Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shavuot, the Grateful Dead, and the magic of music

Hi everyone! I hope everyone has (or had) a fun and meaningful Shavuot holiday.

If you want to read messages that I wrote previously with Harry Potter thoughts for Shavuot, you can see:

If you're reading this and don't know what the Shavuot holiday is (it's not as widely celebrated as Passover or Yom Kippur) you can read some great articles on it at:

One of the articles there that caught my eye was titled "Shavuot and the Grateful Dead." Since I wrote a book called Harry Potter and Torah, how can I not appreciate an article called Shavuot and the Grateful Dead? But beyond that similarity is the fact that I, like the author of that article, used to go to Grateful Dead concerts. I was never a "real deadhead," but I liked (and still like) their music. But I certainly felt like the only guy in a kippa (yarmulka) in the shows I went to. The author of that article also wrote another article about Chanukah and the Grateful Dead.

As Dumbeldore says in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: "Ah, music, a magic beyond all we do here." The Talmud (Arachin 11a) says that song is a principle of the Torah. The Torah says that we should "worship G-d with happiness and a joyous heart" (Deut 28:47), and the Talmud comments "what kind of worship includes happiness and a joyous heart? Song!" The conclusion is that song can be a form of worship of G-d. This is why we use song in prayer, in reading the Torah, and often in Jewish study halls you can hear people studying in a singsong manner, all to feel the feeling that only music can give.

I hope everyone has a fun and meaningful holiday!

Friday, May 18, 2007

An old Shavuot post: Harry Potter and The Torah of LAITNETOP

Anyone interested in ideas about the holiday of Shavuot (Shavuos) might want to see an idea I wrote a few months ago. Click here to read about "The Torah of LAITNETOP:"


The magic of how we interact with other people - A Harry Potter message for Shavuot

Harry Potter learns from Professor Dumbeldore several lessons about the magical nature of people doing good things for each other.

For example, at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban (chap 22), he says that it was a good thing that Harry saved the life of an evil person:

Harry looked at him aghast... "But - that makes it my fault, if
Voldemort comes back!"
"It does not," said Dumbeldore quietly.... "You did a very noble
thing, in saving ----'s life."
"But if he helps Voldemort back to power---!"
"He owes his life to you. When one wizard saves another wizard, it
creates a certain bond between them... This is magic at it deepest, its
most inpenetrable, Harry. But trust me... the time may come when you will
be very glad you saved ----'s life."

There are many other examples as well, such as Dumbeldore's saying that the power of love is more powerful than black magic, in Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince.

We see a similar idea in Jewish thought if we look in detail at the Ten Commandments, received by the Jewish people at Mt Sinai and celebrated on the holiday of Shavuot, this year on May 22-23, 2007.

In the book Beit Elokim Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Trani (known as the Mabeet, lived in the 16th century in Tzfat) explored in great detail all the Midrashic descriptions of the Ten Commandments (Shaar HaYisodot chap 12). While there are multiple opinions in Jewish thought as to exactly how the stone tablets looked, the Mabeet's conclusion is that the stones were rectangular-shaped, the first stone with the first five commandments (those discussion our relationship with G-d) and the second stone with the last five commandments (those that discuss our relationship with other people). The two stones were the same size, and both were filled with writing, with the entire surface of the stone used for the writing of the Holy Commandments.

He then asks the following question about this description: How could it be the case that the two stones were the same size, and both were completely filled with the writing of the Commandments? The first five commandments, concerning our relationship with G-d, are made of up of several long sentences each, while the last five commandments, concerning our relationship with other people, are mostly two words each (Don't kill, don't steal, etc). How could the large number of words on the first stone take the same amount of space as the much smaller number of words on the second stone?

He concludes, to paraphrase in modern terminology, that G-d wrote the last five commandments, concerning our relationship with other people, in a much larger font (larger letters) than the first five. By engraving the last five Commandments larger, G-d made them take as much space as the first five Commandments took in smaller letters.

Why did G-d do this? Because he wanted it to be the case that as Moses carried the two stone tablets down Mt Sinai, the Jewish people would see the last five commandments first. This is because, the Mabeet writes, people naturally have a stronger temptation to violate the Commandments concerning our relationship with other people, so G-d wanted to emphasize these laws.

Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, formerly from the Yeshiva of Gateshead, England, elaborated on this point. When Jews want to approach Torah, when we want to explore how Torah can contribute to our lives, the Commandments between people and G-d naturally feel more spiritual to us. Prayer, Sabbath observance, and other Commandments that we do for G-d's sake only feel more spiritual than helping other people, caring about other people's feelings, paying people to whom we owe money, helping people who are carrying heavy things, and other Commandments of this sort. But we need to know, Rabbi Solomon said, that the Commandments between people are equally spiritual, are equally reflecting G-d's desires, and have the same spiritual effects in heaven as the Commandments that we keep exclusively for G-d.

So we see, without overdoing the comparison between Torah and Harry Potter, that Torah thought has led us to a conclusion very similar to that in Harry Potter that we quoted above: Our bonds with other people, and the things that we do for other people, can be as spiritual, as magical, as more overly spiritual or magical acts can be. All we have to do, I think, is focus our energy on adherence to the Commandments between us and other people, and keep in mind that all the things that we do for other people are a fulfillment of G-d's Commandments.

