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How the Secular Date of Dec. 5 Made Its Way into the Jewish Calendar

December 4, 2012 1 comment

Ancient Hebrew CalendarDecember 5 may be the most arcane date of importance in the Jewish calendar. It’s when we start saying the winter prayer for rain.

Right off the bat, a question presents itself: Why do we use a secular date to delineate this Jewish custom, when all of the others are based on the Jewish calendar? And secondly, what’s the magic behind December 5? The answers take us on a fascinating journey through Jewish text, nature, astronomy, history, infrastructure, and politics.

There are in fact two times we add a mention of rain to our service. The first, more familiar now, is the short insertion in the Amida prayer about God’s power: mashiv ha-ru’ach umorid ha-gashem. God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. The second is an addition to the prayer petitioning God for bountiful produce: ten tal umatar livracha. Grant us the blessing of dew and rain.

The 1800-year-old Mishnah — the initial compilation of Jewish law and practice — discusses both of these in the chapter called Ta’anit (“fasting”), starting with the first one.

There was general agreement that the insertion should commence during the rainy season, roughly Sukkot. The Mishnah records a disagreement about the details. Rabbi Eliezer considered the first day of Sukkot a good time to start praying for rain, but Rabbi Yehoshua countered that no one wants rain on Sukkot, so it would be better to wait until the end of the holiday.

But Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, when it was common to ascend to Jerusalem by foot. If we start praying for rain right after Sukkot, it might rain on those who are walking home.

So regarding the second insertion, Rabbi Gamaliel says that we should wait until 15 days after Sukkot to start praying for rain, that half-month being a reasonable amount of time to walk back to the farthest extent of the Land of Israel.

The Talmud — the great codification of Jewish law and practice that contains the Mishnah and meandering commentary on it — expands on the Mishnah and explains that in Babylonia they didn’t start saying the prayer for rain until 60 days into the rainy season of fall.

Jewish geography is exceedingly simple. There are essentially only three places: Jerusalem, the rest of Israel, and the rest of the world. Therefore, we in New York live in the same place (“the rest of the world”) as the Babylonians, so we follow their custom. We start saying the prayer for rain 60 days after the equinox.

The equinox is either September 22 or September 23.

But the careful reader may notice that 60 days after September 22 or 23 is November 21 or 22, not December 5. So we keep digging.

Shmuel, in the Talmud section known as Eruvin, calculates the four seasons as each lasting 91 days and 7.5 hours, and assigns September 23 as the start of fall. Because his became the official Jewish secular calendar, the Jewish equinox is always September 23. But we still wonder why we don’t start praying for rain on November 22.

Shmuel’s year of four seasons lasted 364 days and 30 hours, or 365.25 days. The solar year, though, is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter. Because of this discrepancy, the Jewish equinox has slowly moved forward compared to the solar equinox, at the rate of approximately one day every 128 years.

The Catholic Church (by coincidence) also used Shmuel’s calendar, but unlike in Judaism, most of the Christian holidays are based on the solar date. By 1582, the official and solar calendars were 10 days out of sync, one result of which was that the springtime holiday of Easter was marching forward into summer.

So Pope Gregory fixed the calendar by doing two things. He dropped 10 days in October (the day after October 4 was October 15 that year), and, moving forward, he dropped 3 leap years every 400 years: years that are divisible by 100 would no longer be leap years unless they were also divisible by 400. (That’s why 2000 was a leap year even though 1900 wasn’t, and 2100 won’t be.)

In America and elsewhere in the world we use the Gregorian calendar.

The Jews, though, didn’t give a damn about Pope Gregory. So in 1582, the Jewish equinox moved ahead 10 days to October 3, the Gregorian equivalent of the Shmuelian September 23. Since then, 1700, 1800, and 1900 have been Shmuelian leap years but not Gregorian leap years. So now the Shmuelian equinox is the Gregorian October 6.

