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Thought for the Day: Preparation for Making a Bracha

This is a very bad idea: You are very busy doing something incredibly important; such as reading the comics, texting your buddy a :) (that used to be ":-)" when we had electronic bulletin boards instead of smart phones; I suppose the phone is smart so you don't have to be), or checking email -- stuff like that.  You notice out of the corner of your eye that your wife has come into the room.  You reach into your pocket, pull out a small box, say "Hey, honey, here."  (not actually looking at her because you are so busy now), toss the box to her, and add, "I found a nice pair of diamond earrings I thought you would like."

I am 87% confident that any many who has been married for more than a week or so will realize that is a bad idea.  (I am, however, 100% confident that every man who has been married more than a week so has actually perpetrated that crime or its moral equivalent.)  As much as she is going to love those diamond earrings and appreciate tha…

Thought for the Day: Moving Objects On Shabbos Comes In Two Flavors

The עירוב; much maligned, much abused.  Here are two of my favorite quotes (and my responses):
Oh yes, I know that R' SuchAndSuch, shlita/ztz"l doesn't believe in eiruvs [sic].Response: Hmmm... Given that there is a masechta eiruvin, I am pretty darn sure that R' SuchAndSuch, shlita/ztz"l, does actually believe in עירובים just as much as he believes in kashrus.  Maybe it is his knowledge of the issue that is the source of his concerns?I really don't know what the issues are with the eiruv, so I just use it.Response: Hmmm... In case of doubt about a Torah prohibition, the rule is always to stringent.  Using ignorance as an excuse to risk spiritual excision seems as reckless as walking along the Grand Canyon with your eyes closed. The problem is, of course, that people are all fired up that they are in broadcast mode before any discussion begins, so there is no dialog; only a lot of shouting.  My first Shavous in Dallas, the rabbi proposed that we discuss the To…

Thought for the Day: טהרה and טומאה and Cholent Friday Night

Chazal (as brought in mascechta Shabbos) decreed that non-Jews carry a certain level of טומא.  Now a days that fact of no real practical importance because we are all טמא anyway.  Back in the day, though, when we were careful about טהרה and טומאה, this decree had as big an impact as the fact that now a days Jewish men are not allowed physical contact -- including shaking hands -- with women (other than wife and daughters, of course).  In fact, Chazal made the decree to prevent the Jewish children from getting to close with certain elements of the non-Jewish world from whom they could learn bad (and decidedly non-Jewish) behaviors.

I found this decree fascinating because we have several decrees that lead to stringencies that we observe even though the original reason is no longer applicable.  Second day of Yom Tov, for example; even though we know precisely when the new moon occurs each month, none the less we still keep a second day of Yom Tov because of the original decree of םפקא די…

Thought for the Day: The Bracha of בורא עצי בשמים

It is part of nusach S'fard to read the ingredients of the קטורת/incense every morning.  Nusach Ashkenaz only reads it on Shabbos and Yom Tov.  I understood the Mishna Brura to say that even us Ashkenazim are allowed to read the קטורת every day, and it is even laudable; so I do.  Some of the spices (ok, smart guy, one of the spices) is something I recognize: cinnamon.  But  stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense,  myrrh, cassia, and spikenard... well, I really have no clue.  (Truthfully, spikenard and frankincense sound creepy to me.)  If you are ever thinking about what to get the chareidi man who has no sense of style, try this: Frankincense, Myrrh , Spikenard, Hyssop, Cedarwood, and Cinnamon essential oils  (it comes as a set).  If you want, you can add Jasmine as extra credit.

Enjoying pleasant aromas, like any other pleasure from this world, require a bracha before partaking.  Interestingly, many of us only run across this issue on Saturday night when making havdala.  One of …

Thought for the Day: Levels Of Eating "Together" And Why It Matters

Here is one of my favorite jokes about racism: A row broke out on a bus in the old south during the 50s (middle of last century).  They fight was over a passenger of color wanting to sit in a seat in the "persons of no color" section.  The bus driver we fed up and declared, "No more fighting!  This is ridiculous!  There's no white, there's no black; everyone on this bus is green!  Got it, y'all?!"  Everyone murmured their agreement and felt appropriately castigated.  The bus driver then announced, "Good.  Now, dark green in the back, light green in the front."

