Monday, March 30, 2009


According to the Rambam (i.e. Issurei Biah 18:18, Kelaim 10:23, Shaar Avot Hatuma 16:1), a "safek deoraita" is not forbidden by the Torah, only by the rabbis. Yet if you are in doubt as to whether you violated a mitzvah, the Torah requires you to bring an "asham talui" guilt offering. How do these two laws not contradict one another?

I don't know the answer, but it sounds like something the achronim have probably discussed extensively.

UPDATE: an answer.


Excluding birds, the Torah specifies three animals which are to be used for sacrifices: cows, goats, and sheep. Rambam (Guide to the Perplexed 3:46) explains that these three animals were worshipped as gods in India, Sabea (?), and Egypt respectively. By requiring us to kill these animals, the Torah forces us to deny and distance ourself from several major forms of ancient idolatry.

Ramban (on Vayikra 1:9) objects that if the point is to kill foreign deities, there is no need for the whole complicated sacrificial process. It is much easier, and equally effective, to simply kill the animals and eat them!

Ramban brings this reductio ad absurdum argument in order to reject the Rambam's approach. But we need not see the result as absurd. Perhaps eating meat really does have intrinsic value as a rejection of idolatry. Every time you chew on a steak, you are proudly proclaiming that you are not a Hindu. It turns out that "bassarfest" is not only enjoyable, but a big mitzvah as well.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I don't always agree

...with Haaretz. But here, they saved me a blog post by saying basically everything I would have said myself on the subject of recent political developments.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Modeh Ani

"I thank you, living and enduring King, that You have mercifully returned me my soul; great is your steadfastness."

I find it funny that Modeh Ani is recited immediately after waking up in the morning. For most of us, that is the one moment of the day when we'd actually prefer being dead to being awake!

Perhaps that is exactly why we say it. If we manage to see Divine purpose in our lives even when the alarm goes off at 6:30 AM, then surely we'll be much more motivated the rest of the day, once we've had some coffee and life does not feel so terrible anymore.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The context of chet haegel

1. Spirituality

In Shemot 32:20 Moshe tells the people: "You have sinned a great sin; now I will go up to God, perhaps I will [be able to] atone for your sin." This, in particular the "perhaps", should be quite disconcerting. Yet there is no hint that the people regret their deeds or begin to do teshuvah.

But when Moshe comes down from the mountain, the people react quite differently. God tells Moshe to take the people to the fruitful, promised land, from which God will expel the inhabitants so that Israel can inherit it. However, God will not be "in their midst" as they travel - for their own protection, lest they sin again and incur destruction. This seems like a pretty amazing deal for a people who had just reverted to idolatry so soon after receiving the Torah. Yet the people are much more distressed by it than by the previous announcement, that they "might" receive atonement. Now, "the people heard this evil message, and they mourned, and no person put on his ornaments." (33:4) (The message is called "evil" to indicate that the people saw it as evil.) Why do they mourn now, when they should have mourned much more beforehand?

This oddity can be explained by studying the people's behavior over a long period, from the giving of the Torah until the Mishkan is built. Nowadays we all know people who constantly pursue "spirituality" in their lives, whether it takes them to chassidut, kabbalah, Buddhism, Apache rain dances, hallucinogenic drugs, or all of the above simultaneously. This is a desire that most of us just don't have. While it means that our religious lives can be stale and passive by comparison, it also saves us from the excesses and immorality often encountered when sampling exotic doctrines indiscriminately. I think the entire Jewish people possessed such a intense thirst for "spirituality", throughout the period they were at Mount Sinai.

On several occasions this led to great accomplishments. When offered the Torah in parshat Yitro, they enthusiastically accepted. And later on, when offered the chance to contribute to building the Mishkan, they brought so many donations that they had to be told to stop. Unfortunately, when no such immediate spiritual opportunities were available, they were unable to restrain themselves. When Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain, they could not stop themselves from making and worshipping a calf. If they could not have legitimate spiritual experiences, then illegitimate ones would have to do.

Thus, rather than being an inexplicable oscillation between extremes, the people's behavior stems from a single consistent behavioral trait. The acceptance of the Torah, the golden calf, the people's distress at hearing God will not travel with them, and their eagerness to contribute to the Mishkan - all result from a thirst for spirituality, unbalanced by a sense of boundaries or patience for when spiritual experiences are unavailable.

