Friday, December 30, 2005

Gambling and Other Addictions

Is one halakhically allowed to become a drug addict? How about a gambling addict? Or a smoking addict?

R. Mordechai Willig spoke recently about Gambling in Halakhah and answered all of the above questions in the negative. He quoted a 1972 article by R. Ahron Soloveichik in Tradition, in which the latter based the prohibition on the Sefer Ha-Hinukh's understanding of the verse "that you not stray after your own heart" (Numbers 15:39). This, R. Ahron Soloveichik argues based on the Hinukh, precludes becoming addicted to anything. R. Willig explicitly applies it to gambling, smoking, drugs and... overeating.

He points out the "mitzvah" aspect of such activities -- getting hooked on alcohol at simhos, starting to smoke on Purim, and gambling on "Nittel" and Hanukah. He quotes the Arukh Ha-Shulhan's harsh words against gambling with dreidels and cards (R. Willig: "I give you a heter to learn on Nittel Nacht").

What about Chinese Auctions and charity raffles? I'm guessing that these are also addictive gambling and that R. Willig's strong words apply to them as well.

UPDATE: To clarify, R. Willig is very concerned about people whose addictions being with what many consider to be mundane instances. One Purim cigarette a year isn't going to get you hooked. But, study after study tells us, every addict begins with that one cigarette. Every gambler starts of with some innocuous form of gambling. It behooves our community to not start people off on paths of addiction.

I should add two things. First: R. Mordechai Willig does not discuss Chinese Auctions. That is my extension of his comments. Second: R. Asher Meir disagrees.
So, if your gambling event is meant to be an entertaining evening for people who are happy to support your organization, by all means go ahead. But if you want to create a business which will cater to gambling aficionados, then you must be extra careful not to take advantage of people nor to condone gambling as a way of life...

You're on safe ground if everyone feels they're in a "win-win" situation: either they make a little money, or they give much-needed help to a worthy cause.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

NEW BOOK and Cloning in Jewish Law

I am happy to announce a new book published by Yashar, Medicine and Jewish Law volume III edited by Drs. Fred Rosner and Robert Schulman. The topics covered by the respected authors include those that are very timely and of public interest: infertility, genetics, end of life issues, and other miscellaneous topics. See more about the book here, as well as an excerpt chapter: Impact of Medical History on Medical Halachah (PDF) by Edward Reichman, M.D.

What is the position of Jewish law and tradition on the cloning of humans, assuming that it can be done successfully and without defective products? Disagreement.

R. J. David Bleich (Judaism and Healing, 2002 edition, pp. 146-147) refers to cloning a child afflicted with leukemia in order to obtain bone marrow as "moral and even laudatory." He states the same about cloning in order to find a cure for a disease from which people are currently suffering, assuming that the cloning is "scientifically prudent and undertaken with appropriate safeguards."

Furthermore, "although the cloning of human beings is highly problematic, the cloning of tissues and organs for therapeutic purposes is entirely salutary."

In Medicine and Jewish Law volume 3, Dr. Abraham S. Abraham quotes R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv as telling him that "the creation of a new species of 'man' without the mating of man and woman [i.e. cloning] is forbidden... [C]loning of tissues or organs is permitted if done for the benefit of mankind" (p. 87).

As posted in a previous post, R. Michael J. Broyde (Voices Across Boundaries 1:2 pp. 31-34) argues in favor of cloning.

Thank You Sir, May I Have Another Hundred Thousand V

Follow-up to this post.

I know, this is a somewhat controversial milestone because there were some extra hits earlier this week due to the "Read More" function. Nevertheless, the never-modified hit counter has passed 600,000. Congratulations to all the blog's readers and especially the commenters. As my father says, the most interesting part of the blog is the comments section.

Hipster Judaism

The Jewish Week has a thoughtful article about Hipster Judaism, the movement to make being Jewish "cool." Basically, these hipsters take (generally) meaningless pop culture and add a Jewish feel to it. Is this a good thing or it just one more example of watering down Judaism?

This is not a new discussion (non-Orthodox Jews get ready to be offended). I have often heard people debate the merits of non-Orthodox Judaism. Is it better to have people at least nominally connected to Judaism or to let many people fall by the wayside but leaving authentic Judaism as the only Jewish alternative. If you want to turn to Judaism, it's going to be the real thing. This debate can even be taken into Orthodoxy itself. There are a number of streams within Orthodoxy that some would call "bedi'eved" -- an inauthentic concession -- but that attract people who would otherwise not affiliate with Orthodoxy. Is it better to never water down Judaism even if it diminishes the ranks of the faithful? Purists would answer "Yes."

I don't have an answer to that perennial question. But libi omer li -- my gut tells me -- that Hipster Judaism is less of a threat to traditional Judaism because it doesn't even claim to be authentic. It's just keeping people from forgetting that they're Jewish and maybe even celebrating that identity.

Modern Orthodoxy and the Failure of Nerve

In the Winter 2005 issue of Jewish Action, R. Emanuel Feldman bemoans the lack of protest in the American Orthodox community to the Disengagement from Gaza. In a rejoinder, R. Yosef Blau makes the following points:

1. Based on R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's perspective, territorial compromise is not necessarily contrary to halakhah

2. It is bad policy for American Jews to protest the Israeli government because:
A. It will weaken Israel's international standing
B. It will set a precedent that non-Orthodox groups will use to protest Israel's religious policies

3. Many Americans believe that only Israelis, who are putting their lives on the line on a daily basis, have the right to make decisions about Israel's policies

4. Many Americans, even Orthodox Jews, supported the Disengagement for a variety of reasons

5. Many Americans were extremely uncomfortable with the extremism that seemed dominant in the anti-Disengagement movement, e.g.:
A. Calls for soldiers to disobey orders
B. Rabbinic promises that God would not let the Disengagement happen

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Student's Algorithm for Time-Adjusting Distributions

For those readers interest in applied mathematics:

A number of years ago, I was faced with the task of adjusting a distribution of possible outcomes over the life of the relevant phenomenon. I started with two distributions -- a distribution around the mean of possible ultimate outcomes and a time distribution of the expected progression of the mean. Since uncertainty diminishes as time progresses, the distribution of possible outcomes must shrink over time until the ultimate is reached, at which point the distribution of possible outcomes is a single point. The question is how to shrink and adjust the distribution of possible outcomes as time progresses.

I came up with a fairly simple and versatile algorithm to do this that has served me well over the years. I present it here for you. Read more

I. Distributions

D1: Assume the following for the distribution of possible outcomes, with a mean of 60:
10 - 1%, 20 - 2%, 30 - 7%, 40 - 12%, 50 - 18%, 60 - 20%, 70 - 18%, 80 - 12%, 90 - 7%, 100 - 3%

D2: Assume the following for the cumulative time distribution over time, in years:
1- 10%, 2 - 35%, 3 - 80%, 4 - 95%, 5 - 100%

II. Adjusting

What this means is that at time 0, there is a 1% probability that the outcome will be 10 and a 7% that the outcome will be 90. At time 1 (the end of year 1), 10% of the outcome will be known. Therefore, we will know more about the final outcome and the probabilities of the original distribution will have shifted.

How do we account for this additional information? Using the Bornhuetter-Ferguson methodology for the mean, we would take the actual observed (which should be 10% of the ultimate) and add it to the original mean * (100% - 90%). One could apply that to each of the points in D1 but that would require changing the probabilities at which the distribution is evaluated, a task that can become burdensome.

III. Student's Algorithm

Instead, we adjust based on distance from the mean. If the new mean at time 1, using the Born-Ferg methodology, is 55, compared to a mean of 60 at time 0, we look at the distance of each point in the distribution from the mean and apply it to the new mean, reducing it based on D2.

Expected1 = 6. Actual1 = 1. Mean0 = 60. D2,1 = 10%.
Mean1 = Actual1 + (100% - D2,1) * Mean0 = 1 + (100% - 10%) * 60 = 55.

D1 at time 0 looked like this:
10 - 1%, 20 - 2%, 30 - 7%, 40 - 12%, 50 - 18%, 60 - 20%, 70 - 18%, 80 - 12%, 90 - 7%, 100 - 3%

This is now adjusted to take into account the new mean (55) and that 10% of the uncertainty has passed.

The new Point 1 would = Mean1 - (Mean0 - Point1) * (100% - D2,1) = 55 - (60 - 10) * (100% - 10%) = 10 [No change]

The new Point 2 = 55 - (60 - 20) * (100% - 10%) = 19
The new Point 3 = 55 - (60 - 30) * (100% - 10%) = 28

and so on. Here's how the graph looks:

Let's move to time 3 and assume that the actual observed to date is 46. D2,3 = 80% so this should represent 80% of the final outcome. Using Born-Ferg, Mean3 = 46 + (100% - 80%) * 60 = 58.

Since most of the risk has passed, the distribution should have compressed with most of the probability closely surrounding the new mean.

