A Purim Parody (though not by me)

4 03 2015

In the spirit of Purim, which begins at sundown this evening, I would like to share a piece of satire that must surely take its place as one of the greatest Purim parodies ever composed. It was shared by Dr Shai Secunda in 2012, although the author’s identity appears to be a carefully guarded secret. I am extremely impressed and would love to see more of his/her work!

It is written in the style of the Babylonian Talmud, together with a commentary on the right-hand side of the page in the style of Rashi, and one on the left-hand side of the page in the style of the Tosafists. The Mishna, which commences here with “כלל גדול” concerns three separate (mock-)rulings on Purim, which the ensuing analyses thresh out and, in so doing, provide a rather hilarious mockery of the haredi political establishment in Jerusalem:

Masekhet Purim
(Clicking makes it BIGGER)

This piece is really just too good to be presented without any form of translation or commentary of my own, and I’ll admit to having spent quite some time enjoying it since it was first published online. The following constitutes my presentation of its very many highlights.

The mishna reads as follows: “They state a rule in relation to Purim: all costumes are permissible except for those of the Holocaust. They state another rule: all ears convey impurity in a tent save for the ears of Haman, although those ones do convey food impurity. In actuality, they said: all rabbinic supervisions are invalid, save for that of the Eda haChareidis.”

The terminology here is reminiscent of the actual Mishna (“they state a rule”, “they state another rule”, “in actuality”, etc), and the content of the second rule pertains to an area of legislation that concerns the impurity conveyed by different types of corpses. Something’s being “in a tent” (either together with you, overhanging you in the manner of a tent or being underneath you with you forming a tent, so to speak, over it) is one of three ways that corpse impurity can be conveyed. The other two are those of touching something and of carrying it (perhaps upon a tray).

The subject matter of the first rule sets the scene, being reminiscent of a political stunt at the conclusion of 2011, in which haredi children were dressed up as victims of the Shoah in order to protest the state’s treatment of its ultra-Orthodox citizens. The Rashi-style commentary on this mishna is for the most part straight to the point, but the explanation of this ruling (that all costumes are permissible except for those of the Holocaust) is brilliant: “you would think [based on this mishna] that those ones are forbidden due to derekh eretz” – a term that denotes tastefulness, propriety and the acceptable social morés of our society.

Indeed, you would think!

On the contrary, the gemara commences by asking a question: Is this so? Behold, the pious ones (נקיי הדעת; Rashi: “the Eda haChareidis”) of Jerusalem dressed in Holocaust costumes! Rav Tuvia says: “All costumes are permissible except for those of the Holocaust, which are an obligation“.

As the Rashi-style commentary explains, Rav Tuvia is a reference to Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss, who is the head of the Eda haChareidis (and who has been since his predecessor’s death in 2003). Rashi’s comment concludes, however, by referencing a passage in the Talmud from פרק המדיר את האשה in Tractate Nedarim. המדיר את האשה (haMadir et-haIsha), in Mishnaic Hebrew, refers to prohibiting a woman from her husband by means of an oath. Taken on its own however, it is an allusion to the exclusion of women in general, both from public life and from positions of authority.

The “Talmud” then continues to extrapolate from biblical texts precisely why dressing in Holocaust-related costumes might be construed as an obligation, deducing that it is in order to mourn for the work of the Zionists, who anger God as much as idolatry and murder. This last point is made in the name of Rav Aharon Hasida – Rav Aharon “the hasid”, that is: an allusion, of course, to Rabbi Aharon Roth. Reb Arleh (as he is known) was the founder and rebbe of Shomer Emunim, which has since split into Toldos Avraham Yitzhak and Toldos Aharon. The “Rashi” commentary here references Tractate Bava Maaseh in support of this observation!

The Talmudic explication of the second rule within the mishna commences with a question: is it possible that all ears convey impurity in a tent? Have we not learnt that the ears of pigs and rabbits convey impurity by touching and by carrying only? To this, Rav Shakh responds by noting that the Zionists have already eaten all of the pigs and rabbits, and that (as is pointed out by Rabbah in Chullin 71a) a swallowed impurity does not further contaminate.

The allusion here is beautiful: in 1990, Rav Shakh (who was then the leader of the Lithuanian political party, Degel haTorah) delivered a speech that was televised around the country. In it, he accused secular Israelis of having strayed from Judaism, of not even knowing what Yom Kippur is, and of being “breeders of rabbits and pigs”. [This infamous speech, which has come to be known as the rabbit and pig speech, can be viewed online here. The subtitles are none too accurate at times, but I intend to provide a transcription at a later date.]

