Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Jailer and the Gedolim

There's a truly remarkable story at Yeshiva World, "High Ranking Prison Officer Meets Gedolim in Bnei Brak With Regards to Prison Garb For Religious Prisoners" (ironically, taken without attribution from a story at Bechadrei Charedim). It's about how Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Gershon Edelstein (Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovezh) asked the Head of the Commissioner’s Office, Gondar Ilan Malka, to meet with them, after complaints by charedi prisoners about how they are not allowed to wear hats and jackets for davening.

Aside from the strange nature of the story itself (this is the aspect of charedi criminals that the Gedolim see fit to address?!), this raises some other issues about charedi crime. Now, every sector of society has its good apples and its bad apples. Still, one feature of charedi criminals is that they often enjoy high status in charedi society, which is willing to ignore their wrongdoings as long as they are playing for the right team.

One of the most senior charedi politicians in Beit Shemesh, representing a party that the local charedi rabbonim said that it was a mitzvah to vote for instead of the "anti-Torah" dati and mesorati parties, was just arrested for major fraud - though this is not widely known in the local charedi community, because the charedi newspapers refuse to report it (they only report wrongdoings by non-charedim). And, of course, we have one of the worst desecrations of God's Name in the country's history, the conviction of former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger - a man who was widely suspected of very serious wrongdoings for decades, but who was elected as Chief Rabbi due to the influence of Rav Elyashiv. Then there was the notorious Leib Tropper, another person with a long history of trouble, who was given tremendous power by Rav Elyashiv and other charedi Gedolim.

But another problem is that crime in charedi society often seems to involve the cooperation of a large number of people. Earlier this month, nine charedim were arrested for a huge, sophisticated fraud involving the creation of fictitious yeshivos in order to receive various government benefits. They printed thousands of fake identity cards and even purchased buses to quickly transport hundreds of cooperative students to the Yeshiva in case of a surprise inspection. The scam had been going on for years; investigators said that the investigation was particularly challenging  because of the charedi community's refusal to cooperate with authorities. It was the largest fraud ever uncovered in Israel's history.

This follows a similar case in Beit Shemesh last year, where police arrested twelve charedim for creating a fictitious yeshivah with 150 students in order to receive benefits. A few years earlier, police raided three non-profit institutions in Beit Shemesh and Beitar which were likewise running fake yeshivos to collect benefits. And when the government started to audit how many students in charedi yeshivos really exist, various yeshivos voluntarily removed a total of ten thousand fictitious students!

So is crime in charedi society actually more widespread than in non-charedi society? I don't know of any official figures. But Chazal tell us that this will be the case. Because Chazal state that if you don't give people the education to earn an honest living, they will resort to earning a dishonest living:
"Any Torah that is not accompanied by work, will end in neglect [of Torah] and will lead to sin." (Avos 2:2)
"Whoever does not teach his son a trade... it is as though he has taught him to steal." (Kiddushin 29a)

In the charedi community, children receive no significant secular education, and their employment prospects - when they finally get around to looking for employment - are very poor. And supporting large families is really, really expensive. Chazal tell us that in such a desperate situation, people will very likely resort to crime. That is why traditionally, partly in order to avoid this, Jews raised their children with the skills and attitude to work for a living. Contemporary charedi society is a total perversion of this tradition, with the results that Chazal predicted. It's not that charedim are more unethical - it's that they are more desperate.

And here's where we get to a report about the meeting between the jailer and the Gedolim which, on first glance, appears positive, but on further reflection, is deeply disturbing:
"Rabbi Edelstein told Gondar Malka that the prison system should put in extra effort to make certain that these prisoners are able to find honest work even after they are released so that they will not return to their lives of crime."
Olam hafuch ra'isi. The responsibility is being placed on the wrong party! What Gondar Malka should have replied is: "Shouldn't it be the charedi world that puts in extra effort to make certain that yeshiva students be able to find honest work after they are released from yeshiva, so that they will not enter lives of crime in the first place?!"

(Hat-tip to DH of Monsey. Don't forget that you can sign up to receive this blog via e-mail using the form on the right of the page.)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Value of Participating in a Mishnayos Siyum

