Friday, April 26, 2013

To Err Is Human

In his book "Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters" (University of Scranton, Scranton and London: 2008), historian Marc Shapiro writes, referring to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, that in traditional studies it is almost always assumed that "there is an answer for every perplexity". Shapiro writes (p. 3) that,
The possibility that Maimonides made a simple error, or that he overlooked a rabbinic passage - which entails bringing Maimonides down to the level of a mere mortal - is not an operating principle.
Shapiro, under the header "To Err Is Human", then goes on to list an extensive list of all kinds of errors committed by Maimonides in his writings. With this, Shapiro brought on himself the wrath of Asher Bentzion Buchman who went on to write an article titled "The Hagiographer's Review of Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters" which was published in Hakirah journal. In the article, Buchman admits that the "hagiographic approach" is not limited to Maimonides, but also "extends to other chachmei hamesorah." Indeed, one of the major driving forces behind much of the Torah literature can be attributed to the traditional approach of assuming that a seeming error or contradiction is not the result of sloppiness or forgetfulness, but actually means something deep and profound.

However, learning any traditional source without this crucial assumption, will many times lead to the conclusion that the author in question was erring in one way or another. Of course, many times another traditional source might offer a plausible explanation, but other times it can be quite obvious that the author made a simple error. Here's one such example.

In BT Brakhot 37a it says as follows (edit: translation is from Soncino Talmud with minor changes of my own):

ואורז [ודוחן] לא מברכינן בורא מיני מזונות?! והתניא, "הביאו לפניו פת אורז ופת דוחן מברך עליו תחלה וסוף כמעשה קדרה", וגבי מעשה קדרה תניא, "בתחלה מברך עליו בורא מ"מ ולבסוף מברך עליו ברכה אחת מעין שלש"? כמעשה קדרה ולא כמעשה קדרה. כמעשה קדרה, דמברכין עליו תחלה וסוף. ולא כמעשה קדרה, דאילו במעשה קדרה בתחלה בורא מיני מזונות ולבסוף ברכה אחת מעין ג', ואילו הכא בתחלה מברך עליו שהכל נהיה בדברו ולבסוף בורא נפשות רבות וחסרונן על כל מה שברא.
[Previously, Rav and Samuel had said that on rice and millet one does not say the brakha of mezonot. Asks the gemara,] and over rice and millet do we not say, 'borei minei mezonot'?! Has it not been taught, "If one is served with rice bread or millet bread, he says blessings before and after it as for a cooked dish [of the five species]"; and with regard to cooked dishes, it has been taught, "He says before partaking, 'Shehakol niyeh bidvaro', and after it, he says one blessing which includes three [al hamikhya]? [answers the gemara:] It is on a par with cooked dishes in one way and not in another. It resembles cooked dishes in requiring a brakha before and after, and it differs from cooked dishes, because the blessing before these is 'borei minei mezonot' and the blessing after is the one which includes three, whereas in this case the blessing before is 'shehakol niyeh bidvaro', and the blessing after. 'borei nefashot rabot vehesronan etc.'
In short, Rav and Samuel say that on rice and millet one does not make the brakha of mezonot. The gemara asks from a baraita where it says that one makes on a bread of rice or millet the same brakha before and after as on a cooked dish, and on a cooked dish one makes mezonot and al hamihya. The gemara then ingeniously answers that it is only similar to a cooked dish with that it requires a brakha before and after eating it, but it is not similar to a cooked dish with regard to the brakha it requires. Later, the gemara asks a question from another baraita  and concludes that the halakha is not according to Rav and Samuel and on rice one makes the brakhot of mezonot and al hamihya.

