Saturday, March 28, 2015

Angry Rabbits and Ticked-Off Tigers

This is too funny!

On the advice of a reader, I just purchased a book in Hebrew for toddlers. On the cover is the title, Shafan, with a stripe of black paint over it. Beneath it is the animal who painted it over: an angry rabbit!

The book is about how this rabbit is very angry that everyone calls him by the wrong name. Instead of calling him arnav, which is the proper name for "rabbit," he is called shafan. Eventually, he leaves town in disgust, and goes to find the real shafan in the wilderness - a hyrax. They switch places, but it doesn't work out too well - the rabbit does not like living in the wild, and the hyrax doesn't like being pulled out of a magician's hat. And so the story ends with the rabbit going back to his old life, and hoping that writing this book will help people call him by the right name.

The transposition of the rabbit with the hyrax is, of course, a classic case study for Biblical zoology. But the book deals with other transpositions, too. During the course of the story, the rabbit goes to a therapy group for animals that are frustrated due to their often called by the wrong name. There's an eagle that is complaining about being called a nesher and a tiger that is called ticked-off about bein called a namer, amongst others.

The transposition of nesher from vulture to eagle is a case similar to that of the shafan. Just as the name shafan was transferred from the hyrax to the rabbit due to there being no hyraxes in Europe, so too the name nesher was transferred due to the eagle's status as the king of birds in Europe. But the transposition of the namer from the leopard to the tiger is more difficult to understand. It is a very common error - see, for example, this painting from the 17th century Rymanow synagogue. Yet tigers are not found in Europe either. I am still trying to figure out the cause of this transposition.

I'm not sure what the message of the book is for its intended readership, but I enjoyed it immensely!

(On a related note, for those interested to read the new Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, the LA book launch is taking place this Monday evening, at Beth Jacob, 8pm - please spread the word to anyone you know in LA. Or, if you're not in LA, you can order it online at Israel orders are already being shipped out, and US orders will be shipped out soon. Free shipping in Israel, Europe and North America!)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kezayis Season

Pesach is rapidly approaching, which means that it's nearly time for people to obsess over the size of a kezayis. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis is by far the most popular piece that I have ever published - if you haven't seen it, you can download it at this link. Here are some follow-up posts on the topic:

Matzah/Maror Chart for Rationalists - so that you, too, can have a chart!

The Popularity of Olives - discussing why this paper is so popular and yet hated by some.

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?  - discussing the strange notion that one should eat a kezayis of matzah on Seder night.

The Riddle of the Giant Kezayis Defense - wondering why many people would not accept that a kezayis is the size of an olive.

Maniacal Dishonesty About Olives - exposing an error-ridden critique that appeared in Dialogue.

It's Krazy Kezayis Time! - discussing the view that one should eat a huge amount of matzah in a very short time in order to fulfill all opinions.

Meanwhile, I am off to LA for three weeks. I probably won't have much time to post, but R. David Ohsie will be publishing a fantastic series of posts about Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam's treatise on Chazal and science, and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's claim that it must be a forgery. If you're in LA, please join me at the book launch for The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, at Beth Jacob, Monday, March 30th, 8-10pm (and please spread the word!)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It's here! Official book launch TONIGHT at the museum!

After fourteen years of work, The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, Volume One: Wild Animals is finally ready, and it looks amazing!

Please join me for a festive book launch at the The Biblical Museum of Natural History TONIGHT, Thursday March 19th, anytime from 7:30pm until 10pm. Admission is free, and complimentary refreshments will be provided (note that the event is for adults only). At the launch, you can buy an autographed copy at a discount; alternatively, you can order the encyclopedia online at and get FREE delivery!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped in the production of this work, whether it was with helpful suggestions with regard to layout, comments on the subject matter, assistance with photographs, providing sponsorships, or displaying enthusiasm that helped me struggle through!

See you at the museum!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Eclipses: Physics or Metaphysics?

