derush Updates

What Does Modeh Ani Really Mean?

This post is the latest addition to my Finding Tradition project.

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך

Those 12 words mark the start of each day for many Jews. It’s a beautiful prayer and an expression of the many debts we owe to God. But three of those words might, on reflection, represent a significant theological innovation.

Here’s the whole thing translated:

“I acknowledge before you, the living, eternal God, that you returned to me my soul, with grace and good faith.”

The three words in question are: שהחזרת בי נשמתי – “that you returned to me my soul.” Where’s the innovation in that? Well for God to have returned our souls first thing each morning, He would have had to have first taken them. And I’m aware of no traditional Torah source that definitively states that that actually happens.

A similar prayer is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 4:1 – 29b in the Vilna print):

בשחר צריך לאדם לומר מודה אני לפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותי שהוצאתני מאפילה לאורה

“In the morning a man must say: I acknowledge before you G-d…that You took me out from darkness to light”

But that makes no mention of the soul and its travels.

So where did the idea come from? As far as I have seen, the first reference to the text of מודה אני itself would appear to be ספר סדר היום, written by the 16th Century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe ben Makir of Tzfas. As Tzfas during that time was famous for its culture of innovation, it would seem reasonable to assume that Rabbi Moshe himself is the prayer’s author.

But isn’t the idea that our souls are taken each night itself common in traditional Torah literature? Not that I’ve seen. In fact, The Bais Yosef himself (אורח חיים ד), while quoting a Zohar on the subject of washing hands in the morning, testifies that it’s “not found in halachic sources (פוסקים).”

Here’s the Zohar itself (1:184b):

הכא דלית בר נש בעלמא דלא טעים טעמא דמותא בליליא ורוחא מסאבא שריא על ההוא גופא. מאי טעמא? בגין דנשמתא קדישא איסתלקת מיניה דבר נש ונפקת מניה, ועל דנשמתא קדישא נפקת ואסתלקת מניה שריא רוחא מסאבא על ההוא גופא. וכד אהדרת נשמתא לגופא אתעברת ההוא זוהמא…

“There is no man on earth who doesn’t taste the taste of death at night, (as) an impure spirit rests on his body. Why? Because his holy soul …leaves a man and because his holy soul has left, an impure spirit rests on his body. And when his soul returns to his body, the impurity is removed.”

So it’s certainly true that the Zohar associates the concept of a departing soul with the laws of washing hands in the morning. But it’s equally true that it’s not an association that finds an easy home within the halachic tradition.

Indeed, the traditional explanations for hand washing in the morning make no mention of our souls. The Rosh (ברכות פרק ט סימן כג) wrote that we should wash because:

לפי שידים של אדם עסקניות הם ואי אפשר שלא ליגע בבשר המטונף בלילה

“A man’s hands are busy (i.e., always moving) and it’s impossible that they didn’t touch unclean parts of his body during the night.”

And the Rashba (שו”ת הרשב”א א סימן קצא) attributed the rule to our need to recognize the spiritual rebirth we have just experienced:

בשחר אחר השנה אנו נעשים כבריה חדשה

“In the morning, after sleep, we become like a new creation.”

…None of which hints to any association between sleep with death. Now, as I’m sure you’re already wondering, the Gemara (Berachos 57b) does state that “sleep is one sixtieth of death.” But it would be hard to see a connection between such a general comparison and the claim that our souls leave our bodies when we sleep.

In fact, as I’ve written on more than one occasion, drawing logical or legal proofs from aggadic sources is virtually impossible: their language and context is just too ambiguous. This would most certainly apply to a passage in that most ambiguous source of all: Zohar.

Just how difficult is it to understand the meaning of the Zohar by reading its words? Let’s see what one of the undisputed giants of Kabbala, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad (the Ben Ish Chai), wrote in his halachic work, Rav Poalim (Vol 1, Responsum 56). He was explaining why one should never translate Idra or other Zoharic works into Arabic or any other language. It’s fine, he wrote, to translate the Tanach (even though no translation can capture the full, inner meaning), because the Tanach also has a simple meaning…

משא”כ דברי האדרא וזוה”ק אין להם פשט כלל ובעל המאמר לא כיון לפשט הדברים כלל ועיקר ויש מקומות שהפשט יהיה חירוף וגידוף ואם אתה מתרגם הדברים ללשון אחר נמצא אתה עושה הפשט אמת כי התרגום הוא יהיה כפי הפשט ולפי האמת אין הפשט של דברים אלו אמת…

“Which is not true of the Idra and the Zohar: they have no simple meaning at all. And the author never intended a simple meaning for the words at all. And there are passages where the simple meaning is pure heresy! And if you would translate these words to another language, you will have elevated the simple meaning to ‘truth,’ because a translation is (assumed to be) true. But in truth, the simple meaning of these words is not true.”

