Thursday, October 30, 2008

Early cell phones

According to a textbook I'm reading for work, the first cell phone system was created in 1946 in St. Louis. The receiver was so heavy that you couldn't carry it, so it was only really used while sitting in a car. There was only capacity for 15 users in the entire city, so it was extremely expensive, but there was still plenty of demand.

Despite those limitations, how amazing is it that they had a kind of cell phone in... 1946?

Thoughts on Breishit

Last year (Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah), for the first time I read Rashi's commentary on chumash from start to finish. It was maddening at times (Siftei Hachamim only sometimes gave background for Rashi's more "totally out of the blue" comments), but in the end much worth it.

My overall impression: When Rashi does "pshat", as he does for long segments of Shemot and Devarim, he does an incredible job - similar in style and usefulness to his commentary on the gemara. When Rashi quotes "midrash", whether aggadic or halachic, it's often hard to figure out the logic and reasons for the interpretation (because midrash rarely explains itself the way we'd like it to). The first step towards understanding a given Rashi is decide whether it belongs in the "pshat" or "midrash" category. Then you can analyze it with the methods appropriate for that category. If you analyze the midrash as if it were pshat, you'll quickly get confused and/or lose all respect for Rashi. So don't try it.

This year I decided to learn the Ramban instead of Rashi.

One thought after studying a parsha's worth of Ramban: It's interesting how much effort he spends working on a reconciliation between Breishit and science, much as we do nowadays. The only problem is - the science he talks about is medieval, and now outdated. For example, he reads Breishit 1:2 as a description of how the four basic elements (earth, water, air, fire) were formed, immediately after the creation of the world. It's a clever explanation - much cooler than any explanation I'd ever seen for that verse. But since we don't believe in four basic elements any more, we can no longer accept the explanation.

Anyway, now some thoughts on specific verses, formatted in my usual style.

- These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that Hashem God made earth and heaven. No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up;
- for Hashem God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
- But a mist rose from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Then Hashem God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
- And Hashem God planted a garden eastward, in Eden...

Let me rephrase these lines in a way which makes their point clear, keeping in mind that "shrub of the field" and "herb of the field" likely refer to plants in cultivated fields, not wild plants.

"- This is the story of the world. At first, no agriculture was taking place.
- This was because: 1) there was no rain, 2) there were no people to do farming.
- God fixed these problems by: 1) making rain, 2) making people.
- The people's first task was to farm the Garden of Eden..."

Of course, the people failed do perform this task correctly. And Adam's punishment is that he continue to farm - but under much harsher conditions. Throughout the chapter, it seems, the central focus is on agriculture.

There are two lines of thought I want to develop starting with this insight.

1. Men and Women: There are significant implications for the chapter's portrayal of the relationship between men and women. (In the following discussion I take the following psychological statement as a premise: Women tend to be better than men at interpersonal relationships, while men tend do be better than women at most functional tasks.)

The relationship between earth and man is parallel to that between man and woman. Earth is incomplete without man (no agriculture), so man must be created from the earth. Man is incomplete without woman (alone), so woman must be created from man. The parallel is strengthened by the fact that as punishment for the sin, man reverts to the control of the earth, while woman reverts to the control of man. One might conclude from all this that women are inherently better than men, just as men are inherently better than earth.

At the same time, there an undeniable aspect of the chapter which seems to privilege men. It is Adam who gives names to the animals, and Adam who God approaches first after the sin.

So which is it, is the chapter biased in favor of women, or in favor of men?

I think the answer is that man and woman are each favored in one sphere of life. When it comes to human relationships, woman is privileged. When it comes to confronting the difficulties of the surrounding world, man is privileged. There is no value judgment, just an acknowledgment of psychological facts that hold true for most of the world's population.

2. Human frailty: Perhaps the centrality of agriculture in this chapter is designed to teach us humility. Not only are humans originally created from the earth, and destined to return to the earth, but they are continually dependent on the earth for sustenance. As the focus of Sefer Breishit shifts* from nature (creation) to human relationships (beginning with Adam and Eve), the character of the relationship between nature and human beings must be made clear.

* The first chapter, dealing with creation, calls God "Elokim". The third and fourth chapters (and most of the rest of the Torah) which deal with human destiny, call God "Hashem". Since this chapter is a transition between the two, both names are used: "Hashem Elokim".

