Thursday, April 28, 2011

post pesach blues, justice, and something on the parsha

Yes, I’m sad Pesach is over. I can live with matzah. I can live with Pesach cake (thanks to my wife’s baking ability). My kids think they can live without school. Really the only one in my house who is happy that Pesach is over is guinea pig, who had a very hard week without his little bowl and his (chometz) pellet food.

This post on Orthonomics caught my eye. The original story is on imamother. A family, recommended by a Rosh Yeshiva as decent folk, agreed on a salary with a teenager for her to work as a mother’s helper over Pesach. Following the holiday they tried to stiff her. Of course we don’t know the other side of the story, but the same sort of thing has happened so many times to my wife in her business that I feel confident in saying that if this particular story is not true, there are enough similar stories that are. It goes without saying that to be nizhar on a mashehu of chometz but to trample on basic morality is a sham. All I want to add is that I think there is a sore lack in the community of any venue to redress situations like these. It costs $20 (if I remember correctly) to file a claim in small claims court in NY for disputes over less than $5000. It doesn’t solve everything – your opponent can still stare the judge in the face and lie; your opponent can still just ignore a judgment and refuse to pay. But at least it’s something. Find me a Beis Din whose summons won’t just be tossed in the garbage at whim and who for 20 bucks will sit to arbitrate a dispute. Go ahead, make my day. Really, you will.

On to the parsha: Chazal darshen, “Ish imo v’aviv tira’u v’es shabosai tishmoru,” as teaching that even if a parent tells you to violate Shabbos, you may not. Why is a special limud needed to teach that the mitzvas aseh of kibud av is not doche Shabbos? Shabbos is both an aseh and a lav, kibud av is just an aseh -- obviously Shabbos wins.

I saw an interesting answer in the Ksav Sofer (the gemara itself touches on this - see B"M 32). We know that aseh doche lo ta’aseh, but not a lo ta’aseh + another aseh. The Rishonim (Tos. Chulin 141) debate how that works: Do we apply the usual rule of aseh doche lo ta’aseh to knock off the lav but are still left with an issur aseh on the balance sheet, or does an aseh + lav completely negate the power of the opposing aseh to be doche anything? Nafka minah: Whether or not you get malkos.

Assuming that an aseh that opposes a lav + another aseh can push off the lav, why can’t it push off the opposing aseh as well? The reason is because you can’t privilege one aseh over the other – they are both equal. But what if there are two aseh’s opposing a lav + aseh? In that case the balance sheet is no longer equal.

This is exactly (says the Ksav Sofer) the situation the Torah is speaking about here. If both your father and mother tell you to do something that would violate Shabbos, the rule of aseh doche lo ta’aseh would remove the lav of Shabbos, which would leave two asehs (kibud av + kibud eim) against the one aseh of Shabbos. If not for the special derasha we might have thought one should violate Shabbos in such a situation – kah mashma lan not.

There is a lot to think about here and room to argue.

The Chizkuni addresses the same question and adds a further point: The halacha is that one is not obligated in kibud av for parents who are Torah violators. We don't need a derasha to tell us that Shabbos is stronger than or doche the aseh of kibud av because there is simply no mitzvah of kibud av to listen to a parent who says to desecrate Shabbos.

Chizkuni explains that the chiddush here is that even if a parent says to violate only a shvus -- a din derabbanan -- on Shabbos, kibud av is still put aside in favor of Shabbos. I'm not sure what the answer means. Does the Chizkuni mean to suggest that a parent who says to violate a derabbanan is not a rasha and there exists a mitzvah of kibud in that case? [Why should there be?] Does he mean that one could at least entertain such a hava amina? And how can the chiddush of a pasuk be that dinim derabbanan of Shabbos are not set aside for kibud av? I'm not clear on any of this and maybe I should do more thinking about it before writing, but lately I've had so little time that thinking while writing is the best I can do for now.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

ha lachma anya and the language angels speak

While I saying the daf yomi on the first days of Y"T someone noticed that the gemara (Men. 42) records a conversation that takes place in Aramaic between an angel and Rav Katina. With the seder fresh in his memory, this person asked how such a conversation could take place. We all know that we say "Ha lachma anya" in Aramaic because angels don't speak Aramaic -- by offering an invitation in a language they don't understand, there is no risk of evil angelic spirits accepting that invitation and coming to ruin the seder. The basis for this idea is a gemara in Shabbos (12) that says one may not daven in Aramaic because Aramaic is not understood by angels, the exception being when one davens at the bedside of a choleh because Hashem himself is present there.

