Monday, May 29, 2017

Patterns in the Torah

About twenty years ago, I was extremely mystically rather than rationalistically inclined. Related to this was my desire to see patterns in everything - especially fractal patterns. These are patterns that repeat at different scales, which appear in various forms in nature (such as fern leaves), and in a mathematical construct known as the Mandelbrot Set, pictured on the right - which I eventually used for the cover of my book The Science of Torah (subsequently banned and then rendered obsolete by The Challenge Of Creation).

I was therefore thrilled when, at that time, I came across an obscure and difficult book by Rabbi Yehoshua Honigwachs called The Unity of Torah. This work set out to answer a question that, to my astonishment, nobody had ever asked before: What is the overall structure of the Torah? Rabbi Honigwach's answer was that the structure of Torah reflects a five-stage approach to its central goal: Taking man from the extremes of egotism, in which society is an anarchy of selfish elements, towards a state of unity between all men and God. This pattern, argued Rabbi Honigwachs, is found in each of the five commandments on the Tablets of Law; it is also found amongst the five books of the Torah; within these books; within each fifth of these books; and so on - although, he noted, there are some places where a different version of this pattern is found, and there are others where it is not found at all. (There is a new book, Patterns on Parchment - The Structural Unity of The Five Books of Moses by Dr. Robert Appleson, which is an expansion of Rabbi Honigwachs' book, but I haven't read it.)

Needless to say, I was very much taken with this fractal pattern. I figured out a way to diagrammatically illustrate it in ways that made it easier to comprehend; I sent my illustrations to Rabbi Honigwachs, who was pleased at the result. In my book The Science of Torah, I made much use of fractal patterns, and I decided to include an overview of Rabbi Honigwach's approach in an appendix. You can freely download the appendix at this link, and it is also aided with the following schematic:

But my mentor Rabbi Aryeh Carmell was very unhappy with my interest in such patterns, being skeptical of this sort of pattern-seeking in general. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with it! We worked out a compromise, whereby I clearly restricted such discussions to distinct parts of the book, and he made it clear in his approbation that he was not supportive of those parts.

Today, I realize that pattern-seeking is both one of man's greatest strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses. In evolutionary terms, it was a helpful skill to learn; it enabled man to spot a camouflaged predator, and to discover causal relationships in the natural world. But, as a result, people also have a powerful propensity to see patterns even when none exist, and to ascribe causality even where there is none (as in much religion, and alternative medicine). And the thrill of discovering patterns can easily hamper one's objectivity. Of course, there are also those who deny patterns and causality even where they really exist (such as liberals with regard to Islamism, and smokers with regard to the dangers of smoking); but the former problem seems more innate and pervasive.

So what about this fractal pattern in the Torah? I don't have the time, or the objectivity, to study it all again and re-evaluate it. For a variety of reasons, I am certainly inclined to be skeptical. Nevertheless, I remain impressed at how Rabbi Honigwachs freely admitted that his pattern does not work in all places, which indicates a high degree of objectivity, and presented it as a model to be further refined. I was also interested to discover an article in Jewish Bible Quarterly that also discusses it.

Furthermore, with regard to the more limited suggestion of the pattern appearing in the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, it appears much more straightforward. As I noted in The Challenge Of Creation, a similar structure has been observed in the Six Days of Creation by scholars from across the theological spectrum. There is even more reason to expect it in the Ten Commandments, which from the outset are presented in two parts. I present an illustration of this pattern here (I hope it displays properly in different web browsers). Chag sameach!


