Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 20b: Mourning because of his wife's honor

I initially found this gemara troublesome, but I think the answer is apparent. I thought to write down my thoughts, though, and to point out the obvious.

Moed Katan 20b:

ולא אמרו בכבוד אשתו אלא חמיו וחמותו אבל אחי אשתו או אחותו לא
דתניא מי שמת חמיו וחמותו אינו רשאי לכוף את אשתו להיות כוחלת ולהיות פוקסת אלא כופה מטתו ונוהג עמה אבלות וכן היא שמת חמיה וחמותה אינה רשאה להיות כוחלת ולהיות פוקסת אלא כופה מטתה ונוהגת עמו אבלות
ותניא אידך אף על פי שאמרו אינו רשאי לכוף את אשתו באמת אמרו מוזגת לו את הכוס ומצעת לו את המטה ומרחצת פניו ידיו ורגליו
קשיאן אהדדי אלא לאו ש"מ כאן בחמיו וחמותו וכאן בשאר קרובים שמע מינה
תנ"ה לא אמרו בשביל כבוד אשתו אלא חמיו וחמותו בלבד
And they only said that {he should maintain mourning} for his wife's honor regarding {the death of} his father-in-law and mother-in-law, but for his brother-in-law or sister-in-law, no.
For they learnt {in a brayta}: One whose father-in-law or mother-in-law died is not permitted to force his wife to apply kohl to her eyes or to arrange her hair, but rather he overturns his mattress and practices mourning with her. And so too she, where her father-in-law or mother-in-law died, is not permitted to apply kohl to her eyes or to arrange her hair, but rather she overturns her mattress and practices mourning with him.
And another brayta states: Even though they said that he is not permitted to force his wife {to apply kohl, etc.}, in truth {often = halacha lemoshe miSinai} they said that she mixes for him the cup and arranges for him the bed, and washes his face, hands, and feet.
These appear to contradict one another? Rather do we not derive from this that here it is for his father-in-law and mother-in-law, and here is for other relatives. We indeed so deduce.
A brayta also says so: They only said {he should maintain mourning} for his wife's honor for his father-in-law and mother-in-law.
This is the setama digmara's resolution of the difficulty. But the resolution is hard to swallow, for the second brayta explicitly makes mention of the laws of the first, stating "Even though they said that he is not permitted to force his wife..." The resolution would be that it is talking about a different list of activities, not that it is talking of mourning for different people!

This is only if you don't read it carefully, though. The contradiction the setama is pointing out is not whether one forces his wife to apply kohl to her eyes, etc., but rather what he himself is doing in terms of keeping mourning. In the first brayta, it states אלא כופה מטתו ונוהג עמה אבלות, "but rather he overturns his mattress and practices mourning with her." In the second brayta, he once again may not force her to apply kohl, etc., but he clearly is not practicing mourning with her, and indeed, they said מוזגת לו את הכוס ומצעת לו את המטה ומרחצת פניו ידיו ורגליו, "that she mixes for him the cup and arranges for him the bed, and washes his face, hands, and feet." Thus he is not keeping mourning. Perhaps it is really a machloket. But given that other brayta that made the distinction between her parents and other relatives, such that only for her parents does he keep mourning for his wife's honor, it is a pretty safe bet that the other brayta was working from a base case of the death of one of her other relatives.

This is pashut peshat and no chiddush, but just something I wanted to speak it out.

Update: Though perhaps one can make a distinction based on the content rather than identities. In the first perek of Taanit we learn:
והלכתא אבל אסור בין בחמין בין בצונן ופניו ידיו ורגליו בחמין אסור בצונן מותר ולסוך אפילו כל שהוא אסור להעביר את הזוהמא מותר:
This that they said that he is forbidden to wash, there is no distinction between washing with hot or washing with cold, for we learned in Taanit, in the first perek: And the halacha is that a mourner is forbidden {to wash his body}, whether with hot or cold, and his face, and his face, hands and feet, with hot it is forbidden and with cold it is permitted. And to anoint, even any amount, is forbidden; to remove the sweat, it is permitted.
Thus the washing of his face, hands and feet, is perhaps permitted him assuming she did it with cold water. On the other hand, she is setting up his bed as opposed to him overturning his bed. This is perhaps the best proof that not, for that is the only direct contradiction. In terms of mixing his drink, perhaps that it not one of the things forbidden him in this sympathetic mourning. The simplest, though, is as the setama suggests, based on identity rather than actions.

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 18b: An Interesting Kelal Horaah: Shema Mina Telas - What is the reach and provenance of this statement?

Today, in daf Yomi, we read Moed Katan daf 18. I had a question the other day on this very daf, and this very sugya, in that it appeared to recommend biting toenails!

There is another interesting point here for those fascinated by kelalei horaah. In Rif's discussion of the daf, he notes that someone bases a ruling -- that even on chol haMoed, one must bite the nails rather than use a nail scissors/clippers -- on something derived from an incident of Rabbi Yochanan biting his fingernails in a synagogue {in our gemara, it is a Bet haMidrash, while Rif has a Be Kenishta, a synagogue}. Rif rejects this since the gemara explicitly derives three points of law from this incident, and what is suggested in not amongst the three. Rif follows:
{Moed Katan 18a}
ת"ר כשם שאמרו אסור לגלח במועד כך אמרו אסור ליטול צפרניו במועד דברי רבי יהודה
ורבי יוסי מתיר
וכשם שאמרו אסור לגלח בימי אבלו כך אמרו אסור ליטול צפרניו בימי אבלו דברי רבי יהודה
ורבי יוסי מתיר

אמר עולא הלכתא כר' יהודה באבל והלכתא כר' יוסי במועד
ושמואל אמר הלכתא כרבי יוסי בזה ובזה

דאמר שמואל הלכתא כדברי המיקל באבל וקי"ל כשמואל ול"ש צפרניו דיד ול"ש צפרניו דרגל כולהו שרו
מיהו ה"מ בשיניו אבל בגנוסתרי אסור דאמר ר' חייא בר אשי (א"ר אשי) א"ר ובגנוסתרי אסור
The Sages learnt {in a brayta}: Just as they said that it is forbidden to shave on chol haMoed, so they said that it is forbidden to cut his nails on chol haMoed. These are the words of Rabbi Yehuda. And Rabbi Yossi permits.
And just as they said that it is forbidden to shave during his days of mourning, so did they say that it is forbidden to cut his nails during his days of mourning. These are the words of Rabbi Yehuda. And Rabbi Yossi permits.

Ulla said: The halacha is like Rabbi Yehuda as regards mourning and like Rabbi Yossi as regards chol haMoed.
And Shmuel said: The halacha is like Rabbi Yossi by both this and that.

For Shmuel said: The halacha is like the words of the lenient one by mourning. And we establish like Shmuel.

And it matters not whether they are fingernails or toenails, all they permitted.
However, these words are with his teeth. But with a nail scissors, it is forbidden. For Rabbi Chiyya bar Ashi (cited Rav Ashi) cited Rav: And with a nail scissors it is forbidden.

