Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thoughts on Shemot

[Yocheved] became pregnant and bore a son. She saw that he was good ("ותרא אותו כי טוב הוא"), and hid him for three months. (2:2)

What does it mean that the baby was "good", and why should this be a condition for its mother being willing to save it?

The best explanation I've seen for this is that "good" means "viable". In ancient times, a large proportion of infants would die early in childhood. If the baby Moshe was likely to die anyway, then it would not be worthwhile for Yocheved to endanger herself in order to protect him. Abandoning your baby to save yourself and your future offspring could not have been easy, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

What is the textual basis for this explanation? For this we can look to another, more famous instance of the phrase "ki tov", in the first chapter of Breishit. After finishing the creation of each part of the world, God looks at it and says that it is good - "וירא אלקים כי טוב".

The Ramban suggests that these comments are not simply a passive commentary on creation. Rather, they are part of the act of creation itself. In the Ramban's philosophy, there is no "clockmaker God" who created everything and then let it run on autopilot except for the occasional miraculous intervention. Rather, the world could not exist for more than an instant, if God did not constantly give it the ability to exist for another instant and another instant, and so on forever.

For the Ramban, "ki tov" in Breishit is the crucial textual indication of this philosophy. When God first created the world, it was only guaranteed to exist for a single moment. But then God called the world "good" - meaning long-lasting, that the world was guaranteed to exist continually, for an indefinite time and perhaps forever. And thus the stable natural processes we are familiar with came into being.

If "good" means "long-lasting" regarding creation, then it might mean the same thing regarding babies. When the baby Moshe was created, he might have been sick and lived only briefly, like the universe which originally would have lasted for just one moment. But regarding both Moshe and the universe, we learn that they were "good" and thus destined to live for much longer.

Even if we do not accept all aspects of the Ramban's cosmology, his understanding of the word "good" may nevertheless be correct and provide a clear explanation of why Yocheved acted the way she did.

More thoughts on Vayechi

Both Yaakov and Yosef, through their burial instructions, wish to encourage their family to await a return to Israel rather than assimilating in Egypt. But they do so in very different ways.

Yaakov makes a point of being buried immediately in Hevron, in the family burial cave, with as much of the family as possible attending the funeral. In contrast Yosef was buried in Egypt, but made his family promise that when they eventually left Egypt they would take his body with them for an Israeli burial.

Aside from the practical issues that might have impelled these two different types of burial, it seems Yaakov and Yosef were using different methods to convey the message of the importance of returning to Israel. Yaakov's impressive funeral leaves an indelible impression of the effort worth going to to return to Israel. In contrast, Yosef's funeral is much less impressive. But his temporary tomb in Egypt is a constant, if subtle, reminder that there is unfinished business and eventually everyone would need to return home.

These two burials represent two different kinds of leadership. One can be a kind of distant lighthouse signalling a clear direction to lost people. Or one can live among those people, sending a less clear message but through one's proximity exerting a more constant influence.

On every issue of public policy we must decide: Which of these ways is preferable?

(the above is from a "post" by Tzviel Gantz and Tomer Mevorach, in last week's Gush Daf Kesher)

And it was after these events, that it was told to Yosef saying "Behold your father is sick", and he took his two sons with him - Menashe and Efraim. (48:1)

Something is missing from this verse. It omits the central event - that Yosef goes to visit his father. Instead it tells us just one detail of that event - that the children came too. Why?

I think the answer is that the Torah does not tell us things that are obvious. Knowing Yosef's character, saying that he is informed of his father's sickness is equivalent to saying that he will then visit his father. So there is no need to mention this separately. Only the detail of bringing the children, which is not obvious, must then be mentioned.

