Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rashi Questions for Titzaveh

According to Rashi...
1. In which Braita did Rashi find his explanation for the design of the eiphod? (28:4)
2. In the Kohein's garments how many individual threads were combined to form a single composite thread? (28:6)
3. Whay was the Choshen called the "Choshen Mishpat?" (28:15)
4. What shape was drawn in oil on the Kohein Gadol's head when he was anointed?  (29:2)
5. How many eggs are in an eiphah?  (29:40)
6. What daily activity did Aharon do with the incense offering? (30:7)

Friday, February 24, 2012

In Search of Unicorns, Snails, and Trees

The question that always bothered me about the building of the Mishkan was, where did they get the materials to build it in the desert? 
All the precious metals and stones came from Egypt.  That we know. 
It is also possible that certain animals and plants that were necessary to build the mishkan were found in the desert.  The gemara even says that the rare Tachash animal - with its one horn coming out of its forehead - only existed at that one moment in history.  Moshe  found one, they made the Mishkan curtains from it, and then it became extinct. 
If the Gemara is to be taken literally and Moshe was able to find a unicorn in the desert then it is not such a stretch to believe that in the desert they also somehow found some Hilazon snails whose blood was needed for the Techelet dye. 
Rashi is bothered by the question of where the materials came from and he quotes a midrash regarding the trees that they used.
"Where did they get them?  Rabbi Tanchuma explained that our forefather Jacob foresaw through Divine inspiration that Israel would one day build a Mishkan in the desert so he brought shittim trees to Egypt and planted them and commanded his sons to take them with them when they would depart from Egypt."
I always loved this Rashi.  Imagine, over 250 years earlier, when Yaakov already knew that the Jews would be stuck in Egypt for an indefinite period he planted these trees and with those trees he also planted hope For two centuries when the Jews were in the depths of despair from brutal slavery they could visit the trees of Yaakov and remember his promise that one day Hashem would take them out and they would be free to build a Mishkan and serve Hashem as a free nation!
But the trees planted by Yaakov had to be maintained.  Every generation drew inspiration from the trees as children, but when they reached adulthood it became their responsibility to care for the trees so that future generations would be able to draw inspiration from them as well.
This week we welcome a new baby boy into the Jewish community.  Mazal Tov to Rabbi Mizrahi and to Talia and to Yael and their extended families.  His bris in shul this shabbat will be a great simcha for our community and may he grow up inspired by the Mizrahi's household of Torah and may he one day grow to build a Torah household for himself.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rashi Questions for Terumah

According to Rashi...
1. How is the Hebrew word, 'Nedava' translated into old French?  (25:2)
2. Where does Techelet colored dye come from?  (25:4)
3. Where did the Bnei Yisrael get the wood needed for the Mishkan?  (25:5)
4. What color was the animal known as 'Tachash?' (25:5)
5. From where did Hashem speak to Moshe? (25:22)
6. What shape were the lechem hapanim?  (25:29)
7. In what way did the branches potrude from the base of the menorah?  ((25:32)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Slaves to Hashem

There are fifty three mitvot in parshat mishpatim, second only to parshat ki tetze.  Rashi (24:12) quotes a midrash that states that the ten commandments are really ten catagories of mitzvot and all 613 mitzvot can somehow fit into those ten categories.  

Based on this idea, the Abravanel in his commentary on Mishpatim included a brilliant section in which he demonstrates how the seemingly random laws of Parshat Mishpatim are actually a specifically ordered and expanded detailed restatement of the ten commandments found in last week's parshah.  

As is his style, the Abravanel writes at length arguing his thesis point by point.  For example he shows how the mitzvot in Mishpatim can be grouped as those dealing with the value of human life and limb (don't murder), sexual morality (don't commit adultery), individual property rights (don't steal), and an honest court system (don't swear falsely).  During the Torah reading I recommend trying to see if you can figure out which category each mitzvah fits into.

Mishpatim begins with the laws of the Eved Ivri, the Hebrew slave.  According to the Abrvanel, this is a restatement of the very first Mitvah, "I am Hashem your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of slavery."  The laws of Eved Ivri officially abolished eternal servitude so that the Jewish people would be  completely free to serve only Hashem.  A Jew facing hard times has the option to sell himself into servitude, but only for a limited time.  After six years he is presented with a choice; will he continue to serve his master or will he make the correct choice of liberty and serve only Hashem? 

