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Thought for the Day: מודה במקצת -- Taking an Oath for Partial Admission

While still just a lad and when TV was only black and white, I knew very little about courtroom procedure.  I had some, of course, because of Divorce Court and Perry Mason.  They drama was always introduced by a witness being called and then asked if he swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The witness, of course, always answered, "I do."  (Similar to getting married, when you also make promises without thinking too much.)

One may very well ask: What's the point?  I mean, was he planning on lying, but the clever court system has boxed him into a corner?  What corner?  If he was planning to lie anyway, what's one more lie?  The answer, I found, is that lying is not a crime (apparently) unless you specifically affirm/swear that you won't.  Another explanation I saw was that it is a reminder to the witness to answer the question he is being asked and only the question he is being asked.  That is: if the lawyer asks, "Do you have …

Thought for the Day: Backing into Kabbalah from Halacha

Do you like kabbalah?  Why?  I mean, I know why I find it interesting.  After all, I like theoretical physics.  I specifically studied physics because I wasn't interested in how anything in particular worked, I was only interested in how everything, everywhere worked.  I thought that if I knew the fundamental principles of how everything, everywhere worked, then I could figure out how anything in particular worked.  That was the working hypothesis.

A friend in the dorms once once trying to install a dimmer in his room (not authorized, of course).  He was downcast because the circuit breaker box was locked (shocking; pun intended) and so he couldn't shut off power to his room while installing the switch.  I, being a physics major (and with all the arrogance of youth on top of my own natural arrogance), quickly assessed the situation and announced my judgement: "As long as the dimmer is off while installing, no electricity will be running through it, so there is no problem …

Thought for the Day: Making Mistakes and Moving Forward

Robert Wilson was, in my mind, that last of the great physicists.  He was an expert in both theoretical and experimental physics, and also intensely practical.  He was, for example, the first director of Fermilab -- the preeminent high energy physics laboratory in the world when it was built and for decades afterward -- and as director he opened the lab ahead of schedule and under budget.  (An amazing feat for any project of that scale; nigh on miraculous for a government project.)

I have a reason for telling you all this, but first I have an admission to make.  I was late for morning seder a couple of weeks ago.  There; I said it.  What's the big deal, you ask?  I daven k'vasikin.  Still you are wondering what's the big deal?  Since we always daven at sunrise, my morning seder is learn then daven during the winter; daven then learn during the summer; learn a bit less, daven, learn a bit more during the spring; learn a bit more, daven, learn a bit less during the  autumn. …

Thought for the Day: ברוך השם Does Not Mean, "Thank G-d!"

As you may recall, I do not like answering queries about my well-being with the simple statement of faith: ברוך השם.  As many of my friends (and ex-friends, I suppose) know, I also don't like being answered that way.  When I answer non-Jews (except Christine and Ross, may he rest in peace), I pretty much give the same response; except that I substitute "Thank G-d" for ברוך השם.  Which brings us to today's thought.  "Thank G-d" is a a reasonable substitute for ברוך השם -- meaning that it satisfies the requirements of giving a real answer to the query and doesn't require any additional explanation -- but is not a translation of ברוך השם.

So... what does ברוך השם literally (more or less...) mean?  How is it used?  Why do we use that phrase/concept for those use cases?

Translating the word ברוך is harder than translating השם, but much easier to understand why we use it.  The word השם simply mean, "The name/reputation" ("The Name/Reputation&qu…

Thought for the Day: Using a Mitzvah Object for Non-Mitzvah Purposes

As I am -- Baruch HaShem -- getting older, I am more cognizant of the fact that I'd like to stay as healthy as possible right up the moment I leave this world.  Stuff hurting is not the problem (I am told there is an old Russian saying that once you are 40, if you wake up and nothing hurts -- you're dead), stuff not working, however, is a problem.  To that end, for several years now I commute to work by bicycle (weather permitting, 30 minutes on an elliptical machine when weather does not permit).  I recently took up some upper body weight training.  Not because I want to be governor of California, just simply to slow down loss of bone mass and extend my body's healthy span.  Simple hishtadlus.  I have an 18 month old grandson who is just the right weight for arm curls (yes... I am that weak), so I do about 10 reps when I greet him at night.  He laughs, I get my exercise; all good.  (Main problem is explaining to the older ones why zeidy can't give them the same "…

Thought for the Day: Answering the Question, "How are you?"

