Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Popularity of Olives

Pesach is approaching, which means that many people will be obsessing over the size of the olive-sized amount of matzah which is the minimum quantity to be consumed at the seder. My monograph "The Evolution of the Olive" is the most popular post ever on this blog. It has nearly 5000 views, which doesn't count all those who received it via e-mail. Countless people have expressed appreciation of it.

Why is this monograph so popular? Perhaps it is because so many people have wondered at the strangely large size of the kezayis given in most halachic works today. The mind cannot help but reel when confronted with a kezayis-book presenting, in pictures, a kezayis as being the size of several olives. And the historical explanation for this incongruity makes so much sense that it is immensely satisfying. "There is no pleasure like the resolution of doubt," as Redak famously stated (except that most people think that Chazal said it). Likewise, my Matzah Chart for Rationalists is also extremely popular.

Of course, there are some people who dislike the monograph (and it was rejected from a certain halachic journal). In some cases, this is because it reveals that the great Rishonim of Ashkenaz were not omniscient. But I wonder if in other cases the dislike is precisely because it makes so much sense. In a previous post, I asked why a certain theory is regarded as frum when expressed by kabbalists, but quasi-heretical when expressed by Rambam. One person suggested as follows:
Because one makes sense and one doesn't, and religious matters do not have to make sense... If it made perfect sense, it would be mathematic, not religious. By contrast, matters which today we call "kabbalistic" [even though they were never received from anyone] you can say literally anything you want, and adherents will nod enthusiastically. The less comprehensible it is, the more kabbalistic is it said to be.
I wonder if that might be the case here too. Perhaps it is precisely the mysteriousness and incongruity of the large kezayis that shows dedication to a higher authority.

(See too the following posts:
Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?
The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense
The All-Time Most Popular Post)


  1. שהמון אנשי התורה הנאהב שבדברים להם והערב לסכלותם שישימו התורה והשכל שני קצוות סותרות...
    רמבם, מאמר תחיית המתים

  2. Not related to the subject of the k'zayis:
    Rabbi Slifkin quoted the comment as saying, "[M]atters which today we call "kabbalistic"...you can say literally anything you want...The less comprehensible it is, the more kabbalistic is it said to be."

    I beg to differ with this offensive comment. There has amassed a tremendous amount of literature now that makes kabbalistic concepts understandable.

    Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch is said to have founded Lubavitch yeshiva in 1897 expressly with the intent of having students delve into matters of kabbalah with the same depth, the same understanding, as they would in a sugya of Gemara.

    Why cast aspersion on a section of the Torah, just because it might not be understood at the first reading?

  3. Shema: If it made perfect sense, it would be mathematic, not religious.

    A= perfect sense = mathematical
    B= religious

    By definition A is not equal to B
    But also by definition A is an indisputable characteristic of The MOST HIGH, a characteristic that must be met.

    Then A must be accepted and B rejected.

    One might say could A=B ?
    It matters not as long as A is mathematical but we know that B is not always mathematical.

    It is a true statement that Torah must always make perfect sense because it is from He that makes perfect sense. He also created the world with perfect laws of nature and order and mathematics. That does not mean that we will comprehend, it just has to make perfect sense.

  4. Credo quia absurdum est (I believe because it is absurd).

    Oh, that's from another religion

  5. Thanks for the cite, though attribution would have been nice. My legions of fans know exactly who "DF" is. (grin.)

    The instinct of orthodoxy to adopt the illogical is very strong. That is what is meant by "da'as torah hefech mi'daas ballei battim." It has nothing to do with whether one works or is in koillel. It simply means the Torah is not logical. Because if something is logical, there is nothing religious about doing it. It is, as I say, mere mathematics.

    This can be seen in myriad ways, big and small. Tying your shoelaces - why did the halacah develop such that you put on your right shoe first, but tie it second? Sure, pesukim were found as justification, but the reason people looked for pesukim in the first place, rather than simply doing it the normal way, is because now putting on shoes is something holy. Doing it the normal way would just be...putting on shoes.

    This is all part of the allure of "mystery" in religion, as I wrote in my original post, as echoed by someone above me here. Please note, this doesnt mean the fundamentals of the religion itself are wrong. But it does mean that, as far as the practices each religion develops for itself goes, there will forever be an unbridgeable gap between rationalists and non-rationalists.

  6. Perhaps it is precisely the mysteriousness and incongruity of the large kezayis that shows dedication to a higher authority.

    Honestly I don't think so. My sense is people just prefer to stick with the mesorah that's been handed down to them. That, and it feels more "frum" to have to eat a larger shiur!