And Hashem God said: "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." (3:22)

Here one asks: God is just now realizing the danger of this? Shouldn't God have foreseen that this might be a problem and, say, located the Tree of Life ahead of time in a more secure location? And did God simply get lucky that Adam and Eve never ate from the Tree of Life at some previous time?

I think the answers are no, no, and no, for the following reason.

In my opinion, Adam and Eve were eating from the Tree of Life the entire time they were living in the garden. After all, verse 2:16 says they were allowed to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, Adam and Eve's immortality in the garden was a result of continually eating from the Tree of Life! Their punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge was to die. And being distanced from the Tree of Life is the very means by which this punishment was carried out.

God could not have "planned ahead" by putting the Tree of Life elsewhere, because then Adam and Eve would have died, rather than living forever (were it not for their sin).

Kayin said to Hashem: "My sin is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have expelled me today from the face of the land; and from Your face I will be hidden; and I will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will happen that whoever finds me will kill me." ...And Hashem set a sign for Kayin, lest anyone finding him should strike him. (4:13-15)

The usual Biblical punishment for murder is death. Yet here, after murdering his brother Hevel, Kayin is punished with exile rather than death. Why doesn't Kayin get the death penalty for his deed? And why does he get the punishment he does get?

I think the answer is that originally, Kayin was given the death penalty. Yet before it could be carried out, he repented from his sin and the punishment was commuted.

Kayin's complaint to God is that wandering the earth alone is dangerous and is likely to get him killed. But he starts off by mentioning not the danger, but his sin. A moment beforehand he had told God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" - implying that yes, his brother was dead, but that he didn't care. Now he tries to repair the damage from that ill-advised comment. The very first thing he says is that, yes, killing Hevel was a sin - a great sin. The first step in repentance is confession and acknowledgment of the sin, and here Kayin takes that step. Only after that does he say that he would like the punishment changed.

It seems that if Kayin had not approached God in this way, then the sentence would not have been commuted. Kayin would have remained without his "sign", and at some point he would have been killed, and the death penalty for murder would have been carried out. This punishment would not be immediate, but Divine punishments often are not immediate.

How then do we explain the lesser punishment which Kayin gets in response to his request?

If we remember from the the recently occurring Yamim Noraim, there are two kinds of repentance: teshuva me-yirah, and teshuva me-ahavah. The gemara (Yoma 86b) explains the differing Divine responses to these kinds of repentance. If you repent out of fear of punishment, then your intentional sins are treated like unintentional sins. But if you repent out of love for God and the Torah and the moral life you're capable of living, then your intentional sins are treated like merits.

Kayin's repentance, coming only after he receives a punishment he cannot deal with, falls squarely into the category of repentance out of fear. It should therefore be sufficient to transform his intentional sin (murder) into an unintentional sin (manslaughter) for purposes of punishment. In fact, the Torah's punishment for manslaughter is exile (to a city of refuge). Kayin's post-repentance punishment is exile as well (though not to a city of refuge; none existed at the time).

It follows that Kayin received the same punishment he would have deserved as an unintentional murderer. And before his repentance, his punishment was that of an intentional murderer. Both punishments are exactly what you would expect, given the nature of his crime, and given the degree of repentance evident from his statement to God.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Klei hamas mecheroteihem

If you need any more proof of the great heroic deeds of the Jews of Hevron, and the sacrifices they continually make for the good of the Jewish people, then look here.

Oh wait. Maybe that link isn't such a good example.

I think expelling a few of these Hevron Jews to Gaza would be a good next move. With their attitudes towards Israel, they should fit in fine there. Perhaps they can even cooperate with Hamas to launch a few well-deserved terrorist attacks on Israel? Launch some rockets at the leftists in Sderot and Ashkelon? Or maybe go to Iran and help out with their nuclear weapons program. Because as we all know, being "killed and slaughtered" is exactly what Israel deserves.

Oh, and "retaliating" against the Israeli army by vandalizing a Palestinian graveyard is probably the most cowardly tactic used since the Palestinians started transporting suicide bombers in ambulances.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


While visiting my (Chabad) cousins for the first day of Sukkot I had the opportunity to read that week's issue of Mishpacha magazine - whose audience is the English-speaking charedi community.

To my amazement, one of the articles quoted a rabbi from "Yeshivas Har Etzion".

