Monday, March 31, 2008

Lighten up, Rabbi! ... not

[This week's Haveil Havalim is up!]

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, 2003-
Lighten up
to be less serious about something. People are usually relieved when they're given a chance to lighten up.
Usage notes: often used as an order: When she complained that these people were being treated badly, he told her, “Lighten up.”

To which I would add: A two-word expression which should be abolished from the English language, particularly when used as an order.

"Lighten up" is so presumptuous, so judgmental, so heavy-handed - and often so wrong for the situation.

I will grant that I am particularly sensitive, perhaps hyper-sensitive, on this point; I am, from time to time, on the receiving end of this instruction (or "Rabbi, you're such a misnaged!"). I go to a celebration after seeing a pain-riddled person in the hospital or after sitting with a bereaved family, and if I’m not the life of the party I can generally count on at least one person to try to pull me into the middle of it, and to accuse me of being a ‘party-pooper’ if I hang back.

Now, my case may be somewhat different, because a rabbi is supposed to be able to lighten up:
-First, my role is professional, so that some expect me to be able to compartmentalize.
-Second, my professional role includes celebrating happy occasions with people, not only being a compassionate listener and counselor.
-Third, in my fishbowl role, my joy is supposed to catalyze joy in others. But, in truth, people don’t only do this to me – they do it to everyone, and with a very heavy hand.

I see it at a shul Purim Seudah or during Simchas Torah dancing, with attempts to draw wallflowers into the middle of the action. There are legitimate reasons why many of these people hang back: a close relative in the hospital, a bereavement marked at this time of year, a job concern, physical pain, an issue of alcoholism, a problem with diet. But not everyone thinks of those possibilities; it's easier to simply grab people and try to pull them in.

“Lighten up” has many roots and motivations, among them:
- A well-intentioned religious belief of מצוה גדולה להיות בשמחה, that it’s religiously proper for people to celebrate life with joy.
- The presumption that those who are not celebrating do not have a worthwhile reason for failing to celebrate.
- The reality that Debbie Downer drags down the celebration of others.
- That Cambridge line up top – the pervasive belief that “People are usually relieved when they're given a chance to lighten up.”

But some forethought is worthwhile before approaching someone to try to relieve his mood. Specifically, it might be wise to contemplate two indicators before demanding a jubilant smile:

1) Body language – Does this person seem to want to participate? Is he held back only by a lack of confidence? Is he held back by apathy? Or does he seem more psychologically comfortable remaining on the sidelines?

2) The person’s life circumstances – Do I know anything about why this person might not want to participate? Does this person ever participate? Might this be something I could discuss with him, more thoughtfully, on other occasion?

I do hate to spoil the fun of the Lighteners – but from my own experience, and from the experiences people have reported to me, it would be wise for the self-appointed Lighteners to lighten up their approach, first.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Daf: Nazir 11a-17b


Some very interesting notes here. Again, you’ll want a gemara to get most of them.

Tosafos ואם explains an interesting psychological point regarding social drinking, writing that “it is the way of people to push a person who is drunk to drink more.” This is something with which we are, regrettably, quite familiar.

Tosafos דהוי notes that you can have a proxy שליח bring your nazir korbanot, but you cannot have a proxy be a nazir on your behalf.

The gemara at the bottom of 11b to 12a is the source of a classic explanation of the Pesach Haggadah’s assertion that לבן בקש לעקור את הכל, that Lavan wished to ‘uproot everything.’ The argument, based on a midrash, goes that Lavan (with his father Betuel) tried to kill Eliezer when Eliezer came to find a wife for Yitzchak. This would have left Yitzchak unable to wed, since he wouldn’t know whether he was marrying the mother/daughter of his mekudeshes fiancee.
Aside from the obvious weakness that Eliezer was only to take a wife for Yitzchak from a certain family, Tosafos אסור points out that technically one could still marry in this situation, and the prohibition described in the gemara would be a קנס - which wouldn’t apply to Yitzchak, because he wasn’t the one who appointed the shaliach in the first place. (Although, come to think of it: How could Avraham appoint a proxy shaliach to be mekadesh a woman for Yitzchak?!)

On the use of תיבעי in place of תיקו, which we also saw in Nedarim, see the Rosh on 18b who points out that the language used in Nazir, like that in Nedarim, is unusual.

Regarding Rav, it’s odd that the gemara needs to ask for a basis for his position – why can’t we just quote the discussion from back on 5-6? Perhaps this is why Tosafos ורב explains that our problem is specifically the opposition between Rav and our mishnah.

The phrase מה נפשך is often mis-translated. נפש in Aramaic is often used to mean רצון, desire. So the translation is “What is your desire?”

Regarding the debate about a person who takes a vow of nezirus while in a cemetery, see Nedarim 4a (as noted here by R’ Akiva Eiger) on the whole question of applying בל תאחר to a Nazir.

Why should he get lashes here for taking a vow of nezirus when he is tamei? Where is the deed? The Ranshburg notes at the bottom of the page propose some very interesting ideas regarding the principle that one doesn’t receive lashes for a sin of inaction, a לאו שאין בו מעשה.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Derashah: Shemini 5768 - The Appeal of Jeremiah Wright

After a month of hearing about Jeremiah Wright this and Jeremiah Wright that, I finally gave in and watched the video of his famous sermons: the 9/11 sermon, the “Gd Darn America” sermon, the whole bit.

Honestly, I sometimes wish I had license to speak with that kind of animation and monochrome passion, that kind of shout-at-the-rafters anger… but it doesn’t work here. Our crowd tends to be sensitive to nuance and to loathe extremes; waxing passionately salivary about some potential evil yields responses like, “Well, that’s interesting,” “To each his own” and “Are you sure we need to be so harsh?”

For example, look at this potential dvar torah for Parshas Shemini:
I could condemn Nadav and Avihu, who enter the Mishkan disrespectfully while drunk and are struck down by Divine fire.

I could rant that to a person who owns no respect for the mishkan, for avodah, for HaShem, Judaism is just one snack at a lifelong party, just a step along our way to satisfying physical lusts. Partaking in a kiddush is chowing down at a buffet, the avodah of a korban is no different from bloodthirsty butchery, it’s all one big bacchanalia.

I could then fire it up and say that it is this bacchanalia which Gd punishes, which Gd must punish. These people who used religion, who turned their Divine essence toward physical satisfaction, they got what they deserved.

Or how about this tirade: We, today, live in a world of Nadav and Avihu. A world of empty religion, of empty prayer, of empty mitzvot. A world in which a Jew can get drunk on Kosher wine, can stuff himself with Kosher food, can take extravagant trips around the world for Pesach, can fill his den wall with a large-screen TV and kiss the mezuzah on his way into the room to show how pious he is, and all along not give a dime to tzedakah.

Then I could go all-out Jeremiah Wright, point a finger in the air and shout: Those people are Nadav and Avihu, and our parshah provides us a grave warning about what happens to those people, to Nadav and Avihu, with their fancy cars and stylish clothes. Nadav and Avihu burn in Divine fire!

And then I could really have fun: Those people who neglect their souls, people who think this world is about eating, drinking, and merriment, people whose concept of religion is that it’s a fun thing to do on Shabbos morning to make them feel better about what they do the rest of the week - they had better watch the skies, because what came for Nadav and Avihu is coming for them, too!

Now: Fast-forward to the kiddush conversations: Rabbi, that’s pretty strongly worded! Are you saying that we shouldn’t enjoy this world at all?

And fast-forward to the lunch table: Did you hear what the rabbi said? The rabbi said that people who go to hotels for Pesach are going to burn!

So it doesn’t play here - But we know there are places in the Jewish and non-Jewish world where these speeches do play well, and it’s important that we understand who responds to such speeches, and why.

That Nadav and Avihu dvar torah would play very well in a low-income church, or a run-down shtiebel or mosque for that matter, with people who bitterly resent a world of pleasure they cannot afford, and they therefore condemn.

That sort of dvar torah would resonate with cynically self-righteous people who think everyone else is guilty of gross impiety, and with teenagers in the throes of adolescent rebellion, who think they’ve discovered the true meaning of life.

That sort of dvar torah would even ring true among wealthy people who carry a burden of parents or grandparents who were oppressed, or people who find comfort in feeling that the world is against them.

Demagoguery works with people who are angry. Demagoguery works with people who want to be angry.

Our chachamim were wary of this; they called it איבה, enmity, and they proposed a solution for it: They instructed us to act in דרכי שלום, ways that would build peace with the nations around us, that would make us partners with the world instead of setting us in opposition.

