Sunday, July 28, 2013

Medieval Theory of Vision

This post may have relevance to a book I am working on, so if anyone has any ideas or comments or explanations I would very much welcome them.

The ancient Greeks were basically divided into two camps of how vision works. One camp held with the theory of Emission (or extramission) in which visual perception comes from light beams which come out of the eyes. This view was held by Socrates, Plato and many others.

The opposing view held that miniature replicas of objects entered into the eye. This is the intromission theory and was an opinion held by Aristotle, Galen and others. These miniature replicas were called eidola and somehow represented the 'spirit' of the object being viewed.

(In fact there are another couple of theories which are kind of sub-categories of these, but I'm not knowledgable enough to explain the distinctions fully. Here are a couple of interesting articles that I found.

It seems to me that there are several examples in the Gemara which appear to side with the first opinion, that sight comes from light emmitted by the eyes.

For example:
The verse referring to Elisha states (II Melachim 2:24)

וַיִּפֶן אַחֲרָיו וַיִּרְאֵם, וַיְקַלְלֵם בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה; וַתֵּצֶאנָה שְׁתַּיִם דֻּבִּים, מִן-הַיַּעַר, וַתְּבַקַּעְנָה מֵהֶם, אַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁנֵי יְלָדִים.

And he looked behind him and saw them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two children of them

The Gemara explains this in Sotah (46a), stating:
מה ראה אמר רב ראה ממש כדתניא רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר כל מקום שנתנו חכמים עיניהם או מיתה או עוני

And he looked behind him and saw them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. What did he see? — Rab said: He actually looked upon them, as it has been taught: Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel says: Wherever the Sages set their eyes there is either death or calamity

In other words, it seems that sight has power to cause damage. This source is not conclusive, but how about the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai when he and his son came out of the cave (Shabbat 33b):

נפקו חזו אינשי דקא כרבי וזרעי אמר מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה כל מקום שנותנין עיניהן מיד נשרף

So they emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, 'They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!' Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up.

Similarly, when Rabbi Shimon saw Yehuda ben Gerim, who was the one who informed the Romans of his words the Gemara says (ibid. 34a)

נפק לשוקא חזייה ליהודה בן גרים אמר עדיין יש לזה בעולם נתן בו עיניו ועשהו גל של עצמות:

Then he went out into the street and saw Judah, the son of proselytes: 'That man is still in the world!' he exclaimed. He cast his eyes upon him and he became8 a heap of bones.

It seems that according to Chazal there is a fire that comes out of the eyes, which is normally weak, but when coupled with strong spiritual force it can become an actual fire and burn things up.

The truth is that I understand that the concept of ayin hara is also based on this worldview. I know that nowadays we tend to explain it as based on jealousy of others, but if so, why is there no concept of 'ozen hara'? It seems that actually looking at something has power to cause damage. Conversely there is a saying that:

וא"ר יצחק אין הברכה מצוייה אלא בדבר הסמוי מן העין

R. Isaac also said: A blessing is found only in what is hidden from the eye, for it is written, The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden things. The School of R. Ishmael taught: A blessing comes only to that over which the eye has no power, for it is said, The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden things.

All of these sources imply (to me) that the eye emits some force which can cause physical damage if not channeled properly.

(I know that Superman had similar powers - where do you think he got the idea from?)

Rashi in Chumash is explicit that this is how sight works. In parshat Haazinu (Devarim 32:10) the verse states:

יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ

He found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye.

Rashi explains:

"כאישון עינו" - הוא השחור שבעין שהמאור יוצא הימנו"

as the pupil of his eye: This refers to the black part of the eye, from which the light comes outward.

I haven't yet found the source of Rashi's statement in Chazal. Perhaps one of you knows whether Rashi took this explanation from an earlier source, or it is his own chidush. Also I have looked, but not yet found, whether any of the commentaries on Rashi manage to explain this in accordance with modern theories of sight (i.e. that light comes from a light-source, is reflected off objects, and then enters the eye).

And what is also interesting is that both Rabbeinu Bachye (on the verse) and Meiri (in his commentary on Tehillim 17) seem to side with the other theory of sight, and say that the word ishun means pupil because of the 'little man' (ish) that can be seen within it. This seems to be the theory of eidola, that reflections leave the object and enter the eye. Again, I cannot find a source in Chazal for their commentary, but I would be glad if someone could find one for me.

It apears that the modern theory of sight first developed in the end of the 10th century and beginning of the 11th by Abu Ali Mohammed Ibn Al Hasn Ibn Al Haytham, whom we know today as Alhazen. However, since he lived mainly in Cairo, and wrote in Arabic, his works would have been unknown to Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya or Meiri. But they should have been known to those who came not much later. Which is why I would expect later commentaries on Rashi (particularly) to explain him according to the 'modern theory.'

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Invalidating a Beit Din

Over on CrossCurrents Rabbi Gordimer continues to accuse Rabbi Zev Farber of heresy. (To be honest, I'm not sure that he is wrong - it seems to me that Rav Farber has crossed some unwritten line, but that may be the topic of another post). However, in his latest post Rabbi Gordimer goes a step further. He writes:

The beliefs of a rabbi are no small issue. They can impact the validity of geirus, gittin and kiddushin performed under the rabbi’s review or that hinge upon his testimony, and the halachic integrity of those institutions that affiliate with a rabbi whose beliefs are unacceptable becomes suspect.

