Saturday, June 30, 2007

יורה יורה ידין ידין יתיר בכורות יתיר

About a week and a half ago, I started learning [Babylonian] masekhet Sanhedrin with a חברותא (study-partner). This tractate begins with a discussion of the different types of courts needed to judge different types of cases, as well as what individuals are qualified to serve on such courts.

On דף ה עמוד א and דף ה עמוד ב [see here for the full chapter; unfortunately it doesn't mark exactly where pages 5a and 5b are], the gemara discusses how one gets to be a מומחה (expert) — someone with סמיכה (ordination), usually called here רשות ("authorization"). It also discusses what רשות actually is.

In asking the question מאי רשותא (what is 'authorization'?), the gemara tells two stories:
What is 'authorization'?

When Rabba bar (bar) Hhana went down to Babylonia, Ribbí Hhiya said to Ribbí [Yehuda Hanasi’]:

"My brother's son is going down to Babylonia."

[And Ribbí declared:]

יורה יורה, ידין ידין, יתיר בכורות יתיר

"He may instruct [in law], judge [civil cases], and release first-born animals [which are הקדש (taboo) and cannot be slaughtered unless they are blemished]."

When Rav went down to Babylonia, Ribbí Hhiya said to Ribbí [Yehuda Hanasi’]:

"My sister's son is going down to Babylonia."

[And Ribbí declared:]

יורה יורה, ידין ידין, יתיר בכורות אל יתיר

"He may instruct [in law], and judge [civil cases]; but may not release first-born animals [which are הקדש (taboo) and cannot be slaughtered unless they are blemished]."

The first two declarations, יורה יורה and ידין ידין are types of semikha that still exist today. Yoreh yoreh is given for expertise in איסור והיתר (prohibitions and permissions) — realms of Halakha such as kashrut and Shabbat. Yadin yadin is given for expertise in the civil law components of Halakha. Yatir bekhorot yatir I've never heard of in the contemporary world.

What I found particularly interesting — and very demystifying, in relation to some of my issues surrounding the rabbinate — was how before and after these two short stories about רשותא, the Talmud explains what the actual purpose of each of these authorizations was, and why one of these sages was licensed to release בכורות while the other was not.

The גמרא already explained what the point of ידין ידין authorization is — it's a legal insurance for expert judges, releasing you as the judge from personal liability in the eventuality that you make a mistaken ruling in a monetary case. Otherwise, as a layman judge, unless the litigants specifically give up their right, if you ruled that Ploni A owed Ploni B two zuzim, and then it turned out that you ruled incorrectly, you would personally be obligated to pay back Ploni A for the two zuzim they had to pay Ploni B as a result of your judgement.

In response to the difference in authorization between the two sages in the story, the גמרא explains that the reason that Rav was not authorized in יתיר בכורות יתיר wasn't because he didn't know how to evaluate biological blemishes that would release a firstborn animal from its sanctified-taboo status, but just the opposite — he was such an expert in mumin that if he were licensed to rule on such matters, people would watch him work and then go and make incorrect extrapolations based on what they thought he was doing. It's as if someone were to watch an expert driver drive stick shift, and then attempt to do so themself by wiggling the gearshift around, having missed the importance of the clutch pedal. The danger is a lack of understanding, or a miscommunication. Which brings us to the last type of רשותא...

The גמרא asks — what is the point of יורה יורה authorization? If you've learned, [and know your stuff,] why do you need to be 'authorized'?

Because of מעשה שהיה (an incident that took place; actually, a few different incidents, some of which seem to be variants on the same stories, are given here and in the parallel in the Jerusalem Talmud) where people made a mistake in practice, and justified themselves by quoting 'a student' of the sages who had passed through their town — not realizing that they had misheard or misunderstood his instructions. Because of such incidents, "that very hour they decreed that a student may not instruct unless he gets authorization from his rav." Rashi explains:
...His rav must be careful with him, so that [the student's] speech will be open, and those who listen to him will not misunderstand his words.
So what's the point of יורה יורה? It doesn't point necessarily to expertise in any particular legal field, or the ability/license to analyze new situations and create legal rulings (פסק) to deal with them. יורה יורה is literally a teaching license. It's about being able to instruct the people, teach others, express Halakhic rulings in an open, understandable, approachable manner. It's about being clear in your speech (and skilled use of the blackboard?) and using formative assessment.

