Monday, July 31, 2006

Hashem is listening to our tefilos

If you need a little chizuk, look no further than this week's parsha:
"Ki mi goy gadol asher lo Elokim kerovim elav ka'Hashem Elokeinu b'chol korei'nu elav"? (4:7)
Targum explains: What other nation is so great that has a god who listens to its prayers in time of need like our G-d who listens to our tefilos when we daven to him.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Shabbos Chazon - the Ishbitzer and R' Tzadok on re'iya and binah

R’ Tzadok haKohen m'Lublin writes that the 3 haftaros of puranusa (evil tidings) which we read before 9 Av – Divrei Yirmiyahu, Shimu, and Chazon – correspond to the three attributes of dibbur (speech), shmiya (hearing), and re’iya (sight), which in turn correspond to the three higher sefiros of keser, chochma, and binah. I don’t think in a few paragraphs I can do justice to explaining this idea fully, but at least for Shabbos Devarim - Chazon wanted to try to shed some light on the relationship between re’iya/chazon and the tikkun of binah, understanding. The Ishbitzer teaches (P’ VaYakhel) that the word “re’u”, see, when used in the Torah, is a keyword that means to look beyond the superficial appearance of things in order to discern some deeper meaning. Some examples: “Re’eh karasi b’shem Betzalel”, see I have called to Betzalel – look beyond the fact that Moshe did the appointment and realize it was not his choice, but I, Hashem, who called for his appointment. Eished Potifar declares, ‘re’u havi lanu ish ivri l’tzachek banu” – here in the negative, she calls on the onlookers to not be "deceived" by Yosef’s outward appearance of innocence and accept her declaration that he is charlatan. Pharoah accuses Moshe, “re’u ki ra’ah neged pneichem”, there is some hidden evil plan you have in mind. It is probably not coincidence that the word “r’eu” b’gematriya is the same as the word “raz” secret. With this idea we can appreciate the conncetion R' Tzadok draws between sight, re’iya/chazon, and the concept of binah, understanding. The sight the Torah speaks of is not merely observing the superficial appearance of events, but is seeing the reality of the world through the prism of Torah and grasping the true meaning of things. I remember in college taking a course in perceptual psychology, and time and again this simple lesson was underscored – sight is not just a physical process, but is a cognitive process as well.
The Ishbitzer writes that the 9th pasuk of every parsha has a deep sod beyond the pashut pshat. In P’ Devarim the 9th pasuk is “lo uchal levadi s'es eschem”, Moshe’s complaint that alone he could not bear the burden of the Jewish people’s complaints, while led to the appointment of judges. The Ishbitzer explains: Moshe Rabeinu sensed that it was Yehoshua who was destined to lead the Jewish people into the Land, yet he deeply wished to be the one to fulfill that mission. “Eichah esah levadi”, for Moshe alone the burden was too great, as his personal tefilos that we read in next week’s parsha could not overturn the gezeirah against him, yet if Klal Yisrael had davened on his behalf, there was room for mercy. We heard Moshe call, yet we failed to truly see what was before us. We should have had the intelligence to discern that it was our tefillos, not our acceptance of substitute judges, which is what Moshe wanted. Moshe’s lamented that he could find no judges who were nevonim, people of understanding for precisely this reason. We grasped the superficial sense of the words, but lacked the insight, the binah, which marks true “re'iya”.
Rashi cites the Sifri to explain the appointment of judges who were “yedu’im”, known people: Moshe said when someone sat before him wrapped in a talis, he could not discern what sheivet or place that person came from, but to outsiders, these facts were known. In life, we wrap ourselves in levushim, garments that conceal our identity – the face we wear at work is often not who we really are, and for some, the face they wear in shule is also not who they really are. Life is a series of acts and roles that we step in and out of as required. When a person came wrapped in his talis, Moshe had no cognizance of the levush, the where and who of the person’s outer self, the veil of piety or honor that a person may don, but Moshe saw with re'iya the depths of each person’s soul as it truly was. The Zohar writes that Moshe could pasken a din Torah without the litigants needing proof or witnesses – he simply saw the truth in souls of the parties. By failing to heed the call of “eichah esah levadi”, we accepted a substitute. Without going through yeshivishe lomdus in Baba Metziya, it is obvious that concepts like rov and muchzak tell the court how to act based on the evidence before them, but do not guarantee that the law ever arrives at truth – these are rules of hanhaga, not rules of birur. Our judgment lacks the power of true insight, reiya behind the facts into the soul and truth of the matter, and relies on the substitute of superficial evidence.
When the Tanaim saw foxes running in the makom mikdash (Makos 24) they cried in sorrow, yet R’ Akiva laughed, confident that just as the prophecy of destruction was fulfilled, the prophecy of rebuilding would be as well. Did the other Tanaim doubt the nevuah of eventual geulah? The Midrash teaches, ‘V’chol yekar ra’asa eino’ – that which was not revealed to Moshe Rabeinu was revealed to R’ Akiva (see Menachos 29). R’ Akiva was the master of torah sheba’al peh, the master of seeing the depths of Torah within what was revealed at Sinai. R’ Tzadok haKohein teaches that others believed in the prophecy of redemption, but their eyes were filled with the desolation which surrounded them. R’ Akiva taught that there is yet a higher level – even as one looks at desolation, one who has true understanding and in-sight sees only goodness. This is true re’iya, seeing reality not with physical eyes alone, but with the cognizance of binah that reveals the shoresh below the surface, the neshoma of reality which is kulo tov.
Shabbos Chazon calls to us for the tikun of re'iya, the ability to see even in the pain that surrounds am yisrael at this time, the seeds of redemption - u're'eh b'tuv yerushalayim v'shalom al yisrael.

more on eating vs. tasting - ta'anis, brachos, and meat during 9 days

Since I mentioned my wife’s sevara yesterday to distinguish te’ima (tasting) from achila (eating)as a basis for tasting fleishig food while preparing for shabbos during the 9 days, I owe a better follow up based on some comments (including hers!) The gemara (Berachos 14) poses the question of whether one who is fasting may taste food: is a kabbalas ta’anis the equivalent of accepting an issur achila, which does not include tasting, or is it the equivalent of accepting an issur hana’ah from food, which would prohibit tasting as well. The gemara concludes with a braysa that one who is fasting may taste, and one is also not required to recite a bracha on tasting (the shiur of taste is then defined as less than a revi’is). What is unclear from this simple statement is how it resolved the original question (see Tzla”ch). Is tasting permitted because a kabbalas ta’anis is a kabbalah only of an issur achila and not an issur hana’ah, or even hana’ah prohibited on a fast day, but a eating a small amount is not considered hana’ah? A number of issues may hinge on this question. 1) According to R’ Chananel (cited by Tos), tasting is permitted only if one spits out the food, yet Rashi (in Sefer haPardes) allows swallowing. If the prohibition on the fast or the mechayeiv of a bracha is hana’ah, then one might argue that swallowing even a small amount leads to hana’ah and tasting is allowed only if one spits out the food. But if a kabbalas ta’anis or the mechayeiv of bracha involves an act of achila, meaning ingesting a a specific shiur of food, swallowing less than that shiur would be permitted. Interestingly, the Rambam splits the psak: in Hil Ta’aniyos the Rambam prohibits swallowing even less than a shiur, yet in Hilchos Brachos the Rambam paskens that less than a shiur would not necessitate a bracha (this is how the GR”A paskens). One could learn that the Rambam paskened l’chumra on both issues to avoid a safeik, or one could create a more lomdish distinction between the mechayeiv of bracha vs. the kabbalas issur of ta’anis. For practical purposes, as my wife wrote, the Rama paskens this issue is a safeik bracha, and therefore achronim recommend to explicitly have in mind to have hana’ah when tasting to avoid the whole issue. 2) There is a major debate in Rishonim what type of ta’anis the gemara is speaking of. If the resolution of the gemara is that tasting is not considered hana’ah, that sevara might hold true on all fast days. But if the resolution is that kabbalas ta’anis only creates an issur achila and not hana’ah, on fast days which are obligatory m’divrei Torah (Yom Kippur) or divrei kabbalah, which have nothing to do with one’s personal kabbalas ta’anis, perhaps even tasting would be prohibited. 3) Classically, Yoreh De’ah issues depend on the shiur of ta’am, taste, as the threshold for many issues of bittul. Would one be allowed to taste a mixture to determine of there is a shiur of issur persent or not, on the assumption that tasting is not eating? (This idea may not work, as it may require a real ma’aseh achila to determine ta’am).
In short, considering that the issur achila of meat during the 9 days is a minhag, which is at best a din neder, one could argue that it depends on the extent of the kabbalah of the issur (like kabbalas ta'anis), and being only a minhag, perhaps one would have a right to rely on Rashi’s opinion that tasting even if one swallows is not prohibited. However, I still like my sevara better: toa'meha chaim zachu is an achilas mitzva and was never included in the issur of achilas basar. According to the logic of te'ima not being prohibited because it is not a ma'aseh achila, why should the heter only apply to food prepared for Shabbos? (And I guess the response may be that hachi nami, all te'ima is permitted, but who is cooking fleishigs during the 9 days except for Shabbos!)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

