Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Mysterious Midrash

The parsha begins with Avraham Avinu sitting at the doorway of his tent awaiting the opportunity to invite guests in for a meal and, perhaps, teach them of Hashem's ways. The Torah tells us that Avraham was sitting there in the heat of the day. (Bereishis 18:1) Rashi cites from a Midrash that Hashem took the sun out of its shield in order for its rays to be more powerful. Thus, the day was unnaturally hot. Since the pasuk says that it was in the heat of the day, it must mean that it was an unnatural heat. What exactly could this Midrash be referring to when it mentions that the sun was taken out of its shield? Also, why are we to assume that the wording of, "in the heat of the day," means an unnatural heat, maybe it just means during the hottest part of the day?

By analyzing a perplexing passage from Rabbeinu Bacheye's commentary to this portion one can, perhaps, gain better insight. Rabbeinu Bacheye cites a Midrash that Avraham was sitting at the doorway at the fourth hour of the day. This is the a time when, historically, people would be hungry and looking for a meal. Therefore, Avraham wished to capitalize on this opportunity to find a wayfarer in need of a meal and invite him in. It is unclear what Midrash Rabbeinu Bacheye is citing from because we do not seem to have anything that expresses this point. Additionally, this Midrash appears to be in conflict with the Gemara in Berachos (27a) that seems to state that Avraham was sitting there at midday. Why would Rabbeinu Bacheye choose to convey the message of an obscure Midrash as opposed to the Gemara's interpretation?

The Gemara cited above is trying to determine how much of the day can be considered morning. At one point it cites a verse that states that when the sun is hot it will melt the manna and this is applied to the beginning of the fourth hour. The Gemara challenges this by asking that perhaps it means until midday since the sun continues to heat up until that point. To this the Gemara cites the pasuk from our parsha and says that since our pasuk is referring to midday, the pasuk referring to the sun's heat must mean until the fourth hour. Rashi explains that the pasuk from our parsha mentions that the day is hot as opposed to the other pasuk which mentions that the sun is hot. The implications of our pasuk are that it is not just the areas in direct sunlight that are hot, but even areas that are normally shady are hot since the pasuk says, "the heat of the day," and not, "the heat of the sun." Once we find that the Torah uses two forms of expression when referring to the heating of the sun and day, the Gemara concludes that the two must be referring to different times of the day. The one mentioning when the sun is hot is not as hot as the one that mentions that the day is hot.

Perhaps, the above understanding can help answer all the above questions. The normal implications of the wording of our pasuk indicate a time when even shady areas are hot and this is midday because the sun is high in the sky and the actual shadows are relatively small. This leaves a significant area that is normally covered in shade to be exposed to the heat of the sun. This time is called in the "heat of the day." Since this language is conveying this message, the other pasuk cited in Berachos refers to the fourth hour which is when the sunny areas begin to feel hot, thus it is called, "the sun's heat." It is important to note that it is irrelevant to the Gemara whether or not the time period discussed in the pasuk in our parsha was actually midday. The Gemara is just proving that it is referring to a time when both sunny and shady areas are hot. This would normally occur at midday and that means that the other pasuk must refer to the fourth hour. However, since Hashem took the sun out of its shield it is possible that the phenomenon of shady areas being hot actually happened earlier and it just felt like midday. The Torah is just letting us know where the sun was positioned and not how many hours of the day had passed.

Rabbainu Bacheye's Midrash provides the logic upon which it is based. Avraham would sit in the doorway at the most opportune time. Since people are hungry at the fourth hour, it stands to reason that this event happened at that time. If so, how could it be that the pasuk uses language to tell us that the heat was equal to that of midday, the pasuk should have stated that the sun was hot since this is less extreme? This would seem to be where the Midrash that Rashi cites starts from. It must be that Hashem took the sun out of its shield, meaning that he raised it higher in the sky so that the rays were more direct and there were fewer shadows. The heat was comparable to midday, but the actual time was only the fourth hour. Thus, Rabbeinu Bacheye, the Midrash cited by Rashi, and the Gemara all complement each other as opposed to contradict one another. I apologize if this was confusing, this is not normally the style in which these posts are written. I just found it pretty amazing that the elusive identity of the Midrash of Rabbeinu Bacheye might actually be a Midrash that was in plain sight!!!