Finally, the Talmudic analysis concludes with an explication of the Mishna’s third and final rule – that, “in actuality, they said: all rabbinic supervisions are invalid save for that of the Eda haChareidis”. According to Rav Rubin (an allusion to Rabbi Avraham Rubin, who heads the Edah’s kashrut authority: Badatz Mehadrin), this is to exclude the supervision of the Israeli rabbinate in particular. As “Rashi” points out, the hatred of the rabbinate has its source in the first chapter of Avot. This is a reference to Avot 1:10, in which Shemaiah declares that one should despise positions of authority (ושנא את הרבנות) – or, that one should “hate the rabbinate”.

But is it not obvious that the supervision of the rabbinate is invalid? After all, the rabbinate is comprised of Zionists! Rather, says Rav Landau (perhaps an allusion to Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau – the Av Beit Din of Bnei Brak), the mishna’s ruling is designed to exclude the supervision of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, whose bet din (in the Rashi-style commentary) is deemed a “permissible” bet din.

And yet, this also poses problems to our gemara, since Rav Ovadiah was a Sephardi and should certainly excluded on those grounds as well. After all, the Torah says “Beit Yaakov” (Exodus 19:3), which would exclude all Sephardim! This passage (which can also be read as stating that “Beit Yaakov is to exclude all Sephardim!”) is an allusion, of course, to the school Beit Yaakov, in the Israeli settlement of Imanuel, which attracted some much-deserved notoriety in 2007 when they insisted on segregating girls of Sephardi families, leading to the allegation that they were seeking to exclude Sephardim altogether. This allusion is made even stronger by its being attributed to Rav Imanuel – which is to say, the rav of Imanuel.

Taken as a whole, this is a truly beautiful piece – a somewhat brilliant piece – and I would be thoroughly remiss if I didn’t relate some of the hilarious passages found in the mock-Tosafot commentary on the left-hand side of the page. I encourage people to read it for themselves, and warn that the following may constitute a spoiler.

Much of what they write (as with a great deal of what “Rashi” has to say here) is of a fairly literal nature, and the extent to which it is parodic hinges on its dealing with a fictitious mishna and a desire to harmonise it with other passages within the real (and, occasionally, fictitious) Talmud. In some cases they have tweaked those other passages in order to incorporate a condemnation of the Zionists – which is to say, of those who would condemn them in reality.

Thus, they commence by noting an incongruity: how can the Zionists, who are evil-doers, have named themselves for the holy city of Zion? Their solution is that the word tziyoni refers not to Zion but to those who are “exemplified” (metzuyanim) through acts of wickedness. Their source for this is a fictitious sugya in the Talmud Yerushalmi’s Tractate Sheviit, which concerns heter mechirah – an allusion to a psak by a number of rabbonim (including Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor), which is ironically followed by religious kibbutzim throughout the country but which is rejected by the haredi establishment. [This article gives a very good overview of the halakhic issues involved with this particular psak, and the reasons for its ongoing controversy.]

Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan gets a second mention as well, when the “Tosafot” go on to question the gemara’s usage of a verse in Jeremiah, wondering whether or not there could have been Zionists during the time of that prophet. This passage is a lovely combination of the literal and the absurd (perhaps of the literally absurd), in that it both comprises a serious attempt at tosafist-like pilpul, while at the same time serving as a deliberate parody of the texts that it is quoting.

In that regard, it references the conclusion of Tractate Sotah, which laments the deaths of individual rabbonim by remarking upon the decline of the generations since their passing and the concomitant increase of troubles. The quote, however, is a fabricated one: “since the death of Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan [Spektor], the Zionists have increased”. If the Zionists have increased, there must have been some Zionists even before Rav Yitzhak Elchanan, and so possibly even in the days of Jeremiah?

The cleverest passage in my opinion is their second-to-last one, which concerns the exclusion of Rav Ovadiah’s kashrut supervision. There, while referencing a non-existent tractate (there is no Talmud on Tractate Uqtzin), “Tosafot” puzzle over a logical inconsistency in the invented Talmud to their right. Rav Ovadiah is to be excluded because he was Sephardi, and yet Rav Ovadiah was also in the Israeli rabbinate!

Rav Ovadiah’s inclusion in the rabbinate (of which he served, for a time, as Chief Rabbi) is proven by means of an invented passage that makes reference to the stellar work that he did in releasing agunot and in “repairing” mamzerim, together with the absence of all such work in the years since his appointment. In the words of this passage, “Since I became Chief Rabbi, I did not permit a mamzer” (כד הוינא רב הראשי לא שרינא ממזירי). Since the “Talmud” does not exclude Rav Ovadiah’s supervision for the obvious reason (being that he was head of the Israeli rabbinate), and since it relies instead on the less obvious reason of his not being Ashkenazi, the Tosafot-style commentary concludes brilliantly: there must be two Rav Ovadiahs.

