Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Harlem renaissance

Just when you thought New York City was maxed out with independent minyanim, two more egal minyanim are coming down the pipe this summer! One is a peripatetic Friday night apartment minyan in Harlem, and one is a Saturday morning minyan in Park Slope.

Email to get on the list for the Harlem minyan, and for the new Slope minyan.

Just crying out that he was framed

I just submitted this workshop description for the NHC Summer Institute:

Don't Think of an Elephant: How Can Liberal Jews Express Our Values?

In his book Don't Think of an Elephant!, cognitive linguist George Lakoff writes about how conservatives have dominated American political discourse by framing the debate with terms like "right to life" and "tax relief", so that even when liberals argue against these positions, they are still arguing within the conservatives' frames. In this workshop, we will look at Lakoff's ideas and extend them to intra-Jewish religious discourse: every time a liberal Jew says "I'm not shomer shabbat [Shabbat-observant] -- I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue," s/he is allowing a particular Jewish ideology to define "shomer shabbat" even if s/he rejects this ideology for him/herself. We will look at the cognitive frames that are common, and then brainstorm new frames by which liberal Jews of all types can express their values positively rather than negatively.

Let freedom reign!

Bush addressed the nation last night to mark the 1st anniversary of Iraqi sovereignty.

In other news, today is 11 Messidor CCXIII on the French Revolutionary calendar, and this year marks the 14th anniversary of the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the 144th anniversary of the Confederate States of America, the 37th anniversary of the Republic of New Africa, the 2035th anniversary of the Roman Empire, the 13th anniversary of the Principality of Freedonia, and the 60th anniversary of the Free Republic of Schwarzenberg.

Master of my eminent domain

The disengagement from Gaza is drawing closer. On August 15 of my pocket calendar, I have written in "Y'hi ratzon mil'fanecha sheta'aleinu b'simcha l'artzeinu V'TITA'EINU BIGVULEINU!!!". (From the Shabbat musaf service, "May it be your will that you bring us up in joy to our land and plant us within our borders!!!". Ditching Gaza brings us closer to the day when Israel will have borders.)

The latest Jerusalem Report juxtaposes two interesting opeds about the phenomenon of Americans wearing orange and protesting the disengagement. On the left is Anne Roiphe, who supports the disengagement but affirms the right of Jews around the world to protest it ("I would join the orange shirts in a blink of an eye, if I didn't think they were all wrong"). On the right is Amiel Ungar, who opposes the disengagement, but believes "that decisions concerning Israel's future belongs to Israeli citizens. Massive aliyah remains the best contribution that Jewish supporters of Judea and Samaria could make to the struggle."

At first glance, both of these positions may seem unusual. But the only thing unusual about Roiphe and Ungar is that they, unlike most people who have weighed in on the matter, actually hold views that are consistent with their own views of a few years ago (before the countdown to disengagement began). Until recently, the Left argued that the State of Israel represents Jews around the world, and therefore we have the responsibility to protest the Israeli government's actions (lo eshtok ki artzi shintah et paneha - the oft-forgotten seifa of a song that is as blindly patriotic as "Born in the U.S.A."), while the Right argued that Israel is for the Israelis and those of us in America should make aliyah or shut up. Now, when the tables have turned, both Roiphe and Ungar have stuck to these principles, unlike those who wear orange and those who would silence the orange-wearers (other than by pointing out that they are very very wrong).

I hope that those who are wearing orange in New York take a moment to think about what it means to be an American Jew who is devoted to Israel (albeit, in their case, misguided) and therefore feels the need to protest the actions of the Israeli government.

[The orange water bottles and folders on the Hadar Shavuot Retreat were not a political statement, they were just unfortunate timing. They were inspired by Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates. So really they're not orange, they're saffron. ]

Further evidence that we've stepped through the looking glass was in last week's Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London, ruling that the power of eminent domain allows the government to condemn private property and hand it over to private developers for the purpose of economic development, rather than restricting eminent domain to expropriating land for government purposes (roads, schools, etc.). The most shocking part of this decision is that I found myself agreeing with the minority of O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas against the majority of Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer!

La kashya. I was looking at the decision from a public policy perspective: it appears to enrich corporations at the little guy's expense, since it allows the government to kick people out of their homes to build a Wal-Mart or a mall. The justices were looking at the case from a jurisprudence perspective: private property is sovereign vs. the government has the right to redistribute property. After reading an explanation of the decision by an actual judicial clerk (though I haven't read the decision itself yet), I am somewhat convinced that the way to achieve these public policy objectives might be politically (by preventing elected officials from condemning land to build a Wal-Mart) rather than judicially (since the history of eminent domain is more complicated than I understand). This is left to the dedicated student for further research. Still, it's hard to shake the irony that the justice who cast the deciding vote to elect George W. Bush is writing in her dissent "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Teacher, leave those kids alone

Schoooooooooooooool's out for the summer! Now I can do whatever I want from now until Labor Day! I'm not setting an alarm tonight!

Yes, New York schools really do go this late.

Graduation was yesterday, and I walked with my homeroom of 2.5 years, and they have now been unleashed on the world. Congratulations to the class of 2005! The salutatorian began her speech by reading suggestions that other students had given her for things to say, and one of them was "Be excellent to each other." I was outraged when I was the only one in the room who even chuckled! Then I realized that the graduating students were two years old when that movie came out!

Readers have asked how the Regents exam ended up. Quite well, thank you! Everyone in my classes who took the exam passed, and one class averaged around 93 (the second-highest section average in the school, not counting freshmen and AP). Actually, the scores were high all around (at least at my school; I know nothing about citywide or statewide results) -- every section had a majority of students achieving mastery level (85 or above). So it's possible that we're better teachers this year, teaching better students, or it's possible that the state fiddled with the curve to make all the scaled scores higher, because they were tired of bad press. But if we're not happy when the scores are low, and we're not happy when all the scores are high, then when can we be happy? So let's be happy now. All the students with scores close to 100 would have scored close to 100 regardless of how the exam was curved. Congratulations to all these students!

Notes to self, to spend a total of 10 minutes next year to raise the average Regents score by at least 3 points:
  • Hit "universal mass units" (aka amu), and use E = mc^2 to convert between amu and MeV
  • Emphasize units units units! Even slopes of graphs have units!
  • Spend a few minutes modeling the way the Regents want calculations to be shown, "1 point for equation and substitution with units" and all that (yes it's superficial, but if that's the way to play the game, then why lose a point when you don't have to?)
  • Define "total mechanical energy" (it's just kinetic plus potential, and my students certainly knew the concept, they just didn't know that term)
  • Define "internal energy" (not on the Regents this year, but sometimes in other years. same deal where they know the concept but not necessarily the term)
Math-related notes to students (which won't affect your Regents score, but will prevent physics teachers from laughing at you behind your back):
  • Sig figs! A number of students wrote that the speed of light in water is 225563909.8 m/s. Thank God for the .8 ! (I blame utexas.)
  • If you thought 10 sig figs was a lot, some students included infinite sig figs! Leave the repeating decimals (with the line over the 3) back in math class.
  • And the fractions.
  • And "rationalizing" the denominator. Especially when the denominator isn't a number, but a letter! And "rational" and "irrational" have no meaning in physics, where everything is approximate! And you don't really need to rationalize the denominator even in math class, unless you're still using a sliderule.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

This is only a test

The physics Regents exam was today. I don't know what the students thought, but from the teacher perspective, that was relatively painless! Unlike recent years, there were no "bad questions", i.e. ambiguous questions where a student could have legitimately understood the question in a way different from the "correct" way and gotten another answer. And no culturally biased questions like the recent one asking about the nozzle on the garden hose (which is just swell for upstate kids with backyards, but provides no point of reference for kids who have lived in apartments their whole lives).

