Archive for June, 2012

Everybody knows and loves that good old children’s classic, Caps for Sale. In this ironic tale, the protagonist, a cap salesman who has the peculiar habit of wearing his wares in a towering pile on his head, takes a nap beneath a tree. When he awakes, he finds his hats missing and discovers that a band of monkeys hanging about the tree above him have all adorned themselves with his caps. He coaxes them to return them to him with a wave of his finger, his fists, and with stamping feet, but his attempts are only met with the monkeys mirroring and mimicking his every move. Finally, he angrily throws his hat to the floor in disgusted defeat, and of course, the monkeys do the same, and the man has his hats back. Caps for Sale was published in 1940, yet, I discovered, its plot is based on a tale quite a bit older.

The Talmud (Megilah 3A) relates that at times, a person may feel frightened although one is not aware of the source of one’s fright. At these times, the Talmud says, “while he does not see, his mazal does see,” i.e. one’s spiritual senses detect the presence of a spiritual danger. The Talmud then presents three solutions to ward off this spiritual threat. The first is to recite the Shema. These verses have a protective quality. However, if one cannot recite the Shema, for instance, if one is in a filthy place where words of Torah may not be spoken, one should instead leap four cubits (about 7 feet) in order to relocate oneself to a place of lesser or no danger. If one cannot change one’s location, for instance, if one is constrained, one should say, “The goat at the slaughterhouse is fatter than me,” thereby directing one’s predators to a more tempting target.

The entire passage begs for a tremendous degree of explanation, however, my purpose is just to share a section of one commentary which brought me great excitement when I discovered it.

Rabbi Yoseph Chayim of Baghdad (a.k.a. Ben Ish Chay), in his classic commentary to the aggadic portions of the Talmud, Ben Yehoyada, explains how leaping four cubits effectively averts the spiritual threat. He identifies the attackers here as “demons.” What exactly demons are in rabbinic ideology is a subject for another article, but leaving that issue aside, Rabbi Yoseph Chayim explains, that it is one of the methods of the evil inclination to imitate holiness. Evil is always more tempting when it takes on the guise of that which is lofty and good. Therefore, the demons, the minians of the Evil Inclination, are ‘programmed’ to mimic the actions of man, just as monkeys do in the physical realm, explains Rabbi Yoseph Chayim. Just as monkeys attempt to behave as their physically superior counterparts, human beings, so too do demons mimic people, their spiritual superiors. So if a man were to merely “walk away” from the demons, they would follow, but if a man were to jump with all his might, which leaping four cubits would require, the demons dogging him would likewise leap with all their might, but commensurate with their ability, they will jump much farther than the man, leaving them a great distance away from him. Once they have become “detached” from him in this way, they will no longer follow him and the threat will be no more.

Now, if all that were not enough, Rabbi Yoseph Chayim proceeds to demonstrate this explanation by way of a folktale:

“I heard people telling that a certain seaman performed such a stratagem to monkeys that wore the hats that were spread out on the shore before the boat, and through such a stratagem he took all the hats that the monkeys had taken, since the nature of monkeys is to do that which the man before them does, for they desire to be similar to men.”

And while Caps for Sale was published in 1940, the earliest edition of Ben Yehoyada of which I am aware was printed in 1904. And while it is acknowledged that Caps for Sale is based on a folktale that the author, Esphyr Slobodkina, heard from her sister, she never knew the origin of this folktale, nor has any research since (to my knowledge) by the Esphyr Slobodkina Foundation, yielded any more knowledge to this end. As for as I know, this passage in the Ben Yehoyada is the earliest known reference to this story and has to date eluded discovery by the Esphyr Slobodkina Foundation.

Well, I just think that’s really cool. Torah’s got everything, even “Caps for Sale”!

Isaiah 10:17:

“And the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame; and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day.”

(JPS 1917 translation)

Rashi comments:

“‘The Light of Israel’ — the Torah in which Hezekiah is engaged [in study] will be for a fire for Sennacherib.”

This chapter of Isaiah concerns the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib (Heb. ‘Sancheriv’). The prophet foretells that while the Tribes of Israel will be vanquished and carried away into exile, the Kingdom of Judah, comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, under the leadership of King Hezekiah, are to survive, protected by a miracle.

What is that miracle? The fire and flame produced by “the light of Israel and his Holy One.” And what is that light? “The Torah in which Hezekiah is engaged [in study].”

According to the prophet Isaiah (as understood by Rashi), the merit by which Israel is protected during times of siege from its foes is the merit of Torah study.

