Wednesday, May 27, 2009

R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach on the unique obligation of simcha on Shavuos

The gemara (Pesachim 68b) tells us that even Rabbi Eliezer who held that simchas Yom Tov is ordinarily not a mitzvah obligation required everyone to eat a seudah on Shavuos because the "yom shenitna Torah", the day the Torah was given, is a day which demands celebration. Rashi explains (d"h d'ba'inan nami lachem): "sheyismach bo b'ma'achal u'mishteh l'har'os she'noach u'mekubal yom zeh l'Yisrael she'nitna Torah bo" -- one must rejoice with food and drink to demonstrate that this day is accepted [joyfully] by the Jewish people.

R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach explained that the Torah is an intellectual delight for all those who delve into its study -- one cannot help but be filled with joy while learning on the very day that the Torah was given! Yet, that joy is insufficient. It's not enough to have personal pleasure in learning, but as a careful reading of Rashi indicates, one must demonstrate that joy to others -- one must eat and drink and act like a joyous person. It's not enough to have internal happiness in one's learning, but on this day one must externally demonstrate that joy and love of learning so it is apparent to others as well.

R' Shlomo Zalman's point is well taken for the rest of the year as well. If you learn a nice idea, share it with your friend on the train, with your family, with your kids, with your neighbor, with the internet -- demonstrating love of learning and enthusiam for Torah (whether with a seudah or not : ) is the best way to encourage others to participate and join in Torah study as well. And in particular on the yom she'nitna Torah, an essential aspect of a true kabbalah is sharing that experience with others. Enjoy the cheesecake!

halacha: a woman who forgets ya'aleh v'yavo in bentching

The first tshuvah in the Shu"t R' Akiva Eiger addresses the question of whether a woman who forgets ya'aleh v'yavo in bentching on Yom Tov must repeat her birchas hamazon. Omitting ya'aleh v'yavo on days where there is no obligation to eat bread, e.g. Rosh Chodesh, does not necessitate repeating bentching. R' Akiva Eiger writes that the obligation to eat a seudah on Yom Tov stems from the time dependent zman gerama mitzvah of kavod v'oneg, honoring Shabbos and Y"T, from which women are exempt. Since they do not have to eat a seudah of bread, women would not have to repeat bentching in this case.

Many achronim disagree with this entire approach of R' Akiva Eiger (a discussion for another time). R' Shlomo haKohen, the dayan of Vilna (Shu"T Binyan Shlomo vol II, O.C. 48), however writes that even if one accepts R' Akiva Eiger's premis, not all Yamim Tovim are alike. Chazal tell us (Pesachim 68) that even those Tanaim who otherwise allow fasting on Y"T agree that a seudah on Shavuos is obligatory as that is the "yom she'nitna bo Torah", the day the Torah was given, a day which requires celebration. Just like women are obligated in tefilah because the obligation stems from sevara, a logical argument (do women not need to beseech G-d for their needs?), here too, women are obligated in seudas Yom Tov on Shavuos because the source of the obligation is a logical argument (see Tosfor d"h haKol). Therefore, all would agree that a woman who forgets ya'aleh v'yavo on Shavuos must repeat her birchas hamazon.

someone who gets it

This article (link) is worth reading. I don't necessarily agree with her prescription for the solution, but the writer does a great job explaining the "kids at risk" problem. Key quote:
When R’ Yom Tov Glaser was here from Israel lecturing for B’Derech we spoke to a group of (formerly) chassidish young men in Monsey. They all exclaimed that they have no idea what it means to be Jewish. In their view, it’s all about money and a dress code. As long as you either give money or wear the right clothes and appear on the outside as frum, then you are accepted, regardless of what is going on inside your heart. Rabbi Glaser, who is a Baal Teshuva, returned to Eretz Yisroel shattered by what he saw and heard. Rabbi Glaser said that Chassidim have 90% of Yiddishkeit intact; but, that we’re missing the first 10% -- the essential foundations of Yiddishkeit!

I would say things are not much different in the modern community other than the conformity in dress revolves aroung the latest secular styles instead of the jacket/hat uniform. The question is why with all the awareness, the yeshiva programs that have been developed, the lectures given, the funds raised to deal with this problem of "kids at risk", nothing is really working and the problem is getting worse. The answer (as the quote above reveals) seems to me to be that you can preach to kids all you want, but when they see that in the "real" world of our society all that matters is chitzoniyus, what do you expect their attitude to be?

why no tosefes Yom Tov on Shavuos

The custom is to wait until actual nightfall to daven ma'ariv on Shavuos, either to fulfill having 50 complete temimos days of sefira (Magen Avraham O.C. 494), or, as the Netziv suggests, because Shavuos is described in the Torah as being celebrated on "etzem hayom hazeh" (VaYikra 23:14), the exact day without adding additional time of tosefes. It seems strange that the Torah precludes our accepting Yom Tov early rather than encouraging or at least allowing us to enjoy and welcome even more time dedicated to kedushas hachag. I think the reason (derech derush) can be gleaned from the Torah's description of the culmination of sefirah.

Ad m’macharas hashabbos hashevi’is tisperu chamishim yom…” – Until after the seventh week, count for yourself fifty days (23:16). The meaning of the pasuk is to count fifty days until seven complete weeks have been counted, but translated literally the pasuk implies that we have until a full seven weeks have passed to count fifty days, i.e. 50 days can counted any time during this seven week period ends, even on the very last day!

