Mass revelation at Sinai

Again I had a run-in with the Kuzari "proof" (or "principle") that Judaism must be true. In a nutshell it goes like this (you can read a longer version at Aish: Did G-d Speak at Sinai or Simpletoremember: A Rational Approach to the Torah’s Divine Origin):

G-d appeared to the entire people on Mount Sinai. The story has been passed down through the generations. Nobody could make up such a story because the people involved would not go along with a lie, they had been there. So the revelation must have taken place and the Torah is true.

With this post I don’t want to say that Judaism is not true or that G-d does not exists. I truly believe in G-d and I believe that Judaism is the best way to connect to Him (at least for me). But I also think that it is a question of faith and that nobody can prove G-d or the truth or falsity of some religion. And that it is dangerous to build faith on top of one such "proof". Here are a few claims this "proof" makes and short attempts at refuting them. If you have more, write a comment.

Claim: This is the only story of such mass revelation in all religions.
There appear to be mass revelation stories in Aztec mythology, several pagan religions and hinduism.
Also some of Jesus’s miracles were watched not by millions but at least by large groups of people (e.g., giving bread and fish to 5000 people at the lake). So it is certainly possible to claim that some event with a large amount of witnesses happened even though it didn’t (sorry, Jewish blog).
Mohammad once split the moon (allegedly, sorry, Jewish blog), that could have been observed by all people on the planet.

Claim: The people involved wouldn’t believe it if you made such a story up about them.
So this is the situation where one person says "hey, remember, yesterday we all heard G-d speak to us".
Maybe most people really didn’t believe. Maybe of the people spoken to most left and only a few believed and stayed. These few then gave the story to their children as truth. They would still claim "it happened to all 3 million" because they actually believe it did happen and those who left only denied it happened. And they might conveniently forget that most didn’t believe and left the group.
Maybe even those who stayed didn’t all believe the story but played along because of social factors (family, friends, power position) or coercion (stoning people who work on Shabat etc).
In short, there are several ways of making group of people say that something happened to a larger group of people including them.

Claim: You cannot make people believe they were present for something that did not happen.
"The Miracle of the Sun was an event which occurred just after midday on Sunday 13 October 1917, attended by some 30,000 to 100,000 people who were gathered near Fátima, Portugal. Several newspaper reporters were in attendance and they took testimony from many people who claimed to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity." (Wikipedia:Miracle of the sun)
Unless you claim that this miracle really happened (btw it was officially accepted by the Catholic church in 1930) – yes it is possible to get many eyewitnesses for something that never happened. Probably some unusual sun activity took place and the rest is wishful thinking.
How this may work for Sinai: The text talks about fire, smoke and thunder and that it was very terrible for the people who witnessed it. It is conceivable that a group of people comes upon a vulcano, comet or some other natural catastrophe-type event, they all have a horrible time but are amazed at the powers, faint and then afterwards one charismatic leader says that was G-d speaking and he said XYZ.
So here nothing really happened but you have a group of people who really believe something happened.

Claim: There were 3 million people involved in the revelation.
We only have the Torah’s claim that there were this many people. It could have been the story of one family or clan who claimed there were more people around (see above).
Or even they claimed it happened only to them and the story was then adopted by other clans. If we look at it as some conversion-like acceptance of the original clan’s way of life it is absolutely realistic to assume they passed the story on as happening to their own ancestors and so it became more and more people that supposedly should have been present.
Or maybe the story was passed on as "happened to our ancestors" and at some later point in time the numbers were added (and chosen to make it more impressive).
In any case, how many people really left Egypt and were at Sinai is a different question for a different day. But the exact number does not really matter that much here.

Claim: Such a claim would be easily verifiable, nobody would make it up.
We are talking about an age without modern means of transportation and communication. How verifiable is it when a group of 10 or 20 comes and says "we are part of this larger group of 3 million (who are currently unfortunately a year’s worth of travel away or they all unfortunately died in the desert or …) and G-d talked to all of us"?