In this non-messianic Chabad home, I discovered that perhaps the mashiach is coming after all.

Uncanny valley

Computer graphics people like to talk about the uncanny valley - the idea that making an animation character look sufficiently realistic can make people dislike the character - because suddenly they see it as a flawed human, rather than as a fictional character skillfully evoking a human. Thus the reaction quickly becomes negative, not positive.

I think the same effect occurs with actual humans - specifically teenagers.

There are basically three kinds of humans: adults, kids, and teenagers. Adults are useful to other adults - they "speak" a common psychological language, which makes it easy to communicate with them and easy to get things done together with them.

Kids, on the other hand, are pretty much useless to adults, but they are cute. The "cuteness" factor is not exclusive to kids - we also find many animals to be either cute or just entertaining. Apparently with both kids and animals, we recognize them as different from us, and accept them as fine examples of whatever they are, and thus end up liking them.

Teenagers have neither advantage. They are sufficiently different from us that they are rarely useful. But they are too similar for us to appreciate them as different. And thus we, the adults, simply find them annoying.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Moshe's eye

Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not darkened, nor his moisture ceased. (Devarim 34:7)

Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand "moisture" as referring to the youthful appearance of the skin: Moshe's skin did not become dry and wrinkled as generally happens with old people.

The darkening of the eye, which also did not happen to Moshe, might seem to refer to blindness. This is slightly difficult because if so, you might expect the verse to refer to Moshe's eyes, not to a single eye. That does not seem like an insurmountable difficulty, but in any case I want to propose a different understanding of the word "eye", or rather, the Hebrew word "ayin" which is used here.

In some other places, we see that "ayin" means not "eye", but "appearance". (For example, here. And of course the concepts of "eye" and "appearance" are related so it makes sense that they would share a word.) Perhaps the same is true in our verse: it was not Moshe's eye that did not darken, but rather his appearance that did not darken (or become worse).

[I wanted to say that the same was true of Leah - that not Leah's eyes but her appearance was "weak", making the contrast between her and Rachel crystal-clear. But Leah's eyes are mentioned in the plural, so the meaning of "ayin" there is probably not "appearance". It was in the process of researching this possibility that I found the idea for my last post.]

If "ayin" in fact means "appearance" here, the descriptions of Moshe's "ayin" and "moisture" would be referring to exactly the same thing: the youthful quality of his skin. You can see such redundancy as a problem, or else as an advantage, because literary parts of Tanach often use parallelism. I'm undecided which possibility is more likely, and undecided whether blindness or bad skin is a likelier explanation overall.

As for why Moshe's face would have special healthy qualities even at age 120, I think it's impossible to avoid mentioning Shemot 34, where Moshe comes down from Mt. Sinai and his face is shining with some kind of special light, and as a result he has to put a mask over his face. It's not clear how long this shining lasted (it could be for the rest of his life, but I'm not convinced that's necessarily the case) but in any case, I think this shining quality is somehow linked to the special appearance Moshe's face had at the time of his death.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

World's first Yo Mama insult

ועיני לאה רכות אמוראי דר' יוחנן תרגם קודמוי ועיני לאה הוו רכיכין א"ל עינוהי דאימך הוו רכיכין ומהו רכות רכות מבכיה

"And Leah's eyes were 'rakot'" - one of R' Yochanan's interpreters translated this [to Aramaic] before him as "And Leah's eyes were [naturally] weak".
He [R' Yochanan] said to him: "Your mother's eyes were naturally weak. And what does 'rakot' mean? They were weak from crying [out of unhappiness that she was expected to marry Esav]."

(From Breishit Rabbah)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sukkah and lulav

There are two unique mitzvot on Sukkot - sukkah and lulav. At first glance they seem to have little to do with each other. But it may be possible to discover a connection.

Here is a picture of the top of my neighbor's palm tree.

[BTW: Yes, I do have a stunning view from my apartment window. To those I can't stop mentioning it to, sorry. For more pictures see here.]

Growing out of the top, one can see a single long straight spiky thing. That is the lulav. It seems to me that there is never more than one lulav per palm tree. It first grows as a lulav, and then its leaves fall towards the sides and it becomes a regular palm leaf, at which point a new lulav grows to take its place. We are required to use the leaf in its early lulav stage - if we wait too long it becomes an invalid regular leaf. The lulav looks rugged, but for the purposes of the mitzvah it is very transient.