It is perhaps in reaction to this behavioral trait that the book of Vayikra (which follows the building of the Mishkan) enacts boundaries and restrictions in every aspect of life. The indiscriminate spiritual urge may still be present, but when it cannot be indulged it is not dangerous.

2. Its source

Where did this excessive, unprecedented spirituality come from? My guess is that it results from the unprecedented miracles the people experienced in and while leaving Egypt. This experience habituated them to regular, spectacular Divine revelations. Even people who normally had little spiritual drive would likely become interested when confronted with such overt miracles.

This hypothesis may be tested by examining the people's behavior between leaving Egypt and reaching Sinai. In this period, there were two occasions when the people challenged Moshe and, effectively, God. Do these complaints disprove the thesis that in this period the people desired constant closeness with God? Let us see.

The first of these complaints revolved around the people's lack of food, the other around lack of water. As is explained here, the complaint about water reflected a fear that God had abandoned the Israelites and Moshe was simply leading under his own powers. Lack of water is the immediate cause of the complain, but the people's desire for a constant connection with God is evident throughout.

The same seems to be true of the food complaint. There the people complain: "If only we had died by God's hand in the land of Egypt... for you have brought us into this desert, to kill this whole assembly by hunger." The people's attachment to God is so strong, they say, that even if they have to die, better that it happen through Divine intervention than through the normal laws of nature. Moshe tells them that "your complaint is not against us [me and Aharon], but against God" (16:8), indicating that until then, the people did not realize they were implicitly rejecting God.

The nature of these complaints seems to confirm that the people's spiritual desire did not wane between the Exodus and the events at Sinai. If anything, the people complain that God is absent rather than that God is doing something wrong.

3. An implication

This theory could have significant implications regarding other events that happened around the same time.

For example, it is commonly said that women were not involved in chet haegel. One possible source for this idea is the fact that women took the lead in contributing to the Mishkan (see Shemot 35:22, 38:8, and commentaries). If they were so heavily invested in this good deed, then how could they have supported the evil deed which preceded it? But according to my theory, this argument should lead to the opposite conclusion. The golden calf and contributions to the Mishkan were morally opposite, but they derived from the same spiritual motivation. Perhaps women possessed a greater spiritual urge and thus contributed more to both calf and Mishkan. This would match the contemporary experience of Reform Judaism and other liberal movements, that women are much more interested in religious involvement than men.

(For the record, I think all arguments along the lines of "men/women are better than women/men because at some historical moment they did/didn't do something good/bad" are silly.)

4. The future

The people's spiritual interest seems to have been constant throughout the first year or so after leaving Egypt. But it did not last forever. By the 11th chapter of Bamidbar, when another set of complaints and rebellions begins during the journey to Israel, the people's nature seems to have changed. They still have a sense of expectation, but now their expectations are material rather than spiritual. They now behave like spoiled little children, demanding to eat delicacies and refusing to accept the challenge of conquering.

Spiritual experiences are opportunities to point your life in a new and better direction. But if the opportunities are missed and the excitement passes without any lasting changes being made, then you will likely still be changed, but in a way you did not intend. It is impossible to stand still in life: one is always moving either forwards or backwards. If you do not have the courage to move forward then you will slide backwards, whether you really intend it or not.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thoughts on Vayakhel

As the Ramban shows (Shemot 36:6), the word "melacha" can mean "property" as well as creative activity.

Perhaps this is a source from the Torah for the prohibition on doing business - amassing wealth - on Shabbat.

It happened in ruchniyus

A couple weeks ago I went to a Shabbat meal at a certain Chabad family. At one point, two of the guests got into a disagreement about what their Rebbe said or did about a particular subject. One of them asserted something, and the other responded, "That didn't really happen - it happened in ruchniyus."*

What a great response! Whenever I want to be polite in pointing out that somebody's idea is nonsense, or when they insist on taking literally something which should really be taken allegorically, I now have the perfect answer. "What you are saying is true, but only in ruchniyus." I can't wait to use it.

*That is to say, it's "spiritually" true, even if not factually true.


There is a stereotypically Ashkenazi food known as kugel. Funnily enough, many Israelis refer to it not as "kugel" but as "kigel", as if they were saying the word with an archaic Ashkenazi pronunciation. They themselves have completely Israeli accents, but for this one word they pretend to be chassidim.

