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Thought for the Day: Two Learn Better Than One and Engender Objectivity

Confluence is both a cool word and and interesting concept.  I particularly like it when HaShem arranges a practicum for me to get a better understanding of what I am learning.

I have been listening to shiurim on Sanhedrin from the Business Halacha Institute during my commute.  These shiurim cover interesting halacha that comes out of the daf; the format is either a story or simple halacha that relates to the daf.  I like them because I find I can't pay attention to the road and listen to a complex shiur at the same time.  Last night I heard an interesting halacha about how a beis din operates.

Of course, a beis din needs to have an odd number of members in order to arrive at a decision by majority vote.  The minimum for that is three, and that is the general procedure nowadays.  Suppose one dayan can't come to a conclusion... he is left saying, "I just don't know."  In that case, a new dayan is chosen to join.  The expression used by the gemara is that a dayan w…

Thought for the Day: The Depth of Self-Deception About Objectivity

My son has started back to college and it's really bringing back memories for me.  One class is Intro to Psych.  Same as when I took it several decades ago... lecture is in huge auditorium with 100s (and 100s and 100s) of students.  Reading assignments add up to 100s (and 100s and 100s) of pages.  I actually never read any assignments in college, relying on picking things up from the lecture and working the homework problems.  I discovered to my shock (and, given my immaturity) disdain, that the tests mostly drawn from the reading assignments, only a tiny fraction of which would actually be covered in lectures.  I immediately -- filled with righteous indignation -- withdrew; after all, physics majors didn't need that class.  My son is neither not so lucky (his major requires psych to graduate) nor so immature (he is willing to do the reading if that's that is required).

As I have mentioned many times, R' Henoch Leibowitz, zt"l, was wont to say, you need two things…

Thought for the Day: Why I Do Not Wear a Blue Strand Among My ציצית

The issue of whether one had fulfilled his obligation for mishloach manos on Purim could be fulfilled even of the recipient refused the gift was once being discussed in beis medrash.  I, having moved to Chicago and by then having sat in R' Fuerst's Monday night shiur for a few weeks and having actually read the Mishna Brura on mishloach manos once , felt well prepared to offer an expert opinion.  (I hope you are catching the sarcasm; I was so arrogant in my ignorance!)  I stated quite matter-of-factly that of course one had fulfilled his obligation.  Someone who actually knew what he was talking about looked at me and said, "Oh... hiding behind a Rema, are you?"

To say the least, I was taken aback.  What do you mean, "hiding behind a Rema"?!?  We Ashkenazim follow the Rema, right?  "Did you look at the Mishna Brura on that Rema?"  Well... I had certainly read it... learn it?  Well... ahem... ummm.  Like a dog with his tail between his legs, I slin…

Thought for the Day: HaShem Runs the World; No, I Mean Really

If you ever get to the bottom of one of my emails, you'll see a quote from M'silas Yesharim:
כל ענייני העולם -- בין לטוב בין למוטב -- ניסיונות הם לאדם/All worldly affairs - whether good or beneficiary - are trials for a person It seems to me that is a crucial idea on how we look at life.  I thought I had learned that lesson and life that lesson pretty well.  Apparently HaShem felt I needed more training.

If you ask me about my recent trip to Nashville, you'll hear a few things.  I'll tell you about the great time I had spending time with my wife celebrating our 40th anniversary.  I'll tell you about the wonderful live music spilling onto the street.  I'll even tell you about the distillery tours we took.  You might be surprised that I don't talk more about the total solar eclipse -- first in 99 years in the continental US -- that provided the impetus to travel to Nashville in the first place.  I mean, you can't get much more cosmic and far out than that…

Thought for the Day: Appeasement is the Angel's Share of Repentance

To make bourbon you have to lose a good fraction to evaporation -- the so-called "angel's share".  That's inevitable... it's just the way the world is.  I, however, have proposed that the process of making bourbon is a pretty good analogy to making a Jew.  That is, fresh soul is breathed into physical body, allowed to age for several seasons -- with inevitable losses/suffering -- and finally you get that beautiful, perfected fusion of body and soul that lives forever in exquisite joy.  One may very well ask... if the goal is that perfect being, why didn't HaShem create that straight on, instead of creating the ingredients and environment and making us go through all this suffering first?