This Shabbat at Beth Israel we are welcoming a new member to the Jewish People.  But converts to Judaism are not the only ones who actively choose to serve Hashem.  Mishpatim is my bar mitvah parshah.  Every year on this Shabbat I make a personal commitment to serve Hashem as I did at my bar mitzvah.  Each of us must actively choose to serve Hashem and regularly commit ourselves and inspire ourselves to observe the Torah with love and devotion as our ancestors did at Har Sinai.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rashi Questions for Mishpatim

According to Rashi...
1. When describing the manner in which Moshe was expected to teach us the Mishpatim, what metaphor does Rashi use?  (21:1)
2. What two ways could one Jew find himself in servitude of another? (21:2)
3. How does a burn differ than other injuries?  How does the court estimate payment for such injuries? (21:25)
4. According to Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, why is the fine for sheep theft less than that of ox theft? (21:37)
5. What is the difference in the level of liability between someone who watches property for free verses one whom you pay? (22:9)
6. What is learned from the phrase, "to the poor person who is with you?" (22:24)
7. What is meant when it says that Moshe wrote down "all the words of Hashem?" (24:4)
8. Why did Yehoshua climb the mountain after Moshe? (24:13)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Freestyle Rapping About Torah!

This past Shabbat my wife Miriam ran a retreat for Omaha Jewish teens.  The featured program was run by a group called Bible Raps.  My wife had spent the year learning at the Pardes institute in Israel with Bible Raps founder and executive director Matt Bar.  Matt is a rapper who created Bible Raps in order to engage his own Sunday school class.
The program is simple.  They learn a Jewish text with kids, discuss the relevant principles with the kids, and then the kids write a rap expressing what they learned.

Matt, if you are reading this, I have to be honest with you.  When I first heard about the program I was highly skeptical.  It sounded so - what is the word? - cheesy.  Would a cynical teenager really think that rapping about Torah was cool? 
I also am not the biggest fan of rap music in general and did not really respect it as an art form.

Nevertheless I am an open minded person and I decided to attend the programs with an open mind. 

First off, it is clear that Matt and his associate director Ori are both incredible sincere and committed to what they do.  The kids really connected with them.  Which is great, but I was curious to see if they actually had some substance.  They did not disappoint me.  The texts that they learned with the kids were actually sophisticated texts from the Talmud that addressed relevant issues.  Every text showed how there was a variety of opinions on a giving subject and illustrated how the Rabbis of the Talmud argued their views using logic and proof texts.

Substance - check!  But what about the rapping?

Miriam had told me about Matt in advance.  She met him at Pardes and she said that Matt had taught her how to freestyle rap.  I never heard of free style rapping, but I kind of got the idea.  You just make up rap as you go along.  What is the big deal?  But Miriam insisted that I had to try it and that it is an activity that had a great effect on her.  I have to admit that I did not know what she was talking about.

Then Matt introduced the idea in the first session.  He explained that rap music was developed as a way to deal with anger, tension, and frustration in a cathartic way.  He paired the kids (and me) off into chevrutas, groups of learning partners, and presented us with the texts.  We were instructed to develop our own positions on the texts.  Then he taught us how to battle rap.

Battle rapping is when two people duel out an argument using freestyle rap.  With no preparation you have to come up with 2 or 3 lines of rap, making the rhymes up as you go along.  To get started we just did simple exercises rapping about who was a better rapper.  He picked on me to go first.

Four years ago a friend of mine took me skydiving.  I actually jumped out of an airplane 8 miles in the air.  To this day I clearly remember the feeling of sitting on the open door of the airplane with an impossible wind blowing at me waiting for the instructor to tell me it was time to kick off and jump into the endless blue sky.  I would not believe it if I did not personally experience it, but starting a free style rap in front of 25 high school kids is almost the same feeling!

I can't exactly explain why.  Something about the mixture of speaking passionately and cautiously.  To really rap is to completely let yourself go, but to still remain within the confines of the rules of the game.  It challenges you to open up in a safe and appropriate way that forces you to be creative and to overcome certain fears.  Again, I cannot explain why, but after I was done I felt like a different person. 

I still don't like rap music, but I have definitely gained an appreciation for the art form, and I now know what Miriam meant when she tried to describe it to me.

