Wednesday, December 31, 2008

toch k'dei dibur - d'oraysa or derabbanan

Before Chanukah I touched on the topic of toch k'dei dibur and want to get back to it because of a few good questions in the comments (thanks Micha). There is a basic dispute between Rabeinu Tam and the Ran as to the source of toch k'dei dibur. Ran (Nedarim 87) holds that tk"d is a din d'oraysa based on the all too common phenomenon of a person's brain taking a few seconds to catch up to his mouth. I person who screams "buy" to his broker may turn around a second later and scream "I meant sell!" Since it is mental agreement and coming to terms and not just speech alone which seals a transaction, the few seconds until a person's mind (and not just his mouth) is settled allow for retraction or clarification.

Rabeinu Tam disagrees and holds that tk"d is a takanah derabbanan. Really, we should all be bound by our words and have no opportunity to retract or clarify. However, Chazal recognized that in normal business transactions there are times when we deliberately pause mid-speech, e.g. a person sees his Rebbe and wants to say "Shalom Alecha Rebbe." Therefore, Chazal allowed the time it takes to say those few words as a natural break after which the person can resume his previous speech and retract or clarify as necessary.

The gemara notes that there are certain exceptions to the rule of tk"d, e.g. kidushin, gitin, avodah zarah, megadef. According to the Ran, the reason for these exceptions is simple. The rule of tk"d is based on the assumption that a person sometimes speaks before thinking. These exceptional cases have such serious consequences that a person undoubtedly is fully aware of what he is saying and doing while speaking. It is unimaginable, for example, that a person should utter "harei at mekudeshet li" to betroth a woman without fully being aware of the impact and consequences of those words.

According to Rabeinu Tam, there seems to be no clear reason why Chazal should have excluded any cases from the takanah of tk"d. The Rashbam (Baba Basra 130) writes that these exceptions are simply a "chumra derabbanan", i.e. because of the severity of the prohibitions involved and the issues at stake, Chazal decided to stick to the letter of the law and not make any allowances for tk"d retraction or clarification.

So much for the basics. The next step is to collect and review the cases of tk"d discussed in various sugyos and see which model -- the Ran's or R"T's -- fits better. More to come, bl"n.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Chanukah retrospective: a few simple lessons of the chag

A few simple lessons from Chanukah that we should not lose sight of even after the chag:

1) Focus on one day at a time: the Chashmonaim had no way of knowing that the little oil they found would miraculously last for eight days. They could easily have looked at that one jug and been filled with disappointment -- what good is one day's worth of oil when more than a week's worth is needed? Instead, they rejoiced at finding that jug and in being able to at least light something. Don't let worry about the future blind you to happiness that can be found in small accomplishments and the success of the moment.

2) Hadlakah oseh mitzvah: Even though the highlight of the chag seems to be the supernatural burning of the oil for eight days, the halacha focusses on the human effort of lighting and not the Divine miracle that kept the candles burning. Don't expect G-d to do it all -- it takes human effort, even effort that we recognize as insufficient by itself, to bring about miracles.

3) Kavsa ain zakuk lah: Provided sufficient oil is used and the menorah is lit in a location that is not windy, one is not responsible if the menorah becomes extinguished. Projects fail; plans backfire. As long as you initially made the proper effort, don't take failure personally.

4) Ad she'tichleh haregel: The gemara writes that the candles must burn until there are no longer regel=feet of shoppers in the marketplace. Chassidic sources homiletically read this phrase as hergel=routine. If doing things the same old way is not accomplishing what it had in the past or not leaving you feeling fulfilled, maybe it's time for a change. Don't let routine and past patterns govern behavior forever.

Monday, December 29, 2008

a zar lighting menorah

The Minchas Chinuch (mitzvah 98) writes that for many years he was troubled by the Rambam's opinion (Hil Bi'as Mikdash ch 9) that a zar is permitted to light the menorah. The only way this would seem practically possible is if a kohen removed the menorah from the heichal (which a zar is not permitted to enter), a zar lit the menorah, and a kohein then returned the menorah to its proper place. However, this scenario cannot work. The gemara tells us with respect to lighting our Chanukah menorah that the hadlakah and not the hanacha, the lighting and not the placement of the menorah is the mitzvah, and therefore lighting must be done in a spot which is kosher for the mitzvah to be fulfilled. For example, assuming the menorah needs to be placed in public view by a doorway, one cannot fulfill the mitzvah by lighting in one's basement and then carrying the menorah and placing it in its proper location. If so, writes the Minchas Chinuch, the same should hold true with respect to the menorah of the mikdash --lighting done outside the heichal by a zar and then moving the menorah into the heichal should constitute an invalid act of lighting and not fulfill any mitzvah. How then can the Rambam declare that a zar is permitted to light?

One can perhaps answer this question of the Minchas Chinuch with R' Chaim Brisker's explanation of that same Rambam. R' Chaim suggests that the Rambam does not view the act of lighting the menorah in the mikdash as a mitzvah at all. There is a requirement for the menorah to be lit, a chiyuv in the cheftza of the menorah, but how that result is achieved, the process of lighting, is not in-and-of-itself a mitzvah act. It is for this reason that a zar can light.

The Minchas Chinuch's comparison between the halacha of lighting our Chanukah menorah and the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the mikdash is a false analogy. With respect to the Chanukah menorah, the act of lighting is itself a mitzvah, and must therefore be done in a proper location. With respect to the menorah in the mikdash, the act of lighting is just a preparatory condition but is not itself a mitzvah.

Returning to the issue we raised in yesterday's post, we can now argue that the fact that according to the Beis Yosef the menorah oil was divided into eight equal parts of insufficient oil does not prove that one gets credit for performing a mitzvah with less than the proper shiur, e.g. eating less than a k'zayis of matzah. Lighting the menorah is not inherently a mitzvah act (compare with the Beis HaLevi mentioned yesterday) and hence a lack of shiur is not an impediment to lighting. The same cannot be said of eating matzah where the act itself is a mitzvah.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

difference between chanukah and purim in al hanisim

There is an interesting discrepency between the way the miracle of Purim is described and the way the miracle of Chanukah is described in our tefilah of "Al haNisim" . The recounting of the story of Purim in "Al haNisim" ends with the Haman's hanging, ending the danger to the Jewish people. The recounting of the Chanukah story goes a step further. We not only relate the miracle of the victory over the Greeks and the end of our persecution, but we add, "V'kav'u shmonas y'mei Chanukah eilu l'hodos u'l'hallel" -- we describe the establishment of the holiday of Chanukah as a reaction to the miracle. Why is the establishment of the holiday incorporated into the text of Al haNisim which thanks Hashem for the miracle of our salvation?

The Kedushas Levi asks why the miracle of Chanukah was established as a holiday and so many other victories over our enemies were not. The answer perhaps lies in a careful reading of the description of the holiday given in the gemara (Shabbos 21b). The gemara writes that in the year following the miracle "kav'um v'asaum yamim tovim b'hallel v'hoda'ah". If we were writing the text we would have probably said that the Yom Tov was established "l'hallel v'hoda'ah", similar to the text of tefilah where we say "l'hodos ul'hallel". Why does the gemara use the strange phrase "b'hallel" instead of describing the praise sung to Hashem, "l'hallel..."? The Sefas Emes answers that the day of Yom Tov does not in fact obligate us to sing praises to Hashem. Quite the reverse. It is our praises to Hashem which the miracle of the day elicited which led to the establishment of the day as a Yom Tov. It was through our hallel, "b'hallel", that the day attained its character. It was not the miraclulous victory over the Greeks which created Chanukah, as many other victories have come and gone without a Yom Tov being established. The Yom Tov of Chanukah was given to us because our hearts opened in response to this victory unlike any other.

