Monday, April 27, 2009

Agudas Israel – It’s Finest Moment

I have never been a fan of Agudas Israel or for that matter any of the organizations representing one particular brand of Judaism or another. They all have the same common denominator, the one that they share with political parties whether in the United States, Israel or any other place on planet earth. They are out for themselves.

In most instances it didn’t start out that way. When their political parties or organizations were just starting out undoubtedly they were committed to the proposition that they existed in order to further, protect or promote the needs of their constituency. Once the organization grows it takes on a life of its own committed no longer to the constituents but to the organization. With this growth the organization needs revenue in order to pay their overhead which always is heavily padded with exorbitant salaries and benefits for their executive management. And they have to grow. Organizations by definition must grow – it is an organism and all organisms grow, morph or die. So they build institutions to promote their cause taking on more liability and exposure always on the vanguard for means and methods of furthering the organizations interests and growth. As the organization matures the realization sets in that somewhere along the line they forgot why it was that they formed themselves into an organization in the first place. Their constituents no longer matter – they take a second place, a back seat to the greater good of the party – or in this case the organization. Usually this doesn’t happen until something traumatic shakes them out of their euphoric sense of self importance.

In this particular instance Agudas Israel has been traumatized by the exposure of sexual abuse and pedophilia which they knowingly enabled by turning a blind eye until they were no longer allowed to avoid the issue. Agudas Israel’s concerned with public image and damage control has said and done all the right things and did so with great dignity aplomb and humility as long as it didn’t cost them anything. As soon as the possibility emerged that their may be some potential liability to their organization or institutions they support or are in some way connected to, they changed their strategy and sense of duty to their public. Now all of a sudden they are deeply concerned about the negative financial liability this new legislation may have on their institutions.

Agudas Israel’s concerns lay with the “institutions” and the “communities”, but not with those who people those institutions and communities. Had Agudas Israel been genuinely concerned and committed to those they serve and represent they would have rooted out the problem decades ago, saving the lives of young people from a living hell that has no respite. They were aware of the problem of pedophilia decades ago. It was their business to be aware of the problem. Any institution, private or public that employ people, or provide services have the legal and moral responsibility to watch out for the mental and physical safety of those in their charge. There is no excuse for pedophilia or any other form of sexual abuse in the work place, school, yeshiva, period.

It is therefore disingenuous for Agudas Israel to now show concern for the exposure this new proposed legislation may have on their institutions. Who cares? If those institutions are forced to close down as a result of judgments against them, it was probably deserved. Their concern that if some of their institutions aren’t able to handle the financial stress and are forced to close down and those people in need of those services will be deficient is hollow. Also, the concern isn’t real. Those who relied on those institutions will find alternatives and probably better ones.

This proposed legislation will actually be good for Agudas Israel. It will force them as it will all other organizations to run a “tight ship”. It means that they will be held accountable, and accountability isn’t cheap. It means that saying “sorry and it will never happen again” just doesn’t cut it. Too many precious lives were unnecessarily wasted. Accountability means that you have to pay – pay until it hurts.

Unfortunately money is the only language that people understand. It is the only language that Agudas Israel understands. This new legislation will remind the leadership of Agudas Israel that their organization doesn’t come first, their constituents do. Their constituents will be reminded of the fact that they no longer take a back seat to the klei kodesh – on the contrary, their precious children are what their institutions are all about.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Muse: Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 2009

Acharei Mot is a portion of Torah that focuses almost entirely on Nation building. There are a host of detailed commandments ranging from the role of the high priest on Yom Kippur to acceptable sexual behavior.

The Torah was concerned with the detailed elaboration of those mitzvoth because they were to be practiced in such a way that would set them off from the other nations of the world. While the Egyptians and others had similar practices and codes, ours was purposely different in order that we would distinguish ourselves from ‘them”.

In the process of delineating the method of sacrifice and venue, we discover two messages that become central to the formation of our peoplehood and nationhood: sacrificial worship was to be centralized in order to discourage a return to pagan worship ( Leviticus 17:7) and blood was forbidden for human consumption (Leviticus 17:10). Both of these laws were aimed not so much as rules unto themselves but with another purpose in mind: to set us apart from the neighboring people and thus create a national character.

