Wednesday, March 20, 2019

I Messed Up

I really messed up in my last post. The question of whether people in kollel who are in dire straits are helped by giving them a bigger kollel check is one to be discussed in the abstract - not in reference to a particular good-hearted neighbor who is working this week to help people. Sometimes I get so caught up in making a point that I forget the basics. I'm sorry.

Monday, March 18, 2019

What Is Purim Charity?

"And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews... that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."
"One is obligated to give to poor people on the day of Purim... And one should not be particular about Purim money, rather give to every person who puts out his hand..." (Rambam, Mishneh Torah)

Purim is a season for Tzedakah. In the past few days I have given to a certain charity (more about that one soon), but I have also turned down some requests.

The first category of requests that I turned down was for institutions. Now it happens to be that all the institutions that approached me were institutions with which I have a deep ideological disagreement (i.e. chareidi yeshivos and kollels). Still, even if it would have been institutions that I admire, I would not have given. Goodness knows I have my own institution which I believe to be an extremely worthy cause, with enormous costs to cover, and yet we do not take advantage of the "giving spirit" at this time to do so. Because Purim is a time to give to the poor, not to institutions.

Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, in his Kovetz Halachos, states this explicitly. He says that although on Purim there is a law that one should give to whoever stretches out their hand, this does not apply to those collecting on behalf of institutions, because that is not Matanot L'Evyonim.

In the past I've pointed out how there are some amazing dati-leumi yeshivot that take advantage of the Purim giving spirit in order to teach their students a lesson about helping the poor. Yeshivat Lev HaTorah in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh both send their students collecting, not for themselves, but for others - for charities that help truly poor people. Fabulous!

This year I was also approached by a very, very good-hearted and utterly selfless person, who wants to help kollel families in dire straits. And he wants to do so in a way that is dignified - not as a shameful handout, but rather offering them the opportunity to learn for a few hours on Purim and receive a generous stipend.

I couldn't agree that this was a good cause. It's clear from Chazal and the Rishonim that the notion of choosing to live off charity rather than working is wrong (not to mention raising one's children without the education and values to work). It's also catastrophic for Israel.

The person agreed with me that they should be working (although we disagreed strongly about whether they are benefiting society at all by learning Torah). But, he argued, given that their poverty is a reality, are we supposed to just abandon these people to suffer?

I wasn't sure how to answer that, and I had to consult with a friend who works in the field. He pointed out that if it's a matter of actually having food to eat, there are organizations which provide that. Anything beyond that should only be given in a framework that addresses the underlying problem, not perpetuates it.

To this I would add that the notion of giving money in the form of a stipend for learning so as to help them in a dignified way makes it all even worse. Financial assistance to those who choose not to work should be given in a framework that makes it clear that this is a bad choice - not dressed up as a stipend for doing something good.

My preference is to support the poor via a wonderful local organization called Lemaan Achai. They help families in a way that gets them to financial independence. Furthermore, for Purim, they practice Smart Chesed - giving them what they actually need in terms of long-term assistance, rather than just money for a Purim Seudah. It's a fabulous tzedakah organization that should serve as a model for others.

(One final note. Whenever you're approached by a "tzedakah" collector that doesn't seem to be a legitimate cause, you can always question yourself as to whether the reason that you are refusing to give is out of stinginess rather than a legitimate disagreement. Perhaps the solution is that after declining such requests, one should immediately set aside money for a legitimate cause.)

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Pi and Rambam

Today, March 14th, is Pi Day (3.14). And pi has been yet another of the battlefronts in the Rationalism/Mysticism Wars.

Rambam (in his commentary to Eruvin 1:5) explicitly describes pi as being an irrational number (i.e. a number that cannot be accurately expressed by a fraction). Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, in Torah, Chazal and Science p. 155, claims that Rambam "was not merely repeating an accepted piece of information, since this fact was as of yet unknown to the rest of the world." Rabbi Meiselman further claims that Rambam deduced this from the Talmud (positing a very strange inference that Rambam derived this from Chazal approximating Pi as three rather than using a fraction, which he claims means that they knew that Pi could not be accurately expressed as a fraction). As such, Rabbi Meiselman presents this as evidence that Rambam, and in turn Chazal, possessed wisdom that was ahead of their time, and was somehow derived from the Torah or some other such supernatural source.