The Rebbe of Tchotekov explains that on each day of the fifty days of sefirah we take another small step in the process of perfecting our character traits, making a stronger commitment to avodas Hashem, and growing in our anticipation for kabbalas haTorah on Shavuos. But what if a few days or even minutes before Shavuos a person suddenly realizes that he has not utilized this time period appropriately? What if, rather than feeling the joy of Yom Tov approaching, a person looks back with regret at the weeks of wasted moments and wasted opportunities that have passed?

The pasuk answers, “Until seven weeks have passed” – until the very last second before Yom Tov arrives – “count for yourself fifty days” – one can still accomplish all of the necessary growth that should have been accomplished in the count of the past 50 days. There is no need to surrender to regret and remorse as so much can be accomplished in even seconds before Yom Tov.

The reason why there is no tosefes allowed for Shavuos is because the Torah wants to maximize the opportunity that we have to prepare ourselves to enter Yom Tov properly. Without proper preparation Yom Tov and kabblas haTorah cannot be celebrated in a meaningful fashion.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

John Allen Paulos' Irreligion

John Allen Paulos is generally an entertaining and intelligent writer, but Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains why the Arguments for G-d Just Don't Add Up may be the exception. A few thoughts:

1) If you try to use a saw to drive in a nail or a hammer to cut wood, you will probably not be successful, though I doubt anyone would conclude that nails and wood are therefore faulty building materials. Even if you use a saw to cut wood, I can attest from personal experience that your chances of accuracy and success are not the same as a carpenter's. Please, Mr. Paulos, stick to using math and logic to explain math and logic. These are not necessarily the best tools to analyze religion, and when wielded by an amateur the risk of harm outweighs any chance of good.

2) Imagine a two page summary of a book hundreds of pages long written by the most respected brain surgeons in the world. Imagine the summary concluding that these experts are wrong. Imagine the summary written by someone whose regular job is a plumber. Now you have a taste of Irreligion. I kid you not that most chapters are less than five pages, nor do I kid you that in less reading time than it takes for the commercials to play in a TV break Paulos thinks he has summarized and demolished centuries of philosophical speculation. The single word ga'avah kept running through my head.

3) Is there anyone out there who woke up one morning and said, "Eureka, I now believe because the ontological proof is so convincing!", or who went to sleep muttering, "I'm glad I read that proof by design because now I can resume praying"? I'm pretty confident that is not how faith works. If the "proofs" that Paulos addresses are not the cause of belief, can shattering them really call into question the reasons for anyone's faith?

BaMidbar: becoming like angels

Why does the Torah instruct to count the Jewish people (1:2) "b'mispar sheimos", according to the names, but in the count of the bechorim (3:40) it uses the term "b'mispar shemosam", according to their names? Far from a mere grammtical quibble, the answer to this question lies at the root of the entire parsha of degalim.

The Midrash (BaMidbar Rabbah 2) tells us that when the Jewish people saw the thousands of angels which descended with G-d onto Har Sinai all arranged in perfect order by degalim they too desired degalim. That wish was fulfilled by G-d in our parsha through the instruction of how to arrange the encampment. What was it about these angelic degalim that so captivated the Jewish people?

Everything in this world has a counterpart in a higher world, a more spiritual realm. As Chazal tell us, every blade of grass in this world has an angel above it telling it to grow. Those worlds of angels that stand between creation and G-d are the filter through which G-d expresses his will in this world. What appears in our world as random, chaotic events, devoid of order, are actually the result of the many "gears" of angelic clockwork precisely working together.

The Shem M'Shmuel (5672) writes that the thosands of angels which descended upon Har Sinai were the angelic counterparts to the Jewish people. The glimpse of their angelic counterparts allowed the Jewish people to see the "clockwork" -- to see how the world is not random and chaotic, but how precise order govern every aspect of creation. The angels were arranged by degalim; each had a precise and proper place.

The Jewish people desired and demanded that they too should have degalim -- they desired that the order and precision which was so clear in that world of angels should also be revealed directly in this world through them, without an intervening angelic filter and mask.

The Jewish people, writes Rabeinu Bachye, were counted not according to their names, but according to the names, meaning the identity of the angelic forces which they now embodied. The term "shem", as the Ishbitzer writes, is equivalent in gematriya to "ratzon", will. Each Jew could identify him or herself directly with the Divine will and mission that he or she was supposed to achieve in this world.

In light of this background we can perhaps suggest a different understanding of the debate between Moshe and the angels whether the Torah should be given to mankind (Shabbos 88). The angels argued that Divine order ceased to be visible in the depths of our world; there could be no Torah amidst the "messy" lives of people. It was only in the precisely ordered angelic world that Divine purpose could be read. Moshe Rabeinu, however, countered that it was precisely the transformation of humanity into something noble which most exemplified the Divine purpose.

Monday, May 25, 2009

kiddush hachodesh for Sivan -- after Shavuos

Even though many poskim write that kiddush levana should be done as early in the month as possible so long as three days after the molad have passed (not like the opinion of the Mechaber who holds that seven days must pass), R' Shlomo Kluger in Chochmas Shlomo (on S.A. 424) writes that kiddush lavana for Sivan should be delayed until after Shavuos. The reason: All of creation was hanging in the balance and waiting to see if the Jewish people would accept the Torah and thereby "ratify" the purpose and need for the universe's existance (Avodah Zarah 3). It is therefore better to wait until after the celebration of kabbalas haTorah which affirmed the creation of our world and its moon before reciting kiddush levana.