tasting fleishig Shabbos food (before Shabbos) during the 9 days

Poskim write that one who has the minhag of tasting the food for Shabbos before Shabbos is permitted to do so even during the 9 days. Was wondering if this applies only on Friday afternoon, or even if one starts cooking for Shabbos on Thursday night?
When I mentioned this to my wife she thought this halacha was obvious because tasting is not defined as eating. Irrespective of whether that sevara is correct or not elsewhere, it seems to me that it is not the reasoning here. The prohibition of meat and wine does not apply to achilas mitzvah - one is permitted to eat meat/wine at a siyum and for kiddush and havdalah (m'ikar hadin). The tasting of Shabbos food is a bona fide minhag based on 'toame'ha chaim zachu', and hence should be defined as an achilas mitzvah. (Please correct me if you know otherwise.)

bathing on a fast day

The Ramban writes that all fasts (10 Teves, 17 Tamuz) theoretically should share the same prohibitions of washing, wearing shoes, etc. as 9 Av. As all the fasts are recorded in one pasuk together – “tzom harevi’i v’tzom hachamishi v’tzom ha’sehvi’i v’tzom ha’asiri” – why distinguish between the halachos which apply to each? However, as we discussed earlier in the week, these fast days depend in time of no oppression/no peace on the kabbalah of the people. In terms of practical halacha, Ramban assumes that Klal Yisrael accepted fasting on all these days, but never accepted the other prohibitions. Ramban points to the gemara (Megillah 5b) which takes the fact that Rebbi washed in the public bathhouse in the marketplace of Tzipori on 17 Tamuz as indicative that the fast was not accepted – the implication is that were it an accepted fast day, bathing as well as eating should be prohibited. Tosfos disagrees, and writes that the gemara simply means that there was no prohibition of bathing m’ikar hadin in spite of it being a fast day. The nafka mina between the opinions (see Biur haGR"A 550) would be in a time of oppression, when all fasts are obligatory, would bathing, leather shoes, etc. be prohibited? According to Tosfos all these would be permitted, except on 9 Av; according to Ramban, when choice plays no role, all fasts carry the same prohibitions as 9 Av.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

meat for seudas rosh chodesh av

The Minchas Eluzar brings down (Sha'arei Yisaschar os 9 on Av) that the practice he saw among tzadikim was that they would eat meat on Rosh Chodesh Av as seudas Rosh Chodesh even without a siyum. I have wondered about this in the past myself - why should Rosh Chodesh itself not push off aveilus for an extra day - but the simple reading of Shulchan Aruch is that the practice of aveilus starts from Rosh Chodesh, meaning on that day itself. The Bnei Yisaschar (Tamuz-Av, Mahus haChodashim, 10) goes so far as to suggest that the leftover meat from seudas Rosh Chodesh or Shabbos may be consumed during the nine days! The proof for this astounding chiddush comes from the Rosh. The gemara in Chulin writes that until the conclusion of the conquest of Eretz Yisrael, 'basar nechira', meat which was killed without shechita, was permitted. The gemara leaves as an unresolved question whether basar nechira which could have been eaten before the end of the period of conquest was still permitted afterwards when the mitzva of shechita applied - do we say that the meat takes on a status of heter which is not lifted afterwards. The Rosh takes this historical question and derives an application l'ma'aseh - if one took a neder not to eat meat, would the leftovers from a previous meal be permitted and only new meat be assur, or would any meat now be prohibited? Since not eating meat during the 9 days is only a minhag, some suggest being lenient on the safeik of the Rosh - once the meat was permitted for seudas Shabbos or Rosh Chodesh, the leftovers remain with the status of heter. The Bnei Yisaschar is unconvinced of this ra'aya, and the Aruch haShulchan (551:24) rejects it for his own reasons. Aside from their reasons it seems that one can make a lomdish chiluk, but I'll leave that for thought (or the comment section).

M'shenichnas Av m'ma'atim b'simcha - court cases during Av

Chazal tell us (Ta'anis 26) that once the month of Av begins, one should be ‘mema’et b’simcha’, lessen the intensity of simcha in one’s life. The gemara quotes Rav’s opinion that this is not just a psychological idea, but has practical halachic significance – if one has a court case with a non-jew scheduled for the month of Av, one should try to postpone the trial for a later date. The Rambam (Ta’aniyos 5:6) cites the law of mema’atin b’simcha, but omits the practical import, leaving us with the question of why. The Chasam Sofer (Shu”t 160) offers two explanations for the Rambam: 1) Rav is l’shitaso elsewhere that the customs of aveilus are observed through the entire month of Av (think of how much laundry you would have been doing yesterday if we paskened like Rav!). Since we follow the practice that aveilus ends with chatzos of 10 Av, we reject Rav’s opinion; 2) Rav assumes that the mazal of the month of Av has an effect on one’s fortune; however, we pasken (Shabbos 156) that ain mazal l’yisrael, the Jewish people transcend the effects of mazalos. In a time of tzarah it bears mentioning that even if one accepts the premis that yesh mazal, according to many rishonim great zechiyus and tefillah have the power to override the influence of mazal.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Some calendar notes for today

A commentator was disappointed that I neglected to mention that today is Rashi's yahrzeit - so there you have it. I don't keep track of these things, but I guess others do. To me Rashi is what brings gemara and chumash to life, not someone who died in France 901 years ago.

While we are on the topic of the calendar, today is my daughter Rachel's birthday (in the hebrew calendar). In case she sees this post (likely not : ), Happy Birthday.

(Now, in case you are wondering if I would have named my daughter after Rashi if I would have realized the coincidence, the answer is no. But I will say that my youngest daughter was due around parshas naso 5 years ago. She was born a bit earlier, so I was never truly tempted to carry through on my threat of the name Tzlalponis. And if you have no idea what I am talking about - Baba Basra 91a near the bottom).

The fast of 9 Av - a day of multiple tragedies

The gemara (R”H 18b) cites Rav Papa as explaining that the obligation of fasting depends on the state of peace/war the Jewish people find themselves in: 1) if there is peace (Rashi: Jewish control over their own lives), then there is no need to fast; 2) if there is oppression, the fasts are obligatory; 3) if there is neither complete peace nor a state of oppression, the obligation is dependent on the people’s choice. The poskim write that generations ago the practice of fasting was adopted by the Jewish people, so one can no longer “opt out”. The gemara challenges Rav Papa: the Mishna (R”H 18a) tells us that messengers from Bais Din would be sent out to inform the distant communities when Rosh Chodesh Av was declared so that they would be aware of the proper day Tisha b’Av falls on. How could the Misha tell us a blanket rule that the messengers of Bais Din would always go out to inform the people of Rosh Chodesh Av in preparation for fasting when if the people chose or there was a state of peace there would be no obligation to fast?! The gemara answers that Tisha b’Av is different because it is a day of many compounded tragedies (huchpelu bo tzaros).
There are two different ways one can understand the gemara's answer (see Aruch laNer):
1) Since 9 Av is a day of multiple tragedies, Rav Papa’s halacha that says fasting is a matter of choice does not apply to 9 Av – fasting on 9 Av is always obligatory.
2) Since 9 Av is a day of multiple tragedies, the messengers of Bais Din went out expecting the people to adopt the fast (or at least be aware of the day), but Rav Papa’s statement remains true even with respect to 9 Av.
The Rambam (Hil Ta’anis ch 5) seems to group 9 Av along with the other fast days with no distinction (yet also interestingly, the Rambam does not quote Rav Papa’s halacha in that chapter). Yet, it would seem that Tosfos disagrees. The gemara (Megillah 5b) tells us that Rebbi either wished to uproot the fast of 9 Av completely or to uproot it if it fell on Shabbos (meaning one would not have to fast on Sunday). Tosfos asks how Rebbi could do this when an enactment of a previous Bais Din cannot be overturned by a later one. If Rav Papa’s halacha applied to 9 Av, then Tosfos’ question is moot - the entire takana of fasting is subject to the people’s will! It seems that according to Tosfos the fast of 9 Av is obligatory independent of the people’s choice.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Recipes that use wine during the 9 days - ta'aroves yayin

