Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Museum Is ROCKING!

This is an incredible week at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. We've broken all our records - most people in a single tour, most tours in a day, most visitors in a day. Below are some highlights from the past three days. There are still some openings for tomorrow and Thursday - if you'd like to come, call 073-213-1162 or email office@tevatanachi.org to book your spot!


This is our first visitor to be brave enough to handle a hedgehog without gloves

Making a new friend

A special encounter

AAAARGH!!! IT'S A HORRIBLE HAIRY THING!!! screamed the tarantula

Golden girl!

A young visitor enjoys one of our new video displays

 Mesmerized by a gecko

Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik with his congregants

Open wide!

Amongst the vilde chayos!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

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 the journal 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.

The Kezayis Revolution - A new sefer by Rav Hadar Margolin presents a wealth of evidence for the smaller size of kezayis, as well as testimonials regarding charedi Gedolim who held this way!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Surprising Reward for Abstaining from Lashon Hara

(A re-post from 2010 - I couldn't resist it, it's my all-time favorite post and it relates to this week's parashah.)

This Shabbos, my adorable five-year-old son was telling me what he had learned about the parashah. He said, "If we say lashon hara, then we get bad things on our skin, and if we don't say lashon hara, we get long animals."

I had been slightly distracted by the antics of one of my other kids, but my attention snapped back at the last part of his sentence. "What? What did you say?" I asked, unsure if I had heard correctly.

"My moreh said that if we don't say lashon hara, we get long animals." He paused, and looked confused. "Aba, is that really true? Will we get long animals?"

My mind struggled to understand what was going on. I know that with my son being in a Hebrew-speaking preschool, sometimes the teacher's words get lost in translation. But what on earth had the teacher said?

Suddenly, I had a burst of inspiration.

"Oy vey!" I said. "Chayyim aruchim does not mean 'long animals,' it means 'long life'! It's chayyim aruchim, not chayyot aruchot!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Rationalist Remembrance

A treasured memory from eighteen years ago -
on a canoe with my dad, sipping from coconuts,
during a father-son trip to Mombasa, Kenya.
Tonight is the ninth yahrzeit for my father, Professor Michael Slifkin, of blessed memory. He was a wonderfully patient and good-natured father, a brilliant scientist, and a man of outstanding integrity. In a career spanning biochemistry, physics, electronics, membrane biology, and nanoparticles (amongst other things), he published 197 papers, including 11 in the prestigious journal Nature. He strongly believed in doing the right thing even if it made him unpopular, such as when he voted according to his conscience and not according to what was "the done thing" in England, or when he took on the position of safety officer for university labs and actually enforced safety regulations. He also had a terrific sense of humor!

I decided to deliver a shiur in his honor, for family and friends. However, when my family were planning this event, we realized that if it were to be held tonight, one of my sisters would not be able to make it, due to a scheduling conflict. I therefore said that we should hold the event tomorrow night.

"But that's not actually the date of the yahrzeit!" said someone near and dear to me. "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah!"

This is, I believe, a terrific example of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews. According to the mystical worldview, our actions serve to manipulate various metaphysical energies. If they are not done in exactly the "right" way, then they don't have any effect. According to the rationalist worldview, on the other hand, our actions are not manipulating any metaphysical energies. The date of a person's passing is a meaningful and appropriate time to honor their memory. If it's done a day late, in order to better accommodate the family, that honors their memory more, not less.

This also relates to the fundamental nature of what one does for the deceased, a topic that I examined in detail upon the passing of my dear mother-in-law, Anne Samson, of blessed memory - see my essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In brief, the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin, is that one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos whose reward is transferred to their mitzvah-account. The classical and rationalist view, on the other hand, is that by doing memorial events we honor their memory, and by performing good deeds we become a credit to their influence.

Dad, I love you dearly, and I miss you more than ever. I'm sure you would understand why we are doing the shiur a day late. Because amongst the many good qualities that you taught me, one of them was common sense!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Why do we eat Matzah on Pesach?

Why do we eat matzah on Pesach? It's a very basic, simple and obvious question, so it should have a very basic, simple and obvious answer, right?

The usual answer is the one given in the Haggadah. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach in commemoration of the Bnei Yisrael being rushed out of Egypt so quickly that their dough did not have time to rise. It's commonly assumed that this is nothing more than a paraphrase of what the Torah itself says. But why would this make matzah so very important? And is it indeed necessarily what the Torah says?

