Friday, February 28, 2020

Today is the third of Adar. Yesterday was (unsurprisingly) the second of Adar.

There is a very interesting historical connection between these two dates, which very few people notice.

The second of Adar (598 BCE) was the date that the First Temple was conquered by Nebuchnazzaer, and King Jeconiah taken captive.

This comes from Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (626-556 B.C.) in the British Museum.

“In the seventh year, the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched to the Hiatti-land, and encamped against (i.e. besieged) the city of Judah and on the second day of the month of Adar he seized the city and captured the king.”

And then, according to tradition exactly 70 years and one day later, on the third of Adar (515 BCE), the Second Temple completed

Ezra 6:15

וְשֵׁיצִיא בַּיְתָה דְנָה, עַד יוֹם תְּלָתָה לִירַח אֲדָר--דִּי-הִיא שְׁנַת-שֵׁת, לְמַלְכוּת דָּרְיָוֶשׁ מַלְכָּא.

And this house was finished on the third day of the month Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.

So the Jewish people slept for 70 years (as the story of Choni the circle-drawer sleeping for 70 years highlights), then woke up the next day and rebuilt the Temple.

The mishna in Ta'anit says that when Adar begins we should increase our happiness. It is hard to reconcile the destruction of the Temple with the happiness of Adar. But if the destruction only lasted for a day, perhaps that is reason to celebrate.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The impossibility of extinction

According to many medieval Jewish sources no species of animal can ever become extinct. This was mainstream belief, held by (and shaping policy for) many of the world leaders up until the 19th century. In this class we discuss extinction, the reasons why it presents difficulty to theologians, and how damaging religious convictions can be when they fly in the face of the evidence. Also, the raven was right.

Here is the source sheet:

Expecting the Messiah

Here is an audio recording of one of the classed I gave a Limmud Scotland last month. I've entitled it "Expecting the Messiah" and it is about the dangers of predicting details of the Messiah's arrival.

Here is the source sheet:

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Parshat Bamidbar -- Happy Birthday Al Capone

One dark Chicago night in 1926, Fats Waller was leaving his regular gig at the Sherman Hotel when he was surrounded by four armed men. Waller was one of the most popular jazz musicians of his time, and one of the most prolific composers. But he had no idea what was about to happen.
One of the armed men shoved a pistol into Waller’s ample belly and told him to get into the limo. Fearing for his life, the pianist did as he was told. He was driven out of town, down to Cicero. The car pulled up outside the Hawthorn Inn and Waller was led inside, gun still pointed at his back, and told to sit down at the piano and start playing.
As he looked around him, Waller realized that he was at a birthday party for the infamous Al Capone, who had relocated his headquarters to Cicero, where he had a better deal with officials, police, and rival gangs than he had had in Chicago. Capone was turning 27 and Fats Waller was a surprise birthday present from “the boys.”
In 1926, America was in the grip of prohibition, and as a result, Capone was at the height of his power. It was still three years before the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, after which he was dubbed “Public Enemy Number One.” It was five years before Capone was sent to jail for tax evasion, where he would serve eight years of an 11-year sentence, including time in Alcatraz, and just over six years after that, aged 48, Capone would be dead.

Al Capone, after his arrest in 1930 on vagrancy charges. (Public Domain, Chicago Bureau of the FBI/ Wikimedia Commons)
But 1926 was a great time to be alive. Capone was head of a massive crime organization following the “resignation” of Johnny Torrio, who had been shot several times. The Chicago Outfit ran an illegal brewery and transportation network that reached across the border to Canada. Several establishments that refused to buy their alcohol from the Outfit were mysteriously blown up, leading to an estimated 100 deaths.
Ironically, though several of Al’s brothers worked with him in the alcohol business, his older brother Vincenzo Capone changed his name to Richard James Hart and became a prohibition agent in Homer, Nebraska. There, he orchestrated a series of successful raids against bootleggers, which earned him the nickname “Two-gun” Hart.
Capone’s reign as head of the crime gang also saw an increase in the number of brothels in Chicago. Yet despite his ruthless violence against rivals and others, Capone gave large donations to charity and earned a reputation as a modern-day Robin Hood.
In addition to a penchant for the ladies, Capone liked wearing fancy suits, and enjoyed expensive cigars, gourmet food and drink. He was also known for wearing flashy and flamboyant jewelry. And he loved to party.
So, when his henchmen were trying to come up with a present to give their boss for his 27th birthday, they could think of nothing better than bringing him Fats Waller, one of his favorite musicians.

