God vs The Multiverse

Click here for God vs The Multiverse: a rational argument for the Existence of One God who intelligently designed one universe.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Mysticism (Part 3: Solution)

We suggest that a unification between placebo effect and mysticism can help us resolve the contradicting facts between the two camps, thereby uncovering a deeper understanding of the Torah's prohibition against all forms of mysticism.

It is true that the world model of mysticism can be observed to correspond to statistically significant improvement in the welfare of an individual who believes in them, especially if they are administered by an expert in science.  Yet it is likewise true, that the speculated forces of mysticism, as separate from the placebo effect, are totally false.  No intelligent person believes in their existence.  (See the wiki article on the one million dollar paranormal challenge by James Randi for the best modern day proof.)

The Torah states in Devarim (18:15) that the art of mysticism is something the other nations of the do.  The practice of mysticism persists to this day only because it is rooted in some truth.  Mysticism works because the placebo effect is real.

There are situations where we have no other method of curing other that the power of placebo.  This situation raises an ethical dilemma   Should the person seek out a mystic, someone trained in the art of inducing the placebo effect?  Why didn't the Torah promote a society of mysticism   What is wrong with a society availing itself of the placebo effect?

We believe that the reasons of the Rambam and the Ramban apply to this question.  The path of mysticism might start out from the placebo effect, but the path quickly branches out to include a life spent pursuing fantasy and imagination.  This is necessarily so as the art of belief is most powerful when it grabs hold of deep, primitive fantasies in the unconscious mind.  This path ultimately leads to total destruction of both the individual and society as a whole.

The Torah states in Bamidbar 23:23 that the Jewish nation is different.  We do not have mysticism  but we do not lack the benefits if the placebo effect.  We have available to us a different method.  We turn towards Hashem in prayer.  We know from the words of the Torah and our prophets that prayer works.

A person can never be sure Hashem will answer their prayers.  There is no absolutely guaranteed method for bring about every cure.  But you can have perfect confidence that the best method for success is to follow God's ways in all your deeds, and to turn to God in your time of need.  The true belief of a Jew is much deeper, and greater than other nation's belief in mysticism.

The Jew does not lack the benefits of the placebo effects.  On the contrary, we benefit from the true efficacy of Divine Providence, as well as a greater, enhanced placebo effect through the natural law.

How full of wisdom is our Torah's solution for troubles in our lives.  It steers us away from the paths of desolation, and guides us towards the Name of Hashem.  The prescription of the Torah is encapsulated in one verse in Devarim 18:13תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך.  You shall be perfect with Hashem your God


Mysticism: (Part 2: Approach)

We believe the approach to some these problem (especially ones concerning healing) can be resolved through an understanding of the placebo effect.  The belief that something may work, can have a surprisingly powerful, positive effect.  There is tremendous variation in how the placebo effect works, but there is convincing empirical evidence it is real.

The first recorded mention of the placebo effect was in 1784, where Lavoisier used a new method of blind experimentation to expose the mesmerists.  The recognition of the placebo force was a major breakthrough in modern medicine, allow experimenters to filter out the noise created by the power of the placebo in order to identify other forces that heal.  Because of its near ubiquity, the placebo effect was drowning out or distorting most experiments.

The description of the placebo force closely matches the description of the mysterious forces of mysticism.   There are similar, specific methods for inducing both. One example is that red pills have greater efficacy in inducing the placebo effect of a stimulant than blue bills.  The reverse is true of a depressant.  (See the wiki article for more details.)

The very art of practical mysticism can be described as the art of inducing the placebo effect. The mystic is a master of this art.  It is not that easy to learn.  It requires a tremendous amount of research to understand all the various factors that influence it.  This knowledge in amassed and passed down to future generations.  (Back then it was an through oral tradition and books, nowadays its through Wikipedia.)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Mysticism: (Part 1: Facts)

There is a divide between two camps of the Rishonim regarding how we understand the Torah's prohibitions against using mysticism (horoscopes, Ouija boards, red bendels, baking keys in bread, etc.)

