China and other countries in the region are known to have a deep and long-standing cultural preference for the birth of boys. In China, for the last few decades, the issue has been more pronounced because of the “one-child policy” that limits the majority of families to only having one offspring.
China has reached a disparity of approximately 117 boys for every 100 girls born, while the world average is around 105 boys for every 100 girls. Abortion of the female fetus is believed to be the main culprit in the disproportion between boys and girls born.
Leviticus 12:2 starts the discussion of the issue of male births and the subsequent purification process that the Torah requires as follows:
“If a woman caused fructification of seed and gives birth to a male…”
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno quotes a Talmudic commentary on this line from Tractate Niddah 31a:
“If a woman emits seed first, she bears a male.”
Sforno, who was a doctor, amongst many other qualifications, explains that the partner who emits “seed” last will be the more dominant gender. Meaning if the woman ovulates after the man emits seed, the child is more likely to be a girl.
Modern medical studies have supported Sforno’s theory. The timing of ovulation can have a strong effect on the acid/alkaline balance in the vaginal canal, thereby either preserving or destroying the male Y chromosome. If ovulation occurs first, the alkaline neutralizes the acid, saving the Y chromosome, and significantly increasing the odds of a boy. If ovulation occurs later, the acid is likely to get rid of the Y chromosome, resulting in a girl.
If the Chinese would just follow Sforno’s prescription they could probably produce more boys naturally as opposed to murderously skewing the gender balance.
May all parents cherish their children no matter what the gender and may we successfully see them producing future generations.
To Nachshon Chagai Lustig, the newborn son of Debbie and Mark Lusting of Alon Shvut and the fifth boy of five. Mazal Tov on the basketball team and the new house!
After eating too much Matzah, potatoes, eggs and all the new Kosher for Pesach foods that weren’t even kosher in the past during the rest of the year, it certainly seems time for a diet. The Torah obliges with what is perhaps the main list of eating restrictions that God commands.
While it’s hard enough to stick to one of the more recent popular diets, the Torah’s diet can be fairly limiting. However, while the Torah doesn’t promise a slim figure, reduced calorie intake or feeling full, it has other rewards in store.
Leviticus 11:43-44 states regarding eating non-kosher items:
“…do not defile yourselves with them, and do not become impure, for I am the Lord, your God, and you will make yourselves Holy; and you will be Holy, for I am Holy…”
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is intrigued by the repeated mention of “Holy” regarding our eating habits. He explains that the first aspect of holiness by refraining from eating “contaminating” foods is to prepare ourselves and our bodies for holiness and a closer relationship with God.
The second mention of holiness refers to the fact that those who adhere to the laws of eating kosher are granted the possibility of nothing less than eternal life. (That beats any diet I know hands down!)
Sforno adds the caveat that one needs to “walk in God’s ways” as well, but the Kosher diet seems to be a prerequisite of sorts for an everlasting spiritual relationship with God.
Sforno further explains that God also offers to become a coach for anyone who embarks on this diet, quoting the dictum from the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 39a) that if a person makes himself Holy a bit, he is made Holy a lot (with divine help).
In this post-eating holiday period may we all return/start/continue with better eating habits and may a reasonable concern for the laws of eating properly guide our gastronomic decisions.
To the memory of Sylvia Jaffe Feigenbaum (Chana Sara bat Mirtza) of Efrat/Cleveland. The mother of my aunt Eudice Spitz and the Matriarch of the extensive Feigenbaum tribe.
While much has and will be said and written about this remarkable woman, one recollection from the many that I found noteworthy is that this was the only family I knew that under her leadership published a regular newspaper about and for the family, to keep her clan connected in a way that is amazing and enviable and I am certain will be felt for many generations to come.
In the preparations for Passover, there is an inordinate focus on cleaning. We clean the bedrooms, the floors, the windows, the refrigerator, the cabinets, the drawers, the counters, the oven, and every nook and cranny that is accessible and even some not so easily accessible.
This tradition has been attributed as the source for the popular term and activity of Spring Cleaning amongst the general population. Many Rabbis however, have taken the arduous task of cleaning our physical home and transposed it as an opportunity to get our spiritual homes in order.
This weeks’ Torah reading also reflects a similar theme.
