Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2018

Thought for the Day: Torah and Rabbinic Law/Nature and Nurture

In 1889, a natural philosopher by the name of August Weismann performed the paradigm stupid and wasteful experiment in an era and stupid and wasteful experiments. I say an "era and stupid and wasteful experiments" because the scientific method was only beginning to be developed. Most of those experiments did not record enough about the procedure to render them reproducible even by themselves, let alone another experimenter. Their data was therefore useless as a basis for drawing any meaningful conclusions. August Weismann, though, stands above the crowd and designing and executing a particularly stupid and wasteful experiment. What did he do? He cut the tails off five generations of mice in an attempt to disprove Lamarckism -- a notion (I refuse to give it the title "theory", "hypothesis", or even "conjecture") that acquired traits can be inherited.

In Weismann's own words: "901 young were produced by five generations of artificially mu…

Thought for the Day: Halacha and Medrash/Using Metal Knives for Circumcision

I was talking to a cardiac/thoracic surgeon recently. I mentioned that I had worked in a radiation oncology department as a physicist doing treatment planning. I wanted to be empathetic to the stress he must feel and said I had woken up a few times at night worried that I had made a mistake. He gave me sort of a blank stare and said, "I don't make mistakes."
Ah. Well, I do make mistakes. I know that other people also make mistakes. How do I know? There is a whole body of Jewish law on what to do when one has omitted a necessary insertion. For example, forgetting "r'tzei" in bentching on Shabbos. The truth is, though, I know people who need the opposite. They so rarely eat bread during the week that "r'tzei" seems like an integral part of bentching. For those people, I offer another halacha: when bentching during the week, you should first take all knives off the table. (Yes, even butter/table knives.) On Shabbos, though, those can remain on t…

Thought for the Day: Teaching Emuna to Generations

The parasha of Noach start by telling us (B'reishis 6:9): These are the generations of Noach; Noach was perfectly righteous in his generation. Rashi chooses to explain the simple meaning of the verse by taking some of the words out of context and fooling with the punctuation (Rashi is quoting a Chazal, so he is on solid ground, of course): "These are the generations of Noach: Noach." -- to tell us the main generations/progeny of a person is his good deeds.

Without doubt an important and insightful exegesis by our Sages, of blessed memory. However, Rashi (as the rav himself says several times) is to explain the simple/apparent meaning of the verses. How does this qualify for "simple/apparent" meaning? I know that is a good question, because the Gur Aryeh asks it. I know the Gur Aryeh asks the question because a friend made that the cornerstone of his speech at sheva brachos for a mutual friend of ours last night. I was really looking forward to hearing the answe…

Thought for the Day: Is Free Will Entangled?

Catchy title, no? If you were a physicist, you'd be deeply amused by my wittiness. If you are not, you can at least be amused at how witty I think I am being.

Here is the core issue: We humans are the unique beings in Creation who have unencumbered free will. That is, in fact, what the Torah means when it says that man was created in the image of his Creator. (I am oversimplifying a bit; but really just a bit.) The question is whether we can each make our own decisions independently, or do they need to mesh together?
I should note at this point that free will is not anarchy; if I decide to jump up, I am going to follow a relatively ballistic trajectory until I land. I can't decide at the apex of my trajectory to change directions or just hover; my trajectory is a consequence of -- and therefore an integral part of -- my initial decision. The most dramatic way to phrase this question is: If Bob murders George, has Bob's free will choice of murder just interfered with George…

Thought for the Day: Making Instant Coffee on Shabbos is an Outstanding Lesson in Halachic Reasoning

I know this may come as somewhat of a shock, but the singing ("nigun", for my FFT [frum from Tuesday] friends) part of the worship service is not really my "thing". Baruch HaShem, the Aguda accommodates even recalcitrant misnagdim such as I and provides a plethora of divrei Torah -- in English, Hebrew, and even Yiddiush available to be studied during permissible intervals. Such as extended chazanus for Lecha Dodi. (One might argue that I seem to consider any singing -- especially responsive -- as extended chazanus. One might be correct.)

I usually read something from the Business Halacha Institute, which has a nice story to go along with an interesting monetary issue. I learn something and I also have a ready discussion for the Friday night table. This Friday night, though, a young man walked around distributing copies of the CRC Kosher Consumer, Sukkos Edition. As this has never happened before, I figured that HaShem was sending me a message and so I better read t…

Thought for the Day: Yom Kippur is Annual Spiritual Inventory and Training

I scheduled by annual physical for the morning of Erev Yom Kippur. I certainly wish that I had thought to do that because I wanted to take care of my physical judgement day to parallel my my spiritual one, but it just happened to fit into my schedule. Ah well; maybe next time I'll have better kavanos.

