Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Exodus commands

Sometimes in the Torah, a single event is described more than once. For example, after the event occurs (i.e. Avraham's servant meeting Rivkah at the well, or Pharaoh dreaming), a character describes it to other characters. Yet the Torah's text in the two cases differs somewhat, even though the exact same events are being recorded. When this occurs, we must ask ourselves why. Are the differences just matters of style? Or are they substantive, and if so why do they exist? The answers to these questions will vary from case to case.

One interesting example appears in the Ten Plagues. Regarding the plague of hail, God commands Moshe to speak a certain speech to Pharaoh, but it is not recorded that Moshe then spoke to Pharaoh. Regarding the plague of locusts, God commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh (without mentioning locusts), after which Moshe tells Pharaoh about the coming plague of locusts. Ramban (on Shemot 9:19 and 10:2) says the differences here are just matters of style. Moshe really did give the hail speech to Pharaoh, and God did tell Moshe about the locusts ahead of time. But the Torah did not mention these events, as they are too repetitive and can be inferred from context.

However, in another case a few chapters away, I think the understanding is quite different. In this case, God twice tells Moshe to instruct the people about something. But then Moshe seemingly instructs the people something quite different from what God instructed him.

In Shemot 12, known as "HaChodesh", God commands Moshe regarding the Pesach sacrifice, the upcoming 10th plague, and the "Hag Hamatzot" holiday which will commemorate this event for the generations. Moshe calls together the elders of Israel, and tells them about the Pesach sacrifice and the 10th plague - but does not mention the holiday.

In Shemot 13:1-2, just after leaving Egypt, God issues a very concise command: to consecrate all firstborns among Israel. Moshe, then, gives a long two-paragraph speech to Israel. The first paragraph describes the seven-day holiday commemorating the Exodus, while the second paragraph mentions consecration of firstborns. Both paragraphs mention telling your son about the Exodus, and having a "sign on your hand, and a memory/phylactery between your eyes" to commemorate the Exodus.

To summarize: In Shemot 12, God talked about three subjects (sacrifice, plague, and holiday) while Moshe talked about two (sacrifice and plague). In Shemot 13, God talked about one subject (consecration) while Moshe talked about two (holiday and consecration).

We notice that the one topic Moshe missed in Shemot 12 is the topic he adds in Shemot 13! Therefore, it seems to me that Moshe delayed telling the people about the holiday until after they had left Egypt.

Here is my hypothesis: God mentioned as many commandments as possible before the Exodus (the sacrifice, plague, and holiday). But God could not mention consecration of firstborns beforehand, because that is one side in a transaction, and God could not ask Israel to "pay up" before doing HIS side of the transaction. Whereas Moshe told the people only what was relevant to them at each time: they had to know about the sacrifice and plague ahead of time, but the holiday was not relevant until after leaving Egypt, so Moshe waited to tell the people until later. When he did tell them, he combined this command with another command he had received in the meantime: consecration of firstborns.

In summary: We have identified a total of four topics in God's commands, and the same four topics in Moshe's commands, and explained why each topic appears when it does. That said, each of the four topics has a somewhat different text in God's vs Moses' telling. To reconcile the different texts within a single topic, I would probably go with the Ramban's approach as described above. This approach seems best for when text is "missing" from one of the two accounts in the Torah. But when text is "shifted in position" rather than "missing", we should assume it was said where it appears, and look for an explanation of why this occurred.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Science and the flood

The Biblical flood story is fundamentally incompatible with science. Not enough water exists on earth to cover the land entirely. And no traces of such a worldwide flood have been found. Given this situation, why does the Torah include a long flood story?

The answer usually given by modern-inclined Jews has two parts. First, that Jewish traditional thought has not insisted on taking this and similar stories literally. The midrash states that the flood waters did not fall on the land of Israel. Some later commentaries say, based on this, that the flood did not cover the land of Israel - despite the flood's seeming world-wide extent in the Torah, and the questions raised by humans and animals in Israel seemingly being able to survive.

Second, that the flood story is intended to teach us ideas, not science. The ideas are powerful enough. The Babylonia flood stories (Atrahasis and Gilgamesh), for example, begins with the gods being unable to sleep because human beings are making too much noise, so they decide to wipe out humanity to eliminate the noise. The Torah's story, in contrast, features a single God, unaffected by human actions. However, when humans behave evilly, God brings the flood to to punish them. God, through his distress at having to destroy the world, shows His caring for humanity in tension with His need that the world which was created for good, actually stay good. The ideological difference between the Babylonian and Torah flood stories is vast, and the Torah's story represents many of our highest theological ideas. So, bottom line, we accept the flood story's lessons about God and morality, while feeling free to ignore its scientific difficulties.

