Friday, November 23, 2012

Yaakov's Lesson on Zemanei HaYom

Chazal teach that Yaakov actually traveled all the way to Haran and then decided to turn around. Upon reaching Haran he was remorseful that he had passed through Yerushalayim, the place where his forefathers had prayed, and that he had neglected to pray there. Therefore, he decided to turn around and head back. Hashem provided a miracle and Yaakov instantaneously arrived in Yerushalayim. After praying Yaakov was ready to begin traveling back to Haran, but Hashem wanted him to spend the night, so sunset occurred prior to its natural time and Yaakov had to stay the night. (Chullin 91b)

Elsewhere, the Gemara derives from this incident that Yaakov instituted Maariv. (Berachos 26b) Tosefos mention that it is clear from the storyline presented in Chullin that Yaakov davened Maariv prior to sunset. This, say Tosefos, supports the custom to daven prior to sunset and assume the halacha is like Rebbi Yehuda who maintains that one may daven Mincha until Plag HaMincha and Maariv from that point on; and not like the Rabbanan who maintain that one may daven Mincha until nightfall and Maariv from that point on. (Tosefos Berachos 26b) Tosefos do not show how the Rabbanan resolve this issue and that is something of note since in contemporary times we do not paskin with certainty like Rebbi Yehuda. (See Shulchan Aruch O.C. 233 and 235)

I would like to present the following theory to answer how the Rabbanan may read this passage, although I certainly would love to hear if anyone has a better answer. It is fairly clear from the Gemara that if one is traveling from point A to point B, but that he intends to return to point A on the same day, that he follows the Zemanim of point A. The case the Gemara discusses is if a tamei Kohen is on the top of Mt. Carmel and the sun is at eye level, he may descend the mountain to the sea, go to the mikvah and ascend the mountain. He will have been able to have gone to the mikveh prior to sunset and when he reaches the top it will be after twilight. Thus, this Kohain will now be pure and can eat Terumah. (Shabbos 35a; also see Rashba Shabbos 35a) Since the sun was at eye level when he began his descent, that means for people at the base of the mountain it was setting on the horizon. His immersion will be after sunset for those at the base, but prior to sunset for those above the mountain. The only way that this man can be considered to have immersed prior to sunset is if we give him the status of those on the top of the mountain even though he is currently at the base. It seems that this is due to the fact that he is on a quick round trip.

Similarly, Yaakov had reached his destination of Haran. However, he now wanted to make a round trip to Yerushalayim and back. Thus, he would have the status of one from Haran. Haran is assumed to be fairly close to the modern town of Harran and is almost exactly 4 degrees east of Yerushalayim. Although it is also approximately 5 degrees north, since Yaakov's event happened around the vernal equinox, this will not play much of a role in the following calculations. (See Rashi Bereishis 27:9)

The sun travels every degree of our planet in 4 minutes. That means that the sun will set 16 minutes in Haran prior to its setting in Yerushalayim. So, perhaps, Yaakov arrived miraculously in Yerushalayim and decided to pray at the first moment that he could have said Maariv, but based on the Zemanim of Haran and not those of Yerushalayim. It is reasonable that Yaakov would want to daven at the first possible moment since we know the Avos possessed this characteristic of Zerizus, and because it is appropriate to do so. (See Shulchan Aruch O.C. 235) After davening, Yaakov turned to go back to Haran, but Hashem made the sun finish its descent quickly. It was 16 minutes prior to sunset when Yaakov started davening, so there were only a few minutes that it need to shave off the day anyway.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shabbos Finds a Shidduch

When discussing the practice of Ashkenazim to begin reciting selichos on Motzei Shabbos, the Leket Yosher cites an interesting midrash. When Klal Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael, the Torah dressed in sackcloth and cried out to Hashem. While in the wilderness her needs were taken care of but now that Klal Yisrael was to begin their new lifestyle in Eretz Yisrael she was going to be cast away. In the wilderness Hashem had provided food, shelter, and clothing to His people; thus, there was sufficient time to learn. Now, the people would need to work for these basic necessities and the Torah was concerned that Klal Yisrael would not have time to learn.

The midrash teaches us that Hashem pacified the Torah by telling her that she was lonely and Shabbos was lonely and that the two would be paired up and provide comfort for each other. Klal Yisrael has to refrain from working on this holy day and they would have time to study Torah. Therefore, on Motzei Shabbos, everyone is happy after a long day of learning productively.

The Maharal, and others, often mention that this world has a natural order of sevens. Therefore, often this number is used to symbolize a complete natural existence. If we assign a numerical value to each day of the week then every day has a pair that allows it to reach this completion. Sunday is the first day and therefore designated as being valued at one. When paired with the sixth day, Friday, they equal seven. Utilizing this system we see that the only day with no pair is Shabbos, thus allowing us to see that naturally it is a "lonely day."

This famous numerical pairing is only half of the picture, though. Each day of the week is assigned a celestial body that is considered to be the sign of that day. The seven days of the week (in order from Sunday) align with the sun, moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. Additionally, Chazal expressed the construct of the cosmos as being similar to an onion. From the perspective of mankind, the planets and stars appear to circle around our planet. Earth is expressed as a core and these outer layers of orbits are similar to our onion's layers. There seven lowest orbits are those of the sun, moon, and the planets visible to the naked eye. These are the same objects assigned to the days of the week.

The first orbit is that of the moon and if we pair it with the sixth we find that it is paired with Jupiter. Interestingly, the moon goes with Monday which is the second day and its pair would be Thursday which is Jupiter; these are the exact same objects! The second orbit is that of Mercury and that needs to be paired with the fifth orbit to equal seven. This has us pairing Mercury with Mars. In the days of the week, Mercury is Wednesday (4) and it would therefore pair with Mars, Tuesday (3).  The third orbit is that of Venus and pairs with the fourth which is the sun. Similarly, Sunday's sign is the sun (1) and that pairs with Venus which is designated as Friday's sign (6). (See Mishneh Torah Yesodai Hatorah 3:1 for the listing of orbits). The only planet left out is Saturn whose orbit is seven and whose day is Shabbos (7)! All the objects find the some object to pair with both when looking at the days of the week and the orbits of the associated planets!!! Shabbos was lonely and thus it is our job to make sure that she find her appropriate mate every week by utilizing this restful day to make time to learn Torah.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Even the Sages Had Difficulty Pronouncing "Ch"

Although the names of the months are of Babylonian origin, there is Midrashic literature that fleshes out the deeper meanings behind these names. One such Midrash is attributed to Rebbi Pinchas the talmid of the Kalir (Tosefos mention that the Kalir is the Tanna Rebbi Eliezer the son of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai) and is referred to as "Kiddush Yerachim D'Rebbi Pinchas" ("The Sanctification of the Months by Rebbi Pinchas"). (See Torah Sheleimah Miluim Parshas Bo, 178)

Rebbi Pinchas mentions that Elul, the month we are beginning, is called Elul (אלול) because of the shofar that is blown throughout this month in preparation for Rosh Hashana. A shofar is a hollowed out instrument and can be referred to as being Chalul (חלול - meaning hollow). The root of this word חלל can be seen with a similar application when used to describe a flute, a Chalil (חליל).

Perhaps, the fact that a shofar is hollow is not just a random attribute, but personifies part of the nature of what it is displaying in this month. Elul is clearly the time when preparation for Tishrei, the next month, is happening. People repent and awaken early to say selichos in order to be meritorious in the judgment of Rosh Hashana. According to Rebbi Eliezer the world was created on 25 Elul, but Rosh Hashana is not until 1 Tishrei because that is when the days of Creation ceased and the world was ready to run appropriately with man at its helm. (See Rosh Hashana 10b) Thus, one sees directly that Elul is like a hollow tube; a mechanism that displays the concept of a conduit. Its sole purpose is to connect and prepare one for that which comes out the end of it, Tishrei.

Grammarians, please do not worry! There is precedent for the exchange of a ח for an א, so the change from חלול to אלול should not seem so scary. In Parshas VaYishlach we are taught of Yaakov Avinu's famous battle with an angel. The pasuk states, ",ויאבק איש עמו" which means, "And he wrestled with the man." (Bereishis 32:25) The word used for wrestle ויאבק (VaYeAvek) is not a common word and the Ramban mentions that this word's origins literally come from those that mean that the two became intertwined as if embracing. Continues the Ramban that the Sages had difficulty pronouncing the letter ח and often either swallowed it or expressed it as an א. (Ramban Bereishis 32:25) Apparently, this was common enough that the Torah itself recognizes this pronunciation regarding this battle and uses ויאבק instead of ויחבק (VaYeChavek) which means to embrace. Therefore, when discussing the names of the months which are Babylonian it stands to reason that these letters would be easily interchangeable.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Showering in Dust

As mentioned in yesterday's post, this weekend will mark the Perseid meteor shower. That post reflected on some of the significance one can find in meteor showers that is applicable in one's personal life. Interestingly, the word for meteors in shas is zikos. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this week's haftarah discusses zikos, as well. (See Yishayah 50:11.)

In the haftarah the word is meant to describe Klal Yisrael and is referring to them as zikos, or igniters of fire. Because meteors appear as streaks of fire across the sky, the word zikos is applicable to them too.