One group, headed by the Rambam, maintained these things were all lies and deceptions.  The Rambam states in the Laws of Idol Worship 11:16 that are clear proofs that mysticism was not scientific system of thought, but was rather nonsensical speculations and utterly false.  The Torah prohibits them because they lead a person into a life of destructive fantasy.
ודברים האלו כולן דברי שקר וכזב הן והם שהטעו בהן עובדי כוכבים הקדמונים לגויי הארצות כדי שינהגו אחריהן. ואין ראוי לישראל שהם חכמים מחוכמים להמשך בהבלים אלו ולא להעלות על לב שיש תועלת בהן. שנאמר כי לא נחש ביעקב ולא קסם בישראל. ונאמר כי הגוים האלה אשר אתה יורש אותם אל מעוננים ואל קוסמים ישמעו ואתה לא כן וגו'. כל המאמין בדברים האלו וכיוצא בהן ומחשב בלבו שהן אמת ודבר חכמה אבל התורה אסרתן אינן אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלימה. אבל בעלי החכמה ותמימי הדעת ידעו בראיות ברורות שכל אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה אינם דברי חכמה אלא תהו והבל שנמשכו בהן חסרי הדעת ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן. ומפני זה אמרה תורה כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך
The second group, headed by the Ramban in Devarim 18:9 (and also including many of Chazal), believed that these things do in fact work .  This was based upon numerous empirical observations of the efficacy of these methods by the Ramban and others he trusted.  An entire quasi-physical system of forces was posited to account for these effects.  Despite the fact that mysticism was truly observed to work, the Torah nonetheless prohibited it, instructing us to turn to Hashem instead.
ורבים יתחסדו בנחשים לומר שאין בהם אמת כלל, כי מי יגיד לעורב ולעגור מה יהיה. ואנחנו לא נוכל להכחיש דברים יתפרסמו לעיני רואים. ורבותינו גם כן יודו בהם
One difficulty with the Ramban's approach  is why, if these thing do work, did the Torah prohibit them?  Why can't we use them like we use aspirin?   (The Ramban explains that the Torah gave us express permission to use conventional medicine.)

A difficulty with the Rambam is how does he explain the empirical evidence mentioned by of the other camp?  Likewise, how do we reconcile the observations of the Ramban against the "clear proofs" of the Rambam that all these things are false?

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Daughter of Sarah

This post is written in memory of Shani Feder a"h.

The Torah in Chayei Sarah (24:67)  tells us about Yitzchak's reaction to meeting his new bride, Rivka, in one short verse that contains three elements:
 וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק, הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה, וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ; וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק, אַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ
Yitzchak brought Rivka into the tent of his mother Sarah, then he marries her and loves her, and then he is comforted after the loss of his mother.

Why did Yitzchak bring Rivka into Sarah's tent?  Why does the Torah tell us that he loved his wife?  In general, the Torah does not go out of its way to tell us things that we would already have known, like the fact that a man loves his wife.  What exactly was it that comforted Yitzchak and gave him consolation after the death of his mother?  What is the relationship between the three elements mentioned in the verse?

In order to understand the nature of Yitzchak's consolation, we must first turn our attention to his loss, Sarah his mother. We will begin with Rashi's explanation of the the enigmatic phrase "הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ" (lit. the tent Sarah his mother):
האהלה שרה אמו: ויביאה האהלה ונעשית דוגמת שרה אמו, כלומר והרי היא שרה אמו, שכל זמן ששרה קיימת היה נר דלוק מערב שבת לערב שבת, וברכה מצויה בעיסה, וענן קשור על האהל, ומשמתה פסקו, וכשבאת רבקה חזרו
He brought her to the tent and she became just like Sarah his mother (and behold, she was Sarah his mother).  As long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one eve of Shabbos to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent.  When she died, these things ceased, and when Rivka came, they resumed.
It is no accident that Rashi is describing Sarah's tent in a similar manner that the Torah describes the tent that her children later built as a resting place for the שכינה (Divine Presence), which also had a candelabra, a table with bread, and a cloud attached to it.  This is consistent with Rashi's explanation (on the gemara Shabbos 55b) of the שכינה being found in the tents of Yaakov's wives: עד שלא נבנה אהל מועד היתה שכינה מצויה באהלי צדיקים

Yitzchak was mourning the loss of his mother, because when Sarah departed the שכינה left with her.  The שכינה dwelt in the tent of Sarah, and it was not the same tent without her.  Gone were the Shabbos candles that lasted all week; the bread no longer had the same taste.  Everything was different, because without Sarah there was no שכינה.

