Wednesday, December 23, 2009

No Kidding

Obviously, this time of year is celebrated by millions as the time when one year ends and the next begins. Most people assume that there is no recognition of this concept in Jewish thought. The two times associated with new beginnings are thought to be Nisan, the first of the months, and Tishrei, the beginning of a new year. Nisan marks the beginning of spring and the beginning of growth, and Tishrei marks the beginning of gathering in what one has worked for all year.

The truth is that, although not symbolic of a new year, this time period is, in fact, associated with a time of new beginning by Chazal. The Midrash (Tanchuma Haazinu 1) compares the life cycle of a human to the yearly cycle. While doing this, it states that after the individual has received his judgment from Tishrei (apparently enacted in Cheshvan) he begins anew in Teves. The Midrash mentions that this is why the mazal of Teves is a G'di, a kid. Just like a kid will develop into a mature goat, so too, this person is starting with a fresh start and able to mature.

Perhaps, the association follows the fact (certainly the secular new year does) that this time of year does mark a time of new growth. The sun's position begins to decline in the sky starting from late June. It continues to get lower and lower in the sky until right around the beginning of Teves. At that point the sun stops and reverses itself and begins to ascend higher and higher every day until late June. The days get longer and the nights shorter.

While no actual agricultural growth can be seen at this time, the sun's position allows one to see that things will turn around and the winter will end (hopefully sooner than later). This may not be a significant renewal to warrant a new year or beginning of the months, but it allows one to see that even though this time marks the beginning of the harshest season, it also marks the fact that that is already beginning its end. Eventually, when the sun is high enough the earth will have heated up enough and the spring will come around again!!!

8 weeks of not missing Tachanun on a weekday

An interesting phenomenon occurs in any year containing two Shabb'tot Chanukka, such as this year: From after the end of Chanukka until the end of Shvat is a period of 8 consecutive weeks in which there is no calendrical reason for omitting Tachanun on any weekday. This is the longest consecutive period of not missing Tachanun.

As we will not have two Shabb'tot Chanukka again until 17 years from now (5787), so too we will not again have 8 consecutive weeks of Tachanun until 17 years from now.
Thanks to Shtikler, Rabbi Heber, and Tzvi Goldman for discussing this issue with me 3 years ago.

Friday, December 18, 2009

קדוש לבנה Advisory

The מולד for this month was at 12:59am Thursday morning, ירושלים time. That translates to 5:59pm EST. If we were to subtract the 21 minutes from the conversion to Standard Time, that would make the מולד at 5:38pm. Many shuls on the Eastern Time Zone might very well be leaving shul at exactly that time on מוצאי שבת. Although I have previously advocated adjusting for the 21 minutes, my "Rabbinic Advisory board" has advised against it for concerns regarding the Equation of Time which at present, I don't quite understand.

Some facts about this שבת

  • This is the last time we will have two שבתות חנוכה for another 17 years
  • I believe this is the longest possible laining we can have without a double פרשה
146 from מקץ
50 from נשא and בהעלתך
=196 פסוקים

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Satanic Strategy of Scorpius

The fascinating episode of Yaakov Avinu’s battle with the angel is recounted in this week’s parsha. For the first time in his life, Yaakov Avinu was taking control. As a young man he was still in the household of parents. Then he fled to Lavan’s house out of fear of his, slightly, older brother. Now, he was finally on his way to confront his brother. He was no longer subjugated to anyone else. It was at this time that this angel, Eisav’s angel, chose to attack.

Perhaps, this point in time was more of an opportune time to attack then can be seen in the pesukim themselves. Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz zt"l (Tiferes Yehonasan) states that this episode happened on Yom Kippur. We know that the first ten days of Tishrei are days of judgement, but, perhaps, this was even more extreme for Yaakov Avinu.

Rabbeinu Bachye (Bereishis 34:25) informs us that the third of anything is considered to be under the astrological influence of Mars and Scorpius. Both of these celestial objects are associated with destruction and desolation. Interestingly, both are associated with redness. Mars is the Red Planet (Maadim in Hebrew) and Scorpius' brightest star is Antares which is very red. In fact, its name means opposite Mars in Greek. Eisav was also associated with redness. In addition, Rabbeinu Bachye tells us, that the third of any item is subjected to the Angel of Death. The Ramban, when discussing the goat that was sent away on Yom Kippur (and also the red heifer) tells us that these ideas were taken and inserted into idol worship as some of its basic ideas. The other nations, and Eisav, were interested in tapping into what they perceived to be powers of the underworld. It is on Yom Kippur that it appears as if Klal Yisrael sends a sacrifice to appease these powers in order for them to remain quite during judgement. Of course, Klal Yisrael would not do this and this sacrifice was ordered by Hashem; however, its appearance seems to display this concept.

There is a phenomenon called the precession of the equinoxes. Without boring the reader with the details, the basic concept is that the constellations shift slowly over the course of many years. The reason why each mazal is symbolic of a specific month is because the sun is perceived to be located in that mazal’s region of the sky (see Rashi R"H 11b). Due to this precession, the technical order has been slowly shifting throughout time and we are currently one month off from the way Chazal describe the mazalos. Therefore, based on the old description the month of Nisan would be Dagim and not Adar. Initially, the month of Tishrei would have been described as being the month of Akrav, Scorpius.

