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Thought for the Day: Halacha and Mussar/Plan and Motivation

Two stories today!  (For some of you, that mean more to skip, for others it means more of interest.  I try to be a full service blogger.)  While a graduate student at University of Utah (which at the time was the furthest east I had ever resided), my research advisor spent some time visiting University of Chicago.  Upon his return, he told me that the professor he was visiting gave him very detailed instructions on how to get from his temporary residence to the university.  Those instructions came with an exhortation not to deviate in the smallest detail, as the neighborhood could go from "take normal precaution" to "reckless endangerment of life" in one block.

After graduate school, I worked for a year as the physicist in a radiation therapy facility.  Part of my duties was to make sure the patients were getting their prescribed dose by double checking the sums entered by the radiation techs each week.  Let me preface this by noting that I do not list reading, …

Thought for the Day: Preparing to Lament and Mourn on Tisha b'Av

I got call a few weeks ago from the Riverside Sheriff's department (near Palm Springs, CA).  She asked if I knew Greg Bowden.  "Yes," I replied more than a bit puzzled since I hadn't seen him nor heard from him in decades, "he's my uncle."  Then she gently informed me of his recent demise.  Why we had not communicated in so long is irrelevant (and, at this point especially, water under the bridge).  We had been close at one time, though.  He was my mother's only sibling; the last of that generation.  I didn't cry, but I did feel a loss... or at least the echo of a loss and a sadness that I couldn't feel more.

I hate to be a downer, but the next "holiday" is Tisha b'Av.  Tisha b'Av is hard.  I don't just mean the fasting, sitting on the floor, not wearing shoes, etc.  It's hard because I don't really feel mournful about what we've lost.  After all, I've grown up in a world without a Beis HaMikdash.  It is…

Thought for the Day: Using Her Family Heirloom to Get Married

This could -- and does -- happen.  The beloved and dearly missed bubbie left her wedding ring to be used by the first of her granddaughters to get married.  Shprintze is the lucky young lady.  Shprintze, having been very close to her bubbie, wants do do more than just wear her beloved and dearly missed bubbie's ring.  Shprintze wants to actually be married with that ring.  So sweet.  So wrong.

Let's review.  A Jewish marriage is actually effected by the chossen giving his kallah something tangible item by which the kallah will experience a benefit worth (to her) one p'ruta.  Sorry to be so pedantic about the wording, but to understand the issue we'll need all those words.  First, the p'ruta is ancient monetary unit that basically means the smallest coin of value.  You can argue about it, but it's roughly a few cents.  (I do not recommend trying to get away with the minimum possible; she would likely show you what it means to be be minimum possible wife.)  The p…

Thought for the Day: Prayer -- Concentrate on What You are Saying, Not on What You are Doing

My grandchildren love to help... especially (ok... almost exclusively) when they think it's fun.  My very sweet and charming seven year old granddaughter saw that I had not covered the BBQ, so she decided to replace the lid and then cover it for me.  Great... except I almost fainted when she told me... I have a kettle type BBQ (I eschew gas grills and even charcoal lighter fluid; yes, I am a BBQ snob) that is made of porcelain covered cast iron.  Cooks great... gets very hot... stays very hot for a long time.  I had left it open and uncovered to cool.  I almost fainted when I thought about the disaster that could have happened; namely, third degree burns on my little sweetheart.  Fortunately (Baruch HaShem 1000 and more times), it had cooled enough that she didn't get hurt.  (I had thought I guarded it long enough, but given the potential of such dire consequences, I still panicked.)  Once I was sure she we safe (and gently but firmly chastised), I checked the vinyl cover.  Th…

Thought for the Day: The Simplicity and Depth of M'silas Yesharim -- Both True, Both Deceptions

I get a mazal tov.  I just completed the first perek of Bava Metzia.  It is a about 20 daf (double sided pages).  I am not at all embarrassed to tell you that it has taken my almost a year and a half.  I learned it twice through, because Chazal tell us that learning without reviewing is like sowing without reaping; so what's the point?  When I first started (in Adar II year before last), I was feeling a bit down on myself; they learn this in 5th grade, for goodness sakes... so why was I having so much trouble.  I expressed that sentiment to talmid chacham who reassured me:  They learn the second perek in 5th grade.  Everyone has difficulty with the first perek!  (Whew...)