Ironically, as Israel’s very existence once again stands threatened by its formidable rival to the east, Iran, with its development of nuclear weapons capability, the very issue of the stability of the core (or corps) of Torah learners has become threatened from within Israel’s own ranks. Much heated debate and division prevails now as forces within the Israeli legislature move to suspend the laws that since the founding of the state have protected the Jew’s right to defer military service in favor of full-time Torah study. This “status quo” has been attacked by left-wing elements for decades as promoting a system whereby the religious community “leeches” off the state while not paying for their privileges with military service. However, this view is not only one-sided, but shortsighted.

During my years of study in yeshiva in Israel, the Rosh Yeshiva (dean of the yeshiva) made a point of explaining that our responsibility to learn Torah is not merely to ourselves or our community, but to the entire nation of Israel. Our learning, he told us, granted the Jewish people the merit to continued Divine favor despite constant existential threat. His words were but an echo of Isaiah’s above sentiment.

Occasionally, the Israeli government would send “inspectors” to the yeshiva to meet and make an account of each individual student to make sure the yeshiva had not fabricated the names on their roster to garner larger financial benefits from the government. On these days we would usually be interrupted from our studies to wait on a long line outside the office until our turn to come in and present our IDs to the inspecting officer.

The Rosh Yeshiva related that on one of these occasions, the inspector asked him, “You religious folk choose not to serve in the Israeli army. You do not support your country. You are not true Zionists! Why then do you take money from our government?”

The Rosh Yeshiva replied, “On the contrary, we are the staunchest Zionists in all the land!”

“How so?” asked the inspector, puzzled.

“If we were to refuse this money from the government, we would be preventing the state from accruing the immeasurable merit of supporting Torah study. It is this merit that grants the State of Israel its strongest warrant for Divine protection. So you see, sir, by allowing ourselves to be the benefactors of government funds, we offer the state the strongest support possible. We are the true Zionists!”

If only these wise words would be heard and understood by the powers governing the modern Jewish State. If only our political leaders would be wise enough to learn the lessons of our glorious history, recorded by our prophets not for the purpose of textbook study but to be implemented as our ethical compass for all generations.

May the Jewish people become wise to these lessons, and embrace the community of Torah learners as “the light of Israel,” the greatest contributors to Jewish survival, and the true illuminators of Jewish destiny.

(Also see this post.)

(Check out this current news item on the topic.)

(July 16, 2012: Hear it from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or from Rabbi Shlomo Amar.)

“All of the assembly in its entirety are holy and G-d is among them!” shouted Korach, poised at the head of the mob of rebels who had gathered to challenge Moses and Aaron. “Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d!” (Numbers 16:3).

The Talmud records that Korach’s attacks against Moses were not merely political, but far sharper and more personal. According the Talmudic account, among other criticisms, Korach actually accused Moses of the crime of adultery!

While attacking Moses on the basis of his position of authority seems understandable, to malign a man of Moses’ inimitable character and reputation with intimations that he had committed adultery enters the realm of the ridiculous! What is the meaning of this strange Talmudic teaching?

The answer to this mystery, as with many mysteries of the Torah, lies at the core of the history of Man.

“Let Us make Man…” (Genesis 1:26). The Almighty consulted with his council of spiritual ministers before creating Mankind. Our tradition teaches that these heavenly ministers objected to the Almighty’s plan, explaining that Man, as a being with physical elements, may succumb to material temptation, polluting the universe with sin. Man, therefore, deserves not any place in the kingdom of the Almighty. G-d overrides the opinion of his ministers and proceeds with the creation of Adam. Thenceforth, throughout history, as mankind failed to live up to the course of holiness prescribed for them by the Almighty, the angels would continually remind the Lord of their initial objection and His failure to heed their counsel.

Subsequent to Adam’s fall from grace, the Torah describes how Adam’s sons Cain (Kayin) and Abel (Hevel) vie for the Almighty’s favor. While Abel brings an offering from the fattest of his flock, Cain offers only the cheapest of his crop. The Almighty favors Abel’s offering, and in a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother Abel.

“G-d said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ [Cain] said, ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ [G-d] said, ‘What have you done! The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth! And now you are accursed from the earth that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand!’” (ibid 4:9-11).

Our tradition further teaches that Cain’s jealousy of Abel stemmed not only from the Almighty’s reaction to their offerings, but from a number of other factors as well. Among them, Cain was born together with a twin sister who would become his wife, while Abel was born with two twin sisters who would become his wives. Cain thought, “Should the younger have two while the elder has but one?”

