Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Es" and Naming

A transitive verb takes a direct object. In Hebrew, this object is preceded by the word es. But there is a caveat to be entered. Transitive verbs come in two kinds. Crudely speaking, a transitive verb represents an action taken in regard to an object. Now, sometimes, quite often actually, this object (its existence) antedates the action taken, as represented by the verb. However, in other instances, the object is brought into being by this action; it did not exist previously. Now, if we look around, we find that it is not in all instances that the direct object of a transitive verb is, in the Torah, preceded by es. Often it is; but sometimes it isn’t. What accounts for this? Without yet explaining it, I want to suggest that the situation bifurcates itself with whether the object of the verb in question is being brought into existence by the the action represented by the verb or it is not being brought into being but, already existing, is merely acted upon. In the letter case, there occurs an es; in the former one, not. It is as if the es implied that there was something there for the designated action to operate upon.

To this it will immediately be objected that the verse uses es with bereishi bara elokim. And here, the heavens and earth are represented as being first brought into being! This, to be sure, is a seemingly powerful rebuttal. But in amelioration, I want to suggest that the situation there is distinctive, in that not only did the object of the verb not yet exist, the materials from which it was to be composed were not in existence either. In other words, the heavens and earth were to be created ex nihilo. Indeed, the object in question was matter itself (see the Ramban). Now, I want to further suggest, that the reason that es is not used in conjunction with an object that does not already exist is that there is a lack of definitiveness; and an indefinite object does not command an es prefix. This indefiniteness arises from a state of affairs in which an object needs to be formed by means of a certain composition of preexisting matter; and the manner of composition is (as yet) unknown. It is indeterminate. However, where it is to be created ex nihilo, there is no unknown quantity, matter, to speak of. The object is thus independent of any unknown source. Consequently, it is not wanting in definitiveness. So it is suitable for taking an es prefix.

Good. But now another, seemingly more formidable problem comes to the fore. In countless places in the Torah we find es omitted in conjunction with an object that already exists. Furthermore (to make matters worse), we find one and the same object sometimes prefixed by es, sometimes not. A case in point (actually a series of them) is the use of es in this week’s parsha (Vayeitzei), where the word for a name - sheim - occurs several times in the position of a direct object, fully complemented by an es prefix. Thus we read: (Bereishis: 30,11) vatikra es shemo gad. And a few verses ahead we find vatikra es shemo asheir. There are similar other such instances. Yet, remaining ensconced in this very same context, we also find vatikra shemo re-uvein, vatikra shemo shimon, and other comparable instances in which the leading es is omitted. How are such disparities to be accounted for (on my theory)? Is giving a name creating something new or not?

Let us try to reason it through. Should shemo re-uvein be prefixed by an es or shout it not? On the principle that es is used to prefix an existing object but not to prefix a non-existent one, it might appear that it should not. After all, the name re-uvein had not pre-existed; it was first being formulated by Leah and applied, for the first time, to the newborn (unnamed) child. This logic would, then, account for all those instances in which sheim was not prefixed by es. But what about those instances in which it was? Perhaps we can conjure an entirely different logic. Perhaps, true though it be the the infant was newborn and being named for the very first time; nevertheless, the name that he was given was not per se new. The name had a semantical, connotative origin, delineated in the verse itself as an explanation of Leah’s decision to name him thus. Moreover, it was being applied to the infant who had already been born and, therefore, very much in existence. (Vatikra shemo... can thus be parsed something along the lines of vatikra es hayeled

This thinking, then, accounts for the instances in which es is used. But seemingly, it has got to be one way or the other, not both ways! Why, then, do we find vacillation among the verses in this regard – seeming inconsistency?

Here, then, is what it occurs to me to say. There are, indeed, two ways in which to refer to something (designated by the direct object of a transitive verb). One is as a fully specified independently existing thing. It needs merely to be identified, that is, picked out. Its description (or, at least, one of them) is presumed already known. The other is as something not so definite and not so objective. Its identity is not presumed already known but is furnished in place through description, provided in the very context in which mention of it is made. In the latter case, there is no occurrence of es; only in the former.