A wonderful person that I am privileged to know, Mrs. Mollie Fisch of Teaneck, sent me a gentle critique of the post before last, in which I deprecated the value of making a siyum mishnayos for someone who has passed away. It's a fabulous piece, so I am posting it in its entirety:
Rav Natan, I like the idea of a chesed siyyum, and this is not the first time I have heard of something of this nature. 
But back to basics: please consider thinking about the whole tehillim-mishnayot situation from an alternate, and perhaps even a Rambam type perspective.
I think your motivation in dispelling the magical thinking of aliyat haneshama and direct intervention is at least partly propelled by your concern that some "charitable institutions" are convincing others to hand over money so that they will send a team of rabbinical students to pray until the walls cave in, to effect a change in someone's destiny, or push up someone's neshama to a higher realm.  Clearly, it is also important to you to present the truth of the matter as a scholar.  I sympathize with that effort, but I also think that your battering away at the issue so persistently may cause you to throw out the baby with the bathwater. 
From a scholarly standpoint going back to chazal, I recognize that my saying tehillim for a stranger or a friend does not really effect a magical cure or evoke the perfect zivug for a single. Saying mishnayot in someone's memory is not going to cause their neshama to bounce around. (You may recall that I once sent you a poem about the neshama as a pinball.)  But it does serve some very important purposes:
1. It makes me more sensitive to the people around me, makes me aware of the struggles we all face in life, puts my own life into perspective, and hopefully builds my character (much as the Rambam says about prayer) in a kedusha-laden atmosphere where I cannot help but know Who is really in charge.  It also says "kol Yisrael chaverim." Connection is very important, especially in troubling times.  To me, that's the real meaning behind "v'lo ra-iti tzaddik ne-ezav..." - connection leads us to engage in chesed.
2. For the needy person on the receiving end of tehillim, it says "You are not alone, someone cares enough about you to say tehillim on your behalf. You matter, your name is your identity, and even if our only connection is being two Jews, you are part of a community." That's a chizuk giving mechanism in itself, and who doesn't benefit from chizuk? 
3. If I commit to learning mishnayot for a friend's relative, or for my daughter in law's parent, it says to the survivor "You are not alone in this dark time. You may have lost your parent/child/spouse, but look at the people who are here for you to support you in your grief."  It also commits me to an additional act of "kovea itim" and gives me an opportunity to learn something new or at a deeper level. Again, it helps us both in life, regardless of its effect or lack thereof on the dead.
4. Good people want to DO SOMETHING POSITIVE and to be a part of the process.  They cannot perform surgery, turn back the clock, change the history of the moment, but they can do chesed, cook a meal, take care of the laundry or the kids -- and they can also pray/say tehillim/learn/ TO SHOW THEY CARE.  Nothing wrong with that, is there? It creates a zone of comfort for the patient/family/survivor that is very reassuring through a difficult process. I have been on the receiving end, and it is indeed helpful..
That's my message to you for today, not really a post, but if you find it of interest, feel free to use it in whole or part. 
And here is the poem that she sent me a few years ago:
Is a dead parent’s neshama like a pin ball?
Or a glob of virtual matter in a computer game, that dislodges from a wall
And moves a step higher at our click?
Bounces to higher and higher numbers, setting off flashing lights?
Each time their child learns with intent, makes a Kiddush, gives Tsedaka, 
Says Kaddish, performs a special mitzvah ---
Does that cause that neshama to have an aliya?
To reach impossible heights?
Is it a trick?
Do we have that control?
Can we truly enhance the fate of that soul?
Can we send that neshama mi-chayil el choyil?
(Or, perhaps, if we fail, even cause it to fall? )
 It seems a bit strange, don’t you think
That we can cause it to rise – and maybe to sink?
That after all those years of parenting, of nurturing
Their final ascent would be cast in our hands?
How can we understand?
Who gave us the right to fly that kite?

Perhaps it is our own neshama that we guide
Perhaps our parent’s neshama will choose to come along on that ride
Perhaps a gentle soul smile will shine upon us in our deed
For nurturing the blossom for which they planted the seed

Our response is important, respect and devotion   
To honor our dear ones with deeds and emotion.
We pray those neshamot will not float alone
Ribono shel Olam, please welcome them home

"I Did It Because Of Him"

In previous posts, and in my essay on the subject, I argued that learning Torah is only a credit for a person if they were your parent or had an otherwise formative influence on you. As Rav Sherira Gaon says, "A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds. Even if all the righteous people in the world were to seek mercy for him, and all the righteous acts were to be done in his merit, it would be of no help to him." A large number of people had the same objection to this: If you learn on behalf of someone who died, then even if he was a random stranger, the fact is that you are only learning because of him. Surely, then, he should receive the credit for it!

In order to understand why this is problematic, let me ask you this: Because of whom does this blog exist?
Is it just because of me, or is it also because of other people?
Is it because of my father, who bequeathed to me an inquisitive mind, and a trait of speaking up for what you believe to be the truth even if it's unpopular?
Is it because of the Gedolim, who banned my books and drove me to want to expose the problems with charedi theology and society?
Is it because of the Kannaim, who manipulated the Gedolim into doing this?
Is it because of the people who created computers which made blogs possible?
Is it because of Pyra Labs, who developed the Blogger software?
Is it because of the people who read the blog, thereby giving me an audience to write for?

You could describe all kinds of people as being responsible, in some way, for the existence of this blog. But some are more meaningfully responsible, and others less so.
Now consider the following situation. Avraham Goldberg dies, and his son Yitzchak wants to arrange people to learn Mishnayos for him. And so the gabbai of the shul, Yankel, posts a sign for people to take masechtos. And the people who sign up include not only friends of Avraham but also Elisha Smith, who doesn't know either Avraham or Yitzchak, but recently joined the shul because his wife Ivanka likes the sisterhood and he's a nice guy who wants to be a part of the community. Who gets the credit for Elisha's learning? Avraham? Yitzchak? Yankel? Ivanka? Elisha's parents, who raised him to be a good Jew that does things for others? Elisha's teachers, who taught him how to learn? Elisha?

(And let's not forget about Shmeryl. Shmeryl is a mean guy who gets his kicks when people die. He goes out and punches people to celebrate. When he heard that Avraham Goldberg died, he went out and punched a little old lady. So does Avraham receive the de-merit for being the cause of Shmeryl punching someone?)
I think it's reasonable to say that while this particular learning session by Elisha was sparked in order to do something for Avraham, Avraham himself is only very minimally responsible for Elisha doing a good deed. He was the situational trigger by dying. There is nothing more than that. Elisha's good deed is much more a result of those who exerted a formative influence on him (and his own character).

Does this minimal share in the causation mean that Avraham should be credited for it? In human, earthly terms, it cannot be reasonably said that this is a credit to Avraham in any kind of meaningful sense. Nobody would say, "Wow, what a guy Avraham was - Elisha learned Mishnayos for him even though he had no idea who he was and only did it because he wanted to be part of the shul community and likes to do things for his community!" 

But what about in Heaven? Is there credit to his neshamah? Obviously, none of us can really know that. The best we can do is to talk about what classical Judaism says about such things. And the fact is that in Chazal, you never see such a thing. Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, encountering a person who was suffering in the afterlife, wasn't himself able to do anything directly to help him - all he could do was find the person's son and convince the son to do mitzvos. And the Gaonim and Rishonim and early Acharonim who discuss these sorts of things, by and large, stress that there is only a concept of bra mezake aba, a child provides merit for the parent, and that this does not apply to other people. Extending this to teachers and others who, like a parent, exert a formative influence, is reasonable. Extending it beyond that, to a person whose share in your doing a mitzvah is just that he triggered it by dying, is much more problematic.

