Monday, February 08, 2016

A double leap year

Mention that it's a leap year, and most people will assume you're referring to the fact that this February will number 29 days. However, it is also a Jewish leap year, one in which we have 2 Adars. That way Nissan will always correspond to the beginnig of spring in the northern hemisphere. The first Adar will start this Wednesday.

An intereseting thing about lunar calendars: if they don't have some way to catch up with the solar calendars, the dates move around the seasons. That's the case for the Islamic lunar calendar, which accounts for the fact that Ramadan does not always fall out at the same time of year.  In the Jewish calendar, a leap year of 13 months  occurs 7 times in every 19 year cycle, which is why one's Hebrew birthday corresponds to one's legal birthday every 19 years, though it may be off by a single day.

 However, the Jewish calendar is not the only one to solve the problem with a leap month. The Chinese calendar also adds in a month every 3 years. According to,  "the name of a leap month is the same as the previous lunar month" rather like our two Adars. But there is a difference in that it's not always the same month or at the same point in the year. 

We celebrate the holiday of Purim in the second Adar, so that it remains 30 days before the holiday of Pesach [Passover]. That may indicate that we regard the second Adar as the "real" one, but that is not so cut-and-dried. This question was addressed in an earlier when wewe had such a leap year in
Yesterday I posted the safeik of the Yerushalmi whether which month, Adar I or Adar II, is the “real” and which is the addition. There is more to be said on the halachic issue, but for today I want to focus on what the debate might teach us for our avodas Hashem. The Shem m’Shmuel writes that the number 12 is symbolic of the natural order, teva; e.g. 12 constellations in the sky, 12 months in a regular year, 12 hours in a halachic day. The number 13 is symbolic of transcending the natural order; e.g. 13 middos harachamim are used to ask G-d to extend his mercy beyond what we deserve. There is something to be said for living within natural boundaries – go to work, have a regular seder in learning, take care of chores around the house, repeat. This is the world of the number 12. But sometimes a person needs to make a jump into the world of 13, a world without limits or boundaries, a world where a person can be inspired by ideas that transcend the practical routine even while knowing that the world of 12 will ultimately pull one back to reality. The world of 13 provides the boost, the vision, without which a person could not sustain himself day after day in the world of 12.
So which is the ikkar and which is the tafeil, which is the “real” world and which is the “tosefes” [added element]? The world of 13 is inspiring, but unless it impacts the day to day world of 12, its platitudes are meaningless. On the other hand, the world of 12 has no meaning without the goal and vision of the world of 13 to sustain it. Which Adar is the “real” Adar – the 12th month, or the 13th?

One other interesting note about having 13 months: 

Though we think of the zodiac as corresponding to the 12 months, scientists actually identify 13 constellations in the earth's orbit around the sun (see The signs of the zodiac correspond to the 12 months of the year, but the additional constellation matches up to the number 13. Those number match up with the variations in the lunar calendar and to the number of the tribes of Israel. Though they are traditionally regarded as 12, when the tribe of Levi is added, the number comes out to 13.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The angels' secret

In Parshas Mishpatim (24:7)  we have the famous pronouncement made by the children of Israel: kol asher diber Hashem na'ase venishma [everything that G-d has spoke, we will do and we will listen to]. In Shabbos 88a R. Eleazar is quoted:
When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will listen,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and called out: "Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels, as it is written, "Bless the Lord, His angels. Your who are mighty in strength fulfil his word, to listen to the voice of his word.  First they fulfil and then they listen."
Rashi explains that they are ready to fullfil even before they hear.

My gradnfather say that the matter here needs some elucidation. Why is this called the raz [secret] of the angels that arouses astonishment in the exclamation of "Who revealed to My children this secret?" Isn't it logical that the smaller one would do waht the greater one commands even if he doesn't understand, all the more so when the command comes from Hakodesh Baruch Hu?

