Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Egyptian clothing

"Each woman shall request from her neighbor and housemate, silver and gold vessels and garments, and you shall place them on your sons and your daughters..." (Shemot 3:22)

Ancient Egypt was known for its immoral behavior (see Vayikra 18). If so, and given the hot desert climate, Egyptian clothing was likely quite immodest. Why then would God command the Israelites to take, and presumably wear, the Egyptian clothing?

Looking carefully at the verse, we can see the answer to the problem. The Jewish women requested clothing not so that they could wear it, but so that their children could wear it. An Egyptian miniskirt (or whatever other garment), while very revealing when worn by an Egyptian woman, would be completely modest and acceptable when worn by a young Jewish girl.

(Source: R' Mordechai Eliyahu)


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Game theory

Some notes from a lecture on “Game theory and policy” given by Prof. Robert Aumann at my university a few weeks back. Much of the lecture focused on specific political issues and was not worth writing about, but here are some interesting things I heard.

1) A "game" is any situation where you try to ensure that the other person's choices serve your interests.
2) It is rare for both sides to have absolutely opposite goals; for example, rentor and landlord both want a contract to be signed on SOME terms.
3) Israel's enemies are not irrational, rather, their rationality is what makes them dangerous.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

First date

(From here. The translation could probably use some work.)

We walked together at night and it was dark. There was no moon, and the stars provided little light.

We walked and you were silent; we continued to walk...

And you were still silent. It was hard, but I had to give this a chance. Because you are like a princess, introverted and modest. What does your voice sound like?

After five hours of walking and thunderous silence, I almost gave up.

When I lay down at your feet, I heard the commander summarize: "End of night navigation! Welcome to the camp! You navigated 12 km in difficult terrain, without light, while carrying a heavy load on your backs. Six hours from now, we will resume travelling."

I put down the backpack and sighed. Then I heard your voice, so clear and pleasant, a voice still full of longing, "The land of Israel is acquired through suffering." You whispered bitterly, "You heard my silence for five hours, but I heard your silence for two thousand years." I felt embarrassed. Why was I thinking about myself the whole time, how did I not sense your pain? I was ashamed.

Suddenly you appeared in all your beauty, exquisite, bedecked in a wonderful flower dress. On your neck, Kiryat Shmonah was emplaced like a stunning diamond necklace. I wish I could remember more, but I placed my head on your shoulder and only the next morning did I wake up. And travelled.

The end of a night navigation with the patrol division...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The new year of the trees

Today was Rosh Chodesh Shvat. This means that Tu Bishevat, the new year of the trees, is coming soon.

In fact, though, there is a disagreement as to which day the new year of the trees falls on: the 15th of Shvat, like we say, or the first of Shvat. This disagreement is brought in the Mishna, Rosh Hashana 1:1:
There are four new years.
The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and holidays.
The first of Elul is the new year for animal tithes. R' Elazar and R' Shimon say: The first of Tishrei.
The first of Tishrei is the new year for years, sabbaticals, and jubilee years, for planting and vegetables.
The first of Shvat is the new year for the tree, says Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says: The 15th [of Shvat].

What is the basis of the disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel about the date of the final new year?

Beit Shammai's reasoning appears to be simplest. The other three new years in the Mishna all fall on the first of the month. Logically, it seems months should be subsets of years, so that a month should not be split between different years, and years should begin on the first of the month. We know that's the case for three out of the Mishna's four new years, and it makes sense to say the same for the fourth new year.

Beit Shammai, therefore, seems to have a strong argument for their date. Why does Beit Hillel reject this argument and choose a different date?

It seems to me that Beit Hillel sees the new year for trees as primarily being in the category of holidays, not new years. The 15th of the month brings up associations of the holidays Pesach and Sukkot, which also begin on that date. Perhaps Tu Bishvat should be seen as a holiday as well.

(Why are holidays so often on the 15th? Here's my guess. Holidays are times of communal events and interaction. On the 15th, when there is a full moon, people can get together at night as well as during the day.)

In addition to their dates, Pesach and Sukkot are similar in that they each last 7 days and are dates of aliyah leregel. Furthermore, they take place in the 1st and 7th months of the year. This places them exactly 6 months – half a year – apart from one another.

Interestingly enough, there is also a holiday exactly 6 months away from Tu Bishvat: Tu BeAv. Even more interestingly, its basic theme may be about trees, just like Tu Bishvat. The Gemara (Taanit 30b-31a) brings several explanations for why Tu Beav was celebrated. The explanation about the tribe of Binyamin is best known, but the final explanation given is that on Tu Beav they would stop cutting down trees to be used as firewood on the altar. After Tu Beav, the dry heat of summer was not sufficient to prevent worms from infesting the wood and making it invalid for Temple usage.

The holidays of Pesach and Sukkot are closely tied to the grain harvest. Around Pesach time the grain is growing to maturity, and the harvest does not begin until after Pesach (the law of hadash). Sukkot is called “the holiday of gathering” (Shemot 23:16) and corresponds to the gathering in of wheat stalks which had been left all summer to dry in the field. Thus Pesach marks the beginning of the agricultural year for grain, while Sukkot marks the end of that year.

It is possible that Tu Bishvat and Tu Beav have a similar function, for trees rather than grain. Tu Bishvat, as we know, marks the beginning of the new growth of trees. Tu Beav, according to the explanation we brought, marks the end of the period in which trees are cut down. Just like Pesach and Sukkot delimit the agricultural year for grain, Tu Bishvat and Tu Beav delimit it for trees.