Before you jump all over me and tell me to just bag my analogy, let me push back on the statement that it's just inevitable that bourbon takes so long... that's the way it is.  When HaShem first created the world, though, that is most certainly not the way it was.  Ho…

Thought for the Day: Life Lessons from the Bourbon Trail

I almost never buy a coffee cup; I have a very nice one that my son bought for me several years ago.  I certainly never buy one just for the cute saying; how lame is that?  Well... I broke that rule and purchased a new coffee cup from one of the bourbon distilleries I recently toured just of the saying:
Give me the coffee to change the things I can, and Bourbon to accept the things I can't. Lame or not, I bought it and brought it to work. I showed it to a coworker, who remarked, "Oh... so spiritual..."  I replied, "Well, they do call it spirits."

In point of fact, I found that the bourbon process is actually a reasonable parable for our life in this world.  Alcohol (and other stuff, not important for now) is produced when yeast digests carbohydrates.  That process is known as fermentation; take a source of carbs, add the right yeast(s), you get a fermented gruel known as "mash".  Whiskey (or whisky, depending on its country of origin) means an alcoholi…

Thought for the Day: Baseless Hatred and Demanding Strict Justice -- Two Destructive Behaviours

My research advisor used to start his introductory lecture to freshman physics with a warning: "Some people say there is no such thing as a stupid question.  They are wrong."  I know without doubt that R' Fuerst has heard his share of stupid questions.  In fact, I can testify (with some shame, to be sure) that I have added to that genre.  I can also testify that R' Fuerst has always handled the questions with grace and patience with nary a trace of exasperation.  (R' Fuerst has, in fact, only hung up on a caller once.  He told us about it, so I know how far things have to go before the rabbi labels a queestion as stupid.)

Here's one very cool story that I heard from R' Schmelzer of Telshe, when he spent part of a summer at Camp Nageela Midwest some years ago along with R' Fuerst.  Camp Nageela provides an Orthodox Jewish experience for Jewish kids who do not come from an Orthodox home.  R' Schmelzer and R' Fuerst were walking to the lunchroom …

Thought for the Day: What a Great Stroke of Luck to Experience a Total Solar Eclipse

I get my news largely from NPR.  "But... but... sputter... sputter... it's so biased!", you declaim.  Precisely why I like it.  Everyone is biased; people who claim to be unbiased (and often strive to hide their bias) are, therefore completely unreliable.  If I know your bias, then I can account for it and extract out the true bits from your rhetoric.

Before I tell you about the news story I heard this morning, you need to know some facts.  (I know, I know... I am always being told how boring it is to first clarify the facts before discussing something.  I strive to be boring.)  Around the main disc of the sun is a aura of plasma that extends millions of miles (millions of kilometers, if you prefer) into the surrounding space, known as the corona.  Since it is so much less dense than the body of the sun, it is much less bright.  In fact, the corona is all but invisible unless you actually block the light of the globe of the sun.  How do we even know about it, you might a…

Thought for the Day: When You Don't Have to Pick Up a Lost Object to Return

If ever there was mitzvah that seems absolutely logical, returning lost objects seems to exemplify that genre to perfection.  And yet, a good fraction of Bava Metzia discusses its intricacies.  In fact, though, one finds that most of the discussion is when the mitzvah to return lost objects does not, in fact, apply.  That tactic is often used by Chazal when mapping the applicability of this or that mitzvah.  By delineating the borders -- even if there is some small uncertainty (machlokes), we achieve clarity on what is definitely inside and what is definitely excluded.

Here are the primary exclusions to the obligation to even pick up a lost object.

First and foremost, you need to be sure it is a lost object you are retrieving.  As obvious as that sounds, it has quite practical implications.  First, an object that is lying in a protected area is not lost.  It may have been sitting there for months or years, as evidenced by the thick layer of dust and confirmed by carbon dating.  No mat…

Thought for the Day: Preparation for Tisha b'Av -- Improve Interpersonal Relationships Now

I had a rough time at the end of the day on Tisha b'Av this year.  In fact, I had to end my fast early (based on p'sak from a rav, of course).  When my granddaughter saw me eating and heard that the rav has told me I needed to eat, her comment was, "Oh.  Yes, I have heard that old people have trouble fasting."

