Thursday, July 31, 2008



Of course, I personally prefer the 8 hours variety of nap, taken at night.

And I prefer a professor's voice to the static noise on this recording. :)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Good Riddance

Finally, after all this time, we can look forward to an honest, dignified, safe and peaceful future in Israel.

Outside my window I hear fireworks, and I'm having fun imagining it's related.

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה.


"As the game [acedrex, or chess] changed and moved from India through Persia and into Europe the Indian elephants became bishops. Eventually the counselor would become a queen, and her power increased tremendously. The chariots became castles, which explains why the modern chess castle can travel so rapidly across the board."

That's pretty cool. But I don't understand how an elephant could travel on diagonals. You'd think it would keep banging into other pieces all the time...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sefer hamitzvot

The Rambam, in the introduction to his Sefer Hamitzvot, gives 14 criteria by which he arrives at a count of 613 mitzvot. Here is a summary of them, one by one.

1. Don't count mitzvot derabanan.

2. Don't count mitzvot derivable from the "13 exegetical methods" (Even if they are deoraita, they are "anafim" not "shorashim".) Mitzvot are not counted unless they are explicit in the Torah's pshat, or else explicitly mentioned as oral tradition from Sinai.

3. Don't count mitzvot which are not "ledorot".

4. Don't count mitzvot which encompass the entire torah (i.e. "kedoshim tihyu").

5. The reason for a mitzvah is not a separate mitzvah (i.e. arayot followed by "lo tachti et haaretz").

6. A mitzvah with positive and negative components - they are counted separately.

7. All the details of a mitzvah, despite appearing in different verses, count as one overall mitzvah.

8. A statement that a mitzvah does not apply in some circumstance is not a separate, negative mitzvah.

9. Mitzvot which are repeated count only once. "Do not do X or Y" - X and Y together are 1 mitzvah.

10. Specified preparatory activities to a mitzvah (i.e. "kach lecha samim") are not separate mitzvot.

11. Different mitzvah activities with a single "purpose" (i.e. blue/white tzizit or lulav/etrog) are not separate mitzvot.

12. A general command (i.e. "ve'asu li mikdash", "torah haolah") is one mitzvah, though it is followed by many commands regarding the details. (However details which apply to more than one mitzvah, such as "al kol korbanecha takriv melach", are separate mitzvot.)

13. A mitzvah which applies unchanged on multiple days is one mitzvah (i.e. musaf).

14. Each type of judicial punishment is one mitzvah, though it's used for many different crimes.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tze Ulemad

Rava said: If a person sees suffering coming upon him, he should examine his actions. If he examined and did not find [any defects], he should attribute [the suffering] to neglect of Torah study. (Brachot 5a)

How can a person possibly examine his actions and not find anything that needs fixing? As Kohelet 7:20 says, "there is no person on earth who does good and never sins"!

And furthermore, what's so important about Torah study that even a perfectly behaving person can be punished for not doing enough of it?

I could try answering the second question with my previous post, but I would prefer to try answering both questions at once.

If you examine your actions and find nothing wrong, it is probably not the case that you are a perfect person. It's more likely that you did something wrong, but don't realize it. Luckily enough, this situation can be remedied by learning what you did wrong. If you don't know basic halacha, you can study it. If you are too spiritually lax or inconsiderate of other people, you can study mussar, philosophy or Tanach to impress upon yourself the proper attitude by which to go about your life. Most of us could use a little of both types of study.

But if you had the opportunity to learn, and passed it up, and ended up violating laws you didn't know about or appreciate, then it is really your fault for choosing not to learn in the first place. Such an person, one who does things wrong but thinks he does nothing wrong because of his ignorance, really should blame the punishment he gets on neglect of Torah study.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael

An interesting perspective on prayer and Divine justice. Read the whole thing, but the meat of it is in the last paragraph.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thoughts on Matot

The passage on women's vows appears at first glance to be very repetitive. But if we look carefully, we see that it is in fact very carefully structured. It covers four distinct cases, one after the other, describing each of the possible outcomes in each case.

This is best shown by putting the chapter into outline form, with the relevant verse numbers indicated in brackets.

