Thursday, August 31, 2006

Torah and Origin Science

The debate within contemporary Judaism over the interaction between origin science and the Torah (e.g., age of the universe, evolution, etc.) ultimately boils down to a contradiction that must be resolved between what we know is true through empirical scientific observations and what we know because the Torah tells us it is true. There are two ways to resolve this contradiction:

1) The science doesn't mean what we think it means.
2) The Torah doesn't mean what we think it means.

The primary argument of the first method is that the world was designed to look *as if* it were as science demonstrates it to be - a new world created with ancient footprints, individual creations that appear as if they evolved from others. The originator of this Omphalos Hypothesis, as it is properly known, was Philip Henry Gosse, an Englishman who published a work on the matter in 1857. Prior to this time, science was immature enough that such a hypothesis was not necessary, but Gosse was the first to propound it, and R' MM Schneerson, among other rabbanim, embraced it. The fact that it comes from a nochri is not a reason to reject it, as "chochma bagoyim ta'amin". The counterargument is a general sense of discomfort that HaShem would mislead us in such a way - the Torah makes a point of saying that HaShem tests us by giving power to a false prophet, to determine if we love Him with all of our hearts (an extremely interesting choice of words, I think), but does He test us in other ways also? We are, after all, usually expected to go after what our eyes see. Maybe He does. Maybe we are expected to read the Torah according to its simplest reading, and not be driven by a desire to fit in to the Western world.

The primary argument of the second method is that the Torah doesn't mean what we think it means. This category of answers includes finding allusions to an ancient world in the verses (e.g., the work of Dr. Gerald Schroeder), finding ways that contemporary origin science can fit into the Torah (in places where the verses are vague), utilizing allegorical interpretations (although this may be more controversial), and sometimes admitting that we're not sure exactly which method can be used to arrive at the correct understanding of the Torah, but maintaining a belief that there is some answer. The counterargument to this is that this can be considered an exercise in apologetics cum bastardization of the Torah, to mold and shape it in this way. Often the answers are weak relative to the questions. Yet, there certainly exist numerous opinions to rely on in arguing that the Torah is not skin-deep. Why do we expect that the understanding of the Torah taught to a 1st grader should be identical to the truth?

Which of these is correct? That's pretty much the whole R' Slifkin debate, isn't it? Unless one is a talmid kafuf to one of the rabbanim who banned the teaching of these topics, there's nothing wrong with admitting that we don't know the answer to everything, and mustering the courage to hold tightly to both possibilities, not paskening on aggadeta.

See also my post from August 2005 on the acceptability of indecisiveness.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006


One of the basic words in the vocabulary of the Gemara is Teiku, a word that is used to express the idea that a question that was asked cannot be answered using the knowledge that we have. But what does the word literally mean?

Someone pointed me to the Aruch on the root Teik. The Aruch says that Teiku is derived from the word "teik", meaning pouch, referring to the idea that the answer is, so to speak, placed in a pouch whose contents are unknown to us (Schroedinger's teirutz, as it were). He then quotes "Binyamin" (which, I was told, refers to the Mosaf HaAruch) who says that it's a contraction of "isht'ku", meaning "be silent". This is an interesting twist on the word, in that it does not only acknowledge our inability to answer the question, but actually implies that we should not even try to answer it, that any time expenditure on the topic is not worthwhile. Next, he quotes R' Yaakov Sisportas of Oran, who says that it's a contraction of "teikum", meaning "let it stay as it is", unanswered; the Aruch then states that this third answer is the correct one.

The Aruch notes that the famous d'rash of the word as being an acronym for "Tishbi Yitareitz Kushios V'havayos" is merely a siman, and not the true definition of the word.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Ki Teitzei

1) Is an Amaleki convert subject to the same restrictions as an Edomi convert, in the sense of an inability to intermarry within the tzibbur until the third generation? On the one hand, Amaleikim are descended from Eisav in the same way that any other Edomi is. However, they're consistently referred to as a unique nation on their own, engaging in their own battles and politics. Furthermore, perhaps one can argue that Amaleik was only the descendent of Eisav through a concubine (that of his son Eliphaz), so perhaps this could provide a reason to exclude him from the greater nation of Edom.

