The Paradox of Bee Honey

Bumblebee (Photo: Wikipedia)

Updated March 6, 2017

We all love bee honey. No Rosh Hashanah meal would be complete without it. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, we find ourselves with a conundrum that has puzzled many rabbinic minds since the days of Late Antiquity. I am referring to the verse in Leviticus, “But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you” (Lev. 11:23). Maimonides explains, “Honey made from bees and hornets[1] is permitted. The reason is that the bees do not actually make the honey from their bodies. Rather, the bees bring the nectar into their bodies, and then it is collected into their mouths from herbs, which they regurgitate into their hive. The purpose of this enables them to provide themselves with food during the rainy season.”[2]

A klatz kashe in Yiddish is an obvious question that any fool can ask, “But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you” You  might counter: Bees have six feet and not four! Actually, bees use its two front arms for gathering pollen, and its four back legs for walking.

The Talmud in BT Bechorot 7a-b discusses an intriguing question: Can something pure come from an impure source? Or, do we say that whatever comes from an impure source, remains ceremonially impure? On the subject of bee-honey, Rashi offers a different exposition from Maimonides; according to him, “The bees bring into their bodies—they eat from the flowers of the tree, and from this they make honey in their intestines.” Scientifically speaking—Rashi’s exposition comes a bit closer to a modern scientific explanation. Perhaps Maimonides might consider Rashi’s exposition as an example of a permitted substance coming out of an unclean source, which the Sages ruled remains “unclean.” However, the science does not really support Maimonides’ explanation. However, according to Livescience.com:

  • Nectar is a sugary liquid that derives from flowers using a bee’s long, tube-shaped tongue and stored in its “crop.” While sloshing around in the crop, the nectar mixes with enzymes that transform its chemical composition and pH, making it more suitable for long-term storage. Once in the comb, nectar is still a viscous liquid — nothing like the thick honey you use at the breakfast table. To get all that extra water out of their honey, bees set to work fanning the honeycomb with their wings in an effort to speed up the process of evaporation. When most of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, the bee seals the comb with a secretion of liquid from its abdomen, which eventually hardens into beeswax. Away from air and water, honey can be stored indefinitely, providing bees with the perfect food source for cold winter months. [3]

Ultimately,  R. Sheishet in the Talmud differs from the view and follows R. Yaakov’s opinion that theoretically, were it not for explicit biblical passages permitting honey, bee honey too would have been prohibited as being the product from an unclean source. The passage he is alluding to is from the story of Samson (Judg. 14:6-9; and his famous riddle regarding bee honey to the Philistines.[4] R. Sheishet evidently felt ambivalent about his colleagues’ explanation as to how honey is produced and felt that given their lack of knowledge on this matter, he could find stronger footing in citing a biblical verse to prove his point.

There is an intriguing interpretation found in Philo of Alexandria, who explains on Leviticus 2:11: “Moreover, it also ordains that every sacrifice shall be offered up without any leaven or honey, not thinking it fit that either of these things should be brought to the altar. The honey, perhaps, because the bee which collects it is not a clean animal, inasmuch as it derives its birth, as the story goes, from the putrefaction and corruption of dead oxen, just as wasps spring from the bodies of horses.”  Was Philo thinking of the story regarding Samson, which describes what he discovered after he ripped the lion in half, “… he turned aside to look at the remains of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the lion’s carcass, and honey” (Judg. 14:8)?  Still Philo’s interpretation offers  a theoretical novelty—that is if one assumes the verse is speaking about bee honey. Although its food is edible for human consumption as seen in the Tanakh,  it is considered unworthy for the altar because of its unclean status. This position has no parallel in rabbinical literature. [5]

Among modern scholars, there is a fairly wide consensus that much of the honey referred to in the Bible was not bee honey at all, but is really a sweet syrup that is produced from the fruit of figs, grapes, carobs, and dates. Both kinds are still made in the East and are called dibis (honey) by the Arabs. Hence, the famous expression, “a land flowing with milk and honey” may not be referring to bee honey, but rather to a land blessed with ample fruit.

