Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Value of Participating in a Mishnayos Siyum

A wonderful person that I am privileged to know, Mrs. Mollie Fisch of Teaneck, sent me a gentle critique of the post before last, in which I deprecated the value of making a siyum mishnayos for someone who has passed away. It's a fabulous piece, so I am posting it in its entirety:
Rav Natan, I like the idea of a chesed siyyum, and this is not the first time I have heard of something of this nature. 
But back to basics: please consider thinking about the whole tehillim-mishnayot situation from an alternate, and perhaps even a Rambam type perspective.
I think your motivation in dispelling the magical thinking of aliyat haneshama and direct intervention is at least partly propelled by your concern that some "charitable institutions" are convincing others to hand over money so that they will send a team of rabbinical students to pray until the walls cave in, to effect a change in someone's destiny, or push up someone's neshama to a higher realm.  Clearly, it is also important to you to present the truth of the matter as a scholar.  I sympathize with that effort, but I also think that your battering away at the issue so persistently may cause you to throw out the baby with the bathwater. 
From a scholarly standpoint going back to chazal, I recognize that my saying tehillim for a stranger or a friend does not really effect a magical cure or evoke the perfect zivug for a single. Saying mishnayot in someone's memory is not going to cause their neshama to bounce around. (You may recall that I once sent you a poem about the neshama as a pinball.)  But it does serve some very important purposes:
1. It makes me more sensitive to the people around me, makes me aware of the struggles we all face in life, puts my own life into perspective, and hopefully builds my character (much as the Rambam says about prayer) in a kedusha-laden atmosphere where I cannot help but know Who is really in charge.  It also says "kol Yisrael chaverim." Connection is very important, especially in troubling times.  To me, that's the real meaning behind "v'lo ra-iti tzaddik ne-ezav..." - connection leads us to engage in chesed.
2. For the needy person on the receiving end of tehillim, it says "You are not alone, someone cares enough about you to say tehillim on your behalf. You matter, your name is your identity, and even if our only connection is being two Jews, you are part of a community." That's a chizuk giving mechanism in itself, and who doesn't benefit from chizuk? 
3. If I commit to learning mishnayot for a friend's relative, or for my daughter in law's parent, it says to the survivor "You are not alone in this dark time. You may have lost your parent/child/spouse, but look at the people who are here for you to support you in your grief."  It also commits me to an additional act of "kovea itim" and gives me an opportunity to learn something new or at a deeper level. Again, it helps us both in life, regardless of its effect or lack thereof on the dead.
4. Good people want to DO SOMETHING POSITIVE and to be a part of the process.  They cannot perform surgery, turn back the clock, change the history of the moment, but they can do chesed, cook a meal, take care of the laundry or the kids -- and they can also pray/say tehillim/learn/ TO SHOW THEY CARE.  Nothing wrong with that, is there? It creates a zone of comfort for the patient/family/survivor that is very reassuring through a difficult process. I have been on the receiving end, and it is indeed helpful..
That's my message to you for today, not really a post, but if you find it of interest, feel free to use it in whole or part. 
And here is the poem that she sent me a few years ago:
Is a dead parent’s neshama like a pin ball?
Or a glob of virtual matter in a computer game, that dislodges from a wall
And moves a step higher at our click?
Bounces to higher and higher numbers, setting off flashing lights?
Each time their child learns with intent, makes a Kiddush, gives Tsedaka, 
Says Kaddish, performs a special mitzvah ---
Does that cause that neshama to have an aliya?
To reach impossible heights?
Is it a trick?
Do we have that control?
Can we truly enhance the fate of that soul?
Can we send that neshama mi-chayil el choyil?
(Or, perhaps, if we fail, even cause it to fall? )
 It seems a bit strange, don’t you think
That we can cause it to rise – and maybe to sink?
That after all those years of parenting, of nurturing
Their final ascent would be cast in our hands?
How can we understand?
Who gave us the right to fly that kite?