Most importantly, as we prepare to grade 700 of these puppies, the free-response section included, in addition to the usual numerical answers, plenty of drawing -- drawing force vectors, drawing transverse waves, drawing trajectories, plotting points and drawing a best-fit line. Fine. But there were no questions saying "Design a procedure..." or "Explain why...". Baruch hashem!!! Sure, students should know how to explain concepts, and how to design scientific experiments (rather than following cookbook lab instructions). But those questions take forever to grade! Even if it takes only 20 seconds to grade each one, 20 seconds * 700 students = a long time. Each of the questions that made the cut should take no longer than 2 seconds each. The Regents were merciful this year.

While I was proctoring in the hallway, I was taking the exam (for fun and edification) at the same time the students were. I would answer one of the typical tricky questions that are easy if you see past the trick, then preemptively get mad at my students, thinking "How could you get that wrong?!" Is this a typical teacher syndrome? I hope that my first impulses were wrong and all my students get 100.

The "modern physics" was superficial as usual. "The tau neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the electron neutrino are all (1) leptons (2) hadrons (3) baryons (4) mesons." And then you look over at the Reference Table provided with the exam, and see the chart of the Standard Model, which has a section labeled "leptons", which includes, you guessed it, the tau neutrino, the muon neutrino, and the electron neutrino. I think a 3rd grader could have answered this one (if provided with the chart). My students might actually have missed "How much energy, in megaelectronvolts, is produced when 0.250 universal mass unit of matter is completely converted into energy?". It's not such a hard question (E = mc^2), and it's even easier if you look at the line on the Reference Table that says 1 u = 931 MeV (so you don't have to convert any units), but we didn't talk about universal mass units in class (I hadn't even heard that term before - I thought it was atomic mass units). Next year I'll have to make sure to spend a minute or two on that. Let's hope they remember amu from chemistry and/or glance at that line on the front of the Reference Table.

Overall it was a fair test; I have no cause for outrage. Tomorrow at the crack of dawn we get to slooooooowly find out how the students did. I'm rooting for all 100s!

Door's open, boys!

Boy: Hey, who left all this garbage lying on the steps of Congress?
Amendment: I'm not garbage.

I'm an amendment to be
Yes, an amendment to be
And I'm hoping that they'll ratify me
There's a lot of flag burners
Who have got too much freedom
I wanna make it legal
For policemen
To beat 'em
'Cause there's limits to our liberties
'Least I hope and pray that there are
'Cause those liberal freaks go too far.

Boy: But why can't we just make a law against flag burning?
Amendment: Because that law would be unconstitutional. But if we changed the Constitution...
Boy: Then we could make all sorts of crazy laws!
Amendment: Now you're catching on!

--The Simpsons, "The Day the Violence Died"

The House has passed a flag-burning amendment (again). It seems that they do this all the time just for fun, and it never gets the required 2/3 in the Senate. Let's hope that 34 Senators continue to support freedom of expression.

If somehow they don't, then the amendment needs to be defeated (or never brought to the floor) in at least 13 state legislatures. What do we do if it comes to that? Public flag burnings, as nuanced as we make the message, would probably be preaching to the choir and giving the wrong message to those who are on the fence. Maybe burning copies of the proposed amendment?

In the meantime, call your senator if s/he's on the fence.

So why are they pulling this now? Is this just the usual distraction, like the Christmas Panic of 2004, to rev up the right-wing echo chamber and force liberals to respond (don't get me wrong, this assault on civil liberties would certainly require a response) and then, while we're looking the other way, repeal Social Security or Medicare?

The several States

Steve has made a list of the best movie ever set in each of the 50 states (plus disenfranchised colonies on the North American continent). Go over there and argue in the comment thread. I think it's a travesty that Wayne's World isn't representing Illinois.

Monday, June 20, 2005

We kissed on the subway in the middle of the night

If you're looking for a fun and educational excursion in New York City, check out the Transit Museum. ER and I spent several hours there yesterday and could have stayed longer if they hadn't been closing for the day. It is located in a decommissioned subway station in downtown Brooklyn. The heart of the museum is down at the track level -- there is a collection of subway cars from all periods of subway history (from the original 1904 trains to the "Redbirds"), and visitors are free to walk around in them, sit down, etc. Each train is decorated inside with actual advertisements and maps from the particular period, so we got to grimace at the kind of '50s ads featured in The Feminine Mystique, and scrutinize old subway maps to learn about discontinued lines such as the H (now the Brooklyn part of the C) and the 8 (the Third Avenue El in the Bronx, now torn down). There is also a working "signal tower" (the control room is called a "tower" by analogy to above-ground railroads) where we could look at a map of the tracks in the vicinity and watch the flashing lights representing actual trains.

One level up there are complete sets of tokens and turnstiles from the last 100 years, buses and trolleys that we could drive (except they didn't go anywhere), and an exhibit on how the original subway tunnels were built. Sandhog is not high on my list of future career choices, but we all owe a great deal to their labor.

Hadran alach!

Masechet Rosh Hashanah is completed! I won't give away the ending here; you'll have to wait for the siyyum, which we'll do sometime in the next few weeks.

We started at the bottom of 33b and made a valiant charge for the end. Rav Ashi and Ravina do not disappoint -- before the tractate is over, they tie up all the loose ends, including ends that we thought would remain loose. That's right, when we least expected it, we finally got the gezeirah shavah between Rosh Hashanah and yovel! This is necessary to show that the thing we blow on Rosh Hashanah has to be a shofar (rather than a trumpet or a bugle or a flugelhorn), since we never explicitly get the word shofar in the sections of the Torah about Rosh Hashanah. But then in the end, there was an unanticipated twist! We were all waiting for the obvious teru'ah teru'ah, and instead we got shevi'i shevi'i! I.e., all teru'ot in the seventh month (in Yom Kippur of the yovel year, or Rosh Hashanah of any year) must be with a shofar. We couldn't use teru'ah teru'ah for this, because that would run into trouble with Numbers 10, which uses teru'ah and is explicitly talking about a trumpet, not a shofar. And this gezeirah shavah (and/or its hekeish twin; the difference is quite subtle) gives us a bonus! We also learn that the teru'ah must have a teki'ah before and after it (you know, teki'ah teru'ah teki'ah, nothing to see here), and that there should be three sets of three blasts.

Another baraita has an alternate way of deriving these bonus properties for Rosh Hashanah, from a different gezeirah shavah..... teru'ah teru'ah!!!! But this time it's not from yovel, it's from the trumpets of Numbers 10! So if we're going that route, how do we derive that it has to be a shofar? We can't from the Torah. We have to go to Psalms. Tik'u bachodesh shofar...