This answer addresses many of the difficulties with the flood story. And yet it does not totally suffice. Yes, the flood story is meant to teach ideas. But does that mean it cannot also teach science? Perhaps there was no good way of teaching science in such a story, but why then teach erroneous science? Shouldn't a perfect God be able to write a text that conveys the ideas, while also not making errors in the science?

To address this, perhaps we should examine how history was transmitted in Biblical times. A key text for this is the beginning of Haazinu (Devarim 32:7):
Remember the days of old;
Consider the years of many generations.
Ask your father, and he will tell you;
Your elders [or grandfathers?], and they will say to you.
This is the introduction to a description of how God created the world with its various peoples in the distant past, before separating out the Jewish people as His special people. I think it is not just a poetic introduction, but important evidence for how people in Biblical times would attempt to obtain knowledge about the past.

How would a modern person answer a question concerning the distant past? Perhaps they would perform an experiment, digging in the ground to see what is buried there, or making calculations based on some measurement. However, the scientific method was not a practical option for ancient people. They were not trained to use it, but even if they had thought to perform experiments, they could only perform a handful of experiments. They would not have access to the hundreds of years of slowly accumulated data which form the vast majority of 21st century scientific knowledge.

A modern person might also considering reading a book. This was the default option before the scientific revolution. The writings of classical and medieval thinkers provide a great deal of thoughtful analysis from some of the most brilliant people the world has seen. And yet, in the Biblical period this option too was unavailable. Not only because classical culture had not yet arisen, but because books of any sort were hard to obtain. Even in the cosmopolitan capitals of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ability to read and write complex ideas was often limited to the priests, who jealously guarded this secret. In more rural and nomadic societies like ancient Israel, written stories and the ability to read them were surely even more rare.

Without access to knowledge from experiments or books, how would a person find out about the past? I think the best remaining source of knowledge was oral tradition. Your own parents, as well as the wisest elders in the community, would remember events from before your birth. Particularly significant events would likely be passed down as traditions over multiple generations. Of course, oral tradition tends to diverge a bit with time. But when all the elders agreed on the core of a story, you could rest assured that that story really took place.

Stories of a great flood are pervasive in many traditional cultures, worldwide. It is unclear exactly why. Perhaps they are based on memories of a sea level rise after the Ice Ages (which swamped many coastal areas - permanently), or of local floods (in low-lying places like Mesopotamia). Perhaps people saw fish fossils in the mountains, and could only explain them by positing a great flood. Whatever the initial motivations for a flood story, it morphed into a tradition held by many people who had never seen the evidence for it. For our purposes, what matters is simply that such a story existed, and likely, belief in it was near-universal. One could not simply deny that a flood took place. The elders all believed that a flood had occurred. Since oral tradition was the most reliable source of knowledge at the time, denying their story would effectively be an irrational denial of reality.

What options, then, were available to the author of a new narrative, like the Bible? If one denied the flood, people would not stop believing in a flood, but rather, the new narrative would lose credibility, just as stories of a literal worldwide flood have no credibility in modern times. If one ignored the issue of a flood, people would go on believing their preexisting flood story, with a multiplicity of deities and a debased moral order. The only option was to describe a flood, but to replace the problematic parts of the story with non-problematic parts. That way, people would only have to reject some details (and the details, unlike the big picture, were probably already in dispute), while not being asked to reject reason by denying the most reliable source of knowledge at the time.

For this reason, I think, the Torah includes a flood story similar those common in the ancient Middle East. (Even some minute details of the Torah's flood story, such as the dove and raven being sent out from the ark, appear in the Babylonian versions.) At the same time, everything that was theologically problematic was erased and replaced. This was the only way to write a text that had a chance of being accepted, while also saying all the theological things that needed to be said.

To return to our question: Shouldn't a perfect God be able to write a text that conveys the ideas, while also not making errors in the science? Perhaps, in this case, the answer is no.

(The same analysis may apply to other stories in the first 11 chapters of Breishit.)

Monday, September 03, 2018

Thoughts on Ki Tavo

My father was a wandering Aramean (26:5)

These are the opening words of mikra bikurim, describing how God took out us out of Egypt and gave us the land which produced these bikurim. But what is the point of mentioning that our ancestor was once a wanderer?

