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.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Importance of Knowledge Over Marriage

The following passage in Shadal's Vikuah al Hokhmat Hakaballah caught my eye. In it, Shadal explains why he got married at the late age of 28 and how he suppressed his bodily desires because his desire for knowledge was more important to him.   

I like this piece because I think it just sums up what Shadal was all about.