Sunday, June 09, 2019

The timing of Megillat Ruth

It is commonly stated that the events of Megillat Ruth take place around Shavuot. However, this is not quite accurate.

"...And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest" (1:22) - the first barley harvest occurs at Pesach, not Shavuot, as show by the Omer sacrifice.

"And [Ruth] stuck with Boaz' maidens to glean until the end of barley harvest and wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. And Naomi her mother-in-law said to her: '... And now Boaz our kinsman... he is winnowing the barley in the threshing-floor tonight." (2:23-3:2)

So in short: Ruth left Moav around Pesach, and she got married around Shavuot.

Both parts of this are parallel to the earlier experience of the Jewish people: leaving Egypt on Pesach, and receiving the Torah (described by Chazal as a marriage) at Shavuot.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

On chassidic stories

Sometimes in shul, my glance to fall across a parsha sheet that's lying around. In my current Anglo-friendly shul, there is usually just one such sheet. It is focused on inspirational and chassidic stories, including this one, which I read recently, and (from what I've seen) seems to be representative of other chassidic stories.

After reading this story, it crossed my mind how similar it was to the stories of the Avot in Breishit. It concerned individuals, not the nation. The individuals go about their lives, year after year, struggling to make a living while upholding their religious principles. They are alternatively successful and failing, and this is a reflection of God's reward and punishment, as well as God's plans for each of them. There are virtually no open miracles, but occasionally a religious command is conveyed to them in a dream.

These similarities brings into focus the main difference between the Avot and the story's characters. The Avot (particularly Avraham) were unique individuals, chosen by God to father the chosen people due to their exceptional spiritual level. But what of the characters in the chassidic story? They are normal people - some of them rebbes (though often not uniquely special rebbes in their generation, much less all of history), and some of them completely unremarkable people like innkeepers.

Why does the chassidic story grant the same attributes to the ordinary Joe that the Torah only grants to some of its greatest heroes? This seems to be a case of the chassidic belief that normal people, not only rabbinic elites, are capable of obtaining holiness, and should be reassured that their lives are just as full of spiritual meaning as anyone else's.

Of course, I'm not the first to describe chassidut that way. The more interesting thing is probably what I was wondering about before starting the article, namely: how often do miracles occur? Are the "rationalists" correct and miracles are virtually nonexistent, or are the mystics correct that miracles are nearly constant? If normal people's lives seem to follow laws of nature, should we nevertheless expect that extremely holy people, or people at crucial moments in history, will witness miracles? The Avot, whom we'd presumably put in the "extremely holy" category, are a very interesting data point. While God clearly oversees their lives, essentially never does an open miracle help them out of one of their many crises. And they do receive Divine revelation and guidance - but generally through dreams rather than outright miracles. One might conclude that this is the highest level of miraculous intervention that a person can achieve through their merits (though higher levels can occur at defining historical moments like the Exodus). And this is exactly the level - no higher and no lower - which the chassidic stories assign to their characters.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Coals in the mouth

I know of two stories - one in Tanach, one in midrash - in which an angel causes a coal to be touched to a prophet's mouth:

In the year of the death of the king Uziyahu, I saw the LORD sitting on a high and exalted throne, and his robe-skirts filled the hall. ... And I said: "Woe is to me! For I am doomed, for I am a man of impure lips, and among a people of impure lips I dwell, for my eyes have seen the King Hashem Tzevaot." And one of the Seraphim flew to me, and in his hand a coal, taken with tongs from off the altar. And he touched my hand, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips, and your iniquity is gone, and your sin is atoned." And I heard the voice of the LORD saying: "Who should I send, and who will go for us?" And I said "Behold, I am hear, send me." (Yeshayahu 6:1-8)

Pharaoh would kiss and hug [the child Moshe] and [Moshe] would take Pharaoh's crown and put it on his head, just as he would do in the future when he grew up... The Egyptian magicians were sitting there and said: "We are afraid of this [child] who takes your crown and puts it on his head, lest he be the one who will take kingship from you." Some of them said to kill him [by sword], some said to burn him. Yitro was sitting among them and said to them: "Perhaps this youth cannot [yet] think? Test him and bring before him gold and a coal in a bowl. If he extends his hand to the gold, he can think so kill him. If he extends his hand to the coal, he cannot think and he is not deserving of death." Immediately they brought before him. He extended his hand to take the gold. Gabriel came and pushed his hand and he took the coal and put his hand with the coal in his mouth and his tongue was burned. From this he became "heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue". (Shemot Rabbah 1:26)

It seems clear to me that the midrash about Moshe has its source, in large part, in the story of Yeshayahu's first prophecy. How could such a specific story (an angel causes a coal to be touched to a prophet's mouth) in the midrash not be linked to the same story in Tanach?

The continuations of the two prophets' stories contain another parallel. But this parallel is mirror image rather than identical: God asks who will be "sent" to the people and Yeshayahu immediately volunteers, while God tells Moshe to go to the people but Moshe asks that somebody else be "sent". Yeshayahu is extremely eager to go, while Moshe is extremely uneager.

And finally, there is one important detail that is simply different between the stories. In Yeshayahu, the coal takes an impure person and turns him into a pure person, ready to give prophecy to the people. In the midrash, the coal takes a speaking person and turns him into a speech-impaired person.

What are we supposed to make of the close parallel between the stories, which yet has some important differences?

When a person is touched by coals on the mouth, there seem to be two possible - contradictory - results. Scientifically speaking, this should cause a burn which might lead to some kind of speech defect. Yet with Yeshayahu the burn has a nearly opposite effect: it turns him into a prophet. In a given case, which of these results will occur, and why?

I think the best answer to this comes from Moshe's story:

Moshe said to Hashem: "Please O LORD, I am not a man of words, nor was one yesterday nor the day before, nor since You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue." Hashem said to him: "Who gives man a mouth, or makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not me, Hashem?" (Shemot 4:10-11)

Thus sometimes a burn leads to disability, but sometimes - whenever God chooses - it actually leads to a greater ability.

When Yeshayahu realized that God had chosen him as a prophet, he eagerly volunteered - despite the mouth burn he had just suffered. Moshe was placed in the same situation - called to be a prophet despite his limitations. It was only left for the midrash to fill in the exact story of how he got those limitations. By making them the same limitations that Yeshayahu had, the midrash highlights the contrast in their responses.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Exodus commands

Sometimes in the Torah, a single event is described more than once. For example, after the event occurs (i.e. Avraham's servant meeting Rivkah at the well, or Pharaoh dreaming), a character describes it to other characters. Yet the Torah's text in the two cases differs somewhat, even though the exact same events are being recorded. When this occurs, we must ask ourselves why. Are the differences just matters of style? Or are they substantive, and if so why do they exist? The answers to these questions will vary from case to case.

One interesting example appears in the Ten Plagues. Regarding the plague of hail, God commands Moshe to speak a certain speech to Pharaoh, but it is not recorded that Moshe then spoke to Pharaoh. Regarding the plague of locusts, God commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh (without mentioning locusts), after which Moshe tells Pharaoh about the coming plague of locusts. Ramban (on Shemot 9:19 and 10:2) says the differences here are just matters of style. Moshe really did give the hail speech to Pharaoh, and God did tell Moshe about the locusts ahead of time. But the Torah did not mention these events, as they are too repetitive and can be inferred from context.

However, in another case a few chapters away, I think the understanding is quite different. In this case, God twice tells Moshe to instruct the people about something. But then Moshe seemingly instructs the people something quite different from what God instructed him.

In Shemot 12, known as "HaChodesh", God commands Moshe regarding the Pesach sacrifice, the upcoming 10th plague, and the "Hag Hamatzot" holiday which will commemorate this event for the generations. Moshe calls together the elders of Israel, and tells them about the Pesach sacrifice and the 10th plague - but does not mention the holiday.

In Shemot 13:1-2, just after leaving Egypt, God issues a very concise command: to consecrate all firstborns among Israel. Moshe, then, gives a long two-paragraph speech to Israel. The first paragraph describes the seven-day holiday commemorating the Exodus, while the second paragraph mentions consecration of firstborns. Both paragraphs mention telling your son about the Exodus, and having a "sign on your hand, and a memory/phylactery between your eyes" to commemorate the Exodus.