Sixty days after October 6 is December 5. And there you have it.

But don’t get too used to that date. In the year 2100 (a Shmuelian leap year) the day moves ahead to December 6.

[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple December 2012 bulletin.]

What Did You Used to Believe?

November 19, 2012 1 comment

"so they will not understand each other"Some years ago, a college student asked me, “what did you used to believe?”

I didn’t understand the question until she clarified, “what did you believe when you were my age that you don’t believe any more?”

It remains one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked.

Lots of things came to mind, but I chose what I thought — and continue to think — is the most important one: I used to think that most people were more or less like me.

I know that that borders on hubris and egotism, but there it is. I used to think that all it took to understand someone halfway around the world was to reflect on my own upper-middle class life in New York.

Obviously, there were differences: financial, cultural, religious, and more. Some people owned private jets and others couldn’t afford dinner. Some children grew up with families in homes and others on the street. Some religious leaders worshiped one god and others worshiped many or none at all. Some languages and cultures demanded formality while others all but precluded it. And so forth.

But I thought that when it came to what really mattered, most people were certainly like me. And — the other side of the same coin — I thought that I could figure out the differences without leaving my home.

I was the modern anthropological equivalent of the 19th-century armchair scientist.

Having now met some of the people I thought were just like me, I believe that I vastly underestimated the range of human diversity. Even my neighbors sometimes exhibit surprising variation. It was folly to think that I understood the people living in war-torn Sudanese refugee camps, imperial Japanese courts, child militias, Tibetan monasteries, remote arctic settlements, etc. — all without ever meeting them or talking with them.

All of this is on my mind as I watch violence flare in the Holy Land.

I learned long ago that even when people disagree — perhaps especially when people disagree — it’s important to ask, “what does the other side believe?”

I fear that in the present case, we have spent too much energy following the ethnocentric path that assumes that “they” are just like “us,” and put not enough resources into really understanding what the other side believes.

It may not help. To pick the obvious and trite example, understanding Hitler would not (I hope!) have made anyone less inclined to defeat him.

But we won’t know until we try.

Reflections on Hurricane Sandy

November 5, 2012 5 comments

The Aftermath of Hurricane "Frankenstorm" Sandy

The Aftermath of Hurricane “Frankenstorm” Sandy

The wind howling. The power and phones out. The trees arching precariously, some throwing their branches against my house, others crashing to the ground. The sun setting low behind dark, overcast skies.

Astonishingly, that was the calm before the storm, though I didn’t know it at the time.

As night fell, the winds really picked up, roaring louder than any bit of nature I’ve ever heard, save perhaps thunder. A local radio station — my only link to anything beyond the walls around me — reported gusts of over 100 miles per hour: the very air I breathe was racing faster than I’ve ever driven.

The ferocious “calm” before the storm:


Living essentially in the forest, I’ve spent many dark nights unable to communicate with the outside world. I’m prepared for power outages.

But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I wasn’t actually afraid for my own safety (though perhaps I should have been), but my pulse was racing and my heart pounding nonetheless. But for the cacophony outside, I’m sure I would actually have heard it.

In retrospect, I was reliving part of my past.

I re-experienced what my ancestors knew: Nature is awesome, not only in the modern “isn’t it amazing” and “I must take a picture” sense, but more along the lines of the transcendent “my greatest accomplishments pale in comparison,” and “I am both terrified of this and irresistibly drawn to see it.”

All in all, I was lucky. Dozens of people died, but I wasn’t harmed. A tree fell on my neighbor’s house, but mine is fine. (Other neighbors saw a tree fall on their backyard trampoline, voicing the opinion that it should have bounced.) Some not-too-distant communities were swept away, but I was unaffected by flooding.

Sandy left me with no water, heat, phones, electricity, cell reception, or Internet service, putting me in the category of the lucky ones.

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Truth, Lies, and Sins

September 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Truth, Lies, and SinI’ve been thinking a lot about truth lately.

