The Weekly Shtikle Blog

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Friday, January 26

The Weekly Shtikle - Bo

The Weekly Shtikle is dedicated le'iluy nishmas my dear Zadie and Bubbie, HaRav Chaim Yaakov ben Yitzchak and Yehudis bas Reuven Pinchas.
Ari Storch, (author of Tiferes Aryeh) has written an intriguing essay conerning the star "ra'ah" which is referred to in Rashi in this week's parsha (10:10). You can read it here:
    There is some disussion regarding the exact methodology behind the ten plagues - what the plagues represented individually and as a whole and why they were in ther specific order. I would like to focus on a specific subset of the ten plagues. In four out of the ten plagues, Egypt was invaded by animals. This animal invasion seems to have a theme of its own. Rashi (Bereishis 1:26) writes man was created to rule over the fish, the birds and the animals. However, if man is not worthy, he will become subservient to the animals. This four-pronged attack from the animal kingdom served to prove that the Egyptians had reached that level and they needed to be shown that they were no longer in charge.
    The first animal invasion was that of frogs. Although the frogs invaded the land, there is very specific mention of their emergence from the water and their subsequent return to the water after the plague was over. The Nile, which the Egyptians worshipped as a deity of sorts, was completely out of their control.
    The invasion of lice came from the ground beneath the feet of the people. The attack of the wild beasts sybolized the Egyptians' defeat above ground. Finally, the locusts represented the animal kingdom's establishing aerial supremacy, as it were, over Egypt. The four animal infiltrations together symbolized Egypt's loss of power and ultimate subservience to the animals in all physical realms of our world.
Have a good Shabbos.
Eliezer Bulka

Thursday, January 25

Death Star

Rashi in Parshas Bo (10:10) cites a midrash that says that when Paaroh told Moshe that “Ra’ah” will befall Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness should they leave that Paaroh was referencing a star named “Ra’ah.” This evil star is symbolic of death and blood, and it seems that Paaroh was correct. Rashi continues to state that when Bnai Yisrael sinned with the golden calf and were to be destroyed, Moshe defended them by saying,” Why should the Egyptians state with ‘Ra’ah’ He took them out …?”

The question is which star was Paaroh referencing. We do not find a star called “Ra’ah” mentioned in ancient Hebrew or gentile astrology. The first candidate could be Mars. We are talking about a single star and not a constellation (a reading of Rashi provides that information). Because we are discussing a specific star coming out to greet Bnai Yisrael I initially assumed that we are discussing a star that moves independently of the constellations. That leaves us with the seven ancient planets; the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (see Rashi in Berachos 49b, Shabbos 129b and Shabbos 156a). One would think that we are talking about the Sun since Ra’ah is the name of the Egyptian god of the Sun; however, since Paaroh’s statement indicates a star that does not rise daily, the Sun (and Moon which are not seasonal) could not possibly be “Ra’ah.” Thus Ra’ah must be the midrash’s Hebrew translation of the Egyptian word “evil,” which was their nomenclature for this heavenly body. Mercury, Venus and Jupiter do not have malevolent associations in ancient astrology (see Ptolemy’s “Tetrabiblos,” which is based on ancient Egyptian astrology, and “Reishis Chachmah” by Harav Avraham ibn Ezra who agrees with Ptolemy’s classification), so it is not likely that any of them is the star being discussed. Saturn was associated with plague and pestilence and Mars with blood and war. Seeing that the aspects being discussed in Rashi are associations with blood, Mars would seem to be the best candidate. However, Mars is called Ma’adim in Hebrew (both ancient and modern). To suggest that Chazal had another name for Ma’adim seems a bit difficult because even in the instances in Talmud when it is being referenced as being an evil object it is called Ma’adim. Rashi (and the midrash) should have mentioned that “evil” means Mars since it is a referenced star in Talmud.

Since the seven planets do not seem to be “Ra’ah,” I hypothesized that it is possibly a named comet. Comets are the only other celestial beings that would have their own perceived motion through the sky; however, there is no record of any comet at this time and it would seem that whatever body was there would have been around when Yehoshua was about to enter Canaan (this is when the star finally found its blood). There are no recorded visible comets that would have a 40 year orbit. Even if we are to assume that the star would only have been present during the Exodus it is still problematic for the earlier reason cited. It is difficult to assume that we are dealing with an unnamed comet or previously unknown comet because how would the Egyptians have known this information and even if they did we should have some records of such a comet. The implications of the midrash are that this star was a known star.

