Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Secretly a Chossid

I am not a mystic. I don't really buy into chassidus, kabbalah, or tzaddikim. However, on Friday nights I have an opportunity to walk back from shul by myself. It is a good twenty minute walk back to my house. I usually walk alone. And I usually talk to G-d.

I don't like organized prayer. A long time ago, there was a dispute among the Sages about whether prayer should be set into a rigid structure or left to each individual. The rigid structure opinion won the day, for many valid reasons. But it doesn't do it for me. The walk does.

There is a concept in Chassidus called hisbodedus, seclusion. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov believed that it was a key aspect of connecting to G-d. I truly believe he was onto something. Here's what he had to say:

The only way to return to the roots of one's being and merge in the unity of God is through nullifying the self. One has to efface the self completely until one becomes wholly merged in God's unity. The only way to achieve this state of self-transcendence is through hitbodedut. By secluding oneself and giving voice to one's inner thoughts in the form of personal prayers to God, one is able to remove all negative traits and cravings to the point that one nullifies all materialism in oneself. Then one is able to become merged in the Source.

True hitbodedut is practiced in the depths of night, at an hour when everyone is free from their toil in the material world. During the day people are so busy chasing after the material world that it distracts the spiritual seeker from attaching himself to God. Even if he personally is quite detached from the material world, the mere fact that everyone else is then busy chasing after the vanity of the world makes it very difficult to attain self-transcendence at such a time.

Hitbodedut must also be practiced in a special place outside the city on a "solitary path" (Avot 3:5) in a place where no-one goes. For in a place where in the daytime hours people are busy chasing after the vanity of the world, even though they may not be there at this hour, it is still a distraction from hitbodedut, making it impossible for the spiritual seeker to attain the state of total communion with God.

For this reason it is necessary to go alone at night on a solitary path to a place where no one goes even by day. There one should seclude oneself and empty one's heart and mind of all worldly involvements until one attains the state of true self-transcendence and communion.

Likutey Moharan I, 52

Monday, May 29, 2006


I don't know why I thought of the short story by Pushkin, The Undertaker, about a certain funeral director who after getting drunk at his neighbor's comes up with the idea of inviting his customers for a big party at his house in their honor. I guess I thought about it because I was also thinking about what it would be like to invite all the people whose blogs I read and those who read my blog to get together in person for some type of shindig.

What would that be like? Will there be loud arguments when people meet face to face, shouting, insults? Will people form little cliques like they do in the blogosphere? Or perhaps people will be really friendly. Maybe there will be a lot of hugging and laughing, and exchanging pictures, and making plans to hang out later. Perhaps maybe a few people will meet and fall in love?

I guess we'll never know.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Summer Fun

This afternoon we put sunscreen on the kids and let them run around outside. Unfortunately, the giant cottonwood tree in the middle of the block is covering the entire block with cotton. In about 5 minutes the floating cotton stuck to the sticky sunscreen making the kids look like they were just tarred and feathered.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Defending the StupoDoxtm

Getting back to the Rambam and rational Judaism. The question that is on my mind is how the early Israelites conceived their relationship with G-d. In many ways, the Rambam is dealing with that question in the Guide. He devotes a lot of time to addressing the notion of describing G-d and understanding G-d.

In his latest series of posts, Godol Hador seems to separate Jews into "rational thinkers" and the StupoDoxtm. A lot of people probably find this insulting, but it is definitely part of our Mesorah to split up the population into castes, with the consequence of defining classes that are closer to G-d and those that are less close to G-d.

The first to set up this caste system is G-d himself. The Cohanim are the ones entrusted with most aspects of the sacrificial cult, with the Levites one rung down the ladder. The Israelites are furthest away from G-d. Later on, the Pharisees establish similar type of distinction between the Sages and talmidei chochamim and the laety, or am ha-aretz.

So how would a typical Israelite or am ha-aretz perceive G-d? I would guess in very concrete terms. This is how G-d himself lays things out in the Torah. What are the benefits of obeying G-d's commandments? Good harvests, success in war against your enemies, prosperity, abundant progeny. These are concrete things that regular joes strive for. If G-d wanted the Jews to truly become a nation of priests, implying people who have a closer relationship with G-d than the rest, and the relationship with G-d required a more philosophical introspective capacity, then why would that not be the primary rewards outlined in the Torah? In the famous passages of reward and punishment, why not couch it in terms of "You will become better human beings and learn true happiness and elevate yourself to the highest possible level" versus "You'll have great harvests and your sheep will multiply and you'll defeat all your enemies, etc..."