Let's analyze this joke.  במאי קמיפלגי/what is the source of their disagreement?  There must have been a sign at one row that said, "Dark green section."  מר סבר too exclude light green, but dark green can sit ahead of that row also; מר סבר dark green may only sit there and no where else.  Certainly, though, had there been two signs, "Light green here" and "D…

Thought for the Day: Four Kinds of Domains That Just Don't Fit

Of course, this is silly:
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
you know Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all? Obviously if he is the most famous reindeer of all you would remember him before the others, which the lyricist has already admitted that you know.  I would say it is a simple קל וחומר, but I feel a little sheepish applying a ש''ס concept to a carol of the avoda zara variety.

You know, of course, there are four main categories of domain regarding Shabbos: Public, private, exempt, and כרמלית/everything else.  But do you recall the all that goes into that most expansive domain of all; the "everything else"?  (Perhaps it is writing and allusions such as this that explains why the Yated -- nor Bina, nor Ami -- have yet to contact me regarding being a regular columnist for them...)  The Biur Halacha, siman 359, explains everything about כרמלית, but were afraid to ask.  (Another allusion that is not …

Thought for the Day: Pshat in Chanuka

When I was in college in California, they made all freshman take a sex education class.  I have no idea what they thought they were going to accomplish, but it actually wasn't a terrible class.  The instructor was quite a character and kept things from deteriorating to the kind of conversations that you might expect in a locker room.  One thing he said has really stuck with me: When a child/toddler asks about weather, you don't launch into a lecture on advanced meteorology.  Instead, you take him/her to the window and say, "Look at the rain."

Chanuka is an amazing holiday.  The gemara introduces the disussion (Shabbos 21a) with מאי חנוכה/what's Chanuka?  Rashi explains that gemara is seeking the precise miraculous event that serves as the source for the holiday, but the gemara could have said that straight out.  I think Chazal also wanted to impart a bit of wonder into the discussion.  מאי חנוכה?

There are lots of expositions on the significance of the number eig…

Thought for the Day: Moving Stuff in a Public Domain on Shabbos

There are lots of jokes like this: Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, an honest lawyer, and an old drunk were walking along when they simultaneously spotted a hundred-dollar bill laying in the street. Who gets it?  The old drunk, of course, the other three are mythological creatures.  (My apologies to all of the honest lawyers... hello... anyone there?)

Imagine you live in a community where there is no machlokes about the eiruv and so everyone agrees where the public domain (רשות הרבים) is.  The halacha is that one may -- לכתחילה -- move stuff within a perimeter of four אמות/cubits.  (I looked for a better word than "stuff".  The only word that even came close was "paraphernalia", and no one my age who went to college can keep a straight face when using that word.  I'm sticking with "stuff".)  There are a few interesting issues regarding just that simple halacha.  First, just how big is that cubit?  Second, we have a general principle of חצי שיעור אסור מדא…

Thought for the Day: Making a Bracha Before the Mitzvah/Action May Be Performed

We do not live in a heliocentric solar system.  You don't have to take my word for it... here is a scholarly article entitled, The sun's orbital motion from High Energy Astrophysics Division at the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  For those who prefer Yahoo Answers, here you go.  All that being said, of course, you aren't very far off at all to assume a heliocentric solar system.  In fact, I find it an interesting kindness from the Creator to make the sun so (relatively) heavy, for otherwise Newton and Kepler would have had a devil of a time making any sense of the date.  None the less, whether or not you ever actually make a calculation that will be wrong of you assume a heliocentric solar system, you should know that there is such a concept.