And for some of them, the humorous "kigel" pronunciation is so ingrained that if you mention "kugel" to them, they don't know what you're talking about!

Thoughts on Megillat Esther

In those days, while Mordecai sat in the king's gate... (2:21)

In ancient times, it was customary for judges to sit in the gate and conduct their duties there (see i.e. Devarim 22:15 and Shmuel Alef 4:15-18). What was Mordechai doing sitting there? Perhaps this verse tells us that from the beginning of the story Mordechai was already a powerful member of the king's court, with the power to judge other members.

If so, then it is easier to understand why Mordechai thinks he can get away with not bowing to Haman, and easier to understand why Mordechai in particular is appointed second to the king at the end of the megillah.

This approach is not contradicted by the episode in which Mordechai reports the plot against Ahashverosh. Contrary to popular opinion, Mordechai probably did not overhear the plotters himself. Rather, "became known to Mordechai" presumably means that the matter was told to Mordechai by someone lower than himself, and of course Mordechai had the connections needed in order to inform the king.

The king loved Esther more than all the women ... so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti. The king made a great feast unto all his princes and his servants - Esther's feast - and he made a release ['hanacha'] to the provinces, and gave gifts, according to the bounty of the king. (2:17-18)
"There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; ... and it is not worthwile for the king to suffer them ['lehanicham']." (3:8)

In the megillah, the verb "lehaniach" here is used only in these two verses. The meaning not the same: Haman's "hanacha" means passive acceptance of the Jews' existence, while Ahashverosh's means some extra gift which was granted to the empire. The use of the same verb, with different meanings, within a space of 12 verses draws attention to the contrast between the uses.

It appears that the when all the empire's peoples received Ahashverosh's "hanacha", the Jews were among them. No doubt they were happy at receiving gifts, at the opportunity to party in Shushan, and for those who knew, at the knowledge that one of their own had "made it" by marrying into the royal family. Mordechai's loyalty to Ahashverosh when he learns of the plot (2:21-23) is an indicator of this identification with, even assimilation into, the ruling establishment.

At this exact moment, the megillah uses the verb "lehaniach" again in quite the opposite context. Just when the Jews became most successful and integrated into Persian society, the question arose whether they even possessed the right to live. By connecting these two events through their juxtaposition and the common use of "lehaniach", the megillah suggests the transience and insignificance of their accomplishments in Shushan. If the accomplishments could be uprooted so quickly by the very people who had granted them, then perhaps they were not worth putting so much effort into in the first place.

Esther spoke again before the king, and fell down at his feet, and cried and begged him to eliminate the evil of Haman the Agagite... (8:3)

According to the gemara (Megillah 14a) we do not say Hallel on Purim because despite the miracles at the time we remained slaves to Ahashverosh. We still must commemorate being saved, but this cannot be an opportunity for complete rejoicing.

The crisis in the Megillah began when Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. In verse 8:3, we see that the crisis is ended by Esther bowing to Ahashverosh. Perhaps it is somewhat better to bow to Ahashverosh than to Haman. But whatever principle was gained by Mordechai's initial act is likely lost here. This is a vivid illustration of the gemara's point that it was not yet the right opportunity to say Hallel.

For writing which is written in the king's name and sealed with the king's ring cannot be reversed. (8:8)

One interesting feature of the megillah is how Ahashverosh cannot simply cancel his decree to exterminate the Jews. Instead, he can only issue a complementary decree allowing the Jews to fight back. Perhaps another example of inability to cancel a decree occurs after Ahashverosh divorces Vashti in a fit of drunken rage. Once he sobers up he cannot reverse this decision, but must search for a different queen.

We see the same phenomenon regarding a different Persian king in the book of Daniel (6:7-17). King Darius decrees that anyone who prays to God or a man other than Darius must be killed. Then Daniel is caught praying, much to Darius' distress since he likes Daniel. But his advisors tell him, "Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians, that any prohibition or law which the king establishes may not be changed." Thus Daniel cannot escape being thrown into the lion pit, though in the pit he is miraculously saved.

Thus it seems that that in the Persian empire, a formal decree once made by the king could never be reversed. There is no evidence of a similar rule in other ancient kingdoms, and the logic behind the rule is not obvious.

