Sunday, August 31, 2008

Government as Economic Protector (Derashah - Reeh 5768)

[Haveil Havalim is here, and an excellent edition it is...]

I prefaced this derashah by noting that it is not an endorsement of any political party's platform. Afterward someone mentioned to me that it certainly isn't - it goes much farther than any of them dare...

Rising unemployment. Skyrocketing prices for food and fuel. A federal authority struggling to keep businesses and individuals afloat. And a leader arose who declared that we could solve all of our problems if only we would accept mutual responsibility and harness the power of government to protect the common citizen.

It sounds like the 21st century and a certain speech from this past Thursday night, but it’s not - the scene is actually 2200 years ago, in Israel, as the era of the second Beit haMikdash was on the wane. Under the dual strains of Roman oppression and harsh economic forces, the Jewish safety net of tzedakah was falling apart. Enter the Sages, who underscored the importance of communal generosity by taking key economic steps to protect the common citizen.

Here’s one example: Every seven years, at the end of the shemitah year, all outstanding debts are forgiven. Sounds good - not only are all Torah loans interest-free, but if you default, you can just wait for shemitah and then the debt disappears!

The problem is that most lenders, even those who can provide interest-free help, need to be re-paid - and so they stop lending money as the shemitah year approaches.

In the days of the sage Hillel, some 2200 years ago, our ancestors struggled under the Roman yoke and sought to protect whatever they had, refusing to lend money as Shemitah neared. So Hillel created a new economic safety net, subverting the law of shemitah with a document called a Prozbul which allowed debts to survive shemitah.

Hillel did not break biblical law; shemitah, by that time, was not biblically binding and continued only as a rabbinic memorial of the older practice. So Hillel weighed the importance of that rabbinic decree vs. people’s refusal to lend money, and decided to preserve the Torah’s mitzvah of tzedakah at the expense of the rabbinic. Hillel formalized the Prozbul document, and stimulated a healthier society.

Prozbul is a well-known step, but there are many more Talmudic examples of hands-on rabbis engineering economics, society and Jewish law.

The sages legislated protections for lenders, ensuring that loans would be re-paid with solid currency and simplifying the collections process.

They enacted consumer protection rules, too. One mishnah tells of the time two thousand years ago when dove merchants hiked the price of the birds for Temple offerings. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel responded to this price-gouging with a halachic ruling reducing the need for these offerings - and the price of birds tanked.

In fact, rabbis in 17th century Moravia and 18th century Algeria imitated this action; when fish merchants took advantage of our need for Shabbos meals and raised their prices, the rabbis banned purchasing fish for Shabbos, until the prices dropped.

The Talmudic sages regulated commerce to benefit the citizen, too, empowering town councils to do everything from setting prices and wages to forcing businesses to comply with communal standards. It sounds quasi-socialist, frankly.

The sages did this because they believed that tzedakah, and looking out for others, is not only a function of what we do as individuals - it a responsibility borne by corporate and communal government, and they were the government.

How did the Sages know that governments and communities are obligated to do this?

Rav Chaim Brisker saw it in a contrast between our parshah and a passage in Parshat Behar. In our parshah each individual Jew is instructed פתוח תפתח את ידך, Open up your hand to your brother. But in Behar we were instructed as a community, והחזקת בו, You shall uphold the hand of the needy.

Rav Chaim argued that not only is every individual required to think about the needs of others, but every corporate entity, every social group, every community, is obligated to think beyond the needs of its funding members, expanding to the needs of greater society.

In this Rav Chaim argued against the economics of Milton Friedman, who declared that a corporation, a community, owes a debt only to its funders, each in proportion to his investment. Rav Chaim said that corporations must have a selfless conscience as well, and must seek to meet the needs of society.

Potentially, this could lead to all sorts of interesting policy decisions.

Israeli economist Dr. Meir Tamari, a Torah-observant professor and author, is known for using
Jewish sources as a foundation for teaching Economics. He studied Rav Chaim Soloveitchik’s view on corporations and communities and concluded that, “In our day this would seem to apply to the pollution of the atmosphere or water through industrial wastes. ” For proof he pointed to the mishnah in Bava Batra which requires certain businesses, like threshing floors, tanneries and kilns, to locate beyond city limits - for the sake of the community.

It also means that a shul, a Jewish community, must look beyond its own membership and benefit others. Rav Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, current executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, spoke this week in Denver, and in his remarks he delivered the following strong words:

Our neighbor is not merely the person who lives next door to us or across the street or even down the lane. Our neighbor may be very distant from us. Distant geographically. Our neighbor may be a victim of a tsunami halfway across the world. Our neighbors may be the suffering people of Darfur. Our neighbors may be those that are victims of the cruel war now going on in the country of Georgia, so far away geographically. As distant as they are, they are our neighbors. Our neighbors may be distant from us culturally. They may be different from us ideologically …

Sometimes our neighbor is poor, and then we must feed and clothe him. Sometimes our neighbor, she is ill, and then we must cure her and heal her. Sometimes our neighbor, he is bereaved, and he requires us to console and to comfort him. And sometimes our neighbor has been traumatized, and then we must render her whole… We must fashion a culture which is defined by loving kindness and by compassion.

These are not small words, this is a significant mission - mandated by the words of our parshah and those of Parshat Behar, and seen in the economic orchestrations of Hillel’s Prozbul and the other examples I presented earlier.

The Torah refused to accept any limits on what we might accomplish as individuals and as a society. פתוח תפתח את ידך, open up your hand, and there will be no more עניים, we are told.

Hillel refused to accept any limits on what we might accomplish, and he and his colleagues and his students acted to provide economic incentives and remove the obstacles to our communal generosity.

There are no limits on what our communities and corporations can accomplish - and, in the end, what those accomplishments will do for us. As the Rambam wrote, quoting the Haftorah from Shabbat Chazon, אין ישראל נגאלין אלא בצדקה, שנאמר ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה, Our redemption will only come through the economic engine of tzedakah, as it is written, “Tzion will be redeemed with justice, and her returnees will come home through the merit of tzedakah.”

1. I know quite well that the justification of Prozbul is subject to debate; I have adopted Rashi's understanding. See Rashi and Tosafot Gittin 36a, and my note at the end of Gittin 36a here.

2. Loan re-payment with quality currency is found in Gittin 50a, and the leniency in interrogating loan witnesses is in Sanhedrin 3a and Bava Batra 176a. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel's leniency regarding kinin korbanot is found in the Mishnah in Keritut 1:7. The Tzemach Tzedek (kadmon) 28, and R' Yehudah Ayyash (Beit Yehudah 32) were among those who applied this to modern price gouging by merchants for Shabbat food. Bava Batra 8b records the ability of communities to force businesses into line with communal practice - להסיע על קיצתן.

3. Rav Chaim's approach (as well as Tamari's application) is briefly cited in Moses Pava's excellent Business Ethics, pg. 70. Tamari's mishnah is Bava Batra 2:3

4. The full text of Rabbi Weinreb's remarks at the Democratic National Convention may be found here. I am not sure I agree with some of what he did here.

5. The citation from the Rambam is Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matnot Aniyyim 10:1.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Sarah Palin, 2-year Governor of Alaska, Vice President?

(updated 12:06 PM)

I was thoroughly disheartened after watching last night’s speech by Senator Barack Obama. I heard a lot of beautiful promises, but came away with the sense that the man was promising the world without the means to provide it.

Going line-by-line through the budget to eliminate pork and provide efficiency, and raising taxes on 5% of the population, don’t strike me as ways to foot the bill for everything he discussed. Also, there was no recognition of the work he would have to do to bring people on board. The teachers proposal, for example, was ludicrous - dramatically increase the number of teachers while raising standards for education? You and what army, Senator?

I was disappointed because I really wanted to like Senator Obama, and because I was discouraged by the McCain campaign. If their idea of “new and different” is a campaign ad congratulating Barack Obama, then the Republican party is in deep trouble. I was sure that the final blow would come today with a pick of Tom Ridge or (yuck) Mitt Romney, and that would just kill it entirely.

And then came word about Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, being selected as John McCain’s running mate.

Google Trends shows that 8 of the top 10 searches are Palin-related at the moment. I’m sure quite a few of those are from Democrat strategists wondering how they were caught so flat-footed.

