Friday, October 20, 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My Miracle Story

There was the time that I was reading this book about leopards
in the Torah, and a leopard suddenly appeared!
In the last post, Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the Grasshopper, I discussed the "miracle story" of a grasshopper appearing in front of Rav Chaim right when he was learning the Gemara about grasshoppers. Well, this week, I had my very own similar miracle!

For many weeks, I have been heavily involved in the topic of the kashrus of different breeds of chickens. In part, this was because of the Feast of Exotic Curiosities that we ran at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, and in part, this was due to the controversy over the Braekel, on the topic of which I will soon be e-publishing an extensive monograph.

But actually getting hold of a Braekel, dead or alive, proved to be extremely difficult. All 7000 birds that had been raised near Beit Shemesh were slaughtered. We were desperate to get even a slaughtered Braekel to serve at the Feast of Exotic Curiosities, and we were finally only successful when we sent a staff member to Bnei Brak.

But, of course, the real goal was to get a live Braekel, to display at the museum as part of our developing "Kosher Birds" exhibit. And I hadn't been able to find one anywhere, and nor had my colleagues in the field, Prof. Zohar Amar and Moshe Rosenbaum, who had likewise been searching for one. Between us we have an extensive network of connections with various people raising exotic fowl, and nobody has a Braekel. I even started looking in the US to get fertilized eggs that I can bring back to incubate here, but while you can get hundreds of different kinds of chickens in the US, you can't get a Braekel!

I had finally entirely given up. And then...

My wife happened to go shopping, to a supermarket in Beit Shemesh that she doesn't often go to. And she just happened to bump into someone she knew from the US that she hadn't seen in many years. And she just happened to be leaving the store at the same time as this woman, so she gave her a ride home, to the ultra-charedi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. And she just happened to continue talking with her for a few minutes, after she arrived at her house. And somehow, the topic of conversation just happened to turn to food, and then to chicken...

...and the woman mentioned that they are raising Braekels at home!

The Braekels of Beit Shemesh
This family hasn't eaten chicken or eggs for ten years, ever since her husband decided that regular chickens are not a kosher type. But they managed to obtain some Braekels, which satisfied their kashrus requirements. Today, I got to meet a real live Braekel! And it also looks like I will be able to obtain one or two for the museum!

Now here's the kicker. I am absolutely convinced that this string of coincidences is Divine Providence. Yes, I know that the Rishonim didn't believe that Divine Providence is so prevalent. Yes, I know all the reasons to be skeptical of seeing this as Divinely ordained. Call me anti-rationalist if you like. But I can't help how I feel!

Stay tuned for my monograph on the Chicken Wars!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Rav Chaim Kanievsky and the Grasshopper

There's a famous "miracle story" about Rav Chaim Kanievsky and a grasshopper. (It's relevant in light of the continuing comments, to the post "Daas Torah is in the Eye of the Beholder," about miracle stories and Gedolim.) The story goes that Rav Chaim was learning the Gemara in Chullin about identifying kosher grasshoppers (more properly called locusts, but we'll go with grasshopper here). He was struggling to understand certain aspects of the Gemara's discussion. Just then, a grasshopper miraculously jumped through the window (or, according to other versions, jumped off the wall) and landed on the Gemara! By looking at it, he was able to resolve the difficulties in understanding the Gemara's discussion.

I'm not going to go into extensive discussion of this - you can see Rabbi Josh Waxman's excellent discussion here. I just want to share two photos which I came across, as part of a series of photos on the theme of amazing coincidences:

In other locust-related news, I'm happy to report that although we killed all the kosher locusts at The Biblical Museum of Natural History for the Feast of Exotic Curiosities, they did lay eggs before they died, many of which have now hatched. Mazel tov!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Coming to America!

(The Feast of Exotic Curiosities was amazing! A full write-up will be forthcoming, but meanwhile you can see a gallery of photos from the event at this link.)

Next week, I am coming to America. For Shabbat parashat Noach, October 20-21, I will be speaking at Great Neck Synagogue. The following Shabbat, October 27-28, I will be speaking at Baron Hirsch Synagogue in Memphis. In between those engagements, I will be in New York, available for lectures and fundraising meetings. If you'd like to host an event for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, please be in touch! (I might also need a place to stay that week, preferably in the 5 Towns area - if you can help out with that, please let me know.)

My next schedule trip abroad is in December, to the BAYT in Toronto, and possibly also to London.

Meanwhile, the museum is very busy this week, but there are still some open slots, so if you're in Israel, book your tour! We also have a Sukkah available - two, actually, to meet everyone's needs:

Chag sameach!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

To Kill A Muppet-Bird

Here are some of the newest creatures at The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

But what are they? Are they chickens? Are they rabbits? Or are they nisht a hen, nisht a hare? And are they kosher, and will they be served at next week's Feast Of Exotic Curiosities? Is it a sin to kill a Muppet-bird? Stay tuned to find out!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Daas Torah and End-of-Year Notes

The previous post, renamed to "Daas Torah is in the Eye of the Beholder," received over 10,000 views. While the response was mostly positive, many people did not like it, including some near and dear to me. I would like to clarify some aspects of it, and discuss some other things.

1) The target of the post was not Rav Chaim Kanievsky. It was the cultural phenomenon surrounding Rav Chaim Kanievsky, whereby people taking two words of blessing, or a signature, to mean much, much more than Rav Chaim ever intended them to mean. The guilty parties are the media, the tzedakah campaigns, and many of the general public.

2) There was one criticism of Rav Chaim Kanievsky - that he admits to signing letters (in particular, one attesting to the righteousness of the monster Elior Chen) "because his rabbis signed it." I criticized that as a shirking of responsibility and an abuse of authority, and I stand by that criticism. And I will point out that the people who slammed the post (or me) did not respond to that. (Again, however, that was not the main point of the post.)

