We're outside shul on a snowy Friday night. Kid, aged about thirteen, is telling another kid not to make snowballs.

"Don't do that. You're carrying; you're touching snow, which is muktze; and you're wearing my gloves."

As Gabriel puts it - d'oraita, d'rabanan, and rude.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jul. 29th, 2010 06:39 pm)
This is fascinating - anti-mechitza Muslim women invading men's mosque space.
hatam_soferet: (toothpaste)
( Dec. 16th, 2009 08:19 pm)
I forgot to post about the Halakha Yom Iyyun - a lot of the sessions were recorded, and you can download source sheets and watch the videos at http://www.mechonhadar.org/yomiyyun.

In particular, I heartily recommend the Opening Plenary: "Framing Halakhah: Law, Ethics, Philosophy or Values?" Professor Chaim Saiman, Villanova Law School - he had that kind of virtuoso skimming through his sources that you can only get away with when you know your topic ridiculously well, which is just good to listen to.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 21st, 2009 11:31 pm)
A goodly portion of Yeshivat Hadar spent this Shabbat in Riverdale, and I had the pleasure of cramming everyone into my apartment for (yummy potluck) lunch.

Following lunch, there was "Ask Rav Eitan."

Which is what? Well, here's a whole bunch of people who can see that their rosh yeshiva is entirely awesome, and they want to know what he thinks about fun questions like "Why is Judaism important?" Clearly nobbling him after Shabbat lunch, when he's too full of cholent to run away, is the best way of getting answers.

I jest. He wasn't trying to run away.

This is what was really going on:

When one's worldview isn't rendered in stark black and white, one has to find subtle shades-of-grey answers to any important question, existential or otherwise. One has gut feelings, or vague ideas, or half-formed rationales, regarding the big questions and the bigger picture, but fitting them together neatly is generally a bit beyond one, and we muddle along with more or less faith that it'll turn out okay in the end.

Then every so often you come across someone who has thought about all these things, and studied extensively, and is aware enough and articulate enough to express cogent, nuanced, informed, reasonable opinions. Sometimes they're saying clearly exactly the words you've been groping for; sometimes what they say or how they say it resonates with you so strongly that even if you don't quite agree, you want to hear more so that you can learn how to express your own opinions like that.

Here, you can see, is a way of constructing the security, the groundedness, which comes with the confident black-and-white answer, in the shades of grey one's intellectual integrity demands. Bit by bit you can muddle less and stand firm on sure ground; as people drawn to a measure of religious leadership, such grounding is a needed strength for ourselves and others.

So you meet someone in whose expression of the bigger picture you can see your own fuzzy approximations, but clarified and extended and set into place almost beyond recognition. It is a picture you have been trying to see; you have found someone who sees it, and you want to know all about the picture as they see it. Every last detail, so that you can see it through your own eyes and carry it with you.

That's what "Ask Rav Eitan" is doing, in a sense.

The next chapter here probably concerns the nature of the picture seen by the Yeshivat Hadar leadership, and why I think it is at present unique and hence uniquely important, but it's 1am so it'll have to wait for another day.

In any case, this was originally intended as a light-hearted post about how this Shabbat, when we were Asking Rav Eitan, and Rav Eitan was talking in rather powerful and compelling ways about how and why Judaism is the framework of his life, the doorbell rang.

Two Jehovah's Witnesses were at the door, one of them brandishing a much-worn Bible and the other with a folder of magazines.

In my apartment right now, flashed through my mind, there are three rabbis and a dozen people who spend all week learning Bible and Jewish canonical texts. I could invite these Witnesses into the lions' den. It would be hilarious.

But it would also be rather cruel and gratuitous, so I suppressed the fit of giggles that was arising and said politely "This really isn't a conversation we want to be having right now."

"Oh; why not?" one responded eagerly.

Because here are a group of yeshivaniks clustered round their rosh yeshiva hanging on his every word, I thought, you couldn't really have chosen a less likely target. Every single person in this room learns Bible on a level you've never even thought about. You'd get slaughtered. And nothing you can say could be anywhere near as interesting as Asking Rav Eitan.

"We're a bit busy right now," I said feebly, closing the door.

I hope they didn't hear the laughter.
Went to a session ostensibly exploring this question, although owing to a certain lack of restraint in the construction of the source sheet, we didn't actually make it to the question.