The bottom line is that we really can’t know exactly what the Zohar meant. But we can be sure that this most modern of prayers – מודה אני – is unlikely to be its true expression.


How Poor Is Poor Enough?

Who, according to halacha, is eligible for charity? The question is practical, since halacha seems to present a clear threshold and only individuals living beneath the threshold may receive charity.

What, exactly, is that threshold? Here’s what the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 253:1) rules:

מי שיש לו מזון שתי סעודות, לא יטול מהתמחוי. מזון י”ד סעודות, לא יטול מהקופה. ואם יש לו ר’ זוז ואינו נושא ונותן בהם, או שיש לו חמשים זוז והוא נושא ונותן בהם, לא יטול צדקה

Someone with enough food for two meals may not take from the ‘tamchui,’ food for 14 meals may not take from the ‘kupa.’ If he has 200 zuz that he’s using for his business, or 50 zuz that is not being used for business, he may not take charity.”

I suspect that, these days, 200 zuz would be worth a few thousand dollars. So it would seem that anyone with more than a thousand dollars or so in liquid cash – or a few thousand in, say, retirement savings – should not be taking charity.

That, of course, leaves many other questions unanswered. Has the precise definition of charity changed? Where do social welfare programs and other government entitlements fit in? Are tuition scholarships considered charity?

But the very next section in Shulchan Aruch (253:2) turns everything upside down:

יש אומרים שלא נאמרו השיעורים הללו אלא בימיהם, אבל בזמן הזה יכול ליטול עד שיהיה לו קרן כדי שיתפרנס הוא ובני ביתו מהריוח. ודברים של טעם הם

“Some say that those thresholds applied only in those times, but these days, one may receive charity unless he has sufficient capital to provide his family’s needs from the profits alone. And these are reasonable words.”

Assuming mortgage/rent and private school tuition payments count as “family needs,” which of us can live off profits without dipping into core revenues and savings? Are we all עניים in the eyes of the Shulchan Aruch?

Core basics Uncategorized

Property Values

I’m 57 years old and I still have no clue what עידית זיבורית ובינונית are all about (see Bava Kama 6b and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 102). How embarrassing is that? 

Here’s the problem: How can two properties that have the exact same market value (equal to each of the multiple חובות the individual faces) have different objective worths? In other words, a 50×100 lot in a safe and pleasant residential community might be worth $2,000,000 while a property that’ll sell for that same $2,000,000 in northern Ontario would probably have to be around twenty acres.

But in which way is the residential property “better” (עידית) or “worse” (זיבורית) than the distant, regional property? It all depends on what you plan to do with it. A mining company might be more interested in northern Ontario while a young, growing family would be more interested in a house. It’s really subjective.

So wouldn’t it have made more sense, rather than creating עידית זיבורית ובינונית categories, to simply say something like:

יד ניזק על העליונה

Meaning that the creditor with the strongest claim gets to choose whichever of the properties (of equal value) that he wants.

Update: I asked around and heard a couple of useful insights:

Efraim Stulberg, my (former) talmid (who is in the corporate asset evaluation business), suggested that markets do sometimes separate sale price from value. His example was in how liquidity can be a significant differentiator even when two businesses are selling for the same price.

And Menachem Rosenzweig, my (permanent) son-in-law, (who is in the commercial mortgage brokerage business) noted how higher cash flows can similarly impact the salability of commercial properties without impacting the price. 

Having said all that, Efraim pointed out that, in halachic terms, the Rambam follows the sugya in Bava Kama 6b, where מיטב שדהו refers exclusively to מטלטלין and not קרקע, since מטלטלין are easy to resell at high prices (i.e., they’re liquid).


Another Site Update

I’ve added a nice long chapter to my Finding Tradition project: How We Choose What We Observe. It’s about some gaps between halachic ideals and our real-world halachic performance.