Besides the symbolism mentioned in the last post, perhaps, there is added meaning when referring to this word usage in the haftarah. Many times, zikos, meteors, are the remnants of a comet that has passed through an area of space long ago. As Earth passes through that same area the dust particles left behind from that much earlier comet enter our atmosphere and flare up. This gives the appearance of a shower of meteors; hence the term for such events, meteor showers.

Essentially, the amazing spectacle seen from our planet is really the residual effect from many years past. This is something that is definitely attributable to Klal Yisrael. We are a nation built on the actions of our forefathers. In addition to trying to follow in their giant footsteps, it is often their merits that we are dependant on. Just like the comet left behind something that was imperceptible to us until the moment it interacts with the atmosphere, so too, our forefathers' actions were unnoticeable but still capable of affecting the world when necessary.

This haftarah has a significant amount of astronomical imagery within it. I discussed it at greater length in a post last year that you can read by clicking here.

Monday, August 6, 2012

All We Are is Dust In the Sky

This weekend will mark the peak of this year's Perseid meteor shower. As comets swing by our planet, they leave behind all sorts of dust and debris. Every year when Earth's orbit puts us into the dusty area of space, these particles enter our atmosphere. These particles then appear to flare up and, from our perspective, look like small stars that streak across the sky. In fact, many refer to such objects as shooting stars. On any given night there are a few particles that enter the atmosphere, but when we enter these dustier areas there are many more and the name meteor shower has been designated for these more active times.

There is an interesting halachah that if one sees a meteor he is to recite the brachah of oseh ma'aseh bereishis. This brachah can only be said on one meteor per night. (See Shulchan Aruch OC 227:1 and MB 227:1.)

Perhaps somewhat poetically, I find that reflecting on these types of events can give one both chizuk and mussar. A small piece of dust all of a sudden erupts into a fiery particle that, from Earth, appears to be a shooting star. As humans we have been created from dust, but we, too, are able to put on a great show and become great like the stars. However, we have to realize that our time here is fleeting. After a few moments these "stars" tend to burn out and leave no lasting mark. It is only the few larger particles that are big enough to survive the descent through the atmosphere and touch down to the ground. The vast majority leave no lasting impression.


This year's Perseid shower is not expected to be one of the more spectacular meteor showers. It is predicted to produce approximately one meteor per minute. Keep in mind that in many locations the sky conditions will not permit one to see the meteors that clearly.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Ancient Roots For Oxen (Amended)

When describing the bountiful plenty that Hashem will bestow upon us when we keep the Torah, the pasuk refers to cattle and sheep as follows:

"שגר אלפיך ועשתרות צאנך"

"The offspring of your cattle and your flocks of sheep." (Devarim 28:4)

While this is not the only time these words are used, they are used infrequently enough that the Rishonim feel it necessary to translate the words. (See their writings to Devarim 7:13) The words "שגר אלפיך ועשתרות" are usually not those found for offspring, cattle and flocks. Rather the more common "ילידי בקר ועדרים" seem more appropriate. (See Rashi Devarim 7:13)

The Ibn Ezra comments that the word usage may have some profoundly astronomical/astrological connection that was uncovered by "A great commentator from Sefarad," but the wording found in the Ibn Ezra's comments are difficult to understand and many have debated what he actually meant. (See Ibn Ezra Devarim 7:13)

While I am not sure if the following is what the Ibn Ezra intended, it does seem to be a plausible theory. It is important to recognize that the stars we see in the night sky appear to be in the same relative positions on any given day of the year. Meaning, if I go outside on August 5 of any given year at any specific time (at any given location), the stars seen in the sky will be identical to those seen the year before and the year after on that date at that time (at that location). While this seems to be the case, the truth is that the stars "move" approximately one degree every 72 years and thereby over large periods of time things will no longer appear the same. Over the course of any individual's lifetime (other than those that lived to biblical ages) one will not perceive this shift (called axial precession or the precession of the equinoxes). This phenomenon causes the mazal of any given month to appear to shift over long periods of time. For example, in the time of Chazal the mazal of the month of Adar was Dagim (Pisces) because that was positioned "behind" the sun that month. Nowadays Dagim has the sun "behind" it during the month of Nisan. This phenomenon has been mentioned by the Ibn Ezra in his foreword to Sefer HaTaamim and by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (see Yesodei HaTorah 3:7). The mazal of Nisan was given significant importance in ancient times since it displayed new growth and beginning. (See Ibn Ezra's Sefer HaTaamim)

When the world was created the mazal of the month of Nisan was Shor (Taurus) which has been symbolized by a bull since extremely ancient times. Later, due to the shift of axial precession, it shifted into the mazal of T'leh (Aries) which is shown as a ram or sheep. Perhaps, the expression of an ox as an אלף is because like the letter אלף it was first in the first position mazalos. The word שגר is perhaps used to describe the offspring of this ox because שגר often carries the connotation that the item has been cast away, as if rejected (see Jastrow's translation of this word). The flocks of sheep are perhaps referred to as עשתרות from the word עושר meaning riches. Since after the ox was cast away the mazal moved to T'leh enriching it and associating with it riches. (See Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma 2) In fact, Chazal deduce from this wording that raising sheep is very profitable and makes one rich. (Chullin 84b)

Additionally, the tenth month of the year, Teves, was associated with the sign of G'di (Capricorn[us]) during the time period that Klal Yisrael were leaving Mitzrayim. It remained with this association throughout the time of Chazal. Thus, the tenth month is associated with ovine creatures since a g'di is a goat which is a subcategory of the word in our pasuk, צאן. Perhaps, the עשתרות also has roots in the word עשר which means ten.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Learning?

The Gemara focusses on how the sun begins to lose its power on the 15 of Av. (Bava Basra 121b) Interestingly, the Rashbam mentions that the nights begin to get longer on 15 Av, and since one isn't working at night this means that he has more time to delve into Torah study. The obvious question that one should ask is that the solstice occurs in Tammuz (hence the name Tekufas Tammuz) and it is on that day (usually June 21) that the nights start to get shorter. That is why Shakespeare called it a Midsummer Night's Dream since "midsummer" used to refer to the solstice and it is a short night with quick dreams (although now we call that the first day of summer). This is now 44 days after this point that the days have been getting noticeably shorter, what could the Rashbam mean?

Perhaps the answer lies in how the nights gets longer. In the beginning of summer when the solstice occurs, it is true that the nights get longer, but they begin their growth by first having a later daybreak time. If one looks at a zmanim chart he will see that in the beginning of summer nightfall stays relatively the same, it is daybreak that gets later and later. It is around 15 Av that nightfall begins to get earlier, as well.

Maybe the Rashbam is not assuming that the individual is going to rise from bed earlier than daybreak, rather, he assumes that the person will end his day in the fields at nightfall. If the person goes to sleep at the same time every night then he will have more time for learning once nightfall gets earlier. Thus, one of the defining features of 15 Av is that Torah study becomes easier without even having ot put in much extra effort. It is displaying a bracha how Hashem tries to make it easy, at times, for us to benefit from His holy Torah study.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Mistaken Translation? (Artscroll Kinos)

The Kinos read on Tisha B'Av are peppered with many astronomical allusions. Some outright such as the fifth Kinah, read at night, that goes through the mourning of the twelve zodiacal constellations and others that use terminology to emphasize a point but do not outright discuss the night sky. A basic knowledge of the celestial objects opens a new dimension to seeing some of the powerful symbolism found in these heart wrenching lamentations. Unfortunately, lack of such knowledge often leads to misinterpretation.

Last year I was using the Artscroll Kinos (copyright 1991) and I noticed what appears to me to be an example of a mistranslation of one such Kinah. Earlier this evening I was in shul davening Maariv and I noticed that they had come out with their new linear translation and I immediately opened to this Kinah to see if any changes were made. I found that changes were made, but it appears that the original intent of the author is still not being expressed by this translation.

The Kinah is number 37 (ציון קחי כל צרי גלעד) states:

"נראה בתמוז כסיל בך יעלה כי שאר כל החדשים לבד זה בחדריך"

The first translation was:

"The constellation Orion is visible everywhere [except in Israel] in the month of Tammuz, for it only ascends above you [Israel] during one of the other months [Sivan], while [in Tammuz] it remains concealed in your inner chambers."

The translator must have realized that he was butchering the original text. The actual Hebrew seems to be discussing how Orion is seen in Tammuz, presumably in Israel since that is the location of the rest of the items in the Kinah, and during the rest of the months it seems to be elsewhere. My guess is that the translator did some research and found that Orion is not visible in the Middle East during the summer month of Tammuz. Because he assumed the original text must make sense, he had to force this other interpretation into the words. Unfortunately, it does not seem to capture the true intent of the author. I am also not sure where the "everywhere" that Orion is visible in Tammuz is. The entire Middle East and a significant portion of the Northern Hemisphere, currently, do not see Orion during this month.

Since I did not purchase the new linear translation, I do not have it in front of me, but the new translation of the line went something like this:

"In Tammuz, Antares visibly rises in you for in all the other months it is in your chambers [Southern Hemisphere]."

