Monday, October 29, 2007

Would you still be Religious?

Someone asked me the following question this week. This blog is my attempt at an answer (though I still don't have a final answer, and may change my mind in the future)

Let's say archaeologists find writings from 2700 years ago, were King Josiah and the priests discuss the name of what is going to become their new national hero. They were deciding between John, Samuel, Sebastian and Moshe, (finally decided Moshe) and you can read their opinions were they say they cannot believe that people actually believe what they tell them, etc. An actual proof for an open mind that Torah was invented for political reasons. It is a hypotetical case, that obviously is never going to happen, but I would like to know if you would continue being a rabbi.

I'll make the question slightly stronger, since I never wanted to be a Rabbi in the first place, - 'would you continue being religious?'

++A word to the wise. This is not a question about the validity of the Torah. The question is about what is the basis for my faith. Could my Judaism survive without the Chumash?++

For years I thought the answer to this was a simple 'no'. If the Torah isn't true, then everything that is built on it is also false, and why would I be religious if it wasn't true.

I could never really understand people who keep mitzvot without believing in revelation at Sinai.

But now that I'm actually confronting the question (and perhaps because I am a bit smarter now) I'm not sure. If the question includes certain knowledge that G-d did not give any commandments to the Jews or any system of legislation, or indeed any message, then I still think I would pack it in tomorrow. In the words of one of my Rabbinical colleagues 'We could be playing glam rock in Maddison Square Gardens'. Perhaps not! but you get the point.

On the other hand, if the question asks us to imagine that the Torah as we have it is not an authentic document, but it is based on traditions, customs and beliefs going back a millenia before Josiah, I think I would still be 'in'.

I'll try to explain why (though I'm not entirely sure myself). Perhaps the best analogy is to the Zohar. Many scholars and Rabbis held (and hold) that the Zohar is a forgery compiled by Moshe de Leon over a thousand years after it was allegedly written. R' Yaakov Emden wrote a book, Miṭpaḥat Sefarim, proving that the Zohar is a forgery. Yet he also wrote several kabbalistic works and commentaries on sections of the Zohar. He used kabbalah in his halachic works and commentaries. How could he hold that it is a forgery, and at the same time consider it authentic? (I know one could argue that he only claimed the Zohar was a forgery because of the threat of Sabbateanism, but I don't think it is possible to prove so convincingly that it is not genuine unless he really believed what he wrote, and I also tend to assume that people write what they think is true).

Perhaps the answer is that the beauty of the Zohar and the kabbalistic system is not dependent on the authority and accuracy of the text, but is a self contained system which works. It can be an expression of the Divine Will if it was written by Moshe de Leon just as much as if it was written by R' Shimon bar Yochai.

I'm not trying to show whether this Zohar is authentic or not, just giving an example that even if it is not genuine, it can still provide a basis for faith.

Perhaps the same could be true for the Torah. Even though I'm convinced that it is true, I think my faith could survive even if it were not. As long as I felt it was an expression of the Divine Will. As long as I can believe in G-d, and as long as the system works, I think I would still be religious.

Perhaps this kind of belief is 'cutting the saplings' which was Acher's heresy in the Talmud Chagiga. Perhaps it is heretical to say that Judaism could survive without the Torah.

On the other hand, none of our halachah comes directly from the Chumash. Our Halachah is from the Talmud through the eyes of the poskim. I think the Talmud could stand without the Torah. The derashot may be 'reverse engineering' anyway (according to 'Doros Rishonim' for example). And (with a few exceptions) Yeshivas certainly don't seem to spend much time, or have much interest, in learning Chumash and Nach. They know full well that Judaism is about Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, not Bible.

So, as of today, I think I would still be religious, even were the Torah to be proven to be a forgery.

I'm open to other opinions, and I reserve the right to change my mind. But after a week of thinking about this issue, these were my thoughts so far.

Over to you, my readers.

Alan Johnston's answers

Alan Johnston is a BBC reporter who was held hostage in Gaza for 114 days. On the BBC website he answers readers questions in (what seems to me) quite a fair, honest and evenhanded way.

Of course his kidnapping led him to a higher opinion of Palestinians in general (it was only the hostage takers themselves who weren't very nice, and some of them were almost embarrassed about it), and he sees a lot of good in the Palestinian people (which is reasonable, because there is). He also thinks that the Jewish claim to Israel is purely a religious one, and seems to ignore history, international resolutions and the persecution that ultimately led to the State.

But he has quotes like this, which IMHO show a better understanding of the conflict, and the likelihood of peace, than many of our politicians seem to have (and may I take this opportunity to wish our Prime Minister a Refuah Shleima - but couldn't you at least have used it as an excuse to avoid Annapolis?).

Q: How has your experience shaped your views on the Palestinian problem? Do you think there is a solution?
John Craig, Glasgow

For a century or more, this has been a dispute over the control of the narrow strip of land that stretches from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. If the Israelis were to withdraw from every inch of occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians would be left with about 22% percent of that land. The Israelis would have 78% percent.

Every time you see an American president sit down with the two sides to talk peace, the question is largely about how much of that 22% the Palestinians should be allowed to have - and under what conditions.

I tend to feel that the Israelis will never really give enough - or be forced by their American friends to give enough. And for at least some angry young Palestinians, 22% could never be enough. They would want to fight on for much more.

I think that they would be hard to rein in, and in the poverty, despair and oppression of the occupation, the ranks of the radicals are only likely to grow.

Set against that, most people on both sides do want an end to the conflict - a settlement that might allow their children to live in peace and prosper. So, perhaps there is hope - "God willing", as they say in Palestine.

Read the full piece on the BBC website

Metal Kitchen Cabinets?

As some of you know, we need to replace our kitchen fairly urgently. The wood is rotting, there isn't enough storage space, and just before Rosh Hashanah our kitchen sink collapsed.

Hopefully we are getting most of a new (for us) kitchen from some friends who are redoing their appartment and getting rid of the kitchen that was there.

I have been asked whether I would put metal cabinets in my kitchen, instead of the traditional wooden ones. I know that metal storage units are usually found in garages, not kitchens, but they certainly do have many advantages.

They are really strong and come in many colors or in finishes like stainless steel. They won't go rotten, and most of all they look REALLY funky. Check out these metal cabinets from the Car Garage Guy.

Our house would certainly be the snazziest one in the building if we put in some of those cabinets. (Whether my wife would agree is an entirely different matter).

So in short, the answer is, YES, I would put metal cabinets in my kitchen.

What do you think?

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Nevuchadnezzar was a shrimp!

My son came home from school today and proudly announced that he had learned in school that Nevuchadnezzar, King of Babylon and the entire known world, was in fact very short. "Did I know how short?" he asked. "No", said I, fearing the worst.

"Nevuchadnezzar was exactly 1 tefach tall!" came the answer.

Well of course he was. 1 tefach is about 2 inches (5 cms) in modern terminology. Of course people are that big. Perhaps he was the original inspiration for Tom Thumb (or tinkerbell for that matter).

Apparently (again, according to my son), the Chazon Ish, or perhaps it was the Chatam Sofer, or maybe the Chofetz Chaim, once comforted a short person by telling them to imagine how powerful and evil Nevuchadnezzar was, yet he was only 1 tefach. This person was taller than that so imagine how much good they could do! Inspiring stuff.

I know Napoleon was short, as were many world leaders (particularly evil dictators for some reason - just ask Austin Powers. hmmm) but would I be accused of heresy were I to question the literalness of this particular story?

I found that in Tanna d'Bei Eliyahu, chapter 31, it says that Nevuchadnezzar was full of pride, but short of stature. When he would tour his countries, from city to city, all the townspeople would gather together and go out to meet him. They would make jokes with each other, and say to each other, "Is this the one who rules from one end of the world to the other?"

Pretty cruel huh!

I was discussing this tonight with someone, who suggested (wisely) that perhaps the midrash is coming to contrast his ego with his height, and since his ego was so enormous, they had to describe him as miniscule by comparison.