Rabbi Meiselman's claim that has been echoed by others, such as Jonathan Rosenblum and Rabbi Yaakov Menken. They all use it to delegitimize the rationalist approach, claiming that if Rambam had supernatural knowledge of science, then it's foolish to believe that Chazal (who were even greater) made scientific errors.

However, this claim about Rambam and pi is completely false. Rambam's statement about pi is by no means extraordinary.

Boaz Tsaban and David Garber note that "Various ancient Greek writers, including Hero, Eutocius, and Simplicius, understand the difficulty of finding an exact value for the ratio, and seem to realize the possibility of its being irrational," although they did not say so definitively. It is thus certainly no surprise that after centuries of failed efforts to calculate the value precisely, people would conclude that it is indeed irrational.

The fifth-century Indian mathematician Aryabhata wrote that “Add four to 100, multiply by eight and then add 62,000. By this rule the circumference of a circle of diameter 20,000 can be approached.” The 15th century commentator Nilakantha Somayaji interprets the original words as saying that not that is this an approximation, but that the value is irrational.

Then, at the turn of the ninth century, the Persian mathematician Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi notes that there are several different methods for calculating Pi. A marginal note (I am not sure when it was written) observes that "It is an approximation not a proof, and no one stands on the truth of this, and no one but Allah knows the true circumference of the circle, as the line is not straight and has no beginning and no end, we merely attempt to approximate and discover the root, but even the root has no definition as no one may know its exact value but Allah, and the best of these approximations that is to multiply the diameter by three and seventh as it is faster and simpler and only Allah might know it true."

The Muslim scholar Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, who lived from 973-1048, was familiar with Aryabhata's works. In The Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, [Roshdi Rashed ed.], vol. 2, London/New York, 1996, p. 454), Boris Rosenfeld and Youschkevitch note that al-Biruni described Pi as irrational. In their discussion of medieval Arabic science, they further note that "...Arabic mathematicians repeatedly expressed their belief that the ratio of the length of a circumference to its diameter was irrational... Subsequent European mathematicians were also sure that pi is irrational but only J. H. Lambert, a native of Alsace, in 1766 succeeded in proving this."

Thus, the irrationality of pi was certainly not "as of yet unknown to the rest of the world." Just as the early Greeks seem to have suspected and just as the early Indian and Muslim scholars were certain, Rambam was likewise certain that pi is irrational. (As for Chazal, there is absolutely no reason to believe that they knew pi to be irrational, but even if they would have known it, this would be consistent with others in antiquity.)

Rambam was an utter genius. But he wasn't ahead of his time scientifically, and he did not have any supernatural sources of knowledge about science. If someone wants to delude themselves into thinking otherwise, it doesn't really bother me; the only problem is when they use this mistaken view to try to delegitimize those who take an honest, factually-based, rationalist approach. And such delegitimization is also, ironically, the ultimate perversion of Rambam's legacy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Evolution of Camelus ArtScrollus BlackHoofus

Did you know that there's a special edition of the ArtScroll Stone Chumash which features color illustrations at the back? I recently came across it and I was surprised to discover that it depicted a species of camel hitherto unknown to science. I think it should be named Camelus ArtScrollus BlackHoofus, the ArtScroll black-hoofed camel. It wasn't too hard to figure out how it evolved.

The picture is to illustrate the Torah's description of animals that meet the criterion of possessing split hooves, and those that don't. Instead of photos, ArtScroll uses high-quality artwork. And the illustration of the camel's foot is this:


But what on earth is that? The picture shows a big black hoof with two gray nails on the tip. But that's not what a camel has. Here are photos of a camel's foot:


As you can see, the camel doesn't actually have a hoof at all. Instead, there is a just a big furry foot, with two nails at the end.

