Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The splitting Mount of Olives

The haftara for the first day of Sukkot (Zechariah 14:4) describes a massive and seemingly bizarre miracle occurring in the messianic age: "The Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, forming a very great canyon, and half the mountain will move north and half south". What could be the purpose of this miraculous topographical change?

Over chag I happened to be learning Mishna Brachot 9:6, which says "One may not behave frivolously opposite the east gate [of the Temple complex], which is in parallel with the Holy of Holies". That is to say, if one is directly east of the Temple and the various doors and curtains are open, they can see directly into the Temple, and this possibility requires them to behave with extra respect at all times, as they are in a sort of holy area. The gemara on this passage (Brachot 61b) clarifies that this rule only applies as far as "Tzofim" (another name for the Mount of Olives). Further east than this mountain, the terrain dips and the Temple is not visible, so no special respect is needed.

Of course that is the state of things now. But what if Zechariah's prophecy comes to pass? Then east of the Temple there would not be a mountain, but a canyon. The Temple would be visible not only in Jerusalem, but anywhere to the east (limited only by the earth's curvature, as we now know). This seems to be the symbolic meaning of Zechariah's miracle: in the future holiness will not be limited to Jerusalem, but extend to the rest of the world. This is the same message Zechariah talks about a few verses later: "Hashem will be king over the entire world; on that day Hashem will be one and His name one." (14:9)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Mishneh Torah 7

Over Shabbat I noticed a lot of common language between Devarim 7 (Vaetchanan-Ekev) and the end of "Sefer Habrit" in parshat Mishpatim. With the help of AlHaTorah's TanakhLab tool, I quickly traced out these parallels in a nice graphical format (hopefully I didn't miss any significant ones). Nearly every major idea in that paragraph of Mishpatim is repeated near-verbatim in Devarim 7 - though in a different order and with significant expansion.

Sefer Devarim is called in Chazal and arguably in its own text (17:18) by the name "Mishneh Torah", the repetition of the Torah. Indeed, many of the laws and some of the stories in the previous four books are repeated in Devarim. But it seems very rare for the actual TEXT of the earlier books to be repeated. Two examples of textual repetition are the Ten Commandments and the list of kosher species, but these are special cases: the Ten Commmandments were spoken directly by God and thus worth repeating verbatim, while you can't really list the kosher species in different language without prohibiting a different set of species. So Devarim 7 is the only extensive example I know of where there is actual, large-scale repetition.

(For best visibility, open the image in a new tab and example it there.)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Was the nasi position hereditary?

No less than three different lists of nesiim appear in the book of Bemidbar.

In Bemidbar 2-7, the twelve tribal leaders are listed.

In Bemidbar 13, the twelve spies are listed, and described as nesiim. However, it would not make sense to send the tribal leader on an unofficial mission to hostile territory, so we may presume these were prominent people, but not the official leaders of each tribe. Indeed, the names all differ from Bemidbar 2-7.

In Bemidbar 34, the twelve tribal leaders are listed again. Once again, these names differ from the previous lists (Kalev ben Yefuneh was a spy and now is a leader; I have not checked closely, but I think he's the only overlap).

It makes sense that the names in Bemidbar 34 differ from Bemidbar 13, since the spies except Yehoshua and Kalev all died. It also makes sense that the names in Bemidbar 34 differ from Bemidbar 2-7, since 38 years have passed and the previous generation of leaders have all died.

What is noteworthy, though, is that the fathers of each leader in Bemidbar 34 are not the same as the names in Bemidbar 2-7. That suggests that the position of tribal nasi was not hereditary at this time.

Peor and the golden calf

After the war with Midian, God commanded to divide the captive people and animals between the warriors, the people, the Levites, and a "terumah for Hashem" to the kohanim. However, the non-living spoils did not need to be divided (Bemidbar 31:53). Nevertheless, the princes decided on their own to offer the captured gold to the mishkan. Why did they do this, and why only the gold?

The war with Midian was in retaliation for Midian's role in the Baal Peor episode. This episode was very similar to the golden calf episode. Both involved idolatry as well as dissolute behavior. Both had a plague break out as punishment. In both the uncorrupted religious leaders (Moshe and Pinchas) had people killed.

With the golden calf, the people took their gold and decided to make it into an idol. I think that when the princes here dedicated their gold to the mishkan, they were making a statement: "This time is not like the previous time. This time, we are not using our gold to make an idol, instead we are using it to serve God. The people sinned, but now we are taking responsibility and fixing that ourselves."