My wife was updating her website yesterday with some milchig recipes for the nine days and noticed that the ingredients list for the French (freedom?) onion soup mix that she received called for 2 cups of red wine. She asked me what I thought of this – is a food which has a ta’aroves of wine permitted during the 9 days? Interestingly, ta’aroves basar gets a lot more attention than ta’aroves ya’yin in poskim – I guess fancy French recipes were not the norm in Europe. Is ta'aroves yayin the same as ta'aroves basar, and if you think not, why? Just for the record, I’m not enough of an onion soup fan to encourage my wife to attempt the recipe posted, and instead, offer you my own tried and true onion soup recipe: mix 1 spoon soup mix into 1 cup boiling water, stir, eat : )

Questioning the leadership of Klal Yisrael

Moshe Rabeinu cries out to Bnei Yisrael that he alone was unable to bear their burdensome complaints and fighting - torchachem u'masa'achem v'rivchem (1:12). On the train this morning Rashi's explanation of masa'achem caught my eye. Now, let me just preface this by saying I was quite amused by seeing my name associated with being a "fundie" [i.e. fundementalist] elsewhere, and use of the A-word - Apikores - is sure to rankle, so I am just going to note what Rashi says and why I thought it suprising. Make of it what you will.
Rashi writes "Masa'achem - this teaches that Bnei Yisrael were apikorsim". When I see that word, my immediate association is with issues of ikarei emunah. But Rashi continues and explains - If Moshe left home early, they said why is he leaving early, perhaps his home life is unsettled. If Moshe left home late, they said he is plotting evil plans against the people. Mashma to me: the label of apikorsus applies not only to questioning ikkarei emunah, but to undermining Moshe Rabeinu, the leader of Klal Yisrael, by questioning his integrity.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why does P' Masei record the borders of Eretz Yisrael?

If you would have asked me, I would have guessed that Parshas Masei (ch 34) records the borders of Eretz Yisrael because Bnei Yisrael stood about to fulfill the mitzva of kibush ha'aretz and needed to know which lands are the 'chefza shel mitzva' for conquest. However, that is not what Rashi says! Rashi instead (34:2) writes that since there are certain mitzvos that are 'teluyos ba'aretz', which only apply in Eretz Yisrael, the Torah had to define the borders. Why didn't Rashi offer the reason of kibush ha'aretz? I did not see this issue raised by the meforshei Rashi.

Friday, July 21, 2006

neder = dira

Aside from the enigmatic facts that the opening of our parsha addresses itself only to the roshei hamatos and that the declaration ‘zeh hadavr asher tzivah Hashem’ might be applied to any mitzvah, even stranger is what is missing. What happened to the almost standard opening of 'vayidaber Hashem el Moshe leimor'?
The word neder, the Sefas Emes and Noam Elimelech teach us, is related to the word dira, dwelling. What does an oath have to do with a dwelling? The Shem m’Shmuel questions the entire parsha of nedarim: how is it that a person has the power through his verbal declaration to create issurim (in the case of nidrei bituei) and create a status of kedush (nidrei hekdesh)? This power goes so far that the gemara has a safek whether there is an issur me’ila for violating a neder! I think the answer (see Sm”S for a different approach) is that in essence no new kedusha is being created. The concept of neder is a recognition that beyond what meets the eye there is a level of kedusha already inherent in the reality around us - the Shechina already dwells immanently in the world. Sefas Emes notes that the first person in chumash to take a neder is Ya’akov Avinu. While the other Avos revealed G-d’s presence as similar to a mountain or a field, Chazal tell us that Ya’akov revealed G-d’s presence as the bayis, a dwelling. Chazal tell us that taking a neder is like building a bamah, an alter used outside the Mikdash. G-d metaphorically “dwells” in the Bais haMikdash – to create a sanctified space for him outside those confines is a task fraught with challenge. Perhaps in this light we can appreciate the response of BN"Y to the attack of Amalek in Parshas Chukas. Amalek disguised themselves as Cana’anim to attack Bnei Yisrael so BN”Y’s prayers would be ineffective. If Amalek recognized the power of tefillah, how could they dare challenge Hashem’s people? Amalek understood the concept of G-d in the same way other primitive people call on deities - a far off force that can interact and impose its will on the world, but only when called on or invoked. BN”Y responded with a neder; G-d is with us in th world in all that we do and is not subject to being deceived by petty masquerades. Nodrin b’eis tzara, one is permitted to make a neder during times of crisis, perhaps to underscore (as we discussed from the Ishbitzer in the past) that tzarah is just a result of our inability to see the Shechina which is kulo tov inherent in reality, the attitude which the parsha of neder corrects. At the end of Sefer baMidbar, BN”Y stand poised to enter Eretz Yisrael and engage in conquering, building, and farming of the land. It becomes imperative that Bnei Yisrael be taught to carry on the mesorah absent the voice of Hashem echoing from Ohel Moed. There is no command of vayidaber Hashem el Moshe leimor opening our parsha precisely to emphasize that Hashem dwells in the mundane reality and we need not look to a voice from shamayim giving instructions. The roshei hamatos have a right to declare “zeh hadavr asher tzivah Hashem” when they reveal his ratzon (see our past discussion on the mechayev of dinei derabbanan) and those words, as the Noam Elimelech writes, are tantamount to an actual expression of the Torah itself. If we want to find Hashem, we need not look "out there", but rather to his metaphorical dira which already exists in our world.
Chazak Chazak v'Nischazeik.

nidrei zerizus

A final note on this topic: we mentioned that the Ran interpreted R’ Gidal’s halacha of one who pledges to perform a mitzvah in order to motivate him/herself to action as a shevua and not a neder. Even though we have a rule that a shevua to perform a mitzvah does not have any effect (one shevua cannot rest on top of another, and one is already mushba v'omeid m'har Sinai, already bound by oath from Har Sinai to do mitzvos), the Ran writes that that simply means one is exempt from a korban but would get malkos. Ramban at the opening of Parshas Matos disagrees and says violating such a shevua carries no punishment. If so, asks the Steipler (Birchas Peretz), how can such a shevua serve its purpose of motivation? The person making the shevua knows full well that his words are meaningless! I think the simple answer is that this is nothing more than a psychological ploy, but the Steipler suggests something more. The person who is not zealous is carrying out the mitzvah is implicitly treating the act in question as a reshus, something not obligatory. If it is not obligatory, than the rule of ‘mushba v’omed m’Har Sinai’ should not apply and the shevua should work! The person is trapped between the mitzvah the Torah imposes and the personal pledge he has created, leaving no room to escape the force of obligation.

nezirus - nidrei gavoha or nidrei bituei?

I thank Anonymous for pointing me to a letter the Rav wrote to R’ Hutner upon receiving advanced copy of R’ Hutner’s Toras Nazir – see Igros haGRI”D p 278. The Rav addresses the question of which box – nidrei gavoha or nidrei issur – a neder of nezirus fits into. As we have seen earlier in the week, the Ramban defines nidrei hekdesh and tzedaka based on the hischayvus, the obligation such a neder creates. Nidrei bituei do not create a hischayvus to do something, e.g. giving tzedaka or offering a korban – they create issurim. At first glance one would suspect that nezirus is a form of nidrei gavoha, as one who becomes a nazir accepts the obligations of bringing the korbanos of nezirus. However, the Rambam opens hilchos nezirus with the statement “Hanezirus hi neder bichlal nidrei issur”, nezirus is in the category of nidrei issur! The Rav explains that the neder of nezirus is not an acceptance of korbanos obligations, but an acceptance of the shem nazir. Once one is defined as a nazir, it naturally follows that certain obligations stem from that chalos.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

nidrei tzedaka - shibud mamon or not?