In our scenario, we have Yaakov Avinu as the third of the Patriarchs. He is found alone on the final day of judgement in the month of the Akrav (although the equinox had already slipped into Libra, by the time Yom Kippur would the sun would already be in Scorpius). This would have seemed to be an opportune time for the Angel of Death, or the forces of Eisav, to strike. The third item is subjected to these influences and this item, Yaakov Avinu, is alone with nothing to protect him. It is in the month of Scorpius and the final day of the judgement. Yaakov Avinu, however, was victorious and, perhaps, this paved the way for Yaakov Avinu’s grandchildren, in the future, to have no evil inclination rule over them on Yom Kippur (Yoma 20a). Perhaps, this also had something to do with the fact that Scorpius was later reassigned, via precession, to Cheshvan instead of Tishrei.

When Klal Yisrael seem to be giving a present to these destructive forces, perhaps, what they are really displaying is how their father was able to overcome these forces. On the surface level it would appear as if Klal Yisrael has no chance to fend off these overpowering forces; therefore, it appears as if they are sending a present to them with the goat sent to Azazel. This would be comparable to Yaakov Avinu being seen as the major underdog in this battle. However, Klal Yisrael is able to overcome these forces. We are really sending a present to Hashem. We are showing that even though the objective onlooker may think that we feel powerless to these forces, we recognize that, with trust in Hashem and the observance of His Torah that we will succeeed. Yaakov Avinu overpowered both the angel and his brother. He then went to travel to Sukkos (Bereishis 33:17), so too, we overpower these forces every year and then travel from Yom Kippur into Sukkos.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Can the Torah's South be North?

In this week’s Haftarah we are told (הושע יג:יב),
"צרור עון אפרים צפונה חטאתו."
"Ephraim’s iniquity is bound, his sin is hidden."
Earlier, the navi had made it known, clearly, that the sin of Ephraim was idolatry. Idolatry being "hidden" is something that actually refers to an astronomical fact. More specifically, that which is hidden shows that idolatry is ridiculous.

Rabbeinu Bachye (Bamidbar 2:2) informs us that the cardinal directions, east (מזרח), west (מערב), north (צפון) and south (דרום) are named such because of the sun’s perceived motion (also see Ramban Shemos 26:17). מזרח is the word for east because it comes from zarach meaning to shine. It is from this direction that the sun begins its journey every day. מערב is from erev which means nightfall because the sun’s journey ends here at nightfall. דרום is actually a contraction of two words, dar and rom, meaning dwells high.

The sun, to those at northern latitudes, rises from the east and travels on the southern portion of the sky and sets in the west. צפון also means hidden and that is why north is referred to as such. While the sun can definitely set and rise from a slightly northern direction, it NEVER travels on this side of the sky. The sun, the most commonly chosen idol, should have been rejected as a god for this reason. The fact that it has no power in this area, and that it sets, shows its impotence!!! The Rema (Toras HaOlah) tells us that this is why the pending destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash was described by the navi, Yirmiyahu, as coming from the north. This was to show the idol worshippers that they were horribly wrong. Perhaps, this is why Ephraim’s sin is depicted as being hidden, as well.

When describing these types of ideas, people sometimes ask why the Torah seems to totally disregard those in the southern hemisphere. For them, it is the northern side that the sun travels on and the southern side is "hidden". I am not 100% sure, but I feel that the answer is either that since the Torah was given in the northern hemisphere it is told from that perspective, OR that the Torah would have called north darom and south tzafon to these people!!! The idea is not the actual direction, but the solar movement. If so, then it is reasonable that this would be the case.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rosh Chodesh Not a Function of the Moon?

Most are familiar with the fact that Rosh Chodesh is associated with the lunar cycle. Therefore, when they see the Yerushlami (Rosh Hashana 14b) they do a double take. The Yerushalmi states that both the sun and moon play a role in the determination of Rosh Chodesh. Essentially, when the new moon is sighted and/or sanctified by the official beis din, the NEXT DAY is considered Rosh Chodesh.

The Yerushalmi determines this based on a pasuk that states that the sun knows its path and the moon determines the specified times. The Yerushalmi understands this to mean that through the sun's path we determine the times of the moon and the effects of a new moon will not happen until that solar day (at sunset) is over. In this way, Rosh Chodesh can be viewed as a synthesis of the solar and lunar paths in the sky.

Although, the Acharonim on the page stipulate theories in order to try and read this Yerushalmi within the conventional understanding that the sun does not have any effect on Rosh Chodesh, the plain reading (as expressed above) can be found as given by Rashi on Bereishis Rabbah (6). While this opinion does not appear to be considered by the Bavli, and certainly not by the Rambam (Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh), it is still fascinating to see it in a primary text. (For a resolution to the problems presented by certain Mishnayos in Rosh Hashana please see the post Superhuman Sight that I posted here on August 5 of this year.)

