Saturday, December 17, 2011

Thoughts on Vayeshev

1. The original post

Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Israel, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes... (Amos 2:6)

It is commonly assumed that the Vayeshev haftarah (previously discussed here) is chosen because of this verse, which is taken to refer to the sale of Yosef.

Just today I thought of a compelling reason why Yosef’s sale CANNOT be what Amos had in mind when he said this prophecy. That does not mean the haftarah is a bad choice: Yosef WAS a righteous person (at least after the sale, from what we see), who WAS sold for silver, and it WAS a transgression, and it is fitting to recall this after reading the story of what happened to Yosef. But at the same time, if we want to understand Amos, we should be aware that this is not what Amos had in mind.

To see why, let us look at a selection of the verses
in Amos
preceding the haftarah:

"For thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Damascus, yea, for four, I will not reverse it...
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Gaza, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Tyre, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Edom, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of the children of Ammon, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Moab, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…
Thus says Hashem: For three transgressions of Judah, yea, for four, I will not reverse it…"

This is a list of lots of different ancient Middle Eastern nations. After each one, it lists a few "war crimes" or other various sins that the nations are known to have committed, and then describes the punishment God will visit upon them as a result.

The last two nations in this list are Judah and Israel. Amos lived in the period of the divided kingdom, when "Judah" consisted of the tribes of Judah, Binyamin, Shimon, and perhaps part of Dan.

Meanwhile "Israel" consisted of the remaining tribes in the north. This meant the tribes of Gad and Reuven near the Dead Sea; the tribes of Zevulun, Yissachar, Naftali, Dan, and Asher in the Galilee; and Efraim and Menashe taking up the whole coastal plain, Shomron, and almost all of Transjordan. The Galilee tribes generally did an incomplete job of conquering the Canaanites, while Gad and Reuven were small and peripheral. Efraim and Menashe took up about half the area of the whole kingdom – moreover, the more central, secure, and powerful half of the kingdom. It is no surprise that the entire northern kingdom is sometimes referred to poetically as "Efraim" (as in "Haben yakir li efraim"), or as "Yosef" (Yechezkel 37) – Yosef of course being the father of both Efraim and Menasheh.

When the prophet Amos, in our haftarah, criticized the nation of "Israel" for selling the righteous, we may assume he was foremost referring to Efraim and Menasheh, who dominated the kingdom of Israel. But it would be quite strange to blame the sale of Yosef on the tribes of Efraim and Menasheh, who were themselves descendants of Yosef. That would mean blaming the victim (or his descendants) rather than the perpetrators, which I think is unreasonable, so Amos must be talking about a crime or crimes involving someone else.

2. An addition, made two years later (November 2013)

As you might expect, I end up discussing this idea at the same time each year. This time it was with my Friday night host - AS. But afterwards I felt something was incomplete. The verse says that Israelites "sell the righteous for silver". Why specify that they sell the righteous (of whom Yosef HaTzadik would be a great example)? Isn't it wrong to sell any human being, righteous or not?

The answer is no. Selling an evil person into (temporary) slavery was pretty common and entirely justified - if they were a thief (Shemot 22:2). The verse uses the word "tzadik" to indicate that they also sold innocent people into slavery, which is a very serious crime (Shemot 21:16). The word "tzadik" here means "innocent" (as in Devarim 25:1) - not "righteous" in the sense of necessarily being morally near-perfect.

Thanks to AS for helping clarify the linguistic aspects of this.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts on Vayishlach

Shall our sister be treated like a prostitute? (34:31)

A prostitute is generally understood to be someone who takes money in return for sex. True, the word "znut" can refer to promiscuity in general, but one might still wonder whether "zonah" is the most appropriate term for an unwilling rape victim.

But if we look closer at the proposal the city offered to Yaakov's family, perhaps we can understand why Dina's case was in fact similar to prostitution, and why the rhetorical question was not just imprecise rhetoric by angry young men.

