Friday, October 12, 2012

The place of brachot

In the Mishna, Masechet Brachot is placed in Zeraim. But in the Shulchan Aruch, it is grouped with Shabbat and the holidays in Orach Chaim.

This reflects a different perception as to the place of brachot in our life. Grouping brachot with the holidays indicates that saying a bracha is a discrete observance which must be performed on certain occasions. Periodically you must keep shabbat, but you also know that the rest of the week cannot be shabbat.

Meanwhile, grouping brachot with zeraim indicates that saying a bracha is part of our normal life. It is not that you interrupt your farming in order to perform a religious observance (as with shabbat), but that saying the bracha is part of the farming, and gives the farming a religious character.

As part of the inexorable shift of religious practices from "natural/moral" to "ritual" over time (as circumstances change and the original rationale is left behind), brachot have changed from a natural part of our self-expression (in the Mishna) to a technical procedure that must be executed on specific occasions (in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch).

May that change someday, somehow reverse itself.

(Source for the good parts of this)

Thursday, April 19, 2012


"You shall celebrate on your holiday - you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow that are within your gates. Seven days you shall have a holiday to Hashem your God in the place Hashem shall chose, Hashem your God having blessed you in all your produce and all your handiwork, and you shall be 'ach sameach' ". (Devarim 16:14-15)

The beginning and end of the above excerpt, which I have put in bold, form a popular song now sung on holidays. Of course, it is ironic what the song has done to the middle of the excerpt. The Torah made a point of INCLUDING the poor and marginalized members of society in our celebration, but the song jumps over those words, as if to EXCLUDE them! There is always the excuse that long lists of names have no rhythm and are hard to fit to a tune. Granted, but it is still quite striking how the point of the verse has been missed.

Anyway, let us switch from social to philological commentary. The verse ends with the cryptic phrase "vehayita ach sameach". What does this mean, and how does it differ from simply "vehayita sameach"?

Normally, the word "ach" means "but" - introducing a new phrase which qualifies or limits the previous phrase. Here, the word "ach" is not attached to any other phrase, but nevertheless, Chazal understood it to mean "but" in the since of limitation. Since it is never specified WHAT the limitation is, Chazal and later commentators provided a number of suggestions. Among them: 1) Shemini Atzeret may be limited in its degree of "simcha" relative to Sukkot (this assumes that the point of the verse "vehayita ach sameach" as a whole is to teach us that Shemini Atzeret also has a mitzvah of simcha). 2) Even a person without family must perform the mitzvah of simcha, though he cannot do so in the full sense described here (i.e. with sons and daughters). 3) Happiness in this world is limited, in contrast to the World to Come, where it will be unlimited.

Ramban, though, provides a completely different understanding of the phrase. In his commentary to Devarim, he suggests that "ach" is a short version of "achen", meaning "indeed". Thus the phrase means "you shall indeed be happy". It is not a limitation on the holiday happiness, but rather a intensification and expansion of the happiness. Quite the opposite of what Chazal said!

Which of these two contrasting understanding is correct? The advantages of each are clear. Chazal's understanding better fits with the normal meaning of the word "ach". But only Ramban's understanding allows for the sentence to be fully comprehensible and grammatical. Is there an possible understanding which combines both of these advantages - the comprehensibility and the correct usage of the word "ach"?

I think the answer to this question comes from another short and underrated word - "aval". The words "ach" and "aval" are both popularly understood to mean "but". But the word "aval" can also mean "indeed", as it does in Breishit 42:21. There, Yosef's brothers say to one another: "Indeed, we are guilty regarding our brother, in that we saw his distress when he begged us and we did not listen; surely his blood is now being avenged." It makes no sense for the "Indeed" at the beginning of the phrase to mean "but", since it does not come after any other phrase. However, in other places, including modern Hebrew, "aval" does mean "but".

We are forced then to say that "aval" can mean both "indeed" and "but". Perhaps, then, the same is true of "ach"? This allows for an elegant answer to our original question. Chazal are correct that "ach" usually means to take something away, while Ramban is right that in this instance we are commanded to "indeed" be happy.

Indeed (no pun intended), the use of one word for both "but" and "indeed" is not so strange. The roles of those two words in language are not in fact so different. Both typically come after a complete sentence, and add onto the sentence by emphasizing a previously ignored but quite relevant fact. With "but" the new fact serves to limit the previous sentence; with "indeed" it strengthens the previous sentence. This is a difference, but (no pun intended) the correct meaning of the two is easily inferred from context, so there is little confusion in using the same word for both.

Hopefully now we have solved the puzzle of the well-known phrase "vehayita ach sameach". And I'm sure you'll agree with me that my limiting myself to but two unintended puns in this post was impressive, indeed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Wow. It's been a long time since I've posted here. Don't worry though. I don't know if I'll ever resume posting here on a regular basis, but I am currently working on several bigger and better projects, some of which draw on the experience I received while writing this blog.

It's interesting how the rise and fall of this blog closely follows the rise and fall of the word "blog" in Google search results. But don't worry, I have NOT opened an account with Tumblr. In fact I didn't even know what it was until looking it up after seeing the aformentioned cartoon. In fact, even after looking it up I'm still not totally sure what Tumblr is.