For one thing, it’s been in the national news, for instance when Neil Newhouse, a senior advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told ABC news that, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” That sounds a lot like a dismissal of the truth. Could that be because lying isn’t illegal?

I suspect that it would be a career-ender, or worse, for a campaigner to suggest that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by judges,” or in any other way to suggest that following the law wasn’t supremely important. But, apparently, it’s okay to dismiss the truth.

This callousness about the truth — and the widespread willingness to accept compromises on the truth — is especially surprising in a culture marked by such catchphrases as “truth, justice, and the American way” (originally from Superman) and “the truth shall set you free” (from the New Testament book of John), and whose founding father is lauded because he could not tell a lie.

Truth has a distinguished history: Aristotle loved both Plato and truth, but demands the truth be put first (amfoin gar ontoin filoin osion protiman tin alitheian — “Nicomachaen Ethics” i.6.1), Cato promotes speaking truth even though it’s hard (vera libens dicas, quamquam sint aspera dictu — “Dicta Catonis”), and Cicero claims that seeking the truth is particularly human (hominis est propria veri inquisitio — “De Officiis” i.4.13). Confucius, too, is in favor of truth, arguing that those who hear the truth in the morning can die without regret in the evening (Analects vi.18). So why have we changed our attitude?

Again, is the problem that lying is legal?

I bring up legality because for some time I’ve been interested in the interplay between the law and ethics, and, in particular, the lack of a codified morality in America and other Western nations. People are allowed, even encouraged, to do anything legal, while it’s often okay to do something illegal if you don’t mind the penalty. (For example, I’m told that UPS truck drivers in New York City are told to park wherever they want, because the fines cost less than late deliveries.) Most modern Western citizens are so used to this mentality that they find it hard to imagine things being any other way.

But there are other approaches.



TEDx: Bible Translation and the Next Generation

The Ten Commandments are interesting in that they single out some laws as having moral content. Their point is that killing, for example, is a matter of both legality and morality. (I have more in this TEDx presentation.)

And all of this brings up an essay I wrote for We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, which was just released last week. Central themes of that book include the nature of sin, its role in our lives, and the modern relevance of some ancient prayers that list our sins — both those we have committed and numerous ones we haven’t.

My focus there (in addition to serving as chief translator) is what we learn from being bombarded by sins:

The first [thing we learn from the Al Chet prayer about sins] is that some things are wrong. This basic Jewish tenet, so obvious to those who already know it, is neither intuitive nor universal. There are young children who take what they want only because they want it, never asking the deeper, Jewish question of Al Chet: “Is it right to do this?” For them, the world is divided not into right and wrong but, rather, simply into “what I want” and “what I don’t want.”

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

Once we accept that some things are wrong, we have to examine our behavior, even our legal behavior, more closely:

Most of us, after all, aren’t murderers. Our lives are more subtle. Deception is an accepted part of negotiation, but is there a point at which we might go too far? Can I lie to the police to avoid getting a traffic ticket? Violence is part of a successful defense of peace. Is it justified? Doling out punishment to children helps them navigate the world as adults. How strict should I be? Misleading the ones we love can be an invaluable gift. What do I tell the people I love? Again and again, we wonder: have we done the right thing?

My general point is that taking time to focus seriously on sin is more important now than ever, if for no other reason than we have to remember that some things — like lying, I suspect — are legal but still wrong.

For that matter, Thoreau wrote that “it takes two to speak the truth — one to speak, and another to hear.” Are we who put up with untruths as guilty as those who speak them?

What do you think? Is lying to get elected okay? Is deception as part of negotiation? Where do you draw the line? And how do you know?

Remembering Katrina — A Poem of Political Failure

August 28, 2012 2 comments

Horses From Arabia Were Farmer Bush’s Mania.


