Friday, August 22, 2008

New kitchen

OK, I'm hot and exhausted but feeling very proud of myself for having actually accomplished something this morning. I have spent the last 2 hours putting in two shelves. I took a couple of pieces of wood that I found near the dumpster, sawed them (with a small hand saw) to the right size (well, almost the right size, by the third time it was right). One shelf was inside a cupboard, so I just had to put in those little nails with the plastic hats to hold the shelf up (I hate those hats - they never want to go in when and where I want them to). The other shelf was to hold our meaty oven (and by meaty I'm not making a comment about its size, but rather referring to the kind of food we hope to make inside it). So I had to put brackets on the shelf and on the wall. Once I'd put the brackets on the shelf, I had to take them off and put them on again, because I realised that I had the wrong side facing out, then had to redrill the holes in the wall. But finally it is up, and so far the oven hasn't fallen off (I hope it doesn't do so on Shabbat, because that will create all sorts of muktze problems). I tried putting one of my kids on the shelf to see if it was strong enough (I wouldn't want to have the oven drop now would I? - actually I'm joking. I didn't really put my children on the shelf. That would be cruel. I had them hold the wood while I was sawing it instead. NO, I'm still just kidding. I love my kids really).

We had to replace our kitchen because the old one was rotting and leaking and the sinks fell out. Luckily some friends moved into an apartment and replaced the kitchen there, so we took the old kitchen cabinets. And someone else gave us a stainless steel double sink (but that's another kashrus question, which deserves its own blog). So all we had to pay for were the counters (which are not cheap) and the guy who put it in. All in all it was less than 6000 shekel. Not bad at all (it is only about 5999 more than we can afford - but what is money between friends).

Now my wife is inspecting my handiwork ... and ... she likes it! YAY!

OK kids, my work here is done. Up up and away!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Some suggestions for the 2nd JBlogging Convention

OK, I suppose I was a bit too harsh in my assessment of the JBlogging convention because I've had many more hits than usual and been mentioned by DovBear! Must be bad. The truth is that if I'd just read his liveblogging of the event it would have been much better. He cut Bibi down to a paragraph (which was more than he deserved, in my HUMBLE opinion).

Also, after reflecting for a day, I don't think any of the first three speakers were bad. They just weren't sure what they were supposed to be saying. There was no clear remit. Was it supposed to be about them? about everyone else? about Israel? etc.

So, instead of being negative I'll make some suggestions for next year's convention.

* Work out what the purpose of the conference is beforehand. Promoting Israel is fine, I have no problem with that, but give me something that will improve my blog (because blogging is always about me) to make it worth the trip.

* NO POLITICIANS! (Even though in all likelihood next year will also be an election year!) Talk about blogging and talk about Israel. Don't make it into a party political platform - PLEASE!

* Remember the vegetarians! How much meat can people eat? How about some sticky buns instead! (I know it will ruin the pun, because you can't have 'sticky bun and greet', but think of a new joke for next year)

* Try to encourage the speakers to prepare what they are going to say before they stand up to speak (especially the ones who you are flying in from the States in business class!)

* Let people submit questions beforehand to guide the discussion and the direction of the evening.

* Let the panel discussions just be panel discussions, instead of 4 short speeches.

* Bring in people who can talk about the latest in the computer/blogging/software/ world that will improve the technical quality of the blogs (as well as just telling us what to write about Israel)

* NO POLITICIANS (Just in case they missed it the first time)

* Have a live band. I would have stayed if Angus Young and AC-DC were going to close the show.

* Try to raffle of something that doesn't rhyme with 'raffle'. It sounds silly (not funny, just silly)

* and finally - since I obviously know everything best, because I have a blog and am going to change the world - give me the starring role! ;)

(that last line was definitely a joke. It is much more fun to sit in the back row than to talk to the cameras)

Research says: Large families aren't so bad

Cassandra Jardine has written an article for the Daily Telegraph about the advantages of having lots of children. She makes a lot of good points, showing the many advantages of large families, and some of the disadvantages (many of which only apply in Britain - higher taxes, or Australia - carbon tax!)

