Thursday, December 30, 2004

Don't read this - no posts today

I've decided not to post anything today. So please don't bother reading this. It's a complete waste of your time.

I have some things on my mind, but I'm keeping them to myself for now. It's been one of those days when nothing seems worth writing. Certainly nothing worth bothering my readers with.

So do yourself a favor. Read a book. Take a walk. Learn some Torah. Write your memoirs. Hug your spouse. Or find one, if necessary. (Preferably not mine; I'm keeping her.) Whatever. There's no point hanging around here.

G'on, scram. At least one of us should do something useful today.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Welcome home!

Today's Nefesh B'Nefesh flight makes the Washington Post, which highlights new olim from the D.C. area. This has been the biggest year for North American aliyah in decades.

Welcome home, newcomers.

Googly-eyed ads (aka Sell Your Settlement)

Google's keyword-linked text ads are usually remarkably appropriate to the page they adorn. Not always, though.

Yoel Ben-Avraham at Second Thoughts writes about his opposition to Sharon's disengagement plan. Google (as of this writing) serves up the following ads:

Image Hosted by

The first two are at least on topic, though presumably not to Yoel's liking. The fourth is just wacky. But the third is a gem!

Compare and win, indeed.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Analemma and the Jewish problem

It's late December and the days are growing longer again. So why is sunrise still getting later, making it harder for some to daven Shacharit before leaving for work?

The phenomenon is called the analemma, and you can learn more about it here.

(Hat tip: Rabbi Seth Mandel.)

The cheese mystery: still unsolved

My Cousin the Biologist was visiting a few weeks ago, so I took the opportunity to ask him about the cheesemaking mystery I raised a few months ago.

The rabbis, I mentioned, were certain that only kosher milk can be coagulated to make cheese. "Non-kosher milk doesn't curdle." Why should this be so?

His immediate reaction: Disbelief. A contemptuous scowl transformed his face. "Can't be! I'm sure any milk will curdle if you add rennet!"

I assured him that, aside from the adamant Talmudic statement, I had done a bit of research and had found no evidence of cheese made from non-kosher milk (with the possible exception of camel milk cheese, which has only become possible recently due to modern agricultural technology).

Dairy processing is admittedly not his specialty, but he was stumped. He couldn't suggest why only ruminants' milk should coagulate.

Biology grad students take heed: This could be the route to your Ph.D.!

Monday, December 27, 2004

International e-mail trivia quiz in aid of Ray Fisher's cancer treatment

Please set aside the evening of January 15 (Israel time) for a good cause and a good time.

Ray Fisher, born in Leeds, England, is a travel agent in Ramat Hasharon. He's the National Vice-Chairman of Hitachdut Olei Britannia (Association of British Immigrants) and the past president of the Israel Rugby Union.

Ray has recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. The recommended treatments are not covered by Israel's national health service.

Friends of Ray have organized an e-mail trivia contest to raise funds for Ray's treatment. The idea is to gather a team of at least ten players in your home, collectively donating 500 shekels ($120 US / 80 UK pounds), to compete against other teams by e-mail.

For more information or to register a team, contact or I'm not involved with the project; just a concerned friend of Ray.

Havel Havalim #2; announcing #3

The second edition of Haveil Havalim (or Vanity of Vanities) is up at Soccer Dad.

Edition #3 will be hosted here on Sunday, January 2 / Tevet 21. To nominate an Israel-related or Jewish-related blog posting (your own or another's), please e-mail it to me with a subject line of "VoV #3". Include the permalink to the posting, along with the name and address of your blog.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Economics vs. Psychology

Economics: The study of human behavior based on the assumption that humans are essentially rational.

Psychology: The study of human behavior based on the assumption that humans are essentially irrational.

As the rabbis might say, they're both right.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

QUESTION: Your fantasy blog

Following up on yesterday's post: If you were to invent a fictional blog persona, who would you be?

My response is at the end of this post.

Respond in the comments, please. (And keep it clean - this is a family blog.)

