Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Invisible Women

The phenomenon of Charedi and Yeshivish magazines refusing to print pictures of women is well known. Still, perhaps people do not realize the extent of this absurdity. I've been collecting examples of this over the years, which I am sharing in this post. Before doing so, I would like to point out two things.

First of all, while for men this may be amusing or frustrating, for women it can be a source of immense pain, as well as other harmful effects. Do not make the mistake of underestimating how much harm this phenomenon causes. Devaluing a person's existence is one of the most painful things to do to a person. I've had a taste of what it feels like to be erased, and it's something that I wouldn't wish on anyone (well, maybe on some people).

Second, for a number of reasons, it's important to understand both why this phenomenon exists, and what precisely is wrong with it. I will be addressing this in a future post.

And now, for the photos:

1. At Least You Can See Her Chair?

2. These Women All Look Strangely Similar

3. Even Playmobil Females Must Disappear!

4. Someone Missed Their Own Wedding 
5. The Horror Movie

6. Who Can Find A Valorous Woman? Nobody, Apparently.

7. My Two Dads

8. The Midwives' Accessories

9. Happy Homosexual Family

10. Goodbye Shoes

11. Where's Hillary?

12. Those Sure Are Strange-Looking Women

13. Don't Mothers Give Advice To Their Daughters?

14. It's All A Blur

As I mentioned, I will soon be publishing posts on both what exactly is wrong with this phenomenon, and also why this phenomenon exists. You can subscribe to this blog via email using the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.

(Meanwhile, there are plenty of resources on this topic available at

Friday, July 3, 2020

This Time It's Not The Charedim

During the initial rise of coronavirus in Israel, I wrote a number of posts critical of the charedi leadership for opposing health precautions, and their problematic theological claim that mass learning in yeshivos protects from contagion. While the charedi leadership was late to catch up to the reality of the situation, with tragic consequences in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, they did eventually catch up. Now, the problem is everyone else.

Recently my wife and I were looking at Tel Aviv's magnificent Great Synagogue. Across the street was a cafe, which was so unbelievably crowded that we would have stopped to look in astonishment even if there wasn't a pandemic. Dozens upon dozens of people crowded around all the outside tables, and of course nobody was wearing a mask. It seemed to us that in the streets of Tel Aviv, there were far less people wearing masks than in the streets of Ramat Beit Shemesh.

My sister had an even more disturbing experience. She had to go a hospital for a medical appointment, and some of the hospital staff weren't wearing masks!

With the shockingly sharp rise of new cases in Israel - from less than ten new cases daily a few weeks ago, to over a thousand today - Bibi is starting to roll out new restrictions, and is talking about more to come. These will have harsh consequences of the livelihoods of many people. And it's because the existing restrictions are not being adhered to - or enforced. Yes, the police have started to give 500 NIS fines to people not wearing masks, but the enforcement of this is absurdly uneven - they fined a rebbe with a group of kids in a park in Ramat Beit Shemesh, while masses throng in Tel Aviv without any fear of fines.

Not that the blame lies solely with secular residents of Tel Aviv. I was horrified to read an article from a Rabbi Michoel Green of Chabad Jewish Center of Westborough condemning rabbis who rebuke people for not wearing masks. He declared that the Torah doesn't say that you have to wear a mask, but it does say that you mustn't shame people. How can anyone utter such nonsense? The Torah also doesn't say that you shouldn't drive under the influence of alchohol, but does that mean that one should berate those who rebuke drunk-drivers rather than berating those who drink and drive?! This rabbi has his Torah exactly backwards; the Torah is all about social responsibility, and wearing masks (and correcting those who don't) is very much part of that.

It's incumbent on all of us to behave responsibly. If you're not worried about your personal health, or even about the health of others who are more vulnerable, then think about the economic consequences of further lockdown - nearly a quarter of the population is unemployed!

And we wear masks not just for our personal safety, or even for the safety of others, but also to demonstrate publicly that we believe in being careful. It's simply madness that people are failing to do such an easy thing, regardless of the terrible consequences that they are causing.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

When Classical Judaism Bothers Rabbis

You can't do mitzvos and transfer their credit to other people, whether they are alive or dead. I've written about this before, both in blog posts and in my detailed monograph "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" You can't pay someone to honor their parents and transfer the reward to you. You can't separate challah and transfer the reward to someone who is sick (though it may help you be especially inspired in your prayers for them). And you can't learn Torah and transfer the reward to someone who has passed away (except when it's your parents and perhaps other people of significant influence upon you, where everything that you do is automatically a credit to them.)

My favorite story regarding this is one that I heard from a friend who was in a shiur with Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky shlita. One student asked if the shiur could be given l'iluy nishmas his grandmother. Rav Tzvi was apologetic, but explained that this was impossible: "How does my giving a shiur create a credit for your grandmother? It might be a credit for my grandmother, but how can it be a credit for yours?"

There are several grounds on which it can be stated that you can't transfer the credit for mitzvos to other people:

1) Reason. The reward for mitzvos - at least, according to the dominant classical tradition - is the relationship that is created with the Divine. It's not some spiritual gold that can be transferred to a different bank account.

2) Explicit Sources. The sources in the Geonim, Rishonim and early Acharonim to discuss this - and there are several - all state that such a thing is impossible, precisely for the reason given above. To give but one example, Maharam Alashkar cites Rav Hai Gaon who firmly rejects the notion that one can transfer the reward of a mitzvah to another person and explains why this is impossible: "These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, 'The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,' (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, 'And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.' Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvot is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person? (Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101). The only sources that allow for such a thing - such as those cited in an unfortunately uncritical article on OU Torah - are within the last 150 years, and they are baseless innovations.

3) Implicit Tradition. If transferring the reward for mitzvos were to be possible, there are many stories and directives in the Torah and Gemara which would read very differently. When people needed a certain thing from God - either for themselves, or for others - they prayed for it. They didn't do mitzvos or learn Torah and have the reward credited to someone else. Likewise, Chazal taught us how to try to get what we want from God, and even how to help the souls of the dead, and nowhere do they mention the notion of outsourcing mitzvos to others; in fact, in one case of someone trying to help the deceased, they explicitly state that it can't be done.

(And to preempt the inevitable question - no, Yissacher and Zevulun do not demonstrate otherwise. Aside from the fact that the tribe of Yissacher were also working - Zevulun were merely marketing their produce - the idea is that Zevulun received the reward for helping people learn, not for actually learning.) 

Recently I came across some discussion of this topic from Rav Asher Weiss, shlita. Rav Weiss is a wonderful person, a leader with integrity, and an important talmid chacham. But in the past I have pointed out that, for all his breadth, he is nevertheless a product of the charedi/ non-rationalist worldview. In the previous instance, it was when he declared that Torah protects from missiles (though only after he ascertained that he was in a fortified room). The topic of transferring mitzvah rewards to other people is another example.

In his discussion of this topic, both in a shiur transcribed online and in Responsa Minchas Asher II:58, he acknowledges the problem with the notion that you can do mitzvos and credit the reward to other people. Rav Weiss notes that Maharam Alashkar and others state clearly that the reward for mitzvos cannot be transferred to other people, and that they give powerful reasons why. However, he takes the approach that it simply cannot be so. Why? Because everyone does it!

That is actually his position, and he says it explicitly in his responsum. If everyone does it, it can't be that it doesn't make sense! He tries to come up with a way of making it work even according to Maharam Alashkar et al., but is forced to admit that there is no convincing way to do so. And he tries to find earlier sources who defend it, but they are extremely limited (as they are referring specifically to charity) and tentative. Accordingly, Rav Weiss concludes that it simply does work, albeit inexplicably, and that it is one of the secrets of Divine providence.

It's simply astonishing. It means that Rav Weiss is saying that all the Geonim and Rishonim and Acharonim who said that it doesn't work, are wrong. But he would rather do this than say that the conventional practice today is baseless. There are many cases where we defend historical tradition, even on weak grounds, shelo lehotzi la'az al ha-rishonim (so as not to cast aspersions on the earlier generations), but this is the opposite; discarding the historical tradition, shelo lehotzi la'az on what people do today.

This is how classical Judaism gets reformed. And it's not a good reform. Because when you allow for mitzvos to be outsourced, you teach people that they can buy Heaven instead of earning it, and you commercialize the mitzvos instead of having them as means for personal growth. The classical view, still maintained by people such as Rav Tzvi Kushlefsky, needs to be taught and strengthened, not discarded.

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Evolution and Black Lives Matter

I hate evolution.

I don't mean the concept; I mean the word. The problem is that it's so ambiguous. Specifically, it has two entirely distinct meanings. One refers to the historical claim that all animal life descended from a common ancestor. This is something either true or false; and it is regarded by the entire scientific community (absent certain religious fundamentalists) as true, supported by a broad convergence of evidence.

The other meaning of "evolution" is the mechanism of evolution, the causes and process via which one species changes into another. This is not a true/false proposition; rather, there are primary candidates proposed for the mechanism (such as random mutations coupled with natural selection), along with other secondary mechanisms. Nobody believes that we understand the mechanisms entirely (that's why people still study them). The vast majority of scientists believe that there is enough evidence to be confident that we have the basics correct, while a minority disagree.

