Saturday, December 23, 2006

Still Dreaming

With all the dreams that everyone has been having recently, such as Jacob, Joseph, the butler, the baker, the King of Egypt, etc..., I decided to re-write one of my classic essays, see here for "Dreaming..." It was recently mentioned in this post.

The End of an Era

With the publication of הבל הבלים (Havel Havelim) issue #99, we have reached the end of an era in regard to the Jewish blogosphere. For your reading pleasure here are two links to the new issue. Here and here. An excerpt:

The End of an Era
The Very Last
Double Digit

Number 99!!!

This is a historic moment in Jewish literature, so take a deep breath, and imagine that I've done a good job. Please… I feel the burden of responsibility on me. Enough kvetching…
On with the show!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rock of Ages

The following is based on a speech delivered by the Rosh HaYeshiva שליט"א on the Sixth Night of Chanukah, 5767. The basic premise is also discussed in this essay, and this essay also touches on some of the same issues.

In the end of his laws of Chanukah, Maimonides writes[1] that the commandment of lighting Chanukah candles is an especially endeared commandment to the Jewish nation. Why is this commandment specifically more endeared than any other commandment? Furthermore, Maimonides continues to say that even a pauper must sell all that he owns in order to have the equipment necessary to fulfill this commandment; such sacrifice is not requested from a poor person to fulfill any other commandment. So why is the commandment of Chanukah candles different? Furthermore, after discussing some laws of Chanukah, Maimonides goes on a tangent to discuss all the laws of Hallel and then he returns to his discussion about the laws of Chanukah. Why does Maimonides write all the laws of Hallel in middle of his code of laws for Chanukah and never discuss the details about Hallel elsewhere; why is Chanukah so special? Finally, when Maimonides discusses the obligations of Chanukah, he writes that the lighting is done "in order to make known the miracle" however, he writes afterwards that there is an obligation to "add praises to HaShem and give thinks for the Miracles which He has performed." Why does Maimonides begin by saying that the purpose of Chanukah is to publicize "the miracle" (in singular) and then go on to discussing giving thanks for "the miracles" (in plural)?

In discussing the Maccabean victory over the Syrian-Greeks, the prayer Al HaNissim says that HaShem placed "the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Torah." Seemingly the first two clauses describe the miracle of the Maccabees victory, while the last three clauses seem to merely detail the character traits of those involved in the Chanuka story that pure, pious, Torah-studying Maccabean men overtook the dirty, evil, licentious, Syrian-Greeks. However, in actuality, the liturgical description of the story of Chanukah was hinting to the underlying theme of the holiday by mentioning the last three clauses. That is, the holiday of Chanukah symbolizes the triumph of Torah over empty and void values. In the miraculous Maccabean victory, HaShem taught the world that purity, righteousness, and Torah are significant forces in life, as opposed to the bare values of Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy is so cynical, dark and depressing that the ancient Greeks invented organized sports as a coping mechanism for their national depression which resulted from their philosophy devoid of any meaning. In contrast, Torah values are filled with life. B recalling the miracle of Chanukah, when Torah values prevailed over the Greek philosophical ideals, Jews are, in essence, reaffirming the Torah's legitimacy. Therefore, in reciting Hallel on Chanukah, one is also really thanking HaShem for all of His miracles mentioned in the Torah. This explains why Chanukah is considered the epitomical example of a holiday on which Hallel is recited. This is also why Chanukah is considered such a cherished commandment; its fulfillment encompasses the entire Torah. Furthermore, Maimonides was explaining that by remembering the singular miracle of Chanukah, the outcome is that all other miracles are remembered.

Chanuka is truly a light in the midst of darkness. After lighting the Chanuka candles, Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of singing "Ma'oz Tzur" (commonly mistranslated as "Rock of Ages"). This poem mentions the ends of the various Jewish exiles: It mentions the drowning of Pharaoh and his Egyptian army after the Exodus from Egypt, it mentions Zerubavel leading the Jewish nations from her exile to Babylon, it mentions the hanging of Haman and his sons in Shushan, and it mentions the Maccabean victory over the Syrian-Greeks. The exile is a dark and gloomy period, while Chanukah is the last beacon of light in anticipation of the long-awaited redemption. Furthermore, Chanukah is the only holiday celebrated in the Jewish calendar in the winter and while there is no moon[2] because it is a spiritual oasis of light in the dark desert of the exile and winter.


[1] Laws of Chanukah 2:12
[2] Because Chanukah spans from the tail end of the Lunar month of Kislev to first few days of the month of Teves, while most other holidays are in the middle of the month (e.g. Pesach is 15th of Nissan, Succos is the 15th of Tishrei, Purim is the 14th of Adar, etc…).