What Bnay Yisrarel revealed here in saying they will do before they will listen is that they recognized not just the need to accept the commandments but that the only way they could understand them is by accepting them only through fulfilling them.  That's the secret of the ministering angels. It corresponds to what Chazal say (Avos 3:17)  "If there is no fear, there is no wisom." Likewise in evamos 109b kol sheyeshno beasiya yeshno belemida, kol she'eyno beasiya eyno belemida"

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Yithro's perspective versus Moshe's

Bureaucracy is almost synonymous with inefficiency in today's world. But back in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu, it was seen as a way to expedite matters. That's the rationale Moshe's father-in-law, Yithro, offered for finding qualified people to serve as judges in layers of courts, so that not everyone would be waiting on Moshe himself.  He would only have to attend to the really big issues.

In the words of the verse (18:22) Any great matter would be brought to you [Moshe] and every small thing, they will judge themselves. My grandfather points out that the formulation Moshe presented was somewhat different In verse 26, instead of referring to a great matter to be brought to Moshe, it refers to a matter that is difficult for them.  Later on, in Parshas Devarim (1:17), the reference again is to difficult matters. Moshe says, "vehadavar asher yakshe michem takrivun elay."

Furthermore, Moshe deliberately equates great and small matters in saying "kegadol, kekatan tishmeu."  As Rash i wwrites based on Sanhedrin 8a, "yeheh chaviv alecha din shel pruta kedin shel meah maneh." [a judgement over a small coin should be as important to you as a judgement over a hundred coins of greater valu].

That was Moshe's view: a case doesn't become more important because it involves a larger amount of money. Accordingly, the escalation of the courts wouldn't depend on the sums invovled. It would only depend on how difficult the legal questions invovled were.

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Celebrating Trees With Snow on the Ground

So we got our #Blizzard2016, which makes us feel like winter truly is here. But tomorrow is Tu B'Shavat, a holiday designated for trees. To get a feel for the holiday, I like to take a tropical trip over to the Greenhouses at Planting Fields. I've posted pictures in the past of my visits there, and here's the latest crop from last week.

And for the Torah portion, here's a piece adapted from what  Rabbi Chaim Brown wrote for Kallah Magazine's site serveral years ago that I posted on this blog last year here:

Friday, January 22, 2016

One cause, different effects

This is Shabbos Shira, as we read the parsha in which the Israelites sand a song of praise after they made it across the Yam Suf, and the Egyptians pursuing them did not.  Among the phrases  in the song is Yemincha Hashem ne'edri bakoach, yemincha Hashem tiratz oyev. The right arm [so to speak] of G-d is said to both save and destroy. Rashi explains that the its like Hashem has two right arms, one to save Yisrael and another to destroy the enemies. In his view, he said, its one right arm that does both, something that is impossible for a human -- doing two different actions with one arm.

My grandfather explains that for a person, a task will differ according to what's needed. Accordingly, he would do good with one hand and inflict punishment with another.  In contrast, for G-d it is possible to do a single action that serves as both reward and punishment. The differentiation is solely in the recipient.

That is the concept , he say, that Chazal bring up (Nedarim 8b) "In the future Hakadosh Baruch Hu will bring out the sun unfiltered, and the righteous will be healed from it while the wicked will be sentenced by it." It's through the same sun that some will be healted and others punished. Even though the sun's role is to do good for humanity, when a person is sick, its rays can harm him. Likewise, the good of Hakadosh Baruch Hu causes pain to the wicked, and that's their punishment.

The footnote on this piece cites, "Mipi Elyon lo tetzeh haraot vehatov" There is no bad and good from Above. The flow of good doesn't change in its source but its effect will depend on the recipient. Consequently, the same force will prove beneficial for the righteous and devastating for the wicked.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Life of Rabbi Copperman

We don't all plan what we want engraved on our tombstones. But Rabbi  Dr.Copperman (that's the way the family spelled the name) did. His daughter, Dr. Devorah Rosenwasser, told an audience that gathered at Sharay Tefilla in Lawrence last night what her father stipulated that he wanted the words from Prashas Vayigash 46: 28: "ve'es Yehudah shalach lefanav el Yosef lohoros lefanav" Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to Yosef in Egypt in order to set up a houe of study.

