Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Q: How can you cook kosher food in a non-kosher oven and not have it become non-kosher?

A: Put it in two sealed containers, one inside the other.

Q: How can you prevent spilled mercury from escaping into the environment and poisoning people?

A: Put it in two sealed plastic bags, one inside the other.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Too clever for his own good

The bizarre-criminal-of-the-day award goes to Amr Mohsen, an incredibly brilliant electrical engineer and inventor working in Silicon Valley (in much the same specialty I plan to), who apparently never noticed when the time came to stop inventing.

According to Wikipedia, one of Mohsen's business partners started a lawsuit with a third party, regarding one of Mohsen's patents. In order to help his case, Mohsen:
...forged a notebook in order to make the patent case stronger. When suspicions were raised, he staged a break-in of his own car to get rid of the evidence, resulting in charges of obstruction of justice. Trying to avoid this, he attempted to flee the country, only to be caught with an illegal passport and a pile of cash. While in jail for this offense, he was recorded offering money to intimidate witnesses and kill the judge. In order to fight these charges, he tried to show psychological problems, but left a trail of evidence of his research into this defense, and how it might be done. He was charged with attempting to delay a federal trial by feigning incompetency, and convicted anyway. According to the lawyers concerned, the original notebooks were not needed for the trial. The patent filing date, which was not in dispute, would have sufficed.

Just incredible.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why the Jewish calendar rocks

Do you know the song "hashkediyah porachat" which everyone sings on Tu Bishvat? How can you not know it? How can you not be sick of it? Anyway, it says that every year in Israel, the almond trees begin blooming around Tu Bishevat.

That's a pretty useless piece of information if, like me, you have never seen an almond tree in your life. But if you do have almond trees nearby, it just might come in handy. Imagine you're an almond farmer. Also imagine that it's January 27, the 20th of Shevat - but you don't have a calendar, so you don't know this. Somebody comes by and asks you what the date is. You can't just look at the calendar and tell them. So you look out the window and do some quick calculations. Your almond trees blossomed roughly a week ago... and that usually happens around Tu Bishevat... so it is almost certainly Shevat now. Maybe Adar, but probably Shevat.

Shevat is not the only month which is easily identified biologically. The Torah describes Moshe's sending the spies as being in "the days of the first fruits of the grapes". It does this as background, because the spies bring back grapes with them. But anyone living in Israel knows that grapes first grow around Tisha Beav, so that must have been when the spies story took place.

In fact, every crop has particular dates on which it sprouts, blossoms, forms fruit, dries up, is harvested, and so on. And the cycles of heat and cold, and rain and dryness are predictable too. So a thoughtful observer, without seeing a calendar, can almost always make a very good guess as to what the month is.

What about the day of the month? Here the calendar's lunar aspect becomes indispensable. Look up in the night sky, and you can immediately tell what day of the month it is, more or less. New moons occur on the first of the month, full moons on the 15th. In-between phases correspond to other days. Also, though I have not seen this mentioned anywhere, the time at which the moon rises varies predictably with the day of the month. So by looking at the moon's position at sunrise/sunset, you could get a more accurate estimate of the day of the month. Overall, I think you can consistently estimate the day of the month to within one day, maybe two.

Going by the fruit-and-moon method, how accurate would your dating be? There's a good chance you would be off by a day or two, and a smaller chance you'd be off by an entire month. But much of the time, you could exactly guess the date simply by looking at the natural signs around you.

Such precision is not possible with either a solar or a lunar calendar, only with a mixed calendar such as the Jewish one. I don't know what other cultures did before urbanization and mass literacy allowed everyone to know the date. Perhaps they were just ignorant of it. In any case, when the prophets wrote in the Bible that such and such happened on such and such a date, I'm sure they didn't check their cell phone displays before recording whatever happened. Perhaps they consulted written records, if available. Or perhaps they just went into the field, and used natural signals to reach the exact same conclusion.