We’ve discussed, on other occasions, avoding arousing jealousy in those around us. We don’t flaunt such success as we might have. But beyond that, we try to build up positive feelings with דרכי שלום. Therefore, the gemara says מבקרין חולי עכו"מ עם חולי ישראל, we should be certain to visit non-Jewish patients along with Jewish patients, מפרנסין עניי עכו"מ עם עניי ישראל, we support non-Jewish charities while supporting Jewish charities, and to take care of general communal social needs even as we take care of Jewish social needs.

Lest one think that דרכי שלום is some petty after-the-fact rationalization for assimilation, these are the words of the Gemara: “כל התורה כולה דרכי שלום היא, שנאמר "דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום" - The entire Torah is about paths of peace, as it is written, ‘Its ways are pleasant, and all of its paths are peace.’”

Of course, this isn’t about helping others at the expense of our own immediate family - but it is about building affordable bridges to the larger human community, a practical consideration for a Jew living in a very angry world, a world eager to assign blame for its ills.

Which brings me back to our reaction to Jeremiah Wright’s speeches. All the chain emails and newspaper columns and worries about Senator Barack Obama in the world won’t change the fact that Jeremiah Wright found a ready and welcoming audience for his venom in that Chicago church - just watch the video of the cheering crowd! There are an awful lot of angry people who are ready to blame you and me for their own suffering, or the suffering of their ancestors.

I believe that our response must be to embrace the gemara’s model of דרכי שלום, of community-wide initiatives which build bonds with the larger human world out there.

One such initiative is coming up on April 6th. I mentioned this project a few weeks ago, but not many people from our shul have signed up. It’s a community service day, involving Jews and non-Jews, for everyone. One project, which our own shul will be chairing, is for the Holocaust Resource Center at Lehigh. There are many more projects, such as work at shelters, Turning Point, housing construction sites and more.

I have known my own anti-Semitism, from being attacked in a mall by a couple of larger kids when I was all of five years old, to facing a group on a subway late one night when I was in college. I can’t say that our דרכי שלום would prevent attacks like those; there will always be angry people, and there will always be people who want to blame others for their problems, and so will be open to the Jeremiah Wrights.

Nonetheless, every step we can take will be positive, on April 6th and beyond, and can only help.

1. I still wish I could do the rant-and-rave thing every once in a while. It looks like a lot of fun.

2. I actually had much more in the Nadav/Avihu section, but the good Rebbetzin advised me to take it out. She thought people would think I was serious.... and who's to say I'm not?...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Erev Pesach on Shabbos, First Seder Saturday Night

[A late link to Haveil Havalim; and I trust that counts for "Link to Jack" day...]

I distributed the following article to my shul, covering the nuances of observing Pesach in this year's calendar - Erev Pesach being Shabbos, the first Seder being Saturday night. Note that all times are Allentown, PA-specific.

Note, as well, that I did not offer the Egg Matzah solution for the Shabbat meals. The reasons are beyond the scope of this post.

Pesach 2008/5768
Frequently Asked Questions

This year, 2008 / 5768, Pesach begins on a Saturday night. This creates a whole slew of questions, some more obvious than others. When do we prepare the Seder? When do we burn the Chametz?
Here is a primer on Pesach 2008/5768, handling some of the issues which arise. Of course, please call me (610-433-6089) or email me ( if you have any questions which this FAQ does not clarify. Note that all times mentioned are appropriate only for Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Section 1: When is our Chametz sold?

Chametz is sold with a sale which takes effect on the morning before Pesach.

This year’s problem:
We cannot sell our Chametz in the normal manner, since we don’t arrange sales to take place on Shabbat.
If we were to sell our Chametz on Friday, we would run into a different problem – if we were to then have leftover Chametz from our Shabbat meals, we could not add Chametz and Chametzdik utensils to the area containing the pre-sold Chametz.

Two solutions:
1. The sale is contracted before Shabbat, stipulating that the sale includes Chametz located in the pre-designated sites on Shabbat morning at a time right before ownership of Chametz becomes prohibited.
2. Many authorities do not accept the idea of a sale which becomes binding on Shabbat. Therefore, they create sales that are effective before Shabbat, and they do not permit Chametz to be added to those sold areas during Shabbat.

Section 2: When do we search for Chametz?

We search for Chametz on the night before Pesach.

This year’s problem:
We cannot conduct the search on Friday night, since the search involves moving a light from room to room in conducting the search.
We cannot conduct the search on Friday morning, either; the sages interpreted biblical verses to indicate that the search should be conducted by candlelight, which is most effective at night.

The solution:
We search on Thursday night, April 17th, when the stars emerge, at 8:26 PM. Before searching we recite the blessing of “Al Biur Chametz,” and the “Kol Chamira;” these may be found in the standard Artscroll Siddur on pg. 655. The blessing marks the beginning of our destruction of Chametz; the “Kol Chamira” paragraph (the first of two printed in the Siddur) annuls our ownership of any Chametz which has escaped our notice.

Section 3: When do we burn Chametz?

We burn our Chametz on the day before Pesach, before the 6th hour of the day. “Hours” are determined by dividing the time between sunrise and sunset into twelve equal parts; each part is an “hour.”

This year’s problem:
We cannot burn Chametz on Shabbat.
Technically, one may destroy Chametz by other means, even on Shabbat, but we would like to preserve the practice of burning Chametz.

The solution:
To preserve the practice of burning Chametz, we burn our Chametz on Friday, April 18th, at the normal time – before 11:28 AM. We do not recite any blessing at that time.
On Shabbat, after we finish eating Chametz, we dispose of the remaining Chametz in the manner recorded in Section 7 below.

Section 4: When do we say “Kol Chamira,” annulling our ownership of Chametz?

In an ordinary year, we recite one version of the “Kol Chamira” paragraph when searching for Chametz at night, and a second version when burning the Chametz on the next morning. (Both versions may be found in the standard Artscroll Siddur, page 655.) The language we use in the nighttime paragraph allows us to save some Chametz to use at breakfast. The language we use in the second paragraph, when we burn the Chametz, states that we annul our ownership of all Chametz.

This year’s problem:
We cannot recite the second version of “Kol Chamira” when burning our Chametz on Friday, because we are keeping some Chametz for use on Shabbat.

The solution:
We do not recite the second “Kol Chamira” when burning our Chametz. We recite the first version when we search for Chametz, on Thursday night. We recite the second version of “Kol Chamira” on Shabbat morning, before 11:27 AM, after having disposed of Chametz as described in Section 7 below.

Section 5: When do the first-born sons fast?

The first-born sons fast on the day before Pesach, commemorating the fact that they were saved from the plague of the first-born in Egypt.

This year’s problem:
We do not fast on Shabbat. We do not fast on Friday, either, since fasting would cause people to enter Shabbat in discomfort.

The solution:
The fast is conducted on Thursday.
Attending a celebration honoring a Mitzvah exempts one from fasting. One popular option is to attend a “Siyum” celebrating completion of a course of Torah study.

Section 6: How do we serve Chametz food on Shabbat, April 19th?

Utensils which are used with Chametz may not be washed on Shabbat. This is because rinsing the utensils of Chametz would be an act of preparation for Pesach, and one may not prepare for Pesach during this Shabbat.
Therefore, one should use paper and plastic utensils, and dispose of them in the manner described in Section 7 below.

The table:
One who is eating Chametz should eat at a table which will not be used for food on Pesach. The requirements for cleaning a surface which will not come into contact with food on Pesach are relatively lax; one need only clean off all visible Chametz, and the job is done.
Alternatively, prepare the table for Pesach before Shabbat and cover it with a disposable plastic cover. After the meal, dispose of the tablecloth in the manner described in Section 7 below. (Remember to place the Shabbat candlesticks somewhere other than this table before lighting Shabbat candles.)

Hot foods:
All hot foods should be prepared before Shabbat as Pesach foods, with Pesach utensils, which should be kept apart from Chametz and from Chametz utensils.

Section 7: What do we do with Chametz which remains after the Shabbat meals?

Chametz and Chametzdik utensils which remain may be disposed of in one of four ways, before 11:27 AM:
1. Allow someone who is not Jewish to remove it for himself.
2. Very small quantities may be flushed down the toilet.
3. One may dispose of Chametz in a trash can or bag, assuming that he declares the can or bag “ownerless,” and he leaves it outside his property, and he will not go near it during Pesach.
4. If one used “Solution 1” in Section 1 above, then he may put Chametz in the area in which he stores the Chametz he is selling.

We wash out our mouths and dental apparatus in the same way we do before Pesach every year, but we follow the Shabbat rules regarding how to brush/floss.
We then recite the “Kol Chamira” paragraph, as explained above in Section 4.

Section 8: Does Chametz become Muktzeh on Shabbat afternoon?