The gemara in Bava Kama36b tells the story of an individual owed ½ a zuz in damages who decides, in light of it being such a small amount, to donate the money to tzedaka in the presence of R’ Yosef. At some later point the individual changed his mind and asked for the money back from R’ Yosef. R’ Yosef said the gift was irrevocable - ‘kvar zachu bah ani’im’, the poor have already taken possession of the gift, because even if the poor are not present, ‘anan yad ani’im anan’, we, the court, serve as the agents of the poor and already hold the funds. The Geonim and Rishonim struggle mightily with a number of issues in the sugya, one of which relates to our previous discussion of nidrei tzedaka. Why does the gemara need to invoke the principle that R’ Yosef or the court acts as the agent of the poor to accept ownership on their behalf in order for the gift to be irrevocable - was the person who pledged the money not bound anyway to give it to the poor by virtue of his pledge, nidrei gavoha, or by virtue of amiraso l’gavoha k’mesiraso l’hedyot? The simplest answer is that nidrei tzedaka constitute a promise on the part of the giver to fulfill a pledge, but do not constitute a shibud or kinyan on the funds (Ba’al HaMaor, R’ Hai Gaon, cited by the RI”F). However, many Rishonim disagree. R’ Chananel (cited in Tosfos) writes that the individual who pledged the funds did not wish to retract, but simply wanted to borrow the funds temporarily for his own use; R’ Yosef, however, held that one collected by the gabai, the funds cannot be lent out. It is clear from R’ Chananel (and the Ramban in Milchamos) that the pledge to charity (the neder) did indeed create a shibud mammon, meaning the poor had ownership rights by virtue of the neder – the only reason the gemara invokes zechiya on the poor's behalf is to prevent the giver from even having temporary use of the money. The RI"F (and Tosfos explaining why amiraso l’gavoha does not apply here) also writes that although tzedaka creates shibudei mammon, here the money in question had not yet been paid to the individual making the pledge. Kinyanei hekdesh cannot apply to something that is not in one’s reshus or that is not yet ba l’olam. The Rambam cites this opinion in the name of the Geonim, but rejects it l’halacha. R’ Chaim Brisker (Hil Mechira ch 22) asks: even though the funds themselves are not in the hand of the individual making the pledge, there exists an obligation, a shibud, for those funds to be paid. According to many Rishonim, a shibud is treated like any other asset and theoretically can be bought and sold. If so, why is the obligation, the shibud, not considered something which can be transferred through amira l’gavoha or nidrei tzedaka to the reshus of hekdesh? I think I might leave this one hanging, or take a look at the R’ Chaim!

nidrei reshus vs. nidrei gavoha - the case of a pledge to tzedaka

Nedarim 8 cites R’ Gidal’s halacha that a person can accept an oath as a motivator to mitzvah performance, e.g. the gemara uses the example 'ashkim v’ashaneh perek zeh', a vow that 'I shall arise and learn this perek'. The Rosh writes that this oath is a neder, similar to a neder which one makes to give tzedaka. However, the Ran argues and writes that R’ Gidal’s oath is a shevua, because a neder can never take the form of ‘kum v’aseh’. This fits well with the Ramban discussed yesterday who argues that nidrei bituei can never be b’kum v’aseh. Why, however, did the Ran (like the Rosh) not categorize this vow as nidrei gavoha, just like giving tzedaka, which can be forumulated b'kum v'aseh? Based again on the Ramban, we can draw a distinction. Tzedaka creates a monetary shibud, an obligation, similar to hekdesh. Promising to learn a perek of gemara is a personal obligation, but has no dinei mamomos component. Therefore, it falls under the domain of nidrei reshus and not nidrei gavoha. (Based on R’ Reichman’s Reshimos Shiurim of R’ Soloveitchik).
This lomdus rests on the assumption that a pledge to tzedaka is not just a commitment to give money, but the pledge transfers ownership of the money to the poor. This is a major issue in Rishonim - stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

nidrei reshus vs. nidrei gavoha and nidrei mitzvah

The Rambam (Sefer haMitzvos 94) lumps all forms of nedarim – whether it be a simple personal pledge or a neder to being a korban or give tzedaka - together under one mitzvas aseh of ‘motza sefasecha tishmor’. The Ramban, however, disagrees, and divides nedarim into two distinct categories: nedarim that are personal in nature, ‘nidrei reshus’ or ‘nidrei bituei’, which we are commanded in parshas matos to fulfill, and ‘nidrei mitzvah’ or ‘nidrei gavoha’, which is the mitzvah of ‘motza sefasecha tishmor’. Ramban in S”haM writes that nidrei gavoha are binding even if one does not use the term 'neder', e.g. if one says ‘beheima zu korban’, one is obligated to bring the animal as a korban; however, nidrei reshus are binding only if one uses the formula of neder (or some equivalent of a yad or kinuy), e.g. ‘konam ochel zeh alai’ - just saying ‘hareini nosein beheima l’ploni’ is not a valid neder. Another nafka mina between these two categories is with respect to the issur of bal t’achernidrei hekdesh must be fulfilled within the time span of 3 regalim or one violates an issur; this requirement does not apply to nidrei bituei.
Ramban reiterates his position in the opening to Parshas Matos. Rashi (30:3) gives an example of a neder as ‘hareini oseh davar ploni’, I will do action X. Ramban writes that no where in masechet Nesarim do we ever find a case of nidrei bituei b’kum v’aseh, nedarim which require one to take action. A neder by definition is an issur cheftza, a prohibition on an object, and therefore must relate to something concrete, not actions. The Ramban challenges his own thesis: don’t we find cases of nedarim which demand action, e.g. ‘beheima zu yehei korban’, I will bring this animal as a korban? The Ramban answers l’shitaso that this example is from the realm of nidrei gavoha, which is a different domain than nidrei bituei. Since amiraso l’gavoha k’mesiraso l’hedyot, pledging a korban creates a kinyan to hekdesh, it is as if the animal in question has already been transferred to the ownership of hekdesh by virtue of the verbal neder and therefore the pledge is binding. (See Ramban for a second reason why such a neder works.) It seems from the Ramban that the definition of nidrei gavoha are nedarim which effect not just a prohibition, but which have an immediate financial impact, a dinei mamomos component. Homework: do all cases of nidrei gavoha indeed fit that mold?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

psak and sha'as hadechak: R' Shachter's article (II)

The second chiddush in lomdus R' Shachter quotes is cute. Why is it that in halacha (especially in Yoreh De'ah) we often have a base psak but then have kulos that allow for leniency b'sha'as ha'dechak? If the psak is 'assur', why should pressing need make any difference? R' Moshe Soloveitchik is quoted as saying that in terms of dinei yoreh de'ah, m'ikkar hadin the halacha is in accordance with the lenient opinion. However, we defer to the views of the stricter opinion because of the halacha demanding that we show kavod harav. One is not required to incur grave losses or be placed in an tenuous situation simply because of someone else's kavod, so in those cases we revert back to the base yoreh de'ah law and its leniency.
It strikes me that this approach suffers from the same weakness that the Ramban notes in the Rambam's reduction of all dinei derabbanan to the d'oraysa law of lo tasur - by doing so one has effectively obliterated the source to distinguish between different levels of chiyuvim. Every derabbanan issue should be paskened l’chumra because it relates to a d’oraysa issue. Here too, once we introduce the issue of kavod harav as a factor in practical psak, every issue should be paskened l’chumra because of kavod harav. How can one justify the right to pasken l'kula when faced with a safeik in a din derabbanan - the factor of kavod harav should always demand adherence to the stricter opinion? Why in fact should rov be a tool of hachra'ah - kavod harav should demand we respect the minority opinion even in place of the majority (assuming the views are not in direct conflict)?
R' Shachter himself suggests what I think is the more obvious approach here. Psak is not a definitive yes/no that determines right opinions from wrong - we consider all opinions theoretically valid, but must make some choice as to how practically to act. Where possible, we try to conduct ourselves so we satisfy most views, but where necessity interferes, we have a right to call on the validity of more lenient views to base our conduct upon. The GR"A's hachra'ah does relfect an absolute determination of certain opinions as right and others as wrong, but it seems quite a stretch to superimpose this approach on the Shulchan Aruch - one wonders why R' Moshe Soloveitchik did not opt for the more straightforward answer here.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Eid echad on psak halacha - R' Shachter's latest article in Beis Yitzchok

