An Orthodox Jewish man covered with snow walks in Jerusalem / Getty Images
New York’s got nothing on ancient Jerusalem, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s got nothing on Rabbi Hillel the Elder.
While we were all rushing home to take shelter from the impending Blizzard Juno, with its promised “historic” downfall of 30 inches of snow, and while our fearless leader Cuomo was busy shutting down the entire New York City subway system, an unprecedented reaction that many believed was just for show, I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favorite Talmud stories.
This story proves that the ancient rabbis were totally badass when it came to coping with snow. At least, Hillel the Elder was. A promised 30 inches? That’s nothing! Hillel willingly stayed out in 54 inches of snow! His motivation? Well, see for yourself:
If ever there was a good night to light Hanukkah candles, it’s tonight — one of the longest nights in human history.
No, that’s not a figure of speech. It is literally one of the longest nights Earth has ever seen!
You may already know that December 21-22 is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year for anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere. But did you know that the Earth’s rotation is actually slowing down over time, which means that in a typical year the length of a day increases by 15-25 millionths of a second, which means that this year’s winter solstice will be longer than in years past (and could’ve been the longest ever had it not been for climate change)?
It’s true. True, and also inconvenient, because the teeny increase means that every few years official timekeepers are forced to add a “leap second”!
The reason for the phenomenon, scientists explain, has to do with the moon and a little something called tidal acceleration. We won’t get into all the geeky details here, but if you want to understand the science behind it, check out this explanation over at Vox. If you’re content to take this on faith, the important thing to remember is that the stretch of darkness we’re about to experience is much longer than our poor planet normally endures.
When studying Talmud, it’s easy to be desensitized to the real-life implications of even the most sensitive issues — rape, for example.
So, as we at Yeshivat Har Etzion study the third chapter of the Talmudic tractate Ketubot, a chapter devoted to the crimes of rape and seduction, it’s easy to forget (especially when using the Hebrew terms) that “ones u-mefateh” are not just legal categories, but traumatic events that affect real people.
To combat that, my yeshiva arranged two presentations this week to ensure that I and the other students fully grasp what’s at stake in discussions of rape and sexual assault.
The first, as our teacher Rabbi Shmuel Shimoni noted, was meant to highlight the human dimensions, and therefore avoided both Jewish legal and secular legal issues. The yeshiva invited Yonina Fallenberg, Director of the Rape Crisis Center for Religious Women in Tel Aviv, to speak at this presentation. She was moved by the invitation, noting that she normally speaks to communities who have been shocked by sexual abuse. To speak to our group without any such prompting highlighted for her (and for us) that the yeshiva understood that “the greatest Torah is that which is connected to reality.”
A still from the Iranian version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” music video / YouTube
It’s a weird aftereffect of a Jewish day school education that, when I see a headline like “Iran Court Sentences ‘Happy’ Dancers to 6 Months and 91 Lashes,” I immediately ask myself: WWTDD? Or: what would the Talmud do?
You might remember that back in May, seven young men and women were arrested in Iran for recreating Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” music video and posting it on YouTube. Now a Tehran court has sentenced the dancers to six months in prison plus 91 lashes each. Luckily, the sentence was suspended, meaning that the verdict won’t actually be carried out unless the dancers repeat their “crime” in the next three years.
Still, it’s a harsh verdict, and everyone from Pharrell Williams to Iran’s own President Hassan Rouhani seems unhappy with how these kids have been treated. “It is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness,” Williams wrote on his Facebook page. “Happiness is our people’s right. We shouldn’t be too hard on behaviors caused by joy,” Rouhani wrote in a May tweet widely seen as expressing support for the dancers.
Likewise, my initial response was: Ouch! 91 lashes? Even the ancient rabbinic texts I studied in school didn’t recommended meting out that many! Then, to make sure my impulse was correct, I did a bit more digging into the wide world of rabbinic whipping.
Despite rain and traffic jams, the mood was jubilant at MetLife stadium on August 1, as some 90,000 Orthodox Jews gathered to celebrate the completion of the study of the Talmud, or Siyum HaShas.
A massive crowd of mostly ultra-Orthodox men in dark suits and hats packed the East Rutherford, N.J., football stadium, spilling out onto concourses, escalators and parking lots. Several thousand women also attended, seated on the upper level behind a specially constructed, $250,000 divider made of green plastic that remained open for much of the evening.
“It was inspiring,” said Yossi Gelber, an accountant from Queens who has participated off and on in the page-a-day Talmud regimen, or Daf Yomi, since 1990. “How often do you get to [pray] with 90,000 people?”
“I came to have an imprint in my mind and to be part of something wonderful,” added Pnina Fenig, a speech therapist and Toronto native now living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The event, which began at 7:30 pm and lasted until after midnight, marked the 12th completion of the 2,711-page cycle that begins anew every seven-and-a-half years. The daily study system was initiated in 1923 in Vienna, at the first congress of Agudath Israel, by Rabbi Meir Shapiro.
While this year’s event marked the largest such gathering to date, celebrations were held in previous years at venues such as Madison Square Garden, Continental Airlines Arena and Nassau Coliseum.