But R. Asher b. Yehiel, also known as the Rosh, writes (ad. loc 8) as follows:
על אורז, אם אפאו ועשה ממנו פת או שבשלו ועשאו כעין דייסא, מברכין עליו תחלה בורא מיני מזונות ... ולאחריו בנ"ר ... והא דתניא לעיל, "הביאו לפניו פת אורז ופת דוחן מברך עליו כמעשה קדירה"? אברכה ראשונה קאי, שמברכין עליו בורא מיני מזונות.
On rice, if he cooked it ... he makes the brakha beforehand of borei minei mezonot  ... and afterwards borei nefashot rabot. ... And regarding what was [quoted from a baraita], "If one is served with rice bread or millet bread, he says brakhot as for a cooked dish", this only refers to the brakha beforehand, in that he makes on it borei minei mezonot.
Alas, the only way it's possible to sustain the Rosh's explanation of the baraita is by ignoring the words "תחלה וסוף" - "before and after it". Otherwise, how do we explain the meaning of those words? the words can't as the original explanation the gemara gave (that it has the same brakha before and after as a cooked dish), because the Rosh posits that the comparison to a cooked dish only applies to the brakha beforehand. But it also can't mean the gemara's second explanation (that one makes a brakha on it before and after eating it, just like one does on a cooked dish) because according to the Rosh, rice is compared to a cooked dish because it has the same brakha beforehand! 

There are only two ways to explain the Rosh. Either he had an alternate version that left out the words תחלה וסוף, or that he (mis)quoted from memory. In this case, I think it's clear that the Rosh didn't have an alternate version, since a few lines after the above quote, the Rosh quotes the baraita again, and this time he includes the words omitted earlier:
וכן משמע ההוא דלעיל הביאו לפניו פת אורז ופת דוחן מברכין עליו תחלה וסוף כמעשה קדירה.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Influence of the Zohar on Halakha by R. Yehiel Goldhaber (audio)

Here is an audio recording of the lecture delivered Thursday night last week by R. Yehiel Goldhaber at the home of Dr. Shlomo Sprecher. Unfortunately, the recording is not complete, and the last 10-15 minutes of the lecture are missing. Since no other recording was posted online, I'm posting this incomplete recording. If the complete recording will be uploaded, I will update this post to include a link to the entire lecture. Feel free to download and share. The lecture was advertised in advanced on the Seforim Blog, and according to what it says there, it was dedicated to the memory of R. Y. Szlafrok, z"l whose 25th Yahrzeit was this past Shabbos, 10 Iyaar. יהא זכרו ברוך.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sagan's Blunder

But tenets at the heart of religion can be tested scientifically. This in itself makes some religious bureaucrats and believers wary of science. Is the Eucharist, as the Church teaches, in fact and not just as productive metaphor, the flesh of Jesus Christ, or is it, chemically, microscopically and in other ways, just a wafer handed to you by a priest? Will the world be destroyed at the end of the 52-year Venus cycle unless humans are sacrificed to the g o d s ? Does the occasional uncircumcised Jewish man fare worse than his co-religionists who abide by the ancient covenant in which God demands a piece of foreskin from every male worshipper? Are there humans populating innumerable other planets, as the Latter Day Saints teach? Were whites created from blacks by a mad scientist, as the Nation of Islam asserts? Would the Sun indeed not rise if the Hindu sacrificial rite is omitted (as we are assured would be the case in the Satapatha Brahmana)?
 Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1997), p. 262

I don't know anything about the Eucharist or the Hindu sacrificial rite beyond what Wikipedia can tell me. Circumcision, however I do know. Judaeus sum, judaici nihil a me alienium puto, as Shadal said. And that's how I know that Carl got it wrong. As far as I know, circumcision is not supposed to make the circumcised fare better in life. He would have had a bone to pick with mezuzot, or better yet, amulets themselves. But circumcision? Where did he get that from?

And if he didn't do his homework on this one, can I still rely on what he says about the others?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Missed Opportunity

Here's a snippet of a conversation that Rav Yaakov Chizkiah Greenwald of Pupa had with Rav Aaron Teitelbaum of Satmar, as it's recorded here

trans.: The Pupa Rebbe: I remember my father OBM was once in Florida, he met there a Jew who presented himself as a professor of botany. So my father asked him do you know anything about birds that grow on trees? so he stood still and answered no. So my father told him that in Shulhan Arukh such a creature is discussed.
Our Rebbe [Rav Teitelbaum]: Yes, in Yoreh De'ah (83:15).
And then the conversation turned to something else.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What the Ashkenazic Rishonim Lacked

A while back I read an interesting article by R. Natan Slifkin about the Case of the Jumping Elephants. In that article, R. Slifkin argued that the Ashkenazic Tosafists probably did not know how elephants looked like and therefore Tosafot to BT T. Kiddushin 26a made the mistake of maintaining that elephants can jump on all four legs. R. Slifkin writes that he got some angry feedback about his seemingly controversial idea, but he backs up his opinion with those of the Chatam Sofer on Niddah 18a who writes that Rashi's and Tosafot's description of the female anatomy does not match reality, and the Malbim who dismisses the Rishonim's opinion on the firmament due to it being unscientific.

