Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Kezayis Post

With Pesach approaching, it's kezayis season again. The monograph that I wrote on the evolution of the kezayis, from the size of an olive to a matzah ten times that size, seems to be the most popular piece that I have ever published. If you haven't read it, you can download it at this link. This year, I was sent a fascinating new piece of evidence that Chazal's kezayis was much smaller than the sizes popularly stated today. It's from the following Mishnah:
 טלית טהורה שהכניס ממנה שלש על שלש לבית טמא נטמאה. וטמאה שהכניס ממנה אפילו כזית לבית טהור טמאתו: 
A pure cloak of which a three-by-three [finger-length] piece entered an impure house becomes impure. [If it was] an impure [cloak], if he extended even the volume of an olive [of it] into a pure house, it makes [the house] impure. (Mishnah, Nega'im 13:8)
This Mishnah states that a piece of a cloak (which is a material approximately the thickness of matzah, or less), which is the volume of an olive, is less than three-by-three finger lengths. Unless you're going to say that people back then were much bigger (which indeed, some people do say), then we see that a kezayis of matzah is significantly smaller than about a quarter of a letter/A4-size piece of paper.

Here is a list of other posts relating to this topic:

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

The Popularity of Olives - exploring 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 aim to 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 charedi polemical 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 - announcing the fabulous sefer by Rabbi Hadar Margolin, which presents the same arguments that I brought but in a more yeshivish manner. He also brings an astonishing array of evidence that many recent charedi gedolim likewise held that a kezayis is very small, including even the Chazon Ish! Best of all, the entire sefer can be freely downloaded.

Finally, two notes regarding The Biblical Museum of Natural History:

First, there are lots of tours over the next few weeks, including before Pesach as well as Chol HaMoed. But they are rapidly filling up, so if you'd like to come, book your tour as early as you can!

Second, we are really looking for people who support our goals of educating the entire spectrum of society about the relationship between Torah and the natural world, and who want to be part of our mission. To join the museum as a patron, please see for details. We can now arrange tax-deductible donations in Israel, the UK and Canada, as well as the US. For easy online donations, please click this link. Thank you for supporting our mission!

Monday, March 27, 2017

You Can't Go Home Again

They say that you can never go home again. Memories are never as we left them. You can never go back to your childhood and find it exactly as you left it. Well, yesterday I gave it a darn good try.

Yesterday I traveled back to my hometown of Manchester, England for the first time since leaving there twenty-four years ago. It was emotionally overwhelming. I'd forgotten just how beautifully green it was. Though on the other hand, I certainly didn't remember it being so black. Neighborhoods that were barely Jewish when I left are now full of kollel avreichim.

I went to visit an old neighbor of mine, Rabbi Hillel Gittelson, who had recently miraculously recovered from a life-threatening illness about which the doctors had declared that recovery was impossible. He was my barmitzvah teacher, and an outstandingly wonderful person. About thirty years ago, he told me that when I grow up, I should write a book about animals in the Torah. At the time, that seemed like the most ridiculous idea. Me, write a book? About Torah? Besides, Yehuda Feliks had already published that slim volume about the animal world of the Bible, and what else was there to say?

Lo and behold, thirty years later, I have indeed published a book about the animals of the Torah, so I decided to present him with a copy (which mentions him in the acknowledgements.) I knocked at his door, and when he opened it, he didn't recognize me at first. When the penny dropped, he hugged me and kissed me and we were both overwhelmed with emotion. He had changed a lot in his appearance, but his personality was exactly as I remember it; bursting with warmth and Torah and good humor.

With childhood memories flooding back, I decided to go and visit the house where I grew up. When I approached it, I first stood outside, taking the sight in. I remembered everything, even the individual bushes in the garden. I knocked at the door, and introduced myself as the previous resident. The owners, a lovely frum family, welcomed me in. By a coincidence that is so strange as to almost make me renounce rationalism, they also had a son called Natan, and they also kept reptiles and locusts and other exotic creatures!

