Torah Musings Fri, 17 Apr 2015 20:00:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Good Enough? Fri, 17 Apr 2015 18:05:30 +0000 be goodby Dr. Erica Brown

“You shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord…”
Deuteronomy 6:18

This week I spoke with someone on the phone who asked me several questions about Sabbath observance. He told me he found it interesting but was raised as a Catholic and is now lapsed. “I don’t really believe in any religion. I don’t have a faith. I raise my kids with one principle.” Naturally I was curious and asked him to share his singular distilled value. “It’s simple: don’t be a jerk.” I couldn’t help it. “John, if you don’t mind my saying, that’s quite a low bar.”

His principle was not entirely unexpected. I frequently hear that there is no reason to keep strict adherence to any rigid set of laws. “I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?” Naturally the minute someone advertises his or her own goodness, I am instantly suspect.

Who defines goodness anyway? Often it’s a mask for an arbitrary determination of moral stasis. Good is wherever I am and whatever I am doing. The Hebrew Bible has some choice words for this kind of ethical anarchy: “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes…” (Deuteronomy 12:8). The book of Judges ends with a civil war and a description of what happens when there is no leadership: “In those days Israel had no king so everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 21:25). When every person has his or her own prescription for goodness it often means that there is no reigning expectation of what constitutes that unique combination of compassion, kindness and justice that goodness is. It becomes descriptive of where you are rather than aspirational of where you might one day be if you work hard on it.

John’s principle reminded me of something I first read decades ago that was fundamental to my own thoughts about traditional observance. In their seminal work, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin also challenged those who think being good is good enough without necessarily defining goodness.

“When asked to define a good person, these people answer ‘someone who doesn’t hurt anybody.’ We are convinced that most people define a good person as one who does not hurt anyone. This definition is as wrong, however, as it is popular. A person whose conduct consists of not hurting anyone is not good; such a person is merely not bad. To be a good person is the active pursuit of good.”

Simply not being a jerk is not asking enough of what humanity is capable of achieving with intention and moral energy. This week we’ve been given a little lift in this effort. David Brooks’ new book The Road to Character is finally out. There he writes that “we live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to achieve an inner life.” Life has often taught us to be overconfident about moral character and unprepared for what really matters. It would be better to say, “I don’t know what goodness is” than to label ourselves as instantly good and then always suffer the deficiency.

Telushkin and Prager remind us: “You do not have to do something bad in order to do bad; you only have to do nothing. This is why Judaism consists of so many positive laws of goodness.” We have to teach ourselves to refrain from gossip, to visit the sick, to attend to the poor, to mourn with those who are grieving, to sacrifice for charity.

Maybe you’re good. If you assigned yourself that label, make sure you’ve earned it. There is plenty of literature by atheists who are trying in earnest to work out a shared moral code without God. But if that is not you, then ask yourself  – when it comes to a tough and enduring moral compass, are you really good enough?

(Note: Posted on Friday but may be automatically e-mailed out on Shabbos, outside of editorial control)

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Daily Reyd Fri, 17 Apr 2015 12:34:32 +0000
Shafran: Challenges to Tranquility
Responsa From the Holocaust
The Guide to Early Shabbat!
A Brief History of Mikveh in the Ghettos
Having Gay Friends Changes Evangelicals’ Minds on Marriage, But Not Morality
Out in the Open
▪ Navigating this was one of my biggest challenges in leaving yeshiva for the workplace: Brooks: When Cultures Shift
Hoffman: The KosherSwitch – Were Rabbonim Misled? And A Halachic Analysis

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Prophecy, Soothsaying, and the Line Between Them Fri, 17 Apr 2015 01:30:36 +0000 by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 12, part 3

Ran sees prophecy as the antidote to sorcery, as its replacement. He references here his earlier comments in the fifth Drasha, that Hashem chose Egypt as the site of the slavery so that Moshe’s prophecies would happen in the center of world sorcery. Defeating their sorcerers demonstrated that prophecy is a superior, entirely different phenomenon.

Prior essays in this series

That would imply that Jews are not supposed to utilize sorcery. However, Chullin 95b has Rav judging the propitiousness of travel by how easily he found a river-crossing, which seems like a form of divination. Ran answers that Rav didn’t fully rely on those signs; if the signs were bad, he’d take greater care, seeking ways to avoid the predicted misfortune, but he wouldn’t refrain from travelling. He used it to inform his trip, not determine it.

That answer does not work for two cases, that of Eliezer deciding Rivkah was the right wife for Yitzchak (Bereshit 24:12-18) and Yonatan’s attacking the Plishtim based on their reaction to seeing him (I Shmuel 14:8-10).

Or Psychological Insight?

Ran answers that in both cases, the protagonists set up signs that were sensible, not sorcery. Eliezer knew two facts about his search for a wife for Yitzchak: 1) The Divine Providence of Avraham allowed his slave confidence that Hashem would help him find the right woman, and 2) character was a central qualification for Yitzchak’s wife. He could figure out her character, largely, by her response to his request for water. An ordinarily nice woman might draw for him; volunteering to draw for the camels as well would show her to be kind and caring.