The new point 1 = Mean3 - (Mean0 - Point1) * (100% - D2,3) = 58 - (60 - 10) * (100% - 80%) = 48
The new Point 2 = 58 - (60 - 20) * (100% - 80%) = 50
The new Point 3 = 58 - (60 - 30) * (100% - 80%) = 52
Here's how the graph looks:

Keep doing this at each year end until year 5, where D2 reaches 100% and the distribution is at the single, actual outcome.

Legalizing Drugs

Legalizing drugs... for medical use, of course.

R. J. David Bleich, Judaism and Healing: Halakhic Perspectives (2002 edition) pp. 178-179:
[E]verything possible should be done to alleviate the patient's suffering. This includes aggressive treatment of pain even to a degree which at present is not common in medical practice. Physicians are reluctant to use morphine in high dosages because of the danger of depression of the cerebral center responsible for respiration. The effect of such medications is that the patient cannot control the muscles necessary for breathing. However, as has been discussed in the preceding chapter, there is no halakhic objection to providing such medication in order to control pain in the case of terminal patients and maintaining such patients on a respirator. Similarly, there is no halakhic objection to the use of heroin in the control of pain in terminal patients. The danger of addiction under such circumstances is, of course, hardly a significant consideration. At present, the use of heroin is illegal even for medical purposes. Judaism firmly believes that everything in creation is designed for a purpose. Alleviation of otherwise intractable pain is a known beneficial use of heroin. Marijuana is effective in alleviating nausea which is a side-effect of some forms of chemotherapy. There is every reason to believe that these drugs were given to man for the specific purpose of controlling pain and discomfort. Jewish teaching would enthusiastically endorse legislation legalizing the use--with adequate accompanying safeguards--of these substances in the treatment of terminal patients.

Jewish Community Professionals

Interesting blog for Jewish community professionals.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Where's Everybody Coming From?

Over 5,000 hits today, a Hirhurim record. Where is everyone coming from?



By Rabbi Yair Hoffman, copyright 2005
Dean, Tiferet High School for Girls (formerly Gamla High School)

Reprinted with permission

Recently, a number of us have viewed Aish HaTorah’s eye-opening production entitled “Inspired.” The video is a masterful work which touches the neshama. It awakens us to the myriad opportunities that lie before us in the area of Kiruv Rechokim. We chuckled when we saw the opening scenes- filmed in Boro Park, where interviewee after interviewee states that Kiruv Rechokim is important, yet respond that they personally do nothing about it.

Read moreOur first reaction to seeing the video in its entirety, and it is a good and proper reaction, is to re-examine what we are doing and try to figure out how we can incorporate this beautiful concept into our personal lives. Who can we invite to our Shabbos table? Who can we share the beginning Torah shiurim offered in our shul with.

This article is not meant to take anything away from this very important area of Avodas Hashem. There is another area, however, that needs to be addressed. Less glamorous perhaps, but an area that nonetheless must be addressed. It could perhaps best be termed as Inreach or “Kiruv Kerovim.”

Imagine for a moment, a company that does not serve or develop it’s customer base. The company’s sole focus is to get new customers, ignoring the customers that it has already created. Every businessman knows that this is not the model for success. The best business is repeat business. The company who ignores its customer base will soon fall apart.

We must take a good look at ourselves and genuinely ask ourselves if we are doing our job effectively in retaining our past customers. The main element that is missing is that our “Ahavas Yisroel” has to be tapped, and channeled once again to the Kerovim too. Indeed, a colleague of mine recently suggested that someone ought to make a video on just this subject -- Inreach or Kiruv Kerovim.

The content of such a video should focus on two things: The first would be to figure out a means to develop and nurture our own sense of Ahavas Yisroel. How many of us have been turned off by the idea that deep down a past Rebbe, Yeshiva or school didn’t really give two hoots about us? Or better yet, how many of us have been inspired by the care and attention that a good and unsung hero Rebbe or Morah have given us? The focus must be to develop our own Ahavas Yisroel toward others and to make sure that it is genuine. (When false Ahavas Yisroel is demonstrated or shown -- it kind of causes a knee-jerking sense of disgust- “How phony of you!”). Just like we work on our dieting and exercising and our daf yomi and or lashon harah groups, we must also actively work on how to go about improving and developing our ahavas yisroel. Ahavas Yisroel involves caring about others like we would want for ourselves. It is also about caring for their entirety -- their spiritual well-being as well as their financial well-being. (See Rambam, Hilchos Dayos 6:3). This means worrying as to how they are going to make a living as well.

The second thing that such a video should focus on is the areas in which we can apply our new efforts toward inreach. The Krovim come in many shapes and sizes. Just off the cuff, however, here are a few areas:

Kids in our children’s schools
Our Local Schools

Let’s spend a paragraph or two on each of these different venues.


I don’t have exact numbers, but in our community alone there are close to a thousand singles who may perhaps feel that the rest of us are a bit too busy with own lives and don’t have the time or the requisite Ahavas Yisroel to address issues that affect their particular situation. Here is a possible solution that could effectively address the issue head-on. Most of our mosdos have alumnus that are still single. Why can’t we volunteer to do the following three step plan?

1. Let’s go back to our school or shul (or block president -- it isn’t just for meals for kimpatorins) and volunteer to be the single Alumnus coordinator.

2. Compile a list of single alumni in need of shidduchim

3. Get together with two or three others and make sure that each alumnus gets at least one phone call per month.

There is a new book out by Ruki Renov that fabulously details how to go about getting our kids married off, let’s try to develop an institutional version of this same book. Whoever reads Mrs. Renov’s book would certainly conclude that this mother truly cares about her kids and would marvel at the extent and effort of the hishtadlus to marry off one’s child. If we were to re-create this on an institutional level, imagine the impact we would have.

Kid’s In Our Children’s Schools

There are kids in our children’s classes in our Yeshivos that are falling behind in their Hebrew Kriah skills and or math skills. There are kids in our children’s grade who are being raised in a single parent home. Falling behind is probably the number one risk factor in losing our “old customers.” It is these kids that may be in most need of “Inreach.” Why can’t we ask our menahel if there is anyone in our kid’s classes that needs tutoring or catching up? Let’s be proactive and screen for it ahead of time. If we don’t have the time to do it ourselves - we can offer to pay for it. Sometimes it’s not just money but organization. Example: A kid in class needs tutoring. What if one class mother, without mentioning the kid’s name called ten other families to subsidize ¾ of an hour of tutoring per week for the next six months of school? The kid would receive 7 ½ hours of tutoring per week. The cost would be from $15 to $25 per week per family. The whole class would benefit, and the kid could very well have just been saved -- Ledorei Doros. This is something that can be done without serious money, but with very serious results. (by the way, I would make sure that the parent pays something – even if it is just a few dollars per hour, so that the parent will value it.)

I know a dental supplies businessman in Queens that funded a modest after-school tutoring program for local kids to address this very need. It did not cost that much. The point is that one does not need to be a Baron Rothschild or Edgar Bronfman to address these needs. We can do it too.

Our Local Schools

Our Rebbeim and teachers are the ones that are showing our children the love and attention that is necessary to thrive in Yiddishkeit. Isn’t it embarrassing that we are underpaying them to the point that a growing percentage of them are on Medicare and Medicaid? Will helping the Rebbeim and Moros of our local schools help stem the tide of Kerovim slipping through the cracks? No question.

It is a sad reality that Walmart and McDonalds offer its employees health benefits while Yeshivos and Bais Yaakov’s do not. (Walmart offers three options; McDonald’s offers four options -- including 50% off on orthodontia). Boruch Hashem we do not see Rebbeim moonlighting at the Golden Arches for the orthodontia benefits, but the point is that an investment in our local Yeshiva staff is a good investment. It is an investment in our children too.

These are just a few examples of Inreach programming that can be pursued either individually or on a community level. We should never under-estimate the capacity that one person can achieve. There is a Gemorah in Yuma (35b) that talks about how poor Hillel was, and that his actions obligates all the other poor in study. Achievement is not limited to the politically well-connected, highly educated, or the very wealthy. One can successfully pursue Kiruv Kerovim even without all this. But one must try.

Teddy Roosevelt, the first president to appoint a Jew to his cabinet, has a very inspiring quote. The quote can readily be applied to any efforts we may be contemplating regarding Inreach programming:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Rabbi Yair Hoffman is the dean of Tiferet High School for Girls in Lawrence, New York. He can be reached either at or at Tiferet at 516 239-4775.

Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design: The View of the RCA

Evolution is not heresy! So says the Rabbinical Council of America:
December 22nd 2005
21 Kislev 5766

In light of the ongoing public controversy about Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design, the RCA notes that significant Jewish authorities have maintained that evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator, nor with the first 2 chapters of Genesis.

