Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! If you'd like to meet my hyena, and find out the significance of hyenas in the Torah, then join me this Shushan Purim for a tour of The Biblical Museum of Natural History at 10am! (There's also a tour on Sunday morning at 10:30.) Call 073-213-1662 or email to book your spot!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom is Now Available for Pre-Order!

After fourteen years and 160,000 words, The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom has finally gone to press! This is volume one, which deals with wild animals. The encyclopedia includes every Scriptural reference, a vast range of sources from the Talmud and Midrash, along with extensive explanations, insights from zoology, all richly illustrated with stunning photographs.

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom is being published as a cooperative venture between The Biblical Museum of Natural History, Koren Publishers, and OU Press. It is 454 pages, full color, large format hardcover, and it will retail for $49.95. The encyclopedia will hit bookstores in Israel sometime at the end of March/ early April and will reach the US several weeks later.

Meanwhile, you can pre-order the encyclopedia at, and receive FREE shipping to Israel, North America and Europe. Israel orders will ship as soon as the book comes off the press - in a few weeks. Other orders will ship at a later date. Or, if you want to get a signed copy, come to the book launch at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, date to be announced.

Order now if you want to be one of the first to receive the encyclopedia!

Are Charedim The New Levites?

There's an interesting argument advocated by Rabbi Doron Beckerman over at Cross-Currents. He claims that since there is a mitzvah to give tithes to the Levites to support them in their role as spiritual leaders, and Sefer HaChinnuch extrapolates from this to Torah scholars in general, therefore there is an obligation to support charedim in kollel.

Let us overlook for now the fact that Rambam disagreed with the Chinnuch. Let us also overlook for now the fact that many Rishonim grappled with the question of whether teachers of Torah may receive payment for their service and did not simply say that they were effectively Levites and therefore may receive payment. We can overlook those, because I think that most of us will agree that the Jewish People should indeed financially support teachers of Torah.

That, however, has nothing to do with charedim in kollel.

First of all, Rambam and even the Chinnuch make it clear that they are talking about teachers of Torah, not students of Torah. The Chinnuch writes about how "they will teach His judgments to their brothers in each and every state and in all the cities." And it is a mistake to argue that this also includes students because one must study in order to teach. The vast majority of people in kollel are not studying in order to become teachers, and they are not studying the material or tools that they need to teach. The modern-day equivalents of the Levites are the rabbis and educators across the world, not the tens of thousands in kollel in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

Second, nobody can demand that others recognize them as modern-day Levites. Imagine if YCT were to demand that the charedi community support them, as the Levites of our generation. The charedi community would understandably respond that they do not recognize YCT as expressing an approach to Torah that they agree with. Likewise, non-charedim do not agree with the charedi approach to Torah. They want religious Zionist and modern Orthodox Torah scholars and educators, not charedi Torah scholars and educators. They would want to support institutions such as Kollel Torah MiTziyon instead, and charedim cannot demand otherwise.

Third, none of this relates to the charedi person's own obligations. A person has an obligation to provide for his family and to teach his children to be financially self-sufficient. He is not permitted to assume that others will support him.

Rabbi Beckerman argues that raising children in the Israeli charedi system, where there is minimal secular education in elementary school and none at all after that, does not place them at any significant disadvantage to be financially self-sufficient later on in life. He claims that the onus of proof is on those who would claim otherwise. I would argue that his claim is obviously false and nonsensical, especially in light of the articles and hundreds of letters in Mishpacha magazine on this topic.

(I would have responded to Rabbi Beckerman in the comments section at Cross-Currents. However, Rabbi Beckerman has decided to generally prevent comments from being published unless and until he has a response to them. So instead I presented my response here, where there are no such restrictions.)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Adopt a Kollelnik, the Torah Way

Over the last few years, we have been discussing the ever-worsening poverty crisis in the charedi world, its potential to harm the rest of Israel, and the refusal of charedi leadership to try to solve the problem. We've seen charedi apologists insist that charedim have a right to require the rest of the country to support them. And we've seen well-meaning but deeply misguided activists attempt to raise funds from the US in order to prolong the current disastrous kollel system.

