Sunday, September 20, 2015

Rosh Hashanah - A Day of Great Mirth!

(Note: although I am no longer actively blogging, I have some old pieces from a few years back and decided to post them for posterity rather than having them continue to gather magnetic dust on the old hard drive.)

The fact that the Torah never refers to Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment is fodder for much rabbinic interpretation. The two occurrences of the holiday in the Torah (Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29) state only that it is a holy day on which one refrains from work and on which there is the blowing of the shofar and the offering of various sacrifices. Neither source says anything about a "New Year", and certainly not a "Yom HaDin", a day of judgment. The former is asserted in the first Mishna (and associated gemara) of Tractate Rosh Hashanah and the latter in the second:
At four seasons [divine] judgment is passed on the world: at Passover in respect of produce; at Shavuot in respect of fruit; at New Year all creatures pass before him [God] like children of Maron, as it says, 'He that fashions the heart of them all, that considers all their doings'; and on Succot judgment is passed in respect of rain.

Nechemiah 8 gives us an interesting historical perspective; on the first day of the seventh month (i.e., Rosh Hashanah) Ezra reads and explains the "Law" before the congregation. The people weep, but then Ezra tells them "Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye grieved; for the joy of the LORD is your strength." And the people did so and made "great mirth"! Great mirth, on a day of judgment??

So what do other canonical and non-canonical books tell us regarding Rosh Hashanah - the Prophets, the Writings, apocryphal and pseudoepigraphical sources, the Dead Sea scrolls?


Nothing more is mentioned in any Biblical or extra-Biblical source. Was there some sort of great conspiracy to conceal the true nature of Rosh Hashanah?

What about the great Jewish historians Philo (20 BCE - 50 CE) or Josephus (37 CE – c. 100)? One would not expect them to be part of such a conspiracy. And both of them lived during the time of the Second Temple and were witness to all of the rituals of the holidays. Let's hear what they have to say.

Philo states:
Immediately after comes the festival of the sacred moon; in which it is the custom to play the trumpet in the temple at the same moment that the sacrifices are offered. From which practice this is called the true feast of trumpets, and there are two reasons for it, one peculiar to the nation, and the other common to all mankind. Peculiar to the nation, as being a commemoration of that most marvelous, wonderful, and miraculous event that took place when the holy oracles of the law were given; for then the voice of a trumpet sounded from heaven, which it is natural to suppose reached to the very extremities of the universe, so that so wondrous a sound attracted all who were present, making them consider, as it is probable, that such mighty events were signs betokening some great things to be accomplished. And what more great or more beneficial thing could come to men than laws affecting the whole race? And what was common to all mankind was this: the trumpet is the instrument of war, sounding both when commanding the charge and the retreat. There is also another kind of war, ordained of God, when nature is at variance with itself, its different parts attacking one another. And by both these kinds of war the things on earth are injured. They are injured by the enemies, by the cutting down of trees, and by conflagrations; and also by natural injuries, such as droughts, heavy rains, lightning from heaven, snow and cold; the usual harmony of the seasons of the year being transformed into a want of all concord. On this account it is that the law has given this festival the name of a warlike instrument, in order to show the proper gratitude to God as the giver of peace, who has abolished all seditions in cities, and in all parts of the universe, and has produced plenty and prosperity, not allowing a single spark that could tend to the destruction of the crops to be kindled into flame.
According to Philo's understanding, Rosh Hashanah - as suggested by the shofar blasts - reflects 1) the giving of the Torah on Sinai to the Jews and 2) gratitude of all nations on earth to the giver of peace and prosperity.

How about Josephus?
But on the seventh month, which the Macedonians call Hyperberetaeus, they make an addition to those [Sabbath sacrifices] already mentioned, and sacrifice a bull, a ram, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins.
That's all you have to say about it, Joseph Ben Matisyahu??

Traditionalists believe that the Torah was written ca. 1200 BCE and academics somewhere in the 6th century BCE (or later; although even secular scholars do not preclude earlier sources for these traditions.) The Mishna reflects primarily post-destruction discussions and was finally redacted circa  200 CE. And only the Mishna - a relatively late source - equates Rosh Hashanah with a day of judgment. That's a gap up to 1000 years in which this central holiday of the Jewish calendar is never associated with judgment. How can this be? Why, on a day in which God supposedly determines the fate of every human being, would not this idea be emphasized and clarified?

The problem is further compounded by the fact that Yom Kippur, a holiday clearly stated by its very name as a day of atonement comes after Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, commentators have resorted to some very novel (and often convoluted) ideas to explain why there judgment comes before atonement.