Read moreThere are authentic, respected voices in the Jewish community that take a literalist position with regard to these issues; at the same time, Judaism has a history of diverse approaches to the understanding of the biblical account of creation. As Rabbi Joseph Hertz wrote, "While the fact of creation has to this day remained the first of the articles of the Jewish creed, there is no uniform and binding belief as to the manner of creation, i.e. as to the process whereby the universe came into existence. The manner of the Divine creative activity is presented in varying forms and under differing metaphors by Prophet, Psalmist and Sage; by the Rabbis in Talmudic times, as well as by our medieval Jewish thinkers." Some refer to the Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah 3:13) which speaks of God "developing and destroying many worlds" before our current epoch. Others explain that the word "yom" in Biblical Hebrew, usually translated as "day," can also refer to an undefined period of time, as in Isaiah 11:10-11. Maimonides stated that "what the Torah writes about the Account of Creation is not all to be taken literally, as believed by the masses" (Guide to the Perplexed II:29), and recent Rabbinic leaders who have discussed the topic of creation, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, saw no difficulty in explaining Genesis as a theological text rather than a scientific account.

Judaism affirms the idea that God is the Creator of the Universe and the Being responsible for the presence of human beings in this world. Nonetheless, there have long been different schools of thought within Judaism regarding the extent of divine intervention in natural processes. One respected view was expressed by Maimonides who wrote that "we should endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, affirming that events take place in accordance with the natural order wherever possible.” (Letter to the Jews of Yemen) All schools concur that God is the ultimate cause and that humanity was an intended end result of Creation.

For us, these fundamental beliefs do not rest on the purported weaknesses of Evolutionary Theory, and cannot be undermined by the elimination of gaps in scientific knowledge.

Judaism has always preferred to see science and Torah as two aspects of the "Mind of God" (to borrow Stephen Hawking's phrase) that are ultimately unitary in the reality given to us by the Creator. As the Zohar says (Genesis 134a): "istakel be-'oraita u-vara 'alma," God looked into the Torah and used it as His blueprint for creating the Universe.
For articles and sources on this subject, see Aryeh Carmel and Cyril Domb eds., "Challenge: Torah Views on Science and its Problems," Feldheim, N. Y. 1976; and Rabbi J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (Soncino Press 1960), Additional Notes to Genesis.
The Rambam's, Rav Kook's and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch's views are not heretical, contrary to certain contemporary Torah scholars. So says the RCA.

Who Can Retell?

Time for another conspiracy theory. This website (click on the candles) got me thinking again about the Hanukah song "Mi Yemalel" and my theory that it is subtly anti-religious. How so? Consider the lyrics (taken from here):
Mi yemalel gvurot Yisra'el,
'otan mi yimneh?
Hen bechol dor yaqum hagibor,
go'el ha'am.

Shma'! Bayamim hahem bazman hazeh,
Makabi moshia' ufodeh,
uvyameinu kol 'am Yisra'el,
yit'akhed, yaqum veyiga'el.
Note the seemingly religious terms of praise of God that are applied to humans. It seems like God is intentionally written out of the story.

[Reverting to Modern Hebrew transliteration. Please forgive me.]
"Gvurot Yisrael," the brave deeds of Israel. Isn't it usually Gvurot Hashem?

It is "hagibor," the brave man of each generation, who redeems the nation. Isn't is usually God who is "go'el ha'am"?

And so on, and so on.

I'm not sure if I'm just being overly picky, but it seems to me to be an intentional writing out of God from Jewish history, as was common among ardently secular Zionists, through an appropriation of religious terminology.

Here's another example. I remember learning a song that went, "Not by might not by power but by spirit alone..." Compare with Zechariah 4:6: "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith HaShem of hosts." Clearly, an intentional change of "My spirit" to "spirit alone".

Monday, December 26, 2005


I don't know why, but I find it EXTREMELY annoying when people insist on putting the acronym בס"ד at the top of everything -- letters, notebooks, even websites and e-mails. I suspect that it is not just BTs. But why? I just don't understand why. Is it somewhere in Shulhan Arukh that I missed? Is there some sort of custom that I'm not aware of? I know this is unfair, but when I see it I think, "Oh, he must think he's REAL frum, certainly more than the rest of us."

Below is a letter written the by Hasam Sofer. It's hard to read, but notice what is not in the top right corner. Below that is the wedding invitation sent out by R. Hayim Soloveitchik for his son R. Moshe's wedding. Again, notice what is not in the corner. Do these people who put their little בס"ד everywhere think they're frummer than the Gedolim?

Read more

Vomiting in Halakhah IV

The Poison Sandwich

A medical student was not doing well and was picked on by his fellow students. It got to the point that his lunch was secretly stolen on a regular basis. This student then devised a trick to find out who was stealing his lunch: he put poison in his lunch. When one of his fellow students started vomiting violently, it was clear who had been stealing his lunch. The student then heroically saved this poisoned student.

The question is whether this student was halakhically allowed to poison his lunch.Read more In the journal Pa'amei Ya'akov (Kislev 2000; Nisan 2000), R. Yitzhak Zilberstein ruled that this student acted properly. Since the thief was a habitual sinner, he qualified for the following Talmudic judgment:
We mark kerem reva'i [produce from a tree's fourth year] with clods off earth and orlah [produce from a tree's first three years] with pottery shards and graves with limestone that is smoothed and poured. R. Shimon ben Gamliel says: About when is this speaking? Shevi'is [the Sabbatical year]. (Mishnah, Ma'aser Sheni 5:1)

On the Shevi'is year, when the food is ownerless. But on other years, leave it for the wicked person and let him die [hal'itehu le-rasha ve-yamus]. (Gemara, Bava Kamma 69a)
In other words, according to R. Shimon ben Gamliel, on normal years, we are not concerned that a thief might come and steal food that is forbidden to be eaten. Let him eat it, since he is stealing anyway.

Let Him Die

R. Zilberstein rules that the thief in the above case is similar to the thief in the Mishnah. Not only do we not try to help him avoid other prohibitions, but we say that all negative results of his sins are appropriate. Let him rot. Even though we certainly cannot kill him, we can set up traps that, by sinning, he falls into. Therefore, the poisoning is not only not bad, it is good. He dies, or almost dies, due entirely to his sin of theft.

The negative response to R. Zilberstein's ruling was quick to come. A number of articles were published in the journals Pa'amei Ya'akov, Or Yisrael and elsewhere disputing his ruling. R. Aaron Levine discusses this issue in his new book Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law, in his chapter on setting booby traps for thiefs on one's property. R. Levine follows the ruling or R. Menashe Klein on this subject, that the student who poisoned his sandwich violated the prohibition of lo sa'amod al dam rei'ekha, the biblical prohibition against standing by idly when one's fellow is in danger.
[I]f M knows that the sandwich the thief stole contains poison, he is duty bound to inform the thief as fast as he can so that the thief will be saved from death or even from sickness. Now, if M must extricate the theif from the danger of the pilfered poisoned sandwich, he certainly should not poison the sandwich in the first place. La ta'amod requires this. (p. 506)
R. Levine analyzes this case at more length.

Three Views

R. Dovid Gottlieb (Ateres Ya'akov ch. 8:2) posits three views on the concept of letting a sinner suffer from his sins:

1. There is no obligation to be concerned for sinners.
2. There is an obligation but it is negated in a limited fashion in the Mishnah's case.
3. One is obligated to be concerned for sinners but only when that does not imply approval of the sinner's deeds.

R. Gottlieb (8:7) argues that we would only want the sinner to suffer according to the first view but not according to the other two. He also points out that nowhere do we see any permission given to perform any action to deepen the suffering of the sinner.

Leadership and Faith

I can only aspire to someday be as cynical as this "friend" of Rabbi Bechhofer.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Electric Hanukah Menorahs

R. Chaim Jachter wrote an article in the RJJ Journal about electric Hanukah menorahs that is to appear in his shortly forthcoming book from Yashar, Gray Matter volume 2. The following is a brief synopsis of the reasons electric menorahs cannot be used to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting on Hanukah.

1. There is no act of kindling the menorah, which is a requirement of Hanukah lights (as opposed to Shabbos lights). This is proposed by R. Tzvi Pesah Frank and R. Ovadiah Hadayah but rejected by R. Moshe Stern.

2. An incandescent light bulb is considered a torch (R. Eliezer Waldenberg and the Kaf Ha-Hayim).

3. Electric lights are too different from the menorah in the Temple, lacking wicks and flames (R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Ovadiah Yosef).

4. Electric lights that are plugged into the wall socket do not contain internally the required amount of fuel to last one half hour (R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach). This would not apply to battery-powered lights.

A Google search led me to this page of Haburos by, I think, my old pal R. Aharon Ross. See here for his haburos on Hanukah. Electric menorahs is number 15.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Slifkin: A Political Analysis

The following is a theory I devised to explain some recent developments in the Slifkin Affair. It is entirely conjecture and could be totally wrong. Please take it as nothing more than a fanciful theory.

Here are the facts:

1. About three weeks ago, three members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America--R. Shmuel Kamenetsky, R. Aharon Schechter, and R. Ya'akov Perlow--signed letters condemning R. Slifkin in somewhat vague terms, almost a full year after the original scandal surfaced and after months of relative quiet.

2. Agudath Israel of America's official magazine, The Jewish Observer, just published an article by R. Avi Shafran on Intelligent Design (available online here). This issue was certainly ready for press when the above letters were released.

3. The Jewish Observer is extremely careful about the articles it prints, requiring careful review by its editorial board and frequently members of the Moetzes. Articles often take months to be published.

4. R. Shafran's article contains a number of ideas that are similar to those that R. Slifkin teaches, albeit much vaguer and less forceful.


1. This article states explicitly that belief in evolution is acceptable and implicitly that belief in a world older than 6,000 years is also acceptable.

2. The article was written, reviewed, and approved before the above letters were signed.


1. The letters from the members of the Moetzes were quite unexpected because those members had privately told many people that they were not opposed to R. Slifkin's ideas.

2. Other members of the Moetzes are very opposed to those ideas, so it is quite surprising that The Jewish Observer would print R. Shafran's article.

The Theory:

A deal was struck. The members of the Moetzes who oppose those ideas would allow this article to be published--and those ideas essentially kashered at least bedi'eved--if the other members of the Moetzes would sign letters opposing R. Slifkin. This way, unity is maintained by opposing R. Slifkin--whose attitude was less deferential than was desired--while those who need such ideas in order to reconcile Torah and science can find them and remain within the Agudath Israel camp.

Note how vague R. Shafran's article is on this. I suspect that it went through very careful editing and many revisions.

Problem with this theory:

I haven't heard a word about this from anyone. Nothing. I usually hear such conspiracy theories but I cooked this one up all by myself.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Kashrus: Why?

R. Meir Soloveichik has a new article in Azure titled Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of Kashrut, in which he offers an interesting theological explanation of the kosher laws:
While the Tora leaves as a mystery the reasons for the specific criteria of permitted animals legislated in Leviticus, it is explicit with regard to the overall purpose that these dietary distinctions are meant to achieve: A daily lifestyle that expresses Israel’s chosenness. The nature of kashrut is thus at once mysterious and obvious; while God does not explain the importance of cud-chewing or leaping, of split hooves or scales, the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Tora-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God...

God wishes for the Jew, in encountering creation, and most specifically created life, to be confronted constantly by his Jewishness; it is therefore critical that he be permitted to eat some insects among the vast majority of those forbidden...

[A]s the Jew expresses his chosen status, he remains mystified by the method of expression. In this way, the laws of kashrut inspire not arrogance, but humility; for even as the Jews are informed that they are the chosen of God, they are immediately reminded that they are not themselves gods. They are elected, but not omniscient, utterly unlike the Almighty who chose them...

A Xmas Mitzvah

See this story from Newsweek's website:
My wife pleaded that she was on a tight budget for a good purpose. She had read of Stockings With Care, a volunteer group in New York City that coordinates with social agencies who work with impoverished families. The children have written down their Christmas wishes and through Stockings with Care, social workers provide these “wish lists” to people like my wife who buy the gifts. These presents are given to the parents so that on Christmas morning the children get exactly what they yearn for—and can thank Mom or Dad or other caregiver for making their wish come true. My wife had a list for five kids, and the oldest on it desperately wanted an MP3 player.

The [Orthodox Jewish B&H] salesman listened to this story, then said he’d see what he could do. He went back to his computer and rechecked the inventory. Sure enough, he found a discounted MP3 player he had overlooked, and even marked it down a notch to $50.

“Take it to the checkout,” he directed my grateful wife. “And Merry Christmas.”

The salesman recognized a mitzvah (good deed) in what my wife was doing, and he replied with one of his own. The moral of the story, if there is one, is that Christmas, though Christian in origin, can unite as well as divide.
I'm sure some people will see this as a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God's name] but personally I shudder at the story.

Sure, the B&H salesman was just trying to treat his customer nicely so she'll have a good shopping experience and come back again. And he was probably also sympathetic with the whole "charity" aspect as well. There's nothing wrong with that. But I find this author's transforming it into some sort of trans-religious experience offensive. Very offensive, actually. Keep your holidays to yourself, please.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Charity Telemarketers

Is there anything wrong with telemarketers for a charity using pressure tactics to get people to donate?

R. Aaron Levine, Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law, pp. 241-242:
A variation of the above case occurs when Arrow [the telemarketer] is a charity solicitor. R. Bezalel Stern dealt with an analogous case: A Rabbi (R) had in his possession matzah for the night of Passover in excess of his own religious requirement (mitzvah) needs. His friend (F) had no matzah to fulfill his mitzvah need and therefore requested R to either sell or give him the excess supply. Here, F’s efforts to overcome R’s initial resistance to make the matzah available to him violates neither the lo tit’avveh nor the lo tahmod interdicts. This is so because absent F’s pleadings and exertions, R, is, in any case, obligated to make the matzah available to F so that he can fulfill his mitzvah need.[21] Similarly, in the case at hand, Oak [the person being called] is obligated to give charity as a religious duty.[22] Making use of persuasion of all sorts to overcome Oak’s initial rejection to contribute to the charitable cause should therefore not entail a violation of lo tit’avveh and lo tahmod on the part of Arrow. Similarly, Arrow’s persistence and persuasion to overcome Oak’s resistance should not amount to causing him needless mental anguish and should therefore not violate ona’at devarim. One caveat, however. To be sure, Oak has a religious duty to give charity. But, Oak may feel that he is not obligated to support the particular organization Arrow is soliciting funds for. Accordingly, Arrow does not have an unlimited license to push his cause on Oak. At some point, Arrow’s persistence and pestering become a violation of ona’at devarim.

[21] R. Bezalel Stern, Be-zel ha-Hokhmah 3:43.
[22] Leviticus 25:35; Deuteronomy 15 7–8, 10. In respect to agricultural produce, the Torah prescribes a ten percent obligation (Deuteronomy 14:22). Talmudic decisors differ as to whether the ten percent benchmark applies to income as well. Opinions in the matter range from an income tithe requirement arising from biblical law to one established by rabbinical edict. In his survey of the Responsa literature, R. Ezra Basri concludes that the majority opinion regards the ten percent level as a definite obligation, albeit by dint of rabbinical decree. In any case, devoting less than ten percent of one’s income to charity is considered by the rabbis to reflect an ungenerous nature. (R. Ezra Basri, Dinei Mamonot vol. 1, p. 405).

When Will They Learn?

Those crazy scientists. They need to speak to my daughter's fifth grade teacher ASAP:
The journal Science's pick for breakthrough of the year in 2005 is "evolution in action," focusing on studies of how evolution works and how it affects lives today.

Several research projects were discussed at meetings to choose the annual breakthrough winner.

"Then we realized they were all connected to evolution," said Colin J. Norman, news editor of Science. "We realized that if we put these together at the molecular level, it's been a banner year for evolutionary research. It shows that evolution underlies all of biology."
Link I, Link II


R. Micha Berger talks about how to make your morning coffee the religious highpoint of your day.


Lamed Zayin composed this Orthodoxy Test that determines, based on your answers to specific questions, where in the spectrum of Orthodoxy you fall (Conservative, Reform, and Gentile readers need not apply). Here's where I ended up: User Test: The Orthodoxy  Test.

Left Wing Modern Orthodox: 18%
Right Wing Modern Orthodox: 70%
Left Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 74%
Right Wing Yeshivish/Chareidi: 41%
This means you're: Left Wing Yeshivish

What does it mean?

So you're frum, but "with it." You know the lingo and walk the walk, but maybe you catch a movie on Motzei Shabbos. Never on Saturday Night though. Sometimes you wonder why all frum Jews can't be normal like you.

Not an unfair evaluation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

An Open Letter to the Israeli Yated Neeman

In your recent editorial about the censorship of R. Nosson Slifkin's books, you wrote:
Many books include ideas mentioned by Slifkin, but only his were condemned. Why? Because of "the impudent and audacious spirit of throwing off the yoke (prikas ol) of the mesorah miSinai and our sages (rabboseinu hakedoshim) who are its bearers (maggidehoh)," that is not found in those others.
I fear that these sentences have raised more questions than they have answered. The implication is that had R. Slifkin written his book with a tone that you would consider more Torahdik but containing the same ideas, the books would not have been condemned. Does this mean that the Gedolim would sanction a book written in a mussardik tone and claiming any of the following:

1. The world is billions of years old
2. While God created everything in this world, man's physical body evolved from lower life forms and only his soul was uniquely created for humans
3. Chazal, despite their unimaginable brilliance and spiritual greatness, might have on extremely rare occasions relied on secular scientists who have now been proven wrong?

If not, I fail to understand the point of your editorial. It does not matter whether the books were written in the spirit of Torah or not. Those Gedolim who objected to the books were condemning the ideas within them and not necessarily their spirit.

Thank you for clarifying your editorial that raised so many important questions.