Beginning with: Selfishness; Isolation; Focus on the Individual
                           
TABLET #1
Manifestation between Man and God
DEVELOPMENT
TABLET #2
Manifestation between Man and Man
Accepting God
Acceptance of God’s existence
STAGE ONE
Acceptance of others’ existence
Do Not Murder
Other people’s right to exist; Value of life
Do Not Worship Idols
Accepting God’s ownership of the entire universe
STAGE TWO
Acceptance of their domain
Do Not Commit Adultery
Accepting the other person’s domain
Do Not Take God’s Name in Vain
No unlawful use of God’s Name
STAGE THREE
No unlawful use of property
(lawful coexistence)
Do Not Steal (Kidnap)
No unlawful use of another’s being, person or property
Observing Shabbos
Testifying to God’s authority
STAGE FOUR
Readiness to cooperate
(particularly through speech)
Do Not Testify Falsely
No destructive talk; hence, cooperate
Honoring Parents
Unity with one’s source
STAGE FIVE
Total unity
Do Not Covet
No resentment of others

Climaxing with: Selflessness; Unity with God and man; Integration into the Community

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What Is The Evil Eye?

What is Ayin Hara - the “Evil Eye”?

Can it be given to inanimate objects, to animals, or only to people?

Can you give an ayin hara to yourself?

Does it require physically seeing something?

How exactly does it work?

Is there a way to protect against it?

What is the rationalist view on this, and what is the mystical view?

And what does all this have to do with ostriches?

I will be discussing the extremely surprising answers to these questions in a presentation entitled "Ostriches and the Evil Eye" this Sunday night, which you can either attend in person or via live online streaming. This is part of the "Night At The Museum" lecture series, which you can sign up for at www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/night. Meanwhile, I would be very interested to hear people's thoughts on the questions above - please write your answers in the comments!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Snake Skins and Oil

All snakes regularly slither right out of their skins, and so the snake collection at the Biblical Museum of Natural History regularly provides us with sloughed-off skins. (One of our larger snakes once shed an immaculate nine-foot skin in the evening. I spread it out on the floor to dry overnight. When the secretary came in the next morning and saw it, she coincidentally jumped out of her skin!)

A woman who works in a store that I frequent has been asking me for a while for the shed skin of a snake. I assumed that she wanted it as some sort of novel household decoration, but yesterday she told me the reason, and it was quite different. She has unfortunately been unable to conceive for several years, and she was referred to a Holy Rabbi who told her to hang the shed skin of a snake in her home.

I literally (literally) slapped my palm over my face.

"What?" she asked.

"That's complete nonsense!" I said.

She attempted to reassure me by explaining that this Holy Rabbi certainly possessed special powers. After all, he knew all kinds of things about her, such as the name of her husband, which there was no earthly way of his knowing!

I facepalmed again. "How did you get to him?" I asked.

She explained that an associate of his heard about her and referred her.

"Is it not possible," I gently suggested, "that this associate used Google, or some other means, to find out this information?!"

Her face fell for a moment, but she recovered herself and said that she didn't think that this was likely. It was more likely that the Rabbi had special powers. Besides, she said, even if it's not true, what harm does it do to hang up the snakeskin?

"True," I admitted. "It doesn't do any harm. As long as you didn't give him any money."

No, she insisted, he's not that kind of person. He didn't ask for any money -

"Oh, good," I interjected -

- he just has a tzedakah box on his desk, she continued, in which she placed 500 shekels.






















(See too my post Karma and Chameleons)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Who is Engaged in Politics, and Who in Prayer?

Recently I was forwarded a disturbing newsletter from Yeshivas Toras Moshe. It presented a Q&A which was held with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman (author of the notorious Torah, Chazal and Science), at the yearly Shabbaton. I present it here in full:
Question: Why is it that there seems to be a lack of hakoras hatov to the State of Israel and the Armed Forces when they have provided a safe environment for Yiddishkeit without any fear of persecution?

Answer: If this question is about why we don't say a “mi sheberach" for Medinas Yisroel or the IDF on Shabbos morning out of hakoras hatov, I have one question.

I have davened in many shuls in the United States throughout my life. But in no shul have l heard a “mishebeirach” said for the local police department or local fire department. Don’t we have tremendous hakoras hatov for these people? Don’t police officers and firefighters put their life on the line every day so that we can be safe and secure? Just imagine New York City without the New York City Police Department. New York would become an absolute jungle.

