Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thoughts on Kedoshim

You shall not do wrong in judgment - in length, weight, or volume. Fair balances, fair weights, a fair efah, and a fair hin you shall have; I am Hashem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. (19:35-36)

The first verse mentions three types of measurement in which we must not cheat people. The second verse gives examples, with the efah and hin being units of volume, or rather containers with volume equal those units.

The second verse follows the order of the first verse: weight measurement, then volume measurement. Length measurement, however, is conspicuously absent. Shouldn't a fair yardstick and tape measure have been mentioned before the fair balance, weights, efah, and hin?

Here are two possible explanations for why they are not mentioned.

1) Dishonest length measuring tools could be immediately detected by placing them next to fair tools, while with weight and volume measures the deception would be less obvious. Thus, perhaps, dishonesty was less common in length than in volume or weight measurements, so they did not need to be mentioned multiple times for emphasis.

2) Perhaps length was normally measured not with tools but with body parts. We are familiar with halachic measurements such as cubits and thumb-breadths, and secular measurements such as "feet" and paces, which derive from the human body. It is certainly possibly to cheat somebody in a length measurement, by bending a body part or changing your pace length. But this cheating was not normally done using a dishonest tool.

The first verse bans cheating. The second verse bans tools whose only possible use is unacceptable (like skeleton keys and "assault weapons" nowadays). Since body parts cannot be outlawed, they are omitted from the second verse.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thoughts on Metzora

Parshat Metzora ends with the laws of impurity of bodily emissions (15:1-32), which are presented in the following order:

1. Zav
2. Seminal emission
3. Menstruation
4. Zava

It can readily be seen that these four laws form a chiastic structure:

1. Unnatural male emission
2. Natural male emission
3. Natural female emission
4. Unnatural female emission

The underlying logic is clear. The laws are divided into those of males and females, while the male and female sections are each divided into natural and unnatural emissions. The order of laws in the female section is reversed, so that as we go from the male to the female section, the subtopic (natural emissions) remains the same.

Like all ancient texts, originally the Torah was most often recited and heard rather than read by individuals. One can skip from page to page while reading a book, but not while hearing an oral recitation. Thus smooth continuity, in addition to logical structure, is a compelling factor in the Torah's organization. A chiastic structure was inevitable in this chapter, because no other ordering is continuous between its sections as well as logically clear.

It is on the basis of unambiguous passages like this that people think that the Torah uses chiastic structures. The key question is to what extent such structures are present in cases when the structure is less apparent and its utility less clear. That is one debate between the "literary Tanach" enthusiasts, and between those who think literary methods are sometimes overused to discover patterns that do not really exist.

Lashon hakodesh

One of the likable traits of some Israelis is that despite their not being at all religious, their conversations are sprinkled with idioms from Tanach and Jewish tradition.

I once went to a one-day class, taught by a secular-looking engineer, which did a good job of exemplifying this. At one point the teacher explained a complicated topic, and upon finishing, showed two other results that were trivial to derive from the initial conclusion. These additional results, he said, were "yotzim hinam ein kesef". Then, near the end of the class, he said "Now that kulanu hachamim, kulanu nivonim..." and began to describe a task we could do with our just-acquired knowledge. These phrases stick in my mind more than two years after I attended the class.

I recently found out that the use of these idioms is not "natural", but rather, was deliberately cultivated by Israeli education. An official Israeli school curriculum guide published in 1954 includes the following directive: "The teacher should nourish in the heart of the pupils a love for the Oral Torah... and should consciously endeavor in his instruction that the pupils absorb the specific idioms and ways of expression of the Mishnah and the Aggadah." (quoted in Tradition 2:2:249)

Those instructions were for the secular, not religious, schools.

In recent years, the secular education system seems to have abandoned this goal. From the experience with student and other young people I have met, it seems clear that they don't make secular Israelis like they used to.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Thoughts on Shmini

In parshat Shemini we read about the death of Nadav and Avihu. In parshat Acharei Mot we read the follow-up to this story:

Hashem spoke to Moshe, after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they approached Hashem, and died. Hashem said to Moshe: "Speak to Aharon your brother, that he not approach the holy place at all times..." (16:1-2)

Not only is Acharei Mot introduced by a reference to Shemini, but the Yom Kippur sacrifices specified in Acharei Mot are the same as those offered on the 8th day of the Mishkan's inauguration.

It would seem natural for Acharei Mot to immediately follow the story in Shemini. But there are five chapters of apparently unrelated material in between. What is this material doing there?

