Friday, December 24, 2010

Shoveling snow on the Sabbath, 2010 version

Almost identical to the 2009 sermon on the subject. And I'm using the cool cybergizmo that I stole from Lethargic Man. Put the cursor on the word "shinnuy" (below). And why it's being done this year by ffiona instead of Michael has to do with difficulties regarding Michael's signing on, but that's OK, since we're both the same person.

Snowy sidewalks are no big deal in themselves, but they become icy sidewalks after they've been walked on for a while, and those things are dangerous.

When it's necessary to shovel on the Sabbath, I always do so, wearing socks on my hands as a shinnuy. I haven't asked a rabbi about this, and this is out of respect for the rabbinate--I want to save them the embarrassment of possibly giving the wrong answer.

As a side note, I once told a friend, former and (I hope) future hevruta, and ethical adviser about this. He (who lives in an apartment where the landlord is responsible for shoveling, so it's not his problem) said he thought this a fine idea. Since it's just me, he said, I should do it without any distinctive Jewish accessories visible. If, however, I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, av beit din of the RCA and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, who lives a few blocks away, he'd advise me to do it looking like I was R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz so everyone would know it's OK. I take his point, although I should point out that if I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, I wouldn't need his advice.

One Sabbath morning in 2009, there was a layer of slush on the sidewalk. I ignored it, since it was the Sabbath, and what would the people coming to lunch think? By Sunday morning, the slush had turned into solid ice with footprints.

So let's imagine that someone had injured themselves on the ice that I piously left there, and let's further imagine that I'd passed away and had to face the Heavenly Tribunal.

Members of the Tribunal (M"T): Well, what about this Mr. McNotzreigh who got injured on your ice?

Me: Sorry about that, but only a little, since I was observing Shabbat.

M"T: Very nice.

(I assume the M"T are Orthodox Jews, among whom "very nice" means "yeah, right, whatever.")

Right. Well, very nice. But from now on, I'm going to do what needs to be done and forgo the after-the-fact teshuvah.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Torah Jews

This is very similar to a vort I gave a few weeks ago at kiddush at Young Israel of West Rogers Park, Chicago, on the occasion of the yortzaits of my parents, Martin (Mordechai ben Dov Ber) and Dorothy (Devorah bat Yonah Moshe) Koplow. This post is dedicated to their memory.

My mother sort of vaguely believed in Gkd; my father had little more than disdain for any sort of religiosity. They were both very menshlich people--they treated others with courtesy and respect, they were kind, they were always fair in their dealings with other people.

If you go to enough Orthodox shuls and go to enough vorts, you're going to hear people say that a relative or friend is (or was) not frum, but is (or was) a menshlich person. Why do we say "but"? We've all heard this "but" statement so often that it shouldn't come as a surprise any more. And even without having heard this vort a hundred times, we all know that the world is full of Jews (not to mention others) who are not frum and who are exemplary menshes.

(We should note, by the way, that people in the other Jewish movements talk about us the same way. "I've got this uncle who's Orthodox, but he's a very decent guy.")

So why do we Orthos say "but"? Two reasons occur to me. The first is that we believe, rightly or wrongly, that our religion denies that it's possible for a Jew to be both menshlich and nonfrum. The second reason is a social one. We're afraid that if people hear us go around saying that someone is both nonfrum and menshlich, they might doubt our orthodox Orthodoxy; we say "but" as self-protection. If that's why we do it, it's possible we're not giving each other enough credit.

In chapter 3 of Avot, we have "Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah omer, im eyn torah eyn derekh eretz, im eyn derekh eretz eyn torah"--Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah says, if there's no Torah there's no menshlichkeit, if there's no menshlichkeit there's no Torah. Gkd forbid I should ever be so chutzpadik as to disagree with Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah, but I will say I don't know what he's talking about.