When the Allied forces were battling Hitler in Europe, no one suggested that we make a “mi shebeirach” for the Allied forces even though our hakoras hatov for them was overwhelming. Of course we have tremendous hakoras hatov for the various people who provide services that keep us safe. But that doesn’t mean that they all deserve a “mi shebeirach” in shul.

The fact of the matter is that saying the “mi shebeirach” for Medinas Yisroel and the lDF is a purely political gesture. It is a form of a pledge of allegiance where everyone must stand up at attentions and be absolutely silent. It is not a tefilloh.

Contrast this with how these shuls recite the Av Harachamaim for the kedoshim who died al Kiddush Hashem immediately before—it’s non-stop talking and schmoozing until the gabbai asks for silence before the “mishebeirach” for the Medina.
In light of the fact that Rabbi Meiselman's teachings reach many hundreds, even thousands, of students and readers, I think that this requires a response.

Let’s begin with the last paragraph. It’s rather disturbing that Rabbi Meiselman makes such a crass generalization. It is simply not true to generalize that the shuls that pray for Israel and the IDF engage in “non-stop talking” during Av harachamim. (UPDATE: One wonders how many Zionist shuls Rabbi Meiselman is even familiar with, since he mistakenly claims that the prayer for the state is recited after Av harachamim.) And even if there are those who do so, is this due to a formal policy of not expressing care about the martyrs of Jewish history?! Of course not; it’s because these are shuls in which talking during davening is, unfortunately, simply the norm. Those people probably don’t even know what Av harachamim is about. The prayer for Israel and IDF is one whose nature they understand, and furthermore, which deals with matters of current relevance, so naturally it is given greater respect. Rabbi Meiselman’s gratuitous and nasty swipe, and attempt to equate such people with those who have a deliberate policy of formally acknowledging the sacrifices of the IDF, is entirely out of place and out of line.

Rabbi Meiselman claims that while he doesn’t believe in reciting a prayer for the state or the IDF, he certainly has hakaras hatov for “the various people who provide services that keep us safe.” One wonders if this is really the case, or if he is simple paying lip-service to it for his audience. Has he ever spoken in his yeshivah about the gratitude that they must have for the IDF, other than in the context of explaining why they shouldn't pray for their welfare? I doubt it.

Rabbi Meiselman (front left) at the Satmar rally
Recall that Rabbi Meiselman sat on the dais at the notorious Satmar-led protest in Manhattan, where the speakers described Israel as an "evil regime" and spoke about how “the very existence of the state is a rebellion against God” and about how “the [Israeli] army was founded on murder and blood spilling.” And in his own yeshivah, students have been taught that one should not have any hakaras hatov to the State of Israel, because whatever good it does for Torah Jews is no more significant than a terrorist throwing candy to the last surviving child of a family that he has murdered.

Let us address the main argument presented by Rabbi Meiselman, which is that praying for the welfare of the state and for the armed forces is a “purely political gesture” and "is not a tefilloh." This is simply false. There is a long Jewish tradition of reciting Hanosen teshuah lemelachim, which prays for the welfare of the government. The prayer for the State simply reflects the unique Jewish nature of the State of Israel; furthermore, it's not as though Rabbi Meiselman is advocating saying Hanosen teshuah instead!

Now, it’s true that Hanosen teshuah was not recited in every community. Still, it was recited in many communities (including, undoubtedly, communities from which many talmidim in Toras Moshe came). In some cases, the reasons for its recital may indeed have been political in motivation, but there are also certainly traditional Torah values behind it. Yirmiyah says, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to Hashem on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Chazal say "Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for its fear, people would swallow each other alive" (Avos 3:4). Jews, like everyone else, require a government, and they should express their need and gratitude for this.

Praying for the welfare of the state is certainly a traditional Jewish concept. This would be at least as true, and surely even more the case, if the country is the Land of Israel, its inhabitants are mostly Jewish, and the government is that of a Jewish state!