However, among modern scholars, there is a fairly wide consensus that much of the honey referred to in the Bible was not bee honey at all, but is really a sweet syrup that is produced from the fruit of figs, grapes, carobs, and dates. Both kinds are still made in the East and are called dibis (honey) by the Arabs. Hence, the famous expression, “a land flowing with milk and honey” may not be referring to bee honey, but rather to a land blessed with ample fruit.

 


[1] Maggid Mishnah points out that Maimonides derives his view from a Talmudic discussion where he follows the opinion of the Baraitha namely, that hornet honey wasps are “clean: and permitted for consumption. However, R. Shashet and R. Yaakob differ and regard both of these products as forbidden. Among medieval rabbinic scholars, Ramban and the Rosh take a stringent position on this matter. R. Moshe Isserseles rejects their opinion given the scarcity of hornet honey, thus making it a moot point) See  S.A. Y.D. 81:9.

[2] MT Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot 3:3.

[3] http://www.livescience.com/37611-what-is-honey-honeybees.html

[4] For other references to bee honey in the Tanakh, see Ps. 19:11; Prov. 16:24.

[5] Spec. Laws 1:291-293.

Rediscovering the Meaning of Yahrzeit

One of the most important but also neglected customs of the year is when we observe the Yahrzeit of a loved one.  It occurs with such frequency that we often will forget about the date altogether because we may have forgotten the Hebrew calendar date.

According to R. Solomon Freehoff, this circumstance is the principle reason why he thinks a secular date of death may be used lest the actual day of Yahrzeit be forgotten. Nevertheless, he encourages synagogues and rabbis to instruct people how to observe the traditional Yahrzeit based on the Hebrew calendar—a point that is pragmatic as it is effective. [1]

With the plethora of Jewish calendar programs available in Android, determining the Yahrzeit is no longer a daunting task. Yet, human laziness being what it is, it is still easy to overlook a Yahrzeit—whether one has a computerized program or not.

For some of us, the Yahrzeit date involves no great effort to remember—especially if our parents or loved ones died on a Jewish holiday.

On Purim of 1996, my father Leo Israel Samuel died as I was reading the Megillah at my old beloved congregation in Glens Falls, New York. As a Holocaust survivor, my father’s death left a lasting mark on many of my old congregants who remembered what happened that fateful evening—many of whom remembered speaking to my father who had lived with us during the last year of his life.

Yahrzeits are so personal—most of us have difficulty remember their own Yahrzeits, let alone someone else’s Yahrzeit.  However, this past week, I found myself deluged by dozens of Yahrzeit acknowledgements from people who remembered my father.  Someone had sent me with a beautiful Yahrzeit candle with an acknowledgement. I felt very touched and moved beyond words . . .

As a side note I want to add that as I thought about this experience I suddenly realized how valuable the Facebook website could be in helping people reconnect with old friends and family. It seemed as though the arms of the cyber community lifted me up and I realized that if it could lift me up, it can lift up other lives detached by geographical distance, but united in a spirit that transcends distance—and even time. Creating a web of cyber relationships can also help you expand your sphere of friendships and family many of us have lost touch with over the years. Facebook also can help us renew these old friendships–it is a forum where cyber-friends become almost like an extended family. This past year, I have also discovered many lost relatives bearing the same Samuel name–all through Facebook. No longer do we have to wait to see pictures in the mail of our grandchildren, with a keystroke, suddenly the pictures are there for everyone to see.

Jewish mystical teaches us that the death of a good man or woman represents a moment when the soul graduates to the next higher level of existence. At the time of death, the soul experiences a transcendent release enabling it to grow wings as  it ascends into the eternal reality of spirit. When a loved one dies on a Jewish holiday, this can have great spiritual significance. I remember many people I have helped buried as a rabbi, who passed away on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish legend and folklore, if your loved one dies on Yom Kippor, all of one’s sins are completely forgiven. As a Holocaust survivor who defied Hitler’s hoards with his body and soul, it seemed only apropos my father died on the day of Purim—a time recalling how our ancestors survived the Hitler of their time—Haman.

Rest in peace in the world of eternity—in a realm where suffering no longer has any bite or reality.