The limits of protest

"No to violence; no to refusal of military service; no to the orange Star of David."

Who issued this bold rebuke to the more militant of the anti-disengagement activists?

None other than the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, the nongovernmental representative body of the settler movement.

So will we now stop hearing all the settlers tarred with the same brush?

Don't count on it.

Bearly in agreement

Odd. After I take issue with many of DovBear's recent arguments about Jews and Christianity, he writes that I "[agree] with most all of [his] central points."

Let's see. I agree with the following of DB's positions:

  • Christianity is based on false beliefs and is heretical according to Judaism

  • Jews are not enriched by the public worship of Christianity

Meanwhile, I disagree with him on the following:

  • Contemporary American Christianity is tantamount to idol-worship

  • Christians are always and everywhere our enemies

  • Jews should hate Christians and work for the downfall of Christianity

  • The only options for the American state are secular liberalism or Christian theocracy

  • American society would be better off banning all religious expression from the public square

  • The public expression of generic Christianity is a threat to American Jews

  • American Jews should be active in supporting the secularization of American public life

  • Devout American Christians pose a threat to the interests of American Jews

  • It is wrong for Jews to cooperate with Christian groups on matters of mutual interest

Yup. Sounds like we're right on the same page.

Then, cleverly, he retroactively anticipates a question I implicitly raised myself in the post he was responding to: Why did I bother to answer him?

Duh! He asked me to, didn't he?

Sheesh! You just can't please some people!

Along the way, he calls my response "long and boring". He may have a point there. For my next blog, I'll be a hassidic ba'al teshuvah from Italy, struggling with his continued passion for his Catholic wife and kids, and fearful of reprisals from his in-laws, who have connections with the Sicilian mafia. What happens when the Besht meets the Godfather?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Oh, no! Not the Israeli flag! Anything but that!

In case you missed it in yesterday's Washington Post (I first saw it reprinted in today's Maariv:

FBI Agents Allege Abuse of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay detainee was wrapped in an Israeli flag and bombarded with loud music in an apparent attempt to soften his resistance to interrogation.

Fortunately, some Arabs consider it an honor to be wrapped in an Israeli flag. (Welcome home, Azzam!)

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a blog

Once in a while I fantasize about inventing a fictional character and blogging as an imaginary persona. Why be myself all the time?

I could be a frum mother of four coping with her recent extramarital affair!

Or a hassid who is secretly an atheist!

Or a rabbi's wife frustrated with the "rebbetzin" stereotypes!

Or a frum actress who dreams of being a historian!

Or a Jerusalem-based nursing student who's never seen a Star Wars movie!

Or a religious Zionist American-Israeli politically-conservative software engineer! (Oh, that's me. No, too boring to be fictional. Why do I waste my time?)

Am I the only one who sometimes suspects that not everyone in our little Jewish blogoshtetl is for real?

The possibilities make my head spin. (Or maybe it's just dehydration. The fast ends in 20 minutes.)

Newsflash: Jerusalem besieged by Nebuchadnezzar

Today is the Tenth of Teveth, a fast day commemorating, primarily, the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. (It also mourns the passing of Ezra the Scribe and the translation of the Torah into Greek.)

Audio shiurim can be found at

Rabbi Meir Goldwicht (Hebrew)

Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Point of interest: Along the way, Rabbi Willig manages to discuss Christmas and Jewish attitudes towards Christian society.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Bear baiting and the Christian problem

In which, fed up with the Bear's continued incessant baiting, Yours Truly inexplicably finally takes the bait, while fully expecting a paw blow to the side of the head.

Moved by the holiday spirit, the redundantly-named Dov Bear has lately stepped up his crusade (so to speak) against Christianity, or, more precisely, against those Jews, generally of a conservative bent, who have expressed their sympathy with religious Christians and with the public celebration of Christmas in America.

It's hard to formulate a concise response to his disorganized series of ramblings from this past week, so I'll try to pick out his main points and respond to them directly. (Does he have a real job? Some of us do!)