This makes a lot of sense. Especially as Nevuchadnezzar was criticised by G-d in the Gemara Chagiga (13a I think) for being so proud. He wanted to ascend to Heaven to wage war on G-d. G-d taunts him that from earth to the first heaven is 500 miles, and the heaven is 500 miles thick, and between each heaven there is 500 miles, and there are seven heavens all together. It would take several lifetimes and a person could still never get close to G-d (in that sense).

So perhaps the equation is: + ego = - physical size.

And we learn it all from Nevuchadnezzar, perhaps the only person in history to have a name bigger than he is!

Good night.

D.I.V.O.R.C.E. F.A.I.R.

Gone are the days when people would be so embarrassed they would only spell the word D.I.V.O.R.C.E. Nowadays everyone is doing it. Marriages are considered successful if they last longer than the leftovers from Shabbos. But perhaps this is going a bit too far:

You can't fault the organisers of this fair - after all they are only seeing the economic opportunity in a socialogical phenomenon. But there is something very disagreeable about the idea of a 'divorce fair'. 'Want to get divorced but not sure how?', 'looking for a new future?' etc.

Unfortunately divorce is a fact of life, and sometimes is the best thing that a person can do for themselves, their kids or their sanity. I am proud to know that Judaism was one of the first organised religions to legislate for divorce and allow a couple to part ways.

But read some of the quotes here: "I just wanted to get some information ahead of time, just to be prepared for the eventuality that such a terrible thing could happen again," said Silvia, (a woman who has just entered a new relationship, six years after her divorce).

I am reminded of the quote from Rita Rudner:
"Marriages don't last. When I meet a guy, the first question I ask myself is: is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?"

I once had a guitar teacher, who had just got divorced. He said he and his ex-wife had been on good terms the whole way through, and were considering inviting all their friends to a divorce party. Then they started discussing the financial side of the divorce. Pretty soon they weren't speaking to each other, and certainly didn't want to be in the same room at the same time as each other to host a party. I couldn't quite figure out why people would get divorced in that situation. But at least if they were to both attend this fair they could see each other at a neutral venue (as long as they don't both go to the shidduch booth at the same time).

It makes me feel old and old-fashioned to read articles like this. At least I can share them with the blogosphere.

Untying the Knot

Want to get divorced but not sure how it works? Need advice on how you discover if your partner is cheating on you?

Help is at hand in Vienna where the world's first "divorce fair" opened its doors on Saturday.

Titled "New Beginning", the fair hopes to attract those wanting or having to separate. Untying the knot has never been so easy.

Visitors have a chance to speak to lawyers and counsellors as well as private detectives and real estate agents.

Dating agencies advise on how to find love again, travel agencies on how to spend holidays without a partner.

A paternity testing firm helps those seeking certainty about their offspring while a party organiser gives tips on how to celebrate the break-up in style.

Many visitors making their way from stall to stall already had experience of parting ways with a loved one. Silvia, 49, got divorced six years ago and is in a new relationship.

"I just wanted to get some information ahead of time, just to be prepared for the eventuality that such a terrible thing could happen again," said Silvia, not giving her full name.

"Normally you don't think of these things, you have butterflies, you love each other, you want to live together. But I already got burned."

Around half of all Austrian marriages end in divorce. The rate is even higher in the capital Vienna where 66 percent of all couples opt to break up.

Organiser Anton Barz got the idea for the fair when he heard friends talk about their experiences during break-ups.

"There were so many stories and people needed to go to one place, then to another, and then somewhere else again to get all the information together, which was really painful for them," said Barz, who used to organise wedding fairs.

"So I thought: Let's have a divorce fair."

Besides getting one-on-one advice, visitors can listen to talks from charities on what a divorce is like for the children involved or how a mediator can help.

The two-day fair, which moves to the central Austrian city of Linz in three weeks, has touched a nerve around the globe.

"I had requests for information on how to hold a divorce fair from Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Australia and even California," said Barz.

A disillusioned air surrounded many visitors to the Viennese fair including a 63-year-old man who is separated from his second wife.

"My wife doesn't want get to divorced because she is hoping to get my pension," he said, without wishing to give his name.

"My lawyer told me I am the biggest idiot ever because I got married the second time round and asked me how I could do such a thing?"

But others were not yet ready to give up on matrimony.

"I never wanted to get married in the first place - and now I have been married three times and I have four children," said 49-year-old Gabriele Komma.

She divorced nearly a year ago "but I would get married again. After all, hope is the last thing that dies."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

National Anthem

I was feeling nostalgic today, and found a clip of the New Zealand national anthem - "God Defend New Zealand) on youtube.

You can watch it here if you don't remember how it goes.

My co-worker pointed out to me how negative the title of the anthem is. New Zealanders just ask G-d to defend them. Whereas the Australians are singing "Advance Australia Fair" - they are charging ahead, NZers are just blocking the shots. (Of coures nobody would accuse the Ozzies of being 'fair' after the 1981 underarm bowling incident, but that is amother matter).

So I am going to start a petition to rename the New Zealand national anthem "God pre-emptively strike all our enemies (especially those with weapons of mass destruction) and strike them and smite them with bubonic plague and may they all stub their toes, before they even get close to thinking about coming anywhere near attacking New Zealand - and when the next rugby world cup comes along may New Zealand advance fair to the finals (where they should beat the Ozzies 107-3) and also may they do pretty well in the rowing, sailing, cricket and equestrian events". I know it doesn't scan quite as well, but it sums up the New Zealand spirit much more.

(as for those French, who have beaten us twice now - surely we can take them out, after all they are only children (enfants de la Patrie).

Israel's anthem is "Hatikva" - "the hope". Any suggestions for something better (this hoping doesn't seem to be working all that well at the moment. Perhaps "The (Wing and a) Prayer" would be better?)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Amnesty Interntational DOESN'T condemn Israel

Mashiach must definitely be on the way. A report from Amnesty International which accuses the Palestinians (both the good ones and the bad ones) of human rights violations! And even the BBC manages to write 8 paragraphs before it mentions that everything is Israel's fault.

It is interesting to see that both the BBC and Amnesty are putting this report out just before Israel sit down with their 'moderate' peace partner to give away the coutry. Apparently even the 'moderates' are not all that nice really.

If we have too much more reporting like this I'll know that they have all done teshuvah. Or I'll be sure that Mashiach is here. (Or perhaps, since the Israeli politicians are clearly unable to say anything bad against our 'peace partners' or anything good about Israel, G-d has found other shelichim who can do it instead).

Make sure you are sitting down when you read this.

Feud 'hurting Palestinian rights'

Fighting between the two main factions in the Palestinian territories is fuelling human rights abuses, a leading human rights NGO reports.

Amnesty International says illegal detentions and torture have become commonplace in both Hamas-controlled Gaza and Fatah's West Bank stronghold.

It notes that the situation in Gaza has deteriorated sharply since June when Hamas seized control by force.

The UK-based group is calling for an independent investigation.

According to Amnesty, arbitrary detentions and the torture of opposition supporters have become widespread in the Gaza Strip where there have also been attacks on demonstrators and journalists covering such incidents.

But the report says human rights abuses are being committed in the West Bank too, by government security forces under the control of President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas supporters.

Hundreds of Hamas sympathisers have been arrested and reports of ill-treatment and torture are frequent but much less publicised than Hamas violations, Amnesty notes.

'Dire effect'

"The leaders of both the PA [Palestinian Authority] and Hamas must take immediate steps to break the cycle of impunity that continues to fuel abuses, including arbitrary detentions, abductions, torture and ill-treatment by their forces," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's Middle East programme director.

"The ongoing factional struggle between Fatah and Hamas is having a dire effect on the lives of Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, compounding and exacerbating the human rights and humanitarian crisis caused by Israeli military campaigns and blockades," he added.

Tensions between the two main parties have been high since the beginning of last year when Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections.

Those tensions often spilled over into violence and have led to the deaths of hundreds of people.

The distance between the sides has grown such that there is now little political dialogue between them, the BBC's Aleem Maqbool reports from Ramallah in the West Bank.

Amnesty's report calls on the international community to cease the sale of weapons to both factions until guarantees can be secured that they will not be used to violate human rights.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Grumpy Old Man vs the Racist

OK, I'm not very happy. It is 2:30am and I have been woken up AND kicked out of bed by two of my daughters (independently). So I am tired and grumpy.