Friday, May 22, 2009

what tzniyus really means

Wouldn't it be more grammatically correct to say "hatzneya leches lifnei Elokecha" instead of "hatzneya leches im Elokecha"? One is modest before G-d, in G-d's presence -- what does it mean to be modest "with G-d"?

The Midrash (BaMidbar Rabbah 1:3) tells us that before there was an Ohel Moed G-d spoke to Moshe from a burning bush in Midyan, G-d spoke to Moshe in Egypt, G-d spoke to Moshe from Har Sinai. However, now that there was an Ohel Moed G-d spoke only privately from that tent to fulfill the ideal of "hatzneya leches".

A number of points can be learned from this Chazal:

1) The source for the concept of tzniyus is rooted in the idea of imitating G-d. Just as we learn elsewhere mah hu rachum af atah..., we must act with kindness and mercy because G-d acts in this manner, so too "hatzneya leches im Elokecha", act with modesty not just before G-d, but along with G-d, meaning imitate the tzanu'a behavior which G-d has demonstrated. G-d does not call a news conference and make sure it is carried on all the major networks to say what he wants to; G-d speaks from the privacy of the Ohel Moed to those who are invited to listen.

2) Tzniyus means privacy. Even speaking anthropomorphically, I don't think the Midrash means that G-d wore a skirt below the knees and a blouse down to the wrists. Modesty and privacy are not the same thing. A person's dress can meet all the technical details that halacha requires but he/she can be a very loud and flashy person.

3) The Midrash continues that the paradigm of tzniyus was Moshe, about whom it is written, "kol kvuda bas melech pnima". Moshe was literally raised by a "melech", as he was adopted by Pharoah's daughter, but many of the meforshim explain the appelation of "bas melech" to refer to Moshe's relationship with Torah or he was the melech and the Torah itself is the "bas melech". In any event, this is clear: Moshe Rabeinu obviously did not shun taking a public leadership role as a result of his tzniyus. Tzniyus should not be an excuse to deny worthy men or women a public position.

What exactly is tzniyus? Chazal tell us that Torah requires tzniyus (Sukkah 49). Maharal (Nesiv haTzniyus ch 1.) explains that this is so because Torah has a "madreiga pnimis", a "madreiga nisteres." Torah has depth. Every parsha and sugya is like the top of an iceberg that protrudes above the sea, providing just a hint of the vastness which lies below. A person who embodies tzniyus is a person of depth, a person who is defined not by their clothes or hat or by a sound-bite, but a person whose character remains hidden behind a concealing veil and not on public display. Just when you think you have the person buttonholed, you discover that there is a deeper more pnimiyus aspect to the person's whole personality that you had previously overlooked or not seen. That's a person who is tzanu'a.

If we deconstruct the way tzniyus is taught and emphasized in our society, it pretty much turns this entire idea on its head. Rather than emphasize depth and inner-meaning, the emphasis is placed on externals: skirt length, sleeve length, hat size/color, etc. Don't get me wrong -- some of these details are important and halachically crucial. But these details are just the superficial siman of what defines tzniyus. What is missing is the stress on tzniyus as pnimiyus. We need to cultivate depth of character, not just a superficial commitment to a particular mode of dress.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

what financial crisis?

Today my wife picked up the take-out menu from a new restaurant in our neighborhood. The decor looks a little like an airport cafe -- sleek and modern, not fancy. One menu item is called "New York Toast". The description -- "grilled hot dogs served [with - sic] grilled onions and sauerkraut". The price? $7.99. Of course, on the side you may want an order of fries. "Home Fries - $6.99". Add a modest $1.75 for a soda. So we are looking at over $17 (add in the tax) for a hot dog, fries, and a soda.

I'm actually glad that some people can plunk down a few million on homes around my neighborhood and can afford to spend $17 bucks on a hot dog and fries. For a moment there, I thought there was a financial crisis going on, but I guess I must be mistaken.

using rov to determine a murderer's punishment (II)

An astute commentator noted that I never posted an answer to R' Akiva Eiger's question. I'll preface the answer with another question that led my son down the right track. The rule by monetary law is ain holchin b'mamon achar harov. Why should any father give pidyon haben money to a kohen to redeem his son? Whether or not the kohen gets his $5 is a monetary question, and since paternity is determined only by the assumption that rov be'ilos achar haba'al, there does not exist sufficient proof to warrant the father having to pay anything!

The answer is that the issue of paternity is a completely independent from the issue of whether or not the kohein must be paid. First we use rov to determine paternity; once the issue of paternity has been resolved, an offshoot of that determination is that the person we label the father is now obligated to pay for pidyon.

The same approach can be used to resolve R' Akiva Eiger's question. Where a person who is chayav sereifah gets mixed up in a group of people all of whom are chayav sekilah, we cannot use rov to directly address the question of what form of misa to administer. However, we can use rov to first determine paternity; once the issue of paternity is resolved, it follows that killing the person who was labelled "father" through rov may deserve a more stringent form of punishment.

sefira or ma'ariv: what should come first?

The minhag is to daven ma'ariv before sefiras ha'omer based on the fact that ma'ariv is more tadir (it occurs more frequently) than sefira (see first Biur Halacha, O.C. 489, quoting Chok Ya'akov). Parenthetical aside: if you daven ma'ariv later than immediatly after tzeis hakochavim, I don't see any reason why you would not count sefira immediatly at tzeis (esp. since sefira ideally requires counting days that are "temimos", complete) rather than wait for after ma'ariv (there is a tshuvah by the Sheivet haLevi along these lines as well). Most people seem to not be careful about this and wait until after ma'ariv, no matter how late, to count.