[1] Solomon Freehoff, Contemporary Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1974), 1:168, 2:17.

Book Review: Shalom Aleichem

Author: Rabbi Shiloh Ben-David. Book: Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

ISBN-13: 978-9657599136; 217 pages; Publisher: Self-Published; Price: $23.95. Rating: 2.5 * out of four.

The 20th century Orthodox scholar and philanthropist Irving Bunim, in his monumental study on Pirke Avoth, makes a profound observation about the significance of an ordinary greeting.

  • “There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his ‘dignity.’ Others will hesitate from a sense of insecurity to be the first to extend a warm greeting to those they meet. They are afraid to give a token of friendship and receive only an icy stare in return. They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the ‘emotional risk,’ while they ‘play it safe.’ Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another’s feelings. Give him a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire of his welfare.”[1]

With this thought in mind, I shall now introduce a fine new book written by Rabbi Shimon ben David entitled, Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

The first part of the book details the practical application regarding greeting someone with respect to mourners, interrupting prayer to greet a parent, a teacher, or even a potential enemy, such as a Roman King.  However, the author points out that even greeting someone has its limitation. For example, during prayer it is considered in appropriate to greet someone while the Cantor is leading a service. Modern synagogues could probably benefit from less socializing and more focused prayer. The author’s knowledge of the Halachic sources is impressive; he carefully annotates the legal discussions on the bottom of the page in Hebrew so that scholars might look into the Responsa literature that is written on the subject.

While most people would not think twice about the propriety concerning greeting a woman, the author mentions that many rabbis see nothing wrong with simply being polite. Yet, among the Ultra-Orthodox, such social niceties are considered “sinful.” Many of today’s Ultra-Orthodox rabbis fear that it might lead to a relationship (or possibly mixed dancing?).  Moreover, many scholars assert that a man is not even allowed to hear the voice of a woman (pp. 39-41).  Such reasoning only proves why there is such a degree of dysfunction in the Ultra-Orthodox world whenever it deals with gender interactions. This is very sad because young Orthodox people objectify the opposite gender.  Even making eye-contact with the opposite sex is considered “sinful.” Yet, we must not forget that when Jacob greets Rachel for the first time, the Torah tells us that he kissed her![2]

The author weaves many stories how rabbis of the past—from ancient to modern times—taught their followers about the importance of greeting a fellow-human being. Examples include:

  • Take care to greet one another with “Shalom”[3] (p. 109).
  • Anyone who greets another is as though he has given that person food and drink (p. 110).
  • R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one knows that his friend is used to greeting him, then he ought to greet his friend first, for it is said: Seek peace and pursue it (Psa. 34:15). Should his friend greet him first, but he does not return the greeting, such a person is called a robber, for it is said: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses (Isa. 3:14).[4]

There is one quote from Rabbi ben David’s book Shalom Aleichem that I really liked from Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein.

  • A person might belittle this simple act. He might think that nothing is accomplished by simply saying “Good Morning” respectfully to someone he passes on the sidewalk instead of looking the other way as if he does not exist. You never know, however, how much that person is looking forward to a warm greeting from another human being (p. 123). Continue reading “Book Review: Shalom Aleichem”

Why Do We Celebrate Hanukah?– A Potpourri of Judaic Perspectives

One of the famous and most important questions asked about Hanukkah reads: What is Hanukkah? [i.e., “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?”]. The question strikes a modern reader as odd. Surely, the Jews must have known about the holiday’s significance for several centuries! On the surface, one could argue that the question is purely rhetorical in nature. It serves to help provide the rabbinical teachers with a new interpretation of the famous Maccabean triumph over the Syrian-Greeks: The Talmud replies:

  • On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary; they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. When the Hasmonean monarchy emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. There was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The following year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

One 9th century Midrashic work, Pesikta Rabbati, records a legend: Why did the rabbis make Hanukkah eight days? Because … the Hasmoneans  entered the Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils. They were kept busy for eight days. And why do we light candles? When the Hasmoneans entered the Temple, there were eight iron spears in their hands, which they covered with wood and drove into the ground, lighting oil in each and using them as lamps.[1] This reinterpretation of the Hanukkah story has no support in none of the 2nd century B.C.E. literature, or for that matter in the  1stcentury stories concerning Hanukkah, which we will soon examine in detail. The miracle of the Hanukkah has a different narrative in the Book of Maccabees 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 —the oldest record of the Hanukkah story that differs considerably from the Talmudic version found in BT Shabbat 21b that was recorded several centuries after the holiday had become a commonplace Jewish observance.