In other words, not only would any conversions, divorces or marriages performed by Rav Farber be invalid, but by association, any of those performed by anyone affiliated with YCT (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah - Rabbi Farber's alma mater) would also be invalid. I find this claim very disturbing.

Firstly, and obviously, I don't know why a marriage would be invalid, even if performed by a heretic. One does not require a Rabbi to perform a wedding.

But aside from that, to invalidate an entire institution based on the writings or thought of one individual sounds like a very dangerous precedent (not to mention that YCT have distanced themselves from Rabbi Farber's views, and stated openly that his views do not represent those of the school).

The kinds of sins which invalidate dayanim are (according to Shulchan Aruch) those that invalidate witnesses.
In Choshen Mishpat, siman 32 se'if 22 it states:

המוסרים לאנסים, והאפיקורסים והמומרים לעבודת כוכבים, פחותים מהעובדי כוכבים ופסולים לעדות.

those who hand over [Jews] to the secular authorities, and apikorsim (heretics) and those who are known to worship idols, are less valid than idolators, and are invalid as witnesses.

If it were to be decided that Rav Farber was an apikoros, he would be invalid as a judge (and witness) based on this halacha.

But if we look earlier in the siman, and the much longer discussion of other kinds of sins which invalidate judges (and witnesses) we find:

גנב, וכן גזלן, פסולים לעדות מעת שגנב או גזל, ואע"פ שהחזירו, עד שיעשו תשובה.

A thief or a robber are invalide for testimony from the moment they stole or robbed. Even if they return [the money they are still invalide] until they repent

Imagine, hypothetically, that a chief Rabbi of Israel would be indicted for fraud, bribery, money laundering and theft. If he were to be convicted, would that invalidate not only any beit din that he personally had sat on, but also every beit din under his jurisdiction? Were he to be found guilty, even if he repaid the money, would every divorce performed in Israel for the past several years be invalid? And how about every conversion? It would undermine the very fabric of society. (I'm not accusing anyone, nor do I think that anyone is guilty. This is a hypothetical question based on Rabbi Gordimer's assumption that any Beit Din associated with an individual Rabbi should be tarred with the same brush as an individual. This case would be worse, because the accused is the head of the organisation).

Or, Rambam writes in Hilchot Eidut, chapter 17 halacha 1

יז,א מי שהעידו לו אנשים רבים וגדולים בחכמה וביראה, שהם ראו פלוני שעבר עבירה פלונית, או שלווה מפלוני--אף על פי שהוא מאמין הדבר בליבו כאילו ראהו--לא יעיד, עד שיראה הדבר בעיניו, או יודה לו הלווה מפיו ויאמר לו, היה עליי עד: שנאמר "או ראה או ידע" (ויקרא ה,א). ואין לך עדות שמתקיימת בראייה או בידיעה, אלא עדות ממון. וכל המעיד מפי אחרים--הרי זה עד שקר, ועובר בלא תעשה: שנאמר "לא תענה בריעך עד שקר" (שמות כ,יב).

Someone to whom many people who are great in wisdom and fear of G-d, have testified that they saw someone transgress a sin... may not testify unless he sees it with his own eyes... Anyone who testifies based on the testimony of others is a false witness and transgresses the negative prohibition of "do not bear false witness agsinst your neighbour

Now imagine, hypothetically, that the head of a very large Rabbinic organisation in America was defending a convicted criminal based on evidence he had heard from others, and his own 'investigation' (this is not exactly the same as Rambam's halacha but pretty similar). Imagine if the Rabbi continued to insist on his innocence even after the criminal had confessed and pled guilty and been sentenced to jail. Furthermore, this Rabbi accused someone else of perpetrating the crime, with no evidence. And he continued to insist that he is correct and refused to retract either his claim of innocence on the confessed perpetrator, nor his unfounded allegations against an innocent party. (I am not saying that this is what happened - I have no evidence apart from what I've read and heard from others, but I am suggesting a hypothetical case).

Would Rabbi Gordimer then invalidate any gittin or geirus done under the auspices of this organisation?

These are two hypothetical examples that come to mind. There are (unfortunately) many cases of financial crimes, or other sins which would brand someone a 'rasha' which have been perpetrated by Rabbis and Dayanim. If we were to follow Rabbi Gordimer's lead and invalidate any action performed by any Beit Din associated with them it would be extremely difficult to find any Beit Din in the world that is kosher.

To repeat: I am not accusing anyone of guilt (or innocence). I do not know whether Rabbi Farber is a heretic or not (nor is my opinion relevant). And I do not know whether Rabbi Farber actually sits on a Beit Din or not, and what the status of that Beit Din will be in the future. I am simply pointing out that if Rabbi Gordimer is correct (and I haven't claimed that he is wrong) we will need to review the entire system of Beit Din within every Jewish community and every country, to ensure it meets the rigorous (minimum) standards of not being in any way associated with anyone who is invalid as a judge or witness. Not that is a tall order!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

New Chief Rabbis

I just wanted to write a very quick blog post about the newly elected Chief Rabbis - Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef.

Firstly, I am so glad that the elections are over. It has been an embarrassing chilul Hashem for the past several months as Rabbi engaged in politics and horse-trading. It should never have happened.

On the radio (and internet) this morning people were speaking about the election of chareidim as a defeat for the dati le'umi community, and a clear sign that the rabbanut does not want to move forward into the 21st century.

My thoughts (for what they are worth).

