Judaism and religion

The Rabbis and Environmentalism

Jim Davila was wondering whether the following quotation from Anglican minister Martin Palmer was really Talmudic:

“The Talmud says that the angels went to God and said, ‘You just created this wonderful world and now you’ve created these human beings who will only go and mess it up. Are you start staring mad?’ And God says, ‘I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing.’ And then the earth spoke, and the earth was afraid. And the earth said, ‘These creatures, they will only rebel against me and harm me.’ And God answers, ‘I promise you that they will never be allowed to destroy you.'”

I think that Iyov is right that this is derived at some distance from Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 38b or its parallels:

אמר רב יהודה א”ר בשעה שבקש הקב”ה לבראות את האדם ברא כת אחת של מלאכי השרת אמר להם רצונכם נעשה אדם בצלמנו אמרו לפניו רבש”ע מה מעשיו אמר להן כך וכך מעשיו אמרו לפניו רבש”ע (תהילים ח) מה אנוש כי תזכרנו ובן אדם כי תפקדנו הושיט אצבעו קטנה ביניהן ושרפם וכן כת שניה כת שלישית אמרו לפניו רבש”ע ראשונים שאמרו לפניך מה הועילו כל העולם כולו שלך הוא כל מה שאתה רוצה לעשות בעולמך עשה כיון שהגיע לאנשי דור המבול ואנשי דור הפלגה שמעשיהן מקולקלין אמרו לפניו רבש”ע לא יפה אמרו ראשונים לפניך אמר להן (ישעיהו מו) ועד זקנה אני הוא ועד שיבה אני אסבול וגו’

Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: When the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to create man, He [first] created a company of ministering angels and said to them: "Is it your desire that we make a man in our image?"

They answered: "Sovereign of the Universe, what will be his deeds?"

"Such and such will be his deeds," He replied.

Thereupon they exclaimed: "Sovereign of the Universe, What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou thinkest of him?" [Psalm 8:5]

Thereupon He stretched out His little finger among them and consumed them with fire. The same thing happened with a second company.

The third company said to Him: "Sovereign of the Universe, what did it avail the former [angels] that they spoke to Thee [as they did]? The whole world is Thine, and whatsoever that Thou wishest to do therein, do it."

When He came to the men of the Age of the flood and of the division [of tongues] whose deeds were corrupt, they said to Him: "Lord of the Universe, did not the first [company of angels] speak aright?"

"Even to old age I am the same, and even to hoar hairs will I carry," [Isa. 46:4] He retorted.

However, the classic Rabbinic source for environmentalism is Ecclesiastes Rabbah on 7:13:

בשעה שברא הקב”ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, made the first human, he led him past every tree in the Garden of Eden, saying, “Look at what I have made! See how beautiful and excellent they are! Everything that I created I created for you; take care not to damage or destroy my world, because if you damage it there is nobody else who can repair it after you.”

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Hey, man

Things I thought about during the Megilla reading this year, in no particular order. I’m not saying I thought of all this actually during the reading, some of it is expansions of the original ideas that are coming to me as I write it down

I’m not sure if this counts as a meme. RenReb did a post with this subject last year, and Dov Bear picked it up and repeated his post this year. ADDeRabbi had a good one too which I just saw because bloglines resyndicated it.

  • Ancient Persians had really silly names. Sha`ashgaz. Karshena. Hharvona. Apart from Mordechai and Esther, which are Babylonian, the only sensible name in the whole book is Haman. Actually, Sha`ashgaz would be a rather cool name for a cat. Especially a Persian cat.
  • How did Haman come to fall on Esther’s couch? Was he prostrating himself to her (which would be a nice dramatic irony considering that the driving motive behind most of the plot is that Mordechai refused to prostrate himself to Haman) or is it a slapstick thing, that he got up to beg for mercy after one too many cups of wine and just fell over?
    Either way, the word “fall” is certainly dramatic irony (look at verse 6:13).
  • OK, so the chiastic structure of the whole book is really obvious. But what about the little chiasmi (if that is the right word)? For example, in 5:10 Haman summons his friends and his wife, and in 5:14 his wife and his friends answer him. In 6:13 he tells his wife and his friends what happened, and his wise men and his wife answer him.
  • I love the way Algerians pronounce a gimmel without dagesh, e.g. in אֲגָגִי.
  • What were the סְפָרִים in which they sent out the proclamations? Clay tablets?
  • I wonder if the Persian words in the Megilla are attested in old Persian texts. If they are, I could blog about it and put them in in Unicode Persian cuneiform and nobody without the right geeky fonts could read them. Like this: 𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁𐎠 (that’s Ahasuerus’ name, assuming that Ahasuerus is Xerxes).

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Whumping the Willow

The Hoshana Rabba service (or, as my Siddur puts it, The Seventh Day of Tabernacles, Called Hosha-gnana The Great) is something of an omnium gatherum of Jewish liturgy — apart from counting the omer and a megilla reading it has just about everything. Extended pesukei de-zimra, ya’aleh veyavo, shaking the lulav, Hallel, Torah reading, Mussaf, seven circuits round the Torah, last chance Selihhot, shofar blowing, prayers for rain, and of course whumping the willow.

