The Unobservable, the Unobserved, and the Observed

Given the thought of my previous post we need to subdivide reality into three categories: that which no person could have observed, that which someone could have observed, but didn’t, and that which someone did actually observe.

There is a more elaborate example at this appendix to a seifer I might complete someday. The following covers a much smaller range of examples, but I believe it does so more clearly.
The Unobservable:

The most commonly cited case of an unobservable object is a microscopic mite, or another animal that would fall into a non-kosher class if it were large enough to be seen with the naked eye. These “bugs” are kosher. In fact, we recently had the issue of copepods appearing in the New York City tap water. These are crustaceans that can be seen, but are only identifiable by the naked eye as living things by watching their motion. (Their motion is in patterns like living beings, not following the random brownian motion of dust.)

My rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, invoked the idea in a second case. The Gemara explains that maggots found within a piece of meat are kosher. The reason given is that they were born from the meat, an idea known in the history of science as “spontaneous generation”. Therefore, halachah treats the maggots identically to the meat. Spontaneous generation has since been disproven. Maggots come from microscopic eggs, not abiogenetically from the meat. Now that we know that the underlying science is wrong, need we conclude that the halachic ruling is also wrong?

Rav Dovid taught that the halachic ruling is still applicable, because the microscopic eggs and maggot larvae are not visible, and therefore (like the insects in our first example), lack mamashus. The only cause for the current presence of maggots that we can see is the meat.

Viewing the question in terms of human experience, the meat is the only source of
the maggots. Bugs or eggs that are too small to be seen, while we might cerebrally know
they are there, can’t have the existential impact as those I could, and ought to have,
noticed unaided.
The unobservable simply don’t exist.

The Unobserved:

In the case of something that is observable but happened not to be seen, we aren’t dealing only with whether it is part of human experience, but also whether the person is culpable for not bothering to check, but more centrally to our question — how the person who is now in doubt responds to the item because of that doubt.

In this domain we have the rule of rov, following the majority.

Suppose there are three pieces of meat, two of which came from a kosher source, and one from a non-kosher source, but we don’t know which is which. This is a case of parish, so we can assume that any given piece came from the rov – it’s kosher. Since each piece is kosher, each can be eaten, even one after the other! (According to some opinions, even mixed together as a single dish!)

I would argue that this is because the law of rov is not about how to play the odds, but about how people respond to the meat. As observed, each peice of meat is 1/3 neveilah, and it is on that state of observation that we pasqen. Not 1/3 in terms of odds of eating non-kosher, but 1/3 in terms of how we relate to each piece of meat. And thus, no piece is experienced as probably veilah, and all three are kosher; even to be eaten one after the other. Wheras if we were playing the odds about an objective reality, the odds would have combined to knowing you ate the neveilah at some point.
The Observed:

But once something observable actually has been observed, rov does not apply. For example, kol kavu’ah kemechtzah al mechtzah dami — all items for whcih the halakhah was once established, but now doubt arose as to what that halakhah is, are to be treated like a 50:50 uncertainty.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu”t #136) generalizes this and states that there are two types of birur (doubt resolution): ways that resolve what to do when the halachah is uncertain, and the question we explored in the last section – ways of applying halachah to uncertain situations. Majority only applies in the latter case.

As per above, I would argue that’s because it’s only the case of the uncertain situation that halakhah needs to rule about a reality-as-experienced that contains things in partial states. Something that is “1/3 neveilah“. Once the question is one of halakhah, one doesn’t have this existential aspect, and either something is, or isn’t.

So, had our above three pieces of meat come from three known stores, two known to be kosher and one not, but now I do not know which is which, it’s a case of kavu’ah. The meat can not be determined by majority, and therefore is not kosher (even individually). Again, because now I’m not wondering about the experiencable reality, so my wonder can not be itself treated as part of the metzi’us, the facts of the case.

One last example: the testimony of witnesses. The Torah says, “al pi shenayim o sheloshah eidim yumas hameis — on the say-so of two or three witnesses the condemned is killed.” Chazal ask, if two people is sufficient, why need it say three? The gemara uses this as proof of the concept of “terei kemei’ah — two witnesses are like 100″. The way the Shev Shemaatsa puts it, if you have two conflicting testimonies, “it is like a doubt of equal sides”, and therefore regardless if one party has only the minimal two witnesses and another has 100, the sides are equal.

Another case of an observed reality; whichever side had honest and accurate witnesses did observe what they’re testifying to. Since majority only applies in a case of an unknown but observable reality, majority does not apply in assigning credibility to conflicting testimony.
Another area where the notion of halakhah relating to human experience rather than a theoretical objective reality could help explain a difficult ruling is that of nosein ta’am in kashrus. Usually ta’am is translated “taste”, and therefore understood in terms of microscopic amounts of the food being absorbed into the walls of a hot utensil. But ta’am also has to do with thought or reason, something that “flavors” basic facts. As in ta’am hamitzvah as a term for a reason for or a lesson to be learned from a mitvah. If we take ta’am in this sense, I believe many of the more difficult halakhos involved are resolved.

If chicken soup is cooked in a milchig pot, Ashkenazim are stringent unless the soup is more than 60 times (or perhaps 59) the volume of the walls and floor of the pot itself. (Sepharadim instead rely on a non-Jew actually tasting the food.) If ta’am meant a microscopic about that could be absorbed by the metal, the Ashkenazi requirement is unjustifiable. After all, metal does not absorb anything near 1/60 of its volume, something acknowledged by the usual use of the idea of “microscopic amounts” in explaining the word ta’am. The total amount absorbed in the metal of the pot would never be anything near enough to use the entire volume as an estimate. Bitul beshishim (anullment by one part in sixty) would always apply when comparing the amount in the metal of the pot vs the amount the pot holds in the usual way.