Similarly the Torah portion deals with sexual mores such as incest with the same thing in mind: adopting uniquely different sexual mores that would set us apart from the others. Setting us apart was imperative if Moshe was to succeed in the enterprise of nation building and ultimately bringing us to Israel

The purpose of all these mitzvoth while intended for nation building was ultimately introduced in order to prepare the people for their land. Settling this land and living on it successfully wasn’t guaranteed but conditional on our behavior and relationship with God. Towards the end of Acharei Mot we read “so let not the land spew you out for defiling it as it spewed out the nation that came before you”(Leviticus 18:28).

It would appear that our mitzvoth, designed to not only condition us for ethical and moral lives was designed for a higher purpose: to merit living on the land. Should the forced exile that we endured for two thousand years be understood in light of this verse (Leviticus 18:28)? What of the converse?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Fifth Question

This past Pesach, like all others (including Succot and Shavuot) prompted in me the question that all of us ask ourselves, especially when facing a three day yom tov. Why? Why is it that if in Israel yom tov is one day, but in the Diaspora they are two day binges (assuming you are orthodox or traditionally inclined)? The classical answer just doesn’t cut it anymore and for those of you not familiar with the standard explanation I will do a quick recap.

Prior to the calendar being mathematically fixed it was difficult to ascertain the precise beginning of the new moon. So according to the decision of the Sanhedrin the new month would be declared after eye witnesses had testified of its first appearance. Based upon the testimony the Sanhedrin would declare the first day of the new month. This information, however could not travel quickly enough to communities outside of Israel, thus those communities maintained two days of yom tov, since biblical festivals always had a fixed date. This of course was in consideration of the fact that some months had 29 days and others had 30.

Since the 4th century CE there has been a fixed calendar. Thus there was no real need to depend on witnesses and perpetuating the archaic process. In fact, because of the fixed calendar, even those in the Diaspora were aware of the new moon. So why didn’t the sages annul this anachronistic custom? The sages insisted that since it has become a minhag deeply entrenched within the community it ought not be tampered with. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin 1817-1893) puts an interesting spin on the whole thing. He interprets (Leviticus 22:31) the redundant language “you shall keep my commandments and you shall do them” to mean one should make the proverbial fence around these festivals in order strengthen them outside of Israel.

This position is quite troubling. By following this logic one ought to conclude that Yom Kippur should be two days in the Diaspora as well. And why do we only count 49 days of the omer outside of Israel there should be the additional day added. If pesach started one day late there should have been the need to start the count of the omer one day late! Couple this with the musings of the Netziv who believed that had it not been for the verse referenced above (Leviticus 22:31) he believed that one day ought to be observed in the Diaspora as well since in Jewish Law we follow the majority. Accordingly, the calendar has more months consisting of 29 days and less of 30. We therefore go with the majority which is 29 days thus there ought to be no reason to compensate for the 30th day by adding a second day.

It would thus appear that in classical Judaism prior to the enlightenment and emancipation there was some discomfort with the second day of yom tov (otherwise why the discussion by our sages) but an accommodation was made for it based upon tradition. Since 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel there is a need to revisit this entire issue especially in view of the fact that there has been a total blurring of the lines between who should observe two days and who isn’t obligated to. In fact there is an opinion that only one and a half days ought to be observed under some circumstances.

Does someone living in the Diaspora but visiting Israel celebrate one or two days? The majority opinion believes that a Diaspora Jew visiting Israel ought to observe the holiday for two days and there is a minority opinion the Chochem Tzvi (18th century) who believes a one day observance is appropriate. There is another, compromise position suggested by Rabbi Soloveitchik who is of the opinion that one and a half days ought to cover it. His opinion is based on the Chochem Tzvi but with the proviso that on the second day one should put on tefillin but not work (melacha).

What all of this tells me is that the second day of yom tov is tolerated at best. What I hear from most people in anticipation of a three day yom tov (when Shabbat comes in on the tail of the two days as was this year) is dread. Yom Tov is supposed to be not only inspirational but also spiritual. The 14th century kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Recanati believed that it was impossible to reach the same heights of spirituality on the festival in the Diaspora as in Israel. Thus, outside of Israel he believed that two day holidays ought to be enforced and supported if for no other reason than to give people the opportunity to reach the same levels of spirituality as those living in Israel. According to Recanati, it takes twice as much time to reach the spiritual heights of someone in Israel! Naturally a 14th century kabbalist had a much more romanticized ideation of Israel than what reality demonstrates in the 21st century; thus indicating that Recanati’s approach to yom tov sheni ought to be revisited as well.