All Torah communities work hard addressing challenges, but none of us is perfect. Halacha is a complex system, the Jews are a complex people and we live in a madly complex world. If we value truth and aspire to improve, it’s important to recognize and understand those gaps.

Take a look for yourself and share your thoughts.

Unexpected Yerushalmi

The Four Species: waved but never shaken

The נענועים are an integral part of the mitzva of lulav (see Mesechte Sukkah 37b). But how is that waving supposed to be done? As anyone who’s ever been in a shul over Sukkos knows, the question seems to inspire a wide range of answers. The gemara’s conceptual source is the waving associated with the מלואים (see שמות כט:כז). There, the הנפה and הרמה referenced by the verse suggest to ר’ יוחנן that we should move the four species outwards and inwards, and then up and down.

One popular interpretation involves shaking the lulav with each movement. The source for this seems to be the Rema (תרנא:ט) who wrote:

ומכסכס הלולב בכל נענוע

The popular translation of כסכס is “shake.” However, from the Yerushalmi to Sukkah (פרק ג הלכה ח) this would not seem to be correct:

תני צריך לנענע ג’ פעמים ר’ זעירה בעי הכין חד והכין חד או הכין והכין חד או הכין הכין חד

One must wave (the lulav) three times. Rabbi Zeira asks: this way is one and this way is one, or this way and this way is one? (i.e., are those three waves made up of three sets of “in and out” movements, or one inward movement, one outward, and a third inward).

The Yerushalmi answers via a proof from the laws of Niddah (found in the Bavli in Niddah 62a). There, the required steps for properly cleaning a stain involves כסכוס three times in each direction. Here’s how the Yerushalmi concludes:

תמן תנינן צריך לכסכס ג’ פעמים בין כל דבר ודבר ר’ זעירה בעי הכין חד והכין חד

Which would seem to clearly limit the Rema’s ומכסכס to simple outward/inward/upward/downward movements. And there seems to be no source for shaking.

Just sayin’.


New Content

For better or for worse, I’ve been unusually productive over the past few weeks. So here’s a brief overview of what’s new on the site (and beyond).

The article, “Some Older Changes,” from my Finding Tradition project, looks at the ideal way to divide up your Yom Tov days. Should a man devote the early hours of the morning to preparing the meal, or is it better to slip out of shul before the end so you can put up the roast? Believe it or not, key early poskim seem to discuss these questions. And did women typically attend shul a thousand years ago?

I’ve also combined some old content in “Other Modern Innovations” with a brand new analysis of the way we recite Selichos through Elul – despite the fact that few if any of us can fully understand what we’re saying. And what religious value is there is in encouraging boys to wear black hats?

Some of my essays have been appearing as guest posts on Rabbi Gavin Michal’s Kotzk Blog. Some of them, in fact, have proven quite popular. In particular, my How Are We Supposed to Pray article (also available in a slightly changed format on this site) has attracted a lot of attention and elicited a robust conversation in the comments.

I have a feeling that there’s more to come in the next little while, so check back for details.


Rosh Hashana Simanim

The gemara (Horiyus 11a) famously recommends using symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana as an introduction to the new year:

אמר אביי השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא [לעולם] יהא רגיל למיחזי בריש שתא קרא ורוביא כרתי וסילקא ותמרי

The obvious problem is that this looks a lot like the kind of divination described as לא תנחשו that’s forbidden by the Torah (Vayikra 19:26).

My normal approach to such problems includes assessing the source and confirming that the popular or initial reading is actually justified.

In this case, the gemara begins with משיחת מלכים על המעיין (“Kings should be anointed near a wellspring”). This, in fact, doesn’t by any means have to mean that there’s a direct connection between the location they’re using and the success of the royal dynasty. Rather than assuming there’s some magical connection directing human events (for which there’s no source), it’s far simpler to say that a wellspring carries symbolic meaning helpful for impressing on everyone present the importance of, perhaps, maintaining a strong loyalty to the Eternal Source of a king’s legitimacy.

The gemara’s next cases involve actions meant to predict how particular events will turn out. Here, however, the gemara explicitly rejects the thought that the method of divination (lighting a candle in a dark room, monitoring a chicken’s growth, etc) has any actual impact on events:

ולאו מלתא היא דלמא חלשא דעתיה ומיתרע מזליה

“But (these methods are) not valid: (but) perhaps a person will be discouraged by (his interpretation of the result) and he’ll be weakened.”

