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Showing posts from May, 2013

Thought for the Day: Why Reconciling Torah and Science is a Non-issue

I have oft been asked: How do you reconcile being religious with your science background.  I always start be telling them that they are not asking a well formed question.  (That, of course, does win a lot of friends for me; I am good with that.)  There are basically two ways to make the question precise.

The first approach (which is what they really mean) is:
How do you reconcile your faith with current scientific theories? The answer to that questions is: I don't.  Moreover, if those two could be reconciled, it would be proof (nearly) positive that my faith was wrong.  More on that later.

The question they should, be asking, on the other hand,  is:
How do you reconcile your faith and what you believe to be true as a scientist? That is not only something I can do, it is actually an essential and ongoing activity for anyone who is rational about his beliefs.  To set the groundwork for that, I make the following bold assertions.

There is no scientific data that contradicts the Torah …

Thought for the Day: When You Don't Have to Fast, It Depends Why

The Ramchal in Sefer Ikarim notes that there is no essential difference between d'rabanan's and d'oraisa's; they are both revealed wisdom.  The divine wisdom revealed to the entire population at Har Sinai is called d'oraisa.  The wisdom revealed through those who have "paid their dues" (so to speak) by exhaustively delving into the Torah to the limits of human ability is called d'rabanan.  Being that both d'rabanans and d'oraisas come from the same source -- HaShem Yisbarach, HaKadosh Baruch Hu -- there is absolutely no sense whatsoever to being any more lenient or strict with one over the other.  There are, however, two differences that do make a difference in how they are applied to halacha l'maisah.

First, there is the way they apply in situations of uncertainty.  The rule for d'rabanan's is that in cases of uncertainty the lenient application prevails, in the case of d'oraisa it is the stringent.  I stress again this has no…

Thought for the Day: Havana, Bina, T'vuna -- Surface, Depth, New Surface

Anyone who has taught a class that requires problem solving has heard the following complaint:
I understand the material, I just can't do the problems. As someone who has both taught and taken such classes, I can testify from bitter experience that the answer to this complaint is always the same,
Then you don't understand the material. An answer which is both frustrating and irritatingly true.  In fact, I am sure that a non-negligible component of my tenacity in getting a Ph.D. in physics was to be able to give that answer back the newbies.  Pettiness knows no bounds and takes no prisoners.

In fact, however, the real problem here is that English does not have good words to express the different concepts being hidden by the word "understand".  The G"ra in his pirush on sefer Mishlei explains that Lashon HaKodesh does have such words.  The nouns havana, bina, and t'vuna all come from the same root that means to understand.  Havana is the simple, straightforwar…

Thought for the Day: Kavod HaTorah Expressed by Kavod Sefer Torah

During the beautiful Pesach we enjoyed in Florida with our progeny this year, there was one crisis that was very real and thankfully resolved within just a few hours.  The crisis began when my six year old granddaughter noticed that her new kosel ring was missing.  Her mother had been to a training class in Eretz Yisrael and brought back that kosel ring just a couple of week earlier.  We had been playing on the swings when she noticed it was missing.  We searched and searched, but the playground was large and covered in course sand/pebbles.  We came up empty handed.  She was devastated.  She was very mature about it (for a six year old), but it was heart breaking for all of us.  A few hours later she went back to the playground with her father for one last try; Baruch HaShem, they were successful; she had the ring back and daddy was a bigger hero than ever.
If you would ask and insurance adjuster that value of that ring, he would have told you (if he didn't hang up on you for bein…

Thought for the Day: Halacha First/Ikar, Minhagim Second/Tafel

We love our minhagim.  They are fun and add flavor to our observance.  On the other hand, it is imperative to know what things are "mei ikar ha'din" (required by halacha) and which things are minhagim.  It's always important that one's avodas HaShem is not a matter of just going through the motions, but when minhagim and halacha collide... whoa, Nelly!