I had a question rattling around for a long time: Suppose you have a mitzvah that cannot be performed before a certain time; tzitzis, t'fillin, chanuka candles, etc.  Is one permitted to make the bracha before the tim…

Thought for the Day: Eating Without Making a Bracha is Killing a Kiddush HaShem In the Prime of Its Life

This year I got my flu shot and made an appointment for my annual physical (four years late...) and scheduled a colonoscopy (eight years late... sigh....).  After all that I got the flu; relatively severe case.  After that (three days into the flu when I was starting to feel better and my fever had gone down) my fever went back up; turns out I got a superinfection (not "super" as in superman, just super as in "on top of").  When I called my (ultra orthodox) physician to get antibiotics, I complained a bit and noted that for five years I had ignored good sense and not had regularly scheduled visits, but now that I was trying to be "good" and d, I got sick on top of sick!  He just laughed at with me and replied that is sounded as though HaShem was saying to me, "Oh!  You want השתדלות, do you?  Fine; I'll give you השתדלות!"  (Interestingly, Google's first translation of השתדלות is "intercession", not "effort". )

Ok, that…

Thought for the Day: Why To Learn Hilchos Brachos

My four year old grandson has worked out a system for saying brachos: He always says the bracha of "בורא מיני מזונות".  Now, it is true that the bracha of בורא מיני מזונות works (ex post facto) for any food except water and salt (which are not nourishing), so you might think that it is ok (and even cute) for a four year old to do that.  Actually, it is really cute and adorable; however, when I said he always uses that bracha, I mean always: for all food, upon washing his hands, putting on tzitzis, etc.  He's learning, but it's a process that requires patience, diligence, and persistence. (Actually, the largest obstacle to him learning his brachos is probably us; we think he is so adorable that we give him lots of positive feedback for making that bracha.  We're working on ourselves.)

Learning brachos is a lifetime endeavor.  There are many small details that can make big difference in the correct bracha.  Details, in fact, that can change over time.  For example,…

Thought for the Day: When Damage Is Inflicted By Two Parties Who Have Different Culpability

Here's a riddle: Three men check into a hotel and are told the room is $30; they each contribute $10.  (It's an old riddle; change it to 300$/100$ is that makes you happy.)  The hotel manager later realizes that they room is only $25, so he gives $5 to the bellhop and tells him to return it to the men.  The bellhop figures that giving three men $5 to split will only cause a fight, so he pockets $2 and returns the other $3 to the men.  Now here's the thing: Each man paid (10 - 1)$ = 9$ for the room; that's a total of 27$.  Add to that the $2 in the bellhop's pocket and you have $29.  Hmm... where's the missing dollar?  We'll come back to this in a moment. (Or more; depends on how fast your read, now, doesn't it?)

The gemara (Bava Kama 53a) discusses the distribution of blame (ie, how much it will cost each of the participants) when Reuvein's ox pushes Yehuda's ox (Ferdinand) into Levi's pit and Yehuda's ox subsequently dies.  The gemara b…

Thought for the Day: Erasing/Destroying Letters and Words on Shabbos

I am an amazing בעל עלייה/growing in spirituality daily in leaps and bounds.  Of course, like any בעל עלייה, I deny myself luxuries to show how serious I am.  My biggest sacrifice is that I eat candy only on Shabbos; and Yom Tov... and Chol HaMoed... and Rosh Chodesh... and Purim... and Chanuka... and the day before Yom Kippur.  Still, if you work that out, it means that I restrict my candy consumption to less than a third of the available time.  Impressive, no?  I thought about adding cookies and cakes to that list, but I don't want to get crazy with the my self-imposed restrictions.

There is one problem we have all experienced with eating cake (especially birthday cake) on Shabbos and Yom Tov; the problem with letters.  Any kosher bakery has a plentiful supply of plastic (or paper) mats on which they write "Happy Birthday/Anniversary/Mazal Tov/Bar/Bas Mitzvah Sprinza/Yaakov!" in cloyingly sweet frosting.  Why?  Because, as we all know, to destroy the words on Shabbos w…

Thought for the Day: Sweeping Floors -- Maybe Not On Shabbos

My father, a"h, tried very much to be respectful of our choice to join the cult known as Orthodox Judaism.  One Shabbos morning he asked me why we were allowed to flush the toilets.  I asked him what could possibly be wrong flushing a toilet in Shabbos.  (Knowing me, there was probably a tone of exasperation in my voice.)  He replied that, "How should I know what could be wrong with it?  There are lots of things you don't do on Shabbos that don't make any sense to me."  (No exasperation, just seeking information.  He was good that way.)  I was duly chastised.

