Friday, October 03, 2014

Shabbat Yom Kippur

From Breishit Rabbah (22:13):
"And Cain went out from before God" (Genesis 4:16) - R' Hama in the name of R' Hanina son of R' Yitzchak said: [Cain] went out happy ... Adam ran into him and said to him: "What was your judgment?" [Cain] said: "I repented and [my punishment] was commuted." Adam slapped himself in the face, and said: "Such is the power of repentance, and I did not know it?" Immediately Adam stood and recited: "A song of praise for the Sabbath day: It is good 'lehodot' [=to thank or to confess to] God..." (Psalms 92)

Why does Adam's song refer to the Sabbath day? Because as the rabbis say elsewhere, not only was Adam created on the sixth day, but he sinned on the very day he was created. He could have immediately repented and entered Shabbat purified from his sin. Adam missed this initial opportunity. But once he learned about repentance, he took himself back to the moment of his sin and welcomed Shabbat while repenting.

This midrash seems especially appropriate as we enter the Shabbat of Yom Kippur. Not only is it the special day of atonement for the Jewish people, but it commemorates the occasion on which all of humanity learned about repentance and forgiveness.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Thoughts on Shoftim

When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and see horses, chariots, and people more numerous than you, you shall not fear them; for Hashem your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. And when you approach the battle, the priest shall approach and speak to the people and say to them: "Hear, O Israel, this day you approach battle against your enemies. Let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed, or frightened by them, for it is Hashem your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you." And the officers shall speak to the people, saying: 'What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it...." (Devarim 20:1-5)

According to this passage, two things must be done before Israel fights a battle. The priest exhorts the people not to fear, and the officers tell several classes of people that they may return home without fighting.

Each of these things has its own logic, but what interests me now is the order in which they come. You would expect for the officers' dismissal to come before the priest's exhortation. After all, the best time to dismiss people from the army is when the army is being assembled, while the best time to give an inspiring speech is immediately before the battle. But as it is, the order is reversed. If you have a new wife, house, or vineyard, or if you are afraid, you must still join the army, and travel all the way to the battlefield, and hear the priest's speech before the battle, and only then can you go home. Wouldn't it be easier for such a person not to have to join the army in the first place?

I think that there is a lesson in this ordering, both for the soldiers in the Torah's battles, and for us today. There are people who have good reasons not to fight in battle. But this does not give them an excuse not to be part of the war. They must join the army, travel to the battlefield, experience the same tension everyone else experiences, and only then can they be sent home.

Similarly, certain Israelis today and all Jews abroad, who do not fight in the IDF, must nevertheless feel that they are part of the war, and look for tangible things they can do to help their relatives under fire. I am happy to report than, from what I have heard, in the recent Gaza war this is exactly what happened on a large scale.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The politics of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

This is my summary of a shiur given by R' Yaakov Medan earlier this week in Jerusalem. The very last sentence is my own addition.

The well-known story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b-56a) goes as follows:
R. Johanan said: What is illustrative of the verse, Happy is the man that feareth alway, but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief? The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza; the destruction of Tur Malka came through a cock and a hen; the destruction of Bethar came through the shaft of a leather. The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won't. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against then, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you. He said, How can I tell? He said to him: Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar]. So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar. They then proposed to kill Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death? R. Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the "anvatanut" of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.

The beginning of the story (the meal) and end (the sacrifice) flow logically. But the segue between them is hard to understand. How is it possible that a random meal guest is able to show up at the king's door, and be taken seriously when he says the entire nation is rebelling?

R' Medan suggests a new approach to this story, beginning with a new interpretation of the word "anvatanut", usually translated as something like "humility".

Rashi on Brachot 9a explains that the "vatikin" who prayed early each morning were:
People with "anava", who loved mitzvot

If the two halves of Rashi's statement are related, than "anava" would seem to mean punctuality or enthusiasm for doing mitzvot in the best possible manner, not humility.

We see a similar idea in the Tosefta (Shabbat 16:7) which discusses how to dispose of food waste after a Shabbat meal:
Beit Hillel says: One may pick up the bones and peels from the table. Beit Shammai says: One must remove the entire plate/tray and shake off its [muktzah] contents. Zecharia ben Avkilus did not practice like Beit Shammai or like Beit Hillel, but rather would take [an item of food to eat] and throw [its waste] behind the couch [so as not to have to remove muktzah items by any method later on]. R' Yosa said: R' Zecharia ben Avkilus' "anvatanut" is what burnt the Temple.