I looked around the house, and while it was much, much smaller than I remembered it, I recognized almost all the elements in a dizzying rush of memories and emotions. Finally I went to the living room, where they still had the very same bookcases that we had installed. I was mamash back home! And lo and behold, there, in the very middle of the bookshelves, there was a book that I certainly recognized...

....Torah, Chazal and Science, by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman.

No, you can never go home again!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Miraculous Transformation

Several weeks ago, The Biblical Museum of Natural History received a gift from an entomologist friend of ours: a cluster of eggs. They were absolutely tiny, each one smaller than a sesame seed. After a few days, the eggs hatched into spiky green caterpillars. These ate and ate and ate and grew and grew and grew until they were the size of my pinky finger. Then they spun silk cocoons around themselves. Today, the very first moth emerged from its cocoon:

 Spectacular, isn't it? Here are the photos of the earlier stages. Note how tiny the eggs are!

This beautiful moth is an eri silkmoth, and it couldn't be more different from the caterpillar that it came from. And I'm not just talking about its wings and its completely different appearance and form. While the caterpillar was an eating machine, the silkmoth has no mouthparts and cannot eat or drink; it now lives only to mate and lay eggs. 

Eri silkmoths have two indirect connections to the Torah. One is that silk is a material mentioned in Tanach, and the other is that this particular species feeds on the deathly poisonous castor bean plant, which many identify as the kikayon - the tree that shaded Jonah. 

But perhaps the most powerful religious aspect of this creature is the sheer inspirational wonder of it! It's just amazing to see how a tiny speck turned into one amazing creature and then into an entirely different amazing creature!

There are two interrelated theological points that I would like to make here. One is that, while I do not believe (and I don't think anyone else does either) that there was any divine supernatural intervention involved in these transformations, I still think that it is reasonable to describe them as miraculous and as demonstrations (not proofs!) of the Creator's greatness. A universe in which such things take place is a very special universe!

The second point is as follows. Even the most religious and non-rationalist of people will agree that God did not use miracles to turn the egg into a caterpillar and to turn the caterpillar into a radically different creature. So why are they so insistent that there is no possible scientific explanation for the much less complicated transformation of one species into a slightly different species? Why are they so resistant to the notion that God, just as He used natural means to turn a caterpillar into a silkmoth, could have used natural means to evolve one species into another?

Meanwhile, the rest of our cocoons should be hatching over the next few days, but the moths don't have a long lifespan. So now is a good time to book a tour at The Biblical Museum of Natural History!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sexual Intimacy, Spilling Seed, and the Rationalist-Mystical Divide

When I first began exploring the differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, my impression was that it related primarily to topics such as interpreting Bereishis and science in the Gemara. I then discovered that it also relates to topics as diverse as shiluach ha-kein, what one can do for someone who has passed away, and the function of Torah study. Slightly to my surprise, I recently discovered that it also relates to the laws of marital intimacy. Topics like this are not easy to discuss in public, but it is important to correct some misconceptions in this area.

Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion In The Marital Bed is a new book by Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, the first in a proposed series entitled Sexuality and Jewish Law: In Search of a Balanced Approach in Torah. (This is not the Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro of Satmar/ Frumteens notoriety, but a different person.) It is a fascinating, though very intricate, discussion of the development of halachah in this area.

The author earned his rabbinic ordination in a Chabad yeshivah, but clearly no longer regards himself as bound to Chabad ideology. This is expressed in his lengthy discussion and rejection of the ancient belief, strongly expressed in chassidic communities in general and Chabad in particular, that a baby's looks and personality are significantly determined by what the parents think about during coitus, by the nature of the coitus, and by what the mother sees during pregnancy. Thus, at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we have received a call from a pregnant woman who wanted to ensure that she could visit without seeing non-kosher animals (alas, this was not possible, and she did not want to risk giving birth to hyena-boy or gator-girl). And in some Chabad chosson/kallah classes, they are taught that during climax, they should visualize the Rebbe. Rabbi Shapiro explains at length why there is no reason for people to fear that their children will be born with congenital defects if they do not follow these notions.

