Saturday, March 28, 2015

Angry Rabbits and Ticked-Off Tigers

This is too funny!

On the advice of a reader, I just purchased a book in Hebrew for toddlers. On the cover is the title, Shafan, with a stripe of black paint over it. Beneath it is the animal who painted it over: an angry rabbit!

The book is about how this rabbit is very angry that everyone calls him by the wrong name. Instead of calling him arnav, which is the proper name for "rabbit," he is called shafan. Eventually, he leaves town in disgust, and goes to find the real shafan in the wilderness - a hyrax. They switch places, but it doesn't work out too well - the rabbit does not like living in the wild, and the hyrax doesn't like being pulled out of a magician's hat. And so the story ends with the rabbit going back to his old life, and hoping that writing this book will help people call him by the right name.

The transposition of the rabbit with the hyrax is, of course, a classic case study for Biblical zoology. But the book deals with other transpositions, too. During the course of the story, the rabbit goes to a therapy group for animals that are frustrated due to their often called by the wrong name. There's an eagle that is complaining about being called a nesher and a tiger that is called ticked-off about bein called a namer, amongst others.

The transposition of nesher from vulture to eagle is a case similar to that of the shafan. Just as the name shafan was transferred from the hyrax to the rabbit due to there being no hyraxes in Europe, so too the name nesher was transferred due to the eagle's status as the king of birds in Europe. But the transposition of the namer from the leopard to the tiger is more difficult to understand. It is a very common error - see, for example, this painting from the 17th century Rymanow synagogue. Yet tigers are not found in Europe either. I am still trying to figure out the cause of this transposition.

I'm not sure what the message of the book is for its intended readership, but I enjoyed it immensely!

(On a related note, for those interested to read the new Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, the LA book launch is taking place this Monday evening, at Beth Jacob, 8pm - please spread the word to anyone you know in LA. Or, if you're not in LA, you can order it online at Israel orders are already being shipped out, and US orders will be shipped out soon. Free shipping in Israel, Europe and North America!)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kezayis Season

Pesach is rapidly approaching, which means that it's nearly time for people to obsess over the size of a kezayis. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis is by far the most popular piece that I have ever published - if you haven't seen it, you can download it at this link. Here are some follow-up posts on the topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - discussing why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night.

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

Meanwhile, I am off to LA for three weeks. I probably won't have much time to post, but R. David Ohsie will be publishing a fantastic series of posts about Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam's treatise on Chazal and science, and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's claim that it must be a forgery. If you're in LA, please join me at the book launch for The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, at Beth Jacob, Monday, March 30th, 8-10pm (and please spread the word!)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It's here! Official book launch TONIGHT at the museum!

After fourteen years of work, The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, Volume One: Wild Animals is finally ready, and it looks amazing!

Please join me for a festive book launch at the The Biblical Museum of Natural History TONIGHT, Thursday March 19th, anytime from 7:30pm until 10pm. Admission is free, and complimentary refreshments will be provided (note that the event is for adults only). At the launch, you can buy an autographed copy at a discount; alternatively, you can order the encyclopedia online at and get FREE delivery!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped in the production of this work, whether it was with helpful suggestions with regard to layout, comments on the subject matter, assistance with photographs, providing sponsorships, or displaying enthusiasm that helped me struggle through!

See you at the museum!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Eclipses: Physics or Metaphysics?

This Friday, there will be a total eclipse of the sun. At the blog of The Biblical Museum of Natural History, I wrote a post about the spiritual significance of eclipses. The Talmud (Sukkah 29a) calls eclipses of the sun and moon unfavorable periods for the world. It further states that solar eclipses occur due to certain sins.

The question is clear: Many ancient peoples believed that eclipses were unpredictable events. But we know that they follow a set pattern and can be calculated in advance. Did the Talmud not know this? How can eclipses be a punishment for sins if they occur at predictable times?

Many years ago, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l told me that the Sages simply did not know that eclipses are predictable events. I found two other approaches to this question.

One approach is that of Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (Aruch LeNer ad loc.). He argues that the Talmud clearly understood solar eclipses to be caused by the moon obscuring the sun. He also points out that the Talmud uses the seemingly superfluous wording, “at the time when the sun is eclipsed, it is an unfavorable period,” when it could have simply said “when the sun is eclipsed.” The word z’man, “time,” is related to the word “zamen,” prepared. Thus, he claims, the usage of this word shows that eclipses were known to be pre-arranged and predictable events. However, this does not present a contradiction to their indicting punishment for sin. Rabbi Ettlinger and Iyun Yaakov explain that during eclipses, God exacts retribution for certain sins. Certain periods are set aside for Divine justice to be meted out, and these are indicated in the physical universe by eclipses.

