Friday, December 30, 2005

Subliminal Message

When Yosef dreams that the sun, moon, and eleven stars will bow down to him, Yaakov expresses dismay or disbelief that the whole family is destined to serve Yosef:

"מה החלום הזה אשר חלמת, הבוא נבוא אני ואמך ואחיך להשתחות לך ארצה?"

The obvious problem with the dream, and with Yaakov's interpretation of it, is that such a scenario is impossible. Yosef's mother (Rachel) is already dead, so she won't ever be able to bow down to Yosef. Shouldn't this be clear to everyone?

We must conclude that the question is rhetorical, and that Yaakov meant to point out the impossibility of the dream's fulfillment, given Rachel's death. Interestingly, Yaakov's statement may explicitly hint at this. A sequence of six letters in the middle of the statement spells out the Hebrew for "Rachel is dead":

"...אשר חלמת הבא..."

This could be a great example of the idea that every letter in the Torah has meaning. But even if unintentional, it would still be a pretty cool coincidence. Credit goes to R' Amnon Bazak for pointing out this "subliminal message".

By the way, I heard it suggested that the sun and moon actually represent Egypt and Mesopotamia, the two main civilizations of the time, which were subservient to Yosef at the time of the famine. This, of course, would make the dream much more ambitious that one might have thought. And of course, there is always Chazal's interpretation that the sun was indeed Yaakov, but that the moon was meaningless, because all dreams include an element of nonsense.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Not the Rabbi's Center

Walking by Yeshivat Merkaz haRav today, I was surprised to see its name translated as "The Rabbi Kook Universal Yeshiva". That got me thinking as to how the English could correspond to the Hebrew. Apparently it's not the Yeshiva of Merkaz haRav, but the Yeshivat Merkaz (central Yeshiva) of the Rav. Thus, all the people who call it simply "Merkaz haRav" are WRONG. Of course, now I get to be the pedantic one who corrects them all the time.

I would have thought 75

"...This [70 degrees F] is a temperature at which manual labor for white peoples is very trying. When the annual average is above this point, coloured labour is essential." ("The World", p.259, published 1936)

I'm less offended than bewildered that anyone could seriously, in all honesty, believe such things. I guess "the world" was different back then. Nature has changed, or something.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Back to posting

"Kol mitzhalot chatanim mechupatam" (from Sheva Brachot, and contrary to popular perception, a rabbinic phrase instead of one from Tanach)

Recently, for fun, I've asked a few people to translate this phrase for me, specifically the word "chatanim". The usual answer they come up with is "bridegrooms". Which is what I would have thought at first glance, too.

But why then is the next word "mechupatam", "from their bridal canopy"? If there are multiple bridegrooms, should they not have multiple bridal canopies? (If you're wondering, I believe the singular form of the word is attested to in the gemara, most of the rishonim, rambam, machzor vitri, etc., and all modern texts I've seen.)

If you wanted to be funny, you'd say it's talking about gay marriages. But I think it's safe to assume that the author(s) of Sheva Berachot didn't care for such things. Or, if you were the Chatam Sofer, you'd bring the famous line that God dwells with the married couple, so that there are really three beings under the canopy, two of them gramatically male and thus deserving the word "chatan". But I don't think that's the simple meaning.

Rather, I think "chatanim" must be translated as the married couple - the groom and the bride. Just as a "ben" is male and a "bat" is female but both are included in the plural "banim", similarly the "chatan" and "kalah" would both be included in the plural "chatanim".

With this understanding, "mechupatam" makes perfect sense, and the prayer takes on a beautiful parallelism:

"...the sound of rejoicing, the sound of happiness, the sound of the groom, the sound of the bride, the sound of the married couple exulting from their canopy..."

Is this in fact the correct translation? I couldn't find a precedent for the word "chatanim" being used in any context except for the text of Sheva Berachot. So without such evidence for or against, I'll just say that it makes the most sense and explains things better than any other translation I could come up with. I'd like to hear other ideas though, if anyone still reads this blog. :-)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Ha'Am Im Gush Katif II

In the end, after all the effort we put in, we are apparently not having visitors from Gush Katif. Presumably the government actually managed to find them temporary housing like it was supposed to.

I'm sure there is a moral lesson to be drawn from this as well.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Ha'Am Im Gush Katif

Ever felt guilty that while you certainly sympathized with the victims of the piguim or the disengagement or whatever tragedy was going on at that point, while sitting in the isolation of Teaneck or even Raanana you couldn't help or even really feel a part of the people who were actually there?

Today, in some small measure, I can feel that I really took part, and made a difference, in the events.

The government was too irresponsible to find housing for all the Gaza expellees in advance. Since Gush is on break and there are only ten or so students (all foreign) around, the yeshiva offered them the use of its dormitories until the students return in two weeks. Thus, 300 ex-residents of Netzarim will be joining us at Gush next Sunday night.

We found out about this at 10:30 or so, and soon left morning seder (yes, even in bein hazmanim) in order to tidy, sweep, and wash the 180 or so rooms of yeshiva housing, alongside the Gush maintenance staff. Over the course of the day, five or six students who were out of town were contacted and came back to help us. By 6 PM, we had finished preparing the large majority of the rooms for visitors.

Needless to say, this was not how we'd planned to spend the day. To make things even better, most of us ten were kicked out of our own rooms! (If you were lucky, your room became a "machsan" in which you could stay along with the property left in several nearby rooms which had been evacuated. I was not lucky.) Right now, every possession of mine except the clothes on my back is locked in such a machsan. I'll sleep in my empty room until the evacuees come, but after that, who knows.

Someone here suggested that we were experiencing a small portion of what the Gush Katif residents are going through. I would revise that by distinguishing between types of suffering. In terms of simple inconvenience and disruption, our troubles might actually be comparable to theirs. In terms of the much greater pain of being expelled from the home you built or grew up in, having your livelihood destroyed and your personal and national dreams crushed, there is of course no comparison.