One and the same type of thing can be referenced in either way: as something needing merely to be identified or as something with whose essence acquaintance has first to be made. So it is with, for example, a newborn’s name. The name can be thought of as preexisting, taking the shape of an idea previously encountered, familiar from other contexts. It is merely being here re-applied. It can, on the other hand, also be thought of as conjuring up something novel: a newly configured aspect under which something is to fall, one whose contours have yet to receive definitive concretization. In the latter case only is a process of dynamic creativity at work. For this reason, it makes do without an accompanying es.

In the one case, the act of naming is conceived as merely specifying. The child is conceived of as inherently having a name; the mother (in this instance) does something to it, by specifying its identity. It is as if the name per se had preexisted. All that was needed was for it to be called something or other. It could be called any of a number of things. Whatever it is called, it remains the child’s name, something (a name) which the child had all along. It is as if an as yet unnamed child already had a name (which awaits being called something)! Perhaps the idea is that the name a child is ultimately given is one it had had all along – existing initially in an inchoate or undisclosed state. The act of naming merely crystallizes it or reveals it. In any event, in the other case, though, a name is thought of as something brought into existence through the act of naming.

It would be interesting to see if this theory is borne out. If it is, it will then turn out that es is withheld not only in connection with objects that reference things first being brought into being but, as well, with objects representing preexistent things whose contours have not, however, been (adequately) fully defined – and whose definitions therefore await elaboration from the very contexts in which these objects appear. 

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In philosophical anthropology we hear it said that language creates things, or that it at least creates properties of things. What properties a thing is seen as having is, it is maintained, a function of human interest. Man conceptualizes to suit his needs; consequently, untold (latent) aspects of things go unnoticed. They are unnoticed, because man has not (as yet) found any use for the thing in question under the aspect in question, a use that draws attention to it and gives it the status of an (identifiable, recognizable) aspect. This being so, the need to have a word corresponding to such an “aspect” does not arise. Thus it is that language creates features. In keeping with this, it is further said that different cultures employ different languages, having differing powers of conceptualization. Some languages make room for this-and-that aspect; others do not. What you see is therefore a function of the language you speak – the culture to which you belong. This is familiar philosophy.

Perhaps this is the idea behind the absence versus the presence of es of which I have been speaking.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

There Is No G-d Other Than You

Ein elokim zulasecha. How is this to be read?

A) Other than the G-d that You are there is none.

B) A “god” other than You there isn’t (i.e., does not exist).

Only on reading A is the word elokim holy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

More on the Bechor

The Gemara struggles to understand why the Mishnah found it necessary to enumerate all these cases and not rely on our independent inferential powers. The Gemara offers that, if the Mishnah had only mentioned the case of buying a fetus from a goy, we wouldn’t have inferred the case of selling one to a goy because, by selling a fetus to a goy, the seller divests it of its sanctity. And although this distinction is irrelevant to the animal’s status as a Jewish-owned one, it might still have impacted on our disposition to treat the two cases alike as far as the requirement to redeem a first-born is concerned. In might have led us to think that the case of selling should incur an obligation to redeem, so that the amount expended in fulfillment of this requirement might serve as a penalty for the injustice of relieving the animal of its sanctity. Notwithstanding the fact that the animal is not Jewish-owned and, therefore, not subject to the Torah-imposition of redemption, we might nevertheless have supposed that the injustice perpetrated by causing the animal to be relieved of its sanctity would justify a rabbinic imposition of such a penalty and a requirement to treat the animal as if it had conformed to the specifications of a first-born donkey with regard to which the obligation to redeem applied. So that we are not thus misled, the Mishnah made it a point to specify the case of selling a fetus to a goy in its enumeration of instances with regard to which the obligation to redeem is relaxed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Peter Chamor