The Shibbolei HaLeket (168) references this Yerushalmi (in the plain form, as well) and states that this is an answer to a question that he has pondered in the past. When a month has 30 days, the last day is called Rosh Chodesh in addition to the following day (the first of the next month). He wonders why this day should actually have any sanctity considering that it is not the true first of the month. He responds by saying that this day enables the following to be Rosh Chodesh, simlar to the day beis din declares the sanctification of Rosh Chodesh which causes the FOLLOWING day to be Rosh Chodesh. He cites this Yerushalmi to support his claim!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Imprecise Precision in Kiddush HaChodesh

Recently, I have noticed a newer practice in several shuls. When they announce the molad they declare that the molad "IN YERUSHALAYIM" will be (or was) at such and such time. Clearly, people are trying to be more precise and accurate with their announcements.

The actual molad is the time when the moon is lined up, directly, with the earth and sun. This is referred to as a lunar conjunction. From this point on the moon will begin to "grow". This event, obviously, happens in one moment and, therefore, one may want to know to which place the time announced is referring. We happen to use a calculated molad which is based on the average amount of time between conjunctions, but this still corresponds to a split second.

If one wanted to, he could figure out when the times of kiddush levana are based on the molad. Therefore, it seems like a wise practice to be more precise so that people will not recite kiddush levana too early or late (thinking that the time was their own time such as EST or PST). It seems clear that most halachic authorities (with the notable exception of the Alei Yonah) maintain that the molad is based on Yerushalayim time.

While noble in theory, this idea is actually, in my humble opinion, doing the exact opposite of what it is trying to accomplish. First of all, let's be honest, almost nobody has a clue what is being announced or of its implications. The few people who do (and know how to calculate kiddush levana times) most probably know that the time announced is based on Yerushalayim. Also, announcing "in Yerushalayim is completely inaccurate, as well and does not resolve anything.

Prior to the nineteenth century every city (location) had its own "timezone". They based their clock on the equinox and considered sunrise and sunset to be the ends of the day. They then called those times six o'clock and kept this count throughout the year. Since Brooklyn is east of Baltimore, for example, Brooklyn will be a little bit ahead of Baltimore's "timezone". When the trains started to run they needed to make uniform timezones in order for them to run on time. This was the STANDARDIZATION of the timezones. That's why we have Eastern Standard Time, etc. Whole segments of countries adapted to one timezone and rejected their local "timezones".

The times mentioned in the announced molad are not of the standardized time in Yerushalayim, but of the local time. It is actually about 21 -22 minutes off. This means that even in Yerushalayim one needs to subtract this amount from the announced time prior to calculating kiddush levana. This is not a new concept and most rabbanim and calendars are familiar with this and they adjust (or inform the reader to adjust) accordingly.

Therefore, unless one announces the time as being in Yerushalayim Local (or Solar) Time, effectively they are announcing it in Yerushalayim Standard Time. Even if one were to announce it as such, I think that it would just create confusion and blank stares since most people don't know what that means. Therefore, I would, humbly, suggest (although I know some honorable rabbanim disagree) to avoid confusion and just announce the molad in the way that it has been for as far back as most can remember. Most people have no clue as to what it is anyway, and what does one gain by confusing them?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mincha 3 Minutes After Chatzos?

Now that the clocks have changed, many are finding themselves able to daven mincha at very early (and often times convenient times.) Couple that with the fact that we find Yitzchak Avinu davening mincha in this week's parsha and it makes for a great topic. Many are familiar with the common halachic practice of waiting 1/2 hour (defined as a 1/24 of the time between sunrise and sunset or 30 minutes, whichever is longer) from midday to daven. Upon further analysis, one must ask why one cannot daven much earlier (say 3 minutes after midday) during many times of the year.

The reason for this practice is as follows. The Gemara (Yoma 28b) tells us that they delayed from davening mincha (or bringing the afternoon offering in the Beis HaMikdash) until they could be certain that it was after midday. Since the walls in the Beis HaMikdash were sloped, it took 1/2 hour after midday for them to cast a noticeable shadow. Therefore, we wait this amount of time (the Mishna Berurah in his Shaar HaTziyun 233:8 is unsure if this half hour is 1/24 of the day or 30 minutes and this is why many take the longer of the two; athough ALL the earlier sources maintained it was 1/24 of the day).

We must identify upon which day we are talking regarding the shadow from the walls. The sun always "travels" at the same speed. However, during some days the sun is going in more of an east/west motion and others it is going more up/down. In the summer when the days are long, the sun is not taking a steep angle at midday and most of its motion is seen going east/west. During the winter, the sun is going at a steep angle because the day is short and it is starting to go downwards quickly. The sun will therefore cast the same amount of shadow in the summertime at a far shorter time interval than the winter.

The Gemara tells us that the day we are talking about is when Erev Pesach falls on Erev Shabbos. On such a day, the afternoon offering would be brought a half hour after midday, as opposed to a normal day when it would be brought three and a half hours after midday. Since Pesach is around the time of the vernal (spring) equinox, one can now figure the time required for the shadows throughout the rest of the year.

In the summertime, it would only take 9 minutes for the sun to travel from midday in a westward direction to reach the same point. In the winter it would take 50 minutes. This does not take into account the fact that the sun is higher in the summer than winter. That would make the times more extreme. If one goes to a latitude higher than Yerushalayim, that will also shorten the amount of time necessary to cast the shadow.