Now Old Man Bush, he had a farm;
its purpose was to keep from harm
The animals of every kind
that lived around, in front, behind,
And all throughout that special place.
They trusted him to keep them safe.
But Katie came along one day
and made the creatures go away.

This Farmer Bush was known to say, “I run my farm in my own way.
If you don’t like the things I do then let me just say this to you:
You’re not the one they voted for, these animals that I adore.
No, I’m the one they asked to be the leader of the Farm, you see.

“And from the many things I’ve done it should be clear to everyone
Amid the sadness and the strife that I’m the one who values life.
So each and every animal, from horse to cat to pig to bull
Is just as precious, just as dear, to me as every other here.”

But horses from Arabia were Farmer Bush’s mania.
He loved them more than all the rest in part because they were the best,
And also for the help that they all gave him on election day.
Snow-white and strong and proud and slim, the horses had been taught to swim.

The bunny rabbits and the hares were not like snow and were not fair,
But black like cats and proud of it. Old Farmer Bush had not one bit
Of love for them or how they lived and they were not big fans of his.
Their chances to escape were grim ’cause they had not been taught to swim.

When little Suzie heard all that, she thought about the creatures that
Had drowned to death amid the rains while Farmer Bush was playing games.
(‘Cause Farmer Bush, or so they’d said, was on vacation when the dead
First floated up from way down deep.) The pictures of them made her weep.

Some would live and some would die and little Suzie wondered why.
She asked around and quickly learned the poorer creatures had been spurned.
The horses had been given much that helped them to survive and such,
Unlike the bunnies who’d remain at risk of drowning in the rain.

Little Suzie wondered why this Farmer Bush had let them die.
She asked him once and asked him twice, but Farmer Bush said “That’s not nice.
There’s a gov’ner. There’s a mayor. And this is why it is not fair
For you to say that I’m to blame. I treat the creatures all the same.

“And I believe in God above who teaches me I have to love!
I prayed to Him to tell me why those lovely creatures had to die.
But who am I to second guess why God Himself has made this mess?
For I am just a mortal man and God above has got a plan.”

But horsies lived and bunnies died and little Suzie knew just why.
And Suzie knew the simple fact that blamming God was just an act.
She learned of hate and apathy. She cried because she learned to see:
It wasn’t God who let them down. Farmer Bush just let them drown.

For Old Man Bush, he had a farm;
its purpose was to keep from harm
The animals of every kind
that lived around, in front, behind,
And all throughout that special place;
they trusted him to keep them safe.
But Katie came along one day
and made the creatures go away.

Devout or Deranged?

August 9, 2012 2 comments

Men OnlyThe AP recently reported that some ultra-Orthodox men, “in an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle,” are now buying sight-blurring eye-glasses in order to avoid seeing women (“Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men offered blurry glasses look to keep Israeli women out of sight“).

Is this really “devout”? Or is it deranged?

I want to be clear: I support freedom of religion. And as fanaticism goes, blurry eye-glasses seem pretty benign, especially in the context of the increasingly common connection between religious zealotry and explosives. But why do we call this behavior “devout”?

"Fanaticism comes in many varieties, and either it's all devout or none of it is."If the Oxford English Dictionary is to be trusted, “devout” is anything that has to do with devotion to the divine. But for me, and, I suspect, most other English speakers, “devout” implies that in addition to being religious, the behavior is (1) unusual, (2) authentic, and (3) desirable.

The first quality is why the AP (again, following common usage) applies “devout” to the ultra-Orthodox, but not, say, to me in my role of Religious-School director, or to my father is his role of rabbi. Both of us look like most other Americans, while the ultra-Orthodox attire is unusual. Similarly, giving charity and helping the downtrodden is a way many people express devotion to God, but precisely because so many people do them, those practices seldom earn the adjective “devout.”

