Saturday, January 31, 2015

King David's Groundhog Day

According to American folklore, a groundhog first emerges from hibernation on February 2nd. If it is cloudy, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.

Amazingly, the groundhog's hibernation is actually mentioned in the Midrash - at least, in the view of some.
"And the Lord God cast a slumber (tardemah) upon him" (Gen. 2:21)... Rav said: There are three types of slumber: that of sleep (shenah), that of prophecy, and that of marmita... (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 17:5)
The Midrash explains that the last type of slumber occurred with the camp of King Saul, when David sneaked in and removed Saul's spear and water-jug:
That of marmita: "Nobody saw or knew or woke up, for they were all sleeping; for a slumber of God had descended upon them" (I Samuel 26:12) (Midrash ibid.)
The slumber of the mysterious marmita is the deepest type of sleep - but what is a marmita?

Opinions vary. But several opinions (including Anaf Yosef, Rashash, and R. Yosef Schonhak) argue that it is the animal known in Europe as the marmot, which is known to North Americans as the groundhog. Marmots enter a deep hibernation during the cold winter; their heartbeat slows to around five beats a minute, while they only take one to three breaths a minute. The Midrash says that such a deep sleep was placed upon Shaul's camp by Hashem, so that David was able to steal in and out undetected. Nobody in Shaul's camp woke up; it was as though time itself was frozen.

Although the phenomenon of hibernation was known to ancient writers such as Aristotle and Pliny, I haven't been able to discover if there is indeed basis for interpreting the Midrash in this way. If anyone has further light to shed on this, please do so!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Amazing Manna Segula!

"Manna manna."
Were you inundated today with emails about the amazing segulah of saying parashas ha-man, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, because it is Tuesday of the week of parashas Beshalach? I was.

It's quite bizarre. Here is something that was proposed by one chassidishe rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, two hundred years ago. All of a sudden, it is considered to be something that all Jews should do! (Though you don't even need to say it yourself - the Gedolim say that you can pay others to do it for you, for even better results!) This is especially odd in light of the fact that this is entirely inconsistent with the approach of the Mishnah Berurah, surely a much more mainstream work, as we shall see. (I am indebted to Rabbi Josh Waxman of the excellent Parshablog, from whose post on this topic much of the following was taken, with his permission.)

Some claim that the source for this is the Yerushalmi, but that's not quite accurate. The given source says כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו, "Whoever recites parashas ha-man, is assured that his sustenance will not decrease." Early sources, such as Seder Rav Amram Gaon, explained that it was recited every day, along with korbanos and a host of other things. However, only select people do so; most do not, because they are too busy working! To quote:
זה המנהג הנכון לנהג היחידים אנשי מעשה. והצבור אין נוהגין כן, שלא יתבטל איש איש ממלאכתו אשר המה עושים, ומקצרין ואומר אחר סיום, קדיש. חזק.

