the Akedah. He understands it as a punishment for Avraham's treaty with Avimelech, based on the opening words of 'achar ha-devarim ha-eileh'. Inheriting the land, as God promised Avraham, would preclude entering into such treaties. It's as if God is saying to Avraham, "You're so confident in the treaties that you make, and how they'll last for generations? Go kill your kid. Let's see how much these treaties will help you!"

[This idea is chilling, given the context of current peace negotiations.]

He also gives an alternative translation of the word 'nisah' - commonly understood as 'tested' - where he takes it to mean 'tormented', but not in the sense of physical torture, but in the sense of a completely knocking the wind out of someone's sails, a complete reversal of expectations.
Rashbam even gives a French translation of this word (which resonates well with me particularly) - CONTRAIRE.
I think that this approach can be broadened, that 'achar ha-devarim ha-eileh' isn't just going on the treaty with Avimelech, but on Avraham's whole life. Avraham, the guy who made the connection between belief in God and pursuit of that which is good and just, that God is about morality and truth and justice, is here confronted by a commandment which undermines everything he thought and taught about God. Human sacrifice? Our God? It's truly a torment, and truly 'contrary' to everything Avraham had presumed about God.
It's as if to say, "Avreiml, you're a good guy, and you're doing great things. But in case you think that you've got Me figured out, that I'm the God of This or the God of That, I want you to go ahead and do the most evil and contrary thing that you could ever imagine."
Like the Kotzker said, if one can figure God out, then what does one need Him for?

[I posted this on a different blog a while back, but never on this site.]

Coming Soon: Intifada #3

This morning, on my way from Modiin to Jerusalem, I was delayed for a while - 10-15 minutes or so, in the protest reported on here and here. As I passed the scene of the protest itself, saw the Palestinian flags and the police and Border Guard making arrests, it dawned on me that our local cousins are gearing up for a new intifada, which will inevitably be 'sparked' by some 'provocation' after the Annapolis talks fail. Something to look forward to.


Statement of the Rabbinical Council of America in advance of the Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at Annapolis MD

[Whether I agree with the following statement, which purports to speak in my name, is almost beside the point. After you cut through the highfalutin vocabulary, it adds nothing to the discussion that has not been hashed and rehashed a million times before. Do they really think that the real players involved care what a bunch of rabbis has to say on the matter, especially if they purport to speak with a single voice (like that's ever really happened) and take an unremarkable position? Is it just public posturing, to make people thing that the orthodox rabbinate is actually doing something? Some things are better left unsaid.]

October 22, 2007

In advance of the forthcoming Annapolis conference, the Rabbinical Council of America, consisting of almost 1000 rabbis, respectfully urges the American sponsors of this conference to take the following into serious consideration:

It is obvious that the State of Israel remains a small island of freedom in the Middle East, and is America's only reliable ally in that region. Any harm that comes to Israel will redound to the detriment of the United States as well. Any pressures on Israel to adopt positions that are fundamentally harmful to her interests will teach terrorists - and their proxies - that their modus operandi always reaps ultimate rewards.

The Palestinian Authority is an Unreliable Peace Partner

It is equally obvious that the Palestinian Authority (the PA) is a singularly unreliable entity.

  • It has proved unable to stop the daily shelling of Israeli town and villages.
  • It has done nothing to stop terror.
  • Its schools continue to teach children to hate Israel, and to hope for the day that Israel will be destroyed.
  • It crumbled completely in the face of the terrorist Hamas organization, and even handed over to Hamas arms that were supplied to the PA by America.
  • The PA's weakness is demonstrated in the continuous Kassam attacks on Sderot since the Gaza disengagement and the resulting Hamas ascendancy in Gaza.  We are concerned that an IDF withdrawal from the West Bank or the division of Jerusalem would result in a similar Hamas takeover, and an ensuing barrage of Kassam rockets throughout the heartland of Israel, including major population centers and its capital, Jerusalem.
  • The PA under Abbas remains as corrupt as it was under Arafat. It does not have the backing of its own people, and is either unwilling or unable to live up to any promises it makes.

Given America's previous painful experience with the PA, America must not be gulled by the façade of smiles and lip service to peace. To make concrete concessions in exchange for the verbal commitments of such a "peace partner" poses a mortal danger to the future of Israel. Only solid evidence of a sustained and profound change in PA attitudes and actions can serve as a basis for serious negotiations.


We respectfully remind the American sponsors that Jerusalem is not merely a piece of territory. Since Biblical times Jerusalem has been and remains central to Jewish faith and practice. For Jews it is in fact the "holy city" par excellence. To barter even parts of its sovereignty away, or to weaken its Jewish character in exchange for some ephemeral pledges of "peace" from an unreliable PA, poses a severe threat to the very soul and morale of the Jewish State. An undivided Jerusalem is a statement of strength and faith ? and thus a guarantor of peace. A divided Jerusalem is a surrender to weakness which will ultimately become a festering sore that will create misery in the region.

The countries of the Middle East respect strength. A show of vacillation and weakness in support of Israel will give a green light to anti-American interests. A show of resolve and strength by the USA in support of Israel's integrity will buttress hopes for a lasting peace in the region.


This post was inspired by Dan's enlightening (as always) recent post about Jewish attitudes toward animals and, in particular, dogs.