Nevertheless, I'm still forced to make some sacrifice due to the disengagement, and what is more, my efforts should make things easier for those who are suffering much more than me. With the same purpose in mind, there are fliers in the Alon Shevut synagogue asking people to come help a certain farmer reconstruct his greenhouses on a new plot of land, as well as for a program in which each Gush Katif family is paired with an Alon Shevut family to welcome them and to help them out for their first few days after being expelled. I'm sure this is not particular to Alon Shevut, and that many other communities are doing much of the same.

It is much too late to try to prevent the disengagement, no matter how many people are still holding out in Homesh or Atzmona. Right now, immediate logistical and emotional support to those who have left is the most meaningful - and most satisfying - service that the rest of Israel can provide.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


"And in Seir the Horites used to dwell, and the children of Esav dispossessed and annihilated them and dwelt in their place, just as Israel did to the land of its inheritance which God gave them." (Devarim 2:12)

The obvious question here is: didn't the Jews conquer the land of Israel in the FUTURE? After the Torah was written? So why is this written in the past tense? Isn't this one of those scary anachronism things, you know, the ones that show that the Torah was written by a circle of monks in the 12th century and not by God at the time of Moses?

Well, not necessarily. You can make a very good case that the "land" under discussion is not modern-day Israel, but the kingdoms of Sichon and Og which were conquered at most eight months before Moses' speech here.

(For background, the story of that conquests is in the second half of Bemidbar 21.)

In our verse, exactly what identifying information do we have about the land under discussion?

First, it's a land that God GAVE to Israel. Second, Israel DID various stuff to that land. What exactly did they do? Well, exactly what Esav did - that is, DISPOSSESS and ANNIHILATE its inhabitants, and DWELL in it. Last, the land is THE INHERITANCE of Israel. (Note: to "dispossess" and "inheritance" are different forms of the same verb - "lareshet". I suspect that verbs from this root can be correctly translated based on whether their subject is a people or a territory. Nevertheless, it's clear that dispossession and inheritance are closely related.)

Looking in Bemidbar, we see these exact words used to describe the conquest of Sichon and Og.

"And Israel smote him [Sihon] by the sword and dispossessed/inherited his land..." (Bemidbar 21:24)
"And God said to Moses... I have given him [Og] and all his people and his land into your hand..." (21:34)
"And they smote him [Og] and his sons and all his people until no remnant was left, and dispossessed/inherited his land." (21:35)

The words DISPOSSESS/INHERIT, DWELL, and GAVE (land, by God) all appear here, just as they do in Moses' later description. The only key word which does not appear is ANNIHILATE. But read the three verses I just brought, and try convincing me that annihilation is NOT exactly what Israel did to Sihon, Og, and their peoples. The verse in Devarim, then, contains pretty much a perfect summary of the stories of Sihon and Og.

Furthermore, that verse does NOT even fit that well with the conquest of the "real" land of Israel. While Joshua and company pretty quickly take care of the 31 leading kings in Historical Palestine, finishing the conquest is a much harder task. At the end of the day, there are large Canaanite populations remaining in various parts of the land, and other parts are not conquered at all (see Shoftim chapter 1). Thus, the words DISPOSSESS and INHERIT are not perfectly applicable, especially when you apply them to the entire land of Israel which was GIVEN to the Jews. But regarding the kingdoms of Sihon and Og, all sources seem to say that the conquest was much more complete, which fits our verse much better.

UPDATE: A little more evidence on the subject. Devarim 2:24, 2:31, 3:12, 3:20 (all very close to our original verse) all use the root YaRaSh (=dispossess/inherit) to refer to the east bank.

Kotel rally

My on-the-spot estimate: 50,000
Police estimate (Haaretz): 50,000
"Settler leader" estimate (Haaretz): 100,000
JPost estimate: "tens of thousands"
Arutz Sheva estimate: 250,000

I assume one of those estimates is less reliable than all the others.

Best thing: no political position was expressed - it was basically one long quasi-selichot service
Worst thing: Chabad got some words in from their rebbe and the statement that "the geula is already here"

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

I didn't think he was a Zionist either

"...[F]arming itself is an expression of the mitzvah of settling the land by bringing forth its holy fruit... Thus a person in Israel - who wants to exclusively learn Torah and doesn't want to farm - is like one who says that he doesn't want to put on tefillin because he is studying Torah. It is possible that this is also true concerning all occpuations which help develop society - that they are included in the mitzvah of settling Israel."

-Chatam Sofer, Sukkah 36b

Monday, July 18, 2005

In case you think Bilaam's donkey was unique...

see Rashi to Breishit 20:5.
"Gam hi - [these words come] to include her slaves, camels, and donkeys, I [Avimelech] asked all of them and they told me he was her brother."

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


You know you've been in yeshiva too long when you try to say a sentence in Hebrew and an Aramaic word comes out instead.

The Israeli I was talking to understood, though.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Annan Kofei

"Vayomer Elokim, na'aseh et haadam b'tzalmenu kidmutenu..." (Breishit 1:26)

This verse is a favorite of those who would like to prove that Tanach acknowledges the existence of multiple deities. Not only does the word "Elokim" literally mean "gods" (though elsewhere the plural simply indicates a greater level of respect, similar to the "royal we"), but God uses the plural "let us make" in stating His intention to create mankind. This explanation can be quickly dismissed by pointing out that the third-person narrator of Breishit, when speaking of God, uses the singular form both in this verse ("vayomer") and consistently elsewhere. The question remains, though, why God chose to use the plural here. Who could the "us" under discussion have included, other than God Himself?

