Monday, December 26, 2011

The Goodness of Teves

Although the names of the months that we have in our calendar are of Babylonian origin (See Ramban Bo 12:2), there is a Midrash that darshans them. (See Torah Sheleimah Miluim Parshas Bo P.177) It is very interesting to look through the quick list of names and their meanings and gain perspective about the months.

The month that we are just beginning now is called Teves. The Midrash tells us that the grammatical root of this word is Tov which means good. It was during this month that Og and Sichon were killed in battle by Moshe Rabeinu. So formidable were these foes that this Midrash states that even Moshe Rabbeinu feared them. The goodness of this victory is so great that this month's name reflects that.

It is interesting to point out something that I posted a little bit about last year during this time. Teves is the time when the winter solstice occurs. While this event is the first day of winter, it also marks the shortest day of the year. From this point on the days begin to get longer. Thus, it has been seen historically as a time of renewal and a time to emerge from darkness. Another Midrash mentions that the astrological sign of this month, G'di (Capricorn[us]) shows such a renewal. (Tanchuma Haazinu 1) This sign is shown as a young goat that is the epitome of an immature creatue about to begin developing. It is similar to the T'leh (Aries) that is the sign of Nisan, the first month, since they are both ovine creatures. The T'leh, says this Midrash, has gone through its lifecycle and it is now in Teves that it finds a rejuvination and renewal as a young kid, G'di. How apropos then that the first portion of the conquest of Eretz Yisrael happened at this time. This was a new beginning for Klal Yisrael as they were starting anew in their land.

This is also the reason why many cultures have their new year at around this time. They viewed this time of year as a time of rebirth and, therefore, the connection to start a new year now was seen as obvious.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dreaming of Astronomically Fat Cows!

In this week’s parsha (Mikeitz), Paroh has some very interesting dreams. In one of his dreams he sees seven fat cows emerging from the river. These unfortunate cows are then devoured by seven emaciated cows that emerged from the river afterwards. (Bereishis 41:1-4)

There are two star clusters, small patches of sky that contain a large amount of stars relative to the small space they occupy, that were discussed by the Ancients, the Hyades and the Pleiades. Both are found in the constellation Taurus/Shor, the Ox. The Pleiades were associated with seven sisters and their five half-sisters were those that the Hyades are said to represent.

The constellation Taurus/Shor has its horns dipping into the Milky Way. The Milky Way is the numerous stars that lie in the plane of our galaxy. Due to their distance from us, and that they are so close to each other (relatively), they appear as a nebulous cloud that wafts through the sky. Or, one could say, they appear as if someone has spilled milk across this area of the sky. Unfortunately, the Milky Way is too faint to see unless one can get far away from city lights. The Milky Way has also been compared to a celestial river since it appears like a glowing river that runs through the night sky.

These clusters can be seen as the two sets of cows that emerged from the river. Since both are in the constellation Taurus/Shor, the Ox, it is reasonable to associate these clusters with cows. These two star clusters, Hyades and Pleiades, would, therefore, appear to be emerging from the river of the Milky Way. The Pleiades, being further away would appear to have emerged first and their half-sisters would be following shortly after. As the story goes, the Hyades had all committed suicide after the death of one of their other siblings and they are seen as constantly weeping. The grim circumstances surrounding these stars does not conjure up a nice image; hence, the emaciated cows.

The obvious question that one should ask is that although the Pleiades symbolize seven sisters, and therefore, seven cows, the Hyades are only five. How could they be the second set of seven cows that emerged from the river? The answer might be that the representation in the sky is depicting what actually occurred and not what was seen in the dream itself. Although there were seven years of famine, we find that for the first two of these years Yosef had stored enough food to support the populace (see Bereishis 47 and Rashi Bereishis 47:18). Nothing is seen regarding the last five.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Was the Menorah a Planetarium?