Getting back to the main point, the gemara (Sukkah 56) has a debate whether the bracha of sukkah or the bracha of zman (she'hechiyanu) is said first when eating in a sukkah for the first time. We pasken like Rav that the bracha of sukkah is said first. The gemara explains that even though the bracha of zman is tadir because it is said more frequently, the bracha of sukkah comes first because it is the special mitzvas hayom.

Question: since the sefira count of each night is the special mitzvas hayom of that night (or at least the time period between Pesach and Shavuos), why should sefira not take precedence over the tadir mitzva of ma'ariv?

Monday, May 18, 2009

G-d acting through evildoers?

Shmuel I: 14 tells the story of Shaul haMelech making an oath that no one may eat until the war against the Plishtim is finished. Not knowing of his father's oath, Shaul's own son, Yehonason, licked some honey to regain his strength while pursuing the enemy. Yehonasan's heoric valor brought the people victory and the Plishtim were defeated. When the battle ended, however, Yehonasan faced the death penalty for violating his father's oath. The people protested (14:45):
? וַיֹּאמֶר הָעָם אֶל-שָׁאוּל, הֲיוֹנָתָן יָמוּת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה הַיְשׁוּעָה הַגְּדוֹלָה הַזֹּאת בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל
The story ends that the people redeemed Yohanasan and he was not killed.

The simple reading of the people's response is that they refused to accept that their hero should be put to death for a minor crime. However, the Ramban at the end of Bechukosai understands this pasuk as saying much more. Ramban introduces a theological principle: G-d does not deliver miracles through sinners. The pasuk can now be read as advancing a theological argument: Had Yohanason been guilty of intentionally violating his father's oath, then the miracle of victory over the Plishtim could not have come about through his hands -- the very fact that Yehonasan was the instrument of "yeshua gedolah", a great deliverance, proves his innocence!

At the end of this week, if you spend a moment thinking back about the events of 1967 (it's not on my kids' school calendar, and when I asked one about it last night she did not even know what Yom Yerushalayim was), think about this Ramban. I heard a Rav who subscribes to Satmar ideology say that there was no "yeshua gedolah", as he dug up some CIA documents that showed that intelligence agencies had predicted the Israeli's would win, so the victory was no big deal. I personally find that ludicrous. Yet, if a yeshua gedola did occur, we must accept that it was brought about through soldiers many of whom were not particularly religious. Or were they? A Ramban worth reading...

Friday, May 15, 2009

using rov to determine a murderer's punishment

When I see a good question I toss it at my son to keep his brain working. Last night I gave him the following problem (from Shu"T R' Akiva Eiger Mh"T 129): Tosfos (Chulin 11b) writes that if someone who is chayav sereifah gets mixed into a group of people who are all chayav sekilah we cannot give sekilah to everyone in the group based on the principle of rov. Rov can be used in capital cases to determine if someone is chayav (e.g. is the victim a treifah or not?), but it cannot be used to determine what form of death penalty to inflict.

The gemara (Sanhedrin 84b) questions how we know the pasuk "makeh Aviv v'Imo mos yumas" refers to hitting a parent -- perhaps the pasuk is referring to murder? The gemara answers that this cannot be. The penalty for violating this pasuk is death by chenek; the penalty for killing a non-parent is sayeif -- it makes no sense to say that killing a parent should be less severely punished than killing a non-parent. This logic assumes that sayeif is the more severe punishment. However, asks the gemara, how would one answer the question if one assumes (like other opinions do) that chenek is more severe?

R' Akiva Eiger objects to the whole question and argues that even if chenek is the more severe punishment, the pasuk still cannot be read as referring to the murder of a parent. Remember that the murderer is chayav at a minimum the punishment of sayeif. The theoretically more severe penalty of chenek would apply only if the victim were the murderer's father. How do we know who the murderer's father is? Paternity is determined based on the principle of rov be'ilos achar haba'al. In effect, therefore, the gemara's question amounts to using a rov to determine which form of death to deliver. Since rov cannot be used to determine what type of death penalty to deliver (as we learned from Tosfos), the whole question of the gemara does not seem to get off the ground.

R' Akiva Eiger gives four answers, at least two of which are "easy" ones (whenever I tell my son that it's an easy one, he objects to my estimation. To his credit, this time he answered the kashe almost immediately by quoting a Hafla'ah at the end of the first perek of Kesubos. He is getting better at this game : )

new blog feature

We live in times of crisis caused by many difficult problems: unemployment, illness, "shidduch crisis", and so many others. To help meet the challenge I am starting a new blog called weekly-chizuk (weekly-chizuk.blogspot.com) devoted exclusively to inspirational divrei torah. You get two for the price of one: 1) you learn something; 2) hopefully you walk away feeling a little better. If anyone would like to contribute please feel free to e-mail me at weeklychizuk-at-gmail. First posting on Parshas Bechukosai is up.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jewish "empowerment experiment"?

25:14. And when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another.

Rashi: And when you make a sale to your fellow-Jew or make a purchase from your fellow-Jew: Its simple meaning is obvious. The verse can also be expounded [to teach us the following lesson]: How do we know that when you wish to sell, you should sell to your fellow-Jew? For Scripture says, “ וְכִי תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶ,” i.e., “And when you make a sale-sell to your fellow-Jew!” And how do we know that if you come to buy, you should buy from your fellow-Jew? For Scripture continues here: “ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִתֶי אוֹ,” i.e., “or when you buy-buy from your fellow-Jew!”