Me?!  Old?!  Yes... me; old.  I didn't prepare any differently this year than previous years.  That was a mistake, because there is a big difference between this year and previous years; namely, the intervening years.  My first "take away" is that I need to start now preparing for Yom Kippur.  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

My second take away is that I should really start now preparing for next Tisha b'Av.  As noted, the current observance of the Tisha b'Av season is lamenting our deficiency in our interpersonal relationships.  But we also know that the messiah is born (that is, the ultimate redemption begins) on …

Thought for the Day: Why Aveilus on Tisha b'Av? Fixing Our Relationship with HaShem by Fixing Our Relationship with Fellow Jews

I did not ride my bike to work today.  It is erev Tisha b'Av, 5777; though it is certainly permissible during the nine days to shower enough to not offend my coworkers, I felt that on erev Tisha b'Av itself there was no reason to bring myself to a situation of relying on a leniency that was easy to avoid.  I did, though, ride many of the nine days and certainly several days during the three weeks.  Since the whole period is one of increased danger, I listened to fewer shiurim than usual in order to pay more attention to the traffic.  Having that extra time (even with heightened vigilance, my mind had a chance to wander here and there), I was struck by two questions on the way we conduct ourselves during the three weeks, nine days, and week during which Tisha b'Av falls.

The Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch is the section on laws of daily living.  The organization is basically chronological by most frequent.  You will therefore first find laws of waking, getting dresse…

Thought for the Day: Hell, Reincarnation, and Ghosts are All Torah Concepts

My granddaughter wanted to know if there was really any such thing as ghosts.  I told her that of course there are ghosts!  Dovid HaMelech mentions them in Psalms (88:11): "Will You do wonders for the dead, do ghosts give You praise? Sela!"  You will probably see רפאים  quite inaccurately translated as "spirits" or "shades" or "the departed" or "the dead"; but I'm all about calling רפאים רפאים -- ghosts is ghosts.

I also ran across a reference to ghosts recently in Mishlei (21:16):
A person who wanders from the path of reason will repose in the community of ghosts. The G"ra explains this with a gemara (Pesachim 28a, in response to one Amora being refuted with his own arguments): R' Yosef said it's like the common expression, "the craftsman is burned by the mustard in his bowl";  Abaye said, "the carpenter is bound his stocks"; Rava said, "the fletcher is killed by his own arrows."   (I che…

Thought for the Day: Helping the Sinner Repent/Bringing Back the Beis HaMikdash

Rashi explains the difference between a חכם and a נבון.  (Google, by the way, translates both as intelligent, but adds wise for חכם and sagacious/discerning נבון.)  Rashi says that חכם is like a wealthy שולחני/money changer; bring him money and he can change it for you, and he is also content to wait for business.  A נבון on the other hand, is like a שולחני תגר/money dealer; if no one is bringing him business, he's out drumming it up.  The difference was really brought home to me yesterday while walking with my six year old grandson.  He stopped short and asked (really out of the blue): "Wait!  Our cousins cousins are... us?!?"  I was a bit startled, but managed to confirm his conclusion.  We were walking to look at some new houses being build (big machines and big holes in the ground are irresistible to boys of all ages), but apparently he had been thinking about his cousins who are planning to come for a visit and just had that insight.  That's a נבון; his mind nev…

Thought for the Day: Crackers, Cake, and Bentching

Remember the Uncrustables discussion?  R' Fuerst told me then that he was planning to do a series of shiurim on the topic of פת הבאה בכיסנין; ie, crackers/cake/pizza/what have you.  That series is now, Baruch HaShem, in full swing.  It's complicated stuff; the rav told me he has spent 50 - 60 hours preparing.  Last week (July 16, 2017), the shiur was on how much crackers/cake/sweet rolls you can eat -- and in what context -- before one would be required to wash and bentch.  I found two things particularly surprising/interesting (though not shocking) to me, which I present herewith.  However, due to the complexity of the topic, I feel compelled to make explicit the usual disclaimer:
The information contained in this posting in particular (as well as this blog in general) is for general information purposes only. Whilst I endeavour to keep the information up-to-date and correct, I make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accur…

Thought for the Day: How. When, Why of אמן/Awmein

As well document in Home Alone, even a very important mission can be ruined by failing to get all the participants at the right place at the right time.  Saying אמן with the correct intention, as mentioned, is important.  Still, if the אמן is misplaced or mispronounced, the entire mission can turn disastrous.