However, the primary focus of the book is to address the history of the halachos of which sexual positions and techniques are permissible within marriage. Rabbi Shapiro demonstrates that the earlier sources, i.e. Chazal and the Rishonim, are far more lenient in this regard than are many later halachists, permitting forms of intercourse which do not lead to pregnancy. He traces the later stringent approach to several factors. One is what appears to be a copyist's interpolation into a manuscript of Rambam's Mishneh Torah, that alternate sexual positions are only permitted if one does not waste seed, which was later incorporated into halachic discussion as being Rambam's own opinion. (Rabbi Shapiro points readers to a 2001 responsum by Rav Yehudah Henkin, Bnei Banim 4:18, which discusses this textual discrepancy at length).

But the primary factor responsible for the change in halachic trends appears to be the Zohar, which strongly condemned the wasting of seed, and the influence of subsequent mystics. This is not to say that all contemporary rabbis of a mystical persuasion follow the Zohar in this area, nor that all those who take a stringent approach are relying on the Zohar. However, it is certainly a significant factor.

The Zohar was not the first source to condemn wasting seed. The Gemara speaks harshly against spilling seed in vain, comparing it to bloodshed. However, the Gemara does not clarify exactly what "in vain" means. Is it "in vain" when it gives pleasure to the wife, or the husband, even if it cannot lead to pregnancy? There are a range of views in the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding this question. For example, Tosafos (Yevamos 34b) quotes Rabbeinu Yitzchak of Dampierre (Ri) who permits occasional intercourse for the sake of sexual fulfillment performed in a way that does not lead to pregnancy. As Shapiro demonstrates, the majority of extant medieval writings that weigh in on the question endorse this approach of Rabbeinu Yitzchak.

But the Zohar goes vastly further than the Gemara in condemning wasting seed, saying that it is worse than any other sin! And it is the view of the Zohar, rather than the Gemara and other Rishonim, which is endorsed by R. Yosef Caro (in Bedek HaBayis, Even HaEzer 25), where he writes that "had Rabbeinu Yitzchak seen the punishment that the Zohar forewarns for the wasting of seed in vain, that it is greater than that of any other sin in the Torah, he would not have written what he did."

However, the status attributed to the Zohar by R. Yosef Caro and other adherents of mysticism was disputed by others. As noted here, for example, Chasam Sofer held that very little of the Zohar was actually written by R. Shimon bar Yochai. Furthermore, as Rabbi Shapiro documents, other halachic authorities were more lenient than R. Caro. And one acharon, R. Shlomo Yehuda Tabak, disputes R. Caro's claim that Rabbeinu Yitzchak would have retracted his view had he seen the Zohar; he argues that the Zohar's severe words about wasting seed apply only to a person whose intent is to avoid having children or who does so constantly. Rabbi Shapiro also suggests that even with R. Caro, his baseline legal opinion may be more lenient. Thus, Rabbi Shapiro concludes, there is far more room to be lenient with regarding to the laws of sexual intimacy than is commonly assumed.

This is, of course, a much-simplified version of Rabbi Shapiro's book, which is a very in-depth work that requires lengthy study. You can purchase it on Amazon at this link, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in these halachos. Rabbi Shapiro also has a website, Sexuality and Jewish Law, with more information and resources on this topic.

Also relating to the topic of wasting seed and the influence of the Zohar, the erudite but anonymous Rationalist Medical Halachist is back in action and has begun a series of posts which you can read at his blog, He discusses how the Torah's story of the sin of Er and Onan is explained very differently by the Zohar than how it was understood by other Rishonim.

One should not think that Rabbi Shapiro is the only person to advocate for a lenient approach in this area. Rav Eliezer Melamed, whose praises I have sung in a recent post, also takes a relatively lenient approach to the laws of marital relations in his Simchat Habayit U-birchato (see too the companion Harchavot volume). Whereas Rabbi Shapiro's book is an in-depth study of one very particular area of these halachos, Rav Melamed's books are more of a general guide to the halachos of this topic. They are an invaluable resource and would make a good gift for newlyweds who have perhaps not received the best education in chosson/kallah class. (They are also a good gift for people who are not newlyweds, but it's often a little more socially awkward to give such books to people who have been married for a while.)

