Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I Am The Bat Man

Somebody sent me this link to a story from a community kollel about several invasions by bats into frum homes. According to the story, these invasions were both interpreted and solved via the bat's passuk in Perek Shirah: Perek Shirah explains why the bat appeared in the houses at that time, and reciting the bat's passuk from Perek Shirah assisted in finding the bat in order to remove it.

The irony is that the bat is not in Perek Shirah. The alleged "bat" in Perek Shirah, called retzifi in Hebrew, is not a bat.

Now, at this point some people will be saying, "Well, this is just Natan Slifkin's opinion. Others are of the view that the bat is in Perek Shirah!"

But this is where it gets really ironic.

The basis for people claiming that the bat is the retzifi of Perek Shirah, is the ArtScroll edition of Perek Shirah. And the ArtScroll Perek Shirah got it from me (as they acknowledge in a footnote). And I was completely mistaken about it!

When I found out that ArtScroll was working on Perek Shirah, and making use of my book Nature's Song, I wrote to them to inform them of a mistake that I had made in my book. My identification of the retzifi as the bat was a total stab in the dark. I claimed weak support from a commentary called Pi Eliyahu who identifies it as the tinshames, which in the Chumash is identified by some as the bat. But this is in fact no support at all, because Pi Eliyahu understands tinshames to be the owl. I only chose the bat because, faced with no evidence whatsoever (at the time) as to what the retzifi really is, I chose an animal that at least, with a generous dose of creativity, matches the theme of the passuk in Perek Shirah as explained by some of the commentaries. But there is no reason to think that the author of Perek Shirah was referring to the bat - and if he wanted to refer to the bat, he would surely have referred to it by the name atalef.

By the time I published the second edition of Nature's Song, in 2009, I had discovered that the retzifi is probably a type of dove, and corrected my book accordingly. But it was too late. ArtScroll had not taken note of my email to them admitting error, and had translated retzifi as the bat, crediting me in the footnote. And people at large, in the explosion of interest in Perek Shirah, had adopted the ArtScroll view. And, of course, nobody is going to admit to having based their mystical interpretation of an event on something said by Natan Slifkin - even if Natan Slifkin is admitting that he was mistaken!

Thus, an error that is destined to be perpetuated for all eternity, and used to "discover" the mystical significance of contemporary events involving bats, and even to have metaphysical results of enabling people to find the bat, all stems from a mistake on my part! I don't know whether to be amused or depressed.

(Note: Never do what I am doing in the picture with a live bat. Bats often carry rabies. The vampire bat in the picture is dead.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bugs in the System

There's a part of the Torah which, to most modern readers, seems extremely primitive, antiquated and obsolete - and yet which in fact could be vitally important to resurrect for the modern world.

In parashas Shemini (though, strangely, not parashas Re'eh) the Torah states that certain locusts (swarming species of grasshoppers) can be eaten. Eating bugs simply grosses out most people in modern Western society, and I suspect that many people see this as a relic from a primitive, barbaric era. But a recent article in the New Yorker noted that in a world with a burgeoning population of billions, insects provide a much more efficient and environmentally-friendly source of protein, amongst other benefits:

From an ecological perspective, insects have a lot to recommend them. They are renowned for their small ‘foodprint’; being cold-blooded, they are about four time as efficient at converting feed to meat as are cattle, which waste energy keeping themselves warm. Ounce for ounce, many have the same amount of protein as beef–friendly grasshoppers have three times as much–and are rich in micronutrients like iron and zinc. Genetically, they are so distant from humans that there is little likelihood of diseases jumping species, as swine flu did. They are natural recyclers, capable of eating old cardboard, manure, and by-products from food manufacturing. And insect husbandry is humane: bugs like teeming, and thrive in filthy, crowded conditions.

With regard to the laws of kosher locusts, the expert on identifying kosher species is my friend Dr. Zohar Amar, author of Ha-Arbeh b'Mesoret Yisrael. Basically, the species for which there is a widespread tradition amongst North African Jews is Schistocercia gregaria, the Egyptian desert locust. According to many halachic authorities, even Ashkenazi Jews can adopt the North African tradition, since there is no tradition in Ashkenaz against these types of locusts being kosher; we simply lack a tradition either way. As a result, I myself have eaten locusts on several occasions. Crunchy on the outside with a chewy center!

Can you imagine what an impact it would make if Jews were known not for exploiting animals in factory-farming and indulging in massive gastronomic excesses, but instead for adopting a more environmentally and animal friendly (and traditional) approach to fleishigs? I know, it's not likely to happen. It would be as radical as girls receiving intensive Jewish education.

There are actually various ways in which the debate over the kashrus of locusts relates to rationalism, which I hope to discuss in a future post. Meanwhile, I will point out the irony of how those Jews who would most strongly protest the rationalist approach that various parts of the Torah were oriented towards the ancient Israelites, and insist that the Torah is equally oriented towards all times and places, are usually those who claim that locusts are now forever forbidden (until Mashiach comes) and that this section of the Torah is now effectively obsolete!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last of the Hyrax

This will hopefully be the last hyrax post! But it really shows how this topic relates to rationalist vs. anti-rationalist thought. (Please note that I have decided to make the first part of the chapter on hyraxes from my book available as a free download here - feel free to distribute it.)

Jonathan/Yoel Ostroff is a follower of Rav Shlomo Miller from Toronto, and a passionate advocate of the idea that the universe was created 5771 years ago. He is also known to to readers of this blog as someone with bizarre debating tactics who consistently distorts my views regarding both the science and theology of evolution. He has now entered the hyrax fray, with a post for which the commenting feature appears to be currently disabled. As a result, I am responding to his comments here.