All this can be seen via a simple experiment. Take something like a book and lean it against a wall. Then take a flashlight and move it from one side to the next and watch how quickly the shadow is cast. Notice that if the "across" motion is done more quickly the shadow is cast faster. Also, notice that if the flashlight is held higher the shadow is cast sooner.

Could this mean that here in Baltimore we could daven mincha in the summer at 3 minutes after midday? The answer would most certainly be "no." A reading of the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 3:2) makes it clear that we are not mimicking what could be happening in the Beis HaMikdash if it were in your location and on the day you are davening. We are calculating the concept of the time based on the Beis HaMikdash and utilize when they would bring the sacrifices. Since the only day this offering was offered so closely to midday was around the vernal equinox we only take that day as a reference point. Therefore, even though the shadow would be cast much sooner in the wintertime and in Baltimore, we don't care. It must also be noted that one should preferably not daven prior to 3 1/2 hours after midday unless there is a pressing need. This is seen in the Shulchan Aruch and comes about from the fact that they only offered the sacrifice earlier in the Beis HaMikdash when there was a pressing need.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Sky is Falling (on Sedom)!!!

Is it possible that an ancient tablet, currently in the British Museum, is actually a copy of what Avraham Avinu recorded the morning that Sedom was annihilated? Tablet K8538 is a clay tablet that many have referred to as "The Planisphere". It is clearly depicting some astronomical event that occurred many years ago as it contains a snapshot of the sky at a specific moment in time.

Although the tablet dates back to 700 B.C.E., the author of its cryptic message, clearly, was copying from an older text. The positions of the stars clearly show a date that is much older than the one attributed to the age of the tablet itself. If so, then one can conclude that the author was actually copying from a much earlier text.

Why would someone have bothered to copy some archaic and senseless picture of a night sky? Rather, it seems that this specific event must have been known and recorded over and over and the event recorded must have been something fantastic. With this in hand, one can appreciate some of the theories that have come about.

The tablet shows stars, planets and something streaking across the sky. Many have suggested that this must be a comet of some sort. It is clear that the observer was coming close to daytime based on the timing that can be seen from the celestial objects. There is also a plume of smoke that was drawn on one edge of the tablet.

The actual night in question and the exact year is subject to dispute. This mainly comes about because of the poor condition of the tablet and the inability to decipher all of the objects on the tablet. However, two scientists, Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell, have proposed that this observer saw a meteor entering the atmosphere. They suggest that he was located in the Middle East and, based on the trajectory of the object streaking across the sky, he saw a meteor that eventually impacted at Koefels in the Austrian Alps. This impact caused a massive plume of smoke that would have made its way all the way back to the Middle East.

This plume would have caused mass destruction and it was burning hot. It is fascinating, because it appears that Kofels has an impact crater that could match this exact scenario. I must concede, Bond and Hempsell place this event at a much earlier date than Avraham Avinu's lifetime (actually it would be in Enosh's lifetime, perhaps, the "flood" of his time since it came from the direction of the sea), but it is of note that the date is hotly contested. Also, with this event happening within biblical times and within the vicinity where the biblical events were recording, one would think that such a massive and destructive event would be recorded somewhere in the Torah.

The pesukim (Bereishis 19:27-28) record Avraham Avinu rising at dawn and watching toward the direction of Sedom and witnessing a pillar of smoke arising from that area. It is fascinating that the Torah records that aspect of the event and that Avraham Avinu would care to watch. Perhaps, he recorded it in order to have a document to share with others to convince them not to sin like those of Sedom. This may have become a famous document and been copied from generation to generation. Perhaps, this tablet is actually a copy of the original done by Avraham Avinu.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Davening at Neitz is Sometimes Just WRONG

The early bird may get the worm, but the late worm gets to live!!! Being early doesn't always mean better. While it is certainly true that one who davens right at neitz (sunrise, more properly called haNeitz) is doing something noble, one who davens right as he sees the sun rising may actual be worse off than someone who slept late. This is especially true this time of the year!

No, I am not talking about the silliness of having atomic clocks at a neitz minyan. While it is true that by davening at the exact time of listed sunrise (no matter how precise to the location one has calculated it for) is the most statistically improbable time for actual visible sunrise (based on barometric pressure and other weather disturbances), that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about someone who goes out and davens at the first visible sign of sunrise; the way it was done back in the times of the Gemara.

There is a phenomenon known as the Novaya Zemlya effect. Back in 1596 Willem Barentsz, the famous explorer, was sailing through the Arctic in search of a northeast passage. His unlucky crew got stuck in Novaya Zemlya (just north of Siberia), and had to stay there through the winter. As is the case above the Arctic Circle, the sun does not rise for a portion of the winter. The eager crew waited for sunrise and were anxious to be able to leave this frozen tundra.

Then in January of 1597 one of the crewmembers, Gerrit de Veer saw the sun peaking above the horizon. The fantastic thing about this was that this was TWO WEEKS before it was supposed to happen. Gerrit was the first person to record in writing what has now become known as the Novaya Zemlya effect.

The basic concept is that when there is a duration of warm weather immediately after a cold spell a mirage can appear on the horizon. This happens most often in spring and fall as the temperatures fluctuate a lot. The warm air creates a current near the horizon. It can be focussed right near the spot where the sun will rise (that is a warmer area). This current then acts as a lens and refracts the image of the sun from below the horizon to above it. Meaning, the sun looks like it rose even though it is really below the horizon. This sunrise often looks a little distorted, but someone with no knowledge of the effect would just think he was seeing a sunrise in a hazy patch in the sky.