I think this explains the different in the Al haNisim text as well. The establishment of Chanukah as a Yom Tov is not just a coda to the events of Chanukah, but is an essential aspect of the miracle itself. Unlike other victories which came and went, Chanukah's song of hallel made an everlasting impression on the character of the Jewish people and has left us with a Yom Tov l'doros.

hadlakas menorah and chatzi shiur

The Minchas Chinuch frequently raises the question of whether any credit is earned by performing a mitzvas aseh if one has less than the proper shiur. For example, would one get any credit for eating half a k'zayis of matzah, or is it not considered an act of eating unless a proper shiur is consumed? The basis for the safeik seems to be whether the concept of shiur is a quantitative measure (kamus), in which case less than the full amount might still count as some degree of kiyum, or whether shiur is a qualitative measure (eichus), in which case less than the full amount does not count as anything.

One proof cited by the Minchas Chinuch is the gemara (Yoma 39) which says that when times were bad each kohen would get only a small portion the size of a pol of the lechem hapanim or the shtei halechem. Apparently eating this small portion, albeit less than a k'zayis, is still considered a kiyum mitzvah of eating kodshim (see Tosfos Yeshanim).

One can argue on this proof. The Beis haLevi (I:2:7) writes that the mitzvah of eating kodshim is not a chovas hagavra incumbent on the individual to eat kodshim, but is rather a chovas hacheftza for kodshim to be consumed. It is the result, not the act or process, which is important. Therefore, since eating less than a k'zayis contibutes toward achieving the desired outcome, it is considered a mitzvah. The same might not be true of achilas matzah where the chiyuv rests on the individual to engage in an act of eating.

The Beis Yosef famously asks why the holiday of Chanukah is 8 days when there was sufficient oil for at least one day. His first answer is that the kohanim did not anticipate a miracle and divided the oil into 8 equal parts so that they could light something on each night. Even though only a small portion was lit on each night, that small portion miraculously burned the entire night on each of the eight nights.

Perhaps one can bring a proof from this Beis Yosef to resolve the Minchas Chinuch's question. Each lamp of the menorah was usually lit with a shiur of 1/2 a lug of oil. If performing a mitzvah with less than the proper shiur is meaningless, what were the kohanim hoping to accomplish by lighting a small insufficient shiur on each night? It must be that even though less than the shiur was utilized, there was still a kiyum mitzvah in lighting.

This proof is also debatable, but we will save that for another time bl"n.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Divrei Torah: Chanukah, Mikeitz

The Midrash offers two strikingly different interpretations of pasuk “VaYivaser Ya’akov levado” (32:25), Ya’akov was alone in the camp awaiting his encounter with Eisav. According to one interpretation Ya’akov was alone because he returned for little jugs that had been left behind, small baggage that had been forgotten; according to another interpretation Ya’akov stood alone in symbolic anticipation of the day when G-d’s presence alone will be felt in the world, the day of Redemption. Two opposite extremes of isolation: the idea of being alone in caring for trivial detail and minutia when others have moved on vs. the idea of being alone in seeing the ultimate “big picture” that all else leads to – which one is the truer reflection of Ya’akov’s personality? Rav Kook (Shmu’os haRa’aya) explained that these are not two contradictory images, but are two sides of the same coin. The idea of Redemption is not one of escape from this world into a nirvana of supernatural experience, but rather it is the revelation of G-dliness as present with us in even the smallest and most trivial mundane details of life. It is the same Ya’akov who saw even the smallest jugs left behind as containers of potential spiritual value who stands alone in anticipation and readiness for the ultimate day of Redemption.

The highlight of Chanukah is the final day known as “Zos Chanukah” when we read the parsha of “Zos Chanukas hamizbeiach” (BaMidbar 7:84), “This is the dedication of the altar…” The Midrash (VaYikra Rabbah 21:1) elsewhere draws a connection between the word “zos” and the pasuk “b’zos ani boteiach”, “In this I will place my trust…” Why is trust in G-d highlighted through the word “zos”? The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that almost anything in the world can be referred to as “this.” I can refer to the chair I am sitting on and say I am sitting on “this”, I can refer to my computer and say I am writing on “this”, I can refer to the idea of this vort and say I am thinking about “this.” All these things can be referred to by the same magic word “zos” or “this” because though they may all superficially appear to be very different, they share a common denominator – they all manifest G-d’s presence in the world. Trust in G-d, “B’zos ani boteiach,” is rooted in the fact that there is nothing in the world, whether it is a chair, a computer, or even a little jug, that escapes G-d’s dominion. This G-dly spark found in everything is the little jug of oil, that potential to bring light and good and good into the world, which was found by the Chashmonaim, which was earlier looked for by Ya’akov, and which is the “zos” of “Zos Chanukah” (Sefas Emes Chanukah 5641) which brought redemption in the past and heralds future Redemption.

The Sefas Emes continues that equal to the word “zos” in its potential to refer to everything is the word “kein”. After lighting the menorah the Torah tells us “Va’Ya’as kein Aharon”, “Aharon did it.” No matter what was done, one can say that “it” was done! The reason why is because no matter what was done, every action potentially has some connection to fulfilling Hashem’s plan in this world. The opposite of “kein” is the idea that the world runs mechanistically with no plan and no oversight – “hergel”. The idea of lighting the menorah “ad shetichleh regel min hashuk” is homiletically interpreted to mean that on Chanukah we strengthen our belief in Divine oversight and banish this notion of “hergel” from our philosophical vocabulary.

When the brothers appear before Yosef, as described in Parshas Mikeitz, they protest that they are not spies, “Keinim anachnu lo hayu avadecha meraglim (42:11).” The Sefas Emes explains that we are indeed, "keinim”, we espouse the philosophy of “kein” and “zos”, and reject a world that sees everything as hergel, a world of “meraglim”.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

zerizus vs. hidur in lighting chanukah candles

A few months ago we discussed the proof of the Shvus Ya'akov as to how to resolve a conflict between zerizus and hidur in a case where you can either do netilas lulav with a kosher esrog immediatly or wait until later and do netilah with a m'hudar esrog. A similar question can be raised with regards to hadlakas neiros Chanukah. If at the zman of hadlakah one has only enough oil to fulfill the basic mitzvah of lighting one candle, but later that same night one can obtain more oil and perform the hadlakah in a way that is min hamehadrin, is it preferable to light b'zman, or preferable to forgo lighting b'zman and light later to fulfill being min hamehadrin?
Something to think about while watching your candles burn.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Waiter, there's a fly in my soup! -- hilchos borer (2)

I do want to get to more Chanukah stuff, but we were in the middle of borer and I want to finish that topic. Lots of interesting comments to the last post, but I want to do this slowly before jumping to the answer. The Aruch haShulchan (319:9) asks a fundamental question. If borer involves any sort of selecting, then it seems we run into trouble at every turn on Shabbos. For example, you have three suits in the closet and want to take out one to wear; you have three spoons in front of you at your place setting and want to use one of them -- why in each of these cases is taking the desired item not a violation of borer?

The Aruch haShulchan gives two answers. The first answer hinges on the rules we learned last time. Quick review: Borer means selecting between items and is permitted if three conditions are met:
1) ochel is being removed from psoles
2) it is for immediate need/consumption
3) a special utensil (e.g. a strainer) is not being used
As we learned, ochel does not mean exclusively food, nor does psoles mean bad stuff. Ochel simply means the item you want; psoles is the item being discarded. If you take the spoon that you want or the suit that you want, that is ochel m'toch psoles for immediate use and is therefore permissible.

The second answer of the Aruch haShulchan (actually, it's the first one he suggests) is that we don't even need to refer to the three criteria here because, as I mentioned, there is another condition that needs to be met before we even begin speaking about borer and it almost goes without saying: we need a mixture. Where each individual item is clearly recognizable, e.g. I can clearly tell one suit from another; I can clearly tell the difference between each spoon at the place setting in front of me, taking one item is not called borer. The Aruch haShulchan writes that this is called netilah, taking a desired item, and it has nothing to do with the melacha of borer which entails sorting between different items, .

