Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I've impressed myself

The total length of my blog posts in November is over 10,000 words. (Admittedly part of that was written months beforehand and only posted after I got around to finishing and editing it.)

Note to self: GET BACK TO WORK.

Thoughts on Vayetze

When Yaakov saw Rachel daughter of Lavan his mother's brother, and the flock of Lavan his mother's brother, he rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of Lavan his mother's brother. (29:10)

Yaakov's amazing feat (rolling the stone and watering all the animals - which normally would have taken several people working together) is quite surprising. It's romantic to say that he fell so strongly in love with Rachel at first sight that he was able to perform superhuman feats in order to impress her. But there is a better explanation, which in any case might be considered romantic too.

When growing up, Yaakov undoubtedly heard the story of how his parents met. Eliezer had gone to the well looking for God to deliver a girl with the degree of hospitality which would be appropriate for a future member of Avraham's family. All of a sudden Rivkah showed up. She was not only as hospitable as Eliezer could have imagined, but also beautiful and from Avraham's own family. Everything worked out perfectly, Rivkah agreed to the marriage, and she and Yitzchak lived happily ever after. It's the kind of story your kids would be embarrassed about, but it was such a good story that it merited a very long chapter in Tanach.

Note that Lavan is identified as "his mother's brother" three times in the one verse describing Yaakov's actions. The focus is not on Rachel, or even on Lavan, but rather on Yaakov's mother Rivkah. Just one thing is on Yaakov's mind, and that is his mother and the story of her marriage. Like Yaakov, Eliezer had once gone to Haran and stood by the well until a girl from Lavan's family showed up. That girl had shown extraordinary kindness to Eliezer, and now Yaakov plans to repay the favor. He draws water and waters Rachel's animals just as Rivkah had done for Eliezer so many years earlier. Later, Yaakov will fall in love with Rachel and marry her (it is touching that their relationship begins with this act of gratitude and generosity). But for the first few minutes, it really does not matter whether Rachel, or Leah, or a man had arrived at the well. Yaakov just wanted to do for Lavan's family what Lavan's family did for Eliezer, and Rachel was simply the first family member Yaakov met.

After Rachel gave birth to Yosef, Yaakov said to Lavan, "Release me and I will go to my place and land". (30:25)

Why does Yaakov choose this particular moment to ask Lavan for permission to leave?

This can be understood by looking at one aspect of the Torah's (or ancient society's?) understanding of family structure. A Jewish woman who marries a kohen is allowed to eat trumah (priestly tithe food), since she is considered part of his priestly family. After they get divorced or the kohen dies, she is no longer allowed to eat trumah, since she is no longer part of a priestly family. BUT, if this Jewish woman has a child from her marriage with the kohen, the woman is still considered to be part of the family along with her child, and can still eat trumah. (See mishnah Yevamot 9:5-6.) The upshot is that that women are considered potentially connected to their parents' households until they have children, at which point they becomes more permanently connected to their husbands' families.

Yaakov knew this when he made his request to Lavan. Rachel was the wife he loved and the most valuable person to him in the family. But as long as she had no kids, she was still considered connected to Lavan, and Lavan might find an excuse to take her away from him. Once Rachel had a son, this was not an option. She was now fundamentally part of Yaakov's family, and there was no conceivable excuse Lavan could use to prevent her from leaving with Yaakov.

"Your father swindled me and changed my wages ten times, but God would not let him harm me." (31:7)

Whether the phrase "aseret monim" should be translated as "ten times", or "tenfold", or "many times", or simply "exceedingly" is not my concern here. What matters for now is that Chazal understood it to mean "ten times".

The suggestion that Yaakov was cheated ten times parallels the midrash that Avraham underwent ten trials. What in fact is the source for the number ten in relation to Avraham? I suspect that it was derived by comparison with Yaakov. Each of the ten times that Lavan cheated him, Yaakov would have been tempted to do a little cheating of his own, to "even things out" and to recover the money which "really belonged to him anyway". But not once did Yaakov succumb to this urge. The ten times Yaakov was cheated were in effect ten tests, and each time Yaakov passed the test. Avraham, too, had been put in a number of difficult situations and each time had "passed the test" successfully. Noticing the parallel, Chazal fixed the number of Avraham's tests to be exactly ten, just like Yaakov.

The parallel between Chazal's conceptions of Avraham and Yaakov is clear, but there is also a big difference. Yaakov was involved in a number of complicated and morally confusing situations - with Esav, with his parents, and of course with Lavan - in which the right choice was neither obvious nor easy to make. In contrast, Avraham's tests were easy to understand, though painful to carry out. This difference is reflected in the roles Avraham and Yaakov play in Jewish history. Avraham's descendants include Yishmael, Esav, Ammon, Moav - nations which in light of Divine promises became numerous and powerful, but are not part of the Jewish people or God's plan for history. In contrast, Yaakov had many fewer descendants, but all of them became part of the Jewish people. The Jewish mission is not to be overpowering, heroic, and all-conquering, but rather to set a moral example for the world through observance of the Torah. Only Yaakov's trials, in which he was placed in confusing and seemingly minor situations which nevertheless had crucial moral significance, are sufficient qualification for this historical role.

(Perhaps related: God's revelations to Yaakov are not very revelatory; for example in 30:16-17 and 31:2-3 Divine intervention and revelation just confirm the natural order; whereas with Avraham, Divine commands repeatedly lead to unusual and unnatural outcomes.)

Days of our lives

According to Breishit 5, various antediluvian figures lived for up to 969 years. Whether these are historical facts, or else just details of an allegorical story, we are in any case challenged to picture these incredibly long lifespans. There is one other important detail: these people had kids for the first time at ages 130, 105, 70, 162, 65, 187, 182, and 500. It seems clear that they did not age at the same rate we age. This would be medically impossible considering their times of death and the ages at which they had kids. Rather, their aging processes were spread out across their lifetime, with everything slowed down by a factor of 5 to 10.

