Category Archives: Parshah

Is Kayin the Son of the Angel of Death?

בראשית פרק
ד
: (א) וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־חַוָּה
אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת־קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ
אֶת־יְקֹוָק
:

And Adam knew his wife Eve, and she
became pregnant and she bore Kayin. And she said “I have acquired a
man with God”.

Picking up on the odd formulation that Chava has “acquired a man with God”, Targum (pseudo) Jonathan1 reinterprets the beginning of the pasuk as well. It is not that Adam knew Chava in the classical sense- rather, he knew (or found out) something about her.

(א) ואדם ידע ית חוה איתתיה דהוה חמידת
למלאכא ואעדיאת וילידת ית קין ואמרת קניתי לגברא ית מלאכא
דיי
:

And Adam knew about Eve his wife that she was desired by an angel, and he [the angel] knew her, and she bore Kayin, and she said “I have acquired a man with an angel of God”.

(I hope I have translated the above exactly correctly. Please let me know if I have
not!)

Explaining this, (and you can also find this in Hebrew in your standard edition of Mikraot Gedolot), the Perush Al Yonatan2 says the following:

ואדם ידע את חוה וכו‘: על פי המדרש, פירוש ידע הבין, ממה שלא הייתה דמותו מתחתונים אלא מעליונים, לכך ידע שהמלאך סמאל נתאוה לה ובא עליה, וזהו איש את הפירוש עם המלאך

And Adam knew his wife Eve, etc.”: According to the Midrash, the meaning of “he knew” is that “he understood”, from this that his [Kayin’s] appearance was not from those below, but was from those above, therefore he knew that the angel Samael desired her [Chava] and came upon her 3.

So in this explanation, the angel who impregnates Chava was not just some angel. Rather, this was Samael, who may be identified with the Angel of Death, or the Yetzer Hara/Satan4. He could be citing Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, chapter 21, since his phrasing is similar to it5.

At any rate, I think this is a fascinating interpretation. In it, of course, Shet is the second son of Adam, not the third, and he and the murdered Hevel are only half brothers with Kayin, who is only half human, and may even be the son of the Satan himself (quite logical then, that he is the first to shed blood).

Further, things become even more interesting when we note that this midrash, which says Kayin is the son of Samael, also says that he is the first to do teshuva (see also Psikta DeRav Kahana Shuba 11 and Ramban and Ibn Ezra to Gen. 4:16).

Additionally, in chapter 22, the Midrash notes that all wicked generations descend from Kayin, which is easy to take in a non-literal sense (ie. they follow in his ways, though his descendants were killed out in the flood), or in a literal sense, that those who are evil are acting on the genetics passed on from Kayin (in which case, some of his descendants survived the flood6). If the latter is the true intent, then much of the world (all of it, perhaps?) is descended from Samael.

Notes:

1This commentary was apparently certainly not written by Jonathan Ben Uziel, who only wrote a commentary on Nach, or so says the Hebrew wikipedia:
2I’m not sure who the author is. I think it may have been written in the 16th century by David ben Jacob of Szcebrzeszyn, but please let me know/ comment
if you know otherwise. I won’t be looking into it at this time. See
here on this particular author:
http://books.google.com/books?id=n7w5AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA464&lpg=PA464&dq=who+wrote+the+commentary+on+pseudo+jonathan&source=bl&ots=jFVy8FwZ-e&sig=aUIlkzdxsXQ5Lt39AmM-RB2J878&hl=en&sa=X&ei=mJaDUurVNoLMsQS4sICQDw&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=who%20wrote%20the%20commentary%20on%20pseudo%20jonathan&f=false
3The best that I can tell from a short Bar Ilan search is that “Ba aleha” in the Mishnah appears to be consensual, though in contexts where the behavior is not approved of, or is a sin for some other reason. In Tanakh, the term appears to have to do with battle or land, so that it doesn’t appear in a context which seems to me to be directly relevant. Please let me know if I have misinterpreted, however.
4 See Abot dR. Natan hosafa b to nusach Alef, chapter 4, Bereshit Rabbah, Vayera 56, Shemot
Rabbah Beshalach, 21, Devarim Rabbah,
V’zot HaBrakhah, 21.
5 The same idea appears in chapter 22 there as well.
6 eg. through Naama, as in Midrash Rabbah, cited by Rashi on Gen. 4:22.

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“Eleh Moadei” According to the Gra

by Rabbi David Eisenman

It is by now well-known that the Vilna Ga’on’s learning towards the end of his life focused on reading Tanach (Bible) very closely, and finding in the nuances of the Torah bases for  the entirety of our system of halakha (Jewish law).

One striking instance of this can be seen in the The Vilna Ga’on (Gra’s) revolutionary explanation of a seemingly simple pasuk (verse) in this week’s parshah (Torah portion). Vayikra (Leviticus) 23 is a list of all the mo’adim, the holidays, starting from Pesach and ending with Sukkot.   This list is introduced in 23:2, “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them [these are] the holidays of Hashem, that should be designated as Holy Days.” Verse 3 then continues. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day it is Shabbat Shabbaton …, you may do no work [on it]”   Then verse 4 begins listing the Mo’adim.

Asks the Gra: First, verse 3 seems completely out of context—verse 2 introduces a list of the Mo’adim, a list that begins in verse 4.  Verse 3 is about Shabbat, most certsinly not a mo’ed.  What is that verse doing here?  And second, why is the Seventh Day that this verse mentions— Shabbat—referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton,” and not just as Shabbat?

The  Gra suggest reading verse 2 completely differently from its simple meaning, and reading it in a way that supports the halakha that one may cook on yom tov (holidays), but not on Yom Kippur.