According to Rashi, the method can’t predict anything, but there’s a genuine (and rational) fear that someone might give too much credibility to a negative outcome and give up hope.

Finally, the gemara says:

השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא [לעולם] יהא רגיל למיחזי בריש שתא קרא ורוביא כרתי וסילקא ותמרי

“Now that you say symbols are legitimate, a person should show at the start of the year” these vegetables.”

These simanim are not more connected to the physical world than the others we’ve discussed. They’re just symbols that can, at best, be used to encourage us and point us towards appropriate behavior.

By contrast, ניחוש, according to R’ Hirsch, is the attempt to bypass the real world’s cause and effect requirements AND to bypass the influence of God on the world. It’s a way of reducing the world to a purely mechanical framework where blindly pushing the right buttons (or reading the right combinations of Torah texts) will force the universe to adjust so you can acquire all knowledge and get everything you want. ניחוש isn’t just about divining the future (which, on its own, can be a problem), but about controlling the future.

Unexpected Yerushalmi

Who Wants to Learn?

You’re probably familiar with the mishna in the third perek of Eiruvin:

…אם בא חכם מן המזרח עירובי למזרח בא מן המערב עירובי למערב

(A person may make an eruv techum – extending the distance he may travel outside his town on Shabbos – conditional, saying:) “If a wise man will come from the east, my eruv will (extend my techum) in the east (so I can go to meet him). If the wise man will come from the west, my eruv will be in the west.”

But you may not be aware of an alternate reading quoted in the Yerushalmi (עירובין פרק ו הלכה ג):

אית תניי תני במערב מאן דמר במזרח באילין חכימי’ מאן דמר במערב ברגיל

“There is a tana who taught: ‘(regarding the wise man who comes from the east, that he wants his eruv in the) west. The one who would say (his eruv should be in) the east refers a to (true) wise man. The one who says (his eruv should be in) the west refers to a wise man (who only teaches things everybody already knows).

The scenario presented by the alternate version gives us a man whose motivation for setting an eruv techum is to escape from the chochom, presumably so he wouldn’t need to sit through his lecture.

But this gets more interesting. Later in Eiruvin (פרק ח הלכה א), we find that one should only set an eruv techum for the purpose of a mitzva. Meaning that, according to the Yerushalmi’s version, not only is it reasonable for a person to wish to escape a chochom, but it can even be a mitzva!


Getting Pshat

The Chazon Ish, Ma Nishtana and the Limits to Talmudic Meaning

This letter (Kovetz Igros Chason Ish II 16) is vintage Chazon Ish: an intriguing and subtle point made using somewhat cryptic language via a less-traveled Talmudic source. It seems that the anonymous correspondent had proposed some interpretation of the Gemara (Pesachim 70a) that was not to the Chazon Ish’s liking.

The sticking point seemed to hang on the fact that the interpretation bore no obvious connection to the Gemara. Or, in other words, it felt forced and artificial, and was thus purely subjective. Once an interpretation is so subjective, it loses all value, for it is now no more likely to be correct than any one of an infinite set of competing possibilities. So while a student of the Talmud is allowed to be creative in seeking solutions, he must still retain a basic respect for the text itself.

Here’s the letter:

קובץ אגרות חזון איש
חלק שני אגרת טז
‫כשם שהעמיקו מחתימי התלמוד בעיקרי ההלכות כן ‫העמיקו בלשונם ובעריכת הדברים לפני הדורות הבאים אשר ‫כן הוא מדת החכמה ומדת ההכמים. ולא יתכן שיסתמו בדבר ‫שאי אפשר להבין, וכש”כ שיאמרו במאמר המורה אחרת‬ מהמכוון. ואם לפעמים מתפרשים דבריהם על צד עמוק הוא‬ מטבע החכמה והוא מובן למעיין, אבל צריך ליזהר מאד בזה‬ ‫שאם באנו להעמיס בדבריהם רמזים יתר על המדה, לא נשאר בידינו כלום, ולבן לא יתבן לפרש זו דברי בן תימא אלא‬ בפשוטו, משום שלדעתו רואה הבן לפניו על השלחן שינוי‬ ‫של כולו צלי, והוא שואל, ומשיבין לו שאין זה במקרה אלא‬ ‫יש לעולם מנהיג והוא מפקח על בריותיו וצונו במצוות‬ ‫וע”פ צואתו ית’ אנו עושים, אבל אם הבן רואה לפניו שלוק ‫ומבושל וצלי אינו רואה שינוי.‬


