Thursday, December 24, 2009

Scrap of Clay

I was learning a Mishnah the other day and came across an interesting piece of Talmudic realia.

כל המעות הנמצאין בירושלים--הרי אלו חולין, אפילו דינר זהב עם הכסף ועם המעות; מצא בתוכן חרס וכתוב עליו מעשר, הרי זה מעשר - מעשר שני ד:י
All money that is found in Yerushalayim is chullin (ordinary not dedicated to the Temple), even if there is a gold coin that is found among regular coins. If you find a piece of clay (in a coin-purse) and the word ma'aser (holy money which is dedicated to the Temple) is written on it - indeed the money is ma'aser. (Ma'aser Sheni 4:10)
Not surprisingly there was no such thing as a scrap of paper in the time of the Talmud. Paper was most likely very expensive to produce and it was easier to take a clay-shard and write on it instead. I say, "Let us return to the true religion of our ancestors. Let us turn our scraps of paper into clay-shards!" Anyone with me?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The True Miracle of Chanukkah

Mikdash MenorahThere is a well known disagreement, or possible confusion, about what the true miracle of Channukah is. Most people are familiar with the story of Channukah regarding the miracle of one jar of oil burning for eight whole days. This story can be found in Massechet Shabbat (21b). However there is also the additional prayer that we add to the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon , על הנסים, which does not mention the miracle of the oil at all. Rather this additional prayer focuses on the other miracle that happened during Channukah, the miracle of the military victory against the Greeks. The question that can be debated ad nauseum in Yeshivot is: which is the true miracle of Channukah, the oil or the military victory. (In Yeshiva-speak it would sound like: Which is the ikkar - נס פח השמן או נס מלחמה?)

In true Modern Kabbalistic Chassidic (and even possibly post-modern) style, this is not a disagreement (מחלוקת) that is meant to be resolved. The tension between the two miracles reflects two fundamentally different approaches to describe how HaShem interacts with the world. The miracle of the oil is an obvious miracle which contradicts the laws of nature. It is scientifically impossible for one jar of oil to burn for eight days. This type of obvious miracle is called a nes galui (נס גלוי). The miracle of the military victory is a hidden miracle (נס נסתר) - although it is improbable for a small band of Maccabees to defeat the might of the Greek army, it is scientifically possible. See my blog post for a discussion of the Ramban's explanation of hidden miracles (נסים נסתרים).

Now let us return to the question of why does the additional prayer (על הנסים) only mention the hidden miracle of the military victory? I would suggest that Chazal felt that it is only appropriate to daven for hidden miracles. There is a Rabbinic aphorism - על תסמול על הנס, do not rely on miracles. When we ask for help from HaShem we should not ask for outright miracles that contradict the laws nature.

For example, let me describe three approaches to getting a million dollars. The first approach is an obvious miracle - a million dollars suddenly appears on my doorstep. The second approach is a highly improbable hidden miracle - to win a million dollars in the lottery. The third approach is a common hidden miracle - to start a business and earn a million dollars. The military victory of Channukah would be in between approaches two and three - not as improbable as winning the lottery and not as likely earning a million dollars with a successful business. Channukah teaches us that it is only appropriate to daven for a hidden miracle that is similar to military victory of the Maccabees. Whereas, we commemorate the obvious miracles, like the jar of oil, with a different type of religious ritual or mitzvah.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Tzaddik

One of the contributions of Chassidut to the corpus of Jewish thought and life is the institution of the Tzaddik. The word tzaddik literally means someone who is very righteous and pious. The Chassidic Tzaddik is a divine communal leader who is intended to be an intermediary between the Jewish people and HaShem.

Kabbalah states that special individuals are able to impact the higher realms with their mitzvot. These individuals can also use esoteric mystical knowledge (like permutations of the Aleph Bet and the different names of HaShem) to effect change in this world. The general picture of this special Kabbalist is an ascetic hermit who is barely connected to this world. Like the Talmudic story of R. Shimon bar Yochai (the author of the Zohar) who lived in a cave for years eating carob. (An occasional carob bar from a Health Food store is okay, but I can't imagine eating it for a week - never mind years!)

This special Kabbalist is also part of the identity of the Tzaddik. The Tzaddik is able to daven and do mitzvot more effectively than other Jews. But unlike the Kabbilistic hermit, the Tzaddik lives in the community and is available to the people. Chassidut encourages people to daven with a Tzaddik, because the Tzaddik can also help the tefillot of individuals. Their davening is connected to the Tzaddik and their prayers carried to higher realms with the Tzaddik's prayer. The Tanya (פרק ב) encourages people to daven with a Tzaddik for this same reason. Even though every LCR (Local Chassidic Rebbe) is not on the level of a true Tzaddik, the role of the Tzaddik is crucial to Chassidic thought.