Sunday, December 18, 2011

Parshat Vayeshev - The Poor Person

I'm sorry - I forgot to put this shiur on the web last week. So you will either have to listen to last week's parsha now (I think it is still kosher if you listen before Tuesday) or you will have to wait until next year to listen to it.

This shiur is fairly simple, but gives a different view of the parsha. I look at Rabbeinu Bachaye's introduction to the parsha, where he describes four categories of poor people. Then with some help from the audience (audience participation is always a good thing) we try to read these four categories of poor people back into the whole parsha, and come out with a theme of loss and redemption as the central idea of the parsha.

I look forward to your comments.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Parshat Vayeshev - Rabbeinu Bachaye and the Poor Person

(Right click and then 'download as')

Parshat Vayeshev - Rabbeinu Bachaye source sheet

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Signs of Life

I recently saw a book (which I believe has just been published) which has beautiful illustrations showing what makes animals kosher and what makes them non-kosher. It is called "Signs of Life" The pictures are beautiful. However, as many of you know, there has been much controversy in the past few years about how to deal with the issue of hyrax and rabbit in terms of whether they chew the cud or not. I was curious how this book dealt with the issue. He spends almost half a page on both animals, and this is what he writes:

The Rock Badger and the Rabbit
Scientists throughout the generations have had the audacity to argue that the rock badger (shafan) and rabbit (arneves) do not chew their cud, in direct contradiction of that which is stated in the Torah. On the contrary, anyone can see with their own eyes that these animals chew their food long after it was ingested. (See Torah Sheleimah, Parshas Shemini (p. 293, quoted in Sefer Sichas Chullin p. 410) for further explanation of why these animals are considered to chew their cud

I am not all that impressed with his scholarship - he apparently didn't actually look in Torah Sheleimah, but relied on the citation from Sichas Chullin (which is honest of him). I'm not sure how many rock badgers or rabbits he has looked at - personally I have never looked at them for long enough to see them chew their food after it was ingested, but I'm skeptical!

But I am completely impressed with his total faith in the Torah (though his reliance on 'that which is stated in the Torah' disregarding the disagreements of Chazal and Rishonim is perhaps a but too much like the Saducees for my linking). And the audacity of those scientists throughout the ages! (Not sure how many studies of rock badgers have been done before the 20th century, but I'll believe him). Wouldn't it be great if scientists would always only stick to the simple text of Chumash and never have the audacity to argue with it! We wouldn't have to worry about pesky issues such as the age of the universe, the heliocentric solar system, or the Southern Hemisphere. We would never investigate photosynthesis, because we would know that plants can live without a sun. We would never look for medical cures for illnesses, because we know that they come from G-d, who is the only true Healer.

Wouldn't life be simple (if short) if we restricted scientists from investigating things which make them seem audacious.

PS I just found an article in HaModia about the book which includes the following line:
Signs of Life, is the only modern comprehensive work that deals with the mitzvah of recognizing the kosher signs of animals, providing an in-depth analysis of the issue with beautiful full-color photos and diagrams. It has been widely acclaimed by the Torah leaders of this generation.

I didn't know that it was the only book on the topic! And I'm slightly disappointed that he didn't go into the issue in more details once he realised that it is a Torah mitzvah!

Parshat Vayishlach - the Divine Within

I gave this shiur last night in Jerusalem. Happy Birthday Michael and thank you for hosting the shiur.

This shiur is in part a continuation of last week's shiur on angels. Only this time we examine 'Who is G-d'?

Who did Yaakov wrestle with? All the Rishonim (without exception as far as I could tell) say it was an angel. Yet this appears to contradict the simple reading of the Chumash, and ignores several Midrashim.

Is there a p'shat reading of the text? How are we to understand the statements of Chazal that equate Yaakov/Yisrael/Yeshurun with G-d?

I also bring two kabbalistic Rishonim (there are not so many Rishonim who wrote on kabbalah). However I completely failed to understand what they said, so even though I think the message is valid, profound and true, please ignore my misinterpretation of the Recanati and Avodat HaKodesh. I will try to have a better understanding before my shiur tonight on WebYeshiva.

I look forward to your comments.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Parshat Vayishlach - The Divine Within

(Right click and then 'download as')

Parshat Vayishlach - The Divine Within - source sheet

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Parshat Toldot - Esav, Rome and Free Choice

I gave this shiur last night in Jerusalem. I look at several Rashis (citing Midrashim) that imply that Esav was born bad, and therefore had no free choice. I also try to find the basis for the Talmudic connection between Esav and Rome (and going one step further, the connection in the Rishonim between Esav and Christianity).

I look forward to your comments.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Parshat Toldot - Esav, Rome and Free Choice

(Right click and then 'download as')

Parshat Toldot - Esav, Rome and Free Choice- source sheet

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Parshat Chayei Sarah - Superstition

Here is a shiur I gave this week to a group in Katamon. It is similar, but different, to the shiur I gave last night on WebYeshiva

I begin with Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and look at Eliezer's quest to find a wife for Yitzchak. He asks G-d for a sign to help him find a suitable woman. Is it permissible for Jews to rely on signs and omens? Do we view them as help from G-d, involving Him in our lives, or are they considered forbidden Emorite (idolatrous?) practices?

We look at four different approaches in the Rishonim, grouped geographically. Each has a different answer to that question:
Ashkenaz (Rashi/Tosefot)
Cataolonia (Rabbeinu Nissim)
Spain/Egypt (Rambam)
Provence (Raavad, Radak, Baal HaMaor and Meiri)

And the answer I didn't give in the shiur - what should we do today - here is the Shulchan Aruch:

Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 179:4

בית תינוק ואשה אף על פי שאין ניחוש יש סימן. הגה: ... יש אומרים דאדם מותר לעשות לו סינן בדבר שיבא לעתיד כמו שעשה אליעזר עבד אברהם או יהונתן ויש אוסרין וההולך בתום ובוטח בה' חסד יסובבנו.
A house, a child or a wife, even though they are not divination, can be a sign. [Rema:… Some say that a person is permitted to make for himself a sign for something that will happen in the future, like Eliezer and Yonatan did. Others forbid this. Someone who walks whole-heartedly and trusts in G-d will be surrounded with kindness.

Nedarim 32a
אמר רבי יצחק כל המתמים עצמו הקב"ה מתמים עמו שנאמר (שמואל ב כב) עם חסיד תתחסד עם גבר תמים תתמם ... אמר רבי כל המנחש לו נחש... משום מדה כנגד מדה תני אהבה בריה דרבי זירא כל אדם שאינו מנחש מכניסין אותו במחיצה שאפי' מלאכי השרת אין יכולין ליכנס בתוכה.
Rabbi Yitzchak said: Anyone who acts whole-heartedly G-d acts with him whole-heartedly, as the verse says, “With a kind person He will act kindly; with a whole-hearted person He will act whole-heartedly” (II Shmuel 22:26). Rebbi said: Anyone who divines, is subject to divination… he gets what he deserves. Ahava son of Rebbi Zeira taught: Anyone who does not use divination is brought within a curtain that even the angels are not permitted to enter.

I look forward to your comments.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Parshat Chayei Sarah - Superstition

(Right click and then 'download as')

Parshat Chayei Sarah - Superstition - source sheet

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Vayera - What is Faith?

I gave a shiur tonight(I know it is not Tuesday, but we can pretend, though the shiur may have to be renamed the 'Sunday night shiur' quite soon - thanks Yonit for hosting).

The shiur is on Vayera and the definition of faith. Do we arrive at faith/belief through rational investigation, or by accepting unquestioningly? It seems that both approaches are considered 'Jewish'. How do I know which is right for me? And why has it changed in recent times?