Now let’s turn to the prayer for the armed forces. R. Meiselman claims that just as we have gratitude for the New York City police and fire brigade, yet we do not recite prayers for them, the same should be true for the IDF. Yet is this comparison not shallow? The IDF’s entire purpose is to protect Jewish lives from their enemies who seek to annihilate them, and they risk capture, torture and death, r"l, to do so. When someone’s child joins the police force or fire brigade, their parents don’t stop sleeping at night.

Rabbi Meiselman further claims that nobody ever suggested that we should make a misheberach for the Allied Forces in World War II. Can he really not see a difference between other nations fighting primarily for their own reasons, and our own brethren fighting to protect us?!

Furthermore, in any case, Rabbi Meiselman’s claim is simply not true. In 1942, none other than Rav Yosef Zvi Dushinsky, successor to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld as Chief Rabbi of the Eidah Charedis, discussed this very question (Shailos U’Teshuvos Maharitz 47). He was opposed to creating any new form of prayer, but stated that Hanosen teshua should suffice, which, he says, “is the minhag of all the Jewish people.”(See Rabbi Dr. Joseph Tabory, The Conflict of Halacha and Prayer.")

In the past, leading figures in the charedi community have indeed ruled that one should pray for non-Jewish armed forces. In 1918, to mark the first anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem from the Turks by the British, the Vaad Ha-Ir Ha-Ashkenazi (precursor to the Eidah Chareidis) called on all the shuls and yeshivos “to thank Hashem for the redemption, and the salvation,” and to say the prayer of Hanosen teshuah on behalf of “George the Fifth, yarum hodo (may his glory be increased)” and a misheberach for General Allenby.

Another example is especially striking. During the first Gulf War, both Yated Ne'eman and Hamodia reported that Rav Schach and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah had ruled that the charedi community should pray for the welfare of the coalition forces. The Yated was careful to note that this was a matter of following the tradition of praying for the state. The ruling was to use the traditional text of Hanosen teshuah, mentioning “the government of the United States and its partners.”

Note that the charedim were willing to pray for the success and welfare of Syria and Saudi Arabia - but not of Israel! This clearly demonstrates that such wars do indeed qualify for formal religious expressions of concern, but anti-Zionist politics prevents such concern from being expressed for Israel. Another example of this is with the charedi anti-draft rally in New York, in which they didn’t express their gratitude to the IDF, but they thanked the NYPD!

Rabbi Meiselman's claim that praying for the welfare of the state and for the armed forces is a “purely political gesture” is entirely false. As we have seen, the reverse is actually the case. Such prayers are a traditional part of Judaism, being extremely suitable expressions of concern and hakarat hatov. It’s the opposition to these prayers that is purely political. 

It is a tragedy that so many boys from homes which reflect traditional Torah values end up in Toras Moshe and are indoctrinated against them.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Deadly Beauty

Over the last few years, I have been leading safaris for Torah In Motion. Each year brings something different, and the last two game drives were truly unique. Following are some photos, notes, and theological reflections from the last 24 hours. (If you are reading this in a browser, you can click on the pictures to enlarge them and see the detail.)

Before even getting into the Land Rover yesterday afternoon, we saw a boomslang snake in a tree next to the car. Boomslangs are one of the most venomous snakes in Africa. Their bite is more deadly than that of a cobra or black mamba. It causes massive internal hemorrhaging, leaving the victim bleeding from his/her orifices and turning blue from internal bleeding. However, boomslangs are extremely timid snakes and almost never bite people, which is why I was comfortable approaching it to take this picture. 

It must be said that the boomslang is astonishingly beautiful. With its very large eyes and bright green color, it is truly striking, one of the most beautiful snakes that I have ever seen. And its agility, as it flowed through the branches of the tree, was a sight to behold. I was reminded of the Midrash which states that even God's curse contains a blessing; the snake might have lost its legs, but it now has the advantage of remarkably agility.

We drove out into the African bush, and after a while, we stopped to admire one of the largest spider webs I have ever seen. It was nearly two meters (six feet) across! In the center was a spider the size of my palm. It was a spider that I had been searching for ever since I saw one many years ago in Kenya: a golden orb spider.