Yonatan, Shaul’s son, was similarly setting up a way to gain psychological insight into his enemies. If the Plishtim were confident and courageous, they would jump to engage him in battle as soon as they saw him. If they were anxious and therefore vulnerable, they would delay the engagement, taunting him to come to them so they could kill him.

Except that Rav held these up as the paradigm of prohibited divination. Ran argues that that meant only that these two fully relied on their conclusions; one who does that with divination would be violating the prohibition. With that, he can bring us back to the question of prophecy which, for Ran, was there to replace all of this.

Ways of the Emorites

Such practices are labeled דרכי האמורי, ways of the Emorites; they don’t involve worship, but finding ways to ascertain or protect the future by consulting with forces other than Hashem. It reminds us that many authorities, including Rambam and Ran, thought alien worship started with our insecurity, our desire to ensure our future. Worship was one way; another was to consult such powers for insight, even when not asking them to change it.

Complicating matters, some ways of finding out the future are permitted. Rambam’s view is that anything which operates according to העיון הטבעי is permissible (in Mishneh Torah, Rambam speaks of that which doctors say works). We might translate that as science, the study of the natural world, but today we’d have to differentiate between science which uses the scientific method to draw evidence-based conclusions and science which speculates beyond what its evidence shows. Those latter might not qualify as having been realized by העיון הטבעי.

We don’t have to get into that, because Ran has a broader definition. He notes that Shabbat 67a allows carrying certain items to avoid certain problems (the details don’t matter), and then reciting a protective verse. The other side of that page allows more such apparently non-scientific and not obviously natural remedies, such as wearing the tooth of a wolf or a nail from a crucifixion.

Discernible, Natural, and Supernatural

Ran’s view is that nature has two modes, the discernible, whose processes we easily see—apply this salve to that wound, and it heals—and nature, whose workings we do not understand. His examples are gravity and magnetism, which were clearly natural but operated in ways and for reasons that were unknown.

When Abbaye and Rava said that anything that is done for medicinal reasons is not considered part of the ways of the Emorites, Ran now concludes, they meant anything which the person involved believes he or she is doing for naturally medicinal reasons. They may think that it works in a way science could not explain, but as long as they think they are working within the natural world, that will not be prohibited.

Ways of the Emorites are those actions where the result comes from contacting supernatural powers, and having them provide information and/or protection from a feared future. If a person believes Hashem made the world such that wearing garlic or an amulet heals or protects from illnesses, they may be in error, but they will not be violating the ways of the Emorites, according to Ran. But if they think they are bringing to bear supernatural powers, that’s the ways of the Emorites and the ways of alien worship.

This is a complicated question and a complicated claim (it allows for all sorts of views, as long as they say that’s “really” how the world works), but Ran doesn’t leave us much room to delve into it. In his view, motive becomes centrally important. As long as one believes one is functioning naturally (even if I came to that conclusion by listening to one or a community of quacks), I am not violating these Torah prohibitions.

Proving Prophets

But his main concern was prophets, whom Hashem sent to obviate the need for those ways of knowing or being confident in the future. Prophets, though, need authentication. As he’s said before, Devarim 18:15’s reference to Hashem establishing prophets כמוני, “like me,” indicates that future prophets will be verified as Moshe was, through signs and wonders.

Yes, Moshe also took them to Sinai, but that was to establish the permanent legislation of the Torah. Later prophets do not have any impact on the Torah’s law, in commands or interpretations. Prophets can only make temporary rules, as did Moshe in Egypt, and his power to do that was based on the signs and wonders he performed. So, for Ran, later prophets who perform miracles are to be believed, unless they’re falsified by having one of their good predictions fail to materialize.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

Ran sort of stops here, ending the Drasha with a bracha to Hashem, but no overall conclusions. Taken together with the last drasha, he’s rounded out his consideration of the three central guides to a Jewish society—king, court, and prophet. Especially in fleshing out the role of the prophet, Ran brought us back to issues of what is natural and what isn’t, which seem to me the central questions for the book as a whole.

We’ll summarize that next time, a quick roundup of this series, a five minute version of Drashot haRan.

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Tefillin Klaf Not Same As Mezuzah Klaf Thu, 16 Apr 2015 23:25:52 +0000 Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

Rav Soloveitchik noted that being an Am HaNivchar, we must always be aware that Jewish chosen ness is a function of two different historical events. HaShem’s choice of the Avot- Avraham Yitzchak and Ya’akov and His choice of the Jewish Nation on Har Sinai are uniquely different events.

The Rav compared the Brit [covenant] with the Avot as the process of “ibud” [work process of converting the skin of animal into parchment] wherein parchment is treated in order to render it suitable for writing a Sefer Torah on it, and he compared the Brit at Har Sinai as to writing the letters of the scroll itself.