The proposal goes as follows: "Please give [Dina] to [Shechem] as a wife. And marry among us: your daughters will be given to us and our daughters you will take for yourselves. And dwell with us: the land will be before you, dwell and do business and take hold of it." (34:8-10)

Besides the part about marrying together, this proposal contains two parts: Shechem gets Dina, and Yaakov's family gets the opportunity to do business.

A trade of Dina for business opportunities does look exactly like prostitution. No wonder, then, why Yaakov's sons reply so viciously to the deal, and why they killed the entire male population, not just Shechem. They were reacting to the proposal just as much as the act of rape itself.

This logic does not mean the mass killing was necessarily correct - for one thing, Yaakov objects to it (and at the end of his life, apparently not only on practical grounds) - but it does allow us to understand where the motivation for the killing came from.

Yaakov said to his household and all who were with him: "Remove the foreign gods that are among you." (35:2)
They gave to Yaakov all the foreign gods that were in their hands, and the earrings that were in their ears, and Yaakov buried them.... (35:4)

These verses raise two questions with me. 1) Why would Yaakov's household, which one would assume to be monotheistic, be in possession of idols? 2) Yaakov asked for the destruction of idols; why did the group give up their earrings as well, which Yaakov apparently did not ask for?

I think there is a common answer to both questions. It flows from the fact that at this point, Yaakov's sons had just conquered the city of Shechem, and (34:27) taken its plunder. One would expect that that plunder included any valuable objects in the city - and idols, often made out of precious metals, would certainly seem worth taking.

The Torah's attitude toward this, though, is not approving. Speaking of the later conquest by the Israelites, the Torah says: "The idols of their gods you shall burn in fire. You shall not desire gold and silver upon them and take for yourself, lest you be ensnared in it, for it is an abomination of Hashem your God." (Devarim 7:25) One might be tempted to take gold and silver idols in order to use the gold and silver, but the Torah later prohibits this.

Perhaps, then, Yaakov's sons took whatever idols they found in Shechem. As members of a third-generation monotheistic family, it would have been obvious to them that idols were not for worshipping, but not so obvious that idols could not be melted down and used for other purposes. Perhaps, of the idols they found, they took a few of them and fashioned their gold or silver into earrings, while holding onto the remaining idols until a good use for them could be found.

Yaakov may not have known what jewelry his family wore or where it came from. But when his family was implicitly told that not only worship but use of idols was forbidden, they realized that their jewelry had to be given up along with the intact idols.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mitzvot for the deaf and blind

Physical disability, in general, does not affect a person's obligation to keep mitzvot. Someone who must use a wheelchair, for example, is obligated in all 613 mitzvot. However, there are three kinds of disability regarding which the sources suggest that a person was not obligated in mitzvot at all.

The first category is the "shoteh" - an "insane" or otherwise mentally impaired individual who is unable to comprehend the concept of Divine commandment or understand the actions he must perform. Such a person cannot be said to be "commanded", since no command was ever made to him in a way he could understand.

The second category is the "heresh", or mute person, who is mentioned alongside the "shoteh" and children as people not obligated in mitzvot. This equation is hard to understand nowadays, but once it made sense. Typically, a person was mute as a consequence of being deaf. The deaf could not learn anything from others except by reading, and reading materials were rare before the printing press was invented. Similarly, there were no speech therapists, no sign language, and no teaching of lip reading. So deaf people, too, was not "commanded", since they had no way of hearing Divine commands. (The Biblical idiom for to "obey" is to "listen to the voice of". The deaf literally could not "listen to the voice".) Nowadays, when we do have effective ways of communicating with and teaching the deaf, I believe halachic authorities generally view the deaf as having equal obligations to hearing Jews.

The third category is the blind. According to the accepted opinion, blind Jews have exactly the same halachic obligations as everyone else (except for a few mitzvot which explicitly involve seeing). However, there are minority opinions which suggest that this might not be the case. The most interesting opinion is that of the Pri Megadim (intro to Orach Chaim part 3), who holds that according to one opinion in the gemara, the blind are obligated in negative mitzvot, but not positive mitzvot.