By the way, two of my favourite Yiddish phrases are associated with the day: the word for willow whumping itself, שלאָגען ערבות (shloggen arovves), and the expression for a willow branch after the service, or somebody who feels like one, an אויסגעקלאַפטע הושענא (oysgeklopte hoshana).

It’s interesting that performing the willow whumping every year was considered important enough that one of the reasons to hold over Rosh Hashana for 24 hours is to prevent Hoshana Rabba falling on Shabbat. לא אד”ו ראש, lo Ido Rosh: Rosh Hashana can’t fall on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. Not Wednesday or Friday because then Yom Kippur would be on Friday or Sunday and there would be two consecutive days of full Shabbat restrictions; but not Sunday because then Hoshana Rabba would fall on Shabbat and there would be no willow whumping. No other mitzva which can’t be performed on Shabbat gets this consideration. I wonder if it’s because of some special significance that it possesses, or maybe more mundanely because other mitzvot can be fitted round Shabbat. There is no shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana that falls on Shabbat, but then there is always the second day. There is no lulav shaking on Shabbat, but there are six more days of Hhol haMo`ed when the lulav can be shaken. There is no Megilla reading on Purim that falls on Shabbat, but then the Megilla can be brought forward to Friday (as it was in Jerusalem last year). But then, why can’t willow whumping be brought forward to the sixth day?

The piyyutim for Hoshana Rabba don’t really compare to the piyyutim of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I know it’s anachronistic, but I like to imagine that the really great paytanim, Yehuda HaLevi, Ibn Gabirol, Moshe ibn Ezra etc., had shot their bolt by the end of Kippur, and the second division had to be called in for Hoshana Rabba.

Here’s one example, which I really can’t claim as great literature, but I have to admit I’m rather fond of it, maybe because I like lists as a literary device.

אל נא
אוצרך הטוב פתח מזבולה
והארץ תתן יבולה
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
נטפי נדבות ירוו דשאי חציר
והשיג לכן דיש את החציר
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
יבול הארץ לברך העתר
אכול ושבוע והותר
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
יום זה חתום נא חותמת
וברך חטה ושעורה וכסמת
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
וגשם נדבות תחולל רוח צפון
וברך שבלת שועל ושיפון
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
ספק ספק בכל חודש וחודש
וברך אורז ודוחן ופול ועדש
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
פצה שנה זו משמיר ושית
וברך עץ שמן וזית
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
במטר רוה חרבוני ישימון
וברך גפן ותאנה ורמון
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
נטפי נדבות ירוו דשאי חציר
והשיג לכן דיש את החזיר
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
רומם עצרת עוללי טפוחים
וברך אגוז ותמר ותפוחים
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
ידך הרחב ורבה חזיזי מעונים
וברך בטנים ושקדים ורמונים
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
צדקך מעמך בל יפסק
וברך חרוב וקרסטמל ואפרסק
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
חלץ קהלה אשר סביבך תערוג
וברך התות והאגוז והאתרוג
הושענא והושיעה נא

אל נא
קרא נא שבע במטרות רקיעים
וברך כל מיני ירקות וזרעים
הושענא והושיעה נא

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For calendar geeks 2

One of the unusual features in this year’s Jewish calendar is that the first day of Pesach is Sunday, so Seder will be on Saturday night. This is actually not as unusual as everybody thinks — it would be more accurate to say that any other day of the week when Pesach falls is unusually common, rather than saying that Pesach falling on Sunday is unusually rare.

Let me explain what I mean by that. If the calendar always followed the astronomical facts, there would be no reason for Pesach (or any other specific date) to fall on any given day of the week more than any other, so it would fall on each day on average one year in seven. However, there are only four days when it can fall: לא אד”ו ראש, לא בד”ו פסח (lo ido rosh, lo badu pesahh): Pesach can never be on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.

Trivia question: why do I transliterate that lo ido rosh, not lo adu rosh, the way almost everybody pronounces it?

So, on years when the actual full moon would be Monday, Wednesday or Friday, Pesach is postponed to Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday respectively (to be precise, the following Rosh Hashana is postponed, but it comes to the same thing because the number of days from Rosh Hashana to Pesach is constant). Therefore, Pesach on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday is twice as common as should it be, but Pesach on Sunday will only happen once in seven years according to the statistical average, with no extras caused by postponement from other days. It’s not quite as simple as that, because there are other reasons why Rosh Hashana gets postponed, so it’s not exactly once in seven years, but it’s pretty close. The table in the back of my Machzor gives the dates of Pesach from 1974 to 2024, and 8 out of those 51 are Sundays. The distribution, on the other hand, is very irregular: it happened last only 4 years ago, and is happening again in 3 years time, but after that the next occurrence isn’t until 2021.