There are two types of “ibud” which a Sofer [Scribe] must adhere to. For Mezuzah, the ibud is performed on the inner, hairless side of the parchment [known as duchsustus], the side that touches the animal’s flesh and muscle. This ibud corresponds to our efforts in controlling desire and passion, which results in protection of our inner selves, just as the Mezuzah protects the interior of one’s home.

By contrast, the ibud of Tefillin is performed on the outer, hairy side of the parchment [know as KLAF], the side that interfaces with the world. This ibud parallels our efforts to develop empathy toward others, symbolized by Tefillin, which highlights the link between HaShem’s unity and Jewish nation’s unity- “Umi Ke’amcha Yisrael, Goy Echad Ba’Aretz”- “who is like Your nation, Yisrael, a one and only distinguished, unified nation in the world”.

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Daily Reyd Thu, 16 Apr 2015 12:37:49 +0000
Hazony: What Are Jewish Conservatives Trying to Conserve?
Serving God by Serving Country
Israel And The Art Of Appreciation
Smearing Sexual Orientation Change
Ted Cruz woos Orthodox Jews
▪ This statement concerns me: “Halakhic Judaism is at a crossroads, new realities confront us with new challenges. To authentically address them important conversations need to happen, some of Halakha’s principles need to be assessed and reevaluated.”: Conclusion – Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and Rabbi Ozer Glickman
▪ Bad title, good article: Finkelman: Sex in Public Among Religious Zionists
Sports Illustrated Profiles Orthodox NCAA Basketball Player Aaron Liberman

(Sorry for the technical difficulties. I’m still trying to master a new phone.)

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The Explicit and Non-Explicit Dietary Laws Thu, 16 Apr 2015 01:30:29 +0000 dietby Rav Elchanan Samet

A. The Sequence of Dietary Laws in Parashat Shemini

Chapter 11 of Vayikra, which concludes Parashat Shemini, deals entirely with the laws of animals on two levels: which animals are forbidden or permitted for consumption, and the carcasses of which animals render one tamei (ritually impure) upon contact. I devoted my essay to Parashat Shemini in 5760 to an analysis of the structure of this chapter and the relationship between its two topics, the laws of consumption and the laws of tum’a. In the present discussion, I will concentrate on the laws of consumption presented in this chapter and consider both that which the Torah mentions explicitly and that which the Torah chooses to omit.

The various species of creatures whose consumption the Torah prohibits or permits are divided into five categories, addressed by the Torah in five separate sections:

  1. Verses 2b-8: “Behemot” and “chayot” (land mammals) possessing the “simanim” (signs) of kashrut, which may be eaten, and a list of the four forbidden animals which have but one of the signs.
  2. Verses 9-12: Fish possessing the signs of kashrut, which may be eaten, and the prohibition against all sea creatures that lack these signs.
  3. Verses 13-19: The list of the twenty birds forbidden for consumption.
  4. Verses 20-23: The prohibition against eating all “sheretz ha-of” (winged swarming creatures), besides the four mentioned.

The fifth section comes at the end of the chapter, after the Torah outlines all the laws of tum’a relevant to the various creatures whose carcasses generate tum’a:

  1. Verses 41-45: The prohibition against eating all “sheretz ha-aretz” (swarming insects), including all its various types.

We thus have before us a description of the entire animal kingdom, divided into five categories. By what principles of categorization did the Torah divide the animal kingdom? At its core, this categorization is a practical one; it classifies the creatures based on where they live, the factor that determines the nature of man’s encounter with them. This classification does not always correspond with the method of classification generally employed by modern zoology. Thus, for example, the final creature mentioned in the list of forbidden birds is the bat—a flying mammal.

How does our chapter arrange these five groups of creatures?

The standard employed is the quantitative relationship within each category of animals between the species permissible for consumption and those forbidden to eat. The first half of the chapter (verses 2-23) begins, “These are the creatures THAT YOU MAY EAT.” Meaning, the Torah here comes to teach us which animals are permitted for consumption within each category presented in this chapter. The prohibition against eating the other creatures of every category is taught (either explicitly or by implication) parenthetically, alongside the permissible animals.

I suggest that the Torah arranges the various sections in accordance with the proportion that exists within each between the permitted and forbidden creatures. The larger the group of permissible animals in a category, the earlier that category’s discussion appears in the chapter. It must be noted, however, that this proportion is not mathematical or statistical, but rather depends on the manner in which it is presented in the verses within each section. A survey of the five sections will help clarify this point:

  1. The first section deals with the group of animals that have split hooves and chew their cud. This entire group is permitted for consumption, with the exception of the four animals that lack one of these criteria, which the verses list by name.
  2. The second section deals with water animals. Here the Torah mentions not one creature by name, giving only the necessary criteria for a fish’s permissibility – the presence of fins and scales. This description gives the impression of an equation of sorts: many water creatures possess these features, whereas many others do not.
  3. The third section lists the names of the twenty forbidden birds, and mentions by name not one permitted bird. We are thus left with the impression that a sizeable portion of all birds are forbidden for consumption.
  4. The fourth section initially prohibits all winged insects, before proceeding to list the four permissible ones, which the Torah mentions by name and features. The structure of this section is thus inverse to that of the first section, where all creatures with certain criteria are permitted with the exception of four, which differ from the others with regard to one of the criteria. Here, the Torah forbids all creatures classified as “sheretz ha-of,” with the exception of the four species which possess different features than the others.
  5. The fifth section categorically forbids the entire group of “sheretz ha-aretz,” without exception. This final section does not really belong under the title, “These are the creatures that you may eat,” since no creature in this category may be eaten. For this reason, perhaps, the Torah places this section at the end of the chapter, as an addendum of sorts to the main body of this discussion.

