Volume 58 Number 42 
      Produced: Thu, 22 Jul 2010 23:03:20 EDT

Subjects Discussed In This Issue:

magical influences on halacha (3)
    [Susan Kane  Russell J Hendel  Michael Poppers]
photograph of birchat hakohanim 
    [Stuart Wise]
Purpose of Mail-Jewish (was buyout at Gush Katif) (3)
    [Ari Trachtenberg  Daniel Cohn  Carl Singer]
Sephardic discrimination (2)
    [Meir Shinnar  Martin Stern]


From: Susan Kane <suekane@...>
Date: Mon, Jul 12,2010 at 11:01 PM
Subject: magical influences on halacha

Eitan said:

> I have a problem with people believing that if they, for example, bake a 
> key into a challah after pesach, it is somehow going to impact their 
> material well being for the coming year.

I understand that you are a rationalist and respect that, but ... why 
can't the rest of us have a little fun?

To me, a religion without ritual and a bit of superstition is like health 
food 365 days of the year.  I know it's good for me, but it has no 
"ta'am" (taste).

Why does it bother rationalists so much if other people worry about the 
evil eye or mazal or segulot?  No one said that you have to do it.

I have many scientist friends and I love them dearly but I guess what irks 
me about this line of reasoning is that I always feel that they are 

"But ... but ... if we could just get people to behave as *rationally* as 
possible .. the world would be so much better!"

They have almost a religious belief in this truism and much like the 
Lubavitchers who feel that if I fail to light shabbat candles one week, I 
may prevent the coming of Mashiach, they seem to feel that every person 
who engages in a bit of magical thinking is preventing the dawn of the 
rational era.

We have seen societies built on "purely rational" values and societies 
built on magic and superstition.  Both have produced wonderful things and 
terrible things.

Any human society will contain the things that humans bring to the 
human endeavor -- reason but also emotion, thought but also 
irrationality, science and mysticism, and so on.

Indeed, even the most "mystical" often try to take a scientific approach 
to their endeavor (think of astrologers who believe they practice a 
science).  And even the most "rational" are often driven by deeply 
irrational beliefs and emotional needs (think of Communism and it's 
distinctly religious ideology of athiesm).

Don't most people experience both of these extremes -- sometimes even in 
the same day?

And is not our tradition wonderful for providing both ways to draw close 
to G-d?

Just b/c Hashem shows you the face of science as a way to draw close to 
him with devotion, why would you object to a shishelchallah as another 
expression of that same devotion?

And why do you assume that such actions try to change the will of G-d 
anymore than saving someone's life through antibiotics?

In both cases, we hope that G-d recognizes our *effort* -- whether that 
effort is through science or through prayer -- and that our work here will 
draw down G-d's compassion / attention.

Yes, I am very grateful for antibiotics and no, they would never have come 
into being if everyone felt that amulets were enough.

But a world without amulets is a boring one that will not meet the 
significant, irrational, needs of human beings.

From: Russell J Hendel <rjhendel@...>
Date: Tue, Jul 13,2010 at 01:01 PM
Subject: magical influences on halacha

Since I started the thread on the prohibition of superstition (v58n32) there
have been about half a dozen responses (v58n39:36/Fiorino, v58n37/Tzohar,
v58n39/Guttman, v58n36/Chipman, v58n36/Wise, v58n33/Finkelman, v58n33/Teitz,

A major repeating theme is that the reason for the prohibition of
superstition/divination is "false science" (Fiorino, Gevaryahu, Guttmann,
Chipman). Guttman in particular emphasizes the centrality of the question "What
is magic."

The job/challenge of the Talmudic researcher is to collect Talmudic precedents
and give a precise underlying legal model to the case  precedents. Clearly if we
define superstition/divination as "false science", we have made too broad an
explanation. For example a person who used electromagnetic therapy to attempt to
cure say his cancer would be violating the superstition prohibitions (if there
is no scientific basis for the therapy). Furthermore, a person who believed
there was life on Mars would also be violating superstition/divination.

The purpose of this posting is to get this thread back on track by offering a
more focused and specific characterization of the superstition/divination
prohibitions. Typical examples (in primary Talmudic  Midrashic sources) of
superstition/divination are:(A) A black cat crossed my path; hence, I will not
go to work today or (B) I dropped my loaf of bread; hence, I will not do
business today.

I would suggest that the prohibition is A PROHIBITION OF TREATING SYMBOLICALLY
So indeed (B) if I **dreamt** that my loaf of bread fell then a **valid**
interpretation would be that BREAD=LIVELIHOOD and the FALL OF BREAD = FALL OF
LIVELIHOOD and that this dream is TELLING ME that my livelihood is in danger of
falling. Similarly if (A) I dreamt of a black cat then BLACK=COLOR OF DEATH and
CAT=MISCHIEVOUS/DESTRUCTIVE animal (That is the way the Talmud thought of cats).
prohibition of divination is the prohibition of symbolically treating real world
phenomena the same way I would treat these events in dreams and regarding them
as "signs sent by God."  