1. The fact that Alexander Kohut, Marcus Jastrow and other such scholars of language explained the shafan to be the rabbit is irrelevant. It is knowledge of animals, not Aramaic, which is relevant here. The European Rishonim and many later European scholars were entirely unfamiliar with the hyrax. So of course they would translate shafan and its Aramaic translation of tafza into an animal that they knew of - they could not and would not translate it with a word that would have no meaning for them or their readers! This is just as they mistakenly thought that the tzvi was a hirsch (deer) - in spite of the Gemara which says that its horns are not branched. (Is Ostroff going to argue that the tzvi is in fact the deer?) In fact, what Ostroff - significantly - does not mention is that Jastrow presents the alternative translation of "coney" - itself a term which was sometimes used for rabbits and sometimes for hyraxes - and he may well have meant the latter, in light of his presenting it as an alternative to rabbit.

2. Having personally owned both rabbits and hyraxes, and having spent many hours observing them in captivity and in the wild, I can attest that the hyrax is much more of a tafza/ jumper than the rabbit! Rabbits rarely jump in the wild; hyraxes do it all the time, in order to get from rock to rock, and they are much better at it than rabbits. The hyrax is also much LESS of a sheretz than the rabbit.

3. Ostroff cites the the example of monkeys and peacocks, mentioned in Tenach, as examples of Tenach speaking about non-local animals. But these were brought as royal gifts, and are highlighted as such. What evidence is there that rabbits were brought? Furthermore, the pesukim in Tehillim and Mishlei specifically describe the shafan in its natural habitat. Is it possible that David was told about that, or knew it by ruach hakodesh? Sure, it's possible. But is it remotely reasonable, in comparison to saying that he was talking about a local animal with which everyone was familiar and was known in other dialects by the same name? Only if one is an extremely irrational person. When David speaks about the aryeh roaring, is it possible that he is actually speaking about a Tyrannosaurus rex, which he knew about via ruach hakodesh? Sure. (And if the aryeh is really the T-Rex, perhaps you can resolve the Gemara which gives a gestation period for the aryeh that is different from that known with lions!) But is it remotely reasonable to say this?

4. Ostroff writes that "The Radak and Malbim explain that Borchi Nafshi is talking about the whole of creation as is obvious from even a supeficial reading of the psalm." But what does that even mean? Yes, it makes mention of the sun, which shines over the whole world. But does it talk about octopi or supernova or quarks? If so, I must have missed that passuk! Barchi Nafshi is speaking about the entirety of creation - from the perspective of its author!

5. Ostroff writes that "As you say, of course, He knows about the rabbits in Spain and elsewhere. So what is so difficult about Him writing about them in His Torah of Truth?" Because nobody would have had a clue what He was talking about. That's why He doesn't say the halachos of electricity or donor IVF (which would have been EXTREMELY useful), or describe anything else with which the ancient Jews were not familiar. Is there a single counterexample? And there is also the matter of Tehillim and Mishlei.

6. Ostroff makes the following incredible statement: "Your position is based on just too many suppositions."

That is too funny!

My position is based on translating shafan as the animal which is called by a similar name in local languages, which matches the descriptions given in the pesukim better than any other animal, which was very familiar to the Jewish People, and which is identified as such by those (such as Saadiah) who actually lived in the region, as well as by virtually every other researcher of this topic (without an anti-rationalist perspective).

Ostroff's position is based on the idea that David and Shlomo were speaking about a South African animal (the European rabbits don't hide in rocks) which they happened to know about via a hypothetical and inexplicable import, or by ruach hakodesh (even though there is no precedent for ruach hakodesh being used in this way), and then mentioned its behavior in its natural habitat to their readers/listeners even though none of them had seen one, and even though there is no other such case of the natural habits of foreign animals anywhere in Tenach - and they did so with a name that just so happens to be used by other peoples in the area to refer to a local animal that matches the description in the pesukim, and which lives together with the ibex that are mentioned in the same passuk! Furthermore, it means describing an unfamiliar animal in place of a familiar one which would be much more meaningful for them to tell the Jewish People about! If you want the nation to ponder God's wisdom as manifest in animals that hide in the rocks, why neglect describing the local animal which does that, in favor of describing a Southern African animal that none of them have ever seen - especially when in every other case that you mention animals, you describe familiar ones? (Honestly, does anyone think that ancient Jews in Israel saying Tehillim would have said "Hey, this is interesting, it's talking about a South African rock rabbit!") And Ostroff's alleged reasons for doing this are flimsy in the extreme - based EXCLUSIVELY on European translations by people who lacked knowledge of animals of Israel!

It is especially ironic that Ostroff claims to be "open to all reasonable possibilities"!

I know, I really shouldn't waste my time with Ostroff. Still, this topic is very dear to me, so I couldn't resist.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

But Rashi had Ruach HaKodesh!

Two of my readers told me last week that whenever they see the word "hyrax" in a post, they stop reading. I am sympathetic to that, but if you are such a person, I urge you to make today an exception! This post is more about the general idea of Rishonim having ruach hakodesh; the hyrax is only appearing incidentally.

Today is Hyrax Day - the day that Daf Yomi studies Chullin 59b, which launches the discussion of the camel, the hare and the hyrax. There are those who suggest that the shafan is not the hyrax, but instead is the rabbit. Previously, I noted that the reason why some Rishonim (medieval Torah scholars) believed that is that they lived in Spain, and were thus familiar with rabbits, but not with hyraxes. The shafan of the Chumash, Mishlei and Tehillim, on the other hand, must have been an animal from the Land of Israel - and in Israel there are plenty of hyraxes (there is one ten feet away from me right now!) but no rabbits.