Suggests the Gra:  The six days referred to in verse 3 , days on which work may not be done, refer to the six days during the year which are mo’adim, but in which we may cook: Rosh HaShanah, the first day of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, The first and last days of Pesach, and Shavu’ot.  (Of course, we are speaking of the ideal calendar, not the chutz la’aretz (outside of Israel) calendar, with its second days of each of these yom tovs.)  These  are the six days the Torah is referring to, on which one may work.  The seventh day on which one may not work is Yom Hakippurim, a day on which cooking is forbidden, and a day which is referred to as “Shabbat Shabbaton” (e.g., Vayikra 23:32).

Thus, our pasuk is not at all out of context: it introduces the mo’adim as a whole, and introduces us the basic difference between them and Shabbat Shabbaton. With this explanation in mind, we see that Shabbat is not mentioned at all in this verse.  A great example of how deeply one must dig when reading the Torah.

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Would Rambam Say the Ten Plagues Are Miracles?

Equipped with my very own Little Midrash Says as a child, I did not question that the ten plagues were extraordinarily miraculous. In fact, after existence itself, I think they might just be as miraculous as it gets. Don’t you?

We often like to point out little miracles all the time, because if God gives us a miracle, then He must love us. Rambam, however, insists that nature is a constant state of affairs1, and this is an important backbone for his worldview.

photo

He therefore minimizes how often we say something is a miracle- which we might define as God’s disruptions to the natural order of things- and tells us that all miracles were actually planned and prepared to occur before there any laws of nature, that is, before creation. God sets a timer, the miracles occur and disrupt the natural order of things, and then everything goes back to normal2.

In fact, not only does he limit miracles to things that have been prepared since the Big Bang, but he seems intent on taking away as many of our miracles as possible!

This can be seen from his statement in the Treatise of Resurrection:

“Only in those cases when we are taught explicitly that a particular event is a miracle and there is absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it, only then do we feel forced to admit that it is a miracle.”3

So two things need to happen for us to call something a miracle: We have to be taught clearly that it’s miraculous, and it needs to be impossible to explain it in a natural way. Otherwise, it’s just not a miracle.

So what does this mean for the plagues in particular?

Were we taught they were miracles? Yes. Is there “absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it”?

Well, maybe.

If you take Nahum Sarna seriously- and I hasten to remind you that even Haym Soloveitchik respects him– then perhaps the plagues may be explained in a natural manner. In his “Exploring Exodus”4, which is well written and generally awesome, he gives natural explanations for the first nine plagues, which in his words “can all be explained within the context of the familiar vicissitudes of nature that imperil the Nile Valley…”.

EE

He then begins to detail not only how the first nine plagues are natural occurrences, but how they each naturally caused the following plague! Now cause and affect, science fans, is nature at its very best5.

We will not go into detail here in regards to the natural explanation to each plague, but Dr. Sarna references a paper which explains the theory, and we are forced to ask if this qualifies as a “possibility” of a natural explanation. “Possible” is a pretty broad word, so my guess is yes, but you may know better than I.

At any rate, we then have nine non-miraculous occurrences, wondrous and providential as they were6. The tenth however, remains impossible to explain, and may be viewed as a miraculous plague against the Egyptians that was prepared before time.

To me this raises the question of free will versus God’s ability to see the future, but we’re not going to get into that here. At any rate, this isn’t so much a Dvar Torah, but a way to annoy your friends and family, I guess.

Do so at your own peril, and if you’re looking for a lesson, then perhaps end with “and therefore the natural order of things is truly important to Jewish theology!”

This lesson is always a winner at big meals.

Shabbat Shalom!

1“The world goes according to its custom” – BT Avoda Zara 54B

2Fox, in his superb Interpreting Maimonides (page 274) writes that “This view holds an obvious attraction for Maimonides. It preserves the order of nature, and for him this is of the highest intellectual and practical importance…Even the attested miracles are held by some sages to have been built into the order of the world at creation, and this too serves to reduce the effect of the breaks in the natural order resulting from active divine intervention.” This is based on the Guide 2:29.

3Treatise on Ressurrection. Cited and Translated by Marvin Fox in his Interpreting Maimonides, p..34. See also Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25., Eight Chapters, section 8.

4 p. 63-81

5 He even goes so far as to explain how they naturally would not have affected Goshen, in case anyone out there remembers to ask.

6Though of course providence is quite a complicated topic in Maimonidean thought.

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Do Your Dreams Really Matter? Joseph’s Did…..Kind of

The only two examples of Jews interpreting dreams in Tanakh are of Yoseif and Daniel: both in the courts of non-Jewish kings. To me, this is all one needs to know about Judaism’s stance on dreams; but, this is not to say that Judaism does not recognize the importance of dreams. Both Avraham and Yaakov anticipated and dreamed of the day when their progeny would become a nation and worship the one God. Yoseif, on the other hand, dreamed of the day when he would rule his family. Either this dream is the product of an egotistical youth not yet weathered by the vicissitudes of life, or the Torah is submitting to us a crystal clear window into Yoseif’s heart and vision.

In truth, even if one puts aside his dreams, from his youth, Yoseif was a leader. This can be seen from the fact that the Torah states that Yoseif brought negative reports regarding his brothers to their father Yaakov. While one can slander Yoseif and call him a tattle-tale (even according to the Midrashim that claim the brothers only seemed to be sinning), in truth he was acting as his father instructed. Yaakov commanded Yoseif to bring these reports: “And Israel said to Yoseif: ‘Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, are they not?’ Come, I will send you to them.… Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word” (37:13-4). True, the Torah calls the reports bad. But, that is just describing the nature of the reports: the brothers were acting improperly, hence they were bad. In fact, the three biblical stories regarding the brothers, independent of Yoseif, taken literally are: 1: Shimon and Levi executing all the males of Shechem, 2: Reuvein sleeping with his step-mother, and 3: Yehudah marrying a Cnaanite and frequenting prostitutes. Not exactly stories that evince righteousness. Yoseif’s reports could not have been much worse than the Torah’s reports! Also, Yoseif did not go out to the pasture with his fellow shepherd brothers. Instead, he remained with his father. It must be that he stayed behind because he was part of the managerial staff. In fact, some commentators explain that the ketonet passim (the garment that Yaakov bestowed upon Yoseif that enraged his brothers) was a garment that indicated his choice status among his brothers. Also, his father sent him to check on their well-being and that of the flock. He was a leader even in his youth.

