Blog: Judaism

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.

Seder-inspired questions

An online Jewish community I'm fond of has some unanswered questions that came out of Pesach this year. Can you answer any of them, dear readers?

  • Why do we designate specific matzot for seder rituals? We break the middle matzah; we eat first from the top one and use the bottom one specifically for the Hillel sandwich. Why? What's the symbolism? (I'm aware of the interpretation that the three matzot symbolize the three "groups" of Jews -- kohein, levi, yisrael -- but that doesn't explain these positional associations.)

  • If your house is always kosher for Pesach, do you have to search for chameitz? That is, is the command to search for chameitz, period, or is it to search for any chameitz that might be in your house, and if you know there isn't any you skip it?

  • Why does making matzah require specific intent but building a sukkah doesn't? When making matzah (today I learned), it's not enough to follow the rules for production; you have to have the specific intent of making matzah for Pesach, or apparently it doesn't count. This "intent" rule applies to some other commandments too. But it doesn't apply to building a sukkah; you can even use a "found sukkah", something that happens to fulfill all the requirements that you didn't build yourself, to fulfill the obligation. Why the difference?

I tried searching for answers for these but was not successful. I have readers who know way more than I do (and who can read Hebrew sources better than I can). Can you help?

A conversation on erev Pesach

Them: Do you have room at your seder for two more?

Me: Of course.

Them: We don't want to impose.

Me: We'd love the company.

Them: Are you sure? We don't want you to have to cook extra at the last minute.

Me: "Let all who are hungry come and eat." Also, I cook on the assumption that Eliyahu and his entourage will appear at the door. It's fine.

(And if Eliyahu doesn't show up, I have food for lunch the next day.)

Ki Tisa: haftarah

Shabbat's torah portion was Ki Tisa, which includes the episode of the golden calf. For those who don't know, each torah portion has an associated haftarah from some other part of the Hebrew bible that is thematically connected (because Roman persecution, originally). The haftarah for Ki Tisa is the passage from 1 Kings 18 about Eliyahu and the prophets of Ba'al on Mount Carmel.

I gave approximately the following introduction before reading the haftarah on Saturday.

There is a famous story in the talmud where one rabbi is arguing against all of the others on a point of law. When he can't convince them with logic, he starts calling on miraculous testimony: if I'm right let that tree prove it, he says, and the tree gets up and walks across the courtyard. The rabbis respond: we don't learn law from trees. Ok, if I'm right then let that stream prove it, and the stream runs backwards. We don't learn law from streams, they answer. Finally a voice from heaven confirms he's right -- and the rabbis answer, lo bashamayim hi, the torah is not in heaven. That is, God gave us the torah and the responsibility to interpret it, and we don't listen to heavenly voices.

The story is funny (and on Saturday most people laughed). Or rather, it's funny if you stop there, which most tellings do. But if you keep reading, the story takes a darker turn; this argument leads to much death and destruction. And if you back up to the mishna that prompted all this discussion in the g'mara, you'll find there's a larger point to the story. It's not really about an oven.

The story of Eliyahu on Mount Carmel makes me think of this talmudic story. We love the Eliyahu story, full of daring and chutzpah and the defeat of Ba'al and the people finally seeming to acknowledge God. It's a great story! But when we read haftarot, excerpts from the rest of Tanakh, it's easy to miss context.

The next thing that happens after this is that Eliyahu kills the 450 prophets of Ba'al, the bad king's bad wife threatens him, and he flees into the wilderness and a different haftarah. Eliyahu's in the wilderness, God sends a messenger to feed him so he won't die, and he finds his way to the cave where God asks him: why are you here, Eliyahu? Eliyahu answers that he has been zealous for God, the people have rejected God and slain all the prophets, and they want to kill him too. God then sends an earthquake (but God was not in the earthquake), a fire (but God wasn't there either), and a wind (ditto), and finally Eliyahu finds God in the still small voice.

God then asks again, why are you here Eliyahu? And Eliyahu gives the exact same answer, word for word. God tells him to go back and appoint Elisha as his successor (among other things).

Eliyahu doesn't exit the story at this point; he's still around as a prophet. But it feels to me like this encounter was a pivotal moment, set in motion by the showdown with Ba'al. It feels to me like Eliyahu was supposed to learn something from the encounter, about how the still small voice can be more powerful than the earthquake and fire -- that these encounters were supposed to change Eliyahu. I would expect a changed Eliyahu to give a different answer the second time God asked the question. It feels like a missed opportunity for a stronger relationship with God -- like Eliyahu failed a test.

I still love the story of Mount Carmel, but knowing what comes after casts the story in a different light for me, like reading on in the talmud changed my understanding of the rabbis and the voice from heaven.

Trope Trainer

Trope Trainer is a software package for working with Hebrew cantillation (trope). You can use it to view, listen to, or print the weekly Torah reading (or parts thereof), weekday readings, holiday readings, etc. As the "trainer" in the name implies, one of its purposes is to teach the cantillation system -- or, I should say, systems, because there are regional and other variations.