So, yes, it does looks like what we have here is a conspiracy to conceal the true nature of this holiday! And that's exactly what Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz suggests in a quite forced (some would say silly) rationalization: that since gentiles believe in the Torah, explicitly stating that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment would cause them to repent more than the Jews, and this would result in a great accusation against the Jewish nation in heaven!

A modern teacher of the classical parshanim, Menachem Leibtag attempts to come to the rescue. Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment can be derived from its description as Yom Teruah, a day of the shofar blast. In brief, the short oscillating sound of the teruah represented an imminent call to war (as opposed to the long blast of a tekiah signaling "all clear"). Thus the teruah of Rosh Hashanah creates "an atmosphere that simulates the tension and fear of war". Unfortunately, Rabbi Leibtag's explanation falls short of the mark - he is more making the case that the sound of the teruah is a preparatory warning - a call to teshuvah - for the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur than a signal indicating the day of judgment has arrived.

So there is no escaping the fact that Rosh Hashanah has nothing to do with din. It appears that historically the New Year celebration was one of great joy and celebration (go argue with Ezra!) and that with time it transformed into a much more somber day (no sleeping on the day of judgment!), probably because rabbinic authorities felt that the explicitly solemn occasion of Yom Kippur required greater preparation.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jewish Prayer for Dummies

Quick synopsis of the Amidah.
  • Praise the Lord. He's holy and we Jews are holy. (1-3)
  • Please grant us wisdom, health, and wealth. (4, 8, 9)
  • Please let us serve you better so that you will forgive us and we can be redeemed. (5, 6, 7)
  • We really, really want to live under a theocracy. And while you're at it, please destroy all those sinners. (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)
  • Please accept these prayers. (16)
  • By the way, we really do want to sacrifice animals to you once again. (17)
  • Thanks for listening. (18)
  • Please give us Jews peace and blessings. (19)

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Jew and the Other

It's been a long time since I was so offended by a blog post, but this somewhat recent Torah Musings discussion on blood transfusions really got to me.

Some may find this topic no different from, for example, the claim (popularized by the Baal HaTanya and pretty much accepted in all chassidic circles) that non-Jews possess only an animal soul, with Jews being the sole possessors of a Godly soul. Or the idea (also mentioned in the article) that a non-Jew in danger on Shabbat is saved only for the sake of darchei shalom, preserving the ways of peace. Such concepts need to be seen as having largely developed within a context of historical persecution by gentiles. In that respect, they are perfectly understandable - albeit outdated - beliefs.

What differs about this post is that it is largely talking about contemporary halachic authorities. I'm imagining a theoretical round table discussion in which various rabbinic "sages" are arguing the question whether Jews can donate blood to non-Jews, mustering various halachic precedent both pro and con. And totally missing the point that even posing the question suggests some lack of basic humanity.

After a self-congratulatory intro in which Jews are claimed to be a merciful, bashful and kind people, then touting the great generosity vis a vis charity and Israel's assistance in post-earthquake Haiti, Rabbi Lebowitz states that "Recently, some have questioned the halachic propriety of Jews donating blood in America." He then states what is to be his summary, viz. that "giving blood, while not always obligatory is at a minimum, permissible, and more likely a very great mitzvah."

(As an interesting aside, Lebowitz states that "the Torah [not only] values the good Samaritan who goes out of his way to save a life". He is apparently oblivious to the fact that "good Samaritan" is a phrase that originated in the New Testament (Luke 10) in a parable that derides the bad behavior of a Pharasaic priest and Levite towards a beaten robbery victim.)

First we have Rav Moshe Feinstein who - as with saving a non-Jewish life on Shabbos - states that donating blood to gentiles is necessary to avoid severe anti-semitism.

Then we have a discussion regarding the general permissibility of donating due to possible prohibitions of wounding oneself. This is largely irrelevant regarding the distinction between Jew and non-Jew vis a vis donating blood.

The second issue revolves around a prohibition to give “free gifts” to gentiles. But this isn't a problem for a number of reasons. One is donating to a blood bank and not to a specific gentile. Or that (contrary to the Shulchan Aruch) according to "many great poskim" today's gentiles are not idolators. The bottom line is that there is an assumption of a reciprocal relationship in which Jews will be able to receive blood when needed.

The third issue is that most recipients of blood will be gentiles. But because there are many Jews who may ultimately receive blood we can ignore the majority since it is a matter of life and death (for the Jew). Rabbi Michael Broyde states that there is no mechanism to designate which blood goes where and so Jews should shoulder their fair share of the donations.

