Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yehuda Setting Up Educational Centers and Co-Existing With Other Cultures

In this week's parsha, Yaakov sends Yehuda ahead of everyone else to Yosef in order that Yehuda should prepare the land of Goshen for Yaakov's arrival. Everything about this seems a bit odd. First of all, why not have the entire family arrive at Goshen at the same time? Second of all, if Yehuda was sent ahead to erect houses of study like the Midrashim say, then why wouldn't Yosef have been able to do it? In fact, the verse tells us that Yehuda is supposed to go to Yosef and then set up the houses of study. Furthermore, Yosef must have already established houses of study for his own children, otherwise, where would they be learning? If this is so, why can't Yaakov's family learn with Ephraim and Menashe?

The first question can be answered in a fairly simple manner. The Gemorah (I think In Gittin) tells us how the exile after the first temple's destruction took place. The second to last king of Yehuda (Jehoiachin) was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar and was replaced by Zedekiah. However, Jehoiachin was exiled before the final destruction and scripture tells us that all of the artisans and gate keepers were exiled at this time. The Gemorah tells us that these artisans and gatekeepers were the wise one's and the teachers. Therefore, before the entire Jewish population was exiled, the teachers and wise men were setting up a proper Torah environment for the rest of the Jewish people to enter into. This idea is most probably the reason Yaakov sent Yehuda ahead, because an exiled people can only retain their identity if they have some type of establishment that helps them cling to their culture.

As a side point, I think this is probably why America has been so successful at being a melting pot. This country was an empty land with no establishments. Anyone who came here had freedom to choose and an obligation to decide their own identity. There was no force compelling anyone to go one way or another, just freedom. In some ways this mentality is good and in other ways it is bad. Decide for yourself why it is good and bad and let me know what you think.

The second question of why couldn't Yosef have handled the task of erecting the houses of study is more complicated. This has to do with the dichotomy of Yosef and the purpose of Yehuda. If we look at Yosef's character we can see many great qulaities, however, these qualities are not to be everlasting or constant throughout Jewish history. On the other hand, the characteristics of Yehuda are everlasting and constant. Yosef was needed to set up the presence of the Jewish people in Egypt, however, Jews were not supposed to live a Yosef type of life. Yosef was beautiful, wealthy, a king in a foreign land and powerful. The Jew is not supposed to care about physical beauty, wealth is something that is considered detrimental, Jews are disgraced while in exile and they are, for the most part, weak. How could Yosef, someone who encompassed all of these great qualities, but qualities that Jews do not commonly have, set up a lifestyle for common Jews?

On the other hand, Yehuda was the perfect example of a person that can relate to a common Jew. True, Yehuda was a leader, but only a leader among the borthers. Yehuda was disgraced in his lifetime, he was the paradigm of repentance, and he was willing to die for his fellow Jew (Binyomin). These are qualities that a common Jew relates to, disgrace while in exile, repentance and a willingness to die for one another (Bortherly love). This is why Yehuda was the perfect person to set up an establishment for the Jewish people in exile, because he could understand the needs of the common Jew.

However, scripture tells us that Yehuda consulted with Yosef first. This relates to the final idea, what was with the houses of study that Yosef had for his children. Yosef's children were son's of a king. They are not the common Jew, but needed to be in special programs so that they could fulfill their obligations as the sons of a king. Therefore, they needed a special type of curriculum. This special curriculum is why Yehuda consulted with Yosef before setting up a house of study, because he needed to discern which parts of this curriculum are necessary for Jews in exile. Jews in exile can not be oblivious to their neighbors, the non-Jews. They must learn how to associate and interact with them if they are to survive in the general population.

The lack of communication between societies is what causes conflict. Yehuda understood this and that is why he consulted with Yosef before setting up an establishment of education. He realized the teaching must incorporate some ideas that will allow for Jews and non-Jews to associate with each other. Without this crucial skill all that happens is misunderstandings and hatred. This hatred comes from a lack of understanding and ignorance of other cultures. This idea is obvious throughout all of history. The Jews have been hated throughout the ages because no one ever understood them. The Europeans that came to the new world hated the natives (they called them savages and had several conflicts) because they did not understand their culture. Muslims and Christians were constantly at war ever since Islam's inception. The lack of understanding leads to fear and fear leads to hatred. If we can teach and understand one another, there will be much less hatred.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hashgacha Pratis (Individual Divine Intervention)

The Ralbag is under the opinion that the world is mainly governed by Hashgacha Klalis (National divine intervention). He holds that there is no Hashgacha pratis (individual intervention) except for those who are very holy and righteous. I always wondered where this argument of Hashgacha Pratis Vs. Klalis originated. After learning some of Tractate Moed Katan and Shabbos I believe I have found the origins of this opinion.

