Volume 64 Number 50 
      Produced: Wed, 19 Feb 20 06:38:21 -0500

Subjects Discussed In This Issue:

AI/ML as a psak generator?  
    [Joel Rich]
Alternatives to traditional hagbaha 
    [Yisrael Medad]
Donkeys re Yoseif and his brothers 
    [Joel Rich]
Mistaken Minhagim? (2)
    [Dr. Josh Backon  Ben Katz, M.D.]
The decapitated heifer 
    [Ari Trachtenberg]
The decapitated heifer/Times Change. 
    [Hyman Schaffer]
Times Change, Circumstances Change, Halachah Changes (5)
    [Carl Singer  Orrin Tilevitz  William Gewirtz  Joel Rich  Ben Katz, M.D.]


From: Joel Rich <JRich@...>
Date: Wed, Feb 19,2020 at 03:01 AM
Subject: AI/ML as a psak generator? 

Some thoughts on AI/ML (Artificial intelligence / Machine learning) vis a vis a
psak generator:

Since lots of psak (if not all) has many unarticulated premises, it will be
interesting to see what ML might extrapolate. In the outside world the man
machine partnership is one model (others say machine only!) IMHO it will happen
sooner or later. Any thoughts on how this might play out?

Joel Rich


From: Yisrael Medad  <yisrael.medad@...>
Date: Mon, Feb 17,2020 at 05:01 PM
Subject: Alternatives to traditional hagbaha

Perry Zamek asked (MJ 64#49):

> In our shule we recenly had an instance in which the person lifting the Sefer
> Torah (Ashkenazi sefer Torah) evidently lost control of one side, which then
> fell to the floor. The Rav of the shule addressed certain aspects of this
> (whether there is a need to fast, and how to ensure that such an event does 
> not occur again).
> I want to ask a question along different lines: How important is lifting the
> Sefer Torah for the congregation to see? Are there alternatives to the
> traditional mode of lifting? (For example, in the Italian synagogue I saw
> that a decorative frame was placed over the atzei hayyim, and then two
> people, one on each side, would pick up the Torah.) What is done in
> synagogues where all or most of those present are elderly?
> I would appreciate the thoughts of those on the list.

Chabad lift it up, show it around and then lower it back on to the bimah. That
last bit I would think requires more strength that to lift it in the first place,
at least without having it bang the table.

Tractate Sofrim 14 notes that the Torah scroll must be raised and shown to
all the congregants. Interestingly enough, it reads there:

"He shows the writing to all the people to his right and to his left and
then turns it back to in front of him and in back of him as it is a mitzva
that all the men and the women see the writing" indicating that women are
expected tp be in synagogue and able to see the scroll.

Yisrael Medad


From: Joel Rich <JRich@...>
Date: Wed, Feb 19,2020 at 03:01 AM
Subject: Donkeys re Yoseif and his brothers

I spent some time looking for commentaries explaining the focus on the donkeys
in the narrative of Yoseif and his brothers.

I realize it's probably projection but I came up with two possibilities:

The first was that many places the donkey seems to be taking somebody to their
destiny (think Avraham, Moshe, Bilaam...) which made me think that it was when
they might've been concerned that they would be unable to fulfill it.

My other thought was that they represented technological extensions of human
ability (think vekivshuha) and they would be unable to fulfill their human
capabilities and be no more than another animal

Later I heard that R' M Taragin mentioned that R' Amital elsewhere looked at the
word 'chamor' and read it as if it were 'chomer [material world]'.


Joel Rich


From: Dr. Josh Backon <backon@...>
Date: Tue, Feb 18,2020 at 05:01 AM
Subject: Mistaken Minhagim?

Joel Rich wrote (MJ 64#49):

> In a recent piece on Torah Musings R'Gil Student wrote about R' Chaim Pilaggi
> mentioning minhagim which were incorrect but the Rabbis were unable to stop
> them. Does anyone know the earliest example of such? This is an issue I wonder
> about since we often seem to say that minhagim should continue since 
> "obviously" earlier Rabbis approved them and the communities were all holy.