Stop me if I've told you this before.  Oh wait... you can't.  I mean, you can stop reading, but you can't stop me from writing.  Since I don't know if you are reading anyway, that doesn't really stop me.  Cool.

I think that is an apt introduction to the following statement: It can be tedious/frustrating to talk with me, as I tend to analyze everything.  (Some would say "over analyze"; I am not among them, but I am  certainly a sympathizer.)  I can trace this trait back to a lesson from by grandfather.  Grandpa was a professor of electrical engineering and nationally recognized educator.  He was in many, many ways my role model.  When I was about 10 he decided to teach me about how radios work.  Grandpa first explained the theory (which I will happily share with anyone who asks).  Then he drew a simple circuit, formulated a simple construction plan, gave me the materials and told to make it.  I nailed the big components onto a piece of wood and then solder…

Thought for the Day: Becoming Stupid and Reckless when Angry; Punishment or Reality?

Let's review: Anger: bad, really bad.

One of the things that happens with anger is that the angry person loses his wisdom and common sense.  (Which is a more politically correct way of saying that when you get mad, you get stupid and reckless.  We all know how important it is to me to be politically correct.)  The question is, though, whether that loss is a punishment for being angry or just the nature of the beast -- that anger is simply incompatible with wisdom.

Let's make that more concrete and less philosophical, ok?  My three year old granddaughter grabbed a spray bottle of Simple Green, a relatively non-toxic all purpose cleaner right before dinner.  I told her to put it down.  She waited till I washed for bread and knew I couldn't talk (they're very clever, especially when they are pushing the envelope), grabbed the spray bottle again and sprayed herself square in the face.  I grabbed the bottle and then her... her littlehands immediately flew back to protect yo…

Thought for the Day: אוושא מילתא Debases Yours Shabbos

My granddaughter came home with a list the girls and phone numbers in her first grade class.  It was cute because they had made it an arts and crafts project by pasting the list to piece of construction paper cut out to look like an old desk phone and a receiver attached by a pipe cleaner.  I realized, though, that the cuteness was entirely lost on her.  She, of course, has never seen a desk phone with a receiver.  When they pretend to talk on the phone, it is on any relatively flat, rectangular object they find.  (In fact, her 18 month old brother turns every relatively flat, rectangular object into a phone and walks around babbling into it.  Not much different than the rest of us, except his train of thought is not interrupted by someone else babbling into his ear.)

I was reminded of that when my chavrusa (who has children my grandchildrens age) and I were learning about אוושא מילתא.  It came up because of a quote from the Shulchan Aruch HaRav that referred to the noise of תקתוק.  N…

Thought for the Day: The Soul Is Learning to Live Forever in This World

Even if you haven't learned ישעיהו (and, I mean, who has?), you may know the following incident in the life of חִזְקִיָּהוּ, the righteous king of the kingdom of Yehuda who turned the kingdom around after the reign of his evil father אחז.  The king became deathly ill and Yerushalyim was surrounded by סַנְחֵרִיב, the Assyrian king who had never lost a campaign.  ישעיהו came to חִזְקִיָּהוּ to deliever a prophecy that he was going to die because he had failed to fulfill the mitzvah of having children.  Long story   short, חִזְקִיָּהוּ did t'shuva, was miraculously restored to health, and the entire army of סַנְחֵרִיב was miraculously destroyed over night.  חִזְקִיָּהוּ was overwhelmed with gratitude and published a letter of thanks and praise for HaShem.  In the midst of that letter, you will find this cryptic verse about how he felt at the height of his sickness when death seemed certain:
ישעיהו פרק לח
יא: אָמַרְתִּי לֹא-אֶרְאֶה יָהּ, יָהּ בְּאֶרֶץ הַחַיִּים; לֹא-אַבִּיט אָדָם …

Thought for the Day: ציצית -- The Tie That Binds

Check out this out!
הלכות ציצית סימן יא
סעיף יג, סוף ס''ק סד, שער ציון (*): עיין בא''ע סימן קכה ס''ד בט''ז סק''י דמחמיר שם, ואולי לענין תולמ''ה כל שהוא עושה מעשה הצריכה לעצם ההכשר. ועיין סוכה יא
I know, I know... brings tears to your eyes, right?  What's that?  You want some context?  Ah; good point.  Allow me to elaborate.

