Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Talmud on Charity

[Jewish charity box]

In this post I would like to simply quote from a section of the Talmud which I recently learned as part of the Daf Yomi program. Does any other ancient book contains such noble concepts?

(Bear in mind that these comments were made at a time and place when the primary form of entertainment was brutal gladiatorial combat.)

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: The critic [of Judaism] may bring against you the argument, 'If your God loves the poor, why does he not support them?' If so, answer him, 'So that through them we may be saved from the punishment of Gehinnom [hell].' This question was actually put by Turnus Rufus to R. Akiba: 'If your God loves the poor, why does He not support them?' He replied, 'So that we may be saved through them from the punishment of Gehinnom.' 'On the contrary,' said the other, 'it is this which condemns you to Gehinnom. I will illustrate by a parable. Suppose an earthly king was angry with his servant and put him in prison and ordered that he should be given no food or drink, and a man went and gave him food and drink. If the king heard, would he not be angry with him? And you are called "servants", as it is written, 'For unto me the children of Israel are servants.' (Leviticus 25:55) R. Akiba answered him: 'I will illustrate by another parable. Suppose an earthly king was angry with his son, and put him in prison and ordered that no food or drink should be given to him, and someone went and gave him food and drink. If the king heard of it, would he not send him a present? And we are called "sons", as it is written, 'Sons are ye to the Lord your God.' (Deut. 14:1) He said to him: 'You are called both sons and servants. When you carry out the desires of the Omnipresent you are called "sons", and when you do not carry out the desires of the Omnipresent, you are called "servants". At the present time you are not carrying out the desires of the Omnipresent. R. Akiba replied: 'The Scripture says, Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house. (Isaiah 58:7) When "dost thou bring the poor who are cast out to thy house"? Now; and it says [at the same time], Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry?' [This demonstrates that even during the time of exile and atonement for sin, Jews must give charity.]

R. Judah son of R. Shalom preached as follows: In the same way as a man's earnings are determined for him from New Year, so his losses are determined for him from New Year. If he finds merit [in the sight of Heaven], then, 'deal out thy bread to the poor'; but if not, then, he will 'bring the poor that are outcast to his house.' A case in point is that of the nephews of Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai. He saw in a dream that they were to lose seven hundred dinars in that year. He accordingly forced them to give him money for charity until only seventeen dinars were left [of the seven hundred]. On the eve of the Day of Atonement the Government sent and seized them. R. Johanan b. Zakkai said to them, 'Do not fear [that you will lose any more]; you had seventeen dinars and these they have taken.' They said to him, 'How did you know that this was going to happen?' He replied, 'I saw it in a dream.' 'Then why did you not tell us?' they asked. 'Because,' he said, 'I wanted you to perform the religious precept [of giving charity] quite disinterestedly.'

As R. Papa was climbing a ladder, his foot slipped and he narrowly escaped falling. Had that happened, he said, mine enemy had been punished like Sabbath breakers and idolaters. Hiyya b. Rab from Difti said to him: Perhaps a beggar appealed to you and you did not assist him; for so it has been taught: R. Joshua b. Korhah says, Whoever turns away his eyes from [one who appeals for] charity is considered as if he were serving idols. It is written In one place, Beware that there be not a base thought in thine heart (Deut. 15:9), and in another place, Certain base fellows are gone out. (Deut.13:14) Just as in the second case the sin is that of idolatry, so in the first case the sin is equivalent to that of idolatry.

It has been taught: R. Eliezer son of R. Jose said: All the charity and deeds of kindness which Israel perform in this world [help to promote] peace and good understanding between them and their Father in heaven, as it says, Thus saith the Lord, Enter not into the house of mourning, neither go to lament, neither bemoan them, for I have taken away my peace from this people … even lovingkindness and tender mercies (Jeremiah 16:5), [where] 'lovingkindness' refers to acts of kindness, and 'tender mercies' to charity.

It has been taught: R. Judah says: Great is charity, in that it brings the redemption nearer, as it says, Thus saith the Lord, Keep ye judgment and do righteousness [zedakah], for my salvation is near to come and my righteousness to be revealed. (Isaiah 56:1) He also used to say: Ten strong things have been created in the world. The rock is hard, but the iron cleaves it. The iron is hard, but the fire softens it. The fire is hard, but the water quenches it. The water is strong, but the clouds bear it. The clouds are strong, but the wind scatters them. The wind is strong, but the body bears it. The body is strong, but fright crushes it. Fright is strong, but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, and charity saves from death, as it is written, Righteousness [zedakah] delivereth from death. (Proverbs 10:2)

