Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Interesting Elements of Masechet Nedarim

Readers of this blog will know that I've been focusing my efforts on Kitah, my work at Herzog Global, as well as on the Mishnah Yomit program (not to mention to RZ Weekly Podcast). So this blog isn't nearly as active as it once was. Here's a video shiur that I made recently as we concluded Masechet Nedarim in the Mishnah Yomit program.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Preparing for the Light at the End of the Tunnel - Video Dvar Torah for Parshat Beshalach 5781

 How do we have hope in such a challenging time? We must follow the example of the righteous women of Israel who demonstrated their faith in the future through their actions.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Rabbi Schachter, the Mishnah and COVID-19

Message in the Mishnah for May 12 2020 (Mishnah Yomit Temurah 5:1-2)

The COVID-19 pandemic which crippled Jewish communities around the world raised a number of challenging halachic questions, especially as Jews prepared for Pesach from the confines of self-quarantine. One issue that arose was the question of how and whether one could use newly purchased utensils before ritual immersion (tevillah), which is normally done in a mikveh. Most mikvaot were closed for immersion of utensils, and immersion in a natural body of water proved impractical if not impossible. Was there another way?

Rabbi Herschel Schacter, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, ruled that indeed there was. According to the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 120:16), one may transfer legal ownership of his metal and glass utensils to a non-Jew, relieving the owner of the requirement of immersion, at least temporarily. Rabbi Schachter expanded this leniency, and ruled that in the case where one could not physically transfer ownership to a gentile, he or she could even renounce ownership of said utensils via email or social media. (I did not actually see any such posts – but that would have been fascinating!)

What was the basis for Rabbi Schacter’s ruling? It starts with today’s Mishnah Yomit.
The Mishnah suggests a way for the owner of an animal about to give birth to a bechor (first-born, which, if it turns out to be a male, he will have to give to the Kohen) to avoid the “bechor penalty” and keep the animal for himself. If you want to understand how it works, you can learn the Mishnah here. But even more important is the language utilized by the Mishnah.

Keitzad ma’arimim al ha-bechor” – “How can we act deceptively with regard to the first-born?” (Mishnah Temurah 5:1) In other words, how can we “trick” the Kohen out of his first-born?

While this language sounds troubling, the Sages were teaching us that sometimes the utilization of legal loopholes is not only acceptable, but necessary. They even called recognized that it looks like trickery, using the term “leha’arim” – “to act deceptively”.
We find examples of legal loopholes throughout Jewish law. The sale of Chametz on Pesach and the sale of the Land of Israel during the Shemittah years are two prime examples. Another Mishnah teaches us that Hillel Hazaken introduced pruzbol as a legal loophole to ensure economic activity during the difficult Sabbatical years.

Rabbi Schachter in his ruling, recognizing the challenge of COVID-19 and the need for creative halachic solutions, followed this longstanding rabbinic tradition explicitly, writing in the Hebrew version of his ruling, “yesh lehatir ha’aramah,” it is appropriate to allow [halachic] trickery.

Rabbi Schachter appreciated the tenuousness of his ruling, noting that once the crisis abates, people should immediately immerse their utensils. But his creativity and willingness to employ legalities in a time of need followed a long tradition of rabbinic creativity, found in the earliest halachic resource we have: our Mishnah.

For more on legal loopholes in Jewish law, see this article in Hebrew written by Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, zt”l, the founder of Machon Tzomet in Israel.