I'm a teacher. I get this. And it makes it a bit easier to wrap my mind around the idea of getting semikhareshuta authorization — myself.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Why Didn't Miriam Enter The Land?

In this past week's Torah portion — חֻקַּת — we read very briefly about the death of the Prophet Miryam, elder sister of Moshe and Aharon, who were sent with her to lead the Israelite Nation out of Mitzrayim (notice the reference to this week's parasha right in the next pasuq).

In seifer Bemidbar-Sinai/Arithmoí 20:1 we read:

And then the Israelite Nation came —
the entire community —
to the Tzin Wilderness
on the first new moon,
and the nation dwelled in Qadeish;
and then Miryam died there,
and was buried there.
וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
כָּל הָעֵדָה
מִדְבַּר צִן
בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן
וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם בְּקָדֵשׁ
וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם
וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם

And then the people start complaining about the lack of water, and gang up against Moshe and Aharon, her bereaved brothers, who are forced to retreat from before the people to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

God tells Moshe to speak to a rock, so that water will come out of it for the people. Instead, Moshe hits the rock, after declaring rhetorically, will we bring you water out of this rock?

According to my favorite explanation, the problem was the "we" — by implying that him and Aharon were the ones doing the bringing-out, Moshe failed to inspire the people with faith in God — instead reinforcing their tendency to see Moshe himself as the One who brought them up out of Mitzrayim.

And so God forbade Moshe and Aharon from bringing the Israelite Nation the rest of the way to their Land. Aharon dies within this same pereq at Mount Hōr (yes, i can hear you snickering back there; quit it), and Moshe dies not much later, chronologically speaking, at Mount Nevo. Both of them were told specifically why they needed to leave the world instead of accompanying their nation into the Promised Land.

But why did Miryam also die without entering The Land?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Reb School Question #0

Back when I was in high school, I realized that I wanted to grow up to be a לימודי קודש (Jewish religious studies) teacher. I loved learning, tutoring, and teaching; the interface and back-and-forth flow of information and analysis with others; and the literary beauty and revelatory depth of the texts.

Everyone told me, "You want to teach Tanakh? Gemara? etc.? You need to be a rabbi!"

So for almost four years of college, I assumed that I would go to rabbinical school afterwards. My senior year, about halfway through the year, I called up RIETS, and after a somewhat frustrating conversation with a confused office worker, convinced them to mail me an application because no, I couldn't just come over to the office and pick one up because no, I don't go to Yeshiva University, so no, i don't know where the office is and I'm two hundred miles away in Upstate New York!

Ahem. «cough cough»

Every line of the address on the envelope was misspelled. Which wasn't actually the reason why I decided not to go to rabbinical school (or "reb school" as our Conservative brethren-and-sistren abbreviate it), but it made a funny story to say so.

I decided that I wasn't interested in being a rabbi. I want to teach Tanakh. Sure, other things too, but mostly Tanakh. I want to be a Tanakh teacher. To be a Tanakh teacher, you don't need to be an expert on the laws of milk and meat; you don't need to be able to adjudicate nida cases; and you don't need to be able to explain the permissibility or impermissibility of using water heated by a dud shemesh on Shabbos. I mean, sure, all those things are important for living a self-aware and self-confident halakhic Jewish lifestyle. But they weren't necessary immediately for my career.

So instead of going to RIETS for four years, I went to a two-year teacher training program in Israel. I learned Tanakh and Gemara, Parshanut and Pedagogy, and came back to NYC ready to teach.

Just one problem.

Many of the schools I tried to get a job at barely glanced at my resume... one reason being, I wasn't a rabbi. Back at the end of college and in Israel, I thought it would be cool to fight the system, prove to the world that you don't need to be a rav to be a teacher. It turned out doing that was a bit harder than I expected.