Claim: You cannot say at a later point ‘your ancestors were there’, you would not believe this if your family does not have such a tradition.
Apparently this works, check 2nd Kings 22/23 where king Josiah finds a Torah scroll and they seem to have forgotten everything in it (including minor details like Pesach) and then they go on to re-institute Torah law. Nobody seems to come and say "hey I didn’t hear that from my parents".
Another example are midrashim, handed down as accurate oral tradition. Many of them talk about experiences witnessed by the whole people such as during the exodus. Many of them contradict each other, so they cannot all be true. Nobody said "this is not what my father told me", they have been recorded and handed down to us.
It might be hard to introduce a completely new story of this magnitude, but here the story might build on an existing story like "we all heard from this prophet who spoke to G-d on the mountain" and modify it over time slightly from adding "and we all stood at the mountain, too" to "actually G-d spoke to all of us directly" over a long period of time.
Also, remember that people were for the most part illiterate, more superstitious and less analytical as we are today. And even today people can be made to believe all sorts of things that alledgedly happened to their forefathers. Ask Egyptians about the Yom Kippur war for example, you’ll get a truly amazing story of a war victory. And the generation who actually lived during the war is still alive.
King Arthur is also brought as an example for a figure who probably never existed but is taken as a real identity-building figure of history by many.
Maybe the story was introduced originally as a myth and everybody knew it was not true, but they retold it as if it were true anyway (after all, it’s a great story). People in ancient times did not have the same idea of history = objective truth than we do today. It was common to exagerate or tell stories to make a point, objectivity was not the main value. So the story was passed on originally as myth and only at some later point the literal understanding of the story took over.

Claim: This experience was a key element of faith that was passed on faithfully through all generations until today.
A few days after this experience the Israelites went back to worship a golden calf. All over Tanach are examples where the Israelites go astray and G-d needs to send prophets to bring them back on the right track. And the revelation basically consists in G-d saying "I am the only G-d, don’t worship others". How memorable can the experience have been? How faithfully has it been transmitted to the future generations?

Claim: All our ancestors heard the whole Torah at Sinai.
Actually the text says they only heard the first part and then couldn’t handle it any more (Exodus 20). It is actually pretty unclear what exactly they heard (which by the way is in itself curious). Most people say it’s the first verses, some say it is the whole 10 commandments. Nobody I ever met says they heard the whole Chumash (books of Moses). Interpretations that they heard only a "loud voice", but no discernible words, are also consistent with the text.
Even if we could prove with absolute certainty that this one event of mass revelation happened and they heard verses XYZ – so what? This says nothing about the truth of the rest of the Torah, all the do-s and don’t-s and the interpretations over centuries. Even if you say that Moses received the whole written and oral Torah at this point, it was still only Moses, one person, receiving it. The people heard maybe a voice, maybe 2 verses, mabey the whole 10 commandments. This doesn’t automatically lead to all of Judaism being true.

Again, I am speaking out against using the above claims as a "proof" of the truth of Judaism. People will either believe or not. But if their belief is based on a falsehood like this "proof" it will shatter the moment they are faced with a counterargument. Better tell them that faith cannot have proof. That this "proof" does not really proof anything has nothing to do with me believing that the Torah is true or that G-d exists. Let people appreciate the beauty of Judaism and of G-d, build a connection and then they can decide for themselves to believe.

A few links if you want to further read about this topic:
Mark Perakh: Dreaming Up… – Israel in Sinai
Baruch J. Schwartz: What Really Happened at Mount Sinai?
DovBear: Demolishing dumb arguments (The mass revelation argument for the Torah’s Historical Veracity)
Larry Tanner: Definitively Refuting the Kuzari Principle (also see the Index of Kuzari posts and Kuzari Principle Round 3 for more)
Skeptic but Jewish: Main Argument for Judaism: Refuted
Torahphilosophy: Truth of Judaism (read the comments)
Sam Lebens: The Kuzari Principle
Orthoprax: Aztecs National Revelation II
FailedMessiah: The Kuzari Proof, The Exodus And Passover

Just wondering …

… if Hamas rockets are inconsequential* why did they** stop all flights to Tel Aviv airport?