Yesterday's news carried the following story about the "buy black" empowerment experiment:

It's been two months since 2-year-old Cori pulled the gold stud from her left earlobe, and the piercing is threatening to close as her mother, Maggie Anderson, hunts for a replacement.

It's not that the earring was all that rare — but finding the right store has become a quest of Quixotic proportions.

Maggie and John Anderson of Chicago vowed four months ago that for one year, they would try to patronize only black-owned businesses. The "Empowerment Experiment" is the reason John had to suffer for hours with a stomach ache and Maggie no longer gets that brand-name lather when she washes her hair. A grocery trip is a 14-mile odyssey.


If the AP story is what you would call reverse discrimination, then what do you make of Rashi? The same or different?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

excellent follow up question to R' Lamm's comments

Avakesh asks the question that no one else (at least from what I have read) has asked in response to the statements by Norman Lamm that Conservative and Reform Judaism is dying: Is this a good thing? Excellent point worth thinking about. What would happen to those thousands of American Jews who show up at a Reform temple to at least associate with some vague watered down concept of "Jewish" if those institutions all ceased to exist?

sfeik sfeika l'hachmir and the bracha of hatov v'ha'meitiv

Awhile back I wrote about the issue of sfeik sfeika l'chumra with respect to counting sfiras ha'omer during bein hashemashos. If a situation arises where if A is true the result is asur but if B is true the result is mutar, the standard rule of sfeika derabbanan l'kula applies. What if we add an additional safeik to the mix? If A is true the result is asur but if B is true the outcome depends -- if C is true then the result is mutar, but if D is true the result is asur. In this case there is a 75% probability of issur, not 50-50. Nonetheless, as discussed in the previous post, R' Akiva Eiger says one can be lenient even in this situation.

I happened to see an Aruch haShulchan that left we wondering if there is more to this issue. If a second bottle of wine is served at a meal a bracha of hatov v'ha'meitiv must be recited (see O.C. 175 for the relevant details). There is a three-way dispute in the Rishonim as to what type of wine this bracha applies to:

1) Rabeinu Tam -- any wine, as the bracha is on the new bottle, not the quality
2) Rambam, BaHa"G, Rashbam -- only on better quality wine or a different variety of wine
3) Rosh, Tosfos -- any wine not of poorer quality than the first

The Shulchan Aruch (175:2) rules that as long as the second bottle is clearly not of inferior quality than the first, even if there is a doubt whether it is in fact better, a bracha may be recited.

Why did the Shulchan Aruch not rule like Rabeinu Tam? It would seem that this accords with the well known rule of safeik brachos l'hakeil -- when in doubt, no new bracha is recited. Since Rabeinu Tam's view is in the extreme minority, the chance that he is right is not sufficient to warrant a new bracha. However, what is more problematic is understanding why the Shulchan Aruch rules like the Rosh and Tosfos and not like the Rambam. Based on the principle of safeik brachos l'hakeil we should not recite a new bracha unless the second bottle is clearly of better quality so as to satisfy even the Rambam's view. Why chance relying on the Rosh and Tosfos when it may lead to an unnecessary bracha?

The Aruch haShulchan answers (175:4) that this is an example of a sfeik sfeika l'hachmir. There is a 50-50 chance whether the second bottle is in fact better. Even if the second bottle is not better, in fact, even if it is worse, one still has Rabeinu Tam's view to rely on that any second bottle requires a bracha. This second safeik tilts the odds in favor of reciting a new bracha.

Is there a possiblr difference between safeik brachos l'hakeil where according to the Aruch haShulchan the rule sfeik sfeika l'chumra applies and sfeika derabbanan l'kula where it doesn't?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Shalom Auslander and Off the Derech

I have only glanced at the Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism and my reaction to most of what I saw was pshita, mai kah mashma lan. I was far more captivated and entertained by Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament, which I just finished reading. Auslander was raised in Monsey, attended Yeshiva of Spring Valley and then MTA, went to Neve in Israel, and from adolescence onward has drifted further away from Judaism and grown angrier with G-d. The book (note: I give it an R rating, just to forewarn you in care you want to read it) describes his personal experiences and reads like a late night comedy skit.

So what drove Shalom away? Was it the fact that his father was a drunk, his mother was a typical guilt-inflicting jewish mother, and his home life was filled with conflict? Was it incidents in his yeshiva eduction, such as when a Rebbe told the class, after announcing that a student's father has passed away, that Hashem punishes parents for the sins of children (how's that for motivating kids to learn?) Was is the hypocrisy he witnessed? Or was it the pull of drugs, pornography, and hedonism in secular society that drew him in? Perhaps it was all of the above.

I found it interesting that Auslander and I are about the same age (based on the years he said he was in MTA), yet we are so radically different. That difference has little (I think) to do with religion and more to do with personality -- I have as little desire to smoke pot or hang out in Times Square as Auslander probably does to observe Shabbos. I honestly cannot think of an "answer" or approach that would inspire the likes of Auslander because I simply cannot empathize with his needs and lifestyle. That says as much about me as it does him (and is why kiruv is not what I do for a living).

On that note, I got a definite sense that his teachers had no idea of the world Auslander lived in -- what meaning could a gemara or Nach shiur have to a boy living interested in drugs, girls, and shoplifting. In that regard the system did fail Auslander and it continues to fail many like him. What parent wants to hear from a Rebbe, "No we have not learned a single word of gemara this year because there are bigger issues we need to work on." Yet, if our schools are honest, that's exactly what needs to happen in many, many cases. Don't get me wrong -- I am not advocating the coddling, no rules approach. Auslander had that too and it did not make any difference. A teenager who is smart enough to read Beckett on his own and skips school to hang out at the Met and Moma because he senses there is something real and deep there is being done a disservice by a hands-off approach. What he needs is a hands-on approach that would show that there is something real and deep to what religion offers beyond technical legalism and threats of next and this-worldly punishment.