Now at this point you may be saying - "Well, but the people were not ready for this type of abrupt change. They just left Egypt and they needed to be gradually weaned off their abominable and naive ways...". Except that if that were the case, why does it seem like the framework for progressing from these primitive understandings never fully exposed. How long does it take for a people to grow spiritually, two generations, five generations? Even into the Talmudic period, the split between the intellectual elite, and the simple folk was never something that was healed.

And so getting back to the split between the Godol Hadors and the simple folks, it seems like by trying to bridge this gap now, you are going against the grain of thousands of years of status quo.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A guide to today's perplexed - still perplexed!

I finally got a chance to read this book by Kenneth Seeskin. This is a book that [edit:GODOL HADOR and] some people on Godol Hador's blog recommended as a good introduction to the main themes of the 178 chapters of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed. I enjoyed the book, and it served it's purpose, but frankly, I am still as perplexed as I was when I started.

Maimonides gets a lot of traction in the Orthodox Jewish circles which would like to take a more rationalist (naturalist) approach to Judaism. It is easy to see why Maimonides is their mascot. A main thrust of his philosophy is to say that G-d is a natural part of the universe, and so He doesn't intervene to make miracles happen. The miracles may be kind of baked into the Universe, almost like time bombs waiting to go off, or many of the descriptions of the miraculous events are allegorical.

In general, Maimonides assumes that there is a rational explanation to the world, and that G-d wants us to be rational, and that being rational, especially a thinking person, a philosopher, is the highest form of existence.

Now, I know that reading a 140 page introductory book does not make me an expert on the Rambam. I also can appreciate the extent of his genius and his intellectual honesty. What is not clear to me is why people assign any truth value to his theories.

As far as I can tell, Rambam arrived at his ideas about G-d, creation, the content of the Torah, the nature of revelation and prophesy through no other means than thinking about them and coming up with a hypothesis which seemed the most reasonable to him. But this does not lend any more legitimacy to him than to any of the other great philosophers, e.g. Baruch Spinoza, or Thomas Aquinas. They all do the same thing. They propose an understanding of the universe based on their intellect.

In terms of truth value, I would almost be inclined to believe the Kabbalistic idea of knowledge handed down from generation to generation of a specific Divine revelation. At least there you have an element of Divine, whereas in Rambam's case he relies purely on human reasoning. Human reasoning without the ability to test your hypothesis seems like a losing cause. In general, I believe that in most areas today, one cannot ascertain how something works by just proposing a reasoned argument. As a matter of fact we are constantly surprised by discovering that many things work in ways that are compeletely the opposite of how one would expect them to work.

Any lurking philosophers out there are welcome to comment and elucidate!

Deja vu all over again - not!

I was about to post another example of a weird coincidence, but as I started thinking about it, I realized it was no weird coincidence at all. I wonder how many of these "weird coincidences" in my life could actually be explained away without supernatural attribution?

Anyway, yesterday I somehow clicked my way to a Wikipedia article on the Profumo affair. I'd forgotten about all the sordid details of that little imbroglio, and so I read the article with some interest.

So when this morning in my bathroomlibrary I picked up last month's Atlantic Monthly, and saw an article on Profumo, I was stunned by this serendipitous stumbling on two articles on Jack Profumo in the span of 24 hours.
However, as I thought about this more, I realized that the article in the Atlantic was an obituary type of article, and so in retrospect, I am guessing the Wikipedia article floated up to their front page due to Jack Profumo's recent death.

The girl in the chair is the infamous Christine Keeler, who caused Jack Profumo's downfall, posing for Lewis Morley on an (imitation) Arne Jacobsen chair.

Here's the same chair hiding the charms of another sexy model.

Monday, May 22, 2006

It's Matan Torah Time...

so I couldn't resist...

Friday, May 19, 2006

And now for something completely different

Compare this Gemara (Shabbos 33b Soncino Translation)

R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, 'How fine are the works of this people!15 They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.' R. Jose was silent. R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.'

With this dialogue from Monty Python's "The Life of Brian":

We're giving Pilate two days to dismantle the entire apparatus of the Roman Imperialist State, and if he doesn't agree immediately, we execute her.
Cut her head off?
Cut all her bits off. Send 'em back on the hour every hour. Show them we're not to be trifled with.
And of course, we point out that they bear full responsibility when we chop her up, and that we shall not submit to blackmail!
No blackmail!
They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers.
And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.
And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.
Yeah. All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?!
The aqueduct?
The aqueduct.
Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that's true. Yeah.
And the sanitation.
Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?
Yeah. All right. I'll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.
And the roads.
Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads--
Medicine. COMMANDOS:
Huh? Heh? Huh...
Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.
And the wine.
Oh, yes. Yeah...
Yeah. Yeah, that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
Public baths.
And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.
Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Brought peace.
Oh. Peace? Shut up!