Meanwhile, the Mishnah Berurah gives an interesting explanation of the daily recital of parashas ha-man:
פרשת העקידה - קודם פרשת הקרבנות. ויכול לומר פרשת העקידה ופרשת המן אפילו בשבת. ואין די באמירה אלא שיתבונן מה שהוא אומר ויכיר נפלאות ד' וכן מה שאמרו בגמרא כל האומר תהלה לדוד ג' פעמים בכל יום מובטח לו שהוא בן עוה"ב ג"כ באופן זה. וטעם לאמירת כ"ז כי פרשת עקידה כדי לזכור זכות אבות בכל יום וגם כדי להכניע יצרו כמו שמסר יצחק נפשו ופרשת המן כדי שיאמין שכל מזונותיו באין בהשגחה פרטית וכדכתיב המרבה לא העדיף והממעיט לא החסיר להורות שאין ריבוי ההשתדלות מועיל מאומה ואיתא בירושלמי ברכות כל האומר פרשת המן מובטח לו שלא יתמעטו מזונותיו ועשרת הדברות כדי שיזכור בכל יום מעמד הר סיני ויתחזק אמונתו בה' ופרשת הקרבנות דאמרינן במנחות זאת תורת החטאת כל העוסק בתורת חטאת כאלו הקריב חטאת וכו':
משנה ברורה סימן א ס"ק יג
 "The parsha of the Binding {of Yitzchak} -- before the parsha of the sacrifices. And one is able to say the parsha of the Binding and the parsha of the Manna even on Shabbat. And it is not sufficient with mere saying, but rather he must understand what he is saying and and recognize the wonders of Hashem. And so too that which they say in the gemara that anyone who says Ashrei three times every day is guaranteed that he will be a resident of the world to come, in this manner {that is, not an incantation, but understanding and appreciating this}. And the reason for the saying of all this is as follows: the parsha of the Binding is in order to recall the merit of the forefathers every day, and also to humble his yetzer, just as Yitzchak was moser nefesh. And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his food {/livelihood} comes through special Divine direction {hashgacha pratis}, as it is written {and understood midrashically} "and the one who took more did not end up with more and the one who took less did not end up with less," to teach that increasing effort does not help at all. And it is found in Yerushalmi Berachot that anyone who says the parsha of the Manna {others have here: every day} he is guaranteed that his livelihood will not decrease. And the {saying of the} Ten Commandments is in order to recall every day the standing by Mt. Sinai, and his faith in Hashem will be strengthened. And {the reason for reciting} the parsha of the sacrifices is because of what we say in Menachot: "Zot Torat HaChatat -- Anyone who engages in the {learning of} Torah of the Chatat is as if he sacrificed a Chatat {sin offering}, etc."
Thus, this is not a magic incantation, but rather a mechanism by which one realizes certain facts about the world and reinforces his emuna. The repercussions of such an internalization of these ideas will be all these great things. Note too that none of these sources speak about reciting it shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum.

Meanwhile, the saying of parshat HaMan once a year, on a specific day, shnayim Mikra v'echod Targum, is most certainly presented as a segula, and thus is not in consonance with the Mishna Berura's explanation.

But can any of this reconcile with Rambam's rationalist approach? That will have to be the topic of another post. Meanwhile, with regard to the nature of the manna itself, see the post Manna and Maimonides.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Collapse of Charedi Society III: The People Respond

A few weeks ago, I posted a guest post from Marty Bluke that rapidly became the all-time most read post on this blog. It was a discussion from Mishpachah magazine on the economic collapse of chareidi society. A follow-up post discussed what the charedim will do about it. Now, Marty informs us that there was another follow-up in Mishpachah. They report receiving over two hundred and fifty letters on this topic (!). Here are two of them, first in the original Hebrew and then in translation:

My parents pay our rent and we go to them and my wife's parents just about every shabbos, and we also take frozen foods and cans. Yes we are parasites like the ones that you write about with disgust, and all of the older people who read the article probably clucked their tongues. All my life I was taught that I was supposed to sit and learn, also when they married me off, they expected me [to sit and learn] and I expected myself to sit in kollel. In my kollel we get 1000 shekel a month if we get it, sometimes we don't get anything. My wife works and makes 3000 shekel a month. So what do you want? We should die of starvation? We should live in the street? We shouldn't buy diapers? What do you want from us? You know that in the winter electricity costs 500 shekel a month and child care for 2 kids costs 1500 shekel? ...
An irritated/anxious Avreich
They married me off at 18 and three quarters. Suddenly, I learned that 4 pieces of salmon for Shabbos cost 50 shekel and that yellow cheese is much more expensive than regular cheese and that my studies cost so much money that there is no chance that I could ever pay for it myself. My husband learns in a kollel where new Avreichim don't get paid. We don't know exactly when a new Avreich turns into an old one [and starts getting paid]. I go to school and my parents pay for it. We go to my parents practically every day for lunch and we take vegetables for dinner and we also come for shabbos. If someone thinks that this is wrong, he should think twice before he marries off his next child this way. I know that I sound chutzpadik but I am not chutzpadik, I am frustrated.
Chava L. Yerushalayim