There are other benefits, however, to a Mishnayos siyum, which I overlooked in my previous post, and which were pointed out by a reader; I will discuss them in the next post.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Chesed Siyum

The popular idea of making a siyum mishnayos for someone who has passed away, in which random people take on masechtos in order that their learning should benefit the deceased, is of extremely recent origin and is theologically very problematic. As the classical Torah authorities point out, there is simply no mechanism to credit other people with mitzvos which had nothing to do with them. You can honor anyone's memory in this world with any kind of good deed, but your actions are only actually a credit to them (from both our perspective and God's perspective) if they actually influenced your actions, such as if they were your parent, teacher or exerted some sort of formative influence. (See an additional source on this, which I added at the end of this post.)

Yet the idea that you can give anyone the merit of your Torah learning has become increasingly popular. One reason is that some people have found this easy to commercialize. Once you posit that anyone can learn Torah to benefit anyone else, then you can manipulate people into giving you money so that you (or the people in your kollel) will allegedly benefit their loved one. But in reality, the deceased is not getting any credit for this Torah learning. And it's often not even a particularly suitable or meaningful way of honoring their memory.

Fred Distenfeld z"l
It is therefore very gratifying to see that my friend Gershon Distenfeld has come up with a terrific project to honor the memory of his father, Fred Distenfeld z"l: a "Chesed Siyum." This involves reaching out and encouraging family and friends, and anyone else who wants to participate in chesed on a community level, to sign up and pledge to perform acts of chesed in memory of Fred Distenfeld.

The Chesed Siyum differs from a Mishnayos Siyum in three key ways:

First, there is the obvious difference in that the mitzvah being done is one that helps other people. This is as opposed to learning Torah, which only benefits oneself; it does not benefit either the deceased (except when they are an ancestor/teacher) or society at large (at least, according to classical Jewish thought rather than recent mystical innovations).

Second is that while learning Mishnayos would be a meaningful way to honor the memory of, say, someone who wrote a commentary on the Mishnah, it's not a particularly meaningful way to honor the memory of most people. Fred Distenfeld had an amazing reputation as a baal chesed, and so doing chesed is actually a meaningful way to honor his memory.

Third is that many of those taking on this mitzvah are doing so because they are inspired by the sort of person that Fred Distenfeld was (even if they did not know him personally, and only from reports). Thus, the chesed being done can be attributed to his influence; it is indeed a credit, a zechus, for him.

See the article about the Chesed Siyum at And you can sign up for the Chesed Siyum at

UPDATE: See this additional 16th-century source which states that mitzvos are only a benefit to the parent because the parent is the actual cause of this person:
 שו"ת בנימין זאב סימן רב
אין זכות הקרובים מועיל אלא זכות הבן לאב כההיא דאמרינן ברא מזכי אבא ולא אבא מזכי ברא... זכות ומצוה הוא לאב כשאחד מיוצאי חלציו יקדיש ה' הגדול הנכבד והנורא לעיני כל העדה... כיון שעצם מעצמיו ובשר מבשרו הוא גורם היות ה' הגדול והנורא מתקדש שמו ברבים וזה אצלי טעם קדיש לבן ומזה הטעם ברא מזכי אבא מפני שהבן הוא האב וכל מצות הבן ומעשיו הטובים ממנו משתלשלים ויורדים אבל זכות ומצות של שאר קרובי' אינו מועי' כלל לנפש המת דמאי זה טעם יועיל זכות ראובן לשמעון ולוי אחים ומצותיו מה יעשו להם

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Booyah!!! Or, to use the more traditional terminology, Baruch shekivanti.

I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, due to two things that happened.

First was regarding the article that I published in England's Jewish Chronicle, in which I criticized those who were condemning Israel's action on the Gaza border. My particular target was an article by Daniel Sugarman which had appeared in that newspaper the previous day. Several people had said that I was wasting my time writing such things, since Israel-haters are not going to be swayed by any arguments. But I felt that some people criticizing Israel were not haters, but simply misinformed and ignorant of the situation. Well, today, Daniel Sugarman retracted and apologized, citing the arguments that I had made as one of his reasons! This shows that it is indeed worthwhile putting in effort to publicly defend Israel.

The second thing that happened relates to a topic that I have been busy with for some time. A few years ago, I grew suspicious of the popular notion that you can learn Torah l'iluy nishmas whoever you name, and transfer spiritual benefit to them. It seemed to me that there was no framework for such a notion in classical Judaism, which only allowed for this to work for one's ancestors and teachers. In an article that I published on this topic, What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?, I posited that organizations such as Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, and books such as The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah, were distorting the true picture, notwithstanding their marketing themselves as Torah scholars.

Of course, there were people who dismissed this as typical Slifkin apikorsus. And even I myself was wondering why nobody else was pointing this out. (Although I did suspect that this was because this fabricated concept is an excellent source of income for yeshivas and kollels.)

Then a friend told me that when he was studying in the yeshivah of the famous Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky in Jerusalem, a student once asked if Rav Kushlevsky could dedicate that day’s lecture to elevate the soul of his grandmother. Rav Kushlevsky replied that this was impossible; while his delivering the lecture would be a credit to his own grandmother, there was simply no way by which to transfer that credit to someone else’s grandmother, who had no role in enabling the lecture to take place.

