Blog: November 2010

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

A talmudic story

My rabbi and I were recently studying in tractrate B'rachot and came across a story with more drama than you usually find in the talmud. (This story was, of course, not new to my rabbi. This is on B'rachot 27b-28a.) It's described in the commentary as one of the more famous stories in the talmud, but it was mostly new to me. (A tiny part of it shows up in the Pesach haggadah.)

First, some context that I'm distilling from a footnote in the Schottenstein edition, which they in turn distilled from Dorot HaRishonim by R. Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi, whoever that is. (Yeah, that's what it says in the note -- Yitzchak Isaac.)

These events occurred after the destruction of the temple by the Romans. As a last-ditch effort to preserve Judaism in its then-present form, the rabbis evacuated the Sanhedrin to Yavneh, with permission of the Romans. This new court (called the Mesivta), like the Sanhedrin before it, was headed by two scholars, the Nasi and the Av Beit Din. The former ranked the latter. Rabban Gamliel was the Nasi, installed into that position when the Mesivta was established after the previous Nasi didn't get out alive from Jerusalem. The first Av Beit Din was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was the one to petition the Romans; he died about eight years later and was succeeded by Rabbi Yehoshua.

So in the aftermath of a national calamity we have new leaders trying to re-establish authority and carry on. With that as context, on to the story:

A student once went to Rabbi Yehoshua and asked: is the evening prayer required or optional? R. Yehoshua said it is optional. The student then went to Rabban Gamliel and asked the same question; Rabban Gamliel said it is required. The student said that R. Yehoshua had said otherwise. Rabban Gamliel told the student to wait until everyone came to the study hall and repeat his question then.

As directed, the student rose to ask his question in front of the assembled rabbis and Rabban Gamliel answered. He then asked: is there anybody here who disputes this answer? R. Yehoshua said no. Rabban Gamliel, apparently unwilling to leave matters alone, or insisting on intellectual honesty, said: that's not what I heard; stand and let them testify. R. Yehoshua stood and said: I can't deny it; he's right here. Ok, I said that. (If you haven't figured it out by now, I am paraphrasing.)

Rabban Gamliel continued lecturing without allowing R. Yehoshua to sit (an act of humiliation). The people present began to murmur objections and finally told him to stop. They then related other incidents where Rabban Gamliel had tormented R. Yehoshua, including the famous one about the date of Yom Kippur (ask if you want me to elaborate), and finally the group concluded that it was time to depose Rabban Gamliel for bad behavior. (It is not clear to me how much of this discussion was right there in the study hall in front of Rabban Gamliel.)

This raised the question of whom to replace him with. R. Yehoshua would under other circumstances be a logical choice, but he's involved in the controversy so it can't be him. They settled on R. Elazar ben Azaryah because he was wise, wealthy, and of good lineage (which would protect him from retribution from Rabban Gamliel, the text says).

When they asked R. Elazar he said he had to consult his household. He asked his wife, who pointed out that he has no white hairs (that is, he's young and doesn't look the part), at which point a miracle occurred and the 18-year-old Elazar sprouted white hairs in his beard. Taking the presumed divine hint, he accepted the position.

The day he took charge R. Elazar removed the door-keepers from the study hall; all who wanted to could now come and listen. (This might bring to mind the famous story of Hillel's quest to learn torah even though he had no money to pay admission. Hillel was, by the way, an ancestor of Rabban Gamliel.) He also had more benches added to accommodate the influx. Also on that day, there was (miraculously?) not a single matter that they were not able to resolve; they even ran through the backlog of matters that had been deferred for Eliyahu to sort out when the moshiach comes. They were on a roll. (Apparently they did not record those answers for us, however...)

Also on that day Rabban Gamliel answered a student's question only to be contradicted by R. Yehoshua. They argued it out and R. Yehoshua won based on the merits of the argument (apparently not just due to the new power dynamic). Rabban Gamliel later decided that this meant God was with R. Yehoshua and he'd better go apologize, which he went and did, and after they exchanged heated words R. Yehoshua forgave him. R. Yehoshua first sent a messenger to the Mesivta but they wouldn't let him in, thinking that Rabban Gamliel was harassing them; then R. Yehoshua went himself, reported that they had reconciled, and said that Rabban Gamliel should be reinstated. (Rabban Gamliel was not then present.)