Actual Chametz becomes Muktzeh at 11:28 AM, when one is no longer allowed to benefit from Chametz. If you find Chametz after 11:28 AM:
1. Find a non-Jew who will dispose of it, or
2. Cover it with a vessel until Chol haMoed, and dispose of the Chametz on Chol haMoed.

Section 9: When do we eat Seudah Shlishit (the 3rd Shabbat meal)?

The problem:
We are faced with competing mandates governing our Shabbat meals:
A. On one hand, many authorities rule that the third meal of Shabbat must be bread-based, like the first two meals.
B. On the other hand, the third meal is ideally eaten on Shabbat afternoon, at which time Chametz is forbidden!
Why not simply eat Matzah for the third meal? Because we do not eat Matzah on the day before Pesach, lest that diminish our appetite for Matzah at the Seder.

Two solutions:
First, arrange an early Shacharit service, and then eat lunch as breakfast.
1. Finish the Chametz “lunch” before 10:10 AM. During the afternoon (after 1:31 PM) eat a third meal of matzah balls, meat, fish or fruit. Note that one may not start a meal including mezonot-based foods, like matzah balls, after 4:23 PM.
2. The first solution does not satisfy the view that the 3rd meal must be bread-based. Those who wish to satisfy this view should split their “lunch” into two parts, reciting the “blessing after meals” and then taking a twenty minute break before starting to eat again, and completing both meals before 10:09 AM. This solution will not satisfy the view that the third meal should be after midday.

Section 10: May we make any preparations on Shabbat for the Seder?

One may not prepare on Shabbat for events occurring after Shabbat. One may nap with the intent that this will help him at the Seder, though, because that is a normal part of Shabbat activity. One should not state that the purpose of his nap is to prepare for that night.
After Shabbat is over (8:31 PM), one may prepare for the Seder.
Before beginning the preparations, one should recite the Maariv prayer, or at least recite this abbreviated version of Havdalah, in Hebrew or English: Baruch haMavdil Bein Kodesh leKodesh (Blessed is the One who distinguishes between one type of sanctity and another).
The full Havdalah is recited during the Seder Kiddush; see Section 12 below.

Section 11: How does one light candles for Pesach night?

We wait to light candles until Shabbat is over (8:31 PM), and we light from an existing flame: We light a 24-hour candle before Shabbat, which we then use as the fuel for the Yom Tov candles. We also light candles on the second night of Yom Tov, after the first day has ended (8:32 PM), from an existing flame.

Section 12: How does one perform Havdalah on Pesach night?

Havdalah is recited as part of Kiddush at the Seder, before the “Shehechiyyanu” blessing. The Yom Tov candles double as the Havdalah candle.
Some people remove two Yom Tov candles from the candlesticks and place them side-by-side, to simulate a multi-wicked Havdalah candle. Others simply leave the candles in the candlesticks. People should follow family custom on this issue.

For your information: I used a number of resources in writing this, but one exceptional resource was R’ Shimon Eider’s “Halachos of Pesach,” published by Feldheim. I highly recommend this encyclopedic work.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Daf: Nazir 5a-10b

Get a gemara, or this will likely be unintelligible…

We are consistently taught that a Gezeirah Shavah (or pleonasm, as Rabbi J. David Bleich translates it) is a received tradition, such that logic is ineffective in analyzing it. This is a message reiterated all through the gemara. Nonetheless, the middle passage on this page – היכא דאיכא דדמי לה etc – certainly sounds like there is logic at work here!

The gemara seems to counsel shaving on Friday afternoon, which is problematic given the gemara elsewhere warning not to shave on Friday afternoon! See the Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 251:3, who has everyone from Rif and Rambam to Arizal and GRA.
Perhaps in this case one has davened earlier. Alternatively, see the Rosh here, who may be solving precisely this problem with his "לאו דוקא פניא" statement.

It is rare that we use Gematria for halachah, but for another example see Rashi on אך-חלק in the beginning of Pesachim.
See also the Rosh here, who seems to be disturbed by the use of Gematria for halachah, such that he decides it’s only an asmachta.

The Rosh decides that Rav Masna has been defeated.

I cannot understand why everyone insists that ימות הלבנה refers to a lunar year. There is no such thing, astronomically or halachically, as a lunar year; the gemara in Rosh HaShanah is explicit on this point; our “lunar year” is simply a collection of twelve lunar months.

A “digon” house seems to be brought up simply for the sake of fitting in with the trigon and tetragon house.
For those who don’t have a gemara in front of them – trigon is a triangle, a shape with three angles. You can have a house with three angles between its walls. Ditto for tetragon/square/four angles. But there is no such thing as a house – or any shape – with only two angles.
The only possibility I can imagine is one put forth at our Daf shiur, of a house with two canoe-shaped walls – but I don’t think this is what the gemara means.

See the Rosh on the cow here being the korban of a nazir.

The word תורף is interesting here.
Rosh takes it like מקום התורף to refer to that which is revealed, or which reveals. Tosafos seems to do the same.
To me, another possibility is that this is like תורף הגט in Gittin – the term תורף is used to refer to the essence of a legal document, the part with the actual names and contract-specific information, as opposed to the טופס which is the boilerplate language.
That would fit with the use here very nicely; the תורף is the essence.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I am not evil... am I?

Since childhood, I’ve been taught that the Yetzer haRa (evil inclination, evil creation) is not me; the push not to be controlled, not to listen, but rather to act to feed my more base desires actually comes from a separate entity which is there to challenge my pure neshamah (soul).

This paints the yetzer hara sort of like the cartoon image of the devil, complete with bad sunburn, pitchfork and trident, perched astride your shoulder and whispering in your ear, “Take it. Go ahead, take it!”

This also fits any number of talmudic passages, such as the gemara (end of Succah) about the death of the yetzer hara, and the several passages that identify the Yetzer haRa with the angel of death and the Satan (whatever that is). It also fits the gemara’s contention (Berachos) that a person has both yetzer hara and yetzer hatov (good inclination, good creation) inserted into him at different stages of maturity.

The image is also consistent with biblical language, from the consumption/internalization of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil (more on this later), to Zecharyah’s description of a רוח הטומאה, a spirit of impurity, which will ultimately be banished from the land.

But I’ve had to wonder over the years about the accuracy of this description:

True, we say that our souls are pure נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא, but couldn’t there be some other aspect of our being, if only our bodies/brains, that might be working at having us fulfill illicit fantasies? Something that doesn’t possess its own intelligence, but is a natural part of our systems?

Further, don’t I possess an id that wants to be fed? Don’t my appetites have something to do with me, personally?

Is this exernalization just meant to be a helpful image, or is there something concrete in identifying the yetzer hara as an external entity?

And then I read an interesting article here (got there through this wonderful blog) about externalizing alcoholism, and possibly depression, identifying them as independent entities which lay siege to our psyches.

As Dr. Isabella Mori notes in that article, “there is research that shows that people who attribute their misfortune to outside sources tend to be happier. viewed from a certain perspective, that makes intuitive sense, too: the opposite of attributing misfortune to an outside source is often a guilt-infused attribution (“it’s all my fault”).

Speaking from my own subjective experience, it’s certainly true that I can feel better about myself, and about my chances for future improvement, if I externalize the sin – whether the sin really comes about because “I” want it, or because I am “talked into it” by an outside yetzer hara.

More creatively, I also see externalization as a rollback of the Adam/Chavah consumption of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.

As some explain, the change that occurs when Adam/Chavah eat from the fruit is that humanity internalizes the desire to veer from Divine direction. Instead of seeing treif, for example, as something objectively attractive, we now see it as tasty, something we want for ourselves. The desire becomes much harder to defeat, because it is pitched as our desire.

By externalizing the yetzer hara, then, I succeed in identifying it as something outside myself, and separating it from any personal desire of mine. I reverse the effects of that Edenic fruit. (Of course, one must then ask whether, to be honest, we ought to do the same with the yetzer hatov…?)

An interesting proposition.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Daf: Nazir 2a-4b

Here we go with some comments on the beginning of Nazir. As always, these comments will be a lot more intelligible (if not intelligent) to someone with a Gemara open...

As at the beginning of Nedarim, we note here that the commentary published on the inside margin is not from Rashi. Rav Soloveitchik would comment in his Tisha b’Av shiurim that the line in Kinos of מי יפליא נזירות ומי יערוך נדרים, "Who will clarify Nazirism and who will evaluate vows?" is a reference to the destruction of Rashi’s manuscripts on these volumes of Nedarim and Nazir. And see the Gilyon haShas here.

Of particular interest are Tosafot Ha’Omeir and Tosafot Hareini.

See also Tosafot “מאי טעמא תני נזיר” and compare with Tosafos at the start of Sotah, and the Rosh here.