What is the logic behind this distinction? One possibility (see here) is that the blind do not really need to do mitzvot, but they do need to be distinguishably Jewish. And violating a negative mitzvah does more to show that one is not Jewish: if I see you eat pork then I know you violate halacha, but if I do not see you praying it is possible that you will pray at some other time in the day.

The difficulty with this understanding is that it assumes the blind are like the deaf and insane - people to whom the concept of mitzvot cannot apply, since they do not have mental capacity. But a blind person does have mental capability, can communicate normally with other people, and can learn all of the Oral Torah at the very least. So it seems easier to me to say that the blind are inherently commanded and obligated in mitzvot but exempted from some, rather than that they are inherently exempt but have a special obligation in some.

Thus I want to explain as follows. Blind people have no limitations to their mental ability. Thus, they should be obligated in mitzvot. But they do have significant limitation on their actions. For example, wherever they go they are liable to stumble on things and injure themselves. And they have difficulty locating objects in order to perform actions using those objects.

Another class of people - women - also has limitations on the set of mitzvot they must do. At certain times, due to pregnancy and raising children, women are busy and unable to spend time on other commitments. Thus, women are exempt from positive time-related mitzvot. I suggest that since blind people face larger and more constant restrictions on their actions than do women, they have a larger mitzvah exemption. Rather than being exempt from positive time-related mitzvot, perhap they should be exempt from all positive mitzvot. Meanwhile, the limitations on blind people's actions do not impair their ability to uphold negative mitzvot, since by sitting and doing nothing they do not violate any negative mitzvah. Thus, they should be obligated in negative but not positive mitzvot. That is the exact combination which the Pri Megadim suggests.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Holidays and the Temple

Jewish holidays are generally distinguished by their focus on the Temple. Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot are occasions of obligatory pilgrimage and sacrifice, while Yom Kippur focuses on the day's special Temple service. Each holiday has special communal sacrifices, and on these days we are commanded to blow trumpets in the Temple. The holiday prayer "yaale veyavo" is recited only in those blessings - Retzeh (prayer) and Boneh Yerushalayim (birkat hamazon) - whose subject is the Temple. And so on and so on.

What, then, are we to do these days, when the Temple is destroyed? Instead of being occasions of celebration, should not holidays become days of pain, when we are directly confronted with what we have lost? Tisha Beav - now a day of mourning - will turn into a festive day once the Temple is rebuilt; wouldn't it be appropriate for holidays to be commemorated the same way?

My answer to this is no, and the explanation comes in two parts. First, to explain what the purpose of holidays is, beyond the particular rituals we can no longer perform. And second, to explain how that purpose is still fulfilled today.

First: Holidays were an opportunity for closeness with God. Of course, God is "found" in every place, and there are many opportunities for closeness unrelated to Temple. But the atmosphere of holidays, the prohibition on work, the physical closeness to "God's house", and the special rituals and celebrations, made holidays especially good opportunities for individuals to approach God. Moreover, as the entire nation celebrated together, holidays became occasions of national closeness to God.

Second: Despite the loss of the Temple, I believe we can still achieve this special holiday closeness. In the Temple, Divine closeness was achieved through certain rituals, like the Yom Kippur sacrifice with precipitated the forgiveness of our sins. Those rituals were a commandment, and the resulting closeness was the reward. We (the religious community) still want to perform these rituals, but we are prevented by circumstances from doing so. Halachically, this situation is defined as a situation of "oness". In such a situation, having done everything we are capable of doing, we are still entitled to the reward.

One may argue that this is not a situation of complete "oness", since the Temple's destruction is caused by our sins, and by repenting we could cause it to be rebuilt. This is true on one level, but false on another. The process of returning to Israel, appointing a king, rebuilding the Temple, and offering sacrifices takes a certain amount of time. We mourn all year for the Temple, because we have this time yet are not using it appropriately in order to speed up redemption. But once the holiday has begun, it is no longer possible to do all the tasks needed to rebuild the Temple. Regarding that particular holiday, we are truly in a state of "oness". We still perform whatever rituals we are capable of, and God still rewards us with His closeness as if we had performed all the other rituals as well.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Vahashevota el levavecha

The phrase in the title appears, I believe, just twice in Tanach. Literally it means to "return [something] to your heart". "Heart" in Tanach typically refers to your personality/identity/self - including both emotions, which our culture identifies with the heart, and thoughts. Since thoughts and emotions normally come out from the heart, to "return them to the heart" means to remind and convince yourself of them - to internalize them. Perhaps a more poetic translation would be "to take them to heart".