In order to understand the relationship between the presence of Sarah and the presence of the שכינה, we need to appreciate the experience of being in Abraham and Sarah's tent.  We need to appreciate what it really meant to be in the presence of Sarah.  Fortunately, the Torah describes for us in vivid details one such afternoon in Abraham and Sarah's tent.

It was a hot sunny day with few travelers, and things were slow in the tent of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham sees three men, and immediately tries to persuade them to take a break and grab a quick bite.  As soon as the travelers acquiesce, Abraham and Sarah's operation kicks into high gear.
 וַיְמַהֵר אַבְרָהָם הָאֹהֱלָה, אֶל שָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר, מַהֲרִי שְׁלֹשׁ סְאִים קֶמַח סֹלֶת לוּשִׁי, וַעֲשִׂי עֻגוֹת.   וְאֶל הַבָּקָר, רָץ אַבְרָהָם; וַיִּקַּח בֶּן בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב, וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הַנַּעַר, וַיְמַהֵר, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ.   וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב, וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וַיִּתֵּן, לִפְנֵיהֶם; וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ, וַיֹּאכֵלוּ.   וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בָאֹהֶל
Abraham hastens to the tent to tell Sarah about their new guests.  She quickly starts baking a separate loaf of her famous bread for each traveler.   According to Rashi, Abraham prepared three separate calves, so that each guest could get the best cut of meat.  It had to be the best meat and it had to be the best sauce.  Each guest had to have their favorite dish.  Sure there would be extra food left over, but that was price you paid for your guests.  That is how things were done in Abraham and Sarah's tent.

If that was how a stranger was treated, we can only imagine what it meant to be part of Abraham and Sarah's household.  The Rambam tells us (A.Z. 1:14) that their household comprised tens of thousands of people (עד שנתקבצו אליו אלפים ורבבות והם אנשי בית אברהם).  What was their method?   How did they have such a large household?

Rashi explains the verse in Lech Lecha (12:5) that states that Abraham and Sarah took the "souls they made" and traveled to Canaan:
אשר עשו בחרן: שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום
Abraham would bring the men under the wings of the שכינה, and Sarah would bring the women.  Together, they became the parents of many new souls.  Everyone was Abraham's son.  Everyone was Sarah's daughter.  They extended their family with no limit, until they brought everyone they could into their household; until they introduced them all to the ways of the שכינה.  

The Rambam explains in the Laws of Personality Traits (1:6-7) that the ways of Abraham and Sarah are identical to the ways of the שכינה.
כך למדו בפירוש מצוה זו. מה הוא נקרא חנון אף אתה היה חנון. מה הוא נקרא רחום אף אתה היה רחום. מה הוא נקרא קדוש אף אתה היה קדוש...ולפי שהשמות האלו נקרא בהן היוצר והם הדרך הבינונית שאנו חייבין ללכת בה נקראת דרך זו דרך ה'. והיא שלמד אברהם אבינו לבניו שנאמר כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה
Abraham and Sarah adopted many sons and daughters and taught them the ways of the שכינה.  We know that Abraham taught classes to his sons, and maybe Sarah did the same for her daughters.  Or perhaps Sarah just brought her daughters under the wings of the שכינה using her more subtle methods; having a conversation with you, asking you if you wanted a coffee, or maybe it was just the light in her eyes and the smile on her face.

There was no limit to how many people Sarah could love; no limit to how many sons and daughters she could adopt.  The more children she loved, the more room in her heart there was for more.  When Hashem finally blessed her with her own cherished son, Yitzchak, her initial reaction was to think about other people (21:6):
וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים כָּל הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצֲחַק לִי
Sarah was happy because everyone else was happy for her.  Was there ever a happier household in history than the tent of Abraham and Sarah on the day Yitzchak was born?  Sarah was a person that everyone could be happy for, because she was only happy for them!  Sarah loved them and they loved her.  There was no pettiness or jealousy between Sarah and all her best friends (and everyone was Sarah's best friend).