The Rema (Toras HaOlah 1:15) compares the Menorah of the Beis HaMikdash to a microcosm of the cosmos. He states that the seven branches were symbolic of the seven "stars" that are known to move independant of the regular stellar motions. These "stars" are the sun, moon and the five planets that can be seen by the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

The comparison does not end there. The Menorah was lit in two stages, first five candles were lit prior to the afternoon sacrifice, and the latter two afterwards. This, says the Rema, demonstrates that the sun and moon, which appear significantly larger than the other five (they look like stars), are different. The fact that they are all lit from the western light also indicates that all these other bodies only reflect the light of the biggest of these, the sun.

There were eleven circular knobs on the Menorah and they represent the eleven spaces in between the twelve mazalos. They are round to demonstrate that the mazalos circle around through the year and, even though we discuss them as starting with T'leh/Nisan and ending with Dagim/Adar, they really have no beginning or end. There are twenty-two cups showing the twenty-two elements of which the universe can be subdivided; water, wind, fire, the twelve mazalos and the seven "stars" mentioned above. The nine flowers that adorned the Menorah were symbolic of the nine spheres that the Greeks perceived to surround the earth. These spheres were perceived to be in motion and through them the objects orbited the earth.

B"H, as I have mentioned in previous posts, it seems that my new book, The Secrets of the Stars, is in bookstores across the US. If anyone will be in the Skokie/Chicago area, I will be speaking there this coming Shabbos and Sunday!

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Greek Rosh Chodesh

On Chanukah we commemorate the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Syrian Greeks and light our menorahs to recognize the miracle of the burning oil in those days. Chanukah is one of many festivals mentioned in Megillas Taanis. The overwhelming majority of holidays mentioned in this old text have ceased to be celebrated, yet Chanukah has not. The reason given for it being an exception is that Chanukah has mitzvos associated with it and these other festivals do not.

While that is certainly true, it is still astounding to see that we celebrate a victory whose mark seems to have faded. Why does the fact that there is a mitzvah involved change things?How is it that we celebrate a victory whose effects seem to not have any impact on our lives?

Before stating the obvious answer, I would first like to point out a few things. We are taught that one of the decrees that was imposed on the Jews of that time was that they were not to practice Rosh Chodesh anymore. The nationalistic expression of having our own calendar was something the enemy did not want us to possess. In fact, many rules and regulations of our calendar were purposefully kept secret in case such a decree would ever come into existence. (See Rabbeinu Chananel and Baal HaMaor R"H 20b). What is more interesting is that knowledge of Rosh Chodesh and the calendar is predicated on knowledge of astronomy. It is this scientific knowledge that the Gemara proclaims is the "Wisdom and understanding to be seen by the other nations," that the Jews have. (Shabbos 75a)

If one looks at the Rambam's record of Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh he will see rules of astronomical observation that enable one to regulate the calendar. The Rambam mentions the source of this knowledge that he is recording. As I am sure you have guessed, it was the Greeks!!! (17:24) How could it be that the pride and expression of our wisdom that was supposed to be our signature was usurped by the Greeks? The Rambam mentions that initially there were scholars from Shevet Yissachar that possessed this knowledge and that they had compiled books on this topic. Unfortunately, those works have been lost.

The standard Divrei Torah for Chanukah generally focus on the clash of cultures between the Greeks and the Jews. Both cultures gave significant weight to knowledge, however, the Jews were focussed on Torah knowledge which is pure and holy. The Greeks did not care for this truest of wisdoms. The victory of Chanukah was symbolic of Torah being victorious over this other culture, it was not just a war of independence, it was a clash of ideologies.

Nowadays we find ourselves in exile and we wait for redemption. The true wisdom of Torah has not been able to shine forth and inspire the world to serve Hashem. The Greek philosophy seems to be winning. However, we can look at that small glimmer of light that was Chanukah from years back and realize that things will return one day to their glory. Shevet Yissachar, the epitome of Torah scholars, initially were the ones that were looked towards for wisdom, but then we sinned and the "Greeks" moved in. Our glory cannot be seen and we seem to use the Greek understand to figure out Rosh Chodesh! One day, though, we will be victorious. The mitzvos of Chanukah make it eternal. Chanukah wasn't like the other festivals which showed victory in extreme situations. Chanukah displays that it is the mitzvos and Torah life that will be victorious eventually.