Other highlights, which you can read for yourself, include their reference to secular Israelis being lenient on sandals but strict on socks, and on their inclusion of a well-known Israeli anti-joke that involves two elephants in a bathtub. But perhaps the part that made me laugh most of all was in the very conclusion of the Talmudic section, and its “teaser” (so to speak) as to what the next page concerns.

The Mishna there commences with six words (found more fully in “Rashi”, on the right) to the effect that “all spittings are permissible, save for the spitting of women”. Again, the language here is thoroughly reminiscent of the actual Mishna (see, for example, Sheqalim 8:1), but the suggested allusion is to the disgusting incidents that transpired in Bet Shemesh just a couple of years ago. This is borne out by the Rashi-style commentary, which commences by noting that “you might think that [“the spitting of women” refers to] women who spit…”, and yet we suspect it refers to something far uglier than that.

Yes, I laughed out loud, and yes I know that it’s an atrocious thing to laugh at. But then, isn’t that the point of this piece as a whole – and the point of Purim parodies in general? After all, the very origin story of Purim is incredibly funny and has more than its fair share of the horrific.

For my taste, if I ever find a finer Purim parody than this one I shall be most impressed. The work that went into creating this is astonishing to me, and I am not in the least embarrassed by how much time I have spent reading it. It was time thoroughly well spent.

Wishing you all a very happy Purim, and one with lots of laughter.

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Talmudic Methodology

18 02 2015

Picture the following scenario. A young man, enamoured of Torah, encounters the commentary of the Ramban. Lucid, straightforward and with an almost categorical precision, yet mystical and permitting of ceaseless interpretation. He’s hooked, and he purchases a copy. Undeterred by the fact that he has never before read the chumash, he immediately sets out to learn it with the Ramban, and he commences with the very first verse.

Six words in Hebrew, followed by a few hundred words of Hebrew commentary. He reads those six words, thinks about them a little, makes sure that he understands (or thinks that he understands) what each of them means, and then spends several hours wrestling with the Ramban’s interpretation before moving on to the second verse. But the second verse features no comment from the Ramban! Obviously, there’s no need to learn this passuk and he skips it altogether, moving on instead to the third.

In such a fashion, he progresses through the five books of the Torah: skipping verses on which the Ramban leaves no comment, and merely reading those verses on which he does. Since the Ramban’s commentary deals at length with ideas contained within the verses on which he does not remark, even reading the text in so haphazard a fashion will still enable the diligent student to at least encounter every (or almost every) verse in the Torah. So, when he comes to the end of this enterprise, what will he have achieved?

It would be foolish to say “nothing”, since it is impossible to read a text the size and scope of the Ramban’s commentary on Torah and to not learn a thing, but to pretend that he has at all studied that text would be no less ridiculous. After all, the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah is a commentary on the Torah, and the only way to properly engage with a commentary is to study first the text on which it serves as one. By skipping those verses that lack the Ramban and only cursorily engaging with those verses that do, our student will not only fail to learn Torah, he will also and as a direct result fail to grasp the Ramban’s commentary on it.

If you think that this scenario sounds absurd, it is no different to the Talmudic methodology adopted in every major yeshiva. There, students commence their study of every sugya with a reading of its introductory mishna. They make sure that they understand (or think they understand) the mishna’s words, they have a look at the issues with the mishna that Rashi raises, and then they proceed to spend several hours (perhaps days, or even weeks) wrestling with its gemara. And well they should: the Talmud, as a text, is both larger and more complex than the Mishna – to an order of magnitude.

But have they really learnt the gemara? After all, the gemara serves as a commentary upon the Mishna, and unless one actually studies first the text on which it is based, how can one expect to walk away with a proper understanding of either?

I first asked this question in 2002, when it initially became apparent to me that “we were doing it all wrong”. If a student’s only encounter with the Mishna was with the few lines that served as a preface to the text that he was really studying, is it not the case that he is really studying neither? Like the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah, the Talmud doesn’t feature gemara on every single mishna, and while almost every mishna might be mentioned at some point within it, the rabbinic endeavour presupposes familiarity with the text as a whole. Should not more time be devoted to a serious, analytical study of the early rabbinic literature on its own merits, before delving into the sprawling, complex and systematic commentaries upon it? And the flabbergasting answer that I received (not once, but twice, and at two separate institutions) was, Yes. Of course! But who has the time?

You do, is what I should have answered. If it is your job to study Torah, then you absolutely have the time to do it properly. But I did not. I accepted their answer: all things being equal, if I could only study one thing, I would make it the gemara. And to those who lack the time to study anything else, the gemara is a worthwhile choice. It contains both law and philosophy in equal measure, and might amply be described as the root and stock of rabbinic Judaism. But those who do have the time – whether they learn in kollel, or whether they simply devote a few hours each day to serious study – have no excuse for neglecting the Mishna, save that their teachers taught them to do so.