This Friday, there will be a total eclipse of the sun. At the blog of The Biblical Museum of Natural History, I wrote a post about the spiritual significance of eclipses. The Talmud (Sukkah 29a) calls eclipses of the sun and moon unfavorable periods for the world. It further states that solar eclipses occur due to certain sins.

The question is clear: Many ancient peoples believed that eclipses were unpredictable events. But we know that they follow a set pattern and can be calculated in advance. Did the Talmud not know this? How can eclipses be a punishment for sins if they occur at predictable times?

Many years ago, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l told me that the Sages simply did not know that eclipses are predictable events. I found two other approaches to this question.

One approach is that of Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger (Aruch LeNer ad loc.). He argues that the Talmud clearly understood solar eclipses to be caused by the moon obscuring the sun. He also points out that the Talmud uses the seemingly superfluous wording, “at the time when the sun is eclipsed, it is an unfavorable period,” when it could have simply said “when the sun is eclipsed.” The word z’man, “time,” is related to the word “zamen,” prepared. Thus, he claims, the usage of this word shows that eclipses were known to be pre-arranged and predictable events. However, this does not present a contradiction to their indicting punishment for sin. Rabbi Ettlinger and Iyun Yaakov explain that during eclipses, God exacts retribution for certain sins. Certain periods are set aside for Divine justice to be meted out, and these are indicated in the physical universe by eclipses.

A different approach is taken by Rabbi Yonasan Eybeschitz (Ya’aros Devash 2:12). He explains the Talmud’s term likuy ha-chamah, literally “the striking of the sun,” to be referring not to solar eclipses but to sunspots. These are cool dark patches on the face of the sun caused by magnetic storms. These being events of unknown occurrence, R’ Eybeschitz explains sunspots to indicate God’s displeasure. Indeed, sunspots send vast amounts of charged protons into our atmosphere, and several studies have tentatively shown corresponding variations in animal populations and incidence of disease amongst people. R’ Eybeschitz argues that people of earlier times were more sensitive to such sunlight aberrations. A difficulty with this is that we now know that sunspots and solar storm disturbances occur in an approximately eleven-year cycle; however, this can vary from seven to sixteen year.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Selling Out

I understand (and happen to agree with) those who support Netanyahy, because they believe that ceding land to the Palestinians will not result in peace, because they are likely to use it to attack Israel, and the international community will prevent Israel from defending itself.

I get, though I don't agree with, those who support Herzog/Livni, because they believe that we must cede land to the Palestinians in order to ultimately gain international legitimacy and peace. These people are sincere in their belief that it is very dangerous to continue the current situation.

What I don't get at all is people who do not believe that peace with the Palestinians is possible, or that the international community will ever be happy with Israel, and who think that any concessions to the Palestinians are very dangerous, but who are willing to do so in exchange for money.

I am referring to United Torah Judaism. MK Litzman said that they are willing to go with either Netanyahu or Herzog - the same Herzog who said that he is open to having Ahmed Tibi on the security committee. Whoever reverses the budget cuts and gives money to the kollelim and yeshivos will get their support.

How can they disregard the long-term safety and security of the country in exchange for money?!

The tragic reason is, of course, because they are desperate, since their society is incapable of surviving without extensive financial support from others.

National security is not the only sphere in which the charedim have sold out for money. Whether one agrees with it or not, the charedim place paramount importance on keeping women away from public roles and appearances. Kol kavodah bas melech penima! Women cannot take on any positions of leadership, cannot speak in public in front of men, and even their pictures cannot appear in any publications.

But when it comes to getting votes in order to get in the government in order to get money, these principles are tossed out of the window. UTJ is running a television advertisement which features a woman!

All this reminds me of an old column by Jonathan Rosenblum (perhaps someone can find it for me) about matchmaking. He lamented that the charedi world, which in theory is about valuing ruchniyos over gashmiyos, ends up being the most obsessed with gashmiyos when it comes to matchmaking. They have forced themselves into a situation where the most crucial criterion is how much money the girl can provide, since the young men have no means of supporting themselves.

