Thursday, September 29, 2016

Where did Jonah receive his prophecy?

According to a legend recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud (and cited by Tosfot in the Babylonian Talmud, which is where I saw it) Jonah the prophet first heard from God while he was rejoicing at the simchas bes hashoayva.

My assumption, of course, is that the author of the legend saw something in the book of Jonah that pointed to this event, however obliquely. But what could that be? 

Other then the fact that Jonah builds a sukkah at the end of the book, which may suggest that the entire story took place on Sukkot, I don't have much else to go on.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

RIP Shimon Peres

Big social media day ahead for the super right wing Zionist crazies.

They get to spend it dumping on the still-warm corpse of Shimon Peres, the lion of Israel who did more for the Jewish people and the country of Israel than any 500 of us combined. #stayclassy

And before you start screaming about Oslo, ask yourself this: what would have happened had Rabin lived and not been succeeded by a man who dedicated his first year in office to undermining everything Peres and Rabin had done? We'll never know, of course, but any discussion of Peres's legacy needs to recall Netanyahu's desire to sabotage Oslo.

In any event, here's my list of the top members of Israel's founding generation

Six generations of service. Made Israel strong, then tried gallantly to leverage that strength into peace and prosperity

Did plenty, but retired early and disappeared. Gets credit for organizing several squabbling militias into one strong force, and for making it clear that Israel was going to be a nation of laws.

Did all the early diplomatic smoothing. Also could have done much more, had he been given more time.

Raised all the money.

A terrorist at first, but demonstrated genuine patriotism when he disarmed and went into the opposition. We thank him for his Going to China moment with Egypt, as well.

The symbol of '67. Foreign Minister for the Egypt/Israel accords. Did more with one eye than any of us do with two.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Debate 2016 #1

Best moment of the debate was Trump inadvertently admitting he pays zero federal taxes. Unfortunately Hillary was too on script to notice and capitalize.

The clear admission came when Hillary accused him of not paying taxes and he replied "[If I had paid taxes] it would have been squandered."

As of now, that an other moments are why most of the media is declaring that Hillary won. I saw the  debate, and agree. But I keep running into people who think she lost.

Other than laughing out loud or making the crazy signal with your finger, what is an appropriate way to respond to someone who thinks Trump won last night?

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How do the racists think about us?

This is Barack Obama talking about his white grandmother, but it might as well be me describing my father-in-law or anyone from my shul:

...a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

I think this aptly describes how we kind-hearted people think about racists who may have managed to earn our love or respect in other ways. We can simultaneously despise the  racism while also appreciating the good qualities.

Does this  work in reverse? Do racists find it possible to value us non-racists for our  other qualities, while, at the same time, hating the decency and correctness of character that makes us non-racists?


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Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I've recently become aware of a mainstream Jewish belief in something I've named Airborne Kedushah Particles. 

From what I can determine, AKPs are prevalent around the graves of tzadikim and other historical sites such as the kotel. Hasidim think they also gather around the male scions of certain families, while their rivals, the Litvaks, insist piety and scholarship are required, too. All believe AKPs can be summoned by singing Jewish songs (or re-purposed Polish songs) or by eating Ashkenazi soul food, like cholent. 

AKPS can't be seen, heard, touched, tasted or smelled, so I'm not quite sure yet how AKPs are perceived but I've been told some people "can just feel it in their hearts.

Anything to add?

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Monday, September 19, 2016

What makes Uman special?

This guy I know is bright. If a test showed he was smarter than me I'd believe it. No problem. He's also rich and mostly self-made (Let's ignore the childhood privilege, the advantages his parents bought him, and the lucky breaks) which gives him a bit of the wrong kind of confidence to go with his brains.

Anyway, he's convinced that there is something magical in the air in places like Sefad and Uman that cause him to feel a certain way (he calls this holiness.) When I suggest that he feels the way that he feels in Uman due to his upbringing and education he counters that there is no rational reason for him to enjoy being in a smelly stink hole like Uman. Therefore the cause must be the invisible magic things in the air that he is perceiving through an invisible antenna.

Naturally, I found this absurd until it occurred to me that I might be making the same mistake the rich guy is making. See, I like going to Uman or the graves of tzadikim for the exact same reason I like to go to museums or football games, ie something about how I'm wired makes the experience pleasurable. So I assumed that it's the same for everyone. But how do I know that? Perhaps he's experiencing something radically and quantifiable different in Uman? Perhaps if I had that same experience I would agree that it couldn't possibly be the product of outlook and education!