Perhaps it is our own neshama that we guide
Perhaps our parent’s neshama will choose to come along on that ride
Perhaps a gentle soul smile will shine upon us in our deed
For nurturing the blossom for which they planted the seed

Our response is important, respect and devotion   
To honor our dear ones with deeds and emotion.
We pray those neshamot will not float alone
Ribono shel Olam, please welcome them home

"I Did It Because Of Him"

In previous posts, and in my essay on the subject, I argued that learning Torah is only a credit for a person if they were your parent or had an otherwise formative influence on you. As Rav Sherira Gaon says, "A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds. Even if all the righteous people in the world were to seek mercy for him, and all the righteous acts were to be done in his merit, it would be of no help to him." A large number of people had the same objection to this: If you learn on behalf of someone who died, then even if he was a random stranger, the fact is that you are only learning because of him. Surely, then, he should receive the credit for it!

In order to understand why this is problematic, let me ask you this: Because of whom does this blog exist?
Is it just because of me, or is it also because of other people?
Is it because of my father, who bequeathed to me an inquisitive mind, and a trait of speaking up for what you believe to be the truth even if it's unpopular?
Is it because of the Gedolim, who banned my books and drove me to want to expose the problems with charedi theology and society?
Is it because of the Kannaim, who manipulated the Gedolim into doing this?
Is it because of the people who created computers which made blogs possible?
Is it because of Pyra Labs, who developed the Blogger software?
Is it because of the people who read the blog, thereby giving me an audience to write for?

You could describe all kinds of people as being responsible, in some way, for the existence of this blog. But some are more meaningfully responsible, and others less so.
Now consider the following situation. Avraham Goldberg dies, and his son Yitzchak wants to arrange people to learn Mishnayos for him. And so the gabbai of the shul, Yankel, posts a sign for people to take masechtos. And the people who sign up include not only friends of Avraham but also Elisha Smith, who doesn't know either Avraham or Yitzchak, but recently joined the shul because his wife Ivanka likes the sisterhood and he's a nice guy who wants to be a part of the community. Who gets the credit for Elisha's learning? Avraham? Yitzchak? Yankel? Ivanka? Elisha's parents, who raised him to be a good Jew that does things for others? Elisha's teachers, who taught him how to learn? Elisha?

(And let's not forget about Shmeryl. Shmeryl is a mean guy who gets his kicks when people die. He goes out and punches people to celebrate. When he heard that Avraham Goldberg died, he went out and punched a little old lady. So does Avraham receive the de-merit for being the cause of Shmeryl punching someone?)
I think it's reasonable to say that while this particular learning session by Elisha was sparked in order to do something for Avraham, Avraham himself is only very minimally responsible for Elisha doing a good deed. He was the situational trigger by dying. There is nothing more than that. Elisha's good deed is much more a result of those who exerted a formative influence on him (and his own character).

Does this minimal share in the causation mean that Avraham should be credited for it? In human, earthly terms, it cannot be reasonably said that this is a credit to Avraham in any kind of meaningful sense. Nobody would say, "Wow, what a guy Avraham was - Elisha learned Mishnayos for him even though he had no idea who he was and only did it because he wanted to be part of the shul community and likes to do things for his community!" 

But what about in Heaven? Is there credit to his neshamah? Obviously, none of us can really know that. The best we can do is to talk about what classical Judaism says about such things. And the fact is that in Chazal, you never see such a thing. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, encountering a person who was suffering in the afterlife, wasn't himself able to do anything directly to help him - all he could do was find the person's son and convince the son to do mitzvos. And the Gaonim and Rishonim and early Acharonim who discuss these sorts of things, by and large, stress that there is only a concept of bra mezake aba, a child provides merit for the parent, and that this does not apply to other people. Extending this to teachers and others who, like a parent, exert a formative influence, is reasonable. Extending it beyond that, to a person whose share in your doing a mitzvah is just that he triggered it by dying, is much more problematic.