The Bible in English

In the latest issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, the editor, complains about the official Catholic translation of the Bible, the New American Bible (NAB). He uses some harsh words, calling the translators "tone-deaf linguistic wreckers" among other things.

One of his complaints is about the enigmatic first passage of the Torah, "בראשית ברא א-להים" which is commonly translated as "In the beginning God created..." From the perspective of Hebrew grammar, the phrase is difficult because בראשית technically means "In the beginning of". Beginning of what? Commentators and translators have struggled with this problem for millennia. The KJV translates it as above: "In the beginning God created..." The NAB, in an attempt to be grammatically correct, translates it according to the commentary of Rashbam: "In the beginning, when God created..." This irks Neuhaus.

Another of his complaints revolves around a Psalm that is very familiar to both Jews and Christians. The last phrase of Psalm 23:6 is translated by the KJV and the RSV as: "I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever." Considering the Hebrew "ושבתי בבית יקוק לאורך ימים", the choice of "forever" is fairly non-literal if not plain inaccurate. "לאורך ימים" means for many years or for the rest of one's life; it does not mean forever. The NRSV got it better with: "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." The NAB has it as: "I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come." Fairly accurate, if you ask me. But if you ask Neuhaus, "For years to come? It inevitably prompts the question of how many. Ten? Twenty? fifty? Whatever the answer, it would seem to be far short of forever."

It seems to me, from the little that I've seen, that the NAB translators are striving for accuracy and also to reduce the Bible to language that the average English-reader can understand. The Bible is not supposed to be only for the literary elite. Not that I'm recommending this translation, which according to its preface incorporates the findings of textual criticism. But Neuhaus' criticisms seem to simply be 1) that he's used to other translations and 2) the language used is too unsophisticated.

Thankfully, not being personally burdened by a long (in Neuhaus' case, very long) ritual and scholarly bond with an English translation, I'm not invested in any particular English translation. I actually rarely use one. To me, the original Hebrew text is for the sophisticated reader and any English translation is directed to the unlearned and, therefore, should use the "vulgar," common language. Those who want poetry should go to the original.

Foreign Language Miscellany

1. Telecommuting is such a geshmak, especially when everyone else is going meshuga (for some reason, my mother's "meshige" sounds even better in that sentence).

2. From the mouth of babes: "I can beat up Shmuly and Shmuly can beat up Fuly, so I can beat up Fuly. It's a kal va-homer." If he had said ipso facto, I would have been more impressed.

3. Recent statement by a posek to a friend regarding bugs: "One man's reductio ad absurdum is another's ein hakhi nami."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Bug Story

UPDATE: A new post will come once I go through all the corrections I've received.

You might have heard the recent uproar about certain pre-washed vegetables that lost their kosher certification. Here is the story as I have heard it from a few (anonymous) sources. Note that I have not done any journalistic investigation and have only asked one or two people about it. Take this with a grain of salt.

At a convention of AKO (Association of Kashrus Organizations) in November, there was a discussion about the preparation of pre-washed vegetables (see here and here). In the course of the discussion, it became apparent that the Star-K was following an halakhic position that is unacceptable to some other organizations, including the OU. It seems that the dispute is as follows.

All agree that there is only an obligation to check for bugs if infestation is a mi'ut ha-matzui. This is generally assumed to be 10%.* In other words, if bugs are found in 10% or more of the vegetable under question, every single vegetable must in turn be checked to ensure that it is free of bugs. However, if bugs are found in less than 10%, then one can eat the vegetables relying on the vast majority of bug-free vegetables.

But how do you determine the ratio of infestation? The general position is to determine the overall statistical existence of bugs in the number of vegetablee, e.g. the number of heads of lettuce. The Star-K, following R. Aharon Kotler's personal ruling to R. Moshe Heinemann, does it differently. They look at each particular serving and determine whether there is a probability under 10% that any given serving will contain a bug. If there is, then even if it is of a vegetable that is generally infested at a rate of more than 10% they do not require further checking (this was all explained to my rabbi by a source in the Star-K).

Here is the example given in The OU Guide to Preparing Fruits and Vegetables, p. 16:
Three large heads of cabbage are set aside for coleslaw production in an area where cabbages have been statistically proven to contain on average 1 insect per head. Together, they will yield approximately 10 pounds of the salad providing 32 5-oz. servings.

Taking the first approach, a serving of coleslaw would not be considered mi'ut ha-matzui. Fewer than 10% of the servings of coleslaw could possibly contain a whole insect (3/32 servings). Taking the second approach, we would consider cabbage a vegetable that requires bedikah.
The OU Guide states that R. Hershel Schachter rules leniently, like R. Aharon Kotler and R. Moshe Heinemann above, but "the OU has adopted the more stringent stance." The OU Guide states that R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled strictly and I have confirmed that so do R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and R. Yisroel Belsky.

Returning to the current controversy, the Star-K was certifying romain lettuce -- that generally has a high rate of bug infestation -- if the particular batch under question would yield an infestation rate in each serving below 10%. The other kashrus organizations would have required checking this lettuce (or washing it in such a way as to solve the bug problem).

All of the above is a normal disagreement on an halakhic matter. Then came public statements and the full-page advertisements in Jewish newspapers, in which the OU had no part, that the Star-K was certifying bug-infested lettuce. The Star-K-supervised vegetables were declared infested and non-kosher, despite the Star-K checking and re-checking to make sure that the vegetables they were certifying were indeed bug-free (their representative said he went to the factory and, after checking, left without finding a single bug). The Star-K eventually conceded to these objections and removed their certification from the product under question (link I, link II).

* It is interesting that R. Aaron Levine, in his new book Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law p. 33, quotes R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv as being lenient on this matter and assigning mi'ut ha-matzui to 15-20% rather than 10%. This ruling was given specifically to the OU in regard to checking for vegetables.

The Chief Rabbi Has Good Taste

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks with R. Daniel Z. Feldman, looking at the latter's book The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations. Taken at YU by Menachem Butler.

Note R. Shmuel Marcus, grandson of R. Ahron Soloveichik, in the background.


R. Shlomo Miller, in a recent letter (here -- PDF), quotes the Vilna Gaon's view that darkness is not merely the absence of light but a creation in itself (Aderes Eliyahu, Gen. 1:4 sv. va-yavdel). This, R. Miller suggests, might solve the problems of Quantum Theory and Non-local Reality, that is demonstrated based on Bell's Theorem.

Let me be clear: I have no idea what that means. However, I wonder whether 1) he is assuming that this is an oral tradition received from Sinai or 2) just that the Vilna Gaon was so smart that he figured it out himself. Or, perhaps, 3) the Vilna Gaon didn't realize the significance of his explanation and its scientific applications. The reason I ask these question will become clear shortly.

The Ramban disagrees with the Vilna Gaon. On Gen. 1:4 (sv. va-yavdel), the Ramban writes:
And God divided the light from the darkness: This is not "the darkness" mentioned in the first verse which, as explained above, refers to the element of fire. Rather, the "darkness" mentioned here means the absence of light, since God gave a length of time to the light and decreed that it be absent afterwards until it returns.
Regarding the plague of darkness, the Ramban (Ex. 10:23) writes that the darkness of that specific case was different from regular darkness. Regular darkness is merely the absence of light. The plague of darkness, however, was a unique creation of darkness.

So, going back to R. Miller's letter, did this oral tradition that represents modern science pass the Ramban by unnoticed, and unmentioned until the Vilna Gaon in the eighteenth century? I find that hard to believe. No one bothered to point out that the Ramban was disagreeing with a tradition that traces back to Sinai?!? Was the Vilna Gaon so smart that he solved the problems of Quantum Theory (but kept the theory itself a secret, only to be discovered over a century after his death)? Could be, but I find it implausible. Or is it just that R. Miller finds the Vilna Gaon's explanation to be significant in that it elucidates modern science? That sounds most likely. If I can rephrase what I believe R. Miller's point to be: The Vilna Gaon's explanation works better with modern science than the Ramban's. But doesn't that amount to rejecting a rishon for an aharon because of science? I would find that quite surprising.

Am I missing something? This is not an attempt to argue on R. Miller but to understand his intent.

UPDATE: I had lunch with a talmid hakham who pointed out to me that the Vilna Gaon's view was that of Kalaam, that R. Sa'adia Gaon attempts to disprove in Emunos Ve-Dei'os 1:3 (p. 56 in the Kafah translation). Someone e-mailed me that the Rambam also holds the Ramban's and R. Sa'adia Gaon's view in Moreh Nevukhim 3:10, as does the Ran in Derashos Ha-Ran 3 (p. 40 in the Feldman edition).

Monday, December 19, 2005

Torah Among the Gentiles

I've been asked a few times how to understand the saying of the Sages: "If someone tells you that there is wisdom among the gentiles, believe it. If he tells you that there is Torah among the gentiles, do not believe it." If that is the case, how can I utilize modern commentaries on the Bible written by Christians?