We can infer several conclusions from this: 

(1) There is no Biblical prohibition of believing that there is life on Mars

(2) There is no prohibition of using Electromagnetic therapy
(3) However placing KEYS in my loaves (which symbolically means that my meal
will have the KEY to success) is prohibited
(4) Similarly (Rambam) placing even a Sefer Torah near an infant would not be a
PHYSICAL protection of the infant but a SYMBOLIC protection (Since the Torah
symbolizes Gods presence). 
NOTE: Although the Torah according to our traditions does have Kedushah
(holiness) it does not have any special "spiritual forces" associated with it.
In fact this is the prohibition of divination.

In the initial draft of this posting I tried to give a response in detail to
each and every mj posting but that would have made this posting too long. I
think I will suffice with the above. My point here is that the Torah is NOT
contrasting RATIONAL and SUPERNATURAL - rather the Torah is contrasting SYMBOLIC
interpretation of the PHYSICAL world with SYMBOLIC interpretation of the dream
world. In fact according to my analysis if I **dreamt** that my loaf fell then I
would have the option of not engaging in business deals that day since a
communication had happened to me in a dream and it is legitimate to interpret
dreams symbolically. I have the right to ignore the dream. However if I follow
it I am not violating the divination prohibitions.

I will just mention one or two more things. The **reason** I reinterpreted the
various items mentioned in Pesachim was not because I thought them the simple
meaning of the text. Rather: Since I am obligated according to Talmudic/Biblical
law to abstain from divinations I can't interpret ("a woman shouldn't walk
between two men" "don't walk between two palm trees") literally. I therefore
interpret them socially using symbolism. Such a method is justified if I am
prohibited from a literal interpretation. Here I look at the social slurs that
occur when a woman walks between two men. Similarly I would interpret Palm trees
as erection symbols symbolizing "hot" men---again a person should be concerned
about provoking comments socially.

On another vein: One person suggested that it is only if I try and force the
issue "e.g. I say IF I will meet a black cat I will not go out today" However
there are other variant readings which state "Since I (already) saw a black cat
THEREFORE I will not go out." The prohibition as I mentioned is on treating
symbolically the real physical world. It doesn't matter whether the
interpretation occurs before or after the sign!

I think this sufficient for now. The cat and loaf texts ((A) and (B) in previous
paragraphs) are ancient midrashic texts and agreed on by everybody. I
acknowledge what several people pointed out  that Rishonim cite practices of
people that are superstitious. However, the Rishonim did not believe in these
practices...rather they were pointing out that the masses practiced them. It is
our obligation to fight these practices in the name of halachah. Here is a
Biblical analogy.  The Bible explicitly acknowledges that Jacob's staff
worshipped idols and we see he fought it. It would be ludicrous to think that
Jacob "tolerated" idolatry (See Gen. 35:2). In a similar manner any Rishon
describing superstition is describing a current practice that we should fight.

I look forward to further discussion on this. I think it important to study this
issue since the fight against superstition is one of the distinguishing features
of Judaism and we should not fall into the error of thinking that there are
authorities who permit it.

Russell Jay Hendel; Phd ASA http://www.Rashiyomi.com/

From: Michael Poppers <MPoppers@...>
Date: Tue, Jul 13,2010 at 08:01 PM
Subject: magical influences on halacha

In M-J V58#39, Dr. Eitan Fiorino wrote:

> I don't think I am displaying arrogance or a lack of humility in claiming
> that belief in amulets and other magical objects and magical rituals that
> are believed to change the will of God - indeed, one would have to argue
> that such objects limit God by forcing Him to act in a way that He
> otherwise was not going to act - do not constitute "proper Jewish thought
> and belief."

Dr. Fiorino (and others, whether they agree with, disagree with, or don't
know what to make of his claim) may be interested in the following,
recently-posted Seforim-'blog entry:


All the best from
--Michael Poppers via RIM pager


From: Stuart Wise <Smwise3@...>
Date: Fri, Jul 16,2010 at 10:01 AM
Subject: photograph of birchat hakohanim

David Ziants <dziants@...> wrote:

> There is an ancient  custom of not to look at the Kohanim whilst they
> bless the people in the  bet hamikdash [Holy Temple]. It is said
> something of the effect that the Kohanim reflect the shechina, thus
> looking at the kohanim can cause blindness. Although the blessing of the
> kohanim, these days, is of a lesser status (but still an important part
> of the tephilla [prayer service]), we still have the custom of not
> looking at the kohanim, so we should look towards the floor or cover our
> eyes with tallit (but not turn our backs).

> Is there an issue not to photograph birkat hakohanim [blessing of the
> kohanim] (for example at the kotel)?

Interesting question, and I don't have answer but it reminds me of someone  
I know who won't let people look at pictures of his wife before she was 
married  because her hair was uncovered. I don't know if there is any halachic 
basis for  that but it struck me then, as now, as very strange.
Stuart Wise


From: Ari Trachtenberg <trachten@...>
Date: Sun, Jul 18,2010 at 02:01 AM
Subject: Purpose of Mail-Jewish (was buyout at Gush Katif)

Shmuel Himelstein wrote:

> I would like to respectfully suggest that questions such as what
> percentage of settlers accepted payment, as posed by Sandy
> Silverstein, are totally inappropriate for MailJewish...