The latest article of R’ Hershel Schachter that appeared in Beis Yitzchak has been posted online by Menachem Butler. Apparently this article is a write up of a speech given in commemoration of the yahrtzeit of the Rav and contains many interesting stories, but also contains 2 chiddusim in lomdus that are of more concern to me.
The Shulchan Aruch paskens (Y.D. 188:2) that a woman who has a mareh (a stain on a bedika cloth) and says a Rav was matir a similar mareh for her, or tells her friend that she does not have to worry about a particular mareh because a Rav was matir a similar case, is not believed. Why is this not a case of eid echad ne'eman b'issurim? R’ Shachter explains in the name of the Rav that the content of the woman's testimony relates to conveying a psak halacha. Issues of psak halacha must be determined solely by experts who are chachamei hamesorah - an eid echad has no ne’emanus when it comes to this domain. This becomes a springboard for R’ Shachter to bemoan the many Rabbis who incorrecly cite psak in the name of the Rav based on their own misunderstanding. R' Shachter claims that the Rav himself enjoined others not to accept halacha cited in his name because an eid echad is precluded from ne'emanus regarding psak. Leaving aside the pragmatic question of who is a member of the chachamei hamesorah, and the criticism of incorrectly cited psak not withstanding, the basic lomdus here seems difficult to understand.
The source for this halacha is a braysa in Niddah 20b. The gemara tells us that a women who shows a mareh to a Rav and says "I saw a similar mareh but lost it" is believed - a Rav can pasken assuming the mareh which was lost indeed matches the one before him based on the woman’s testimony. However, if a women has a mareh that is available and not lost, or says about a mareh of her neighbor’s that "Ploni Chacham paskened a similar mareh is tahor", we do not believe her. Clearly, as the first case indicates, we accept a woman's expertise to compare two maros accurately, so why in this second instance do we not believe her that Ploni Chacham was already matir some similar case? R’ Shachter’s reading is that the second testimony concerns itself with a conclusion of psak and is categorically excluded from the parsha of eid echad. However, the Rishonim explain the case quite differently. The more obvious difference between the cases is that in the second case, the mareh in question is available before us for examination, while in the first case it is not. The Rashba writes that the physical evidence of a questionable mareh casts doubt on the accuracy of the woman’s ne'emanus to say that Ploni Chacham saw an identical case and paskened unequivically tahor. It is the physical evidence of a safek before us which throws into doubt the accuracy of the eid echad's comparison. Rashi is even sharper in his formulation, writing about the second case ‘hacha d’isa Kaman nechzei anan’ – if the mareh is here and not lost, let us examine the physical evidence! There is no need to rely on the weaker evidence of eid echad to resolve the issue. It is not the content of the eidus (psak vs. other areas) which removes the ne’emanus of the witness, but rather we simply hold physical evidence leads to a more accurate conclusion (see the Aruch haShulchan's citation of this halacha).
If we take Rashi’s formulation to its extreme conclusion, every single mareh must be shown to someone for psak because physical evidence precludes ne’emanus. However, the achronim write that this was true only in the days of Chazal where chachamim made fine differentiations between different shades of red. Today, we do not draw such fine distinctions, and a women has a right at least to draw gross comparisons between maros. This caveat fits nicely if one works with the understanding that the physical evidence is the barrier to ne’emanus – where the physical evidence is clearly in accord with the eid, there is no reason to require psak. But according to R’ Shachter’s understanding, why should this be true? No one other than the chachamei hamesorah can ever draw any halachic conclusions, so a posek should have to address everything, even the most obvious maros. Is this not a reduction ad absurdum?
I do not know the answers – maybe one of R’ Shachter’s talmidim can offer some insight.

Friday, July 14, 2006

existentialism vs.rationalism: perspective on an old debate on religious truth

Yesterday's post opened a pandora's box of interesting discussion regarding truth and ikkarei emunah, and the volume of comments leads me to wonder if some of you sleep with a keyboard by your pillow : ) I just wanted to step back a little and offer some perspective. We can type from today to tomorrow, but this whole issue ultimately comes back to some old philosophical debates that I doubt we are going to resolve anytime soon.
In this corner: Existentialism. To quote Wikipedia (not the best source, but short and too the point): "Kierkegaard argued that "truth is subjectivity", meaning that what is most important to an existing being are questions dealing with an individual's inner relationship to existence. Objective truths (e.g. mathematical truths) are important, but detached or observational modes of thought can never truly comprehend human experience." How does one know the truth? How did Avraham Avinu know that it was G-d telling him to sacrifice his son and not some imaginary voice? Shouldn't he have rejected that voice considering that it contradicted both his rational sense of ethics and his prior promise from G-d himself? You can read Kierkegaard's “Faith and Trembling”, but for now, a short summary from the Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - "His sole justification is what Kierkegaard calls the passion of faith. Such faith is, rationally speaking, absurd, a "leap," so if there is to be any talk of truth here it is a standard that measures not the content of Abraham's act, but the way in which he accomplishes it... To say that subjectivity is the truth is to highlight a way of being, then, and not a mode of knowing; truth measures the attitude ("passion") with which I appropriate, or make my own, an "objective uncertainty" (the voice of God) in a "process of highest inwardness."
In the other corner: Rationalism. The rationalists (and empiricists) argue that this makes no sense. Just because I believe it, how does that make it so? This is akin to arguing the “correspondance theory of truth” – things are true only because we can determine that they correspond to something “out there” and not our imagination. If I imagine and passionately believe in little green folk, does that make them real?
One of the answers to this is that there is a difference between the private subjective truth and truth which has a correlation in the human condition. If you speak to anyone about the little green men out there, they will likely have no way of relating to that experience. If you speak to someone about your relationship to G-d, even if that person is an atheist, they do comprehend your meaning. Of course, this argument has a refutation as well, and further defenses – ad infinitum. Most of the arguments back and forth have been made by rabim u'gedolim in philosophy already, though I doubt most academics approach their field with as much fervor as the debators in the jblosphere.
So much for philosophy 101. Historically, sifrei machshava have long since abandoned the metaphysical fight of the middle ages – the concern is not with proving the truth of Judaism in relation to what is “out there” in reality, but in discovering meaning in the experience of faith. The Piecezna quotes the Koshnizer Maggid that the tisch of shalosh seudos is mamash like tzadikim yoshvim in gan eden v’atroseihem b’rosheihem – and many people experience it as such. But if you sit there staring at the walls and just see men in furry hats singing songs and eating, while you wait for “proof” that this is gan eden, I guess you have a different perspective. The question is which one makes for a more meaningful existence?

Rambam vs Maharal: is nevuah guaranteed? - the promise to Pinchas

Guaranteed not to have too many comments today, as I'm going back to more standard Torah dicsussion : ) Maybe more some other time - I would just encourage anyone interested to follow my snippits of quotes to the sources themselves. Reminder: please learn and daven as a zechus for Eretz Yisrael.

Hashem instructs Moshe to SAY regarding Pinchas "Hininei nosein lo es brisi shalom", I am giving him my covenant or peace. Why does this have to be a public proclamation and not private news? Perhaps it was because of the rumbelings of disapproval that questioned how Pinchas could kill a leader of a sheivet, but perhaps there is something more. The Rambam writes in in into to Peirush haMishna that what Hashem privately promises a Navi is subject to not coming to fulfillment. We find that although Hashem promised to protect Ya'akov, he was nonetheless worried over encountering Eisav because he thought his sins would negate the promise. Yet, the Rambam writes with respect to nevuah, words that the prophet is instructed to deliver to the people, there is a gurantee that what is said will be unconditionally fulfilled (see Rambam Yesodei HaTorah ch 10 that a Navi can be tested by whether his words are fulfilled). The Meshech Chochma writes that Hashem asked Moshe to SAY that Pinchas receives the bris of shalom so that this promise would be unconditionally guaranteed for eternity and not subject to the personal zechuyos of Pinchas.
The Meshech Chocham cites this idea in many places, e.g. Why is it that Avraham laughs when told that he will have a son and nothing comes of it, but Sarah is chastised? M.C. distinguishes between the promise told to Avraham in private which depends on her merit for fulfillment, and the nevuah spoken to Sarah which was a guarantee.
What the Meshech Chochama does not tell you is that the MaHaRaL strongly disagrees with this Rambam - see ch 7 of Gevuros Hashem. The MaHaRaL argues that any nevuah by definition is guaranteed to occur. So why then was Ya'akov afraid? MaHaRaL writes that there is a difference between nevuah and a havtacha. The former reveals something fundemental about the nature of the beriya which is not subject to change. The latter is based on the personal relationship between the tzadik, prophet, or people and Hashem. If I had to offer an analogy: nevuah would be like predicting that my 5 year old daughter would grow from 4 feet to 5 feet as she gets older. A havtacha would be like promising to buy my 4 year old daugher an ice cream because she is a good girl - even if unstated, it is understood that if she misbehaves, all bets are off. The MaHaRaL develops a number of key concepts in that chapter - yosef chacham v'yikach lekach.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

the limits of rational inquiry as a basis for faith

The superficially convincing argument for doubt and skepticism advanced in some other places is reducible to a syllogism: A) believe only what one can be rationally prove, B) one cannot rationally prove G-d, C) [rachmana litzlan]. My agenda is not to bash anyone who finds their derech to avodas Hashem in a way that differs from mine, including rationalism. But for those who absorb the dialy dish of doubt served elsewhere and reflect on the questions of faith raised by what is portrayed as the only 'intelligent' approach to Judaism, I think it is fair to offer some analysis of the assumptions and shortcomings of that rationalist school. If rationalism cannot lead one to G-d, that should not be accepted as a critique of belief, but as a critique of rationalism.

To recap yesterday's points: (1) rationalism chains religious observance to external causes and reduces it to instrumentalism; (2) rationalism by definition can derive from religion no inspiration or insight not already inherent in man’s own limited intellect.