B. Significance of the Criteria for the Kashrut of Animals

In the first category, “beheimot” and “chayot,” the Torah establishes two criteria that determine the animal’s permissibility: split hooves and the chewing of the cud. Wherein lies the significance of these two signs, and do they have any relationship to one another?

In Masekhet Chullin (59a), the Gemara connects these two signs not only to one another, but to other criteria as well:

Any animal that does not have teeth on top – we know that it chews its cud and has split hooves, and is permissible.

Later (59b), the Gemara cites a baraita in the name of Rabbi Dosa:

If it has horns, one need not check its hooves [to see if they are split].

It thus emerges that FOUR features characterize kosher animals, two of which are mentioned in the Torah, and two added by the Sages, and all four are somehow related to one another: split hooves, chewing of the cud, the absence of upper teeth, and horns.

What is the developmental relationship between these four characteristics of the kosher animals? Animals with these features are completely vegetarian, feeding strictly off grass. With regard to all their bodily systems, they differ drastically from animals of prey.

Let us first explain the relationship between the cud-chewing and the absence of upper teeth. These two features both involve the digestive system. The grass and plants off which these animals feed contain large quantities of cellulose, which is hard for the body to digest. Even among the vegetarian animals, not all of them can digest grass. Animals that chew their cud have the most effective system for the digestion of materials such as grass and straw. Their stomachs consist of four compartments in which the process of digestion (meaning, the softening and breaking-down of the food) occurs in stages. While grazing in the field, the animal must swallow a large amount of grass in a short period of time and leave quickly, as the open field is a dangerous place and invites animals of prey. Using its tongue, the animal quickly picks up a bundle of grass and swallows it with hardly any chewing. The upper cartilage, with has no incisors, helps the animal quickly soften the food before swallowing. As stated, this takes place without chewing, which would take a considerable amount of time. At this point the animal leaves the pasture to a safer location, where, in the tranquil security of its concealed area, it brings the food from the stomach to its mouth, chews it, and swallows it again for the continuation of the digestion process in the second stomach, and so forth.

This vegetarian lifestyle requires the animal to wander over vast distances to gather a sufficient quantity of fodder. At times, the animal must embark on long excursioor run for an extended period of time to escape from its foes. The hoof – the horn-like sheath covering the toe, several centimeters thick – allows for easier foot travel over long distances. A hoof split into two (= two toes, each with a hoof) gives the animal greater flexibility in climbing and gripping onto otherwise slippery rocks.

It turns out, then, that both the digestive mechanism as well as the travel patterns of these animals suit their culinary needs and need to flee from threatening creatures of prey. However, these very mechanisms deny them two important means of defense used by other animals: they lack fangs to bite attackers, and nails to scratch them. They have therefore been granted a unique, alternate means of defense—horns, which they use to gore their enemies.

It would therefore appear that the permissibility of these animals relates to their lifestyle. The features described by the Torah (in addition to those mentioned by Chazal) testify to the fact that these animals are completely vegetarian, as distant as could be from the lifestyle of beasts of prey.

The same applies to the kashrut of birds. The vast majority of the forbidden birds listed in our parasha are birds of prey. Indeed, the Gemara comments in Masekhet Chullin (59a),

“The signs of [kosher] birds were not stated, but the Sages said: Every bird of prey is forbidden.”

C. The Torah Prohibition of Cannibalism

What is the status of human flesh with respect to its consumption? Such a question obviously arouses justifiable unease; it is hard to imagine a situation where this issue becomes practically relevant. Sure enough, nowhere does the Talmud address this question. But this is a fundamental question that a discussion about the nature of the Torah’s dietary laws and their scope cannot ignore. Indeed, the Rambam does address this question, in spite of the dearth of earlier source material on the subject. He writes (Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurot 2:3):

The human being, though it is said about him (Bereishit 2:7), ‘Man became a living beast’ [possibly implying that he is technically considered an ‘animal’], is not included with the species of hoofed animals. He is therefore not included in the prohibition, and so someone who eats the meat of a person or his fat, from either a live or dead [person], does not receive lashes.

Halakha teaches that the human being cannot be classified together with the camel, hare, rabbit or swine, nor with any other creatures that lack the required criteria. The prohibition against partaking of their meat therefore does not apply to cannibalism.

Excluding the human being from the animals that lack signs of kashrut can yield a paradoxical result: specifically the unique stature of the human being serves as the reason why no Torah law forbids the consumption of his flesh.