Chazal say that if a person does not teach his son a trade, it is as though he has taught him to steal. If a person has no means to support himself and becomes desperate for money, he will end up compromising his integrity. Once again, we see that Chazal were correct.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anti-Rationalism and the Electoral System

The divide between the rationalist and anti-rationalist approaches to theology has fascinating ramifications with regard to the electoral system.

The Maimonidean rationalist approach is very straightforward. Our choices as to whom we vote for determines who will be in the government, which in turn determines policies and their consequences.

The anti-rationalist approach is very different. As we have discussed before (with regard to whether soldiers are actually doing anything), the anti-rationalist approach popularly found in charedi circles today, based on Rav Dessler's school of thought, views our actions as being of no real significance in terms of direct consequences. Instead, they are simply a charade that we must go through in order for God to operate. (And to the extent that we recognize God as being the One actually doing things, we can minimize this charade). According to this approach, hishtadlus doesn't actually have anything to do with parnassah and soldiers don't actually have anything to do with military victory.

I am very grateful to Rav Elimelech Kornfeld for spelling out the ramifications of this with regard to the electoral process. (I say that without any sarcasm; while I disagree with the anti-rationalist approach, I think that it's important for it to be articulated and I greatly appreciate his doing so.) Rav Kornfeld is a local charedi rabbinic leader in Ramat Beit Shemesh who is not afraid to openly state the Israeli charedi perspective on such matters. For example, in the previous national elections, he went on record in HaModia as stating that American olim are mistaken in believing that they have the right to choose who to vote for; instead, they are obligated to vote for whoever the Charedi-Litvishe-Non-RavShmuelAuerbach camp tell them to vote for.

For this election, there is a letter printed on the front page of the local newspaper Chadash in which Rav Kornfeld spells out the charedi anti-rationalist approach with regard to the very nature of the electoral system. He explains that it is not in the hands of any politician or party to actually do anything for us, and continues as follows:
"Our national security, our physical and surely spiritual needs are not in the hands of any government... Our present decision in these elections is to show Hashem that we feel that the things that are important to him are important to us, and this will being us continued Siyata Dishmaya. To this end our leaders, Rav Shteinman Shlita and Rav Kanyevsky Shlita have spoken clearly and strongly that we should vote for Gimmel - UTJ..."

Nothing more than a mask?!
In other words, the entire system of voting in politicians who make policies that are implemented is, like all other forms of hishtadlus, is a sham; it's merely a cover, a mask for the workings of Hashem. However, it is very important to show support for the party that espouses Torah values (which he believes to be UTJ), because that will earn us the Divine favor which actually accomplishes everything that happens.

This appears to be an ingenious way of arriving at the same end result - vote for party x - while basing it on a fundamentally different worldview. However, the more one thinks through its ramifications, the more complications and problems arise.

First of all, it means that rallying votes is only important insofar as it shows Hashem that (charedi) Torah is important to us. But surely one can show Hashem that Torah is important even more powerfully by actually learning Torah! Are the two yeshivah boys who stayed in the Chevron Beis HaMidrash to learn while all their peers spent several hours traveling to and from Bnei Brak not showing Hashem that learning Torah is of supreme value to them?!

Second, it means that if people cheat (from either side), that will have no effect on the fate of the Jewish People. But why, then, is UTJ searching for people to monitor the voting booths?

Third, it means that it is of absolutely no significance as to whether UTJ actually gets in the government (other than perhaps as indication of whether Hashem is happy with chareidi voting choices.) The only thing that matters is how many people show Hashem their support for UTJ, not whether UTJ actually gets in.

Fourth, it means that if charedim are unsuccessful, then that is also from Hashem (and presumably as a result of their not sufficiently demonstrating their dedication to Him). So why, after Lapid's success in the last election and his resultant policies, was their so much anger towards him? Lapid didn't actually do anything, it was all from Hashem!