Lot's Twilight Escape

There is a dispute in the Gemara as to the length of halachic twilight in the morning hours. One opinion mentions that this is a 4 mil time interval and the other states 5. As a proof to the opinion of 5 the Gemara cites from this week's parsha when Lot was escorted out of Sedom in the early hours of the morning. The Gemara maintains that he traversed a 5 mil distance in the exact amount of time between dawn and sunrise. (See Pesachim 93b)

Although this proof is ultimately rejected because it seems that Lot was rushing and the Gemara is referring to people traveling at an average pace, it seems that barring this point that the Gemara would have been content with this proof. The question one may ask is that twilight periods vary based on latitude and also based on the time of the year. How did the Gemara know that the case of Lot was a good proof, perhaps, it happened in a location other than the one the Gemara was discussing, or at a time of year different from the one in the Gemara?

The Gemara's discussion was regarding Korbon Pesach, so we can deduce that the location of its discussion is in Eretz Yisrael. We can also deduce that the time of year it was discussing was at the beginning of spring since that is when Pesach falls. How did the Gemara know that Lot's escape was at this time and location?

Regarding the location, the Gemara easily knew that Lot's escape was in Eretz Yisrael because it happened in Sedom. The Gemara also seems to be of the opinion of the Bereishis Rabbah regarding the time of Lot's escape. Bereishis Rabbah maintains that it happened on the second day of Pesach. (Bereishis Rabbah 48:12) In fact, Rashi also mentions the fact that it was on Pesach. (Rashi Bereishis 19:3) So, with these facts being presented one can clearly see that had it not been for the fact that Lot was running for his life, the Gemara would have had an adequate proof.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Uncountable Stars

In this week's parsha (15:5) HaShem brings Avraham Avinu outside and tells him to observe the uncountable stars and tells him that his progeny will be likewise uncountable. Rashi there quotes a Midrash that states that HaShem removed Avraham from the atmosphere and placed him above the stars to observe them. R' Chaim Kanievsky questions, why was this necessary? Why was it not sufficient to simply look at the stars from where he was?

He answers that we are taught in the adjacent commentary to Rambam's Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (3:8) that there are a finite number of stars visible from Earth, 1022 to be exact. Beyond the scope of our vision there exists an abundance of stars which are too many to be counted. Being shown the stars from Earth was simply not impressive enough. Avraham had to be removed from Earth in order to appreciate the true extent of the berachah.

Blogger Ari S.said...

The number 1,022 is also seen in Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma (on astrology). He cites Ptolemy just like the Rambam mentions in a few places (i.e. hilchos kiddush hachodesh) that his knowledge of astronomy comes from the Greek sources. Ptolemy (in the Almagest) does have this number. It is pretty clear that he (and the rishonim) were aware that there were many more. In fact, the way Ptolemy and Ibn Ezra cite it is to show how the constellations are formed. It seems that this number refers to the bigger and brighter stars.

The average person can see approximately 3 - 4,000 stars (the faintest being about magnitude 6). Perhaps, another idea expressed in the pasuk could be that it is impossible to count them at once. Some are below the horizon at times and others seasonal. Some are only seen at northern latitudes and others at southern. Maybe Avraham had to go high above in order to get an angle above them to see them at one time.

Jewish people have been dispersed throughout many countries during our exile. This is often to our benefit because it provides a defense mechanism. It is much more difficult for an enemy to ever annihilate us because of this. Maybe we are being taught that you will never be able to see all the Jews in one spot to count because they will be dispersed. In the ensuing pesukim of the covenant, there are many references to the exile.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Eclipses in הלכה and מחשבה

In light of (no pun intended) the anticipated total lunar eclipse on the first night of סוכות, I thought I'd post a piece I wrote about eclipses a couple of years ago.

B’nei Yisrael are traditionally symbolized by the moon. The generations from Avraham are likened to the cycle of the moon. David and Shelomoh were the 14th and 15th generations from Avraham Avinu. It was during their reign that B’nei Yisrael was at its pinnacle. They conquered their enemies, stretched out their borders and built the Beis HaMikdash. This is just like the moon which is biggest on days 14 and 15. After Shelomoh, national stability began to deteriorate and B’nei Yisrael lost their splendour, just as the moon wanes after the 15th day.