Massechet Sofrim 14:18) states "minhag mevatel halacha [established custom
supersedes halacha]" since every custom is based on the Torah because if it
isn't, it's a case of "to'eh b'shikul ha'da'at [faulty reasoning]".

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 214:2) states that once accepted, a minhag also
binds one's descendants. The Bnei Ha'ir can even force acceptance of a Minhag
garu'a [custom adopted on shaky grounds] (Choshen Mishpat 163:3).

Yet, if a custom were abolished one reverts back to the prior custom (Even
Ha'ezer 45:2 quoting the Rivash). However, customs once accepted are not to be
abolished or ridiculed (Orach Chaim 690:17 quoting the Beit Yosef) nor to be
changed (Yoreh Deah 39:18; Yoreh Deah 89:4).

There is such a thing as Minhag Ta'ut [custom adopted on incorrect grounds] or
Minhag Shtut [stupid custom] (See: Tosafot in Pesachim 51a; Be'Er Heitev Orach
Chaim 182 in Hilchot Birkat Ha'mazon; Be'er Heitev Orach Chaim 653 in Hilchot
Lulav; and in Orach Chaim 551:4 in Hilchot Tisha B'av). The Rambam in Hilchot
Issurei Biah also mentions this.

Josh Backon

From: Ben Katz, M.D.<BKatz@...>
Date: Tue, Feb 18,2020 at 11:01 AM
Subject: Mistaken Minhagim?

In response to Joel Rich (MJ 64#49):

This is something I think of often and have considered writing about. Clearly
the communities were very pious, but I am not sure rabbis were as "in charge" as
you make them seem or as they would lead us to believe.  Paytanim, not rabbis
(although some rabbis were paytanim) had tremendous influence on Jewish prayer
since  antiquity, despite rabbinic disapproval (mainly over issue of hafsakah, 
which is why we  recite Mesod Chachamim before beginning many piyutim, to ask
"forgiveness" for these additions to the service).
There is historical evidence that many of the expert Masoretes in the middle
ages were Karaites.

Rabbis needed communal permission to put someone in charem.

Many folk customs developed that were of questionable halachic validity
(tashlich, saying yizkor on festivals, getting drunk on Purim, gambling on

Also it seems to me rabbis often wish to have it both ways. Sometimes they argue
that one needs to keep ancient customs even if they no longer serve any purpose
(eg 2nd day yom tov outside of Israel) while other customs that they frown upon
(minhag taut = mistaken custom) they seek to abolish. This is a complex topic
and my musings here just raise some of the issues involved.


From: Ari Trachtenberg <trachten@...>
Date: Wed, Feb 5,2020 at 10:01 AM
Subject: The decapitated heifer

A number of responders (including one off-line) have noted that the rabbis have
the power to say enjoin us from satisfying positive (but not negative) Torah

I reiterate that my question concerns on what authority the rabbis have this
capability.  For example, rabbis have the authority to adjudicate competing laws
because of "lo bashamyim hi" (The Torah is not in Heaven - Deuteronimy 30:12);
they have the power to set the new year and month from "hachodesh hazeh lachem"
(This is your month - Exodus 12:2).

If we establish the authority of rabbis to annul Torah laws, then which rabbis
have this privilege?  Even the most theologically liberal rabbis of today came,
at one point, from the tradition.



From: Hyman Schaffer <hschaffer3555@...>
Date: Tue, Feb 18,2020 at 09:01 AM
Subject: The decapitated heifer/Times Change.

Several respondents (MJ 64#49) have drawn a distinction between compelling
abandonment of various  positive commandments due to posited societal realities
through the principleof shev ve'al taaseh [passivity/inaction] and the
possibility of Rabbinic cancellation  of negative commandments. The most famous
example of the latter is cancellation of the (presumably fundamental)
prohibition of committing oral Torah to writing, justified through invocation of
the verse "it is a time to act for God, they have nullified your Torah" (See
Gittin 60b).