One result of there being two totally different meanings of the term "evolution" is that there are a lot of pointless arguments, resulting from people talking at cross-purposes. One group screams that it's just a theory, which even scientists dispute, while others insist that it's a scientific fact, which no scientist disputes. But they are talking about entirely different things.

In fact, the entire, huge, religion-science argument about evolution would never have developed to the scale that it did, had Darwin not come up with both aspects of evolution and presented them under a single banner. If Darwin had just proposed common ancestry, and a generation later someone else would have proposed a mechanism, things would have played out very differently (and much better).

There's a similar problem with the phrase Black Lives Matter. What does it actually, specifically, mean? I'm not talking about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter - of course the point of BLM is that black lives are more threatened/ disregarded than white lives. I'm talking about what exactly Black Lives Matter, as a capitalized phrase, refers to.

An article in the LA Times, back in 2015, titled "Why the term 'Black Lives Matter' can be so confusing," spelled out the problem: "the words could be serving as a political rallying cry or referring to the activist organization. Or it could be the fuzzily applied label used to describe a wide range of protests and conversations focused on racial inequality." According to Wikipedia, the phrase "Black Lives Matter" can refer to "a Twitter hashtag, a slogan, a social movement, or a loose confederation of groups advocating for racial justice."

But it's even more complicated than that. For example, if you want to give money to support Black Lives Matter, who do you give it to? There's a "Black Lives Matter Foundation" in California which received millions in donations from people who were fired up by recent events, but then discovered that this particular foundation seeks to promote closer relationships between the black community and the police - which is not what they were expecting! So by supporting Black Lives Matter, are you supporting creating closer bonds with the police, or dissolving the police?

Then there's an organization called "Black Lives Matter" with thirty chapters across the US, but which is decentralized. Then there's a larger Black Lives Matter movement which includes various related organizations. And then there's the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. And then, of course, the world is much bigger than just the US, with various BLM groups around the world.

All this, aside from creating confusion and misplaced donations, can also create a real ethical dilemma. Certain BLM groups are neo-Marxists, and some of them are actively antisemitic. For many people, BLM is linked with opposition to Israel. Consider this tweet that was just sent out by the UK Black Lives Matter organization:

So what is one to do if one wants to fight racism, but the phrase/ organization that is associated with this fight, is also associated with people who are engaging in antisemitism?

I'm on a mailing list for a chain of pet stores (of course), and I received an email from the CEO saying that "now is the time to state plainly and unequivocally that Black Lives Matter and to do our part to ensure that this is our truth." The rest of the email expressed some important truths about human and civil rights, valuing diversity and helping people in underrepresented communities. I'm all for that - but are they speaking in suitably broad terms, are they supporting a particular organization, or are they supporting all organizations under this name?

It's all very confusing - and it's difficult to know what to do. Like evolution, it would be better if the terminology was more specific.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Exciting News!

The incredible new home of the Biblical Museum of Natural History is not yet open to the general public. BUT we are able to offer exclusive private preview tours to Friends & Patrons of the Museum (see for details of how to join), as well as for certain special private programs, such as this family barmitzvah! Write to for details. And if you're not in Israel, we can arrange a private live online tour!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Uncomfortable Questions and People Who Think Differently

A friend of mine in the US was required by his employer to attend a session about racism. He was given the graphic shown here:

It's a very well-crafted piece, especially for the many of us who are in denial that we are in any way racist and/or don't appreciate the struggles that black people face (which is most of us in the frum community). And it's an excellent model for any area in which one needs to undergo personal growth. You start by identifying the problem - and acknowledge that there could be problems of which you are unaware and uncomfortable acknowledging. Then you engage in a process of learning, in which you still acknowledge that you have much to learn, and listen to people who look and think very differently from you (note to frum right-wing readers: Candace Owens does not count). Finally, you reach a position where you in a place to actually make a difference - while still acknowledging that there is still room for growth.

But I wonder: To what extent do people who favor such training, actually implement this?

Consider some of the lines here: "I seek out questions that make me uncomfortable..." And I was particularly struck by the line at the bottom of the circle: "I surround myself with others who think & look differently from me." Is this really something that the general society of people campaigning for racial equality are doing?

There's a great website called, which is a platform for fascinating articles on a wide range of topics. Two recent articles came to my attention, both of which were shocking - albeit in very different ways.

One article is bluntly titled, "Yes My Dear, All White People Are Racist." The (black) author was emphatic that she was being 100% literal. Every single white person is racist. And she added that white people who claim not to be racist are the most dangerous of all, because they are in denial of their inherent racism.

(A hyperlink in her first use of the term shows that she is using a very specific and unconventional definition of racism, in which it refers to "the systemic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites)." But this is hardly the definition that is used in everyday conversation - and even with this definition, it's a far cry to claim that every single white person is part of this systemic subordination.)

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme article. But Medium seeks to "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints." And I am happy to read things from people who think very differently from me.

So then we get to the second article at Medium, which is also from a person of color - a professor at Berkeley, writing an open letter to his colleagues. He writes in alarm about the lack of diversity of opinion when it comes to analyzing racial problems. Here's an extract: 
"I could not find a single instance of substantial counter-argument or alternative narrative to explain the under-representation of black individuals in academia or their over-representation in the criminal justice system. The explanation provided in your documentation, to the near exclusion of all others, is univariate: the problems of the black community are caused by whites, or, when whites are not physically present, by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions.
Many cogent objections to this thesis have been raised by sober voices, including from within the black community itself, such as Thomas Sowell and Wilfred Reilly. These people are not racists or ‘Uncle Toms’. They are intelligent scholars who reject a narrative that strips black people of agency and systematically externalizes the problems of the black community onto outsiders. Their view is entirely absent from the departmental and UCB-wide communiques."
Now, it may indeed be the case that the problems of the black community actually are solely caused by whites and by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions. Other explanations may indeed be incorrect. However, surely that is something that should be discussed and argued about, not taken as an unquestionable fact with which one must not even acknowledge the existence of other views.

Meanwhile, Berkeley confirmed the basic point of the letter by condemning it: "it goes against our values as a department and our commitment to equity and inclusion." Apparently, "inclusion," even for an academic institution, does not mean including questions that challenge a particular narrative, even to refute them. Whatever happened to the value of "seeking out questions that make one feel uncomfortable" and "surrounding oneself with others who think differently"?

Well, at least this letter was published on Medium, who "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints," right? Not so fast. Medium has flagged the article for being in potential violation of its rules and has blocked all comments on it. An article declaring that every single white person is racist is within the spectrum; an article complaining about the narrowness of discourse is not.

Of course, it's not just Medium that is guilty of such things. There's an excellent article by Matt Taibi - an award-winning journalist who wrote a book called "I Can't Breathe" about systemic racism in America and police brutality towards blacks, back in 2014. Taibi writes about how the news media is destroying itself by "replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation."

One striking example of this is with the New York Times, which ran an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton advocating for a military show of force to dissuade riots. The NYT did not only apologize for running the op-ed; the editor had to resign. As my friend Rabbi Scott Kahn commented, "The problem lies in the increasingly narrow range of what is considered acceptable. When printing a United States Senator’s words, ill-advised and offensive as they may be, is cause for losing your job and massive institutional self-flagellation, we can be sure that we’ve taken a wrong turn." And remember, this is a newspaper which had no problem printing an op-ed by Mahmoud Abbas, which entirely distorted the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!

And it's not just with regard to racial issues that this problem appears. J.K. Rowling is currently in a firestorm about comments that she made which were seen as anti-trans. It involves issues such as whether women have the right to want bathrooms which exclude trans, which in turn relates to the question of what it takes for a person to legally identify as trans; is it enough for them to merely "self-identify" as a female, or is more required? Now, in order to address such issues, obviously it's very important to study the extent to which people who profess to be trans are really serious about it, the extent of rates of de-transition, and so on. But it seems that there is a serious dearth of such studies, because such studies simply won't be done. And the reason is that nobody dares fund or carry out a study which runs the risk of falling afoul of the socially acceptable narrative.

The willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, and to listen to people who think differently, is not just important for people with suspected racist beliefs. It's important for everyone.

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Return of the Re'em

The Biblical re'em is described as a huge cattle-like creature with magnificent, upwards-pointing horns. This is the aurochs - the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. It's challenging to display one in a museum, because they have been extinct for four hundred years! But thanks to artist Tom Hammond we are able to display this amazing life-size reproduction of a re'em.

Meanwhile, here's a riddle: During the course of Shabbat, how many times do we mention the re'em?

(And watch out next week, when there will be a very special announcement!)

Thursday, June 11, 2020

My Wonderful Friends

I am blessed with some wonderful friends. Good people. Kind people. Intelligent people. Thoughtful people. Sensitive people. People who would never discriminate against someone just because of the color of their skin, and who would actively oppose anyone who did otherwise.

Within this very same group of people, some of them are convinced that the George Floyd riots were understandable and even necessary, and some of them are convinced that the riots were counterproductive as well as inherently wrong. (Just to clarify, for those for whom it is not obvious - I am referring to the rioting, not the protests.)