I don’t know whether to be happy or not with Palin as Vice President, but Palin as a candidate sure is a fun thing to think about. Palin may be the only person out there with a shorter resume in public service than Barack Obama. (CNN says, “Congressional Quarterly notes Sarah Palin's other past occupations, including commercial fishing company owner, outdoor recreational equipment company owner and sports reporter.”) I would love to see her debate Joe Biden; against all odds, the Republicans may have found someone who can out-sass him.

I'll admit that I’m not much of a Conservative on domestic issues, so I’m not thrilled that she is a lifetime member of the NRA or that she takes a strong stance against abortion.

I'm disappointed that I can’t find anything substantive about her approach to Israel, or foreign affairs in general. (See, for example, here. And there's nothing on AIPAC's site, although I'll bet that changes soon.)

But you know what? As I said here, I don't really want my chief executive to focus on the Middle East. The less the American (Vice) President sees the Middle East as a legacy trophy, the better. Gd knows they have enough to do, without adding "Pressure Israel and the Palestinians into a bad treaty" to the list.

And I like the fact that she is a maverick, and I love the fact that she is committed to ethics and to eliminating budget pork, even at her own expense. And I am thrilled that she’s not an old white male. Or a young white male, for that matter.

Thank you, Senator McCain; this race just became fun again.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

From Shifchah Charufah to Theodicy, “I don’t know” is the right answer

Over the years, I have learned to love the magic words “I don’t know” on many levels.

It started with my high school entrance interview with Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen, for MTA (Yeshiva University’s boys’ high school – aka TMSTAYUHSFB). Rabbi Cohen came to our elementary school, Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, and he interviewed us as a group, and then one by one.

Rabbi Cohen was very intimidating for me; I was a skinny 5-1 or 5-2 kid, and to me he looked like he was about 6-6. He had a long beard, black-framed glasses, and intense expression. His accent (Detroit?) and speech pattern were unusual for me, too, and I didn’t catch everything he said. It isn’t that he wasn’t kindly; I was just automatically intimidated. (Over the years since, I have come to respect and love him, and see him as a great role model.)

At one point during the 1-on-1, Rabbi Cohen began asking me questions. "What does X mean?" "Can you explain Y," that sort of thing. I did pretty well; thank Gd, I had a strong education and a good command of Hebrew, and knew what one would hope an eighth-grade Jewish boy would know.

Until he pulled out the stumper – “What is a Shifchah Charufah?”

I had no idea. I had heard the term somewhere, but I couldn’t remember what it meant. So I did the best I could – I knew shifchah was a maid, and charufah might be linked to חרפה, meaning embarrassment, so I tried, “An embarrassed maid.”

(The right answer: A חציה שפחה חציה בת חורין who is betrothed to an עבד עברי and then becomes involved with another man. Or, according to one view, a regular שפחה כנענית who is betrothed to an עבד עברי and then becomes involved with another man.

Yeah, I knew you knew that.)

That was when Rabbi Cohen taught me a lesson I haven’t forgotten in the 22 years since, and I hope never to forget: If you don’t know, say “I don’t know.” I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s not the end of the world, pal – just say it. I don’t know.

I think he knew that his question would stump me. I think he asked that question just to be able to teach me that lesson in humility and honesty… for which I am very grateful today, although I wasn’t at the time.

The story comes to mind now for two reasons:
1. We’ve been discussing the bizarre case of the Shifchah Charufah in Daf Yomi this week, and
I was reminded again yesterday of this important lesson.
2. It goes back to my post from yesterday, about the funeral of a young woman, as great a person as I know here in Allentown, who died of an extremely painful disease.

After the funeral I was approached by someone who asked me the age-old question, “What is it about? Why does this happen? Is it just that Gd wasn’t looking, was busy somewhere else?”

I do feel, often, like I should have an answer, like I’m expected to have the answer. "Rabbi, you've been at this for a dozen years; what can we say when something like this happens?" And I’m supposed to say something which will give all of this meaning.

But I’m no closer to understanding this than I was to knowing the meaning of shifchah charufah as a fourteen year old kid.

Oh, on a theoretical level I can talk about the gemara’s four approaches to suffering and Rav Soloveitchik’s “what now” instead of “why” question, but, ultimately, when dealing with מתו מוטל לפניו, an actual case, Rabbi Cohen was right: When you don’t know, say I don’t know.

It’s the right answer.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rough day

Rough day today.

Spent the morning at a funeral for a student of mine, a great woman in her 40's - mother, wife, physician, ubervolunteer - who died of a vicious, merciless, excruciating disease, called scleroderma.

She came to weekly classes for years, always with a smile, always with an interest in others, an interest which persisted even as her health declined, even as she spent weeks at a time in the hospital. A giving person. A do-er. A lover of Judaism and Jewish education. A tolerant and always-respectful person. A good human being.

I want to leave her seat vacant in class this year, but I don't think I will. Too ghoulish. And it'll disturb me every time I look at it.

Besides, it would be a better tribute to have someone new come and sit in it. That would suit her style.

I was glad that I wasn't forced to officiate today, since she wasn't a member of my synagogue. I was offered the chance to say tehillim, but I declined. Cowardice? Maybe, but I never saw our friendship as rabbi-congregant, and I spend too much crying in the public eye as it is. Let me have some grief of my own. (Says the man who is now blogging about it... but somehow this is different.)

So that was midday. Then, as the funeral was ending, I received a call about a friend/congregant in his 80's who is undergoing health problems and lots of pain, and is having surgery today.

Came back to the office to take care of some tasks and had someone stop in to talk about a project. She thought it was funny that I was in a bad mood, tried to lighten me up. Didn't have the heart to explain why, so I just laughed it off.

I hate days like this.

Still, as they say, better than some of the alternatives... Thank Gd I have what I have.

A la the Rav's philosophy: We don't spend a lot of time asking Why. Instead we ask what we can do now.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Top Ten Signs of Rabbinic Burnout

It’s that time of year again – Elul is coming, and with it comes the spectre of Rabbinic Burnout as the rabbi realizes he really ought to have taken vacation time during the summer, before the deluge began.

Now it's too late:
*People coming home from their trips need to meet with you about various issues.
*It's time to prepare for Shabbos-Rosh HaShanah-Shabbos Shuvah-Yom Kippur-Shabbos-Succos-Shabbos Chol haMoed-Shemini Atzeres-Simchas Torah-Shabbos.
*Boards and committees are starting up their meetings and their work.
*Your children are going back to school and will need homework help and carpool.

I just heard about a rabbi who abruptly resigned at the start of the month of Elul. I must admit that this has appeal. If there’s ever a right time to abruptly resign, it’s this week.

But, since most rabbis won’t resign this week and will begin feeling the tension of Elul/Tishrei, here are ten signs your rabbi is in the incipient (or, perhaps, not-so-incipient) stages of burning out:

10. Hands tremble when people mention Rosh HaShanah, or October, even in casual conversation. Or when he sees a shofar, or even a lemon. Or when he sees a child throwing bread to fish in a stream.

9. Found loitering outside a travel agency, staring wistfully at the posters. Alternatively, gets a dark look and begins to growl when you start describing your vacation. Says loudly, "I'm glad someone got to go away!" - and he's not smiling.

8. Visits congregant in hospital, and advises, “Well, we all gotta go sometime; toughen up!”

7. Begins delivering daily post-davening dvar torah from Gesher haChaim or other books on death and mourning.

6. Loses train of thought during speech and says, “Oh, heck with it, let’s just go on with the davening.”

5. Drains entire kiddush cup of wine, then declares he mispronounced a word and needs to say it again. And again.

4. Chases away people who come to join the shul as new members, shouting, “Beware! Beware!”

3. Leans for tachanun at Shacharit, doesn’t come back up until Minchah.

2. Denies child a lollipop after Adon Olam because the child “didn’t sing all of the words clearly.”

1. Includes self among the names in the Mi sheBeirach (prayer for the sick). Or in a Kel Malei Rachamim (memorial prayer).

And one more: The rabbi is more up on what's going on in the Jewish blogosphere than you are...

As far as advice for burning-out rabbis, my best advice comes from Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski: Always make sure you have another means of parnassah, so that you are not trapped in the rabbinate.