In this respect, the lulav is similar to at least 2 of the other 3 species. The etrog is a very easily damaged fruit, and the aravah goes dry and falls apart after just a few days after being picked. We see that (at least) 3 of the 4 species share the attributes of fragility and temporariness.

Of course, the sukkah too is fragile and temporary. And it seems this common theme is at the heart of the Sukkot holiday.

The abundant agricultural harvest, which historically happened around Sukkot, poses a theological dilemma. If we ascribe too much importance to our material possessions, it is easy to become proud, callous and corrupt. But on the other hand, it is wrong to become ascetics and deny the significant of the world we live in. There is a tension between these two dangers, and it is resolved by recognizing our prosperity as real, but transient. God has given us prosperity, but God is not guaranteed to do so in the future.

Therefore on Sukkot we celebrate by eating and drinking and singing songs and displaying the fruits we have just harvested. But we do so while living in a temporary home, and using fruits which are chosen for their temporariness. Thus we recognize the bounty which God has given us, while also recognizing our continued fragility and dependence on God.

During Hallel we shake the lulav during the following two verses:

הודו לה' כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו
אנא ה' הושיעה נא

One verse thanks God for the past; the other is a prayer for deliverance. A religious person will generally find it easy to do one or the other of these, depending on the circumstances. The hallmark of Sukkot is that we simultaneously do both.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


[Roughly the first half of this was written while Obama and Clinton were still battling for the nomination.]

I dislike[d] the emptiness of the Democratic primary, both aesthetically, and in terms of the quality of democracy it represents. (This is in contrast to the Republican primary in which McCain, Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani all have very different platforms. Meanwhile Obama and Clinton differ mostly in personality and physical appearance.) But of course, it is not the first presidential primary ever to have be conducted at a less-than-ideal level. What are the consequences of these flawed choices for America?

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that in the US, more than other countries, it matters relatively little which individual is president. That seems counterintuitive, since the US has a stronger executive branch than any other Western country, but let me explain. No matter who wins the Republican nomination, it is a safe bet that he will support policies which are within the Republican consensus. If he is elected president, then his cabinet, Supreme Court nominees, and other appointments will all follow that consensus. The same would be true, in reverse, if a Democrat wins. Even if the president himself has odd policy quirks, much of the executive power is split among a large number of his subordinates. These on average will follow the party line more closely than he does, and the government as a whole will mostly follow the consensus of the president's party.

This means that, in general, the party in power in Washington does an excellent job of pursuing its agenda for four years. This is something I don't think can be appreciated unless you leave America. In my experience Israel (and, I strongly suspect, most of Europe) has a constant governmental semi-paralysis, as each decision must be debated in parliament and a fragile consensus re-created before anything can be done. Decisions which are more than moderately complicated/controversial are simply ignored because there is no way of obtaining the necessarily consensus. Only in crisis situations are they revisited and some attempt at a solution proposed for them.

In the past few years the US has sent 150000 soldiers to the other side of the world, and conquered two countries there, simply because the Bush administration wanted it. Most of the rest of America was between undecided and passively acceptive about these wars, yet despite the incredible scope of commitment they demanded, the Bush administration was able to make them happen. I don't think any European country could have gotten the political focus needed to do that in a million years. This "ability to get things done" seems to be unique to the US.

Therefore US elections are of much greater import than any other country's elections. But the importance is not so much in the particular candidates as in the choice of party. And even there, despite the differences between the parties, the long-term effect might not so great. This is more speculative, but examine the following argument.

Inevitably, people get sick of any president's policies. Since World War II no party has held the presidency for longer than three consecutive terms. After 2 terms Bush is widely hated and McCain only has a reasonable shot at the presidency due to disassociating himself from Bush. Sooner or later the Democrats will win an election, if not this year, then in another 4 or 8 years. Then they will retain the presidency just long enough for most of the country to start hating them. And so the cycle will continue indefinitely. Winning one election may be less of a long-term gain for your party than in Europe. It certainly helps more in the short term, but in the next few elections it may rebound against you. In the long term, I suspect the "average" US policy will inevitably be close to the median position of American voters, and no party has figured out how to change that "average".