Ok. Suppose you’re a Jew and the one next to you is goy. His donkey is carrying an as yet unborn offspring, and you buy it from him. Assuming that this will have been the first offspring that the donkey in question has produced, are you obligated to treat it as a peter chamor and redeem it? The Mishnah says no. Now suppose that you have one (you have a donkey that’s carrying an offspring) and you sell it to him (the as yet unborn offspring). The Mishnah says two things. First, you are not really allowed to sell it to him. And second, if you sold it to him anyway, you are not obliged to treat it as a peter chamor. What if you and the goy are partners in the ownership of a donkey or of its as yet unborn foal? There too, the foal is not treated as a peter chamor. What, now, if you have entered into an arrangement with him, whereby you get a share in the donkey’s offspring, receiving some of them? Here too, the firstborn offspring you receive is not subject to the requirements of peter chamor. What if, instead of an arrangement whereby you receive some of the produce of his donkey, you enter into one by which he receives some of the produce of your donkey? Are you required to treat the firstborn foal of this donkey of yours as being subject to the laws of peter chamor? No. In each case, the criterion of being that of a yisra-el has not been met.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Befallen with calamity, the Shunamis had come to see Elisha. Upon approaching his abode, she was initially met by Geichazi, who immediately asked her how things were. She responded saying things were fine. Only when, finally, meeting with Elisha did she reveal her true state of desperation and anguish. Evidently, she hadn’t come just to brood. Her mission was purposeful and urgent. Her example is a true inspiration and merits a lot of contemplation.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Certainty and Doubt

Within thirty days, if someone forgets mashiv haru-ach, he’s supposed to repeat. If he’s unsure, he’s also supposed to repeat. Suppose he’s unsure but he does not repeat. Suppose, further, that in point of fact (kamei shemaya galya) he said it. Does he miss out?

When they said that someone who is unsure has to repeat, did they assimilate it to the case in which someone has no doubt that he failed to mention it, in which case they impose on him to repeat? Or did they not assimilate this case to that one, but instead said that this is what you do to resolve your doubt: take the stringent path and act as if you knew that you had not said it? On the first view, they assimilated the case of doubt to the case of certainty objectively, giving them the same status and, therefore, the same ruling. (Their thinking may have been that chances favor his not having said it. THEY thus resolved the question for him and rendered their ruling.) In the one case, like in the other, they obligated him to repeat. On the second view, by contrast, they did not pronounce on the objective status of the situation but, instead, addressed themselves to the subjective condition (characterized by a state of doubt) of the individual, instructing him how to go about in resolving this inner tension.

There is something to be said for the suggestion that on the resolution of this latter conundrum depends the resolution of the former.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Obligation to Give

In the Shulchan Aruch it says that someone who is approached by a poor person asking for a donation is not allowed to let him go empty handed. He needs to oblige him. To this Reb Ya-akov zl stipulated that it applies only when being approached by the poor person himself. It does not, however, apply when someone is approached by someone who collects in behalf of a poor person or poor people. Much less, he added, does it apply when someone is approached via a mailed solicitation.

It happened that someone announced in shul that he was authorized by the administration of the shul to appeal to the congregation for funds for the benefit of a certain cause. The members of the congregation made pledges in response to the appeal. It transpired, however, that he had made his claim falsely and had never been so authorized. Reb Ya-akov zl ruled that the responders were not required to honor their pledges, and that their pledges were considered to have been made in error and were, therefore, not binding.
(Adapted from Bemechitzas Rabeinu)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hatov Vehameitiv

Shebechal yom vayom hu heitiv hu meitiv hu yeitiv lanu... Ostensibly, it isn’t so! On any given day, He does good for us on that day, for that day. What He did for us yesterday was good for us then. It is not, however, good for us now, today! What is good for us now is what He does for us now. Similarly, what He will do for us tomorrow will be good for us tomorrow. But it seemingly has nothing to do with what is in our interest vis-à-vis today! So, then, why does not the mevareich stop at saying: shebechal yom vayom hu meitiv lanu?

From this we see that it isn’t so. We see that His having done good for us yesterday is in our interest today, and that He will bestow good on us tomorrow affects us today and makes it good for us in the very present. Why so? Because an isolated benefit, as good as it is, pales in comparison with a continuous one. If I receive something as an extemporaneous gift, I may be very pleased and ingratiated to my benefactor. But my worries aren’t over, as I’ve still got the future to think about. When, on the other hand, I receive something that is ongoing, it makes a difference to my exultation and gratitude in the very present. I am secure and provided for! This is the sense by which I am overcome.

