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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Defining the Moment: Anachronistic Explanations in Rashi

About a month ago, the launching of the book "Defining the Moment: Understanding brain death in Halakhah" by R. Dr. David Shabtai was  announced on the Hirhurim blog. In the comments section, R. Natan Slifkin asked the following question:
Rabbi Shabtai – I have not yet read your book, but it seems that all those who wrote haskamos, and whose positions you discuss, take the approach of paskening this question directly from the Gemara and earlier poskim. Applying this methodology of psak is in turn is based on two presumptions: that Chazal differentiated between the nervous system, the cardiopulmonary system, and the respiratory system – and that they correctly understood the role of each. Do you discuss the nature and validity of these presumptions in the book?
R. Dr. Shabtai didn't reply to the comment and not to a subsequent comment submitted one day later, although he addressed other questions posed to him in the comments. A few days later, R. Slifkin wrote the following on his blog:
I posed [the] question to the author twice, and despite the fact that he was responding to other comments, he did not respond to my question. My guess is that he'd never thought about it, and is uncomfortable with it. I don't blame him for his discomfort.
In the same post, R. Slifkin also wrote that:
Someone who acknowledges that Chazal only possessed the limited scientific knowledge of their era will (hopefully) take this into account. But if someone believes that Chazal could not have been mistaken about scientific matters ... then they will refuse to consider that brain death cannot be resolved via drawing inferences from the statements of Chazal.
On another, more recent, blogpost on Hirhurim, a commenter named "Ephy" wrote:
Rabbi Slifkin does not just hold brain death is the time of death, but rather we should ignore the Gemara on the topic since it was unaware of the brain housing the intellect. This is at odds with Rabbi Tendler etc (by Rabbi Slifkin’s own admission) who analyze the Gemara. Rabbi Slifkin will quickly reject any Gemara that discusses anything that deals with the body science etc. 
Now, I'm not sure what is it that R. Slifkin meant when he said that Hazal's limited scientific knowledge have to be taken into account when trying to pasken whether brain death is death or not from Hazal. It could be that he meant what Ephy said he meant, namely, that we have to ignore Hazal's statements on this issue. But it could also be - and that's the way I took it to mean - that all R. Slifkin meant to say was that we have to take Hazal's limited scientific knowledge into account when trying to draw inferences about brain death in Halakhah. But of course, it's possible to draw halakhic inferences about the criteria of death from Hazal.

R. Slifkin asked R. Dr. Shabtai whether he took into account Hazal's limited knowledge. But what about Rashi's limited scientific knowledge? I think that this is something that shouldn't make anyone uncomfortable, as per the famous quote from R. Moses Sofer in his Hidushei Hatam Sofer (Niddah 18a) about Rashi's limited medical knowledge. In the example below, it becomes apparent that (at least in one case) R. Dr. Shabtai  assumes Rashi's perfect scientific knowledge. To me, this is quite disturbing. 

In chapter 5 of the book, R. Dr. Shabtai deals with the Mishna and Gemara in tractate Yuma (83a, 85a). The Gemara records a dispute between Tana'im regarding a building that collapsed on a person in Shabbat, and the dispute is whether the rubble may be cleared up to the person's nose where they have to check if the person is alive (if he is, they should continue the excavation; if not they must cease), or up to the person's heart (according to Rashi's text.). According to Rav Papa, the dispute is as follows: in the case that the rubble is being cleared from the person head down, everyone agrees that they must only clear up to his nose and check if the person is alive. The dispute is only in the case that  they clear the rubble from his feet up. Some rabbis say that they may only clear up to his heart, and some rabbis posit that the rubble can be cleared up until that person's nose.

