Category Archives: Deep

Chodesh HaAviv

FotB (Friend of the Blog) Moishe tweeted this earlier:

And got me thinking (as I tweeted in response to him – you can see them in the sidebar), what if things were a little different.  As we know, the interpretation of the torah calling Pesach “Chag HaAviv” means that the holiday has to occur in spring.  This has wide-ranging implications, and is the primary foundation (together with using lunar months) upon which the entire Jewish calendar is based.  Pesach has to happen in the spring, and that means after the Vernal Equinox.

But I got to wondering, what if Chazal had interpreted to that to mean spring, in a real climatic sense, as opposed to a calenderical one?  What if they had ruled that when Pesach comes, you MUST BE somewhere it’s warm and springy weather.

I joked: “Think about living in New York and having to fly to Israel or Miami for Pesach. That’s crazy!”  Well, because obviously.

But can you imagine the halachic machinations that would have gone on over time?  The questions and t’shuvos?  Does where you are for Pesach depend on how early or late it is?  The average historical temperate in NY for March 21 (about the time of the equinox) is 49 degrees for a high and 35 degrees for a low. Not exactly springy.  But by April 21 the range is 60/44.  Getting there.

Or does the temperature have to be warm enough outside at night, at the time of the Seder, because then NY is out.

What if you go to place that’s normally warm (say, Miami: 80/66 on March 21; 83/70 on April 21), but you encounter a cold snap, and the temperatures drop to the 50s?Do you have to pack up and go somewhere else?

“K’Vod Harav: my family arrived a day before Yom Tov in Miami, where it is normally warm, but the temperatures are brisk, around 50 degrees. We are all wearing coats and sweatshirts, and don’t ‘feel springy.’ Is this a problem?”

“Nir’eh Li, it would be min hamuvchar that you should move; you can rely on a forecast (no longer than 5 day forecasts are acceptable, 10 day forecasts are not reliable) from a known, reliable weather service, that predicts a warming trend, and stay, if the tircheh of moving is great (you have elderly people in your family, for instance). If the forecast calls for more cold temepratures, then you should go to what I presume are your alternate arrangements in warmer weather.”

Yeah, I’m a little loopy today.


A Lingering Thought from Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur we ask God to deposit our sins in a place where they cannot be remembered [by him] so that our “record” (as it were) would be clean and we could be forgiven.

Everyone I’m sure is familiar with the philosophical “Omnipotence Paradox” (see here) that asks “can an omnipotent being create a task that it can’t perform” frequently articulated as a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it.

Well, here was my thought/philosophical paradox from Yom Kippur: can an omniscient/omnipotent God create a place that he can’t remember? We ask God to put our sins away in a place where they can’t be remembered, but can such a place really exist?  Can God “forget” something, even if he affirmatively chooses to?

I know this is liturgical and meant to convey the concept of forgiveness and not be taken literally, but these are the deep thoughts I had.

Cleaning the Pipes

If you’re not following Dr. Ruth on Twitter, you are missing out.

For instance, there was this nugget a little earlier today:

Men who ejaculate 5x/week in their 20s reduce risk of getting prostate cancer later by a third. Protect yourself guys.

I love that she not only lays out the science, but encourages men to “protect” themselves by, ya know, 5x/week.

And here’s where I get to thinking deeply in terms of religion.  Our particular brand (and this is by no means specific to Judaism) frowns on what is probably the most common male method for getting to ejaculation.  Wasting and all that.  And unless a guy’s sexual partner is a real champ (and even if so, during those two weeks he’s not allowed to do anything), pretty much the only way to get to 5 times a week.

So what does this mean?  If the halacha knew that there were tangible, identifiable benefits to masturbation, would it still be assur?  With slightly better knowledge, scientifically, of men’s health and internal plumbing, should the halachic attitudes change?

For instance, if it’s shown that regular maintenance of the plumbing system (flushing the old, to make way for fresh new sperm) is beneficial not only for a man’s health (as above) but also increases the likelihood of insemination and healthy children during copulation, does that change the calculus?

I know my overall mentality on almost everything is that halachah should adapt, especially in the face of better scientific knowledge, and this is no different.  I guess I just wanted a reason to write about masturbation, ejaculation and halachah.

/Achievement unlocked

Does the Underlying Reason Matter?

Having received, by email, the personal recommendation from a friend whose opinion I value in the highest, I just ordered the book Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer, by Rabbi Bernard (Barry) Freundel.  If it is as it’s described (“the book is fascinating, incredibly well researched, and is so different from anything I have read about prayer”) then I am looking forward to it immensely.