The simple answer is that the conversation took place in some other language (maybe it all took place in the mind and was not even a verbal exchange) and the gemara simply transcribed the conversation into Talmudic Aramaic for the record. But why settle for simple answers?

Another way to answer is to deny the entire premise of the question. Abarbanel is not at all happy with the classic, "Angels don't speak Aramaic" answer for why we say don't say Ha lachma anya in Hebrew. First of all, he rejects the existance of mazikim. Secondly, he writes that even if such things exist, "Shluchei mitzvah aninan nizokin," especially on "Leil shimurim," the night of Pesach, when Hashem promises us special protection. But if all that isn't enough, there is an open gemara that says angels do speak Aramaic! The gemara in Sota (33) writes that Gavriel came and taught Yosef all 70 languages when he was in prison.

Given that at least some gemaras indicate that angels do speak Aramaic, it seems that the linguistic capabilities of angels is a matter of dispute. The Abarbanel felt confident in siding with one sugya over the other, so I don't see a problem suggesting that our gemara in Menachos lines up with the sugya in Sota that accepts that angels can speak Aramaic in contradistinction to the tradition reflected in the sugya in Shabbos that says they can't. However, all things being equal, it would make for a more elegant framework if we could reconcile the sources.

I raised this issue at our seder, and a few solutions were suggested:

1) Gavriel is an especially important malach and has powers that others do not (see Tos Shabbos 12).

2) When Hashem directs a malach to do a job, as in the case of teaching Yosef the 70 languages, the malach is enpowered beyond his normal ability (my son thought of this one).

3) Perhaps there are different dialects of Aramaic (my wife's suggestion). The malachim speak "pure" Aramaic to fulfill their role as the angelic sar of Aram, but they cannot speak our Talmudicized version of the language (by way of analogy, think of German vs. Yiddish).

4) Perhaps the angels' power to communicate is relative to whom they are speaking to. If you are Joe Ploni, you have to speak the King's English (or Hebrew) to get the message communicated upstairs; for Yosef haTzadik (or Rav Katina) the bar may be lowered.

5) My favorite answer: The gemara in Shabbos is a unique din in tefilah. The
angelic represenatitives who control the workings of the world of teva can be communicated with in any language. However, if you want to appeal over their heads, you need lashon hakodesh to connect to a Higher Authority (suggested by the meforshim on the Ein Ya'akov in Sota).

I did not think that I would get an entertaining seder discussion out of the daf, but there you have it. Any other answers out there?

Parenthetically, on the topic of inyana d'yoma and the daf: For those who did today's daf and saw Tosfos' discussion on the the Mishna's regarding whether there was wheat available in the desert to make shtei halechem, take a look in Shu"T Tzitz Eliezer (apologies -- I forgot where the tshuvah is) for a discussion of whether one can be yotzei with matzah made of man given that there was (or so the questioner suggested) no wheat available in the midbar to make matzah either.

Monday, April 18, 2011

it's all relative

1. The little discussion in the comments to the previous post regarding inviting non-Jews to Yom Tov meals made me google the question and I was a little surprised at how popular non-Jewish attendance at sedorim seems to be. I guess that in an open society where neighbors, friends, and due to the high rate of intermarriage, even relatives, may be non-Jewish, the desire to share the holiday with others in understandable. On the other hand, Chazal prohibit inviting a non-Jew to any Yom Tov meal (not just a seder) lest extra food be cooked on Yom Tov for their needs, which is not allowed. And so we have an interesting situation: What happens when the desire to be civil, or the desire to not appear chauvinistically hostile towards outsiders, clashes with halacha? A writer in the Jewish Week captures the dilemma nicely, writing, "While there are some traditional restrictions on inviting non-Jews to a Seder (or, to be more specific, feeding them on a festival) these prohibitions are hard to justify in an open, mixed society such as ours. There is internal logic to it from a halachic standpoint, but it makes no sense in a world where a majority of American Jews have non-Jewish close relatives or friends and where this year's hot new Haggadah is the best selling "Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families," written by a Cokie and Steve Roberts." He concludes, "Where there is a moral will, there is almost always a halachic way."