The same issue was raised again a few years later by R. Slifkin in his discussion of the Kezayis. In his essay "The Evolution of the Olive", R. Slifkin asserts, based on historical evidence which includes testimony of Rishonim themselves, that Ashkenazic Rishonim generally never saw an olive in their lives.

Recently I came across another such instance where an Ashkenazic Rishon is accused of erring due to not having seen the subject-matter at hand. R. Yaakov son of the Rosh writes in his monumental work "Arba'ah Turim" (Tur OC §202) that since sugarcanes are mostly grown to extract their juice for sugar production but not for eating the cane itself because that is inedible and  therefore the appropriate brakhah on sugar would be Bore Pri Ha'etz. But R. Yosef Karo in his Kesef Mishna (Brakhot 8:5) comments on the Tur's words - and the Magen Avraham (OC  §202:13) cites the words of the Kesef Mishna approvingly - as follows:

ואני אומר שאילו היו קנים הללו נמצאים בארצו של הטור לא היה טוען כן. שבמקום שנמצאים מוכרים מהם לאלפים ולרבבות למצוץ אותם.
And I say, were these canes sold in the land of the Tur, he wouldn't have said so. Because in the places where they are found, they are sold in the thousands and ten thousand to be sucked.

Sugarcanes are usually grown in tropical regions (as per Wikipedia) The Tur claimed that the canes are inedible, but R. Karo says (as does -l'havdil- Wikipedia) that in the places where sugarcanes are grown they are regularly eaten. The Tur just never saw a sugarcane in his life.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Are You Doing the Daf Yoineh?

“What IS daf yoineh?” you might ask. As a child, I used to hear people, usually of the Satmar domination, call Daf yomi that. People with a heavy Hungarian Hasidic accent tend to pronounce words that end with a chirik, with a shva. For example, the word כללי (as in תיקון כללי or שיעור כללי) is pronounced as kluleh, and יומי is pronounced as Yoimeh. At one point, someone thought it’ll be funny to call it Daf Hayoineh instead of Daf Hayoimeh, and the name stuck.

So who was that someone? In the recently published “Ginat Veradim” (vol. 15 5772), a quarterly published by the Zaalonite Satmar fraction, a collection of stories “on the subject of our rabbis’ opposition to Daf Yomi” was featured, in honor of the upcoming Siyum Hashas. Here’s one gem:

סיפר הרב הגאון המפורסם מוה"ר משה ארי' לעוו ז"ל הרב מטעמעשוואר שהרה"ק מנאסויד הי' מזלזל בדף היומי, והיה קוראו בלשון גנאי "דף היונה"...
(מפי נכדו הרב אא"ד הי"ו שממעו ממנו)

The rav of Timișoara, R. Moshe Aryeh Lev related that the holy Rabbi [Abraham Joshua Freund] of Năsăud used to disparage the daf yomi, and he used to call it in a derogatory way “daf hayoineh”…

I don't know if this is true or not, but if it is, then this might be the origin of the term, or at least one of the origins.

But I was surprised to see the following letter in Hamodia’s weekly magazine “Inyan” (Vol. XV, issue 715 p. 4):

A short while ago you printed a letter (Parshas Shelach/June 13) claiming that Harav Meir Shapiro’s status as the originator of Daf Yomi was in question and stating that “there are many proofs for it”. I would like to make the following points. …. [T]here is a well-known story (cited in at least one place in Aleinu L’shabei’ach, Shemos, p. 548) that after Harav Shapiro became famous, he met someone from his hometown and asked if the other person remembered that they had played together as children. When the man replied in the affirmative, he asked, “Do you remember that I used to dream of initiating a program of Shas for all of Klal Yisrael, and the children used to laugh at me calling it ‘daf hayoneh’?” The man said he remembered that too. Rav Shapiro responded, “I’m telling you this because it is important to remember never to laugh at the dreams of a child!”