Interestingly, Rav Melamed downplays this part of the Zohar in a different way than Rabbi Shapiro. Instead of pointing out that there are other halachic authorities who dispute the Zohar's approach in this area, or R. Caro's interpretation of it, he downplays the Zohar itself; not the authenticity of it, but the meaning of it. Rav Melamed says that the fire-and-brimstone expressed by the Zohar against spilling seed in vain is simply an exaggeration. He further points out that the Talmud's severe-sounding comparison of spilling seed to bloodshed is a rhetorical flourish, noting that the Talmud says the same about someone who embarrasses others in public or who does not escort his guests out. As Rabbi Shapiro notes, the same interpretation of such condemnations in the Talmud is given by Rivash, as well as by an early Acharon, Rav Yehoshua Heschel of Krakow, specifically in this context.

The approach of Rivash, Rav Yehoshua Heschel and Rav Melamed stands in sharp contrast to people such as (Rabbi?) Yaron Reuven, a protege of (Rabbi?) Yosef Mizrachi. In a lecture that you can watch on YouTube, Reuven takes the Talmud's comparison of wasting seed to murder very literally. Incorporating the modern scientific revelation that ejaculate contains around 300 million spermatozoa, he rails against teenagers who masturbate, claiming that they are mass-murderers who are killing as many people as the entire population of the United States! Yosef Mizrachi also has a lecture on YouTube in which he presents the "kabbalistic secret" that all the souls in the spermatazoa were supposed to enter this world, but instead are doomed to remain in the netherworld, waiting to confront the teenager after his death and seek revenge. "You have millions of sons now," he says, "and they all hate you!"

Yaron Reuven also boasts that he, Yosef Mizrachi, and another one of their chevra are the only rabbis on the internet who are brave enough to discuss this topic. For the sake of hashkafic and halachic truth, as well as the psychological well-being of countless teenagers whom Reuven condemns to Gehinnom, it's important to counter such extremist presentations of the Zohar. Baruch Hashem for the works of Rav Eliezer Melamed and Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro; let's hope that they receive much publicity.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Happy Pi Day!

Today, 3.14, is Pi Day. In the past, I have discussed the significance of Pi in Tanach and in the writings of Rambam. Today, I would like to present a picture of Cuddles, our largest snake at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, who is now almost exactly 3.14 meters long. He is a pi-thon!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

I've Renounced Rationalism!

That's it! I've become convinced that I was wrong all along. Especially on that Western medicine thing. Time for a career change! I've decided to become a witch doctor.

In line with my new career, my family all became African, one way or another:

Happy Purim!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Who Should We Be Helping On Purim?

As Purim approaches, there are many requests for tzedakah. Some of these are requests for helping the poor. Others are requests for helping sustain yeshivos/kollels. I myself, in my youth, spent many Purims collecting for various yeshivos. Eventually, I realized that this is just not the mitzvah of the day; the mitzvah is matanot l'evyonim, helping the poor. (Last year I wrote about the amazing local yeshiva Lev HaTorah, which sends its students collecting - for the poor of the community!)

But supporting the yeshiva/kollel system is not only problematic in being a distortion of the mitzvah of the day, and in diverting charitable funds away from the poor. It can also be the very cause of poverty. Here is a mailing that I received from a local outstanding charity, Lemaan Achai, which has two parts. The first describes a general problem in the community (which isn't spelled out explicitly, but you can read between the lines), and the second part discusses how Lemaan Achai's philosophy of smart chesed is implemented for Purim:
Let's End the Madness

It began as a normal evening. After eating dinner and spending a few minutes with my family I prepared to leave for Maariv, the evening service. Then the phone rang.

On the other end of the line was a member of our community for whom I have great respect. He is a terrific educator and wonderful father. He was not calling with a personal issue nor anything pertaining to his students. He reached out to me because of the two children standing at his front door.