After Matt taught us how to battle rap we took positions based on the text that we learned and we battle rapped with our learning partner.  I have never seen high school kids get so passionate about Jewish texts before.  Every kid really got into the program and I am sure that the texts really made an impression on them.

After Shabbat we had a nice musical havdalah and then Matt and Ori helped the kids compose a rap song.  He split the kids up into groups.  Each group chose a topic from the parshah, or a general Jewish topic and they sat and composed a stanza of 8 bars.  One group sat with Ori and helped him create a custom beat using their portable studio.  They then composed a chorus.  Each group performed their stanza and then they put it all together.  Ori recorded it and after some editing he will send it out to all the kids using facebook.

The weekend was a great success and I think all the kids had a great time.  I fully endorse Bible Raps for any community.  Their approach to Jewish learning is something that resonates with kids.  It is sincerely about authentic Jewish learning and it transcends all denominational divides. 

I wish them the best of luck and thank them for making an impact in Omaha.
Thanks for the Omaha donors who made the program possible, to the staff for running the program, for Miriam for writing the grant, and for all the kids for making it a great Shabbaton!!!

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #18

Question: A Jewish owned grocery store in a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish neighborhood has a section that usually sells Kosher meat comes into possession of non-Kosher meat.  The store owner displays the meat in a way that subtly indicates to educated kosher consumers that the meat is not Kosher without explicitly saying so.  Non-Jewish patrons may be unaware that the meat is not kosher but they are accustomed to relying on the fact that the store owner is Jewish and they think they are buying kosher meat.  Is this ethical or is the store owner responsible to tell the non-Jewish customers explicitly that the meat that they are buying is not kosher?

Answer: This is an actually case from Hullin 94a.  The gemara rules that a proclamation that speaks only to the educated kosher consumer is acceptable because a more explicit proclamation may drive away non-Jewish customers. 

This is another support that Rabbi Levine cites to demonstrate that Halacha only requires a reasonable-man standard and not an ignorant-man standard.  (see previous post).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #17

Question: When evaluating whether an ambiguous, or possibly misleading statement is geneivat da'at does the Torah use reasonable-man standard or ignorant-man standard?

Rabbi Levine posits that the Torah uses reasonable man standard.  He derives this from a number of sources.

A case in messechet Hullin 94a:

Mar Zutra was traveling from Sikara to Mahoza while Rava and Rav Safra were going to Sikara.  They passed each other on the way and Mar Zutra thanked the Rabbis for coming out to greet him.  He assumed that the purpose of their trip was soley to show him honor. 
Rav Safra said, "We had no idea you were coming." 
Rava said to Rav Safra, "You did not have to tell him that."
Rav Safra said back, "but then we would be deceiving him."
To which Rava replied, "No we would not.  He would be deceiving himself."

Rabbi Levine posits that since it was unreasonable for Mar Zutra to expect that the others came all taht way to meet him they had no responsibility to correct him.  If theoretically it would have been reasonable that the Rabbis had come then they would have to correct him.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Travel Blog, South Florida Edition!

Last Shabbat the Orthodox Union (OU) hosted a weekend program in South Florida.  From Thursday night until Sunday morning they had lectures and programs in 10 different synagogues throughout south Florida.  On Shabbat each synagogue hosted a scholar in residence representing the OU - and I was asked to represent the OU in Boynton Beach Florida at congregation Anshe Chesed.

Miriam and I arrived in Boynton Beach on Friday afternoon and were greeted by some of the young leadership of the community.  Friday night I gave a short dvar Torah to the congregation and then Miriam and I went to the home of the president of the congregation for Friday night dinner.  At dinner he gave us a brief history of the shul and the community.

Until a few years ago Boynton Beach did not have a community shul.  For a number of years there was a Rabbi who privately owned a synagogue, but as the population grew and formed a critical mass of active retirees, second home owners, and young couples, they decided it was time to form a community and build a shul of their own.

Currently they daven in a house that they purchased, but they are nearing completion of a beautiful new building.  They do not have a full time Rabbi, but every other week they have a dynamic young Rabbi from Yeshiva University who spends shabbat with them - and he happens to be my cousin Avi Billet.  As the community grows they will likely hire a full time Rabbi.