Says Rashi (Yuma 85a s.v. amar Rav Papa):
אמר רב פפא, מחלוקת מלמטה למעלה - מחלוקת דהנך תנאי - דמר אמר עד לבו ומר אמר עד חוטמו - מלמטה למעלה, שמוצאו דרך מרגלותיו תחלה ובודק והולך כלפי ראשו דמר אמר בלבו יש להבחין אם יש בו חיות שנשמתו דופקת שם ומר אמר עד חוטמו דזימנין דאין חיות ניכר בלבו וניכר בחוטמו.
"Said Rav Papa, the dispute is from bottom upward" - the dispute of the Tana'im in which one side said that [they remove the rubble] up to his nose and the other side said that [they remove the rubble] up to his heart, "bottom-up" - it is in a case where they found the person's feet first and the excavate him toward his head. One side says, his heart can be checked whether it has a pulse, and the other side said that there are cases in which the pulse is too weak and there's still a breath in his nose.
According to Dr. Avraham Steinberg, both positions in the Gemara agree that the lack of respiration is the sole requirement to determine death. However, when the victim is found feet-first, some rabbis say that checking for lack of heartbeat is enough since if there's no heartbeat, it's impossible for the person to still be breathing. (As a side note, this is only a viable explanation if you assume that Hazal knew respiration is impossible when the heart isn't beating anymore. If you posit - as R. Slifkin probably does - that Hazal didn't know that, we're forced to say that some tana'im held that both, checking for pulse and for respiration are valid criteria.)

Asks R. Dr. Shabtai (p.75):
If both opinions maintain that cessation of respiration is sufficient criteria to establish death, why doesn't the [nose] opinion rely on cessation of heartbeat, as the [heart] opinion does, when the victim is uncovered feet-first? If there's no heartbeat, the victim cannot be breathing; why then require continued checking until [the nose] if breathing is not physiologically possible? Reading the Talmud as describing the criteria for death invariably leads to this conundrum.

Except, of course, if you believe that Hazal didn't know that. But R. Dr. Shabtai's isn't the only one guilty here of ignoring this possibility. It is Dr. Steinberg - on whose approach R. Dr. Shabtai is asking - that ignored the possibility that Hazal simply weren't aware that cessation of heartbeat invariably means cessation of respiration (although, as we noted earlier. one can take Dr. Steinberg's approach with the slight modification that the "heart" position held that both, lack of respiration AND lack of heartbeat are correct criteria to determine death). But what bothered me is the answer R. Dr. Shabtai gives to this conundrum:

Rashi therefore explains that the Talmud is not debating the actual criteria for death - cessation of heartbeat or respiration - but only the particular tests used to determine whether some previously agreed upon criteria have been met. Both opinions agree that a person cannot breathe without without a heartbeat; the question is only whether a chest exam is sufficiently sensitive to diagnose a heartbeat.
R. Dr. Shabtai then goes on to explain that according to Rashi, both positions in the Gemara agree that the criteria for death is the irreversible cessation of heartbeat. The dispute is only on the tests required to determine that the criteria has been met. According to the "heart" position, checking the heart for a pulse is enough to determine whether the heartbeat has ceased or not. According to the "nose" position, that is not sufficient, and the nose has to be checked for respiration. Only when there's no respiration can we be sure that there is no cardiac function.

Besides for the obvious problem which R. Dr. Shabtai fails to address, which is that checking for respiration is NOT a valid test to determine cardiac function, since the heart can continue beating even when respiration has stopped (and which is, ironically, only a problem for R. Dr. Shabtai who assumes that Hazal were up-to-date with their scientific knowledge), R. Dr. Shabtai's entire presentation of Rashi's approach is based on the mistaken premise that not only did Hazal know that cessation of heartbeat is a sure sign of cessation of breathing, but Rashi knew that as well, and therefore explained the Gemara as as relating to tests that are made to determine criteria not even hinted at in the Gemara!