Throughout Yoseif’s life, everything he did was blessed. But, as opposed to the forefathers who have direct interactions with God, and the occasional miraculous intervention, like Esther HaMalka, God is never found openly in Yoseif’s life. In fact, the only time God is even mentioned is when Yoseif unilaterally attributes interpretations of dreams to Him. While God may be the source of blessing, the nature of God’s interaction in the world from the Yoseif perspective is indirect. In fact, not only is Yoseif the dreamer, but he is also the realizer of the dreams. In the following, I will argue that Yoseif is a highly skilled and intelligent socio-economic political leader who always ensures that he fills leadership vacuums, all the way from the top of his life until he dies at the age of 110. The dreams come true because he ensures as much.

The most important catalyst in Yoseif’s life, the cause of much family strife and personal promotion was his dreams. While it is not hard to understand the root of Yoseif’s youthful dreams, how are we to understand Yoseif’s ability to interpret the dreams of the baker, of the butler and of Pharaoh? How did he know how to interpret dreams in the first place? Does God ensure that Yoseif’s interpretation comes to pass or is his prowess a level of prophecy? Really, one needn’t appeal to either of these options to understand Yoseif’s supernatural ability. Let us start with Yoseif’s first successful dream interpretation as his personal dreams were solely interpreted (mostly correctly) by his father and brothers, without him ever uttering a word either way regarding their meaning. While in jail for allegedly raping Potifar’s wife, Yoseif interpreted two separate dreams: one indicating that the offender would be vindicated and returned to his previous post in three days time, and the other sentenced to death also in three days. While Yoseif’s degree of precision and accuracy in his interpretations seem to prove he was blessed with a unique gift, there is actually more taking place behind the scenes than simple dream interpretation. For example, Pharaoh’s birthday – the only birthday mentioned in Tanakh – was well known to be the annual ‘Day of Judgment’ for those incarcerated in Egyptian jails. In other words, independent of the two dreams, Yoseif already knew that the two would be judged in three days time. Furthermore, Yoseif was the head foreman of the jail for many years, possibly as many as twelve. It would be silly to misjudge Yoseif and claim that he did not know, at least, the basic rules of Egyptian jurisprudence. Before the two stood before Pharaoh for judgment, Yoseif already knew their future. It is quite possible that the two also already knew their own fates as well, but as many incarcerated individuals remain optimistic, and hope that the standard punishment need not apply to him, for some reason or another, they were unable to see their fates for what they truly were: sealed. Here, Yoseif is not a prophet, not a mystical dream interpreter, but simply a man who can ‘ro’e et hanolad,’ foresee the obvious consequences, when others are blinded by subjectivity.

When we analyze Yoseif’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, we find many suspicious elements ingrained in Yoseif’s interpretation. First, before Pharaoh even has a chance to comment on its validity or worth, Yoseif continues, apparently as though it were part of the interpretation: “Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt…. so that the land will not perish in the famine” (41:33-6). Part of the interpretation was the establishment of a new economic vizier who would be the savior of the country and region. Now, is there any reason that this new appointment should be an element of the interpretation? No one asked Yoseif for advice! In truth, Yoseif was establishing a leadership role for himself through the interpretation. And Pharaoh and his servants fell right into his hands.

If it is true as we have hypothesized so far, that Yoseif’s gift to interpret dreams is more a consequent of his intellectual abilities than his spiritual capabilities, then how do we account for the famine? How did Yoseif know that there would be one? First we should note that Yoseif announced that there would be seven years of abundance and seven of famine. But did that ever happen? Rashi explains that only two years of famine ravished the land. Once Yaakov arrived in Egypt, the famine instantly ended. There is no textual reason to deny this claim. So, while there were seven years of abundance, the seven years of famine never materialized.  Nonetheless, everything else went so well up to then, there was no reason to hold Yoseif accountable for this failing. In fact, we could be sure that Pharaoh and the Egyptians were quite happy that there was a sudden cessation to the famine. Also, the verse states: “The earth produced during the seven years of abundance by the handfuls” (41:47), there are two ways to read this: 1. A tremendous amount was collected. But, when the Torah wants to say ‘a lot,’ it usually uses a word or a phrase like ‘uncountable’ or ‘without number.’ 2. Accordingly, the fact that it says “handfuls” seems to imply that the human element is what made the amount so much. The Egyptians made sure to gather every grain, every drop, during those years of abundance, and that is what made it into years of abundance.

But, how could Yoseif ensure that there would be years of famine following these years of abundance. The Torah commands that the Israelites leave their land fallow every seventh year, to uphold the Shmittah year. As the Torah commands not only for the perfection of the individual/society, but also for the benefit of surroundings, the Torah must be telling us that working a land for seven straight years will damage the land. As Egypt controlled the Levant during Yoseif’s reign, the Egyptians were able to overwork the land for seven years, ensuring that all the Egyptian and surrounding lands would be depleted of the soil nutrients for a normal crop in the eighth year and not produce a harvest, thereby guaranteeing a year, or more, of famine. This explains why Yaakov can command his sons to take of “the land’s glory,” including “balsam, honey, wax, lotus, pistachios and almonds,” (43:11) as these items would be unaffected by overworking the land.