He starts with what he calls a Jewish joke, but the joke is not particularly Jewish. Here is the Jewish version of that joke:

"A man goes with his dog to visit his rabbi, feeling terribly disheartened. He describes to the rabbi how special the dog it, how the dog knows how to read and write, play the piano and even sing. The rabbi, confused, tells the man that he should be thankful. He can take the show on the road and use the dog to make an incredible fortune. 'I know', wails the man, 'but the stinking mutt just wants to sit and learn!'"

Dan's post, which talks about dogs at religious ceremonies and in shul, also reminded me of a conversation I had with my 3-year old son on the way to shul this past Shabbat. As we were walking, we saw a man walking his dog and said 'Shabbat Shalom' to him. My son asked if the dog was going to shul. I told him that dogs don't really go to shul, and that it's not nice to bring dogs to shul. I added, though, that there are special dogs who help people see when their eyes don't work. Those special dogs can go to shul.

He absorbs this for a second and then asks, "What kind of cat can go to shul."


The Idiot Coefficient

The story described in the last post reminded me of an idea I came up with a while ago called the 'idiot coefficient'. The idea is that when one takes what one knows, and divides it by what one thinks one knows, one gets a ratio, a fraction of the number 1. The smaller the number, the bigger the idiot.

There are thus many, many highly intelligent and accomplished people out there who are complete and total idiots.


Let Me to Teach You English

Every day, I get a whole bunch of flyers in the mail offering various goods and services. I generally glance at them to see what's being offered, more out of curiosity and the prospect of free magnets than because I think I might actually make use of them (though I have patronized food establishments hat I thus learned of).

Today, I got a flyer from some Israeli woman offering English classes for kids and adults. She had a description of her services in Hebrew, surrounded by a Shel Silverstein poem in English. Thing is, she had spelled Shel Silverstein as 'Shell Silverstein'. This probably leapt out at me because I'm acutely sensitive to the plene or deficient spelling of words containing the letter 'l'. My own name has been misspelled countless ways. Furthermore, I assume that it would have been quite common for Jewish parents in the 1930s to name their children 'Sheldon', which shortens to 'Shel', yet quite uncommon for them to name their kids 'Shell' or even the oddly spelled 'Shelldon'.

Normally, I would think that this is an honest mistake, which, indeed, it really is. But when one is advertising as a private English tutor, one really ought to make sure he really has it right. Therefore, I called the number on the flyer in order to bring the error to her attention. She was somewhat embarrassed but very thankful that I took the time to call and point it out.

A few minutes later, she called me back, saying that she looked it up on Google and that it is indeed spelled with two 'l's, not one. Now it was my turn to be embarassed. I thought of retreating from language games back to the four 'l's of Halakha. I did not have internet access at that moment, so I called my sister, who is the proud owner of the complete works of Shel Silverstein. I asked her how the name is spelled on the cover: Shel. I called the woman back to tell her this, and suggested that though there may be a large number of hits when searching for 'Shell Silverstein', she might want to compare it to the number of hits for 'Shel Silverstein'. That was the end of our conversation.

Later, I did the searches myself. It's Shel. Shell is a misspelling, though a fairly common one. Still, one would expect more of an English teacher (or a Vice-President, for that matter). My kids will learn English by reading the prose and poetry of Shel himself, and not from a non-native-speaking teacher who misspells the man's name.


Conversion Collision Course

[Part II of this]

Yesterday, Haaretz reported about an initiative to set up conversion courts that will be independent of the Chief Rabbinate. It is being initiated by the usual suspects - Tzohar, Hakibbutz Hadati, et al - as part of their mounting campaign to replace the Rabbanut with something else (or, more likely, with a milder version of the same darn thing).

Today, they reported about Chief Rabbi Amar's visit to the USA to check out the RCA's revamped conversion procedures, their primary response to the Rabbanut's threat to pull the plug on accepting RCA conversions. This was a huge news item about a year and a half ago, both in the mainstream media and in the blogs (especially this one).

This juxtaposition highlights the schizophrenia that exists within the MO Rabbinate about these issues. On one hand, they (we) feel that their derech in life and in psak is legitimate and that they must stand up to the ever-more machmir and strident haredized rabbinic establishment. At the same time, they poo-poo the Rabbanut and keep making nice because they recognize that they are at the Rabbanut's mercy when it comes to recognizing giyur (this goes for both Rabbanim in the Diaspora and 'unfranchised' Rabbanim in Israel). The MO Rabbinate wants its own identity, yet lives in mortal fear that chareidi elements like the 'Vaad Horabbonim Haolami Leinyonei Giyur' or its bedfellow the Eternal Jewish Family will influence the Rabbanut to basically lump, with perhaps a few exceptions, MO Rabbis in with their Reform and Conservative colleagues.

