Thursday, August 22, 2013

Anne Samson – “Ema”

(Thanks to all those who wrote in with messages of support, as well as to those who wanted to but refrained out of sensitivity to my email overload. I was not able to reply to each message, nor to process comments for the previous post, but everything was read and appreciated.) 

Following is the text of the eulogy that I delivered in Israel. Shiva details appear in the previous post.

For those who don’t know her background, Anne Samson was born Anne Katz in a Displaced Person’s camp in Austria. As a small child, she moved to Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, when s
he was sixteen years of age, she and Lee Samson met in Bnei Akiva and became high school sweethearts. They were married three years later. After spending some time volunteering on a kibbutz, they settled back in Los Angeles. They became pillars of the community, involved in a wide range of projects and institutions in Israel as well as Los Angeles.

When I joined the Samson family, thirteen years ago, I was very nervous about meeting my mother-in-law to be. You hear a lot of jokes about mothers-in-law being dominating, interfering, and difficult. But I never got to understand what those jokes are about. Anne Samson – or Ema, as I called her – was never anything other than kind, loving, supportive and helpful. In thirteen years, the only time she was ever forceful with me was when I was once suffering from severe stomach pains. I had refused to go to a doctor, due to my having forgotten to take out travel insurance, and being convinced that it was nothing serious. Ema made an appointment for me with a specialist without my knowledge, and then talked me into going, whereupon the doctor rushed me to hospital to remove my ruptured appendix.

My wife, Tali, asked me to stress how Ema was the most selfless, generous, giving, helpful, kind person – there simply aren’t adequate words to praise her. She never said “no.” She was always smiling and full of warmth. Although she was blessed with a luxurious lifestyle, she was completely down-to-earth, with genuine modesty and no airs and graces.

Ema epitomized the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim. She constantly hosted large groups, for which she would cook up a storm. Her Shabbos meals would be like Yom Tov feasts, and her Yom Tov meals like banquets. Hashem granted her one last chance to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim on the day of the tragic accident. A friend of Tali and Aliza was having a stressful visit to LA to help her elderly mother emigrate. Tali had invited her to come over and relax with her in her parents’ pool. On Thursday, when she was available to come, Tali was not in the house. Nonetheless, Ema told her that she should come anyway. Not only did she welcome this stranger to her home, but according to our friend, Ema was the most gracious and friendly hostess, and this woman felt an instant warmth and connection. Tali’s last conversation with her mother was when she called her that day. After a short while she said “I'm sorry Tali, I have to go, I was just with my guest and I don't want to keep her waiting.” This was who she was: a warm, caring, happy and giving person, who opened her home and her heart whenever she was given the opportunity.

In Ema’s final days in this world, she went out with her husband to a restaurant for a romantic dinner, she sat on the beach with my children and helped them build sandcastles, and she visited the new camp Moshava Malibu. This perfectly encapsulates the three major elements of her life – her loving relationship with her husband, her devotion to her family, and her involvement with the community and Eretz Yisrael.

Ema, we are going to miss you so much. We will especially miss your phone calls and Skype conversations, celebrating chagim and family events, spending summers together. We will miss your smile and contagious laughter, and we will miss seeing your happiness when you talk and play with your grandchildren. We love you and we will always remember you.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet (updated with shiva times)

With great sadness, I am reporting the tragic passing of my beloved mother-in-law, Mrs. Anne Samson, who was killed in a car accident on Friday. My father-in-law was released from hospital on Sunday.

The levaya is planned for 3:30pm today (Tuesday) at Eretz HaChayim on route 38. The plane is expected to arrive on time. (Although a large number of people are expected to come, I am not sure that it makes sense to arrive too early, because there is another funeral immediately beforehand.)

My wife and sister are sitting shiva in Israel at the Rosenstein's, Nachal Refaim 7/2, until Monday morning; my father-in-law, who is not yet able to travel, is sitting shivah in LA.

Shiva times in Ramat Bet Shemesh are as follows:
Wednesday: Shacharis 7:30am. Shiva times: After shachris, 11am - 2pm, 6:30pm - 9:30pm. Mincha/Maariv - 7:05pm
Thursday: 11am - 2pm, 6:30pm - 9:30pm
Friday: 10am - 2pm
Motzei Shabbos: 9pm - 10pm
Sunday: 11am - 2pm, 6:30pm - 9:30pm

Please respect the times above. If you are traveling from afar, please call 052-662-3256 if you arrive at an off-time to confirm their availability.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What Are Those Quoters Thinking?

(Note: This post is a mirror-image of an article published by Eytan Kobre in Mishpachah magazine. You have to read the original article in order to understand the tone of this post.)

One fascinating aspect of the writings of Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin ztz”l is that he published many essays addressing political and social issues of the day, setting forth a clear Torah hashkafah on how to relate to such phenomena as the State of Israel, anti-Semitism, the secular American Jewish establishment, and postwar Germany. He based his views on these, and many more matters, on an extremely wide range of sources, including episodes in Tanach and later Jewish history, on the statements of Chazal in Shas and midrashim, and of gedolei Torah he had known.