This meaning is clear from the first occurrence of the phrase, in Devarim 4:39-40, which is well known to us from the Aleinu prayer:
וידעת היום, והשבת אל לבבך, כי ה' הוא האלקים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת, אין עוד. ושמרת את חקיו ואת מצותיו, אשר אנכי מצוך היום, אשר ייטב לך...
We are supposed to internalize the fact that our God is the only god, and this knowledge will motivate us to keep the commandments.

The second occurrence (Devarim 30:1-2) is harder to understand.
והיה כי יבאו עליך כל-הדברים האלה, הברכה והקללה אשר נתתי לפניך, והשבת אל-לבבך, בכל-הגוים אשר הדיחך ה' אלהיך שמה. ושבת עד ה' אלקיך, ושמעת בקלו...
When the blessing (of reward when we obey God) and curse (of punishment when we disobey) come to pass, we should take to heart... what? The verse does not say what we should take to heart!

I think the answer is that we should take "it" to heart - with "it" being the content of the previous phrase. We should take THE COMING TO PASS OF THE BLESSINGS AND CURSES to heart. We realize that God in fact rewards and punishes, and that is a motivation for us to repent.

If that is the meaning, then how does the grammar work out?

Perhaps the phrase is intentionally incomplete for reasons of conciseness. It should say "take ____ to heart", but because here the phrase "____" is so long, it is omitted and the listener is supposed to figure it out and insert it mentally.

Or perhaps "take to heart", without a subject, means to take to heart whatever is natural to take to heart in the circumstances. If at some point in your life, you are confronted by direct evidence of God's control of the world, that awareness can be enough to drastically reorient a life which has been based on the proposition that God is irrelevant to the world's functioning and to our behavior.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

No conversations in shul

Many synagogues have a sign saying "No talking in shul", or some variation thereof.

But really, the fact is you are required to talk in shul! The signs should really say "No conversations in shul, except with God".

Perhaps people would refrain from talking to their neighbors, if they realized the impoliteness of repeatedly interrupting one conversation in order to engage in others.

Monday, July 25, 2011


I have two questions about the mitzvah of the four species.

1) The species involved are weird. One would expect that they include species common to the land of Israel, like grapes or olives. But none of the "seven species" appears in the four species. In fact, the four species have very little importance in Tanach in any context except for this mitzvah.

2) Chazal say that the four species represent four types of people who must be united for the mitzvah to be performed. What is the source for this midrash?

To answer these questions, we must look at where each of the species grows.

The lulav is part of the palm tree, which grows in the desert.
The etrog is a citrus fruit, which grows in the coastal plain (like the Jaffa orange).
The arava grows in valleys ("arvei nachal").
The hadas grow in mountainous regions.

We see that each of the species grows in a different part of the land of Israel. A person living in Ein Gedi, for example, would have plenty of palm trees around, but no etrog trees. Meanwhile, a person living in Kfar Sava would have plenty of etrogs but no lulavs. When everyone gathered to Jerusalem for Sukkot, the Kfar Sava people would have to swap their etrogs for the Ein Gedi people's lulavs, so that each group would have both lulavs and etrogs. Similarly, they would have to find people from the mountains (Hevron?) and valleys (Afula?) in order to obtain hadasim and aravot.

It seems that the four species is a mitzvah that no individual could perform on their own. Only one of the four species would grow in their hometown, and the others would have to be obtained from people living in other parts of Israel. Thus, it was a mitzvah that had to be performed by the entire people, working together, coming together to Jerusalem.

