Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reflections Of A Mourner.

I just got up from Shiva after the passing of my Mother A”H and I would like to share some thoughts that I reflected upon during this time. I will return to discuss Tefilah – Prayer – later.

It is interesting how Rambam presents the Halacha of Evel – mourning. In his presentation, there is only a Mitzvah of Evel where the first day is De’oraita – a biblical obligation – and the rest of the days are Derabanan. Unlike other Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch, he does not refer to the period between death and burial as a Halachik period of Aninut. There is only one obligation of Evel which is practiced differently at the various stages of pre and post burial. Aninut on the other hand describes a de facto state of mind rather than a Halachik imperative. There is an obligation of Evel during that period of Aninut but because of the circumstances the person is in, the Halacha requires different practices before burial. Until the body is buried, the close relatives are in a state of shock, depression and grief[1]. That is why -

אבל כל הרוגי בית דין--אין מתאבלין עליהן אבל אוננין, שאין אנינות אלא בלב

Those who were condemned to death by legal authority (Beit Din as opposed to the Monarchy) one may not practice the mitzvah of Evel for them. However, Aninut applies to them because Aninut is an emotion. (Hilchot Evel 1:7)

Halacha does not prohibit mourning these people as it is an emotion that relatives feel for the dead and Halacha does not require suppressing it. Evel on the other hand is not an emotion but an obligation and is required even for family members that one feels no emotional distress upon their passing. Aninut is mourning and Evel is the Mitzvah of Evel. So what is the concept of the Mitzvah of Evel?

כל מי שלא מתאבל כמו שציוו חכמים, הרי זה אכזרי; אלא יפחד וידאג ויפשפש
במעשיו, ויחזור בתשובה. ואחד מבני חבורה שמת, תדאג כל החבורה כולה.

Whoever does not perform the Mitzvah of Evel as prescribed by the Rabbis is cruel. One should be fearful and worried, introspect about his deeds and repent. When one member of a circle of friends dies, all should be worried. (Hil Evel 13:13)

The Torah requires us to introspect and take stock of ourselves at different times. Yom Kippur is a day for such introspection on a yearly basis. When a calamity befalls the community, another time for introspection is legislated as I quoted in the previous post from Hil Ta’aniyot. When someone close to us, a family member, dies we are commanded to introspect and repent. That is why there are similar Halachik requirements during all three of these periods such as not wearing shoes, not washing or having sexual relations.[2] It is also noteworthy that both, both in Hil Ta’aniyot and here in Evel, Rambam says that refusal to introspect and repent is considered cruel. Refusing to look upon such occurrences and trying to understand them in a proper light is cruelty. Lack of introspection is cruelty when a calamity befalls us because unless we change our ways, the same mishap will repeat itself. But why is introspection so important when a close member of the family dies?

Viduy – admission – is a component of the process of Teshuvah. Rambam in Hil Teshuvah 2:8 –

הווידוי שנהגו בו כל ישראל--אבל חטאנו . . ., והוא עיקר הווידוי.

Viduy that all Israel says customarily is “but we sinned…” and that is the core of Viduy.

This is further expanded in the template of Tefilah Rambam has at the end of Sefer Ahavah –

אבל חטאנו אנחנו, ואבותינו

But our parents and we sinned.

Our personality is formed by our own experiences and by the deeds and experiences of our parents, grandparents and ancestors all the way back to the beginning of times. That is the idea behind Zchut Avot and Yichus. When we invoke the memory of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov in our prayers, we are saying that their lives played a role in what we, their descendants, are. When a person that is close to us passes away, a parent, a sibling or a child, we are told to stop and take stock where our relationship with the deceased has taken us. That person will no longer be able to affect any change in us. Are we in a good place? Do we have to fix what we are doing? Are there things that we are doing that should be changed so that we do not continue harming ourselves, those who depend on us, or future generations? It is in this context that I understand the idea of death being a forgiveness – a Kapparah (see Hilchot Teshuvah 1:12). Certain actions may have a negative impact on others for a long time. The death of the perpetrator elicits introspection in those that were impacted by his deeds and allows them to reorient themselves.

