Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Visit to Ein Gedi

Here is an email that I received from a rabbi in Jerusalem, with regard to my earlier post regarding the hyrax:
Just wanted you to know that we're rooting for you, or more accurately, for the Emes. It was disturbing to see that intelligent people today, and among them chashuv rabbanim, would entertain the possibility that the shafan is not the hyrax. It can only be clear proof that none of them have ever visited Ein Gedi in the early morning. Our family loves to get to Ein Gedi at opening time when the crowds haven't yet arrived, just to spend time sitting with the ibex and hyraxes (see attached photo), basking in the beauty of Hashem's world and saying the Pirkei Tehilim in which Dovid ha'Melech expressed that beauty. The hyrax is such an integral part of Eretz Yisrael (I've photographed them in the Negev and at Rosh Hanikra) that I wonder what Tanach calls the hyrax if it isn't the shafan.

And if the shafan is the rabbit, then what am I supposed to tell my children when we are hiking in the Negev and we see the ibex and the hyrax among the rocks and they spontaneously yell out, "Harim ha'gevohim la'yeelim, selaim machseh la'shfanim!" -- "Sorry, kids, you got it wrong. The shafan is a rabbit"? (N.S. - And at least his kids have heard of rabbits. What would the average Jew in Biblical Israel have thought?)

I also wonder if Isaac Betech also believes that the size of a k'Zayis is eight olives.
In relation to this, note that the Bronx Zoo displays ibex and hyrax in the same enclosure, to replicate how they are commonly found together in the wild.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where are the Pandas, Penguins and Polar Bears of Psalms?

In “The Identity of the Shafan and Arnevet” (Dialogue 2012), physicians Isaac Betech and Obadia Maya attempt to argue that the shafan of Tenach is the rabbit and not the hyrax. Their article is lengthy, includes a copious number of footnotes, and the authors claim to have corresponded with “the greatest specialists in the relevant disciplines.” Yet they fail to even mention, let alone address, the reason why virtually every scholar of Biblical zoology in the last century has agreed that the shafan cannot be the rabbit.

You can download my full response in PDF version at this link. I already sent it to Dialogue, but given the make-up of their rabbinic board (Rabbi Miller, Rabbi Feldman and Rabbi Meiselman), it seems unlikely, to say the least, that they would be open to dialogue. I asked the editor to notify me if they would consider it for publication, but I did not receive a reply. So I am making it available here; if you know any readers of Dialogue, please pass it on to them.



Meanwhile, my article about Mishpacha's take on charedim and the army is in the Jerusalem Post. You can see it online at this link (slightly expanded from the version that I originally posted here). If you have comments on it, please post them to the previous post, not this one.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Mishpachah's Myopia, etc.

In this week's Mishpachah magazine, editor Rabbi Moshe Grylak writes about why charedim in Israel don't serve in the army (online here). I drew upon various blog posts that I have written and put together a response that you can download at this link. It's a PDF file, so you can print it out and share it on Shabbos with people who read Mishpachah.

If you're looking for a dvar Torah to share about Tu B'Shvat, I once wrote an essay that you can view at this link. It's based on various material that I heard from Rav Moshe Shapiro.

If you live in NY/NJ, I'd really appreciate it if you could spread the word about my program at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange next Sunday. You can download the flyer at this link.

Good Shabbos!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Manna and Maimonides

(A re-post from a few years back, which is appropriate for this week's parashah)

It is notoriously difficult to ascertain Rambam's view on the extent to which miracles are naturalistic phenomena. He makes comments about miracles in a number of different places, which seem to contradict each other:

A. Commentary to the Mishnah
Miracles are all preprogrammed into nature since creation

B. Guide to the Perplexed

1. Rambam professes his own view: Miracles are supernatural, and all are possible, as an essential parallel to creation
2. Praises sages’ view that miracles are built into nature
3. Extensively reinterprets many Biblical events so as to remove supernatural aspects

C. Treatise On Resurrection
1. Presents policy of only accepting supernatural as last resort
2. Categorizes some miracles as supernatural and others as natural

D. Epistle Against Galen

Explains supernatural miracles as being relatively minor modifications of nature

Many have tried to make sense out of all these statements, with differing results. See, for example, Joseph Heller, “Maimonides’ Theory of Miracles”; Hannah Kasher, “Biblical Miracles and the Universality of Natural Laws: Maimonides’ Three Methods of Harmonization”; Haim Kreisel, “Miracles in Medieval Jewish Philosophy”; Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Maimonides and Miracles: The Growth of a (Dis)Belief”; Alvin J. Reines, “Maimonides’ Concept of Miracles”; and Michael Tzvi Nahorai, “The Problem of Miracles for Maimonides.” I also have my own paper on it, which is still unpublished.

