Friday, September 21, 2018

Plain Vanilla for a Change?

The purpose of this blog is to challenge tastes at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

vanillaL'shana tova - Happy 5779.

(Happy New Year has the same afterglow as a birthday - you're allowed to say happy birthday to someone up to a month late.)

One of my resolutions is to try to expand my culinary horizons.

Thank Trader Joe's for making it so easy.

And if that link isn't proof enough, if you've been reading this space for long enough, you know that I'm a chocolate kind of guy.

(Although I admit, I've never shelled out $300 a box.)

Question for chocoholics: Does tasting new varieties of chocolate count as expanding your culinary horizons?

Maybe it's time to give chocolate's evil twin a chance.

I refer, of course, to vanilla.

Could we do with vanilla what we did with chocolate?

I.e., inspiration, perspiration and invention of the next up-and-coming beverage phenomenon?

(The chocolate invention is code-named the Hot Seinfeld.)

It is touted to have some appealing health benefits (which don't beat chocolate of course, but that's OK).

But as soon as I go to the baking cupboard (inspiration) to fetch the vanilla and start testing it with everything (perspiration) it becomes apparent that any invention is going to have to overcome a formidable challenge.

It turns out there's a reason why vanilla comes in those tiny little bottles.

Vanilla, like chocolate, has lost its innocence.

Real vanilla is actually quite scarce.

To quote National Geographic:

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) because its production is so labor-intensive. Vanilla grows as a clinging vine, reaching lengths of up to 300 feet, from which sprout pale greenish-yellow flowers, about four inches in diameter. These-in Mexico, vanilla’s native habitat-are pollinated by melipona bees and, occasionally, by hummingbirds. Each flower remains open for just 24 hours, after which, if not pollinated, it wilts, dies, and drops to the ground.

It gets much more complicated than that, resulting in a product so scarce that 99 percent of the "vanilla" products don't actually contain vanilla.

Vanilla extract = good
Vanilla flavor = bad
Vanillin = ugly

Read those labels!

(Fun fact: while cookies like Nilla Wafers are typically 100% artificially flavored, by law in the US, vanilla ice cream must contain 100% natural vanilla.)

So how come they don't make vanilla bars like chocolate bars?

The best I could find are these Health Warrior bars.

One solution is to get your own beans and make your own.

So the perspiration goes on. In the meantime, if you have a favorite vanilla dish or recipe, please send it along.

(Hey, while we're at it, any suggestions for gourmet chocolate?)

Now your wondering how all this plain vanilla talk could lead to a dinner table conversation.

Here's a question for your table: How much effort should we put into making our food tasty?

Shabbat Shalom


Happy Sukkot

PS - Thank you everyone who responded to our appeal last week to support this email along with the rest of JSL's mission. To send this weekly message actually costs something. There is server time, hardware maintenance, and general overhead. If you enjoy this weekly or even on occasion, please consider a tax-deductible tzeddaka contribution of any amount.  If you read this, please consider 25¢/week ($12/year). Here's the link:

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Why Me???

The purpose of this blog is to trigger even deeper thought at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

exasperatedL'shana tova.

For the past couple weeks, we've been encouraging everyone to try the new 40 Meditations for the High Holidays.

And last week we gave you a puzzler for your table that I'm wondering if anyone figured out (?)

This week, two emotional encounters that occurred on Wednesday and Thursday of this week which may shed a little extra light on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Encounter 1, Wednesday:

On Wednesday, I received the following email from a rabbi I know:

I was leading a great discussion on Rosh Hashana.
Then one woman began to speak. She said 'I'm not religious but I'm a good person. But I'm appalled at these Orthodox families, who go through red lights, yak on their cell while driving, act rude, etc. They're ruining the neighborhood, etc."

Clearly, she was tanking the whole discussion. Other people raised their hands, and I was hoping the subject would get changed. Wrong - they started piling on. I did what I thought was right to get things back on a positive note without shutting her down and/or hurting her feelings. I'm not sure I had the most elegant solution. I really want to know what others would have done.


Question for your table: What should the rabbi have done?

My instinct:

“I feel the same way! Nothing burns me more than seeing someone wearing one of these [points to yarmulke] doing something obviously wrong. And while I would personally guess that the average Orthodox person is more careful about following the law, not speaking gossip, etc., it just goes to show you – nobody’s perfect. The question is – for you and for me and for the Orthodox person who ran the red light – what can you honestly improve about yourself this year??