One thing I've learned over the past ten years or so is that consistency is not essential. Not a necessity, and not a luxury – more like a red herring, or possibly a pretty toy.

I often say that Talmud combines the logical approach of pure mathematics with the interesting irrationality of people, and the halakhic system is indeed based on taking people's (on the whole more or less predictable) actions and absorbing them into a consistent system.

Given an halakhic system, should the system mould to the people, or should the people mould to the system? Overmuch focus on consistency forces the latter interpretation; the halakhic framework exists inviolable, like the integers, and all the rest is the work of man.

As I get further away from being seventeen and naiive, I find this approach less and less compelling. The idea of living within a prescriptive framework [is not nearly as interesting as watching that puppy outside the window omg puppy cute puppy]...um, yes, the idea of living within a prescriptive framework and having one's chief preoccupation be how rigidly one cleaves to its girders seems, not so much overly challenging as profoundly uninteresting.

These days I see the framework as a support, which one may use as support, or as shelter, or as basis – as any number of things, but always as something in relationship to the people. The point is not to blend into the framework, the point is that the framework is the basis for something greater.
Don't remember the sugiya, exactly – something in Arbei Pesachim

but it went something like:

Statement, explanation, assertion A; assertion B; counter-example ¬B; assertion C; counter-example ¬C; assertion D; counter-example ¬D.

In terms of decisions based on the text, we had general agreement on A, and most people seemed also to think ¬C, but the Rambam thought C, and it was weird.

It looked as though it came from reading the sugiya two different ways, thus.

One way:
-> statement, explanation, assertion  A
<-   assertion  B  (challenging A)
->     refutation  ¬B  (accepting ¬B and reinstating A)
<-  assertion  C  (challenging A)
->       refutation  ¬C  (accepting ¬C and reinstating A)
<-  assertion    D  (challenging A) <-     refutation  ¬D  (accepting ¬D and reinstating A)

so you end up with A, ¬B, ¬C, ¬D.


-> statement, explanation, assertion A
<- assertion  B  (challenging A)
     -> counter-example  ¬B  (with idea of reinstating A)
          -> in support  C  (supporting ¬B with idea C, hence supporting A)
               <- challenge  ¬C  (challenging C)
               -> refutation  D  (rejecting challenge to C using D)
          <- assertion  ¬D  (challenging C's ability to support ¬B, but ¬B still stands)

now you would pasken A, ¬B, C, ¬D.

Something like that. Not sure exactly, but you get the general idea? Sometimes things are ambiguous enough that you can break the assertion-refutation pattern in different ways such that each read is equally plausible.
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Jul. 15th, 2009 09:35 am)
Yalkut ha-Sofer (thanks MG for typing it up):

וי"ו של תיבת "בריתי שלום" צ"ל קטיעה [קידושין דף ס"ו ע"ב], ורבו הדעות איך יש לעשותו, עיין בספר משנת אברהם סי' ל"א, שאסף אותם, ובשו"ת רעק"א סי' ע"ה, מסיק דהעיקר הוא לעשות וי"ו זעירא, ולרווחא דמילתא יעשה כשיטת הריטב"א, שיכתוב וי"ו זעירא ויניח מעט הפסק, ואח"כ יכתוב עוד קו קטן, וכך ציוה לעשות בס"ת שלו, וכעין זה הביא המשנ"א שם בשם הרה"ק ר' אפרים סופר זצ"ל, דעשה את הקטיעה באלכסון, אולם בדיעבד אם כתב כשאר הווי"ן אין לפסול.

The vav in the word "beriti shlom" must be written broken (Kiddushin 66b), and there are many opinions as to how it is done, see the Mishnat Avraham 31 who explores them. Note the responsa of the Rak"a 75, who think you should not break it at all but write it little. Basically though one ought to make as per the Ritva, who says you ought to write a small vav and leave a little gap, and after that write a little line, and that was how he said it should be done in his sefer Torah. The Mishnat Avraham says something similar in the name of the Raha"k R' Ephraim Sofer, who says you should make the break diagonal. And if you made it just like all the other vavs, one doesn't declare it invalid.