Having Pesach on a Sunday, causes some interesting and unusual halachic situations throughout the year (see section M of the article I link to above for a list of 42 of them). Because of the comparative infrequency and the occasional long gaps, people are often vague about the details of these, and this is nothing new — this vagueness is what caused Hillel the Elder to be elected Nasi, Prince of the academy. It’s a story I’m very fond of; in fact this whole post has only been written as an excuse to lead up to it. It’s an elegant combination of typically Rabbinic hermeneutics set in a frame story which is like an archetypal myth of the riddle which nobody can answer until a young stranger appears, answers the riddle and marries the princess.

The riddle here is a halachic question, not one of the list of 42 but one which only applied in Temple times: if Pesach falls on Sunday, the 14th of Nisan when the Paschal Lambs were offered falls on Shabbat. Can the lambs be sacrificed on Shabbat or not? We take up the story on Pesachim 61a, right after the first Mishna of Chapter 6 (which has given away the answer to the riddle, so I won’t quote it):

תנו רבנן הלכה זו נתעלמה מבני בתירא.

פעם אחת חל ארבעה עשר להיות בשבת. שכחו ולא ידעו אם פסח דוחה את השבת אם לאו

אמרו: כלום יש אדם שיודע אם פסח דוחה את השבת אם לאו?

אמרו להם: אדם אחד יש שעלה מבבל והלל הבבלי שמו ששימש שני גדולי הדור שמעיה ואבטליון ויודע אם פסח דוחה את השבת אם לאו.

שלחו וקראו לו. אמרו לו: כלום אתה יודע אם הפסח דוחה את השבת אם לאו?

אמר להם: וכי פסח אחד יש לנו בשנה שדוחה את השבת? והלא הרבה יותר ממאתים פסחים יש לנו בשנה שדוחין את השבת!

אמרו לו מנין לך?

אמר להם: נאמר “מועדו” בפסח ונאמר “מועדו” בתמיד. מה מועדו האמור בתמיד דוחה את השבת אף מועדו האמור בפסח דוחה את השבת. ועוד קל וחומר הוא: ומה תמיד שאין ענוש כרת דוחה את השבת, פסח שענוש כרת אינו דין שדוחה את השבת?!

מיד הושיבוהו בראש ומינוהו נשיא עליהם והיה דורש כל היום כולו בהלכות הפסח.

This translation is based on Rodkinson, because it’s after midnight and I’m too lazy to do it from scratch. However, I’ve rewritten it a bit, because he totally loses the repetitive folk-tale style.

The rabbis taught: The Halakha in the Mishna was not known to the children of Bathyra; for it once happened that the 14th (of Nissan) occurred on a Sabbath, and they did not know whether the Passover sacrifices superseded the Sabbath or not. They therefore commenced to look around for a man who knew whether the Passover sacrifices superseded the Sabbath or not, and they were told that there was a man who had recently come from Babylon, called Hillel of Babylon, and who had learned under the two greatest men of that generation, namely, Shemaiah and Abtalion; he would know whether the Passover sacrifices superseded the Sabbath or not. They sent for him and asked him: “Dost thou know whether the Passover-sacrifice supersedes the Sabbath or not?” and he answered: “Have we only one Passover-sacrifice that supersedes the Sabbath? are there not over two hundred sacrifices that supersede the Sabbath?” (i.e., the continual daily offerings which are offered twice on the Sabbath and the additional two sacrifices which are brought especially on the Sabbath). But they insisted upon his basing his assertion upon some actual text, and he said: “As it is written concerning the continual daily sacrifice [Numb. xxviii. 2]: ‘My offering, etc., shall ye observe to offer unto me in its due season,’ and the same term, ‘at its appointed season,’ is mentioned in connection with the Passover-sacrifice [Numb. ix. 2]: just as the ‘appointed season’ of the daily sacrifice supersedes the Sabbath, so too the ‘appointed season’ of the Passover sacrifice supersedes the Sabbath. Aside from this analogous deduction, there is also an a fortiori conclusion; for if on account of the continual daily sacrifice, for the neglect of which the penalty of Kareth is not incurred, the Sabbath may be violated, then on account of the Passover-sacrifice, for the omission of which the penalty of Kareth is incurred, we must conclude that the Sabbath may be violated.” When they heard this, they immediately placed him at their head and made him a prince. Thereupon he sat all day and preached upon the Halakhoth of the Passover.

But now Hillel becomes too proud, makes an arrogant remark, and is immediately floored by a question he is unable to answer. In this version of the myth, at least, the hero recovers his humility and saves himself by appealing to the prophetic spirit of the whole nation.

התחיל מקנטרן בדברים. אמר להן: מי גרם לכם שאעלה מבבל ואהיה נשיא עליכם? עצלות שהיתה בכם שלא שמשתם שני גדולי הדור שמעיה ואבטליון!

אמרו לו: רבי, שכח ולא הביא סכין מערב שבת מהו?

