Thursday, April 29, 2010

causing a chalos kinyan on Shabbos

The Yerushalmi (Dmai 7:4, 32a in Vilna ed) has a machlokes Amoraim whether a person can seperate terumos and ma'asros on erev Shabbos on the condition that the hafrasha will be chal only on Shabbos. The conclusion of the Yerushalmi is that it would be permitted.

R' Akiva Eiger discusses in the tshuvos (159) whether a person can make a kinyan on erev Shabbos which will be chal on Shabbos. The Terumas haDeshen writes that pidyon haben is not done on Shabbos because even if the money were given to the kohen before Shabbos on condition that the pidyon be chal on Shabbos, the bracha on pidyon could not be recited. The implication of the Th"D is that if not for the bracha, the pidyon could be chal on Shabbos. This issue is also relevant when erev Pesach falls out on Shabbos --can a mechiras chameitz be done before Shabbos which will be chal on Shabbos? Contemporary poskim raise the same issue regarding internet sales and transactions which are chal on Shabbos without the seller taking any action.

Sounds to me like the question raised by RAK"E is exactly the same issue being debated in the Yerushalmi -- does the gezeirah prohibit the act in question or even the chalos.

haircuts this Friday

The Rama (493:2) writes that when Lag baOmer falls on Sunday, like it does this year, haircuts and shaves may be taken even on Friday l’kavod Shabbos. What is debatable is whether the same logic holds true for those who observe aveilus of sefirah until Rosh Chodesh Sivan or until shloshes y’mei hagbalah and those days fall on/begin on Sunday. The Pri Megadim holds that the same heter for haircuts/shaves on Friday applies in these cases as well; both R’ Moshe and R’ Elyashiv disagree. R’ Moshe explained that the logic of the Rama is not based on kavod Shabbos in isolation, but rather is baed on kavod Shabbos when placed in context and in contrast with Lag baOmer. It would be halachically unseemly to allow haircuts on Sunday, Lag baOmer, a minor festival, but insist on maintaining an unkempt appearance on Shabbos, which has a far superior level of kedusha. The same logic does not hold true at the end of sefirah. The haircut taken after Rosh Chodesh or the days of hagbalah is not due to those days being celebrated as festivals and standing in contrast to Shabbos, but rather the heter for a haircut is due simply to aveilus having ended (see Shu”T Rivevos Ephraim 6:259). Similarly, where a shloshim period ends on Sunday, there is no heter for a shave or haircut on the preceding Friday.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

more on "Maimonides, Spinoza and Us"

Further observations on Rabbi Angel’s book:

There is no guarantee that the modern reader will be satisfied with the balance between faith and rationalism that the Rambam arrived at. Allowing that the “human mind must be given freedom to find its own way” (p. 4), there seems no way for Rabbi Angel to ensure or demand commitment to any dogma without being guilty of the same authoritarian tactics he condemns. Indeed, perhaps for this very reason Rabbi Angel is clearly not comfortable with the whole notion of cardinal principles of faith, echoing Prof. Menachem Kellner’s observation that the idea of dogma creates “serious problems regarding who is and who is not a true believer… Believers could separate themselves from non-believers, and even pursue heretics, with some degree of self-righteousness.” (p. 50) Yet, the Rambam himself was an authoritarian to some degree, having set out 13 inviolable ikkarim. What is one to do when ikkarim and reason collide?

The solution for Rabbi Angel is to blur the line between faith and apostasy, between what halacha demands and what is merely suggested but not required, and thereby create room for reason to extend its reach. To that end Rabbi Angel calls upon textual interpretation that I have no doubt would be met with incredulity had they been voiced by his opponents. For example, although the Rambam very clearly states that the entire Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai, Rabbi Angel gives credence to Dr. Marc Shapiro’s view that the Rambam said this because “it was necessary for the masses to affirm what, in reality, was not true.” (p. 44) This is like saying that the Declaration of Independence’s emphasis on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was just a means to get people to buy into the revolution but has no real bearing on our national identity. Once words no longer are taken to mean what they say, there are no limits to what one may claim -- perhaps the Rambam was a secret anti-rationalist kabbalist and meant his entire corpus as a smoke screen for the misguided masses?

Rabbi Angel similarly takes issue with the Chazon Ish’s “maximalist” view that all the details of the Talmud were revealed at Sinai and tries again to muddle the waters so as to minimize the demands of dogma. One of his proofs comes from the story (Menachos 29) of Moshe Rabeinu hearing a lecture of Rabbi Akiva and not understanding its logic – surely if Moshe knew the law he would not have been baffled! Yet this "proof" can be answered quite simply by distinguishing between form and content; Moshe Rabeinu may have known the conclusions (content) of Talmudic law but not the process by which those laws were derived by later generations (form). It was the methodology of Rabbi Akiva that baffled Moshe Rabeinu. Th question raised by Rabbi Angel is coincidentally asked by the Ohr haChaim in Parshas Tazri'a (VaYikra 13:37), which we recently read. The question caught my eye at the time, and when I posed the problem at my Shabbos table, it took less than two minutes for someone to intuit the entirely reasonable answer. Surely dismissing the view of one of the leading Rabbinic minds of the past generation (which is rooted in the views of Rishonim and earlier Achronim) warrants better proof than a question so easily resolvable!