R' Yaakov Medan ("Daniel: Galut vehitgalut", p. 152) suggests a possible rational for this practice. The 127-province Persian empire was so large and diverse that unless the law was held in the highest possible esteem, the empire could descend into anarchy. Making each royal decree permanent was a way of increasing its standing and the respect all the diverse peoples would have for it, thus decreasing revolts and making the empire more stable.

I hesitate to advance ideas that people much more informed than myself may have considered and rejected, but the following justification seems to me more compelling than R' Medan's. Presumably the unique legal system of the Persian empire reflects some unique quality of the empire itself. The Persian empire was not unique among ancient kingdoms not in its size, but in that it was ruled jointly by two distinct nations. The Assyrian empire was ruled by Assyria, the Babylonian empire by Babylon, and so on. But the Persian empire was ruled by both Persia and Media. Thus Ahashverosh's banquet is for "the army of Persia and Media" (1:3), and the above quote from Daniel referes to the "law of the Medes and Persians", since both nations are part of the government hierarchy.

The presence of two separate nations in power probably led to tensions between the two. In order to prevent power struggles between them from leading to civil war, some kind of restrictions on the government were necessary. There was likely a legacy of past royal decrees establishing the division of power between Persia and Media. By making these and all other formal decrees irrevocable, the balance of power between Persians and Medes was ensured, and the empire's overall stability was enhanced.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aharon and chet haegel

When the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aharon, and said to him: "Rise, make us gods who shall go before us..." ... [Aharon] received [their golden rings], and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." When Aharon saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron proclaimed, saying: "Tomorrow is a festival to Hashem." (32:1-5)

The people ask Aharon to make "gods". Aharon makes a single calf (representing perhaps a single god). The people proclaim "These are our gods". Aharon responds by declaring a ceremony for Hashem, the one real God.

It is not clear who the people end up worshipping: one God, or a whole bunch of deities. But clearly Aharon has tried to direct their polytheistic enthusiasm into a monotheistic framework. If he succeeded in this, then the most severe aspect of the sin was avoided through his initiative.

Hashem smote the people, because they made the calf, which Aharon made. (32:35)

This line seems to be phrased awkwardly on purpose. Did the people make the calf... or Aharon... or both? The intent is to point out that Aharon made it - raising the possibility that he should be punished - and simultaneously to say that the people and not Aharon deserve to be punished by "smiting". Aharon was physically responsible for the calf, and he is certainly embarrassed when his brother comes down and sees him in charge of the whole scene, but here God decided not to punish him for it.

It is not fair to compare Aharon's actions to Moshe's at the time. The premise of the sin was that Moshe would not return and the people had to create new leadership for themselves. Once Moshe showed up, the calf worship immediately lost its basis. I suspect Aharon's course of action was the best possible under the circumstances. Better even than opposing the worship, getting martyred over it, and then having the people worship "gods" as they originally intended.

An apology

Contemplating recently whether to de-anonymize my blog, I decided to read through the archives and see if there was really anything there I wouldn't want to be associated with.

I found relatively little such material. But what I did find was immense jump in the complexity of the posts as time went on. Reading my early posts was easy and fun. The later posts were objectively better in content and structure, but much less enjoyable to read.

Suddenly I understand why people comment so infrequently on the blog nowadays. This blog is just not something a person would read for fun.

Is this my fault for writing boringly? Or the subject matter's fault for being too complex? My feeling is that both are somewhat true. I can and have been trying to deal with my boringness. But it's not easy, there is no simple formula for how to write interestingly, and the boundary between my boringness and the material's boringness (despite its worthwhileness) is rarely obvious.

In the meantime, sorry that I have driven you all away from the blog.

Of course, it's easy to apologize when you know the people who need apologizing to won't hear you...

Notes from the main Haifa train station

[the posting of this was delayed for several days...]

Like in any public space, there is plenty of advertising here. From where I am sitting, I can see posters advertising a total of six different products.

All six "products" are degree programs offered by different universities or colleges across Israel.

It's nice to see that Israeli priorities are still in the right place.

Monday, March 09, 2009

PPurimm TTorahh

In many places Tanach describes sinners as being "drunk". And nowhere is this description more appropriate than in describing Jews who do not make aliyah.

One symptom of the drunkenness of Jews still in exile is a severe case of double vision. Whenever they look at the calendar, they see each holiday twice. Two days of Shavuot, two seders on Pesach, and so on. If they could see clearly, they'd know that each of these holidays takes place on one specific day. But due to their double vision they celebrate each holiday twice, on the correct day and also one day later.