Yesterday, something else came to light. Reader Yonason Rosman showed me that yet another distinguished rabbinic authority stated this - none other than Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz"l! Here is the quote, from Mesoras Moshe, a work compiled by his grandson and reviewed by R. Shmuel Fuerst:
Rabbi Rivlin requested that I ask our Rabbi if there is an advantage to declare, when fulfilling a mitzvah, that the mitzvah is in memory of the soul of one's parents, or if there is indeed any such notion of expanding upon the principle that "a son provides merit for his father."
And our Rabbi responded that this is a very difficult thing to know. For how is it relevant to sell, to transfer the merit for a mitzvah that one does, to someone else? And simply speaking, that which we say, when learning Mishnayos in memory of someone, that it is for their merit, does not refer to the actual [reward for the] mitzvah, for the actual reward is received by the one doing the studying. Rather, it is that since this [deceased] person is the cause that this person is studying, then he receives credit for it. And this is the standard concept which exists with a child, that all his deeds are the consequence of his parents - and thus it does not appear possible to add to this reality. But this is not a clear matter - perhaps there is a concept within Kabbalah regarding this, and it requires further investigation.

In other words, there is no such thing as doing a mitzvah on behalf of someone else. The most that you can say is that if the person is the cause of your doing a mitzvah - such as with a parent, who is the cause of your existence and education - then they receive credit for being the cause. Beyond that, there is no way to transfer the reward or credit for a mitzvah to somebody else. Unless there is some sort of unknown kabbalistic concept - which would go against normative rabbinic and logical thought.

It's nice to see that other people have reached the same conclusion as me. But don't expect to see this quote from Rav Moshe Feinstein appear on the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishnah, or in the next edition of The Neshamah Should Have An Aliyah. It's not good for business.

Meanwhile, the lesson is, strive for truth, and when you have sufficient reason to think you've found it, don't be afraid to say so - and if you have indeed discovered the truth, then you're probably not the first to do so!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Armchair Soldiers

Here is an article that I just had published in England's Jewish Chronicle. Which is pretty remarkable, considering that the target of my criticism was their very own editor and writers.

Last summer, my sister was sitting with her family at Shabbat dinner, when suddenly they heard screaming from their next-door neighbor's house. My brother-in-law ran next door to find a nineteen-year-old Palestinian stabbing the neighbors to death. My nephew, an off-duty soldier, shot the terrorist, which incapacitated him (but did not kill him). Then he checked that the house was safe, and attempted to help the wounded, until the security forces arrived.

In the aftermath, many people were criticizing my nephew for not killing the terrorist. It's painful to see pictures of the terrorist smiling proudly in court, secure in the knowledge that his family will receive more than a million dollars as a reward from the Palestinian authority, knowing that he will one day walk free, while three members of the Salomon family lie underground and the surviving family members had their lives shattered. Why didn't my nephew shoot to kill?

Such criticisms came from armchair soldiers - people with little knowledge of combat scenarios beyond what they've seen in James Bond. People with actual knowledge of such things are aware that such situations are chaotic, and that there's rarely such a thing as "shoot to kill." You shoot to stop what's happening as quickly as possible, and the largest target is the torso. Once the attacker is neutralized, it's up to the courts to decide what to do with him. The IDF was extremely proud of my nephew's professional conduct and awarded him a medal. The goal of soldiers is not to kill terrorists; it's to follow the rules of engagement under very difficult conditions.

A different group of people are acting as armchair soldiers with regard to the situation on the border with Gaza. "Why did the IDF have to kill anyone? Why didn't they stop them some other way?" Such criticism invariably comes from people with no experience or knowledge of such situations. If they would bother doing proper research before publicly condemning Israel, they would discover the facts of the situation.

The IDF does not want to kill anyone - if you speak to people in the IDF, you would know that. And it's absolutely not in Israel's interests to do so. But sometimes, situations arise in which there is simply no choice, if you want to prevent much worse bloodshed from happening.

There were not only protestors present - there were also numerous Hamas terrorists armed with butcher knives, guns and firebombs, whose explicitly declared goal (as can be seen in video footage) was to break into Israel and kill people. The terrorists were mixed together with the protestors in several huge mobs. And there is simply no way to stop them at a distance without using guns. The IDF used tear gas, but its effectiveness is dependent on wind conditions, and the canisters can be quickly buried or thrown away. Rubber bullets only work at short range. And you can't wait for it to be a short-range confrontation - with a mob of thousands, many of whom are armed, it would turn into a sheer bloodbath, on both sides.

"But Israel is so technologically advanced, there must be non-lethal ways of stopping them!" No, there aren't. No army in the world has yet discovered a way of stopping enemy combatants without using bullets. Maybe one day there will be such technology, but it does not yet exist. It's the height of irresponsibility to condemn Israel's actions based on a completely fictitious, baseless claim of the existence of "alternative technologies."

"But it ends up being so disproportionate - sixty Gazans dead, and no Israelis dead!" This is perhaps the most bizarre criticism of all. Should Israel wait until the Gazans had broken through the fence and killed some Jews before stopping them from killing any more? You don't measure the morality of a confrontation with terrorists or of a war by comparing the number of dead on each side.

Unless you're one of the many outright antisemites who believe that Israel has no right to prevent its civilians from being butchered by terrorists, then please, show some responsibility. Don't criticize the IDF's method of preventing a larger bloodbath if you don't have any expertise in this area. Learn what the IDF says about these situations. Contact soldiers (as I did) and listen to what they have to say. If you don't trust the IDF, then listen to what Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, has to say about the absolutely necessity and propriety of what the IDF did.

Don't be an armchair soldier. It's morally irresponsible. And it's plain stupid.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Top Ten Stupidest Criticisms of Israel's Actions on the Gaza Border

1) People have a right to peacefully protest! (Indeed they do. But there are plenty of people here who are taking butcher knives and firebombs and guns to storm the border and kill and kidnap Israeli civilians.)