אמר להן: הלכה זו שמעתי ושכחתי. אלא הנח להן לישראל אם אין נביאים הן בני נביאים הן.

למחר מי שפסחו טלה תוחבו בצמרו מי שפסחו גדי תוחבו בין קרניו.

ראה מעשה ונזכר הלכה, ואמר: כך מקובלני מפי שמעיה ואבטליון!

Subsequently Hillel began to reproach them, and said: “What induced you to set me up as a prince among you? Only your own idleness in not taking advantage of the learning of the two great men of your generation, Shemaiah and Abtalion.”

The following question was propounded to Hillel: “What is the law if a man had forgotten to bring the slaughtering knife on the day preceding the Sabbath?” He answered: “I have heard the Halakha but have forgotten it. Leave this, however, to the Israelites themselves, for though they are not prophets they are descendants of prophets, and they will know what to do.” On the morrow he noticed that those who brought sheep as a sacrifice had the knife thrust in the wool of the sheep and those that brought goats as a sacrifice had the knife stuck between the horns, whereupon he remembered the Halakha covering the case and exclaimed: “Thus is the tradition which I have received from my masters Shemaiah and Abtalion.”

The expression near the end הנח להן לישראל אם אין נביאים הן בני נביאים הן, Hanahh lahem leyisrael, im ein neviim hen benei neviim hen, has become proverbial, roughly equivalent to Vox populi vox dei.

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I am a feminist

There are advantages to living in a small country. If I was in America or even England and saw that someone whose work I admire and whose blog I read regularly was speaking somewhere, chances are it would be 1,000s of miles away and I wouldn’t be able to get to it.

In Israel, on the other hand, when Danya mentions that she will be talking about her book, it’s happening 10 minutes drive away from my house, and I could go along and even did the full groupie thing and got her to sign my copy afterwards.

Seriously, though, something she said gave me a big hhizzuk which I will always be thankful for. I literally drank in feminism with my mother’s milk though I should note that my mother ע״ה would never have let me get away with using “literally” like that. I used to claim that I didn’t mean “literally” literally, but she wasn’t convinced., but when I was growing up in the 1970s, there was a very strong vibe in publications like Spare Rib that “only a women can be a feminist” which has ever since made me describe myself with half-hearted terms like “a supporter of feminism”.

So it made a big impression on me when Danya firmly contradicted that and said something to the effect of “feminism is for everybody”. From now on, I am out of the closet and identifying myself as a feminist, with no more weasling.

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The voices in my head

I hadn’t been planning on learning Daf Yomi this cycle. I’ve had good intentions many times before, and got right through Berachot once, but sticking to routines is not one of my strong points, and seven and a half years is about 50 times longer than I usually manage to do anything before wandering off and doing something else (can you say AADD?)

What pushed me over the edge was the opportunity to learn from a 16th century edition, thanks to the Hebrew University and National Library website. I’ve never seen Latin on the title page of a volume of Talmud before. Unfortunately, the Talmud manuscripts on the same site don’t work in my browser (I opened an evangelism bug on this a long time ago, without any effect that I can see).

So, something on the second page (that’s 3a: Talmudic tractates don’t have a page 1) has been puzzling me.

תניא א”ר יוסי פעם אחת הייתי מהלך בדרך ונכנסתי לחורבה אחת מחורבות ירושלים להתפלל בא אליהו זכור לטוב ושמר לי על הפתח…

We learn in a Baraita: Rabbi Yosé said,
“Once I was walking on the road and went into to one of the ruins of Jerusalem to pray. Elijah of blessed memory came and guarded the door and waited for me until I had finished the prayer. After I had finished, he said to me, ‘Peace unto you, my teacher,’ and I said to him, ‘Peace unto you, my teacher and my master.’.
“He said to me, ‘My son, why did you go into this ruin?’ I said, ‘To pray.’
“He said, ‘You should have prayed on the road.’ I said, ‘I was afraid that the passers-by would disturb me.’
“He said, ‘You should have prayed a shortened form of the prayer.’
“I learned three things from him then. I learned that one shouldn’t go into a ruin; I learned that one may pray on the road; and I learned that if one prays on the road one should pray in a shortened form.
“Then he said, ‘My son, what voice did you hear in this ruin?’
“I said, ‘I heard a heavenly voice cooing like a dove and saying, “Woe unto the children because of whose sins I destroyed my temple and burned my shrine and exiled them among the nations!”’
“He said to me, ‘By your life! Not at this time alone does it say this, but every day, three times a day, it says this, and what is more, when the people of Israel enter synagogues and houses of study and respond “May his great name be blessed” the Holy One, Blessed be He, nods his head and says, “Happy is the king who receives such praise in his house. What should a father do who has exiled his children? Woe upon the children who have been exiled from their father’s table.”’”

Now this is very beautiful, especially in the original rather than my slapdash translation, which is why I’ve quoted it at greater length than I originally intended, but it puzzles me. If somebody described an experience like that today, you would wonder why they weren’t taking their medication. I don’t usually think of חז״ל in those terms, so I don’t know what to make of it. Were the dividing lines between what we would define as sanity and delusion just totally different? Is it a surreal literary device not intended to be taken literally? What exactly is going on here?