"Derekh eretz," by the way, has several possible meanings. One of the things it can mean is a job, and the compilers of the basic bilingual ArtScroll siddur translate it that way in this context: "If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah." Tempting as it is to make fun of ArtScroll--I sometimes indulge in it myself--that reading actually is plausible in this context. The mishnah continues: If there's no wisdom there's no awe, if there's no awe, there's no wisdom; no knowledge no discernment, no discernment no knowledge; and finally, if there's no flour there's no Torah, if there's no Torah there's no knowledge. So derekh eretz, Torah, and flour all go together. Which means derekh eretz and flour--meaning sustenance--go together. A job makes as much intuitive sense here as menshlichkeit.

Nevertheless, most commentators go with menshlichkeit here. Kehati summarizes the near-consensus very well. "If there's no Torah there's no menshlichkeit": One who doesn't learn Torah and doesn't serve the students of the wise is not an ethical person and doesn't have good personal qualities, and he doesn't deal fairly with other people. "If there's no menshlichkeit there's no Torah": The Torah of one who doesn't have good personal qualities and treat other people appropriately is a mess, and he defiles the Torah and makes it an object of contempt.

So let's go back to the first part of that. If a person is ethical and has good personal qualities and deals fairly with other people, it follows that he learns Torah and serves the students of the wise. Which leaves us where we started. As I said earlier, I don't know what Rabbi El'azar ben Azariah is talking about.

So what do we take home from this, given that we have no clue what this means (and Gkd forbid we should say he was mistaken)? Maybe the best thing is to acknowledge our cluelessness. Maybe all the movements should be less smug about who is a Torah Jew and less contemptuous about who isn't.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Card trick

While surfing the aether recently, I came across this post on the Than Book blog, in which the author reprints a discussion he participated in in the comments to a post on another blog, regarding Lubavitcher dissembling about Messianism. He concludes the post with a quotation from the host of the blog the discussion took place on:
So it would seem, that there is permission, if not an actual mandate, to hide the truth about Lubavitch messianism. IOW, you can't necessarily believe what they tell you about "Oh, I don't believe in that stuff". They may well, but because it's off-putting to other Jews, they may feel compelled to go so far as to lie about it. The Shi'i Muslims have a word for this: Taqiyya.
I'm disturbed by that last sentence, and by the fact that Than Book liked it enough to title the post "Lubavitcher Taqiyya." What would have been lost if that quotation had ended with "go so far as to lie about it"? Not much. Nothing except the chance to play the Shi'ite card, which seems to be a new variation on the old Nazi card. The illusionist taps his hat, pulls out a card, and goodness gracious, where did Khamenei come from? It looks like in this case the whole idea is to namecall and demonize.

And it's not even well-chosen namecalling. According to the linked Wikipedia article, taqiyya is lying in the face of persecution or other danger. We Jews can be unpleasant to each other, but I don't think we usually rise to quite that level.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


My shul is a Modern Orthodox one. So why is the vort du veek at shalosh se'udot and/or se'udah shelishit given by haredi yeshiva bokherlakh? No clue.

A few weeks ago I had an argument with them. If the rabbi hadn't been out of town, I might have been better behaved. Maybe not. At any rate, they didn't show up for the next two or three weeks. Did I scare them away, or were they otherwise engaged? Again, I don't know.

But anyhow, they were back yesterday. Jacob told Esau he stayed observant in Laban's home. The point was to let Esau know that he was a proud Jew. And that's what we have to do. We might sometimes interact with non-Jews, and we have to let them know we're proud Jews. For example, you might be applying for a job. You let them know up front that because you're a Jew, you work six days a week, but you're not available on the Sabbath. You don't wait until after they've hired you.

I didn't say anything this time because I felt bad about having scared them away (if indeed I did so). So you good reader get to hear my reactions. Two reactions, the less important one first. We interact with non-Jews all the time. We don't need to be given an example in order to see that the very idea isn't far-fetched.

Much more importantly, I thought we told potential employers up front that we can't work on Saturdays because we're honest in our business dealings. Naive.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Birkat Hamazon (Amsterdam, 1722-23): a Modern Orthodox bencher?