But it gets even more extreme. Some of the holders of each position are not only convinced that their position is correct; they are convinced that those holding the opposite position are utterly immoral and beneath contempt, and should be silenced.

As for me - well, I heard the position of the first group, and I thought, "You're right!" Then I heard the position of the second group, and I thought, "You're right!" And if you're going to tell me that they can't both be right, then my response to you is - you're right!

But whoever is right, I am convinced that neither side deserves contempt. Can't we try to understand other people's perspectives, or at least politely disagree, instead of just writing them off and condemning them as evil?

(All the above seems to be increasingly true not just about the Floyd riots, but about all kinds of issues.)

UPDATE: A number of people expressed indignation at how any decent person could possibly justify rioting. You can see my Facebook post for some examples in the comments, but meanwhile someone pointed to the fascinating case of the riots in the 1902 Kosher Meat Boycott - I strongly recommend reading the Wikipedia description of these.

UPDATE 2: In response to this post, someone wrote to me at length to condemn me as racism-spouting fool!

Monday, June 8, 2020

Frum Science Textbooks

Are school textbooks threatening to Judaism? Well, that depends on which approach to Judaism you take. In my high school in Manchester, which did secular studies to an extremely high level, there was nevertheless no standard class in biology (though I'm not sure if the problem was evolution, or reproduction, or both).

Threats to Judaism are perceived by some in English literature, along with sex education and gender studies. But the most widely perceived problem is that with science. Teaching about the antiquity of the universe, and especially the evolution of life, is seen as heretical.

Of course, for those who adopt Rambam's rationalist approach to Judaism, while there may be several areas in which modern knowledge and values may pose a serious threat to Judaism, the antiquity of the universe and the evolution of life are certainly not in that category. In my book The Challenge Of Creation, I explain in detail why not only is evolution not a threat to Judaism, but is actually consistent with fundamental Torah concepts. And this book has been well received in many Jewish schools; some schools even order it in bulk for their students.

But what about for those who refuse to accept the rationalist approach? A new phenomenon in American Orthodoxy is the production of alternatives to school textbooks. One such enterprise recently caught my eye. Fundamentals Of Life Science, by Rabbi Yaakov Lubin, has rabbinic endorsements from Rav Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein of Torah U'Mesorah, and others. I would like to make a few critical comments about this work - and then explain why these flaws may actually be beneficial.

Fundamentals Of Life Science is a basic biology textbook, but with two key differences. One is that it does not teach anything about the history of life on earth or about evolution - the most basic organizing principle of biology. But it doesn't merely neglect to teach evolution; there are numerous comments, scattered throughout, which indirectly try to negate it. And on page 78, the book actively claims that there is no such thing as vestigial organs (or "junk" DNA), saying that such "foolish speculations" would directly contradict the pasuk of "Kulam b'chachma asisa - You have made them all with wisdom". (In my book The Challenge Of Creation, on the other hand, I explain how there are indeed many vestigial organs, and rather than challenging Kulam b'chachma asisa, the process of descent with modification attests to a very profound form of chachma.)

The second novel aspect of Fundamentals Of Life Science is that it is liberally sprinkled with hashkafic perspectives. Some of these are valuable spiritual insights - such as the discussion on p. 54 about how the semipermeable cell, which only allows appropriate substances to enter and exit, should serve as a lesson on how we should be careful with our bodies as a whole regarding what enters and exits our mouths. Others are inspirational messages about appreciating all the wonders of the natural world, as revealed by science (though some of these appear to be intended to negate evolution). And yet others (see pp. 121 and 163) are baseless claims about Chazal having supernatural knowledge of the natural world (see my monograph Sod Hashem Liyreyav for a discussion of how this has been distorted far beyond anything claimed in the Gemara), and knowing things long before science caught up.

One section, in the section introducing the scientific method, was somewhat bizarre:
HaRav Aharon Feldman, shlita, adds that the scientific method is the method by which many discoveries were made by science. All problems are solved by applying reasoning to them. The Gemara is the best example of the way reasoning is used. The method of the Gemara is to (1) pose a question; (2) seek sources for an answer; (3) if no sources are found, to pose a hypothesis as a possible solution; (4) to discard illogical solutions until reaching the correct one...
The scientific method is the method through which science uses experimentation to discover solutions. As in Gemara, there are four stages to this method: (1) to ask a question; (2) to do research; (3) to pose a hypothesis; and (4) to experiment until a solution is found. 
This comparison between the Gemara and the scientific method is tenuous at best. Furthermore, it glosses over the crucial difference between traditional religion and science (one that is problem even for rationalist Judaism): in Gemara, if something is attributed to a sufficiently revered source, it is sacrosanct. In science, on the other hand, there is nothing that is not open to question and being tested.

So, given that this book purporting to teach science and biology actually tries to negate the foundational principles of biology, and to encourage people to attribute scientific authority to sages rather than to scientists, why did I write that these flaws may be beneficial?

I'll explain why. Despite the book's attempts to undermine some important aspects of science and factual reality, as a textbook on biology it nevertheless can't help but teach lots of valuable material and inspire people with an appreciation for science. In addition, because Chazal were much less charedi than modern yeshivish people, the author cannot help but endorse things which go against the yeshivish approach. For example, on p. 27, the book notes that Rabbi Shimon engaged in various experiments in order to empirically prove or disprove matters that the sages were discussing. So the author, apparently oblivious to the fact that elsewhere he claims that the sages had the superior ability to extract wisdom from divine sources rather than scientific investigation, is showing here that the Sages themselves did not have such recourse and engaged in experimentation!

So is the net effect of such a book positive or negative? The answer to this largely depends on who is reading it. If it's being used in a school that would otherwise use regular biology textbooks (with suitable theological discussion), then the book is problematic. But if it's being used in a school which would otherwise not have any biology classes at all, then the net effect is probably beneficial. If such a book had been available when I was growing up in England, maybe my school would have taught biology, and I would have benefited tremendously.

The website for Fundamentals Of Life Science has a page which lists dozens of schools that make use of it. I'm not familiar with any of them, but looking at their names and locations, one can make educated guesses as to what kind of schools they are. Some of them look like schools which probably wouldn't teach science with any respect, if at all, were it not for a book like this, and so the book is beneficial for them. But others are clearly schools which cater to students from a broad range of backgrounds, who will be continuing to college. For such students, it is a big mistake to teach them biology without evolution. And this is another example of the problem in schools having principals and educators that are not in hashkafic synchronization with the students. 

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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Frum Racism

Growing up in England, I saw much more racism against Pakistanis and other groups than I saw against blacks. But I saw racism against blacks in my frum high school, where boys would make jokes about "shvartzers." It bothered me intensely. My parents raised me to be staunchly anti-racist. My school assigned us to read "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," about the experiences of a black girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, and it had a profound impact on me. It made me the weird kid in yet another way - not only was I the kid who was nuts about strange animals, not only was I the only kid whose family voted Labour, I was also the only kid who would never, ever use the word "shvartzer."

Nor was I quiet about my beliefs. I would get into heated arguments with my classmates about racism. But they had a trump card, backed up by one of the rebbes. They said that black people are descended from Cham (Ham), who was cursed, and therefore it was legitimate to view them as inferior.

At the time, I had no comeback to that. But when I started yeshivah gedolah, and learned how to learn, I searched for a yeshivish response - and found one. I published it in a book that I wrote 23 years ago, called Second Focus. There's a lot of material in that book which I regret. But I'm still proud of the chapter that I wrote against frum racism, which took quite some courage to write when I was at that stage of my life and in that sub-culture. Here it is:

Parashas Noach


Last week’s essay discussed kavod Elokim haster, the concept of keeping quiet about sections of Torah that may cause misunderstandings and result in a blow to the honor of Torah. Sometimes, however, it is important to bring a topic to the forefront of public attention because of serious sins that people are committing out of misunderstanding the issue. This may have to be done even if it causes pain and resentment in the process. This week’s essay discusses one such issue. At the end, there is a true and tragic story that resulted from a lack of awareness on this, which is the reason why it is necessary to raise this unpleasant point. I have tried my best to be as sensitive as possible with this extremely delicate matter.

Quite frequently during my school years I would find myself involved in an argument with my classmates over their derogatory comments about blacks. I claimed that they were being racist and cruel. They retorted that Noach’s son Cham was cursed and turned black, and they therefore deserve it. I had no reply at the time, but in the intervening years I have studied Torah sources on the matter, and following are the results of my research.

The story itself is quite complex and there are disputes in the commentaries about what exactly happened and what the punishment was. Basically, Cham and his son Cana’an jointly committed a grave sin, for which they received a curse of slavery and their skin is blackened.

To deal with the slavery issue first, the Netziv raises the question that not all descendants of Cham are slaves and not all slaves are descendants of Cham. He therefore explains that the curse was not that they should or would be slaves, but rather that those who did find themselves in that capacity would be more at ease with it, having inherited it from their ancestor. Other people, however, would have a strong drive to fight for freedom.