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The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Aviad, describing himself on an school application form:

“If the religious were red and the secular were yellow, I would be orange.”

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This one’s for Glazou

Shamelessly stolen from a comment on Hirhurim by someone called Fotheringay-phipps:

They say a story about the head of the local apikorsim who was dying. And as he lay there on his deathbed, with his apikorus talmidim gathered around him, he told them “call the rov – I want to do t’shuva“. So they told him “how could you do this? All these years you’ve been teaching us k’fira, and now you want to do t’shuva?” And he responded “Aderaba! Ich vil vaisen az dos vos shtait in Gemerarisho’im afilu al pischan shel gihenim ainam chozrim‘ – dos is oich falsh!

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Two years

Today is my mother’s second Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of her death by the Hebrew calendar.

We invited several friends of ours and hers over for an azkara or memorial service, with prayers (I think this was the first time in my life that I have led a weekday evening service), light refreshments and Torah study. The texts that we learned are available in the original here. I’m feeing totally totally drained right now, but I hope tomorrow or soon I will post a translation and some of what I said for the occasion.

I’m very glad we did it. Everybody who knew her remembers her so fondly, and it was very warming to share reminiscences of her with people.

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Kubanga okusaasira kwe kwa luberera

That’s כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ, the refrain of Psalm 136 in Luganda, as sung by the Abayudaya community of Uganda. (Thanks to Danya (Jerusalem Syndrome) posting at JewSchool, via Rachel (Velveteen Rabbi)). I have to get this disc!

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Making myself useful

It’s good that the remnants of a classical education that I carry around with me sometimes come in useful for me and other people.

My ever loving wife is winding up her M.A. thesis on Eve and Mary in Irenæus of Lyons, and it’s my privilege to help her as computer and language dogsbody, looking up references on the internet, translating parts of the Latin text (the only complete version extant) of Adversus Hæreses and of the surviving fragments of the Greek original and the French commentary by Rousseau (or is it Massuet or Migne? I get a bit vague about the bibliographical details). I draw the line at Armenian, but I did have a stab at a Syriac fragment a little while ago. Syrian isn’t hard once you decipher the alphabet: you just pretend it’s Aramaic and take it from there. Hey, it worked for Mel Gibson.

My Latin is a whole lot more fluent than my Greek, either because I started learning it two years earlier or because it’s an easier language and with more cognates to English, or just because the Latin translation of AH is very elementary Latin. In Greek I am always running to Liddell and Scott, but in Latin I hardly need a dictionary, which is lucky, because I don’t own one.

Yesterday I even had the chutzpah to express an opinion about the content, and the greater chutzpah to think I knew better than Migne (or, as it might be, Massuet). In AH IV. 33, 4, Irenæus says “… how shall he (man) escape from the generation subject to death, if not by means of a new generation, given in a wonderful and unexpected manner (but as a sign of salvation) by God — [I mean] that regeneration which flows from the virgin through faith?”.

Now, Massuet (or, such as it may be, Migne) says that the “virgin” here must be the Church because only the Church, and not Mary, can be described as giving birth to all believers, but I beg to disagree. The whole thrust of Irenæus’ doctrine of Eve and Mary in the passages I’ve been reading seems to be that Mary replaces Eve as אם כל חי: Eve is only our mother in the flesh, and made us inherit death by her disobedience, but Mary by accepting God’s will in faith becomes the mother of all the human race on a spiritual level and restores us to life — “regeneration which flows from the virgin through faith”.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system, we will now return to the usual blend of Judaism and software internationalisation.

Judaism and religion

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Nearly Yom Kippur

If I was capable, I would translate this into English. I’ve tried many times to translate Agnon, but I just can’t capture it.