That, and this: Always keep your sense of humor. If you don’t have one, get one.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Newsflash: Peer Pressure affects diet, alcohol consumption

[Note: This week’s Haveil Havalim is here.]

I love those studies that make you scratch your head and say, “And just how much did you spend on this?”

Yes, I know that sometimes we need the proof that comes with statistical analysis, and sometimes a study does provide refined insight… but please don’t tell me that the overall findings in these tautological studies are "surprising":

People without job training or experience
earn lower salaries!
Film at 11!

Popular people tend to be invited to more parties,
studies show

Well, here’s one fresh out of the Inbox: Part Of The In-group? A Surprising New Strategy Helps Reduce Unhealthy Behaviors.

The article explains, “Authors Jonah Berger (University of Pennsylvania) and Lindsay Rand (Stanford University) found that linking a risky behavior with an "outgroup" (a group that the targeted audience doesn't want to be confused with) caused participants to reduce unhealthy behaviors.

So, in other words: To avoid being associated with a certain group, I won’t act like the members of that group.

Didn’t we all learn this back in high school?

Here’s one study they ran: “Students on their way to a campus eatery were surveyed about perceptions of the media. A control group read an article about politics and pop culture, and a second group read an article associating junk-food eating with online gamers (an "outgroup"). When research assistants observed the two groups ordering food, they found that the group who had read the article about online gamers made healthier choices.

Right – The geeks eat junk food, I don’t want to be called a geek, so I won’t eat junk food. Thank you, U of P and Stanford, for clarifying that point for me. (Apologies to on-line gamers; this was not my study.)

In truth, there is one pedagogic point I should make, and I would have loved to see the study examine this:

The study's method is a negative reinforcement technique, preying on people’s fear of being despised. It’s the equivalent of telling your child, “Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve; only low-class people do that.”

Far better – and more effective, I would hope - to choose a positive reinforcement technique: “You know, respectable people use tissues.”

Avot d’Rabbi Natan records regarding Aharon haKohen: Aharon would make sure to greet everyone warmly and inquire after their welfare. Then, one those people were faced with opportunities to sin, they would resist the temptation – because they wanted to be the type of person worthy of being greeted by Aharon haKohen.

Yes, I’d prefer the positive – Link healthy behavior with the in-group, and watch how people flock to it.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Dark Knight: A fun movie, but disturbing in its exploitation

Warning: Spoiler alert.

I waited a long time for this movie. A long time because I was salivating for this one from the end of Batman Begins. A long time because it came out at the start of the Three Weeks, so that I had to wait until after Tisha b’Av to see it. And a long time because I wanted to see it on an Imax screen – to mirror my experience of the previous Batman film – and I had to manipulate many schedule items to make this trip work. And all along I was reading reviews hyping the film as being as close to perfection as you can get.

I loved Batman Begins. I can quote entire paragraphs of the script, even though I saw it ages ago. It was everything I would want, which is good given that I see about one film per year. And everyone said that the sequel was even better.

So, maybe I came in to this one with unreasonable expectations. But I came away not disappointed, but disturbed.

First, the basic review:

Batman – Still a great anti-hero, still has an attitude, preserved his edge of humor. My one complaint: I was waiting for one big moment when he would do something dramatically heroic, akin to the several great heroic scenes in the previous movie (ie his moment on the roof when he reveals his identity to Rachel and then dives into battle), and I didn’t really see any such moments.

Killing off Rachel Dawes – Personally unsatisfying (I like it when the hero gets the girl), but understandable. She couldn’t really get together with Batman without betraying the character’s internal logic, and she couldn’t go on forever not-getting him, and as long as she was around he couldn’t connect with anyone else, so she had to go.

Gordon, Alfred and Lucius were great, as always. Stunts were amazing, of course, and mostly without venturing into the overdone, chase-across-the-rooftops Bourne Ultimatum type of stunts.

I found the ethical exploration (“Which one do I kill?” “Do I put myself first, or others first?” “What happens to people when you push them to choose?” etc) to be way overdone, like reading Ralph Ellison; it was just too dense. And, perhaps, I didn't appreciate it because I am numb to these conundrums. I deal with them regularly, both in the abstract philosophical world of Jewish thought and the very real world of people’s practical questions.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed the movie. It was the fastest two-and-a-half hours I've spent in a long time.

But here’s my problem: I was disturbed by Heath Ledger’s Joker performance – because it was so on target.

I've spent a fair number of hours in psych units and working with people who are dealing with serious psychological ailments. Ledger’s mannerisms, his speech patterns, the way he shifted between eye-contact and no eye-contact, the way he ran his hands through his hair, his gait, it was all just exactly what I’ve seen in people with serious psychological problems. It was too accurate - it felt like exploitation of those people, like someone was holding them up for entertainment, if not mockery. It felt wrong.

I find it easier to deal with a villain whose wrongdoing I can write off for moral failings and the like. It seems I have a harder time with a villain whose life is so clearly reflected in the lives of everyday people who have psychological problems.

Still a great movie, but… disturbing.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Gittin 36 - Written Torah, Prozbul, Shemitah and Yovel today, and Joyous Suffering

I had intended to record my notes on Gittin 36 through 38, but there’s so much on 36 alone that I have to settle for that. If you have the patience, and access to a gemara, you may find some of these interesting.

Or not.

Gittin 36a
Ordinarily, a vow taken “על דעת רבים - on the mindset of the community” cannot be nullified, for the mindset of the individual taking the vow, and any subsequent regret he feels, is irrelevant. Here, though, we say that such a vow may be revoked for the sake of a mitzvah. Tosafot explains that the community, it may be assumed, does desire that the mitzvah take place. Further, he says it is not a reference to the community in general, but rather to specified individuals - who could, I suppose, be polled for their approval.
However: What is the mitzvah in our case?!

The gemara mentions דיסקי as one way in which people would recognize the signatures of various sages. Rashi explains that דיסקי were letters of responsa, as well as letters of greeting.
This is one example, among several, that show there was a practice of recording Torah well before Rebbe canonized the mishnah. Elsewhere we have seen recordings of berachot, scrolls on which people recorded novellae cited in the beit midrash, and Aramaic translation/commentary in the targumim. The Sfat Emet (Megilah 3a) contends that the prohibition against recording Torah was specifically against publishing it.

The gemara here records Hillel’s justification for formalizing the Prozbul; the issue was a need to ensure a flow of (interest-free) loans. This was critical, since it was (and still is) the greatest form of tzedakah - it allows for a greater magnitude of aid than we could ever see from gifts. Therefore the sages made numerous enactments to encourage lending - this Prozbul, as well as requiring that debts be repaid with a strong currency, eliminating intense interrogation of witnesses and more. This is what the sages called שלא תנעול דלת בפני לווין, to keep the door from being closed before lenders.

Note the basic debate between Rashi and Tosafot as to how Prozbul works.

The gemara here says that Hillel could subvert Shemitah’s release of overdue debts because Shemitah is rabbinic rather than biblical today. This is a problem for the view (see Erchin 31b-32a) that Shemitah remained biblical throughout the second Beit haMikdash, when Hillel lived!
Tosafot here answers that Hillel created the enactment to apply after the destruction of the Beit haMikdash.
Ramban here finds that answer unacceptable, and argues that one must say it was rabbinic during the second Beit haMikdash.

Gittin 36b

Tosafot ותקון asks why the sages would have enacted a rabbinic memorial to shemitah, but not to Yovel. He answers that the prohibition against farming during Yovel, coming on the heels of Shemitah, would be too great a difficulty to impose rabbinically. Note that Tosafot must follow the system of counting that we use, that does not count Yovel as part of the Shemitah cycle. This is against the view that Yovel is part of the seven-year Shemitah cycle, and so is not always the year following Shemitah.

Rashi יחרם כל רכושו stresses that this co-opting of the property of people who did not return for the second Beit haMikdash was a verdict of the Great Assembly. Perhaps this is lest one consider it a הוראת שעה of a prophet, and therefore invalid as precedent for rabbinic action.

See Tosafot דאלימי on what kind of Beit Din is needed to perform a Prozbul.

I prefer to take שמחין ביסורין as “joyous despite suffering” rather than “joyous in suffering.” But I could be wrong.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Stop campaigning against talking in shul

Many shul rabbis spend significant time thinking about ways to eliminate noise in shul (see my previous post here). Wise people have written lengthy articles deconstructing the “talking in shul” phenomenon, explaining why people do it and how they might be motivated to stop.