Encounter 2, Thursday:

This was a call from someone who only calls me when his marriage is on the rocks.

It took us over an hour to get to the heart of what was bothering him, but we got there.

It was this:

Why is God doing this to me? Why would he want me to be married to a woman who is selfish and unable to sympathize with me?

So I guess the first question for your table is, What would you say to such a guy?

In case you're interested, here's what I told him.

Our tradtion teaches us that, while each of us has a different mission, we all have the same purpose.

That purpose is to become "perfect" - or Godly, or holy.

Therefore, everything that happens to us is custom designed to help us achieve our purpose.

For example, that person who tries your patience was put in your life in order to teach you patience.

Some challenges can teach us perseverance, others faithfulness, others gratitude, others calmness.

The only way to learn the lesson is to think about it. That's what these 10 Days of Awe are for.

It also really helps to try to work on changing only one habit at a time (see the 40 Meditations sheet).

Question 2 for your table: Whom do we expect and want to be an egotist?

The answer of course is a baby ("feed me, change me!").

But for adults, that latent egotism is the root of most of our imperfections. It was very healthy when we were babies, but....

Now you can understand why one of the three main customs during these 10 Days of Awe is to give extra tzeddaka.

If life is made of time, and time is money, then giving some of your hard-earned money to others is giving a part of yourself.

Hard to do? That may be a sign of how good it is for you. No pain, no gain.

Shabbat Shalom


G'mar ketiva tova — may you have a good inscription (i.e., in the Book of Life)!

PS - Once or twice a year we ask you, our subscribers, to support this email along with the rest of JSL's mission. To send this weekly message actually costs something. There is server time, hardware maintenance, and general overhead. If you enjoy this weekly or even on occasion, please consider a tax-deductible tzeddaka contribution of any amount.  If everyone who reads this were to contribute 25¢/week ($12/year), it would cover all the costs.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

Every Good Boy Does Fine

The purpose of this email is to trigger memory and thought at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

dont-forget-fingerLast week we offered you the new 40 Meditations for the High Holidays.

All that you need to do is send an email.

This week, a new 1-pager for Rosh Hashana. See below....

First, here's a puzzle that some people at your table will get right away, others will say, "Wait, wait, don't tell me...!" and others will say, "I have no clue."

Can you complete the missing line?

1. Good boys do fine always.
2. All cows eat grass.
3. Every good boy does fine.
4. ___________________

I hope no one is griping at me about not including girls or transgenders or post-genders or whomever, or preaching about the role of 1,000,000,000 cows in global warming, at least not until you hear the answer:

4.    Face.           

OK, for those who are still scratching their heads, these four phrases are
mnemonics to help remember the notes on bass clef (GBDFA - lines; ACEG - spaces) and treble clef (EGBDF - lines; FACE - spaces).


Ask your table: What does this have to do with Rosh Hashana???!!!

If they give up, remind them about the Simanim.

Such as apples in honey, pomegranate, etc.

What does the word "simanim" mean?

A: neumonic!

So here's the real clincher - what's a
mnemonic and why do we have them on our dinner table on Rosh Hashana?

Shabbat Shalom
L'shana tova u'metuka - wishing you a good and sweet year!

PS - The new 1-pager mentioned above is this year's updated Rosh Hashana Simanim (translated and transliterated). send me an email or download it from our teacher's and parent's resource site,

PPS - Yes, the image above is clickable.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

In Search of Your Inner Great-Grandparent

The purpose of this blog is to get things ticking at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

pocketwatchAll faucets become leaky. — Ancient Chinese proverb

OK, so it's not so ancient and not so Chinese.

Maybe it's only true chez Seinfeld.

But every leaky faucet makes me think that Chinua Achebe was right.

The dairy sink's leak had been easy enough - remove the handle, pop in a new washer, cleaned up in under 10 minutes.

But last night's struggle with the other side was meatier. I felt like I'd met my match and it's name is Moen which rhymes with moan. It was one of those DIY jobs that gets you rationalizing: Is a leaky faucet really such a big deal?

Or: Can't this wait until after Rosh Hashana?

So....(for your table), What does matter before Rosh Hashana?

This is a follow-up to
last week's question, "Why does Rosh Hashana matter anyway?"