There are other benefits, however, to a Mishnayos siyum, which I overlooked in my previous post, and which were pointed out by a reader; I will discuss them in the next post.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Chesed Siyum

The popular idea of making a siyum mishnayos for someone who has passed away, in which random people take on masechtos in order that their learning should benefit the deceased, is of extremely recent origin and is theologically very problematic. As the classical Torah authorities point out, there is simply no mechanism to credit other people with mitzvos which had nothing to do with them. You can honor anyone's memory in this world with any kind of good deed, but your actions are only actually a credit to them (from both our perspective and God's perspective) if they actually influenced your actions, such as if they were your parent, teacher or exerted some sort of formative influence. (See an additional source on this, which I added at the end of this post.)

Yet the idea that you can give anyone the merit of your Torah learning has become increasingly popular. One reason is that some people have found this easy to commercialize. Once you posit that anyone can learn Torah to benefit anyone else, then you can manipulate people into giving you money so that you (or the people in your kollel) will allegedly benefit their loved one. But in reality, the deceased is not getting any credit for this Torah learning. And it's often not even a particularly suitable or meaningful way of honoring their memory.

Fred Distenfeld z"l
It is therefore very gratifying to see that my friend Gershon Distenfeld has come up with a terrific project to honor the memory of his father, Fred Distenfeld z"l: a "Chesed Siyum." This involves reaching out and encouraging family and friends, and anyone else who wants to participate in chesed on a community level, to sign up and pledge to perform acts of chesed in memory of Fred Distenfeld.

The Chesed Siyum differs from a Mishnayos Siyum in three key ways:

First, there is the obvious difference in that the mitzvah being done is one that helps other people. This is as opposed to learning Torah, which only benefits oneself; it does not benefit either the deceased (except when they are an ancestor/teacher) or society at large (at least, according to classical Jewish thought rather than recent mystical innovations).

Second is that while learning Mishnayos would be a meaningful way to honor the memory of, say, someone who wrote a commentary on the Mishnah, it's not a particularly meaningful way to honor the memory of most people. Fred Distenfeld had an amazing reputation as a baal chesed, and so doing chesed is actually a meaningful way to honor his memory.

Third is that many of those taking on this mitzvah are doing so because they are inspired by the sort of person that Fred Distenfeld was (even if they did not know him personally, and only from reports). Thus, the chesed being done can be attributed to his influence; it is indeed a credit, a zechus, for him.

See the article about the Chesed Siyum at And you can sign up for the Chesed Siyum at

UPDATE: See this additional 16th-century source which states that mitzvos are only a benefit to the parent because the parent is the actual cause of this person:
 שו"ת בנימין זאב סימן רב
אין זכות הקרובים מועיל אלא זכות הבן לאב כההיא דאמרינן ברא מזכי אבא ולא אבא מזכי ברא... זכות ומצוה הוא לאב כשאחד מיוצאי חלציו יקדיש ה' הגדול הנכבד והנורא לעיני כל העדה... כיון שעצם מעצמיו ובשר מבשרו הוא גורם היות ה' הגדול והנורא מתקדש שמו ברבים וזה אצלי טעם קדיש לבן ומזה הטעם ברא מזכי אבא מפני שהבן הוא האב וכל מצות הבן ומעשיו הטובים ממנו משתלשלים ויורדים אבל זכות ומצות של שאר קרובי' אינו מועי' כלל לנפש המת דמאי זה טעם יועיל זכות ראובן לשמעון ולוי אחים ומצותיו מה יעשו להם

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Booyah!!! Or, to use the more traditional terminology, Baruch shekivanti.

I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, due to two things that happened.

First was regarding the article that I published in England's Jewish Chronicle, in which I criticized those who were condemning Israel's action on the Gaza border. My particular target was an article by Daniel Sugarman which had appeared in that newspaper the previous day. Several people had said that I was wasting my time writing such things, since Israel-haters are not going to be swayed by any arguments. But I felt that some people criticizing Israel were not haters, but simply misinformed and ignorant of the situation. Well, today, Daniel Sugarman retracted and apologized, citing the arguments that I had made as one of his reasons! This shows that it is indeed worthwhile putting in effort to publicly defend Israel.

