Monday, April 5, 2021

Shemini LIVE!

I am pleased to announce that this Thursday, in honor of parashat Shemini, we will be running a special live online presentation from the Hall of Kashrut and the Hall of Small Animals at the NEW Biblical Museum of Natural History! You can sign up at https://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/product/shemini-live-at-the-biblical-museum-of-natural-history/   Please spread the word!

 

(By the way - the previous post, about the brachiosaurus on top of the museum, was an April Fool's Day joke. And the behemoth of the Bible is not a brachiosaurus; it's a hippopotamus, as discussed in my books Sacred Monsters and in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom!)

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Our Most Incredible Exhibit Yet!

We are thrilled to announce our spectacular new "behemoth" exhibit! This follows the view that the Biblical behemoth of the Book of Job, described as a gigantic swamp-dwelling creature with a tail like a cedar-tree, is the brachiosaurus. Obviously there are no stuffed brachiosauruses available, but we were able to mount this incredibly lifelike model on the roof of our building! Take a look at it as you drive past the museum, and for more about the Biblical behemoth, read our book Sacred Monsters, available at https://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/.../sacred-monsters/

Moadim le-simcha!

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Haggadah You Have To Have

Comics and graphic novels are relatively new forms of publication for Jewish works. Recently, I reviewed the appallingly bad Just Imagine! graphic novel. There's also more than one Pesach graphic novel haggadah available. Some of them are unappealing at every level. Others have beautiful artwork, but suffer from presenting Midrash as pshat.

In contrast, The Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is simply fantastic. It presents the entire text of the haggadah in comic format with superb artwork, and it (largely) sticks to pshat rather than Midrash. But it's so much more than that.

The Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel is amazingly creative in terms of how it takes the concept of Bechol dor v'dor - that every generation should see itself as being part of the Exodus - and makes it come to life, by interspersing the artwork of the Exodus story with other episodes from Jewish history of persecution and salvation. My son pointed out to me that there is an ongoing storyline about a Jew keeping his Jewish identity in Russia and eventually making aliyah which is told in several different sections interspersed throughout. And I love the picture for Avadim hayinu which depicts how it would look if we were still enslaved to Pharaoh today - in office cubicles under an Egyptian taskmaster! I keep discovering new things in it, such as the part about our not being masters of our own fate being illustrated by the George Washington Bridge!

But my favorite page is the full-page picture illustrating how everyone should see themselves as having left Egypt. It's a selfie taken by someone walking through the Yam Suf, and behind him you can see countless famous people from Jewish history. There's Rambam and Rabbi Sacks, and also Natan Sharansky and Ilan Ramon and Ben-Gurion and Albert Einstein. (There were several faces that I couldn't recognize - if you can identify more, please post the names in the comments.)

If you have kids who are not so interested in reading commentaries or listening to people give explanations, this is an amazing way for them to be engaged. But it's also a great way for anyone to think about the Haggadah in a new way. I was at a seder with many different people, and everyone was intrigued by it.

I must apologize for not writing this post before Pesach. But at least you can order it now for next year!

Monday, March 22, 2021

Can We Eat Locusts?

Today, after much demand, we started selling locusts at the Biblical Museum of Natural History! (They are currently available only for pickup from the museum or at pickup points in Ramat Beit Shemesh and Elazar). There's no better way to liven up your Pesach seder!

But how do we know that which are the kosher types of grasshoppers mentioned in the Torah? In an article that appears on the museum website (which I just updated to incorporate the material in this post), I explain how the traditions held by Jews from Yemen, Morocco and Algeria are reliable. I also explain that there is no Ashkenaz tradition against eating locusts; rather, there is simply the lack of any tradition, since there were no locust plagues in Ashkenaz lands. Accordingly, it is legitimate to rely on those who do have a tradition, just as we are allowed to accept traditions from communities regarding the kosher status of various birds, provided that we have no tradition against them.

The type of locust which has the most widespread tradition is the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria. Although we raise those at the museum, we do not breed them in sufficient numbers to be able to sell them. Instead, the species that we are selling is the migratory locust, Locusta migratoria. According to Rav Yitzchak Ratzabi, the leading Yemenite halachic authority from Bnei Brak, the Yemenite tradition for the locust also includes this species, which itself was not found in Yemen, but which is identified by many Yemenites today as being the same as the one for which they possess a tradition. Still, as my colleague Professor Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh B'Mesorat Chazal, mentioned to me, it is potentially disturbing that the tradition for the migratory locust is weaker. Does this mean that there is reason to be suspicious of the migratory locust? While there is room for differing views here, I believe that the answer is no, for a variety of reasons.