Subsequent to Abel’s murder, the Almighty’s heavenly ministers seize the opportunity to brag that they were right once again about mankind. “Look how this one murdered because of jealousy over such material desires!” G-d replies to them that so long as they, as spiritual beings, cannot be tempted by physical desire, they have no right to criticize those who suffer from such temptation. The Lord’s ministers, disgusted at the suggestion that something so lowly as the material could offer any allure to beings so pure as themselves, urge G-d to offer them the opportunity to prove themselves. The Almighty obliges, sending two of these spiritual beings to earth in physical form.

What follows? “The Sons of Eloh-im saw that the daughters of Man were good, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose” (ibid 6:2). According to Rashi, these “Sons of Eloh-im” were, “the ministers who act in the agency of the Lord,” i.e. G-d’s spiritual ministers who had been sent to the earthly realm. According to mystical tradition, the “daughters of Man,” here mean not merely women of the human persuasion, but the actual daughters of Adam, i.e. the two sisters of Abel. G-d tests those spiritual ministers who criticized Cain’s actions with the exact same stimulus that led Cain himself to commit his jealous murder. These spiritual beings too, now susceptible to material temptation, succumb to their newfound urge to take these woman as wives.

The visitors from the spiritual realm solicit the daughters of Adam for marriage. These holy women, not wanting to enter such an ill-conceived relationship, but knowing these beings hold the power to force the issue, concede, but on condition. The daughters of Adam stipulate that as these spiritual visitors hold the option to return to the heavenly realm at any time, they must teach these women the Name of G-d that would allow them to do the same in such an eventuality. The spiritual beings comply, teach them the Name, and immediately the daughters of Adam use the Name to ascend to the heavenly realm before any union can be realized. While the spiritual ministers remain below, wreaking the havoc that the Almighty predicted, these holy women remain above, seeking asylum from these destructive creatures.

According to mystical tradition, many generations later, during the ascendance of the Pharaohs of Egypt, these two women are brought back into the earthly realm, one as Bithyah, daughter of Pharoah, the other as Tziporah, daughter of Jethro. At that time as well, the souls of Cain and Abel are brought back into the world as Korach and Moses, respectively. The daughter of Pharoah, one of Abel’s former wives, rescues Abel, now Moses, from the Nile River, and raises him as a son. Moses later marries Tziporah, also his wife during his previous incarnation.

As Moses achieves ascendency over Israel, the soul of Cain, now Korach, undergoes the same trial of spirit to overcome his jealousy that he failed during his first incarnation. The Almighty has granted Korach the opportunity to achieve rectification for his tainted soul, yet Korach tragically allows his millennia-old jealousy to overwhelm him, mounting a rebellion against the man that G-d has favored once again.

But how does this help us understand Korach’s shocking accusation against the humblest of all men?

According to Torah law, if a man dies childless, his brother should marry the widow in order to grant continuity to the deceased brother’s legacy. In the case of Cain and Abel, since Abel died childless, the rights to marry Abel’s wives belonged to Cain. This was the substance of Korach’s accusation. As the reincarnation of Cain, these rights now belonged to him! Tziporah, then, formerly the wife of Abel, should be the rightful wife of Korach, not Moses. Ergo, Moses’ marriage to Tziporah constituted an adulterous relationship!

Korach erred in his calculation, however, his raging jealousy blinding him to the elementary precept that, “one cannot fulfill a commandment through transgression of another commandment.” Since Cain’s obligation to marry Abel’s wives only came about through the murder of Abel, no such obligation actually took effect! In this case, Cain had no legitimate claim to Abel’s wives, nor did Korach have any legitimate right to marry Tziporah. Moses escapes any calumny laid upon him by Korach, while Korach must face the consequences of his missteps once again.

We can now gain a deeper appreciation of Korach’s bizarre demise. “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them” (Numbers 16:32). Why was this the form of Korach’s destruction? Remember the words of the Almighty to Cain after the murder of Abel: “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth! And now you are accursed from the earth that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand!” Just as the earth opened its mouth to absorb Cain’s original sin, so would the earth open its mouth again to claim the perpetrator of that sin. And indeed, according to mystical tradition, the place where the earth “opened its mouth” to swallow Korach was the same exact spot where Cain had murdered Abel millennia earlier.

The Torah instructs us not to be like Korach and his assembly. Korach’s character flaws plagued him not only through two lifetimes, but for all eternity. Our Sages teach us that Korach remains forever suspended in the endless chasm born of his reticence to accept reproof for his recalcitrance, eternally declaring his regret. Learning not from his errors, he doomed himself to repeat them. Let us not be like Korach. Let us assert ourselves in a genuine effort to perfect our character, and instead of the legacy of strife left behind by Korach, may we merit to bring a legacy of everlasting peace to our world, to our posterity, and to all Israel.