In addition to the obvious lesson in this story, it seems clear that he was already thinking of the idea when he was very young. ….

Leibel Klein

It would seem from this letter that the derogatory term was born together with the idea of Daf Yomi itself. Alas, to my non-surprise, looking up the story in Aleinu Leshabe’ach I found that he tells the story all right but without the part about the children calling it daf hayoneh. That part is most obviously an anachronism added by Mr. Klein. Not that I would trust Aleinu Leshabe’ach's version of the story any more than I trust Mr. Leibel Klein, considering the outrageous stories the book is fond of telling kayadua, but the fact that Aleinu Leshabeach records the legend without the part about daf hayoneh is definitely telling.

Speaking of the originator of the Daf Yomi idea, let me just point you in the direction of S.’ post on the matter here. It is interesting to not though, that what S. cites was already mentioned in an article in Yeshurun by R. Eliezer Katzman who thanks Prof. Shneur Zalman Lehman for pointing it out.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Artscroll is frummer than Rashi

As a rule of thumb, Artscroll translates and elucidates according to Rashi’s commentary. As the editors write in the introduction (to the English edition, but the same appears in the Hebrew edition) “[t]he translation and commentary almost always follow Rashi, although other opinions may be mentioned in the notes”. But what they fail to mention is that when Rashi’s commentary is not “frum” enough, it gives them good reason to deviate from Rashi.

In tractate Niddah (2a) the Mishna speaks about how using a Bedikah cloth before and after intercourse is enough to determine here status as tahor. Rashi, in his explaining the Mishnah, writes as follows:

אם ראתה דם אחר כך בבדיקת ערבית והיא שמשה בצהרים לא מטמאינן טהרות דמבדיקת שחרית עד תשמיש, שהרי קודם תשמיש בדקה, ומצאתה טהורה.
If she saw [blood]… when she checks herself at night, and she had intercourse in the afternoon, we do not consider her as Tameh from the morning till the intercourse, since she checked herself before she had intercourse and she found that she was clean.
The problem is that having intercourse in the afternoon is not frum. Well, actually, it depends. In BT Niddah 17a it says:
אמר רב חסדא: אסור לו לאדם שישמש מטתו ביום, שנאמר +ויקרא י"ט+ ואהבת לרעך כמוך. מאי משמע? אמר אביי: שמא יראה בה דבר מגונה ותתגנה עליו. אמר רב הונא: ישראל קדושים הם ואין משמשין מטותיהן ביום אמר רבא: ואם היה בית אפל - מותר  
Said R. Hisdah: it’s forbidden to have intercourse in daytime, because it says “you shall love your friend as thyself”. But what is the proof from this verse? Abaye replied: He might observe something repulsive in her and she would thereby become loathsome to him. R. Huna said, Israel are holy and do not perform intercourse in daytime. Raba said, but in a dark house it is permitted.
So while intercourse should be done at night, if the room is dark it can be done at daytime. But, in our day and age it’s not frum enough.

In the English edition, Artscroll avoids the problem by simply not giving a time frame for that example and they just write that the bedikah before intercourse (no word on when the intercourse takes place) is considered a good enough bedikah. In the Hebrew edition, which is much better than its English counterpart in terms of explaining the Gemara, they explain in more depth. So instead of just giving the same example Rashi gave, they write as follows:

והמשמשת בעדים ... הרי זו כפקידה ... וממעטת על יד מעת לעת, כגון אם שימשה באמצע הלילה ונמצאה טהורה בבדיקתה אז, וראתה דם בשחרית, שאינה מטמאה למפרע מעת לעת משחרית של אתמול, אלא מאמצע הלילה בלבד, שהרי נמצאה טהורה אז בבדיקה של תשמיש.
And one who checks herself at the time of intercourse, it is considered a valid bedikah, for example, if she had intercourse in middle of the night and she found herself clean, and she saw blood in the morning, she isn't tameh only from in middle of the night onward, since she found herself to be clean in the intercourse bedikah.
It doesn't really change anything in the simple understanding of the Mishnah. But it does show that Artscroll was uncomfortable to give the same example as Rashi, and changed to come of more frum.