Rabbi Angel does not limit himself to the realm of philosophy, but applies his same approach to halacha. An example: the Rambam’s codifies the halacha prohibiting women from studying Talmud, which sits at odds with our modern notion of equality. Rabbi Angels explains, “The Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership has essentially set aside Rambam’s statements on women and education, placing them into the category of outdated “advice” rather than accepting them as authoritative halakhic rulings.” (p. 172) Since there is no footnote, I have no clue who tese "rabbinic leaders" are; I am not aware that Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, Rav M. Willig, Rav Hershel Shachter, for example, would agree with this statement. I don't understand how it differs from the attemtps of Conservative or Reform “rabbis” who also relegate traditional laws to the category of mere “advice” that can be dispensed with at will.

Unlike Rav Soloveitchik, who advocated building a philosophy on the foundations of halakha (e.g. see Halakhic Mind, section 4), Rabbi Angel seemingly advocates molding halakha to meet secular philosophical, social, and ethical standards. Thus he frowns on the fact that “the prohibition against hearing a woman’s singing voice has been applied to synagogues and to Shabbat tables” (p. 170) but does not see fit to offer any explanation of how and why these domains should be excluded from from the issur of kol isha. It is reason, not halakhic analysis, that dictates what the proper conclusion is; the technical details of law can somehow be massaged into place after the fact, or perhaps the entire law can again be relegated to the bin of “advice” no longer needed. Rabbi Angel thus never faces the challenge of surrendering his reason to the higher dictates of halakhic authority, as halakhic conclusions can simply be adjusted and made to fit the desired reasoanble outcome. If one subscribes to the view, which Rabbi Angel himself espouses, that Torah has an eternal message, shouldn't it be halakha that molds our social and ethical sensibilities rather than the other way around?

Even in analyzing basic practices (and his chapter on conversion is worthy of discussion in its own right, but not for now), Rabbi Angel insists on foisting on halakha a very narrow interpretation that meets his agenda but which may not be true to the sources. For example, he dispenses entirely with the notion of ruah ra’ah as a reason for netilas yadayim, for what reasonable person believes in “supernatural evil spirits that cling to our hands when we sleep?” (p. 103) True, the Rambam does not give this reason for the law, but are we to simply overlook the vast body of literature of Rishonim, Achronim, and poskim who do treat this reason seriously? Are we to overlook or write off all that appears to be irrational and mystical in Jewish law? To do so is to strip halacha of views and practices that have centuries of precedent on their side. The very fact that page after page of the Shulchan Aruch gives weight to that which we cannot easily explain rationally suggests in fact that tradition has not accepted Rabbi Angel's approach as decisive.

This criticism cuts to the very heart of the weakness in Rabbi Angel’s argument. While the historical influence of rationalism certainly makes for interesting study, the approach of the Rambam is but one among many, and has waned in influence over time. It is not ignorance, obscurantism, authoritarianism, or fanaticism that leads so many down a different path than Rabbi Angel. It is a healthy respect for the wider array of tradition that our halakha and hashkafa embraces.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

the limits of Rambam's rationalism

I dug into the copy of Maimondides, Spinoza, and Us – Toward and Intellectually Vibrant Judaism by Rabbi Marc Angel, PhD that I picked up from the library on my train ride today. The good: if you know nothing about the Rambam or Spinoza, this may not be a bad place to start. The bad: Rabbi Angel’s polemical attacks against those whom he takes issue with. It starts from the preface, where Rabbi Angel refers to “thousands of people [who] suspend their reason in order to follow the dictates of their “rebbes” or halakhic authorities,” and it gets progressively worse. Perhaps Rabbi Angel expects his congregants to simply follow their own sense of reason rather than seek his halakic guidance, but after hearing him out I am less than convinced of the correctness of such an approach.

The book's title is a misnomer for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it is less about Maimonides than a screed aimed at those who take issue with Rabbi Angel’s point of view. He describes his opponents as fundamentalists, obscurantists, authoritarian, and superstitious, while seldom offering quotes or examples that would support such claims. On the other hand, as I will explain next post, he lets pass without comment the most strained readings so long as they can be used in support of his own position. Not only is criticism aimed at those who clearly identify with the right-wing, but even the OU is chastised (p. 109) for the their setting up a service whereby people could request that Torah scholars recite psalms for them and insert a kvitel in the kosel on their behalf. Rabbi Angel questions, “Doesn’t Judaism believe that G-d is always present and listening everywhere?” I wonder what purpose Rabbi Angel’s synagogue serves when G-d could just as easily be approached in a public park on in the confines of one’s den. Not only are modern thinkers and organizations the subject of Rabbi Angel's ire, but even the words of the Gaon of Vilna are described as “shocking examples of a defective, superstition worldview.” (p. 101)

There are a number of flaws with Rabbi Angel’s approach.

The first question that we need to address is whether a philosophy of Judaism can be constructed based purely on rational metaphysics. To Rabbi Angel’s credit, he repeatedly concedes that the answer is a resounding No. For example, in describing how one gets from the philosophical G-d of first cause to the personal G-d of Judaism, Rabbi Angel explains that the “Rambam required us to make a ‘leap of faith.’” (p. 27) He further elaborates, “Although Rambam was a rationalistic philosopher, he understood that not all truth was attainable through the efforts of human reason.” (p. 31) Rabbi Angel coins the term “meta-reason” to describe these areas where we must fall back on sources other than our intellect. We know these areas of “meta-reason” to be true, “…because we have an authoritative tradition of revelation and because we personally experience it to be true.” (p. 34) Even with respect to proof of G-d’s existence, Rabbi Angel shies away from philosophical proofs and writes that, “We don’t need to prove G-d’s existence; we feel His presence and we know He is there.” (p. 37) On the role of tradition, Rabbi Angel notes that Rambam’s “…willingness to rely on faith in the biblical and rabbinic tradition need not be seen as a “compromise” with reason, but as an open-eyed admission of the limits of reason.” (p. 65)