I came to check what is going on in blogland (I know - blogosphere, right?). For some reason this blog caught my eye (on the 'new post' or whatever it is called section of blogger) The World Can't Wait who was posting as 'Zionism is Terrorism' caught my eye. (Actually I am going back now to remove the link because I don't want him to get any traffic from me, and I don't want to show up on his back links.)

He has several sites comparing 'Zionists' (of course that means Jews) to Nazis, blaming Jews for the World Trade Center, and accusing Jews of being Satanists.

The complete list of his blogs reads as follows: (from his profile which I don't mind linking to)

If you are afraid to speak against tyranny, then you are already a slave
Facts not Fairies
Arm Yourself With The Weapons of Mass Education
Zionism is Terrorism
Synagogue of Satan
This is zionism

I know there are people out there who believe all sorts of things, and I suppose I believe in freedom of expression, but I am also fairly sure that his stuff violates blogger's terms of agreement. For example, their Content Policy states taht the following material is unaccepatable:

HATEFUL CONTENT: Users may not publish material that promotes hate toward groups based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity.

VIOLENT CONTENT: Users may not publish direct threats of violence against any person or group of people.

I think our user is violating these policies!

There is a 'flag' button on the top of the navbar to allow readers to mark objectionable content. In theory, eventually, the blog could be pulled, or at least marked so that people don't get there by accident. It is against bloggers terms and conditions to remove this navbar.

But, you guessed it, our friend is smart enough to doctor the code so that there is now no way of flagging him. Therefore he must be legit!

I can't find any 'contact us' button on the blogger site (it is probably right there, but I am a man (and men can never find things), and it is now 3:00 in the morning).

So I ask you, my readers,


Answers on a postcard please. Or on a message. Or by e-mail. Or, just go and sort out the issue yourself and let me go back to bed.

Thank you.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Woop-de-do! I have been blogging for almost exactly a year, and have had almost 5000 hits on my blog. Not setting any world records here am I! But it has been mostly fun (except when I blogged about something that upset some people, and they tried to get me fired from two jobs, as well as maligning me to my friends - that wasn't fun. I won't do it again unless I really want a fight). It has certainly been addicting. And I think I have become (slightly) more educated as I read what else is out there in the blogosphere. I now look at the world in a different way (what is the blog angle on that?) and have made several new virtual friends (including someone who sent me a Black Sabbath cd and dvd (I know - Heaven and Hell, but it is the same thing really). Thank you very much.

It is always exciting getting comments from people, especially those I don't know. It is amazing to think that other people read what I write and care enough to leave a comment about it.

But at the end of the day, I can't help feeling that the people at are right with this comment and t-shirt:

The Blogosphere is exploding- like a self-replicating supervirus bursting with mundane observations, bad poetry, and generously misrepresentative photos. Never have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.

“What can be done to stop it?”,you ask, the alarm clearly palpable on your face.

“Don’t look at me with that innocent expression. I know you have a blog, too!”

“But so does Despair!, you retort, your voice faltering.

“The difference is that people actually READ ours!” I deftly counter.

And, of course, when confronted with that most painful of truths, tears well up in your eyes. You feel the familiar burning cheeks, those very same cheeks that have for years betrayed your vulnerability as others less gentle than I tormented you. The tyrannical bully who gave you atomic wedgies in junior high. The fetching green-eyed linebacker or cheerleader in your Home Economics class. The indifferent boss who yawns every time you start talking about the novel you plan to one day finish.

Only the stoniest of hearts wouldn’t be moved at the heart-rending spectacle you make of yourself in this moment of desperate frailty.

As I look at the sobbing sack of shoulders you become, the words well up in me, “Quiet you pencil-necked, Home EC taking wannabee novelist! Like I don’t have my own problems to deal with!”

But I swallow those words before they are spoken. And instead, moved by a force larger than myself, I offer you a cloth with which to wipe your tears. At first, you shrink away, knowing me too well, expecting the final blow to be delivered and somehow knowing deeply within yourself that you probably deserve it. But there is no such blow, no back-handed smackdown. I only shrug and offer the kind of pitying look that you fantasize millions might offer you if they would only read your blog and got to know that most secret side of you that you… can’t… stop…posting…onto…the Internet.

As you wipe the tears away, you feel something unfamiliar and alien on the cloth. A rubbery texture. You pull it away- seeing for the first time a screen-printed word.

You unfold it, the word becomes a phrase- the phrase becomes a joke, and the joke is on YOU!


And now, oh the tears how the flow! One shirt proves not enough, and I hand you another, and then another, and with practiced fingers of a Classical Pianist, you reduce them all into your personal snotrags, blubbering away, desperate to escape to a computer, any computer, where you can recount yet another moment in another chapter of an impossibly inconsequential drama that you continue to foist upon the two regular readers of your blog who aren’t you*.

Mustering as much dignity as is possible when unknowingly sporting a dried mucus plug in your left nostril, you state calmly, “I’m going home.”

“I understand,”I reply,“There’s something you need to do.”

“Yes. There is. Goodbye.”

And you run, faster even than your still-open right nostril does. Yet you are not so fast that my final words do not sting in your ears, “You know you gotta pay for those shirts!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Yarzheit - the Rosh

The Rosh is one of the most crucial Rishonim on the Talmud. He is printed in the back of almost every Talmud, and is useful both as a halachacist, and also as one of the last tosafists he often clarifies and explains their position.

He is the bridge between Talmudic commentary and Halachic works. His son, the Tur (Yaakov ben Asher) is the author of the Arba Turim, which is the predecessor of the Shulchan Aruch. The Tur also wrote 'piskei harosh' which is a summary of the halacha derived from the Rosh's Talmudic commentary and is also printed in the back of most editions of the Talmud.

The Rosh was also the bridge between the Ashkenazi and Sefardi worlds, forced as he was to resettle and move from Northern Europe to Spain. His commentary is therefore an interesting commentary on the different customs of East and West at the time. R' Yosef Karo uses him as the 'Ashkenazi' amonst his three main sources (the other two being the Rif and Rambam).

This is from the OU:

Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel - The “Rosh”

The commentary on the Talmud authored by the Rosh, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, is found in the back of nearly every edition of the Babylonian Talmud. The popularity of his commentary reflect his clarity of thought and expression, and his halachic authority as the close disciple of the Maharam, Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (1215-1293). The Maharam was the last of the German Baalei Tosafos. Thus, his student, Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, assimilated and represented the Ashkenazic tradition of Torah learning.

Because of the savage activities of the Crusaders, Rabbi Asher fled to Spain in 1306. His first stop was Barcelona, where the Rashba gave him a cordial welcome. He then moved on to Toledo, where he became Chief “Dayan,” Judge in matters of Jewish Law, and Chief Rabbi of the community.

The Rosh was not pleased by the Spanish approach to Torah learning, which he saw as attributing excessive value to philosophy and other secular studies. He felt that the unavoidable consequence of the Spanish approach would be the “watering down” of the focus on the Talmud, the true source and repository of Jewish wisdom. Yet, by the sheer greatness of his Torah ideas, the influence of Ashkenaz began to penetrate the Spanish Torah world.

The halachic opinions of the Rosh were binding upon Ashkenazic Jewry. But Spanish Jewry also began to take into account his opinions in their formulation of Jewish Law. Rabbi Yoseph Karo (1488-1575) in the “Bais Yoseph” and in the “Shulchan Aruch,” classics of Jewish Law, gave equal weight to the halachic opinions of the Rosh as to the opinions of the Sephardic Torah giants the Rif and the Rambam. His method in those cases where the opinions of Ashkenaz and Sepharad differed, was to decide the Law by “taking a vote,” as it were, among those three opinions, and the Law would be in accordance with two out of the three opinions.

Here is his biography from wikipedia

Asher ben Jehiel (Hebrew, אשר בן יחיאל, or Asher ben Yechiel, sometimes Asheri) (1250 or 1259 – 1328) was an eminent rabbi and Talmudist best known for his abstract of Talmudic law. He is often referred to as Rabbenu Asher, “our Rabbi Asher” or by the Hebrew acronym for this title, the ROSH (Hebrew, רא"ש, literally "Head").