You've had a whole week to think about it. Ready for an answer?

If statisticians are to be believed, there's a high probability that everyone reading this (or hearing it read) has or had 2 parents.

(Maybe in this day and age I should say "at least" 2 parents.)

And I'm no statistician, but I'm fairly certain that these odds extend to having 4 grandparents.

I'm even willing to bet that you have (or had) 8 great-grandparents.

OK, let's pause right there.

I've never met anyone who could pull this one off:

Raise your hand if you can name your 8 great-grandparents and tell one interesting thing about each of them.

If you happen to be the one-in-a-million who can do that, then extend it back to your 16 great-great-grandparents.

At some point most humans fade into the background. Even those lucky enough to have children eventually become someone's forgotten great-grandparent.

And don't assume that there will even be a digital record of your life.

Maybe you'll be lucky enough to die with sufficient drama for them to display one of your possessions in a museum.

(I hope you're clicking on all the links as you read - they are all quite interesting.)

Bottom line - there are two proverbial books open on Rosh Hashana.

What's the secret to being written in the Book of Life?

Come up with a reason why your life is going to matter for at least another year.

Friendly suggestion: you might want to get a copy of this year's new 40 Meditations for the High Holidays....

One day you'll be at best a distant, remote, faint memory. How are you going to create a legacy?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, August 24, 2018

40 Meditations

The purpose of this blog is to create some forward-thinking at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.

RH survival kitQuestion for your table: What's the most important way to prepare for Rosh Hashana?

Last night I attended a lecture where the rabbi suggested the answer to the question goes like this:

1. The most important thing we do on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is lots more prayers than the rest of the year.

2. Ergo, the most important preparation would be to study the prayers, or prepare somehow for that experience.

Hmmm... is he speaking my language?

Last week I mentioned the old favorite,
25 Questions for the High Holidays.

This week, we offer you an expanded and improved version for 2018:

40 Meditations for the High Holidays.

- 28 to prepare for Rosh Hashana
- 5 for Rosh Hashana
- 7 for Yom Kippur

.... still on a single page.

For a free copy, send an email.

And if you want more than a single page to change your High Holidays for the better, try clicking on the image above.

Question #2 for your table: Why does Rosh Hashana matter anyway?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Are You the They?

The purpose of this blog is to stir up some wisdom at the Shabbat table. Please print and share.
Happy Birthday shout-out to Shelli in SF!

farsidetheyHere it comes again - 

Rosh Hashana....

Yom Kippur.....

Dip the apple. . .

(In how many days?)

Have you started working on your 25 Questions for the High Holidays?

Did you email your friendly rabbi to get an updated copy?

How did we ever live without email?

A hundred years ago, when telephones started to catch on, the great rabbi we call the Chofetz Chaim was very concerned about Jewish people owning one of these new devices.

The first question for your table this week is: What would you guess was his concern?

Answer: He was deeply worried it might increase lashon hara.

Question #2 - Was he right to be concerned?

Question #3 - Even if he was right, do the benefits of owning a phone outweigh the evil of lashon hara?

Well, that's all water under the bridge, right?

In terms of communications - voice, text etc., yep, it's completely water under the bridge.

But is everything about these smart phones a done deal?

Wwhat if we shift our focus from the communications part of the phone to

1. the always-on-internet-with-your-feed-controled-by-some-algorithm part, or
2. the every-tom-dick-and-harry-gets-a-soapbox part.

If you are a parent, or a grandparent, or if you have any young people in your life, or

If you are a human being who happens to be alive in 2018, then you are surely dealing with these two issues, know it or not.

1. Algorithms decide what's important for you to see.
2. All kinds of ignorant people manage to get their voices into your head.

Like it or not.

The only way to get through life with any sanity is to filter.

But software filters are imperfect. And they need to be updated.

But we Jews have another kind of filter - let's call it a soulware filter.

It's really simple.

Late in the afternoon on Friday, you shut off your phone.

Don't put it in airplane mode. Don't turn the ringer off.

Shut the whole thing off.

Hard to do, isn't it?

It's a litmust test for the robustness of your soulware.

The harder it is for you to turn off your phone and leave it off for a few hours or even 24 = the more your soulware needs an update.

Shabbat Shalom


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Friday, August 03, 2018

Err....To air is human?

