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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…

Thought for the Day: Why Did the Avos Invent Prayer?

A speaker once gave a beautiful exposition for nearly an hour. Afterwards, among the congratulations for such a beautiful speech, one person approached and said, "I am a producer for NPR. Do you think you could boil that down to three minutes?" The speaker thought hard... on the one hand, he had many important things to say; on the other, exposure of NPR would let him reach a much bigger audience. After agonizing for a few moments, he said, "Yes; I could get my main message conveyed in three minutes." The NPR producer looked him straight in the eye and asked, "Then why didn't you?"

I spoke a few nights ago to the Aneinu group on the topic of prayer. I spoke for just over 57 minutes, as you can confirm for yourself, as a recording of the shiur is posted here among the other Aneinu Shiurim. (The entire recording is 59 minutes, 17 seconds; you have to love computer technology.) Could I have said what I did in only a few minutes? No; and there are two rea…

Thought for the Day: Transgress and Live -OR- Stand Firm and Die

Here's the joke: Moshe was called to pay a visit to the local (non-Jewish) mayor, and old friend who was now a powerful(ish) politician. When Moshe got there, the mayor was eating and asked Moshe if he would care to join him. "I must decline, Mr. Mayor, as the food is not kosher," said Moshe. After eating, the mayor poured himself some wine, again offering the same to Moshe. "I must decline again, Mr. Mayor, as the wine is not kosher," replied Moshe. "My goodness!", said the mayor, "So many rules! What if that is the only thing to eat and you are starving?!" "Ah," said Moshe, "if our like is at risk, then we are allowed -- even required -- to eat whatever will save our life." The mayor suddenly pulled a revolver from under the table and ordered Moshe, "Drink a glass of wine or I shall shoot you dead!" Moshe quickly quaffed a glass of wine. "Another!", roared the glaring mayor. Moshe complied with all h…

Thought for the Day: The Surprising Importance of T'fillin Straps

I have a chavrusa with whom I have been learning for the better part of a decade. We started with Makkos when he was in 7th grade. He is now in Beis Medrash and we have found a 30 minute slot on Sundays that fits into bot of our schedules, which we use to learn Mishna Brura בעיון/slowly and carefully. This last week, Sunday was a fast day, so his yeshiva schedule was more flexible and we learned after early mincha, instead of our regular time. I was even thankful that we could learn earlier, as fasting does not always go as easily these days as it used to. As we got close to the 30 minute mark, I asked if he could continue. (Meaning, did his schedule permit.) Ever the quick wit, he took the opportunity to exercise said wit, "I am 20, so we can go as long as you are able." That remark dispelled any notion I had of stopping early and I found the strength to press on until we were both at the end of our resources. (My mother was wont to mention my stubbornness; not my praise, o…

Thought for the Day: Stealing With Intent to Repay

This is an incident recorded in the gemara (Sanhedrin 39) that either a rabbi of the Reform Jewish Religion faith or a Roman governor (often hard to tell those two categories apart) declared to Rabban Gamliel: "Your G-d is a thief! He stole Adam's rib!" His daughter (either the governor's or the rabbi's) piped up and said she could handle this one. She called for a policeman and told him she wanted to report  a crime: "Someone broke into my house last night, stole an old flower pot, and left a gold vase in its place!" The policeman started laughing and asked how he could get the thief to visit his house. She turned to the accuser and said, "HaShem took a rib, but left him a wife; how can you complain?"

That is a good answer for a Roman governor or a rabbi of the Reform Jewish Religion. For a thinking person, though, it begs the question: Are you allowed to do that? Are you allowed to steal something with the intent to repay with something more…

Thought for the Day: The Necessity of מחלוקת/Controversy and Division

The mishna in Avos (5:17) begins with this surprising statement:
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. Loosely (and not entirely inaccurately) translated: Every argument that is made out of religious fervor will last forever. You may very well be thinking, "Ah yup. Religious nuts are destroying the world and they never stop!" Yet the mishna there is actually praising a מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם and condemning its evil cousin, the מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם. To appreciate what Chazal are telling us, we are going to need to more carefully define what a מַחֲלֹקֶת is, and also what it means to be לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם.

While the Torah requires a death sentence for certain crimes (murder among them), only a court of 23 expert judges can render such a decision. The Torah requires an odd number of judges on any tribunal in order to prevent deadlock. Suppose though, that it is the unanimous decision of the court that the defendant by executed. You …

Thought for the Day: Those Little Things Are Often the Main Things

Every group has its inside jokes, and vasikin is no different. There is one for Pesach involving Rebbitzin Isserles, there is one for Shavuos regarding the menu, and there is some sharp mussar regarding the 11 observed days of s'firah. Twice a year there is the quite popular announcement: For those of you who appreciate the smaller things in life, sunrise was one second today than yesterday. Small though it may seem, it is a welcome respite.