I sometimes wonder whether one can make the broken vav by hak tokhot, erasing. You aren't allowed to make letters by scraping away ink that's already on the page, but you are sometimes allowed to prettify letters by scraping. So if you start with a regular vav, and make the break in it by scraping, you still have a vav, so arguably that's permitted. On the other hand, you accomplished something that made an important difference in the letter, by scraping, and that's arguably problematic. (Someone probably deals with it somewhere and I just haven't read it yet, if you want to tell me where, that'd be nice.)
Part 1 - the Rambam.

Crikey, that got long )

If you're sailing a boat in the normal way of things, you might have three people on each side, and if they all sat on one side, the boat would tip up and go under. But when the wind blows hard, the boat leans over and you need all six people on one side to compensate and keep the boat upright. So if you're a little community in a big society, it might well be that the winds of social change blow and you have to make a change to compensate, a change which would be silly or threatening in other circumstances.

It is, for instance, no longer the case that men are forbidden to wear trousers. I would suggest that in a society where women do not lead things, for a woman to want to lead prayers is potentially (although not necessarily) rather destabilising. However, in a society where women lead stuff all the time, for a woman to want to lead prayers is not all that destabilising. In the strictly local sense, yes; over time, it might be more destabilising to insist that women may not lead prayer despite leading stuff in other contexts.

This feels like a good place to pause. Tea. Part three soonish.
Rambam is asked, in a congregation where everyone is capable of praying independently, is the reader's repetition of the Amidah necessary? Perhaps, if it is unecessary, it is actually forbidden? (Responsa, 221) Unecessary rituals involve unecessary blessings, which are a major problem in ritual.

The answer, to get it out of the way so you can concentrate, is that strictly speaking it isn't necessary, and he himself would have been okay getting rid of it in those circumstances, but there are lots of reasons the reader's repetition should stay in place regardless.

In particular, one thing he explores is the idea that the reader's repetition is only warranted if some one of those present has not prayed the Amidah, since the original idea was that the reader would repeat the Amidah aloud on behalf of anyone who couldn't do it himself - praying by proxy, essentially. If all present have prayed, there is no reason for the repetition, and in this case, logically it ought to be omitted.

The particular nuance I'm interested in today is where he saysהיו החכמים ז"ל נותנים דבריהם לשיעורין והיו צריכים לבדוק כל אדם בבית הכנסת ולדעת מצבו, ואז יחזור שליח צבור על התפלה או לא יחזור, ולא כך עניין התקנות והגזרות - that if the repetition were to depend on the have-you-prayed status of every person there, you would have to inquire of each and every individual to establish whether or not he had prayed, and only then would you know whether the reader should repeat the Amidah or not. That is not how rabbinic enactments work, says the Rambam.

This interests me because it's my problem with Joel Roth's approach to women and congregational prayer, but I have never hitherto had halakhic language in which to express the problem. The problem Joel Roth faced was that of how to engineer being able to have women lead services and count in the ritual quorum despite their having a lesser level of obligation than the gentlemen present, given that praying by proxy, like voting by proxy, only works if one's proxy has a level of obligation equal to or greater than one's own. His proffered solution was that if women were to assume, voluntarily and permanently, the higher level of obligation, they would be able to function in prayer on an equal basis with men.

The problem, you will have seen, is that only some women will do this. Most of the women in your average congregation simply won't do this, for whatever reason. So if you go into a room of two men and seven women, you have to ask each of the women if she has raised her obligation level before you know whether you can repeat the Amidah, for instance. This is not practical except in very closed communities, and that impracticality was largely why I moved away from being a Roth Jew. Seeing it expressed by the Rambam in the language of halakhic discourse is terrifically gratifying.

The next bit of this thought train is circling round Friday night kiddush in synagogue, and I'm going to put it in another post, following complaints about long posts being hard to follow. (Part 2.)
...God says to Israel “Keep Shabbat, and if you don't, you'll die. Okay, make me a sanctuary; here's how.”

We notice a certain lack of detail, here, rather as if one might say “Make sure to nigglebot the burrahobbit, or I'll kill you. Okay, about my library books...” If this Shabbat is so important, surely some instructions would be appropriate about now?

Rather than paint God as a vicious and arbitrary deity with a staggeringly short attention span, rabbinic tradition interprets the text about the sanctuary as doing dual duty, being at one and the same time a marvellously concise yet deep and complex set of instructions about this all-important Shabbat, yet also serving as an involved and evocative description of the sanctuary-buildng process.

