Thursday, August 27, 2009

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Bava Metzia: Perek Aleph (שניים אוחזין)

Two are holding a tallis they find
Each one cries out, “This tallis is mine!”
Each guy swears that at least
He owns half the whole piece.
Then they split it. Both parties don’t mind.

Ben Nanas was quite a straight guy
He did not like to make others lie.
Said Ben Nanas, “I’m loathe
To require this oath
One guy’s lying, you cannot deny!”

Nobody in his right mind would dare
To deny, with his creditor there,
That he borrowed a calf.
So he says, “’Twas just half.”
Don’t believe him! Instead, make him swear.

A shepherd would take sheep each day.
And he’d watch them go off on their way
Then return them at night.
He is not in the right
If he says, “I took no sheep today.”

When a shepherd takes sheep he must be
Watched by witnesses, vigilantly.
For all shepherds are liars
With wayward desires
Don’t think they’ll confess sheepishly.

Yochanan says, “We make each guy swear
That the tallis is his, fair and square.
Lest men take stuff they find
And declare, “It is mine.”
Legislate oaths – for scruples are rare.

A person’s more likely to steal,
Than to lie earnestly and with zeal.
Because money can be
Returned regrettably
Words once spoken, though, can’t be repealed.

A borrower and lender both stand
Each one with half a writ in his hand
“You owe me!” “But I paid!”
Are the claims that are made.
Solid proof must the court then demand.

A guy rides in a wagon that’s led
By two species of beasts at the head.
That’s Kilayim! No good
Forty lashes, we should
Beat him with. Or the driver instead?

A man is aboard his own ship
Sailing forth at a nice steady clip
Then some fishies jump in
To the boat, on a whim—
Are they his? Do we “walking yard!” quip?

A man’s field got flooded. The poor
Guy. But guess what else, too, came ashore?
Fish! They landed in trees
“Fetch those fish, if you please,”
Said the man. “They are mine and not yours.”

If you find a Get do not return
It. The woman may not still be spurned.
For the man may have written
It, then said, “I’m smitten
With her now -- and for her I yearn.”

Some dude sells his farm to you but—
It was not his! Now you’re in a rut.
The field’s taken back
Do we cut you some slack?
If you farmed it, you get a pay cut.

Reuven betroths his sister with cash
(You can’t do that! Why? Need we rehash?)
Well of course they’re not wed
We are asking instead:
Tell us, who has the rights to the stash?

Shabtai son of Marinus once wrote
A ketubah. He promised a coat
To his bride. Lost forever,
Their Ktubah. “I never
made such a pledge.” Swear on that quote!

If you drop your wife's Get in the street
And then find it beneath others' feet.
May the Get still be given
Though it has been ridden
Over by most people you meet?

Rabah once found a Get. Here’s the facts:
In a factory where they make flax
“I’ve a Get,” he proclaimed
Just one man with the name
On the Get worked there. He took it back.

We find loan documents, and they say:
One man borrowed from three guys one day.
We assume he who borrows
(Impoverished, with sorrow)
Has lost. Them to him we relay.

We find loan documents. We agree
That if one man has lent cash to three
We return to the lender,
The likely contender
To own them. Indubitably.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Elul reflections: A Midtown Musaf

Every Elul, as I review the melodies of the high holidays, I am reminded that I first learned to lead Rosh Hashanah davening while traversing the streets and avenues of Manhattan. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I had a job writing about psycho-pharmacological drugs for a large pharmaceutical company in midtown. Each morning, I would commute by train from my parents’ house on Long Island to Penn Station. I would follow the crowds up the escalator out of the station, and as soon as I exited onto 34th street, I’d hit the Play button on my walkman. As I walked to work, I’d listen to a tape prepared by (now Rabbi Dr.) Ethan Tucker. The tape (which has since become an object of veneration and parody in certain very limited circles) started with “HaMelech,” the first word of Rosh Hashanah shacharit, and went all the way to the final kaddish at the end of Musaf. It lasted 42 minutes (with a lot of “and so on and so forth”), which was exactly how long it took me to walk the four avenues and twenty-five blocks between Penn Station and my office on the East side. I walked the same route each day, and so I remember vividly where I stood for each part of the davening: at Barchu I passed Macy’s; at Avinu Malkenu I crossed Times Square; by the U’netaneh Tokef, I was at the Korean grocery near Bryant Park, observing which flowers still looked appealing and which had wilted.

I have led davening on Rosh Hashanah for nearly ten years now. Every Elul I work hard to improve my Kavana, trying to focus my attention on repentance, on righteousness, and on channeling the prayers of the congregation upwards to heaven. But when the new year dawns and I stand at the Amud turning pages in the Machzor, I am inevitably thinking not just of the sweet taste of apples and honey that I’ll enjoy at Kiddish, but also of the cross streets and landmarks of the Big Apple.

I like to think that perhaps this association is not as inappropriate as it might seem. After all, the high holidays are about marking our path as we journey through life. Each year, we are called upon to look back on where we have traveled, take stock of our lives, and resolve to be more mindful of our ways in the future. When I stand before God and before the Kahal on Rosh Hashanah, I remember that I have much for which to be grateful -- for the paths I have traversed, the turns my life has taken, and the opportunities that await me around the next corner.

For Elul reflections from the past three years, see:

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Bava Kama פרק ד': שור שנגח

Must a Tanna flesh everything out?
Can he summarize, speak thereabouts?
Or like peddlers, repeat
What they hear; it's not meet
For a Tanna, who's someone with clout.

The villain Chanan dealt a blow
To a poor guy. Rav Huna said, "Go
Pay him half of a zuz."
Counterfeit! He refused
So Chanan hit again. "Here you go."

There are oxen who gore when they hear
Shofars sounded. Yup. Oxen are queer.
If they post-blast gore thrice
(Two times will not suffice)
They are muad for shofars, I fear.

If a non-Jew learns Torah, his fate
Is like that of a high-priest: first-rate!
But the Jews stand to earn
More for all that they learn;
They're commanded! Chanina relates.

Sent the Romans two soldiers to study
Some Torah. (Each learned with a buddy.)
They said: "Torah's OK
Except: 'No Jew must pay
If his ox gores a non-Jew's.' That's nutty!"

Hate the Moabites. Yup, that is fine.
But do not wipe out all of their line
Because then the sad truth
Is: We'd be without Ruth
With whom our nation's fate is entwined.

Do a mitzvah forthwith! Do not wait!
Be the first, like Lot's eldest; her fate
When she slept with her dad
Was to bring forth this lad:
David's grandpa. And hence: Procreate!

An arena ox trained for the fight
Can gore all that he wants; it's all right
Those who own him don't pay—
He would gore anyway.
He is trained thus. A sorrowful plight.

The Amazon Shimon would teach
"Every 'et' is a reason to preach."
Except one. We refrain
From that "et," not in vain
There is merit to gain from the breach.

Said Akiva: I'll preach on that "Et."
I have something to say! Will you let
Me? We honor, yes, God;
But we also must nod
In respect to each sage – don't forget!

A fisherman casts out his net
He will take all the fish he can get.
If he gets lots of big
Fish, he'll still hold his rig
Out for little ones too. You can bet!

If an ox kills a girl or a boy
This is sad. We cry out with an "Oy."
And we hold it as bad
As if rather it had
Killed a woman or man (not a Goy).

An ox prone to kill human life
Will cause people a whole lot of strife.
Such an ox can't be watched
For the job will be botched
You can keep it safe just with a knife!

You may hold it an obvious matter
Still we say: Keep no rickety ladder
In the place where you live
For you will not forgive
Yourself when it falls down with a splatter.