2) Temurah 6:3 - An animal given for as a wage for a dog or as a price for a harlot (es'nan kelev um'chir zonah) are permitted, as it says, "shneihem", the two of them - only the two dinim of es'nan zonah and m'chir kelev are prohibited, not the four dinim obtained by expounding the halachos upon each other. In other words, a sheep given to a harlot in exchange for a night's activity cannot be offered on the mizbei'ach, but a sheep used to purchase a harlot outright (e.g., if she's a shifchah k'na'anis) has no prohibition. Conversely, a sheep used to buy a dog is prohibited, but a sheep given as payment to rent a dog is permitted. Perhaps the disgusting aspect of a zonah is better expressed by a one-night event, as a normalized situation begins to move closer to a permanent relationship. However, the other form of disgustingness (i.e., a dog) is only expressed by an outright purchase, not a mere rental.


Friday, August 25, 2006


In this week's parsha, there is a prohibition against the building of a matzeiva, a monolith, to serve HaShem, b/c He hates it. Most of the commentators say that the reason for this is because the idolatrous nations used to use this type of device to worship their idols. There is much written about why there is not a similar prohibition against using a mizbei'ach constructed of many stones (Did the idolatrous nations not use it? Was a matzeivah used for a different purpose than a mizbei'ach? Etc.) and why a matzeivah used to be an acceptable mode of serving HaShem (such as in the case of Yaakov at Beit-El and in the case of Moshe at Har Sinai (Shmos 24:4)).

I recall hearing some years back, but forget the source, a homiletical explanation of the difference between a mizbei'ach and a matzeivah. A matzeivah, which is constructed of many stones, symbolizes stagnancy and unchangingness. A matzeivah can never be added to and can never be repaired, for it is always made of only one stone. A mizbei'ach, on the other hand, is made up of many smaller subunits, which allows it to grow in size over time and to be repaired. For this reason, it is much more representative of our task in this world, in that we must never be satisfied with our state at any given time, but rather must always strive for further growth and leave ourselves open for the correction of deficiencies that we might find in ourselves.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Wedding ring

No, not yet (although I'm going to be an eid kiddushin on Sunday, which started my thought process).

The reason why a ring used for kiddushin is traditionally (halachically?) made of simple gold with no adornment is so that the woman would easily know the value of the ring, to avoid the possibility of mekach ta'us [kiddushin, actually, but typing the more accurate phrase was causing me problems in Blogger, for some reason] if she's mistaken about the value of a gem attached to the ring. This makes a lot of sense during the olden days, when currency was worth its weight in the metal under consideration - the woman can see the ring and know that the ring is worth that volume of gold. Nowadays, though, she would not necessarily know the value of gold in dollars. Do we care about this? Would it be worthwhile to look up the value of gold beforehand in dollars (and, of course, the density of gold), so that she's under no delusions as to the ring's value? If all that would be needed is for her to acquiesce to the kiddushin for anything more than a p'ruta, why the hakpada against an ornamented ring?

This assumes that the value of the ring is equivalent to a chunk of gold of the equivalent weight. Do we, then, not account for the cost of the labor of the goldsmith?

Labels: ,

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Salt water and eggs

On Shabbos 108a-b, the Mishnah brings down a machlokes regarding whether one is allowed to prepare small amounts of salt water on Shabbos for use as a condiment. In a b'raissa taught by Rav Yehudah bar Chaviva, it says that one is not allowed to make "strong" salt water. Rabbah and R' Yosef bar Abba state that strong salt water is defined as that of a concentration such that an egg floats in it. A quick-and-dirty kitchen laboratory experiment indicated that 2 teaspoons of salt in half a cup of water did not reach this concentration, but 3 teaspoons did; the concentration of this solution was therefore very roughly 15 mL salt/120 mL water, or an 11% solution by volume (4.7 M). I can attest that this solution was, indeed, quite strong.