You will notice that the new translator abandoned the conventional Orion as his translation for "כסיל" and instead picked the lesser translation, Antares. I suspect he did so partially for the reasons cited above. While the vast majority of Rishonim maintain that "כסיל" is the constellation Orion, the Ibn Ezra maintains that it is the bright red star Antares that is found in the constellation Scorpius. (Ibn Ezra Iyov 38:31) Although this is a very unconventional translation, there is reason to suspect that it is accurate as it has been suggested that the author of this Kinah may have been the Ibn Ezra himself. Kudos to the new translation, but unfortunately it still is hard to hear.

Antares is seen in Yerushalayim in Tammuz, but what does it mean that the other months Antares finds itself in the Southern Hemisphere? Antares is visible (at least at some time during the night) for eleven out of the twelve months of the year in Yerushalayim. Rashi even mentions this fact in Rosh Hashana (11b).

I would like to offer a simple and clear translation for this line. By doing so I think it also becomes apparent that the Ibn Ezra is not the author of this Kinah. Before I give the translation, let me give some background. The stars have slowly shifted from their positions that they were in at the time of Chazal and even from the time of the Rishonim (I am referring to their relative position). The phenomenon that causes this is referred to as the precession of the equinoxes. I believe the reason for the mistranslation is because the translators researched what the current sky looks like and not the ancient sky as it was in the times of the author!!!

In the time of Chazal, Orion was first visible during Tammuz. Prior to Tammuz its appearance in the sky was occurring in daytime and its stars were out shined by daylight. In the eleventh - thirteenth century, when the Kinah was written, Orion still first became visible during Tammuz albeit later in the month. Its visibility was just before sunrise and it therefore was seen at daybreak. The stars and constellations that rise with the Sun are considered to be coming to power. (Rashi Rosh Hashana 11b) Therefore, even though Orion is visible in many other months, it may be considered to be more powerful in Tammuz and in the rest of the months it may be considered to be less of a force. Nowadays, it takes until the middle of Av for it to become visible meaning that it is invisible during Tammuz. If the translator would have looked to the star visibility times as they were in the times of the original author, he could have taken a very simple translation:

"The visibility of Orion in Tammuz is seen rising in you, for in all other months other than this it is in your chambers (meaning not in a position of power)."

May Hashem cause that this Kinah will not be read and cried over this coming Tisha B'Av since hopefully we will be rejoicing after finding true salvation after close to two thousand years!

Spies in the Skies: Tisha B'Av

In this week's parsha we are taught that 12 spies were sent into Canaan. Unfortunately, when they returned, on the 9 of Av, they gave a dismal report laced with blasphemy. The people complained bitterly and they were sentenced to die in the Wilderness. Only their children would enter the Promised Land, and even they would have to wait forty years to do so. In addition, this day, Tisha B'Av, was designated for tragedy, something it has lived up to since this original verdict was decreed.

Interestingly, if one looks to the sky on many of the important events throughout biblical history, one sometimes finds rare astronomical happenings. Even more fascinating is that these occurrences often fit the historical moment based on the astrological framework set forth by the Ibn Ezra in his Reishis Chachma. In this instance, the moon was "touching" Saturn. Since the moon is significantly closer to our planet than Saturn, it sometimes appears to pass in front of this distant planet. Sometimes the entire planet is hidden behind the moon and sometimes it is only partially behind the moon. The latter gives the impression as if the two are touching. Both types of "conjunctions" are extremely rare.

On the night of the first Tisha B'Av the moon was partially blocking Saturn. This, says the Ibn Ezra, is an extremely ominous sign. (Reshis Chachma 7) Even more interesting is that the Ibn Ezra maintains that when Saturn is touching an illuminated side of the moon it is not as bad, but when it is touching a darker part it portends horrible consequences. (Ibid.) In the instance of the first Tisha B'Av it was touching a dark part.

I do not know if the following also plays a role in the astrological happenings, but I find it interesting that the moon is considered by Chazal to represent the Jewish nation, (Midrash Tehillim 22; also see Rabbeinu Bacheye Shemos 12:2) and Saturn is considered to be their astrological sign. (Reishis Chachma 4) This ominous sign so intertwined with the Jewish people happening on the most tragic day of the Jewish year cannot be mere coincidence. (The small dot to the left of the moon just below the illuminated part is Saturn. I left it encircled and marked by the program used to recreate the sky, Stellarium. I apologize if the recreation did not come out clearly).




Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Lion of the Mikdash

We are now entering the month of Av, the month represented by Mazal Aryeh (Leo). This mazal is depicted as a lion. Unfortunately, in this month both batei mikdash were destroyed and we continue to mourn them. It is very interesting to see that one would have thought that the month symbolized by a regal creature, a lion, is currently seen as the month where we recognize that we have been exiled from our land and feel powerless.

Perhaps, if not for our sins, the nature of the month would truly represent malchus, royalty. Perhaps, it is specifically in this month that those aspiring for greatness are cast away if they do not live up to the high standard required to demonstrate such nobility. It is of note that the beis hamikdash is referred to as Ariel, meaning the lion of God. We are taught that the structure of the beis hamikdash also conjured up the image of a lion. Like a lion, it was wide and robust looking from the front and narrowed as it extended backwards.

Because we did not live up to the standard required to possess such a regal structure, it was taken from us. The lion of Ariel was taken in the month of Aryeh the mazal of the lion. May we soon merit to its rebuilding and true repentance for all our sins.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's Your Sign?

Tomorrow is my birthday, July 11, and this got me thinking about whether the proper way for one to determine his astrological sign is to use his birthday based on the solar calendar, or if he should use the lunar month in which he was born. For me there would not be a difference because July 11 is Cancer and my Hebrew birthday, 6 Tammuz, also is in the month of Sartan (Cancer). However, because the start and end of the Hebrew months do not always occur on the same dates of the solar calendar, for some people the solar calendar would produce one sign for them and the Hebrew calendar another.

The standard way to refer to the astrological signs in Jewish literature has been to assign a sign to each month. Thus, Nissan is T'leh (Aries), Iyar is Shor (Taurus), etc. Using these references, one would have assumed that the Jewish system of astrological signs is not dependent on the solar calendar and that one would disregard his "English birthday" and only use his Hebrew birthday to determine his sign.

The reason why this might not be the case is because it is plausible that when Chazal mention that Nissan is T'leh, they only meant that on average the majority of Nissan is T'leh, but they really agree that the astrological signs are based on the solar calendar. Before you stop reading and wonder why I would make such an assertion, let me explain why this actually seems to be the way many Rishonim understand the system.

Rashi and the R. Avraham ibn Ezra both seem to suggest that the Jewish astrological system is really based on the solar calendar. When describing why each month has its specific sign, Rashi clearly mentions that it is based on the sun's position relative to the stars in the sky. (See Rashi Rosh Hashanah 11b; also see Rashi Rosh Hashanah 11a and Tosefos Rosh Hashanah 2b that mention that sometimes when Chazal refer to a month they are really referring to the corresponding solar month. ) This is a clear reference to the solar calendar as the lunar months would have no bearing on the sun's position in the sky. (Of course, axial precession has caused the apparent position of the stars to shift but that is a discussion for a different post.) The ibn Ezra's books on astrology, Reishis Chachmah and Sefer Hata'amim, also clearly indicate that the system is predicated on the solar calendar. If this is the case then it would seem that the proper way to determine one's astrological sign would be to take one's "English birthday" and not their Hebrew birthday.

Although the above seems to express the opinions of Rashi and the ibn Ezra, it is certainly not unanimously agreed upon by all Rishonim. When commenting on the passage from Beshalach that discusses the war with Amalek, the Chizkuni mentions that people born in the month of Adar II have no astrological sign whatsoever. There are only twelve signs and they have been "used up" by the time you get to the thirteenth month of the year!!! This explanation makes it very clear that the Chizkuni understands the astrological signs of Jewish people to be dependent on the Hebrew months and not the solar calendar.

Thus, it seems that there are two opinions as to how to determine one's astrological sign. As I mentioned above, for me the two systems yield the same result. However, for some people they may not really know which is their birth sign as there is a debate amongst the Rishonim as to how to determine it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Maaseh Hamerkava and Chukas

The day of this post is 5 Tammuz. The reason I point this out is because this was the date that Yechezkel Hanavi witnessed his fantastic vision of the maaseh hamerkavah. This vision was a display of the angelic procession that surrounds the heavenly throne. In this vision Yechezkel sees that the angels have four different faces: a lion, a man, an eagle, and an ox (this last face was later replaced with the face of a cherub). (See Yechezkel 1 and 10.)

In my book, The Secrets of the Stars, I detailed how these four faces are also reflected in the signs of the zodiac that represent the first month of each season. As the earth circles around the sun, the backdrop of stars that would be behind the sun (if its light wasn't outshining them during daytime) change. When the world was initially created, the grouping of stars that was behind the sun during the first month of spring was Taurus the Ox, that of summer was Leo the Lion, that of autumn was Scorpius the Scorpion, and that of winter of Aquarius the Water Carrier. (Due to a phenomenon called axial precession, this has changed and these signs no longer accompany the first months of these seasons.)

If you look carefully, you will see that three out of four are three of the four faces of Yechezkel's vision. Taurus, Leo, and Aquarius have the faces of an ox, lion, and human repsectively. The only one that appears to not represent one of these faces is Scorpius. Interestingly, Rabbeinu Bacheye points out that the face of an eagle is often times only hinted at and not expressed outright. In fact, when looking at the banners of the encampment of Klal Yisrael in the wilderness we find a similar representation. Each shevet had a flag and each grouping of three had a specific banner.