Peace in our time

Arun Gandhi, grandson of the famous Mohandas Gandhi, has resigned from the "Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence" after his comments about Jews and Israel led to extensive criticism. The head of the ADL called it "shameful that a peace institute would be headed up by a bigot." Due to the perception that Arun Gandhi was a bad fit for an organization bearing Mohandas' name, Arun was pressured to resign.

However, knowing the older Gandhi's positions on Jews and Israel gives a different - and more disturbing - perspective to his grandson's comments. It seems the younger Gandhi, in his comments, does not so much betray his grandfather's ideals as follow them faithfully.

Regarding the Holocaust, Mohandas Gandhi once speculated that "if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre... could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant." That is to say, the "deliverance" Jews should wait for is the privilege of being massacred.

As a young lawyer in South Africa around 1900, Mohandas Gandhi worked to eliminate discrimination against Indian migrants, but did nothing for the native blacks who were discriminated against to a much greater extent. In fact, he often made apparently derogatory comments about them, for example discussing the "raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness". "Kaffir", of course, is the South African equivalent of the American word "nigger".

So it's no surprise that the younger Gandhi thinks the Jews are overplaying the significance of the Holocaust. After all, the older Gandhi thought the Holocaust was a positive experience for them, not a disaster. Nor is it surprising that the younger Gandhi says the Palestinian experience is ten times worse than apartheid. We should be reminded of how little sympathy the older Gandhi had for the suffering of South African blacks.

There is a clear continuity between the Gandhis' positions, and it does not speak well for either of them.

What's intriguing is that the Gandhis ignore Nazi barbarity and simply call on Jews to accept its consequences, while regarding Israel, they are outraged by Jewish decisions yet never consider that Palestinians might protest them non-violently. Shouldn't nonviolence work for Palestinians at least as much for Holocaust victims? Doesn't Nazi extermination deserve at least as much disgust as Israeli occupation? But I guess antisemites in every generation have had, for whatever reason, focused pathologically on Jews and Jewish actions and responses, to the exclusion of any honest moral appraisal involving both sides.

Nothing is mor authentic

This afternoon, I saw someone wearing an imitation brand-name sweatshirt bearing the following exact text:

"For nwe quolity
Nothing is mor authentic"

I had trouble overcoming the urge to laugh out loud in their face.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thoughts on Yitro

[Yitro brought Tziporah,] and her two sons; of which one's name was Gershom, because [Moshe] said "I have been a foreigner in an alien country"; and the other's name was Eliezer, because "my father's God was in my aid, and saved me from Pharaoh's sword". (18:3-4)

The commentators rightly point out that while Gershom's birth was mentioned when it occurred, this is the first mention of Eliezer. And once the Torah decided to mention Eliezer (and explain his name), it mentioned Gershom too (and explained his name) for completeness, even though this repeats information we already know from Shemot 2:22.

This explanation of the Gershom-related repetition seems technically reasonable, but I don't find it intuitively satisfying. Or, to put things more clearly, I think it explains the causes of the repetition, but does not attempt to explain the repetition's effects.

As far as the effects go, I think the names must be reexamined now that the Israelites have left Egypt for good. Eliezer was named to commemorate God's saving Moshe from Pharoah after Moshe killed the Egyptian taskmaster. Now, when Moshe is leaving Egypt after the plagues, the name takes on a whole new significance. In the plagues, Moshe had a more direct and violent confrontation with Pharaoh than after killing the Egyptian in his youth. And the degree of God's assistance in the plagues was much, much greater. In retrospect, Eliezer was better named for the events following his birth than for the events before them.

The same is true, with a twist, of Gershom. Moshe had originally meant that he was a stranger in the strange land of Midyan. As he understood it, Egypt was the native country he was forced to leave. But upon leaving slavery, the name Gershom resonates with a different set of historical associations. In truth, Egypt itself was the strange land, which Moshe and the Israelites were leaving after living there as strangers for centuries.

In each case, Moshe named his sons for personal reasons. But when the Israelites leave Egypt, the names come to represent the entire nation's experience. This indicates that Moshe has been transformed from a solitary individual to a leader wholly immersed in the concerns of his people, and points us to a future in which the entire nation's relationship with God is as intimate as Moshe's has been.