The gemara, not wanting to force its readers to leave the Beis Medrash to go find an egg, asked the question of how concentrated this solution was. Abbayei answered 2/3 salt and 1/3 water. By volume, this would be 240 mL salt/120 mL water (my chavrusa pointed out that foods are rarely, if ever, measured by mass in Shas) - a much greater concentration than that which is required for the egg to simply float.

As the concentration of the salt water increases, its density would also increase, thereby causing more of the egg to protrude above the surface of the water, which introduces a different possible definition for flotation. However, the saturation concentration of salt in water is 36 mL salt/100 mL water - 1/6 that stated by Abbayei. In other words, almost all of the salt in Abbayei's solution would settle to the bottom of the solution within some short time span. When the egg is placed into this solution in which there is a salty precipitate, the presence of the additional salt would have no impact on the buoyancy of the egg, as the egg would merely contribute to the force driving the salt downwards to the bottom, leaving the concentration of the salt solution at 36mL/100mL, and with no different properties that one which was formulated with that strength to begin with.

I suppose that one can respond with the stock answer of nishtana ha-teva, that not only was the Talmudic egg twice the volume of one of our eggs, but it was also 32 times its weight (with a density greater than all but a handful of metals, such as gold, osmium, and a bunch of others that only chem nerds would be familiar with), but this is sort of the nuclear option when it comes to trying to understand a sugya. This being the case, it seems clear to me that I'm misunderstanding Abbayei (since it does not seem possible that anyone could have observed what I think that Abbayei is stating to be the case), but I don't know where my mistake is.

It may be assumed that any deviations from normal conditions (temperature, air pressure) that Abbayei may have been working under would have a minimal effect on his final results.


Friday, August 18, 2006

Hachnasas Orchim

R' Gil Student has a post in which he noted a Rema on Hilchos Shabbos which states that Hachnasas Orchim, and the kulos that are invoked by this halachic situation, only applies to a guest who is staying in his house (or in someone else's house), but not to a friend whom he merely invites over for a meal. Over the following 6 hours, there were a number of comments expressing surprise at this ruling, but as I noted in a comment there, the ruling makes perfect sense.

The view of the Rema simply follows the meaning of the word Orchim, milashon Orach, road or path.

The mitzvah of Hach"O seems to be to invite those who are traveling on the road and are tired/dirty/hungry into your home for hospitality of some sort. Avraham's guests came from the road, so his hospitality was Hachnasas Orchim, even though they didn't sleep by him. The form of the hospitality doesn't matter; the ikkar seems to be the fact that they're away from their hometown and thus are in need of assistance. Chesed is still chesed, but the kula of the Rema is specifically for wayfarers.

It's interesting that people can be familiar with a halachic concept, yet not understand the etymology behind the name of this concept, which is often essential to understanding the parameters of this concept.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tish'a B'Av

On the night of Tish'a B'Av, following the shiur that I described in my previous post, I got into a long discussion with my future roommate Zev on some of the themes of the mo'eid, specifically based on a point that I threw in at the end of my shiur that the purpose of reviewing the history of the destruction that occurred is to aid us in correcting the causes that led to the destruction, as per the famous statement that any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt is itself deserving of having had it destroyed in their own days. Zev summed up some of the ideas we discussed in a post on his blog. As follows is my response, which I am also linking to in his comments section.

It would appear that the midrash which states that every generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt is considered to have destroyed it is predicated on the assumption that the Beis HaMikdash can only be rebuilt through Divine means - coming down from the sky, as it were, whether this is to be understood literally or metaphorically. As a support to the metaphorical sense of this opinion, I point to the attempts to rebuild the Beis haMikdash during the centuries immediately following the 2nd Destruction, most notably in the year 363, during the reign of Julian. In other words, even if the 3rd Temple will ultimately be rebuilt by human hands, until it is the Divine Will for it to be built, such shall not succeed: "For even if you had smitten the whole army of the Chaldeans that fight against you, and there only remained the wounded men amongst them, they would still rise up, every man in his tent, and burn this city with fire" (Jeremiah 37:10) This being the case, though, our belief is that that there will, indeed, be a third Beis HaMikdash, and it may very well be built by placing brick on top of brick.