To summarize: In Shemot 12, God talked about three subjects (sacrifice, plague, and holiday) while Moshe talked about two (sacrifice and plague). In Shemot 13, God talked about one subject (consecration) while Moshe talked about two (holiday and consecration).

We notice that the one topic Moshe missed in Shemot 12 is the topic he adds in Shemot 13! Therefore, it seems to me that Moshe delayed telling the people about the holiday until after they had left Egypt.

Here is my hypothesis: God mentioned as many commandments as possible before the Exodus (the sacrifice, plague, and holiday). But God could not mention consecration of firstborns beforehand, because that is one side in a transaction, and God could not ask Israel to "pay up" before doing HIS side of the transaction. Whereas Moshe told the people only what was relevant to them at each time: they had to know about the sacrifice and plague ahead of time, but the holiday was not relevant until after leaving Egypt, so Moshe waited to tell the people until later. When he did tell them, he combined this command with another command he had received in the meantime: consecration of firstborns.

In summary: We have identified a total of four topics in God's commands, and the same four topics in Moshe's commands, and explained why each topic appears when it does. That said, each of the four topics has a somewhat different text in God's vs Moses' telling. To reconcile the different texts within a single topic, I would probably go with the Ramban's approach as described above. This approach seems best for when text is "missing" from one of the two accounts in the Torah. But when text is "shifted in position" rather than "missing", we should assume it was said where it appears, and look for an explanation of why this occurred.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Science and the flood

The Biblical flood story is fundamentally incompatible with science. Not enough water exists on earth to cover the land entirely. And no traces of such a worldwide flood have been found. Given this situation, why does the Torah include a long flood story?

The answer usually given by modern-inclined Jews has two parts. First, that Jewish traditional thought has not insisted on taking this and similar stories literally. The midrash states that the flood waters did not fall on the land of Israel. Some later commentaries say, based on this, that the flood did not cover the land of Israel - despite the flood's seeming world-wide extent in the Torah, and the questions raised by humans and animals in Israel seemingly being able to survive.

Second, that the flood story is intended to teach us ideas, not science. The ideas are powerful enough. The Babylonia flood stories (Atrahasis and Gilgamesh), for example, begins with the gods being unable to sleep because human beings are making too much noise, so they decide to wipe out humanity to eliminate the noise. The Torah's story, in contrast, features a single God, unaffected by human actions. However, when humans behave evilly, God brings the flood to to punish them. God, through his distress at having to destroy the world, shows His caring for humanity in tension with His need that the world which was created for good, actually stay good. The ideological difference between the Babylonian and Torah flood stories is vast, and the Torah's story represents many of our highest theological ideas. So, bottom line, we accept the flood story's lessons about God and morality, while feeling free to ignore its scientific difficulties.

This answer addresses many of the difficulties with the flood story. And yet it does not totally suffice. Yes, the flood story is meant to teach ideas. But does that mean it cannot also teach science? Perhaps there was no good way of teaching science in such a story, but why then teach erroneous science? Shouldn't a perfect God be able to write a text that conveys the ideas, while also not making errors in the science?

To address this, perhaps we should examine how history was transmitted in Biblical times. A key text for this is the beginning of Haazinu (Devarim 32:7):
Remember the days of old;
Consider the years of many generations.
Ask your father, and he will tell you;
Your elders [or grandfathers?], and they will say to you.
This is the introduction to a description of how God created the world with its various peoples in the distant past, before separating out the Jewish people as His special people. I think it is not just a poetic introduction, but important evidence for how people in Biblical times would attempt to obtain knowledge about the past.

How would a modern person answer a question concerning the distant past? Perhaps they would perform an experiment, digging in the ground to see what is buried there, or making calculations based on some measurement. However, the scientific method was not a practical option for ancient people. They were not trained to use it, but even if they had thought to perform experiments, they could only perform a handful of experiments. They would not have access to the hundreds of years of slowly accumulated data which form the vast majority of 21st century scientific knowledge.

A modern person might also considering reading a book. This was the default option before the scientific revolution. The writings of classical and medieval thinkers provide a great deal of thoughtful analysis from some of the most brilliant people the world has seen. And yet, in the Biblical period this option too was unavailable. Not only because classical culture had not yet arisen, but because books of any sort were hard to obtain. Even in the cosmopolitan capitals of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ability to read and write complex ideas was often limited to the priests, who jealously guarded this secret. In more rural and nomadic societies like ancient Israel, written stories and the ability to read them were surely even more rare.

Without access to knowledge from experiments or books, how would a person find out about the past? I think the best remaining source of knowledge was oral tradition. Your own parents, as well as the wisest elders in the community, would remember events from before your birth. Particularly significant events would likely be passed down as traditions over multiple generations. Of course, oral tradition tends to diverge a bit with time. But when all the elders agreed on the core of a story, you could rest assured that that story really took place.

Stories of a great flood are pervasive in many traditional cultures, worldwide. It is unclear exactly why. Perhaps they are based on memories of a sea level rise after the Ice Ages (which swamped many coastal areas - permanently), or of local floods (in low-lying places like Mesopotamia). Perhaps people saw fish fossils in the mountains, and could only explain them by positing a great flood. Whatever the initial motivations for a flood story, it morphed into a tradition held by many people who had never seen the evidence for it. For our purposes, what matters is simply that such a story existed, and likely, belief in it was near-universal. One could not simply deny that a flood took place. The elders all believed that a flood had occurred. Since oral tradition was the most reliable source of knowledge at the time, denying their story would effectively be an irrational denial of reality.

What options, then, were available to the author of a new narrative, like the Bible? If one denied the flood, people would not stop believing in a flood, but rather, the new narrative would lose credibility, just as stories of a literal worldwide flood have no credibility in modern times. If one ignored the issue of a flood, people would go on believing their preexisting flood story, with a multiplicity of deities and a debased moral order. The only option was to describe a flood, but to replace the problematic parts of the story with non-problematic parts. That way, people would only have to reject some details (and the details, unlike the big picture, were probably already in dispute), while not being asked to reject reason by denying the most reliable source of knowledge at the time.

For this reason, I think, the Torah includes a flood story similar those common in the ancient Middle East. (Even some minute details of the Torah's flood story, such as the dove and raven being sent out from the ark, appear in the Babylonian versions.) At the same time, everything that was theologically problematic was erased and replaced. This was the only way to write a text that had a chance of being accepted, while also saying all the theological things that needed to be said.

To return to our question: Shouldn't a perfect God be able to write a text that conveys the ideas, while also not making errors in the science? Perhaps, in this case, the answer is no.

(The same analysis may apply to other stories in the first 11 chapters of Breishit.)

Monday, September 03, 2018

Thoughts on Ki Tavo

My father was a wandering Aramean (26:5)

These are the opening words of mikra bikurim, describing how God took out us out of Egypt and gave us the land which produced these bikurim. But what is the point of mentioning that our ancestor was once a wanderer?

I think it's to create a contrast between our initial state (when we were wanderers and did not have a land) to our current state (where God has given us a land).

Vidui Maasrot (26:12-15)

Chazal refer to the second mitzvah of the parsha as "vidui maaser" (nowaday commonly known as "vidui maasrot"), though the Torah does not give it a name. It only says "you shall say" ("veamarta"), followed by your declaration that you have given maaser ani and thus have kept the mitzvah (and not done one of several possible forbidden actions), followed by your request that God bless you.

The word "vidui" in our minds suggests a confession of sin. But in this case you are "confessing" only that you have done good things, not bad things. So why do Chazal call it "vidui"?

One possibility is that "vidui" in Chazal's language can refer to any declaration, not only to an admission of sin. I found one source which fits this: Tosefta Bikurim 1:7 says that both bikurim and maaser ani require "vidui". Since neither of the two declarations seems to obviously allude to sin, one may presume that "vidui" in this source simply means "declaration". That said, this source seems to be the exception. It appears that in the vast majority of cases where Chazal (or the Torah) mention "vidui", they are referring to confession of sin.