Here is what I would like to subject to a test...

a) I experience Safed and Uman the same way I experience museums and football games; I and I beliece that is due to the forces that have shaped my personality, including education and upbringing, I find the experience pleasurable.

b) My friends and and others like him discount this and say that the experiences are not identical. As a result, they hypothesize magic. We can't test for magic; however...

C) My hypothesis is that people like them experience Uman and Safed in a way that is radically and quantifiably different from the way that I experience it. 

This is what I would like to test. How to do it?

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Donuts and Jews

The great Fred McDowell posted this on Facebook and asked for a Jewish version. Over 350 examples were provided. As you might expect, most were quite bad, but some were rather good.


Some of the better ones: 

Hillel: Ess, bubbeleh. The rest is commentary.

Yeshayahu Liebowitz: One should not enjoy his donut on Chanukah, also there was no Chanukah, but one eats a donut because it is commanded.

Mordechai Breuer: It appears that there are many different brands of donuts, but there's really one baker making all of them.

GSUFYO: "does anyone know if Conservative Jews eat donuts? Just asking.
update: I didn't mean to offend."

RSR Hirsch:  the word donut is derived from the aramaic דו and the English "not", thus symbolizing the refusal of the Jewish people to accept anything but monotheism.

Reb Shlomo: Let me tell you a deep gevaldige story about Duvid'l the donut..

David Rosenthal Why Cronuts are not Donuts

R Eliyahu Fink Why a donut? Because it's so nice to eat on the beach, and appreciate God's goodness in giving us beaches and donuts.

Dov Bear: The donut recipe in Braishis Rabba is actually a poor rip-off from a Greek recipe for English Muffins.

Here are my contributions

Avi Shafran: Sure, those anti donut bloggers would have you believe donuts are unhealthy but really they are more nutritious than kale

Pruzansky: Most of the time, when a donut gets eaten, it's the donut's own fault for going out wearing sprinkles and frosting

: Women who eat donuts aren't doing it because they are hungry. They're doing it because they want to destroy yidishkite

Gordimer: I find my donuts less tasty if I think that someone, somewhere is eating one in a newfangled way.

YWN: BREAKING YWN EXCLUSIVE Donut visits sleep away camp!

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Orthodoxy's Claims to Authenticity

Orthodoxy holds itself to be the only legitimate form of Judaism, both now and back through the ages. Jews who were practicing the "right" way were practicing more or less as Orthodox Jews do today. There were some differences in the past, but these were due to circumstance, and were fairly trivial. The differences were sociological and technological, not theological or ritualistic.  A traditionally-practicing Jew from any era in the past would recognize the practices of Orthodoxy as his own. As the Chasam Sofer declared in his clever rallying cry against Reform, "Chadash assur min haTorah." Traditional Judaism has not and must not allow change from the correct practices and ideologies, practices and ideas that were given to Moshe on Har Sinia and passed down faithfully by the baalie mesorah. Practices and ideologies that great rabbonim through the ages explained how to observe within the reality in which they lived, but which have been essentially unchanged and uninfluenced by the outside world.

Orthodox Judaism is the only valid form of Judaism, because only Orthodoxy carries on the traditions of the mesorah and halacha and has not allowed itself to be changed in reaction to social, philosophical, or changes in what we know about the world. Other forms of Judaism are illegitimate because they are attempts to mold Judaism to the milieu, something that authentic Judaism does not do. They reject ikkarim in favor of secular mores and knowledge. The only legitimate Judaism is one that looks to the timeless truths of the mesorah, one that has not and does not allow the world around it to influence its attitudes, minhagim, halacha, or hashkafa.

1. Is this an accurate portrayal of Orthodoxy's position?

2. If so, is there some authoritative source, a popular sefer or article or drasha  by a recognized figure that I could quote as saying so?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

The Jewish Home

A Facebook pal I hold in high regard recently made aliyah, but when pressed by a second friend to articulate that qualities that make Israel great, he talked about food and convenience: Everything at the food court is kosher. No special accommodation are needed at work for Shabbos and Yom Tov. Things like that.

