Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chanukah 1 - Dreidel

Like much else in contemporary Judaism, Rava and Abbayei would have no idea what a dreidel is.

Nonetheless, once the concept would be explained to them, they would understand its origins, and perhaps even acknowledge its significance - and this is the best that we can hope for as we strive to emulate them, despite the fact that robes have fallen out of style and that Dougie's has yet to add umtza to their menus.

Regardless of the exact origins of the dreidel, though, it cannot be denied that this practice is one of the most popular ahalachic practices of Chanukah, and one can even go so far to say that it should be viewed as integral to the chag.

Upon deeper thought, though, why is this the case? The frequently stated reason for the practice of playing dreidel on Chanukah is that it reminds us of the Syrian-Greek decrees against learning Torah. When a sentry set up at an underground yeshiva saw soldiers coming to enforce the law, everyone would hide their shav sh'maitsas and R' Chaims and turn their beis medrash into a gambling hall. Why would we want to commemorate this, though? Being that Chanukah is so closely connected to the learning of Torah ("ki neir mitzvah v'Torah or", after all), would it not be more meet for us to treat Chanukah like Shavu'os, for example, and celebrate the holiday by throwing ourselves into learning, or even if we'd rather be more recreational, learning things that we wouldn't learn otherwise? How does it make sense for us to celebrate our ability to freely learn Torah by... not learning Torah?

We see a precedent for this practice by Pesach. Even though we're celebrating freedom, we still mar our celebration by reminding ourselves of the bitterness of the slavery by eating maror and of the poverty of our situation in Egypt by eating the bread of slaves, broken in half in the way of one who repeatedly lives hand-to-mouth. Unless one recognizes the suffering that one has experienced, one cannot truly experience relief. The Pesach offering cannot be optimally experienced until one has fully satiated himself with the wormwood of exile and the blandness of a life that must devote itself solely to mere survival.

So, too, by Chanukah, we celebrate the fact that we are capable of reaching our full potential as Jews without having to worry about external forces that compel us to hold a children's top in one hand as we conceal a sefer in the other. One cannot truly appreciate the Torah even on the simplest level without experiencing a life where one has to fight for every precious word.

Hence, it seems the dreidel can, indeed, be a means to elevate oneself in Divine service. Take out the dreidel, spin it around, watch the money change hands back-and-forth-and-back-again, watch the dreidel expend all of its energy in rotational motion that does not result in any displacement, observe how no matter how many times one spins the top, it does not get any more interesting than the monotonous nun-gimel-hei-shin. And then, take out a sefer and rejoice that we have the ability to put away the dreidel whenever we desire to, and to engage in the ultimate purpose.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Trivia - Vayeshev 3 - Amnon

This week's sedra seems to have a lot of similarities to the story of Amnon in II Shmuel chapter 13. By a lot, I mean at least 7. All 7 are real connections, stuff that can't be said about any other section of Tanach besides these two (I believe), as opposed to features common to numerous episodes in Tanach. I don't think that the connections are strong enough for me to write an essay making the claim that I did a few days ago regarding the stories of Yehuda and Yosef in the middle two chapters of this week's parsha, but it's still extremely strange.

I think that I'll end my post now and leave this as a trivia question.

Clarification, 10:50 a: The question is what the 7 connections are. They're all primarily textually based.

Update, 12/28: Moving through the parsha of Amnon step-by-step...

  • A significant character named Tamar.
  • Amnon interacts with a friend, as did Yehudah. (I believe that Chirah and Yonadav are the only significant characters (as opposed to Shimshon's unnamed friend) who are described in this way).
  • Amnon's story begins with Yonadav's question to him, "Why are you looking so lean every morning?", while the story of the butler and the baker begins with Yosef's similar query to the butler and baker, "Why are your countenances bad today?".
  • Amnon demanded of Tamar, "Lay with me", as did Potiphar's wife of Yosef.
  • Tamar was wearing a k'sones pasim, which we only find elsewhere by Yosef.
  • The event that introduces the climax of the story which takes place after a break in time is Avshalom shearing his sheep. The event that introduces the climax of the story of Yehudah and Tamar is Yehudah shearing his sheep.
  • David tore his garments upon hearing an incorrect report that all of his sons were killed. Similar to Yaakov tearing his garments over an incorrect report.
  • "And he mourned for his son for all of the days", found by David, is similar to Yaakov's "And he mourned for his son for many days".
8 connections: 3 from the sale of Yosef, 3 from Yehudah's story, 1 from the incident with Potiphar's wife, and 1 from the story of the butler and the baker.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Vayeishev 2 - Yehudah and Yosef

I began to write this as a tangent to a post on my other blog, Parshiyos, but decided that this was somewhat off-topic there (and also that I've been neglecting this blog). There's definitely room for improvement, but even as it is, I think it's pretty interesting.