After the exile, Jews no longer lived in each part of the land of Israel, and they would not all gather to Jerusalem on the holidays. Thus, it no longer made sense to talk about the mitzvah as uniting people from different geographic regions. Instead, Chazal said that each species represented a person of a differing type of piety - and people of all such types can be found in any place.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Falling on your face

For an interesting explanation of Moshe and Aharon's falling on their faces, which happens a number of times in Sefer Bamidbar for unclear reasons, see here.
In short: People fall on their faces when they notice a Divine revelation, lest they see God and thus die. Moshe often falls on his face when no revelation has yet occurred. He does this as preparation for a revelation he hopes will then happen, because such a revelation would be an effective answer to the complainers or rebels he is confronting.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Kol Isha

"A woman's voice is nakedness" (Brachot 24a)

The justification of this statement is not obvious to everyone today. Sure, many people go to concerts in order to swoon over the performer of the opposite sex, but there good looks and suggestive dancing are at least as much an attraction as a good voice. And those performers are generally required to have relatively good voices. For the rest of us, with our often ugly voices, the attraction is clearly much weaker. Yet Chazal called that voice "nakedness", and prohibited listening to it in the same line in which they prohibited staring at a woman's leg!

To me, this is best understood by reference to Greek mythology. Measures of sexual attractiveness are influenced by one's culture, and the Greeks and Romans whom Chazal lived among found the female voice to be very seductive. I am thinking of the myth of Odysseus and the Sirens. There are, it is told, sea-dwelling creatures which sing in a woman's voice, whose song is so seductive that any man who hears them will have an irresistible urge to abandon ship and swim to them, only to be killed. Unlike the mermaids of other cultures, who often had beautiful bodies, the sirens were attractive only because of their voices. The rabbinic decree of kol isha responded to what, at the time, was apparently a very strong temptation, as hinted to by the myth of the sirens.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ruth and the Shoftim

Naomi stood alone and abandoned at the beginning of Megillat Ruth. Her husband and sons were dead, and she was stranded in the land of Moav.

Yet by the end of the megillah, Naomi had regained both home and offspring. Ruth married Boaz, and their son was regarded like one of Naomi's own children (4:17). At the same time, Naomi returned to her very own ancestral plot of land, which was purchased by Boaz at the same time he married Ruth. (4:9-10).

What happened in between the beginning of the megillah, when Naomi was deprived of everything, and the end when she had received everything back?

The difference is the acts of kindness and love performed by Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Ruth insisted in accompanying Naomi despite Naomi's foreign culture and old age; Naomi arranged an advantageous marriage for Ruth; while Boaz protected Ruth in his field and agreed to marry her and to redeem the family's land.

These acts of kindness are especially striking when set against the historical circumstances of the period – as the megillah carefully indicates to us. The story is introduced as being "during the rule of the judges". Anyone who has read the book of Judges knows that this was not a period of love and kindness among the Jewish people. The defining event from this period was the story of pilegesh begivah (Shoftim 19-21). There, a traveler visited Givah, in the tribe of Binyamin. Some of the city's less responsible men demanded to "get to know" the traveler, similar to what had once happened in Sodom. His host refused, but the traveler agreed to let the men take his concubine (he was probably willing to do this because, as we previously learn, the concubine had recently cheated on him). The men raped and abused the concubine, and by the next morning she was dead. The traveler cut the concubine's corpse into 12 pieces, and delivered one to each tribe in Israel. The tribes, enraged, came and killed nearly the whole tribe of Binyamin in revenge.

These are the circumstances in which Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz showed their great kindness to each other. The time period was similar and Boaz and Naomi, like the traveler, came from Beit Lechem. Yet the actions in the megillah are quite the reverse of those in Shoftim. The concubine's unfaithfulness to the traveler (and then, vice versa) contrasts with Ruth's faithfulness to Naomi. Boaz's hospitality to Ruth contrasts with the inhospitality the traveler encountered in Givah. The arranged kidnapping of Israelite women in order to provide wives for the remaining Binyaminites contrasts with Boaz's refusal to sleep with Ruth until they were properly married.