There is a statement in Moed Katan (28a) made by Rava. It says (Translations are Soncino):
"Rava said, 'The length of a person's life, the number of his children and the extent of his sustenance is not dependent upon his merit, rather it is dependent upon his mazal (fortune). [This must be the case] because both Rabbah and Rav Chisda were righteous Rabbis as is evident from the fact that if either would pray for rain then the rain would fall. However, Rav Chisda lived nintey-two years whereas Rabbah lived only forty. Rav Chisda's household celebrated sixty weddings whereas Rabbah's household suffered sixty tragedies. Furthermore, Rav Chisda's household fed bread of fine flour to their dogs and it was not needed whereas Rabbah's family ate bread of barely flour and there was never enough.'"
This passage from the Talmud seems to tell us that nothing is within our own power, rather everything is determined through natural means, only when great individuals pray does G-D intervene. This means that everything is already determined from our "fortune." In light of this, even the Ralbag's idea of extremely holy and righteous people being under a divine watch would contradict Rava because according to his opinion there is no divine intervention unless the extremely righteous person prays for intervention. However, Rava continues with the following qualifying statements:
"Rava said, 'For these three things I entreated heaven, two were given to me and one was not. I asked for the wisdom of Rav Huna and the wealth of Rav Chisda and they were both given to me.'"
The Maharsha tells us that this shows us that even though Rava is of the opinion that everything is from one's "fortune" a righteous and holy person can still entreat G-D and be answered. On the surface, this seems like what was already made known previously in the Gemara when it says Rav Chisda and Rabbah were able to pray for rain. However, that revealed that G-D would grant requests for specific interventions. A righteous person asks for rain then he will receive rain. However, Rava asked for more than just a singular action, Rava asked for wisdom and wealth. Wisdom and wealth are not things that just pop into existence in one instance and stay, they are things that can come and go. It is only through G-D's constant intervention that a person who receives money will be able to retain that money. The same principle goes for wisdom.  In essence, there is hashgacha pratis for holy and righteous people.

This idea is also seen in another part of the Gemara (Shabbos 156b) where it points out cases where righteous individuals are able to overcome their "fate" because of their righteousness, not even entreating G-D. The two stories are:
"From Samuel too [we learn that] Israel is immune from planetary influence. For Samuel and Ablat were sitting, while certain people were going to a lake. Said Ablat to Samuel: 'That man is going but will not return, [for] a snake will bite him and he will die.' 'If he is an Israelite,' replied Samuel. 'he will go and return.' While they were sitting he went and returned. [Thereupon] Ablat arose and threw off his [the man's] knapsack, [and] found a snake therein cut up and lying in two pieces — Said Samuel to him, 'What did you do?' 'Every day we pooled our bread and ate it; but to-day one of us had no bread, and he was ashamed. Said I to them, "I will go and collect [the bread]". When I came to him, I pretended to take [bread] from him, so that he should not be ashamed.' 'You have done a good deed,' said he to him. Then Samuel went out and lectured: But charity delivereth from death; and [this does not mean] from an unnatural death, but from death itself.

From R. Akiba too [we learn that] Israel is free from planetary influence. For R. Akiba had a daughter. Now, astrologers told him, On the day she enters the bridal chamber a snake will bite her and she will die. He was very worried about this. On that day [of her marriage] she took a brooch [and] stuck it into the wall and by chance it penetrated [sank] into the eye of a serpent. The following morning, when she took it out, the snake came trailing after it. 'What did you do?' her father asked her. 'A poor man came to our door in the evening.' she replied, 'and everybody was busy at the banquet, and there was none to attend to him. So I took the portion which was given to me and gave it to him. 'You have done a good deed,' said he to her. Thereupon R. Akiba went out and lectured: 'But charity delivereth from death': and not [merely] from an unnatural death, but from death itself.
These stories point out the ability for one to overcome their "fortune" if they are righteous. In Shmuel's case the man was saved through his act of charity and in Rabbi Akiva's daughter's case there is a similar idea.
In the end of the day it seems like the Gemara is telling us how G-D runs the world. It tells us that the world runs through nature (planetary influence here). This is why bad things happen to good people, like by Rabbah being poor and dying early. It would appear to be that he did not ask for divine intervention and that is why he lived in poverty and the like However, Israel has the ability to change these natural occurrences, through doing mitzvos and connecting to G-D.