I supposes what he means is that no longer feels like a guest or a stranger in his own country. And that, I think, is my point of departure from many Modern Orthodox Zionists. Unlike many of them, I've never felt like an outsider in America. I've always taken seriously the constitutional guarantee that Jewish citizens and Non Jewish citizens are identically "American." I reject the notion that this is a Christian country as I reject the notion that America belongs to any one ethnic group at the expense of the others that reside here. I've always felt perfectly at home here.

After the terror attack in France, when Netanyahu told the Jews of France that "the state of Israel is your home" I felt that along with offering support to beleaguered French Jews, he had had also done something inexcusable.

Part of the civic struggle of the last few centuries has been the battle to convince racists and bigots that citizenship in a Western Democracy does not depend on race, gender or religion. All of us, irrespective of color or creed, have equal access to all of the benefits, burdens and responsibilities of American society. When Netanyahu says Israel is the "Jewish home" he is communicating his lack of faith in this essential tenet, and endangering all non-Israeli Jews by letting bigots and racists know that they are free to disregard it, too. Even worse, he seems to be hinting that that only Jews are entitled to the full benefits of Israeli citizenship, just as he seems to imagine that the benefits, rights and protections of French citizenship are available to the ethnically French alone.

Like my nouveau-Israeli friend, I'm not at blind to the pleasures of living in a society that is built to revolve around my own needs and desires. But philosophically, I oppose it. I think allowing any one religion or ethnicity to dominate the public culture is bad civics.

One of the truly singular and remarkable things about America is that this does not happen here. The fact that it happens in Israel feels to me like a guilty pleasure.

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Sunday, September 04, 2016

Authentically Jewish Sources

There are many in the frum world who take it as a truism that Yiddishkeit has not and would not borrow from the cultures around it. They are dedicated to keeping out influences from the general culture, and believe that this has always been the model for authentic Judaism. Practices and narratives found in Judaism today are authentically Jewish, passed down as Torah sehl baal peh, derived exegetically from Tanach, and/or developed through the halachic process, which Hashem Himself guides through ruach hakodesh or the phenomenon of Dass Torah. Certainly we wouldn't find  within the accepted canon of the mesorah repeated by or misattributed to great rabbinic figures stories, ideas, or laws which originated in idolatrous cultures.

Or would we?

There are many examples in the gemara and midrashim of stories and ideas that are presented as authentically Jewish but almost certainly came from outside sources.

There is a midrash that visitors to Sodom would be shown to an inn and made to lay down in a bed. Those that were too tall to fit in the bed would have their legs cut off, and those that were too short would be stretched to make them fit.[1] This midrash bears a striking resemblance to a Greek myth that was in circulation as early as the 5th century BCE, centuries before the publication the Midrash Rabbah. In the myth Procrustes, a bandit, had a bed in which he made his victims lie. If the victim was too short, Procrustes stretched him until he fit. If he was too tall, Procrustes cut off his legs.[2]

In Plato's Symposium, the philosophers who had gathered for the event were discussing love. Aristophanes (a Greek playwright used here by Plato as a comedic foil for the philosophers), fed up with their over-intellectualizing, makes a ridiculously over-the-top speech about how when the gods had first created people, there hadn't been two genders, as there are now. The first people were round, androgynous creatures and were essentially two people stuck together back-to-back. They were enormous, and rolled around the world, looking to fight with the gods. The gods separated each creature into two people, but allowed the halves to find each other again. Today people still look for their missing half, and love is gift from the gods.[3]

Compare that to this midrash about Adam HaRishon:
Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynos. Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, he was made with two faces, and [God] sliced him and gave him two backs, a female one and a male one, as it says And He took from his sides, as it says, And to the side of the Tabernacle. R. Berachya and R. Chalbo and R. Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed be He created man, He created him from one end of the earth until the other, filling the whole world.[4]

Not only does the midrash describe a  two-sided giant proto-human, it even uses the same Greek word as Aristophanes, "androgynous," to describe it. The Symposium was written in the 4th century BCE, while the Midrash Rabah is traditionally dated to the 3rd century CE and the earliest mention of Adam as an androgynous being is in the 1st century AD pseudepigraphac The Apocalypse of Adam.[5]

The story of Yosef Moker Shabbos is a popular children's story in the frum world, and has its origin in the gemara.

Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbaths had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers  told him, "Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbath will consume all your property.— [So] he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water, [and] a fish swallowed it. [Subsequently] it [the fish] was hauled up and brought [to market] on the Sabbath eve towards sunset. "Who will buy now?" cried they. "Go and take them to Joseph-who-honors-the-Sabbaths," they were told, "as he is accustomed to buy." So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it, found the jewel therein, and sold it for thirteen roomfuls  of gold denarii. A certain old man met him [and] said, "He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him."[6]

This story is also strikingly similar to a Greek story, this one related by Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century BCE (about a thousand years before the gemara was compiled) and is the earliest historian whose writings we still have. He writes about Polycrates, who ruled Samos in the 6th century BCE. Amasis, the king of Egypt, sent Polycrates a letter telling Polycrates that he was worried that Polycrates' steady good fortune would turn to misfortune. To forestall this, Amasis urged  Polycrates to choose the thing most precious to him and throw it away. Losing that object would forestall an unexpected, perhaps greater misfortune.

Polycrates thought that his ally Amasis had a good point, so after much thought he chose his bejeweled signet ring and threw it into the sea. He then returned home and grieved his loss. A few days later, a fisherman caught a fish so large that he thought it only fitting that he present it to the king as a gift. When Polycrates' cooks cut up the fish, they found his signet ring inside and brought it to him.[7]

The gemara tells the story of how when Yerushalayim was besieged by the Romans, R’ Yochanan ben Zakai suggested surrendering. He was overruled, and so had his students sneak him out in a coffin. Once outside the city walls he went to Vespasian’s tent, where he predicted that the general would become Emperor. When this happened, R’ Yochanan was granted favors by the new Emperor, including the right to establish a yeshiva in Yavneh and transfer the Sanhedrin there.[8]

In his War of the Jews (written in the 1st century AD), Josephus describes how he attempted to defend the town of Jotapata. Convinced that the town would fall to the Romans, he suggested that he should sneak out and raise an army to lift the siege, but the townspeople refused to let him go. When the town fell, Josephus was captured. When he met Vespasian, the general in command of the Romans, he predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor. When this happened two years later, Josephus was released and granted full Roman citizenship, land, and new wife.[9]

As if these weren't bad enough for the idea that Judaism is a closed system, it's accepted religious texts free of the taint of non-Jewish or Jewish but insufficiently religious influences, there is evidence of such influences within Tanach.

In Exodus 21:28-32 we are instructed,
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. If ransom is laid upon him, he must pay whatever is laid upon him to redeem his life. So, too, if it gores a minor, male or female, the owner shall be dealt with according to the same rule. But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.

This is similar in both structure and ruling to the  Laws of Hammurabi, even quoting the same figure of twenty shekels. The Laws of Hammurabi date from the 18th century BCE, four hundred years before the traditional date of matan Torah in the 14th century BCE and several centuries before the earliest date given by biblical scholars for the composition of the Covenant Code, of which the above passage is a part. Hammurabi reads,

If an ox gores a man while it is passing through the street, that case has no basis for a claim. (251) If a man's ox is a known gorer, and the authorities of his city quarter notify him that it is a known gorer, but he does not blunt its horns or control his ox, and that ox gores to death a member of the upper class, he [the owner] shall give thirty shekels of silver. (252) If it is a man's slave [who is fatally gored], he shall give twenty shekels of silver.[10]

Not only passages, but entire sections of Tanach mirror non-Jewish sources.

The Israelites viewed their relationship with God as a bris, a covenant. There were two types of covenants common in the Ancient Near East. In a covenant of grant, one party promised unconditionally to protect the other. In a suzerainty treaty, the stronger party promised protection in return for tribute. A number of the polemics of the neviim show that many of the Israelites thought of their relationship with God as a covenant of grant, where God would protect them no matter what. Neviim such as Amos thought it was a suzerainty treaty, and inveighed against the people's lapses in holding up their end. [11]

The latter view became dominant, and apparently influenced the writers of Sefer Devarim. Biblical scholars have noted that the structure of Deuteronomy has striking similarities to the structures of 2nd-millennium BCE Hittite treaties and 7th-century BCE Assyrian treaties. Both the treaties and Deuteronomy are composed of the following elements: "preamble, historical prologue, treaty stipulations, provisions for deposit in the temple and periodic readings, witnesses, and curses and blessings." Where the treaties were between the king of the dominant empire and the vassal state, Deuteronomy has God as the overlord instead of the king and the Israelites as the vassal state.