When we discussed this topic on the night of Tish'a B'Av, I suggested a broad definition of "Ein mazal l'Yisroel" that could encompass a potential immunity of Israel to even the natural entropic driving forces that lead to all states' decompositions. In an essay by RAL entitled "Centrist Orthodoxy: A Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh", he makes a similar point. The laws of nature and probability that dictate the rise, fall, and ultimate destruction of nations can be suspended by HaShem when circumstances call for it. Such an open manifestation of "Ein mazal l'Yisroel" that we are discussing would only differ from our historical experiences until this point quantitatively, as it seems clear that on the qualitative level, Israel's continued existence for over 3000 years, both as a continuous physical entity and as a continuous ideological entity, is a phenomenon that has not been imitated by any nation in any region of the world that has exhibited political disunity comparable to that of the Middle East.

I agree that, looking at history until now, there have never been periods longer than mere instants during which the Jewish people has not been deserving of destruction on some level. This being the case, it may seem overly optimistic to hope, even leaving aside yeridas ha-doros and similar concepts, that we can ever truly be deserving of a more open manifestation of "ein mazal l'Yisroel". However, deservingness is not the only criterion which dictates the historical phenomena that befall the Jewish people. The idea is frequently expressed in NaCh that HaShem is not only driven to act for the sake of the deservingness of K'lal Yisro'el, but is also driven to act for His own sake. This being the case, the level at which we will no longer be metaphorically guilty of having caused the destuction may not be literal and absolute, but can also be a function of this second criterion, namely, God's honor and stature. This second criterion itself need not be constant, but can also be a function of different variables in the world, including, but by no means limited, to time. Striving to correct the problems that led to the destruction, therefore, is primarily of importance in the directional sense, in that even if we do not (and cannot) ever reach the point where we have fully corrected these problems, simply proceeding in this direction may be all that is necessary to make us worthy of the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash as a function of two variables.

I also agree with your characterization of Tish'a B'Av as a day governed by fate and crushing hopelessness, and thus one that is distinctly unsuitable for thoughts of repentance (at least until midday, when the day seems to do an about face and transform almost entirely into a regular fast day, on which one of the primary theme is repentance). Nonetheless, a significant theme of the day is tzidduk ha-din, accepting the harsh judgements upon us as fair, which is strongly bound to an acknowledgement of our sins that led to the catastrophes of this day - and this, itself, is the first step to repentance, although we cannot proceed any further along this path in our state of devastation on that day.

(As a side point, it recently was made known to me that my own shul on Long Island, until a few years ago, was probably one of the only shuls that showed part of the Chafetz Chaim Heritage Foundation video at night - there were good reasons why the rav, ZTzL, chose to schedule things in this manner, but I always found it a little bit disorienting, for the reasons that you said).

On a concluding note, even the days of the Mashiach do not promise eternal stability and equilibrium. I recall seeing a source that says that the Messianic era will be limited to a single millenium, following which the world will cease to exist. While there is much to delve into regarding the meaning of this statement, the point is that even the coming of the Mashiach is not the final answer to all of the world's problems (especially in light of the famous statement of Shmuel, quoted by the Rambam, that there will be no difference between this world and the Messianic world, save the single difference of Jewish political independence). Hence, even during the reign of the Mashiach, the forces of entropy will continue their unrelenting labor, bringing in their wake poverty, sorrow, sickness, death, and destruction, although kinetic constraints may still prevent these from coming to pass. In this sense, truly the only eternal stability is in the Gan MiKedem, in which the forces of death and decay are neutralized entirely.

Labels: ,