Happy Chanukah!

Once again I am thankful for my recent sefer, The Secrets of the Stars finally coming out. I will, IY"H, be in Skokie/Chicago this weekend and have two speaking engagements while I am there. The first is a Shalosh Seudos in Chovevei Tzion of Skokie and the second is Sunday morning in West Roger's Park at KINS.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's Here!!!!

It is with much hakaras hatov to Hashem that I am able to finally announce that The Secrets of the Stars is finally in book stores. As many of the regular readers of this blog know, I wrote a book some time ago and Israel Book Shop decided to publish it. The book is finally available and I must say that I am extremely happy at how it came out. A tremendous shkoyach to Israel Book Shop!!!

This blog explores many facets of the intersection of the celestial objects and Torah. It is generally comprised of short ideas and thoughts that are relevant to the parsha or time of year. The book does so much more. Extensive research went into the book and it explores the concept found in Chazal and the rishonim that the Torah is encoded in the night sky.

The reader is first shown how the storyline of Bereishis through Yetziyas Mitzrayim are found in the night sky. Then I show how the destiny of Klal Yisrael is expressed in the night sky. Along this cosmic journey the reader can see how Yechezkel's prophecies are also encoded in the sky and how they display Klal Yisrael's history and destiny.

I hope to allow the reader a glimpse into a fascinating dimension of Torah which has, unforunately, been inaccessible in recent times. I have received haskamos from Rav Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher), Rav Dovid Cohen (Gevul Yaavetz), and Rav Yisrael Belsky.

If you are interested in purchasing, you can click on the icon of the book found right next to this post, or you can click here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

29 or 30? Both.

Rabbeinu Bachye offers an interesting insight into the birth of Zerach and Peretz in this week's parsha. (See Rabbeinu Bachye Bereishis 38:30) Rabbeinu Bachye maintains that the two were named after the recognition that they symbolised the sun and moon. Zerach means to shine which is certainly what the sun does, and Peretz means to be broken which is what happens to the moon every month as it wanes. Just as the sun and moon were created on the fourth day of Creation, so too, the establishment of Zerach and Peretz comes from the fourth of the Shevatim, Yehuda.

The Davidic Monarchy arose from Peretz's lineage and we know that David HaMelech is often compared to the moon (such as the fact that he is mentioned in Kiddush Levana). Rabbeinu Bachye then mentions that, in his opinion, there were 29 generations from Peretz to Tzidkiyahu. This mimicks the fact that the moon goes through its monthly cycle in 29 days and then sets. So too, the kingdom was established by Peretz and 29 generations later, under the leadership of Tzidkiyahu, Nevuchadnezar destroyed the Beis HaMikdash and exiled the Davidic Monarchy. Since that point in time it has not, as of yet, been reestablished.

Rabbeinu Bachye concedes that the Midrash offers a similar, but somewhat different, approach to recognizing these connections. The Midrash counts the generations in a different fashion and sees the parallel of the Davidic Monarchy to the moon as reflecting the generations from Avraham Avinu until Tzidkiyahu instead of Peretz to Tzidkiyahu. According to this approach there were thirty days which also seems to reflect the monthly cycle of the moon. The fourteenth generation is David and his name in Gematria equals fourteen. The fifteenth is Shlomo and his name connotes completion as the moon is full on the fifteenth day of its cycle.