2) There is no evidence of that! (Yes there is. There are Arabic Facebook pages and interviews and photos.)

3) But it's not all the Gazans who are doing that! (Right. And it's not all the Gazans who are being shot!)

4) Israel is just trying to kill as many Gazans as possible! (If it was, there would be carnage like in Syria. Israel is trying to avoid killing Gazans - aside from anything else, it is politically very damaging.)

5) Israel should just use tear gas! (They have, but it often doesn't work, such as when it's windy, or when the Gazans have gas masks and bury the canisters.)

6) Israel should only use rubber bullets! (They often can't, because these only work at short range.)

7) Israel should just arrest them! (If soldiers went up to the crowds to do that, there would be a bloodbath.)

8) Israel is so technologically advanced, there must be a way to stop them without shooting them! (No army in the world has yet found a way to repel armed attackers without ever using bullets)

9) It's so disproportionate - so many Gazans wounded or killed, and no Israelis! (So what?! When you are repelling an armed invasion, there is no reason to let them kill more of you before continuing to stop them!)

And the Top Stupidest Argument is...:

10) The Palestinians have legitimate grievances! (Even if this were true, are you claiming that Israel should therefore just let them storm the border and butcher its civilians?!)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Fake Chazals

Here is a fascinating and disturbing exposé of a Fake Chazal, and an explanation of how it comes into being.

As you may recall, a few years ago I e-published a study entitled "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In that study, I discussed the popular notion that a person can learn Torah and designate the spiritual rewards for any deceased person, by declaring that they are learning l'iluy nishmasam. I argued that this notion is of extremely recent origin - no more than 150 years old. Traditionally, there was only a concept that your Torah and mitzvos can benefit your ancestors (and teachers), because your good deeds only exist as a result of them. There's just no mechanism for your Torah study to benefit a person who had no formative influence on you.

Recently I was looking at the website of Chevra Lomdei Mishna, the institution which takes your funds in order to support kollel students studying l'iluy nishmas your loved one. (This is the institution which published the popular book The Neshama Should Have An Aliyah.) On their website, accompanying some bold claims - "Imagine the merits that can be amassed for your dearly departed loved ones, as well as for yourself and your family, by tapping into the merit of Torah learning by dedicated, serious Torah scholars!" - there is a page of sources to back up their claims. It's a pretty slim list; just four sources are cited, of which three are contemporary works! The only pre-modern source that they provide is a second-hand citation from a contemporary work called P’nei Boruch, which they report as saying the following:
“Our Sages have said that Asher, son of the Patriarch Jacob, sits at the entrance to Gehinnom (Purgatory), and saves [from entering therein] anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied."
That indeed seems very explicit. Chazal themselves said that anyone who is having Mishnah studied on their behalf, will be saved from Gehinnom. Better get out your checkbook!

When I came across this, I was very taken aback. If true, it would completely disprove my thesis.

However, over the years, I have learned not to trust citations of sources. (Remember when Dialogue journal published a critique of my kezayis article by Dovid Kornreich, which quoted websites as stating that the Romans cultivated and exported olives in northern Europe, and these quotes turned out to be completely fabricated?)

So I decided to look into this citation from Chazal. And, lo and behold, I discovered that no such source exists.

First of all, you have to wonder: If Chazal did indeed say such a thing, why didn't Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cites the source from Chazal directly, instead of citing a second-hand attribution from the contemporary work P’nei Boruch? The reason is that no such source in Chazal can be found. Not in Bavli, not in Yerushalmi, not in Midrash. The earliest reference I was able to find is the Chida, attributing it to earlier authorities (Chazal?), yet he too does not provide any source.

But here's the kicker. Even if one were to find it in some long-lost Midrash, this alleged statement from Chazal does not at all say what Chevra Lomdei Mishnah cite it as saying! What it actually says, as quoted both by Chida and in Pnei Baruch, is that Asher son of Yaakov saves anyone who studies Mishnah - not anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied!

Now, Pnei Baruch does follow this quote with a claim that this would also apply to anyone on whose behalf Mishnah is being studied. However, he provides absolutely no support for this claim - and it's certainly not part of the alleged citation from Chazal!

On the website of Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, it states that "we strive to address any and all questions, concerns and issues that you may have. If at any time you need to reach us, please do not hesitate to contact us via phone or email, any time!" Well, I wrote to them twice, pointing out this distortion of the alleged source from Chazal, but they did not respond. Feel free to check out the sources yourself, by following the links above. Then you can write to, and ask them why did they change the source, and why they are presenting all this as normative, traditional Judaism when there is in fact no source in Chazal or the Rishonim for this concept.

Perhaps you're wondering why I am making such a fuss about this. Well, it's because if there's one thing that bothers me more than people manipulating sources (and you'd hope for better from people who market their services as "serious Torah scholars"), it's people manipulating sources so that they can manipulate people for money.

Coming up soon: an inspirational post about a very different new initiative for commemorating the deceased. Don't forget that you can subscribe to this blog, using the form on the right of the page.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Anonymous Enemies and Friends

Within the last day, I received two anonymous communications.

