Category Archives: Torah U’mada



In the last several centuries, demonology has not been a popular Jewish subject, though belief in them by the general public had been widespread until modern times. The Talmud has numerous demon stories and there are various references throughout the Bible.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno however seems to have been a strong believer in their reality and this usually succinct commentator goes to great lengths to describe the habits and nature of what we generally today believe to be mythical creatures.

In Leviticus 17:7 it states:

“And they shall slaughter no longer their offerings to the “sheerim” (demons) that they stray after…”

Sforno explains that while Israelites typically did not worship demons, they did seek them out for some of the unique services they could provide, such as messengers to far off lands (precursor to modern telecommunications?).

Sforno exhorts us to actually be knowledgeable about these “mezikim” (injurers), as paraphrased below from the Talmud (Tractate Chagiga 16a):

“Demons can fly from one side of the world to the other, can tell the future, they eat, drink, reproduce and die.”

The scientist and doctor that was Sforno attempts to give a rational explanation for how they function:

“They can see, but are not visible. This cannot be unless they are composed of an extremely fine substance which is invisible. Since they eat and drink, their food must be of a substance composed of something extremely fine which is assimilated into the organism consuming it. Now there are no compositions known to us more refined than the ‘vapor’ of blood (oxygen!!) from which the spirit, which carries the life force, exists. This force being carried is the soul of life through which every creature lives…as it says “For the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12:23).

Sforno continues to explain that the demons live off blood but cannot take it unless someone spills it for them and are then in that persons debt. Demons also like the company of people who consume blood themselves, as they will have similar dispositions (antecedent to vampires?).

He ends with a warning that demons are really bad news, and the Torah obviously knowing this, order various preventive measures (including covering the blood of a slaughtered animal) to keep us away from them.

Chasidic lore has it that the Baal Shem Tov, in the 1700s, arranged via divine intervention for the removal of all demons from the earthly plane, which may be one reason why we really haven’t heard from them lately.

In any case, may all our demons, whether real or imagined be banished, or at least safely tucked away where they will do no harm.

Shabbat Shalom,



No dedication this week. I had a few candidates to compare to blood-sucking demons, but decided that “discretion is the better part of valor.”

Al Hanisim report

Thank you to everyone for the warm words of interest and appreciation for the Al Hanisim. We received great feedback from people from a spectrum of Judaism from all over the world, many of which had apparently chosen to use our text.

Due to the strong interest (and debate) that our text has engendered, we will continue to work on it. For some of the public discussion (in Hebrew) check out the comments at:

Strategy for China’s Female Infanticide

Strategy for China’s Female Infanticide

China and other countries in the region are known to have a deep and long-standing cultural preference for the birth of boys. In China, for the last few decades, the issue has been more pronounced because of the “one-child policy” that limits the majority of families to only having one offspring.

China has reached a disparity of approximately 117 boys for every 100 girls born, while the world average is around 105 boys for every 100 girls. Abortion of the female fetus is believed to be the main culprit in the disproportion between boys and girls born.

Leviticus 12:2 starts the discussion of the issue of male births and the subsequent purification process that the Torah requires as follows:

“If a woman caused fructification of seed and gives birth to a male…”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno quotes a Talmudic commentary on this line from Tractate Niddah 31a:

“If a woman emits seed first, she bears a male.”

Sforno, who was a doctor, amongst many other qualifications, explains that the partner who emits “seed” last will be the more dominant gender. Meaning if the woman ovulates after the man emits seed, the child is more likely to be a girl.

Modern medical studies have supported Sforno’s theory. The timing of ovulation can have a strong effect on the acid/alkaline balance in the vaginal canal, thereby either preserving or destroying the male Y chromosome. If ovulation occurs first, the alkaline neutralizes the acid, saving the Y chromosome, and significantly increasing the odds of a boy. If ovulation occurs later, the acid is likely to get rid of the Y chromosome, resulting in a girl.

If the Chinese would just follow Sforno’s prescription they could probably produce more boys naturally as opposed to murderously skewing the gender balance.

May all parents cherish their children no matter what the gender and may we successfully see them producing future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Nachshon Chagai Lustig, the newborn son of Debbie and Mark Lusting of Alon Shvut and the fifth boy of five. Mazal Tov on the basketball team and the new house!

The Finest Workmanship

The Finest Workmanship


There is a story told to young design engineers about Henry Ford. Always looking to get efficiencies out of his cars, he would visit car junkyards and examine the remaining components. Upon discovering a bolt that was still in good condition, while the rest of the car had fallen apart, he exclaimed: “This bolt was over-designed!”


Ford’s goal was that the entire car should break down around the same time. If a single bolt remained that was still useful it meant that too much steel went into the construction. Multiplying that waste by thousands or millions adds up.


Hence the current plethora of products that are purposely designed to fall apart shortly after the warranty expires.


The young Israelite nation was not without its design engineers. However they had a different design philosophy.


The Children of Israel start building the Tabernacle in the desert. The Jewish people are called on to donate to the construction, and they do so, to such an extent, that the artisans instruct Moses to stop collecting. They have enough materials and then some.


Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the unusual repetition and phraseology of the fact that the artisans had additional material.


Sforno draws an interesting lesson from the phrase and the extra material. In an age of “just-in-time” manufacturing, short supply lines, recycling, cost-cutting and making sure a manufacturer has just enough and no more, Sforno’s following insight may seem surprising.


Sforno explains that in order to do a good job, the workers needed extra material. Just the knowledge that additional material is available would insure that they don’t skimp on any aspect of the construction. They know they can invest everything they require to construct whatever it is they’re making in the best way possible. Cutting corners is not the way God wants us to do things.


May we always be both creators and patrons of only the finest workmanship.


Shabbat Shalom,






To the Nachmani Family of Alon Shvut. They are artisans of the highest order. Every act they do is done to the fullest. Skimping is not a word in their vocabulary.

Miracles and The Power of Multiplication


Miracles and the Power of Multiplication

by Ben-Tzion Spitz

Besides the many lessons that the Hagaddah provides, an often overlooked one, is that of the power of multiplication.

The most obvious examples are the three opinions as to the ‘quantity’ of the “Plagues” that afflicted the Egyptians at the parting of the sea. The first opinion is that of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean. He makes the following algebraic comparison based on the biblical verses:

1 “Finger” of God = 10 Egypt plagues

Sea plague = “Hand” of God

Assuming that God’s anthropomorphic limbs are comparable to a humans, solving for Sea plague leads to the following calculation

Sea plague = “Hand” of God = 5 “Fingers” of God = 50 Egypt plagues

The subsequent opinions take the above calculation as a given but add an additional multiplier.

Rabbi Eliezer, the second opinion, states that based on the four qualifiers of “Wrath”, “Fury”, “Trouble”, and “Messengers of Evil”, that are stated regarding the Egyptian plagues, there were 40 plagues in Egypt. Multiplying that by Rabbi Yossi’s original formula provides us with a total of 200 plagues at the sea.

Rabbi Akiva, the third and last opinion in the unusual discussion, adds another qualifier, “Fierce Anger”, to Rabbi Eliezer’s original four. 10 times 5 times 5 equal 250.

Some of the later rabbinic commentators including the Maharal of Prague imply that the simplistic multiplication lesson is really teaching something deeper about the nature of reality and the nature of miracles.