There are two questions that arise every year; one on the front end of Yom Kippur, and one on that back. On the morning before Yom Kippur -- after almost two weeks of סליחות/extra prayers specifically targeted at arousing the Creator's trait of mercy (as opposed to strict justice) -- we end with just a whimper of a prayer; abbreviated service and not even a token תחנון. On the back end -- after 25 hours of prayer, supplication, and fasting; raising ourselves to the level of completely spiritual beings -- we drop immediately into our weekday evening prayers, which includes a plea for forgiveness of our sins; hang on.... didn't we just achieve complete forgiveness and atonement…

Thought for the Day: Do תשובה One Day Before You Die

Here's some physics humor for you: What do you do if you are in a falling elevator? Wait till you are one foot from impact, then jump as hard as you can! [It's physics humor because: (a) it isn't funny. (b) we physicists would never tire of discussing why that wouldn't actually work. (c) That "not working" is more of a biology, material science, and engineering question; not real science.]

Here's something, though, that does work: Do תשובה -- real, complete תשובה -- even up to an including the very last moment of your life. A person who does real, complete תשובה in that last moment of his life merits עולם הבא, enjoying for eternity the sublime pleasure of basking in the radiance of the Divine Presence along with the entire community of the righteous.

That being the case... why should I do תשובה before the last moment of my life? Leave aside (for the moment) the practical question of how you would manage to know when that time is. Leave aside (for the mome…

Thought for the Day: Proper Attitude Toward Using סגולות - Just My Opinion

When a TftD -- which is all, basically, my opinions -- has "just my opinion" right in the title, you may just want to surreptitiously hit Delete and/or Close and move on. I probably would. On the other hand, you might find it a refreshing "truth in advertising" and so stick around just for that.

In a recent TftD (Havdala for a Jew Who Didn't Keep Shabbos), I spoke in disparaging terms about a non-religious Jew who wanted to do Havdala just because he thought it was a סגולה for good eyesight. I said he was basically using Havdala as some sort of voodoo. I would like to clarify: My disparaging has nothing to do with his level of religiosity; it has everything to do with using a mitzvah as a trick to get some benefit via a shortcut. Gaming the system, in modern parlance. (Modern for me, anyway; so I may sound like a someone calling "groovy" a modern expression. Oh well.)

I am not the only one that feels this way. (But mom... all the kids are doing it!) A…

Thought for the Day: Havdala for a Jew Who Didn't Keep Shabbos

(Based on shiur by R' Fuerst, shlita: Interesting Teshuvos from HaRav Shteinman ZT”L.)
Here's the setup: an irreligious Jew (we'll call him Koby) in Israel went to his neighbor, a Torah observant Jew (we'll call him Yaakov), on Saturday night and asked him to make havdala for him. Why? He was having an issue with his eyesight, and had heard that putting the wine from havdala into one's eyes is a סגולה (by which he meant supernatural cure) to heal eyesight. Koby wanted Yaakov to make havdala for him, so he could put some of the wine into his eyes.

This is wrong on so many levels. First, of course, is treating Havdala as some sort of voodoo. Second: why couldn't Koby just make Havdalafor himself? Even if he were a recent immigrant (which he was not), there is always an ArtScroll siddur around. Etc, etc, etc...

Ok; let's cut to the chase: Is a Jew who did not keep Shabbos obligated in Havdala? As it turns out (you may need to sit down for this shocking bit of …

Thought for the Day: Remembering Ameleik Means to Live Up to Who You Are

There is one Torah reading for which there is universal consensus that it is Torah mandated:
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם/Remember what Ameleik did to you on the way when you were leaving Mitzrayim.

There are six remembrances that almost all siddurim record as mandated to be remembered each and every day. Remembering Ameleik is among them.

Sounds like it must be pretty darn important to remember what Ameleik did to me. To me? You mean to the Jewish people, right? No, to me; to me, personally. True enough that the Torah sometimes uses second person singular to refer to a group. However, in that same verse where it says לְךָ/to you in second person singular, it also says בְּצֵאתְכֶם/when you -- in second person plural -- were leaving Mitzrayim. True enough that Ameleik wants nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish people. True enough that Ameleik is not satisfied for a Jew to recant his religion.