In this post, I merely wish to draw attention to Rambam's statements about manna. In the Epistle Against Galen, he describes one type of supernatural miracle as being the acquisition of new properties:
Something is innovated which is not in the nature of the present reality to come into existence, such as the entire innovation of the manna, which had the property of being hard and could be ground to make bread, but when the sun shone upon it, it became soft and melted.

The manna itself was not supernatural; what was supernatural was that it was a hard substance that turned into a liquid under sunlight. This is, to say the least, an unexpected aspect of the manna to highlight as being miraculous.

In the Guide (III:50), on the other hand, Maimonides describes the miracle of the manna as follows:
Now the greatest of the miracles described in the Law is the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, with a supply of manna every day. This wilderness, as described in Scripture, consisted of places "wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water"; places very remote from cultivated land, and naturally not adapted for the habitation of man... But God knew that in future people might doubt the correctness of the account of these miracles, in the same manner as they doubt the accuracy of other narratives; they might think that the Israelites stayed in the wilderness in a place not far from inhabited land, where it was possible for man to live [in the ordinary way]; that it was like those deserts in which Arabs live at present; or that they dwelt in such places in which they could plow, sow, and reap, or live on some vegetable that was growing there; or that manna constantly comes down in those places as an ordinary natural product; or that there were wells of water in those places. In order to remove all these doubts and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, Scripture enumerates all the stations, so that coming generations may see them, and learn the greatness of the miracle which enabled human beings to live in those places forty years.

Here, Rambam does not say anything about the nature and formation of the manna per se being miraculous, but rather that the miracle was in its being present constantly over forty years. He certainly did not believe that this was a substance created ex nihilo, and apparently did not even believe that there was anything supernatural about its formation per se. Rambam seems to have shared the view found in certain Yemenite Midrashic texts (and see too Ibn Ezra to Shemos 16:13), that manna is essentially a naturally-occurring substance. It was miraculous in it occurring with unnatural properties (according to the Epistle Against Galen) and with constantly fortuitous timing (according to the Guide). (See the extract from Rabbi Nataniel ben Yeshayah, Nûr al-Zalâm, written in 1329, published in Y. Tzvi Langermann, Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah, pp. 216-217.)

The reason why I mention all this is that the New York Times just published a fascinating article about various foodstuffs thought to be the Biblical manna, which are making a comeback on modern restaurant menus (link, or you can read the reprint, with typically entertaining comments, at Vos Iz Neias). Food for thought!

UPDATE: Here's an interesting interview with the person who is selling manna:
“The manna is the sap that’s collected from the bushes in the desert. We have two kinds. One is from the camel thorn bush, the Hedysarum [manna]. It’s the brown one, looks like brown sugar. The other one, Shir-Khesht. I don’t suggest you pronounce it. You might break something. I believe that’s the one that’s found in the Bible, in the Book of Exodus. Go home tonight and read it. Everything I’m telling you now comes directly out of the Bible. It’s not just the machinations of a wild man with a big chin. What is manna? What is not manna constitutes a PhD debate. But it’s the sweet, saccharine exudations of a plant, maple syrup if you will. So you forage from the bush. In ancient times, there was an insect that subsisted on these bushes. The insect is now extinct. In ancient times, the Israelites were starving; they prayed for food; food fell from heaven. The insects — now humans — they make an incision in the root or branch, the sap comes to the surface, coagulates, hardens and, even to this day, you have wind storms that pick up the manna. It swirls into the atmosphere, and it falls and it looks like it’s raining. So the Israelites believed it was a divine intercession. The word ‘manna’ is ancient Hebrew for ‘what is it?’ The Bible tells you that Israelites argued amongst themselves as to what this product was. Whatever it is or was, they’d use it to sweeten their unleavened bread....In Iran, we use manna as a natural antibiotic to reduce fever in a child. Who needs these poisons that we’re all told are good for us? These botanicals are better than the pharmaceutical substitute.”