However, if ta’am here refers to how we think of the pot, the question is a non-issue. Ashkenazim rule that thinking of the pot as a fleishig utensil lends its status to the object, whereas Sepharadim rule that it’s a question of whether a person can experience the milk that the pot is usually used with.

The Nature of Reality

It’s interesting to note that in Jewish terminology, existence is phrased in terms of the thing-as-experienced, not the thing-in-itself, as it would be objectively known if it were possible. For example, the Rambam opens the Yad by telling you that there is a First Matzui, and He is mamtzi everthing that is nimtza. The word “nimtza”, which is used to mean existence, is from the root /m-tz-a/, to find. Experience.

When something is real enough to have impact, we say is has “mamashus”. Or we say that something is mamash exciting, where in English it would be “really and literally exciting”. The word itself, though, literally means “tangibility”.

Perhaps this is because halakhah exists to change the person following it. “The person is made [nif'al] according to his actions [pe'ulaso]“, as the Chinukh often says. Thus, the reality that the halachacist must address isn’t the objective abstract existence, rather, it’s the one experienced and shapes the person.

Shema Yisrael

In this week’s shiur we concluded Birkhas Ahavah and started Shema with the origin of “Kel Melekh Ne’eman” and some thoughts on its first sentence.
Some of the topics discussed:

  • Veha’eir eineinu beSorasekhaTif’eres, fully integrating our Torah knowledge to shape our entire selves.
  • Vedabeiq libeinu vs Veyacheid levaveinu — Two approaches to serving G-d (another reference to the “Fork in the Hashkafic Road“), two ways “velo neivosh le’olam va’ed” (not to be embarassed ever).
  • Vesolicheinu qomemiyus le’artzeinu — coming upright to our land. Redemption includes the opportunity to live peacefully and with self-respect.
  • The value of our being a lashon, a group of people united by the Hebrew language.
  • Birkhas Ahava‘s connection to Shema.
  • Should we say “amein” after our own birkhas ahavah? “Kel Melekh Ne’eman” as an amein.
  • Other explanations for saying “Kel Melekh Ne’eman
  • The significance of saying Shema Yisrael, that the two words aren’t merely a preface.
  • The unity of Hashem and Elokeinu — what each name connotes, and how do they really describe a Single Indivisible Deity

Urgency, Importance, and the Yeitzer

Rabbi Ephraim Becker wrote in a reply to a comment on one of his posts:

The Yetzer hijacks our urgency (we get more excited about playing with the latest PDA than about getting up and putting on Tefillin) and leaves us struggling with trying to uphold rules that do not move us – only the guilt remains.

Two comments later he elaborates:

Simply put, the Yetzer operates with the ancient principle that nature abhors a vacuum. A person’s mind is going to be filled with something that excites him (be that a positive, productive endeavor or a negative self-destructive one) or, when there is fear of the ‘excitement’ (as when a person is afraid to confront him or herself) then there is numbness. The Yetzer is always alert for such emptyness and offers the person here-and-now excitement in an attempt to distract the person from here-and-now growth and closeness to HaShem. In that sense the Yetzer hijacks our urgency. That is one of the reasons that it is so important to visit and revisit our urgencies and why the masters of Mussar advocated avoiding unnecessary urgency or excitement. Urgency and excitement are precious commodities, to be used with caution and purpose.

Thinking about the yeitzer hara in terms of urgency…

Time management experts point out our habit of confusing the urgent with the important. Picture being a salesman in a store, helping a customer. You get a call, and after quickly assessing the caller, you learn it’s a potential customer asking about a product. Who is the higher priority? It should be the person who is interested enough in buying that they came to your store. But since the phone call rings, and demands immediate attention (urgency), we very often fall into the trap of keeping the customer waiting for the call — in a way that may well cost you the sale. As opposed to politely putting the caller on hold.

The yeitzer is out there seeking immediate gratification. Therefore is it surprising that it too creates that sense of urgency that we so often allow to override our real priorities?

Birkhas Ahavah

The Tefillah: Beyond the Words shiur resumed this week, picking up where we left off, with birkhas Ahavah.Some of the topics discussed:

  • Two dimensions for discussing a middah: “Ahavah Rabba” and “Ahavas Olam”
  • How those dimensions are reflected in the structure of the berakhah as a whole
  • What is love?
  • The avos: Three models for how to express love
  • The progression from ahavah (love) to chemlah (pity) to chein (unearned giving)
  • The Torah as chuqei chaim (the law for living)
  • What do we mean by qiyum hamitvah?

Anu ma’amirekha ve’Atah ma’amireinu

Anu ma’amirekha ve’Atah ma’amireinu. Artscroll renders this line from the machzor as referring to we as Hashem’s designated, and Him as our designator.I would like to suggest a different translation. The mishnah says that Hashem created the world with “eser ma’maros — ten utterances”. Ma’amar means utterances, and in particular, Chazal associate it with the ten statements through which Hashem created the world. Existence is words. The Ba’al Shem Tov stresses that the idea is speech, not writing. Texts are written, and then continue to exist afterward. Spoken words exist as long as they are being spoken. For light to exist now, it means that Hashem is still saying the words “yehi or” even today. The words themselves are the phenomenon we call light.

I therefore believe the relationship described is “We are your statement, and You are the One Who speaks us.”