I wrote to one person, Rabbi Amitai Ben-David, to challenge him on this point. He replied that while he was not certain that the shafan was the rabbit, he was uncomfortable with the idea that the Rishonim of Europe were limited by their geography and thus erred in identifying the animals of the Torah - after all, the Rishonim, and especially Rashi, wrote with ruach hakodesh.

Over the years, I have been so involved in defending the claim that Chazal's statements about the natural world were not the product of ruach hakodesh that I never invested much effort in defending this claim about the Rishonim. Of course, it should be a kal v'chomer, but it is helpful to have explicit sources.

Even Rav Aharon Feldman, in his essay defending the controversial ban on my books, admitted that the reasons for claiming that Chazal were infallible in their scientific pronouncements would not apply to the Rishonim. And there are countless statements by Rishonim that are clearly scientifically incorrect. With regard to geography in particular, I seem to recall various statements by Rashi and other Rishonim which demonstrate their unfamiliarity with the geography of Eretz Yisrael - perhaps someone can remind me of where this is.

The Rishonim themselves certainly did not believe that Rashi possessed flawless knowledge in such areas! One especially interesting example of this is with nataf, a sap used in the ketores, which Rashi (Ex. 30:34) says is also known as teriyake (not to be confused with chicken teriyake). Ramban says that there must either be a scribal error, or that Rashi was misinformed as to the nature of teriyake, since it is a mixture of various substances that could never have been permitted for use in ketores. Theriac (a.k.a. teriyake) was an ancient Greek concoction that was re-introduced in the medieval period by Chasdai Ibn Shaprut; Ramban was thus familiar with it, but Rashi was not (my thanks to Hannah Davidson for sharing with me her doctoral dissertation that discusses this topic). But the point is that Ramban had no qualms in saying that Rashi was misinformed as to the identity of this substance.

Elsewhere, Rashi writes that the trachea leads to the heart! An explicit rejection of Rashi's statements about anatomy is made by no less a mainstream figure than Chasam Sofer:
"What are the meanings of the anatomical terms mentioned in this Mishna? After I researched medical books and medical writers as well as scholars and surgical texts, I have concluded that we cannot deny the fact that reality is not as described by Rashi, Tosfos and the drawings of the Maharam of Lublin. We have only what the Rambam wrote in the Mishna Torah and his Commentary to the Mishna - even though the latter has statements which are unclear. However, you will find correct drawings in the book Maaseh Tuviah and Shevili Emuna…. Therefore, I did not bother at all with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfos in this matter since it is impossible to match them with true reality. You should know this." (Chasam Sofer to Niddah 18a)

Based on both reason as well as explicit statements by Rishonim and Acharonim, it is clearly mistaken to posit that European Rishonim such as Rashi had supernatural knowledge with made them familiar with the animal life of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, Rashi and the other European Rishonim invariably identified the animals of the Torah as European species with which they were familiar. Thus, the griffin vulture became the eagle, the gazelle became the deer or ibex, the hippopotamus became the elephant - and the hyrax became the rabbit. This is the explanation of the discrepancies between the identifications of animals given by Rashi, and those given by Saadiah Gaon, who lived in the Middle East.

I find it strange that there are people who do not accept this.

(Don't forget that you can order The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax at And here is a video of a hyrax in the act of rechewing food that it swallowed earlier - not exactly rumination, but certainly close enough to account for it being described that way. I have an even better video that I will upload after I overcome some technical difficulties with it.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Historical Records Vs. Dramatic Accounts

Here's a riddle. Consider the following sentence:

"This was not meant as a historical record, but as a dramatic account of the story, in order to evoke certain sentiments."

Who wrote it, and about which topic?

A) Azariah De Rossi, writing about historical stories in the Talmud, thereby earning the ire of Maharal.

B) Yours truly, writing about the account of creation, thereby earning a cherem.

C) Rabbi Shubert Spero, writing about the Deluge, thereby earning the ire of many.

The correct answer is D) - None of the above. It's actually from an Artscroll book!

The ArtScroll Kinnos is an extremely well-done and useful work. I have some pedantic quibbles about the translations of certain animals, but nevertheless, like most other people, I find that it enhances my Tishah B'Av tremendously. The translation makes the cryptic Hebrew comprehensible, and the commentary adds much useful information. I bought the softcover edition, but you can also buy a beautiful hardcover edition, which will last for many years of use!

In the kinnah of Arzei HaLevanon, about the martyrdom of various Torah sages, the commentary points out that although the kinnah indicates that they were all martyred at the same time, this is impossible, since they did not live at the same time. We then have the following statement, which implies that this is not the only non-historical aspect of the kinnah:
"The liturgical accounts of the martyrdom were not meant as historical records, but as dramatic accounts of the story, in order to evoke feelings of loss and repentance on the part of the congregation."

For some people, this will be disturbing, and will make the kinnah less meaningful for them. Others are aware that this is a standard literary device, especially in antiquity, and will appreciate it being explicitly pointed out in the commentary.

But what I find intriguing is that many people can accept the value of this literary device being used with regard to a kinnah, and yet vociferously reject the possibility of it being used in the Gemara or the Chumash. (And please, don't bring up the notion of ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto - see The Challenge Of Creation for an explanation as to why it is not relevant to this.) It would be valuable for them to contemplate and further study this literary device, and the ArtScroll commentary could serve as a good starting point.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Prison Vs. Flogging

Growing up in England, corporal punishment by schoolteachers was considered perfectly ordinary. I recall having my hand slapped with a ruler on several occasions, and when I once (at the age of ten) committed the severe infraction of running on the school lawn, the headmaster walloped my backside with a gym shoe!

Today, such corporal punishment by teachers is unthinkable. And in Israel, it is illegal even for parents to ever use corporal punishment on their children!