Sarah was a unique individual.  A woman who embodied the very essence of kindness and dignity.  When you entered into her kitchen to talk to her, you were introduced to a personality that radiated the ways of the שכינה.  The way of life that Abraham and Sarah lived, their actions and their speech, were identical to the ways of Hashem.  If you wanted to greet the face of the שכינה, you went to Sarah's tent.  If you wanted to learn the behavior of the שכינה, the proper ways for a person to imitate, you went to Sarah.  She was a personification of the שכינה itself.  Truly, the שכינה dwelt in the tent of Sarah our mother.

But on that one dark day that Sarah died, it all changed.  No longer did the Shabbos candles last all week. Of course, Abraham tried his best.  Of course he lit Shabbos candles, but by the next morning the flame was out.  The bread he baked for the guests just didn't taste the same.  Running the tent of Abraham and Sarah was not a one man operation.  It took both Abraham and Sarah to run the show.  When Sarah departed,  the cloud departed.  Without Sarah in the tent, there was no שכינה in the tent.

How great was Abraham and Yitzchak's pain?  How great was the sadness and mourning by all of Sarah's children?  The show could not continue without her.  She was simply irreplaceable, and there had never before been anyone like her.   The Ramban says that this sad state of affairs persisted for a long time.  Yitzchak refused to be consoled, as his grief was too great.  He was not just mourning the loss of his mother Sarah, but the loss of the שכינה from her tent.

Then Rivka came, and accomplished the impossible.  She entered Sarah's tent and the שכינה entered with her.  The cloud returned, and the Shabbos candles lasted all week.  The bread she made for the guests reminded everyone of Sarah's famous bread.  ויביאה האהלה ונעשית דוגמת שרה אמו, כלומר והרי היא שרה אמו. Yitzchak was amazed.  Could it really be true?  Another Sarah?

What comforted Yitzchak was the discovery that while Sarah herself might be gone, her character traits and personality lived on in her descendants. (Rashi says that Rivka was the granddaughter of Sarah's sister). Yes, Sarah was the first of her kind, but she would not be the last of her kind.  There would be others like her, with whom the שכינה would dwell.

Unfortunately, the era of the שכינה dwelling in the tent of Abraham and Sarah was over, but a new era had begun.  The שכינה would now dwell in the tent of Yitzchak and Rivka.  Time moves on, but the personality and soul of Sarah persists through the next generation, and it will remain forever in her offspring.  There will always be daughters of Sarah throughout the generations.

All of Sarah's children partake of her qualities to some degree, but some of them do so to an exceptionally high degree, where the resemblance is unmistakable.  Shani Feder was a true daughter of Sarah.  If you wanted to know what it meant to walk into Sarah's tent and see the smile on her face as she greeted you, you merely had to walk into Shani's kitchen.  All who wanted to learn the ways of the שכינה, knew where to go. The שכינה continued to dwell with the daughter of Sarah.

How great is our loss!  We mourn not just the loss of Shani, but the loss of a daughter of Sarah our mother. We mourn the loss of the שכינה she brought into her house.  Where will we go when we need to see her face smiling at us?  Where will we go when we need to be in her presence?

There can only be one consolation for us, and it is none other than that which consoled Yitzchak.  Shani is gone, but if there is one thing Sarah did best, it was to transmit her personality and perfections to others; to her children and family, to her adopted children and extended family, to her many best friends, and to all those who came into contact with her.

Shani the daughter of Sarah is gone, but the שכינה will return to the houses of those that follow in her ways.  This, and only this, can comfort our bereaved hearts.  May Hashem console us after Shani's passing, as He consoled Yitzchak after his mother Sarah's passing.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Special Relativity, Shofar, and the World to Come

The following recording (click here for Part I and Part II) is from a shiur given by RAZ that draws a connection between the new concept of physical time that emerges from Einstein's special theory of relativity, with the ethical allusions to repentance contained in blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana.  It further develops how the idea of relative time sheds light on the normative ideal expressed by Chazal of avoiding the life of a temporal existence and striving to lead a life bound up with eternity.

Part I - Time in Special Relativity

1. The main line of reasoning is explained very clearly by Einstein himself in his book, "The Evolution of Physics".  You can read the main chapter (The Time-Space Continuum) and follow along with the charts on pages 209-220 in this PDF of the book.

2.  "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." - Albert Einstein (1955)

3. Koheles 3:15
טו  מַה-שֶּׁהָיָה כְּבָר הוּא, וַאֲשֶׁר לִהְיוֹת כְּבָר הָיָה; וְהָאֱלֹהִים, יְבַקֵּשׁ אֶת-נִרְדָּף.15 That which was, already is; and that which will be, already was; and God seeks pursuit.