Rabbi Yossi’s initial opinion equates the number ten to the power of a single “Finger” of God. Ten is also compared to holiness and separating the holy from the mundane (i.e. tithes). Similarly, according to the Maharal, anything that intercedes in our world from the more spiritual spheres, in an overt fashion (i.e. miracles) is also a function of the power of ten.

A single finger is a limited tool, and on its own is not particularly powerful. God’s intent with the plagues in Egypt was apparently more educational than outright destructive. Hence his anthropomorphized use of a single finger translated into the power of ten in our world.

However, at the splitting of the sea, God’s intent was to destroy the Egyptian nation in general and its entire armed forces in particular. There God uses his Hand. A hand is a complete tool, and the number five represents a full number. Therefore, according to Rabbi Yossi, the Egyptians suffered the equivalent of 50 plagues at the sea.

The next opinion, Rabbi Eliezer, looks deeper into the makeup of a single “plague” and determines that each plague is really composed of four plagues. There are different explanations besides the textual one quoted above as to why four. The Maharal is a bit esoteric, but he could be interpreted to say that four is the minimum number of points to represent something tangible in space. One point doesn’t do very much. Two points will give you a line. Three points will give you a two-dimensional surface with no thickness. You need at least four coordinates in space to have a three-dimensional object.

[See illustration above]

The Abudarham on the other hand states that each plague encompassed the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water in some fashion. Therefore, in Egypt the plagues were the equivalent of 40, while at sea it was the equivalent of 200.

Rabbi Akiva, presenting the third opinion, builds on Rabbi Eliezer’s theory and adds one more factor to the equation. According to the Maharal, he agrees with Rabbi Eliezer’s four coordinates as defining an object (assuming we understand the Maharal correctly). However, he adds an additional point in space that would bind the four points into one object. Paralleling this thought, the Abudarham states that Rabbi Akiva agrees with the composition of the plagues being formed by the four elements, however he adds, that each plague drew on the power of the four elements separately as well as a combination of all the elements, making each plague a factor of five.

The Maharal states that there is even greater depth and meaning to all of this, but he cannot reveal it to the uninitiated. One point of his discussion though, is to give us an even greater sense of awe. Awe not only for the miracles that occurred, but for the essential reality and functioning of nature, and the miraculous within nature.

Torah and Careers: A Practical Approach

This article was printed in the English journal of Yeshivat Har Etzion many moons ago…

Torah and Careers: A Practical Approach[1]

by Ben-Tzion Spitz

The question whether a Torah-observant Jew may or ought to pursue a secular career has been debated since, at latest, the time of the Mishna. In this article we will look at some sources for the debate, focusing mainly on Pirkei Avot and the Rambam, analyze the prevalent approaches today, and develop some practical tools to help guide an individual toward his own solution to the issue.

The Mishnaic Tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), is a compilation of moral advice dictating what daily behavior ought to be like for everyone.[2] It also represents the ideal that all should aim to achieve.[3] However, in carefully reviewing the various statements in the Mishna, it becomes apparent that there is a dispute about the issue of making a livelihood:

Do not say, “When I am free I will study;” perhaps you will not become free.[4]

Anyone excessively involved in business cannot become a scholar.[5]

Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are removed from him. But whoever throws off the yoke of Torah from himself, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are placed upon him.[6]

Reduce your business activities and occupy yourself with Torah. Be of humble spirit before every man. If you should neglect the Torah, there will be many other neglectors opposite you; but if you labor in Torah, He has ample reward to give you.[7]

On the other hand:

Beautiful is the study of Torah, together with an occupation, for the exertion of them both makes sin forgotten.[8]

If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God; if there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge. If there is no flour (sustenance), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour (sustenance).[9]

The sages who composed these sources lived as they taught; whereas many sages earned a livelihood in non-clerical professions, others distanced themselves as much as possible from the secular world. On one hand, there are many examples of Torah giants and leaders throughout the generations that pursued careers alongside their Torah life:[10] Among Talmudic sages, Rav Huna was a water drawer,[11] Rabbi Meir a barber,[12] Rabbi Yehuda a porter,[13] Rav Yosef a miller, and Rav Sheshet a porter.[14] Among later sages, Rav Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi, the famous commentator on Chumash and Talmud) was a wine maker, and never accepted any position or payment for his Torah activities. Even in modern times, Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, the author of the Torah Temima, was a banker. Rambam is perhaps the best known secular career person and we will discuss him in more detail below.

On the other hand, a paradigm of non-secular existence is represented by Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. The Talmud relates that he lived as he preached – in a cave, immersed completely in his Torah meditations, totally divorced from the world around him.[15] Thus, one group contends that men[16] should shun worldly pursuits for the exclusive study of Torah, whereas the other group seems to say that there must be a balance, a coexistence, between making a livelihood and studying Torah. This debate has continued, and one can identify the different views throughout the Talmud, Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim and modern-day poskim.

At first glance, it appears that this dispute involves clearly defined and inflexible positions, i.e., a halakhic dispute. However, it may be more accurate to say that this debate is about philosophical preference and not about normative practice, i.e., each side emphasizes one opinion from among several, but does not decide between them.[17]

As opposed to other areas of halakha where unequivocal decisions are rendered, no authoritative decision has ever been recorded for this debate. Yes, there are many suggestions and views; but that is all they are, and should only be taken as such. Furthermore, sages from both ends of this philosophical debate very much respected each other’s positions, views, and ways of life.However, while most might agree with the above positions, some do not – especially in our generation.

It seems that the sages realized that one’s approach to secular activity is a highly personal issue, and offered encouragement and specific guidance as to the best resolution of this life-defining concern.

Some Qualifications

From the days of the Mishna to our own time, many people have become overly concerned with the pursuit of their career and material wealth. This trend is frowned upon in no uncertain terms by the full spectrum of Jewish thinkers.[18] All agree that learning Torah and thereby becoming closer to God is of prime importance. Anything that detracts from this goal is against the Jewish ideal. Beyond this, however, there are various opinions as to the best way to proceed with one’s activities on the practical level, and it is this debate we wish to address.

To my mind, it is inconceivable that the entire Jewish people was meant to exclusively learn Torah (at least at this stage of our history[19]). It is otherwise difficult to explain the reason behind all of the materialistic laws and commandments. Someone has to work the fields. Someone has to heal the sick and wounded. Someone has to build the homes, provide the food, generate the electricity, make the clothing, manufacture goods and do everything else that a society needs done. The majority of the population is expected to have some type of gainful employment. In ancient times, the Kohanim and Levi’im were designated from among Israel to provide guidance, while the rest of Israel was expected to make a living.[20] In our times, Orthodox Jewry has spawned a community with an ideology that promotes full-time Torah learning for all men. In this essay, we are concerned with helping the individual to choose between the Torah-only lifestyle and an integrated lifestyle, and providing some tools to help him decide.

Avoiding the Problem Creates New Ones

Some people do not have to confront the choice directly because they work in a Torah-oriented field. Not that their intention is to avoid tackling the issue; on the contrary, usually for the most idealistic and noble of reasons they become pulpit Rabbis or Torah educators. They are constantly learning and disseminating words of Torah. This is a great solution to the dilemma, for the Rabbi does not have to leave the world of Torah even while earning a living. However, this only works for the select few that take that route – not everyone can be a teacher.