It is in this context that I experienced Nichum Aveilim. In Israel, after the burial, we sat for about four hours in Bnei Brak at the hotel. During that period, several hundred people passed through the conference room we were using, mostly family members but also friends of the family. A great part of the conversation revolved around my mother A”H, her parents and grandparents. Some, who knew my mother A”H and her parents, recounted their impression of them while others repeated stories they heard from their parents and grandparents about them. The same continued during the days we were sitting in Boro Park at my parent’s house. In addition to the relief brought to all of us, the catharsis afforded to us, it also gave me a lot of material for thought and reflection. That is how I understand Rambam (Evel 14:7) –

ייראה לי שנחמת אבילים קודמת לביקור חולים, שניחום אבילים גמילות חסד עם החיים ועם המתים.

It seems to me that comforting mourners is prior to Bikur Cholim, for Nichum Aveilim is a Chesed to the living and the deceased.

The process of comforting Aveilim, in addition to helping the mourners come to terms with the passing of a beloved person, helps in the process of introspection and self-analysis. It is a key component of the mitzvah of Aveilut, the Teshuvah element. It forces the survivors to reflect and make the necessary changes in their lives for the better, thus mitigating any negative influence that the deceased may have had on their descendants. It is indeed a Chesed to the survivors and the deceased.

I always struggled understanding the idea of Kaddish and leading the davening during the year of mourning. Seeing it as part of the process of Teshuvah changes its complexion. Aveilut changes intensity as time passes. We are human beings and after a time we lose focus. Halacha requires us to maintain a certain amount of focus after the first seven days for the remaining thirty days and, when a parent passes away, someone who affected us a lot, the remaining 12 months. It manifests itself through the practical restrictions Halacha imposes on us during that time. When properly understood and practiced, this keeps us in a state of introspection and reflection. Meiri in his Chibur Hateshuvah explains that the role of the Ba’al Tefilah is to elicit introspection from the congregation. He is supposed to be a model of how one prays. That is why, on the Holy Days the Ba’al Tefilah has to meet certain conditions before being approved. An Aveil, who supposedly is heartbroken and in the process of Teshuvah, meets some of the criteria required for a Ba’al Tefilah. I believe that this is at the root of the custom of Kaddish and the meaning of it. It is in this context that I understand the popular belief that these processes affect the soul of the deceased. Introspection of the survivors certainly mitigates any negative influence the deceased had on them changing that into positive actions.

[1] RYBS in Out Of The Whirlwind sees Aninut in a similar fashion.
[2] See Hil Ta’aniyot 3:4, Hil Shevitat Assor 1:5 and Evel 5:1.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


My mother A"H passed away this Sunday morning and we took her to Eretz Yisrael. I will be sitting until Sunday.

בִּלַּע הַמָּוֶת לָנֶצַח, וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל-פָּנִים

He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces

Friday, January 16, 2009

Communal Prayer In Times of Hardship.

In the previous post, I showed that Rambam lists two separate Mitzvot for prayer where one is a component of general worship, Avodah, and the other part of a process we go through at times of trouble. I would like to look first at the second kind, the prayer for troubled times.

Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchot Ta’aniyot presents this Mitzvah as follows:

א מצות עשה מן התורה, לזעוק ולהריע בחצוצרות על כל צרה שתבוא על הציבור, שנאמר "על הצר הצורר אתכם--והרעותם, בחצוצרות" (במדבר י,ט)—
כלומר כל דבר שיצר לכם כגון בצורת ודבר וארבה וכיוצא בהן, זעקו עליהן והריעו.

There is a positive biblical (De’oraita) commandment to cry out and blow trumpets on any hardship that affects the community, as it says [And when you go to war in your land] against the adversary that oppresses you, you should let out a long blast with the trumpets. Namely, any hardship that befalls you, for example droughts, plagues or locust or any other such [calamity], cry out and blow [trumpets] on them.”

ב ודבר זה, דרך מדרכי התשובה הוא: שבזמן שתבוא צרה ויזעקו לה
ויריעו, יידעו הכול שבגלל מעשיהם הרעים הרע להן--ככתוב "עוונותיכם, הטו
לכם, וזה הוא שיגרום להם להסיר הצרה מעליהם.

This [commandment] is one of the many paths towards repentance. For, when a time of hardship arrives and the people cry out and blow trumpets because of it, they will come to the realization that the mishap is a result of their own misdeeds. As it says, “your sins have brought this upon you” and that will bring about for the hardship to be removed.”

