Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Sages

(This post is kind of a follow on from my previous post)

The only way to really understand Gemara is to understand the people and places in it. There are several books on the Sages.

In Hebrew you have Shem HaGedolim of the Chida and Seder HaDorot in 3 volumes (vol 1; vol 2; vol 3). There are also Dorot HaRishonim in 7 volumes (vol 1; vol 2; vol 3; vol 4; vol 5; vol 6; vol 7) which was written partly as a refutation of Graetz (also in multiple volumes: vol 1; vol 2; vol 3; vol 4; vol 5; vol 6).

There is also Encyclopedia le-Chochmei HaTalmud by Reuven Margoliot (which is not available online as far as I know)
And Daat has a very good online resource of people from the Talmud.

The most recent (and possibly best) book on the subject is by Benyamin Lau (nephew of the former Chief Rabbi). It is 5 volumes in Hebrew, the first 2 of which have been translated into English: The Sages: The Second Temple Period; Character, Context & Creativity (Sages: Character, Context & Creativty) and The Sages, Vol.II: From Yavne to the Bar Kokhba Revolt. I hope that the rest of the series will also be translated. For those of you who live in Israel, I believe he gives a shiur on the Sages during the summer months somewhere in Katamon.

There used to be a very good book called Who's Who in the Talmud by Shulamis Frieman. Unfortunately when Aaronson publishers went bust the book went out of print. As far as I know it has not been reprinted - which is a real shame. If anyone knows if there are plans to reprint it - perhaps as an e-book please let me know.

There are a few other books of Jewish history, but those are the main ones I can think of off the top of my head. Please feel free to add others in the comments.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rabbi Abahu and Rambam's 3rd Ikkar

I came across three interesting statements for Rabbi Abahu this week, which seem to point to the fact that he does not agree with Rambam's third principle - that we must deny any kind of physicality from G-d.

I was learning the (Israeli) parshat hashavua which speaks about the service of the Cohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. One of the fundamental disputes between the Sadducees and the Rabbis was whether to first place the incense on the coals and then enter the Holy of Holies, or whether to first enter and then place the incense. There is a well known story in both the Bavli (Yoma 19b) and Yerushamli (Yoma 1:5) about a Sadducee who did it 'his' way, and died shortly thereafter. He was found with a hoofprint on his forehead, because he was killed by an angel, and angels have a single foot with a calf's hoof. In the Yerushalmi the students asked Rabbi Abahu how an angel was permited to be inside the Holy of Holies, since they learnt from the verse "No man will be with him when he enters..." that even angels are not permitted inside. He answered that this only applies when the service is done properly, but not when it is done incorrectly.

That is fine. But if we look a bit further in the Yerushalmi (5:2 27a) it tells the well-known story of Shimon HaTzadik, who knew when he was going to die:

ארבעים שנה שימש שמעון הצדיק את ישראל בכהונה גדולה ובשנה האחרונה אמר להן בשנה הזאת אני מת אמרו לו מאיכן אתה יודע אמר להן כל שנה ושנה שהייתי נכנס לבית קודש הקדשים היה זקן אחד לבוש לבנים ועטוף לבנים נכנס עמי ויוצא עמי ובשנה הזו נכנס עמי ולא יצא עמי. בעון קומי ר' אבהו והא כתיב (ויקרא טז) וכל אדם לא יהיה באהל מועד בבאו לכפר בקדש עד צאתו אפי' אותן שכתוב בהן (יחזקאל א) ודמות פניהם פני אדם לא יהיו באהל מועד אמר לון מה אמר לי דהוה בר נש אני אומר הקב"ה היה:

For forty years Shimon HaTzadik served as the High Priest. In his final year he said to the people 'In this year I will die'. Htye asked him 'how do you know?' He replied, 'Every year when i would enter the Holy of Holies an old man dressed in white and wrapped in white would enter with me and leave with me. THis year he entered with me, but did not leave with me.'
They asked Rabbi Abahu, 'does it not say that "not man will be in the Tent of Meeting when he enters... even those who are called 'man' (angels)...?" He replied to them, 'Did I say it was a man (or an angel)? I say it was the Holy One, blessed is He!'