Additionally, this route is not without its price. Rambam prohibits Torah being taught for pay:

It is forbidden to take a wage for teaching the Oral Law, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 4:5): “Behold, I have taught you laws and statutes, as God commanded me.” Just as I (Moses) learned at no cost, so too, you have been taught from me at no cost. Teach the coming generations in a like manner. Teach them at no cost as you have learned from me.[21]

Unfortunately, such a guideline could very well destroy today’s entire Orthodox educational system. Thus, Halakhic authorities allow Torah educators to be compensated for their time. However, this is far from the ideal way to teach Torah.

Another reason why this may be problematic is that the educator or Rabbi is at the mercy of his financial supporters. He must be careful not to upset or alienate them too much or he will lose his job and, hence, his livelihood. This would, at times, tie the hands of such people when it is most important for them to take a stand. This weakens the Torah in the eyes of the community. Sometimes, Rabbis may give in to financial expediency rather than stand on principle, especially in borderline cases.

The Torah-Only Choice

For the purposes of our discussion and to avoid blanket statements, we will refer to communities that frown upon non-Torah livelihood as Anti-work communities.[22] Unfortunately, among non-religious Jews, members of these communities, have often been labeled “parasites.” They are seen as pure consumers, contributing nothing to society except for progeny, and that at an alarming rate.

Torah followers, however, believe that a person dedicated to Torah is on a high spiritual level, and although they may not be contributing to society in a material sense, they are contributing to the spiritual entity of the entire people of Israel. This is a fundamental belief of Judaism. [23]

Nevertheless, every community has some people of low moral character, and the anti-work communities are no exception. There are members of these communities who do contribute to society, neither materially nor spiritually. Their low character magnifies an existing problem because the community in question represents a higher moral ideal. Such rotten apples besmirch the name of the entire community.[24]For example, there have been incidents both in Israel and in the U.S. of members of the an anti-work community falsifying records in order to embezzle government funds. Other more crude and terrible incidents have occurred recently but do not bear repeating. These horrible “chilulei Hashem” (desecrations of the God’s name), are perpetrated by slackers, but defame the entire community. These wayward members may appear highly spiritual, praying with special intensity and keeping the ritualistic halakhot beyond the letter of the law, but it would be difficult to say that they are followers of Torah.

Another sad phenomenon involves relationship of some institutions, their representatives, and students, towards their financial contributors. When the time comes to fundraise, the contributing laymen are honored as great righteous leaders and scholars, called “tzadikim,” and given a variety of honors. The rest of the time, though, they are considered “amaratzim” (boors) and contacted only to keep the money flowing. This manipulative, elitist, and cynical attitude is a dangerous message for the students and for the community at large. Unfortunately, a number of “bad apples” are guilty of such thinking to some extent or another. Leaders and institutions would be well served by exorcising any hint of this attitude from their midst.

The Rambam’s Approach

Rambam had strong words to say about people not interested in working:

Whoever decides to engage in Torah studies, and not work, and plans to support himself from charity – he desecrates (God’s) Name, abuses the Torah, extinguishes the light of Faith, causes evil to himself, and removes himself from the life of the World to Come. Because it is forbidden to derive benefit from words of Torah in this world.

Our sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.”Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an ax to chop with.”Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise Rabbinic positions.” “And all Torah study that is not joined by work, the outcome is that it will be negated and leads to sin.” Ultimately such a person will steal from others.[25]

It is a great attribute for a person to derive his livelihood from his own efforts, and a trait of the pious of the early generations. In this manner, he will merit all honor and good in this world, and in the world to come, as it (Psalms 128:2) states: “If you eat the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you.” “You will be happy” – in this world. “It will be good for you” – in the world to come, which is entirely good.[26]

Who is Complete?

The Rambam[27]defines four areas where man should develop himself in order to achieve “Shleimut” (Perfection/Wholeness):[28]

1. Perfection in one’s possessions;

2. Perfection of one’s physical attributes or health;

3. Perfection of one’s moral and spiritual character;

4. Perfection of one’s intellect.

The Rambam felt that the quest for perfection should correspond to a pyramid structure, with one level forming a natural foundation for the next. This can be illustrated by the graphic below:balhabayitpyramid11

He felt that one’s first responsibility is to ensure financial stability. After that to improve one’s health. Without the proper funds, it is logical that a person will not be able to feed himself properly or improve ones physical condition. Once these basic elements have been addressed, one can develop religiously. Finally, after all of these areas are in proper order, one should develop and perfect one’s intellect. To quote Rabbi Lamm:

The final shleimut is that of intellectual perfection, which expresses itself in the grasping of truth, especially the true perception or knowledge of God. It is this last shleimut, the rational or cognitive one, that represents the highest state of ideal man.[29]

Obviously the arrangement described is oversimplified – life cannot be lived one compartment at a time. All of the areas are generally dealt with contemporaneously. However, the above illustration does point to a certain logical precedence. After all, it would be foolish to investigate esoteric musings before investigating where the next meal is coming from.

The Rambam sees the ideal combination of activity in a holistic manner and not as merely a focus on the spiritual. Dealing exclusively with the spiritual is seen not as a neutral position, but as a negative activity; we are humans, not angels.

The following diagram illustrates what Rambam’s pyramid might look like from the eyes of some in the anti-work world:[30]


This world-view is incomplete, unstable, and far from ideal.

Rabbi Lamm reiterates what shleimut should be:

Shleimut thus implies a wide net: the amassing of all one’s attributes – intellectual and psychological, spiritual and esthetic, practical and moral – and all one’s experiences – sacred and profane, profound and superficial, positive and negative – and their actualization and elevation toward the Holy One, as we worship Him both through our spirituality and our corporeality.[31]

The Yeshiva Experience

The emphasis on the spiritual is appropriate when applied as a balance for those that may be overly materialistic. However, in our opinion, being entirely spiritual and disregarding the material should never be mistaken for a complete philosophy that can guide people through every facet of their complex lives. If we once again turn to the contemporary scene, this is the message that, unfortunately, some yeshivot give over, either consciously or unconsciously. This may not be a problem for those who remain in a pure Torah or yeshiva environment. However, for the rest of the world, which does not live within the four walls of the yeshiva, it is an insufficient guiding philosophy and ideal. Instead of infusing students with feelings of guilt, yeshivot should encourage students to excel in their secular careers while remaining strong in their devotion to Torah.

The classical structure and curriculum of yeshivot contribute significantly to the predominant educational message. Many yeshivot spend the majority of the day studying Talmud, certainly a fundamental area of study. The Rambam himself states that an advanced student should spend the majority of his time delving into the Talmud. However, he assumes that a basic foundation in Jewish law and literature should precede the almost exclusive commitment to Talmud. It is becoming apparent that a growing number of yeshiva high-school graduates lack a solid foundation in Tanakh, Halakha, Ethics, and preparation for real-life issues that will confront them when they leave yeshiva. Unfortunately, these students are not well versed in these basics while they strive to become great Talmudic analysts. For most of them, the great intellectual Talmudic exercises will not continue after yeshiva, and they will be sorely lacking in the basics. This is an issue that would benefit by being addressed in many yeshivot. But the problem is especially acute for students who will not remain lifelong in yeshiva, rather one, two, or even five years. Perhaps their time can be more efficiently spent, and the philosophical message imparted can better reflect the integrative approach that they espouse.[32]

The Rambam has some thoughts that relate to a poor educational structure and its relationship to poor character:

Torah should only be taught to a proper student – one whose deeds are pleasant – or to a simpleton. However, if the student follows a bad path, he should first be influenced to correct his behavior and follow a straight path. After he repents, his deeds are examined and only then is he allowed to enter the house of study to be instructed.[33]

The above is not always the case in today’s schools. Educators continue teaching advanced Talmudic concepts to students whose moral fiber requires much strengthening. The intricacies of Talmudic debates are being taught to students that have no problem stealing, lying, cheating, or committing other ethical crimes. If half the time that these students spent on Talmud were spent on ethical improvement, perhaps institutions could justify teaching Talmud to such students. It is clear, however, that the Rambam would not allow such students to attend his Torah classes – not because of a lack of background or poor analytical skills, but because of poor character. Improvement of character is sorely lacking from many curricula. This failing, coupled with a general lack of other basic knowledge, leaves a major educational gap for many students.[34]

The classical yeshivot are good for students that wish to remain predominantly in that world and have a solid educational and philosophical foundation. We need to cultivate such people that will be immersed in such an environment with few worldly distractions. They are our spiritual leaders and should be as close as possible to the spiritual ideal. For those that will interact and engage the world more fully, an adapted program is needed – one that will give them a solid foundation in the basics of Jewish tradition, law, history, and ethics, and prepare them to be Bnei Torah in our increasingly challenging times.

A Practical Approach – Definitions

Let us now try to approach the issue of integrating Torah and careers, by first defining what appears to be the acceptable range of activity. The limits of the range are set by the extreme approaches at each end of the following spectrum:


On one end you have a person that is wholly materialistic and has divorced himself from preoccupation with Torah and Godly matters. At the other end stands a person that does not give enough concern to material concerns such as food, clothing, and shelter. Seeing the lack of consensus or clear definition by our sages, it is fair to say that no particular point on our spectrum represents the ideal that all people should strive towards. Our spectrum is not necessarily a gauge of one’s religious dedication. It may be an indication of the quantity of time made available for learning as opposed to working. Perhaps quantity is often correlated to the quality and seriousness of the learning, but it is not necessarily so.

From personal conversations, I understood that Rav Yehuda Amital (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion) and Rav Adin Steinsalz (world-renowned Torah scholar and author) believe that the 15 minutes that a career-person learns daily may be of more meaningful than many hours that full-time students learn. The self-sacrifice involved makes all the difference. In addition, career-people strive that their livelihood be made “le-sheim Shamayim” (for the sake of Heaven),[35] thereby sanctifying one’s entire day.[36]Of course, they stressed that Torah is the “ikar” (of prime importance); however, Iikar is defined qualitatively and not quantitatively.

Rambam as a Model?

The Rambam is unique in many respects. His monumental legal work (Mishneh Torah) forms much of the basis for subsequent halakhic literature. He was a pioneer in refining and formulating Jewish philosophy, both in the Mishneh Torah and in his Guide to the Perplexed. His “Thirteen Principles of Faith” signal a turning point in the history of Jewish thought and has served to anchor the faith of the Jewish ever since. It is worthwhile to remember that initially his works were blacklisted and even burned by many leading sages. Eventually, though, the brilliance of the Rambam’s works shone through and they were universally accepted.

The Rambam also pursued a secular career. He was considered one of the premier physicians of his time, and was appointed personal physician to the Sultan of Egypt.[37]It is clear that, even in the Rambam’s time, to become a doctor required many years of studying and training.[38] The Rambam was also well versed in other secular areas such as philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and literature.[39]

The Rambam suggested what he considered a good balance between the study of Torah and the pursuit of a livelihood: work three hours a day and learn nine hours a day.[40] The Rambam himself did not keep these schedules. We know from autobiographical records he both worked as a doctor and was involved in Torah much more than the hours he suggested; he barely slept.[41]

In most professions it is extremely difficult to work only three hours a day. It is difficult both to find such a job and to support one’s self from what one might earn in so few hours. However, there is a small and growing movement of individuals that are pursuing this ideal – and achieving it. In the age of computers, Internet, flex-time and telecommuting, such opportunities are growing. I personally know a graphic artist who learns Torah for a major part of his day and makes a successful living during his limited business hours. I likewise know a highly dedicated Kollel student who in his few available afternoon hours built up his own Internet services company. There are many other stories of people who have managed to live the Rambam’s ideal. However, these examples are few and far between, and are not easily imitated.

Livelihood versus Career

Careers in fields such as medicine, law, engineering, and accounting require years of specialized training during which time otherwise available for Torah study will be limited. Similarly, when the time comes to enter the workforce, the hours open for Torah study will probably be diminished further. How can one justify this apparent “Bittul Torah” (stoppage of Torah study) when one could earn a livelihood with less training and, therefore, have more time for Torah study? In other words, should one invest time preparing for a full-time career that one may have an inclination for, or should one only pursue work that requires little training? Additionally, should one only do enough work to live from hand to mouth, as some sources advise, or can one, to a greater or lesser degree, plan ahead?

These are not simple or trivial questions. Just as there is no consensus regarding the “learning versus working” question,[42] there is no consensus as to the “livelihood versus career” question.[43] However, the search for an answer leads to the most critical element of the puzzle – the person himself.

Halakhot do not always distinguish between different people’s personalities, characteristics and desires.In our questions, however, individual qualities play an essential role in determining the proper path for each person.

Maximizing Personal Tikun Olam

Tikun Olam” (fixing of the world) is Judaism’s way of expressing the universal idea that we are placed on this Earth to improve it.Rav Soloveitchik was quoted as saying:”Man is enjoined to leave his imprint on this world, to go beyond nature and transcend it, not simply imitating it.”[44]This applies on a national as well as individual level.[45]Keeping this idea in mind can help steer us right in answering some of the questions that were raised. To reiterate these questions:

vHow does one choose between full-time learning and full-time work?

vDoes one pursue a professional career or just try to make a living?

vHow far ahead should one be concerned about their finances?

The answer is not only based on one’s strengths and abilities vis-a-vis learning Torah, but revolves around what type of impact one can have on both the world at large and one’s immediate circle.

Part of the answer will depend on the individual’s capabilities, inclinations, and circumstances. There is a tale about Rav Zusha: R’ Zusha stated that when he dies and ascends to Heaven, he will not be asked why he was not Abraham, but why he wasn’t Zusha. Every person has his own unique personality and potential and must seek to fulfill that destiny – not somebody else’s. No formula applies to all.

Rav Yehuda Halevi, in his book “HaKuzari,” describes how a prince ruling a city must make use of all of his talents, leanings and interests. All parts and strengths must be used in a cooperative fashion. None must be allowed to overextend. Each must assist the others in order for the entire organism to function efficiently. Similarly, on an individual level, the same type of balance must be achieved.

If a person is particularly suited for a Torah career and circumstances allow him to pursue it in a dignified manner, he should certainly pursue it. However, if a person has other leanings, he may justifiably pursue a secular career. Not that, God forbid, he should neglect Torah. Torah is always primary. Torah must be a part of every single day. However, it need not occupy the whole day. It is equally legitimate to serve God through one’s work and profession, keeping in mind that one’s activities should be “for the sake of Heaven,” an example of what a God-fearing Jew should be like, and a “light onto the nations.”[46]


The extent that one advances a career or is involved in one’s work is related to the strength of one’s faith. Logically, the more one invests in a profession and in work, the higher the chances of success. Mathematically, the more hours one works, the more money one can make. For a person seeking to secure oneself financially, this thinking can leave little time for Torah. What’s the proper balance?