ג אבל אם לא יזעקו, ולא יריעו, אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם
אירע לנו, וצרה זו נקרוא נקרית--הרי זו דרך אכזרייות, וגורמת להם להידבק
במעשיהם הרעים, ותוסיף הצרה וצרות אחרות: הוא שכתוב בתורה, "והלכתם עימי,
בקרי. והלכתי עימכם, בחמת קרי" (ויקרא כו,כז-כח),
כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה, כדי שתשובו—
אם תאמרו שהוא קרי, אוסיף עליכם חמת אותו קרי

But if they [the people] will not cry out and blow trumpets, thus intimating that this as a natural occurrence, that this hardship occurred by chance [it is our luck], that [thinking] is cruel for it binds them to their erroneous actions and perpetuate their situation bringing about more hardships. That is what the Torah tells us, “[And if you will not for all this heed Me], and come in encounter against Me then I will come against you in wrathful encounter”. Namely, when I bring upon you a hardship, so that you should repent, if you will blame it on chance [encounter] I will bring down upon you more of that wrath of chance.”

Rambam is telling us that prayer and blowing trumpets has no effect on God. It is a human process that addresses our human nature. We have a tendency to place the blame for any hardship on everything but ourselves. We blame it on chance, coincidence, and natural phenomenon and so on. The truth is that HKBH created the world and set it up in a system of cause and effect, actions and consequences and gave man the freedom to choose how to act. Prayer, blowing trumpets and the additional rabbinic laws of fasting are meant to bring this message home. It forces us to stop, think and take stock followed by a change in our actions and thinking. It is only by changing our ways that we can prevent a recurrence or a worsening of our situation. The prescribed drama is a tool and concession to our human nature to bring this message home.

Rambam in the Moreh divides all the Mitzvot into fourteen classifications. The first classification contains Mitzvot that deal with opinions – Hashkafah.

“Likewise the commandment to cry to God in time of trouble, "to blow an alarm with the trumpets" (Num. x. 9), belongs to this class. We are told to offer up prayers to God, in order to establish firmly the true principle that God apprehends our situation, and that it depends upon Him to improve them, if we obey, and to make them ruinous if we disobey. We should not believe that such things are fortuitous and happen by chance.” (MN3:36)

To better understand the meaning of this statement we have to turn to MN2:47-

“It is clear that everything produced must have an immediate cause which produced it; that cause has a cause, and so on, till the First Cause, the will and decree of God is reached. The prophets therefore omit sometimes the intermediate causes, and ascribe the production of an individual thing directly to God, saying that God has made it.”

In other words if we follow the sequence of cause and effect all the way back to its source, everything that we experience is traceable back to HKBH and His will.

As regards the immediate causes of things produced, it makes no difference whether these causes consist in substances, physical properties, freewill, or chance--by freewill I mean that of man--or even in the will of another living being. The prophets [omit them and] ascribe the production directly to God and use such phrases as, God has done it, commanded it, or said it: in all such cases the verbs "to say," "to speak," "to command," "to call" and "to send" is employed. What I desired to state in this chapter is this: According to the hypothesis and theory accepted, it is God that gave will to dumb animals, freewill to the human being, and natural properties to everything. As accidents originate in the redundancy of some natural force… and are mostly the result of the combined action of nature, free choice, and volition, it can consequently be said of everything which is produced by any of these causes, that God commanded that it should be made, or said that it should be so.”

We have to take this into consideration, when we read Rambam saying, “God apprehends our situation, and it depends upon Him to improve them, if we obey and to make them ruinous if we disobey”. The hardship we are facing and the removal thereof is ultimately the result of “the combined action of nature, free choice, and volition” which “God commanded that it should be made”. There is a therefore direct correlation between the act of repentance and the hardship we are facing. When we say that God “apprehends our situation” we are saying that it is a result of the system of cause and effect that He put into the universe He willed which, when applied to human beings who have free will, it becomes action and consequence. When we say that “it depends upon Him to improve them, if we obey, and to make them ruinous if we disobey”, we are saying that when we understand how our actions affected the outcome, we can improve our situation. This type of prayer is meant to make us realize all this and make us change the behavior that resulted in the disastrous consequence we are now facing.

Of note is that this Halacha talks about communal problems as opposed to individual hardships. How and in what form it was extended into personal prayer will be discussed in the next post.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Prayer As Two Mitzvot.

Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot Positive Commandment 5 writes:

המצווה החמישית
היא הציווי שנצטווינו לעבדו יתעלה.
ונכפל הציווי הזה כמה פעמים ואמר
"ועבדתם את ה' אלקיכם" (שמות כג, כה); ואמר "ואתו תעבדו" (דברים יג, ה); ואמר "ואתו תעבד" (שם ו, יג); ואמר "ולעבדו" (שם יא, יג).
ואף על פי שגם הציווי הזה הוא מן הציוויים הכללים - כמו שביארנו בכלל הרביעי - הרי יש בו ייחוד, כי הוא ציווי על התפילה. ולשון ספרי:
"ולעבדו - זו תפלה". ואמרו עוד: "ולעבדו - זה תלמוד".
ובמשנתו של ר' אליעזר בנו של ר' יוסי הגלילי אמרו:
"מנין לעיקר תפילה בתוך המצוות? מהכא: את-ה' אלקיך תירא ואתו תעבד" (שם ו, יג). ואמרו: "עבדהו בתורתו, עבדהו במקדשו"-
הכוונה לשאוף להתפלל בו ונכחו כמו שביאר שלמה.

The Fifth Mitzvah is the commandment to worship Him. This commandment is repeated several times in Shemot 23:25, Devarim 13:5, 6:13 and 11:3. Although we explained in rule four that this would be considered a general commandment [and therefore should not be counted. Rambam at the outset of his listing the Mitzvot sets down 14 rules that govern which types of commandments should be listed. He explains that a general commandment such as worshipping God cannot be listed as a separate commandment as it is the underlying reason for keeping all Mitzvot.] However, prayer is a specific act that was designated to fulfill that commandment of worship [thus allowing it to be counted and included in the listing]. As Sifrei says the meaning of the verse “and to worship Him” is Tefilah. The Rabbis also said “and to worship Him” means to study [the word used is Talmud. Note Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:14 והעניינות הנקראין פרדס, בכלל התלמוד.] The Mishna of rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi Hagelili said: “where do we find the source for Tefilah among the Mitzvot?” and they quote the passuk in Devarim 6:13. They also said, worship him through His torah and worship Him through His Temple. They meant with that, that one should yearn to pray to Him in the Temple and in its direction as Shlomo expressed. (See Melachim 1:8).”

Rambam in positive Commandments 59 writes-

המצווה הנ"ט
הציווי שנצטווינו לתקוע בחצוצרות במקדש בעת הקרבת כל קורבן
מקורבנות הפרקים. והוא אמרו יתעלה: "וביום שמחתכם ובמועדיכם ובראשי חדשכם ותקעתם בחצוצרות" (שם י, י). ובפרוש אמרו, שמצוות היום בחצוצרות. וכבר נתבארנו דיני מצווה זו בספרי וראש השנה ותעניות, כי אנו מצווים
לתקוע בחצוצרות בזמן הצרות והרעות כשנזעק אליו יתעלה [כמו ש]אמר: "וכי
תבואו מלחמה בארצכם וגו'" (שם שם, ט).

The 59th commandment is to blow trumpets in the Beit Hamikdash when the periodical offerings are brought. That is the meaning of the verse in Bamidbar 10:10: “Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, ye shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt-offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings”. The explanation [received from Sinai together with the written text] tells us that trumpets are used for that mitzvah on those days. The details of this Mitzvah are discussed in Sifrei, Massechet Rosh Hashana and Tanyot. That we are commanded to blow the trumpets in times of trouble and war as we pray to Him, it says in Bamidbar 10:9

ט וְכִי-תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם,
עַל-הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם--וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם, בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת;
וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם
, מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם

9 And when ye go to war in your land against the adversary, that oppresses you, then ye shall sound an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the LORD your God and ye shall be saved from your enemies.

Rambam lists two separate Mitzvot for prayer where one is a component of general worship, Avodah, and the second is part of a process we are commanded to go through in times of trouble. The first is not time dependent; it is constant, while the second is to be performed on specific occasions. In fact the accompanying part of that second process, the blowing of the trumpets, is always time dependent. It is done either in times of trouble or during specific times during public offerings in the Beit Hamikdash. What are the concepts behind these two Mitzvot of prayer? Clearly there are different ideas underlying these two Mitzvot otherwise they would not be listed separately and in two different books Ahavah and Zemanim.

As the great organizer he is, Rambam places the first mitzvah, prayer as worship, in sefer Ahavah while the second one, the one for times of trouble, in Sefer Zemanim in Hilchot Ta’aniyot. Rambam at the beginning of each sefer in MT starts with a verse that gives a general overview of the concept that underlies the Halachot in that Sefer. Ahavah is introduced with a verse in Tehilim 119:97

מה אהבתי, תורתך: כל היום, היא שיחתי
O how love I Thy Torah! It is my meditation all the day.