You would think that hilchos ציצית would be simple to the point of being nearly boring.  Ho-hum, four cornered garment, ho-hum eight threads, ho-hum five knots, ho-hum some windings between the knots.  I mean, we don't even have תכלת any more  (despite the blue threads you see intermingled in some people's ציצית; not really forbidden, but also not really תכלת). Sure there are some details in how big the garment needs to be, how long the threads need to be, what materials are good, etc.  Normal stuff.

Here's the complication: תעשה ולא מן העשוי (affectionately known by its abbreviation: תולמ''ה)…

Thought for the Day: מראית עין -- Demeaning, Suspicious, and Misleading Activities

I mostly live according to the implied mussar of this story: When I was 20 I was very worried about what everyone thought about me.  When I turned 30, I thought, "Who cares what they think about me?"  By 40, though, I realized... no one really thought about me one way or the other.  As it turns out, that story is akin to "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me."  That is, a good general principle, but clearly not always true.  Words can be very harmful, and they are sometimes seeing your actions and making a judgement.

Consider the following things that are all forbidden because of "what will the neighbors think!?".

Putting two holes on each corner of our tallis so the tzitzis go in and come back out on the same side of the garment.If you have two windows facing the street, leave one window without Chanukah lights.Except in case of dire need, putting wheat into a water mill before Shabbos.  More modern example?  On erev Shabbos, …

Thought for the Day: מוקצה is an All Day Affair

I know the title is more cutesy than usual.  In this case, the cutesiness is just gravy because the title expresses precisely what I want to express.  Deal.

There are several misconception about מוקצה, but a few stand out.  For example, people think it is forbidden touch מוקצה.  Nope; it is only forbidden to move מוקצה.  Note, however, that if the movement is a פסיק רישא/inevitable consequence and that itself could cause a violation of Shabbos (such as touching a hanging oil lamp), then the touching itself is also forbidden.  Other than that, go ahead and touch that hammer and pricey Lladro.

Here's another one: no problem moving the מוקצה item if you need it's place (hey!  I want to sit there!) or the item itself for something permissible (Honey, if you can't find that darn nutcracker again... just use the hammer. ).  Well... not so fast there Quicksdraw!  That rule is only true for a כלי שמלאכתו לאיסור/a tool/utensil whose main function is for a labor forbidden on Shabbos…

Thought for the Day: What's Wrong With Rights

I love the term "Judeo-Christian".  It is so utterly and deliciously wrong that it a work of art.
The divergence between the values of western culture and the Torah began immediately from its inception, with the birth of twin boys: Eisav (aka Edom, aka Rome, aka Western civilisation) and Yaakov (aka Yisrael).  The name "Eisav" means "finished product"; the West sees the human being as a the pinnacle of creation, needing nothing but education to better enjoy the physical world.  The name "Yaakov" means "pursuing"; the Torah Jew sees education as a means to enable growth and change, and to use the physical world as a better tool in the striving for spirituality.

The differences became even more pronounced when their exalted zeidy, Avraham Avinu, left the world.  Yaakov spent his time preparing a dish of lentils for this father, Yitchak Avinu.  Why lentils?  Rashi explains: Lentils are round, symbolizing the the circle of life.  Lentils a…

Thought for the Day: Beis Din and Hashgacha

I have a chavrusa in Mishlei with the commentary of the Gr"a.  We learn after davening when there is even five minutes between the end of davening and our previous obligations, such as work and carpool.  As you might imagine, we are both obviously more interested in quality than quantity.  Some verses are easier to grasp than others, sometime the we feel enlightened by the Gr"a's explanation, other times we feel more inspired by the sheer brilliance of the Gr"a and hope to someday reach a point in our wisdom where we have at least a clue what he is talking about.  There is a third category that arises only rarely: the exalted words of King Solomon seem to express a very simple and obvious idea -- that's bad; it means we really didn't get it -- worse, though, is when the explanation of the Gr"a also seems trite and obvious -- then we know we are really missing something important and just barely out of grasp.  Which is what happened today.