It would appear from my observations that the opposite is the case. It seems that many observant Jews flock to Israel from the Diaspora to escape the two day observance, do some touring, and get to the chametz a day earlier than there relatives and friends in America. Spirituality is optional. Recently a shaila was put to a local modern orthodox rabbi. A group from his shul was going on an organized trip to Israel for Pesach. Most of the group indicated that they would be observing only one day of the chag. A smaller minority was conflicted and wished to consult with their rabbi whether it was incumbent upon them to observe two days since they would be coming back to the states shortly after Pesach. The rabbi’s proclivity was to instruct the minority that they ought to be observing two days. However because the majority had already decided to observe one day the rabbi reasoned that the minority should follow the majority. Others flock to a Pesach program where they can be entertained at the pool or the tea room and discover a new form of spirituality never envisioned by Recanati.

And for those who chose to stay put in their local shteiblich they are probably too obsessed with the mechanics of getting the k’zayis exactly measured to be able to reach the height of spirituality that Rabbi Recanati referred to.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Muse: Tazria-Metzora 2009

Tazria and Metzora are two parshiot that deal entirely with the physical side of life, mankind’s sexuality and skin diseases. The major part of Tazria focuses on childbirth, menstruation and the mother’s status as to when she is pure or impure, tameh or tahor. It is here that many of us have trouble trying to define the terms tameh and tahor.

In classical Judaism the status of tumah is achieved by coming in contact with a dead body or body parts or the soil containing the body; contact with certain body fluids; giving birth; entering a building or roofed structure containing a dead body; and being in contact with a primary source of tumah or an object that has been in direct contact with the primary source; and by contracting tzaraat. In this classical sense tumah is defined as ritual impurity and one that is rendered tameh is ritually impure. The converse of this is the state of being tahor or ritually pure.

The difficulty with the terminology is that it is highly charged and value laden without really providing us with an understanding of what it means to be ritually pure or impure. Rachel Adler in an article “Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings” suggests that tumah is really our confrontation with mortality – the tailspin into darkness and taharah is the reaffirmation of our own immortality – a reentry into the light. I’m not sure I can fully accept this approach because there may be many instances when we are confronted with death or near death but we aren’t rendered tameh.

The concept she introduces however, may be applied to understanding tumah and taharah. Tumah may be viewed as being in a ritual state of suspended animation and because of this status one is unable to be fully participatory in the community and its ritual. For the most part one achieves this status when coming in contact with blood or a corpse; an experience where life and death intersect. In biblical times giving birth although routine was fraught with risk to the birthing mother as well as to the infant. Thus, a women after giving birth is rendered tameh because she is recognized as one who has just completed a journey where life and death intersect.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eshes Chayil Mi Yimtza? (Mi Rotzeh?)

Now and then, in a most serendipitous way and at the most least expected times, I am struck by the wisdom of our sages. Just the other day the New York Post made mention of a relatively new web site that is run by frum Jews that promotes extramarital affairs. In a sense it is a shidduch site but dedicated to married people seeking sex outside of their marriage. Of course, I found the site and logged on to see if it was true.

As I was surfing the site I recalled the Tamud (T.B. Minachot 44a) which referenced the “man” who was very particular about his performance of the mitzvah of tzizit. Finding himself at a house of ill repute he excused himself after reminding himself of the purpose of wearing tzizit. It is a simple story but a profound one. It teaches us that the purpose of the mitzvoth aren’t an end in and of themselves but are only the means by which we can arrive at a desired end. That end happens to be better Jews, living ethical and moral lives. The mitzvoth are only a practice - a means by which we can arrive at the higher ground. So when I read about the most recent crisis in the manufacturing of talitot, that there is a question as to whether or not a certain brand which is imported are kosher because they may be laced with shatnez, I want to cry. There is such concern over the nonsensical that the main point is being lost – is lost. Those most concerned with kosher tzizit, mehadrin esrogim, glatt meat, and sheitels woven in India are the ones turning to this site for illicit extramarital sex.