The Yellow Badge of Hatred

UPDATE 5/19/06 6:14 pm CST: Reports now coming in that this story may not be true.

A friend of mine asked me to post this:

In 1941, Nazi Germany required Jews to wear yellow stars, purple badges for certain non-mainstream religions, pink for homosexuals and much more. We all know what happened next.
Enter modern day Iran. In accordance with recently passed legislation, and awaiting almost certain approval from Iran's "Supreme Guide" they will be required to don yellow armbands. Christians will wear red, Zoroastrians another color. The most complete story I saw was here. The story hasn't cracked the top stories on Google News, and probably won't. To become What can you do? Raise hell - here's how:

1) Tell everyone you know - email everyone, make sure it's the number one water cooler topic (sorry to bump you off the top Elliot Yamin, but there you go).

2) Email or call your representatives in Congress to apply whatever pressure they can on Iran, the UN, and any other mover and shaker they can grab by the collar. Email or call the President - yes, you can do this (whether your a fan or not). Find out who and how here.

3) Internet news is bigger than ever - go do a search for "Iran Jews Yellow" (don't include the quotes) on Yahoo's News site, Google's, MSN's and click on the links to the stories. Why? A lot of how they rank news importance is by popularity. We might just be able to push the story up.

4) If you don't see this story on the front page of your newspaper tomorrow morning, call and tell them just how you feel about that, and write in a letter to the editor to boot.

5) If you don't see this story on the news today on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX News or whatever channel you watch see item #4.

6) If you have a favorite talk-radio program, call or email it in - these people have enormous reach. They should be screaming bloody murder by Monday.

We need to get people talking about this now, or we'll soon be talking about who was more efficient, Hitler or Ahmadinejad?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Leaving Home

This was inspired by reading this post.

In the years leading up to 1979, the Soviet Union and the United States were negotiating the SALT II treaty, limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As part of the atmosphere of detente, the Soviets allowed Russian Jews to emigrate out of the Soviet Union. However, the treaty talks fizzled, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter retaliated with a grain embargo and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and the stream of Russian Jews leaving dried up almost immediately. My parents were lucky that ours was literally one of the last handfuls of families to have left the USSR in the fall of 1980.

It was early November in Kiev. It was somewhat cold, but no snow. Most of our friends and family had already left the country, but a few remained to wish us farewell and escort us to the Kiev train station. I recall getting on the train - it was evening. My mother was sobbing. She kept saying to me "Look around, try to remember this place, you'll never see it again!" I was embarrassed and dismissive. How could I forget the place where I grew up. I'd lived there almost ten years. Of course she was right. The memories fade gradually, and you don't notice how all the details disappear. You are left with this phantom feeling that you still remember things well, but if you try to actually put your mind to it, you realize it is an illusion.

We were on the train headed to the city of Chop (Cop) on the Czechoslovakian border. We got there in the morning and had to find a place to stay until our paperwork could be approved by the customs officials. Although technically we should have already been approved to leave, this was a little extra bit of bureaucratic torment that the regime wanted to inflict on us.

Eventually we made it through customs and at that point we were no longer on Soviet soil. Even as a kid, I recall how weird that felt. It is almost like being let out of prison after many years. You don't know what to do with your freedom. The prison, for all its horrors, created a structure for your life and it molded your thoughts and actions in a constrained and predictable way. Anyway, we were on our way to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia.

As a ten year old kid I was pretty excited. The countryside was beautiful. In some ways it wasn't different from the Ukranian side, but it was cleaner, there were more cars, and the houses had a more gingerbread fairy-tale look to them. The towns also were more western looking - there were advertisements for various products from Germany and other European countries. In Bratislava, we changed trains for Vienna.

In 1973, members of the Syrian backed terrorist group "Sa'iqa" took hostage a train of Russian Jewish immigrants at the Czech-Austrian border. In 1979, a bomb exploded near the Central Synagogue in Vienna. In order to protect us, soldiers with very serious submachine guns were posted in every car. I thought their guns were the coolest thing I'd ever seen. In retrospect, I think my parents were scared out of their minds. I seem to recall the soldiers were Israeli, but maybe they were from the UN.

We arrived in Vienna in the evening. The city at night is indescribably beautiful. It is all lit up and the light reflects in the Danube creating a truly magical feel. Unfortunately, due to the threat of terrorism, we were rushed off the train and put on buses that took us out of the city to a temporary holding facility. It was an old building, at least a century old. I am not sure where it was or what purpose it used to serve. There was a 20 foot concrete wall set up around it, and armed guards at the entryway.