Golden orb spiders are venomous, but their venom is mild, probably no worse than a bee sting. Like boomslangs, they too are spectacularly beautiful. They have bright yellow bands on their legs and a domino-pattern on their abdomen. This one was a female; males are much smaller.

The Midrash describes how King David asked God about the necessity of such creatures as spiders; he was answered when a spider helped him escape from his pursuers, by spinning a web across the mouth of the cave in which he had just hidden, thereby convincing his pursuers that the cave must be empty. This is not necessarily to say that the entire species was created just for the acts of these individuals. Rather, these should be seen as examples of how even apparently useless and unpleasant things are beneficial. Spider silk is of great interest to scientists, due to its tremendous strength. The silk of golden orb spiders is the most astonishing substance; I was able to pluck the strands of the web, almost like a guitar. It is so strong that if it was twisted together to form a string the thickness of a pencil, it would be able to restrain a Boeing 747 at full throttle!

I carefully captured the spider in my bag for, er, further observation. Later, when I returned to my cabin, I transferred it to a plastic box where it seemed quite happy. Then I did something really foolish. Before heading out to dinner, I liberally sprayed myself with insect repellent. When I returned from dinner, I went to inspect the spider, and much to my horror, I found it on its back, with its legs drawn in, in the death pose! But one of its legs was twitching slightly, so I hoped that there was still a chance. I took it outside the cabin, removed the lid, and carefully blew fresh air over its body. Within an hour it was fully back to normal, thank God. I wonder if I am the first person to ever perform CPR on a spider!

This morning's game drive led us to some other, larger, predators. First was a hyena, standing guard at the entrance to its den. Then we came across a lion that we had seen on the previous day. This was a very old male, about twelve years old, and blind in one eye, as you can see in the picture (click on it for a closer look).

This old lion was not alone. With him was another male, some lionesses, and at least eight cubs. It was a fabulous display of the power of lion - as per the explanation given on the movie at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. The Mishnah says, "Who is powerful? One that controls his inclination." No other cat would be able to control its aggression and live together with so many of its own kind. Of all the big cats, only the lion is able to live in large family groups, in which they band together to hunt their prey; as the saying goes, the family that preys together, stays together.

This large pride of lions was not in this spot by chance. Driving a few meters further on, we saw a cub lying picturesquely on top of a large boulder. Except that, as we looked closer, we saw that it wasn't a boulder. It was a dead rhinoceros.

The park rangers had removed its horn, so that poachers would not get it, but they left the body there. A lioness had stuck her head into the rhino's head, and we heard slobbering noises as she pulled her blood-stained face out to look at us. Driving around the carcass, we came to the front of the rhino. It looked like a dinosaur, lying out there.

The circle of life and death in the animal kingdom poses certain theological questions. The question of why bad things happen to good people is, in certain ways, not as difficult to answer as the question of why bad things happen to good animals. In my book Man & Beast (sadly out of print for many years), I explored some approaches to this question. There is one striking quote from the Chazon Ish about predatory animals: "We feel that without them the world would be lacking, and the world is not beautiful and perfect except when there are predatory animals in it."

Whether it is spiders catching flies in their webs, or lions hunting rhinos, the world is is certainly beautiful, even if it is savage in its beauty!

I would like to conclude with some exciting news: Starting on the Sunday after next, there will be a series of weekly lectures at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, which will also be live-streamed for anyone in the world to join! For more details and registration, see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/night. The series will contain in-depth discussions about Biblical zoology, with the assistance of museum exhibits. It's the next best thing to joining a Torah-In-Motion African Adventure!
 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zoroastrians and Zoorabbis in Zimbabwe

This morning, in Zimbabwe, I met an old friend called Jake, who I hadn’t seen in quite a while. Last time I saw him, I got his autograph, which I framed, and which some of you have seen on display. Jake had put on quite a bit of weight since then, it looked like about several hundred pounds! But that kind of weight-gain looks good on a bull elephant.

I got into a conversation with a stranger from Florida who was sharing my ride (on Jake). Initially I was dismayed that the shortage of available elephants meant that I had to share my ride with someone. But my co-passenger was very pleasant, and turned out to be exceedingly interesting. Much to my surprise, he was a Zoroastrian!