R’ Soloveitchik goes a step further and denies rationalism even as a basis for elucidating mishpatim: “Stealing and corruption are the accepted mores in many spheres of life; adultery and general promiscuity find support in respectable circles; and even murder, medical and germ experiments have been conducted with governmental complicity. The logos has shown itself in our time to be incapable of supporting the most basic of moral inhibitions.” (Reflection of the Rav, p.105)

Contrast the daily deliberations of the skeptics over whether it is ‘rational’ to believe in G-d with R’ Soloveitchik’s poetic citation of Kierkegaard: "Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that He exists?"

The rationalist insists on knowing the “Why” and “How” – for proof, for understanding before committment. The Kierkegaardian answers - Is the love of the bride and her beloved reducible to a finite set of logical reason that we can map with an equation? The Rambam in fact formulates the mitzvah of love of G-d as comparable to the love of man for his beloved wife (Tshuvah 10:3). R' Soloveitchik observes, “To be a loyal Jew is heroic, and heroes commit themselves without intellectual reservations. Only one who lacks the courage of commitment will belabor the “Why”. (ibid, p. 103)

R’ Soloveitchik elsewhere (cited in Reflections of the Rav vol 2) writes that the white of the tzitzit represents that which man can clarify using reason and understanding, while the blue techeilet reminds of the kisai hakavod, the mystery of reality which stands outside our grasp. R’ Nachman similarly explains (L.M. 64) that the concept of ‘chalal panuy’ of tzimtzum teaches us that doubt is part of the existential reality – the proportion of what we know to what remains shrouded in mystery is elastic, but we can never completely remove that boundary that stands between our own limited knowledge and a full understanding of G-d and the universe.

Judaism is an existential reality, not a mathematical formula reducible to a logical set of equations. To search for truth using rational tools alone or to make rational discovery a precondition to belief is to limit the religious experience to constraints which by definition it does not conform to.

“Bichlal asur lanu limdod devarim halalu b’havanah enoshit she’rak man she’haish mavin emet hu v’lo zulat, kmo hashotim v’apikorsim r”l” – it is prohibited to measure [the truthfulness of] these things with human understanding, assuming only what man comprehends and nothing else is true, like the fools and heretics say. (R' Kalonymus Kalman, "the Piececzna", M'vo HaShearim).

Or as Hamlet put it - “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Is judasim the handmaiden of rationalism?

Some "out there" have concocted the following philosophy of Judasim: mitzvos and Torah are meaningful in so far as they lead us to a greater good - a means to an end. Mystical tikkunim are irrelevant; social and ethical norma are all that we should be interested in, and unless you understand it, don't believe it. Of course, not every mitvah will fit neatly into a rationalist box, but they argue that halacha wholistically creates a society that is more moral and ethical than would be possible without it. Is such a world view meaningful? Has it been espoused by talmidei chachamim who came after the Rambam (or even by the Rambam himself)? Should it be our approach to avodas Hashem?

R' Soloveitchik, "Halakhic Mind", pp. 92-93:
"The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiousus to accept Maimonidian rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely, valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart…
In rationalizing the commandments genetically, Maimonides developed a religious instrumentalism. For example, should we posit the question: why did G-d forbid perjury? The intellectualistic philosopher would promptly reply, "because it is contrary to the norm of truth." Thus he would explain a religious norm by an ethical precept, making religion the handmaid of ethics. ...If the Sabbath is to be seen only against the background of mundane social justice and similar ideals, the intrinsic quality of the Sabbath is transformed into something alien. It serves merely as a means to the realization of a “higher” end. Maimonides’ efforts foreshadowed failure from the very outset of his “how” approach. "

Noam Elimelech, P' Pinchas:
"A person who serves G-d based on his own intuitiuon and understanding is constrained and cannot escape the limits of his own mind, his own nature, and his own understanding..."

Worship based only on what one rationally accepts is nothing more than self-worship. Because the human "I" recognizes a value as important, it ascribes that value to G-d and makes it a point of religious conviction. Defined as such, religion can never transcend human limitations, it can never cause man to aspire to levels of greatness beyond what he can see, and it is always the handmaiden to a subjective morality that fluctuates with the human perception of what is good and just. Far more meaningful is a religion which offers man a transcendent objective truth and challenges man to escape his own limitations of mind in discovering it. As discussed yesterday, intuition or ruach hakodesh can inspire a worldview not reducable to a positivistic list of equations or reasons, but is an nonetheless reveals a true vision of reality. Tzadikim and talmidei chachamim are those whose lives are infused with such perspective, but the Piecezna writes (Mavo She'arim ch 2) that each and every Jew can rise to such heights - such is the goal of avodah.
Two contrasting world views: the skeptical-rationslist, and the view of the "olam haTorah". Much more to be said on this topic, but enough for now...

(I am sorry for taking so much time away from lomdus to spend on these themes, but there are many voices offering "competing" perspectives and far fewer voices explaining basic hashkafa. If even one person gains some perspective and mareh mekomos , it's worth it.)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

how to approach the words of a talmid chacham or tzadik

Sources on the wisdom of talmidei chachamim and tzadikim:
(1) Ramban (Baba Basra 12) in his analysis of the sugya of chacham adif m’navi writes that although prophecy called nevua is no longer extant, there still exists a lower form of prophecy given over to the chachamim.
(2) Ra’avad writes in his gloss (hil lulav ch 8) ‘hinei kamah shanim hofia ruach hakodesh b’beis medrasheinu…’, for many years ruach hakodesh has been present in our bais medrash.
(3) Divrei Chaim (not me! the real one, i.e. the Sanzer Rav) writes in a tshuvah (Y.D. 105) that a teacher who does not accept the fact that the Ohr HaChaim was written b’ruach hakodesh should be dismissed and is de facto an apikores for denying that the gedolim of the generation are endowed with ruach hakodesh.
(4) Rambam (Hil Tshuvah perek 3) counts as a kofer one who is ‘makchish magideha’, one who contradicts talmidei chachamim who are bearers of the mesorah. You can watch a video shiur of R’ M. Rozensweig, a Rosh Yeshiva at YU, where he discusses this Rambam in the context of da’as Torah and develops the theme that the continuance of tradition relies on certain talmidei chachamim the scope of whose knowledge transcends the sum total of facts they know and who embody the spirit of the Torah itself (I happened to have heard the shiur first hand).
I purposely cite R’ Rozensweig, a PhD-holding clean shaven YU Rosh Yeshiva along with the Divrei Chaim so that the forest is not lost for the trees – I am not interested in defending the precise halachic parameters of the D.C.’s tshuvah so much as reflecting on the attitude inherent in his approach. Recognizing that certain tzadikim and talmidei chachamim are endowed with perspective to make decisions that effect the Torah world even when they cannot reduce their answer to a clear formulation or intellectual argument from precedent is a view shared by the entire spectrum of orthodoxy and not particular to a marginal stream. Differences in the scope and degree to which we take this idea, or whether it should be labeled ‘ruach hakodesh’, ‘da’as torah’, or a ‘transcendent perspective’ should not obscure the fundamental agreement on principle.
When one reads or hears words of tzadikim or talmidei chachamim that at first blush seem wrong or incomprehensible, then it seems to me we owe those words a little more consideration than we might give an op-ed of the NY Times. “Afilu sichas chulin shel talmidei chachamim tz’richa Talmud” – even the mundane speech of a talmid chacham requires Talmud, i.e. investigation and insight to properly understand, kal v’chomer when these words are intended to address serious issues of torah. Sometimes it is possible to elicit clarification directly from the speaker or writer, and where not possible, we should at least keep our mind open to the possibility that the misunderstanding is due to the limitations of our own perspective and not due to a chisaron in the tzadik or talmid chacham. We certainly owe the leaders of our people the benefit of the doubt.
(Yes, I know I am probably preaching to the converted, and yes, this is in response to something particular, but l'chol hapachos the mareh mekomos are worth seeing and at least I said my 2 cents. The distortions, misunderstandings, and leitzanus spread in the same of discussing judaism is sometimes depressing - sorry, I don't know a better way to put it.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Bilam's curses - the approach of R' Y. Bloch

On Shabbos I found that the Shiurei Da'as (in the essay "Nes v'Teva" I) touches on the question raised last week - if Bnei Yisrael were not deserving of punishment, then why stop Bilam from idle rambling? R' Bloch draws a comparison to the malach hamashchis of makas bechoros - why the need to paint the doorposts with blood if Hashem protects the innocent? The solution seems to be that these spiritual forces operate as part of the teva. Just as one would not say that germs do not affect tzadikim or tzadikim can be healed without antibiotics, so too with respect to spritiual forces, the curses of a Bila'am or a malach hamashchis have power that stems from the nature of the world as Hashem created it. Within that "natural" framework, there also exists spiritual tools to thwart that power or earn a level of immunity. R' Bloch defines one's "shiur komah" as the degree one is spiritually aware of these laws of nature that operate outside the threshold of our empirical awareness.