There is no question that the first perek of Bava Metzia reveals deep and fundamental ideas.  It is not for beginners.  I don't mean just because of the topics covered, but also the way they are covered.  The methodology of the analysis is itself complex.  Were I to make an analogy to physics (as I am, of cou…

Thought for the Day: How a Proselyte Handles Shabbos (Non)Observance

As I mentioned, the budding (that's the wrong word, but you get what I mean) proselyte is expected to keep all of the mitzvos that he can.  One that he can't (and was sort of comic relief on top of everything else that had been thrown at me) is the mitzvah of t'vilas keilim/immersion of vessels that were acquired from a non-Jew.  Clearly, since he is still a non-Jew, he can't do that mitzvah.  ברית מילה  (or its equivalent in the case the proselyte is already circumcised, הטפת דם/a drop of blood from guess where) for the male proselyte cannot be performed simply because the word "ברית" means covenant/contract/alliance and that can't be done without the agreement of both parties.  That, in fact, is why Avraham Avinu waited till he was 99 to perform his circumcision.

Then there is the issue of Shabbos... again, as mentioned, a non-Jew is not allowed to keep Shabbos, which presents a real problem for the proselyte who needs to learn how to keep Shabbos.  The…

Thought for the Day: Violating Shabbos on a Torah Level is Really Hard

Converts to Judaism come up with all sorts of interesting (crazy, if you prefer) questions.  There are a two basic reasons, I think.  One, committing to live as an Orthodox Jew is a huge undertaking with a myriad of details.  While a nonreligious Jew who is returning to a Torah lifestyle can take his time, a convert doesn't have that option.  To convert to Judaism, one must accept to do everything; there is no slow, steady path available.  That, of course, leads to a lot of questioning.

The other reason, though, is that a convert is in a funny situation during the learning process.  On the one hand, he needs to live 100% (well... not quite; hold your questions for now) as a Jew.  On the other hand, though, since he is not a Jew, there are many things that just aren't possible.  He can't be counted are part of a minyan nor be called to the Torah, for example.  He keeps kosher, but anything he cooks is perforce not kosher; since food cooked by a non-Jew is forbidden to Jews.…

Thought for the Day: Risk of Excision and Consecration Value Go Hand in Hand

Whether or not you like the Dilbert comic strip, you'll probably appreciate at least this joke.  The pointy haired boss announces two new programs for the employees: (1) a dignity enhancement program for employees, and (2) mandatory drug testing initiative.  Alice notes, "The clue meter is reading zero."  (I've been in meetings like that, by the way...)

As I mentioned, I have passed that age where I need to worry that I have done something so awful that HaShem has simply given up on me.  That's good, right?  (I know it's grasping for straws to be excited to know that I have not sunk so low as to be considered irredeemable evil... but any port in a storm, as they say.)  On the other hand, my consecration value (Vayikra 27:3,7) just plummeted from 50 to 15 silver shekels; a 70% loss!  A woman, by the way also suffers a loss in value; but only 68%.  You may think that's not much difference, but Rashi says that is the source for the common saying: An older la…