As Jake lumbered across the savanna and forded streams, my co-passenger and I had the most fascinating discussion; Judaism and Zoroastrianism have quite a lot in common. Zoroastrianism is also a very ancient religion, and it can be roughly classified as monotheistic. Zoroastrians, too, have suffered intensely from persecution; my new friend spoke repeatedly about genocides that had been committed against his people, and there are only about 160,000 Zoroastrians left in the world (of which about 20,000 live in the US). There are also numerous components to Zoroastrianism that are similar to those in Judaism, including the belief that the universe was created by a benevolent Creator, that life is about choosing good over evil, and that there is divine reward and punishment for one’s conduct. (Of course, there are also differences; in Judaism, for example, there is no tradition of ritualistically leaving the dead outside to be eaten by vultures. However, I suspect that American Zoroastrians don’t do that either.)

Almost completely forgetting that we were riding on an enormous elephant, with some African buffalo and waterbuck watching us pass, my new friend and I became immersed in a discussion about how Judaism and Zoroastrianism are not only similar; they are actually connected. Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Persian Empire, which included Babylon during the Talmudic period. And as my friend Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman has written about at great length, there is an enormous amount of material in the Babylonian Talmud that is related to Zoroastrianism.

As someone who learned in charedi yeshivos for many years, it is a source of fascination to me that there are sections of the Gemara that can only be properly understood if you know about Zoroastrianism. When I was in the charedi yeshivah world, it was a given that the greatest experts on the Gemara were people such as Rav Elyashiv, or perhaps Rav Moshe Shapiro if you were part of his following. Yet there are topics in the Gemara that, while Rav Moshe Shapiro would undoubtedly have been able to devise an ingenious and creative explanation of them, can only be authentically understood with their original intent if you know about Zoroastrianism.

As an example, the Gemara in Megillah has some seemingly extremely strange comments about Persians and bears. However, as Rabbi Dr. Elman explained to me, and as I confirmed with my co-passenger on the pachyderm, once you realize that dov is Hebrew for “bear,” and dêv is the Zoroastrian name for a certain demon, then the passage makes sense. (For further discussion, see the section “Angels and Demons” in the chapter on the bear in The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.)

My investigations into Zoroastrianism today perhaps also sheds light on a puzzle that I had been wondering about for several years. The Mishnah gives a list of people who have no share in the World to Come:
Every member of Israel has a share in the World-to-Come… But these have no share in the World-to-Come: One who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah; that there is no Torah from Heaven; and an apikores (which is defined in the Talmud as someone who shows disrespect to Torah scholars)… (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1)
The first of these categories – one who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah – seems a little strange. Why is it so important as to be mentioned in this very brief list of crucial expressions of belief – and it even comes before Torah from Heaven! And why does it speak about someone who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah, as opposed to speaking about someone who simply denies the Resurrection of the Dead altogether?

I think that perhaps the answer is similar to the explanation of why Rambam listed belief in the pre-eminence of Moshe Rabbeinu as a prophet as one of the 13 principles of faith. One might wonder if it really matters if a person believes that Yirmiyah was a greater prophet than Moshe. But it’s not Yirmiyah that Rambam was concerned about; it was Mohammed. As Prof. Chayyim Soloveichik writes, “That Moses’ prophecy was of a different order than that of other prophets is an explicit verse in the Torah (Numbers 12:7); [but] it was a specific historic context, its denial by Islam, that turned this verse from a religious dictum into an ikkar. A belief is an ikkar when its content is what differentiates Judaism from the surrounding credal system” (“Two Notes on the Commentary on the Torah of R. Yehudah he-Hasid,” p. 244).

The same may be the case here. Zoroastrians sometimes claim that they originated belief in the resurrection of the dead, which they call frashö-kereití. They argue that this belief is not in the Torah, and that the Jews took it from them. It would thus be understandable, then, that the Sages would strongly condemn someone who says that the Resurrection of the Dead is not in the Torah.