The second thing that happened relates to a topic that I have been busy with for some time. A few years ago, I grew suspicious of the popular notion that you can learn Torah l'iluy nishmas whoever you name, and transfer spiritual benefit to them. It seemed to me that there was no framework for such a notion in classical Judaism, which only allowed for this to work for one's ancestors and teachers. In an article that I published on this topic, What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?, I posited that organizations such as Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, and books such as The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah, were distorting the true picture, notwithstanding their marketing themselves as Torah scholars.

Of course, there were people who dismissed this as typical Slifkin apikorsus. And even I myself was wondering why nobody else was pointing this out. (Although I did suspect that this was because this fabricated concept is an excellent source of income for yeshivas and kollels.)

Then a friend told me that when he was studying in the yeshivah of the famous Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky in Jerusalem, a student once asked if Rav Kushlevsky could dedicate that day’s lecture to elevate the soul of his grandmother. Rav Kushlevsky replied that this was impossible; while his delivering the lecture would be a credit to his own grandmother, there was simply no way by which to transfer that credit to someone else’s grandmother, who had no role in enabling the lecture to take place.

Yesterday, something else came to light. Reader Yonason Rosman showed me that yet another distinguished rabbinic authority stated this - none other than Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz"l! Here is the quote, from Mesoras Moshe, a work compiled by his grandson and reviewed by R. Shmuel Fuerst:
Rabbi Rivlin requested that I ask our Rabbi if there is an advantage to declare, when fulfilling a mitzvah, that the mitzvah is in memory of the soul of one's parents, or if there is indeed any such notion of expanding upon the principle that "a son provides merit for his father."
And our Rabbi responded that this is a very difficult thing to know. For how is it relevant to sell, to transfer the merit for a mitzvah that one does, to someone else? And simply speaking, that which we say, when learning Mishnayos in memory of someone, that it is for their merit, does not refer to the actual [reward for the] mitzvah, for the actual reward is received by the one doing the studying. Rather, it is that since this [deceased] person is the cause that this person is studying, then he receives credit for it. And this is the standard concept which exists with a child, that all his deeds are the consequence of his parents - and thus it does not appear possible to add to this reality. But this is not a clear matter - perhaps there is a concept within Kabbalah regarding this, and it requires further investigation.

In other words, there is no such thing as doing a mitzvah on behalf of someone else. The most that you can say is that if the person is the cause of your doing a mitzvah - such as with a parent, who is the cause of your existence and education - then they receive credit for being the cause. Beyond that, there is no way to transfer the reward or credit for a mitzvah to somebody else. Unless there is some sort of unknown kabbalistic concept - which would go against normative rabbinic and logical thought.

It's nice to see that other people have reached the same conclusion as me. But don't expect to see this quote from Rav Moshe Feinstein appear on the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, or in the next edition of The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah. It's not good for business.

Meanwhile, the lesson is, strive for truth, and when you have sufficient reason to think you've found it, don't be afraid to say so - and if you have indeed discovered the truth, then you're probably not the first to do so!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Armchair Soldiers

Here is an article that I just had published in England's Jewish Chronicle. Which is pretty remarkable, considering that the target of my criticism was their very own editor and writers.

Last summer, my sister was sitting with her family at Shabbat dinner, when suddenly they heard screaming from their next-door neighbor's house. My brother-in-law ran next door to find a nineteen-year-old Palestinian stabbing the neighbors to death. My nephew, an off-duty soldier, shot the terrorist, which incapacitated him (but did not kill him). Then he checked that the house was safe, and attempted to help the wounded, until the security forces arrived.

In the aftermath, many people were criticizing my nephew for not killing the terrorist. It's painful to see pictures of the terrorist smiling proudly in court, secure in the knowledge that his family will receive more than a million dollars as a reward from the Palestinian authority, knowing that he will one day walk free, while three members of the Salomon family lie underground and the surviving family members had their lives shattered. Why didn't my nephew shoot to kill?