Before I begin: Naturally, I have no sympathy with some of the loonier sentiments DB has mocked. Unlike Charles Krauthammer, I do not feel "enlarged" by the public celebration of Christmas. Unlike Dennis Prager, I feel no poorer in the absence of garish Christmas displays (and I expect many serious Christians would agree).

But back to our double-monikered ursine. As far as I can tell, his arguments, some religious and some political, boil down to these:

One at a time, now.

"I object to Christianity because it is false."

No argument here. Christianity is false and heretical. It is incompatible with Judaism - by definition; otherwise, Christians would still be Jews. However, it is no more false or heretical than many other popular systems of belief, from Hinduism to Objectivism to secular humanism. Arguably, it is less false than most of them, as it is substantially rooted in Jewish sources. One might argue that this makes it more dangerous to Jews, but not more false.

Along the same lines, Islam and Baha'i and Buddhism and (lehavdil?) Reform Judaism and certain factions of Chabad are all arguably less heretical than Christianity, but are still false and heretical from a halachic standpoint. That leaves us as maybe a million - two, to be very generous - mitzvah-observant Jews out of a world of six-plus billion. That's a lot of falsehood to object to. I've got other things to do.

"At bottom it is idol worship."

This is far from clear-cut, both philosophically and halachically. Idol worship is the worship of powers other than God, classically meaning the heavenly bodies, animals, statues or humans, or the worship of multiple gods. Whether Christianity is idol worship depends on one's understanding of Christianity.

Any Christian today, certainly in the West, will profess to be a monotheist, worshiping the same God who (they believe) gave the Israelites the Torah at Sinai. So who was Jesus? If he was another god, that's clearly idolatry. If he was merely the one God's representative on earth, he might not be much different from other false prophets. If he was god's human son and the messiah, that may be a foolish belief and it's clearly heresy to Jews, but it's not so clear that it's idolatry. Three-is-one, they say - but is God really three or really one? That may depend on the subtleties of different varieties of Christian theology.

On the halachic side, I'm certainly no expert, but there is a substantial halachic tradition which does not view modern Christianity as idolatry. Rav JB Soloveichik zt"l apparently subscribed to this view, for example. ("Evidently he followed the majority of Hakhmei Ashkenaz -- from Meiri to Rabeinu Tam to Rama to Shakh to Be'er Hagolah to Seridei Aish -- in considering contemporary Christianity not to be identical to classical avodah zarah.")

Besides - what if it is? I'm not aware of any religious injunction against political alliances with idolaters. They've been common throughout our history, from Abraham on.

"For 2000 years Christians and Christian governments have been our enemy."

Make that, "Some Christians and Christian governments have been our enemy." Others have been our friends, or at least allies, from Oliver Cromwell to Franz Josef.

But so what? You have no obligation to forgive Christians for centuries of persecution. But why slander all of today's Christians with the sins of their forebears? (Don't we object furiously when Christians do that to us?)

Christians are a diverse community. Some of them hate us. Some of them "love" us so much they want us to be just like them (how sweet!). Some of them, however, respect us for who we are and are proud to ally themselves to us, without imposing their beliefs on us. We have a right, and indeed a responsibility, to be skeptical towards them, but equally we have a moral obligation to be open to cooperation with those who are sincerely respectful of us. That doesn't mean we need to go out with them for drinks or have them over for bridge.

Certainly, as perhaps the world's smallest religious minority, we have a pragmatic need to seek out allies wherever we can find them. Diplomatic beggars can't be choosers. Political cooperation is not (primarily) about moral endorsement. It is about the leveraging of power and influence to promote our self-interests. Where Jews have potential allies, we must nurture those relationships. We can't afford not to. Equally, we must make the limits of our cooperation clear.

"The choice is Christianity or Freedom. And smart Jews choose freedom every time."

Repeating this doesn't make it so. Western Europe today is virtually free of Christianity; the state churches are dying and religious belief is dwindling. That has not made it a hospitable place for Jews.

