Sunday, July 22, 2007

Yom Kippur Koton

YK kotn is called thus because it's only one. For the two days of regular YK are called "one day" two, I mean: too, yummu arichtah, so to make things clear, the biblically commanded fastday before RCh is called a yummu arichtah koton.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Jewish thermodynamics, fossil fuel, and geothermal and solar energy

For a couple of daf yomi weeks, we’ve read about the Jewish laws of thermodynamics. Ok, not exactly, but the Talmud faces a dilemma: every kid wants a hot lunch, but Scripture tells us not to light a fire on Shabbos. Assuming delicious cold soups had not yet been invented, what’s a balabusta to do?

<The basic problem is entropy. It’s the second law of thermodynamics. . Not as good as the first law, but we try harder. Closed systems lose heat. So, a coal or wood fire gradually burns out unless, against the shabbos laws, you keep fueling it or stoking the embers. Serving hot food for Friday night is no problem, but a hot lunch for Saturday is a challenge.

Entropy signifies the breakdown in the order of a system. Given the breakdown in my daf yomi blogging, here are notes on Chapter 2 of masechet Shabbat. Perhaps the following thoughts will coalesce into a larger commentary, or maybe you can warm up these leftovers and make something substantial. Disclosure: this was cross-posted in Quicksilver כספית.

1. Although rabbinic rules aim to prevent cooks from stoking a fire on shabbat, Rabbi Oshaya argues that such rules are not needed for hot dishes which improve as they condense. This creates a virtual definition for cholent. (bShab 37a) Turnips and meat are eligible cholent ingredients, but not figs and dates, which taste entropically worse. Some rabbis find shivelled eggs to be delicious.

2. Not all fuels are alike because some fuels, e.g. straw, do not create coals. (38b) Also, new technologies require the rabbis to formulate rules for a range of cooking ranges.

3. Solar energy cannot be used to cook eggs on the Sabbath, if it requires the heating of a derivative cooking surface, like sand or scarves (?!). (Note: Semi-hardboiled eggs may be tested by rolling, a trick I learned as a child, thank you Mom). However, it seems that a device (magnifying glass?) that concentrated the solar heat directly onto an egg would be permissible. Depending on the Jewish/Israeli demand for hard-boiled eggs on Shabbat, this may be a good opportunity for a solar energy entrepreneur. (38b-39a) Rabbinic law restricts fossil fuels yet makes a special exemption for solar energy technologies. (?)

4. Heating system entrepreneurs did come to Tiberias, where they set up hot water plumbing with the use of local hot springs. However, the sages forbade even this automated geothermal heating system because it heats up cold water in a manner analogous to manual fossil fuel methods. (39b) A similar precautionary measure (gezerah) is enacted to prohibit regular hot baths on shabbat, even with water heated previously. New geothermal technologies do not negate the overall need for investing in energy conservation on Shabbat.

5. At first, the sages forbade the use of manmade steambaths as well as bathing in the Tiberian hot springs. However, the Tiberians would not stand this injunction and kept using the springs. Therefore, the rabbis rescinded the order against use of the natural springs, but retained it against artificially heated steambaths. (bShab 40a) This incident reflects an important self-regulating principle of halakhah, which expects the rabbis not to make rulings that the people cannot abide by.

6. The talmudic analysis recognizes the net caloric difference between pouring hot water into cold and cold water into hot. (I remember that we had such problems in physics class but I forget how to solve them.) (bShab 42a) Though lacking instrumentation, the rabbis did try to measure and benchmark the points at which the target material and heat source would result in an act of cooking. (40b)

7. [For further analysis: intentionality and the principle of double effect. According to Rabbi Shimon, unless a prohibited consequence is inevitable, one could continue a permitted activity as long as the forbidden result is not intended. 41b-42a]

8. Thermodynamic properties entail variations in the capacity of materials to insulate or intensify heat. (39b) (Thankfully, this topic can be deferred for further unpolished notes on chapter three!)

Tentative hypothesis: The rabbis were aware of some basic thermodynamic properties and relationships. They differentiated between geothermal, solar and fossil fuel-based energy. They understood heat loss. However, they lacked the level of scientific knowledge and instrumentation that we have today to measure and formally conceptualize thermodynamic systems. Nevertheless, it is likely that they would have understood the greenhouse effect and global warming. Given their capacity to enact precautionary measures (gezerot), therefore, wouldn’t they have pushed for strong global warming legislation, at least* for Saturdays?