Rabbi Abbahu instituted our crazy practice of blowing the shofar so darn many times. There is a fundamental uncertainty (indeterminable or indeterminate? I don't know) as to whether the thing between the two teki'ot is supposed to be what we now call teru'ah (staccato) or what we now call shevarim (three longer blasts). So R. Abbahu came up with the idea of tekiah shevarim-teru'ah tekiah, so if you think it's supposed to be shevarim, then you can ignore the teru'ah, and vice versa. Rav Avira says no way! What if it's really supposed to be teru'ah? Then we've interrupted with a shevarim. So we also have to do teki'ah teru'ah teki'ah. And Ravina says wait a second, what if it's supposed to be shevarim? Then R. Abbahu's plan interrupts this with a teru'ah. So we should also do teki'ah shevarim teki'ah. So can we now eliminate R. Abbahu's original proposal, and just do teki'ah teru'ah teki'ah and teki'ah shevarim teki'ah? NO!!! Because what if it really is supposed to be tekiah shevarim-teru'ah teki'ah? So, 1500 years later, we do all three permutations for each set of shofar blasts, just to stay safe. A final possibility: what if it's really supposed to be tekiah teru'ah-shevarim teki'ah? Don't be silly! the Gemara responds. No idiot would think that!!!

Rabbi Yochanan holds that the the nine shofar blasts need not have any continuity - they can be at nine different hours of the day. Some people might disagree, but they just tiptoe around it and no one explicitly disagrees with this point.

We plant the seeds for the practice in some communities of blowing the shofar during the silent Amidah. Rav Papa bar Shmuel was all for this, and would have someone blow shofar for him during his Amidah (he would snort or give some sort of signal when it was time), but others say that an individual praying on his/her own should just do shofar after s/he is finished with the Amidah.

The shofar is more important than the blessings! If you have a choice of going to one of two communities, one of which is blowing the shofar and one is saying the blessings, go to the shofar one! Even if there's a chance that you won't get there in time and you'll miss it!

The last sugya deals with whether the leader can fulfill the community's obligations for them, and I won't say a thing about it - you'll have to come to the siyyum! The only thing I'll mention is the entertaining meta-machloket, in which we argue for quite a while about whether we're arguing or whether we agree.

No finality here. See you at the siyyum!

In the meantime, I've started to learn the Rambam's Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh in preparation for my NHC class. So far it's the same content as the Gemara, but much more systematic, defining all the terms and giving scriptural sources in advance. The Rambam is Bert to the Talmud's Ernie.

The wealth of nations

Though I am generally a bleeding-heart New Deal liberal when it comes to politics, in matters of religion I am a laissez-faire free-market capitalist. It goes without saying that government and religion should have nothing to do with each other, but I would go further: I believe that religious communities function best when there is healthy competition and entrepreneurship, rather than a nationalized monopoly that wins consumers only because it is the only show in town.

Yes, I realize that in the real economy, monopoly or oligopoly is often the inevitable result of laissez-faire policies, so really I'm talking about the ideal econ-textbook version of a competitive market. And there are conditions that need to be met for that ideal market to be anywhere close to an approximation of reality. For example, in this age of global corporations, small businesses thrive best in major cities or in isolated small towns; everything in between has been taken over by McDonald's and Wal-Mart. Likewise, the independent Jewish scene has been most successful in major cities (with a sufficiently large Jewish population to make a free market possible) and in isolated communities; it is largely untested in areas in between.

In this laissez-faire model of Jewish community, communities have an incentive to be the best they can be, rather than relying on guilt to gain adherents and then wondering why it isn't working.

So that's all by way of introduction. I want to salute the latest Jewish entrepreneurial project in the District of Columbia: Tikkun Leil Shabbat, organized by a group of local activists and co-sponsored by Jews United For Justice. Here is the full flyer.

Tikkun Leil Shabbat is "a summer series of songful, soulful Sabbath services featuring a teaching about a social justice issue and followed by a potluck vegetarian dinner". There are a total of six this summer, starting this past Friday night (June 17) and continuing every fortnight. Each service is in a different style, and each is in a different neighborhood in DC. Most are hosted in homes. Each one features a guest from a social justice organization. (I'm visiting on July 15.)

We wish much success to Tikkun Leil Shabbat, and we can start plotting about how to emulate it elsewhere.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Friday, June 17, 2005

Welcome to our Sho-ar

And now for this week, Rosh Hashanah 32b-33b. (Im tirtzeh hashem, we should finish next week! Stay tuned for the siyyum!)

Why do we blow shofar during musaf rather than shacharit? So we can do it when more people are there! Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose (ein kol chadash tachat hashemesh)! Then why do we do hallel during shacharit? Because people will make an effort to get there earlier for hallel. And they won't for shofar?! Ok, ok, shofar used to be during shacharit, but then the evil empire would hang out all morning making sure we didn't blow shofar, so we had to wait until after they left.

And why don't we say hallel on the High Holidays? The angels asked this question too. Well, could you party down while God is sitting on the throne of judgment with the book of life and death open in front of it? Didn't think so.

And then it's back to the laws of shofar. I must say that I don't completely understand how this masechet is structured -- we seem to keep looping around between witnessing the new moon, the shofar, and the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, and we can't make a clean break from any of these three topics. And within each of the topics, we keep repeating the same sources. Part of the problem is that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai seems to have his own gravitational field, and everything else is pulled into orbit around him.

Basically, shofar does not override the prohibitions of yom tov. Also, you can pour water or wine into the shofar to polish it, but please don't urinate into it.

Most of page 33a is filled with a particularly incontinent Tosafot. (One day I'll stop being intimidated by Tosafot, and then I won't feel the need to lash out. But I don't know when or how that will happen.) MR's copy has several underlined passages in it, so we know right away that it must have something to do with women's obligations in the mitzvot. Sure enough, it does! The question of whether women may blow shofar for a coed community is a hot question in a very rarefied section of the Jewish world (including the section that is lending me this complete Gemara set, so I shouldn't bite the hand that feeds me), while everyone else says either "of course" or "of course not". Looking at the underlined passages in the Tosafot without examining their context too carefully, it seems that there is support for both opinions, which is why it is such a hot question. (Some of us would say that the categories of "men" and "women" as understood by the Gemara or Tosafot no longer exist.)

The Mishnah says that children, even though they're not obligated in shofar, are allowed to blow shofar for educational purposes, but shofar blasts for the purpose of teaching. Mercifully, the tannaim vote 2-1 that women are allowed to blow shofar (this doesn't address the question of whether their shofar blasts fulfill anyone's obligation, just whether they're allowed anywhere near a shofar), even though the education rationale doesn't apply, because boys are future men (who will one day be obligated) and women aren't. Someone can come up with something Freudian here, but not I. Rabbi Yehuda, last week's "strict constructionist", holds the misogynistic dissenting opinion. In other news, President Bush has appointed Rabbi Yehuda to a federal appeals court. Senate Democrats have vowed to filibuster.

Anyway, there's no explicit discussion in the Gemara itself about whether women can fulfill men's obligation. And you can't just say "of course they can't, because the Talmud considers women's claim to the shofar to be even sketchier than young boys' claim, and we know that educational shofar blasts don't count", because the reason educational blasts don't count is that they aren't necessarily done with the intention of making the sound, and the key (looping back to 28a) is that the blower has the intention of making a teki'ah sound. Anyway, I'm glad that someone else is thinking about these things, because I don't want to. It is possible that communities that I am close to are considering these questions behind the scenes, but if they are, then I don't want to know about it. It's a sausage factory.

Moving toward the less contentious, but no less ambiguous, we get into the anatomy of the actual shofar blast. Everyone agrees that each of the three sets should be teki'ah teru'ah teki'ah. But how long is each of those, and what exactly is a teru'ah? Is the teru'ah supposed to be like what we now call teru'ah (lots of staccato notes), or like what we now call shevarim (a few longer notes), or like what we now call shevarim-teru'ah (a combination)? Heck if anyone knows. Thus, we cover all the bases each time, hoping that at least one of the permutations is correct.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Okay, starting with hamelech

I'm way behind in blogging about Masechet Rosh Hashanah. This post is for last week, when we did 31b-32b.