The site is quite professional and slick and states its purpose in very clear and unadulterated manner:

“ is a site for married people who are looking for love and affairs outside of their marriage. This is a site where you can speak and interact with married man and women with out jeopardizing your marriage and get support from other married men and women who seek the same. This is a site where you can concentrate on men and women of the Jewish community, and meet like minded people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to do this.

“” was created by a Jewish couple from the NY area, after they realized that there is many in the community who are looking for a site like this one. This was created mostly due to the fact that there are hundreds and thousands of jewish people who are miserable in their marriage or just need a little something extra , and looking for a fling, love or one-night-stand, but don’t want to jeopardize their relationship. will allow you to lead a normal life and enjoying it as you go along. HOWEVER, YOU DONT HAVE TO BE JEWISH TO BE A VIP ON THIS SITE, AS A MATTER OF FACT SOME JEWISH WOMEN PREFER NON-JEWISH MEN AS ONE-NIGHT STANDS AND AFFAIRS.”

What makes the site alarming is when taking note of the profile section. In that section there is a category for chassidus where you can identify whichever group you belong to ranging from Belz to Vishnitz and everything in between. Under orientation the spectrum ranges from “frum and liking it” to “not frum anymore”. Under religious status the range runs from litvish to yeshivish. So based upon the profile section of the site it is abundantly clear that their market tends to be with the frum community.

In a way I’m not all that much surprised by this web site. I have maintained for a long time that the religious community is spiritually bankrupt as evidenced by their normative behavior documented in my essays and noted in the press as the scandals are uncovered, i.e. merchandising treif products under the guise of being glatt kosher; and slaughter houses (Rubashkin and Aron labels) that aren’t fit to be labeled kosher but supported en masse by the frum community. Let’s not forget our b’nos yisroel who when “dolled up” for a wedding in their tight outfits, high heels and heavy makeup look more like high class hookers then potential wives; but when becoming “neshei chayil” alter their appearance with an expensive sheitel, hopefully not imported hair from India. But that is only one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin are those other women who seem neglected because either they have had too many children and are finding it difficult to cope physically or mentally; or because they let ‘themselves go” because they can. They’re married and they don’t have to make the effort any longer to stay attractive. I’ve oftened times wondered about those couples. How happy are they? Incidentally it cuts both ways. Some of the men are terribly neglected and look like they are sixty going on thirty. And there is no excuse for it. Cornering one very over weight avreich whom I’ve known for years I asked him how he was doing. Here was a forty year old man who looked and sounded like he was seventy. He does not “work out” and his interests are very limited. The only thing he reads is his mail and torah texts, i.e. chumash, rashi, meforshim, daf yomi, and the like.

Life under these circumstances can become very boring, monotonous and tedious. The purpose isn’t to lay blame at one or the other spouse. Either party in the marriage can be tempted into an adulterous relationship. Cheating is the result of a poor marriage and very bad sex. But if the chareidi community always prided itself in wholesome family life and marriages that were based upon “torah true” values and not the superficial criteria of the secular community how is it possible that they have come to this – a website designed for their community in need of extramarital relations?

I don’t have the answer but I suppose it’s all ok as long as the cheating woman has been to the mikveh, an as long as the adulterous man can keep a poker face when singing Eshes Chayil too his wife on Friday night. As their mission statement says will allow you to lead a normal life and enjoying it as you go along.

Monday, April 6, 2009

They Do Represent You

A recent article (Jerusalem Post March 22-April 2, 2009) by Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz “They Do not Represent Us” was disappointing to say the least. His position against the hasssidic thugs sponsored by the mishmar tzniut was the usual fare – reheated cholent served up on yom chol. It was tasteless and lacked merit. We all know that Buzaglo and company are shabab with no values and little future. The real issue is how does this happen in the first place?

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz avoided the issue by taking the safe way and least offensive approach – namely that these thugs are an aberration and don’t represent the mainstream hareidi community. It is here that I beg to differ. The hareidi community in vast numbers shares the sentiments of the mishmar tzniut and their tactics. They have demonstrated this time and again. To disavow them is disengenius and doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

At the core of the hareidi community is a profound distrust for and dismissive attitude towards anyone or any group that doesn’t buy into their value system and way of life. Any student of hareidi history of Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and during the inter war years know that there were countless instances of violence within the hareidi community. There was even a case of premeditated murder by a Belzer Hassid during the interwar years perpetrated as a result of their on going fight against the encroachment of the Emancipation and Zionism. Tolerance was and is something sorely lacking within the educational system (formal and informal) of their yeshiva world and family unit. There are documented cases of “mesira”, where those of one hassidic court were “moser” leadership of other hassidic courts in order to further their own agenda.