What can we do about it? There are many of us who want to help, and who are willing to contribute to address this crisis, but only in a way that truly helps, not in a way that just makes things even worse further down the line.

We need a charity fund that will work according to Chazal's values. We need to not adopt a kollel, but to adopt a kollelnik, and to adopt him like a parent adopts a child. After all, he is indeed like a child, having never been taught how to fend for himself. We need to be like parents - with the parents' obligation, as per Chazal, being to teach their children to be financially self-sufficient. And, like parents, we need to impart Chazal's values to our adopted children.

In practical terms, this means as follows. There needs to be a charitable fund that will not simply give cash or food handouts to people in kollel, but rather will prepare them for the world of work. The very worthy organization Kemach already does that, but we need a fund that will also insist that its recipients will not make the same mistakes with their children, and that they will follow Chazal's directive to prepare one's children to be financially self-sufficient. This means that they will not send their children to schools that do not teach secular studies and that indoctrinate the students towards a kollel lifestyle.

Ideally (but not essentially), this fund would also work in a way that could be directly targeted. In other words, if a kollelnik comes to your door to ask for money, you could offer to help him, and specifically him, within the framework of this charitable fund. This would mean that you need not feel guilty about not helping him, and it would give him an incentive to change. You could say, "I am willing him to help you a significant way, provided you are willing to follow Chazal's values." I've been speaking with someone about setting up such a fund.

Meanwhile, if you are looking to give matanot l'evyonim in a worthy and meaningful way, then I can recommend Lemaan Achai. They focus on rehabilitating people into being independent, rather than giving handouts. And they provide an option of a "Smart Matanot L'evyonim" program in which half the money will be given on Purim for the mitzva of the day and the other half set aside for more important needs. I can't praise Lemaan Achai highly enough!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Does a Person Have the Right To Choose Poverty?

Before returning to our discussion of why many centrist/ modern orthodox parents send their children to extreme charedi yeshivos, I would like to discuss a claim made at Cross-Currents by Rabbi Doron Beckerman. (Actually, it also relates to that discussion, because he was a rebbe at Ohr Yerushalayim, apparently a yeshivah for students from non-charedi backgrounds, yet he is preaching staunchly chareidi doctrine.)

Rabbi Beckerman attempts to counter MK Rabbi Dov Lipman's arguments regarding giving charedim a secular education so that they can enter the workforce. He states that "people have a right to decide to be poor for the sake of some higher ideal." While that can be read as technically true, given the context it is utterly false, from the perspective of traditional and halachic Judaism.

First of all, when we are talking about "poor", we are not referring to someone not being able to afford a car. The poverty that is affecting huge numbers of charedim, as described in Mishpachah and elsewhere, is abject poverty. We are talking about people who simply cannot put a roof over their heads or food on the table without financial assistance from others.

Do people have a right to force the community to support them for the sake of a higher ideal such as learning Torah? Absolutely not! (Note: We are currently not discussing a situation of a voluntary agreement, but rather the case of someone who refuses to learn a trade and thus decides that others will support him.) The Gemara makes it clear that this wrong, saying that a person should flay carcasses in the market (a lowly occupation) rather than demanding charitable support from others. The Rishonim had various different opinions about the permissibility of receiving payment for teaching Torah, but they never allowed a person to simply refuse to learn a trade and to force others to support him.

When it comes to one's children, the situation is equally clear. The Gemara records it as a concrete obligation on a father to teach his children a trade, i.e. to be economically self-sufficient. One is not allowed to decide that his children will be dependent upon others. (Yes, I know about R. Nehorai, and it is not relevant; first of all, his personal practice does not override a stated obligation, and second, various Acharonim explain that he was not simply negating the halachah, עיין שם.)