For the record, next to my computer right now is a completed absentee ballot, ready to be mailed. I voted McCain for president (how I wish that option existed 8 years ago...), but Democratic for congress, and IIRC for local offices too, to the extent that I voted for them. I chose McCain based on one reason alone. All the Israeli/Arab conflicts so far, ever, have killed a few tens of thousands of people. An Iranian nuclear weapon could kill many times that instantaneously. Until a few years ago Iranian leaders used to boast onenly about how once they got a nuclear weapon, Israel would then cease to exist. All the debates over peace processes, terrorism, settlements, and whatever else regarding Israel are completely irrelevant compared to this one issue. And all the debates over Iraq, the economy, and so on are irrelevant compared to the prospect of nuclear war.

And I think that only McCain has a coherent approach to the situation. Those who call for a diplomatic solution ignore the fact that negotiations and diplomacy ARE being tried, and have been for years now, and the situation has gone steadily downhill the whole time. The justification offered for continuing this path is essentially wishful thinking: perhaps if we are a little nicer to them, they will suddenly love us and abandon everything that's important to them but which we don't like.

Meanwhile military action has NOT been used or even seriously considered. And there is nothing like a honest threat of military action to get what you want without having to fire a shot. But only one candidate can provide that threat.

And if McCain can take care of this (urgent) situation, yet people are so sickened by 12 years of Republican rule that starting in 2012 they vote in a series of Democrats - then as alluded to above, that may be my preferred outcome, both short- and long-term. :)

Friday, October 10, 2008


This evening I invented a new Hebrew word.


It means "more or less right now". Like, for example, an answer when people ask you when the bus is coming.

Eating on Yom Kippur

The Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 618, based on Yoma 82a,83a) lists rules for when a sick person should eat and not eat on Yom Kippur, judging by his and his doctors' judgment of whether the sickness is life-threatening. If I correctly understood what was written*, then the following six rules emerge from the discussion.

Should you break the fast ("yes") or not ("no")?
1. Doctor says yes, patient says no -> yes
2. Doctors disagree (except when one says yes and more than one says no), patient indifferent -> yes
3. Doctor uncertain, patient says no -> yes
4. Doctors disagree, patient says no -> no
5. Doctor says no, patient says yes -> yes
6. Doctor says no, patient uncertain -> no

It is clear that rules 1-4 are intended to determine the medical reality as accurately as possible. We try to figure out the situation, and if we end up unsure, we generally break the fast to avoid any chance of killing the patient.

Rules 5 and 6 however seem to operate on a different premise. In these rules the doctors are sure that there is no danger, so based on a purely medical evaluation, there is no basis to break the fast. If so, why in rule 5 does the patient's opinion override the doctor's and dictate that we violate the fast?

I think reason is psychological. If the patient is convinced that his life is in danger, he will find it extremely distressing to not eat. He will think that we are killing him by telling him not to eat. If he was sick but not in real danger before, this distress might put him in real danger. Thus we feed him, on the presumption that psychological factors can affect medical outcomes.

Of course if a totally healthy person became unreasonably convinced that they were about to die unless fed food, the psychological impact of not feeding them could be ignored. But if they are already sick enough that doctors had to be consulted about the possibility of breaking their Yom Kippur, then the psychological effect might be very significant.

In rule 6, by contrast, the patient does not have an opinion on whether he should break the fast. So telling him to eat will not distress him, and there is no reason not to follow the doctors' opinion that he should keep fasting.

I find it interesting that this kind of psychological factor is included in the halachic decision making process for this situation. The medical ethics people should have a field day with this one.

* This is not guaranteed. I'm pretty exhausted right now - it's post-fast, and it wasn't an easy fast. And the buses I've written this on have been full of distractions - bad conversation and bad music.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Not a strike this time

For the third consecutive year, the academic year here will be disrupted. This time it's not a strike, but rather the administration locking the students out. The ultimate reason is, as before, cuts in the government funding which the universities need to run on (seeing as tuition is so ridiculously low).

Despite the difficulty this will cause for many people, I am inclined to sympathize with this move, as it really is an important cause. (In all honesty, it must be mentioned that I personally have no more classes to take and little desire to teach and grade them, so it works in my favor, but still.)

Here is a partial translation from the email I just received.

Unfortunately, under conditions created in light of negotiations with the Treasury Ministry, we will not be able to open this academic year.