If the word does imply confession of sin, I want to suggest what that sin might be. Elsewhere (Shemot 23:15) the Torah requires that when we visit God we must "not appear before [Him] empty-handed". Technically this mitzvah only applies to the pilgrimage holidays. But like many mitzvot, it is easy to identify a sensible broader idea which lies behind the specified application. In this case, the idea is that one visiting God should bring a gift with them, representing their love of God and submission to God.

The mitzvah of maaser ani follows an unusual schedule, dictated by the shemitah cycle. In years 1, 2, 4, and 5 of the cycle, one brings maaser sheni - holy food - to eat in Jerusalem. In years 3 and 6, maaser ani takes the place of maaser sheni.

Vidui maasrot is recited on an occasion when, despite the absence of maaser sheni that year, you are still visiting the Temple. As mentioned above, I think there there is an expectation to bring some kind of gift when visiting the Temple. But in this case, the gift you would normally be bringing (in 4 out of the 6 non-shemitah years) is conspicuously absent.

Therefore, I think vidui maasrot is an acknowledgment of this lack of gift. You "apologize" for your lack of gift, and then explain the good excuse you have for not bringing it - that God told you to do something else with the food. This acknowledgment is a "confession", not of having broken a commandment, but of failing to meet the expectation that normally goes along with such visits to God.

When you cross the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, which I command you today, at Mount Eval... You shall slaughter shelamim-offerings and eat there, and rejoice before Hashem your God. (27:4-7)

The mitzvah of "simcha" is a part of the three pilgrimage holidays, and also of other gatherings at the Mishkan/Temple mentioned in the Torah, such as this one. A common question is, how can you command someone to be happy?

One answer is textual: you are not commanding them to be happy, but rather to hold a celebration.

Another answer is that the activities involved are ones that naturally promote happiness. This is true on a number of levels. The meal is a source of physical enjoyment. The vacation from work is inherently pleasant. The group and family bonding of the event are good for mental health. The affirmation of common values gives people a sense of purpose. And finally, occasions of "simcha" are generally centered around thanking God for one's well-being, and psychologists tell us that feeling gratitude is one of the most effective ways of becoming happier. All these factors combine, not to guarantee that a person celebrating will be happy, but to make it much more likely.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Patterns in Parshat Balak

1. The triple structure

Three times Bilam went to curse Israel, and each time God caused Bilam to bless Israel rather than curse them.

It is well known that these three visions correspond to an earlier series of events - the three times Bilam's donkey strayed from the way. Three times the donkey disobeyed and angered Bilam, just as three times Bilam disobeyed and angered Balak.

Bilam was supposedly the prophetic expert who Balak looked up to, but this parallel implies that the donkey was even higher than Bilam. In the pre-Yom-Kippur prayer Tefillah Zakah we say "With the power of speech you divided mankind from animals, but I have not even been like an animal, for I have polluted my mouth with obscenities, gossip, lies..." Bilam, who had Divine gifts but used them improperly, did not even reach the level of an animal - and the story of the donkey shows this.

2. The differences between the three

One's natural assumption, when confronted with a grouping of three things, is to look for the commonalities between the three. This year, I looked instead at what differs between them.

Here are Bilam's three visions about Israel, ignoring Bilam's introductory remarks about himself:
"Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who hath counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the stock of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his!"

"None has beheld iniquity in Jacob, nor has one seen perverseness in Israel; the LORD his God is with him, and the shouting for the King is among them. God who brought them forth out of Egypt is for them like the lofty horns of the aurochs. For there is no enchantment with Jacob, neither is there any divination with Israel; now is it said of Jacob and of Israel: 'What has God wrought!' Behold a people that rises up as a lioness, and as a lion lifts himself up; he shall not lie down until he eats of the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain."

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters; Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the aurochs; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows."
Note the progression in these visions. In the first, Israel dwells alone, and does not interact with the nations. In the second, Israel escapes Egypt, and will eat the flesh of its "prey". In the third blessing, Israel goes to war against its enemies, and defeats them.

Remember that the very reason Bilam came was that the Moabites feared Israel after Israel's conquest of the Amorites! Now look at what the series of visions means for Moav. In the first vision, Israel does not interact with other nations. In the second vision, Israel is violently consuming "prey" - to me this seems ambiguous, and could refer to material consumption or to defeat of enemies. The third vision explicitly has Israel defeating its enemies!

I get the impression that the more Balak insisted on a curse, the more he dug his nation into a hole. In the first vision, Israel would dwell separately and presumably not threaten anyone. In the second vision, Israel was a possible threat to others. In the third vision, Israel was a definite threat to others!

Now let's see what happens when we examine the three donkey episodes in the same way.
And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

Then the angel of the LORD stood in an alley between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall; and he smote her again.

And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.
To summarize: In the first episode, the donkey was forced off the path, into a field. In the second episode, the donkey was forced into an alley, and thus tried to edge its way past the angel blocking most of the alley. In the third episode, the angel blocked the entire alley, and the donkey was forced to collapse.

Once again, we see a similar progression! In the first episode, the donkey's progress was slowed, but one can take a path through the fields and get to the same destination as by a road. In the second episode, the donkey's progress was mostly blocked. In the third episode, its progress was entirely blocked. Every time Bilam failed to notice the real cause of the donkey's errant behavior, the behavior got worse. When he failed to understand a third time, the next step was for the donkey to miraculously open its mouth and for the angel appear - and only then did he understand where he had gone wrong.

In a sense, the donkey opening its mouth is a fourth episode - and it is paralleled by a fourth episode in Bilam's interactions with Balak. After Bilam's third failure to curse Israel, without prompting he begins a fourth speech: "Let me advise you what this people will do to yours in the future." This speech too is about how Israel will defeat its enemies - but unlike the previous speeches, the enemies are named, and the first one mentioned is Moav itself. Balak really should have stopped while he was ahead.

3. The three-four structure

Both the visions and the donkey episodes have what is called a "three-four" structure. This structure appears elsewhere in Tanach, most notably at the beginning of Amos. There the sins of various nations are listed:
Thus saith the LORD: For three transgressions of Gaza, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they carried away captive a whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom. So will I send a fire on the wall of Gaza...
Thus saith the LORD: For three transgressions of Tyre, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they delivered up a whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant. So will I send a fire on the wall of Tyre...
This chapter contains a long list of nations which are punished, of which I have only quoted two. For each nation, the "three-four" structure is explicit. Each nation has already sinned in three ways, but once the fourth national sin is committed, the amount of sin becomes overwhelming and a punishment is decreed against the nation.

In Bilam's case, too, we see the same three-four structures. Three times Balak wrongly asks Bilam to curse Israel; only in Bilam's fourth speech is Moav's punishment decreed. Three times Bilam ignored the donkey's behavior and hit it; only when the donkey speaks in words does the angel appear. Here, too, the sin builds up steadily, and only at the end is the verdict reached.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Mei Merivah

The congregation did not have water, and the gathered against Moshe and Aharon. The people fought with Moshe, and said: "If only we had died when our brethren died before Hashem. Why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to this desert, to die here, us and our animals. And why did you take us up from Egypt, to bring us to this evil place, not a place of seed, or figs or grapes or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink." (Bamidbar 20:2-5)

The people's complaint at Mei Merivah is bizarre. You would expect a complaint about water to focus on water, but in fact water seems to be just an afterthought tacked onto the end. Much of the complaint is about the agricultural bounty - herds, grain, fruit - which the people feel entitled to. Shouldn't survival and water come before these luxuries? In addition, the people say they prefer death to their current situation. But if they want to die, why complain about lack of water? And finally, they quite explicitly link themselves to Korach's rebellion - both in linking themselves to "our brethren [who] died before Hashem" (compare to 16:16-17, 17:5, 17:11, 17:28), and in describing themselves as "the congregation of Hashem"/"kehal Hashem" (see Korach's initial complaint in 16:3). Why would they hope to get a positive response from Moshe and God, when linking themselves to the most evil rebels?

It is no surprise that Moshe reacts angrily to this arrogant, insincere demand. "Listen now, you rebels, will I bring water out of this rock?" Moshe correctly recognized the complainers to be hostile rebels, not innocent desperate people who just want water to drink.