So now for a little test with a case that appears in many handbooks and which was given by my daughter's teacher. You sit down to your Shabbos chicken soup and suddenly notice something is wrong. "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!" Can you remove that fly on Shabbos?

Most handbooks will tell you (based on a Ta"z) that that the correct procedure in this case is to take a little soup out along with the fly. Removing the fly alone would be taking psoles from ochel, which violates rule #2 in our list of three criteria. However, shlepping the fly along with a little soup, which is ochel, avoids separating between fly and soup and is therefore OK.

If this was your answer, I'm afraid you failed the test. Based on the basic rules of borer this approach makes no sense. First of all, as we learned, ochel does not mean food; ochel means the item that you want, as opposed to psoles, which you are just taking to discard. If the whole purpose of taking some soup with the fly is to discard that soup in the trash with the fly rather than eat it, that spoon of soup itself becomes psoles! Instead of violating borer by separating a fly from soup, you now have violated borer by separating a fly+soup that you don't want to eat from the soup you do want to eat. That does not seem to accomplish anything.

The second point I guess depends on your soup. I like my chicken soup pretty clear, with maybe some noodles or a matzah ball floating along in it. I am pretty confident that I can tell the difference between clear chicken soup and a fly even if I took off my glasses. Why should removing the fly not be considered what the Aruch haShulchan calls netilah? We shouldn't even need to speak about borer in this case because we haven't met the most basic criteria required to talk about it: we don't have a mixture. We have two distinct items and are just removing one from being nearby the other.

(Just for the record, one can defend the Taz, but doing so involves some elaboration. My point for now is that taking the Taz at face value [as many people do] 'flies' in the face of the basic rules of borer and is therefore not a good illustration if you want to understand or teach principles.)

lighting menorah through a gerama

A few weeks ago when we went to the NY Hall of Science in Queens, NY we saw a video playing near one of the exhibits that showed one of these machines where each thing that occurs or moves triggers a reaction that causes the next movement, and so on (there is a name for these things, but I can't remember it -- someone please remind me. [Update: Thank you Wolf! It is called a Rube Goldberg machine, and some examples can be seen here]). The setup shown on the video has a lot of fuses and things that catch fire, which reminded my wife of Chanukah. This prompted the question of whether one would be yotzei hadlakas ner Chanukah if one constructed an elaborate device like this. In other words, would you be yotzei hadlakah through a gerama, or do you need an actual ma'aseh hadlakah?
I didn't have a good answer at the time (and still don't), but at least I now have a mareh makom: the question is raised in the Halichos Shlomo (which collects R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's piskei halacha) and footnotes a discussion by R' Tzvi Pesach Frank in a journal. Something to think about while watching the candles.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

bitachon - chanukah

Thinking about bitachon in the face of adversity should remind us of giborim b'yad chalashim, resha'im b'yad tzadikim -- it's part of the holiday spirit. Tehilim 112 speaks about the trait of bitachon, but look at the last letters of the words below:

משועה רעה לא יירא
נכון לבו בטוח בה׳
סמוך לבו לא יירא
עד אשר יראה בצריו

Friday, December 19, 2008

Divrei Torah: Parshas vaYeishev

Available as .pdf for download here. I am still not sure how convenient it is to list a .pdf as a seperate link, but a 2 page doc makes for a long post and does not print out as well. I reduced the font and pasted it below for those who do not want the .pdf.

Ya’akov dwelled in the land of his forefathers…. (37:1) Rashi cites the Midrash’s comment on the use of the verb y-sh-v here, “vayeishev Ya’akov” (compare with 47:28, “vayechi Ya’akov”) as indicating that Ya’akov sought to dwell in peace and tranquility having overcome the challenges of Lavan’s house and his re-encounter with Eisav. Yet, Hashem denied him this request: “Is it not enough for the righteous to have tranquility in the world to come – must they also demand it in this world as well?” This seems like a harsh response, but by coincidence just this morning I read a story told in the name of R’ Gedalya Schorr which I think sheds light on the Midrash.

The story is told of the Rizhiner who one year after Yom Kippur revealed that he could tell what anyone davened for on Yom Kippur and exactly how the beis din shel ma’alah received those prayers. No one dared test the Rizhiner, but finally one person who was not chassid came forward and asked. The Rizhiner looked at the person and told him, “You used to be a great masmid in yeshiva and aspired to become a great talmid chacham, but financial constraints forced you into business where you have had a degree of success, yet you still long for the beis medrash. Your davened with great sincerity that Hashem should take care of your parnasa so that you should have the opportunity once again to immerse fully in learning.”

The man was amazed – that was his exact tefilah. “And what was the response on shamayim?” he asked.

The Rizhiner answered that the man’s request had been rejected. “The beis din shel ma’aleh decided”, explained the Rizhiner, “that although there is great nachas in shamayim from your learning, there is even greater nachas from your striving to learn despite the challenges of time and other concerns that stand in your way.”

We request that Hashem remove from us many obstacles and challenges that make our life difficult, but perhaps Hashem himself sends us those challenges so that in struggling to overcome them we grow and create even greater nachas ruach in shamayim than we could otherwise.

Despite the story of the Rizhiner, one cannot but help feel that if things were smoother one could accomplish so much more. “If only… I could do more.” There is no denying the truth to this assertion, but it misses the whole picture. The seemingly small efforts we might be able to make in any area given the constraints of life’s challenges, if done with sincerity and dedication, can produce tremendous results that we may not even be aware of. The Sefas Emes explains that we see this from our parsha. “Reuvain heard and saved him [Yosef] from their hands” (37:21). Reuvain had the most noble intentions when he suggested that Yosef be lowered into a pit. Imagine his shock and surprise when he returned later (37:29) only to find Yosef missing and discover that he had been sold into slavery by the other brothers -- all those plans and great intentions for naught! Yet, that is not how the Torah looks at things. “Vayatzileihu” – Reuvain did save his brother. Had it not been for Reuvain, Yosef might have been killed immediately. Reuvain may not have brought Yosef home as he had planned, but it was because of his intercession that Yosef lived and would rise to become Yosef the great ruler of Egypt and Yosef the tzadik. The Sefas Emes writes that when a person is motivated by sincere intention to do a good deed, even though it may appear that his efforts prove unsuccessful, he should rest assured that something is indeed accomplished, even if that something is not always apparent.

The challenges and burdens which we must overcome not only may seem to make life more difficult, but may seem unfair and unjust. The Sefas Emes writes that the stories of these parshiyos teach us how to accept Hashem’s actions in this world with happiness and love even through suffering and confusion. Yosef felt that he was destined for greatness. Can we imagine what he must have felt as the brothers stripped him of his ksones and tossed him into a pit and later sold him? Can we imagine the sense of embarrassment that Yosef would have been reduced to left without even the shirt on his back? Yet, Yosef accepts this as part of Hashem’s plan – Yosef trusts that this method of bringing about the fulfillment of his dreams will bring greater nachas ruach in shamayim even if in his mind it would be easier and better if things had gone differently. It is precisely this immunity to embarrassment and sense of bitachon that later gave Yosef the strength flee from the wife of Potifar leaving his shirt in her grasp, no matter how embarrassing that situation might have been. Without the former challenge, the latter spiritual success could not have been achieved. The strength of character built from his dealings with his brothers that gave Yosef the strength to survive in Egypt. And if we look at the story as a whole, it is this long circuitous path of the dreams coming to fulfillment that give us the tribes of Menashe and Ephraim and lead Yehudah to his own story that gives rise to the lineage of Moshiach. Had things gone “smoothly”, none of that could have been accomplished.