Mishlei 18:18:…

Thought for the Day: Thanking HaShem Each and Every Day for Solid Land Near Water

Each and every morning, a Jew is supposed to view himself as a new/renewed creation, ready for a new day of building his eternal self through Torah and mitzvos.  We begin the day with 16 brachos to praise/thank/acknowledge HaShem for giving us all the tools we need to succeed.  We have a body, soul, and intellect.  We have vision, mobility, and protection from the elements.  Among those brachos, we have one that perhaps seems a bit out of place: רוקע הארץ על המים/Who spreads out the land on/over the water.  After all, it's nice to have a dry place to walk, but does that compare to the gratitude I have for a working body and vision?  As it turns out, I should; as explained by the R' Rajchenbach, rosh kollel of Kollel Zichron Eliyahu (aka, Peterson Park Kollel).  Your best bet is to listen to the shiur; very distant second is to continue, which I hope will whet your appetite for the real thing.

First... since we have dry land, I don't have to slog to work through even a foot…

Thought for the Day: Suffering/Discipline/Rebuke -- Limited Scope By Design

I have perfect joke to make the point I would like to address, but I am not sure it will be received well.  Feel free to ask me in person.  In the meantime, now put yourself in the frame of mind that you have heard a good joke (I know it good, because my Dad, a"h -- who was known for his excellent sense of humor -- told it to me) and are now excited to see how this connects to a lesson in ישעיהו/Isaiah.

ישעיהו tells the nation (28:23-29): Does the farmer plow and plant, but never reap?  Does he process wheat, barley, and cumin the same way?  Even cumin and black cumin are treated differently... This also comes from the LORD of hosts: Wonderful is His counsel, and great His wisdom.  (My free to the point of only barely recognizably related to the original translation.)

Um.... what?

ישעיהו expends much effort on rebuke.  Now he is explaining: Do you think this is for nothing?  That you hear the rebuke, that you accept suffering, that you even discipline yourselves... and then conti…

Thought for the Day: Anger Justifies Throwing Off All Authority

This is embarrassing, and I am actually embarrassed that I don't feel the embarrassment more keenly.  Normally I would not publicise my aveiros -- especially those between me and my Maker -- but I have a point to make (so there is a good purpose), and I believe that, in any case, it is already well known.  Here goes.... I have felt anger.  Worse, I have gone through periods of my life when it would have been honest to classify me as a רגזן/ill-tempered person.  Sadly, no one finds that surprising.  Here's another non-surprising fact: In all that time, I never went to a church to pray nor receive their holy sacrament.  Not shocking, right?

So how am I supposed to understand the Chazal (Shabbos 105b) that says:
...one who rips clothing or breaks stuff or spends money recklessly out of anger should look at himself as if he has served a false god.  Why?  For that is the ingenuity of the evil inclination; today it tells you to do this or that, tomorrow it tells you to do this or t…

Thought for the Day: When It Is Permitted to Benefit from מלאכה Performed by a Non-Jew on Behalf of a Jew

Here's another in the category of "good grief, that could only happen with you" stories.  Names changed to protect me from the guilty and their friends.  I was spending Shabbos with my daughter's family and a woman whose father was Jewish but whose mother was not Jewish that attended a synagogue of the Conservative Jewish Religion (who is not, of course, Jewish; but fancies herself a conservative Jew); we'll call her Sin.  There was also a Jewish woman who at the time was still attending a Reform Jewish temple; not out of conviction, but due to historical circumstances; we'll call her "Nice, well meaning lady who had been kidnapped as a baby and didn't know any better", or Bambi, for short.  It got late in the day and Sin was bemoaning the fact that the hot water pot was nearly empty.  I told her I didn't know why she didn't just heat herself up some water.  Bambi said, "Oh?  I can do that?"  I said, "No, I'm sorry, bu…

Thought for the Day: If You Can, You Must, and HaShem Will Prove to You that You Can

I've made a career out of completely ignoring worrying about my career.  Mostly it's because I get bored easily, so I soon after I become proficient doing something, I am already getting bored with that activity.  The only cure is has been to constantly be on the lookout for what looks interesting on the horizon.  Of course, that means that I am often/usually working outside my comfort zone, but I find the  discomfort of working on something brand new is only a tiny fraction of the pain of ennui.