With regard to the skin color, one of the commentaries on the Midrash points out that the reason why Africans have black skin is that they have increased levels of melanin which protect them against the fierce sunlight of their country. However, it was Noach’s curse which brought them to live in such climates.

To sum up: all the Torah tells us is that Cham and Cana’an committed a sin, as a result of which their descendants came to live in a hot country that darkened their skin, and were hampered in their efforts to resist slavery.

Some people seem to be working with the idea that since Noach cursed Cham, it is up to us to enhance that curse. Well, like it or not, we’re all cursed in one way or another. Chava was cursed with labor pains, but we do not try to increase those for women. Nor should we try to enhance the “sweat of our brow” with which man was cursed to support himself. Nor is there any mitzvah to inflict pain upon snakes because of their curse. If G-d, or Noach, curses someone, then that’s their business, not ours.

So much for being on the defensive against racist slurs. It should be clear that if people want to be racially offensive, they cannot claim that they are doing it for Torah reasons. Now let’s take the offensive. The Gemara (Taanis 20a) relates a story which, according to the explanation of the Maharsha (who says that it was referring to a black person), is a revealing lesson in race relations.

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Eleazar was riding on his donkey one day, feeling happy and proud of himself after a successful period of study. A black man walking along greeted him, but Rabbi Elazar did not return the greeting.

“Raika!” he called out (a derogatory term which roughly means “good-for-nothing”). “Is everyone in your village as ugly as you?”

“I don’t know (if I am allowed to answer that question,)” replied the black man. “Why don’t you go and tell the Craftsman Who made me?”

Rabbi Eleazar was instantly torn with apology. “Please forgive me!” he begged.

“Not until you go and tell the Craftsman Who made me,” replied the black man. He continued home to his village, with Rabbi Eleazar following contritely behind. When he arrived at the village, he was astonished to see his fellow townsfolk greeting Rabbi Eleazar with respect.

“If he is a Rabbi,” said the black man, “then let there not be more like him in Israel!”
“Why?” asked the townsfolk. The man related what Rabbi Eleazar had said to him. They pressed upon him to forgive Rabbi Eleazar, and he consented to do so, on condition that he would not act in such a way again.

Thus ends the story. The Maharsha spells out the lesson for us to learn from it. If you see something that you consider ugly, it is not your place to mention it. Doing so is attributing a deficiency to Creation. Making derogatory comments about black people is effectively saying that G-d messed up, chas v’shalom.

The story also implies that Rabbi Eleazar’s unpleasant comment was caused by excessive feelings of pride. Bigotry stems from arrogance. Whatever has happened in Crown Heights is totally irrelevant to this. With the frequently heard but undoubtedly offensive word “shvartzer,” one might be stacking up a serious slew of sins, as we see in the following case, related by Sarah Shapiro, that took place in Jerusalem recently.

A non-Jewish black youth by the name of Matt, who grew up in America, found himself strangely attracted to Judaism. He eventually found his way to a proper conversion to true Torah Judaism, and began to study at a ba’al teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem. Although he found fulfillment in his new way of life, he was experiencing a distressing problem. He would constantly be the subject of taunts and ridicule by the religious children of the neighborhood. One can only imagine what effect this had on that which he had been taught about Jews being kind and sympathetic people. He struggled on for a while, but eventually it became too much to bear, and he went back.

As Sarah Shapiro concludes: “Shall we attribute his departure to our country’s children behaving like children? Or to Israeli parents’ gross failure to passionately inculcate the most basic of Jewish values: respect for the other, who was also created by G-d – the other, who is not like you.

“Where are you now, Matt? And who in the world do you think we are?”

• Sources:
Bereishis Rabbah 36:7 and Yefeh To’ar ad loc.
Ta’anis 20a and Maharsha ad loc.
HaEmek Davar
Sarah Shapiro, Don’t You Know It’s A Perfect World?, Targum Press 1998

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Thursday, May 28, 2020


Mishpachah magazine has an article by Rav Aharon Lopiansky that includes some truly amazing paragraphs. Someone wrote to me that it looks just like some of my blog posts! Here are some choice excerpts:
We are no longer/not yet a nation in the full sense. A nation is an entity that has a framework whereby it can act as a unit. Without Mashiach, we have no head, no authority, no structure, no enforcement. We can have rousing speeches, ringing kol-koreis, an inspirational Siyum HaShas, and stern admonitions, but we do only what we wish to do. Even for the people who are sympathetic to the values expressed in the proclamations, there is very little specific follow-through.
Yes, thankfully we have our gedolei Torah, but even that seems to be subjective depending on who you are speaking to. For those who point to “The Moetzes” as “leadership,” I would ask, do you mean Agudah’s Moetzes, Degel’s Moetzes, Peleg’s Moetzes, or Shas’s Moetzes Chachamei HaTorah? Is it the Crown Heights Beis Din? And what about Satmar and others who do not subscribe to any of the above? And Centrist Orthodox and Modern Orthodox? And the many Yidden who do not fit into any of those categories?
And this one: 
We tend to think of “ourselves” — the Torah-observant community — as Klal Yisrael, and the others as a reservoir of potential additions. It’s the other way around! Klal Yisrael is the sum total of all of us, and we are missing 90 percent of our “self.”
I used to be fairly close with Rav Lopiansky, and even though he was forced to capitulate in the controversy over my books, I remained on good terms with him. It's good to see him publishing these things in Misphacha.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


It's jarring to see how different Memorial Day in the US is from Yom HaZikaron in Israel. For Israel (except some non- and anti-Zionist communities), Yom HaZikaron is an extremely serious business. There's nothing more foundational to the ethics of society than showing appreciation and respect for those who gave their lives to preserve that society. In the United States, on the other hand, it seems to this Brit that there is very little regard for Memorial Day (EDIT - I realize that this is a generalization and it depends very much on what part of America you are in).

Well, at least this year, people can make an excuse that they are taking their cue from the President.

I don't use Twitter, but I happened to take a look at President Trump's twitter feed. I was truly speechless to see that he was truly speechless. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say about Memorial Day. Yes, there were videos of his scripted speeches, but in terms of writing about it - and he writes about what he cares about - he had nothing to say. The only thing that he wrote about was his fury against the media for criticizing him for playing golf over the weekend!

Of course, that ranting is in any case unjustified. Trump argues that Obama also played golf during times of crisis. That may be, but there are three crucial points that he neglects to mention. First is that Trump's golf vacations vastly exceed Obama's. Second is that Trump himself, while campaigning, said that if he would be elected, he would not play golf. Third is that Trump himself harshly criticized Obama for playing golf! So if it's okay for him to criticize presidents that play golf, why shouldn't other people do it?!

A hundred thousand Americans have died from coronavirus. It's a day that commemorates countless more that died for America. And all he cares about is people criticizing him - for the same thing that he criticized others for?

There are people who don't believe that any good person can vote for Trump. I'm not American, but I can totally understand it; after all, there may be important policy differences between Republicans and Democrats that can be reasonably seen as being the most significant thing. And Jews understandably want to support someone who expresses strong pro-Israel sentiments, and who surrounds himself with pro-Israel people rather than the reverse. But what I can't understand is people who do not see any serious character problems with President Trump.

(I hope that it's not too much to ask everyone reading this to be able to look at things in shades other than black-and-white.)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Late To The Party, Again

Well, it took a couple of years, but the charedi establishment finally reached the same conclusion as everyone else: that the person they referred to as "HaRav HaChasid R. Eliezer Berland, Shlita" is actually a thoroughly evil monster. They acknowledged that he has transgressed, or has committed sins that come close to transgressing, all three cardinal sins - idolatry, murder, and illicit relations. Idolatry - for setting himself up as a deity. Murder - for encouraging his followers to beat and even kill his opponents. And illicit relations - taking advantage of countless women.

The results of this investigation by the three top charedi Batei Din were just announced. The investigation itself was launched, with publicity, last June. At the time, I wrote a post entitled HaRav HaRasha, Shlita, in which I was sharply critical of this enterprise.

The primary problem was that no such investigation was required. Berland had already confessed in court and was convicted. There was also plenty of video evidence of his madness. The new charedi investigation also gave Berland a hechsher while it was taking place, stating that nobody was allowed to speak against HaRav HaChasid, shlita, until the investigation was complete.

There's a steady pattern of things that us non-charedim realize, and which the charedi establishment denies, and which eventually the charedi establishment is forced to come to acknowledge. Many people were warning for years that Rabbi Leib Tropper was a sicko; the Gedolim instead were giving him unprecedented power, but were later forced to agree. Everyone warned that crowded situations should be avoided when coronavirus broke out; the Gedolim insisted that the yeshivos should stay open because "Torah protects", but were later forced to agree. And now they have finally agreed that the non-charedim were correct about Berland, too.

(The supposed justification for the way in which the charedi investigation was done was that only such an investigation, launched with the consent of Berland, would get his followers to abide by the ruling. If anyone thinks that this is actually going to happen, I've got a bridge to sell them. Read about this "biography" of him on Amazon, and check out the reader reviews.)