Rabbeinu Bacheye points out that the four major banners appeared to display the faces of the angels of Yechezkel. The camp of Ephrayim had an ox, Yehuda had a lion, Reuven had mandrakes whose root structure looks very human like, and Dan's camp had an eagle. Although the northern encampment of Dan flew under this banner, his personal flag was that of a snake. This is peculiar because the banners of the other three camps were identical to the personal flag of the leader of that camp. It would seem that, once again, the eagle is somehow not displayed fully, in this case being represented by a snake just as in the sky it was exchanged for a scorpion. I do feel the need to point out that in ancient Babylonian astrology, the sign of Scorpius was depicted as an eagle and currently the constellation next to it is Aquila the Eagle.

This week's parsha, Chukas, seems to have the four elements expressed in it, as well. We find the Water Carrier of Aquarius in Moshe who is the human the brings forth water. Unfortunately, it was done this time by hitting the rock in a fashion for which Moshe was punished, but nevertheless it is found in the parsha. We find our snakes (similar to the Scorpion of Scorpius, this association is expounded upon in greater detail throughout The Secrets of the Stars) when venemous snakes are sent to punish Klal Yisrael for complaining about the manna, and the ox can be seen in the beginning of the parsha in the discussion of the parah adumah, red heifer. The lion may not be seen in the parsha itself, but is clearly referenced as Chukas is always read in the first month of summer, Tammuz. (The earliest in the year that Chukas can be read is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz which, although is technically 30 Sivan, is certainly part of Tammuz as it is its Rosh Chodesh.) This is the month that was symbolized by Leo the Lion when the world was created. Chukas is also always the parsha either preceding 5 Tammuz or, as in this year, right afterwards as well.

This post is a very quick overview and, unfortunately, due to the brief nature of this site I am not really able to expound significantly on these topics as much as I would like. In The Secrets of the Stars I dedicated an entire chapter to Yechezkel's vision and also discuss its relevance to us.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Dark Sunrise

When confronting Korach, Moshe states, "Morning will happen and Hashem will make known those that are to Him, etc." A fairly obvious question is why the delay, why didn't Moshe just have the showdown right then and there? What was the necessity to delay until morning?

The Maharasha addresses this issue in his commentary to Nedarim 39b.The Gemara mentions that when Korach challenged Moshe's authority the sun and moon ascended to the loftier heavens to demand justice on behalf of Moshe. They gave Hashem an ultimatum, either He should do justice for ben-Amram (Moshe), or they would refuse to shine from this point on. Hashem shot arrows at them and forced them back to their regular jobs and stated, "Every day the pagans bow to you and you continue to shine without defending My honor, but for the honor of a human you stand up!"

The Maharsha states that Moshe wanted to reference this celestial confrontation when rebuking Korach. He, therefore, stated that tomorrow morning justice will occur. Not because the sun will not shine, as was the sun's intent; rather, because Hashem will very clearly display who He has chosen to perform His service and who He has not. The Maharsha continues to state that this may be partially alluded to in the Rashi's commentary to this verse.

One thing that I find interesting about this is that it would seem the Maharsha felt that the sun was telling Hashem that justice will have to be carried out for Moshe. Either the sun will do it by not shining, or Hashem will perform a different miracle. Since Moshe was familiar with the discussion, had Hashem told the sun that he could adjudicate, then Moshe would have referenced the lack of the sun's shining the following morning as a testament to Moshe's authenticity. If this is true then why did the moon join with the sun in making the ultimatum? The determining factor was the sun, not the moon. The answer is quite obvious, though. The moon does not produce its own light, rather, it reflects that of the sun. Thus, if the sun were to cease shining, the moon would inevitably follow suit.

I concede that the Maharsha's commentary does seem a bit hard to read into the wording of the Gemara. The sun and moon seem to both be demanding justice and declaring that they will go on strike if justice was not served. It does not seem that the sun was stating that he would provide justice should Hashem choose not to carry it out. Any suggestions or answers?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

E=MC²?

Recently, important results were released from one of the foremost laboratories in the world, CERN. Neutrinos, a type of sub-atomic particle, do not travel faster than light. Now, you may be asking why this is news? According to Einstein's theories of relativity no particle can travel faster than light. The answer is that last September this same lab reported that they might have witnessed these particles traveling just slightly above the cosmic speed limit, the speed of light.

Now, it is of course true that general and special relativity are still just theories and there are a lot of questions that they cannot and do not answer. Scientists are still trying to resolve conflicts between these theories and the qualities observed in quantum mechanics. While both of these methods seem to have astoundingly accurate results in their respective areas of science (relativity in the macro and quantum mechanics in the micro), the two are essentially incompatible with each other. Nevertheless, these are the best theories out there now and within their respective fields have produced wondrous results. Things so basic to these theories, such as the assertion that no particle can travel faster than the speed of light, have been shown to hold up in many different experiments. Thus, if neutrinos were truly traveling faster then a significant portion of these sciences would need a complete overhaul! Alas, this was not the case. As Sergio Bertolucci presented in his results, it appears the results were erroneous due to a faulty element of the fiber-optic timing system.

I find one of the comments made by Bertolucci to be very telling. He mentioned that this final result was something that he had expected deep down even though many would have loved the excitement of having truly found these particles to be breaking the rules of science. To be part of a team that has discovered how relativity was not a sound theory would certainly have ensured these scientists a place in history. Science is replete with new discoveries rendering earlier ones obsolete. Whether they be that the earth is not flat to Einstein's theories replacing those of Newton, when massive discoveries are finally confirmed science generally abandons the old and begins to explore the new opportunities presented. Those who helped form these new opportunities are then immortalized. This is how the quest for objective truth perseveres.

One of the many flaws in this type of system is that when one thinks he has discovered something new it is not always so easy to give it up. How many times can a yeshiva student remember how he came up with a chiddush and although his chavrusah has adequately shown why this chiddush is wrong, the student just cannot let go. The discovery of objective truth is so powerful that its illusion is sometimes so tempting that one ends up net being able to let go. In the case with the neutrino we actually find scientists who appear to have acted with integrity and abandoned the previous findings when they could not be supported by further investigation.

This idea of bias is expressed very strongly in this week's parsha. The spies were unable to see the objective good of our beautiful land, Eretz Yisrael. Although Hashem had performed countless miracles and displayed that nothing stands in His way, the spies were unable to see past the enormous armies and fortified cities that they determined were impenetrable.

In our own lives we have so many biases that do not allow us to see things for what they truly are. Sometimes we are afraid of change, and other times we are driven by our personal desires. Regardless of the reason why, we often fall prey to seeing a very distorted view of reality. Klal Yisrael had been on the cusp of inheriting the Promised Land. However, one can only truly find his inheritance and place in this world if he is able to remove the "dusty glasses" that constantly cloud his vision.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Transits and Haughtiness

It is very exciting that in the next few days there will be a transit of Venus across the sun! This means that Venus will pass directly between us and the sun.

I remember the last time this happened, eight years ago. I set up my telescope (then I had an 8" Celestron Schmidt Cassegrain) early in the morning and watched as the black orb of Venus appeared to cross past the face of the sun. I admit that for those not very interested in astronomy this event is not as aesthetically pleasing as viewing the rings of Saturn or the craters of the moon, but the rarity of this event creates excitement itself. Additionally, those who do appreciate astronomy (and perhaps its history) definitely can appreciate this event with greater appreciation.

Such transits are relatively rare with a pairing of them spaced eight years apart (as is the case with this and the last) and then a duration of time that spans greater than a century prior to the next. In fact, the next time this event will occur will be in 2117. These events were crucial to earlier astronomers in helping them calculate the size of the solar system and of Venus. This was done from the seventeenth century onwards.

Such calculations are predicated on the fact that we exist in a heliocentric system and not a geocentric one. This means that the planets revolve around the sun and not the sun/planets around our planet. Believe it or not, even relatively recently there were "scientific" and Torah works that were still advocating the geocentric version, however, as time such views no longer seem to be adhered to by the greater number of scholars.

I do find it interesting that the solar system has the sun at its center, but from our perspective it would appear that we are the center of the universe. I think a lot of mussar can be taken from this concept. Naturally people see things only from their personal vantage point and often feel as though they are, in fact, "the center of the universe." It takes objective analysis and an open mind to listening to the truth that allows one to realize that his haughtiness is inappropriate. Gaavah, haughtiness, is a very difficult attribute to eradicate from within ourselves, but until one does so, he is effectively incapable of truly recognizing the emes, truth, in many situations.