Many commentators, including Rashi, Rashbam, Radak, and Sforno, suggest that the remaining members of "us" are the angels. Either the creation of man was so important that it called for a public proclamation before the audience of the time, or else God wanted to ask the angels' permission before creating a creature that would take their place as the most important beings in the universe, other than God.

An irrefutable explanation, but I wanted to explore other possibilities. Specifically, I wondered if the remaining members of "us" were not the angels, but the chimpanzees.

Why the, um, chimpanzees?

The scientific evidence we have today indicates that humans form a species of great ape, descended from an ancient ape ancestor. The difference between us and other apes, of course, is that we have a sense of morality and can be held to an ethical standard. At some point in the evolution of the apes, God implanted these qualities into a humanoid ape, and the first human was created. Thus, the apes supplied the bodies of mankind, while God supplied the souls. It was a joint effort, and the roles of both parties is indicated by the words "na'aseh", "b'tzalmenu", and "kidmutenu".

Both Ramban and Radak provide explanations which are similar and congruent to this idea. According to Ramban, "God created ex nihilo only on the first day, and afterwards, from the created basics he fashioned and made... and the statement regarding land animals was 'May the earth bring forth'; thus, regarding man 'we will make', i.e. I and the aformentioned earth will make man - that the earth will bring forth the body from its basics as it did with land animals... and [God] will give spirit from above." One could read this as indicating that man came directly from the earth, but I see it as no stretch to say that man came from animals which themselves came from the earth, as the theory of evolution suggests.

The next verse, though, seems to upset this framework. "Vayivra Elokim et haadam b'tzalmo, b'tzelem Elokim bara oto, zachar unkeva bara otam." God is mentioned as creating three times here, while the animals (or the earth) are not mentioned at all! But - look closely at the verbs - in the last verse we had "naaseh" - "we will make". Here, the verb is "bara" - "created from nothing". The word "bara" is rare and the fact that it occurs three times in one verse should make us look closely. Clearly the animals were not creating from nothing - only God has that power. But while God was off conjuring up the soul, it makes sense to say that the apes were going about their daily business at the same time. Only the miraculous element - the creation of the soul - is worth mentioning in the text, so while verse 26 indicates that both God and nature were to be involved in the creation in man, just half of that story made it into the narrative of verse 27.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Al Homotayich Yerushalayim Hifkadti Shomrim

Last Thursday Gush offered a tiyul for foreign students to see the "security barrier" around Jerusalem. While along most of its length the security barrier consists of a fence running through rural areas, its most controversial parts around Jerusalem are mainly large concrete walls. Being the batlan that I am, I decided it was worth a few hours to get a good look at the structure which has recently been the focus of so much world attention.

Going in, we were curious as to what perspective would be presented on the trip. Gush has a reputation for being left-wing as far as yeshivot go, but I've seen little of that since I came, and someone told me that the terrorism of the last few years has moved everyone to the right. Gush still seems to have none the messianic R' Kook-inspired fervor I saw at Yeshivat Or Etzion my first shabbat in the country, nor any underground terror cells like the one recently discovered two bus stops away at Bat Ayin, but there seems to have been an immense hardening of opinion and much increased pessimism as to the Palestinians' intentions.

Our tour guide, as she told us, works with the "Ir Amim" organization, which (as far as I can tell) promotes understanding and consideration between Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites in the hope of minimizing mutually destructive behavior and making an eventual peace agreement possible. Technically this puts her into the category of wacko hippie left-wing peace activists (i.e. characterized by lofty universal ideals paired with an utter lack of moral or practical perspective), but she seemed surprisingly open and honest compared to the so-called "peace activists" I am used to. At the beginning she said "I'm not trying to give you propaganda - I want to give you all the facts, and you can decide whether it's a good thing or not" - and she did a good if not perfect job of sticking to that formula.

We started out at Gilo, on the south edge of Jerusalem. Here the barrier changes from a double fence to a wall as it reaches the edge of Bethlehem. The guide explained how the route and type of fence were reasonable here. As she said, it's impossible to put fences in built-up areas, and all the Arabs here are on one side, with the Jews on the other. The only inconvenience to Palestinians is that a few of them can't reach their olive groves on the other side of the barrier, but as the guide said, that's an understandable inconvenience given the security needs.

Then we got back in the bus and drove northeast - past the new and heavily debated neighborhood of Har Homa, then right through the Arab parts of the city. I was a little nervous going through these neighborhoods in a bus whose decoration proclaimed that it was owned by a West Bank settlement, but the windows were bulletproof and several of us were carrying (unloaded?) assault weapons, so we were probably OK. The only angry Arab we met the whole way wanted us to move more quickly so that he could get out of his parking space.

As we went the guide told us about the standard of living in the Arab neighborhoods and how much lower it was than in then Jewish ones (though, she said, it was extremely high relative to the West Bank as a whole). She also mentioned that the level of municipal services provided was much lower in Arab than in Jewish neighborhoods. And, in fact, the roads here were mostly one lane each way, twisty, slow, and probably dangerous - much different from the broad and landscaped arterials which you find in West Jerusalem (though, oddly, they were less congested than those West Jerusalem roads). But as the guide also said, most Jerusalem Arabs have made a political choice not to vote in municipal (Israeli) elections, so the lack of services provided seemed to us to be their own fault - they can't really complain if they have the opportunity to change the situation and don't. (For the most part they choose not to vote in Palestinian elections either, and thus have apparently screwed themselves over in every possible way.) Also, nearly every Arab house looked much nicer than the typical buildings you find in Jewish neighborhoods. Possibly each of these Arab buildings houses an extended family, unlike Jewish residences which include only a nuclear family, usually in a single apartment. But still, the degree of ornamentation visible makes it hard to argue that these people are living in dire poverty. If only I could have a brand-new three-story stone house with a balcony overlooking the Temple Mount.