See Tosafot “Amar Shemuel”

Is the Nazir a sinner, or not? Depends on whom you ask. See Tosafos “v’Amai” here, and the Tosafos in Bava Kama and Taanit footnoted here as well. On a peshat level it seems clear to me that, as the gemara says with a Yoledet, the “chatat” is called a “chatat” because its rites match those of a chatat, and not that it is actually a sin-offering. Otherwise, one cannot escape the fact that the same Gd who permitted wine also licensed the Nazir to abstain from wine, including the Nazir in the Torah explicitly.

It seems to me the gemara in Nedarim also had a debate about translating human speech to match Tanach-speech, but I don't recall precisely where.

The right and left here are reminiscent of the line in the Yamim Noraim davening, עוז בידך וגבורה בימינך.

The next to last word, קדושתא, should probably be קידושא, I think. קידוש is masculine.

The issue of whether Havdalah is biblical or not is a huge issue. See the Rosh here, and see the Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 296:1-5 and 296:18. The major ramification is whether women must/may recite Havdalah.

See Tosafot “kiShimshon”

On קווצותיו סדורות, see Gittin 58a on R’ Yehoshua ben Chananiah and R’ Yishmael ben Elisha – 'ordered hair' is a reference to Torah knowledge, not simply beauty?

בבואה here seems to be a reflection, but note that in Gittin 66a Rashi translates it as צל, shade.

Logically, “gemiri” here does not have its normal meaning of Halachah l’Moshe miSinai, in defining Nezir Shimshon? But see Tosafos ומביא before making up your mind.

Tosafos here renders מלאך as prophecy, which is consistent with the view of midrashim that the “malach” who appeared to Hatzlelponit and Manoach was actually Pinchas, as a prophet. See Vayyikra Rabbah 1:1 and Midrash Tanchuma Shelach 1:1. See also the Rambam in Moreh haNevuchim 2:42.

See Tosafos and the Rosh on whether this was a real ‘goses’ or not, and why that matters.

On the details of the Nazir Olam’s license to shave, see Tosafot 4a נזיר עולם and pseudo-Rashi at the bottom of 4b.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Derashah: The Poetry of Purim Meshulash

Yes, I plan to deliver this as my derashah this Shabbos. Makes me feel like Ibn Gabirol.

Feel free to send me suggested additional lyrics in advance... but no limericks, they confuse me.

In one hundred and twenty-seven lands / from Hodu to Kush to Allentown,
The sun has set on a joyous Purim Day / and Shushan Purim has come around.
But if by your own excellent fortune / in the Old City of Yerushalayim you are found,
Then this year you observe three days of Purim / yes, that Purim Meshulash well-renowned.

Let us spend the next several minutes / coming to understand just how,
Purim could have been observed yesterday / and still be held tomorrow and now,
How a day which we celebrate out here / with just one day of gleeful revelry,
Could in a walled city become a celebration / which lasts for not one day but three.

Start with an unwalled urban area / like our own, or like Kalamazoo,
Where Purim is observed on the 14th of Adar / i.e. yesterday, for me and you.
But in a walled-in metropolis / like that Old City, or Shushan of the Kurds,
Purim is scheduled for the 15th of Adar / today, Shabbat, in other words.

This leads to a particular problem / for Megilah on Shabbat is not read.
The Sages long ago decreed this / so don’t let any notion of change in your head.
But then how may one observe Purim / in old Yerushalayim, in this very year?
If they cannot read the Megilah / it will not be Purim at all, I must fear!

So Purim becomes a three-day long party / with mitzvos across days one two three,
And the explanation for which mitzvos go where / will hopefully enlighten you and me.
We’ll learn concepts that underlie Purim / as well as the Torah on the whole,
So let us look at this Purim Meshulash / understanding it will be our goal.

There are four great mitzvos of Purim / count ‘em - one, two, three, four,
Starting with the Megilah reading / and continuing with gifts for the poor.
We also have Mishloach Manos / sending gifts of food from friend to friend,
And, of course, the Purim Seudah / that festive meal we all love to attend.

Megilah may not be delayed / according to the words in Esther’s scroll,
So Megilah must be moved up before Shabbos / so it is read on Friday by every soul.
Megilah is our message of thanks / a Hallel to Gd for saving our existence,
We would never, could never, procrastinate / our praise to Gd for His assistance.

Then because we accelerate the Megilah / we also push up the gift for the needy,
The reason for this is quite considerate / it’s not that the paupers are greedy.
Rather it’s because for many years / the paupers collected after the Megilah’s performance,
So to make the lives of the needy people easier / on Friday we fulfill our ordinance.

On Shabbos itself in our Holy Land of Israel / in the cities that remain walled to this day,
The only practice observed on the 15th of Adar / is reading about the war against Amalayk.
One might have thought we would eat the Purim Feast / as part of our Shabbos delight,
But because that would reduce the honor of Shabbos / we needs must postpone that Purim rite.

This teaches us the honor of Shabbos / by separating one joy from the other,
A lesson with far-reaching implications: / Never to let one person overshadow his brother.
So the feast is delayed until Sunday / and along with it must come Mitzvah Four,
Yes, the mitzvah of distributing Seudah food to our friends / also must wait one day more.

Now if you're in need of a mnemonic / the better these details to memorize,
Fear not, for we've got one that's simple / and cuts the complexity down to size:
If Spring Forward, Fall Back works to help you / to remember how to set the clock's hands,
then Megilah Forward, Seudah Back is the secret / and it works in all time zones and lands.

That, then, is Purim Meshulash / Purim days one, two and three,
Another reason for aliyah to Israel / extra Purim is good enough for me!
The next time this calendar will occur / is in the year two-thousand and twenty-one,
Gd-willing we will be in Yerushalayim to see it / and celebrate the Meshulash as one.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Purim vs. Shabbat? A Seudah Showdown

Tonight is your daughter’s eagerly anticipated return from a year of study abroad. You’ve prepared her favorite meal, spending hours in the kitchen to make sure all of the dishes will be perfect. You’ve even set the table with the finest silver, dressed in your best clothes, invited friends and relatives, decorated the house with pictures of your daughter and hung welcoming banners, all to make sure the atmosphere conveys your enthusiasm for her presence.

The hour arrives, there’s a knock at the door, you rush to the door to open it… and there she stands in a dirty sweatshirt, munching on a hot dog, relish spilling on to her fingers. “Hey,” she says, with a shrug, perhaps even a small burp. “What’s up?”

The “Homecoming” is Shabbos. The meal is our Friday night dinner, complete with fine food, beautiful clothes, honored guests and a beautiful home. The callous girl with the hot dog relish – that could be us, on any given Shabbos, if we were to make the mistake of sitting down to a big meal on Friday afternoon, before the start of Shabbos. Therefore, our Sages have taught us that in order to make sure we honor Shabbos properly, we should refrain from eating large meals on Friday afternoon (Pesachim 99b).
The idea is simple: Make sure that we will enjoy the Shabbos dinner, by waiting to eat until Shabbos is here.

There is one problem, though. This year, Purim occurs on a Friday, and Purim brings with it a Mitzvah of eating a Purim Seudah (feast). How can we eat our Purim feast, and still retain our hunger for the Shabbos meal that night? Must we sacrifice Purim for Shabbos, or Shabbos for Purim?

Two Acceptable Solutions
There are two halachic approaches to this dilemma:

1. Begin the Purim Seudah on Purim morning, before midday.
Midday is calculated as the midpoint between sunrise and sunset; this year, in Allentown, midday on Purim will be 1:09 PM (EDT). If one starts the Purim Seudah before midday, that still allows enough time to eat the meal, celebrate Purim, and then spend several hours building up an appetite for Shabbos. This approach is recommended by the Rama, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Ashkenazi author in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 695:2).

It is true that in a normal year we eat our Purim Seudah in the afternoon, but that’s a matter of convenience, in order to save the morning for delivering Mishloach Manot (Mishneh Berurah 695:8). There is no halachic reason to wait for the afternoon. Some authorities actually praise the practice of having the Seudah in the morning every year (cited in Mishneh Berurah 695:9).

The only real problem with this solution is the issue of practicality. People who go to work on Friday may not be able to enjoy a true Purim Seudah in the cubicle; in its ideal form, the Seudah involves a dressed-up family seated around a fully appointed table, singing Purim songs and talking about the holiday – not a quick deli sandwich scarfed down in front of a computer screen in between conference calls.

This practical problem leads to the proposal of a second solution:

2. The pores mappah solution.
Under “pores mappah,” an idea put forth talmudically (Pesachim 100a), one may begin his meal shortly before Candle Lighting time (which is 6:57 PM in Allentown this year).

At or before the time for candle lighting, one lights Shabbos candles, covers all bread, cake and/or cookies, recites Kiddush, and continues the meal as the Shabbos dinner. After the meal one davens Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv. The term “pores mappah” means “spread a cloth,” referring to covering the food while reciting Kiddush.