I noticed that the Torah separates between the story of Yehudah and Tamar and the story of Yosef and Potiphar's wife with a s'tumah, creating a minor break, rather than with a p'sucha, which would have been a more major break. This is curious, in that the two stories utilize entirely different protagonists, entirely different supporting casts, and settings miles apart. (I would say that the s'tumah is what the Torah uses to indicate parallelism between two parshiyos, but I already argued that this is the meaning of an "extreme p'sucha", where it's a p'sucha that doesn't start with a conjunctive vav.) The two stories do have certain stylistic similarities, though. Let's examine:

38:1 - And Yehudah went down from his brothers, and he turned unto an Adulamite man, whose name was Chirah.
39:1 - And Yosef was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar the officer of Pharoah, chief executioner, purchased him.

It already looks interesting. Both Yehudah and Yosef begin the parsha with a descent. The active descent of Yehudah is contrasted with the passive descent of Yosef. Similarly, Yehudah's descent from his brothers, emphasizing the significance of his origin (we don't even know where he went down to!), is contrasted with Yosef's descent to Egypt. Both immediately move into the orbit of another man: Yehudah to Chirah and Yosef to Potiphar. The words "Va-yet ad" used by Yehudah is of somewhat unclear meaning, but "Va-yet" was used with reference to Avraham's transient dwelling in 12:8. Why is Yehudah now channeling his great grandfather? By going down to Egypt, even against his will, Yosef is channeling his great-grandfather!

38:2-6 - Yehudah marries, has three children, and marries one of them off
39:2-6 - Yosef thrives in the house of Potiphar.

Both Yehudah and Yosef meet with success in the house of their host.

38:7-10 - Er and Onan are both killed after marrying Tamar.
39:7 - Potiphar's wife propositions Yosef.

Both Yehudah and Yosef have their idyllic worlds rocked by a woman.

38:11 - Yehudah tells Tamar to return to her father's house.
39:8-10 - Yosef rejects Potiphar's wife's advances.

Both Yehudah and Yosef try to ignore the changes.

38:12 - "Vayirbu HaYamim" - Yehudah's wife dies, he's comforted, and he goes up to Timnah with Chirah (his Adulamite friend) to shear his sheep.
39:11 - "Vayhi K'haYom HaZeh" - Yosef comes to the house when no other man is there.

Yom-yom. Yehudah goes up, as opposed to going down, and his host comes with him. Yosef comes to the house, as opposed to being brought, and his host is not there.

38:13-14 - Tamar sits down by the crossroads.
39:12a - Potiphar's wife grabs Yosef by his garment, and demands of him, "Shichva imi"

Tamar tries to induce Yehudah to proposition her; Potiphar's wife tries to induce Yosef to lay with her.

38:15-19 - Yehudah sees the disguised Tamar and propositions her "Hava na avo eilayich". Yehudah agrees to give Tamar a kid, gives her his signet, his cord, and his staff as collateral, and has relations with her.
39:12b - Yosef flees, leaving his garment in Potiphar's wife's hand.

Yehudah succumbs to Tamar's enticement, and gives her his property. Yosef flees from Potiphar's wife's enticement, but leaves her his property.

38:20-23- Yehudah sends Chirah to bring the kid to the prostitute; he asks around, but cannot find her.
39:13-18- Potiphar's wife tells the men of her house what Yosef did to her, and then tells Potiphar what Yosef did to her.

Yehudah, the defeated one, spreads the word about what he has of Tamar's, first to his host, then to others; Potiphar's wife, the defeated one, spreads the word of what she has of Yosef's, first to others, then to his host.

38:24 - Yehudah is told that Tamar is pregnant from illicit relations, and he sentences her to death.
39:19- Potiphar's wife tells her husband what Yosef did to her, and his anger flares.

Yehudah, the defeated one, hears that Tamar, the victor, has sinned, and sentences her to death; Potiphar's wife, the defeated one, tells her husband that Yosef, the victor, has sinned, and gets him angry (and logically this should have resulted in his being sentenced to death).

38:25-26- Tamar sends Yehudah's collateral to him, and he admits that she was right.
39:20 - Yosef is thrown in prison.

Tamar shows Yehudah his items, which belie his claim and he does not have her killed. (According to the midrash, Potiphar saw that Yosef's garment belied his wife's claim and) Yosef is not killed.

38:27-30- Tamar gives birth to Peretz and Zerach; Yehudah now has three sons, again.
39:21-23- Yosef thrives in prison.

Yehudah is whole again. Yosef is whole again.

In all three stories, we have a man (Yehudah/Yosef), a woman (Tamar/Potiphar's wife), and a host (Chirah/Potiphar). The roles become a little scrambled after the climax.

