Saturday, September 30, 2006

Aseres Y'mei Teshuvah 1 - Shemoneh Esrei thoughts

Earlier today, I was thinking about the 6 additions that we added to the Shemoneh Esrei of the last week.

In the first two brachos, each of the additions are of similar structure to the proceeding line. The addition to the first bracha is a prayer that we be remembered and written within the Book of Life. This follows an acknowledgement that HaShem remembers the kindnesses of the Forefathers in bringing a redeemer to their descendants. The bracha as a whole is known as Avos, emphasizing its purpose as providing an opening for us to even dare approach HaShem in prayer, by using the names of our righteous fathers as a passkey of sorts. Were it not for this "in", we would never be able to muster the pure gall to approach the King of Kings and to lay forth our requests, or even to praise him. Since the bracha already asks HaShem to recall our fathers' righteousness, we proceed to ask Him to remember us for life. The two types of memory, though, are of disparate types, as one is a passive memory of the past, while the other is an active memory of the present, more akin to a p'kidah. The addition, then, is the only request ever included in the first three blessings, which makes it somewhat odd.

The addition to the second bracha is a statement acknowledging HaShem's mercy. This follows a statement acknowledging HaShem's might. Both statements begin with the phrase "Mi Chamocha", "Who is like you?", acknowledging God's uniqueness. Once we have been granted permission to approach HaShem in prayer, we begin by praising His all-powerfulness, which is the reason why prayer unto Him is worthwhile from a practical standpoint. During these days, we also add in praise for his great mercy.

In the third blessing, the emendation is not an addition, but rather is a change, in that we switch the word "Keil", God, for "Melech", King, which emphasizes his specific interaction with us during these days. The theme of this blessing is God's "holiness", as well as that of His name and that of those who praise Him. This is the only time that we excise the word "Keil" from the Shemoneh Esrei. We do not make the change in the first blessing by "HaKeil HaGadol", ostensibly because the phrase was used by Moshe. Nor do we make the change by "Keil Elyon" immediately following, perhaps in order to keep the phrases parallel (I'm not sure if its use by Malkitzedek is significant). The word also appears in Shome'a Tefillah (ki Keil shome'a tefillah v'sachanun ata), Modim deRabbanan (Baruch Keil ha-hoda'os), and the end of the bracha of Hoda'ah (ha-Keil yeshu'aseinu v'ezraseinu selah), but is not changed in any of these.

The only change during the middle blessings is a switch from "Melech oheiv tzedakah u-mishpat" to "Ha-melech ha-mishpat", which seems to be a change from the theoretical to the practical for these days.

The blessing of Avodah is the only one of the 6 primary blessings that is not altered during these days.

In the bracha of Hoda'ah, we add in a prayer that we be written for good life (compare to the first blessing, in which the prayer was to be written in the *book* of *life* (with no mention of the word "good")). I have no idea how this fits in to the concept of thanksgiving, as the addition is a linchpin connecting a summation that God's name shall be exalted for all of the goodness that we mentioned in Modim and a generalization that all living things shall praise God. The insertion of this request line would bother me a lot less if we were consistent in inserting some sort of request in all 6 primary blessings.

In the last bracha, we conclude with a plea that we be remembered and written in the book of life, blessing, peace, and prosperity. The last blessing, about peace, is also a somewhat general request, so the insertion, changing the focus from a general request to a recording in the book, makes sense.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Rosh HaShanah 1 - Nuts!

Josh at ParshaBlog discusses the custom not to eat nuts on Rosh HaShanah. One of the reasons given by the Rema (OC 583:2) in the name of the Maharil is that nuts cause an excess of mucus and phlegm which can disturb one's davening.

I asked my source on arcane medico-halachic topics if he knew anything about this, and he said that he wasn't aware of any classical medical literature describing this connection, but there exists alternative medical literature that connects nuts to an excess of mucus, despite its counterintuitive nature that monounsaturated fats of the variety found in nuts usually prevents the formation of mucus.