Given this direction, one is left wondering why Rabbi Angel is so harshly dismissive of those with whom he disagrees. The Hareidi world does not reject the use of reason in toto, but instead simply takes a stronger position on its limits. Would Rabbi Angel describe the Vilna Gaon’s Judaism as lacking in “intellectual vibrancy,” the term he seems to reserve only for his own brand of Rambam-inspired rationalism? That such a description strikes us as absurd demonstrates the falsity of attempting to equate rejection of the Rambam with irrational extremism. Once one accepts that we are not dealing with a question of either/or, but rather of finding a proper balance between reason and "meta-reason", labeling those who take a different view than one's own as "fundamentalists" seems itself to be a critique grounded in personal opinion rather than intellectual substance.

The main thesis of the book is that Rambam's rationalism was tempered by tradition and therefore falls short of Spinoza's more extreme formulation. One cannot help but sense that his own thesis undercuts Rabbi Angel's own claims of following in the Rambam's footsteps. Might not his right wing opponents claim that it is they, in keeping to this spirit of moderation against the forces of pure reason, who are in fact the true heirs to the Rambam's legacy?

Rabbi Angel himself notes that “Rambam’s attempt to harmonize the Torah’s teaching with Aristotelian philosophy rings false – and unnecessary – to modern readers… We may be more skeptical about what is a ‘rationally proven truth’; various philosophical and scientific ‘truths’ of one generation have later been shown to be flawed and incorrect by subsequent generations.” (p. 50) One could not ask for a better explanation for the hesitancy to reinterpret Torah simply to fit what passes for intellectual fancy.

The elephant in the room that escapes notice entirely is the question of why Rabbi Angel is so enamored of the Rambam to the exclusion of so many other important views of Rishonim and Achronim. If the barometer of truth is not pure philosophy but rather, “authoritative tradition… and because we personally experience it to be true,” to quote Rabbi Angel himself, are not the views of the Gaon, the Ramban, the Ba’al Shem, or any others which have found a place in tradition and inspire far more significant numbers of Jews than the Guide equally important and meaningful?

Monday, April 26, 2010

ahavas yisrael - klal gadol batorah

Once upon a time I asked (here) what troubled Rashi about the text that motivated him to explain the pasuk "V'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha" as being a "klal gadol baTorah", a great principle. I saw that R' Shteinman asks the same question in his Ayelet haShachar, but offers no answer.

Putting aside Rashi, the more basic question that begs asking is what Rabbi Akiva's point is. Hopefully we pay attention to the little details of halacha as well as the big principles, so what is gained by describing the mitzvah as a "klal gadol baTorah"? We've touched on this one as well (here). Chassidus (e.g. see Ch 32 of Tanya) connects the mitzvah of loving one's fellow Jew with the mitzvah of loving G-d -- where is G-d found in the world if not in the heart and soul of one's Jewish brother? We know that every Jewish soul has its roots in a letter of the Torah. Loving one's fellow Jew is thus not merely a matter of civility, but is a "klal...baTorah", a means of expressing one's connection and love for G-d and Torah as well.

Rav Shternbruch offers another answer that I thought was very powerful. There is a tendency to separate the mitzvah of ahavas yisrael from other religious obligations. This bifurcation leads to two errors. Firstly, there are those who think being a good Jew entails no more than being a good person-- it's all about tikun olam, being a nice person, etc. You can enjoy your tarfus so long as you lead a socially redeeming life. Rabbi Akiva taught that "V'ahavta l'rei'acha" has meaning only if it is a klal gadol baTorah, if it exists in the context of a commitment to other Torah obligations.

Secondly, and this is the flipside of Rav Shternbruch's point, it unfortunately doesn't take too much searching to find stories of those who think of themselves as bnei Torah who put on a poor demonstration of ahavas yisrael (and kav v'chomer non-Jews). Just as one cannot accept civility or ethics as stand-alone values divorced from other Torah precepts, one cannot be a medakdek in mitzvos without a committment to being medakdek in ahavas yisrael. Civility is not merely about social norma, but is a klal gadol baTorah, an integral component of one's religious persona.

Friday, April 23, 2010

R' Shimon Shkop on Kedoshim Te'hiyu

Rashi defines kedusha as separation from arayot, thus connecting the opening of parshas Kedoshim with the close of Acharei Mos. Ramban disagrees and takes a broader view of kedusha, defining it as avoiding luxury and indulgence in favor of the pursuit of spirituality.

The Midrash asks a difficult to understand question on this command “kedoshim tehiyu”: “yachol kamoni?” – is one obligated to be holy as much as G-d is holy? The Midrash answers that indeed, that is impossible, but we must be holy as much as people can be. How are we to make sense of this hava amina either according to Rashi or the Ramban? What does separation for arayot, or separation from indulgence, have to do with G-d?

R’ Shimon Shkop in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher (text in Hebrew and in translation by R’ Micha Berger here) uses this Midrash as a basis to propose a different definition of kedusha. In a word, R’ Shimon equates kedusha with selflessness. Just as G-d acts as creator not for his own ends, but simply for the sake of the world, so too, we must dedicate ourselves to acting for the sake of others rather than our own needs.

But why then is mankind endowed with such strong feelings of self-love and ego? Rotzeh adam b’kav she’lo yoseir m’tisha kabin shel chaveiro! R’ Shimon answers that this trait of self love is also a necessary ingredient for achieving kedusha. A small person’s self-love will focus only on his/her selfish needs. However, a great person identifies with the community and the world. He/She attains self-fulfillment through the betterment of society as a whole. Society’s needs become their personal needs and agenda, motivating them to do great deeds on behalf of others.