It's true, though; we do and don't do lots of stuff.  As I am coming to the end of the third volume of the Mishna Brura (hilchos Shabbos), I find more and more things that I should and shouldn't be doing that I am not and am doing down.  Just look at the headings: A bunch of details regarding stuff we do on Shabbos (339) and A bunch of stuff we don't do on Shabbos because they are kind of li…

Thought for the Day: Kiddush and Kiddush b'Makom S'uda -- They are Different

The following is some of what I learned from the shiur given by R' Fuerst, shlita, on Sunday, Nov 1. That shiur (as well as his other Sunday morning shiurim), is available at psak.org, Kiddush B'Makom Seudah.  There are some directly applicable הלכה למעשה new thoughts here; you should listen to the shiur yourself and/or CYLOR before altering your behavior.

The background is that there is a Torah obligation of kiddush on Friday nights and a rabbinic obligation for Yom Tov evenings and all Shabbos and Yom Tov days.  The Torah obligation can be satisfied by words alone, but Chazal wine and a meal to be involved.  We are not going to discuss the obligation of wine vs other beverages vs bread; assume you have wine in sufficient quantity.  Chazal also required that kiddush be recited at the onset and as part of a meal; a requirement affectionately known to all of us as kiddush b'makom s'uda.  The requirement is so strong, in fact, that Chazal have exercised their G-d Given r…

Thought for the Day: The Power of Rationalization, the Importance of Da'as Torah

One of the joys of teaching freshman physics is being able to do cool demonstrations.  One of my favorites was floating an ordinary sewing needle in a bowl of water and then -- nothing up my sleeve (if that expression doesn't evoke the image of a six foot, sleeveless moose holding and aviator capped squirrel by the scruff of the neck, then I just feel sorry for you) -- I add one drop of detergent to the water and the needle immediately drops to the bottom of the bowl.  The point was to show how strong surface tension is when the entire surface cooperates, but how easily it is torn apart when the force is disrupted at one point.  The detergent, being a emulsifier, disrupts the surface tension at one spot; similar to the way a cloth under tension rips easily when one weakness is introduced.  Thank you for that walk down memory lane.

Lot left his comfortable home and society to follow his uncle, Avraham Avinu, across the world as a dedicated student and heir apparent.  Yet this same …

Thought for the Day: Recognition That You Are Owed Nothing Is The Foundation Of All

Suppose I asked you if you believed in atoms.  You would probably look at me like I was from another planet and wonder what I was up to.  (Fair enough... I'm usually up to something when I ask a question like that.)  Still, you would likely play along and answer in the affirmative.  What if I then asked you for evidence you have for that belief, being as neither you nor anyone else has ever or will ever actually see an atom?  ("Aha!", you think, "I knew he was up to no good!")

Now suppose I were to ask you if you believe that stealing is morally wrong.  Same eye rolling on your part, again deciding to play along and answer in the affirmative.  This time when I ask you for your evidence, however, your answer is, "I don't need evidence; it is logical that taking something that belongs to someone else is morally wrong."

Now we can begin.

There is a strange discussion in the gemara (Brachos 35a) (my free translation):
Fact 1: It is forbidden to benefi…

Thought for the Day: Learning is So Fun and Here's an Example: Why Eiruv Tavshilin Requires an Oral Declaration

I was in a play in 9th grade.  An in-class play, but I had a big role.  During one of the rehearsals I was holding a pencil during one of the more dramatic speeches and the teacher noted that my performance was much improved.  After discussion, it seemed that holding the pencil helped to give my hands something important to do and so kept me more focussed.  (Yes, I know that "focussed" is technically the British spelling, not American; it looks better to me, so deal.)  Her words made an impression and I started applying that principle wherever I could.  Now you know why I hold a pencil when I learn.