Or so we think. But God's responses to Moshe, Aharon, and the people are the opposite of what we expect. Throughout Sefer Bamidbar, God considers and executes punishments on the people. Sometimes (like 16:21-22) these punishments appear to be much harsher than what either Moshe or the average modern reader would consider appropriate. And yet, in the Mei Merivah story, the people receives no punishment whatsoever. In fact, the only ones to be punished are Moshe and Aharon! They are the ones we thought had correctly interpreted the people's demands! What is going on?

I think the answer is as follows. Correct me if I've missed something, but I think that never in the Torah are the people punished for complaining when there is a lack of food or water. Only when they demand things like better food (meat), or altered political arrangements, or a return to Egypt, are they punished. Food and water are legitimate needs; a person cannot live without them. God, by taking the people out of Egypt and promising them entry into Canaan, took on a certain responsibility towards them, which included not allowing them to die. If there really was a shortage of food or water, it was God's responsibility to fix that, and there was nothing wrong in pointing it out.

It is true that at Mei Merivah, the people expressed their complaint in a very offensive way. Yet at its core, the complaint was legitimate. Water was missing, and God had to provide it. In general, a leader who gets angry when asked to do their responsibilities is a failed leader. It is no excuse that "the other side started it"; to descend to the level of selfish ungrateful rebels is an abdication of moral responsibility, and is seen as such by "the other side". Moshe and Aharon were representatives of God, so their failures reflected badly on God - and thus were a failure to "sanctify God's name" (20:12). When leaders fail at their job, it can disqualify them from further leadership, which is what happens to Moshe and Aharon in the wake of this episode.

I am not in the habit of giving lessons to other people, but there is a lesson waiting to be said here. There are many times in life when we, or our ideological camps, are disingenuously accused of misdeeds. Perhaps one person in our camp has behaved badly, and outsiders use this example to besmirch the entire camp. We feel justified in responding in kind - fighting anger with anger, or besmirching the enemy camp based on anecdotes just like ours has been besmirched. I think Mei Merivah's lesson is that in general, we must resist these temptations. Such angry responses rarely convince the other side. More often, they tend to decrease the other side's respect for us, and make the distance between us and them wider and harder to bridge. Particularly in the last few years, when US public opinion has crystallized into mutually exclusive echo chambers which cannot talk to one another, we need the patience to ignore the other side's rhetorical lows and respond thoughtfully rather than in anger. This takes a lot of self-control, and fails to satisfy our inner urge for justice. But it is more likely to lead "the people" to "the promised land" than any alternative.

Credit for this post goes to an interminably long Shir Hashirim reading at the local shul for kabbalat shabbat, leading me to think about the parsha instead of following along.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Arachin and Herem

This shabbat I came to a clearer pshat understanding of the last chapter of Sefer Vayikra (27) than I had in the past, and I want to summarise it here.

The chapter covers four subjects: arachin, bechorot, herem, and maaser. In more detail, the chapter divides as follows:

1) Arachin of a person: אִישׁ כִּי יַפְלִא נֶדֶר בְּעֶרְכְּךָ נְפָשֹׁת (verses 1-8)
2) Arachin of a kosher animal: וְאִם בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיבוּ מִמֶּנָּה קָרְבָּן (verses 9-10)
3) Arachin of a non-kosher animal: וְאִם כָּל בְּהֵמָה טְמֵאָה (verses 11-13)
4) Arachin of a house: וְאִישׁ, כִּי יַקְדִּשׁ אֶת בֵּיתוֹ (verses 14-15)
5) Arachin of an ancestral field: וְאִם מִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ יַקְדִּישׁ אִישׁ (verses 16-21)
6) Arachin of a non-ancestral field: וְאִם אֶת שְׂדֵה מִקְנָתוֹ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, יַקְדִּישׁ (verses 22-24)
7) The "holy shekel" is defined as 20 "gerah" (verse 25)
8) Bechorot, kosher and non-kosher (verses 26-27)
9) Herem: אַךְ כָּל חֵרֶם אֲשֶׁר יַחֲרִם אִישׁ לַה מִכָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, מֵאָדָם וּבְהֵמָה וּמִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ (verses 28-29)
10) Maaser of produce: וְכָל מַעְשַׂר הָאָרֶץ (verses 30-31)
11) Maaser of animals: וְכָל מַעְשַׂר בָּקָר וָצֹאן (verses 32-33)
12) Conclusion (verse 34)

In all of 1-6, the word עֶרְכְּךָ reappears over and over. This word also appears in Vayikra 5 (where the "asham" animal is described as an עֶרְכְּךָ for the person who has sinned) and in Bamidbar 18 (where the 5 shekel redemption payment for a firstborn male is described as עֶרְכְּךָ, and has the same 5 shekel value specified for baby boys in Vayikra). Besides these places, each of which is "arachin" in the human sense, the word never appears in the Torah. But here, it appears in connection with animals and land, as well as humans.

In addition to the three categories of "arachin", there are three categories of "herem" - אָדָם וּבְהֵמָה וּמִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ - human, animal, and land! It seems that nearly any object can be sanctified in one of two ways - either "arachin" or "herem".

What is the difference between "arachin" and "herem"? It seems the difference is that "arachin" may be redeemed to a cash value, while "herem" can never be redeemed. Let us go through how this works in each case.

Of the six types of "arachin", four (humans, non-kosher animals, houses, and purchased fields) seemingly *must* be redeemed. A fifth (ancestral fields) *may* be redeemed, but only until the yovel, and if you miss this deadline, it becomes "like the herem field" (verse 21), i.e. non-redeemable! Just one type of "arachin" can never be redeemed (kosher animals) - even switching them to a different animal doesn't work. Perhaps this is not actually a type of "arachin", it is just included next to the similar law for non-kosher animals for completeness.

As for "herem" (verse 28-29), it applies to people, animals, and fields - but only to ancestral fields, not purchased fields. A purchased field was originally someone else's ancestral inheritance, and it would be unfair to me to deprive someone else of their ancestral inheritance by making it sanctified without ability to redeem.

You may wonder, where do these unredeemable goods go? To the priest. (Source: Bamidbar 18:14, and of course Vayikra 27:21)

What about verse 29, which says that human "herem" must be killed? Verse 28 specifies that the "herem" it refers to must be owned by the giver. Based on this, one would suppose that human "herem" refers to one's slaves. If so, then verse 29 seems to suggest that one may freely get their slaves killed by sanctifying them (!). This seems not only morally outrageous, but incompatible with other laws in the Torah. Should knocking out a slave's tooth lead to the slave's freedom (Shemot 21:26), but killing the slave has no punishment? A master is required to give his slave gifts when the slave goes free (Devarim 15:14); should the master be able to "save money" by killing the slave a day before his release? These possibilities are absurd. Therefore, it seems impossible to understand verse 29 as referring to a slave. The commentator Shadal notes that the "herem" in verse 28 is a gift "to Hashem", while in verse 29 this is not mentioned, implying that it is a different kind of "herem". Rashbam says "herem" in this verse refers to a death penalty convict who may not be redeemed; Ramban suggests it refers to the enemy population of a city that Israel has sworn to conquer (as in Bamidbar 21:2).

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Olives and Chanukah

Last Chanukah I happened to be visiting London, and I went on a tour of the British Museum with a Chanukah theme.

It was interesting to learn that olives, and olive oil, have a special significance for the Greeks just as they do for us. According to the founding myth of Athens, the goddess Athena won "ownership" of the city by providing it with an olive tree. The olive tree thus became a symbol of Athens, and appeared on its coins. Olive oil and the light it produced became further associated with the light of learning, as Athens was the center of Greek intellectual culture.

With this background, it is interesting to note how significant olives are to *our* side of the Chanukah story. The mitzvah of the holiday is to kindle lights (best fulfilled with olive oil), in memory of the olive oil lights in the Temple with were relit by the Maccabees. Furthermore, R' Yoel Bin Nun hypothesizes that Chanukah existed as a celebration of the olive harvest (which happens around this time of year) before the Maccabees.

So within the very symbol of the olive, there is a struggle between Greek and Jewish culture, paralleling the struggle between the two cultures in general. The Maccabees found impure oil in the Temple, but insisted on using pure oil instead. Similarly Greek culture was available and popular, but the Maccabees insisted on following Jewish culture instead.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Bitcoin and halacha

The Bitcoin cryptocurrency has recently been in the news as its price continues to escalate. I was lucky enough to hear a friend of mine, a religious computer scientist named A., give a shiur on the halachic aspects of Bitcoin. Here is a summary based on my notes.