Yosef's behavior, as pointedly not described in this verse, can be a model for our own behavior. Often when confronted with moral challenges we choose correctly, but only after a period of vacillations and doubts. That was not the level of Yosef, nor the level which we should aspire to. When it comes to mitzvot such as visiting the sick, our help should be instinctive and without hesitation. It should literally go without saying that we help out, just like it went without saying that Yosef would help out. If we notice any hesitation and laziness in this regard, it shows that our sense of empathy is incomplete and we must work to strengthen and encourage it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Between meat and milk

Mar Ukva said: Regarding [waiting between meat and milk], I am like vinegar derived from wine [i.e. much inferior], compared to my father. My father, when he ate meat, would not eat cheese until the same time the next day. But I do not eat [cheese] in the current meal, but do eat in the next meal. (Chullin 105a)

The halacha has been decided like Mar Ukva, that between meat and milk we wait from "one meal to the next", defined as either 1, 3, 5, or 6 hours. But I think the father's approach of waiting 24 hours is more logical than Mar Ukva's, even if nowadays our practice is otherwise.

The concept of waiting 24 hours is well known in the laws of kashrut. According to the halacha of ben yomo, a utensil which has been used with meat or milk acquires a milk or meat status for a period of 24 hours after use. After that, any food residue on the utensil is considered to have decayed to the point of inedibility and may then be eaten with the opposite "gender" (according to the Torah, but rabbinic law is generally stricter).

This principle might logically seem to apply not only to utensils, but also to one's mouth and stomach which come in contact with meat. Surely once you eat something, a little bit of it remains floating around your stomach or stuck between your teeth. If this kind of residue is enough to prohibit using a utensil with milk for the next 24 hours, why should your digestive system be any different? Based on the principle of "ben yomo", we should wait 24 hours between eating meat and milk (and perhaps between milk and meat, though even Mar Ukva's father might not have done that). In contrast, our custom of waiting 1 to 6 hours has no such theoretical basis and seems to be pretty much arbitrary.

So the thought expressed by the 24-hour opinion is not just "stricter is better", but also "more logical is better". And yet, we ignore both the safety of stringency and the attraction of logic in following our own custom. Sometimes our customs are annoyingly particular, but other times they provide us with great freedom. By following even the customs which take extra effort, we gain the legitimacy to rely on custom for leniencies as well.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rav Kook

Having more or less despaired of understanding R' Kook through his writings, which I generally find to be unreadable, I obtained "Essays on the Thought and Philosophy of Rabbi Kook" (edited by Ezra Gellman) from the local university library. It was a hard read as well, but at least it was straightforwardly written and the difficulty was in the conceptual analysis.

Based on my reading, I think the basic philosophical/mystical idea underlying R' Kook's thought is as follows:

(note - where there were gaps in what I learned from the sources, I added a little of my own thought as "glue" which could conceivably be in disagreement with R' Kook.)


The activity which best exemplifies God is creation. Similarly, the activity which best exemplifies the "image of God" in a person is creativity. Every moment of human creativity is valuable as an expression of the Divine image.

There are different examples of creativity in the world, some are a part of religious activity and others of secular or anti-religious activity. But since creation by definition stems from Godliness, even instances of apparently anti-religious creativity have some religious value.

Creativity does not take place in isolation: your creativity builds on developments picked up from other people, even people you disagree with. In war and commerce there are winners and losers, but in the world's intellectual development there are no losers, since one person's ideas supplement rather than replace the other's ideas. Thus the world is always progressing, never regressing or standing in place.

More creativity effectively means more revelation of God. Thus, all the instances of creativity in the world add up to a dialectical kind of evolution, with the final destination being the ultimate (complete?) revelation of God in the world.


So that is what I discovered. It seems to me to be an innovative, yet logical, development from previous kabbalistic thought. Sort of a generalizion of kabbalah from a set of technical concepts to encompass a broad range of human experience. Extremely brilliant, in my uneducated opinion.

I remain, though, with one question which I had before picking up Gellman's book and which the book did nothing to answer. Essentially:


The above approach assigns value to every intellectual possibility. But it is insufficient to decide which possibility is more valuable than the others, in order to decide on a course of action. Indeed, such a decision may be fundamentally problematic for R' Kook because it requires fragmentation in one's view of the universe (examining each action independently without regard for the other) rather than maintaining a unified overall perspective.