Question from a correspondent of mine:

“Would you say that all of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith are necessary for whatever you’re practicing to be Judaism? I bet #12 (the Coming of the Messiah) and more so #13 (Resuscitation of the Dead) are probably pretty tough for a lot of people…”

Our answer:

The prophets predicted that certain exceedingly unlikely events would occur at some point in Jewish history (predicting likely events doesn’t require a prophet), prophecies that remained unfulfilled for millennia. Imagine being a Jew living just a couple of centuries ago and trying to convince a non-believer of your faith.

“We’re going to return to our land from all of our exiles all over the world and the land that has been desolate all these centuries will sprout and become lush, fertile, productive! We will fly to Israel on the wings of eagles!”

One would be laughed at! “There’s no way for an ingathering of exiles of such proportion to occur! Give me break! That land is so desolate, nothing’s going to take root there. And to fly there? You’re crazy!”

“Yeah, and the nations of the world will unite to oppose us!”

“Nations of the world unite? There is so much war in the world, no country can get along with its neighbor and you think nations will become united? How could this possibly happen?”

“Yeah and the prophet says that an army of these united nations will besiege Jerusalem.”

“Why would anyone want to even go there? It’s desolate! You think Jerusalem is going to somehow become important to the world?”

“Yeah, and it says that this army will be destroyed with a fire that will burn them up in their tracks, melting them where they stand!”

“What kind of science fiction is that? There are no weapons that can melt entire armies! You Jews are nuts! And my proof is that things have been this way for thousands of years. How can you possibly believe these constants will change? How utterly irrational!”

Yet just a couple of centuries later — we are living messianic prophecy! The land of Israel has been greatly rebuilt, the Jewish people has returned en masse (Israel is projected to soon contain the MAJORITY of world Jewry over all worldwide communities combined). Israel produces some of the finest produce in the world, exported to many foreign markets, including prize-winning wines. We have airplanes today flying record numbers of people to Israel many times daily. There is today a United Nations that continually enacts resolutions against Israel (more than any other nation combined), and there is constant foreign pressure on Israel to give up its rights to its capital, Jerusalem, which the world community doesn’t even recognize as the capital of Israel. (Two of my children were born in Israel and have American birth certificates that show their birthplace as Jerusalem, but without any country, because Jerusalem is still not officially recognized, even by the United States, as an Israeli city, let alone its capital.) Indeed, the only thing the nations seem united about is hatred for Israel. And now that weapons of mass destruction are a reality, it has become easy to imagine the horrid scenarios described by the prophets.

Now, given that all these “impossible to believe” elements of Messianic prophecy have already come true before our eyes, is it such a leap of faith to trust the prophets on the rest?

I believe, given this evidence, that it is irrational to consider all this a “coincidence” or “lucky guess.” I’m certain the prophets were “on to something” and I’m hedging my bets with them. To do otherwise, to this mind, is simply unbelievable.


Rafi Mollot

“Recording engineers have learned… to imbue recordings with a real-world, life-like quality even when they’re made in sterile recording studios. There is a related reason why so many of us are attracted to recorded music these days–and especially now that personal music players are common and people are listening in headphones a lot. Recording engineers and musicians have learned to create special effects that tickle our brains by exploiting neural circuits… These special effects are similar in principle to 3-D art, motion pictures, or visual illusions…; they leverage perceptual systems that are in place to accomplish other things. Because they use these neural circuits in novel ways, we find them especially interesting. The same is true of the way that modern recordings are made.” (Excerpted from This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, PhD, sound engineer and neuropsychologist)

In other words, there is a quality of recorded music that stimulates our brains in ways that natural sounds will not. This is accomplished through manipulating sound in artificial ways to create “sound illusions” in the mind that are particularly interesting.

So, what do I want with all this?

There is a popular notion that during periods when Jews are prohibited from listening to music (e.g. during the Counting of the Omer, the Three Weeks), one must not listen to live music, but recorded music is acceptable. The justification for this is that recorded music is of an inferior quality to live music, as recording does not capture the “life” of the music, or that it simply does not sound as good. However, this may no longer be the case, as indicated by the above quote. Today sound engineers create sounds that not only sound as real as live sounds, but that tickle the brain at even more enhanced levels than are possible with conventional instruments. If so, one might perhaps reevaluate the position that listening to recorded music is not in violation of these solemn days. This writer is certainly no authority on Jewish law, however, from a philosophical vantage point at least, one should certainly consider what should be done to maintain the spirit of the law.