We were greeted very warmly by member of HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) as well as the Israeli Immigration people. We stayed in Vienna for about a week. Those people who decided to go to Israel would go there straight from Vienna. The rest of us, who were applying for refugee status in either the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand would move on to Rome.

In Rome, we were initially put up in a pensione in the center of the city. We were free to go anywhere we wanted in the city and so we became regular tourists for a couple of weeks: the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain, the Forum or even a slow walk along the bank of the Tiber. In Rome we also celebrated our first Chanukkah (in retrospect, probably at a Chabad house).

While our paperwork was being processed at the US Embassy in Rome, we, along with everyone else were told to find an apartment outside of Rome. Sometimes it could take up to several months to gain entry into the US. Most people found places in the small towns outside Rome. Ostia (the ancient Roman harbor about 20 mi outside of Rome) was a very popular place for the Russian Jews. We found a place in Ladispoli, another resort town right on the shore of the Mediterranean. Even though it was December, the weather was very mild, and during the day it was sunny and often in the 60's. It was a great place to be. We celebrated the New Year 1981 in Ladispoli, in a pastel colored building, next to the sea, with no snow to be seen. Two weeks later, we were on a Pan Am flight from Fiumicino Airport in Rome to Kennedy International in New York where we were met by my uncle, and then another two hours to Chicago, where we were met by the rest of our extended family.

Twenty five years later, it is a distant memory. It is a part of me, but I don't talk about it very often and frankly - there aren't too many people that would be interested. The experience of the Soviet Jews, at one point a popular cause, is thankfully no longer a pressing issue. My oldest boy likes to hear these stories. So it is a good thing that all this happened to his father so many years ago now. Otherwise, I'd have no good stories to tell :)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Quote of the Day

And the quote of the day...

BIRMINGHAM -- A Democratic candidate for attorney general denies the Holocaust occurred and said Friday he will speak this weekend to a "pro-white" organization that is widely viewed as being racist.

Larry Darby concedes his views are radical, but he said they should help him win wide support among Alabama voters as he tries to "reawaken white racial awareness" with his campaign against Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson.


Darby, founder of the Atheist Law Center and a longtime supporter of separation of church and state, said he has no money for campaign advertising and has made only a few campaign speeches.

Tyson said aside from his views on race and the Holocaust, Darby also has publicly advocated legalizing drugs and shooting all illegal immigrants.

"I am astonished as anyone has ever been that anyone is running for public office in Alabama on that platform," said Tyson.

Friday, May 12, 2006


In the comments to my post on Rodenbach, the bracha "hatov v'hameitiv" was mentioned by dbs and Ezzie. Not knowing much about this, I decided to look around the Web.

Here's a sampling of what I found: - Can't we Jews just have a SIMPLE, little drink?
Weekly Halacha - Parshios Vayakhel / Pekudei

By Rabbi Doniel Neustadt Rav of Young Israel in Cleveland Heights

A discussion of Halachic topics. For final rulings, consult your Rav

The Blessing of Hatov V'hameitiv over Wine

Wine - the beverage which "gladdens the heart" and is used to sanctify and celebrate the Shabbos and yamim tovim as well as milestone events, has an elevated status in Halachah. While all foods and beverages require a blessing before they are consumed, wine - under certain circumstances - requires another blessing in addition to borei pri hagafen. Whenever two or more types of wine are drunk at one sitting, the blessing of hatov v'hameitiv, the One Who is good and does good, should(1) be recited to praise Hashem for the good fortune He has bestowed upon us.(2)

There are, however, many conditions which must be satisfied before this blessing may be recited. Indeed, there are so many complicated and conflicting rules that many people never recite this blessing at all,(3) while others do so only in the presence of a Torah scholar who can instruct them on the spot.(4)

In order to understand why this blessing has generally fallen into disuse, we will list some of the points disputed by the poskim concerning the conditions under which hatov v'hameitiv is recited:

* Is there a minimum amount of wine that must be drunk?(5)

* Does the second bottle of wine need to be of superior quality?(6)

* Is the blessing recited only at a meal?(7)

* Does it matter where the second bottle of wine was located when the hagafen was recited over the first bottle?(8)

* If, for some reason, hagafen must be recited over the second bottle also, is hatov v'hameitiv recited as well?(9)

Some poskim rule stringently on these and other questions, with the result that it is nearly impossible to satisfy their conditions for reciting hatov v'hameitiv. According to the stringent opinions, the blessing of hatov v'hameitiv is recited only under the following improbable circumstances:

* if one recited hagafen over wine during a meal [or at Kiddush before the meal], and

* he is sharing that meal with at least one other person [his wife or children or guests](10), and

* at least two people at the table drink a revi'is of wine, and

* at least two people at the table were aware [when they recited hagafen] that another bottle of wine will be served later on during the meal, and

* the second bottle of wine was not on the table or even in the house when they recited hagafen, and

* while the first bottle of wine was still on the table [and still contained some wine] a second bottle of wine is served, and

* the second bottle of wine is clearly superior in quality(11) to the first bottle, and

* at least two people are planning to drink a revi'is from the second bottle, then

* they should both recite hatov v'hameitiv before(12) drinking from the second bottle.