I posted an answer to Avodah from R. Hershel Schachter's recent TorahWeb devar Torah. R. Schachter wrote:
But at the same time the religious Jew has his own unique outlook on life and style of living. The tradition of the Talmud was, based on the possuk in Eicha (2:9), that although there is much chochma (knowledge and wisdom) to be gained from the secular world, but 'Torah' (teaching a way of life and an outlook on the world) can not be picked up from the other disciplines. These can only be acquired through the revealed truths of the Torah.
He understands "Torah" to mean a way of life and not insights into Torah texts. While this is all part of a derashah rather than a pesak, I don't know that it is out of place to take this seriously considering that the source of the statement is itself a midrash.

Would R. Schachter jump at the opportunity to hear Christian scholars teaching Torah? Probably not. But he might not object to a good peshat he hears that happens to originate in a non-Jewish source (as, for example, the Abarbanel does often in his commentary to Tanakh).

Days of the Bible

I don't want to revisit the Slifkin Affar again. Consider this a defense not of R. Slifkin but of the great scholar R. David Tzvi Hoffmann.

On the Avodah e-mail list, Rabbi Simcha Coffer, as part of his lengthy arguments in favor of a literalist understanding of the Creation narrative, wrote the following about the suggestion that the days of Creation were not 24-hour periods:
I ran a search in Tanach and the word yamim appears 292 times. There are two connotations: 1) Days 2) Seas. That's it!
In other words, when the Torah writes "yom" in the Creation narrative, it must be referring to 24-hour periods. Similarly, when the Torah (Ex. 20:10) writes in the ten commandments that God created the world in six "yamim", it must be referring to six periods of 24-hours.

I responded to this briefly and inadequately on the Avodah list. Since a moratorium has been imposed on this subject (it has dragged on for around a year), I'll post a more complete response here.

Rabbi Coffer's statement that "yom" and "yamim" always refer to periods of 24-hours is, in my estimation, contrary to the Jewish tradition from the times of the Talmud through the medieval era and continuing to the modern era. Let me elaborate.

I. Creation

First, it is clear that the word "yom" sometimes refers to the period of daylight, i.e. somewhere from 6-12 hours. Thus, Gen. 1:5 speaks of "yom" and "laylah", the former referring to the time of daylight and the latter to the time of darkness. The same applies to Gen. 1:14 and 1:16, where "yom" refers to less than a 24-hour period.

Gen. 2:4 speaks of all Creation happening during one "yom". Does this mean that everything was really created on the first day, as Rashi suggests (i.e. Creation did not occur in the order described in the first chapter!)? That is definitely one of a number of possible explanations of this difficult verse. It could also be referring to the enter six "days" of Creation as one "yom", further emphasizing that "yom" does not necessarily have a fixed time span.

II. Days of Jubilee

Generally, a plot of land in Israel that is sold returns to its original owner on the Jubilee year. However, plots within a walled city do not. Once a redemption period following the sale passes, the land belongs eternally to its new owner. How long is this redemption period? The Torah (Lev. 25:29) defines it as "yamim tihyeh ge'ulaso" which the oral tradition (Kesubos 57b) teaches us is one year. "Yamim" here does not mean a few days but a year.

You might respond that this refers to "days" which must be a plurality of a day. A year is a valid plurality of days. But when the Torah specifies the number of days, as in the ten commandments' six days, it must refer to six 24-hour days. However, as Rashi on the above verse points out, there is another similar case.

When Rivka sent away her son, Ya'akov, she told him to wait for a certain time period until his brother Esav's anger calmed down. The time period is: "Yamim ahadim" -- a few days (Gen. 27:44). Ibn Ezra compares this to the above verse about the jubilee, explaining it as a few years. "Yamim" here means years and "a few days" means "a few years". As Rashi (Gen. 29:20) points out, this time period of years (which turned out to be 22 years) is referred to on three occasions as "yamim" (Gen. 27:44, 29:18, 20,).

Similarly, when Rivka was about to go with Eliezer to marry Yitzhak, her mother and brother asked that she remain with them for another period of time -- "Yamim o asor" (Gen. 24:55). Rashi, quoting the above Gemara, writes that this is similar to the case of the Jubilee, in which "yamim" refers to a full year.

III. More Examples

Both R. Yonah Ibn Janah and Radak, in their books both of which are named Sefer Ha-Shorashim, give multiple definitions of the term "yom", with many biblical examples to subtantiate these definitions.

For example:

- Ex. 13:10: "You shall keep this ordinance mi-yamim yamimah". This does not mean that you have observe Passover every day. Here, "yamim" means a year.

- Numbers 8:17: "Be-yom I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt." Here, "yom" refers to a specific time and not to a 24-hour period.

- Gen. 25:33: "Swear to me ka-yom." Here, "yom" means at this time.

- Deut. 32:7: "Remember yemos of the world." "Yom" certainly does not mean a 24-hour period but, rather, thousands of years!

- Isaiah 54:7: "Ki-yemei of Noah are these." Some translate "yemei" as "the waters" but some as the "days", with days here meaning the general era of the Flood (cf. Radak ad loc.).

- Isaiah 11:1: "And on that yom the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples." That verse is certainly not referring to just a single 24-hour period.

IV. Conclusion

It is clear that, in biblical Hebrew, "yom" and "yamim" do not refer solely to 24-hour periods. They can refer to other time periods and even to a general, unspecific period of time.

Is it a stretch to suggest that the "yom" and "yamim" of Creation refer to billions of years? I think everyone will agree that it is. But that does not mean that it is necessarily incorrect. It could very well be true, as R. David Tzvi Hoffmann and others have suggested.

Religious Zionism on Open Access

R. Shlomo Aviner's essay Do Not Ascend Like A Wall, as translated into English by R. Mordechai Friedfertig, is now available in full on Open Access.



For those who missed it when I mentioned it last week, you can find my podcast here.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ride to a Wedding II

I got back not long ago from this wedding. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Dr. Nachum Klafter. The best part of the wedding was definitely when a Lubavitcher with a "Yehi" yarmulke sat down next to Dr. Klafter and engaged him in a conversation about how the story of Hanukah is about the defeat of Rationalism.

Death Penalty

Over at Cross Currents, Toby Katz wrote a post about the recent execution of Stanley Tookie Williams titled "Tookie — goodbye and good riddance." In the comments, I objected to taking this tone about his execution. I mistakenly thought that Tookie was one of the many "born again" death row inmates who regretted his crime. If that were the case, and he was a repentant sinner, then our attitude to him should be different.

The Gemara (Makkos 13b) is clear that someone who is due to be punished by a beis din and repents is still punished. However the question is raised why that is the case. R. Yosef Engel (Gilyonei Ha-Shas, ad loc.) brings two general approaches to this:

1. If the criminal really did do teshuvah then he should not be punished. However, it is simply impossible for any human to conclusively know the truth so we cannot exempt him from punishment.

2. We limited humans can only do mishpat because we can never know the full context of a person's actions, given his experiences, his upbringing, his frame of mind, etc. That is why we cannot exempt a repentant criminal from punishment; we can only take into account the facts. But God works based on hessed and will take into account a person's full context, including any later teshuvah (I believe that this is how the Maharal, cited by R. Engel, phrases this concept).

My dear friend, R. Daniel Z. Feldman, directed me to a responsum by the Kozhoglover Rav, R. Tzvi Hirsch Frimer (in whose memory floor 5a of the YU library is dedicated), in his Eretz Tzvi (vol. 2 p. 167). He takes the first view, that teshuvah cannot forestall a beis din's punishment because true repentance cannot be ascertained by humans.

He also pointed out to me the responsum by R. Nosson Gestetner (Le-Horos Nassan, vol. 9 kuntres va-hai bahem), where R. Gestetner rules that while teshuvah might not stop the punishment, it does have other practical implications. For example, if a repentant criminal whose execution is imminent should fall ill on Shabbos, the Shabbos must still be desecrated to save his life.

What's my point?

Just because someone has committed a crime and will be/has been executed does not mean that he is worthless. If he has truly repented then we must have compassion and maybe even respect for him. Summarily dismissing him is simply wrong. Note that this does not undermine the court's need to punish someone for his crime.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Proper Attribution of Secondary Sources

From R. Aaron Levine, Moral Issues of the Marketplace in Jewish Law, pp. 31-35:
Using Secondary Sources Without Attribution

I. Geneivat Da'at

The reasonableness criterion provides the starting point for analyzing the ethics of [Rabbi] Samson not disclosing to his audience that he made use of Berit Yehudah to prepare his lecture. Consider that thorough preparation combined with the knowledge of which sources to consult will assuredly generate goodwill for Samson for the lecture he delivers. There can be no doubt that this goodwill is his legitimate entitlement. Accordingly, if the audience generally presumes that Samson makes use of secondary sources and eclectic works to prepare his lecture, his failure to give attribution to Berit Yehudah does not project him as more scholarly and learned than he actually is. Does Halakhah give Samson a license to rely on his own intuition that this is in fact the case?...