Essentially, if some creative procedure is involved in the latter, it is prohibited in some way in the former, but through the lenses and filters of rabbinic tradition, which makes it much more complicated and, crucially, highly adaptable. Thus, when electricity came on the scene, the argument “They didn't use electricity when they were building the sanctuary, therefore it is okay to use on Shabbat” is not employed. Rather, the lenses and filters, when applied to the question of whether electricity may be used on Shabbat, give two possible answers: Yes and No; orthodox Judaism came down on the side of No, for better or worse.

The twentieth century saw incredible changes, and when asked what the one most significant change had been, a certain octogenerian replied “Electricity.” Electricity is involved in practically everything we do. Ceding control of electricity for a day is surprisingly difficult.

Wednesday night (at the Riverdale Open Beit Midrash, every other Wednesday, plug plug) I was engaged in a discussion about how for us (me and chums, that is) refraining from sanctuary-building activities isn't too awfully difficult, but refraining from using electricity jolly well is.

My contribution today is that not-using-electricity, like nothing else, has given me the ability to sit back and let something go by. Often enough I'll be in an annoying situation where if only I had electricity - Google, or phone, or lights - I could fix it, and since I'm choosing not to use electricity, there's nothing at all I can do, so I have no choice but to sit back and let events take their course, and accordingly I might as well stop fretting about it.

I observe that this carries over into the rest of the week also. Sometimes I'll be in an annoying situation where I couldn't do anything about it even if I was using electricity, and being able to sit back and let it go by is an awful lot more comfortable than getting uselessly worked up. I wouldn't have said this, on account of not wanting to sound horribly preachy, but more than once a companion has said “How do you do that? How do you not let it get to you?” and I suppose this is part of how. Being able to take one aspect of Shabbat and apply it to the general sanctuary-building seems to increase my ability to cope with the whole. This I like, since it is more or less why I engage in religion in the first place.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and nigglebot the burrahobbit. Shabbat shalom.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 10th, 2009 10:55 pm)
Halakha geek props to WF, who did Purim twice, once outside Jerusalem and once inside. Way to go.
From Yeshiva University, a couple of useful reference sheets by R' Josh Flug:

Reading from a Sefer Torah That Contains an Error

Maintaining and Repairing an Invalid Sefer Torah.

This is jolly jolly good for two reasons: first, that he's collected up lots of useful source references and put them together neatly in an outline of the main opinions. Second, it's much better you should hear it from someone with more learning and experience and authority and suchlike than me. :) So print 'em out and take 'em away.
North Dakota's House of Representatives voted 51-41 yesterday afternoon to declare that a fertilized egg has full human rights.

This is a step towards banning abortion: to ban abortion, first you have to define where life begins, and this is what they've just done.

Observe that in order to define life, they've taken the broadest possible set of values - a maximally-inclusive definition. From one perspective, that's fair enough; I can see that one might prefer it over a time period or a hard-to-define growth stage. From a practical perspective, though, it's rather silly, starting with the problem that a fertilised egg is pretty damn hard to detect, and going from there. Working with extremes of scales can give you rather ludicrous results, and that'll happen here. (ETA: look, people are giving examples in the comments! Ludicrosities.)

Bearing in mind that it is just the extreme end of a scale, it plumbs straight into the broader debate of whether you can kill a foetus, so in that sense it's not a particularly significant ruling, just a significantly extreme one. To that debate I will say two things only:

Women have always had abortions and they always will. Making abortion illegal means women will die from botched abortion jobs. This is not civilised. I happen to think it's not civilised to force people to be pregnant, either, but since that's basically the underlying debate we can leave that aside just now.

Second, for the biblical morality crew: Exodus 22:1. If a thief is breaking into your house in the dark, you are allowed to kill him. Period. If it's daytime, so you could have investigated further, you may not, but if it is night, when they are simply an unknown quantity in your space, you can kill them without penalty, no matter what the situation turns out to have been. Think about that.
I nearly ran out of the sermon screaming this week.

