Thursday, September 29, 2005

Think fast!

Thursday, October 6, 2005 (3 Tishrei 5766) is a fast day on the Hebrew calendar, commemorating the assassination of Gedaliah (II Kings 25:25). Gedaliah was a Jew who was installed as puppet governor of the remnant of Judah after Jerusalem was destroyed, and was assassinated by a group of Jewish zealots. His violent end represented the extinguishing of the last ember after the major destruction of Tisha B'Av.

This year, a number of organizations (Jewish and non-Jewish) have declared a Darfur Fast on October 6. People around the world will fast for the whole day, or from a meal, or from a luxury good, and will donate the money saved to humanitarian aid in Darfur, through the American Jewish World Service and other organizations. Read all about the situation in Darfur and how you can help.

As a followup to a previous post about fasts, I'm now declaring by fiat that (for American Jews) Tzom Gedaliah is dedicated to the rest of the world (outside the US and Israel), 10 Tevet to the US, 17 Tammuz to Israel, and 9 Av as the uber-fast that encompasses all of them.

May this fast inspire us to action, and may this be the last time we have to fast for Darfur.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Order in the court!!!!!

Tom DeLay... INDICTMENT!!!!!

Dry wit

I tried writing this post before, and Blogger ate it. I'll try to reconstruct what I can.

Megillah 7a-b!

There is a tannaitic controversy about whether the book of Esther should be canonized. Some hold that remembering Amalek only belongs in Tanakh three times (in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Samuel), while some hold that there's room for a fourth time. Anyway, I think that the various ways of parsing the texts on Amalek are just smoke and mirrors, hiding the real controversy. What is the book of Esther -- just a Persian-style royal comedy, or something with a deeper theological and religious significance?

The controversies about whether Kohelet and Shir Hashirim are sacred texts are also brought in; each of those books also stretches our conventional definitions of scripture. Ruth is mentioned, but no one actually takes the position that it doesn't belong in the Bible. The fifth megillah (Eicha) isn't even mentioned.

In any case, everyone seems to agree that the book of Esther came from the Holy Spirit (really! ruach hakodesh), but some think that it was given to be recited and not written down. (Does this make it Oral Torah? Fitting, for a biblical book that gives us a "rabbinic" holiday.)

Everyone has his own proof for why Esther must have been said by the Holy Spirit. They're all fascinating as long as you don't think too hard about them and realize how similar they sound to sketchy contemporary attempts to prove divine authorship of texts from within the texts (a classic example of "begging the question"). Ravina (or was it Rava?) is able to shoot down each of these proofs, except the final one by Shmuel. One proof comes from the line "Haman said in his heart" -- how could the author have known what Haman was thinking? (Ravina/Rava responds that Haman wasn't exactly subtle about what was going through his head, so it didn't take a telepath to figure that out.) "Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her" - again, how could the author know? (Response: there is a midrash that each person saw Esther as a member of his/her own nation.) "The thing became known to Mordechai." (We'll get a midrash to explain this one away on 13a. We decided to maintain the suspense and not read ahead.) "They didn't lay their hands on the spoils." No one? (They sent a telegram to Mordechai and Esther saying that they weren't taking anything.) Finally, Shmuel uses "established and accepted" (Esther 9:27) -- this means that they established above what had been accepted below. In other words, God itself established Purim when the Jews had accepted it. Only God (and apparently Shmuel) could have known what God was doing, so the divine authorship of Esther stands. Really finally, Rav Yosef (and a copycat) uses "These days of Purim shall never depart from the Jews" -- the author must have seen into the future! MAK points out that Rav Yosef reads this as a positive statement when most readers would read it as a normative statement.

Next, we get into the other mitzvot of Purim: mishloach manot, matanot la'evyonim, and se'udah. "Mishloach manot (plural) ish l'rei'eihu (singular)", so the minimum requirement is two gifts to one person. "Matanot (plural) la'evyonim (plural)", so the minimum is two gifts to two people. Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah (not to be confused with Rabbi Yehudah haNasi) sent Rabbi Osha'ya a steak and a bottle of wine. Rabbi Osha'ya replied "You have fulfilled mishloach manot." This is where my sarcasm detector fails me. Was he just being straightforward and stating that this was in fact two items, or was this a tongue-in-cheek response to something that by our cultural standards would be far and above the mishloach manot that one expects?

Rabbah sent dates and toasted flour, and Abaye warned that this would betray his low-class roots. The wealthier Marei bar Mar sent back a spice (possibly ginger) and pepper, and Abaye warned that he was responding to something sweet with something bitter.

This leads into more stories about food which just weren't very good. The food apparently was good, but not the stories. The moral: When you're poor, you forget just how hungry you are. The other moral: There's always room for Jell-O.

And now the most famous line, quoted even in letters to the Harvard Crimson. Rava said: A person is required l'vasomei on Purim until s/he does not know the difference between "Cursed is Haman" and "Blessed is Mordechai". I left l'vasomei untranslated, because it's not entirely clear what it means. It's usually translated as "to be intoxicated", following Rashi's commentary ("to get drunk with wine"), but that's not obvious -- the Korban Netanel (one of the guys in the back) says that he wouldn't have known what it meant if it weren't for Rashi. (The Korban Netanel also says that the "until" in Rava's statement is "up to, but not including".) Mar Gavriel suggests that it actually means "to get others drunk", not to get drunk yourself.

Whatever Rava's statement really means, it is quickly shot down! Many people who seek to use Rava's statement to justify their drunken excesses stop reading here, but let's keep going: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira had a Purim feast together. They got drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, he prayed for mercy, and Rabbi Zeira was revived. The following year, he invited him to another Purim feast, but Rabbi Zeira responded "A miracle doesn't happen every time!"

I hold by Rabbeinu Ephraim (quoted by the Ran), who says that this story constitutes a complete refutation of Rava's statement, so it is not advisable to follow Rava and get drunk on Purim. NAF says "If we all followed Rabbeinu Ephraim, we'd be drinking virgin daiquiris every night!"

Finally, the Purim feast must happen during the day.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Tonight's Simpsons

So wait, what are the fates of Milhouse and his parents? I want closure!

And I swear that I hadn't yet watched the tape of Sunday's episode when I posted that long post about Kirk and Luann.

In other eerie coincidences, I was watching the tape at shamir's apartment, and we interrupted it to watch the first segment of The Daily Show, which focused on two things: the recent protest against the Iraq war, and a new Washington state law forbidding truck drivers from throwing containers of urine out the window. Then we turned the tape back on, and the next thing we saw was Homer looking at the want ads: "Truck Drivers Wanted In Iraq".

Great expectations

Makkot 3a, continued:

Last week we spent the entire time on a single mishnah and the two lines of Gemara that belong to it. ALG reports that her friend called it the hardest mishnah in Sha"s, and that the problem with it is that it doesn't make any sense. This may explain why the rishonim go so crazy about it -- they're groping around in the dark trying to figure out what it means, and tripping over each other.