Part II - Shofar and the World to Come

אע"פ שתקיעת שופר בראש השנה גזירת הכתוב רמז יש בו כלומר עורו ישינים משנתכם ונרדמים הקיצו מתרדמתכם וחפשו במעשיכם וחזרו בתשובה וזכרו בוראכם. אלו השוכחים את האמת בהבלי הזמן ושוגים כל שנתם בהבל וריק אשר לא יועיל ולא יציל הביטו לנפשותיכם והטיבו דרכיכם ומעלליכם ויעזוב כל אחד מכם דרכו הרעה ומחשבתו אשר לא טובה
5.  Rambam Hilchos Teshuva 9:1
 נמצא פירוש כל אותן הברכות והקללות על דרך זו, כלומר אם עבדתם את ה' בשמחה ושמרתם דרכו משפיע לכם הברכות האלו ומרחיק הקללות מכם עד שתהיו פנויים להתחכם בתורה ולעסוק בה כדי שתזכו לחיי העולם הבא וייטב לך לעולם שכולו טוב ותאריך ימים לעולם שכולו ארוך ונמצאתם זוכין לשני העולמות. לחיים טובים בעולם הזה המביאים לחיי העולם הבא. שאם לא יקנה פה חכמה ומעשים טובים אין לו במה יזכה שנאמר כי אין מעשה וחשבון ודעת וחכמה בשאול
ואם עזבתם את ה' ושגיתם במאכל ובמשתה וזנות ודומה להם מביא עליכם כל הקללות האלו ומסיר כל הברכות עד שיכלו ימיכם בבהלה ופחד ולא יהיה לכם לב פנוי ולא גוף שלם לעשות המצות כדי שתאבדו מחיי העולם הבא ונמצא שאבדתם שני עולמות. שבזמן שאדם טרוד בעולם הזה בחולי ובמלחמה ורעבון אינו מתעסק לא בחכמה ולא במצות שבהן זוכין לחיי העולם הבא

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 6: Final Svara)

We think there is a deeper way to understand the previous machlokes between רבא and רב נחמן based upon a conceptual connection between the first and second parts of the sugya.

To develop this approach, we begin with a question: 

רבא argued that we do not say הלל on Purim because we are still the servants of אחשורוש and this servitude prevents us from saying הלל.   According to this logic, why doesn't our current state of exile prevent us from saying הלל on any day of the year? 

We believe the answer is that the הלל that is being postulated in this sugya is an essential feature of publicizing the miracle, and as such, we must judge whether the miracle itself warrants a publication accompanied by הלל or not.  It is not relevant what our present state at this very moment is. The servitude to אחשורוש tells us that the story of the מגילה itself does not warrant הלל. 

This idea is in line with the original reasoning of the gemara which tied the derivation for saying הלל to the reading the מגילה.  Namely, the gemara attempted to derive both of them from the comparison to the song of אז ישיר, which was both an instrument of publicizing the miracle and a song of praise.  

It would seem that it is not merely a coincidence that these two features  of אז ישיר are found together, but rather there is an intimate conceptual connection between them.  The purpose of publicizing a miracle is not merely to convey the cold intellectual knowledge that God has control of nature, that His providence relates to man, etc.  Rather, a major purpose of the transmission is to bring the receiver of the information to a state of recognition of God's greatness and kindness, which should result in an expression of הלל.  This is the premise of the gemara's question that we should also say הלל.

With this idea, we can explain the machlokes of the previous post on a deeper level.  We could say that everyone really agrees that הלל, in and of itself, could be fulfilled entirely through an implicit הלל.  However, the dispute revolves around whether an obligation to say הלל that is a קיום in the publicizing of a miracle can be implicit, or whether it must be an explicit הלל.

רב נחמן maintains that since the reading of the reading the מגילה brings a person to an internal state of הלל, the publicizing of the miracle achieves its objective.  Every person who hears the מגילה is brought to a state of הלל, and the publicizing of the miracle has achieved both of its objectives: transmitting the intellectual information and bringing the receiver to a state of praising God.