In most of today's Ashkenazi benchers and siddurim, Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) has separate harahaman statements for different places where you eat: at your parents' table, at the table of people other than your parents, at your own table. (The Sefaradi Birkat Hamazon doesn't have these statements.) Married people eating at their own table include a blessing either for "my wife" (ishti) or "my husband" (ba'li). Most old siddurim include only the harahaman for one's parents' table. If they include the harahaman for one's own table, they have only the husband's blessing of his wife; they don't include the wife's blessing of the husband. We're not talking only about old, old, old siddurim: neither the Hertz nor the de Sola Pool nor the Birnbaum siddur includes the wife's blessing; the Ziegelheim bencher, still distributed at some simchas, has only the husband's blessing.

I don’t pretend to know why the wife’s blessing of the husband didn’t appear. I gather it’s a new custom that began in the twentieth century, and that before that it was just assumed that women didn’t say Birkat Hamazon, at least not in Hebrew. has recently added a bencher, Birkat Hamazon (Amsterdam, 5483 [1722-23]), to its database. It’s downloadable here. (You can expand the image of the cover page by clicking on it.)It is a bencher (it calls itself dos benshen) because it includes Birkat Hamazon, many other berakhot, Sabbath zemirot, and a Haggadah, but none of the actual prayer services. At a quick glance, it has several points of interest. First, the cover page (above) contains what we can recognize as modern advertising. The cover pages of most Hebrew religious books talk about how great the author is and about all the commentaries that are included. This one says, “We have newly printed the bensher with many more berakhot, laws, and songs…” The “new and improved” aspect gives it a modern feel.Another interesting thing. Most versions of Birkat Hamazon have the phrase “kemo shenitbarekhu avoteynu Avraham Yitzhak veYaakov bakol mikol kol”--as our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were blessed with everything (bakol) from everything (mikol) everything (kol). This drives home the point that they were fairly comprehensively blessed. In this version, the “all”s are distributed among the fathers: “kemo shenitbarekhu avoteynu Avraham bakol Yitzhak mikol veYaakov kol.” The Yiddish notes explain that of Abraham it is written “bakol,” of Isaac “mikol,” and of Jacob “kol.” Seligmann Baer's notes in Seder Avodat Yisrael get more specific, citing Bereshit Rabba (although I needed a concordance for chapters and verses--unusual for Baer). Abraham: "Abraham was old, getting on in years, and the Lord blessed Abraham with everything [bakol]" (Genesis 24:1); Isaac: "And I ate from all of it [mikol]" (Genesis 27:33) (although in this context Isaac doesn't sound like he's feeling particularly blessed); Jacob: "Since God has been gracious to me and since I have everything [kol]" (Genesis 33:11).

And the one that takes us back to our earlier point about my assumption that there was an assumption that women didn’t read Birkat Hamazon in Hebrew. Ignore the highlighting at the top; the part of interest is on the bottom line.

The final words on the page are "ve'al beritecha shehatamta bivsarenu"--and on the covenant that you have sealed in our flesh. Before these words is the instruction that women don't say this. I haven't seen this elsewhere. It does seem to assume that women say Birkat Hamazon in Hebrew.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Requesting peace

[Originally posted in 2007]

This post starts out looking like just another self-indulgent whine about King James-isms, but please keep reading; it actually has a point that may be worth bearing in mind, especially in this season of reflection.

As we all know--and by "we all" I mean all of us native speakers of English--anyhow, as all of us know, Psalm 34 tells us to "seek peace, and pursue it." It appears that way, with or without the comma, both in King James and and in every English-language Jewish translation I've seen. Although we all know the psalm says this, we can refine it a little and make it clearer. Bakesh, translated in this verse as "seek," usually means "request" or "beg," a specific kind of seeking.

The difference is important. A mevakesh--one who is requesting--is not arrogant (as other seekers may be), at least at the moment of the request. A mevakesh is in a humbled condition. The person the mevakesh is addressing has something that the mevakesh, hat in hand and powerless, doesn't have. If the mevakesh comes with a request for peace, it may be that what the person receiving the request has is justice. To be mevakesh shalom means that you acknowledge that you may not be the good guy in the dispute--that real peace quite possibly may not be on the terms that you want.