Dedicated to the Memory of the Slain

18 10 2013

From 1927 until his death in 1983, R’ Menachem Mendel Kasher published thirty-eight volumes of what was to be considered not only his personal masterpiece, but one of the profoundest anthologies of Torah learning to be printed in the 20th century. As of the time of my writing this, forty-five volumes have been published, the remaining seven having been put together posthumously by his son-in-law, his students and the tireless scholars at Bet Torah Sheleimah – the institute that he had founded.

Titled Torah Sheleimah (תורה שלמה; “The Complete Torah”), these forty-five volumes constitute the first four books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers); appended to each verse is every passage within the early rabbinic literature that quotes that verse – a corpus that the author defines as ranging from the halakhic midrashim through to the Geonic period, but which is inclusive of works that are traditionally ascribed to authors during that time, despite their actually possessing a later provenance (like the Zohar, to pick but one example), and a handful of texts (like Sefer Hasidim) that were included for reasons of which I am not aware. As a result, the first parsha of the Torah, Parshat Bereishit (a total of 146 verses) takes up 388 pages: the first of the forty-five volumes. The first thirty of those pages are devoted to expositions of and commentaries upon the parsha’s first word, בראשית.

A Gerrer hasid, R’ Kasher was born in Warsaw in 1895. At the instruction of his rebbe, R’ Avraham Mordechai Alter (the Imrei Emes), R’ Kasher moved to Palestine and established the Sefas Emes Yeshiva in Jerusalem. His being there enabled him to help his rebbe escape Poland and move to Palestine after the outbreak of World War II, but it was there that he and so many others had to watch helplessly as millions more were turned to smoke. His efforts in preserving and transmitting the work of the Rogatchover has earned him great renown, and for his Torah Sheleimah he received the Israel Prize in 1963.

I am very fortunate to have been able to add this forty-five-volume set to my growing collection, and can testify to its incredible beauty. The author’s tremendous ambition and the scope of his phenomenal knowledge are absolutely breathtaking. I haven’t been so much in awe of a single work of scholarship since I first discovered Seder haDorot, or R’ Saul Lieberman’s Tosefta Kifeshutah, and I stand humbled by both the vastness of the tradition and the towering genius of its brilliant expositors.

While opening the eighth volume of Torah Sheleimah recently, to look upon R’ Kasher’s presentation of Parshat Shemot (the first parsha in the book of Exodus), I was struck by a somewhat arresting poem that the author presents by way of a dedication. Prior to this poem is a brief preface, chiefly concerned with the specific manuscripts and versions upon which he relied, and which is signed:

ותושלם מלאכת הקודש, ביומא תליתאה, לירחא תליתאה, שנת בשב”ת

The sacred work [of compiling this volume] was completed on the third day of the third month (3rd Sivan = May 25th), 1944.

After this poem is found a brief dedicatory message, somewhat brutal in its bald emotion:

החלק הזה כולל פרשת שמות, ובו פרשת עינוייהם וסבלותיהם של בני ישראל בראשית עלותם כאומה על במת ההיסטוריה העולמית

עלה בגורלו של הספר הנוכחי לצאת לאור בימי דמים ועינויים, ושוב בני ישראל נאנחים תחת סבלותיהם האיומים

אך נהיה חוטאים לאמת אם נשווה את שברנו בימים אלו, לצער שנצטערו בני ישראל במצרים. הנחש הקדמוני גדל ונתפתח במשך שלושת אלפים שנה. לרשות עמלק ושותפיו עומדים כל כלי המדע להשחית ולהשמיד ולאבד. בחרי-אף וללא שבעה הסתערו פראים, טמאים וזדים על בני עמנו שבאירופה לגדוע אותם מן החיים, כאיש כאשה, כסב כעולל

אנו, שבדרך נס ניצלנו ממבול-הדמים האירופאי שנשפך על העולם כולו ועל עמנו שבעים ושבעה, נתקיים בנו: “ויקוצו מפני בני ישראל”, אף “וימררו את חייהם”. מגיע ללבותינו הד דברי משה רבנו אוהב ישראל: “למה הרעתה לעם הזה?” ואזנינו קשובות לתחינת נעים זמירות ישראל: למה ברחוק תעמוד

אין אנו מבינים לדרכי ההשגחה. “כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם ולא דרכיכם דרכי”. ואנו תקווה שגם בימינו תתקיים תשובת ה’ למשה רבינו: “עתה הראת…” ונזכה לראות חיש-מהר ובקרוב בימינו את ישועת אלהינו, ומי שאמר לעולמו די, יאמר לצרותינו די, והרשעה כעשן תכלה, והשוכן בשמים ירים קרן עמו, ונגיל בפריחת תורתנו הקדושה ובמשוש ארצנו הבנויה בקודש, בשוב ה’ את שיבת ציון

My translation:

This volume includes Parshat Shemot, in which is recorded the suffering and the oppression of the children of Israel when they first entered as a people upon the stage of world history.