The only holiday when this does not happen is Yom Kippur. Then - because they are fasting and can't drink - they celebrate one day like they are supposed to.

There is also one day on which the pattern is reversed ("venahafoch hu"). On Purim, Jews in exile celebrate one day. But Jews in Israel celebrate two days: Purim and Shushan Purim. The one time all year when you are required to be drunk and have halachic "double vision", Jews in exile are unable to. Alcoholics cannot simply enjoy a single drink like the rest of us. They have to abstain and miss the occasion, lest one drink become two or three or four drinks and they fall back into the cycle of their addiction. So too with Jews outside Israel. They cannot celebrate Purim for two days, like it is intended to be. Instead, they must make do with the relative sobriety of a one-day Purim.

Luckily for them, it's not too late to cure their "alcoholism". I hear Nefesh Benefesh is starting a new 12 step program...

Purim costumes

I once heard how a friend of a friend had joined the Purim party in a charedi yeshiva. He wore his normal dati leumi clothes, but nobody there thought he was out of place. On the contrary, they assumed he was a charedi guy dressing up as dati leumi. Because he was in fact really dati leumi, his "costume" was correct in all the little details which are hard for outsiders to get right, and he received many compliments for its realism!

One of the things I like about Purim is the fact that in costume, you can't tell if a person is charedi, dati leumi, or (in many cases) secular. When we meet people, we generally begin by relating to them in certain ways, based on preconceptions we have about their background. These preconceptions may not be negative, but they do tend to limit our interaction to certain predefined patterns. On Purim it is harder to do this. Deprived of the usual procedures for determining who is who, the only option is to treat everyone the same way. Then, either we discover that other people are not as different from us as we assumed, or if real differences in outlook come up, we must tackle them head-on rather than diverting then into an "of course THEY think that way" pigeonhole.

Your Purim costume hides some things about you. But your normal clothes, the "costume" you wear all year long, hide much more. On Purim you take this costume off. Physically, it is replaced by whatever unusual and amusing attire you wear instead. Socially, nothing replaces it, and the opportunity exists for more direct and intimate interaction with all members of the Jewish people.


Some thoughts on "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce. This post assumes knowledge of the book's plot.

Each of the first 4 chapters ends with an "epiphany" or "breakthrough" which Stephen experiences.

In chapters 1 and 3 this breakthrough is in the direction of the church. In chapter 1 he goes to the school principal and questions his punishment. Through this action, intellectually he makes sense of life in the religious school, and socially he gains respect and standing in it. In chapter 3 he abandons his dissolute lifestyle and becomes religious.

In chapters 2 and 4 this breakthrough is in the direction of women. In chapter 2 he gains the courage to visit a prostitute. In chapter 4 he meets the girl bathing on the beach.

The key figure in chapter 5 is Cranly. He is religious and so represents the church. At the same time he has "womanly" eyes and, at least in the sense of having sensitive relationships with other people, represents women. Thus he personifies what Stephen has been chasing throughout the previous 4 chapters. For most of chapter 5 Stephen is accompanied by Cranly. Yet by the end Stephen has made a final break with him.

I do not think chapter 5 is an abandonment of the previous chapters. Rather, it is a development from them, like chapter 3 is a development from 1 and 4 from 2. Stephen hopes to find two things in life: truth and beauty. The first he searched for in the church, the second in women. In chapter 5, rather than forgetting these objectives, he chooses a different source for them. In the past he has drawn on external sources, the church and women, in order to bring truth and beauty into his life. From now on, their source will be internal. As an "artist", through his works he will create truth and beauty.

That is what he tries to do in his complex theoretical discourses and in his poem. Whether or not these creations of his are intellectually and artistically successful is beside the point; he is only a young artist and will have many later opportunities to improve. At the very least, their complexity indicates that he is trying hard. :)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Hoshen Mishpat

You shall make a breastplate of judgment... (28:15)

What does the priest's breastplate have to do with judgment?