I do not identify with the chareidi community. But I do think that these two choices are excellent for Israel. Even though their fathers' were also Chief Rabbis, each of them deserves it in their own right, and was not elected because of their father.

I know Rabbi Lau a little bit (my brother knows him much better because he lives in Modi'in). Rabbi Lau is open, modern and concerned with the welfare of all Jews (and non-Jews) of every denomination. Notwithstanding what is being written about him, he cares deeply about people, knows Torah and halacha, and has been a tireless worker for the people of Modi'in for the past several years.

I know nothing about Rabbi Yosef as a person, but his books of Yalkut Yosef are tremendous. Clearly written, straight forward halacha for both Sefardim and Ashkenazim, and never erring on the side of chumra.

But as pleased as I am for both of these Rabbis, the Rabbanut and the State of Israel, I must say that it wasn't as much that these two won, but that the opposition lost. It seems to me that Bayit Yehudi is out of touch with the real world (based on the candidates they put forward). Rabbi David Stav is a forward thinking person (who wears a kippa seruga). But he has been exceptionally controversial in his rulings and actions (in terms of challenging the status quo). I think that Tzohar is an excellent organisation and has changed the way things are done. But to put forward such a radical contender for the office of Chief Rabbi was always risky. Tzohar operates well because it is outside of the system. I am yet to be convinced that it would work as the system.

And Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, who I'm sure is a great talmid chacham (though I have not been completely impressed with his halachic rulings on the weekly parsha pages, nor when I've heard him on the radio) and a great activist for the Jews of the world, is nevertheless a very controversial character. I disagree with the legal system getting involved in the elections - the Attorney General should never have allowed him to be called in - but nonetheless, his election would have been dragged through the courts and would have created an even bigger chilul Hashem. And those who feel disenfranchised by the election of Chareidim are possibly also the ones who would feel disenfrachised by a Rabbi who wrote a haskama to a book advocating killing Arabs.

If the dati le'umi community want to put up a serious contender for Chief Rabbi (and they should start planning now for 10 years time) they will have to find someone who is very knowledgable in Halacha, is not too radical, and can be accepted by most of the Jewish people of Israel. In the past they have had Chief Rabbis who filled most of those criteria - Rabbi Shapiro, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, Rabbi Goren, etc. At the moment I don't see those kinds of people leading the dati le'umi community. Don't get me wrong - there are many great dati le'umi Rabbis, but many of them are either more chareidi than the chareidim, or radical in either their political or racial views.

Ten years is not a long time. They had better get moving. (Of course what they will probably do is change the electoral system or do away with the office of Chief Rabbi - which would be a pity, but more importantly would be an admission that they cannot compete on a level playing field.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Biblical Kangaroos

This post is inspired by the scientific writings of Dr Isaac Betech (pediatrician).

The statement by YSO that Kangaroos were known by both the Torah and by Chazal confused me at first, because it seemed to pose a difficulty to the mishna. But Baruch Hashem, using scientific methodology we have been able to clearly resolve all difficulties and show that Hashem is the Boreh Olam!

The mishna in Bikurim (2:7) states that:
דם מהלכי שתיים--שווה לדם בהמה, להכשיר את הזרעים; ודם השרץ, אין חייבין עליו.

The blood of those who go on 2 [legs] is equivalent to the blood of those who go on four [legs] to prepare plants [to enable them to beoome ritually impure]. And the blood of a sheretz [creepy crawly] - one is not liable for.

The strange phrase of 'go on two' is usually understood as referring to humans. However, kangaroos (and wallabies) also hop on two legs, thereby creating what at first seems an insurmountable difficulty.

We see from this video that kangaroos certainly 'go on two' [legs]. So one may have been misled to think that their blood is the same as human blood.

However, Baruch Hashem, a study of the meforshim (who all question why the mishna didn't simply use the word "man" rather than the less specific term "go on two") shows that they, know through their ruach hakodesh, of kangaroos.

Rishon le-Tziyon points out that from this wording one may have been confused and thought that it also included ofot. The word ofot is not clearly defined in Hebrew. It may refer to chicken (or turkey if you are American) or to birds in general.

However, I consulted with my Hebrew expert, who confirmed my suspicions, that the word עוף can also be read as "UP". This then, is clearly a reference to kangaroos who jump "up" when they move (unlike birds, for example, who simply fly). Therefore the mishna is precise in its terminology of saying 'go on two' to exclude kangaroos (and wallabies) who go 'up'.

R. Slifkin (R. stands for Natan) challenged that kangaroos were unknown to the audience of the Torah and the mishna. Which is not only irrelevant, but also false. Since the Torah and mishna were written with Divine Inspiration it makes no difference where they lived. Furthermore, only a small fraction of the land of Eretz Yisroel has been excavated for fossils, so it is entirely reasonable to assume that they will eventually discover kangaroo (and wallaby) fossils in Israel. Furthermore, I wrote a letter to the author of the book on kangaroos of the biblical era, and questioned his/her methodology. Since I heard no further response I assume that they agree with me that one cannot disprove the existence of kangaroos in the ancient Middle East.

In addition, anyone who goes to the Jerusalem zoo will see that there are both wallabies and kangaroos there. So it is false to say that there are no kangaroos in Israel!

Perhaps you will ask "What about gorillas? - They also walk on 2 legs". To which I answer that there is not a shred of evidence that gorillas walk on two legs.