R. Dr. Shabtai finishes off the passage with the following word:
In summary, Dr. Steinberg maintains that [checking the nose] and [checking the heart] are disparate criteria for death and that R. Papa concludes that both opinions essentially agree that cessation of respiration is the determining factor. Rashi, on the other hand maintains that the Talmud's question relates to the accuracy and sensitivity of different possible tests of cardiac function - assuming that cardiac criteria and cardiac criteria alone determine death.
To me, this is a misrepresentation of what Rashi says, and is based on the assumption that Rashi is aware of the fact that  lack of heartbeat invariably shows on cessation of respiration. Take away this assumption, and there remains almost no basis for explaining Rashi the way R. Dr. Shabtai does. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Argumentum ad Verecundiam

R. Gil Student posted the following question on Hirhurim:
The Torah commands us to destroy the remembrance of Amalek (Deut. 25:19) as part of a permanent war against the nation (Ex. 17:16). The Mekhilta (to Ex. 17:16) states that, as part of this permanent state of war, God vowed not to accept converts from Amalek. However, the Gemara (Gittin 57b) states that Haman’s descendants (sons of sons) taught Torah in Bnei Brak. While this turn-about demonstrates the ironies of history and the ultimate victory over our enemy, it seems to violate the command to destory the remembrance of Amalek.
R. Student then proceeds to summarize 25 answers collected by R. Yerachmiel Zelcer in his sefer "Ner Le'meah" on Purim. One of the answers is as follows:
Rachav converted even though she was a Canaanite because her soul was a reincarnation of Tamar (Chida in the name of the Arizal). Similarly, the prohibition to accept Amalekite converts only applies to Amalekite souls and not reincarnations (31, Ner Le-Mei’ah).
In the comments, I took issue with this answer:

Rch”l, I’m מוחה on the גילוי פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה. Is this to say that we are not מצווה to kill Amalkites, but those who have Amalkites’ souls? Next you’ll tell me we’re allowed to accept Moabites into Klal Yisrael, because only those wiht Moabite souls are banned, אתמהה!
R. Student answered:
That’s Chasidishe Torah. Apparently, you don’t like it.
I countered:
No that’s not Chasidishe Torah. Chasidishe Torah [almost] never tries to limit halachic parameters based on kaballah. The slippery slope is so obvious here. Next thing I tell you is an Eishes Ish doesn’t mean literally an eishes ish but someone with the soul of an eishes ish.
R. Student:
It obviously was meant as an explanation and not practical halakhah.
Gil, an explanation that runs counter to normative halachic יסודות, is called גילו פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה.
R. Student:
Do you understand that you’re accusing the Arizal of this crime?
Classical Argumentum ad Verecundiam. I friend who saw the exchange remarked to me:
Who exactly is the Mishnah talking about when it mentions המגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה? One שיש בידו תורה ומעשים טובים. It has to be a "big" person, otherwise there is no point to it. What's a זקן ממרא, a lesbian Reform rabbi who is patrilineally Jewish?  
 Great point. 

The truth is that there are a different interpretation of מגלה פנים בתורה in the commentaries, but here's what the Me'iri writes:
מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה - כלומר דמראה את עצמו כאילו יודע בסתרי תורה ויגלה אותן שלא כהלכה, והוא בצד שיכחיש הנגלה ממנה לגמרי, ואומר שלא היתה כוונת ה' לכך, אלא שהיא משל לענין אחר, והנגלה איננו כלל. וזהו שורש משורשי הכפירה, שהמצוות כולם, אע"פ שיש בקצתם נסתר, אין ספק שעצם המצווה הוא הנגלה ממנה.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

And Here I Thought... (Origins of Popular Jewish Tunes)

After posting about the origins of Mishanikhnas, several readers wrote to me about the origins of other popular Jewish tunes that share the same fate as Mishenikhans. I decided to post a compilation of these tunes. If you want to add to the list, feel free to email me OnThisAndOnThat at gmail!

Please note: Some of these videos may have Kol Isha and/or untzinus women.

I'll start with a Purim themed one. The famous tune song on the words "חייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע".

I'm not sure which came first, but this seems to be an old Romanian love song.

The next one is a Piamenta brothers classic, on the words of "Asher bara sason vesimha".

Listen to it here performed by the Piamentas, or watch this video below to hear it sung by "Lev Sameah" band.

And the source:

The credit for the following goes to Professor David Asaf, who posted these on his wonderful blog. In the posts, Prof. Assaf goes into lengthy discussions regarding the songs, which are very interesting. I provide the link to each of these individual posts, click and enjoy.

