Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Can Slavery be Good?

Why is eved ivri the first mishpat that Moshe Rabeinu is told to present to B'nei Yisrael? The Ramban (Sh'mot 21:2) is worth reading in regard to this question. He explains that because this mishpat brings to mind a number of fundamental ideas, such as yitziat Mitzrayim and ma'asei b'reishit, it should come first (this is somewhat of an oversimplification of Ramban's peirush).

However, the Torah's presentation is still somewhat difficult. Let us consider the position that B'nei Yisrael were in. They had just been freed from slavery in Mitzrayim. Was it not insensitive to begin the presentation of the mishpatim with a discussion of the proper treatment of an eved ivri? Did not Hashem just reveal himself to B'nei Yisrael at Har Sinai with the following words:
אָנֹכִי ה' אֱלֹקיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים" - "I am Hashem, your G', who took you out of the Land of Egypt, from the beit avadim [house of slavery]."?

I believe that there was a great need to begin with this mishpat. Often, when a people overcomes some great oppression they develop a reactionary position. For example, after the American Revolution (1776) the revolutionaries set up a weak confederacy of states because they were afraid of the abuses that could result from a strong federal government. However, this situation was intolerable and they found it necessary to establish a stronger union that reasonably balanced state and federal powers. This was accomplished on June 21, 1788 when The United States Constitution was ratified.

B'nei Yisrael were in a similar circumstance. They had experienced great oppression under the hand of the Mitzrim. Their natural reaction would have been to abolish slavery altogether. However, this would not have been a balanced approach. There are certain cases where slavery, even of one's brethren, can be good. Specifically, the two cases in which the Torah permits eved ivri: 1) the thief who does not have enough money to make restitution; 2) the poor man who has nothing. For these individuals the mishpat of eved ivri is a kind of rehabilitation (ואכמ"ל).

I feel that one last thing must be made clear. An eved ivri is not an eved in the normal sense of the word. I quote Rambam (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avadim, 1:9) as just one illustration of this point:

כל עבד עברי או אמה עברייה--חייב האדון להשוותן אליו במאכל ובמשקה בכסות ובמדור, שנאמר "כי טוב לו עימך" (דברים טו,טז): שלא תהיה אתה אוכל פת נקייה והוא אוכל פת קיבר, אתה שותה יין ישן והוא שותה יין חדש, אתה ישן על גבי מוכין והוא ישן על גבי התבן, אתה דר בכרך והוא דר בכפר או אתה בכפר והוא בכרך--שנאמר "ויצא, מעימך" (ויקרא כה,מא). מכאן אמרו חכמים כל הקונה עבד עברי, כקונה אדון לעצמו.

An eved ivri or amah ivriya -- their master is required to treat them equally to himself in regard to: food, drink, clothing and lodging, as it says, "and it shall be good for him with you"(D'varim 15:16). It should not be that you are eating bread made from fine flour and he eats bread made from coarse flour; you drink old wine and he drinks new wine; you sleep on cotton and he sleeps on straw; you dwell in a city and he dwells in a village... Based on this the Chakhamim say, "Anyone who acquires an eved ivri - it is as if he acquired a master for himself."

Sunday, February 11, 2007

You Can Learn a Lot from a Cookbook

I came across some very nice insights on Matzah in Joan Nathan's, The Foods of Israel Today. On pages 90 and 91 she quotes Clinton Bailey - she says he is the foremost authority on Bedouin culture -
The unleavened desert bread, which is essentially matzoh, is the staple of the Bedouin diet, which they bake three times a day ... It was not until the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt that they ate leavened bread. Still today, to the Bedouin, yeast is the sign of a settled people, of contamination in the city. Pure bread for them includes no yeast because there is no leaven in the desert.
If this is true, I think it adds a lot to how we should understand the ta'amei haMitzvot of Chametz u'Matzah. I never knew that there is no leaven in the desert (it must be that it is too dry for yeast to survive). I had heard previously that Egypt is where bread was invented but this adds a whole new dimension. The bread B'nei Yisrael are commanded to eat when they are abandoning Egypt and her ways is not just non-Egyptian bread it is the bread of their forefathers - Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. I still want to do some more fact checking on this.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

No Tehillim

Sadly, the web site mentioned in the previous post does not include לוי סודרי's reading of Tehillim. It seems you can buy it here.

Daat - Shvilei HaTanach

Daat, the web site that had the scanned texts of R' Hoffman's has a lot of great resources. I just stumbled upon this tanach index page. It has a very nicely designed layout indexing many, many articles, peirushim and s'farim on Tanach. One of the highlights for me is that for many of the Sifrei Tanach you can listen to different hazzanim chant that sefer. לוי סודרי's reading of Mishlei (he does the Morrocan nusach) gave be goosebumps - he has an amazingly beautiful voice.