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Hasmonean Mistake

This essay assumes familiarity with the historical narrative described here as well as certain Biblical concepts.

During the reign of the Davidic family, King Uziah / Azaria decided that he was going to illegally take on an extra job, which did not belong to him; he wanted to serve as the Kohen Gadol, even though he was not a descendant of Aaron, the Priestly patriarch. At the moment that this King broke Halacha and entered the Holy Temple to offer sacrifices, he was afflicted with tzaraas[1]. In a similar story, when the Hasmoneans, a Priestly family from Modi'in, declared themselves to be the kings, they were not punished immediately, but rather, HaShem allowed them to reign for one hundred and three years[2] before meting out their punishment. Nachmanides writes[3] that the reason why the Hasmoneans were completely killed out was because they transgressed the commandment of "The scepter [of rulership] shall not be removed from [the tribe of] Judah"[4] and instead declared themselves kings. Why were the Hasmonean Kings not punished immediately like King Uziah was in the converse situation?

Nachmanides writes that the Hasmoneans were great pious men, yet they were still punished for illegally proclaiming themselves to be kings. He explains that it can be easily understood why HaShem punished some of Shimon's descendants because many of them became heretical Sadducees. However, it is not as easily understood why HaShem punished the other descendants of Shimon as well as all of Matisyahu's other off spring. Rather, the entire reason why they were punished is because they were pretenders to the throne. Yet, when a King pretended to be a High Priest, he was immediately punished, so why were the Hasmoneans not immediately punished for being High Priests who pretended to be Kings?

The name of the holiday Chanukah is a portmanteau of "Chanu Kah", "they rested on the twenty-fifth [of Kislev]." Nonetheless, why was it decided to name the holiday after the "resting" after the war with the Syrian-Greeks instead of naming the holiday after the victory itself or after the purification of the Holy Temple thereafter? Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (1923-1986) writes[5] that the name of the holiday reveals an important idea concerning the motive of the Maccabean revolution. The Hasmonean family of Matisyahu and his sons were great Torah scholars; in fact, Matisyahu's father, Yochanan, was the student of the leading Jewish scholar of his time, Antignus Ish Socho[6]. They were disturbed when the external indulgent influences of the Syrian-Greeks began to permeate the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. So, they interrupted their Torah learning for the good of the nation, in order to battle these spiritual intruders and reclaim the sanctity of the Jewish nation. They did just that and were victorious in returning multitudes of Jews to the Torah life and stopped the Syrian-Greek goal of causing the Jews to "forget the Torah and transgress the statues of HaShem"[7]. The celebration of Chanukah was established to commemorate the fact that after the war, the Jews were able to return to their Torah True lifestyles; this is how they "rested" from battle. The original Hasmoneans intended to reclaim HaShem's kingship over the Jews for Himself, while they felt they were mere mortals who carried out G-d's will.

As a result of the victory of the Syrian-Greeks, the Jews were left under martial law under the leadership of the Maccabean army. Judah the Maccabee, the head of the Maccabean army, was thus the de-facto head of state for the Jews[8]. He was already a strong and established leader because his father was the Kohen Gadol, so becoming the military head of the martial leadership of the nation merely consolidated his rule. He was then succeeded by his brother Jonathan, and then by Simon. It was during the reign of Simon the Hasmonean that the Roman Empire came to recognize the legitimacy of the Hasmonean rule and they declared Simon not a mere ruler, but a Prince or President (Nasi) of the newly-established Province of Judaea; this is really when the Second Commonwealth really began. However, Shimon, the son of Matisyahu, like his brothers, merely viewed himself as a conduit to carry out the will of G-d, not as a king in his right. He eschewed the honor due to a king, and refused to wear a crown.

During the reign of Shimon's grandson Aristobulus, the Hasmonean rulership became a monarchy. Aristobulus was styled King Aristobulus I. He was the first of this Kohanic family to wear a crown[9] symbolizing the fact that he was now a king, not a mere de-facto ruler or President. It was at this point that the fall of the Hasmonean family began. After the reign of King Aristobulus I, the kingship was given to King Alexander Jannaeus, a Kohen Gadol who became a Sadducee. The Talmud relates[10] that when he went out to battle and won, he returned to make a huge party to celebrate his victory. This is in contrast to his ancestors who established a festival to celebrate the return of the Torah to the daily lives of the Jews living in the Land of Israel. It was the sons of King Alexander Jannaeus who quarreled over the leadership of Judaea which brought the Romans to Jerusalem to eventually punish the Hasmoneans and bring about the end of the Hasmonean dynasty and create the Herodian dynasty from the family of Hasmonean slave, Antipater.