Looking at this material, we see it consists of four sections:

1. Kashrut of food
2. Impurity of a woman who has given birth
3. Leprosy
4. Bodily emissions

The common element between them is the centrality of purity and impurity. Sections 2 and 4 deal exclusively with such laws. And purity is the central theme in sections 1 and 3: non-kosher animal species are called "impure" species and it is emphasized that one who touches their carcass becomes impure; while to be diagnosed with leprosy is to be declared "impure".

It seems that the purpose of these laws is to establish ritual boundaries in different aspects of life. Nadav and Avihu's sin involved ignoring necessary behavioural boundaries in the Mishkan. The laws of purity and impurity, which establish such boundaries throughout life, are training to sensitize ourselves to such boundaries. Only after learning, practicing, and internalizing these laws can we be ready to return to the Mishkan. Acharei Mot, which teaches us how to properly enter the Mishkan as far as the Holy of Holies, must wait until we have prepared ourselves and there is no chance that Nadav and Avihu's mistake will recur.

Now, there are many laws of purity in the Torah and not all of them appear in our passage. Why where these particular laws chosen and others not? To answer this, let us look at a clear pattern in the themes of the laws that were chosen:

1. Substances entering the body
2. Birth
3. Death*
4. Substances leaving the body

*A leper is regarded as somewhat dead; see for example the description of Miriam's leprosy: "Let her not be like a dead person" (Bamidbar 12:12).

Sections 2 and 3 represent a person, from the beginning to the end of life. Sections 1 and 4 represent the limits between that person and the outside world. These four sections serve to define human existence in the dimensions of space and time. These are not the only laws of purity in existence. But they are sufficient to symbolize a system of purity and impurity which encompasses every aspect of our lives.


Ever notice how, whenever you read a newspaper article on a subject you know something about, it always seems that half the facts are wrong?

Recently I was introduced to a "writer", as she was described to me. I asked her if she did any creative writing. She answered that "As a journalist I am often accused of writing creatively, but I can assure you that I never do."

Why does her writing elicit such a response, if in fact she always writes nonfiction? Surely part of the reason is that she takes the "wrong" position on, say, political questions about which there is no universally agreed answer. But if she is like many other members of her profession, that is not the sole reason. I and other people routinely notice mistakes even in non-controversial articles. Why is this?

Once upon a time Western civilization spoke of "Renaissance men" who were knowledgeable in every subject. Such an ideal could only have existed for a short time after the invention of the printing press. Later than that, the growing body of human knowledge quickly became too much for any individual to master. Since the amount of knowledge a person can acquire is limited, and new discoveries keep raising the threshold for intellectual accomplishment, the breadth of an expert's knowledge necessarily decreases. As time progresses, we move steadily towards the limit in which people know everything about nothing.

One profession is immune to this trend: journalism. The journalist's very job is to gather information on subjects that people know nothing about. Often the information is simple to understand, and the challenge lies in exposing as many people as possible to it. The journalist's essential goal is breadth rather than depth. So while most intellectuals tend toward the extreme of knowing everything about nothing, the journalist comes closer to knowing nothing about everything.

Nowadays a person can be an expert on fewer and fewer subjects than in the past. But, in those few subjects, the gap between his knowledge and the journalist's knowledge necessarily grows greater and greater. No wonder the journalist's writing so often comes off as uninformed. Intelligence and education count for relatively little when your lifetime of experience in a narrow specialty confronts the journalist's mere day or week's worth of investigation.

Pesach and thanksgiving offerings

You shall not slaughter the blood of my offering on chametz; and you shall not leave until morning the slaughtered Pesach offering. (Shemot 34:25)
On matzot and bitter herbs they shall eat it. (Bamidbar 9:11)

Both of these verses discuss the Pesach sacrifice, and both mention bread. The second verse requires us to eat the Pesach with matzah. The first verse requires separation between the Pesach and chametz. Why is the connection between bread and the Pesach so important that two separate mitzvot are needed to define it? To answer this, let us look at another sacrifice - the "todah" or thanksgiving offering - which also has a strong connection to bread.

There are extensive parallels between the thanksgiving and Pesach offerings. Both are:
  • "shelamim" - sacrifices which are eaten by their owners anywhere within the walls of Jerusalem.
  • distinct from normal "shelamim" in that you must finish eating them by midnight after the day you have sacrificed them (for normal "shelamim" you are allowed an additional 18 hours).
  • closely involved with bread: Pesach as we mentioned, and the thanksgiving offering in that it must be sacrificed along with 36 loaves of bread which then are eaten along with the sacrificed animal.