Reuven Spolter is the founder of The Mishnah Project. You can join the Mishnah Yomit program by subscribing on WhatsApp or Telegram

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Pace of Tefillah: In Defense of the Daily Minyan - the People Who Show Up Every Day

Rabbi Barry Kornblau recently shared this Facebook post, which garnered a great deal of attention about the breakneck speed of the morning minyan. The post contained a chart of different speeds at which we speak, and the length of time it would (or should) take to recite the entire Tefillah. Here's the chart:

Rabbi Kornblau wrote:
This Shabbat, my sermon noted that my upbringing in Reform Temple Beth El of Great Neck properly taught me, among other things, one basic halachah: the requirement to recite all one's prayers and blessings with feeling and understanding. One cannot do this while reciting the siddur at the speed of an auctioneer (daily amidah of 3 minutes, for example) as is routine for many Orthodox Jews; instead, one must speak slowly and enunciate deliberately - as is fitting for addressing the Master of All.
The post prompted a lively discussion, much of which centered on complaining about the speed of the daily minyan in most shuls. Over the years, I too have joined this chorus of complainers, wondering how people say "all the words" so quickly. My conclusion was usually that they don't.

I would like to offer some push back.

The chart makes no distinction between the various segments of Tefillah. Using a simple word count, the chart calculates that Amidah, at 824 words, should take about a third as long as Pesukei D'zimra, which clock in at 2,064 words, and Kriat Shema, at 248 words, should take a full minute at "slow auctioneer" pace. Nowhere does the chart note that Pesukei D'zimra is halachically considered customary at best, the Amidah is D'rabanan (according to many poskim), while Kriat Shema (at least the first paragraph) is a D'oraita - a Torah commandment. It seems reasonable to me that the halachic significance of a specific section should have some impact on the speed at which it is recited.

Moreover, as my friend David Brofsky notes in a comment to the post,
Aside from conversation taking into account the other person, most of davening is not a conversation, but rather, reflective statements. In other words, WE are the audience of pesukei dezimra, shema, ashrei, etc. Whether or not that means we should say these passages quickly, or very slow (as a meditation) is an interesting question, but they are not similar to a conversation (maybe closer to the audio book..) 
Psukei D'zimrah (as well as most of birchot Kriat Shema and much of the concluding portions of Tefillah) focus on Divine praise. On the other hand, Amidah is supposed to represent a conversation with God, while Kriat Shema focuses on our acceptance of the heavenly yoke as well as other elements of our faith. While it's certainly preferable to praise God with feeling and intent, it is obligatory to recite Shema with focus and concentration, and Amidah must be recited with focus - and with the personalization that transforms prayer texts into true worship. (Also, the chart completely ignores Korbanot, which seem to be ignored in modern shuls, but some of which have greater halachic significance than much of Pesukei D'zimrah. See Peninei Halachah here for more information.)

Personally, I have no problem with speed-reading (or "auctioneering" through Pesukei D'zimrah) if that means that a person spends more time on the more important parts of davening. I would love to see a siddur in which the importance of the prayer is reflected in font size and number of pages, giving the user the sense of importance of each section.
Moreover, Rabbi Kornblau's initial point - his comparison to his Reform upbringing, is flawed for a simple reason. Reform Judaism has cut out much of davening, leaving just enough prayer to allow people to focus and concentrate.

Just look at the amount of words that one must recite in the daily prayer, not including the additional Tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays. A commenter on the post noted that there's a "kavanah" minyan one Sunday a month in Teaneck which takes seventy minutes. On a Sunday (actually the best day to take a long time to daven).

As Rabbi Brofsky noted, we're not talking about having a conversation at all. We're reciting texts, that don't change. Imagine trying to do that in English, day after day. Just recite the US Constitution (4,543 words) day after day, without fail, for your entire life. How long could you do it? How long would it take before people were flying through it, skimming or speed-reading or auctioneering? (Answer: Not long.)

I have spoken to many people about this issue, many of whom have said privately (and quoted rabbis and scholars) that they almost never recite all of Pesukei D'zimrah. Or that they haven't recited Kedushah with the community in years. The "unspoken" secret is that it's a mouthful - a lot to say - and perhaps we should be a bit more forgiving of people who either don't say it all, or say it faster than you or I think they should. Today, I don't feel that it's realistic to expect most people to spend 70-90 minutes in meditative prayer each morning.