Our rabbi is great, and his sermons are unusual - they're actually worth listening to. He's one of the rare people I will make an effort to hear, rather than sneak out to avoid; he doesn't say obnoxious stuff or stupid stuff, and quite often he says really thoughtful, interesting, intelligent stuff. So this week, when he said something that made me go hot and cold and trembly, it was an experience out of the ordinary.

I'm going to tell you about it because it's interesting, but remember that our rabbi is the nicest, kindest, most menschlik person you could imagine, and what happened is the fault of the culture we live in, not the fault of our rabbi. Our rabbi is a simply splendid chap and you should think very highly of him, please.

The subject was the Ten Commandments, and what the mystical commentary the Zohar has to say about "Do not murder," "Do not steal," and "Do not commit adultery."

Basically the Zohar chooses to blur the moral absolutes - i.e. there are many impulses which in moderation are very good things, and in extremis are really really bad. For example: the impulse that leads to stealing isn't actually bad, because Wanting Things fuels things like art and civilisation, just when it goes bad it becomes stealing. Getting inspiration from someone else is a sort of stealing, if you look at it one way, but it's not bad stealing. There's generally moderate versions of things which are good.

When giving a sermon you're supposed to bring an example from real life so that your congregation can connect on a personal level. Our rabbi knows his homiletics, and he told a story about a friend who wanted to lose weight. The friend would be so good denying himself fat or carbs or whatever it was, and then he would crack and eat steak and ice-cream and things and Stop Dieting because he had Failed.

This was the point where I wanted to get up and leave, get out, run away. You see why I was so distressed?

What are the sins in this sermon so far?




Being fat.


Not on purpose, you understand. That wasn't the point of the sermon. Nonetheless, that's what just happened, and it knocked me sideways.

The rabbi is speaking in the vocabulary of our cultural narrative, and we have a very powerful cultural narrative that says eating is a morally dubious act. To diet is to be virtuous; to eat as much as you want is to be grossly inappropriate. We surround ourselves with the message that no effort is too extreme, no sacrifice too great, if thinness will result. To be thin is a constant, all-consuming goal for an enormous number of people.

The cultural narrative, in other words, does seem to put eating on a par with murder, theft, and adultery, so it should come as no surprise that our rabbi chose eating to illustrate a point about impulses which have the potential to be socially destabilising on a grand scale.

For me, this eating-message isn't compatible with the Jewish message. The eating-message says: your body is gross and you are gross for letting it be that way, and if you work very very hard, it might one day be marginally closer to acceptable than it is now. But my Jewish message says: every human being is worthwhile; the world is good; to live is to reflect the Divine glory.

So it distressed me to hear eating being semi-consciously compared to murder. Validating the idea that bodies are inherently repellent by speaking about dieting in a sermon validates the idea that you can only be happy and healthy if you are thin. It validates a corrosive, body-hating, self-hating philosophy.

The stated message of the sermon was this idea that many things are good in moderation but damaging in extremes. I'm okay with this. I accept that too much eating can be damaging. (Likewise breathing too much oxygen.) That's a perfectly reasonable message for a sermon. But it concerns me that the subtle message, the one that is heard by the brain and not by the ears, the one that lurks in the subconscious, was far more sinister.

That was what I heard from the pulpit this Shabbat, and that was why I wanted to run out screaming.

P.S. Please remember to blame the culture and not the rabbi. It's not. his. fault. Okay?

We discovered an error in [our] Sefer Torah this Shabbat. The error...involves a Tav that should be a Hay.

There are two aspects to dealing with this; the theoretical and the practical.

The theoretical side represents hours and hours of study. Before you go anywhere near fixing a Torah, you've got to know why this is a total disaster, for instance:

and you have to learn the several thousand other potential disasters that a sofer has to know how to avoid.

However, the practical side of a fix like this is actually very easy. It's a tiny bit of knife work and a tiny bit of ink work.

I've put in the hours and hours of study, and we live in a digital world. Suppose Esther lives hundreds of miles away from any sofer, and her Torah has this problem. She takes a picture of the problem in the Torah and emails it to me. I can look at it, and chances are I'll know how to fix it. If she knows how to use a knife and ink, I can send her something like this:*

and she can fix the problem. She can be my hands over hundreds of miles. If necessary, we could use a webcam, so that I can see exactly what she's doing.

