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Showing posts from March, 2015

Thought for the Day: A Leniency for Pesach! Kashering Knives and Switching Meat with Dairy Vessels

When I was but a wee lad, my grandfather taught me an essential life lesson... that's wrong; while I was but a wee lad, one of the essential life lessons that my grandfather taught me was how to flatten a rolled sheet of paper.  Just laying it flat, of course, doesn't do the trick.  He taught me that to flatten something that has been rolled, you need to roll it the other way.  That essential "trick" works on a much broader venue than just sheets of paper, of course.  The most explicit example in the Jewish year is the עשרת ימי תשובה, the ten days from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur, inclusive.  The Shulchan Aruch says that one should take extra stringencies on oneself during that time as part of the whole repentance package.  We are extra scrupulous for 10 days a year -- doing things that are beyond our normal capability to sustain -- in order to straighten out our twisted souls.

Pesach, of course, is also known for its stringencies regarding חמץ.  We not only buy…

Thought for the Day: The Answer to the Four Questions -- Rabban Gamliel +

Imagine planning a trip to Disney Land with the family.  Telling you kids all about how fun it is, telling them about the rides you used to enjoy most when you went there with your family.  How special and excited you felt when you were finally old enough to go on the Matterhorn and your dad took just you.  Then you pack up the car with food, all pile in, drive to the Disney Land, pay for parking.... then make a U-turn and head back home.  Now imagine crying children, an angry wife, and years of counselling.

That's basically the scenario when you don't answer the four questions at the seder.  Just reading Rabban Gamliel's three answers without explaining what you just answered is not much better.  Moreover, Rabban Gamliel only has three things to explain!  What's the answer to the fourth question... and why don't we need that to fulfill our obligation?  Let's give it a whirl.

Rabban Gamliel starts with the korban pesach.  Now, if you are paying attention, you&#…

Thought for the Day: Torah and Food/Food and Torah

Here is a ridiculus קל וחומר (a fortiori) argument:  I see a dentist twice a year, and he only cares for one part of my body; certainly I should see a personal at least twice a year because he cares for many parts of my body.  The קל וחומר is ridiculous because the sort of care I get from a dentist is completely different than the sort of care I get from a personal trainer.  In fact, the only connection between their concerns -- teeth and gums vs muscles and joints -- is that they both happen to be in my body, but they couldn't have less to do with each other.

Yet that seems to be the sort of קל וחומר that R' Yochanan is proposing: Food does not require a bracha before, but does require a bracha afterwards.  Therefore learning Torah, which does require a bracha before, all the more so must require a bracha afterwards!  What in the world does learning have to do with eating?  In fact, that is precisely how the gemara (TB Brachos 21a) refutes R' Yochanan's proof:  How ca…

Thought for the Day: Blood and Frogs -- Ridiculing Avoda Zara

Here is a seemingly dry halacha: only a non-Jew can nullify an avoda zara (terrible translation: idol).  That is, the Torah demands that we destroy any idol that is actively being worshiped.  If a Jew, chas v'shalom, owns an avoda zara, then it has to be destroyed; he cannot nullify it/render just another rock/metal/wood sculpture.  A non-Jew, on the other hand, can declare his avoda zarato be null and void.  Until today, the only practical difference I could have imagined was that a crucifix owned by a Jew would always work against vampires, while one owned by a non-Jew might not work.  Good to know if you think you might meet some vampires.  I certainly never thought about why that might be true.  Ho-hum.

As it happens, that halacha is not so much a legal oddity as a psychological reality.  As Jews, avoda zara is our enemy.  When we try to nullify an avoda zara, the same thing happens as whenever an outsider tries to diminish the standing of an icon -- you lend importance to tha…

Thought for the Day: Bracha Before Torah/Bracha After Eating

One of my favorite songs/ditties of all time is, There's a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza.  The back story is that Liza needs some water from the river and makes that request of husband, Henry.  Henry notes, with love and respect, "There's a hole in the bucket; dear Liza, dear Liza."  Liza, not realizing that Henry has already thought this through, makes what she feels is a perfectly reasonable suggestion, "So fix it; dear Henry, dear Henry."  Henry, realizing that Liza has not followed that to its logical conclusion and wanting to share the joy of discovery with her, gently guides Liza through his logic: need straw, straw is too long, knife is too dull to cut, the whetstone is too dry, need water from the river... there's a hold in the bucket.  The song ends there and I feel that Henry has been exonerated.  Others are less charitable and mumble things like, "Good grief; another stupid man."