It isn’t only tolerance, but respect for others with differing opinions. Precisely because of their zealotry they haven’t the capacity to respect differing views because they consider that a direct threat to their way of life. In America their zealotry is tempered because of their extreme minority status and the rule of civil law. In Israel however there is a level of tolerance for their zealotry resulting in their talibanesque behavior as reflected in the case of Buzaglo.

Their history of violence isn’t something new and novel. It has been going on for hundreds of years and has become part of their ethos. If they don’t get what they want they resort to violence. So it isn’t enough to condemn their violence as Rabbi Horowitz suggests but to seriously critique the educational systems used in their yeshivot. Their disdain for anyone not sharing their values is legendary. Until that changes and until they develop a wholesome respect and tolerance for competing view points their petty violence will continue. And yes – one ought to be ashamed!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Muse: Four Cups of Wine 2009

Traditionally we have been taught that the four cups of wine which are drunk at strategic points during the seder represent the four different expressions of redemption. There are other suggestions such as the cup of Pharaoh mentioned four times in the Bible or the four cups represent the four different kingdoms which ruled over Israel. The Mishna in Pesachim states that the four cups of wine represent the four different quarters of the haggadah. In reality the four cups were an innovation by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi. He based it on the ruling that charity given before the Passover holiday among other things ought to consist of the equivalent quantity of four cups of wine. It seems that that quantity would be appropriate for a festive meal. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi therefore reasoned that if it was sufficient for charity then it ought to be the requisite amount for all people sitting down to the seder.

The rabbis were particular about attaching blessings to each of the four cups. Apparently there was concern that as the Greco-Roman rituals always included wine and thus the tendency towards drunkenness, our rabbis wanted to avoid this phenomenon. By associating the drinking of the wine with a religious rite the chance for bawdiness would be significantly reduced.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rabbi Shafran’s True Colors

Rabbi Avi Shafran finally, finally has shown his true colors. In his article “Bernie, Sully and Me” carried in the JTA April 2, 2009 he revealed the corrupted understanding that he and obviously other hareidi Jews have for halacha. True to his twisted understanding of Jewish law he was able to reason that Bernie Madoff isn’t so terrible. After all there is no difference according to Shafran between stealing a dime or a billion dollars. And there is no distinction according to him with regard to scope and severity. Anyone, according to him who has a creative accountant is guilty of defrauding 300 million Americans. Using Shafran’s reasoning the murder of six million Jews in Europe would have been the same as murdering one Jew. And the murder of one Jew during the crusades would have been no different than the hundreds of thousands that were killed. And continuing his line of reason it matters not if one chayal is killed or many during a campaign. Scope and severity do not play a role in the world of Rabbi Avi Shafran. Interestingly though it does play a significant role in halachic Judaism if one is vaguely familiar with Talmud.

Tell me Rabbi Shafran do you really think that if someone steals a candy bar from a kiosk it’s the same in the eyes of halacha as someone who not only defrauds family and friends of billions but also bankrupts charities? Do you believe that the anti-Semitic backlash around the globe would have been as virulent had Bernie Madoff stole a carton of cigarettes off of a truck?

Disturbing as all this is however, is his comparing Bernies’s misadventure to the successful adventure (thank god) of Captain Sullenberg. While Shafran considers Madoff’s decision to turn himself in as sublimity of spirit, Captain Sullenberg did what he was supposed to do and there is nothing sublime in what he did. I suppose that if ones’ logic is as faulty as Shafran’s that he believes stealing ten cents is no different than stealing a billion dollars than I really can’t expect him to understand that Captain Sullenberg’s skill and disregard for his own safety ought not to be referenced in the same essay as the likes of Madoff. And certainly no comparison should be made between the two. One is a crook; the other is a gifted pilot who placed the lives of others before his own.