Waller played at gunpoint for three days, entertaining the mafia boss and those who were celebrating with him. But the pianist loved to party almost as much as Capone did, especially as after every song he received large cash tips and drinks. By the time he stumbled out of the Hawthorn Inn, Waller had thousands of dollars in his pockets and had developed a taste for fine champagne.
He also had a watertight excuse if he were ever questioned by the FBI — he could honestly claim he had no ties to the mob boss. Waller never played for Capone again, but continued touring until 1943, when he died of pneumonia, aged only 39. At his funeral, the pastor who eulogized him praised Waller, saying he “always played to a packed house.”
The story of Capone and the kidnapped musician got me thinking about how difficult birthdays are. Not only is it hard to find the right present for someone (after all, not everyone can have Fats Waller at gunpoint), but also how tricky it is to actually keep track of birthdays.
The earliest recorded birthday was that of Pharaoh, described in Genesis 40:20. As part of the celebrations, Pharaoh restored the chief butler to his position and executed the chief baker. However, it is possible that this was not actually the anniversary of Pharaoh’s birth, but rather the anniversary of his coronation. Many Pharaohs were believed to be deities once they ascended the throne, and thus it may mark his “rebirth” as a god.

The Palermo Stone in Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo. (G.dallorto/ Wikimedia Commons)
We know from the Palermo Stone that the ancient Pharaohs celebrated a feast called “Appearance of the King” every two years, on the anniversary of their coronation. Is it possible that this is what Pharaoh was celebrating? Perhaps that explained the strange Hebrew phrase “yom huledet et par’o” rather than the simpler “yom huledet par’o” that we would use in modern Hebrew.
You see, until recently it was rather difficult to know when someone’s birthday was. Until modern record keeping, most people didn’t know the day they were born. A friend of mine, who came to Israel with his parents from Morocco as a child, recently turned 70. But nobody knows exactly when. When his mother and father arrived in Israel, they did not know his date of birth. In Morocco, there were no birth certificates at that time. So the official documents list his birthday as 0/0/1949.
The modern practice of compulsory registration of births only started in the United Kingdom in about 1853. In the United States, it was only introduced in 1902. On September 2, 1990, the Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force. It was accepted by 191 countries, and gives children the right to a registered name and nationality at birth.

Bird family birth registry from Bird family bible. (CC BY-SA, Theobird/ Wikimedia Commons)
But before that records were kept sporadically. Some countries, even in ancient times, registered births for tax purposes. In some places, births were registered in local parishes or synagogues for religious reasons. Often, families would record births and deaths in prayer books or elsewhere. But there was no systematic documentation of a child’s date of birth.
It is possible that even in ancient times, parents looked at the stars when their child was born to know what his or her future had in store according to the astrologers. Thus, we find in the Talmud (Shabbat 156a) that one who is born under the sign of Mars will shed blood. So he will become a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer, or a mohel (circumciser).
It is a much more difficult thing to pinpoint the exact date of a birth and know how to celebrate it a year later.
And knowing the length of a year is even more difficult. Nowadays, we celebrate secular birthdays and anniversaries according to the Gregorian calendar, which we note is (approximately) the time it takes for the earth to make one full orbit of the sun.