This is an important lesson at any time, but it seems especially important this time of year. Going around and asking for forgiveness should not be a meaningless formality. If a true mevakesh shalom makes a random and meaningless seasonal apology and someone replies, "Well, there are some serious things that I need to forgive you for; do you have time to hear them?" the mevakesh finds the time to hear them and to take them seriously.

The entire staff of Consider the Source wish all of our readers a shanah tovah. And since all of our readers won't quite fill a phone booth (especially since phone booths are hard to find in this day and age), we also wish the rest of you, who aren't reading this, a shanah tovah.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Here's the text of a bumper sticker you see here and there in the greater West Rogers Park metropolitan region:
ארץ ישראל לעם ישראל על פי תורת ישראל

Eretz Yisrael la'Am Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael.
This is the slogan of the Religious Zionists of America, and it means "The Land of Israel belongs to the People Israel according to the Torah of Israel." A slogan like this may be good for rousting up those who agree with you. Nothing wrong with that; roustage is a reasonable purpose for a slogan. But it isn't going to convince anyone else. The Torah of Israel says the Land of Israel belongs to the People Israel? Goodness. And does the Christian Bible say anything about Christianity triumphant? Like Louis the Casablancan Gendarme, I'm more than shocked: I'm shocked--shocked! And what if you're dealing with people for whom the Torah of Israel isn't the ultimate authority?

The Religious Zionists of America is the U.S. branch of the World Mizrachi Movement, whose slogan sounds deceptively similar but is in fact quite different:

עם ישראל בארץ ישראל על פי תורת ישראל

Am Yisrael be-Eretz Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael.
Or "The People Israel is in the Land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel."

I'll leave it to others to figure out why they have such different slogans. And there's probably no practical difference. Just thought it was interesting.

Monday, May 03, 2010

A dyvbuq has taken possession of the bride: on dagesh hazaq in bg"d kf"t letters

This one is irremediably geeqy. Apologies to the nondiqduqgeeqs who dropped in.

When there's a dagesh hazaq, the degushah letter is geminated--it is repeated, as though there's a sheva nah between the two occurrences of the letter. In Professor Moshe Goshen-Gottstein's Diqduq ha'ivri hashimmushi (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1996), two examples are given (p. 28):

עַמִּים = עַמְמִים
שִׁבֵּר = שִׁבְ-בֵּר

The first of these is a little problematic, since Professor Goshen-Gottstein just told us (p. 26) that a sheva between two identical letters is a sheva na, not a nah. Maybe a hyphen, as in the second example, would have helped. But we know what he means, and the first example isn't the one I'm really interested in.

I see the logic in the second example, and it's probably theoretically correct. But assuming you pronounce the dagesh hazaq in tefillah or qeri'ah, does it make sense in real life to pronounce these bg"d kf"t letters as a fricative followed by a stop? Most likely, the person doing this would get corrected. This would be awkward at best. Let's say that during Untaneh Tokef the hazzan sings something about "yom tzom kifpur." A few possibilities arise. Maybe someone could incorrectly "correct" the hazzan. If the hazzan insists on his correctness, it would probably be embarrassing for the correcter, the hazzan, or both. But if the hazzan accepts an incorrect correction, that's not really great either. Even if nobody says anything, the pronunciation would be so unusual as to be a distraction for everyone.

It seems to me that when we have a dagesh hazaq in a bg"d kf"t letter, the best thing is to sacrifice correctness for decorum. But then, who cares how it seems to me?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

No sale, ver. 2.0

Ver. 1.0, posted about three years ago, has been taken down because the tone was much too sarcastic. Believe it or not, ver. 2.0 is very toned down.

Some Orthodox rabbis allow, or even encourage, members of their synagogues to have their relatives' hametz sold in preparation for Pesah, even without the relatives' knowledge. To me this seems misguided. Why "misguided"? Because I'm being tactful.