The purpose of this blog is to bring a BOFA to the Shabbat table. Please breathe in, breathe out, and share.
Air timeContinuing last week's nod to our English heritage, this morning, my chavruta and I had an argument.

That's what chavrusas are for.

No, we were not arguing over the pronunciation of "חברותא".

We were arguing over the pronunciation of "err", as in "To err is human."

He is sure that "err" rhymes with "air".

He has two proofs:

1. The noun form is "error". Everyone agrees that this is pronounced "air-or".
2. Everyone he knows pronounces it "air".

I say "err" rhymes with "her".

I also have proofs:

1. That's how Brits say it, and they speak English propally.
2. If you say it like "air", then "To err is human" sounds like you're saying "to breathe is human," which is silly.
3. Someone on Stackexchange points out that
Gilbert and Sullivan's 19th C lyrics prove me right:
If I had been so lucky as to have a steady brother
Who could talk to me as we are talking now to one another —
Who could give me good advice when he discovered I was erring
(Which is just the very favour which on you I am conferring)....
4. Let's say you're camping and a child asks you if they should air out their sleeping bag while you take today's hike. But it might rain. If you say, "I'd rather err (rhyme it with her) on the side of caution," you will be clearly understood not to risk leaving it out. But if you say, "I'd rather err (rhyme it with air) on the side of caution," they may understand that you mean to go ahead and leave it outside. You're sowing confusion by rhyming err with air.

OK, let's turn this over to your table for Question 1 - Who's right?

Let's go deeper for Question 2 - What's the difference between an error and a mistake?

And for Question 3, in the spirit of words and interpretation, here's a puzzle for your table.

A man fell off a smuggling boat into deep water. He could not swim and he was not wearing anything to keep him afloat, nor was there anything floating in the water for him to hold onto. It took 30 minutes for the people on the boat to realize someone was missing. The missing man was rescued two hours later on the return trip. Why didn't he drown?

The solution is purely logical, no trickiness needed.

Shabbat Shalom


PS - Scroll down for the solution...

PPS - If you enjoy words and interesting etymologies, click on the pic above.

PPPS - Do you know how many days until Rosh Hashana?


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Further down.....

Even further ......

Are you sure you want to peek?

You're giving up that easily?

Don't you want to figure it out on your own?

OK, here it comes....


Thursday, July 26, 2018

Et Tu?

The purpose of this email is to move the dinner or lunch table from Et-tu to Tub'av. Please share, and share, and share again.
heart-brain-seesawQuick triva question for your Shabbat table:

Who said, "Et tu, Brute?"

The answer is, of course, Juilus Caesar.

Or, should I say, the Julius Caesar of William Shakespeare's imagination.

Or should I say, Julius Caesar as imagined by the author of the eponymous play attributed to William Shakespeare.

OK, we remember from high school English that Julius Caesar says it. Second question - When does he say it?

These are of course his dying words as he is being stabbed by
the conspirators.

Third question: What do the words mean?

Answer: "You too, Brutus?"

Fourth question: What's that supposed to mean?

Answer: If, you, my close frrend Brutus, are among the conspirators, then I truly have no friends in the world and I might as well die.

But in Hebrew, the word Tu has an entirely different meaning.

It means 15 (as in the number).

You may have heard of Tu Bishvat - the 15th of Shevat (month) - our Arbor Day.

But have you heard of Tu B'Av - the 15th of Av?

That's today - all day until sundown.

What's it all about? The diametric opposite of Caesar's death — it's all about brotherly love.

It's when the maidens and young men used to go out to the fields and try to make matches for marriage.

But what made it a time of love wasn't the match-making.

The more affluent girls would share outfits with the less affluent girls, so that everyone would be looking her best and equally attractive.

That's awesome to think about.

Do we have people like that today, who go against their own self-interest to help someone else succeed?

If they're out there, I would love to meet them.

Shabbat Shalom


PS - For some easy ideas on how to spread the love, click on the pic above.

PPS - Invited to a bar mitzvah but don't know what to bring? Check out our new

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Friday, July 20, 2018

"Bla Bla Bla"

The purpose of this blog is to cultivate refinement at the Shabbat table. Please share.
In memory of Ezekiel ben Elana z''l.

What Dogs HearHere's a great question for your dinner table:

What is a "refined" person?

The Talmud tells of a certain Rabbi Alexandri, one of my personal favorites, who famously called out, "Who wants life? Who wants life?"