None the less, this is most assuredly…

Thought for the Day: Candles in Halacha -- Shabbos/Yom Tov, Havdala, Chanuka, B'dikas Chameitz, Yahrtzeit

One of the canards that the Reform Jewish Religion is wont to promulgate is that Torah Judaism is -- Heaven Forfend -- misogynistic. Their proof? Well, heck! -- those Torah Jews don't count women in their minyan! Of course, by a similar "reasoning", they would also have to object that my oncologist 25 years ago was misogynistic, because he would never, ever have given a woman the course of treatment he prescribed for me! "Harrumpf!", they would opine! I would note that I had testicular cancer and the treatment plan was irrelevant and, in fact, dangerous for a woman (or anyone who didn't have testicular cancer, for that mattter). "La la la... we can't hear you!", they would twitter and tweet. Which, of course, is why I never try to explain to them about a minyan, either. Sigh...

There is a lesson here, though, even for thinking individuals. Namely, one must always consider the underlying issue being addressed. This is especially important when …

Thought for the Day: What Fear of Heaven Really Means

I do not react to posts on Facebook. There is a long standing tradition (dating back to the usenet newsgroup days) that when you are posting to the internet, you should forget logic and just go for visceral reaction. The more evocative, the better; truth be damned. So I just read and shake my head. My favorite are from rigidly dogmatic/rabid atheists who post things like, "I am glad I am not so afraid of god that I can't ." Which is, of course, the logical equivalent of someone who does not believe in bacteria (because you can't see them after all) saying, "I am glad that I am no so afraid of infection that I can't share a needle with my crack addict friends."
Indeed, I am trying to make a point. "Fear of Heaven" is not fear that some big, powerful supernatural being will smack me around 'cause I did something he doesn't like. Fear of Heaven means being a grown up and being mature about your choices.
Before venturing further, I also fe…

Thought for the Day: The Difference Between Sinning and Holding on to Sin Is the Difference Between Righteous and Evil

They say that the Maskilim (self-named "enlightened Jews"; but basically the same Reform Jewish philosophy that traces its illustrious roots back to Nimrod and Korach) put on a skit in Brisk based on the Torah's description of going to war when Klal Yisrael is living up to it's potential and as documented at the end of parshas Shoftim. (Yes; that is a run-on sentence. Deal with it.)

The skit started with a stage packed with people, and the kohein came out to announce: "Anyone who built a new house should go home." Many left the stage. "Anyone who planted a new vineyard should go home." Many more left. "Anyone who just got married should go home." More left. "Anyone who has sinned at all -- even said a single word after putting t'fillin on his arm before putting the t'fillin on on his head -- should leave." Everyone left, except two old men with long white beards and barely able to stand with the support of their canes (…

Thought for the Day: Shabbos in a Hospital -- Considerations

Let's take a completely hypothetical scenario: It is Friday afternoon and you've been at the hospital since Monday. The plan from the beginning was to be discharged on Friday. You are at a hospital that is 30 minutes from home (non-rush hour), so you haven't been home the entire week. You have been "bathing" in the rest room by the elevators (you are only the care giver, after all; not the patient, so you don't want to use the shower in the patient room) using the thinnest paper towels known to mankind. They've been telling you all day that the patient is ready to be discharged; all tests and procedures completed/successful/passed. Only waiting for the PA (physician assistant) to finish the paperwork, but he is stuck in surgery. Sundown is at 7:50 PM, you should have been out by 2:00 PM; it is now 3:00... 4:00... 5:00 PM. No worries; sure, it's now rush hour so the commute home is closer to 45 minutes or an hour, sure you haven't bathed properly n…

Thought for the Day: Who Heals All Flesh and Acts Wondrously

Nearly every day, the first bracha I make upon arising is אשר יצר. (Truth be told, at my age that is usually also the last bracha I make; two or three times a night, in fact.)  The bracha is explained in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim Siman 6:1. The Shulchan Aruch has a lengthy exposition on each word. The Mishna Brura add more details. The bracha ends with the words:
רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות/Who Heals All Flesh and Acts Wonderously The Shulchan Aruch explains those words to be referring to the fact that the body is able to extract what it needs from the food we ingest and transport that nutrition to every place it is is needed. The body is also able to rid itself of the waste -- indigestible and unusable parts of the food; escorting it out of the body. Of course, that is why we make this bracha after relieving ourselves.

The Rema then adds: Another explanation of "acts wondrously" is that He protects the spirit of a person inside him and interconnects physical and spiritua…

Thought for the Day: תחית המתים Every Second of Your Life

There is an old joke. The driver says to his blonde passenger, "Oh, no... I just glimpsed a police car in the rear view mirror! Are his lights flashing!" The blonde passenger turns around to look and reports, "No. Wait.. yes! No. Hmm... yes. No. Yes..."