[1] See Chronicles II 26:16-23
[2] Avodah Zarah 9a
[3] Ramban to Genesis 49:10
[4] Genesis 49:10
[5] Sifsei Chaim
[6] Along with Yose ben Yochanan, the Av Beis Din; Yose ben Yoezer, the Nasi; Tzadok, the leader of the Sadducees; and Baysus, the leader of Boethusians
[7] As elaborated in the prayer of Al HaNissim
[8] Many count Matisyahu as the first of the Hasmonean kings because he led the original revolution against Antiochus (see Seder HaDoros, year 3621).
[9] Seder HaDoros, Year 3668
[10] Kiddushin 66a

The Chanukah Quiz

I wrote this Chanukka Quiz from my Shul's Khanukah Mesiba tonight. Most of the history answers to these questions can be found in my essay here. Besides history questions, there are also halachik and hashkafic questions about Hanukkah. Enjoy! There are three levels of questions, so choose whichever you feel suits you or choose them all.

22 Questions: Chanukah Quiz

Easy Level:

  1. Who did the Hasmoneans fight in the story of Chanukah? The Syrian-Greeks, Yevanim.
  2. Who led the Hasmonean army? Yehuda the Maccabee.
  3. How many sons of Chana did the Syrian-Greek king kill for refusing to bow to idols? Seven.
  4. How many days long is Chanukah? Eight.
  5. How did Yehudis kill the Syrian-Greek general? By feeding him cheese and wine.
  6. Is the full Hallel said on Chanukah or is it only half? Full.
  7. How many sons did Matisyahu have? Five.
  8. What prayer is added to the Shemonah Esrei on Chanukka? Al HaNissim.
  9. How many places to light are there on a candelabra used for Chanukah? Nine.
  10. What is the Chanuka candelabra called? Menorah or Chanukiah.
  11. What was the name of army of the Hasmoneans? Maccabees.
  12. What do some people call Chanukah in English? The Festival of Lights.
  13. Why is there a custom that some have the women do not do work while the candles are burning? Because two women (Chana and Yehudis) helped the miracle of Chanukah.
  14. What was needed but couldn't be found to light the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash? Pure Olive Oil.
  15. What is the extra candle that is lit each night called? Shamash.
  16. What day of the Hebrew calendar is Chanukah? 23 Kislev.
  17. What Halachos did Antiochus outlaw? Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, Bris Milah.
  18. How many candles do you use the entire Chanukah not including the Shamash? 36.
  19. What Torah portion is read specifically for Chanukah? The dedication of the Mishkan/Tabernacle.
  20. Who was the father of Matisyahu? Yochanan.
  21. What do toy do some spin on Chanuka? Dreidel.
  22. How many Aliyahs are read on a normal weekday of Chanukah? 3.


  1. How many Hasmonean kings were there? 11
  2. What was the name of the Syrian-Greek general whom Yehudis killed? Helefornes.
  3. Why is there a special mitzvah to have a meal on Purim but not on Chanukah? On Purim they tried to destroy our physical beings so we celebrate with the physical, but on Chanukah they tried to spiritually destroy us, so we only celebrate on a spiritual plane.
  4. What happened to Elazar, the son of Matisyahu? He drowned in elephant dung or was stomped on by an elephant.
  5. The Rosh Chodesh for which month always falls out on Chanukah? Teves.
  6. What does Maccabee stand for? Mi Kamocha B'eilim HaShem or Matisyahu Kohen ben Yochanan.
  7. When do we light the Menorah in Shul? Twice: Once before Shachris and once between Mincha and Ma'ariv.
  8. How many places to light were there on the Menorah in the Bais HaMikdash? Seven.
  9. How does one say "Chanukah money" in Yiddish? Chanukah Gelt.
  10. Whose seal was required to insure that olive oil was truly pure? The Kohen Gadol.
  11. Is the full Hallel said on Chanuka on Rosh Chodesh? Yes.
  12. Who asked the famous question why Chanukah is eight days long instead of seven if the miracle was only that the oil which was enough for one day lasted seven extra days? The Beit Yosef or Shulchan Aruch or Rabbi Yosef Cairo.
  13. Which Kohen Gadol met with Alexander the Great? Shimon HaTzadik.
  14. Why is Chanukah called Chanukah? Because the Maccabees rested from fighting on the 25th of Kislev after beating the Syrian-Greeks.
  15. What prayer is added to the Grace After Meals on Chanukah? Al HaNissim.
  16. What were the names of Matisyahu's five sons? Yehuda, Yonason, Yochanan, Shimon, Elazar.
  17. Why do we light a Shamash? To not get benefit from the light of the other candles.
  18. What was Antiochus' name? Epiphanes.
  19. What are the three levels of fulfilling the mitzvah of Chanukah? One candle each night or one candle per person each night or one candle per night per person.
  20. What was the Menorah in the Bais HaMikdash made out of? Pure Gold.
  21. In Al HaNissim, what do we say the Syrian-Greeks tried to make us do? Forget the Torah and transgress HaShem's commandments (specifically the Chukim).
  22. What prayer is added to davening after Shemonah Esrei on Chanukah? Hallel.