The funny (to me) thing is that a large family means five children. Now I hear you say that five is quite a lot. But I am one of six kids, and five would be small, not big. I have five kids, and it doesn't feel like a big family (though sometimes they are quite a handful - especially now during the holidays).

My chevrusa is one of only 4 boys, but between him and his 3 brothers, his mother now has 41 grandchildren (11, 11, 13 and 7). Those sound to me like big families.

The main assumptions of those against larger families are that bigger houses cost more (learn to sqash!), more children cost more money (don't send them to a private school), and it is selfish because the world is overcrowded (doesn't apply to Jews - we have 6,000,000 to catch up - and anyway I don't buy that arguement).

Apparently having five children now is "a public declaration of a huge income, limitless energy and a selfish disregard for the future of the planet, to boot". I feel rich, even though i have no money, but I'm not so sure about the limitless energy one (I never seem to have any!).

And the best line in the article:
Each throw of the genetic dice is a new adventure, a fascinating individual, another sometimes tiresome, usually loveable bundle of strengths and weaknesses.

USUALLY LOVABLE! Hear that kids??

When I tell people that I have five children, they tend to say: "Lucky you." Roughly translated, that means: "What a show-off." A generation back, large families were generally attributed to rejection of contraception; nowadays, they are considered to be a public declaration of a huge income, limitless energy and a selfish disregard for the future of the planet, to boot.

None of the above is true in my case, but I'm always rather feeble in putting the case for large families any more coherently than to say that I enjoy having lots of children, however expensive and tiring they can be.

Each throw of the genetic dice is a new adventure, a fascinating individual, another sometimes tiresome, usually loveable bundle of strengths and weaknesses. I didn't plan to have so many; I just couldn't bear to stop.

The point about big families is that they are more than the sum of their parts - they are a microcosm of society in which the members battle for attention and the best seat in the car.

The squabbles are endless, and often intense, but at the end of the day (literally) everyone has to get on with one another, because they have to share the television remote control. As such, I've always believed that large families are not just a selfish pleasure but beneficial for the country, even the world - but, until now, I've been short of ammunition for arguing my case.

I'm grateful, therefore, to Sky News presenter Colin Brazier, who has spent the past five years assembling evidence that supports the idea that larger families are A Good Thing. "We are so often told about the disadvantages of large families that we have lost sight of the hidden advantages," he says.

His mission began one day at the start of the Iraq war when, while embedded with the United States army, he heard a radio report claiming that the cost of bringing up a child had risen to £180,000.

At the time he didn't have the five children that he has now, but he was already aware that it was bunkum to suggest that it costs as much as the price of a family house to raise each child. By sharing bedrooms, baths and toys, he could see that each additional child in a large family worked out cheaper to raise than a child in a small family.

Nor did he feel it was fair to calculate that each child adds an additional 750 tons of carbon dioxide to the environment. "What about economies of scale?" he thought.

"A four-person household uses half as much electricity, per capita, as a home for one. The people who are messing up the planet are the single people living alone in swanky apartments. Someone needs to rebut these nonsensical stories."

Since then he has not just gathered arguments for the defence, he has gone on the attack. Having condensed his research into an article for the think tank Civitas, he may need to don his flak jacket again, because the anti-natalists who advocate the benefits of a small family may not like what he has to say.

Nor may the Government. In France, parents with three or more children are given medals for their procreative valour. In Britain, we are penalised by higher taxes on people carriers and will soon have to pay through the nose for rubbish collections and water use.

Private schools don't offer discounts for bulk buying, while state schools are abandoning sibling policies, so parents can't assume that they won't have to hurtle around to several schools each morning.

The result of such measures, combined with the constant scare stories about the cost of children, is that 90,000 people have fallen into a baby gap: they would like to have more children but don't dare because they can't afford a larger house or bigger car.

With the British birthrate currently standing at 1.7 per woman - well below replacement level - Brazier argues that there's no need for such restraint. It doesn't matter if you can't afford a large house.

Children who share bedrooms are physically healthier than those who don't, because their immune systems are toughened up by catching minor illnesses from one another in their early years. If they are a bit cramped and have to endure being told they can't always have the new trainers or toy they want, that's good for them.