* because Israel’s response is "disproportionate", because nearly nobody has died, because "the rockets are self-made", because Israel should just let them be, …
** USA, several EU states

Arabs in Israel

Israel has
- Arabic as second official language
- Arab parties in the parliament (United Arab List; Balad; Ta’al; …)
- therefore Arab members of the parliament
- Arab judges in the supreme court (retired Abdel Rahman Zuabi; Salim Joubran)
- Arab diplomats (ex-ambassador to Finland, now ambassador to Greece Ali Yahya; Walid Mansour; ex-vice consul in San Francisco Ishmael Khaldi; …)
- Arab soldiers serving in the army (mandatory service for Druze and volunteers from other minorities)
- Arab high-ranking military (ex-Major General Yusuf Mishleb; Major General Hussain Fares, …)
- Arab singers who represent Israel at the Eurovision (Mira Awwad 2009)
- Arab finalists in the Miss Israel contest (Angelina Fares 2007)
- Arab control over the temple mount and the Muslim holy sites (Temple mount management and access)

This does not mean that Arabs are not discriminated in Israel ever, there is a problem there (for a positive view read Philippe Assouline: Telling Israel like it is – in Arabic). But there is no "Apartheid", no institutionalized "second-class citizenship".

What does rejoicing mean for shabat?

In a previous post we have seen that we have a mitzva (commandment) to rejoice on the shabat and festivals and in another post we have discussed what rejoicing entails for festivals. Now we will see in a bit more detail what it means to "rejoice" on shabat (which is called oneg in Hebrew, in contrast to simcha for festivals).

First the Talmud:

Wherewith does one show his delight therein? — Rab Judah son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in Rab’s name: With a dish of beets, large fish, and heads of garlic. R. Hiyya b. Ashi said in Rab’s name: Even a trifle, if it is prepared in honor of the Sabbath, is delight. What is it [the trifle]? — Said R. Papa: A pie of fish-hash.
(Talmud, Shabat 118b)

There are some people who give kabbalistic reasons for the fish-eating, I’d tend to the explanation that fish was something that the sages liked. Fish is still commonly eaten as a first course on shabat. But I have never met anyone who insisted on eating heads of garlic – although now that I think about it the dishes in our community do have a lot of garlic in them…

Ok, let’s fast forward to Rambam who has more detailed ideas about shabat delight:

Halacha 7
What is meant by [Sabbath] delight? This refers to our Sages’ statement that a person must prepare a particularly sumptuous dish and a pleasantly flavored beverage for the Sabbath.
Halacha 9
A person is obligated to eat three meals on the Sabbath: one in the evening, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon.
Halacha 10
Eating meat and drinking wine on the Sabbath is a form of pleasure for a person, provided this is within his [financial] capacity.
(Rambam, Mishne Tora, Hilchot Shabat 30)

Summarized, you have have three good and plentiful meals with a good drink. What about the meat? I have been told several times that it is absolutely necessary to eat meat on shabat. The text is not as strong as the part about meat on festivals which reads "Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without partaking of meat". Here it is clearer that meat and wine are added because these are foods that usually give pleasure. The intent is that you eat something you like, which is also how it is explained by the commentators (see footnote 37 which references Shulchan Aruch HaRav 242:2, Mishnah Berurah 242:1, I’ve also seen mentioned Magen Avraham 696:15, Darkei Teshuvah 89:19, Shaagas Aryeh 65). Even Chabad says it’s not required!

In other words, what exactly the menu should consist of is entirely up to the tastes of the individual, with the stipulation that it be the best he can afford. The main thing is how you enjoy a meal—not how others think you should enjoy it. On the contrary, for people such as yourself, eating meat may be counter to Isaiah’s “delighting the Shabbat.”
(Moshe Goldman: Do I Have to Eat Meat on Shabbat?)