Marty comments as follows:
These letters paint a very bleak picture indeed. The children are frustrated, angry and upset that they have been put into this situation and you know what I don't blame them, what can they do at this point in their lives? They are married off completely unprepared for life. What is worse is that they are resentful and angry at their parents and Charedi society for putting them in this position. That doesn't bode well for the chinuch of the next generation.  If you read between the lines of these letters, there is a lot of pent up anger with the Charedi system which at some point may simply explode. 
The articles points out that the average Charedi kid who gets married has no clue about finances, home economics, etc. and therefore their big solution is to have classes when they are engaged to teach them these basics. IMHO, this is like a bandaid for a gunshot wound. Even if you have a PhD in Economics, you can't make something out of nothing. As the Avrech pointed out in his letter, you can't support a family on 4000 shekel a month, no matter how economics savvy you are. If 1500 shekel goes to child care and 500 for electricity that leaves 2000 shekel (about $500) for everything else for the month, that just doesn't add up.
The only way that this disaster can be treated is to start giving charedi kids a proper secular education and teaching them that working for a living is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, they are fighting this tooth and nail. Change is happening, but at a very slow place. There are already too many korbanos in the charedi world. The question is, will things change fast enough to prevent them dragging the entire economy of Israel down with them?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pouring Lead and the Evil Eye

Much to my disappointment, the Five Towns Jewish Times this week features an article praising Rebbetzin Aidel Miller and her methods of removing the "evil eye." These include red threads, a vial of holy water from the Baal Shem Tov's well, and the Italian witchcraft charm of ruta sprigs. But the focus of the article, and the primary source of Rebbetzin Miller's fame, is her practice of bleigiessen, pouring lead. As the article describes:
To perform blei gissen, Rebbetzin Miller takes an ordinary looking pot, places a small bar of lead in it, and begins heating it on the kitchen stove. She gives out a laminated sheet with a tefilah on it to read while the lead melts. She does this in a typical kitchen with foods baking and children walking through. When the tefilah is finished and the lead has melted. Rebbetzin Miller casts a thick, off-white sheet of cloth like a tallis over the person. The molten lead is poured from the saucepan into a pot of cold water above the person’s head as the Rebbetzin speaks softly. The lead crackles and pops as it hits the cold water. The sheet is removed. The lead has fragmented into long pieces that look like silver twigs. If some of them have bulbous ends, the Rebbetzin explains, “Those are eyes. There is some ayin ha’ra. We have to do it over.”
Sometimes a curved piece can emerge that the Rebbetzin says is a “bird,” which signifies an imminent simcha. She repeats the process one more time to make sure all the ayin ha’ra is gone. Then, for good measure, she takes the names of a couple of the person’s family members and pours lead in their names. She concludes by pressing a few red strings from Kever Rachel on the subject along with a sprig of ruta in a tiny plastic bag.
At the end of the article, it does say that "it is ultimately tefilah that will make the difference in our lives," and that segulos are "a means of getting us to pray." But, frankly, that seems disingenuous. The point of visiting Rebbetzin Miller, in her tour across the US, is not to pray - it's to pour lead!
So where does this practice of divination via pouring lead come from? The article claims that bleigiessen "has its source in the Gemara." It does not provide the source, and I haven't been able to find any Gemara that speaks about it. Not that it would make it any the more rationalist if it was in the Gemara; after all, there are plenty of non-rationalist beliefs recorded in the Gemara, often relating to demons, none of which are really taken seriously today by anyone. Still, at least one could then legitimately claim it to be a classical Jewish practice. If there is no source in the Gemara, then the author of this article is guilty of misrepresentation.

What is the real source of bleigiessen? Known in English as molybdomancy, it appears to have originated in Ancient Greece, and later became a popular custom in Germany. It is still popular in Germany, where one can buy bleigiessen kits. However, authorities there have tried to discourage it, due to the dangers of lead poisoning, and bleigiessen kits that are sold in Germany today contain tin rather than lead.

In the past, I have written about how I am fairly tolerant of superstitions - one person's segulah is another person's fundamental religious belief. How much more inherently irrational are segulos than, say, tefillas haderech (which I am extremely makpid about)? Furthermore, they can be psychologically helpful.

However, I am gradually becoming less and less sympathetic to them. First of all, I have seen how some capitalize on segulos in order to take advantage of people. Second, the entire anti-scientific mindset is clearly very harmful - just look at the new measles outbreak, which seems to be caused by the anti-scientific anti-vaccination movement. Third of all, this specific segulah is particularly harmful, due to the risk of lead poisoning, which is extremely dangerous.