So how did ArtScroll come up with the idea that the camel has a big black hoof, split at the tip? The answer is that it comes from a common mistranslation of the Torah.

The Torah’s first requirement for an animal to be kosher is that it is mafris parsah, which is often understood to mean that the animal must possess a split hoof. However, as I explained in great detail in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, there are actually two different classical explanations of this phrase, and neither of them translates it this way.

According to Rashbam, the word "mafris" is based on the same root as "parsah," which refers to a nail-like covering. Accordingly, the phrase mafris parsah means that the animal "hooves a hoof," or to put it in better English, "forms a hoof." The requirement of it being split is expressed in another phrase, shosa'as shesa.

According to Rashi, on the other hand, the word mafris is not based on the same root as parsah. Instead, mafris means "split" (and shosa'as shesa means fully split). Parsah is defined by Rashi (to Vayikra 11:3) as having the meaning of the Old French word plante. This refers to the sole of a foot - not necessarily to a foot that is hooved (i.e. encased by a hard covering). Accordingly, the phrase mafris parsah means that the animal "has a split foot."

Thus, according to neither view does mafris parsah mean "split hoof". It either means "has a hoof" or "has a split foot."

Now let us turn to the Torah's account of the camel:
אַךְ אֶת זֶה לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָה אֶת הַגָּמָל כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם
This verse is often translated as meaning that the camel's "hoof is not split" - i.e. that it has a hoof, but the hoof is not adequately split. But that's not what it means at all, according to any view. According to Rashbam, it means that the camel does not have a hoof - instead, it has a big furry foot with nails. (To put it another way: according to Rashbam, the camel is disqualified because it does not have a proper hoof at all, let alone one that is split.) According to Rashi, on the other hand, it means that the camel's foot (not hoof) is not adequately split, as Rashi explains there:
 מפרסת פרסה ושסע איננה שוסעת - כגון גמל שפרסתו סדוקה למעלה אבל למטה היא מחוברת:
“Which divides the foot but is not split” —such as the camel, whose foot is split at the tip but is joined at the back. (Rashi to Leviticus 11:26)
According to Rashi, the camel is disqualified is because its foot is not adequately split. There is no reference to the camel either having or lacking a hoof. (Rashi's explanation of the camel having a foot which is only partially split is consistent with camel anatomy, but one does wonder whether Rashi, living in France, ever actually saw a camel in the flesh.)

Thus, ArtScroll's reference to a camel having "a hoof that is split at the tip" is not based on any Rishon - and thus its corresponding illustration is not rooted in any zoological reality.

The problem is that most people are not aware that there are two different explanations of the Torah here, and they blur both explanations together in their minds. So most people read the requirement of mafris parsah as meaning that the animal must have a split hoof. And then when the camel is described as "ufarsah einenu mafris," they understand this to mean that it has a hoof that is not split. Thus emerges the creation of the camel illustrated in ArtScroll, which has a big black hoof. But there ain't no such thing!

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Return of the Mexican Rabbit Zealot

Here is a letter that I sent to ArtScroll last week:

Rabbosai,

Sometimes, there are additions to a work which detract from it. It is disappointing to see that a certain note was added to the latest edition of the ArtScroll Talmud. (As you may recall, 16 years ago you hired me as zoological consultant for Chullin.) The problematic addition in the latest edition is a note to Chullin 59a, regarding the identity of the shafan, which reads as follows:
"[For a wide-ranging discussion of this topic, and a strong defense of the traditional view that the shafan is the rabbit and not the hyrax, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech.]"

I have long been familiar with Dr. Isaac Betech of Mexico, who was one of the zealots involved in engineering the notorious controversy over my works. Dr. Betech is single-minded in his religious obsession that the shafan must not be the hyrax (because in order to contrive his own particular forced explanation of how the Torah's four animals with one kosher sign are the only such animals on the planet, he wants the shafan to be the rabbit). In order to attain this objective, he engages in the most ludicrous pretzel-twists of intellectual dishonesty, which I and others have documented at length (and links are provided below).