A few chapters later (and now this is indisputably history not allegory), nobody lives to be 900 years old. But the Avot do live significantly longer than anyone today - up to age 180. And many events in their lives take place when they are much older than would seem normal. But imagine that the aging process of the Avot was slowed down by a factor of two, just as the aging process of their ancestors had been slowed down by a larger factor. Let's recalculate various events in "avot years", these being equal to exactly two normal years, and see how much of the chronology suddenly makes sense.
  • Avraham was 37 (75) when he made aliyah, young enough to walk several hundred miles.
  • Sarah was between 32 (65) and 45 (90) when Pharoah and Avimelech found her extremely beautiful.
  • Avraham was 50 (100) when Yitzchak was born. More importantly, Sarah was 45 (90), just past menopause, as she hints in her comments. If you object that birth at this age is not miraculous enough, remember that to outsiders the couple would simply have appeared as very healthy nonagenarians.
  • Yishmael was 6 (13) when he was kicked out of the house (Breishit 21) in a story which makes him seem dependent on his mother.
  • Avraham died at 87 (175), Sarah at 63 (127), Yishmael at 68 (137), Yitzchak at 90 (180), Yaakov at 73 (147).
  • Yitzchak married at age 20 (40) and had kids at age 30 (60). Esav married at 20 (40) too.
  • Yaakov and Esav were 31 (63) years old when Yaakov took the blessing and started the feud between them.

In the next generation, Yosef led his brothers at age 17 and died at age 110. The ages of his siblings are not clear, but there is already a problem of them being too young in the Dinah story (see here) and so it is hard to argue that they were physically even younger than their ages. I would therefore argue that Yaakov was the last to have an extended lifetime. Starting with Yaakov's kids, everyone aged at the rate we expect today.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

City on a hill I

I recently had the sudden thought that Haifa is a holy city. This is not a common conclusion regarding Haifa - at least if you ignore the Bahai aspect, which I did. In fact my rabbi in yeshiva had called Haifa "Sin City" and with good reason. I'm sure Haifans are nice people, but not too many of them have any religious identification, and to my knowledge they are no more honest or altruistic than people elsewhere. So what could possibly lead me to call Haifa holy?

After reflecting, I reached the conclusion that I would consider any city in Israel with hundreds of thousands of Jewish inhabitants to be holy. But this conclusion is perhaps even harder to explain.

One possibility immediately suggested itself. In the last couple years I have been exposed to Rav Kook's idea that every Jew, no matter how anti-religious he thinks he is, makes a positive contribution to God's plan. Thus, everyone in Haifa (and elsewhere) is fundamentally a holy person. I have trouble accepting this idea. If you rebel against and try to undermine Judaism, I can't believe that your actions are Jewishly valid. I can only understand Rav Kook as talking about a limmud zechut, an attempt to judge favorably someone who appears to be acting unconscionably. And a limmud zechut does not exactly get you to the level of holiness.

After a while I came up with a better answer. Haifa's holiness does not depend on the behavior of its residents, which is apparently not exceptional. Rather, the fact that Haifa exists is what creates holiness. What is holiness, after all? According to my computer's dictionary, "Something that is holy is regarded with the highest reverence because of its connection with God or a god." And I think that Haifa's existence indicate a clear connection with God. The very fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews are living in a city in Israel - so unimaginable a century or two ago - is the realization of Biblical promises made thousands of years ago. Walking around Haifa, you are made vividly aware that God has fulfilled these promises. The fact of Haifa's existence connects you to God. On an emotional as well as a logical level, Haifa is therefore holy.


If you really need to check various kinds of vegetables for bugs, why is it that nobody ever heard of this requirement until recently?

I'll divide my answer chronologically and geographically.

1) In the Old World (Poland, Ukraine, Morocco) - Everyone spent lots of time checking for bugs. But they also spent lots of time grinding flour, plucking chickens, and a thousand other things which are now avoided thanks to modern economics and technology. So the bug-checking didn't stand out and you didn't hear about it too often. Also, salad-type vegetables were much rarer (nobody had refrigerators) and so it was less common to need to check.

2) USA before 1940s - Almost nobody kept kosher.

3) USA, 1940s-1970s - Pesticides removed the vast majority of bugs and there was no need to check.

4) USA, 1970s-present - DDT and other pesticides were banned. Also, international food importing allowed bug species from different parts of the world to spread to new habitats. The frequency of bugs increased from "almost never" to "as often as consumers are willing to tolerate". Suddenly, halachic issues emerged which had long been irrelevant and never before been the center of attention.

(Disclaimer: I have no special sources for any of this, but it all seems likely.)

Uh oh

It's all over the news right now - a serial rapist just escaped from prison in Tel Aviv and is being actively hunted for. Disconcertingly, this serial rapist looks exactly like me.

It almost makes up for his breaking Shabbat

Public transportation generally does not run in Israel on Shabbat, so I was surprised to see an Egged intercity bus being driven through Holon yesterday, on Shabbat morning. It was of course not in service. But as often happens with not-in-service buses, the driver picked an arbitrary route number to put on the overhead display.

In this case, I had to laugh. On Shabbat morning this driver had chosen the route number 400. Normally, of course, the 400 is a charedi bus which goes from Bnei Brak to Jerusalem. The driver may have been breaking Shabbat, but at least he has a sense of humor.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The hints were there

Already in the year 2000, Ariel Sharon had indicated that he would pursue a plan very similar to what became disengagement: it would be unilateral; the main settlements and areas of strategic importance would be retained; and Palestinian population centers would have greater autonomy and separation from Israel.

About the only difference is whether smaller settlements were to be dismantled. And even that may not reflect his thinking at the time, but rather what he could get away with telling people. (remember that in 2000 it was controversial even for someone on the left wing to propose dismantling settlements)

"Back in November [2000], before Sharon knew that he would be a candidate, I asked him to outline his ideas for peace. He said that he would never divide Jerusalem. The Jordan Valley, a strip of the West Bank that protects Israel’s eastern flank, would remain under Israeli Army control, and no settlements would be dismantled. He would try to connect the Arab cities of the West Bank by roads that do not pass through Israeli-held areas. Palestinian refugees, of course, would not be allowed to return to Israel.

