Monday, December 24, 2007

Season's geeqings

It's Christmas Eve, and I'm rereading Marc Shapiro, "Torah Study on Christmas Eve," Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 8 (1999): 319-53. It's an interesting read; if you're a member of a library that subscribes to EBSCOhost Academic, or if you're a student or employee of a university whose library subscribes to it, you can probably download a PDF of it. (I'm not attaching a PDF to this post, since that would probably violate my library's terms of use.)

Before I get into the promised geeqery, let me point out two things. First, I intend to learn Torah tonight. Shapiro doesn't find any rabbinic support for the custom of not learning Torah on Christmas Eve, and he questions the antiquity of the custom. Second, the point of all this is going to be that even if you believe in gematria, you should examine the statements that are claimed to be gematriatically equivalent, even if they add up.

Anyhow, on p. 326 Shapiro cites R' Moses Grunwald, Arugat ha-Bosem, vol. 2 (Brooklyn, 1959), p 146a, as claiming that

עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתיך


זו שעה שתקופת טבת נופלת בו

are gematriatically equivalent. I won't explain the phrases, because the explanations will require explanations, and you'd be better off reading Shapiro's paper. And my topic here is the gematriatical equivalency, not the content. The first of the phrases contains an abbreviation for "Hashem." If we use the gematria for the Tetragrammaton (as I always call it) instead of that of the abbreviation, both phrases do indeed have a gematriatical value of 2,659. If I got the gematriot wrong, please comment.

My Hebrew is minimal, but I'm pretty sure both phrases are incorrect in ways that render the claim of equivalency incorrect.

The final word of the first phrase is either an unusual but correct way of spelling the word for "your Torahs [plural]" or an incorrect way of spelling "your Torah [singular]." To me, the incorrectly spelled singular seems more likely. If it is the incorrect spelling, it's understandable--at the end of a phrase, "toratekha" is pronounced "toratekha" (with the underlining indicating the accented vowel). This -ekha ending is used in the plural and takes a yod, but the yod isn't used in the singular. If this were meant to be the plural "torotekha," it would usually take a vav after the resh, although it isn't strictly required. But it's unusual without it. And what would "your Torahs" mean anyway? It might make sense--the written and the oral Torahs--but it just rings oddly to me. On the other hand, I'm new in this neighborhood.

If I'm correct and the singular was intended, we can fix the phrase by deleting the yod, which would reduce the gematriatical value to 2,649.

In the second phrase "sha'ah" ("hour") is a feminine noun. Two of the other words referring to it, "zo" and "nofelet," are also feminine. But "bo" is masculine.

If "bo" is incorrect, we can fix it by changing it to "bah." The change causes a net loss of 1, making the corrected gematria 2,658.

In short, if I'm right that either phrase is incorrect, the gematriatical equivalency is incorrect. Put another way, the equivalency depends on incorrectness--it fails if the phrases are corrected. If I'm right about all this stuff, that is. Even if you believe in gematria, you may have reason to reject this particular equivalency.

More generally, even if you believe that something works, you should still read instances of it carefully. This is the real topic of my sermon.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Boro Park Pyro (ak"a "Steg" and "King o' the Goblins") recently had a post describing a discussion that he and his hevruta had with some racist yeshiva bahurim. The Pyro and his hevruta challenged the bahurim, and kol hakavod, yasher koah, and kudos to them for that.

More interesting to me was Kylopod's comment on the post. Interesting because his reaction to Orthodox racism, when he's a witness to it, is very much the same as mine:

When this kind of thing happens to me, I don't feel outrage anymore. I'm beyond that. I've developed a sort of weary cynicism about the whole matter.

I'm still outraged by it. But what I actually do about it is what Kylopod does.

I can't stand that so many Orthodox Jews are bigots, but for me it's a personal thing. Every time I hear a racist remark from a frum person, and how natural they make it sound, as though it were so obvious that everyone present should agree...

Indeed. I used to go to shalosh se'udot at my shul. I stopped after a while for the reason Kylopod describes: "Nobody here but us Orthodox Jews, and we can speak freely, and obviously we're all in on the hilarious jokes we're about to share."

...I think to myself, "Why am I hanging out with these people?" Nowadays I rarely challenge it directly unless it comes from a friend, but I make sure never to make it seem like I'm agreeing with them.

That's what I do too. "'Why am I hanging out with these people?'" Good question. Another question is whether this passive non-agreement is a satisfactory substitute for active disagreement. I don't know Kylopod's answer; to me, it's completely unsatisfactory. If we heard that some other group had a bunch of members who were openly bigoted--the bigotry might even be anti-Semitic--and the nonbigots just sort of kept quiet and didn't actively agree with the bigots, how would we feel about it? Would we let the quiet nonbigots off the hook, or would we do some pious tut-tutting about how the nonbigots have an obligation to disapprove? And if these quiet non-Jewish nonbigots have an obligation to object to bigotry, don't we as well?

And what are we to make of this anecdote?

Gerald Blidstein recalls the following conversation with R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik: "I remember that in Israel there was a real problem, do you save a gentile on the Sabbath? One evening during this time I was with the Rav [Joseph B. Soloveitchik] and he said 'I have been in Boston many years and I always rule that one saves the lives of gentiles, because if we don't permit this, they won't save our sick ones.' I asked him if this reason satisfied him from a moral standpoint, and he replied, 'No, from a moral standpoint it does not satisfy me.'" (Marc B. Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg 1884-1966 [London: Littman, 1999], 182-83 n. 47, citing Gilyon [Heshvan 5754 (1993)]: 25) (bracketed material in Shapiro)

Should we be satisfied with the Rav on this point? Why didn't he give what he would have considered a morally satisfactory reason? I understand why some of us don't want to be socially ostracized or don't want to be confrontational. I understand why a young man on a rabbinic track doesn't want to jeopardize his career. I don't understand why a leader and innovator like the Rav was so timid (perhaps this is the wrong word--comment, please, if you disagree with it) about making what he himself would have considered a morally satisfactory statement. Dare we assume that it was OK because he was the Rav, and if he (being the Rav) did this it must have been OK? It's tragic that such a person hedges on this, and it makes me worry for Orthodox Judaism. I honor Blidstein for asking the Rav this question.

I would hate to see us Modern Orthos treat the Rav the way ArtScroll treats hareidi "gedolim." But that horse may have left the stable long ago. Which is another topic.