There are three defective sorts of אמן about which the Shulchan Aruch (124:8) warns: חטופה/hurried or snatched, קטופה/plucked, and יתומה/orphaned.  חטופה/hurried means either swallowing the first syllable (and just saying: 'mein) or saying the אמן before the bracha has been finished.  קטופה/plucked means dropping a hole letter or pronouncing the whole word as one syllable.  יתומה/orphaned means to just say אמן, but not as an answer or response to anything.  (That can happen if you walk into shul and hear everyone else answering אמן, so you figure, "heck!  I'll answer also!"  It can also happen if you have been in shul the whole time but your mind has been wander…

Thought for the Day: HaShem Protects Fools... and Therefore What?

After carefully learning through the Igros Moshe on smoking (Choshen Mishpat, 77) and publishing my findings, my chavrusa suggested that I check out of few of my conclusions and assumptions with R' Fuerst.  I was very happy to show him that I was right, so of course I agreed.  Baruch HaShem, I was even happier to find that I was wrong on a few points and to have R' Fuerst correct me.

I am about to brag, here... I hope you'll forgive me.  I approached R' Fuerst before mincha on erev Shabbos (I daven at that minyan largely because the rav davens that and it has afforded me many opportunities to speak to the rav directly for a few minutes at a time; which is all one gets on the phone anyway).  I told him I had a couple of questions on R' Moshe's t'shuva regarding smoking and general questions about the style of Igros Moshe.  Just then the chazan started "ashrei" and the rav held up his hand and said, "Time to daven..."  "Darn!", I…

Thought for the Day: What Do You (are Supposed to) Mean by אמן/Awmein?

Yes, I meant to spell it that way.  The Mishna Brura says very clearly (which is to say, the statement is literally there, as the entire text of the Mishna Brura is a model of clarity in both thought and expression) that the vocalization of אמן is with a קמץ גדול (the little "T" vowel, pronounced "aw" as in "awl") under the א and צירי (the two dots, pronounced "ey" as in "whey").  Who cares, you say?  I mean... it's just אמן, right?  Not such a big deal, right?  Wrong, wrong, wrong, there are rules and regulations for אמן -- times when you must say it, times you are not permitted to say it, times when you must not delay in saying it; and is all comes with reward and punishment (as brought in the Biur Halacha).  Good... now that I have you attention...

אמן has two basic meanings, and it is important to know which to intend when responding.  One meaning is a simple acknowledgement of the facts: "I affirm my belief that such-and-…

Thought for the Day: How Big a Fool Does HaShem Protect/What is Called Acceptable Risk?

Living is dangerous.  In fact, we have centuries of incontrovertible proof that death is always preceded by life.  When I was teaching about radiation safety to nurses in a hospital who worked with radiation therapy, I wanted to give them a feel for how dangerous radiation is.  It turns out that the risk of death from the maximum legal yearly dose of radiation is approximately the same as just living for a day and a half at age 60.

Traveling is risky; which is why we have a special prayer when embarking on travel.  I recently asked R' Fuerst if I should say תפילת הדרך when I leave for work in the morning on my bike.  "Is it dangerous?", he asked.  Well... I'm in traffic and I'm on a bike.  R' Fuerst replied in his usual cut to the chase manner, "If it's so dangerous, then you are not allowed to ride your bicycle in traffic.  If it's normal risk, then there is no reason to recite תפילת הדרך."  I decided it wasn't that dangerous... at leas…

Thought for the Day: Why, Yes... The Creator *Does* Care How a Jew Makes Coffee on Shabbos

It began innocently enough... We were having Shabbos lunch with a very nice family whom we recently met.  Their son, a young rabbinic scholar (who by nature are pretty rigid... all part of the process) gave a very nice d'var Torah regarding a curious Rashi.  When Moshe struck the rock to which he was supposed to speak, a great miracle still occurred -- water for millions of people -- and yet Moshe was severely reprimanded and punished.  Rashi explains what was so terrible: Had Moshe spoken, the nation would have taken a lesson for themselves.  If a rock, which doesn't get rewarded for listening to HaShem nor punished for disobeying HaShem, obeys a spoken command; then all the more so we, who are rewarded for our obedience to HaShem and punished for transgressing His Will, should certainly obey the Torah!