We stopped in Jabel al-Mukabar, east of the Tayelet, where there was a good view of Abu Dis (outside the wall and the city) and Ras al-Amud (inside both). Here the wall passes through a densely populated area where no Jews live - or did, until recently. The guide pointed out two Jewish houses in open areas directly abutting the "inside" of the wall. By making the Israeli side of the wall more Jewish, these houses (which may soon be expanded into a larger settlement called I think Kedmat Tzion) increase the likelihood that the wall becomes a permanent border with a mixed population on the Israeli side. The guide pointed out that including those Arabs in Israel may be less advantageous for Israel than conceding the small chunk of East Jerusalem on which they live to a future Palestinian state. I think she was entirely correct in saying that this should concern the right wing, even as it decides one way or the other which policy to support.

Next we drove to the end of the barrier in Abu Dis. Here the old road from Jerusalem east to Jericho is entirely cut off by the wall, which however ends just north of the road. (When it became unsafe for Jews to drive through Abu Dis probably a decade ago, a bypass road was paved several kilometers to the north.) The wall does not extend past this point because plans call for it to turn east from here, into the West Bank, and the Israel Supreme Court is still deciding whether to allow this. Here, numerous slogans such as "Norway Supports Palestine" have been spray-painted onto the wall. We took the liberty of adding our own. Where someone had written "This wall shall fall" in marker, we crossed out the last two words and wrote "saves lives" instead. We wrote "Gush Etzion supports" over another comment about the wall. In the middle of this a police jeep stopped and threatened to arrest us for graffiti-ing the wall. Lots of fun.

As I said, the wall simply ends in Abu Dis. North of this, the streets have been blocked off with fences or short concrete barriers, which stop cars but are relatively easily climbed over. Also, if you live on the "border" here, you can apparently go out your front door to get to one side of the barrier, and out your back door to get to the other side. If the border residents were nice, they would open their backyards to the children and old ladies who right now have to climb over the fence or concrete barriers. Of course, in a few months there will probably be a 30-foot concrete wall here and it won't matter. (As a side note, I've yet to discover why the wall is considered so ugly. Yes it's 30 feet tall, but its size looks reasonable as it passes 30-foot-tall buildings. And sure it's made of bare concrete, but nobody complains that city streets are ugly, when they're also 30-foot strips of concrete. Of course the wall isn't an architectural asset to the city. But the suicide bombings it is designed to prevent clearly aren't assets either.)

After a stop at Har haTzofim where we discussed the planned extension of the fence east to Maale Adumim, we drove to the Kalandia checkpoint at the north edge of the city. This is a nasty, hot area with swirling dust, trucks, and crowds of impatient people waiting to cross into or out of Jerusalem. It must not be fun to be either a soldier or a Palestinian here, and this is probably a place where everyone learns to hate "the other side". The army is apparently building new facilities to ease the wait here. The guide mentioned this to as us a counterpoint to her complaint that right now there are only two places where Palestinians can enter Jerusalem, and that both are overcrowded. We were only too glad to get back in the bus and take the brand-new Begin freeway (whose northern part is an environmental atrocity - but that's another story) back home to Gush Etzion.

Perhaps this story deserves an ending, but as this has already so long, I will leave further thoughts to the reader(s).

Friday, May 27, 2005


Happy Lag beOmer to all. Amsterdam was fun, probably because I missed all the fun stuff. Israel is cooler though. Dragging 70 pounds through the streets of Jerusalem is uncool. But the shul at 127 Agrippas is really cool.

P.S. I'm writing this at about 2pm Or Etzion time.

Friday, April 29, 2005


On my flight to Israel this May 25, I have a 7-hour layover in Amsterdam. My plans are to take a boat tour (the whole downtown area is criscrossed by canals) and visit the Anne Frank house. If there's extra time, there are a couple art galleries and a Portugese Synagogue worth visiting. My plans largely come from this site.

Over the past 4 years I've made a point of visiting cities such as Baltimore and Chicago in conjunction with traveling to and from college. Now that I'll be studying in Israel, it will be nice to be able to do the same in Europe. Perhaps my next trip will be on British Airways, or Air France.

Thursday, April 28, 2005


The relative frequency of crashing of various programs on my computer:
  • Microsoft Word: Every 5 seconds. Which is why I don't use it any more. See next entry.
  • OpenOffice: Never crashed yet. Recent versions are roughly as capable as Word, so I don't feel that I'm missing anything by using it.
  • Excel and Powerpoint: Don't use them too much, but can't remember either of them crashing.
  • Internet Explorer: I rarely use it, but when I do it seems to crash at a reasonable clip
  • EditPlus: My preferred text and web site editor; never crashed.
  • Photoshop: Seems pretty stable
  • Gaim: Crashes very rarely
  • Mozilla Firefox: My main web browser. Known to crash, but infrequently, and it has a nice auto recover feature which remembers which sites you were at when anything happens. BUT, it doesn't remember the text you're entering on those sites. Hence my loss.

My next post will presumably be written in EditPlus.


This is where a 500 word post would have gone, if it hadn't been wiped out by a browser crash. No, "recover post" doesn't seem to do anything. Maybe I'll rewrite it later.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Minor update

Due to extensive work - I've had to give presentations each of the last 3 days, not to mention the papers and problem sets and stuff - I haven't been able to post recently. For now, I'll just post a single link. My goal for the next 48 hours is to use both of the made-up words from that site, "Operation Chomblitz" and "Chumropoly", in conversation.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Achat Kibalti Me'Et Hashem...

...shivti b'veit hashem... for at least one year.

It's (almost) official. This summer and next year, I'll be at Gush.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Google Maps

As everyone probably knows by now, Google Maps is the coolest mapping program in existence. Even better, the management has just introduced satellite imaging, which isn't that useful but makes it easy to waste hours on end. Finally, the site is written using a publicly accessible XML interface, which some people have used to add extremely useful and interesting features of their own.