Beyond the practical parallels, there are thematic parallels between the sacrifices. You sacrifice the thanksgiving offering to thank God for saving you from one of four dangerous events (Tehilim 107, SA OH 219): being imprisoned, lost in the desert, dangerously sick, or traveling at sea ("yordei hayam").Some or all of these events apply equally to our experience leaving Egypt. Egyptian slavery was certainly a form of imprisonment; upon leaving we endured a long and difficult desert journey; the 10 plagues are called a "disease" (Shemot 15:26); and traveling through the split Sea would likely qualify as "yeridah layam". Thus, the background to offering the Pesach and thanksgiving sacrifices is very similar.

Why all these parallels?

It seems that the Pesach offering is simply a thanksgiving offering corresponding to a national/historical rather than a personal salvation. As Sforno explains (Vayikra 7:13), the purpose of the many loaves of bread you eat with the thanksgiving offering is to require you to have a communal meal to publicize what God has done for you, since no person can eat 36 loaves in an evening singlehandedly. The Pesach must similarly be eaten at a meal commemorating what God has done for us - the Seder.

In summary: Pesach and thanksgiving offerings are linked by their relation to bread, their sacrificial procedure, the events triggering them, and the manner in which they are eaten. It seems they are the exact same offering, only offered in response to different events - personal, or else communal.

UPDATE: A friend of mine (D.Z.), who I assume does not read this blog, sent me a dvar torah in which he too made the connection between yetziat mitzraim and the 4 reasons for korban todah. I asked him where he'd got the idea. He said he'd thought of it himself, but afterwards found the same idea in the Maharsha, Brachot 54a.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Love and flowers

I want to discuss why we read Shir Hashirim on Pesach, and then to talk about a halacha which relates to that discussion.

There are two reasons we read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot. The thematic reason is that Ruth's acceptance of the Torah parallels our own acceptance at Sinai. The contextual reason is that the main events in the book took place during the harvest season ("She stuck with Boaz' maidens in order to glean until the end of barley harvest and wheat harvest", 2:23), which is around Shavout.

Regarding Shir Hashirim, the thematic reason for reading it on Pesach is clear. Pesach was the beginning of the love affair between God and the Jewish people. See for example Yirmiyahu 2:2 which builds on this theme ("Thus says Hashem: I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your marrying; how you went after Me in the desert, in a land that was not sown.").

Less obviously, there may be a contextual as well as a thematic reason for the Pesach reading. As with Ruth, one verse of Shir Hashirim alludes to a specific time of year. This is verse 6:11: "I went down into the nut garden, to look at the green plants of the valley, to see whether the grape vine had budded, and the pomegranates were in flower."

The phenomenon of trees, including the grape vine and pomegranate, flowering in spring is well-known. There is even a special blessing for it: "Blessed are you Hashem king of the world, who did not leave his world lacking in anything, and created in it good creations and good trees so that people may enjoy/benefit from them." (Shulchan Aruch OH 226). This blessing is recited when seeing flowering trees in the month of Nisan. The time of flowering may vary from species to species and place to place, but apparently, in Israel most tree species flower in Nisan. Thus the verse from Shir Hashirim is probably set in Nisan, and therefore, we read Shir Hashirim in the middle of Nisan - on Pesach.


Why does this blessing on flowering trees exist? Have you ever seen flowers that were so beautiful you could not avoid remarking on their beauty? It seems that the aforementioned blessing is an example of such a remark, only made to God (who made the flowers) rather than to a person. Yet while you might enjoy the beauty of any flower, for example tulips or daffodils, the blessing only applies to flowering trees which create edible fruit (see Be'er Hetev 226:1). It seems that to qualify for the blessing, the flowers in question must be not only beautiful but useful.

Perhaps this qualification comes from the difference between modern and ancient society. Nowadays, most of us live in cities, work in offices, walk on streets, and drive cars. We rarely see the plants, animals and landscapes of natural world like our ancestors did. This is not good for us and we try actively to fill the deficiency. We design parks, water plants and lawns, and take vacations for this reason. Perhaps for the same reason we are excessively fond of beautiful flowers, which in addition to their inherent attractiveness, bear the burden of representing nature in an environment where it is lacking.

For ancient people without advanced technology, things would have been somewhat different. Rather than having to seek out nature, they took it for granted as their all-encompassing surroundings. Like a long-married couple and unlike lovers who have recently met, they were familiar with nature and comfortable with each of its distinctive qualities. Flowers were one such quality, and to enjoy them was to appreciate one especially nice facet of the world they lived in, not to grab hold of a distant reality which they had long been deprived of.

Alongside this calmer approach to natural beauty came a heightened dependence on natural produce as the basis of one's livelihood. Thus flowers which looked nice were worthy of some interest, but flowers which looked nice and gave rise to grapes and pomegranates were of extreme interest. Neither vital but ugly sheaves of grain, nor pretty but useless violets, merited a blessing. But when the qualities of beauty and bounty were combined, a threshold was passed and our sages decreed the recitation of a blessing. One reason alone was not sufficient for the recital of Ruth or Shir Hashirim, nor for a blessing on flowers. Only the confluence of two separate reasons was a compelling enough basis for the creation of a new ritual.