The young rabbinic scholar said, "This Rashi makes sense on first glance, but upon taking a second look, it doesn't make any sense at all!  The rock, after all, doesn…

Thought for the Day: Stealing Is Not a Joke... Even When It Is Intended For One

I grew up fat and was always embarrassed that all my clothes were "husky" sizes.  (Nice euphemism, right?)  I finally managed to lose weight (after years and years of failure) in my early 20s.  The first time I bought a suit after that, the salesman complained that the suit wasn't fitting right because my rear end was too small.  I could have kissed him (but I didn't).  I did not grow up frum (to say the least), and it has been a struggle to learn halacha.  Someone recently complained after a shiur I gave to women that I demonstrated too much knowledge of halacha.  I could have kissed her (but I didn't).

Admittedly, though, I am a physicist at heart.  That means that I am much more interested in the underlying principles than any particular actual situation.  It should come as no surprise, therefore, that not only do the esoteric cases of the gemara not bother me... I, in fact, relish their ingenuity.  Halacha had been a struggle for me both because of it's o…

Thought for the Day: Check Your Mezuzos Twice in Seven Years (A PSA)

My father, עליו השלום, once let me change the spark plugs on our car.  He warned me, "Be sure to take off only one at a time!"  I was a bit confused, as I had no thought to take them off (all eight... this was the 70s) by the handful.  As I started to remove the first one, though, I realized what he meant.  For those of you who are still mystified: Before electronic ignition, power was sent to the spark plugs via a distributor cap/rotor system.  The rotor, of course, delivers the power to the attached wires sequentially.  However, the cylinders of the car do not fire sequentially.  That means that the order of the spark plugs connected to the distributor cap is crucial to the running of the car.  In fact, the results of mixing up the order is at best a poorly running engine and at worst real damage to the engine.  So of course I replaced them one at a time, being careful with the order.  Also of course, though, I told my father, "Don't worry Dad.  I took them all of…

Thought for the Day: Theft of Intangibles

An interesting question came up with a chavrusa.  To understand the question, you need to know that there are many online games that are essentially multiplayer computer simulations.  One of the ways the game providers make money is to offer etools of various sorts for a price (real dollars).   The game provides provisions for players to buy/sell/loan such tools among themselves, as well as from the game provider.

Here's what transpired (names changed to protect the innocent and to comply with the laws of Lashon Hara even about the guilty):
Shmuel and Yehuda are friends playing in a game that offers, among other things, virtual e-swords for sale to be used in the game.  Shmuel owns an e-sword, but will be offline for a month, so he loans it to his friend Yehuda.  "Loan" is the term they use between themselves.  As far as the game is concerned, Shmuel has sold his e-sword to Yehuda for $0; Yehuda and Shmuel, though, have an oral agreement (no dispute on this) that Yehuda …

Thought for the Day: Using Your Money to Buy Eternity

We read in sh'ma, "You shall love the Lord, Your G-d with all of your heart(s), with your entire life, with all of your resources."  Chazal tell us that "your entire life" means even if it requires giving up your life; "all of your resources" means (one of the meanings), "all of your money."  You might wonder, as did Chazal: If I have to give up my life, why would the Torah also say that I have to give up my money?  Chazal answer: some people care more about their money, some more about their life, so the Torah said both to tell everyone that no matter what is most precious to you, love for your Creator comes first.  You may be wondering, as I have for years... what!?

This Chazal makes to value judgment as to whether it is appropriate to love your money more than your life.  Let's make that statement even stronger with a couple more Chazal's.  How about: Tzadikim care more about their money/property than about their bodies.  Here'…