וחזינן למקצת רבוותא דאמרי דוקא בתוך שלשים אבל בתוך שבעה אסור
ואנן לא ס"ל הכי אלא אפי' בתוך שבעה שרי
וה"מ בימי אבלו אבל במועד אפי' בגנוסתרי מותר
ואיכא מאן דאמר דבמועד נמי בגנוסתרי אסור ומייתי ראיה מיהא דאמר רב שימי בר אבא הוה קאימנא קמיה דר' יוחנן בבי כנישתא בחולו דמועדא ושקלינהו לטופריה בשיניה וקאמר מדשלקינהו בשיניה ש"מ דבגנוסתרי אסור
ואנן לא סבירא לן הכי דאי ס"ד דבגנוסתרי אסור אדאמר ש"מ תלת הוה למימר ש"מ ארבע ונמני ליה בהדייהו ומדלא אמר הכי ש"מ דבגנוסתרי מותר והאי דשקלינהו בשיניה משום דהוה בבי כנישתא דליכא גנוסתרי ולהכי לא חשיב לה בהדייהו ולהכי אצטריך למימר דהוה קאי בבי כנישתא משום דלא תגמר מיניה דבגנוסתרי אסור הלכך לא גמרינן מיניה אלא הנהו תלת בלחוד דגמרי רבנן ותו לא מידי:
And we have seen that a few {post-Talmudic} Sages say that specifically within 30 days of his mourning, but within 7 is it forbidden. And we do not hold this, but rather even within 7 is permitted.
And these words are regarding his days of mourning, but during chol haMoed, even with nail scissors is permitted.
And there is one who says that on chol haMoed as well, with nail scissors it is forbidden. And he brings a proof from this that Rav Shimi bar Abba said: "I was standing before Rabbi Yochanan in the synagogue on chol haMoed, and he cut his nails with his teeth," and he {this man deAmar} states that from the fact that he cut them with his teeth, we may derive that with a nail scissors it is forbidden.
And we do not hold so, for if you think that with nail scissors are forbidden, where it said "we deduce from this three things," it should have said "we deduce from this four things," and listed this {not to use nail scissors} among them. And from the fact that it does not say so, we deduce that with nail scissors are permitted. And this that he {Rabbi Yochanan} cut them with his teeth, this was because he was in the synagogue, where there are no scissors, and therefore it is not counted among them, and therefore it was necessary to state that he was in the synagogue, so that you do not deduce from it that with a nail scissors it is forbidden. Therefore we only learn from it those three that the Sages learned, and further nothing.
As summarized in the Point by Point Summary of Kollel Iyun haDaf, the three things derives are:
1. He held it is permitted to cut nails on Chol ha'Mo'ed
2. It is not gross to bite your nails in front of other people (Rashi MS).
3. One may throw one's nails on the floor.
Note that the second point is Rashi's explanation of what merely states that it is not mius. Biting nails specifically is not mentioned.

The incident, by the way, was that Rav Shemen bar Abba stood before Rabbi Yochanan in the study hall {or synagogue} and saw his remove his nails, and it does not specify with what, and thus does not mention this nail clippers. But this is not necessarily so. Rif's girsa is apparently equal to the person that he cites, where the gemara explicitly states that he removed his nails with his teeth. This difference in girsaot is also something that can influence how one will paskin, though not for Rif -- he does not need this to reject this. It is unclear what girsa Rashi had, where Rashi explains the mius as being because he removed it with his teeth.

Can we indeed make sure a derivation from an incident, even where the gemara gives a series of things derived, and a number of things derived? That is, did it really intend a closed class? Or was it just listing three things which one could derive from this?

Another interesting point is that even Rif does not explicitly say that it was Rav Shemen bar Abba who deduced these three points, just the "Rabbanan" who derived this. In other words, it is the gemara who deduces this.

Would we make the same judgment? Someone should do a study -- perhaps it has already been done -- on the construction of Shema Mina Telas, to try to determine its provenance. That is, do other Amoraim react to such derivations? If so, it would be early, and part of an early formulation. On the other hand, if it is stamaic, then perhaps it should not bear so much influence in determining halacha, such that we would exclude other derivations from it.

A Question About the Chomesh Resettlement Hint

Of course I am in favor of yishuv eretz yisrael. I am less in favor of finding hints in the parasha to modern events, given that there is so much parsha to work with, as well as haftara, as well as daf Yomi, coupled with the human rationalization power which is exceptionally creating at making connections, even where there are none, and coupled with the fact that many other events occur which to not find a match in the parsha, such that finding a hint to some event is quite possible, nay, even probable, even if it was not intended.

But now I have a question. Yeranen Yaakov:
This week's Perasha:

כג וְהָיָה, כִּי-יֶחֱטָא וְאָשֵׁם--וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת-הַגְּזֵלָה אֲשֶׁר גָּזָל אוֹ אֶת-הָעֹשֶׁק אֲשֶׁר עָשָׁק, אוֹ אֶת-הַפִּקָּדוֹן אֲשֶׁר הָפְקַד אִתּוֹ; אוֹ אֶת-הָאֲבֵדָה, אֲשֶׁר מָצָא.

כד אוֹ מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר-יִשָּׁבַע עָלָיו, לַשֶּׁקֶר--וְשִׁלַּם אֹתוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ, וַחֲמִשִׁתָיו יֹסֵף עָלָיו: לַאֲשֶׁר הוּא לוֹ יִתְּנֶנּוּ, בְּיוֹם אַשְׁמָתוֹ.

Arutz Sheva:

( Nationalist activists have announced plans to resettle the evacuated northern Samaria town of Homesh - and the IDF issued a warning Thursday evening not to do so. They said that Israelis may not enter the town without express permission.

Several organizations have called upon their activist members to be prepared by Monday to enter Homesh, which was uprooted by IDF forces as part of the 2005 Disengagement Plan.

Today's news, courtesy of Jameel at the Muqata:
I had SMS exchanges last night with people in and around Chomesh about what time the forced evacuation was to take place. We decided it would be in the early daylight hours of the morning...and the text message I received "Pinuy [evacuation] is NOW!" came at 6:38 AM.

Everyone knew this was coming, yet no one regretted going to Chomesh, even if it was only for a few precious days.

Read it all there.

So how is this now וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת-הַגְּזֵלָה אֲשֶׁר גָּזָל and וַחֲמִשִׁתָיו יֹסֵף עָלָיו?

I don't want this to sound like gloating, and in fact my sympathies lie with them. But I did not want to pass up the opportunity to point out the pitfalls of the "current parsha predicts current events" meme.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Daf Yomi Moed Katan daf 18: Do Chazal Really Recommend Biting Toenails???

So it would seem, at least at first glance. From Moed Katan 18b {see here in the Rif}:

{Moed Katan 18a}
ת"ר כשם שאמרו אסור לגלח במועד כך אמרו אסור ליטול צפרניו במועד דברי רבי יהודה
ורבי יוסי מתיר
וכשם שאמרו אסור לגלח בימי אבלו כך אמרו אסור ליטול צפרניו בימי אבלו דברי רבי יהודה
ורבי יוסי מתיר

אמר עולא הלכתא כר' יהודה באבל והלכתא כר' יוסי במועד
ושמואל אמר הלכתא כרבי יוסי בזה ובזה

דאמר שמואל הלכתא כדברי המיקל באבל וקי"ל כשמואל ול"ש צפרניו דיד ול"ש צפרניו דרגל כולהו שרו
מיהו ה"מ בשיניו אבל בגנוסתרי אסור דאמר ר' חייא בר אשי (א"ר אשי) א"ר ובגנוסתרי אסור
The Sages learnt {in a brayta}: Just as they said that it is forbidden to shave on chol haMoed, so they said that it is forbidden to cut his nails on chol haMoed. These are the words of Rabbi Yehuda. And Rabbi Yossi permits.
And just as they said that it is forbidden to shave during his days of mourning, so did they say that it is forbidden to cut his nails during his days of mourning. These are the words of Rabbi Yehuda. And Rabbi Yossi permits.

Ulla said: The halacha is like Rabbi Yehuda as regards mourning and like Rabbi Yossi as regards chol haMoed.
And Shmuel said: The halacha is like Rabbi Yossi by both this and that.

For Shmuel said: The halacha is like the words of the lenient one by mourning. And we establish like Shmuel.

And it matters not whether they are fingernails or toenails, all they permitted.
However, these words are with his teeth. But with a nail scissors, it is forbidden. For Rabbi Chiyya bar Ashi (cited Rav Ashi) cited Rav: And with a nail scissors it is forbidden.
Note that the way the Rif resolves this, it is speaking of a mourner rather than conduct during chol haMoed, where even with nail scissors it is permitted.

If one cannot clip with a nail scissors {or perhaps clippers - machloket Aruch vs. Rashi} but only with teeth, how is one supposed to cut toenails. Ew!

Indeed, the story about Rabbi Yochanan which follows demonstrates that it is not disgusting to bite your nails in front of other people {at least the way Rashi interprets ain baHem mishum mius -- we might say this refers to the nails themselves}. But surely there is mius in biting toenails, even in private!

Some possible answers:
1) Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a 21st century Western construct.
2) Perhaps the halacha is different that laid out, and they meant that with a nail scissors it is forbidden on fingernails, but on toenails of course one has no recourse. Or some similar hanacha.
3) Perhaps what is meant by "teeth" is any non-clipper/nail scissors solution. Thus, perhaps a nail filing tool. Or perhaps a regular scissors. Or a razor. Related to this suggestion:
4) We have the Mishna in the 10th perek of Shabbat:

MISHNA VII.: One who pares his finger-nails, either by means of his nails or by means of his teeth; also one who plucks hair from his head, beard, or lip; also a woman who braids her hair, or paints her eyebrows, or parts her hair, is, according to R. Eliezer, culpable. The sages, however, declare this to be (prohibited only by rabbinical law) as a precautionary measure.