(As I wrote in the past, I think with the Golden Calf too the people eventually made a gesture of repentance.)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The structure of Emet veEmunah

Ever since my childhood I have appreciated the Koren siddur's typesetting of Emet veYetziv:

Without adding a word, it makes clear the structure of the blessing, in which the word "Emet" is repeated - just as we repeat it at the end of the Shema - so that all the various truths we assert in the blessing appear as expansions of the kabbalat ol machut shamayim of the shema.

It seems to me now that a somewhat similar structure exists in Emet veEmunah, the evening blessing which parallels Emet veYetziv. It goes as follows:

The core of the blessing consists of a series of ten very poetic lines. Each consists of two phrases which repeat the same theme (similar to the parallelism which is common in Biblical poetic verses). In many of the lines, there is a rhyme between the endings of the two phrases. For eight of these lines in a row, the first letter of the line is "heh", in reference to God.

Before these ten lines, we have a declaration that everything in the ten lines is true. After these ten lines, we quote the Biblical praises of God which are also in Emet veYetziv (my hypothesis is that these are here to satisfy the requirement of "arranging one's praise of God and only then praying" (Brachot 32a), with "prayer" meaning the Amidah.

One might ask why exactly there are ten of these lines. An interesting speculation is that they are meant to parallel the Ten Commandments, which begin "I am Hashem your God who took you out of the land of Egypt". Similarly here, there are ten statements, beginning with acceptance of God and continuing to describe exactly how we were taken out of Egypt.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

The kohen marriage laws

A kohen cannot marry a divorcee, "zonah", or "chalalah". A kohen gadol, additionally, cannot marry a widow. Why do these laws exist?

My theory is that:

1) Speculatively: If a kohen married a promiscuous woman, it would shame him and by extension his priestly office. People would assume that her immorality reflected his immorality, or that he was likely suffering the humiliation of being cheated on by her. To avoid this shame to him and his office, he is prohibited to marry a "zonah", who was promiscuous. Perhaps the law of "chalalah" fits here too.

2) Speculatively: In ancient times divorce was usually due to suspicion of infidelity on the part of the wife. Therefore, a kohen marrying a divorcee would present the same issue as marrying a known promiscuous woman (perhaps to a lesser extent), so the Torah prohibits it.

The Mishna (Gittin 9:10) lists three opinions about when a husband may divorce his wife:
* Beit Shammai: only if he found a "matter of immorality" in her
* Beit Hillel: Even if she burned his food
* R' Akiva: Even if he found a more beautiful woman

Modern halacha follows R' Akiva, but all three opinions have their basis in Biblical verses (mentioned in the Mishna), and it may be assumed that all three are reasonable interpretations of the attitude to divorce expressed in the Bible. If we are to take the "consensus" of these opinions, it seems likely that many divorces in Biblical times were motivated by the wife's suspected adultery, even if there was no requirement that ALL divorces have this basis.

Should this approach stigmatize divorcees today as likely adulterers? No. Many divorces nowadays have no connection to adultery, and even if a kohen married a known adulterer, I don't think her stigma would transfer as easily to him now as it did in the past. So nowadays, this is a law without a purpose. This is not disturbing: There are many mitzvot whose purpose was relevant in the ancient world and not today (for example: not making sculptures of the moon, lest you worship it), and I am comfortable adding one more to the list.

This approach suggests that if a woman was divorced and then widowed, she would still be forbidden to a kohen, as the stigma from her original divorce would remain in her history. (This seems to be accepted halacha today.)

3) Speculatively: The kohen gadol must have even higher standards than a regular kohen. Thus he must marry a virgin, and cannot even marry a widow.

A virgin can be physically examined for signs of virginity. A widow has no signs of virginity, so there is no conclusive way of verifying that she has never been promiscuous. Apparently, for the kohen gadol, the requirements are similar to a regular kohen, but stricter.

This assumes that virginity is a physical state, which can be determined by physical examination. I hear that according to modern science (and to a lesser extent, sources in Chazal), this is not the case: a woman can have or lack the physical signs of "virginity" whether or not she is actually a virgin. But because our approach is based on how the kohen gadol in ancient times was viewed by people around him, what matter is not the science, but rather what ancient people *thought* was the science, even if they were wrong.

The Torah reading blessings

The blessings before and after each aliyah are very similar. Today in synagogue someone accidentally began reciting the wrong one, which got me thinking about them.

The parts of the two blessings which differ are:
אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים, ונתן לנו את תורתו
אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכינו

Each of these lines has one topic in common (the giving of the Torah), and one topic different (choosing us from the nations, and eternal life).

Why do these topics appear, and in the places they appear?

Perhaps the answer is that choosing us as a nation happened in the *past*, so it is mentioned in the earlier blessing, at the beginning of the blessing. Whereas eternal life is the reward we get in the *future* for Torah observance, so it is mention in the later blessing, at the end of the blessing.

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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.