  • 36Then Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.”37So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion.38They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished. 39Then they tore their clothes and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes 40and fell with their faces to the ground. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
  • 41Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary.42He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; 43these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the Abomination to an unclean place. 44They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of holocausts that had been desecrated. 45The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. 46They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them. 47Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one.
  • 48They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and purified the courts. 49They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. 51They also put loaves on the table and hung up curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
  • 52Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, 53they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made.54On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. 55All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.  56For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. 57They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers and furnished them with doors. 58There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.  59Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev.

Note that the original date of the Hanukkah celebration occurred on December 14th, 164 B.C.E. Hanukkah was thus called, “The Feast of Dedication” and this name also appears in the Book of John 10:22 of the NT. Josephus refers to the celebration as the “Feast of Lights.” Josephus adds an altogether different spin on the story of Hanukkah.

  • (321) This desolation happened to the temple in the hundred forty and fifth year, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Apelleus, and on the hundred and fifty-third olympiad: but it was dedicated anew, on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apelleus, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, and on the hundred and fifty-fourth olympiad. (322) And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel, which was given four hundred and eight years before; for he declared that the Macedonians would dissolve that worship [for some time]. 7. (323) Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. (324) Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. (325) And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. (326) Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

One might wonder why did Josephus refer to Hanukkah as “The Festival of Lights”? Curiously, he does not mention anything about the custom of lighting the menorah, as we commonly do today. One would think he would have gone to greater lengths explaining the tradition, since he wrote The Antiquities of the Jews as guide to curious gentiles who wanted to learn more about the Jewish people. Josephus stresses that the holiday of “Lights” represents the light of religious freedom—the ability to worship God in a manner that is free from foreign interference.

It would seem that the last thing Josephus wanted to do was the extoll the military victories of the Maccabees over their enemies—especially since Titus captured the menorah as the Romans displayed it in the streets of Rome after defeating Judea and destroying her Temple. From this perspective, one may conclude that both the Rabbis and Josephus wished to stress the spiritual victory of the Maccabean revolt—one which would not appear threatening to an anxious Roman government. Continue reading “Why Do We Celebrate Hanukah?– A Potpourri of Judaic Perspectives”

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Winding Road In Tibet Royalty Free Stock Photos - Image: 23557958

The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Tonight we begin our spiritual journey with a celebration of Yom Kippur—a holiday that is wholly devoted to the cultivation of forgiveness and spiritual renewal—both as individuals and as a community.

“I have forgiven you as you have spoken” Fewer subjects personally challenge our moral sensibilities like forgiveness—both as individuals and as a society.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is important for us to revisit some of the important questions about the nature and dynamics of forgiveness.

But what are the limitations of forgiveness? What are its possibilities? Should a person forgive unconditionally?

In Jewish tradition, it is often customary to broach an important topic with a story.

You are a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. You are sent to work in a hospital. A nurse brings you to a German soldier named Karl, who is mortally wounded. The dying soldier confesses that he has committed terrible atrocities against your people and asks you to forgive him. What would you do? ‘

Actually, this was the question faced by renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and is the focus of his autobiographical novel, The Sunflower. Wiesenthal took the soldier’s hand listened to his story.

The patient recounted a horrible act in which he had participated. All of the Jews, mothers with infants and children, young and old, were rounded up and crowded into a large yellow house. The commanding officer ordered the house to be set afire.

When the Jews started running from the burning building and jumping out windows, the commander ordered the troops to fire. After telling the story, the patient asked Wiesenthal if he would forgive him for his role in the massacre.

Ultimately, young Wiesenthal walks away in silence. He can’t forgive the man. But his own soul is scorched with the agony of his decision to walk away.  Liberated from the camps, Wiesenthal seeks out the dead soldier’s mother to ease his mind. He finds a broken woman, left with nothing but the good memory of her son.