Being late has consequences. Tropper ruined lives. Coronavirus took lives. And for years, Berland was allowed to continue his sick preatory activities without any opposition from the charedi establishment. Just a few months ago, he was arrested again after it was discovered that he was fleecing millions of shekels from terminally ill patients by promising miracle cures.

But the problems here go beyond those caused by needless delays. What happens even now? To what extent will the findings of these Batei Din be publicized?

Years ago, Mishpachah magazine printed an article, "The Fire and the Light: The Mystical World of Rav Eliezer Berland" which was a puff-piece about the holy Rav Berland. Are they going to print a follow-up article warning about him? Of course not. (And kal v'chomer Ami magazine won't print anything; besides, they are too busy triumphantly boasting about how ultra-Orthodoxy reacted to coronavirus.) In the official world of Orthodoxy, it just doesn't happen that revered rabbis have any significant flaws, let alone turn out to be monstrous predators.

This refusal to air dirty laundry has several terrible consequences. One is that it means that people are more vulnerable to being preyed upon, since they are conditioned to believe that Holy Men can't possibly do anything wrong. Another is that people who are preyed upon are much less likely to tell anyone about the absolutely unthinkable thing that happened. And yet another is that the predators enjoy much greater freedom, since they know that people are very unlikely to expose them.

Some people complain that I spend too much time criticizing the problems with charedi society. Well, if charedi society itself would be open about exposing its problems, there would be less need for other people to do so.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Are Penguins Kosher?

After giving a live online tour of the Hall Of Kashrut at the Biblical Museum of Natural History this week, for Kushner Hebrew Academy, I received the following feedback and question from the Director of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Yaacov Feit:
Thank you so much for this morning's exceptional and enjoyable presentation. Beyond your expertise in the field combined with your sense of humor and ability to present I really appreciated how you worked the chat so well to allow for participation even remotely. This was an opportunity to really capitalize on our unfortunate situation and bring their Torah study to life. Tizkeh Lemitzvos! My students asked me why penguins aren't kosher. Any thoughts?

I've been asked this question a few times over the years, and I've given it a lot of thought. Initially, it would appear that penguins should be kosher. After all, the only birds that are not kosher are the two dozen types of birds listed in the Torah as being not kosher. Now, while there is some dispute as to the identities of these birds, nobody suggests that one of them is a penguin! True, the Torah's list of "types" (minim) is not a list of zoological species, and one type could include many similar species (such as the atalef, which includes one thousand species of bats). But penguins are extremely dissimilar from all the birds in the Torah's list and would not be included in the same "type." Thus, it would initially appear that a penguin would be kosher (albeit that the lack of mesorah would prevent people from eating it).

However, in fact, matters are not so straightforward at all.

First of all, one must ask whether the penguin is a bird, in the Torah system of classification. As I discuss at length in the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, the system of taxonomy used in the Torah is very different from that of modern zoology. "Ohf" includes bats, which are mammals, because it does not refer to "birds," per se. One might then argue that the penguin is not an ohf, because it does not fly! Accordingly, there would be no basis to permit it.

However, according to the Gemara (albeit disputed by Yehudah Feliks), one of the other birds in the Torah's list is an ostrich, which does not fly either. And in any case, it would not be correct to say that ohf means "flying creature." The Torah's classification is a "folk taxonomy" (this is not an insulting or heretical term; it is an academic term with a specific meaning described in my encyclopedia). There aren't specific criteria to be an "ohf." Rather, it means something "birdish." Things can be birdish in different ways. Bats are birdish because they fly. Ostriches are birdish because they have beaks and two legs and feathers. Accordingly, penguins would also be in the category of ohf. (Though perhaps a case could be made that the kiwi bird is a sheretz rather than an ohf.)

So, given that the penguin is a "bird" in the Torah classification, and it is not mentioned in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds, does that mean that it is kosher? I would strongly argue that it is not kosher. But in order to explain why, we'll have to first discuss a different bird: the secretary bird.

The secretary bird, as those who have joined my Africa trips (or remember the old Disney film Bedknobs & Broomsticks) will know, is a very unusual bird. Its basic body (and beak) shape is that of a bird of prey, but it has a long tail, and exceptionally long legs, like a flamingo. It also has a remarkable crest of feathers sprouting from its head, like a writing-quill stuck behind the ears, which earns its name. The secretary bird lives only in sub-Saharan Africa, and is definitely not in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds. Nor could it reasonably be described as being included in the same min as one of the birds in the Torah's list, since it looks so utterly different from all of them.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no way that a secretary bird can be kosher. It's a bird of prey! It eats snakes and mongooses and hares and even young gazelles. Ramban states that the fundamental reason for non-kosher birds being non-kosher is that they are predatory. And while it seems to be a difficult overreach to say that it's the only reason for birds being non-kosher (since it would not account for certain non-kosher birds such as hoopoes and bats), it would seem clear that it is a sufficient reason. And the Mishnah in Chullin states explicitly that all predatory birds are not kosher.

There's just no way, conceptually or halachically, that a secretary bird could be kosher. And yet it's not one of the birds in the Torah's list of non-kosher birds!

The only possible answer is that the Torah's list of non-kosher birds is not comprehensive. Rather, following the Talmudic-based principles that I developed in my encyclopedia and in my book The Camel, The Hare & The Hyrax, we can say as follows. The animals of the Torah are the animals of Biblical lands. The four animals listed as possessing only one of the three kosher signs are the sole such animals in that region, not in the entire world. The ten types of mammals listed in Parashas Re'ay as being the kosher mammals are the sole such animals in that region, not in the entire world - the moose, chevrotain and okapi are also kosher. Likewise, the two dozen birds listed as being non-kosher are the non-kosher birds of that region, not of the entire world.

Now, this is the kind of thing that immediately gets the Kefira Cops revving up and ready to slam me as a heretic. But, after I came up with this approach, I then discovered that it's actually a Tosafos!

The Gemara in Chullin states that the Torah gives the most concise way of telling us which creatures we may and may not eat. Since there are more kosher birds than non-kosher birds, the Torah lists only the non-kosher birds. Now, Rashi explains this to mean that there are no non-kosher birds in the entire world other than the two dozen listed (which can only include other birds of the same type/min). But Tosafos (Chullin 61a) says that this does not have to be what the Gemara is saying. Rather, the Gemara could mean that listing the two dozen non-kosher birds gives us a way to identify which types of birds in general are not kosher, i.e. those which have similar characteristics to the birds listed! Baruch shekivanti.

Accordingly, since the non-kosher birds listed in the Torah include predatory birds, we can extrapolate and conclude that the secretary bird is not kosher. And since the list also includes "aberrant" birds such as ostriches and bats, kiwis would likewise not be kosher. And since it also includes fishing birds such as cormorants and gulls, penguins would likewise not be kosher!

Meanwhile, if you'd like to join our live online tours of the Biblical Museum of Natural History - or perhaps sponsor a program for your local shul or school - please see for details. As Rabbi Feit attested, this is an exceptional way to really capitalize on the world's unfortunate situation and bring Torah study to life!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Frogs, Crocs and Birds

Here's a piece that I published in the Jewish Bible Quarterly a decade ago. I'm reposting it, because I took this wonderful photo in the museum yesterday which is perfect to accompany this article!

The second plague to befall Egypt was that of tzefardea. It is widely believed that the term tzefardea refers to frogs, but Ibn Ezra notes that there are actually two views on this matter:
"The commentators differed in their understanding of the word tzefarde'im. Many said it referred to a sort of fish found in Egypt, called al-timsah in Arabic, which comes out of the river and seizes human beings. Others say they are the creatures found in most of the rivers and that they make a sound. This explanation, which is well known, seems correct in my view." (Ibn Ezra to Exodus 7:27)
The former explanation is describing a crocodile. It is referred to as a fish, even though it is a reptile, because the Torah concept of fish also includes other aquatic creatures. Support for this identification is advanced from the description of how the frog plague ceased. The Midrash comments on the statement that the tzefarde'im shall remain in the river:
" 'The tzefarde'im shall retreat from you and your courtiers and your people; they shall remain only in the Nile' (Exodus 8:7) - Rabbi Yitzchak said, There are still deadly beasts in it that come out and kill people every year ... Moshe did not pray that the tzefarde'im be wiped out, only that they not harm Pharaoh, as it says, 'And Moshe cried out to the Lord in the matter of the tzefarde'im which He had inflicted upon Pharaoh'(Exodus 8:8)." (Midrash haGadol[1])
Rabbeinu Bachya elaborates at greater length:
"Moshe's words in his prayer stayed true for that time and for all generations. In accordance with his words, 'they shall remain only in the Nile,' to this very day the creeping water creature known as the al-timsah remains there. There it lives, and it is said that sometimes it comes out of the Nile where it lives, rising onto the river's edge and swallowing whatever it finds, even two or three humans at a time. Neither spear nor arrow can overcome its body, unless aimed for its belly. Physicians say it is venomous and that touching its body, even after its death, is harmful to man. It is of the tzefardea type, and from the power of Moshe's words, this creature remains there... This is also how Rabbeinu Chananel explained it, and regarding this it states, 'Speak of all His wonders' (Psalms 105:2)." (Rabbeinu Bachya, Exodus 10:19)
According to the second identification, preferred by Ibn Ezra, the tzefardea is the commonly found animal that makes a sound - the frog. This is also the explanation preferred by others:
"Some say it looks like a fish, that it is the timsah, which moves its upper jaw, unlike all other lowly creatures, and that it seizes humans and animals passing by the river's edge. But the correct explanation is that they are the known creatures of rivers and pools." (Sefer haMivchar[2])
We find the following evaluation in Sefer HaToda'ah:
"This type of destructive tzefardea did not exist in the Nile previously. After it was then created, it remains in the Egyptian river forever. It grows in the Nile to a great size, and damages and swallows creatures big and small. It is the tamsah, which is found in the Nile until today, as a memorial to that plague. And there are some of the commentaries who say that the tzefardea referred to here is the small croaking creature, and so it appears from the words of our rabbis in the midrashos." (Sefer HaToda'ah 23)
The midrashim to which he refers describe the frog as a small and weak creature, prey to snakes and aquatic creatures, that is extremely vocal. This description can only match the frog and does not match the crocodile at all.

