Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Geshem and gashem

This is a reworking of (and I hope an improvement on) an old now-deleted post.
Well, the holiday season is over. Which raises the eternal question that I know is on everyone's mind: "Should I say 'Mashiv haruah umorid hagashem,' or 'Mashiv haruah umorid hageshem'"?

But first, let's discuss pausal forms. Those who know from pausal forms are invited to skip down to the paragraph that begins "Gashem is the pausal form of geshem."

Using the siddur, I noticed some strange stuff some years ago. For example, in the Retzeh paragraph that's added to Birkat Hamazon on Shabbat, we find "kemitzvat retzonékha [new clause] uvirtzonekhá haniah ["hanah" in Birnbaum] lanu..." What's with the two different endings for the same word? And similarly in the weekday Amidah, we find "vekarno tarum bishu'atékha [new clause] ki lishu'atekhá kivinu..."

And in the post-drinking blessing for wine, what's with all the gefen and gafen? "Gafen" must be the basic way of saying it, right? I mean, everyone's heard "borei peri hagafen." So you look up vine in an English-Hebrew dictionary--it's gefen.

And at the end of Birkat Hamazon, we have "vezar'o mevakesh lahem" instead of "lehem," and in Ashrei "ugdol-hased" instead of "hesed."

What's going on? What's going on is pausal forms. In biblical Hebrew, some words undergo a change if they're immediately followed by a major pause. One pausal form is the "-ekhá" (meaning "your") that becomes "-ékha" in pausation. Thus lishu'atekhá and bishu'atékha. Another occurs in nouns with three consonants and two segols (a segol is the three-dot vowel that sounds like a short "e"), such as lehem, melekh, and hesed; the first segol becomes a qamatz (the vowel that looks like a squushed-down capital T). Thus "vezar'o mevakesh lahem" and "ugdol-hased."

"But wait!," you may be saying. "You said the pausal forms are in biblical Hebrew. While some of the things you've quoted are from the Bible--viz., Ashrei and the verse near the end of Birkat Hamazon--others are not. So, not to put to fine a point on it, one needs to ask 'Wha?'!"

If you're saying this, you're right. Much of Ashkenazi liturgy was recast into biblical style in recent centuries, and we sometimes go hog wild, as it were, with the pausalities. Consider the Berakhah Aharonah: "al Yisra'el amékha, ve'al Yerushalayim irékha, ve'al Tsion mishkan kevodékha, ve'al mizbehékha, ve'al heykhalékha." On this and on this and on this and on this and on this. This is a lot of pausativity. (Although I like this one; it makes it more lively than "on this and on this and on this and on this and on this.") But yes, it’s overdone.

* * *

Gashem is the pausal form of geshem. So which one to use? I used to be a gashemite, to use the word of Dr. Shnayer Leiman. Every siddur I've seen has a full stop after "hag*shem" (either a Western-style period or a Hebrew sof pasuk, which looks like a Western colon and is more or less equivalent to a period). This is true even of those siddurim that have "hageshem." And in general, even those shelihei tzibbur who say "hageshem" also pronounce a full stop. So "hagashem" made sense to me. According to Dr. Leiman, this is in fact the rationale of the gashemites.

There are some who are very intolerant of what they consider the wrong pronunciation. Even if I had no other reason to like the virtual person known as Mississippi Fred MacDowell, I would still be eternally grateful to him for pointing me toward Dr. Leiman. Specifically, to this shiur by Dr. Leiman on the history and halakhah of the geshem-vs.-gashem controversy. I recommend the shiur highly, even if you're not a vocalization geeq. It's as much history as it is halakhah, and Dr. Leiman's presentation is fascinating, educational, and entertaining. You don't need a yeshiva background to understand it--I, for example, am an am ha'aretz with no training in rabbinics.

This comment from Siddur Tzelota d'Avraham summarizes both the geshemite position and, so that it can be refuted, the gashemite position (you can enlarge the image by clicking on it):

Morid hageshem: The gimmel takes a segol [i.e., it’s geshem]. This is how it’s printed in all the old Ashkenazic siddurim and mahzorim, and also in the Sephardic siddur that is available to me, as well as in the siddur of the Holy Luminescent Rabbi Who Wrote the Tanya (may the memory of the righteous one be a blessing). I’ve heard that a grammarian in Berlin [Isaac Satanow] published a siddur, Vaye'ater Yitzhak, in which he prints it as "hagashem," in accordance with the rules concerning pauses. And in fact Zechariah 14:15 [sic; it seems to me to be verse 17] ends with "yihyeh hagashem." After Satanow, it was published as hagashem in several siddurim. But this is just a complete scrambling of the old books; there is no pause here at all. In siddurim, it's printed on a line by itself in order to teach that it's said not all year 'round, but only in the winter. But it is connected to the language that follows it; by making the rain fall (morid hageshem), God kindly sustains the living (mekhalkel hayyim behesed). As the Tur (Orah Hayyim 114) notes, "morid hageshem" supports "mekhalkel hayyim" because the rains provide livelihood and sustenance (kalkalah, which has the same root as mekhalkel). It has nothing at all to do with "mehayyeh hametim" (giver of life to the dead), which precedes it.
Note that in the same siddur that makes this argument that there is no pause at all after hageshem, hageshem is followed by a period. As I was saying. This is why I was a gashemite.