Wiesenthal decided not to tell her of her son’s confessed atrocities, his silence brings him peace of mind. He couldn’t forgive the soldier for the murder of others; he can spare an old woman suffering.

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO FORGIVE?

Wiesenthal later wrote, “Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is a choice, and only the person who suffers is qualified to forgive”

As the years went by, his conscience still haunts him: Did I do the right thing in refusing to forgive the SS soldier? What do you think? Are there some crimes that simply cannot be forgiven?

When Wiesenthal first printed his book, there was a remarkable range of responses. Most Jewish respondents felt that Wiesenthal was right in not forgiving the dying Nazi. How could a mass-murderer be forgiven?

POSTSCRIPT

Did Karl truly repent? Only God knows, but it is possible that he took a significant meaningful first step toward some form of redemption . . .  The rest of his journey can only continue in the World of Eternity . . . As I mentioned earlier, The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

In Karl’s case, we cannot confuse the beginning of a journey with its ending. It seems only apropos for the souls of the victims to deal with the souls of their perpetrators on their own terms. But regardless how one views the story, this much is known: Could either young Simon or Karl have ever imagined that their mysterious encounter would challenge the moral sensibilities of countless millions of people across time?

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Deciphering the Symbolism of the Burnt Sacrifice

Whenever I teach a class on Leviticus, inevitably my students ask: “What is the psychology that inspires one to offer a sacrifice in general, and the burnt offering in particular? Why is the burnt offering mentioned first in the opening chapter of Leviticus?”

To the modern mindset, the mentality that believed in animal sacrifices must seem very strange. Even Maimonides viewed sacrifice as a form of retrogressive religion, tolerated in the Torah only because of the unsophisticated spiritual maturity of the Israelites.

Ironically enough, in Israel, today many students are studying Maimonides’ Laws of Sacrifice on the hope and expectation that Jews will at some point rebuild the Temple and offer the animal sacrifices just like their ancestors did in ancient times. Right . . .

I can just imagine Maimonides turning over in his grave. Maimonides would have undoubtedly have been surprised to see that we have evolved so little over the past 800+ years.

If you think the money changers made a killing when Jesus created a ruckus that chased them out (obviously, many other pilgrims must have felt the same way), just imagine what today’s Haredi rabbis would do today if he had a new Temple, replete with animal sacrifices.

No thanks, but no thanks.

An anthropological approach demands that we view a society’s customs through the eyes of those individuals who practiced animal sacrifice. There is a symbolism and significance that moderns can learn and may even apply in their own spiritual formation and development.

An analogy from human behavior might serve to answer this question. The giving of a gift, even between human beings, is not a purely external transaction but at the same time establishes a personal relation between giver and recipient. This would explain why bribery is morally offensive; by accepting a bribe  the judge becomes, at the very least, psychologically beholden to the litigant  (cf. Gen.32:14-19).

Many scholars in the field of anthropology note that archaic man often offered sacrifices as a bribe to the gods for personal enrichment; or to placate the gods from harming the worshiper. Think of it as a form of divine “protection money.” Personally, I think that in the story of Noah, Noah offers the olah shortly after the ark rests upon dry land. He brings the olah as bribe because he is uncertain whether God might change His mind and will eventually bring a new flood on Noah’s descendants.

Perhaps the most forceful antecedent to the Israelite practice of the burnt sacrifice is from Isaac’s near sacrifice of Isaac at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22ff). Illustrating this eternal truth, God beckons Abraham to offer Isaac “as an olah.” More than any other incident in Abraham and Isaac’s life, the Akedah taught both of them how to be wholly given over to the Divine. Continue reading “Deciphering the Symbolism of the Burnt Sacrifice”

A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum

One of my favorite concepts in logic is the reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”)  argument, which is a logical method of argument that proves the falsity of a premise  by following its implications to a logical but absurd conclusion.

“Fortifying the Walls of Conversion” ?

Today, at a conference dedicated to “fortifying walls of conversion,”  the Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger expressed moral support for Rabbi Sherman, who annulled thousands of conversions carried out by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who has been the past acting  director of the National Conversion Authority in Israel.