I don't see why.  The propose of mail-jewish, as described at
http://mj.bu.edu is:

> discussing Jewish topics in general within an environment where the
> validity of Halakha and the Halakhic process is accepted, as well as
> for the discussion of topics of Halakha.

Would this not be a Jewish topic in general?

Tsom kal [easy fast --MOD],

From: Daniel Cohn 
Date: Sun, Jul 18,2010 at 03:01 AM
Subject: Purpose of Mail-Jewish (was buyout at Gush Katif)

I concur with Shmuel - how does a discussion of Gush Katif settlers,
holocaust survivors' medical care and Israeli politics qualify for inclusion
in MJ?


From: Carl Singer <carl.singer@...>
Date: Sun, Jul 18,2010 at 06:01 AM
Subject: Purpose of Mail-Jewish (was buyout at Gush Katif)

Is this an halacha forum ... or a political forum ... or both?

I thought it was only the former


From: Meir Shinnar <chidekel@...>
Date: Fri, Jul 16,2010 at 12:01 PM
Subject: Sephardic discrimination

WRT Martin Stern's post on the Emanuel, he makes two points that seem
to be made by quite a few, but I think are problematic.

1. Ethnic versus racial discrimination. 

There is the point that 25-30% of the kids in the separate track (and of the
parents arrested) are Sephardic - so it isn't discrimination against Sephardim.
It misses an essential point.  If one looks at a different type of
discrimination (that should have sensitized us), antisemitism - it came
in at least  two separate types - the Christian one - which
discriminated against the Jews qua Jews - but allowed them to change
into Christians - and the racial antisemitism - for which no such
change was allowed.  There is good evidence that the discrimination is
not the racial type of antisemitism - but there is also good evidence
that it is quite similar to the Christian type of antisemitism -
Sephardi kids were acceptable as long as they became Slonimer....

This was not merely requirements of certain humrot in dress and
exposure to outside culture - but other minhagim...- and this is
therefore proof of bias - perhaps not on the basis of ethnic origin -
but on the basis of ethnicity - - and clearly antisefardi bias...(you
are welcome only if you become Ashkenazi...)

I would add that the erection of a wall makes any defense of the
Slonimer track as not being discriminatory hard to make....

2)  The Slonimer have the right to conduct their lives as they see fit
- and we should not interfere.

Again, this right is one that is not (and should not be) unlimited,
nor does the invocation that they follow their posek (religious
authority ) - give them unlimited license.

Even without the fact that we are talking about a state funded school
- and therefore, yes, the Supreme Court does have power about the use
of state funds - we do not give groups such unlimited powers,  e.g. the
recent accusations against the cult of Elior Chen - who abused the
children - few would argue that if Chen would claim that he was the
group's religious authority, that would mean that we should say that
his cult has the right to conduct their lives as they see fit....('my
posek made me do it' is not a good defense..)

The issue is the limits of this right and legitimate state interests.
The question here (and the lawsuit brought to the supreme court)
argued that the behavior of the school - including the erection of the
wall - went far beyond merely living one's own life - but impacted on
the lives of others - the other kids in the school - and therefore was
a legitimate state interest.  Whether the impact on the other kids was
proven we can argue - but the court's finding was reasonable.

Lastly, the way that the debate was framed in much of haredi press (as
well as the citation brought) suggests that the primary fight of the
haredi community was not on the merits of the case - but the principle
that the state did not have the right to intervene - and that is
something that the state has to stand up for.

Meir Shinnar

From: Martin Stern <md.stern@...>
Date: Sun, Jul 18,2010 at 06:01 AM
Subject: Sephardic discrimination

Janice Gelb wrote (MJ 58 # 41):
> Martin Stern wrote:
>> Press reports. While one cannot always believe everything one reads in the
>> papers, especially those with a strong anti-Orthodox position, the fact that
>> several of the jailed fathers were Sephardim would seem to corroborate these
>> reports.
> The phrase "press reports" does not constitute a source. Do you have
> citations from a reputable news source for your statement?

In my recent submission (MJ 58 # 40), I cited an article by Larry Derfner in
the Jerusalem Post that might have gone some way to satisfy Janice's


I regularly read, among other publications, the Jerusalem Post, the (London)
Jewish Chronicle, the (London) Jewish News, the (Manchester) Jewish Telegraph,
all not religiously orientated papers, and the (NY) Jewish Press, the (London)
Jewish Tribune and Hamodia, the latter two being chareidi papers.

I think this gives me a rather more varied range of opinions than the Jerusalem
Post and Ha'arets [cited by Janice Gelb], whose anti-chareidi bias is well known.

However, I cannot always give precise citations for everything I quote.

I have recently been given a link to the Israeli Supreme Court ruling
concerning the case which gives the figure of 23% Ashkenazim in the
non-chassidic stream and 27% Sephardim in the chassidic one, more or less
the same as the approximate percentages I had stated previously.

If anyone has any doubts, this can be accessed at:


Martin Stern


End of Volume 58 Issue 42