And you shall provide from all the people, men of valor, God-fearers, men of truth, who hate unjust gain; and you shall place them as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. (18:21)
Rashi: men of valor - wealthy men, who have no need for flattery or playing favorites.
men of truth - these are people of whom it's known that it's worth relying on their words; thus their words will be accepted.
who hate unjust gain - who hate [i.e. don't bother pursuing] their money in court, as the gemara says: "Any judge whom money is taken from in court, is not a judge".

The verse seems to be simply asking for people who are honest. But in these three comments, Rashi takes it in a different direction. For him, the quality being sought is public knowledge, not simply the existence, of a person's honesty. A hidden tzaddik would not qualify to be a judge. Rashi is pointing out that a justice system cannot be effective unless the public trusts it and is willing to rely on it.

And Elokim spoke all these words, saying: "I am Hashem your God, who took you out of Egypt..." (20:1-2)

It's beyond the scope of a single blog post to explain every instance in the Torah in which the name "Elokim" is used and not "Hashem" or vice versa. But in this particular case, the reason for the switch between names seems clear.

Compare this verse to the beginning of parshat Vaera: "And Elokim spoke to Moshe, and said to him: 'I am Hashem. I revealed myself to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as El Shaddai..." (6:2-3)

In both cases, God makes a declaration of immense thematic significance, consisting of a declaration about God followed by commandment(s). In both cases the first words of the declaration are "I am Hashem", and it's the first time that God has used that name to address Moshe/the Jewish people. (At the burning bush, God did not use any name until Moshe asked for it.) And in both cases, the declaration is introduced using the name "Elokim".

It therefore seems that Moshe's experience in parshat Vaera is his personal equivalent of what would took place for the whole people at Sinai: the forging of a new, permanent covenant using the name "Hashem" and all that is associated with it. Before this covenant, the relationship between God and Moshe/Israel was at a level symbolized by the name "Elokim". (To use R' Soloveitchik's terminology, it was a "covenant of fate" and not yet a "covenant of destiny".) With the forging of the covenant, the relationship took a sudden quantum leap forward. This qualitative change is indicated by a change in the name of God used - from "Elokim" to "Hashem", both in parshat Vaera and at the giving of the Torah.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The things you learn

I wanted to check that I was using a certain Hebrew technical word correctly. So I went to Google Images and typed it in, to see if the pictures would match what I was thinking of.


Apparently, the most popular usage of that word online is on porn sites, as a description for part of the female anatomy.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


What happens to a hefetz hashud after it gets blown up? What if it's YOUR hefetz hashud?

Last Erev Yom Kippur I took the bus from Haifa to Jerusalem, on the way to Gush. I got off at the first stop in Jerusalem - and totally forgot about the bag I'd left in the luggage compartment. A few minutes later, walking down Yafo, I suddenly remembered! I jumped into the nearest taxi and went straight to the end of the bus route, hoping to intercept my bus along the way. At the final destination I waited for half an hour in case the bus would finally show up - but it didn't, and in order to catch the last bus to Gush I had to leave. And so my bag was presumably blown up, on the suspicion that it contained a bomb.

Calling the bus company a few days later, I was directed to the Jerusalem police lost-and-found: if my bag still existed, it existed with them. I called the lost-and-found, but they couldn't find the bag. They said to come in myself and look, just in case. Since I rarely get the chance to spend weekday mornings in Jerusalem, the matter rested there for three months. In any case, the chances of getting anything back looked pretty slim. After all, I hadn't even put my name on the bag.

Today I finally had the chance to spend the morning running errands around Jerusalem. I went to the police station, described my bag and the circumstances I'd lost it in, and was taken to a drafty room lined with shelves full of backpacks and suitcases. After a little looking around I found my bag!!! As soon as I saw it I knew it was mine; its shape was unmistakable.