In Devarim 8:8, the blessedness of the land of Israel is described in terms of the seven species which grow in it: “A land of wheat and barley, and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and [date] honey”. The first two species are grains, while the remaining five are trees. Both grains and trees are responsible for the agricultural bounty we enjoy when living in the land. It seems that likewise, both grains and trees are linked to pairs of holidays, whose dates serve to define the produce's respective growing seasons.

Partly drawn from here, and some source I can't now locate which made the 15th->holiday connection. It's also my 500th post on this blog, mazal tov!

Interesting views

"The most effective barrier to fundamental delegitimization [of Israel] is personal relationships. In every major country, Israel and its supporters must develop and sustain personal connections with the entire elite in business, politics, arts and culture, science and academia." (Haaretz)

It's a net positive that the secular Israeli media ignores (relative to other Israelis) the deaths of settlers at the hands of Arabs, because it decreases the motivation of Arabs to attack, as there is less apparent impact on Israeli society. (Arutz Sheva)

Moshe's leadership qualifications

The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 4:10) says that "one does not appoint a king except to perform judgment and war".

Moshe did two things before being forced to flee Egypt. He killed the Egyptian, thereby protecting the Jew who was under attack. The next day, he tried to resolve a conflict which had developed between two Jews.

By fighting back against Egyptian oppression, and trying to obtain justice between Jews, Moshe performed both of the tasks expected of Jewish kings. No wonder he was chosen as Israel's future leader.

Source: R' Yuval Sherlo in Tzohar LeShabat for this week, parshat Vaera

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


A person who dresses immodestly in public is trying to attract people's attention.

If you get upset about their inappropriate dress, then congratulations, they have succeeded in getting your attention. You are now thinking about their sexuality. Which is exactly what they intended.

They are trying to make a scene - in the most literal sense. Your best response, as is usually the case when people make scenes, is to make a point of just ignoring it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Airport profiling

Since the attempted "underwear bombing" a few days ago by a Nigerian Muslim, it has suggested more than ever that the US begin using some form of passenger profiling, rather that absurd levels of checkpoint screening and behavioral restrictions, to prevent future attacks. The model is Israel's security system, which despite the presumed high motivation of terrorists has not suffered a successful attack in decades (since the current system was set up).

I generally think that it's worth preserving the lives of many people even at the cost of the convenience or feelings of a few people, and thus, you would expect that that I would support the use of a profiling system in the US. But there are two reasons why I hesitate.

First, the Israeli airport security checkers ask passengers a variety of questions, and try to ascertain from a person's emotional responses whether they have hostile intentions or something to hide. Such a determination must take a lot of intelligence and training to be done accurately. TSA personnel in the US do not have a reputation for this kind of competence, and to hire or train people to do this for all US passengers (many more than in Israel) would be incredibly expensive.

Second, in addition to the psychological methods, I'm sure Israel also profiles people based on their origin. I occasionally hear reports of Arabs who say they have been questioned for hours in an aggressive and humiliating manner at Ben Gurion airport. While the reliability of any single report may be doubted, I am sure Arabs in general get more heavily scrutinized than Jews. Anyway, this method works because there are really only two, relatively homogeneous populations in Israel: Jews and Arabs. The US has much more diverse populations of both "suspicious" people (i.e. Europeans or blacks who converted to Islam) and "non-suspicious" people (i.e. Hindus or Sikhs). So profiling (which can be ineffective if done wrong) would be harder in the US than Israel. Not useless, but significantly harder.

In short, I don't think it will be easy for the US to design a system that works as well as Israel's. That said, some easy things can be done, like not aggressively checking grandmothers and babies. I don't think a terror attack has ever been committed by an old lady in a wheelchair and, in all honesty, there's no reason to think that such attacks would start now.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Blessings in the Torah

This post has been removed in preparation for publication elsewhere.
Thanks to M.K. for teaching me part of this and motivating me to think of the rest.

Monday, January 04, 2010


I skimmed through Theodor Herzl's book “Altneuland” (available here), published in 1902, curious to see how it corresponded to Israel today. I skipped the parts describing the Jewish state's mostly socialist political arrangements, and focused on descriptions of the landscape and infrastructure.

In general, the correspondence to modern Israel was quite good. I most identified with the following paragraph:
The serpentine road opened wider and wider prospects. Now the city and harbor of Haifa lay before the entranced eyes of the travelers. On the near side the broad bay with its zone of gardens; beyond, Acco with its background of mountains. They were on the summit of the northern ridge of the Carmel. To the right and to the left, to the north and to the south, a magnificent expanse lay spread out before them. The sea glittered blue and gold into an infinite horizon. White-capped waves fluttered over it like gulls toward the light brown strand. David ordered the driver to stop the car so that they might enjoy the unique view. As they alighted, he turned to Freidrich. "See, Dr. Loewenberg, this is the land of our fathers."

This, of course, exactly describes the view from the apartment I lived in last year. (And “serpentine” is definitely a good description of the roads here.) The only difference between Herzl's vision and the modern view is that “the broad bay” between Haifa and Akko now consists of factories and suburbs, not a large park.

Features such as Haifa Bay and the Dead Sea Works, both predicted in the book, have turned out exactly as described. Other projects mentioned, such as a canal to the Dead Sea, are still on the drawing board. The book's focus on Haifa is a result not only of the early Zionist emphasis on settling the North, but on the fact that airplanes had not yet been invented, making Haifa's port the main place of entry to the country. The modern city of Tel Aviv was only founded a few years later, in 1909.

Despite Herzl's generally prescient vision for the Jewish state, there is one detail I cannot forgive him for. In one place, he described a train line going through Tzfat. Anyone who has ever been on the windy mountain roads to Tzfat knows that it's the absolute last place in Israel that a train line would ever be built to.