Personally, I am a proponent of austritt. In order for it to work, though, a few things must happen. First of all, from the Rabbinic side of things, it must be war. No footsie-playing on the side. Tzohar flirts with the RCA (thinking that what the Israeli Rabbinate lacks is the proper training of Rabbis - which it thinks that organizations like YU, the OU, and the RCA can help solve with their great expertise and their massive stashes of US $$ - and not realizing that the real issue is accountability; the minute a community has the power to fire its Rabbi, the Rabbi becomes very, very interested in learning about pastoral counseling), and the RCA likes the attention but must also then kiss the Rabbanut's tuchis. Tzohar itself walks a tightrope between competing with the Rabbanut and playing by its rules. They have lately been declaring war more openly against the Rabbanut, especially with these giyur and kashrut initiatives, but still has to make sure, for its own purposes, that the public keeps faith in the idea of a Chief Rabbinate while working to depose the current one (Pesonally, I am against the idea of a Chief Rabbinate in any form, I just don't think the Israeli public is ready for that).

The second, and most important thing that must happen is the buy-in of the RCA and Tzohar's core constituency, namely, the dati rank-and-file, the kosher-keepers, those who care about Jewish observance. This constituency is different in Israel and America because in Israel there are no denominational affiliations, really. Tzohar can claim to represent the 'dati-lite' and the traditional segments of the population, whereas the RCA only represents Orthodoxy. Be that as it way, the Rabbanut itself lives and dies by public faith. Can this public faith be undermined?

It depends. With regard to kashrut, it's easy. The law can say who has the right to put a certificate in a store window, but it cannot tell people what to put or not put in their mouths. If the people do not think that a Rabbanut-certified restaurant is kosher, then the weight of the law will not get them in the building (unless there is an supplementary certification, which really does not threaten the Rabbanut as long as they get their check in order for the Badatz to get theirs). Similarly, if people are convinced that something is kosher despite the lack of certification, then the lack of a sticker will not serve as a deterrent (especially if it is certified by another agency). Thus, the Rabbanut’s kashrut apparatus relies on public faith (and, ultimately, the dues paid by the food seller)in their process. If that faith is undermined, then the apparatus collapses, laws notwithstanding. The Heiter Mechirah controversy has created a perfect storm for another organization to step in and usurp the Rabbanut's role.

With regard to marriage and conversion, it is much more complicated. To a degree, people can vote with their feet in these matters as well. They can live together out of wedlock. They can get married civilly in a foreign country. They can find a rabbi who is willing to (risk arrest and) perform an ‘unofficial’ halakhic wedding. Here again, public faith plays a role, but it is a bit more complicated: the cost of not playing ball with the Rabbanut is much higher. Of course, the Rabbanut wants people to get married in Israel, according to ‘the law of Moshe and Israel’; for the most part, the people want the same thing. If everyone would stop caring about whether the Rabbanut considers me Jewish or not, or stopped caring about marrying Jewish or about mamzerut, etc., then its power would be broken. But people do not want to stop caring.

Furthermore, kashrut makes money, but weddings and conversions do not. Registries and databases cost money (though not too much anymore), the Rabbi must spend a lot of time with the couple and on the ceremony, and the fact that the Rabbanut is so well funded - by the government - makes it difficult to imagine that people will put up the money for a new apparatus when their taxpayers' NIS already pay for a local Rabbi. This, ultimately, is the biggest problem of all. The Rabbis who are 'official' have very cushy jobs and much security. Those who do not will not be paid by private initiative, because there's simply no money for that. So people make do with the imperfect current situation. Tzohar has already done what it can with regard to marriage, even getting the Rabbanut to begin changing from within. Truly breaking the Rabbanut's monopoly, however, may take decades, and must begin with those few brave sould who are willing to actually break the law to have an unsanctioned but halakhic wedding or conversion.

Sealing Sodom's Fate

The city of Sodom is encountered three times during the story of Avraham. The first time is when Lot decides to take up residence there. Already then, the Torah reports that "the people of Sodom were very wicked sinners before God". The second time is during the war of the four kings against the five kings, where Avraham rescues the people of Sodom and returns them to its king. Finally, in next week's parsha, the city of Sodom is destroyed as punishment for its wickedness.

Why the wait? Sodom was wicked from the start; what happened between the first encounter, when Sodom is already wicked, and the third, when it is destroyed? The second encounter, of course.

In the second encounter, the King of Sodom meets Avraham. Their meeting is very awkwardly broken up by the apparently simultaneous meeting between Avraham and Malkitzedek. I think that the key to understanding Sodom's destruction lies in this encounter.

Avraham had just won a decisive battle. The people of Sodom had been captured and enslaved, and Avrhaham had come into possession of them and their belongings. And he gives it all back. he was entitled to the property and even the people, as the verses make clear. In fact, the Gemara (Nedarim 32a) finds fault with Avraham that he had the opportunity to bring the people of Sodom under the 'Wings of the Divine Presence' but did not. Had could have had, quite literally, a 'captive audience' for his Kiruv seminars. But he let them go, and even gave back their property, though he allowed his soldiers to justifiably partake from the spoils and also gives 10% to God (indeed, Abraham is seen here withstanding the last temptation of Christ well before Jesus does).

There are really two ways to look at Avraham at this point. Malkitzedek sees Avraham as a saint, someone blessed by God. Avraham fights and wins, but refuses the trappings of victory because he fights for God. The King of Sodom sees Avraham as a monumental frayer. After seeing Avraham part with 10% of the spoils, he tries to beg Avraham for help, and ends up getting even more than he was bargaining for.