Earth orbiting the sun. (CC BY-SA, kristian fagerström/ Flickr)
But before the Israelites left Egypt, they were given a brand-new calendar — in fact the very first commandment they were given was to mark the first of Nisan as the beginning of the year. Of course, back then the month was not called Nisan — the names of the “Hebrew” months are Babylonian, and were introduced to the calendar during the Babylonian exile (see Ramban on Exodus 12:2). Before that, the months were called by the Torah “first month,” “second month,” “third month,” etc., although it seems from the book of I Kings (6:1 and 8:2) that they had other names too, such as “Ziv”’ and “Eitanim.”
But the new months they were given means that they now had a new way of calculating a year. It wasn’t the passage of the earth around the sun, but the completion of 12 (or sometimes 13) new moons.
Even if someone knew exactly on which day they were born, it is unlikely that they would also be able to calculate back to work out when their birthday fell according to this new calendar. For one thing, without seeing all the previous moons and without a Sanhedrin to declare the new month, it would have been impossible to know the length of any particular year.
So, although nowadays we take it for granted, it is worth noting that in this week’s Torah reading (Numbers 1:1-3), Moses, along with the leaders of each of the tribes, was instructed to count every man over the age of 20.
God spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month in the second year after they left the land of Egypt, saying: Count the head of the entire congregation of the Children of Israel, according to their families and their father’s houses, by the number of names, a headcount of each male. From 20 years old and upward…
How would they know which of the men were 19 and a half and which were over the age of 20? They had just left years of slavery in Egypt and record-keeping was probably not high on their list of things to do.
We know that the tribe of Levi was counted from the age of 30 days. This solves the problem of record-keeping, but requires parents to note exactly the time of day the baby was born (because if the child was born after dark it would be already the next day, and if he was born during sunset, it is even more complicated). Also, it would have been unseemly for Moses and Aaron to enter the tents of women who had recently given birth. Therefore, several commentaries, including Kli Yakar and Ohr HaChaim, explain that Moses and Aaron would stand outside the tent and a heavenly voice would proclaim how many children over the age of 30 days were inside.
So, it is possible that miracles were also involved when they were counting all the men over the age of 20. Perhaps they had some sign by which they knew who had already had their respective birthdays and who was still a few days away.
Or perhaps they didn’t need to count precisely. Maybe anyone who was approximately 19 when they left Egypt was considered to be 20-years-old one year later.
Or maybe the confusion about birth dates explains the discrepancies in the number of men at the different times they were counted in the wilderness.
Birthdays are on my mind this week. I don’t think we should celebrate them in the same way that Pharaoh or Al Capone celebrated. But birthdays are a time to thank your parents for bringing you into existence. And they are also a good time for an annual stock-taking — while the earth has been traveling at about 107,000 kilometers per hour (67,000 miles per hour) around the sun, how far have we actually come as individuals?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Parshat Emor — Confronting death