We begin with still more decrees of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: If the head of the beit din is on the road, then witnesses don't have to go on a wild goose chase looking for him, but only need to go to the central meeting spot.

The Gemara tells a story of a woman who was called by Ameimar (the head of the beit din) to Nehardea, but then he left for Mechoza and she didn't follow him, so she got busted. Rav Ashi asked Ameimar "What about that mishnah?! Get with the times; witnesses don't have to follow you around." Ameimar said (paraphrased) "That mishnah only applies to testimony for the new moon. Besides, we have a history of coddling those witnesses so that they'll come back in the future -- e.g., in mishnah 2:6, we listen to their testimony even when we don't need it, just to make them feel useful. But for any other kinds of witnesses, let's not forget who's the boss here. We'll send them scurrying around Bavel just because we can."

And one more decree from RYbZ: The kohanim must remove their shoes when performing the priestly blessing, for a total of nine decrees.

Nine? Nine! Let's count: Six in this chapter (1. The shofar can be blown on Shabbat wherever there is a beit din, 2. seven days of lulav everywhere, 3. new grain is prohibited all day on 16 Nisan, 4. testimony of the new moon can be accepted all day, 5. witnesses of the new moon just have to go to a central location, 6. yes shoes -> no service), one in the first chapter (7. Nisan and Tishrei are the only months for which the messengers can break Shabbat - see 21b), and two more:

Number 8: When the Temple stood, a convert had to bring a pair of birds as an offering. Afterwards, in the absence of a Temple, they still had to set aside the cash for the offering. RYbZ got rid of this requirement -- let's not put too many obstacles in front of prospective converts.

Number 9: We can't agree on which one it is! There isn't another decree that is unambiguously attributed to RYbZ, so let's take two anonymous decrees and argue over which one could believably have been him.
Rav Papa's opinion: The produce of a vineyard in its fourth year (no longer in the first 3 years when it is forbidden, but not yet in the fifth year when it's permitted) must be brought to Jerusalem. Yes, we get around this by selling the fruits and just wiring the money to Jerusalem. But if you live within a day of Jerusalem, no excuses, you have to bring the fruit itself. The acknowledged motivation: mercantilism! Jerusalem gets to profit from the colonies! But Rabbi Eliezer petitioned for an exemption so he could use his field as a tax writeoff and donate the produce to the poor. His students said "Your colleagues have already permitted this!" According to Rav Papa, who is "your colleagues"? R. Yochanan ben Zakkai! This is the ninth decree! (But wait! RYbZ was R. Eliezer's teacher, not his colleague! Uhhhh.... R. Eliezer's students were just being polite by not saying "your teacher" to their teacher.)
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak's opinion: No, that's not it at all. So we used to have this red ribbon that we would hang up outside the entrance of the Temple on Yom Kippur, which would turn white iff the people's sins had been cleansed. If it turned white, they were happy; if not, they were sad. We had enough sadness in the world already, so they started hanging it up inside the Temple, so that people wouldn't see it and get all fatalistic. But they looked inside anyway. So it was decreed that half of it was tied to the rock (out in the desert) and the other half went over the cliff with the scapegoat. According to R. Nachman bar Yitzchak, this last decree was by none other than RYbZ. (But wait a second, how can that be? The height of RYbZ's career was after the destruction of the Temple, when the whole scapegoat ritual had ceased. Uhhhh... he came up with this one when he was still a precocious student, while the Temple still stood, and it was taught in his name.)

In investigating the second option, we get a capsule biography of RYbZ: he worked in the real world for 40 years, learned for 40 years, and taught for 40 years, for a total of 120. As life spans increase, serial careers are coming back into popularity.

So what's the answer? Which is the real 9th decree? We don't know. But then, during Torah reading last Shabbat, MAK pointed out that the Hertz chumash says that the sotah ritual was abolished by R. Yochanan ben Zakkai! That would make 10 decrees (if not 11)!!! Either Hertz is wrong, or the foundations of Judaism are shattering!

New topic: the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, with three distinctive sections in the musaf service: malchuyot (monarchy), zichronot (remembrance), and shofarot (the sound of the shofar). I translate malchuyot as "monarchy", because this literally means "rule by one", and this category is construed to include such verses as "Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad", which say nothing about ruling/kingship/sovereignty per se, but a lot about oneness. But more on that later.

The present order of the liturgy (1. avot, 2. gevurot, 3. kedushat hashem, 4. malchuyot and kedushat hayom together at last, 5. zichronot, 6. shofarot, 7. avodah, 8. hoda'ah, 9. birkat kohanim) is based on R. Akiva's position, but was by no means a no-brainer. R. Yochanan ben Nuri put malchuyot into the third bracha, with kedushat hashem. (Perhaps we have some vestige of this, with all the "uvchen" paragraphs added to the third bracha on the High Holidays?) And even if you agree that malchuyot is #4, the placement of kedushat hayom isn't obvious. Is it with malchuyot (because it's always #4), or is it with zichronot (because it's always in the middle)? Strangely, no one suggests that it's with shofarot (because it's always fourth from the end).

Along the way, Psalm 29 is taken to be the basis for the first three blessings of the Amidah: "Havu lAdonai b'nei eilim" => avot. (Is this really as idolatrous as it seems? The more apologetics there are, the more likely the answer is yes!) "Havu lAdonai kavod va'oz" => gevurot. "Havu lAdonai kevod shemo, hishtachavu lAdonai b'hadrat kodesh" => kedushat hashem.

We get another mention of the tradition that from the time of Ezra, Elul never had 30 days. So maybe that's the answer to why the "long day" of Rosh Hashanah is 1 and 2 Tishrei (rather than 30 Elul and 1 Tishrei) - just because there's such a solid tradition that 30 Elul shouldn't exist.

The minimum number of verses in each section is 10. We have several opinions as to why 10: the 10 hallelu's in Psalm 150 (and the whole psalm is included as one of the 10 selections in the modern version of shofarot, so there is a self-similar structure), the 10 utterances at Sinai (and Sinai also figures prominently in shofarot), and the 10 utterances by which the world was created (connecting to zichronot -- Rosh Hashanah is a remembrance of the first day).

10 should be the minimum, but if you do 7 of each, you're ok. However, R. Yochanan ben Nuri says that 7 is the recommended minimum and 3 is the absolute minimum, and the Gemara upholds him! So the version that has survived as the "traditional" liturgy (though this chapter makes it abundantly clear that there is no one traditional version) goes above and beyond the requirements, and Gates of Repentance (with 4 verses in each section) still makes it.

Now we get to the content of each section. In general, R. Yose has a more expansive definition of what can go in each section, and R. Yehuda is more of a strict constructionist, and today's liturgy largely fits R. Yehuda's narrower definitions, except when it's impossible. All of our malchuyot contain some form of the root m-l-ch (with one key exception); all of our zichronot contain some form of z-ch-r, and all of our shofarot contain the word shofar. R. Yose would have been ok with synonyms (such as allowing the word teru'ah under shofarot, or the root p-k-d under zichronot), but R. Yehuda won't stand for that.