The Torah gives a detailed list of further types of sacrifices that are brought at the Temple. A fairly common variety is the “chatat” offering, known also as the sin-offering. This category of sacrifice is utilized as a tool of repentance for a spectrum of transgressions – from seeking forgiveness for the entire people of Israel, down to the penitence of an individual.
The list of sacrifices also includes the “olah” offering group, or the elevation-offering. The “olah” is less remorseful and more commemorative, and is apparently meant to “elevate” our connection with God.
In Leviticus 8:2, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno inquires as to the mention of the “chatat” first. He says that the precedence is important. The law requires that the “chatat” is sacrificed before an “olah”.
Sforno explains that there is no sense or rationale to bring the elevation-offering before the sin-offering. Seeking to elevate ourselves and come closer to God will be difficult if there are still unrepentant or unaddressed sins on our psyche.
Sforno seems to indicate that we need to clean up our act first, or at least take concrete steps towards redeeming ourselves before seeking to rise further in our spiritual stature, and that is mirrored by the order of the sacrifices.
May we succeed in cleaning both our homes and our spirits, and may the upcoming Holiday help elevate us further.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,
In memory of Mr. Ben Genauer of Seattle/Jerusalem, patriarch and grandfather of a large and wonderful clan, including my sister-in-law, Nechama Spitz. Though I only met him recently I was so struck by how a man of his very advanced years was brimming with zest for life, happiness and love of family.
At the shiva this week I learned much more about him and it seems clear that his life was one of constant elevations, kindness, generosity and achieving closeness to God in his own unique way. May he be a “melitz yosher” for his entire family and the people of Israel.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Admiral John Poindexter, the former US National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, formulated the concept of an “Information Awareness Program” to better gather intelligence from the public at large. For a short time, he ran this new division within the Department of Defense. There was however a media backlash to the idea of public surveillance and congress stopped funding it about a year later.
Poindexter’s ill-fated idea gave rise to at least two notable items. The first is a slew of Hollywood movies and TV shows featuring some take-off of his concept either with a secret do-good mass-intelligence gathering group, or the more interesting ones is with such a system gone bad (either corruption, off-track idealism and/or technology take-over), which brings all the fears of “Big Brother” to life.
The second and more relevant point for us is the motto he promoted. According to a friend of mine from the defense/intelligence community, Poindexter had the phrase “Knowledge is Power” on his desk and this became the de facto slogan for his division, though in the fancier Latin: “Scentia Est Potentia” (see ominous logo).
“Scentia Potentia Est” (“For also knowledge itself is power”) was originally mentioned by Francis Bacon in Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Bacon apparently took it from our own Mishlei (Proverbs) 24:5:
“A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength.”
If knowledge is indeed power then the converse, ignorance should equal weakness or feebleness.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno takes the issue of ignorance further.
Starting in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), the Torah goes into much depth and detail as to the different sacrifices that are brought to the Temple.
One interesting sacrifice that is demanded is for a sin that one “might” have done. If someone is not sure if he committed a sin, the Torah still demands that the maybe perpetrator bring a sacrifice as an act of contrition and repentance.
Sforno explains that the problem is not just the uncertainty of having performed a sin, but rather the potential sinner having put himself in the position in the first place. Sforno accuses the sinner (the Torah considers him so, whether he did the feared act or not) of ignorance.
By not knowing the laws of the Torah, a person is more likely to fall into error. According to Sforno, in Judaism, “I didn’t know” is not an excuse. Ignorance is not only helplessness or infirmity. Ignorance is a crime.
May we constantly cure our many points of ignorance, especially in the realm of Jewish law, and may our storehouses of knowledge always be used to keep us out of trouble.
To all Jewish womenfolk, who are so diligently preparing for the Passover holiday, with vast erudition as to the many and often intricate laws of having a Kosher Pesach.
There is a story told to young design engineers about Henry Ford. Always looking to get efficiencies out of his cars, he would visit car junkyards and examine the remaining components. Upon discovering a bolt that was still in good condition, while the rest of the car had fallen apart, he exclaimed: “This bolt was over-designed!”
Ford’s goal was that the entire car should break down around the same time. If a single bolt remained that was still useful it meant that too much steel went into the construction. Multiplying that waste by thousands or millions adds up.
Hence the current plethora of products that are purposely designed to fall apart shortly after the warranty expires.