It's a pity that people can't make use of more traditional segulos. Here is Rabbi Dovid Landesman's list of segulos that are indeed rooted in classical Judaism:

1. Segulah for recovery from illness – go to a doctor [Berachot 60a, Bava Kamma 46b)
2. Segulah for longevity – lead a healthy lifestyle (Rambam, De’ot 4:20)
3. Segulah for marriage – look for a suitable wife (Kiddushin 2b)
4. Segulah for shalom bayit – love and forebearance (Sanhedrin 7a, Bava Metzia 59a)
5. Segulah for children – prayer to Hashem (Shmuel I 1)
6. Segulah for yir’at Shamayim – learning (Avot 2:5)
7. Segulah for spirituality – learning and mitzvah observance (Megillah 6b)
8. Segulah for kavanna in prayer – take it seriously (Berachot 5:1)
9. Segulah for pure faith – don’t believe in segulot (Devarim 18:13)
10. Segulah for parnasa – learn a profession (Kiddushin 30a)

Other posts on this topic:
The Ring of Power

Monday, January 19, 2015

Lethal Woman

The previous post discussed Jonathan Rosenblum's call for charedim to think about the need for secular studies and professional employment. In the comments to Rosenblum's article on Cross-Currents, Rabbi Barak Saffer raises an interesting point:
Who is this article being addressed to? Anglo-Israeli Chareidim? It seems that most Anglo-Israeli Chareidim have these same questions but those that choose to stay within institutionalized chareidi society realize that being part of Chareidi society in Israel means relying on the Gedolim. There is no doubt that HaGaon Rav Shteinman is smart enough to have thought of the issues raised by President Rivlin and Jonathan Rosenblum... What you should be doing if you really want to accomplish something is go and meet with Rav Shteinman and ask him these questions. If you get a meeting then maybe you would be able to publish his plan for the future of Chareidi society... Bottom line, what is your goal in writing such articles, over and over again. Who are you addressing? 
Rabbi Saffer is, of course, entirely correct, within the framework of modern chareidi society. The modern chareidi concept of Daas Torah and the Gedolim is that they are certainly wise enough to understand all the issues facing us. If they decide that the economic collapse of the charedi world, and its increasing effect on the entire country, is a problem to be solved via secular education and professional employment, then they will say so; if not, then obviously they do not feel it should be addressed in this way. From the perspective of contemporary charedi values - which one would reasonably assume is the framework within which Jonathan Rosenblum and Mishpacha are operating - it is simply inconceivable that there should be a catastrophic situation of which the Gedolim are entirely unaware and are not fixing (and are even making worse!).

However, Rosenblum already preempted this objection a few weeks ago. He subtly pointed out that the notion of the Gedolim as being phenomenally wise leaders who are "doubtless smart enough to have thought of the issues" is neatly contradicted by factual history. There was a woman - a woman! - who perceived the most important issue facing Am Yisrael, and it was something that the Gedolim had not realized. To quote Rosenblum:
Sarah Schenirer. From here
"Today, the Bais Yaakov system is so embedded at the heart of the Torah community that it is hard for the current generation to begin to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Sarah Schenirer's movement... Yet Rabbi Chaskel Sarna, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, once said to an audience of gedolei Torah and roshei yeshiva that the person who had done more for Am Yisrael than anyone else is the preceding hundred years was none of their ancestors, and had never even learned a single blatt Gemara. Everyone present laughed until he revealed the name of the person about whom he was speaking: Sarah Schenirer. At which point, all agreed. True, she convinced the Chofetz Chaim and the Imrei Emes of Gerrer to join her revolution, but she was the one who saw the need that had escaped others: For the young women of her native Cracow, Yiddishkeit had become an empty shell that they were eager to abandon. Had matters been left to head in the same direction there would soon have been no Jewish women left eager, or even willing, to marry a Torah scholar. A radical change in women's learning was needed to preserve Torah itself.

I wonder how many people realize that Sarah Schenirer is lethal to the contemporary view of Daas Torah and Gedolim?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Rosenblum: We All Need Charedim To Get Academic Education And Professional Employment

Recently, I highlighted Jonathan Rosenblum's article in Mishpacha magazine calling for wholesale reform in the Israeli charedi way of life vis-a-vis Torah study. However, in that article he did not detail the reason for such a reform, nor what kind of reform he had in mind. In his latest extraordinary column, he spells it out.