The basic premise seems reasonable. We're continuing with a list of cases where the eidim zomemin don't actually pay the penalty that would have been imposed on the person being testified against. Suppose Homer testifies that Kirk divorced his wife Luann and didn't pay her the amount of her ketubah (severance pay), let's say 200 zuz, and then Homer's testimony is invalidated. It wouldn't make sense to make Homer pay 200 zuz, because Homer wouldn't actually have cost Kirk 200 zuz -- if indeed Kirk didn't divorce Luann just now, he would have eventually had to pay her ketubah at some point down the line anyway. So what loss would Homer actually have imposed on Kirk (and thus, what does Homer have to pay)? If you, like me, thought the issue was about the time value of money, and the question of whether Kirk would have to pay now or later, then you would be wrong, but it would have taken you a long time to realize the error of your ways. (The next mishnah apparently is about the time value of money, though.) Really, it's more like insurance or gambling or the futures market -- the current price of the ketubah is decreased because there is a probability that it will eventually be worth its face value, and a probability that it will be worth nothing. So the current value of the ketubah represents the expectation value of how it will eventually turn out, with some adjustment for risk. (Or something like that -- I'm speaking as a physicist, not an economist, so I'm sure I'm using the wrong terminology.) There is some chance that Kirk will divorce Luann or die first, so Kirk (or his estate) will owe 200 zuz, and there's also a chance that Luann will die first, so Kirk owes her nothing and gets to keep whatever assets he had set aside for the ketubah. Thus, the actual value of the ketubah is somewhere between 0 and 200 (depending on these probabilities and other things), and thus that's what Homer has to pay Kirk.

That's the Mishnah. The Gemara then asks "How is this calculated?". A fair question. Three amoraim give three different answers: 1) with the husband, 2) with the wife, 3) with the wife and her ketubah. And that's all the Gemara on this Mishnah.

Well, that was perfectly clear to me!!!

Wait, no it wasn't. And the rishonim don't think so either. I confess that we didn't do an exhaustive survey of the guys in the back, but we spent a lot of time on Rashi, glanced at Tosafot (which is usually scary, but gives examples with numbers this time), and read the Rambam.

Rashi frames the situation like this: both the husband and the wife have a potential claim. The wife's claim is (the value of the ketubah) * (the probability that the husband will die first or divorce her); call this w. The husband's claim is (the value of the assets set aside for the ketubah) * (the probability that the wife will die first); call this h. So the machloket in the Gemara is about which of these is used to calculate what Homer owes in the Mishnah: does he pay h (since he would have prevented Kirk from possibly collecting this), or does he pay w (for reasons I don't quite understand, and I don't think Rashi does either), or does he pay 200 zuz minus w (since he would have made Kirk definitely pay 200 zuz instead of just maybe)? I think that's the idea -- I might still have it completely wrong. (And I don't see why it shouldn't involve some combination of h and w, but what do I know.)

Rambam (Hilchot Eidut 21:1) goes with the third opinion (the wife and her ketubah) and understands this to mean that the wife herself (i.e. the actual persn) is used to calculate the amount. For example, if the wife is old or sick, or the couple gets along well, then it's less likely that she'll collect her ketubah (since she'll die before he dies or divorces her), so the value goes down. But if she's young or healthy, or the couple is in conflict, then it's more likely that she'll collect (since he'll die or divorce her before she dies), so the value goes up.

Let me know if this understanding is totally wrong.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Wanna know what I'm buying, Ringo?

Now I'm finally catching up on blogging Makkot!

Last fortnight we learned 2b-3a. In Exodus 21:29-30, the Torah says that if an ox kills someone (when the ox has done so on the past, so the owner should have known to keep the ox under lock and key), the owner is responsible for criminally negligent homicide, and is put to death. However, the owner might be given the opportunity to pay a ransom (kofer) and stay alive.

In a baraita on 2b, we learn that an eid zomeim may not pay this kofer. E.g., if Homer testifies falsely that Ned's ox killed Lenny (such that Ned would be sentenced to death), and then Homer's testimony is invalidated, Homer doesn't get the opportunity to pay a kofer for his life (even though Ned would, if his conviction were to stand).


The Gemara places this baraita into the larger debate about the nature of the kofer. A baraita from Bava Kamma brings two opinions about the amount of the kofer. Insofar as it is possible to place a monetary value on a human life, one opinion is that Ned (if convicted of letting his ox kill Lenny) would pay the value of Lenny's life, and another is that Ned would pay the value of his own life. The Gemara suggests that the first opinion believes that the kofer is monetary damages for wrongful death (so Ned is compensating Lenny's heirs for the loss of their beloved), while the second opinion believes that the kofer is kapparah: some sort of metaphysical atonement to restore balance to the Force (so Ned is buying back his own life, a la the concluding scene of Pulp Fiction). Rav Papa rejects this dichotomy: he says that "the whole world" agrees about the essence of the kofer (it's kapparah), and it's just a difference of opinion about how it gets calculated. So the baraita here in Makkot is also of the opinion that kofer is kapparah, and because Homer doesn't have any deaths (real ones, not attempted ones) to atone for (since he had no responsibility for Lenny's death), he doesn't get this opportunity for kapparah.

Exodus 22:2 says that a thief shall make restitution, and if the thief has nothing to pay back, then s/he will be sold into slavery instead. The baraita goes on to teach that if Homer frames Ned for theft (such that Ned would have to be sold), Homer doesn't get sold for this. Rav Hamnuna (after some adjustments) interprets this to mean that if either Homer or Ned owns any property, then Homer doesn't get sold, but if neither of them owns property, then he does. (If Homer doesn't have property and Ned does, then Homer doesn't get sold, since he wouldn't have caused Ned to be sold. If Homer has property and Ned doesn't, then Homer doesn't get sold, since that's only for people who have nothing.) Rava disagrees and says that being sold is only for actual thieves, not for those who frame others as thieves.

Rabbi Akiva says that if Homer frames Ned and then turns himself in (rather than being invalidated by other witnesses who say "You couldn't have been there to see Ned commit that crime - you were with us at Moe's!"), then he's not subject to the usual penalties for edim zomemin. All you perjurers out there, listen up! It's not too late!

Saturday, September 24, 2005


I stayed over in Park Slope for Shabbat. Mazal tov to the Park Slope Minyan on their new space!

I missed the new Brooklyn Shabbat morning minyan by a week. So on a whim, I decided to do some armchair ethnography and go this morning to Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. Since this whim occurred at 11 PM last night, and I hadn't been home since before work on Friday, I didn't have anything to wear that would make me even remotely blend in (and the ponytail wasn't going to help either). I had done my usual thing when I don't go home after work on Friday, and kept on the same clothes I had worn to work (but taken off my tie in order to make a distinction for Shabbat), and my only change of clothes was suitable for rooftop lunch. But I figured that Lubavitch wasn't Satmar, so they were supposed to be welcoming to outsiders. I briefly pondered the question of whether there was an eruv (a google search for "'crown heights' eruv" turns up no indication that there is, so there probably isn't) and whether I would look out of place carrying a backpack in, but I realized that I was going to look so out of place anyway that this wouldn't matter.

As it turned out, there were a few other people who were also clearly outsiders, and though I got a few puzzled looks, no one interacted with me for good or for ill except when the end of my ponytail got stuck in the button of the sleeve of the jacket of a young boy who was walking by.

I slept late, but figured that they must start late anyway. I got there during Torah reading.