The people gathered around him and said, "Give us life, Rebbe (i.e., teach us)!"

"Guard your tongue from evil and your mouth from deceit....turn from the bad and toward the good."

Three questions about this lesson.

1. Why does R' Alexandri ask the question two times?
2. Why does he focus on speech, among all other human activities and faculties?
3. Does this teaching imply that we should all sleep as much as possible? When you're sleeping you are not able to speak lashon hara nor to lie.

A1 — The repetition implies two kinds of life - in this world and the next. Many things we do improve our life in this world, and many things we do improve our life in the next. Only a few mitzvahs directly impact both worlds.

A2 — Speech is our most human faculty. While all animals (and some plants!) communicate, human speech is fundamentally different (and this). gives us the greatest potential for holiness.

A3 — Pay attention to the second half of what R' Alexandri says - "turn from the bad and toward the good" means more than avoiding bad speech. It means cultivating good speech.

Question for your table - What types of speech are "good"?

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Tonight/tomorrow is the 9th of Av (short video). However, the fast is postponed until after Shabbat.

PPS - For some of the greatest Jewish speeches, click on the pic above.

PPPS - If you haven't already, please share with your network.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Cure for Boredom

The purpose of this blog is to eradicate all boredom from the Shabbat table. Please share.
In memory of Dovid ben Eliezer A"H.

Dad-2003As I mentioned last week ("My Father's Keeper"), this week we honored my father's 13th yahrzeit.

One activity was a family outing that required a whole hour's drive.

Try to remember what that was like when you were eight years old.

On the way there, you are brimming with anticipation.

On the way home, you are writhing with boredom.

Sure enough, in the middle of the return trip, our eight-year-old began the "Abba, I'm bored" routine.

I tried ignoring her for a few minutes, but that didn't work.

So I fought fire with fire: "How bored are you?"

This question led to everyone competing to come up with a funny ending to the sentence, "I'm so bored, I'd rather..."

My daughter finally got into the spirit: "I'm so bored I'd rather watch paint dry! I'm so bored I'd rather watch a tree grow!"

We all laughed with her, and while I had no idea how she came up with these lines, the ruse worked. We used boredom to fight boredom.

That's the secret: stay busy.

It reminds me of my father, who never stopped being busy. He was always doing something meaningful, whether creating, mending, reparing, relaxing or - one of his favorite - learning. He was focused.

Personally, one of the things that keeps me busy and focused year-round is my goal of completing a tractate of the Talmud (Gemara) in his honor on each yahrzeit.

This year's tractate was Shavuot - Oaths, which ends with an interesting question.

It goes without saying a lie (or swearing falsely) in order to avoid paying someone what is owed to them is sinful.

But what if there is no victim? What if the falsehood or false oath harms no one - or what if it is to the oath-taker's own detriment? Is that considered sinful?

The Gemara concludes that indeed it is.

This is the ethic: distance yourself from falsehood. The entire Torah rests on the principle of Truth. Truth is God's middle name (so to speak).

The old friends of my father who were gathered for this event concurred that Truth could also have been his middle name.

Later, in the spirit of truth, I asked her how she had come up with those answers. She quickly turned to the pages in a Beverly Clearly where she'd read them. Busy and focused.

This week, the POTUS has proposed to the American people that we be judged by kavanah (Cavanaugh).

That's another way of saying how busy and focused you are (as opposed to being lazy and distracted).

Did you ever notice how most people will sit in the airport or stand in a line for hours without anything to do.

Aren't you people bored?

In contrast, there is a rabbi I know who opens the Talmud whenever there is extra time - even waiting at a red light.

Don't waste a moment of your life! Be like my father and stay busy and focused on something meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - If you're struggling with focus, click on the pic above.

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Friday, July 06, 2018

My Father's Keeper?

The purpose of this blog is to create some new narratives at the Shabbat table. Please share.
In memory of Dovid ben Eliezer A"H.
Dennis SeinfeldThis coming Sunday night will be the 13th yahrzeit of my father.

My father did not live to be an old man. He died quite young after falling off a ladder, preparing the house for our family's visit.

I sometimes wonder, had he lived to be an old man, what kind of old man would he have been?

Perhaps he would have been like my late friend Norman Hansen. I knew Norman  in his 80s and into his 90s. He was a riot. One of my favorite line: "The greatest mistake of my life was voting for Roosevelt in 1944. I should have known he was too sick!"