It’s the second and third qualities that concern me. Both the ultra-Orthodox men (when they oppress women) and the Taliban (when they blow up infidels) are doing what they think is God’s will. When we call the first group “devout” and the second “fanatical,” we are tacitly giving approval to what the ultra-Orthodox do. It’s as though we’re making the case that misogyny is like kindness: laudable, even if we aren’t all always up to the task.

I think that a different division is called for. We should be clear that the blurry glasses are part of a cult of fanaticism, along with segregated buses and other modern inventions of a group of people calling themselves the guardians of tradition. The Taliban are likewise fanatics. And I suppose there are those for whom my own religious practice of lighting plain white candles Friday evening before it’s even dark could come under the category of fanatical. Fanaticism comes in many varieties, and either it’s all devout or none of it is.

It seems to me that the important distinction here is between benign and destructive. When I light Sabbath candles, I’m not hurting myself or anyone else. The same cannot be said for segregated buses or suicide bombers.

I’m not entirely sure where the blurry glasses fall, but either way, I think the AP does everyone a disservice when it excuses some otherwise detestable behavior by calling it “devout.”

Two Monologues And No Dialogue: How (Not) To Talk About Religion and Social Issues

July 23, 2012 3 comments

FightingThe past few days have highlighted for me once again the degree to which our religious nation is divided.

http://twitter.com/RickWarren/status/226378218456899584The first example comes from the hugely popular megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his recent reaction when a man slaughtered moviegoers in Aurora, CO. Pastor Warren blamed the violence on those who teach evolution. “When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it,” he wrote on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. (He has since deleted his tweet, but not before on-line media such as The Examiner wrote about it.)

The second example comes from The Gospel Coalition’s collection of blogs, which featured a post by author and pastor Jared Wilson. In it, Pastor Wilson explains that God’s natural order of things is for men to dominate women, and that rape results from men and women who try to fight that God-ordained hierarchy. (Like Pastor Warren, Pastor Wilson removed the blog post, under protest. Excerpts and an analysis can be found here: “Complementarians and Martial [sic] Sex: The Jared Wilson / Gospel Coalition Saga.”)

The Bible doesn't take a clear stance on evolution, why people commit violence, or what marriage looks like.The same Gospel Coalition is promoting an anti-homosexual marriage blog post: Gay Is Not the New Black, written by Pastor Voddie Baucham.

Most of the reactions to these kinds of claims come in one of two varieties: (1) How could anyone possibly agree? or (2) how could anyone possibly disagree?

The naysayers cite their evidence: Pastor Warren has misunderstood the allegorical nature of Genesis, and misunderstood the natural world in that animals don’t tend to slaughter their own kind. Pastor Wilson has ignored passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 that put men and women on a par in the marriage bed. Pastor Baucham has taken 1 Corinthians 6 out of context while ignoring other relevant passages of Scripture. And so forth.

Then the claimants respond with their own evidence: Morality comes from religion, Colossians 3:18 subordinates women to men, and Leviticus forbids homosexuality.

As a Bible scholar, it’s abundantly obvious to me that both sides find ample support in Scripture. The Bible doesn’t take a clear stance on evolution, why people commit violence, or what marriage looks like — not beyond what we all agree on, at least.

But I don’t think that these are debates about evidence, science, or religion. In fact, I don’t think they are debates at all. They are, rather, collections of diatribes — monologues, as it were, instead of dialogues. And that’s because we tend to focus on our self-selected evidence instead of our motivations.

For example, if Pastors Warren, Wilson, and Baucham discovered that they were wrong about the intent of the Bible (as I believe they often are), would they change their minds? If a new manuscript surfaced, or a better understanding of the text presented itself, would they care? My suspicion is they would not.

Like slavery in its day and usury before that, these issues don’t start with the Bible. They start with how we feel.

So if we’re going to have a real conversation, I think it has to be about our motives, not the texts we choose to support them.