While the love and kindness in the megillah were rewarded by offspring and inheritance of the land, the hatred and insensitivity of Shoftim were punished by the loss of offspring and the land. Almost the entire tribe of Binyamin, and thousands of soldiers from the other side, were killed in the Givah war. And the entire Shoftim period was characterized by a loss of land, as the disunified tribes were progressively overcome by the Philistines and other neighboring peoples.

Sefer Shoftim ends with the following verdict: "In those days there was no king in Israel, and each person would do whatever was right in their eyes." The usual interpretation of this is that a king could suppress and prevent evil behavior. But it can be equally understood as referring to internal dissension: without a king people would not unite against external enemies, and would even take up arms against each other.

It is no coincidence that the first successful king – David – was a descendant of Ruth and Boaz. He came to power in a period of civil war between Binyamin and Yehudah. But he managed to reconcile the two sides by showing friendship to Shaul's family and the rest of Binyamin, and by choosing a capitol (Jerusalem) which was on the border between the two tribes. During his reign the Jewish kingdom expanded to its widest extent ever, and grew to be numbered "like the stars of the sky" (Divrei Hayamim Alef 27:23). Just as Ruth's family succeeded in reversing their personal punishments by the practice of love and kindness, their descendant David succeeded in doing the same for the entire nation.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thoughts on Emor

A kohen is allowed to make himself impure only when one of four categories of people dies: 1) his parent 2) his child 3) his brother 4) his unmarried sister. Why these four exceptions, and no more and no less?

Let us start by suggesting why a kohen may not become impure in general. It seems to me that this is because he must always be ready to serve in the Temple. If he touches a corpse, he makes himself impure and unable to serve for at least seven days. He must avoid this, in case he is needed to perform Temple service.

But when certain family members die, the prohibition on becoming impure is suspended. Which factors can be strong enough to override our interest in having the kohen always ready for service?

One natural guess would be that due to the emotional bonds a person feels to their immediate family, it would be cruel to exclude them from the burial and mourning process. But a person can mourn without actually approaching the corpse and making themselves impure. And it is not obvious why one's bonds to a married sister would be so much weaker than to an unmarried sister or a brother.

A variation of this approach is to note that the Temple is intrinsically a place of happiness ("usmachtem lifnei hashem elokechem") and life (the tablets in the Temple, like the tree in the Garden of Eden, are an "etz chaim" guarded by keruvim). (In fact, this may be the source for the entire prohibition on ritual impurity, which typically comes from death, in the Temple.) Perhaps a kohen will be so distressed by a death in the family that he will not be able to carry out his service with the properly happy attitude. But here, too, it is not clear why the Torah should differentiate between married and unmarried sisters.

When thinking up this post on the bus today, I came up with a third possible reason for the prohibition. I couldn't rule it out, but now I've forgotten it. So as I now present a fourth reason, keep in mind that I'm not 100% sure it's correct.

The fourth possible reason is that the kohen was needed for the actual work of carrying out the burial. Let us assume that the burial process necessarily involved men, if only because certain parts of it required heavy physical labor. We can see that the relatives for whom a kohen may become impure are exactly those who would likely not have another man available to bury them. For this purpose, imagine now that I am a kohen and one of my relatives has died.

- If my father dies, he may not have any brothers, and his father is probably dead by now (or at least too old for physical labor). If my mother dies, there is a good chance that my father has already died and the situation is the same. Thus, the task is left to me.

- If my child dies, he or she may not have a brother who can bury them - leaving the task to me.

- If my brother or sister dies, I may be the only brother, and our father may be dead or too old - leaving the task to me.

But there is an exception to the last rule: if my sister is married. Then, her husband can perform the burial, so there is no reason for me to do it and become impure.

This reasoning explains each of the categories listed in the Torah. The only exception is a married daughter, who by this logic should be buried by her husband, not by her father. But we may suggest that in general a man's daughter, unlike his sister, would not get married until after he lost his life or physical vigor.

Having concluded that the law here is based on a balance between the need for Temple service and the need to carry out the burial, let us now look at the case of the kohen gadol, who was not allowed to impurify himself for any relative.