But the Rambam, followed by several other Rishonim, was not prepared to accept this conclusion, and he therefore struggled to find a basis for prohibiting the consumption of human flesh even on the level of Torah law. In the aforementioned halakha, he adds:

But it [human flesh] is prohibited based on an asei (‘positive’ commandment), for the verse (Devarim 14:4) enumerates seven species of animals, and about them it says (in Vayikra 11:2), ‘These are the animals that you may eat,’ implying that anything else we should not eat. And a prohibition resulting from an asei [‘lav ha-ba mi-khlal asei’] is an asei.

It should be noted that this position of the Rambam has no explicit source in Chazal, and appears to be an independent extrapolation of the Rambam from the biblical verses.

According to the Rambam, this prohibition has nothing at all to do with the lack of the prerequisite criteria; after all, the verse he cites (“These are the animals…”) comes before the Torah’s introduction of the simanim. Rather, the prohibition results from the exclusion of human flesh from the general group of creatures whose meat the Torah permitted. The Rambam thereby appears to circumvent the problem. The prohibition against cannibalism does not evolve from the human being’s lack of the required indicators of kashrut, but rather from a technical reason – because the Torah did not include the human being in its list of permissible creatures.

Many Rishonim disagreed with the Rambam and raised difficulties with his position. Only a few Rishonim accept his stance and attempt to resolve these questions.

D. The Absence of an Explicit Prohibition Against Cannibalism

How, then, can we explain this astonishing phenomenon, that the Torah issues no explicit prohibition against the consumption of human flesh? This problem becomes particularly difficult in light of the painstaking detail with which the Torah specifies the laws concerning the various creatures on the basis of its classification of the animal kingdom. It details the different criteria required for the various groups of animals and lists by name dozens of creatures. Particularly the human being itself, the subject of all these instructions, does it ignore!

Twice in his beautiful work, “The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” Rav Kook zt”l mentions the attitude of humanity towards cannibalism. At the end of paragraph 6 (page 12), he writes that as a result of the permission granted to Noach after the flood to partake of animal meat, “proper man” reacts with “natural disgust” to the notion of eating human flesh, and in paragraph 4 (page 9) he writes that because of this natural revulsion,

The Torah therefore had no need to write an explicit prohibition in this regard, for a person does not need a warning with regard to that towards which he has already acquired a natural sense, which is as good as explicit.

He seems to mean not only that the Torah felt no need to issue such a prohibition, but that such an explicit warning would be inappropriate.

In my essay on Parashat Kedoshim in 5760, I asked why Chazal rejected the literal meaning of the verse, “Do not put a stumbling block before a blind man” (Vayikra 19:14), and adopted instead a metaphoric interpretation. The literal meaning of the prohibition refers to abuse for abuse’s sake, capitalizing on the handicap of a helpless invalid – a blind man who cannot see. I answered that it is implausible that the Torah would issue a prohibition against such sadistic conduct. The Torah works under certain basic assumptions concerning the moral level of its intended audience, and it therefore does not forbid behavior that falls short of this minimal ethical standard. An explicit prohibition outlawing such conduct assumes the possibility of its occurrence on the part of the Torah’s audience, which would constitute a harmful expression of mistrust.

The same applies to our issue. The Torah does not presume that its intended audience needs to hear a warning against cannibalism. An explicit prohibition of this kind would be damaging in two respects. First, as mentioned, it would demonstrate a degree of mistrust in the audience to which the Torah’s commands are directed. Secondly, it would suggest an equation of sorts between the prohibition against eating human flesh and that against eating non-kosher animals. This would blur the essential distinction between man and beast.

Although the absence of an explicit prohibition against cannibalism leaves such behavior formally “permissible,” in light of the considerations discussed, as well as, perhaps, additional factors, it is preferable for the Torah to refrain from such an explicit reference. Instead, the Torah relies on a deeply ingrained taboo among civilized human society, for “that towards which man has already acquired a natural sense – is as good as explicit.”

Translated by R. David Silverberg. This essay originally appeared on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash and is republished here with permission. The unabridged Hebrew version of this essay is archived at:

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Vort from the Rav: Shemini Wed, 15 Apr 2015 22:58:50 +0000 Lev. 10:6:

רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל תִּפְרָעוּ וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא תִפְרֹמוּ
Do not leave your heads unshorn, and do not rend your garments

Moses enjoined Aaron and his two surviving sons from mourning for Nadav and Avihu. The inalienable right to which every parent is entitled of mourning the death of a child was denied to Aaron and his sons. Why? Because the priests constituted a community of the anointed who were consecrated exclusively to the service of the Lord.

The commitment or consecration of a priest to God is ultimate, all-demanding, and all-inclusive. God lays unrestricted claim not to a part but to the whole of the human personality. Existence in toto, in its external and inward manifestations, is consecrated to God. Aaron belonged to no one, not even to himself: only to God. He was not even free to give himself over to the grief precipitated by the loss of his two sons; he had no private world of his own. Even the heart of Aaron was divine property.