Auslander comes across as angry -- angry at G-d, angry at his parents who do not accept him for what he is, angry at the community in which he cannot find a place or earn acceptance because he just won't play by the rules. On the one hand, does Auslander not realize that his choice to define himself as an outside carries the consequences of being treated as such? On the other hand, in some sense I commiserated with Auslander -- a third grade Rebbe telling children that G-d kills parents because of their sins is stupid. How do we respond? Some would defend the authority of the rebbe at all costs. Some, like Auslander, drop out. Both of these approaches fail because they do not separate the values of religion from its mere supposed representatives on earth, who unfortunately are often fallible and even stupid.

As far as his skills as a writer, Auslander is funny and cute, but at the same time I felt he was superficial. The book makes for a nice comedy skit and a quick read, but I would have appreciated more intropection on his part. By comparison, l'fi aniyus da'ati the best young American writer who happens to be Jewish is Michael Chabon, whose Kavalier and Clay places him in a different league entirely than Auslander.

My wife half-humorously warns me that admitting to reading Auslander and such kefirah is a black mark in the shidduch world. Since I'm married I don't care : ) -- let my kids fend for themselves when the time comes in a few years. But I will say that closing our minds to the Auslanders of the world will not make them go away. Perhaps every Rebbe in MTA and the likes should read this book. These are the kids in our system as they really are, without sugarcoating, at there very worst. What are we going to do about it?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

the issur of writing torah sheba'al peh

Returning to the Netzi'v's distinction between limud=accumulation of knowlege vs. asiya/la'asos=innovation, chiddush, and his suggestion that chiddush, asiya, is acceptable only when done lishma, Anonymous suggested in a comment that this fits nicely with the Chasam Sofer's tshuvah (Shu"T O.C. 208) that the heter to write Torah sheba'al peh, based on "eis la'asos laHashem", applies only when chiddushim are written lishma -- once again, the term "asiya" demands purety of motive. The C.S.'s assumes that the issur of writing Torah sheba'al peh remains in effect even to this very day and is suspended only on an as needed case by case basis provided the intent is l'shem Shamayim. (In addition to Anonymous' other comments to that post see R' Shternbruch's intro. to Moadim u'Zmanin where he grapples with this C.S. and the challenge it poses to anyone who dares to publish; see also Yechaveh Da'as III:74).

In light of the Chasam Sofer's claim that writing torah sheba'al peh constitutes an issur d'oraysa (see Tos. Yeshanim, Yoma 70) it is striking that the Rambam does not once even mention this halacha. Rav Solovetichik explained (Perach Mateh Aharon p. 48-49) that the Rambam did not in fact leave this halacha out. The Rambam understood the prohibition of writing torah sheba'al peh is not an independent issur, but is a function of the fact that certain elements of Torah are categorically designed to be transmitted by mesorah from teacher to student just as other elements of Torah are categorically designed to be conveyed as text. When the Rambam in his introduction to the Yad records the passing of tradition from generation to generation from Moshe Rabeinu to the days of Rav Ashi, that chain of mesorah represents the fulfillment of this halacha which prohibited writing torah sheba'al peh. However, once that chain was broken, once the transmission of mesorah from teacher to student was lost and replacedby written text, this halacha ceases to have any practical bearing. We no longer have an oral mesorah.

Based on this approach, there is no basis for the Chasam Sofer's claim. The reason we are permitted to write divrei Torah is not based on eis la'asos, but is based on the fact that our methodology of transmitting the mesorah has changed from the person to person link that was operative until the completion of the Talmud. This approach also resolves the question raised by R' Shternbruch (and quoted by R' Ahron Soloveitchik in the name of R' Elchanan Wasserman) whether once Mashiach arrives we will still be permitted to use text to study Torah sheba'al peh -- since mala'ah ha'aretz de'ah and there is no chance for forgetfullness, what might be the eis la'asos permissability of using a text? The answer is that it is not the necessity of avoiding forgetfullness which is the basis of our heter to write torah, but rather it is the fact that the knowledge we record was never part of a chain of mesorah that was exclusively orally transmitted person to person. That fact will not change even with the coming of Moshiach.

Y"T sheni and sfeika d'yoma

Two points that came up in comments that re worth their own post in case you missed them -- first a short Netziv: The Shi'iltos interprets the pasuk "ushemartem mitzvosai..." (Vayikra 22:31) which appears in the context of the moadim as a command to make a seyag laTorah. Netziv writes that this pasuk is the basis for the institution of the second day of Y"T for those living outside Eretz Yisrael. Even though it is commonly thought that Y"T sheni was instituted because of sfeika d'yoma, i.e. the news of when Rosh Chodesh occurred was slow to reach outside Eretz Yisrael and therefore there existed a doubt as to which day of Y"T is the correct date, in reality this is not sufficient reason for the takanah. In the overwhelming majority of the time the months of Adar and Elul have only 29 days. The principle of rov dictates that there is no need for concern for the chance occurance that things might be different. Proof that we rely on this fact: we celebrate one day of Yom Kippur and not two despite the same "safeik" as would apply to any Yom Tov existing; we count sefiras ha'omer from the second night of Pesach as if we were certain that this is the correct night to start counting. Only with respect to the moadim where there exists this extra command to make a seyag that Chazal instituted an extra day.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