What of the etymology of the name tzefardea - does that give an indication either way? Some claim it to be a word from an unknown foreign source.[3] It may be a combination of the root tzafar, meaning to chirp (as frogs do), along with the root rada, "muddy marsh," which is the frog's favored habitat. But there are those who state that the name tzefardea is a combination of two words, tzipor de'ah, "the bird of knowledge." Some explain this to refer to the frog, which chirps like a bird and knows when to stop:
"Tzefardea - a creeping creatures that emits cries all night, until morning, and it is tzipor da, 'the knowing bird,' that it knows the time of morning, to cease from its cries." (Chatzi Menasheh[4])
There is another explanation of "the knowing bird" that is more difficult to ascribe to either animal:
"Ba-tzefarde'im" - what is this word, tzefarde'a? There was a bird (tzipor) in the Nile that had intelligence (de'a), and when this bird called to them they came, and so they were named after this bird with intelligence: tzefar-de'a. (Midrash Lekach Tov to Exodus 7:28; cf. Yalkut Shimoni 7:182)
Pin by Flo iams on The far side | Gary larson cartoons, Funny ...
Neither frogs nor crocodiles are known to respond to the calls of birds. But there is a suggestion based on this midrash that there are similar reasons for positing that tzefardea refers to the crocodile.[5] There is an account by Herodotus, who visited Egypt in 459 B.C.E., of a small bird picking food from the teeth of a gaping crocodile. It has been suggested that this refers to the Egyptian plover, Pluvianus aegyptius, which has since also earned the name of "crocodile plover." It is said that while the crocodile rests with its mouth open, these intelligent birds peck at the crocodile's teeth in search of parasites. The crocodile makes no attempt to eat the bird and is apparently aware of its benefits. The bird is extremely cautious and gives a call when fleeing from danger, thus also warning the crocodile. Perhaps the tzefardea is the crocodile, named after its symbiotic partner, the intelligent bird that cleans it and warns it of danger.

A problem with this charming explanation is that the described phenomenon may not actually be true. Whether such a mutual relationship exists is hard to determine; in the zoological literature, few apart from Herodotus are actually recorded as having seen it.[6] One ornithologist claims that ".no reliable observer since then has seen [it] acting as a crocodile toothpick... The myth has been perpetuated in the literature and needs finally to be laid to rest, unless contrary proof can be found."[7] On the other hand, Israel's legendary crocodile hunter Ofer Kobi, who spent decades hunting and farming crocodiles in Africa, informed me that he has observed it.[8] If it does exist, it is rare, and seems more likely to be opportunistic rather than symbiotic.

In conclusion, while there are those who have explained the tzefardea of Egypt to refer to the crocodile, its usage in Midrashic sources and its etymology indicate that the frog is the more likely contender, as several of the commentaries conclude. Some suggest that the name tzefardea refers to amphibious herptiles in general, and could thereby include both frogs and crocodiles. This is the explanation given by the Netziv, who states that whereas most of Egypt was plagued only by frogs, Pharaoh and his entourage were attacked by crocodiles.[9]

[1] Margaliyot edition, pp. 121-122; originally from Mishnat R. Eliezer, p. 354.
[2] Cited in Torah Sheleimah, Shemos 8:16.
[3] Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emes LeYaakov, Shemos 7:27.
[4] A collection of manuscripts cited in Torah Sheleimah 7:108. This explanation is also given by Maharil, cited in B'Shmi U'lekavodi Berasiv, tzefardea.
[5] Prof. Daniel Sperber, "The Frog was a Crocodile," Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center, Parashat VaEra 5759/1999.
[6] "Despite being corroborated by two eminent German ornithologists in the 19th and 20th centuries, this alleged behavior has never been properly authenticated." Richford, Andrew S., and Christopher J. Mead, "Pratincoles and Coursers," in Christopher Perrins (Ed.). Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds (Firefly Books 2003) pp. 252-253.
[7] Maclean, G. L., "Family Glareolidae (Coursers and Pratincoles)" in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World (Barcelona: Lynx Edicions 1996) vol. 3 pp. 364-383.
[8] Personal conversation at the Crocoloco ranch, September 2008. For further information on Kobi, whose amazing ranches I visited in Kenya and Israel, see
[9] See HaEmek Davar, Shemos 7:28-29 for his ingenious method of deriving this from the verses.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

"He Had A Gold Mine In His Hands And He Crushed It"

A very significant article about how Rav Chaim Kanievsky's court operates was published in the Hebrew paper "The Marker." It was translated for this website by Elisha Loewenstern:

"He Had A Gold Mine In His Hands And He Crushed It": 
The Mistake Made By Rabbi Kanievsky's Grandson 

With a lot of faith, determination and elbows, Yanki Kanievsky paved his way to the top of the court of his grandfather, known as the "Minister of Torah," and controlled the budget, meetings and politics with a strong arm. 

By Liat Levy and Bini Ashkenazi 

About six months ago, 25 people gathered in the ancient synagogue in Motza, which sometimes serves as an event hall. The purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of the most powerful people in Haredi society: Yanki Kanievsky, the grandson of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, who is also known as "the Prince of Torah." The invitees included family members, as well as MK Uri Maklev of United Torah Judaism, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon, and Yosef Haim Kalaf, Arye Deri's close adviser. As is common in celebrity affairs, the guests were requested not to take photos of the event; indeed, there is no mention of it on the internet or social media. Various sources with whom we spoke said that the event was proof, for those who still needed it, of the great influence of Yanki Kanievsky.

About two months ago, Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community, became a household name and figure of interest among the wider Israeli public as well. A video posted on the web, in which he is heard giving instruction not to close the Haredi yeshivas and educational institutions, contrary to the instructions of the Health Ministry, went viral and caused much anger on the Haredi street. The video shows the 92-year-old rabbi alongside his grandson Yanki, who says to him: "The whole state wants to say now that all the hederim should not hold studies... until they know what will happen with this epidemic ... The question is whether Grandpa thinks that the hederim should be canceled because of this?" Rabbi Kanievsky is seen in the video answering his grandson, "God forbid." "So can I tell them on behalf of Grandpa that the hederim must remain open for the sake of the children's studies?" the grandson continued; and the rabbi nodded in agreement.

This approval of the great halakhic authority sowed confusion and intensified the power struggles between the different courts of Haredi leadership. On the one hand, this was a ruling of the Gadol Hador, the "leader of the generation." On the other hand, it was a blatant violation of the Health Ministry's instructions, a potentially life-threatening decision. At the thick of this controversy stood the Haredi politicians, who were afraid to defy him.

"I believe in his blessing," says a close associate of the rabbi. "Not because he studied medicine, but because of the power of his Torah. The Torah defends and saves; that's not just a slogan. Though not at the price of lawlessness, the Torah must be adhered to under the guidelines of the Health Ministry."

"In retrospect, Yanki received a lethal blow here," says a source proficient in Haredi politics. "The video created a crisis of trust between the Haredi public and government directives, which is why it took the Haredi public time to internalize that they must obey the instructions." This interval came at the expense of the health of not a few of his followers. Only a few days later, Rabbi Kanievsky's court issued a statement that the Health Ministry's instructions had to be obeyed. The court, which had thus far been the most influential in the Haredi sector, was caught with its pants down. On Haredi social media, the grandson Yanki was accused of manipulating his grandfather. The ruling was another attempt at consolidating the rabbi's standing as the main halachic authority in the Ashkenazi Haredi community, and Yanki's status as his manager; but there are those who claim that this time, Yanki had gone too far.

Yanki Kanievsky, only 30, is the person who officially runs the house of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, also known as the House on Rashbam Street, since it is located on Rashbam Street in Bnei Brak. He is the eldest son of Shuki Kanievsky, the youngest son of the rabbi. He has three brothers and four sisters. Kanievsky is married and lives in an apartment he owns in Bnei Brak. As a young man, he studied in a yeshiva in Hadera; but although he was listed as a member of the Kollel, he lived and breathed sectoral politics from an early age. Although he is one of the rabbi's younger grandchildren, he is in charge of the goings and comings in the rabbi's home. He is the one approves and arranges meetings with the rabbi, decides who will get a photo with the rabbi, who will be blessed and who will receive a video of support.