While it seems clear that we take into account weather disturbances when calculating neitz, these are only the ones that are realtively small. Things like small weather disturbances and barometric pressure can affect visible sunrise and it seems that in the times of teh Gemara they based sunrise on visiblity. However, these only change sunrise by small amounts. The Novaya Zemlya effect can be very pronounced! So, before you get upset that you woke up early for nothing, make sure you know the difference between true and fake sunrise!!!

Another VERY VERY important fact that de Veer recorded. In fact, this one can even be life threatening!!! Eating polar bear livers can cause hypervitaminosis and can be fatal!!!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hot Air Balunatic Time Travel

Recently, two scientists Nielsen and Nonomiya came out with what seemed to be a ridiculous theory. The Large Hadron Collider (a massive particle accelerator in Europe referred to as the LHC) has been experiencing significant setbacks to its opening. Between techincal problems, to overheating to even one of its scientists being arrested for connections with Al-Qaeda, it has suffered what appears to be an unnatural string of bad luck. These mainstream scientists (yes, they happen to be mainstream astrophysicists) have proposed that this is actually a sign that the future is traveling back to the past to save us. If not for their reputation, these scientists would have normally been laughed at and marginilized.

The basic concept goes as follows, the LHC should be able to detect a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson. This particle (if it exists) should be part of what gives items mass. If detected, some have argued that its knowledge could have potentially harmful effects and we could inadvertently annihilate ourselves (most scientists still feel that this is a ridiculous assumption). It has been nicknamed "The G-d Particle".

These scientists have concocted a theory that nature has its own protection mechanisms and, therefore, prior to our self-annihilation, it will travel through time to save itself. This concept reminded me of an explanation given to the Tower of Bavel story that is found in last week's parsha, Noach. Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz (Tiferes Yehonasan) mentions that humankind wanted to build a mechanism to transport them to the moon.

(Some rabbanim of recent seem to have misquoted or misunderstood this segment by stating that it proves that NASA's intentions are counter to Torah beliefs. Unless they are quoting from a different peirush of Rav Eibshitz, they state that he is arguing that space exploration is evil because of its haughty nature. A reading of the peirush shows that the evil nature of their spcae travel was that they were trying to escape from G-d and His judgement. These rabbanim also speak of the mechanism as being some complex rocket but, as is clear from the explanation given which I will mention shortly, this is clearly not the case.)

Rav Eibshitz suggests that they wanted to make a large sail (like a hot air balloon) and propel it above the lower atmosphere by means of gunpowder (that is what the "pulver" that he mentions) and then the lighter air would carry them to the moon where they could live without the fear of a deluge since the clouds do not go that high. Obviously, this contraption would not work.

Firstly, the amount of gunpowder necessary to elevate humanity would be enormously large. If they all got on the "ship" and lit the fuse, they probably would have blown themselves up right then and there. Secondly, if they made it afloat, they would have frozen to death when they reached the upper levels of the atmosphere Thirdly, if they somehow got around that, they would have died of asphyxiation when they ran out of enough oxygen. If, somehow, they brought along O2 tanks, and somehow (counter to all rules of physics) continued to float upwards against gravity, they would not have passed through the Van Allen Belts quickly enough and would have died of radiation poisoning. If they somehow made it to the moon, they would have died shortly with no water or resources!!! They were punished for their crime, but the Nielson - Ninomya theory was in effect, because it prevented the extermination of humankind by not allowing for their self-destruction.

Perhaps, if true, the Nielson - Ninomaya theory is actually the bracha that Hashem gave Noach when He said that He would never destroy mankind again (even by means other than a flood see Zevachim 116a). Even though a small portion of humanity would have been left (Avraham Avinu and wife) the vast majority would have perished (perhaps, earning them the biggest Darwin Award ever) and this would have mimicked the destruction of the Mabul with only a few remaining.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bracha on Space Dirt

With the Orionid meteor shower having peaked last night, I figured this was an opportune time to discuss this phenomenon. There is a bracha that is said upon seeing "zikin" (Berachos 58b), "Oseh Ma'aseh Bereishis". The definition of zikin is disputed with some (like Rashi) that maintain that it is a shooting star, and others who state that it is a comet. The Mishna Berurah rules that the bracha applies to both objects (O"C 227:1:1).

A meteor is a small piece of space debris (dirt) that enters our atmosphere. As it "burns up" it radiates light and appears as a streak of light shooting across the sky. This is what a shooting star is, they are not real stars. There are several meteor showers every year and they always happen on the same approximate dates. This is due to the fact that as comets (and in one case an asteroid) pass through the area that earth orbits (hopefully earth is in a different position at the time)they leave behind a nice amount of dirt. As we pass through this region of space on a yearly basis, a lot of the dirt enters our atmosphere. The Orionids are from the debris left from Halley's Comet.

The Orionids are called such because the radiant (center of where the debris appear to come from) is located in the constellation Orion. The fascinating thing about this is that the Gemara maintained that one will never see zikin in this constellation. The Gemara does, however, clarify its statement by stating that one may see zikin in that region of the sky, but this is not because the zikin are there. Rather, it is the shining of the zikin that make it seem to be in that area of the sky.