Historically, Jews have not necessarily fared well in overly free societies. The Emancipation kicked off one of the greatest waves of assimilation in Jewish history. This "freedom - good, Christianity - bad" mantra is simplistic and unsupported by facts.

This is not to suggest that oppression is good for the Jews; far from it. But the Jewish people today has never been more free of political oppression, yet we continue to dwindle in numbers. This is primarily our own fault, not that of atheists or Christians.

Ultimately, though, the annual December issues that obsess Americans are insignificant. Whether or not City Hall sports a nativity scene, whether or not the school choir sings the Lord's Prayer (generations of Jewish kids survived this without harm), America will not become a theocracy in any conceivable scenario. Its civic religion is the Constitution, and its political and cultural diversity virtually guarantees the continued protection of civil liberties by government. And, frankly, you can't protect your son from a nativity scene on a billboard or a private lawn any more than you can from the one in the city park. Attempts, mainly by Jews, to impose public secularism on a largely religious society can only yield resentment.

Threats to Jewish continuity are far more abundant on university campuses and television screens than in the halls of government. In today's America, freedom arguably poses greater threats to Jews than Christianity does.

I've failed to bite at much of the bear's bait, if only for lack of time. There is much more worth responding to, including his distortions of Jewish doctrines, American constitutional principles and the clear intent of the very columnists he's cited. Some other time, perhaps.

A dip in the pool

Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, a maverick posek who fields halachic questions on the web through his rabbi sons, has just fleshed out his thinking on whether a swimming pool can be a kosher mikveh. Some excerpts from son Rabbi Aaron Abadi's reply:

The basic idea is that piping does not render a Mikveh not Kosher these days, since our piping is attached to the house and/or ground.

There are however issues that need to be addressed. The water must have come from a river, a resevoir, an ocean, a lake, or anything other than "drawn water." If the first few hundred gallons come from a hose that comes from your home piping, that comes from the local water supply, then the pool is fine. The problem will be if it is initially filled by a tank truck, which in the present days is a common practice in order to fill it with pre-cleaned water and allow you to use the pool immediately, that would be a problem.

The fact that we do not use a regular swimming pool as a Kosher Mikveh for women is an added "chumra" (an extra restriction). It is not based in Jewish Law. The Ra"sh is very clear about it being Kosher (Hilchot Mikvaot #12). The Shulchan Aruch and the Ram"a are clear that it is fine (Yo"D 201:48). Even the Nodeh Beyehuda who is the strictest in this issue would agree that the pool is good in our scenario where the piping is attached to the house and/or the ground, since it is made to be attached that way.

The process that makes water not Kosher for a Mikveh is if the first waters contain water drawn by a "Keli." This would include a pail or a cup or a tank. It would not include piping that is attached to the ground.

But there are some other issues....

As usual, consult your own rabbi for practical halachic advice. Rabbi Abadi's positions are often controversial, to say the least.

Monday, December 20, 2004

All is vanity

If you're familiar with Carnival of the Vanities, the J-version has now arrived. Soccer Dad (aka David Gerstman) has taken the initiative in compiling the first edition of Haveil Havalim, Hebrew for "Vanity of Vanities", to showcase recent blog posts on Jewish or Israel-related themes.

Kol hakavod to David for the idea.

(As Ethan Dor-Shav has argued, though, "hevel" doesn't really mean vanity at all. If you didn't read his essay when I recommended it earlier, read it now!)

Attack of the taxi markings

Image Hosted by

The first time I saw it, I squinted. What was that odd marking on the side of the taxicab? Some new artsy corporate logo?

Then I saw more of them. A new fad? A cabbie fashion statement?

Before I knew it, they were everywhere. Taxis all over Israel were sporting this clunky, lopsided, block logo. What could it mean?

The answer: New directives on taxi marking from Israel's Ministry of Transportation. Ah, who but a government bureaucrat could come up with such a hideous idea?

I wonder what graphic artist is collecting the royalties?