Malchuyot/zichronot/shofarot that talk about God applying God's sovereignty/remembrance/shofar for destruction aren't allowed, unless it's the destruction of people we don't like.

Psalm 24
:7-10 counts as 5 malchuyot, since it says melech 5 times (or maybe only 3, if interrogative ones don't count), and it is treated as just one these days, so once again we're going way beyond the requirements.

There are supposed to be 3 verses from the Torah, 3 from Ketuvim (Writings), 3 from Nevi'im (Prophets), and one concluding verse from the Torah. But that's a real problem for malchuyot, because there are only 3 places in the whole Torah that say m-l-ch in reference to God! (It doesn't say this anywhere, but we realized that there is an implicit assumption that m-l-ch and z-ch-r only count if they refer to God. Then we amused ourselves coming up with counterfactual malchuyot and zichronot if this rule were not in place: "hamoleich meHodu v'ad Kush", "et zachar lo tishkav", etc.) So what's the fourth? Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad! Oneness! Monarchy! R. Yehuda rejects this, but in this case he gets shut down. Alternatives (also rejected by R. Yehuda) include Deuteronomy 4:35 and 4:39. Ein od! There is no other! There is nothing else!

Update: Who knows nine? I know nine! Nine decrees of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai! Nine blessings in the musaf of Rosh Hashanah! This can't be mere coincidence.

Also, when we discuss the 10 utterances with which God created the world, we have an objection that there are only 9 utterances explicitly mentioned in Genesis 1, and the response is that the tenth (actually the first) is Genesis 1:1 (B'reishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v'et ha'aretz). So maybe it's important for RYbZ to have only 9 decrees (otherwise, R. Papa, R. Nachman bar Yitzchak, and R. Hertz could all be correct), to show that he is not God. RYbZ can create through speech (like God), but he can't create ex nihilo.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

It all started 40 Thanksgivings ago

Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Arlo Guthrie, who did a free concert in Rockefeller Park for the River to River Festival and the Alice's Restaurant 40th Anniversary Massacree Tour. Earlier today, we were saying "Wait a second, has it really been 40 years? Were they talking about the draft like that in 1965? [google google] No! Alice's Restaurant came out in 1967! This is only the 38th anniversary! It's all marketing!" So then tonight, he began the title song with "It all started 40 Thanksgivings ago, that's 40 years ago on Thanksgiving..." Aha! The original in 1967 was "It all started two Thanksgivings ago"! So the Alice's Restaurant Massacree itself was in 1965 and we're celebrating 40 years!

Parts of the song, originally in the present tense, were poignantly transformed into the imperfect. "Alice didn't live in the restaurant, she used to live in the church nearby the restaurant." "There used to be a building not far from here, on Whitehall Street, where you would go to get injected, inspected..."

Other updates to "Alice's Restaurant" (paraphrased - does anyone have a transcript?):
"But that's not what I came to tell you about, I came to talk about the draft. Maybe you think we don't have a draft anymore, but ask the guys who are being called up after 30 years."
"You may know someone in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, sooner than you want to think about."
"If just one person does it, they'll say 'You're 40 years too late'. And if two men do it, hand in hand, I don't know what the policy is these days, but if you tell them, you're not going!"
"...and if 50 people walk in, sing a bar of Alice's Restaurant, and walk out, then they may think it's a movement, even if they're too young to know what a movement is. And that's what it was, that's what it is, and that's what it always will be, the Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement."

The crowd was filled with aging hippies and their children (including at least two of my students).

Arlo Guthrie also sang a number of covers that are staples at my family's Thanksgiving celebration: "City of New Orleans", "This Land Is Your Land", and "Goodnight Irene". He interrupted in the middle of his father's most famous song "This Land Is Your Land" to give the best d'var torah ever. He told the biblical story of Joseph in full orchestration and five-part harmony, and I really want a transcript, because I'm not going to do it justice, but it included Pharaoh's "fiddlers three". Joseph's brothers were out in the field, and Joseph must have slept in or something, and his father told him to get out there to work, and he saw an anonymous man who said "They went that way." (See Genesis 37:17) So then his brothers sold him to a wagon train or safari, and then he was in prison next to two big brutes ("Nothing ever changes!"), and then the rest of the story, and the whole family moves down to Egypt, and then Moses, and David and Goliath, and Jesus, and 2000 more years of history.... And the whole thing shows how much of a difference one person can make, because without that one guy who said "They went that way", none of this would have happened. ("I should have given him my name! I could have been somebody!")

A completely different musical experience was last night, when we did private-room karaoke in Korea Town. Oh my. The private-room kind is much better, because you don't have to wait 45 minutes for your song to come up. You can just keep it coming, song after song, and it's only $6 per person per hour. The downside is that they had nothing by The Who or Digital Underground. But they had plenty of other stuff, with highly appropriate videos such as a happy couple dancing in the mountains for "I Am a Rock".

Update: Steve reports on the same show.


I was with the dar on Yom Kippur, and they were using the Silverman machzor, but I was using my Koren machzor, but also occasionally referring to the Silverman when I needed to figure out where we were.

The Silverman machzor includes both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so Yom Kippur begins on page 191 and goes to page 499. The Koren is only Yom Kippur, so YK begins on page 1. But it's a smaller book, with less on each page, so YK goes all the way to page 566. Thus, I noticed that the page numbers in the Koren are lower at the beginning of YK, but higher by the end. If each mapping of prayers to page numbers is a continuous monotonic function, this means that there must be a point of intersection, some prayer that is on the same page in both books!

So I set out to find what it was, knowing that this prayer where everything is aligned must have some special significance. Sure enough, on page 359 in both the Silverman and the Koren is... the musaf kedusha!!! The highest point of the whole day!!!!

Very holy.

So then I figured that there must be a comparable cosmic numerical confluence on Shavuot, because it has been suggested that Shavuot and Yom Kippur are parallel holidays: Yom Kippur is when the individual stands before God, while Shavuot is when the nation collectively stands before God.

I looked at my watch yesterday and saw that the secular date of Shavuot this year was June 13! 6-13! 613!!!!! 613!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why I don't observe the 2nd day of Shavuot

So even if you observe 2 days of yom tov in general, you have to admit that 2 days of Shavuot makes even less sense. The basis for 2 first days of Pesach is that the messengers took a long time to get to the Diaspora and announce the date of the new moon, and if they left on the 1st of Nisan, they don't get there in time for the 15th, so two days are observed as yom tov to make sure one of them is the real 15th of Nisan.


You and I can disagree about whether it makes sense to maintain this practice today, when all future new moons have already been sanctified and we no longer rely on witnesses and messengers to set the calendar, and we have almost-instantaneous communication with Eretz Yisrael. And we can even agree on the value of minhag avoteinu (see Beitzah 4b), and you can follow the minhag of your ancestors who kept 2 days, while I'll follow the minhag of my ancestors who have been Reform for at least five generations. But in any case, we agree that two-day yom tov for Pesach and Sukkot made sense at some point in the past.

But Shavuot?!

Shavuot has no date on the lunar calendar - it's just 50 days after Pesach (which always happens to be 6 Sivan on our current calendar). Maybe the messengers took more than 15 days to reach the Diaspora, but could they have taken 65 days?! Surely by then the correct date of Rosh Chodesh Nisan (and thus the correct date of Pesach, and the correct start of the omer count) was known, so there was one unambiguous date for Shavuot!