Wow. There were a lot of people there, some of whom were sitting at tables, and most of whom were standing, crowded into every available square inch. There were steady streams of people walking around in all directions. I was clinging to my hippie liberal Jew habits and trying to, you know, hear the Torah reading, but I think I was the only one. Almost everyone was engaged in side conversations to the point where the noise made it almost impossible to hear the Torah reading. I've been to Chasidic shuls several times (in Israel), and it wasn't like this. Someone who is better informed can enlighten me as to whether these observations are unique to 770, or typical of Chabad shuls in general, or of Chabad post-1994, or what.

At the end of each aliyah, people threw something toward the bimah; it might have been candy, but I couldn't tell, nor could I tell whether it was a bar mitzvah or aufruf or something else. After the Torah reading ended, the background noise was loud enough that I really had no idea what was happening on the bimah; maybe they read haftarah and concluded the Torah service, but I'm not sure. So I walked around and looked at the signs around the room. Most of the large signs were in Hebrew, with one in Yiddish, and one in English that used the rare English subjunctive: "Live our master, teacher, and rebbe, king moshiach forever and ever!" This line (in Hebrew) was also exclaimed three times by the congregation at the end of the Torah reading, and appeared on many kipot and at the top of the ark. They weren't being subtle about their Hebrew-Christian beliefs. One of the Hebrew signs said "Melech hamashiach the Lubavitcher Rebbe says: Giving away parts of the land of Israel ENDANGERS THE LIVES of millions of Jews". But there weren't any pictures of the rebbe, unlike in other Chabad contexts that I've seen -- is this an opposition to graven images in worship space?

A number of signs said that it is forbidden to speak during Torah reading or prayer, a rule clearly honored in the breach. Another sign asked people to turn off their cell phones. I assume that this was intended for weekday minyan, since anyone who could read the sign in Hebrew would already know that 770 isn't a good place to use cell phones on Shabbat. However, unlike certain places, they didn't find it necessary to ask men to cover their heads.

Speaking of which, black hats and black kipot were split about 50/50. Does this reflect a division into two factions, or just differences in individual style?

The women were seated in luxury skyboxes, high above the action.

One sign (in Hebrew and English) had a kashrut alert about a particular restaurant. It said (paraphrased) "People have asked whether this restaurant uses Lubavitch shechita. There is no such thing as Lubavitch shechita - it's just a question of whether it's under the supervision of the beit din. And it's not. Those who are concerned about their spiritual well-being should not eat there." (The phrase "spiritual well-being" was not a paraphrase.)

Some people were catching up on their davening. I looked into someone's siddur to see where he was. It was around noon and he was at "Baruch she-amar."

Musaf began at some point, with no pause in the chaos. Then, all of a sudden, kedushah began, and everyone must have gotten a signal sent directly to the brain, because all conversation ceased, and everyone was standing and facing forward, responding at the appropriate points, completely focused. It was like the magnetic domains of a ferromagnetic material lining up in the presence of a magnetic field. At various points during the kedushah, the whole congregation sang niggunim, apparently the same niggunim they sing every week, since they started singing them on autopilot with no prompting from the leader. Then, as soon as kedushah ended, entropy descended once again, and the shaliach tzibbur was inaudible. I left soon after that.

Can anyone share information to help make sense out of the experience?

UPDATE: Two things I forgot to mention:

There was a wall filled with wedding invitations, most of them for this weekend. Some of them were taking place at 770 itself (one had the chuppah on Sunday at 3 PM, another at 4 PM, another at 5 PM, and all had receptions elsewhere), while others were in Minnesota or Jerusalem or Kfar Chabad. Presumably anyone reading these invitations was invited to any of these weddings all over the world.

Also, there was some coeducation going on. During davening, while everyone was doing his own thing, an older man was drilling two young kids on the words of the Shema - he would say "v'dibarta" and they would say "bam", etc. And these kids were one boy and one girl!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Jewish learning without limits

Registration is open for the second annual Limmud NY! This conference in the Catskills over Martin Luther King weekend (January 12-16) is inspired by the popular Limmud conference in Britain. Limmud NY is three full days of "Jewish learning without limits", going from early in the morning until even earlier the following morning. Topics range from Talmud to music to politics.

Limmud NY is really a community effort: the first one was organized by just one full-time staff member, along with a team of over 70 volunteers (full disclosure: I am among them). Like the National Havurah Committee, Limmud NY runs on the egalitarian principle that every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher. Presenters include big names as well as any participant who wants to offer a session on anything. Teachers and performers participate fully in the rest of the conference, and no honorific titles are used.

Limmud NY is a pluralistic community that includes liberal, Orthodox, and secular Jews from all over the Jewish map (or at least from all over the subset of the Jewish map that is willing to sit down with people from all over the Jewish map). Last year, there were 8 different options for Shabbat services (as well as non-prayer options), and none of them bore the name of a movement. This kind of diversity is made possible when there are 600 people there, and this year it will be even larger, around 800.

Ok, so while that aspect of pluralism might have been done before (at Hillel and elsewhere, though Limmud NY does a more thorough job), Limmud NY achieves two types of pluralism that are rarer: 1) A true multigenerational Jewish community, where people in their 20s and 30s participate as full equals with those who are older and younger, which I have seen only at Limmud NY and the NHC, and 2) a true collaboration between the "alternative" and "mainstream" Jewish communities, where the lion lies down with the lamb and independent minyan entrepreneurs learn alongside suburban synagogue members.

Last year Limmud NY filled up quickly, and this year it will fill up even quicker. Sign up now! If the pricetag is daunting, lots of scholarships are available. The Limmud NY Fellowship lets high school, college, and graduate students go for $150, and other aid is available for non-students as well.

Worst Hummus Ever

Via Jewlicious:

But hummus in Exile, particularly in that Golden Medinah the United States, tends to fall victim to a number of grievous errors on the part of legions of well-meaning but clueless hippies, natural foods companies and fusion restaurants.

Read the whole rant. Though I've mercifully never had (or heard of) Wild Garden Hummus Dip, I agree completely with the distinction between American and Middle Eastern hummus (or as I prefer to call it, hummus vs. chumus). However, I permit a few "fixins" beyond those listed there, viz. za'tar and tz'nobar (pine nuts). Does that make me a clueless American?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Chickenhawk feedlot

Masechet Megillah is caught up to the present time with this dispatch from 6a-7a.

The old prophecies are seen as referring to current events: Ekron (the Philistine city from Zephaniah 2:4 and Zechariah 9:7) is understood to be the "Edomite" city of Caesaria, which was a thorn in Israel's side until the Hasmoneans came and defeated it. Did Rabbi Abahu or Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina think that Ekron (mentioned in conjunction with other Philistine cities like Gaza) really was Caesaria? Unlikely. But they were bringing relevance to the biblical text, as part of the larger endeavor of identifying "Edom" with Rome.

The last part of Zechariah 9:7 ("Ekron shall be as the Jebusites", and Jebus = Jerusalem) is understood to mean that the theaters and circuses of "Edom" will be places where Torah is taught to the masses. Prescient?

Jerusalem and Caesaria (with mad metonymy going on there, of course) have a Harry Potter-Voldemort relationship: "Neither can live while the other survives."

The "plan" in Psalm 140:9 is taken to refer to the "Edomite" province of Germamia (or Germania), because if they were to go out, they would destroy the whole world. Prescient again!