In passing I also discuss Douglas Adams and Richard Dawkins (why can't all atheists also be comedians - Tim Minchin and Terry Pratchett get extra credit for not taking themselves too seriously), and kiruv techniques to prove G-d.

I look forward to your comments.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Parshat Vayera - What is Faith?

(Right click and then 'download as')

Parshat Vayera - Faith - source sheet

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Lech Lecha - Discovering G-d

I gave a shiur last night (and a big 'Thank You' to Katy for arranging and hosting the shiur).

The shiur is on Lech Lecha and whether Avraham perceived G-d in the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu did. Was Avraham a believer in the Platonic concept of creation, or in the creation ex nihilo of Torat Moshe Rabbeinu? (I think Rambam is deliberately contradictory in this, meaning that I'm not sure there is a straight answer).

I am hopefully giving a shiur tonight on Web Yeshiva using the same source sheet, but I have a feeling that it will not be the same shiur. You can sign up for the class on their website:

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Lech Lecha - G-d of Creation

(Right click and then 'download as')

Lech Lecha source sheet

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group of women on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New Shiur

I have been asked by WebYeshiva to give a weekly parsha shiur. I am quite excited at the opportunity.

Course Description
This is a class on the weekly Torah portion, looking at traditional commentaries (primarily medieval philosophers). We will look at how the Rishonim understood the concepts and philosophy of the weekly Torah portion and find the relevance of the Torah and Rishonim to 21st century life.

Perhaps I'll see some of you there?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Bereishit and Free Choice

I gave a shiur last night (and a big 'Thank You' to Yonit Schiller for arranging and hosting the shiur).

It was kind of last minute, so I didn't have as much time to prepare as I would have liked - you'll hear that the shiur is a bit choppy.

I spoke about Parshat Bereishit (because when else is there ever time to speak about Bereishit) and how the Rishonim (mainly Rambam) dealt with the apparent contradictions between reality as we perceive it, and what is written in the Torah (young earth, talking snakes etc.)

I conclude that it is certainly a legitimate approach to view these stories as metaphorical, rather than literal. The next question is 'what is the meaning of the metaphor'. I believe that Rambam answers that in Hilchot Teshuva, when he begins speaking about free choice.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

Bereishit/Free Choice

(Right click and then 'download as')

Bereishit/Free Choice

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated. I would love to continue giving a shiur to this group of women on a weekly basis, but to do that I would need some kind of sponsorship. If anyone is interested in sponsoring a shiur (either l'ilui nishmat someone, or just for no reason) please contact me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Differing Views on Tzimtzum

L'Iluyi Nishmat Maras Menya bas Hertzel

Last time I introduced the concept of tzimtzum as a way of reconciling the differing views of the Rishonim. However, there are differing views about the meaning of tzimtzum as well. It is my contention that these are not only abstract philosophical differences, but that they can lead to differences in education, relationship with G-d and others, and how we see our role in the world.

Yosher Levav claims that tzimtzum is to be understood literally - that the essence of G-d is not in the world. This view is criticised by the chasidim as both dangerous, and bordering on heretical.

The Vilna Gaon claims that tzimtzum was literal in terms of G-d's Essence, but that His Will never left the world, and through this we can connect to him (because ultimately His Essence and His Will are One).

The Baal HaTanya attacks this appraoch, and presents the view which has perhaps become the most widespread today - that tzimtzum is essentially an illusion from our vantage point. From G-d's viewpoint nothing has changed, He never left the world, and we don't really exist. The goal of existence is to understand that "there is nothing apart from Him" and that we ourselves do not really exist.

The implications of these differing views lead to many practical differences (though most people will find a middle path, or actually do both):
Do we s cause and effect as real, or illusory? When a tragedy happens in the community, do we try to take practical steps to prevent it happening again, or do we say it is the Will of G-d and recite Tehillim? Do we teach our chidren to perceive G-d through science and the world, or is G-d to be found primarily through Torah? Do we require a Rebbe or Torah scholar to tell us how to think, or can we make decisions for ourselves?

Many of these ideas are developed further in an article I wrote for Reshimu entitled "The Perception of Reality: Contrasting Views of the Nature of Existence"

Here is the shiur. I welcome your views and comments.

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Differing Views on Tzimtzum (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

If you are interested in sponsoring a shiur please contact me by e-mail.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tzimtzum Revolution

This shiur is l'ilui nishmat Marat Menya bas Hertzel

In the previous shiur we looked at the different understandings of the nature of G-d amongst Rishonim. I found in Prof. Menachem Kellner's book "Must a Jew Believe Anything?" an interesting source which is connected to thsi idea - Teshuva Radbaz vol. 8 number 191. There he distinguishes between "The G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov" and "The G-d of Aristotle", and clearly states that Rambam, Rav Saadia, Kuzari and others were in the latter camp (though he says that was only for 'kiruv' purposes).

There are conceptual problems with each of these approaches. To say that G-d has a body is too difficult for us to comprehend, and is almost a denial of how we understand monotheism. On the other hand, Rambam's G-d is unknowable, and therefore unaffected by anything we do, and is so far removed from our experience that from our perspective there is nothing He can do for us. It is impossible to have a relationship with such a G-d, and difficult to understand how G-d could have a relationship with us.

In this shiur I look at the chidush of the Arizal, which resolves this machlokes by distinguishing between two aspects of G-d. Before tzimtzum (and outside the space of tzimtzum) we have the "G-d of Rambam" who is unknowable and indescribable. Conversely, in the world of tzimtzum we can speak about aspects of G-d, including midot, sefirot, partzufim, and the ways in which they interact with each other and with the world. In this post-tzimtzum world in which we live, G-d almost becomes physical, and in this way we can have a reciprocal relationship with Him.

There is also a discussion at the end of the shiur about whether it really makes a difference. Why should we even think about G-d? Isn't it enough just to be a good Jew and do the mitzvos?

Here is the shiur

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Tzimtzum Revolution (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

If you are interested in sponsoring a shiur please contact me by e-mail.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Nature of G-d

I gave a shiur last night. this shiur is l'ilyi nishmat Menya bas Hertzel.

I discuss two approaches in the Rishonim about how a person should come to understand G-d. Kuzari, Rav Sadiah Gaon, Rambam and others hold that the only way to understand G-d is to use rational thought to investigate His nature. Anyone who speaks about G-d,simply based on what he heard from others or based on the words of Tanach and Chazal, without thinking about the nature of G-d is "still outside the palace".

One case where this is expressed is in Rambam's third principle - that G-d has no physical form. If a person believes the simple words of Tanach or Chazal, without using philosophy to clarify, could come to believe that G-d has a body. Such a belief is heretical according to Rambam.

On the other hand, we find Raavad and Ohr Zaruah who argue that this is not a heretical belief. Furthermore, they both claim that there were many greater than Rambam who held this belief, including (according to Ohr Zaruah) some of Chazal. They explain the reason for this mistaken belief is following the simple reading of Tanach and Aggadata.

I then look at Rav Moshe Taku's book 'Kesav Tamim' where he argues that to deny G-d any physicality is heretical. If G-d is unable to appear in physical form, He is not omnipotent. Furthermore, he claims that Rav Saadiah was the first person to use philosophy to reinterpret the words of Tanach and Chazal and this is not the traditional Jewish view. How can we possibly use our limited logic to understand anything about G-d who is beyond logic?

Rashi also seems to say that G-d can appear in physical form if He wants to. This seems to me the correct reading of Rashi in Sanhedrin, and is explicit by Tosefos Rid in a comment he makes about Rashi.

I think the underlying issue is the omnipotence paradox. Can G-d create a rock which is so big that he cannot lift it?