And you implicitly agree, if you only count one omer! If you think otherwise, then you should be saying each day "Today is the 27th or 28th day of the omer." (This isn't so far-fetched -- this is what you do during chol hamo'ed Sukkot for the Torah reading and the little blurb in musaf.) If there's only one omer count, then there's only one 50th day, and only one day of Shavuot. End of story.

That said, I acknowledge the practical benefits of two days of Shavuot -- if you're staying up all night and throwing off your circadian rhythms, you need another whole day to recover! I certainly could have used one; instead I woke up at sunrise this morning to catch the 6:19 train from Wingdale back into the city to go back to work, while all the 2-day people were sound asleep and fulfilling Psalm 149:5, with visions of cheesecake dancing in their heads. Needless to say, I was a walking zombie for much of the day.

Next in this series: Nothing in the foreseeable future! I observe 17 Tammuz and 9 Av. (Im tirtzeh hashem, they'll be feast days this year.) So someone will have to invent more holidays for me not to observe.

Update: Desh points out that he has beaten me to it. But he's wrong -- my explanation was not "much more thorough".

Saturday, June 11, 2005


My face is clean-shaven for the first time in a year. Let's receive Torah!!!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Don't go near a woman

We made it! Today is the 47th and antepenultimate day of the omer, and the first of the shloshet yemei hagbalah, the three days of preparation for Shavuot. (Hagbalah is from the same root as gevul, border. Hagbeil et hahar, set boundaries around the mountain.) Be ready for the third day, and don't touch the mountain (or you'll die).

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Yom Meyuchas

Today is Yom Meyuchas!!!

Rosh Chodesh Sivan is the 1st day of the month, and Shavuot is the 6th (now that we have our newfangled calendar in which Nisan is always 30 days and Iyar is always 29), and the sheloshet yemei hagbalah (three days leading up to Shavuot) are the 3rd, 4th, and 5th. So the 2nd of Sivan (today) is the day that connects Rosh Chodesh to the days of preparation for Shavuot.

Don't say Tachanun today.

Israel arrived at Sinai yesterday, and today is Moses's first trip up the mountain, when God said "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to me. Now, if you really listen to my voice and keep my covenant, then you will be my possession among all the nations, for all the earth is mine. And you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (mamlechet kohanim v'goi kadosh)."(Exodus 19:4-6)

Question for today as we prepare to receive Torah: What does it mean to listen to God's voice so as to be a mamlechet kohanim v'goi kadosh?

In addition to Yom Meyuchas, today is also Brooklyn-Queens Day, aka Anniversary Day. Celebrated since 1829, it is apparently the anniversary of the founding of the first Sunday School on Long Island. According to state law, schools in Brooklyn and Queens must close today. Those of us who teach at Manhattan high schools with city-wide student populations get to observe this day by listening to students from Brooklyn and Queens complaining about how their younger siblings get the day off but they have to go to school.

Anniversary Day (contrary to the link above) is the 1st or 2nd Thursday in June, whichever one is 10 days after Memorial Day. As far as I can tell, the same algorithm is also used to schedule Harvard Commencement, which is also today. Congratulations to the Class of 2005 on entering the fellowship of educated men and women.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Rosh Chodesh Sivan

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

It's the only Rosh Chodesh that has its own niggun. This niggun originated bein hashemashot, in the final minutes of Shabbat overlapping with the initial minutes of Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5759 (Saturday, May 15, 1999). Shavuot was coming on 6 Sivan (Friday, May 21), and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was opening on May 19. I was sitting on top of a picnic table in the Quad with my guitar. That evening, in anticipation of the release of Episode I, they were showing the original Star Wars in the Pfoho dining hall. Therefore, this niggun's other name is Tikvah Chadashah. Six years later, even though Anakin Skywalker has turned to the Dark Side, we can still hold out for A New Hope.

Exodus 19 (the account of the theophany that is read on Shavuot) begins "Bachodesh hashelishi" ("in the third month"). Since no day of the month is specified, this is traditionally understood to be on the chodesh, on the first day of the month. [The tractate of the Mechilta containing the midrash on the Ten Commandments is called Masechet Bachodesh, after this first word.] This is the day on which Israel arrived at Sinai. Here we are!

Tomorrow I am a man?

I haven't blogged in several days because I was in the old country for the weekend, so I didn't get to post about Yom Yerushalayim.

Outline of rant:
We can dance at a bar/bat mitzvah, to celebrate a young person entering adolescence. But if several decades later, the person has not left adolescence, then after a point, this is no longer something to celebrate.

Sure it was appropriate to celebrate in 1967, but now it's time for Israel to start acting like an adult.

As we commemorate 38 years since the momentous events of 1967 (twice as long as the period from 1948 to 1967), this is neither a time of unmitigated celebration nor of mourning. 1967 encapsulates so many positive and negative developments.

Of course access to the Old City of Jerusalem by Israelis and Jews is a good thing; I won't argue that point. But what goes on there nowadays (throwing soiled diapers, etc.) is disgusting.

Occupying the Gaza Strip and West Bank may have been, at the time, a reasonable defensive response to hostility from Egypt and Jordan. But no one imagined that 38 years later Israel would still be ruling over these territories as colonies with 3 million disenfranchised people, long after peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Israel should have taken the initiative to implement the partition that the UN had voted on 20 years earlier (perhaps with somewhat different borders). Instead, the overall strategy has been to wait for the Palestinians to disappear. That's just not going to happen.

Yes, Egypt and Jordan fucked up the situation by letting the Palestinian population fester as refugees for 19 years. But Israel has now been in control for twice that long. At this point, placing blame accomplishes nothing. It's time to get beyond the childish "Mooooom! He hit me first!!!" and act like adults and take responsibility.

Rabbi/MK Michael Melchior frames the situation in terms of three mutually contradictory conditions: 1) medinah Yehudit (Jewish state), 2) medinah democratit (democratic state), and 3) eretz Yisrael sheleimah (complete land of Israel). It is impossible to have all three, so one must choose two. If Israel annexes the territories and gives everyone the right to vote (#2 and #3), it will cease to be a Jewish state, because Arabs will soon be a majority of the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. If Israel annexes the territories and continues to disenfranchise their Palestinian residents (#1 and #3), then Israel truly will be an apartheid state, with a minority ruling over a majority. Therefore, the only way to achieve #1 and #2 (short of the aforementioned strategy of waiting for the Palestinians to disappear) is to get out of the territories and let them be Somebody Else's Problem. Even Ariel Sharon has finally come to realize this, and so we're headed in that direction this summer.

The other thing that happened in 1967 was that the American Jewish community suddenly realized that they were proud of being Jewish, and started speaking Hebrew and showing outward signs of ethnicity. (This is when the Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew became standard in the US, replacing the Ashkenazi pronunciation.) This is a positive development.

An even more positive development is that, as American Jews have maintained a strong relationship with Israel and the rest of the Jewish people, many have let this relationship grow beyond the simple sentimental blue-and-white Naomi Shemer falafel EPCOT version of Israel. Let's hope that the rest of the American Jews, and the rest of the Israelis, can do the same.

I went to Israel when I was 15 on a high school summer trip that presented the canned version of the Israel Experience, with Exodus and Masada and the Kotel and Ben-Yehuda and a "Bedouin tent". It was great when I was 15, but if my understanding of Israel were still the same at my present age, something would be seriously wrong. As each of us has to grow out of adolescence, so does Israel itself.