Just two further points about Dr Betech:

1. He admits that he was involved in the ban on (Rabbi) Slifkins books.

The Chofetz Chaim (Hilchot Lashon HaRa 5:3) writes that one who says about a Rav that he does not know Torah and thereby causes his status to be diminished (and potentially causes him loss of livelihood) denigrates Torah and causes laxity in observance of mitzvot.

2. In his book, Betech fails to mention Rabbi Slifkin's book on the subject at all, even though he has certainly read it and is very familiar with it (and seems to have taken some of his sources from it). Furthermore, when a Rabbi says something that Betech does not agree with he either excludes it completely (like the opinon of Rabbi Tendler) or instead attributes Rabbi Lubin's opinionto a random parsha sheet (North Hendon Adath) to avoid presenting a difficulty to his theory.

Nodeh Be'Yehuda (Tanina: Orech Chaim 20) writes that one who fails to attribute a source (b'shem omro) is considered a thief and transgresses a Biblical command.
(disclosure: I found this reference in she'arim metzuyanim be'halacha siman 27, along with many other sources who state the same thing).

So in summary, one who denigrates a Rabbi and claims that he is not intelligent denigrates the Torah and causes people to be lax in their mitzva observance. Furthermore one who does not attribute their source transgresses a Biblical prohibition.

I'll end with a quote from Rebecca Driver:
Kangaroos are ingenious examples of God’s craftsmanship, designed by a Creator who knew perfectly what He was doing. To Him all praise, glory, and honour is forever due.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I came across this spoof letter today, purportedly addressed to Richard Dawkins:

Dear Dawkins,
Sorry I haven't written for a while. I have been working on a theory that we are descended from pandas, rather than great apes. The evidence is pretty thin, to be honest, but next year I shall travel to China to view the pandas in their natural surroundings, and publish my findings.

According to my theory, the big evolutionary leap happened when we stopped eating bamboo and began making chairs out of it, leading to the development of furniture at around the same time that our panda ancestors discovered fire. This in turn led to the invention of offices, leading eventually to thepaperless office. But as I say, the evidence is crummy. 

I am not, sir, a zoologist by profession, but a tennis instructor, so any advice you could give me about pandas would be welcome. Did not gunpowder originate in China? This would be consistent with our warlike panda forefathers trying to gain the upper hand over rival species, such as chimpanzees. Both species are now on the verge of extinction, of course. 

Do you play tennis at all, Dawkins? If you do and there is any particular area of your game you would like to work on, do not hesitate to get in touch.

Best wishes,

Harry Hutton, tennis instructor

 Reminds me a bit about a discussion going on about rabbits in ancient Israel that's been going on elsewhere.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

JETS - Guest Post

According to recent studies online learning is becoming increasingly popular among classroom-based and home-based students worldwide. College-level studies went online soon after the Internet began to be widely used while over the course of the last decade, high school, middle school and elementary school studies have become increasingly available on the web as well.

Jewish educational institutions have been slower to integrate online learning models into their frameworks but today, almost all non-Haredi Jewish Day Schools and even many afternoon schools are including some form of online Jewish learning in their curriculum. In addition, many Jewish home-schooling families and families who live in remote communities where there are no formal Jewish schools are turning to online Jewish learning as a tool which introduces Jewish education and Hebrew studies to their students. 

JETS Jerusalem EdTech Solutions offers a variety of online Jewish learning opportunities. The program began in 2009 as a vehicle by which Israel-based teachers could teach Hebrew and Jewish studies in a dynamic interactive atmosphere with classes and groups of students from around the world.

JETS web-based learning is appropriate for multiple situations. It can be included as enrichment for Day School or afternoon Hebrew School classes or as a partnership between Jewish classrooms outside of Israel and Israeli classes. It is also employed as a core Jewish learning program for pre-teens and teens who either don't have access to a community Jewish school or who don't fit into their area's existing Hebrew/Jewish schools.

JETS courses include Hip Hop Hebraics in which students learn conversational Hebrew in a vibrant and meaningful format. Older day school and supplementary Hebrew school students can delve into core curriculum studies, such as Talmud and other Jewish textual studies with the Israel-based JETS teacher who brings the material alive as the class examines the significance of the ancient texts in today's modern world.

Other popular courses include Contemporary Jewish Issues, a multi-part series on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the deeper, spiritual meanings of Jewish holidays, Ancient Israel (a series of videos and related activities to enrich students' background on lifestyles in ancient times) and more.

JETS presents its programs in a non-denominational atmosphere that is inclusive of all Jewish streams of thought.  JETS presents Israel from a Zionistic perspective which encourages students to relate to Israel as an integral part of their own lives.

JETS also offers JConnecT, a dynamic program of Online Sunday School. JConnect presents Hebrew/Jewish studies to students who want to learn about Judaism and Israel while accessing the "classroom" from their own home. This program, recently profiled by the Jewish Military organization Jews in Green,  allows students to participate, virtually, in the Hip Hop Hebraics and Contemporary Jewish Issues programs (choose both classes or  just one class) which meet online every Sunday morning throughout school year. The classes present a Jewish Identity component of the students' Bar and Bat Mitzva studies both before and after the actual Bar/Bat Mitzvah date. Upcoming free Open Houses enable students, their families and other community members to join a sample lesson and experience the power of online Jewish learning.  