This is a powerful example of the transient nature of morality discussed in yesterday's post. It came to mind when a reader sent me this fascinating and thoughtful article about flogging vs. imprisonment. The author, a non-Orthodox professor of Jewish studies, is commenting upon a new book that argues for a return to the system of flogging in place of the failed system of imprisonment. He notes that he was initially horrified, but then realized that it was only his cultural bias that caused him to react in that way. The Torah, and Chazal, clearly supported the practice of flogging, and he concludes that it might well be appropriate to bring it back.

All I can say is that I never ran on the school lawn again!

(Hat-tip: HaRazieli)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Venom of Wolves

Here is a letter that I received yesterday:

Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

Today’s daf discusses the case from the Mishnah (42a) that states that animals become Tereifos by being attacked and clawed ("Derisah") by various types of wild animals and birds. RASHI (42a, DH Derusas ha'Ze'ev) writes that the reason why "Derisah" renders an animal a Tereifah is that the attacker "hits with its claws, and injects poison [into its victim] and burns it." Similarly, Rashi 52b (DH Aval b'Makom) states that the attacking animal "gets angry, and it has a strong poison which it injects into it (its victim) when it hits it with its claws." This explanation is difficult for me, because as far as I am aware, none of the predatory animals and birds listed in the Mishnah have any poison that they inject through their claws into their prey. Is there any other explanation you are aware of?

Thank you
Kol Tuv

In response, here is an extract from the chapter on wolves in my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom:

An animal is only kosher for consumption if it is in good physical health at the time of slaughter. The Mishnah lists various terefos, fatal defects, which render an animal prohibited for use as food. One of these fatal defects is a mauling by a wolf:

These are the terefos in domesticated animals… if it fell from a roof, if most of its ribs were broken, a mauling by a wolf; Rabbi Yehudah says, a mauling by a wolf [is considered a fatal defect] with a small domestic animal, and a mauling by a lion [is considered a fatal defect] with a large animal. (Mishnah, Chullin 3:1)
Although wolves usually hunt in packs, single wolves are capable of bringing down even very large prey such as moose or bison. They usually prefer not to take on such prey, however, since one kick from a moose can disembowel the wolf. Furthermore, the wolves of North America, which bring down such large prey, are much bigger animals than the wolves of Israel and the surrounding region. While North American wolves average 100 pounds, with the record specimen weighing 175 pounds, the wolves of the Middle East average only about 50 pounds and take much smaller prey. Thus, from a halachic standpoint, if a wolf mounts an unsuccessful attack against a large animal such as a cow, the animal is not considered to be mortally wounded and it may still be slaughtered for human consumption. Only with small livestock, such as sheep and goats, is a mauling by a wolf considered a fatal defect. The Talmud further clarifies that a wolf is the smallest creature with which a mauling on a small domestic animal renders it as possessing a fatal defect.

Unfortunately, these laws give rise to difficult contradictions with our knowledge of wolves. One difficulty is that the Talmud states that the result of such maulings is that venom is injected into the prey animal (Chullin 53a). Needless to say, this is not consistent with modern zoological knowledge of wolves.

One solution presented for such difficulties (see Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. IV, p. 355, footnote 4) is that the Talmud is not referring to a chemical venom generated by the animal, but rather to infections caused by bacteria accumulating in the animal. Such "venom" certainly exists:

“Many people mauled by lions have died from wounds that should have been survivable: the meat caked under the attackers’ claws and teeth injected the victims with disease, and they died in a gangrenous fever.” Gordon Grice, The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators (London: Penguin Books 1998), p. 104.

This answer is offered with regard to why the cat is listed as a creature whose mauling is considered a fatal defect, whereas a dog is not (see Chullin 53a). It is explained that since cats have long retractable claws, dirt can accumulate beneath them. However this explanation falls short with our discussion, since the wolf is listed as an animal that can cause such damage, even though it is physiologically essentially the same as a dog rather than a cat.

A second difficulty is that the Talmud rules that these maulings which are rated as causing fatal defects are referring to maulings inflicted with the claws, not with the teeth. This, too, conflicts with contemporary observations of wolves, which reveal that wolves never attack prey with their claws, only with their teeth. The reason for this reflects the very different hunting strategy of wolves compared to members of the cat family such as lions and leopards. A big cat is an ambush predator. It is not built for running at speed, but rather for firmly seizing its prey. It uses its strong arms and claws to grasp its prey, enabling it to make a killing bite in a precise spot. Wolves, on the other hand, are pursuit predators. The legs of a wolf are slender, and the paws not jointed for grasping; its body is built for long-distance pursuit, not for bringing down prey. The wolf’s claws are strong, but very blunt, because the tips are worn off by constant contact with the ground. These are used for digging and gripping the earth while running, not for seizing or killing prey. Wolves kill with a large number of minor slashing bites, rather than the single lethal bite of a big cat.

These contradictions resist simple resolutions that preserve the correctness of both the Talmud and modern zoology. It appears that they force one to take sides in the centuries-old dispute concerning statements in the Talmud that are contradicted by science.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ever Changing Morality

The following astonishing advertisements, from just a few decades ago, bring an important theological topic into sharp focus. (If you are are reading this post via email or RSS feed and cannot see the pictures, please visit to see them. It's worth it!)

When these advertisements were printed, they were not seen as immoral. Yet, by today's standards, they reflect a mistaken and disgusting attitude to women. Now, there can be little doubt that in another fifty years, people will look back on that which we consider moral today and will view it as hideously immoral. It would be the height of stupidity and arrogance for anyone to believe that today, Western society has finally reached the conclusion of its moral evolution. That which is moral and immoral today could easily be reversed within a few decades.