After dinner we headed to the home of one of the other young couples where the community came for an oneg Shabbat.  At the oneg I spoke about the great things that we are doing here in Omaha and then took some questions.  I got all the usual questions, "Is Warren Buffet a member of your shul?"  "When will Omaha Steaks be Kosher?"  and "How cold is it there?"
There was a nice crowd, good food, and we had a great time meeting the community.

The next day I gave a class on the parshah before davening and the sermon.  For the sermon I began with some words from the parsha and then spoke about all of the ways that the Orthodox Union has helped Beth Israel.  I spoke about three great OU programs that we had over the last few years.

1. We had Rabbi Chaim Loike speak to us.  Rabbi Loike is the OU's expert on birds.  He did an unforgettable program at the Freidel Jewish academy in conjunction with Nebraska Parrot Rescue.  Rabbi Loike showed the kids a dozen different exotic birds and used them to teach the kids about what the Gemara used as indicia for identifying Kosher and non-Kosher birds.  He also spoke twice over shabbat and impressed everyone with the extent of scientific knowledge that is necessary to properly learn Torah.

2. Most people are familiar with the OU's program Yachad.  Yachad does programming for people with disabilities, and also works to sensitize synagogues, day schools, youth groups, and communities to the importance of being inclusive to everyone.  We have a very active Yachad chapter in Omaha.  But most people are not aware of a very important program from the OU called Our Way. Our Way works with the Jewish deaf.  If is run by a man named Rabbi Liederfeind out of the OU office in new york.  Rabbi Liederfeind has made it his business to get to know personally and engage every single deaf Jew in North America.  Being deaf can be very isolating and there is a very high rate of alienation and disengagement from the jewish community amongst the Jewish deaf.  Rabbi Leiderfeind along with Rabbi David Kastor, who is himself deaf, came to our community to spend Shabbat with Beth Israel and with the deaf Jews of Omaha of all affiliations.  Shabbat services were done to accommodate the deaf participants and to teach us ways, besides hiring an interpreter, that we could be more sensitive to the deaf members of our community.  It was an incredible eye opening experience for everyone.

3. The OU runs the best of all Israel summer programs - NCSY kollel!  Omaha had the great privilege of sending a high school student on NCSY kollel last summer and that boy has brought incredible energy to the community.  NCSY and the OU are creating the leaders who will build the Jewish community of the future.

Services were really nice.  There were over 100 people there, the house was completely packed.  The people ranged from young families all the way to retirees with everything in between.  They had a hot kiddush after davening that was very good (but we still missed Betty's cookies form home!)

We ate lunch at the home of some friends of my parents from New Jersey who spend the winter in Boynton.  After lunch I visited a friend who is living there and spent some time catching up until an hour before mincha when I gave my final lecture.  I gave a lecture that I had given in Omaha some time ago where I compare the play Fiddler on the Roof to the original works of Shalom aleichem and discuss the Jewish concepts represented in both.

After mincha there was a beautiful shalosh seudot where we sang songs and I gave one last dvar Torah thanking the community for their hospitality.
Miriam and I had a really great time meeting everyone in the community and we hope to visit again next time we are in South Florida.

That night we went to my sister and brother-in-law who live in Boca Raton where we spent the night.
The next morning I attended OU programming in Boca.  I got to hear two lectures from Rabbi Hershel Shacter from Yeshiva University.  In the words of the young boy from Omaha who got to know Rav Shacter at NCSY kollel - Rav Shacter is awesome!!!!   It is hard to explain to someone who has never heard him speak.  He has a complete encyclopedic knowledge of what seems to be the entire length and breadth of the Torah.  When he speaks he will take you through literally dozens and dozens of sources connecting seemingly unrelated topics and weaving them together seamlessly.  He cites obscure sources with profound ideas and cites familiar sources adding new creative incites that seem so obvious and yet you never thought of it before.  His lectures can be appreciated by the most advanced and learned Rabbis as well as the novice simultaneously.  His topic was a page of Gemara in massechet sanhedrin about a pretty technical topic.  If witnesses testify in case A, then subsequently in case B, then they are proven to have perjured in case A do we retroactively discredit their testimony in case B or do we consider it to stand because at the time of testimony they had not been discredited yet.  He spoke on that  non-stop with no questions, no breaks, barely even stopping for air, for over an hour.
Seems boring, dry, and complicated and yet he had an audience of hundreds captivated!  He did not lose my attention for even one second and I scarcely had time to take in one point before he moved on to the next one!  To learn Torah from Rav Shacter is to truly experience the honor of Torah.  Every time I hear him I am proud to be a graduate of Yeshiva University.  I hope that one day i have an opportunity to bring him to Omaha so that my community can experience Rav Shacter.