There have been many answers to this type of question over the past 2000 years. But to simplify - some say that G-d is also bound by the laws of logic. Yet this does not limit His omnipotence. Others say that G-d can do absolutely anything, and the fact that it apears to us to be illogical is not a reason to lmiit G-d's omnipotence.

Rambam, Rav Saadiah etc take the first view. Rav Moshe Taku and Rashi take the second.

Today all Jews know that G-d has no body, and it is heretical to think that He does. Why did the Rambam's view become so pervasive that we cannot even contemplate the alternative? I quote from Rav Profiat Duran, who shows that belief in a physcial G-d is one of the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity. Jews don't believe that G-d could appear in physical form!

Here is the shiur

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Nature of G-d (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

If you are interested in sponsoring a shiur please contact me by e-mail.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Torah from Sinai?

Now that I am no longer associated with any institution I can give shiurim on topics that interest me.

This is a shiur on Rambam's 8th principle and the concept of Torah from Sinai. Is the Torah that we have in our Shuls/chumashim identical with the one that Moshe Rabbeinu gave the Children of Israel 3300 years ago? (answer = 'no')

Is Torah from Sinai a valid concept even if the Torah is not the same as the one we got from Sinai (answer = 'yes')

Did Rambam really mean that the Torah we have today is the same as the one Moshe gave us? (According to the Ashkenazi 'Ani Maamin' and Abarbanel - 'yes' according to Rambam and everyone else 'no')

And should we try to correct out Sifrei Torah to match the Talmud/Rishonim/Aleppo Codex? (machlokes, but probably 'no')

The shiur is quite long (1:30). But I think it is also very interesting. And if you disagree I would be happy to hear from you. (As Rabbi Yochanan said to his Talmidim after the death of Reish Lakish when Rabbi Elazer was agreeing with everything he said).

Here is the shiur

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Torah from Sinai (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

A few apologies:
I forgot the date of the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex.

And I was recording the shiur on my phone, so a couple of times my phone rang, and you get a few seconds of Eurythmics along with the shiur.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Reason that Chicken is considered Meat

Often people are confused about why the Rabbis forbade chicken (birds) with milk - why were they concerned about chicken more than fish, or pareve vege-burgers?

The usual answer given is that 'it looks like meat' which is not really a good answer, because many things look like meat, and many things don't.

Rambam (Hilchos Mamrim end of chapter 2) gives a different answer. He explains the 'slippery slope' argument that Chazal were trying to avoid with their decree. The context is that he is explaining why a decree of Chazal is not considered 'Bal Tosif' - and the reason is because they don't claim that it is from the Torah, even though in practice they are enacting a new rule:

אבל אם אמר בשר העוף מותר מן התורה, ואנו נאסור אותו, ונודיע לעם שהוא גזירה: שלא יבוא מן הדבר חורבה, ויאמרו בשר העוף מותר מפני שלא נתפרש בתורה, כך החיה מותרת שהרי לא נתפרשה; ויבוא אחר לומר אף בשר בהמה מותר, חוץ מן העז; ויבוא אחר לומר אף בשר העז מותר בחלב הפרה או הכבשה, שלא נאמר אלא "אימו" (שמות כג,יט; שמות לד,כו; דברים יד,כא) שהיא מינו; ויבוא אחר לומר אף בחלב העז שאינה אימו מותר, שלא נאמר אלא "אימו". לפיכך נאסור כל בשר בחלב, ואפילו בשר עוף. אין זה מוסיף, אלא עושה סייג לתורה. וכן כל כיוצא בזה.

But if someone says that meat of a chicken is permitted from the Torah, but we (Sages) forbid it, and we tell the people the reason for the decree:
In order that it doesn't lead to ruin, that people may say that just as chicken meat is permitted because it is not explicit in the Torah, so too meat from a wild animal is permitted because it is also not explicit. Then another person will come and say that even meat of domestic animals is permitted apart from goat. Then another person will come and say that even meat of a goat is permitted with milk of a cow or sheep, because the Torah only says "its mother" which means from the same species. Then another person will come and say that even in goat's milk it is permtited as long as it is not the mother of that kid, because the Torah only says "its mother". Therefore we (the Sages) forbade all meat with milk, even chicken meat.
This is not adding to the Torah, but making a fence. And all cases which are similar.

So Rambam is not worried about people who cannot tell the difference between meat and milk, He is worried about the 'lamdanim' who don't understand the system of halacha and will make false analogies, leading them to transgress Torah prohibitions.

He also seems to say that this is the logic behind all Rabbinic decrees.

I suppose a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Ibn Ezra, James Kugel and Multiple Authors

One of the stories that is on all the media at the moment is the new software which has been developed by a team in Israel which traces the different voices and 'authors' of the Bible. It was even picked up by Stuff, which is a New Zealand newspaper.

For me the key thing in the article is the last couple of paragraphs:

What the algorithm won't answer, say the researchers who created it, is the question of whether the Bible is human or divine. Three of the four scholars, including Koppel, are religious Jews who subscribe in some form to the belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses in its entirety by a single author: God.

The question is - how can people who see different voices and authors in the text continue to beleive that the entire text was dictated by a single G-d to a single prophet (Moses)? Do they have to compartmentalise in their brains, or is their a resolution of these two apparent contradictions (I think there is - see below).

Another question which has been bothering me for a while is the parallels between the story of the flood (and particularly Noach's sacrifices after the flood) in the Torah and in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Lawrence Kelemen uses this as evidence for the truth of the Torah. In "Permission to Receive" on pp. 88-89 he writes:

In 1872, Dr. george Smith of the British Museum identified the first nonbiblical, written record of such a deluge. Scanning cuneiform tablets discovered in the Palace of Sennacherib at Kuyunjik, Simith found a reference to "a ship touching ground on a mountain called Nisir," followed by these lines:

When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth and set free a dove.
The dove went forth, but came back;
Since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.

At first this seems like very strong historical evidence for the truth of the events that are described in the Torah. However, James Kugel, in his book "How to Read the Bible" (pp. 75-6) points out that the similarities are too great, and it would seem to invalidate the authenticity of the Torah as the primariy source for this story.

The discovery of the Mesopotamian flood texts proved torubling for traditional Christian and Jewish belief. The reason may not be immediately apparent. After all, if such a great flood had indeed taken place in ancient times, there ought ot be nothing disturbing in the fact that some account of it survived outside of the Bible - on the contrary, the existence of other accounts would only seem to confirm the veracity of biblical history. But hte fact that the biblical and Mesopotamian accounts agreed in so many details suggested to scholars that there was actaully a literary connection between them: that is, the different accounts did not seem simply to agree on the events that had occurred, but on how those events should be retold, inlcuding things that could not have been based solely on historical observation. To mention one detail: why should the Bible have bothered to say that G-d "smelled the pleasing odor" of Noah's sacrifice? Certainly such a vivid anthropomorphism was a bit odd in the Bible, and the text could have as easily said that G-d "was pleased" with the sacrifice - or said nothing at all. More to the point, however: how could any on-site observer of the flood and its aftermath know that G-d/the gods had smelled anything? Surely this was not an observable event but an author's asertion; and the fact that the same asertion, indeed, the very same expression, is found in both Gilgamesh and the Bible seemed to sugest that one text was dependent on the other, or that both derived from a still earlier source. The problem was the even the friendliest dating eliminates any possibility that the Mesopotamian accounts derive from the biblical story; the oldest fragments go back to early in the second millennium BCE, perhaps even earlier - long before the time of Moses nad the traditinoal setting for the giving of the Torah and its account of the flood. As a consequence, most modern scholars today see in the biblical flood story a direct dependence on the Mesopotamian literary tradition.

So, in summary:
How is it possible to see apparent evidence of multiple authors in the Bible, and yet still believe that it was given by G-d to Moshe?
And how should we deal with the literary similarity between the Torah and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which imply that the Torah borrowed the story from an earlier source?