Unfortunately, I do not think I will be able to witness this wonderful event as I have (b"H) upgraded my telescope to a 10" Meade Schmidt Cassegrain and do not have a solar filter for this size telescope. Although, one can view this without a telescope, it still requires proper protective eyewear and I do not have those either. I was lucky enough to see it eight years ago and I remember it clearly as, for me, it was memorable.
PLEASE NOTE THAT YOU SHOULD NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT THE PROPER PROTECTIVE EYEWEAR AND THIS TRANSIT REQUIRES THAT. LOOKING AT THE SUN WITHOUT SUCH EYEWEAR IS DANGEROUS AND DAMAGING!!!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Next Week's Eclipse

As next week's solar eclipse approaches I couldn't help but think of a quick thought that I mentioned in the appendix of The Secrets of the Stars. It is interesting to see that in the year of the Exodus as Klal Yisrael were approaching Har Sinai there was a solar eclipse, too. That eclipse occurred on Rosh Chodesh Sivan just as this upcoming one will happen in close proximity to that date.

Solar eclipses always occur on or very near to Rosh Chodesh because in order for them to happen the sun, moon, and earth must be in a straight line, syzygy (note: this is a great Scrabble word). This alignment is, by definition, a molad. Due to the fact that our calendar is based on calculations and estimates, the calculated molad and the actual molad can fall on different dates. Thus, eclipses do not always occur on Rosh Chodesh itself.

As the pesukim teach us, we battled Amalek in the second half of the month of Iyar. On the first of Sivan we camped, in united fashion, at Sinai and were given the Torah shortly afterwards. The solar eclipse that occurred on that Rosh Chodesh would have been recognized as being extremely symbolic. Chazal teach that such eclipses symbolize bad tidings for the other nations of the world. Klal Yisrael, often seen as being represented by the moon metaphorically, would be seen as blocking the light of the sun, often considered to metaphorically represent the other nations.

After decimating the superpower of the world, Egypt, and the battling our formidable foe, Amalek, we were about to receive that which defines us and our destiny the Torah. Sandwiched in between these events was a demonstrable event that displayed that there was to be a new nation to shed light unto the world Klal Yisrael. May we soon merit to live up to that very high standard which is required of us!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Patience is a Virtue

In this week's parsha (for those in chutz la'aretz), we find a discussion about waiting for the fifth year prior to eating produce outside of Eretz Yisrael. In the fourth year the produce is only able to be eaten in Yerushalayim, and in the first three it is prohibited completely. Just after this portion the Torah prohibits one to eat the flesh of an animal while it is still convulsing from being slaughtered (this translation is based on Chazal's interpretation; they also attribute to this prohibition that one may not eat prior to davening, and that one may not eat from a sacrifice prior to its blood being appropriately sprinkled on the altar). Following this prohibition are the prohibitions of acting superstitiously and divining the future through astrological means.

The juxtaposition of these mitzvos is confusing as there does not seem to be much similarity between them. Perhaps, reading these portions from the Rambam's perspective allows one a possible answer. The Rambam famously rejected astrology and superstitions as being anything more than foolishness. He writes in many places that adherence to these ideas is antithetical to Torah values since the purpose of man is to ascend from the beasts via his superior intellect and to use this intellect to serve God. By making use of these pseudosciences, one is essentially rejecting that which is demanded of him.

Thus, perhaps, the Rambam understood that these mitzvos demonstrate that one must exercise patience prior to acting. The section dealing with produce clearly shows that one must wait the necessary amount of years prior to partaking of his harvests. Not eating while an animal is still convulsing also demonstrates that one need to be patient and wait until the appropriate time arrives to eat from his recently slaughtered animal (the other examples that Chazal attribute to this mitzvah that I mentioned above demonstrate this same point). Using superstitions and astrology , according to the Rambam, demonstrate the same idea as well. Part of the reason that these practices came about was because people were quick to take anecdotal evidence and attribute the cause of many of events to these superstitions or stellar objects. Had the people thought things through a little more philosophically (or perhaps scientifically) they would not notice a true cause and effect relationship. These practices are often perpetuated due to a lack of patience to examine and understand phenomena objectively. Therefore, from this viewpoint it makes perfect sense why these mitzvos can be found grouped together. Whether or not one subscribes to the philosophy of the Rambam with regard to these matters, the lesson learned is a good one. Exercising caution and patience prior to coming to conclusions is a value we should all try to instill in ourselves and children.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

High Noon in the Mikdash?

As mentioned in the last post, I was going to do somewhat of a two part series. The last post dealt with the alignment of the Beis Hamikdash and solar motion as seen here. This one will address the design of the walls of the Beis Hamikdash.

The Gemara teaches that the earliest that the afternoon offering could be performed in the Beis Hamikdash was a half-hour after midday. The Gemara questions why this is true since tradition teaches us that Avraham prayed his afternoon service immediately after midday and that that prayer corresponds to the afternoon sacrificial offering.
The Gemara assumes that one would not have a problem ascertaining the exact moment after midday based on the following easy experiment. In order to determine the appropriate time one would need only to look at the shadows cast by the surrounding walls. Since the sun is located toward the eastern portion of the sky in the morning, the shadows cast by it will be protruding to the west. The opposite is true for the afternoon. Therefore, the moment that one sees shadows cast toward the east he knows that it is immediately after midday. The Gemara provides several answers, the first of which is that walls of the Beis Hamikdash were sloped and therefore did not produce an adequate shadow until after a half-hour after midday. (Yoma 28b based on Rashi's commentary) Thus, they were unable to be as accurate as possible with regard to the afternoon offering. (To see a fascinating way to determine the actual slope of the wall based on this approach see Rav Yoav Elan's wonderful post from his blog all about the Second Beis Hamikdash on this topic here.)

The question I have with this approach is that it should not have been difficult to determine midday in the Beis Hamkidash. As discussed in the last post, the Yerushalmi maintains that the walls of the Beis Hamikdash were perfectly aligned to the cardinal directions. If so, there is a very easy method to determining when midday is. Anyone at a latitude north of 23.5N will see the sun directly due south at midday on any given day. Yerushalayim is located at approximately 32 degrees north and certainly well above 23.5. Since the walls of the Beis Hamikdash were aligned perfectly, then one could look at an eastern or western wall from the edge toward the south and when the sun would be directly above that wall he would know that it was midday. This is an extremely easy experiment and, based on it, the sacrificial offering could have been offered just after midday and it would be consistent with the tradition with regards to Avraham's prayer.
There is also good precedent that there were kohanim assigned to such tasks of determining celestial phenomena for the purposes of the service as seen in Yoma 28a where we find that there was someone charged to ascend a wall or roof to witness dawn in order to determine when the morning offering could be brought. We also find other items in the Beis Hamikdash whose design enabled the people to know when certain celestial events were occurring in order to perform mitzvos such as reading the shema; this was accomplished by the nivreshes that would sparkle in the rising sun's rays and alert the people of Yerushalayim to recite shema. (See Yoma 37b and Tosefos' commentary) So, why couldn't there have been someone designated to determine midday based on the solar position above the wall?
The above approach to understanding the Gemara reflects the opinion of Rashi. There are other opinions such as those of Rabbeinu Chananel, the Aruch, and the Otzer Hageonim. They have a variant text of the Gemara which clearly states that the walls were perfectly aligned and they do not maintain that there was any slope to the wall. They maintain that technically the sacrifice could have been brought earlier but this could have caused problems for people living elsewhere. Since others may not be as detail oriented when conducting their own experiments outside the confines of the Temple for the purposes of their personal afternoon prayers; it was necessary in the Beis Hamikdash to delay the offering. Had they not delayed, visitors would have learned from the practice and applied it in an erroneous fashion after leaving. Therefore, a half-hour was added so nobody would err when they went back home. According to this approach, no question arises as it is agreed upon that midday was easy to determine in the Beis Hamikdash.
Based on the above questions, Rashi's approach; however, appears to be in conflict with the above Yerushalmi. It would seem that Rashi was forced to this conclusion because according to the text of the Bavli that he had, the walls were not perfect. Rashi interpreted that to mean that they were sloped. He must understand that the Bavli's passage was in conflict with the Yerushalmi because if it wasn't then midday would have been easy to determine by seeing when the sun was due south. The problem is that this leaves one with another question.
According to Rashi's text, the Gemara mentions that the walls were not aligned perfectly. Since Rashi must maintain that they were not perfectly aligned to the cardinal directions, as stated above, how did he know that they were also sloped? One could have stated that the delay of the shadow being cast was completely dependent on the fact that the walls were not perfectly aligned north to south and not dependent at all on there being a slope. In fact, according to the Otzer Hageonim this was considered by the Bavli prior to it rejecting this assertion based on the Yerushalmi. Keep in mind, the Otzer Hageonim has the text that maintains that the walls were perfectly aligned and straight.
Rather, it seems that Rashi would maintain that they were unsuccessful in aligning the walls to the cardinal directions although an attempt had been made to align them. Because of the attempt, Rashi knew that the alignment would not have been off by a lot. It seems reasonable to minimize the conflict between the Bavli and Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi puts emphasis on the importance of aligning the walls and then goes to cite that this was done successfully. I do not find it unlikely that the Bavli would agree that there was an attempt to align the walls and it seems clear that Rashi is of the opinion that they were not perfectly aligned, but that they were close to perfect. Had Rashi been comfortable that they were severely misaligned then he never would have had to mention a slope in the wall's design. He could have attributed to the delay of the shadow to the wall's positioning. Rather, the walls must have been aligned enough that the half-hour estimate would be unreasonable and Rashi presumably got that from the fact that an attempt had been made to align them. This would force Rashi into explaining the Gemara to be referring to a slope.
One cannot state that they possibly aligned it, but were unsure if they were successful because after the first year of witnessing the solar motion they would notice that the walls were not perfectly aligned.
If this is true then the determination of the slope of the wall that I linked to earlier here might not be completely accurate because that is based on the assumption that the walls were aligned perfectly to the four directions. Since it is unknown how much deviation from this there was it would be impossible to determine the slope exactly. Although, since it appears that the difference was minimal the calculations are probably extremely close.