  1. How many years in total did the Hasmoneans rule? 103 years.
  2. Which son of Matisyahu never became the king? Eliezer.
  3. Who killed the last surviving member of the Hasmonean family? King Herod the Great.
  4. Although the Mishkan was completed on the 25th of Kislev, when was it finally erected? Rosh Chodesh Nissan.
  5. Which foreign nation supported the Hasmoneans? The Roman Empire.
  6. Which Hasmonean ruler was the sister of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach? Queen Alexandra/Shlomzion/Salome.
  7. What is the difference between a Dreidel in Israel and in the Diaspora? In Israel the Dreidel says a "great miracle happened here" but out of the land it says "a great miracle happened there".
  8. Who were some students of Antignus Ish Socho (5 answers)? Tzadok (of the Sadducees), Baysus (of the Boethusians), Yosef ben Yochanan (the Av Beis Din), Yose ben Yoezer (the Nasi), Yochanan the father of Matisyahu (the Kohen Gadol).
  9. When are three Sefer Torahs taken out on Chanuka? If Rosh Chodesh Teves falls out on Shabbos.
  10. What chapter of Tehillim mentions the dedication of the Bais HaMikdash? 30.
  11. Which is the only son of Matisyahu to have been the king and have his descendants also become the king? Shimon.
  12. On Chanukah that's on Friday night, do you light Shabbos candles first or Chanukah candles first? Chanukah first.
  13. Why were the Hasmoneans punished that they were all wiped out? Because they were Kohanim and only people from the tribe of Judah should be kings, not from Levi.
  14. Which two Hasmonean brothers are famous for their quarrel which brought the Romans to Jerusalem? Artistobolus and Hyrcanus.
  15. Which Hasmonean King was killed by his own son-in-law who was the King of Egypt? Shimon.
  16. How do you make Latkes? Fry potatoes.
  17. How old was Elazar the Kohen Gadol when he was killed by Antiochus? Ninety.
  18. Who wrote Ma'oz Tzur? "Mordechai"
  19. Why is there Hallel on Chanukah but not on Purim? Because on Purim the Megillas Esther replaces the Hallel.
  20. What city is the Hasmonean family from? Modi'in.
  21. Which Hasmonean got mad that his lineage was questioned and he killed many Rabbis because of this? King Yannai.
  22. Chanukah comes before Purim in History or in the Jewish calendar? Only in the Calendar.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Banned blogs

I have received the following email tonight (looks like a successor to the legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane, may his murder be avenged):

Hi. My name is Eugene Gershin. Perhaps we have met online, but more probably you don't know me from Adam. I monitor blogs for SamsonBlinded, and came across your post.

I'd like to welcome you to look at Obadiah Shoher's blog. Obadiah - an anonymous Israeli politician - writes extremely controversial articles about Israel, the Middle East politics, and terrorism.
Shoher is equally critical of Jewish and Muslim myths, and advocates political rationalism instead of moralizing.
Google banned our site from the AdWords, Yahoo blocked most pages, and Amazon deleted all reviews of Obadiah's book, Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict.
Nevertheless, 170,000 people from 78 countries read the book.

Various Internet providers ban us periodically, but you can look up the site on search engines. The mirror currently works.

Please help us spread Obadiah's message, and mention the blog in one of your posts, or link to us from I would greatly appreciate your comments.

Best wishes,
Eugene Gershin
I would also like to point my readers to this website.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Ray of Light

One of my readers, Irina, has posted a very emotional post which basically thanks the Jewish blogosphere for its role in helping her better understand the religious parts of Judaim. I am very proud to have played some small role in that. Irina wrote that part of joining the Jewish blogging community involves the הבל הבלים carnival. When she first hosted the carnival, I submitted this post for inclusion, and the creator of the carnival sent me back an email questioning whether I truly felt that it was appropriate to expose a non-religious Jew to my writings by asking her to include it in the carnival. It turns out, that Baruch HaShem, my writings have helped her have a clearer comprehension of the Jewish point of view in terms of academia. For this, I would like to thank Irina for giving me the opportunity to merit such a thing. May you continue on your path toward the truth.

"His father's face"

The Midrash teaches us that Joseph, when Potiphar's wife tempted him, kept himself from succumbing because he looked up and saw his father's face.

Let every parent remember that.

It is they who are the most important influence on their children.