But when I took it off the shelf, I saw it looked... interesting. The closing flap was undone - not unzipped, but rather the seams had burst - and plastic rope was wrapped around the bag to keep it closed. It turns out they HAD blown it up after all. But since 90% of the contents consisted of either pillow or blanket, the damage had been relatively minor, and the bag contents had survived mostly intact.

After filling out some forms I left, very happy at this turn of events. They even gave me a form with which I could go to another government office and be reimbursed for the damage caused by the explosion!

Now that I'm home again, I did an inventory of the bag's contents. The pillow had absorbed most of the explosive energy, and was rather uglily disembowled. Some of the pillow stuffing had absorbed so much energy that it punched a hole and went straight through the sole of my shower shoes. (The shoes were otherwise in perfect condition.) The blanket received tears and punctures in several places, but is still quite usable. And everything in the side pockets is in perfect shape - including a shaver, which despite being "blown up" still works flawlessly. The bag itself is torn in too many places to be used again. But the items of value inside - the shaver and blanket - were successfully recovered.

It's unfortunate that I could not get pictures of the damaged goods - in particular, the pair of shower shoes, held together by a thick tuft of pillow stuffing embedded in the newly created sole-holes. I now understand that weapons design is not simply a matter of "stick some explosives together, have a beer, and watch it explode". If you do it incorrectly, then all the energy will be dissipated in the wrong places, and the target will survive. Such was the case with my shaver. I just hope the explosion would have been more effective against an actual bomb.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Thought on Bo

This is the first post on the parsha I've made from the library - which means no time for extensive saving, revising, and editing - which probably means it's less thorough than usual, but also less boring.

Steg suggests that Pharoah's phrase "look, ra'ah is opposite you" (10:10) refers not to generic evil, but to the Egyptian sun-god, Ra.

What makes this theory especially interesting is the verse's context. Moshe has just announced the 8th plague: "Behold, tomorrow I will bring locusts in your territory. They will cover ein haaretz, and it will be impossible to see the land..." (10:4-5). Onkelus translates "ein haaretz" as "ein shimsha de'ara" - the "eye" of the sun which shines on the land. Apparently, Moshe is announcing that the locust horde will be so thick it will totally block out the sun.

If so, then Pharoah's mention of the sun-god at this moment is especially apt. "You think your plague can block out the sun? Impossible! Ra will never permit that! Maybe YKVK can take on our lesser gods, but he better not try to mess with our chief god, the sun god!"

Of course, the locust plague takes place as Moshe predicted, and the Torah specifically mentions that the land grew dark during it. Not only that, but the next plague - darkness - seems to be solely directed at the purported sun god. And the final plague occurred at midnight. In fact, the final three plagues all took place in darkness.

This seems like a clear and conclusive lesson to the Egyptians and Israelites that the sun, or a sun god, are not to be relied upon.

UPDATE: Here is more support for my thesis. Or, my post is more support for his thesis. Or something.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


What's going on? My laptop keyboard is broken. All of a sudden, most of the keys stopped working, while a few started "working" when they weren't supposed to. Every time I bump the laptop a bit, for example, it now thinks I pressed F9. Very annoying. Best case, I think I'll need to get the keyboard replaced ($100 repair when I next visit the US); worst case, it could be a sign of impending total system failure.

Anyway, I'm in the university library now. I thought I'd post an interesting cultural artifact. It's a discarded party invitation distributed to students at my college (and presumably elsewhere). The author is Israeli (as can be seen from subtle grammatical flaws such as "in the past few years"), and so is the intended audience. Yet the letter is all in sophisticated English - a foreign language for nearly everyone attending the party. I find it a striking example of the way American culture has become "cool" among young secular Israelis. If only they'd consider actual Americans, like me, to be equally cool...

Friday, January 04, 2008

comp keybd break

no post 4 real

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


I am no longer sure whether the value of this blog justifies the time I am putting into it.

So there might be a decline in posting in the future. If I have any really brilliant ideas (or even mediocre ideas that I find interesting) I don't think I will hold myself back. But I am abandoning the idea that I should post with a minimum specified frequency.

No matter how much I post, there's still interesting links in the sidebar. Enjoy.