I think it's to create a contrast between our initial state (when we were wanderers and did not have a land) to our current state (where God has given us a land).

Vidui Maasrot (26:12-15)

Chazal refer to the second mitzvah of the parsha as "vidui maaser" (nowaday commonly known as "vidui maasrot"), though the Torah does not give it a name. It only says "you shall say" ("veamarta"), followed by your declaration that you have given maaser ani and thus have kept the mitzvah (and not done one of several possible forbidden actions), followed by your request that God bless you.

The word "vidui" in our minds suggests a confession of sin. But in this case you are "confessing" only that you have done good things, not bad things. So why do Chazal call it "vidui"?

One possibility is that "vidui" in Chazal's language can refer to any declaration, not only to an admission of sin. I found one source which fits this: Tosefta Bikurim 1:7 says that both bikurim and maaser ani require "vidui". Since neither of the two declarations seems to obviously allude to sin, one may presume that "vidui" in this source simply means "declaration". That said, this source seems to be the exception. It appears that in the vast majority of cases where Chazal (or the Torah) mention "vidui", they are referring to confession of sin.

If the word does imply confession of sin, I want to suggest what that sin might be. Elsewhere (Shemot 23:15) the Torah requires that when we visit God we must "not appear before [Him] empty-handed". Technically this mitzvah only applies to the pilgrimage holidays. But like many mitzvot, it is easy to identify a sensible broader idea which lies behind the specified application. In this case, the idea is that one visiting God should bring a gift with them, representing their love of God and submission to God.

The mitzvah of maaser ani follows an unusual schedule, dictated by the shemitah cycle. In years 1, 2, 4, and 5 of the cycle, one brings maaser sheni - holy food - to eat in Jerusalem. In years 3 and 6, maaser ani takes the place of maaser sheni.

Vidui maasrot is recited on an occasion when, despite the absence of maaser sheni that year, you are still visiting the Temple. As mentioned above, I think there there is an expectation to bring some kind of gift when visiting the Temple. But in this case, the gift you would normally be bringing (in 4 out of the 6 non-shemitah years) is conspicuously absent.

Therefore, I think vidui maasrot is an acknowledgment of this lack of gift. You "apologize" for your lack of gift, and then explain the good excuse you have for not bringing it - that God told you to do something else with the food. This acknowledgment is a "confession", not of having broken a commandment, but of failing to meet the expectation that normally goes along with such visits to God.

When you cross the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, which I command you today, at Mount Eval... You shall slaughter shelamim-offerings and eat there, and rejoice before Hashem your God. (27:4-7)

The mitzvah of "simcha" is a part of the three pilgrimage holidays, and also of other gatherings at the Mishkan/Temple mentioned in the Torah, such as this one. A common question is, how can you command someone to be happy?

One answer is textual: you are not commanding them to be happy, but rather to hold a celebration.

Another answer is that the activities involved are ones that naturally promote happiness. This is true on a number of levels. The meal is a source of physical enjoyment. The vacation from work is inherently pleasant. The group and family bonding of the event are good for mental health. The affirmation of common values gives people a sense of purpose. And finally, occasions of "simcha" are generally centered around thanking God for one's well-being, and psychologists tell us that feeling gratitude is one of the most effective ways of becoming happier. All these factors combine, not to guarantee that a person celebrating will be happy, but to make it much more likely.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Patterns in Parshat Balak

1. The triple structure

Three times Bilam went to curse Israel, and each time God caused Bilam to bless Israel rather than curse them.

It is well known that these three visions correspond to an earlier series of events - the three times Bilam's donkey strayed from the way. Three times the donkey disobeyed and angered Bilam, just as three times Bilam disobeyed and angered Balak.

Bilam was supposedly the prophetic expert who Balak looked up to, but this parallel implies that the donkey was even higher than Bilam. In the pre-Yom-Kippur prayer Tefillah Zakah we say "With the power of speech you divided mankind from animals, but I have not even been like an animal, for I have polluted my mouth with obscenities, gossip, lies..." Bilam, who had Divine gifts but used them improperly, did not even reach the level of an animal - and the story of the donkey shows this.

2. The differences between the three

One's natural assumption, when confronted with a grouping of three things, is to look for the commonalities between the three. This year, I looked instead at what differs between them.

Here are Bilam's three visions about Israel, ignoring Bilam's introductory remarks about himself:
"Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who hath counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the stock of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his!"