The first step in dealing with any difficulty is accepting it as Hashem’s will. Yosef is cast into prison, “vaYitneyhu el beis hasohar”, but the pasuk continues and ends, “vaYehi sham b’beis hasohar,” Yosef was there in the prison (39:20). If he was thrown into prison, obviously he was in prison – why the seeming redundancy? If we reflect on our own lives and circumstances the answer becomes clear. A person may at times feel that his job is like a “prison” that he cannot escape from because he needs to support his family and cannot risk leaving. A person can G-d forbid suffer an illness that leaves him/her confined to a bed, a “prison” that prevents escape to carry on a normal life. What child does not at times feel that school is a “prison” that must be suffered through (and what teacher does not at times feel the same way?) And so we sit day-in and day-out and dream of our escape, or engage in all sorts of empty activities designed with the goal of escapism in mind. The Kedushas Levi explains that this is why the pasuk ends “Yosef was in the prison” -- Yosef was not engaged in regret, Yosef did not engage in a repetitious cycle of reconsidering whether he had played his cards right and whether he was to blame for his fate, Yosef was not fantasizing about could-be’s or escapist dreaming. Yosef understood that at this point in life, for whatever reason, it was his fate as decreed by Hashem to be in prison and he must accept it, deal with its challenges, and trust that Hashem will guide him for the future.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

hilchos borer

My eldest daughter is learning hilchos shabbos in school and this always seems to lead to amusing discussions as we attempt to try to figure out the logic behind various chumros taught as "THE" halacha. The way girls learn halacha (and it's not much better for boys, but since boys have a gemara background they have the tools to discover more on their own) is by memorizing a list of do's and dont's with scant attention to distinctions between a d'oraysa or a chumra of an acharon and with little more than a smattering of understanding of the principles behind halacha (after all, to derive principles you need to go back to the source and open a gemara, and we would not want to encourage that even in areas where they must know and understand the law.) The do's and don'ts are "THE" halacha -- seldom is there a mention of multiple views or an attempt to understand them. In general, this is what many parents expect -- schools are there to teach dogma, not to teach people to think (but that's another discussion).

So we come to a psak on borer that my daugter came home with that got us involved in a nice review of these halachos, which is what I wanted to write about before starting my rant. My daughter's teacher declared that it is prohibited to remove a sticker from an apple on Shabbos in order to eat the apple.

To begin to understand this we need a quck review of borer. Borer means selecting between items and is permitted if three conditions are met:

1) ochel is being removed from psoles
2) it is for immediate need/consumption
3) a special utensil (e.g. a strainer) is not being used

Rule #1 needs special clarification. Ochel here does not mean exclusively food, nor does psoles mean bad stuff. Ochel in this context means the item you want; psoles is the item being discarded.

The reason why these rules apply (note: this was not explained to my daughter) is because the melacha of borer involved sifting the harvest for storage. The conditions above distinguish the act of simply eating from the prohibited act of sorting the harvest.

So the sticker on the apple is being removed by hand, meeting criteria #3, the apple will be eaten immediatly, meeting criteria #2, but the sticker being removed is psoles because it will be discarded in the trash. We fail on condition #1. QED removing the sticker is prohibited.

Sounds simple, but I think it is totally wrong. I'll save the details for the next post, but let me throw out a hint as to where we are headed: although the three conditions I listed can be found in any hilchos shabbos handbook, there is another condition that is seldomly listed. This condition is not obscure or unknown, but is so basic that it escapes notice, even though without understanding it nothing in borer makes sense. But that's the story for the next post...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

from what age is kol isha assur?

My youngest daughter (age 7) has a chumash play in school this year and parents, including fathers, are invited. Since this play includes singing (as each of my older daughters passed through the same grade I saw the same performance) my wife asked me at what age the issur of kol isha kicks in. As much as I appreciated her trying to think of an excuse to spare me from attending, it seems that according to most poskim the singing voice of a penuya tehorah is permitted. R' Moshe in Igros Moshe (O.C. #26) advises that m'ikar hadin until age 11 there is no problem of kol isha. However, R' Moshe cautions that though this is the letter of the law, where possible, one should strive to be machmir. Given R' Moshe's caution I was wondering how widespread it is to have performances like this where fathers may attend. Looking at another case by comparison, R' Moshe is lenient and holds that m'ikar hadin there is no problem with drinking non-chalav yisrael milk, but advises schools to be machmir; to the best of my knowledge, they are. My guess is that in America it is more prevalant even in schools that try to position themselves to the right, while in Israel a chareidi Beis Ya'akov would probably ban such performances completely (the Sheveit haLevi in vol 5 takes a very hard line on kol isha and prohibits singing zmiros together, hearing a radio broadcast, and advises that even all girl schools should perform singing softly lest male neighbors hear). I would be interested in hearing your feedback. More often than not, especially in education of girls, it seems that sociology is the baseline that dictates what is done.

The Ishbitza on bitachon and yirah

In a past discussion of the conflict between Ya'akov's fear and the needs for bitachon I described the Abrabanel's insight which my wife pointed out to me as a "realisitic model of bitachon". Ya'akov was preparing for battle with his brother. Abarbanel writes that someone who has no fear of battle is a fool, not a ba'al bitachon, because such a person does not have a sense of the value of human life. Precisely because a hero is fully aware of what stands to be lost, yet nonethless conquers fear and enters battle, is he considered a real ba'al bitachon. Trust in G-d does not mean overlooking the dangers posed by reality or being fearful of the consequences of failure. Bitachon means pushing ahead despite those fears and consequences.

The thoughts are always well meant, but going over to someone who just found out they have an illness, lost a job, or some other tragedy and telling them "Don't worry" is not going to make them feel any better even if you insist that G-d will make things out. Worry full well! But despite that worry, be confident that G-d is still with you.

This is my favorite approach to the topic, and it is an approach that I found echoed in a teaching of the Ishbitza. Going back to the gemara, the idea of shema yigrom hacheit which we find by Ya'akov is presented in the context of the gemara telling us that David haMelech would arise every night at chatzos to ponder his fate. Although he was a "chassid", righteous beyond reproach, he nonetheless feared as well shema yigrom hacheit, a fear which the gemara cites Ya'akov as the model for. Why did he arise precisely at chatzos to ponder this message? Explains the Ishbitza, it is humanly impossible to reconcile fear and bitachon. If one is truly confident, one has no fears; if one is afraid, one lacks bitachon. Yet, these emotions coexist in each of us. The key is to maintain a balance between them. We must arise at chatzos, the precise midpoint, or we risk faltering.

The gemara continues on the nexy amud to tell us that one who is someich geulah l'tefilah by ma'ariv is a ben olam haba. The Ishbitza reads this gemara as hinting at the same theme. For the ba'al bitachon, G-d's geulah, redemption, is always at hand. Yet, in the darkness, when no light of hope can be seen, our fears lead us to call out in prayer to G-d. Logically it is impossible to explain how these emotions can coexist. If redemption is at hand, then need we pray with all our might?; if we pray so fearfully, are we lacking in confidence that G-d will act only for the good? We flip-flop between theses different poles, because only a ben olam haba, outside the constraints of this-worldly reason can possibly manage them simultaneously. Yet, that process of flip-flopping from one to the other, of using one as the springboard to the other, is precisely what we are charged to do.

In the Ishbitza's model there is no denying or resolving the contradiction between yirah and bitachon. Akin to the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, the human condition is one of paradox.

bitachon vs. bechira chofshis - - can we trust that others will not harm us?

Continuing the discussion of bitachon, one of the questions I left off with is how to square the idea of bitachon with shema yigrom hacheit. If a response to true bitachon is promised even to the unworthy, then of what consequence is the fact that one might have sinned?

