Sunday, August 26, 2007

United we stand

For the first time in several weeks I decided to be cultured and browse a certain site which I normally avoid so as not to waste too much time. Lo and behind, I came across an interesting article about democracy and the nation-state. At least, that was the part of it which interested me.

Thoughts on Ki Tetze

You shall not return a slave to his master, if he flees to you from his master. He shall dwell with and among you, in the place which he chooses, in one of your cities, as is good for him; do not wrong him. (23:16-17)

"The place which he chooses" is a familiar phrase to anyone who has been reading Sefer Devarim the past few weeks. It is used 10 times in the book to refer to Jerusalem (or Shiloh) - the location which God would eventually indicate for the Temple, but which was not yet known in Moshe's time. Here the same phrase appears, referring not to God's choice of Jerusalem, but of the slave's choice of a place to live.

What's the reason for the use of identical (and distinctive) language in this totally different context? I don't really know, but perhaps this teaches us to welcome the runaway slave as enthusiastically as we would welcome the Temple (before we knew where it would end up being).

Hashem has called you an abandoned and distressed wife. "Can a wife of one's youth be rejected?" says your God. "For a small moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you [to me]." (Yeshayahu 54:6-7, from the haftarah)

The haftarot between Tisha Beav and Rosh Hashanah are all from Yeshayahu, and all of them seem to be chosen based on their relation to the time of year, not their relation to the parsha.

But this week, it is clear that there is a relation to the parsha as well. The haftarah is centered around the extended metaphor of Israel as God's abandoned wife. And the parsha is packed with laws about women and marriage (1). Thus, out of all the possible haftarot which fit the theme of the time of year (anything in the 2nd half of Yeshayahu, I'd assume, plus some other possibilities), the one which fit our parsha best seems to have been chosen.

1. For example: the war-captive wife, the loved and unloved wives, the various laws of adultery and virginity, incest, marriage with genitally damaged men, marriage with converts from various nations, prostitution, divorce and remarriage, that newly married men don't fight wars but rather gladden their wives, and yevamot.


UPDATE: In the "Daf Kesher" newsletter for Parshat Ki Tavo 5768, R' Amnon Bazak notes the same thing about the runaway slave passage that I did, and comes up with a different, perhaps better, reason for why it's phrased that way.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

I might be going to Brovenders

Prepare for the Yomim Tovim by joining either or both of these pilot shiurim
of ATID's Web Yeshiva. Learn Torah over the Internet, while seeing and
interacting with your teachers and fellow students, from the comfort of
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Sundays, Tuesdays & Thursdays
5:00 PM Jerusalem Time (for 1 hour)
Preparation in advance strongly recommended.
Advanced Gemara Shiur with Rishonim for men, learning assorted sugyot
me-inyanei de-yoma.
Starts Sunday, August 26th until Sukkot.

RAMBAM'S HILKHOT TESHUVA with Rabbi Jeffrey Saks
Mondays and Wednesdays
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Preparation optional.
Open to men and women regardless of previous background. Exploring
Maimonides' classic Laws of Repentance. Starts Monday, August 27 until

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offering shiurim in English on Gemara, Tanakh, Jewish Thought, and Halakhah.

Computer programming awards

The Good:
When I searched a thesaurus site for the word "pattern", it showed me Google ads for anti-baldness treatment - in Hebrew. I'm quite impressed that they manage to detect where I am, and come up with a non-obvious but sensible targeted offer based on the word I looked for. (Of course, what's even better is that I've set up my home computer to block ads on web pages, so outside work I wouldn't see the ad at all. And no I'm not going bald.)

The Bad:
Whenever I log out of any of the Microsoft Windows computers in my lab, it forgets all the settings that I have changed. Or rather, it intentionally overrides them when I log in again. Thus, every time I log in and start up my usual programs, I need to deal with at least 15 (literally, I wrote up a list) popups and questions and error messages until the system gets to a basic state of usability. Everything from the web browser warning me that it's dangerous to search Google, to the simulation program forgetting where to store temporary files, to Microsoft Office trying to install its stupid paper clip (which somehow wasn't installed the first time, but even if it was, I would have had to turn it off every time). The first time you log in this annoyance is expected. The 30th time, it's just ridiculously frustrating.