Update: The ADDerabbi has a very interesting explanation based on the similarity of a walnut to the human brain (a la Galen) and the idea that the phlegm (as opposed to the blood and black and yellow biles) was associated with rationalism and logic, which are antithetical to prayer and which are connected with the Etz HaDa'as, which Adam ate from on this day.

Mordechai Manowitz of Bar Ilan also deals with this question, and suggests that just as many of the reasons for the positive simanim are because of the names of the foods, so too is the reason for not eating nuts because of the name - in German, the word for nut is nus, which is pronounced like the Hebrew word for "flee". He supports this contention based on the Chida, who explains a minhag in some places not to eat fish based on its being spelled in Nechemiah with an intermediate aleph, thereby being spelled like the word "da-ag", to worry.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Hataras Nedarim

Steg asks why the formula for hataras nedarim calls the judges "dayyanim mumchim", expert judges, if even hedyotos are eligible to serve as judges for this type of court action (In a comment there, I noted that a beis din of three judges would by definition *not* be one of mumchim, as a mumcheh can be mattir a neder on his own (this technique is also referred to as she'eilas chacham)).

On the topic of hataras nedarim, I'd like to make mention of a couple of other issues. Firstly, does the hatarah work if one does not understanding the Hebrew words that one is saying? Being that this is a court action and not a ritual, I would think that it would be more important for a person to know what they are saying, rather than stumbling over Hebrew words that they are unfamiliar with, as is also the halacha for bittul chameitz (Kol chamira).

Secondly, how does it work for twenty people to be reciting the formula for hataras nedarim all at the same time? Shouldn't the judges be able to hear what each person is saying?

Granted, the whole issue of being matir a neder without specifying the neder being hutar is sort of strange, especially in light of that there's not even an attempt to find a loophole (petach) through which the neder can be undone (unless this latter is only a din by the hatarah done by a single mumcheh), but if we're taking the effort to engage in a pseudolegal ritual, it would seem like we should make the effort to do things as realistically as possible.

Last year I forgot to do my hataras nedarim until 5 minutes before Kol Nidrei, so walked over to three guys sitting in shul, convened a beis din, summarized the long introductory paragraph in 30 seconds (making sure that I hit every important detail), and went with that. I don't see any possible issue with doing it this way.

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Vayeira 1 - We are the Mustard

(a dvar Torah that I wrote for the UPenn Hillel dvar torah newsletter last year for P' Vayeira).

At the end of the episode of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham renames the location of the event “HaShem Yir’eh” - “God shall watch over”. The Rabbis tell us that this mountain is the eventual site of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, we never hear the name “HaShem Yir’eh” being used again, as all future references to this place refer to it as Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a combination of the name given by Abraham and the name that had been given to it centuries earlier by Shem, (the son of Noah), “Shalem”, meaning “complete” (Bereishis Rabbah 56:16). If Jerusalem already had a name that had been given to it by Abraham’s ancestor Shem, why did Abraham need to change it? What is the significance of this double name?

The author of the Meshech Chochmah, R’ Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, (1843-1926), notes that the two names reflect the different foci of these two great men. Shem was born during the years leading up to the Flood, where the primary problems in the world were social crimes, such as robbery and sexual perversion, and even the animals were implicated in sin. Ultimately, the only solution to this world gone awry was for everything to restart with a clean slate. During the year that Shem spent on the ark with his father and brothers, he was the sole provider of sustenance for the animals aboard, and he therefore had an opportunity to repair their corrupt nature. Once the period of the Flood ended, Shem founded the city of Shalem and an academy. The city was a monument to the peace and wholesomeness that he hoped would pervade all living species’ interactions with one another, and the academy was devoted to disseminating these ideals.

Abraham, on the other hand, was born in a time when the world had a different set of problems. Although people were generally able to live in peace during Abraham’s time, they had become ensnared by the intellectual perversion promoted by the priests of idolatry and the rulers who sponsored them. Although he is known as one who excelled in acts of kindness, Abraham’s agenda was not solely peaceful coexistence; to the contrary, the Midrash relates how he was arrested because of his dangerous ideas of monotheism that threatened to topple the existing social structure. The battle that Abraham fought was one for the truth - acknowledgment of god’s presence in the world. This is inherent in the name “HaShem Yir’eh”, which refers to the revelation and recognition of god’s interaction with the world.