Torah in this context are the laws but also their goal which is acquiring a knowledge of God and His ways so that we can emulate them, which is indeed, what we call Avodah or worship. It is this that we are supposed to meditate upon all day and at all times. The sefer Ahavah is composed of Mitzvot that are meant to keep us focused at all times to keep in mind that we are part of a world created by HKBH and we have a defined role to play in it. Hilchot Tefilah is placed in Sefer Ahavah. Its purpose is therefore to constantly remind us of our existential standing.

On the other hand, the Mitzvot in Sefer Zemanim, as the name implies, are time dependent. They are applicable either at set times or for specific occasions. Hilchot Ta’aniyot, where the second type of prayer is placed, is in Sefer Zemanim. There are therefore two different prayers where one is meant to keep us focused at all times on our goals while the other is meant to address a specific problem that might occur in our lives. To understand prayer we have to always keep in mind this dual role of prayer.

In the next post(s) I will discuss the two different types of prayer, their role in our life and their meaning.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Taking Stock.

Time flies and it is now three years since I started this blog with 488 posts under my belt. As I am beginning my fourth year, it is time to take inventory and reflect. As my interests are more of the philosophic and kind of serious and heavy stuff, I am surprised that I have such a steady readership. Though there are not many comments, I get anywhere from 60 to 80 hits a day depending on the subject I post. Considering the subject is not of the populist genre and I do not write in a way that elicits argumentation it is an accomplishment.

I personally get tremendous benefits from writing. I have learned a lot while preparing for a post and it gives me an opportunity to clarify and organize my ideas. It compels me to read carefully the sources, think about the things I learn and really follow the thread of thought to its end. It is only when one transmits an idea to others that one goes to such length otherwise we tend to fool ourselves. I imagine that this was the impetus for so many Sefarim written over the generations.

Every so often, I get a comment or an email from a reader that makes the whole enterprise priceless. To know that I have helped somebody reset their thinking and put that person on a path that speaks to him or her about Torah and our religion is exhilarating. As someone who has struggled with these issues for a lifetime, sharing some of the insights and knowing that they hit a chord with someone else is extremely gratifying and gives me further Chizuk.

I am also interested to hear from you on what issues you want me to address in the future, which subjects were more relevant to you and where I have gone too far into the esoteric.

I hope to continue writing for a long time and thank the readers who give me the opportunity to learn better.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Musings About Mitzvot And The War.

There is an interesting recurring theme which Rambam seems to find very central to his understanding of Mitzvot. In MN 2:39 Rambam explains that the Mitzvot of the Torah are finely tuned and balanced to the point of perfection.

Things are similar with regard to this Law as is clear from its equibalance. For it says "Just statutes and judgments" (Deut. iv. 8); now you know that just is equibalanced. For these are manners of worship in which there is no burden or excess such as monastic life, pilgrimage and similar things. On the other hand, they are not so deficient as to lead to greed and being engrossed in the indulgence of appetites so that in consequence the perfection of man is diminished with respect to his moral habits and to his speculation – this being the case with regard to all the other nomoi of the religious communities of the past.”

Asceticism is not a requirement for holiness and perfection; on the contrary, it leads away from it just as excessive indulgence does. Perfection is equibalance. Rambam then continues by focusing in on “worship in which there is no burden or excess” and elaborates –

“There are persons who believe that the Law commands much exertion and great pain, but due consideration will show them their error. Later on, I will show how easy it is for the perfect to obey the Law… We must not consider the Law easy or hard according as it appears to any wicked, low-minded, and immoral person, but as it appears to the judgment of the most perfect, who, according to the Law, are fit to be the example for all mankind.”

What exactly does he mean by “burden or excess”? Why should someone consider the commands of the torah as “much exertion and great pain” when it is equibalanced? If the criterion for perfection of the law is how it is perceived by the “most perfect”, which we know to mean in Maimonidean parlance “intellectual perfection”, how will knowledge change the same precept from hard to easy?

In MN 3:30 Rambam explains that idol worship, Avodah Zara, is a belief inculcated into people that by doing one thing an unrelated result will occur.