The Rosh was born in western Germany and died in Toledo, Spain. His family was prominent for learning and piety, his father Jehiel was a Talmudist, and one of his ancestors was Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan (the RaABaN). Asher had eight sons, the most prominent of whom were Judah and Jacob, author of the Arba'ah Turim, a code of Jewish law. His primary teacher was the Tosafist Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, then in Worms. In addition to his studies, ROSH worked in money lending, and according to his own statement, was independently wealthy.

In 1286, Emperor Rudolf I had instituted a new persecution of the Jews, and Rabbi Meir left Germany, but was captured and imprisoned. The ROSH raised a ransom for his release, but Rabbi Meir refused it, for fear of encouraging the imprisonment of other rabbis. Thereafter Rosh assumed Rabbi Meir's position in Worms. He was, however, forced to emigrate (in all likelihood, a victim of blackmail by the government, aimed at acquiring his fortune). After leaving Germany, he first settled in southern France, and then in Toledo, Spain, where he became rabbi on the recommendation of Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (RaShBA). Rabbenu Asher's son Judah testified to the fact that he died in poverty.

Rabbenu Asher possessed "methodical and systematic" Talmudic knowledge, and was distinguished for his ability to adumbrate long Talmudic discussions. The ROSH, influenced by his teacher Rabbi Meir, was averse to lenient decisions in halakha, even when theoretically justified. (Several of his rulings which may appear lenient, are actually strictures: his decision against praying more than three times a day is, in fact, limiting. Similarly, his assertion that the phrase halacha le-Moshe me-Sinai - "an oral law revealed to Moses on Sinai" - does not always bear a literal meaning but often signifies a universally adopted custom, is not usually taken as a liberal interpretation.) The ROSH was, however, known for his independent legal reasoning: "We must not be guided in our decisions by the admiration of great men, and in the event of a law not being clearly stated in the Talmud, we are not bound to accept it, even if it be based on the works of the Geonim." (For instance, the ROSH ruled that the liturgy of the Geonim, was not in violation of the Talmudic rule against change in the prayers.)

Rabbenu Asher was opposed to the study of secular knowledge, especially philosophy. He held that philosophy is based on critical research, whereas religion is based on tradition and the two are thus "incapable of harmonization". He said that "none that go under her may return" - in fact, he thanked God for having saved him from its influence, and boasted of possessing no knowledge outside the Torah. He led the anti-Maimonists in Spain; he also attempted to issue a decree against the study of non-Jewish learning. One effect of this attitude was to limit his influence on secular Spanish Jewry. At the same time, within rabbinic circles, "he transplanted the strict and narrow Talmudic spirit from Germany to Spain", and this, in some measure, turned Spanish Jews from secular research to the study of the Talmud.


Rabbenu Asher’s best known work is his abstract of Talmudic law. This work specifies the final, practical halakha, leaving out the intermediate discussion and concisely stating the final decision. It omits areas of law limited to Eretz Yisrael (such as agricultural and sacrificial laws) as well as the aggadic portions of the Talmud. Asher’s son Jacob compiled a list of the decisions found in the work, under the title Piskei Ha-ROSH (decisions of the ROSH). Commentaries on his Halachot were written by a number of later Talmudists. In yeshivot, this work is studied as a regular part of the daily talmud study.

This work resembles the Hilchot of the Rif (Rabbi Isaac Alfasi) - also an adumbration - but differs in quoting later authorities: Maimonides, the Tosafists and Alfasi himself. Rabbenu Asher's work superseded Alfasi's within a short time and has been printed with almost every edition of the Talmud since its publication. This work was so important in Jewish law that Yosef Karo included the ROSH together with Maimonides and Isaac Alfasi as one of the three major poskim (decisors) considered in determining the final ruling in his Shulkhan Arukh.

Rabbi Asher also wrote:

* Orchot Chaim, an essay on ethics, written for his sons. It begins with the comment, “Distance yourself from haughtiness, with the essence of distancing.” Orchot Chaim is today an important text in mussar study.
* A commentary on Zeraim (the first order of the Mishnah) - with the exception of Tractate Berachot.
* A commentary on Tohorot (the sixth order of the Mishnah).
* Tosafot-like glosses on several Talmudic topics.
* A volume of responsa; see History of Responsa: Fourteenth century.

May His Soul be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life

Yarzheit - R' Shimon Shkop

Known to all as simply R' Shimon, R' Shimon Shkop is one of the 'Roshei Yeshiva' who has become part of the staple diet of all yeshiva students. His chidushim in Shaarei Yosher with new and unique ways of looking at talmudic topics, revolutionised Torah study, and created a new foundation on which later novellae were built.

Today, 9th Cheshvan is the Yarzheit of this genius who refused to stay in America and returned to Europe before WWII at the request of the Chofetz Chaim and R' Chaim Ozer. He died during the war (though not in the holocaust).

Here is his biography from wikipedia

Rabbi Shimon Shkop (1860-1940) was a rosh yeshiva ("dean") in the Telshe yeshiva and a renowned Talmudic sholar. He was born in Tortz in 1860. At the age of twelve he went to study in the Mir yeshiva, and at fifteen he went to Volozhin yeshiva where he studied six years. His teachers were the Netziv and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, with whom he was very close.


Rabbi Shkop married a niece of Rabbi Eliezer Gordon and in 1885 was appointed to the Telz Yeshiva, where he remained for 18 years until 1903. While there, he developed a system of talmudic study which combined the logical analysis and penetrating insights of Rabbi Chaim Brisker with the simplicity and clarity of Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv) and which became known as the "Telz way of learning".

In 1903, he was appointed Rabbi of Moltsh, and in 1907 of Bransk. A famous pupil of his in Moltsh was Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna who studied under him for a year in 1906, before leaving to Slabodka when Rabbi Shkop himself left. During World War I, the communal leaders urged him to leave before the Germans arrived, but he refused and stayed with his community.


Between 1920 and 1939, at the request of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, he succeeded Rabbi Alter Shmuelevitz as Rosh Yeshiva of the renowned Sha'ar HaTorah in Grodno. He raised the level of the institution and transformed it into one of the finest yeshivos in Poland and beyond. Hundreds of young men flocked there from near and far. For many years, Rabbi Zelik Epstein, an alumnus of the original yeshiva, ran a successor in Queens. It is known as an exemplary institution.

As a young man of eighteen, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz was invited by Rabbi Shimon to give the third level lecture in the Yeshivah Ketanah in Grodno. At the age of 22, he headed a group of students who transferred from Grodno to Mir. However, his four years in Grodno with Rabbi Shimon had a profound influence on his approach to Talmudic analysis.

Yeshiva University

In 1928 Rabbi Shkop traveled to the United States in order to raise much needed funds for the Yeshiva. After delivering a lecture at Yeshiva University, he eventually acceded to Rabbi Bernard (Dov) Revel's invitation to serve as the Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS) in New York. In his absence from Poland, he was greatly missed by Rabbis Yisrael Meir Kagan and Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, who pleaded with him to return. In the fall of 1929, Rabbi Shkop returned to Europe.

Character and personality

Alive to the problems of the day, Rabbi Shkop had a winning personality. He was an active member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the Agudas Yisroel. Many of his students attained distinction, among them Rabbis Elchonon Wasserman of Baronovitch, Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman of Ponevezh and Isser Yehuda Unterman, a future Israeli Chief Rabbi. Dayan Michoel Fisher of London was also a pupil of Rabbi Shkop.

As one of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik's three main students, the others being his son Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik and Rabbi Baruch Ber Lebowitz, it was told: If Rabbi Chaim had said, "This table is a cow," Rabbi Yitzchak Zev would say that the table had the same Talmudic laws as a cow, Rabbi Shimon would say the molecules in a table could be rearranged into a cow, but Rabbi Boruch Ber would go milk the table.

Rabbi Shkop formed close bonds with the somewhat younger Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal, the future Manchester Rosh Yeshiva. He would sometimes come to England to fundraise for his yeshiva, and Rabbi Segal took advantage of these opportunities to serve as his attendant, spending one vacation at Rabbi Shimon's summer resort, studying with him and accompanying him on his walks.