One was from a person who named himself as "The Torah Coach from Volozhin." His email, sent to me and to several other people I know, included the following:
One of the most cloudy areas in today’s world is regarding the correct ideology about the Authority and Kedushah of Chazal and our other great Sages throughout the generations. We are surrounded and sometimes infiltrated by “scholars” who would like to lower the correct level of Chazal in our eyes. And yes you can be assured that they have a wicked agenda in their attempt to do so.
The Torah Coach from Volozhin has a solution to this problem:
A few years ago an amazing anthology on this subject was printed under the name “Haim BeEmunatham”. This anthology is collected from 100’s of seforim over the ages which discuss these issues. It is absolutely a must-read for every authentic Jew as especially those that are in any Chinuch position.
Since this very important work is almost impossible to find at your local Seforim store, we are including it here. Please take the time to read it, digest and incorporate it into your life. Get it here:
Have a great day in Torah and Yiras Shamayim
The Torah Coach from Volozhin 
Now, long-time readers of this website may recall that the notorious Chaim B'Emunatam is one of the most dishonest works ever written. Written by Reuven Schmeltzer, one of the engineers of the ban on my books, it distorts and even edits the Rishonim so as to claim that nobody ever said that Chazal made scientific errors, and that it is heretical to do so. So I replied to him as follows:
Dear Anonymous "Torah Coach from Volozhin,"
If, as you claim, you are concerned about the honor of great Torah scholars, how can you recommend this sefer? Perhaps you have not read it carefully, but I have never seen a book which shows more DISrespect to  great Torah scholars. The author of this book actually re-arranges the words of Rambam in order to distort their meaning! And he slanders the writings of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch! And he disregards countless Rishonim whom he doesn't like!
Attached is a critique of the book, in both English and Hebrew, which details many of the problems with it. I trust that you write to all the people that you recommended this book too, and tell them that you were unaware that the book actually demonstrates tremendous disrespect to our greatest Torah scholars among the Rishonim and Acharonim.
Natan Slifkin
The reply was swift in coming:
I know you Slifkin.  I read chaim bshakrusom.  You are not an authentic jew.  You are an authentic elephant rider.  You are also a certified supreme idiot and ignormous. A bum and a scum. Go to Africa  leave judaism to authentic jews. It is forbiiden to debate anything with  with you. Dpaker Tfei  Maybe Sid Leiman will talk with you i will not. 
How charming!

It was slightly unpleasant to receive this correspondence. Subsequently, I was informed of another anonymous communication, received by the museum foundation office. Sent by way of a charitable foundation that disguises the source of the donors when they so request, it was a five-figure contribution to The Biblical Museum of Natural History!
I think that the latter anonymous communication more than made up for the former! Thank you, whoever you are!

UPDATE: It wasn't too difficult to discover the identity of the Torah Coach from Volozhin, because his email address,, revealed his website, where he is announced as Rabbi Yehoshua Skolt, leading disciple of Rav Avigdor Miller and chavrusa of Rav Chaim Kanievsky. I have no idea if they would describe him in the same way.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Magnetism and Miracles

Following is a brief address that I delivered today at the dedication of the Lee and Anne Samson Interventional Neuro-Radiology Unit at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital.

Mayor Barkat, Professor HaLevy, my dear father-in-law, HaRav Drori, HaRav Stav, Rav Karlinsky, Former Minister Livnat, distinguished guests - and my kids,

It's very special to be at this event, the dedication of the Lee and Anne Samson Interventional Neuro-Radiology Unit, for four reasons.

First, because it is dedicated by, and in honor of, my wonderful father-in-law and my beloved late mother-in-law.

Second, because this is a unit that will be improving and saving lives, and you don't get much more important causes than that.

Third, because this is a tremendous achievement for Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world.

But it's the fourth reason that I would like to focus upon, because it occurred to me that it might be overlooked. And that is the religious significance of Interventional Neuro-Radiology.

Interventional Neuro-Radiology uses highly sophisticated imaging techniques - a combination of magnetic fields, electric field gradients, and radio waves - to enable surgical procedures to be performed through small incisions in the skin, directly inside the affected blood vessels.

Eight hundred years ago, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, perhaps better known by the acronym Rashba, wrote a heated critique of Rambam. One of his critiques was related to Rambam's dismissal of all magic as being superstitious nonsense. Rashba argues that there is clear evidence against Rambam's position. He says that there are phenomena that undeniably exist, and yet for which there can be no scientific explanation. The example that he brings is the magnet, and its use in a compass. These things operate neither in the realm of the miraculous, nor in the realm of the natural; instead, they operate in the realm of segulah, which is probably best translated as "occult properties." Rashba notes that "the wisest of scholars in the sciences can never grasp the nature" of such things.

Eight hundred years later, nobody would argue that magnets, and other forces of a non-tangible nature, are not in the realm of the natural. We understand a tremendous amount about magnetism and radiation and all kinds of energy fields, and we realize that even though you can't see magnetism or radiation, they are nevertheless natural properties of the physical universe. The people who design and use the equipment in the Interventional Neuro-Radiology unit are scientists and technicians, not wizards.

But this does not mean that these machines are not miraculous! The fact that the universe exists with invisible and yet real and regular forces, which man has been able to use his mind to discover, and which he has even learned how to generate and to manipulate, to see inside his very own body - is this not a miracle? It surely is. It's a tremendous expression of the wonder of the universe that God has created. So, as we stand here today, grateful for this medical marvel, we should also marvel at the wonder of God's universe, that made it possible. Thank you.

When Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

It is popularly believed that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence - or, to present what appears to be the Talmudic equivalent, לא ראינו אינו ראיה. Often, however, this is not true, and absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.

Let's take Bigfoot - the large, hairy, ape-like creature that is said to stalk the forests of north-western America. There is no actual evidence for its existence. Now, you might think that this does not mean that there is any evidence that Bigfoot does not exist. But it does indeed mean that.

The reason is that if Bigfoot existed, there couldn't just be one or even a few of them. No species exists as just a few individuals. There would have to been, over history, hundreds of thousands of them. And while it is certainly possible that a handful of individuals could exist without leaving any evidence for others to find, it is inconceivable that hundreds of thousands could exist without leaving any evidence behind. The absence of any evidence for Bigfoot is indeed evidence that Bigfoot has never existed.

So absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence if the phenomenon would be expected to produce evidence. It is important to grasp this point, because it has significant ramifications for discussions about Torah - in particular, the history of rabbinic scholarship.