I’m not at all competent to evaluate the halakhic arguments for either position. I have become a geshemite for nonhalakhic reasons. When I started thinking about it, I realized that the phrase is parallel to those that follow--they all begin with participles (or what are in Modern Hebrew called present-tense verbs):

mashiv haruah umorid hag*shem
mekhalkel hayyim behesed
mehayyeh metim berahamim rabim
somekh nofelim
verofe holim
umatir asurim
umkayyem emunato lisheney afar

OK. So it’s associated with the following phrases. This doesn’t necessarily mean it should be geshem. After all, Ashkenazic liturgy is heavy on the pauses--recall the Berakhah Aharonah. Maybe it should be pausal gashem. But note the next phrase; it ends with hesed, not hased. Because I’m claiming that the two lines have parallel construction, I choose to say geshem (which is not the same as claiming that gashem is incorrect).

Judging by Dr. Leiman’s lecture, each pronunciation is advocated by bunches of rabbis, and these guys are always right, so you’re probably OK either way. On the other hand, since some of these rabbis say the other pronunciation is downright wrong, it’s possible that you’re non-OK either way.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Symposium on Eliezer Berkovits--virtual version

Back in March, there was a symposium in Chicago on Eliezer Berkovits. And now those of us who registered for it have gotten an e-mail with a link to recordings of the talks. Here's that link.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Question that some of you may know the answer to, although everyone I've asked doesn't

Given that one should be very careful when pronouncing shem Hashem, why does the official pronunciation silence the alef when a prefix is attached? For example, why do we say "hodu ladonai ki tov" instead of "hodu la'adonai ki tov"?

Thank you.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Important event

My shul is hosting a blood drive on Sunday, May 15.(Click on image to expand it.) I'm chairing the event, and I'll be there the whole time. If you have a mental image of the Miker, come on over and find out if you got it right. I'll be the guy hovering around, trying to look important.

In point of fact, I don't care whether you donate at our drive. The important thing is that you donate somewhere or other if you can. If our drive makes it convenient for you, please donate there. If it reminds you that you want to donate blood, that's great too. But if it reminded you last year and you ended up not doing it, please do it at our drive. Check your schedule for Sunday, May 15. If there's anything on there that might be less important than saving three lives, please consider rescheduling it and donating blood instead.

So yeah, I don't care whether you donate at our drive as long as you donate somewhere. But I'd love to see you. If you're a member of Consider the Source's international readership and you're going to be in northeast West Rogers Park that day, drop on in. If you're medically able and you're carrying around a pint you don't need, please donate. If you're not medically able, come on in anyway. Introduce yourself, give the donors orange juice, help me with my hovering around and trying to look important.

On Saturday the 14th, kiddush at the shul will be sponsored by the blood drive committee. In honor of the occasion, we're serving theme-appropriate chowage. Since it's important to be hydrated if you're donating blood, we'll be serving some good old plain old Lake Michigan water in addition to the usual fizzy stuff. I've been drinking Lake Mish water since infancy, and look how I turned out. Also, you should iron up. We've already got a commitment from one of our members to make a spinach salad. If any of you are willing to make either gehakte leberlakh or, failing that, chopped liver in the 'gogulary kitchen Thursday night or Friday day, let me know--dietary laws observed. Also, since it's a (you should forgive the expression) yuppie 'gog, spinach pie might also work. There will even be some regular food.

Last year, the rabbi's dvar on the day before the blood drive suggested that if God gave us more than we need, maybe it was for the purpose of sharing with those who don't have. Af the kiddush after the service, a member of the blood drive committee gave a vort based on this. If God gave us good health and a pint of blood we don't need, maybe we were given that extra pint so that we could give it to someone who needs it.

By the way, there are several versions of the mishnah that's quoted in our poster (above). Some (most, in fact) talk about saving a life miyisrael--a Jewish life. I've been looking into this, and my temporary conclusion is that it may not matter. The saying is based on our descent from Adam, not from Abraham, which means that the logic of it applies to all people, not just Jews. On the other hand, the context of the mishnah is the procedural rules for a beit din (rabbinic court), and only Jews are subject to the jurisdiction of a beit din. Bli neder, I'll post more about this later.

And what is the one thing in the world that's more negligent than not donating blood if you're able to? Obviously, that would be posting about donating blood without including everyone's favorite image re blood donation.

Monday, April 04, 2011


One of the rules for Passover (Pesach) is that we must not own chametz (or chometz)--leavened materials that are forbidden for the holiday period. We sell our chametz to a Gentile before Passover, usually using a rabbi as our agent. We sign a document giving the rabbi permission to sell the chametz; we ourselves don't get the money. After Passover is over, the rabbi arranges for the gentile to sell the chametz back.