An Open Letter to CNN’s Piers Morgan

May 23, 2012 40 comments

[Update: An expanded version of this letter, with additional information about how I read the Bible regarding homosexuality, is available on the Huffington Post. (June 5, 2012)]

Dear Mr. Morgan:

I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.

Is Homosexuality a Sin?During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn’t ask him where the Bible says that.

It’s both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn’t provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that homosexuality is a sin.

It seems to me that Pastor Osteen, as a religious leader, has a right to believe what he wants and to encourage others to follow. So if he doesn’t accept homosexuality, it’s his prerogative to spread his anti-homosexuality message. But I think it’s dishonest when he pretends that his opinions are those of the Bible.

Similarly, if you don’t like homosexuality, it’s your right to say so on air. But I think it’s irresponsible of you to let a guest tell your audience that something is in the Bible without even asking where.

This glaring omission is all the more surprising in light of your claim to be “challenging.” Why didn’t you challenge Pastor Osteen on this basic factual issue?

I look forward to your response.


Sincerely,

Joel M. Hoffman, PhD

+1.718.834.1080
Joel@Lashon.net
http://www.Lashon.net

Copies: Meghan McPartland, meghan.mcpartland@turner.com
  Jonathan Wald, jonathan.wald@turner.com
Categories: Bible, current events

Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, and the Bible

January 11, 2012 21 comments

About a year ago I chastized Pastor Joel Osteen and others for what I called “hiding behind Scripture.” In particular, Pastor Osteen had just told CNN’s Piers Morgan that he was locked into his anti-homosexual position by the Bible. He is not, and, I believe, he knows it.

Pastor Osteen just confirmed to Oprah Winfrey that he believes that “homosexuality is shown as a sin in the Scripture,” noting that he encourages people to be “willing to change and grow.”

On the other hand, when Piers Morgan asked him in October whether he supports the Biblical position of a life for a life, Pastor Osteen admitted (in this video): “I don’t know,” because the death penalty is a “complicated issue.”

In other words, Pastor Osteen doesn’t feel compelled to support everything in Scripture. He openly ignores Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Dueteronomy 19:21. He reserves the right — as we all do — to pick and choose.

This is why I don’t think there’s any merit or integrity to his argument that he is forced to condemn homosexuality because Scripture calls it a sin.

As it happens, I don’t believe that Scripture says that, but I do support Pastor Osteen’s right to interpret Scripture as he chooses.

What I don’t support is the way he presents his opinions as unbiased fact.

As far as I’m concerned, until Pastor Osteen takes responsibility for his own words, he’s no better than any other coward who hides from the people he attacks.

Fixing Half the Problem

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s easy to fix half a problem if you don’t mind making the other half worse.

Like two groups of sailors --- each trying to save half the boat by shifting the water to the other side --- our leaders seem  focused on solving half the problem even if they make the other half worse.And I think this is what we see with President Obama’s plan to help home owners refinance at a lower interest rate.

At first glance, it seems like a good idea, because home owners will save money thanks to lower mortgage payments. But that’s only half the story.

The other half is that people who have invested in real estate will earn less.

For example, on each $100,000 of mortgage loans, an interest-rate drop from 6% to 4% saves a home owner almost $1,500 per year. If, let’s say, one million people shave two percentage points off an average of $250,000 in mortgages, then one million people will save on average upwards of $36,000 each over the next ten years.

But by exactly the same token, investors in real estate — banks, but also pension funds and the like — will collectively lose more than $36 billion over the text ten years.

Just by way of example, one adverse reaction will be to the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, which has some $1.34 billion invested in real estate. If the return on that $1.34 billion drops from from 6% to 4%, the fund will earn $27 million a year less, for a total loss of $270 million over ten years.

In short, there’s no free lunch here. When some people save money, other people earn less from their investments.

Like a ship taking on water, America is sinking from debt. And like two groups of sailors — each trying to save half the boat by shifting the water to the other side — our leaders seem focused on solving half the problem even if they make the other half worse.

Categories: current events