In a recent episode of This American Life, host Ira Glass opened the episode describing his visit to shul to recite Kaddish for his mother.
And it was the anniversary of my mom's death. And we're Jews, so you're supposed to go say Kaddish, this old prayer that's one of the central prayers in Judaism at the anniversary of somebody's death. And so my dad, and my stepmom, and I were at one of the daily services that observant Jews go to every day in Baltimore where I grew up.
And I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don't know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.
Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there's that, but all the rest basically exactly the same every day.
We don't give the standard "daveners" who come each and every day enough credit. Prayer is clearly important, and of course focus and concentration are critical. But there's also great value in showing up; in being part of the minyan, day in and day out. In saying the word and being part of the prayer process.

I sometimes get the feeling that people often criticize the daily minyan from the outside: "I don't go because it's too fast." Or, "They don't say all the words anyway. How much can it really mean?" It means a lot - even if they do say it very, very fast. Because the people who get up and make it to minyan each day - which is a Herculean effort in my mind - are doing something that the vast majority of observant Jews are not: they're showing up.

They're showing up so that everyone else who wants to has a place to say kaddish. They're showing their sense of allegiance to the community in a meaningful and tangible way. They're actively engaged in an act of prayer and devotion to God - even if they don't really understand many (if not most) of the words.

And when those times come in life when they really do need that prayer and connection - and those times come for all of us, they already know where to go and what to do, because for their entire lives they've been showing up.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Tech in the Shomer Shabbat Home

A while back, Google introduced the Google Home Hub, a kind of alarm clock-tablet-speaker that people can place around the home. One of the features of this home hub is what the company calls "Ambient EQ" - which "dynamically adjusts the color temperature and brightness of your display to create a non-intrusive smart display experience. Using the sensor on the top of the device, Ambient EQ adapts the display brightness and color temperature to match the surrounding environment, so that your display resembles a physical photo."
In other words, the device will automatically adjust the color on the screen based on the light in the room. Sounds great - and it is: you turn off the lights, and the screen goes dark so that you're not blinded when you're trying to sleep. You open the window shades and it adjusts so the screen always looks great.
Of course, this sensor and the automatic changes raise halachic issues for the Shomer Shabbat consumer. You can always just turn the feature off (see here). But I'm wondering: does the halachah require people to disable such a feature? It seems to be a psik reisha (an immediate, direct response) to a change in light. And it also seems to be "nicha lei" - I do like my screen to look its very best. But do I care enough? I imagine that at some point these sensors will become so ubiquitous that we may not even have the option of turning them off (which will necessitate someone developing a Shomer Shabbat version of whatever Google Home operating system these things use...)
What do you think? Is it a halachic issue? A chumrah?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"Meet Your Meat" and the Ethics of Animal Consumption

Watching an old episode of Parks and Recreation recently, I came across this short vignette which encapsulates the ethical challenges inherent in today's meat production industry. After inviting his employees to a barbecue, department boss Ron Swanson proceeds to introduce them to the pig that he intends to slaughter for lunch.

Ron says, "In my opinion, not enough people have looked their dinner in the eyes and considered the circle of life. This is your dinner. His name is Tom."

Their reactions are both priceless, and fully understandable. The very thought that they would kill and eat a cute, precocious pig repulses everyone in the crowd. Ron is finally forced to relent when he learns that doing so in public park would violate numerous laws and health codes.

Today, we're just like the people in this video: we of course want to eat the cute and cuddly animal, just as long as we don't see that it was an animal, that it bled, or that it was alive at all. We want our meat in clean, ready to prepare packages, devoid of all possible messiness. And we certainly don't want to think about how the animal was treated before someone, somewhere killed it for us.

I have been struggling with this ethical question lately.

I am by no means a vegetarian. I believe that God gave human beings the right to kill animals for necessary purposes including consumption and clothing. The very Torah scroll read in every synagogue around the world is written on an animal hide. Were it written on plain paper - no matter how fine and high-quality - it would not be kosher.