Looking at Rav Henkin’s deeply sourced and compellingly argued essays, one can’t help but contrast them with, l’havdil, what often passes for Torah-based arguments in contemporary discourse.

In the recent controversy over the draft of bnei Torah, for example, one comes across articles in which the same handful of sources are recycled endlessly to support the innovation of mass kollel. There’s the Mishnaic dictum of Talmud Torah kenegged kulam, and that hardy perennial, the Rambam (Hilchos Shmittah V'Yovel), who writes that anyone can choose the life of a Levite.

One must really wonder what people who quote these sources as discussion-enders are thinking. If one has a question about how to reconcile a mishnah with the practice of multitudes of very observant Jews for centuries, then by all means pose it, earnestly and humbly, and seek out an answer. But these sources are cited triumphantly as conclusory evidence against the position of Chazal, the Rishonim, and the greatest halachic authorities right up until the charedi rabbonim post-WWII, who not only permitted but highly encouraged people to learn a trade and work for a living.

It’s impossible to even imagine another field of highly complex knowledge in which those defending a revolutionary approach would be so foolish and so lacking in humility as to pronounce every acknowledged traditional master of the discipline mistaken for having missed a basic piece of information. But let the conversation turn to something Torah-related, and it’s the Wild West, with every man and his Judaic six-shooter for himself.

Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsberg recently wrote of having accompanied Rav Elyashiv ztz”l to and from a funeral, with pen and pad in hand to record the various questions people would inevitably ask. In the course of this 40-minute experience, Rav Elyashiv answered more than 70 sh’eilos, exhibiting his breathtaking mastery of the gamut of Torah. And Rav Elyashiv strongly supported mass kollel. Yet we are to believe, it seems, that this somehow radically alters the very history of our people and the very statements of Chazal and the Rishonim. Don’t those who fling the Gedolim as a shtempel kashrus know that there are Gedolim who disagree strongly with the modern system of mass kollel, but who are afraid to speak their mind, as Jonathan Rosenblum has written? Do they not know that there are complex social forces mean that attitudes to basic issues can change and be distorted, even amongst great Torah scholars? Do they not know the history of the Jewish People, in which many great Torah scholars were embroiled in disputes in which they each considered their equally distinguished opponents to be fundamentally in error? That they attributed such fundamental error to the ability of sophisticated Torah learning to resolve all contradictions between behavior and sources via the drawing of subtle distinctions? This is precisely why halachic practice has always been rooted in the values and rulings of Shas and Rishonim, not in contemporary mores that go against mesorah.

Let’s look, for example, at Eytan Kobre. In an article printed in the latest issue of Mishpachah, Mr. Kobre claims "the Kesef Mishneh, on the page alongside the Rambam; the Rema (Yoreh Dei’ah 246:21); the Shach (ibid.); the Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Dei’ah 246:40-42); and Igros Moshe (Yoreh Dei’ah 2:116) all rule that one may, without any hesitation, receive funding to learn Torah full-time."

Now, Eytan Kobre is being presented as the Voice of Torah Judaism. He is, after all, someone who studied for several years in beis medrash and beyond, and presumably knows how to research a basic halachic issue. Here, then, is what he could have discovered if he had actually looked at the very sources that he himself is quoting, let alone the countless sources in Chazal and the Rishonim that strongly oppose the notion of not learning a trade or working and instead relying on communal support:

The Kesef Mishneh indeed observed that Rambam's prohibition on Torah scholars receiving payment was not shared by other authorities, and permits a Torah scholar to receive funds. However, he specifies that this is only in a case where he is teaching students, acting as a rabbinic judge, or studying in order to take on a teaching/judging role (although elsewhere he appears to be more lenient). How on earth does Mr. Kobre describe this as him saying that "one may, without any hesitation, receive funding to learn Torah full-time"?

The Rema first says that a person should work to support himself, leaving Torah study to other times of day and night, and that it is very praiseworthy to be self-sufficient. Which is not at all surprising, since Chazal taught that Torah study should be accompanied by derech eretz, and in numerous places stressed the importance of being self-sufficient: “A person should hire himself out for alien work rather than requiring assistance from others”; “The man who is self-sufficient is greater than the one who fears Heaven”; etc. The Rema continues to note that someone who decides to busy themselves with Torah and live off charity rather than working has desecrated God's Name and brought the Torah into disrepute. He adds that Torah which is not accompanied by work leads to sin and theft (presumably because the Torah scholar/student is incapable of making a living via honest means). Similarly, the Rosh, discussing someone whose Torah is his profession, such that he is exempt from paying various taxes, defines this person as someone who only takes time away from his studies in order to earn a livelihood, “which is his obligation, for the study of Torah with derech eretz is beautiful, and if the Torah is not accompanied by work, it will end in neglect and will cause sin." This reflects the normative position amongst the Rishonim in Ashkenaz, where financing Torah study was unheard of; virtually all Torah scholars were self-supporting, and even financing Torah teaching was only reluctantly permitted by some.