Oh, and let’s not forget the most important delight (of course only if you’re married, only with your wife, at the appropriate times, yada yada):

Sexual relations are considered a dimension of Sabbath pleasure.
(Rambam, Mishne Tora, Hilchot Shabat 30:14)

A Day in the Life of a COR Mashgiach

Ever wondered what a mashgiach (sort of kashrut superviser) does the whole day? Find out in this video "A Day in the Life of a COR Mashgiach" by the Kashruth Council of Canada:

A Day in the Life of a COR Mashgiach from COR Kosher on Vimeo.

Muktze items may be touched on shabat

Muktze (also spelled muktzah sometimes) is a really comlicated subject connected to the laws of shabat. Basically, there are items that have no use on shabat, e.g., a pen, because you are not allowed to write on shabat. So the rabbis introduced a "fence" around the Torah that you are not allowed to move such an item on shabat. The idea is to prevent you from accidentally taking out the pen to write something down because you carry it around in you pocket. This is the rough idea, the details are very complicated and I don’t really know them.

What I want to do in this post is address a common misconception, namely that muktze means something may not even be touched. I have had this discussion several times. At least three times with my chavruta, even though we have learned the little that I know together. And he is not alone, I have found several internet places where (lay) people tell others something along the lines of "muktze, meaning they cannot be touched" or even official how-to-guides to shabat that are ambiguous and over-simplified and "explain" muktze with one sentence similar to "In addition to those mentioned above [the categories of forbidden work on shabat], two other important categories which are not permitted are using or touching items that are considered muktzah and carrying outdoors." (Chabad: The Shabbat Laws).

So, to set this straight: Muktze refers to items that have no use on shabat and may not be moved, but they may be touched on shabat. The only time they may not be touched is if the touching may cause them to move (e.g., a very light object or a round object).

Here are some sources that you can use to confirm this (pretty random, what I was able to find fast):

All ”muktzeh” (articles) are only forbidden to be handled, but touching them, if it doesn’t cause them to move, is allowed.
(Kitzur shulchan aruch 88:12)

The Rama tells us that muktze may be touched but not moved. This, however seems to contradict another halacha, [6] which says that one may cover a muktze as long as one does not touch it while doing so. The Mishna Berura [7] reconciles the two by saying that the latter halacha is referring to covering an egg or something round. Since an egg is oval shaped, touching it will definitely move it, and therefore it may not be touched. Other muktze items that will not move when touched may be touched.
(Paraphrase on Mishna Berura 310:6 [footnote 6] and 310:22 [footnote 7] by Rabbi Dovid Ostroff)

More convincing may be the lack of even the word "to touch" in the places that otherwise discuss muktze, such as the Rambam’s Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shabat chapters 25 and 26, or any more in-depth introduction to the topic, e.g., Rabbi David Shure’s introduction to The thirty-nine works of the sabbath. Feel free to comment with other good sources!

Maps of the Middle East

Max Fisher: 40 maps that explain the Middle East

(this has nothing to do with judaism, but I just wanted to save this link to maps of the Middle East somewhere)

What does rejoicing mean for holidays?

In a previous post we have seen that we have a mitzva (commandment) to rejoice on the festivals (the mitzva of simcha) and on the shabat (the mitzva of oneg). Now we will see in a bit more detail what it means to "rejoice" on a holiday.