If it is Yoseif that implemented a plan that would lead to himself lording over others, why was it necessary for him to torture his brothers? Some commentators like pointing out that Yoseif actively attempted to make sure that every aspect of his dreams come true. This is intellectually repulsive. Why would he care? He was already on top of the food chain, he did not need to rub their noses in it. Furthermore, as Rashi points out, Yoseif’s mother was dead so it was unlikely that Rachel would be prostrating before him any time soon. In order to understand why Yoseif mentally tortured his brothers, we must look at the formation of Bnei Yisrael. As is made clear in several places, a nation, in the Torah is started by twelve men, so when Yaakov fathered twelve sons, clearly that was meant to be the beginning of the nation. This is in stark contrast to Avraham and Yitzchak who both fathered two main sons, one of which would officially pass on the tradition, and the other lost to the nation. But, were the twelve sons meant to be the nation or were the grandchildren of Rachel meant to be the Israelites? Let us remember that Yoseif had two sons and Benjamin had ten: twelve in total. Clearly, the Torah is telling us that Yoseif and Binyamin might have just been another rung in the family tree before the nation was formed, like Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov was. Obviously, had this situation materialized, the other ten tribes would have been thrown into the group of potentially important, but in the end failed offspring of forefathers, like Yishmael and Eisav. Also, the Midrash points out that Yoseif should have had ten more sons, but lost them when he desired Potifar’s wife. This Midrash also means to convey the idea that, as opposed to Rachel’s offspring of both Yoseif and Binyamin representing the start of the nation, Yoseif could have been one of the four forefathers, and the Israelites would have been his twelve sons.

Yoseif was testing his brothers to see whether they were so far gone that they had to be excluded from Klal Yisrael or was there still hope for them. When Yehuda took responsibility for his brother, and openly displayed his penitent heart, it was made clear once and for all, that it was unnecessary to jettison the other ten brothers from Klal Yisrael. Had Yoseif not tortured the brothers, they would not have had the chance to prove themselves and become re-included in Klal Yisrael.

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The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Gold from Copper

 By Yitzchok Tendler


Catchy title, huh? Despite what you may have thought, this is not merely a misleading gimmick to get you to read my article. In fact, if you stick with me here, you will get practical, step-by-step guidance on how to make gold from copper. So, if you are bummed about not winning the powerball last week, this is  the next best way to become millionaire.

Before we start on the good stuff (please don’t skip ahead), let me begin with a caveat: I take no responsibility for any injuries that may be sustained in following this advice. I have never tried this personally, nor do I know anyone who has; I am simply recording a supposedly ancient Jewish source which tells you how to make gold.

Yes, I know that this smacks of alchemy’s age-old quest to turn lead into gold, which, by the way, may actually have succeeded. So, relax and give this a shot.

Exhibit A  

Our first source is a verse in last week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, which names a chieftain of Esau named Hadad, and then adds some information about his spouse “…and the name of his wife was Meheitav-el, the daughter of Matred, the daughter of Mei-Zahav” (Genesis 36:39).

What kind of name is Mei-Zahav, literally translated as “waters of gold”? Was this Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter? (ha ha, just cracked myself up!) Let’s start with the more tame approaches:

Rashi – “‘mei’ is really ‘mahu – what is it?’. Meaning, he was so wealthy that gold was like nothing to him”. Nice, fits well and makes sense.

Onkelos – “They were goldsmiths”. Wonderful. See Targum Yonasan ben Uziel and Targum Yerushalmi for approaches that contain interesting variations of these two opinions.

Now, let’s jump to the fun part:

Ibn Ezra – After quoting some of the above, he writes that “some say that this is a hint to the art of making gold from copper, but these are “divrei ru’ach (vain, empty words)” (emphasis added).

The point is, that Ibn Ezra is quoting some unnamed biblical commentators who believed that this dude named Mei-Zahav (who we know nothing else about) knew how to make gold from copper. Ibn Ezra, ever the Jewish rationalist of the Spanish renaissance, dismisses this claim.

Exhibit B

A very fascinating man named Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein lived and studied in Lithuania from 1860-1941. He was the son of the great Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein, Rabbi of Novardhok and renowned author of the monumental halachic work Aruch Hashulchan. Additionally, his uncle was the famed “Netziv”, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshiva of the flagship Lithuanian yeshiva, Volozhin.

In addition to coming from such illustrious Rabbinic stock, the younger Rabbi Epstein, despite being a bookkeeper by profession, was a noted Torah scholar in his own right. There is almost no synagogue or yeshiva in the world that does not carry his work “Torah Temima”, a highly informative and innovative commentary on Talmudic and Midrashic texts which he placed alongside the biblical source that spawned them. Despite some minor controversy, Torah Temima remains highly popular among the learned masses of Jews from across the spectrum.

Less well known, however, is another commentary he wrote on the Torah called “Tosefes Bracha”. This work is not formatted the same way as Torah Temima, and instead is a standard-design freestyle commentary on the Chumash. Unlike Mekor Baruch, Tosefes Bracha has not been reprinted any time recently and is fairly difficult to find (in fact, it isn’t even one of the 40,329 seforim freely available on hebrewbooks.org! It is available on another site, though, here).

In Tosefes Bracha, commenting on the aforementioned verse, things begin to get very, very interesting. Rabbi Epstein first quotes the aforementioned comment of the Ibn Ezra, who, you will recall, quoted and then dismissed as “divrei ruach” other commentators who claimed that Mei-zahav refers to the art of making gold from copper. It seems to be fairly straightforward: Ibn Ezra is dismissing this likely superstitious, weird, and irrational assertion as total hogwash.

