Sunday, February 26, 2017

It's All About the Fathers in Ancient Egyptian Thought

Today we popped into the Brooklyn Museum and made sure to stop into the new section set up in the Egyptian collection. It's called  A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt. The exhibit is really small, consisting of fewer than 30 objects that don't really do much to explicate the theory of what Egyptians believed about the condition for a woman's rebirth stated thus:
The ancient Egyptians believed that to make rebirth possible for a deceased woman, she briefly had to turn into a man. Guided by new research inspired in part by feminist scholarship, the exhibition A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt tells this remarkable story of gender transformation in the ancient world, exploring the differences between male and female access to the afterlife.
Egyptian medicine taught that a woman, once in her tomb, faced a biological barrier to rebirth. Because the ancient Egyptians believed that in human reproduction it was the man who created the fetus, transferring it to the woman during intercourse, rebirth was impossible for a woman alone. To overcome this perceived problem, a priest magically transformed a woman’s mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus. This required representing a woman with red skin on her coffin—the color normally assigned to a man—and reciting spells that addressed the woman with masculine pronouns, spells also recorded graphically on the coffin. A woman later returned to her original female state and incubated herself for rebirth into the afterlife as a woman.
Though I don't find the use of red paint alone compelling enough to buy into the theory of a woman needing to become a man after death to be reborn as a women, I do find the idea fascinating in light of our own tradition.

We're all familiar with the original genocidal plot against the Jews when they were enslaved in Egypt. The plan was to kill all the baby boys and leave only the females. Now this has been explained as an assumption of patrilineal descent. If the child follows the father's status, no Jewish males as fathers means no more Jews. However, this is even more significant in light of the theory that is advanced in this exhibit. Egyptian thought was that the woman's role in carrying the fetus is completely passive, and that the father is the only one credited with its formation. In their view, it's not merely a choice of patrilineal over matrilineal because you have to choose one for your society. They really thought that a child sired by an Egyptian man would be wholly Egyptian.

Clearly, though, they were wrong, not just in terms of biology, but in terms of the life force of the people. As Chazal tell us, B'zchus nashim tzidkanyios nigalu avothenu m'Mitzrayim. The merit of the rightous women is what engendered our ancestors redemption from Egypt. See

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Your phone just doesn't understand you

This post was inspired by an event my husband related from this morning. At the minyan, someone's phone was, surprise, surprise, not off. Seeking to serve in some way, the voice activation component let the owner and everyone else know, "I didn't understand that."
Prayers were not meant to be understandable to electronic devices. They are the means of communication with the One who does understand you, the One who understands the import of the words better than you do yourself. No matter how responsive your phone may be and how advanced the predictive analytics that are built into its operating system grow, it will still not be capable of understanding what you truly are about.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

We should be saying olive rather than apple

pic from
That is we should be saying "the olive doesn't fall far from the tree." That would reflect the halacha that says you can identify which tree an olive is from. The same does not hold true for apples or other fruit.  In the case of most fruit you'd find in the road, you can assume hefker status because it is considered impossible to determine which tree bore the fruit. In contrast, an olive can be identified as coming from a specific tree.

Rav Goldwicht stated this in a special Tu B'Shvat shiur he dleivered this Sunday in NYC on the occasion of the yahrzeit of Rabbi Copperman (see He connected that halacha to the blessing for a household expressed in Tehillim 128:3
Your wife will be as a fruitful vine in the innermost parts of your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.גאֶשְׁתְּךָ | כְּגֶפֶן פֹּרִיָּה בְּיַרְכְּתֵי בֵיתֶךָ בָּנֶיךָ כִּשְׁתִלֵי זֵיתִים סָבִיב לְשֻׁלְחָנֶךָ:
Rav Goldwicht raised the question, what's the blessing in having children comparable to the growth of olives? The answer is to be found in the halacha, The olive attests to its tree. So too, the blessing for a good person is that his offspring will be like him.

The same theme of the blessed tree source is what we find in Taanit 5b

When they were taking leave of one another, Rav Naḥman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: Master, give me a blessing. Rabbi Yitzḥak said to him: I will tell you a parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to one who was walking through a desert and who was hungry, tired, and thirsty. And he found a tree whose fruits were sweet and whose shade was pleasant, and a stream of water flowed beneath it. He ate from the fruits of the tree, drank from the water in the stream, and sat in the shade of the tree.
And when he wished to leave, he said: Tree, tree, with what shall I bless you? If I say to you that your fruits should be sweet, your fruits are already sweet; if I say that your shade should be pleasant, your shade is already pleasant; if I say that a stream of water should flow beneath you, a stream of water already flows beneath you. Rather, I will bless you as follows: May it be G-d’s will that all saplings which they plant from you become like you. So it is with you. With what shall I bless you? If I bless you with Torah, you already have Torah; if I bless you with wealth, you already have wealth; if I bless you with children, you already have children. Rather, may it be G-d’s will that your offspring be like you.