I do not maintain to understand exactly what this Gemara means and, therefore, will not even begin to define it in scientific terms. What I have wondered is how one can make the bracha on zikin found in Orion? The Gemara makes it seem as if the bracha is only if one sees the zikin themselves. While some have maintained that just being aware of certain phenomenon can allow for a bracha (see Taz regarding lightening), many authorities rule that one must see the object that he is making the bracha on and not its reflection. Therefore, some have differentiated between seeing an object through eyeglasses (considered a regular method of vision) and seeing a reflected object. Why are zikin in Orion not the same as reflected zikin.

If one could not make the bracha (something not mentioned by any halachic authority) then one who cannot differentiate between the constellations should never be able to make the bracha. The general rule that one does not recite a bracha when there is a doubt should apply. This clearly cannot be the case!

The truth is, how could one make the bracha on both comets and meteors? Why don't we state that since the definition is disputed one cannot make the bracha because he is always in doubt? Instead we state that one can recite the bracha on both. It does not seem that the Gemara was of the opinion that both are zikin! Maybe the answer is that this bracha commemorates the fact the Hashem created the world. When one sees the fascinations of nature, one can recite the bracha out of awe for the Creator. Therefore, we are lenient to allow one to make the bracha if he is inspired by any object that could, technically, be the definition of that which the Gemara was discussing. The main focus is the feeling and not the actual object. Therefore, perhaps, zikin in Orion would not be problematic. This is the natural way to see these types of zikin and one is seeing them in their normal and awe-inspiring form (unlike through a mirror). Because of this, it is not only permissible, but preferable for one to make this bracha upon seeing them. Mah Rabu Ma'asecha Hashem!!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Koheles' Foolish Orion

As Sukkos approaches, once again, I start to wonder if there is some astronomical symbolism that can be found in Koheles which is always read on Sukkos.

In the beginning of the sefer (1:6), Koheles clearly describes that path of the sun throughout the sky (from the perspective of an observer in the northern hemisphere). Later, Koheles begins to constrast the qualities of a fool with those of a sage. He starts by stating,
"הֶֽחָכָם֙ עֵינָ֣יו בְּרֹאשׁ֔וֹ וְהַכְּסִ֖יל בַּחֹ֣שֶׁךְ הוֹלֵ֑ךְ"
which essentially means that fools choose to walk in darkness, whereas, a sage will go out when he can see.

The word used for fool is "כסיל" which is is also used elsewhere to refer to the constellation Orion. I have always wondered if there is deeper symbolism that can be found. If one looks in the sky, he will see that Orion and Sagittarius are at opposite ends of the celestial sphere. They are both armed and ready to hunt.

In the times of Chazal (precession of the equinoxes has caused the night sky to shift since their times), for most of the summer, Orion was primarirly above the horizon in the daytime. Every successive day of the summer, Orion is visible for a little bit more of the night, until, finally, in mid-winter it is out for the entire night (perhaps, this sheds light as to the name כסלו for the month that Orion is out for the entire month and in which it peaks in the sky). Sagittarius has the exact opposite qualities. In fact, it rises with the sun in Cheshvan and only afterwards starts to make its nighttime appearance.

Maybe Koheles was saying that the sage chooses the right times to go out of his home, either in the day, or in the warm summer nights. The fool, however, goes out during the cold winter nights, and stays indoors during the summertime (right next to the burning sun, in fact). As stated above, we read Koheles in the autumn when Orion is about to come out of hiding and Sagittarius is going home to rest.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Klal Yisrael's Venusian Path

In this week's (Parshas Ki Savo) Haftorah (60:3) we are told that kings will walk in the brightness of our shining ("Nogah Zarchech"). One might wonder, what is the difference between the two words used here for light and shining. Our shining is referenced as "Zerichah" ("Zarchech") and the light is called "Nogah". It is interesting to see that this word "Nogah", which is not as common as "Ohr," for light is also found in next week's Haftorah (Parshas Nitzavim-VaYelech). There we are told (62:1) that silence will not happen until the righteousness of Yerushalayim comes out like "Nogah", a bright light.

Many have suggested (such as Rav Yonasan Eibshitz zt"l) that the reference in next week's Haftorah is actually a reference to the planet Venus. Venus is commonly called Nogah in Talmudic literature. It is the brightest starlike object in the sky. In fact, it is only outmatched by the Sun and the Moon. When it is at its brightest it can even cast small shadows here on our planet. Often times people have confused it with being some sort of aircraft or UFO because it is so bright. Because Venus' orbit is between us and the Sun, it is also only visible prior to dawn or just after sunset and then it sets quickly so many have assumed that it must have been a moving object.

One might ask, what is the connection between Venus' light to Klal Yisrael, shouldn't the Moon have been picked instead? Perhaps, the Navi was also alluding to another aspect of Venus' light. Venus is the only planet that orbits the Sun in a counter-clockwise direction. Therefore, it always appears to have a "retrograde" orbit. It is going "backwards" in the sky when compared to the path that the other planets take.