It is obvious that it is highly unlikely for such a confluence of circumstances to occur, and thus, people who follow the stricter opinions rarely - if ever - recite hatov v'hameitiv.


But in those communities where the lenient opinion is followed, people routinely recite hatov v'hameitiv. According to the more lenient view, hatov v'hameitiv may be recited so long as the following conditions are met:

* if one recited hagafen over wine, and

* he is sharing this drinking session or meal with at least one other person [his wife or children or guests], and

* at least two people at the table drink any amount of wine, and

* while the first bottle still contains some wine, a different type of wine is drunk by at least two people at that table, and

* the different kind of wine is not inferior in quality or taste to the first, then

* they should both(13) recite hatov v'hameitiv before drinking from the second bottle of wine.

According to the second, more lenient opinion, it makes no difference where the second bottle of wine was located at the time that hagafen was made on the first bottle of wine. Even if the second bottle was in the house or right on the table when the first bottle of wine was drunk, hatov v'hameitiv is made over the second bottle.

Alternatively, even if no one was aware that a second bottle of wine would be served [and therefore a second hagafen would have to be made over the second bottle of wine], hatov v'hameitiv is recited(14) in addition to hagafen.


As the above discussion shows, the stringent and lenient opinions are mutually exclusive, for if one follows the stringent view, he will have neglected to recite a blessing according to the lenient view. If he follows the lenient view, he will have recited a brachah l'vatalah according to the stringent view. While either opinion may be followed, one can help avoid getting himself into a questionable situation by bearing in mind the following:(15)

* To avoid this problem entirely, refrain from drinking two types of wine at one sitting.

* If one is aware that more than one wine type will be served and one of the wines is clearly superior to the rest, he should place all of the wines on the table before ha-gafen is recited and recite ha-gafen over the clearly superior wine. Ha-tov v'hameitiv is not recited over the other wines. By doing this, one does not run afoul of either the stringent or lenient view.

* If none of the wines is clearly superior or inferior to any other, one could follow the stringent opinions and refrain from reciting ha-tov v'hameitiv, or one could follow the lenient opinions and recite the blessing. If he follows the lenient opinion, he should remove one of the bottles from the table, recite hagafen, and then return the second bottle and recite hatov v'hameitiv.

* If a superior or different wine is used for the cup that is drunk after Birkas ha-Mazon, ha-tov v'hameitiv is not recited over that wine. This is because the fourth blessing of Birkas ha-Mazon, in which the words ha-tov v'hameitiv are recited, covers this cup as well.(16)

* Contemporary poskim debate as to whether a drink of grape juice followed by a drink of wine would require ha-tov v'hameitiv on the wine.(17) But all agree that drinking grape juice after wine is considered drinking an inferior type of wine and no hatov v'hameitiv is recited.

* The halachos mentioned above apply when a different type of wine is used for the second cup of the Four Cups on the Seder night.18


1 Magen Avraham 323:1 writes that reciting this blessing is obligatory, not optional.

2 See Mishnah Berurah 175:2 who explains why this particular text was chosen.

3 See Minchas Yitzchak 9:14.

4 The custom among Sefaradic communities; Harav M. Eliyahu, quoted in Vezos ha-Berachah, pg. 171.

5 Many poskim do not mention a minimum amount, but some do; see Da'as Torah 175:1, Kaf ha-Chayim 175:10 and Masgeres ha-Shulchan 49:1.

6 This issue is disputed by the Rishonim, and Shulchan Aruch 175:2 rules that so long as the second wine is not inferior to the first, hatov v'hameitiv is recited. But other poskim are hesitant about this; see Aruch ha-Shulchan 175:5, Kaf ha-Chayim 175:12 and Minchas Yitzchak 9:14.

7 Most authorities do not require a meal, but Kaf ha-Chayim 175:28 opines that some Rishonim allow hatov v'hameitiv to be recited only at a meal.

8 Mishnah Berurah 175:4 rules that hatov v'hameitiv is recited only if the second wine was not in the house at the time hagefen was recited. But Mishnah Berurah contradicts himself in 175:5 and 175:14 on this point.

9 Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 175:2 quotes Rav Akiva Eiger's opinion that whenever hagefen is recited, hatov v'hameitiv is not, but he contradicts himself in Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 175:3; see Minchas Shelomo 1:18-6, note 6.