The name Jerusalem is therefore a reference to the city’s two distinct roles in the world. Firstly, it is a city for all the nations of the world, the intellectual descendents of Shem, whose ideal was peaceful coexistence. When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem centuries later, he acknowledged this fact, expressing his hopes that this edifice would be a house of prayer for all nations. The Seven Noahide Laws also reflect this reality, as they are entirely bereft of ritual, but rather consist of six prohibitions that are especially crucial to a properly functioning society, as well as the requirement to institute a system of courts to enforce the rule of law.

However, the city also has a special additional connection to the Jewish people, the intellectual descendents of their father Abraham. Abraham recognized that, while peace and social harmony were very important ideals, their primary purpose was as prerequisites to a greater message, that of knowledge of the Divine. Besides being charged with the basic social laws of Noah and Shem, the Jewish people were given a second layer of responsibilities, which comprise the full body of the Torah. The Torah consists of a wide variety of laws, many of which are rituals whose importance can only be deduced by virtue of the special Divine decree that mandated them. It is precisely these laws that set the Jewish people apart from the other nations, causing them to suffer hatred and xenophobia over the span of history.

At the same time, though, it is these laws that have caused the Jewish people to have a disproportionate effect on world civilization. Primo Levi expresses this realization in his autobiographical The Periodic Table: “I am the impurity that makes the zinc react; I am the grain of salt or mustard”. Jerusalem symbolizes our relationship to the nations of the world. On the one hand, we seem on the surface to be more alike than unlike, in that we devote ourselves to fulfillment of the legal obligations upon which society is built; on the other hand, though, our mission often drives us into a frontal collision with societal norms and with the values that a given civilization has adopted. It is our duty to remain loyal to the trail blazed by Abraham, and not to complacently value peace and assimilation over all else.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

High Holy Days

What is the origin of the phrase High Holy Days, as opposed to the more accurate translation "Awesome Days"?

I spoke to several people who are knowledgable about language, and came out with the following information. German uses the phrase "Hohe Feiertage", which means "high celebration days". Yiddish, interestingly, does not appear to have any similar phrase in it - nor do any other languages, to the knowledge of my source, have equivalent terminologies referring to the yamim nora'im. Hence, the phrase most likely jumped over from German, but the origins of the phrase are still unclear.

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Friday, September 15, 2006


Three years ago (has it been that long already?), I wrote a dvar Torah for Al Regel Achat, the dvar Torah newsletter of Columbia University's Hillel, on P' Vayeilech contrasting the last two mitzvos that Moshe commanded to Bnei Yisroel. On the one hand, we have the mitzvah of hak'heil, which is centered around gathering en masse once every seven years to hear the reading of a section of the Torah. On the other, we have the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah (kisvu lachem es ha-shira ha-zos), centered around one's own regular learning (especially according to the Rosh, who says that one is m'kayeim the mitzvah even through purchasing sefarim). I made the point how both types of learning are essential - while being able to learn at one's own pace, with a rebbe who can explain difficult concepts, and on a regular basis is the only way that one can effectively acquire Torah knowledge, the inspiration obtained from attending a massive gathering of the entire Jewish nation to hear the king read from the Torah (or analogous large gatherings devoted to limmud haTorah) is also essential.

I also contrasted the two on the basis of the formality inherent in the ceremony of hak'heil vs. the informality of regular limmud haTorah, bringing down the gemara's drash on the words "simah b'fihem" in the passuk of kisvu lachem as referring to the need to make mnemonics to aid one in acquiring learning, and emphasizing the fact that the informal learning is just as important, if not more important, than the formal learning, and that the Torah *desires* that we grapple with it and chew on it until its physical manifestations become beaten and worn out, rather than keeping it locked up in a closet, pristine as on the day of its writing, like some relic of a dead religion.