This is too big a topic for erev Pesach afternoon, but it's worth reflecting on. While the author of the article in the Jewish Week is not the Rabbi of an Orthodox congregation, the sentiments he expressed certainly are echoed by segments of the Orthodox world. If not this example, we can find others about which even Orthodox leaders refer to, "...Instances in which a precedent that was once valid has, in the course of time, proved morally objectionable, as a result of which it was amended, so that the law remains “on the books” as a juridical foundation, while it becomes effectively inoperative through legal analysis and moral argument."

I am not comfortable with this argument. It is one thing to find a smach l'hakeil when acting otherwise would cause sever discomfort, embarrassment, financial loss, etc. Accepting a pragmatic solution does not make one a hypocrite. However, it is quite another thing to deliberately seek out that smach l'hakeil simply because of moral discomfort with the values inherent in the halacha's original intent and formulation. It goes without saying that there are many grey areas in between...

2. I am a big fan of matzah brei and it only dawned on me recently that there seems to be no reason to go hungry on erev Pesach when one can enjoy matzah brei already. To make matzah brei you have both iruy kli rishon to cook the matzah and frying; see Sha'ar haTziyun 471:20. Yes, you have a problem according to the GR"A/Rambam (see Sha'ar HaTziyun 444:1). And if you don't eat gebrokts, well, that's your problem.

3. On a lighter note,while waiting in the barber shop yesterday with the rest of the crowd I heard my barber, who is Jewish, give a little lecture on Moshiach. He reminded everyone that when Moshiach comes there will be only one holiday -- Purim -- and no others, not even Pesach. This means no five week break after Pesach with no haircuts, no three week break in the summer with no haircuts -- haircuts all year round with no break!

I guess tzipisa l'yeshu'a is all relative. For the local barber, Moshiach means the chance to give more haircuts. For some people I imagine it means a bigger car and a nicer home. Maybe it means Pesach in a hotel in Yerushalayim instead of cleaning the house.

The Sefas Emes explains that every year there is a new peirush of yetziyas Mitzrayim that enters the world for us to discover. B'chol dor va'dor we re-live yetziyas Mitzrayim because there is a new dimension of yetziyas Mitzrayim that can be experienced only here and now at this moment in time, never before in history.

Before this Pesach all geulah may mean to a person is the a chance to give more haircuts, have a bigger hotel room next year, etc. But all that can change, and we can learn new peirushim, each one of us on our own level. And who knows, maybe we will yet get to see that geulah with our own eyes.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

simchas torah in nisan

Last Thursday night I celebrated Simchas Torah.

No, I did not get the months of my calendar mixed up -- my wife can testify that I have been helping with the massive pre-Pesach cleanup. Last Thursday night about 20 boys from my son's yeshiva (my son included) finished learning Bava Kama -- again. The yeshiva learned the masechta last year, but the boys carved out time in their day this year to learn through the masechta yet another time (for many it was the third time) and make a siyum. So at 11:00 at night I found myself among a nice turnout of bachurim, rebbeim, and parents enjoying the siyum, cholent, kugel, and dancing (how one can have an appetite for cholent at that time of night is beyond me). This was a true "simchas Torah" -- who says you can't celebrate more than once a year?

The Midrash on last week's parsha tells of a peddler who went town to down yelling, "Who wants to buy the elixer of life?" Rav Yanai was amazed when the peddler pulled out a sefer Tehilim and read the famous pesukim, "Mi ha'ish he'chafetz chaim... netzor leshoncha mei'ra... bakesh shalom v'rodfeihu." Surely Rav Yanai knew these pesukim before the peddler read them -- why was he so amazed? (We've discussed a few answers here in the past.)