The answer can be derived from the last line of the instructions for making it:

"You shall put the "urim vetumim" into the breastplate of judgment, and Aharon shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before Hashem continually." (28:30)

And elsewhere we see the urim vetumim explicitly mentioned in connection with judgment:

"You [Moshe] shall place your glory on him [Yehoshua], so that the whole congregation of the children of Israel listens to him. And before Elazar the priest he will stand, and will ask him for the judgment of the urim before Hashem. By his mouth they will go out and by his mouth they will return - he and and the children of Israel with him, and all the congregation." (Bamidbar 27:20-21)

Almost certainly then, the "judgment" of the breastplate refers to the judgment of the urim vetumim which are contained within it. Aharon, by virtue of carrying the urim vetumim, carries the people's judgment with him wherever he goes.

But what exactly does the "judgment" of the urim vetumim consist of?

The urim vetumim were a means of communication from God to the Jewish people. Perhaps, one of the things God would tell the people would be how to resolve difficult legal cases. In Ezra 2:62 and Nechemiah 7:65, for example, it is expected that the urim vetumim would be used to determine whether certain individuals were priests, and thus allowed to eat "terumah". In these verses, the "judgment" of the urim vetumim apparently means judgment of specific court cases.

However, in the rest of Tanach we see urim vetumim used for a different purpose: to ask God for military advice, in particular whether or not to wage a certain battle. This is how the urim vetumim are apparently intended to be used by Shaul fighting against the Philistines (Shmuel Alef 28:6), by David under attack by Shaul (Shmuel Alef 23:9-13), and by the 11 tribes fighting together against Binyamin (Shoftim 20:23-29).

To that list we can add the previously mentioned verses from Bamidbar, in which Moshe is told to appoint Yehoshua as his successor. What is the relevance of urim vetumim to this appointment? Yehoshua's main task as leader was the conquest of the land of Canaan. Presumably, consulting the urim vetumim for military guidance was an inescapable part of the conquest. As God describes things, Yehoshua will visit Elazar, then Elazar's urim vetumim will provide advice, and finally the people will go out to battle (that's the meaning of the expression "going out and returning", see here). The military advice Yehoshua would receive is called "judgment".

But since when is military strategy called "judgment"? To answer this, remember that before the monarchy, Israel was ruled by "judges". A glance through Sefer Shoftim makes it seem that sitting in court was a minor part of their job description. Only a few of them are ever listed as judging the people. But every one of them is listed as fighting wars against Israel's enemies.

Why then are they called "judges", if their main role was military? The answer can be derived from a comparison between different conceptions of the judge's role.* According to one conception, judgment is basically an intellectual task. The judge is to overcome the complications and ambiguities of the situation before him, figuring out exactly what the facts of the case are and exactly which passage of law applies to it. Once the verdict is issued, the judge's task is finished. This conception is strongly rooted in Greek, and therefore in modern Western conceptions of the judge's role.

In Tanach we find a different conception: that the judge's task is not only to arrive upon a verdict, but to enforce it. Enforcing the morally required outcome is so central to the judge's role that the phrase "to judge" is used as a synonym for "to save", as in Shmuel Alef 24:15, Shmuel Bet 18:19, and Yeshayahu 59:11. In this conception, it is natural to expect judges to be not only experts but leaders, and natural for leaders with sufficient moral fiber to also be trusted as judges. Thus we find Israel's military leaders, who saved the nation from its enemies, being called "judges". History remembers only their performance in crucial battles, but their title equally reflects the judicial role which they filled on a more regular basis.

It seems that the "judgment" of the urim vetumim included both aspects of Biblical "justice". As seen in Ezra and Nechemiah, the urim vetumim provided answers to legal dilemmas. And as seen in the other sources, they were a crucial source of military strategy. Many Jewish sources attest to the idea that intellectual aptitude must be accompanied by concern for the moral order and the well-being of others. Through the urim vetumim, God set an personal example in regard to this concern, by combining legal insights with the practical advice the people needed in order to defeat their enemies.

*In this I follow chapter 5 of R' Eliezer Berkowitz's book of collected writings.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thoughts on the Mishkan

If asked to determine whether a house was being lived in or not, I would investigate two things: whether the house's lights were on, and whether there was food in the fridge. The presence of both would be strong evidence that somebody lived there, even if they were not physically present at the moment.

Imagine then that you came to the Temple in Jerusalem, walked in the front door, and found the lights on and food in a refrigerator. By the same logic, you would conclude that someone was living there, even if the building was physically empty at the time. And taking the limitations of ancient technology into account, it does seem that the Temple's "furniture" includes a close approximation to both lights and a refrigerator .