With respect to Ya'akov's fear of encountering Eisav because of shema yigrom hacheit one can possibly kvetch and say that Hashem might have responded to Ya'akov's bitachon my sparing only Ya'akov, or Ya'akov and children but none of his property. This answer addresses the "letter of the law" but I don't think it addresses the spirit of bitachon. From Hashem's perspective there is no difference between saving all or saving part; once bitachon is in place, why not trust that Hashem will save all? The Ramban suggests this kvetch, but also pulls no punches and writes that perhaps Ya'akov's fear of shema yigrom hacheit was in fact a lack of bitachon. "Lo kol hama'amin boteach." This same idea is echoed by the Rambam in Shmoneh Prakim who proves from this episode that a Navi can have failings (see R' Elchanan Wasserman's explanation of this Rambam at the end of Koveitz He'oros. I don't see his question.)

A lomdishe answer to this issue is given by the Alter of Navardhok in his Madreigas haAdam. The Alter writes that the reason for Ya'akov's fear goes back to the brachos given by Yitzchak. Ya'akov was not blessed with unconditional dominion over Eisav --Eisav received his own blessing guaranteeing that when Ya'akov let down his guard and was not observant of Torah and mitzvos, he, Eisav, would be able to rise against Ya'akov. The fear of Ya'akov was not because G-d does not respond to the bitachon of a rasha, but rather because Hashem would fulfill this bracha to Eisav if Ya'akov did not measure up in tzidkus.

I would simplify this answer, and by coincidence, this brings us to this week's parsha : ) The Ohr HaChaim asks what Reuvain was thinking when he suggested lowering Yosef into a pit filled with scorpions rather than allow the brothers themselves to harm Yosef. Either way, Yosef was in danger, so what was Reuvain hoping to accomplish? The Ohr haChaim answers that scorpions and snakes have no bechira and could harm Yosef only if Hashem decreed such. However, the brothers had bechira. Hashem allows bechira to play out even if it goes agains the ideal Divine plan.

It is one thing to have bitachon that one will survive and illness, a dangerous storm, etc. In these cases one faces the threat of nature, which is completely controlled by Hashem. It is quite another thing to have bitachon from another person's threat, as Ya'akov faced in his encounter with Eisav. In this case Hashem's promise to intercede on behalf of the ba'al bitachon is overridden by Hashem's desire to allow the free will of people to play out in this world.

Monday, December 15, 2008

toch k'dei dibbur

Once one says a bracha on food or a mitzvah, the food must immediatly be consumed or the mitzvah performed without interruption. Speaking between the bracha and action is not permitted. The Chayei Adam (klal #5) has an interesting safeik: what if one speaks only 1 or 2 words between the mitzvah and the action?

What difference does it make how many words are spoken? The rule is "toch k'dei dibur k'dibur damei" -- a break of less time than it takes to say "shalom alecha rebbi" is not considered a break or interruption. In this case would we say that since the action occurs within toch k'dei dibur of the bracha it is considered simultaneous to the bracha, or would we say that an interruption has occurred, regardless of how short its duration?

eid echad against a rov

Before I totally lose all continuity between posts I want to finish up the eid echad topic. The Pnei Yehoshua proved that an eid echad is believed against a rov by virtue of the fact that we believe our butcher that meat is kosher despite the fact that most meat in the world is treif. Another proof he offered was from the fact that we believe an eid echad who testifies as to the identity of the owner of a lost object even though most people in the world are not the object's owner.

R' Naftali Trop argued that this latter example is not a proof. Let's review what a classic case of rov is: 9 butcher stores sell kosher meat and 1 store sells trief meat. If I find a piece of meat, I can assume it is kosher based on the principle of rov. The case of a lost object is not comparable for two reasons:

1) As noted in a comment to the original post, the evidence of a large number of kosher stores directly contradicts the evidence of the single treif store in determining the status of the meat -- rov resolves that contradiction by telling us to follow majority. However, in the case of the lost object, the rov does not tell me anything about who the owner of the object is. There is no contradiction between the evidence that a single individual among many must be the owner and the evidence that a majority of individuals are not the object's owner. Therefore, rov has no bearing on this case.

2) The Tosfos RI"D explains that in the case of the kosher stores we don't need to identify which store the meat came from -- we simply need to identify if it came from any kosher store. In that case there is a cumulative effect created by the evidence of multiple stores that increases the statistical liklihood of the meat being kosher. However, in the case of a lost object, we need to identify exactly who the owner of the object is. There are equal odds for/against any individual being the owner, so there is no majority vs. minority with which to resolve identity.

bitachon (III)

I realized that I can keep writing about bitachon post after post and not exhaust the topic while possibly boring everyone, so maybe I will have to intersperse other stuff. I left two questions hanging at the end of part 2 (part 1 here, part 2 here), but before getting to those, some other quick points.

1) I was beaten by a comment to posting the Yalkut Shimoni on the pasuk "Rabim machovim l'rasha v'ha'boteach b'Hashem chessed y'sovevenu (Teh 32)" The Yalkut darshens that the "boteach b'Hashem" might very well be the rasha of the opening of the pasuk! Of course, this fits perfectly with the opinion of the Ramban that even a rasha can have bitachon. By coincidence (I usually don't use the sefer) I saw the Mishnas R' Aharon vol 4 (R' Aharon Kotler zt"l) quotes this derasha and is perplexed at how a rasha can receive a positive response to bitachon. I am not sure if R' Aharon saw the Ramban (he refers only to the Chovos haLevavos), as it seems to me that the Ramban answers this question. Ramban notes that the pasuk, "B'tach b'Hashem" continues "v'aseh tov", to warn that although the rasha can call on the resource of bitachon and ellicit mometary mercy from Hashem, it does not mean that Hashem will wipe clean his slate of wrongdoing. There must be a follow-up of good deeds. See the Mishnas R' Aharon for his answer.

2) As mentioned in part 2, the Maharal refers to Hillel's bitachon that his home was not in danger when he heard a sudden outcry in the city. Maharal notes that the gemara is meduyak / particular in referring to a sudden outcry. Such an outcry could not be the result of the normal course of events, but must be an abberation, a departure from the norm, an almost supernatural occurance. That is why Hillel felt confident in calling on his bitachon. Where there is a clear intercession by G-d into mundane affairs, as evident by events being so out of the ordinary as to be unexpected and unanticipated, then a person has a right to assume that the events conform to Heavenly direction and the ba'al bitachon will be spared. I think the Maharal makes a significant point, but the question is where to draw the line. If someone walks off a four story building and thinks that because he is a ba'al bitachon he can fly, I think it is obvious that he is trying to go against what the normal course of nature is and will not succeed. But what about someone struck down by a sudden illness? Such an event may be sudden, but illness is part of the natural world. Some of the cases the Maharal himself uses to illustrate his point seem to fall into this area.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

bitachon (II)

The Chazon Ish's model of bitachon is the opposite of nihilism. It sees suffering as directed by G-d and therefore ultimately justified. However, it makes no promise that G-d will offer deliverance from calamity -- if calamity is deserved, why should he? If not deserved, then G-d would not let it happen in the first place.

I think it's fair to say that the average person thinks of bitachon as more than that. When a person is suffering and turns to faith, he/she does so not just with the hope of finding meaning, but rather he/she hopes for redemption / salvation. Is there no basis for this approach?