He was a widower and lonely, and before he met me he had very few people to talk to, so he used to make cassette recordings of himself arguing a thesis, then play it back and argue with himself.

When he found out that I am Jewish, he gave me one of his recordings, entitled, "Why there will never be a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict."

Bottom line: Norman's reasoning was that peace is not compatible with "truth".

If you stick to your truth and I stick to mine, how can we ever have peace?

Therefore, while some people pursue peace, most pursue their truth.

The question for your table is, was Norman right? Are truth and peace compatible, or are they mutually exclusive?

It would be interesting if both parties said, we're willing to compromise on our version of truth so that we can have peace. But more often you hear people jettison the entire concept of truth. There is no truth, there are just "competing narratives".

This narratives approach is convenient because it protects you from every being wrong. "I'm not wrong, I just have a different narrative. And therefore my claim is as legitimate as yours."

Fortunately, there are some sane intellectuals out there, such as UK journalist Melanie Phillips, who haven't forsaken the age-old concept of truth.

But what about peace?

Was Norman right, that peace between such people can never come about peacefully?

My father would have appreciated Phillips's argument. He was a truth-seeker. His tombstone says, "Champion of Justice." His his mind, true peace can only come when there is justice.

What say you and the folks at your table?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, June 29, 2018

The Ultimate Gadget

The purpose of this blog is to create some bells and whistles around the Shabbat table. Please share.
MachineThis week's lead question for your table is about your fantasies:

What for you would be the ultimate gadget?

Would it be something like this picture on the left, which I have no idea what it was built for but I like to fantasize that you could just pour in the flour, water, tomatoes, olive oil, spices, toppings, and after a few minutes of whirring and purring, out pops a pizza! Would that be cool, or would that be cool?

Or would your ultimate gadget be something magically musical, like the incredible Wintergaten Music Machine?

Last week my family reminded me that it was my birthday and my brother's family presented me with a pen.

Not a fancy gold or silver or mahogany pen mind you.

This is billed as the "Ultimate Geek Pen". Here's a photo. It includes 3 different lamps (can you guess which types?), and a couple other features.

So now I finally know how they see me.

OK, so the obvious follow-up question is, now that you've asked everyone at the table to share their ultimate gadget - why?

Why is a pizza machine better than simply making a pizza?

Why is a swiss army knife better than carrying all those tools separately? After all, you can't possibly get all the tools you need into any one gadget.

Wouldn't a well-stocked workbench be far better than an ultimate gadget?

I'll leave you to ponder that one with your table, and in the meantime wish you

and yours


Shabbat Shalom

PS - If you're traveling with your Ultimate Gadget, remember to pack it in your luggage so it doesn't get confiscated by the TSA....
PPS - If you have binoculars or a simple telescope, and can get away from the city lights, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Neptune are all quite visible. It's fun to see the 4 biggest moons of Jupiter, Saturn's rings, Mars's colors, and the Moon's craters.
PPPS - Please visit our new . . .

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Who... nu?

The goal of this blog is to bring something new (or some nu?) to your Shabbat Table. Please share / like / tweet / etc.

who+knewIf you ask the man-on-the street, "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" what do they say?

What about this one: "Where's the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located?"

OK, those are warm-up questions for your table. Let's try this one out on your average Jewish school graduate:

1. How many books of Tanach are there?

Many literate Jews will accurately say 24.

But then ask:

Can you name them?

I'm guessing that 1 in 10 you ask - regardless of their Jewish affiliation or background, can name all 24 (even out of order).

Of those 1 in 10, I'm guessing it's another 90 percent reduction to those who can answer this:

Who wrote each one?

The reason this is such a tricky question is not because modern scholarship has thrown its shadow of doubt over everything traditional.

The problem is that even according to tradition, many of the authors are counter-intuitive.

For example, according to the Talmud, the prophet Isaiah didn't write Isaiah and Queen Esther did not write Esther.

So nu? Who?

If you really want to know, shoot me an email and I'll send you the complete list.

But on a slightly related topic, I created a second interesting document that you might enjoy - it's a list of so-called secular subjects that are discussed in the Talmud, and where - including:

  • General Science
  • Astronomy
  • Environmental Science
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine
  • Physics
  • Paleontology
  • Language Arts
  • Statistics
  • Mathematics
  • Geography
  • History
  • Economics
  • Real Estate
Again, if this sort of stuff interests you, or there is someone you'd like to share it with, shoot me an email and I'll send you the doc.