The common thread in my Good and Bad is that they aren't questions of brilliant cutting-edge innovation, but simply of having a tiny bit of thoughtfulness in the design process. The lesson can be summarized very simply: Lazy people make crap. People who care may not be smarter, but are conscientious enough to make good products. And guess which I prefer to use.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Thoughts on Shoftim

The laws of eglah arufah are very similar to those of the scapegoat from the Yom Kippur service. In both cases an unworked animal is taken to an uninhabited location, and is killed by an atypical method, after which our hands and/or body must be washed. And in both cases priests are present as we request atonement ("kaparah") for sins which may have been committed.

It therefore seems that the purpose of the two procedures is identical: to symbolize that we are receiving atonement, that the sin(s) are literally being removed from our midst.

The only difference is that while the scapegoat is integrated into the formal Temple service, the eglah arufah takes place locally (depending on where the corpse is discovered) and thus is independent of the Temple service.

The laws both immediately before and after eglah arufah concern various aspects of war. We would therefore expect that eglah arufah is also related to war, and the discovery of unattended corpses in the field is certainly compatible with that. Perhaps each city has a responsibility to absorb and protect any civilians who happen to be in the path of the armies. If the city shut its gates and left these people to their own devices, its leaders would in fact be culpable if the civilians ended up getting killed.

"Thus says your Lord - Hashem; and your God - who advocates/struggles ["yariv"] for his people..." (Yeshayahu 51:22 - this week's haftarah)

Biblical poetry is notable for its frequent use of parallelism, where one phrase is followed by a second phrase with the same meaning but different choice of words. This is clearly the case here, where "your Lord" in the first phrase parallels "your God" in the second.

But what about the second half of each phrase? If this verse is following the common pattern, then the proper name "Hashem" must parallel the description "advocates for his people". This would be unusual, in that a proper name is juxtaposed with a description.

But perhaps this is a fortuitous source which allows us to define the meaning of the name "Hashem". Based on the parallelism, it seems the name "Hashem" by definition implies particularistic intervention on behalf of the Jewish people. This is in opposition to names such as "Elokim" and "Shadai", which refer to the same God, but which relate to more universal/natural behavior by God.

We could perhaps have reached the same conclusion, by looking at the patterns of name usage in Tanach. But that would be difficult, since other factors often complicate the choice of names, and the patterns are not 100% consistent. In contrast, in this verse, the definition is virtually explicit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Such a dead-on analysis that I can't help not only linking to it, but quoting it too.

"The incoherent liberal orthodoxy is that no group is morally inferior to any other, except for those who choose to deny this orthodoxy. (The 'choose to' is important because groups that are sufficiently pathetic to be patronizable by liberals, i.e. Muslims, get a free pass; their behavior is treated as entirely deterministic and involuntary.)"

Peals of laughter

Two blind people were examining an elephant. One of them felt the trunk and concluded, "An elephant is a kind of snake." The other felt the leg and concluded, "An elephant is a kind of tree."

Later on, one blind biblical critic came to examine the elephant. First he felt the the trunk, then he moved over and felt the leg. He puzzled for a while over this contradictory evidence, but then reached a brilliant conclusion. "Aha! There must be two elephants in the room. One of them is a snake, and the other one a tree!"

Friday, August 10, 2007

Thoughts on Reeh

"You are children of Hashem your God; do not cut yourselves, nor make a baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to Hashem your God, and Hashem has chosen you to be a treasured people, from all peoples on earth. (14:1-2)

Let us start by noting that the phrase "between your eyes" must mean a location where there was originally hair, before being made bald. By comparison tefillin, which are also placed "between your eyes", must also be above the hairline. (see Menachot 36a)

The resemblance between tefillin and this prohibition may in fact be deeper. Excluding the Temple service, tefillin are the probably quintessential item of ritual holiness. Making a "baldness" on the tefillin spot, thus perhaps making it impossible to wear tefillin there, implies deliberately refusing this holiness. Thus, in way of explanation, the Torah explains that "you are a holy people" - a status which you may not refuse.

Furthermore, people who mutilate themselves (for suicidal or other reasons) apparently tend to cut their arms or wrists in particular. (This may be simply because the arm is the most accessible body part, and the wrist includes important blood vessels.) Thus, the "cutting yourself" referred to earlier in the verse may specifically refer to cutting the arm. If so, we have another connection to tefillin. The two examples of mutilation would refer to the arm and the forehead, the two places where tefillin are placed.

By comparison with tefillin, we can therefore explain both of the strange commandments in this passage, their juxtaposition with each other, as well as the explanation given for them.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Kippah Serugah Min Hatorah Minayin

How do we know that Avraham Avinu wore a knitted kippah?