Friday, February 02, 2007

R' Hoffman and conTEXT

I was just reading Asher Wasserteil's (אשר וסרטיל) introduction to his translation of R' Dovid Tzvi Hoffman's commentary on B'reishit (linked to in the previous post). He makes a remark on R' Hoffman's methodology that I believe is at the heart of proper parshanut haMikra. This is the quote:

מבנהו של הפירוש, כמבנה פירושו של המחבר ז"ל לספרים ויקרא ודברים: חלוקת הטקסט ליחידות, והיא חלוקה שאינה מתחשבת תמיד בחלוקות המקובלות, מבוא כולל ליחידה, חלוקת היחידה ליחידות משנה, תרגום הפסוקים שביחידות המשנה ופירושם.

חלוקה עצמאית זו ליחידות והמבואות שלהן, דימה שבשעתו דרך לימוד חדשה היוו ויתרונותיה בצדה. היא אפשרה התיחסות לענין שלם ולא, כפי שהיה מקובל, עיסוק בפסוק הבודד בלבד. אגב כך עלו באופן טבעי השוואות עם מקבילות או מקראות משלימים, עם כל החיוב שבדרך לימוד זו.

To put it in my own words: the key is to not read p'sukim, rather, one should read stories (or themes, being that the Torah contains stories and mitzvot). This of course does not deny the depth contained within each pasuk, or word, or even letter. The issue is what is the best perspective from which to see this depth. He also tells us the method of accomplishing this kind of reading - the division of the text into its thematic parts and a statement of each part's thematic unity, structure, etc. (in introductions to each section). I know this method has worked for me. It brings to mind the pasuk in Tehillim: "גל-עיני ואביטה -- נפלאות, מתורתך."

One word: conTEXT!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

R' Dovid Tzvi Hoffman Online

I just found the entire text of Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman's commentaries on B'reishit and D'varim in Hebrew.

Sefer B'raishit
Sefer D'varim



What are M'zikin?

The third consideration, mentioned in the previous post, m'zikin, deserves some more explanation. I said that m'zikin are unseen, dangerous forces. I do not know what exactly chazal believed these forces were. What does seem clear is that they believed they were unseen and could cause one harm. This idea is not as foreign as it seems. Everyone is familiar with the effect that different places can have on one's mood or behavior. Being in prison might make a person feel aggressive, defenseless or combative. Being in a court might make a person feel guilty, self-conscious or uneasy. Being in a classroom might make a person feel constricted, boxed in or bored. Being in a bar might make a person act more bold or wild or worse. Of course, a place could have a positive effect on someone - like the way one might act in synagogue (we hope) or the study hall. Finally, being in a hurba might make one feel uneasy, depressed, sad about what happened, scared.

It is clear that different locations exert a kind of force on a person and can make one act or feel a certain way. We, of course, would attribute this to internal psychological forces that are set in motion by the environment. However, it is just as true to say that the environment is causing the change in behavior. I do not want to be anachronistic in my interpretation and say that chazal used the word m'zikin to refer to psychological forces. On the contrary, I think there is something to be learned from viewing m'zikin as an external force (as opposed to internal psychological forces). The view that the only thing that moves us to action is some internal psychological force makes us feel that we can in some way control those forces. After all, if they are forces that are inside us then shouldn't we be able to control them? This, however, is not the case. Psychological forces can be just as outside our control as external environmental forces - we often delude ourselves into believing that because these forces are internal we can control them. More often than not, the only way to protect ourselves from these forces is to avoid those situations (or places) that bring them out.

Why does the gemara say that in the presence of two people there is no fear of m'zikin. Quite possibly because the presence of another individual keeps us grounded and objective. As long as there is another observer we keep ourselves in check and are not as influenced by our environment. Think of the difference between being alone in a house in the middle of the night as opposed to having someone else around to keep you company. The situation that was scary when alone feels comfortable and safe with the presence of another.

Can I Enter a Ruin?