If so, paring his toenails my means of his fingernails might be the implication of his teeth -- anything non-nail scissors-y.

It's Permitted to Own Kitniyot On Pesach!

From the AP: The Israeli Green Leaf party warns observant Jews not to smoke pot on Pesach.
Biblical laws prohibit eating leavened foods during Passover, replacing bread with flat crackers called matza. Later injunctions by European rabbis extended those rules to forbid other foods like beans and corn, and more recent rulings have further expanded the ban to include hemp seeds, which today are found in some health oils — and in marijuana.

Green Leaf is a small political party that supports the legalization of marijuana. Although it is by no means a Jewish religious authority, the group decided to warn its observant supporters away from the drug on Passover.

"You shouldn't smoke marijuana on the holiday, and if you have it in your house you should get rid of it," Levine said. The edict was first reported in The Jerusalem Post.
Assuming hemp is kitniyot, there still should be no reason to get it out of your house!

I wonder, further, if the prohibition of consuming kitniyot extends to burning it and inhaling its smoke. They should have consulted their local Orthodox rabbi before making any such pronouncement.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Registering My Objections

Not that it will make any difference, but I hereby register my objection to the concert described on the right. (Hat tip: town crier)

It is false advertising for two reasons: First, people are going to think that the Rebbe will be there performing, where he will not. Second, people will be going to greet Mashiach Tzidkeinu, when MBD (Mordechai ben David) is clearly not.

Seriously, though, do the performers endorse this? Or are they unaware of this promotion? Do they think it does not matter? Perhaps the only way to counter it is to remove financial incentive to back this, by threatening to ignore such musicians in other venues, such that a backlash exists...

Update: I actually did register my objections. I just went to Lipa Schmeltzer's web site and left the following comment:
There has been some discussion on the web about this poster
for a concert you participated in.
Was this promotional material done with your authorization? That is, are you declaring the Rebbe zt"l to be mashiach?
Thank you for the clarification,
Josh Waxman
You can ask him a similar question at his web site. Click here.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Some Very Late Purim Torah

I was forwarded this as an email attachment recently. It is interesting in how it casts what would typically is viewed as a feminist issue as if it were a tzniyus issue. On the other hand, it highlights that that was not the reason for the innovation... The text of the email follows:

בעזהשי"ת, ועש"ק ואתה תצוה תשס"ז לפ"ק

הסירו מכשול מדרך עמי!!

הנה כבר נודע כמה נצטערו ראשונים כמלאכים על אודות המנהג הרע הזה המספחת אשר פשתה בישראל והיא כאש אוכלת ר"ל, אשר תבואנה נשים ובתולות לביה"כ לשמוע קריאת המגילה מאנשים ואם אמנם נתייגעו גדולי הדורות למצוא פתח להיתרא בזה (מתוך מה שנדחקו לומר בדרך שמא דלצורך מצוה שאני דליכא גירוי היצר כ"כ, ועי' במש"כ בזה בשו"ת הרחא"ך חאו"ח סי' כ"ח ס"ק ד' ובחאה"ע סי' ל' אות ב' ועוד במש"כ באורך בשו"ת הריעמ"ש ח"ב חאו"ח סי' ג' איברא יעוי"ש דלעניין פורים נותר בצ"ע) עכ"ז ודאי לא נתכוונו אלא ליישב המנהג בדוחק דבמקום דאי אפשר שאני ובפרט בדור פרוץ דאין שומעין להם דמוטב יהי' שוגגין וכו'.

על כן בואו ונחזיק טובה להני נשים צדקניות דפה עירנו ת"ו דנטלו עצה זו מזו להקים עולה של צניעות חכמות נשים בנתה ביתה לירוא גירא בעינא דשטן ובנות ישראל החמירו על עצמן דלא תהא אשה שומעת מגילה מאיש כי אם מאשה דווקא (הבקיאה בדקדוק המלות ובניגון הטעמים כמובן) ולא יתערבו אנשים ונשים לשמוע מגילה במקום אחד ואפילו מחיצה של ברזל מפסקת ביניהם, וכבר הסכימו על זה גדולי מקומן ונענעו להן בראשם ושיבחו והודו לשמן דכל מעשיהן כדת ולש"ש. אשרי העם שככה לו.

ועתה שמענו ותרגז בטננו כי יצאו אנשים בני בליעל פורקי עול ופורצי גדר לשלוח יד בזה התיקון הגדול ומבקשים להחזיר הגלגל לאחור לקלקולו של עולם להעמיד מחדש הערבוביא הנ"ל דיהא איש קורא לנשים.

אוי לאוזנים שכך שומעות!!

על הראשונים אנו מצטערין, דכבר נודע כמה צריך אדם מישראל להתחזק בימי הפורים הקדושים שלא לילך ח"ו אחר שרירות לבו הרע במעשי ליצנות וקלות ראש ר"ל כדרך דנהיגי אינשי דלא מעלי, והחי יתן אל לבו את כל תוקף קדושת הימים האלה להיות נזכרים ונעשים כדוגמת מעמד הר סיני ומ"ת ממש בבחינת קיימו וקבלו וגו' דהדר קבלוה כנודע, והיאך לא חשו לנפשם הני מקולקלין שבדור קלי עולם ריקים ופוחזים לאוסופי לן קלקול המדות להחזיר הנשים אל בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות לרקד השטן לפניהן ר"ל.

לפיכך אנו קורין בקריאה של חיבה לכל אנ"ש השומעין לנו להיקהל ולעמוד על נפשם מפני חמת היצה"ר אשר רבים חללים הפילה וגילו ברעדה לקיים את כל תוקף האיסור החמור הלז להיות כל איש שורר בביתו לראות ולהשגיח בהשגחה יתרה לבל יהין שום אשה לבוא אל הקודש פנימה לשמוע מגילה בביה"כ מאיש, והמרים יד בתיקון הנ"ל יהא בשמתא ולטותא דרבנן, ופורץ גדר ישכנו נחש, ושומע לנו ישכן בטח, ועי"ז יושפע שפע רב ובזכות נשים צדקניות נגאלו ישראל ונזכה כולנו יחד לישועה ולנחמה ולגאולה קרובה במהרה בביאת משיח צדקנו ובבניין בית מקדשנו בהר מרום הרים בב"א

Saturday, March 24, 2007

How to Convert Word Docs to PDFs Online

I've have to use this service a few times in the past few days to try to submit a paper for a computational linguistics conference, and I've been very happy with it.

You submit a Word document on your computer, specify a file name, and they email you a PDF of the document. It worked well with the Hebrew and the images in the document. And it is free.

Check it out:

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Welcome, "Biblical News Online," to the Blogosphere

Presenting Biblical News. So far, looks promising. The Beginning of one post:
25 Elul 0001
The Universe – Last night it was dark and I stubbed my toe. Light is good, but it goes further then that. Darkness is evil, and not just because my toe hurts.

Absolut Haggadah: What Do You Mean, It Would Have Been Enough Had God Stranded Us On The Shore of The Red Sea at the Mercy of the Egyptians? + My Take

The Absolut Haggadah (2007 edition) asks an obvious question. (By the way, you can download the Absolut Haggadah here. And see here for my short review and introduction.)

What do we mean that Dayyenu had God not split the Red Sea for us? This would have left us on the shore to be slaughtered by the Egyptians! Click on the image to see a larger screenshot.

I think that there are in fact two answers to it. Firstly, undermine the question. This is not about repercussions of God's actions or repercussions had He not acted. Rather, it is about emphasizing how many miracles Hashem did for us in the process of the Exodus. This is underscored by the fact that it continues by reiterating all these miracles immediately thereafter, without the dayenus, but with an introduction of Al Achas Kama veChama Tovah Kefulah emeChupeles laMakom Alenu. We are not meant to pause at this point and say, "this would have been enough," but rather, this miracle so far is more than we deserve.

Perhaps one can read Dayenu, it would have been sufficient cause for us to give praise.

Related, Kama Maalos Tovos laMakom Aleinu, introducing Dayenu, is quite likely not a question but rather an expression that there are so many.

My second answer buys into the premise of the question. "Had God given us their money (presumably when we 'borrowed' from the Egyptians in Egypt, rather than the spoils at the site of the shore of the Red Sea) and not split the Sea for us, it would have been enough."