No Compasses in the Midbar

Firstly, let me apologize for not having posted for the past several weeks. Baruch Hashem I have been very busy with all sorts of things and then with Pesach I just did not have the time. I, therefore, hope to post a two part series about how the Beis Hamikdash was aligned with solar motion and whether or not that raises some questions about the design of its walls.

This week's parsha teaches of the inaugural service of the mishkan. As we know, the mishkan was a mobile temple in which Bnai Yisrael were able to offer their sacrifices to Hashem in the wilderness. The Yerushalmi teaches that it is very important to have our temples aligned perfectly with the cardinal directions. In addition to each side having proper alignment, it seems that the eastern doorway was constructed in such a fashion that at sunrise on the first day of summer the sun's rays would directly hit the southern doorpost and while rising on the first day of winter the rays would hit the northern doorpost directly. In fact, the Yerushalmi mentions that the prophets of earlier times went to great lengths to ensure that this doorway was aligned precisely. (Yerushalmi Eruvin 32a-33a)

R. Yosa informs one how to discern which direction is which. He teaches that if one draws a line on the horizon starting from where the sun rises on the first of summer and ending at the point where it rises on the first of winter then he will have defined east. If he does so for the spots where the sun sets on the first of winter until the spot where it sets on the first of summer then he will have defined west. The other sides are north and south. (Ibid.)

Based on the above teaching the Yerushalmi states that this precision would have been easy while in Shilo or in Yerushalayim because the populace was familiar with the area prior to erecting the temples in those locations. However, how was this accomplished while wandering in the wilderness. Klal Yisrael needed to build the mishkan right when they arrived at a new location and they would not have had the ability to watch the solar motion for the duration of a year to determine the cardinal directions with precision. Since the compass hadn't been invented yet, they would not have been able to automatically determine which direction was due east, etc. To this the Yerushalmi responds that the aron would miraculously align itself when it reached its destination. Based on this the Levi'im were able to build the mishkan around it. (Ibid.)

The initial questions that I had were why couldn't Klal Yisrael have looked to the northern region of the sky and seen the North Star? Based on that, they would have known which direction is north and they could figure the rest out from there. Almost instantly I started to wonder if this supported Rabbeinu Chananel's opinion that during the encampment in the wilderness the sky was not visible to Klal Yisrael because the clouds and pillars of fire blocked the view. (See Rabbeinu Bacheye Shemos 12:2) I also wondered why R. Yosa would need to give such a relatively difficult and time consuming method. Why not just point to the North Star and take it from there?

I then realized that I was making a very common but obvious mistake. Klal Yisrael could not have used the North Star to guide them in this fashion because there was no North Star!!! In addition to spinning on its axis, our planet wobbles very slowly. Picture a spinning dreidel. As it turns it also has a slight wobble which becomes more pronounced as it slows. Earth, too, has a wobble, although it is much slower than the dreidel's. It takes just under 26,000 years for one full "wobble" to occur. However, there is enough "partial wobble" during smaller durations of time that stars appear to have shifted in the sky. Because of this phenomenon, called the precession of the equinoxes, there was no polar star during the times of the amoraim, tanaim, batei mikdash, Shilo, or even the mishkan. It is a relatively recent occurrence that we have a star, Polaris, that is so close to due north, less than one degree.

So, it would seem that without a compass it would have been very difficult to accurately set the mishkan up optimally. The aron, though, miraculously enabled Klal Yisrael to adequately set up their mishkan and serve Hashem properly.

Part two of this installment should be arriving shortly. It will, hopefully, analyze the architectural design of the walls of the Beis Hamikdash. Using the information in this post the next one will raise some questions as to why Rashi maintains that it was difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact moment of midday in the Beis Hamikdash.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Demonic Offspring

I hope everyone has been enjoying the beautiful sight of Venus and Jupiter appearing to come very close together in the western sky. From this point on, they will now appear to be separating. Due to their brilliance, most people find this sight to be quite pleasing!

After hearing nice feedback about the last post which focused on the significance of certain planets as taught by Rabbeinu Bacheye, I figured that I would follow up with a possible theory about a certain passage from Pesachim. The Gemara teaches that initially there was a female demon named Igras the daughter of Machlas who would cause harm to people in the nighttime. Rabbi Chaninah b. Dosa limited this demon's abilities of destruction to only Tuesday nights and Friday nights. Later, Abaye took even this limited amount of time from this demon. (Pesachim 112b)

The Maharsha comments that it is possible that this demon is actually the offspring of the Machlas who was the daughter of Yishmael who was also the wife of Eisav. Citing Midrash, the Maharsha states that just like we know that Adam produced demons for 130 years after he sinned, so too, the union of Machlas and Eisav produced demons.

As mentioned many times in this post, every night/day is considered to be influenced by one of the seven ancient planets (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). The two nights to which Igras the daughter of Machlas was initially limited to having control of were Tuesday nights which are under the control of Saturn and Friday nights which are of Mars. (See Rashi Berachos 58b and Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachmah) Mars is associated with Eisav and his descendants and Saturn with Yishmael and his descendants. As such it is interesting to see that the the demon which was the product of Eisav and Yishmael's union (Machlas was Yishmael's daughter and Eisav's wife) was relegated to the two nights that are symbolic of these two forces. Of course, Abaye later banished this demon altogether.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's that in the West?

A few weeks ago I happened to look up at the sky and I noticed that Venus was shining brilliantly in the west and Jupiter was shining brightly somewhat overhead. Both of these planets are extremely bright and I found the sight of them to be quite beautiful. I knew that the two would be moving closer together every night and that this sight would become more and more pleasing with every night. I then remembered something that I had seen in Rabbeinu Bacheye's Kad Hakemech and went to grab my copy to review something that he had written about Purim.

As has been mentioned in this post many times, there are seven objects that were desingated as planets in ancient times. They are: the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The placement of these objects in the sky was considered to help determine how the natural events of the world would occur. Rabbeinu Bacheye mentions that of these seven, two function primarily in what we would generally call more of a natural sense and the other five are more of what we consider to be a supernatural way. The two natural ones are the sun and moon and they very naturally affect the day, weather, tides, etc. The other five, says Rabbeinu Bacheye, can be divided into those that have positive influence and those of negative.

There are two planets with positive influence, two with negative, and one that seems to take the disposition of that which is around it. Mercury is the one that is not independently good or bad, Saturn and Mars are malevolent, and Jupiter and Venus portend good tidings. When Saturn and Mars join together, whatever is being influenced by them will be completely destroyed. Rabbeinu Bacheye then goes to demonstrate how Achashveirosh was symbolic of Saturn and Haman of Mars. Thus, their combination to destroy Klal Yisrael should have had severe ramifications. Trying to offset this were Mordechai, symbolic of Venus, and Esther, symbolic of Jupiter. Rabbeinu Bacheye then goes to show how certain words evoked by Esther actually were referring to Hashem overriding the whole system of nature to save His nation and that Haman tried to belittle this concept.

I find it very interesting that Jupiter (Esther) and Venus (Mordechai) will be fantastically close at Purim (actually coming their closest a few days after Purim, but still unusually close even on Purim). Keep watching towards the west every night after sunset to see this with your own eyes. May we merit to a mazaldikke sha'a and find salvation just as the Jews did many years when they prayed to Hashem to save them from the evil Persian Empire.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Invisible Signs From Heaven?

The Gemara teaches that the end of the planting season is when the Pleiades, a star cluster located in the constellation Taurus and referred to as Kimah by Chazal, is at its peak at approximately 3pm. 3pm is chosen as the time because this is when the field workers pack up for the evening and begin to go home. (Bava Metziya 106b; based on Rashi's commentary) This is defined as being in the beginning of Adar by Rashi. A basic question one can ask is, "Is the Gemara alluding to something else by giving this obscure description as opposed to just saying that the end of the season is at the beginning of Adar?"

Also, prior to offering a different explanation to this passage, Tosefos ask many questions on this approach. One of the questions is that at 3pm the stars are not visible (it is the middle of the day) and the Tosefos assume that the passage was giving a sign that is noticeable. Why would the Gemara describe the season's end with something that is not visible?

To give a possible answer to these questions, let us analyze some other important ideas that are associated with Adar. Moshe Rabbeinu was born on 7 Adar. The Seder HaDoros informs us that he was born at approximately 9am in the morning. The question is, is there any significance to 9am on 7 Adar?

There are a few places in the sky that are considered to influence events on earth. Whatever celestial item is rising from the east is considered to be exerting influence as it can be seen as rising to power (see Rosh Hashana 11b and Ibn Ezra's Sefer HaTa'amim). Its peak, when it has risen to the highest point it attains, is seen as its influence shining with the most possible strength.