Ha ha. A blinking light means sometimes on and sometimes off; silly blonde. However, on further thought, the light really isn't blinking. It is either on or off. "Blinking" is a word we use to describe something that we expect to turn back on after it turns off. If it fails to either turn on or off, but just stays in one state, it's not blinking. Again, though, that is our expectation that is failing, not the light. Maybe the jokes not on the blonde, after all; but on us.

In case you don't know how blood flows around the body, let me give you a simplified explanation. The heart has four chambers, the top two chambers are a staging area for the bottom two chambers. When the top two chambers are …

Thought for the Day: Nothing Is Mundane About Torah

Can you just imagine the vast breadth of questions that R' Fuerst, shlita, must get every day? People call out of the blue, and the rabbi is expected to just have the answer to each question. The wait on hold ("one minute; other line") is nearly always longer than the time it takes to ask the question and get the answer. In fact, it usually takes longer to ask the question itself than to get the entire answer. I had two questions recently that reminded (again) about how fortunate we are to have such ready access to a posek of the caliber of R' Fuerst.

Question #1: When a person has surgery and parts are removed, does one need to ask them to be retained so they can be buried? Does it make a difference if it is an entire אבר/organ/limb or "just" an  integral component of said אבר? (As an aside, one certainly can ask to have any removed parts or devices retained and returned. Stop by and I will happily show you the port-a-cath through which the chemotherapy th…

Thought for the Day: The Challenge Being a Good Jewish Husband

I have gotten as little notice as "ok, you are speaking" when arriving for Sheva Brachos. I have known as little about the chosson and/or kallah as knowing that the parents of one of them has worked with my wife. I don't mind, and I have always found something interesting to say (as evidenced by they fact the same group has asked me to speak yet again). However, it is always more enjoyable for me (and, I suspect, the listeners) when I have more time to prepare. It is certainly more enjoyable for me when I know the chosson and/or kallah. This past week I had the opportunity to speak at sheva brachos for a chosson whom I first carried to his bris and a kallah whose family I have known for years.

There is an interesting exchange in Shmuel between Shaul (just before he was anointed king) and a group of ladies. Shaul had never before met Shmuel, so he asks the ladies if he is in the right neighborhood. וַתַּעֲנֶינָה אוֹתָם וַתֹּאמַרְנָה/They answered them and they said (Shm…

Thought for the Day: There's Rambam and There's Guide for the Perplexed

I once said something that caused a stir... Strike that. I once said something that was regarded as controversial and therefore caused a stir... Strike that. One of the times I said something that was regarded as controversial that caused a stir... Strike that. One of the many times I specifically said something to stir up a controversy (ok; that's accurate), I ended up embroiled in a a controversy that I didn't expect.

It started off innocently enough. The bachur home on break from yeshiva wanted to say a very nice thought he had learned in yeshiva. These young 20 something bachurim are so cute in their passion that I usually don't nitpick. As it happened, though, he brought up a topic about which I am passionate: free will. Again, I might have let it go, except the "set up" question made a much bigger point about the free will (or, rather, obvious lack thereof) of inanimate objects. (As is often the case, the set up questions were overboard to make the concludi…

Thought for the Day: The Bracha of המפיל Just Before Dawn

This past Shabbos was a big day for me. First, 16 Av is the anniversary of my גרות; this makes 28 years. I try to commemorate the occasion appropriately. This year it was by completing my review of the second volume of the Dirshu Mishna Brura; including and and every ביאור הלכה and each and every שער הציו. (I highly recommend checking those out; you'll even find the occasional medrash down there.) Frosting on the cake, though, was finding a ביאור הלכה that addressed a question I have had for some time. In fact, it was a sort of redemption, as I had been told the question was so uninteresting that it wasn't even worth contemplating.

In order for you to experience some semblance of the flush of redemption I felt, I'll first explain my question. To do that, I need to give you some background. The mitzvah of ציצית cannot be fulfilled when it is "too dark" outside. One definition of "too dark" is that you could not recognize an acquaintance more distant than…

Thought for the Day: Nothing Beats Actually Talking to the Person

One is never, ever allowed to speak לשון הרע (literally: evil speech, but Google translation also offers defamation, slander, gossip, and calumny). You may have heard that there are situations in which one may speak  לשון הרע. You may have even heard that as long as seven criteria are fulfilled: (1) you have all the facts, (2) there is a benefit, (3) there is no other way to achieve the benefit, (4) you saw it yourself, (5) you made every effort to speak the the person before speaking about him, (6) you do not exaggerate in the slightest, and (7) your motives are entirely pure. You may have even Googled it (as I did). You may have even seen the words "as long as these seven criteria are met, than לשון הרע is permitted." None the less, that is a false statement.