Is such a sale really a sale? The certificate that the seller signs usually says that the transaction that's being arranged is a legal sale under both halakhah and the laws of the state that the synagogue is in. I'm skeptical. Would the state recognize a sale in which the seller not only hasn't authorized the sale, but doesn't even know about it? (Lawyers, please comment on this.) Does halakhah recognize such a sale? (Halakhists, you should comment on this too.)

I have heard someone raise the objection that theft might be involved. Dad (for example) might eat the Gentile's oatmeal. That's right--Dad is the thief in this scenario, not the "baal teshuvah" and the rabbi. The rabbi set the questioner's mind at ease: he should still have Dad's stuff sold, since owning hametz during Pesah is worse than theft.

Dad's kid thinks he's sold Dad's stuff, Dad is neither informed nor asked about the sale, Dad doesn't realize a penny from the sale, and this guy has the hutzpah to call Dad a thief. This is a much more serious untethering from reality than mere superstition would be.

And let's say Dad, whom his son loves and reveres because that's what such a pious person does, finds out about this transaction. Dad is an apikoros and therefore unreasonable about such things. "You sold my stuff? What were you thinking?"

"Dad, I did it for your own good. I realize it was wrong of you to steal the goy's food, but owning hametz on Pesah is worse than theft."

"So you're saying that because I have h instead of matzah on Friday night during Pesah, I'm worse than a thief? Although I'm also a thief because I ate food that you think you sold to some shaygetz--maybe even a shvartze." Apikorsim just don't understand what's important (and some of them are annoyed by "goy").

Now let's imagine the "baal teshuvah" didn't tell Dad about the scheme, and the Gentile buyer comes to pick up his purchase, or at least to inventory it. What a surprise for both Dad and the Gentile. Dad and the Gentile have two things in common (in addition to being surprised and not being Torah Jews)--both claim the same oatmeal, and both are probably appalled by this bogus transaction once they figure out what happened. Not only do you think you sold Dad's stuff, but you also think you authorized some stranger to wander into his home. To take his stuff. And what about the Gentile? He probably entered into the deal in good faith, imagining that only the actual owners were selling their stuff. The rabbi and the "baal teshuvah" are acting in bad faith with the buyer by selling stuff they have no right to sell. Also, the Gentile is probably one who doesn't hold negative stereotypes about how Jews do business. And this is how you deal with him? After the encounter with Dad, the Gentile goes to the rabbi and asks what gives. What can the rabbi possibly say that won't sound stupid, cynical, or both?

Another possibility: the Gentile comes over with some deranged-sounding story about having bought Dad's food. Tempers erupt. The police are called. Perhaps the press will print an accurate story about the deal. It would be a fake shandeh. Anti-Semitism on the part of the press!

OK. Maybe Dad finds out, maybe he doesn't. But let's say the "baal teshuvah" has a little bit of common sense left and suspects that such a sale isn't really OK under state law. He asks the rabbi. Maybe the rabbi thinks such a sale is obviously OK under state law because why wouldn't it be? Such a rabbi can be suspected of being short on common sense. On the other hand, maybe the rabbi sees the problem, but encourages the "baal teshuvah" to sign it anyway. Draw your own conclusions.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Shabbat shalom

At a recent Shabbat lunch, one of the other guests, Alef, was complaining about the offensive behavior of his youthful "white trash" neighbors. Nobody there but us Orthos, so it was OK to talk like that.

What are we to make of "white trash"? The most cynical explanation I can think of is that in Alef's opinion, blacks are trash by default and whites are not, so if whites are trash, you need to specify. I reject this explanation because I choose to. Another possibility is that Alef wanted to show his lack of racism--whether or not he actually lacks racism--by making it clear that the people he objected to were white. And since in most contexts it's unusual for us melanin-deficient people to say, "Well, this white person did whatever he or she did," he used "white trash."