Endorsing a speech by President Rivlin, Rosenblum noted that "20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks" (if you just consider first grade, it's over 30%). Leaving aside the question of who will serve in the IDF, the pressing question that he asks is: “who will fund the maintenance of this army if Israeli society is poor?” He also notes that “the modern economy puts a high premium on education, and ever more jobs require academic or vocational training of some kind.” How will the national economy survive, with such a huge proportion of society being uneducated and unemployed?

The dissonance here is staggering. Jonathan Rosenblum is one of the premier spokesmen for the charedi world. He has written countless columns for both Yated and HaModia. Mishpacha magazine is likewise a publication that claims to be staunchly charedi. It would never run anything explicitly critical of the Gedolim, or even challenging the directive to vote for chareidi political parties.

Yet here we have a column by Jonathan Rosenblum in Mishpacha magazine that pretty much explicitly says that the Gedolim are wrong and one should not vote for chareidi political parties. After all, Rav Steinman, the leader of the Litvishe charedi world, came to Ramat Beit Shemesh and spoke out strongly against getting even a basic secular education, let along a university education. And it's not as though the charedi political parties are fighting for more secular studies in the charedi school system - they do precisely the opposite.

Putting this together with the feature article in Mishpachah magazine about the financial collapse of charedi society, we have Mishpacha pointing out the following obvious truths:
  1. Charedi society is in economic ruin;
  2. This is a result of the leadership of the Gedolim and charedi politicians and communal leaders;
  3. As charedim grow in number, this catastrophe will spread to the entire State of Israel;
  4. The solution is for them to start having proper secular studies and professional careers, which the Gedolim and charedi politicians fight against.

They are observing that the emperor has no clothes, but they are simultaneously desperately trying to avoid being seen as saying that! I am not judging them - they are in an extremely difficult position. It's easy for me to publicly point out the problems with charedi society, since I have little to lose. People who live in that world have much more at stake. Furthermore, perhaps this is the best way to get the message across. But personally, I suspect that it would be more effective if they would come out and say it more explicitly.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Chazal Said It First!

Over the last fifteen years or so, I have investigated dozens of claims that the Gemara knew something that modern science only discovered centuries later. Initially I was very excited about such possibilities, but as I researched them, disappointment set in. In every case, I found that it was either (a) something that non-Jews in antiquity also knew, (b) something ambiguous that could be interpreted in all kinds of ways, or (c) something that is not actually true.

I am pleased to report that, finally, somebody has found something! Dr. Jeremy Brown, author of the superb book New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reaction to Copernican Thought, has launched a wonderful new blog called Talmudology. In a recent post, he discusses Rava's statement (Yevamot 97a) that delayed puberty in boys can be caused by their being either overweight or underweight. According to Dr. Brown, this has only recently been confirmed by modern science. So far, ancient sources discussing such a concept have not been found (but feel free to search!) It seems that Rava deserves credit for being the first person to state this fact.

Still, I don't think that Rava obtained this information from Sinaitic tradition, ruach hakodesh, or some talent for deriving scientific facts from Torah texts. (My reason for not believing that it was due to that is that if such possibilities were available, surely they would have been available for more significant matters, such as the basic nature of the universe, the function of different parts of the body, etc.) So how did he know it? I don't know. Perhaps it was a good intuition based on his understanding of health.

*  *  *

In other news, the hot item right now in the world of Jewish scholarship is Dr. Marc Shapiro's critique of Artscroll's response regarding why they omitted portions of Rashbam's commentary to the Torah in their new Mikraos Gedolos. Artscroll justified their omission with the claim that the omitted portions were interpolations by a heretic. (This is a position that we have seen all too much of in recent years, with Rav Yitzchok Sheiner claiming that portions of Michtav Me-Eliyahu are a forgery, Rav Moshe Shapiro claiming that Rav Hirsch's letters on science are a forgery, and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman claiming that parts of R. Avraham ben HaRambam are a forgery.) Dr. Shapiro responds by pointing out that numerous Torah authorities - including one of ArtScroll's guiding mentors, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky - discussed the passage in question, and none of them rejected it as a forgery by heretics.  Make sure to read the endnotes!