Maybe the Navi is saying that finally after Klal Yisrael reaches her greatness, the other nations will recognize who we truly are. We have always been taking a "backwards" path in their eyes. Our religious beliefs are foreign to them and we go against the grain of humanity. When the recognition of our trueness is finally expressed, the kings will finally follow the shining of our "Nogah" as it is expressed in this week's Haftorah. The other nations will recognize that this path is the true one. It was their beliefs that were backwards, they will be the ones to suddenly have to change their paths. Therefore, the righteousness of Yerushalayim will come forth like "Nogah", as stated in next week's Haftorah. The recognition that the brightest of all the "stars" is the one that appears to be going backwards relative to the others. It is Venus and Klal Yisrael that were really on the correct path the entire time.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Superhuman Sight

Throughout the discussions found in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 20a-25a), Rashi continuously states that the New Moon is visible after six hours from the lunar conjunction (molad) and that it was visible six hours prior to the molad. The purpose of the Beis Din knowing this fact is to reject any witnesses that testify about the sighting of a New Moon within this time period. Beis Din will not declare that day to be the first of the month and will automatically assume the witnesses were mistaken or lying.

The Rambam and Baal HaMaor clearly state that the Moon disappears for a couple days because it takes approximately twenty-four hours for the Moon to separate from the Sun to reach a distance that we can see.

Currently, astronomers use a tool called the Danjon Limit. This limit is defined as the distance, in degrees, that the Moon needs to travel from the Sun in order for us to be able to see it. If the Moon is too close to the Sun, the sunlight will outshine the Moon. The Danjon Limit is set at approximately 7 degrees; however, practically most people (under most conditions) need more like 10.5 degrees of separation. The average should come to approximately twenty-four hours from the lunar conjunction which is consistent with the Rambam and Baal HaMaor's opinion. The record (without optical aid) is set at about 15 hours and with optical aid (telescope), the record is close to 12 hours. This is still a far cry from Rashi's six hours. This is something that is easily seen; Rashi was able to witness this phenomenon every month, why would he state such a hard to understand opinion?

(There is a sefer that is cited in the back of the Gemara that mentions that Kepler and Reinhold witnessed a New Moon in Seville on March 13, 1553 and that that sighting proved Rashi's opinion. There seems to be a typo, because the conjunction would have been on March 14, but I believe the reputable author of this sefer was misled by misinformation. Reinhold died in February of 1553 and Kepler was not born until 1571; also, the Moon was far below the Danjon Limit and, if this were true, we would have records still available to us from Kepler's writings verifying this sighting.)

Perhaps, the answer is that Rashi agrees that they could not have seen the Moon. Rashi cites that in many of these cases, the ramifications are only according to the opinion that, when necessary, we trick witnesses into thinking they saw a New Moon even if they did not. This, and other nuances found in Rashi, seem to show that Rashi's overall opinion (even when discussing the opinion that we do not trick witnesses in this fashion) is that we want our calendar to be consistent with the lunar cycles (while making some necessary exceptions when we will have holidays falling on days we do not want) and as long as someone testifies about an event that will keep this consistency, we will admit it into the court. This is even if we know that the witnesses did not really see that which they claim to have seen. This opinion is very similar to that of Rabbeinu Chananel and Rav Saadiah Gaon who maintain that the main focus is the lunar calculations, and the witnesses just verify the sighting for us to be able to apply our calculations.

There are two reasons why the Moon is invisible to us when it is too close to the Sun. One is that the surface of the Moon has mountains and bumps, and therefore, until the Sun can shine above these bumps the sunlight is not reflected to Earth. The second reason is that the human eye cannot detect the faint light reflected from the Moon until there is sufficient darkness around the surrounding area. When the Sun is too close it is still daytime and we cannot see the Moon. In other words, one is a factor because of the Moon's inability to reflect the light; the other is the inability of the human to see the reflection. If we only focus on the constraint caused by the Moon, we can lessen the Danjon Limit to somewhere close to 2 degrees. This is much more consistent with Rashi's opinion. If witnesses would testify that they saw the Moon, we would know that they did not, but we would still accept the testimony because the Moon is at a point where it is new and it is clear from Rashi that the main focus of the process is that the Moon and calendar be in sync and not that we care whether the witnesses actually saw the Moon. This would be another example of us not being so careful with testimony of the Moon which is a concept that even the Rambam records.

I would also suggest one more point. It is clear from Rav Saadiah Gaon and Rabbeinu Chananel (and I would suggest, Rashi) that the commandment upon Beis Din to regulate a calendar is to do so via calculation and not eyewitness accounts. Therefore, the machlokes in R"H 24b - 25a between Rabban Gamliel and other Tanaim as to whether to trust certain suspect witnesses is clearly rooted in a machlokes of whether or not to follow calculation or witnesses. It is interesting to see that Rabban Gamliel invokes a tradition from his family to support his claim. A few lines later Rebbi seems to be expressing a similar claim. Rebbi was a descendant of Rabban Gamliel. It would seem that the household of the Nasi (Rabban Gamliel's family) was in charge with regulating the calendar.