I would like to answer both questions based on Ibn Ezra in Parshas Chukas. Actually, both Ramban and Chizkuni give similar explanations, but Ibn Ezra is the clearest. In chapter 21 verses 13-14 the Torah says:

From thence they journeyed, and pitched on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, that cometh out of the border of the Amorites.--For Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites; wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon.

Ibn Ezra (and Ramban and Chizkuni) ask what this "Book of the Wars of the Lord" is. His answer:

“In the Book of Wars of the Lord"– this was a separate book on its own, in which are written the wars of God for those who fear Him. It makes sense that this is from the time of Avraham, because many books were lost, and we no longer have them, such as The Words of Natan, The Book of Ido, Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Songs of Shlomo and his Proverbs.

Ibn Ezra (and the other Rishonim) claim that the Torah text we have includes within it fragments from earlier texts (which presumably were also dictated by G-d to Moshe - either G-d gave him a copy of the book or said it word for word). This also explains why the language of these verses is not in classic Hebrew, and the commentators struggle to explain some of the words.

Rashi gives a different explanation, but it seems to me that he is not giving 'pshat' - let me know what you think.

So does it not make sense that when G-d was retelling Moshe the stories from Bereishis, including the flood, that He also quoted earlier texts, even though the Torah does not explicitly quote the source of the words (I don't think G-d has to worry about plagiarism). This would answer Kugel's apparent difficulty with the biblical text.

Perhaps this can also explain why there appear to be different strands of authorship in the Bible. Moshe was combining earlier texts into the Torah that we have today - all based on the word of G-d.

I think that some people may have difficulty with such an answer, but when three major Rishonim all explain that Moshe is copying from other texts, is it really a problematic answer?

Your thoughts please.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

26th Sivan - Rabbi Yonatan ben Uzziel

According to my calendar:
Some say that today is the yahrzeit of the Tanna, Rabbi Yonatan ben Uzziel, and that he is buried in Amukah. But I do not know the source of this.

Clearly this is a GOOD THING for the various charity organisations, because they can take your money in exchange for praying for you at Amukah on this very auspicious day.
For example Kupat Ha-Ir

Vaad HaRabonim have a similar campaign - though I can't find it on the internet (which is good, since they hold that the internet is forbidden).

And I have heard from many people and sems of the importance of going to Amukah to find a shidduch.

So it is quite interesting to find the real story: On p. 688 of 'Making of a Godol' Rav Noson Kaminetsky explains the source of this belief, and the reason for the 'minhag' to travel to Amukah to find a shidduch:

Another case of superstition came to this author's attention through a review of the book 'Ohr HaGalil' in the HaTzofeh newspaper. The reviewer, R' Meir Wunder, made a study and discovered that belief in the powers of prayer at the site of the grave of the Tanna Yonathan ben 'Uziel in 'Amuqah was nonexistent until a tour company in Jerusalem concocted the "tradition" circa 5713 (1953). R' Meir filled this author in on the background of his investigation: a spinster acquaintance took a private taxi with an unknown driver for the long and lonely drive through the hills and
forests of the Galilee to visit the grave, a site where prayers for finding a mate were said to be especially effective d. The single woman who spurred the reviewer's research put herself in jeopardy to get to 'Amuqah and obviously had a superstitious faith in what she was doing to the extent that she felt protected by a magic net of security during the dangerous (and probably halakhically forbidden) ride with the stranger. The trip to the Galilee brought her no tragedy, but neither joy.

In a footnote there he also shows how the media has avoided correcting this 'mistaken minhag':

R' Wunder had also sent a letter with the gist of his discovery to the editor of the newspaper. But on the advice of a renowned Torah scholar, that newspaper edited it to avoid casting any aspersion on the "tradition". Not that the Torah scholar approved of doing unsafe things to get to 'Amuqah, but he did not want to invalidate altogether the notion of traveling there, saying, "Let it be: if they believe in it, let us not discourage them." It seems to this author that the scholar had compassion for the unfortunates who find solace in their superstitions - see
fn. w - on p. 680. He is believed to be R' Shlomo-Zalman Auerbach.

It is also interesting to see each year that there are more and more yahrzeits commemorated with special bus services, and Rabbis offering to say special prayers on the day. Whoever thought of this tourism idea should really deserve a prize!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Baby Yitzchak Sedley

Here is the video of the brit of baby Yitzchak. Don't worry - there is no blood on the video - though the camera does turn sideways a couple of times.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Audio Shiur - Semicha and Mashiach

Here is a shiur I gave yesterday to Midreshet Rachel (for Lag BaOmer) about the concept of Semicha (which is one of the reasons given for the celebrations of Lag BaOmer)

and here are the source sheets to go with it (in Hebrew only I'm afraid)
Download Source Sheets

I recorded it with a new app on my new Motorola Defy, so you will have to decide for yourselves about the quality. It was also given in the Har Nof forest, so there are all sorts of background noises (included one of my kids needing the toilet half way through).

The shiur discusses the historical background of Semicha, when it was given and to whom, the end of Semicha in the time of Theodosius (and the failed rebuilding of the Beit HaMidkash in the time of Julian). I also speak about Rav David HaReuveini, Rav Shlomo Molcho, Don Yosef Nassi, and the dreams of Mashiach following the expulsion from Spain. There is a discussion of the attempt to reinstate semicha, based on Rambam's system, by Rav Yaakov Bei Rav in Tzfas. And finally a brief mention of the current Sanhedrin, and their semicha which was given to Rav Moshe Halberstam zt"l.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gene Simmons on Obama's Speech

This is too good to miss. Gene Simmons (the one with the tongue from KISS) on the Israeli political situation and Obama's lack of understanding.

I love it when Israel and music come together. And for Lag BaOmer too - when we can discover the secrets of the Zohar and the brilliance of KISS. Hod she-beHod.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Yom HaAtzma'ut in Bnei Brak

I found this poster from Bnei Brak for Israel Independence Day 1949.

It says:

Bnei Brak Local Council
Yom HaAtzma'ut Festival in Bnei Brak!

On Tuesday 4th Iyar 5709 (3.5.49) at 8 in the evening, a festive parade will take place for all the local organisations with the participation of the Israeli Armed Forces and sponsored by the head of the local council.
The parade will leave from the main entrance next to the Petach Tikva-Tel Aviv road, and will pass down Rabbi Akiva Street.
It is an obligatoin for all residents to wave the national flag over their homes from Tuesday evening and throughout Wednesday.
All residents are invited to join the parade and to celebrate Yom HaAtzma'ut with great splendour inkeepign with the instructions.
The local council of Bnei Brak

How times have changed!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Yaakov Bei Rav and Semicha

Today, 1st Iyar, is the yarzheit of a very interesting person in Jewish history. Rav Yaakov Bei Rav passed away on this day in 1546. His main contribution to history was that in 1538 R' Yaakov Bei Rav reintroduced semicha in Eretz Yisrael for the first time in several hundred years.

The background to the story is as follows: When Moshe passed on the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua, he placed his hand on his head. The Torah says (Bamidbar 27:18-21)

And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay thy hand upon him
and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight.
And thou shalt put of thy honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken.
And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the LORD; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.'

Since that time Rabbinic leaders were inducted by someone who already had semicha from the previous generation, with the approval of the Nassi (political leader). In addition, this semicha could only be given and received in Eretz Yisrael. For this reason the Babylonian Amoraim in the Talmud are never called 'Rabbi' but always 'Rav' (or sometimes simply by their name - for example Shmuel).

Only someone with semicha was permitted to rule on cases of fines (knasot) and some other kinds of rulings. In addition, the Sanhedrin (both the main Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and the smaller Sanhedrins in each town) could only convene if at least one of their number had semicha.