Lots of anger at the power structure all around this daf. But Rabbi Yitzchak counsels moderation, urging people not to throw themselves up against a brick wall when the bad guys seem to have everything going for them. Psalm 37 is his pragmatist-quietist prooftext. We then get a rebuttal from the more bellicose wing of the Talmud, represented by, of all people, R. Shimon bar Yochai! (It's easy for him to preach about fighting back when he spent the war underground in a cave. Chickenhawk.) He sees Proverbs 28:4 as a prooftext for a righteous struggle. R. Dostai bar Matun launches ad hominem attacks on his political opponents who interpret Psalm 37:1 as a warning against fighting the bad guys: he suggests that their conscience must be troubling them about something (so that they're worried about losing the battle). Rather, he sees Psalm 37:1 as saying that you shouldn't be like the bad guys.

The Gemara steps in to resolve this dispute by saying "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones". Viz., if you're a complete tzaddik, then by all means go fight the bad guys and Godspeed; if not, then don't do anything stupid.

Ulla gives us a fanciful description of a Roman city that was 300 parsah by 300 parsah (that's 1200 km x 1200 km), and contained the world's first factory farm (the chicken market was 16 km x 16 km, and that was the smallest of the 365 markets) and all of its residents and natives (and the union of those sets) got to eat from the king's house, and it's a bustling industrial metropolis with 500 windows spewing smoke outside the wall. One side faces the sea, one side faces mountains and hills, one side is an iron barrier, and one side is rocks. And that's it; then we go straight to the Mishnah. MAK exclaimed "WHAT DID WE JUST READ???" To make sense of what this description was doing, we had to go to the only one of the "guys in the back" whom I'm not afraid of, Aggadot Maharsh"a. He says that the point is to describe the greatness of Rome. If that's how great it is for the bad guys now, how much greater it will be for the good guys in the future! Eh. Comforting, perhaps, but not a good way to set policy for the present. It is this false hope that causes working-class people in places like Kansas to support cutting taxes for billionaires, since one day they might end up in that position.

Finally, back to halacha. In the new Mishnah, we address the question of leap years, and get multiple opinions as to which Adar is the right Adar for each of the various mitzvot of Adar. Furthermore, for those things that should be done in Adar II, if they're done in Adar I and then the year is intercalated, do they have to be repeated in Adar II, or was the first time good enough? Opinions differ.

This is where we get the famous statement about linking the redemption of Purim to the redemption of Pesach (hence the current practice that Adar II is the "real" Adar). However, there is a minority opinion that Adar I is the real one, since why would you want to delay the mitzvot?

Where we left off: Esther asked the sages to canonize her in perpetuity. They responded "Are you crazy? Do you want to make the other nations angry?" She said "It's too late! I'm already in the chronicles of Persia and Media anyway!"

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Son pied sent il beau

Megillah 5a-6a (from last week):

Psst! I heard a rumor that Rebbi was planting on Purim, and bathed on 17 Tammuz, and tried to get rid of Tisha B'Av!

Oh come on, he wasn't trying to get rid of Tisha B'Av forever. It's just that Tisha B'Av fell on Shabbat that year, so they delayed it to Sunday, so Rebbi said "Since we're delaying it anyway, why not just skip it?" The sages were not amused.

Bathing on 17 Tammuz isn't really a problem anyway -- only eating and drinking are.

But how did he plant on Purim???

This question is debated at length. Purim is called "yom tov" (Esther 9:19), so work is forbidden. Ok, Rav was a 14 Adar kind of guy and was planting on 15 Adar. But wait, he was from Tiberias, which was walled at the time of Joshua, so his Purim is on 15 Adar! Ok, then he was planting on 14 Adar.

But is it so obvious that Tiberias was walled at the time of Joshua? Chizkiyah (presumably not the king) read megillah there on both the 14th and the 15th, out of sheer confusion!

In the end, the resolution is that fasting and public mourning are banned on both the 14th and 15th (for everyone), but work is only banned for at most one day, and it's only banned in places that have the custom of refraining from work on Purim. This is because the people accepted the bans on fasting and mourning, but never accepted the ban on working. See page 8 of this document on "Seudat Purim on Friday Afternoon" for discussion of this controversy. This document suggests that Rebbi represented one side in the debate over whether working is allowed on Purim. The Talmud would rather harmonize this and suggest that Rebbi wasn't doing anything wrong, just following the custom of his place. Or it could be that it didn't count as really "working", since it was a happy kind of work. We don't know what Rebbi would have made of this parallel, but this has some things in common with the contemporary suggestion that people who are in white-collar jobs during the week may find it restful to do manual labor on Shabbat, as the nature of "work" has changed.

Whoa!!! Hold on a second! ("Gufa") They didn't know whether Tiberias was walled at the time of Joshua? Of course it was! We know from Joshua 19:35 that Rakat was walled at the time of Joshua, and Rakat is Tiberias. But the problem is that it is only walled on three sides, and the fourth side is water. This makes it clearly unwalled for the purpose of jubilee redistribution (since the requirement there is chomah, wall, from Leviticus 25:29, and Tiberias doesn't have a wall all the way around). But the requirement for Purim is just that it is not perazi (unwalled), from Esther 9:19. If that means that it's not exposed, Tiberias is exposed. But if that means that it's defended, Tiberias is defended. Hence the ambiguity!

Next we get into lots of fake etymologies for names of cities. Tiberias wasn't named after the emperor Tiberius; Teverya is from "tovah re'iyatah" (its appearance is good). Ok, most of these are lost in translation. But when EAKO spent a year in Saratov, she traced the name to "sur meira' va'aseh tov" (Psalm 34:15). Anyway, I don't think the rabbis were under any illusions when they made up these etymologies. They weren't linguistic ignorami; they were affirming the Jewish character of the land of Israel in the face of many conquests.

Did you ever wonder what was really going on with Zebulun and Naphtali in Judges 5:18? Zebulun complained to God that Naphtali et al. got fields and all sorts of useful things in their tribal allotments, while Zebulun was stuck with mountains and water. God responded "Don't worry, you got the chilazon!" It's the snail that produces the blue dye techeilet. Snails!

Bowling alone

Contrary to appearances on this blog over the last fortnight, Torah has not vanished from the world, only blogging has. Now it's time to start catching up on the b[ack]log.

Megillah 4a-5a, from way way back on September 8:

We previously discussed the decree allowing rural people to read megillah earlier, moving the date up to Monday or Thursday, when they're in town anyway. But there's still no agreement on exactly why. Maybe it's to free them up on the day when the city slickers are observing Purim, so that they're available to supply food and water to the cities? But that's not it, because 14 Adar sometimes falls on Monday or Thursday anyway, in which case they'd be observing it on the same day. So the Talmud reluctantly concludes that maybe it's actually for the benefit of the farmers, rather than to make it easier to exploit the proletariat.