And when Arafat rejects this plan?

'He can accept it, reject it—I don’t care.' "


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

In last week's parshah, Eliezer goes to Haran to find a wife for Yitzchak. At first he is unsure how to find the right person. But once he decides on a strategy and prays to God for success, everything works out very quickly. The first girl he meets (just as he finishes praying) turns out to not only have the desired character traits, but also to be from Yitzchak's very own family. Eliezer knows how unlikely these coincidences are, and realizes that God has answered his prayer with a hidden miracle. He is very excited, and bows down and thanks God.

When Rivkah's family is told, they too are very excited. "This has come from God... here is Rivkah, take her and go, that she may marry your master's son!" (Breishit 24:50-51). But the next day, as Eliezer prepares to leave, something has changed. Rivkah's family now asks that she stay for a while before leaving (anywhere from a few days to ten years, depend on how you translate their request). It seems they do not want the marriage after all, and are looking for an excuse to delay it as much as possible.

In the encounter between Eliezer and Rivkah's family, Eliezer is clearly the righteous person, while Rivkah's family is less than righteous. This is reflected in their actions, but not in the way you might expect. The difference between righteous and mediocre people is not whether they have intense spiritual experiences. After all Rivkah's family reacted just as positively to the initial miracle as did Eliezer. But their spiritual experience was short-lived. By the very next day, the miracle had passed from their minds and stopped influencing their calculations. Rivkah's family is not considered righteous, because the miracle had no long-term affect on them. This is perhaps a lesson for those of us today who seek spiritual experiences. Ultimately such experiences are wasted, unless we internalize them and make sure they affect us after the feelings of spirituality and wonder have passed.

A bigger milestone than 50

In honor of my 100th post, I decided to make a post that was as long as 100 of my normal posts. Or something like that. Scroll down to read it. What I'm writing right now will become post 101.

Early Decision


We are used to thinking that the entire Jewish people - except for a small number of converts who have assimilated in over the generations - share a common family background of slavery in Egypt and acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. I would like to suggest, following the lead of R' Yoel Bin Nun and R' Yaakov Medan, that there were two major exceptions to this rule.

1) Thousands of Israelites from the tribes of Efraim and Menashe had already settled in Israel before everyone else left Egypt.
2) Thousands of people, whose ancestors had followed Avraham from Mesopotamia, settled in Yaakov's time in the Shechem region (modern Nablus, northern West Bank), and remained there for hundreds of years afterwards.

Both groups met up with the main Jewish people (under Moshe and Yehoshua's leadership respectively), agreed to a covenant, and effectively became Jews from then on.

The story of these two groups is not explicit in Tanach. That is of course the main obstacle to believing that it occurred. But it solves a large number of textual difficulties which span every historical book in Tanach. Some are minor or can be explained in other ways, but others are very serious. Given the breadth of the evidence, I think the question is not whether the story of these two groups occurred, but rather, why Tanach did not see it fit to tell the story explicitly.

If you don't have patience to read all the textual evidence for the story, then skip to the end, where (among other thoughts) I try to answer the question of why the story is not explicit.



Avraham generally sounds like a solitary guy, but in fact he was accompanied by thousands of followers. He took an indefinite number of people with him when he made aliyah. (Breishit 12:5 might indicate that they were his slaves; the midrash says they were converts to proto-Judaism. These two suggestions might be reconciled through the later halacha that an "eved kenaani" must effectively convert to Judaism.) The 318 warriors he uses to defeat Chedarlaomer's army (Breishit 14:14) must have had families, and not every man is a warrior, so the overall number must have been in the thousands. What happened to these people, who were loyal enough to follow Avraham from Mesopotamia? Did they just disappear, or abandon him and assimilate with the Canaanites?

Perhaps they and their descendants stayed loyal to Avraham's family, living in Canaan along with Yitzchak and Yaakov. When Yaakov left for Egypt, at least some of them may have remained in Canaan (Breishit 46:5-7 seems to indicate that Yaakov's family left alone, unaccompanied by friends or allies).


"Then Yaakov said unto his household, and to all that were with him: 'Put away the strange gods that are among you, and purify yourselves...' " (Breishit 35:2). Which people were with Yaakov, besides his household? The Torah never tells us.

It makes sense to say that they were the grandchildren of those who had been loyal to Avraham. If Yaakov's own family was suspected of idolatry, his followers would be even more suspect, but nonetheless Yaakov would have influence over them. There is a very similar passage (Yehoshua 24:14) in which Yehoshua tells a crowd assembled at Shechem to abandon their idolatry. It makes sense to say we are talking about the same people (or rather, their descendants). Both events, it should be noted, take place in Shechem.


"Moreover I have given you one portion ["shechem echad"] above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow." (Breishit 48:22) This verse is well-known because it was made into a song, but is hard to explain. What land is Yaakov talking about? When did he ever conquer land in Israel? There is the well-known story of Dinah and Shechem, but that massacre was carried out by Shimon and Levi, not Yaakov, and was condemned by Yaakov. Why would he take credit for it now? Some commentators use it as an explanation, but it is very difficult. Plus, Shechem was probably a powerful kingdom and could not be conquered by one or two people. Even if the people of one city were massacred quickly, there would have been smaller cities and many villages which escaped.

It is much more reasonable to say that the thousands of followers conquered Shechem, with Yaakov's approval or under his leadership, and then settled there. This apparently occurred independent of, and I would guess before, the Dinah story. The indigenous population was not wiped out - though Shimon and Levi would partially do that later - so Yaakov could be proud of the conquest, though he was embarrassed by Shimon and Levi's actions later on. When it was time to promise Yosef an inheritance, Yaakov decided to promise the area which he and his followers had conquered long before.