When the Romans took control of Israel they banned semicha and threatened to kill anyone giving or receiving semicha. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) records how Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava gave up his life in order to give semicha to five of his students, who became the leaders and decisors of Judaism - Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua.

Despite this sometime in the 4th or 5th century the Romans succeded in banning semicha and dismantled the Sanhedrin. This was probably because the greatest Rabbis, the ones who would have been worthy of receiving semicha, were no longer residing in Israel. The centres of Torah had moved to Bavel.

Since that time there has been no semicha (what is today called semicha is named that in memory of the authentic semicha which was traced back to Moshe).

However, Rambam writes in two places that if all the Rabbis of Israel would agree, they could jointly give semicha to someone, and restart the process. He writes in his commentary on the Mishna (Sanhedrin 1:1) and Mishne Torah (Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11):

נראין לי הדברים, שאם הסכימו כל החכמים שבארץ ישראל למנות דיינין ולסמוך אותן--הרי אלו סמוכין, ויש להן לדון דיני קנסות, ויש להן לסמוך לאחרים. אם כן, למה היו החכמים מצטערין על הסמיכה, כדי שלא ייבטלו דיני קנסות מישראל: לפי שישראל מפוזרין, ואי אפשר שיסכימו כולן; ואם היה שם סמוך מפי סמוך, אינו צריך דעת כולן, אלא דן דיני קנסות לכול, שהרי נסמך מפי בית דין. והדבר צריך הכרע.

It appears to me [Maimonides] that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint dayanim (judges) and grant them semichah (ordination), they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semichah to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination].
If so, why did the sages bemoan [the loss of] semichah? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that it's not possible to get their consent [to authorize a dayan]. If someone were to receive semichah from someone who already has semichah, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received semichah from beis din (rabbinical court). However, this matter requires a final decision.

(Translation from wikipedia's website)

(Paranthetically - I just found that you can download two sedarim of Rambam's commentary on Mishna IN HIS OWN HANDWRITING from this website. WOW!)

Based on this view of Rambam, R' Yaakov Bei Rav tried to reinstate semicha in Tzfat in 1538 by getting the agreement of all the Rabbis of Israel.

It is getting late, so I'll just copy and paste what wikipedia has to say on the matter:

In 1538 Rabbi Jacob Berab of Safed, Land of Israel, attempted to restore the traditional form of Semikhah. His goal was to unify the scattered Jewish communities through the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin. At his prompting, 25 rabbis from the land of Israel convened; they ordained Jacob Berab as their "Chief rabbi". Berab then conferred semikhah through a laying on of hands to four rabbis, including Joseph Caro, who was later to become the author of the Shulchan Aruch, widely viewed as the most important code of Jewish law from the 17th century onwards. Joseph Caro in turn ordained Rabbi Moshe Alshich, who in turn ordained Rabbi Hayyim Vital.
Berab made an error in not first obtaining the approval of the chief rabbis in Jerusalem, which led to an objection to having a Sanhedrin at that time. One should note that this was not an objection to the semikhah, but to reinstituting a Sanhedrin. Levi ibn Habib, the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, wrote that when the nascent Sanhedrin took the authority of a Sanhedrin upon itself, it had to fix the calendar immediately. However, by delaying in this matter, it invalidated itself. Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra (Radvaz) of Egypt was consulted, but when Berab died in 1542 the renewed form of semikhah gradually ground to a halt.

If you have spare time over Shabbat and want to read the dialogue between R' Yaakov Bei Rav and R' Levi Ibn Chaviv (who was the father of the author of Ein Yaakov) it is recorded in the Responsa of R' Levi Ibn Chaviv. It is quite a lengthy discussion of the subject (just under 50 pages) and I have not yet gone through most of it. (actually I just found another wikipedia page which summarizes the main arguments)

I wonder whether semicha gave the Shulchan Aruch more authority, and gave R' Yosef Karo the ability to complete such a task. I also wonder what could have happened if politics and machlokes had not got in the way of halacha.

The final question is what, if any, implications this event in history has for the Sanhedrin of today.

One very final note - I visited the Mossad HaRav book sale this week (as I do every year - though this year for the first time ever I didn't actually purchase anything). You may be familiar with the building on the corner at the entrance to Jerusalem. I seem to remember once being told that when the State was established, Rav Yehuda Leib Maimon tried to create a Sanhedrin, and this semi-circular building was originally intended to house that Sanhedrin (since the Old City was not under Jewish control at the time. And the Sanhedrin sits in the shape of a semi-circle).

When fashion meets Chareidim

Not so long ago the Vizhnitzer Rebbi banned his students from wearing anything but plain plastic framed glasses.

The rabbi called on students wearing modern metal glasses to remove them and move to anti-modern plastic glasses. Rabbi Hager also spoke out against yeshiva students wearing contact lenses.

According to a Hasidism source, metrosexual men and students of the modern Lithuanian yeshivot were the only ones wearing contact lenses.

"This is the reason why the rabbi called on the students not to wear them. We are well aware of the statement made by the former Vizhnitz rebbe, who said we must wear the exact opposite of what is worn in Paris."

I don't know why it is always Paris that dictates the fashion for Hasidim. What happens if hip people in New York start wearing things? Are Hasidim supposed to wear the opposite?

That may cause problems. Because the trend-setters (and the modern LIthuanians for that matter) have started wearing black hats.

SPOTTING a Borsalino, a black wide-brimmed felt fedora, in the traditionally Jewish section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is no strange thing. What was surprising was the wearer: Theophilus London, a hip-hop artist from Trinidad. “This one is from the Jewish store,” Mr. London said, motioning toward southern Williamsburg, where the haredi still outnumber the hipsters.

Does that mean that Hasidim, anxious to avoid being trendy and following their golden rule of always doing the opposite of what happens in Paris, will not have to start wearing turbans on their heads? Or a fez? Or perhaps they'll simply turn their hats around so that the bow is on the other side - that way people will not mistake them for Theophilus London. - Oh wait! They've already done that!

Vizhnitzer Chassidim are uniquely dressed in that they are the only group − besides Stropkov − who wears their hat bow on the right side, not left, which makes it appear backwards compared to similar hats.

If they would switc their hats around again someone may mistake them for a New Square Hasid! In my opinion it is better that they stick to imitating Theophilus London and his team of hipsters!

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Queen Speaks

With all the royal excitement going on, and some people (but probably not most Americans) coming to see the beauty of the Royal family, I thought this clip of Her Majesty speaking about her life, and what she does, was touching, and also very interesting.

One does tend to forget that when one speaks to G-d and about G-d, one is supposed to think of Him as king. One must first understand what it means to be a king before one can truly connect with G-d.

(and after watching this video it is hard not to start speaking using 'one' instead of 'I')

Royal Wedding and the Chief Rabbi

Some people are very upset that the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, attended the Royal Wedding. I am not a posek and will not make a halachic ruling, but I do have personal experience. Her Majesty the Queen invited me, representing the Jews of Scotland, to attend a service of thanksgiving in St. Gyles Cathedral before the opening of Scottish Parliament.

At the time the presiding officer explained:
The official programme actually begins on the evening of Wednesday, June 30 with the ‘Kirking’ of the Parliament at St Giles Cathedral. At 6.30pm, the Very Reverend Gilleasbuig Macmillan will conduct a service attended by Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

I spoke to the Dayanim of the London Beis Din who explained that there is a very simple principle: If the Queen invites you - you attend! Anything less would not be representing the Jews of Britian in a good light to the monarchy and the non-Jewish population of Britain.

So I sat there during the service, next to a Muslim cleric and a Buddhist monk, and we commiserated with each other about having to be in such a place.