We would expect that encountering such incredible magnanimity, that Sodom, starting with the king, might have taken it to heart. It's one thing to be cruel. Lots of people are cruel. It's another thing to be the beneficiary of charity, to truly encounter compassion and mercy at its best, and then to go right back to evil. If the point of Avraham's career was to spread the word of God through acts of kindness and love, then Sodom was his greatest failure, though not for lack of trying. They thus forfeited their claim on the land of Israel, as recorded in the words of the Nevi'im, and were destroyed.

RatRabbi II

Josh just posted his take on the picture of Reb Yeshayaleh of Kerestierer. He connects it to the Christian (or perhaps, taking it even further back, the pagan) idea of a patron saint. I had thought about that connection as well; truth is, it exists in pretty much every culture. That's why I don't think it's 'darkei ha-Emori'; people don't put up the picture to 'be like goyim. They put it up to get rid of the darn mice.

I think I figured out the secret to this segulah, though. As I was reading Josh's post, my 16-month old son was running around the room. when he saw the picture on my screen, he exclaimed "Cat! Meow!". I actually repeated the experiment twice more. He identified the picture as a cat in 2 of the 3 instances, and just looked and smiled in the third instance. So perhaps that's it; Reb Yeshayalah, in this picture, anyway, looks somewhat catlike. Perhaps there's something to this. I have heard of people hanging pictures of owls as a 'segulah' to ward off pigeons. Alternatively, my son has a limited vocabulary and his cognitive development has placed him at the beginning of the Piagettian stage of symbolic representation. If something moves but does not look like an immediate family member, it is a 'cat'. Mice, on the other hand, can probably distinguish between 'cat's' an 'things which move but do not like to eat us or kill us'.

Two harry Potter-related questions:

  1. Would a pic of Reb Yeshayaleh have warded off Scabbers? Might depend how the segulah works, no?
  2. What would Reb Yehsayaleh's Patronus have been? A mouse or a cat?

Finally, I have a cousin who works for a company which makes glue traps. I suggested to him that if he would start putting the picture of R' Yeshayaleh on the package, he would absolutely corner the Chassidishe mousetrap market, which is no doubt formidable. If you're reading this, I expect a cut ;-)


Past Lech Lecha Posts

For some reason, Lech Lecha seems to have a disproportionate number of past posts connected to it. Here they are:

I've got another one sitting in my belly; I hope to find the time to write it up.

Home Sweet Home

I'll be discharged today. The assumption is that it is indeed Guillian-Barre, though apparently an extremely mild case. There will be some follow-up, but it seems that I'm cured.

I don't know what contributed to the quick process. Early detection - I doubt I would have noticed anything wrong had I not been on a hike - and early treatment probably played a role. The fact that I'm still on the younger side of things (or so I keep telling myself) may have helped. And let's not forget prayer (the prayers of others; I'm not sure I davened for myself, other than the standard brachot in Shemoneh Esrei. I will 'bentch gomel' when I get the opportunity.

Some (like my wife) have mentioned my attitude as a factor, but I don't buy it. I'm not a big believer in 'mind over matter' or 'laughter is the best medicine' -type approaches. As Jack Handey said, “Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.”

I probably won't be posting so frequently once my nose gets back to the grindstone (and I'm actually very much looking forward to that), but that's to be expected. Here's a link to a fellow who I went to yeshiva with who is suffering from a rare blood disorder. He's got that mix of humor and information that I've been striving for, but he seems to be in for a much longer haul. Refuah Sheleimah. It's a great blog, but would probably be a bit weird if you don't actually know the guy.

I feel a bit guilty for absorbing so much sympathy for what ended up being a painless and relatively minor ailment, though I am certainly grateful for it. And, in truth, the very fact that I was away from home made things difficult there; it isn't easy to be a single parent. The help we had with the kids and with people cooking meals was fantastic.



YU vs. UMD II (link) - and while you're there, check out this. Seems like the Commie is getting pretty interesting.

NYT on SYs (link)

Interesting/cute videos:


Virtual Bikur Cholim

Yesterday, during his second prolonged visit to the hospital, my friend (and commenter and photographer) Elli Schorr and I discussed the meaning of the term' le-vaker' in its original sense. He contends, in a convincing manner, that it really means 'to concern one's self' or 'to contemplate'. From this, the modern opposing senses of 'to visit' and 'to criticize' or have a common ancestor. Perhaps 'bikur rofim' - 'doctor's check-up'  - maintains both senses. With this understanding, the FAQ about the apparent contradiction at the beginning of Psalm 27 (Le-David Hashem ori) between 'la-shevet' and 'le-vaker' fals away. le-vaker is not 'to visit', but 'to meditate upon', paralleling 'la-hazot' (to gaze upon) which also appears in the verse, as an activity that one does while dwelling in God's house.

there is an implication for the mitzvah of bikur cholim as well. Whereas the ubiquitous manner in which the mitzvah is generally performed is by actually visiting the ill, any act which manifests concern for the diseased or disabled falls under the rubric as well. This would include helping the sick person's family, but would also include virtual communication (phone, email, blog comments, facebook wall writing, etc.).