"None has beheld iniquity in Jacob, nor has one seen perverseness in Israel; the LORD his God is with him, and the shouting for the King is among them. God who brought them forth out of Egypt is for them like the lofty horns of the aurochs. For there is no enchantment with Jacob, neither is there any divination with Israel; now is it said of Jacob and of Israel: 'What has God wrought!' Behold a people that rises up as a lioness, and as a lion lifts himself up; he shall not lie down until he eats of the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain."

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters; Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the aurochs; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows."
Note the progression in these visions. In the first, Israel dwells alone, and does not interact with the nations. In the second, Israel escapes Egypt, and will eat the flesh of its "prey". In the third blessing, Israel goes to war against its enemies, and defeats them.

Remember that the very reason Bilam came was that the Moabites feared Israel after Israel's conquest of the Amorites! Now look at what the series of visions means for Moav. In the first vision, Israel does not interact with other nations. In the second vision, Israel is violently consuming "prey" - to me this seems ambiguous, and could refer to material consumption or to defeat of enemies. The third vision explicitly has Israel defeating its enemies!

I get the impression that the more Balak insisted on a curse, the more he dug his nation into a hole. In the first vision, Israel would dwell separately and presumably not threaten anyone. In the second vision, Israel was a possible threat to others. In the third vision, Israel was a definite threat to others!

Now let's see what happens when we examine the three donkey episodes in the same way.
And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

Then the angel of the LORD stood in an alley between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall; and he smote her again.

And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.
To summarize: In the first episode, the donkey was forced off the path, into a field. In the second episode, the donkey was forced into an alley, and thus tried to edge its way past the angel blocking most of the alley. In the third episode, the angel blocked the entire alley, and the donkey was forced to collapse.

Once again, we see a similar progression! In the first episode, the donkey's progress was slowed, but one can take a path through the fields and get to the same destination as by a road. In the second episode, the donkey's progress was mostly blocked. In the third episode, its progress was entirely blocked. Every time Bilam failed to notice the real cause of the donkey's errant behavior, the behavior got worse. When he failed to understand a third time, the next step was for the donkey to miraculously open its mouth and for the angel appear - and only then did he understand where he had gone wrong.

In a sense, the donkey opening its mouth is a fourth episode - and it is paralleled by a fourth episode in Bilam's interactions with Balak. After Bilam's third failure to curse Israel, without prompting he begins a fourth speech: "Let me advise you what this people will do to yours in the future." This speech too is about how Israel will defeat its enemies - but unlike the previous speeches, the enemies are named, and the first one mentioned is Moav itself. Balak really should have stopped while he was ahead.

3. The three-four structure

Both the visions and the donkey episodes have what is called a "three-four" structure. This structure appears elsewhere in Tanach, most notably at the beginning of Amos. There the sins of various nations are listed:
Thus saith the LORD: For three transgressions of Gaza, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they carried away captive a whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom. So will I send a fire on the wall of Gaza...
Thus saith the LORD: For three transgressions of Tyre, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because they delivered up a whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant. So will I send a fire on the wall of Tyre...
This chapter contains a long list of nations which are punished, of which I have only quoted two. For each nation, the "three-four" structure is explicit. Each nation has already sinned in three ways, but once the fourth national sin is committed, the amount of sin becomes overwhelming and a punishment is decreed against the nation.

In Bilam's case, too, we see the same three-four structures. Three times Balak wrongly asks Bilam to curse Israel; only in Bilam's fourth speech is Moav's punishment decreed. Three times Bilam ignored the donkey's behavior and hit it; only when the donkey speaks in words does the angel appear. Here, too, the sin builds up steadily, and only at the end is the verdict reached.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Mei Merivah

The congregation did not have water, and the gathered against Moshe and Aharon. The people fought with Moshe, and said: "If only we had died when our brethren died before Hashem. Why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to this desert, to die here, us and our animals. And why did you take us up from Egypt, to bring us to this evil place, not a place of seed, or figs or grapes or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink." (Bamidbar 20:2-5)

The people's complaint at Mei Merivah is bizarre. You would expect a complaint about water to focus on water, but in fact water seems to be just an afterthought tacked onto the end. Much of the complaint is about the agricultural bounty - herds, grain, fruit - which the people feel entitled to. Shouldn't survival and water come before these luxuries? In addition, the people say they prefer death to their current situation. But if they want to die, why complain about lack of water? And finally, they quite explicitly link themselves to Korach's rebellion - both in linking themselves to "our brethren [who] died before Hashem" (compare to 16:16-17, 17:5, 17:11, 17:28), and in describing themselves as "the congregation of Hashem"/"kehal Hashem" (see Korach's initial complaint in 16:3). Why would they hope to get a positive response from Moshe and God, when linking themselves to the most evil rebels?