But not just because of the high praise.  Because of the subject matter.  For instance, from the book description on Amazon:

”Why We Pray What We Pray” details the various factors that influenced six important Jewish prayers and shaped how and when Jews recite them. This book shows that each prayer (Shema, Nishmat, Birkat HaHodesh, Anim Zemirot, Aleinu and Kaddish) has a complex history of which contemporary worshippers are mostly unaware. When we learn about the factors and forces that shaped these prayers and Jewish liturgy in general, our appreciation of what Jewish worship is all about becomes that much more profound. Why We Pray What We Pray also sets forth important moments in Jewish history with depth and detail.

I have recently, or not so recently, come to think about the origins and evolutions of things.  Whether that’s the prayer/liturgy/ritual we perform or the bible itself (one has a hard time avoiding such questions reading Kugel’s How to Read the Bible) (DovBear posted something tangentially related earlier today.)

For instance, and this is only one example, the alphabetical acrostic.  This poetic form is all over our liturgy, from ancient Psalms to modern-day kinos, to the point where the alphabet itself is revered and the acrostic given holiness of form.

But was it always so?  I have my doubts.  See, in the time of oral transmission, the acrostic was a mnemonic device.  It’s much easier to remember the words if you know the words, or the sentences, are alphabetical.  The alphabetical acrostic made remembering and transmitting the composed prayers much easier.

Which gets me to my question in the headline: let’s assume for a second that a particular liturgical form or particular ritual activity was created or evolved the way it did for a specific reason.  Does the removal of the underlying reason remove the holiness of the activity?

This calls to mind the old story told of the shul that everyone ducked their head as they walked into.  A guest came to town as asked his host why this was, and the host told him that it was always that way.  Finally, not satisfied, he asked the oldest member of the shul, one who had been there since childhood.  Who responded, “I remember, when we first started, the room we used to daven in had a low header.  Almost every adult except the shorted had to duck to avoid getting hit.  By the time we moved into a new building, everyone was so used to ducking as they came into shul, they kept doing it, even with the taller doorway.  I guess it stuck.”

So if the only reason ancient composers used alphabetical acrostics was as mnemonic devices, does that mean the holiness we’ve ascribed to the form is wrong?  Does that mean in modern times, in modern compositions (post-printed era) there’s no need to adhere to the form?  Or has the added significance given to the form since its advent now become the new reality?

Has The Time for Federalism Ended?


As a response to a link I tweeted (this) comparing “Obamacare” to “Romneycare” (which was designed to show the striking similarities, and hilight the inconsistency in Romney’s position against the ACA), Adam responded:

“Not fair comparison, bec one was fed law and one was state law. Always was (was) arg that states can do what feds can’t.”

Now, setting aside that that still makes Romney a hypocrite, because he’d have Federal legislation banning gay marriage (supporting DOMA) but yet would preserve states right w/r/t health care.  Eh?

Anyway, that got me thinking about something that’s been brewing in my mind for quite a while: has the Federalist system of government in America run its course?

I understand the need or benefit of having local government run local concerns.  And I understand the benefit of having easily distinguishable units for the purposes of deciding representation in national government.

Yet…the idea that states are separate and independent governing bodies makes no sense in today’s world.  Things have changed drastically since the founding of the country.  Forget travel across state lines (Pennoyer v. Neff, anyone?) and interstate commerce…I can cross a DOZEN state lines the course of a few hours, not to mention communicate instantly with multiple people in every state at the SAME TIME without moving (TV, Radio, Twitter, etc.).  It’s not just that the rules have changed…it’s a completely different game now.

Should the person living in Hoboken, who commutes into NYC for work every day, really need to be governed by two separate state governments?  Is that genuinely the interest being protected.  That person is as much a New Yorker as a New Jerseyan, affected by NY law in a real way…yet he can’t vote for NY policy or governance.  I understand there are going to be cases in any system where people aren’t properly accounted for.  But in a system of regional governance that isn’t determined by random state lines, it’s less likely.

But even more so: we have the federal government, which, because we’re so close and connected, pretty much governs most things.  There shouldn’t be a fight over who gets to legislate marriage or health care.  Is the idea of marriage or health care different for me than it is for people living in New Jersey?  Should there be separate rules for the two of us?  We’re both American.