Introduction [2]
Men's vows stand [3]
Women's vows:
1. Before marriage (in father's house) [4]
Allowed [5]
Nullified [6]
2. Status during marriage of vows made before marriage* [7]
Allowed [8]
Nullified [9]
3. If divorced or widowed - vows stand [10]
4. Vows made during marriage [11]
Allowed [12]
Nullified [13]
Husband has power to allow or nullify [14]
To allow [15]
To nullify [16]
Summary [17]

* Or else, this could be talking about vows made after engagement but before marriage.

Looking at the chapter this way, it is clear that the only possibly repetitive section is verses 14-16. It is not absolutely clear to me what the function of this section is, but here are two suggestions.

Perhaps, since the "normal" case of a woman's vows being nullified is by her husband (girls generally got married shortly after they became mature enough to make a vow), this section is just a summary of the laws of vows using the most common case.

Alternatively, the description of the vows in this section is more detailed than in the other sections - כל נדר וכל שבעת אסר לענת נפש. So while the previous sections teach how and when vows are nullified, this section teaches which vows are nullified.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Kabbalah and modern Jewish philosophy

The following article, by R' Yosef Avivi, appeared in Gush's "Daf Kesher" for parshat Hukat this year. I found it interesting, and here is a quick and dirty translation.

Jewish philosophy in recent generations has been based on and formulated through Kabbalah. The Ari's Kabbalah is the source and fountainhead from which the philosophies of Ramchal, Baal Shem Tov, and R' Kook flow. These three, though they differ in location and time, are close to each other in logic and approach. All three interpreted the Ari's Kabbalah, and their interpretation forms the interpretation of their thought and the originality of their approach. Their common base - the Ari's Kabbalah - is hidden and impenetrable to the point that any commentary on it is a new, independently standing creation. The Ari's Kabbalah was formulated according to "hidden" wisdom - sefirot and partzufim, emanation and regression - and its interpretation consists of its formulation according to revealed wisdom - ideas and logic, principles and means of thought. The common source of the three interpretations reveals their commonalities and differences, what each thinker innovated and how he interpreted the Ari's Kabbalah.

In a few lines I wish to describe the innovation of each thinker. I will not detail the basics of his thought, rather, I will try to extract what each of the three innovated - Ramchal, Baal Shem Tov, and R' Kook.

The Ari taught that the sefirot were emanated as light and vessels. The vessels were broken and the light fell and dissipated; afterwards the sefirot were repaired and the light appeared in new repaired vessels, but there are still broken vessels with sparks of holiness in them, in need of repair. Israel's labor in Torah, prayer and mitzvah performance forms the repair of the vessels and elevation of the sparks, until complete repair of all the worlds is reached. Later scholars came and explained what is meant by repaired sefirot and by broken vessels with sparks of holiness in them; what has been repaired and what needs repair. The description of these two realities is the essential innovation of each of the later kabbalists in their interpretation of the Ari's teaching.

Ramchal explained that the sefirot are details of God's governance of the world. Everything that is described about sefirot in all their varieties is a prophetic vision in which God shows Israel how He governs them and the world. The various sefirot are His various attributes. Ramchal introduced the idea that the light and vessels are two forms of Divine conduct: the light - the conduct by which God's unity is revealed, through which God's holiness and goodness are revealed and it is revealed that there is none other than Him. And the vessels - conduct by which human free will, reward, and punishment are revealed. Humanity's task - revealing the light which is the conduct attesting to Divine unity, and repairing the vessels which are the conduct attesting to reward and punishment. These are accomplished through keeping the Torah and commandments, and through hope and expectation for the appearance of Divine unity.

To summarize the Ramchal's innovation: The border of the world of emanation is what needs repair - i.e. the complete appearance of unbounded light in it.

The Baal Shem Tov saw the sefirot in the human soul, and interpreted Heavenly conduct according to the behavior of the human soul. The Baal Shem Tov laid the foundation for this perspective, and the Baal Hatanya built the entire structure. Intellect and character traits, enthusiasm and vitality are the activities of the sefirot and the changes in their status. Thus, on a high level, "from my flesh I shall see God". There are two souls in a person - Divine and animalistic; and thus a person's task is to cling to God with both his souls.

To summarize the innovation of Chassidut: The animalistic soul and a person's secular activity need repair - i.e. the manifestation of holiness in them through clinging to God.