First on the list (link there's also the Hebrew version and the lyrics) is a song first recorded by R. Yom Tov Erlikh, and re-recorded by Avraham Fried.

and here's the source:

Here's another R. Erlikh classic (link, history and lyrics) as recorded by Avraham Fried:

And the source:

A famous Chabad song (link):

and its source:

And a not-so-famous Chabad song (link):

and the source:

The oh-so-famous MBD song (link):

and its oh-so-famous source:

An old Pirchai London song (link):

Its source:

Michoel Shtreicher (link):

The original:

And the last one from Assaf, a tune that took the opposite journey, from Shlomo Karlibach to Russia (link)

The source:

Yeah, apparently Shlomo was great enough to have *his* songs plagiarized...

Itzik Orlev, what a sweet voice!

And it's source:

Lipa Schmeltzer (of course):

Its cute source:

This is the last one. Maoz Tzur:

Its source (partially):

Credit for the following three goes to Wikipedia's entry on MBD. Wikipedia also has the "Yidden" song which we have above from David Assaf's blog.

MBD's "Lichtiger Shabbos":

The source:

MBD's "Daddy Dear":

The source:

MBD's "Shir Hashalom"

And the source:

You have no idea how many times my computer froze during the making of this post...You are welcome.
If you know of anything else, send it in and I'll add it. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Evolution of a Tune

In spirit of the new Jewish month of Adar, I decided to post about the merry tune sung worldwide on the words of Hazal's dictum "mishenikhnas Adar marbin besimhah" - when the month of Adar arrives, we increase our joy (BT Taanit 29a). 

This popular folk's tune is actually very old, dating back to the era of slavery. The lyrics of the song speak about having to jump down and pick a cotton bale a day which is a nearly improbable feat for one person, given the huge size of a cotton bale.

A cotton bale in Houston, Texas, Gin, 1939 (Library of Congress)

Here is a Youtube video of iconic American folk musician Lead Belly (1888-1949) performing the song with its original lyrics (hat-tip upon request/permission). 

In 1952 the song was included in an album called Get on Board: Negro Folksongs by the Folkmasters. Here is the information regarding "Pick a Bale of Cotton" as it appears in the record's liner notes.

(A John Henry twist, refers to the folk tale of John Henry, see the Wikipedia entry.)
At some point in history, some Jew adopted the tune to the words of Mishenikhnas and the tune turned into a popular Jewish song. Call it plagiarism if you wish. Surprising as it may sound, I have not found online a rendition of Mishenikhnas with the Pick a Bale of Cotton tune. What I did find was that the tune has now come full circle, and has returned to its African American roots. Enjoy, and happy Adar.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Talmudic Science: The Case of Shnei Shvilin - part I

As I have posted a while back, I plan on posting on the subject of scientific statements and facts found in the Babylonian Talmud which are seemingly inaccurate and the approaches offered by traditional Torah scholars to these inaccuracies. This is the first post in the series. In this post and in the next one, I intend to deal with a statement in Talmud that is seemingly based on a mistaken understanding of human anatomy and physiology. My goal is to review and analyze the numerous approaches by traditional Torah scholars. The halakhic ramifications of the differing approaches to the passages discussed below cover vastly different areas in halakha, from the question as of how to circumcise a boy born with hypospadias, to the dilemma of whether it’s permitted to undergo a prostatectomy. My hope is that these question will get cleared up, as we analyze the issue.

In Yevamot (75b-76a) it says:
ההוא עובדא דהוה בפומבדיתא, איסתתים גובתא דשכבת זרע ואפיק במקום קטנים, סבר רב ביבי בר אביי לאכשורי; אמר רב פפי: משום דאתו ממולאי אמריתו מילי מוליתא! במקומה מבשלה, שלא במקומה לא מבשלה.
It once happened at Pumbeditha that a man had his semen duct blocked, and the discharge of the semen made its way through the urinal duct. R. Bibi b. Abaye intended to declare the man fit [for marriage]. R. Papi, however, said to him, 'Because you are yourselves frail beings, you speak frail words; through its proper duct it fertilizes but when not passing through its proper duct it does not fertilize [and therefore the man isn't permitted to marry].'