That being said, that same Torah demands that we take into account the treatment of those animals in life. The commandments prohibiting tza'ar ba'alei chayyim, require us to treat animals humanely, with care for their well-being. (see here, here, or just do a search on Google.) And it also seems clear that modern animal production - factory farming - fails to take the animal's well-being into account, and falls far short of the Torah standards - both for meat and poultry. I'm not basing this on the numerous studies, reports and articles written on the subject over the past many years. Rather, I base my opinion on common sense: have you personally seen the cows regularly used for milk nowadays, with udders so large they can barely stand? What about the massive chicken pens in which chickens are raised in great density? I'm sure that there are many more issues about which we have absolutely no idea - not because we can't know, but because we don't want to. (Did you know that in the United States, there are currently no laws whatsoever that regular the treatment of farm animals? That's pretty amazing to me, and tells me that as a society, we don't want to know. We don't want to think about the fact that the steak we're eating came from an animal, and someone had to raise, feed and kill that animal on our behalf before it arrived in a neat plastic package at the grocery store.)

It's therefore at least a bit gratifying that the Orthodox Union recently announced that it would no longer certify meat slaughtered with a method called "Shackle and Hoist". Essentially, this involved flipping the animal upside-down before it was slaughtered. While this is certainly a positive development, the OU doesn't get all the credit; the State of Israel does. According to the Times of Israel article, the OU issued it's new guidelines,
after Israel decided to ban the import of any meat slaughtered using the method, in which the animal is pulled into the air by its legs and then flipped onto the ground before being slaughtered....Israel’s agriculture department banned the method for imported meat last year and gave slaughterhouses, many of which also produce kosher meat sold to the US, until June 1, 2018, to comply. The Israeli policy said that slaughterhouses had to install rotating pens to turn the animal upside down, which is seen as more humane than using shackle and hoist.
So, animal activists lobbied Israeli bureaucrats to change Israeli food production regulations, which thus gave the OU the cover it needed to change its policy. This teaches us a number of important lessons:
  • First of all, for many years the OU has claimed that it does not legislate on issues related to ethics, and that it only addresses the issue of whether a food is technically kosher. This new letter represents a sharp departure from this longstanding OU policy and opens the door to any number of other ethical issues. How indeed can we claim that food is kosher if the production of that food involved Torah violations? Theoretically, what if the OU learned that an animal producer was literally torturing animals in order to produce a special type of meat (a claim made by critics of goose-stomach-pumping to make fois-gras)? What if the OU discovered that a company it oversees was involved in systematic theft and corruption? Today, the OU can no longer look the other way. 
  • This decision reinforces the centrality of the State of Israel in the Jewish world. Why did the OU wait for Israel to issue its new regulations? Did it feel that "shackle and hoist" is inhumane before Israel changed the regulations? Whatever the case, this should only encourage those involved in animal rights to focus even more strongly on the Israeli front, where there are people who are very receptive to these issues who we now know can make a difference not only in Israel, but in the kosher industry around the world.
  • This new policy addresses only the very last seconds of the life of an animal. It in no way addresses many, many other ethical issues, such as how the animal was born, raised, farmed, fed and brought to slaughter. What is the role of the OU - and the Israeli government - in issues like these?
This entire issue of factory farming has been bothering me for a while now.

On one hand, I'm not a vegetarian, nor do I wish to become one. I eat meat - far less than I used to - but still quite a bit. How can a person (me) who considers Jewish teaching and halachah primary to the way that I live, ignore major halachot, simply because I don't see them before my very eyes - because I choose not to?

I actually agree with Ron Swanson. I think that you shouldn't eat meat if you've never seen one being slaughtered, at least once. In a way, I wish there were a way to go back to the way they did it years ago. You went to the market and bought a chicken, which you took to the shochet to slaughter for you. It was gross. It was labor intensive. It was definitely more expensive. But at least you knew that it was an animal, and wasn't raised on a factory farm in horrifying conditions.