Halichos Shlomo in hilchos ta'anis paskens that a child who has not yet reached the age of bar/bas mitzvah should not fast any of the four ta'anis tzibur, including Tisha b'Av.  In the footnotes (which I believe I have mentioned before, right?), R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is quoted as regularly "joking" about people who are so makpid (insistent) on three threes that have no basis in halacha.  One at a time, these three threes are:

Fasting the three fasts before one's bar/bas mitzvah.  There certainly is a basis for fasting Yom Kippur a year or even two before bar/bas mitzvah for at leas…

Thought for the Day: Explicitly Expressed in the Torah Includes Halacha l'Moshe Mi'Sinai

I took German in while in graduate school in Salt Lake City.  German was the language used in many seminal articles in physics from about the turn of the century (yike!  I guess I mean the previous century, don't I) till 2nd World War.  (The Nazi's made everyone skittish about using anything German for a while, so the language of science became American.)  Our TAs were usually returned missionaries who had done there stint in Germany, and so I also learned some of the jokes they seasoned missionaries played on the newbies. One was to send the newbie into a bakery to get a yummy "davon" and to be insistent not to accept the vastly inferior "wovon".  This led to great mirth among the seasoned veterans watching the escalating and sometimes heated exchange between newbie and baker.  "Davon", you see, means (colloquially) "that one"; "wovon" mean "which one?"

If you don't know the vocabulary, communication is very diff…

Thought for the Day: Torah Needs To Be Yours, Not Just "In Your Hand"

Pirkei Avos is at the same time one of the most accessible tractate of mishnayos and at the same time most enigmatic.  That makes  a lot of sense, as it is all about hashkafa.  One of the most important milestones in my life was realizing how important it is to have a proper frame of reference.

Many of us have had the experience of sitting on a train at the station, watching the train on the adjacent tracks get more distant, and not being able to discern if you or the other train is the one moving.  Things get more complicated when you are not moving in a straight line.  For example, when riding a merry go round, one seems to feel an outward force (know as the centrifugal force), when in actuality the only force acting on you is the frictional force keeping you from continuing in a straight line.  The centrifugal force is an artifact (known in physics as pseudo force) that is due to you making your observations from an accelerating frame of reference.  (Oh.. wait!  This isn't a ph…

Thought for the Day: Halacha/Mussar/Medrash -- All for One and One for All

D'varim 6:18 states, "You shall do what is fair and good in the eyes of HaShem".  Seems to be a very straightforward mussar vort, no?  That is, nothing actionable, just good advice.  It's in the same parsha as the (repitition of) the Aseras haDibros and the famous watchword of our faith, "Sh'ma Yisrael; HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad".  So the advice in 6:18 fits quite nicely in context, thank you.

I am pretty sure this won't shock you, but Chazal don't explain it that way.  Of course it certainly is good advice, but it is also hard hitting, you can take this to the bank and even take property from another Jew, halacha.  Also, of course, Chazal are simply relaying to us what the Author (aka, HaShem, HaKadosh, Baruch Hu) intended.

So here's the deal.  Yaakov sells his field to Yehuda for X thousand dollars.  Shimon, however, owns a field that borders said field, making Shimon a "bar metzra" (hebrew: ben ha'meitzar; a bordering ow…

Thought for the Day: Evolution of the G'zeiros d'Rabanan

I saw a clear proof that evolution based on survival of the fittest is completely false: an idiot riding his bike in traffic, not wearing a helmet, smoking, and talking on his cell phone.  That creature in no way fits the description of "survival of the fittest".  I was going to point this out to my atheist co-workers, but quickly realized that that same creature is also clear proof against intelligent design.  Oh well, I am still unable to illuminate the dark chambers of their strange beliefs in evolution.

Just because evolution applied to the origin of species is false, does not mean that the word has no value.  The word has quite legitimate uses even within our own tradition.  Many g'zeiros d'rabanan underwent an evolution from their initial inception until reaching the final form (sometime before the close of the Babylonian Talmud) that we all know and love today.

Muktza, for example, was originally very much more restrictive than it is now.  N'chemia saw th…

Thought for the Day: Personal and Communal Spirituality

Two related, very cool, questions.  First, suppose the mashiach were to come this Monday.  (That's the soonest I could manage to fit all shitos.  Eliyahu can't come on Friday because we are busy preparing for Shabbos and there is a machlokes if he can come on Sunday because of t'chum issues.  Even so, one can still  worry about who will do the avoda since we are all tamei l'meis; kasha af a hypothetical ma'aseh.)  In that case, would bring a tashlumin for Shavuous?  Second question: Suppose someone became an avel today or tomorrow, but doesn't celebrate Shavuos.  In that case would he still sit shiva on Friday?  (How do you have someone who didn't celebrate Shavuos, but is makpid on shiva?  First of all, I don't have to answer that question because is doesn't have any bearing on the question itself.  Second of all, maybe he will decide to become a ba'al t'shuva right after Shavuos.  Third of all, we are all hopelessly inconsistent in our obs…