The second yahrtzeit of my father-in-law, אהרן דוד בן יצחק, ע''ה was this past Shabbos, parshas Noach.  We commemorated the occasion with a kiddush at the Chicago Vaskin minyan.  As it happens, the rosh yeshivah from Yeshiva Beis Yisrael in Neve Yaakov davens with us this time of year and we had the z'chus for him to offer divrei torah לעילוי נשמת the niftar.  I'll shall do my best to convey the essence of his words.

The mishna in Avos 3:17 tells us that man is so belo…

Thought for the Day: Importance of Renewed Review and Daily Seder in Mishnayos and Mussar -- Not an Option

Recently I received one of the biggest compliments of my life.  I saw a colleague wearing a Cubs jersey, so I asked her if they won last night.  She replied, "Yes, that makes it 3-3; so there is only one more game to play."  I told her that I actually do know enough about baseball to realize that the World Series (a deliciously "ugly American" ugly title, since it only US teams play in it) is best of seven.  I also thanked her, though, for thinking that I wouldn't know.

That little ego boost (yes, I was seriously flattered) was particularly nice just now, as I once again began Mishna Brura last week.  I have learned the first siman more than once.  I have heard shiurim on that siman.  I also have a chavrusa that began just a few years ago and we are going through very carefully and meticulously; we learned that siman together.  Surely, I reasoned, a review at this point is going to be boring; what more could I possibly learn?

Sigh....

I have already learned thr…

Thought for the Day: How to Understand/Appreciate/Learn the Mishna Brura According to the Mishna Brura

Parshas B'reishis is a all about beginning.  I took the opportunity to start learning Mishna Brura from the beginning.  Whereas HaShem didn't just launched straight into בראשית ברא without so much as a howdy-do (in point of fact, one is forbidden to ask question about what came before בראשית ברא), R' Kagan did, in fact, give us a wonderful introduction to why he set himself on (what turned out to be) a 28 year mission to complete the Mishna Brura.  There is a story that R' Kagan once saw a talmid preparing a cigarette and noted that it took something like 37 seconds.  R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, known to the world as The One Who Wants life was flabbergasted that any thinking person would smoke, as it meant he would be distracted from his learning for 37 seconds each time he wanted to light up.  I therefore felt that if the Mishna Brura felt it was worth his time to write and introduction, it was worth my time to read it.

He had two main motivations to write the Mishna B…

Thought for the Day: Your יֵצֶר הָרָע Wants Every Battle And The War

I worked many years for Motorola; the last couple of which were spent looking at availability and reliability.  (Reliability engineering seeks to decrease the frequency with which a system fails; availability engineering seeks to decrease the time to repair/replace a failed system.)  Motorola then had a culture of "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it".  I therefore began by looking at historical outage data for our systems.  One important piece of data we had in the database was "root cause".  Understanding root cause is perhaps the single most important bit of information one needs to improve any system.  As I analyzed that data, going through the engineering logs of what was done to fix the system, I found that the recorded root cause was essentially unrelated to reality.  Apparently the system required the person taking the call to record a root cause, but the engineer who actually did the repair never went back to update that field.  I publish…

Thought for the Day: When You Remember משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם Barely In the Nick of Time

I remember really random things.  I was once walking across campus sometime around summer quarter (yes, I could never think of any more fun way to spend my summer than taking more science courses...) after the lecture from my zoology class.  We had just learned about the details of lung structure and I was mulling over some questions I had.  I realized that I could not even have had these questions the day before, since I hadn't known about those particular lung structures (alveoli).  That's when I had an epiphany: You can't ask proper questions until you learn more data and have a better understanding of the subject!  (Yes, my friends were not so impressed either...)

Nerdy or not, the principle is true.  Moreover, even if you hear something very important, but you don't really understand the question, then you'll likely also dismiss the "something very important" as not so.  This point was brought home to me this last week as we transitioned to to adding…