Yehoshua 24:12 is very interesting and perhaps related. "And I [God] sent the hornet before you, which drove them out from before you, the two kings of the Amorites [Sichon and Og]; not with thy sword, nor with thy bow." Later on I will argue that the audience of Yehoshua 24 is specifically the descendants of Yaakov's followers. If so, this line seems to be contrasting the almost-miraculous conquest of the east bank with the more normal conquest of the Shechem area centuries before. To make the contrast, Yehoshua alludes to the famous "with my sword and with my bow" line, which Yaakov had used in Breishit 48:22 regarding Shechem, and which would have been familiar with those who had perfomed the conquest.

(It could also be that "sword and bow" is just an idiom for war, or for a specific type of war, in which case this last argument would be weakened. But the phrase "with [one's] sword and with [one's] bow" appears just three times in Tanach: Breishit 48:22, Yehoshua 24:12, and Melachim II 6:22. This is rare enough that you can make a case that, given the probable audience, the second occurrence is alluding to the first. It's possible that the third occurrence refers to the first as well: the context of massacre there is reminiscent of Shimon and Levi's massacre in Shechem.)


At the time of Yosef's kidnapping, Yaakov's family had been living in Hevron. And yet when the brothers wanted to graze their flocks, they went all the way north to Shechem, and then to Dotan, which is not far from Shechem (Breishit 37:14-17). If they had to go so far away from home, why specifically to Shechem? And how is it that the random man who Yosef meets in the field near Shechem (37:15) recognizes both Yosef and his brothers?

If Shechem was populated by the thousands of followers, then both questions can easily be answered. The brothers naturally went to the place where they had a family connection. And since Yaakov's family was responsible for the followers' settlement in Shechem, it makes sense that their family would be well-known by at least some of the inhabitants.


In Yehoshua's time, just before the land of Israel was conquered, Shechem ruled a powerful kingdom, and was one of the most powerful Canaanite city-states (this is known from archaelogical records). It is extremely surprising, then, that Shechem is not listed as one of the 31 city-states ("kings") conquered by the Israelites (Yehoshua 12:9-12:24). The locations of most of the 31 are known, and there is a large geographic gap right where Shechem is located. Furthermore, archaeologists in El-Amarna, Egypt have found letters sent from many Canaanite city-states, begging for help against a wave of invaders in Yehoshua's time. Shechem is a conspicuous exception in that it did not ask for help, and it may even have not fought the invaders at all. So why did Shechem get a pass from the Israelites? And why don't we hear about such a large mass of unconquered Canaanites later on?

It seems Shechem cooperated with Yehoshua, and later on converted to Judaism, accounting for the lack of later mention of Canaanite inhabitants. Why this special treatment, when Yehoshua had been commanded to kill all the Canaanites? (When the Givonites were spared because they made a treaty with Yehoshua, this is specifically mentioned, but Shechem is not.) Perhaps the people of Shechem (or at least the leaders) were not Canaanites at all, but the descendants of Avraham's followers, who stayed in the Shechem area after Yaakov's family went to Egypt. When the Israelites returned under Yehoshua, they absorbed these people among them rather than fighting against them.


Yehoshua's conquest began very methodically: first Jericho (right where the Israelites crossed the Jordan), then Ai (a little further along the main road), then the encounter with Givon (close to Ai), then the battle south and west of Givon. But right in the middle of this sequence (Yehoshua 8:30-35) the Israelites visit Har Gerizim and Har Eval (the mountains on either side of the city Shechem) and perform various ceremonies there. It is very strange that they would go so far out of their way, and that they were not molested by hostile Canaanites from the Shechem area, just when the kings of the south were gathering a coalition against Yehoshua. It is even stranger why the Torah would have commanded, in the first place, that the ceremonies take place specifically at Shechem (Devarim 11:29, 27:1-25).

Everything is solved if we say that the people of Shechem had a preexisting relation with the Israelites. Then it would be both practical and religiously desirable to hold the ceremonies there, even while the conquest was going on in the south. How could there be a preexisting relation? It makes perfect sense if you say the people of Shechem were descended from Avraham's followers.


In Yehoshua 24, Yehoshua gathers the people to Shechem and makes a covenant to observe the Torah. There are a number of difficulties with the passage. Why is new covenant needed at all, and why in Shechem? Shouldn't the covenants from Sinai and Moav be sufficient? Furthermore, Yehoshua delivers a detailed history of the Jewish people from Avraham until the last year of Moshe's life. Why must this whole story be told? Also, he offers the people the choice of idolatry versus Judaism. How can idolatry be an acceptable option for people who accepted the Torah at Sinai? And last, the idols he mentions are primarily not Canaanite or Egyptian, but Mesopotamian. What Jews or Canaanites would have been worshipping Mesopotamian idols?

Once again, the problems are solved by saying that we are talking about descendants of Avraham's followers. They came from Mesopotamia with Avraham, and never (fully) gave up their particular idolatry. Since they were never formally part of the Jewish people, they had the option of sticking with idolatry (perhaps, since they were not Canaanites, they could make that choice and avoid being massacred). The story of Jewish history would be news to people who did not leave Egypt themselves but were in Shechem at the time. And since they did not take part in any previous covenant, a new covenant was needed now, which had to be held in Shechem because that is where the people of Shechem lived.

(There is still some difficulty, because all of Israel was present and those making the covenant are simply referred to as "the people". But the only way to solve the above problems is by saying that "the people" refers to a specific group of outsiders, not to the nation as a whole. Yehoshua would have been deliberately mixing references to Israel and to the outsiders, to indicate that from now on they were to be considered one people.)


The population of Shechem is never again mentioned as being non-Jewish. According to Shoftim 8:33, 9:4, 9:46, though, the people of Shechem later on worshipped an idol called "Baal-Berit" or "El-Berit". Apparently this was some perversion of the original covenant made with Yehoshua, by which specifically Shechem agreed to accept Judaism.