NB: Bloggerbeta seems to be having difficulties communicating with my ISP, so I can't log on from home. (This is done from a public library terminal.) Until that is cleared, my posting will be sporadic at best.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Another trip to the art gallery

There should be nothing objectionable about these pictures.

One shows Potiphar's wife accusing Joseph, as done by Rembrandt.
The other is a side panel from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, showing Jacob and Joseph.

Taking toilet training to a new level

After a day long debate, I decided to post this link, because I think it needs to be seen. Many people don't realize how heavy handed law enforcement in this country has become, and how often truth and regard for individual rights is disregarded in the search for crimes that can be completely imaginary.

The photograph which Mr. Balko's post links to may not be deemed worksafe. It should offend and disturb you, although the verbal description just barely hints at why it is a very disturbing picture. But bear in mind that the loose regard for truth and legal process found in many police units across the country means this picture might one day be duplicated in the home of your neighbor, relative, or even your own home. All it takes is one malicious person to feed false information to the right person on your local police force...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Story of Chanukkah

I recently updated this post from last year with some clarifications and new information: From Maccabean Warriors to Hasmonean Kings to Roman Slaves We are only a few days away from Chanukkah.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Accepting Converts

Although this issue has been discussed at least twice on this blog (see here and here), I would like to bring out a point that I saw on another blog. The discussion is why the Talmud says that converts are as difficult to the collective Jewish nation as leprosy.

Perhaps one can explain that it is the reluctance to accept converts which is so dangerous for the Jewish nation. The Talmud relates[1] that Timna, a princess of the royal family of Seir, wanted to convert, but was rejected by Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. She was so desperate to become part of the Abrahamic family that she became a concubine to Eliphaz[2], the son of Esau. The Talmud says that because Abraham, Issac, and Jacob rejected this woman's request for conversion, they were punished by this woman's descendants, the Nation of Amalek. (Amalek was a son of Eliphaz and Timnah). The Alter of Slabodka, Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel (1849-1927), writes that Abraham—who was known for having helped many converts—obviously rejected Timna because he saw some bad character traits in her, yet nonetheless, his family was still punished for refusing her. Abraham reasoned that it was better to have these bad characteristics as an external threat to the Jewish Nation in the form of Amalek, than to have these bad traits grafted into the Jewish Nation should she have been allowed to convert. However, Abraham, Issac, Jacob erred because they judged her based on an internal personality which they saw in her rather than on something she herself actually did. Had she actually committed atrocities because of her evil qualities, then the forefathers would have been justified in not accepting her just as the Torah tells the Jews not to accept the Ammonites and Moabites into the nation because of they acted on their innate cruelty[3]. At a conference for the Jewish Eternal Family in Israel (in July 2006), Rabbi Reuven Feinstein explained that the difficulty in accepting converts is the punishment for rejecting potential converts or delaying their process (especially by not giving them their proper papers immediately) because the Talmud says[4] after certain inquiries, one should "accept him immediately."

[1] Sanhedrin 99b
[2] See Rashi to Genesis 36:12 who says that Timna was actually the daughter of Eliphaz who committed adultery with the wife of the King of Seir, and the Sifsei Chochmim says that she was nonetheless raised as a princess because people did not realize who her real father was.
[3] See Deuteronomy 23:4-5
[4] Yevamos 47a

Friday, December 08, 2006

Eating the Nerve

After describing Jacob's battle with the Angel of Esau and his ensuing injury in the thigh, the Torah says, "Therefore, the Sons of Israel do [or shall] not eat the Sciatic sinew, which is on the hip socket, until this day, because he [Samael] hit Jacob's hip socket at the Sciatic nerve.[1]" The Sefer HaChinuch explains[2] that this verse does not merely tell a story that after Jacob's injury, his sons stopped eating that nerve on animals; this verse is actually a Biblical prohibition that HaShem enjoins all future descendants of Jacob from eating that nerve. The Mishnah records[3] a dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages regarding whether this prohibition applies to non-Kosher animals as well. It is further revealed in the Mishnah that the cause of this disputation between the Tannaic authorities is a dispute as to whether the prohibition of eating the Sciatic nerve, the Gid HaNashe, applied before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai or not. If the prohibition applied (to Jacob's family[4]) even before the Sinaitic Revelation, then the prohibition would apply to non-Kosher animals, which were then permitted to be eaten[5]. If the prohibition applied only after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, then the prohibition of Gid HaNashe would not apply to non-Kosher animals the prohibition of Gid HaNashe would not take effect in addition to a pre-existing prohibition of all non-Kosher animals being non-Kosher anyways[6].