But would that not leave us to be stranded on the side of the Reed Sea? Absolutely not! We would not have been at the shore of the Reed Sea to begin with! The only reason we were there in the first place was so that God would split the Sea, drown the Egyptians, etc.. This is not frummie talk or apologetics, but rather simple peshat in Chumash! Let us examine Shemot 14:
א וַיְדַבֵּר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
ב דַּבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיָשֻׁבוּ וְיַחֲנוּ לִפְנֵי פִּי הַחִירֹת, בֵּין מִגְדֹּל וּבֵין הַיָּם: לִפְנֵי בַּעַל צְפֹן, נִכְחוֹ תַחֲנוּ עַל-הַיָּם. 2 'Speak unto the children of Israel, that they turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal-zephon, over against it shall ye encamp by the sea.
ג וְאָמַר פַּרְעֹה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ; סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם, הַמִּדְבָּר. 3 And Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel: They are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.
ד וְחִזַּקְתִּי אֶת-לֵב-פַּרְעֹה, וְרָדַף אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וְאִכָּבְדָה בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל-חֵילוֹ, וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי יְהוָה; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן. 4 And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he shall follow after them; and I will get Me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.' And they did so.
ה וַיֻּגַּד לְמֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, כִּי בָרַח הָעָם; וַיֵּהָפֵךְ לְבַב פַּרְעֹה וַעֲבָדָיו, אֶל-הָעָם, וַיֹּאמְרוּ מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂינוּ, כִּי-שִׁלַּחְנוּ אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָבְדֵנוּ. 5 And it was told the king of Egypt that the people were fled; and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned towards the people, and they said: 'What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?
ו וַיֶּאְסֹר, אֶת-רִכְבּוֹ; וְאֶת-עַמּוֹ, לָקַח עִמּוֹ. 6 And he made ready his chariots, and took his people with him.
Thus, this was all God's design in the first place, to bring them to Yam Suf and then lead the through. We do not say "had Hashem led them to the Sea and then abandoned them, it would have been enough!" Rather, we say, "had Hashem given us their money (in Egypt) and not split for us the Sea, it would have been enough!"

We could have gone directly into the midbar, not made it look like the wilderness had shut us in, and proceeded directly to Har Sinai.

Perhaps something to include in next years' edition of the Haggadah.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 14b -- Why No Mourning on a Festival?

Moed Katan 14b reads:
אבל אינו נוהג אבילותו ברגל שנאמר ושמחת בחגך
אי אבילות דמעיקרא היא אתי עשה דרבים ודחי עשה דיחיד
ואי אבילות דהשתא היא לא אתי עשה דיחיד ודחי עשה דרבים
A mourner does not conduct himself in mourning on the Festival.

For it is written {Devarim 16:14}
יד וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, בְּחַגֶּךָ: אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. 14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates.
If it is mourning from before {the Festival}, the positive commandment of the many comes and pushes off the positive commandment of the individual. And if it is the mourning of now {once the Festival has begun}, the positive commandment of the individual does not come and push off the positive commandment of the many.
Note that there is an abrupt transition in language from the first line to the second line. The first line is in Hebrew: אבל אינו נוהג אבילותו ברגל שנאמר ושמחת בחגך -- well, the pasuk is Hebrew of course, but we also have the word נוהג with the internal vav for present tense, which would not be present in Aramaic {they would use a kametz}, we have the ending of אבילותו with a vav rather than yud heh, another mark of Hebrew over Aramaic, the ש of שנאמר rather than a daled, and the nifal form of שנאמר, another mark of Hebrew.

In contrast, the rest of the statement is pure Aramaic.
אי אבילות דמעיקרא היא אתי עשה דרבים ודחי עשה דיחיד
ואי אבילות דהשתא היא לא אתי עשה דיחיד ודחי עשה דרבים
You have אי for "if," daled rather than shin in words like דמעיקרא דהשתא, דרבים , דיחיד, the kametz aleph ending in words like דמעיקרא and דהשתא, verbs like אתי where the root is Aramaic, and אתי and דחי which have Aramaic verb patterns. Thus, it is clearly Aramaic.

Why does this matter? Just because it is then an apparently later elaboration in Aramaic on an earlier Hebrew (possibly Tannaitic) statement.

I would suggest that rather than the reasoning supplied by the setama digmara in Aramaic above, there is a straightforward derasha going on:

אבל אינו נוהג אבילותו ברגל שנאמר ושמחת בחגך
For it is written {Devarim 16:14}
יד וְשָׂמַחְתָּ, בְּחַגֶּךָ: אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ, וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. 14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates.
Note how the mitzva is rejoicing in the Chag. And the pasuk ends וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה, "and the fatherless, and the widow." Thus, even those who are just now deprived of their relative have an obligation of וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ.

Update: The above derasha I offered is unnecessarily complex and furthermore is false. I would suggest that the derasha is really as follows:

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ - And you shall rejoice in your Festivals, and not mourn in your Festivals.
Now who would I think would mourn in the Festival? Only a mourner. Thus, we have an explicit exclusion forbidding mourning during Festivals.

The whole give and take of the setama digmara does not read this derasha as an exclusion and as a derasha, but rather just takes it at face value, on the level of peshat. Thus, one has the standard commandment to rejoice, just as everyone else has. Therefore, the setama must resolve this generic positive commandment with the other general commandment for a mourner to mourn. And that is where I think the setama goes off in its explanation of the derivation of this law.

Introducing the Absolut Haggada

I know the folks behind it, but for now, they are staying anonymous. Download the haggadah here. {Updated to point to the most recent haggadah.} Here is the email I received regarding this:
A haggadah my Haburah worked on. If you like it, please pass it on. We would prefer to keep it anonymous but any questions, suggestions, critiques, or criticisms can be sent to:
Take care and have a Hag Sameach :)
An assessment of their general aims with this haggadah: They try to avoid fluffy, homiletic divrei Torah. They try to avoid vertlach. Where they ask famous questions, they try to get to the underlying peshat of what the haggadah is trying to say, what the basis of the derashot are, and what the haggadah is trying to accomplish at each step. Thus, they also provide an introduction to the structure of the haggadah, and introduce things as Rav's introduction and Shmuel's introduction, etc.. All done in a conversational style.

As mentioned above, they would like comments, and would like people to forward it to others, so feel free to do so.

Download the haggadah here.

Two Midrashim: Yocheved's Birth and Aharon's Striking the Nile

Continuing my series about midrashic literalism, I would like to consider two famous midrashim, where my intuition about their figurative/literal status is likely the opposite of the popular conception.

I am not going to cite these midrashim inside, and thus will not discuss every single input into formulated these midrashim. For example, there are 69 people listed, yet the pasuk says 70 went into Egypt. Bereishit 46:27:
כז וּבְנֵי יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר-יֻלַּד-לוֹ בְמִצְרַיִם, נֶפֶשׁ שְׁנָיִם: כָּל-הַנֶּפֶשׁ לְבֵית-יַעֲקֹב הַבָּאָה מִצְרַיְמָה, שִׁבְעִים. {ס} 27 And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two souls; all the souls of the house of Jacob, that came into Egypt, were threescore and ten. {S}

The midrash that suggests that it was Yocheved, who was born as they entered the gates, is based in part on Bemidbar 26:59:
נט וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת עַמְרָם, יוֹכֶבֶד בַּת-לֵוִי, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה אֹתָהּ לְלֵוִי, בְּמִצְרָיִם; וַתֵּלֶד לְעַמְרָם, אֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-מֹשֶׁה, וְאֵת, מִרְיָם אֲחֹתָם. 59 And the name of Amram's wife was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore unto Amram Aaron and Moses, and Miriam their sister.
with implication that she was only born but not conceived to Levi in Egypt. Thus, she is not numbered among them.

This has repercussions, such as: we calculate the 400 years of servitude in Egypt from Yitzchak, such that there are 210 years in Egypt (rather than an explicit pasuk stating 430, which would make it even more difficult). Moshe was born 80 years before the Exodus, and so Yocheved must be 130 when she gives birth to him.

This is a miracle, to conceive and give birth at such an age. True, there are precedents, such as Sarah who gave birth at 90, but then the pasuk states that this would be an extreme age, such that it was miraculous. Sarah laughed, after all. And would the verse omit such an astounding miracle? It must be figurative.