safeik d'oraysa with respect to kiyum mitzvos

The Chavos Da'as (Y.D. siman beg. of siman 110) has an interesting spin on the Rambam's opinion that sfeika d'orasya l'chumra is just a din derabbanan. Chavos Da'as explains that the reason why m'doraysa it is permitted to eat safeik neveilah or safeik cheilev or enagage in any safeik issur is because the term "neveilah" means that which is vaday neveilah, the term "cheilev" means vaday cheilev, etc. with respect to all other issurim. That being the case, the flipside also must be true: even the Rambam would agree that if one ate matzah which is safeik baked properly or not, one is not yotzei the mitzvah -- the term "matzah" means vaday matzah, to the exclusion of a safeik kiyum hamitzvah, and the same would be true with respect to all other cases of kiyum hamitzvah.

This approach resolves a number of questions raised on the Rambam. For example, the gemara (R"H 13) discusses how Bnei Yisrael offered the korban ha'omer when they first entered Eretz Yisrael. How did they obtain wheat which would satisfy the requirement of "bkutzrichem", wheat grown and harvested by Jews, when the Jewish people crossed the Jordan just days before the korban had to be brought? The gemara answers that they used wheat which had grown less than 1/3 under non-Jewish ownership and then ripened under Jewish ownership in those few intervening days. Asks the gemara, but how could they tell the difference if the wheat was already 1/3 grown yet or not -- there was still a chance that the wheat they harvested was not acceptable!?

If sfeika d'oraysa is permitted under all circumstances, then what is the gemara's question -- true, there was a chance that the wheat was not acceptable, but md'oraysa we don't need to be concerned about a safeik!

Based on the analysis of the Chavos Da'as the gemara makes perfect sense. Only a safeik issur is permitted min haTorah according to the Rambam, but even the Rambam would agree that a kiyum mitzvah can be fulfilled only if done in a way that fulfills the Torah's criteria with certainty.

Monday, May 04, 2009

tradition or traditionalesque

Rebecca Mead in her book One Perfect Day - The Selling of the American Wedding writes (p.58):

What is marketed as tradition by the wedding industry could better be called the traditionalesque -- a pleasing melange of apparently old-fashioned, certainly nostalgic, intermittantly ethnically authentic practices that may have little relevance to the past or future and are really only illustrative of the present in which they emerge. Tradition is one of those words like homeland or motherhood, that is most frequently invoked when what it represents is under threat, or is in abeyance; and the emphasis placed upon the notion of tradition by the wedding industry points
to a contradiction at the industry's core: The imperitive of economic expansion demands the introduction of new services and new products, but those services and products must be positioned not as novelties but as expressions of enduring values.
I have a hunch my reading audience is mostly male and not particularly interested in how bridal services are marketed , but I offer the quote because I think Mead's term (my wife and I were debating if she coined it or not) traditionalesque can also be used to describe the culture and practice in vogue in large parts of Orthodoxy today. I can walk into just about any synagogue in my neighborhood and find people engaged in an odd hodge-podge of practices and dress in an effort to capture some of the flavor of tradition they were either not brought up in (esp. in the case of BTs) or which they have morphed into something the grandparents or great-grandparents they are trying to emulate would only be confused at seeing. It's the quaint fuzziness of an imagined past that has been created and marketed as "frumkeit".

A local Rav who teaches in a girls' school recounted in a speech that he was once asked by a girl if wearing a certain dress or accessory was halachically permitted. His response, which drew approval from the audience, was that as far as he knew "the Chasam Sofer's mother" would not wear such a dress -- case closed.

If you close your eyes for a few seconds and allow your mind to wander you probably can conjur up some image of what you think the Chasam Sofer's mother looked like (let's be real -- it's probably something like your grandmother). Unless you are a very special person, if you close your eyes and allow your mind to wander I doubt you can conjur up the details in Shach and Taz that may address an issue in Yoreh De'ah.

The reality of halacha is tradition; "what the Chasam Sofer's mother wore" is traditonalesque.

Like the bride who overspends on her dress and accessories because the industry tells her that this is what "traditionally" brides have done, in our world the newly minted observant or newly more observant, the MO high school kid who "frums out" in Israel somewhere, the parents of girls in the shidduch circut who are under such pressure to conform and fit in -- in all these cases and more a manufactured set of do's and don'ts that are a fictitious (mis)representation of mythological past have become hallmarks of "tradition" that is a more cultural myth than a directive from Sinai.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

mipnei seiva takum -- situations of safeik

R' Shteinman writes in his sefer Ayeles haShachar on Chumash regarding the mitzvah of standing for an elderly or wise person that 1) if one has a safeik if a person is 70 years old (the age at which one is considered elderly and must be stood for) or not one must treat this like any other safeik d'oraysa and perform the mitzvah; 2) if one has a safeik whether an individual is a talmid chacham and must be stood for or not one can rely on the fact that rov people are not talmidei chachamim (quoted in the name of Chazon Ish).

R' Ovadya Yosef has a long footnote in Yechaveh Da'at (III:70) where he addresses both of these questions in greater detail. Regarding the first point R' Ovadya notes that it could be argued that a person has a chazakah of not being old until proven otherwise -- e.g. Tosfos (Yevamos 68) writes with respect to a safeik whether a boy is 9 years old and capable of bi'ah or not that there is a chezkas katnus in addition to the chezkas kashrus of the woman which must be factored into the question. Achronim debate this issue at length, as a person ages by the minute -- is a chazakah he'asuya l'histanos, a situation constantly undergoing change, classifiable as a chazakah?