In discussing this issue, Maimonides writes[7]: "Set your heart to the great principle, which is included in this Mishnah. That is, according to the opinion that the prohibition took effect only after Sinai is because all positive and negative commandments which are currently observed are only done because HaShem commanded so to Moses, not because of any prophets which HaShem commanded before him. For example, the reason why Jews do not eat the flesh of a live animal is not because it is included in the Noachide Commandments, but rather because they were commanded not to eat it at Sinai. Similarly, the reason why Jews perform the circumcision is not because HaShem commanded Abraham to do so, rather it is because the Jews were commanded so at Mount Sinai. Also, the reason why Jews do not eat the Sciatic Nerve is not because HaShem commanded Jacob not to eat it, but because Jews received a prophecy from Moses at Mount Sinai in which HaShem outlawed eating the Sciatic Nerve. This explains why the prohibition of eating the Gid HaNashe is included in the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah." However, elsewhere, Maimonides seems to feel that even before there were still parts of the Torah which were kept and are still kept now because of those pre-Sinaitic commandments, not because they were later repeated. In practical Halacha, Maimonides rules[8] like the Sages that the prohibition of the Gid HaNashe does not apply to non-Kosher animals. The Sages' reasoning was since the prohibition was only given at Mount Sinai, at which time all non-Kosher animals were already forbidden for consumption, then the prohibition of Gid HaNashe would not apply to them, and Maimonides himself on the Mishnah explains that the underlying cause of the current-day prohibition of eating the Sciatic nerve is only because of the Sinaitic prohibition, not because of the previous one.

However, in detailing the history of the Mitzvos, Maimonides[9] quotes a Midrash[10], which says that Adam received some commandments, Noach some more, then Abraham received the commandment of circumcision, Jacob added the commandment of Gid HaNashe, 'Amram (the father of Moses) received a few more commandments, the Jewish Nation at Marah received some more, and then the rest of the Torah was given to the Jews at Mount Sinai. This implies that the reason why pre-Sinaitic commandments are kept is not because they were later repeated at Mount Sinai but because of their original pre-Sinaitic prophetic revelations, which commanded and prohibited certain things. This passage from Maimonides seems to that Maimonides favored Rabbi Yehuda's approach to the prohibition of the Sciatic Nerve, not the Sages'. It seems that Maimonides has contradicted himself.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heilpern of Bialystock (1816-1879) discusses[11] the underlying explanation of the argument between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages. He says that both Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages agree that the prohibition of the Gid HaNashe applied to the sons of Jacob, but the argument is how long that prohibition lasted. Rabbi Yehuda opined that that prohibition continued for generations and continues to be the source for the contemporary prohibition on eating the Sciatic nerve. However, the Sages maintain that at Mount Sinai that original prohibition given to the sons of Jacob ceased to be in effect and a new prohibition was created which is the current prohibition followed nowadays. Maimonides rules in Halacha like the Sages and also explains the Mishnah that all commandments which are currently kept are kept because they were said at Mount Sinai and in discussing the history of the commandments, Maimonides mentions the fact that Jacob's actually did have a prohibition to eat the Sciatic nerve, even though that prohibition itself later became obsolete and was replaced with a similar Sinaitic prohibition.

Rabbi Halperin explains that this fundamental argument in the underpinnings of the Masoretic tradition between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages can be better explained based on another dispute between them. The Talmud says[12] that Rabbi Yehuda does not consider writing a scroll which does not contain the entire Torah to be a corruption of the tradition[13], while the Sages maintain that it is a corruption. Rabbi Yehuda holds that the Torah was not given all at once, but that each section was written as it happened, so it is permitted to write such a scroll, while the Sages maintain that since the entire Torah was written all at once, only a scroll with the Torah in its entirety is allowed to be written. Since Rabbi Yehuda holds each section of the Torah was given at its proper time, then it serves to reason that the prohibition of the Gid HaNashe was in effect before the laws governing which animals are kosher, so he holds that the prohibition even applies to non-Kosher animals, while the Sages reasoned since all the Torah became effective at the same time, so the only Kosher animals' sciatic nerves cannot be eaten.