Along both of these directions, I quoted the opening line of Medrash Shmuel, which expounds the passuk "Eis la'asos laHaShem heiferu torasecha" through inversion of clauses to dictate that if one is only kove'a itim laTorah, only sets time for HaShem, and that is the totality of one's learning, one has overturned the Torah, as limmud haTorah must also have an aspect of randomness and casualness to it, in the sense of grabbing five minutes here and there to supplement one's set learning.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006


1) * R' Shim'on ben Elazar said in the name of Chilfa ben Agra, who said in the name of R' Yochanan ben Nuri: One who tears his garments in his anger, one who breaks his vessels in anger, and one who scatters his money in his anger should be in your eyes like an idol worshipper. For this is the way of the Evil Drive: Today it says "do this" and tomorrow it says "do that", until finally it says to him "go and worship idols", and he goes and does. (Shabbos 105b)

* Whoever gets angry, it is as if he worshipped idolatry (Zohar Bereishit 27:2, Korach 179:1).

At first glance, these are astounding statements, that cannot possibly be seriously countenanced to be anything but exaggerations. Or can they?

The Ramban writes (Shmos 13:16): No person has a portion in the Torah of Moshe until he believes regarding all of his matters and occurrences that they are nisim, as opposed to the simple way of nature, both in the public sphere and in the individual sphere. If one does mitzvos, his reward will be to succeed, and if he transgresses them, his punishment shall cut him off.

When someone causes us harm or embarrassment or injury, we often get angry. However, how does this square with the concept that everything that happens to a person is ordained by God? If a person injures another person, it is only because God allowed them to. Hence, when one angers, one is ignoring the idea of God's watchfulness over the world - which is a lack of belief that is truly akin to idolatry.

Such an idea was also expressed by David, when Shim'i ben Geira accosted him when he was in flight from his rebellious son, Avshalom (2 Shmuel 16:10):

וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ, מַה-לִּי וְלָכֶם בְּנֵי צְרֻיָה; כֹּה יְקַלֵּל, כִּי ה' אָמַר לוֹ קַלֵּל אֶת-דָּוִד, וּמִי יֹאמַר, מַדּוּעַ עָשִׂיתָה כֵּן.

And the king said: "What have I to do with you, you sons of Tzeruya? So let him curse, for HaShem has said to him: Curse David; who then shall say: Why have you done so?

These thoughts were taken from the first chapter of an anonymously authored kunt'res that I have, entitled "HaKa'as V'sotz'osav".

2) What is the reason why a person who is angry is driven to do such destructive actions like tearing a garment, breaking something, or scattering his money?

I am not a psychologist, but an answer was revealed to me as I with fascination observed my own fury (against myself, specifically). In the general sense, one becomes angry when things go wrong; the target of this anger depends on whom one succeeds (if one may call it that) in blaming this trouble. Anger is thus born out of frustration and powerlessness. The way that one instinctively tries to combat this feeling is to put oneself in a situation in which one feels the opposite sensation, one of power and strength. There are two ways in which one can generate this feelings. One is through the power of creation, which is often a time-consuming and challenging activity that is fraught with its own difficulties and likelihood of failure. The other, the polar opposite of the first, is destruction, to erase that which has been created. If I tear a garment, I have exercised power over it. If I take a glass and shatter it against a wall, I have irreversibly altered its nature. If I injure my fellow, I have demonstrated my strength in a way greater than any other, as God has created a being in His own image, while I have paralleled myself to Him, destroying His handiwork that is man. I have not merely built an idol to encroach on God's territory, but I have idolized myself. I have utilized my human power of emulating God and turned the sword on God Himself, altering the world that He created not for reasons of His choosing, but rather for my own desires, my own will. In this sense, too, one who becomes angry is akin to an idolator.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Etymology of Konam

The first mishnah of Nedarim mentions the concept of kinuyim, slang words that can be used to execute a neder or other types of verbal obligations. On Nedarim 10a, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish argue over the origin of these kinuyim. Rabbi Yochanan says that kinuyim are foreign terminologies (לשון אומות), while Reish Lakish says that they are artificial terms invented by Chazal. The RaN explains that לשון אומות does not mean that they're foreign words, but rather that they're mangled forms of the correct Hebrew words, as spoken by foreigners who are not so familiar with the Hebrew language. (The Rambam in Hil. Nedarim 1:16 explains similarly, except that he implies that the words were coined by Jews of different regions who mangled the words).