There are many insights to be taken from this symbolism. The gemara (Rosh HaShanah 25a) quotes the pasuk (Tehillim 104:19) “shemesh yada mevo’o,” the sun knows its path. The gemara comments that the sun knows its path but the moon does not. The relative path of the sun as it changes from season to season is quite predictable and easy to figure out. The path of the moon, however, is erratic in nature and seems not to follow a specific pattern. We may understand this as analogous to the way in which the world is run. The nations of the world, traditionally symbolized by the sun, are governed, to a certain degree, by the laws of nature. There is a less focused Divine Providence that guides their everyday events. This is akin to the predictable path of the sun. One need not delve too deeply to realize that B’nei Yisrael are governed in quite a different manner. The great miracles that adorn our history, as well as the day-to-day twists and turns that befall our nation to this day are clear indications that there is nothing haphazard about the course of events that befall us. There are no patterns or laws of nature to rely on, just as the moon follows an unpredictable path.

The gemara (Sukkah 29a) tells us that when there is an eclipse of the sun, it is a bad sign for the gentiles. When there is an eclipse of the moon, it is a bad omen for B’nei Yisrael because we follow the lunar calendar and they follow the solar calendar. There is an intriguing insight that lies beneath the surface here as well. An eclipse of the moon happens when the moon moves

into a position behind the earth such that the light of the sun cannot reach it. One might say that it is “the moon’s fault” that it was eclipsed. This is the way we must view calamities that befall us. We must search within for the causes and realize that it is our own deeds and actions that have brought them about.

An eclipse of the sun happens when the moon moves in front of the earth in such a way that it blocks the sun’s light from reaching certain spots on the earth. Here, too, we see that it is path of the moon that has caused the eclipse. The sun and earth are insignificant players in a solar eclipse. The lesson learned from this gemara is that everything that happens in this world is, in some way, connected to B’nei Yisrael. Despite our relatively insignificant size, like that of the moon to the sun, the world was created for us and continues to be governed according to our actions. This is not something to take advantage of but rather, a great responsibility that we must bear on our shoulders at all times.


Every month, on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh, as part of "Birkas HaChodesh," the time of the molad is announced. This time refers to the birth of the new moon on which Rosh Chodesh is based. Astronomically, this is when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, thereby completing its monthly cycle. Although the time of the molad no longer determines the exact day of Rosh Chodesh since our calendars are set, we use this figure to determine when we may recite Kiddush Levanah. Based on the gemara (Sanhedrin 41b), we may only recite Kiddush Levanah when the moon is new, that is, when it is waxing. Knowing the midpoint between the two molados allows us to determine this exact time (Rema OC 426:3). Also, we do not begin to say Kiddush Levanah until three whole days after the molad, when the moon is big enough to see.

The period of time from molad to molad (synodic period) that we use for these calculations is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 and a third seconds. However, this is not an exact, constant figure. Rather, it is the average length of a synodic period as indicated by Rambam (Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 6:3). The time we use for the molad may differ from the time of the actual molad by a couple of hours one way or the other. In general, we don't really know when it does differ and we just rely on the average synodic period for all halachic calculations. However, nature can sometimes tell us that our calculations are off - with an eclipse.

An eclipse of the moon happens when the moon is in a position behind the earth such that the sun's rays cannot reach it. Clearly, this can only happen at the exact middle of the month when the moon is exactly behind the earth with respect to the sun. An eclipse of the sun is when the moon moves directly in front of the sun, obstructing the view of the sun from earth. This will only happen at the exact beginning of the month when the moon is exactly between the earth and the sun, i.e. the molad.

The issue of eclipses is discussed in Beis Yosef and Darchei Moshe OC 426:3. The consensus there is that if an eclipse of the moon is witnessed, then Kiddush Levanah may no longer be recited, even if this is before the prescribed time for sof zeman Kiddush Levanah, the halfway point between molados. This halachah was especially significant in this area of the world this month. The official time for sof zeman Kiddush Levanah was 12:47 am EDT on Thursday night (Friday morning, officially). However, there was a much anticipated full lunar eclipse that night. According to NASA, the time of mid-eclipse, essentially the official middle of the month was 11:40 pm EDT. Therefore, Kiddush Levanah should have been recited before that time, despite whatever is written in the calendars.

A solar eclipse, however, is not as simple. Beis Yosef writes that a solar eclipse may not be used to determine the proper time after which one may not say Kiddush Levanah. However, there does not seem to be any discussion about beginning to say Kiddush Levanah. If the time of the molad were preceded by a solar eclipse, as the molad of Teves 5761 was by eight hours, would that allow us to recite Kiddush Levanah earlier? Conversely, if the molad were to precede the eclipse, would that move back the time at which we may recite Kiddush Levanah?