There are stories of people of tremendous faith, whose physical needs are taken care of miraculously. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who expend tremendous effort and barely make ends meet. Some would argue that the amount of money that one makes is not in proportion to the amount of effort,[47] and that therefore minimum effort is required.[48]However, it is also a well-known tenet that one cannot rely on miracles.[49]

Thus, should a person believe that wealth will just fall into his hand, or should he slave away, spending every waking moment insuring financial security? Ultimately, the question every person must ask himself is, “How much faith should I have?”

I received a satisfying answer from Rabbi Shimon Green (of Yeshivat Bircat Hatorah in the Old City of Jerusalem). He said, “You should have just a little more faith than you currently have.”This answer has tremendous practical appeal and would seem to be in sync with a solid approach to improving one’s character, devotion, and efforts. Instead of traumatically jumping to a new way of life, one should gradually work on one’s self. A person should constantly reflect upon and analyze their present condition and its direction.[50]Always seeking to improve a little bit is one of the most successful and long-lasting methods of character development.

Dynamic Process

The answer to many of our questions is a frustrating “it depends” – not only on the unique qualities of the person, but also on his stage of life. The answer can and does change over time. If a person is at a stage of his life where it is socially and financially acceptable for him to be engrossed in Torah, as many pre-college men are, it would be foolhardy to pass up the opportunity. It would also be a shame not to extend it for as long as possible. On the other hand, for an older man, supporting a family, to suddenly quit his job and take up full-time learning without the means to provide for himself and his family would be irresponsible. It may be hazardous (to health and career) for a sleep-deprived medical resident to have a four-hour Torah study session every single day. But for someone in a less intense liberal arts program it may be more practical.

What remains constant, however, is the requirement to reflect and take personal inventory. On a regular basis, people should examine their activities and see what needs adjustment to maximize what they are doing, including the time they can spend on Torah.

One of the most acclaimed books on choosing a career and what to do with one’s life is What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles.[51]He claims that even career choice is a dynamic process, and that nowadays, on average, people change to a totally different career every 10 years.

This would imply that, throughout life, people are questioning what they are doing and moving toward more interesting activity. One needs to take into account one’s constantly growing and changing experience, skill set, religious commitment, community involvement, and financial, family and social obligations. An honest look at these factors is crucial in the attempt to be self-aware, and the self-knowledge achieved will be the key to determine each individual’s path.

Decision Logic

The following graphic is an attempt to illustrate the thinking and parameters involved in the decision-making process:


In the above diagram, “Learn” refers to full-time Torah learning, “Career” to the full-time pursuit of a career (with as much free time as possible devoted to Torah). The “Rambam Combination” is a combination of less-than-full-time work with several hours of Torah learning each day. All of these options are legitimate and do not close off excelling in Torah. I know someone that works full-time, is one of the top people in his profession and manages not only to learn Torah extensively and at a high level, but also to give a daily Daf Yomi class. There are many examples of this in our own day and throughout our history. Obviously, the entire range should be within an “Acceptable Halakhic Lifestyle.” One unacceptable extreme is to pursue a career and forget Torah. On the other extreme, someone can pursue the study of Torah, but be lacking in certain minimum aspects of proper halakhic behavior.

Ideally, before a decision can be made, a basic level of Torah learning should be attained. If it has not, then efforts should be made to strengthen the areas that are lacking.

The self-examination process should be a regular one. Circumstances change. People get into a pattern and don’t think whether it’s the right one. One needs to ask the right questions to start seeing the answers. Only by constantly pushing and exerting oneself can one’s potential be approached.

In summary, the pursuit of a career is certainly a positive, legitimate and “lekhatchila” option for an observant Jew. One should seek to follow a reasonable and practical course that fits one as an individual. However, to do it properly and successfully requires a rigorous and regular process of self-assessment and – evaluation.

Such questioning is a highly personal activity and demands extensive self-understanding. Goals, ideals and dreams must be defined and redefined. One’s individuality must be discovered. All of these things can be extremely difficult, and made worse by the fact that the process is constant. Every single moment of every single day, a person has the opportunity to redefine himself. For some it is a horrifying burden. For many it is an issue that doesn’t even rise to their consciousness and they go through life taking the path of least resistance. But for some, it is a blessing; and those that make and grab the opportunities – they light up the world.

[1]This article is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents: Tzvi Dov Rosenthal and Eta Spitz.

Special thanks to Rav Doniel Schreiber, Rav Menachem Weinberg, and Rav Ronnie Ziegler for their help. Extra special thanks to my wife and parents for their constant support.Comments can be directed to

[2]Rashi, last Mishna of Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 6, Mishna 11.

[3]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kama, page 30a.

[4]Hillel, Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 5.

[5]Ibid, Chapter 2, Mishna 6.

[6]Rabbi Nachuniah Ben Hakana, Ibid, Chapter 3, Mishna 6.

[7]Rabbi Meir, Ibid, Chapter 4, Mishna 12.

[8]Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Prince, Ibid, Chapter 2, Mishna 2.

[9]Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, Ibid, Chapter 3, Mishna 21.

[10]Maimonides states in his Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 9: “The great sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers, and blind men; and even so, they were occupied in Torah study day and night, and were among those who transmitted the Torah’s teachings from master to student in the chain stretching back to Moses, our teacher.”

[11]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, page 105a. The list of Talmudic names as well as some of the translations and insights on Maimonides are from Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s excellent translation and commentary on The Laws of Torah Study, by Moznaim Publishing Corp. 1989. Permission to use received from publisher, Moshe Shternlicht, 12/13/98.

[12]Ibid, Tractate Eruvin, page 13a.

[13]Ibid, Tractate Nedarim, page 49b.

[14]Ibid, Tractate Gittin, page 67b.

[15]Tractate Shabbat 33b.

[16]There are other issues related to women. The focus here is on men and the issues surrounding their obligations and directives.

[17]In the spirit of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (The Lonely Man of Faith, page 9): “…in modern theological and philosophical categories.My interpretive gesture is completely subjective and lays no claim to representing a definitive Halakhic philosophy.”

[18]For example, see R. Dessler in Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Section 1, Chapter 1.

[19]There are a number of sources that indicate that after the coming of the Messiah all of Israel will be exclusively involved in Torah and will provide spiritual leadership to the nations of the world. See, for example, Maimonides’ Laws of Kings, Chapter 12, Law 5.

[20]Laws of Shemita and Yovel, Chapter 13, Law 12.

[21]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 7.

[22]The whole topic of social classification, labeling and the problems with different communities and groups will just be touched upon briefly here.No offense of any group is meant.While the use of labels is distasteful, it has become a popular and convenient handle and is employed here just to illustrate the point.

[23]Nefesh Ha’Chayim, Rav Chayim Volozhin, Part 4, Chapter 10, “If Torah study were to stop, Heaven and Earth would cease to exist.”Also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, page 32a.The spiritual has a direct effect on the material (i.e. doing the mitzvot leads to God providing rain as we affirm in the Shema).

[24]Rav S. Groineman in his book Chazon Ish: Belief & Faith (published by Sifraiti Ltd., Bnei Brak, 5757 (1997), Chapter 2, Section 4, complains about what he calls “fakers”: “people will say: so-and-so that learned ethics, how disgraceful are his actions, and how disgusting are his schemes.”