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Happy Birthday

A musical treat for my birthday

The Beatles (or at least 1/4 of them - Paul McCartney):

The Simpsons (and the late Michael Jackson)

Stevie Wonder

And finally, since 44 is a multiple of 11, it is really my 40th birthday, just "One Louder". Thanks Spinal Tap.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

You have much, sons of Levi

Next week (well this week, starting at Mincha) we read the parsha of Korach, when Korach and a team from the tribe of Reuven challenge Moshe's leadership. They claim that the entire congregation is holy, so why should Aharon be singled out as High Priest. They accuse Moshe of nepotism, and end up digging a bit hole for themselves.

Moshe tells them not to fight him, using the words "רב לכם בני לבו" - ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.'(Bamidbar 16:7). But literally it can be read as "there is plenty for you, sons of Levi."

Here are some music videos to help you remember this concept.
First, Levi (Stubbs) who was the lead vocalist for the Four Tops

This Levi embodied selflessness insofar as the 'minhag' at the time was for the lead singer to get the headline, and have a backing band.(in contrast to other Motown acts such as  Smokey Robinson and the Miracles or Diana Ross and the Supremes). He wasn't seeking to take greater leadership upon himself.

Then Billy Bragg, reminding you that it is not easy being a Levi (Levi Stubbs' Tears)

I saw Billy Bragg live (at Victoria University) in 1986 or therabouts. It was just him and a guitar and a working class accent, but it was one of the best concerts I have ever been too (I saw him again many years later in Edinburgh with "the Blokes" and that was good, but not as great - perhaps because I was older, perhaps because he was older too).

There was a great musical called "Little Shop of Horrors" based on a film of the same name
The musical was turned into a movie, also called "Little Shop of Horrors", and the plant (named Audrey II) was voiced by Levi Stubbs. In this role, Levi used his normal baritone voice, instead of the higher tenor that he sang in the Four Tops.
Here is Audrey II looking kind of cute at the beginning of the movie (can you tell that Frank Oz directed it?)

But by the end of the movie, Audrey II tries to take over the world. And has lots and lots of little Audrey IIs

Levi Stubbs (as Audrey II) gets what is coming to him. As do the little plants.
רב לכם בני לוי

Monday, May 27, 2013

Irena Sendler - the Forgotten Holocaust Hero

** A Guest Post From Laurie R. **

The recent memorial commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the passing of Baruch Spiegel, one of the last remaining survivors of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto revolt, have sparked renewed interest in many of the previously unknown events of the ghetto during the war years.

One of these stories revolves around the actions of Polish woman, Irena Sendler, who was dubbed the "female Oskar Schindler" for her success in saving thousands of Jewish lives during the dark days of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Sendler was a young Polish social worker in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. She joined the Zagota, a Polish underground, and in the first months of the occupation was able to help over 500 Jews escape the Nazi dragnet.

In 1940 Sendler moved to Warsaw where she procured false papers that identified her as a nurse, enabling her to enter the Warsaw ghetto to bring in food and medicine. Sendler quickly ascertained the Nazi's ultimate goal for the ghetto and she began to smuggle children out to be safely hidden with sympathetic Polish families, in Polish convents and in orphanages.

At the beginning Sendler concentrated on bringing out the ghetto orphans but as time went on she began to approach Jewish parents to, as she later said, "talk the mothers out of their children." She begged the parents to allow her to remove their children, convincing them that if they remained in the ghetto, they had no chance of survival.

It is estimated that, all in all, Sendler smuggled out over 2500 children. The youngest children were often sedated and smuggled out in toolboxes, luggage and other bags -- on occasion Sendler placed them in a carrier under a barking dog to deter the Germans from further investigation. 

Sendler carefully documented the names and hiding places of the children that she saved. She wrote the pertinent information on tissue paper which she then inserted into glass jars and buried in her neighbor's garden. Sendler believed that this information would allow the children to be reunited eventually, with their families or, if that was not possible, with their Jewish community.

In 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in the notorious Piawiak prison. She was tortured by the Nazis who broke both of her feet but she never revealed any information about the Zagota or the whereabouts of "her" children. After several months her Zagota comrades were able to bribe a German guard who place her name on a list of executed prisoners and smuggled her out of Piawiak. Sendler remained in hiding for the duration of the war.

In 1999 a group of Kansas City non-Jewish schoolgirls heard a rumor about Sendler's activities and decided to investigate as part of a unit that they were studying about the Second World War. Their research led them to Sendler, who was still alive at that time, and ultimately, they met Sendler and interviewed her extensively.

The girls turned the account of Sendler's actions into a project, "Life in a Jar,". Through funding from Jewish education reformer Lowell Milken the Irena Sendler project eventually expanded to include a book, a website and a performance that has been viewed by thousands of people in audiences throughout the world.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

New online classes - Rabbi Akiva and his students

I am giving another series of classes on, beginning tonight.

In this class we will learn about the lives, history, philosophy and teachings of Rabbi Akiva and five of his students; Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossei, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. We will have two classes on Bar Kochba and the possible connection to the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's students mourned during the counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot. Additionally, we will learn about Elisha ben Avuyha, who became an apostate because of the things he saw during that time.

(This is not necessarily an exact picture of Rabbi Akiva and his students. I'm not convinced that Rabbi Yehuda wore a streimel)

Tonight's class will be on Rabbi Akiva (you have seen some sneak previews of ideas I have posted on this blog)

You can sign up by clicking on this link. As always with WebYeshiva, all classes are free of charge.