a worker's right to eat produce of his employer while harvesting

Last week we left off with a kashe – why is it that the Rosh paskens that tefisa does not work on a sfeika d’dina, but with respect to the question of whether a poel can eat only from the produce before him or from any produce (which the gemara leaves as a safeik) the Rosh paskens that tefisa does work?
The gemara (B.M. 92a) debates whether a worker “mi’shelo hu ochel”, eats the produce of the ba’al habayis as part of his salary, or “mi’shel shamayim hu ochel”, the Torah granted him permission to eat as a separate benefit above and beyond regular earnings - as Rashi explains, the right to eat is a form of gemilus chessed. The nafka minah is whether the worker can request that his share of the produce he could eat be given to his family – if it is part of his earnings, like salary, it is transferable to a third party, but if it is like tzedaka, then until the worker actually picks the produce he has no right to it and cannot transfer it to a third party.
The Kuntres haSefeikos writes that in a case of contested ownership, tefisa does not work where there is a sfeika d’dina because a halachic doubt is insufficient cause to challenge the ownership of the muchzak. However, the case of a worker eating the produce of the ba’al habayis is different. Here, “m’shel shamayim hu ochel” – the worker never claims a right to the produce based on ownership, but based on the tzedaka the Torah demands. In other words, the Torah allows a worker to eat food that is admittedly not his! The fact that the ba’al habayis is muchzak is irrelevant because the issue is not one of ownership, but an issur v’heter type question of whether the ba’al habayis is obligated in the tzedaka of feeding his worker in this context. In this case, the Rosh holds tefisa does indeed work.
Once we remove the halachos of poel from the domain of mamonos and place it in the issur v’heter domain, then we open the door to other questions. For example, the Mishna (Ma’asros 2:7) indicates that it is possible to make a tnai that one’s son can eat on one’s behalf. The Minchas Chinuch asks why this is not a case of “masneh al mah shekasuv batorah”, creating a tnai that violates the Torah’s law – even R’ Meir who allows such a tnai in dinei mamonos would not allow it in the domain of issur v’heter.
More to come bli neder, as R’ Chaim as a completely different understanding of the sugya.

Friday, July 07, 2006

sfeika d'dina and muchzak - the right of a po'el to eat produce of the ba'al habayis

After all the parsha posts, I feel like I have not done any justice to those who read this blog for lomdus. To be yotzei before Shabbos : ) let me at least start a topic with a kashe you can think about while eating the cholent and bli neder to be continued. The Yerushalmi is headed toward sugyos that discuss the right of a worker to eat the produce of the ba’al habayis while harvesting his crops and when that eating constitutes a business transaction which is kovea a chiyuv ma’aser, so agav that, a thought on the issue. The Rosh paskens in Bava Metziya that since the gemara (91b) has a safek whether a worker has a right to eat only the produce in front of him that he is harvesting or any of the ba’al habayis’s produce (‘oseh b’gefen zeh ma’hu sheyochal b’gefen achier’) we should be machmir on the safeik d’oraysa and the worker should eat only from the produce before him. However, if the worker already took other produce and ate it, he is not liable to repay the owner because we assume that in a case of tefisa, where a portion was already grabbed, repayment cannot be coerced based on a safeik. The Kuntres haSefeikos (section 4) and many achronim ask that this seems to contradict principle (see the Kuntres haSefeikos for mareh mekomos) set out by the Rosh elsewhere that tefisa never works on a sefeika d’dina. In other words, if the court is faced with a safeik in matter of fact, e.g. is the rightful owner of an item or property Reuvain or Shimon, either side can grab the disputed item because the court cannot establish with certainty who the rightful owner is. But if the safeik is a matter of law, e.g. it is clear who the current owner is, but the question is whether the halacha recognizes the validity of a claim, that is not sufficient to allow tefisa – barring proof, why should a halachically dubious claim be sufficient to allow anyone to take property from a muchzak? That’s gezel! As applied to our case, why should the dubious claim of the worker be sufficient for him to get away with taking the produce of the ba’al habayis without repayment – shouldn’t the ba’al habayis’s status of muchzak override the claim of the worker?
Coming attractions: take a look at Bava Metziya 92a

general vs. specific tefillah and the battle against Amalek (P' Chukas)

Just a point of clarification on Bava Metziya 106 - the gemara writes that a landlord can claim Hashem would have listened to his tefillah to spare his specific crops (making the renter who planted a different crop liable for the loss even in a case of a natural disaster), but if he does not include terms for specific crops to be planted, then he cannot claim Hashem would spare his crops because of his general non-specific tefillah for success. R' Tzadok haKohein (Divrei Sofrim #4) explains that this rule has to be taken in the context of the gemara's case of the farmer asking Hashem to make an exception of his crops in the midst of a natural disaster affecting all. When asking for miraculous exceptions, one should minimize the miracle as much as possible, as Hashem does not often or readily change the course of nature. There is a great difference between asking Hashem to completely distort reality and grant your crops success when all others fail and asking for a specific exception of one crop amidst the devistation shared with everyone else. To put it in business terms that we can relate to: there is a difference between davening for the entire stock market to reverse its trend amidst a downturn and daving for a specific stock to buck the trend while the downturn plays out. Outside that context, when there is no trend, no disaster, no exception is being asked for, R' Tzadok writes that one can and should daven in general for bracha and hatzlacha.
I do not think Bnei Yisrael's general tefillos to be spared from the attacking enemy contradict the rule of this gemara. Firstly, they had no other choice, as the enemy was not clearly identifiable. Secondly, the gemara is concerned with the liability of the person to pay the landlord based on the assumption that the landlord's tefilos work - the gemara concludes that in the case of general tefilla there is not enough of a guarantee of a response to create liability, but that does not mean Hashem never responds to a general tefillah. Thirdly, there is a difference between the word 'kol' and 'dibbur', as we discussed here. Kol is the tone, manner, and passion of the cry; dibbur is the articulation of the words. I would like to suggest that Hashem did not in fact respond to the words of the tefillah here, but ‘VaYishma Hashem b’kol yisrael’, the response was to the unarticulated passion of the plea. Even though the tefillah was stam, the voice was strong enough to arouse Hashem to respond.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

mystery and the power of speech - the be'er of miriam and parah adumah

I'm sort of thinking out loud on this idea... I've been wondering all week how the parsha of parah adumah fits the rest of the sequence of korach-chukas-balak. The laws of parah adumah were clearly given earlier, yet the parsha is stuck in here. Chazal see the juxtoposition as teaching that the death of tzadikim (Miriam) atones just like the parah, but in light of the previous discussion of the power of words, I was wondering if there was something deeper here. Perhaps there is a parallel between the vanishing of the be'er of Miriam, be'er signifiying the power to explain Torah (see nedarim 55 which darshens the shira on the be'er later in the parsha as meant to describe limud hatorah, highlighting the double-entendre), and the idea of a chok as something which defies explanation. Instead of freely available water/explanation, the Torah confronts the dor about to enter Eretz Yisrael with a sense of mystery. There is a transformation required from the cocoon of the midbar to the "real" world where life resembles more of "chok" hiding the yad Hashem than readily understandable rules and open miracles. In this light, the lesson of Mei Meriva should have been that through the power of words, the be'er in both its literal and symbolic senses may be restored. This is the idea of torah sheba'al peh as a vehicle to penetrate the veil of meaning hiding behind the "well" of words which is torah sheb'ksav, and fits with the idea of speech as the overarching theme of the parsha - the tefila and neder required to defeat amalek, the shira of the be'er, the negative power of speech represented by Bilaam vs 'mah tovu ohalecha ya'akov'.
In the backof my mind I can't help but think of R' Nachman's idea (L.M. II:74) that parshas parah is the transformation from purim (pur-parah) to Pesach. Purim is the holiday of hester panim, while Pesach is the holiday of pe-sach, speech, explanation, haggadah. The parah adumah is the invitation to grapple with the mystery of hiddeness through the vehicle of Torah speech, which leads to ultimate revelation and redemption. I know this is pushing the envelope of derush and needs some work, so feel free to comment and help me (or tell me I'm barking up the wrong tree).