Thought for the Day: Turning 60 Transcends Spiritual Excision

I have a very bright yellow windbreaker for biking.  A co-worker once said, "Wow!  No one is going to miss you in that jacket!"  I replied, "Actually... the point of this jacket is specifically so they will miss (i.e. not hit) me."  I wore that jacket home last night as I very, very carefully biked home.  Why so careful?  I really, really wanted to make it to my 60th birthday.  I got home, ate very carefully (didn't want to choke), then walked carefully to shul to daven with extra fervor (really, really wanting to make it to my 60th birthday), walked home and sat down to learn (can't have too many merits, you know).  Finally, finally nightfall of 12th Sivan, 5777 arrive; and with it, my 60th birthday!  Whew!  This morning, though, just as I entered my office building (feeling pretty darn good about having made it to 60), I was "greeted" by a t-shirt the color of my jacket that said, "My t-shirt is brighter than your future."  You really …

Thought for the Day: Correcting a Wrong Takes Common Sense

Overheard in nursery by new father that had just been brought a white baby that the nurses claimed was his: "No, no, and no!  My wife and I are Chinese, and everyone knows that two Wongs don't make a white!"  (Wow... that is so totally not PC!  Especially now that we know that there are no absolutes... race, gender, even species, I suppose are all just point on a spectrum.)  Three rights do, however, make a left.  Moreover, two Wrights do make an airplane.  We all know, though, that two wrongs definitely do not make a right.  (Sorry!  I just cannot quell that 10 year old boy in me.  I suppose I should also apologize that neither do I have any desire to quell him.)

Let's make no mistake about it: stealing is bad; very, very bad.  Our sages tell us that the fate of Sodom was not sealed until they started stealing from each other in a way that was not punishable (the value of each theft was too small to prosecute).  What about a wife stealing from her husband?  That see…

Thought for the Day: Accepting the Torah -- All of It

My grandson (5.8 years old; I have a spreadsheet... are you surprised?) has become enamored with the mitzvah of standing up for his parents and grandparents.  I came home from work the other day and he made a point of making sure I saw him stand up for me when I walked into the living room.  He further noted to me -- with a huge grin -- that he had heard me coming in the front door and so he ran to sit down specifically so he could stand up when I entered the room.  Very cute; a real nachas moment.

The next day I heard his mother asking him for the fourth/fifth/nth time to pick up his toys.  She finally said with a bit of exasperation, "You know, listening to your mother is a mitzvah; and you told me how much you love doing mitzvos."  His answered, "Mom... I love doing the mitzvos that I want to do."  (Another nachas moment... but for different reasons, of course.)

The famous medrash says that at the moment of truth, when Klal Yisrael was poised to accept the Torah…

Thought for the Day: Bracha Upon Seeing Site of Miraculous Event

The Dirshu halacha project, besides delivering a synopsis of the halacha of the day, also occasionally presents interesting thought questions.  The most recent of which was:
The Mishnah Berurah (218:§7) rules that no “She’asah li nes” is recited over the place near Yerushalayim where the angel smote Sancheriv’s encampment because the place does not remind us of the miracle. Even though it may be possible to pinpoint where the miracle happened, since the miracle did not take place with the actual land, the miracle is not recognizable from the location. However, the Shulchan Aruch (218:1) rules that one must recite the blessing when he sees the stone on which Moshe Rabbeinu sat during the war with Amalek. It would seem that this miracle is no more recognizable from its location than the destruction of Sancheiriv’s army.What is the difference between these two cases?   I can think of four differences:

First, in the case of Sancheiriv’s army, the land itself was not relevant to the miracl…

Thought for the Day: Honest Mistake in Giving/Receiving a Gift

I know, I know... you are super excited about your new understanding of how ownership is transferred.  Still, though, you are thinking that you mostly buy groceries and books without mishap and you don't feel close enough to death's door to worry just now about to protect a loved one from greedy heirs.  You express a wistful sigh... if only there was a more practical example... and one that didn't involve money... and between people who just want to do the right thing but also really want the transaction to be decided their way... if only... if only...