See you there

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Tunes for day 40

Now it is the 40th day of the Omer, making 5 weeks and 5 days. Here are some reminders so that you don't get confused:

1. See You When You're 40 by Dido

2. 40 by U2

3. Life begins at 40 by Dave and the Dynamos

4. 40' by Franz Ferdinand

5. Forty Miles of Bad Road by Duane Eddy

Friday, May 03, 2013

Songs for 39th day of the Omer

Tonight we count 39 in the Omer, making 5 weeks and 4 days. Here are some "39" themed songs to help you remember:

1. '39 by Queen

2. 39 by The Cure

3. The 39th Street Blues by Spock's Beard

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interesting Fact 07: Rabbi Akiva against Christianity

In Shul this morning, someone mentioned this statement of Rav Kook. I don't have time now to translate it (perhaps in the future), but it is from the fourth of the Shemoneh Kevatzim of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook number 238.

In it Rav Kook writes that the "Son of the Israelite woman" mentioned in Parshat Emor, who curses G-d, refers to Jesus and Christianity. The "Israelite man" refers to Rabbi Akiva who was the antithesis of Christianity. The attention to detail, represented by every crown on every letter represents Judaism, whereas claims of love while causing suffering, and disregard of the details, represent Christianity.

רלח. המינות היא הנוטלת את זיו העולם, המחשיכה את עיני הבריות בקציצת הנטיעות ממקור השרשים העליונים שלהם. כל הרעות הרשעות והטומאות הנם טמונות בעומק חובה. זוהמת החיים, שפך דמים, שנאת הבריות, התמוטטות יסוד העולם, העכבת התעלותו והתפתחותו, השפלת שיא גבהו הפנימי, גאותו המקודשת שעל ידה הוא מתעלה, השפלה הגבוה והגבוה השפל, הכל כלול ביסוד הרשעה של המינות. כל ההשחתות אינן אלא ענפיה ושריגיה, והיא מתאמצת להתקרב אל צורת הקודש, להתעטף בטלית וחלוקא דרבנן, מתגברת ללשונה להפוך דברי אלהים חיים לדברי נבלה. גרועה היא מעבודה זרה, במה שהיא מתפרצת להפוך את הצורה הקדושה של היהדות למפלצת. היא חפצה תמיד לינוק משפעת התורה, כדי לטשטש צורתה האלהית, לאבד ממנה את ההוד העליון, ולהפכו לדוה מטומאה. יסוד החיים בבהירות העליונה ניכר במערכי ההפריה המעשית באותו משך החיים שנמשך בכל שבילי המפעלים, על-ידי כל קוץ וקוץ שבתורה, שטנה של המינות בהתחלת צמיחתה. רבי עקיבא הוא שדרש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילים של הלכות, הוא שהכיר את ערך של האומה בכללה, וכחה לאלהים בכל צורותיה שהיא מתגלה בהם, אפילו בגבורה גופנית שלה ידע כי חלק ד' עמו, ונשא כליו של בן כוזיבא, אולי תצמח ממנו ישועה לישראל, מסר נפשו על נטילת ידים, ויצאת נשמתו באחד. הוא איש הישראלי בעומק יסודי הפנימי, למרות מה שהוא בן גרים בחיצוניותו, והוא הכח המגין נגד נקיבת השם של בן האשה הישראלית, אחת היתה ופרסמה הכתוב, אותה הקוראה שלום לכל, ונוטלת המון דבורים, הומיה וסוררת, שלומית בת דברי, וינצו במחנה בן הישראלית ואיש הישראלי, עד אשר פורש המשפט, וכל קרני רשעים אגדע תרוממנה קרנות צדיק.

I did try putting it into Google Translate to at least get an approximate translation, but it gave me meatballs, so I won't bother sharing it here (yes, it literally translated the first line as "darkening the eyes of his meatballs").

Lag Ba-Omer Songs

By which I mean four songs called 33 (just in case you forget that today is the 33rd day of the omer making 4 weeks and 5 days)

1. 33 by Coheed and Cambria

2. Extension 33 by Yoko Ono

3. Catch 33 by Meshuggah

4. Thirty-three by Smashing Pumpkins

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

29 Days (4 Weeks and 1 Day)

Today is the 29th day, making 4 weeks and 1 day of the Omer.

Ringtones anyone? (btw I had to reset my phone, and lost my ringtone app. Now I cannot reload it, so I'm suffering without ringtones. Any other suggestions from anyone?)

29 Ways by Marc Cohn

Lag BaOmer on Motze'i Shabbat

Four interesting halachot relevant to Ashkenazim this year, since the 33rd day of the Omer falls straight after Shabbat (and on Sunday)

1. The Rema rules that it is permitted to have a haircut on Friday (but not Thursday night) "lichvod Shabbat" (Orech Chaim 493:2)

2. Even though it is permitted to have a haircut before Shabbat, weddings (and presumably live music) are permitted only on the day of Lag BaOmer (i.e. Sunday) and not the night before (i.e. Sat. night) (Mishna Brura 493:10 in the name of Eliya Rabba)

3. The Rabbanut of Israel has ruled that all bonfires and celebrations should be pushed off to Sunday (instead of Saturday night) to minimize chilul Shabbat (this applies even in neighbourhoods where the majority of people keep Shabbat).