Major works

He published his classic essay titled Sha'arei Yosher (The Gates of Honesty) in 1925 and Ma'arekhet ha-Kinyanim in 1936. Novellae on the Talmud tractates Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Basra were published posthumously in 1947 with a preface by his son, and on Nedarim, Gittin, and Kiddushin in 1952, and on Yevamos and Ketuvot in 1957. Rabbi Shkop’s Talmudic novellae are still studied in yeshivos throughout the world today.

Sha'arei Yosher is largely concerned with the intellectual principles by which the law is established, rather than with concrete laws, and has a strong affinity to the Shev Shema'tata of Aryeh Leib HaCohen Heller, on which it was partly based.


As the Russian army was about to enter Grodno during World War II, he ordered his students to flee to Vilna and he himself died two days later on the 9th of Cheshvan 5700 (1940) in Grodno. Including his death, the Jewish people lost three Rabbis and Torah giants in 10 months: Shimon Shkop, Boruch Ber Levovitz of Kamenitz and Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.

May His Soul be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Harry Potter - a rant

For years Jews have been laughing at the Christian fundamentalists who thought that Harry Potter was dangerous and full of forbidden witchcraft and the like. But look whose laughing now...

At the beginning Harry Potter was harmless entertainment, and the worst that could be said was that it was bitul Torah.

Then as the series progresesd, and Harry got older and grew hormones, there were some pages that I didn't really want my kids to be reading. Unfortunatly by that time it was too late to stop him reading the last books in the series. (I know it is nothing compared to all sorts of things that kids watch on tv and movies and stuff, but he goes to a very frum school where nothing goes at all)

OK, then we got to the end of the series. Breathed a sigh of relief and bade farewell to Harry and the team. Or so we thought.

Today's news comes to make me question why we started with Harry in the first place. JK announced that Dumbledore is gay!

WHY? Isn't that just lashon hara for no good reason? (and if you want to tell me that there is no lashon hara against dead people, it must at least be motzei shem ra!)What is the benefit? Why do my kids have to question the whole book based on Dumbledore's sexuality? Couldn't she just leave the dead in peace?

I am not trying to say anything against gay people. I understand that they must feel comfort and support in having a role model in the head wizard. But was it really necessary? What was JK trying to accomplish that she hasn't already done?

OK, that's enough for my motzei shabbos rant. You can read the article here on the BBC

JK Rowling outs Dumbledore as gay

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has revealed that one of her characters, Hogwarts school headmaster Albus Dumbledore, is gay.

She made her revelation to a packed house in New York's Carnegie Hall on Friday, as part of her US book tour.

She took audience questions and was asked if Dumbledore found "true love".

"Dumbledore is gay," she said, adding he was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, who he beat in a battle between good and bad wizards long ago.

The audience gasped, then applauded. "I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy," she said.

"Falling in love can blind us to an extent," she added, saying Dumbledore was "horribly, terribly let down" and his love for Grindelwald was his "great tragedy".

"Oh, my god," Rowling, 42, concluded with a laugh, "the fan fiction".

Fan sites have long speculated on Dumbledore's sexuality as he was known for having a mysterious, troubled past.

Rowling told the audience that while working on the planned sixth Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, she saw the script carried a reference to a girl who was once of interest to Dumbledore.

She said she ensured director David Yates was made aware of the truth about her character.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell welcomed the news about Dumbledore and said: "It's good that children's literature includes the reality of gay people, since we exist in every society.

"But I am disappointed that she did not make Dumbledore's sexuality explicit in the Harry Potter book. Making it obvious would have sent a much more powerful message of understanding and acceptance."

And a spokesman for gay rights group Stonewall added: "It's great that JK has said this. It shows that there's no limit to what gay and lesbian people can do, even being a wizard headmaster."

Rowling also did a brief reading from the seventh book in her best-selling series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as part of her Open Book Tour of the US - her first there for seven years.

She said she regarded her novels as a "prolonged argument for tolerance" and urged her fans to "question authority".

But she added that not everyone likes her work. Christian groups have alleged the books promote witchcraft. The author said her revelation about Dumbledore would give them one more reason.

Rabeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos

TorahLab has just published the first ever translation of Rabeinu Yonah’s classic commentary on Avos. The TorahLab team, headed by Rabbi David Sedley, has done a remarkable job at adding a significant contribution to Jewish literature and understanding.

A little about the book and its history.

“There were many great Torah authors and many styles of mussar. Not every author can speak to every soul; there are after all so many different types of souls. The exception to this is Rabbeinu Yonah Girondi (and specifically his book on teshuvah). His writings are appropriate to every Jew in every time.” (Rabbi Chaim of Velozhin as quoted by the Chofetz Chaim])

Rabbeinu Yonah came from Girona, in Catalonia. He lived in the thirteenth century, was a grandson and student of the Ramban and the teacher of the Rashba. He is mentioned several times in the commentary of the Tosafos on the Talmud, referred to there as Rabbi Yonah.

He was also considered the most prominent pupil of Rabbi Shlomoh Min HaHor who was the leader of the opponents of Rambam’s philosophical works. As such, he was one of the signers of the infamous ban proclaimed against the Moreh Nevuchim and the Sefer HaMadda in 1233. According to his pupil, Hillel of Verona, Rabbeinu Yonah felt that these editions were philosophically dangerous to the masses and was the instigator of the public burning of Maimonides' writings by the church in 1233.

Nine years later, in 1242, twenty-four wagon-loads of the Talmud were burned by the church at the very same place where the philosophical writings of Rambam had been destroyed. Rabbeinu Yonah, realized that he made a mistake and publicly admitted in the synagogue of Montpellier that he had been wrong in all his acts against the works and fame of Maimonides.

In his repentance he vowed to travel to Eretz Yisroel and prostrate himself on the grave of the Rambam and implore his pardon in the presence of ten men for seven consecutive days. He left France with that intention, but was detained, first in Barcelona and later in Toledo. He remained in Toledo, and became one of the great Talmudical teachers of his time.

In all his lectures and in his writings he made a point of quoting from Rambam; always mentioning his name with great reverence. Rabbeinu Yonah’s sudden death from a rare disease was considered by many as a consequence of failure to fulfil his vow to journey to the grave of Rambam. He died in Toledo, Spain in November of 1263.

Rabbeinu Yonah wrote a number of works; it is surmised, to atone for his earlier attacks on Rambam and to emphasize his repentance. His Iggeres HaTeshuvah, Shaarei Teshuvah, and Sefer HaYirah are among the most popular ethical treatises in the Judaic library. The Shaarie Teshuvah first appeared in Fano (1505) with the Sefer HaYirah, while the Iggeres HaTeshuvah was first published in Cracow (1586). All have been reprinted many times, separately and together, as well as numerous extracts from them. Rabbeinu Yonah actually wrote many more treatises which were compiled together and published as Shaarei Tzedek; unfortunately most of these writings have been

Rabbi Akiva Eiger commented that he was particularly moved by the mussar works of Rabbeinu Yonah because aside from being a great ethicist, Rabbeinu Yonah was one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of all time as well as a authority on Jewish law. Rabbi Akiva Eiger viewed Rabbeinu Yonah’s mussar comments as legally binding.

Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos, presents this exact blend of his abilities. In contrast to the hundreds of commentaries on Pirkei Avos that use the text of Avos as a springboard for homiletic and ethical preaching, Rabbeinu Yonah explains the simple meaning of each Mishnah. This creates a new possibility for inspiration, where one is struck by the beauty and awesome timelessness of the words of the Sages.

We have a very limited number of copies of Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos for sale. I strongly recommend you order yours from Torahlab today.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Yarzheit - R' Meir Shapira

Today is the yarzheit of the founder of 'daf yomi', Rav Meir Shapira. Although the idea of daf yomi met with some opposition, with hindsight we can see the tremendous amount of Torah learning by people of all stripes that R' Shapira brought into the world. Although a simple idea, it needed the right person at the right time (and probably needed Artscroll to come out with the English translation before it really took off) to implement such a program.


Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin, the founding Rosh Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and an esteemed luminary of his generation across the world of Jewish study, proposed a universal calendar for studying the entire Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) on the basis of a double page a day, for 2711 days, thus completing the cycle in about 7 years. He did so to foster Jewish learning, commitment and unity, and he launched the project at the First World Congress of Agudath Yisrael, in Vienna, on 11th September 1923 (5683), from where it spread to leading yeshivot and religious authorities.

This amazingly simple concept took off immediately in E. Europe and only post-war around the world – being officially adopted in the pre-state Yishuv in 1947, as well as in the USA, Canada and Great Britain - learning in yeshivot, informal groups, formal shiurim and hevrutot. The eleventh and current cycle ends on 21st Adar I, 5765 (1st-2nd March 2005) and there is a celebratory siyum in Tel Aviv on 1st March (Hebrew, Yiddish) and in Jerusalem on 2nd March (English, Russian).

Today, audio cassettes, online streamed, live, or downloadable video, audio with text classes/files, email lists, CDs, conference calls, discussion boards, Palm versions, ShasPod, and the like, make the Daf Yomi available to the widest ever audience worldwide in several languages - with the majority of such online resources being free of charge (donations are usually welcome!). You can naturally still attend real live shiurim, some of them also web-casted or web-published, but the convenience of access to online or offline shiurim in digital and recorded formats has revolutionized the Daf Yomi for commuters, students, and busy individuals worldwide. If you travel on the Inwood Long Island Railroad to Manhattan early enough in the morning, you can even follow a live lesson on wheels.


Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira was born in March 1887. His father was Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Schatz (Bukovina), son of Rabbi Yehuda Meir, son of Rabbi Dov of Tlost, son of Rabbi Yehuda Meir of Shpitovka, son of the famous tzaddik and friend of Besht (the founder of Chassidism), Rabbi Pinchus of Kuritz, a descendant of Rabbi Natan Shapira, author of Megalah Amukot of Cracow. In his youth, he caused a stir in the world of the Torah with his wisdom and great knowledge. This is confirmed by the great sage, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Svedron of Berzan, in the ordination certificate he issued for the Rabbi Meir, in which he writes, “I saw a young man named Meir and I offered the blessing Yotzer Ha'meorot (creator of the lights).”

Rabbi Shapira had studied with his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Schor of Munstritz, author of Minchat Shai, mastering all aspects of Torah and knowledge; soon he became known as a great scholar. A wealthy Galician Jew named Rabbi Yaakov David Breitman of Tarnopol gave him his daughter's hand in marriage.

He became totally dedicated to the study of Torah at his comfortable home in Tarnopol. In a short time the “genius of Schatz” became one of the leading lights of his generation. His home became a meeting place for rabbis and scholars who would direct their questions to him; his answers always hit the mark and were accepted favorably, which drew much attention to him. He was seen as a rising star in the world of Halacha, and he proceeded to publish his first book, Imrey Daat. Around that time he was offered the position of rabbi of the town of Galina in Galicia and he quickly accepted it, although his in-laws were against his becoming a servant of the community. In Galina he continued to learn Torah and tried to start a school for children and a yeshiva for young men. The neglected town became a center of Torah. His first yeshiva in Galina, which he headed, became a source of famous rabbis who followed in his footsteps.

But Rabbi Shapira's restless spirit would not let him remain in Galina. He became a public champion of Torah and faith, and in public gatherings he raised his voice against the neglect of young people and proclaimed himself spiritual father to the yeshiva students who, because of lack of attention, were condemned to waste away. He had labored successfully in Galina for ten years, but he started to feel that the place was too small for him; in 1922 he became rabbi in Sanok.

Public Leader and Delegate to the Sejm

In Sanok he also found much to do. Here, too, he did a great deal for the community, and his fame increased. Legends spread about his dynamic personality. He became a member of Agudath Israel and did a great deal for that movement. From Sanok he was often invited to appear on the podium on behalf of Poland's religious Jewry, as a speaker, he fired up the masses. He was chosen to head Agudath Israel and was elected delegate to the Polish Sejm (parliament).

On Adar 16, 1924, he was chosen rabbi of the great town of Piotrkow, which boasted many sages and writers, devoted Jews and Jewish scholars. In 1923 he had proposed at a great assembly of Agudath Israel in Vienna the study of a “daily page” of Talmud and the establishment of universal yeshiva; both proposals were received with loud applause.

When Rabbi Shapira became the rabbi of Piotrkow, he was only 37 years old; not since the days of the Gaon author of Brit Avraham, who had become rabbi of Piotrkow at a young age, had anyone been appointed so young to serve as a rabbi of a town that had known so many great rabbis and sages. He served as rabbi of the town whiles spending most of his time away because of his frequent trips on behalf of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva, which he had organized. But his leadership was felt in Piotrkow, as he was dedicated to his work in the community. This imprint was felt in all matters, great and small. His fiery sermons inspired people, and he became extremely popular; his speeches always drew an overflow crowd.

Head of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva

Rabbi Shapira's crowning achievement was the establishment of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva (Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin). He brought together exemplary people, old Chassidim, heads of Orthodox Jewry and public leaders who proceeded to establish the great yeshiva which was his life's dream. The Piotrkow community gave him a great deal of help. Many of its communal leaders supported him because of his great influence and their admiration for him. While serving as rabbi in Piotrkow, he was fortunate enough to see his dreams fulfilled, and even took part in the first conclusion of Talmudic study (siyum), which occurred on the 15th of Shvat, 1934. He was able to teach Torah to his students after the foundation was laid for the great building of the yeshiva, an event that was joyously celebrated at his home in Piotrkow. It took seven years to complete the building; he worked day and night raising funds for the cause. In his short life he was able to see this project completed.

In 1926, Rabbi Shapira published his responsa book Or Hameir, a second edition of which was published by his brother in New York in 1951. In Iyar, 1931 he became president of the rabbinical court in Lublin and moved to that city, having served in Piotrkow for six years. His many cares gave him no rest after he settled in Lublin, and he would often tell his friends that he missed his rabbinical position in Piotrkow. Because of his difficult work in Lublin he became prematurely old, and despite his young age his hair turned gray. He suddenly took ill and on the 7th of Heshvan, 1934, after living in Lublin for two and a half years, he departed this world at the age of 46 and eight months. Nearly one hundred thousand people attended his funeral, and religious Jewry in Poland and elsewhere went into deep mourning.

May His Soul Be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pocket 'davar acher'

The good news about these pigs is that not only are they cute, but they probably won't be appearing on any menu any time soon ('pigs in blankets' takes on a whole new meaning).

They aren't kosher, but they are small and easy to house train! No piggy messy surprises awaiting you when you get home.

Perhaps Noach spent the 120 years while building the Ark figuring out how to breed mini-animals. That would explain how he managed to fit them all into such a small ark. (Doesn't explain how the kangaroos got to Australia though, unless he took a detour on the way to Ararat and let all the animals with pockets jump off there.)

Before you know it they'll have invented a gefilte fish that can go straight from your fish bowl into your pocket as a school snack!

"I want one I want one I want one. I can take it to school and feed it maccabeans (tm) and put it on a leash and knit little clothes for it and ... and ... and..."

From the BBC

A Devon fun farm is reaping the rewards of a nine-year breeding programme for miniature pigs.

The pigs, which are about a fifth of the size of ordinary pigs, have been a hit with visitors at Pennywell Farm.

TV celebrity Jonathan Ross bought two of the pint-sized porkers as pets at £150 each and there have even been offers from as far away as Australia.

The pocket pigs are a variant of the rare kune kune breed, which are found in New Zealand.

Chris Murray, co-owner of the farm near Buckfastleigh, began cross-breeding the pigs nine years ago and believes he has the perfect pet pig.

Off menu

He said: "Pigs are very cute when they are young, but they outgrow a home environment and can be aggressive when they get older.

"These pigs are just at home indoors or outdoors."

Some pet pigs, such as the Vietnamese pot-bellied variety, have in the past been bought for their cuteness.

But they fell out of fashion when it became clear how big they grow.

The world's smallest pig is thought to be the 28in-long wild pygmy hog, an endangered species which lives in wildlife sanctuaries in Assam, India.