Normally, villages move the megillah reading up to the next Monday/Thursday before Purim, unwalled cities read on 14 Adar, and walled cities read on 15 Adar. But the megillah can't be read on Shabbat, under Rabbah's decree, intended to prevent anyone from carrying a megillah (or shofar or lulav) in the public domain. (And now I've learned it in all three masechtot! Score!) Therefore, when 14 Adar falls on Friday or Shabbat, we have some tough choices to make. Rabbah's decree isn't negotiable, but everything else is. The rabbis have to choose among several governing principles that coexist in harmony most years but become mutually exclusive when Shabbat comes into the picture:
  • Unwalled cities can't move away from 14 Adar (unless they absolutely have to, due to Shabbat).
  • Unwalled cities must read before walled cities.
  • Walled and unwalled cities must not read on the same day.
  • Walled cities must not read earlier than unwalled cities (note how this is different from the second one).
  • John may not sit next to Mary.
Try to set dates for unwalled and walled cities that respect all of these principles, as well as the idea that megillah can move earlier but not later (according to the mishnah on 5a). It's impossible! So now the rabbis have to prioritize, saying "ok" in some places and "shanei hacha d'la efshar" ("here it's different, because it's impossible") in others. Hence all the different opinions.

If the megillah is read early, then matanot la'evyonim (gifts to the poor) are collected and distributed on that early date, since the poor people hear the megillah and get their hopes up. Simcha (festivity), on the other hand, only applies on the proper day. Don't let me catch you celebrating any earlier.

Rav Asi says that a minyan of 10 is always required to read megillah in order to properly publicize the miracle. Rav requires 10 if you're reading on an earlier date, but says that even a solitary individual can read megillah on the proper date. Rashi explains that megillah is an obligation on each individual on 14 Adar, so the individual is reading with a community even if s/he is all by him/herself, so the miracle is being satisfactorily publicized. Thus, those who are in remote locales and have difficulty finding a space-based community can still find a time-based community.

The next mishnah says that megillah is moved earlier (not later), but other things are moved later (not earlier), such as Tisha B'Av (who wants to move sad stuff any earlier?) and chagigah and hakheil (it doesn't count until the obligation has kicked in). (Then can't you say that the obligation of megillah hasn't kicked in yet either? That question isn't asked.)

Monday, September 19, 2005

What word starts with "b" and ends with "log"?


What with the new school year starting, and once again having to wake up for work every day, and over 150 names to learn, and teaching all of calculus in two days, there hasn't been much time to blog anything longer than a paragraph, and unwritten posts have been piling up.

However, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that today is International Talk Like A Pirate Day!!! Arrrrrrr!!!!

It's not Dress Like A Pirate Day. Be sure to read all about this in the FAQ.

Also, Pirate Riddles for Sophisticates will never get old.

There is little to no evidence that real pirates talked in the manner that we associate with pirates. "Our present-day concept of the quintessential pirate" was created by actor Robert Newton in 1950.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The New Jew

Kol Zimrah is in print again! The Fall 2005 issue of B'nai B'rith Magazine features a 9-page piece called "Uncovering the Un-Movement", discussing the "New Jew":

The protagonist of this story is a new breed of American Jew. Independent-minded to a fault, these fresh-faced iconoclasts are thirsting for Jewish meaning and community, even though their definition of those terms often differs radically from the common-place. Even though they often are ambivalent about the nature of their Jewish identity. Bypassing mainstream institutions, they are fashioning boutique Judaisms of their own. And in the process, they have morphed from a curiosity into a formidable force—and no wonder. For better or worse, they may be redefining American Judaism.

And check out page 4:
Some of them bond with their heritage by gathering in small groups and engaging in do-it-yourself text study, worship, or ritual. For example, independent, egalitarian minyanim that cross traditional denominational boundaries are flourishing among Gen X and Gen Yers.

Free-form, rabbi-optional, and lay-driven, they might incorporate meditation or feature several musical genres during the same service, from traditional shul offerings to Debbie Friedman songs to tunes composed by the participants themselves.

One such congregation (it actually refers to itself as a community or chavurah) is called Kol Zimrah, and its motto is: “Meaningful prayer through music.” Founded in late 2002, Kol Zimrah grew primarily through word of mouth, and now operates in New York and Jerusalem. It has no rabbi, no denominational affiliation, and no official siddur, which is just as well, because Kol Zimrah prides itself on having created an environment in which participants feel comfortable reciting their own prayers, meditating silently, or even dancing to the service’s live acoustic music.

Although the new venues for worship typified by Kol Zimrah still constitute only a tiny fraction of the Jewish universe, they are growing rapidly, and presage a time in the not-distant future that conventional denominational Judaism will be irrelevant for most young Jews, according to some observers. That day may already have arrived,
according to [Rabbi Leon] Morris of the Skirball Center.

“Today, there are roughly 5 million denominations,” he says. “In fact, it seems sometimes that all of the compartments of Jewish life are becoming defunct.”

The article is an extensive survey of a number of very recent Jewish trends and projects. But the conclusion that accuses us of "self-indulgence" is a bit lame. We're avoiding the established institutions and creating our own communities because we believe that we can express our Jewish values better through these independent communities than through the institutions. The institutions have nothing to say in response to speak to these values other than to place a value on the perpetuation of the institutions themselves.

Furthermore, which model of Jewish community is more "self-indulgent"? The typical American synagogue's consumer model where members pay dues which they perceive to be a payment for services rendered (like a gym membership) and then leave after their last child has become bar/bat mitzvah, or the independent havurah's participatory model where everyone takes part in creating the community?

In other news, I hear rumors that a new math teacher has created a "Kol Zimrah minyan" at the Heschel High School! It is already the most popular of the many minyan options at the school, and the next generation is being exposed to the idea that Judaism exists outside of the three boxes as they combine guitars and percussion with the Artscroll siddur (NAF reports that that's the siddur that was available). And when they take a field trip to the original Kol Zimrah, they'll have no idea that it was the original -- they'll think there are just lots of those minyanim out there! Kein yehi ratzon.

The times they are a-changing back

John Roberts's Supreme Court confirmation hearings are underway. It is unclear whether they will determine anything substantive, but John Tierney has an amusing take on the process, and Ed Kilgore suggests that the entire hearing be conducted in baseball metaphors.

In irrelevant news, if Roberts is confirmed, the Brandeis/Roberts station will be named after two Supreme Court justices.

Of the people, by the people, for the people

If you're in NYC, don't forget to vote today! The primary is the one that counts! Polls are open from 6 AM to 9 PM, longer than any other state (except Oregon, where voting is entirely by mail).

Sunday, September 11, 2005

I've lived through twelve recessions, eight panics, and five years of McKinleynomics

In just a few minutes, The Simpsons will show its 357th episode, launching the 17th season!!! The Simpsons is older than many of my new students.

The Simpsons is the longest-running television comedy in history (measured in number of seasons). However, TV shows used to show more episodes per season back in the day ("What's a rerun?"), so if you measure by number of episodes, The Simpsons is still in third, behind My Three Sons (12 seasons, 380 episodes) and Ozzie and Harriet (14 seasons, 435 episodes). The Simpsons is projected to pull into second by the end of this season, but the only way it will overtake Ozzie and Harriet at this rate is if it stays around for 20 seasons. Not that that's out of the realm of possibility -- who would have predicted 17?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Republican governors in blue states

Earlier this year, a New York state court ruled in favor of marriage equality. (The case is currently awaiting appeal.) At the time:

Gov. Pataki blasted the ruling, saying that the courts should not be blazing new trails in state matrimonial law.