First, let’s turn to the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: A man is in duty bound to make his children and his household rejoice on a Festival, for it is said, And thou shalt rejoice it, thy feast, [thou and thy son, and thy daughter, etc.] Wherewith does he make them rejoice? With wine. R. Judah said: Men with what is suitable for them, and women with, what is suitable for them. ‘Men with what is suitable for them’: with wine. And women with what? R. Joseph recited: in Babylonia, with coloured garments; in Eretz Yisrael, with ironed lined garments.
It was taught, R. Judah b. Bathyra said: When the temple was in existence there could be no rejoicing save with meat, as it is said, And thou shalt sacrifice peace-offerings, and shalt eat there; and thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God. But now that the Temple is no longer in existence, there is no rejoicing save with wine, as it is said, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man.
(Pesachim 109a, Soncino translation)

The proof passages that are cited are Psalms 104, 15 for wine and Deuteronomy 27:7 for meat. "Meat" in this context is clearly a reference to the temple sacrifice that was brought on the festival, the "korban shelamim". There does not seem to be an explanation for giving women clothes that I’m aware of.

The codification by Maimonides has a somewhat more exhaustive list of things that bring joy:

(Halacha 16)
It is forbidden to fast or recite eulogies on the seven days of Pesach, the eight days of Sukkot, and the other holidays. On these days, a person is obligated to be happy and in good spirits; he, his children, his wife, the members of his household, and all those who depend on him, as [Deuteronomy 16:14] states: “And you shall rejoice in your festivals.”

(Halacha 17)
What is implied? Children should be given roasted seeds, nuts, and sweets. For women, one should buy attractive clothes and jewelry according to one’s financial capacity. Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without partaking of meat, nor is there happiness without partaking of wine.
(Maimonides: Hilchot Yom Tov, 6:16-17)

Again, I am not aware of a textual basis for giving children sweets. There is a discussion amongst authorities if this list is the Rambam’s subjective list of things that generally bring happiness or if it is a set of objective guidelines that must be followed (Rabbi Josh Flug: The Mitzvah of Simchat Yom Tov).

So, bottom line, what do you "need" to do to rejoice? According to those who take the Rambam’s list to be objective guidelines, as a man drink wine and eat meat, give your wife clothes and your children sweets. According to some who view it as subjective, there might still be a rabbinic commandment to drink wine. And again, drinking wine might only be commanded if it makes you happy. In any case, even if you hold that you have to drink wine and/or eat meat but this does not make you happy, you are required to additionally do something that makes you personally joyful (whatever that something is) to fulfill the command!

G-d works through nature

I don’t want to get into discussions about evolution and whether it is true or not. In this post I just want to highlight an important point that tends to get lost in these types of discussions. Accepting the scientific explanation of something does not mean that automatically G-d plays zero role. I’ll give the word to someone who expresses this much better than I could:

3) How can we accept scientific explanations for how animal life came about? It was God who made everything!
We have a science of meteorology, but that does not stop us from saying that God “makes the wind blow and the rain fall.” We have a science of medicine, but this does not stop us from saying that God “heals the sick.” We have documented history of the process involved in winning the ’67 war, but this does not stop us from talking about God’s miraculous hand. God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not.
(R. Slifkin: Ten Questions on Evolution and Judaism)

As a small add-on: There are always things we cannot fully understand with science. Some people recover from cancer, some don’t. There is chance involved in the scientific explanation of evolution. It is perfectly fine to have G-d responsible for what we don’t understand or whenever we talk about "chance". Accepting science does not mean to reject G-d.

Abraham served matzot… yeah

With all the discussion about why it was Pessach when the angels visited Abraham, I forgot to mention why I included the reason in the first place (this quote is from AskMoses, but stands as only one representation of this type of statement you can also find at Chabad, Aish, and all the other orthodox-mystical-kiruv-sites):

It is a tradition that Abraham kept the entire Torah even though it had not yet been given. So he would have celebrated Passover even before the Jews had entered Egypt!
(Rabbi Yossi Marcus on AskMoses Why do we have three matzot on the Seder plate?)

Yeah, sure. Abraham celebrated Pesach and ate matzot. He probably wore a shtreimel. I don’t know what to say about this other than Abraham lived way before the exodus happened and there is just no rational reason why he should have baked matzot. So I’ll just conclude with a video on the topic (not specifically matzot and Abraham, but Eisav and the bracha on lentil stew and a-historic anti-rational views of the patriarchs in general):

Best parts:

"The Torah commands us to write a Sefer Torah. Did Yaakov observe that commandment?" – "Of course" – "So why didn’t he just take out this Sefer Torah and read it to find out that his son Yosef was alive and avoid all that heartache?"