If you look on this clip at about 15:06 minutes, you can see me (for a second) as we walked to the opening of parliament the next day.

So, for whatever reasons, it seems clear to me that the Chief Rabbi did absolutely the correct thing in attending the Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey last Friday.

It also struck me that we should not take such invitations lightly. If we think back to another event that happened at Westminster, the coronation of Richard the Lionheart (he of Robin Hood fame), we see that Jews were not invited. In fact they were actively banned from attending, and later were murdered!

At the coronation of Richard the Lion Hearted in 1189, Jews bearing handsome gifts were refused entry by officials and pelted by mobs. The story circulated that the king wished them exterminated and many Jews were killed in riots and their stately homes were burned. Richard punished the ringleaders and sought to prevent further outrages and protect his financial interest in "his Jews". When Richard left for the third crusade in 1190 a series of terrible massacres wiped out several Jewish communities. The York riot was the worst. Before following Richard to the crusades, warriors, many of whom were heavily in debt to the Jews, plundered the possessions of the Jews. The Jews fled to the castle and were besieged by the warriors. When the Jews realised they were doomed they took their own lives. The few surviving when the tower was stormed were slaughtered. The attackers then went to the cathedral and burned the records of their financial obligations to their victims.

One of those murdered was one of the Baalei Tosefot - R' Yaakov of Orleans (a student of Rabbeinu Tam).

For the record (not that I remember) it seems that when the Prince and Princess of Wales were married (Charles and Diana) Rabbi (later Lord) Jakobovits was not invited, so we don't know whether or not he would have gone to such an event.

Finally, I'm not sure if this is actually a true story (I suspect it is not), but it is told often enough that it should be true. The Chief Rabbi owes his position to the Queen's great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. It was she who conceived of the position and enshrined it in British Law:

Years later, Queen Victoria's attention was directed to an announcement issued by the Dukes Place Synagogue in London, requesting applications to be submitted for the prestigious position of Rabbi there. This was publicised internationally, and many renowned Rabbis applied, including Rabbi Samson Rafel Hirsch and others.

The Queen sent a note to the synagogue, stating, ''Since Rabbi Adler saved me when I was in trouble, he will certainly be the right guardian and leader for your congregation.'' And so it was.

When the Queen's advice was accepted and Rabbi Adler was chosen as the Rabbi of the Dukes Place Synagogue, she further suggested that this position was not enough - he should become Chief Rabbi of England, or better yet, of the British Empire! A bill was raised in Parliament in order to decide whether the Empire required a Chief Rabbi. When put to a vote, a substantial majority chose Rabbi Adler as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, a post he filled with honour and distinction for 45 years.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Status of Jews before Matan Torah and Why Jews Stink

I will be giving a shiur next Shabbat, and I want to speak about the machlokes between Ramban and 'the French Rabbis' (quoted by Ramban) about the status of Bnei Yisrael before Matan Torah. Ramban is commenting on Toras Cohanim (cited by Rashi) at the end of the Parsha which states that the 'blasphemer,' who was the son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man, converted.
The French Rabbis (i.e. baalei Tosefot) claim that before Matan Torah Jewish identity went through the father, and only after the Torah was given did the Jewish people follow matrilineal descent. For this reason the 'blasphemer' had to convert.
In other words the descendants of Avraham remained B'nei Noach, with extra 'stringencies' of being part of Avraham's covenant. But they did not take on the 'leniencies' of being Jewish until after the Torah was given.
Ramban argues strongly on this, and claims that from the time of Avraham the Jewish people had unique laws and were no longer considered to be B'nei Noach at all. Therefore Ramban says that there was no need for the 'blasphemer' to convert. So the midrash must be referring to the 'conversion' at Mount Sinai of all the Jewish people.
Parshat Derachim is a book written by the author of Mishne L'Melech, which builds almost entirely on this idea of whether the Jews were considered Jewish before Matan Torah or not.
So that is the outline of my shiur for next Shabbos (if you are a woman and wil be in Har Nof next Shabbos afternoon you are welcome to come. The shiur will be in 16 Brand at 4:45 - I think).
Over Shabbos I was rereading Stephen Jay Gould's 'The Mismeasure of Man' and he refers to Sir Thomas Browne's 'Pseudodoxia Epidemica' which is a
One of the chapters there debunks the myth that Jews stink. After demonstrating that Jews in general to not smell, and explaining that their eating habits and hygiene habits are unlikely to cause them to smell, he adds another point, which is that Jews are so assimilated and intermarried, that it is impossible to make any biological claim about Jews. There are many Christians who are biologically Jewish and vice versa. Therefore any claim about Jews, based on their ethnicity, is necessarily false.
This is a point that is worthwhile for us to always remember, especially with debates about 'who is a Jew'. The attributes of a Jewish person are not determined biologically, but through halacha, and through our behaviour. The 'blasphemer' became infamous not because of his parentage, but because of how he acted. Yichus is all fine and dandy, but the key thing is how we act.
Of course if it were true that Jews do smell, it would solve the conversion crisis in a minute. The Beis Din could just train sniffer dogs, and would know whether or not a convert is sincere, and whether or not the Beis Din that converted them was kosher.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shechita Labelling

The EU has decided to label meat that was killed without first being pre-stunned. This is a move aimed primarily at distinguishing kosher and halal meat from 'regular' non-shechted meat.

I'm not sure if people really understand what 'stunning' means. It sounds so nice - kind of like an anesthetic before an operation. But in fact it is quite nasty. They basically shoot a captive steel bolt through the brain of the animal and thereby 'pith' it. Alternatively, for smaller animals, they place electrodes on the animals head which 'stun' it.

If you have a very strong stomach you can watch these youtube videos of electric- and captive bolt-stunning. Or you can take my word for it.

(For chickens they spray them with electrified water (stunning) before ripping off their heads. I've seen these machines back in New Zealand. If I was a chicken I'd definitely prefer shechita - but I'm glad I'm not a chicken at all!)

Since 'stunning' makes the animal into a treifah (an animal that would not live for 12 months), it is impossible to halachically pre-stun kosher animals.

There is no evidence (that I know of) that shows that this is less painful for the animal than shechita. But it does have a couple of other advantages. Firstly, the animal doesn't kick around after it has been stunned. After shechita the nervous system of the animal causes it to kick and move for several minutes afterwards. Because stunning affects the brain, the nervous system shuts down and the animal stops moving straight away. This is very important for the guys holding the chainsaws who have to cut the animal up after it has been killed. (For this reason most kosher meat is stunned - but only after it has been shechted.)

Another difference is that the blood stays in the body, which changes the flavour of the meat. Kosher meat tastes saltier, because of the kashering process, but also has less blood in it, so does have such a 'rusty' taste.

The real reason for the labelling is to limit the spread of fundamentalist Islam in Europe. The irony is that many Muslims will allow pre-stunning before halal killing (it is a machlokes, but I think the majoriy in Europe follow this opinion - but I'm not an expert on this). So in practice this legislation will harm Jews more than Muslims.

And the reaosn it makes a difference (because you would think that most kosher meat goes to Jewish shops, and thus doesn't make a difference) is because Ashkenazim do not eat the hindquarters of animals. Therefore they have to sell half the animal to the non-Jewish meat market. Labelling it as non-stunned will make it harder to sell the hindquarters and therefore put up the price of kosher meat. Whether, ultimately, this will cause the Ashkenazim to re-introduce the halachos of removing the gid hanashe (sciatic nerve) and eat the hindquarters - as most Sefardim do - remains to be seen.