This method reduces the disgrace to Shabbos, since one eats the Shabbos meal with a decent appetite. On the other hand, the Purim meal is a nice meal, with everyone home from work, dressed nicely and according the feast the honor it deserves.

This method does suffer from a few problems, though:
(A) Drinking: We are taught that as part of celebrating the ultimate joy of having our lives saved on Purim, we are supposed to imbibe alcohol at the Purim Seudah and reach the state in which we cannot tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Megilah 7b). Authorities differ on how much to drink, but it is clear that one who is not medically unable to drink, and who has a designated driver, should drink some alcohol - preferably enough that he feels lightheaded (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 695:2).

In a normal year, one may enjoy his Seudah, drink a little, and then sleep off the effects of the alcohol. Having a midday meal works for this issue, too. But if one drinks at a pores mappah meal, will he be able to coherently and respectfully daven Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv afterward, not to mention have an appropriate Shabbos dinner?

Further, many people – myself included – have embraced the practice of drinking minimally at the Purim Seudah and then fulfilling the state of intoxication by taking a nap after the meal. This is an approach sanctioned by the Rama (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 695:2). However, if one uses the pores mappah method then he doesn’t have any after-Seudah time to nap; by the time the Seudah is over, Purim is over as well.

(B) A second problem is that the way the pores mapah solution is presented in the Gemara and in the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chaim 271:4), it does not seem to be an ideal, recommended, l’Chatchilah practice. It sounds more like something to be done when one has no other choice.

(C) A third problem arises in negotiating the specifics of the pores mappah meal itself. Does one include Al haNissim when reciting Birkat haMazon after the meal? Should one perhaps recite Birkat haMazon after the first part of the meal, and then act as though the second half is entirely a new meal? Does one cover only bread and cake during Kiddush, or other items as well? We do have practical guidelines for navigating these issues – but there are great debates involved, with big names on all sides.

The Communal Seudah
Although the pores mappah solution is intriguing, the communal Seudah at Congregation Sons of Israel will follow the first approach, that recommended by the Rama, by beginning before midday. We are bolstered by the views cited earlier, who believe that the Seudah should be a morning meal every year. Further, this will allow those who drink at their Seudah to fulfill the Mitzvos of both Shabbos and Purim properly.

We will enjoy a great meal of spaghetti and meatballs (and garlic bread!), starting at Noon, after which I will gladly go home and take a nap for as long as Amram, Meira, Rena and Aharon will permit. Join us for the meal, and let’s celebrate Purim together!

And an important addendum
I must stress something which I wish were obvious to all: People should not give alcohol to minors to drink on Purim. It is not necessary for their fulfillment of any Mitzvah, and it is a foolish and dangerous practice.
I would also add that it would be better for adults not to drink on Purim with young children present, as even that may be misunderstood by those children.

The finest joy is joy which centers around a Mitzvah, and this is the essence of Purim - 4 Mitzvot (Megilah, Sending Gifts of Food, Giving to the Poor and having a Feast) which are about experiencing joy and spreading joy.

For more on this theme see Shaarei Teshuvah of Rav Chaim Margaliyot, Orach Chaim 697:2.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Parent vs. the Rosh Yeshiva

I had an interesting conversation with a parent of a high-schooler this afternoon. For the sake of presenting the case, we’ll call the parent Sarah and the child Yitzchak.

According to Sarah, Yitzchak’s Rosh Yeshiva is directly telling Yitzchak where to go in Israel next year, undermining Sarah’s attempts to help guide Yitzchak. Sarah would be more comfortable if the Rosh Yeshiva would include, in his counsel, the idea of parental input.

My thoughts:
1) Most educators have personal agenda - and all committed educators have personal agenda.
2) There is no reason to compel educators to hand carte blanche to a parental agenda.
3) Parents have an obligation to check out an educator’s agenda in advance.

First: I think it’s important to recognize that committed educators (as opposed to the hopefully-few educators who just couldn’t find other jobs) have an agenda. That’s why they go into education; they believe in their right and their obligation to promote certain ideals to our children. If they didn’t believe in doing that, they wouldn’t put up with our hooligan offspring in the first place.

I had a 7th grade rebbe at HALB in the 80's who used to tell us to ask our parents to send us to Telz in Cleveland for high school, so that they would end up compromising by sending us to Chafetz Chaim. (The push didn’t work on me; I went to MTA.) I had rebbeim in later years who promoted learning full time, and I had rebbeim who promoted kiruv, and I had rebbeim who promoted Torah Im Derech Eretz. They all promoted the ideals they had entered chinuch in order to promote.

Second: It is possible that a yeshiva’s agenda might actually include promoting strong parent-child relationships, and particularly surrounding Torah study - but parents should recognize that this is not necessarily the case.

Educators often feel that they have a better sense of what children need, because they are more objective than parents and because they are often better-educated than parents.

Further, educators may view themselves as just one piece in the puzzle of influences. They may say, “Why should we promote the parents’ agenda? That’s the job of the parents!”

Third: I believe that an educator has the right to maintain an agenda - but I also believe that parents are obligated to inquire about the agenda before enrolling their children, and to receive an honest answer.

If the agenda is to support parental decisions, wonderful. If the agenda is to direct matters based upon the rebbe’s perception of the child’s needs, also wonderful. The parent should decide on the goal for his child’s education, evaluate the yeshiva’s agenda, and then make a decision.

The problem, of course, begins when the agenda is hidden, when yeshiva administrators wish to attract students from homes built on other ideals, and they do it by concealing the agenda behind flowery talk and thin assurances that they will never push the children away from their parents’ ideals.

Some justify this ideological bait-and-switch by titling it ‘kiruv,’ but so far as I am aware, אין אומרים לאדם חטא בשביל שתזכה חבירך, we don’t say to sin in order to benefit another person, and lying counts as sinning. Lying in order to bring someone else closer to Torah is inappropriate, from a halachic perspective.

I don’t know how Sarah will handle Yitzchak’s future, but I can say one thing: I hope that Sarah will use whatever influence she can exert to ensure that the agenda of the destination yeshiva in Israel includes a strong parent-child connection.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The BPS (Bansmanship Policies and Standards) Commission

[In the "Better late than never" department, here's a link to last Sunday's Haveil Havalim. Sorry for the delay, Gila.]

[And in the "Better on-time than late" department, here's a link to the new Haveil Havalim; thanks for the link, Jack.]

In honor of Purim, and to blow off steam after a long week, I present to you something I [really, really] hope you won't take too seriously... which has no relationship whatsoever with this:

The BPS (Bansmanship Policies and Standards) Commission

There was a time when a ban meant something, when sages were sages and charamim were charamim, when the cagey old machrim sheriff roamed the streets of Bnei Brak, hand on the ready kulmus in his holster, his eyes peeled for law-breakers. In those days, in those parts, there was a respect for the law, because you knew that to venture on the wrong side of the issur was to risk a thousand mimeographed klalos. In those days, any cherem which reached our desk was automatically approved, our names attached with zerizus; we were confident that in signing on to a cherem, we were serving the interests of klal yisrael.

Those excellent charamim, from a beis din of mumchin, incorporated art and science. They served the best interests of Torah and yiras shamayim with aesthetic perfection. The text incorporated interwoven midrashim and pesukim, subtle gematria combinations and roshei teivos and sofei teivos detectable only under expert analysis. And the rhymes, the meter! Such poetry as even Ibrahim Ibn Sahl and the rest of those “ibn” poets never conjured with all of their pseudo-Arabic Qasida and Muwashsha structures.

But no longer. There is a decline in bansmanship, as the shamta has become popular sport instead of sacred craft. Today, every young upstart thinks he can ban with the best of them; bansmanship has become a hobby for the young, the uninitiated, the wet-behind-the-payes, to whom the legacy of machrimim of yesteryear is ancient history.

This new generation of communal authorities pays no attention to the counsel of its elders; to their minds, they have invented the practice, and none who came before can advise on technique or judgment.

The bans of these new batei din are barely legible, their Yiddish weak and their grammar worse, poorly crafted, rushed to the pashkivilim producers who neglect their duties as editorial gatekeepers. We recall one publisher who refused a poster of ours - our beis din tzedek, yes! - decades ago, because we had employed a mixed metaphor in describing the inevitable, horrific results of the acceptance of fax machines in our community. No longer; today it is all about the shekalim.

The result is clear: Such charamim are not charamim, and raise no reaction at all in the people they are meant to enlighten and aid. In our own day, בעוונותינו הרבים, prutzim run free, unconcerned about any communal response to their lawlessness. With our own downcast eyes we have seen people walking בקומה זקופה, with upright posture, without shame! Email addresses are exchanged in open conversation, without so much as an apologetic, “I only use those Intanets for email, and then only when my wife is present.” These sub-standard charamim are weakening klal yisrael.

