Friday, May 27, 2016

Shmitta and business

In Parshas Behar, we get  a mention of the mitzvah of shmitta (25:2) and of how to work out the deal on selling land. (25: 14). The latter extends (25:17) to the injunction velo tonu ish eth amito not to exploit the other in the terms of the sale. A couple of verse s later (25:20-21) we're back to a reference to shmitta and the assurance of a blessing for sufficient food for those who fear that they will fall short of their needs if they don't work the fields during the seventh year:  
 וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ, מַה-נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת:  הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע, וְלֹא   
 נֶאֱסֹף אֶת-תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ
וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם, בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית; וְעָשָׂת, אֶת-הַתְּבוּאָה, לִשְׁלֹשׁ, הַשָּׁנִים. 
My grandfather asks  why was that not placed next to the earlier mention? Why the disruption of the flow from one point on shmitta  to this one with the point about not cheating or misleading someone when making a sale of property?

He suggests that the question  ?מַה-נֹּאכַל is the motivation behind the attempt to cheat others. It is only made explicit in the context of shmitta because there it is spoken overtly. When it comes to seeking to get the better of someone else in a business deal, though, the same concern drives the action. The difference is that with respect to beyn adam lechavero, the person usually does not articulate it and may not even be conscious of it.

In fact, though, the blessing Hashem extends to people who act with faith with respect to shmitta also extends to acting in good faith in business.  In my grandfathers's word, "Aval be'emeth al ha'adam lada'as shebirchath Hashem ta'ashir gam beyachso livney adam im rap ya'ase hayahar vehatov." 
And the entire parsha's intent is to teach us middat habritachon behashgachas Hasehm.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

An absence of blue

Yesterday I attended the Ptil Tekhelet Yom Iyun at the Young Israel of Woodmere.  See One of the speakers addrssed the question of color, starting with Rashi's identification of the the shade of techeleth as yarok, which in modern Hebrew is green. Others says it is similar to black. In fact, the reason for the black stripes on tallesim and tzitzis derives from that -  a nod to the colored strings that would be present if there were techelet.

The assumption of a blue color that we have for the dye fits with the explanation that the color is like that of the sea, which is like the sky, and the sky is similar to the Heavenly Throne, as indicated by the verse that refers to the appearance of a sapphire stone. Though some translations put in the color blue for that, the actual text does not say kachol [blue] but techleth. Here's the text from Menachos 43b:
תניא היה ר' מאיר אומר מה נשתנה תכלת מכל מיני צבעונין מפני שהתכלת דומה לים וים דומה לרקיע ורקיע לכסא הכבוד שנאמר ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר וכעצם השמים לטהר וכתיב כמראה אבן ספיר דמות כסא 
Though we tend to have a picture for sky blue as fairly light and might picture a sun-lit sea as in the picture above, it is also possible for the sky to be a darker blue, closer to a dark indigo, which is why the whole color association does not define the shade altogether precisely.

I won't get into the whole discussion or the dyeing process, which was demonstrated there. You can see all that on the site. Instead I will merely point out something about the color blue.

 It is never mentioned explicitly in the Torah or even TaNaCh (though one verse comes close). Though I checked a Concordance myself, I also checked to see what observations were made about it online and found this.

What's particularly fascinating is that this absence of blue in terms of a hue named is not unique to our tradition. There is no mention of that color in Homer either. I wrote about it a few years ago here.  I quoted a Radiolab that said:

 "Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! "

But while no colors were named in ancient Greek literature, we do see certain colors, like red, white, and yellow are named in the Torah. I do wonder what was it about the ancient world that made it seem unnecessary to name the color blue even when it was obviously seen in the natural world if nothing else.

More details in

Friday, May 20, 2016

Keeping Yom Tov like keeping Shabbos

On Parshas Emor 23:3 Rashi asks, "Ma inyan Shabbos etzel hamoadot? " What is the connection of Shabbos to the holidays? He answers that anyone who is mechalel the holiday is considered as if he had done the same for the Shabbatos. The converse also hold: anyone who upholds the holidays is considered to be upholding the Shabbatos.
My grand father asks what is the conceptual connection between the two? He offers two answers:
One is that as Shabbos is associated with recognizing yetzias Mitzrayim,[see Ve'etchanan 5:15]as we say in  it is a fundamenal foundtion for all the holiday, and so the two are inextricably linked.

The other reason is that keeping Yom Tov is a sign that one keeps Shabbos for the mitzvah and not just for a weekly day of leisure. As Yom Tov tends to fall on weekdays, they are a break in the standard division of workdays and rest days. They are outside of the standard routine one sets up for the week and so keeping them indicate that one is not acting for one's own preferences but for the mitzvah. In that way, the observance of Yom Tov attests to the observance on Shabbos as also being done for the mitzvah.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hadassim for Shabbos, thoughts for Lag B'Omer

Though we count up to Shavuouth, along the way, we mark one particular day identified by its number of the Omer, the 33rd. That's the day on which we commemorate the yartzeit of R' Shimon Bar Yochai. He was among the most brilliant students of R' Akiva who had to go into hiding when the Romans in power called for his death after hearing of his criticism of the government. The story is recounted in Shabbat 33b (the number that corresponds to Lag B'Omer).