So over the last few years of teaching, I came to the conclusion that I probably should go get semikha some time soon. Not just because it would help my career, but especially because I know that there are whole realms of Jewish knowledge out there that, as I said above, are necessary for living a self-aware halakhic life, and I just don't know. In some cases, I have vague recollections of general principles and terms from Halakha class in high school, but none of the details. So even though it's not practical for my career as a teacher — since, after all, even if you're teaching Halakha you're not going to be going into such depth of detail — it's still something that I came to the conclusion is important to do.

So I looked a little at RIETS, I looked a little at YCT, I conducted survey-interviews of friends and acquaintances who are now at or who recently graduated from one or the other of those two schools. I have time — I'll still be working this coming school year (iy"H), so I've got a while to fill out applications, talk to administrators and rebbeim, and sit in on classes and shiurs — and I got really into the whole exploration process...

...But now I'm not so sure.

After attending YCT's semikha ceremony this past Sunday, I'm having trouble imagining myself up on that stage (or whatever the structural-spatial equivalent is over at RIETS). I'm a teacher. I have no interest in pulpits or in pesaq. Channeling the ADD energy of 21st century high school students towards an appreciation of our Jewish Texts and Traditions is enough responsibility for me for one lifetime; I don't think I could take responsibility for answering halakhic shaalas. And I definitely do not feel like rav umanhig beYisra’eil material. Just give me a classroom and a bunch of students who aren't completely hostile. I'll be fine. But I'm not ready to carry the Israelite Nation like a breast-fed baby. There's a very simple reason why I, notwithstanding my anarchistic-egalitarian sensibilities, have a heck of a lot of traditional hierarchical respect for rabbis — and it's not because halakha mandates expressing that respect through action — it's because they do something so immensely important, that I can't imagine doing myself.

So Reb School Question #0 is — before any of the 'where's, 'how's, or 'what's — why? Or why not? Yes? Or no? At least I've still got at least half a year to figure that part out.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

משה קיבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע

Today, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduates its fourth class of new rabbis.

They say that on your wedding day, all your previous sins are forgiven, so that you can enter into your new life with a clean slate.

The same is true of semikha — God forgives all of your sins and wipes the record clean so that you can go out without the baggage of your earlier life, ready to lead the Jewish People to greater torah, ‘avoda, and gemilut hhasadim (learning/law, worship/effort, and morality/empathy).

How do we know this?

Because, as King David said in Tehillim/Psalms 25:11...

וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנ[וֹ] - כִּי רַב הוּא

Just some final advice, as God said to Yehoshua‘ (1:7-9):

רַק חֲזַק וֶאֱמַץ מְאֹד לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכָל הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ מֹשֶׁה עַבְדִּי - אַל תָּסוּר מִמֶּנּוּ יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול,  לְמַעַן תַּשְׂכִּיל בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ. לֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכָל הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ; כִּי אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל. הֲלוֹא צִוִּיתִיךָ חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ, אַל תַּעֲרֹץ וְאַל תֵּחָת - כִּי עִמְּךָ יי אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ.

Yishar koahh!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Looking Backwards to Egypt

שמות רבה כב:א

ויאמר ה' אל משה נטה את ידך על הים וישובו המים וגו', הה"ד אחזו לנו שועלים שועלים קטנים. כשהיה מושל המלכיות לא היה מושלן אלא בחיות... וכשהוא מושל את המצרים, אינו מושלן אלא לשועלים — ...א"ר אלעזר ב"ר שמעון: ערומים היו המצרים לפיכך הוא מושלן כשועלים; מה שועל זה מהלך ומביט לאחוריו, כך המצרים מהלכין ומביטין לאחוריהם...

Midrash Shemot Raba 22:1
And then God said to Moshe, "stretch out your hand over the sea, and the water will return..." — this is what is refered to by catch foxes for us, small foxes. When the kingdoms would be allegorized, they would be compared to animals... and when the Egyptians would be allegorized, they would be compared specifically to foxes — ...Ribbí El‘azar beRibbí Shim‘on said: the Egyptians were tricky, therefore they were compared to foxes; and just as foxes walk while looking backwards, so too do the Egyptians walk while looking backwards...