The gemara (Brachos 21a) makes an observat…

Thought for the Day: The Pesach Seder -- One Night Each Year Dedicated to Inspiring and Capturing the Imagination of Your Children

A hunter happened onto a farm owned by an old farmer -- no, really, and old farmer, who was a bit bent over, failing eyesight, hard of hearing, etc... but he got his job done each day.  Among the chickens, the hunter saw a bird that just didn't seem to belong, so he went to ask the farmer its story.  "Oh," said the farmer, "Some big bird must have gotten lost and laid its egg here.  The thing was nearly the size of a tennis ball!  It finally hatched and that thing appeared.  Honestly, that bird is nothing but trouble; doesn't even eat with the other chickens.  I'm just hoping when it'll grow to a good size so I can take it to the shochet and get a good price for all my trouble."  The hunter thanked the farmer and, as he was leaving, stopped by the bird and said, "Oy little bird... who is going to tell you that you are an eagle?"

The main intent of the Pesach seder is to tell the story of יציאת מצרים/the Exodus to our children.  Not reading…

Thought for the Day: It Is a Mitzvah To *SAY OVER* the Hagada, Not to Recite It

I never recite anything in public without the text in front of me.  When I am called to the Torah, for example, unless I know I will find a "cheat sheet" of brachos there, I bring my siddur.  This is not because I am religious or particularly scrupulous; it is because I am scared.  In 6th grade the teacher had us memorize a six stanza poem (something about cowboys, as I remember) for Monday.  On the preceding Friday he told us that anyone who recited the poem by heart that day would automatically receive a 1/2 grade higher.  A girl in the class went first and was cheerfully told, "On Monday, that would have been an A-."  My confidence was boosted, so I volunteered.  I recited the first stanza and froze; I couldn't remember which of two stanzas was next, so I just froze.  The teacher sardonically told me, "On Monday, that would have been a D-."  As I recall, I hid under my desk, no one else tried that Friday, and even on Monday the teacher didn't a…

Thought for the Day: Seeing Through Philosophical Sleight of Hand

I happen to like magic tricks.  Apparently all magic tricks have three parts (I know that is true, because I heard it in a movie):
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"  ― Christop…

Thought for the Day: It Makes a Difference Why It's Different -- Lessons From Sha'atnez

The gemara (Brachos 19b) says that if you see someone wearing sha'atnez, you must tell them and they must remove it immediately -- even if it will leave them in nothing but their birthday suit (though I think it unlikely that even woolen long underwear would be sha'atnez).  Why?
(אֵין חָכְמָה, וְאֵין תְּבוּנָה וְאֵין עֵצָה, לְנֶגֶד השם (משלי כא:ל
There is neither wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against HaShem. (Proverbs 21:30) Meaning to say, the Torah says it, so deal.  Something like that actually happened to me many years ago.  I was wearing very warm boots; very warm because they were two part: a water proof outer and a woolen felt inner.  Ahhh... Someone came over to me during vasikin one Shabbos (when it was snowing furiously and there was already a six inch accumulation) to tell me, "I think I heard that some of the boots from that manufacturer might be sha'atnez d'rabanan."  I left the inners there, used my wool mittens in their place, and walk…

Thought for the Day: All of Hilchos Shabbos Is Learned from Not Building the Mishkan on Shabbos

Before the ugly affair of the cheit ha'eigel/sin of the golden calf, the Torah instructs us regarding the final details of building the Mishkan/tabernacle.  According to most, the commandment to build the Mishkan came as a response and remedy to that tragic national error.  The building the Mishkan, therefore, was an opportunity to "start over" and rebuild the relationship between HaShem and the Jewish people that had been almost fatally wounded.  As if often the case, the Torah decided to put the instructions for the Mishkan before the the narrative of the cheit ha'eigel.  Perhaps in this case the juxtaposition and order can be understood as a fulfillment of the overarching theme that the r'fu'ah/cure comes before the makah/trauma.