By George; you are in luck!  Shmuel was renovating his home study.  He bought new s'farim, updated some old ones (the wonder of laser printing!), and replaced his bookshelves.  It was beautiful.  Between the new and updated s'farim, he ended up with 10 s'farim that he no longer needed and didn't really fit in with the "feng shui" he was trying to achieve.  He put those s'farim in a box until he …

Thought for the Day: How, Precisely, Ownership is Transferred from One Party to Another

So you go the the fruit market to get an apple.  Just when does that apple officially become yours?  When you pick it up the fruit bin?  When you hand the money to the cashier?  When you take your apple back from the bagboy?  When you leave the store?

Who cares?  That's a perfectly reasonable question; so let's change the case.  You ordered a gizzy from an Gizzy's R Online, who dutifully charges your credit card and sends you a verification email that they have dropped your gizzy into the USPS postbox on the corner.  You wait a week, two weeks, a month... no gizzy.  You call and say it was never delivered; they offer their condolences, but say their responsibility ends once they drop it into the postbox.  (That actually happened to me.  I never got my gizzy nor did I ever order from them again.)

Of course I made the the case more complicated with sending via messenger and whatnot, but the principles are the same.  In fact, even in the original case, suppose the bagboy drop…

Thought for the Day: The Difficulty of Conversations with Adherents to Derivative of Torah Judaism

The word "apikorus", it is claimed, is from the Greek "Epicurean".  The word "Epicurean", in turn, means one who is an adherent to the world view originally promulgated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus.  According Wikipedia, his world view can be summarized as follows:
For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. He taught that pleasure and pain are measures of what is good and evil; death is the end of both body and soul and therefore should not be feared; the gods neither reward nor punish humans; the universe is infinite and eternal; and events in the world are ultimately based on the motions and interactions of atoms moving in empty space. I like that summary.  It is a simple statement of the facts without passing judgement.  While many might shy away from being labeled as …

Thought for the Day: It It's Muktzeh During Twilight, Then It's Muktzeh All Shabbos

Yesterday I waxed poetic (or at least referred to a real poet), and by the way mentioned an interesting question in the Shulchan Shlomo.  It then occurred to me that perhaps not everyone is familiar with this halacha that if an object is muktzeh during twilight, then it will remain muktzeh for the entire day.  Today, with the help of HaShem, I shall expand on that; but not poetically.

Muktzeh does not mean (despite what many of our children/grandchildren) may think "stuff you are not allowed to touch".  Rather it refers to things which one is not allowed to move on Shabbos or Yom Tov.  Yes, I am purposely omitting oodles of details; such ass of when and under what circumstances one is allowed to move different categories of muktzeh.  I am doing that in order to focus in on the Shulchan Shlomo's very cool question with a minimum of introduction.

Again, glossing over many details, an object can be muktzeh because of itself or because of its situation.  For example, hammers…

Thought for the Day: Understanding Certainty from Uncertainty

I must admit to being sympathetic to Robert Frost's traveler who prefers the road less traveled.  Part of my bike ride to work is along part of the North Branch of the Chicago River.  The path I take is on the east side and is very well travelled, as it is lined with parks and even a swimming pool.  This morning I decided to take the "road less travelled by" (sic) on the west side of the river.  It was glorious.  No other bikes nore even pedestrians.  I bit narrow in places, closer to the river, and comfortably overhung with trees.  At one point, though, the paving came to an abrupt end, and I was facing dirt path.  I didn't worry too much, and was certainly not going to retrace my steps/rotations (harrumph)!  Quickly the overhung became overgrown.  Finally, the path was all but gone and I was wedged between a chain link fence and a forest of trees.  By the time I thought this might not be such a good idea (I'm slow to realize those things...), it was too late (r…

Thought for the Day: Good Sense Complements -- Not Replaces/Overrides -- Halacha

I have a tendency to forget small things and to be a bit lazy about being careful.  To adjust for that, I make myself little habits that have built in safeguards.  For example, I always lock my car door with my key; I never just lock the door with the inside button and close the door.  That way, it becomes physically impossible for me to lock myself out of my car.  When I say "always", I mean that when I first started this practice, if I forgot once in a while and locked the door with the button, I would then unlock the door (with the key in my hand) and then relock it... with the key in my hand.  You may think that is just silly.  I am good with that; I know I'd feel even sillier standing outside my locked car looking in at my keys in the ignition.