Such criticisms came from armchair soldiers - people with little knowledge of combat scenarios beyond what they've seen in James Bond. People with actual knowledge of such things are aware that such situations are chaotic, and that there's rarely such a thing as "shoot to kill." You shoot to stop what's happening as quickly as possible, and the largest target is the torso. Once the attacker is neutralized, it's up to the courts to decide what to do with him. The IDF was extremely proud of my nephew's professional conduct and awarded him a medal. The goal of soldiers is not to kill terrorists; it's to follow the rules of engagement under very difficult conditions.

A different group of people are acting as armchair soldiers with regard to the situation on the border with Gaza. "Why did the IDF have to kill anyone? Why didn't they stop them some other way?" Such criticism invariably comes from people with no experience or knowledge of such situations. If they would bother doing proper research before publicly condemning Israel, they would discover the facts of the situation.

The IDF does not want to kill anyone - if you speak to people in the IDF, you would know that. And it's absolutely not in Israel's interests to do so. But sometimes, situations arise in which there is simply no choice, if you want to prevent much worse bloodshed from happening.

There were not only protestors present - there were also numerous Hamas terrorists armed with butcher knives, guns and firebombs, whose explicitly declared goal (as can be seen in video footage) was to break into Israel and kill people. The terrorists were mixed together with the protestors in several huge mobs. And there is simply no way to stop them at a distance without using guns. The IDF used tear gas, but its effectiveness is dependent on wind conditions, and the canisters can be quickly buried or thrown away. Rubber bullets only work at short range. And you can't wait for it to be a short-range confrontation - with a mob of thousands, many of whom are armed, it would turn into a sheer bloodbath, on both sides.

"But Israel is so technologically advanced, there must be non-lethal ways of stopping them!" No, there aren't. No army in the world has yet discovered a way of stopping enemy combatants without using bullets. Maybe one day there will be such technology, but it does not yet exist. It's the height of irresponsibility to condemn Israel's actions based on a completely fictitious, baseless claim of the existence of "alternative technologies."

"But it ends up being so disproportionate - sixty Gazans dead, and no Israelis dead!" This is perhaps the most bizarre criticism of all. Should Israel wait until the Gazans had broken through the fence and killed some Jews before stopping them from killing any more? You don't measure the morality of a confrontation with terrorists or of a war by comparing the number of dead on each side.

Unless you're one of the many outright antisemites who believe that Israel has no right to prevent its civilians from being butchered by terrorists, then please, show some responsibility. Don't criticize the IDF's method of preventing a larger bloodbath if you don't have any expertise in this area. Learn what the IDF says about these situations. Contact soldiers (as I did) and listen to what they have to say. If you don't trust the IDF, then listen to what Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, has to say about the absolutely necessity and propriety of what the IDF did.

Don't be an armchair soldier. It's morally irresponsible. And it's plain stupid.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Top Ten Stupidest Criticisms of Israel's Actions on the Gaza Border

1) People have a right to peacefully protest! (Indeed they do. But there are plenty of people here who are taking butcher knives and firebombs and guns to storm the border and kill and kidnap Israeli civilians.)

2) There is no evidence of that! (Yes there is. There are Arabic Facebook pages and interviews and photos.)

3) But it's not all the Gazans who are doing that! (Right. And it's not all the Gazans who are being shot!)

4) Israel is just trying to kill as many Gazans as possible! (If it was, there would be carnage like in Syria. Israel is trying to avoid killing Gazans - aside from anything else, it is politically very damaging.)

5) Israel should just use tear gas! (They have, but it often doesn't work, such as when it's windy, or when the Gazans have gas masks and bury the canisters.)

6) Israel should only use rubber bullets! (They often can't, because these only work at short range.)

7) Israel should just arrest them! (If soldiers went up to the crowds to do that, there would be a bloodbath.)

8) Israel is so technologically advanced, there must be a way to stop them without shooting them! (No army in the world has yet found a way to repel armed attackers without ever using bullets)

9) It's so disproportionate - so many Gazans wounded or killed, and no Israelis! (So what?! When you are repelling an armed invasion, there is no reason to let them kill more of you before continuing to stop them!)