For a related post as to how G-D might interact with the world see here:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Techailes From the Murex Trunculus and Psak Halacha

In high school I noticed that my Rebbe wore techailes on his Talis Gadol. This was peculiar to me since I was under the impression that techailes had been lost to us. I knew that there were people claiming to be wearing techailes again, but I had heard from so many people that those techailes, the Radziner techailes, were definitely not the real techailes. With my curiosity peaked I went up to my brand new Rebbe, this was the start of Junior year, who I knew was not a Radziner Chassid and asked him why he wore techailes on his Talis Gadol.

He answered, "Here, read this," and he handed me a pamphlet that he had written a few years before. This pamphlet can be found at this website:

I was intrigued by this 17 page pamphlet that my Rebbe, Rav Chaim Twerski, had written. It brought the history of Techailes, the history of the Radziner Rebbe's search for Techailes and several proofs as to why the Murex Trunculus is most likely the source of true techailes. I immediately desired to fulfill this great mitzvah that had been lost.

The most intriguing part about the whole article was the conclusion. It said,

"The argument for identifying chilazon as Murex trunculus has much merit. However, it cannot be said this identification can be 100% absolute, both with regard to the species or even with regard to the color. Nonetheless, the element of certainty would seem to surpass the threshold needed for identification l’halacha. Moreover, there is no issur in wearing a blue colored thread in the tzitzit, even if it turns out that this is not techelet,a point made poignantly by the Radziner Rebbe, in his sefer, Ptil Techelet.61 As with anything that is not definite,this matter is likely to be controversial for along time to come. It is likely that in future years there will be some rabbonim who will say that one is required to wear techelet made of Murex trunculus, others who will say that it is a mitzvah, but not an obligation, others who will say that it is a chumrah, or a mitzva min hamuvchar. Many, undoubtedly will say that there is no mitzvah whatsoever, and that it is a wasteof money and effort and still others who will find some issur to wear Murex trunculus techelet. Undoubtedly, Radziner chassidim will continue to maintain that sepia is the chilazon and techelet made of any other species is possul.62 If I may offer my own humble opinion it would seem that this identification ought to be accepted by many, if not the majority of poskim. But it will likely take much time for this to happen, for halacha is by its very nature conservative, and in general, a consensus is reached only after much debate and deliberation. For the meantime, until a consensus is reached, each rav should do according to the dictates of his own reasoning. If after careful study of all the material he is skeptical, there is no reason for him to wear techelet made from Murex trunculus or instruct others to do so. If, on the other hand, one is reasonably convinced that Murex trunculus is indeed the chilazon, he should wear them, and rule so for those who ask and rely upon his rulings.

61) As Rav Leiner states in his Sefer, Ayn HaTechelet, and in Ptil Techles, the curse meted out for those who use k’la ilan in their tzitzis and claim that they are wearing techelet, is meant for those who are intent upon deception, not those who are making a sincere attempt of fulfilling the mitzvah.

62) Chassidim are known for their emunas chachamim and it would be highly unlikely that
they would question the conclusion of their rebbe. It should be noted, however, that Rav Leiner
himself stated that he would accept any reasonable argument that would prove his identification
wrong and another identfication right. It is more than likely that were the Radziner rebbe to be alive today he would have abandoned his own thesis and adopted the present one

I do not know about the rest of you, but this article taught me something very important about piskei halacha. Every competent Rav has the right, nay, the obligation to paskin halacha based on what he finds to be the correct psak. As Rav Twersky tells us, there will be a variety of differing opinions on this halacha and every single one of them is legitimate. He admits that every Rav will come to their own conclusion and that is THEIR OBLIGATION.