Kaspit כספית

* Joking aside, since global warming may have serious health consequences, Jewish law would not limit the necessary energy consumption restrictions to Saturdays. Perhaps the observance of Shabbat, which incidentally reduces fuel use, may inspire Jewish support and inventiveness for sound energy policy.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Amulets and health

To a modern reader of Shabbat 53b, the Rabbis are dealing with a problem of correlation: Do amulets protect the health of animals? If amulets truly correlate with health, then they may be carried on Shabbat. If there is merely a spurious correlation between amulets and health, then they do not work and carrying them is (or ought to be) a form of prohibited sabbatical work.

Lacking biochemical (etc.) knowledge of sickness, the Rabbis judged the efficacy of amulets by two critera (bShab 61): medical efficacy and expertise. First, amulets are deemed effective if they cure or prevent sickness three times (3x); Second, healers are deemed experts if their amulets cure three times (3x). Wisely, the rabbis did not assume that amulets that cured humans would necessarily work with animals.* For those of us scientifically inclined, we would not expect these criteria to adequately identify effective cures. Fortunately, Jewish law here is judging the amulets only in terms of Shabbat. So the downside to an error is rather limited (esp for a shogeg). In Quicksilver כספית, this daf inspired me to blog more about the problem of mercury in vaccines, where the stakes are higher.

* Starting with the gemara at bShab 61a-b, the Talmudic liberature applies the 3x criteria with permutations involving 3 different amulets, diseases, patients, or healers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

(De-) Constructing Space

In Shabbat 49b, we studied the opinion that the thirty-nine avot melakhot (categories of work on Shabbat) are derived from the Israelites' work in constructing the Tabernacle. Those forms of labor which they used are prohibited on Shabbat.
I was thinking the other day that this derivation could be greater understood using Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's understanding of the Sabbath as a palace in time. In his book, "The Sabbath," R. Heschel writes that our weeks are filled trying to conquer space, by which he means the tangible world. We constantly attempt to acquire space, conquer it, or transform it. However, Shabbat teaches us to hold back from becoming overly focused on space and to pay attention to the sanctity of time.
This focus on time as opposed to space help us understand why the the 39 melakhot should be derived specifically from the building of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the Torah's paradigmatic example of constructing space, albeit sacred space. Therefore, the activities involved in the construction of the Tabernacle are those that we refrain from on Shabbat. To quote a baraita on 49b, "they planted, thus you may not plant, they reaped, thus you may not reap." By refraining from these melakhot, we relax our grip and obsession with the realm of space and are able to focus on eternity within time.
This divestment from space is also expressed in the structure of each of the melakhot. All of the melakhot involve some form of transforming tangible objects, which R. Heschel refresh to as space. For example, cooking transforms food by cooking it, and plowing transforms a field into an area capable of planting. The one melakhah in which an object is not transformed is that of hotzaáh, carrying. (In fact, Tosafot on Shabbat 2a mentions that hotzaáh isinferioror melakhah" because it is the one melakhah in which an object is not transformed.) Yet, upon further inspection, carrying is also very much concerned with space, as it involves a significant transfer of an objecacrossss space.
These ideas can also help us understand why actions so minute as ripping toilet paper or writing should be considered "work" even though they do not seem so strenuous.
By refraining from our obsession about space, we are able to discover Shabbat's palace in time.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Three strategies for Jewish moral engagement

Jewish leaders continually weigh 3 strategies for confronting economic interests with Jewish moral concerns. Praise, silence, critique.

These 3 strategies were exemplified in the daf yomi at bShab 33. Rabbi Yehudah praises the Romans for developing markets, bathhouses and bridges. He is honored by the Romans. Rabbi Yose keeps a measured silence, perhaps because dissent was persecuted. He is exiled (well, maybe put under house arrest). But R. Shimon bar Yohai harshly criticizes the Romans and the immorality behind Roman economic developments. He is hunted as a rebel. Besides a rebel, Shimon b. Yohai is also a mercurial critic of business. (He may be a deep ecology prototype. Later in the Talmudic story, he and his son attack Jewish agricultural businesses, too.) He opposes not only business as a means, but apparently business per se as a distraction from Torah study.

Since posting these words elsewhere, I’ve looked at ADDeRabbi’s fine piece, who points out that the conversation is echoed at Avodah Zarah 2a-b. There, God says “Whomever occupied himself with [Torah] may come and claim their reward.” The Romans say: “Master of the Universe, we instituted many markets, we built many bathhouses, and we increased wealth, and only for Israel, so that they may busy themselves with Torah.” God’s comeback: “Most foolish ones! All that you’ve done was for your own needs: markets to place whores there, bathhouses to rejuvenate yourselves, and all gold and silver is Mine!...they immediately left dejectedly.” As ADDeRabbi explains, this A.Z. text rejects R. Yehuda’s view while R’ Shimon view matches God’s judgment. But Shimon b. Yohai is unrealistic, too idealistic, as the bShab story shows. ADDeRabbi says: R. Shimon b. Yohai “suggests that life in exile must be lived as a protest against reality, and that any culture which is not Torah culture is worthless. R’ Yehuda, on the other hand, is willing to accept reality at face value without passing judgment. Features of the prevailing culture which further the Torah’s cause can be embraced regardless of their original intent. Indeed, he sees value in actively searching for means of accommodation and rapprochement, and in generating a modus operandi for Jewish life in an alien culture as soon as possible.”