A different approach is taken by Rabbi Yonasan Eybeschitz (Ya’aros Devash 2:12). He explains the Talmud’s term likuy ha-chamah, literally “the striking of the sun,” to be referring not to solar eclipses but to sunspots. These are cool dark patches on the face of the sun caused by magnetic storms. These being events of unknown occurrence, R’ Eybeschitz explains sunspots to indicate God’s displeasure. Indeed, sunspots send vast amounts of charged protons into our atmosphere, and several studies have tentatively shown corresponding variations in animal populations and incidence of disease amongst people. R’ Eybeschitz argues that people of earlier times were more sensitive to such sunlight aberrations. A difficulty with this is that we now know that sunspots and solar storm disturbances occur in an approximately eleven-year cycle; however, this can vary from seven to sixteen year.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Selling Out

I understand (and happen to agree with) those who support Netanyahy, because they believe that ceding land to the Palestinians will not result in peace, because they are likely to use it to attack Israel, and the international community will prevent Israel from defending itself.

I get, though I don't agree with, those who support Herzog/Livni, because they believe that we must cede land to the Palestinians in order to ultimately gain international legitimacy and peace. These people are sincere in their belief that it is very dangerous to continue the current situation.

What I don't get at all is people who do not believe that peace with the Palestinians is possible, or that the international community will ever be happy with Israel, and who think that any concessions to the Palestinians are very dangerous, but who are willing to do so in exchange for money.

I am referring to United Torah Judaism. MK Litzman said that they are willing to go with either Netanyahu or Herzog - the same Herzog who said that he is open to having Ahmed Tibi on the security committee. Whoever reverses the budget cuts and gives money to the kollelim and yeshivos will get their support.

How can they disregard the long-term safety and security of the country in exchange for money?!

The tragic reason is, of course, because they are desperate, since their society is incapable of surviving without extensive financial support from others.

National security is not the only sphere in which the charedim have sold out for money. Whether one agrees with it or not, the charedim place paramount importance on keeping women away from public roles and appearances. Kol kavodah bas melech penima! Women cannot take on any positions of leadership, cannot speak in public in front of men, and even their pictures cannot appear in any publications.

But when it comes to getting votes in order to get in the government in order to get money, these principles are tossed out of the window. UTJ is running a television advertisement which features a woman!

All this reminds me of an old column by Jonathan Rosenblum (perhaps someone can find it for me) about matchmaking. He lamented that the charedi world, which in theory is about valuing ruchniyos over gashmiyos, ends up being the most obsessed with gashmiyos when it comes to matchmaking. They have forced themselves into a situation where the most crucial criterion is how much money the girl can provide, since the young men have no means of supporting themselves.

Chazal say that if a person does not teach his son a trade, it is as though he has taught him to steal. If a person has no means to support himself and becomes desperate for money, he will end up compromising his integrity. Once again, we see that Chazal were correct.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anti-Rationalism and the Electoral System

The divide between the rationalist and anti-rationalist approaches to theology has fascinating ramifications with regard to the electoral system.

The Maimonidean rationalist approach is very straightforward. Our choices as to whom we vote for determines who will be in the government, which in turn determines policies and their consequences.

The anti-rationalist approach is very different. As we have discussed before (with regard to whether soldiers are actually doing anything), the anti-rationalist approach popularly found in charedi circles today, based on Rav Dessler's school of thought, views our actions as being of no real significance in terms of direct consequences. Instead, they are simply a charade that we must go through in order for God to operate. (And to the extent that we recognize God as being the One actually doing things, we can minimize this charade). According to this approach, hishtadlus doesn't actually have anything to do with parnassah and soldiers don't actually have anything to do with military victory.

I am very grateful to Rav Elimelech Kornfeld for spelling out the ramifications of this with regard to the electoral process. (I say that without any sarcasm; while I disagree with the anti-rationalist approach, I think that it's important for it to be articulated and I greatly appreciate his doing so.) Rav Kornfeld is a local charedi rabbinic leader in Ramat Beit Shemesh who is not afraid to openly state the Israeli charedi perspective on such matters. For example, in the previous national elections, he went on record in HaModia as stating that American olim are mistaken in believing that they have the right to choose who to vote for; instead, they are obligated to vote for whoever the Charedi-Litvishe-Non-RavShmuelAuerbach camp tell them to vote for.

For this election, there is a letter printed on the front page of the local newspaper Chadash in which Rav Kornfeld spells out the charedi anti-rationalist approach with regard to the very nature of the electoral system. He explains that it is not in the hands of any politician or party to actually do anything for us, and continues as follows:
"Our national security, our physical and surely spiritual needs are not in the hands of any government... Our present decision in these elections is to show Hashem that we feel that the things that are important to him are important to us, and this will being us continued Siyata Dishmaya. To this end our leaders, Rav Shteinman Shlita and Rav Kanyevsky Shlita have spoken clearly and strongly that we should vote for Gimmel - UTJ..."

Nothing more than a mask?!
In other words, the entire system of voting in politicians who make policies that are implemented is, like all other forms of hishtadlus, is a sham; it's merely a cover, a mask for the workings of Hashem. However, it is very important to show support for the party that espouses Torah values (which he believes to be UTJ), because that will earn us the Divine favor which actually accomplishes everything that happens.