R' Kook saw the sefirot in the world of trends, theories, and ideas about life and their application. There are two worlds: the holy world begins as a world of Divine trends and aspirations, free without constriction or boundaries, and ends with their contraction and bounding to human dimensions, while remaining in the freedom, Godliness and absoluteness. The secular world begins as a world of human trends and aspirations, natural and bounded, and ends with their self-destruction [?] and and mutual struggle until the evil [?] is apparent in them. Therefore humanity's task is to raise the secular world to the holy and to make fully revealed the holy light.

To summarize R' Kook's innovation: All natural-human ideas and ideals and the ways of life that follow from them - are secular, and need repair, i.e. the appearance of the Godly ideals and the holy world that is in them.

We see that what the Ari said about the world of emanations, of degradation and repair, is interpreted by the Ramchal as behavioral patterns in Divine rule, by Chassidut as behavioral patterns in the human soul, and by R' Kook as patterns of life customs.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My university needs more girls

Their handwriting is better and it would make it much easier to grade stacks of homework problems. :)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


The next time somebody says "Arabs can't be anti-Semites because they are Semites themselves", try responding "Naked pictures aren't pornography unless the person pictured is a prostitute, because the word 'porne' is Greek for prostitute".

In honor of Parshat Balak

A quote from an online chat room...

*** Now talking in #christian
[Word_of_God] Welcome Abstruse to #christian I am a Bible Bot. For more info type: /msg Word_of_God !info
[Abstruse] !kjv numbers 22:21
[Word_of_God] Numbers 22:21 -- And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. - (KJV)
*** SageRider sets mode: +b *!*
*** Word_of_God was kicked from #christian by SageRider (Please dont Swear)
[Abstruse] I know I'm never going to be able to come back in this channel again after this, but damn was it worth it to see that...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Thoughts on Korach

ה,טז כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, סופה להתקיים; ושאינה לשם שמיים, אין סופה להתקיים. איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי; ושאינה לשם שמיים, זו מחלוקת קורח ועדתו.

This line of Pirkei Avot differentiates between worthy disagreements, such as that of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, and unworthy disagreements such as that of Korach and his party.

It seems that we can further refine this distinction by looking carefully at Korach and his party. Essentially, their rebellion had two distinct foci: Korach, who wanted to be a priest; and Datan and Aviram, who wanted a political leadership that would not strand them in the desert for 40 years. Korach's goal was to more meaningfully (so he thought) serve God, while Datan and Aviram's complaint was purely material. It seems that Korach's basic motivation was praiseworthy. In contrast, there was no such redeeming quality to Datan and Aviram's complaint.

It appears that this moral difference is reflected in the punishment received by each party. Datan and Aviram were swallowed up by the earth (see verse 16:27), their bodies and memory erased from sight forever. Korach, in contrast, was burned to death while offering incense with 250 of his followers (see 17:5, also see 16:27 which makes a point of not mentioning Korach). The incense shovels which Korach and the others used were beaten into a covering for the altar. This memorial to their actions has a negative purpose, as a warning. But at the same time it functions as an integral and positive part of the Mishkan, which makes me think the lesson to be derived from it is not entirely negative.

Both halves of the rebellion were unjustified in that they involved knowingly disobeying Divine commands. Thus, Pirkei Avot is justified in lumping them together as a single unjustified argument destined not to endure. But while Datan and Aviram had entirely base motivations, Korach's motivation was praiseworthy in its source. Thus while the legacy of Datan and Aviram vanishes completely, Korach's legacy does not, and a memorial to his motivations is preserved forever in the Mishkan.

Olmert, etc.

1. The hopeful part

One must search hard to find a credible motivation for Ehud Olmert's recent opening of negotiations with Syria. Even UN offficials in the region condemned Olmert for granting legitimacy to a pariah regime which destabilizes its neighbors, without receiving anything in return. Those of us who genuinely care about Israel's security, and fully understand the complex relations between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, find the decision that much harder to understand.

The only explanation I can think of that makes any sense, whatsoever, relates to the Iranian nuclear situation. If Israel in fact launches an attack on Iran, we can look forward to retaliation from not only Iran but also all of its allies. This includes Hizbullah and Hamas, but the capabilities of both groups are limited. Much more worrying is Syria, which has much larger arsenals including biological and chemical weapons, and which is allied to Iran. Perhaps the negotiations with Syria are intended just to prevent Syrian involvement in the inevitable attack and counter-attack. Syria keeps telling everyone it is not breaking its alliance with Iran. But when the moment of truth comes and it has to decide between its connections with Iran and Israel, hopefully it will be just confused enough to want to sit things out.