And the Top Stupidest Argument is...:

10) The Palestinians have legitimate grievances! (Even if this were true, are you claiming that Israel should therefore just let them storm the border and butcher its civilians?!)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Fake Chazals

Here is a fascinating and disturbing exposé of a Fake Chazal, and an explanation of how it comes into being.

As you may recall, a few years ago I e-published a study entitled "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In that study, I discussed the popular notion that a person can learn Torah and designate the spiritual rewards for any deceased person, by declaring that they are learning l'iluy nishmasam. I argued that this notion is of extremely recent origin - no more than 150 years old. Traditionally, there was only a concept that your Torah and mitzvos can benefit your ancestors (and teachers), because your good deeds only exist as a result of them. There's just no mechanism for your Torah study to benefit a person who had no formative influence on you.

Recently I was looking at the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishna, the institution which takes your funds in order to support kollel students studying l'iluy nishmas your loved one. (This is the institution which published the popular book The Neshama Should Have An Aliyah.) On their website, accompanying some bold claims - "Imagine the merits that can be amassed for your dearly departed loved ones, as well as for yourself and your family, by tapping into the merit of Torah learning by dedicated, serious Torah scholars!" - there is a page of sources to back up their claims. It's a pretty slim list; just four sources are cited, of which three are contemporary works! The only pre-modern source that they provide is a second-hand citation from a contemporary work called P’nei Boruch, which they report as saying the following:
“Our Sages have said that Asher, son of the Patriarch Jacob, sits at the entrance to Gehinnom (Purgatory), and saves [from entering therein] anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied."
That indeed seems very explicit. Chazal themselves said that anyone who is having Mishnah studied on their behalf, will be saved from Gehinnom. Better get out your checkbook!

When I came across this, I was very taken aback. If true, it would completely disprove my thesis.

However, over the years, I have learned not to trust citations of sources. (Remember when Dialogue journal published a critique of my kezayis article by Dovid Kornreich, which quoted websites as stating that the Romans cultivated and exported olives in northern Europe, and these quotes turned out to be completely fabricated?)

So I decided to look into this citation from Chazal. And, lo and behold, I discovered that no such source exists.

First of all, you have to wonder: If Chazal did indeed say such a thing, why didn't Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cites the source from Chazal directly, instead of citing a second-hand attribution from the contemporary work P’nei Boruch? The reason is that no such source in Chazal can be found. Not in Bavli, not in Yerushalmi, not in Midrash. The earliest reference I was able to find is the Chida, attributing it to earlier authorities (Chazal?), yet he too does not provide any source.

But here's the kicker. Even if one were to find it in some long-lost Midrash, this alleged statement from Chazal does not at all say what Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cite it as saying! What it actually says, as quoted both by Chida and in Pnei Baruch, is that Asher son of Yaakov saves anyone who studies Mishnah - not anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied!

Now, Pnei Baruch does follow this quote with a claim that this would also apply to anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied. However, he provides absolutely no support for this claim - and it's certainly not part of the alleged citation from Chazal!

On the website of Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, it states that "we strive to address any and all questions, concerns and issues that you may have. If at any time you need to reach us, please do not hesitate to contact us via phone or email, any time!" Well, I wrote to them twice, pointing out this distortion of the alleged source from Chazal, but they did not respond. Feel free to check out the sources yourself, by following the links above. Then you can write to, and ask them why did they change the source, and why they are presenting all this as normative, traditional Judaism when there is in fact no source in Chazal or the Rishonim for this concept.

Perhaps you're wondering why I am making such a fuss about this. Well, it's because if there's one thing that bothers me more than people manipulating sources (and you'd hope for better from people who market their services as "serious Torah scholars"), it's people manipulating sources so that they can manipulate people for money.

Coming up soon: an inspirational post about a very different new initiative for commemorating the deceased. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog, using the form on the right of the page.

The Value of Participating in a Mishnayos Siyum

A wonderful person that I am privileged to know, Mrs. Mollie Fisch of Teaneck, sent me a gentle critique of the post before last, in which ...