1. KINYAN

Mishna Bava Metzia 4:1 discusses the case of using money to buy goods. It specifies, using several examples, that the kinyan must be done on the goods and not the money. For example, one may do "meshicha" on a utensil, which transfers ownership of the utensil to one party and the money to the other party. The reverse does not work: doing a "kinyan" on the money does not transfer ownership of the utensil.

(The gemara explains that the law was originally different. On a deoraita level, transactions are in fact done via money rather than goods. However, rabbinic law reversed the procedure. This was done to avoid the situation where the money had been transferred, making the transaction valid, but the goods were still with their original owner. Were the goods to be endangered due to a fire or similar disaster, the possessor of the goods would not exert himself to save them, since they no longer belonged to him. Chazal did not like this possibility, so they changed the law to make the transaction dependent on transfer of goods.)

The upshot of these discussions is that one cannot take for granted that one's commercial activity has automatic halachic validity. If you want your transaction to be halachically valid, you must look closely at how you are performing it. So, for example, waving a lulav bought with a credit card might be halachically problematic. To perform the mitzvah on the first day of Sukkot, the lulav must halachically belong to you, but was the credit card transaction valid? Was it you paying the lulav seller, or the credit card company?

Sometimes this type of question is resolved by government regulation - "dina demalchuta dina". But this is not the case with Bitcoin, where the transactions happen online independent of any government, and generally without any government policy on their validity.

In this case, we might turn to "situmta" ("custom of the merchants") - an accepted commercial practice which halacha recognizes, even though it differs from the Torah's laws of transaction.

The key question regarding bitcoin transactions is: at what point does the transaction go through?

Imagine the case of a dishonest person who has $10 in their bank account, and writes $10 checks to two separate people. One of the checks is cashed, and their bank account goes down to $0. From now on, the second check will bounce rather than go through.

This works because there is a centralized authority - the bank - keeping track of how much money people have. However, no such authority exists regarding Bitcoin. You can send money to two different people, even if you don't have it. After some time, one of the transfers will be "confirmed", and the other is not.

In fact, it's possible for BOTH transactions can be confirmed. This causes the transaction record to "fork", as half the network thinks that one transfer went through, and the other half thinks that the other transaction went through. So there are two, mutually contradictory "histories" held by Bitcoin miners on the internet.

What happens in this situation? When the next transaction occurs, the network's nodes will each choose one of the two histories, generally the more popular one. So one of the two histories will come to dominate the network, while the other becomes less and less prevalent until it disappears. This process occurs at an exponential rate, with one history spreading very quickly. Generally, the rule of thumb is that if your transaction is still recognized as valid after 6 other transactions, it is safe to assume that the Bitcoin network has reached equilibrium, and the entire network recognizes it as valid.

But even after 6, or 50, or any number of transactions you can never know for sure that the transaction is valid. There is still an infinitesimally small chance that it will be rejected in the future. From a halachic perspective, this is the interesting bit - there is no real finality to any transaction, unlike "normal" transactions, where an object is physically transferred at a particular moment. At what point, then, does halacha recognize a Bitcoin transaction as a valid kinyan?

It is hard to come up with an objective answer to this. But perhaps the rule of "situmta" applies - the 6-transaction rule is the accepted practice of Bitcoin "merchants", and therefore halacha accepts it as well.

2. CHALIFIN

In the "chalifin" kinyan, one party takes a object from the other, and that causes the entire kinyan to be valid. For example, if one is trading a donkey for a cow, one can take possession of the donkey, and ownership of the cow will be transferred at the same moment.

There is a rule (Bava Metzia 45b) that "a coin cannot be used for chalifin", because "its imprint may be nullified" ("tzurta avida devetala"). That is to say, a coin is "fiat currency" which derives its value (primarily) from the government stamp of approval rather than from the metal it is made of. So if the government decides no longer to recognize the coin, its value disappears. The gemara considers this to be mutually incompatible with being the object transferred in chalifin.

(Note: the shiur giver referred me to an article by R' Asher Meir on the Gush website, asserting that in the time of mishna the value of a coin equalled the value of the silver in it, while by the gemara's time a coin's value was already mostly by the fiat of the government. I was not able to find the article offhand, but this is interesting historical context.)

What about Bitcoin? Bitcoin is a distributed currency that no government has the power to devalue. So perhaps it is usable for chalifin?

3. RIBIT

The Torah prohibits loaning money with interest.

In addition, the rabbis prohibited lending "seah beseah" (one measure of wheat now, in exchange for one measure of wheat in the future), because the price of wheat changes with time, so the value you return may be greater than the value you borrowed, resembling the payment of a loan with interest. Some amoraim extended this prohibition to lending "zahav bezahav" - gold for gold, at a time when money was typically silver.

The exchange rate of Bitcoin fluctuates very quickly, so it would seem that lending Bitcoin and returning an equal amount of Bitcoin would be problematic.

4. SHMIRAH

For a Bitcoin transaction to take place, one must provide a cryptographic "signature" to ensure they are the owner of the money they are transferring. There is also a concept called "multisignature", by which multiple signatures must be provided before money can be sent. Alternatively, an account can be set up so that the approval of *either* partner, rather than both, is sufficient to send money.

Just like a physical object can be entrusted to another person for guarding, one can imagine Bitcoins being entrusted to multiple people for guarding. If so, the halachic laws of shmirah might would need to be applied in new ways.

5. AVEDAH

In halacha, lost objects must be returned if they have an identifying sign ("siman") that allows them to be returned to the correct owner.

Bitcoin value is accessed by a "private key", a unique randomly generated string of numbers. If you forget the number, your value is lost forever, since with current computing resources it's essentially impossible to regenerate the string.

Since this number is so unique, one could imagine that it is the best type of "siman" imaginable.

However, in the case of "avdah mimenu umikol adam" - when it seems essentially impossible for any person to recover the object, for example if it was washed away by a river - there is no requirement to return the object, even if it has a siman.

Since it is so difficult to recover a lost Bitcoin signature, one might think that it falls in this category, of objects that do not need to be returned if they are somehow found.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Moreh Nevuchim

I recently finished reading Moreh Nevuchim. Here are my notes, organized by page number in the Friedlander translation. If you want to look up an issue, which is not directly referred to in Friedlander's chapter titles, this may be a useful guide.

44 Revelation is an inferior way of communicating what those who are capable should learn through philosophy (also 394)
78 Change implies imperfection either before or after. God as perfect being cannot have changed. Thus can only act on others, not be acted upon
84 Whenever you prove God doesn't have a certain quality, you become more perfect. The more qualities, the higher level you are relative to other people
95 YKVK=existence
99 One can use an interpretation which solves a problem, even if it violates certain grammar rules
104 God is the (Platonic) form of forms
130 Earth is round (also 277)
139 Omnipotence doesn't mean that God can do impossibilities
155 Purpose of the book
178 No-proof is better than a wrong proof
184 Proof from design and diversity (also 291)
195 Being moral helps you reason correctly
196 Directed to a specific person?
198 Aristotle's system is correct refarding the earth, but not the sky/spheres
199 Eternal universe contradicts Tanach less than does incorporeality and other important ideas
210 Miracles built into nature
212 Time created as part of creation
216 Secrets
218 Language is conventional, not natural
228 Intellect leads to logic and imagination. Prophet=both. Intellect vs senses. Teaching is better than learning
232 Torah is not painful, but seems cruel to the carnal
239 Anagrams in Tanach
248 Long lives in Breishit
250 Providence and free will
257 Disagrees with Onkelus re Yehezkel
261 Yetzer hatov <= platonic forms. Yetzer hara <= physical substance
264 Hebrew doesn't have words for bodily functions
265 Physicality = wall between us and God
266 Evil = absence of good. (Its cause: absence of wisdom)
297 Interpretation of Job excites Rambam
310 Only difference between philosophers and us is eternal universe
353 Midrash
356 Belief in God, angels, prophecy, law in that order
375 Torah, like nature, is only partly comprehensible - but that part is sufficient to give us a sense of wonder
385 True worship of God means thinking deeply about the idea of God
386 love of God=knowledge of God
387 intellectual worship of God, not "hollow emotions"
392 Loving God comes from theology, fear from mitzvah performance

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The well story

Parshat Chukat contains a short and cryptic story about a well:
...from there to the well, which is the well about which Hashem said to Moshe, "Gather the people, and I will give them water." Then Israel sang this song: "Rise up, O well - answer it - A well dug by princes, carved by the leaders of the people, with the staff, with their rods" (Bamidbar 21:16-18)
Even in this short passage, we see apparent inconsistencies.
  • First, God says that He will provide the people with water.
  • Then, the people say "Rise up, O well", which perhaps sounds like a well is rising miraculously, as God might do in these circumstances.
  • However, then the people say that the well was dug by human beings, not by God!
  • Then they say that the digging was done by the leaders (not normal manual laborers), and it used their staffs (not normal digging tools)!
How are these pieces to be put together into a single coherent story?