If ever there was sublimity of spirit it was that manifested by Sullenberg. As the aircraft was sinking he repeatedly walked through the aisle, checking every seat making certain that no one was left behind. Madoff on the other hand made sure that everyone and every charity was left behind.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Strange Bedfellows

Recently I ran across an interesting article in y net where Amos Oz called for shopping centers to be closed on Shabbat. Another article I perused at about the same time appeared in The Jewish Press reporting on the phenomenon of the OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) syndrome among the frum and how it manifests itself. What, you may ask is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated stories? Indeed they make strange bedfellows but I believe offer us a picture of Jewish values at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Amos Oz is one of my favorite Israeli writers because among other things, he represents the Eretz Yisrael Hayafah; the kind, humanistic, sensitive, intellectual in search of Jewish values rooted not necessarily in religion, ritual and cult but in its total civilization and culture. He represents what Israel was intended to mean as a country that is struggling for identity as a nation among nations and at the same time maintaining its own unique character and profile. He symbolizes a new culture, a culture that is the result of much experimentation by which Judaism of old has merged with more recent trends giving birth to a new Israel that isn’t stuck in minutia or messy details but sees and appreciates the larger picture.

Counterbalanced against his vision of Jewish life is the frum community which is preoccupied with rules that dictate the course of their lives down to the most seemingly insignificant detail like whether or not one can sleep in the prone position and which shoe ought one to tie first when rising in the morning. Details – the preoccupation with details become so important that the larger, more important picture becomes distorted. There are times when I encounter someone putting on tefillin that may or may not be OCD because they have become so totally obsessed with the detail of placing the tefillin correctly on the forehead and arm that they loose sight of the larger picture and frankly are lost, meandering aimlessly through a black hole seeking an exit. I recall as a young yeshiva student that it was standard equipment to carry a mirror with your tefillin so that one can check if the shel rosh was exactly in the right spot. Even then, I was resistant to such obsessive behavior. It wasn’t important whether I was off by a centimeter. What was important was the fact that I was binding myself, recommitting myself daily to a spiritual/cultural rite that goes back to our ancestral beginnings. It was this binding of the tefillin that bound me to my father, grandfather and great grandfather. That to me was and remains the powerful message of putting on tefillin. It matters not in the performance of the mitzvah if one is off by a centimeter.

Another example of this obsessive behavior can be found around the seder table amongst the frumest of the frum. Again I recall a relative we had seder with for years obsess over eating a k’zayit of matzah shemurah. He was totally preoccupied with measuring the matzah concerned that if he didn’t get the measurement right he wouldn’t perform the mitzvah to the fullest. Here again he unfortunately missed the whole point of eating the matzah. By obsessing over the detail he was loosing and missing the beauty of the seder, reducing it to a formulary, a set of measurements and rites that no longer reflected the spirit and message of the holiday.

An interesting example of the corruption of the spirit of the halacha can be illustrated by this excerpt from an article which appeared this past week:

“It was a scientific experiment conducted in the 1700s that would shake the world. It had to do with eggs. It had to do with average thumb widths. And its ramifications reverberated at Passover Seders across the world…
But then, sometime in the mid 1700s, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau—known as the Noda BiYehudah and the chief rabbi of Prague, Czechoslovakia—conducted the experiment that would eventually change the world. He constructed the thumb box and he measured the eggs. He discovered a huge discrepancy. The thumb box was no less than twice the volume of the egg. Rabbi Landau surmised that there were only two possibilities: either the average thumb width had widened in the 1,300 years since the era of the Talmud, or the eggs had gotten smaller. (We find Rabbi Landau’s experiment in his writings on the Gemara in Pesachim. His book is called the Tzlach.)….
Rabbi Landau issued a ruling. He ruled that from that point onward, the sizes used for the revi’is must be doubled. Now a full egg’s worth of matzah must be eaten. Now challah may be taken only for the volume of 86.4 eggs, not 43.2 eggs. Now three eggs’ volume of wine must be drunk on Pesach. Soon the Chasam Sofer issued a similar ruling. For Eastern European Jews, life began to change. Western European Jews, however, were unconvinced; how could you say that our parents and grandparents were wrong?
A century elapsed with the issue still not resolved. Finally, the Chofetz Chaim, author of the Mishnah Berurah, entered the fray. He ruled that in regard to Biblical matters, the more stringent volume should be used; for rabbinic requirements, the smaller shiur could still be used. Slowly but surely, the p’sharah (compromise) of the Mishnah Berurah entered into common practice….
The Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 168:13, 372:12; Y.D. 324:5–10) was not as quick to accept the new view of Rabbi Landau. He notes that the Gemara in Yuma 80a states that the regular human mouth can hold an amount of food up to an egg. If Rav Landau’s view is correct, the human mouth should be able to hold two eggs’ worth of food comfortably. But what size egg should be used? The Mishnah in Keilim 17:6 states that Chazal are dealing with an average size egg. A group of young men recently volunteered to test the Gemara in Yuma in light of Rabbi Landau’s view. The results indicated that two eggs could not comfortably fit in the average male mouth….
There are, however, other ways to resolve the conflict discovered by Rabbi Landau in the 1700s. We must first keep in mind that although the Noda BiYehudah discovered a volume twice that of the egg method, currently, the thumb box method is only some 40 percent more than the egg-and-a-half method. Average thumb widths are about 0.88 inches….
Possibility number one is that perhaps the eggs around Prague were smaller than the average size of the egg in Eretz Yisrael and Bavel (and now in the United States)…
Possibility number two is that perhaps human beings did grow bigger. And since we are dealing with a three-dimensional object (the thumb box), any increase in volume would be proportional to the cube of the increase in thumb width. Thus the growth in thumb width to resolve the current state of the contradiction would only have to be about 10 percent (11.87%) to cause a 40 percent increase in volume. We are certainly 10 percent taller than the people in the time of the Gemara and in fact in the time of the Middle Ages. Our thumb width could certainly be 10 percent greater as well….
Finally, a third possibility is one that was advanced by a college professor in Israel. Perhaps the thumb width is measured sideways and not frontally. Using a sideways thumb is certainly a faster way of measuring something, because it takes fewer thumbs to span the object. Maybe this is the true meaning of the thumb width….
Nonetheless, the practice of K’lal Yisrael is to be stringent on Biblical requirements. The Piskei HaRosh in Pesachim 10:34 and the Rashbam in Pesachim 119b rule that both the first kezayis of matzah and the afikoman are d’Oraisa. The matzah should be 6.25 inches by 7 inches, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l. Korech is d’Rabbanan, so 4 by 7 inches is enough. The shiur for wine, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, is 3.3 ounces. However, when the Pesach Seder falls out on Shabbos, the Kiddush is d’Oraisa, so the shiur would be 4.4 ounces….”

Quite obsessive! As a matter of fact it would appear that the term OCD wouldn’t half describe the phenomenon.

Having thought about these two paradigmatic models of Jewish living I was reminded of what the intention and spirit of Shabbat was supposed to be. Here, I am reminded that the picture we have isn’t that simple. Is Shabbat which is supposed to be a day of rest a day that is enjoyed as truly restful and thus personalized to fit the needs of that person or is it supposed to be a day where we obsess over the halachic ramifications over whether or not something is “muktzeh”? How ought we to celebrate the Shabbat? Turning to our sources doesn’t make it any easier to arrive at a coherent answer.

Shabbat is mentioned in Torah in two fashions: as an ideal and as a practical means of living with consequences if not observed according to the law. As an ideal, Shabbat is intended as the capstone for God “completing” the creation. God didn’t need to rest, but presented to mankind the idea that one day a week man ought to rest from the burdens and drudgery of survival. One day a week man needed to focus on something other than physical survival. This then is the spiritual Shabbat. The other context by which Shabbat is referenced is when it is positioned next to the construction of the mishkan with dire warnings. Here it isn’t an ideal, but a practical and ordered means by which to live and be governed by rules. Here within this context Shabbat is more concerned with the detail, and presenting the opportunity to obsess.

Amos Oz rejects the halachic approach to Shabbat but believes “it is the most beautiful gift that the culture of Israel has given the world. It is a different day dedicated not only to rest but mainly to spiritual and familial exaltation.” It is within this context, the spiritual Shabbat that Oz finds his comfort and I sympathize with his compelling vision. The only problem with it is that there are no defined borders. Halacha with all its shortcomings is the tool by which those borders can be sketched out. If only there was a way by which we could have the Amos Oz vision fused with halacha minus the obsessive compulsive syndrome that too often accompanies halacha. What strange bedfellows that would make.