[In truth, the Schorrs helped us out once before, though without even realizing it. when our daughter Ruchama was born and spending a lot of time in the hospital (there are a few old blog posts about several aspects of this prolonged ordeal), we had a tremendous amount of help from a family who had gone through a hard time with their oldest daughter and were in position to help us cope with it. They, in turn, were helped by the Schorrs during their ordeal. The family in between has helped us out this time around as well and are also long-time readers and commenters on the blog. And the Burgers Bar was awesome ;-)]

For a while now, I have gotten the sense that this medium, the blog, this strange hobby which will soon celebrate its upsherin, has developed into something of a real community, albeit a virtual one. Sure it's about Torah, news, rants, or whatever else might occur to my ADD mind; but that obscures the fact that the conversation develops out of a real, though virtual, sense of community. Like you don't shmooz with someone at a kiddush unless the relationship is already there.

The outpouring of affection and concern that has come through as a result of my current situation has really reinforced that feeling. The virtual Bikur Cholim, which is a very real type of Bikur Cholim, has been wonderful. Clearly, the blog is only a part of it. the relationships are very real, and transcend whatever might happen because of a website. But the opportunity to share, to continue our conversation from my hospital bed, through emails, visits, phone calls, blog comments and posts on my facebook wall - especially those of you who have volunteered to get beaten like rented mules by playing Scrabble on-line with me (I'm 14-1 so far). Thanks also to the many people who have helped Pesha out with the kids. She's having the hardest time of all. It is all Bikur Cholim, plain and simple, if a bit unconventional.

Finally, whenever I hear about Bikur Cholim, this is the image that comes to mind:


Making Sense from Illness?

So I've been here for about 4 days now, and I've had ample opportunity to reflect on the situation. Many have commented to me that 'my spirit/ matzav ruach' has been excellent. That may well be. The way I see it, there's really no reason to be down. If I were in pain, it might be different. But I'm not, so why shouldn't I continue to have a good time?

Additionally, this relates to the whole 'why' question. Should I be asking why something like this happens? Is there an answer? Personally, I haven't really asked the question seriously. Perhaps that's a Calvinesque response: there's a strip in which he and Hobbes get into a sledding accident and Calvin says "Careful, we don't want to learn any lessons from this." i think this is fundamentally different, though. There, he is actively making sure that experience is not a teacher. In my case, there's no 'experience' to learn from. I did not get into this situation by making some type of error in judgment, at least not in any type of physical causal sense.

Therefore, my attitude is simply to try making the best of an annoying situation. For years now, I have tried to live by an attitude whereby I live life as it comes, not trying to live too much in the past, not trying to mortgage too much to the future. The situation is what it is - no sense dwelling on the coulda, shoulda, wouldas if it will just create a sense of despondency and despair. By all means, take stock, learn from the past; but don't dote on it. Life is happening now. So as I sit here in the hospital, I refuse to feel sorry for myself (though I do feel sorry for my wife, who is truly bearing the brunt of my absence) or to think of this predicament as 'punishment'. It's life. It happens. I will judge myself only the way I handle the situation, and will not entertain metaphysical questions.

As an exercise in my own amusement, perhaps with a bit of a cutting edge, I've thought about the possible spiritual 'causes' for this illness.

The first possibility relates to the fact that this is an autoimmune condition. My father suggested that I have been selling myself short in various aspects of my professional life. I've been 'attacking' myself, weakening myself by settling for subpar opportunities. Perhaps. Definitely something to think about for the long term. Heck, I'm 31 and have no idea what I'll be doing in 5 years.

Another idea is that since this affects my walking, it could reflect a flaw in my 'halicha' in a broader sense. Perhaps I am not serious enough about 'halakha'. perhaps I need to re-think my stance on life, my path toward God, or my commitment to Torah (cf. Rashi to 'im bechukotai telechu')

Alternatively, this condition affects my antibodies, which, in Hebrew, are called 'nogdanim'. Perhaps I'm a bit too contrarian, and should shut this blog down. Nah.

Finally, this condition attacks the myelin sheath around the nerves. I'm literally getting on my own nerves. Perhaps this is because I have gotten on the nerves of others.

These are all things worth thinking about, yet none of them will make me lose sleep. I'll keep trying to become a better guy, whether or not I have GBS. At least I hope so.

JUST RECIEVED: A picture of me undergoing plasmapheresis



Long Lost Relatives

On the first day of Sukkot, while looking at some old family pictures at my parents’ home, I came across some photos that my mother had taken when she visited Germany about 15 years ago. The pictures were of the graves of my great-great grandparents, Reuven and Sarah Gummersheimer. I had not known much about my maternal grandfather’s family, and certainly not about his grandparents. His surname was Levi, which makes it very hard to trace any genealogies, since there are many, many Levis out there. But how many Gummersheimers could there be? I decided to try a bit of research on the Gummersheimer family name after Yom Tov.

After a bit of searching, I came across this website of a fellow who has been researching his own family tree for several decades. He had two Ruben Gummersheimers listed in this particular family tree. One had the same birth date, but slightly different death date, than what appears on the headstone. He also was the son of Benedikt Gummersheimer, which would correspond to the Baruch which appears on the headstone. The death date confusion could be explained by something hard to read on the headstone concerning moving dates and the actual death date. In the family tree, Ruben’s wife and any descendants are not mentioned.