I think the answer is to look at how miracles were often performed in earlier events in the Torah. In Egypt, for example, the norm was for Moshe to point his staff at something, or hit something with his staff, and a miracle would then occur involving that something.

What is the parallel here? God announced to Moshe that God would provide water. Moshe and Aharon got their staffs, and pointed at or hit a certain rock. This caused water to miraculously come from the ground. At which point the people sung their song.

This explains how all the events could logically have happened. But there is still one inconsistency. Initially God announced that He would provide water. But in the song, the people do not mention God's role, but only the role of humans who "dug" the well. Why the difference?

To answer this, let's examine a very similar story from just one chapter earlier. At Mei Merivah, Moshe was commanded to take his staff and provide water for the people. It's not clear exactly why, but God saw Moshe's ensuing actions as a failure to "sanctify God" before the people. One common interpretation is that Moshe hit the rock, rather than speaking to it, which indicated that Moshe rather than God was the one providing water.

If so, at the time of our story with the well, the people might still have believe that Moshe not God was providing them with water. Here Moshe pointed his staff at the ground and water rose from it, which should have been a sign of God's miraculous intervention. But the people mistakenly saw it as an act of Moshe. And when they sang their song, cheering the rise of the well, they chose to praise Moshe and Aharon rather than God.

This understanding resolves all the loose ends in the story. How does it fit with our understanding of the rest of the Torah?

The most obvious question is about "song". There is a midrashic idea (appearing in the Mechilta, Tanchuma, the beginning of Targum Shir Hashirim, and other sources, generally searchable on Bar Ilan CD with the words "eser shirot") which lists ten "songs" that have been sung throughout history. The exact list varies slightly between sources, but here is a common version: in Egypt; after the splitting of the sea; at the well (our story); around parshat Haazinu; by Yehoshua; by Devorah and Barak; by David; by Shlomo; by Shlomo in Shir Hashirim; and the final song which will be recited in the future messianic era. The common element in these "songs" is that they are Divinely inspired, righteous, and holy. But according to my interpretation of the well song, rather than being holy, it was based on a massive theological mistake. It seems that my explanation of the story is incompatible with this view of "song". Accepting this midrash is not an article of faith, but we should be clear what we would have to give up by accepting my explanation.

The second question is the place of the story in Sefer Bamidbar. It is commonly accepted that the Jewish people's behavior was different in the second and fourtieth years of their desert journey. The second year was full of rebellions, culminating in the stories of the spies and Korach. The fourtieth year, in contrast, showed a Jewish people that had learned their lessons, and were now spiritually ready to enter the land of Israel.

But this picture is not so clear. The story of the snakes (21:4-9) was yet another rebellion ending in punishment (though for several reasons it might be more positive than the previous rebellions). And the episode with the daughters of Moav was so serious that God raised the possibility of destroying the people entirely (25:11). Of course there are also more positive stories, such as the people making and keeping a vow to God (21:1-3). So I think there is enough room here for another negative story. The people was still quite flawed, but after 40 years in the desert, they were sufficiently improved that they could handle conquering and living in the land of Israel.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Thoughts on Shemot

Aharon your brother... he comes out to meet you, and he will see you and be happy in his heart. (Shemot 4:14)

Why does it matter that Aharon was "happy in his heart"?

Aharon was the oldest, firstborn brother, and here he was called upon to take a subordinate role to Moshe. Elsewhere in the Torah, older brothers typically get angry and jealous when their firstborn role is taken away from them.

The exile in Egypt started when Yosef's brothers sold him into slavery rather than accepting a subordinate role to him. Fittingly, it ended when Aharon was able to graciously and peacefully accept that Moshe had been chosen as the leader, and work together with Moshe to get the Israelites freed.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Pharaoh's ministers

After Pharaoh's two ministers had their dreams interpreted by Yosef, one was returned to his position, while the other was executed. Why did they deserve these different fates?

Perhaps the answer comes from how they decided to seek Yosef's interpretation. The cupbearer heard Yosef say "Does not God have interpretations? Tell me [your dream]". Thus, he wanted to hear God's message (as conveyed by Yosef). Meanwhile, regarding the baker, the Torah says "The baker saw that [Yosef] had interpreted well". This can be understood to mean that Yosef gave a positive interpretation to the first dream, so the baker expected a positive interpretation as well.

If the first minister wanted to listen to God, while the second minister only cared about his selfish good, is it surprising that the first was rewarded and the second punished?

----------------

Over Shabbat I heard the following idea, which was apparently thought of by a contemporary secular Israeli Tanach enthusiast (I forget the name, I heard it from my friend MS). The idea: In Yosef's second dream, there were 13 heavenly bodies bowing down to him. Yosef was 17 years old when his story began, and 30 years old when he became deputy to Pharaoh. Just as the 7 cows represent 7 years, so the 13 heavenly bodies represent 13 years. Yosef should have known that he would only be elevated at age 30, and so when at age 28 he begged the cupbearer to remember him, this was considered improper behavior.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The shofar in Mussaf

There may not be less than ten [verses for] Malchuyot, ten for Zichronot, ten for Shofarot. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri says: If one said three of each, he fulfills his obligation. (Mishna Rosh Hashana 4:6)

Mussaf for Rosh Hashana is unusual. Where else do we have Biblical verses inserted into blessings? Occasionally we see a single verse being inserted as a proof-text, for example in the Aneinu prayer for fast days ("Answer us before we call out, as it says: It shall be that before they call out I will answer them"). But once you have one good proof-text, there is no need for another one. There is certainly no need for a set number of verses - 10 in our case. In fact, according to the Mishna above, it doesn't even matter which verses you choose (within reason) as long as there are 10 of them! Why should there be such an unusual requirement?

The following idea is speculative, but it rings true to me. The different opinions in the Mishna require either 10 or 3 verses. In the context of Rosh Hashana, these numbers do not seem to be random. 10 are the number of shofar blasts we blow after Malchuyot (and Zichronot, and Shofarot). 3 is the number of blasts we would blow, if we knew what a "teruah" was meant to be!

So here is my hypothesis. Once a time, the practice was to recite a verse, and then immediately blow the shofar once. You would recite "With trumpets and the sound of the shofar, blow before the King Hashem" (Tehilim 98:6) and then you would do exactly that. You would blow the shofar along with your Zichronot, making the day a "zichron teruah" (Vayikra 23:24) in the literal sense. And you would recite "The voice of the shofar grew steadily stronger, Moshe would speak and God would answer him aloud" (Shemot 19:19) and then blow the shofar, reenacting the giving of the Torah at Sinai. I think all of Mussaf would gain an extra level of powerfulness if conducted this way.

How does this work out halachically?

Shofar is an unusual mitzvah in that if you blow the blasts one by one, with interruptions between them, you still fulfill the mitzvah. This means that inserting them into mussaf in between verses is not a problem.

A complication arises with the number 10. In theory we blow the shofar 3 or 9, not 10, times for each blessing. This is because we are supposed to do a tekiah-"teruah"-tekiah set for each blessing. We don't know exactly what the required "teruah" is, so we do three different options, one of them tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah (in case the halachic "teruah" is our shevarim-teruah). But this shevarim-teruah is technically considered a single blast, so it would be strange to assign two verses to it, and inserting a verse between the shevarim and the teruah would likely be a forbidden interruption. As a further complication, the number 10 is mentioned in the Mishna, while it seems likely that the uncertainty over the "teruah" did not arise until later.