Perhaps it is appropriate that Yom Ha'atzma'ut and Yom Yerushalayim fall during the omer. The lesson of the omer is that liberation is insufficient; after we are liberated, we must take on responsibility. As we enter the home stretch to Shavuot, may Israel learn this lesson.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Population 208

In an unsubtle response to the end of skip-stop service, Burritoville has raised its prices across the board. A Border Burrito used to cost $5.25 (or $5.70 with tax), and is now $5.59 (or $6.06 with tax)! Could this be a warning sign of Weimar-style hyperinflation?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Roll over Beethoven

Rosh Hashanah 30a-31b:

Back to our pal Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. We see a number of his decrees as he helped Judaism evolve and survive after the Temple, and the Mishnah demonstrates its literary artistry. Chapter 4 begins with RYbZ's decree that the shofar can be blown on Shabbat anywhere that there is a beit din -- in the time of the Temple, the shofar was blown on Shabbat only in the Temple. (This follows on the heels of chapter 3, which discusses the shofar.) Then, mishnah 3 (on 30a) is total plagiarism from Sukkah 3:12, but it fits perfectly here, because it has an identical structure to mishnah 1: Originally X was done at time Y only in the Temple, but then RYbZ decreed that X should be done at time Y elsewhere (now that there is no Temple). In this case, X is taking the lulav, and Y is all 7 days of Sukkot (rather than only the 1st day commanded in the Torah). The last clause of this mishnah is another decree: sheyehei yom haneif kulo asur. In the time of the Temple, the grain of the new harvest was permitted from the time the omer was offered on 16 Nisan (the 2nd day of Pesach). After the Temple was destroyed (and the omer wasn't offered anymore), RYbZ decreed that new grain was forbidden for the entire day of 16 Nisan, and not permitted until 17 Nisan. Mishnah 4 (on 30b) continues with the exact same structure of "In the time of the Temple, X until a certain time, but then after the Temple was destroyed, RYbZ decreed that X all day." And what's the X? Receiving testimony for the new moon! WOW!!! With unbroken segues, we've come full circle to the subject matter of much of the earlier part of the masechet! Beethoven would be proud!

The Gemara also plagiarizes from Sukkah with the whole sugya about yom haneif, so it was easy going because I had already seen it once. Why is the whole day forbidden? Because by default (in the absence of a Temple and the absence of RYbZ's enactment) the new grain is permitted from sunrise on 16 Nisan. But then when the Temple is rebuilt, people will say "Last year we ate the new grain starting from sunrise", not realizing that they now have to wait a few hours for the omer to be offered. Hence the fence. We then try to pinpoint the exact date and time that the Temple will be rebuilt in this hypothetical situation, in order for this explanation to make sense. (This sugya definitely adheres to the "Nisan" theory of redemption, where redemption happens in the blink of an eye, and the Temple descends fully formed from the head of Zeus sky, as opposed to the "Tishrei" model, where redemption is a long process. This explanation of Nisan vs Tishrei thanks to R. David Ellenson in the name of R. Chayim David Halevi.) If the Temple is built on the 16th, then there's no problem eating the new grain, because it was already permitted from sunrise (and then the Temple appeared after that). So this must be referring to a case where the Temple is dropped on the 15th. (Why the 15th specifically, rather than, say, any other time after 16 Nisan of the previous year? I don't know.) But wait, why forbid it all day, rather than just for the morning? Surely the omer will have been offered by noon. In fact, in the time of the Temple, people in faraway places started eating new grain at noon on 16 Nisan, under the assumption that the omer had been offered by then, rather than waiting for the telegram. Ah, but what if the Temple is built on 15 Nisan, late afternoon or evening? Then the Temple rules kick in (and you have to wait for the omer before eating new grain), but there isn't actually time to harvest, grind, etc., the omer and get it all done before noon, so it's probably not going to be offered until the afternoon of 16 Nisan. That possibility is why RYbZ had to forbid it all day. I'm sure that's what he was thinking.

Then we get the opinion that the Torah itself forbids new grain for the whole day of 16 Nisan, and RYbZ's "decree" was really just a new interpretation of the Torah.

Back to the calendar! Originally they would accept testimony of the new moon all day, but witnesses didn't arrive until late afternoon, so the Levites got messed up with singing the right song (opinions differ on what happened: some say they did the weekday song rather than the Rosh Chodesh song because it hadn't yet been declared as Rosh Chodesh, others say they were on the edge of their seats waiting for the testimony and didn't sing anything). Therefore, they decreed that testimony would only be accepted until the time of mincha; if the witnesses came after that, then both days would be observed as Rosh Chodesh. After the destruction of the Temple, RYbZ went back to accepting testimony all day, since there were no singing Levites anyway.

This is the basis for our present observance of 2-day Rosh Chodesh and "one long day" (lasting 48 hours) of Rosh Hashanah. The 30th day of the previous month is automatically observed as Rosh Chodesh (because if we wait to find out for sure, then we could find out in the afternoon that it's Rosh Chodesh, and then we incorrectly observed the last 20 hours or so as a weekday), and then the following day might also be Rosh Chodesh (if the new moon was not successfully declared the first time). So why are the two days of Rosh Hashanah counted as 1 and 2 Tishrei, rather than 30 Elul and 1 Tishrei like a normal 2-day Rosh Chodesh? I think I might have known the answer, but I forgot. Any assistance?

Note that the reasons for observing a 48-hour Rosh Hashanah (in Israel or anywhere) are completely unrelated to the reasons for 2-day yom tov in the Diaspora. In the former case, the issue is ontological uncertainty (it is fundamentally unknown whether today is Rosh Hashanah), whereas in the latter case it is merely epistemological uncertainty (someone knows whether today is yom tov, just not us).

Then we get a discussion of shir shel yom, the psalm belonging to each day. Each daily psalm is matched with the corresponding day in the creation story. Some of the connections are better than others. On the first day, God ruled alone in the universe, thus Sunday's psalm is Psalm 24, "The earth belongs to God, and everything in it". And so forth.

The Levites' daily psalms have survived into our morning service, but then we learn about some other liturgical traditions that we don't do anymore! In the musaf service on Shabbat, there was a 6-week cycle, each week singing one aliyah from the song in Parshat Ha'azinu (only the first 6 aliyot, since the seventh is back to narrative). Shabbat mincha was on a 3-week cycle, with the first half of Shirat Hayam, the second half of Shirat Hayam, and the song in Numbers 21:17-20.

Then we hear about the 10 stages in the exile of the Shechinah, and the 10 stages in the exile of the Sanhedrin. I thought that the connection between this and everything else was just the whole theme of life after the destruction of the Temple (in fact, we discussed Yavneh last week), but it occurred to me just now that the Gemara's narrative structure of these journeys ("from A to B, from B to C, from C to D") is the same structure found in the aforementioned song in Numbers 21. Wow!

The Shechinah was exiled from the ark-cover to the cherub to the other cherub to the porch to the courtyard to the altar to the roof to the wall to the city to the mountain to the desert, and then waited in the desert 6 months for Israel to repent, but finally gave up. Each of these transitions is backed up by a prooftext. Some of the prooftexts are classic examples of the rabbis wrenching a verse out of its context, but a number of them come from the powerful narrative of Ezekiel 8-11, so the context is actually germane. Ezekiel's account of the destruction differs from the basic story that recurs in Kings, Jeremiah, and Chronicles. Those other three books tell what dates everything happened, how many people were killed and taken captive, and what was destroyed. Ezekiel sees it as a spiritual destruction, and tells the story of God's Presence flying away.