The young Israelite nation was not without its design engineers. However they had a different design philosophy.
The Children of Israel start building the Tabernacle in the desert. The Jewish people are called on to donate to the construction, and they do so, to such an extent, that the artisans instruct Moses to stop collecting. They have enough materials and then some.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the unusual repetition and phraseology of the fact that the artisans had additional material.
Sforno draws an interesting lesson from the phrase and the extra material. In an age of “just-in-time” manufacturing, short supply lines, recycling, cost-cutting and making sure a manufacturer has just enough and no more, Sforno’s following insight may seem surprising.
Sforno explains that in order to do a good job, the workers needed extra material. Just the knowledge that additional material is available would insure that they don’t skimp on any aspect of the construction. They know they can invest everything they require to construct whatever it is they’re making in the best way possible. Cutting corners is not the way God wants us to do things.
May we always be both creators and patrons of only the finest workmanship.
To the Nachmani Family of Alon Shvut. They are artisans of the highest order. Every act they do is done to the fullest. Skimping is not a word in their vocabulary.
Besides the many lessons that the Hagaddah provides, an often overlooked one, is that of the power of multiplication.
The most obvious examples are the three opinions as to the ‘quantity’ of the “Plagues” that afflicted the Egyptians at the parting of the sea. The first opinion is that of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean. He makes the following algebraic comparison based on the biblical verses:
1 “Finger” of God = 10 Egypt plagues
Sea plague = “Hand” of God
Assuming that God’s anthropomorphic limbs are comparable to a humans, solving for Sea plague leads to the following calculation
Sea plague = “Hand” of God = 5 “Fingers” of God = 50 Egypt plagues
The subsequent opinions take the above calculation as a given but add an additional multiplier.
Rabbi Eliezer, the second opinion, states that based on the four qualifiers of “Wrath”, “Fury”, “Trouble”, and “Messengers of Evil”, that are stated regarding the Egyptian plagues, there were 40 plagues in Egypt. Multiplying that by Rabbi Yossi’s original formula provides us with a total of 200 plagues at the sea.
Rabbi Akiva, the third and last opinion in the unusual discussion, adds another qualifier, “Fierce Anger”, to Rabbi Eliezer’s original four. 10 times 5 times 5 equal 250.
Some of the later rabbinic commentators including the Maharal of Prague imply that the simplistic multiplication lesson is really teaching something deeper about the nature of reality and the nature of miracles.
Rabbi Yossi’s initial opinion equates the number ten to the power of a single “Finger” of God. Ten is also compared to holiness and separating the holy from the mundane (i.e. tithes). Similarly, according to the Maharal, anything that intercedes in our world from the more spiritual spheres, in an overt fashion (i.e. miracles) is also a function of the power of ten.
A single finger is a limited tool, and on its own is not particularly powerful. God’s intent with the plagues in Egypt was apparently more educational than outright destructive. Hence his anthropomorphized use of a single finger translated into the power of ten in our world.
However, at the splitting of the sea, God’s intent was to destroy the Egyptian nation in general and its entire armed forces in particular. There God uses his Hand. A hand is a complete tool, and the number five represents a full number. Therefore, according to Rabbi Yossi, the Egyptians suffered the equivalent of 50 plagues at the sea.
The next opinion, Rabbi Eliezer, looks deeper into the makeup of a single “plague” and determines that each plague is really composed of four plagues. There are different explanations besides the textual one quoted above as to why four. The Maharal is a bit esoteric, but he could be interpreted to say that four is the minimum number of points to represent something tangible in space. One point doesn’t do very much. Two points will give you a line. Three points will give you a two-dimensional surface with no thickness. You need at least four coordinates in space to have a three-dimensional object.
[See illustration above]
The Abudarham on the other hand states that each plague encompassed the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water in some fashion. Therefore, in Egypt the plagues were the equivalent of 40, while at sea it was the equivalent of 200.
Rabbi Akiva, presenting the third opinion, builds on Rabbi Eliezer’s theory and adds one more factor to the equation. According to the Maharal, he agrees with Rabbi Eliezer’s four coordinates as defining an object (assuming we understand the Maharal correctly). However, he adds an additional point in space that would bind the four points into one object. Paralleling this thought, the Abudarham states that Rabbi Akiva agrees with the composition of the plagues being formed by the four elements, however he adds, that each plague drew on the power of the four elements separately as well as a combination of all the elements, making each plague a factor of five.