On examining these old and foolish doctrines we find that it was most generally believed by the people that by the worship of stars the earth will become inhabited, and the ground fertilized. The wise, pious, and sin-fearing men among them reproved the people and taught them that agriculture, on which the preservation of humankind depended, would become perfect and satisfy man's wishes, when he worshipped the sun and the stars. If man provoked these beings by his rebelliousness, the towns would become empty and waste.”

In other words, instead of perfecting agricultural methods, developing new strains of seed that can better adapt to the environment they are in, and other such actions that relate to the intended goal, idol worshippers operate in different ways. They believe that worship of gods will induce the gods to improve the crops and protect them from drought. Man’s actions are futile. The gods, the “spiritual” powers are what decides outcome. Man toils in vain. Man is only an actor with no real impact on what he does; in reality, the “spirits” are the real power behind the results.

“The idolatrous priests then preached to the people who met in the temples, and taught them that by certain religious acts, rain would come down, the trees of the field would yield their fruit, and the land would be fertile and inhabited… The following words of the Sabeans are quoted there: All ancient wise men advised, and prophets likewise commanded and enjoined to play before the images on certain instruments during the festivals. They also said--and what they said is true--that the deities are pleased with it, and reward those who do it. They promise, indeed, very great reward for these things; e.g., length of life, protection from illness, exemption from great bodily deformities, plenty of the produce of the earth, and of the fruits of the trees.”

Rambam gives us here a lucid and clear description of a belief that sees a lack of connection between cause and effect and thus result oriented action. It is a belief based on myths and causes people to act in ways that are unrelated to reality or in simpler terms, in vain. Their action will not bring about the intended result but to the contrary. The land will become barren as the crops fail. No matter how much worship and prayer, self-flagellation and asceticism, prostration and genuflection before the gods, there cannot be any relief. It is frustrating and purposeless efforts.

“When these ideas spread, and were considered as true, God, in His great mercy for us, wished to efface this error from our minds and to take away fatigue from our bodies through the abolition of these tiring and useless practices and to give us the Law… .”

Our bodies are fatigued and practices are tiring when they are useless. That is the meaning of “burden or excess”. The Law is different. All Mitzvot of the torah have practical purposes. Worship of God is not unrelated to a practical outcome because all Mitzvot are geared towards –

“It [the Mitzvot] aims first at the establishment of good mutual relations among men by removing injustice and creating the noblest feelings. In this way, the people in every land are enabled to stay and continue in one condition, and every one can acquire his first perfection. Secondly, it seeks to train us in faith, and to impart correct and true opinions when the intellect is sufficiently developed.” (MN 3:27)

The Torah does not demand that we do senseless Mitzvot and in exchange, we will be rewarded. The Torah intends to teach us how to become perfected human beings so that we act responsibly thus avoiding disasters and that is the purpose of the Mitzvot.

In other words, useless practices that do not relate with the intended outcome are tiring. If one is told to stop whatever they are doing because Shabbat has arrived, to learn Massechet Bava Metziah with fervor or to say Tehilim and the purpose for doing this in New York or for that matter Bnei Brak is so that our soldiers in Gaza are protected can become tiring and difficult to a thinking person. Ask people in any Shul in your neighborhood how they feel about davening and I bet you the majority answer will be that it is very hard, boring and requires discipline. That is so because we are taught that Davening helps by changing God’s mind. How many REALLY believe that it is so? How many feel guilty because they cannot truly accept this belief?

However, if we understand that stopping everything when Shabbat arrives is meant to remind us that God created the world we are in and we have a purpose and a goal to fulfill in it, Shabbat becomes a great treasure. It is the day that we take stock of reality and it resets our mind for the coming week so that whatever we do is directed towards a greater purpose than just selfish indulgence. If Davening three times daily, is meant to remind us that all we have, whether health, possessions even a justice system all exist in a world that was willed by HKBH and we have a role to play in it, it no longer is a burden but rather a needed reality check. The same applies to learning Bava Metziah. We do it so that we know better how to maintain a peaceful society. We learn Tehilim so that we get a better understanding of our relationship with HKBH. That goes for all Mitzvot. Once we understand that God gets nothing out of Mitzvot but rather that they are tools given to us to help us understand God and our role in His universe they take on meaning and are no longer tiring, excess or a burden.