Yet. The pesukim do state that Amram married his aunt, daughter of Levi (though I have a radical way of resolving this, stated in another post). If she was born later, Levi must have fathered her later in life, and it still only stretches so far. Furthermore, there is a real, peshat-based impetus to this midrash - 69 people are listed, yet 70 is the number given. True, there is the irregularity of counting a daughter, but then, Serach bat Asher is listed among the 69. And saying that Yaakov is among the yotzei yerech Yaakov is plausible yet has its own difficulties. Further, the miraculous age of 130 for giving birth is not the start of the midrash, but only a side effect. And midrashim often have no difficulty assuming miraculous events, such as turning invisible to remain unseen by Pharaoh's soldiers. No. I would not take this miracle of birth in old age as proof positive that this midrash was not intended literally. It resolves practical narrative difficulties, and miracles are par for the course.

Of course, there is a thematic element worked into all of this. There are three suggestions for the identity of #70. It could be Yaakov. It could be Miriam. Or it could be, as a midrash has it, Hashem.

How so? A few pesukim earlier, in Bereishit 46:4, we had Hashem promise Yaakov to go in with him to exile, and to return:
ד אָנֹכִי, אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי, אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה; וְיוֹסֵף, יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ. 4 I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes.'
Thus, this is fulfillment of this promise, as Hashem enters Egypt with Yaakov. Another midrash states that 599,999 Israelite males left Egypt. Who was #600,000? Hashem entered into the count. Once again, this is Hashem fulfilling the promise to leave Egypt with him.

Still, Hashem is not a descendant of Yaakov, and, as with many midrashim involving Hashem, I am inclined to take it homiletically. (Perhaps yerech yaakov could be taken as a promise, as Eliezer promised Avraham, in which case it can work out.)

There is a similar theme, I think, to Yocheved being born as they entered Egypt. Yocheved was, after all, the mother of the redeemer. It is quite poetic for the potential for the redeemer to enter the world just as they enter the beginning of their exile, by entering the gates of Egypt. This is in keeping with Hashem's promise. It was not a promise really only of accompaniment , but of the fact that they would eventually get out of this servitude, and were not being abandoned forever to servitude in Egypt. This is aside from the derivations from various pesukim like Bemidbar and difficulties in counting, which I touched on earlier. The theme is also present, guiding interpretation.

Would this be homiletic, then? I would still say that there is enough to ascribe literalness to this midrash, or at least not dismiss it. Many a literal midrash plays into and develops a general theme. Still, realization of this theme enriches our understanding of this midrash.

The second midrash is that Aharon struck the Nile and the dirt because Moshe had hakarat haTov, to the Nile for hiding him and to the sand for hiding the body of the Egyptian. To this, there are no miracles attached. It merely ascribes a motivation to facts recorded in the pesukim. There may be a tendency to state that this was intended literally.

Yet, I would take this particular midrash figuratively or rather homiletically. Besides the fact that the Nile and the sand had no choice in the matter, and that it seems silly to act in gratitude to inanimate objects, we can consider other elements of the midrash. Is there a real problem that this is solving? Sure, there is an impetus to explain why certain actions were performed by Moshe and certain ones by Aharon. But this is not a "problem" in the same way that numbers not adding up is a problem. One can simply say to this, "Nu, nu. Aharon functioned as proxy, as his navi, several times, and there was some reason for this."

But further and actually foremost, the main goal of this midrash appears to be homily. The source text is pretext to teach the important lesson of having gratitude, such that we see that Moshe even had gratitude to inanimate objects, and to things which did not deliberately intend to do him good. We thus learn something about life rather than learning something about the narrative.

Thus, my inclination would be to label this homily.

Of course, there are aspects to both of these midrashim that might lead one to make another interpretation. The values here are fuzzy. But I thought that my judgments in assigning literalness or lack thereof to these midrashim might elucidate what sort of factors I assess.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Does Eliyahu haNavi Really Visit Every Seder?

So says JewishAnswers:
We believe that the Prophet Elijah will come to the Passover seder. He also comes to the ritual circumcision. We do not traditionally have an empty chair at the table, but a cup of wine for him. There is an empty chair at a circumcision. The reason is that there is a tradition that he never really died. You should read the prophets and read the story of Elijah. It is a fascinating and enlightening story. We believe that he comes to all of our happy occasions.
My attempt at debunking this, from September 2003:

After comparing it to Santa delivering presents to every good girl and boy, I write:
Informative is a gemara in Eruvin, daf 43a:
"These seven rulings were said on the morning of Shabbat before Rav Chisda in the city of Sura and were repeated in the afternoon of Shabbat before Rava in Pumpedisa. Who said them? Was it not Eliyahu {who could travel this distance in so short a time, which was more than the techum, and was flying and thus travelling over 10 tefachim from the ground}? Therefore derive that there are no techumin over 10 tefachim! No! Perhaps it was Yosef the demon who said it."

Thus, at least one problem - how Eliyahu could visit all of these Jewish houses if it means leaving the techum - is solved. There is also a basis for Eliyahu travelling really really fast.
:) :) :)
The continuation of the gemara is aso really interesting...check it out.

Disclaimer: Eliyahu doesn't really visit the Jewish homes on pesach night. I think this belief arose because we pour the Kos Shel Eliyahu, "Elijah's cup," immediately before getting up and opening the door to say "Shefoch Chamosecha," "Pour Out Your Wrath." It is called the Kos of Eliyahu because there is a dispute whether to pour and drink four or five cups of wine, a dispute which Eliyahu will come and resolve in Messianic times. In the meantime, out of doubt, we pour but do not drink. People see the pouring of "Eliyahu's Cup," saw we open the door, and made up that we are opening the door for Eliyahu who is coming to drink his cup.

Update: The gemara is actually proof by omission that Eliyahu does not visit every seder. After all, the gemara suggests that it was Yosef the demon who spread the message about the shev shma`ta, the seven rulings. The gemara lets this pass unchallenged as a refutation to the absolute proof that there is no techum over 10 tefachim. The gemara did not then say that Eliyahu visits homes on Passover night, which is a yom tov, and thus should be subject to techum. Thus, it seems that the amoraim/savoraim did not subscribe to the view that Eliyahu actually visits.
Bonus points if you can figure out why the image is appropriate to the Kos shel Eliyahu.

Eating Original Chazeret

There is an excellent article by Ari Zivitofsky in the Spring 2006 edition of Jewish Action. The article's title is "What’s the Truth about ... Using Horseradish for Maror?"

He talks about the history of maror, when horseradish as maror was first innovated, or else identified as maror:
Horseradish is first mentioned in rabbinic literature by Rabbi Eliezar ben Natan of Mainz (c.1090-c.1170) and the Rokeach, Rabbi Eliezer of Worms (c.1165-c.1230), both of whom refer to
it not as maror, but as an ingredient in charoset! Tosafot Yom Tov (Pesachim 2:6) and Hagahot Maimoniot (Chametz Umatzah 7:13) were among the earliest works to identify tamcha as horseradish.
and whether it is valid for maror.

What I consider the most important paragraph in the article:
Heading the list, and presumably the preferred item (according to many authorities, the Mishnah lists these items in order of preference), is chazeret. The Gemara identifies this as chasah, the modern Hebrew word for lettuce, and there is little doubt that the Mishnaic chazeret is lettuce (Lactuca sativa). Lettuce is a winter plant in Israel and thus was, and is, readily available in time for Pesach. Israel’s “wild lettuce” (Lactuca serriola) neither looks nor tastes like the lettuce sold in American supermarkets. It consists of a central stalk with loose, prickly dark green leaves; it continues to grow wild in Israel. The lettuce is bitter, especially as it ages, and when its stalk is cut, it oozes a considerable amount of white, bitter sap. Early cultivated lettuce had this same sap. It might be worthwhile when visiting Israel to seek out some wild lettuce and sample its bitterness.
Sounds like something worthwhile to get in time for next Pesach (to eat wrapped up with soft matza ;).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Indeed, there is Rif on Chagiga

When we finish Moed Katan, Daf Yomi moves on to Chagiga. Alas, there is no Rif on Moed Katan. Or Rosh, for that matter.

Or so it seems.

In fact, there is for both. It is simply very short and out of order. While Bavli has Chagiga after Moed Katan, Yerushalmi has it first. And so, that is where Rif and Rosh place it. Of course, not much is relevant halacha lemaaseh, and so we have only on Chagiga 18a.