After Rav Shacter's lecture I heard my old boss Rabbi Steven Weil speak.  I worked for Rabbi Weil when he was still the head Rabbi of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills.  Currently he is the national director of the Orthodox Union.  He spoke about the problems facing the national Orthodox community and what the OU is doing to address them.  The bulk of his speech dealt with the Yeshiva tuition crisis.  As tuition rises it is become harder and harder for families to afford to educate their children.  There is no silver bullet solution to this problem.  One of the prongs to the OU's approach is governmental and the OU's Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) is working hard with legislatures in different states to come up with ways to give families a choice of where they can educate their kids.

That night my brother-in-law hosted his annual gala Superbowl party.  Over 200 people came to watch the game at his house and to feast on the delicious food that he and some other guys in the community prepared.  There were a couple of celebrities who showed up at the party including the internationally known Israeli singer Dudu Fisher!  I happen to be a huge fan from when I was a kid and it was great to get to know him and his wife in person.  I was in contact with his agent and asked how much an appearance in Omaha would cost...let's just say, it may not happen anytime soon.

All in all it was a fabulous trip.  Miriam and I and the girls had a great time.  I hope I represented the OU well, and I was proud to share all of the great things that are going on here in Omaha.

What is Yitro doing next to Har Sinai?

Yesterday at the Freidel Jewish Academy some students asked me why this week's parshah which contains the 10 commandments is named after Yitro.  They thought that the 10 commandments were important enough to merit their own parshah and they should not have to share the stage with a seemingly unrelated episode about Moshe reuniting with his father-in-law.

As usual, the penetrating question of the students is one that has been addressed in the past.  Over the centuries many answers have been suggested.  I related some of the answers that I have heard in past years.

Unlike the Bnei Yisrael, Yitro did not witness the miracles of Egypt and the red sea first hand.  The Torah makes a point to say that Yitro heard about what happened.  There is an aphorism found in the Gemara that says hearing is not the same as seeing.  One of my congregants is in sales and he told me that he lives by this principle.  When giving a sales presentation his mantra is always, "don't tell it to them, show it to them!"
For the Bnei Yisrael to accept the Torah was a no-brainer.  They had witnessed first hand the greatness of Hashem as he personally came to rescue them from slavery.  The giving of the Torah at Sinai was an offer that they could not refuse.
But Ytro was different.  He did not see the plagues in Egypt, he did not see the splitting of the sea, and God did not personally come down and do anything for him.  In a sense, he was an unbiased and objective consumer.  Yitro was drawn to the Torah because he believed that the Torah represented truth.  He was sold purely on the strength of the Torah's ideas.

Yitro is brought into this parsha of the accepting of the Torah to teach this important lesson.  There is a place in Torah education for emotion, nostalgia, and feelings of loyalty towards tradition, but if that is the extent of the education then none of those feelings will ultimately endure.  The strength of our tradition lies in the truth of its ideas.
At Har Sinai our ancestors had no choice but to accept the Torah.  We need to be like Yitro.  We need to explore the Torah and come to love it for its essence through learning, questioning, and sincerely seeking for answers and truth.  That is how we can accept the Torah.


Daily Business Ethics Halacha #16

Misleading and deceptive advertising is prohibited in Halacha under the interdict against creating a flase impression -geneivat da'at.

There is a dispute among Talmudic decisors as to where we the principle of geneivat da'at is derived from the Torah.  R. Jonah b Anraham Gerondi in his Shaarei Teshuva (Spain, 1200-1264) says it is derived from the prohbition of lying.  R. Yom Tov Ishbili, the Ritva, (Spain, 1250-1330) contends that it falls under the prohibition against theft. 

What would be the practical difference between deriving it form lying or from theft?