Our brethren in Eretz Israel are going through tough times. Most families have members on the ground in operation Cast Lead. It is heartening to know that so many of these soldiers are Bnei Aliyah who understand what God wants from us. I am confident that the Torah they learned and the love and fear of God that they have acquired through keeping the Mitzvot, will lead them to make the right decisions for the good of the Jewish people and eventually humankind.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

A Forged Maimonidean Responsa? I Am Quite Confident It Is.

The Halacha is that the purple threads (Tchelet) of the Tzitzit have to be dyed keeping in mind that they will be used for the Mitzvah and not some other purpose. This requirement is quite rigid and the slightest deviation makes the threads unfit for use in Tzitzit. For example, a pot of dye that needs to be tested if the coloring is correct, one may not soak the threads in it and then continue using the dye for Tzitzit. The remaining dye is no longer acceptable. The testing must be done with dye that was removed from the pot so as to not make the leftover unusable. Because of this requirement of Lishmah, if one finds dyed wool from an unknown origin in the street, it cannot be used for Tzitzit as we suspect that it was not dyed with the Mitzvah in mind. This suspicion is valid in whatever form the dyed wool was found, whether it was found in the form of dyed fleece, yarn or thread. However, when the thread is found dyed and cut to size some Rishonim were more lenient and felt that no one would go to such length unless the dyeing was done for the purpose of Tzitzit. Rambam is not one of them and he legislates in Hilchot Tzitzit 2:7 that –

המוצא תכלת בשוק, אפילו מצא חוטין פסוקין ושזורין--פסולה.

The argument between the Rishonim is based on their different understanding of the Mishna Eruvin 95a –

המוצא תפילין מכניסן זוג זוג ר"ג אומר שנים שנים בד"א בישנות אבל בחדשות פטור

If one finds Tefillin on Shabbat in the street, he should put them on, a pair at a time, and bring them into the house. Rabban Gamliel says two pairs at a time. This only applies if the Tefillin were old but new ones one need not bring them into the house.

The reason for allowing putting on the Tefillin on Shabbat is to protect holy writings, Kitvei Kodesh. The problem with found Tefillin is to first ascertain their authenticity as Tefillin and not as plain amulets that do not contain scriptures. The level of proof needed is the issue at hand.

The Gemara explains that old ones are Tefillin that have their straps tied in a proper knot and new ones are untied. The Gemara offers various explanations for why old ones yes and new ones no. As we will see, each explanation will have an impact on both halachot- Tefillin and Tzitzit.

Explanation 1:

If the boxes were found with unknotted straps, we suspect that they are not Tefillin but simply amulets and must therefore remain where they are. On the other hand, old Tefillin, those that have the properly knotted straps, we can assume they are indeed Tefillin and therefore one is obligated to strap them on and wear them into the house. Although both instances had properly designed boxes, the argument that whoever made them went to so much effort making the boxes, is not enough to prove that they were meant for Tefillin unless they also had properly knotted straps. Properly knotted straps in addition to properly designed boxes is incontrovertible proof that they are indeed Tefillin.

Explanation 2:

Properly designed boxes are always sufficient proof that they are Tefillin. However if the straps are not knotted, which is what “new” means, there is no permissible way of putting them on and bringing them into a protected area. Making a knot on Shabbat is prohibited.

If we were to accept explanation 2, evidence of effort in producing these boxes is proof of authenticity. The case of Tefillin has an additional specific practical problem, the prohibition for making knots on Shabbat and therefore untied straps inhibit the ability to wear them and therefore to bring them in on Shabbat. Tzitzit on the other hand would be Kasher if there were evidence of effort. What constitutes sufficient proof of effort may be debatable but in any case finding precut threads is definitely sufficient proof of authenticity.

Rambam in Hilchot Shabbat 19:23 accepts explanation 1 –

המוצא תפילין בשבת ברשות הרבים, כיצד הוא עושה: לובשן כדרכן, מניח של ראש בראשו ושל יד בידו, ונכנס, וחולצן בבית
במה דברים אמורים, בשהיו בהן רצועותיהן, והיו מקושרין קשר תפילין--שוודאי …
תפילין הן; אבל אם לא היו רצועותיהן מקושרות, אינו נזקק להן.

Authenticity requires unquestionable proof such as knotted straps in addition to well-designed boxes. In the case of Tzitzit Rambam prohibits the use of found dyed wool no matter in what state they are, because that is not enough proof of authenticity. In other words, there is never enough proof of authenticity for Tzitzit no matter how much effort went into them by the very nature of how they are made. Dyed yarn, even when precut, could be used for regular weaving while properly designed boxes and properly knotted straps would only be found on Tefillin and never on amulets.