10 who are not limited in the amount of wine that they are allowed to drink.

11 Superiority is not measured by one's personal preference but by what is generally considered superior wine (oral ruling by Harav S.Y. Elyashiv, quoted in Avnei Yashfei 1:36).

12 If they failed to recite the blessing before partaking of the second wine, they may do so afterwards, so long as some wine remains in the second bottle; Mishnah Berurah 175:15.

13 Or one of them recites the blessing and the other fulfills his obligation by listening and answering amen (O.C. 175:4).

14 First hatov v'hameitiv and then hagefen; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 49:9.

15 Based on Mishnah Berurah 175:4,5,14 and Vezos ha-Berachah, pg. 171.

16 Mishnah Berurah 175:2.

17 See Avnei Yashfei 1:38 and Vezos ha-Berachah, pg. 172, who quote differing opinions as to whether non-alcoholic hagefen beverages are included.

18 Sha'ar ha-Tziyun 175:3. However, one should avoid reciting hatov v'hameitiv during the Seder night meal; Mishnah Berurah 175:2.

------------------------------------------------------------------------- Weekly-Halacha, Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Neustadt, Dr. Jeffrey Gross and The author, Rabbi Neustadt, is the principal of Yavne Teachers' College in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also the Magid Shiur of a daily Mishna Berurah class at Congregation Shomre Shabbos.

Treif Crude

To the south of the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (my Alma Mater) lie the South Farms. In addition to providing the rest of the university with a reminder that before it was a great engineering school it was a great agricultural school through the pungent aroma of fertilizer that wafts northward throughout the warmer months, it is still a vibrant research facility for many of the large agricultural concerns in the world.

So it was with great pride that I read on the news wires about this exciting breakthrough!


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Elixir of the gods

I am on a quest to find out if Rodenbach beer is kosher. Rodenbach is an amazing Belgian brown ale, and was a rare treat prior to me keeping kosher as it is not readily available in the States.

You may say - but isn't all beer kosher? Typically - yes. However, Rodenbach is stored in wooden casks. Oftentimes, these can be old wine casks, which would make the beer not kosher.

I am not sure how to go about this investigation. I am pretty sure that no American certification agency would know anything about it - it is not a very common beer.

I am thinking that I may email the Chabad in Belgium and see if they know anything about it. Any ideas from my readers are appreciated!

Meanwhile, please enjoy this picture of the Great Synagogue of Brussels.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Love of Life

I am a big fan of Jack London. For some reason, except for "The Call of the Wild", he is not terribly popular in this country - perhaps because of his socialist politics.

Anyway, one of his short stories, "The Love of Life" is about a man, a gold prospector, who is stranded in the Yukon wilderness, and manages to eventually get rescued. Here's how it ends:

Three weeks afterward the man lay in a bunk on the whale-ship Bedford, and with tears streaming down his wasted cheeks told who he was and what he had undergone. He also babbled incoherently of his mother, of sunny Southern California, and a home among the orange groves and flowers.

The days were not many after that when he sat at table with the scientific men and ship's officers. He gloated over the spectacle of so much food, watching it anxiously as it went into the mouths of others. With the disappearance of each mouthful an expression of deep regret came into his eyes. He was quite sane, yet he hated those men at meal-time. He was haunted by a fear that the food would not last. He inquired of the cook, the cabin-boy, the captain, concerning the food stores. They reassured him countless times; but he could not believe them, and pried cunningly about the lazarette to see with his own eyes.

It was noticed that the man was getting fat. He grew stouter with each day. The scientific men shook their heads and theorized. They limited the man at his meals, but still his girth increased and he swelled prodigiously under his shirt.

The sailors grinned. They knew. And when the scientific men set a watch on the man, they knew too. They saw him slouch for'ard after breakfast, and, like a mendicant, with outstretched palm, accost a sailor. The sailor grinned and passed him a fragment of sea biscuit. He clutched it avariciously, looked at it as a miser looks at gold, and thrust it into his shirt bosom. Similar were the donations from other grinning sailors. The scientific men were discreet. They let him alone. But they privily examined his bunk. It was lined with hardtack; the mattress was stuffed with hardtack; every nook and cranny was filled with hardtack. Yet he was sane. He was taking precautions against another possible famine -- that was all. He would recover from it, the scientific men said; and he did, ere the Bedford's anchor rumbled down in San Francisco Bay.

I am not well. I am the man in the story, except I am not sure I will recover. I make a good living, but I am constantly paranoid that it will not be enough, that all the stuff I have will disappear and I will not be be able to support my family, that I will be deemed a failure, that we will wind up on the street.