Having several siblings is also a pointer to future mental health. Scions of large families stand a good chance of making a success of their marriages, because they are used to sharing.

There is also safety in numbers from the pressure of ambitious, fussing parents whose tendency to hover like helicopters over their children's heads contributes, according to a recent Unicef survey, to British children being the most miserable in the developed world.

I'm as keen as the next mother for my children to be world-beaters, but with several children to compare I'm more realistic about their talents and don't have either the time or the resources to apply the mental thumbscrews. Mostly, I'm happy to settle for the children being whoever they happen to be, so long as they help with the washing-up.

Chores are an issue in larger families. The very rich can employ armies of cleaners to pick up after their broods, but the rest of us rely on the children to look after themselves. With a little benign neglect they are forced to learn to clean, cook, fix things for themselves and babysit one another. They may grumble, but these are more useful life skills than playing the violin.

Not that children from large families underperform educationally, as used to be thought.

The theory was that parents with lots of children stop reading to them and park them in front of the television, but a survey of 22,000 French school-leavers found that academic performance improved with additional siblings so long as one parent was "an educated professional". Knowledge and studious habits trickle down the family.

Younger children get less parental help with their homework, but their older siblings act as teachers and the younger ones learn to work on their own. It would be nice if it were so. Children from large families are also less likely to be members of the awkward squad at school: having had their rough edges worn down by sibling squabbles, they tend to be co-operative in the classroom.

One non-economic, non-ecological reason why parents limit themselves to small families these days is that they like the idea of having the time to be best friends with their mini-mes. In large families relationships between siblings become more important than those with their parents, who are too busy keeping the show on the road to go on endless one-to-one shopping or football trips.

This, too, brings bonuses: not only do children in large families have more siblings among whom to find soul-mates but there is always someone to give advice or act as whistle-blower if they are doing something dodgy.

Taking the emphasis off the parent/child relationship also means that twentysomethings from big families are less likely to join the growing hordes who live at home, behaving like ''kidults" well past the age when they should be taking responsibility for themselves.

They are also better at being parents themselves - and less likely to need Supernanny's advice - because they have more experience of seeing how it's done.

What's missing in this country, Brazier concludes, is a lobby to uphold the manifold benefits and interests of the large families. If he wants to start one, he can count me in. Why size really matters


• Children from larger families get into fewer fights, and are better at making and keeping friends.

• Through having siblings, children learn empathy, team playing, gratification deferment, time-management and how to resolve disputes.

• Children with several siblings have lower rates of asthma, eczema and hay fever. They make fewer visits to the doctor and have a reduced risk of leukaemia, cancer and diabetes.

• Older siblings prevent younger ones being bullied.

• In larger families play is less closely supervised. Children learn to take risks, which will make them better employees and employers.

• Children in large families learn to cook, use the washing machine and to iron.

• In larger families there is more emphasis on thrift.

• Those who grow up with siblings are better at getting on with the opposite sex and have fewer divorces.


• Developers are building so few larger homes that a third bedroom can add a fifth to the price of a house, and a fourth two thirds.

• Since 1988 the tax and benefits system has left larger families living on average incomes worse off.

• Converting a loft or basement means higher council tax bills.

• Family tickets for many attractions are limited to two children.

• Car tax on larger cars may soon be followed by dearer parking.

• Many swimming pools allow an adult to supervise only two children.

• In Australia there are proposals for a carbon tax on parents with more than two children.

inside the monkey suit - Jblogger convention

There is a principle in halacha that people don't lie about something which can easily be proven false.

Which is why I don't understand the guys who found Bigfoot. What were they thinking? Perhaps nobody will notice it is a rubber monkey suit?
Quite honestly I couldn't care less if there is a bigfoot or not, but how dumb can Americans be to think they could convince anyone with a rubber suit and some possum dna?

Which brings me to my main subject...

I was at the JBloggers conference last night. Ok, there was probably no possum dna there, but the rest was the same (apart from the rubber monkey suit).