Controlling which nonprofit will receive the rabbi's blessing and which radio station will advertise the House's activities and fundraising is worth a lot of power and money in Haredi society. In the sector, Yanki is described as the community kingmaker, the one who pulls the strings and whose authority is undisputed. He has the power to arrange who will be employed in the sector's various educational institutions, public events, political institutions, and also who will be fired and where will budgets be channeled. He recommends PRs, advertisers, producers, photographers, strategic advisors, journalists and lawyers, such that no one wants to quarrel with the House, because that could mean a loss of livelihood. He was crowned a political strategist when he led the move known as the "Sephardi-Lithuanian axis," an unnatural collaboration between Shas and Degel HaTorah in the municipal elections in October 2018, aimed at strengthening the political power of Degel HaTorah in the municipalities. Yanki wove this move together with Yosef Haim Halaf, and it was successful in many municipalities, including Jerusalem and Haifa.

Grandson Kanievsky even maintained contacts with political figures at the national level. Hod Betzer, Benny Gantz's chief of staff, and who during the last Knesset election campaign was responsible for communication with various sectors, was a guest at Yanki's sister's wedding in the midst of the third round of elections, with rumors of contact between the two in the background.

Another meeting proving Yanki's political aspirations took place in May 2019. Immediately after the first round of elections, he arrived at the headquarters of Yisrael Beitenu in Jerusalem. Back then, the bad blood between the Haredi parties and Avigdor Lieberman was almost solely concerning the draft law, and Kanievsky came to examine the feasibility of a compromise on the legislation that would enable Lieberman to enter the government. "There was a desire to see whether Lieberman was willing to modify his statement that he would not agree to change even a comma or a period in the draft law," says a source proficient in the details. He said that if Rabbi Kanievsky had accepted the bargain, the issue of recruitment would have been resolved, there would be a government today, "and we would not be dragged into this ongoing election saga." Lieberman refused to compromise and the political consequences are well known, but it was another landmark for the Kanievsky grandson's attempt to establish his grandfather's status as a political leader.

"Yanki is a sympathetic and poignant person, but also forceful," says a source familiar with the balance of power in Haredi society. "He'll burn you if he wants to. A lot of people know that you don't mess with him."

Yanki took on the task of managing the House about five years ago, accompanied by a well-oiled PR system that includes distributing SMS messages through a hotline about his meetings with senior officials, as well as messages that are clearly intended to glorify his considerable public influence. His dominant character is even more apparent when juxtaposed with his cousin, Arye Kanievsky, with whom he splits the shifts of staying with his grandfather. Arye is considered to be the calm and gentle grandson, who helps his grandfather no less than Yanki, but does not interfere or make public decisions in the rabbi's name and in his stead. "Arye does not treat his grandfather as an axe to grind," says a source familiar with the conduct of the House. "During his shifts there is no selection of visitors; his conduct is fair; no shtick like yes or no photo with the rabbi; no shady deals. If Arye had more influence, everything in this house would look different."

"Yanki treats his grandfather as a business" 

For many years, from the time of Rabbi Shach, the Lithuanian community was led by its rabbis, its Gedolei HaDor, who kept their distance from the political world and engaged in Torah study. The concept was that anyone who devotes himself to the Torah does not engage in political matters. When the Lithuanian community needed public decisions, they turned to Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv. After the latter's death, the leadership was split between Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, who died in 2017, and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who died in 2018. Today, there are two courts competing for leadership: Rabbi Kanievsky (whose late wife, Batsheva, was the daughter of Rabbi Elyashiv) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein – head of Yeshivat Ponevezh, which is considered the flagship of the Lithuanian Haredi Torah world. "Rabbi Kanievsky was never a figure who made political decisions," explains a source who is knowledgeable of the balance of power in the sector. "He is a tzaddik, not a leader. He is primarily concerned with giving blessings. Rabbi Edelstein is an old man and a Torah scholar, but also capable of asking and making decisions. He is a practical figure. "

"For anyone who wants a blessing, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is the address," explains another source. "The man is detached from this world, and people believe that his blessings are fulfilled." Among the veteran blessing-seekers of the House are Gideon Sa'ar, Arye Deri, Minister Naftali Bennett and former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, all of whom were photographed with the rabbi, who thereby grants them legitimacy on the one hand and whose political status in enhanced on the other. "But between this and deciding whether to join the coalition or to open institutions during the epidemic," the source adds, "there is a fine line."

Yanki, sources say, is the person who decided to change his grandfather's image from that of a famous rabbi, the Rebbe of the Lithuanians, to a politically influential figure – and it seems to have been quite successful for him. During the last election year, the rabbi became a popular destination for blessings. Among those who came for photo-ops were Minister Yisrael Katz, who said after the visit, "The rabbi heard about my activity as the Minister of Transportation;" Minister Rafi Peretz; Raz Kisenstilich, mayor of Rishon LeZion; and even Yonatan Orich and Ofer Golan, advisers of the Prime Minister. Yanki told his grandfather that the two are helping the Prime Minister with Yiddishkeit (preserving Jewish values), and that the police and the state attorney are pursuing them to prevent them from helping the Prime Minister.

Besides the political power, Rabbi Kanievsky's house is a junction that sits on a lot of money and large budgets. The rabbi's name, blessing, and pictures are used to encourage various activities, from donations to charity to sifrei kodesh. "Yanki treats his grandfather as a business," says a source close to the community. "Rabbi Kanievsky is an important name. An organization that campaigns with Rabbi Kanievsky's name receives more donations."

From information that came to our attention, it appears that Haredi PRs and advertisers are also making commercial use of the rabbi's house. Among others, the advertising company 360 Links, owned by Racheli Greenwald, the daughter of Lithuanian businessman Motke Levi, offers its clients collaboration with Kanievsky's house as part of a strategic consultancy package. There is no detail of what this collaboration includes, but the language of the offer indicates that the rabbi is one of the means of promoting the product. Greenwald denies the details and said in response to our request: "There is no such thing. Whoever wants can go to the rabbi's door and stand in line. The line is sometimes long, because all the people of Israel want to be blessed by the rabbi. I engage in a vain field, selling advertising and public relations. I do not sell spiritual or holy services. Neither donations nor blessings. Only material things. "

Markerweek has provided evidence of PR offices offering customers the rabbi's blessing of a successful endeavor, a process that includes a filmed documentation of the event and its dissemination in the Haredi press, as a means of producing a kosher stamp on each service. These services do not always have a separate price tag, because they can easily be deemed a desecration of God's name in Haredi society. Sometimes the service is payed for as part of a larger strategic package; other times, it is sufficient to pay the rabbi's house by donating a Torah scroll, or donating to one of the funds that the rabbi wishes to support.

A source knowledgeable of the details says that getting customers into the rabbi's house is an accepted practice. Sometimes this happens through the Haredi sector journalists, who also serve as middlemen. "When there are problems in the House, it needs someone who has a newspaper to write and put in items for it," the source explains. He hints at the crisis that has occurred regarding the opening of educational institutions, and the House's need for a journalist to publish clarifications or positions intended for the public, even if they do not match the rabbi's exact messages. "For example, a press release that says the rabbi said there will be no more minyanim, not even on balconies. The House needs it to be published, and that same newspaper now has an open door with the rabbi."

Donate and you will not get infected 

The most well-known enterprise that the rabbi is signed on to is Kupat Ha'ir, the city fund of Bnei Brak - the most well-known charity in the sector, which aims to financially support the needy and orphans. In 2018 alone, the fund had a turnover of NIS 128 million, 70 million of which came from donations inside Israel. The fund is so branded that, among the Haredim, it has become synonymous with charity. Its fundraising events are well-publicized festivals, with radio broadcasts and newspaper ads alongside promises of health and redemption to donors by Rabbi Kanievsky himself.

In the midst of the closure following the coronavirus outbreak, Kupat Ha'ir promised in the name of Rabbi Kanievsky that anyone who would donate substantial sums of money to the fund, he and his household would not be infected with the virus. In a conversation that journalist Nir Gontagez had with representatives of the fund, later published in Haaretz, the fundraiser is heard saying: "Rabbi Kanievsky said that there is a measure for a measure. Whoever donates... he makes sure there are no ill people in his home... Rabbi Kanievsky said that in order for the 'measure for a measure' to take effect, the sum should be significant. Possibly ... he said (NIS) 3,000." The representative explained the high amount, reasoning that "this is the average monthly support necessary for an ill person. We request that a standing order of 3,000 be paid."

With regard to how the funds of the Kupa are distributed, there is a difference of opinion. According to the organization's financial reports, NIS 113 million were distributed to charity; however, there are voices in the sector that claim the distribution of the funds is a well-kept secret. In 2018, the Kupa received government support from the Ministry of Welfare at an amount of NIS 1.3 million designated for Kimcha DePischa, food distribution before the holidays. One source deeply involved in Haredi society claims a lack of transparency and discrimination in the distribution of the funds, in favor of those affiliated with the Lithuanian Haredi society, despite the obligation of charities that receive support from the state to meet the criteria of transparency and equality.