This is a legal sale under the laws of the civil authorities; the document says so. During Passover, we keep the sold chametz locked away in designated storage areas (like cabinets); the gentile owner has the right to inspect the chametz and to take it away. The owner is under no obligation to sell it back after the holiday is over. Nevertheless, we assume they'll sell it back. We're told to keep away from the sold chametz for some period after Passover--usually an hour or so--to give the rabbi time to buy it back on our behalf.

There is a halachic ruling--halachah is Jewish law--about this that I believe is extremely ill-considered. I have heard it before, attributed to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most prominent halachic decisors of the twentieth century. I've now seen it written down for the first time, in a list of Passover laws compiled by Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst of Agudath Israel of Illinois. It appears on p. 16 of AI of I's 2011 Passover guide:

Every Jew must sell their chometz before Pesach. If one knows that he will be eating by relatives after Pesach who do not sell their chometz, one is permitted to sell their chometz without their knowledge or permission. You are able to do this because of the rule that one is permitted to perform beneficial acts for others even without their awareness. After Pesach it will be permitted to eat in their home.
The point of this isn't to pick on either R' Fuerst or AI. R' Feinstein's rulings are considered authoritative. I believe that he was mistaken, and that you should not attempt to "sell" other people's chametz.

Why did I put "sell" in quotation marks? We claim that such a sale is legal under the laws of the civil jurisdiction where it takes place. It seems very unlikely that these clandestine sales are legal. A person who is not legally incompetent and hasn't given you power of attorney owns some property; you sell this property without the owner's knowledge or consent. Just to make it interesting, the owner doesn't get any money from the supposed sale. You've arranged this sale because you don't approve of the owner's religious practices or lack thereof. I doubt that this is a legal sale under the laws of most states. I don't understand why this isn't obvious. I ask any lawyers who might be reading this to comment.

Some Orthodox Jews--a minority, I believe--don't generally consider this an important matter; we have our own laws. But in this case, civil law is religious law; under halachah, this sale has to be binding under civil law. If the Orthodox rabbinate allows or encourages such extralegal sales, it's undermining the rationale for the whole procedure.

Another problem is that it can lead to misunderstandings that may turn violent. It's very unusual for the non-Jew who bought the chametz to visit his purchases, but it does happen. The sale document explicitly allows it. We sometimes share moving stories--stories that may even be true--about a gentiles who visit their chametz because they feel so good about helping Jews observe Passover. So what happens if the gentile shows up at Dad's place--I assume most of those who sell other people's chametz are from non-Orthodox families and decided to sign up for this zany lifestyle--anyhow, the gentile shows up at Dad's place to have a look at the oatmeal that he bought but that Dad didn't sell. Since neither the gentile nor Dad is in on the secret, it could get ugly. Dad might call the police; if one of them has a short fuse, it could get violent.

And what about the gentile who participates in this transaction? Presumably they are well disposed toward Jews; at any rate, they probably don't have any negative stereotypes about the business practices of Orthodox Jews. This Jewish-friendly gentile is in effect made into a receiver of stolen property--Dad isn't the only victim of this deception. If Dad or the gentile found out about the game this rabbi is playing, they would probably surmise that he's either an amoral charlatan or an unwise fool. Maybe both. And who are we to disagree? At worst, the gentile might decide that the stereotypes about Jewish business practices have an uncomfortable amount of truth to them.

Finally, if you want to sell your relative's chametz, it's possible you should examine your own motives. Let's look back at what Rabbi Fuerst wrote: If you know you're going to be eating with relatives who don't sell their chametz, it's halachically permitted to sell it for them without their knowledge because you're doing them a good turn. After Passover, you can eat in their house. The obvious question that arises is "Huh?" If it's for their benefit, why limit yourself to those you know you'll be eating by after Passover? In Judaism, the highest kindness is that which you expect no human reward for. And one of the things we get a divine reward for is for making peace between people. So why not secretly sell the chametz of your worst non-observant Jewish enemy, at whose table you have no expectation of eating in the near future?

You should ask whether arranging this fake purchase shows a certain contempt for the beneficiaries of your supposed kindness. If so, maybe you should consider whether you want contempt to be the basis for your relationship with your family. I hope the answer is no; I assume that's the answer in most cases. If the answer is yes, maybe you should find an honest way of expressing your contempt.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My pre-Purim reading

I just started reading this paper, and so far it's interesting: Avi Sagi, "The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem," Harvard Theological Review 87, no. 3 (July 1994): 323-46. If you have access to JSTOR, you can download a copy. If you don't, you can send me an e-mail and I may be able to arrange for a pdf of it to appear in your in box.

In all too many Orthodox synagogues, Parashat Zakhor is an opportunity for a Fifteen-Minute Hate. I don't know how most non-Ortho 'gogs handle it. Some of them may just ignore it. This paper avoids both.