So we see that in practice such a power exists and has been invoked to uproot a
fundamental  distinction within Torah itself. Now, it may well be that this was
not a wholesale nullification of the division, but rather could well be a
limited permission for those who require the written aid, with a preference
(strong or otherwise) for oral transmission. 

In fact, the debate over when oral Torah was in fact written (popularly ascribed
to Rebbi) or whether Rebbi only established a fixed text for memorization and
writing an actual text came hundreds of years later, is well known. The latter
accounts for many peculiarities within the Gemara itself.

The argument contra to using this principle in other settings is obvious: the
slippery slope. Who gets to decide? What are its theoretical limits ?


From: Carl Singer <carl.singer@...>
Date: Mon, Feb 17,2020 at 05:01 PM
Subject: Times Change, Circumstances Change, Halachah Changes

Yisrael Medad wrote (MJ 64#49):

> The Rambam in Hilchot Shabbat 25:6, discussing the issue of muktzah, 
> determines that "an infant born in the eighth month, [although] he is alive, 
> is considered as a stone and it is forbidden to move him" The footnote at the
> Chabad site reads:
> "Tosafot, Shabbat 135a, states that this ruling is no longer followed ...
> Furthermore, the advances in medical technology have enabled us to save the
> lives of many babies who would surely not have survived in previous 
> generations. At present, it is a mitzvah to attempt to save the lives of all 
> premature babies, even if doing so involves performing a forbidden labor on
> the Sabbath"
> So, times change, circumstances change and subsequently, the halachah changes.
> The question is: does this occur only because of scientific advances? Or can
> other factors - social, behavioral, etc. - affect the outcome?

I would posit that as our understanding changes so does our interpretation of
halachah, and thus our rulings and practices may change.

In an unrelated presentation I noted that *Biology cannot keep up with
technology*.  Essentially mankind cannot change/evolve at the pace that
technology changes. Negative examples, include:  Asbestos, thalidomide, global
warming, etc.  On the positive side we have myriad achievements:  penicillin,
airplanes, modern medicine.

In our context can we say that "halachah cannot keep up with technology?"  I
would argue emphatically, NO!

But this is by no means simple and straight forward.

What if the Rishonim lived with today's technology and understanding?  I've
tried to contrive (yes, contrive) some examples:

How would they treat electricity?  As a fire?

How would they measure the end of life?  Lack of a heartbeat or some other

Similarly, at what point would they say that life begins?

What, if we looked at halachah from this perspective, would we necessarily
reach different conclusions, or not?

Carl Singer

From: Orrin Tilevitz <tilevitzo@...>
Date: Mon, Feb 17,2020 at 06:01 PM
Subject: Times Change, Circumstances Change, Halachah Changes

In response to Yisrael Medad (MJ 69#49):

This is an old discussion, in general on this list, and many with far more
knowledge than I have weighed in. Perhaps I should follow the principle of not
"inserting my head among mountains", but it seems to me that the answer depends
on whether the halacha is actually predicated solely on a factual reason.

Science is relatively easy, particularly when the alternative involves a threat
to human life. But often, that is not at all clear: in some cases, while there
may be a nominal reason, the halacha itself may be absolute -- and whether the
reason is nominal or actual may itself be a matter of dispute. Take for example,
the Gemara's prohibition of taking medicine on shabbat (absent good cause), for
the stated reason of "lest you engage in grinding up spices" I believe it was R.
Chaim Ozer, in the late 19th century, who held this rule no longer applicable
because we in fact no longer (ordinarily) compound our own medicine; instead, we
buy it at the drugstore. But this ruling was not universally accepted. 