Fifth, it means that the followers of Rav Shmuel Auerbach and others, who are of the view that one should not participate in these elections at all, are not doing any harm. After all, they are certainly acting out of dedication to Torah and Gedolim. So why is UTJ so upset about them?

(I'm sure that there are plenty of other ramifications, too, but I can't think of them right now.)

Of course, nobody in the charedi world actually acts as though they think this way. When you look at all the vast effort expended to get charedim to vote, and the tremendous passion about who actually gets in the government, obviously charedim feel that the votes and politicians inherently make a difference. It's similar to the anti-rationalist notion that yeshivah students provide protection from rockets, and that parnassah is all in the hands of Hashem and has nothing to do with hishtadlus; people might profess to believe it, but when push comes to shove, nobody really believes it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

My Nephew, The Hero

Two posts today!

My oldest nephew is from a settler family (that's my sister's family, whom Fatah proudly but falsely claimed to have murdered last summer). There is a lot of venom directed against settlers by the left wing in Israel; the settlers are condemned as parasites, who are just out to leech the lives of Arabs and the money of the rest of the country. And so some of them decided to start a meme, entitled "Ani mitnachel v'ani lo mitnatzel - I am a settler and I do not apologize about it." My nephew, a modest and quiet young man, joined the meme. Here is what he wrote:

הורי צאצאים לניצולי שואה עלו ארצה מאנגליה ובנו בית במטה בנימין.
הקימו בית ומשפחה לתפארת במו ידיהם מאפס ללא כל סיוע.
התחנכתי לאהבת אדם, אהבת העם והארץ.
הורי נפגעו שניהם בפיגוע ירי ולמרות כל ההצעות לתמיכה מארגונים למינהם סירבו לקבל כל סיוע.
חינכו אותי לעבודה ונתינה. כל אחי ואחיותי שירתו ומשרתים את המדינה בשירות משמעותי.
הדרכתי בתנועת נוער, התנדבתי במד"א, עשיתי שנת שירות בשדרות שם בית הקומונה חטף פגיעה ישירה בעודי בבית.
שירתתי 5 שנים ביחידה מובחרת, חיפשתי את החטופים בחברון, לחמתי ופיקדתי בצוק איתן.
היום אני סטודנט להנדסה, מתנדב בבית-הגלגלים מוסד לילדים בעלי מוגבליות, אני מלווה באופן אישי שני חניכים, אחת ערביה ישראלית והשני דרוזי, אני אוהב אותם מאוד.
כל חיי היו ויהיו נתינה.
אני מתנחל ואני לא מתנצל.
And here is a rough translation:
My parents, descendants of Holocaust survivors, came to Israel from England, and built a house in Mateh Binyamin. They established a home and a wonderful family, building it up from nothing without any help.
I was educated to love people, to love the nation and to love the land.
Both of my parents were injured in shooting incidents, but despite all the offers of support from various organizations, they refused to accept any support.
They educated me to serve and to give. All my brothers and sisters served and serve the state in significant ways.
I was a counselor in youth movements, I volunteered for Magen David Adom, I fulfilled a year of service in Sderot (as a yeshivah counselor - NS), where my apartment sustained a direct hit from a missile while I was in it.
I served for five years in a select army unit, I searched for the kidnapped teens in Hebron, I fought in Gaza.
Today I am an engineering student, and a volunteer at a home for children with disabilities. I personally assist two students, one an Israeli-Arab and the other a Druze. I love them very much.
My entire life was, and will be, about giving.
I am a settler and I do not apologize.
My nephew is a hero and an inspiration to me. May Hashem bless him and keep him safe.

More Emptying of the Yeshivos

There is a fascinating report in Kikar Shabbat about a charedi man from Jerusalem, Binyomin Gorlin, who has filed an official complaint against Rav Shalom Cohen, spiritual leader of Shas. Rav Cohen issued a directive immediately following Purim that all yeshivah students should devote their afternoons and evenings to political campaign work. Gorlin complained that yeshivah students are supposed to be studying in yeshivah, not engaging in politics, and that they receive a draft exemption specifically on the grounds that they are learning Torah full time.