"New York's marriage laws are clear that marriage is between a man and a woman and any changes to our laws should be made through the legislative process, not by a judge or local officials," said Pataki spokesman Kevin Quinn.

Yesterday, the California legislature passed a marriage equality bill. Next step:

The measure now goes to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who has supported domestic partnership legislation in the past but has not taken a public position on the marriage bill.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Schwarzenegger, Margita Thompson, said after the vote that the governor believed that the issue of same-sex marriage should be settled by the courts, not legislators, but she did not indicate whether that meant he would veto the legislation. The bill did not pass with enough votes to override a veto.

"The governor will uphold whatever the court decides," Ms. Thompson said.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Hopping mad

The Shteeble Hopper has been born:

Instead of moping around and complaining about the davening options, I am going to embark on a personal research mission. Starting in September, I am going to daven at a different minyan or synagogue at least two Shabbatot per month. Though I already know that I will be disappointed in many of the options, I hope to use this opportunity to see through what usually frustrates me toward the good in every community. Each time I will write my personal reflections on each davening experience.

[via Jewschool]

Monday, September 05, 2005

Walking and chewing gum

Is it possible to walk and chew gum at the same time? How about learning two tractates at the same time? We shall see.

I just started studying Masechet Makkot with ALG. This continues the trend of learning short, manageable masechtot (after finishing Sukkah and Rosh Hashanah and starting Megillah). However, the subject matter is a major shift; instead of dealing with a holiday, Makkot deals with criminal justice. ALG learned it once before, in a dream. She owns a copy of Masechet Makkot containing handwritten notes in her own handwriting, but she has no memory of when or where she learned it before. So she gets to see it again for the first time.

Makkot is only three chapters (24 dapim), and some think it was originally part of Masechet Sanhedrin that split off later. Contrary to popular belief, it's not all about makkot (flogging as a punishment for certain offenses, based on Deuteronomy 25:1-3); only the third chapter is. The second chapter is about the accidental killer, who has to flee to a city of refuge (see Numbers 35).

We started by learning all the mishnayot of the first chapter; those will be discussed when we get to them again in the Gemara. It's very appropriate that we started this week, because the first chapter is based on Parshat Shofetim. It deals with the 'edim zomemin (see Deuteronomy 19:16-18): If Homer testifies against Ned, and then Homer's testimony is shown to be false (and as we'll see in a later mishnah, this rule only applies if it is shown that Homer himself couldn't have been there to witness the events, not if merely the content of his testimony is refuted), then Homer is liable to whatever punishment his testimony would have brought upon Ned, from a monetary fine all the way to execution.

The first mishnah cleverly combines the themes of all three chapters. It starts: How do witnesses become zomemin? If Homer says "We testify that Ned is the son of [a kohein and] a divorced woman" or "the son of [a kohein and] a chalutzah" (which would disqualify Ned from priestly service) and then Homer's testimony is invalidated, we don't say "Homer gets the status of a son of a divorced woman / chalutzah"; instead Homer just gets beaten 40 times (the standard catch-all punishment). If Homer says "We testify that Ned [is an accidental killer and] has to be exiled [to the city of refuge]" and his testimony is invalidated, we don't exile Homer to the city of refuge; again, he gets beaten 40 times.

So there you have it: 'edim zomemin, exile to the city of refuge, and makkot all together.

As is common at the very beginning of a masechet, the Gemara's first question is "Who am I? Why am I here?" More specifically, what's with that first question "How do witnesses become zomemin?"? Based on the examples in that mishnah (where Homer doesn't get the punishment he tried to bring upon Ned), the question should be "How do witnesses not become zomemin?"! Aw, snap! Furthermore, we have another mishnah that actually answers the question "How do witnesses become zomemin" -- it's the one about how the witness himself has to be invalidated, not just the content of the testimony. So what's going on here?

The answer is that this is a (sort of) seamless continuation of Sanhedrin. The last mishnah of Sanhedrin (if you're going by the order of standalone Mishnah editions, where Cheilek is chapter 10 and Eilu hein hanechenakin is chapter 11, rather than vice versa as in Talmud editions) says that all zomemin in capital cases get the same type of execution as the crime that they're testifying about, except an adulterous bat kohein (she gets burned; someone who falsely testifies her gets strangled). And (the Gemara now fills in the gap) there are some cases of 'edim zomemin where they don't get this kind of poetic justice at all, but just get makkot. How? Well, if Homer testifies that Ned is the son of a divorced woman....

Now that we've established how we got here, the next question is why? In that first case, why doesn't Homer just become disqualified from the priesthood, as he tried to do to Ned? Because the rule in Deuteronomy 19:19 is "do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow". Do to him, not to his offspring. Being a chalal is hereditary, so if Homer became a chalal, this would be passed on to Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Ok, so why not disqualify just Homer, and leave his kids out of it? Well, that doesn't work either, because then it wouldn't be "as he schemed to do", since Homer schemed to disqualify Ned along with Rod and Todd, not just Ned.

Bar Pada tries a logical argument to reach the same result: someone who disqualifies others (e.g. a kohein who marries a divorced woman so that his kids are disqualified) is not himself disqualified, so kal vachomer someone who tries to disqualify others (i.e. an 'ed zomeim whose plan is foiled) shouldn't be disqualified himself.

Ravina says nice try, but in that case you unravel the whole system of 'edim zomemin! Someone who successfully testifies to have someone executed isn't executed, therefore you could say that kal vachomer someone who unsuccessfully testifies to have someone executed shouldn't be executed. So get your logic out of here.

And why can't Homer be exiled to the city of refuge? Because Deuteronomy 19:5 says "he shall flee to one of these cities" -- he [the accidental killer], not someone who testifies against him. A similar logical argument is attempted as a supplementary reason, but it gets shot down as well.

Ok, so if the 'ed zomeim can't be exiled, what's the source for him being beaten? Deuteronomy 25:1-2 says "v'hitzdiku et hatzadik v'hirshi'u et harasha'". The 'ed zomeim testified against the tzadik (meaning innocent in this case) that he was a rasha', and then other witnesses came and cleared the name of the one who was originally tzadik, so that the 'ed zomeim now becomes the rasha' (guilty), and is thus subject to makkot.

Well ok, you could do this contortionist reading of Deuteronomy 25, but why not just say that the 'ed zomeim violated "Don't bear false witness" (one of the Ten frickin Commandments), and is thus subject to makkot as the catch-all punishment for violating a negative commandment? Because a lav she'ein bo ma'aseh (a negative commandment that doesn't involve action, and I guess speech doesn't count as action) isn't subject to makkot.

If I may be heretical, I wonder if maybe the Mishnah didn't know this principle about lav she'ein bo ma'aseh, so the Mishnah thought it was just applying the usual catch-all punishment, and it's not until later rabbis came up with that principle that they had to come up with the contortionist reading instead.

A baraita says that there are four things that don't apply to 'edim zomemin: they don't get the status of the son of a divorced woman, they don't get exiled [as in the Mishnah], they don't pay ransom (see Exodus 21:30), and they don't get sold as slaves. Rabbi Akiva adds that they don't pay the penalty if they turn themselves in as perjurers, but only if someone else contradicts their testimony.