In Shoftim chapter 9, Avimelech (son of the heroic Gideon, who came from outside Shechem) asked the people of Shechem to declare him king. His brother Yotam, whom Avimelech had tried to kill, went to Shechem and tried to dissuade them from making Avimelech king. Yotam told an allegory in which the trees decide to appoint a king among themselves. But the tall and fruitful trees - olive, fig, grape, cedar - all refuse to become king. Only the small and malicious thorn-bush agrees to become king over the greater trees. The obvious implication is that Avimelech was unsuited to rule. But the story may also shed light on the origins of Shechem's population. By saying that the smallest and most impermanent tree wanted to rule over the more well-rooted trees, Yotam may be hinting that the people of Shechem are part of an older and more established population than that from which Avimelech came. Specifically, Avimelech's family entered the land with Yehoshua, while the people of Shechem had a much longer history in the land, going back all the way to Avraham.

The same feeling of superiority might have caused Efraim and Menashe to resent the rule of Beit David, and played a part in their decision to rebel against Rehavam. (Idea suggested by D.F.)



According to Divrei Hayamim I 7:20-24, Efraim's descendants settled in Israel, within Efraim's lifetime. This is perplexing because by the time Yehoshua conquered the land, Efraim would have been several hundred years old, and probably dead.

It seems these people moved from Egypt to Canaan very early on, long before the rest of the people left Egypt. They remained there until Yehoshua came along and conquered the Canaanites surrounding them. Presumably they, like the descendants of Avraham's followers, accepted Judaism at the covenant in Shechem.


According to Bamidbar 32:39-41, Yair and Machir, two sons of Menashe, conquered land on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The same difficulty appears as before: shouldn't these sons have been very old or dead by the time of Moshe and Yehoshua? You could try the solve the problem by saying that their descendants, not them, did the conquering. But this is difficult to argue in light of Bamidbar 32:41, Devarim 3:14, and Yehoshua 17:1.

Once again, we solve the problem by saying that Yair and Machir conquered their land hundreds of years beforehand, and their conquests were ratified by Moshe when the Jewish people came along.

(Shoftim 10:3-4 is best understood as saying that one of Yair's descendants was also named Yair, perhaps in memory of his illustrious ancestor.)

Archaeologists tell us that at various times before Yetziat Mitzraim, the land of Canaan was either conquered by Egypt or part of an Egyptian sphere of influence. (Thus “Yosef gathered all the money that was found in the land of Egypt, and in the land of Canaan” [Breishit 47:14] – Canaan is mentioned alongside Egypt because they alone were part of the same empire.) This provides the conquest in which Yosef's grandsons would have done their conquering. Yosef was “prime minister” and they were likely still part of the Egyptian ruling establishment, so their conquests were coordinated with and part of the overall Egyptian quest for empire. Within the empire, Yosef's descendants likely traveled back and forth between Egypt and Canaan, with some ending up in each location when oppression began in later generations.


In Brit Bein Habetarim, God explains to Avraham the trajectory of future Jewish history: "Know surely that your offspring will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them; and they will afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they will serve, I will judge; and afterward they will come out with great wealth. But you will go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age. And the fourth generation will return here, for the sin of the Emorite is not yet full." (Breishit 15:13-16)

It seems that the beginning of this prediction contradicts the end: 400 years is longer than any reasonable interpretation of 4 generations. We see the periods of ~400 years and 4 generations cited elsewhere (Shemot 12:40; the ancestry of Moshe and other leaders of the Exodus generation), but both sides of the contradiction already appear – in greater clarity – in this single paragraph.

The most cited reconciliation is that the years and generations are measured from different starting points: Brit Bein Habetarim itself, versus the descent to Egypt or beginning of oppression.

But our Efraim/Menashe theory allows for a different answer. Perhaps some Israelites returned in the 4th generation, and the rest after 400 years. Efraim and Menashe were the fourth generation from Avraham, and by then the Emorites (who lived mainly on the east bank of the Jordan, for example Sihon and his kingdom) had sinned enough to deserve conquest. The remainder of the Jewish people in fact stayed a full 400 years in Egypt.


The phrase "ad hayom hazeh" - "...until this day" appears frequently in the Bible. However, since it indicates that the events in discussion happened a long time in the past, we would not expect to find it often in the Torah, which was transmitted to the Jewish people only shortly after most of the events it describes.

In fact, the phrase appears 12 times in the Torah. (In contrast, it appears 17 times in Sefer Yehoshua, which is roughly 8 times shorter than the Torah.) Of those 12 times, 10 of them refer to events which took place long before Moshe's time, or else are quotations from people's speech and are understandable in that context. The other two are difficult and theologically problematic.

One is Devarim 34:6, which describes Moshe's burial, saying that "no person knows his burial place until this day." Already in the gemara (Makkot 11a), one opinion states that these last few verses of the Torah were written by a prophet later than Moshe. (According to the other opinion, the verses are prophetic.) Either way, the problem is dealt with in Jewish tradition without affecting the integrity of the rest of the Torah.

The other is Devarim 3:14. "Yair son of Menashe took all the region of Argov, unto the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites, and called them, even Bashan, after his own name, Chavot-Yair, until this day." The Jewish people under Moshe's leadership reached Bashan only a few months before Moshe's death. It's hard to believe that those few months were enough to justify the phrase "until this day". It probably takes more than a few months to conquer, repair the damage from war, move into new houses, and settle down, much less achieve the sense of permanence and history implied by the phrase "until this day".

But once you say that Yair conquered his lands decades or centuries earlier, and Moshe met up with his descendants, the problem disappears. The verse makes perfect sense, and one of the more difficult textual problems in the Torah is neutralized.


Sefer Bamidbar includes two censuses, one taken at the beginning of the 40-year period in the desert (chapter 1), and one taken 40 years later (chapter 26). Remarkably, the sizes of all the tribes are almost identical in the two censuses, with two exceptions.