3) "B-b-b-but Daas Torah!" See Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's superb presentation on this topic, translated into English and downloadable at this link.

4) "B-b-b-but erev Rosh Hashanah!" Things are either right to say or wrong. If wrong, they should never be said. If right, they can be said at any time. The reason was I was particularly motivated to write that post at that time was as stated - that I was terribly upset to hear about someone who, according to what I was told, is going to Rav Chaim for a major medical decision.

*   *   *
Now, on to something else. At this time of year, there are many appeals for donations to various causes. I was thinking of using this forum to raise funds for my own cause - The Biblical Museum of Natural History - but on reflection, I'm not certain how appropriate it is. When we say that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka remove the evil decree, I kindof have the feeling that it is talking about tzedaka for the poor, not for institutions. (I can't explain why I have this feeling, and I would appreciate if others can explain why, or why I am wrong.)

When it comes to giving tzedakah to the poor, one is likewise confronted with an array of causes. Some of them fundraise by offering incentives - that various "Holy Men" will pray for you (or at least will have your name in a book on their table), that you will merit miracles, etc. I have seen advertisements where the entirety of the advertisement is about what you will get, not what you are giving to!

As previously, I would like to recommend Lemaan Achai as a wonderful charity for helping the poor. Their focus is on using an array of professional services and aid to help people attain financial independence. Just take a look at the incredible success stories on their webpage! To quote Rambam: "The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support the poor person by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others." There is no smarter way to give tzedakah!

*   *   *

As we end the year 5777, my brother-in-law and nephew were honored today in a special ceremony for their incredibly brave and smart actions in Neve Tzuf. But they are not rejoicing in this honor, for although they saved many lives, there were those that they were too late to save. May the coming year be one of health and peace for all.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Daas Torah is in the Eye of the Beholder

I was deeply distressed to discover recently that someone that I used to know is suffering from a very serious illness. It was further told to me that the person has to make a choice between two radically different courses of action to deal with this illness. It's a very difficult decision to make, with significant pros and cons on each side. So the person has decided to ask Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

Rav Chaim Kanievsky is 89 years old. He has spent virtually his whole life insulated from the outside world. He is a selfless person who has dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah (apart from a very brief period during the War of Independence when he served on guard duty). Many people, following the contemporary charedi notion of Daas Torah (in which the less a person knows about the world, the purer is his wisdom), believe that this makes him uniquely suited to give guidance.

But it goes even further. People consider even a word of blessing from him to be guidance. Consider the following story from Mishpacha magazine, about one of the many people who go to Rav Chaim for his guidance (note for those thinking of doing this: his trusted aides are people who will give you preferential treatment if you give them money):
Guessing by the radiant smile on the man who emerged from behind the white wooden door, one might think that he had just won the lottery in the tiny apartment. Moments before (emphasis added - N.S.), he stood at the head of the line, conversing on the cell phone — probably with a worried wife — about every minute and a half. Posture bent, overwhelmed by the pressing concerns he did not share with fellow visitors, he conducted simulations, finalizing a presentation of the question, and promised his family — bli neder, of course — that he would present all of the arguments, both for and against, and that he would remember to mention Shoshke bas Mindel, desperately in need of a shidduch.
Upon emerging from the inner sanctum, he wears the look of a man relieved of a heavy load. “We have a yeshivah!” he hisses into the phone. The crowded conditions in the corridor, and the brotherly atmosphere that characterizes the local citizenry, turn his whispered words into public fodder.
“What did Rav Chaim say?” someone asks.
The man reveals the question that brought him there: They weren’t sure which yeshivah their Yossi should attend the following year. “Nu, and what did Rav Chaim say?”
“He said, ‘Brachah v’hatzlachah.’ Now we’re sure: Yossi will attend the yeshivah where he already took a bechinah (exam).”
In this story, Rav Chaim did nothing at all other than offer two words of blessing. Yet the questioner read into that as being a weighed-up decision as to which yeshivah his son should attend! And the magazine printed this story as an example of Rav Chaim's wisdom!

Last week there was another example of this, and it's on video for everyone to see. Someone went to Rav Chaim and told him that there is a deadly storm headed for Miami, of a kind that has killed many people. They asked: Should people flee? And he replied: Sakanah! ("There's a danger!"). And that was the end of the conversation.

This brief interaction is viewed very differently by different people. Some people genuinely see it as a demonstration of Divine Daas Torah. "Rav Chaim Kanievsky has ordered people to evacuate Miami!" Others see it as a tragic example of nothingness. He was told that there is a life-threatening danger, so he said that it's dangerous. You can get the same answer from a five-year-old.

Is there any way to prove to people that Rav Chaim's answers are not worth what these people think they are worth? Actually, there is. Or at least, there ought to be; the following two instances should prove it to anyone with a modicum of intellectual honesty.

One was the well-publicized case of Rav Chaim pronouncing a berachah, with Shem u'Malchus, on a king. Except that the person was not a king at all, and was simply a fraudster. Anyone with critical thinking skills (or access to Google) could have figured that out in less than a minute.

The second, and much more serious, instance was when Rav Chaim signed a letter attesting to the righteousness of Elior Chen - the worst child abuser in the history of Israel. Perhaps even more disturbingly, when a neighbor of mine asked him why he signed such a letter, Rav Chaim absolved himself of all responsibility and authority, saying that he signed because his rabbonim signed.

I am sure that Rav Chaim's blessings can be a wonderful placebo for many people and are psychologically reassuring for them. But it's a tragedy that people see him as providing meaningful guidance on important life decisions.

Chicken Wars: The Shiur

This Monday in Woodmere....(and also on Tuesday, at Beth Aaron in Teaneck):