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.