Apparently Rabbi Abahu believes that G-d can take on human form! None of the commentaries that I have seen so far address this issue at all. I know that Rabbi Abahu doesn't have to agree with Rambam, but is Rambam not a bit embarrassed to disagree with Rabbi Abahu? (I am asking this tongue in cheek - knowing full well that a similar question is one of Abarabanel's many challenges to the 13 principles).

But I didn't have to go as far as the Yerushalmi to find Rabbi Abahu's view on this matter. The Bavli (Sanhedrin 95b) also has a similar statement from him - this time talking about the downfall of Sancherev:

אמר רבי אבהו אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאמרו דכתיב (ישעיהו ז) ביום ההוא יגלח ה' בתער השכירה בעברי נהר במלך אשור את הראש ושער הרגלים וגם את הזקן תספה אתא קודשא בריך הוא ואדמי ליה כגברא סבא

R. Abbahu said: Were not the [following] verse written, it would have been impossible to conceive of it: viz., In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by the riverside, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall consume the beard.41 The Holy one, blessed be He, went and appeared before him [Sennacherib] as an old man, and said to him... (Soncino translation)

Even though Yad Rama there explains that it does not mean G-d, but rather a person doing the will of G-d, have a look at Rashi. He says explicitly "The Holy One, blessed is He, Himself".

I looked in Rav Aryeh Kaplan's The Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume 1 where he clearly states (Chapter 2 section 14):
Judaism therefore rejects the possibility that God could have ever assumed human form.

In footnote 17 he brings the source as Yerushalmi Taanit 2:1 (9a). When I looked there I found that once again it is a statement of Rabbi Abahu:

אמר רבי אבהו אם יאמר לך אדם אל אני מכזב הוא בן אדם אני סופו לתהות בו שאני עולה לשמים ההוא אמר ולא יקימנה.

Rabbi Abahu says: If a person says to you "I am god" he is lying. If he says "I am a person (i.e. very righteous and holy - Korban HaEidah) he will eventually me led astray. If he says "I will ascend to heaven" he can say it but he cannot do it.

This does not seem to me to be very compelling. In fact, it seems to me that the only reason Rabbi Abahu call someone who claims to be god a liar is because he entertains that such a thing is possible. Otherwise the person is simply a fool, rather than a liar. Furthermore, these three statements seem to be an attack on Christianity, rather than specifically laying our Jewish dogma.

Rabbi Abahu was a 3rd generation Amora (student of both Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish) who was the Rosh Yeshiva in Cesaeria (which I know from other sources, but is also confirmed by Wikipedia) and had frequent dealings with the non-Jewish leadership (as evidenced by his knowledge of Greek). He was known as an expert in aggadata.
Is Rabbi Abahu unique amongst the Rabbis in attributing the possibility of human form to G-d? Do the other Rabbis argue with him anywhere about this? Was it a shared belief amongst Chazal? Does Rambam have any clear statement from Chazal supporting his claim that it is heresy to beleive that G-d can assume human form?
The only statement of Chazal that Rambam brings (in his Introduction to Perek Chelek - he brings no source in Mishne Torah) is from Chagiga 15a which says:
גמירא דלמעלה לא הוי לא ישיבה ולא תחרות ולא עורף ולא עיפוי

This is a statement of Acher (Elisha ben Avuhya) which is that "Above there is no sitting nor competition nor turning the back of the neck, nor tiredness"
I'm not convinced that this is even speaking about G-d (from the context it seems that it is speaking about angels and specifically NOT G-d) and it is far from explicit.

I am open to any other insights that anyone may have.

Shavua Tov

Friday, April 27, 2012

Internet Asifa

Everyone is talking about the Internet Asifa with the backing of the Gedolim. Many different people have pointed out all the many things wrong with the idea from beginning to end.