Likewise, the Sanhedrin (like the Continental Congress) kept moving around to various waystations after leaving Jerusalem. I have been to some of those places with SHF. I haven't been to Yavneh (which is now the home of the Israeli Ben & Jerry's factory), but we went to Beit Shearim and Tzipori. Beit Shearim's claim to fame (other than as one temporary location of the Sanhedrin) is that Yehuda "Rebbi" Hanasi is buried there. Once he was buried there, everyone who was anyone in subsequent centuries, all over the Middle East, made sure to be buried there. Thus, the necropolis that has been dug up contains tombstones testifying to their inhabitants' places of origin: all the way from present-day Syria to Yemen. And Tzipori has the cool mosaics.

Tiberias (where the Talmud Yerushalmi was compiled) was the lowest point of all. The exile went all the way down into the dust, but the dust is whence we will be redeemed! Hitna'ari, me'afar kumi!

I had been waiting with bated breath to get to the part where Hillel II sanctified all future new moons and established our modern mathematical version of the calendar, but this was the penultimate mishnah having anything to do with the calendar, and we still haven't gotten there. So then I looked at Wikipedia's article on the Hebrew calendar and it says "A popular tradition holds that Patriarch Hillel II revealed the continuous calendar in 359 due to Christian persecution, formerly a secret known only to the 'calendar committee', a council of sages. This tradition was first mentioned quite late by Hai Gaon (died 1038). But the Talmud, which did not reach its final form until c. 500, does not mention it." So there you have it. We're never going to get there. I hope to learn about all this and more when I move on to the Rambam's Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh, and then I'll teach about it in my class at the NHC Summer Institute.

Thank you, Mr. Minor

Two interesting pieces in the June Zeek:

Leah Koenig writes on "The So Called Jewish Cultural Revolution". The article is nominally about klezmer hiphop accordionist So Called (aka Josh Dolgin), but also discusses the relationship between innovative Jewish startup endeavors (artistic and otherwise) and the "mainstream" Jewish institutions.

Without exaggeration, So Called is truly the best klezmer hiphop accordionist I have ever seen. If you've never seen any, go and see So Called; the spectacle of his Yiddish rapping can't be summed up in mere words. I want to see him team up with Corn Mo. On the other hand, and I'm going to be put in cherem from the hip Jewish circles for saying this, I'm not so into Matisyahu (who, like So Called, records on JDub Records and appears in this article). The whole "Hasidic reggae superstar" thing looks great on paper, but then I saw him and realized that I don't actually like reggae (other than some of the ubiquitous standard Bob Marley catalog, and there's no way that "Redemption Song" can be classified as reggae anyway). All the songs started to sound the same to me, and they all started like the first few measures of Phish's "Harry Hood", so I just kept on being disappointed that they didn't then segue into the rest of "Harry Hood". Where do you go when the lights go out? I didn't even get hit by a glowstick. But that's ok. "Led Zeppelin didn't write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees."

I disagree with So Called's assessment of Debbie Friedman as "corny ... crap". Yes, DF's studio albums are overproduced, and especially on the later ones, the synthesizer ruins otherwise excellent songs (give me the live "Shelter of Peace" any day), but when it's just her on the guitar and maybe a live backup band, that's great stuff. Of course I'm biased, because DF taught me everything I know about songleading, and I wrote a hagiographic academic article about her and co-founded a minyan on which she is one of the primary influences, and I have a soft spot for even the unquestionably corny stuff like "Sing Unto God". But Debbie Friedman should be recognized for her revolutionary effect on tefillah in the Reform movement and beyond. The liner notes for Sing Unto God (1972) are prescient: "Sing Unto God is a new experience in worship that emphasizes through song the importance of community involvement in worship. This music carries a solid message in a simple, easily understood form. It enables those who are willing, to join together as a community in contemporary songs of prayer. " What So Called and Matisyahu are doing today, syncretistically turning hiphop and reggae into Jewish music, is precisely what DF and her contemporaries did with the American folk music of the '60s. Perhaps our generation will have succeeded when our innovative edgy art becomes our children's corny crap.

Koenig's article also explores how the various Jewish startups have attracted attention (and funding) from the big foundations and federations, who see that these startups are engaging the younger generation in a way that the established organizations aren't. On the one hand, a source of venture capital for the startups is of course a good thing; on the other: "Although the foundations and philanthropists are hedging their bets that these innovative upstarts can help revive the waning pulse of contemporary Judaism, they want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth ... Welcome to the Jewish Cultural Revolution (this revolution may be monitored for quality control purposes)."

Is it "selling out" to accept money for a substantive Jewish project if the funders might have a completely different agenda ("Holocaust, Israel, and Jewish babies")? I say no, as long as the dot-org entrepreneurs continue to set their own agendas rather than reshaping themselves to someone else's priorities. And as far as I can tell, JDub and the other startups in the article are keeping it real. It's not such a bad thing for us to let the mainstream organizations believe they're saving our souls even if our visions differ. And if they want to support "cool" Jewish expression for our generation, better for them to give us the money to do it ourselves so that the expression is authentic, because when they try to look "cool", they make fools of themselves.

I could get on my high horse about how Kol Zimrah hasn't gotten any mainstream funding, but I won't, because that would be idiotic. Of course we would have jumped at the chance, and we've done without it for two reasons: 1) We have been very fortunate to form a relationship with the SAJ, which has been hosting us on Friday nights while giving our community the space to pursue our vision, and 2) our financial needs are just much less than these other organizations -- we spend 0 on marketing, we are completely localized in New York (the Jerusalem spinoff runs itself), and nobody is making a living from Kol Zimrah. So we started off with a budget of $0 (which was very constricting, but we held on), and since we incorporated, we have paid our bills from contributions large and small within the KZ community. Some of the other startups, in contrast, need a lot more stuff to carry out their mission, including offices and employees. And it's a wonderful development that big Jewish money is now supporting these endeavors. Let's hope that it never turns into MTV or Fruitopia.

In the same issue, Jay Michaelson writes on "Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis". I guess we're now at the point where anyone who cares about seeing Revenge of the Sith has seen it, so it's ok to talk about it now. The article contrasts the Jedi and Sith philosophies, applying them to contemporary politics, Judaism, gender, and life. Jewish ethics are identified with the Jedi:
How ironic, then, to find today Jewish rhetoric married to a radically anti-Jewish ideology of strength, "personal responsibility," power, and militarism. Today's Jewish neocons willfully miss the narrative of empathy, in favor of selected "Old Testament" pronouncements of moral absolutism. Their Israeli far-right cohorts focus on the Book of Joshua more than the Book of Isaiah, on holiness codes more than the Golden Rule. And both act as though Judaism were a religion of power, when clearly it is that of the dispossessed. Thus marrying memes of Jewish power to emotional motifs of victimhood, they espouse numerous policies of cruelty, with disastrous results.

I don't agree with all the gender designations in the article (the Sith/Right is masculine, while the Jedi/Left is feminine). I am more inclined toward George Lakoff's concept of the nation as a family, which conservatives see through the Strict Father model and progressives see through the Nurturant Parent model. These models map onto Jay Michaelson's understanding of the Sith/Jedi dichotomy, but the genders are different: the Strict Father is masculine (with the subservient female as part of the model), while the Nurturant Parent is gender-neutral.

Even if the Sith are ascendant today and the Jedi are driven into hiding, perhaps there are Lukes and Leias among us who will be a New Hope.