4. Laws of Nezikin/Damages still apply on (and before) Lag BaOmer. If you are unsure of how to tend a fire and are not prepared (or able) to watch it until it is completely extinguished, do not light a bonfire. Leaving it under the supervision of a child is negligent and one is liable for any damages caused (not to mention the potential risk of pikuach nefesh in such a situation). Similarly, wood taken/borrowed/stolen without permission is forbidden to be used. Learn Bava Kama before lighting any fires. If you see others acting in a way which is irresponsible and/or assur speak to them and explain the halachot. If they do not understand, call the fire brigade (or police). Last year seven people were injured on Lag BaOmer. Each of us has the responsibility to ensure that nobody is injured and no damage caused to property this year.

Monday, April 22, 2013

28th day, 4 weeks of the Omer

Today is the 28th Day of the Omer, making 4 weeks.

Here are some theme tunes for the day.

What's the Deal by 28 Days

Rabbanut Monopoly on Weddings

Yizhar Hess wrote an article complaining about a nice Tzohar Rabbi who performed at a wedding of a nice young non-religious couple. Everything was fine, until the groom told the Rabbi that he wanted to use his army commander as a witness on the ketuba. The Tzohar Rabbi, nice as he was, refused to allow this person to be a witness, on the grounds that he does not keep Shabbat.

There are a few points in this article that are worth discussing:

1. One of the problems of the law in Israel requiring every Jewish person to get married through the Orthodox Rabbanut is that many (most) of them are not committed to halacha. And some will end up divorced without giving a 'get'. This creates a problem that any subsequent children born to the divorcee are considered mamzerim in halacha.
One solution which I have heard (quoted in the name of an anonymous godol) is to use non-kosher witnesses for any wedding when the officiating Rabbi is concerned that the marriage will eventually be disolved without a get (which according to some means the majority of non-religious weddings). This theoretically solves the mamzer problem, but causes many other sins by both the couple (living together without a chuppa etc) and the Rabbi (dishonesty and not providing the service he was employed to provide).
Rav Bakshi-Doron (Techumin 25 p. 100) writes strongly against this custom.
So in fact, the Tzohar Rabbi was being both honest and trusting in insisting on only using kosher witnesses. (Even though I understand the emotional trauma this caused). For this reason, when I was a Rabbi I had a rule that the Chazan and I were the witnesses at every wedding we performed. In this way nobody was embarrassed or questioned about their observance. Of course, in Britain there are also witnesses for the civil documents, which can be signed by anyone, so the couple can give their friends a special part in the wedding ceremony. There is no equivalent 'kibud' in Israeli weddings.

2. In the article Hess writes about 'Gur' (the non kosher witness):
How absurd. Gur could have been a tax evader, an abusive employer, or even a rapist, but the rabbi didn’t care about any of that. He wouldn’t have bothered to ask about his character. A good Jew, one who is fit to be a witness, can only be someone who observes the Sabbath (in the Orthodox manner). A secular Jew, no matter if he is one of the righteous few, a talmid chacham, or a bona fide Jewish hero, is unfit. Women, by the way, even if they are Sabbath observers, are considered unfit to be witnesses from the outset, simply because they are women.
Really? Who says that a tax evader, rapist or other criminal is a kosher witness for a ketuba? Unfortunately there is an assumption that if someone dresses the part they also follow all the rules. But it is clear that a thief may not be a witness. And witnesses should do teshuva from any sin before signing the form. Perhaps if we could somehow change the perception that Orthodox Jews are tolerant of theft, tax avoidance, abuse and rape, we could avoid a lot of chilul Hashem.

3. Rav Bakshi-Doron (ibid.) writes in conclusion:
The issue of Orthodox marriages, to our sorrow, is not only not desired by a large segment of society, but has become a symbol of thsoe who hate Torah. They have made it into a shovel to dig against everything holy, claiming religious coercion. The question remains: Is it not better to do away with the law forcing Orthodox marriage, in order that the concept be not degraded? The greatest degradation is that enormous pressure is brought on Dayanim and Rabbis to permit that which is forbidden, or to convert people who do not want to be Jewish. Also the issue of annulling marriages to avoid mamzering causes desecration of the Torah, when we rejoice at finding invalid marraiges this avoiding the problem of adultery (and mamzerim).

This was written 8 years ago. The hatred of Orthodox has only increased since then. The numbers of questionable conversions and dodgy marriages continues to increase daily. The halachic problems and chilul Hashem caused by forcing Orthodox marriages are surely greater than allowing people the option of a civil marriage.

If the government forced people to marry through the Orthodox Rabbinate, it must also force the Rabbinate to convert people for marriage (which is forbidden by the Shulchan Aruch). Allowing civil marriage will do away with insincere (and potentially invalid) conversions, and will greatly lessen chilul Hashem in Israel.

If it were up to me, I would advise the government (and the Rabbinate) to allow civil marriages. But in exchange, conversions and divorce should remain firmly in the hands of the Rabbinate, without political pressure. (As to the question of Agunot - that is for another post. But things are slowly improving there due to sensible use of government legislation).