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Sephardic Spring


In the 19th century, Ashkenazi and Sephardic versions of Judaism were very different. As I mentioned in my monograph "The Novelty of Orthodoxy," some historians attribute this to long-standing differences between the two, while others attribute it to the different environments. Ashkenazi Orthodoxy developed as a response to developments in Christian Europe, for better or for worse; Sephardic Jewry, which was not faced with such developments, did not change in that way.

But in the late twentieth century, when Ashkenazim and Sephardim came together in Israel, the differences began to fade away. Not in a good sense; there was and is still plenty of discrimination. But many Sephardim adopted the Ashkenazi Lithuanian Charedi approach to Judaism, in which things are extreme and reactionary, and young men are encouraged to learn in kollel rather than serve in the army and work to support their families.

Enter Rav Chaim Amsalem. He is an amazing Rav who is seeking to return the Sephardic world to its more moderate roots - you won't hear any screaming tirades from him about how his opponents are goyim! But his work is important for Ashkenazim too. He has launched the new political movement Am Shalem, which seeks to unify Israel around an equal, normal Jewish and Israeli way of life, involving serving in the IDF and enabling everyone to work for a living. It also seeks to rescue the rabbinate from the charedi takeover. You can learn more about Rav Amsalem and Am Shalem at its website, AmShalem.org.

The other day, I mentioned that I was nervous about voting for Am Shalem, because I was unsure if they would pass the voting threshold. However, the polls are unclear; it is certainly at least on the border, and some polls predict that they could gain as many as three seats. This may well be a historic opportunity for change. I will leave you with the following comment that someone wrote to my blog post, which provides much food for thought:
I have heard your argument from so many that Am Shalem makes the most sense and would be their first choice, but...... (mainly passing the minimum number of votes).
If one tenth of such people would vote Am Shalem he will get in. I will sacrifice my otherwise traditional Mafdal/Bayit Yehudi vote (of 30 years) and vote Am Shalem. The difference between 14 and 15 Bayit Yehudi seats is meaningless, but having Rav Amsalem in the Knesset is (maybe) priceless.
(See too this article in The Jerusalem Post)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Politically Maturing

When I moved to Israel twenty years ago, as an idealistic and wide-eyed charedi yeshivah bachur, I was amazed and horrified at religious Jews who did not vote for United Torah Judaism. After all, Torah is the ultimate guide to everything, right? And the Gedolim are the ultimate guide to the Torah, right? And the UTJ Knesset Members are the ultimate guide to the Gedolim, right? So how could a religious Jew not vote for UTJ?

Ah, the naivete of youth! Unfortunately, looking around at my neighborhood, it appears that a lot of adults suffer from the same naivete. Since many of them apparently read my blog, I thought that I would explain how I evolved.

My chain of logic expressed above came undone in reverse order. The first thing that I realized was that the Knesset Members are most certainly not some sort of perfect conduit to and from the Gedolim. They filter what information reaches the Gedolim, and they make plenty of decisions on their own. Some of them might be fine people; the late Avraham Ravitz comes to mind (and I received a lovely phone call from his wife recently, complimenting me on one of my Jerusalem Post articles). But I'm not particularly confident that others are not the askanim that we all know about, who simply manipulate the Gedolim. Look at how much power Leib Tropper was able to wield! An important Rav in the charedi world told me, a few years back, that this is how UTJ ended up supporting Sharon for the Gaza withdrawal - the Daas Torah that allegedly determines UTJ was simply manipulated by askanim.