And we'll stop there.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


The day of judgment is at hand!

The molad of Elul was at 1 day 4 hours 83 parts (Saturday night around 10:04 PM), and Rosh Chodesh Elul is observed on Sunday and Monday. Mercifully, only one month remains in this accursed year. Sound the shofar!

Be my Yoko Ono

Megillah 3b-4a, continued.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi emerges as the star of this amud, as we look at eight of his statements about walled cities and Purim and related topics, starting with a repeat of what he said on the previous daf: 1) the walled city and everything connected to it and everything seen with it are considered part of the walled city. Seen even if not connected, e.g. on a hill, and connected even if not seen, e.g. in a valley. (No one has answered my questions about today's Jerusalem! When I lived in Jerusalem, my office was in Malcha/Manhat, far away from anything that has ever been walled, and we were off on 15 Adar. 14 Adar was a regular business day, or as "regular" as it can be when you're going to the funeral of a colleague who was killed in a drive-by shooting.)

2) A city that was populated and then later surrounded by a wall is treated as an unwalled village.

Here we're not talking about the status of walled vs. unwalled for the purpose of when the city observes Purim, since as we all know by now, that is determined solely by a single snapshot in time (Joshua's time) without regard to any prior or subsequent municipal history. We're talking about the reversion of land to its original owners during the jubilee year, a provision from which walled cities are exempt (Leviticus 25:29-30), possibly due to their influential lobbyists. Because verse 25:29 specifies "beit moshav 'ir chomah" (a dwelling house in a walled city), RYbL interprets this to mean that it only counts if the city was walled at the time it was settled.

3) A walled city that doesn't have 10 unemployed people (the definition of a "large city" in the next mishnah) is treated as an unwalled village.

Yeah, we're all uncomfortable with using unemployment as the official measure of urbanization, so Rashi tries to spin it positively: these batlanim are people whose job it is to hang out in the synagogue and be on call to make a minyan whenever needed.

But anyway, duh! We knew that from the Mishnah, so what is RYbL coming to tell us? You might have thought that walled cities (the metropolises of their time) were exempt from the requirement of 10 batlanim, since all roads lead there, and people are coming in from all over, but no.

4) A walled city that is destroyed and then rebuilt is treated as a walled city.

Meaning that the walls were destroyed and rebuilt? But Rabbi Eliezer bar Yosei says in a baraita that if there were once walls and they were destroyed (regardless of whether they were rebuilt), it maintains the status of a walled city. He gets this by playing with "asher lo chomah" in Leviticus 25:30 -- lo is spelled with an aleph in the ketiv and a vav in the k'ri, with opposite meanings of "doesn't have a wall" and "has a wall".

Ok, so what's RYbL talking about? The case where the population of batlanim went below 10 ("destroyed" of 10 batlanim) and then went back above 10.

5) The cities of Lod, Ono, and Gei Haharashim were walled from the time of Joshua.

So if you're stuck at Ben-Gurion Airport on Purim, you should be observing Purim on 15 Adar.

But wait, we have to solve a mystery: Joshua didn't built those cities, Elpa'al did! (See I Chronicles 8:12) Also, Asa was the one who built fortified cities in Judah (see II Chronicles 14:5). R. Elazar has the answer: the cities were originally walled at the time of Joshua, then destroyed during the catastrophic episode of the concubine at Giv'ah, then rebuilt by Elpa'al, then destroyed again, then rebuilt by Asa. After all, Asa says "Let's build these cities" -- how could there be a "these cities" to talk about if they hadn't already existed in the past?

6) Women are obligated in the reading of the megillah, because they, too, were present in the miracle.

Even though megillah is positive and timebound, which would make it only incumbent on men in the rabbis' mind, here it applies to women too. And the Talmud has no comment on this, it just moves right on. But Tosafot doesn't want to stop there; it states explicitly that women may motzi others' obligations in megillah. Since I'm using MR's copy of the Gemara, I am utterly shocked that this line wasn't underlined.

7) When Purim falls on Shabbat, the topic of the day should be expounded.

Why specifically Purim? According to a baraita, Moses enacted that the specifics of a holiday (any holiday, including the ones that existed at Moses's time) should be expounded on that holiday. But Purim is different, because megillah isn't read on Shabbat (due to Rabbah's decree so that you don't carry it 4 amot in the public domain, just like for shofar and lulav), and the megillah reading is moved to another day, so you might think that the Shabbat of 14 Adar wasn't Purim at all, so there is a particular need to recognize that day as Purim even if all the Purim practices are moved to other days.

With our present calendar, 14 Adar can never fall in Shabbat. However, 15 Adar can (and did this year), so this affects cities like Jerusalem and Ono. Even though megillah is not read on Shabbat, and other things like matanot la'evyonim and mishloach manot are also moved to weekdays, Al hanisim is said in the Amidah on Shabbat 15 Adar. The Torah reading for Purim is read as the maftir on that Shabbat, and the haftarah for Zachor is read for the second week in a row. (Ari Brodsky says "There is one other situation where the same haftara can be read on two consecutive Shabbatot. Figure out what it is." I'm stumped. Anyone?)

8) A person is required to read the megillah at night and repeat it during the day.

This is the practice to this day, but the prooftexts are particularly weak. It's based either on Psalm 22:3 (so megillah is supposed to be about God not answering us?), or Psalm 30:13 (so "not be silent" means "say it twice"?). I'm sure they could have come up with something better. Any takers?

There was an amusing episode when people misunderstood the word lishnot ("to repeat") in RYbL's statement, and thought it meant "to learn Mishnah", so they would read the megillah at night, and then learn the mishnayot of Masechet Megillah during the day. Rabbi Yirmiyah set them straight.

Dinty Moore breaks long silence on terrorism

So far I haven't posted anything about Hurricane Katrina. I don't really have anything original to say. But this whole thing sucks. If you haven't already, or even if you have, donate to hurricane relief through the American Red Cross, United Jewish Communities, Union for Reform Judaism, Mazon, or any of the other organizations addressing this disaster. If you have housing to offer, post it on MoveOn's Hurricane Housing site. And if you have time to go down to Louisiana and help out, volunteer with your local Red Cross chapter.

Pursuing Tzedek is a new blog that just started last week and has so far been all-Katrina.

Craigslist is providing message boards for missing people, temporary housing, transportation, etc.

A number of writers are drawing parallels to Eicha, including Chayyei Sarah (via Abacaxi Mamao) and the Village Voice (via Pursuing Tzedek).

I'm filled with rage about everything, just like this cartoon squirrel. Where the fuck has the government been? The Department of Homeland Security has supposedly been preparing for the next terrorist attack for four fucking years, and this is all they've come up with? A Talking Points Memo reader writes in:
Wouldn’t part of any homeland security preparation be the handling of refugees? Virtually any serious terrorist attack (explosion, nuclear, biological) would entail a large number of displaced persons. Wasn’t anything done along these lines? I would have thought we would have pre-positioned refugee resources (tents, MRE's, water purification, generators, emergency medical care) near major population centers in the event of mass exodus.
And an Andrew Sullivan reader has a similar point.

For more on this criminal negligence, check out Rich, Dowd, Krugman, and even Brooks.