What does all this mean in psychological terms? God wanted Aaron to disown the strongest emotion in man — the love for a child. Is it possible? As far as modern man is concerned I would not dare answer. With respect to Biblical man, we read that Aaron acted in accord with the divine instruction: Aaron withdrew from himself; he withdrew from being a father. This movement of recoil is tantamount to self-denial.

Not only Aaron, but the entire covenantal community, was summoned by God into His service. Once man enters the service of God, be it as high-priest or as an ordinary humble person, his commitment is not partial; it is total. He is subject to the divine call for total inner withdrawal. Here the Halacha intervenes frequently in the most intimate and personal phases of our lives, and makes demands upon us which often impress the uninitiated as overly rigid and formal.

Let us take an example. We all know the law that a festival suspends the mourning for one of the seven intimate relatives. If one began to observe the shiva period a short time before the holiday was ushered in, the commencement of the latter cancels the shiva.

Mourning in Halacha consists of far more than the performance of external ritual or ceremony. It is an inner experience of black despair, of complete existential failure, of the absurdity of being. It is a grisly experience which overwhelms man, shatters his faith and exposes his I-awareness as a delusion. Similarly, the precept of rejoicing on a holiday includes not only ceremonial actions, but a genuine experience of joy as well. When the Torah decreed, and you shalt rejoice in your feast, it referred not to merrymaking and entertaining, to artificial gaiety or some sort of shallow hilarity, but to an all-penetrating depth-experience of spiritual joy, serenity and peace of mind deriving from faith and the awareness of God’s presence.

Now let us visualize the following concrete situation. The mourner, who has buried a beloved wife or mother, returns home from the graveyard where he has left part of himself, where he has witnessed the mockery of human existence. He is in a mood to question the validity of our entire axiological universe. The house is empty, dreary, every piece of furniture reminds the mourner of the beloved person he has buried. Every corner is full of memories.

Yet the Halacha addresses itself to the lonely mourner, whispering to him: “Rise from your mourning; cast the ashes from your head; change your clothes; light the festive candles; recite over a cup of wine the Kiddush extolling the Lord for giving us festivals of gladness and sacred seasons of joy; pronounce the blessing of Blessed art Thou . . . who has kept us in life and has preserved us and has enabled us to reach this season; join the jubilating community and celebrate the holiday as if nothing had transpired, as if the beloved person over whose death you grieve were with you.” The Halacha, which at times can be very tender, understanding and accommodating, may on other occasions act like a disciplinarian demanding obedience. The Halacha suggests to man, broken in body and spirit, carrying the burden of an absurd existence, that he change his mood, that he cast off his grief and choose joy.

Let us repeat the question: Is such a metamorphosis of the state of mind of an individual possible? Can one make the leap from utter bleak desolation and hopelessness into joyous trust? Can one replace the experience of monstrosity with the feeling of highest meaningfulness? I have no right to judge. However, I know of people who attempted to perform this greatest of all miracles. (Catharsis, pp. 47-49)

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Will The Kosher Switch Bring Mashiach? Wed, 15 Apr 2015 01:43:14 +0000 by R. Gil Student

Because of renewed publicity about this product, I am reposting this essay from four years ago. Not long after this was published, R. Yehoshua Neuwirth wrote that he did not approve this product and R. Nachum Rabinovich communicated the same. Other rabbis who were supposedly supporters also claimed they were misrepresented.

As technology changes, the proper application of halakhah may require changing practice to remain in step with the new reality. However, when evaluating new technology we have to look at reality and not hype. The new “Kosher Switch” (link) is billed as a game-changer that will radically redefine the practice of Shabbos. In truth, it is a next-generation “Gerama Switch” that seems to this writer to fall short of the requirements of many major authorities. To fully understand the product and why its halakhic implications are probably minimal, we have to wade through some background.

I. Gerama

Over a century ago, halakhic authorities debated the status of a standard light switch. R. Yechiel Mikhel Epstein, author of the highly influential Arukh Ha-Shulchan, published an article in a 1903 Torah journal arguing that lights may be turned on and off on Yom Tov. Part of his calculations was the incorrect scientific understanding (as pointed out by R. Yehudah Borenstein in a rebuttal in that journal) that electric current is fire running through the wires. Another of his arguments was that flipping a switch is considered gerama, indirect action. While gerama is generally forbidden, it is allowed when extinguishing a fire on Yom Tov. In a similar fashion, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, published an article in a 1934 Torah journal arguing that flipping an electrical switch is gerama.

However, the overwhelming consensus of subsequent authorities rejected this approach. In 1935, the young Jerusalem scholar R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach dared to disagree with the two aforementioned scholars and devoted chapter three of his monumental study, Me’orei Eish, to this issue. He argued at length that flipping a switch is considered direct action, rather than gerama. He obtained for his book a glowing approbation from the eminent authority, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna. R. Grodzinski also penned a responsum arguing the same, later published as Achiezer vol. 3 no. 60. R. Eliezer Waldenberg, also a young scholar in Jerusalem, after studying R. Auerbach’s book and a copy of R. Grodzinski’s responsum (which he obtained from R. Auerbach), wrote a responsum of his own disagreeing with details of argumentation but agreeing with the conclusion (Tzitz Eliezer vol. 1 no. 8). Others, both before and after, have concurred that flipping a switch is direct action. The reasons offered why impact greatly both the Gerama Switch and the Kosher Switch.