"The gemara brings down a machlokes about whether the correct bracha on lentils is shehakol or mesonos. The best way to avoid any problems is to wash on bread."
"If Yakov knew the entire Torah, why didn’t he know the correct bracha for lentils. Why didn’t he know which of the opinions in Masechet Brachos was correct?

End of rant, have fun on Youtube.

Abraham, angels and pessach

As promised in my last post, here some words on the angels’ visit of Abraham which supposedly takes place on Pessach (or so I read on Chabad). First, the source text:

And He said: ‘I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.’ [...]
(Genesis 18:10, translation from Mechon Mamre)

So how and where does Pessach enter into this? Rashi says this in his comment on the verse:

At this time in the coming year. It was Passover, and on the following Passover, Isaac was born [...]
(Rashi on Genesis 18:10, translation from Chabad)

And where did he get this from? Well, I found some answers online (R. David Silverberg: Parashat Vayera, from third section on), let’s try to piece it together. Very fascinating stuff! Source is of course the Talmud, where we find many such questions. The underlying assumption is always that the patriarchs kept the whole Torah, including holidays commemorating events that hadn’t happened yet. If you find this disturbing, skip ahead to the next post.

In this specific case, the discussion hinges on the meaning of the Hebrew "LaMo’ed ashuv eleicha". The word "mo’ed" could mean "festival". So which festival? The Talmud says Isaac’s birth was on Pesach. There must be enough time between the visit and the "next festival" for pregnancy and birth, so the Talmud discusses two opinions for the visit, Succot (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 11a) and somewhere between Yom Kippur and Succot (Tractate Bava Metzia 86b). This is the widest timeframe possible between two festivals. And – of course – there is another opinion. Chazal (sages from that time whose statements did not necessarily enter into the Talmud) state that the visit was on Pesach and the birth was on Pesach the next year. This is the view Rashi is citing in his comment that we saw above.

There’s more that we could discuss, but here’s what I wondered about the most when I read the Hebrew: The word "mo’ed" under discussion is not in the verse! Here’s the verse again, this time in Hebrew (sorry for the formatting):

וַיֹּאמֶר, שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה, וְהִנֵּה-בֵן, לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ; וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו.
[Vayomer, shuv ashuv eleicha ka'et chaya, veHine-ben, leSara ishtecha; VeSara shama'at petach haOhel, veHu acharav.]
(Genesis 18:10)

No "mo’ed"! I was utterly confused until I read on and found the verse the discussion is actually referring to:

הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְהוָה, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה–וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן.
[Hayipale meAdonay, davar; laMo'ed ashuv eleicha, ka'et chaya - uleSara ben.]
Is any thing too hard for the LORD. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.’
(Genesis 18:14 at Mechon Mamre)

There it is, our "mo’ed". So what does Rashi have to say about this verse?

At the appointed time: At that time that was appointed, that I set for you yesterday, [when I said] (17:21): “at this time next year.”
(Rashi on Genesis 18:14, translation from Chabad)

Genesis 17:21 says "But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.", containing "laMo’ed" as well. Only verse 18:10, the one Rashi puts his comment on, does not. Well… he could’ve saved the world from this post by putting the comment somewhere else!

Ok, a short summary: Abraham is visited by angels, they tell him that they will come back "laMo’ed" when he will have a son. The word "mo’ed" in Genesis 18:14 may be interpreted as "festival". The sages discuss different festivals, including Pesach. Rashi selects Pesach and this is in turn what Chabad references. To really understand the argument, we’d need to talk about the date of Abraham’s circumsision, the date of the angels’ visit of Lot, the date of Isaac’s birth – but this post is long enough as it is.