[25]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, Law 10. The source for the last statement is given as Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, page 29a: “Whoever does not teach his son a profession is as if he taught him to steal.”

[26]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, Law 11.

[27]This section draws heavily from concepts in the book, Torah Umadda – The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (President of Yeshiva University), Jason Aronson Inc., NJ 1990.

[28]As discussed in the last chapter of his Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 54, and his Introduction to the Mishna, Section 6, Chapter 2.

[29]Ibid, page 213.

[30]Ibid, page 214: “The lowest of Maimonides’ four types, that of possessions, was, of course, dropped – both because of economic conditions throughout much of Jewish history, and, even more, because this was posited as a form of shleimut for analytic or morphological reasons only, and certainly had little else to commend it. The second, physical perfection, similarly fell into desuetude. Whether this happened because conditions in exile made good nutrition inaccessible and hence ignored, or because of the medieval and mystical penchant for seeing the spiritual and the physical as fundamentally antagonistic, its omission was most unfortunate. The third, moral perfection, was both intensified and broadened, with piety (“fear of Heaven”) and punctiliousness in the performance of the mitzvot included along with refinement of character as a most desirable level of human-Jewish perfection. The highest level, that of intellectual perfection, was narrowed to the knowledge and understanding of Torah, with a concomitant downgrading of the knowledge of God and the philosophical, and especially metaphysical, infrastructure that such knowledge presupposed.

Hence, the conventional concept of shleimut and religious growth to which we are heir today consists largely of piety, moral character, and the study of Torah.”

[31]Ibid, page 219.

[32]Established yeshivot are responding slowly to this problem. The need is growing, the vacuum is expanding and if the yeshivot do not take concrete steps to remedy the situation “salvation shall come from elsewhere” [Paraphrase of Megillat Esther: “For if you remain silent during this time, then relief and salvation shall arise to the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s house shall perish; and who knows if you have not come to this royal position for such an occasion?”] – most probably new yeshivot and programs that will cater more to the true needs of such clientele.

Rabbi Berel Wein (renowned Torah scholar, historian and orator) had this to say in a recent interview: “We need a revolution in Jewish education. I see it. There has to be 100 yeshiva high schools and each one of them has to be different.” [Voices, Vol. 2 Issue 12, 15 Kislev 5759 / Dec. 4, 1998.]

New and more “lines of communication” [this phrase, as well as many of the ideas in this article, stem from my father and teacher, Mr. Elliot Spitz] need to be established between the various groups involved in the providing and receiving of Jewish education. Institutions need to adapt and grow within the acceptable boundaries to better serve the community. This is true for our issue specifically as well as for many of the challenges facing the Jewish community. Good communication is essential.

[33]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 4, Law 1.

[34]My brother, Mr. Kalman Spitz, told over to me a “vort” by the Admor of the Shomer Emunim: “Some people, if they are learning 100% of the time, don’t have time or room for God.”

[35]Rabbi Yossi, Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 17: “Let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven.”

[36]See Rav Ronnie Ziegler’s adaptation of a shiur by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein on the subject of one’s secular career activity being more in sync with Divine service/purpose. The article can be found on the Internet at: .

[37]It should be noted that Rambam did start his career solely learning while being supported by his brother. When that ceased, he was forced to make a living as a doctor.

[38]A Maimonides Reader, Isadore Twersky, Behrman House, Inc. 1972.Page 1.

[39]Ibid, page 8.

[40]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 12.

[41]Letter from Rambam to Yosef Ben Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, 1191.

[42]This poignant problem is illustrated by the Talmud: “Over three the Holy One, blessed be He, weeps every day: over him who is able to occupy himself with the study of Torah and does not; and over him that is unable to occupy himself with the study of Torah and does…” Tractate Chagiga 5b.

[43]One side of the argument is taken up in the last Mishna of Kiddushin, that a father should only teach his son an easy and clean trade, while the last Mishna of Avot is interpreted that every inclination in a person is for a purpose and they should be directed towards positive activities and goals (i.e. a bloodthirsty person should become a Shochet or a Mohel, Tractate Shabbat 156a).

[44]Shiur by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Nov. 24, 1986, “The Growth of a Ben-Torah.”

[45]This is a recurring theme among our sages. Rav Kook gives deep insight into the idea, especially as it relates to the concept of repentance, in the fourth chapter of Orot Ha-teshuva.

[46]Isaiah 49:6

[47]“On Rosh Hashana, God establishes how much every person will earn for the year.”Tractate Beitza 16a. Also, last Mishna of Kiddushin.

[48]See Rav Dessler in Michtav Me-Eliyahu,Vol 1, Five levels of Torah and Derekh Eretz, pp. 197-203.

[49]Ein Somkhin al ha-neis. Pesachim 64b.

[50]This philosophy is highly relevant in Ba’al Teshuva movements. There are some people that preach a rapid change of life – taking on all of the components of what may be a totally alien lifestyle in a very short period of time. Experience has shown that the majority of people adopting such a course bounce right back to their previous lifestyle, or take on their new one in a very shallow fashion. Groups with more long-term success push for a more deliberate and gradual change of lifestyle. This thinking can be adopted for the daily improvements and repentance obligated by all.

[51]“What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers,”Richard Nelson Bolles, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.

Tactical Deception and Clueless Pawns

Tactical Deception and Clueless Pawns

While God performs awesome miracles, He apparently also balances them with as many “natural” causes as possible. This is fairly evident in the Splitting of the Sea and the subsequent drowning of the entire Egyptian Armed Forces in one of the most dramatic events in our history.

God could have simply disintegrated the entire Egyptian Army with their Cavalry and Chariots and at the same time teleported the fleeing Israelites to their destination.

Apparently God wanted everyone to sweat a bit, have time to absorb the fantastic events, and appreciate the incredible process that was occurring. God guides the ensuing military maneuvers in a fashion that would have earned the admiration of Sun-Tzu.

“And when Pharaoh sent the nation, and God did not lead them by the Philistine route, for it was close; for God said, lest the nation regret when they see war and return to Egypt. And God turned the nation on the desert route, the Suf Sea, and the Children of Israel ascended armed from the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17-18)

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno says something that may sound surprising upon first inspection. Sforno explains that God wanted to take the Jews to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and then subsequently to the land of Israel. Sforno claims that the Suf Sea didn’t lead to either of these places.

The sole reason the Jews were led to the sea, was for the express purpose of baiting the Egyptians and drowning them in the miraculous trap God was setting for them.

Furthermore, it seems that the fastest route to the Suf Sea was actually via the Philistine route that God diverted the Jews away from.

Sforno explains that tactically, God wanted his Jewish pawns to be unaware of the pursuing Egyptians until it was too late. Apparently, the Philistine route was a well traveled road that was inhabited along its path. Once Pharaoh would have started his chase, the Jews would have gotten wind of it very quickly and in fear would have returned to Egypt and beg for a merciful return to their enslavement. God wanted his bait to be unaware of the impending attack in the radio-silence of the uninhabited desert. That way, when the Egyptian attack on the escaping Jews was imminent, the Jews would have no option of returning to their Egyptian masters.

The strategy, of course, works. The Jews with their backs to the sea, witness the charging Egyptian army. The Egyptians believe they have the frightened Jews trapped. The frightened Jews believe they are trapped and lament their having left Egypt.