Rabbi Epstein, however, is not so sure. “I am unsure”, he writes. “If this ‘ru’ach’ of Ibn Ezra is really serving to dismiss the very possibility of making copper from gold. Perhaps it is merely dismissing the likelihood of this biblical name serving as an awkward reference to that possibility”. In other words, maybe Ibn Ezra simply doesn’t believe that this biblical name is a hint to this “art”, but he does believe in the real possibility of making gold from copper!

Conceding that this sounds like a far-fetched theory, Rabbi Epstein explains why, in fact, it is not so crazy:

“What brought me to this doubt is what I found in a Sephardic sefer called Nifla’ot Ma’asecha (printed in Livorno, Italy), where the author quotes a manuscript he found which describes how to transform copper to gold”.

This comment makes this source sound like a very ancient source: it is an obscure Sephardic book which quotes an unnamed manuscript. In truth, however, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha is a book of Segulot (spiritual remedies) written by Aleppo born Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Chai Shalom Hamawi, who died in Iran in 1888, when Rabbi Epstein was around eighteen years old. This Rabbi Hamawi, who, according to mytzadik.com wrote no less than 39 books, seems to have been a prolific writer on the topic of Segulot.

Getting back to Rabbi Epstein, his comment in Tosefes Bracha ends with this final line: “And if you want to know the details, see my book Mekor Baruch, Volume 3 chapter 19, subsection 6. It isn’t too difficult.”

Wow, very exciting! Now we just have to flip to exhibit 3, which is the passage in Mekor Baruch  referenced in Tosefes Bracha.

Exhibit C

Mekor Baruch is a very fascinating book. It is four volumes of stories, anecdotes, and Torah thoughts on every imaginable topic. It loosely serves as an autobiographical work which contains very interesting information on Rabbi Epstein’s life, that of his family (notably his uncle, the Netziv), and is a wonderful window into Eastern European life. In chapter 6 of volume 3 he relates several stories about a particular Magid, an itinerant preacher commonly found in Eastern Europe. This Magid apparently had a very difficult life, and complains bitterly to Rabbi Epstein about his plight. His grueling profession had him on the road for many months at a time, delivering homilies to audiences that were not always friendly.

Beyond everything else, what bothered the Magid the most was that he had once read in a book the secret to transforming copper to gold. At the time he had paid little notice to it, but as time went on and his personal troubles abounded he began to imagine that this secret could be solution to all of his problems. He had been so close to wealth and riches but, alas, he had forgotten where he had read this secret so he could not reference it, follow the instructions, and make his fortune. This pained him enormously.

Rabbi Epstein, in his vast and eclectic library, owned a copy of the aforementioned work, Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, source of the quoted manuscript containing this secret. He turned to the Magid and said, “I’ll make you a deal: I’ll show you the source containing the secret of ‘transforming copper to gold’ if, upon completing the process, you agree to split the profits with me 50-50”.

At first the magid didn’t believe Rabbi Epstein; after all, he had spent years searching high and low for this source and asking seasoned scholars, all to no avail. However, once the Magid was convinced by the assembled that Rabbi Epstein, in addition to possessing a virtually photographic memory that retained all information it absorbed also wasn’t one to be “pulling his leg”, his astonishment began to give way to more practical matters. he began bargaining and negotiating for greater shares of the anticipated gold. In truth, Rabbi Epstein writes that he himself didn’t believe and trust the efficacy of this alleged kaballistic process. However, once he recalled the Ibn Ezra quote from Vayishlach he began to entertain the possibility that this may actually work. He still was very skeptical, but, for fun, engaged in negotiations with the magid, eventually settling on a deal that gives 30% to Rabbi Epstein and leaves 70% for the magid. Additionally, rabbi Epstein promised not to show this secret to anyone else, lest he generate “competition” in the gold market.

Once the deal was struck with a formal handshake, Rabbi Epstein took the Magid privately to show him the sefer containing the coveted secret of “turning copper to gold”. The Magid, almost delirious from joy imagining the enormous potential for him and his family, promised to begin the process as soon as he returned to his hometown.

Unfortunately, the Magid didn’t live long enough to realize his dream; immediately upon returning home he  contracted the illness from which he eventually died. Rabbi Epstein writes that he forgot this entire story, until he began gathering information and sources for Mekor Baruch. Now, he writes, since the Magid is no longer alive I am absolved of my oath of secrecy and I can share this secret for the benefit of the public.

And now, finally, here is the actual text of  the manuscript quoted Nifla’ot Ma’asecha, by Rabbi Avraham Shalom Chai Hamawi:

“Take nine chicken eggs and place them in a pot. Cover the pot, and then place it under a putrid garbage pile for a minimum of 30 days. Next, open the eggs and you will find that each one now contains a worm. Transfer everything in the pot to another pot, and wait as the worms begin to grow and eat everything in the pot. Eventually the worms will begin eating each other, until just one large worm will remain. Next, burn this worm, but be cautious to stand at a distance due to the pungent odor. You will be left with the ashes which should be gathered and stored. Afterwards, take pure copper and melt it down, after which some of the powder should be added. You will now have gold.”      

Rabbi Hamawi leaves off with a cryptic line: “blessed is he who knows if these words are accurate”.

After publicizing this information Rabbi Epstein writes that he gives his blessing to anyone who chooses to step up and try this relatively “simple project” – to change copper into gold.

