Monday, September 27, 2010

Sukkos and Going Extreme

As we celebrate Sukkos, it is interesting to point out a few things that happen in the sky this time of year. As we know, there are two holidays in the year that have seven days, Pesach and Sukkos (Shmini Atzeres is an independent holiday). Interestingly, both begin at the first full moon after an equinox. Pesach starts on the 15 of Nisan which is the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox and Sukkos starts on the 15 of Tishrei which is the first full moon after the autumnal equinox.

The two equinoxes are very similar in that they both start seasons that have moderate weather, spring and autumn. Also, during both of these times the days and nights are relatively equal at approximately twelve hours each. After Pesach the days will get longer and the weather hotter, and after Sukkos it is the nights that get longer and it becomes bitter cold (for northern latitudes, the opposite is true for southern latitudes). Both of the holidays display a time when a new shift in the yearly cycle is happening. Both also show a time of moderation prior to things becoming extreme.

The idea of moderation and balance is found throughout more phenomena than just the weather. Firstly, throughout any given month one can see an apparent imbalance between day and night with the sun and moon. The sun is always full, yet the moon (the sun's counterpart) is only full for one day. The moon also is seen sometimes during the daytime. This creates a situation where it seems that day is a little more weighted than night. It has the bigger celestial object and it also sometimes steals the moon from the night. It is only when the moon is full that the two are in balance. There is one big full object in the day and one at night since the full moon will never be seen in daytime. Both Pesach and Sukkos begin on the day of a full moon.

In addition, the sun is higher in the sky in the summer and lower in the winter. The moon does the exact opposite, it is higher in the winter and lower in the summer. The twelve signs of the zodiac follow suit with those that are out during the daytime following the sun's height and those at night with the moon. All these objects are at the midpoint between the high and low at the time of the two equinoxes. Thus displaying balance during Pesach and Sukkos.

Perhaps, one of the ideas to reflect upon during these holidays is that the world appears to often time fall out of balance. Things appear to become extreme. It is during the times when things are in perfect harmony that we should take notice and recognize and then prepare ourselves to maintain our personal sense of balance when things go extreme again.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Needing a GPS to Build a Sukkah

It seems possible that there are opinions that would maintain that the maximum allowable wall height of one's Sukkah will vary based on latitude. The opinion, about to be mentioned, is not the one that is used for halachic purposes, but it is still pretty fascinating to see that some Amoraim might maintain that the 20 amos height that most people are familiar with from the first Mishna in Sukkah may be only for Sukkos located in Eretz Yisrael and could be less for those elsewhere, like here in Baltimore. This should not be disturbing considering how Mishnayos often talk from the perspective of those living in Eretz Yisrael and are not always meant to be applied exactly to locations found elsewhere. (See Tosefos Gittin 2a)

As stated above the first Mishna in Sukkah mentions that the maximum height of a Sukkah is 20 amos. There is a three way debate mentioned in the Gemara as to what is the reason for this maximum. Rebbi Zeirah is of the opinion that a schach-type roof elevated higher than 20 amos does not provide ample shade and is thus considered to be functioning improperly and the Sukkah is rendered invalid. The Gemara mentions that according to this opinion this maximum height is only for small Sukkos (i.e. 4 amos x 4 amos), but in a larger Sukkah the schach would be big enough to cast enough of a shadow below in order to be considered valid. (See Sukkah 2a-2b)

The Ritva points out that we are obviously talking about the shade that would be created by the schach at midday since in the earlier morning and later afternoon the sun is much lower on the horizon and the schach does not really provide much shade. He also mentions that we are obviously talking about a time around the beginning of autumn (when Sukkos falls) since in the beginning of summer a shadow would be cast even by higher schach since the sun is much higher in the sky. (Ritva Sukkah 2a, also see Tosefos Sukkah 22a)

That being the case it would seem that just like Rebbi Zeirah only saw the Mishna's application to small Sukkos, he would also assume it was only referring to locations in Eretz Yisrael (the author of the Mishna and Rebbi Zeirah's location). At the beginning of autumn at midday, the sun appears directly overhead for people on the equator. For every degree of latitude north of the Equator the sun appears one degree lower and toward the southern horizon. Thus, in Eretz Yisrael, located at approximately 32 degrees north, the sun will appear to be 58 degrees high toward the south. Since the entire halacha is a function of the shade cast which is a function of the sun, locations south of Eretz Yisrael will be able to have taller walls and those to the north will have a lower maximum height. In Baltimore, located at approximately 39 degrees north, the sun will only reach 51 degrees high and will, thus, not cast as dark a shadow on a 20 amos tall roof since the light is coming from less steep an angle.