The Lechem Mishnah answers[14] that the apparent contradiction within Maimonides is not actually an inconsistency. He explains that Maimonides in the Laws of Kings was merely pointing out that Jacob added the prohibition of eating the sciatica of his own accord, but was not necessarily commanded to do so by HaShem. The actual language used by Maimonides implies this because in regard to the commandments given to Abraham and Amram before Sinai, he writes "they were commanded", but in regard to the Jacob's prohibition of the Sciatic nerve, he writes "he added." Rabbi Moshe Shick (1807-1879) asks[15] that if the Jacob and his sons had a prohibition to eat the sciatica, then why does that the Talmud imply[16] that that there is an opinion which states that all Noachides are permitted to eat the sciatica, if Jacob and his sons were not allowed to eat it even when they were Noachides. Perhaps one can explain that if the Abrahamic family had the status of Jews even pre-Sinai this is not a question because they were not considered Noachides. However, the question itself assumes that they were considered Noachides in Halacha, not Jews.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) of Pressburg, the teacher of Rabbi Moshe Schick, offers an explanation[17]. He explains that the sciatica was not actually prohibited to the Jacob and his sons, but that Jacob and his sons adopted a custom of refraining from eating the sciatic nerve. Only after the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai did the Gid HaNashe become forbidden to be eaten through the power of a heavenly injunction. He explains that this explicit in the Torah because it says, "Therefore, the Sons of Israel do not eat the sciatic sinew… until this day.[18]" The Torah was merely recording a historical fact that the sons of Jacob did not eat the sciatic nerve out of mere practice, until "this day" which was the day on which the Torah was given. On that day, it was no longer true that they merely "did not eat the sciatic nerve" because from then on, they were not allowed to eat the sciatic sinew because of the prohibition, not a mere family custom. The dispute in the Talmud whether Noachides are prohibited from eating the sciatica or not is actually only a dispute regarding Jacob and his sons and the dispute is whether the Jacobean family accepted upon themselves not to eat the sciatica only in the Holy Land or even out of the Holy Land. This is like Nachmanides who wrote[19] that the pre-Sinaitic Abrahamic family only kept the Torah while they were in the Holy Land, but not out of it. So, the dispute centered around whether the Sons of Jacob adopted the custom of not eating the sciatica because it was later prohibited in the Torah (so then they would be allowed to eat it out of the Holy Land) or was it a complete acceptance (which applied even out of the Holy Land).

A proof to the Chasam Sofer's idea that the original observance of this commandment was not a real commandment, but was rather a voluntary acceptance, is the words of Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (1150-1217) who wrote[20] that after Jacob was injured in his wrestling match with Esau's ministering angel, his sons felt guilty for having left their old father alone, so they accepted a promise on themselves not to eat the sciatic nerve of animals, to sympathize with their father's pain. This shows that their refraining from eating the sciatica was not because of a prohibition, but was because of a mere promise; the prohibition came generations later at Mount Sinai. Furthermore, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1818-1898) explained that the argument between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages can be traced to two varying versions of the Targum Onkelos to Genesis 32:33. In one version, the verse is translated as "Therefore, the Sons of Israel shall not eat the sciatic sinew…" which reflects the view of Rabbi Yehuda that that sons of Jacob had a prohibition not to eat the Gid HaNashe. However, an alternate version translated the passage as "Therefore, the Sons of Israel do not eat the sciatic sinew" which merely says a fact that they did not eat it, but not that they were prohibited from doing so.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinmen points out[21] that it is implicit from the Scripture that only Jacob's son did not eat from the sciatica, but that Jacob himself did eat from the sciatica. He asks that Maimonides said that Jacob was commanded not to eat from the Sciatica, which means that Jacob himself could not have eaten from it. However, the actual language of Maimonides is that "Jacob added the prohibition of Gid HaNashe", but that he himself was not necessarily enjoined not to eat it. Rabbi Shteinmen also asks why the Torah had to specifically say that this prohibition still applies "until this day" if the Talmud has a rule[22] that any commandment which was said before the Sinaitic Revelation and was not repeated at Sinai is only a commandment for Jews, not for Noachides, so obviously the commandment still applies. According to the Chasam Sofer, this is also not a question because the "until this day" refers to the custom of the Jacobean family which ceased to be merely a custom on the day of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Others explain that "until this day" refers to the day on which the Messiah will arrive and bring the redemption. Rabbi Shlomo Katz HaKohen of Vilna wrote[23] in the name of his father that when Moshiach arrives, the ban on eating the sciatic nerve will be lifted, even according to the opinion that all commandments will not be null during the Messianic Era[24]. The Zohar says that the three hundred and sixty five nerves represent the three hundred and sixty five days of the year, and the sciatic nerve represents the day of Tish B'Av, the day of the destruction of the Holy Temple[25]. Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah HaLevi Medini (1833-1885) argues[26] on this assertion based on the Rash Yaffe who said that even according to the opinion that all commandments will be null during the Messianic Era, this refers specifically to positive commandments, but everyone agrees that the negative commandments will remain in full force. Furthermore, he asks on Rabbi Katz that Maimonides and Nachmanides write in their guidelines to their counting of the 613 commandments that they do not count mitzvos which will cease to be in effect in the future, yet they both include the commandment of refraining from eating the sciatica in their enumeration of the 613 commandments. In addition, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) says[27] that the prohibition of eating the sciatica is a prohibition "for the generations" which means that it is to last indefinitely. May the day come that we will see the coming of the Moshiach and we will finally understand all the depths of the Torah and rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, speedily and in our days: Amen.