This time of year also comes with a personal simcha for me, as my rav, R' Dovid Siegel, shilta, comes for his annual visit from Eretz Yisrael. I am very fortunate that he always makes time for us to discuss my "life trajectory"; how the last year went, where I feel there are particular challenges, and counsel regarding the upcoming year. I never know the precise day he will arrive, so it is always a wonderful surprise. This year even more than usual. The person who usually sits next to me is away for a family simcha and his seat i…

Thought for the Day: The One Job During Prayer -- Express the Simple Meaning of Each Word as it Leaves Your Mouth

We are accomplishing huge things with the shofar blasts on Rosh HaShana.  There are Jews who barely distinguish themselves from the surrounding culture. They light Chanuka candles next to their decorated xmas trees. They'll have ham and cheese on their matzah during Passover. They'll drink herb teas during their Yom Kippur fast. Shofar, though? They don't want to hear any old horn; they want 100 blasts on a kosher ram's horn shofar. Big, big things are happening with those blasts and every Jew feels it deep in his soul.

R' Akiva Eiger was once asked  before Rosh HaShana what was the appropriate כוונה/intention for the shofar ceremony. There is so much going on, this Jew knew he would not be able to keep everything in mind, so he wanted just one -- the most important one -- כוונה/intention on which he could concentrate. R' Akiva Eiger told him that he was asking a very important question and he had an answer for him: Have in mind to fulfill the Torah mitzvah of …

Thought for the Day: When Can You Relax and Just Coast? Not In This World...

I got an email yesterday reminding me that it was Rosh Chodesh today and tomorrow, so davening would be starting 10 minutes earlier. Not to be outdone, the vasikin minyan started earlier today and will start even more earlier tomorrow. On the one hand, we are only starting earlier than usual by a few seconds. On the other hand, we are starting at 4:49 AM CDT. You decide who is more frum. 😛

Fine, fine... we are not starting earlier because of Rosh Chodesh. In fact, next Rosh Chodesh, we'll be starting later each day. Rosh Chodesh, of course, has nothing at all to do with when we daven. What's the point (besides the obvious showing off how dedicated us vasikin daveners are, while taking a jab at the rest of the world; just saying)? The point, though, is to underscore how bad it is to jump to conclusions from a tiny data set. The Pele Yo'eitz has an entire section devoted to the evils of הֶסַח הַדַעַת/running on auto-pilot. I wrote a post some time ago that hits the topic th…

Thought for the Day: Not Just What the Shulchan Aruch Says, But Where He Says It

I have a terrible memory for isolated facts. This is not false modesty; it's just the fact. It seems like I have a good memory because I can remember connected facts; facts connected with reasons. When I learned Hebrew, for example, I worked diligently to memorize enough grammar and vocabulary to build a sort of scaffolding. As that scaffolding became more sturdy and turned into a solid structure, I was able to add new facts by adding onto the existing structure. You now know far more about the way I think than you expected; you have only yourself to blame.

Why is this important? I now finally know enough halacha (about daily living, anyway), that I have a structure on which to hang new concepts! Woo hoo! Good thing, as R' Fuerst threw a few at us in his Sunday morning shiur on תפילת הדרך. The new idea started with a question: Are women obligated in תפילת הדרך? My first thought was, "Why not?  Hmm... it's not a time-bound, positive mitzvah. It is for protection on the…

Thought for the Day: Putting Prayer in Context -- The First Three Brachos of Shmone Esrei

Everybody loves grammar, right? The Hebrew word ללמוד means "to learn". The Hebrew word ללמד means "to teach". Same root letters (three, as is typical): ל-מ-ד; the two words differ only on בנין/conjunction. ללמוד is in the simple conjunction, whereas as ללמד is in the intensified conjunction. The Hebrew language itself tells us that teaching as in intensified form or learning. Of course, to give over an idea, one needs to have a deeper understanding himself first. That is one reason I look forward to giving a shiur. It takes me hours of preparation to give a 45 minutes shiur; must of that time is spent really just clarifying for myself the ideas to be presented.