The second thing that I realized was that the Gedolim themselves are not the ultimate guide to the Torah. They reflect one very particular and narrow approach to the Torah; that of 21st century charedi ultra-Orthodoxy. As I have explained in my monographs "The Novelty of Orthodoxy" and "The Making of Charedim," this is but one of many approaches to Torah that exist and have existed. Sadly, the charedi Gedolim are largely unaware of other approaches, or in denial of them. And the ultra-Orthodox approach is, in many ways, contrary to Chazal, mesorah and common sense. In particular, of course, the notion of the rest of the country funding mass open-ended kollel while Charedim do not give their children the education or desire to support their families - which is the primary issue for which UTJ exists - is most certainly contrary to Chazal, mesorah and common sense. (This was discussed in a previous post, Not For The Reason You Might Suspect, that was the third most read post on this blog of all time!)

The third thing that I realized is that it is far too simplistic to say that Torah is the ultimate guide for everything. As Ramban states in his commentary to Devarim 6:18, the Torah does not and could not spell out the proper course of action in all situations. Instead, it gives us the basic guidelines and values, and we have to work out the rest for ourselves. In complex situations such as political decisions and national security, there is very little explicit guidance from the Torah; such decisions are affected much more by the values of people. And the notion of "pure Torah values," I discovered, is a myth. Everyone is affected by their surrounding culture; either directly, or by responding to it, or indirectly via learning from rabbinic sources that were themselves influenced by their surrounding culture. The Vilna Gaon accused no less than Rambam of being deeply affected by Greek culture (in which the Gaon was, of course, correct); does anyone seriously think that Rambam had some personal weakness that led him to be influenced, while every other Torah scholar is immune?!

Thus, I realized that voting UTJ was based on a very naive view of Torah, Charedi Gedolim, and how Charedi rabbinic authority functions. They would simply sell out the Land of Israel, even supporting the Left and giving away land, in order to receive the money that they so desperately need because they cannot support themselves, and/or to avoid sharing the burden in being moser nefesh for the nation by serving the army. They've basically said as much recently.

So who should one vote for? Rav Chaim Amsallem and his Am Shalem party seem to have great values, but sadly, they don't seem to be going anywhere. Yesh Atid has some well-meaning people, but I don't trust Yair Lapid one bit, and they are clearly left-leaning. Tzipi Livni? Don't make me laugh. Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak? Don't make me cry.

Likud is a reasonable option, especially with the current makeup of candidates. (Also, I am related to Bibi Netanyahu, by marriage.) However, ultimately, there are grounds for concern that they would succumb to the same weakness to which Sharon succumbed - giving away irretrievable land for temporary international goodwill and useless promises of security. The problem is that, as we have seen, once land is given away, Israel can never defend itself from attacks that are launched from that territory, without being faced with international condemnation that it can't withstand.

So, it's Bayit Yehudi for me. Religious Jews who, unlike charedim, understand that working to support one's family is the normal, traditional and correct way to live. They won't sell out the land for money, and they realize that Israel is destined to "live alone among nations." Sure, the road ahead will be tough; there simply isn't any good solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. But we shall endure, as we always have.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Here Comes Lice Day!

Tomorrow is Lice Day!

Yes, that's right. Tomorrow, Daf Yomi reaches Shabbos 107b, the page of the Gemara which references lice spontaneously generating. As you may remember, my pointing out that this is an errant belief (albeit with no halachic ramifications) caused a spot of bother back in 2004/5. As far as most of the Charedi Gedolim were concerned, such a view was utter heresy (or at least forbidden to say). This was notwithstanding the fact that my statement was simply a repetition of an observation that had been made by many great Torah scholars (such as, specifically with regard to spontaneous generation, Rav Yitzchak Lampronti, Rav Hirsch, Rav Herzog, and Rav Dessler). Not to mention the fact that it was clearly true.

Meanwhile, there are always those who claim that the Gemara isn't actually saying that lice spontaneously generate. I remember Rabbi Moshe Meiselman literally (and I mean "literally" literally) screaming at me that on Yom Kippur, I will have to beg forgiveness for having accused Chazal of believing such a thing. When I pointed out that this is clearly how Rashi and other Rishonim interpret the Gemara, he responded that that was irrelevant. So here's an extract from the chapter on lice in my book Sacred Monsters, which you can buy directly from me online or at bookstores, which addresses this claim:
Some have attempted to defend the notion of the scientific infallibility of the Talmud, or at least the applicability of this ruling, by reinterpreting this statement about lice. A popular argument is that the Sages actually meant only that the eggs of lice are halachically insignificant due to their small size, not that they do not exist. Similarly, some claim that the life-force of a louse is not halachically classified as an animal life-force (just as a plant is alive and yet is not classified in a halachah as a living creature). An alternate claim that is advanced is that since the eggs or larvae require this particular environment in which to develop, it can be said that they are generated from there.