To call his discussion of the topic "far-ranging," therefore, is a little misleading. He tries to overwhelm the reader by writing about a wide range of animals and sources, but what he describes as "Torah and scientific research" is entirely directed towards a predetermined goal. And amazingly, in a book that professes to be the definitive and comprehensive study of this topic with "more than 1000 bibliographical Torah and scientific sources," he fails to cite the only dedicated work on this topic that had ever been published - because it was written by me!

But far more problematic is the description of Betech as attempting to defend the "traditional" view. The view that the shafan is the rabbit is not the "traditional" view; it's the medieval European view, because they didn't have hyraxes in Europe. They broke from the original tradition of people from the Geonic era, who lived in the region of Israel, and were familiar with the hyrax. To describe the identification of the shafan with the rabbit as being the "traditional" view is akin to speaking of the "traditional" view that the tzvi is the deer (which Rashi points out to be a mistaken European innovation), that the nesher is the eagle, or that the olive is the size of seven olives. These are medieval European Ashkenazi views that were innovations, not traditions from Jewish communities in other parts of the world or from antiquity.

(Amusingly, Betech tries to make the reverse argument. In his summary at http://www.tovnet.org/files/ShafanHyraxEnglish%205779.pdf, he writes that since the Spanish Rishonim identified the shafan as a local animal, and there are no hyraxes in Europe, therefore the shafan cannot be the hyrax! He can't countenance the fact that it was precisely because the hyrax was not a local animal that Europeans transposed its identification to the local rabbits!)

You can ask anyone in the field of Biblical natural history (such as Dr. Zohar Amar and Dr. Moshe Raanan), and they will all tell you that it's clear beyond any doubt that the shafan is the hyrax, and cannot possibly be the rabbit. The reason is the very clear passuk in Barchi Nafshi:

הָרִים הַגְּבֹהִים לַיְּעֵלִים סְלָעִים מַחְסֶה לַשְׁפַנִּים: תהילים קד:יח 
"The high hills are for the ya'elim, the rocks are a refuge for the shefanim."

The pasuk tells us two things about shefanim: that they hide in rocks, and that they are associated with ya'elim. Ya'elim are ibex, the mountain goats of the Judean hills that are especially prominent in Ein Gedi, which is named after them (and in Shmuel I 24, it states that David was hiding among the ya'elim in Ein Gedi). If you go to Ein Gedi, you see ibex climbing the hills, and you can also see small furry animals hiding among the rocks, exactly as the pasuk describes - hyraxes.


Isaac Betech would have you believe that the author of this passuk, who groups his reference to the ibex with a description of animals that hide in the rocks, was not speaking about the animal that hides in the rocks right next to the ibex! Instead, he claims, David HaMelech was speaking about the rabbit of Spain - an animal that never lived anywhere near the Land of Israel and was thus completely unfamiliar to David HaMelech and to his audience, and which moreover does not hide under rocks but rather in burrows! It's simply ludicrous.

(The hyrax also matches the description in Shemini of an animal that brings up food via its throat, which it does in small quantities, as I have observed and filmed on several occasions. And contrary to Betech's claim, the shafan is no more of a sheretz than is a rabbit - in fact, it is much larger, and more of a leaper.)

I understand that you were probably placed under a lot of pressure - Isaac Betech is experienced at manipulating Gedolei Torah to write letters in support of his agenda, which he uses to bully people into kowtowing to his demands. Indeed, a few years ago he launched a massive campaign to prevent Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks from coming to Mexico. However, he was ultimately unsuccessful, which shows that it is possible to stand up to that kind of pressure.