The instructions for building the Mishkan end with a strongly worded admonition that the process of building of the mishkan is in no way to violate Shabbos.
HaShem said to Moshe to say over (the following message): You (Moshe) are…

Thought for the Day: Finding Comfort in a Time of Tragedy

The word we use for the concept of comforting/consoling mourners in Hebrew is "נחמה".  As is often the case, much is lost in translation.  In this case, the loss is so great as to be nearly false.  Consider the first two uses of that word in the Torah.  First, with the birth of Noach, we are told that he was give than name because "זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ " -- usually translated as: this one will give us rest/respite (B'reishis 5:29).  Only a few verses later, when the Torah notes the evil that is filling the world because of mankind, the Torah tells about HaShem "וַיִּנָּחֶם" --- usually translated as: regretted (B'reishis 6:6).  Neither has much to do with consolation.  Moreover, the concept of HaShem slapping His Forehead in regret is just this side of ludicrous.

Sp what does נחמה mean, anyway?  The most accurate description I have heard is "to alter one's perspective and/or approach".  (Reason number 417 why ArtScroll hasn't hired me…

Thought for the Day: Is HaShem Really Stressed Out About All Those Details?! Maybe...

My manager is respectfully curious about my religious beliefs.  There is, of course, the practical reason of being able to schedule around my constraints and having an idea that such and such could be a problem for me.  There is also, though, a friendly curiosity  When I told him about the mezuzah, for example, after hearing that it is parchment with verses from scripture, I wanted to know if one were at liberty to choose the verses he wanted.  "I know what I'd put on the mezuzah for my kids' rooms -- honor your parents and something about the punishment for failure to comply."  I noted that while I sympathize with his motivations; no, we don't get to choose the verses.  In fact, there are many more rules than simply which verses to use.

I then told him there is a joke about an Israeli kid who sees a Christmas tree for the first time and, when told it is an object they use in their religion, he asked, "So how tall does it need to be?  Haow many branches does…

Thought for the Day: Dealing With Panic In Halacha

I am sitting in a new cubicle this afternoon.  I had been assigned to sit for the next few months in the cubicle assigned to another employee who was assigned to a team room for the next few months.  She (the other employee) was indignant that I was sitting in her cubicle.  I went to her manager and asked if she was really upset.  I was told, "Yes, actually.  It might help if you didn't leave your personal items (such as the backpack in which I transport the company's laptop that is assigned to me) on her desk.  Also, don't eat at her desk.  Maybe don't even use her wastebasket."  (Ok, I made that last one up, but just barely.)  Since I was told all that "might" help (I did not make that up), I decided to move my personal stuff and company assigned stuff to another cubicle that was heretofore unoccupied.  My manager felt badly; so I made a joke about being a wandering Jew and explained that this really helps me because it proves that I don't nee…

Thought for the Day: Secret of Pesach -- Nature/Causality Are Illusions; Emuna P'shuta Is Real

One of my favorite arguments that atheists like to promulgate is: how can you believe in a god that allows children and other innocent people to suffer?  The argument is based on two false premises.  First, that I can determine the reality of something based on whether or not its behavior is logically consistent with my expectations.  Second, that it is HaShem who allows children and other innocent people to suffer.

The answer/refutation of both premises is: Do you believe in gravity?  After all, gravity is certainly responsible for the vast majority of all skiing injuries!  How can you possibly believe in a law of nature that would be so cruel?  "Puh-leeze", you'll say, "I don't expect physical laws to be morally culpable, but I do expect HaShem to be!"  Indeed; which is the answer to the question.  500 years ago, no one expected gravity to have anything to do with planetary motion.  They were wrong because they had distorted view of how forces act at cosm…