That's how Rav Copperman, also named Yehudah, saw himself. His role was enabling others to learn Torah. That's what his life was all about, and it was to that end that he founded Michlalah Jerusalem College back in 1964. There's a nice feature article on his life and accomplishments in Jewish Action. It reveals what prompted him to open a teacher's college for women, though Dr. Rosenwasser offered a daughter's insight.

She said that her father said he needed to set up a school for her education. She also gave a few details abou their family that the I never knew. Rabbi Copperman was one of six children, and his father died when he was only eleven years-old. Despite the hardship that would have posed to his mother in Ireland, she still succeeded in raising up her frum family, including a son who saw his mission as the Yehudah who clears the way for Torah learning.

His dedication extended even until the end. Dr. Rosenwasser reports that for the last 6 months of his life, he was too weak to teach. Yet, he still so looked forward to teaching that even the night before his petira, on the 23rd of Teves, he said he was preparing in case the next day he will be able to teach a class.  Of course, he was also learning, too.

 Dr. Rosenwasser said that he made a list a couple of years back of all the things he wanted to get through, including particular parts of TaNaCh with chavruthas. Even what he didn't complete was to be completed by his study partners who have planned a siyum to mark that accomlishment. Speaking of chavruthas, Dr. Rosenwasser said that he kept up a regular learning session for 6 years with a janitor at Miclalah. The boost to the man's self-esteem was immeasurable.

Rabbi Copperman's  respect and consideration for others was among his most salient traits, in his daughter's account. She said that he would read and active engage with any book given to him by the faculty at Michlalah, even on secular subjects. She said that one who authored a physics book remarked that he got the most helpful feedback on his book from Rabbi Copperman.

Beyond the intellectual achievements, he reached out to people to such an extent that everyone came in to be menachem avel started by referring to her (or his) special bond with Rabbi Copperman. Dr. Rosenwasser said that so many people said it, it almost became comical. But they all sincerely felt it, and that is the most amazing part of it.

She doesn't know where he found the time to keep up so many relationships. A number of people told her that he called them every single Friday and that he always was available to those who wanted to talk. Others referred to his helping them out - even financially -- as in the case of covering the dental bill for a woman's child or helping out an aguna. She said she never knew about his role in all that until these people told her.

What was his greaterst accomplishment? In his own words it would seem to be batim. Dr. Rosenwasser recounted that one time a secular man who visited the campus asked if Rabbi Copperman takes pride in the buildings of Miclalah's campus. He responded that he doesn't take account of the binyanim [building] but of the batim [households]  of Torah-centered families that the graduates go on to build.


Friday, January 15, 2016

Significance of the locust

Three years ago, locusts swarmed into Egypt. According to the National Geographic article on the phenomenon, it's more than a mere nusciance:
An adult desert locust, it has been estimated, can consume its weight in vegetation daily. A typical swarm can eat as much as 2,500 people can in a single day. And a large swarm—one that stretches for tens of miles and includes millions (or even billions) of hungry locusts—can strip a farmer's field in minutes and leave entire villages with nothing to eat.
Certainly, that was the threat posed by this particular makka for the Egyptians who refused to let the Israelites go. But if this is, indeed, a natural phenomenon, how did it contribute to the revelation of G-d? That's the question my grandfather tackles in his commentary on Parshas Bo. 

He observes that this makka was unique among the ten. All the others were more overtly miraculous. In contrast, swarms of locust do naturally occur in that part of the world. So the only thing that distinguished this event as one coming from G-d was the the warning that Moshe delivered about it.

This is actually a fundamental point. Some people have put in considerable effort to explaining all the miracles of the makkos and kriyas Yam Suf as natural events. They fail to understand that it's not just a matter of something that could happen within the laws of nature but of the indication that it is planned and executed according to Divine will.

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