In the past couple of years or more, Haredi politicians in Israel have on a number of occasions tried to oust the rabbi, most notably under the corrupt leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , but Rav Druckman refused to go and there was nothing his critics could do to force him to leave. Even after his departure from the directorship, Haredi politicians and rabbis are still trying to overturn all of his conversions, which may affect the status of about 15,000 converts in Israel.

Explaining Why Revoking Conversions is Wrongheaded

The concept of revoking a conversion is a recent innovation in rabbinic law. As we have posted in other places, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) does not sanction revocation of conversions at all. Should a convert return to his former gentile roots, the halacha still considers him as a “sinful Israelite.” [1]

Simply stated, revoking conversions is risky business and can cause unspeakable harm to countless innocents who are indirectly or directly  triangulated in the rabbinic web the Haredi rabbis have woven.

Reductio ad absurdum in Action

Say, for example, a woman converts from Catholicism and becomes a pious Haredi Jewess at the tender age of 20; she then raises a Haredi family and has  20 children of her own–all who live pious Haredi lives. Now each of those 20 children of the second generation have 20 children of their own, and they too, remain pious and God fearing Haredim.

As time passes, each person of the the third generation of 20 children produces  20 children–all who remain within the Haredi community. Continue reading “A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum”

A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity

Sometimes even the most obvious biblical passages can be perplexing. One interesting verse is a case in point:

“Therefore, do not say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we do not then sow or reap our crop?’ I will bestow such blessings on you in the sixth year that there will then be crop enough for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will continue to eat from the old crop; and even into the ninth year, when the crop comes in, you will still have the old to eat from” (Lev. 25:20-22).

It is difficult to determine how seriously the ancient Jews observed the שמיטה‎  “Sabbatical Year” (literally “release”). The fact that people attempted to keep it at all, given the hard economic realities, is  remarkable.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem in the 5th cent. B.C.E. swore to let the ground remain fallow during the seventh year (Neh. 10:31). During the Maccabean revolution, the Syrian army led by general Lysias, took over the fortress of Beth-zur because food was in short supply during the sabbatical year when the attack was made. Its people “evacuated the city, because they had no provisions there to withstand a siege, since it was a sabbatical year for the land” (1 Maccabees 6:49, cf. vv. 53-54).

Josephus records that both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar remitted Israel’s taxes during the Sabbatical years.[1] Tactius also attests to the Jewish observance of the Sabbatical year but attributed the custom to “indolence.”[2]

Given the animosity between Judea and Rome, the Romans demanded that the Jewish remnant of Judea continue paying the crop tax. No exceptions were made whatsoever for the struggling Jewish population of the land.

In the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba revolution, the rabbis modified the law regarding the Sabbatical year during the Roman period to allow for food to be grown in order so that the people should survive, and be able to pay its taxes to a hostile Roman government.

What makes this an intriguing passage is the fact that the Sabbatical year continued to be observed even in a post-exilic era and most Halachic authorities ruled that the Sabbatical year was still a rabbinic obligation.  The only reason the Sages exempted the farmers was because the imminent danger they faced should they have disobeyed. Other authorities insisted that it was biblically required, while others still maintained it was a nothing more than a pious custom.[3] Continue reading “A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity”

The Best Question of the Passover Seder

Children have an unusual ability when it comes to confronting our spiritual hypocrisy as parents and as adults; very often they get to the essence of the problem as they perceive things. Frequently, as parents we often fail to hear the questions our young people ask of us; often we overreact whenever we feel that our beliefs and values are being questioned or attacked.

Rather than listening with an inner ear, as parents, we often react with harshness and anger. Sometimes we wish our children were more respectful and compliant, or at least, “mind their place” at the Seder table and not misbehave or draw undue attention to themselves. As any Woody Allen fan certainly knows, passionate family discussions have always been a part of Jewish life since ancient times. Unanimity has never been the goal of any kind of discussion wherever you have two or more Jews together engaged in dialogue. Passover is no exception to this rule.