Here is the precise statement: derogatory statements and remarks about another Jew are almost always forbidden. That forbidden speech is know in halacha as לשון הרע. Under certain conditions, those statements and rema…

Thought for the Day: The Mitzva of ביקור חולים

"There he goes again... on his soapbox!" Yes, indeed, people do say (or at the very least, think) that about me. They are wrong, though. To prove they are wrong, I just googled the definition of "soapbox": a box or crate used as a makeshift stand by a public speaker. If I used a box or crate as a makeshift stand with all my harping on certain subjects, I'd fall right through! No, sir; no soapbox for me... I need a solid, sturdy, well-engineered platform to support me while I rant.

As I've already mentioned, classical Hebrew terms that we use in halacha do not translate well into English. Worse, people try to force fit complex topics into succinct concepts into simplistic and wrong English words/phrases. Much, much worse is that they draw halachic conclusions based on these simplistic and incorrect mistranslations.

Excuse me? What? Oh... you are wondering if I could give you an example? As it happens, I do have one. ביקור חולים absolutely does not mean &quo…

Thought for the Day: I Didn't Know *That* Was Called Stealing!

One of the עשרת הדברות (known in English -- because of a decidedly purposeful attempt by the non-Jewish translators or our Torah to corrupt its meaning -- as the Ten Commandments) is, לא תגנוב/Thou Shalt Not Steal.
It says nowhere in our Torah that one should eat a healthy diet, nor does it say anything about wearing clothes, nor breathing, nor... nor... nor... Of course not, you say, those things are obvious and don't need to be said to normal, rational human being; certainly not commanded! Right; and a normal, rational human being similarly is not in need of being reminded -- certainly not commanded -- not to steal. So what's going on? A lot.
First, the prohibition against stealing includes deriving a benefit from someone who steals (cf תרגום יונתן). Of course (again and again, we will need to add "of course") one is not allowed to do business with stolen goods, but even having unnecessary favorable social interactions with someone who steals is prohibited. But the…

Thought for the Day: Bread on the Table After a Meal

BO-O-ORING! Really? You can't think of anything more interesting to write about than bread on the table after a meal? Tell you what, thanks for the heads up in the title, I'll check back when you write about something that might possibly be interesting. Maybe.
"Oh, yeah?!", I exclaim to the heckler. "Well... well.. you ended a phrase in a preposition! You should have said, 'about which to write' -or- 'to document'; hmmpf!" I showed him, no?

And yet, check out this halacha (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 190:2): Anyone who doesn't leave over bread on his table will never see a sign of blesssing, but do not bring a whole loaf of bread to place on the table; and if you do so, it looks like you are making an offering to false gods.

Yikes! On the one hand you have your mother saying "finish what's on your plate" and the halacha of בל תשחית that forbids destroying food for no reason, while on the other hand you have a warning to giv…

Thought for the Day: Understanding How the Avos Could Have Known All of the Rabbinic Decrees

The midrash says that our holy ancestors kept the entire Torah before it was given. How is that possible? How could they know about matzah when the exodus from Mitzrayim was far in the future? The basic answer is that the prohibition of eating chameitz at Pesach time is something built into the fabric of reality. The exodus gave us an historical event to which to tie that prohibition, but the prohibition itself existed since the six days of Creation.

But there's more: the midrash says that the Avos also kept all of the rabbinic decrees, such as muktzeh, eiruvim and even Chanuka candles. How are we do understand that? Rabbinic decrees are, after all, the product of human debate and thought, as clearly documented in the gemara. Now what?

There are two approaches to Jewish observance, that broadly can be categorized as "misnagid" or "yekish" on the one hand, and "chasidish" on the other. The easiest way to find where you fall is to consider your reaction…

Thought for the Day: שלום Does Not Mean "Peace", מת Does Not Mean "Dead", Et Cetera, Et Cetera, Et Cetera

They (the same "they" that call it "dope", I suppose) say that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I had a research adviser who adamantly disagreed; I am on the fence. I was once talking (ok... flirting; which, as you will see, is why I didn't date much in college) with a fellow student about one of the strangest aspects of modern physics: the so-called wave/particle duality. In some experiments electrons act like waves (think sound), in others they act like particles (think bowling balls). She was kind of bored and glazing over when she asked, "Maybe it's both?" The entire basis of the conversation, of course, was that something can't be both a bowling ball and a sound wave. I said, "Oh... maybe."; then backed away slowly. We probably both got what we wanted at that point.

In any case, the real issue is that we just don't have a word for what an electron is. In some experiments it acts the way a bowling ball would, in o…