  7. Hi, i teach baalei teshuva at Seed in Golders Green. I just want to make you aware that those that i am associated with are not terribly impressed with the way you handled the Betech debate.
    Yesterday he summed up all your evasions and one instance of yourself lying on his blog.
    I feel if you want this blog to continue being read by intellectuals you must respond in kind. And if you have nothing to respond its ok to say "i dont know" but the way you are going you are loosing readers

    1. Those you associate with, or you? It is unfortunate that so often the vulnerability of baalei teshuvah, in particular, is exploited to lead them into the la-la land of modern anti-intellectual frumkeit. I'm not saying you, because I don't know you, but your comments on this debate are certainly suggestive. Confront the arguments: do you really think there is a reasonable, grounded position contrary to Rabbi Slifkin's here? If so, state it, instead of regurgitating second hand and collateral mud-slinging. If you don't address the issue, then what is your interest--stam lashon hara?

  8. That's a very strange thing to say. Everyone that I know thinks that Betech is exceedingly dishonest and/or plain crazy. Nobody thinks that I lied at any point, and I only stopped answering his questions when it became clear that he was being dishonest, disingenuous, and extremely evasive himself. My main point was that there were no rabbits in Biblical Israel; when Betech claimed sources otherwise, I showed them to be mistaken, but he persistently refused to acknowledge this. He justified his claim that there are rabbits in Israel today on the grounds that pet stores sell them! And he never backed up his claims about ruach hakodesh, despite Rabbi Sedley's repeated requests for him to do so. Nor did he justify his novel explanation of maaleh gerah, despite Elias and David Ohsie repeatedly pointing out its problems. I guess you weren't following the discussion closely. If you were, and you still think that Betech is correct, then you are a reader that I wouldn't mind losing.

    (If you want to continue this discussion, please do so on the last hyrax thread, not on this thread, which is about a different topic.)

  9. Rabbi Slifkin

    DF makes a good point, but doesn't take it as far as it could go. If you want rationalism, by which you mean I think a form of empiricism, why stop where you do? Surely logically your rationalism means applying linguistics, comparative religion, archaeology to Judaism and chazal? Surely if you don't its non-rationalist/non-empirical? The reason you dont is precisely because you admit the mysterious, the , operating in ways we can't by empirical means alone grasp ? And if you admit it, how do you draw the line? On the issue of the olive, when traditionalists say the mesorah has a force of its own, that it reflects the divine, even if I could supposedly bring sociocultural explanations for all of it, yet the divine aspect of the tradition, even if not empirically grounded,is more important,thus we should stay with big olives. On what basis do you disagree with this without logically admitting an empiricism which denies religion and the divine altogether ? How do you know how to draw the line R Slifkin?


  10. See the post "Drawing the Line: Is Rationalism Futile?"

    By the way, I don't think that all practitioners of giant kezayis would justify it on the grounds of "the mesorah has a force of its own and that it reflects the divine." Most of them simply have no idea that the Sefardic Rishonim and several Acharonim held otherwise. Others would claim that olives used to be bigger, etc.

  11. (Comments about hyraxes are being redirected to the appropriate post, http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/02/ruach-hakodesh-and-reason.html)

  12. All these fancypants explanations for why the big kezayit are favoured miss the point. Modern orthodox people of a certain school might say something like "halacha is an iternally coherent discourse that can't be impacted by the conclusions of other word-games" or "the Mesorah has a religious value of it's own independently of where it started up" or "the fabric of tradition is such that we should stick with our current pratice to the exculsion of other considerations like scientific accuracy", maybe they even believe it.

    But the real reason mainstream MO people stuff matzah in their mouth is the same reason they don't wear techeilet, is the same reason why they say the wrong bracha on rye and oats, is the same reason they wash their hands three times in the morning to fight demons, namely because that is what Haredim do and, subconsciously (at least) we think that they practice real Judaism and if we depart too much from that we're on the slippery slope to freidom.

    So the question becomes why do Haredim do it and the answer is not any of the sophisticated explanations, which the rank and file, frankly, could not understand, and make a positive virtue of not being able to understand. The real reason why they do it is because, quite siimply, they believe olives used to be very large and do not have the information to find out otherwise or the mental tools to deal with such information and because the gedolim say so with rucah hakodesh.

    So when you dig down, it's all just based on a series of empirically untrue statements believed by people who don't know better and wouldn't want to if they could and that's it.

  13. "There is no pleasure like the resolution of doubt," as Redak famously stated (except that most people think that Chazal said it)

    to r slifkin,
    you are not much better than they are - its a metzudas dovid in mishlei (ch.12:25) not a radak!!!

    perhaps you are misquoting on the olive issue as well?! what next? locust eating?!