Now, if only they could add a scale feature, and perhaps symbols for landmarks such as hospitals and subway stops... but even now, it's a revolutionary improvement over its competitors.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Our Lord of the World

Every Shabbat morning, after mussaf, we sing the piyyut Adom Olam. This song is not an integral part of the service. I do not remember it ever being being sung in Israel or in the more fundamentalist communities (Lakewood, Ner Yisrael) that I have visited. In many siddurim, it also appears at the beginning of Shacharit and as part of the bedtime Shema prayers.

Its authorship is unknown. Several non-authoritative sources I found online suggested that it was composed in 10th-century Babylonia, or by Ibn Gabirol in 11th-century Spain. The more respectable sources I found generally did not suggest any attribution. It seems to have been added to the prayer services around the 16th century.

The first three stanzas are theological; the last two describe the believer's relationship to God. The last stanza begins with the words, "בידו אפקיד רוחי", "In his hand I entrust my spirit".

These words are a direct quotation from the New Testament.

I noticed this a few days ago in a news report about the Pope's death. I don't know how to take it. I can't be the only one who finds it strange that a supposedly Jewish prayer includes a line from the Christian Bible.

This brings us back to the question of authorship. The following possibilities suggest themselves to me.
  • The resemblance is coincidental.
  • The poem was written by a Jew who had read the Christian Bible and felt comfortable reusing its language in a Jewish context.
  • The poem was written by a Christian, or perhaps a "Jewish Christian" who considered himself a traditional Jew but believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
  • Part of the poem - the last stanza or two - was written by an author who drew on the Christian Bible, while the rest was written by one of the previously suggested authors. This would account for the presence of the line "והוא אחד ואין שני להמשיל לו להחבירה", "And he is one, and there is no second, to be compared to him, to be joined with him". While this line is not necessary a direct refutation of Christianity (Christians presumably think that they are in fact monotheists, believing in three aspects of one God), it does sound to me like anti-Christian polemic. However you read it, it's strange to see this and a Christian Bible quote located just four lines apart from each other. Perhaps this indicates that Adon Olam is an accretion of several authors' contributions, although the uniformity of the poem's meter (it's strict iambic pentameter all the way through) might indicate otherwise.
It should be noted that we don't know who put Adon Olam in the prayer service (though it certainly wasn't Chazal), and that we don't know who wrote it either. I suggest that the poem in its current form was discovered by Jews who were unaware of its authorship, and incorporated into prayers because it seemed like a nice poem. Which it is. But that doesn't make me any more comfortable about reading what is apparently Christian scripture in synagogue.

Sunday, April 03, 2005


The only convincing argument I've ever heard that Judaism and homosexual desires are compatible is available here.

UPDATE: A complementary site. Good; less original but perhaps more realistic than the first site.

Thank you anonymous for the second link.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

All Your What? II

The exact phrase "All your beis" has been spotted online. Here.

Rav Gigi

The current roshei yeshiva of Gush have passed their collective 150th birthday, and in preparation for their retirement, the yeshiva has already chosen several successors.

Like most of us who haven't (yet) studied at Gush, I'm less familiar with R' Gigi and R' Medan than with the current roshei yeshiva. Thus, I was happy to see an interview with R' Gigi in the religious Zionist De'ot journal.

My take:
He was very diplomatic and didn't say anything revolutionary. But it seemed to me that he was a bit more liberal than the current consensus at Gush. Which is eminently reasonable, seeing that R' Medan apparently leans to the conservative side. (Admittedly, those are gross generalizations.)

A partial translation is available here. (This is also where I found out about the interview.)

Monday, March 28, 2005


Apparently, in Windows XP, when the number 4 on your keyboard is depressed, it is impossible to simultaneously enter the letter "T". When I inserted my completed absentee ballot (for local school board) into the slot above my keyboard, it accidentally depressed the 4 key. Later I happened to remove it, and the T worked fine again. Clearly, this is a feature, not a bug.

French Crap

But that's redundant...

Sunday, March 27, 2005


My roommate and I just got in a fight over brachot. This is not a good situation. Maybe I should just start making brachot again.

Hashem Oz leAmo Yiten, [v'az] Hashem Yivarech et Amo baShalom

"King David was not allowed to build God's temple because he was a man of war. It was left for his son Solomon, who would enjoy peace. Ariel Sharon's tragic miscalculation is to confuse the two roles. While one's enemies are still armed with evil intent, one must forever remain a David. Of the two men, it is the legacy of the father that is greater than the son. The Messiah is called the son of David rather than Solomon, not because war is greater than peace, but because a just war that defeats evil leads to the sprouting of peace."

(From today's Jerusalem Post.)

Jews don't make brachot

I have come to the conclusion that you are pretty much never supposed to make a bracha achrona. I don't assert that this conclusion is correct. In fact, it is so crazy that I plan on asking my posek about it ASAP. But in the meantime, it makes perfect sense to me, and here is my logic. None of what follows should be treated as halacha, because it probably isn't, even if it seems to me to be correct.

First, and most importantly, we have the principle of "safek brachot lehakel". Which is to say, when you are uncertain whether to make a bracha, you don't make it. Quite possibly, this rule does not apply when the bracha is d'oraita (birkot hatorah and sometimes birkat hamazon), but these situations normally don't concern us here. Furthermore, "safek brachot lehakel" is so strong that it seems to override other fundamental rules about brachot. For example, what if you want to eat something but aren't sure if you made a bracha on it? You have to decide between the principles of "safek brachot lehakel" and "assur lo leadam sheyihaneh min haolam belo bracha". In this case, most authorities hold that it's preferable to eat without a bracha than to potentially make an unnecessary bracha.