According to Breishit 14:22-23: "Avram said to the king of Sedom: 'I have lifted up my hand [i.e. sworn] to Hashem the Supreme God, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take anything of yours, from a thread to a shoelace, lest you say: I have made Avram rich.' "

The phrase "from a thread to a shoelace" is apparently an expression for "from the very highest thing on the body, to the very lowest thing". Thus proving that Avraham would normally have worn a garment with threads in it on his head, i.e. a srugi.

Credit for this "insight" goes to R' Yoni Grossman.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

East of Eden

Once upon a time there was a woman named Eve living in the Garden of Eden. She was naked. One day a serpent convinced her to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Suddenly she realized that she was not at all tznius. She went and sewed herself a skirt. Unfortunately, upon trying it on, she realized that it did not fully cover her knees while sitting! So she went and found some more fabric and added a couple inches to her skirt. Now it was time to work on a blouse. Not having learned from her mother, Eve had trouble making sleeves that would never ride up beyond her elbows. Finally, very proud of herself, she finished this too. Unfortunately, upon looking in a calm pond, she realized that her blouse was much too tight! Unhappily she went back to making a more tznius blouse from scratch. Just as she finished putting her new blouse on, Adam walked into the room (it was halftime in the Jets game) and said, "Wife, what is there to eat?" At that moment Eve remembered that she was married, so she was required to cover her hair! Frantically she ran back to her pile of sewing supplies and dug through it until... at last! A snood! All was good. Her hair was covered, her knees and elbows hidden, and none of her clothing was too tight. She was dressed totally tzniusdikly, just like the millions of holy Jewish women who would someday be descended from her.

Actually, while this makes a good story, things in fact happened differently. Eve actually put on exactly the same clothing Adam had - a girdle or loincloth around the waist. The only "real" halachic nakedness, I think we learn from this story, is the genitals. The rest is just societal norms. Clearly women as well as men today should not be walking around in loincloths. But just as clearly, we should be aware of where our halacha comes from.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Best wedding song ever

From some sefardi siddur ("Ish Matzliach" I think). Unfortunately I don't know the tune...

הזן את העולם כולו, ברוך שאכלנו משלו.

יוצר הכל יתברך, כי שולחן לנו ערך, נודה לשמו בלשון רך.
צאן ובקר, לאין מחקר, הפת עיקר, והשאר טפלה לו.

החתן אשר קבע, סעודתו לשובע, זכה לברכות שבע, יזכה לבנים תשע.
נתן יין, בטוב עין, עלי עין, יפרח בכרמלו.

האכילנו בשר פרה, כלתו מפוארה, כמו רחל וציפורה.
עוגות סולת, לגולגולת, ותרנגולת, נתן איש כפי אוכלו.

האכילנו בשר איל, כלתו אשת חיל, כמו רחל ואביגיל.
(עוגות סולת, לגולגולת, ותרנגולת, נתן איש כפי אוכלו.)

האכילנו בשר דגה, כלתו מעונגה, כמו יונה במעי הדגה.
(עוגות סולת, לגולגולת, ותרנגולת, נתן איש כפי אוכלו.)

האכילנו בשר הצאן, כלתו אשת רצון, כמו רחל רועה בצאן.
(עוגות סולת, לגולגולת, ותרנגולת, נתן איש כפי אוכלו.)

האכילנו בשר דגים,כלתו אשת נועם, כמו רחל ואבינעם.
(עוגות סולת, לגולגולת, ותרנגולת, נתן איש כפי אוכלו.)

He created the entire world; blessed is He from whom we have eaten.

The blessed Maker of all, having set this table for us, we will give thanks to his name in tender language.
Mutton and beef without end, but the bread is the main thing, and the rest is secondary to it.

The groom who made this filling meal, who merited seven blessings, may he merit to have nine kids.
He gave wine liberally, may his field sprout beautifully.

He who fed us cow meat - his bride is beautiful, like Rachel and Tziporah.
Flour cakes for every person, and chicken, he gave each person according to their appetite.

He who fed us ram meat - his bride is a woman of valor, like Rachel and Avigail.

He who fed us fish meat - his bride is pampered, like Yonah in the belly of the fish.

He who fed us meat from the flock - his bride is good-willed, like Rachel the shepherdess.

He who fed us fish meat - his bride is a pleasant woman, like Rachel and Avinoam.