II. Ungerama

Halakhic engineers attempt to avoid issues like gerama through creativity. Examining their proposals and the objections they face will offer us insight into potential objections to the Kosher Switch. The Zomet Institute bases its solutions on the concept of modulating currents. This interesting but controversial approach is irrelevant to our current discussion. The Institute for Halacha and Science developed a Gerama Switch based on the concept of obstruction removal (meni’as meni’a) that serves as a basis of the Kosher Switch. There is a certain amount of rivalry between the institutions which I do not fully understand. I suspect that I may be oversimplifying the distinctions between their approaches but this should suffice for our purposes. However, both work with the assumption that turning electricity on and off is forbidden on Shabbos. Their goal is to find workable solutions by avoiding the user’s closing and opening circuits.

The Gerama Switch is poorly named because it is designed to avoid gerama. The switch contains an optical signal that closes or opens a circuit through an impulse light sent at random intervals. If the light is received, the circuit closes and if not it is opened. The switch, in the off position, blocks the impulse light and prevents the circuit from closing. By moving the switch to the on position, you merely stop preventing the circuit from closing. You are neither directly nor indirectly closing the circuit, just removing the obstruction. Because this is not even gerama, moving the switch should be permissible on Shabbos even to perform an act indisputably prohibited.

Why isn’t this gerama? Conflicting passages in the Talmud describe gerama as either permitted or forbidden. Placing bottles of water to break when hit by fire, thereby extinguishing the fire, is permitted. Tossing grain into the air so the wind separates the wheat from the chaff is prohibited. Some early authorities forbid all gerama except where explicitly permitted and others permit it except where explicitly forbidden. The Rema codifies what is essentially a compromise position: we forbid gerama on Shabbos except in cases of great need (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 334:22). However, he does not define the boundaries of gerama, leaving the task for later authorities.

There are four main theories explaining the difference between permitted and forbidden indirect actions (R. Dovid Miller explains these views nicely in a lecture: link).

  1. A time delay between a person’s action and the subsequent action makes the first permissible
  2. If the second action will not definitely occur then the first is allowed
  3. If this is not the normal way of performing the act then it is permitted
  4. If the second action is not already in motion then the first is allowed

The Gerama Switch does not rely on the rejected views of R. Epstein and R. Frank, because its user only removes an obstruction. It also entails a time delay, until the next light impulse. However, this is only permissible according to the first approach to gerama. According to the other three, it is still forbidden. For another important reason, which we will discuss later, the designers of the Gerama Switch only allow it in exigent circumstances — for the needs of the infirm and security reasons — when the Rema would allow gerama.

III. Kosher Ungerama

The Kosher Switch adds uncertainty to the Gerama Switch. Every time the device is supposed to send a light impulse, it calculates a random number below 100 and only sends the impulse if the number passes a threshold (usually over 50). The receiver also calculates a similar random number and only receives the light impulse if the number passes a threshold. These two levels of uncertainty separate the action of moving the switch to the on (or off) position from the closing (or opening) of the circuit. The first impulse may not change the circuit, and the second and third may not as well. There is a statistical possibility, albeit remote, that the person may have to wait days or even months until the light impulse is sent and received.

This improvement to the Gerama switch is an important step forward. It renders the device permissible also according to those authorities who follow the second approach above. However, those who follow the third and fourth still do not allow it. This is particularly significant because those authorities are highly influential.

IV. Not So Kosher

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as reported by R. Hershel Schachter (Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 169), follows the fourth approach. See also R. Schachter’s Be-Ikvei Ha-Tzon, ch. 7 (“Ma’aseh U-Gerama Bi-Melekhes Shabbos“). Because the Kosher Switch functions constantly, waiting for the switch to be moved so it can close the circuit, R. Soloveitchik would presumably forbid its use.

R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (ibid.) follows the third approach, as does the Tzitz Eliezer (ibid.) based on the Eglei Tal (zoreh n. 4). So do R. Yechezkel Abramsky (Chazon Yechezkel, Shabbos 120b) and R. Nachum Rabinovich (Si’ach Nachum, no. 25). R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv also reportedly follows this approach (Shevus Yitzchak, p. 138; Orechos Shabbos, vol. 3 ch. 29 n. 52). See also R. Nissim Karelitz, Chut Shani, vol. 1 p. 206.

Because flipping a switch is the normal way of closing a circuit (e.g. turning on a light), these authorities would not allow any type of Gerama or Kosher Switch. If this switch becomes widely adopted, as its designers hope, then it will be the standard way of closing and opening circuits, turning lights on and off. This is precisely the situation that R. Grodzinski and the others forbade.