The three Rabbis might by typed both as rhetoric (e.g., praise, critique) and as religo-political responses. They fit a pattern of Accommodation (R. Yehudah) and Resistance (R. Shimon b. Yohai). Peter Berger (The Heretical Imperative) reframes these as liberal and neo-orthodox religious responses to modernity. Meanwhile, I believe R. Yose moved to an internal exile at Tzippori, where he might be understood as taking up the strategy of Retreat.

As a side note: I'm wondering how much of R. Shimon b. Yohai's critique is aimed at the Romans. Granted, they are discussing Roman productions and the Romans certainly interpret it as a rebellious critique. But maybe he is angry with the materialist/economic culture in general. Thus, when they leave the cave, his anger is direct in an undifferentiated way, i.e. also at fellow Jews. So, though we like to see him as rebellious to Rome, perhaps he (or the gemara) intended his response as a broader critique to commercial culture?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The King/Queen is Here

Toward the end of Bameh Madlikin, we read about the blowing of the shofar to alert the populace that Shabbat is arriving. In addition to functioning as an alert to cease work and prepare for Shabbat, I think we can understand it in another way. As many believe, we are better able to feel God's presence on Shabbat. The shofar blasts on Shabbat can similarly be seen in this light. One understanding of the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah is that they are used to signal God's coronation. The shofar blasts signal that the King/Queen is being crowned. In a similar vein, the shofar can also serve as an announcement that the King/Queen is approaching. Thus, the pre-Shabbat blasts can also serve as a call to everyone who hears that God's presence is arriving with the comming of Shabbat.
This reading would explain why these blasts are mentioned in the Mishnah in Sukkah (chapter 4 if I remember correctly) along with the other shofar sounds that were blown in the temple, even though the pre-Shabbat blasts appear at first glance to have no ritual function. But, in reality, these blasts are not just in order to prevent people from working but also to alert them to God immanent arrival for the Shabbat.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Menorah: The House as Temple

In studying the sugeyot in Shabbat dealing with the Hanukkah menorah, I have discovered two important motifs. The first is that of the home. On 21b, the basic mitzvah is one candle for each house. In fact, the second level of the mitzvah is a candle for each member of the household, even though it includes children who are not obligated in the mitzvah. Like few other mitzvot, the ner Hanukah must be lit in close proximity to one's home. In fact, at the bottom of 23a, a person who has two entranceways to his/her home is urged to light two candles since we are afraid that passers by might think that he/she hasn't lit the ner Hanukah near his/her home. Even more striking is the passage on 23a. R. Zeira says that when he was staying as a guest before he got married, he would chip in with his host for the ner Hanukah. The most likely explanation is that he had to chip in to be considered a member of the household. But once he got married, he did not have to chip in when he was by himself as a guest, since he could fulfill his commandment through his wife's lighting back at his home. This strongly suggests that the mitzvah of Hanukah is intimately connected with the home.
We also find the motif of the temple. At the bottom of 21a, the comparison between the ner tamid and Shabbat light is the jumping off point for the Talmud's discussion of the ner Hanukah. We also find the temple motif discussed on 21b. There, the main arguments of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai about how many lights to light for each night revolve around the temple service. Beit Shammai's argument compares the Menorah to the decreasing bull offerings during the festival of Sukkot. Beit Hillel's argument is that we should always increase matters of sanctity rather than decrease them.
In the discussion as to whether one may light a ner Hanukah from the next, the most prominent argument of the sugeya is brought from the western light of the Menorah. Even though only part of the beraita is necessary to state the intended argument, the Stam still quotes the entire text, most significantly the statement that the western light was proof that the Shekhinah dwells amidst the people of Israel.
Finally, the Menorah and the ner Hanukah posses the same midrashic link to the Torah. Just as the temple menorah is midrashically linked to Torah study, we find on 23b that one who is careful in lighting the Hanukah lights will have sons/[daughters] who are Torah scholars.
I think we can combine these motifs. Although the ner Hanukah is supposed to remind us of the miracle, it is also intended to make our homes parellel the Kodesh, in which the Menorah burned. Even though we no longer have the temple and the Menorah, we can still turn our homes into a mikdash meát, a miniature temple, and light our own Menorah.