On this cold, rainy winter night, he had answered the doorbell and discovered a 12 year old girl and her 5 year old brother. They were shivering and the 5 year old was on the verge of crying.

Were they lost? Had something happened to cause them to knock on a random door?

They were standing with their hands out, asking for money.

What could propel a parent to send their children out into the night, on a bus, alone, to collect from strangers? Was there illness in the house? Did some tragedy, G-d forbid, create a financial crisis?

As the incredulous homeowner discovered, there was no issue for this family other than poverty by choice. They had taken a path in life that limited their ability to make a living. Their children, they decided, could better arouse the mercy of kind-hearted Jews, and by going door to door could provide the income their parents didn't.

Prior to calling me my friend phoned both the police and social services. He and a neighbor waited with the children until the authorities would arrive. He then reached out to me knowing that at Lema'an Achai we offer the hand up as opposed to the hand out.

Thank G-d, the children were brought safely home. A social worker met with the parents to explain that such behavior is endangerment and must end.

For me this story reinforces the mission of Lema'an Achai and Smart Chesed. Contributing to this lifestyle when there is no illness or extenuating circumstance, only perpetuates the cycle of poverty. The next generation learns firsthand that it pays to put a hand out rather than help themselves through a hand up.

Help us strengthen the message of Smart Chesed. The time has come to end the madness.

What is SMART Matanot L'evyonim?

Purim is the most joyous day in the Jewish calendar. At Lema'an Achai it is especially important as we endeavor to ensure that everyone, regardless of their station in life, can also celebrate.

The mitzvah to give Matanot L'evyonim (gifts to the poor) is a central mitzva of Purim day. Matanot L'evyonim allows the less fortunate the opportunity to enjoy like everyone else around them.

The families of Lema'an Achai work hard year round in their goal to attain self sufficiency. Lema'an Achai's Matanot L'evyonim distribution, discreetly gives to hundreds of needy families on Purim day, thus ensuring that they too, can celebrate with honor and dignity.

You can enhance that joy of receiving on Purim by allocating half to be given "Bo Bayom" (on Purim day) and half after Purim. We call that Smart Matanot L'evyonim. It is Halachically approved and spreads the happiness on Purim and beyond.

Give today knowing that your generosity helps for a joyous today and a brighter tomorrow!
I know the Rabbanim who oversee Lemaan Achai, the people who work there (my wife used to be one of their social workers), and the members of the board, and I can personally attest to their amazing professionalism, wisdom and dedication!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Honest Human Halakhists

(UK readers - see the announcement at the end of this post!)

Pursuant to my post of a few weeks ago, "The Human Approach to Halakha," Rabbi Daniel Korobkin sent me the following extract from a letter written by Rav Soloveitchik in 1951, printed in Community, Covenant and Commitment. It is from a responsum sent to Dr. Samuel Belkin with regard to the question of volunteering as a chaplain in the armed forces. Before getting into the substance of the topic, Rav Soloveitchik writes the following very significant introduction:
...I have undertaken the research into the halakhic phase of this problem, which is fraught with grave political and social implications on the highest level of public relations, with utmost care and seriousness. Yet, I cannot lay claim to objectivity if the latter should signify the absence of axiological premises and a completely emotionally detached attitude. The halakhic inquiry, like any other cognitive theoretical performance, does not start out from the point of absolutely zero as to sentimental attitudes and value judgments. There always exists in the mind of the researcher an ethico-axiological background against which the contours of the subject matter in question stand out more clearly. In all fields of human intellectual endeavor there is always an intuitive approach which determines the course and method of the analysis. Not even in exact sciences (particularly in their interpretative phase) is it possible to divorce the human element from the formal aspect. Hence this investigation was also undertaken in a similar subjective mood. From the very outset I was prejudiced in favor of the project of the Rabbinical Council of America and I could not imagine any halakhic authority rendering a decision against it. My inquiry consisted only translating a vague intuitive feeling into fixed terms of halakhic discursive thinking."
The truth is that, as Dr. Marc Shapiro has pointed out, all halachic authorities operate this way, because they are human beings. (On a related note, see the recent fascinating article "Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds" in the New Yorker, about how humans are unfortunately fundamentally wired against being truly objective.) The chiddush in this quote from Rav Soloveitchik is that he was sufficiently self-aware and intellectually honest to openly admit to it.