At first glance, I wondered how one arrived at "konam" from "korban". However, it's actually a very logical linguistic evolution. The bet in "korban" could easily shift into a mem, as both are libial sounds, changing the word to "korman". Next, the two final letters of the word can interpose to transform the word into "kornam". From here, the dropping of the gutteral reish would change the word fairly neatly into "konam". The mishnah (1:2) also mentions kinuyim such as konas and konach; I'm not sure how this evolution would have occurred, nor how nazir would become nazik or nazi'ach, nor how cheirem could become cheirek, cheirech, or cheiref, but at least these are only off by one sound (and a terminal one, at that), so the jump is less odd.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Shabbat Shuvah

In Igros Moshe (1:147), R' Moshe Feinstein discusses the proper formulation of the haftarah for Shabbos Shuvah, which appears in many chumashim as coming from Hoshe'a 14:2-10 (Shuvah Yisroel), Yo'el 2:15-27 (Tik'u shofar b'Tzion), and Micha 7:18-20 (Mi Keil kamocha nosei avon, etc.). He rejects the practice of reading all three sections, explaining, rather, that the proper haftarah is Hoshe'a and either Yo'el or Micha.

He then goes further to explain the reason for the two options. The section from Hoshe'a is the main part of the haftarah, beginning with an exhortation to do teshuvah. The only problem, though, is that the haftarah ends on a negative note (14:10):

מִי חָכָם וְיָבֵן אֵלֶּה, נָבוֹן וְיֵדָעֵם כִּי-יְשָׁרִים דַּרְכֵי יְהוָה, וְצַדִּקִים יֵלְכוּ בָם, וּפֹשְׁעִים, יִכָּשְׁלוּ בָם

"Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is understanding, let him know them: For the ways of Hashem are upright, and the righteous shall walk in them, but sinners shall stumble in them."

For this reason, we have to append an additional short passage from later in the book of T'rei Asar in order to end on a positive note. The best candidate for this would be the three-verse stand-alone section from Micha. However, this would not be a feasible option in shuls that read the haftaros from a Navi scroll, as the two sections are separated by the 25 chapters that comprise the books of Yo'el, Amos, Ovadiah, Yonah, and Micha, and to roll the scroll to this extent in the middle of the haftarah would constitute a tircha d'tzibbura. Therefore, shuls in this circumstance read the section of Yo'el, which is only one or two columns shifted over, and which, although it is considerably longer that the section from Micha, does not require "dead-time" in the middle of the haftarah.

As a bonus, the section from Yo'el when added to the section from Hoshe'a makes the haftarah longer than 21 pesukim, which is the theoretical minimum length for a haftarah (except when the topic of the chosen section of Navi ends before this minimum is reached, which happens surprisingly often).

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ki Tavo 1 - The shevatim of Har Gerizim and Har Eival

Why are the 12 shevatim divided as they are at Har Gerizim and Har Eival for the blessings and the curses described in this week's parsha - i.e., Shim'on, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef, and Binyamin on Har Gerizim, the mountain of the blessing, and Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, and Naftali on Har Eival, the mountain of the curse?

A commonality between the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef, and Binyamin is that all were ancestors of kings: Levi to the Chashmona'i kings (or, if one would rather, to the kohanim and levi'im, also significant personages) Yehudah to David, Yissachar to Ba'sha, Yosef to Yehoshua and to Yerav'am (and, according to P'sikta Rabbati 3, Yeihu), and Binyamin to Sha'ul. Shim'on may have merited inclusion by virtue of his close connection to Yehudah. I do not know of any sources as to the ancestry of the kings Zimri, Omri (although his choice of Shomron as a capital may imply that he, too, was from Yosef), Shalum, Menachem, or Pekach.

As another question, why are the tribes of Har Eival ordered as they are, with Zevulun in between the b'nei Zilpah and the b'nei Bilhah? On both mountains, the sons of Leah and Zilpah comprise the first four tribes of each set, and are in age order, while the last two tribes of each set are from Rachel/Bilhah - but I'm not sure what this might mean.