Friday, December 17, 2004

On vacation

No time to write - it's an hour to Shabbat. I'm in the lobby of our hotel in Eilat, where we're spending our 10th anniversary.

It's clear and mostly sunny, but blustery and windy, even cold at night. Still, it's Eilat and it's beautiful.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Yearning for Chanukah carols

I have a confession to make: I enjoy Christmas songs.

Not the sappy elevator music on the pop charts. I mean the hard-core stuff. The traditional religious hymns sung in four-part harmony. I don't need to name names. You know what I'm talking about.

Don't think you've caught me in some clandestine Christian sympathies, chas v'shalom. This is about music, not religion. The melodies are simply beautiful. But I never get past the first couple of bars before I choke on the lyrics.

I admit I never felt this way growing up. Christmas was an annoyance, an all-encompassing, smothering influence, a constant reminder of my position as a religious minority. It conquered everything from the shopping malls to the sitcoms.

One of the comforts of living in Israel is being part of the religious majority in society. The major festivals here are Pesach and Sukkot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Christmas passes with barely a notice, except in the dwindling Christian areas. (Bill O'Reilly was right: American Jews who are offended by the public pervasiveness of Christianity have the option of moving to Israel. When you're a tiny minority, it's presumptuous to object to the ubiquity of the majority culture.)

With the comfort and self-confidence of a Jewish Israeli, I can now objectively state that many Christmas songs are beautiful. They have a majesty and grace rare in Jewish music.

Taking Chanukah at random, Maoz Tzur is about the only song which fits that description. Otherwise, Chanukah songs fall into three categories: festive neo-Chassidic tunes designed for furious dancing, children's songs about dreidels and candles, or heretical songs written by secular Zionists.

There are also some lovely Shabbat zemirot, and I always enjoy learning new tunes for them, but then a holiday comes around and suddenly everyone sits around the table at a loss for something worth singing. Is it appropriate that our festival meals are less musical than our Shabbatot?

Pesach melodies are either unimaginative chants (Dayenu!) or thinly-veiled drinking tunes suitable for the fourth cup of wine (Chad Gadya). On Purim you're lucky to stay in key. And it's a good thing for Hallel or we'd hardly have anything at all to sing on Sukkot.

Could it be that we instinctively feel that if Jewish music is beautiful and harmonic it sounds goyish? (Certainly much modern Ashkenazi synagogue music was adapted from Christian styles, if not actual melodies.) At least the chassidim of Modzitz don't think so. They're known for their love for music, especially for marches and waltzes.

Lest I sound too gloomy (post-Chanukah blues?), let me leave you with the dulcet tones of the Kol Zimra "vocal simcha ensemble" from Englewood, New Jersey. Audio and video of their performance at the White House menorah lighting is available here. They sang a beautiful rendition of Maoz Tzur, followed by... assorted children's songs.

Oh, well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Comparative cabinetmaking

Far be it from me to object to calls for efficiency in government. But while the Jerusalem Post's editorialists are on the mark regarding Israel's bloated cabinet, their comparison with the American administration is both meaningless and shockingly ill-informed.

The offending paragraph:

Sharon is a known Bush administration fan. It would be only fitting for him to note how streamlined the Washington cabinet is, though charged with running a far larger country. Health, Education and Welfare, for instance, are compacted within one framework, while here these provide separate latifundia for three ministers with their respective bureaucracies.

Streamlined? The Washington cabinet? Excuse me?

To start with the obvious: The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was abolished by President Carter in 1979,, splitting it into the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services. How long has it been since the Post editors made aliyah?

Next: Anyone want to guess how large Bush's cabinet is? Including the president, there are 22 cabinet-rank officials, not including the newly created intelligence overlord. Admittedly fewer than Sharon's 28, but hardly a paragon of bureaucratic efficiency. Bush's elite team includes such vital players as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Really, though, this comparison is irrelevant. Unlike the United States, the State of Israel does not have a federal structure. Israel's government is responsible for all the functions of both the U.S. federal and state governments. Everything from foreign affairs and national defense to small claims courts, drivers' licensing and zoning are functions of the same government. Israel also has a national health care system and state-sponsored religious services. Relative to its size, Israel's government is much larger than America's.