It is no surprise that Moshe reacts angrily to this arrogant, insincere demand. "Listen now, you rebels, will I bring water out of this rock?" Moshe correctly recognized the complainers to be hostile rebels, not innocent desperate people who just want water to drink.

Or so we think. But God's responses to Moshe, Aharon, and the people are the opposite of what we expect. Throughout Sefer Bamidbar, God considers and executes punishments on the people. Sometimes (like 16:21-22) these punishments appear to be much harsher than what either Moshe or the average modern reader would consider appropriate. And yet, in the Mei Merivah story, the people receives no punishment whatsoever. In fact, the only ones to be punished are Moshe and Aharon! They are the ones we thought had correctly interpreted the people's demands! What is going on?

I think the answer is as follows. Correct me if I've missed something, but I think that never in the Torah are the people punished for complaining when there is a lack of food or water. Only when they demand things like better food (meat), or altered political arrangements, or a return to Egypt, are they punished. Food and water are legitimate needs; a person cannot live without them. God, by taking the people out of Egypt and promising them entry into Canaan, took on a certain responsibility towards them, which included not allowing them to die. If there really was a shortage of food or water, it was God's responsibility to fix that, and there was nothing wrong in pointing it out.

It is true that at Mei Merivah, the people expressed their complaint in a very offensive way. Yet at its core, the complaint was legitimate. Water was missing, and God had to provide it. In general, a leader who gets angry when asked to do their responsibilities is a failed leader. It is no excuse that "the other side started it"; to descend to the level of selfish ungrateful rebels is an abdication of moral responsibility, and is seen as such by "the other side". Moshe and Aharon were representatives of God, so their failures reflected badly on God - and thus were a failure to "sanctify God's name" (20:12). When leaders fail at their job, it can disqualify them from further leadership, which is what happens to Moshe and Aharon in the wake of this episode.

I am not in the habit of giving lessons to other people, but there is a lesson waiting to be said here. There are many times in life when we, or our ideological camps, are disingenuously accused of misdeeds. Perhaps one person in our camp has behaved badly, and outsiders use this example to besmirch the entire camp. We feel justified in responding in kind - fighting anger with anger, or besmirching the enemy camp based on anecdotes just like ours has been besmirched. I think Mei Merivah's lesson is that in general, we must resist these temptations. Such angry responses rarely convince the other side. More often, they tend to decrease the other side's respect for us, and make the distance between us and them wider and harder to bridge. Particularly in the last few years, when US public opinion has crystallized into mutually exclusive echo chambers which cannot talk to one another, we need the patience to ignore the other side's rhetorical lows and respond thoughtfully rather than in anger. This takes a lot of self-control, and fails to satisfy our inner urge for justice. But it is more likely to lead "the people" to "the promised land" than any alternative.

Credit for this post goes to an interminably long Shir Hashirim reading at the local shul for kabbalat shabbat, leading me to think about the parsha instead of following along.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Arachin and Herem

This shabbat I came to a clearer pshat understanding of the last chapter of Sefer Vayikra (27) than I had in the past, and I want to summarise it here.

The chapter covers four subjects: arachin, bechorot, herem, and maaser. In more detail, the chapter divides as follows:

1) Arachin of a person: אִישׁ כִּי יַפְלִא נֶדֶר בְּעֶרְכְּךָ נְפָשֹׁת (verses 1-8)
2) Arachin of a kosher animal: וְאִם בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר יַקְרִיבוּ מִמֶּנָּה קָרְבָּן (verses 9-10)
3) Arachin of a non-kosher animal: וְאִם כָּל בְּהֵמָה טְמֵאָה (verses 11-13)
4) Arachin of a house: וְאִישׁ, כִּי יַקְדִּשׁ אֶת בֵּיתוֹ (verses 14-15)
5) Arachin of an ancestral field: וְאִם מִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ יַקְדִּישׁ אִישׁ (verses 16-21)
6) Arachin of a non-ancestral field: וְאִם אֶת שְׂדֵה מִקְנָתוֹ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, יַקְדִּישׁ (verses 22-24)
7) The "holy shekel" is defined as 20 "gerah" (verse 25)
8) Bechorot, kosher and non-kosher (verses 26-27)
9) Herem: אַךְ כָּל חֵרֶם אֲשֶׁר יַחֲרִם אִישׁ לַה מִכָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, מֵאָדָם וּבְהֵמָה וּמִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ (verses 28-29)
10) Maaser of produce: וְכָל מַעְשַׂר הָאָרֶץ (verses 30-31)
11) Maaser of animals: וְכָל מַעְשַׂר בָּקָר וָצֹאן (verses 32-33)
12) Conclusion (verse 34)