This put the rabbis in a bind. They couldn't remove R. Elazar after elevating him to the position of Nasi, because in matters of sanctity we only elevate, not downgrade. (R. Elazar, unlike Rabban Gamliel, hadn't done anything wrong. Not only that, but things were going well under him.) They then talked about time-sharing options, eventually deciding that R. Elazar would lecture one week in four and Rabban Gamliel the other three. (Not covered here is how policy decisions like opening the study hall would be made.)

At the very end of the story the g'mara tells us the identity of that student who asked the original question of both rabbis: it was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, to whom the kabbalistic work the Zohar is attributed.

Harry Potter 7

Spoilers in this post are few and marked; for comments you're on your own.

I had expected a movie this close to the end of the series, and one derived from the final book, to not feel so much like the middle book of a trilogy. I don't know what's coming in the second part, not having read the book, but it felt like the film-makers were just filling time in this movie, same as in the last one. Did the final book need two movies, or is that just the business arm of the franchise speaking? It wasn't a bad movie and it definitely had some nice touches (I've wanted a bag like that for a while; for that I'd actually carry one :-) ), but it felt slow to me for where it was in the series. $5 was a fair price to pay.

I particularly noticed the sound this time -- effective placement, so it sounded like things were coming from the right parts of the room. The visual effects were well-done (not the best we've seen from this series), and I could see some of the places where they were presumably planning 3D enhancements before they ditched 3D. I counted five visual-effects companies in the closing credits, but there was no indication of how the work was divided up. (They all had pretty much the same job descriptions.)

Spoiler warning:

Spoiler comment #1: What do they mean, "three left"? They've gotten two, right? Even if we presume that #7 is V himself, that leaves four others. Did I miss one?

Spoiler comment #2: Hedwig deserved better. That wasn't valiant or glorious or plot-changing; that was just pointless. :-(


  • Kung-Fu Panda II: presumably targeted for the kids?
  • Yogi Bear: definitely targeted for the kids.
  • Voyage of the Dawn-Treader: maybe. I didn't recognize a lot of the trailer from the book; hmm.
  • Green Hornet: looks like it could be entertaining if you like that sort of thing, but I'm not sure I do. Netflix, maybe.
  • Red Riding Hood: um, what?
  • Green Lantern: looks like they're having fun with it, which is promising. Does it at all resemble the comic book, out of curiosity? And did I hear someone in the trailer refer to the job of being a green lantern? He's not a singleton?


Lots of discussion in the comments.

Shabbat short takes

Friday night we had a service to honor our congregation's veterans. It was very moving, including some memories from as far back as WWII. I was surprised to learn how many veterans we have, and those just the ones who responded to a request to self-identify. Seeing a good number of them there, some in uniform (or at least parts thereof), felt indescribably special.

Thought from the beit midrash (study session) after morning services: "sh'ma yisrael..." (ending "God is one") is a core tenet of Judaism and prominent in liturgy. We say this all the time. And toward the end of every service we say Aleinu, which says of the messianic era: on that day God will be one. I've wondered about the contradiction for a while and still have no answer after this discussion. Understanding this as "on that day everybody will finally agree that God is one" doesn't feel quite right to me. Does this bother anybody else?

I heard an excellent d'var torah from a fellow congregant Saturday that I've been meaning to write about, but this short note will have to do for now. The torah tells us that Yaakov loved Rachel pretty much right away, enough that he was willing to work an extra seven years to marry her after Lavan pulled a switch under the wedding canopy and slipped Leah in in Rachel's place. But the torah never actually gives us any reason to believe that she loved him. Did she? If she didn't love him, she might have been willing to help in that switch. The midrash says that she taught Leah the secret signs that she was supposed to make so that Yaakov would know it was here; the midrash's explanation of this is that Rachel was sparing Leah's honor, but another explanation might be possible as well. Interesting idea that had not occurred to me before.