The Pleaides are associated with rain (Berachos 58b) and they are assumed to have benevolent associations (see Yalkut Shimoni Bereishis 366). At the end of the planting season, it is the rains that the farmer is focused on. The rains associated with Pleiades are seen as the tool for growth.

Moshe Rabbeinu, the vehicle through which Klal Yisrael was able to grow through the Exodus and receiving of the Torah, was born at the moment when Pleiades was rising. 7 Adar at 9am corresponds to a moment when this cluster will be positioned on the eastern horizon. 9am (really a quarter of the day since we are talking about shaos zemaniyos) is also the time when one can no longer recite Shema and fulfill his daily obligation. This is because people are considered to have risen and started their day at this point in time.

In other words, Moshe Rabbeinu's birth marked a time that was strongly associated with the time for the growth to begin. It was the hour of the day associated with getting started after slumber and it is marked by the Pleiades, the stars of growth, starting their influence in the world as they rise from the east. The end of Moshe Rabbeinu's birthday, meaning when people are finished being productive at 3pm, would be marked with Pleiades being at their peak. Almost as if to show that the entire day of Moshe Rabbeinu's birth marks the rise and complete exertion of power of growth by the Pleiades. This was a display that Klal Yisrael were about to grow through its newly born leader.

Why would a sign be given that is not noticeable? It is well known that the Purim miracle happened without supernatural events. It demonstrated Hashem's complete control while still utilizing the forces of nature. This is often expressed through the mazal of the month of Purim, Dagim or Pisces, which is depicted as fish which are famous for being hidden from sight as they live beneath the water. Moshe Rabbeinu's birth marked the beginning of the growth of Klal Yisrael, but they were not at a point where the overt miracles were going to be expressed. They were in a time period still able to be expressed as an "Adar" type time. It would be another 80 until Moshe Rabbeinu would lead them out of Egypt.

Monday, February 13, 2012

New Rules of Physics or Translating Chumash?

In the end of this week’s parsha the shalosh regalim are mentioned. The same general language to refer to them is repeated again towards the end of Ki Sisa in a few weeks. There are, however, a few discrepencies that can be seen. What especially arouses one’s curiosity is when there are parallel pesukim that have one word that is different. Even more interesting is when the commentaries seem to disregard the discrepency!



One such difference is the way the Torah refers to the end of the year when discussing Sukkos. In Mishpatim the Torah says that Sukkos is, “בצאת השנה,” meaning in the end of the year. (Shemos 23:16) Whereas, in Ki Sisa the end of the year is referenced as “תקופת השנה.” (Shemos 34:22) Onkelos seems to disregard the difference in the wording and states that the translation is the same for both phrases.



I have heard a couple respectable individuals attribute a theory to the Vilna Gaon, but neither have been able to show me the actual source (although they claim that they remember seeing it in a reputable printed work, they just can’t remember where). Allegedly, the Gaon contended that there was initially supposed to be a seven month year just like we have seven days of the week. It was only after the effects of sin became pronounced that the world needed the extra months.



The theory maintains that there was never supposed to be a time period of winter. Winter is the time devoid of growth and symbolic of death. This should not occur in a pristine world.



In Mishpatim the language is much stronger and literally means the end of the year. This is because this parsha precedes the sin of the Egel HaZahav and is stated in a perfected world where Sukkos is the actual end of the year. Ki Sisa has a wording that implies the end of the year but literally means “when the year circles around (see Rashi).” The implications are that the agricultural year is over and is cycling to the next spring even though there will be several barren months of winter. This is because Ki Sisa had the Egel HaZahav recounted in the earlier section of it and this part is, therefore, talking to the world of sinners.



One should not ask from the story of Noach where Hashem promises that all the seasons will continue (Bereishis 8:22), because that was stated to a world of sinners and the (alleged) Gaon could contend that the world was reperfected only at Matan Torah. Although one could, perhaps, ask from the Baraisa D’Mazalos that contends that Hashem initially placed twelve zodiacal constellations in the sky. There are twelve because the sky is divided into twelve regions, one for each month.



The only resolution is that each mazal would be for a shorter time than a month and the world’s orbit was faster in order to circle through these twelve constellations in a shorter time frame. The truth is that one would have to contend something along these lines because the entire concept is suggesting that earth orbited the sun quicker.



The issue is that earth would not be able to sustain life at an orbit much farther or closer from the sun so it would have had to be orbiting the sun faster while keeping the same current distance. How this world went so fast and kept its current orbit up to a point in time when it slowed so drastically would require a new and extremely complex set of laws of physics (assuming that it did not all happen within the supernatural realm completely). The earth's initial speed should have been too fast to be caught in orbit at this distance around the sun and it should have been flung into the far realms of the solar system. The earth's change in speed when it slowed, on the other hand, should have thrust it into the sun!!!



The only accomodation would be to assume that the earth was more massive and then, at the time of the change, lost its mass, perhaps via a collision with a meteor that broke off a large chunk of earth. The new smaller earth would be able to maintain the proper distance without changing its orbit. This is also difficult because the impact itself should have thrown earth off course and certainly would have left a massive crater somewhere on the planet.


I also wanted to apologize for the cessation of posting these past few weeks. B"H I have been very busy promoting my recent sefer, The Secrets of the Stars which is available here.

Also, an interesting post from the past that is pertinent to last week and this week's Parsha that discusses why mythology and Midrash often appear to be very similar (with examples) here.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Adar Sheni and Amalek

Towards the end of the Parsha we read about the war with Amalek. Yehoshua was charged with leading the army to combat this formidable foe. The classic commentaries to Tanach with regard to Shaul HaMelech's campaign against Amalek teach us that the Amaleki were proficient in the occult and were especially educated in the ways to harness the astrological forces to their benefit. Rabbeinu Bachye maintains that in the battle discussed in this week's parsha that Amaleki chose soldiers who were destined to live out the year based on their astrological sign.

By utilizing such a "draft", the Amaleki were confident that they could not be defeated since their soldiers were unable to be killed. Rabbeinu Bachye mentions that this is why it was necessary for Yehoshua to choose men to go out to war. The pesukim in our Parsha state that Yehoshua was charged with selecting men to go out to fight. Rabbeinu Bachye is of the opinion that this was not merely a command that Yehoshua assemble an army. Yehoshua was charged with finding people with the correct astrological signs so that the Israelite army would also be comprised of men who were unable to fall in war. This, says Rabbeinu Bachye, is why when Yehoshua's offensive was successful that the pasuk mentions that the enemy was weakened. They were only weakened because they could not be defeated entirely. The enemy soldiers became weak and tired of battle, but there were no actual casualties of war since the soldiers were unable to be killed in battle.

Rabbeinu Bachye makes it seem that the individuals mentioned had specific astrological signs and that is what protected them. The Chizkuni takes a slightly different approach. The Chizkuni also is of the opinion that the Amaleki were harnessing the forces of the astrological signs and that Yehoshua was charged with selecting Israelite warriors who had appropriate astrological signs to combat them. Unlike Rabbeinu Bachye's interpretation, the Chizkuni felt that the Amaleki were using the astrological forces directly to fight the Israelites. Therefore, the Chizkuni states that the men chosen to fight Amalek were not those who had specific astrological signs, rather, they were those who had no astrological sign whatsoever. Yehoshua was charged with gathering men who had been born in Adar II. The Chizkuni maintains that Adar II has no mazal since all twelve have been assigned to the earlier twelve months. Since they were not bound by mazal, the Amaleki would not be able to use astrology to combat them.

This approach of the Chizkuni is fantastic because based on Rashi (Rosh Hashana 11b) and the Ibn Ezra (Reishis Chachma and Sefer HaTaamim) it would seem that the astrological signs are based on the solar calendar and that which we state that the lunar months align with the signs is only based on the average years. In a solar calendar there are always twelve months and all months are assigned a sign. The Chizkuni would seem to argue with this premise and state that the signs are based on the lunar months. Perhaps the Chizkuni would actually maintain that the nations of the world who only have the solar calendar would have their signs based on the solar calendar, but the Jews would be based on the lunar calendar. If that is true then this technique of Yehoshua was a surprise defense that the Amaleki had probably not counted upon. The Amaleki, only familiar with the solar calendar, would have no understanding of what it would mean to have a person that has no mazal since they have no such month of Adar II. Yehoshua, on the other hand led an army of signless warriors and routed this archenemy of ours.

I find it interesting to mention something written by Rav Dovid Cohen in his Masos Kappai. Rav Cohen points out that Ephraim and Menashe were compared to fish by their grandfather Yaakov when he blessed them in Parshas VeYechi. Sometimes we find that Ephraim and Menashe are considered like one Shevet and are referred to as Shevet Yosef, and other times we find that they are two and called by their own names. This is similar to Adar, symbolized by the astrological sign of fish, which is sometimes one month and other times, like this year, two. It is important to note that Yehoshua was a scion of Ephraim and it was he who led this army in this week's parsha.

On a different note, often I have heard people try and prove the existence of aliens from this week's Haftarah. See here for a discussion of this topic.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Korban Pesach in the Sky

I have been told in the past that I am probably the only person who finds Divrei Torah on Parshas Bo that are about astronomy and have nothing to do with the mitzvah of Kiddush HaChodesh. (For example, did you ever wonder which star Paaraoh was referencing when he said, "Ra'ah is against you ...," or did you recognize that the verse that says that no dogs barked at the Jews is also discussing an astronomical event that was significant to the Egyptian people of that time? These ideas are discussed at length in my new book, The Secrets of the Stars, available here.) In order to hold my unique title I would like to share a few thoughts about a fascinating comment by the Rokeach regarding the Korbon Pesach.