So far, Rema has been unequivocal that it is forbidden and evil to take money for Torah rather than to be self-supportive (except for those who are physically incapable of working, and who are allowed to receive payment for the Torah that they teach.) But at this point he introduces a lenient view, based on R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz), that permits Torah scholars to receive funding. Note, however, that Rashbatz specifically limits this to Torah scholars functioning in the role of community rabbi. In the referenced responsum, he argues that since the Kohen Gadol receives material support from the community, how much more so should a Torah scholar be entitled to such support; after all, he is equally performing a service for the community. Rema writes that “a person important to the community may accept money from it... without violating the prohibition against benefiting from the Torah, for he is honoring the Torah, not using it." He is not talking about a kollel student!

However, Rema proceeds to note that there are those who are even more lenient and permit even students to receive financial support, in order to strengthen Torah study. So there we have it; after stating the primary view, that it is forbidden and wrong for Torah scholars to receive funding, then noting a "yesh omrim," an alternate lenient view that it is permissible for rabbis to receive funding, we finally have a further lenient view that even students may receive funding. However, Rema notes that it is still preferable for Torah students to be self-supportive, if possible. How on earth does Mr. Kobre summarize all this as him saying that "one may, without any hesitation, receive funding to learn Torah full-time"?

Now let us move on to the next source cited by Mr. Kobre, the Shach. He allows a Rosh Yeshivah or Av Beis Din to accept gifts. He says nothing whatsoever about kollel students receiving funding to learn Torah. How on earth does Mr. Kobre summarize all this as saying that "one may, without any hesitation, receive funding to learn Torah full-time"?

Now let us move on to the next source cited by Mr. Kobre, the Aruch HaShulchan. He, too, makes it very clear that he is talking about voluntary communal support of Torah teachers. He does not permit Torah students to receive communal funds, and does not even permit teachers to demand support; he describes Rambam's opposition as being to Torah scholars who try to force the community to support them (an apt description of the modern mass-kollel system). How on earth does Mr. Kobre summarize all this as saying that "one may, without any hesitation, receive funding to learn Torah full-time"?

Igros Moshe is Mr. Kobre's final source for those who wish to receive money for their studies. However, that has little bearing on the normative position over the ages. R. Moshe's primary sources are referring to Torah teachers, not Torah students. And he admits that his license may well be based upon emergency measures, rather than expressing the original laws and priorities. And one cannot necessarily extrapolate from the state of Torah-emergency in 1964 to the situation in the twenty-first century, when there are tens of thousands of people in kollel. Furthermore, Rav Moshe is only addressing a case where the money is being offered - this has nothing to do with whether it is okay to avoid learning a trade and to insist that others support you. Which clearly goes against Chazal and the Rishonim.

Can this fellow Eytan Kobre truly be blissfully unaware of all this, and of the normative approach of Torah Judaism throughout the ages until just a few decades ago, or is he indeed aware of the relevant halachic sources and is engaging in intentional falsification of Torah to mislead the public? Either way, hostile or ignorant, it doesn’t bode well.

(If you are reading this post by email, please continue to scroll down, in order to see the previous post on hawking.)

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Other Jewish Hawking

In the new Jewish Action magazine, I have an article about hawking in Judaism. It reveals a fascinating dimension to rabbinic leaders in the period of the Rishonim. You can read it online at this link. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Oliphants and Unicorns

As the season of the shofar starts again, I am pleased to announce the release of an updated and expanded edition of my monograph Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations. You can download it for free at This latest edition includes a much-improved understanding of the identity of the Biblical re'em, translated as "unicorn" in some Bibles, as well as a discussion of oliphants - horns made out of the tusks of elephants. Please share it with whoever you think may be interested!

For those in LA - I am speaking this Shabbat at YINBH (details will be posted at, and next Shabbat at Sefardic Magen David.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Riverboat Safari

I had planned my tour group to finish with a riverboat safari on the Chobe river in Botswana. It's the most wonderful experience. There are fish eagles, spoonbills, yellow-billed storks, crocodiles, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, and lots of hippopotami:

There are also an enormous number of elephants. Previously, I've seen them swimming in the river; this time, they were just grazing by the river's edge. We stopped just a few yards from where one was deconstructing a tree.

"If that elephant jumps, your career is ruined!" commented one person. (At each meal, as well as during the bus rides, I speak about various animals in the Torah. Last night's topic was the famous/ infamous "jumping elephant" topic.)

We also went on game drives, in which the highlights were a lioness, and one of the most formidable animals in Africa: a honey badger.

There's so much more to tell about the people, places and animals that I saw during my trip, but it's time to get back to Rationalist Judaism, so this is the end of my Africa posts. Right now I am in JFK airport, waiting to fly out to LA, having passed through Botswana, Zambia and South Africa since I got out of bed 34 hours ago! In LA, I'll be speaking at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, Sephardic Synagogue, and Beth Jacob.

The "Zoo Torah"/ "Torah in Motion" Africa trip was a tremendous success. The trip sold out, and we plan to run it again next summer. If you'd like to join, please write to me.

On Eagle's Wings

One of the questions that I receive most often is about the description of eagles carrying their young on their wings. The  nesher , king of...