Incidentally, this may shed light on my question in the previous post about what the significance of Chirah is.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Vayeishev 1 - Chirah

38:1 - Yehudah leaves his brothers, and joins up with a guy from Adulam named Chirah.
38:12 - After the death of Yehudah's wife, the daughter of Shu'a, Yehudah is comforted, and goes up to Timnah to shear his sheep - he and Chirah, his Adulamite friend.
38:20 - Yehudah attempts to send a kid to Tamar as her payment through the agency of his Adulamite friend.

At first glance, Chirah seems to be a fairly unremarkable character. If this is the case, though, why does the Torah keep on pulling him into the story? And why does it tiptoe around his name so strangely? Do we see anyone else who's referred to by a moniker analogous to "his Adulamite friend"?

Chirah seems to be a positive character. When Yehudah sends him to find Tamar, he does not merely look on his own, but takes the initiative of asking around on his own if anyone was familiar with the prostitute who had been at the crossroads.

After the episode of Tamar and the birth of Peretz and Zerach, Chirah vanishes. When Yehudah is back with his brothers, we hear nothing more of this man, who was Yehudah's friend.

What's up with Chirah?

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Chanukah 1 - Oil and Eight

A few years back, someone posted a question on a mailing list that I subscribe to:

It appears that the Hebrew words for "oil" and for "eight", "shemen" and "shemoneh", share the common root Sh-M-N. Is this pure coincidence? Does it have anything to do with the miracle of the oil, and Chanukah being 8 days long?

I responded:

Edward Horowitz suggests in his /How the Hebrew Language Grew/ that certain letters in the Hebrew alphabet - ayin, chet, shin, zayin, and tzadi - each represent what used to be two or three distinct sounds in the Hebrew language. This idea explains how certain seemingly identical three-letter roots result in words with meanings that are unrelated.

The sounds contained in those first two letters, for each a "harsh" sound and a "mild" sound, have maintained their independent identities in the Arabic alphabet (My own Arabic comprehension is non-existent, so this is secondhand information).

The additional sounds that are contained in the latter three letters can be seen from the letter swaps that occur in Hebrew-Aramaic conversions. Tzadi represents a tet-like sound (natzar, watch, becomes natar), an ayin-like sound (eretz, land, becomes ar'a), and the traditional tzadi sound. Zayin sometimes represents a hard /th/ sound, which is most similar to a contemporary dalet (Zahav, gold, becomes dahava). Shin sometimes represents a soft /th/ sound, which is most similar to a contemporary tav. To use the example under consideration, Shemen simply becomes Shamna, while Sh'moneh becomes Tamnei.

Based on this, it would appear that the similar roots of the two words in written Hebrew is not based on any connection between the two words, as their first letters represent different sounds.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

The beauty of the Aishes Chayil

Ariella at the Kallah Magazine blog asks on the penultimate verse of Sefer Mishlei (Mishlei 31:30) that, if we see that beauty and grace are false and vanity, why are the beautiful girls who dance in the vineyards encouraged to promote themselves to their prospective husbands by this trait of theirs, as described at the end of Mishnayos Ta'anis?

Her husband, the ba'al Divrei Chaim (not the Sanzer's) notes in a comment there that many mefarshim explain the verse in question as “Sheker ha-chein v’hevel hayofi”, but, in a case of “isha yir'as HaShem”, then “hi tis'hallal” for those very attributes of chein and yofi, and concludes by suggesting a question on these mefarshim regarding why she is more worthy of praise for her yofi and chein than for her yir'as HaShem itself.
In a comment there, I responded:

Well, Sarah and Rachel among others are praised for their beauty, rather than for other less tangible but seemingly more important qualities. Perhaps there’s some additional advantage to be accrued from beauty and charisma, such as that it gives a person a greater influence on the world around them that can be used for the expression of their more significant positive qualities (much as height does, as Ariella noted in a previous post), and thus, is worthy of praise more than the individual positive qualities themselves?

On a related note, do those mefarshim understand Yirmiyahu 9:22-23 in the same fashion, i.e, that in general one who is wise, mighty, or wealthy is not deserving of praise, but if they understand and know God, then these qualities are worthy of praise? The wording is quite different, but if this is not the case, why should wisdom and might be different than beauty?

Also, when it says “hi tis’halal”, does that mean that she should be praised as a creation of God in the objective sense (i.e., she-kacha Lo b’olamo), or does it mean that she should be praised for her beauty in the sense of a personal accomplishment? Although beauty, wisdom, etc. are largely God-given gifts, there is still some small influence of personal effort, so perhaps it is possible to say that the accomplishment of maximizing one’s potential in these areas, and thereby enabling one’s qualities of yir’as Shamayim, da’as HaShem, etc. to be amplified to the world, is worthy of praise?

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