Feeling confident that I had discovered a long-lost relative, I contacted the siteowner and introduced myself. Not surprisingly, we are indeed distant relatives. Moreover, the fellow, who is approaching 90, lives just a few blocks away from where I grew up, in Baltimore, and lives even closer to where my grandfather, Ruben Gummersheimer’s grandson, used to live. So I asked my new-found cousin if he even knew my grandfather, Eric Levi, since they lived so close.

As it turns out, this gentleman, in the early 1980s, had come into possession all sorts of family documents in German, and was ready to throw it all away. Coincidentally, around that time he met my grandfather, who encouraged him to pursue genealogical research and offered to translate the documents into English. While going through the documents, he saw that some of this man’s ancestors hailed from the southwestern German town of Bonfeld. My grandfather mentioned that he also had relatives in Bonfeld and that perhaps, someday, they would discover a family connection.

My grandfather passed away in 1992. Fifteen years later, I stumbled across this man’s web-based research and made the family connection.



A few weeks ago, there was a complaint in the nursery school of my son that there are mice in the building. before American readers become horrified, you should know that major construction sites in Israel often cause rodent problems. Their habitats are destroyed, and they look for new places to hang out. The school is right near a construction site, so the appearance of a mouse is not shocking.

Tuesday afternoon, before the doctor's visit that landed me in the hospital, I picked my son up at school. I noticed a picture of an old Jewish looking fellow which was captioned as a 'segulah' against mice and other harmful things. I saw the name, but couldn't get enough of a handle on it to figure out who it is. Later, speaking to a friend who tends to know about this kind of thing. He said that the name of the Rebbe in question is Reb Yeshayaleh Steiner of Kerestirer:

I found some interesting stories about him. For example, here it says:

His picture is believed by many Jews to be an amulet of protection. Many store keepers in Israel have his picture in their stores to keep away mice. In the picture one can see that the Rebbe was facing down. Legend says that once Rabbi Chaim of Sanz placed his hands on Reb Yeshayale's head to bless him. From that point on, Reb Yeshayale never raised his head. He was known as a miracle worker and a great baal chesed. Thousands came to his funeral. At one point during the eulogies, the mail man from the town, who was not Jewish, spoke up in the middle and said "You don't have any idea who this man was. I personally handled his mail, and I know that he himself supported hundreds of poor families throughout Hungary."

HydePark also has a discussion about Reb Yeshayele, including the origins of his reputation for control over the rodent population. Two stories are mentioned: one is that he sent the local mice to the house of some local nobleman who was giving the Jews a hard time. This story includes eyewitness accounts of the mice marching in unison through the city to said nobleman's house. The second story describes how Reb Yeshayaleh promised someone who was sentenced to death for evading conscription would be saved. That night, mice entered the archive and destroyed the record of the guy's crime.

It's interesting that this nursery school, run by Chabad, would put up a picture of a Hungarian Rebbe whose Chasssidus has ties to Satmar, Chabad's nemesis. I guess pest control knows no ideological barriers. I hope they tried other 'segulos' as well, like laying traps.

As one of the HydePark commenters notes, it is easy to disbelieve these stories. Except that when I downloaded the picture to my computer, my mouse froze up!

Hospitalization Update

It's been pretty firmly diagnosed as GBS. I had a lumbar puncture today, and it was so much fun that I asked if I could have another. I also had my first round of plasmapheresis today. I'll have 2 more next week, and we'll see how things are going.

I've been moved from a small room with a great view and only 2 roommates to a big room with no view and a whole bunch of roommates who make all sorts of loud noises by moaning and various bodily functions through the night. Facebook Scrabble has been an excellent distraction.

To answer a question many have been asking, yes, having visitors has been great. I've had family and friends here much of the time, and I really appreciate it. Those of you who have offered to help on the 'home front' have been great as well - and we will definitely take you up on it!

With all this free time, I've taken on a few projects. I plan to read the entire Wikipedia during this hospitalization. And I have a few other books here as well.

The doctors continue to be outstanding, answering my questions and making me feel well taken care of.

Anyhow, I'm still on my feet and walking funny, but not in any pain other than some back ache (and when there are needles in my limbs and spine). I'll continue posting updates.


Blogging from my Hospital Bed

Thank God, I was blessed with excellent health for the first 31 years of my life. Year #32 has seen the first time I was ever admitted into a hospital as a patient. I am blogging from my hospital bed at Hadassah-Ein Karem.

I went to the hospital yesterday afternoon because of a strange feeling that I had been having in my back and legs. I had even fallen, just fallen flat on the ground, twice. My local doctor advised me to go to the hospital to get it checked out. There are a few hypotheses that they are checking out, but the main working assumption is that I have a condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. It's a bit scary, but generally runs its course. So I may be here in the hospital for a while - a month or more, even. I have the ability - and plenty of time - to blog, so I'll probably be posting fairly frequently, at least until the syndrome peaks and I am more or less debilitated. I'll update my status and prognosis as I can.