Zecher Le-Mekadesh Kal-el

זכר למקדש כהלל

Thursday, March 15, 2007

parshat Chukat: Moshe as Progenitor of Rabbi Eliezer: A midrash I take figuratively!

So I was checking out Divrei Chaim the other day and I saw him posing a question about a midrash. He writes:
The Midrash teaches that Moshe Rabeinu began learning the halachos of parah adumah with Hashem. Hashem kavyachol recited the Mishnayos b’shem omro, beginning with the first Mishna in Parah, “R’ Eliezer omeir…” that a parah refers to a cow that is 2 years old. When he heard that Mishna, Moshe was so impressed by R’ Eliezer’s statement that he said he hoped to have a son just like him. This, according to the Midrash, is why Moshe Rabeinu’s son is named Eliezer.


The Midrash seems to be highlighting some aspect specifically of the words of Rabbi Eliezer which captivated Moshe Rabeinu. Why was Moshe captivated by Rabbi Eliezer and this halacha in particular more than any other Mishna or meimra in shas???
Before turning to address his question, I'd like to point out that this is the type of midrash which thematically feels homiletic. Although there is nothing miraculous here except for Moshe hearing Hashem when ascending Har Sinai, which is in the text of the Torah, I am far more inclined to believe that this was intended homiletically than I am to believe the same about the midrash that the angel Gavriel gave Vashti a tail.

Of course, Chazal were unabashedly anachronistic in matters like this, and perhaps they did intend this literally. I am not willing to dismiss this offhand, at least on considerations like anachronicity. This might intersect with issues like Elu veElu and how all positions of everyone was said on Har Sinai. However, the homiletic nature coupled with the anachronism is somewhat persuasive to me.

First, to clarify. Some points in the initial citation were off, assuming I understand the actual midrash correctly. In the comment section, I asked for a citation, and this is the midrash that was given, from Midrash Rabba on Chukat:

ז ר' אחא בשם ר' חנינא אמר בשעה שעלה משה למרום שמע קולו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שיושב ועוסק בפרשת פרה אדומה ואומר הלכה בשם אומרה ר' אליעזר אומר עגלה בת שנתה ופרה בת שתים אמר לפניו רבון העולמים יהי רצון שיהא מחלצי אמר לו חייך שהוא מחלציך הה"ד (שמות יח) ושם האחד אליעזר שם אותו המיוחד:

To translate:

R' Acha cited Rabbi Chanina: At the time that Moshe ascended on high {to Har Sinai} he heard the voice of Hashem sitting and engaging in the topic of the Red Heifer, and saying the law in the name of he that said it: "Rabbi Eliezer says: A calf is 1 year and a cow 2." He {Moshe} said before Him {Hashem}: Master of the Universe! May it be your will that he will be from my loins. This is what is written {Shemot 18:4}:
ד וְשֵׁם הָאֶחָד, אֱלִיעֶזֶר--כִּי-אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, וַיַּצִּלֵנִי מֵחֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה. 4 and the name of the other was Eliezer: 'for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'
That is, the name of that specific one {interpreting echad as hameyuchad}.

Thus, the initial account of the midrash was a bit off. Moshe does not name his son Eliezer after the Tanna, and he does not hope to have a son just like the Tanna.

Rather, he is wishing that Rabbi Eliezer will be his eventual descendant. This has nothing to do with Moshe's direct son Eliezer at all. Perhaps influencing this midrash was some genealogy of Rabbi Eliezer tracing himself to Moshe Rabbenu. I can only speculate on this score.

Now, on to the question. What specific element of Para Aduma, or of this law about Para Aduma, did Moshe find so fascinating such that he wished Rabbi Eliezer would he his descendant?

I would answer: Absolutely nothing. Rather, the idea is that he heard Hashem engaging in the laws of something, which would imply He started at the beginning of the topic. Thus, Hashem was reading Mishnayot. And for the purpose of the derasha, Rabbi Eliezer must be prominent. So in which topic is Rabbi Eliezer prominent? Masechet Para, of course. This halacha cited in the Mishna is the very first Mishna in the first perek of masechet Para! And unlike other Mishnayot where Rabbi Eliezer occurs, but there are first other words, here his name constitutes the very beginning of the Mishna. Thus, this masechta and this halacha are appropriate.

There is a further reason in that this Mishna is definitional. I elaborate on this at the end, when I discuss the lesson of the midrash.

Now that I've addressed that issue, there are two other issues I commonly address when treating a midrash. First, what is the derivation from the text, and especially what is the derivation of specific details not explicitly spelled out in the derasha. Second, if this midrash is homiletic or figurative, what tells me that, what theme is this part of, and what is the message of the midrash.

In terms of derivation of the midrash from the text, we saw much of it already. {Shemot 18:4}:
ד וְשֵׁם הָאֶחָד, אֱלִיעֶזֶר--כִּי-אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, וַיַּצִּלֵנִי מֵחֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה. 4 and the name of the other was Eliezer: 'for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.'
Thus, Moshe's son Eliezer is not intended, but rather someone else who is meyuchad. This is a rereading of the word echad, supported as well by the heh hayidiah implying someone known from elsewhere.

What about the detail that this person should be Moshe's descendant? Well, we are discussing Moshe's two sons on a peshat level, so an eventual descendant is within scope.

However, I think it is more than that. The derasha extends past the bolded red portion marked above, into the continuation of the pasuk. Why is this designated person Eliezer going to be a descendant? Because כִּי-אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, for Hashem will help me be his avi, his ancestor. Or the God of my forefathers will be my help. This, at any rate, takes care of the Yehi Ratzon aspect of the midrash. What about the choice of words in the midrash that he should be מחלצי, "from my loins?" To my mind, it is no accident that the next word in the pasuk is וַיַּצִּלֵנִי, perhaps even (but not necessarily) with the dagesh in the tzaddi being an assimilated chet, or else with the guttural eliding, or else with enough similarity of sound to be evocative.

Thus, we have produced many of the details of the midrash from close analysis of the text or (in the case of topic and halacha) as a matter of logic and pragmatics.

We can now turn to the final consideration, which is the message of this midrash.

I would classify this midrash as being of a kind with the famous Midrash (which I reproduce here without looking at it inside, so feel free to correct) of Moshe ascending on high and seeing Hashem attaching crowns to the letters. He asks Hashem what he is doing, and Hashem tells him that eventually, Rabbi Akiva would make derashot from those crowns. He shows Moshe Rabbi Akiva's Bet Midrash, and Rabbi Akiva gives a lecture that Moshe cannot follow, with all sorts of things Moshe does not know. Moshe is perturbed, but is comforted when Rabbi Akiva is asked for a source {update: for a certain halacha}, and he says "Halacha leMoshe miSinai!"

{How can it be halacha leMoshe miSinai if Moshe doesn't understand it? The principles are there, as are the crowns, etc.}
{Update: As pointed out in the comments below, only this last halacha is halacha lemoshe misinai. Thus at least something came from Moshe.
Still, there is the aspect that even that which Rabbi Akiva darshens was given to Moshe on Sinai in terms of the basis, by placing those crowns on the letters, etc.}

That midrash with Rabbi Akiva is clearly homiletic, and teaches a deep lesson about the nature of chiddush in Torah, about deriving from principles which exist from before even if something has not been explicitly formulated, of the relationship of chiddush to tradition, and of the authority of such derashot. We will not delve into the meaning here, but there are clearly methodological points that are being made in that midrash. Thus, the theme is homiletic. Perhaps they also intended it literally, but there is no need to say so, given the theme and the extra difficulty posed by the anachronicity.

The same is true over here with the midrash about Rabbi Eliezer, and the point being made is similar. Moshe ascends on high to receive the Torah. The Torah sheBichtav says Para Aduma. But what is the definition of a Para? So even back then, Hashem is engaging in learning Torah sheBaal Peh, in the form of the Mishna. The Mishna gives these definitions, and so Moshe knows it. It is not that Moshe received it and Rabbi Eliezer happened upon the same definition or received it via tradition. In this account, Rabbi Eliezer says it and because of that Moshe hears it, and yes! eventually perhaps it is a tradition received by Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer is master of Torah sheBaal Peh, which defines the parameters of what was in the Ketav, and without which Moshe would not know what to do. This is in line with the belief or philosophy that whatever a Talmid Chacham would suggest was given over to Moshe at Sinai.