The next possibility is that “Ra’ah” is a supernova. Supernovae are the explosions created during the death throes of stars. They can be very bright and can stay in the sky for many weeks. Some have even been so bright that they were visible in the daytime. The problem with this theory is that it would have been impossible for the ancient Egyptians to predict when and if a star (known or unknown) was about to experience this phenomenon. It therefore would be impossible for them to have known that it would come to greet Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. Also, supernovae leave their mark and are able to be observed for hundreds of years after the event occurred. There are no such supernovae that date back to this time. Moreover, there are no records of new stars appearing during this time.

Another similar suggestion would be to assume that Ra’ah is a variable star. There are several types of variable stars. Some are stars that are in a binary system in which the smaller star periodically passes in front (from our perspective) of the more luminous star. This passage of the less luminous (and usually not visible) star causes the more luminous star’s light to become dim or even non-existent from our perspective. These are called eclipsing binaries. Others oscillate in such a way that they appear to brighten, dim or disappear. Perhaps Paaroh was saying that an invisible star was about to appear and this appearance would signify an ominous trip for Bnai Yisrael. There are many of these stars found in the night sky, but most do not dim or brighten with such significance that one would say that the star has disappeared and then reappeared. There is one major candidate for this, Mira. Mira otherwise known as Omicron Ceti is a variable star with a variable period of 332 days. During these eleven months it actually would appear to disappear and reappear. Cetus (the constellation) is known as the whale in modern times but in ancient times was known as a sea monster. The Greeks regarded it as the monster that Perseus (a Greek hero) killed by showing it the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Mira was known as the heart of this beast. The problem is that if you do the math it was coming to its brightest in September the year of the Exodus and in March the year that Yehoshua entered Canaan. Pesach and the circumcision in the times of Yehoshua may have been close to March (even that is pushing it a bit), but neither the Exodus nor the golden calf would have been near September. If one takes into the account that the forgiveness for the calf took quite some time and it seems that this occurred on R”Ch Elul then Moshe’s statement of, “B’Ra’ah Hotziyam …,” could have been around September. I think this is very unlikely as no sources prior to 1569 discuss the variation of this star, so it is probable that no one realized that it appeared and disappeared. Furthermore, even though Cetus is associated with a monster, Mira seems to be referred to as the “Wonderful Star,” and to be associated with good tidings.

After further analysis, one can conclude that Moshe’s comment seems to be referring to the month that Bnai Yisrael left Mitzrayim because he says, “Hotziyam” or “He took them out.” Therefore, the most probable candidate for “Ra’ah” could be determined as Algol. Algol happens to be a variable star, but it never disappears. Its variation is about 2.87 days and it appears as a pulsating red star. It has always been associated with evil and even its name connotes this. Algol or Alghul comes from the Arabic that we have taken into English to mean ghoul (some maintain that the word alcohol has roots in this word as well and is often referred to as a spirit that takes over the body; even today we refer to alcohol as spirits). Associated with death (specifically decapitation), Algol has become known as the demon, demon star or demon head. This star is found in Perseus and the Greek’s referred to it as the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Perhaps what Paaroh meant by coming to greet them was not its appearance and disappearance as we noted with Mira; rather, it refers to the celestial position of Algol, that it would be rising with the Sun. The ancients believed that the constellation that rose with the Sun was considered to be in control (hence the Zodiac; the precession of the equinoxes has messed this up as noted by Harav Avraham ibn Ezra, but both Hebrew and gentile astrologers still use the old system). This method of astrological prediction is mentioned by the Talmud and elucidated by Rashi (see R”H 11b and the notation found at the end of the mesechta regarding this Rashi). Perseus (and Algol more specifically) is very close to Aries (Tleh). It would definitely have been viewed as rising with the Sun during Nisan (Aries/Tleh’s month) and likely would have been considered as being more powerful then. The fact that Bnai Yisrael would be traveling to the East in the direction where Algol would be rising probably made it seem more formidable. Once again, it would have been rising when Yehoshua circumcised the nation (although this is unnecessary as it would seem to be the beginning of the journey that would define its outcome, Chazal consider the prohibition of Lo SeOneinu to be stating which days are better to start a journey due to ominous signs or astrological influences, see Rashi on VaYikrah 19:26). Based on all this information it seems very probable that Ra’ah is Algol.