If so, then what if any application does R' Kook's thought have to the world? What is the unavoidable practical difference, the "nafka mina", between his approach and that of any other authority? And if there is none, what value does the philosophy have except as an intellectual toy?


I do not have an answer to this question. The approach of some of his followers that "conquering land is the only mitzvah nowadays" does not seem to me an authentic representation of R' Kook's views - much less a morally viable approach to life.

My best idea for finding an answer is to examine R' Kook's letters and other practical documents he wrote during his life, looking for examples of where he differs from other rabbis, and more importantly, examples of where his philosophy directly influenced the conclusions.

But that kind of analysis would take a huge amount of work, so don't anticipate seeing it anytime soon on this blog.

A writing tip

1. Take any word.
2. Count the number of letters in it.
3. Subtract three.
4. Call the number you get X.
5. Whenever you write, try very hard to wait X sentences between multiple uses of the word you chose.

Do that for all words. (And don't replace a word once with its synonym to bypass the issue - by doing so you introduce confusion as well as repetition.)

Thus you will eliminate much repetitiveness from your writing, and also get most of the long boring bureaucratic words replaced with short vivid equivalents. In certain technical types of writing, there is no advantage to these changes. But in the "humanities", I think they do an incredible amount to make your writing clear and interesting.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Putting the Ash in Ashkenaziss

The cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod, in the news recently due to the rockets falling on them, are close to one another and have similar names. Is this just a coincidence?

There is one other place name, originally from Tanach, which resembles Ashkelon and Ashdod: Ashkenaz. The Biblical Ashkenaz is almost certainly NOT France/Germany, the medieval meaning from which our word "Ashkenazi" comes. In Breishit 10:3 Ashkenaz is mentioned as one of the peoples descended from Noah after the flood, and a close relation of Yavan (Greece). Verse 10:5 might mean that Ashkenaz, like Yavan, lived on "islands". In any case, it seems like the Biblical Ashkenaz was at some place in the eastern Mediterranean region that was mainly accessed from Israel by sea.

In the Bible, Ashkelon and Ashdod were two of the five main Philistine cities. It is known (see Amos 9:7 and archeological sources) that the Philistines descend from the "Sea Peoples" who came by boat across the Mediterranean and conquered part of Canaan about the time the Jews were leaving Egypt. It's entirely possible that Ashkelon and Ashdod were either founded and named, or conquered and renamed, by the Philistines.

If so, the names they gave them are fascinating. For the Philistines came from the Greek islands or nearby - exactly where Ashkenaz is located - and then they started giving cities names like Ashkelon and Ashdod. Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ashkenaz - if one nation uses all of these names, then there is likely a common element between them.

A disproportionate number of Biblical Hebrew place names start with the word "Beit". This is to be expected since "beit" means "house of" or "place of" so it is a very logical first half of a place name. Similarly, many place names names start with "be'er". It seems from the above discussion that many Philistine place names start with "Ash". In the original Philistine language, whatever it was, I suspect that the word "ash" meant either "house", "town", "well", or a similar word. Then "kelon", "kenaz", "dod" would all be suffixes attached to the common prefix, "ash".

I can't help noticing that "dod" in particular resembles "Dodanim", the name of a Greek people mentioned in Breishit 10:4 who might have been another ancestor of the Philistines. Let me then go out on a limb and predict that the name Ashdod, "Ash"-"dod", can be translated to English as "Town of the Dod-ites."

Ashkenaziss 2

On Wikipedia recently I happened to learn about the High German consonant shift, in which (among other changes) the pronunciation of "t" in most German communities changed to "ss".

This is basically what I suggested as the origin of the Ashkenazi accent, so it's nice to see my prediction verified and my theory thus strengthened.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

That cow...

It's pretty insulting nowadays to call a woman a "cow", because that implies that she is fat - and nowadays fatness is quickly approaching promiscuity as the most undesired female trait. Things did not always used to be this way. In the Biblical era it was common for women to be named after large herbivorous animals, and nobody saw anything wrong with it.