Here, Moshe is enamored with these great definitions. He wants to be the ancestor of Rabbi Eliezer, perhaps physically but homiletically making Rabbi Eliezer his intellectual heir and putting his seal of approval on this Torah sheBichtav.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Considering Vashti's Tail and Esther's Green Skin

Both were the subjects of previous posts about whether to take midrashim literally or figuratively. Yesterday's discussion of Vashti's tail critiqued another approach as being at odds with the context set out explicitly in the gemara. The author case Vashti's tail as being emblematic of Vashti's outrage at the king's suggestion, while the gemara explicitly states that Vashti was a prutza, and of like mind with Achashverosh, except that she developed leprosy or that the angel Gabriel fashioned a tail for her, such that the implication was that she would have willingly displayed her body if not for embarrassment now that her beauty was marred. This highlighted a peril of interpreting midrashim figuratively -- if one proffers a figurative or allegorical explanation of a midrash, he should first try to see the midrash in its original context and see what themes Chazal are developing there. (I also discussed how Chazal's outlook might be such that a literal interpretation is not bad, and mentioned some approaches that allow us to simply disagree with narrative midrashim.)

In June 2006, I critiqued another figurative midrash essay, also based on a midrash on megillat Esther, which stated that Esther had green skin. I pointed out that the theme/figurative meaning the author developed as a possible interpretation of the midrash, namely that this was hidden Divine guidance, is in fact something that is explicitly mentioned in the text of the gemara, rather than something that needs to be tentatively suggested because of difficulties in believing that Achashverosh was from Mars and Esther was from Venus. Once again, looking at the original source and its context could have helped a lot. I pointed out as well, there, that is was likely that the midrash did not intend that Esther had green skin like a Venusian but rather that she had a sallow complexion, which while not pretty is perfectly normal. Indeed, just as the gemara derives Esther's complexion from hadas (willow, and from hadasa, her name), the term sallow derives from the myrtle (arava).

Thinking both midrashim over, we might be able to suggest a joint theme which prompted each midrash.

Firstly, while I emphasized context regarding Vashti's tail, it is important to note that while the gemara was an original context, it was not the only original context. The gemara weaves in the two midrashim about Vashti developing leprosy and about the angel Gabriel giving Vashti a tail into a larger midrashic tapestry of the king commanding that Vashti appear before him and his guests in the nude, and how Vashti was a prutza and given other circumstances would have wished to display herself in this manner.

However, as the gemara makes clear, these are citations of other sources to answer this difficulty. Megillah 12b:

אמר להם אחשורוש כלי שאני משתמש בו אינו לא מדיי ולא פרסי אלא כשדיי רצונכם לראותה אמרו לו אין ובלבד שתהא ערומה שבמדה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו מלמד שהיתה ושתי הרשעה מביאה בנות ישראל ומפשיטן ערומות ועושה בהן מלאכה בשבת היינו דכתיב אחר הדברים האלה כשוך חמת המלך אחשורוש זכר את ושתי ואת אשר עשתה ואת אשר נגזר עליה כשם שעשתה כך נגזר עליה ותמאן המלכה ושתי מכדי פריצתא הואי דאמר מר שניהן לדבר עבירה נתכוונו מ"ט לא אתאי א"ר יוסי בר חנינא מלמד שפרחה בה צרעת במתניתא תנא [בא גבריאל ועשה לה זנב

Thus, the (setama di) gemara asks why she would have refused to appear, given that she was a prutza. It answers based on two earlier sources. Thus, it cites Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina that something (some derviation, presumably from nigzar aleha as mentioned by Tosafot and a Yerushalmi) teaches that she developed leprosy.

(Alternatively, "this difficulty" of why she did not come teaches that she developed leprosy. But its reads better as a derivation from the text, because that seems to be the usual semantic role of melamed.)

And it offers another answer, from an earlier source, a brayta, that the angel Gavriel came and fashioned for her a tail.

Alas, we cannot examine the original context of these statements, and just have as evidence the way they are used in the gemara. Perhaps it was identical, perhaps not. We see how the gemara reads these midrashim. But, for example, the nigzar aleha pasuk which might be the source for the leprosy occurs in the megillah after the punishment, as the first verse in the second perek. Could it be that the derasha did not even intend to offer a reason for her not coming, but rather was simply describing her middah kineged middah punishment, and/or giving a reason that the king did not take her back? Thus, caution may be appropriate here. Even if it was a reason for her not to appear (which is how the gemara understands it), was the original context one that she was expected to appear in the nude? That is also not clear, and there is no way of resolving it.

However, I did notice a theme common to both Esther's "green" skin and the set of midrashim about Vashti developing leprosy or sprouting a tail. That is, the focus on divine intervention directing events behind the scenes as opposed to natural occurrence of events as a result of Vashti and Esther's beauty.

On the plain level of the text, Vashti's beauty is part of her downfall, for it prompts the king to appear before him and his guests to show off, and she refuses. Similarly, Esther's ascendancy to the throne is due to her exceptional beauty. Thus, וַתְּהִי אֶסְתֵּר נֹשֵׂאת חֵן, בְּעֵינֵי כָּל-רֹאֶיהָ.

Yet, there is a clear undercurrent in the text that all this is the hidden direction of God. It is evident in the coincidences that all fit together. It is evident most explicitly in Esther's call to have the Jews fast, such that her appearing before the king does not get her killed, as well as in Zeresh's pronouncement that Haman is fated to fall before the Jews. Chazal pick up on this theme and elaborate on it. This is what they do in the midrashim about Esther and Vashti.

God is cast as granter and remover of beauty, and it is that beauty and lack thereof that influences events. Thus, Vashti, the text notes, is exceptionally beautiful. Assume she was not to appear in the nude, but simply to impress everyone with her exceptional beauty. We still might understand why she could refuse, but let us assume that a beauty would not mind impressing everyone. (Or, if she was to appear nude, assume that she was a prutza, an exhibitionist. It is all the same.) Yet God is directing events behind the scenes, and He wishes for her to refuse to come before Achashverosh and his guests. God lowers the mighty and lifts the humble, and also grants and removes beauty at will. This is what this pair of midrashim is saying. Leprosy, especially in Tanach (or in midrashim), is often viewed as Divinely placed. Thus, Pharaoh gets leprosy for having Sarah in his palace. Naaman gets leprosy, and wants it removed by Elisha. Generally, leprosy has a ritual performed by a priest to remove it. Thus, it is no accident that just now she develops leprosy. Similarly, if she sprouted a tail, she did not develop this naturally. The brayta states that the angel Gavriel came and fashioned for her a tail. Thus, God, through his emissary, removes her beauty.

The opposite is the case for Esther. According to her midrash, she really was not so pretty, having a sallow complexion. Yet Hashem extended to her a chut shel chesed so that she appeared beautiful. Perhaps besides the derasha on her original name, Hadassa, the aforementioned phrase, וַתְּהִי אֶסְתֵּר נֹשֵׂאת חֵן בְּעֵינֵי כָּל-רֹאֶיהָ, implies that she was not intrinsically beautiful but rather just everyone who saw saw her chain. (Perhaps this is then the source of the shidduch description of someone as "full of chain.") Thus, this is God granting her beauty in order to advance the narrative and get her into the palace.

Am I Inconsistent In Ascribing Figurative or Literal Properties to Midrashim?

An anonymous commenter asked a good question on my previous post about the need to teach ikkarei emunah explicitly in schools. A student was asked by a bus driver whether Jews believed that God was corporeal, and he knew absolutely that the answer was "Yes" because of a midrash cited in the gemara that God wears tefillin which has written on it "Mi KeAmecha Yisrael Goy Echad BaEretz." To answer with such certainty, and without apparently knowing the default position of Rambam which occurs in Yigdal and Ani Maamin, immediately assuming the most literal of interpretations of this midrash and not seeing any potential problem with it betrays, in my opinion, a tragic ignorance of the ikkarei emunah.

But the anonymous commenter made a good point. Here is what he asked:
I don't understand why the God-has-a-body midrashim must be taken figuratively, but you are unwilling to do so for virtually any other midrash. What is the source for this distinction?

Indeed, it is a good question. Especially since everybody takes the Rambam about certain "impossible" midrashim, such as God having a body or a mountain or the moon talking, and extending it to anything they deem impossible, such as any miracle, or miracles which can be cast as silly, such Vashti having a tail. What basis do I have to make such a distinction, such that I subscribe to a figurative explanation for the former but not for the latter?