I'm not sure what I was expecting. I was hoping to learn tips for blogging, ways to increase readership, ideas for blogs, software etc. - and of course some free food!

It was so disappointing!! To be fair I left after Bibi (May I call you Prime Minister on Miluim) Netanyahu finished boring me silly with his tripe. So perhaps the evening improved. I had to leave because my brain had turned into blancmange and I couldn't take any more.

It was packed with people, but I found myself embarrassed to say I was a blogger. I was tempted to grab a press sticker and hide in the back.

The first speaker began with a d'var Torah about the importance of humility. To a room full of people who were only interested in self-promotion! (Come on, be honest. Which blogger doesn't dream of a mass readership and changing the world? Everyone is in it to some extent for the ego trip. Yes, even me!)

To see and hear people who write so brilliantly, but really didn't have anything to say when facing a room full of people was sad and actually quite pathetic. There was no clear agenda, no proper discussion, no difficult questions, and no content. I learnt more from 5 minutes browsing the web than I did from 2 hours last night.

And why did they invite Bibi? I know why he wants the publicity - it is election year after all. But to watch the women primp and preen as he walked in (a quick application of lipstick - with him there is always a chance). Then he waffled on (not the waffle iron they were raffling - or the raffle iron they were waffling) for almost an hour about such interesting topics as the CERN particle accelerator and a course in Jewish history. He was asked the most benign questions (can I sign up for your party? Do you think blogging will change the world) by a fawning audience who cheered his every word! I thought bloggers were supposed to be independent thinkers. Apparently most of them just want to find a party line to tow! (although apparently kumah picked up on that and mentioned it in his talk later in the evening).

If I would have gone to a Star Trek convention it would have been equally geeky and probably just as boring - but at least there would have been some fun costumes!

The only funny line of the night was when Bibi tried to begin his speech with wit, by making fun of Jewlicious's name. Bibi said (imagine dark chocolate voice) 'Jewlicious?' To which David Abitbol replied 'Netanyahu?'

Unfortunately for me, the intelligent, witty and bright bloggers I read on the web were for the most part revealed as an empty monkey suit. They should have kept the conference in the freezer with Bigfoot.

(Though if they have the second JBloggers Conference next year, some of those who attend will have a chance to leave the bedroom for a second time!)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hilchot Berachot

For the past three summers I have given shiurim at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya on the subject of Berachot.

During the rest of the year I teach Hilchot Shabbat (which is fairly straight forward) and Hilchot Kashrut (which is much more difficult). But always the most difficult subject is Berachot.

There are many reasons why it is the most difficult subject -

* Everyone has to say brachot - even children, so sometimes people never progress past a children's understanding of the laws

* Modern food is not as simple as food in the time of the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch. It is not always easy to know what the main ingredients are - let alone which is the main and which is secondary

* Eating habits have changed. People don't base their meals around bread necessarily nowadays (and certainly don't eat everything with bread)

* Unlike some other areas of halacha, you can't assume that someone religious knows the laws of brachot, so you can't just copy what everyone else does

* Some laws depend on kavana. Two people could eat the same food at the same time yet make different brachot

* Many foods have no clear psak halacha as to what bracha to say (e.g. rice, rice cakes, certain breakfast cereals etc.)

* In addition one must have kavana when saying brachot - often we forget to have kavana while reciting brachot!

So, even though brachot is perhaps one of the most important areas of halacha, it is not usually learned in depth and has been relegated to rote.

And I have to teach all of this to the beginner level in 9 or 10 classes! An impossible task!

Here are my source sheets. Some people have found them very helpful. Don't use them for p'sak halacha - always ask your local Orthodox Rabbi (or e-mail me if you can't find an LOR). And please tell me of any mistakes you find (there are probably many).

OK, here are the sheets:

Hilchot Berachot

Monday, August 11, 2008

Devarim - tochecha

I gave a shiur this past Shabbos on the concept of tochecha - rebuke, reproach, admonishment - whatever you want to call it. The source sheets are here:

Devarim shiur

Isn't it odd that on Tisha B'Av one of the signs of mourning is that we are not allowed to greet each other. Unfortunately some of my neighbours are always in mourning, because it is very rare to get a spontaneous greeting around these parts. I'm sure other parts of the country (or the world) are better - but what's with saying hello?