However, there are numerous problems with such explanations, notwithstanding their obvious appeal. First, there is no independent evidence for these explanations; they are presented simply on the grounds that there could not be a scientific error in the Talmud. Yet, as we discussed in the introduction to this work, most authorities understand that the Sages of the Talmud did make a scientific error in believing that the sun passes behind the sky at night. And since the Sages spoke of a mouse that grows from dirt, they clearly did believe in spontaneous generation. Thus there is no reason to accept that they could not have believed that lice generate this way, which was the common belief in their era.

Second, the words of the Talmud say nothing about the eggs being halachically insignificant, or about the life-force of lice not being like that of other animals. It simply states that they do not reproduce sexually. While it is not impossible that this could be a shorthand reference for something else, the burden of proof is certainly upon those who would make such a claim. Especially since, in Talmudic times, the entire world believed that lice spontaneously generate, it is highly unreasonable to state that when the Sages spoke of lice as not reproducing sexually, they intended a different meaning entirely.

Third, such explanations are inconsistent with the views of the traditional Talmudic commentators. Rambam, Rashba, Ran, Tosafos and others all state that lice spontaneously generate from sweat or dust. True, it is not impossible that they misunderstood the nature of the Talmud’s ruling—indeed, we posited similarly in the case of mermaids. Yet in the case of mermaids, there was compelling textual evidence that the Talmud was referring to dolphins instead; here, no such evidence exists. Furthermore, those who posit that the Talmudic statement about lice must be scientifically correct are usually the same people who are reluctant to posit that the traditional commentators all erred in their understanding of the Talmud.

The final objection to such reinterpretations of the Talmud’s statement is that there is a straightforward refutation from the continuation of the Talmud:
Abaye said: And do lice not reproduce? Surely it was said, “God sits and sustains from the horns of aurochsen to the eggs of lice” (which shows that lice come from eggs)? — That refers to a type [of organism] which is called eggs of lice (but not that lice actually hatch from these).
If the Sages were not denying the existence of lice eggs, why do they reject the simple meaning of the statement that speaks about God sustaining the eggs of lice, and resort to difficult explanations instead? Let them simply state that although lice do hatch from eggs, these are too small to be halachically significant! It therefore seems that they did not consider this possibility. (I am aware that some claim that the Talmud means that since the eggs are halachically insignificant, they cannot be the subject of the statement about lice eggs. However such a reading is highly contrived, lacks any evidence, and is certainly not how the Rishonim and Acharonim understood the Talmud.)
Eight years later, how do things look? Has the Daas Torah of the Charedi Gedolim triumphed? Or have people calmed down, and are matters back to the way they were before the controversial ban, when views such as those expressed in my book were tolerated? If you attend a Daf Yomi shiur, perhaps you could post a comment and let us know what was said. And I would also like to point out that I have a Hebrew translation of Sacred Monsters ready to be published, if someone would like to help sponsor it!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Threat of Euclid

Here in Israel, United Torah Judaism is circulating the following campaign ad:


For those who can't make out the Hebrew words in the poster, the ad says "EUCLID - Not, it's not the name of a medicine. It's the Greek mathematics mathematician that (the Zionists want) your son to learn about instead of learning Mishnayos." It proceeds to detail how it is important for your children to learn good character, yiras Shamayim and Torah, rather than the foreign wisdom that the government wants them to study, etc.

Now, one question that immediately springs to mind is why Mishnayos and mathematics are presented as an either/or. Nobody is saying that charedim should not learn Mishnayos at all; rather, they are saying that charedim should learn mathematics as well as Mishnayos. Which many Orthodox Jews, in Israel and abroad, manage perfectly well. And they seem to do pretty well at achieving good character and yiras Shamayim, too.