This post deals with the gemara which starts on the bottom of Daf 3A in Mesechet B'rachot:

ת"ר מפני שלשה דברים אין נכנסין לחורבה מפני חשד מפני המפולת ומפני המזיקין. מפני חשד ותיפוק ליה משום מפולת [דף ג,ב גמרא] בחדתי ותיפוק ליה משום מזיקין בתרי אי בתרי חשד נמי ליכא בתרי ופריצי. מפני המפולת ותיפוק ליה משום חשד ומזיקין בתרי וכשרי. מפני המזיקין ותיפוק ליה מפני חשד ומפולת בחורבה חדתי ובתרי וכשרי אי בתרי מזיקין נמי ליכא במקומן חיישינן ואב"א לעולם בחד ובחורבה חדתי דקאי בדברא דהתם משום חשד ליכא דהא אשה בדברא לא שכיחא ומשום מזיקין איכא:

What the Gemara is Saying

This gemara can be somewhat confusing so I will try and be as clear as possible. The gemara states a general rule: For three reasons one may not enter a hurba (a ruin): 1) chashad (suspicion of lascivious conduct; 2) mapolet (fear of dangerous falling ruble); 3) m'zikin (fear of dangerous - unseen - forces). Next, the gemara tries to determine why three reasons are needed as opposed to just one. It takes up each reason and finds the case where that reason alone would apply and neither of the other two. I will paraphrase the arguments for each reason:

1) Why say: don't go into a hurba because of chashad? Wouldn't it be enough to say don't go into a hurba because of mapolet or m'zikin?

The gemara explains that there is a case in which we would not be concerned about mapolet - if the hurba is new. There is also a case in which we would not be concerned about m'zikin - if you go into the churba with another person (the gemara takes it for granted that there is no fear of m'zikin in the presence of two people). Here the gemara points out the difficulty that the contingency in which there is no fear of m'zikin is the same contingency in which there is no chashad (i.e., the presence of two people). The gemara clarifies that there is a case where there are two people present (so the fear of m'zikin is removed) but there is still chashad - that is, when those two people are p'reetzee (promiscuous, in the sense of casual and unrestrained in sexual behavior; morally loose).

2) Why say: don't go into a hurba because of mapolet? Wouldn't the reason of chashad or m'zikin suffice?

The gemara gives the case of two k'shairee (morally upstanding individuals). In this case there is no fear of chashad and there is no fear of m'zikin. The only concern left is mapolet.

3) Why say: don't go into a hurba because of m'zikin? Wouldn't the reason of chashad or mapolet suffice?

The gemara gives the case of a new hurba entered by two k'shairee. In this case there is no fear of chashad or mapolet. The gemara immediately notices the problem, we would like to say: the only concern left is m'zikin - but they gave a case which involves two people. So in what case is there no concern for hurba or k'shairee but still a concern for m'zikin? The gemara offers two solutions: 1) There is a principle we were not considering before: in the m'zikin's place (the hurba is their "place") two people will not remove the concern. 2) There is a case in which we are not concerned about chashad or mapolet but yet we are concerned about m'zikin: one person entering a new hurba in a field (the gemara posits that women are not commonly found in the field).

Here is a chart to make things clearer (I hope):








Why that reason is not needed (i.e., another reason that should be sufficient):

Why that reason is needed (i.e., case where it will apply):

Difficulty w/ reason it is needed:





1) new hurba



2) 2 people

if there are 2 people then there is no chashad

2) the 2 are p'ritzei



1) chashad & m'zikin

1) 2 k'sheiri



1) chashad & mapolet

1) new hurba & 2 k'sheiri

if 2 then no m'zikin

1) in their place (the Hurba) the m'zikin will have influence even with the presence of 2 people



2) 1 person, new Hurba in a field (Explanation: In a field there is no chashad (b/c women are not commonly in the field) but there are m'zikin.)

The Problem

The problem emerges from the gemara's first solution in #3. If we say that in the m'zikin's place two people will not remove our concern for the harm they can cause then the gemara's solutions in #1 and #2 loose their force. If we say that the gemara's second solution rejects this principle then we come to our second problem: now we have a case in which it is permissible to enter a hurba: namely, two people (no m'zikin) in a new hurba (no fear of mapolet) in a field (there would be no chashad, fear of mapolet or fear of m'zikin).

It could be that the gemara is not trying to prove that one may never enter a hurba. The point of the gemara is to show that one must always consider these three matters before entering a hurba: 1) if I go in, will I be suspected of lascivious behavior? 2) is there a danger of being injured by falling debris? 3) are there any unseen forces that could hurt me? Yes, there might be rare cases in which one might be allowed to enter but the intelligent man will always consider these three matters first.

The Deeper Lesson

I believe there is a deeper lesson here. These three matters are actually the three things one must consider before going anywhere. In other words, one must always consider before going somewhere (or doing something) if going to that place will: 1) cause people to become suspicious of him; 2) put one in physical danger; 3) put one under the influence of unseen forces. Why does the gemara have to tell us this? Most people do not like the idea that they have to make decisions based on contingencies that are outside their control. People especially do not like to think that they have to be concerned with what other people think about their activities. People almost always underestimate the potential danger of a situation (just think of how many times you have gone out driving in the middle of a snow shower, or driven above the recommended speed limit). Almost no one takes into consideration the unseen forces that might affect/harm them (see this post on m'zikin).