Rabbi Menashe Klein has some particularly offensive objections (Jewish blood "crying out" from gentile veins) but I don't want to dwell on such lunacy.

The ultimate conclusion is that donating blood is a kiddush Hashem and refusing to donate has a great potential for chillul Hashem. Also, Orthodox blood drives now have the status of minhag Yisrael and we cannot depart from such a long-standing custom. But at no time is there any suggestion in the article that donating blood - regardless of the recipient - is simply the right thing to do. But, of course, such an assertion would be problematic as it implies that the halachic system is insufficient in framing all ethical and moral considerations.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (the Seridei Eish) suggested that Jews themselves shoulder at least some of the blame for anti-semitism because of their attitude towards the non-Jewish world and the discriminatory laws against gentiles described in the Talmud (and codified in later halachic works.) The Lebowitz article continues this long tradition, the "minhag Yisrael" of "us versus them", the Jew and the Other.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jacob's Sophie's Choice

I've always found it puzzling why Jacob divided his camp into two parts so that "If Esau come to the one camp, and smite it, then the camp which is left shall escape." (Gen 32:8-9). This never made sense to me, since when the meeting with Esav is about to transpire, Jacob abandons this strategy. One commentator presumed that the division involved only his servants and property, and not his family. Of course, this creates its own problem, as it suggests that Jacob's primary concern was with preserving his wealth over the safety of his family.

So what is the new strategy? Jacob ranks his wives and children in order of his regard for them! Bilhah and Zilpah with their four sons are most at risk as they go to the front lines, then Leah with her six sons and daughter, and finally Rachel with Joseph (Gen. 33:2) at the rear. We are mostly not privy to the inner psychological world of biblical characters so we are free to assume that Jacob did this with much anguish, and possibly lived afterward with some guilt (probably not too much since everything eventually worked out well.) But just imagine your family having to face a presumed murderous enemy and your father puts you in the front of the line - not because you are the most capable of protecting the family, but because he loves you less than some of your siblings! That was how three of Jacob's wives and eleven (Dinah went in front of Joseph) of his children must have felt.

In general, the author(s) of the Genesis stories generally chose to leave the stories fraught with ambiguity, a style that allows for great embellishment and interpretation by later commentators. Unfortunately, this has often resulted in overly simplistic characterizations of both the villains and the heroes. Esav is looked at as intrinsically evil from birth (indeed even prenatally!), and he ultimately becomes the archetype for all of the historical evil perpetuated against the Jews. On the other hand, Jacob - and most of the "Jewish" heroes (forefathers/foremothers/tribal heads) - are often depicted as perfectly righteous beings on par (or even above) the level of angels. In both cases, apologetics - often as aggadic/midrashic glosses - serve to minimize either the positive qualities of the former (Esav's only redeeming quality - honoring his father - is often mitigated by claims that it was motivated by purely ulterior goals) or to suggest, for the latter, that what seem to be very blatant human flaws are in actuality deeds done for the sake of heaven, and at worst relatively minor mistakes that are judged more severely because of the greatness of the personalities involved. A recent example that comes to mind is Reuven sleeping with Jacob's concubine, Bilhah, which is reinterpreted as an "as if". That is, interfering with Jacob's sleeping arrangements after numero uno wife Rachel died was done to preserve his mother Leah's honor, but is treated by the Torah "as if" he slept with Bilhah. The earliest commentary on this story, however - Jubilees 33 - understood Reuben's misdeed literally.

It seems obvious that Jacob did not learn from the mistakes of his father, Isaac, who preferred Esav the hunter to Jacob the simple. (And it is not unreasonable to presume other family dysfunction in a family headed by a man who was almost sacrificed by his father. There is certainly no indication that he and Abraham had any kind of personal relationship after this event.)

Jacob repeats the mistake by showing preference to one son, Joseph, the first born of the woman he truly loved. (As an aside, note that the Torah suggests that Jacob was initially attracted to Rachel for a very understandable yet superficial reason - basically she was pretty hot!) We are all well aware of the tragic results of this preferential behavior, regardless of the "after-the-fact necessity" for the progression of Jewish history - or at least the mythos that surround it.

Jacob is like the woman who - abused as a child - ends up with an abusive spouse. Both are victims of a traumatic upbringing and caught up in a self-destructive cycle. Jacob doesn't seem to learn this lesson even at the end of his life when he gives preference to the younger child of Joseph.