I have heard that rabbis have taken all sorts of creative steps, including:
*Anonymous letters to congregants (I wonder if they use ransom-note style cut-out letters to avoid forensic analysis);
*Long speeches and dedicated divrei torah ("I'll keep talking until you stop talking");
*Special tefilot on behalf of people who stop talking (maybe they should be davening on behalf of the talkers?);
*Eliminating Chazarat haShatz;
*Public humiliation of talkers.

Personally, I think we would be better off looking at the positive: How to create a davening-focussed shul experience, an atmosphere which helps people get into the mood of davening.

The approach must include more than posting a דע לפני מי אתה עומד (Know before Whom you stand) motto over the Aron or an אסור לדבר בשעת התפילה (Speech during davening is prohibited) sign on the wall, whether accompanied by a cute graphic or not. “No cell phones” signs are nice, but similarly inadequate. Again: Even if people comply, our goal is not to eliminate noise - it’s to create a good davening atmosphere.

So what can we do?

1) The most obvious answer is to have an existing nucleus of people davening with proper concentration. Nothing increases kavvanah (focus) like standing in a group of people who are already focussed. But what about for those of us who don’t already have such a nucleus?

2) Another good answer is to create pre-davening programming. The mishnah notes an ancient practice of meditating for an hour before Shemoneh Esreih. Our own psukei d’zimra is meant to achieve the same goal, although that requires an understanding of what its passages mean.
The gemara makes this point when it notes that one may not begin davening after studying in-depth Torah. Torah is wonderful - but, for most of people, it will not develop a mood of davening. In fact, even studying the meaning of davening won’t necessarily help. For most people, intellectual study is more about an internal focus than a Divine focus.
Actual meditation, or perhaps a directed session in which people think about their lives and needs, and the lives and needs of those around them, and the wondrous things HaShem does for us at all times, would accomplish far more. Unfortunately, it’s too touchy-feely for most of us (me included, frankly), but that’s too bad - it could really make a difference.

3) A third answer is to make sure that people have an appropriate activity during all points of the davening - including the “down time” when the Torah is circulating, during lengthy “Mi sheBeirach” prayers on behalf of the sick, the local government, the State of Israel, POWs, et cetera, and during Chazarat haShatz (repetition of Shmoneh Esreih).
I am well aware of the halachic rulings prohibiting Torah study during this last period, and I, personally, follow that view. At the same time, if the result is that slack-jawed people’s minds wander, they don’t listen to the chazan and they don’t answer Amen anyway, they might as well be studying. Perhaps shuls could have, in the pews themselves, literature on the davening and literature that encourages people to think about their needs/blessings and their relationship with HaShem. Alternatively, Chazanim could work harder at creating tunes which will draw people into the davening.

4) For the intellectually focussed, we need classes on the meaning of the davening - not just the superficial, but in-depth analysis of Psukei d’Zimra, of the structure of berachos, etc - so that people will understand the genius invested in each tefillah.

There are many more ideas out there, I am sure, but to me, this is the bottom line: We will have a strong davening when we stop deconstructing noise and start constructing a davening atmosphere.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Re-upping as a Rabbinic Mentor

I found out yesterday that I will be invited to serve again this year as a mentor for the Center for the Jewish Future / Legacy Heritage Fund Rabbinic Enrichment Initiative’s rabbinic mentorship program.

In this mentorship program, experienced rabbis are paired with rabbis who are just starting out, for a period of two years. The rabbis visit each other, and communicate regularly (at least weekly) to talk about issues, to discuss long- and short-term planning, etc. And, sometimes, the mentor rabbis have to spend some time clarifying to the mentee's shul that his job is to help the mentee, and not to be a liaison between the mentee and his shul.

To my mind, this is a great program; I could have used a mentor when I was starting out.

All right, full disclosure: I would not have taken advantage of it, because I was way too insecure to trust anyone to be my mentor. I was sure that all information and skills fit into one of two categories: (A) Things I know, or (B) Things I will never admit I don't know.

But I should have had one.

When the program started a couple of years ago, I was absolutely, positively sure I didn’t belong as a mentor. I was the most junior mentor by far; I had 9 years of experience, and the next-junior mentor had 20-something years. I’m still not sure why they asked me, except that more senior rabbis had declined the opportunity. But there I was at the table with rabbis whose experience and wisdom still awe me.

After a couple of years in this role I finally feel like I do have some small sense of what I am supposed to be doing. A very small sense, but it's there.

Certainly, being a mentor has been good for me, for all the reasons that mentorships usually benefit mentors:

-I’ve had a chance to travel to places I would never have seen otherwise. Granted that I don’t travel well (understatement alert), it’s still been a good, deepening experience for me;

-Seeing others’ challenges has given me perspective on my own (Wow, am I glad that's not my congregant);

-Helping others with their weakenesses has given me insight into my own (Those can't do...);

-Mentoring has forced me to think systematically and thoroughly about the mechanics of the rabbinate (Yes, there is a system. Or there should be, at any rate.);

-I’ve gleaned new ideas for implementation in my own rabbinate.

About the only thing I would really want to change is the title “mentor,” for two reasons:

-I think it’s off-putting for the mentee, although most of them wouldn’t say so directly. This new rabbi is someone who has completed a serious course of learning and who is already in the field, counseling people and dealing with tough issues, and labelling myself – still relatively young in this field – as a “mentor” is a bit patronizing. Not to mention it can be undermining if the senior rabbi is introduced to the community as a formal mentor; I prefer the title "partner rabbi," "buddy rabbi" or something similar.

-The title suggests I know something. Certainly, I’ve seen a lot over the years, but experience makes you a זקן without necessarily being a זה שקנה חכמה – in other words, it gives you the gray hair, but necessarily the gray matter to go with it.

In the past two years I have worked with three young rabbis, and I’ve learned from dealing with each of them. I hope they have benefited as much from me – and I hope to become even better at it over the course of this year.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gittin 33-36 - Agunah, Nachmeni and Punishment for swearing falsely and in vain

Some notes on recent pages studied in the Daf Yomi. Possibly of interest to Daffies; all others, feel free to read or skip as you choose.

Gittin 33a
As we have already noted, the Rashba and Rashi have two different definitions of “agunah” as a technical term.
-Rashba says it refers to a woman who does not know whether she is married.
-Rashi says it also refers to a woman who is married, but is not able to live with her husband.

Therefore, on Gittin 32a when the gemara says that one may not nullify a get after giving it to a delivery agent, unless in the present of the agent, Rashi explains that this is because the husband may just be trying to pain her - making her an agunah - because now she will remain married to him, but be emotionally distant from him.
Rashba, though, would not consider that an agunah situation. Therefore, Rashba says it’s actually לצעוריה קא מכוין, something which pains the delivery agent. The fear is that all agents will have to wonder whether they are on a fool’s errand. Therefore, they will hesitate to deliver gittin. It is not about agunah at all.

However, this approach to 32a creates a problem on 33a, where the gemara says explicitly (in Reish Lakish’s view) that this is a matter of agunah! So the Rashba explains that we have an additional concern, that she might hear that the get has been annulled but not know whether it was annulled before or after she received it. Thus she does not know whether she is married - fitting Rashba’s definition of agunah.

The gemara here discusses הפקעת קידושין, annulment of marriage, a fascinating topic. Certainly, one must see the very interesting remarks of Tosafot ואפקעינהו here. See, too, the opinions brought in Shitah Mekubetzet to Ketuvot 2b.

Gittin 34a
Rashi and Tosafot disagree on how legal guardians (אפטרופוס) of inheriting orphans function. Rashi says they choose portions of the estate for their charges. Tosafot disagrees and argues that the court does the distribution, and the guardians then take care of the property put into their care.

Gittin 34b
See the note in R’ Akiva Eiger’s Gilyon haShas on possible sources of the title נחמני Nachmeni given to Abbaye. Rashi’s explanation (that Rabbah bar Nachmeni was his guardian) is the familiar one, but there is another possibility, as R’ Akiva Eiger shows.

The gemara says we record the names of parties in a get, and record “וכל שום שיש לו,” “and any other name he has.” Tosafot brings two views, one that we literally write וכל שום שיש לו, the other that we record the actual other names. We follow the latter view.

Gittin 35a
The gemara presents a story in which a woman swore falsely, by mistake, regarding an item in her care, and suffered as a result. Tosafot לא asks why she was punished, since we say that a person who is forced by circumstance to swear falsely does not bring a korban. Tosafot offers two answers: (1) That one in such a situation doesn’t bring a korban, but is subject to punishment, or (2) That she was careless regarding an item she was supposed to guard, and that carelessness was what led to the false oath. She is liable for the carelessness.
For a strong statement against oaths, verging on declaring all oaths to be שבועת שוא, oaths in vain, see Sefer Chasidim 418-419.

Rashi חוץ לבית דין משביעין is very important for a core understanding of the vows we are discussing here.

Gittin 35b
Interesting; the gemara here uses הפרה when it really means התרה; a judge does התרה, not הפרה. This is surprising; Bava Batra 120b says that if a judge uses the term הפרה, saying “מופר לך”, the vow is not annuled!

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Scam Alert: The Hole in the Mezuzah

While checking mezuzah scrolls this morning (they should be inspected for damage twice in seven years, according to the gemara and Shulchan Aruch), I remembered an incident from some time back, when a mekubal (mystic) visited my community and offered to look at people’s mezuzot.

For those who may not be aware: A few itinerant Kabbalalists claim to be able to read the mezuzah scrolls from people' s doors and discern information about what goes on in the house, and particularly about the spiritual challenges facing the inhabitants of the house.

I must admit, right at the outset, that I am skeptical regarding the abilities of mekubalim who advertise such services. I wholeheartedly believe that such skills could exist, but I have a hard time with the idea that those who are capable of this art are hawking their talents in this manner.

And, of course, I must also acknowledge the following story of skepticism, for the sake of full disclosure: After college, I attended NYU’s Courant Institute, seeking a Masters in Computer Science, intending to make aliyah and work in computers. At the same time I entered semichah at YU/RIETS, to keep up structured learning. In my first or second year into this program, my parents showed my mezuzah to a mekubal – who forecast that I pursue the rabbinate rather than a career in computers. I remained in the Computer Science program for a full year after I had already decided to go with the rabbinate, in an attempt to prove him wrong.

So, yes, I am a longtime skeptic. But to return to our story: The visiting mekubal inspected the mezuzot of a certain family, and told them that one of them was no good. He even explained a certain family problem – regarding which he had been given no advance information, but which I think he could have guessed quite easily - on that basis. The family purchased a new mezuzah (not from him).

The family brought me the mezuzah later, for me to examine it. I studied it, and found nothing wrong. They then showed me the problem: They held the scroll up in front of a flashlight, and there was a pinprick-sized hole in the parchment, at the edge of a letter.

This would, indeed, disqualify a mezuzah scroll – the letters must be מוקף גויל, surrounded entirely by parchment. But I had already been checking mezuzot for a decade, and I had never, ever, seen such a hole. Ever since that day I have included, as a routine part of checking, a step in which I hold up the scroll to a light, and I have never seen such a hole – and I’ve checked dozens of mezuzot since that day.

If you ask me, I think the mekubal had a sharp fingernail, or some other means of puncturing the mezuzah. I can’t prove it, of course… but, all the same, if you do decide to show your mezuzot to a mekubal, check them with a light first, and watch his hands very carefully.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Haveil Havalim #178 - The Tu b'Av Edition

I am, quite possibly, the least qualified host, ever, for Haveil Havalim:

1) I don’t live in Israel, and HH always seems to place a (worthy) emphasis on Israeli blogs;

2) I’ve been around the Jblogosphere for two years now in one form or another, but I rarely set aside time to read any other blogs. I did make a special effort to look at some of my favorites to find posts for this issue (and I was disappointed to find that some of my favorites didn’t post anything I could use this week…)

3) I always follow the HH rules and submit a maximum of two, and very rarely three, posts. Now I’ve discovered that there are bloggers who submit five or six. (And there are some really high-quality bloggers who submit nothing. Go figure.)

4) I don’t like the HH categories (Why are there separate categories for Judaism and Torah? Why is there no category for Life or Blogging? Et cetera)

But Jack asked, and who am I to refuse Jack? So, without further ado, here is “Haveil Havalim #178: The Tu b’Av Edition!”

We are taught (Taanit 30b-31a) that Tu b’Av is one of the two greatest days on the Jewish calendar, sharing the title with Yom Kippur. The gemara enumerates seven elements of Tu b’Av’s happiness, so I thought I would invent seven new Haveil Havalim categories for this issue, based on those happy themes:

On Tu b’Av, the die-off of the Desert Generation stopped, so that the remaining Jewish nation knew they would enter Israel. To Life!

This week saw quite a few posts about Life, Jewish and otherwise, in different places: Out and About in the City of the Czars shows life in Russia, People on strings: The International Festival of Puppet Theater hits Jerusalem showcases a puppet festival (no, that wasn't a swipe at the Knesset...), there’s a kite festival at We Truly Are An עם רוחני Am Ruchani and we’ve got an alternative Jblogger conference as well.

Lots of Life in the parenting posts this week: Dad Did It Better, Letting Go, Revisiting the Misgeret, or Is Preschool Necessary, Who needs a car wash? We've got Legos!, E=MC Chamud and Cookie Cutter. Not to mention Home Alone less fun in real life.

Probably my favorite To Life post this week was this one: A Harpie at 30,000 Feet (you'll get the "To Life" reference once you read it...)

There are some hazards in Life, too; see Therapeutic Boundaries and Guest Post on Substance Abuse.

How about communal life? Check out my own Avoiding the appearance of showmanship is also showmanship and How do you behave at Kiddush? as well as Travesty of Justice.

Let’s throw in some Nachamu music, too, courtesy of Psychotoddler.

There was also this unique Obligatory Tisha b’Av Post take on Tisha b’Av, and I wasn’t sure where else to put it, so it landed here.

On Tu b’Av, the Civil War between Binyamin and the rest of the Jews (see the end of the book of Shoftim) stopped; here are some posts on our own politics and (un-)civil internal wars…

We have heavy material on Israel’s internal struggles at Would They Invite Me into Their Car? and I challenge Miriam Shaviv, not to mention I Told You So, I Told You So, I Told You So...., Gush Katif - The Museum and The Right Direction? When both sides are right pretty much sums it up.

We have a questioning of religious schism, too, at Parallel Worlds, an interesting note from the always-interesting Emes v'Emunah at Defending the Zealots, and my own A support group for homosexual “Torah-true” Jews?.

Juggling Frogs describes a lesson in trusting a friend... and without trust, where would unity be?

To round out the category, there’s Blogging Schism at What’s This? and a little unity via The Unifying Power of Jewish Geography.


When Moshe announced that Israel’s land would be divided among patrilineally determined tribes, and that men would inherit land, Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah requested the power to inherit their deceased father’s portions. This was granted to them, but among the consequences was a decree that women who inherited land would need to marry within their tribes, guaranteeing that when their sons inherited their land, it would remain within the tribe. This decree was lifted, broadening marriage options and gladdening shadchanim everywhere, on Tu b’Av.

Lion of Zion posted information and music at Jewish Valentine's Day (Tu be-Av): Music and History.

Srugim was high on the dating and marriage agenda at Srugim...your weekly fix and Psak on TV Dating.

Leora cited the marriage practices of Tu b’Av in the monthly KCC post, Kosher Cooking Carnival #33: Women Wearing White.

And what’s a marriage discussion without an intermarriage discussion? See Running Deer? Call Me Sitting Shiva.

After the Bar Kochba revolt was smashed by the Romans, the victors refused to allow us to bury our dead. Years later - on Tu b’Av - the Romans pioneered the now-routine practice of returning murdered Jews, and permitted us to bury them.
Not surprisingly, we have lots of posts about people who don’t like us. And, fitting the fall-of-Betar theme, I threw in some posts on death and suffering. Let's get it all out of the way in this category, shall we?

We kick off this section with a note on the pernicious origins of the Olympics at This Year Tisha B'Av Reminds Me Of Chanukah (despite this note at Lezak Brings Home Relay Gold) and then dive right in to Gila’s visit to an Arab village, here and here.

We’ve got Ten Years and The Israel Situation: Somebody Noticed Islamic Hypocracy [sic], and some fun at What do you do....

Want enemies? We’ve got loads of ‘em, with Messianic (J4J) activity at Tisha b’Av, warnings about Joe Lieberman at Does John McCain Know THIS About Joe Lieberman? and some very interesting information at Howard Rotberg’s Affair.

There’s Holocaust-related material at Comic book stars turn serious and a very interesting note at Digitizing The Holocaust: Yad Vashem on YouTube.

And, of course, can't forget the French, can we?

On a more global level, the personal nature of suffering is explored at Whose Story is it Anyway? and Jack talks death at Sudden Death and Aging.

Of course, with all of these enemies and all of this death there is still room for humor at My Infidel Jewish Doctor, Jihad Against Sexy Fruit & Vegetables: Seriously and Iranian official deflects charge of not hating Israel enough.


When the Northern Kingdom of Yisrael split off from the Southern Kingdom of Yehudah, Yeravam, leader of the north, set up roadblocks to keep Jews from the north away from Yerushalayim and the Beit haMikdash. Those roadblocks were removed, generations later - on Tu b’Av.
With this category we mark Roadblocks of all kinds:

We have construction at Downtown Jerusalem--Under Construction and Uniq by any standard.

We have pictures of a roadblock-less Shomron here.

For another type of roadblock, check out this new-oleh lesson in using Israeli bus stops.

And a spiritual roadblock at The Western Wall Tunnels.

Tu b’Av, coming midway through the summer heat, is when we finish cutting wood for the korbanot of the Beit haMikdash, and so it is a day of siyyum, celebrating completion of this great mitzvah.

We have reminders of what we have achieved, and what we have yet to achieve, at The Bitter in the Bitter-sweet, What was that Tisha B'Av all about anyway? and Two Past Nine: Looking Back.

We have a post on the depth of Tisha b'Av's message at Mourning enormous loss: Tisha b'Av, the trauma of memory and the wisdom of Jewish tradition. In mourning the Beis haMikdash, we don’t endanger ourselves, though: Fewer Friends Are Fasting, according to Me-ander.

The Environmentalists doubtless recognize the need to cut back wood from time to time, and so presumably Green Map coordinator Jacqueline Rose would celebrate Tu b’Av with us.

Curious Jew speaks of one of the points we need to stress for the re-building of the Beis haMikdash at The Spirit of the Law: Heart Before The Mind, and R’ Gil Student posts on a new biography of one of my favorite rabbis, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, at R. Haskel Lookstein and Social Activism.


Tu b’Av comes at around the time when the nights begin to lengthen and the days begin to shorten (not precisely, of course, since Tu b’Av is a lunar date!). From this point on, then, we have less time to work in the fields, but more time to study Torah at night - so here are some dvar torah posts:

Tzipiyah looks at devoting ourselves to the growth of our nation at A separate personal growth or a unified national growth? and my brother schmoozes Ayin haRa over at Kosher Beers with Max Kellerman's Monday Musings Vol XXII - Jets, Baseball and Ayin Hara.

Barzilai comments on Counterbalancing Satiation and Sarah Schenirer and R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch are the topic here.

And how could we have a Dvar Torah section without a post on the parshah?

So, there you have it. Unqualified, unsavvy, but we made it through.

To celebrate, herewith some boilerplate:

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of
haveil havalim using our carnival submission form.
Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Gittin 28-32 – Aging, Agunot, Reductio ad absurdum and the Negev’s Hadley Cell

This week we have a bat mitzvah in shul, and the derashah is really centered on that bat mitzvah, so I won’t be posting it for at-large reading. Here are some notes from recent Daf Yomi topics, though. For those learning Daf Yomi this may be of interest.

For all others – Haveil Havalim is located here on Sunday; see you then!

Gittin 28a
Why am I confident that if I find a Get among a man’s own personal effects, I can be sure it is his? Rashi says it’s because the Get is in his house, but Tosafot או seems to disagree; he says the issue is not the house, since many people may pass through the house, but rather it’s the fact that the Get is among his personal effects.

Statistically, people who reach a certain age without developing key diseases are likely to reach a very old age. The gemara noted this here in its כיון דאיפליג איפליג comment - "once a person has reached a certain age in good health, we expect him to reach an unusually great age."

The gemara says that a proxy sent to deliver a Get need not be concerned that the sender may have died before the delivery, because “it would be impossible” to worry about this. Rashi explains this in light of his definition of Agunah. Rashi takes “Agunah” to refer to a woman who is married but unable to live with her husband, even just because of physical distance, and so he understands that the gemara is concerned with providing a mechanism through which a Get may be delivered long-distance, to prevent this Agunah circumstance.

Gittin 28b

One view in our gemara says that even if we were concerned that a Get-sender might die before delivery, one could still drink from a barrel with the expectation of tithing at the end, and not be concerned lest the barrel break in the interim, since one could appoint someone to guard the barrel. The gemara then asks, “But who will watch the watchman?”
In other circumstances, such as the beginning of Yoma, the gemara answers such reductio ad absurdum questions by saying, “אין לדבר סוף, There is a limit to what we can do.” The gemara here does not give that answer.
I think the reason we do not give that answer here is that here we have a real, practical concern about an existing problem, and we cannot answer that by saying, “Oh, well, we can’t worry about that.” In the other cases, though (like in the beginning of Yoma regarding setting up a backup wife for a Kohen Gadol before Yom Kippur), the idea is a positive enactment to forestall a problem later, and there is a limit to how much forestalling we can do.
In other words: In our case, if the barrel breaks then he drank untithed produce. This is a pressing problem, and it’s right here. In the other cases, if the Kohen Gadol’s wife dies then we simply need to appoint a new Kohen Gadol for Yom Kippur.

Rashi קומנטריסין seems to have a typo – it should be להרוג, not ליהרג. A rather significant difference!

The gemara here talks about believing a secular court when it declares,מסיח לפי תומו, that it has executed someone. The gemara in Bava Kama 114b limits such declarations, saying they apply only to permit a woman to remarry or remain with her husband, or for a rabbinic issue.

Gittin 29a

We know that a court may well find merit for the defendant after the verdict is in; when the gemara says that doesn’t happen, it means that this is not common. (Rashi, Tosafot)

Gittin 30a

See Tosafot מי.

Gittin 30b
The third answer on the page seems to rely on changing the braita, reversing the חוששין and the אין חוששין.

Gittin 31a

Rashi brings two explanations of “when the water gathers in the בוסר”, in the former talking about unripe grapes filling with fluid as they ripen, and in the latter talking about water being added to the pressing of terminally underripe grapes, to produce vinegar. The latter fits our general use of בוסר, as grapes which will never ripen. See Tosafot ובשעת, though.

Gittin 31b
The gemara here spends quite a bit of time on the importance of the winds for the survival of the world. The gemara does this elsewhere, as well.
Certainly, in Israel the winds are of grave importance. The “Hadley cell” formed by hot air rising at the equator, flowing to the 30-degree latitude and then cooling and descending in the Negev causes the Negev air to soak up moisture, which is what dries out that area and prevents rainfall. Changes in wind strength and direction could affect the resulting dryness and temperature.

Gittin 32a

Tosafot מהו points out that a Get may be annulled without witnesses, but that we require clearcut knowledge of his intentions before the Get is delivered.

Gittin 32b

A husband wrote a Get, hired a delivery agent, and then cancelled the Get. The gemara asks if he may then re-start the mission, using the same Get document.
On the face of it, there should be no problem doing this; why is this a question? I heard in the name of Rav Herschel Schachter that the problem might be the interruption between writing (וכתב) and delivering (ונתן) the Get.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Customer Review: The State of New Jersey

Far, far too many things going on today, and I need to take a moment to breathe. So, I’ll scribble a quick blog entry before diving back into the thick of work.

My rebbetzin found a way for us to get a couple of affordable days away from town this week, so from Monday midday through Wednesday midday we took our big summer vacation: 3 days and 2 nights in lovely New Jersey, at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Fairfield.

As someone said to me this morning, a trip with kids is a “family trip” rather than a vacation, but thank Gd we have kids. It was a good trip… despite the fact that we were in New Jersey.