Today, Amherst, Massachusetts, is a medium-sized town 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Boston, home to over 40,000 people. But in the 19th century, Amherst was a quiet, unremarkable town, with a much smaller population which, over 100 years, doubled in size from 2,500 to 5,000.
For such a small town, it was home to a significant number of people who made a huge contribution to the world — the poet Robert Frost taught and retired there; Noah Webster, of the eponymous dictionary, lived there; Melvil Dewey, devised the Dewey-Decimal classification system while an assistant librarian in Amherst College; P. D. Eastman, born in Amherst, served in World War II in the Signal Corps film unit, under Theodor Geisel — better known as Dr. Seuss — and went on to illustrate many of his books; the actress Uma Thurman was born and raised in the city.
But for me, the most important resident of Amherst is Emily Dickinson. She was born there in 1830, though she didn’t really become famous until after her death in 1886. During her lifetime, she was better known as a gardener and published fewer than a dozen poems — most of which were modified to conform with a more traditional style.
On her deathbed, Dickinson told her younger sister Lavina to burn all her papers. Luckily for us, Lavina ignored the instruction to destroy the 40 or so notebooks, and instead published the collection of almost 1,800 poems her sister left behind.
Town Hall, Amherst Massachusetts. (CC BY, John Phelan/ Wikimedia Commons)
Dickinson left school at 16, having spent her final year of formal education in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, in a class of 30 categorized religiously as “without hope.” She was considered eccentric by her neighbors, and from the time she was 30 she mostly lived the life of a recluse, seldom going out of her bedroom, corresponding with her few acquaintances through letters.
But she was never alone. Death was her constant companion, as it was for most Americans in the 19th century.
Even though New England had one of the lowest mortality rates in 19th century USA, the average life expectancy was about 46. During Dickinson’s lifetime, the percentage of children who died before their fifth birthday dropped from over 40 percent to below 30% — still a huge number by modern Western standards. And over 600,000 men died during the Civil War, estimated to be about 10% of all Northern men aged 20-45 and over 30% of white Southern men between the ages of 18-40.
So everyone in the United States knew death intimately. But Dickinson embraced Death as a friend and companion.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
Her poetic style and themes were non-traditional, to say the least, and faced critical reception when they were first published. Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1892 that,
“It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy… The incoherence and formlessness of her — versicles are fatal … an eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village (or anywhere else) cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar.”
But her poetry resonated with the public. The first volume of her poetry, published four years after her death, went through 11 editions in just two years. Many people were able to connect with and relate to Dickinson’s descriptions of death, loss, immortality and despair.
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –
When everything that ticked — has stopped –
And space stares – all around —
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground —
But most, like Chaos — Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar —
Or even a Report of Land —
To justify — Despair.
Although there are many new and horrible ways in which people die or are killed, nowadays, thanks to modern medicine, hygiene and nutrition, most people in the Western world rarely have to deal directly and personally with death on the scale that our grandparents did. I have many friends who had never attended a funeral until they were in their 20s or 30s. But just a few decades ago, before the discovery and manufacture of penicillin and vaccines, everyone knew death only too well.
This week’s Torah portion begins with restrictions placed on the priests, the descendants of Aharon, known in Hebrew as kohanim. In addition to restrictions on whom they may marry, they are also warned against coming into contact with the dead. Apart from close relatives, priests must keep well away from death. Not only are they forbidden to enter cemeteries, but they may not even be in the same room or under the same roof as a corpse.
The traditional explanation for the extra holiness required of them is that the priests were traditionally the teachers of Torah. The verse states, (Malachi 2:7)
For the lips of the priest guard knowledge, and they should seek Torah from his mouth, for he is an angel of God of Hosts.
As guardians of the Torah and angels of God, they had to keep far away from impurity. This idea of the priest as an angel was most vividly embodied in Simeon the Just, who served as High Priest in the Second Temple for 40 years. The Talmud relates that before Alexander the Great came to Israel in 332 BCE, Simeon appeared to him in a dream and predicted his victory. Alexander had wanted a statue of himself placed in the Temple, but, instead, Simeon promised that all sons of priests born that year would be named Alexander (Leviticus Rabba 13).
The detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great. (Public Domain./ Wikimedia Commons)
I wonder if there is another, psychological, reason that the Torah insists that priests keep far away from human death. During Temple times, the main task of the priests (at least for the weeks that they were on duty) was to slaughter sacrifices.
Every day, dozens, or sometimes even hundreds or thousands, of animals were killed by the priests, the blood sprinkled and the animals dismembered and burned on the altar (though most of the meat was actually eaten by the priests and those who brought the sacrifices). The priests would spend their days barefoot, wading through the blood which sometimes came up to their knees.
High priest offering a sacrifice of a goat, on the Day of Atonement,; from Henry Davenport Northrop, Treasures of the Bible, published 1894. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)
I remember many years ago, helping supervise the kosher slaughter in New Zealand. I was standing alongside the non-Jewish workers who were removing and sorting the hearts, livers, kidneys and other organs from the chickens, and occasionally ripping off the heads if the machine wasn’t working properly. Though each time, when I first walked into the room, I was an emotional wreck, within a few minutes, I was tossing the carcasses along the line like they were rugby balls.
And I wondered, how was it possible for men and women who spent every day working on the production line dismembering animals to clock out at the end of the day and go out to the pub with their mates, or go home to their families and forget about the death they were surrounded by every day. How could they switch off their emotions and slide back into regular life?
Is it possible that the Torah placed stringent restrictions on the priests to keep far away from human death to constantly remind them of the difference between animals and humans? Because the priests were animal slaughterers and butchers, they had to have extra stringencies to remind them of the importance of human life (and death).
However, even though a priest was forbidden to deal with the body of anyone other than a close relative, there was one case when he was required to personally bury a body.
If a priest (or anyone) came across a body with nobody to take care of it, he had to personally bury the corpse to ensure its dignity. The laws of purity were cast aside in the face of giving a human being a proper funeral.
Washing, dressing, and preparing a body for burial is referred to by the rabbis as chesed shel emet — the true kindness. It is literally a thankless task, motivated solely by concern for those who are unable to help themselves.
The priest, normally kept distant from death, shows the true holiness of life, through this mandated exception to perform this ultimate kindness for others.