Frank Rich writes:
Surely it's only a matter of time before Mr. Chertoff and the equally at sea FEMA director, Michael Brown (who also was among the last to hear about the convention center), are each awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in line with past architects of lethal administration calamity like George Tenet and Paul Bremer.
Given other recent events, as well as Michael Chertoff's previous job (federal appellate judge on the Third Circuit), does this mean we're about to see Chief Justice Chertoff?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Tournament of champions

Megillah 3a-4a:

It's all about winning. It's all a competition between mitzvot to determine which is the most important, and thus which takes precedence over the others.

Last time we were working on Esther 9:28. We're squared away with interpreting the repetition of "medinah umdinah" (to make a distinction between walled and unwalled cities, or between Shushan and other "unwalled" cities, or whatever), and "ve'ir va'ir" (to include anything next to the walled city or seen with it). But what about "mishpachah umishpachah"? This comes to include the priestly and levitical families, who can take off work to hear megillah reading. Thus, in the first round of the tournament, the megillah takes precedence over avodah (ok, not really "work", but the Temple service that the priests are doing).

Rebbi's house (150 years after the destruction of the Temple) would skip talmud torah to go hear the megillah, based on transitivity: megillah beats avodah, and avodah beats talmud torah, ergo megillah beats talmud torah. (And yes, we can assume transitivity -- we don't have any rock-paper-scissors scenarios in this sugya, let alone rock-paper-scissors-couch.)

But wait a second, when did avodah beat talmud torah? That round never happened! In fact, if we examine some midrashim (from Sanhedrin and Eruvin) about Joshua, the fight comes out the other way! Check it out: In Joshua 5:13-15 (from the haftarah for the 1st day of Pesach; since the avodah vs. talmud torah showdown could have been staged pretty much anywhere, was this venue chosen intentionally because the redemption of Purim is tied to the redemption of Pesach?), Joshua has an encounter with a divine messenger.

The Gemara wonders what Joshua was doing talking to this stranger at night -- what if it had really been a demon? (And what evidence do we have that this episode happened at night anyway? Real question here. Is it discussed in Sanhedrin? Or are we just to infer from Jacob's wrestling match that all adversarial human-angel encounters happen at night?) No worries: this mysterious man identified himself as "captain of God's host". Ah, but what if he was lying? No, we have a tradition that they wouldn't use God's name in vain like that.

According to this midrash, a few lines of dialogue are missing from the story. After sar tzeva Adonai identifies himself, he rebukes Joshua: "Last night you guys neglected the afternoon tamid [this is avodah], and now you're neglecting talmud torah!" Joshua asks "Which one of these did you come about?" The response (which is actually in the text): "Now I have come", i.e. I'm here about the infraction now; I didn't come about the other one yesterday! As Rav Shmuel bar Onya points out, this means talmud torah beats avodah! Zing!

Postscript: Joshua changed his ways. We know this from a scribal error. In Joshua 8, we have two statements that were clearly supposed to say the same thing: 8:9 says "vayalen Yehoshua' balailah hahu b'toch ha'am" (that night, Joshua spent the night among the people), and 8:13 says "vayeilech Yehoshua' balailah hahu b'toch ha'eimek" (that night, Joshua went in the valley). JPS points out that some manuscripts have vayalen in both verses (including the one quoted in the Vilna Shas! and apparently R. Yochanan's version, see below), and that the Syriac version of 8:13 also translates ha'am, not ha'eimek. But the rabbis didn't know that latter fact, so they said "Valley? What valley?" Rabbi Yochanan says that it means that Joshua spent the night in the omek (depth) of halacha. He saw the error of his ways and went back to talmud torah.

So now it would appear that talmud torah and avodah are tied 1-1. Time for the sudden-death round! Except the Talmud doesn't actually like sudden-death rounds; it prefers the la kashya structure, where everyone is a winner. So talmud torah wins for the masses (like, oh I don't know, the entire people of Israel whom Joshua was leading), and avodah wins for individuals (like the house of Rebbi) -- NCAA Division III if you will.

That result is contested. Does avodah really win for individuals? Mishnah Mo'ed Katan 3:8 bans certain mourning practices on joyous holidays such as Purim, but then Rabbah bar Huna (over in Mo'ed Katan) makes an exception for the funeral of a talmid chacham [student of the wise]. If a talmid chacham's funeral overrides Purim (even in regard to individual practices), this means that talmud torah beats megillah, and therefore beats avodah (since megillah definitely beats avodah - that's where this whole mess started).

Wait just a minute there -- you just brought a ringer onto the field! That funeral was kevod torah (honor for the Torah), not talmud torah (study of Torah)!

So now the ranking (for individuals) seems to be kevod hatorah at the top, then megillah, then avodah, then talmud torah.

Rava now brings in a new player: meit mitzvah (burying someone who has no family to bury him/her). As in chess or Shufflepuck, this player has to start at the bottom and work its way up. Meit mitzvah vs. talmud torah: a baraita says you can skip talmud torah for funerals and weddings. Didn't even have to break a sweat.

Meit mitzvah vs. avodah: This requires some midrash halacha on Numbers 6:7 The nazir can't become tamei for any of his dead relatives. The "and" in the list of relatives indicates that it is an exhaustive list. Therefore, the nazir can (and must) become tamei for a meit mitzvah. This is extended to anyone who is on the way to offer a pesach or whatever, even though being tamei would postpone these plans. Meit mitzvah 1, avodah 0!

Meit mitzvah vs. megillah??? (Cue "NBA on NBC" music.) Is it megillah because of publicizing the miracle, or is it meit mitzvah because of kevod haberiot (human dignity)? The winner is.... meit mitzvah! Kevod haberiot is so powerful that it can even override a negative Torah commandment (so it can crush a positive rabbinic commandment).

And that's where the sugya ends.

At the end of the day, kevod torah and kevod haberiot are both undefeated. Perhaps at the end of days, we'll get to watch them square off in a mitzvah Super Bowl, and then we can feast on their flesh in a banquet for the righteous.

And that just gets us to the middle of 3b. I'll post about the rest of 3b and 4a later.

UPDATE: I wrote:

In Joshua 5:13-15 (from the haftarah for the 1st day of Pesach; since the avodah vs. talmud torah showdown could have been staged pretty much anywhere, was this venue chosen intentionally because the redemption of Purim is tied to the redemption of Pesach?), Joshua has an encounter with a divine messenger.

Also, the Mishnah's definition of a walled city is a city that was walled at the time of Joshua, so there's another reason why this episode fits here.

I don't roll on Sukkos!

Wow, Lebowski Fest! "A celebration of all things Lebowski", with unlimited bowling, a costume contest, and Corn Mo!

Given the subject matter, it's a bit ironic that the kickoff event with Corn Mo et al. is on a Friday night. "Shomer fucking Shabbos!"

In any case, I probably won't be there even for the Saturday night part, because that weekend is Chol Hamo'ed Sukkot. I have spent exactly one Shabbat/yom tov of Sukkot of my adult life in Manhattan, and I'm glad I did (were it not for a conversation over dinner that night, Kol Zimrah might not exist), but one was plenty. Since then, the goal has been to get as far away from Manhattan as possible, for a final experience of trees and grass before it gets too cold.

So let's hope the timing is better next year. The Dude abides.