Second, a bracha achrona should only be made after eating a k'zayit of food within a time period known as k'dei achilat pras. The latter is generally held to be 3 minutes (others say 4 minutes). There is much disagreement as to how much a kzayit is, but the opinions seem to be from 15 to 50 cubic centimeters. According to the principle of "safek brachot lehakel", I think we should only make a bracha achrona when these two measurements are satisfied according to all possible opinions. In practice, that means you only make a bracha after eating 50 cm3 of a given food within 3 minutes.

Some of you might not be aware how much 50 cm3 is. According to a quick Google calculation, it equals a cube nearly an inch and a half on a side. This is a lot. Try eating this much of a given food while watching the clock. Eating nonstop, I think you will find that it takes a large part of those 3 minutes to eat a single k'zayit. In normal social situations, or when eating candy or other such foods, your pace will undoubtedly be slower. Furthermore, it is difficult to measure exact volumes of food and (sometimes) time, and due to "safek brachot lehakel", you only make the bracha if you're entirely sure the conditions are satisfied, which rules out substantial boundary regions as well.

In some cases, there's even less chance to make a bracha achrona. I believe you do not make a bracha on the food unless you ate an entire k'zayit of the "ikkar" of a food combination, not including the amount of "tafel". Thus, if you made the mezonot bracha over pie, you would never ever say "al hamichya" afterwards, because it's not humanly possible to eat 50 cm3 of pie crust and the accompanying filling in 3 minutes. This would also apply, to a greater or lesser extent, to all other foods which are combinations of mezonot and other stuff, like hamantashen, lasagna, and so on.

Thus, I've come to the conclusion that there are very few situations when you actually make a bracha achrona. It's just very unusual that one eats 50 cm3 (or sometimes, a much larger quantity) of food within 3 minutes. Of course, this opinion conflicts with the whole world seems to do, and everyone who's heard my explanation thinks I'm crazy (without providing logic for or against me). In addition, on a behavioral level, it seems to conflict with the statement I remember from R' Bodner's Kzayis book, that a normal person eats about 6 kzaitim (sp?) per 3 minutes. These discrepancies could be resolved by pointing out a fundamental logical flaw of mine, which I haven't found, or else by defining the k'zayit to be less than the value of 50 cm3 I made use of.

While my conclusions may in fact turn out to be wrong, I do think that my thought process was reasonable. Everyone agonizes over whether they have eaten the correct amount of matzah on the night of Pesach, but the other 364 days of the year we seem to ignore the laws of k'zayit. Why the difference in attention? It's not so hard to get halachot such as this correct. I see no reason not to think critically and clarify them to the fullest extent possible.

Da letter between S and U

My computer is not allowing me to type the capitalized letter "t". My roommate assures me this is normal Windows behavior and that it will go away in a few hours. All I know is that searching for capital "t"'s in random web pages in order to copy and paste them into files is very tedious. You may find it interesting to see the verbal convolutions I use in subsequent posts to avoid beginning a sentence with this letter.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Let it never be said that sports coverage these days is shallow. Here is one-sixteenth of the article I just linked to (which you can't read without an ESPN subscription):

Three Seeds

  • While 84 percent of No. 3 seeds win their first-round games (67-13), they're three times more prone to upsets than second seeds. Consider this: The odds are better that a No. 1 seed will win two games than that a No. 3 seed will win one. How can you tell a first-round victor from an upset victim? The two most significant characteristics of No. 3 seed-upset victims are team inexperience and a lack of scoring punch. If you're rooting for a No. 3 seed that hasn't been to the tournament more than two years running and that scores fewer than 80 points a game, watch out. They're 2½ times as likely to be upset as No. 3 seeds without those characteristics (7-20 vs. 6-47 for a 26 percent losing rate compared with 11 percent).

  • Amazingly, only 38 of the 80 No. 3 seeds win their first two games. To put this in perspective, 34 of 80 top seeds win their first four games. The drop-off in winning percentage from the first round to the second is dramatic (84 percent to 57 percent). Of their two potential opponents in round two, No. 3 seeds have more trouble with No. 6 than No. 11 seeds. They nearly split their games against sixth-seeded teams (24-22), while they're 14-7 against No. 11 seeds.

  • Third-seeded teams are just 18-20 in Sweet 16 games. Not surprisingly, their biggest nemesis is No. 2 seeds. They're just 8-15 against second-seeded teams, 10-5 against other seeds.

  • As poorly as No. 3 seeds do in rounds two and three, they make a startling turnaround in Elite Eight games. Their 11-7 record is better than the record of No. 2 seeds (18-19). And they're the only seed that is able to give top seeds a run for their money, posting a winning 6-5 record against them.

  • Third-seeded teams have the best record (7-4) in Final Four games of any seed with more than two wins. What's more impressive is that they're 4-1 against top seeds in semifinal games.

  • Third-seeded teams have won two of the championships since the tourney expanded to 64 games in 1985. Syracuse did the trick in 2003, and Michigan did it in 1989. The Wolverines' opponent? Another No. 3 seed, Seton Hall.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Why the blog?

(Warning: this is very self-referential)

When I was young (in the first grade, maybe?), my parents - one a physics professor at the local research university, and one who was working towards a physics PhD - figured out that my elementary school's math curriculum was worthless and had me do all sorts of math workbooks and stuff which quickly brought me to several years ahead in the curriculum. Based on my knowledge at the time, many people figured that I was on the way to becoming a Nobel-prize-winning physics genius. Or, at the very least, a Stephen Sachs type who, after graduating from Clayton High School, would go to Harvard and then become a Rhodes Scholar.

Of course, things couldn't have turned out that way. After several years I graduated to middle-school math textbooks, and then to high school math and science classes - now maintaining but not extending my head-start. After high school I entered a reasonably good college (not Harvard), and earned reasonable grades (but no noteworthy honors). This later history, I think, is in line with the extent of my natural abilities.