Then one of the other guests, Beyt, who used to live near where Alef now lives, asked some questions about the family. Beyt recognized them as the people who moved into her old place. The mother in the family is the daughter of a respected Jewish professional, and she married a non-Jew.

Shock!, tohubohu!, foofaraw!, and balaganism! at the table. These kids are Jewish? These kids are Jewish! Vey'z mir!, gevalt!, shrek! Strong men weeping. Delicate ladies falling in vapours. Jewish people behaving obnoxiously? How can this be? And amid all the chaos, Alef was heard saying (and I'm not sure of the exact words--if I'd remembered my mp3 player, I would have recorded it), "Now that I know they're Jewish, I'm going to treat them better."

So now more questions arise. Had Alef been treating them abusively? If so, how would their not being Jewish have made that OK? Had Alef been reproving them appropriately? If so, why would he stop doing that because they're Jewish?

Another question, of course, is what a supposedly pious person--one who's into all this "image of God" stuff--is doing by calling anybody trash.

And if I'm sounding superior, that's unintentional, because my behavior at the table was unacceptable--I wimped out, didn't object to anything, sat on my mouth. As always.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gentilic jargon with probable transliteration inconsistency

Don't worry. The interesting part isn't as geeqy as it may look from here.


is the abbreviation for

בלשון עם זר

--pronounced bilshon am zar--which means "in the language of a foreign people." It's used by Hebrew writers on religious matters when they're forced to use a non-Hebrew word (written in Hebrew letters) to make themselves clear. Rashi, for example, would write בלע״ז when using a then-modern French word. I translate בלע״ז as "in Gentilic jargon."

This is all by way of introduction to something interesting (to me). In Sefer diqduq l'Ramhal (The grammar book of Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto), edited and annotated by Eluzer Brieger of Brooklyn (Bnei Brak: Mishor, [1994]), page 25, note 2, we find this:

שפְּעוּלָה היא מה שאנו קורים בלע״ז אקטי״ב, והִפָּעֵל הוא מה שקורים פּעסי״ב

Or, in English, "...פְּעוּלָה is what we call aktiv in Gentilic jargon, while הִפָּעֵל is what we call pessiv."

So why not either both aktiv and passiv, or both ektiv and pessiv? We can sort of guess why each was chosen (and we shouldn't forget that these are guesses). Aktiv seems more scholarly and Continental, and is in fact consistent with the spelling in English; pessiv seems to reflect what I assume to be Reb Eluzer's pronunciation of English. Each makes sense on its own terms, but the combination is interesting. I'm not going to try to get any big meanings out of it.

For the record, although this shouldn't be necessary, I'm not making fun of anything--neither Reb Eluzer's presumed accent nor the apparent inconsistency.

The following was added the next morning.

I spent the night regretting that I didn't include this.

In the comments on pessiv there was an unstated but blatant circularity. Why did Reb Eluzer write pessiv? Because he speaks English with a Yiddish accent. And how do I know he has a Yiddish accent? Because he wrote pessiv. This is such a nice circle that you can use it for your geometry homework.

And how do I even know pessiv reflects a Yiddish accent? Well, I don't actually know that it does. Maybe it reflects a plain ordinary U.S.A. accent. Consider the words "active" and "passive." We don't pronounce the noun in the first syllable like an "ah." We pronounce it æ. It's the sound that we use in "æccent," "æt," and "ænd"; it's the sound BBC news readers use in "Nicarægua" and "Jæck Cheeræck." Yiddish doesn't have (or hæve) the æ sound. Pessiv is as reasonable an approximation of "pæssive" as passiv would be.

And it's still interesting that two different vowels were used in the Gentilic jargon for "active" and "passive."

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Saving gentiles on Shabbat revisited

The always-menshlich (and I'm not being sarcastic) Brooklyn Wolf posts on the hypothetical question of whether he'd save a Gentile's life on Shabbat (he would, as I knew he would). The comments are interesting--Brooklyn (I take the liberty of using his first name) has more hareidi commenters than I do. He also has more nonhareidi commenters.

I posted on a similarish theme some time ago.