Ari Storch
Questions and comments are welcome at or at (410) 358-5546

Friday, January 12

The Weekly Shtikle - Shemos

It was exactly two years ago, for the Weekly Shtikle of Shemos 5764 that I was congratulating my brother, Binyomin, on the occasion of the birth of his daughter. Today we send out a Mazal Tov on the birth of his son this past Sunday. Mazal Tov to Binyomin, Shira, Tzirel Nechama and the ganse mishpacha on the "baby to be named later!"
The Weekly Shtikle is dedicated le'iluy nishmas my dear Zadie and Bubbie, HaRav Chaim Yaakov ben Yitzchak and Yehudis bas Reuven Pinchas.
    How about some dikduk for this week:
    In the beginning of this week's parsha we are told (1:11) that B'nei Yisroel built two large cities for Par'oah - Pis'om and Ra'amseis. This may sound rather similar to the city in which Yosef placed his family (Bereishis 47:11). However, Ibn Ezra points out that in fact, if you examine the vowelization of the city in Vayigash, the city's name is actually pronounced Ram'seis. Thus, the Ra'amseis that B'nei Yisroel built in Shemos is not the same city. A ba'al kriyah, therefore, should probably be careful to distinguish between the two. Surprisingly, though, Rashi explains that B'nei Yisroel made these already existing cities into storage cities for Paroah. It is quite clear from Rashi's words that he assumed that the two cities were the same and that is why he explained the apparent difficulty of building a city that already exists. This is hard to understand not only because of what Ibn Ezra stated but also, why would Paroah place his storage in the city in which B'nei Yisroel dwelled. Nevertheless, although one should certainly be careful to pronounce it properly (as they should any word) it most probably should not be corrected if mispronounced.
    There are many words that get manipulated depending on their placement in a pasuk. The word at the end of the pasuk or on the principal stop in the middle of the pasuk often undergo vowel changes. For example, "shemen" will become "shamen" and "even" will become "aven." One would have expected, therefore, that the word "teven" would become "taven" at the end of a pasuk. However, it is clear in this week's parsha (5:13, for example) that that is not the case. Why is this word different from all the others?
    I have a theory which some have accepted (and some - not so much) that the word "taven" is used in Iyov (13:1) from the root of the word denoting understanding. I have no proof of this precedent but perhaps, if the changing of the vowels on a word would make it identical to another word meaning something completely different, it is not done. Shamen and aven have no other meaning but taven does. That is why it remains teven.
Have a good Shabbos.
Eliezer Bulka

Friday, January 5

The Weekly Shtikle - Vayechi

The Weekly Shtikle is dedicated le'iluy nishmas my dear Zadie and Bubbie, HaRav Chaim Yaakov ben Yitzchak and Yehudis bas Reuven Pinchas.
    In Pasuk 48:22 Yaakov refers to what seems to be a certain piece of land that he captured "becharbi uvkashti". The simple translation of these words is "with my sword and my bow". However, Targum Onkelos translates "bitzlosi uv'vausi", with my prayer and my supplication. The Meshech Chochma (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) explains the use of these two words as the translation of the words in the pasuk and the difference between the two types of prayer that Onkelos refers to.
    The word "tzelosi" refers to the prayers that have been specifically prescribed by the Anshei Keneses HaGedolah. The halacha regarding these prayers is that one does not require specific kavana for these prayers to work. Therefore it is the translation of "charbi", sword. It is like the sword which is used in close battle and requires little control in order to strike the target. It more or less "kills" in any circumstance.
    "Bausi" which literally means needs, refers to one's own personal prayers to HaShem outside of those daily prayers mentioned above. With these prayers one requires specific kavana in order for them to be at all effective. These prayers are likened to the "Keshes", the bow and arrow. Without a skilled shooter, it is ineffective and will more often than not miss its target. It requires specific aim in order for the arrow to reach its desired destination.
    Admittedly, this was a rerun. However, I had a cute observation this year to add to it. The word "uvkashti" without its vowels may be read "ubakashasi," and my requests. The word could just as easily have been "vekashti," omitting repetition of the "bais" as a prefix. Perhaps the specific choice of words is a hint to Onkelos' interpretation.
Have a good Shabbos.
Eliezer Bulka