Why, then, were the initial assessments of my abilities so inflated?

I suspect that years of filling out math workbooks did little to affect my current mathematical knowledge. But for a few years I was more constantly immersed in mathematical thinking than any of my peers. I had no more ability, but much more of a constant familiarity with numbers than they did. And so, for a time, I did extremely well.

Being physicists, my parents immediately saw the deficiencies in the elementary school math program. It took them a little longer to realize that the English curriculum wasn't perfect either. They then tried to get me to do a series of "essays", one a week, on whatever topic I wanted. But I was now too old and too stubborn, and "essays" never caught on, since my parents didn't have the stamina to fight me about it every week. Thus, I never ended up spending any substantial amount of time writing "essays". And my writing skills never ramped up the way my math skills had.

Among other things, this blog is an attempt to revive the "essays" which I never took seriously while growing up. As an engineering student, my verbal skills are not in great demand. I'll have even less opportunity to practice them once I leave college and stop taking the occasional liberal arts course. Regularly writing down something coherent should, I hope, let me sharpen my writing skills over time - a transitory effect, perhaps, but one that I think will be useful and even personally necessary.

Of course, this blog has to be fun for me, or I won't have the motivation to update. But now, at least, my professional and self-actualizational motives for blogging should be clear to you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


I just caught myself checking my own blog, to see if new entries had been posted. I guess that's a sign I should be posting more often. Note to self: when you read this, you should post something substantive.

Friday, March 11, 2005

R' Kamenetsky

The speaker I wanted to go hear. According to one of the comments, it will be up on soon.

VBM Junior

The Gush Virtual Beit Midrash is an incredible resource, but in all honesty, I find many of its articles to be too long, dry, and involved (at least with all the distractions inherent in reading it on the computer). Apparently, some current Gush students agree with me, and decided to create a quicker, more to-the-point Torah web site to supplement VBM. It's designed for "tzeirim", but I think it's appropriate for all ages; the one article ("Maoz Tzur Yeshuati") I read through was very good. Hebrew only, unfortunately..

Thanks to Lamed for the link.

And now, to see if I can write in Hebrew: מעוז צור ישועתי

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Rhyme Scheme

There are some modern-day prayers we recite which feel "authentic", and others which don't. For example, the prayer for the state of Israel always seemed to me as if it could have been written by Chazal, while I was always struck by the awkwardness the prayer for the US goverment. But what exactly are the characteristics of an "authentic" prayer? I could never figure out what special ingredients I was looking for.

Between Mincha and Maariv today, I was looking through the siddur and happened upon the beginning of the Shemone Esreh. I skimmed through it lazily, and then it hit me: everything rhymes!! Let's take as an example the first bracha, which is actually a pretty weak example but will illustrate the point.

"Baruch ata hashem, elokeinu velokei avoteinu" - no rhymes yet.
"Elokei avraham, Elokei yitzchak, Elokei yaaKOV" - watch that letter O.
"Hakel hagaDOL", "hagadol hagibor vehanora kel elYON"
"Gomel chasadim tovim vekoneh haKOL"
"Vezocher chasdei aVOT"
...and the bracha concludes, but not before ending 4 or 5 consecutive phrases with a syllable whose vowel is O.

Now look at the next bracha. After the first line (which again doesn't fit), there are 5 consecutive phrases ending in "-im", followed by 3 whose final vowel is "ah", and then two more examples of "-im" as we conclude the bracha.

Next, Hakel hakadosh: No rhyming at the end of the phrases, but the word "kadosh" is used 50 million times (in nusach sefarad, it's 50 million and one times).
Honen hadaat: "Ah" 4 times in nusach sefarad, 3 times in ashkenaz, out of 4 total phrases.
Rotze bitshuva: "-Echa" in all 3 phrases before the concluding bracha
Hanun hamarbe lisloach: "-Anu" in both requests
Goel yisrael: "-Einu" used twice in a row
Aneinu (when you say it): "-Einu" nine times in a row.
Rofeh cholei amo yisrael: "Rafeinu Hashem venirafeh, hoshienu venivashea" - classic ABAB rhyme scheme
The next few brachot have even stronger rhymes, but I'm sure you get the point by now.

Interestingly, though, this pattern seems to break down for the 4 brachot from V'lamalshinim through Matzmiach Keren Yeshuah. Why the difference? My first idea was that you don't want it to sound nice when you're talking about your enemies, but that only works for the first bracha. Perhaps the ideas are simply too complicated, or the accepted terminology too fixed, to allow for rhyming. Or else, Chazal were afraid that long rhyming paragraphs would get too singsongy.

But if you were suffering from rhyme withdrawal at this point, then Shma Koleinu has more than you can deal with.

Retzeh seems to have a loose ABAB or ABCB rhyme pattern (I read "v'ishei yisrael" as the beginning, not the end, of a phrase - the other way just seems retarded and yes, I know that's how nusach ashkenaz says it). Modim and Sim Shalom may or may not have intentional rhyme. (Either way, they sound nice to me for reasons I haven't yet figured out.)

Shabbat prayers have blatant rhyme patterns - "Yismach Moshe" at shacharit, "Tikanta Shabbat" at musaf, and so on. Similarly "Ata Bechartanu" on chagim. And "Al hanisim". And birkat hazon. The list goes on.

Is this all accidental? Surely you would expect some rhymes to occur at random, especially when you have series of parallel grammatical constructions, as Shemone Esreh does. But I don't think you'd see nearly as many as we find in our prayers. And I don't think that, for example, a phrase as symmetrical as "Rafeinu Hashem venirafeh, hoshienu venivashea" could have occurred by accident. In my mind, Chazal must been conscious of the aural qualities of the prayers they wrote. Some modern authors seem to have picked up on this while writing their prayers, but other have not. And that's why "Avinu shebashamayim" sounds so much better and more authentic than "Hanoten teshuah".