And when we're celebrating the holiday of Shavuot, or thinking about the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, we can remember a lesson that G-d wanted the Jewish people to learn at the time: the importance and priority of how we treat other people.

I hope everyone has a happy holiday, enjoys their cheesecake or blinces, and enjoys having something extra to think about when thinking about the Ten Commandments.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jewish law and coffee

This doesn't have anything to do with Harry Potter, but I was talking with someone recently about coffee addiction, and read a blog message on the same subject, and was reminded about what I think is one of the earliest comments about coffee in Torah literature.

Jewish law discusses the idea that it's improper to eat before morning prayers, because we should care about our relationship with G-d more than about our relationship with our stomach. Simple drinking, and according to some authorities light snacking, is OK, but having a real meal or any food or drink that we really invest time into is wrong.

The Jewish Law commentary Be'er Heitev (OC 89) quotes Pri Chadash as saying the following: "Coffee can be drunk (before prayer), particularly in Egypt where their thinking doesn't work properly without coffee." This certainly seems to legitimize my coffee addiction!

Interestingly, the Pri Chadash was written by Rabbi Chizkiya da Silva, who lived in Jerusalem roughly from 1659 to 1695. According to The World of Caffeine, the earliest records of coffee drinking were in the mid-1400's in Yemen, and the earliest written accounts are from the 1600's. So the Pri Chadash is old enough to be historically significant in the history of coffee.

It would be interesting to search more deeply for earlier discussions of the topic in Jewish literature.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Harry Potter and Torah in the Wall Street Journal

An interesting Wall Street Journal article (click here) this morning, about the market for Harry Potter related books, gave a quick mention to Harry Potter and Torah. Slate gave a summary here, also mentioning Harry Potter and Torah briefly.

Last Hurrah for 'Harry' Offshoots?

As Series Draws to a Close,
Market for Related Books
May Well Spike, Then Fade

May 10, 2007; Page B1

When J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" hits bookstores July 21, it will, as virtually everyone knows, mark the end of a 10-year run of seven books that have made publishing history.

But the series has spawned a whole literary ecosystem, with new offshoots expected to spring up as never before during these next few months. Hordes of adventuresome publishers are out there already, and others will be trying to cash in with books that predict what could happen in the final Potter title, provide behind-the-scenes analysis, or just plain ride piggy-back.


There's also "Harry Potter and Torah," which Dov Krulwich self-published late last year. Mr. Krulwich, who works in the high-tech industry in Israel, describes the book as "Jewish perspectives on Harry Potter themes" and says it is aimed at teens and young adults.


The full Wall Street Journal article is here:


and Slate's summary is here:


As always, you can buy Harry Potter and Torah at Amazon at:

and get more info about the book at: http://www.harrypottertorah.com


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Two months until the next Harry Potter movie Order of the Phoenix

The next Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, hits the theaters in only two months, on July 13, 2007. Parents and teachers, are you going to give up talking to your kids as this date approaches, and watch them slide into never-ending discussions of the Order of the Phoenix, Sirius's death, curtains, prophecies, and Voldemort's return? Or are you going to use Harry Potter and Torah to learn for yourself how to open the kids up to discussions of morality, philosophy, and Torah?

For more about Harry Potter and Torah, see the book's home page, or buy it at Amazon (even in the UK) or Barnes and Noble.

The following scenes of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are the motivations of chapters in Harry Potter and Torah:

  1. Sirius's death: Harry's parent's friend Sirius is killed at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and falls through a curtain in a magical room called the Death Chamber. This curtain is remarkably like a curtain discussed several places in the Talmud and Jewish commentaries, discussed in-depth in a chapter on Ghosts and Curtains in Harry Potter and Torah.
  2. The prophecy: The end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix presents us with a fateful prophecy about Harry's destined battle with the evil Voldemort. "Neither can live while the other survives." This is interestingly close to the eternal conflict between the Jewish people and the descendants of Esau, as discussed in the Harry Potter and Torah chapter titled When One Rises, the Other will Fall.
  3. Dreams: The theme of prophetic dreams is a big one in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with Harry's dreams showing more and more of what's happening in Voldemort's mind. What does the Torah, Talmud, and Jewish law say about truth of dreams? This is discussed in Harry Potter and Torah's chapter Dreams: Divination or Digestion?
  4. Ghosts: At the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (at least in the book) we hear an interesting theory of ghosts, particularly who becomes a ghost and why many people don't. What does Torah thought say about ghosts? Many examples appear in the chapter Ghosts and Curtains in Harry Potter and Torah.
  5. Unity: The need for good people to stay united in combatting evil is a continuing theme in Order of teh Phoenix, and has a chapter of its own in Harry Potter and Torah.

These story themes and many more can be used to motivate discussions of Torah, the supernatural, morality, and spirituality, if parents and teachers are prepared. For more on how to prepare, see Harry Potter and Torah's home page, or buy it at Amazon (even in the UK) or Barnes and Noble.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Parsha Emor and killing curses

I didn't have a chance to post this last week, but the Torah portion that we read this past Shabbat, May 5, 2007, was the Torah portion of Emor, which includes at the end a story that relates to Biblical killing curses. It's not included in the book Harry Potter and Torah, but I wrote about it in a previous blog message:


I hope that everyone had a good Shabbat and a fun weekend!