Perhaps, there is a reasoning behind Beis Yosef's ruling with regard to sof zeman Kiddush Levanah which would not apply to techilas zeman Kiddush Levanah. When a lunar eclipse indicates that we may no longer recite Kiddush Levanah it is because we may not rely on an average when there is a clear indication that the average is incorrect. When it is an average against a clear natural indication, we dispense with the average. However, the calculation for sof zeman Kiddush Levanah is achieved by adding half of the average synodic period to the previous molad. To allow a solar eclipse to determine sof zeman would be to combine the clear evidence with an average. We must rely on one or the other but we may not combine the two.

To allow the solar eclipse to determine when we may begin to recite Kiddush Levanah is relying only on the clear evidence of the eclipse and not on any other averages. Therefore, it would seem that we may adjust the time based on a solar eclipse. Furthermore, the apparent source for the custom to wait three days is Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah (End of Berachos 4.) But the specific wording used is that one should recite Kiddush Levanah when people derive benefit from the moon's light - after two or three days. In fact, Yad Ramah on Sanhedrin writes that it may be recited after one day. Therefore, to be lenient in this regard when there is sufficient astronomical evidence on our side does not seem so farfetched.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Let's Face It

If your average gentile passed by a group of Jews saying קדוש לבנה they would probably be quite confused - not because a group of individuals appear to be blessing the moon but because they see ten Jews facing eleven directions. Many people seem to face all sorts of different directions in order not to face the moon. While this seems like a perfectly innocent practice, there are some serious issues involved.

The reason why people do this is so as to not appear to be gazing at the moon (either so as not appear to be praying to or worshiping the moon or simply to avoid the prohibition to gaze at the moon.) This is certainly a concern that is brought up in halachah. Mishnah Berurah (426:13-14) quotes from poskim that one should not gaze at the moon, even during the berachah. Rather, one should give a quick glance beforehand. He also states that we dance by standing on our toes because the bending of our knees might appear as bowing. However, nowhere, does it mention that one should turn away from the moon. I do not know of any other sources who do suggest to turn away but what I do know is this: It is nothing short of blasphemy to direct the following words at HaShem:
ברוך יוצרך, ברוך עושך, ברוך קונך, ברוך בוראך
These words must be directed at the moon. I would think that the same would hold true for כשם שאני רוקד כנגדך ... which again is certainly talking about the moon. I am not sure if people just don't know what they're saying or just aren't thinking but I myself have seen people face away from the moon towards the shul from the beginning of קדוש לבנה until the end. I think this an unfortunate example of over-zealousness gone awry. I might even go as far as to put this in the same league as people turning their backs on ברכת כהנים - a practice which is fortunately diminishing but is still found here and there. I feel rabbanim should bring this to their congregants' attention.

UPDATE: A reader has brought to my attention two sources which actually do discuss this practice.
:לבושי מרדכי
:יסוד ושורש העבודה

I nevertheless still maintain that the source for this is obscure, at best. And certainly of note is the point made by יסוד ושורש העבודה to which I was מכוין, regarding those two phrases. If there is a concern related to gazing at the moon, I still do not feel that is reason to turn away. But at the very least, if that is to be the practice, everyone ought to get together and decide to face the same direction. In או"ח צ"ד, it is made very clear how careful one must be with the direction they face for שמונה עשרה, so as not to make the ציבור appear disjointed. While this is outside of the בית הכנסת, I think the same care should be taken. (Especially now considering the יסוד ושורש העבודה suggesting that one needs to stand in the same manner as in שמונה עשרה.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Kiddush Levanah Advisory

The custom amongst most Ashkenazim is to wait at least 72 hours after the molad to recite kiddush levanah. The announced molad for Rosh Chodesh Adar was less than a minute before midnight, Wednesday night. It is once again important to make it clear that this is Yerushalayim (local) time. Therefore, in the Eastern time zone, the molad was really before 5 pm. Therefore, North American Ashkenazim should be able to say Kiddush levanah this Motzaei Shabbos, weather permitting. (Note: According to scientific data, the true new moon occurred at 6:47 pm. If one wishes to wait a full 72 hours from that moment, it might be a close call for cities further east.)