Let's begin with the Torah itself, which states as follows:

"All flying creeping creatures, going upon all four, shall be an abomination to you. Yet these may you eat of every flying creeping thing that goes upon all four, those which have legs above their (other) legs, to leap with upon the earth. These you may eat: the arbeh after its kind, and the sela’am after its kind, and the chargol after his kind, and the chagav after its kind. But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination to you." (Leviticus 11:20-23)

It's difficult to definitively translate the four names which appear here. But, consider the following. Although there are over ten thousand species of grasshoppers, only a few dozen are locusts - i.e., grasshoppers that form swarms. And of the few dozen species of locusts, only four occur in Biblical lands! And of these four, by far the most common swarming locust is the desert locust, with second place being taken by the migratory locust, and the Egyptian locust and Moroccan locust coming in a very distant third and fourth place. It's unreasonable to the point of absurdity to claim that the desert locust and migratory locust are not in this list.

There's another point to be made here. Lo nitna Torah lemalachei hasharet, the Torah was not given to angels. And it certainly wasn't given for expert entomologists practicing a particular 21st-century taxonomical system developed by Linnaeus. As I explained in the introduction to The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom and in even greater detail in Chicken Wars, the Torah's system of taxonomy is completely different from that of modern zoology. In general, it is a much broader system of classification; the term atalef in the list of non-kosher winged creatures undoubtedly includes all 1400 species of bats, from tiny insect-eating pipistrelles to gigantic fruit-eating flying foxes (otherwise, it would mean that the non-listed bats are kosher!). The differences between the desert locust and the migratory locust are extremely subtle; the overall appearance is virtually identical. There is no way that one is in the Torah's list and one is not; in fact, they are undoubtedly the same min in the Torah. (Which also means that since there are four listed kosher types in the Torah, this must even include certain grasshoppers that are not locusts.)

This argument is made explicitly by Rav Yitzchak Ratzabi. He gives these and other reasons to forcefully argue that the reason why many Yemenite immigrants see no significant difference between the desert locust and the migratory locust (and are happy to eat both kinds) is that there is indeed no significant difference. They are both the same min of locust.

So, there are excellent reasons to be certain that both the desert locust and the migratory locust are in the Torah's list. Now let us turn to the Mishnah, which states as follows: 

“With locusts, anything that has four legs, and four wings, and jumping legs, and its wings cover most of it, (it is kosher). Rabbi Yosi said: And its name must be chagav.” (Mishnah, Chullin 3:7)

The Mishnah has changed from the Torah in not bothering to specify any particular names of types. Instead, it just gives various physical characteristics (which are presumably extrapolated from the common characteristics of the locusts that the Torah permits). Now, these characteristics are actually fulfilled by many, many types of grasshoppers (including all locusts). Rabbi Yosi's addition, that its name must be chagav, appears to mean that it must be identified as a locust rather than, say, a cricket (which also matches the physical characteristics given in the Mishnah), and perhaps this is also ruling out various grasshoppers that are not locusts. It should be noted that Rabbi Yosi's addition is accepted by many but by no means all Rishonim; the Rif, and other unnamed authorities cited by Rashba and Meiri, do not require it. Rambam only requires it in a case where the insect is unusual in appearance.

But perhaps Rabbi Yosi is referring to there being some particular tradition regarding the locust's identity? There are certainly those (such as Tur) who interpret it that way, and this is the basis for those who require a tradition to eat locusts. 

However, there are arguments against this interpretation of R. Yosi's words, and it seems that certain other Rishonim did not understand him this way. First of all, why would it be necessary? Second, if R. Yosi was requiring such a tradition regarding the locust's identity, then this would be replacing the view of the Tana Kama, not supplementing it. Third, when the Shulchan Aruch records this ruling, it gives the option of there either being a tradition that it is called chagav, or that there is simply the fact of it being called chagav (though in the Beis Yosef he seems to only present the option of mesorah). Finally, as Rav Chaim Kanievsky observes, Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishnah, explains R. Yosi's view to mean that it is called chagav or the equivalent in other languages. It simply means that it possess the common name of locust.

According to this approach, like with mammals and fish, all that is required is that the insect fulfills the stated requirements - one of which, the requirement of being called chagav, can be supplied either by tradition or by other means. (Even with birds, the Mishnah gives physical characteristics which suffice; the requirement for a tradition is a later stringency, which arose due to particular concerns relating to whether birds might be predatory. In addition, since the kashrus of birds is given in the Torah only by name, and these types are difficult to identify exactly, the Talmud mentions the concept of eating a bird for which there is a tradition. But the Talmud makes no mention of the requirement of a tradition for locusts.)

So how did it happen that it is widely considered obvious and unequivocal that one requires a tradition to eat locusts? It seems to me that what happened was as follows. It so happened that certain Jewish communities had a tradition to eat locusts (because they lived in parts of the world that had locust plagues), whereas other communities did not have a tradition to eat locusts (because they lived in regions of Europe where there were no such regular plagues). Gradually, the fact that some Jews had a tradition and others lacked it was transformed into the halachic reason why some Jews ate it and others didn't. In addition, there was the requirement of the name chagav, which some Rishonim (such as Tur and Rashba) describe as being satisfied by way of tradition, but this is not necessarily the only way to satisfy it; as noted, Rambam explained it as being a simple description of its common name.

But matters are more complicated than this. Because the Yemenite community itself did not eat all grasshoppers. They only ate those for which they had a mesorah. To quote Rav Kappach:

“The Jews of Yemen would collect grasshoppers and eat them. But not all of them; only the certain known types that they possessed a tradition from their ancestors, person to person, that they were kosher. And there were also known types with which the tradition from their ancestors was that they were non-kosher, even though they possessed all the signs of being kosher that are explained in the Torah and in halachah.” (Halichot Teiman)

So why did the Yemenites require a mesorah? This is especially puzzling in light of the fact that the Yemenites generally follow Rambam, and as we saw above, Rambam explained the requirement of the name chagav not in terms of a mesorah but rather as a factual description of its common name. I do not know the answer to this question, but when Rav Kappach and others mention types that were not eaten, this is referring to grasshoppers that are not locusts (since they ate the only locust that exists in Yemen). Accordingly, it's probably simply a matter of the requirement of it being a chagav evolving into a tradition of whether it is called chagav.

However, it's fortunate that the Yemenites did require a mesorah, because they actually have a mesorah (clearly for the desert locust, and as Rav Ratzabi forcefully argues, this includes the migratory locust), and that is helpful for people today who follow those Rishonim who do require a mesorah!

This is a complex topic, and there are legitimate grounds for those who do not eat locusts, involving issues relating to the nature of Orthodoxy and tradition (similar to the reasons why I do not wear techelet, even though there is little doubt that the chilazon is the Murex trunculus). To put it in other words: Keeping kashrut as an Orthodox Jew does not just mean eating the kosher creatures as specified in the Torah according to academic investigation; rather, it means eating the kosher creatures as specified by the historical halachic process, and also considering the practices and social norms of one's own halachic community. 

But there is no doubt that the desert and migratory locusts are the locusts described in the Torah as being kosher. And, according to several Rishonim, there is no halachic requirement of a tradition in the Mishnah or Gemara. The existence of traditions identifying certain locusts as kosher is one way to know which grasshoppers are kosher - and it is sufficient to identify both the desert and also the migratory locust as being kosher - but it is not necessarily the only way.

 

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Charedi Exterminator

Many of us occasionally have need for pest exterminators. Depending on which part of the world you live in, there are different pests that need exterminating. In America you might need termite or skunk exterminators. Here in Israel it's generally rodent or pigeon exterminators. But I was shocked a few years ago to see an advertisement for a "Charedi exterminator."

It might theoretically have been a political campaign advertisement by Avigdor Lieberman, but it wasn't. Instead, it was an advertisement for regular pigeon and rodent extermination - but by an exterminator who was himself charedi, and decided to advertise himself as such.

Why would someone advertise their profession by way of their religious affiliation? You'd never see an advertisement for a "secular exterminator" or a "dati-leumi exterminator." His byline brought the point home even stronger: מדביר משלנו - "An exterminator from among us!" Apparently he was appealing to people's tribal affiliation. He might not be a better or cheaper exterminator than the others, but he's one of us, so you should hire him!

Fascinating, the same type of campaign is being used by United Torah Judaism in the forthcoming elections. Apparently there are various charedi voters who have expressed disappointment in the charedi leadership. For some of them, it's because of the blatant failure of the leadership to protect its community from coronavirus, with mortality rates far exceeding the rest of Israel. (Apparently, for others, it's for precisely the opposite reason - that they did eventually concede to cooperation, instead of rejecting it entirely.) 

Be that as it may, the campaign to convince charedim to vote for UTJ is very straightforward. They don't bother arguing that they are serving Hashem's interests, or even their constituency's interests. The argument is simply this: We're charedi!

This campaign is directed at the highest levels. Rav Gershon Edelstein, when asked why people who were disappointed by the UTJ leadership during Covid should nevertheless vote for them, explained that although there may well be problems with UTJ, not voting for them is a declaration that "I am not charedi" and prevents a Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, in a post addressed to charedi voters, explains why they should not feel that tribal affiliation requires them to vote UTJ. Personally, I would say that there are two uncomfortable truths that charedim need to acknowledge. 

The first is that the real power in the charedi world is not wielded by chareidi Gedolei Torah. Rather, it is wielded rather by the people that control them, such as Yanky Kanievsky. Rav Edelstein claims that dati-leumi parties, aside from the fundamental flaw of not being charedi, don't follow the charedi Gedolim. Well, the charedi parties don't follow the Gedolim either. They simply manipulate the Gedolim to get the desired "guidance."

The second truth is that the charedi MKs are not out to either do Hashem's will or to help the long-term future of their constituents. Instead, they want to maintain their power and positions (and hefty MK paychecks) by helping the short-term interests of their constituents - even though this is diametrically opposed to their long-term interests. In other words, whereas the long term interests of not only the entire country but also the charedi community is for them to be able to get professional training and employment, the MKs instead want to get them money in order to coddle them into continuing the mass-kollel movement, and fight any attempts to change this system. If charedi voters really wanted to help their community, they would vote for Bennett, who has a plan to actually help them.

Unfortunately, very few charedi voters are going to acknowledge these truths. They're only human, after all. And for most humans, tribal affiliations trump everything.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Election Post

And, for the umpteenth but probably not the last time, it's elections again. I don't have any particularly strong opinions, and I think that good arguments can be made for many different choices, but my personal thoughts are as follows:

The fundamental question is: Bibi or Not Bibi? I used to be an enormous fan of his, and I'm eternally grateful for everything that he's done for the country, but it's time for him to go. He's gotten to the point where his own needs - specifically, staying out of prison - trump everything else. And he tries (and often succeeds) to run the country like an autocrat. Such a situation is intolerable.

I'm not a fan of voting for any small parties - it destabilizes the country - and there's only a few big ones. Lapid is all show and little substance. Saar is not a terrible choice, but seems to be just another old-style Likudnik. The person with the most outstanding real accomplishments and leadership skills, who will work hard to improve the country because he wants to actually help the country and not out of desire for personal aggrandizement, is Naftali Bennett. 

Another huge point in Bennett's favor is that he's the only one with a real, viable plan to solve the problem of the charedi destroying the economy - namely, to lower the age of the draft exemption. You can read a fascinating interview with him at this link: https://www.timesofisrael.com/bennett-im-more-right-wing-than-bibi-but-i-dont-use-the-tools-of-hate/. So, for whatever it's worth, my opinions is: vote Yamina!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Combating Corruption

Like many people here in Israel, I was absolutely stunned at the news that Yehuda Meshi-Zahav - a person that I described just two months ago as a national hero - has been exposed as a predator of the worst kind. (Though apparently it was pretty much an "open secret" in certain charedi circles for decades.) This horrific story follows on the heels of the news that the founder of the Borough Park Shomrim, Yanky Daskal, was arrested for a similar crime. 

What do these two men have in common? They were both the heads of large organizations which had a moral mandate. As such, they were in positions of power, and were also supposedly of an impressive moral character. Power corrupts; and assumptions of moral superiority enable this corruption to avoid suspicion and discourage victims from reporting it.

In any organization in which people have power, there needs to be checks and balances on that power. And this is equally true for organizations which themselves have a moral mandate. That's why every police force needs what's popularly known in England as an AC-12 - an anti-corruption unit.

Not every organization can have an anti-corruption unit. But another important tool is the combination of a free press and public accountability. These enable dirty deeds to be reported, and consequences to result.

It's for all these reasons that abuses of power are probably particularly prevalent in charedi society. There is a lethal combination of factors: people amassing great power over the lives of others; assumptions of moral superiority; the lack of a free press; and little public accountability.

Rabbi Sacks, in Convenant & Conversation for last week's parashah, notes that Chazal ascribed great importance not only to legislating procedures that would prevent corruption, but also to preventing things that could even give the suspicion of corruption. No less than Moshe Rabbeinu himself had to give a financial accounting to show that he had not misappropriated any Mishkan funds - and the accounting was done by independent auditors.

In the absence of contemporary rabbinic leadership with the courage and clout of Chazal, we have to enable other checks and balances - of which freedom of speech plays a crucial role. None other than Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, admitted that what really got them to start taking child abuse seriously was the exposés and criticisms in various blogs. Notwithstanding the many very real problems and dangers of the internet, it plays a crucial role in combating corruption.

The fundamental Torah principle, which we must always keep in mind, is Lo taamod al dam reyecha - Do not stand idly as your friend's blood is spilled. On an individual level, this requires us to speak up and take action to prevent corruption and abuse. On a societal level, this requires us to have systems and policies that enable corruption and abuse to be exposed and corrected - not suppressed by those who are more concerned about their society's image than by people's pain.

It has to be acknowledged that the so-called "laws" of Lashon Hara (which are really supposed to be ethical principles to be applied on a case-by-case basis) have been abused endlessly to stifle important criticism and whistle-blowing. For more on this, see this very important post, When Lashon Hara is a Mitzvah

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Shemini LIVE!

I am pleased to announce that this Thursday, in honor of parashat Shemini , we will be running a special live online presentation from the H...