It is the fate of this present edition to be published during days of blood and suffering, when the children of Israel are again groaning under their fearful oppression.

But we would be unfaithful to reality were we to equate our torment in these days with the anguish that was experienced by the children of Israel in Egypt. The primal serpent has grown and expanded over the last three thousand years; in the service of Amalek and his allies stand all of the tools of technology to eradicate, annihilate and destroy. With furious anger and without ever being sated, the savage, the unclean and the wicked have laid siege to our people in Europe, severing them from the source of life: women together with men, the old with the very young.

For those of us who by miraculous means have been saved from the torrent of European blood that has been poured upon the entire world and upon our people sevenfold¹, in us has been established: “They became sick because of the children of Israel”², such that “it made their lives bitter”³. An echo of the words of Moshe Rabbeinu, the lover of Israel, reaches our hearts: “Why have you made things so bad for this people?”⁴ And our ears are attuned to the plaintive cry of David⁵: “Why do you stand from afar!?”⁶

We do not understand the ways of providence. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor your ways mine”⁷. But we do hope that in our days will also be established Hashem’s response to Moshe Rabbeinu: “Now, see…”⁸, and that we will merit to see quickly and soon our God’s salvation. Let He who said to His world, “Enough!”⁹, say to our sorrows, “Enough!” May wickedness dissipate like smoke and may the one who dwells in the heavens raise up the horn of his people. May we rejoice in the blossoming of our holy Torah, and in the joy of our land, rebuilt in holiness, when Hashem returns the captivity of Zion.

¹ Lit. seventy-sevenfold (cf: Gen 4:24).
² Exodus 1:12
³ Exodus 1:14
⁴ Exodus 5:22
⁵ Lit. “of the pleasing [composer] of the songs of Israel” (cf: 2 Samuel 23:1).
⁶ ≈ Psalms 10:1
⁷ Isaiah 55:8
⁸ Deuteronomy 4:35
⁹ cf: Hagigah 12a, Genesis Rabbah 46:3

On the following page stands R’ Kasher’s poem. It is titled בכה אבכה מר: “Bitterly shall I weep”. As with the passage above, typological constraints have required me to strip the Hebrew of some of its punctuation, but I have attempted to reflect it in my translation below:

בכה אבכה מר על חרבן עיר-מולדי ורשא
קהלה קדושה של ששים רבוא נפש-ישראל
עיר מלאה חכמים וסופרים, והתורה מורשה לה
אהה, צדיקיה וחסידיה, תמימיה וקדושיה
אנשים ונשים, ישישים וטף, נשרפו ונכרתו ונשחטו
הה, לדמים אשר נשפכו כמים
דמי בני ישראל ובנותיו, הטהורים והזכים
הה, לישיבות, בתי-המדרש ובתי-החסידים על רבבות לומדיהם
מי ימלל תפארת גדלתה והוד קדשתה
ועתה נרמסה ונהרסה ברגל-רשעה
בלא הפוגות אקונן על חללי בת עמי
הרוגי פולין, רוסיה, אשכנז, צרפת, בלגיה, הולנד, ליטה ולטביה, רומניה ואונגריה
גדול שברנו, עצמו מכאובינו, רבת אמללנו
אתה ה’ ידעת כלם
מצבת-זכרון, מנחת עני, מגשה לזכר קדושינו

Bitterly shall I weep for the razing of Warsaw, the city of my birth,
A sacred community of sixty myriad souls of Israel –
A city filled with wise men and scribes, for the Torah was its inheritance,
Woe for its righteous, its pious, its pure and its holy,
Men and women, the elderly and the infants are burned, cut down and slaughtered –
Woe for the blood that flows like water,
The blood of the sons and the daughters of Israel, the pure and the blameless!
Woe for the yeshivot, the study houses and the hasidic institutions with their myriad students!
Who can relate the glory of its greatness or the splendour of its sanctity,
Which is now trampled down and crushed beneath the foot of iniquity!
Without rest I will lament the slain of my people,
The murdered of Poland, of Russia, of Germany, of France, of Belgium, of Holland, of Lithuania and of Latvia, of Romania and of Hungary –
Great is our agony, powerful is our pain, enormous is our grief:
You, Hashem, know all of it!
This memorial monument, this paltry tribute, is dedicated to the memory of our slain.

That this was written in May of 1944 is itself chilling. This was less than a month after the first transports from the Hungarian countryside had begun rolling towards Auschwitz. At the time of this poem’s composition, close to 500,000 Jews were yet to be murdered.