When I pointed all this out, Rabbi Beckerman responded by citing Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Moshe writes as follows:

 ומצד עניין הפרנסה, הא אף בדרך הטבע איכא, מאחר שהתירו להתפרנס מרבנות ומלהיות מגידי שיעור בישיבות גדולות וקטנות וגם היא פרנסה כבודה

Rav Moshe says that since today it is regarded as permissible for rabbis and educators to receive payment, therefore a father has fulfilled his obligation to teach his son a trade by teaching him to be a rabbi/ educator. Rabbi Beckerman claims that, following this, charedim today are entitled not to teach their children any trade/education aside from being a rav/rebbe.

However, this is a wholly inaccurate extrapolation. Chazal said that one should teach one’s son a trade, thereby making it likely to happen. Rav Moshe extended this to teaching your son to be a teacher, which in 1960s America, was also a reasonable profession. Furthermore, in section 11, Rav Moshe explicitly says that a father has only fulfilled his obligation if he has ensured that his son is suited to being a teacher and that he will have parnasah from it. Rabbi Beckerman wildly extrapolates this to be a license to bring up everyone to be in kollel today, where the chances of subsequently finding a paying job are minimal, as we see with our own eyes. That is not at all what Rav Moshe is discussing!

When I pointed this out, Rabbi Beckerman claimed that many people with professional training are also not able to get jobs, which is hardly relevant. He also issued the absurd claim that it is just as difficult for a person with a law degree to find employment as it is for an Israeli charedi person to find employment as a teacher. This is silly not only because it is false, but also because a person with a law degree has sufficient general training to also find employment in other fields, whereas an Israeli charedi has nothing to fall back upon.

The bottom line is that Chazal required a person to take steps to ensure that he does not require others to support him, and to make efforts that his children should be financially self-sufficient. Today there is a financial catastrophe in charedi society, as a direct result of charedim ignoring Chazal's dictates. Cross-Currents has many writers that are eager to condemn reformations of Judaism coming from the left; perhaps they could also condemn reformations of Judaism coming from the right.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Official Museum Opening Ceremony!

Yesterday was the official opening ceremony of The Biblical Museum of Natural History! We've been receiving visitors since Sukkos, but we delayed the opening ceremony until everything was fully set up (although we are constantly adding exhibits), and we could co-ordinate with various VIPs. One guest of honor was Minister of Culture Limor Livnat, who unfortunately had to cancel at the last moment, but who sent us the following video:

Mayor Moshe Abutbul with a reptilian friend.
Councilor Moshe Montag looks on in amusement.
We were also honored by the presence of Beit Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul, deputy mayor Shmuel Greenberg, and city councilors Moshe Montag and Motti Cohen, as well as Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb (Rabbi Berel Wein was also due to attend, but was unable to make it). The mayor surprised everyone by being so interested in all the animals that he wanted to handle everything!

Here is the opening part of my speech:
Mr. Lee Samson and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb
Minister Livnat, Mayor Abutbul, distinguished Rabbanim and guests, good afternoon. Thank you all for coming here today, to celebrate the launch of Israel’s newest museum, The Biblical Museum of Natural History. I am particularly pleased to have one of our major benefactors here today from Beverly Hills, Mr. Lee Samson, who aside from helping tremendously with providing and raising funds and guidance for the museum, is also a wonderful father-in-law! I would also like to thank my hard-working colleagues at the museum – Maayan Steele, Shlomo Horowitz, Noah Persky and Chaya Leah Maierovits, as well as all of our volunteers. And I would like to express my deep appreciation to my wife Tali, who has put up with lots of animals taking over our house, and who has been such an amazing source of encouragement for me to build this museum and get the animals out of our house!
Deputy Mayor Shmuel Greenberg delivering a speech
Biblical natural history is a very powerful educational concept. From dati to haredi to secular, many Jews perceive Torah as a dry discipline that is focused upon the synagogue, study hall and written word. Biblical natural history brings Torah to life; it shows that Judaism can engage with the natural world, and presents educational concepts in a novel and exciting way.

The mayor is introduced to the first lion
in Beit Shemesh in seven hundred years
Biblical natural history also clarifies little-understood concepts. What did the prophets and sages mean when they drew upon the animal kingdom in presenting messages to us? Which are the kosher and non-kosher creatures described in the Torah? What role did various animals play in Biblical and Jewish history? Biblical natural history sheds light on all these questions and many more.