I would love for someone to prove me wrong, or else to point out other literary devices used in the siddur.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The mulch truck has spent the last couple days driving around campus, leaving a path of desolation in its wake. This year, they at least had the consideration to do it over spring break, and thankfully it's 25 degrees outside and not 75. Still, I'm gonna try not to go outside too much over the next couple days.

I wonder if they know that there are alternatives to using cow dung or rotting wood chips...

UPDATE: maybe they could use leftover cholent?

Columbia Unbecoming

One of the purposes of my trip to "town" last Sunday was to visit the Columbia Unbecoming event, at (you guessed it) Columbia U. (Other purposes were to meet up with a couple people, and to spend some time walking around the interesting parts of Lower Manhattan, which I'd never been to.) Here are my impressions of CU.

Organizationally, the event seemed very poorly done. The event apparently took place in a classroom which seats only 75 or so people. Predictably, this room filled up extremely fast (I was the 273rd person to register online) and the remaining people were sent to adjoining classrooms, where we watched the events on remarkably bad-quality video screens.

I arrived too late to hear Sharansky speak, and when I came in the video "Columbia Unbecoming" was playing on the video screens - after it ended, it took me a while to figure out I was watching a live lecture and not just another section of the movie. Then Alan Dershowitz spoke for a while, followed by Nat Hentoff, Efraim Karsh, and some others whom I didn't consider worth sticking around for.

The word which I think best sums up the movie is "whiny". After watching, I am fully convinced that some Jewish students have indeed been insulted and humiliated by their Palestinian-sympathizing professors during political discussions. While both I and the protagonists clearly find such behavior to be personally offensive, the movie never tried to explain why it necessitates disciplinary action. I don't agree with what Joseph Massad say, but why must I fight with my life for him not to be able to say it? Perhaps, I thought, Columbia has a strict speech code which prohibits insulting speech, but due to some anti-Israel bias was not invoked in this case. But if this is the case, then say so. "When professor John Aryan intimidated Jane African-American you fired him, but professor Massad did the same and you're giving him tenure?" Or else, point out what condoning terrorism does for Columbia's reputation. (Hint: it doesn't go over well in Middle America.) Either of these would have been a much stronger argument, in my mind.

Dershowitz has a reputation (in my mind) for brilliance, and this time he preached eloquently, but strictly in the direction of the choir. He brought up historical events to prove Israel's righteousness, while of course the Palestinians have their own history (perhaps less truthful - but such an argument was not clearly made, and in any place would have been out of place) which proves that justice is in fact on their side.

The next two speakers, as far as I can remember, explained how academia has become increasingly hostile to Israel in recent years. True - but these speeches reminded me of an occasional pastime of mine, which is visiting Palestinian web sites that document the "tragedy" of expanding settlements in the West Bank. When Israel decides to, say, build 1000 new homes in Beitar Ilit, they see it is an evil imperialist machination, but I am overjoyed that thousands of Israelis are moving to a portion of their Biblical homeland whose settlement will make the entire country safer and more defensible. (Keep in mind, I don't agree with everything individual settlers have done, but as a movement I believe they've done much more good than harm.) Similarly, the only reason I saw advanced for why academic hostility is bad is that it hurts Israel's cause. True again, but of course the "other side" thinks this is a good thing, and will work all the harder to keep it that way.

In short, I don't think the video or event convinced anyone of anything. It merely served to entrench everyone's positions. If you want to convince the other side in a political debate, you must (1) insist on consistency of argument, even if it makes your assertions slightly less persuasive, and then (2) show how their postulates support your conclusions. Otherwise, you lose credibility in their eyes. The event was certainly well-intentioned, but gained no credibility from the other side.

I wonder what my father would think of all this. He's strongly right-wing on Israel issues, but also a maverick professor who champions faculty independence and has an extreme distaste for speech codes, affirmative action, and any other university policies which don't align with his ideal of a laissez-faire meritocracy. I should ask him.

All Your What?

The name is derived from here.


Just changed the color scheme to some blueish thing. I think I went too far. It looks TOO slick now. I mean, I could get rich selling web sites that looked like this, but it's a little too artificial, or something. Well, it's good enough for now. Especially since I need to get back to work. Despite it being spring break. "It is not suitable for a person to occupy himself all the days of his life with anything other than matters of wisdom and the developing of the world." (Rambam, MT Gezeila 6:11 or 6:14)

Now for real..

Now that I have one of these blog things for the first time, I suddenly have no idea what to write. Where do I start? How do I magically get that "established", "popular" blog feeling that all the cool bloggers have?

So I figure, if I pretend this is a great blog, maybe people will be dumb enough to actually believe me. That said, I'm gonna post as if I have an 18-month history of scintillating posts, all of which are resolute and breathtaking in their scope yet humane and characterized by a sensitivity to nuance and to the human spirit. And funny, of course.

Oh yeah, and the color scheme's so ugly, I'll have to change it. Not that I have any sense of how colors go together, but anything that looks like it's been rusting away for 40 years can't be cool. I want some SHINY. "From racing cars to rockets, the use of the color silver symbolizes speed and high-technology." Anyway, hopefully when you read this, the page won't be dull orange anymore, and you won't have any clue what I'm talking about.

OK now. It seems my 18 month history of glorious and articulate posts has been deleted by blogspot. Therefore, I will now summarize what I've been doing this week. I'm on spring break. I'm mostly staying at my university, though I took a day trip into "town" last Sunday, and hope to spend this weekend elsewhere.

You should all read "By His Light" by R' Lichtenstein. I'm about halfway through.

P.S. what does scintillating mean?


This is a test. Please bring your firstborn son up as an offering on a mountain to be named later.