However, those who argue on רב נחמן maintain that since this הלל (if it were to exist) is not just a regular הלל, but is tied to the publicizing of the miracle, it must be done openly and expressly.  In other words, הלל is not simply the objective of the publicizing, but is rather part and parcel of the very act of publicizing itself.  The publication of the miracle must include the fact that this miracle evokes a reaction of הלל and therefore an implicit הלל does not suffice.

In summary, the argument revolves around the connection between the publicizing and the הלל. Namely, רב נחמן maintains that the publicizing must bring about הלל.  For this, an implicit הלל suffices. The others argue that the publicizing itself must include the idea that these events bring about הלל and therefore a manifest הלל should be needed.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 5: More Svara)

On the surface, רב נחמן's position that reading the מגילה can be in place of saying הלל, seems difficult.  After all, הלל is a song of praise, while מגילה is just the reading of a story. How can we justify this position?

It would seem that according to רב נחמן the reading of הלל can be done with a text which is explicitly הלל or with a text in which the הלל is implicit.  In general, the הלל is expressed through explicit songs of praise. However, it can equally be accomplished by reading the moving story of the מגילה, a book which is written in a manner which implicitly points to and celebrates God's Providence to protect and save the Jewish people.

Although God and His Providence are never mentioned explicitly in the מגילה, it is implicit in the mind of the reader of the מגילה who recognizes and feels a strong sense of appreciation for the great salvation brought by Hashem. 

This what רב נחמן means by saying that reading the מגילה is the הלל. Since the publicizing of the miracle had already been set up through the reading of the מגילה, and this reading carries with it an implicit הלל, there was no further need to add an additional recitation of הלל.  The reading of the מגילה suffices for both.

The other positions argue with רב נחמן and maintain that הלל must be explicit. Its essence is in the outward expression of song and praise. Thus, the obligation of הלל, if it were to exists, could not be satisfied through reading of the מגילה alone.

In the next post, we will be presenting a different way of understanding these issues based upon an understanding of the relationship between the first and second parts of the sugya.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 4: More Svara)

We'll now discuss the מחלוקת as to whether or not the events of the Purim story demand הלל.

רב נחמן held that there is an obligation to recite הלל which is fulfilled through the reading of the מגילה, while רבא argued that that there is no obligation, in so far as we were still servants of אחשורוש even after the salvation.

רב נחמן: The events of the Purim story had a greater relative change in the state of the Jews than that of the redemption from Egypt.  By the redemption from Egypt we were saved from servitude to freedom, but by Purim we were saved from death to life. It is therefore a קל וחומר that there should be הלל on Purim.

רבא: It is true that the miracle of Purim itself produced a greater relative change in the state of the people, and we are therefore obligated to publicize and memorialize these events just as the events of the redemption were publicized by the אז ישיר.  However, on an absolute level, the result of the Purim story was lacking as we remained servants of אחשורוש.  This state of servitude is מעכב (prevents) the full expression of praise which is found in הלל.

Thus, the מחלוקת is whether or not the objective state of servitude is מעכב the recitation of הלל which would be necessitated by the great change in our status (from death to life) brought about by the salvation.

In the next post we'll try to analyze the novel position of רב נחמן, that the reading of the מגילה is a viable substitute for the singing of praise that is normally fulfilled through the singing of הלל.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 3: Svara)

We think that the solution to the two main problems discussed in the previous post can only be answered if we expand our understating of the function and purpose of אז ישיר, the song by the sea.  Our questions were based on the premise that אז ישיר was merely a joyous song in response to our miraculous salvation with the drowning of the Egyptian army.  This would seem to be a one time expression of praise, which is entirely different than the permanent annual mitzva of reading the story of the מגילה.

It would seem from the gemara's comparison that there were two separate functions of the song of אז ישיר.  One function was the emotive response of singing praise, but the second aspect was the formulation of a song as a vehicle of publicizing the miracle that God performed in His victorious destruction of the Egyptian army (ה' אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה' שְׁמוֹ).

In ancient times, before widespread recording of written history, the great deeds of kings and their epic battles were recorded in poetic verse and maintained through oral tradition.  The ancient poets were very skilled in using specific formulations that helped transmit oral records of these events.  One of the main tools available to the ancient poet was song.