It is this idea of kedusha as selflessness which the Midrash is addressing. As much as one strives for this G-dlike level of kedusha in selflessly serving the needs of others, by virtue of one’s humanity there will always still remain a tinge of selfishness, a lo lishma that is unavoidable.

Kedusha in R' Shimons' lexicon is not a synonym for withdrawal from the world. Quite the contrary. Kedusha demands that we engage in perfecting the world, and in doing so we achieve self-perfection as well.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

rechilus vs. lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa: protecting others from harm or protecting the accused

The Netziv has an insightful comment on the juxtaposition of the prohibition of rechilus with the command not to stand by idly and watch another's blood get spilled (19:16). On the one hand, we are commanded to respect confidentiality, privacy, and not speak evil about others. On the other hand, at times a failure to speak out can lead to great harm, to blood being spilled or other heinous crimes being committed and perpetuated. The laws of lashon hara are not meant to enforce a passive silence in the face of evil.

The Netziv captures in these few lines the tension between competing values that I don't think we as a community have fully figured out a way to resolve. Unfortunately the topic is far too often relevant to current events. A newspaper story or blog post appears about some person, often an individual of note, who is accused of crime: How do we ensure that the accused is not unjustly slandered and made the victim of baseless rumor while at the same time avoiding silence in the face of potential criminal action? How do we balance our obligation to respect the rights of the not-yet-proven-guilty with our obligation to protect the innocent from harm? When details of the sordid details are published, do we close our eyes and ears under the guise of avoiding rechilus, or do we spread the word based on lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I now know what a mumar l'hach'is is

A restaurant named Traif in Williamsburg, Brooklyn? Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. The Atlantic has a whole writeup about this place and its Jewish owner and his non-Jewish girlfriend. The owner writes on his blog, "I am Jewish, although obviously not great at it." An understatement if there ever was one. The last line of this paragraph takes the cake:

"If this was 10 years ago, there's no way his windows would not be broken," said Joshie, who felt the need to support Traif in its opening week when he read negative comments on Traif's blog that he viewed as "thinly veiled" threats from the nearby Orthodox community. Joshie's two friends—one of whom is the son of a prominent rabbi and who ate non-kosher for the first time nearly a year ago in Las Vegas with Penn & Teller—said the food was truly special, far beyond their expectations. Joshie himself said he owes the owners for a touching evening, which he described as "getting off on a psychological level," and he added that he is interested in talking with the owners about hosting a meet-up of similarly disoriented former Orthodox Jews at the restaurant once a week.

Maybe that can cater going-off-the-derech parties or something. I read the blog but am missing the "thinly veiled threats" that Joshie sees; my guess is that they are a product of an attention-starved imagination looking to create a certain rebellious image. I imagine that Joshie and others stuffing their faces with bacon represents a lashing out at religion, particularly if done within view of Hassidic Jews who represent the antithesis of their supposed freedom from the shackles of superstition. Pity is really a more appropriate response than threats. The owner's mother, who tries to keep kosher at home but lets the rules slide when outside according to the article, asked her son whether he really had to name the place Traif. He responded that he did because, "It represents who I am [and] I'm proud of who I am."

I now understand better the gemara's distinction between types of mumrim: to enjoy the bacon is a mumar l'teyavon; to name the restaurant Traif is a mumar l'hach'is.

yishuv ha'aretz: chovas ha'gavra or mitzvah in the cheftza of the land?

Yesterday I slightly misquoted the Chasam Sofer (Sukkah 36a - link to the source so you can see it for yourself). He writes that when Rabbi Yishmael opined (see Brachos 35) that Torah study may be interrupted to plant and harvest, he was speaking only of Eretz Yisrael, where the cultivation of the land is itself a mitzvah. Just as one must make time to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin even at the expense of Torah study, so too, one must make time to fulfill the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz by cultivating and building the land even at the expense of Torah study. And, adds the C.S., we should not be literalists and think that planting and harvesting alone are permitted, but all activities which contribute to the development of the land are included. However, outside of Eretz Yisrael, where there is no mitzvah to contribute to the development of the world, no mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz, Torah study takes primacy over all other activities.

My wife raised a good question regarding this chiddush and the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. Assuming one is already living in Eretz Yisrael, is there a chovas hagavra to personally undertake activities for the sake of yishuv ha'aretz, or does yishuv ha'aretz simply mean that the cheftza of the land must be developed? For example, let's say a person living in Eretz Yisrael wants a new home -- does yishuv ha'aretz mean the individual is personally obligated to build that house (assuming he knows how), or does yishuv ha'aretz simply mean that there is a mitzvah for the home to get built, irrespective of who does it (Arab labor?) or how it gets done?

The chiddush of the Chasam Sofer hangs in the balance. If yishuv ha'aretz is just a chiyuv in the cheftza of the land to be developed, but there is no personal obligation to actually do the building, it cannot be compared to the mitzvah of tefillin. One cannot hire someone else or even appoint a shliach to don tefillin on one's behalf; it is the act of donning the tefillin on one's own body which the Torah demands. Is it similarly the act of building or farming which constitutes yishuv ha'aretz, or is it simply accomplishing the end result of having the land developed? If all that matters is the end result, it is hard to see why Rabbi Yishmael would allow for an interruption from Torah study when one can hire workers or accomplish that same result in some other way.