I am on a mission to finish learning the entire Mishna Brura; all six volumes.  I was actually on track to finish for my 55th birthday, but that plan was derailed when a set of Dirshu Mishna Brura appeared mysteriously at my doorstep one day.  (Technically, the appearance wasn't so mysterious -- delivered by UPS in a plain brown box; but I hadn't ordered it; that's th…

Thought for the Day: Enabling Everyone to Appreciate a Siyum Mishnayos

We just commemorated the yahrtzeit of my father-in-law, Aaron Dovid ben Yitchak, a"h.  I was able, Baruch HaShem, to organize a siyum on all of Sh'as Mishnayos.  Being as we are the black sheep/hats of the family, this turned out to have several challenges.  I am sharing my experience because I believe it could be beneficial to others.  I am not, after all, the only Orthodox Jew who has non-frum family.  Moreover, even though both positive and negative experiences are useful to share (positive to encourage certain behaviors, negative to save others from repeating the same mistakes), this actually went very well, so it is more fun to share.

The first decision was to make the siyum on the yahrtzeit and not on the shloshim (30 day) anniversary.  My in-laws had no frum friends, so putting out a sign up sheet during shiva was an option.  That left me asking friends to help.  Everyone I know already has busy learning schedule and is also working.  There are a few very small masecht…

Thought for the Day: Determining P'sak Halacha from Gemara

Repeat after me: The gemara is not a shulchan aruch, the gemara is not a shulchan aruch, the gemara is not a shulchan aruch, the ... On the other hand, all halacha is ultimately decided by and must trace its roots to those very discussions transmitted to us by our sages through the millennia.  So how does one go from תנו רבנן to פסק הלכה?

Obviously, it ain't that easy, but there are rules that give guidelines.  I know a few, and I just saw a new really cool one in a תוספות (Brachos 34a, d'h the middle ones have no order).  Just so we are clear, I am quite aware that anyone who uses the word "cool" is not.  Moreover, anyone who uses the word cool to refer to a תוספות never was.  I'm such a rebel.

One guideline is that we generally rule like a סתם mishna; that is, an unattributed mishna.  An unattributed mishna basically represents a consensus.  Generally also a mishna beats a bareisa.  (The b'reisos are not less authoritative, but were less known.)  The opinio…

Thought for the Day: Changing a Habit/Praying For Rain/Goring Oxen

Ok... before we go any further, we need to be absolutely clear about one thing: "Ox" is not a species of animal any more than "computer programmer" is a species of human.  Any bovine that is used as a draft (draught for us snobs) animal -- ie, to do work around and for the farm -- is an ox.  Sometimes they also take freshman physics, as I remember from my teaching days.  Whew... I feel much better.

We recognize two seasons in our prayer -- rainy and not rainy.  Our prayers, of course, change with the season in two places: the second bracha (גבורה) because rain goes with תחית המתים/resurrection, and the ninth bracha (ברך עלינו) because rain goes with livelihood.  We (human beings) are creatures of habit, which has benefits and drawbacks.  A benefit for prayer is that our prayers become more fluent with repetition; a drawback is that we could stop thinking and start just reciting.  Because of that, Chazal decreed a 30 day window during which one needs to be mindful t…

Thought for the Day: Noah's Ark -- About the Size of a Supercarrier

Since I have Google available from my phone, I decided to research how the biblical dimensions for Noah's ark, 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits compared to a modern aircraft carrier.  The results are pretty cool.

The dimensions at water level of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier (the pride of the United Stated Navy; aka nuclear supercarrier) is 333 m long by 40.1 m wide.  In other words, roughly the same shape as Noah's ark, but dimensions in meters instead of cubits.  Since a cubit is roughly half a meter, that means that Noah's ark is approximately 1/4 the size of our nuclear supercarriers.  Cool, eh?  There's more.  The ark had a draft (depth of hull below water level) of 11 cubits (see Rashi on Genesis 8:4), and the Nimitz-class supercarrier has a draft of 11.7 meters.  Given all that, it seems reasonable to look at the crew facilities to get an idea of how much life the ark, in a completely natural setting, could support.

The ark had three floors, the Nimitz-cla…

Thought for the Day: A Love That Doesn't Depend On Anything, My Relationship With Aaron Nosson Cohen, ztz"l

On the first night of Yom Tov, I heard a shiur on the topic of rejoicing on our festivals.  Apparently when the Gr"a was asked which mitzvah he found to be more difficult, his answer was the mitzvah of ושמחת בחגך/rejoice on your holiday.  Hard enough to feel joy on command, but for seven days and nights is quite a tall order.  I had a particularly difficult challenge in feeling joy 24/9 this year when my world was rocked with the פטירה of Rev. Aharon Nosson Cohen; whom I never called anything but Zaida, even from the very first time I met him at the Chicago Vasikin minyan.  I found comfort and even joy in that pain.