The Maharal states that there is even greater depth and meaning to all of this, but he cannot reveal it to the uninitiated. One point of his discussion though, is to give us an even greater sense of awe. Awe not only for the miracles that occurred, but for the essential reality and functioning of nature, and the miraculous within nature.
By almost all accounts, the greatest sin of the generation of Israelites that left Egypt was the creation of the Golden Calf.
Moses was absconded somewhere in the sky together with God, receiving the Torah for us. The masses and rabble, frightened perhaps by Moses’ delayed return, get anxious. They press his brother, Aharon, the High Priest, to create an idol for them to worship. After collecting all their gold, Aharon puts it together in the fire, and walla! – out comes the Golden Calf.
All of this occurred a mere forty days after the Jews heard the Ten Commandments from the Voice of God Himself. In those selfsame commandments, he states very explicitly: Don’t worship other gods. Don’t make any idols. So it would seem to be the height of rebellion, and outright ‘chutzpah’, to build this idol at the foot of Mt. Sinai, as close as one could physically get to God at that moment in time.
Aharon, in a delaying tactic, after having made the Calf, announces that there will be a general celebration the next day.
Moses finally descends when the party is in full swing, smashes the newly minted Tablets of The Law, destroys the Calf, has the Levite tribe kill the worst offenders and extensively asks God for mercy (busy day).
We are told that if it weren’t for the intervention of Moses, God would have wiped out the fledgling Jewish nation and started anew with Moses as the progenitor of a new Chosen People.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno examines these passages in depth and makes a startling statement: Making the Golden Calf was horrible – but it was the festival surrounding it that really incensed God.
Bad enough to sin and show disloyalty to God. But to rejoice and take pleasure in it, to literally dance around the cause of God’s wrath – that’s really going overboard.
The sages say that every calamity, every punishment, even every minor mishap that happens to every Jew, since that moment until this very day, has a component of punishment from that event.
By the same token, every act of loyalty to God, by every one of us, no matter how small, surely absolves us of some of the damage our ancestors committed.
May we always merit doing acts of loyalty to God, and to know at what events and what occasions to celebrate.
To my grandfather, Yechiel (Yakov) Spitz, z”l, whose Yartzheit was this week. He was a loyal and humble servant of God, and a model for his descendents.
God commands the Children of Israel to build a Sanctuary for Him. He goes into excruciating detail as to the entire minutia of the construction, the sacrifices and the priestly service. In the midst of the divine shopping list, He states that He will dwell amongst us and be for us a God (Exodus 29:45).
The statement seems both obvious and redundant.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the extraneous phrase and offers a theologically important opinion:
“And I will be their God: To direct their affairs without an intermediary.”
Sforno is promoting the concept that divine plans and orders are placed upon mankind via a host of angelic middlemen. However, when it comes to the Children of Israel, God takes a personal and direct role. We get His full and undivided attention for good or ill, as it were.
Other peoples and nations suffer through the celestial bureaucratic machinery that has its own rules, regulations and patterns of nature. The Jewish people on the other hand have the ear of the head-honcho himself, who can quickly and easily bypass his own henchmen and intervene, sometimes dramatically, in the lives of His people.
“And they will not need fear the heavenly signs, for they will be more honored before Me than the heavens whose movement is directed through the angels.”
Sforno seems to be implying, that the Children of Israel are not only immune or protected from the effects of the “natural” world as directed by his ethereal minions, but in a sense, are even above them.
He ends his comment with the following powerful statement:
“And as a result of all this their eternity is ensured.”
It is not without reason that the Children of Israel have been named by some, the Eternal People. It seems that by being so closely connected and identifying with the Eternal One, by fulfilling our mission as individuals and as a nation, we also join the institution of Eternity.
May we make our homes places where He would be comfortable hanging out, and eternally merit feeling His proximity.
To Isaac Asimov. One of my favorite authors and one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. Though he was a self-avowed atheist/humanist, I believe this Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised, Columbia-educated Jew was an ‘ehrlech yid’ at heart. When writing the word “Eternity” in capital letters, I couldn’t help thinking of one of his great books: “The End of Eternity”.