What does all this mean for us? It does weaken our ability to claim that the Torah's amazing morality is evidence of its truth/ superiority. For by what measure can we assert that the Torah is perfectly moral? We can only do so by claiming that it agrees with our own sense of morality - but as these advertisements show, our ideas of that change over time.

But the flip side of this is that it also means that those who claim that the Torah is immoral, in its attitudes to homosexuality, women, etc., are also severely weakened in their case. How can they judge the Torah to be lacking vis-a-vis their own modern Western standard of morality, when their own standard is so transient?

Yet, on the other hand, there is a school of Torah thought which claims that there is an ethic independent of Torah - and thus, for example, if one is stranded on a desert island and faced with eating either dead human or dead insects, one should choose the latter, even though it involves more halachic problems. But perhaps this idea of a separate ethic is one that is extracted from basic Torah morality.

This subject requires further study.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Book of Abraham: Online Resources for Chapter Two

This is another guest post in a series by Rabbi Dr. Avi (Seth) Kadish. Part One can be found at

Chapter Two of The Book of Abraham is now available. It unfortunately took me a great deal longer to complete than I had anticipated. Not only was my general estimate of one chapter per month overly optimistic, but I also didn't realize how many other projects I would have competing for my time during the interval. The files are here (pdf) and here (odt). As always, the full index of chapters and blogposts is here.

The current chapter deals with The Book of Abraham as a title, and why it is appropriate to describe Rabbi Shimon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran's Magen Avot by using that name. It studies the image of the patriarch Abraham in medieval Jewish philosophy as either an intellectual revolutionary who offered an Aristotelian monotheism to the entire world, or alternatively as a man who lived a prototype of the Torah of Israel and whose talent was a particularistic kind of prophecy. Duran's eclectic combination of these two seemingly exclusive alternatives is what led him to compose Magen Avot as an encyclopedic compendium on a myriad of scientific topics, combining the results of rational investigation with the positions of the Torah that are known through prophecy and tradition. Duran viewed this project as a realization of the approach of Avraham Avinu.

Unlike the previous chapter, which was a general introduction to the topic, this one is largely based on primary texts (and future chapters will be as well). Therefore, I want to use this blog post to provide direct links to a wealth of materials that have become available online in recent years (and which were not available to me in that form in the early part of the previous decade when I did most of my research), in order to allow readers to study the primary sources directly along with the chapter that analyzes them. Most of these resources have been provided to the public through Chaim Rosenberg's extraordinary website,, and I am very grateful to him.

To begin with, Magen Avot by Rabbi Shimon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran (this chapter is devoted to its introduction) is currently available online in more than one format. The first and only edition of Magen Avot for well over two centuries (Livorno, 1785) is available here. This edition is the one I used for my research (occasionally complemented by manuscripts), even though it is aesthetically very poor and difficult to read. All current references to Magen Avot in my book are to the folios and line numbers in this edition. During my research I also prepared a typed, formatted and proofread text of the introduction to Magen Avot in editable form, which may be found here and may be useful to those who read the current chapter.

About four years ago a new edition of Magen Avot was published in Jerusalem (5767), and was shortly afterward made available for free download here. This is not a critical edition, but it is very well done and extremely useful. The text is printed clearly and divided neatly into paragraphs and sections, and textual errors have generally been corrected. If anyone is interested in providing references to the pages in this edition, I would be happy to incorporate them into the text of The Book of Abraham.

Magen Avot's unique and eclectic organization can make it a difficult book to read. For that reason I have also uploaded the Appendices to The Book of Abraham, which are explanatory outlines of Magen Avot, and the links to which may be found here. The references to the appendices are currently to the Livorno edition (but that too can be changed). I hope this will make it easier for people to go back to the primary source and check my work.

Besides Magen Avot, nearly all of Rabbi Shimon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran's massive literary output is available online today, most of it searchable as well. Most relevant to readers of The Book of Abraham will be Magen Avot Part IV on tractate Avot here, and Ohev Mishpat which is available in two scans here and here.

Besides Duran's own writings, many important texts by other authors for reading this chapter and future ones are also available online. For this chapter it will be enough to note that Or Hashem by Rabbi asdai Crescas is available in Rav Shlomo Fisher's excellent edition here and here, as well as in its first edition here. The world still awaits Professor Warren Zeev Harvey's expected critical edition and English translation of this precious little book.

In just a few short years, it has already become hard to remember what it was like when such a wealth of materials and tools for studying Torah was not yet immediately available to all via the internet. Today there is ever less need to make special trips to specialized libraries and to search by hand for books and articles (although that is still needed sometimes), or to do tedious work photocopying, filing and marking up the copies, or cutting and pasting by hand. We've been given extraordinary tools today to advance both general knowledge and Torah wisdom, and to empower people to investigate things firsthand based on the primary sources. Let's be grateful for what we have and use it well.

God willing, the next chapter of The Book of Abraham will be about books by the late rishonim that deal in a significant way with the idea of “Principles of the Torah.” It is striking that after Maimonides himself, all such books were written by Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi and members of his school, including Gerondi's own Derashot ha-Ran, Abraham bar Judah's Arba'ah Turim, Crescas' Or Hashem, Duran's Ohev Mishpat and Magen Avot, and most famously Joseph Albo's Sefer ha-Ikkarim.

As I publish this chapter on T”u be-Av 5771, my wife and I mark the 14th anniversary of our move to the beautiful city of Karmiel in the center of the Galilee. We thank God for enabling us to build our home and raise our children in this wonderful place, as well as to live, study and teach Torah in the north of Israel.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Trembling in Fear

During the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-6, one of the primary factors involved in my decisions regarding my books, and indeed in my consciously deciding to leave the charedi community, was the role of fear in the charedi community.

There is much talk in the charedi community about Yiras Shamayim. That community labels itself charedi, "trembling" at the word of God. And there are indeed many people in that community who excel at this attribute.