Here, R' Zecharia ben Avkilus and his "anvatanut" are characterized as extreme, unwarranted strictness with halacha.

Let us now look at Midrash Eicha Rabbati (on verse 4:2), which tells the Kamtza story again, and suggests another flaw of R' Zecharia ben Avkilus.
Once a man in Jerusalem made a meal. He said to his messenger: Bring me Kamtza my friend. He went and brought Kamtza his enemy. He entered and sat among the guests. [The host] entered and found him between the guests. He said to him "You are my enemy and you sit in my house, why? Get out of my house!" ... He took [Kamtza the enemy] in his hand and expelled him. R' Zecharia ben Avkulus was there and was capable of protesting but did not protest. He went out and thought "Since the aged rabbis were sitting there and did not object, they agreed with it." ... this is why it is said that the Temple was destroyed over Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. R' Yosef [=R' Yosa in the Tosefta] said: R' Zecharia ben Avkilus' "anvatanut" is what burnt the Temple.

This is basically the same story, told slightly differently. There is one addition of interest to us: the same R' Zecharia who refused to offer the sacrifice was responsible for precipitating the crisis by not protesting at the meal! But how can "anvatanut" refer both to this insensitivity and to the later halachic strictness?

Before answering this, let us look at a different paragraph in the same section of midrash.
Another interpretation: "The precious sons of Zion." ... What was their preciousness? One of them would not enter a meal unless he knew who was dining with him, who poured the wine, and who served the food."

This is a strange idea, but we find the same idea in the gemara (Sanhedrin 23a):
"Thus did those of clean mind in Jerusalem do: they would not sign a legal document unless they knew who was signing with them, they would not sit in judgment unless they knew who was sitting with them, and they would not go into a meal unless they knew who was eating with them."

It appears, from these sources, that was customary that guests would demand to know the entire guest list before coming! This shines an entirely different light on the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story. People were very careful to never invite anyone who was not on an approved list. If a Bar Kamtza showed up uninvited, it's not at all surprising that he would be kicked out!

Why would people insist on knowing the name of every single person who attended a meal? Would you refuse to attend, say, a wedding, without first consulting the entire list of guests and waiters to see that every one of them was on your pre-approved list?

To answer this, let us remember that we are talking about the period immediately preceding the rebellion and destruction. Clearly, the political intrigues that would lead to the rebellion were already present. There were many spies around, and much suspicion and persecution. When wine goes in secrets come out, and for plotters, knowing every guest on the invite list was necessary for security. Also, it is quite reasonable to think that Bar Kamtza was just the sort of person who would be unwelcome in a feast of plotting rebels. Someone willing to betray his nation to the Romans after a personal insult at a meal was someone who probably not too loyal to begin with! As R' Yochanan said at the beginning of the story, "Happy is he who always fears" indeed!

The midrash fingers R' Zechariah as the rabbi most responsible for the expulsion of Bar Kamtza. If Bar Kamtza was a non-nationalist (willing to go straight to the Romans to avenge his insult) and his haters were nationalists, then perhaps R' Zechariah himself was a prominent nationalist. Let us now see what non-rabbinic sources may have to say about R' Zechariah.

Josephus (Wars of the Jews 4:4:1) writes the following about the zealots:
These leaders were Eleazar, the son of Simon, who seemed the most plausible man of them all, both in considering what was fit to be done, and in the execution of what he had determined upon, and Zacharias, the son of Amphikulus...

This name is very similar to R' Zecharia ben Avkulus, and some historians have asserted that they are the same person.

If so, R' Zecharia was not simply a modest, fearful man concerned primarily about the details of halacha. He was a polarizing zealot leader! No wonder he did not object to kicking out the unintended guest, who might have been a spy against the zealots. And no wonder he was not willing to compromise anything whatsover in the Temple service, even under extreme pressure.

Now, let us look about what Josephus says about how the revolt began (Wars 2:17:2).

At the same time Eleazar, the son of Ananias the high priest, a very bold youth, who was at that time governor of the temple, persuaded those that officiated in the Divine service to receive no gift or sacrifice for any foreigner. And this was the true beginning of our war with the Romans; for they rejected the sacrifice of Caesar on this account; and when many of the high priests and principal men besought them not to omit the sacrifice, which it was customary for them to offer for their princes, they would not be prevailed upon.