One exception in Shimon, whose population declined drastically from 59300 (1:23) to 22200 (26:14). This can mostly be attributed to the sin with Baal Peor (25:1-8), after which 24000 people (presumably those who sinned) died in a plague. It seems that most or all of the 24000 were from the tribe of Shimon, which would go a long way towards explaining the decrease. There is much circumstantial evidence for this. The leading offender in the episode (25:14) was Zimri, a prince from Shimon. Devarim 29:17 suggests that it is likely that one tribe and only that tribe would turn to idolatry; quite likely this verse has in mind the episode of Baal Peor which happened only shortly beforehand. Furthermore, the tribes of Shimon, Gad, and Reuven traveled together in the desert. Gad and Reuven ended up together on the east bank, while Shimon lost its inheritance entirely. Apparently Shimon too originally would have received land on the east bank, in the Baal Peor area, but after the sin they were disinherited.

The other exception is Menashe, who increased from 32200 (1:35) to 52700 (26:34). Presumably this is not natural growth, since none of the other tribes had significant natural growth (or decrease). It makes more sense to say that part of the tribe of Menashe, which had been living on the east bank for decades or centuries, was now absorbed into the rest of the Jewish people.


In Bamidbar 32, the tribes of Reuven and Gad realize that the east bank of the Jordan would be a good place to live. They ask Moshe for permission, and Moshe agrees, after making them swear that they will help conquer the west bank with the other tribes. In the end, they as well as half the tribe of Menashe inherit land on the east bank. It is very curious, though, that the half of Menashe did not request their land from Moshe.

The problem is solved by saying that half of Menashe had already been living on the east bank and was now simply absorbed into the Jewish people. They did not ask for land because they already had it.

Yehoshua 1:12 indicates that half of Menashe did in fact commit to fight on the west bank in return for their land (this commitment is not mentioned in Bamidbar 32). It would not have been fair for Menashe to inherit land without sharing the burden of conquest, so the legitimacy of their inheritance was dependent on their participation in battle. If they chose to avoid the fighting, then their title to the land would be retroactively annulled.


Devarim 28 (and arguably Devarim 30 too) consists of a new covenant between God and the Jewish people - "These are the words of the covenant which God commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moav, beside the covenant which He made with them in Horev." (28:69). We can ask the same question as with the Shechem covenant: after Mount Sinai, why was a new covenant needed?

Once again, we solve the problem by saying that the covenant was for the benefit of those who had not been at Sinai. This was the explanation we gave for the Shechem covenant, and it works here too, regarding the half-tribe of Menashe which had not been at Sinai.

Perhaps Devarim 29:13-14 ("I do not make this covenant and oath with you alone, but rather with those who stand here today before Hashem our God, as well as those who are not here with us today") refers to members of Efraim or Menashe who were not present with the main Jewish people at this ceremony.

It may be that the covenant in Sefer Nechemiah (9:1-10:40) was also about the addition of new people. Verse 9:2 indicates that all intermarriages were broken up, but 13:1 implies that some Ammonites and Moavites were still married to Jews. The verses are reconciled by saying that in chapter 9, mixed marriages could be saved if the foreign spouse converted to Judaism. But later on it was discovered that Ammonites and Moavites could not marry Jews even after conversion, so some converted couples were forced to separate. Thus, in chapter 9 it seems than many spouses did convert to Judaism, and this mass conversion was what precipitated the making of a covenant.

You could argue that sometimes national covenants are made without any formal reason, but just to commemorate large-scale repentance. This position is problematic; halachically you can't make an oath on something your ancestors swore to do at Sinai. In three cases - Arvot Moav, Shechem, and Nechemiah - we can nicely avoid this problem by saying that new people were involved. I don't want to definitively say that EVERY covenant in Tanach must involve new people, but it seems like an effective explanation which should be applied whenever possible.



According to the famous midrash in Pesikta Rabbati 21:3, before giving the Torah to Israel, God offered it to various other nations. Esav rejected the Torah because it outlawed murder and one of Esav's national characteristics was bloodshed. Similarly, Ammon rejected the Torah because Ammon was descended from an incestuous relationship, and Yishmael rejected the Torah because Yishmael's livelihood depended on theft. Finally, God went to Israel, and Israel agreed to accept the Torah.

One wonders why God would offer the Torah to people who were not part of God's promise to Yaakov and who had not been redeemed from Egypt by signs and wonders. But the nations in the midrash have one striking commonality: all of them are descended from Avraham (or his nephew Lot). It appears that since the original promise had been to Avraham, thus any of Avraham's descendants could have accepted the Torah. Meanwhile, the Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Egyptians - nations located nearby at the same time, but not related to Avraham - did not have the same option.

The sufficiency of descent from Avraham is very interesting in relation to the thesis of this post. We have suggested that thousands of Avraham's followers, as well as parts of the tribes of Efraim and Menashe, were in much the same position as Esav, Ammon, and Yishmael. Outside the normative Jewish people, but descended from or loyal to Avraham, it seems that these groups were offered the Torah on an optional basis. But unlike Esav, Ammon, or Yishmael, our groups accepted the Torah and from then on became part of the Jewish people.

(An apparent difficulty is that blessings offered by the Avot do not picture Esav or Yishmael as continuing God's special covenant with them. But presumably the blessings are only a bottom line, and through proper behavior Esav or Yishmael could aspire to reach a stronger relationship with God. In any case, the blessings Shimon and Levi received were not too promising either, and they managed to remain Jewish.)

Thus, unexpectedly, we are led to read the midrash almost literally. Presumably there was no formal event in which Esav, Ammon, and Yishmael learned about Judaism and decided to reject it. But, to use a metaphor from Breishit 19, God probably sent a pair of angels to bear witness that they were unfit to receive the Torah. If the angels had found otherwise, then we might have had even more covenant ceremonies, and ended up with a significantly larger Jewish people.

There are significant implications regarding the idea of "outcast" or "nidcheh" which is used to explain the progression of Sefer Breishit. It seems the status of "outcast" was not at all as absolute as one might assumed. Rather than meaning permanent expulsion, being "outcast" is more of a temporary status, of being overlooked for a limited time while the Divine plan focuses on another individual. When Yosef, according to R' Yoel Bin Nun's explanation, continued living an exemplary moral life even after he thought he had been expelled from Yaakov's family, perhaps he was not only displaying personal integrity. Perhaps he knew that at some point he or his descendants would be able to rejoin the Jewish people, and he was anticipating and preparing for that day.