But for your table, I'll leave you with this question:

Is knowledge of these things (the books of Tanach, who wrote them, the range of wisdom of the Talmud), an important part of being a literate Jew?

Shabbat Shalom
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Friday, June 01, 2018

A Man, a Plan, a Canal . . .

The goal of this email is to bring some reorientation to your Shabbat Table. Plea
In memory of my grandparents, global travelers, who's yahrzeits were just observed.
Happy birthday to Kyle in California. Bon Voyage to Harmon in Panamá.


Sailing the CanalReceived a call from our daughter Goldy this morning. Her year-in-Israel program has taken them to Poland for a few days. They are having a visceral experience seeing where their ancestors lived and where their distant cousins were slaughtered. She said it is the single most meaningful activity of her entire year abroad.
Later in the day, a call came in from the other side of the globe, Panama.

Our friend Harmon just passed through the Canal to begin another great sailboat race.

And thinking about these two calls from opposite sides of the globe representing two opposite orientations, got me thinking about.... the globe and orientation.

And thinking about the globe and orientation reminded me of one of my favorite trivia questions....

For your table:

If you are heading through the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, which direction are you facing?

The answer is completely counter-intuitive and most peopel don't believe it until they look at a map.

Harmon has a passion for sailing, but one would in no way call it an addiction.

But could a person become addicted to sailing?

Here's question #2 for your table:

2. What would you suppose is the most common addiction?

I'l give you a hint: it's rarely diagnosed.

If you were Chinese, you might say smoking.

In China, there are about three hundred million smokers (some report 350M), blissfully unaware that cigarettes are killing about one million of them every year.

(And a state-owned monopoly profits from every puff.)

Step back and look at the big picture - over a billion smokers worldwide and killing about seven million every year - that's about nineteen thousand per day.

In other words, there are as many adults dying from cigarettes as there are kids dying from malnutrition (or surviving it and living a stunted life).

But smoking doesn't even come close to the world's biggest addiction.

(Remember, it's rarely diagnosed.)

Maybe mentioning malnutrition will trigger someone to guess food addiction, and they'll have a point - it's certainly an epidemic in so many place. There's even a World Obesity homepage (

Yet as bad as that sounds, it isn't the biggest addiction.

It might be easier to answer if we follow Pirkei Avot which states: When seeking wisdom, begin by defining your terms.

So.... what does "addiction" mean?

Habit? Dependency?

How about this:

Addiction is a primary, chronic dysfunction of brain reward, motivation and memory....leading to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations, reflected in pursuing reward and/or relief by unhealthy or undesired behaviors.

That's an abbreviated version of the ASAM definition. According to the American Psychiatric Association:

Addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence.

What I'm going to suggest is that one of the most addictive behaviors I have seen, that is never diagnosed as an addiction, is complaining.

Some people's habit of complaining seems to me to fit these broad definitions of addiction.

Take the APA definition and substitute "complaining" for "substance abuse".

The final questions for your table are:

3. Does it fit?

The answer depends: does a person's habitual and relentless habit of complaining have harmful consequences?

4. If you are a complaining person, where does that come from?

5. If you are on the other end of that complaint, how are you supposed to respond that will actually be helpful?

Shabbat Shalom

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Galactic Torah

Announcement - I'm happy to announce a new JSL product - a unique bar/bat mitzvah gift — a customized book that details the chain of Tradition from Moses to the bar or bat mitzvah child. Please see and share the link with everyone.
the-chance-to-be-unlimited.jpg?timestamp=1512417797Imagine a project at Harvard to convene the greatest scholars in every field over a period of several hundred years in order to create an encyclopedia of their collective knowledge. Who wouldn't want to see the final product?

This is the Talmud: a unique collection of wisdom that would surprise experts in any discipline, including law, ethics, psychology and economics. In the realm of cosmology, too, the Talmud makes assertions -- sometimes literal, sometimes metaphoric, and sometimes both.

To give one example, consider the Talmudic estimate of the number and distribution of stars in the universe.

