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!!!