As stated above, Rebbi Zeirah's opinion is not the one taken for halachic purposes, Rava's is, but it is still pretty interesting to see how global positioning could make a halachic difference.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Satan's Downfall on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a massive present that Hashem has given mankind. We are enabled to cleanse ourselves of our evil doings and receive atonement for earlier misdeeds. The Chinuch mentions that Yom Kippur is one of the kindnesses that Hashem has bestowed upon humanity and that He did so from the beginning of Creation. (Sefer HaChinuch 185)

As with many concepts that are inherently incorporated into the natural events of a year, the concept of Yom Kippur can be found in the celestial objects in the sky. We are all familiar that there are twelve signs (constellations) of the zodiac and that each one is considered to influence a different month. (See Baraisa D'Mazalos 1 and Rashi Rosh Hashana 10b) The month of Tishrei, the one in which Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are found, is symbolized by the sign of Moznayim (Libra) which is shown as a set of scales. How apropos to represent the severity of judgment that humankind finds itself in at this time of year!!!

But, the symbolism is far from over there. The sign of the month is the one that the Sun happens to occupy that month. Without boring everyone with the specifics, every month, the Sun "jumps" from one constellation (sign) to another. (See Rashi Rosh Hashana 10b) Thus, in Tishrei, the Sun is occupying Moznayim (as seen in the included pictures). Akrav (Scorpius), depicted as a scorpion, is one of the two signs that border Moznayim. Akrav is the sign of Marcheshvan because immediately after occupying Moznayim in Tishrei the Sun "jumps" into Akrav during the next month, Marcheshvan (and obviously the month prior to Tishrei the Sun had been in the other constellation that borders Moznayim, Besulah (Virgo) the Maiden which is the sign of Elul). (This is based on the sky as it was during the time of Chazal, things have changed a bit since then, but this system is still in place as noted by the Rambam in Yesodei HaTorah 3:9)

The venomous and low lying Akrav is seen by Chazal as representing the harsh repercussions and the outcome of judgment. Scorpions live in low lying places and sting when least expected, very similar to the harsh judgment for following one's evil inclination (Tanchuma Haazinu 1) Akrav is also seen as being symbolic of man's evil inclination and symbolic of the forces of spiritual impurity, the Satan and death. (See Ramban VaYikra 16:8 and Rabbeinu Bachye Bereishis 32:10) Thus, it was seen as natural to have this depiction follow the Scales of Judgment of Tishrei. (Tanchuma Haazinu 1) On Yom Kippur, however, we have the opportunity to free ourselves of this punishment. Chazal teach us that it is the one day of the entire year that the Satan does not have the ability to bring us to judgment. השטן, the Hebrew word meaning "the Satan" has a numerical value of 364 displaying that he only has power for 364 if the 365 days of the year. (Yoma 20a)

It is fascinating to see what the sky looks like on 10 Tishrei, Yom Kippur. During sunrise as the scales of Moznayim rise and display their power, Akrav can be seen trailing behind. However, at sunset when the constellations are showing which ones "fall" into the darkness of night, one can see that Akrav sets at the same time as Moznayim. Thus, these two constellations are the first to set at night. Moznayim has the Sun, percieved as a powerful object, so it is considered to be powerful throughout the month regardless of whether it is rising or setting; Akrav, however, sets first with no Sun in it. Therefore, Akrav can be seen as setting and having no power.