And when the negotiations inevitably fail due to "irreconcilable differences", we can console ourselves by saying that they had no chance in the first place. And in the mean time, hopefully the Iranian issue can be taken care of with a minimum of side effects.

2. The less hopeful part

The one thing that has comforted me and many other Israelis over the past few years of corrupt, defeatist, and rather anti-democratic governance in Israel was the certainty that if and when elections were next held, public disgust with the government would ensure that Netanyahu and the Likud were elected.

That certainty is equally certain now, but the sanity which we hoped would return to Israeli politics with the next elections seems more remote than ever. For it now appears that before Netanyahu is elected in Israel, Barack Obama will be elected president of the US.

While I have high expectations for Obama's domestic policy, his likely foreign policy direction is profoundly troubling. Despite the necessary platitudes he delivers, it appears that since his college days he has consistently held to a Marxist woldview in which the US and the West are oppressing the world's "rogue states", and if we just let the rogue states run things instead of us, everything would be a lot better and the world would be a lot fairer.

Given that:
  • Israel is seen as one of the worst such oppressors,
  • the "rogue states" and organizations include most of Israel's enemies,
  • "left-wing" leaders in the US in the past, in Europe now, and among Obama's closest advisors argue for forcing Israel to accept political arrangements its government may not want,
over the next 4 years, we can expect to see Israel coerced into continuing the same destructive policies it has willingly followed for most of the previous 4.

And by then - who knows how many thousand Israelis will have been killed, how many hundred thousand will have been expelled from their homes, how many million will be bombarded on a regular basis by rockets, and how much lower Israel's international standing will be as a direct result of all these sacrifices for "peace".

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Brushing teeth on Shabbat?

There is a widespread perception, which is confirmed by many but not all rabbis, that it is forbidden to brush your teeth on Shabbat. Understandably, the companies that make toothbrushes must not like this state of affairs.

So I should not have been too surprised to walk into a beit midrash today and see a pile of pamphlets, published by Oral-B, entitled "Mouth health: halachot of tooth brushing on Shabbat". After a substantial discussion of the sources, the pamphlet concludes of course that it is perfectly acceptable to brush teeth on Shabbat! And then it has a couple pages of ads for their specific toothbrushes. But even these are religiously oriented; the catch-phrase at the top of one of them comes from probably the only Biblical verse to mention white teeth.

Here is a partial scan of the pamphlet. My roommate and I think it's hilarious.

P.S. There seems to be a discrepancy between how some of the sources are quoted in the pamphlet versus in the article I linked to above. As you might expect, the pamphlet understands them to be much more lenient. Having not seen the sources myself I can't tell you for sure which interpretation is more accurate. But it's clear who has the bigger ulterior motive. :)

Friday, July 04, 2008


What I wrote in response to some blog which was arguing "how can you say that the Jerusalem bulldozer killer was a terrorist, who knows, perhaps he was just insane or had marital problems or something or did it by accident."


Technically, it's impossible to know beyond any doubt exactly what any person is thinking at a given moment. But Dawyyat was a Muslim who yelled "Allahu akhbar" before ramming his bulldozer into a crowd of Jews (that particular neighborhood is almost entirely Jewish). Is it really reasonable to think that he had no political motive or intent?

You might as well say that Baruch Goldstein, when he massacred a crowd of Arabs 14 years ago, in fact just wanted to protect himself from people who were threatening his own life. There are really some people who think, or at least say, that that's exactly what happened. But the people who say this are invariably the same Jewish extremists who don't think the massacre was such a bad thing in the first place. In their rush to find an unlikely justification for Goldstein's actions, they make clear where their sympathies ultimately lie.

What is true of Goldstein is also true of Dawyyat. According to any reasonable interpretation, both Dawyyat and Goldstein were terrorists. Once you start grasping for unlikely justifications to remove the stigma of "terrorism" from their actions, you indicate that the lives of the victims and their ethnic group are not so valuable after all. And that is inexcusable.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Secular Israelis

I just thought it was worth noting that secular Israeli schools in Tel Aviv have regularly scheduled classes in Torah.