For the sake of intellectual integrity, as well as retaining a good name with intelligent people, you might wish to consider removing the new note. Or perhaps you could re-write it to be more accurate:
"For a passionate defense of the medieval European view that the shafan is the European rabbit and not the hyrax of the Land of Israel, see The Identity of the Shafan, by Dr. Isaac Bettech. For a discussion of the classical definitions and the historical processes which led to many of the Torah's animals having their names later transposed to other animals, see Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin's work The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom."
Meanwhile, I am attaching the chapter on hyraxes from my encyclopedia, for your interest. The more involved discussion is in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax (second edition), and I am available for any questions that you may have. You might also like to visit The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, where the passuk from Barchi Nafshi is illustrated in an exhibit that combines both ibex and a live colony of hyraxes. (In fact, there are numerous zoos that exhibit both species together, because of their close geographical and environmental association).

Finally, here is a list of some of my articles pointing out the absurdities in Dr. Betech's presentation, and explaining further evidence why the shafan has to be the hyrax and cannot be the rabbit:

Where are the Pandas, Penguins and Polar Bears of Psalms?
Ruach HaKodesh and Reason
The Quest for Truth: A Fascinating Case Study
From Non-Disprovable to Possible to Probable to True
The Primary Reason - Clarified
Circular Reasoning at its Best

And here are two articles by Rabbi Dr. Josh Waxman that further illustrate Betech's intellectual dishonesty:

The Problem with Dr. Betech's Book
A Review of The Enigma of the Biblical Shafan

Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin
Director, The Biblical Museum of Natural History

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Kollels and Spaceships

Is the State of Israel a vile, anti-Torah entity? Apparently there was a letter in Mishpacha magazine, two weeks ago, to that effect. I didn't see it myself, but there was a letter responding to it in this week's magazine. The author of the rebuttal wrote at great length about how the State of Israel, regardless of the theology of Zionism and its flaws, has been an enormously positive force for Torah Judaism. I don't have it with me, but as I recall, he wrote about how there are mezuzos on all public buildings, and kosher food at various public institutions. He also wrote at great length about how the State of Israel makes an enormous financial contribution to Torah study, and how as a result, there are more people learning Torah today than at any time in history.

Now all of this is true, and so from a charedi perspective, it is important to have tremendous gratitude to the State of Israel. However, since there are many non-charedim who read Mishpacha (due to the tragic lack of alternatives), I think it's important to clarify two points.

First is that the massive financial support by the state for yeshivos and kollels is not necessarily a good thing. It exists due to the oversized political clout of the charedi political parties, who are happy to sign off on governmental policies regarding the country as long as they receive money for yeshivos. And it fosters a society of dependents who have renounced Chazal's values of independency and raising one's children to be independent. Which will have catastrophic results further down the line.

But I've written about that elsewhere, and it's not the main point that I want to make here. The important point that I'd like to stress is that from a religious perspective, it is a mistake to think that the State of Israel can only be justified from a religious perspective in terms of its support for overtly religious matters.

Chasam Sofer writes about how the economic development of the Land of Israel is part of the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz. But there's more than just that. Bein adam lechavero is no less important from a religious perspective than Bein adam leMakom. The fact that the State of Israel provides a home for any Jew around the world is also valuable from a religious perspective. The fact that it provides and maintains an economy in which millions of Jews live their lives is also valuable from a religious perspective. The fact that the State of Israel engages in efforts to help Jews all around the world is also valuable from a religious perspective.

It's generally only the Dati-Leumi community which seems to realize this, but it should be a universal religious perspective. The national material well-being of the Jewish People is also something of religious importance. 

And there's more than that. Even something as seemingly theologically irrelevant as the launch of the Beresheet Moon Lander is significant from a religious perspective. I can't put it any better than Justin Amler did in a spectacular Facebook post, which was then published at the Times of Israel. Here it is, in its entirety:
To Soar Among the Heavens 

I just watched something that is out of the world — something that has left me with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. Something that has stirred my soul and filled my heart with wonder and love and joy and pride.