Having the opportunity to speak about תפילה, therefore, is always very appealing to me. Every preparation means more review; more review means a chance to learn something new about תפילה; learning something new makes that next תפילה a more fresh/interesting experience; the more fresh and exciting any experi…

Thought for the Day: Risking Your Life to Save Your Life

Bike the Drive was amazing. Beautiful weather and... actually, once you have beautiful weather for the event, there isn't much more to say. Did I mention that I also do this ride to help raise needed funds for Chai Lifeline? And that you can still make donations? I did? OK; just confirming. I actually ended up biking more than 54 miles. Why I did that is only semi interesting (even to me), and certainly not something with which I need to waste your time on this venue. Feel free to ask, though.
In any case, being as I was on the road for more than 3 1/2 hours, I had lots of time do listen to shiurim; some twice. One in particular peeked my interest: a shiur based on a topic discussed on Sanhedrin 78 about whether one is allowed to undergo a risky surgery. R' Chaim Ozer was presented the following question: a Jew with a condition that -- left untreated -- would surely claim his life withing a few months had been offered a surgery that -- if successful, would extend his life by s…

Thought for the Day: The Judgement of Jewish Courts

The gemara (Sanhedrin 71b) discusses the strange case of the בן סורר ומורה/rebellious son. The boy is put to death for gluttonous and drunken behaviors as a youth; but only if this occurs while he is between 13yr/0m and 13y/3m, his parents have similar sounding voices and are of similar physical stature, neither of his parents can be blind, deaf, mute, or have any physical deformities, and the must bring him to the court with warning, and they must both want him to be put to death. Given all that, it is easy to understand that this never actually happened and practically speaking just can't. Chazal tell us that the Torah gives us this mitzvah to give us the reward of learning for its own sake and also to derive philosophical lessons.

For example, Chazal tell us that the בן סורר ומורה is killed now -- while he is innocent -- before he grows older to commit more egregious sins -- which he surely will -- and becomes guilty of capital crimes. There is a lot to say on this, but I would…

Thought for the Day: Is it a Sin to Unwittingly Violate the Torah?

The word sin is distressingly overburdened with connotation in present day America. My use of the word is simply to mean "transgress the Will of the Creator." Nothing more nor less is implied.  To violate the Torah, on the other hand, is do something proscribed by the Torah or to fail to do something that is required by the Torah. We usually equate those two concepts (with good reason!), but for today's purpose we need to separate them. For today we'll say, for example, that driving a deathly ill Jew to the hospital on Shabbos is a violation of the Torah.  Of course, there is no greater mitzvah than to save a Jewish life and in that case it would be a grave sin not to drive on Shabbos.

One of the criteria by which we judge the sinfulness of a particular violation is why it was done. At the top of the hit parade, we have violations done knowingly; aka, במזיד. The worst sort of sin is to violate the Torah for no reason except to transgress the Will of the Creator; aka …

Thought for the Day: Convincing Someone to Sin -- The True Original Sin

One of the many, many, many, ... (have I made my point?) mistakes made by xtianity is the concept of "original sin". First and foremost, is the tragically mistaken and damaging idea that sin causes one to fall from grace. Honestly!? That religion purports to pray to their father who art in heaven (among other divine beings, of course) and they also purportedly also claim to pray to his only (sic/sick) son -- whom he (the father) stood by and allowed others to murder. Why? Because he loved those others sooo much. Uh huh.  I have children and grandchildren. All of them have transgressed my will from time to time. Sometimes its cute and expected. Sometimes its awful and painful. It has never, ever, not even once, not even entered the realm of possibility (have I made my point?) caused a diminution of my love for them nor to lose an iota of grace that I feel for them. So their deity is less loving and forgiving than me. Uh huh.

The second thing, though, is they can't even co…

Thought for the Day: When A Pocket Is Muktza, But the Garment Is Not

I was the envy of all the other bike commuters last week. Why? I had brought a windbreaker. What's the big deal? It was cold on the commute home. Why didn't the others have a windbreaker? It was warm for the morning commute and -- fer cryin' out loud -- it's May... how cold could it get? Why did I have a windbreaker? I live in Chicago, where weather apps are still more for laughs than practical use. Why didn't they -- who also live in Chicago and have for some time -- not have windbreakers? Never underestimate the power and allure of wishful thinking.

Speaking of unexpectedly needing a raincoat on Shabbos (smooth segue, no?): You have a work credit card in your possession that is needed by a non-Jewish coworker, Bob. Bob needs it for a business trip and he is leaving Saturday evening; he will only be in your neighborhood for a couple of hours Saturday morning. No problem, you decide; you'll just leave it in the right pocket of your raincoat that you'll leav…