Anyway, in addition to the sources (which are kind of neat because there is a story about Jesus - everyone loves Jesus stories) I also quoted the laws of tochecha, which are mainly to be found in Orech Chaim 608 and the Mishna Brura there.

One of the most important things is that tochecha can only be given out of love. If you don't love someone, don't bother telling them if they are doing something wrong - it won't count as a mitzvah for you, and they'll probably just end up hating you for it, which will give them another sin.

Love people. A lot. Care about them. Once you care about them you can also care about their spiritual wellbeing.

It is human nature to not enjoy being told off for doing something wrong. Learn to accept tochecha, even if it is given by the wrong person in the wrong way for the wrong reason.

Don't give tochecha that won't be listened to. It will only make things worse. Do give tochecha if it will be listened to (and in a way that will be heard) - it is one of the 248 positive mitzvot!

The Pele Yoetz (on his entry about tochecha) writes that people make the mistake of thinking that only the Rabbis have to give tochecha. He explains that it is even more important for the average person like you and I to give tochecha. There are two reasons for this. We know better what our friends are up to - when they are in front of the Rabbi perhaps they behave differently.

And more importantly - if the Rabbi gives tochecha it is easy for people to ignore. 'That is only for Rabbis' they think to themselves, 'not common people'. If someone like you or I give tochecha the person realises that it applies to them just like everyone else. (back when I was a Shul Rabbi I knew the sermon was successful when someone came to me and said 'What a great sermon! And every word of it applied to the person sitting next to me! - he didn't know that he was also one of the people I was speaking to!)

Always make sure that you are actually right before you give someone tochecha. Maybe it is you who have been doing things wrong all these years.

There is an important piece written by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky in Emes L'Yaakov on Shulchan Aruch. In explaining the laws of Tisha B'Av he begins by pointing out that there were traditionally two different customs about whether to wear clean clothes on Shabbat Chazon or not. The Jews of Vilna would wear clean clothes, others wouldn't. Both are correct.

He goes on to explain the importance of knowing the difference between a Torah halacha, a Rabbinic halacha, a fence and a minhag. It is not enough to copy what your parents (or friends) do - even if they are completely righteous and do everything correctly. Because if you only copy them without understanding why you are doing it you will come to transgress many sins.

If you don't know the difference between what is your custom and what is halacha you will see others doing things differently than you. You will come to think of them as sinners - thereby transgressing many Torah prohibitions. You may even come to hate them for what you perceive as an infringement, when in fact they are following their minhagim and are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

I gave an analogy (though this is not in R' Yaakov). If you don't rely on heter mechira for Shmita that is fine. But if you think that someone who does is any less of a good Jew than you - you do not love your neighbour as yourself. That person is following the ruling of his or her Rabbi, and the ruling of many great Rabbis of previous generations. It may not be for you, but that doesn't mean they are doing something wrong. (If you choose not to eat in their home that is your own decision to be discussed with your Rabbi. There are different views on that. But if you are going to turn down an invitation do it with love, not to make machlokes!)

The Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of causeless hatred. It was also destroyed (according to the Gemara in Shabbos 54b-55a) because people didn't give each other tochecha. Look at the source sheet and you will see how difficult it is to give tochecha. But work on loving someone first, then they will thank you when you help them improve their relationship with G-d!

(one final point - even if you do give tochecha in the nicest possible way and the person still doesn't listen to you - that doesn't make them a wilful sinner. The Chazon Ish in Yoreh Deah 2:28 says that since nobody nowadays really knows how to give tochecha, nobody can be called a wilful sinner. Without adequate tochecha they are still considered an accidental sinner.)

Friday, August 08, 2008

Langton's Ant and the confines of Halacha

I'm not sure what the message from this is, but this is really neat. It is a thing called Langton's Ant, which is a computer program with only a couple of simple rules. The 'ant' (a colored square) is placed on an infinite grid of white or black squares. The ant moves according to the following rules: If it is standing on a white square it turns left, and if it is standing on a black sqare it turns right. When it leaves the square that square changes colour.