Just as those who sealed the Talmud embedded halachic principles (in a way that would require significant analysis to uncover), so too, for future generations, were (principles) deeply embedded in the very language and in the way (the sages) arranged their ideas. Such is the way of wisdom and of the wise.

It is not possible that the sages would have obscured their words in a way that cannot be deciphered, and certainly they would never have used words that suggest the opposite of their true intent. If their words can sometimes be explained only through deep study, that is the nature of wisdom. Its (organic connection to the words) will always become apparent to one who studies the matter carefully.

However, one must be very careful, for if he ascribes to (the Talmud’s) words too heavy a load (i.e., hints which are so abstract as to belie any connection to the text itself), we will be left with nothing at all.

Therefore it is not possible to interpret “These are the words of ben Teima” except in their simplest form, for in (ben Teima’s) opinion, the son must see before him on the table the unusual sight of only roasted meat, which will prompt him to ask (“why?”). To which we are to reply that all this is not an accident, but that the world has a Guide and He is aware of His creations and commanded us with His mitzvos and that we act according to His will. But if a son will see before him (meats, some of which are) boiled (and others) roasted, he will not notice anything unusual (and therefore, not be inspired to ask questions).

The letter is obviously referring to the Talmudic position (that of ben Teima) which extends the rule requiring that meat of the Passover offering be roasted to the Chagiga offering as well. The Chazon Ish interprets it thus:

The Gemara’s proof that this is indeed ben Teima’s position comes from his (unrelated) inclusion of a fifth question for children to ask at the seder (a question which, since the Temple’s destruction, we no longer say):

“Why is this night different…but this night, we eat only roasted meat?”.

If it was permissible to prepare the Chagiga offering by, say, boiling the meat, then the food on the table would appear no different from that served on any other night. The Chagiga had to be roasted to maintain the night’s unique and evocative flavor – to inspire children’s questions.


Is Staying Healthy a Mitzva?

I sometimes wonder why I so often hear people referring to “ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם” as though it’s a Torah source for the requirement to protect ourselves from illness and injury.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that the Torah most definitely does expect us to care for ourselves and to listen to the advice of medical experts on how to do that. And I know that the Rambam himself uses השמר לך ושמור נפשך as a source, even though that verse – like the other two that are often used – is actually referring to our responsibility to keep all mitvos (or, in some cases, just avoid idolatry).

The Levush (יורה דעה סימן קטז) actually acknowledges that the simple meaning of those passages are unconnected to health. But writes:

מכל מקום סמכו חז”ל על מקראות הללו ואסרו כל הדברים המביאין את האדם לידי סכנה

But did Chazal actually quote any of those verses? Well, there is this Gemara in Brachos 32b:

ת”ר מעשה בחסיד אחד שהיה מתפלל בדרך בא שר אחד ונתן לו שלום ולא החזיר לו שלום המתין לו עד שסיים תפלתו לאחר שסיים תפלתו א”ל ריקא והלא כתוב בתורתכם רק השמר לך ושמור נפשך וכתיב ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם כשנתתי לך שלום למה לא החזרת לי שלום אם הייתי חותך ראשך בסייף מי היה תובע את דמך מידי

The rabbis taught: It once happened that a certain chassid was praying along the road. An officer came by and offered a greeting, but (the chassid) didn’t reply. (The officer) waited until he’d finished his prayers. After he’d finished his prayers (the officer) said to him: “Empty person! Does it not say in your Torah ‘Just protect yourself and guard your life’ (Devarim 4:9) and ‘Take great care of your lives’? (Devarim 4:15) When I greeted you, why did you not reply? If I were to cut your head off with a sword, would you have any claim on your blood?”

So the only place I’m aware of in Chazal that offers a source for a health mitzva puts the superficially-related words into the unauthorised mouth of a non-Jewish officer. While we’re all sympathetic to the principle, is that enough to qualify as a source?