What hasn't been pointed out (as far as I've seen) is that it seems obvious to me that this is not primarily about the speeches of the Gedolim (whoever they may be - so far no names have been mentioned). Surely the most important thing here for the organisers is the Expo which will take the first 2 hours.

I know that I am very cynical, but based on past history my guess is that the main purpose of this Asifa is to define 'kosher internet' and not kosher internet. Those who spend money to hire a booth at the expo will (for some unexplained reason) get a hechsher for their product. Anyone who purchases any other product will be excluded from the Chareidi community. It will not take long before Beis Yaakov schools require parents to sign that they don't have any other products. There will be special e-mail addresses which will be the only ones acceptable for those who wish to be part of the Chareidi community. etc. etc. etc.

In other words, it seems to me that the main purpose of this whole thing is to allow a few individuals to have an exclusive market of several thousand customers.

Is there such a thing as rational Judaism?

Can religion really work with rationalism? There are many good books which try to bridge the gap between them (the 'first and best' of which was Challenge: Torah Views on Science and Its Problems, and of course there are the books of Rabbi Slifkin including The Challenge of Creation: Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution

But at the end of the day must we come to a point where we give up on the rational? Are there things which we cannot accept rationally but have to accept on faith? And if so, how do we know where to draw the line?

New research seems to suggest that the more rational a person is, the less likely he or she is to be religious. I have no idea whether this actually means anything or not, but I am very sceptical about the methodology used (though I haven't been able to access the full paper, so perhaps it is the summary that is misleading, rather than the research.

For example, one of the ways they decided who is rational and who is intuitive was through the following question:

For example, students were asked this question: "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" The intuitive answer — 10 cents — would be wrong. A little math on the fly reveals that the correct answer would be 5 cents.

After answering three of these questions, the students were asked to rate a series of statements on belief, including, "In my life I feel the presence of the Divine," and "I just don't understand religion." Students who answered the three questions correctly — and presumably did a better job of engaging their analytical skills — were more likely to score lower on the belief scales.

So based on three questions like that, and vague answers to questions about "I feel the presence of the Divine..." they make a generalisation that intuitive people are more religious, but intellectual people are less religious. I'm not convinced (I know that was only a small part of the study, but to my mind that is completely meaningless, and doesn't make sense in a study like this at all).

On the other hand, (and quite ironically), intuitively it seems to me that someone who is less rational is more likely to be religious. On the other hand, rationally, it doesn't really make sense to me.

Were Rambam, Saadiah, Ralbag or Yitzchak Yisraeli not religious? When Rambam rejects the philosophy of Kalam because it contradicts Aristotle, is that not purely rational?

But looking at the world today, it does seem to me that Kiruv has got rid of most of the intellectual, rational potential baalei teshuva. It seems that today faith has to be based on dodgy fake science and cholent. No rational person will accept that for very long.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Multiple Authors

It is not only Moshe Rabbeinu's authorship of the Torah that is challenged by 'experts'. Even Shakespeare's works contain multiple authors according to new research.

Prof Maguire says that a majority of plays written in this era had more than one writer - but the iconic status of Shakespeare has meant a reluctance to consider his work in this way.

She says she is "very confident" that there is "a second hand" in the authorship of the play.

The research by Prof Maguire and Dr Emma Smith, from Oxford University's English faculty, suggests that the playwright Thomas Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, appears to be the likely candidate.

Of course there have always been people who thought that Shakespeare didn't write his own works (and they have been attributed to many of his contemporaries, though the best take on it by far is in the Thursday Next series (beginning with The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel).

The question of the authorship of Shakespeare's plays has been a continued source of speculation and conspiracy.

Prof Maguire says that there is no serious scholarship which challenges the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him.

At the same time there are those who thought that Shakespeare wrote the (King James) Bible.