We could justify this law by adjusting the balance from either of its ends. We could say that the kohen gadol's need to serve was greater - he was expected to offer at least one sacrifice every single day ("minchat chavitin"), unlike the normal kohen who might be called on to serve only on rare occasions. (Of course, the fact that even these rare occasions necessitate a constant avoidance of impurity indicates how important Temple service actually is.) Alternatively, we could say that his need to bury was lesser - he necessarily lived near the Temple, and plenty of other people were around to do the burial for him.

There is one circumstance where, perhaps, we can test which of these alternatives is true. If even the kohen gadol encountered a "met mitzvah" - a corpse with nobody to bury it - he was required to bury it, despite the resulting impurity. Does this prove that the kohen gadol could not bury his relatives only because other people were around to do it, so in a case where by definition nobody was around, he was required to bury?

It is tempting logic, but I don't think we need to throw out the consideration of the kohen gadol's daily sacrifice. That is one mitzvah, but burying a corpse is another mitzvah. For the kohen gadol who has just encountered the corpse, perhaps we can say that the more immediate mitzvah of burial took precedence over the mitzvah which would only have been performed later that day.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Persian empire

The Persian Empire, around the time of Ahashverosh, contained the highest fraction of world population of any empire ever.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


"Working AI is not even remotely on the horizon, it is still completely unknown how it could be done. And this also means it is completely unknown whether a working AI would have issues like motivation, etc.. What is also completely unknown is whether an AI would actually be as smart as a human being and how much computing power it would need to even get to human average level. There is some indication that when you look at interconnect, the human brain is within one order or magnitude of what is possible in this universe. Get larger, and you get slower because of longer ways. Get smaller, and you cannot fit in as many interconnects."

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Bears and Avos

Yes, the debate over this video ended long ago, but I wanted to say something about it anyway.

From the video: "Is it your mesorah to pick only the most fantastical, irrational sources from the vastness of Jewish tradition and call anything else kefirah?"

I do think there is a tendency in the charedi world to see things this way. And the logic behind this approach is easy to understand.

In the last couple hundred years, Western civilization has accomplished a great deal by use of reason. At the same time, one cannot help noticing, religion has retreated in many different realms. Understandably, one can see this as a zero-sum game. Many charedim believe they are choosing religion at the inevitable expense of reason. Thus, all other things being equal, they tend to prefer the irrational and anti-humanistic over the rational and humanistic. They feel that the further an idea is from rationality, the further it is likely to be from rational atheism.

It is sometimes hard to determine what the Torah desires from you – particularly, which of the diverse and occasionally mutually exclusive approaches in the sources you should follow. When there is no other way of deciding between the sources, an understandable first step is to eliminate those which are associated – even if you can't fully clarify how – with atheism.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The seven Mishkan commands

1. Punctuation

Like any book, the Torah is easier to read when fully punctuated. Unfortunately, no common chumash or translation includes all the punctuation. In particular, you will never find a full set of quotation marks.

This is because quotes in the Torah can be very long: the longest one spans 22 chapters of Sefer Devarim. It is little use putting a begin-quote when the end-quote is so far away. But if you want to seriously study the Torah, you must figure out where each quote begins and ends. That is the only way to know who is speaking, and what the context and content of the quote is.

2. The seven speeches

Parshat Terumah begins with the verse "And God spoke to Moshe, saying:". Clearly this verse should be followed by a begin-quote, as what follows is something spoken by God. Where is the end-quote? Look all the way through parshat Terumah and Tetzaveh, and you will not find it. Only at the very beginning of Ki Tisa will you find "And God spoke to Moshe, saying:" again, indicating that we are no longer within the quote. The end-quote should apparently be placed right before this, ending a two-parsha-long speech by God.

This first verse of Ki Tisa, of course, begins another speech. But this one is much shorter. Just one paragraph later we find "And God spoke to Moshe, saying:" again, indicating the end of the second speech and the beginning of a third. The next paragraph begins with "And God spoke to Moshe, saying:", ending the third speech and beginning a fourth. And so on and so on. Check it out yourself. From the beginning of parshat Terumah to the golden calf episode in the middle of Ki Tisa, there are no physical events whatsoever. The only thing that happens is that God repeatedly gives messages to Moshe.