In all of 1-6, the word עֶרְכְּךָ reappears over and over. This word also appears in Vayikra 5 (where the "asham" animal is described as an עֶרְכְּךָ for the person who has sinned) and in Bamidbar 18 (where the 5 shekel redemption payment for a firstborn male is described as עֶרְכְּךָ, and has the same 5 shekel value specified for baby boys in Vayikra). Besides these places, each of which is "arachin" in the human sense, the word never appears in the Torah. But here, it appears in connection with animals and land, as well as humans.

In addition to the three categories of "arachin", there are three categories of "herem" - אָדָם וּבְהֵמָה וּמִשְּׂדֵה אֲחֻזָּתוֹ - human, animal, and land! It seems that nearly any object can be sanctified in one of two ways - either "arachin" or "herem".

What is the difference between "arachin" and "herem"? It seems the difference is that "arachin" may be redeemed to a cash value, while "herem" can never be redeemed. Let us go through how this works in each case.

Of the six types of "arachin", four (humans, non-kosher animals, houses, and purchased fields) seemingly *must* be redeemed. A fifth (ancestral fields) *may* be redeemed, but only until the yovel, and if you miss this deadline, it becomes "like the herem field" (verse 21), i.e. non-redeemable! Just one type of "arachin" can never be redeemed (kosher animals) - even switching them to a different animal doesn't work. Perhaps this is not actually a type of "arachin", it is just included next to the similar law for non-kosher animals for completeness.

As for "herem" (verse 28-29), it applies to people, animals, and fields - but only to ancestral fields, not purchased fields. A purchased field was originally someone else's ancestral inheritance, and it would be unfair to me to deprive someone else of their ancestral inheritance by making it sanctified without ability to redeem.

You may wonder, where do these unredeemable goods go? To the priest. (Source: Bamidbar 18:14, and of course Vayikra 27:21)

What about verse 29, which says that human "herem" must be killed? Verse 28 specifies that the "herem" it refers to must be owned by the giver. Based on this, one would suppose that human "herem" refers to one's slaves. If so, then verse 29 seems to suggest that one may freely get their slaves killed by sanctifying them (!). This seems not only morally outrageous, but incompatible with other laws in the Torah. Should knocking out a slave's tooth lead to the slave's freedom (Shemot 21:26), but killing the slave has no punishment? A master is required to give his slave gifts when the slave goes free (Devarim 15:14); should the master be able to "save money" by killing the slave a day before his release? These possibilities are absurd. Therefore, it seems impossible to understand verse 29 as referring to a slave. The commentator Shadal notes that the "herem" in verse 28 is a gift "to Hashem", while in verse 29 this is not mentioned, implying that it is a different kind of "herem". Rashbam says "herem" in this verse refers to a death penalty convict who may not be redeemed; Ramban suggests it refers to the enemy population of a city that Israel has sworn to conquer (as in Bamidbar 21:2).

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Olives and Chanukah

Last Chanukah I happened to be visiting London, and I went on a tour of the British Museum with a Chanukah theme.

It was interesting to learn that olives, and olive oil, have a special significance for the Greeks just as they do for us. According to the founding myth of Athens, the goddess Athena won "ownership" of the city by providing it with an olive tree. The olive tree thus became a symbol of Athens, and appeared on its coins. Olive oil and the light it produced became further associated with the light of learning, as Athens was the center of Greek intellectual culture.

With this background, it is interesting to note how significant olives are to *our* side of the Chanukah story. The mitzvah of the holiday is to kindle lights (best fulfilled with olive oil), in memory of the olive oil lights in the Temple with were relit by the Maccabees. Furthermore, R' Yoel Bin Nun hypothesizes that Chanukah existed as a celebration of the olive harvest (which happens around this time of year) before the Maccabees.

So within the very symbol of the olive, there is a struggle between Greek and Jewish culture, paralleling the struggle between the two cultures in general. The Maccabees found impure oil in the Temple, but insisted on using pure oil instead. Similarly Greek culture was available and popular, but the Maccabees insisted on following Jewish culture instead.