This is not completely baseless. Paying for my kids to go to Jewish dayschool is about the same as buying a new Lexus every year and pushing it off a cliff. My wife is not in a position to get a job and wont be for some time. My parents are old, not healthy, and will probably need a good bit of financial support soon. And the industry I am in is not really flourishing.

However, this fear is irrational and it is destroying my happiness, my wife's happiness, my health. But I cannot seem to escape it. I meditateobsess on it all the time. To add insult to injury, I seem to not be able to take steps to improve my situation. Like the man in the story who knows that the food is there, but cannot stop hoarding it. This is not good.

In general, I am a pessimist by nature. Gorbachev once said that life is : You're born, you suffer, you die. I tend to agree, but this course of thinking that I am on is beyond the pale of reason. I am causing definite bad things to happen by worrying about potential bad things happening. Yet I cannot stop.

I am not really comfortable sharing. I am not a "touchy-feely" guy. As a matter of fact, y'all should pretend that you didn't read this.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Why do we kvetch?

"Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism."

Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex

Les Noms de Plume

I've been thinking lately about the fact that the blog world's anonymity allows you have the perverse pleasure of running multiple blogs under different names, where a person can have radically different personalities. Perhaps these can be multiple facets of the same person, perhaps they are completely fake personalities.

The same person can post as a radical liberal on one blog and a reactionary conservative on another at the same time. One can pretend to be a pious Chassid or a depraved libertine. One could even stage cross blog petty fights and arguments between these writers when they are ultimately written by the same person.

None of this is new, although I don't think anyone has taken it as far as I imagined above. But in the spirit of uncanny coincidences of thinking and reading in my life, here is a quote from an online biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer:

Singer published his work under various pen names. Foverts featured his short stories under the name Yitskhok Bashevis, while his popular journalism appeared under the name Y. Varshavski, his political commentary under D. Segal, and his gossip and advice columns under G. Kuper.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The "L" word

I guess I am finally fed up with the negative connotations of the word "Liberal" that are almost taken for granted these days.

Take for example comments from this post:

kahaneloyalist said...

Baalot Teshiva, what exactly do Reform Jews mean when they talk about Tikkun Olam? From my interaction with them it seems to mean embrace whatever liberal cause is currently popular.

12:05 PM

Ba'alat Teshuva said...

Kahane Loyalist--That is my experience as well. Global warming, welfare, civil rights, etc.

When did concern about global warming, human welfare, and civil rights become perjorative terms. Look, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the specific policies as proposed by various political parties are not flawed either in concept or execution, but how can a person be indicted these days for saying that you embrace civil rights, or eradication of poverty, or concern about the environment? "Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof!"

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Inheriting the wind...

Science has promised us truth. It has never promised us either peace or happiness.

-Gustave Le Bon

Check out this really thought-provoking post from FleurDeLis28.

A trip to the Orient

Last night I took a trip to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago with a former co-worker. Though I didn't see any fellow bloggers there, I did get a chance to check out some really interesting archaelogical artifacts.

The Institute has exhibits on Sumeria/Mesopotamia, Assyria, Israel/Canaan, The Hittite Kingdom, Persia, Egypt and Nubia.

A couple of observations. I saw receipts for tax payment, letters from a police chief to investigate a death, a schoolboy's notebook where he practiced writing. In many ways, the societies of 3000 years ago were not that different from ours.

I impressed my companion by being able to read some rudimentary Hebrew and Greek. I was amazed how anyone could figure out the tiny cuneiform writing that covers a lot of the Sumerian artifacts. It seems impossible.

Lastly, for those who read the Godol Hador - he had a post on the Enuma Elish recently, and of course visiting the museum, I could not help but think of it. One of the exhibits featured a set of incantation bowls, much like the one pictured here. The writing is usually a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew. These were buried in various parts of the house to ward off evil spirits such as the one pictured in the middle. This particular bowl mentions Lillith, who is a very colorful character in Jewish mythology.

Here is a translation of one of these bowls.

You are bound and sealed,
all you demons and devils and liliths,
by that hard and strong,
mighty and powerful bond with which are tied Sison and Sisin....
The evil Lilith,
who causes the hearts of men to go astray
and appears in the dream of the night
and in the vision of the day,
Who burns and casts down with nightmare,
attacks and kills children,
boys and girls.
She is conquered and sealed
away from the house
and from the threshold of Bahram-Gushnasp son of Ishtar-Nahid
by the talisman of Metatron,
the great prince
who is called the Great Healer of Mercy....
who vanquishes demons and devils,
black arts and mighty spells
and keeps them away from the house
and threshold of Bahram-Gushnasp, son of Ishtar-Nahid.
Amen, Amen, Selah.