What adverse consequences does Samson face in the event his assessment is wrong? Because punishing consequences do not follow on the heels of error, Samson’s intuition in the matter must be regarded as self-serving and hence unreliable.

Why is it wrong for Samson to rely on his intuition in this matter? The operative principle here is the mi’ut ha-matzui (small, but significant percentage) rule. This rule states that Halakhah concerns itself with a condition as prevailing even though it is not based on observed fact but, rather, only on a small, yet significant statistical probability[47]...

The mi’ut ha-matzui rule tells us that there will certainly be some people in the audience who will gather an overly favorable impression of Samson’s scholarship on account of the rabbi’s failure to disclose that he used Berit Yehudah to prepare his lecture. Failure to make the disclosure hence puts Samson at risk of violating the geneivat da’at interdict. But, what of the principle, discussed earlier, that an individual is not responsible for disabusing others of a false impression when that impression is the product of self-deception? There must be a quantitive measure for mi’ut ha-matzui. If the percentage of people in the audience left with the misimpression falls below this threshold number, then, the judgment will be that these people were guilty of self-deception. If, on the other hand, the percentage of people left with the misimpression is higher than this benchmark, then Samson’s nondisclosure of his sources is not acceptable.

How is mi’ut ha-matzui translated into quantitative terms? Addressing himself to this issue, R. Jacob b. Aaron (Karlin, d. 1844) regards mi’ut ha-matzui as generally translating into a 10 percent benchmark.[49] Disputing R. Jacob b. Aaron, R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Israel, contemp.) feels that mi’ut ha-matzui translates into a 15–20 percent range...[50]

Suppose that Samson conducts the necessary survey and the data confirm his intuition. What the outcome of the survey does is only to make Samson’s nondisclosure of Berit Yehudah free of a geneivat da’at violation. Not telling the audience of his debt to Berit Yehudah may, however, violate other ethical duties.

II. The Law of Attribution

One problem Samson’s nondisclosure entails is that his conduct falls short of the demands of the law of attribution. Repeating a saying in the name of the person who said it is counted by the Tanna in Avot as one of the 48 qualities necessary to acquire the Torah. The Tanna goes on to say: “Whoever repeats a thing in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it is said: ‘And Esther said to the king in the name of Mordecai’ ’’(Avot 6:6).[51] To be sure, Samson gives proper attribution to the originators of all of the concepts and rulings he mentions. But, he does not look up these sources in their original works, but instead relies on R. Bloi’s summaries [in Berit Yehudah] of these works. R. Bloi hence assumes the role of the first teacher in a chain of teachers. In this regard, the Talmud at Nazir 56b informs us that for a teaching reported in a chain of three or more teachers, we mention, in the attribution, the first and last conveyors of the law, but we need not mention the intermediate conveyors. Thus, R. Yehudah ha-Nassi presents in his Mishnah a teaching of R. Elazar in the name of R. Yehoshua b. Hananya; even though R. Elazar did not learn the dictum directly from R. Yehoshua b. Hananya, but instead only from R. Yehoshua b. Mamal, who, in turn, learned it from R. Yehoshua b. Hananya. Since R. Bloi is for Rabbi Samson the first teacher in a chain of teachers, the law of attribution requires Samson to mention R. Bloi.

A variation of this case occurs when Samson looks up all the sources R. Bloi quotes and studies them in the original. Because Samson is now in a position to directly report on what these authorities have to say, these authorities now become Samson’s first teachers in a chain of teachers and the role R. Bloi plays here is reduced to someone who made Samson aware of their teachings. In the latter scenario, the law of attribution does not require Samson to make mention of R. Bloi. Samson’s failure to acknowledge R. Bloi not only violates the law of attribution, but also bespeaks of ingratitude and disrespect for someone who has effectively become his teacher of Torah. We need only take note of the dictum of the Tanna in Avot (6:3): “He who learns from his fellow a single chapter, a single Halakhah, a single verse, a single Torah statement, or even a single letter, must treat him with honor . . .”

The upshot of the above analysis is that without a validating survey to confirm his intuition that the audience is well aware without being explicitly told that he uses secondary sources to prepare the lecture, Samson’s silence on the role Berit Yehudah played in preparing his lecture violates geneivat da’at law. Moreover, even if Samson has this validating survey in hand, not to acknowledge R. Bloi does injustice to the law of attribution and bespeaks of ingratitude and disrespect to someone who has effectively become his teacher of Torah. The extent to which Samson should acknowledge R. Bloi will depend on the degree to which Samson relied on Berit Yehudah in preparing his lecture. Greatest acknowledgment will be owed if Berit Yehudah both laid out his lecture for him and made him aware for the first time of the issues he spoke about.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Reiki Ruckus

A frequent correspondent of mine, Dr. Moyshe Kalman, writes a column in a Jewish newspaper on medical issues of interest to the Jewish (primarily Orthodox) community. In a column in November, Dr. Kalman wrote about the controversial "alternative" medical treatment called Reiki.
The old, mainstream holistic therapies such as Osteopathy and Acupuncture have been established and observed for over a hundred years, in the case of Osteopathy and three thousand years and in the case of Acupuncture have become well rooted. While they many not be “conventional” they are grudgingly accepted as a recognizable form of medical treatment almost universally. Now, however, sneaking into our lives in the wake of this wave of New Age Mysticism are many “spiritual healing” methods which not only do not have any basis what so ever in physical, empirical medicine, but come from very dubious sources, indeed. One which has become very wide spread in our community is Reiki (pronounced “ray key”).
According to the 1992 Reiki Handbook, Reiki treatment can cure diseases ranging from brain damage to diabetes to all sorts of infectious diseases.

According to the Wikipedia article on Reiki, the method was "rediscovered" by a Japanese Tendai Buddhist named Mikao Usui. He "claimed that, through a mystical revelation, he had gained the knowledge and spiritual power to apply and attune others to 'Reiki's' healing energy. Mikao Usui claimed that he could enable his students to enlarge their access to the energy through certain initiations. Usui taught that attunement to the energy enhances and refines a person's ability to connect with this already occurring natural healing energy. Through such initiations, students are said to become clearer channels for Reiki, and this theoretically enhances the quality of treatments that student (or practitioner) provides."

However, Reiki remains controversial. There is currently no proof that Reiki's results are any more effective than a placebo. Unlike many other forms of "alternative" treatment, no scientific study (i.e. double blind with proper safeguards) has been performed to verify any of Reiki's claims. The existence of "Reiki energy," the basis of the treatment, has yet to be demonstrated. Again from Wikipedia:
The existence of Reiki energy has not been scientifically proven, and thus the scientific community ascribes anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of Reiki therapy to the placebo effect and a combination of post hoc reasoning and the regressive fallacy. Some critics go so far as to suggest that the treatment is little more than a con scheme to fleece gullible desperate sick people. They cite stories and give examples of stories of people who have paid huge "energy payments" to so called Reiki "doctors" - there have allegedly been cases where even unsuccessful attempts at treatment cost tens of thousands of dollars. Proponents of Reiki claim that they can detect and manipulate this energy, but a means to measure it or even objectively demonstrate its existence to the satisfaction of the scientific community has yet to be found. The predominant opinion among the scientific community is that the sensations felt by practitioners and patients of Reiki are psychologically subjective or the result of self-deceit.

Doctors, academics, and consumer advocates have expressed concern when patients with serious diseases such as cancer choose Reiki solely as a means of treatment over trained doctors. In some cases people reject conventional medicine completely and solely practice Reiki, and this is deemed as a highly untrustworthy and potentially dangerous practice even within the Reiki and wider alternative health community.
Dr. Kalman voiced suspicion about Reiki and concluded by asking whether there is any place in Judaism for Reiki.

In response to Dr. Kalman's article, a major rabbinic figure,* Av Beis Din his community, wrote a letter to the newspaper identifying himself as a Reiki practitioner (technically called a Reiki Master) and defending the practice. He wrote:
Reiki & Dowsing are wondrous and wonderful gifts given by Hashem, provided they are not abused or misused, but practised the correct way. I myself have Boruch Hashem helped numerous people, both adults and children, who suffer from allergies to varying degrees, but had no idea to what they were allergic. By means of dowsing, I ascertained which foods, and often non-foods, trigger the allergies. Many, though by no means all, have been greatly helped and often cured...

Boruch Hashem by means of Reiki I can de-allergise foods, materials, medication etc. I put my hands on them for a short while and the allergy disappears. Do not ask me how it works, as I have no idea what the answer is. But does it really matter? Do we understand everything else? Does it not border on arrogance to dismiss something merely because we do not comprehend it? The fact is that I often helped people with this method...

As to the argument that Reiki & Dowsing cannot be scientifically proven – so what? Are there not numerous things in our Emunah which cannot be proven in a laboratory, including the very existence of G-d?
Halakhic Issues

It is clear that there are no halakhic issues with Reiki. Even though it originated in Buddhism, as long as it is not outright idolatry it is permissible for the sake of healing (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 301:27).