If anything, Bush's cabinet is more bloated, as it includes many members whose jobs should never have been federal responsibilities in the first place. Constitutionally, the federal government should not be involved in education, health, labor relations, agriculture or housing policy, to name a few. These are all functions of the states, which are more than capable of handling them.

You want to see cabinet bloat? Take a state with about the same area and population as Israel: Maryland. Maryland's cabinet - with no responsibility for defense or foreign affairs - has 24 members. They include the Secretary of Disabilities, the Secretary of Juvenile Services, the Secretary of Human Resources and the Secretary of Higher Education, and the state's own Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Add to this "cabinet attendees" such as the Attorney General, the State Comptroller and the State Treasurer, and Maryland's cabinet is easily as large as Israel's, but with fewer responsibilities.

Finally, it should go without saying that Israel's cabinet and America's cabinet serve different constitutional functions. Israel's cabinet is its governing body; the government includes a coalition of political parties and makes decisions by majority vote.

Constitutionally, the U.S. cabinet has no official function whatsoever. The president is not first among equals, like a prime minister; he is the one and only. He sets policies in consultation with his cabinet members, and expects them to implement his decisions. No American president has to negotiate with political allies over cabinet appointments, or risk being toppled by them.

Israel does need to streamline its government. But comparisons with the United States are misleading and unhelpful.

Festival of (star)light

The Geminids put on a nice show, though we only stayed out for an hour and the sky was half clouded over. We saw a good number of meteors, many of which were brighter than the brightest stars in the sky (including Jupiter). Even urban dwellers would have enjoyed this one.

For the first time, the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot blacked out the campus for half an hour to facilitate meteor viewing. As usual, the meteor fanatics camped out in Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev for optimal conditions.

Meteor watching is the easiest way to get started with stargazing. It requires nothing more than your own eyes and some spare time late at night. Bring some folding chairs for comfort, dress warmly and enjoy the show. The darker the location the better.

Stargazing is especially appropriate for Chanukah, in my opinion. The sky is moonless most of the night, and in Israel kids have a few days off school. Symbolically, Chanukah candles resemble stars, in that their light is not for use. You can't see by starlight, just as you're not allowed to use the light of the Chanukah candles. They just flicker prettily. (What does this signify? Beats me.)

On these longest, darkest nights of the year, I hope you enjoyed the light show.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Oseh ma'aseh v'reishit - II

Last time it was the Perseids; tonight's big show: the Geminid meteor shower.

Israelis interested in observing can find more information here.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A candle, a man, his home

The mitzvah of Chanukah: A candle for each man and his home.

- B.T. Shabbat 21b

This well-known summary of the Chanukah ritual brings together three themes: candle, man and home. I have a few remarks about each.

(Please note that my discussion here is philosophical, not halachic; the sources I bring here are the primary sources, not the final word on the laws of Chanukah. Contemporary rulings are often different, and questions of practice should be referred to a competent rabbi.)

Candle. Despite popular perceptions, candles are used in few Jewish rituals. Aside from Chanukah, we light candles to greet Shabbat and holidays and to search for chametz on Pesach. All these have practical purposes: The Shabbat candles promote "shelom bayit", domestic peace, by lighting up the home pleasantly for a family dinner, and the candle for bedikat chametz is used to shed light in dark corners where chametz may be hidden.

Chanukah candles, by contrast, have no practical purpose: "We have no permission to use them, but only to see them." Their purpose is entirely symbolic: "pirsumei nisa", to publicize the miracle. Why should we light candles we are forbidden to use?

Man. The above statement appears somewhat self-contradictory. Does the obligation to light a candle apply primarily to the man or to the home? Though later sources have shifted towards the personal interpretation, the essence of the halacha appears to be that the obligation falls primarily on the home, not on the man (or woman - the two are equal in this regard).