What makes this a tricky question is that yishuv ha'aretz is a multi-layered mitzvah. When we speak of yishuv ha'aretz in the sense of moving to Eretz Yisrael, the mitzvah obviously entails a chovas hagavra. You can't appoint a shliach to move to Eretz Yisrael and fulfill yishuv ha'aretz on your behalf. Yet, when we speak of yishuv ha'aretz in the sense of building and developing the land, it seems that the focus is on the end result, not the personal participation.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

the mitzvah of orlah: talmud Torah and yishuv ha'Aretz

The Midrash uses the mitzvah of orlah as an opportunity to offer a paean not just to those who study Torah, but also to machzikei torah, supporters of Torah study:

וכי תבואו אל הארץ ונטעתם כל עץ מאכל הדא הוא דכתיב: (משלי ג)עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה. אמר רב הונא בשם ר' אחא: שלא יהיו דברי תורה בעיניך, כאדם שיש לו בת בוגרת והוא רוצה להשיאה לאחד, אלא (שם ב)בני אם תקח אמרי ומצותי תצפון
אתך, אם יש לך זכות קח אמרי

אילו נאמר עץ חיים היא לעמלים בה לא היתה תקומה לשונאי ישראל, אלא למחזיקים. אילו נאמר אשר לא ילמד לא היתה תקומה לשונאי ישראל, אלא (דברים כז)אשר לא יקים את כל דברי התורה הזאת, לכך נאמר: עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה

What does the planting of fruit trees have to do with Torah study? One can take a mystical approach and read the Midrash as associating the idea of planting trees with the idea of the eitz hachaim and eitz hada'as. Torah study, the eitz hachaim, is the means of redeeming the world from the original sin caused by Adam first partaking of the eitz hada'as. The Midrash's meaning is entirely symbolic -- our task is to replant the eitz chaim, to return it to primacy.

However, the Midrash can also be understood in a way that does not rob planting of its concrete meaning (see Shem m'Shmuel). The lesson is that entering the land, planting trees and developing Eretz Yisrael, is an inseparable mission from that of learning and supporting Torah. A Torah based society can only be achieved in the physical boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael can only successfully be built with spiritual goals in mind.

The Chasam Sofer famously comments that the dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and R' Shimon bar Yochi (Brachos 35) over how to balance the obligation of Torah study with the need to plant and tend the field (i.e. to make a living) applies only in chutz la'aretz. In Eretz Yisrael, all would agree that one may and must tend to the fields as this is the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. In light of our Midrash I would not take the Chasam Sofer's conclusion to mean that Eretz Yisrael demands an unavoidable concession to bitul Torah, but rather quite the reverse -- in Eretz Yisrael alone those occupations which would otherwise be considered bitul Torah take on the positive value of being the means of being machzik Torah.

Last night I went to learn for a bit and daven ma'ariv at a local Beis Medrash which treats yesterday and today as any other day, as is the common practice in most yeshivos. A local synagogue had a celebration marking Yom ha'Atzmaut, but that local synagogue does not have a thriving beis medrash where people learn every night. There are gardeners tending to the planting of trees and celebrating their growth, and there are those who are sitting and being machzik Torah and learning Torah, but sadly, these worlds rarely intersect. Our Midrash sees them as ideally going hand in hand.

The fruit of a tree may not be eaten for three years until the tree develops and grows. The fruits of the spiritual and physical rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael are still immature, but it's never to early to express our hakaras hatov for their renewel and to remind ourselves of the ideals that motivate our efforts.

Friday, April 16, 2010

the peddler and Rav Yanai

The Midrash tells of a rochel, a peddler, who wandered the streets and neighborhoods in Tzipori calling out, "Who wants life?" R' Yanai followed to observe what this unusual hawker was selling. When a crowd gathered, the peddler revealed his secret. He pulled out a sefer Tehillim and read, "Mi ha'ish he'chafeitz chaim -- Netzor leshoncha me'ra..." If you want life, guard your tongue from evil speech. Rav Yanai declared that although he read the pasuk many times, he never realized its import until this peddler taught it.

We’ve discussed this Midrash before, but I want to add a little point (a little break from the heavy topic of miktzas ha'yom k'kulo). Everyone asks what impressed Rav Yanai so much -- all the peddler did was read a pasuk -- but I want to start with a simpler question before getting to that concluding line. You would think that in wandering from town to town and delivering this shpiel this peddler would have memorized his lines and have his act down cold. Why then does the Midrash specifically mention that the peddler, "hotzi sefer Tehillim...," he took out his Tehillim to read the pasuk? Even if you don't know the song, surely this one pasuk is not too much to remember by heart when you repeat it so many times?

But that gufa I think is the point. Even though this peddler went from town to town doing the same shtick over and over, even though he probably knew that pasuk backwards as well as forwards, every time he gave his performance he pulled out that sefer Tehillim and he read the pasuk again as if it was the very first time he was seeing it.

This explains Rav Yanai's astonishment as well. Rav Yanai of course knew the pasuk before the peddler taught it, but it was precisely because he knew it so well that he had the most to learn from the peddler. Who gives a second though to what they know cold? Who sees the words of Hodu, of Ashrei, of Shmoneh Esrei as fresh, as inspiring, as meaningful, when we see these same words every day, multiple times a day, and know them backwards and forwards? You want to see davening? Walk into a first grade classroom and watch the kids slowly read pesukim that we could recite in our sleep. Rav Yanai saw "hotzi sefer Tehillim" to read a simple pasuk and realized that even though he knows that pasuk cold, he can still read it with a sense of wonder and excitement as if he had never heard it before.