Amazingly, of the various responses quoted in the article and in the numerous comments to the article which disagree with Gorlin, not one even attempts to present an argument as to why his argument is incorrect. Instead, they all hurl abuse on him for daring to argue with a Gadol B'Torah.

Amongst the responses to yesterday's post, Empty the Yeshivos!, a number of people argued that even charedim always say that one has to do normal hishtadlus. For army duty and the economy, that hishtadlus is done by non-charedim, and for elections, that hishtadlus is done by charedim. But as someone pointed out, the yeshivah world talks endlessly about maximizing Torah learning, minimizing hishtadlus, and implementing bitachon. Yet when it comes to getting votes, they minimize Torah learning, maximize hishtadlus, and do not implement any bitachon.

Furthermore, the amount of hishtadlus being done here is far more than the normal amount, if we measure it against the hishtadlus done by other sectors of the population. Other sectors did not have rallies of 100,000 people, not because there aren't 100,000 supporters, but because their millions of supporters are busy with important jobs and don't have several hours to take off in the middle of the day for a political rally. And other sectors do not have enormous numbers of people that are instructed to take off several hours every day for over a week to engage in political campaigning.

When it comes to causes that are really important to charedim, such as getting money from the government (which is ultimately what the politicking is directed towards), they clearly believe that worldly hishtadlus is much more important and effective than learning and davenning and having bitachon. That's why they empty the yeshivos in order to do it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Empty The Yeshivos!

When it's a matter of sending a small proportion of yeshivah students to share the burden and fulfill the mitzvah of defending your nation - the charedim say God forbid! Everyone has to be in yeshivah! National security depends on it!

When the nation is at war, and our boys in uniform are being killed, the charedim stay in yeshivah. Learning is the best way to help!

When society demands that charedi students learn secular studies or skills to prepare them for the workforce, charedim respond that they must not take any time away from Torah studies. Hashem will provide parnasah!

But when there is elections, and charedim want to rally support for votes in order to get more money - it's time to empty the yeshivos!

(Pictures from today's election rally, from Life In Israel)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Not Your Usual Page of Gemara

Remaining in the Purim spirit, below is a fictitious page of Gemara that I just received. If you're up on all the intricacies of Israeli politics, and you know how to read a page of Gemara, you'll love it. (If, on the other hand, you prefer to read the latest updates from The Biblical Museum of Natural History, sign up for our newsletter at or using the form below - the first issue will be going out today!)

Subscribe to the museum mailing list

* indicates required

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Peculiar Challenge of the Forthcoming Elections

For people with the values of most of the participants in this forum, the forthcoming elections in Israel present some peculiar and frustrating challenges.

Let's say that you share Jonathan Rosenblum's concerns about the problems of the economic catastrophe in the charedi world and its potentially devastating consequences for the country. And you recognize that if UTJ joins the government, it will do so in exchange for making the problem massively worse. So you don't want to see UTJ in the government.

But at the same time, you recognize that there is no viable partner for peace on the Palestinian side, that any land given to them will almost certainly be used as a base from which to attack Israel, and that there is no way that Israel can ever defend itself from attacks launched from civilian areas without incurring global condemnation. And so you don't want to see a left-wing government that will give away land to the Palestinians.

The problem is that there is no party which stands for both of the above. Every party currently running for Knesset will either pay off UTJ to join them, or will support a left-wing government.

So you have to weigh up which of the above issues is more important. Now, let's say that you decide that the security issue is more important. Therefore you want to empower a party that won't take foolish risks in the futile short-term hope for international legitimacy - let's say, Bayit Yehudi. But who do you vote for, if you want Bayit Yehudi to be in the government? There is a real risk of Labor being the largest party and being able to put together a left-wing coalition. So the bizarre nature of the forthcoming election is that if you want Bayit Yehudi to be in the government, then there's a very strong argument for not voting Bayit Yehudi, and voting Likud instead!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Happy Purim!

Happy Purim! If you'd like to meet my hyena, and find out the significance of hyenas in the Torah, then join me this Shushan Purim for a tour of The Biblical Museum of Natural History at 10am! (There's also a tour on Sunday morning at 10:30.) Call 073-213-1662 or email to book your spot!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom is Now Available for Pre-Order!

After fourteen years and 160,000 words, The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom has finally gone to press! This is volume one, which deals with wild animals. The encyclopedia includes every Scriptural reference, a vast range of sources from the Talmud and Midrash, along with extensive explanations, insights from zoology, all richly illustrated with stunning photographs.

The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom is being published as a cooperative venture between The Biblical Museum of Natural History, Koren Publishers, and OU Press. It is 454 pages, full color, large format hardcover, and it will retail for $49.95. The encyclopedia will hit bookstores in Israel sometime at the end of March/ early April and will reach the US several weeks later.

Meanwhile, you can pre-order the encyclopedia at, and receive FREE shipping to Israel, North America and Europe. Israel orders will ship as soon as the book comes off the press - in a few weeks. Other orders will ship at a later date. Or, if you want to get a signed copy, come to the book launch at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, date to be announced.

Order now if you want to be one of the first to receive the encyclopedia!

Are Charedim The New Levites?

There's an interesting argument advocated by Rabbi Doron Beckerman over at Cross-Currents. He claims that since there is a mitzvah to give tithes to the Levites to support them in their role as spiritual leaders, and Sefer HaChinnuch extrapolates from this to Torah scholars in general, therefore there is an obligation to support charedim in kollel.

Let us overlook for now the fact that Rambam disagreed with the Chinnuch. Let us also overlook for now the fact that many Rishonim grappled with the question of whether teachers of Torah may receive payment for their service and did not simply say that they were effectively Levites and therefore may receive payment. We can overlook those, because I think that most of us will agree that the Jewish People should indeed financially support teachers of Torah.

That, however, has nothing to do with charedim in kollel.

First of all, Rambam and even the Chinnuch make it clear that they are talking about teachers of Torah, not students of Torah. The Chinnuch writes about how "they will teach His judgments to their brothers in each and every state and in all the cities." And it is a mistake to argue that this also includes students because one must study in order to teach. The vast majority of people in kollel are not studying in order to become teachers, and they are not studying the material or tools that they need to teach. The modern-day equivalents of the Levites are the rabbis and educators across the world, not the tens of thousands in kollel in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

Second, nobody can demand that others recognize them as modern-day Levites. Imagine if YCT were to demand that the charedi community support them, as the Levites of our generation. The charedi community would understandably respond that they do not recognize YCT as expressing an approach to Torah that they agree with. Likewise, non-charedim do not agree with the charedi approach to Torah. They want religious Zionist and modern Orthodox Torah scholars and educators, not charedi Torah scholars and educators. They would want to support institutions such as Kollel Torah MiTziyon instead, and charedim cannot demand otherwise.

Third, none of this relates to the charedi person's own obligations. A person has an obligation to provide for his family and to teach his children to be financially self-sufficient. He is not permitted to assume that others will support him.

Rabbi Beckerman argues that raising children in the Israeli charedi system, where there is minimal secular education in elementary school and none at all after that, does not place them at any significant disadvantage to be financially self-sufficient later on in life. He claims that the onus of proof is on those who would claim otherwise. I would argue that his claim is obviously false and nonsensical, especially in light of the articles and hundreds of letters in Mishpacha magazine on this topic.

(I would have responded to Rabbi Beckerman in the comments section at Cross-Currents. However, Rabbi Beckerman has decided to generally prevent comments from being published unless and until he has a response to them. So instead I presented my response here, where there are no such restrictions.)

Forget Ye and Fuentes, We Have Our Own Hitler Enthusiast

People are rightly up in arms about Kanye West's enthusiasm for Hitler and Trump's refusal to denounce Fuentes. The actions of both ...