But there is also another point. A person doesn’t live just for the present day. To meet his goals, a person needs a whole expanse of time, the greater perhaps the better. Consequently, I am grateful to Him today not only for what He does for me today but, equally, for what He has done for me yesterday and the day before, inasmuch as the past has been crucial to my ability to accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish today. And the sustenance that I will receive tomorrow, and so on, is likewise essential to by ability to bring my accomplishments of today (and yesterday) to fruition in the period lying ahead. Therefore, I’m never just grateful for His beneficence to me today; I’m always grateful to Him for the good He has already bestowed upon me and for what He will bestow upon me going forward. All of this matters to the present, which is importantly continuous with, and linked to, the past and the future.

And it goes even beyond this. On any given day, He does good for us not only for today but, also, for yesterday and tomorrow. By sustaining me today, He makes it so that what I did yesterday will potentially reach fruition, which is a goodness vis-à-vis yesterday. And by the same token, He makes so that it will be good for me tomorrow, whose success depends on what will have foregone today. By sustaining me today, He makes it so that yesterday was good and so that tomorrow will be good, in addition to making today good.

(Of course, in a more literal vein, you could interpret it as saying that, with regard to each and every day, He either did good for us, does good for us, or will do good for us.)

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On each and every day, He did us good, He does unto us good, and He will do for us good. Why so? Isn’t it rather that on each day He does us good: period? That He did us good is something that occurred prior to today; that He will do us good looks to beyond the present day. Does it not? All He does today, though, is what is good for today! On the other hand, it is true today that He did us good yesterday, and that He will do us good tomorrow. But why is this important? The answer is that the good of the present, the past, and the future are inextricably intertwined. Today’s good builds on yesterday’s and supports tomorrow’s. The good that He bestows upon us has a long-term trajectory. Today’s good is but an element of the total good, in which it takes its appropriate place.
Another thing: Apart from the fact that the continuous span of good bestowed upon us is all intra-connected, we want to thank Him each day for all three of what He has done, what He does, and what He will do. We have so much to thank Him for...all the time! 

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With regard to each and every day it is true that He has (previously) done good for us, He does good for us, and He will do good for us. I want to thank Him for all three on each and every day.

Furthermore, they all connect, in a significant way, to what He does for us today. What He did for us yesterday led up to the good He does for us today. And what He will do for us tomorrow flows out from the good HE does for us today. Past and future good meet in the present.

My ability to appreciate the good of the past is heightened by my perception of the good of the present. My appreciation of the present at the same time makes it possible for me to recognize and acknowledge the good that the future holds in store, which will improve on and further my present condition. In each case, one good leads to the next.

The good that He bestows upon us is not discrete. It is continuous and multifariously integrated and interconnected. It forms a seamless web.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How One Pays

In Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, it is ruled that any excess of funds raised for the benefit of a given indigent person belongs to this indigent person. In other words, if more money was raised than this person needed to extricate himself from his squalor, he gets to keep it. Even if he had already gotten out of his predicament before the entire sum of money was depleted, the residue is his for him to use at his discretion. Reb Ya-akov zl was approached for an explanation of this seemingly enigmatic ruling. Why not return the excess funds to their donators, or direct the monies to someone else who is a needy state? His reply was that the indigent person paid for the entire sum collected in his behalf through the toll it took on his honor and sense of dignity. It was not money got for nothing: the beneficiary paid dearly through the disgrace he endured. This is why the Shulchan Aruch goes on to rule that, in the event of this erstwhile poor man’s demise, any remaining funds is passed on to his inheritors. It is also why, Reb Ya-akov continued to explain, it is ruled that, if he is a kohein, he is entitled to reject a particular presentiment of teruma on grounds of its being beneath his dignity. As someone whose honor has been sacrificed and compromised, he retains the discretion to spend it as he sees fit. (From Bemechitzas Rabeinu)