But my colleague Leor Jacobi pointed out something else:



It's a Hebrew translation of Euclid, by Rav Baruch of Shklov. He was encouraged to publish it by his rebbe, the Vilna Gaon. He writes in the introduction that the Gra told him that “according to the measure of what a person lacks in general wisdom, he will lack a hundredfold when it comes to Torah wisdom, because the Torah and general wisdom are closely linked together.”

It looks like United Torah Judaism has set itself up against the Zionists and the Vilna Gaon. Strange, no?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Rivers And Other Rationalist Miscellenia

1. In the comments to the post "Sugar For Elephants," a reader drew my attention to another example of an early Acharon pointing to an inaccurate statement made by a Rishon due to his geographical location. Radvaz negates the view of R. Eliyahu Mizrahi (and effectively many others) who identified the "River of Egypt," stated to be the border of Eretz Yisrael, as the river Nile. He points out that they were unfamiliar with the geographical reality, due to their living in Europe:

שו"ת רדב"ז חלק ו סימן ב אלפים רו

הרב המזרחי חשב כי נחל מצרים הוא הנילוס כאשר צייר באותה פרשה ואין לתפוס עליו לפי שהוא ז"ל צייר מה שלא ראה

If anyone has more examples of this phenomenon, please send them in.

2. I am pleased to report that the "Rationalist Medical Halachist" is back in action! Check out his website at http://rationalistmedicalhalacha.blogspot.com.

3. Dr. Marc Shapiro has a typically fascinating post, primarily about metzitzah, at the Seforim Blog. Also, there's interesting tidbits about the charedi world at The Jewish Worker.

4. My safari to Africa is filling up, but there are still some places left. Learn more about this trip of a lifetime at http://www.torahinmotion.org/programs/live_program/5440

5. If you live in NY/NJ, I'd appreciate it if you could help spread the word about my program at the Turtle Back Zoo and my lectures in NY.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

February Lecture Schedule - UPDATED

Here is the schedule for my forthcoming lecture tour in the US, for lectures that are open to the public:
  • Shabbos February 1-2 - Ahavas Achim, West Orange, NJ
  • Sunday February 3 - Zoo Torah at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange - download flyer here. NOTE: This program may be cancelled. If you are interested in attending, please write to me.
  • Sunday February 3 - Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Rd, Teaneck - "The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought" - Multimedia presentation 2-3:30pm
  • Tuesday February 5 - Kingsway Jewish Center, Brooklyn - 8pm Lecture: "What A Jew Must Believe." Admission $10 non-members, $5 Kingsway members
  • Wednesday February 6 - Parlor meeting in Brooklyn, to discuss the status of the Encyclopedia and Museum, and to raise funds. It is invitation only; if you are interested in attending, please be in touch.
  • Shabbos February 8-9 - Young Israel of Plainview 
  • Sunday February 10 - Afternoon - Two lectures at the Bridge Shul in Washington Heights - details on this flyer
  • Sunday February 10 - Evening - Lecture at Beth Hadassah in Great Neck, 8pm, The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sugar for Elephants

Longtime followers of my work will remember the brouhaha surrounding elephants and olives. Several years ago, it transpired that some people not only believe that Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) were omniscient and infallible about scientific matters, but also the Rishonim (the Torah scholars of the medieval period).

In one episode, I was asked by some students about a Tosafist stating that an elephant could be made to jump up in the air, with all four legs, in order to retrieve food. I responded that this is not possible (elephants can rear up on two legs, but not jump entirely into the air). I pointed out that the Tosafist concerned had never seen an elephant, and would reasonably have believed it to be possible that elephants can jump. (See The Case Of The Jumping Elephant.) This led to a minor uproar; how could I accuse the Tosafist of being wrong?!

In another episode, I wrote a monograph to explain why the Rishonim of Ashkenaz, unlike the Rishonim of Sefarad, rated the kezayis as being such a large quantity. My answer was that the Rishonim of Ashkenaz never saw olives and were misled into thinking that they are large. Despite the overwhelming evidence that I brought for this, including testimony to this effect by some Ashkenaz Rishonim, my monograph was nevertheless rejected by a certain halachic journal on the grounds of it being insufficiently appreciative of the greatness of the Ashkenazi Rishonim.