I didn't use it for that because I already know (my community's) cantillation system; while occasional curiosity might lead me to ask it "hey, how does the Lithuanian tradition chant this?", in practice I haven't. No, what I use Trope Trainer for is to print legible copies with the vowel markers and trope markers. These are useful for practicing and, when I know in advance so I can print it, for checking the reader during the service, because the scroll used for readings does not have vowels and trope marks. (There is always somebody following along during a Torah reading to correct the reader in case of mistakes.)

Back in August, somebody in my minyan asked me to be his checker the following Shabbat, so I launched the program to print a copy. But the program was stuck at "checking for updates", a state that had previously passed so quickly that I wasn't used to seeing it. If I cancelled, the program crashed. Repeatedly. A little digging revealed the probable cause: the company went out of business and their domain isn't there any more. Presumably the software is checking a now-dead URL and the programmers didn't handle failures. (There are other reasons the service might not be available, so this isn't just "didn't consider the company might die".) Read more…

Short takes from the high holy days

My synagogue hired a cantor for the high holy days. (We don't currently have one otherwise.) He's a friendly fellow, obviously very experienced, and very "performative" -- which some people liked but isn't to my taste. (I felt like I was at the theatre.) Unfortunately it's not just a matter of taste; elaborate chazzanut that you can only listen to is fine in a traditional setting, where it's in the cantor's repetition of the central prayer, but the Reform movement did away with repetitions. When there's only one trip through the prayer, everyone saying it together, and it's being led in a way that precludes me saying it, that's a problem. After Rosh Hashana evening and morning were like that, I decided not to go back. (I later skimmed the video of the second-day Rosh Hashana service, which started as a minyan-style service but drifted, and it was more of the same.)

For Yom Kippur I went to Chabad, like I did last year. Night and day -- I felt included from the moment I walked in, I was able to focus on the kavanah, intentions, behind the prayers, the more elaborate melodies didn't impede my own prayer because they were separate from it, a lot of the singing was accessible even with unfamiliar-to-me melodies, and there was plenty of way-finding (page numbers, quick explanations, etc) so people didn't get lost.

All are welcome, all included, on Yom Kippur, the machzor (special prayerbook) says, even transgressors, even that guy. Even me. Read more…

Does the God of Judaism accept prayer in any language?

A non-Jewish visitor asked: according to Judaism, can you pray in any language (and have it accepted), or must you pray in Hebrew?

My answer:

The general answer to your question is that Hebrew is preferable but you also need to understand what you're saying, so it's permitted to pray in other languages. (Ideally you are working to improve your Hebrew understanding along the way.)

More specifically: the talmud on Sotah 33a (and vicinity) says that the Amidah, the central prayer of the thrice-daily service, may be said in any language. Many rabbis (who I can't precisely cite, but Maimonides, the Rambam, is one of them) teach that intention in prayer is important; just saying words you don't understand does not fulfill the obligation. Whether you understand the Hebrew directly, have studied a translation and so know broadly what you are saying, or pray in a language you do understand, you need to mean the words you're saying.

Another core recitation -- not technically a prayer but a passage of biblical text, said morning and night -- is the Shema. There is some disagreement in the talmud about whether this biblical text must be recited in the biblical language (Hebrew); I don't know if it's settled there, but the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in Orach Chayim 62:2 says that the Shema can be said in any language so long as you are precise in your pronunciation.

There are other fixed prayers; I would reason that if other languages are permitted for these "core" cases, then surely they must be for other cases too.

Everything I've said so far is about fixed prayers. Most of (modern) Jewish prayer is fixed texts, but people also pray from the heart, free-form prayer, both during the regular service and at other times. There is a discussion in the talmud (ibid.) about this; some say that the ministering angels (who are apparently involved in bringing your prayer to God) don't understand other languages, and others say that some angels do understand other languages and, anyway, God does. As a practical matter, I don't see how you could pour out your heart to God if you don't know the language, and I've never heard that one should abstain from these personal prayers for lack of language fluency. It is better to reach out to God than not.

As noted in a comment by dsr, what I've said here is the law for Jews. According to Judaism, non-Jews have a much smaller set of commandments, the seven Noachide laws, and they do not include a requirement to pray at all, let alone in a particular language. While there are parts of Jewish observance that are "reserved" for Jews (that is, Jewish law says non-Jews are forbidden to do them), prayer is not one of them. So non-Jews are not required to pray, may pray, and if so may pray in any language they understand, since even Jews can pray in any language they understand.

On the ritual foods of the Purim seder

Shameless self-promotion:

As we know,[1] the evening meal for Purim starts with Wacky Mac, a dish that features four pasta shapes: wheels, shells, spirals, and tubes. What is less widely known is how we are to eat this ritual item. Like the Pesach seder a month later, the meal has specific requirements and specific meanings! And like at the Pesach seder, your child should ask you to explain why this night is different from all other nights and what the laws and customs are and what they mean. It is only because of the other celebratory aspects of this holiday that in most families the child is too inebriated to ask (and the parents too inebriated to answer). So prepare yourself now, so you can both fulfill the commandment and explain it to your child.