The last few days, I've been walking around like someone from the Ministry of Silly Walks:

YU Commie on UMD

Link: Univ. of Maryland's Growth Poses Problem for YU - Features

The article hits the nail on the head, but misses a few things:
1. It didn't interview any ACTUAL UMD students about why they chose it over YU.
2. It reflects a typical YU bias that people need a darn good reason not to attend a small, all male, very expensive, NCAA Division III, academically 'ok' college in a bad neighborhood. To the contrary, one needs a really good reason to attend. Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of great reasons to attend YU. I went, my wife went (and we met there - that's a good reason, no?), and we are proud YU alumni. I even grew up in Maryland and attended YU. But I sought it out because I was looking for what it had to offer; it was not the 'default' option, which other institutions had to dislodge in order to vie for my attendance.
3. The article makes it seem that the community at UMD is made up of kids from Maryland. That is clearly the largest group, and, indeed, I believe that it was a critical mass of Maryland kids which made it more attractive for students from other locales. At this point, though, they're getting students from everywhere, including a whole bunch from the New York area. 3 or 4 years ago already, the ZMaimonides school in Boston published a list of its graduating class and where they were attending college. There was more UMD on the list than YU. UMD is getting significant numbers from orthodox communities in Chicago, Minneapolis, Columbus, Atlanta, Boston, and South Florida, to name a few.
4. There are even a few things that UMD has on YU from a religious perspective. Most notably: Shabbat at UMD is much nicer.


Thanks for Linking

This guy linked to my post about the Sesame Street song 'Put Down the Duckie'. He must've found me via a Google search. I guess he was excited about finding my blog, because this is what he wrote (translation mine):
... on the ADDeRabbi blog, the Rabbi writes about children's songs and notes that there is an important Jewish lesson in them (yes, a rabbi writes a blog, and in that blog is a post, and in that post - a Sesame Street song. So you say, ahh... another cool Manhattan rabbi. No, he lives in Modiin. You thought the blogosphere was you and your friends? Think again.).
I haven't had the change to really look at the blog, but I'll take the risk because I can't but reccomend a blog with the headline:
On The Contrary: Judaism with Comments Enabled - הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולה בה. אתר די ביה יחדון רוחין ונפשין.
Nice. He even seems to get double entendre in the byline.

NYT on Shemittah and Heiter Mechirah

As Farmers and Fields Rest, a Land Grows Restless - New York Times

Is this the first time that shemittah has gotten so much play in the mainstream media? I mean, NYT, al-jazeera, AP. It's amazing.


ADDeRabbi in the Jewish Week

I was quoted and this blog post (the review of the ArtScroll Women's Siddur which first gained this blog some real attention) excerpted in a Jewish Week article on said siddur. Although I have been quoted in the mainstream media before, this is the first time that the blog has been.

I've been thinking about trying to move more toward mainstream media outlets, either as a reporter, analyst, or columnist. Perhaps this will be the start of something.

Why Do We Need the ‘Heiter Mechirah’ this Year?

by Rabbi David Stav

[translation is mine, as are mistranslations; Rabbi Stav is the Rabbi of the city of Shoham, is a leader of the Tzohar rabbinic organization, and is a major force behind Tzohar's initiative to create an alternative Kashrut organization, to compete with the Chief Rabbinate. This is not an endorsement or a rejection of his arguments or conclusions.]

Encountering the septennial ‘heiter mechirah’ ought to leave every observant Jew feeling uneasy. We strive, religiously and nationally, to fulfill the Torah’s commandments down to the last detail, especially a mitzvah as beloved as Shemittah, which serves as a socio-religious paradigm for the relationship between man and beast, man and society, and man and God. Many of us are familiar with the words of Our Sages, echoing the Torah and the words of the Prophets, which connect failure to observe Shemittah with exile from the Promised Land. Yet the heiter mechirah, even if it covers the appropriate halakhic bases, literally pulls the land out from beneath our feet. Thus, the feelings of unease are well explained.

It is important to emphasize that we are, first and foremost, men of halakha and therefore must determine, before all else, whether this dispensation has halakhic validity. Afterwards, it must be ascertained whether there is a pressing need to constrain the halakha in a manner inconsistent with its Biblical spirit and goals. A detailed analysis of the halakhic validity of the heiter mechirah is beyond the scope of this article. While it is worth mentioning that Shemittah nowadays, according to the majority of halakhic authorities, is of Rabbinic origin, we must not forget that there is a handful of medieval authorities, including Me’iri and Ra’avad, who believed that Shemittah does not apply nowadays at all, and is observed only as a supererogatory act of piety. Our Rabbis have taught that under extenuating circumstances, opinions which are not generally accepted as normative can be relied upon. Thus, if we combine the minority opinion that Shemittah need not be observed at all nowadays with those that rule that the ‘heiter mechirah’ sale is effective, those who rely on the sale definitely have whom to rely upon.

Furthermore, this obviates the issue of the Rabbinic decree against ‘sefichin’ (produce from annual plants, which the Rabbis banned out of concern that farmers would plant them during Shemittah but claim that they grew wild), since we have a general principle that we rule leniently when there is a case of doubt regarding a Rabbinic prohibition. In this instance, the prohibition is based on several Rabbinic laws, one on top of the other (like the Rabbinic prohibition against sefichin on top of the Rabbinic status of Shemittah in general). Thus, there is certainly room to be lenient.

Although the above-outlined methodology seems like a type of legal fiction, in this regard it is no different than its predecessors like the ‘heiter iska’ which allows banks and investors to obviate the unanimously Biblical prohibition against charging interest, or permission for the ‘mechirat chametz’ before Pesach, obviating another unanimously Biblical prohibition, or Hillel’s ‘prozbul’ permit which allows lenders to avoid forgiving loans at the end of the Shemittah year.