Now, when looking at the famous Mishna later when witnesses came late in the day on Rosh Hashana and the Levi'im sang a weekday shir instead of a yom tov shir, we can see something fantastic! One could have asked why they were bothering with witnesses and not using calculations (according to Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rabbeinu Chananel and Rashi). The answer may be that the Nasi at the time (and posek for these matters, as mentioned in the Mishna) was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai. He was a temporary Nasi. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel I was horrifically murdered and his son Rabban Gamliel II was in hiding. The position of Nasi was therefore given to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai until it could go back to Rabban Gamliel II. Clearly, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, not being from the family of the Nasi, did not have their tradition. He was of the opinion of those that argued with Rabban Gamliel (II) on 24b - 25a.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Miracle of שבת

In this week's parsha, the Aseres HaDibros are repeated. When I was younger, a guest at our Shabbos table offered me one sticker for every difference I could find between the Yisro version and the Va'eschanan version. I found ten.

In the fourth commandment, the mitzvah of Shabbos, we find a reference to the subjugation in Mitzrayim that was not mentioned in parshas Yisro. We are told (5:14) "And you shall remember that you were a slave in Mitzrayim and HaShem, your God, took you out from there with a Mighty Hand and Outstretched Arm. Therefore, HaShem, your God, has commanded you to make a Shabbos day." Rashi writes that this is simply a reminder that HaShem brought us out of Mitzrayim in order to perform his mitzvos, of which this is one.

There seems to be an intrinsic connection between the mitzvah of Shabbos and the exodus from Mitzrayim. There is no reason to assume that the Egyptians gave us a day off on Saturday. Rather, a more conceivable assumption would be that we had a full seven-day work week. With the exodus from the enslavement in Mitzrayim came the freedom and autonomy to set our own weekly schedule. We are thus commanded to set aside Shabbos as a way of reminding us of this great gift.

When immigrants first came over to the United States, they were forced to work on Shabbos and the Egyptian subjugation was felt once again. But the society has changed and now, even in exile, we are free to take Shabbos off from our work. The very concept of a seven-day week in the secular world is itself a miracle. The week is the only calendrical component with absolutely no astronomical significance. A day represents one full rotation of the earth on its axis. A year is one full revolution of the earth around the sun. But a week is nothing more than a group of seven days. The secular world could easily have chosen a six or eight-day week and that would have spelled eternal trouble for the Jews. On the day of Shabbos these miracles must be realized, in combination with the miracle of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

Ramba"m, in Moreh Nevuchim, seems to concur with this idea. He writes that the two mentions of Shabbos in the Aseres HaDibros teach us two separate aspects of Shabbos. In parshas Yisro, we are taught why HaShem chose to sanctify the day of Shabbos and its significance in the days of creation. Here, in Va'eschanan, we are taught why it is that we must keep the Shabbos, namely, to remember the enslavement in Mitzrayim when we had no days off and appreciate HaShem's great deliverance of us from there.

Monday, April 6, 2009

ברכת החמה and ערב פסח

One would have been hard pressed to escape all the "media hype" over the upcoming recitation of Birkas HaChamah. It's everywhere your turn. It's on various informational internet sites with explanatory videos and pictures. It is the subject of a number of worthy new publications as well as shiurim around the globe. And of course, let's not forget all of those tzedakah mailings. And it is with good reason. After all, this only happens once every 28 years. Of course, this year's recitation is yet more rare. We are required to recite the berachah amidst all of the hustle and bustle of Erev Pesach preparations. The last times this occurred were 1309 and 1925 and it won't happen again before the year 6000.So what is the significance of it all?

There are 13 individual beliefs that are delineated as the tenets of faith. However, there are two individual assertions of our belief in HaShem that are repeated in our daily and weekly routines at a much greater frequency. We are commanded to remember HaShem's deliverance of our forefathers from Mitzrayim every day of the year, at least twice a day. Additionally, the kiddush and tefillah for each Yom Tov incorporate a reference to the holiday as "zecher litziyas Mitzrayim."

The recalling of Yetzias Mitzrayim is so prevalent that many are troubled by the specific commandment to tell over the story on Pesach night. After all, how is this night different from all other nights? One thing is for certain, the mitzvah on Seder night takes on a different flavour from that which we find the rest of the year. Instead of a brief mention of Yetzias Mitzrayim, we are required to delve deeply into the story, to realize all of the wondrous miracles HaShem performed for us and to express our gratitude in many ways.

Another fundamental belief which appears nearly as frequently in our liturgy is the belief in HaShem as the Creator of the world. It is indeed the very essence of Shabbos which, although it only comes once a week, it is meant to be the focal point of our week. Our entire week is essentially a "zikaron le'maasei Bereishis." Interestingly, though, we find ourselves commemorating HaShem's day of rest without nearly as much attention given to the actual creation. Although Rosh HaShanah is meant to commemorate the creation of Man, it is so saturated with other various themes, it can easily get lost in the mix. Birkas HaChamah, recited when the sun begins a new cycle and the vernal equinox occurs at the same time in the week as it did during creation, demands of us to reflect on the creation itself and to give us renewed appreciation of the creator.

The timing of this year's Birkas HaChamah allows us to, in a matter of mere hours, take two of our most fundamental and basic assertions of faith in HaShem and elevate them and express them in new and special ways.

It is also worthy of note that in a year such as this, not only does the equinox occur at the same time of the week as it did when the sun was created, but the days of Pesach also fall out on the same days of the week as they did the year of Yetzias Mitzrayim.