Similarly, there is the theory -- I can't quote you a source off-hand -- that the
requirement for married women to cover their hair in public (or perhaps only tie
it up - that's a different discussion) is because non-Jewish married women
did so, and among non-Jews the failure to do so was the mark of a loose woman
(pun acknowledged although not intended). It would follow that no such
obligation exists today because most non-Jewish women don't routinely cover
their hair (or tie it up). Needless to say, that proposition is not broadly
accepted. And, to take it the other way, some 35+ years ago I read a law review
article asserting that R. Moshe Feinstein's stance on abortions -- I forget now
which part of it -- was necessitated not by halacha but by a need for Orthodox
Jews to be no more liberal on this issue than non-Jews.

And then there's the problem of "Is what you are stating to be the reason for a
halacha actually the reason?" For example, the argument to permit women to have
aliyot hinges on whether "kavod hatzibur" means what the proponents think it
means. This is the issue with many of the Conservative movement's innovations.

A final example is something discussed on this list within the last year,
whether all the mourners say kaddish together, or only one mourner says it. The
latter was the original practice, and circumstances -- history, perhaps greater
literacy, more congregational assertiveness -- have caused most communities to
adopt the former.

So, briefly: yes it can, but not often, and when it happens it can be controversial.

From: William Gewirtz <wgewirtz@...>
Date: Mon, Feb 17,2020 at 08:01 PM
Subject: Times Change, Circumstances Change, Halachah Changes

In response to Yisrael Medad (MJ 69#49):

While advances in scientific knowledge are generally accepted factors for
changes in practice even if one postulates the rigidity of halakhic principles,
they are not unique.  

Three concrete examples:  

1) The Shabbat Goy, Prof. Katz in his book of that name describes the numerous
modifications in the laws of amirah leakum resulting from societal and business

2) The laws given in avodah zarah concerning commerce were differently applied
when the Jews of Northern Europe were an insignificant minority living in a
Christian society. 

3) The history of sitting in a sukkah on Shemini Atzeret went from 

a) *not sitting* during the period of kiddush al pi re'iah [sanctification of a
new moon by observation] to 

b) *sitting* in the times of Rav Yehudai Gaon to better enforce the practice of
yom tov sheni to 

c) varying degrees of *not sitting* as Jews migrated to Northern climates to

d) further occasions of *not sitting* given the Hasidic celebrations that
accompanied the night after Hoshanah Rabah, all while halakhists (from
Rambam to Rosh to Tur to SA) maintained a strict need to eat in the sukkah.

From: Joel Rich <JRich@...>
Date: Tue, Feb 18,2020 at 02:01 AM
Subject: Times Change, Circumstances Change, Halachah Changes

In response to Yisrael Medad (MJ 69#49):

It is a huge question.  Even in the case of a eight-month term baby, IMHO, the
resulting Halacha was forced because no one would accept letting a baby die yet,
in other cases without such obvious negative results, we often do not change the
Halacha because of scientific advances (e.g. killing lice on Shabbat, taking
medicine on Shabbat).  

In general change is slow and resisted, IMHO, due to our lack of a universally
accepted Halachic decision-making authority. Thus psychological changes (a
borrower back in those days wouldn't have the nerve to deny that he had borrowed
money) will take a long time to be reflected, if at all.   In general, IMHO, the
less obvious it is that we are changing Halacha, and the less it seems there is
outside pressure, the quicker the change will come - but there's a lot more to
be said on this matter :-)

Joel Rich

From: Ben Katz, M.D.<BKatz@...>
Date: Tue, Feb 18,2020 at 11:01 AM
Subject: Times Change, Circumstances Change, Halachah Changes

In response to Yisrael Medad's question (MJ 69#49):

The answer is yes and no, depending on one's hashkafah (outlook). There are
those who don't change anything even if it is based on wrong science.  There are
still those who try to argue that the sun revolves around the Earth,  believe it
or not.  Others have argued, for example, that since the status of women (just
like the status of the deaf) has improved markedly since the 19th century, and
the role of women in society has become so much more accepted, a husband and
wife should be allowed, for example, to combine in a zimun.


End of Volume 64 Issue 50