The lesson of the peddler is not just about how to read pesukim. As we know, the affliction of leprosy came as a punishment for slander, gossip, evil speech. Of course there is harm in speaking ill of a coworker, neighbor, friend, but even worse is speaking badly to a spouse, a child, someone one is close to. Often in these cases one does not even give the words a second thought; we take the attention and forbearance of those we are speaking to for granted. Hotzi sefer tehillim means not letting words go stale and unnoticed; it means greeting one's spouse on the 10,000th time walking through the front door with the same tone and expression that you used during sheva brachos week. This is a very high level to reach, one which I make no claims to being near to achieving myself. But at least this Shabbos we can pause a moment to think about the lesson of the peddler and Rav Yanai and try to point ourselves in the right direction.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

miktzas ha'yom k'kulo (II)

Let me start with the second point I raised yesterday: does miktzas hayom k’kulo mean that there is a requirement /chiyuv for a full day of observance that can be satisfied by doing only half a day, or does it mean that all that is required to begin with is observance of half a day? Two gemaras suggest two different answers:

1) The gemara (Nazir 5-6) has a debate between Rav Masna and Bar Pada whether stam nezirus is 29 or 30 days long, meaning whether the nazir would shave on day 30 or day 31. However, the gemara concludes that Rav Masna who holds stam nezirus is 30 days (= day 31 is haircut day) also holds that miktzas ha’yom k’kulo; therefore the nazir is yotzei (b’dieved) even if he shaved on day 30. If both opinions hold that a nazir is yotzei if he shaves on day 30, what then is the difference between them? The meforesh (pseudo-Rashi) writes that the difference is in a case where the nazir became tamei on the afternoon of day 30. According to Bar Pada, nezirus ends on day 29; whatever happens on day 30 after the nazir’s shave is irrelevant. According to Rav Masna, day 30 is still part of the cycle of nezirus; if the nazir became tamei that afternoon, even though he already had shaved, he must re-do his nezirus.

If miktzas ha’yom k’kulo means that there is a chiyuv for only part of the day, then why do we care what happens in the afternoon after the nazir’s shave? However, if miktzas hayom k’kulo means that the chiyuv of nezirus encompasses the entire day, just we count observance of part of the day as a kiyum for the entire day, then I think we understand very clearly why becoming tamei in the afternoon undoes that chiyuv and forfeits the nezirus.

2) A woman becomes a zavah obligated to bring korbanos if she sees dam for three straight days. If she sees dam for one day, she must watch herself for one day b’taharah, as a shomeres yom. If she sees dam again on the second day, she is a zavah, but is not yet obligated to bring korbanos; she must watch on the third day, again shomeres yom k’neged yom again. If on the third day she again sees dam, she is a zavah who must bring korbanos. The gemara (Nazir 16a) asks how there could ever be a case of a zavah obligated to bring korbanos according to Rabbi Yosi, who holds of the principle of miktzas hayom k’kulo. Once the second day starts and the woman has not seen dam, miktzas hayom k’kulo – her count of a second day is complete. If she sees dam again, that is a new re’iya and has nothing to do with the past. The gemara answers that the din of zavah according to Rabbi Yosi would occur if she sees dam continuously for three straight days (see the gemara for a second answer as well).

If there is a chiyuv of shemira from dam for the entire day, just we count a shmira of miktzas hayom as sufficient, then I don't understand the conclusion. Just like if a nazir becomes tamei in the afternoon it forfeits the day despite miktzas hayom k'kulo, so too, the shomeres yom should forfeit her shmira of part of the day if the afternoon proves that the day is one of re'iyas dam. It seems from here that miktzas hayom means that all that is required is a shmira of part of the day.

Perhaps I should not expect consistancy. Even though it's the same words "miktzas ha'yom k'kulo", who says that the principle works the same way with respect to nezirus, shomeres yom, and I haven't even thrown in the machlokes Aba Shaul and Chachamim with respect to aveilus? The very fact that we have different Tanaim and Amoraim arguing in these different places about what seems to be the same principle may hint that we are in fact dealing with different animals.

I am not even convinced I have the lomdus here formulated correctly. I have been focussing on whether miktzas hayom means a chovas hagavra of some sort extends for only part of a day or whether the chiyuv extends for the entire day but is fulfilled with a kiyum on only part of the day. But why not look at time instead of the gavra? Perhaps miktzas hayom k'kulo means that we treat the day viz a viz the halacha in question as ending early. In other words, miktzas hayom k'kulo may mean that there is a chiyuv of aveilus (for example) for the entire seventh day of shiva, but the day ends at 9:00 in the morning instead of 7:30 at night.

Sad to disappoint, but I have not yet fully unravelled where we apply miktzas ha'yom. Maybe I can at least flesh out the question and problems next post, bl"n.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

miktzas ha'yom k'kulo (I)

The principle of miktzas hayom k’kulo means part of a day counts for an entire day; for example, an aveil can get up from shiva on the morning of the seventh day without having to complete the entire day. My son asked me when we invoke this principle, and to tell you the truth it's something that I have wondered about for some time and never took the pains to figure out.