But the dominant fear in that community, the one that operates at all levels and out of all proportion, is fear that others will criticize you for not being frum enough.

I had wanted to write about this for a while, but I refrained, since I knew that many would just dismiss my words as lacking credibility. However, people with more credibility than myself are now saying the same thing - albeit anonymously. Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn reported a conversation that he had with an establishment charedi Rav, close with the Gedolim, who stated that the Charedi rabbonim's requirements regarding reporting abuse is contrary to halachah, and explained bluntly that they are "afraid" about "being labeled a shaygetz." And Jonathan Rosenblum, the Gedolim's PR man and hagiographer, reports that one of the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the United States told him that "the gedolim cannot even discuss questions surrounding poverty because if they did the 'street' would just label them fake gedolim."

This is exactly what I saw in the controversy over my books, in a variety of ways too numerous to list in their entirety. But here are some examples:

  • One Torah website, which had formerly distributed a number of my essays, frantically sent out a mass e-mail to all their subscribers assuring them that they would never do so again and that all my essays (none of which were remotely controversial) had been deleted from their site. They were clearly driven by fear.
  • Rav Aharon Feldman, while no fan of the rationalist approach, was sickened (literally - and I mean that literally) by the ban. Yet he switched sides after spending time in Israel and being criticized for not being adequately supportive of the Gedolim. (He told me words to this effect personally!) My impression was that he was afraid of being labelled disloyal.
  • One of the younger rabbonim who had guided me in much of my writings sent me a proposed revised version of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. It was edited beyond recognition - and to my mind, the edits were aimed not at making the book better from a Torah-True (TM) perspective, but rather at avoiding criticism from the right.

This last point was most significant to me. I do not believe that one should write everything that one wants to write - one has to consider the greater good of the community. But in the charedi world, such considerations were clearly going to be outweighed by the fear of being criticized for not being frum enough. I could not continue my writing career while operating in fear of attacks from the right. With books such as mine, which deal with important and sensitive subject matter, there are many difficult editorial decisions to be made; I did not want to also have to deal with concerns by me, by those who write approbations, and by my distributor about fears as to what people on the right will say. I had to be able to publish that which needed to be published - and thus to take my publishing out of the charedi world.

Now, for all those who would smugly condemn people who act out of fear - remember Chazal's dictum that one should not judge a person until you are in their place. People who are embedded in that community really do have good reason to be afraid! Their careers, their social standing, their children's education and shidduchim, really could be on the line. (However, it should be pointed out that such fear does seem to contradict the notion of bitachon.)

In fact, for me to leave the charedi community and continue to publish my books was not an act of bravery. It was an act of leaving a situation of fear, at a time in my life when it was relatively easy to do so. But it was the right thing to do. It's very harmful to be in a community in which decisions are based upon of fear of man rather than fear of God.

(Please note that fascinating comments on the previous post are still coming in. Don't miss them!)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Grand Vision

Last week a rabbi asked to meet with me in order to discuss this website. At the meeting, he aired an important point. He said that he is familiar with a number of people who participate in this forum and find it to be the only one in which they feel intellectually and religiously comfortable. However, it does not provide a basic requirement for them: a grand overall vision for Judaism, such as that provided by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Nathan Lopez-Cardozo, and especially a foundation for emunah. Instead, it is restricted to tackling small and often arcane topics within Judaism.

I understand his point, and I can try to cater somewhat to his request, but the fact is that to echo what Marc Shapiro wrote in his book, I am more of an intellectual historian than a theologian. And my own emunah is primarily based on Jewish history, which doesn't speak to everyone, and on hashgachah pratis in my own life, which is very personal and non-rationalist to the extreme!

Instead, I would like to people to submit recommendations for resources - books, websites and suchlike - that offer such a overall vision. The drawback with this suggestion is that some might suggest resources that others, including myself, find objectionable, and the comments thread could degenerate into the negativity that plagues the blogosphere. I therefore ask that people try to keep criticism to a minimum, and to remember, different strokes for different folks!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Interview with Rav Nosson Kamenetzky

Translated by Joshua Skootsky

It was nine years ago that the book of Rav Nosson Kaminetsky caused a huge storm in the Hareidi community, and it was banned by leading Rabbis. Now, in an interview, he attacks those that banned him and the decision making process within the Hareidi community. "We must remove from our midst those who surround Torah Greats [askanim]."

This week's guest to Walla!'s "Interview the Rabbis" series is Rav Nosson Kaminetsky, who in the last few years has been the target of bans by the Lithuanisn-Haredi Rabbinate, as part of the struggle over his book "The Making of a Gadol," which dealt with the biographies of American Haredi leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rav Kaminetzky, the son of one of the greatest American rabbis, Rav Ya'akov Kaminetsky, was born in 1930 in Lithuania. In 1938 his family immigrated to Canada, and eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1945. There, he received his education at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, Beit Midrash Elyon, and Beit HaTalmud. In 1968 he made aliya to Israel, and was one of the founders of Yeshivat ITRI in Jerusalem, retiring in 2000.

With his 2002 publication, Rav Kaminetsky stirred up a huge storm among the Hareidim: going against the grain of modern Hareidim, who relate to the greatest Rabbis as holy and pure from birth, referring to them as “Gedolei Yisrael” and “Gedolei HaTorah,” Rav Kaminetsky set out with a preference to tell the historical truth, to describe the life story of the leading [Hareidi] Rabbis after the Holocaust, with their flaws and less glorious sides. For example, he described in his book the letters Rav Ahron Kotler, one of the great Rabbinic leaders in America after the Holocaust, to his fiancée, and the negative reaction of his father in law to those letters, and also he described the love of his father, Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky, for foreign languages, which from a strict Hareidi point of view is an inappropriate field of interest.