This account is very similar to that in the Kamtza story! In both, the Romans send an animal to the Temple to be sacrificed. In both, the Jewish leaders refuse to sacrifice it after extended arguments. In both, the Romans are provoked by this refusal and war ensues.

Of course, there are some differences. History writing in the ancient world was different from today. Nobody was looking over the historian's shoulder to see that everything was properly sourced and accurate. Rather, history was a form of what might be called "history art" where the details could be filled in as necessary. One famous example of this is the speech Josephus records as being given on Masada before the collective suicide. How could Josephus possibly know the text of this speech? If someone could bring Josephus back to life and ask him this, he would likely say - with justice - "I grew up with Elazar, I knew him well enough to know that this is what he would have said in that situation." Josephus did not know the exact words, but he was confident in his guess at the message. Similarly, Josephus filled in the gaps in the Jerusalem story as best he could. The essential story is the same as in the gemara (which testifies to the basic accuracy of both). But being in the Roman camp outside Jerusalem, and not knowing the details about Bar Kamtza, Josephus filled in other details about how the sacrifice came to be rejected.

In the gemara, the rabbis who R' Zechariah debated sound reasonable, while Bar Kamtza sounds like a spiteful traitor. But in Josephus' telling, the Jews who incited the sacrifice simply wanted to get rid of the zealots, not to destroy the Temple and the whole nation! The concrete facts are almost the same as in the gemara. But the tone and moral judgments are completely different. This reminds us of current events, where Haaretz and a right-wing paper might report almost the same events, but the presentation and conclusions to be drawn are near opposites.

The Torah tells us "You shall not bear tales ('rechil') among your people, you shall not stand by the blood of your fellow." (Vayikra 19:16) The two halves of this verse are likely connected. The tales in question may not be simple gossip about who got a bad haircut or woke up late for minyan, but the kind of betrayal to hostile authorities that can result in death [what was later known as "mesirah"]. And the word "rechil" may be linguistically related to "meragel", meaning to spy. Some sources say that "rechilut" or "lashon hara" was responsible for the destruction of the Temple (Yirmiyahu 9:3, Brachot 32b). If so, the kind of tale-bearing that is meant is the kind where people are being betrayed to the authorities.

We have now attributed clear political motivations to each side in the Kamtza story. Thus, it appears that the story is not "simply" an anecdote of baseless hatred. But while it is legitimate to have differences of political opinion, it is not legitimate to have so much mutual back-stabbing that members of your nation cannot even eat at a meal together. That degree of hatred leads to destruction and exile. Kamtza (who was welcome at the meal) and Bar Kamtza (who was unwelcome) represent the two political camps which showed so much hatred towards each other, and therefore the story is named after both of them.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

David's messy psak

The gemara (Brachot 4a) describes King David's righteousness with this example:

כך אמר דוד לפני הקב"ה: רבונו של עולם, לא חסיד אני, שכל מלכי מזרח ומערב יושבים אגודות אגודות בכבודם, ואני ידי מלוכלכות בדם ובשפיר ובשליא כדי לטהר אשה לבעלה

I was thinking about that line, and I came to the conclusion that it was probably inspired by the interaction between David and Michal as he rejects her (Shmuel Bet 6:21-22):

ויאמר דוד אל מיכל: לפני יקוק אשר בחר בי מאביך ומכל ביתו, לצות אתי נגיד על עם יקוק על ישראל, ושחקתי לפני יקוק. ונקלתי עוד מזאת, והייתי שפל בעיני, ועם האמהות אשר אמרת, עמם אכבדה

Exactly what interaction between David and the "amhot" is he talking about that would be a cause for "kavod"? You might say in pshat that he's just going to associate with them somehow (and perhaps marry them, to the exclusion of Michal who he will no longer sleep with).

But I think the midrash wants to say something more specific. He will do some disgusting task ("hayiti shafal be'einai"), involving women ("im ha'amhot"), which nevertheless will be a reason for honor. Dealing with female bodily excretions in order to reunite husband and wife is a good example of such a task. In contrast to the other kings, whose honor consists of pompous social interactions ("yoshvim agudot agudot bichvodam"), David's honor would consist of this.

