Sunday, November 27, 2016

The laws of Ribis and a modern economy

Daf Yomi just started learning the fifth perek of Bava Metzia which covers the laws of Ribis (interest).  Basically the Torah prohibits charging interest on loans and the Chachamim added a whole bunch of additional prohibitions. This is one of the more complex areas of halacha that most people know little about.

This leads to the following question, could a modern economy be run al pi halacha?

IMHO the answer is no. All modern economies run on credit. Interest bearing loans are the lifeblood of modern economies both for consumers, companies and governments.

Consumers take out interest bearing loans in a number of situations:

  1. Mortgages - Most people who buy a house take out a mortgage
  2. Credit Cards 
  3. Car loans/leases - Most people either borrow money (with interest) to buy a car or lease a car (which is also financed with interest)
  4. Home equity loans
  5. Savings accounts
  6. ...
Governments also run on borrowed money, government bonds which of course pay interest. Without the ability to borrow money governments could not function today. Companies run on borrowed money as well, corporate bonds which again pay interest. A halachic state would have to outlaw banks.

A Halachic state would prohibit all of these. We can try to work around the prohibitions with things like Heter Iska, however, there are 2 problems with this approach:
  1. It is against the spirit of the law. The Torah clearly and unequivically prohibits interest bearing loans. Even if we can find a technicality to get around the halacha, it is clearly not what the Torah wanted. The Torah is supposed to be a blueprint for an ideal society, if the laws in the torah don't allow for that then what does that say about the Torah?
  2. It is not clear that these workarounds actually work in all situations.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Was Rivka 3 years old when she married Yitzchak?

We all know the famous Rashi based on the Seder Olam that Rivka was 3 years old when she met Eliezer and married Yitzchak.

The Sifri in וזאת הברכה says that Rivka lived 133 years. If you work backwards from her death she got married at the age of 14 (see Tosafos in יבמות ס"א for the exact calculation).

Why did Rashi pick the medrash that she was 3 against the gemara? It would seem that Rashi thought that was the simpler pshat in the pesukim. It all seems to hinge on when the akeida was. The following facts are mentioned in the Chumash itself.

1. Yitzchak was 37 when Sara died (she was 90 when he was born and died at 127).
2. Yitzchak was 40 when he married Rivka
3. Rivka was born around the time of the Akeida (see the end of וירא).

If the Akeida was when Yitzchak was 37 then Rivka was only 3 when she married. On the other hand if the akeida was 10 years earlier then she was around 14.

The notion that Rivka was 3 years old at the time of her marriage to Yitzchak is untenable.  Could a 3 year old girl go and water the camels? Could a 3 year old consent to marriage? It's just silly to read the dialogue in the Chumash between Rivka and Eliezer and what she is doing and believe that she is 3. Nowhere else in the Torah do we find any evidence that children matured more quickly then we do now, and of course from a scientific/reality point of view that is a non-starter.

The question is how could the Medrash have such an opinion and Rashi quote it when it is so patently ridiculous? Since Rashi quotes this this is the opinion that everyone knows.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why is the Akeida such a big deal?

The Akeida is looked upon in Jewish thought as one of the seminal moments for the Jewish people. On Rosh Hashanah, the Yom Hadin, we ask Hashem to remember the Akeida.  It is considered to be one of the greatest tests that a person can pass.

However, when you really think about it what was so special about the Akeida? Hashem spoke to Avraham and told him to do it. Avraham listened. We find throughout Jewish history that Jews have accepted their own martydom as well as their childrens without hearing Hashem speak directly to them. Was Avraham's test greater then what we describe in the Kinos about the brother and sister who were going to be sold as sex slaves dying in each other's arms? Was it greater then parents killing their children during the crusades rather then losing them to Christianity? Was it greater then what went on in the holocaust? All of these things happened at a time of הסתר פנים, not only didn't  Hashem talk to these people and tell them to do it, Hashem was not visible at all. If anything, that makes their actions much greater then Avrahams.

The same question can be asked about Yosef's nisayon with Potiphar's wife. Yes, Yosef resisted sexual temptation, but so do so many other people. Sexual temptation is מעשים בכל יום, why is Yosef called a צדיק for that?

The only answer that I have seen is a mystical one that Avraham's (and Yosef's) actions are what made it so much easier for everyone else. They are the ones who pulled this strength down from heaven and made it available to everyone. without them paving the way no one would be able to pass any of these tests.

As with many mystical explanations you either believe or you don't. I don't. Additionally, there is a rationalist tradition in Judaism (e.g. Rambam and others) and they certainly would not accept this explanation. The problem is there is no rationalist answer.