R. Dosthai son of R. Jannai preached [as follows]: Observe that the ways of God are not like the ways of flesh and blood. How does flesh and blood act? If a man brings a present to a king, it may be accepted or it may not be accepted; and even if it is accepted, it is still doubtful whether he will be admitted to the presence of the king or not. Not so God. If a man gives but a farthing to a beggar, he is deemed worthy to receive the Divine Presence, as It is written, I shall behold thy face in righteousness [zedakah], I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness. R. Eleazar used to give a coin to a poor man and straightway say a prayer, because, he said, it is written, I in righteousness shall behold thy face. (Psalms 17:15)

R Johanan said: What is the meaning of the verse, He that hath pity on the poor lendeth unto the Lord. (Proverbs 19:17) Were it not written in the Scripture, one would not dare to say it: as it were, the borrower is a servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7)

R. Hiyya b. Abin said: R. Johanan pointed out that it is written, Riches profit not in the day of wrath, but righteousness [zedakah] delivereth from death,(Proverbs 11:4) and it is also written, Treasures of wickedness profit nothing, but righteousness [zedakah] delivereth from death. (Proverbs 10:2) Why this double mention of righteousness? — One that delivers him from an unnatural death and one that delivers him from the punishment of Gehinnom. Which is the one that delivers him from the punishment of Gehinnom? The one in connection with which the word 'wrath' is used, as it is written, A day of wrath is that day. (Zephaniah 1:15) What kind of charity is that which delivers a man from an unnatural death? When a man gives without knowing to whom he gives and the beggar receives without knowing from whom he receives. How is a man then to do this? — He should put his money into the charity box.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Miracle of Vision

[more precious than any diamond]

The Talmud Berakoth 60b states “When he [a Jew] opens his eyes he should say: 'Blessed is He who opens the eyes of the blind'.”

Each morning we must thank God for the miracle of vision. How much are our lives enriched by the ability to see? Imagine for a moment that you were totally blind. How much would you be willing to pay to have your sight restored? I think most of us would give everything we possess.

Each eye weighs about 7.5 grams and contains over 120 million special photoreceptor nerve cells. The optic nerve then transmits visual information to the brain, through a process not yet understood.

If the eyes are destroyed, there is currently no way to replace them artificially. Scientists are just beginning to move toward the creation of a bionic eye.

We should sing with joy for every moment of vision. This should also remind us to use our eyes in a way which God would approve.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A New Book

The Art of Kavana is a new book which is primarily devoted to helping us improve our enthusiasm during prayer. Prayer is a major part of the life of every Orthodox Jew, however too often it is treated as a tedious obligation rather than as the great opportunity which it is. This book includes extensive practical exercises to help improve our kavana.

The book does include several references to Eastern religions and I think it will be most appreciated by people with some secular background.

Rabbi Seinfeld is already the author of The Art of Amazement. I suspect that in the future we will see more interesting books from him.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Transforming Moment

[Samson my hero]

Last week I had the privilege of helping my seven year old son with his homework. He is studying the Bible, specifically the book of Genesis, and the Orthodox Jewish prayer book.

It struck me how remarkable it is that Samson is learning from the earliest age that he has a Creator. The world was made by an intelligent being for a meaningful purpose. Furthermore we can turn to our Creator in prayer. We can have a relationship with Him.

These concepts are essential to our mental health. The Twelve Step programs are based on these ideas. Belief in God and prayer are perhaps the most important positive methods to cope with stress.

I recently read a book: Tweak by Nic Sheff. The book is the most fascinating and informative memoir of addiction I have ever read. I’ve read the book about five times. At the end of the book Mr. Sheff is clean and sober, however he remains an atheist, which is how his father raised him. This made me very suspicious about how long his recovery would last. Unfortunately, my suspicions were correct.

I wish Nic all the best. He’s a brilliant, sensitive young man. I hope that he soon finds the beautiful, life giving concepts which my little boy is thank God learning now.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Margaret Mead – Science Hijacked by Sex?

[the first edition]

Margaret Mead was perhaps one of the most famous anthropologists in history. She is primarily well known for her book Coming of Age in Samoa. The book was published in 1928, at a time when Americans were still very traditional for the most part. The percentage of children born to single women in 1940 was around 4%; in 1928 it was probably even lower. In the United States, single women in 1928 very seldom had sex. Premarital sex carried a huge social stigma.

Before writing Coming of Age, Mead spent six months in Samoa. She described the sex lives of young women in a small village on the island of Ta‘ū. Her conclusion was that these women were sexually promiscuous yet far happier than American young women.

Mead became a celebrity and her book became a staple in university courses. Ultimately, Coming of Age provided a scientific basis for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The only problem with all this is that Mead apparently just made the whole thing up.

Samoans in the 1920’s were just as sexually restricted as Americans in the 1920’s, if not more so. Mead however wanted to promote greater sexual freedom, as did a growing number of Americans during the Roaring Twenties and later.

I am not claiming that this proves that all science is false. What I am suggesting however is that frequently books labeled “science” are actually “fiction”. Always trust, but verify.