Another source, also familiar with the Haredi street, claims that the Kupa actually supports all parts of the Haredi sector. One way or the other, Kupat Ha'ir has become synonymous with the mitzvah of tzedakah, so important in Haredi society, as an implementation of the Talmudic dictum "charity will save from death."

Kupat Ha'ir is also invested in 12% of the Megureit real estate foundation: it invested NIS 12.5 million in the purchase of the Megureit's shares, and despite criticism of the move – using donations to invest in a real estate company – an examiner on behalf of the Registrar of Foundations determined that the Foundation acted in accordance with the procedures in its decision to invest in the company. Besides Kupat Ha'ir, there are other organizations that are associated with the House, such as Arevim, a fund for widows and orphans that is run by members of Kupat Ha'ir, and Ateret Shlomo. Last February, the Prime Minister' attorney Amit Haddad arrived at the House with his partner Ariel Roth. The two happened to arrive at a fundraising event for the Ateret Shlomo institutions. As befitting of such a publicized event, the Haredi press reported that Rabbi Kanievsky had asked them to support the institutions. The two quickly wrote a check for a total of NIS 1 million for Ateret Shlomo's benefit, and also had a photo-op with the rabbi. Haddad apparently thought that a photo of him in Rabbi Kanievsky's house would benefit him, because at the time he had left his home office, following the passing of Attorney Yaakov Weinroth. Weinroth himself, a popular figure in the Haredi sector, was close with Rabbi Kanievsky; the two had studied together sometimes, and Haddad was in need of recognition from the rabbi. A person familiar with the balance of power in the House says that immediately afterward the donation check was torn up. Haddad rejects this claim, saying that the donation was given.

The person who was obviously present in the pictures was the grandson Yanki. A few months earlier, Haddad represented the chairman of Ateret Shlomo, to whom he wrote the check, Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotskin, in a lawsuit he filed against El Al for its Shabbat flight, a flight that took off from New York to Tel Aviv in November 2018 and had to land in Athens to prevent the desecration of Shabbat, and Sorotzkin was among its passengers.

Rabbi Kanievsky's image is displayed under the name of many other foundations as well. Some are more familiar, such as Hidabroot and Matnat Chaim, the kidney donation foundation headed by the late Rabbi Yeshayahu Haber, and some less known, like Yad Eliezer. When it comes to big nonprofits unassociated with the House, the rabbi's support doesn't come for free. "When it comes to large organizations, getting Haim Kanievsky's name involves 'getting along' with Yanki," says a source in the world of advertising.

"Getting along," sources say, could be done by a gift or a donation to a third nonprofit. That is what was required of A., a young Haredi man whose father wrote and published a halakhic book, and he accompanied him to a meeting at the rabbi's house to obtain an approbation for the book. Such an approbation is a kind of qualification for a halakhic work's legitimacy; if a Gadol HaDor signs on it, the book is praiseworthy. After a brief meeting, the rabbi confirmed that he would give his approbation, and sent A.'s father to Shuki, the rabbi's eldest son and Yanki's father, who, among other responsibilities, drafts the letters that the rabbi signs. But Shuki did not give him the letter of consent. "My father did not understand why he wasn't receiving the approbation for his book, even though the rabbi said that it should be given," says A. "Then someone explained to my dad that the approbation costs money. They just told him: Just offer a sum." A. relates that his father was hinted that he should give NIS 100,000 to the rabbi's house, but his father refused and remained without the approbation.

A source from Rabbi Kanievsky's house rejects the claims. "It is true that unfortunately things are published about this issue of money, and that there are also organizations that advertise that they will pass on questions and names to the rabbi for money and they do not pass the questions and names for blessing. I know that," he says. "But realize that we spend money ourselves. We run a system, we pay the secretary who receives emails and faxes and makes appointments for people to receive a blessing from the rabbi. We try to help every Jew. Even during the period of the coronavirus, the rabbi receives dozens of questions a day, and we try to help. Money is irrelevant."

"You can see that Rabbi Kanievsky is no longer entirely 'with it'" 

Alongside Kupat Ha'ir operates a national fund called Shutafim LaTorah. It was supposed to be an umbrella organization for small Haredi institutions from all sectors – Hasidim, Lithuanians and Sephardim – who would join forces to become one major fundraising organization whose income would support Kollel students. This is how the system works: Institutions pay membership fees to the fund, which raises donations and supports the institutions equitably. The membership fee for each institution is between NIS 12-18 per listed student. To this day, the head of the foundation is Shuki, Yanki's father, who is also a board member. A source involved in the organization's activity says that Yanki is seen in its offices regularly. "It was clear he was giving the instructions," he says.

In its first year of operation, 2015, Shutafim LaTorah raised NIS 3.3 million from donations and membership fees. It placed designated, ATM-like donation machines in popular donating locations, enabling people to enter names into the machine for Rabbi Kanievsky to bless them, in exchange for a donation. This machine was called a Brachomat, a combination of the Hebrew words for blessing ("bracha") and ATM ("kaspomat"). The startup organization seemed to be booming; the nonprofit's offices were located in luxury offices, plasma screens were distributed to the various yeshivot, and they began planning strategic moves to raise donations, including, among other ideas, using the name and image of Rabbi Kanievsky as the figure behind the system, leading its campaigns. However, a review of the foundation's financial reports reveals that during the same year, scholarships worth NIS 1 million were distributed, including checks carrying Electra Air Conditioners' logo; while an additional NIS 930,000 were allocated for salaries and NIS 1.6 million for fundraising and the establishment of a relief fund.

In March 2016, in a laconic email sent to the administrators of institutions who paid their membership fees, the foundation announced it was canceling the collection of fees. According to its financial reports, NIS 673,000 were collected via the membership fees various institutions in 2016. One year later, no membership fees were collected, but the foundation raised NIS 1.23 million in donations, of which only NIS 10,000 – 1% of the donations – were allocated to the purpose for which the charity was established two years earlier. On the other hand, according to the financial reports, NIS 540,000, almost half of the sum of the funds raised, were allocated to payment of salaries in that year.

In 2018, the foundation's situation seemed to have recovered, and it was able to raise about NIS 2 million from donations, half a million of which were donated by Daniel Dedon's Seldat Inc. In that year the organization allocated NIS 500,000 in scholarships, but again, a much high amount went to salaries, fundraising and administrative expenses.

Moshe Horn, CEO of Shutafim LaTorah, sent in response: "The Shutafim LaTorah Foundation distributed NIS 1,000,000 to the needy in 2016-2020, according to clear criteria and orderly distribution. In addition to offering this vast scope of financial aid to those in need, the foundation assists organizations operating in the field of education and Torah study, and operates in accordance with its goals throughout the years in an orderly manner. All the financial reports are monitored and managed by the accounting firm BDO, one of the largest in Israel."

The video in which Rabbi Kanievsky gave the instruction to open educational institutions was not the only one that was recently publicized and caused discomfort among the public. A few days before the last election, in March, the rabbi was photographed inside a vehicle, his dominant grandson again beside him, telling him: "There is some kind of epidemic spreading around the world, called coronavirus. Many people have died and thousands of people are sick from it. Some people have a great fear that it will affect them, too, so people are asking if anyone who votes for United Torah Judaism in the election, will it be a safeguard for him that he will not catch this disease? " Rabbi Kanievsky seems to nod his head in affirmation. The promise that those who vote UTJ would be protected against the coronavirus irritated many people.

This video, like its predecessor, was considered by many to be further evidence of the problematic conduct of Yanki, and it further deteriorated his status in Haredi society. "Yanki is maintaining a brand (Rabbi Haim Kanievsky; LL and BA) and this brand may have been hurt among the general public, but in the Haredi community, such a brand is not harmed by one mistake," says a source knowledgeable of Haredi politics. "However, within the internal WhatsApp groups of the Haredi community, Yanki has become a highly despised person."

"Yanki had a gold mine in his hands," adds another source. "All the rich people who came to his grandfather's house went through him. Rabbi Kanievsky has no official reception protocol, and Yankee is the one who decides who will come in. It's a booming business, but now the good taste is spoiled. The rich people see that Rabbi Kanievsky is no longer 'with it'; in the videos he looks senile. I think many people will stop giving him money."

It is not only within the internal Haredi WhatsApp groups that the grandson's status is at a low. In the midst of the coronavirus period, Ya'ir Sherkey of Channel 12 News revealed that Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Lithuanian Ponevezh Yeshiva, ordered the Yated Ne'eman newspaper not to publish a letter from Rabbi Kanievsky that demanded the immediate resumption of the Haredi educational institutions. Rabbi Edelstein's standing up to Rabbi Kanievsky is considered quite a precedent, and it may even imply that the Rosh Yeshiva assumed that the letters coming out of Rabbi Kanievsky's house are not necessarily his full initiative and under his control.

Translated by Elisha Loewenstern, Phone # (972) 50-408-3257 

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