3 matzot on the Seder plate

Why are there three matzot on the Seder plate?

Probably most people know the explanation that they represent the three types of Jews: Cohen, Levi and Israel. AskMoses gives as a source for this explanation "Rav Shrira Gaon and Maaseh Rokeach 16:58, cited in the Rebbe’s Haggadah, and explained in Migdal Ohr by Rabbi Ezra Schochet, vol. 7." – I haven’t checked, but I’ve heard the explanation many many times*.

Another explanation that I’ve heard a few times is that they represent the three patriarchs, Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Wikipedia attributes this to the MaHaRal (Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 16th century, Prague), but I haven’t found any real source for this*.

This year at the Seder I heard for the first time the the "practical" reason: We need two whole loaves to make the blessing on bread. Before the point where we make the blessing on bread (matzot) in the Seder, we break one of the matzot. So we need to start with three. Here is at least something of a source for this explanation:

Of the three matzot on the table, why is it that the middlte matza is the one which is broken? The halakhic answer is: On Pesach three matzot are required. One for lechem o’ni (poor man’s bread) and two for lechem mishna (the two loaves required on each Shabbat and Yom Tov). Since it is customary to lay one’s ten fingers on the lechem mishna [as a reminder that ten mitzvot are fulfilled in the process of producing and eating bread] these matzot must be placed on the top and bottom of the pile.
(R. Nachman Cohen, The Historical Haggada, page 14)

While looking for sources for the above explanation, I came across a reason that was new to me. The three matzot are supposed to be a rather confusing allusion to flour. When the angels came to visit, Abraham told Sara to make break from three "se’a" of flour (Genesis 18:6). And of course she was baking matzot as they came on Passover. Why was it Passover? — stay tuned for a separate post on this topic!

* please write a comment if you know more!

Freedom vs. hard work

Judaism is hard work because freedom is hard work. Pesach is especially hard because it is the festival of freedom. Freedom is threatened in two ways: by individualism and collectivism. Collectivism – worship of the system, the state, the nation, the race – has produced the worst tyrannies of history. [...]

Individualism represents the opposite danger. When individuals put private gain ahead of the common good, a society eventually collapses. [...]


That is what Pesach is about. It is about my personal experience of freedom: On Pesach we must each see ourselves as if we personally had left Egypt. But it is also about our shared experience of freedom as we tell the story of our people and hand it on to future generations. Judaism is about the ‘I’ and the ‘We.’ Without our willingness to encourage questions, argument, debate, and endless new interpretations of ancient texts, we would lose the ‘I.’ Without halakhah, the code that binds us together across centuries and continents, we would lose the ‘We.’ And yes, it’s hard work. But I tell you from the depth of my heart that there is no achievement worth having that is not hard work.
(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: What Does This Avodah Mean To You?)

Sorry for not posting much these last weeks, I have been busy with Pesach preparations!

How do we know this is a Jewish blog?

Why else would there only be questions and no answers on this blog?

Why don’t we speak between netilat yadaim and hamotzi?

Many newcomers to Shabat observance have probably had this experience: You go to wash hands with everybody else, go back to your seat and happily chat up your neighbour until you notice that she/he is not answering and/or you are the only person in the room still speaking. The custom is not to speak from hand washing (netilat yadaim) until the blessing over bread (hamotzi) is said.

Where is the source for that? I just stumbled upon a mention in the Kizzur:

Care should be taken not to have an interruption between washing hands and ”who brings forth bread” [the blessing over bread].
(Kizzur shulchan aruch 41:2)

According to Rabbi Josh Flug at YUTorah the actual basis in the Talmud is in Berachot 42a, I assume he meant this one sentence:

Grace should follow immediately on the washing of hands.
(Berachot 42a)

There seems to be a doubt if this sentence actually refers to washing before the meal or after the meal. Among others, the Rambam actually allows speaking, but the recommended procedure nowadays seems to be that it is preferred not to (Halacha Yomit).