Sunday, November 27, 2011

R' Shteinman - Life insurance is not worth it, it is better to rely on tzedaka

Shas has been working on a plan to provide life insurance for all kollel students. The plan is to take 30 shekels from their stipend each month and use it to buy life insurance at a discounted group rate.

The Mishpacha newspaper has an article this week that R' Shteinman is against the plan. He is reported saying, life insurance is not worth it, as the merit of giving tzedaka to the widows and orphans is what is saving this generation from destruction. Here is the article in full:

I find this very hard to understand for a number of reasons:

1. Is there no shortage of tzedaka that needs to be given? Even if every person had life insurance there would still be plenty of poor people who needed tzedaka. As I pointed out in this post, Kupat Hair - Marrying off your children puts you on the tzedaka rolls , according to Kupat Hair the profile of the recipient of Tzedaka has changed dramatically in recent years. Most of the people who now get money from Kupat Hair are regular people who are poor because they married off their children. To marry off their children they had to buy them apartments and that put them under water. They borrowed money that they could not repay and now they need tzedaka. Unfortunately, these people are poor because of their lifestyle and will not be helped by life insurance. In fact, if everyone had life insurance, maybe there would be more money to help these kinds of people. In addition, let's not forget that the Mir yeshiva has a $10 million debt. In short, מרובים צרכי עמך and even if everyone had life insurance there would still be plenty of opportunities to give tzedaka.
2. If we really think about it, what this is saying is let the widows and orphans suffer so that we can have a chance to do a mitzva by giving them tzedaka. There is no question, that without life insurance these people suffer. They have no money and have to worry if the tzedaka campaigns will bring in enough money for them to live on. In addition, tzedaka campaigns are done right after the person dies, what happens a year 2 years down the line when there a whole bunch of new widows/orphans that get the tzedaka campaigns and the widow of 2 years has no money to feed her kids. Is it fair for us to tell widows/orphans to suffer so we can do a mitzva? Would it not be a bigger זכות for us to set up a system where everyone is provided for if someone dies? Wouldn't that be the highest form of tzedaka?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rashi believed in mermaids

On Tuesday the Daf Yomi learned Bechoros 8. At the top of the daf the Gemara says הדולפין פרין ורבין מבני אדם (Rashi's גירסא is מבני). Rashi explains this as follows. דולפין is a sea creature that looks half like a person and half like a fish, they are called sereine in Old French. Rashi clearly refers to mermaids (the French sereine derives from the Latin siren, meaning mermaid). The Gemara is saying that if a man and a mermaid have relations the mermaid can get pregnant.

The truth is that the simple pshat in the Gemara is that it is referring to dolphins and the Gemara is saying that dolphins reproduce like people ( הדולפין פרין ורבין כבני אדם).

However, Rashi for whatever reason had a different girsa (see Tosafos there) and believed that the Gemara was talking about mermaids.

What we see clearly from Rashi is that he took the mythology of his time and believed it and used it to understand the Gemara.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Mir Yeshiva is virtually bankrupt

With the unexpected death of R' Nosson Tzvi Finkel the Mir Yeshiva has become front page news. In this weeks Mishpacha newspaper the main front page headline is that the Mir Yeshiva has no money and that they are trying to raise millions of dollars during the shiva of the Rosh Yeshiva, to save the Yeshiva.

The Mir Yeshiva is the biggest yeshiva in the world with approximately 7600 students in many locations. The operating costs are staggering and due to the world financial situation the money has stopped flowing in. Because of this, the Yeshiva has not paid stipends to the Kollel Avreichim or salaries to Rebbes for the last 5 months and the Yeshiva has a 10 million dollar debt.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Could Avraham Avinu have been as tall as 74 men?

Parsha blog quotes the following from the end of Maseches Sofrim:
"The man [who lived in Chevron] was the greatest of the giants" (Yehoshua 14:15) -- This refers to our forefather Avraham, whose height was equal to that of seventy-four men. The amount of food and drink he consumed was enough for seventy-four men, and he had the strength of that many men as well.

R' Chaim Kanievsky is his sefer on Tanach (טעמא דקרא) takes this medrash literally and in fact offers an explanation of the source. However, from a strictly rationalist/scientific viewpoint it is very difficult to take this medrash literally.

On one of my trips to the US I bought a fascinating book called, The Physics of Superheroes, which explains many of the basic principles of physics using examples from comic book superheroes. One of the superheroes that he discusses is Giant Man, his power being that he could increase his size when needed. In his discussion in the book he points out that the size that a person could grow to is limited by the strength of materials (particularly bone) and gravity. A person's size is ultimately limited by the cube square law. For simplicity's sake let's model a person as a box. A box's volume is a product of length x height x width so a box that has a length, width and height of 5 feet (our person model) will have a volume of 125 feet cubed. Now assume that he grows to 4x times these proportions (20x20x20). He will now have a volume of 8000 cubic feet, in other words quadrupling his length increases his volume by a factor of 64. Now we need to consider density and mass. It makes sense to say as a person grows his density stays the same (otherwise he would simply thin out into nothingness). To maintain a constant density means that mass must increase at the same rate as volume so quadrupling height increases weight by a factor of 64. The problem is that as weight increases the ability of the skeleton to support that weight does not. The strength of an object depends on how wide it is, it's cross-sectional area. In our case here volume and mass increase much faster then the cross -sectional area of the bones.

Let's take the following simple example of someone who is 6 feet tall and 185 pounds. A single vertebra can support approximately 800 pounds. Now lets increase his height by a factor of 10 to 60 feet. His volume and mass grow by 1000 while his cross-sectional area only grows by a factor of 100. His vertebra can now support 80,000 pounds but his weight is now 185,000 pounds, meaning that his skeleton can no longer support his weight.

The bottom line is that if Avraham Avinu was 74 times taller then the average man (between 370 and 444 feet tall) his body would collapse of it's own weight (well before 74 times). It is a matter of simple physics.

Of course we could come up with all kinds of miracles and believe anything, but we know that Hashem tries to limit miracles and the world works with nature (the laws of physics). Therefore it doesn't make sense to assume that Avraham simply being able to stand (against the laws of physics) was a miracle. In fact, there are many interpretations of this medrash in a non-literal sense (see for example which very nicely explain the medrash without having to believe that Avraham was literally 350 feet tall.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Can you daven too slowly?

Most people would answer no, if you want to daven slowly with kavana good for you. However, there are circumstances where it is not the correct thing to do.

I daven in a vasikin minyan where some days we have exactly a minyan and other days we have 11 or 12. What this means is that in order to start chazaras hashatz we need to wait for everyone (or almost everyone) to finish shemoneh esrei so that we have a minyan of people answering. In this situation if the minhag of the shul is to allot 6 minutes for the silent shemoneh esrei and you take 12 which causes everyone else to wait for you, your behavior is not correct. The person who is davening with great kavana is causing a tircha d'tzibura and making everyone wait for his frumkeit.