There is not much records of Shakespeare´s personal life. Rumors arise from time to time that he did not write his plays, but the real author was Christopher Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth or Edward De Vere (1550-1604), whom T.J. Looney identified in 1920 as the author of Shakespeare's plays. A large body of 'Oxfordians' have since built on this claim and the reluctance to believe that a man of humble origins could could create such magnificent works. According to some numerologists, Shakespeare wrote The King James Version of the Bible at the age of 46. Their "evidence": Shake is the 46th word of the 46th Psalm, Spear is the 46th word from the end in the 46th Psalm.

Well now it is all about multiple authors. Instead of E,J,P and D there are S (Shakespeare) and M (for Thomas Middleton).

Well, I suppose unless we borrow the Doctor's Tardis we will never know for sure. And at least it keeps some academics in business to come up with these theories. It in not way diminishes the brilliance of the plays themselves. And just like the Torah itself, logic and scientific study are not the important thing, but belief in the beauty and meaning of the words, and how they have changed the world.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hyrax Song

If you live outside of Israel, this week you will read parshat Shemini in Shul (we Israelis already read it last week while you were celebrating the 8th day of Pesach).

Shemini contains (amongst other things) the list of kosher and non-kosher animals, birds and fish. (If you want to wear a parsha-themed tie, how about a tie with Minnie Mouse. Her last name appears in the list of 8 impure animals (achbar) and her first name is almost the same as the name of the parsha).

Anyhow, one of the four animals which has only one 'kosher sign' (and which has been the subject of much controversy over the past several years since the first publication of Rabbi Slifkin's "The Camel the Hare and the Hyrax. If you have read any of the books, articles, blogs, cherems etc on the subject you will know that whether or not the hyrax actually chews the cud is a matter of great debate.

But what I didn't know until today (when I read this article) is that apparently hyraxes (hyraces?) also sing, and have fairly complex syntax in their songs! (Apparently, according to the article, it is well known locally for its song, but I don't live locally (in Ein Gedi) so I didn't know that)

The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) is a social mammal, which lives in large groups, and is found in the Middle East and Africa.

The singing creatures are social and live in large groups
It is well known locally for its song, and scientists believe that males use these vocalisations to advertise their wares.

The team who carried out the study recorded singing hyraxes in nine regions around Israel.

Dr Kershenbaum said: "A typical hyrax song can last for several minutes, and their songs are broken down into small bouts, with each bout lasting for maybe 10 to 20 seconds.

"Each bout is composed of a number of notes, which we call the syllables. There are only a very small number of syllables that make up a hyrax song, and each sound is very distinct.

"And out of these, you can make up a whole language and combine them in an infinite number of ways."

Which I thought was interesting!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Steam-Engine Time

I was reading a book the other day - "The Science of Discworld III - Darwin's Watch" and they mentioned a concept called "Steam-Engine Time". According to Urban Dictionary this means:

A period of time when many inventors all over the world, despite isolation from each other, and with no contact with each other in any way, begin inventing a similar technology with a coincidental commonality of ideas.
The invention of the steam engine didn't occur in only one place but was invented independently and in isolation by many inventors all over the world.

Another example of steam engine time includes the independent invention of the aeroplane by people in isolation from each other in many different regions of the world, leading to arguments about "who" invented the aeroplane first.

Although the book in general was not as good as the first one (in my opinion), I found this concept very interesting. It also reminded me of a similar concept in Rav Tzadok HaCohen who writes:

התורה הוא מפת העולם כמו שאמרו (בראשית רבה ריש פרשה א' א') במשל דדיפתראות ופינקסאות וכן ישראל [שהם ואורייתא חד כנודע כי אור הנפשות דישראל הוא עצמו אור התורה וכמו שמובא (זוהר חדש שיר השירים כ"ד ב) דיש ששים רבוא אותיות לתורה] שבכל דור הם מפת העולם באותו דור כפי ההתחדשות שבנפשות מישראל בכל דור כן התחדשות העולם באותו זמן, וכמו שאמרו (יבמות ס"ג א) אפילו ספינות וכו' בשביל ישראל. וכמו שהנפשות משתנות מדור לדור כן התורה והיינו התורה שבעל פה שמתחדש בכל דור חדשות על ידי חכמי ישראל, ועל ידי כל חדשות התורה שבעל פה יוצא לאור נפשות חדשות מישראל ועל פיהם נתחדש גם כן ענינים בעולם וממצב העולם בכל דור נוכל להתבונן על מצב נפשות ישראל שבדור וכן על מצב התורה שבפיות תלמידי חכמים האמיתים שבאותו דור [ולכן אמרו (חגיגה ה' ב) אבדה עצה מבנים נסרחה חכמתם (ירמיה מ"ט ז') עיין שם ומובן]:
(Tzidkat HaTzadik 90)

The Torah is the blueprint of the world, as it says (Bereishit Rabba 1:1) with the metaphor of the parchment and books. Similarly, Yisrael (who are one with the Torah, as is known, for the light of the souls of Yisrael is itself the light of the Torah as is brought (Zohar Chadash Shir HaShirim 24:2) that htere are 600,000 letters in the Torah) in every generation is the blueprint of the world in that generation. According to the innovations in the souls of Yisrael in each generation are the innovations in the world at that time. As is said (Yevamot 63a) "even the ships that go from Gaul to Spain are blessed only for Israel's sake." Just as the souls change from one generation to another, so the Torah - meaning the Oral Torah, which is renewed in every generation with innovations through the sages of Yisrael. With every innovation in the Oral Torah the potential of hte souls of Yisrael is revealed, and through them come all the innovations in the world. From the state of the world in every generation we can understand the state of the souls of Yisrael in that generation, and also the state of the Torah in the mouths of the True Torah scholars in that generation. (That is why the Talmud (Chagiga 5b) interprets the verse "Counsel is lost from those of understanding and their wisdom is vanished" (Yirmiya 49:7) - Look there further.

Cheating for Charity

Perhaps this research explains the embarrassing amount of chilul Hashem that goes on when 'religious people' (note the '') cheat and steal, and try to justify it by saying that it is for a good cause.

"Drawing the Line Somewhere: An Experimental Study of Moral Compromise shows that people are more likely to lie when a charity benefits from their dishonesty.

Of course this in no way justifies such behaviour, nor does it minimise the chilul Hashem caused by such behaviour.

Personally, I think there is also another major factor at play when religious people (try to) cheat the system - they feel that it is not their system, and that the 'system' does not represent them. When people feel disenfranchised they are more likely to commit crimes. If they feel that the legal system and police force does not represent them, people are more likely to either take law into their own hands, or ignore laws and rules and rights.

Unfortunately in Israel many of the various segments of religious society feel that they are not represented by the justice system. And once the rules don't apply - well the mishna in Avot says it best:

"Rabbi Chanina taught: "Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive" (3:2)."

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Biur Maaser

(Even if you are not interested in the first part of this post, it is worth reading the end for a practical suggestion about destroying maaser coins - if you are quick)

In years 1,2,4 and 5 of the shemita cycle we separate maaser sheni from all produce grown in Israel. This food is eaten in Jerusalem in a state of ritual purity. If a person is unable to transport the fruit and vegetables to Jerusalem (because they live too far away or because there is no Beit HaMikdash) they redeem the produce on a coin, and later use the coin to purchase food in Jerusalem.

The Torah tells us that:
At the end of every three years, even in the same year, thou shalt bring forth all the tithe of thine increase, and shall lay it up within thy gates.
(Devarim 14:28)

The Yerushalmi learns from this that before the last day of Pesach in teh 4th and 7th years of the shemitta cycle a person must destroy any remaining maaser sheni money that they have not used:
מקצה שלש שנים תוציא את כל מעשר תבואתך בשנה ההיא" (דברים יד כח). יכול מראש השנה של שלישית? - תלמוד לומר "מקצה" - יכול בראש השנה של רביעית? - תלמוד לומר "כי תכלה לעשר את כל מעשר תבואתך בשנה השלישית" (דברים כו, יב). - יכול אפילו בחנוכה? - הרי אני דין: נמצא כאן "מקצה", ונאמר להלן "קץ": "מקץ שבע שנים במועד שנת השמיטה בחג הסוכות" (דברים לא). מה "קץ" האמור להן רגל, אף "קץ" האמור כאן - רגל.