The implication of this passage is that there are two vessels in the male reproduction organ, one for the passage of urine and one for the passage of semen. This is also how Rashi understood it. To explain the passage he cites the following excerpt from Bekhorot (44b):

ת"ר: שני נקבים יש בו באדם, אחד מוציא שתן ואחד מוציא שכבת זרע, ואין בין זה לזה אלא כקליפת השום, בשעה שאדם נצרך אם נקבו זה לתוך זה נמצא עקר.
Our Rabbis taught: Two channels are in the membrum of a human being, one of which discharges urine and the other semen, and the distance between them is no more than the peel of garlic. If when a person needs to ease himself, and one channel interferes with the other, he is found to be impotent.

Here too, the simple understanding is that there are two vessels (with a divider as thin as a peel of a garlic between them) in the male member, one for urine and the other for semen. However, modern anatomy and physiology show that while the semen and urine originate from different places in the body, the semen coming from the testes and the urine from the urinary bladder, both of them end up exiting the body in the same vessel. This vessel is called the urethra, and comes down from the urinary bladder, passes through a gland called the prostate gland, and from there it continues into the member. In the prostate gland, the urethra has two openings for the two vessels coming up from the testes carrying the sperm. (For an accurate description of the urethra, see Gray's Anatomy 40th edition, ch. 75).

Assuming that I an correct with my understanding of the excerpts I quoted, a very obvious question arises. How could Hazal be mistaken in this issue? This is too obvious! R. Hanokh Dov Padwa (1908-2000) in a responsum on the matter (Heshev Haefod Responsa, II:8) indeed dismisses this understanding due to this question. And R. Padwa bolsters his question with the following Mishna in Mikvaot (8:4):
בעל קרי שטבל ולא הטיל את המים כשיטיל את המים טמא.
A man who had a nocturnal emission and immersed himself [in the mikvah] but did not pass first urine, he again becomes tameh when he passes urine.

This implies that Hazal did know that the urine and semen pass in the same vessel and therefore they said that when urinating after a nocturnal emission it's assumed that some remaining semen have passed and therefore we consider the person to be impure. Actually, this is exactly how Rambam and R. Ovadiah of Bartenura understood the Mishnah. According to their explanation of the Mishna, we have to understand why the Gemara in Yevamot and in Bekhorot do not ask from this Mishnah.

Rashi however, has a different understanding of the Mishna. Rashi in Chulin (24b s.v. Lekesheyatil) explains as follows:
לכשיטיל מים טמא, שמא נשאר בפי האמה צחצוח קרי ויוצא עם מי רגלים.
When he passes urine he become tameh, because it might be that a driblet of the emission has remained on the mouth of the member and it goes out with the urine.

In other words, although there are two vessels, one for urine and one for semen, they unite at the tip of the member. This might also be the explanation how they were able to posit that there are two vessels - or one vessel divided in two - in spite of what can be seen with the naked eye. According to Rashi’s understanding, they thought that the tip -the visible part - is where the vessels are already united.

In Nishmat Avraham, Dr. Avraham Avraham records what R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) wrote to him on this matter:
ועל הראיות מהש"ס יתכן שזה בגלל הנקב המשותף שבתוך העטרה, וגם יתכן שעוד לפני העטרה כבר יש רק שביל אחד לשניהם.
And regarding the proof from the Talmud (i.e. the proof R. Padwa brings from the mishna in Mikvaot - Y.), perhaps it is so due to the shared hole within the glans, and it is also possible that even before the glans there is only one vessel for both of them (that is, the two separate vessels unite already within the member.) 