השמים היו טהורים והארץ היתה שקטה וכל הרחובות היו נקיים, ורוח חדשה היתה מפרפרת בחללו של
עולם. ואני תינוק כבן ארבע הייתי ומלובש הייתי בגדי מועד, ואיש אחד מקרובי הוליכני אצל אבי
ואצל זקני לבית התפילה, ובית התפילה היה מלא עטופי טליתות ועטרות כסף בראשיהם ובגדיהם בגדי
לבן ובידיהם ספרים, ונרות הרבה תקועים בתיבות ארוכות של חול, ואור מופלא עם ריח טוב יוצא
מן הנרות. ואיש זקן עומד מוטה לפני התיבה וטליתו יורדת עד למטה מלבו וקולות ערבים ומתוקים
יוצאים מטליתו. ואני עומד בחלון בית התפילה מרעיד ומשתומם על הקולות הערבים ועל עטרות הכסף
ועל האור המופלא ועל ריח הדבש היוצא מן הנרות נרות השעוה. ודומה היה לי שהארץ שהלכתי עליה
והרחובות שעברתי בהם וכל העולם כולו אינם אלא פרוזדור לבית זה. עדיין לא הייתי יודע להגות
במושגים עיוניים ואת המושג הדרת קודש לא הכרתי. אבל אין ספק בלבי שבאותה שעה הרגשתי בקדושת
המקום ובקדושת היום ובקדושת האנשים העומדים בבית ה’ בתפילה ובניגונים. ואף על פי שעד לאותה
השעה לא ראיתי דבר כזה לא עלה על דעתי שיש הפסק לדבר. וכך הייתי עומד ומביט על הבית ועל
האנשים שעמדו בבית, ולא הבחנתי בין אדם לאדם, שכולם כאחד עם כל הבית כולו דומים היו
עלי כחטיבה אחת. ושמחה גדולה היתה בלבי ולבי נדבק באהבה לבית זה ולאנשים אלו ולניגונים
אלו. על יד על יד פסקו הניגונים, ועדיין בת קול היתה מנהמת עד שפסקה אף היא. נתקמטה
נפשי פתאום וגעיתי בבכייה גדולה. אבי וזקני נתחלחלו ושאר כל העם עמדו עלי לפייסני. ואני
דמעותי מתגלגלות והולכות מתוך הבכייה. אלו לאלו שואלים, מי גרם לתינוק שיבכה? ואלו לאלו
משיבים, מי יודע.

עתה אספר מי גרם לי שאבכה. אותה שעה שנפסקה התפילה נפסקה פתאום אותה חטיבה נאה. מקצת מן
האנשים הורידו טליתותיהם מעל ראשיהם ומקצתם התחילו מסיחים זה עם זה. אותם שאהבתי נדבקה
בהם החליפו פניהם פתאום והשחיתו את דמותם הנאה ואת דמות הבית ודמות היום. ועל זה היה דוה לבי ועל זה געיתי בבכייה.

כמה שנים יצאו ועדיין אותה השתוממות מופקדת בלבי. וכשם שהיא מופקדת בלבי כך שמור בלבי
אותו הצער. וכל שנה ושנה ביום הכיפורים כשאני רואה אנשים מישראל “כולם צנים לובן מוצעפים,
לאדרך בשרפים עפים”, מחליפים פנים של חילוי בפנים של חולין נפשי מתקמטת כבאותו היום.

S. Y. Agnon, Introduction to “Days of Awe”

Hebrew language and literature
Judaism and religion

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Ideas for teaching liturgy

I realized during Rosh Hashana services last week that Aviad doesn’t know half as much as I had assumed that he did about the structure of the Mahzor. The middle of the silent Amida wasn’t a very helpful time to realize this, but I gave him a whispered overview of Malchuyot Zichronot and Shofarot before the repetition while resolving to do the job properly in the time remaining before his Bar Mitzvah.

So … I have been trying to think up a lesson plan, and had the idea of approaching it as a system of cycles, something like this:

  • Three times a day: the Amidah
    • Sources: the patriarchs vs. the Temple services
    • Structure and content
      • First three blessings
      • Middle thirteen blessings
      • Last three blessings
    • Live example: Minha
      • Parshat haTamid and Pitum haKetoret
      • Ashrei
      • Kaddish as liturgical punctuation
      • Amida
      • Tahanun
      • Alenu
  • Twice a day: the Shema
    • Sources
    • Structure and content
    • Live example: Arvit
      • Blessings before the Shema
      • Shema
      • Blessings after the Shema
      • Amida
      • Alenu
  • Every Monday and Thursday: weekday Torah reading
    • Sources
    • Live example: Shahrit
      • Morning blessings and readings
      • Pesukei deZimra
      • Blessings before the Shema
      • Shema
      • Blessings after the Shema
      • Amida
      • Tahanun
      • Torah reading
      • Alenu
  • Once a week: Shabbat
    • Shabbat forms of the Amida, including Musaf
      • First three blessings
      • Middle blessing
      • Last three blessings
    • Other extras
      • Kabbalat Shabbat
      • Expanded Pesukei deZimra
      • Minha Torah reading
      • Havdala
  • Once a month: Rosh Hodesh
    • Ya’ale veyavo
    • Hallel
    • Torah reading
    • Musaf
    • Birkat haLevana and Kiddush Levana
  • Four times a year: public fast days
    • Selihot
    • Anenu and Nahem
    • Torah reading
  • Three times a year: Pilgrim Festivals
    • Festival forms of the Amida, including Musaf
      • First three blessings
      • Middle blessing
      • Last three blessings
    • Other extras
      • Hallel
      • Torah reading
      • Hosha’anot
    • Special festival services
      • Seder
      • Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot
      • Tikkun Hosha’ana Rabba
  • Once a year: High Holidays
    • Selihot
    • Shofar
    • Rosh haShana Musaf
    • Yom Kippur Amidot
    • Ne’ila
  • Once a year: Minor Festivals
    • Purim and Hanukka
      • Al haNissim
      • Hallel
      • Megillat Esther
    • Others
      • Tu biShvat
      • Lag Ba’omer
      • Tu beAv
  • Every now and then: life-cycle events

I don’t know if this approach would work for everybody, but I’m sure it would have worked for me when I was a kid, and I suspect it will work for Aviad too.