- אי מה "קץ" האמור להלן חג הסוכות, אף כאן חג הסוכות? - תלמוד לומר "כי תכלה לעשר" - רגלו שכלו בו מעשרות, הוי אומר: זה פסח. מכאן אמרו: ערב יום טוב האחרון של פסח של רביעית ושל שביעית היה ביעור. ברביעית מפני מעשר עני שבשלישית; ובשביעית מפני מעשר עני שבשישית.

Summary: Any unused maaser sheni must be destroyed before the last day of Pesach in 4th and 7th years. (The Bavli seems to be of the opinion that it must be destroyed before the first day of Pesach, but Rambam rules like the Yerushalmi).

The Torah also tell us of a 'confession' that we are to make when brining the first fruits to Jerusalem each year:
then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God: 'I have destroyed the hallowed things out of my house
(Devarim 26:13)

Here are some links in Hebrew about the mitzvah of Bi'ur Maaser:
Bi'ur Maaserot

Encyclopedia Talmudit

Even though today we do not have a Beit HaMikdash, and cannot bring bikkurim, there is still a mitzvah to destroy the maaser coin.

The technical problem nowadays is 'How do I destroy my coin?' I remember one time (many years ago) spending a very long time with a hammer trying to make the coin unusable (without much success - though perhaps that is because I am a wimp). Someone suggested using a drill to make a hole in it (never tried - sounds too dangerous). Unfortuately halacha does not permit exchanging the coin for paper money (which would make things simple)

Of course the simple answer is to follow the advice of Chazal and throw it into the Dead Sea. However for most people that is not so practical.

HOWEVER tomorrow I am going to the Dead Sea on a tiyul. Tomorrow (for the purposes of this blog) is Monday, second day of Chol HaMoed (in Israel - first day Chol HaMoed in Chutz La'Aretz). I am going to (bli neder) throw my maaser coin into the Dead Sea. And because you can transfer the kedusha of the maaser from one coin to another, I will gladly add the maaser from your coin to mine, if you add your name in the comments to this blog. Then your coin at home will revert to being a regular, ordinary coin, and your maaser will have been destroyed in the Dead Sea as per Chazal's suggestion.

So, add your name to the comments (but quickly, because I'm not going back again - though the truth is that I know someone who will be there for the whole week, so if there is more demand than supply I may be able to arrange for another 'coin throwing at the end of the week).

The only problem is that someone told me that it is illegal to destroy Israeli currency. So if you work for the Bank of Israel (or Police or whoever may enforce such a law - which I can't find in a quick google search, so it may not be true) please don't read this blog, and please don't come to the Dead Sea tomorrow. Thanks.

(I normally do try my best to keep the laws of Israel, but I'm hoping that they make allowances at this time for the fulfillment of this mitzvah.)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Plague of Frogs

This item was posted yesterday on a New Zealand news website. It seems that the city of New Plymouth is suffering from a plague of frogs now.

Large numbers of the green and brown croakers have been seen sunning and bathing themselves in backyards from Spotswood to Bell Block after a bumper breeding season.

Neighbours Nancy Mills and Sue Taylor from Bell Block were surprised to find so many frogs hopping around.

"We've had them in the house, in the bathroom and the bedroom and the laundry and the garage," Mrs Mills said.

"We've had to turn all our buckets upside down because the little ones jump in and then can't get back out and die in there," she said.

I suppose it is to help us prepare for seder night and Pesach. Thank you New Plymouth.