Why, if it's so clear that early inheritance of the land happened as I describe, would it not be explicitly mentioned anywhere in Tanach? (Perhaps Divrei Hayamim's discussion of Efraim counts as explicit, but at least there is no clear reference in the Torah, which is when the events would have happened.) Here are two possible explanations for this “cover-up”.

1) If all the various presentations of the Torah except for Sinai are covered up, then it emerges that everyone who was presented the Torah was required to accept it. By seeing the original giving of the Torah as unavoidable and inescapable, we may be led to see our Torah observance the same way. Avoiding the mention of an "optional" Torah may increase our own sense of duty and responsibility.

This explanation may not speak to us in the modern era, when our lives are usually secure due to human efforts, and religion typically seems more like a worthwhile choice than an unavoidable obligation. In the ancient world, though, I suspect this explanation would have sounded a lot stronger.

2) Another possible reason is to maintain unity within the Jewish people. The people of Shechem would be tempted to look down at the rest of the nation as upstarts and ex-slaves, less honorable and with less connection to the Land of Israel than themselves. In turn, they would be attacked for not having "really" accepted the Torah from God, which is to say in a miraculous event at Sinai, and because they were not even genetically descended from Avraham. Given the extreme factionalism which was present throughout much of the Biblical period, it is clear that Tanach would not want to immortalize further internal distinctions by unnecessarily recording them in the text.


UPDATE: some more discussion of this topic can be found in section 1.2 here.

In the old city

There was the ring of church bells, but God was not in the church bells.
There was then a muezzin call from one of the mosques, but God was not in the muezzin call.
Then there was the still small voice of Jews saying shemoneh esreh at the Kotel.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Anonymity II

What implications, if any, does the merging of Blogspot and Google-ID usernames have for anonymity of blogs?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Israel's leading technological university, right...

My university officially has the worst wireless network in the world. Here are some of the issues I have had. NOT ranked from most to least frustrating.

Sometimes the wireless signal just doesn't show up.

Sometimes the signal shows up and you can connect, but the network auto-disconnects you about once a second. Thus raising your hopes and then dashing them.

Sometimes it looks like you're connected, but you can't actually reach any sites. This state tends to come and go every once in a while, especially when you're doing important work.

Some internet sites take an unreasonably long time to load, even compared to the usual sluggishness of all sites, for no clear reason.

Some sites can NEVER be reached. This includes the information and help sites for the wireless network. (You can consistently access these sites from elsewhere.) There is clearly no ulterior motive here, none whatsoever.

Sometimes when you try to go to a site which can never be reached, it will automatically trigger ALL sites on the internet to become unreachable. This has happened enough that I'm convinced we are not talking about random network outages, which of course do occur, but rather about some deep linkage between network status and where you try to go.

Sometimes you type in an address and press return and you are taken not to the site you requested, but to some random computer gibberish site of unknown origin.

EVERY SINGLE TIME that you try to send an email, attach a file, or upload a file by the network connection hangs. That's right, it's impossible to send an email using wireless, even when all the above errors are avoided.

I'm normally a pretty patient person. At which point in the above list of errors (all but one of which I have encountered in the last 5 hours) do I have the right to get annoyed?

Anonymity policy

To make it official: I don't really intend for this blog to be anonymous. I've mentioned enough personal details that a careful reader could probably piece together a lot of my biography, and figure out who it is. I do intend for it to be ungooglable. Thus I avoid identifying names, and in the rare instance that someone would write a comment using identifying info, I'd delete that too.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I couldn't have said it better


It really bugged me

"Another approach to dealing with insects in lettuce is to grow them insect-free. This has indeed been accomplished by some companies in Israel... However... they could not prevent certain flying insects from landing on the crop after it was harvested. Fortunately, however, these flies are easily noticeable and wash off readily with a simple water rinse, and customers are therefore admonished to rinse these products before use. To ensure that this directive is heeded, the lettuce is sprayed with “clean” sand prior to packaging – making then virtually inedible without compliance!" (source)

And I was wondering why the insect-free lettuce here has so much "dirt" on it. It looked like a scam - charge exorbitant prices for a low-quality product that they don't even bother to clean properly. And in fact it was merely a clever trick to make sure that what we ate was in fact kosher. Perhaps the kashrut situation in Israel is not quite as dysfunctional (relative to the US) as it seems.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Saturday, November 11, 2006



Scary what you find. Scary, in a totally different way, that you are allowed to find it.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Somehow I knew Missouri would be at the top

Though I'm disappointed that St. Louis is only number 51.

As they say, if you don't like the weather, wait a few hours.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Did you realize

If Oedipus had been an Amalekite convert to Judaism, then he would have been allowed to marry his mother, and commanded to kill his father?

Thoughts on Vayera

"Did not he say "she is my sister", and she herself said "she is my brother"? With an innocent heart and clean hands I did this." (Breishit 20:5)
She herself - The repetition indicates the inclusion of her slaves, camels, and donkeys - "I asked them all and they said she is his sister" (Rashi there)

Such a weird interpretation - the animals tell Avimelech that Sarah is not married? What could force Rashi to say this?

There are several reasons to think in the story that Avimelech's actions might have been morally problematic on some level. A middle-aged man and woman who travel and live together are usually married, not brother and sister. Perhaps Avimelech should have known this and been more hesitant to take Sarah, even after she said she was single. This sense is reinforced by what comes later: Avimelech's household is in fact punished and God does in fact curse Avimelech very harshly.

I think Rashi wants to emphasize that, despite these considerations, in the final analysis Avimelech did nothing wrong. Rashi does this by changing the original circumstances to make Avimelech's action more justifiable. Asking the slaves, of course, simply provides more voices testifying to the same point, and making that point more believable. Asking the camels and donkeys has a qualitatively different significance. It indicates that just as Avimelech seemed to receive punishment and condemnation through miraculous means, his original actions were also justified by a miracle - by the animals telling him that Sarah was unmarried. Thus we have justification against punishment, miracle against miracle, and there is no longer a reason to say that Avimelech was guilty.

Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him: "What have you done to us? and how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done."
And Abimelech said to Abraham: "What did you see that made you do this thing?"
And Abraham said: "Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me for my wife's sake."
(Breishit 20:9-11)

Why does Avimelech speak twice? He is saying very similar things, apparently part of the same speech. But the phrase "And Avimelech said" is repeated twice. Why the repetition?

I think the text is trying to emphasize that the two halves of Avimelech's speech were, effectively, separate from each other. The first half can be summarized as "How could you have done this to me?" It is an expression of indignation, not a question. Avraham cannot answer it, but he does hang his head silently and implicitly concede that he is guilty. The second half can be summarized as "What motivated you to do this?" Once Avraham has admitted that he is in the wrong, Avimelech asks another question, more out of incredulity than anger. What could possibly lead Avraham to have done what he did? For this Avraham can, and does, supply an answer.

UPDATE: In a shiur from R' Yehudah Trofer I was introduced to the definitive article "Vayomer Vayomer" by Meir Shiloach, which discusses about 100 cases in Tanach where "he said" or similar language is repeated within a speech, and divides the cases into seven distinct categories. This would seem to be one of the cases in his first category - when a response was expected but did not come. Nechama Leibowitz is also said to have an article on the topic.

"And it came to pass, when God caused me [Avraham] to wander from my father's house, that I said to her: This is thy kindness which you shall show me; at every place we come to, say of me: He is my brother." (Breishit 20:13)

The repetition of the "she is my sister" stories in Breishit - twice with Avraham, once with Yitzchak - is strange. But this verse indicates that Avraham (and presumably Yitzchak) felt the need to tell the same lie wherever they went. Thus, it is understandable that the erroneous marriages repeat themselves. It is less understandable why Avraham and Yitzchak would tell such lies, abandoning their wives to other men, in the first place.

R' Yoni Grossman suggests that we explain their motives by looking at ancient (and modern...) Middle Eastern society. In Biblical times, a woman could not just go marry whomever pleased her. Rather, the suitor would have to approach her father or closest male relative. The suitor and the male relative would bargain. Eventually they would reach an agreement by which the woman was married off and her family got a sum of money.

Whenever Avraham said that he was Sarah's sister, people thought of him as Sarah's closest male relative. People who wanted to marry her had to ask Avraham for her hand in marriage. But Avraham could always reject them by asking for more money than they could afford. And Avraham could play the suitors against each other. "You're offering 50 sheep for my sister, but I just received an offer of 60 sheep for her. So why should I give her to you?" While Sarah was nominally on the marriage market, Avraham could ensure that she was not actually married off. Whereas if Sarah had admitted to being his wife, there would have been no legal possibility of marriage, and one of them might have killed Avraham and taken Sarah by force.

It was a dangerous game. But it in fact worked perfectly in Canaan and for a while in Egypt and Gerar. There was just one flaw. Bargaining worked fine with ordinary citizens. But if the king became interested in Sarah, then Avraham's strategy was suddenly worthless. The king could not be out-bargained, and if Avraham simply refused to marry her off, the king had the power to take her by force. Thus, despite Avraham's planning, both Pharoah and Avimelech were able to "marry" Sarah against her will.

At this point God had to interfere to rescue Sarah. Avraham's strategy was clearly successful and justified in regards to the ordinary citizens of the land. The question is whether Avraham should have foreseen that the kings would notice Sarah. I think the answer here is: in the first case (Pharoah) no, in the second case (Avimelech) yes. In Egypt it is clear that Pharoah did not see Sarah himself, but rather Pharoah's servants saw her and reported her to Pharoah, leading to Pharoah taking her. This seems to have been totally unexpected, and Avraham is not held to blame for it in the story. But with Avimelech things are different. Having run into a lustful king once, Avraham perhaps should have expected it to happen again. Thus, in the Avimelech story, it is Avraham who is to blame. According to some interpreters, the Akedah command (which follows two chapters later) is a punishment for Avraham's actions with Avimelech, and through its successful conclusion Avraham reaffirms the covenant with God which was damaged by his behavior in regard to Avimelech.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Why do the laws of tzniut seem to focus so much on women and female clothing, and much less on men?

Perhaps this is because until recently, if a woman had an illicit desire for a man, it was unlikely to lead to anything, because women were not socially expected or able to start illicit relationships. If a man had an illicit desire, he was more socially capable of turning it into an illicit relationship. Thus, there had to be more protections against illicit male desire than against illicit female desire.

If so, then these days when women initiate relationships to a much greater extent, men would seem to be required to be more conscious and careful about their tzniut.

Nevertheless, female tzniut undeniably still has more objective limits than male tzniut. I doubt anyone will ever be checking male sleeve lengths, for example. Possible reasons for this discrepancy include:
1) The region of Torah-defined "nakedness" which simply must be covered is larger for women. (My pet theory is that for both sexes it consists of just the genitals - after all how much clothing was Eve wearing after the sin? - so on the "nakedness" level men and women have the same clothing requirements. As support, I bring the halacha of how much clothing women must wear to make brachot. But my pet theory could be wrong.)
2) When the rabbis at some point made the decrees which form much of our current laws of tzniut, they put some of the decrees for women, but not for men, in objective form. Why? I've given a few possible reasons in this post, and there are probably others.
3) Socially, there is a greater danger that women will try to "stretch the boundaries" of modest dress, based either on their psychology (which I don't understand), or on what men are perceived to want. Thus, objective limits are needed as a clumsy way of ensuring that women's clothing is more or less appropriate. (As an example: according to some, this is why women are expected to wear skirts. It is simply too hard to define what degree of tightness would make pants immodest, while any skirt of a certain length is more or less guaranteed to be modest.)

(Somewhat based on http://www.moreshet.co.il/web/shut/shut2.asp?id=29217)

At least bestiality is not a concern

Gay animals 'come out' in Oslo exhibition