Perhaps there is. Here is a rough translation of the Ramban in his work on Emunah u'Bitachon, ch 1:
"Trust (btach) in G-d and do good", meaning even though you have no good deeds to call upon, even though you know you are wicked, nonetheless, trust in G-d, for he is merciful and will have mercy upon you... Therefore it states first "trust" and only afterwards "do good" -- meaning, whether one is righteous [i.e. one has already done good] or wicked [i.e. one has not yet done good], trust in G-d.
This is certainly a remarkable statement coming from the Ramban who writes elsewhere (e.g. see his comments to Braishis 18:19 and R' Bachyei there) that only the purely righteous are guaranteed of direct hashgacha protection by G-d. According the the Chazon Ish it seems to makes no sense at all. Why should someone unworthy receive G-d's grace? Bitachon simply means trusting that G-d delivers just rewards, not that G-d delivers more than a person deserves?! Maharal (Nesiv haBitachon) similarly writes:
How great is the trait of bitachon... even for those who see and think that no hope is left, do not despair! Rather trust in G-d's eternal protection, because G-d can provide salvation. When a person places his/her trust in G-d, then it becomes incumbent upon G-d to save such a person..."
The apparent hopelessness of the situation or unworthiness of the victim is not a reason to despair of G-d's deliverance as absurd as that hope may be (I am reminded of Kierkegaard's knight of faith in contrast to the Chazon Ish that reminded me of the knight of resignation). Maharal proves the point from a number of gemaras. Brachos 60 tells us the story of R' Akiva who was stranded in the woods, had his donkey eaten, his rooster devoured, his lamp extinguished by the wind, but still trusted in G-d. In the end he discovered the town he might have stayed in was captured by an enemy army and he escaped because he was in the dark woods with no braying donkey to give him away or rooster to make noise. According to the Chazon Ish, what sort of bitachon is this? The story should more aptly end with R' Akiva suffering in the cold but not complaining because of his faith. But that is clearly not the lesson. The story ends on a note of this worldly salvation because that is the fruit of bitachon.

When Hillel heard a tumult in his city (fire engines? police siren?), he declared that he had no worries about his home because one who trusts G-d need not fear. According to the Chazon Ish, why not? All bitachon promises is that suffering is not meaningless, not that suffering does not occur! The gemara clearly seems to suggest otherwise.

There are two important questions that beg asking:

1) If a person is suffering because his/her behavior warranted G-d's punishment (and the principle of schar v'onesh suggests that all punishment is ultimately just), then by what right does that person have to demand salavation from G-d? As noted earlier, hashgacha-protection is promised to the righteous. How can bitachon deliver the same promise to all?

2) The more difficult question comes from this week's parsha. The Chazon Ish, the Chovos heLevavos, and others all write that true trust in G-d means a person need not worry. According to the Chazon Ish, at least we can say that if anything bad happens it must truly be deserved and part of G-d's plan -- nothing outside what G-d decrees can happen to a person, so there is no point in worrying about it. According to other models of bitachon, we can even go so far as to say that bitachon itself can be a source of salvation. Yet, Ya'akov Avinu who not only had the same general obligation to trust G-d that any of us do but also had an explicit guarantee from G-d against harm was filled with fear over his encounter with Eisav. Chazal (Brachos 4) interpret Ya'akov's fear as worry lest his sins render him unworthy of G-d's protection, but this still does not help. According to the Ramban, trust in G-d applies even to the wicked and undeserving. If Hillel was not afraid of calamity because of his trust in G-d, if R' Akiva was sure all would work out for the best because of his trust in G-d, if even the wicked can rely on bitachon, why should Ya'akov have been worried? If worry is the antithesis of faith, how are we to interpret Ya'akov's reaction to meeting Eisav?

bitachon (I)

I hate to digress from the topic of rov, but I want to address the issue of bitachon a little more thoroughly because it relates to this week's parsha, but also because it is an important and timely topic. I don't pretend to have reached maskanos and have found my own views on this topic changing over time. I say that not just to convey caveat emptor, but also because I think implementing bitachon and growing in it's understanding is an individualized, ongoing process. The best a post or shiur on the topic can do is to inspire a person to look at the sources and start that process.

A good starting point on this issue is a little kuntres of the Chazon Ish printed in the back of the Taharos section and reprinted as a separate sefer entitled Emunah u'Bitachon. The C.I. contrasts emunah, which means theoretical belief in G-d, with bitachon, which is the day to day implementation of emunah. Emunah tells us that G-d is in charge of the world; bitachon tells us how to live with that knowledge. Bitachon does not mean that G-d will not make a person suffer illness, unemployment, or other tragedy; it simply means that a person who is suffering is allowed to make whatever the normal efforts to relieve that situation are and then trust that whatever ultimately happens is due to G-d's plan. I think this summary by R' Hershel Shachter shlit"a sums it up well:

The Chazon Ish explains in his essay on Emunah and Bitachon, that when we ask a sick person to have bitachon, it does not mean that he should be convinced that he will recover. That would be ridiculous – one can not be sure that he will not die. Bitachon simply means to live by emunah, and emunah means believing that G-d has complete control over everything in the world. If G-d wants me to live and be healthy and happy, then there is nothing anyone can do to negate that. If for some reason, G-d wants me to suffer, then as that is His will, we should accept it with joy, with the knowledge that anything G-d does is for the good.
So, to respond to a comment yesterday which raised the question, "How should I have trust in Hashem that all will be well?", the answer is, at least according to the Chazon Ish, that you should not! There is no such guarantee that all will be well. All we can say is that whatever happens is directed by G-d, but we cannot say that things will be pleasant for us along the way or that we will get the hoped for outcome just because we want it to happen and trust Hashem to make it so.

(As an aside, compare the Chazon Ish's position with Kierkegaard's knight of infinite resignation in his Fear and Trembling.)

The story does not end there... more to come bl"n.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

kallah magazine latest issue

The latest issue of Kallah Magazine is out and has been dropped off in Brooklyn, Queens, 5T, and will be coming to Teaneck and Baltimore soon, so look for it. Also, take a look at the website for some news regarding the K.M. hopefully upcoming book.

eid echad testifying against a rov (I)

According to many Rishonim an eid echad cannot testify against a chazakah (see Yevamos 88). Would an eid echad be believed against a rov? For example, if I have three pieces of meat in front of me and only one is kosher, can I trust an eid echad who identifies the kosher piece?

As a general rule halacha tells us ruba v'chazakah -- ruba adif. When there is a clash between the evidence of rov and the evidence of chazakah, the evidence of rov is considered superior and more authoritative. It would stand to reason therefore that if an eid echad is not believed against the inferior form of evidence of chazakah, he would certainly not be believed against the superior evidence of rov.

The Achonim are bothered by this conclusion because it flies in the face of common practice. As the Pnei Yehoshua points out in a few places (e.g. see Kidushin 63b), we buy meat trusting an eid echad (the butcher) that it's kosher even though most of the meat in the world (rov) is treif.

My son brought to my attention an interesting sevara of R' Naftali Trop. One of the other proofs of the Pnei Yehoshua (quoted by R' N"T, but which I have not found in the Pnei Yehoshua yet) that an eid echad is believed is from the fact that we would accept an eid echad's testimony as to who the rightful owner of a lost object is even though there are many more people in the world (rov) who are not the owner than who are.

R' Naftali says this case is not a proof --this case of returning a lost object is completely different than the case of the mixed up pieces of meat that we started with. Can you figure out the difference?

economic downturn and bitachon: a realistic approach

I have not attended any of the numerous shiurim that have sprung up to preach the message of bitachon during economic downturn because I don't know if there is much to say on the topic. Obviously, trying times demand bitachon -- knowing that is no kuntz; the kuntz is implemeting it. If someone has heard a chiddush in this sugya, I would be interested to know what it is.

One refreshingly realistic approach to this whole parsha that I saw recently can be found in the Sichos MoHaRaN (Avodas Hashem #55). R' Nachman writes that bitachon is a wonderful thing to have, but it is even nicer to have a steady job. Quite a mouthful from a tzadik who we usually associate with other-wordly spirituality and not Torah im derech eretz ideals! Of course, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was not anti exercising bitachon. But, as the Sichos Moharan explains, exercising bitachon is a very demanding avodah. R' Nachman does not just mean demanding in the practical sense, e.g. a person who is out of work is not going to write out a check of tzedaka when he has no source of income. R' Nachman means bitachon is demanding in the emotional, psychological, and spiritual sense. Ask anyone out of work and they can tell you how psychologically trying it is to remain hopeful and keep a seder and not fall into despair while trying to remain financially afloat and find other work. All that energy that goes into maintaining a sense of bitachon has to come from somewhere. Inevitably, it is a drain on other areas of life and other areas of avodas Hashem. A person's head is obviously not into a Keztos or R' Akiva Eiger when he doesn't know how to pay his mortgage. A person's mouth may say "l'shem yichud", but his mind and heart are on the electric bill or next month's tuition that he can't pay.