"If you made the right choice, you'll never know it. You'll always be in doubt whether it was right or not. But if it was the wrong choice, sooner or later you'll find out you were wrong and have to live with the fact."

Songs of Moshe, Devorah, and David

We read Shirat Hayam on both the 7th day of Pesach and parshat Beshalach. The Torah readings include a song and, appropriately, each day's haftarah includes a corresponding song - those of Devorah and David respectively.

Why is Devorah's song read for Beshalach and David's on Pesach, and not vice versa? A tempting answer here is there is no reason, that the haftarot are essentially interchangeable. But I think I can come up with a better reason.

The difference between the Torah readings of Pesach and Beshalach is that Pesach's reading ends shortly after Shirat Hayam, while Beshalach's continues for another three aliyot, telling of the complaints about food and water and the battle with Amalek. Then comes Yitro's journey to meet the people, but that is already part of the next parsha, Yitro.

According to Ibn Ezra, the Amalek and Yitro events are related by more than textual and (perhaps) chronological proximity. Both Amalek and Yitro were among the sparse nomadic population of this part of the desert. In effect Yitro was part of the Amalekite people, yet he had chosen to separate from them and take up a less immoral way of life. Ibn Ezra says that the Yitro events happened later, but they were written here out of chronological order - to teach us that Amalek is evil not from birth but as a result of certain choices they made, while others such as Yitro faced similar choices and chose differently.

Beshalach/Yitro is not the only time we see this clarification of the eternal Divine war with Amalek. Indeed, Devorah's song contains a very similar idea. Devorah and the Israelite army defeated the Caananites, but they did not manage to capture the leading Canaanite general Sisera. Sisera successfully fled the battle scene to the tent of a presumably friendly woman named Yael. "Now Hever the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, even from the children of Hovav the in-law of Moses ... And Sisera fled on his feet to the tent of Yael wife of Hever the Kenite; for there was peace between Yavin king of Hatzor and the house of Hever the Kenite." (Shoftim 4:11,17)

Hever was from the same family as Yitro, related to Amalek, and until now he had cooperated with Yavin and Sisera in the cruel oppression of Israel (4:2-3). Thus Sisera expected Hever's house to be a refuge from the Israelites looking to capture him. But Hever's wife Yael sided with Israel and, rather than protecting Sisera, waited until he fell asleep and then killed him. Thus the victory over the Canaanites was completed and the oppression of Israel ended.

Like Yitro, Yael came from a background that strongly pressured her not to recognize and aid the more moral side of the conflict. But both Yitro and Yael had the courage to overcome this hurdle and render aid to Israel. This is the connection between parshat Beshalach and its haftarah, Devorah's song. Once this parsha and haftarah were assigned to each other, the remaining song in Nach - that of David - was left over for the 7th day of Pesach on which the Amalek story is not mentioned.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Birkat hachama

No, current astronomical knowledge does not indicate that the year is exactly 365.25 days long. So no, birkat hachama does not represent any "objectively" significant event.

But then, neither does your birthday. The choice of one day a year for this celebration is surely not based on the fact that the earth returns to the approximate point in its orbit it was at when you were born. That fact is incidental, and the birthday's real significance for all but astronomy buffs is that it is a convenient milestone for stepping back to evaluate your life.

Birthdays, or Pesachs, or Yom Kippurs, are easy milestones to commemorate. It is easy to see where I stood last year, to evaluate what I have accomplished and how I have grown since then, and what I hope to accomplish in the year to come. A year is long enough for real accomplishment, yet short enough that the flow of human life does not make comparison between one year and the next impossible. Once a year would be an appropriate opportunity for reflection even if the seasons did not make that exact period inevitable.

Let's see what happens when I try to approach birkat hachama the same way. Where did I stand 28 years ago? I was not yet born. Where do I hope to be 28 years from now? Trying to picture myself at age 53, the first thing that comes to mind is that I hope not only to be married and have kids, but that those kids will be starting to marry and have kids of their own. In other words, my generation will be replaced by the next generation. Looking one 28-year period forward and back, I am right away confronted by my birth and my mortality. That is even though I hope to live much longer than 56 years.

This message may seem like a depressing alternative to the birthday. But I think that the messages complement each other. Birthdays remind me of what I am capable of accomplishing. Birkat hachama reminds me of the inevitable limits of that accomplishment. The world was created for me, yet I am dust and ashes. As we go about our lives, we should have both halves of that proverb in mind.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Chag sameach

The hitchhiker's sign says "Jerusalem"...