Thought for the Day: Success by Rituals and Ceremonies

"You must do the ceremonies!"  Not a Shabbos Shuva drash, but a constant reminder from my manager.  Software engineering and management has always been challenging.  As the name implies, it's "soft" and easy to change.  There's a problem?  No problem, just retype a few lines of instructions.  So what's the problem?  Big problem.  There are 10s of thousands of lines of instructions; many thousands of which depend on other thousands in lots of hidden way.  On the one hand, any change is likely to have unpredicted side effects, so every change needs thought and planning.  On the other hand, change is imperative.  New features need to be added to keep up, of course.  The system needs to be continually made faster and more efficient.  Oh, and of course, there are those defects.  As computers and the internet becomes faster and cheaper, development needs to keep apace.

The process du jour (I know, that doesn't look correct to me, either; but Merriam Webst…

Thought for the Day: Applications of Issur d'Rabanan of Avsha Milsa

I was discussing the issues surrounding the use of hearing aids on Shabbos with a close friend.  One concern is whether one is allowed to speak directly to a person wearing hearing aids on Shabbos.  Seeing my hesitancy to see any problem at all, my friend asked, "What if someone with a boom box on his shoulder sticks a microphone in your face?  Are you going to talk into that?  Huh?  Huh?  And isn't a hearing aid just a little bitty boom box with an itsy bitsy microphone?  Huh?  Huh?"  Somehow the people I hang with tend to use such black and white m'shalim.  (Often followed by a remark, usually by their wife who is rolling her eyes, "You have been hanging around Michael too much!"  The 10 year old boy in me loves that; especially the rolling eyes and tone of exasperation.)
So what is the issue and is there a problem?  Is there any difference between a micropone/boom box vs hearing aid?  What's the issur of using a microphone, anyway?

The root of the w…

Thought for the Day: Halacha and Kabalas haTorah

So... you go to your local Jewish book store to get a new Shabbos yarmulka.  How do you actually acquire it?  Here is a hint: movable objects (as opposed to land, for example) can not be acquired with money.  They way you acquire your beautiful new Shabbos yarmulka is by picking it up.  Please don't run out right now to pick up a new yarmulka and expect to call out to the owner as you leave, "Michael Allen told me it was ok." It is true that the acquisition (ie, transfer of ownership) only happens when you lift your item, but the transfer will only happen if the current owner (or his agent) wants to transfer ownership to you.  The usual way to get him to want to transfer ownership to you, of course, is to give him money.

Just to be complete.  You give him money, he accepts the money, writes a receipt, has said receipt signed by two kosher witnesses, hands you the yarmulka, you take it and lift it at least one tefach.  At that point the yarmulka is now yours; Mazal Tov!  …

Thought for the Day: Staying On (and Returning To) the Path to Olam HaBa

My high school chemistry teacher once handed out a paper entitled, "Don't X the Y too Z".  The paper was about how not to write instructions and procedures.  What is one to do when the instructions advise, "Don't tighten the screw too much"?  Turn the screw till it breaks, then back off a quarter turn?  (I've tried that; it doesn't work.)  L'havdil, Shlomo ha'Melech, the ultimate m'chanech, certainly knew that very well.  Before telling us the three main highways to oblivion, he has already given us the cure for each.

The problem with pesatood (the state of being a pesi, a simpleton) is just not knowing how to reply to the yeitzer hara.  The first attack of the yeitzer hara is usually, "Hey, it'll be fun.  And, after all, what could be wrong with it?"  If you don't know what to answer, then it is very difficult to refuse.  We all know, and the yeitzer hara better than most, the Yerushalmi that a person will be taken to …

Thought for the Day: Three Main Highways Out of the World and Toward Oblivion

As the old joke goes, I'd rather die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather than screaming in terror like his passengers.  On the surface, that probably sounds like a good idea.  On the other hand, this world is nothing more than an antechamber to prepare for the olam ha'ba.  It was well worth it for me to go through three months of grueling chemotherapy in order to live a healthy life (17 years so far, bli ayin hara, and counting).  It is all the more so worth whatever might be required in this world to enter into that permanent state of existence healthy and whole.