This appears to be an ingenious way of arriving at the same end result - vote for party x - while basing it on a fundamentally different worldview. However, the more one thinks through its ramifications, the more complications and problems arise.

First of all, it means that rallying votes is only important insofar as it shows Hashem that (charedi) Torah is important to us. But surely one can show Hashem that Torah is important even more powerfully by actually learning Torah! Are the two yeshivah boys who stayed in the Chevron Beis HaMidrash to learn while all their peers spent several hours traveling to and from Bnei Brak not showing Hashem that learning Torah is of supreme value to them?!

Second, it means that if people cheat (from either side), that will have no effect on the fate of the Jewish People. But why, then, is UTJ searching for people to monitor the voting booths?

Third, it means that it is of absolutely no significance as to whether UTJ actually gets in the government (other than perhaps as indication of whether Hashem is happy with chareidi voting choices.) The only thing that matters is how many people show Hashem their support for UTJ, not whether UTJ actually gets in.

Fourth, it means that if charedim are unsuccessful, then that is also from Hashem (and presumably as a result of their not sufficiently demonstrating their dedication to Him). So why, after Lapid's success in the last election and his resultant policies, was their so much anger towards him? Lapid didn't actually do anything, it was all from Hashem!

Fifth, it means that the followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach and others, who are of the view that one should not participate in these elections at all, are not doing any harm. After all, they are certainly acting out of dedication to Torah and Gedolim. So why is UTJ so upset about them?

(I'm sure that there are plenty of other ramifications, too, but I can't think of them right now.)

Of course, nobody in the charedi world actually acts as though they think this way. When you look at all the vast effort expended to get charedim to vote, and the tremendous passion about who actually gets in the government, obviously charedim feel that the votes and politicians inherently make a difference. It's similar to the anti-rationalist notion that yeshivah students provide protection from rockets, and that parnassah is all in the hands of Hashem and has nothing to do with hishtadlus; people might profess to believe it, but when push comes to shove, nobody really believes it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Nephew, The Hero

Two posts today!

My oldest nephew is from a settler family (that's my sister's family, whom Fatah proudly but falsely claimed to have murdered last summer). There is a lot of venom directed against settlers by the left wing in Israel; the settlers are condemned as parasites, who are just out to leech the lives of Arabs and the money of the rest of the country. And so some of them decided to start a meme, entitled "Ani mitnachel v'ani lo mitnatzel - I am a settler and I do not apologize about it." My nephew, a modest and quiet young man, joined the meme. Here is what he wrote:

הורי צאצאים לניצולי שואה עלו ארצה מאנגליה ובנו בית במטה בנימין.
הקימו בית ומשפחה לתפארת במו ידיהם מאפס ללא כל סיוע.
התחנכתי לאהבת אדם, אהבת העם והארץ.
הורי נפגעו שניהם בפיגוע ירי ולמרות כל ההצעות לתמיכה מארגונים למינהם סירבו לקבל כל סיוע.
חינכו אותי לעבודה ונתינה. כל אחי ואחיותי שירתו ומשרתים את המדינה בשירות משמעותי.
הדרכתי בתנועת נוער, התנדבתי במד"א, עשיתי שנת שירות בשדרות שם בית הקומונה חטף פגיעה ישירה בעודי בבית.
שירתתי 5 שנים ביחידה מובחרת, חיפשתי את החטופים בחברון, לחמתי ופיקדתי בצוק איתן.
היום אני סטודנט להנדסה, מתנדב בבית-הגלגלים מוסד לילדים בעלי מוגבליות, אני מלווה באופן אישי שני חניכים, אחת ערביה ישראלית והשני דרוזי, אני אוהב אותם מאוד.
כל חיי היו ויהיו נתינה.
אני מתנחל ואני לא מתנצל.
And here is a rough translation:
My parents, descendants of Holocaust survivors, came to Israel from England, and built a house in Mateh Binyamin. They established a home and a wonderful family, building it up from nothing without any help.
I was educated to love people, to love the nation and to love the land.
Both of my parents were injured in shooting incidents, but despite all the offers of support from various organizations, they refused to accept any support.
They educated me to serve and to give. All my brothers and sisters served and serve the state in significant ways.
I was a counselor in youth movements, I volunteered for Magen David Adom, I fulfilled a year of service in Sderot (as a yeshivah counselor - NS), where my apartment sustained a direct hit from a missile while I was in it.
I served for five years in a select army unit, I searched for the kidnapped teens in Hebron, I fought in Gaza.
Today I am an engineering student, and a volunteer at a home for children with disabilities. I personally assist two students, one an Israeli-Arab and the other a Druze. I love them very much.
My entire life was, and will be, about giving.
I am a settler and I do not apologize.
My nephew is a hero and an inspiration to me. May Hashem bless him and keep him safe.