Sons of Aharon

13 04 2013

Wrapped

The above image – that of a religious Jewish man, wrapped in plastic aboard an El-Al plane – has gone “viral”. In the absence of any explanations, people simply made up their own. The Huffington Post’s religion correspondent originally declared that he was protecting himself from the presence of women – an idea that they’d not invented themselves, but which they had copied from the original Reddit post. Having been corrected, their updated article (with the exception of some nonsense about kohanim being “holy men”) at least gets the story straight.

In short, the issue pertains to an area of Jewish legislation that deals with purity and impurity, and to a ruling that was issued by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Rav Elyashiv, who died last year at the age of 102, was the leader of Degel haTorah: the Lithuanian haredi political party that frequently runs with the hasidic Agudat Yisrael under the name of United Torah Judaism. He was accounted by Lithuanian haredim the “gadol hador” – a phrase that literally means “the great one of the generation”, and that refers to his having been considered the halakhic arbiter par excellence. (The phrase has an interesting history, and one that reflects on the gradual concentration of authority within Lithuanian Orthodox Judaism. This is something that I discussed in an earlier post, shortly after his passing).

Purity law is an extremely complex area of halakha, and most people are insufficiently qualified to be able to issue the sorts of rulings on this that were issued by Rav Elyashiv. To provide a very brief explanation of what is going on in the above picture, it is first important to bear in mind a couple of things. For a start, the biblical prohibition of a kohen defiling himself for the dead (eg: Leviticus 21:1-4) is understood by the rabbis, amongst other things, to extend to his inability to enter a cemetery. Secondly, it is also held that corpse impurity, if it rests on top of an object, extends upwards to the sky (Rambam, Hilkhot Tumat Met 19:5).

There is some debate as regards whether or not corpses in Israel transmit impurity through to the surface of the ground anyway, since the law is that they need to be surrounded by slabs between them and the earth, and since the distance between them and the soil constitutes a break in the earth through which the impurity will not travel. This is also the case in Australia, where the law requires corpses to be placed in a box, rather than directly into the ground itself. The general understanding, however, is that since the slabs sink down with time until they are touching the body (and since the box deteriorates) the corpse impurity is still transmitted to the surface of the earth and, from there, upwards to the sky. All of this only applies to the corpses of Jews.

There is a mishna in Eruvin 3:1 (26b-27a), which speaks of the food that one uses in order to symbolically extend the “Shabbat boundary”: the maximum distance that one can walk on Shabbat. This is also not a simple area of legislation, but the only important aspect of it, so far as this particular issue is concerned, is that the food be placed in a location that can be accessed by the person who is utilising it for this purpose. That would seem to mean, then, that if it were going to be used by a priest, it cannot be placed in a cemetery. Rabbi Yehuda, however, says that it can be placed there, since the priest can theoretically make a barrier for himself and enter.

What is a barrier? Technically, it needs to be a completely sealed object, which retains its own shape, and which is comprised of something that does not contract impurity – such as thick plastic, in the case of this ruling. There are problems with doing this on an airplane (some of which are so obvious that they don’t bear mentioning), and the easiest solution is to simply not take flights that are going to go over Jewish cemeteries. That, by the way, is what most people do. But Rav Elyashiv understood the relevant passages to technically permit something of this nature and, notwithstanding the fact that it might be forbidden by the crew onboard the plane, it can assist a kohen who is forced to fly on a plane that, due to unforeseen circumstances, is now going to be flying over a cemetery. How the bag is sealed, whether or not (and when) it can be punctured to allow air holes, as well as the necessary thickness of the bag, etc, are all things that are explained in his ruling.

In the Talmud’s elucidation of the mishna that I mentioned (Eruvin 30b), a debate is recorded between Rebbi and Rabbi Yosi as regards whether or not a priest who has been placed inside a box can be carried through the cemetery by others. Rebbi rules that he would become impure as a result, while Rabbi Yosi rules that he is pure. The way that the Talmud understands this debate is that a moving box is considered by Rabbi Yosi to be an obstacle to impurity (ie: “like a tent”), while Rebbi considers it no such obstacle.

The Rambam codifies the opinion of Rebbi: a moving box is not to be considered “like a tent”, and won’t block the impurity. For our purposes, that means that while a thick plastic bag (which cannot receive impurity at all) will protect the kohen, the airplane in which he is sitting (being that it is a “moving box” made chiefly out of metal) will not.

That said, however, there is another factor at play here as well, and one that explains why the vastly overwhelming majority of Torah observant kohanim would not behave in the fashion depicted above.