In a similar vein, I have recently been engaged in debate with various people regarding the identifications of various animals in the Torah given by European Rishonim (such as identifying the tzvi as the deer, and the shafan as the rabbit). When I pointed out that these Rishonim were unfamiliar with the animals of Israel (such as the gazelle and hyrax), and were thus unable to correctly identify the animals of the Torah, the response was that I did not appreciate that these Rishonim did indeed possess such knowledge, due to divine inspiration or suchlike.

Of course, my position can be well defended; since there is widespread support for saying that even the Sages of the Talmud possessed no special knowledge of the natural world, certainly the same is true for the Rishonim. Still, it always helps to have additional and specific support. And so I was pleased when my friend Yeedle made a great discovery regarding sugar.

What berachah should be made upon eating sugar? Usually we make she'hakol on the juices and extracts of fruits, because by extracting the juice from a fruit, it is no longer halachically a fruit. But one of the exceptions to this rule is if the fruit was planted specifically for the purpose of extracting its juice. In such cases, the juice itself is considered the fruit, and one makes a berachah of  borei pri ha'etz.

The Tur, i.e. Rabbi Yaakov, son of the Rosh, following his father, rules that one says borei pri ha'etz on sugar. He explains that since the sugarcane itself isn't edible, it must be that the canes are planted for the extraction of their juice in order to make sugar, and therefore the sugar is considered as the fruit of the sugarcane, it deserves the berachah of ha'etz.

However, none less than Rav Yosef Karo negates the Tur's view, as follows:
 ואני אומר שאילו היו קנים הללו נמצאים בארצו של הטור לא היה טוען כן. שבמקום שנמצאים מוכרים מהם לאלפים ולרבבות למצוץ אותם. 

And I say, were these canes found in the land of the Tur, he wouldn't have made such a claim. Because in the places where they are found, they are sold in the thousands and ten thousands to be sucked. (Kesef Mishneh, Berachos 8:5)
In other words, since sugarcane only grows in tropical regions, the Tur was not sufficiently familiar with it, and did not realize that it is commonly grown to be eaten as sugarcane. (R. Karo's view is approvingly cited by Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 202:13.)

Again, it's not really any great chiddush that Rav Yosef Karo did not consider the Tur to know about the whole world. But in today's Orthodox Jewish society, it's certainly a chiddush to some people, and so it's very useful to be able to point it out.

(Thanks to Yeedle for his help with this post; he also pointed out to me that there are those, such as Ramban in Berachos 36b, who disagree with the Tur not only because sugarcane is edible, but also because they say sugar can't be rated as fruit.)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Level-Headed Businessmen

Someone by the name of Warren had an objection to the previous post (which is one of the top ten most-read posts on this blog of all time), regarding my criticism of open-ended mass kollel:
"You have yet to explain why thousands of level-headed intellectual and rational American businessmen support the kollel system worldwide by pouring in millions of bucks to keep it going. They evidently understand its importance, which we guys don't."
So, allow me to explain it. They may well be level-headed intellectual and rational businessmen, but that doesn't mean that they have been correctly educated about Jewish values. These businessmen have been indoctrinated by the charedi educational system to believe that there is religious virtue in the modern kollel system, so naturally they support it. Many have them have been led to believe that they are part of a traditional Yissacher/Zevulun partnership (whereas, in a posted entitled Is Kollel Rooted In Yissacher/Zevulun, I demonstrated that this is not the case.) Some of them undoubtedly feel that they can make up for their own "failure" of leaving yeshivah by funding those who stay.

Besides, there is a powerful example of how level-headed intellectual and rational businessmen don't necessarily make wise choices when it comes to religious matters. Just consider the case of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, who has some extremely high-profile businessman amongst his supporters. (See too Nahum Barnea's article, Pinto Case Reveals The Power of Israel's "Tycoon-Rabbi" Class.)

The good news is that I know many businessman who have become post-charedi (often thanks to the actions of the Gedolim in the Torah-science controversy), and who now give their charity dollars to worthy causes instead of harmful ones.

The Evils of Civic Responsibility and National Pride?

A rabbinic colleague of mine recently purchased a Hebrew illustrated children's haggadah, Me-Avdut LeCherut , published by Yefeh Nof, ...