I recently became aware of a brand of meat in Israel called Hai Bari - which claims that it is "the first and only food label in Israel that guarantees consumers that their meat and dairy products come from farms who implement the highest animal welfare standards." (This isn't what it seems either. It's actually a response of Golan farmers to the Israeli government opening the market to the import of foreign cattle. They decided that if they can't compete on price - which they can't - they can at least try to corner the "ethical" market, which is fine by me.)

Changing factory farming is a very tall order. Like the rest of the crowd in the "Parks and Rec" video clip, most people really don't want to "Meat their meat." They don't want to know.

But I, and others like me, do want to know - not the name of the chicken that I'm eating, but at least that it was raised humanely and ethically. And I'm willing to pay more for the privilege, even if that means eating less meat and chicken to do it. I'm sure that I'm not alone.

I'd like to see the OU, the government of Israel, and even the animal rights movement  join forces in finding and encouraging new ways to create ethical meat and poultry production. This would give the kosher-eating public the sense that the food their eating isn't just kosher technically, but ethically as well.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Avoiding the Question, Or "Why David Kestenbaum's Sadness Makes Me Sad"

I feel sad for David Kestenbaum.

No, I don't know Mr. Kestenbaum, who is a producer-reporter for This American Life (although he used to be a particle physicist), a popular podcast that I sometimes listen to. But I'm sad, because he's sad (or at least he was - apparently, this is a repeat episode from a year ago).

Why is Kestenbaum sad? What's got him down as he brushes his teeth in the morning and goes about his day? A perplexing question called "Fermi's Paradox". Kestenbaum explains (I'm quoting from the transcript of the show, which is a conversation between TAL host Ira Glass and Kestenbaum that I've edited for brevity):
David Kestenbaum
So the story goes that this is 1950. Fermi's visiting Los Alamos, and they're sitting around at lunch. It's Fermi and a handful of other physicists and they start talking about extraterrestrials.

Ira Glass
One of the scientists who was there remembers that they talked about some New Yorker cartoon, which had flying saucers and cheerful aliens stealing our trash cans. They joked about it.

David Kestenbaum
And then out of nowhere, Fermi says something like, so where are they?

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum
The aliens.

Ira Glass
And did people know what he meant?

David Kestenbaum
Yeah, somehow everybody knew exactly what he meant. The idea was basically that, like, the galaxy is this huge place, right? Hundreds of billions of stars. It's been around for billions of years. If you believe that intelligent life is something that just arises given enough time, where is everybody? Like, there have been billions of years, where civilizations could have developed and become way more advanced than we are and traveled from star to star, sent signals or something. Where are they? If that's right, where are they?

Ira Glass
This question became known as the Fermi Paradox, which goes like this. If it's so likely that intelligent life exists elsewhere, where is it? Why hasn't anybody shown up? And of course, the simple answer to that would be, well, nobody else exists.

David Kestenbaum
And I had never thought-- it made me think, maybe we're alone. I really thought that for the first time. Yeah, it made me really sad. I had never thought about it seriously before. I had always assumed that life was everywhere. But he's making a really serious point here. He's raising a tough question. The specific thought I was having was that this would mean that there's nobody out there who knows more than we do, like, about science, about-- there are no better songs. There are no better books. This is it, you know?

Ira Glass
So for months now, when David's brushing his teeth or doing nothing in particular, it'll hit him again. Maybe we're alone in the universe. Like this morning, on the train. Like, what we know is it. What we are is it.
The thing is, no one he talks to can really understand why it makes Kestenbaum so sad. They laugh off the question. What difference does it really make if we're all that there really is? Why does this question upset Kestenbaum so much? He never really explains what bother him, and other cannot really appreciate his angst.

I think that I understand what bothered him. But to me, what's sad about the whole story isn't that Kestenbaum is sad. The most upsetting aspect is the fact that he won't allow himself to ask the deeper question, and when he does, he rejects it out of hand.