There are two components to the prohibition of a priest entering the cemetery: that he not physically enter the cemetery (or pass above it), and that he maintain his purity. Only the first of those two components remains in effect today, since with the absence of any contemporary means of divesting oneself of corpse impurity, and given the ease with which it is transferred, we are all of us impure.

As such, most people would not adopt the practice that is depicted in the image. By avoiding flights that fly over major Jewish cemeteries (and El-Al discloses which of their flights do and which do not), a concerned kohen is able to travel by plane and also fulfil his interpretation of this legislation. In the unforeseen event that he needs to change flights at the last minute, or his plane is rerouted, the issue is out of his control. He is not transgressing, therefore, by being onboard the plane. For him to construct a barrier around himself would be to try and fulfil the second component of the mitzvah, which is to maintain his purity: a moot point, given that he lost it already long ago.

While most people would therefore view the above practice as an unnecessary stringency, it is probably worth mentioning that haredim who adopt it are unlikely to see it as anything other than a practical solution to a contemporary halakhic problem. The stringent position would be to stay at home.





A Solid Drink

6 03 2013

Here’s a nice little article on the halakhot that surround making kiddush on whisky instead of wine. The author, R’ Ari Enkin, observes in his second footnote that some permit whisky on Friday night as well, while others forbid it. His source for that is the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayim 272:9), which gives no evidence either way. It’s not alluded to in this article, but there’s actually a cute story that surrounds the impermissibility of using whisky for this purpose.

In Jeremiah 11:16, the prophet likens Israel to an olive tree. There are a couple of midrashim (Shemot Rabbah 36:1 and Shir haShirim Rabbah 1:21) that explain this in relation to olive oil: just as olive oil when mixed with other liquids always remains distinct, so too does Israel – despite being mixed with other nations – always maintain its integrity; just as olive oil always floats towards the surface, so too does Israel always come out on top.

There was a 17th century scholar named R’ Yaakov Moshe ben Avraham Helin who authored a commentary on Midrash Rabbah called Yedei Moshe. In it, he credits an observation to his brother-in-law, Rav Yitzhak – the Av Beit Din of Krakow. The observation is this: if you pour olive oil into whisky, the oil sinks to the bottom. Surprisingly, this is actually true: the gravity of pure alcohol is about 0.8 and oil about 0.9 (a measure of density with respect to water, water being measured as 1). If we consider the non-alcoholic parts of whisky to be water, a heavier oil could easily weigh more than 40% alcohol.

What to do? The midrash says clearly that oil always floats to the surface when mixed with other liquids, and here we have a case where that is patently incorrect. Rav Yitzhak’s suggestion? Whisky is not a liquid (!!). And not only that, but whisky therefore cannot be used for kiddush on Friday night, since the halakhot of kiddush demand of us that we use a liquid for that purpose.

In his commentary on Orach Chayim, R’ Avraham Gombiner notes some of the reasons held by people who allow the use of whisky (Magen Avraham, OC 272:6), although he doesn’t mention any of the reasons held by those who reject it. In his commentary on Magen Avraham, R’ Shmuel haLevi Klein fills in the gaps (Machatzit haSheqel, OC 272, s.v. ונ”ל דא”מ על יי”ש). Believe it or not but he actually quotes the Yedei Moshe, who rules that whisky isn’t to be considered a liquid, although he does conclude that we don’t learn halakha from such stories. To those of you who are interested, the following is the relevant part of his text:

ובס’ ידי משה על מדרש רבה כתב ראיה בשם גדול א’ דע”כ יי”ש לא מקרי משקה מדאמרינן במדרש למה נמשלו ישראל לשמן מה שמן עולה על כל המשקין ר”ל אם תתן שמן על כל המשקים השמן צף למעלה כן ישראל יעלו על כל או”ה. וביי”ש אם נותן לתוכו שמן, השמן שוקע למטה. וא”כ על כרחך אינו בכלל משקין לפ”ד המדרש הובא גם כן בספר ת”ש אלא דסיים שאין למידין הלכה מפי אגדה

“And in Sefer Yedei Moshe on Midrash Rabbah, he writes a proof in the name of a certain sage that if so, whisky (יין שרף) is not to be considered a liquid, since it says in the midrash: Why is Israel likened to oil? Just as oil rises above all liquids (which is to say that if you place oil in any liquid, the oil will float to the surface), so too will Israel rise above all the nations of the world. But with whisky, if you place oil into it the oil sinks to the bottom. If so, you are forced to say, according to the manner of midrash, that it is not in the category of “liquid”. This is also brought in Sefer T.S. (?), which concludes however that we don’t learn halakha from such stories.”

[H/T R’ Ozer Alport, who first drew my attention to this Yedei Moshe and the corresponding passage in Machatzit haSheqel. And thank you, Sean, for your insights on the relative density of whisky and water.]