Similarly, R. Auerbach's son-in-law and disciple R. Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg writes (responding to the aforementioned questions posed by R. Padwa) in his booklet “Kuntres Hishtanut Hativa'im” (printed in the back of R. Neriah Gutel’s “Hishtanut Hativa'im B’halacha” Jerusalem 1998, p. 267):
אפשר שבזמן המשנה היו שני שבילין בתוך האמה, אבל לא לכל אורך האמה אלא היה נגמר באמצע האמה, או לכל היותר עד העטרה, ולכן טמא אחר הטלת מי רגלים, שיוצא הש"ז שנשאר שם.
It's possible that in Mishnaic times there were two vessels in the member, but not all along the member, rather, it ended in the middle, or at most up until the glans, and therefore he is tameh after he passes urine, because the remaining semen passes then.
Putting aside the question of what was the actual reality then, and whether nature has changed, we see from R. Auerbach and R. Goldberg's answer that Rashi's explanation in the Mishna answers both of R. Padwa's questions. (It is interesting though, that neither R. Auerbach nor R. Goldberg cite Rashi's explanation to the Mishna in Mikvaot.)

While the above may answer the question of how something so obvious could have escaped  R. Bibi b. Abye and R. Papi,  we still have to understand how such a mistake arose in the first place. As we shall see in the next post in this series, the view that there are two vessels in the member was widespread in the Arab world of the middle ages. Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), who is credited with rectifying the erroneous Arab beliefs and showing, by anatomical dissection, that there is only one pathway in the male member also proposed an answer to the question how the Arabs came to their errant conclusion. He suggests that since anomalies in the urethra, although quite rare, is a thing that can be seen now and then, it might be that they ended up dissecting such a body and therefore made this mistake. Another possible explanation of this seemingly blatant error is their statement that the divider between the two is as thin as a garlic peel. This could mean to say that it’s is so thin that it can’t be seen with the naked eye. 

Either way, this contradiction was dealt with by many traditional Torah scholars, and in the next post in this series I hope to review their answers and analyze them.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jewish Attitudes Toward Sexuality - Then and Now

Dr. Nava Wasserman's doctoral dissertation "The Holy Society: The Process of the Establishment of the Home in the Gur hasidut" (Heb.) which explores the attitude of the Gur hasidim to sexuality, was recently featured in Ha'aretz and then in a subsequent article on the matter. The articles describe how the "unusual Gur customs in this realm are tied to the concept of kedusha (sanctity), from which stems the unique attitude to sexuality and conjugal relations within the sect" and how "[the] couple's relationship takes shape in light of the ethos that sexuality is minimized in marital life. Whereas modern society talks about cooperation between man and woman, unity, friendship and love, Gur Hasidism comes along and tells its members to keep their distance. ... The Hasid will not call his wife by name. When there are children, this becomes easier: She will be called 'Mother' ordinarily. To address her, he will knock on the table. Or hum. In any event, he will not walk with her on the street."

(By the way, the article also tells how "On [R.'s] wedding night, her brand-new husband called her into the living room, where a large picture of the Admor of Gur - the rabbinic leader of that Hasidic sect - hung on the wall. He told her she had to imagine the rebbe's face when she observed the mitzvah of ishut (conjugal relations), so that she would have "righteous" children". I'm not sure, but isn't this a problem of one of the Benei Tesha Midot, namely, Benei Temura? See BT Nedarim 20b. On the other hand, see BT Brakhot 20a where the Talmud relates that "R. Yohanan was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the bathing place (- mikvah). He said: When the daughters of Israel come up from bathing they look at me and they have children as handsome as I am." Vezarikh Iyun.)

But is this attitude unique to the Gur Hasidut? While this may be the case today, it wasn't this way in the previous century. The following comes from R. Avraham Korman's "Ha'adam Vetivo" (Tel Aviv 5763, pp. 253-256), where he retells several stories which took place in pre-war Europe (I marked them with a red border) and as it seems from these stories, the Gur attitude was far more widespread then, at least in Hasidic circles, something that has definitely changed nowadays.