the cheit of mei meriva and the power of the tzadik

The various opinions as to exactly what Moshe’s cheit in the episode of Mei Meriva was are too numerous for me to count much less analyze, so I will just highlight one of my favorites. Although we regular Joes find our lives governed by the rules of teva, a tzadik or navi whose life is dedicated to the purely spiritual is unencumbered by such boundries. The laws of nature and physics are an expression of G-d’s will; where G-d’s will as represented by the needs of the tzadik conflicts with the usual laws of nature, then the needs of the tzadik win out. The gemara says R’ Chanina ben Dosa did not need oil for his lamp because, “He who said oil should burn can also say vinegar can burn”. Similarly, when R’ Chanina was unaffected by a mortal snakebite because sin kills, not snakebites – do not try this at home, as it only works if you are living on a level like that of R’ Chanina and see all of reality as just ratzon Hashem. R’ Pinchas ben Yair could split a river just like kerias yam suf because a physical river’s normal flow must defer to the tzadik’s mission to do Hashem's bidding. (For more on this theme, see the piece entitled Split the Difference in the KallahMagazine divrei torah archives here). When presented with the challenge of people crying for water, Moshe and Ahron had a tremendous opportunity to teach this lesson to Bnei Yisrael. They could have simply squeezed water from a rock like you or I squeeze an orange because nature obeys the desire of a tzadik. Yet, instead of doing so, Moshe and Ahron retreated to Ohel Moed and waited for Hashem’s response. “Lo he’emantem bi l’hakdisheini” – the failure to instill the belief in the power of the tzadik was a failure of emunah, and that is the reason for the severe punishment meted out.
So where did I get this idea from? Noam Elimelech? Radomsker? Some other chassidishe sefer? Guess again! It's in Sefer haIkkarim 4:22 – take a look!

Davening for a specific goal vs. davening stam (P' Chukas)

Parshas Chukat contains the short episode describing the attack by Amalek on Bnei Yisrael. The Amaleikim disguised themselves as a Canaani tribe by speaking in the Canaani language, hoping to cause Bnei Yisrael to pray to be saved from the wrong attacker (interesting parenthetical point: you see that even Amalek accepted the notion that through prayer Bnei Yisrael would win, otherwise the whole rouse is meaningless). Bnei Yisrael were not completely thrown off - Amalek changed their speech but not their mode of dress, so Bnei Yisrael suspected that Canaani speaking people may not be who they appear to be. Instead of davening to be spared from a specific attacker, be it Canaani or Amaleiki, Bnei Yisrael davened stam (Rashi 21:1) and their prayers were answered.
Had Bnei Yisrael davened to be saved from Canaanim instead of Amaleikim, the implication is that their prayers would not have been efficacious. Wouldn’t Hashem “realize” that their desire is to be saved no matter who the attacker is and respond to that plea even if the specifics are off? Apparently not! The gemara (Bava Metziya 106) reflects this notion l’halacha. If one rents a field in New Orleans in exchange for paying the owner a certain number of bushels (chakirus), and agrees to plant wheat, if the entire city is flooded one is exempt fulfilling the terms of the rental agreement. However, if one plants barley instead of wheat, even if the entire city floods one is still liable for payment to the owner. Why is the renter liable just because he switched the terms of the agreement and planted barley - no matter what he/she planted, the crop would have been destroyed with the rest of the city?! The gemara explains that the owner has a right to say that he was davening specifically for wheat fields, and had the renter planted wheat instead of barley perhaps Hashem would have accepted his tefillah and spared the crop so he could collect the bushels owed. Tosfos (d”h nisa) writes that this halacha only applies if the owner specified the type of crop to be planted. However, if the owner said plant what you like and I will take a percentage, then we do not assume that his general tefillah for hatzlacha will be answered and his crops spared.
The mitzvos each are a precise formula and do not tolerate deviation. No one would say that if you have the right intention when you bake a cake, even if you put in the wrong ingredients and bake it at the wrong temperature, the finished product should come out OK. Our episode underscores the point that the words themselves are at least as crucial as the accompanying intentions.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

sticks and stones vs. the words of Bilam

Why does Hashem interfere with Bilam’s attempt to curse on Klal Yisrael when every six year old child knows “sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never harm us”?! We find this question posed in slightly different words : ) by many meforshim, but I think the question is more revealing about the mindset of the questioner than of the meaning of the text. Who says indeed that words cannot harm us? Taken at face value, many episodes in Torah would seem to suggest that words themselves have some almost magical power to influence reality. Two episodes which clearly point in this direction are Rivka’s concern lest Yitzchak bless the wrong son and the command to Moshe to draw water from a rock via speech. Yet, once we accept such a premise, other episodes fall into line as well – Moshe is told specifically to speak to Pharaoh and demand Bnei Yisrael’s freedom, implying that the words themselves contain the power to release the shackles; the “redeemer” is identified by his words, “pakod pakadti”; the act of creation occurs through Hashem’s words; the words/blessing of the travelers seems to effect Sarah’s ability to conceive; the concern with the blessing of Ya’akov and Moshe at the close of the Torah; the punishment of the spies for speaking ill of Eretz Yisrael, the significance of names (words) as determining character (e.g. the explanation of the spies names as corresponding with their evil intentions) etc. (I am sure there are many others I have not listed here, and I am sure there will be some quibbling with some of my examples, but I think it suffices to establish a pattern). In each of these cases you can “explain” what is going on by resorting to psychology, symbolism, and other such devices, but the need to resort to such explanations stems purely from the imposition of a rationalist framework that tells us words have no inherent power rather than from the text itself. In other words (no pun intended), in a more general sense, pshat works on two levels: at one level it addresses the internal consistency and meaning of the text - one cannot read the pasuk of ‘v’ruach Elokim m’rachefes al pnei hamayim’ without wondering how this fits with text's own statement that water was created on a later day; on another level, pshat tries to justify the text relative to some outside criteria – the Ramban’s insertion of the Greek concept of hiyulei into Braishis is not motivated by a difficulty in understanding the pasuk so much as by a difficulty in justifying the Torah’s account of creation with the Greek concept of an all encompassing “first substance”. (I think modern lit crit theory would object to the wall I just built, but I’ll leave that to my wife to comment on). Questions of the second variety inevitably assume that the world of Tanach shares the same meta-framework (be it scientific, theological, moral, or rational) as the questioner, which can be a precarious foundation to build an intellectual sandcastle upon.

Monday, July 03, 2006

one of Sarah Schenirer's favorite seforim

My wife reminded me over Shabbos of an interesting tidbit in the bio of Sarah Schenirer (I can't recall the title - I think it is Carry Me in Your Heart) by one of her students. If the bio is accurate, one of her favorite seforim was the Radomsker's Tiferes Shlomo, which I have been quoting on the parsha as of late. The bio (IIRC) does not say if this is simply a result of her Polish upbringing, or if there was something particular to the Radomsker's thought that made it appealing. My suspicion is that the former is true, but if anyone knows more, please comment away. My wife has always been intrigued by Sarah Schenirer - we know very little of her personal life, her husband, etc., outside her role as creator of Bais Ya'akov - it seems like there is a deliberate attempt to omit these details and focus only on her achievements, which only arouses curiosity as to the full story.

kli rishon which is no longer hot

A brief word on yerushalmi, as I have not touched on it for a long time. It's just too hard to do more than girsa at this point, but this caught my eye as a fascinating machlokes (for those following the daf, I think I am slightly ahead, so this will be more relevant next week). Bishul in a kli rishon is kovea for ma’aser, meaning once food is cooked, one can no longer eat even achilas ara’ye, snacking, without first being mafrish ma’aser. The gemara (Ma’asros 1:4 or daf 6a) tries to define what a kli rishon vs. kli sheni is in this context: R’ Yosi bar Bun says the distinction is whether ‘yad sholetes bo’ or not; R’ Yona says both kli rishon and kli sheni are ‘ ain yad sholetes bo’, but the chachamim made a harchakah to call the kli cooked in a kli rishon. The Magen Avraham (318:28) learns that the term ‘yad sholetes bo’ means the same as the phrase ‘yad soledes bo’ we are used to from the Bavli. Based on this, he reads R’ Yona as a chumrah - even if a kli rishon is not yad soledes bo, meaning it is cool to the touch, the chachamim made a gezeirah to still treat it as if it was mevasheil (MG”A quotes Maharashal who limits the rule to kli rishon al haeish). The GR”A disagrees. ‘Yad sholetes bo’, says the GR”A, means exactly the opposite of ‘yad soledes bo’ – it means the kli is cool enough so that it may be touched with the bare hand. R’ Yona is saying that both a kli rishon and a kli sheni are too hot to be touched ('ain yad sholetes bo'), but only in the case of a kli rishon did the chachamim make a harchakah to treat it as bishul. If a kli rishon has cooled off, then according to GR”A it is no longer mevasheil. The entire machlokes l'halacha revolves around the simple point of understanding the Yerushalmi's language - is 'sholetes' a corruption of the term 'soledes' found in the Bavli, or it means just what it says!