Let us leave the number 10, then, and move to R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion, that only 3 verses are required. These three would match well the tekiah-teruah-tekiah of the basic halacha. An unanswered question here is why some verses would correspond to tekiah, and others to teruah, without a clear justification. A further issue is that R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion in the previous mishna is that one recites Malchuyot in the 3rd blessing of Mussaf, but only blows the shofar in the 4th blessing (and 5th and 6th for Zichronot and Shofarot, like we do). So the same R' Yohanan ben Nuri who provides us with the number 3, also disconnects the verses from the shofar blasts!

On the bottom line, I think all these halachic issues can be overcome (with 3 verses being the more likely direction to go in, even though we cannot follow R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion across the board).

I thought of this idea before or during Mussaf (I forget which) on the first day of Rosh Hashana this year. It made my Mussaf that day more meaningful, as I envisioned the shofar blasts that could have once accompanied each verse. But it made my second day's Mussaf less meaningful, as I saw Mussaf as a broken version of the original shofar-using prayer, rather than a verbal composition that stands on its own! So I can't really say whether having read this post will be spiritually positive or negative for you. But I think the idea is a fascinating possibility, so here you go.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Egyptian in Israel

There are several rivers in or near Israel, whose Hebrew names begin with the syllable "Yar". These include Yarden, Yarkon, and Yarmuk. Yarden and Yarkon are mentioned in Tanach; the first recorded mention of Yarmuk is in the Roman period. Two more rivers - Yabok and Arnon - might hypothetically begin with a distorted version of "Yar". Israel is semi-arid and only a small number of rivers exist there. Of this small number, it’s surprising that so many begin with the same or similar syllable.

It is often proposed to explain this by saying that before the Hebrew/Canaanite language was spoken in Israel, a different language was spoken, and in this language "yar" was the word for river. So the "Den" river was called Yar Den, and when Hebrew/Canaanite became the local language, "Yarden" was retained as a name. Similarly for the other rivers.

What language could it be that was spoken in Israel before Hebrew?

Look around online, and you will find claims that "yar" means river in ancient Egyptian or Akkadian. If you look in online dictionaries for these two languages, in both the main word for "river" does not resemble "yar". But in the Bible "ye'or" is used to refer to Egyptian rivers (the Nile or one of its branches), and according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, this is derived from the Egyptian "iotr" which can be shortened to "io'r". So Egyptian seems like the most likely source for a word "yar". Based on this, we can hypothesize that before Hebrew/Canaanite was spoken in Israel, a language related to Egyptian was. We don't know if this language became extinct through assimilation or violent conquest, but either way it left only a handful of traces, perhaps including our river names.

Thinking about this last night, I thought of an entirely different line of evidence that Egyptian was once spoken in Israel. In Breishit 10, the genealogy of the 70 nations descended from Noach, Canaan is mentioned as a son of Ham, along with Mitzraim, Kush (Ethiopia), and Put (?). This is even though the Hebrew/Canaanite language is Semitic, so one would expect Canaan to be descended from Shem! Evidently the Torah sees something Hamitic about Canaan, even though the local language at the time of the Torah was Semitic.

To be fair, everything I have said so far is speculation, rather than clear-cut proofs. But when you take two "puzzle pieces" from completely different places (hypotheses based on geography and on genealogies), and find that the pieces "match", each of the two hypotheses looks much stronger than it did before.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The cloud in Pekudei

Parshat Pekudei ends with a description of the cloud that descended upon the Mishkan upon its completion:

The cloud covered the Ohel Moed, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. Moshe was unable to enter the Ohel Moed, because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. (40:34-35)

Here are some thoughts about this cloud.

Ohel Moed vs Mishkan

The "Ohel Moed" and "Mishkan" are general names for the sanctuary, but each name also refers to one specific part of the sanctuary.

In the initial command to build a sanctuary, Moshe is told to "make curtains of goat-hide, for an 'ohel' upon the 'mishkan'" (26:7). Here, the "mishkan" is a cloth tent, and the "ohel" is a goat-hide tent placed upon it.

This explains the different uses of "ohel" and "mishkan" in the above verses. The cloud *above* the sanctuary is described in relation to the ohel, and the cloud *within* the sanctuary in relation to the mishkan.

The purpose of the cloud

This cloud wasn't a normal thing. It prevented anyone from entering the Mishkan, but normally, priests would enter the Mishkan at least once a day to perform services like lighting the Menorah. So why did this special one-time cloud appear?

To explain this, let's look at an earlier, similar event involving a cloud:
Moshe went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of Hashem dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days, and He called to Moshe on the seventh day from out of the cloud. The appearance of the glory of Hashem was like fire burning on the peak of the mountain, in view of the children of Israel. Moshe entered the cloud, and went up the mountain, and Moshe was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (24:15-18)

There are a number of similarities between this cloud and the cloud that covered the Mishkan:

  • In both cases, an unusual cloud descends to cover the holy site. (Apparently Mount Sinai had previously not been covered by clouds, despite the involvement of clouds in the Sinai revelation).
  • With the Mishkan, a "cloud" was present above the Mishkan, while the "glory of Hashem" was present within the Mishkan. Similarly here, the "glory of Hashem" dwelt on the mountain, while the "cloud" covered the mountain. Both terms are present, and arguably there is the same order, with the "cloud" physically above the "glory of Hashem".
  • At Sinai, after six days of Moshe waiting outside the cloud, God calls to Moshe and he enters the cloud and receives the Torah. Similarly, in the Mishkan, God calls to Moshe. This command is found in the first verse of Vayikra, and is followed by the laws of sacrifices.

What is the point of these similarities?

One of the main purposes of the Mishkan is described in Shemot 25:21-22:

"You shall place the cover upon the ark, above it; and in the ark, you shall place the Testimony I will give you. I will meet you there, and I will speak with you from above the cover, between the two cherubs upon the ark of testimony, all that I shall command you regarding the children of Israel."

We see that the Mishkan was a place for revelation. The Sinai revelation was a one-time event, but the continued issuing of commandments (like those in Vayikra) was supposed to occur in the Mishkan.

I think this explains the similarities between the cloud at Sinai and the cloud at the Mishkan. To indicate to Moshe and the people that the revelation from the Mishkan had the same status as that at Sinai, God designed the cloud-appearance in the Mishkan to evoke that which occurred at Sinai.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Explorers and spies

What was the purpose of the mission of the spies, as described in Bamidbar 13 and Devarim 1? And how do we understand the differences between these two accounts?

In this analysis, we will assume that there are two distinct purposes of the twelve men's trip. The first purpose is "latur", meaning to explore* the land, to observe its natural characteristics and agricultural bounty, and to report on this to the people. The second purpose is "leragel", meaning to spy, to investigate the military situation and preparations of the land's inhabitants, in preparation for conquest. We can easily distinguish these purposes when they occur. Descriptions of the land and its produce are irrelevant to conquest and thus a part of "exploring"; descriptions of the people and fortifications (which God had promised to overcome) are irrelevant to "exploring" and therefore part of "spying".

The distinction between these purposes is well-known. But I have not seen anyone examine the passages based on these purposes, in the structured manner that I plan to. When I quote verses, I will use bold text to describe exploring, and red italic text to describe spying. This should make clear what exactly is going on in each verse, and allow us to piece together how the entire episode actually took place.

1. In Bamidbar

God's initial command to Moshe mentions only exploring:

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: "Send you men to explore the land of Canaan which I give to the children of Israel. One man from each tribe you shall send, each one a prince among them."

The men chosen are princes and leaders, perhaps because a public report is most trusted when given by well known and respected individuals.

But when Moshe commands the men before their trip, he greatly expands on God's command:

Moshe sent them to explore the land of Canaan, and said to them:
Go up here in the Negev, and go up the mountain.
And see the land, what it is like,
and the people dwelling in it, are they strong or weak, are they few or many,
and what is the land they dwell in like, is it good or bad,
and what are the cities they dwell in like, are they in camps or fortresses,
and what is the land like, is it fat or thin, does it have trees in it or not?
And you shall be strong, and take from the fruit of the land.