Another irony is that the EU legislation is exactly the opposite of what Rambam writes as halacha. In Hilchot De'ot (2:6) he writes:
לא ימכור לגוי בשר נבילה בכלל שחוטה, ולא מנעל של מתה במקום מנעל של שחוטה.
which translates as: "A person may not sell meat from a non-kosher animal to a non-Jew and claim that it has been shechted. Nor a shoe made from leather of an animal that died from natural causes in place of a shoe made from leather of an animal that was shechted."

So we see that in Rambam's time, the non-Jews preferred to eat kosher, shechted meat. They even preferred shoes made of leather from kosher animals. Therefore it is misleading to sell non-kosher meat to a non-Jew as if it was kosher. A non-Jew from Rambam's time will welcome the EU legislation because he or she will know that meat which is not pre-stunned is of a superior quality. The animal is more likely to be healthy, and the killing process improves not only the flavour of the meat, but even the quality of the leather.

Now - if we can just begin a campaign to teach the non-Jews the value of kosher meat...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cookies and i-pods

Do you have a bentscher app on your i-pod? Does it contain 'cookies'? If so, does anyone know how to kasher it for Pesach? The best advice I've found so far was that it cannot be kashered and must be 'blended'.

Of course, if you purchase the Sefiros app that will kasher your i-pod and then you can try to stick all the pieces back together.

(this post is a joke, by the way, please do not try this at home. And your i-pod is fine, unless you also use it as a tablemat)

Thursday, April 14, 2011


I keep saying that nostaligia isn't what it used to be, but the truth is that cleaning out the house for Pesach allows one to find all sorts of things from the past.

One of the things I dug up was a video of a TV programme made by TVNZ about being a Jewish teenager in New Zealand. It was for 'Viewfinder' which was a teenage magazine programme. And guess who the teenage Jews were that they used for the show? Me and brother Michael.

I managed to turn the video into a DVD and uploaded it to youtube. So if you want a laugh, or remember the 80s, have a look at this:

Chag Kasher v'Sameach

PS In the clip I am teaching why we have an egg on the seder plate. Luckily they cut the film before the bit where I said "Actually, I have no idea!" I've learnt from my mistakes, and now know why we have an egg on the seder plate (and it is nothing to do with the Easter bunny!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ami article

There is an article in Ami magazine (a magazine I have been fortunate not to read until now) which describes the issue of outwardly Orthodox people who have lost their faith.

There is a scan of the article here:

I am actually shocked by the level of hatred and lack of understanding presented in this article. There are so many negative words, but not a single real answer for someone with such doubts.

Apparently kiruv answers only work on people who are not frum. And I think this is part of the problem. Even though the article blamed the internet for all ills (even though the evidence presented doesn't back up that claim) I think that kiruv has to take a lot of responsibility for this.

Once upon a time people believed in Torah and Judaism because that was how they were brought up, that is what they knew, and that was good enough. Suddenly kiruv workers come along and try to 'prove' that Judaism is true. For an intelligent person who can think critically, these proofs are all full of holes, and suddenly kiruv has taken away that old time belief and replaced it with lies, false arguments, and intellectual bullying. I know of several people who only began questioning and doubting after they heard the so called 'proofs' of kiruv people. In my opinion it would be far better if outreach people left the FFBs alone.

It is not the internet that causes people to doubt. It is not even reading 'outside books' (though many of the so called 'kiruv' books do pose serious problems). Most of the things that people find very difficult in Judaism come from a reading of Shas and Rishonim.

To be honest, the whole ban on Slifkin made things a lot worse. Kiruv started using 'proofs' of Judaism, then when they had questions asked Rabbi Slfkin to write answers for them. Then those answers, for no real reason, because forbidden. So now the situation is that kiruv raises many questions, the answers are kefirah, and many people have lost their faith in the Gedolim, who seem to be anti-science and very backward in their attitudes (or manipulated by Kannaim, which is possibly even worse).

Why must we assume that someone who doesn't agree with our emunah is 'mentally ill' or a 'fifth columnist'? Shouldn't we try to find answers which are intellectually satisfying, rather than simply trying to push them out even further?

Does the author of this article really believe that a person who keeps Torah and Mitzvos, but has some doubts about G-d is actually worse than someone who breaks Shabbos publicly? Does that actually make sense?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Plain Logic

Moshe Grylak's column a couple of weeks ago stirred up a lot of discussion on the blogs. He was writing about the crisis of faith amongst those who are ostensibly religious and committed.

Since his article I have spent many, many hours thinking of the correct response, were someone to ask me to justify his (or her - though in my experience this problem is predominantly a male issue - for some reason) beliefs and practices. I have come to several different conclusions (usually changing my mind every couple of hours or so), and am still working through various different approaches to the problem.

I was very pleased when someone told me tonight that Rabbi Grylak has written a follow up column where he gives part of his answer to such a person. I wasted no time in looking at his article. You can read it too, if you wish. Here is the link.

On the one hand I am quite disappointed with his answer. On the other hand, I think that he makes a very good point.

Both he and Harry Maryles make a similar point. It is this:
plain logic compels a person to believe. Simple common sense recognizes that nothing gets made by itself.

This is also known as the 'argument from incredulity.' The eye/human being/universe/world/[insert object here] seems too complex for my mind to imagine that it was made without a Creator. Therefore there must be a Creator.

This is similar to what Rav Shach writes in Avi Ezri, and many of the great Rabbis have shared this belief. This is William Paley's argument and the 'proof' of Chovos HaLevavos before him, and Rabbi Akiva's argument before him (though I'm not sure if this is a real midrash or not):

An apikorus asked Rabbi Akiva to prove that Hashem created the world. Rabbi Akiva asked the fellow who made his suit. The fellow said that it was the weaver. Rabbi Akiva then said to his talmidim, "Just as the suit is evidence of its weaver (because how else could such a complex garment come about, do you think two threads just got together and formed a garment?), so too the complexities of the world (which is a lot more than a garment) is evidence of its creator.

In fact, all it shows is how limited the human mind is when it comes to grasping the true brilliance of nature. There are many things that amaze us. They do not 'prove' anything apart from the way our brain works.

In addition this line of argument has at least two MAJOR flaws if this is used as a proof.

Firstly, many people have shown how flawed the world is. If creation is 'proof' of G-d, then we would (erroneously) infer that G-d is cruel and bloodthirsty, having created a world of hunger, pain and suffering. We would also be misled into thinking that G-d is far from perfect, since the world appears to us to be far from perfect. Do we really want to believe in a G-d who made over 60,000 species of ichneumonidae? Whether or not Darwin is correct about evolution, I think he is certainly right when he makes the point that:

"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars"

The other major flaw in this argument (from a Jewish perspective) is that it has nothing to do with Judaism or Torah, mitzvos or prayer. Any theist could use this argument. This 'proof' no more helps someone in kollel than it does an Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Buddhist. I don't see how it comforts or helps anyone. And it is certainly not a kind of Deity who we could have a relationship with.

This post has become too long, and I haven't said half of what I wanted to say. But I will conclude with agreeing wholeheartedly with Rabbi Grylak on his second (and major) point.

He writes:

One educator asked me, “So what do you want me to do? Believe me, I do talk to them about emunah.”

“Don’t talk to them!” I replied. “Show them! Words won’t help here; experiences are what’s needed. From an early age, bring them into living contact with the world and its wonders. Take them to the planetarium, where they can see the vastness of the universe, get them excited from an early age, and at every age give them suitable experiences, and then teach them the prayer Vayevarech David, and they’ll know what David HaMelech meant when he said, ‘You have made the heavens, the heavens of heaven and all their hosts, the earth and all that is upon it, and You give life to them all.’ Take them to the zoo, and teach them about the incredible wisdom underlying every animal’s characteristics.