I learned this practice from the structure of halacha.  A violation of Shabbos is a capital offence, and to protect us Chazal instituted many fences.  For example, as we all know, one is not allowed to even leave food (that i…

Thought for the Day: Cutting Through Graphics on Shabbos

In case you don't know (I didn't, but that's never a proof of anything other than my cluelessness; which needs no further proof at all), there is now edible paper.  I don't mean, paper that if you eat it will not harm you (remember all that paper we chewed up in our youth?).  I mean truly edible -- with a hechsher and everything -- paper; not to mention edible inks and printers that won't mangle or get gummed up, to boot.  Why would you want edible paper?  Why, so you can put extraordinary pictures on cakes and whatnot!  And even better... if you serve them on Shabbos, we have a whole new level of concerns!  Cool!

We have all been duly brainwashed (I mean that in the best sense; our minds are clean enough to accept this idea) that one may not cut through letters on cakes; we are all careful to cut through any lettering on the cake or to put the fancy "Happy Birthday, Little Shmerel!" on a piece of paper that can be removed before cutting.  On the other ha…

Thought for the Day: Learning Halacha By Rules Vs. By Example

I suppose some people get everything they needed for life out of kindergarten; I feel sorry for those people.  I, for example, learned the very important lesson in prioritizing required work ahead of elective work from the infamous giraffe coloring that I experienced in first grade.  More than that, though:  R' Noach Weinberg, ztz"l, said that that obviously there is tremendous intellectual/emotional/spiritual growth in the first five years of one's life.  If that oh so cute five year old would experience the next five years with no more intellectual/emotional/spiritual growth, you have a 10 year old whose life has become a tragedy.  The same is true, said R' Weinberg, for a person's entire life.  There must be continuous intellectual/emotional/spiritual growth; once that stops, the life is decaying into a tragedy.

Here's a lesson I learned from a graduate math professor:  You have to "get down in the gutter" with the definitions to really understand…

Thought for the Day: Ensuring Equal Protection in the Jewish Court

One way to deflect dealing with an issue and feel like you have won the argument is to make an absolutely false statement that rings true, gets people nodding, and immediately halts any further discussion.  Here's an example: Automation take away jobs!  No, not really; it may shift emphasis on good skills for future jobs, and it certainly does create new jobs.  Moreover, since more can get done for less money and time, everyone benefits and whole new business opportunities are created.

Here's another favorite of mine: If men had babies, then !  Umm... whatever gender gets pregnant, carries the developing human, and then gives birth is the gender that I am going to call women.  The fact is that if having babies is important, then someone's going to have to take time off from job and career to do that.  If you believe in evolution (silly you), then you would have to note that billions of years of barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen cannot be reversed by a couple of hundred …

Thought for the Day: The Torah is the Cure for Extremism -- The Only Cure

Let's start with something simple and non-controversial:  How many sexes does science say there are?  Whoops... I forgot; I am not writing this two years ago.  Even that science guy seems to be confused.  So few years ago there were two, now there is a spectrum.  Science can tell you the genotype, the phenotype, the percentage of different hormones produced, the percentage introduced, etc.  The number and how to count them is really a matter for the legislature, not science.

How many sexes does the Torah say there are?  Certainly two, but maybe three; though in practice it can go to five.  How so?  There is male and female.  Then there is a טומטום (pronounced: tuhm-tuhm).  A טומטום is either male or female, but there are no outward manifestations.  Then there is a אנדרוגינוס/hermaphrodite.  A אנדרוגינוס has manifestations of both sexes; it is a matter of discussion among the sages if that sex is both male and female or third sex all his/her/its own.  (Using "it" is not m…