Recently I have been involved in various online Torah discussions in which people asked for rabbinic sources to back up a certain idea. The presumption appeared to be that if you can find some source - any source - then it shows that the idea is a legitimate, normative idea in Judaism. And if you can't - well, it still could well be that the idea is normative, and we just haven't found the source yet.

But you have to consider the situation. If the idea is indeed normative, then surely you would expect it to be widely discussed by Chazal and certainly the Rishonim. If there is no discussion of it, then this is evidence that they did not believe the idea to exist. If there are only one or two sources discussing it, then this is evidence that it is not normative.

(Yes, I am aware of the irony that during the Great Science-Torah Controversy, this is exactly what the Gedolim accused me of doing, with regard to sources claiming that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters. But the point is that they got it exactly backwards. The notion that Chazal were fallible in science is not an aberrant view, but is in fact that of a major school of thought in rabbinic history. Whereas the idea that Chazal knew everything about the world from ruach hakodesh is not found in any early sources, and is countered by countless Gemaras and other sources.)

This is a point of general importance, but it is also of particular importance with regard to the topic that I saw being discussed. This was the notion that you can learn Torah and designate the reward/benefits to the spiritual bank account of anyone that you like, as long as you mention their name. As I discussed in my monograph "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" there is no early source for such a concept; in fact, the earliest authorities to discuss such things explicitly state that there is no such concept. You can't do mitzvos and designate the reward to be sent to whomever you want. So, when people are failing to find sources for such a notion, they should not conclude that the sources are out there and they just haven't found them yet. Rather, the correct conclusion is that this is not a normative, classical idea in Judaism.

Monday, May 7, 2018


Hooray! We managed to reach our goal, of raising $400,000, which along with the quadrupling by a special donor means that in total we now have $1.6 million for our new museum building!

Over 500 people donated to the campaign. Perhaps most touching was a modest donation received from a teenager, accompanied by a note about how much he loves the museum, which was later followed by much larger donations by his parents and grandparents!

While these funds do not cover the entire cost of the new building, they certainly provide the lion's share (ba-da-bum!), and things are moving forwards! These are exciting times. Thank you to everyone who donated and who helped spread the word.

In other good news, this we hatched our very first Chinese golden pheasants! Here is a picture of one of the chicks, together with a picture of the adult bird. Pheasants are kosher birds, which we served at our Feast of Kosher Curiosities, although the mesorah is usually taken to extend only to the ring-necked pheasant, not the golden pheasant. Golden pheasants are among the most beautiful of all birds!

We plan to run a Feast of Biblical Flora & Fauna in Teaneck in October, followed by a Feast of Exotic Curiosities in Los Angeles in February!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Skeleton In My Closet

I have a skeleton in my closet. I've been keeping this secret from many, many people. And I think that my reasons are absolutely justifiable. But in light of some protests taking place both nationally and internationally against a colleague in a similar situation, I've decided to come out and explain why I've been keeping it in my closet.

There are currently protests raging against The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, because they were found to be covering over the human evolution exhibit when they receive ultra-Orthodox school groups. People are standing outside the museum with placards. Prominent American biologist Jerry Coyne has issued a public letter, writing as "an evolutionary biologist of Jewish ancestry," slamming the museum for censorship and lying by omission. And the director of Be Free Israel, a non-profit which aims to promote religious pluralism in Israel, has condemned the museum as for engaging in "self-censorship that seeks to tell its visitors half-truths and complete lies.”

You don't have to agree with me, but in my view, the evolution of all animal life, including humans, is an adequately proven scientific fact. And I don't see it as presenting any kind of conflict with the Bible. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in the 19th century, when evolution had just been proposed as an explanation of life's development, the truth of it would demonstrate God's "creative wisdom" in forming animal life not by separate acts of creation, but via a profound system of natural law. I even published a book about reconciling evolution and the Bible, which was promptly banned by three dozen of the top ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who called for it to be burned. You don't have to convince me to be passionate about getting people to accept evolution!

And yet, in my own museum, The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, we do not have any exhibits about evolution. We don't have any skeletons of dinosaurs. We do have the skeleton of a 100,000 year old cave-bear, a wonderful donation to the museum, but the sign merely states that it is an extinct species from the Pleistocene, which most people probably think is a type of clay.

Why don't we say anything about evolution or prehistoric animal life? In part, it's because that's simply not part of our museum's mission; our museum is about the animal world of Biblical Israel. But another reason is that it would severely damage our educational mission.

We want to teach as much as possible about the natural world to as many people as possible. And Israel is home to an extraordinarily diverse range of people, not to mention the tourists that visit. There are Jews and Christians and Moslems and Hindus and people who are not attached to any faith. All of them visit our museum. And within the Jewish people, there are secular Jews, modern Orthodox Jews (who generally accept modern science), and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The latter group itself in turn contains many diverse communities - Lithuanians, Chabad, Gerrer, Belz, and so on. Many of them are completely insulated from the outside world. They've never watched television. They've never even been to visit the zoo, because the zoo is open on Shabbat. They're certainly not going to visit a museum that has exhibits about evolution.

Does it make sense not to create institutions that these communities will ever visit, and to continue to deprive them of knowledge about the natural world? Or does it make sense to have a variety of institutions available for the general public - some that teach the full range of modern scientific knowledge, and others with a mission that is more limited, but which will reach all communities?

The ultra-Orthodox schools that visit our museum are among our most valued visitors. The impact that we make upon them is extraordinary. I recall seeing one visitor, an adult, standing in front of our lion exhibit, marveling at it. "It's amazing!" he said to me. "Yes, it is," I agreed. I was completely  unprepared for his next question: "What is it?"

What is it? It's a lion, for goodness' sakes! One of the most instantly recognizable animals in the world! But not if you've never been on safari, never been to a zoo, never watched a wildlife documentary, and barely ever read any books or literature outside of rabbinic scholarship.