The two protagonist nations are in place. God places some cloud cover to protect the Jews from immediate attack and blows a strong wind (more “natural” causes) to split the sea. The Jews take this surprising escape route and the Egyptians, once the cloud cover has been removed, follow in rapid pursuit.

The trap is sprung and the Egyptian army is annihilated.

I don’t know if Sun-Tzu was inspired by or even knew of the Biblical story, but following is a quote from his famous “Art of War”:

“The Power of Surprise”

“Generally, in a conflict,
The Straightforward will lead to engagement and
The Surprising will lead to triumph.”

“Those who are skilled in producing surprises
Are as infinitely varied as heaven and earth,
And as inexhaustible as the great rivers.”

When Moses and the Children of Israel subsequently sing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19), it’s not by chance that they praise “God, Man of War; God is His Name.” (Exodus 15:3).

May God always guide us in the tactics and strategies we need for success – even if at times we are clueless!

Shabbat Shalom,



To the IDF.

Unfamiliar Terms?

From Wikipedia

The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise that was written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu. Composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare, it has long been praised as the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time.

The Art of War is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world. It has had a huge influence on Eastern military thinking, business tactics, and beyond. Sun Tzu recognized the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a competitive environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.

Aerodynamics of Egyptian Hail

Something About Sforno  — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Va’era 5769

Aerodynamics of Egyptian Hail

US Air Force test pilot, Chuck Yeager, is credited as being the first person to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, in the Bell X-1. Many pilots before him died trying. It took test pilots and engineers many years to understand and overcome the many issues surrounding traveling faster than the speed of sound. Some scientists thought it was impossible and aircraft would break apart from the extreme pressure and vibrations as they approached the sound barrier.

In the early days of the cold war, the one critical element lacking in the development of nuclear missiles was known as “atmospheric reentry technology”. Scientists discovered that anything they sent into space or even the upper atmosphere would burn up on reentry. As such they needed to develop proper shielding technology to protect the “payload”.

Sonic booms and atmospheric reentry burnout were technological issues that were not even dreamed off until a few decades ago.

As such, it is outright incredible that Rabbi Ovadia Sforno describes both of these phenomena in his commentary about half a millennium ago.

In Exodus 9:23-24 the Bible recounts:

“And Moses outstretched his staff to the heavens, and God gave sounds and hail, and fire descended earthward, and God rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail and fire together in the hail, very heavy, the like of which was not in Egypt since it’s becoming a nation.”

Sforno comments on the “fire descended”:

“The flaming air descended to the earth with the force of the movement of the hail that pressed on it (the air) during its descent.”

Sforno basically and accurately described atmospheric reentry during the same period of time when Leonardo Da Vinci was playing with his water engine.

Sforno continues:

“In the force of the movement of the hail during its descent, the air was flamed and produced sound.”

He’s talking about sonic booms!

Imagine an ongoing downpour of burning hailstones accompanied by continuous sonic booms. It’s no wonder Pharaoh is frightened out of his wits and begs for the noise to stop before mentioning the hail.

The fact that Sforno was able to describe scientific concepts that we think of as exclusively from our modern era simply leaves me awestruck.

May plagues continue to hail down on our enemies, and may we be spared, and like our ancestors may we witness redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Dr. Irwin Rochwarger, a beloved mentor and teacher. As an engineer who designed and built satellites for NASA, amongst many other amazing technological feats, he would have appreciated very much Sforno’s insight.

Unfamiliar Terms?

The term sonic boom is commonly used to refer to the shocks caused by the supersonic flight of an aircraft. Sonic booms generate enormous amounts of sound energy, sounding much like an explosion. Thunder is a type of natural sonic boom, created by the rapid heating and expansion of air in a lightning discharge.[1]


When an object passes through the air, it creates a series of pressure waves in front of it and behind it, similar to the bow and stern waves created by a boat. These waves travel at the speed of sound, and as the speed of the object increases, the waves are forced together, or compressed, because they cannot “get out of the way” of each other, eventually merging into a single shock wave at the speed of sound. This critical speed is known as Mach 1 and is approximately 1,225 kilometers per hour (761 mph) at sea level.


The cracking sound a bullwhip makes when properly wielded is, in fact, a small sonic boom. The end of the whip, known as the “cracker”, moves faster than the speed of sound, thus resulting in the sonic boom.[3] The whip was the first human invention to break the sound barrier.[citation needed]

A bullwhip tapers down from the handle section to the cracker. The cracker has much less mass than the handle section. When the whip is sharply swung, the energy is transferred down the length of the tapering whip. In accordance with the formula for kinetic energy, the velocity of the whip increases with the decrease in mass, which is how the whip reaches the speed of sound and causes a sonic boom.

Einstein’s Shmitta: Theories and Divine Calculus

Einstein’s Shmitta: Theories and Divine Calculus

by Ben-Tzion Spitz


I was running, walking, crawling, jumping, through a constantly changing landscape of desert, mountains, forests, caves, beaches, and snow covered slopes of what could only have been Israel.

“Mr. Spitz. Mr. Spitz! Please wake up.” exclaimed Prof. Komar in our Modern Physics lecture.

“I’m sorry Prof. Komar. I must have dozed off” I apologized quickly as he continued deriving yet another of Einstein’s equations on relativity.

The place was Yeshiva University’s Science Building. It must have been around 6pm on a Thursday night in the winter of 1989/90. I was in a class with only two other students, so it was uncomfortably easy to be spotted doing anything else, especially my favorite classroom effort of catching up on some sleep.

Prof. Komar had a very distinctive personality and appearance as anyone who was in YU at that time might remember. He always wore black; black shoes, black pants and a black button down shirt. What was even more distinctive was that though at the time he must have been in his fifties, he had very thick snow white hair on his head that stood straight up and a neatly trimmed white beard that framed his pale face. The contrast of the constant black garments versus the sharp almost albino features made Prof. Komar memorable even to those that weren’t in his class.

One of Prof. Komar’s claims to fame was that he was a student of Einstein’s during his tenure in Princeton University. My classmates and I (though I was probably the leader in this effort) would often question Prof. Komar about Einstein and would elicit stories about him to pass the time and distract him from going through more equations. I think Prof. Komar also enjoyed reminiscing. To this day I proudly proclaim that I have good ‘Yichus’ (pedigree) when it comes to my physics education (I can’t claim much else), as I am a student of a student of Einstein.

Einstein is of course renown for thinking of, popularizing and formalizing the “Theory of Relativity” and the most famous equation of conservation of mass and energy: E=mc2.

I believe though that these principles were well known to Chazal (the Rabbis) millennia before Einstein and that they form a founding basis for many Biblical and Talmudic accounts. Furthermore, the Rabbis added a further dimension (which mathematicians have theorized mathematically, but have not named). Besides the spatial and temporal dimensions, the Rabbis always considered the spiritual dimension.

Spatial & Temporal Distortion

The first place I came across the concept that spirituality or holiness has an effect on physical reality was in an article by Stephen Greenman in the book “Encounter: Essays on Torah and modern life” (a companion volume to Challenge), edited by H. Chaim Schimmel and Aryeh Carmell, Feldheim Publishers 1989. This was a perception altering article for me.

One of the effects that the equations of relativity predict is that the closer one gets to the speed of light the shorter dimensions become to an observer. Just to illustrate: if Harry Potter was flying on a broomstick and he was approaching the speed of light, his broomstick would appear shorter (he’d get thin too and would probably not survive flying at such speeds – but this didn’t trouble Einstein – so I won’t worry either).