More fascinatingly, on this specific date, it is the star Antares (circled in the pictures) that is setting very quickly. Antares is an extremely red star and is depicted as the heart of the scorpion of Akrav. It was oft compared to Mars due to its redness. The above sources mention that Mars is also considered to represent the evil forces mentioned above and, thus, Antares is considered to display these concepts very strongly. In fact, the name Antares comes from the Greek which means "like Mars". (Kunitsch and Smart's A Dictionary of Modern Star Names, 52)

How fascinating it is to see that on the day of Yom Kippur both the constellation and star that represent the Satan are seen as in positions of complete impotence. The Satan has no power on Yom Kippur and we have the opportunity to free ourselves and reconnect with Hashem!

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Shofar and World Domination

The stars and planets appear to circle around the Earth from the perspective of the human standing on Earth. In truth, the planets are actually encircling (actually the orbits are elliptical)the sun, and the stars only appear to be moving because of the Earth's revolutions; nevertheless it does appear as if everything is circling us. As such, the construct of the "apparent" universe can be described as like an onion. Several concentric orbital circles with our planet in the middle.

The ancients described this "onion" as having nine basic circles. The first circle is that of the moon's orbit, then Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the stars. The last and ninth circle was considered to have no shape and was the "wheel" which was perceived to turn the other wheels below it. Since all of nature was perceived to come from the metaphysical world into the physical one through the realm of the stars, the movement of the ninth wheel was considered to control nature. (Rambam's letter to Marseilles)

Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that from an astrological sense each orbit has a corresponding musical intrument on this planet that expresses its resonance. He mentions that all nine are mentioned in Psalm 150 (the last Hallelukah in Pesukei D'Zimrah). They are (in backwards order since earlier I listed the orbits from closest to most distant and Rabbeinu Bachye understands the order in the Psalm to be from most distant to closest): Resounding trumpets (moon), clanging cymbals (Mercury), flute (Venus), organ (sun), Machol (Mars; no accurate translation is available as most translate this as dancing. Rabbeinu Bachye offers an alternative translation that it is an instrument. I must apologize because in a post quite sometime ago I accidentally translated it as dancing when suggesting a theory based on Rabbeinu Bachye's writings), drum (Jupiter), harp (Saturn), lyre (stars) and shofar (the master wheel). (Rabbeinu Bachye 15:20)

I find it fascinating to see that the shofar is considered to have the same resonance as that of the master wheel which is considered to "control" all of nature and life! On Rosh Hashana our prayers reflect and commemorate the day upon which Adam HaRishon was created. (Rosh Hashana 27a) It is on this day that we find ourselves given this wonderful mitzvah of shofar. It is almost as if Hashem Himself is telling us that He created this world and handed over the keys. We are now the ones to control what happens on the world. We blow the shofar and it is as if we are turning the master wheel. All of nature is affected based on the actions of mankind!!!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Making Sense of Idolatry

In this week's Parsha Rabbeinu Bachye discusses a truly fantastic concept. In fact, I remember that the first time I saw it I was almost in disbelief at what I was reading. When Moshe Rabbeinu is told that he is about to die, Hashem tells him that Klal Yisrael are going to go astray and follow foreign gods. (Devarim 31:16)

Regarding this idea Rabbeinu Bachye mentions that every nation and every land in this world is influenced by a mazal (celestial configuration). The exception to this rule is the nation of Yisrael and the land of Yisrael. These entities are not given over to the mazalos, rather, Hashem directly takes care of them.

Since this is the case, it is actually reasonable that, outside of Eretz Yisrael, various nations began to serve foreign gods. They mistakenly attributed true powers to the mazalos (obviously it is Hashem influencing the world through them) and over time began to serve them. Since this is a natural tendency, Hashem does not destroy or punish these nations for doing this so long as they are not practicing idolatry in Eretz Yisrael. To prove this point Rabbeinu Bachye cites from the example of the Kusim (Samaritans) who were an idolatrous people, yet, they were not punished for their practices until they were moved into Eretz Yisrael. (I assume that Rabbeinu Bachye is not stating that as individuals these people are not held accountable, rather, they are not punished as a nation in this world for their actions).

We, on the other hand, are held to a different standard because it is our nation that Hashem chose to be His. Therefore, there is never an excuse. Certainly when living in Eretz Yisrael the Jewish nation should only recognize its true dependence on Hashem and Hashem alone.