We see that Moshe instructs the men both to explore and to spy. Indeed, he interweaves the two in a kind of chiastic pattern (ABABA).

What do the spies actually do? We see that they perform both parts of their mission:

They went up, and explored the land from the Tzin wilderness to Rehov near Hamat. They went up in the Negev, and came to Hevron, and there were Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmi, children of Anak; and Hevron was built seven years before Tzoan of Egypt. They came to Nahal Eshkol, and cut from there one sprig and cluster of grapes, and carried it on a pole using two men, and [took] from the pomegranates and figs.

The presence of Anakites ("giants") in the land is clearly of military significance. So is the antiquity of Hevron. R' Yaakov Medan explains that ancient Middle East cities were built as "tels", layer upon layer, so the older the city, the higher its "tel" and the harder it would be to conquer.

When the men deliver their report, they also mention both aspects of their mission:

"We came to the land where you send us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, strong are the people dwelling in the land, and the cities are great and very fortified, and we also saw the children of Anak there. Amalek dwells in the Negev..."

After this the situation descends into a sorry argument and rebellion, but even then the men mention both parts of their mission:

They slandered the land to the children of Israel, saying, "The land which we went in to explore, it is a land which devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it were people of measure. And there we saw the Nefilim, sons of Anak from the Nefilim, and we were like locusts in our eyes, and so were we in their eyes."

And so do Yehoshua and Kalev in their dissent:

The land which we went in to explore, the land is very very good. If Hashem is pleased with us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us. Only do not rebel against Hashem, and do not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their defense has left them and Hashem is with us, so do not fear them.

In summary, we see that in God's initial command, only exploring is mentioned. But in every single event that follows, both exploring and spying are mentioned.

I think this is the most straightforward view of the events. God's initial command was simply to explore. For some reason, Moshe combined this with a command to spy. From then on, for the rest of the episode, exploring and spying were linked together.

2. In Devarim

In Moshe's retelling, no Divine command is mentioned. Rather, the initiative for the trip seems to come from the people, and it is purely about spying:

You all approached me, saying: "Let us send men before us, who will search the land for us, and give us a report of the way we shall go up to it and the cities we will come to."

There is no mention of the men being princes. For spying purposes, any twelve soldiers can do, and if anything, top leaders should not be exposed to the risks of a spying mission.

Then, the men went on their journey. What they did involved both exploring and spying, but perhaps the spying seems to be first and most important. Here, for the only time in the Torah, the verb "to spy" is used to refer to this trip:

They turned and went up the mountain, and came to Nahal Eshkol, and spied there. They took in their hands from the fruit of the land, and brought to us...

Surprisingly, the men's report, as initially told, seems to be entirely about exploring:

They said: "Good is the land which Hashem our God has given us."

But then the people begin to complain, and in their complaint they mention a different report, which involves spying. As Moshe tells it:

You complained in your tents, saying: Because Hashem hated us, He took us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us. Where are we going up to? Our brothers melted our hearts, saying, "The nation is greater and taller than us, and the cities great and fortified up to the heavens, and the sons of the Anakites we saw there."

So what did the twelve men actually report? The results of their exploring, or the results of their spying? I think it's clear that they reported both. But Moshe chooses to dignify their exploring as "the" report, the only one he is willing to mention as such. The report of the spying, he puts in the mouths of the rebellious desert generation, not his own mouth. He thereby implies that the people should have listened only to the exploring.

3. General thoughts

Each passage, in Bamidbar and Devarim, has an internal difficulty. In Bamidbar, the mission includes both exploring and spying, though God had only mentioned exploring. In Devarim, the mission includes both exploring and spying, though the people had only asked to spy. Luckily for us, it seems that each passage supplies the information that is missing from the other. It appears that Bamidbar describes half of what led to the mission (God's command to explore) and Devarim the other half (the people's request to spy). These two initiatives must have occurred around the same time, and Moshe combined them into a single mission, which is fully described in both Bamidbar and Devarim.

For this understanding to work, we must explain what led Bamidbar to exclude the people's request to spy, and Devarim to exclude God's command to explore.

3a. What Bamidbar excludes

Let us start with Bamidbar. In many places, the Torah tells a story twice, and we are supposed to understand something by carefully examining the differences between the original and the retelling. One example is the marriage of Rivka. In the original telling, the slave apparently looked for a hospitable woman from any family. But in his long retelling, he makes it sound like only a relative of Avraham would have been acceptable.

Here in Bamidbar, we have something similar. After God's command, it should be unnecessary to record what Moshe told the men. But Moshe's words are recorded, and they differ from God's command, and this difference (the addition of spying) is exactly what led to the mission's failure. Moshe is the leader, and leaders must take responsibility for their decisions. So here Moshe gets the blame, even if the issue of spying was initially suggested by the people.

3b. What Devarim excludes

Devarim has a different perspective from Bamidbar in two ways. First, Moshe is not speaking as an "objective" historian. Rather, he intends to emphasize the people's past sins and the consequences, to deter them from sinning in the future. Second, he is speaking about himself, so he includes a personal perspective.

As part of Moshe's goal to remind the people of their sins, he shows a negative attitude toward the entire spies episode. If only none of the episode had happened, the death of a whole generation in the desert would have been avoided. The presence of a Divine command to send explorers seriously complicates this picture. Perhaps to keep the message simple, Moshe omits that command entirely.

Interesting, Moshe does use the verb "to explore" ("latur") once. This verb is rare, appearing just 9 times in all of Tanach outside the story in Bamidbar, so its use here is significant. After the negative spying report, Moshe tells the people not to abandon God,
"who travels before you on the road, to explore for you a place to encamp, with fire at night, to show you the road you should walk on, and with cloud by day."
For those who had exploring on their mind, Moshe does emphasize that "real" exploring is that which God continually does to protect Israel, and any negative conclusions that might be drawn from 12 men's exploring are insignificant in comparison.

As for how Moshe portrays his own behavior, as one might expect, his perspective is more complex and mixed than that in Bamidbar. Though he puts the blame for initiating the spying on the people, he also admits that "the matter was good in my eyes" (1:23). This makes him complicit in the sin, and explains why "God was angry at me too regarding you, saying: You too shall not go there" (1:37).

Also, Moshe says that he vocally opposed the spies' defeatism when they returned, unlike in Bamidbar where only Yehoshua and Kalev are mentioned as speaking up. Perhaps, Moshe's words are not mentioned in Bamidbar because, naturally, the people would not listen to Moshe when they could listen to men who had actually seen the land. Whereas in Devarim, even an ineffectual criticism from Moshe fits the theme of the criticisms he is giving the people 39 years later.

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*Coincidentally, the English "tour" and Hebrew "latur" not only sound the same, but appear to derive from the same root, meaning "to turn", as a person goes back and forth seeing things until he has seen everything. But the word "tour" has the connotations of traveling for pleasure, and without a practical goal in mind, which are out of place here. So I use "explore" as a translation instead.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The yoke

Speak to the children of Israel, and let them take to you a perfect red cow, with no blemish, which has never worn a yoke. (Bamidbar 19:2)

That the cow have no blemish is a well-known condition for sacrifices. Why, though, the requirement of never having worn a yoke?

Ever since the first-ever sacrifice in Breishit, where Hevel's offering of firstborn sheep was accepted by God, it has been preferred that "the first" of something be used for sacrifices. This is reflected in numerous later examples, such as bikurim for fruits, the laws of bechor for animals and people, and perhaps even Jericho (the first city conquered in Israel) becoming "herem... la-hashem" (Yehoshua 6:17) rather than being plundered by the conquerers.

I think the rule about the yoke is also a case of sacrificing "the first". In this case, that means that the first work done with the cow should be the act of sacrifice. The word for field labor is "avodah", and a sacrifice is also considered a form of "avodah". Both field labor and sacrifice are part of the service/servitude which might be expected of a cow.

I haven't thought about why exactly this requirement is absent for most sacrifices (one can come up with all sorts of guesses why). But where it is present (for parah adumah, and also for eglah arufah), I think the reason is in order to sacrifice "the first".