UPDATE: In addition to the details above, it was suggested to me (by RB) that the midrash may use examining blood as its example of a disgusting honorable act, specifically due to to David's past. In Shmuel Bet 16:7-12, Shimi ben Gera calls David a "man of blood" among other curses. David does not retaliate or even dispute this curse, and in fact says that God must have instructed Shimi to utter this curse. However, David wishes that God will notice his forbearance, and replace the curse with a blessing. This wish is phrased generically, but the midrash could understand it as David wishing that his martial bloodiness be replaced with some kind of peaceful and helpful bloodiness.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Insects in Bamidbar

He sent messengers to Bilam son of Beor, to Petor which is on the river, where his people lives, to say to him: "Behold, this people which left Egypt has covered the eye of the earth, and it is now camped opposite me." (Bamidbar 22:5)

What is the meaning of the "eye of the earth" in this verse? Shemot 10:4-5 uses the phrase in a similar way:

"For if you [Pharaoh] refuse to let my people go, I shall bring tomorrow locusts in your borders. They will cover the eye of the earth, and it will be impossible to see the earth..."

In both places, Onkelus translates the phrase as "the eye of the sun of the earth", meaning the bright disc formed by the sun. In Shemot, the meaning of this is clear: the swarm of locusts will be so thick that it will cover the sun and there will be darkness. (Or perhaps, the locusts will both cover the sun and form a continuous layer on the surface of the ground.)

In Bamidbar, it seems that Israel too is being compared to a swarm of locusts, which devours the lands whose path it crosses, and looks ready to devour Balak's land and people too.

Interestingly, this is not the first place in Bamidbar where Jews are compared to locusts. When the spies returned from their trip, they reported: "There we saw the Nefilim sons of Anak (from the Nefilim), and we were in our eyes like locusts, and so were we in their eyes."

The spies saw themselves as small insects, incapable of conquering the mighty inhabitants of Canaan. But while the spies saw the locust as a weak animal, Balak saw the locust as an unstoppable and overpowering force! How could the same animal be used as a metaphor for completely opposite concepts?

The difference, of course, is that the spies referred to individual locusts, while Balak referred to an entire swarm. Indeed, while an individual locust is capable of little damage, a swarm of them is extremely formidable. Similarly, a single Israelite might be weaker than a single Anakite, but when the Israelites were united nobody could stop them from conquering the land.

How do we know that the spies should have realized this point, and didn't? After the spies spread their bad report and God decreed forty years of desert wandering upon them, the people rebelled and tried to invade Canaan immediately. When Moshe describes the results of this invasion in Devarim, he makes reference to a different kind of insect:

"The Amorite who lived on that mountain went out against you, and chased you as do the bees, and struck you down in Se'ir, as far as Hormah." (1:44)

Bees, like locusts, are individually weak but together form a fearsome swarm. Just like the Israelites' enemies knew the power that comes from unity, so should the Israelites have known.

(Based on a dvar torah from R' Shlomo Glicksberg)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mutual love

The second blessing before kriyat Shema focuses on Torah study and observance. In the morning, we mention the Patriarchs to whom God "taught the laws of life", and then we ask that God "lead our hearts to understand, perceive, listen, learn, teach, guard, perform, and uphold all the words of this Torah". In the evening, we express our desire to "rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your commandments forever, for they are our life and the length of our days, and we shall study them day and night." Virtually the entire blessing is on this topic, in both the morning and the evening.

The topic is a logical one. The Shema is one of the main sources for the mitzvah of Torah study; its reading is itself a performance of Torah study; and it is one of the most memorable passages on the topics of mitzvah observance and reward and punishment. Some sources suggest that this blessing functions as the usual blessing said before performance of a mitzvah (and therefore one should not speak between them and the Shema) - in which case they certainly must be on the same topic as the Shema.

But there is one main deviation from this topic - at the beginning and end of each blessing. There, rather than Torah study, the topic is love. The blessing starts by mentioning the "great love" or "eternal love" God has shown us, and ends by blessing God who "chooses Israel in love", or "loves His people Israel". Why mention love here?


I think the answer lies in the second line of the Shema. "You shall love Hashem your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." The first line of the Shema is a basic declaration of loyalty to God. Once that is accomplished, we list the things we must do for God - and the first of those to love.

The remaining things, of course, are all about Torah study - keeping the Torah in mind, reciting it, teaching it, speaking of it, placing reminders of it on our body and houses. The overall structure closely echoes the blessing recited before the Shema - there, too, the introduction is about love, and the body of the paragraph is about Torah study.