My apologies to Leora and any other New Jersey bloggers, but I must admit that when I was growing up on LongIsland, I was never much of a fan of New Jersey. We mocked the state for anything and everything, deserved or not. Just saying “The Garden State” was enough to evoke gales of laughter. That they took the Giants and Jets, and then later the Statue of Liberty, did not add to their cachet: Once a swamp, always a swamp. (I know that’s a little glib for a rabbi, but this predated my semichah.)

One of my longtime gripes about the state was, and remains, its signage.
*Highways tend to lack adequate exit signs, but the long stretches of frontage roads are filled well beyond eyesore-level with oversized signs for every mall, store and gas station within miles.
*Signs for highways, when they do exist, are entirely misleading; it is not uncommon to see a sign which includes the Highway Number, with the word North above an arrow and the word South below the arrow, and no way to tell which word goes with the arrow.
*You also see signs telling you “Garden State Parkway 10 miles” or “Right turn for New Jersey Turnpike,” when what they really mean is that in ten miles (or after a right turn) you will find yourself on a road which will eventually take you to another turn which will take you to another road which will lead you to that highway.

I could go on and on with examples of the signage issue (try travelling from Route 80 West to Route 46 West, just east of Fairfield), but my favorite complaint is that New Jersey is like a Venus flytrap – there is no toll charge to enter, only to leave.

But enough about the negative: I was pleasantly surprised to find that the State of New Jersey has improved its demeanor. Drivers were calmer than I remember seeing in a long time. I was let into traffic several times. People on the streets smiled on occasion. In stores in Passaic and Teaneck, I heard Please and Thank You addressed to counter-people, who were also very cordial and patient to this slow-paced out-of-towner. In minyan in both Passaic and Teaneck, I sat where I wished and no one signaled me to move over. It was a positive experience.

The food was excellent. We enjoyed Yochie’s Bakery (spelled Yoichie’s on the front window, Yochie’s on the awning?), Jin’s Chinese, Noah’s Ark, Kosher Konnection, and more. [I’m always a little leery of posting the names of places I’ve eaten; I worry they’ll lose the hechsher next week, and then I’ll have promoted a treif place to later Googlers… so please check the up-to-date kashrus status of these businesses before frequenting them.]

Minyanim were plentiful, and well-paced (meaning: precisely my speed). I was not disturbed by any talking during davening, and I heard only one cell phone ring. Excellent divrei torah between minchah and maariv. I would name the shuls, but I can’t because of the next paragraph.

One complaint: In both minchah-maariv minyanim I attended, a few baalei bayit saw fit to conduct private conversations while someone taught the brief shiur between minchah and maariv.

I was very surprised; that just seems to me to be very rude. In one shul it wasn’t a rabbi delivering the shiur (as though that were justification), but he read aloud from the Rambam, and I am very certain that he was a rabbi. In the other shul the speaker was, indeed, the shul rabbi, and the talkers were not far from the front, either. I was quite dismayed by this.

Overall: Good trip. New Jersey, I’m glad to see some real improvement. Now, if we could only do something about those hotel rates...?

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Monday, August 11, 2008

A support group for homosexual “Torah-true” Jews?

David Benkof spends much of his Jerusalem Post opinion article, “Ex-Gay isn't kosher,” arguing against Jewish groups who recommend JONAH and similar sexual realignment programs.

I am decidedly on his side; those programs have never seemed legit to me, largely because they seem like the product of such blatant wishful thinking. There is no way that their practitioners would ever accept proof that their methods simply do not work.

I'm also not a fan of their pushiness. If someone would approach you looking to change, I can understand – and would expect – you to help. But the in-your-face approach their spokesmen often take, condemning those who have not 'changed,' is offensive to me.

But then Benkof makes an interesting call for help. Interesting, but I'm not sure what to do with it.

At the end of his piece, Benkof invites formation of an Orthodox support group for gays who seek to conform to halachah. He writes, I would love to see a Torah-true organization for same-sex-attracted Jews who on their own seek help in following Judaism's guidelines for family and bedroom life. Alas, such an organization does not yet exist.

My initial reaction is to say, “Sure, let's go for it!” But I'm not really clear on what “it” is. What would this group do? Are we looking to offer counseling? A shoulder on which to lean? What else? It seems to me we should be offering something more substantive than friendship.

And while we're on the topic, I'd like to see friendship for same-sex attracted Jews who did not seek to follow halachah. I think it's important to recognize that people's decisions on sexual lifestyle don't have to define their entire relationship with Torah and other Jews. Of course I don't accept homosexual practice as a halachically-valid decision, but still...

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Avoiding the appearance of showmanship is also showmanship

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

Once I landed on the bimah I was surprised to learn that somewhere inside me lurks a tendency to tear up. I cry on happy occasions and sad occasions. I cry when speaking at Kol Nidrei. I cry during Tefilat Geshem, especially if I am chazan (תולדותם נשפך דמם עליך כמים). I cry at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Which brings me to the following incident: On the first Shabbos after it became clear that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, ה' יקום דמם, had been killed, I stopped including their names in our shul’s prayer on behalf of hostages. That first week, I reached the spot where their names ought to have been inserted, and I just couldn’t go on. It took me a couple of minutes to be able to continue.

The following week, I received an email from someone assuring me that he believed wholeheartedly that what I had done was genuine, and not at all theatrical.

Of course, I now had to wonder: Did someone actually think that my crying was theatricality? Theatricality when crying over dead Israelis?!

Then, a couple of weeks later, I spoke in shul about a family who was moving out of our area. I have a longstanding emotional bond with this family. It was no surprise to me that I got choked up while speaking about them. But later I wondered: Did someone think that this, too, was rabbinic theatricality?

I don’t want to have people analyzing my tears and judging them authentic or phony, emotion or showmanship.

That discomfort shaped a decision I made this past week. In retrospect, think it was the wrong decision, but now it’s too late:

I cry every year as I read the Haftorah of Chazon. Some years it starts while I’m reciting the berachot, other years it waits for devastating lines like “מי בקש זאת מידכם רמוס חצרי, Who asked you for this, for you to come trample in My courtyard?” But it has happened pretty much every year, as best I can recall, since I started leining Chazon some fifteen years ago.

So this year, in the wake of that email and its implicit skepticism, I decided to ask someone else to read Chazon.

My replacement did a fine job on the Haftorah, and no one could see my emotion this year, but after having pondered my decision through Shabbat and Tisha b’Av, I think I was wrong to back out:

- Wrong for this specific case because, as I was told by a few people afterwards, my public emotion in reading Chazon helps them feel the impact of Tisha b’Av.

- Wrong in a more general sense because my crying is the “heter” allowing other people (yes, particularly men,) to express emotion in a public, religious context.

- And wrong a third time, because that email has, paradoxically, made me phony, or at least less authentic. That emailer convinced me I had to pretend not to cry; this Shabbat I was not the real me.

I’m still uncomfortable about crying, wondering what people think when they see the tears well up. But I don’t see that I have a choice. Gd-willing there will be no Shabbat Chazon next year… but if it should come up again, I’d like to think I would reverse this year’s reversal, and let the tears flow where they may.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Gittin 24-27 – The Agunah problem of a pre-fab Get

Pretty dull notes here for anyone who is not currently studying Gittin. About the only point you might find interesting is the discussion of why pre-fab Gittin are not acceptable, below at Gittin 26b. Otherwise, feel free to jump to some other post.

Gittin 24a
Note that throughout the page, דמטית התם should be דמטית להתם

Gittin 24b
If this idea of ברירה seems odd to you, since it depends on a later action of mine to resolve the current doubt – and not for a later independent event, the way it usually does – don’t be alarmed. The gemara will discuss this on 25-26.

Note the Rava/Rabbah change toward the bottom of this page; it’s because Abayye is presented as challenging Rava’s statement, and Abayye doesn’t do that with Rava, his student. He does it with Rabbah, his rebbe.

Gittin 26a
Rabbi Eliezer’s view, in the end of the mishnah, is unclear. Rashi seems to think he is approving writing the boilerplate part of the document in advance, and leaving the names out. Tosafot, though, makes the case (based on a discussion toward the end of 26b) that Rabbi Eliezer is actually approving writing the entire thing in advance.