R' Shimon went into hiding along with his son, Elazar. Seeing that so long as anyone knew where they were, they would still be in serious danger, they went to cave. With no other food, they subsisted on the fruit of the carob tree that miraculously grew there and drank water from a stream. They spent all their time -- for the duration of 12 years - immersed in Torah study.
 At the end of that time, Eliyahu came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, "Who will inform the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree annulled?"  So they emerged. Seeing people engaged in farming, they exclaimed, "They forsake eternal life for temporal life!"  Whatever they cast their eyes on would burn. Thereupon a Heavenly voice came forth and cried out, "Have you emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!"
So they returned and stayed twelve more months, saying, "The punishment  of the wicked in Gehenom is [limited to] twelve months." At the end of that time, a Heavenly voice proclaimed, "Go forth from your cave!"
They went out. Where his son would wound, R' Shimon would heal. He explained, "My son. you and I are sufficient for the world."
 On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?' they asked him. 'They are in honor of the Sabbath,' he replied.  "Would not one suffice? "                                                             The man answered, "One is for zachor and one is for shamor."  Then R' Shimon  declared to his son, "'See how precious are the commandments to Israel!'"  
You may have noticed the repetition of rounds of 12, which also echo R' Akiva own paired twelve years of learning and his 12,000 pairs of talmidim. Rabbi Brown explored the significance of that number here:

I went through the trouble of checking through the text and translating or transliterating as I thought fit because some versions misrepresent the episode somewhat. I suppose they want to make it more relatable to our common practice of purchasing flowers for Shabbos, but the text does not refer to just flower but to myrtle (pictured here) specifically.!Myrtle.jpg
The picture above may remind you of Sukkoth, and that is intentional. When we take the four species during that holiday, we bring together the four different types of Jews, as explained here. In that context, the hadas [myrtle] represents the Jews who have the fragrance of good deeds but lack Torah study. Another Midrashic take is that the four represent different parts of the human body, and that the hadas, with its almond-shaped leaves, represents the eyes.

So the hadasim are not just there to represent something pretty that people buy for Shabbos but something about the people who buy them.  They are not necessarily learned, but they are devoted to doing mitzvos, both the positive and the negative ones. They have that fragrance of goodness. Fragrance is something we appreciate through our sense of smell, the one sense that was not involved in the sin of Adam. There is something of the primordial perfection of man still to be found in scent, and that's one of the things one should appreciate about the fragrant hadas.

Another thing to appreciate about it is how to use vision. Recall that R' Shimon and his son were directed to return to the cave for an additional 12 months because when they first came up they cast their eyes on people and saw only what was lacking rather than what was positive about them. Once they grew wiser, with the addition of another 12 months of study, bringing up to 13 years, they could appreciate the goodness that was not so obvious (one of the points in

The two bundles also represent the idea of tying together two apparently contradictory concepts -- the positive mitzvos inherent in the directive of zachor and the negative ones indicated by shamor. The time is also the point of two different day: twilight when Friday is ending and Shabbos is beginning. The man they saw thus symbolized how this world is not just about the temporal existence they despised when they first emerged but about drawing connections between the physical and the spiritual.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kedoshim: for the individual and the nation

This weeks parsha (outside Israel) begins with the injunction, "Daber el kol adath beney Yisrael veamarta eleyhem, kedoshim tihiyu'ki kadosh Ani Hashem Elokeychem" Hashem commands his people to emulate Him in begin holy. 

My grandfather cites Midrash Rabbah, which is also cited by Rashi, that explains this parsha was the one said at Hakehel because many points of Torah are within it.

Drawing on enumerations of the mitvos and the Rambam My grandfather observes that even if one does not count this commandment as mitzvah unto itself, the goal of many mitzvos is to lead up to this point, arriving at a state of kedusha. 

He also points out that the commandment  to Moshe to speak el kol adath beney Yisrael indicate that this is not something that applies only on the individual level -- for each person to act in a way that brings him/her to kedusha . It also applies to the behavior of the whole nation, that it should be one of kedusha as a whole. 

I noticed today that the penultimate pasuk of the parsha reinforces that reading. It says, 20: 26: 

                                                                                                     ...וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי
וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן-הָעַמִּים, לִהְיוֹת לִי.
"Veheyimtem li kedoshim ki kadosh ani Hashem, va'avdil ethchem min ha'amim lihiyos li."
And ye shall be holy unto Me; for I holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that you should be Mine.

This is a clear reference to the status of the nation as a whole, one that is distinct among other nations. 

Related posts:

Monday, May 09, 2016

Streusel Coffee cake

Streusel Coffee Cake

I used this recipe for a 9 x 13 sized cake. It should also fit a bundt pan, though you'd want to then put the top layer of streusel on the bottom of the pan, and you may have to add on some baking time. 

For the streusel:
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 5 tablespoons softened maragarine
  • 1/3 cup (approximately) flour

For the cake:

  • 3 cups  flour

  • 3 tsp baking powder

  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups almond milk or other form of pareve milk to keep cake pareve
In order to cut down on time cleaning the mixing bowl, I started by mixing the streusel in it, which just involves mixing all the ingredients together, then poured it out and prepared the cake batter.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For the cake: Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Then mix in the eggs, oil, eggs, milk and vanilla. Mix to combine into batter but don't keep beating it. 

Pour half the batter into a greased pan, then put half the streusel mixture on top of that. 

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until cake looks done. 

Friday, May 06, 2016

Going in the ways of the law

In Parshas Acharey Mos 18: 4, it says: אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם:
You shall do my ordinances and keep my statues, to go [literally walk] in their ways.

My grandfather takes this as an injunction to keep the spirit of the law even when there is no direct indicator of the letter of the law.  Focusing on לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם, he says, It appears to me that itis to go accoridng to the intention of the Torah in all actions that one does even if according to the explicit commandment, there is no mitzvah directly indicated. 

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