We are in this world to merit our existence.  We earn that merit by exercising our free will to do the right thing.  In order to be able to freely choose the right thing, there must be temptations to the do the wrong thing.  Any color Model T as long as it's black just isn't a choice.  The Torah ha'K'dosha gives us all the information we need to make informed, correct choices.  Shlomo ha'Me…

Thought for the Day: Doing What's Right, Not What's Popular, Take Real Effort

There was one thing my mother used to say to me that I vowed to never say to my children: "If that's the worst thing that ever happens to you, you're pretty lucky."  I didn't like it at the time because whatever was going on felt pretty yucky and it didn't make me feel any better hearing that there was worse to to come.  I believe I never broke my vow.  (Any children beg to differ?  No?  Good.)

She had other aphorisms, however, with which I couldn't argue.  There were times I wanted to do something that Tommy was doing and she would ask, "Would you want to jump of a bridge if Tommy was doing that?"  I couldn't really argue on that.  Frustrating, yes; arguable; no.  Truth often feels like that, as a matter of fact.

This feeling of wanting to do something that is wrong just because a lot of people are doing it goes back to the very first person, was cured (for a short time) at Matan Torah, then we were re-infected by the Cheit haEigel.  We ten…

Thought for the Day: Bracha Acharona When Eating Two Half Shiurim

Who doesn't love bracha questions?  This is so cool.  Eating the smallest amount of food requires a bracha rishona; one is not allowed to benefit from this world without recognizing the Source of that benefit.  A bracha acharona, on the other hand, is only required if one has received a substantial benefit; ie, has eaten a shiur (measure) of volume (k'zayis) within an appropriate time frame (2 - 9 minutes or so).  Just as the bracha rishona is matched to the food one is poised to consume, so too the bracha acharona is matched to what was consumed.  Other than the usual ikar/tafel issues, the bracha acharona, the rules are reasonably straight forward.  Of course, I am only interested in the cases that are tortuously twisted.

Suppose you eat 1/2 k'zayis of apple and 1/2 k'zayis of cookie.  Neither snack on its own would engender a bracha acharona, but one has eaten a full k'zayis of food.  In that case, therefore, one makes a borei nefashos.  Usually a borei nefashos…

Thought for the Day: A Detail of When Throwing an Object On Shabbos is Assur M'D'Oraisa

I have a (relatively) new chavrusa; a 19 year old college student.  Very bright, ffb, but not yeshivish.  I learn with him a couple of nights a week.  I think I am helping him learn, I know he is helping me.  We are mostly learning Bava Kama, but he is also learning Shabbos.  I've learned both of these gemaras. Which is to say that I remember having opened those masechtos before.  Once in a while I even remember the sugya.  One of the biggest ma'alos of my chavrusa is that he is stubborn (in a nice way) about accepting my explanation if it doesn't quite sound right; which is often, so I he gets to exercise his stubbornness (always with a smile) often.

Take last night, for example.  At the bottom of daf 5A in Shabbos:
Ba'ei R' Yochanan, zarak cheifetz v'ne'ekar hu mimkomo v'chazar v'kiblo; mahu? The problem is the work "chazar"; which means "returned".  One might, therefore, be tempted to understand the case is that he threw the o…

Thought for the Day: Bracha Rishona/Bracha Acharona

Halichos Shlomo on Shavuos paskens that one should say a borei nefashos after eating cheese cake.  I figured this was as good a time as any to discuss the criteria for bracha rishona and bracha acharona.  Cheesecake is also as good a place to start as any, and better than most.

Generally speaking, bracha rishona and bracha acharona go together.  If you start with ha'motzi, you'll end with birkas ha'mazon.  If you start with ha'gefen, you'll end with al ha'gefen v'al pri ha'gefen; start with m'zonos, end with "al ha'michya".  If you start with sh'ha'kol, you'll end with borei nefashos.  Of course, this assumes you have eaten an appropriate shiur in a short enough period of time.  Seems obvious, I know, but that detail will come back to haunt us; or enrich us with learning, if you prefer.

First exception is regarding pri ha'eitz and ha'adama.  There are five fruits for which Eretz Yisrael is particularly famous: grape…