R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach clearly followed this third approach in his Me’orei Eish, quoting R. Isser Zalman Meltzer on the matter (Me’orei Eish Ha-Shalem, p. 217). He restated it in an early responsum on milking cows on Shabbos (ibid., p. 612ff.) and a later responsum on telephones (Minchas Shlomo, no. 9; Me’orei Eish Ha-Shalem, p. 576). A manuscript was posthumously published in a memorial book for R. Auerbach, Kovetz Ateres Shlomo, which seems to contradict this approach but his son, R. Shmuel Auerbach, insists that his father maintained his original attitude (Orechos Shabbos vol. 3 ch. 29 n. 52).

However, Prof. Zev Lev (Ma’arkhei Lev, p. 241) reports an important ruling from R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. R. Auerbach ruled that if an action is performed in a specific way only on Shabbos, that does not constitute the normal way the action is done. The Kosher Switch has a weekday mode and a Shabbos mode, which function differently. According to this ruling of R. Auerbach, turning lights on with the switch in Shabbos mode is not the normal way of turning on the lights and is therefore permissible.

I find this difficult to understand. This is a switch that is designed to work this way, functions the same way as other switches (from the user’s perspective), and performs in the same way once a week plus holidays. I make no claim to expertise but that seems to me to be the normal way the action is done. From what I have seen in the name of R. Elyashiv, he disagrees with R. Auerbach’s ruling and forbids all types of Gerama (or Ungerama) devices. I think this aspect of the issue requires further elaboration and evaluation by halakhic decisors.

V. Publicity and Endorsements

The Kosher Switch has reportedly received numerous rabbinic endorsements (link), including from R. Yehoshua Neuwirth, R. Nachum Rabinovich, R. Moshe Sternbuch and R. Yisroel Belsky. It is not clear, however, whether those endorsement are for use in exigent circumstances or in every home. I suspect it is the former, particularly given R. Rabinovich’s strict ruling on electric switches (Si’ach Nachum, no. 25).

However, the device’s promoters claim that it is appropriate for every home. Indeed, in their halakhic defense of the innovation (link – PDF, sec. 12), they claim that the device will eventually become standard in all homes, thereby enabling universal Shabbos observance and the arrival of the messianic redemption. Are the endorsements also exaggerated PR? I am in the process of checking on some of the endorsements, many of which seem to be just a well-wish rather than explicit approval.

VI. Confusion

The Institute for Science and Halacha, the designers of the Gerama Switch only allow its use in exigent circumstances for the following reason (R. Levi Yitzchak Halperin and R. Dovid Oratz, Shabbat and Electricity, pp. 32-33):

The difference between a gerama switch and a standard switch is not readily discernible to a layman. A person seeing someone using a gerama switch might conclude that the action is permissible with any switch. As a result, people could mistakenly permit many prohibited Shabbat actions, resulting in mass desecration of Shabbat. Under such circumstances, it is appropriate not to permit actions that should otherwise be permitted.

To prevent such misunderstanding, the use of the gerama switch is limited to uses where an ordinary gerama would be permitted, hence the name gerama switch and not meni’at hameni’ah switch… Accordingly, the Institute uses the gerama switch only under those conditions in which ordinary gerama can be permitted.

The designers of Kosher Switch, in their halakhic defense (sec. 7), argue that this is unnecessary for a number of unconvincing reasons. Among them is that the Kosher Switch looks very different from regular switches. I cannot speak for the situation in Israel, but in the US switches come in very different shapes and sizes. I show below five pictures of switches. Four are from my house and one is the Kosher Switch. Can you tell which one is the Kosher Switch? It doesn’t look particularly different to me (note that I cut off the KosherSwitch logo in the image). There are many different types of switches and the Kosher Switch looks to me like just another one. While it carries a Kosher Switch logo, that is hardly sufficient, as the designers of the Gerama Switch acknowledged.

In addition to the issue of confusion, there are other issues that enter this discussion, such as zilusa de-Shabbos, diminishing the Shabbos experience, and shevisah ha-nikeres, resting in a manner different from the rest of the week. I leave that for another time but wish to emphasize that they are also significant Shabbos values.

The Kosher Switch is an important step forward in Shabbos technology and will improve the devices designed for security and health situations. However, I struggle to see how it satisfies the requirements of many important authorities and how it could possibly become a standard feature in Shabbos observant homes.

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Audio Roundup Tue, 14 Apr 2015 23:19:13 +0000 by Joel Rich

The gemara uses the expression “Nikra Choteih” or “Nikra Rasha” from time to time. Has anyone seen anything written on the relative ranking of such categories? (e.g. since it doesn’t say “assur…” does it mean it’s not a complete prohibition but something less?)

Question: If one doesn’t view eilu v’eilu as multiple truths but rather one truth and one nice try (but we don’t know which is which), how do you explain the approach to halachic process which ignores academic findings concerning texts or historical circumstances?

Please direct any informal comments to

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Daily Reyd Tue, 14 Apr 2015 12:36:20 +0000
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