First, we must examine the symbolism. [...]

See the full article at Judaism Codidact.

Pass the wine! :-)

P.S. For the programmers, we have this question on type systems and the use of void -- more answers welcome!

The season of Purim Torah

Purim Torah uses the style of traditional torah but is, err, different. Some years ago Mi Yodeya began a tradition of accepting Purim Torah questions, which of course have to be answered in the same style, for a couple weeks a year. Last summer, active (or formerly-active) community members from there founded Judaism Codidact, which we hope will keep growing. It's off to a good start.

We've just opened a place for Purim Torah on the Codidact community. Because Codidact has the concept of categories, we can segregate it so it's hard to confuse with the serious Q&A. And because Codidact supports other types of posts besides questions and answers, we've set it up to support articles too, so that Purim-flavored d'var torah or talmudic analysis has a place.

The category is new so there are only a couple posts so far. I asked a question that arose out of yesterday's torah portion, which has gotten a good answer (that prompts more questions), and I just adapted my best-received past Purim Torah answer into an article on the ritual Purim meal and its symbolism. I'm looking forward to seeing what else shows up.

Perhaps some of you have questions or essays in this spirit to share?

These links will only work during the few weeks surrounding Purim each year, but I included the post in this blog for the explanation.

Rabbinic teaching

Forwarded to me without attribution:

Rabbi Moshe Karelman, a brilliant Talmudist, and his star pupil Yeshaya are traveling to Vilna when they have to stop for the night, and pitch their tent in an empty field.

After the evening prayers Rabbi Karelman and Yeshaya retire for the evening. Some hours later, Rabbi Karelman wakes up and nudges his student. "Yeshaya, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

"I see millions and millions of stars, Rabbi Karelman."

"And from this, what do you deduce?"

Yeshaya ponders for a minute. "Well, astronomically, this view conveys the vastness of the heavens. Chronometrically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a small and insignificant part of His universe. What does it tell you, Rabbi Karelman?"

"It tells me that someone has stolen our tent."

I've seen variations on this before, but this is the most thorough answer from the student I've seen in any of those tellings.

A comment notes that this is often attributed to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The cost of plagues

I want to amplify something I saw on Twitter today by AvBronstein:

A congregant shared an insight: immediately following the final plague, the killing of the first-born, the text tells us that "Pharaoh arose that night."

In other words, he had gone to sleep.

Pharaoh couldn't have gone to sleep on the assumption that the plague wasn't going to happen. This was the tenth time around. He knew. His advisers knew, the people knew. The Midrash says that the Egyptian first-born actually rebelled, taking up arms, because they knew.

Rather, Pharaoh was prepared to bear the cost of the final plague. For him, it was worth it. So much so, that he was even able to sleep that night, knowing what was coming.

I'm going to interrupt for a moment here. Paro knew by now what the consequences of his stubborn refusal to give up personal power would be. He'd seen his people be afflicted by nine previous plagues. Some of them even affected the elite in the palace, though they had more power than "regular folks" to evade some of the effects. They could bring all their animals safely inside before the hail, could source drinking water elsewhere, could afford to replace animals lost to the pestilence, could get top-notch medical care not available to others. But some plagues affected even them, safely in their palaces. They knew. Paro knew.

And Moshe had just told him that God was going to kill all the first-born, from the palace on down to the slaves, even down to the animals. Paro knew this was a credible threat.

And he was ok with that. Maybe he had some magical thinking that his own family would be protected; more likely his son was an acceptable loss. Certainly the first-born of all the people he ruled, the people he was nominally responsible for, were acceptable losses. He was their ruler and "god", after all; he couldn't be weak by giving in to Moshe and the true God. These afflictions would pass and the deserving would survive.

And it wasn't just Paro thousands of years ago, now was it? This happens with power-hungry leaders, ones who've lost touch with whom they serve, all the time. It happened in our day, with a deadly plague that our leaders concealed the severity of, because they were safe. A few hundred thousand old folks are an acceptable loss to preserve the illusion of strength, right?

Avraham continues on Twitter:

I can't help but think of all those people ready to launch a civil war in America, so grimly sure that they are prepared to pay whatever price needs to be paid. And how many of them, like Pharaoh, woke up later that night and realized just what they had done to themselves.

I'm also thinking of a President calmly watching the insurrection he stoked on television, only to realize the costs he will be paying for the rest of his life out of what remains of his fortune, reputation, and legacy.

Me again. And I'm also thinking of all the people who were, and even still are, fine with plague deaths, and murders and reckless killings, and treating human beings like animals even down to the cages, and justice systems that depend on who the accused is, and ruining people's lives on mere accusations and presumptions, because they, personally, are safe. But nobody's safe, and we can't sleep through the unrest our society has fallen into.

Paro's people had no power to effect change; Paro held all the cards. We might not have much power to effect change, but I think we have a little more (voting, for example), and I pray it's enough to avert Egypt's fate, despite bad decisions made by those who rule us.