It's incredibly rewarding to watch our ultra-Orthodox visitors marvel as they hold a live chameleon for the first time, as they gasp at the skull of the Biblical behemoth (a hippopotamus), as they learn about the differences between herbivorous and carnivorous mammals. Wouldn't it be a terrible tragedy to deprive all these children of this experience, out of a stubborn desire to teach a lot more than people are willing to learn?

I have a skeleton in my closet. It's the skeleton of an archaeopteryx, a prehistoric dinosaur-bird. And I plan to keep it there.

Dear Reader,
There are just 12 hours remaining of our Quadruple Matching Campaign to help us acquire a new home for the museum. Please donate now, and be a part of this amazing project! And please share it with others! Thank you!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Extremist Charedi Violence and How To Prevent It

A very upsetting incident happened yesterday, in the middle of an exciting day of campaigning for the new museum building.

One of the groups that visited the museum was a Talmud Torah from one of the Deep Chareidi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh. We underwent the usual preparations for such groups, closing off all the female staff out of sight, instructing our guide to tell them that the video (of me together with lions and leopards in Africa) was a Matzeget rather than a Seret, etc.. They were a great bunch of kids, lively and super-excited to be in the museum. I wandered into the main hall at the end of their tour, and several of them came over to me in excitement, recognizing me from the video. Incredibly, one of them said to me, "Did you see me waving to you, when you were with the lion?" He didn't understand the concept of a video!

Anyway, the group left, after the rebbeim came over to me and thanked me profusely for the wonderful experience. I had the happy glow inside which I have after every group, but especially after the Deep Charedi groups. And then I went outside to my car.

And I saw that the little Israeli flags which adorn my car had been ripped off.

I was pretty sure that it was the kids who had just been at the museum; the museum is on a street which does not see much pedestrian traffic, and certainly not of the extremist charedi kind. I called the rebbe, and he claimed that it wasn't his students that had done it. I don't know the truth..

It was very, very upsetting. It came on the heels of a number of incidents that happened over the last few weeks. My 15-year-old daughter was traveling on a bus through RBS-B (Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet) on Yom Ha-Atzmaut night, with an Israeli flag draped around her. Suddenly there was a hail of stones striking the windows around her, and then kids mobbed the bus and tried to physically damage it. She was deeply traumatized.

There have been countless such incidents. Dozens if not hundreds of flags were ripped off cars and homes. Cars that drive through certain neighborhoods here are regularly ambushed by kids, often to the entertainment of adult onlookers. A friend of mined who davvenned at a shul in RBS-B emerged to find a man setting fire to the flags on his car.

It gets worse. The military section of the city cemetery had all its flags, that had been put there for Yom HaZikaron, stolen, not just once but twice. And on Yom HaZikaron, the people visiting the cemetery were accosted by jeering and curses from the girls in an adjacent school. As the siren sounded, there was yelling from all the windows of a local boys' yeshivah.

What can be done about this? The mayor is worse than useless; he just uses his speaking opportunities with the dati-leumi communities to lecture them about how they need to be tolerant of intolerant people, and about how their role in the world is to financially support people learning Torah. The police, who can't drive through RBS-B without hearing endless yells of "Nazi!" and have been attacked by huge mobs and even had their cars overturned, are reluctant to even enter RBS-B; on Yom HaZikaron/ Yom Ha-Atzmaut, they were nowhere to be seen. The local mainstream/ Anglo charedi rabbanim aren't interested in doing anything or even showing support to victims, lest they be seen as taking the wrong side in the Great War On Torah. Local residents have had some success, such as when filming a man brandishing a stick against some poor dati-leumi kids and taking the video to the police, but it's usually hard to catch the incidents or perpetrators on camera.

There's no magic solution for this ever-increasing problem. You can't immediately transform thousands of people. But there are certain approaches which can be taken, that in the long-term will have an impact.

The kids that tore the flags off my car - assuming it was the ones who had just visited the museum, and not different charedi kids - had no idea that it was my car. These were the same kids who were thrilled to have met me and to have seen the museum. Had I gotten around to branding my car with the museum logo (one of the many items on my to-do list), I really doubt that they would have done it. They didn't tear down the flags that are hanging outside the museum petting zoo!

Yesterday wasn't just the first time that these kids had seen a video. It was probably the very first time in these kids' lives that they had a positive, Torah-learning interaction with people from outside their tiny world. They saw us not as the faceless Zionist Amalek Nazi enemy, but as human beings, and moreover as nice people with interesting Torah messages to share. They learned that the great big world outside their tiny one has many fascinating creatures and people and concepts. I think that the importance of such an experience is incalculable.

Last week, we met with a senior figure in charge of science education for charedi schools nationwide. Most of the hundreds of institutions have barely an hour of poor science education per week. This person struggles to get them to comply with any kind of educational requirements. She immediately saw the value of the museum, and is working with us to increase the number of charedi schools that visit annually from several dozen to several hundred.

But we need a new building! We are hopelessly cramped in our present facility, which is a rented warehouse in a run-down area that has been temporarily converted to a museum. And we finally have the opportunity to get a huge, beautiful new building, in a prime location, right by the entrance to Beit Shemesh. This will enable us to reach hundreds of thousands of people! This will enable us to inspire and educate secular Jews with the beauty of Torah, non-Jews with the Biblical significance of Israel, religious Jews with new insights into Torah and nature, and charedim with a world of nature and Torah and non-charedim that they have never seen before.

We need your help! There is just over 24 hours remaining of our amazing Quadruple Matching Campaign, in which generous donors will quadruple whatever you give. Please, please give generously, and please encourage your friends to do the same, so that together, we can accomplish these goals!

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 ...