Fascinatingly, Ramban has a very different approach. According to Ramban (Shemos 12:39), it's not the case that they were too rushed for the dough to rise. Ramban is of the view that even if they would have had time, they would not have waited for the dough to rise and make bread. Instead, Ramban understands the Torah as stating that they had no time to bake the dough into matzos, and instead they had to take the unbaked dough and bake it into matzos along the way. Ramban notes that the Bnei Yisrael had already been commanded to get rid of all chametz as mentioned a few pesukkim earlier (12:19-20), and thus the passuk 12:39 is to be read in light of that, as follows:
And they baked matzah-cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened (due to God's earlier command); (and they could only bake them now) because they were driven out of Egypt, and could not tarry (and bake them earlier)...
Ramban is thereby arguing with the Haggadah! One book that I saw claimed that Ramban would never have done such a thing, and must have had a different text of the Haggadah. I don't know that that is necessarily the case; Ramban was not entirely averse to arguing even with Chazal, in certain cases. But, at any rate, we are left with the following question on Ramban's approach - if eating matzah has nothing to do with how the Bnei Yisrael left Egypt but was instead a pre-existing command, what was the reason for it?

(Skip the following small text if you want: One might wish to posit on Ramban's behalf that matzah commemorates the Bnei Yisrael not having time to bake their dough, and that Hashem commanded the consumption of matzah with the foreknowledge of this. After all, it seems unambiguous that the mitzvah of eating matzah has something to do with the haste in which it was baked. This would initially seem to be the meaning of Devarim 16:3:
You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat matzos, the bread of affliction; for in haste (chipazon) did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
The usual assumption is that the mention of "haste" is a reference to the pessukim in Shemos 12:33-34 talking about how the Bnei Yisrael rushed out of Egypt without time to see to their dough. But the word chipazon does not appear in these pessukim. Instead, it appears earlier, in Shemos 12:11, before the end of the plagues, with regard to the korban Pesach:
"And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste--it is a Passover to God."
And so the notion of eating in haste is not specifically related to matzah. Indeed, Devarim 16:3 is preceded by a passuk commanding about the korban pesach, and it is with regard to this that the Torah continues, "Do not eat ON IT chametz, for seven days eat ON IT matzos, for in haste you left..." - thus, there too the notion of haste is relating to the korban Pesach rather than to matzos. It thus seems that the theme of haste may relate to the general notion of our leaving Egypt in haste, and not to the way in which the matzos were baked.

So, again, we are faced with a question according to Ramban's view: What is the reason for eating matzah on Pesach? Why did Hashem command the Bnei Yisrael not to have chametz?)

Let us first note that this is not the first time we see matzah preceding Pesach. Way back in Bereishis 19:3, Lot serves matzos to the angels. Rashi says it was Pesach, and a very non-rationalist person in a book entitled Seasons of Life claims that "the observance of Pesach is based on the spiritual powers in force at that time of year," and "matzah is representative of certain metaphysical forces in effect at that time." But the idea of Lot observing Pesach and serving matzah to his guests is reminiscent of a certain video about Eisav making a berachah of hamotzi. Is there a more rationalist explanation?

One possible answer is this: Bread, of the chametz variety, is an Egyptian invention.

In Canaan, the lifestyle was a nomadic society of shepherds. The bread that they ate was matzah - not the hard Ashkenazi crackers, but the original, somewhat softer, pita-like matzah. (Which is why Lot served it to his guests.)

Egypt, on the other hand, was a land of farming, which despised the nomadic lifestyle. As Yosef advises his brothers to tell Pharaoh: "You should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." The Egyptians had mastered the art of leavening bread, which was unknown to those from Canaan (which may be why Potiphar entrusted everything to Yosef except baking bread - see Bereishis 43:32). Baking leavened bread was of tremendous importance in Egypt - that is why there was a sar ha-ofim, a royal baker. Rameses III has a list containing an amazing variety of breads. But shepherds didn't and don't eat such things - they roam around free, without the burden of heavy ovens and without waiting around for bread to rise.

This would explain why there is an important prohibition against eating leavened bread on Pesach. It is a way of demonstrating that we left Egypt, the land known for its leavened bread, and we became free, like nomads, to travel to the Promised Land.

(This is an adaptation of a post that appeared two years ago. Thanks to David Ohsie for his input. For more on all this, see this article from Neot Kedumim, and also this article and this one. )

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It's Jumping Elephant Day!

Today is when Daf Yomi reaches the Case of The Jumping Elephant! You can download my essay on this topic at this link.

Y'know, it's funny. There were people who went crazy with me for saying that one of the Tosafists never saw an elephant. On the other hand, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman says that all of the Rishonim were repeatedly wrong in their basic understanding of several topics in the Gemara! I am waiting for Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel to be consistent and to condemn Rabbi Meiselman, too.

Meanwhile, I am still receiving objections to this topic. Somebody wrote to me yesterday, arguing that Tosafos could be understood as referring to an elephant jumping in the water, or on a trampoline! I kid you not!

(See too this post: Sugar for Elephants)


The British Mitzvah

Now here's something interesting. There's a mitzvah which according to some sampling that I did, is fulfilled by people who, like me...