Amaleq

4 10 2012

An interesting little piece of trivia: the oft-heard explanation that Amaleq refers not to a tribe but to a particular attitude is not a classical idea (as I had thought), but originated in the mind of none other than Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, the father of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (“the Rav”). It is recorded, not in anything that Rabbi Moshe himself authored, but in various writings and public addresses of his son, notably a Hebrew composition entitled “BeSod HaYachid VeHaYachad”, in which the author explicitly mentions the Nazis as an example.

An additional little piece of trivia (for which I thank Rabbi Gil Student): the famous Fraenkel edition of the Rambam’s Mishne Torah contains an exhaustive index of commentaries at the back of each volume, entitled Sefer HaMafteach. It is well known that the editors of this edition omitted the names of any Modern Orthodox, Zionist and Lubavitch commentaries. And yet, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik’s interpretation of Amaleq is just so good, they clearly couldn’t help themselves.

You can find it under Hilkhot Melakhim 5:5, in which they ask the following question:

לעיל סוף הל’ ד כ’ שאבדו ואבד זכרם, ואיך יתכן מחיית עמלק הרי גם הם אבד זכרם

“Above, at the end of halakha 4, it is written that [the seven Canaanite nations, whom we are commanded to destroy] are already destroyed [through the activities of Sennacherib] and their memory is destroyed, so how is it possible to wipe out Amaleq? Their memory is also destroyed!”

This is a famous enough question on the Rambam’s legal philosophy (why suggest that the obligation to destroy the seven Canaanite nations is no longer in effect, but not say the same about Amaleq?) that the Sefer HaMafteach lists no fewer than nine different commentaries, each of which poses a different solution. And at the very end of the list:

ר”מ סולובייצ’יק מוב’ בס’ בסוד היחיד והיחד עמ’ 392

“Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, brought down in BeSod HaYachid VeHaYachad, p392.”

No mention, of course, of the fact that the book that they are quoting is by a Modern Orthodox Zionist who was friendly with Lubavitch, but it’s really just a drop in the ocean of their peculiar brand of misnagdischkeit. I wonder if there are any other drops of this nature?





Jewish Music

10 08 2012

I like to drive, as many people know. I find the long stretch of road between Sydney and Melbourne, or Sydney and Brisbane, most conducive to thought. While I frequently drive in silence, I just as often connect my iPod to the stereo and blast out some mussar schmuessen by Rav Nissan Kaplan. Word.

When I actually play music (which you might be pleased to know is probably more often), I’ve a small but growing collection that I really enjoy. On my last trip to Melbourne, I picked up some CDs of cantorial music: Cantor Yitzchak Helfgot, the up-and-coming Cantor Shimon Walles, and the truly legendary Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Yitzchak Helfgot’s rendition of “Akavia” brings tears to my eyes.

If you enjoy that type of music – I absolutely love it, myself – then I strongly recommend the Milken Archive. This is a growing database of Jewish American music, and one that shows tremendous potential. Founded by Lowell Milken in 1990, the database aims at preserving “the diverse body of sacred and secular music inspired by 350 years of Jewish life in America”. Divided at present into twenty volumes of music (over 700 works by more than 200 different composers), the range is quite refreshingly diverse. You can see all of the individual volumes here, though will note that not all of them are presently available. Tracks can also be sampled prior to purchase.

This is a sample of the Kaddish Shalem, which will be available on the third volume, Seder T’fillot:

Here is another track that I found absolutely haunting. This one is from the upcoming fourth volume, Circle of Life in Synagogue and Home:

I’ve had a lot of fun browsing through the various tracks that are on the website already, and I look forward to more being made available. In the meantime, for anybody who was curious, I’ve included Cantor Yitzchak Helfgot’s rendition of “Akavia” below. As Chief Cantor of the Park East Synagogue in New York City, perhaps we will be able to look forward to his music being made available on the Milken Archive soon too. I certainly hope so.

Lyrics, from Mishna, Avot 3:1 –

עקביא בן מהללאל אומר
הסתכל בשלשה דברים ואי אתה בא לידי עברה
דע מאין באת
ולאן אתה הולך
ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון
מאין באת? מטפה סרוחה
ולאן אתה הולך? למקום עפר, רמה ותולעה
ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון? לפני מלך מלך מלכי המלכים
הקדוש ברוך הוא

Akavia ben Mehalalel would say,
Meditate on three things and you will not come to sin:
Know from whence you came
And whither you are going
And before whom you are destined to give judgment and reckoning.
Whence did you come? From a putrid drop.
Where are you going? To a place of dirt, grave-worms and maggots.
But before whom are you destined to give judgment and reckoning?
Before the king of kings,
The Holy One: Blessed is He.

Come to think of it, there’s not such a big difference between my music and Rav Kaplan’s mussar schmuessen after all…