Rabbi Levine does not get into this question.  I have not studied the topic thoroughly myself, but I would guess that the difference would be the accountability that someone guilty of geneivat da'at would be held to.  accept in certain cases of purgery, in Jewish law it is hard to hold someone accountable in court for an mere words that were not accompanied by an action.  If however it constitutes theft, then perhaps a person can be judged as if he stole property with his hands.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #15

Taking a break from Rabbi Levine's book Case Studies in Jewish Ethics to examine a real case:

Question: A particular catering hall allows clients to bring in their own caterer and band.  After an event when the band and caterer are packing up the band leader sees the caterer unplugging an extension chord.  The chord is generic and has no noticable signs of identification.  It is near an outlet that was used both for music equipment and for a warming tray.  The band leader says the extension chord actually belongs to him.  The caterer insists that it is his.  There is no way to tell waht the chord was plugged into and both parties are not sure of how many chords they arrived with. 

Does the caterer keep the chord because he was the first to grab it?  Must he give it to the band leader?  Must they split the cost?

Would it make a difference if the dispute was between the caterer and the manager of the facility?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The 10 commandments according to Rashi

According to Rashi...
1. Why did Hashem introduce himself as "The God who took you our of Egypt" rather than the God who created the world?
2. If God's aspect of punishment is 'x' what is his aspect of kindness?
3. What is an example of taking Hashem's name in vain?
4. Besides "Guard" and "Remember" the Shabbat, give an example of two contradictory things that Hashem said simultaneously.
5. How does one "remember" the Shabbat?
6. How can you do all of your work in six days?
7. What Kal Vachomer is taught in the ten commandments?
8. What kind of theft is referred to by "don't steal?"  How do we know?

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #14

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

In chapter 2 Rabbi Levine deals with advertising and marketing. 

Questions: Should the law protect only reasonable, sensible, and intelligent customers who conduct themselves carefully in the market place?  Ir must it also protect ignorant consumers who conduct themselves carelessly?

On this issue American law has gone through a change.  Prior to 1914 the governing principle was the reasonable-man standard.  Accordingly, an advertiser could not be held liable for misrepresentation unless the court ruled that a reasonable man would rely on the false or deceptive message. 

In 1914 the Federal trade Commission (FTC) was established.  This independent government agency was given mandate to investigate unfair and predatory competitive practices, and to declare illegal all "unfair methods of competition and commerce."  In 1938 its mandate expanded to include preventing false and misleading advertising.

In its early history the FTC broke away from reasonable-man standard and adopted ignorant-man standard.  Professor Ivan Preston cites several examples, including a ruling that Clairol was forbidden to say that its hair dye would "color hair permanently."  The FTC deemed that the public would take this as a claim that all the hair that a person grew for the rest of their lives would emerge in the Clairol color.

Tomorrow we will discuss what standard Jewish law maintains in advertising.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Daily Busines Ethics Halachah #13

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

Questions: Can a child tell a lie as a means of ending a scuffle amongst his playmates?

Rabbi Levine repeatedly stresses the importance of moral education for children.  We learned earlier that lies that may be permitted to adults to maintain domestic harmony are not permitted to children. 

However, relating to the question above, Rabbi Levine quotes from the contemporary book Titen emet liyaakov, by Rabbi Yaakov Yechezkel Fish.  Rabbi Fish quotes both R' Shlomo Zalman Aurbach and R' Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in saying that it is permissible in the above mentioned case for a child to lie to end an argument with peers.  But teachers should stress that the use of permissible lies is only the second best solution to real world problems.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Daily Business Ethics Halachah #12

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

We have already established that lying to maintain domestic harmony is sometimes permitted.  However, the Gemara in Yevamot on 63a seems to contradict this.

The Gemara tells a story about the wife of Rav who spitefully tormented him.  "If he asked her to prepare lentils she would prepares peas.  If he asked for peas she would prepare lentils."  When his son Hiyya grew up he gave her his father's instructions in reverse.  "Your mother," remarked Rav to him, "has improved."  At that point Hiyya revealed to his father that it was in fact he who had made her seem to improve by reversing the orders.  Upon hearing this Rav admonished his son and requested that he stop engaging in falsehood, even for the sake of harmony.

Why was lying not permitted in this case if it helped to bring domestic harmony?

Rav Solomon Luria (Poland, 1510-1573) noted this seeming contradiction.  His answer was that the difference between this case and other cases that we mentioned is that this was a habitual lie.  To be successful Hiyya had to engage in this ruse for an indefinite period of time which would inevitably have a negative effect on his character.