An OS question

While waiting for assorted software updates to install today I found myself wondering... Mac OS and Windows usually need to reboot your machine to install updates. Yet I have, several times, seen Unix machines that I believe were being maintained with uptimes of more than a year. What's the deal? Is Unix just better able to support hot-fixes, or are Unix updates that rare? (Or am I wrong about the maintenance of those machines?) And if it's that Unix is better at updating, why does Mac OS, which is Unix-based, need to reboot so often? Mind, it's definitely better in this regard than when I was running Windows; this is a puzzle, not a rant.

Edit: Thanks for the comments thus far. I now understand more about how Unix is put together, and why Windows is different. Still not sure about Mac OS but comments suggest it could be UI-related (that is, the GUI might be more tied into the OS than is the case on Unix).


The comments have lots of interesting discussion, and for extra safety lest Dreamwith become unavailable, I've archived the page on the Wayback Machine.

Pear-and-ginger pie

This afternoon's barony meeting included a pie contest. Three categories were declared in advance: seasonal fruit, seasonal vegetable, and anything from a period source. Whimsy was also allowed, such as the geometrically-challenged rectangular apple dish. Until a few days ago I had been planning to enter a certain documentable apple/pear pie, but then the Cooks' Source thing happened and I figured that might be a popular choice. :-) (Illadore is from our barony, though does not currently live here.) As it turned out, a fourth emergent category presented itself based on the entries: "stolen". :-) So I could have, but I didn't know that in advance so I instead skipped anything with apples and set out to experiment with pears.

Here's what I did, and I am not particularly fluent in dessert pies so I would definitely welcome feedback. (I was going to also make a savory one but discovered I was missing a key ingredient. Oops. Not that we wanted for pie to eat...)

Combine 1C sugar, about 2T ground ginger, and about 2T flour in a bowl. Peel and slice thinly six Bosc pears, and add to bowl. Stir until everything is distributed. Put filling into a 9" crust (deep-dish would have been better) and sprinkle the top with about a quarter cup of crystalized ginger (in very small pieces). Bake at 375 for about 50 minutes, covering the edges of the crust with foil for the first half.

I got the proportions of sugar, fruit, and flour from a modern recipe for apple pie. The pie was a little too juicy (some liquid spilled, too), so I needed more flour or less pear, I guess. But it's worth noting that the apple-pie recipe called for a top crust; I don't actually like pie crust all that much, so unless I'm redacting a period recipe that calls for it, I make my pies open. I don't know what effect that had on the juiciness.

I thought the pie was a little too sweet; next time I'll use no more than 3/4 cup of sugar.

I had expected the crystalized ginger to have more of an effect on the pie. And in fact, fresh out of the oven the little sample I baked alongside the pie was nicely gingery, but the full pie, cooled to room temperature, was not. Next time I'll mix the crystalized ginger in with the fruit.

This pie as I made it is parve. (I used a frozen pie crust that was also parve.) I wonder whether a little bit of butter in the filling would add to it (though then I'd have even more liquid on my hands).


Suggestions from comments: reduce sugar to at least half (one person omits sugar from apple pies entirely), crystalized ginger in the mix or in the crust, cornstarch for thickening, drain fruit for an hour before mixing, put pie pan on a baking stone. Also noted: pears are juicier than apples.

The power of the Internet

The internet and its predecessors have not always been lightning-fast. The first massive net-based outrage I remember was probably against Cantor & Siegel, the green-card lawyersspammers, and as I recall it took a few days for that to really build up. (My favorite response was from somebody who sent, to their fax machine, a copy of Emily Postnews -- and, just in case they didn't have a program with which to read it, a copy of X Windows. :-) )

That was ancient history, of course, and I know that things unfold much more quickly now -- even mainstream media, to say nothing of user-driven trends, moves in hours now. Still, the speed at which the C[r]ooks Source maelstrom took form yesterday was nothing short of astonishing to me; you could have watched minute-by-minute developments all day if you'd wanted to. Who knew that a wrong done to one "everyman" would get such attention? Yes, Judith Griggs' profound cluelessness helped things along, but still... what makes some things take off like that, when they aren't the Big Stories of the day to the rest of the world? (I mean yeah, sure, we can watch minute-by-minute coverage of breaking (inter)national news, but that's different.)

I think Byron makes a good point; the ability for the masses to not just watch but participate is a big factor. Social media have enabled people in new ways. I wonder what's next.