*   *   *

Note to UK readers - In a few weeks I will be visiting London and Manchester (for the first time since leaving 24 years ago!). On Shabbos March 24/25, I am speaking at Kehillat Ohev Shalom in Edgware; on Sunday March 26 I am speaking about Rationalism vs. Mysticism on behalf of Shema in Manchester, at Maccabi; and on Tuesday March 28 I will be back in London, discussing Rationalism vs. Mysticism with Rabbi Joseph Dweck at the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue in Lauderdale Road, an event which I'm sure Yosef Mizrachi will be happy to publicize! I might still have availability for an engagement on Wednesday March 29; if you want to arrange something, please be in touch. Also, if you happen to be driving from London to Manchester on Motzai Shabbos March 25, or from Manchester to London on March 28, please let me know!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Rav Melamed on Torah/Mada/Kollel/Working

Previously, I have sung the praises of Rav Eliezer Melamed and his book series Peninei Halacha. In this post, I would like to discuss his statements regarding Torah study. These are in the volume Likkutim I. (Incidentally, as others brought to my attention, almost all of Rav Melamed's writings are freely available online, as well as in free apps for Android and iPhone.)

Rav Melamed begins his discussion on the mitzvah of learning Torah with some mystical statements about its importance and function which are certainly at odds with the rationalist perspective. However, as one continues, one sees that in practice, his approach plays out in a very rationalist way.

Rav Melamed discusses the value of secular fields of knowledge. He notes that they are not only important in a practical sense, but that they also possess innate value, which is why one pronounces a beracha upon seeing a non-Jewish great scientist. Rav Melamed further argues that there is no sin of bittul Torah involved in studying such science, because it is also part of Divine wisdom and thus also a form of Torah, albeit of a lesser level.

Next, Rav Melamed discusses the crisis that modernity brought to the Jewish People, and the different approaches towards secular knowledge - the Torah im derech eretz approach of Rav Hirsch, and the Torah-only approach of others. While, he says, it is hard to say which was more successful, he personally advocates for an approach that includes secular knowledge. He views this as part of appreciating God's greatness, being a kiddush Hashem to the rest of the world, and enabling people to obtain professional careers which are honorable and which enable one to provide for one's family.

Finally, with regard to yeshivah/kollel/work, Rav Melamed's statements are most refreshing. When I was doing my own research into the history of rabbinic views on this topic, I discovered that classically, there was almost always a distinction drawn between learning Torah and teaching Torah - a differentiation that often seems to have been lost in contemporary discussions of this topic. But Rav Melamed, I was happy to see, stresses this difference. He notes that while it is important for everyone to gain a basic knowledge of Torah, which the community should fund, this should go no further than a few years in yeshivah. Once they have acquired an adequate basic general knowledge, they should study towards a career, so that they can be self-supportive. Only those who are directly studying to become rabbis or educators may continue their studies and be supported by the community, since they are dedicating themselves to a path of serving the community. For others, it is forbidden to continue their Torah study and receive communal support. (In a footnote, Rav Melamed adds that if there are those volunteering to support them, they may accept it, but he adds that following Rambam, it is not middat chassidut to do so.)

Thus, for all Rav Melamed's opening statements about the mystical significance of Torah study, the bottom line is that, unlike Rav Chaim of Volozhin, and in line with the classical authorities, Rav Melamed does not rate Torah study as contributing to the community such that it deserves communal support. Only teaching Torah, and training towards that, is a service to the community.

Blog Migration!

Birds migrate, butterflies migrate, whales migrate, and this blog is migrating! It's being moved over from Blogger to Substack. The URL ...