The Ksav Sofer writes that it was the end of the pesukim which caught Rav Yanai's attention. If you want to sell goods, you can open a store, sit behind a counter on a nice, comfortable chair, and wait for customers to arrive. To some people, "peddling" shalom means waiting for an outbreak of machlokes to arrive at your door and then trying to mend the breach. But that's not what shalom is all about. "Bakesh shalom v'rodfeihu" -- you have to constantly seek shalom = shleimus, you have to take the initiative and be proactive -- mend walls in advance and constantly strengthen them so they never run the risk of breaking (see Maharal in Nesivos Olam who develops this same idea.) The peddler who travelled from town to town looking for new business embodied this proactive, take the initiative type approach and that's what caught R' Yanai's attention.

It's a relief from the general depression caused by what there is to be seen in the world to know that there are boys who are true "mevakshim," eager to gobble down the next masechta and the next masechta and review them again and again. They are not waiting for their Rebbeim to coax them into learning, but put in the effort to go above and beyond what the yeshiva even expects.

I meant to post this last weekend, but then day after day of work and more work have piled up, and here we are almost at Shabbos hagadol, but I thought it worth mentioning anyway.

pesach issue of kallah magazine

New spring issue of Kallah Magazine, just in time for Pesach:

Thursday, April 07, 2011

buried treasure

I've been too busy to write much lately, but I hate to put up nothing before Shabbos, so this is going to be brief for now. The Torah promises that nega'ai batim is bound to occur once Bnei Yisrael enter Eretz Yisrael -- "V'nasati nega tza'ara'as b'beis eretz achizaschem." This does not sound like very uplifting news, but Rashi things in a differnet light. Rashi explains that the Emorites hid their treasures in the walls of their homes. Therefore, Hashem promised that he would bring nega'im on these homes, causing the owner to rip down the walls and discover the buried treasure. If Hashem wanted to deliver the treasure of the Emori to the Jewish people, couldn't he have done so in a way that would not necessitate people's homes being ripped apart? Remember, Hashem caused the Egyptians to turn over all their wealth to the Jewish people without much fuss. Why not the same here? The Berdichiver and the Sefas Emes both suggest a homiletical reading of Rashi. It's not enough for a person to remain a tzadik in an environment of impurity -- a person has to transform that surrounding environment into something positive. A person's spiritual influence can impact even the physical walls of his home. This was the "buried treasure" in the Canaanite homes -- each of those homes had the potential to become transformed into a Jewish home. A lot of digging might be required, a lot of remodeling might be required, but the result would be the discovery of spiritual riches.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

ma'os chitim

The Rama at the beginning of Hil Pesach writes that there is a minhag to provide wheat for matzah to the poor before Pesach. Who is entitled to these public funds? Any poor person who has lived in a city for a year. The Magen Avraham, however, cites the SM”K that our practice is to distribute ma’os chitim to anyone who has lived in a city for 30 days.

The Mkor Chaim (link) asks: why did the MG”A bring his proof from the SM”K when the Rama himself in Hil. Tzedaka (Y.D. 256:5) mentions this 30 day cutoff?

The answer is that ma’os chitim is not a din in hilchos tzedaka, but is a unique tax that is part and parcel of hilchos pesach.

Rav Zolti in his Mishnas Ya’avetz (O.C. 7) expands further on this idea. The Rambam writes in Hil Y.T. 6:17-18 that simchas Yom Tov demands not only eating a festive meal with one’s own family, but providing food and drink to the poor as well. The Rambam does not place this halacha in Hil Matnos because it is not simply another detail that falls under the usual umbrella of hilchos tzedaka, but in a facet of how we celebrate Yom Tov.

Nafka minah: where one only has enough for one’s own sustenance, there is no obligation to give tzedaka. However, even when one barely has enough, one must borrow to enhance one’s celebration of Shabbos/Yom Tov. Since providing for the poor falls under the obligation to enhance Shabbos/Yom Tov, it would necessitate even borrowing funds to fulfill.