 

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Dina: Yaakov’s Tragic Daughter or Iyov’s Wicked Wife? Chazal’s reaction to Dina’s Rape

Guest Post by Esther Shulkes

 

For girls learning Chumash, Dina is at first an amazingly exciting personage.  Boys have countless male characters to admire and model themselves after.  But for girls, Dina stands alone.  Dina is the first Biblical character introduced as a young girl, 1 the one daughter, among twelve boys. Sadly, our sense of excitement is short-lived.  Of course, by the time Dina makes her appearances in Vayeitzei and Vayishlach, we are all too familiar with the kidnap-the-pretty-female theme.  But with a difference.   Sarah was taken by Pharaoh, but returned unscathed, taken again by Avimelech, and returned, again, unscathed.  Rivka was almost taken, but not quite, and Yaakov’s wives managed to survive untouched; suddenly BOOM!  Dina: kidnapped, raped, (‘rescued’?!) never heard from again. 2

One might, perhaps, assume that this new, harsher reality could be attributed to a generational decline in hashgacha.   It seems that Hashem was not inclined to get noticeably involved with Yaakov’s children as He had on behalf of the Matriarchs.  Yosef, for instance, certainly suffered greatly, with little (if any) miraculous intervention.  This would certainly bolster the possibility that Dina was not starkly singled out for suffering, she was just in a generation with greater hester Panim.   However, a generalization like this simply does not suffice, for, while Yosef certainly knew his fair share of suffering, his end was glorious enough to make us feel that it was all somewhat worth it.  Moreover, we are offered the comfort of knowing that Yosef got married, had two wonderful boys who were granted tribal status, saw his father again, etc.   For Dina, there is no comfort.   Dina was dragged into Hell, and though she was dragged out of there by Shimon and Levi, it was too late.  And her Torah presence, and probably her life, were basically over.

In an effort to search for some closure, some healthy or righteous way to approach her shocking fate, let us first note the reactions presented in the Chumash.   First we turn to Yaakov.  As Dina’s father, he is expected to have a powerful response, to do some incredible, miraculous, superhero thing, like taking one servant who is as strong as 318, and somehow saving his one beloved daughter.   But, no.  He is silent: ‘vehecherish Yaakov ‘ (Genesis 34:5).  This is not the same as being told Yaakov said nothing.  It is a reflexive word.  He actively made himself stay silent.  3 On the other hand, two of Dina’s brothers, Shimon and Levi, took rather a different tack, slaying every male in the city, including the king and prince, and taking their sister home.  And upon being scolded by their sainted father, they strongly defended their wild vengeance, stating, ‘Shall he deal with our sister as a harlot?!’ (34:31).

Having now established the widely differing reactions of silent acceptance or brutal demand for vengeance and ‘justice’, we may now turn our attention to chazal’s reaction to the horrifying and bewildering Dina episode.  Indeed, beyond distressing comments such as ‘Dina went outside, she was a stray-out- of- bounds-er like her mother, Leah (and hence this was the consequence) ’4 , there is an irritating lack of response.  Indeed, the rabbis seem to focus more on Shimon and Levi’s misdeed in killing out the city than they do on Dina’s tragedy itself!   Do Chazal not care? Instead of written reaction, all they seem to offer is a simple balm for our curiosity: whom did Dina marry? One opinion in the Gemara suggests that she married her brother Shimon, and another says, no, she married the famous Iyov. 5

Now, setting aside the problem that one opinion holds that Iyov never really lived, and others place him in a slew of random generations, 6 one must wonder what basis the rabbis have for making such a statement at all. The unhappy source offered for linking Dina to Iyov is based upon the following:  In Sefer Iyov, Iyov has lost his children, his possessions, and finally, his health.  His nameless wife turns up, and witnessing his torture, cries, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse G-d, and die” (2:9).  Iyov responds to his wife, “You speak as any vile woman would speak.  (Ke’daber Ahat haNevalot Tidabeiri ) Shall we accept the good at the hand of G-d, and not accept the bad?” (2:10).   The Gemara explains that this same word was used concerning the incident of Dina, “Ki Neveila Asa B’Yisrael” (for a vile act was committed among Israel) (Genesis 34:7).

Having thus established a word-link which offers either a vehicle or clue regarding a suggested link in Tanakh, the Gemara has now bolstered its claim that this is a strong interpretation.  However, while we have discovered the roots of this idea, we have yet to establish its goal or purpose.  Indeed, at first glance this is rather an angering equation.  Because the word vile was used to describe what happened to Dina, she should be plugged in to play the part of a vile woman?! 7

Simply put, Chazal are not merely playing a word recognition game, nor marrying Dina off to a probably imaginary person, and certainly not chas veshalom implying that Dina had turned vile, upon emerging from the Shchem episode.   Rather, Chazal are tacitly demonstrating their reaction to the Dina story.  The point is not that this conversation is a hint that Dina was married to Iyov.  Actually, this lone conversation between Iyov and his wife is the crux of the matter, the very reason Chazal ‘marry Dina off’ to Iyov in the first place.  Chazal are purposefully inserting her into this crucial conversation between Iyov and his wife, because Iyov is the ultimate hero of the story in which Bad Things Happen to Good People.  By saying the wife talking with him is Dina, Chazal are giving Dina a chance to vent as they feel a person in her place naturally should.  Dina, as the wife of Iyov, screams out: ‘curse G-d!’  And then Chazal offer Dina an answer:  Iyov’s response.  ‘Are we to accept the good from G-d and not the bad?’ Indeed, this implied rabbinic take on how to deal with such horror is not far off from Yaakov’s reaction.  He stayed silent.  In other words, he accepted the good with the bad.  And, while Iyov’s response is not emotionally satisfying, it is comforting to discover that Chazal recognized Dina’s plight, felt her pain and equated it with the ultimate story of unmerited loss, testing and acceptance.