Worth noting: The word “משום” is seen here as a term of indirect association with a source (in this case, a pasuk; the more direct term is שנאמר). We do the same thing in other passages when a law is cited משום a certain authority – we assume that it was not heard directly from that authority, but rather it was heard from someone else in his name.

Gittin 26b
Agunah law: The gemara discusses a pre-fab get, a case in which a scribe writes a get in advance, and a man whose name matches that of the man in the get, and whose wife’s name matches the wife’s name in the get, is involved in a domestic dispute and grabs the get and throws it to his wife – so that his wife is left as an agunah (to use the gemara’s terminology). To forestall such a possibility, the gemara prohibits scribes from having such “ready documents” lying around.
However: It is not clear why she is an agunah here; she is validly divorced!
1) I made a note in my gemara’s margin some 15-20 years ago that perhaps, due to the haste of the case, the get was not signed by witnesses, and so there is debate as to its validity – and this is why she is left as an agunah. I don’t know where I saw this idea, though.
2) Rashba takes a similar approach, reading “threw” literally and says that he threw it to her and left town, and it is not clear whether the get was closer to him or to her, so that her status is in doubt.
3) Rashi, though, has a different definition of “agunah.” He says that we are not dealing with a doubtful situation; rather, the concern is that the hasty husband will find a ready-made get and divorce his wife quickly. The term “agunah” then means simply that she will lack a husband. This is consistent with Rashi’s comment in Sanhedrin 107a מעונות defining “agunah” not as a woman whose marital status is in doubt, but rather as a woman whose husband fails to live with her conjugally. The sages see this situation as painful for her, and legislate to avoid it.

Gittin 27b

Tosafot סימנים unpacks the gemara’s point about whether we rely on “unique characteristics - סימנים” as identification biblically or rabbinically.
The idea is that true proof can come only through witnesses, as seen from the courtroom disqualification of circumstantial evidence. So according to the view that “unique characteristics” are only accepted as identification rabbinically, the biblical rule would be that we needed witnesses for all purposes of identification, such as claiming lost objects, or identifying a corpse.

Tosafot ודוקא explains why I would be more likely to believe a talmid chacham on his own stated recognition of an item.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

To shine like the stars themselves (Derashah Devarim 5768)

[This dvar torah is part of a send-off for two beloved Allentown families who are moving this week. I have excised the parts about them, but I think it still holds together.]

ויוצא אותו החוצה - On a cloudless night almost four thousand years ago, the Creator of the Universe led a solitary man out of his tent, and said to him, “הבט נא השמימה, Gaze up at the heavens, וספור הכוכבים, אם תוכל לספור אותם, And number the stars, if you could possibly do so,” and then that Deity said to the man, “Avraham! כה יהיה זרעך, So shall your children be.”

With these words HaShem pledged more than multiplication - He presented a vision of descendants who would soar as loftily as the stars, a promise of a future which would shine as brilliantly as the heavens, a commitment for a protected nation which would endure as long as those celestial bodies would shine over the earth.

And then, some five hundred years later, as we read this morning, Moshe stood at the entrance to Israel and told the Jewish people, “Mission Accomplished” - הנכם היום ככוכבי השמים לרוב, Today you are as many as the stars of the heavens.

Moshe’s valedictory speech completed many story arcs.

Moshe’s own life reached a stage of fulfillment, as the man who had initially described himself as לא איש דברים אנכי, a man of no words, now began his last address to the nation by saying "אלה הדברים, These are the words."

The Jews achieved their long-anticipated goal of arriving at the Yarden, a goal which had taken forty years and hundreds of thousands of lives, an end to slavery and a birth of hope.

And the broader arc of the nation’s history was completed, with the fulfillment of the promise made to Avraham so long ago, “Your children will be like the stars.”

One problem, though: It seems that Moshe didn’t believe his own message. In just one more parshah, next Shabbos, Moshe will say, אתם המעט מכל העמים, You are the smallest of all the nations!

Further, HaShem had already specified to Avraham that the stars could not be counted - but the biblical Jewish nation is eminently countable. They are counted so often in the Torah that Gd seems to be saying to us explicitly, every so often, “Yup, still not like the stars!”

Rabbeinu Yaakov ibn Shuib, a rabbi in 14th century Spain, explained that when HaShem likened us to stars, He was not promising multiplication, at all; rather, HaShem promised us influence. As Rabbeinu Yaakov put it, citing a midrash, “ר' שמעון אומר: ככוכבים להזהיר,” that we would shine as do the stars, illuminating the entire universe, regardless of our numbers.

The Torah consistently stresses that impact is more important than numbers. For example, Rabbi Berel Wein has pointed out that when Hashem justified the destruction of Sdom, He did not do so on the basis of the large number of wicked people living in the city. Sdom’s destruction is not blamed upon the wicked. Rather, Sdom was destroyed because of the ten righteous people who did not live there. No matter how many wicked people lived there, just a few righteous people could have been enough to turn the tide.

Numbers, per se, don’t matter, and the reason numbers don’t matter is that HaShem promised us a force multiplier, something which can increase our effect far beyond the count of how many or few we are. Our force multiplier, as presented in the Torah, is our interconnectedness.

I first learned about the importance of interconnectedness when I was studying computer memory models and artificial intelligence in school. The best system proposed, as I recall, was something called a “neural net,” modeled on the nerve net of a creature called a hydra, in which interconnectedness of neurons was a major feature.

A couple of years ago I read a book called “The Tipping Point,” by Malcom Gladwell, and his discussion about how ideas spread and people link were based on interconnectedness as well.

The Torah, too, relies on interconnectedness, on feeling a joint bond, as the strength of the Jewish people - witness the famous adage, כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, all of us are mixed in with each other. We are supposed to feel a link, and the Torah even incorporates that interconnectedness into law.

Torah generally instructs us in practical mitzvot, rather than in emotions. Even those mitzvot which seem to be about emotion are truly about actions - the prohibition against jealousy is really about acting on jealousy, and the mitzvah of loving Gd is really about learning the Torah, which will cause us to love Gd. But in two cases the Torah does command us to harbor specific emotions: The prohibition of לא תשנא את אחיך בלבבך against hating another Jew in our heart, and the mitzvah of ואהבת לרעך כמוך instructing us to love each other, to develop that connection.

If we lack this interconnectedness, then we shrink, and are even in danger of disappearing.

When the gemara says that Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, was the source for the failure of the second Beit haMikdash and the reason for our millenia-long exile, it isn’t just promoting general niceness - it’s promoting the interconnectedness that is supposed to be the source of our strength. The more we bash each other - Orthodox and Conservative and Reconstructionist and Reform and Secular and Charedi, or just neighbors and peers who can’t get along in a small town - the worse off we are, the weaker we are, the farther we are from fulfilling the Divine promise of becoming like the stars in the heavens.

When we share this bond, though, then we become radiant like those stars, despite our small numbers - by eliminating hatred, by developing love, and then by acting on that love.

Tonight, before Eichah, we will look at a multi-wicked flame and recite the berachah of בורא מאורי האש, thanking Gd for the gift of fire. The berachah is odd - it says מאורי, plural, so that the correct translation of the berachah is, “Thank You, Gd, Creator of the lights of fire.” Why do we use the plural?

The Meiri explains that fire is not monolithic - it includes many individual flames, of diverse hues and shades, which combine their energy to create the whole. This is why we use a large flame, specifically - in order to demonstrate those various hues.

The flames of the Havdalah candle are interconnected and produce great light. May our interconnectedness produce a light of its own, like the stars of Avraham’s vision, and may that light put an end to our mourning, so that tonight will be the last Tisha b'Av we are forced to observe.


1. The point by R' Yehoshua Ibn Shuib is in his Derashah for Devarim, which includes an interesting discussion about the power of the constellations.

2. Rabbi Wein's thought appears (in Hebrew) here.

3. The prohibition against jealousy is discussed in Sefer haMitzvot Lo Taaseh 285, the mitzvah of loving Gd is discussed in Aseh 3, the prohibition against hating in one's heart is in Lo Taaseh 302 and the mitzvah of loving your neighbor is discussed in Aseh 206. I used the Rambam for all four for the sake of consistency.

4. The Meiri's comment is on Pesachim 103b, as well as Berachot 51b. Note that others say "Me'orei" is simply because the flame is big.

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