My discussions with my Zoroastrian friend were interrupted by the elephant mahout, who informed us that it was time to disembark. I told the mahout that this was probably the only time he would ever be transporting a Zoroastrian and a rabbi. He laughed politely, but I suspect that he had no idea what either of those words meant!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Heresy of Victoria Falls

Not my best picture of the Falls, but this one shows a rainbow!
Right now I am at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Botswana, leading the Torah-In-Motion 2017 African adventure. Yesterday, we visited the spectacular Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It's an extraordinary sight - twice as tall as Niagara Falls and much wider, with a thundering noise that can be heard many miles away. Victoria Falls takes your breath away, and it cries out for a berachah. But does it indeed deserve one?

The berachah recited on natural wonders is Baruch Oseh Maaseh Bereishis, "Blessed is the One Who makes the work of Creation." It is officially prescribed as being for natural wonders such as mountains, deserts, oceans, large rivers and suchlike, and while gigantic waterfalls are not mentioned, it is fairly clear that they would be included in the same category.

But there is a slight wrinkle. When was Victoria Falls created? I was once sent the following halachic discussion from a mailing list of Rabbi Eli Mansour:
"Hacham Bension Abba Shaul (Israel, 1923-1998), in his work Or Le’sion, writes that in Israel, one who sees Mount Hermon recites this Beracha. The Halachic authorities add that the Beracha is also recited upon seeing the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and the Swiss Alps. There is some discussion as to whether the Beracha should be recited upon seeing the large mountains in the area of Rome. The Gemara relates that Rome did not exist at the time of the world’s creation, and it was formed later. On the day King Shelomo married Pharaoh’s daughter, the Gemara tells, G-d was angry and sent the angel Gabriel to thrust a stick in the Mediterranean Sea. Ground eventually formed around this area, and this became Italy. Thus, as the region was not included in G-d’s original creation, one cannot recite the Beracha of “Oseh Ma’aseh Bereshit” in reference to its mountains.
Another interesting question discussed by the Poskim relates to the recitation of the Beracha upon seeing the Grand Canyon. Geologists claim that the canyon was formed over time by the Colorado River, and thus did not exist at the time of creation. However, they believe that this process occurred over the span of hundreds of thousands of years, while we believe that the world is not that old. Therefore, we may assume that the Canyon has existed since creation, and thus the Beracha is recited."
This discussion is based upon the premise that the blessing of "Who makes the work of Creation" can only be pronounced upon something that has existed since Creation. However, it appears to me that it makes little difference whether one believes that the world is a few thousand or several billion years old. The blessing is referring to the entirety of Creation, not the beginning of Creation, and it therefore includes the end of Creation. So whether one believes that mountains and the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls were created as they appear now, or one believes that they developed over long periods, it's still part of Creation.

The numbered red lines show the past locations of the falls.
However, once you look at a satellite map of the area, it's really hard to deny that Victoria Falls reveals the world to be much, much more than a few thousand years old. The satellite image shows that Victoria Falls has been in eight different locations over history. The explanation for this is that the plateau over which it flows has many large cracks filled with weaker sandstone, some of which run north-south and others which run east-west and are larger. The river runs north-south, so as it erodes the rock, it cuts back to the north, but when it reaches an east-west crack, it opens it across the entire width of the crack. This is something that continues to take place, extremely slowly and gradually, and the seven past locations of the falls clearly show that it has been doing so over a very long period indeed.

There's more to discuss on this, but it's been a very long day, with a riverboat safari and a game drive in neighboring Botswana in which we saw hippos and elephants and crocodiles and kudu and giraffes and impala and eagles and buffalo and baboons, so I'll leave it here, with just a few photos!

View from the riverboat safari
"Behold now, Behemoth!" (Iyov 40:15)

But can he jump?
This is exactly how I looked as a kid. Now I have less hair on my head.

A Mezuzah Miracle?

Here's a really freaky story. Four girls in my niece's class broke their hands or arms in the last ten days. The teacher decided...