Take for example the name Rachel, which means "female sheep". Or Yael, which means "ibex" - a kind of large wild goat. And let us not forget Rivkah, whose name, according to some commentators, means "cow" or "female calf". (See Shmuel 1 28:24, Yirmiyahu 46:21, Amos 6:4, Malachi 3:20 for comparison). My sister might not want to learn that she's named after a bovine, but the original Rivkah would have had no such hesitation.

UPDATE: One more example. The name "Leah" means "cow" in Akkadian.

Looking more closely, we see that these names are not evenly distributed across all Biblical women. Rather, they seem to only appear in families whose profession was herding. Rachel and Rivkah came from the family of Lavan the Aramean, and Yael from the nomadic Kenite tribe. Certainly Lavan, and probably the Kenites too, made a living from herding rather than farming or trading.

From the nature of the herding lifestyle, we can understand why these names became respectable. Herders would watch over and care for their animals - feeding and guiding them and caring for their sicknesses. In turn the animals would provide offspring and create wealth for the herder. This symbiotic relationship reminded ancient people of the relationship between husband and wife. While it's not politically correct to compare the two, wife and flock played similar roles in pastoral society: providing wealth and a future for the herder, who in turn protected them and guided them through the outside world.

The same comparison between wife and flock appears in other contexts. For example, the prophet Natan accuses David Hamelech of adultery through the parable of "kivsat harash", in which a rich man steals the only female sheep of a poor man, which the poor man had raised "in his lap... like a daughter". Here, the love and care the poor man gives to his sheep represent the the love and care which Uriyah felt towards his wife Batsheva, which were violently intruded upon by David's adultery.

The relationship between God and humans is often likened to that of husband and wife, and it's not surprising that it's likened to that between shepherd and flock as well. Thus we find well-known comparisons such as "Hashem is my shepherd, I shall not lack" (Tehilim 23:1) which is sung every week at seudah shlishit.

Thoughts on Vayechi

Yosef had near-absolute power as second-in-command to Pharoah. For example, after the famine begins, he purchased all the land and cattle in the country in return for feeding the people, and then turned all the farmers into sharecroppers when they asked for more food the next year. There is no hint that Pharoah initiated these policies. It's not even clear that Pharoah was asked to approve them.

Yet in a few cases, we see Yosef taking a much more submissive attitude. When his family comes to Egypt, he has them ask Pharoah to permit them to stay in the land. And in our parsha, when Yaakov dies, Yosef must beg nicely to Pharoah before being allowed to travel to Hevron for the burial. In fact he does not even dare ask Pharoah directly, but rather asks Pharoah's servants who convey the request to their king. Yosef has so much power in everything else that he does, so why is he so timid in these situations?

I think by looking at how positions like Yosef's came about, we can understand the inherent limitations of the position that forced him to be submissive in the above situations.

The basic issue confronting Pharoah was that running a country is hard work, and it's more fun to have somebody else doing it. The dreams and their interpretation by Yosef were simply a good opportunity to do what he probably wanted to do all along. Pharoah was not the only ancient king to make this calculation: for example, Achashverosh gave Haman and Mordechai positions similar to Yosef's.

At the same time, if these chosen subordinates had enough power to run the state, then they likely had enough power to overthrow and replace the king. Thus, the subordinate's loyalty to the king had to be unquestionable. In practice, this meant that while the subordinates had near-absolute control of policy, they were also absolutely prohibited from doing anything to help themselves personally.

So when Yosef wanted to undertake far-reaching economic reforms, for Pharoah's benefit but whose details Pharaoh did not want to be bothered with, nobody questioned what he did. But when he wanted to settle his family in Egypt, the question of his motivations arose and Pharoah had to review the decision personally. And when he wanted to visit his ancestral country - thus perhaps demonstrating his continued devotion to them rather than Egypt - Yosef's motives were all the more suspect, and he had to approach Pharoah indirectly, and to mention the oath to Yaakov which made the foreign burial morally unavoidable and obligatory.