During Passover, this thought finds expression in the question of the “Rasha ” (better known to most of us as the “Wicked Child”). Without his presence and participation, the entire Seder would be a dull experience. Here is a literal translation of the controversial passage we read in the Passover Hagadah:

The wicked child, what does that he say? “What is this service to you?” Note what the Torah says, “To you,” but not to him. Because he has excluded himself from the community, he has denied a basic teaching of the faith. Therefore you shall smack his teeth and tell him, It is because of this that God wrought for me in my going out of Egypt (Exod. 13:8) “For me,” but not him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The above translation poses two obvious problems:

(1) As a parent, I have often wondered how anyone could call their child “Wicked”? The glaring meaning of “Rasha” is arguably offensive. Obviously, some modern translations prefer to sugarcoat their translation by giving the “Rasha” a less offensive epithet, e.g., “deviant,” or “troublesome.” I am unsure whether the “Deviant Son” is much of an improvement over the “Wicked Son” for both translations are clearly judgmental and pejorative. If we are to choose a less offensive title, let us describe him or her as a “Wayward Child,” or perhaps more accurately a “Rebellious Child.” At any rate, our Rasha is a person who is a young person who stands perilously close to the edge of his/her Judaism; without a proper pedagogical response, the “Rasha” may grow up to disaffiliate as a Jew.

(2) Now, to add injury to the insult of being labeled a “Rasha,” the rabbinic framers of the Hagadah recommend that the father ought to give his child a “patch in panim” a smack in the mouth for asking such impudent questions. Unfortunately, not all the rabbis of the Talmudic era were skilled educators. Continue reading “The Best Question of the Passover Seder”

Postscript: Rav Sternbach “Excommunicates” Rabbi Batzri’s Dybbuk

Aristotle and the great Greek writers like Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes regarded irony (from the ancient Greek noun  εἰρωνεία  [eirōneía] meaning hypocrisy, deception, or feigned ignorance) as a situation where an observer sees an incongruous circumstance that evokes paradox and laughter. Irony suggests that there is a profound polar difference between appearance and reality, between expectation and fulfillment. The Bible also has many stories about irony; perhaps its most famous story about irony is the birth of Isaac–a tale that evokes laughter and paradox.

Quite typically, truth invariably triumphs over the players who are involved within its web of intrigue. With theatrical performances, the  irony is always obvious to the audience, but never to the characters in the play. In terms of my own personal theology, I believe that God speaks to us through the ironic. What man proposes, God disposes–it is God, Who has the last “laugh.” God is the ultimate comic. Our following story is an excellent example as to how the ironic sometimes functions in our spiritual lives.

Who needs Hollywood, when you have Skype and Youtube?

Rav Batzri trying to  talk to Dibuk via Skype connection in Brazil

(Rav Batzri trying to converse with Mr. Dybbuk via Skype connection in Brazil)

See our previous post on Kabbalist David Batzri, Exorcist Extraordinaire

Welcome back to the world of 14th century Judaism.

Well, Rav Batzri may require the help of the Ghostbusters or a Catholic priest, or even Jack Bauer to get rid of this troublesome spirit. By all accounts, the dybbuk [1] proved to be too much of a match for the famous Israeli Kabbalist, who built a reputation on defeating the evil spirits that threaten Israel and the world. At the ceremony, Rav Batrzi urged the demented spirit to leave the body via the mouth, but evidently such an extraction was considered to be too dangerous and dangerous it was. Reports say that the dybbuk started coming up through the throat, as his voice changed and he started choking, when Rav Batzri screamed at it to go back down and not come out that way, but only through his big toe.

What a strange way to exit the human body!

Well, the dybbuk had other plans, and so he decided to take up residence elsewhere in the body–to parts unknown. Perhaps Rav Batzri should have mapquested the directions to the confused dybbuk so that he might leave his host’s body in the most expeditious manner.  Fearing the dybbuk’s revenge, Rav Batzri decided to go to the Haredi Beth Din of Jerusalem, and seek help from Rav Moshe Sternbach, who is better known as a Talmudic and Halachic scholar than he is an exorcist. Continue reading “Postscript: Rav Sternbach “Excommunicates” Rabbi Batzri’s Dybbuk”