I assumed what inspired his question is the soon to be holiday of Lag ba’Omer. The Rama (O.C. 493) writes that haircuts should be taken only once the day of Lag ba’Omer has started (i.e. in the morning) and not the night before. The GR”A explains that the mourning period of sefirah ends 15 days before Shavuos, which would be the 34th day of sefirah (which is when the Beis Yosef says mourning is suspended). However, since miktzas hayom k’kulo, once part of the 33rd day is observed in mourning, the aveilus of sefira is complete. (Miktzas hayom starts during the day, not from the night before based on the din of shomeres yom (Meg. 20) -- the gemara says "counting" means counting specifically days.) Others disagree. Aside from when you can take your haircut (most barbers are not open at night anyway), this issue has ramifications with respect to davening: if miktzas hayom is required, tachanun is recited at mincha the day before Lag ba’Omer; if the day is inherently one of simcha without miktzas hayom, tachanun is not be recited the day before at mincha (see Chok Ya’akov s.k. 6).

However, I guessed wrong. My son raised the question for a far less prosaic reason. We learn in Parshas Shmini that a kohen may not enter the mikdash with long hair like mourners were accustomed to have. The shiur of “long hair” is derived from the parsha of nezirus and is defined as going 30 days without a haircut. The Minchas Chinuch (mitzvah 149) raises the question of whether a kohein would be in violation only after going 30 full days without a haircut, meaning on day 31, or whether the kohein would be in violation on day 30, since miktzas hayom without a haircut k’kulo. If this halacha is exactly parallel to nezirus, then just as a nazir fulfills his neder of nezirus (b’di’eved) on day 30 because miktzas ha’yom k’kulo, perhaps here too the kohein is considered too long haired once day 30 has even partially passed. On the other hand, one might argue that nezirus is just a paradigm for what constitutes excessive hair growth, but the details of hilchos nezirus like miktzas hayom k’kulo do not transfer to the parsha that applies to the kohein.

Parenthetically, usually miktzas hayom k'kulo results in a leniency, e.g. ending shiva in the morning, stopping sefira mouring midway though day 33 instead of waiting for day 34. Minchas Chinuch is a twist because he uses it l'chumra -- the kohein would be chayav for his unkempt appearance a half a day earlier. Maybe some of you beki'im can offer other examples like this (l'chumra), because I can't.

Getting back to the point: so where do we apply miktzas yom k’kulo? Just because you observe Shabbos for part of the day does not mean miktzas hayom k’kulo so you are free to go to the ballgame in the afternoon! Why then does it work for nazir, for aveilus?

Second question (which may be easier to answer than the first) is yesh lachkor whether miktzas hayom k’kulo means that the halacha requires observing/counting only part of the day in question, or whether miktzas hayom k’kulo means that even though observing/counting all of the day is required, part of the day counts for the whole thing? More to come bl”n.

Friday, April 09, 2010

the economics of matzah and milu'im

In the Maharal-ian universe the number seven represents the recurring pattern of nature, epitomized by the seven days of the week, while the number eight is associated with the transcendent (think of bris milah, Chanukah). It is therefore ironic that after sitting secluded in the confines of Ohel Moed for seven days, “hevi’ani hamelech chadarav”, after offering for seven straight days korbanos shelamim which had the unique din of being categorized as kodshei kodashim and eaten only within the Ohel, on the exalted yom hashmini, the eighth day, which our parsha describes, this special milu’im state ends and the operation of the Mishkan begins its normal routine. Why is this eight different than all others?

The explanation is that immersion in intense and isolated holiness, such as which occurred during the days of milu’im, is not an end in itself, but is a means. Torah life is not meant to be lived cloistered in an Ohel. Intense spiritual growth in isolation is but a prelude and preparation for the even greater and more noble task of doing good in the regular, mundane world; engaging in the day to day without succumbing to spiritual lethargy and decay. It was that greater purpose which began on the eighth day.

Professor Steve Landsburg has an interesting blog post entitled, “The Tragedy of Chametz,” in which he comments about our giving up bread and the Xstian observance of Lent, “This always strikes me as mildly tragic. If you’re going to sacrifice your pleasures in order to feel virtuous, why not at least do it in a way that helps someone? Instead of giving up meat or leavened bread, donate a few hundred dollars to a worthy cause.” He compares these activities to a runner who pushes himself to run around a track: “You push yourself to do something hard, you feel good about it, and you leave the world pretty much the way you found it. What a shame that you didn’t push yourself to do something useful instead.”

Even if one accepts this sort of economic argument that measures “good” based on social utility alone (plenty of joggers run around a track for personal health and enjoyment; there need not be a social benefit for an activity to be positive), I think we can offer a reasonable response to Landsburg. The Zohar asks: if matzah is such a spiritual, elevating food, why do we not withdraw from chametz completely and eat it year round? The answer echoes the lesson of the days of milu’im: matzah is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The week of withdrawal from chametz is a week dedicated to building a different food-consciousness so that our eating year-round is done in a more spiritual, mindful manner. Having a different consciousness about food in turn can lead to a different consciousness about consumption in general.

It would be shortsighted to describe a week spent in job training or learning a new skill as a “tragic” waste of time even there is no immediate benefit (in fact, productivity may suffer during the training period). The net future gain accrued from having improved skills or knowledge more than compensates for the immediate loss (why else would companies offer paid training?). There may be no immediate gain from giving up chametz for a week, but without the spiritual “training” period of that week, the net gain of good works that result from having taken the time to work on developing a more moral and thoughtful personality would be impossible to attain.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

the paradigm for birchas kohanim in parshas shmini

When Aharon completed the avodah of the eighth day of the milu’im he blessed the nation. What this bracha consisted of is a matter of dispute. Rashi writes that the bracha consisted of birchas kohanim. Ramban disagrees, as the mitzvah and text of birchas kohanim appears only much later in parshas Naso. As we once discussed (see here, here, and here, Shiurim l'Zecher Aba Mari vol 2 p. 215, Shu"T Chasam Sofer O.C. 22), perhaps one can distinguish between the birchas kohanim of Parshas Naso, which is an independent mitzvah, and the birchas kohanim of our parsha, which appears in the context of the avodah and is part and parcel of the process of avodah. Correspondingly, birchas kohanim in our davening has a dual role as an independent mitzvah as well as an inherent part of tefilah itself.