After previously denouncing and prohibiting in multiple instances, on pain of death, creation of statues, portrayals of the human form, or anything even remotely resembling idols, God throws an unusual command.
In the building of the sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, on the very top of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Tablets of the Law are devotedly concealed, God tells us to place, not one, but two human figures.
These two Cherubim, as they are called, have the form of young children with wings on their back.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the seemingly contradictory declaration, by allowing one of the most abhorrent issues in Judaism, in the heart of the most sacred spot of Jewish ritual service.
Sforno claims that it is nothing less than a powerful and overt message. These Cherubim are representations of what today we more commonly refer to as Angels: heavenly ethereal beings that directly fulfill the will of God on earth. In rare occasions they present themselves and allow themselves to be seen by human beings. At times they may appear as unassuming humans, unrecognized in their mission. Most of the time, however, it seems they are invisible to the human eye.
So why are there angels on top of the Ark, and why specifically the winged variety?
I’ll paraphrase from Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz’s notes (the Sforno translator), who draws from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (I:49 and I:54):
The act of flying represents the ability to soar to heights as well as swiftness of movement, both of which require wings. Humans also can aspire to develop spiritual and intellectual potential so as to soar to greater heights of apprehension and understanding of God.
This can only be realized by examining God’s ways, as we see from Moses. One can only know Him, through His ways, which is through his 13 attributes, which can only be gained through the Torah. That is why the Cherubim are not only on the cover, but are gazing at the Ark cover – the source of truth and wisdom – the Torah.
Sforno believes that the Cherubim are an implicit message. That at the heart of the Jewish religion is a belief and a demand that we can and must elevate ourselves. That elevation is accomplished through God’s Law. If we keep our eye on the truth – we can soar like the very angels themselves.
To my sister and brother-in-law, Ilana and Daniel Epstein, on their 13th Anniversary. Besides the 13 Attributes of God and Bar-Mitzvah, 13 are also the Principals of Faith that Maimonides enumerates, and Kabbalists also refer to the 13 petalled rose, among other uses (i.e. great number). May they continue to grow and elevate themselves and may they soar to health, happiness and success with their beautiful family.
The nation of Israel has received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The Bible starts enumerating a long list of additional commandments. Then God gives what amounts to a pep talk to the nation of Israel, how He will send his angel ahead of them and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, to make way for the incoming masses of Israelites.
In the midst of descriptions of enemy destruction and land conquest God states:
“You shall worship God, your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst. There shall be no woman who loses her young or is infertile in your land; I shall fill the number of your days.” (Exodus 23:25-26)
Instead of paraphrasing or interpreting Rabbi Ovadia Sforno as usual, I’ll just quote him, as his wording is so intriguing (translation courtesy of Artscroll English Sfrono translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz – highly recommended):
“The number of your days I will fulfill: You will live to the (full) measure of oil which is in your lamp of God (the soul of man), i.e., the vitality (or natural force) rooted (in man) from birth. The reverse of this mostly occurs when man dies from (various) illnesses before his basic vitality has ceased. This occurs due to wrong choices (made in life) or due to fate (literally, ‘the order of the planets’) and the elements (literally, ‘foundations’). Now when a man’s numbers of days are fulfilled he will in most cases see children born to his children and he will be able to teach them, as it says: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). (In this fashion) the affairs of (new) generations will be remedied in the lifetime of their elders, as we are told happened with Levi, Kehath and Amram (the ancestors of Moses).”
Sforno then directs us to earlier comments about the great-grandfather, grandfather and father of Moses, who all led exceedingly long lives.
“The longevity of these men enabled them to influence their grandsons as well as their sons. The choice fruit of these spiritual plantings were Moses and Aaron. They are the end result of the many years of education and guidance contributed by Levi, Kehath and Amram, and they are worthy to be chosen as leaders and spokesmen.”
May grandparents have the continuing opportunity to teach and guide their grandchildren, and may parents know how to get out of the way or even facilitate these special opportunities.
To my grandparents who I learned so much from and to our parents who are such a big influence on our kids (Is it harder for children to listen to the immediately preceding generation? Are we hardwired that way? Is that why Sforno attributes such importance to the grandparents guiding the grandchildren?)