In order to appreciate this passage, bear in mind two things. First, the vast bulk of Talmudic wisdom is claimed to be a transmitted tradition, from Moses to Joshua, to the prophets, to the Elders, to the Great Assembly, and then to a chain of scholars until the completion of the Talmud 1,500 years ago. Hence it is called the Oral Law.

Second, we need to appreciate the limitations of science 1,500 years ago: the telescope was invented in the 16th century, and the number of stars visible to the naked eye is approximately 9,000.

So what did these ancient rabbis say about the number of stars? In Tractate Brachot, page 32b, the Talmud records a tradition, in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, that there are roughly 1018 stars in the universe. This number is remarkably big and much closer to the current scientific consensus of 1022 than common sense would allow.

Now, although it is interesting for an ancient people to have such a large estimate, this single coincidence could perhaps be explained as an extremely lucky guess. Never mind that no other ancient people had an estimate anywhere near this order of magnitude, nor did they have a conventional way to write such a number. (I have queried dozens of astronomers and none could identify a single other ancient culture with remotely similar numbers.)

Multiple Patterns

However, the Talmud relates more than a raw number. The passage explains that the distribution of stars throughout the cosmos is neither even nor random. Rather, it states that they are clustered in groups of billions of stars (what we call galaxies), which themselves are clustered into groups (what astronomers call galactic clusters), which in turn are in mega-groups (what we call superclusters).

To describe the stars as clustered together, both locally and in clusters of clusters, was far beyond the imagination and the telescopes of scientists until Edwin Hubble's famous photographs of Andromeda in the 1920s. Galactic clusters and superclusters have been described only in the past decade or so. Moreover, the Talmud states that the number of galaxies in a cluster is about 30. And by coincidence, astronomers today set the number of galaxies in our own local cluster at about 30!1

Further, the Talmud adds that the superclusters consist of about 30 clusters each, and that superclusters are themselves grouped into a bigger pattern of about 30 (megasuperclusters?) of which the universe has a total of about 360. Thus, the Talmud appears consistent with one major theory that the overall structure of the universe is shaped by the rules of fractal mathematics. I've shown this data to numerous astronomers around the world and the consensus are pure astonishment.

Could it be that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish made an extremely lucky guess? That might be plausible if he had used a number that had symbolic significance in Judaism, such as seven, 10, 18 or 40. What is the significance of the number 30? To my knowledge, there is no spiritual or religious reason for choosing that number. It therefore seems to be exactly what it claims to be: a conscientious oral transmission of a received tradition, rather than simply one person's guesstimate.

Moreover, Rabbi Shimon had a reputation for impeccable honesty; it is unthinkable that he would have invented these numbers or guessed without telling us so. The clear intent of the passage is to convey an oral tradition.
You are now in on the secret of Shavuot: There is something special about the Torah (and rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated!). The Torah is much more than a mere "cultural expression" of one tiny group of ancient people, so numerically small that we reminded Mark Twain of a "nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way."

This passage about the stars is a mere five Talmudic lines, itself about as significant as a puff of star dust. But it also hints to the treasures available to those who seek them. Shavuot is a great time to begin.

1 This was true several years ago when this article was first written. Since then, astronomers have discovered “ultra-faint” dwarf galaxies in our local group, so the official number of galaxies in our group is presently 54. Some of these are not clearly “galaxies”, such as Andromeda VIII; some are visible to the naked eye while others are invisible to all but the best telescopes. The term “local group” was coined by astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1936 and originally included 12 galaxies. It is interesting to note that astronomers now recognize that 31 of these “local group” galaxies are satellites of our Milky Way galaxy: Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, Large Magellanic Cloud, Small Magellanic Cloud, Canis Major Dwarf, Ursa Minor Dwarf, Draco Dwarf, Carina Dwarf, Sextans Dwarf, Sculptor Dwarf, Fornax Dwarf, Leo I, Leo II, Leo IV, Leo V, Leo T, Ursa Major I Dwarf, Ursa Major II Dwarf, Boötes II, Coma Berenices, Segue 2, Hercules, Pisces II, Reticulum II, Eridanus II, Gurs, Tucana II, Horologium, Pictoris, Phoenix II, Indus, Eridanus III. (I have excluded Boötes III because its galactic status is in doubt, as well as the nine ultra-faint galaxies discovered in March, 2015.) The exact number is less interesting to me than the fractal pattern described in the Talmud is exactly what we observe through the telescope.

Shabbat Shalom

and Happy Shavuot

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