  1. This is not counting Rivka, who, whatever her age, is introduced as a potential wife, rather than in the role of a young daughter.
  2. Hmmm…apparently she did not have the protection afforded when married to a tzaddik?
  3. Compare to Aharon when his sons were suddenly, horribly, taken from him.
  4. Rashi on Genesis 34:1
  5. Gemara  Bava Basra 15b
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kochos of Tumah receive their power from Kedusha.  Therefore, tuma always chases after kedusha.  It was her kedusha that he lusted after and wanted to contaminate.
  8. Worse, if a source I saw quoting Rav Shimon Shwab is accurate, impurity chases purity, which is why Shchem went after Dina. And then “the traces of this contamination showed up many years later when Dina’s tzaddik husband, Iyov, held steadfast to his belief in Hashem despite agonizing punishment, and Dina spoke negatively. Iyov’s answer to her was that her words have their basis in the Nevala, in the tumah of Shchem that he put into her.”  In other words, not only did Dina go through such a nightmare, but she was apparently spiritually contaminated, according to this reading of Dina being cast as Iyov’s wife.   Ouch!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Equality Before God

I wrote this for Elana Sharp’s weekly Dvar Torah email list. Contact me if you’d like to be added.

In the beginning of Netzavim, we are given a list of the people “standing” before God, about to enter the covenant with Him. This list includes all elements of Jewish society, starting with “Your heads…every man in Israel:” and “Your children, your wives, and the stranger who lives in your midst…” (Deut. 29:9-10).

In sum, all of the people are present before God, “from your wood-choppers to your drawers of water”.

Now, isn’t that an odd way to summarize that everyone is present, to say from wood-choppers to drawers of water? Wouldn’t you say from the “heads of the people” to the drawers of water, or from the wood-choppers to the elders? Why does the Torah choose as examples two kinds of people who are most likely in the same rung of society, and a relatively low one at that!?

The answer is quite simple, and provides for us a great lesson in Judaism: Before God, there are no social classes, only servants who equally stand before Him.

Indeed, we are taught that all levels of society were present to enter the covenant, and that is important to note, so that we can understand that truly everyone was there. However, the Torah summarizes what “everyone” is for us: from the wood-choppers to the drawers of water, we are all equal before God, and “anyone” may be considered “everyone”.

This means that we each have the equal responsibility to serve God, and that no one may look to another level of society, higher or lower, to serve God for them. As individuals we are each obligated completely in this regard.

Of course, on the flip side, we see that we all receive equal credit for accepting the yoke of the Mitzvot upon ourselves, and we should not think that there will be someone else who has a greater standing before God than we do.

In this time of year, it is particularly relevant to remember that we are all standing before God, in a covenant with Him, so that we may focus on what is required of each of us.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova!

Note:

In Parshat Bea’alotekha a similar point is made, when Joshua runs to Moses and tells him that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp (Num. 11:26-29). Joshua tells Moses “Kela’em”, which is translated variously as “stop them”, “imprison them” (Rashi), or “Kill them”. Moses, however, responds to his student “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all of the people would be prophets, and God would place His spirit on them!”

Not that Joshua was necessarily against the idea that all Jews should be prophets. Indeed, the traditional interpretation was that Eldad and Medad were prophesying that Moses was going to die and Joshua would take over, and this offended Joshua, who was jealous of the honor of his teacher. Presumably, we are taught this interpretation because the Rabbis assume that indeed, of course it would be good if all of the people would be prophets.

 

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Why Does God Tell Moses to Look the Wrong Way?

Yesterday we read Va’etchannan, which begins with Moses’ rejected plea to enter the Land of Israel. While Moses is not allowed to go, God does tell him to “Go up to the top of the Pisga, and lift up thy eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and behold with thy eyes, because you will not cross the Jordan (river)” (Deuteronomy 3:27)

The question (which someone pointed out to me in shul), is why does God tell Moses to look the wrong way? Israel is to the west of where Moses is standing, and even to look north(west) and south(west) may make sense. But why east? That is simply the opposite direction from where Moses should look!

We will suggest 5 answers to this question, but of course this list isn’t exhaustive, and you may find none are acceptable to you.

1) God tells Moses to look in all 4 directions as this is merely an expression for “look everywhere/around”. It does not literally mean he should look east, but rather that he should look as much as he likes. This would appear to be a sort of concession to Moses. God will not let him in, but will let him look.

2) It is an angry expression, meaning “look everywhere”. This is actually not quite the same. In this understanding, God tells Moses “Look as much as you want, but you will not cross the Jordan”. In this reading we understand God to be angry with Moses for asking, as He “was angry, and would not hear me”(v.26). Perhaps according to this reading we may understand that Moses was in fact allowed to look at Israel the entire time, and did not need special permission for this. After all, why would he? Therefore, when he asks to go in, God tells him he may continue to look all he likes, but that’s all he’ll get.

3) Perhaps we might look for a deeper lesson in this strange command to look in the wrong direction. I’ll split this suggestion into two for Mystics and Rationalists.

a) Mystical Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him about the status of the east. Just as the land of Israel (to the west) is inherently holy, so too the land of Jordan (to his east, which two and half tribes have recently decided to settle in) is inherently holy as well. Thus it is exactly like the rest of Israel.

b) Rationalist Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him that just as Jordan’s land (eastward) is not used for mitzvot, and is therefore not holy, so too Israel will not be holy if it is not used for the performance of mitzvoti.

4) My wife mentioned to me that she was once taught that God in fact transported Moses to Israel in a vision, and then told him to look around in all four directions. I have not found the source for this, but this obviously would answers our question as well.

To be honest, my immediate reaction to the question was to shrug, and suggest the first answer listed here. The classical commentators (or at least all the ones included in the Torat Chaim Chumash) don’t address this question at all, so I’m inclined to think they agree with me that it’s just an expression.

While this question isn’t the strongest one in history, I think it’s worth looking at because how we answer it tells us a little bit about how we each read Tanakh (Bible), and of course, because of the general value of learning.

Let me know if you can find the source for the last suggestion!

Shavua tov

iThis ties in nicely with the explanation (BT Sotah 14A) that Moshe wanted to enter Israel so that he could perform the mitzvot that are specific to it, which is cited by Abravanel and Chizkuni on 3:25.

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Balaam’s Talking Donkey: What Did We Just Read?