Mr Murray said: "They are easy to house train and have a good temperament.

"A sow would normally snap at you if you picked up one of her litter, but these are amazingly content."

Mr Murray doubts if they will be appearing on restaurant menus.

"They are too small, he said.

"It would be uneconomic so it's unlikely they will be used for meat and there is already a huge amount of different pig meat available."

Yarzheit - Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

Yesterday was the yarzheit of one of my favourite chasidic Rebbes, the Aish Kodesh - Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (just the name is enough to inspire awe!).

Apart from being one of the true heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto and inspiring countless others during the darkest days of the Holocaust, the Aish Kodesh wrote books which are understandable, practical, inspiring and relevant. There are English translations of several of his books, but if you can read a little bit of Hebrew you might want to try in the original.

My 12 year old son is learning Chovas HaTalmidim at school this year as his mussar sefer. It is a shame really, because people come to think of it as a kids' book. It is even more relevant for adults.

Here are the bios from the web:

From Wikipedia

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was born in Grodzisk, Poland to his father, the Imrei Elimelech of Grodzhisk. Named after his maternal great-grandfather, the renowned Maor VaShemesh, he was a scion of a distinguished family, which included Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, the Chozeh of Lublin and the Maggid of Kozhnitz.

At the age of three, he was orphaned by the death of his father. In 1905 he married Rachel Chaya Miriam, daughter of his nephew Grand Rabbi Yerachmiel Moshe of Kozhnitz. She helped him prepare his lectures and books, even adding pertinent insights of her own.

In 1909 he was appointed rabbi of Piaseczno, near Warsaw, and subsequently attracted many chasidim. He was deeply focused on the education of children and young men, establishing the yeshiva Da'as Moshe in 1923.

Rabbi Shapira's only son and his son's wife were killed during the Nazi aerial bombing of Warsaw in September, 1939. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, Rabbi Shapira was interned with a few of his chasidim in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he ran a secret synagogue. He wrote a book while in the camp and told some of his students where he buried it. Later The students went back and recovered his inspirational speeches of this period from the ruins of the ghetto and published under the title Aish Kodesh.

After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed in 1943, Rabbi Shapira was taken to the Trevaniki work camp near Lublin. Prisoners who were completely worked out by exhaustion and starvation were removed and sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. Rabbi Shapira spent his last few months in Treblinka, where he was murdered by the Nazis in 1943.


* Chovas HaTalmidim (The Students' Obligation) - a collection of essays aimed at teenagers which has become a standard textbook in yeshivos.
* Hachshoras HaAvreichim (Preparation of Young Men) - a work written for young married men.
* Mevo haSheorim
* Bnei Machshava Tova
* Derech HaMelech (The Way of the King) - Torah discourses spoken on shabbats and festivals (1889-1943)
* Eish Kodesh (Holy Fire) - his inspirational speeches given during the Holocaust period.
* Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work - originally published in Hebrew, this English translation (translated by Andrea Cohen-Kiener) is based on the manuscrpits recovered from the rubble in the Warsaw ghetto. The book is a guide to attaining spirituality despite adversity and physical needs.

This is from Shema Yisrael
(note: the first part of this essay was incorrectly attributed to Prof. Herszel Klepfisz)
by R. Asher Katzman

In R. Shapira's work, Chovas Hatalmidim, he manifested his greatness in writing. He had a gifted pen, and was noted as a deep thinker and writer. His words make an impression on the inner core of the soul and heart.

In Warsaw in 5692, he published his Chovas Hatalmidim. It has been said that "the letters of this book burn with holiness." In this book, he penetrates the hearts of students, unveils their spiritual strength, and brings them to the Torah and service of God by educating them with a supernal love, with holy words and deep thoughts from the revealed Torah of God, and the broad, deep world of mysticism and kabbalah, expressing the character of his soul and mind.

R. Shapira commented on this work to the Gritzer rabbi, R. Eliyahu Lifschitz, "If I didn't know that I was the author, I would never have believed that I have the ability to write such a work ... It was only with strength that came from God..." This work created legions of yeshiva students who placed his words, which were like hot coals and flames, in their hearts, with the greatest passion and love for Torah and Hasidism. Even in the time of the great and terrible sacrifice of Polish Jewry, in the terrible camps of the death camps, beneath the shadows of gas chambers and burning crematorium fires, his words warmed them with great faith in God, so that they could accept martyrdom with joy.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters, corresponding to the thirteen principles of faith and the thirteen rules of interpreting the Torah, followed by three important essays on how to learn and ponder the teachings of Hasidism; how to understand and elevate oneself in Torah, prayer and song to God; and the holy exaltation of the manifestation of God on the holidays and the holy Sabbath.

When he published this book, R. Shapira was barely 42 years old, but he was already considered an extraordinary man, one of the leaders of his generation, a tzaddik and a holy man.

May His Soul Be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life and May G-d Avenge his Blood.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Religious (in)tolerance

I'm not personally a big fan of Jesus posters - if you have ever walked through the Arab Shuk in the Old City you will know that those ones with the eyes that follow you as you walk are creepy (not religious intolerance on my part - just anti-creepiness).

On the other hand, I would never have the gall to ask someone to remove a poster from a public area. I don't particularly want to look at a poster of a bloody heart and hands with nail wounds in them while I am trying to eat my sandwiches, but there are worse things in some staff cafeterias.

Can you imagine the religious intolerance that would lead a member of staff to complain about such a poster, and (even worse) can you imagine an employer suspending someone for putting up such a poster?

To make it worse, it was a Muslim who complained, despite the fact that Jesus was a prophet according to the Koran:

the Quran not only discusses Jesus many times but also gives him a role of high honor, though only as a prophet.... Jesus is one in a succession of highly revered prophets, including Abraham and Moses, in the Quran. The Quran, which is broken into 114 Surahs (chapters) and verses, describes Jesus' miracles (5:110) and his special relationship as "the word" and "the spirit of God" (4:171). Muslims believe Christ was taken alive into heaven and will return at Judgement Day (4:159).
(from the Observer). Why would a picture of a prophet be considered objectionable (I thought it was only Muhamed they were not allowed to depict).

What next? Will they ban Santa Claus (and Coca Cola)? Will they forbid Xtians to wear crosses (oops - British Airways already tried that one - see the end of this article!)?

Britain is trying to present itself as a tolerant country. Schools had the day off on Friday because it was Eid (I'm not sure if it was all the schools, but certainly some). But it seems that tolerance is defined as 'pleasing Muslims at the expense of everyone else'.

If that is the case - WAKE UP JEWS! Time to pack up and come home to Israel.

From the BBC

A Catholic worker at Manchester Airport was suspended after hanging an image of Jesus on a staff room wall.

Gareth Langmead, 40, was sent home from his job as a car parks supervisor after a complaint from a Muslim colleague.

He was off work for three days while an investigation was carried out and later reinstated with a clean record.

Union officials accused the airport of overreacting and said Mr Langmead was upset by the incident, but the airport said he had not complained.

The airport worker, from Atherton, Greater Manchester, found the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as he was clearing out a desk drawer.

As he felt unable to throw it away, Mr Langmead hung it on a wall in the staff rest room, prompting a complaint it had been put up as "an act of provocation".

Airport bosses investigated the claim but reached the decision that he had done nothing wrong.

A spokesman said: "We can confirm that a member of staff was suspended pending an investigation into his conduct.

"This investigation was swiftly concluded and the employee has returned to work with a clean record.

"Given the nature of this incident, we have agreed with our airport Chaplain that he and his team will work with the employees involved to foster a greater level of understanding about each other's beliefs and how this applies in the workplace."

News of the suspension emerged a week after Hindu Heathrow Airport worker Amrit Lalji, who lost her job for wearing a nose stud, was reinstated.

Last year, Heathrow worker Nadia Eweida was suspended by British Airways for wearing a Christian cross but later reinstated following condemnation by clerics and politicians.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Dylan's message

Not only is he one of the greatest musical personalities of the 20th century, but Bob Dylan has managed to go back in time to find my 'to do' list from the late 60s (I think I had hair like that then too - well, a few years later, since I wasn't actually born then). I know this is cheap commercialism on the part of Bob and his team, but I think it is cute, so I'm inflicting it on you anyway.