Therefore, we have reached the stage where we cannot simply sign on to any cherem that crosses our desk.

Instead, with a heavy heart, we hereby create the Bansmanship Policies and Standards commission. From this day forward, any “rabbi” wishing to create a cherem must approach one of the approved batei din listed by our beis din tzedek. All new charamim, particularly those come from the ארעא חשוכא overseas, will require a thorough background check, in order to verify the kashrus of those who have penned it. Charamim issued by unlisted batei din and rogue tzurba meirabbanan will not be honored.

Note that any past cherem will continue to be honored, if their issuers were recognized as of the date on the cherem. However, any talmid chacham wishing to be included on the list of approved machrimim going forward will be expected to undergo a rigorous training and examination regimen, coupled with a thorough investigation into his background and conduct, and that of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and their mechutanim, and their mechutanim's mechutanim.

It is certainly not our wish to create division in the global Jewish community. It is our hope that through these new standards, we will be מחזיר עטרה ליושנה, we will restore the true meaning and authority of cherem, and so bring about משיח צדקנו, כן יהי רצון.

beis din - court (batei din pl.)
beis din tzedek - our court
cherem - ban (charamim pl.)
intanets - the thing connecting my computer to all of those treife computers
issur - ban
klal yisrael - The Jewish people
klalos - curses. Not at all related to the plural of 'klal yisrael,' really!
kulmus - quill
machrim - issuer of a ban (machrimim pl.)
mechutanim - in-laws, sort of
mumchin - experts
prutzim - people who don't listen to beis din tzedek
shamta - yet another word for ban
talmid chacham - my son-in-law
tzurba meirabbanan - young buck
yiras shamayim - awe of Heaven
zerizus - energy, zeal, gusto, joie d'Torah

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Daf: Nedarim 88-91

As we wrap the last of Nedarim, I look back and realize how much stronger my understanding was this time, over the previous time.

I must admit that when I went through Nedarim last, I felt it was rather dull, its discussions parochially Neder-focused rather than global in their reach. I also felt that there were so many mishnayos focused on lexical minutia that I had trouble sensing forward motion or flow in the gemara.

This time round was an entirely different experience. Part of that is because I was teaching it this time rather than learning it on my own, and part is because I went through it with an eye for structure. I could see much more of a progression from Point A to Point B, and I also found many items which did have ramifications for greater, non-Nedarim issues.

Here are some last thoughts on the final dapim. Nothing huge, just a few things to see.

Regarding the issue of giving something to a wife without that also being considered a gift to the husband, one might challenge this based on our discussion earlier on supporting the wife without benefiting the husband. The Rosh on the mishnah addresses this.

Note the Ran vs. the Rosh on each of the 9 cases.

The Rosh has an interesting edition of לא יפר in the mishnah.

On Rav Sheshes’s point, see the Tosafos in Sotah 6a that is referenced on the side of the amud.

Note that יורה כחץ is an allegation of infertility, not impotence; the gemara was familiar with the medical concept of male infertility, although the case here ascribes it to mechanical malfunction rather than something more subtle.

R’ Akiva Eiger refers you to an interesting Tosafos in Shabbos 110a on the dietary habits of snakes.

I should also note, though, that our gemara might be read to indicate that snakes automatically poison that which they eat, through a toxin on their fangs. This is actually subject to a machlokes in Sanhedrin 78a.

The last Ran is important in understanding whether these final stories are examples of extraordinary leniency, or simply a reduction of בעל נפש chumra concerns.

Next installment: Nazir

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Without an Endgame, Mercaz haRav will happen again

Gd forbid, but I have to say it. Mercaz haRav will happen again, and we – the Religious Zionist camp – will share the blame. We haven't planned ahead, we haven't offered an Endgame strategy.

Crying and shouting and wailing is mourning, it's not a strategy.
Cliché sloganeering isn't a strategy, either.
Holding on for Mashiach is quite pious, but it's costing us a lot of blood. (Or are we trying to empty the Guf faster? Does that count as a strategy?)
Chest-thumping insistence that we should transfer the lot of 'em? Not a chance.

So while we righteously reject Olmert's deal-with-the-devil compromises, we don't offer a reasonable alternative. Which means that one of two things must happen, short of deus ex machina:
1) Olmert or some successor maneuvers to victory, or
2) The stalemate with the Arab world continues, bringing with it more Mercaz haRav massacres.
That's it – we haven't provided any other possibility.

So I wish some party would emerge with a compromise I could support. Not a compromise that hides betrayal, a la Olmert's tippy-toe-toward-Jerusalem, maybe-no-one-will-notice approach, but a real package deal that we could accept... and that they, those murderous, bloodthirsty terrorists, could accept as well.

Yes, they have to accept it, too. Consider the options: Outright war isn't going to happen, transfer isn't going to happen, and the Arabs aren't about to give up and walk away. Generations of terrorists have grown up in camps because Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon have insisted that they must do so. Those products of the camps have dehumanized us in their minds, because it's easier than blaming themselves. So they have no problem trying to kill us.

That situation isn't about to vanish. We need a deal that all parties can accept.

One might counter with the physician's rule, “First, do no harm.” Don't suggest a deal that will harm the patient; better to follow that conservative halachic dictum, shev v'al taaseh adif. But I don't think this is correct here – because the patient is bleeding as we speak, butchered by knives and suicide bombs and Kassam rockets and marauding machine gunners, and Gd only knows what they'll come up with next. In this case, to do nothing is to do harm.

I don't have any magic answers, maps with Area A through Area Q and proposals for deployment of UN pseudo-soldiers. I don't know whether the strategy will come from Likud or Kadima or NRP. All I know is that without an Endgame proposed by someone other than Olmert's camp, the future is bleak... and it includes more blood.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Conservative Nature of Halachah

“One who breaks through a fence will be bitten by a snake.” (Kohelet 10:8)

In many of the most passionate debates in today's Jewish world, issues are framed by the media in stark, black-hat vs. white-hat terms: The bad guys are insensitive sticklers for ideological purity, the good guys are compassionate scholars whose priority is kvod habriyyot and the welfare of Man.

You can pick pretty much any issue you like, but here are a few:

-Women's rights

-Interfaith dialogue

-Conversion standards

-Community standards of tzniut

These debates are framed in the Forward, the Jewish Week, the New York Times and beyond as matters of Compassion vs. Law, human leniency vs. divine absolutism, or worse, humane rationalism vs. nouveau fundamentalism.

I am not taking sides on any of these actual issues, at least not in this post. In practice, I've been on both sides of all four debates mentioned above! But this black/white characterization is unfair. Halachah, as it is traditionally understood and as was expressed in the Kohelet citation above, has long demanded conservatism, specifically in the name of compassion – compassion for the individual, and compassion for the community.

When Kohelet declares that the trespasser will be snakebit, he employs a lucid analogy for the practice of pioneering leniency. The very real fear is that removing the fence may endanger the individual practitioner, as well as the community. We know not why the fence was first built, but someone saw fit to build it; dare we think ourselves wiser and remove the fence without knowing what lurks on the other side?

To take one of the recent causes celebre: Dare I be lax in a conversion requirement, knowing that I risk declaring someone Jewish who actually is not?

Is it truly more compassionate to say, “We will label you 'Jew' even though you are not committed, yet, to kashrut, or Shabbat?” Certainly, that will satisfy an immediate demand, but what about if we are wrong – what about the possibility that the other side of the debate is correct, and he/she is not actually Jewish? What will be the ramifications for the eventual offspring?

And even if I am right in my leniency, and she/he is a Jew – What favor am I doing for the Jewish community, by introducing someone who will weaken the communal observance? And what favor am I doing for the convert personally, and the convert's children, by ushering them into a covenant they will not observe?

To these questions, in matters ranging far beyond conversion (The Shulchan Aruch sees fit to quote the snakebite principle in cases as varied as sitting down for והוא רחום (Orach Chaim 134:1) to eating meat in communities where people customarily avoid it in mourning for the Beit haMikdash (Orach Chaim 551:11) to eating meat without checking the animal's lungs for certain problems (Yoreh Deah 39:1)), Halachah has traditionally been conservative, urging caution, advising שב ואל תעשה עדיף, better to sin by inaction than by action.

Witness the example of Moshe Rabbeinu. Two of the most frequently cited biblical, halachic, compassionate 'liberalisms' are the Pesach Sheni decision (allowing people to observe a second Korban Pesach if they could not observe the first) and the Bnot Tzelafchad decision (giving the daughters of Tzelafchad land, because they had no brothers). But note that in each case, when the issue was brought to Moshe, he did not offer the leniency - rather, he explicitly relied on prophecy. Moshe did not feel comfortable offering a leniency based on his own compassion.