There are a number of unique characteristics of the mitzvah of birchas kohanim. Even though most mitzvos are in force once a child reaches the age of gadlus, bar mitzvah, the Rishonim write that birchas kohanim is different and until nismalei zekano a kohein should not duchan by himself. Why should this mitzvah be different? The Shulchan Aruch further writes that an unmarried kohein should not duchan, ostensibly because a kohein must be in a state of simcha to duchan and one who is unmarried lacks complete simcha (parenthetical mussar haskel is obvious). The Magen Avraham asks: the only time we find a halachic requirement for a kohein to be married is the kohein gadol performing avodah on Yom Kippur; all other forms of avodah do not have such a requirement. Why should birchas kohanim be different? And why do we duchan only on Yom Tov, reserving the mitzvah only for this time of simcha?

The Aruch haShulchan O.C. 128:49 (link) finds an explanation of these anomalies in a halachic reading of a Zohar on our parsha. The Zohar explains that duchaning causes the Shechina to rest on the Jewish people, and cites the pesukim in our parsha, starting with “Dabeir el Aharon v’el banav…” The Aruch haShulchan suggests that the Zohar means that Aharon and his sons are the paradigm for kohanim who are obligated in the mitzvah of birchas kohanim. Just as Aharon and his sons were married (question that has me stumped: Nadav and Avihu?) when they performed birchas kohanim, and just as their performance of birchas kohanim was done at the height of simcha, during the inauguration of the Mishkan, so too must all future expressions of birchas kohanim be performed by married kohanim in a state of simcha.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

keriyas yam suf and tzadik yesod olam

The seventh day of Pesach, the anniversary of kriyas Yam Suf, always coincides with the sixth day of sefirah. The number six represents the midah of yesod, which was embodied by Yosef, the tzadik yesod olam. Not coincidentally, we find the parsha of Beshalach makes explicit mention of Moshe taking Yosef’s bones with him en route to Yam Suf, and we find in Midrash that “hayam ra’ah va’yanos,” the sea split in the merit of Yosef’s fleeing from the temptation of Eishes Potifar. The six days of creation are the foundation (yesod) upon which rests Shabbos; the six millennia of creation set the foundation for the seventh millennia of Mashiach ben David. Yosef haTzadik prepared the way for Ya’akov to come to Mitzrayim; Mashich ben Yosef will prepare the world at the close of our sixth millennium for the arrival of Mashich ben David.

The Mechilta teaches a mashal: The king sold the inner field of his lot. When the customer came to take possession of the land, he discovered a guard standing by the outer lot who refused to let him pass. The customer begged admittance, saying that he has permission from the king, but the guard would not budge. The customer showed the guard the king’s ring, but still the guard would not budge. Finally, the king himself came. The guard fled, and the customer was able to pass.

If the guard is supposed to represent the Yam blocking passage to Eretz Yisrael, then what have we learned? Do we really need a mashal to tell us that rivers don’t split because we demand that they do? Or that they do split if G-d shows up and makes them?

I think there is a different lesson here. We all have personality layer upon personality layer built around the core of our neshomos, outer “fields” of all kinds that form rings around the innermost chamber of who we really are. That inner core is the “tzadik yesod”, the foundation upon which all rests. The Mechilta is speaking to us about our own attempts (assuming we even try to make any) to penetrate the protective layers, the pollution, the hardened shell of our own selves to rediscover the beautiful inner field which the king has given us. Too often we delude ourselves into thinking true pnimiyus is about verbal commitments to being a “religious Jew” or doing that which is right, or true pnimiyus is about wearing the king’s ring, whether it be a talis, tefillin, or black hat. None of that gets you past the guard into the real inner field of the soul. Getting to the inner field is about mustering from within the connection with the king himself, a connection that goes beyond words and dress and lies at the core of our being. Passing across the Yam is easy if one can pass across the turbulent waters of one’s own soul and reconnect with the core of tzadik yesod olam.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Pesach - din on wheat

We tend to think about G-d’s judgment on Rosh haShana and then put that idea out of our minds for the rest of the year, but the Mishna tells us that there are other judgment periods; on Pesach we are judged as to how much wheat we will get. The Ran asks why this separate judgment is necessary, as the judgment of Rosh haShana includes details like how much money a person will make, how bountiful his crops will be, etc. How much wheat should grow should already be determined.

The Ran answers by distinguishing between the judgment of the individual, which occurs on Rosh haShana, and the judgment of the community, which occurs on Pesach.

The Shem m’Shmuel is troubled by this distinction. The amount of wheat which the community deserves should be no more than the sum total of that which is deserved by the individuals which comprise that community. If the amount each individual deserves is already determined on Rosh haShana, then QED the amount of wheat that the community will get is already a foregone conclusion.

I think the point of the Ran may be that the community is indeed more than the sum of its parts. As we discussed earlier (here), there is a distinction between a tzibur and a shutfus. A partnership is no more than a division of a whole into parts. A tzibur, however, is like a corporation; it is a new collective entity and not merely the glue which holds the parts together. There is no one particular individual or group of individuals who is the owner of a shul, of a yeshiva, of a chessed institution. Whether these mosdos are successful or deeply in the red perhaps is decided in the din of Pesach. Let's hope and daven that we come out OK.