The same question may be raised regarding the second point as well. No one is born a talmid chacham, and it may be said that we all start with a chazakah of ignorance. Hopefully that situation is asuya l'hishtanos as we grow in learning throughout our lives.

bitul kibud av

I asked one of my children to do something on Shabbos and he dilly-dallyed for hours neglecting it (my parents would say I get what I deserve in this regard) so I began to wonder what the parameters of bitul kibud av are. Is kibud av violated only at the point that the the task becomes impossible to fulfill (or is no longer necessary, e.g. the parent does it him/herself) or is it a bitul of kibud av every second that the task remains undone? The child in question was umoved by my chakira; I assume he held like the first tzad despite my protestations that the second tzad seems far more sensible given the minute by minute accumulation of stress he was causing : )

I haven't thought of any mareh mekomos offhand -- Anyone have any ideas? (Same chakirah in Makos 16 kiymo v'lo kiymo vs. bitlo v'lo bitlo, but that's a different context. Rambam/Ra'avad seem to have a similar debate in hil. milah whether that mitzvah is violated every second it remains unfulfilled or only at death when it becomes impossible to fulfill.)

Friday, May 01, 2009

the command to be mechadesh -- for the right reasons

The Netziv understands the warning, "U'shmartem es chukosai v'es mishpatai asher ya'aseh osam ha'adam v'chai bahem" (18:5) not as a general exhortation to observe mitzvos, but as a specific command to be an "oseh", to create and innovate in Torah. We ask Hashem daily in Ahavah Rabbah to give us the ability to "lilmod u'lelameid, lishmor, v'la'asos, u'l'kayeim" -- "la'asos" is distinct from the shmiras hamitzvos of "kiyum" and is connected to the process of limud haTorah. Study, limud, must eventually lead to la'asos, creative insight and chiddush.

The Mishna at the end of Kiddushin that tells us "Avraham asah es kol haTorah ad shelo nitna" may be interpreted to mean not that Avraham practically fulfilled every aspect of the Torah, but that he intuited and was mechadesh halacha even before it was given.

Using this insight, the Netziv offers a brilliant answer to a famous question posed by the Rishonim. The gemara (Brachos 17) darshens the paskuk "seichel tov l'chol oseihem" to refer to those who are "osim lishma", because if one engages in Torah shelo lishma it would be better if he/she were never born. Rashi and Tosfos are bothered by this gemara's harsh critique of shelo lishma when Chazal tell us that l'olam ya'asok adam b'Torah u'mitzvos afilu she'lo lishma as that will eventually lead one to the higher level of lishma. Netviv answers that when Chazal tell us that she'lo lishma is acceptable, they are referring to the study of Torah, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. The gemara in Brachos, however, refers to those who are "oseihem" -- "osim lishma", meaning those who are engaged in new interpretation and insight, chiddush. Study can be pursued for any aim, but chiddush and change demand pure motive and intention.

This novel interpretation of the Netziv is echoed by many poskim. R' Moshe Feinstein writes (Igros Moshe 4:49) regarding women innovating practices like wearing a talis, etc. in the name of equality that while there is nothing technically wrong with the action involved, it is a chiddush in the sense of departing from previous tradition, and therefore must be undertaken only with the purest intent and motive. Rabbi Arye Frimer quotes the policy of the Chief Rabbi of Britain in his paper on women's minyan: "The most important consideration, however is the motive underlying the request. If this is genuinely put forward by observant students seeking, as you write, "a religiously fulfilling experience," it is one thing... But if the true intention is to challenge the accepted by symbolic reforms, then clearly greater caution is called for. As a protest action, what begins with relatively minor modifications may well end with far more serious violations of accepted practices. . . . " Rav Hershel Shachter has similarly stated, "How much more so when one wants to be mechadeish to reverse an accepted position, we must be sure that the author of the original idea is not formulating his chidush shelo lishma - just to gain popularity or for some other ulterior motive. Although it is permissible, and even encouraged, for one to learn shelo lisham, for one to be mechadeish shelo lishma is not allowed (see pg. 26 in B'Ikvei Hatson)."

Two final observations: firstly, because of this concern for motive I think in recent times we have seen a reactionary pull away from all chiddush, a la the Chasam Sofer's famous dictum "chadash assur min haTorah". Even where innovation is clearly called for and undertaken with the best intentions, there are those reject it in the name of preserving the status quo. This approach abrogates the ideal of "la'asos" entirely.

Secondly, my wife has observed that the criteria of lishma does not seem universally applied. "Amein groups" and "amein parties" are widely accepted even by those who would frown at the thought of a women's "minyan", but there may be little or no difference in the motivation of the attendees. Nearly every week our inbox has an e-mail from someone advertising their efforts on a local e-mail list to try to get 43 women in total baking challah as a segulah for that week's needs for yeshua -- is this not a chiddush (I am not aware of any source for it in general, and in particular wonder why the modern orthodox community in which I live is so adopting of segulos and minhagim from outside sources) that should be communally adopted only with proper motivation? Yet, practices such as these pass unquestioned. A feminist or cynic would perhaps rightfully wonder if our concern for lishma only extends to areas where the male dominated heirarchy is at risk.

In short, each situation demands careful evaluation. We must personally aspire to innovate and be mechadesh for the right reasons, but at the same time must be careful of crushing others creative insights by questioning their sincerity and motive. A very delicate balance indeed.