When the issue is the prohibition against interest or chametz and is directly relevant to the sustenance of society and the economy, or, in simpler terms, when the issue existentially threatens the community’s livelihood, Israel’s giants knew how to find the proper halakhic approach to insuring the people’s sustenance in accordance with Jewish law. This being the case, one may legitimately ask what fatal flaw was found in the heiter mechirah which, after all, obviates a possible Rabbinic prohibition. It is hard to find a satisfying answer, unless the question of the econocim wellbeing of the country’s farmers simply does not bother or preoccupy its opponents. The inquirer may persist and ask if it is not true that although the heiter mechira was once necessary, when the entire Jewish community in Israel was threatened, but that today, when agriculture does not play such a central role in national life, the farmers’ problems can be solved by a system of monetary arrangements.

My answer to that question is severalfold, but, in short, the need for the heiter mechira is greater than ever for the following reasons:

a) Today as well, thousands of families earn a living from agriculturally-based industries (including processing and transporting), and failure to implement a heiter mechira can destroy their livelihood for years to come. Furthermore, the scope of the problem is not just a few thousand families, as important as that may be. No self-respecting sovereign nation can afford to forego economic independence and basic production. This would be the case if Israel would lose its export markets by stopping production during Shemittah.

b) Neglecting property will create a situation whereby Arabs control the land. This is a neglect of the mitzvah to settle the Land of Israel and is empowers non-Jewish control of the land, thereby violating the prohibition of ‘Lo Techanem’.

c) Preferring Israeli or Palestinian Arab produce at the expense of Israeli Jewish produce supports, directly or indirectly, their foothold in the land and our enemies’ foothold in the land. We recently heard Hamas wishing that every year was a Shemittah year so that Jews could continue strengthening Gaza’s economy. Do we really want to fund terror organizations in order to avoid a debatable Rabbinic prohibition?

d) All agree that many farmers will not obey the laws of Shemittah if no heiter mechira is available. The practical ramifications of this fact are that produce that is prohibited under the ban on sefichin will enter into the market. In such a situation, many markets and food manufacturers will not be kosher. Many people will not be deterred by this, and will consume non-kosher food. The ultimate result would be the erosion of the Chief Rabbinate’s kosher certification network. Restaurants and food outlets that know that they will be unable to obtain kosher certification will simply opt to completely forego any kosher standards. For one who already views heiter mechira produce as ‘treif’, this would make no difference, because he treats the entire system as a failure. However, one who is aware that the Chief Rabbinate’s kosher-certification network is what prevents the entire country from reverting to non-kosher consumption has a responsibility toward all of Israel to ensure that the relatively good and stable system currently in place remains. Is it possible that people do not know or do not care that the Chief Rabbinate’s kosher-certification network would collapse? Do they not care that many Jews in Israel, the majority of whom consume only kosher food, will start eating non-kosher if there are no readily available alternatives? Is it possible that the shemittah import industry is guided by ulterior motives that can cause the ruin of others?

There is no doubt in my mind that Israel’s greatest sages, if they were aware of the repercussions of disqualifying the heiter mechira, would behave differently and would understand that, at the very least, the broader public should be allowed to rely on it.

It is worth mentioning that the Chazon Ish (R’ Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, major halakhic authority during the first half of the 20th Century), who vehemently opposed the heiter mechira, was sensitive to the plight of Israel’s farmers and ruled leniently in order to enable them to grow their produce during shemittah and encouraged its consumption. It is unfortunate that those who consider themselves his followers are busy certifying produce from Jordan and territories hostile to Israel, and do not attempt to nurture Israeli agriculture in a manner that befits a representative of God’s Torah.


Black Eyed Peas

So the Rebbetzin was perusing her Moosewood Cookbook over Yom Tov, and came across a recipe for black-eyed peas which, according to the book, was customarily eaten in various locales in the United States – mostly Southern, but including Boston as well – on New Year’s eve. This piqued my interest, because I was well aware that black-eyed peas are one of the Rosh Hashana simanim, associated with rubia (link and link). I wondered if there is some connection between the two. After all, it seems incredible that two cultures would independently evolve a custom of eating black-eyed peas on their respective New Yers’ Eve.

Alas, it seems to be just that: a complete coincidence. The Jewish custom of eating black-eyed peas appears to have originated amongst Egyptian Jews, who associated this legume with the Talmudic rubia. The American custom originated in the South, though the source is debated. Some say it symbolizes coins, and is consumed with leafy green vegetables, which symbolize paper money, as a ‘siman’ for a prosperous year. Others eat it together with ham-hocks or hog-jowls, which all of a sudden makes the head of a sheep sound delicious. Another theory says that General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops thought black-eyed peas were animal food or weeds when they scorched the rest of the earth, so the Southerners were thankful for the black-eyed peas that New Year’s. Others say there wasn’t much else to eat. Another idea is that peas were good at replenishing the soil, so having peas one year was a good sign for the coming year’s prosperity. You can see all sorts of theories here.

The only idea that might connect the two is that the idea of black-eyed peas as good luck originated with African slaves, which would put the origin of the two customs on the same continent. And no explanation for these customs can make it taste good.