The pasuk informs us that the Pesach had to be a male ovine creature, but that it could be either a sheep or a goat. (Shemos 12:5) The Rokeach teaches that these two choices symbolized the astronomical events that occured on that miraculous night in Egypt.





Every month the sun appears to be in a different place in the sky relative to the background stars. In fact, every month it has moved from being juxtaposed in front of one constellation and then appears to be occupying another. For example, in the month of Nisan it is in the constellation T'leh (Aries, the Ram), but in the month Iyar it has moved to the constellation Shor (Taurus, the Ox). Since when the sun is visible it is daytime, this means that the constellation that the sun is occupying will be rising with the sun. This is considered to be the mazal of the month. (Rashi Berachos 11b; these positions have shifted since ancient times and no longer does the sun occupy these positions in these specific months) In the month of Nisan, the one of the Pesach years ago, the mazal that rose at sunrise, and was therefore perceived to be in control, was that of T'leh. Additionally, says the Rokeach, if one takes the numerical value of the Hebrew word T'leh and that for blood, "Dam", he will find that they are equal. (Rokeach Shemos 12:5)





The Rokeach continues to describe more about the celestial happenings and symbolism of that night. Every two hours another mazal appears to be rising from the east as the sun (and background stars) makes its way across the sky from east to west. On the night of the Pesach of Egypt the constellation that was rising from the east at nightfall was Moznayim (Libra, the Scales). At midnight, the time that Hashem exacted judgment on the Egyptians and killed their firstborns, the mazal rising from the east was G'di (Capricorn[us], the Goat). Thus, we find that T'leh and G'di were in positions of power during this plague and we therefore serve Hashem by offering these two animals, sheep and goats in His service. Additionally, blood (the numerical equivalent of T'leh as stated above) symbolizes the planet Mars and that is a representation of death and blood and it was at this time that death and murder was happening in Egypt.(Ibid.)





Perhaps, there is more symbolism than just what was stated above. Besides the T'leh, G'di, and Mars being expressed; it would seem that Moznayim, the Scales, were also displaying something very important. Just like the mazal that rises at daybreak is considered to have influence, so too, the one that rises in the evening is considered to exert some force. The mazal of Moznayim is symbolic of the scales of judgment and this evening certainly was one of judgment. (Midrash Tanchuma Haazinu 1)





Even more is that there are seven ancient planets: the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Of these they can be split into two categories, the sun and moon in one and the other five planets in the other. Each of these entities is considered to rule over one (or two) of the 12 mazalos of the zodiac. Twelve obviously does not divide by seven evenly, so the method is not to give every planet an equal amount of mazalos to rule over. The sun and moon are each given one and the rest of the planets have two a piece. Mars has T'leh (Aries) as one of its mazalos. (Ibn Ezra Reishis Chachma 2) So, in addition to T'leh being powerful, its ruler (and planet whose symbolic expression of blood has an equivalent numerical value to itself) was also finding its expression.





Also of interest is where Mars was positioned that fateful night. Mars was to be found in the constellation D'li (Aquarius, the Water Bearer). D'li is the mazal of Klal Yisrael. (Ibn Ezra Shemos 31:18) The Rokeach teaches us that when the destructive deathly force of that night, the Mashchis, saw the blood of the Pesach on the doorposts he was confused and believed that death had struck those houses and he therefore turned away. (Rokeach Shemos 12:5) Mars and its death were prepared to strike even Klal Yisrael, in whose constellation Mars was occupying, but through the Dam, blood, of the mitzvah were saved

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Stars Fell on Egypt

Hashem informs Moshe that He will harden Paaroh's heart and then Hashem will punish the Egyptians and take His hosts, His nation of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. (Shemos 7:3-4) The word "hosts" is generally applied to the celestial objects and attests to the fact that they display Hashem's might and rule over the world. Rabbeinu Bachye points out that Bnai Yisrael are compared to the stars and are therefore worthy of this title. Both the stars and Bnai Yisrael represent the connection of this world to the next, they both display how Hashem controls all of nature. (Rabbeinu Bachye Shemos 7:4)

I was wondering if, perhaps, there was some additional meaning and a reference to the stars themselves. Perhaps, one could read the verse as stating that Hashem was taking out His hosts AND His nation of Bnai Yisrael. In this regard there are two entities being freed, the first is Bnai Yisrael and the second is the multitudes of celestial objects.

We know that the Egyptians had a distorted view of the world and therefore practiced pagan idolatry. The purposes of these practices most often was to connect with the astrological forces which were perceived as gods. (See Rambam's description of Avodah Zarah in the beginning of Hilchos Avodah Zarah) In fact, the Meiri mentions that all Egyptian practices and even their daily life was centered around astrology. (Meiri Pesachim 5a)

The celestial objects, meant to display Hashem's glory, had effectively been "taken captive" and enslaved by the Egyptians. The Egyptians were using the celestial objects in acts of defiance against Hashem instead of their appropriate use which would be to recognize Hashem's greatness. Just like the Jewish nation was enslaved, so too, the stars that represent Klal Yisrael were subjugated.

Most of us are familiar with what is, perhaps, the most famous Ramban on Chumash. Towards the end of Parshas Bo the Ramban shows how the Makkos were effectively a teaching tool to show that Hashem controls the world and that He is still in charge. This concept is the antithesis to the Egyptian philosphy. Instead of all the various celestial forces being independent forces of nature, it is Hashem that is really the Force of all forces and He is completely in control. The Makkos effectively displayed Hashem's taking of His stars back. Once Hashem showed that He was in charge, the stars could no longer be seen as deities, rather, they displayed His phenomenal might. Thus, Hashem took both Bnai Yisrael and His hosts of stars from Egypt.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reflections of the World, Klal Yisrael, and the Sky

The ancients saw the sky as comprised of 48 constellations and 7 planets (the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). Of the 48 constellations, 12 were given more significant status and are considered to be the primary constellations. These are the twelve signs of the zodiac. All of nature was considered to be influenced by all these factors.

For example, the week is comprised of seven days and each one is assigned a different planet as its representative. (Ibn Ezra Reishis Chachma 4; also see Rashi Berachos 59b) The world is also considered to be divided into 7 major regions. Eretz Yisrael is considered to be the center of these. Rabbeinu Bachye references this when discussing the order in which the Shevatim are listed in the beginning of this week's Parsha. The Shevatim are listed as: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar, Zevulun, and Binyamin. Rabbeinu Bachye points out that Binyamin is out of place in this list. As the last born he should be after his older brother Yosef. Rather, he is chosen to be the seventh in this order because the Beis HaMikdash was destined to be in his portion of Eretz Yisrael. Just as Eretz Yisrael is the seventh region of the world, so too, Binyamin is listed as number seven. Rabbeinu Bachye then asks how Eretz Yisrael can be considered to be the seventh since it is the middle region and must therefore be considered to be the fourth of seven. To this he responds that it is comparable to Shabbos. Shabbos is listed as the seventh day of the week in the manner in which we talk. However, Shabbos is sometimes referred to as being the central day of the week. From Wednesday on we focus on the coming Shabbos, and through the following Tuesday we are still feeling the holiness of the previous. Thus, although it is perceived as the middle and central day, it is also numbered as seven. So too, Eretz Yisrael is the middle and central portion of the world, but it is also number seven. (Rabbeinu Bachye Shemos 1:2-3)

Moshe Rabbeinu was also numbered seven if one thinks about it. If one follows the generations from Avraham Avinu, Moshe was the seventh. The list is: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Levi, Kehas, Amram, and Moshe. He was born on the seventh day of the month (interestingly enough it was of the twelfth month, see later in this post about the symbolism of twelve). It is of note, that his natural birthdate should not have been 7 Adar, rather, he was born prematurely. His natural birthdate would have been 6 Sivan (the day upon which Hashem gave us the Torah years later). (See Rabbeinu Bachye Shemos 2:2) All these number sevens seem to show the culmination and completion of world and a representation of a more perfected state.

The number twelve also shows completion of the natural order of events. There are twelve months and twelve Shevatim. Chazal compare the 12 Shevatim to the 12 mazalos. (See Pesikta Zutrasa Shemos 1:2 as an example) In Moshe's prophetic vision in the Parsha, Hashem tells him, "This is my name eternally, etc." (Shemos 3:15) Rabbeinu Bachye points out that the numerical value for the Hebrew for "this" is equal to 12. Hashem was teaching Moshe some deep understandings of His name. Kabbalistically one can take the four letter name of Hashem and rearrange it in 12 different fashions. (See Shaarei Orah of Rabbeinu Yosef Gikatilla and Bnai Yisaschar who assign a different configuration to each month/mazal of the year). If one puts all the configurations together he will have a total of 48 letters and this is considered to be the 48 lettered name of Hashem. (Rabbeinu Bachye Shemos 3:15) How fascinating that Hashem encoded the way this world works to also have 12 primary constellations, but to also have a total of 48 when viewing the sky as a whole.