Thanks to Jewish Pride for the idea.

Have a great Shabbat everyone!!!!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Do we exist?

Any discussion of how the world and the people in it relate and connect to G-d HAS to begin with an understanding of the two main views of how to understand the Arizal's concept of tzimtzum (contraction). Unfortunately, very rarely does anyone talk about this topic at all. It is too kabbalistic, so the Rabbis giving shiurim leave it for the likes of Madonna to learn about.

It is impossible to understand the difference between Chasidim and Misnagdim without knowing this concept (and learning the Nefesh HaChaim is not enough, because he presents a third, hybrid opinion). One also has a better understanding of what is going on in the religious world today, the Slifkin argument, the kollel lifestyle and almost everything else once you understand whether the world is real or not.

In my opinion it is impossible to understand G-d or our relationship with Him without an understanding of this basic arguement. It is also impossible to understand the world and our role in it.

From Hamlet to Descartes to Uncle Moshe, this shiur traces the history of our understanding of G-d's involvement in the world. Beginning with Rambam and the Kalam, via the Etz Chaim, and ending with a rare book of the Gaon (Asarah Clalim) and the Tanya, with some Rav Tzadok thrown in for good measure. This shiur is aimed at beginners, though I think many advanced learners would benefit greatly from listening to it.

Listen, read, enjoy, and please share your feedback with me.

Tzimtzum, Existence and Machlokes

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Essential Jewish Library

I had a phone call a couple of days ago from someone who was in a bookshop, trying to decide what to buy (thanks Vivi). Which led me to think about which books would make a basic Jewish library, and which every Jewish home should have. Of course, for me now Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos is top of the list. But what else should every home have?

I'm thinking only of English books at the moment. Here is my list. What else would you add?

Essential Jewish Library

Basic Introductory Books about Judaism
To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life by Hayim Halevy Donin

Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Dennis Prager

This Is My God by Herman Wouk

Basic Jewish (Synagogue) Survival

Siddur. Every Jewish home should have at least one siddur (prayerbook). There are many good English/Hebrew siddurim around. The first thing you have to know is which ‘nusach’ you need. The three main choices are Ashkenaz (Jews of European origin), Sefard (Used by Chasidim – not to be confused with Sefardi, which is the next category), and Edot Hamizrach, or Sefardi (for Jews of Spanish/ North African/ Middle Eastern descent). If you don’t know what you use have a look what your Synagogue uses. If you don’t have a Synagogue ask your friends.

The The Complete Artscroll Siddur (Artscroll Mesorah Series)has become the standard in many parts of the world. They have many different varieties: Ashkenazi and Sefard, Hebrew/English, interlinear, Hebrew only etc.
However, I am in love with the new ‘Singer’ Hebrew Daily Prayer Bookproduced by the United Synagogues and the Chief Rabbi.
There is also the Metzuda, which is a linear translation.

Chumash: The Chumash is the Five Books of Moses (Torah) divided up into weekly portions, and also contains the Haftorah (reading from the prophets) for each week. Although the Tanach (next on list) contains the same things (and more), it is probably worth having a Chumash to make things simpler when you go to Synagogue, or want to read the parsha at home.

There are several good chumashim available including:
The Living Torah :(English edition),A new Translation Based On Traditional Jewish Sources and

The Chumash: The Stone Edition (Artscroll Series)

Tanach: This is an abbreviation for all three parts of the Jewish scriptures – Torah (five books of Moses), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings).
The best English translation of Tanach is the Tanach: The Stone Edition: The Torah/Prophets/Writings : (The Artscroll Ser.), available in a couple of sizes, colors and formats.

Haggadah: This is the book that you will need for your Pesach Seder. You probably have an old Maxwell House Haggadah sitting around. A good Haggadah will revolutionize your Seder. I try to use a different one every year, so that each year has new insights and is different than the last year (why is this night different…). There are so many to choose from that I can’t recommend any in particular. There is one which is different than most of the others, called ‘A Different Night’. It will certainly get you to think.

Probably Artscroll is the only sensible choice now
Complete Artscroll Machzor Pesach
(though there are other good machzorim that have come out recently - I'm just waiting for a chance to look at them)

Other basic Jewish books:

In theory the Mishnah and Talmud should be on this list. They are basic Jewish texts which every home should have. However the standard Hebrew Mishna with commentaries is 13 volumes (though there are many 3 or 6 volumes Mishnayos with less commentaries), and the Talmud is usually 20 volumes of Aramaic text. There are English translations of both available, of varying quality, but they take up lots of shelf space and unless you are going to a class to study them they won’t really be all that helpful.

The Shulchan Aruch should also be in every home. Again, the problem is one of space and utility. The standard Hebrew Shulchan Aruch with commentaries is 7 volumes and there are other halachic books which will probably be more user friendly and practical.

Mishnah Brura is only 6 volumes in Hebrew, and a vital reference text. There is an English translation from Feldheim, but unless you particularly want to learn Mishna Brura I would not necessarily suggest it, unless you want help when you get stuck on the Hebrew, but there are better Halachic books available in English).

If you can read (and understand) Hebrew, or want to improve it, I would suggest getting a copy of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. It is one small volume in Hebrew, and is written in fairly simple Hebrew. As for English translations, same as above.

For practical English Halachic books I would recommend:

Shemirath Shabbath 3 Volume Set (3 volumes) or
The 39 melochos =: Sefer 39 melakhot (4 vols - Feldheim)

Laws of Kashrus

The Halachos of Brochos

Lashon Hara:
GUARD YOUR TONGUE a Practical Guide to the Laws of Loshon Hora

Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov
Halochos of Chanukah, Rabbi Shimon D. Eider, Feldheim Publishing
Halochos of Pesach, Rabbi Shimon D. Eider, Feldheim Publishing

Women and Judaism:
Jewish Woman in Jewish Law by Moshe Meiselman
To Be a Jewish Woman by Lisa Aiken

Made in Heaven A Jewish Wedding Guide by Aryeh Kaplan

Death and Mourning:
(all of the following are very good. I wouldn't suggest you buy all of them though)
Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Maurice Lamm
Mourning in Halachah-the Laws and Customs of the Year of Mourning by Goldberg, Chaim Binyamin; Mesorah Publications Ltd.
Concern for the Living: A Compendium of Laws, Traditions and Customs on Mourning, Their Origin and Rationale by Press, Chaim; Targum Press
Death and Bereavement – A Halakhic Guide by Weiss, Abner; Ktav Publishers, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations

A Matter Of Interest, Rabbi Mordechai Kanner, Targum/Feldheim

Handbook Of Jewish Thought (2 vol.), Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Moznaim Publishing

Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) by Rambam

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Happiness without relief

Rabbeinu Yonah comments on the Mishna 'No one ever said to his friend, "There is no room for me to sleep in Jerusalem" as follows:
When the people came to Jerusalem for the Festivals, no one ever said, "The place is too crowded for me; move aside for me that I may dwell" (Yeshayahu 49: 2). As David HaMelech said, "The build city of Jerusalem. it is like a city united." (Tehillim 122: 3). In other words, the city was built to accommodate the enitre nation. The word "it" means "for its sake"; Jerusalem waas built for the sake of the Jewish nation, so that they could all gather there.

My in-laws certainly put this into practice this Succot. Not only did they manage to find place to sleep the two of them and the seven of us, but for the first days they also had two other guests sleeping over! Not bad in a two bedroom apartment!! (Succot is easier than Pesach, because some of us were sleeping outside).

Unfortunately the Mishna doesn't mention anything about bathrooms. There is no verse saying that there will be enough toilets for everyone. And so, in their two bedroom apartment, my in-laws have one toilet (which is itself not a good ratio). Then on Shabbat the toilet became blocked, and gradually during the next few days became flooded, started dripping down on the neighbours, and eventually began to spread raw sewerage around the house. LOVELY! Talk about having to keep our legs crossed!

Luckily there are friends who have toilets. So we weren't quite reduced to following the sign:

Thanks Savta and Zeidy for putting up with us!

Chag Sameach