Perhaps, the reason why both numbers, 29 and 30, have a way of working out is because the average lunation is not an even 29 or 30 days. As we are taught, the average lunation is 29 days 12 hours and 793 Chalakim (or 29 days 12 hours 44 minutes and 3 1/3 seconds). Perhaps encoded in the whole numbers that surround this fraction is this mystical hint to the Davidic Monarchy. May we merit to its reestablishment speedily and within our own time.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Yaakov and the Angel

We find that Yaakov Avinu fought with an angel in this week's parsha. This epic battle happened through the night and we are taught that it lasted until dawn. At the end of this monumental event the angel surrenders and requests to be freed. Yaakov does so after asking the name of his adversary, a question to which it would appear no answer was given. (See Bereishis 32)

Although I concede that the following points can be countered without too much difficulty, I would like to express what the basic wording of the pesukim appears to portray. Since the pasuk states that they fought until dawn, it would seem that the minor conversation that ensued happened just after dawn. This seems apparent in verse 27 more explicitly when the angel requests to be freed, "because dawn has already arrived."

Rashi mentions that the angel needed to be released because it was his time to sing his praise to God. Rabbeinu Bacheye mentions that daybreak was the opportune time for this angel to sing these praises. If so, wouldn't it be necessary for him to sing at dawn. The implications of the pesukim are that he was able to begin the song just after dawn, though. Why didn't he surrender a few minutes earlier and then he would have been able to sing at daybreak itself?

Perhaps the answer lies in the source from which these great sages were quoting from. The Gemara describes the conversation in far greater detail than that which is stated in the pesukim. The angel stated that day had broken and he needed to be released. Yaakov asked him why he was afraid of day, was he a bandit or a kidnapper? The angel replied that he was neither of the above, rather, he was actually an angel and that he had never had the opportunity to sing God's praises from the time he had been created until that moment. (Chullin 91b)

Elsewhere, the Gemara mentions that nighttime is a dangerous time to be on the road. (Pesachim 2a) Rashi comments that prior to sunrise one should not begin his journey because bandits may lie in ambush. (Rashi, Pesachim 2a) It would seem that the daytime that bandits fear is not after dawn, rather, they only go into hiding from sunrise and on. Thus, if the angel was suspect of being a bandit it would seem that he was displaying a fear of sunrise and not dawn. Perhaps, Yaakov noticed this from the fact that it was only after dawn that the angel requested to be freed prior to daybreak. The daybreak he must have been referring to was sunrise. Therefore, Yaakov thought he must be a bandit.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Ominous Eclipse Predictability

For those in the Western United States, you will be able to see a full lunar eclipse just before dawn this Shabbos!

Chazal tell us in Sukkah (quoted by Rashi in Bereishis) that eclipses are ominous signs. I have often been asked whether this is true with regard to contemporary times because we know how to predict eclipses. My answer has always been, "Yes." Even amongst the other ancient civilizations we find the ability to predict eclipses. The ability to predict eclipses was known as far back as the time of the Chaldeans. Even the Babylonians and Greeks were also very familiar with the necessary calculations.

The calculation required is knowledge of the Saros Cycle. The Saros Cycle is a duration of 18 years, 11 days and 8 hours. In each cycle, one will have eclipses at the same intervals as the one that preceded it. Every three cycles will have an eclipse at the same approximate location relative to Earth.

In fact, in the early 1900's an ancient Greek shipwreck was discovered. One of the items found was something that became known as the Antikythera Device (named for the location of the wreck). Its gearwork was so intricate that scientists were astounded. Something like this should not have been able to have been made in the time period this ship went down (approximately 100 years prior to the Churban Bayis Sheini). Not only was it clear that it had been made, it was clear that many prototypes had had to have been made prior to it, because this one was perfected. After much analysis, it became clear that the device was an ancient "calculator". It would display the movement of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets. It also would show when the next eclipse would happen.

This is more proof that they were able to calculate eclipses. They had even put the calculations into machines to do the dirty work for them. When Chazal made their statement, eclipses were already predictable events. If so, how could an eclipse be an ominous sign?
It seems that the answer is that when Hashem created the world He placed in it times that are naturally times of judgment (similar to Rosh Hashana). It was through His mercy that He shows us (and we can even predict) when these times will be, so the affected parties can repent.