Not surprisingly though, going back to the 18th century we see this attitude was prevalent even in the general Jewish population and it wasn't limited as it were, to hasidim. An example of this is found in the autobiography of Solomon Maimon. While writing about the Polish Jews of the time, he describes their innocence and naïveté:

I will only add that Maimon's theory about being separated after menstruating will bring a couple closer to each other is actually sourced in BT Niddah 31b where it says "It was taught: R. Meir used to say, Why did the Torah ordain that the uncleanness of menstruation should continue for seven days? Because being in constant contact with his wife [a husband might] develop a loathing towards her. The Torah, therefore, ordained: Let her be unclean for seven days in order that she shall be beloved by her husband as at the time of her first entry into the bridal chamber."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rabbi Dr. Shimon Yisroel Pozen - a Doctor, a Zealot

Before the first world war, the culture and lifestyle of the east European Jewry were largely unknown to the German (Yekkish) Jews. But along came the war, and many fine young German Jews were drafted into the German army, and when they saw the Jewish life in eastern Europe many of them were attracted. For some, it was the Hasidic warmth and fervor they saw. For others it was the simple piety. Whatever it was, it managed to change the attitude western European Jews had towards their brothers on the east for the better. And it also caused many Yekkish boys to 'frum out' and abandoned their previous lifestyle.

A striking example of the above is R. Shimon Yisroel Posen, Rav of Shopron. R. Shimon Yisroel was known as a fierce zealot with extreme opinions, which he picked up from his mentor in zealotry R. Hayim Elazar Shapira. That is also the legacy R. Posen left to this world, both by his disciples and in his multi-volumed "Torat Aleph". But amazingly, this person started out as no less then a doctor of philosophy!

From a reliable source, I heard that when someone told R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg about R. Shimon Yisroel and his zealousness, R Weinberg replied, "I saw R. Pozen's doctorate in Giessen, and it was full of apikorsus!" While I was quite sure R. Weinberg didn't intend it in its literal sense and probably meant it as a sarcastic snark (that is, if the story is true), it piqued my interest, and I decided to find the dissertation. With the help of the great S. from the great On The Main Line blog, I found R. Posen's doctoral dissertation online. Here is the title page:

In English: "About Scientific Truth, An attempt to contribute to the logical doctrine of truth in general andof scientific truth in particular". As you can see, this was published in Giessen in 1921, which is the time-period when R. Weinberg studied there, so it makes perfect sense that R. Weinberg saw it and read it.

An interesting page (if you're not interested in reading through the 75 pages of the dissertation itself, which you can do here) is the bibliography page where he records such books as Immanuel Kant's magnum opus "Critique of Pure Reason" and his "Logic", as well as the works of Bernard Bulzano, Paul Natorp, the apostate Edmund HusserlHeinrich Rickert, Christoph von Sigwart, Wilhelm Schuppe, Johann Erdmann, and his professor August Messer.

Also of interest is the two pages of autobiography in the back entitled "Lebenslauf".

According to this autobiography, R. Shimon Yisroel was born in July 20 1894 to his father R. Gershon Posen who was served as dayan in Frankfurt for almost fifty years. R. Gershon was a strong adherent of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and his Torah Umadda philosophy. His grandson, R. Dr. Raphael Posen recounts that while his grandfather considered himself a disciple of R. Hirsch, surprisingly all R. Hirsch taught him was the writings of German poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. 

True to his mentor's teachings, R. Gershon sent his children to gymnasium and to university so that they should get an advanced secular education. R. Shimon Yisroel attended Wöhler Realgymnasium in Frankfurt am Main from 1909 until his graduation in 1912. After that R. Shimon Yisroel attended R. Dr. Solomon Breuer's "Thora Lehranstalt" high-school. (It is interesting to note that R. Breuer made just the opposite journey R. Posen made - from Hungarian yeshivot to university studies and eventually getting a doctorate in Germany, read it all in the Wikipedia entry.) In 1914 he went on to pursue his secular studies at Frankfurt University. And in 1920 he went to Giessen to complete his doctorate in philosophy under Prof. August Messer. He studied several subjects like philosophy (specifically logic and epistemology on which he wrote his dissertation), history, and mathematics.

An interesting piece of hagiography has R. Posen destroying his dissertation after WW I, when he made the final decision to travel to Hungary. Obviously this is not true as copies of his dissertation are held in libraries around the world, and even got digitized by Google Books for posterity. But what is true is that not a trace of his former life is evident in his Torat Aleph, which goes to show you that one can always change.