The Egyptians walked while looking backwards?

That sounds sort of dangerous... hard to imagine how you could run a society where no one's watching where they're going.

However, their hieroglyphics definitely did 'walk' while looking backwards!

Here is a sample of hieroglyphics, from Karen's Whimsy's collection of public domain images:

Notice how some of the hieroglyphic characters are people and animals. These characters always face backwards, towards the start of the line and/or the beginning of the block of text. So as you read 'down their backs', the little Egyptian people and animals are actually looking in the opposite direction, as if over their shoulders in the manner of foxes.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mourners Getting Alíyas

It seems to be a commonly-accepted custom that, while mourners are encouraged to lead prayers on weekdays, they are discouraged from leading prayers on Shabbat and holidays — even though otherwise, holidays and Shabbosim cancel all public displays of mourning. I wonder why... should probably ask my rav about that.*

Anyway, the discouragement of aveilim from serving as ohrer-forer (prayer leader) on Shabbat extends to leining, although there seems to be more room for leniency there; maybe because Torah cantillation takes more training than simply leading prayers (unless you're talking about classical hhazanut). So for instance, one of the minyans I go to when I'm on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for Shabbos was in need of someone to lein my bar mitzva parsha, and so it was fine for me to help them out.

However, it seems that in some communities it is similarly customary for mourners to refrain from being called up to the Torah on Shabbos, while in other communities they hold that an aveil getting an alíya is a good thing. So if you're a gabbai in the second type of community, and someone you offered an alíya to doesn't want to take it because they're in mourning, don't be confused.

This has been a public service announcement from the Committee for Intra-Jewish Multicultural Understanding.

* i asked, and he said that while aveilut is never really about straightforward logic, but about what communities decided to do, it could be that not taking certain public roles, since it's a passive act, doesn't necessarily signal mourning; there are many reasons someone might not want to step up, after all.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

It Will Be Heard

One of the statements of Hillel in Ancestors' Chapters [of Ethics] is:

אל תאמר דבר שאי אפשר לשמוע שסופו להישמע

I always understood this to mean:

Do not say something that cannot be heard —
for in the end, it will be heard!

In other words, stay away from passing on secrets. If you don't want something to be known, don't say it. "Loose lips sink ships." Or as Qohelet said:

גַּם בְּמַדָּעֲךָ מֶלֶךְ אַל תְּקַלֵּל
וּבְחַדְרֵי מִשְׁכָּבְךָ אַל תְּקַלֵּל עָשִׁיר
כִּי עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם יוֹלִיךְ אֶת הַקּוֹל
וּבַעַל כְּנָפַיִם יַגֵּיד דָּבָר

Even in your mind, do not curse a king;
and in your bedroom do not curse the rich —
for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound,
and a wingèd creature will tell the matter.

But now I just checked out Emet/Truth's post on Rambam on Incorporeality, which includes a translation that goes as follows:

Do not make a statement that cannot be easily understood
on the ground that it will be understood eventually.

Now, this translation fits better with the text as found at the Mechon Mamre link above, which has וסופו להישמע ("and its end [is] to be heard"), as opposed to the version I've usually seen, שסופו להישמע ("that its end [is] to be heard"). A completely different meaning — not a warning that "loose lips sink ships," but instead a pedagogical point relevant to everyone, but especially to teachers, rabbis, scholars and public officials. Never assume comprehension on the part of your audience. In the educational sphere, we call this the necessity for formative assessment. As you go through your lesson plan, you need to make sure that the students are right there with you and haven't been left behind. Similarly with a speech, although speeches are generally much less interactive than a classroom lesson. You need to make sure that the people listening actually understand what it is you're saying. Or as Avtalyon said somewhere else in Pirqey Avot: חכמים, היזהרו בדבריכם. Sages, be wary of your words.