The higher education system has suffered in the last eight years from budget cuts that do not permit its proper operation.

It is superfluous to name the difficult consequences stemming from the budget cuts and their influence on students' conditions: a decrease in courses offered, canceling of optional courses, crowded classrooms, shortage of faculty and coursework checkers - and these are only a few examples.

The higher education and research system is in a gradual decline. Neglect of higher education and particularly universities is a direct blow to the nation's strength which is founded on creation of knowledge and transfer of it to the next generation, encourages "brain drain" abroad and strangles the excellence that was built through the labor of many years....

Moshe's five prohibitions

While I am on the topic of coming up with reasons for the Yom Kippur prohibitions, I should certainly mention the following idea.

YK commemorates the day when Moshe finished praying for the Jewish people after the golden calf sin, and having achieved forgiveness, descended the mountain. On this day we too pray nonstop for forgiveness.

Furthermore, each of the five prohibitions we observe on YK was also, in all likelihood, observed by Moshe while on Mt. Sinai:

1) Moshe did not eat or drink on the mountain: "I fell before Hashem as before, 40 days and 40 nights - bread I did not eat and water I did not drink - over all your sins..." (Devarim 9:18)

2) He was alone and could not have had marital relations.

3) He was on a mountaintop in the desert, and would probably not have had the opportunity to bathe, even if he wanted to.

4) Nor did he most likely bring oil with him, so he could not have anointed himself.

5) On his first trip to Mt. Sinai, when Moshe encountered the burning bush, God had to tell him to take his shoes off, since the ground was holy. (Shemot 3:5) Presumably the ground was still holy on Moshe's later trips to Mt. Sinai. If so, he probably would not have been allowed to wear shoes (leather or otherwise) while on the mountain.

Given these similarities between Moshe's behavior and our prohibitions, as well as the thematic similarities and the fact that they happened on the same day of the year, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the prohibitions are intended to remind us of Moshe's behavior.

Rather, or perhaps in addition to seeing ourselves as like angels on YK, we can see ourselves as like Moshe on the mountain, begging for forgiveness, receiving the 13 attributes, and at the end of the day descending, having concluded a renewed covenant with God.

Etrog pricing

The Mishna (Meilah 6:4) assumes that an etrog costs 1 perutah, roughly equal to 1 US cent.

The average etrog nowadays in Israel seems to cost about $10. Of course it's more in the US.

Thus, etrogs are about 1000 times as expensive now as in the time of the mishna.

That seems exorbitant. But a 100000% price increase over 1800 years corresponds to an annual inflation rate of just 0.38%. Which as any economist will tell you, is extremely low.

So maybe we are not getting ripped off after all.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Zachor et Yom Hakipurim lekadsho

The Shulchan Aruch (OH 611:2) lists two surprising leniencies regarding the laws of Yom Kippur:

1) On the afternoon of YK, one may prepare vegetables and crack nuts in preparation for the meal after the fast. (Note: this was the original halacha, but the Shulchan Aruch also says our current custom to prohibit it.)
2) If a fire breaks out on YK, one may rescue enough food from it in order to suffice for one meal after the fast. (By comparison, on Shabbat one could rescue enough food for each of the remaining Shabbat meals.)

Both of these seem to contradict the principle that you cannot prepare on Yom Tov for after Yom Tov. So why are they permitted?

I think they can best be understood using an explanation borrowed from the laws of Shabbat.

The Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 24:12) points out that the purpose of Shabbat would be lost if all that was prohibited was technical 'melacha'. People would still be able to go about most of their business like on every other day, and the idea of resting on Shabbat would be lost. Therefore the prophets and/or rabbis added a bunch of laws, for example muktza, and honoring and enjoying Shabbat, in order to make the day different and "restful" compared to the remainder of the week. They even added halachot which are not performed on Shabbat, but which contrast with Shabbat and thus make the day more special. Among these are havdalah; preparation for Shabbat; and the prohibition on eating a meal late Friday afternoon. By having to work before and after Shabbat, and by not eating before Shabbat, the resting and eating on Shabbat itself stand out in greater contrast.

The Torah's prohibition of work on YK seems to allude to a similar idea.

No 'melacha' shall be done on this day, for it is a day of atonement, to atone for you before Hashem your God. (Vayikra 23:28)

There is no obvious connection between work and atonement. So why is atonement mentioned here as the reason for not working? The connection is hard to understand.