  14. Say Mark, can I just (sincerely) shake your hand on that?

  15. Yatzmach - oy, that's an embarrassing mistake! Thanks for the correction.

  16. The olives essay was the first work I ever read by Rabbi Slifkin. At the time I first read it, I had not idea who he was but it motivated me to find out. It made so much sense to me, and I was so happy to have found a rabbi that made so much sense, finally, I wanted to see what else he had written. I found his blogs, website, the controversy, etc. But that only intrigued me more, and left me wanting to learn more. Today, I own his four books that are currently available, and I am an avid reader of this blog.

    What was so appealing about the olive essay? It spoke the truth, that someone like myself always knew was out there but didn't have the ability or inclination to research. As a middle school student it boggled my mind that most of the class could just sit there and accept from the rebbe that olives used to be bigger in ancient times without any evidence what so ever for the claim. It seems like skeptics to such claims are relatively few, but when someone comes along and makes sense of it all, we rallied around what instinctively we knew to be true all along. (i.e. That the Ashkenazi authorities got it wrong, and an olive is just an olive.)

    As I progressed through a chareidi high school, I mostly rejected their ideas but some gained traction like the size of a k'zayit. While I never accepted is a logical, I came to accept that one should eat ridiculously large portions of matza. Not only did I accept it for myself, I (and my similarly influenced brother)encouraged my whole family, who had a much more reasonable kezayit shiur to eat more... all for no good reason. It was such a relief or perhaps pleasure to read the essay and learn that what I always suspected was true, and resolving that doubt that had been created by chareidi rebbeim.

    In short, for many of us who may have eaten less matza the Pesach after reading the essay it wasn't about rejecting our mesorah, but returning to our mesorah after having had it usurped by some chareidi evangelists.

  17. It's not only a 'zayit' volume that has become highly inflated over the course of time, but of other shiurim, as well. The volume of an halachic 'egg' was taken by a noted 18th century posek, Rav Yechezkel Landau (Nodeh Biyehuda) to be double the egg volumes in the marketplace. This doubling of halachic egg volumes was approved by other leading poskim of the day and by some leading recent poskim, such as Rav Karelitz (Hazon Ish). While the commercial egg sizes in 18th century Prague may have, indeed, been much smaller than modern commercial eggs, there is no rational basis for continuing that practice today. It was already noted by a leading posek at the turn of the 20th century (Rav Y.M. Epstein, the author of the Aruch Hashulchan) that the eggs in his day in Lita had essentially doubled in size after the import of a different breed of hen. He therefore dismissed the doubling of egg sizes as leading to impossibly large shiurim for a rev'iit. Those of us who use a realistic measure of a 'zayit' for a minimum shiur of matzah eating and a real egg volume to determine the minimum amount of wine for each kos have a very good basis for their practice.

  18. R'Slifkin,

    why with respect to the halacha of killing bugs you accept the view of RHerzog and others that the halacha remains in place even if based on faulty empircal information, but with the question of kezayis, you follow what you know to be scienficially correct, even if it is not consistent with general halachic practice? Is the difference a deference for Chazal over rishonim? Or is it something else? Just curious to understand your thinking. Thanks!

  19. Didn't I explain that at the end of the monograph?

  20. I would also like to shake Mark's hand.

  21. R Slifkin -

    I read your post on the limits of rationalism. Again I see no definition of the term. You simply seem to say - OJ sets limits, we can't go beyond. Whether an empiricist or a rationalist, this is incoherent. Yet reading your posts, you seem to suggest in fact a modern near positivist and indeed Eurocentric scientist approach. In your most recent post you suggest that nothing in Torah's account of creation could accord with modern science except by accident. Even Dawkins would not go that far. Your implication is that the ancients knew nothing of empiricism or rational enquiry. Yet the Egyptians built the pyramids, we have clear evidence of much advanced science in ancient non European cultures - see http://www.hssonline.org/publications/NonWesternPub/Africa.html
    for an example. Only after centuries of thinking that all technology must be modern European is it possible to adopt your position on ancient knowledge.

    Further, Judaism does indeed have a basis in philosophical rationalism, which it may well share with other ancient African and Near East cultures. Its precisely because of this 20th and 21st century Jewish sources say that olives must have been bigger - a perfectly reasonable rational or empiricist position when you have as you rightly indicaye limited evidence either way.The issue is - what do you do when contrary empirical evidence arrives (although a properly scientific as opposed to your scientist position would be as per Popper and Hume to be cautious about making conclusions about all ancient olives on the basis of such limited archaeological evidence.) But even admitting the evidence its perfectly rational to then say, well our tradition blends revelation and human experience, and so we follow the traditions of our fathers and eat big olives still ( or do you propose one day yomtov everywhere ). You must define how and in what way you admit the divine in to your epistemological framework in an honest manner and stop suggesting that this is somehow non rational as opposed to non empiricist, or I fear you risk incoherence which would be a pity for such an obviously talented thinker.


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