Interesting Fact No. 6: Rabbi Akiva's Death

For more interesting facts click the link

Rabbi Akiva's death was foretold by Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus. In Avot de-Rebbi Natan 25 we find a description of Rabbi Elizer's last moments. He had been exiled to Caesarea after being excommunicated by Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sanhedrin. Yet he was the most brilliant mind of his generation. Only when he is on his death bed do the Rabbis come to visit him, and ask to learn Torah from him:
אחר כך אמר ר' אליעזר לחכמים: תמה אני על תלמידי הדור שמא יענשו מיתה לשמים. 
אמרו לו: רבי מפני מה? 
אמר להם: מפני שלא באו ושמשו אותי. 
ואחר כך אמר לעקיבא בן יוסף: עקיבא, מפני מה לא באת לפני ושמשת אותי? 
אמר לו: רבי, לא נפניתי. 
אמר לו: תמה אני עליך אם תמות מיתת עצמך. 
ויש אומרים: לא אמר לו כלום, אלא כיון שאמר רבי אליעזר לתלמידיו כך, מיד נמס דמו בקרבו. 
אמר לו רבי עקיבא: רבי מיתתי במה? 
אמר לו: עקיבא, שלך קשה מכולן. 
נכנס רבי עקיבא וישב לפניו, 
ואמר לו: רבי, מעתה שנה לי פתח. 
ושנה לו שלוש מאות הלכות בבהרת. 
 There is an almost identical version in the Bavli (Sanhedrin 68a):
 'Why have ye come?' said he to them. 'To study the Torah', they replied; 'And why did ye not come before now', he asked? They answered, 'We had no time'. He then said, 'I will be surprised if these die a natural death'. R. Akiba asked him, 'And what will my death be?' and he answered, 'Yours will be more cruel than theirs'. 
 I am not sure exactly how old Rabbi Akiva was when this exchange took place. Presumably he was still a student, rather than a teacher, in which case he lived for at least another 40 years after this. He knew that he would die a horrible death, and spent all his life preparing for it. And we know how he died, and how he explicitly said that he had been preparing for that moment his entire life Berachot 61b):

Our Rabbis taught: Once the wicked Government issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practise the Torah. Pappus b. Judah came and found R. Akiba publicly bringing gatherings together and occupying himself with the Torah. He said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the Government? He replied: I will explain to you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside of a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: From what are you fleeing? They replied: From the nets cast for us by men. He said to them: Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors? They replied: Art thou the one that they call the cleverest of animals? Thou art not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die! So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, For that is thy life and the length of thy days, if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be! It is related that soon afterwards R. Akiba was arrested and thrown into prison, and Pappus b. Judah was also arrested and imprisoned next to him. He said to him: Pappus, who brought you here? He replied: Happy are you, R. Akiba, that you have been seized for busying yourself with the Torah! Alas for Pappus who has been seized for busying himself with idle things! When R. Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema', and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, 'with all thy soul', [which I interpret,] 'even if He takes thy soul'. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it? He prolonged the word ehad until he expired while saying it. A bath kol went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, Akiba, that thy soul has departed with the word ehad! The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Such Torah, and such a reward? [He should have been] from them that die by Thy hand, O Lord. He replied to them: Their portion is in life. A bath kol went forth and proclaimed, Happy art thou, R. Akiba, that thou art destined for the life of the world to come.
 Moshe Rabbeinu could not understand Rabbi Akiva's death. But Rabbi Akiva himself not only understood it, but was waiting for it.
It is not unreasonable to assume that knowing he would be tortured to death by the Romans gave him the freedom to act without fear, since he no longer feared the only punishment that the Romans could give him. Perhaps this permitted him to be such a vocal supporter of Bar Kochba, even while the other Rabbis were more cautious in their support (or even opposed the uprising).

Sunday, April 21, 2013

RIngtones for the 27th day of the Omer

27 by The Silencers
27 Jennifers by Mike Doughty

Today is the 27th day of the Omer, making 3 weeks and 6 days.
Don't forget to count, and to change your ringtone.

Rashi had ruach hakodesh

The Artscroll Gemara, unlike Steinsaltz and other English or Hebrew translations/commentaries, have set themselves the task of always following Rashi's explanation, even if it is not the simplest. You may have noticed this when the magid shiur in daf yomi tries to give Tosefot's explanation of a sugya which is easier than Rashi's, and everyone with an Artscroll Gemara argues that he is saying it wrong.

There is a sugya in Rosh Hashana 24a regarding the position of the moon in relation to the sun, and the difference between winter and summer.

Artscrolls team of Rabbis (18 names are listed in the beginning of the book) struggled to understand Rashi here. Eventually they were forced to write the following:

The facts of this explanation simply to not comforn to the basic astronomical data as we know it. According to simple ovservation, the new moon does not set at one place year round. On the contrary, its setting place is very close to that of the sun; namely, south of due west in the winter and north of due west in the summer. Furthermore, its north-south postion in relation to the sun does not depend on the season of the year but rather on other considerations (see Rambam, Hil. Kiddush HaChodesh 16:7 ff.). Unfortunately, the holy words of our master Rashi here are beyond our feeble understanding and they await elucidation.
Rashi's explanatino aside, the Gemara can be explained quite simply...
 In other words, the translators and editors of the Artscroll Gemara were unable to understand how Rashi's explanation of the Gemara fit with reality. Since that reality can be ascertained by "simple observation" it is inconceivable that Rashi didn't know it. It is not a question of modern science or even geography. Furthermore, Rashi left aside the simple understanding of the Gemara to write his difficult explanation that cannot be understood.

There are only two possible ways of understanding Rashi. Either he didn't know basic astronomy. Or he wrote his commentary with such deep Ruach HaKodesh that it can not be understood by modern talmidei chachamim.

Since the first option is inconceivable, it is clear that Rashi must have been writing with Ruach HaKodesh.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Day 26 of the Omer

It is getting harder to find songs with these numbers. Please leave any suggestions in the comments.

26 Miles (Santa Catalina) by The Four Preps

Today is the 26th day of the Omer making 3 weeks and 5 days.