The curses which threaten the vassal in the Assyrian treaties and the Israelites in Deuteronomy are nearly identical. Deuteronomy 28:23 threatens that should the Jewish people not obey God, "The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron." Compare this with a standard curse found in Assyrian treaties, "May they [the gods] make your ground like iron so that no one can plough it. Just as rain does not fall from a brazen heaven, so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and pastures."[12],[13]

The entire structure of Sefer Devarim, then, is a theologized version of Ancient Near Eastern treaty documents.

It seems that not only has Judaism been influenced by outside cultures, those influences are deeply embedded within Judaism's canonical texts and traditions. Stories and ideas are quoted by and misattributed to respected religious figures, and even the way in which foundational religious ideas are expressed is shaped by the time and place from which those ideas come. 

For some, the fact that Judaism has integrated outside influences won't be surprising or even particularly noteworthy. Jewish people live in the world, and the world influences us. So what? The important thing is fidelity to Judaism as it has developed. Orthodoxy may not be a pure expression of exclusively authentic Jewish ideas, and we may have to recognize that the choice by other versions of Judaism to incorporate ideas that originated outside of Judaism doesn't make them inauthentic. But Orthodoxy is a version of Judaism, and placing it on par with other versions doesn't diminish its value.

For others, though, it may be startling to realize that what they thought was exclusively and authentically Jewish, passed down and developed within the mesorah and uninfluenced by outside sources, is in fact riddled with stories, ideas, practices, and laws shaped by or lifted from the cultures in which Jewish people have found themselves living.

I'm compiling a list of these sorts of things. If anyone knows of others or of books or other resources on the subject, I'd be grateful if you could point me in their direction. In particular, I'm looking for modern instances of this sort of thing, stories in circulation in the frum world that have their origins in novels or are misattributions of historical events that happened to non-frum people to prominent rabbinic figures.

[1] Book of Jasher 19:3-5. (1613). Retrieved from
[2] Encyclopædia Britannica. Procrustes. Retrieved from
[3] Collected Works of Plato. (1953). Aristophanes's Speech from Plato's Symposium. Retrieved from
[4] Leviticus Rabbah 12:2
[5] The Apocalypse of Adam. Retrieved from
[6] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119a
[7] Mroford, M.P.O, Lenardon, R.J., & Sham, M. (2010). Classical Mythology. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from
[8] Gittin 56a-b
[9] Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, Book III, Chapter 7 Retrieved from
[10] Comparison of Exodus and the Laws of Hammurabi from Brettler, M.Z. (2007) How to Read the Jewish Bible. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. P. 69-70
[11] Brettler, M.Z. (2007) How to Read the Jewish Bible. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. P. 155
[12] Assyrian Vassal treaties of Esarhaddon 528-31
[13] Brettler, M.Z. (2007) How to Read the Jewish Bible. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press. P. 91

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Why do Jews have large families?

After a radio show caller stated that Jews have large families because they are trying to take over the world, radio harridan Judi Franco decided to do the math to prove that though "we're tricky" and it "seems like we're everywhere" our women just aren't fertile enough to pull that off.

Thanks radio harridan Judi Franco!!

After a caller stated that Orthodox Jews are having a lot of babies to overpopulate the World, Judi Franco decided to do the math to prove how crazy he is. 

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Great, now the New York Times is doing Hasbarah

Who gave the Hasbrah people the keys to the New York Times?

 In this video, a whole big case is made about how reasonable, and open-minded and fair people are on Israeli beaches. Naturally, I am glad to see this, but I wonder if the people who are dead certain that the Times is carrying an ax for Israel will finally rethink their position? (No, of course they won't)

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Shulamith School Mistreats Workers

According to the Jewish Week, 29 Orthodox Jewish teachers were denied eight months of salary by the Shulamith School.

Though experiment: What would have happened if one of those female teachers had donned a talis during morning services? Would the administration had given her time to remove it before tossing her into the street?

What's caused Orthodox Jewish culture to go so wrong? Why do we anxiously and aggressively stamp out all signs of feminism, while shrugging our shoulders when workers are mistreated in violation of clear Torah laws?

I assure you that if Moshe Zwick, the executive director who withheld the salaries, had offered one of his students a questionably kosher chocolate bar he'd have lost both his job and his community status. Had he allowed female faculty members to wear talitot in school that would have been the end of his career in the Orthodox Jewish community. So what costs has he paid for abusing 29 employees?

Shulamith educators go public six years after being denied eight months of salary; claim ‘underhanded’ tactics.
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