[1] Genesis 32:33
[2] Mitzvah #3
[3] Chullin 100b
[4] See Tosafos to Pesachim 22a who assume that only the family of Jacob would ever have a prohibition of eating the Gid HaNashe.
[5] Although either way it is forbidden to be eaten, the practical difference between whether the prohibition apply to non-Kosher animals as well is if someone eats a the Gid HaNashe of a non-Kosher animals, has he transgressed one or two prohibitions that he must now repent and when the Holy Temple will be rebuilt offer a sin offering for.
[6] This is because of the rule that one prohibition on something cannot take effect in addition to a pre-existing prohibition unless the second prohibition is a more encompassing or stringent prohibition. See Yevamos 32a-34a
[7] In his Commentary to the Mishnah, Chullin 100b
[8] Laws of Forbidden Foods, 15:17
[9] Laws of Kings, 9:1
[10] Song of Songs Rabbah to Song of Songs 1:2
[11] Responsa Oneg Yom Tov, Yoreh Deah, §76
[12] Gittin 60a
[13] There is a prohibition of improperly writing the written Torah in a way which changes from the proper Mesorah, see Chiddushei HaGriz to Temurah 14b.
[14] To Rambam, Laws of Kings 9:1
[15] Maharam Schick to Sefer HaMitzvos, §3:1
[16] Chullin 91a
[17] Chiddushei Chasam Sofer to Chullin 90b
[18] Genesis 32:33
[19] Ramban to Leviticus 18:25
[20] Sefer HaChassidim §231
[21] Ayeles HaShachar on the Torah to Genesis 32:33
[22] Sanhedrin 59a
[23] Introduction to responsa Binyan Shlomo
[24] See Niddah 61b
[25] Others point out that there is the extra word Es in Genesis 32:33 which the backwards is an abbreviation for Tisha B'Av.
[26] Sdei Chemed, Kllalim, §3:36
[27] Meshech Chochmah to Genesis 32:33

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

On flying El Al and Birchat haGomel

On flying El AL and Birchat ha-gomel

There has been a little to-do in the jblogosphere about ElAl flying on Shabbat, and rabbinic warnings that ElAl has become unsafe to fly. I am very much a minimalist when it comes to Daas Torah and gedolim, but in this case I think the furor is very unfair, even among those who do not compare certain rabbis to witch doctors and Indian rain dancers.

The key factor here to remember is that the rabbi involved said that flying ElAl had become potentially life threatening. Perhaps he meant that G-d is going to crash an ElAl plane as punishment, but I don't think we need to ascribe that primitive level of superstition to him. And, as I understand the matter, he did not call for a boycott of ElAl to protest flying on Shabbat. He merely gave a safety warning.

Travel by air is actually more dangerous than travel by other means. I don't have any statistics handy, and I don't mean to say that there are, for instance, less fatalities per mile travelled in cars than in planes. But I think it is intuitively obvious that one has a greater chance of death or grave bodily harm if you are in a plane that crashes than if you are in a train or bus that crashes. Planes may crash less than buses, but the results are generally more catastrophic when they do.

Until now ElAl has been Shomer Shabbat, at least on paper. At least it pays lip service to the idea of being Shomer Shabbat. It would not be illogical, from a Charedi point of view, to think that this observance of Shabbat has allowed ElAl a slight degree of Heavenly protection. Perhaps the idea is simply a level of superstition not much better than shamanism, but one can hardly be surprised if a Charedi holds that view. (And, for the sake of clarity, let me add that I don't intend to call it superstition. I simply think that Providence works in a far more complicated matter than we can ever understand.) If ElAl abandons its stance of being Shomer Shabbt--no matter how minimal and breached that observance of Shabbat has been--than whatever Heavenly protection was granted for being Shomer Shabbat would, naturally, be withdrawn, and travelling on ElAl would revert to the same level of danger that applies to all other airlines.

It's as simple as that.

The matter has raised a question in mind. I remember learning, years ago, that in earlier times, travel by ship was regarded as inherently dangerous and this is why anyone who safely completed maritime travel would be expected to recite Birchat haGomel. It would seem to me that the same basic consideration now applies to travel by plane, and anyone who safely completes air travel should also recite the blessing. Also, since travel by ship is not nearly as dangerous as it was in earlier times, should one nowadays not recite the blessing on completion of ordinary sea travel, and recite it only when the sea journey was especially hazardous?

Monday, December 04, 2006

"And the heavens declare...."

"Look up and see: Who hath created these?"

Click on gallery

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