I used to wonder what was the purpose of the "shulchan lechem hapanim", or table with showbread, in the Temple. My conclusion now is that it symbolized the ancient version of a refrigerator. The showbread, which simply sat on the table for a week before being replaced, had no practical purpose. Rather, its purpose was symbolic: to indicate that the Temple was occupied by somebody, who possessed a stash of food for their nourishment and convenience.

Unlike the showbread, the menorah has a clear practical use: the mishkan had no windows, and while the Temple had windows, they were useless at night. But I think the menorah's role is at least as much symbolic as practical, and moreover, that the symbolic significances of the menorah and showbread are linked. The menorah and showbread are often mentioned together, for example in Vayikra 24 where no other objects in the Temple are discussed. And the seven branches of the menorah, along with the seven days between replacements of showbread (Vayikra 24:8), seem to indicate a common purpose. If the showbread is a symbol that somebody calls the Temple home, the menorah is a symbol that somebody is constantly using the Temple.

The question then is: who is that somebody? There are two options: either the priests (representing Israel and/or humanity), or else God. Good arguments can be made in favor of both possibilities.

On one hand, the entire Temple is called the "house of Hashem", and when the cloud representing God enters the Temple, it apparently takes up the entire building (see Shemot 40:35, Melachim Alef 8:10-11). Thus God apparently dwells in the entire Temple building.

On the other hand, there is a huge difference between the "kodesh hakodashim", which only the high priest on Yom Kippur may enter on pain of death, and the "kodesh" or outer hall which is traversed by priests on a daily basis. If approaching God is so terrible, does this not mean that entering the outer hall does not really mean approaching God?

The menorah and showbread are located in the outer hall, and from their laws we could try to deduce who is supposed to symbolically "use" them. However, this evidence too is ambiguous. The showbread procedure resembles that of a sacrifice, and sacrifices are symbolically "eaten" by God (see Bamidbar 28:2). And in Shmuel Alef 3:3, the menorah is called "Hashem's light" and the literary implication is that once it disappears, so will God. Yet the showbread is physically eaten, and the menorah physically used for illumination, by the priests.

Since so much evidence points in both directions, it is hard to prove that the Temple's outer chamber belongs to either man or God. Perhaps the best resolution is to say that it belongs to both man and God. The "kodesh hakodashim" belongs solely to God (thus humans are virtually never allowed to enter it). The courtyard outside the Temple belongs solely to humans (since God dwells in the Temple). In between those two realms, the outer chamber of the Temple apparently is shared by man and God.

Because of this dual usage, the Temple's outer chamber is apparently where humans meet God. When Moshe went to hear a Divine message after the construction of the mishkan, he would go to the outer chamber and listen to a voice coming from the inner chamber (Bamidbar 7:89; Rashi). And Shmuel's first prophecy (Shmuel Alef 3:3-15) apparently took place in the outer chamber of the mishkan, when it was in Shiloh. Moshe and Shmuel are perhaps the two greatest prophets ever, and each of them received some of their most significant prophecies in this part of the mishkan.

Throughout Tanach, circumstances would dictate that prophets receive their message in all sorts of places and situations. But it seems that ideally, prophecy was supposed to occur in the outer chamber of the mishkan/Temple. As indicated by the symbolism of the menorah and showbread, there God and man dwelt together, and there communication between them was most natural.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


In the place I visited last Shabbat, there is apparently someone who, for a living, sells underwear and similar garments out of her home.

That struck me as a great way to run a business which is necessary and legitimate, but which by its nature attracts prurient interest. It certainly beats the mannequins dressed in transparent underwear who promenade all around the shopping mall near my home.

The angel who teaches and makes us forget

According to the gemara (Niddah 30b), before each of us is born, an angel comes and teaches us the entire Torah, yet before our birth we are made to forget it. What is the meaning of this midrash?

The midrash seems to be an expression the following two ideas about Torah:

1) It is not alien to any Jew. Even if you seem to be "encountering" it for the first time, it is inherently inside you, whether consciously or unconsciously. This can be encouraging to one who despairs of successfully learning or practicing it. It can also be a spur to one who is satisfied with their current level of achievement and sees no need for anything greater.
2) It is democratic: just like everyone learned the Torah in the womb, every deserves and can benefit from Torah education.

(mostly from a lecture by R' Soloveitchik about Pesach; March 15, 1970)