And I understand, yes, the consitution reserves rights for the states and you have to respect that.  First of all, I don’t respect the governance of dead men over the living.  A document written hundreds of years ought not control my life today.  That’s why I’m a Jeffersonian and believe in a living constitution.  But that’s a red herring.  Because for the purposes of this post it’s irrelevant.  I’m talking about what’s legal or in the Constitution, I’m trying to have a philisophical thought experiment here.  Has the reality that made Federalism a viable government model passed?  I think so.

Thoughts on Parshat B’Shalach

There’s a lot going on in this week’s parsha that’s interesting.  (See DovBear’s parsha notes for some of them).

One thing I always found curious is the little bit of foreshadowing at the end of the story of the mon (Shmot 16:35):

וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אָכְלוּ אֶת-הַמָּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה–עַד-בֹּאָם, אֶל-אֶרֶץ נוֹשָׁבֶת:  אֶת-הַמָּן, אָכְלוּ–עַד-בֹּאָם, אֶל-קְצֵה אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.

And the children of Israel did eat the manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat the manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.

At this point in the story, the reader (the uninformed reader, first time through) has no inclination that the Jews will wander in the desert for 40 years.  The reader must read this and say “why is it going to take 40 years to reach the edge of Canaan?”

I don’t know if there’s a deep spiritual or even textual answer other than “the torah was written after the story of the meraglim, and the writer knew what would happen, and dropped it in.”  But I wonder what purpose it serves.

The second curious thing to me is, when Hashem says he’s providing the mon in order to test the Israelites, what exactly is the test?

From Hashem’s anger (starting in pasuk 28) it seems the main concern is Shabbat.  Hashem says “I will give them double on Friday,” people went out on shabbos anyway to collect and Hashem gets mad.

Interestingly, Moshe gets mad at the Israelites for a completely different reason: he tells them not to leave any overnight, and they do anyway, and it spoils and starts getting “wormy.”

I think the two are linked: leaving over is bad each day.  It’s not only not bad, but positively commanded, however, to leave over on Friday night.  Both failures evidence a lack of trust that God will continue to provide.

(As an aside, I find it interesting that God doesn’t say he’s going to test their trust in his ability to provide.  He says he’s going to test their adherence to his rules.  A little disconnect, that again, I’m not sure what, if anything, is the significance, I’m just pointing it out.)

I remember a great shiur by R’ Yitzcak Etshalomon this, and beautiful understanding of the actual test, where he quotes R. Yaakov Medan, who

points out that the command for each person to restrict himself to a daily portion for each member of the household represented not only a good deal of faith in God – but also tremendous self-restraint and concern for one’s fellow. This is how he explains the “test” of the Mahn (16:4) – that we were tested to see how much concern each of us could demonstrate for our fellow, knowing that if we took more than our portion, someone else would go hungry. Indeed, the B’nei Yisra’el passed this test with flying colors! (v. 18) For a slave people, wandering in a desert to exercise this much self-restraint was a demonstration of their readiness to stand as a unified nation and to enter into a covenant which includes mutual responsibility.

(Read the rest of the shiur for the context of the test within the greater theme of preparation for Sinai.)

I really like the idea of two tests: a bein adam l’chavero and a bein adam lamakom within the same episode.  And I find it really intersting and ironic (i.e. the opposite of what would be expected) that they passed the bein adam l’chavero and failed the bein adam lamakom.

Losing an Hour/Gaining an Hour

When I was younger, switching from DST to ST meant “gaining an hour of sleep.”  The theory behind this is, go to sleep at a set time, wake up a set time, on the night you switch, there’s an extra hour between those set times.

Now that I’m older and have kids, the very real flaw in that “logic” comes through: who the hell sleeps until a set time, especially on a Sunday?  Not my kids, that’s for sure.

So on a regular day, my kids wake up sometime between 6:30 and 7am.  Roll the clock back, and that won’t change.  Except now it’ll be between 5:30 and 6:00.  Ugh, I DO NOT WANT to wake up at 5:30 on any day.

Not to mention my body being extremely used to, uh, evacuating certain waste materials, at a specific time, then that’s just going to make my Sunday very, very loooooooooong.

Factor in now, that my kids will start getting tired and cranky and ready for bed an hour (on the clock) ahead of schedule, then keeping them up until “bedtime” will be annoying as well.

This is like imposed jet lag.

Can we just do away with changing the clocks at all anymore?  I’m not a farmer, I don’t need to shift an hour of daylight from the morning to afternoon and vice versa anymore.  Just pick one time and stick there.

Changing the clock sucks.