Vanquished are the black arts and mighty spells.
Vanquished the bewitching women,
they, their witchery and their spells,
their curses and their invocations,
and kept away from the four walls
of the house of Bahram-Gushnasp, the son of Ishtar-Hahid.
Vanquished and trampled down are the bewitching women --
vanquished on earth and vanquished in heaven.
Vanquished are their constellations and stars.
Bound are the works of their hands.
Amen, Amen, Selah.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Israel Meme

OK. I'm it.

I've never been to Israel. Something has always come up and although I always wanted to go in the abstract, I never got my act together. So, I guess the best I can do is give you my imaginary trip to Israel.

The Airport

I get off the plane. It will probably be pretty hectic with a lot of running around trying to figure out where to go. After going through customs or security or whatever, I am met by my father's relatives who drove down from Tzfat to meet me. They are Breslover Chassidim. There is a lot of hugging, kissing, laughing. It is a little awkward since they don't speak English, and my wife and I don't speak Hebrew (really) and so I have to do a lot of translation from Russian, the lingua franca.

Based on knowing Israelis in the US, I am sure that it will be a crazy place. My wife and I are northern types: shy, quiet, reserved.

The Kotel

I am overwhelmed with emotion. I break down and cry. I lean against the stones and try to feel G-d's presence. I pray.


I spend Shabbos in Kiryat Breslov in Tzfat. I daven with the Chassidim. I am surrounded by the hills and fields where the mystics of 500 years ago went out to welcome the Sabbath bride.

The Land

I try to see as much of the country as I can. I take in Sinai, and the Judean desert, the hills and valleys, the Jordan river. Every place is significant. Every place ties me back to the stories in the Tanach.


It is time to leave. An emotional goodbye. A million impressions that will last forever.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Gates of Talmud

Last night my wife and I went to the first night of a 5 part program at my kid's school. It was a double header - first, conversational Hebrew followed by an Intro to Talmud class.

The conversational Hebrew was painful. I could understand quite a bit (about 1st grade level at the school :) ), and can read fairly well, but my speaking was terrible. My mind would constantly switch to Spanish mode since that was the last foreign language I learned (in high school). Other people had similar problems - there was a lot of Spanish/French filler being uttered inadvertently.

Then, the Hebrew class was over and a few brave souls stayed for the Talmud intro. I had to stay since my wife was one of the organizers of this thing.

My dance with the Talmud goes back a few years. Of course, like many people I was intrigued with this mysterious work that has such a hold on Jews and gentiles alike. I bought a copy of the Steinsaltz edition Ketuboth and tried to work through it myself. After a little while I gave up.

When we moved about four months ago, I joined a Friday night study group (chaburah) where we go through topics in Jewish law, starting with the Talmud and going through the major commentators. This is an extremely painful little diversion since everyone else in the group is much more advanced than me. Nonetheless, like a man thrown overboard, you try to stay afloat as best you can.

So even though I had been exposed to Talmud several times, I had never been in a classroom situation where the purpose of the class was to teach you Talmud.

We started with the English translation to figure out what we were going to read. One sentence. Then we opened to a page where the sentence was broken out into syntactic units, Hebrew and English side by side. You see, the Talmud doesn't really have much punctuation.

The teacher began. He read each phrase in a sing-song manner, Hebrew followed by English. The class echoed him after each couplet.

Teacher: HaMafkeeeed - if a person entrusts
Us: HaMafkeeeed - if a person entrusts
Teacher: eitzel chaveirooooh - to his neighbor
Us: eitzel chaveirooooh - to his neighbor
Teacher: b'heimah oh keileeeem - an animal or utensils
Us: b'heimah oh keileeeem - an animal or utensils

We repeated this over and over again. 4 times, then another 4 times. Over and over we took turns reading it. It took an hour to get through one sentence.

While this was happening, I suddenly developed a powerful feeling of connection to my ancestors, little boys sitting in Cheder in the little shtetls outside of Kiev, chanting the same Gemorah in the same sing-song manner. A warm, happy feeling.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Kiss and Tell

The A-Z Meme on another blog.

Number of sexual partners: Nobody's business.

This is the 4th meme of this type that I read (all 4 are young ladies, 3/4 are frum, all 4 give same gist of a response)

Reminds me of the time I went to a bone marrow/blood drive held for a child of a frum couple. The drive was held at a shul, but was run by the Marrow Donor organization/Lifesource.

A very absurd scene. A crowd of Orthodox men and women being interviewed prior to donation.

"Have you used intravenous drugs? - No."
"Do you have tattoos?" - No."
"Have you had sex with prostitutes?" - No."
"Have you engaged in male to male sexual intercourse?" - No."
"Have you spent time in prison recently?" - No."