Rav Nosson Kaminetsky believes that for hundreds of years, Lithuanian Hareidim disapproved of descriptions of rabbis as totally holy, in contrast to the tendency within Hasidic circles to view their Rebbe, as well as his successors, as saints of the highest order. These beliefs have caused a series of leading Hareidi Rabbis, including the leading Lithuanian posek, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, to ban his book, and the Hareidi “street” has reacted to the book with similar responses. In 2005, Rav Kaminetsky tried to publish a revised version of the book, but the book was again banned.

What caused you to publish your book, which shattered myths surrounding Hareidi rabbis?

“That was not my intention. I did not set out with the goal of waging war on people’s points of view, or to indoctrinate anyone. I wrote my book because of my desire to describe something unique that the world did not know about, and I had a connection to that uniqueness through my father. I did not want their unique world to be lost to oblivion. That was all that I intended to do with my book. Maybe that was my reaction to the Holocaust, that I wanted something to remain from the world of my uncle.”

Nine years have passed since the publishing and banning of your book. Are you still a little hurt?

“Absolutely. I still feel hurt. Someone died, who everyone called the ‘Tzadik HaDor’ and ‘Gaon HaDor,’ Rav Michal Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rosh Yeshivat Ponevitch L’Tzeirim, who hurt me and called for me to be banned in letters that he wrote. Since he died, I have continued to feel anger towards him, and I certainly am still angry with those still living who issues bans against me.”

Do you agree with the accusation that the “leading Rabbis” who banned you are too old, and practically speaking are controlled by those surrounding them?

“It is a general principle that a person does not see their own faults. Old scholars have extra knowledge, have more life experience, and more wisdom. If they are not functioning, they do not have a duty to step out of the spotlight, it is the public’s duty to remove them. A man does not see himself as old. If there are those that take advantage of this for the worse, and presumably there are those who do so, because there are many crooks in the world - this is not the problem of the Torah giants, this is the public’s problem. The public needs to know when to take exception to them, and when to follow in their path.”

What do you think about the great power that a few central rabbis have in the Hareidi community?

“In the history of the Jewish people, there was the title of “Rabbi of the Entire Diaspora,” he had control over the entire Diaspora. Is it wrong to place such power in the hands of one man? I don’t think so. I don’t think there is a problem with such concentration of greatness in Torah. But, there are people who exploit this, and that is a problem. The public needs to remove from its midst those who surround the great Rabbis.”

Do you think the decision-making process and management of issues by those who are considered the greatest rabbis is proper and correct?

"I feel that they are missing a little of the message of “Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly between a man and his brother.” (Devarim 1:16) From this verse we learn not to listen to one side’s story without the other party being present. The approach of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is not to judge people; for example, in my case, as far as I understand, he judged my book, and did not render judgment on me as a person. He has even told his students to honor me in the same way they would have before the ban. But, from my experience, this is not the correct approach. What is a book? A book is an extension of the author. One who insults the book insults the author. In any case, I think that in this case, the rule to not hear one side without the other being present applies, they need to hear the author and his opinions, but the facts are that they have not given me the chance to face those who spoke against me.”

Is there a halachic source for blindly following a rabbi in matters that are not related to Jewish law, such as politics or other matters?

“The Mitnagdim (non-Chassidic Jews) always thought for themselves. If they had a specific question they could not decide, they would come to get advice from a wise and knowledgeable man who had the Torah behind him, but things a person can figure out on his own, it is forbidden to depend on others’ judgment. In his commentary to the Mishna, Rambam describes the great power of the human mind to make decisions, a man must use his own mind, do not denigrate your own intelligence. If you have a doubt about something, go ask someone wiser, after you hear what they say, you do not have to follow their advice like a blind man, you have to digest it and decide if it was good or bad. The Mishna asks, ‘Upon whom should one rely?’ And it answers, ‘On God.’ It does not say ‘On Rav Elyashiv,’ or ‘On Rav Shteinman.’ It is obvious that we talk of individual issues, but in issues concerning the entire community, great Torah scholars are the leaders of the community and guides of all of Israel.”

Great Torah scholars are described in the Hareidi community as all-powerful, as if their entire lives are wrapped in holiness and purity. Do you agree with these descriptions?

“No. I do not agree. This is not the truth. No one is born holy, or dies holy, and never once in their life made a mistake, nothing is ever that simple. I don’t know what is going on, but I never had rabbis like that. Also, when I was a teacher of students, I never encouraged this attitude, because it simply is not true.”

From what, in your opinion, comes the adoration and complete obedience that currently permeates the relationship to the rabbis in the Lithuanian world, which is reminiscent of the way Hasidim act?

“You’d be surprised to hear that Hitler, may his name be erased, is responsible for this. Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust were from Hasidic areas, and this was their approach. If there is a change in the upbringing of the Lithuanian Jews of today, it is this, that we teach them to be Hasidim of the Lithuanian Rabbis - that is my opinion. I, in any case, was not raised this way. I was raised in the best Lithuanian fashion. Healthy skepticism, respect for wisdom, and having some knowledge of true modesty. But that was my problem –I wrote from that perspective.”

You have written more books, why haven’t you published them?

“I simply do not want anyone to be hurt. But, more will be ready some day, God willing.”

What is your message to those surfing Walla! News?

“Be strong and take heart, and be upright.”

More from the interview:

Who are you, Rav Kaminetsky? Who were your main Rabbis?

“My father, Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, and Rav Leib Malin, zt”l.”

What do you love?

“I like to read.”

A good book you’ve read recently?

“The book ‘The Rebbe” about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, from Professors Shmuel Hylman and Menachem Friedman.”