I think the explanation is that atonement is what makes the day special and unusual. And like all other special days, we refrain from work on it, in order to distinguish the day from normal days. Atonement causes specialness, which in turn causes the prohibition on work. There is a connection between work and atonement, but it is through the intermediate concept of making the day distinguished and unique.

This concept of specialness seems to be exactly what we have seen regarding Shabbat. Just as we are commanded to work before and after Shabbat, it seems we are supposed to eat before and after YK. The requirement to eat before YK is well known. The permission to prepare (in certain ways) on YK for a post-fast meal indicates that this meal is integral to the day, even if it is not technically required.

Perhaps this suggests that the purpose of fasting on YK is not to make us unhappy (as might be the case with Tisha Beav). The importance of eating immediately before and after the fast contradicts the idea of maximizing discomfort. At the same time, it increases the sense of unusualness, as the contrast between how we live on YK and on "normal" days is heightened. It seems to me that we fast to create a sense of urgency, a feeling that we cannot go about our lives as we have until now. When the time comes to change ourselves, it is easiest to do so when the circumstances we are living in change drastically as well.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Office assistant

Deep inside a long email thread I am having with my co-workers (yes I am now seeing university research as a "job"), somebody wrote the following sentence to somebody else: "Please join us on Monday at 9:30."

And lo and behold, GMail puts the following suggestion on the sidebar:

Would you like to...
Add to calendar
Mon Oct 6, 2008 9:30am

It feels like Microsoft's Clippy, except a thousand times more sophisticated and useful. (Even though I don't use the GMail calendar.)

By the way, that would be tomorrow morning at 9:30am when I give a long presentation to a leading Israeli defense contractor about the device I've been developing. Wish me luck...

UPDATE: My part, at least, of the presentation went quite well. Whew.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Holidays and Egypt

ותתן לנו ה' אלקינו באהבה את יום הזכרון הזה, יום תרועה, מקרא קודש, זכר ליציאת מצרים

Every major Jewish holiday includes the phrase "zecher litziat mitzraim" in its prayers and kiddush. In most cases the reason is clear, or at least understandable. For Pesach, the reason is beyond obvious. Sukkot commemorates our dwelling in the desert after leaving Egypt; Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah which happened shortly after leaving Egypt, and Yom Kippur is the day Moshe descended with the second tablets a few months after that original Shavuot. Of all the holidays, Rosh Hashana alone is left without an explanation for why it is a "remembrance of leaving Egypt".

This question bothered me a little the past few days, and at Rosh Hashana dinner Wednesday - sitting next to a bunch of people I'd just met in the Gush dining room - I decided to ask them what they thought. After receiving the following answer, I felt no need to ask further.

The Ramban, commenting on Masechet Beitzah, explains the difference between the work prohibitions on Shabbat and Yom Tov. On Shabbat, all creative activity - "melacha" - is prohibited. This is to commemorate God's creation of the world, and as we say in the prayers, Shabbat is a "zecher lemaaseh breishit". On Yom Tov, the prohibition is different. In the Torah's language, what is prohibited is not "melacha" but "melechet avodah" - creative work. The purpose is not to commemorate creation, but to commemorate work - specifically, the work we had to do in Egypt until we were freed from there. Instead of serving Pharoah, we now serve God. We do this all year round, but particularly on holidays, when we visit Jerusalem and take part in the Temple "avodah". So it is then that the phrase "zecher litziat mitzraim" is most appropriate.

If so, then we should not expect to find any connection between Rosh Hashana and leaving Egypt. The connection is rather between leaving Egypt and holidays, regardless of each holiday's particular theme. A conclusive proof of this comes from Shabbat kiddush, which calls Shabbat a "yom techila lemikraei kodesh, zecher litziat mitzraim". Shabbat itself may not involve Egypt, but Shabbat does determine the character [?] of holidays (mikraei kodesh), and all mikraei kodesh by their very definition apparently involve Egypt.

I thought this such a good answer that I wanted to quote it here with the name of the person who told it to me. But he told me that this Ramban is "famous" and "everyone" now at Gush knows it, implying that there is no reason to quote him as the author. Wow. If that's common knowledge, then I wonder what went wrong with my own education. All I know is that this Rosh Hashana, I chose a pretty good place to be commemorating leaving Egypt.