Taken to its logical and mathematical extreme, anything traveling at the speed of light would be reduced to a dimension of zero. For those of you thinking that this would be a fantastic weight-loss program, there is unfortunately a converse but parallel effect. The closer one gets to the speed of light, the heavier one gets and at the speed of light ones weight would become mathematically infinite. A better known angle to these equations is that the faster one moves the slower time passes, and at the speed of light, time would stand still.

I used to think to that if I walked faster I would age slower, but this only works at velocities approaching the speed of light. Needless to say, these laws have little practical day-to-day relevance and Sir Isaac Newton’s more simplistic view of the universe still serves us quite well centuries later.

Rabbi Greenman, however suggests in his article a novel concept and the consideration of another factor or dimension – that of holiness. He demonstrates in his article, based on a discrepancy in the measurements of articles in the Temple, that there was a relativity effect occurring. The closer one got to the epicenter of the Holy of Holies (in this case the spiritual equivalent of the speed of light) the shorter dimensions in the Temple become. His proof is that the same utensils that are closer to the Holy of Holies are indeed recorded as being shorter. The jackpot of his proof is that in the Holy of Holies itself, there is a tradition that the Ark took up no space whatsoever – in exact agreement with his interpretation of Einstein’s equations.

From this vantage point we can then better understand multiple other cases of spatial distortion throughout the Bible and the Talmud. While there are traditionally considered miracles, we can now better understand the method to these ‘miracles’.

Commentators claim that when our Patriarch Jacob went to sleep in the town of Bet-El the entire land of Israel compressed itself and his body encompassed an area that was previously thousands of square miles. While on the surface, this may not seem to make any sense, or may be attributed to some other underlying symbolic reason, according to what we might call the “Spiritual Laws of Relativity”, it makes perfect sense.

Jacob had his first divine revelation; he was at a heightened state of prophecy and spirituality. It is therefore entirely logical that a relativistic effective such as shorted spatial distances should occur.

I’m sure that the reader, armed now with this viewpoint can identify multiple other ‘miracles’ that are recounted by Rabbinic commentaries, that can link the relativistic effect to the recipients spiritual state.

“Dune”, the best-selling science-fiction classic by Frank Herbert, has as one of its central themes the search for the “Kvisatz Haderach”. According to Herbert the “Kvitsatz Haderach” is the man that will be able, with his mind, to jump through and bridge the dimensions of time and space and therefore enable interstellar travel. Rashi uses almost the exact same phrase when explaining what happens to Jacob on his journey to Haran where he transverses a mutli-day journey in the space of a single day.

This is yet another example of the intertwining of the ‘miraculous’ with the “Spiritual Laws of Relativity” and how these concepts have already entered popular culture to an extent.

To Einstein and mathematicians, time was just another dimension; the fourth to be precise. We have shown so far that there is a relativistic connection between space, time and holiness. This connection is not more apparent than in the land of Israel.

Israel as a Holiness Gauge

Countless Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic sources speak about the holiness of the land of Israel. This holiness, besides for the relativistic effects we discussed above, is demonstrated by its relationship to the inhabitants. The Bible speaks about the land of Israel having to “kick out” the previous Canaanite inhabitants because of their sins and immorality. The land of Israel is meant for the children of Israel because of their shared holiness. However, when the children of Israel sin overmuch, the land can’t “handle” them either, and the result is exile. Some commentators discuss how the commandments cannot be completely fulfilled outside of the land of Israel and that Israel is the only place where a Jew can be complete. On the flip side there is a higher level of spiritual accountability.

In Beit Hannassi (The President’s Residence) in Jerusalem, one can see the original correspondence between Ben Gurion and Einstein when they requested he serve as the first President of the State of Israel. Einstein declined, but I wonder if one of the reasons might have been out of concern for the Spiritual Relativistic Laws that are most pertinent in Israel and the responsibility they engender.

Perhaps the clearest connection between holiness and the land of Israel are the laws of Shmitta (the agricultural sabbatical year).

The Bible commands the children of Israel a number of times to let the land lie fallow on the seventh year. Besides being good agricultural practice in terms of letting the soil regain lost nutrients and providing for better productivity, there are also a host of social and economic benefits for the broader community.

An interesting facet of Shmitta is that the year and its resulting produce are considered ‘Holy’, comparable to the holiness of the seventh day of the week. The spiritual accounting that occurs with Shmitta and its correlation between the people of Israel and the land of Israel seems quite stringent. The prophets themselves berate the people when they don’t adhere to the precepts of Shmitta and describe exile from the land as its punishment. The punishment is calculated with mathematical precision, where the exile apparently lasts for as many years as the Shmitta went unheeded.

While not keeping Shmitta can lead to a mathematically precise divine retribution, adherence to Shmitta, we are told in the Bible itself, will lead to a clear yet ‘miraculous’ multiplication of benefit. A farmer who refrains from working the land for one year, but is concerned about his income, is promised that his produce will be guaranteed, for not one, not two, but for three years.

E=mc2 as a formula for reward and punishment

In Einstein’s formulation, E stands for Energy, m stands for Mass and c is the speed of light, which is a constant.

One of the realizations that came out from this formula which is what helped usher in the nuclear age is that the conversion of Mass to Energy is an incredibly powerful phenomenon.The most powerful energy is when mass is completely converted into energy, such as in an antimatter reaction (this is real stuff, though Star Trek popularized it). In an antimatter reaction there is complete annihilation of the matter and complete conversion to energy. Multiplying mass by c2 leads to a lot of energy. Just for comparison, let’s look at how much energy is produced by these different processes:

Burning Petrol:9.1 million joules/kg

Nuclear fission of Uranium:82 million million joules/kg

Antimatter reaction:90,000 million million joules/kg

The same mass can give very different energy levels depending on the type of mass and the efficiency of the conversion process.

If we attempt to use the E=mc2 formulation in the spiritual realm, we could propose as follows:

c would stand for closeness to God, doing what’s right, or being Holy. In this realm approaching (the speed of) light would be parallel to approaching God (except that in our formula it would not be a constant.

m would stand for the material, the resources, the intentions and the effort that go into any particular activity and parallels the mass that is invested into any process.

Finally, E would stand for the results. It is not only the Energy that is created as in the physical world, but rather all of the positive (or negative) effects that occur in this world and the next. The point is that the reward (or punishment) is a geometric function (multiplication of a square) and not a linear one.

Einstein once explained relativity as follows: “Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

Our Rabbis understood relativity and geometric reward quite well, when they stated millennia ago: “Greater is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world, than the entire life of the World to Come; and greater is one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of this world.”


The Bible, Talmud and later Rabbis all understood the concept that we modernly call ‘relativity’. Einstein, the man who popularized it, applied it and his famous equations to a strictly physical world. We have seen ample evidence that these can be applied in the spiritual world, where one strives for holiness and closeness to God. Shmitta, the original agricultural Sabbatical year in Israel is a particularly concrete manifestation of the divine operating via the physical. The commandments in general and this one in particular call for our attention and understanding and to appreciate them beyond the obvious aspects of their performance. A scientific view of the Torah can only enhance a deeper connection to its precepts.

Einstein himself would have participated in the effort. At a symposium on the topic of Science and Religion, he succinctly summarized his philosophy: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”