It is almost too easy to give a shiur or personal advice extolling the virtue of bitachon without really having a sense of the emotional trauma that people may be going through. That, I think, is what Rabbi Nachman is trying to warn against (and if there was ever a tzadik who was attuned to souls in crisis, it was R' Nachman.) There is no magic "bitachon switch" that can be turned on to continue life as normal despite crisis -- it would be foolish to think otherwise or for anyone to give a shiur or offer advice suggesting otherwise. At the same time, we need to realize that Hashem ultimately is the one assigning a particular avodah to each of us. It would be better to not have a crisis and to be able to devote one's spiritual energy to other areas of avodah, be it learning, be it chessed, etc. But if Hashem forces one into a situation where greater bitachon is demanded, then it is Hashem's will that a person devote his or her spiritual energy to work on this midah even if it poses obstacles (and it will!) in other areas of avodah.

Monday, December 08, 2008

einei Leah rakos -- the power of tefilah

Given that 1) Eliezer had travelled to Lavan's home to look for a bride and made clear that Avraham's family would marry only from his own stock; 2) It was known to Avraham (at least according to Rashi's interpretation) when Rivka was born depite the distance between the different family branches; 3) Avraham and Yitzchak were apparently well known figures; 4) Lavan was well known -- the shepherds Ya'akov encounters when he enters Charan all knew of him; I don't really see why Rabbi Avi Billet thinks it so improbable that the talk around town should have been that Ya'akov would marry Rachel and Eisav would marry Leah.

Be that as it may, I would like to argue that precisely this Midrash on "einei Leah rakos" is THE key to understanding the entire following parsha.

Isn't it amazing and ironic that right after being promised by Hashem en route that he will be protected and guarded from harm Ya'akov is tricked into marrying the wrong girl and ends up working seven extra years? What happened to the promise?

Rashi quotes half the Midrash, but leaves it to us to look up the other half. "Einei Leah rakos" leah's eyes were soft from from crying because the talk of the town was that she would marry Eisav. But, continues the Midrash, "kashe hi hatefilah shebitla es hagezeira" -- because of Leah's crying, because of the tears she shed, the decree that she would marry Eisav was annulled. Not only that, continue Chazal, but "v'lo od, elah shekadmah l'achosah" -- she was even married to Ya'akov before her sister.

The idea that Leah would marry Eisav was not just "talk of the town", but was a gezeirah min shamayim (which the Midrash, as it does elsewhere, places in the mouth of a third-party) and it was through the koach hatefilah, the power of her prayer, that Leah overcame it. "Einei Leah rakos" is the introduction to WHO Leah is -- she is the embodiment of the midah of tefilah. Tefilah is, in the language of this Midrash, "kashe", it is something difficult, because Leah's prayers which were so powerful that it gained her a union with Ya'akov at expense of her sister Rachel's place as the preferred bride.

In reality, Lavan had no power to harm Ya'akov, but because of the tefilah of Leah, because of "einei Leah rakos", he was able to succeed to bring about her marriage to Ya'akov. We need to "see" the entire continuation of the parsha through Leah's eyes (sorry for the pun).

As I wrote on the parsha sheet, it was not the 14 years of learning that led Ya'akov to experience the revelation of the ladder, but it was his heartfelt tefilah at the makom mikdash on the way to Charan. The parsha which begins with Ya'akov's realization of the power of tefilah continues by showing us how Leah's personality as the embodiment of tefilah, her "einei Leah rakos", made her the perfect match for him.

What Chazal are revealing is that the successful trickey of Lavan and the marriage of Ya'akov to Leah, which we might have thought to be just an "accident", were in fact just results brought about through koach hatefilah. This theme of the koach hatefilah continues through Leah's naming of her children (see the Ohr haChaim) and through the disagreement between Ya'akov and Rachel over his lack of davening for her. To ignore this Midrash may allow for a more literal or rational pshuto shel mikra on a particular pasuk, but comes at the tremendous expense of ignoring this beautiful theme which Chazal allow us to identify as underlying the entire parsha.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Ya'akov's neder and the mitzvah of ma'aser

After being promised Hashem's protection and being given a guarantee that he will return home safely Ya'akov wakes from his prophectic dream and takes a neder asking Hashem to protect him, provide him with food and shelter, and ensure that he returns home safely. In exchange, Ya'akov accepts Hashem and promises to take ma'aser from all his income.

Why did Ya'akov take a neder asking Hashem for these protections when Hashem already had promised him that and more in his dream? Furthermore, why is Ya'akov's promise to Hashem in return specifically to fulfill the mitzvah of ma'aser?

The Ramban answers the first question by invoking the principle of "shema yigrom ha'cheit." Ya'akov could not trust in Hashem's promise because he thought perhaps he would prove unworthy. It seems that the neder was not needed to ellicit something from Hashem, but rather for Ya'akov's own psyche, to motivate him to remain steadfast and earn the promise (akin to a nidrei zerizus - Nedarim 7).

R' Simcha Bunim m'Peshischa offers a different answer. There are many ways in which Hashem's promise could be fulfilled. Most of us at least pay lip service to the idea that our earnings come from Hashem. But realistically speaking, we know that without going to work we will not have much in our checking account. Realistically speaking, without a job to give us a sense of security, many of us feel challenged to maintain our bitachon. We acknowledge that our income comes from Hashem, but we much prefer to have him hiding in the wings while we pretend that we are in control and go about our business.

Ya'akov davened for exactly the reverse. Ya'akov knew that Hashem could bestow his blessing in such a way that it would appear that his wealth could accumulate because of his great business acumen, his children would grow up OK because he was a great parent, etc. That type of bracha may make a person feel good, but makes it that much harder to focus on Hashem as the one true source of blessing. Ya'akov did not want that. He wanted Hashem to be present center-stage, evident as his benefactor and source of strength.

I think with this approach we can answer the second question as well. The mitzvah of tzedaka and ma'aser has a unique feature not found in other mitzvos. Normally it is prohibited to test Hashem. However, with respect to these mitzvos Hashem says, "Bechanuni na b'zos." "Test me," says Hashem -- Give tzedaka and ma'aser on condition that I bestow wealth on you and see if it does not happen. I think the reason testing Hashem is permissable here is because it follows midah k'neged midah from the nature of the mitzvah. A miser can horde his riches and refuse to share with others, and in truth, why shouldn't he/she? If riches are the result of personal achievement and labor, why share with others who have not expended the same energy and effort or achieved similar results? But we reject this view. It is not personal achievement or effort alone which are the cause of riches, but Hashem's blessing. By giving money to tzedaka, by seperating ma'aser, we acknowledge that Hashem is the cause behind all achievement and it is not our efforts alone. We call Hashem from the wings and place Him center stage. Midah k'neged midah: If you keep Hashem offstage and think everything is the product of your own efforts, then Hashem responds accordingly and keeps in the background. But if you are willing to put aside your own achievements and acknowledge that Hashem is the one true source of blessing, if you give tzedaka and ma'aser because all the money you earn is a gift from Hashem, then Hashem in turn promises that if he is center stage and running the show then more goodness and blessing will follow.

Ya'akov wished for Hashem's blessing to be come in a way that would be clearly evident as coming from Hashem alone rather than through his own personal effort. Therefore, Ya'akov in turn promised "aser a'asrenu lach", to take ma'aser, to perform the mitzvah which is our way of acknowledging that it's not our efforts, but rather it is Hashem's blessing, which is the source of all we have.

picking and choosing among meforshim

Well, since I commented on it last week, I want to follow up. After noting the harsh responses his article drew last week, Rabbi Avi Billet, writing in The Jewish Star, continues on much the same theme this week ("I've been inspired to find more valid interpretations that go against the grain..."), selecting a pshat from Da'as Zekeinim which explains the phrase "einei Le'ah rakos" in a way that is different and in Rabbi Billet's opinion more palatable than the explanation offered by Rashi.