The Redak interprets Tehillim 40:4 (וַיִּתֵּן בְּפִי, שִׁיר חָדָשׁ תְּהִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ - יִרְאוּ רַבִּים וְיִירָאוּ וְיִבְטְחוּ בַּיהוָה) as saying that a person is obligated to formulate a new song and praise on every miracle that is done for him, through which many people will awed and confident in Hashem.

(As a side point - the theory of oral-formulaic composition, as first proposed by Milman Parry in the 1920's, also helps explain how this information could be faithfully transmitted exclusively through oral means over many generations.  This theory is particularly useful in explaining the peculiar nature of certain phrases in epic poetry, as mnemonic aids that ensured the fidelity of oral transmission across generations.)

In this framework, it makes sense to view אז ישיר as a song that was designed by Moshe to be a vehicle of oral transmission, in order to accurately depict the miraculous events that were witnessed by the sea.  This is born out by the very first verse in the song:
אָז יָשִׁיר משֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַה' וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra explain this phrase of "וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר", as meaning that the song should be recited by all future generations.  The Chizkuni actually interprets this phrase to be the source for saying אז ישיר every day (which is a custom that is brought down by the Rambam and is widespread today).  Additionally, Chazal instituted the annual obligation for the entire congregation to publicly read אז ישיר on the seventh day of Passover, which is the date when the miracle occurred.  (See Rashi to Shemos 14:5וליל שביעי ירדו לים, בשחרית אמרו שירה, והוא יום שביעי של פסח, לכן אנו קורין השירה ביום השביעי)

Based upon this idea, we can explain the first part of the gemara which draws a comparison between  the song of אז ישיר and reading the מגילה.  Both אז ישיר and the מגילה are essentially vehicles of publicizing a miracle, and both were meant to be recited by all future generations in order to maintain the memory of their respective miracles. If when we were miraculously redeemed from slavery, Moshe made sure to formulate a song that would publicize this epic event to the world's future generations, surely when we were miraculously saved from certain death, we are certainly obligated to formulate and institute a way of publicizing the salvation!

The next question of the gemara naturally follows:  The song of אז ישיר was more than just a means to publicize the miracle - it was also a song of praise.  It would seem that due to the political climate, the מגילה itself could not be formulated as an explicit song of praise to God.  Rather, it had to be written as letter to the kingdom of אחשורוש, in which the miracle is only implicit.  However, based upon the comparison between  אז ישיר and מגילה, why didn't Chazal also set up an additional obligation of reciting הלל (a song of praise) alongside the reading of the מגילה.  In the next two posts, we will address the gemara's answers to this question.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 2: Questions and Methodology)

What bothered us most in this sugya was the first part of the gemara which derives the mitzva to read the מגילה based upon a comparison to the Jews saying שירה at the sea.  At first glance, this comparison makes no sense at all!

True, after the sea was split and the Egyptian army destroyed, the Jews sang אז ישיר.  But that was a one time event of singing אז ישיר.  What right does the gemara have to extrapolate from this singular event, the obligation to read the מגילה annually for all future generations?  At best, we could posit that those Jews of the particular generation that was saved should sing שירה once, but in no way does this comparison seem to justify the establishment of a permanent mitzva!

Secondly, even if we were to somehow answer the first problem, how does the fact that the Jews sang שירה justify the establishment of reading the story of the מגילה.  If anything, it should obligate us in singing שירה, but reading a story does not appear to be the same as singing praise.

(It is true that רב נחמן, later on in the gemara, does say that reading the מגילה is in the place of הלל, but the gemara at this point wasn't holding that.  Also, רבא disagrees with the equation between מגילה and הלל, and yet he too has to learn the original derivation of reading the מגילה from the שירה at the sea.  Also, it is clear that the gemara does not initially believe מגילה to be equal to שירה, or else its subsequent question of why we don't recite הלל would make no sense.  Based upon these three facts, we conclude that the gemara apparently believes itself to be justified in deriving the telling of a story from the singing of praise, even though these are two different activities.)


To summarize our two questions:

1) How does the gemara compare the one time event of singing אז ישיר to the permanent mitzva of reading the מגילה?

2) How does the gemara compare the singing of אז ישיר to the reading the מגילה, being that they are totally different activities?

It would seem that in order to satisfactorily answer these questions, we have to revise our basic understanding of either אז ישיר, reading the מגילה, or both.