This is exactly what Rambam writes. Not as a proof of G-d (that takes 26 axioms and many pages in Moreh Nevuchim) but in order to 'Love G-d'. The more we learn about the world, nature, science, history etc, the more we grow to love G-d, which then leads to fear of G-d. It does not prove anything. But once a person comes to love someone else (or some G-d else) many of their 'belief' issues fade away.

For this reason it is such a shame that science and other disciplines are neither taught nor encouraged in traditional Hareidi society. Or even worse - science becomes 'kiruv tricks' by the likes of Zamir Cohen, which distorts both Torah and science. If we would encourage people to learn about the world, and to read about the wonders of creation, they would come to be filled with a love of G-d and a yearning to know Him.

Perhaps Mishpacha Magazine will change the world in which we live. Let's hope so.

PS I found the source of the Rabbi Akiva story. It is from Midrash Temurah

Wikipedia tells me that
According to A. Jellinek, the Midrash Temurah was composed in the first half of the 13th century, since it drew upon Ibn Ezra and upon Galen's dialogue on the soul, even though it is cited by Me'iri and Abraham Abulafia

So it is not actually earlier than Chovos HaLevavos. Oh well.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Segulah

Unfortunately my neighbour's home was burgled last night. Har Nof is having a massive spate of robberies - that was the third one that I know of this week.

Anyway, I just hope they didn't get his whisky - what with Purim next week.

So I thought it was quite mean this morning when the Gabbai in Shul gave him Peticha. Taking the valuable Torah out of the ark just after being burgled seems to be rubbing his face in it.

But then I realised it is actually a segulah. Because pretty soon after taking out the Torah - everything is put back again exactly where it was, and they look the door and keep it locked for a very long time.

May all the enemies of the Jews be locked away for a very long time (or do teshuvah, as Bruriah said to Rabbi Meir).

Fish and Adar

It seems that there is a custom to give goldfish out at kindergarten during the month of Adar. Perhaps this is because the 'Mazal' (astrological sign) of Adar is Pisces

I think the (Jewish) source for the connection between months and constellations is Sefer Yitzirah, which writes:


1. The simple letters are twelve, namely: He, Vau, Zain, Heth, Teth, Yod, Lamed, Nun, Samech, Oin, Tzaddi, and Quoph; they represent the fundamental properties, eight, hearing, smell, speech, desire for food, the sexual appetite, movement, anger, mirth, thought, sleep, and work. These symbolize also twelve directions in space: northeast, southeast, the east above, the east below, the northwest, southwest, the west above, the west below, the upper south, the lower south, the upper north, the lower north. These diverge to all eternity, and an as the arms of the universe.

2. These twelve letters, he designed, formed, combined, weighed, and changed, and created with them the twelve divisions of the heavens (namely, the zodiacal constellations), the twelve months of the year, and the twelve important organs of the frame of man, namely the right and left hands, the right and left feet, two kidneys, the liver, the gall, the spleen, the intestines, the gullet, and the stomach.

But now I have another suggestion to offer as to why goldfish are associated with Adar. Because they tend to die on Taanis Esther! (Well, we've had one goldfish, and after more than a week it died today - which by coincidence is Taanis Esther. Therefore the statistically most likely date for all Sedley goldfishes to die is Taanis Esther!)

And then we can fulfill the verse in the Megillah (9:22):

כַּיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר־נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹויְבֵיהֶם וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגֹון לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיֹום טֹוב לַעֲשֹׂות אֹותָם יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה וּמִשְׁלֹוחַ מָנֹות אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וּמַתָּנֹות לָאֶבְיֹונִים

As the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month that was reversed for them from grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day - to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.

(and in the meantime I have a crying daughter who is very upset!)

I told her that the goldfish has now gone to the big fishbowl in the sky, and it is not death, but rebirth...

PS Anyone want a slightly used fishbowl?

Genghis Kahn wouldn't be happy...

... but I am very proud and glad to be part of the country and religion that saves lives. I'm glad that we are not barbarians.,7340,L-4043536,00.html

IDF forces and local paramedics helped save the life of a Palestinian woman and her newly born infant Wednesday, at the settlement where Fogel relatives are sitting Shiva for the five Israelis brutally murdered last week.

Please pass on the message to Roger Waters. The wall between Israel and the Palestinians is not a wall around the West Bank, but a wall protecting the citizens of Israel from terror attacks. Remind him that 'The Wall' of his album was built in self defence, and tearing it down destroyed Pink, and started the entire cycle all over again. (I don't think Israel has become as psychotic as Pink though). Tell him that he has been misled and lied to by the advocates of the Boycot, and finally, tell him to read this reply by Kobi Oz of Teapacks (which I always thought was Tipex)

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Seven Wisdoms

On Parshablog Josh Waxman has a post about the Maharsham's view of secular wisdom. The concept of seven wisdoms is mentioned many times by Rishonim, and even some Acharonim (but I don't have time now to dig them out - perhaps in the comments).

What are the seven wisdoms that are apparently represented by the Menorah?

According to Paul Johnson in his "A History of Christianity" (p. 154) they date back to Bishop Isadore in 636.

Seville had already become a gathering place fro scholarly Christian refugess and with the conversion of the Arian court it became possible to build up a centre fo Christian culture. Over a period of twenty years Isadore and his helpers compiled a vast survey of human knowledge, arranged etymologically and incorporating the works and transmission of Boethius and Cassiorodus, and much else.... Almost by accident he founded a civilization, or at any rate an educational system. His work, made public in 636, first describes the seven liberal arts, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy; then their dependent arts, medicine, law and chronology; then it moves on to the Bible and its interpretations and the Church's canons and offices.... We have here a summa of human knowledge in which Christian doctrine and teaching and the role of the Church is placed right at the centre of the intellectual universe, and radiates to its most remote corners.... [this] became the basis for all teaching in the West for about 800 years.

Wikipedia actually dates the classification of the liberal arts into their seven categories back to the 5th century.

Clearly the Menorah and Jewish knowledge precedes Christianity and Western education by many centuries. But one can't help but think that perhaps the Rishonim were also partially influenced by the surrounding culture which grouped knowledge into these seven categories.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Top 10 Cities to Visit in 2011

Lonely Planet has published their top ten cities to visit this year. This is not interesting (unless you are planning on travelling a lot, which I am not).

But there are two very interesting things on this list.

One, is that Wellington makes the number 4 spot. I like Wellington a lot. I was born there, and grew up in Lower Hutt, which for Lonely Planet People is probably just about the same thing. I spent a lot of time in Wellington.

But it is not even the most exciting place in the North Island! Let alone in New Zealand. Forget about the world! I feel sorry for some poor person who comes all the way to New Zealand just to see the giant squid in Te Papa museum (but I must admit, it is quite large)! Even the locals are befuddled and bemused.

But what is more interesting (to most of your readers) is the city in the number 3 spot. Lonely Planet gives that honour to Tel Aviv! Forget about Jerusalem, Tiberias, Bethlehem, Safed or any of those 'old' places. Check out Tel Aviv. It is quite an eye-opener to see how others view our country. Read what they wrote about the city. Then be glad you don't live there (or be glad that you do live there, or realise that reality and their impression of the city may not be identical).

Tel Aviv is the total flipside of Jerusalem, a modern Sin City on the sea rather than an ancient Holy City on a hill. Hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants. There are more bars than synagogues, G-d is a DJ and everyone’s body is a temple. Yet, scratch underneath the surface and Tel Aviv, or TLV, reveals itself as a truly diverse 21st-century Mediterranean hub. By far the most international city in Israel, Tel Aviv is also home to a large gay community, a kind of San Francisco in the Middle East. Thanks to its university and museums, it is also the greenhouse for Israel’s growing art, film and music scenes.

There you have it. Welcome to Israel, where G-d is a DJ! Just don't tell Amnon Yitzchak!