Of course ideally Esther's community would have a fully-trained sofer. But in the real world, I think this could be the next best thing. It's better than reading from a non-kosher Torah, and it's better than having the Torah languish unused until a sofer happens to come to town.

I think this could happen. I could take a day and teach people how to use these:

and how NOT to use them (can you identify the things there that you must NEVER NEVER use on a Torah?).

In a day, someone is not going to learn all the rules about how to fix letters (what do you do with something like that thing to the right? do you need to do anything?), but I believe they can learn enough that they can make basic repairs under remote supervision.

One might say that letting half-trained people loose on Torahs is a dreadful idea, with unlimited potential for havoc to be unleashed. However, of course one would teach boundaries. Fences around tricky areas. When not to attempt something. The importance of not overestimating one's ability. And it might very well be better than the present state of affairs, where entirely untrained people attempt repairs that are quite horrifying.

* NOTE: Don't try this at home. This is not Torah writing. This is Times New Roman. It would not look quite like this on a Torah.


That's my vision. I reckon I can teach someone to do this in a day, if they've got some arts-and-crafts background. Anyone want to have a bit of a Manhattan guinea-pig day?
I went to two Elie Kaunfer sessions at LimmudNY, both on liturgy. Elie likes liturgy, and it's usually fun to hear people talk about things they like.

We looked at two parts of the central prayer, the 18 Blessings Which Are Really 19. One, the part which asks God to do destructive things to people we don't like, and two, the part about We Can Haz Sakrifis?

This post's about the first one, Shmuel HaKatan and the Curse Against The Heretics - you can download a recording of Elie teaching it here, and the sourcesheet is here. You should listen to it - it's an hour and a bit.

The Curse (or Blessing) Against the Heretics is the one that goes something like this: And for the slanderers let there be no hope; and may all evil perish in an instant. And may all your enemies be swiftly cut off, and the evil sinners soon uproot, smash, throw down, and humble, soon, in our days. Blessed Are You God, who smashes enemies and humbles wilful sinners.

From the sources, it seems Shmuel haKatan didn't like the content of this Blessing much either - he was a bit of a liberal, one who cared about how people were feeling (!). But he said some form of it anyway, and that says to me he had a complicated relationship to this part of the liturgy.

I like this. It says to me that parts of the community have always found this blessing problematic; this isn't new. This is interesting because people don't usually keep doing things that are absolutely against their natures. Stuff that's really really vitriolic I think we tend to tone down over time, and stuff that becomes completely irrelevant we smooth out - since we still have it, the saying of this blessing is accomplishing something we're invested in. Shmuel haKatan and Elie between them prompt me to think about what it might be.

The words themselves are saying something we all want to say, if we're honest about it. There's part of all of us that wants to defend our communal boundaries, and reacts very strongly to people who challenge that. When one's (communal) identity is threatened, saying God, Please Squish People I Don't Like In Nasty Ways is natural enough.

However, I think the experience of saying such words and finding it icky is also doing something important, and that's possibly part of why we're still invested in the blessing. The icky feeling is reminding us that such ideas can be extremely destructive, that being on the receiving end of such sentiments isn't nice at all, that this Isn't A Very Nice Thing To Be Saying. That's why we find this text problematic, after all. We don't want to legitimise those feelings by having them in the liturgy.

From where I am, cutting out the words would, I think, be tantamount to denying that we all feel that way sometimes.* That would be comfortable, but leaving them in is perhaps more useful from a personal/communal moral development perspective. Saying the words and being disturbed by them acknowledges the undeniable sentiment and reminds me that I ought to be aware of it, and I ought to keep it in check. Embracing the ick forces me to stop denying that I have those sorts of defensive feelings, and reminds me that they're not very civilised, simultaneously.

So this helps me combine the icky feeling of those words with my reluctance to prune the liturgy, and helps me see it in a way that's useful to me. This I like very much. Cheers, Elie. :)

* Yes, I know some rites already have this cut. Don't go taking that as a moral judgement of intellectual dishonesty or something. I mean for me, right now, to deal with the discomfort by not saying the words wouldn't be quite right.

I've talked before about why no other dots in the Torah, and I keep saying I'll say more later. So here we go.

There are ten places in Torah where some letters have dots above them, variously styled puncta extraordinaria, nekudot, Extraordinary Points, or just "those dots in the Torah." For reference, the verses are: in Genesis, 16:5; 18:9; 19:33; 33:4; 37:12. In Numbers, 3:39; 9:10; 21:30; 29:15; in Deuteronomy, 29:28.