And as long as practitioners are clear on their qualifications and honest in their claims, there is no issue in taking money. Charging money to desperate people is permissible if they understand what they are paying and receive the services for which they pay.

Theological issues

Is it possible that Reiki works? Of course it is. There are studies documenting the effectiveness of many "alternative" treatments, chief among them acupuncture. While the metaphysical theories behind the treatments may not be correct, they have been fine-tuned through many years of trial and error to the point that somehow they work. But does that mean that Reiki works?

I'm no expert in medicine but I do know a little about statistics. Anecdotes just don't prove anything. People are often cured without any treatment at all! Perhaps Reiki even reduces people's chances for healing. Test it out and see.

I have personally seen people get all involved in "alternative" treatments with minimal benefit, but they insist that they are getting better. Finally, when they are convinced to try more conventional treatments, they are healed much more thoroughly and quickly.

Regardless, it is certainly disheartening to see a respected scholar denigrate science and medicine. Yes, belief in Judaism is important. But does mean that belief in everything is valid? Since I believe in God without proof, therefore I have to believe in everything without proof?

Given the unfortunate proliferation in the realm of "alternative" treatment of misled and sometimes misleading people, and the obvious willingness of desperate people to try anything, it seems appropriate to show restraint in diverting their time, money and hopes from proven treatments.

* I have chosen to refrain from naming the Dayan. However, I think it is worth noting that a few years ago he was a vocal supporter of facilitated communication.

Ride to a Wedding

Anyone going to the Cincinnati-Teaneck wedding in Williamsburg this Sunday afternoon from Flatbush? I need a ride. Please e-mail me.

Thanks in advance.

Eruvin in Brooklyn III

In a previous post, I discussed the issue of having a street go all the way through from one end of a city to the other. Below are some pictures of Ocean Ave. and Ocean Parkway. Recall that Ocean Ave. is a fairly straight continuation of Flatbush Ave., that begins with the Mahattan Bridge. On the other side, Ocean Ave. ends at the beach. Here is a picture from Google Earth (thanks to R. Reuven Ibragimov for suggesting that I use the service) of Ocean Ave.:

Note how the street spills out onto the beach, which lacks a sufficient incline to qualify as a wall for an eruv.

Ocean Parkway

Below are maps of Ocean Parkway. The street starts off as the BQE/Gowanis Parkway that connect to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge. The Gowanis Parkway connects to the Prospect Expressway which turns into Ocean Parkway. Ocean Parkway continues until the end of Brooklyn and then curves into Surf Ave. Surf Ave. has a number of outlets onto the boardwalk. The boardwalk itself is not a valid wall and opens up onto the beach, which is also not a valid wall.

The above is from Google Maps. The pictures below, of Ocean Parkway curving and then outlets going to the boardwalk, are from Google Earth.

I drove out to one of those outlets this past Sunday and took some pictures with my cellphone camera. This is of Dewey Albert Place, West 10th St. Here is the street as it looks about halfway down from its intersection with Surf Ave. Note the two ramps that go up to the boardwalk. Their incline is not steep enough to stop the "street" from continuing up onto the boardwalk.

Here is the ramp on the left.

Here is what it looks like up on the boardwalk. Note that the gate does not qualify as a wall and there is no incline on the beach, so the "street" continues straight out into the ocean.

If one allows significantly curving streets to still make eruvin impossible, as some posekim do, then Ocean Parkway should qualify. It goes from one end of Brooklyn to the other, from a tunnel and bridge to the boardwalk and beach. According to these authorities, in order to build an eruv in Brooklyn one would have to close off the outlets onto the beach with a wall.

This is, of course, not lost on the pro-eruv rabbis. Here is how they solved the problem. This is a lamppost on the boardwalk, at the corner of W. 10th St. and Riegelmann Boardwalk.

And there is the tzuras ha-pesah that is supposed to enclose the street from continuing into the ocean.

Whether this is sufficient to qualify as a wall for this purpose will God-willing be discussed in a future post.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Blog Awards

Israelly Cool, in conjunction with the Jerusalem Post, is hosting awards for Jewish and Israeli Blogs (JIB) in 2005. So far, this blog has been nominated in three categories (Best Overall Blog, Best Jewish Religion Blog, Best Series). Thank you to those who nominated the blog. I'll let you know when voting starts.

Krum as a Bagel suggested a category for best commenter. I've decided to give my own awards for different categories of commenters. Rather than going through a whole nomination and voting process, I'm just declaring winners.

Most prolific and enigmatic use of acronyms in comments: Steve Brizel

Most cynical commenter: Shmarya

Most sought-after commenter: Nachum Klafter

Most self-promoting commenter: Dovbear

Most frequent commenter via e-mail: Shmuel [last name withheld]

And, a blog category that didn't make it to the JIB awards:

Blog that most frequently censors comments: A tie between Hirhurim and Cross Currents

Congratulations to all the winners. No, you don't get anything other than the prestige.

Metzitzah VII

ZSB shares with us the following message from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene:
The New York City Department of Health recommends against the practice, but in any case suggests that parents be told before the bris if MbP is to be used, so that they can make an informed decision...

In November 2004, the Health Department was notified of 3 male infants with HSV-1. All were circumcised by one mohel (Mohel B), who performed metzitzah b’peh. The infants developed herpes infection in the genital area 8-10 days after circumcision and were hospitalized for several weeks. One baby died from the infection. Two cases were reported by physicians in 2005 and both are also consistent with infection from metzitzah b’peh. Every case occurred in the time frame consistent with transmission from metzitzah b’peh.

Our investigation found Mohel B to be the source of the 2004 cases, and metzitzah b’peh to be the means of infection for these and other cases...

With an estimated average of fewer than 30 cases of all forms of infant herpes infections occurring per year in New York City, the odds of one mohel being associated with 3 cases of neonatal herpes are infinitesimally small (about 6.9 million to 1)...

Three investigations published within the past 5 years (from New York City [1], Israel [2, 3] and Canada[3]) describe 11 cases of males with HSV-1 infections on their genitals following metzitzah b’peh...

Susan Blank, MD, MPH Julia Schillinger, MD, MSc

Assistant Commissioner Director of Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Research

Bureau of Sexually Transmitted Disease Control
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene1
25 Worth Street
New York, NY 10013
And see these articles in today's NY Daily News and NY Post.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Case for Peace

I recently read Alan Dershowitz's new book The Case for Peace and was somewhat surprised by it (here's a link to an article about Dershowitz's recent debate with Noam Chomsky on this subject). Dershowitz attempts to map out a workable peace plan, emphasizing that both sides will need to compromise and giving specific suggestions on what is necessary for each side to abandon and on what issues there is room for discussion. Additionally, he brings to light a number of very creative solutions to some of the thorniest problems. For example, regarding the lack of contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank that would make uniting the two in one country difficult, he reports that a monorail system has been designed to connect the two without allowing stops in Israel. He also points out that certain major Israeli cities within the West Bank, such as Maaleh Adumim, are entirely non-negotiable, as is a total right of return to Israel for Palestinians.

Importantly, he notes the significant barrier to peace that external parties pose. In particular, he points to academics and liberals. They demonize Israel for its "occupation" of Palestine and criticize it for its human rights violations, without pointing to others who are more blatantly occupying the land of others and violating human rights (e.g. China and Tibet). This unfair distortion of reality to make Israel into the worst country in the world is not only unfair and causes economic damage to Israel based on false premises, it is a deterrent to peace.

However, despite Dershowitz's contagious optimism and his extreme realism, I left the book puzzled. The question kept coming to my mind, "Why?" Why would Israel agree to this plan or any variation of it? The Palestinians want a state, so they will have to agree to something. But why would Israel need to compromise? The answer, of course, is war and terrorism. Israel wants peace; the Palestinians want independence. The proposed plan will give Palestinians an independence that, short of a protracted war that would cripple Israel internationally, is essentially irrevocable. Agreeing to the plan will give Palestinians most of what they want. But will Israel get what it wants?

I was surprised to see that Dershowitz devoted only one short chapter of three pages to the cessation of terrorism. His answer is basically that we'll have to work on ensuring it. But how? How will Israel be guaranteed that terrorism will stop? Perhaps the Palestinian government will focus on building its own country and allow the terrorists to do whatever they want in exchange for not interfering in building infrastructure. Maybe the government itself will help the terrorists. What guarantees can Israel receive that terrorism will stop?

I fully support creating a Palestinian state and compromising on many important issues if, and only if, terrorism is guaranteed to stop. But that is the single most important point and is a deal-killer. Without that absolute guarantee, there should not be any deal.

Personally, I can't think of any way to create the absolute cessation of terrorism but if Dershowitz can apply his ample creativity to this problem, perhaps he will indeed arrive at a case for peace. For now, however, all he has proposed is a case for Palestine.

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