R. Nahum Yavrov (Israel, contemporary) posits that any falsehood, even for the sake of domestic harmony, must not be used in the presence of children.  According to him moral education of children is, in some instances, even more important than domestic harmony.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #11

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

Another scenario where retracting a promise is not considered unethical:

If A were to promise B a certain item as a gift for B's birthday in the future, but before the birthday arrives the price of the item rises sharply and A retracts. 

The Talmud brings a similar involving a sales transaction.  Buyer B and Seller S commit themselves to a sales transaction but before the transaction reaches the point where either B makes a deposit, or the point where the parties would become otherwise legally bound, the price sharply rises and S wishes to retract. 
Talmudic authorities dispute whether S's retraction is considered unethical. 
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (Belarus, 1829-1908) in his authoritative work Aruch Hashulchan rules that S would not be considered untrustworthy in such a case.
Presumably he would rule the same in our birthday case.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #10

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

"Someone who retracts a verbal commitment is called untrustworthy and a Jewish court will admonish and publicly reprove the offender for this misconduct.  Nevertheless, breaking a promise is permissible in certain circumstances.  Consider the following scenario:

Person A verbally commits himself to confer B with a largess.  Subsequently, A has second thoughts and wishes to retract.  Provided A made his commitment in good faith, his subsequent retraction is not unethical.  Given the consider expense involved, B presumably never relied on the promise and hence A's retraction should not have dashed B's expectations."

My question on this: does that apply to a pledge made to a charitable organization or a shul?  As someone who works for a not for profit, I know that we budget for the future based on pledges made to us by donors.  If they were to retract we would be in serious trouble. 

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #9

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

Disclosure and Reasonable Expectations in Speculative Transactions:

What constitutes reasonable expectations changes radically when one moves from sale of a consumer good to the sale of a speculative asset.  Here, the reasonable expectation is that the entire transaction is made possible only because the seller (S) and the buyer (B) harbor variant and possibly even opposite expectations: B buys because he is convinced that the price will rise and S sells because he thinks it will fall.
Therefore, entry into this market place is accompanied by a warning to the reasonable man that he should research all publicly accessible information on which the trade will be made.  If he ignores this warning in whole or in part, he is at his own risk.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bishalach and Tu bi"Shvat

It is no coincidence that Tu B'Shvat always falls around the week of Parshat B'shalach.
In this week's parshah we read about the Mann, the bread that fell from the sky, that our ancestors ate for 40 years in the desert.  According to the Rambam the greatest of all miracles mentioned in the Torah is the manner in which Hashem provided for us in the desert.
But if you think about it, really all food is a great miracle from Hashem - no less then the Mann.  In the words of Rabbi Avigdor Miller:
Hashem causes the food to result from the combined action of water, sunlight, carbon-dioxide, and soil.  Carbon-dioxide is but three parts of ten thousand of the air, and the plant would immediately exhaust the surrounding air of its carbon-dioxide if not for the marvel of wind that moves air around and thus ensures a constant supply.  The light comes from the sun which is 93 million miles away, but it speeds at 186,000 miles per second to reach the plant to perform the miracle of photosynthesis.  Thousands of steps are performed in the production of food, each in precise sequence and according to a precise chemical process.  This process is no less miraculously designed and executed than the falling of the Mann.
The episode of the Mann and the holiday of Tu B'Shvat are annual reminders of the greatest miracle - the food we eat.  But once a year is not nearly enough.  That is why we have brachot that we say before we eat.  Brachot are not only a way to thank Hashem, they are also a way to draw our attention to the miracle of the food that came from the ground so that we may better appreciate the great kindnesses that Hashem provides for us every second.
I hope everyone has a happy and meaningful Tu B'Shvat!

Daily Business Ethics Halacha #8

We are learning from Case Studies in Business Ethics by the late Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z"l professor of economics at Yeshiva University.

Question: is capitalizing on an informational advantage that one has over another person immoral?

Halachah's disclosure obligation is geared towards the expectations of a hypothetical reasonable person in that position.  What constitutes reasonable expectations will depend on the type of transaction that is being conducted.  In a face to face transaction the seller is not responsible to point out to the buyer the visibly obvious defects in a product.  The reasonable expectation is that the buyer will see the flaws without the seller having to specifically point them out to him. 

Hence, voiding or adjusting the terms of a concluded transaction on the basis of visibly obvious flaws is not entertained by a Jewish court.