I admit that I am not satisfied by the conservative solution. As I noted above, I have been on both sides, and I am not taking a stand on the issue here.

My point is only that I would prefer to see the conservative view treated with the respect it deserves, as a compassionate position with firm grounding in Halachic tradition.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Derashah: Shekalim - A Community's Lost Limbs

Here's the derashah I expect to give tomorrow. We have a Bar Mitzvah in shul this week, and I wanted to speak about something else entirely, but that will have to wait.

I was sitting in the waiting area at the Honda dealership while my car was being inspected on Thursday, when I got the call about the attack at Yeshivat Mercaz haRav. I had a laptop with me, and went on-line, and felt like I had been gutted, just gutted. All around, of course, people drank their coffee and read their newspapers and sold cars, and I was just in shock.

There was a time, not that long ago, when these attacks were so familiar that I was numb to them, when not a week passed without a bus bombing or a shooting. But, thank Gd, for many months the IDF and police have been successful in halting the attacks, in catching bombers. Just a couple of weeks ago terrorists broke into a yeshiva but were killed, thank Gd, before they could strike. And so, with the passage of time since the last mega-attack, I’d forgotten what it felt like… until Thursday. And for all the forgetting, my feelings were the same old feelings. Wanting to book a flight to Israel today. Wanting to lash out. Wanting to sit down and cry.

The news hurt not just because these were yeshiva students. The news hurt not just because I know the yeshiva, because I’ve been there. The news hurt because we are all half-shekalim, every Jew is a half-shekel, and every Jew has just had his other half torn away.

We read this morning, from the third Torah, about the half-shekel each Jew donated to the mishkan in the desert. That half-shekel contribution was intended for a specific purpose - to pay for the korban tamid, for the daily offering that was brought in the Mishkan, and later in the Beis haMikdash.

Because every Jew contributed to that collection, every Jew had a portion in each korban. No Jew could do it alone, no Jew was permitted to make a mega-donation and cover a year’s offerings, or even a single day’s korban. No, the korban had to be a product of communal funds, so that each Jew had a portion. Each of us owned an incomplete part as a יחיד, an individual, made whole by the rest of the ציבור, the community.

The Jew exists as an individual, and the Jew exists as a member of a community.
· We are responsible for ourselves personally, we have a connection to Gd personally, we take responsibility for our transgressions and receive credit for our mitzvot personally.
· And we are also part of a community, a loving ציבור, such that we are taught to study communally, to daven communally, to celebrate our Yamim Tovim communally, and to bring our korbanos communally.

This individuality and this community each stem from different missions:
· We are individuals, because each of us is created in the image Gd designed for us, as an Adam and as a Chavah, with a mission of לעבדה ולשמרה, to perform the mitzvot, the tasks of growth that Gd set before us in this world.
· But we are also community because in caring for each other and working together we can multiply our individual strengths and create an umbrella which protects all of us, and which builds opportunities for all of us to grow as individual Jews. כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, all of us are responsible for each other, practically and spiritually.
Individuals grow; communities protect those individuals and build opportunities for those individuals.

Rav Adin Steinsaltz underscored this communal responsibility in a comment on the Shma, that critical declaration of Jewish beliefs and Jewish responsibility.
· In the first paragraph of the Shma, Moshe turns to each individual Jew, speaking in the singular, and says, “You shall love HaShem your Gd, with all of your heart, with all of your life, and with all of your מאד, your wealth.”
· But in the second paragraph of Shma, Moshe turns to the Jews en masse, speaking in the plural, and says, “You shall serve Gd with all of your hearts, with all of your lives.” And Moshe stops there, without mentioning serving Gd with our wealth.
Rav Adin Steinsaltz explained that this is because the individual’s chief responsibility is to connect with Gd, which means using every resource at our disposal to make that connection. The community, though, has a chief responsibility of protecting its citizens - and so Gd demands not that we turn our communal resources to Gd, but rather that we turn them to taking care of each other.

Which brings us back to this past Thursday.
When members of the community are murdered, each part of the community must feel that we have lost limbs. This is not hyperbole, and it’s no analogy - the community now lacks eight young men who would have strengthened it; where they once stood, we now have a gaping hole.

This means the community has failed. The community that is worldwide Jewry, that is responsible to use its מאד to shelter its citizens through tzedakah, through physical protection, through the spiritual protection that comes with our mitzvos and our tehillim - failed in its task. We failed in our task.

These moments of failure are times when people want to run from community, from ציבור. Being a half-shekel, being part of ציבור, expected to protect our globe-trotting family, is intimidating in its unreasonable expectations.
But running from the expectations of ציבור means abandoning the blessings brought by those expectations.
ציבור’s blessings include automatic relatives who envelop us in their embrace when we need it most, whose world is rocked when we are harmed and whose smiles shine like the Sun when we succeed.
ציבור’s blessings include the intellectual enrichment that comes from a millenia-old tradition, from text and debate and study and commentary and super-commentary and a Torah that cannot be confined to paper because it is so broad and deep and alive.
ציבור’s blessings include the emotional enrichment that comes with reaching out to unseen others, people whose names we don’t know, whose faces we’ve never seen, whose connection to us we cannot easily define, but who reach out and embrace us, in return.

For all of the communal pain of the past few days, I would never want to abandon those blessings. Instead, after our initial feelings of pain and failure, we need to move forward.
This, too, is the mission of community; as Rav Soloveitchik said regarding a general response to tragedy, our response is not “Why me,” but “What now,” “What can I do now?” And community that recognizes that we are all half-shekalim, that we all contribute to a greater whole, is ideally positioned to address the “What now” question.
· First, we protect. We reach out to each other and make sure that we are all taken care of. We reach out to family first, and then to local people, and then to our family in Israel, and then beyond. We look out for financial needs, as we will with Matanos laEvyonim, and we look out for psychological needs and spiritual needs.
· And then we build. We make sure that everyone has a chance to grow, to flourish in our individual ways. We build up our community institutions, whether by tzedakah or by volunteering our time and effort - to our shul, to our Day School, to our Mikvah, to our Eruv, to our LVKC, to ask the leadership of each organization, “How can I help you to build the community?” And then, once our own institutions are strong, to do the same for Israel, and beyond.
This won’t bring back the eight victims from Thursday, but it is the way community responds to its loss - by redoubling our efforts to protect, and to build, for the future.

1. Rav Steinsaltz's comment is in his Commentary to the Siddur. Rav Soloveitchik's theme is developed in Kol Dodi Dofek.

2. I removed the "Bar Mitzvah" ending from this on-line version. Had it not been a Bar Mitzvah week, I probably would have closed with Esther's לך כנוס את כל היהודים וצומו עלי - the community working to protect the individual, who is in turn working for the community.

3. It feels like this vision of Community is the opposite of Democracy as it is practiced today. In today's Democracy, the voice of the people is heard, each individual speaking for his own personal interest. In this vision, the sectors of the community are responsible to support the good of the whole.

4. Update: The OU just sent out a link to this appropriate Dvar Torah from Rav Kook, on the half-shekel and Jewish unity.

Daf: Nedarim 82-87

Lots of small notes on these dapim, probably unintelligible to anyone who isn’t actually learning them.

See the Rosh’s two approaches on באחת מתענה ובא' אינו מתענה; the two approaches are interesting in their difference.

R’ Yochanan’s view seems to negate the Rosh’s perplexing view back on 68a that the
husband would be nullifying one olive and the father nullifying the other (credit: Henry)

It’s interesting to note that everyone here in this gemara takes it for granted that women go to the cemetery; I am familiar with a custom among some sectors of German Jewry, for example, that woman do not attend the cemetery.

I found it valuable to see Tosafos Chullin 131a יש בו in order to grasp this gemara

See the Rosh’s note on ר' יוסי ב"ר יהודה, regarding the inappropriate use of the term קנס. His note regarding the language in Nedarim is, of course, reminiscent of Tosafos Nedarim 7a on תיבעי לך.

The key here is to remember three factors that determine the strength or weakness of a נודר: (a) Ownership of the item, (b) Connection to the person who will become forbidden to use the item, and (c) Existence of the item currently.

It’s odd that pseudo-Rashi says the second והתניא supports Rav Ashi. We usually call a והתניא a support only if it actually provides support – this one challenges Rav Ashi, until we re-write it!

The Ran translates מגדף here as blasphemy. Elsewhere (Krisus, as I recall), we translate מגדף alternatively as singing to idolatry. Presumably he doesn’t do so here because it would be redundant with the next action listed.

See the Ran on the first part of the Mishnah, offering two different views of what אינו מופר means here.