Basing himself on his interpretation of the Gemara in Eruvin 96b, Ra’avad took issue with Rambam’s explanation in Hilchot Shabbat that unknotted Tefillin lack proof of authenticity. Ra’avad counters that although the practical ruling in the case of Tefillin is correct the reasoning is not. Properly designed boxes are proof enough of authenticity. Tefillin with unknotted straps cannot practically be carried on Shabbat and making a knot is prohibited. He therefore disagrees with Rambam’s ruling on Tzitzit and argues that precut threads are definitely proof enough of authenticity just like properly designed Tefillin boxes are.

There are several problems with the Ra’avad conclusion. It is difficult to understand why one cannot make a temporary knot which is permissible on Shabbat. Tosafot already struggles with the issue. The answers are unsatisfactory. Second, on a more technical note, Ra’avad assumes that Rabbi Yehudah who is reported in the Braitha to be differentiating between new and old Tefillin as opposed to Rabbi Meir, who does not, is the source for our Mishna that differentiates too. As the Gra notes, that is problematic based on the presentation of the two positions. Rabbi Yehudah states that with new Tefillin it is “prohibited to bring them in” while the Mishna states that one is “not obligated to handle new Tefillin”. Rabbi Yehudah’s presentation can be interpreted as a problem with making a knot thus the prohibition. He also leaves open the possibility for other remedies as for example staying with the Tefillin and guarding them until nightfall. The Mishna on the other hand is saying that one is not obligated to handle them at all and may abandon them in an unprotected area. The only possibility for such a statement can only be because they are not considered authentic and may not contain any scriptural text if they are amulets. Clearly, Rambam’s understanding of the Gemara and the conclusions he arrived at have merit and are probably more in tune with the sugya than the Ra’avad. (I will not go through the sugya here but should anybody be interested let me know and I will post it.)

Interestingly, there is a letter purportedly written to Rambam reporting the Ra’avad comment almost verbatim and he responded that he had erred and the text should be changed to conform to Ra’avad.

תשובה ודאי אמת כדבריכם ובעיקר העתקתי לנוסחא שלי טעיתי וכן הם הדברים
וכזה תקנו הנוסחא אפילו מצא חוטין פסוקים פסולין שזורין כשירה עכ"ל

It is noteworthy that instead of saying, שזורין is Passul and פסוקים is Kasher as the Gemara does, he reverses the order without any explanation. Furthermore, he ignores the Halacha in Hilchot Shabbat where he clearly explains the reason for requiring knotted straps is to prove authenticity. That does not conform to the Ra’avad and the question he was asked -

והא דתנן המוצא תפילין ישנות מכניסן זוג זוג אבל לא חדשות כרבי יהודה לאו
משום דחיישינן שמא קמיעות הן דכולי האי לא טרח לעשות קמיע כעין תפילין אלא
מה הן חדשות שאין מקושרות ומשום דלא אפשר למקטרינהו בשבתא ואפילו בעניבה
דרבי יהודה לטעמיה דאמר עניבה קשירה היא

Furthermore, Rif who usually is of the same school as Rambam, clearly understands that unknotted straps are a lack of authenticity. Ramban in his Milchamot explains Rif’s understanding (different then the Gra’s explanation) and does not seem to be aware of the Rambam responsa. This responsa which is quite suspicious, as we can see, is listed among the Responsa to the Chachmei Lunel. Rav Kafieh, who was steeped in Rambam from childhood and is very familiar with his style, claims that all the responsa to Chachmei Lunel are forgeries. I have no question in my mind that this one could not have been written by Rambam. It is galling however that even the Frankel Rambam took upon itself to amend the text of the Halacha to conform to this suspect responsa.

As an interesting conclusion to this post, I would like to share Rav Kafieh’s novel understanding of this Halacha. Rambam has a unique way of adding the Tchelet to Tzitzit. Unlike other Rishonim who held anywhere from one full thread out of four (which are doubled over when inserted making 8 threads) to two giving anywhere from two to four purple threads out of eight, Rambam has only one thread out of eight. To do that he dyes half a thread purple leaving the second half white. Rav Kafieh therefore suggests that פסוקים are not cut threads but rather dyed in two colors, purple and white intermittently. Even if one were to find such threads, it would not be sufficient proof for authenticity. Weavers who wanted to make multicolored garments would use such multicolored threads.