For several years (but not nearly enough for me), we would walk home and share a s'uda together on Shabbos mornings.  He would tell me, week in and week out, "I have the best wife."  I tried a few times to say, "You mean the best for your, right?"  He would smile (he had a beautiful smile) and say yes, but his smile and tone of voice told me th…

Thought for the Day: The Age of Reason Should Have Read The Kuzari

I am quite certain that I never bought a copy of "The Age of Reason", by Thomas Paine.  Nonetheless, I found a copy in the house.  I suspect that I inherited it along jumble of other books I was sent when a spinster cousin (who had been a librarian and a bit of an intellectual) passed away.  I was the closest anyone in my family had to being an intellectual, so I got sent all of her off beat books.  I recently (having run out of other bathroom reading) decided to give it a whirl.  It's actually quite a good read.

It is with good reason that the Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion.  Many of the more prominent founding fathers were not Christian, but were more along the lines that I would classify as Unitarian, but is also called deism and theistic rationalism... blah, blah, blah... meaning to say that they believed in a G-d who created the world, and who could certainly communicate with said world if He so chose, but that we have no record of …

Thought for the Day: Carrying Outside a Private Domain On Yom Tov and קרבת השם

The issue of carrying outside a private domain on Yom Tov is different than on Shabbos.  The issue on Shabbos is, of course, that the Torah forbids transporting an item both more than four cubits (six feet; give or take) in a public domain and also across the boundary of public and private domains.  (NB: The terms "public" and "private" here vis-à-vis Shabbos and Yom Tov refer to occupancy and size, not to ownership.)  Chazal extended that restriction on Shabbos to include domains that are neither private nor public, private domains that look like public domains, and from one private domain to another.  Chazal also, as is well known, mandated a procedure -- know affectionately as שיתופי מבואות and עירוב חצירות, or just עירוב, for short -- that would if properly constructed and within the prescribed guidelines of populace and whatnot permit such transportation.

On Yom Tov, however, the Torah permits a variety of crafts/labors on Yom Tov under the rubric of "the…

Thought for the Day: Sukkos and Lunar Eclipse/Celebration and Demonstration

The first night of Sukkos was a few nights ago.  As it turns out, a total eclipse of the moon was also visible from Chicago that night; becoming total at 9:47PM.  I mentioned that to someone walking home from shul and added, "It's a beautiful night to observe the eclipse!"  He answered me, with some disdain, "It is a beautiful night to be in the sukkah."  He apparently felt I had too much enthusiasm for this astronomical event and not enough for the sanctity of evening.  I accepted the mussar, but I had very spiritual reasons for being excited about a lunar eclipse... especially on Sukkos.

Before we get to the spirituality, it is worth taking just a few moments to appreciate the event.  The earth is 93,000,000 miles from the sun.  To get a lunar eclipse, you need the earth to come between the sun and the moon.  If you think about that, you'll realize that a lunar eclipse will only occur when the moon and sun are on opposite sides of the earth; ie, a full mo…

Thought for the Day: Thoughts On Preparing for Yom Kippur Gleaned from My Bicycle Commute

Last night I wired up a water-proof fluorescent light fixture for our Sukkah.  I knew what to do because my grandfather (he should rest in peace) taught me how to wire things up.  Getting a degree in physics didn't help me with wiring the fixture.  (In fact, ask me sometime about the time I tried to install a dimmer in a friend's dorm room based on my vast knowledge -- I was a junior in college at the time -- of physics.  Let's just say it sparked quite a round of well deserved jeering, including my name and description of my spectacular failure being enshrined around the door frame.)

With יום כיפור bearing down in less than a year (orginally, I had written "in just a few hours"; but stuff happened), I am focussing on very practical application of the general principles of change that Chazal have taught us.  R' Yisrael Salanter said that it is easier to learn ש''ס (the entire Talmud) than to change on character trait.  I reason that changing my conduc…