If you count it all up, God speaks to Moshe exactly seven times. The subjects of these seven speeches are as follows:

1) All of parshat Terumah and Tetzaveh (concerning the Mishkan) 2) The half-shekel gift 3) Hand washing basin 4) Anointing oil 5) Incense 6) Betzalel chosen to build the Mishkan 7) Shabbat

Note how there are 6 speeches regarding the Mishkan (the half-shekels collected were used for building and upkeep of the Mishkan), followed by 1 speech about Shabbat. Clearly, this is an important source for the "melacha on shabbat=tasks done in building the mishkan" idea. You build the mishkan for six days, and on the seventh day you rest.

3. The division of speeches

The whole section (all 7 speeches) consists of 20 paragraphs of instructions about the Mishkan, plus one about Shabbat. There is no obvious difference in material among the 6 speeches dealing with the Mishkan. So why divide them into 6 speeches, one immediately following the other? If the speeches were in fact said consecutively without pauses in between, couldn't they be equally well described as one speech?

Perhaps, then, there is really no distinction between the speeches. They were really one long speech, and the last 6 paragraphs were arbitrarily introduced with "And God spoke to Moshe, saying:", so that the 7-speech/7-day pattern would exist.

That is one possibility, but not the only one. There could in fact be a difference between the material in each speech. But what that difference might be is not obvious. At first glance, the long first speech seems to be about the physical aspects of the Mishkan, while the other speeches are about more peripheral matters. But why then is the hand washing basin in the 3rd speech, and why the animal offering in the middle of the 1st speech? That seems to indicate that our "first glance" is wrong.

4. Precautions

There is, however, one common thread between the last few speeches, despite their dissimilar subjects. The half shekel, hand washing basin, anointing oil, incense, and Shabbat speech all mention "karet" or death (two comparable punishments) as a result of neglecting them.

Half shekel: "Each man shall give atonement for his soul to Hashem when they are counted, and there will not be a plague among them when they are counted." (30:12)
Basin: "When they come to the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash in water, and not die." (30:20)
Oil: "One who mixes anything like it, or one who puts any of it on a stranger [non-priest], shall be cut off from his people." (30:33)
Incense: "One who makes like it in order to smell it shall be cut off from his people." (30:38)
Shabbat: "Whoever desecrates it shall be put to death, for whoever does work on it shall be cut off from his people." (31:14)

The remaining command, the appointing of Betzalel, does not include a penalty for non-performance. Perhaps we may suggest that a person who builds ritual vessels, like Betzalel but without a Divine command, also receives the penalty of "karet". This would be similar to the oil and incense, which similarly incur "karet" if produced for improper reasons. (This command also includes open-ended permission for "wise-hearted" people to participate in the work. But perhaps that is really a repeat of the appointment of the "wise-hearted" in verse 28:3; the only relevant part here the innovative part: Betzalel's role.)

We may suggest that the above five commands, perhaps including the sixth of Betzalel, are not considered to be part of the actual "blueprint" of the Mishkan. They are necessarily precautions so that the Mishkan be built and operated correctly – so that one of the possible punishments listed will not be incurred. Since they are not part of the Mishkan, they are not listed in the Mishkan speech. And since each of them helps us avoid a different and unrelated punishment, each of them merits a separate speech of its own.

5. Priestly garments

Besides the above punishments, two punishments are mentioned in the long speech about the Mishkan itself. These concern the priest's clothing: he must wear pants (28:43), and have bells on his "me'il" (28:35), or else he receives the death penalty.

We suggested above that the warnings regarding the Mishkan were separated off into separate speeches, since they were not part of its basic "blueprint". But these two warnings are part of the much longer description of the clothing. The clothing does seem to contribute to the Mishkan "blueprint": it provides "honor and splendor" (28:2) which was an important quality of the Mishkan. Since the whole clothing section had to be included in the main Mishkan speech, the two warnings related to clothing were included along with it.

Much or all of Section 2 is based on a shiur by R' Menachem Leibtag.