A few examples demonstrate this point. The essential mitzvah in Talmudic times, as cited above, was to light one candle per household. Only the "mehadrin", those who go beyond the minimum requirement, lit a candle per resident - and even then, there is no indication of an individual obligation for each resident to light a candle, rather that the number of candles lit match the size of the household. Similarly, when staying in a hotel, one need not light candles if candles are being lit on one's behalf at home. Again, it is the home that needs the candles, not the individual.

The original practice also required that the candles be lit "adjacent to the entrance to the home from public property", and if a home had entrances facing different directions, candles were lit in at least one entrance facing each direction so no passerby should suspect that this house lacked Chanukah candles.

Home. Three Jewish festivals feature rituals involving the home. On Passover we eradicate chametz from the home. On Sukkot we leave the home, moving to a temporary dwelling. On Chanukah we light candles in each home.

The connections between Passover and Sukkot and the home are clear. Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, during which every individual home was saved from slavery and from the plague of the firstborn. Sukkot commemorates the temporary desert dwellings of the Children of Israel after the Exodus.

But what does the Chanukah story have to with the home? There was a military victory, the Temple was rededicated, its menorah was relit, there was a miracle involving oil - but how is this connected to my house? The Jewish people were saved on Purim as well, but we do not commemorate this by any ritual involving our homes.

Not only are the Chanukah candles to be lit at the entrance to the home, but, back when that was the practice, they were lit facing the mezuzah, so that when walking through the doorway one passed between the mezuzah and the Chanukah candle. This parallelism with the mezuzah is another mystery. What do Chanukah candles have to do with the mezuzah?

I would suggest that the structuring of the mitzvah around the physical house and the parallelism with the mezuzah, are deliberate efforts to emphasize the role of the home in the events of Chanukah. Just as each individual household was saved from Egypt, so each individual household was saved during the Chanukah story, even if it was less obvious at the time. Just as the mezuzah on our doorposts serves as a public expression of faith in God who released us from Egypt, so does the lighting of the Chanukah candles in the doorway, facing the public street.

The Syrian-Greek oppressors forbade such basic Jewish practices as Shabbat, Brit Milah and Torah learning. Many Jews continued these practices in secret, in the shelter of their homes. With the Hasmonean victory, symbolized by the recapture and rededication of the Temple, they could again follow the Torah publicly.

Lighting Chanukah candles symbolizes the rededication of each individual home to God, just as the Temple itself was rededicated and its candles relit. The candles face outwards, not for use by the home itself but for the symbolic purpose of identification with the Hasmonean victory and the renewed Temple worship. This could not be taken for granted at the time; the public itself was split between traditionalists and hellenists, with many of the cultural elite and the priestly class supporting the "enlightened" Greeks and their cosmopolitan culture. Like the mezuzah, then, the Chanukah candles were an expression of faith, a statement that this household is proudly dedicated to the Torah.

I hope I've managed to shed a bit of light on this subject.

Update (Dec. 13): Rabbi Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion delves into this theme from a Talmudic perspective here.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The past has been paved

As I feared, the impressive Hasmonean-era archeological site on the edge of modern Modi'in has been razed by Israel's Antiquities Authority to make way for a new luxury neighborhood.

All that remains is the mikveh. The massive adjacent olive press is gone, its millstone having been relocated to the Antiquities Authority's warehouse.

The bulldozers moved in on Chanukah eve and destroyed a site dating to the kingdom established by the Maccabees, adjacent to the modern city bearing the name of their hometown. I'm still stunned.

Local activists were working on getting a court order to stay the execution. This may have actually spurred the authorities to act quickly.

The nearby Chalcolithic site remains in place for now.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Sunny days ahead for Labor?

Kindly consider the following two would-be leaders of Israel's Labor Party:

Am I the only one who finds them uncannily similar - in appearance, personality and overall intelligence - to these colorful characters? (Except Matan Vilnai is missing a tuft of hair, and Haim Ramon could use a rubber ducky.)