These are very simple rules (the 'two mitzvot of Langton's Ant') and so we would expect the ant to have a very simple life. Yet have a look at this website (click the RUN button) and watch what happens. You have to leave it going for a couple of minutes (the first 10,000 or so steps), to see something very interesting.

Have a look and see what you think. Try it again - the same thing happens.

I wonder how this impacts the discussion of G-d's foreknowledge and free choice.

(If you can't be bothered watching for a couple of minutes I'll spoil the surprise. This is what happens. It starts of making a simple pattern. Then it goes totally chaotic. Finally it settles into a pattern which repeats every 104 steps, building a highway leading off into the infinite. If you run it again the same thing happens, but the highway goes off into a different direction. My brain isn't big enough to understand how this makes any sense!)

Good thing we have 613 mitzvos, to give us some more variation than this poor ant.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Free kids activities in Jerusalem

OK - two posts in two days is a bit too much to begin with right - but anyway...

As everyone (in the northern hemisphere) knows it is now the summer holidays. Fun times will be had by all - or else!

I have been trying to think of places to take my kids, or things to do with them that are fun, age appropriate (which is hard when the ages range between 12 and 1) and most importantly - free (or at least very cheap - vacation becomes expensive you know!)

This week we went to the Israel museum. It was really excellent! Usually we go to the science museum, because that is supposed to be child friendly, but it is not cheap, and too crowded and too complicated for the kids (usually). The Israel museum was really great. Everyone had something to see or do, it was unusual, exciting and most of all - free (for kids for the month of August - adults cost 42 shekel unless you pay with leumi card in which case you get a 21 shekel discount!)

Obviously they have the Dead Sea Scrolls there, which everyone knows about. Now they also have the model of the Second Temple (which used to be in the Holyland hotel) which is great preparation for Tisha B'av. There are so many other things there as well, plus they have special activities for children during the summer.

That was a day well spent (and my son went back the next day for more).

Another free thing, though not 'fun' (but appropriate for Tisha B'Av) is Yad Vashem. It is only for children over 10, and not a great laugh (obviously) but as you know it is really important to educate ourselves and our children about the holocaust.

Today my kids will check out the Old City and the tunnel tours. Apparently they are free as well (though I'm not convinced of that).

But what will we do next week? Any ideas? Please leave comments with your suggestions for kids activities for the summer.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

JBlogger Convention

As you have probably noticed by now I haven't blogged in a long time. I always wondered how people could have a blog for many months or years and then just give up. I won't mention names, but we all know several bloggers who have disappeared from our rss feeds. Blogging used to give me such a buzz (though I'm not sure why) that I couldn't understand just giving it up.

Now it seems that I have done just that. At least temporarily. I still have many things that I want to write - not a week goes by that I don't say to myself 'I should blog about that', but somehow it never gets written. I don't have the time, but I never did, so that can't be the reason. I'm doing more writing in other places, so perhaps I don't feel the same need for self expression - I'm really not sure.

Anyway, I'm going to try and start again now to write a bit. The motivation is the First International Jewish Bloggers Convention – which should be exciting. Here - have a look at the badge: (I can't get it to display in the body of the blog, but you can see it on the sidebar if you scroll down slightly)

It is hosted by Nefesh B’Nefesh, and Powered by WebAds, so I can feel like a Zionist at the same time. (I never got one of their free flights - I made Aliya long before they were around, so I may as well enjoy their convention instead).

The theme of the convention is “Taking JBlogging to the Next Level”. And it is just round the corner from where I live (and begins at 5 in the afternoon, which is basically after work - just have to remember to daven mincha early) so it should be a lot of fun.

There will be great speakers (well, I know them as great writers, I hope they can speak) and tips on how to improve the blogs - and of course, most important, free food!

So I hope to see you all there. And hopefully that will inspire me to continue with the blogging.

Until next time ...

(BTW - For those of you who don't live around the corner and can't attend in person you can sign up to watch it live via the internet - pretty neat huh!)