Judaism and religion

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For calendar geeks

Hat-tip to Avraham Bronstein for the link to “How is this year different from all other years?” Sample quotation:

This year 5765 is the only year in all of history whose “keviut” (year-type determination) involves dechiyyat BeTU-TaKPaT at the end of the year, and whose Pesach falls on April 24.

The “exercise for the reader” in section M.7 has been bothering me: “There is one other situation [apart from Shushan Purim on Shabbat] where the same haftara can be read on two consecutive Shabbatot. Figure out what it is.” The only answer I can think of is rather contrived: an ethnically mixed congregation does Sephardi and Ashkenazi readings on alternate weeks, and so reads “ועמי תלואים למשובתי” for Parshat Vayyetze on a Sephardi week, and then reads it again for Parshat Vayyishlah on Ashkenazi week.

Judaism and religion

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Eyeopener

In the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana, Hagar and Ishmael have been sent off into the desert and have run out of water. Hagar sits crying, out of sight of her son so as not to see him die. She has given up hope.

At this point, just as in the story of the Akeda in the reading for the next day (why does nobody ever seem to make anything of the parallels between the two stories? A topic for another drash), the deus ex machina appears and saves their lives.

וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת הַחֵמֶת מַיִם וַתַּשְׁקְ אֶת הַנָּעַר

And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

What exactly happened with this well? The commentaries are mostly silent, but I see 3 possibilities.

  1. A well miraculously appears. This seems to be implied by Bereshit Rabba 53, 14 where the angels challenge God to justify why he is raising up a well for Ishmael, whose descendants would deny water to the exiles from Jerusalem, according to midrashim on Isaiah 21, 13. (If you were wondering, the answer is that God only judges people as they are at the present moment, also a topic for another drash)
  2. God gives Hagar some kind of supernatural perception, or dowsing ability, which enables her to discover a hidden well. Seforno’s commentary is saying either this or the next possibility:
  3. The well was there all the time and Hagar only notices it when God points it out. (I imagine her even sitting on the edge of the well or tripping over it without realizing, rather like Mole on Badger’s door-scraper in The Wind in the Willows.) She had been so absorbed in her problems that she wasn’t letting herself see the solution to them which was right in front of her face.

I had a similar eyeopener this week. I discovered, after 15 years of thinking it was beyond my abilities, that by acting according to a few simple principles I can increase the happiness of the person whose happiness is most important to me out of all proportion to the effort required. What a New Year’s present for us both!

Judaism and religion

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I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine

As far as I know (and I would love to be corrected) Ellul is the only Hebrew month which has Midrash on its name. The one that everybody remembers is the notarikon

אני לדודי ודודי לי

from Song of Songs 6, 3, but there are several more. That one itself is part of a set of three verses with an acrostic אלול, and the other two are Deuteronomy 30, 6:

ומל יהוה אלהיך את לבבך ואת לבב זרעך

and Esther 9,22:

משלח מנות איש לרעהו ומתנות לאבינים

so the three verses together point us to תפילה, תשובה וצדקהת: prayer, repentance and charity, and those lead us to redemption in Isaiah 59, 20:

ובא לציון גואל ולשבי פשע ביעקב.

Why do I mention all this? Not because I’ve decided to turn this into a preachy blog, nor even because I was looking for a context where I could use the word “hermeneutics” without seeming too contrived, but because I was musing about different kinds of exegesis. Of the four streams that make up the Pardes – Peshat, Remez, Drash and Sod – these are firmly in the category of Remez. That can sometimes appear as superficial wordplay (though always a lot of fun for a crossword addict like myself), and one could ask, if this is valid Midrash, why aren’t Bible Codes valid Midrash too?

I think the answer is that we judge Midrash not by how it’s done, but by how edifying the results are. Bible codes, depending on where you find them, seem to reduce the Torah either to the level of Nostradamus or to an immensely boring directory of scholars.

There are many places in the Midrash where an overenthusiastic darshan, often Rabbi Meir, gets rapped on the knuckles by his colleagues for letting himself reach a politically incorrect conclusion. For example, Shir Hashirim Rabba on Song of Songs 2, 4:

ר’ מאיר אומר אמרה כנסת ישראל הושלט בי יצר הרע כיין ואמרתי לעגל אלה אלהיך ישראל … אמר לו ר’ יהודה דייך מאיר אין דורשין שיר השירים לגנאי אלא לשבח שלא ניתן שיר השירים אלא לשבחן של ישראל.

Rabbi Meir interpreted the phrase “he led me to the house of wine” as if the community of Israel were saying “the evil inclination overpowered me like wine and I worshipped the Golden Calf as the God of Israel.” Rabbi Judah said to him “Hold it right there, Meir! We don’t interpret the Song of Songs as blame, only as praise, since the Song of Songs was only given in praise of Israel.”