I am not sure what point of these articles is. Anyone who has ever opened a Mikra'os Gedolos is aware that there are multiple interpretations to pesukim. Some of these interpretations appeal to our rational nature, other interpretations sacrifice the rationalist viewpoint in favor of other considerations, whether it be closer fidelity to the text or a willingness to consider the text in an allegorical, an ethical, a mystical, or some other light.

A person is certainly free to decide that he/she is a rationalist and pick and choose among meforshim to find those interpretations that will allow for a reading of chumash conistant with his/her worldview.

However, I would argue that a person who reads chumash (or any Torah text) this way is missing something of the breadth and depth of Torah learning. Torah study, as all disciplines, demands that we open our minds to consider problems from many different angles and viewpoints. More important than choosing the view which appeals to us is trying to understand the reasoning behind the views which don't, because it is these other views which will force our mind open to considering Torah in a new light that we perhaps were never attuned to. Ideally, our reading should not consist of finding or choosing one correct or appealing view among many, but of appreciating what is correct and appealing in each of many interpretations. At the end of the day one interpretation among many may resonate with us, but that does not mean we should be blind to the beauty of all others.

Noting that the reading of Tosfos makes more sense than others makes for half and article or half a shiur. The missing half is arriving at an understanding of the other views, which undoubtedly (especially given that they have survived centuries of study by minds greater than ours) have something of value to teach us.

And if we fail to arrive at that appreciation, certainly the fault does not rest on those meforshim for not living up to our expectations, but rests with us for failing in our quest for understanding. At the very least, study in this way is a lesson in humility.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Divrei Torah: Parshas VaYeitzei

For some reason not much grabbed me this week, but some divrei torah (2 page .pdf) can be found here.

pilpul on toothpaste

After brushing his teeth my son came to me last night and said he has a kashe on the toothpaste box. The box says "great regular flavor" but also says "great mint taste." A stirah -- is it the "regular flavor" or is it "mint taste"?

It must be, continued my son, that the "regular flavor" is "mint taste" and there is no stira. But if so, he reasoned, why would they put down both "mint taste" and "regular flavor" on the box? If the two are the same, writing both would be redundant. Elah, they are not the same -- but if so, hadra kushya l'duchta!

My wife resolved his dilemma by suggesting that the box prints "regular flavor" for those who have used this brand before and expect the flavor they have grown accustomed to. The box lists "great mint taste" for those who have never used the product and are not familiar with what its "regular flavor" is.

Just curious -- do other people just brush their teeth and go to sleep without a pilpul shiur on the toothpaste, or is this normal in other households as well? : )

pikuach nefesh when lost in the desert (IV)

We ended off the discussion of Shabbos when lost in the desert with a question on the Rambam. The Rambam states (Ma'achalos Assuros 14:13) that there is no issur of ma'achalos assuros for someone lost in the desert. The Rambam does not refer to a starving person who is about to perish, but simply to someone lost -- the implication is that even a full k'zayis of treif food may be eaten by the lost traveller even before reaching the verge of death. However, the gemara (and the Rambam) allow for work on Shabbos to be done by someone lost in the desert only for the sake of pikuach nefesh and only as necessary. What is the difference between these two cases?

The Rogatchover explains that Rambam reflects a fundemental difference between time and other objects (and this brings us back to the distinction in the previous post between bitul of objects and bitul in time.) Being lost in the desert allows for a suspension of the laws of ma'achalos assuros so that a person can travel as fast as possible. Foods which would otherwise be prohibited are now classified as permissable -- the situation has transformed the cheftza into a different object from its original state. In other words, that piece of chazir is not trief food that you are allowed to eat because of dire straits, but rather the chazir is no longer treif! Therefore, there is no need to eat less than a k'zayis or avoid eating in until on the verge of death.

The same reasoning cannot be applied to Shabbos. Food is an object present in its totality and can be transformed from issur to heter, but time does not exist yet until each second happens. Time is not a cheftza which we can make permissable. All we can do is make an allowance for the person, the gavra, to perform work as each second occurs. In doing so, we must view each second individually (which brings us back to the point in post 1 and post 2 of this series) and rely on the need of the individual to cause the dispensation to occur.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Chabad and Mumbai

I usually don't post on stuff like this not because I don't find the story tragic and worthy of reflection, but simply because there is already so much to read about it elsewhere that there is little I can add that has not been said. One article in particular that I think deserves your attention is this one entitiled, "In the Wake of Mumbai: An Agnostic Jew Considers Chabad", written by Roger Simon. Read the whole thing if you can.
Chabadniks really are religious Jews in the best sense. Whether we admit it or not, Reform Jews from my background are hardly religious at all. It’s more of a social club. There’s nothing wrong in that, of course, as long as you are honest about it....

Which leads me to the topic of the hour – Mumbai. It’s clear the young Lubavitcher couple murdered by the terrorists, Rabbi Gavriel Holzberg and his wife Rivka, were the finest of human beings. They were dedicated to promoting goodness in the world in the deepest spiritual sense. They wished only the best for all humanity and also did their best to encourage it, in fact gave their lives for it. You don’t have to believe in G-d or even God to understand that. Their horrifying deaths reminded this agnostic that there is indeed something called evil in the world.

shabbos when lost in the desert (III) - -bitul in time

Continued from Part 1 and Part2: We left off last week discussing the halacha of someone lost in the desert who is allowed to work only as needed for pikuach nefesh and must designate one day a week as Shabbos with kiddush and havdalah. The MG"A asks why Shabbos must be observed on any day -- why not say that each day which is possibly Shabbos is bateil to the other six days that are definitely chol, eliminating the safeik. Josh M. commented last week that we cannot say bitul b'rov in this case because it is a case of kavua. In other words, if a city has 9 kosher butcher shops and 1 treif shop and a piece of meat is found on the street, the principle of rov tells us that the meat is kosher. But if I enter a store and remove the meat but am not sure which store I shopped out, the principle of rov does not apply. Because the stores are kavua, fixed entitites that I have intruded upon, the safeik is treated like a 50-50% chance and the meat may not be eaten. Days of the week cannot be pulled out of a hat; time is fixed in place and the person wandering the desert moves from one day to the next, making this similar to the din of kavua.

Although this answer is given by the MG"A, I would suggest another answer. Recall the Mishna Berura's question: why not violate Shabbos on one day to prepare enough food for the entire week and avoid work the other days, statistically minimizing the chance of chilul Shabbos. Last week I suggested that perhaps we do not view time as existing in units of weeks or months, but rather each moment must be viewed independently. One need not take into account future probabilities when determining the degree of chilul Shabbos permitted on any given day. This same reasoning will resolve the MG"A's question as well. The concept of rov applies when a drop of milk falls into a pot of meat, or the treif butcher store is mixed among a group of kosher shops. But time is not a mixture -- the future does not exist until it occurs and the past is gone already. Each moment is an independent unit! Whether or not you accept my answer to the M"B's question, at least with respect to the MG"A the idea that bitul does not apply to time is discussed in the Koveitz He'oros in Yevamos 27:5, so I have a friend for my sevara.

If you've been following this whole discussion, we now come to the icing on the cake. The Rambam writes (Ma'achalos Asuros 14:13) that there is no issur of ma'achalos asuros for someone lost in the desert who only has treif food to eat. Note that the Rambam does not refer to a starving person who is about to perish, but simply to someone lost -- the implication is that even a full k'zayis of treif food may be eaten by the lost traveller even before reaching the verge of death. Why is it that the Rambam and gemara make allowance to desecrate Shabbos only for the sake of preservation of life, yet the prohibition of eating treif food is suspended immediatly and apparently without any restriction once the person finds himself lost?