In fact, I do not exclusively reserve figurative interpretations to that narrow scope, and am willing to entertain it for any midrash or aggada. Indeed, in a critique of a recent post on Lazer Beams, I said that the aggada was indeed figurative. And indeed, I am willing to consider a literal interpretation for God-has-a-body midrashim.

However, in making the determination, I try (or at least I think I do) to base myself not on my own feelings as to the likelihood of the midrash being historically true (which I think is the most common stumbling block), but rather by what Chazal may or may not have held, and also by analyzing the context to get a sense of their intent and aims in stating the midrash.

This particular midrash has a very homiletic feel to it, in which explicitly the idea is that Israel's singular devotion to Hashem is matched by Hashem's singular devotion to his people. The midrash occurs on Berachot 6a, which is extremely relevant because where Rambam speaks of the idiots of his day who take certain midrashim literally, he explicitly refers to the midrashim he means, namely the ones in perek Chelek as well as the ones in gemara Berachot. Indeed, everything else aside, if I wished to merely appeal to authority, I could appeal to the Rambam in his introduction to perek Chelek and note the circumscribed domain to which he applied his statement (see inside).

But even without that, the character of the midrash has much to recommend it as homily.

The gemara reads:

א"ר אבין בר רב אדא א"ר יצחק מנין שהקב"ה מניח תפילין שנאמר (
ישעיהו סב) נשבע ה' בימינו ובזרוע עוזו בימינו זו תורה שנאמר (דברים לג) מימינו אש דת למו ובזרוע עוזו אלו תפילין שנאמר (תהילים כט) ה' עוז לעמו יתן ומנין שהתפילין עוז הם לישראל דכתי' (דברים כח) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה' נקרא עליך ויראו ממך ותניא ר' אליעזר הגדול אומר אלו תפילין שבראש א"ל רב נחמן בר יצחק לרב חייא בר אבין הני תפילין דמרי עלמא מה כתיב בהו א"ל (דברי הימים א יז) ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ ומי משתבח קוב"ה בשבחייהו דישראל אין דכתיב (דברים כו) את ה' האמרת היום <וכתיב> וה' האמירך היום אמר להם הקב"ה לישראל אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם שנאמר (דברים ו) שמע ישראל ה' אלהינו ה' אחד ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם שנאמר ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ אמר ליה רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי תינח בחד ביתא בשאר בתי מאי א"ל (דברים ד) כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול (דברים לג) אשריך ישראל (דברים ד) או הנסה אלהים (דברים כו) ולתתך עליון אי הכי נפישי להו טובי בתי אלא כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול דדמיין להדדי בחד ביתא אשריך ישראל ומי כעמך ישראל בחד ביתא או הנסה אלהים בחד ביתא ולתתך עליון בחד ביתא וכולהו כתיבי באדרעיה:


At any rate, my response to him was more elaborate and broader than the above, and it is a shame to leave it in the comments, unseen by anyone, so I reproduce it here:
It's a good question that deserved asking. Correspondingly, my response will need to be lengthy and non-trivial. Thus, I'll get to the issue of midrash in a while. Bear with me, please.

Indeed, this is what I meant in referring to Marc Shapiro's book. Rambam is by no means the only possible position one can take on the issue of God's corporeality. It is, however, the most widely accepted in the educated Jewish world as a rough *default* position. I addressed this a bit in my post on "The Outer Limits of Orthodox Theology.".

To be as objective as possible, I would note that as to the issue of God's corporeality or lack thereof, there are a number of things to evaluate separately.

a) The objective reality - is God corporeal or not.
b) The Biblical conception of God's corporeality (assuming this is consistent across Tanach).
c) The Pharisee conception of God's corporeality.
d) The approach of various medieval Jewish commentators, kabbalists, and other rabbis as to God's corporeality or lack thereof.

Perhaps a=b=c=d, or perhaps there is some gap.

As to (a), I must profess ignorance. I can try to get a handle on (a) by drawing conclusions about (b), (c), and (d).

In terms of Biblical conception of God's corporeality or lack thereof, we have evidence such as a possible careful reading Vayera that goes against the traditional midrashic (and thus Pharisee) interpretation which would have God in human form accompanied by *two* angels visit Avraham. We have things like Yeshaya's prophecy, which might be taken literally. We have the fact that Adam was created betzelem Elokim. This *might,* or might not, show that God either *always* has human form or can assume human form at will.

On the other hand, while that may or may not be peshat in those instances, there are other references to Divine anatomy that, even or especially on a peshat level, are to be taken allegorically. Knowing to take something allegorically is a hard thing to prove - it involves developing a sense of the text and a sense of Biblical style. Thus, it is an art as much as a science. But when I see the Egyptian magicians say that something that they cannot perform is "the Divine finger," and see that the writing on the Ten Commandments was also written with "the Divine finger," I can make an assessment that this is an idiom connoting wondrousness and something outside of typical human experience, and can assess that it does not mean that God literally engraved in the luchot with His Mighty Pinky.

Similarly, when Biblical *poetry* praises Hashem for mighty deed by calling Him an Ish Milchama, I don't take this as evidence of corporeality but rather correctly understand it as poetic allegory.

The same for Yad Hashem, where the connotation is mightiness.

This has nothing to do with whether other instances may or may not intend to ascribe corporeality to God. It is about getting a feel for the theme of the text and what role the specific phrase plays. And in this, I find Rambam fairly convincing on the level of peshat about many of the descriptions of God.

This, of course, does not necessarily mean that early Chazal held the same conception that I do (whatever conception I may have) or even one that is equal to the Biblical perspective.

Once again, in order to determine what Chazal meant, we need to examine the context of their statements and decide whether corporeality was intended.

My criticism of the student on the bus, of his friend, and of the school was not based on the particular conclusion he came to about God's corporeality or about the meaning of that midrash. Rather, in order to come up with this "proof" of God's corporeality, and be so utterly convinced so as to respond earnestly to the Christian bus driver about this as the Jewish position, you must be utterly aware of the position of the Rambam on this statement. You must be unaware that the Rambam would take issue with such a literal interpretation of this midrash, and would provide an allegorical one. Rather, you would hear a midrash in the gemara, not wrestle with any theological issues whatsoever, not consider any cues within the midrash itself that it is allegorical (I'll get to that in a moment), but simply take it at its utmost face value.

That reflects a tragic level of ignorance of ikkarei emuna.

Now, to determine what Pharisee Chazal held about God's corporeality, we have to assess various sources. Perhaps they were unanimous in their assessment of this issue, or perhaps not.

If they were unanimous, we can perhaps take certain statements of Pharisaic Chazal that seem to decry statements of God's corporeality/visibility as heretical. Thus, see my post on parshablog here about the tragic death of the prophet Isaiah. He was killed by King Menashe on the assumption that his statements contradicted the Torah, for he claimed to see Hashem. Of course, one can take this many ways. We would need to go through all various statements and see whether there is unambiguous rejection of corporeality anywhere.

However, we could or should take each midrash independently as well, and see from content and context if we can assess whether it was intended literally or figuratively.

In the context of this particular midrash, there are certain poetic elements inherent in God matching Israel's devotion to Him and Him alone by wearing parallel tefillin that describe His devotion to them and them alone as a nation, that strongly suggests that an allegorical interpretation is due here.

This is not due to my own conceptions about God's corporeality or lack thereof, but an assessment based on features of the midrash itself. It calls out to me "darsheni!"

Also, while I often argue against midrashim being taken figuratively, as I tried to stress, this is not to say that I would not often find allegorical interpretations the most compelling.

However, the criteria for deciding a midrash's literalness or figurativeness must be (or so I posit) internal factors, rather than external factors such as what one (in modern times) would like to believe.

Recently, I wrote a post about whether Rav Nachman predicted Erez Lavanon's murder. In the course of that post, I noted that a cryptic statement in the gemara had features that would lead one to take it allegorically. See there for what I mean. But this must be done carefully, on a case by case basis.

And when one proffers an allegorical explanation, one should first take care to understand the midrash in context, see what features/themes of the text are being picked up on, and offer an explanation in line with that, rather than just making one up off the cuff.

Good News For Muslims: The Moshiach Crossword Trick Identifies Muhammad as the Moshiach!

As a quick followup to yesterdays post about how the "Moshiach code" is silly, I thought I would point out that at much as Rav Nachman of Breslov is related to Mashiach, so is Muhammad. Here is Rav Nachman:

















And here is Muhammad:

















Hopefully this won't convince anyone to convert.



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