I’ve just watched a rocket launch into space from Cape Canaveral. But this was no ordinary rocket. Aboard this rocket is the first privately built lunar spacecraft that will head to the moon. But not only is this the first privately built lunar spacecraft. It is also the first Israeli spacecraft.

It is called “Beresheet,” which is Hebrew and means “in the beginning.” It is also the first word in the Torah — the Jewish people’s oldest and most precious possession. And aboard this ship of dreams will be our Torah, Israeli songs, drawings by Israeli children, the Israeli national anthem, and our prayers.

I look at this magnificent feat of engineering and I cannot help but gaze upon it with the eyes of a small child, filled with wonder.

Sometimes people say the era of miracles has ended, but then I look at this little country and I look at my people and I look at what they have achieved and still do and I know and am convinced more than ever that the era of miracles has not ended — but indeed continues unabated.

There are so many countries that are against Israel and every day brings more resolutions passed against it, passed by corrupt organizations and even more corrupt people. All around the world, anti-Semitism has been normalized leaving Jews in many parts of the world in actual physical danger. And what many Jews face today is not dissimilar to the darkest days of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

It leaves many of us feeling emotionally vulnerable, for a little over 70 years ago, we were a broken people whose ashes were spread in unidentified piles of soot, consumed by the hatred of those around us. We were a people who had no place to call home. We had no one to defend us. We stood alone in the world, shattered and shocked, hurt and bruised, broken and traumatized. Empty.

But not defeated, for we were still alive. Maybe barely. Maybe weakly. But alive. For air still filled our lungs and our flame had not yet been extinguished. And from those ashes of despair, we rose again, as we always have and as we always must.

So slowly, we reclaimed our ancient homeland. And slowly, we began to return. And slowly, our battered bodies began to repair themselves. And slowly, we reclaimed our dignity. And slowly, we reclaimed our honor.

Our enemies still came at us. Still threatened to wipe us out. But we grew stronger and we continued to survive. And not just survive — thrive!

And from this poor destitute people, the heart of Israel beat again. And the nation of Israel rose once more. A poor country struggling on life support fought on — against overwhelming odds, defying the laws of history itself.

For defeat is not part of our story. And those words, words from thousands of years ago, were still ringing in our ears. The words of God that said to a shepherd who stood alone in the world, I will make of you a great nation.

So today, while our enemies launch rockets to kill, we launch rockets to explore. While they look for ways to destroy the world, we look for ways to visit new worlds. While they look for ways to make life miserable for all, we look for ways to make life better for everyone.

So I look at this rocket hurtling into space, aboard it a ship of dreams. A ship built not of steel, but of hope. A ship built not of aluminium, but of aspirations. A living ship whose heart beats strongly, echoing around the world. A ship with a soul — a soul thousands of years old.

And with a pride that cannot be measured, I look to the sky above, to the stars, to the worlds beyond ours. I look at where we have been, how far we have come, and how far we will go. I look at how our people once grounded into dust have risen to soar among the heavens themselves.

In the beginning of time, there was darkness and then there was light. Tonight, there will be one more light above us, one more star adorned with the flag of Israel, shining and glistening in the beautiful heavens, the same heavens which Abraham once looked upon with hope and wonder. And the same heavens, we will be looking upon tonight.
A fabulous piece of writing! But at the same time, we should remember that it's not only in terms of extraordinary achievements that Israel is to be celebrated. The very fact of it existing and functioning as a country is of tremendous religious value.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Once Upon An NCSY

Here's a treasure: Someone in Los Angeles was going through old stuff and discovered a vinyl record from 1973. It's a young Rabbi Maurice Lamm z"l, then Rabbi of Beth Jacob, introducing people to NCSY. The description of NCSY's activities is followed by a beautiful song, recorded by my father-in-law Lee Samson, who had just founded the West Coast Region of NCSY, and my uncle Dr. Ernie Katz, who was the youth director at Beth Jacob. You can listen to it here:

It's a real trip back in time!

I Messed Up

I really messed up in my last post. The question of whether people in kollel who are in dire straits are helped by giving them a bigger koll...