To address his question, Kestenbaum turns to Melissa Franklin, his physics professor from Harvard, who he thinks will at least understand the question. After humoring him for a bit, Franklin starts to ask him some serious questions.
What exactly do you mean by being alone? Let's properly define the question here. You're talking about no intelligent life or no life at all? What if there's one crappy plant on another planet? How would you feel about that? What if advanced life like us is just a mathematical improbability, a total fluke?
Professor Franklin concluded, "And then you would say, OK, if that's the case, I have to believe in God. So that's what you're saying."

You would think that as a physicist - an empirical person trying to understand scientific truth, Kestenbaum would react seriously to this question. He would consider it and its implications, and actually wonder whether this was what's really bothering him. But no. He responds with a sad, actually pathetic argument.
David Kestenbaum
How many physicists do you know who believe in God?

Melissa Franklin
That's his answer? He's been pondering a question for months, literally walking around in a funk from a question, and as soon as a serious thinker proposes that what's really bothering him is a much deeper question of faith and creation, rather than addressing the question seriously, he scoffs at it.

His answer isn't even an answer, and is actually irrelevant to the question. What difference does it make how many physicists believe in God? Maybe they're all under the spell of some cult. What about those six? Are they crazy? Have they lost their mind. Is that how science works? You take a poll of commonly held beliefs, and ignore the actual facts entirely?

Moreover, what if they Professor Franklin only knows six god-believing physicists because that's the circle of colleagues she has created for herself? According to a HuffPost article I just found (pretty easily), a recent Pew Research Center survey, "found that the percentage of scientists that believe in some form of a deity or power was higher than you may think — 51 percent."

Kestenbaum's response immediately made me think of the very first of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, which is a brilliant treatise about human nature and the cause of sin. In his letter, he explains how the devil (i.e. the yetzer hara) works very hard not by arguing with us about the facts. Quite the opposite. His most effective strategy is avoiding argument.

That's exactly what Kestenbaum does. Confronted with an argument, he avoids and deflects. Rather than try and address a difficult and challenging question, he responds by scoffing at the possibility that he might actually believe in God. After all, he's a physicist! And they don't believe in God, do they?

In fact David, many of them do. And while you once were a physicist, you're not really a physicist anymore. You're a journalist. And in the NPR world that you inhabit, they really don't believe in God, and really would ridicule you if you in fact did.

The fact that you cannot in fact see this makes me quite sad.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Religious Zionist Photoshop of the Week Award

The Religious Zionist Photoshop of the Week Award goes to...Egged for this crazy picture in a full page ad in בשבע Besheva (actually, it goes to גל אורן לרנר Gal Oren Lerner, the ad firm that designed the ad).

In any case, the ad, which thanks the "Rosen Family" for "not forgetting to validate their Rav Kav", features a typical Religious Zionist family (if not only that's a bit less religious than your average B'sheva family).

Yet, the ad caught my eye because of the picture, which just seemed off. The woman's hair band doesn't sit quite right, nor does her skirt (which is totally wrong for her anyway), nor her husband's kipah. A quick Shutterstock search yielded the attached picture, which indicates that the family's actual name might not indeed be "Rosen".

Then Rena noticed that while the woman's body is the same, they actually painted someone else's face on, which is just downright creepy.

With all this attention for this ad, I started to wonder: Why does Egged care so much that people validate their Rav Kav? In the ad copy on the bottom, we learn how validation gives Egged important information about travel habits, bus line and the like. Still, is it so important that Egged would pay tens of thousands of shekels to remind us to validate?

It turns out that "validate" is a euphemism for "swiping" the card on a trip. In other words, Egged is encouraging us to pay, and not just ride for free - which I'm all for. You should swipe your card, and "riding without swiping" is another term for "stealing".

Now though, the family's identity - who they were photoshopped to look like, is quite important. Who exactly does Egged think is stealing from them? Who are they accusing - or not accusing - of "forgetting" to swipe their cards when they get on at the back of the bus?

That is a very interesting question indeed.