Biblical natural history also enhances appreciation and understanding of the natural world itself. Many of us today are very urbanized and out of touch with the natural world. There are countless teenagers who cannot apply themselves solely to Talmud and lack an outlet for their broader interests. Biblical natural history puts us in touch with the beautiful world that surrounds us and re-sensitizes us to it.

Testing a shofar from the world's
largest collection of exotic shofars
I have been writing and teaching about biblical natural history for nearly twenty years, in books, articles, lectures, and educational tours at zoos across the world. But it is with this museum that it finds its most powerful expression. This museum is a place that brings it all to life in the most vivid and interactive way. Seeing the animals up close and personal, touching and holding live animals, feeling the horns and the fur and the teeth and the claws – these are immensely powerful experiences.

We have been setting up the museum in this temporary rented facility over the last few months. In the short time that we’ve been receiving visitors, we’ve had datiim, charedim, mitnagidm, chassidim, chilonim, Anglos, Israelis, Brazilians, Jews and non-Jews. Following requests that we received, we are training Yiddish-speaking guides. We’ve had bar-mitzvah groups, corporate groups, many yeshivot and seminaries, Birthright groups, and even a group of Christian Bible scholars from Europe. Beit Shemesh is a city with many diverse communities, but the Biblical Museum of Natural History is a place that everyone can enjoy and appreciate.
Please spread the word about the museum, and check out our new website at!

The museum staff (excluding the new guides-in-training): Office manager Chaya Leah Maierovits, administrative
director Maayan Steele, assistant curator Noah Persky, director of youth education Shlomo Horowitz, and general director Rabbi Natan Slifkin, posing with mayor MosheAbutbul and burmese python Kaa.
(Photos by Mordechai Gordon)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Is This The Fabulous Shamir?

I have to interrupt the topic of "Why Do Centrist Orthodox Jews Send Their Kids to Extreme Charedi Yeshivos?" to share a fascinating news item. Scientists have discovered the strongest biological substance known to date. It's the teeth of a tiny creature in the snail family - the limpet, a small conical creature which is a familiar sight on rocks at the seashore.

This is of potential relevance to Judaism for two reasons. One is that it might relate to the shamir. This is the mysterious and fabulous creature that was used to carve the stones of the Temple, or (according to another view) the gemstones of the priestly breastplate.

Actually, the Gemara does not state that the shamir was an animal - it just describes it as something the size of a barley kernel, which had to be kept in a lead tube. In my book Sacred Monsters, I discussed Immanuel Velikovsky's original idea that this refers to a radioactive substance. Rambam and Rashi, however, describe it as a worm-like creature. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler suggests that it is a snail from the genus Euchondrus, which carve gouges in rocks in the Negev desert. However, as I noted in my book, these limestone rocks are much softer than the gems of the breastplate. But, I noted, there are marine mollusks with much stronger dental equipment, and therefore it is therefore not beyond the realms of biological possibility to posit that there is (or was) a species of invertebrate that could indeed engrave the gemstones of the priestly breastplate. The limpet might be such a candidate, although it is difficult to see how it could have actually been employed in this way.

A second way in which this discovery relates to Judaism is in the symbolism of it. The Gemara says as follows:
"The Rabbis taught: There are five fears with which the fear of the weak is upon the mighty: The fear of the leontophone upon the lion, the fear of the mosquito upon the elephant, the fear of the gecko upon the scorpion, the fear of the swallow upon the vulture, and the fear of the kilbit-fish upon the whale. R. Yehuda said: What is the scriptural source? “He grants the robbed one power over the mighty” (Amos 5:9). (Shabbat 77b) (See the forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom for discussion of this passage.)

The idea here is that the very smallest creatures in the world are often the strongest in some way. This reminds us not to attribute too much power to the physically intimidating. The very strongest biological substance of all is not the fangs of a lion or the tusks of an elephant - it's the teeth of a humble snail.