The Rosh (printed on 87a) offers an interesting explanation of why the Rabbanan disagree with R’ Yishmael on his read of יקימנו.

The Ran offers two approaches to understanding R’ Meir’s stance. It would appear that his second approach would make R’ Meir’s opposition apply to the רישא as well as the סיפא.

See the wildly divergent approaches of the Ran and the Rosh on the Gemara’s goal in bringing in עיר מקלט.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Rabbinic Purim Costumes: Help Wanted

All I can say is this: It takes a rabbi to obsess over a Purim costume.

Thinking back over the past seven years, I’ve been a surgeon, I’ve been a New York Ranger, I’ve been myself but beardless, I’ve been Batman (beardless that year, too), I’ve been Thing 1 (my gabbai was Thing 2), I’ve been Luke Skywalker. But this year, I’m stumped.

My problem, in a nutshell: It can’t just be a costume, I need it to be the right costume.

There is really only one time during the year when the shul rabbi gets to show he has a sense of humor. I don’t mean making a joke before delivering a long, snoozeworthy speech, I mean a real concept of fun. That time, of course, is Purim. (Yes, there are random opportunities that come up during the year, but this is the only one you can count on.)

So the costume has to be fun, it has to say the rabbi really knows how to have a good time even if he spends the whole rest of the year squelching everyone else’s good time. But, on the other hand, he has to remain the rabbi even as he has that good time, because it’s in shul, because he’s going to read the megilah in costume, and because, well, he’s still the rabbi.

Which means:
-The costume can’t be pedestrian, a costume for the sake of a costume, as in the old standby gorilla suit. Frankly, last year’s Rangers costume was somewhat in this category, but the jersey was a birthday gift from a good friend, and it had my name on it, so I used it.

-It also can’t be offensive; I’m not doing the kefiyyeh routine, which some would take very, very seriously. No drunks, no priests, no drunken priests. I would love to go as Obama, but blackface is very out.

-Oh, and it can’t be too much work. Definitely not too much work. No fancy makeup. I dyed my hair pink one year, and that wasn’t too bad, but it got all over everything.

-And it can’t be expensive. That Batman outfit was good, but it was a very expensive rental. I’m not going that route again.

So what are my options this year?

I thought about shaving again this year, and going in drag; it would be good for some surprises and laughs, and there is plenty of halachic material supporting that sort of costume for Purim. But I don’t really need to have my community psychoanalyzing me for weeks afterward.

I thought about sticking pictures of mini-hamentashen and mini-megilot all over myself and going as Purim Katan. I also thought about having my wife go with a big number 1 on her, and me with a big number 2 on me along with pictures of Megilot and Hamantashen, and we could have been Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni. But while these are cute, they’re just that… cute. And way too rabbinic. Eh.

So as of now, I’ve got nothing. Any help would be much appreciated.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Column: Barack Obama, Jeremiah Wright and Spiritual Politicans

I submitted the following column to the Allentown Morning Call on Friday Feb. 29, and it ran today. (They changed the headline in the version they printed here, and that does slant the column's meaning, but they seem to have left the actual text intact.)

The Political Candidate and his Spiritual Advisor
At the February 26th Democratic debate between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Mr. Obama was questioned regarding the political views of his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr. As Tom Raum described it in an Associated Press analysis,[1] the moment was awkward.

This type of questioning is certainly not new to American politics; it is reminiscent of religious challenges put to recent presidential candidates like Orthodox Jew Joseph Lieberman (regarding Israel) and Roman Catholic John Kerry (regarding abortion). There is a long historical pedigree behind these questions, too - think of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Al Smith in 1928. Nonetheless, the approach remains troubling: In a country so solidly committed to separating Church and State, why is a candidate’s religious guide entertained as a factor?

I suspect the electorate is skeptical because of the way Americans view spirituality. Today’s churchgoers tend to view their lives as an integrated whole, merging spiritual life with day-to-day existence - the two arms of the Cross, as Reverend Wright himself put it in a recent interview[2] - and so it is hard to imagine any citizen or candidate separating the two.

The mix of religion and practical life affects every citizen, beyond the realm of the ballot box; witness the religion-oriented marketing of today’s major issues. Controversies on issues as varied as abortion, the welfare state, environmentalism, healthcare, war, right to die and gender discrimination are argued not only for secular ideals but also for the religious doctrines on each side.

Religion plays the same role at the executive level of government, and has done so for millenia. Students of the history of Christian monarchs recognize that Church-affiliated monarchs have long been mightily influenced by their spiritual advisors. Constantine, Justinian, Ferdinand and Isabella and many other European kings acted in the perceived interests of their Church. There have been rebels, too, like King James I of Aragon - who defied the Church in an attempt to defend Spanish Jewry from expulsion - but they have been the exception rather than the rule.

Jewish history, too, positions clergy as key counselors to political leaders. The prophet Samuel rebuked King Saul, and ultimately removed him from the throne. King David was chastised by prophets Nathan and Gad, King Solomon was guided by his mentor, scholar Shimi ben Geira. In the Gaonic era of the 7th to 10th centuries, the Jews of Northern Africa and Europe were led by a political Exilarch and a religious Gaon, who were supposed to work in tandem to guide the nation. In modern Israel, religious legislators tend to approach their spiritual advisors for political guidance.

The upshot of this analysis is that today’s Americans, heirs to a long tradition of combining spiritual and practical considerations, are unlikely to accept any candidate’s distinction between religious pastor and political master. Until a candidate builds up a track record to the contrary, religious Americans will assume that he weighs seriously the beliefs of his religious affiliation when determining policy.

Is a candidate’s merger of religion and political philosophy harmful? Not necessarily. Candidates whose spirituality affects their public policies are more likely to have a stable religious worldview than those whose spirituality is divorced from reality.

Religion which dwells entirely in the untroubled realm of theory develops as a cloistered, naïve, even shallow philosophy which can offer little to edify its adherents. An abortion philosophy which is unfamiliar with the reality of teen pregnancy and the population explosion, or an environmental philosophy which is uneducated in the hard facts of business, employment and climate change, can have little to say to a citizen of the 21st century. However, religion which plays a robust role in daily life gains a savvy which forces its followers to face hard questions and develop a sophisticated worldview.

Therefore, I’m not sure I would not want a chief executive whose religious faith was divorced from the real world; perhaps it might be better to have a candidate who has a foot in both worlds, and is forced to mediate between the two.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Daf: Nedarim 76-81

Here are some quick items on Nedarim 76-81:

Why wouldn’t we use a Kal vaChomer for this? Because Kal vaChomer is the only method of derashah (hermeneutical principle, for the multisyllabically inclined) which one may employ on his own say-so and personal logic, and is therefore considered vulnerable to error. For the same reason, we say אין עונשין מן הדין, a court may not punish based on kal vachomer deduction.

Regarding the word “Yom” you must see Rashbam on Bereishis 1:4 (ויהי ערב ויהי בקר), and Ibn Ezra on Shemos 35:5 (ביום השבת). (Note that Ibn Ezra wrote an entire screed against Rashbam’s philosophy of Yom - it's the Iggeret haShabbat, available on-line here.)

Rav’s use of “chavivi” “my beloved” for his uncle R’ Chiyya is parallel to our own use of דוד for uncle. Note that R’ Chiyya was his maternal and paternal uncle; see the beginning of Pesachim, 4b or so.

The Ran and the Rosh have entirely different explanations of what R’ Chiyya bar Rav and Rabbah bar Rav Huna were doing.

It is interesting to note the Rosh’s explanation of R’ Chiyya bar Rav’s actions vis-à-vis his wife’s nedarim, given the history of R’ Chiyya with his father (Rav)’s wife, who used to intentionally do the opposite of what his father wanted, on Yevamos 63.

See the Rosh’s two approaches in או דילמא

See the Ran’s citation of, and disagreement with, the Rashba.

The Ran specifies that one may only do שאילה upon his upholding of a neder on the same day.

Based on the top of 81b, it appears that all of the “I will not bathe” references here are to bathing in the genital area, specifically.

Halfway down, חייל עליה נדרה should be חייל עלה נדרה, I think. I haven't checked the usual sources for this, though.

The Ran and pseudo-Rashi offer different explanations of the term הנאת רחיצה

Rav Moshe Feinstein in Yoreh Deah 1:145 notes that in R’ Yosi’s case of “our laundry vs. their lives,” it doesn’t actually refer to a life-and-death situation.

Shemuel, once again, weighs in with a medical opinion.

Re: Sha’amumita, see the Depression issue raised under שעמום in Kesuvos 59b.

See, of course, the famous Rabbeinu Yonah cited by the Ran on the problem of not reciting Birchot haTorah before learning Torah.

The fox analogy is an attempt to use clean language.