Dots here serve much the same function as lines like - do in Roman letters; to delete or to highlight. I might use an underline to point out something you wouldn't necessarily have noticed, thus:

Found ermine, deer hides damaged (Wikipedia example of cryptic crossword clue)

and I might use a strikeout to indicate that a word doesn't belong at all, but nonetheless it's saying telling you something.

Dots are used similarly; here's a manuscript of Ketubot 14b. The text should be תנא קמא סבר כל פסול דקרו ליה ושתיק, and you can see how the scribe has started to write איזוהי א, from the phrase תנו רבנן איזוהי אלמנת עיסה later in the text. Realising he was in the wrong place, he's put dots over it (this is much quicker than erasing and redoing it), and continued in the right place:

Here's an example where the scribe was supposed to write רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר ראשון דמעיקרא משמע, but left out the word ראשון - realising this later, he put a dot where it should be, and wrote the missing word in the margin:

I know I've seen a manuscript where dots were being used to highlight particular letters, but I can't quite remember which one just now, so no picture of that one. These are mediaeval, not ancient, but mediaeval's easier to get pictures of - similar sorts of things do appear in ancient manuscripts, see for e.g. Emanuel Tov's Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, pp 56, 214.
more on this... )
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Dec. 25th, 2008 07:54 pm)
Listening to BBC Radio 4, as per usual; yesterday was, of course, the Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge. Later, listening to the Christmas Midnight Mass from Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, and it was an interesting contrast between flavours of liturgy.

I was especially struck by a prayer in the Liverpool service which observed that in 2009 Liverpool will no longer be an European City of Culture, and seemed to be requesting strength to deal with the spiritual darkness which must inevitably follow, but in general it wa noticeably more Reform/Renewal in tone and vocabulary; the congregation speaking in its voice to God and the Church speaking in the same voice to the congregation.

Myself, I prefer more traditional liturgical forms, as represented in the King's College service. In not attempting to match the pace of change outside, they achieve the impression of timelessness, which to my mind is what high liturgy is for; by performing apparently timeless ritual, you connect with the eternal infinite.

In not moulding to the contemporary voice of the congregation, a liturgy heavily influenced by tradition risks appearing remote and uncaring, yes, but that suits me; the eternal infinite is remote and uncaring, it seems to me. The genius of liturgy is to expose its beauty by moving the congregation, meditation-like, from focus on the specific to a transcendental focus on totality.

Practically, the challenge is to elevate divine service sufficiently that it does not become mundane, but to moderate the elevation such that it remains within reach of the congregation. Kings no longer gives service in Latin, it uses English, but it is still quite High Church in style and tone. Very elevated - hopefully very elevating, but perhaps the Liverpudlian cathedral's prayers, coming as they do to meet the congregation where it is, are more within reach.

It's rather lovely how it all matches up. I happen to be writing this about two Christian congregations because they happen to be what're on the radio, but obviously this particular aspect of the liturgy transfers smoothly into the Jewish realms. Right now, I like my liturgy traditional-flavoured, which means largely Hebrew and Aramaic and no European Cities of Culture, but when prayers in the Aramaic vernacular were introduced into the service, they spoke in the voice of the congregation, and talked about Babylonian Cities of Culture.

As they say, בצאתי לקראתך, לקראתי מצאתיך - when I went out to meet you, I found you coming to meet me. We do rather tend to forget that it's a dynamic relationship, not a static one. Not that I'm suggesting anyone should do anything drastic - quite the contrary - but nonetheless, to those who do Christmas, have a good one.
Since I was posting at Jewschool anyway...

Torahs are supposed to be transported with the absolute maximum of utter respect, as befits something that symbolises the essence of a religion.

So, you're delivering a Torah. You're taking it as cabin baggage, since checked isn't very nice. There's only the one of you, since it's not economically feasible for a companion to come with you. You're waiting in the concourse and you need to use the bathroom. What do you do?