We saw the same idea in our discussion of matanaos la’evyonim in hil. Purim. The Bach paskens that even a poor person who otherwise is exempt from mitzvas tzedaka must fulfill the mitzvah of matanos la’evyonim. Here too, we see that matanos la’evyonim is part and parcel of the mitzvas ha’yom of simchas Purim, not simply a detail of hilchos tzedaka.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

tefilah b'tzibur for a katan

My son asked the following: if a katan comes late to minyan, what should he do? The mitzvah of chinuch is to teach a katan to perform mitzvos in the same manner as he would as a gadol. Do we say that since a gadol would skip pesukei d'zimra to catch up and daven shmoneh esrei with the tzibur, a katan should do the same, or do we say that since a katan does not yet have a chiyuv / mitzvah of tefilah b'tzibur, therefore it would be better for him not to skip and instead to daven the usual davening in order? Also, perhaps one could argue that the katan should perform the mitzvah according to the normal or usual format that a gadol follows -- i.e. tefilah in the normal order -- not the way the gadol would perform the mitzvah given the exceptional circumstance of coming late to shul.

seeing negaim -- seeing hashgacha pratis

The Midrash Tanchuma on this week's parsha relates:

A certain kohen decided that it was too hard to make a living in Eretz Yisrael, so he would go to chutz la'aretz. He conveyed his decision to his wife and told her that since people relied on him to look at their nega'im, he would teach her the skill (an eishes kohein has the right to see nega'im!? -- see the meforshim on the Tanchuma) so she could take on that role.

The kohen explained that if the hair on the nega looked unhealthy, that was an indication that there was some malignant problem below the skin. Every hair is individually nourished by Hashem. If Hashem chose to withhold that nourishment, something is wrong.

The wife heard her husband out and then pointed out the illogic of what he was telling her. If each and every hair is individually nourished and cared for by Hashem, kal v'chomer that a human being with thousands of hairs will be nourished and cared for by Hashem. Why then travel to chutz la'aretz to look for parnasa?

The kohen of our story certainly knew the halachos of nega'im, as evidenced by the fact that everyone relied on him to see them. Yet for all his expertise, he missed the lesson that his wife grasped after only a few minutes of study. The lesson of the Midrash seems to be one of missing the forest for the trees, becoming so engrossed in details as to miss the larger picture. When I was in YU I took a few classes on teaching Torah and Nach given by R' Nachum Muschel. I remember him (and hopefully my memory is accurate!) emphasizing that is was important to not only teach the text, but to also teach what he called the "ma'or she'ba'Torah" -- lessons about life, about human nature, etc. -- that we can take away. Too often teachers focus on the who, what, when, where, and occasionally the why of the Torah's narrative (which is what most kids in school learning Tanach are expected to regurgitate on tests) without ever encouraging students to think about what lessons the story is supposed to impart. To take an extreme example, a student who can rattle off who Avraham welcomed into his home, how many guests came, what food was served, where all this occurred, but fails to walk away with an appreciation of the value of hachnasas orchim has missed perhaps the most important ingredient in the story. It's not only about what the text says, but what's there between the lines. What does the parsha mean for us?

The kohen in the Midrash's story certainly seemed to have a grasp of the laws of tza'ra'as. He was confident that his expertise in this area of halacha would be missed when he left town. Yet, despite his expertise, or perhaps even because of the narrow focus of his expertise, it took his wife's insight to open the kohen's eyes to the broader lesson of the parsha.

There is perhaps another reason for the kohen's blindness to the lesson of the parsha for his own predicament. Tza'ra'as is a punishment. The kohen was sensitive to that message -- he focuses on hair as an indication of malignancy. What could that have to do with his choice to leave or remain in Eretz Yisrael?

What the kohein did not appreciate is that Hashem's punishment is not like human punishment. The Rishonim explain that tza'aras only occurred when Bnei Yisrael lived in Eretz Yisrael under the umbrella of overt hashgacha. Why, ask the meforshim, should a talmid chacham who sees a nega declare to the kohen, "k'nega nirah li," I saw a nega-like blemish? If the talmid chacham knows it is a valid nega, what's the harm in saying so with certainty? Answers the Chasam Sofer, the talmid chacham needs to show a little modesty. Not everyone is privileged to receive nega'im. Not everyone has Hashem reaching out with a wake up call when they are headed in the wrong direction. Chavivim yesurim! -- because yesurim are a sign that Hashem cares about what we are doing and wants to put is back on the right track; they are never the product of a desire for vindictiveness, revenge, or to cause pain.

The kohein saw nega'im. His wife saw hashgacha pratis.