Of course, rather than the Shema echoing the blessing, it is the blessing which echoes the Shema, since the blessing was composed to accompany the Shema rather than vice versa.


There is one difference though. The blessing talks Torah study plus about God's love for Israel. The Shema talks about Torah study plus Israel's love for God. Each contains love, but the direction of the love is reversed.

Here is one possible explanation of this difference. Tanach repeatedly likens the relationship between God and Israel to that between a husband and wife. Just as a successful marriage must involve mutual expression of love and commitment from both sides, so must God's relationship/covenant with the Jewish people. God showed us love in giving us the Torah; we show love by keeping it. In the Shema (which is God's words) He provides us with commandments through which we can merit reward and closeness to God; in the blessing (which is our words) we thank God for these commandments and express our wish that nothing ever prevent us from keeping them. Each party in the relationship mentions the love the other party shows them, and through this, the relationship between them is mutually strengthened.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Renamed Jerusalem streets

Here is an incomplete list of streets in Jerusalem that have been renamed at some point (mostly in 1948), followed by their original names.

I was planning on adding this to Wikipedia, but I don't see a good place for it.

Keren Hayesod - King George [1]
King David - Julian's Way [1]
King Solomon - St. Louis Way [1]
Shlomtzion - Princess Mary Ave [1]
Straus - Chancellor [1]
Agron - Mamilla Road [1]
Shivtei Yisrael - St Paul's Road [1]
Malchei Yisrael - Geula Road [2]
Herzog - Gaza Road [2]
Usishkin - Yehudah Halevi [3]
KK"L - Shmuel Hanagid [3]

[2] Collins & LaPierre, O Jerusalem, 1972

You have seen

Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel: "You have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I lifted you up on wings of eagles, and brought you to Me." (19:4)

Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: "You have seen that I have spoken with you from heaven." (20:18)

The phrase "You have seen" used to begin a speech is quite rare in Tanach. Besides these two verses, it is used once each by Moshe and Yehoshua - each time to introduce a covenant with God made before their deaths - and once by Yirmiyahu. So its appearance twice in succession is somewhat striking.

The first instance (19:4) refers to the exodus from Egypt, and comes to introduce the revelation at Sinai.

The second instance (20:18) refers to the revelation at Sinai, and comes to introduce the commandments in parshat Mishpatim (and the last few verses of Yitro).

Seeing as two of the other three uses of this phrase introduce the making of covenants, it is not surprising that the same is true here. The revelation at Sinai is called a covenant (Devarim 5:2), and the commandments in Mishpatim are called "the book of the covenant" (Shemot 24:7).

Moreover, we learn that the events in question are not independent of each other, but rather form a linear progression. The exodus from Egypt created a sort of relationship between God and Israel. But it then had to be made explicit by the acceptance of the Ten Commandments. Even that was not enough, and the covenant had to be more fully fleshed out, with a long list of the laws we will keep, and the rewards we will get for it.

That's all I have to say about the similarity between these two phrases. Now, a few words on the difference between them, as interpreted by the midrash.

There is one noticeable difference: the audience. The first phrase is spoken to both "the house of Jacob" and "the children of Israel". The second is only spoken to the latter.

On a pshat level you might say that "the house of Jacob" and "the children of Israel" mean the same thing, and the first verse uses both for some stylistic reason, perhaps to provide extra formality. But the midrash cannot accept such a "fuzzy" answer. In midrash, every word of the verse should add something meaningful and definite.

So therefore, the midrash (quoted by Rashi) says that "the house of Jacob" means the women, and "the children of Israel" means the men. I had always thought this identification was for linguistic reasons: "bnei yisrael" can mean either "children" of Israel or simply "sons" of Israel, while "the house" is a place where women were likely to be found.

But now, we can add a structural reason for this identification. (Alas, you will see, it is no more politically correct than the linguistic one.) It stands to reason that women were equal participants in accepting the Ten Commandments and the basic commitment to Jewish faith. But since they are not commanded to learn Torah to the same extent as men, perhaps the numerous halachic details of parshat Mishpatim are not directly relevant to them. Therefore, the midrash may be thinking, women are mentioned as "the house of Jacob" in the introduction to the Ten Commandments, but not in the introduction to Mishpatim.