Here are the values in play: In an airport, checked baggage doesn't get treated especially well, and if you leave anything unattended, it is liable to be stolen or removed and exploded (and the airport will be evacuated and everyone's flights will be disrupted). Also, a Torah has to be treated with respect in transit. Specifically, it is Very Not Okay to take a Torah into the bathroom, even if it is wrapped up. You may also not treat it like any old package, unless there are safety reasons such as being afraid of thieves.

Posed with the question, one kid in Berkeley decided, "You find a Jew and ask them to look after it..."

Asked if a Jew was necessary, kid said no, her second choice would be a security person, but a Jew would be better.

More... )
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 13th, 2008 04:45 pm)
AyehNormally, words in the Torah look like this. Just the letters - no vowels, no musical notation, nothing. This week's reading is different: there are some DOTS.

But first I'm going to talk about why nothing other than the letters, cos I think it's interesting.

Put on an arch-traditional hat. Now you believe that the Torah was dictated by God, to Moses, on Mount Sinai. God gave Moses the letters; just the letters, nothing else. Later on, the masoretic system of twizzles and oojits (this is a highly technical term) was used in manuscripts so that the Jews would remember how to pronounce the Torah. But we invented those, and it isn't appropriate to add them to God's Torah. A row of letters can have different meanings, depending on how you pronounce it; the different meanings are part of the multi-layered message of the Torah. Vowels remove ambiguity and strip the Torah of meaning. So the Torah, our record of the ultimate divine communication to humankind, stays as it was given.

Now take off that hat and put on a historian's hat. This is making you focus on how the vowel signs weren't invented until a very long time after the alphabet evolved. Probably a lot of people didn't even get to hear about them until decades, or centuries, after they were invented. For a long, long time there would be a cultural awareness that letters basically don't - didn't - have extra marks. Certainly, after a while they are no longer newfangled, and the cultural memory of "vowels didn't used to exist at all" is gone, but add to this a cultural awareness that the sefer Torah is in some way connected to the security of continuity, and you can quite easily see why people might not be inclined to cover the Torah with these newfangled vowel things. It's been replaced by a cultural memory of "this is a text we don't change," with the instinctive corollary "we can't quite explain why, but it makes people feel really weird if we do it, and that's not good for a community."

This, by the way, is an example of how different kinds of Jews can use different language to articulate the same values. Communally, we have a vague kind of instinct that vowels in the Torah aren't good. How we explain that varies, but the practical result is the same; no vowels.

Elav with dotsHere's our dotty verse - Genesis 18:9, where some angels disguised as random travellers have arrived at Avraham's tent during siesta time, and he's bounded out to meet them with abundant hospitality. And: ויאמרו אליו איה שרה אשתך ויאמר הנה באהל

Vayomeru elav, ayei Sarah ishtekha? vayomer, hineh baohel - They [the angels] said to him [Avraham], where is Sarah your wife? And he said, see: in the tent.

Now, the commentators point out that angels are from God, and therefore they know perfectly well that Sarah is in the tent. Why on earth do they ask Avraham where Sarah is?

Because that's a polite way of starting a conversation, they explain. You know - "Hey, Avraham? How're you? What's up with Sarah?" Okay, that's an acceptable answer.

Now, you can see that three letters of elav - to him - aleph, yud, and vav - have dots over them. What does that spell? Ayo. What's the very next word? Ayeh. Ayeh is a word that means "where is she?" Ayo is a word that means "where is he?"

We explain that just like they said "Ayeh," they also said "Ayo." Just like the angels chatted with Avraham and inquired after his wife, they also chatted with Sarah and inquired after her husband.

Which is cute, and a nice extra window into the story. But the rabbis use it to illustrate a point of good manners: when one visits somewhere, they say, one should inquire after the hostess as well as after the host.

Nice for itself, but also awesome for what it's doing with the text. This particular part of the Torah is high on action and low on mitzvot. You can read the text just as an interesting story, and that's nice, but when you mouseover the dots and get the parenthetical storylet, and its associated mitzvahlet of polite behaviour, it stops being just a nice story that you listen to in shul, and turns into an extra thread in the weave that binds Torah, Judaism, and human relationships. This neatly illustrates the idea that the Torah contains more than just the plain text.

If we had vowels, we wouldn't notice the dots. I already suggested that vowels remove ambiguity and take away some of the Torah's layers of meaning. Dots are a hint that there is even more meaning there than we thought, and it would be a pity if we forgot to notice that.