Yesterday, in Orthodox shuls, we read the Parsha of Balak (Num. 22:2-25:15), which includes the famous story of Balaam’s talking donkey. What exactly is the meaning of this story, and what does the Torah wish to teach us by bringing it? For anyone who needs a short review, the story goes something like this:

Balaam has just received some messengers who represent Balak, king of the Moabites. These messengers have been sent to hire Balaam to curse Israelites, so that Balak and the Moabites may defeat them and drive them out of the land.

However, God tells Balaam not to go with the Moabite messengers and not to curse the Jews, “for they are blessed” (22:12).

So, Balaam tells them he can’t do it.

But Balak really wanted Balaam to come, so he decided to send even more important messengers to hire the powerful magician. This time, God tells Balaam that he “may go with them”, but that Balaam must do whatever God commands him to do (22:20).

Presumably excited that God has (inexplicably) changed his mind, Balaam decides to go with the messengers to the camp of Balak, where he will think up a good curse for the Israelites.

So, Balaam saddles up his donkey, and goes with the Moabite dignitaries, intent on cursing the Jews.  This of course goes completely against God’s explicit instruction for him not to do so earlier, but hasn’t God changed His mind?

And this is where the story gets interesting.

On the road, Balaam’s donkey sees an angel of God with a drawn sword, standing in front of them. Not being a complete fool, donkey swerves to avoid the deathly angel, until Balaam hits her to turn her back onto the road. Two more times the donkey sees the angel in front of them with its sword drawn, and stops to avoid death. Two more times Balaam beats her.

Finally, God “opens” the Donkey’s mouth, and she berates Balaam for hitting her. “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?!”

“You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you!” Balaam replies angrily.

The Donkey points out that she has always served Balaam well, and asks “Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

“No”, he admits.

Then God comes to reveal the dangerous angel to Balaam, and likewise berates him for beating the donkey. God tells Balaam he sent the angel to “come out as an adversary, for the errand (of cursing the Jews) is obnoxious to me.”

“If you still disapprove, I will turn back.” Balaam offers.

But the angel of the Lord said to Balaam “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.”

So Balaam continued with Balak’s dignitaries, still intent on cursing the Israelites (Num. 22:21-31).

Story Explained:

In order to understand the meaning of this story, we must first look at Balaam himself, and examine how he sees the world1.

Balaam most likely sees the world as a pagan, and his relationship with God reflects this. In the Pagan worldview, God is not completely in control, like in the Jewish view. Rather, He and all gods are to be viewed as subject to fate, magic, and the influence of the world around them, so that God, or the many gods, may be beaten in a confrontation if the circumstances are right. Perhaps Balaam may use magic, or perhaps he may outsmart the gods, but he believes they can be beaten.

When we read the story with this in mind, we can now understand each step. God tells Balaam not to go, before saying later that he may go. God threatens to kill Balaam, but does not do so.

God is fickle like the other gods; Balaam may think to himself, so who knows why He contradicted Himself? Maybe it was magic, or fate.

In each step, Balaam assumes he may escape from God, that God is not all powerful, and that eventually he may outsmart God, and successfully curse the Israelites.

However, God wishes to inform Balaam that the world is not this way, and that in fact, He has not contradicted Himself. God tells Balaam not to go, but also allows him the free will to make his own decision2. This is misunderstood by Balaam as a sort of victory in his contest against God. Somehow, he has fooled God into thinking he will not curse the Jews.

God then allows the donkey to act with more insight then Balaam. There is a dangerous angel in the road, but Balaam is oblivious to it. God grants the donkey the ability to see the angel in order to mock Balaam. “You think you can outsmart me? You are not even as smart as your donkey!” Balaam should have understood that he had not beaten God, but rather God has granted him the free will to continue on his way.

The fact that there had been an entirely different view point from Balaam’s from the beginning (in the form of the deathly angel) should have tipped Balaam off to the fact that he was completely misunderstanding the situation. However, he does not get the hint3, and continues to view himself as being in a struggle with God. He may believe he faces an uphill battle, but still thinks he can win.

Why include the Story?

Now that we see the story of the donkey is brought to mock Balaam (and it does so well), we may wonder why it is brought in the Bible. Why is it relevant to us if Balaam’s an idiot?

However, with our explanation in mind, we may argue that the story is included in the Torah as a polemic against the worldview of Balaam and the pagans. While Balaam thinks he may compete with God in a contest, the Jewish reading of each of God’s encounters with Balaam is obvious. God is in control as He has always been, and He instructs Balaam not to go with the dignitaries. However, God has also granted free will, so if Balaam wants to go, God will let him.  Balaam misunderstands his freewill as the possibility to “beat” God.

When we sin, it is not because we have “beaten” God, but rather because the Almighty allows us to sin. To believe that we may contest the will of God is so foolish, the Bible tell us, that even a donkey knows better.  This then, is the lesson of the story of Balaam’s talking donkey4.

  1. The following explanation of the pagan worldview comes from “The Religion of Israel”,by Yehezkel Kaufmann (translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg) pp. 21-59 (Schocken Books,1972).  See also JPS Torah Commentary to Numbers, by Jacob Milgraum, on this passage, in particular on Num. 22:19 “what else” and verse 23 “Balaam beat the ass”. Relevant as well may be his comments on verse 28, “The Lord opened the ass’s mouth”.

2. However, see R. Samson Rafael Hirsch on Num.22:20 for a different interpretation of God’s words here. He

holds not that God has instructed Balaam not to go, and then seemingly given permission, but rather that God

has really give Balaam permission to go, but not to curse the Israelites.

3. In fact, Balaam acts throughout this process as though nothing strange has occurred at all, and donkeys accuse

him of things all the time. His stubbornness is key to his ability to continue on his mission.

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