If you weren’t a Rabbi, what would you be?

“I have no answer to that question.”

If you could make a law, what law would you make?

“I would make Shabbat a day of rest.”

Who is a musician you love?

“Rav Shlomo Carlebach, z”l.”

What do you want them to write on your tombstone?

“I have told my family simply, ‘Rav Nosson Kaminetsky,’ without ‘Gaon.’

What commandment do you love the most?

“Learning Torah.”

What Rabbinic title do you hate the most?

“The holy and the pure.”

Friday, August 5, 2011

Some Interesting Articles

I must apologize for the reduced rate of posting - travel makes it difficult. Here are links to four interesting articles (I am not saying that I agree with them - just that they provide food for thought!):

Oh, That I May Believe! - An interesting article on emunah by Rabbi Nathan Lopes-Cardozo.

Computer Confirmation of “P” – A Biblicist’s Perspective. Am I the only one who thought that this article changed direction sharply at the end?

"It Isn't Written That We Must Follow Rav Elyashiv" - This interview with Rav Nosson Kamenetzky, about the ban on his book Making Of A Godol, is absolutely fascinating. If someone has the time to translate it into English, I would put it up as a post.

Hyraxes: why Israel's 'rock rabbits' have become pests - An article at BBC Nature about how the hyrax's habit of hiding in the rocks, attested to in Mishlei and Tehillim, has enabled them to expand their range in 21st century Israel.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Much Ado About Hyraxes

A very perceptive question was posed in the comments to the previous post. The questioner asked why various people are up in arms about the identity of the shafan. Is it just a dry technical issue of animal identification – or is there something larger going on?

The answer is the latter. The underlying agenda behind the discussion for many people is (a) to ensure that the Torah is scientifically accurate, and (b) to ensure that the straightforward understanding of the Gemara, that the four listed animals with one kosher sign are the only four such types in the world, is scientifically accurate.

It’s fascinating to see how this plays out. When analyzing this topic, there are a number of questions that need to be resolved. Here is a list of some of them:

  1. Are the lama, alpaca, vicuna and guanaco to be classified as being of the same min (type) as the camel?
  2. Is the rabbit classified as being of the same min as the hare?
  3. Does cecotrophy (the reingestion of special fecal pellets) by hares and rabbits rate as ma’aleh gerah?
  4. Do we believe those zoologists who say that the capybara practices cecotrophy?
  5. Is the capybara considered to be a sheretz or a chayah?
  6. Is the shafan the hyrax?
  7. Does the hyrax practice merycism?
  8. Is merycism considered to be maaleh gerah?
  9. Is the alleged merycism of koalas and proboscis monkeys the same as that of the hyrax?
  10. Is it likely that the shafan and arneves are extinct, unknown animals?

Now, when I analyzed this topic, I evaluated each of these questions in isolation, without considering the wider implications (at least, as best as I could). I was thus very disappointed to discover, at the end of my investigation, that there was no way in which it could be said that there are exactly four animals with one kosher sign. Eventually, I was able to find various ways of resolving this.

But other people, such as Isaac Betech and certain people in Aish HaTorah/ Discover, approach this list of questions entirely differently. Consciously or subconsciously, the final goal is that there should exactly four animals with one kosher sign. And the answers to all the questions in this list are arranged such that they will produce this result.

  • If the rabbit is identified as the shafan and thus classified as being a distinct type from the hare (which is the arneves), then the lama, alpaca, vicuna and guanaco must be classified as being the same type as the camel. (Even though vicunas are far more different from camels than rabbits are from hares!)
  • If koalas and proboscis monkeys practice merycism to the same degree as the hyrax, then merycism is not to be considered as maaleh gerah, and the shafan is not to be identified as the hyrax. (But if there were no other animals to practice merycism, you can be sure that the hyrax would be gleefully endorsed as the shafan.)
  • If it sounds convincing to say that the shafan and arneves are extinct, unknown animals, then cecotrophy and merycism are to be definitively rejected as viable interpretations of maaleh gerah, and the mesorah on the arneves is likewise to be rejected. (But if the arneves is accepted to be the hare, then these people will declare that it is unlikely that there are extinct, unknown animals that likewise practice rumination or cecotrophy!)

Some people might accuse me of having no basis to accuse my ideological opponents of having their evaluation of the individual questions driven by the overall conclusion that they are determined to reach. But it’s clear-cut. First of all, with some of them, such as Betech, he is clearly opposed to the idea that Chazal could be mistaken in any way. Second of all, I have an audio recording of Rav Yisroel Belsky in which he explicitly states that the reason why he prefers Betech’s approach is because the end result of it is that the simple, absolute interpretation of Chazal’s statement (that there are only four animals in the world) can be upheld!

When people such as Isaac Betech analyze the topic of the four animals, the final conclusion is established in advance; it’s just a matter of how to get there. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that the analysis of the individual questions is incorrect in all or any cases. But it does shed light on why the answers to the individual questions are so inconsistent with each other. The tiny vicuna is vastly different from the huge camel, and yet it is rated as being definitively (not even probably, but definitively) of the same min, whereas the rabbit is definitely rated as being of a separate min than the extremely similar hare. The tiny, five-pound rabbit is definitely rated as not being a sheretz and thus as being part of the list, but the 140 pound, two-and-a-half feet tall capybara is rated as being a sheretz and therefore disqualified from the list!

The irony in all this is that the credibility of Chazal is not even on the line with all this – only the simple and simplistic interpretation of Chazal’s statement about animals with one kosher sign, popular in the charedi world, is on the line. As everyone knows, I am certainly ready to say that Chazal were mistaken in their positions regarding the natural world. But, as I explain in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, the statements of Chazal about animals with one kosher sign does not need to fall into that category.