Why do all translations of Midrash into English come out sounding so lame?

Judaism and religion

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Are you bluish? You don’t look bluish!

Aviad will be bar mitzvah next February and we have been working together on learning his Torah portion, Parshat Teruma (Exodus 25,1 – 27,19). One of the first questions to come up was, what exactly is the “blue” (תכלת) mentioned in chapter 25 verse 4, which is also used for making Tzitzit — except that it isn’t, and hasn’t been for over 1,000 years, because nobody knows the correct dye to use.

Or
so
I
thought.

With a little googling we discovered the website of P’til Tekhelet, and today we went on a tour of the factory. I understand from the articles on the website that the identification of the murex with tekhelet is still controversial, but I’m convinced. From now on, I will be wearing my blue thread with pride and joy. I’m not a huge Zionist, but it is a huge privilege to be living in a Jewish country at a time and place where something like this that was thought lost for ever has been rediscovered.

Judaism and religion

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God-zilla

The latest hot topic in Mozilla blog-land is God.

It started when Gerv went into hospital with appendicitis, and asked “Those Christians among you, please pray that he would trust continually in Christ as his strength and as his Creator!”.

I and others of Gerv’s friends and colleagues added our prayers to the comments on his blog, in spite of not being Christians, and, ברוך רופא חולים, Gerv was soon back minus his appendix, saying:

…thank you to all of you who commented wishing me the best. I must first stress that the sentiment is very much appreciated in all cases…However, I’m afraid I’d have to respectfully disagree with a couple of the theological statements. It may offend people to say it, but it’s true – anyone praying who wasn’t praying to the one true God of the Bible was wasting their time.

Now this really put the cat among the pigeons. Commenters had a field day, and jesus_x and aebrahim wrote blog entries of their own, which also inspired lively rounds of comments.

It’s hard for me to tell whether Gerv’s views are representative of Christianity in general. The suggestion that Muslims and Jews are “worshipping and relating to a false image of God – an idol” is not what I have heard from the Christians I have met and talked to at ecumenical conferences and elsewhere, and not what I read in Lumen Gentium.

In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

Then there is the passage from C. S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” which I alluded to in one of my own comments:

“If any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it now, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash the deed is accepted.

That passage, like many others in the Narnia books which I read and reread in my formative years, was a big influence on my own religious thinking.

Judaism and religion

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Moving on

Tonight, which is the first night after the end of the period of saying Kaddish for my late mother, Gwen Montagu נעמי בת אברהם ושרה נ”ע, I was meditating and had the following insight. I hope I will be able to write it down as clearly as it appeared to me.

כִּי עִמְּךָ מְקוֹר חַיִּים בְּאוֹרְךָ נִרְאֶה אוֹר (תהלים ל”ו י’)

For with You is the source of life; by Your light we see light. (Psalm 36, 10)

Most people today other than the ultra-Orthodox think of mourning practices in general, and Kaddish in particular, as being for the benefit of the living, as a process in which the bereaved reaffirm their belief in God and God’s justice over the course of eleven months, to aid themselves in gradually coming to terms with their loss.

Classical Jewish sources give a completely different perspective: of Kaddish as for the benefit of the dead, as something which alleviates the judgment of the wicked and helps the souls of the righteous ascend from level to level in the Garden of Eden.

My insight tonight was that there is no contradiction. If the bereaved relatives are full of grief and unable to move on in their lives, their parent’s soul will be unable to move on in the next world, because it will be too concerned for them and will be searching for ways to pass down comfort to them. By finding comfort through the mourning process, the children are relieving the parent’s soul of that responsibility and allowing it to move on to its own next destination.

I don’t know quite what to make of the fact that at much the same time I was having these thoughts, a dear friend was posting to me a pointer to the last paragraph of this article, which says almost exactly the same thing from a Catholic perspective.

Judaism and religion

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Reason to Disbelieve?

I have noticed before how intelligent people will throw logic to the four winds when discussing their religion. It’s interesting to see atheists doing it too.

I’m quite sure that Hixie would not come within a thousand miles of perpetrating a multiple non sequitur like this in connection to any other topic.

Not that I think that the position of the Catholic Church as represented in the quoted article is reasonable, but where is the genocide? And, even if we agree for the sake of argument that this is the position of the whole institution, from the Pope downwards, how do we get from there to “the concept of religion”? Not “the Church”; not “religious fanatics”; the whole friggin’ concept.

Even if you argue that there is a positive correlation between holding religious beliefs and being dangerously irrational about other issues, which seems to be what Ian is saying (and much the same as what I said in my own opening sentence), how did we get to the concept of religion?

I’m not a great fan of arguments by analogy, but I can’t resist this one in this context: many of the forums where web standards are discussed are infested by a high proportion of annoying and opinionated berks. Is this a reason to reject the concept of web standards?

Judaism and religion

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