The Choir Apologia may be singing fortissimo by now, but I find the Torah infinitely more meaningful when the heroes are viewed as having the same strengths and flaws as "ordinary" human beings. And doesn't moral ambiguity make for far more interesting analyses and lively discussions?

Monday, November 8, 2010

What's Not Bothering Rashi?

Did Abraham or Isaac "name" Beersheva?

Genesis 21: 29-31.
And Avimelech said to Abraham, "What are these seven ewe lambs, which you have placed by themselves?" And he said, "For these seven ewe lambs you shall take from my hand, in order that it be to me for a witness that I dug this well." Therefore, he named that place Beersheva, for there they both swore.

כט. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ אֶל אַבְרָהָם מָה הֵנָּה שֶׁבַע כְּבָשֹׂת הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר הִצַּבְתָּ לְבַדָּנָה

ל. וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶת שֶׁבַע כְּבָשֹׂת תִּקַּח מִיָּדִי בַּעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה לִּי לְעֵדָה כִּי חָפַרְתִּי אֶת הַבְּאֵר הַזֹּאת

לא. עַל כֵּן קָרָא לַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בְּאֵר שָׁבַע כִּי שָׁם נִשְׁבְּעוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם

There's a bit of a pun there, since the word "sheva" relates to both the seven lambs and to the oath. Regardless, the Torah states that Abraham was responsible for the name of the place.

A few chapters later we have Isaac in the starring role. After some quarreling over water rights, Isaac goes to Beersheva (so named - anachronistically? - in 26:23) and Avimelech meets him there to make a covenant.

Genesis 26:33:
And he [Isaac] named it Shevah; therefore, the city is named Beersheva until this very day.

לג. וַיִּקְרָא אֹתָהּ שִׁבְעָה עַל כֵּן שֵׁם הָעִיר בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
This time, Beersheva clearly refers to an "oath at the well".

Each passage claims a different personality as being responsible for the naming of the city. One explanation from the traditionalist camp suggests that Isaac simply reconfirmed a name already given - and possibly forgotten - by his father, Abraham. A very unsatisfying answer that smacks of apologetics. It seems obvious that this is not the intention of the verses. I have highlighted the "therefore" (עַל כֵּן) in both passages since each one states an explicit reason for the origin of the name.

So why isn't Rashi "bothered" by this?

Needless to say, Bible critics love this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Modesty and Job Interviews

A question in "Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew" and posted on Hirhurim/Torah Musings, with a more realistic response. (Yep, that was an actual question. Really.)

Question: I am a young rabbi, and I have begun looking for rabbinical positions. I have tried to work on my anava [humbleness], but now people advise me to write an impressive resume and stress my talents to potential employers. Wouldn’t doing that make me be leading a double life, or is there some fallacy in my thinking?

Answer: The midda of anava is extremely important and, according to some, is the most important midda. We know that David referred to himself as a worm, Avraham said of himself that he was dust, and Moses referred to himself as nothing. A true anav would not be so chutzpadik as to suggest that he was on the madreiga of these tzaddikim. Therefore, you should imply on your resume that you have really accomplished nothing worthwhile in life except for the effort that you have applied towards your Torah studies (for Torah study is truly the only worthwhile pursuit.) Therefore, I would list your relevant experience, but insinuate that you have been unsuccessful in these various pursuits.

Reply: Thank you Rebbe.

Rebbe: Please come closer before you go. [Slap slap]. Fool! What the hell is wrong with you? Get your head out a gemara for once and think for yourself!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wordle Madness

Wordle generates word clouds from text or blog feeds. It is a really fun time waster but also gives one insight into an author's focus. Check it out.

Here's a cloud of all of my 160 blog postings (as with all of the clouds below, I limited them to the top 50 words). Click on any image to view it larger.

The following are the clouds that wordle grabbed on 11/02/2010 when I supplied just a blog name; it then presumably uses only the most recent rss feeds.

Another Frum Heretic cloud (I simply can't view this one - when viewed larger - without seeing it in 3D with three separate layers. Very cool.):

The prolific Mr Dov Bear:

Scandal-monger Failed Messiah (some serendipitous juxtapositions: Rubashkin - FM's obsession - with "intense" and "evil"; Sholom with "mad"; Rabbinical with "molesting"; etc):

Hirhurim/Torah Musings (nothing surprising here):

Rambam takes center stage in Natan Slifkin's Rationalist Judaism (wordle allows one to select a Hebrew font!).

I would have loved to have done clouds for Gideon Slifkin's previous two blogs, but unfortunately XGH's latest - Ortho Moderndox - is pretty ho-hum:

And finally, one from the Jewish Atheist: