The Karpas Conundrum

Questions, questions everywhere.  At the Seder, that is.

There are the proverbial Four, of course, but they lead to a torrent of new queries.  Like why those questions are themselves never directly answered in the Haggadah.  And why they (and so much else in the Haggadah) are “four”?  And why they must be asked even of oneself, if no one else is present.  Not to mention scores of others on the oddities of the Haggadah’s text.  As the old jokes have it, we Jews seem to respond to questions with only more.

Why the Haggadah is so question-saturated is an easy one.  Because the Seder revolves around the next generation.  It is the communication of the saga of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt to our children, and thus cannot be undertaken in a merely recitative manner.  “Questions and Answers” is a most basic teaching tool, as are singing, number games, and alphabetical acrostics, all elements found in the ancient pedagogic perfection we call the Haggadah.  So none of those educational aids should surprise us.

Karpas, though, should.

Because karpas, the vegetable dipped in saltwater at the start of the Seder, is truly baffling.  Although it is the subject of one of the Big Four questions, it not only does not have an answer; it seems that it cannot have one.

For the Talmud itself asks why we do it, and answers, “So that the children will notice and ask what it is for.”

At which point, presumably, we are to respond, “So that you will ask, dear children!”

To which they may be expected to respond, “All right, now we’re asking.”  And so forth.

Karpas seems to be the verbal equivalent of one of those Escher lithographs where figures march steadily but futilely up strange stairs only to again reach their starting point below.  Why we do it is an inherently unanswerable question.

Some insight, though, may be available by considering yet another unanswerable question, perhaps the most fundamental one imaginable: Why we are here.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) recounts that the students of Shammai and those of Hillel spent two and a half years arguing the question of whether “it would have been better for humankind not to have been created.”

And, intriguingly, they came to conclude that man would have been better off uncreated, and added only that now that we humans find ourselves here, we must strive to examine and improve our actions.

The famed 19th century Torah-giant Rabbi Yisroel Salanter addressed the meaning of the argument and its result.  Needless to say, he explained, the students of Shammai and Hillel were not sitting in judgment on their Creator.  What they were in truth arguing about was whether mankind, with its limited purview, can possibly hope to comprehend the fact that G-d deemed it worthwhile for humankind to exist.

And they concluded that we cannot.  We are unable to fathom what good the Creator saw in providing one of his creations free will.  It is surely better that mankind is here, but why cannot be known.

After all (they likely noted), free will makes sin inevitable.  And humans, in fact, seem entirely prone to bad behavior.

Past history and current events alike evidence man’s choosing evil over good at almost every turn.  We humans are eminently self-centered, and precious few of our thoughts concern how we might be better givers, not takers, better servants of the Divine.

What has this to do with karpas?

Perhaps nothing.  But perhaps much.

Because disobedience of G-d, the very definition of sin, has its roots in the first man and woman’s act of independence.  And one of the results of their choice was a change in the fundamental relationship they (and we) had (and have) with the earth on which we depend.

“Thorns and thistles [the earth] shall bring forth for you,” was the pronouncement, “and you shall eat the grasses of the field.”

In, of all places, the sole Talmudic chapter that deals with the Seder, we find the following passage:

Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “When G-d told Adam ‘and thorns and thistles…and you shall eat the grasses of the field,’ Adam’s eyes welled up with tears and he said, ‘Master of the Universe, am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?’  When G-d continued and said, ‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread’ [i.e. human food will be available for you, but only through hard work], Adam’s anguish was quieted.” (Pesachim 118a)

Could the meaning of Adam’s lament be that since humanity’s progenitor had proven through his insubordination the inevitability of humans choosing evil, man would seem to have been better off as merely another mindless, choiceless animal, a two-legged donkey?

Could that terrible thought be what brought tears to his eyes?

And, finally, could it be that the manifestation of the earth’s response to his sin, the lowly vegetation it will now naturally bear for him and which he is sentenced to eat – could that be… the karpas?  And the saltwater in which it is dipped, his tears and the sweat of the brow?

Could it be, in other words, that the question of why we dip karpas in saltwater is specifically constructed to be unanswerable precisely because it alludes to an unanswerable cosmic question?

What, though, is the memory of history’s first sin doing at the very onset of a festive gathering?

The key to the mystery may lie in remembering that the Seder is not only the start of Pesach but the beginning of a period that will culminate in the holiday of Shavuos.  The seven weeks between the first day of Pesach and Shavuos are in fact counted down (or, actually, up) with the “counting of the Omer” on each night of those forty-nine.

When Adam hears G-d’s pronouncement that his sin has relegated him to eating “the grasses of the field” like animals, yes, he cries, but he is reassured that he will still be able to eat bread, human food, albeit “by the sweat of your brow” – with hard work and effort.

On both Pesach and Shavuos, bread plays a prominent role.  On the former, we eat unleavened bread; on the latter, the day’s special Temple offering consists of two loaves of bread,  which – in stark contrast to most flour-offerings – must be allowed to rise and become chametz.

Leaven is a symbol of the inclination to sin (“What keeps us [from You, G-d]?” goes the confession of one talmudic personage, “the leaven in the dough”).  Perhaps, then, the period between Pesach and Shavuos, between the holiday of leaven-less bread and that of leavened bread, reflects our acclimation to the human propensity to sin.  It leads us to ponder that sin’s inevitability should not render us hopeless, but rather that our selfish desires are – somehow – a force that can be channeled for good, for service to G-d.

Shavuos, then, would be the celebration of our having accepted – even if not fully comprehended – the goodness inherent in our existence despite our inherent shortcomings.  It is, thus, the response, if not ultimate answer, to the unanswerable question of why we are here.  And so our bread on that day is purposefully leavened; it has absorbed and incorporated sin’s symbol.

What allows for the “redemption” of our propensity to sin?  The Torah, whose acceptance at Sinai is celebrated on Shavuot.  For the Torah is that which “sweetens” the inclination to sin and makes it palatable.  As a famous Midrash renders G-d’s words: “I have created an inclination to sin, and I have created the Torah as its sweetening spice.”

Our base desires, the source of our sinning, are not denied by the Torah, but rather guided by it.  We are not barred from enjoying any area of life, but shown, rather, how to do so, how to utilize every human power and desire in a directed and holy way.

Pesach, then, is the symbolic start of the process of growth.  It is the time to eat only pristine, unleavened food, to deny ourselves every sign of the inclination to sin, the better to be able, over the ensuing forty-nine days, to slowly absorb the powerful sin-inclination, to work on ourselves (by the sweat of our brows), and acclimate ourselves to what it represents … gradually, day by day, until Shavuos. 

Only then, having labored to attain that growth, may we – by the sweat of our brows – eat true, fully developed, leavened bread.  For, if we have labored on ourselves honestly and hard, we have learned to temper and manage our inclinations to sin with the laws and guidance of the Torah.

Pesach is thus a perfectly propitious time for a hint to the great unanswerable question of how man’s existence can be justified despite his sinful nature.  For it is on Pesach specifically that we begin to develop our ability to channel the human powers that, left unbridled, result in sin.

And so, at the Seder, as we dip the karpas in the saltwater, reenacting Adam’s sentence by eating a lowly vegetable, animal food, dampened with a reminder of his tears, his question should come to mind: “Am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?”

But so should something else.  Because the reminder of his tears – the saltwater – is a reminder no less of his hope, the sweat of his brow, the hard work that can lead us to become truly human, choosing, servants of G-d.  That hard labor is what justifies our existence; it is our astonishing privilege in this wondrous world.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Black Like Us

The confluence of this past Shabbos and reports about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s alleged ugly racist remarks inspire me to share the piece below, which was written three years ago.

The Chasam Sofer probably never saw a black person.  There weren’t likely very many in 19th century central Europe.  But he certainly knew they existed.  After all, they are mentioned in a posuk, the one that opens the haftarah of parshas Kedoshim, which was this past Shabbos.  There, Kushites—Kush is generally identified as a kingdom in central Africa—are a simile for Klal Yisrael.

“Behold, you are like the children of Kush to Me,” the navi Amos (9:7) quotes the Creator addressing the Jewish People.

“Just as a Kushite differs [from others] in [the color of] his skin,” comments the Gemara (Moed Katan, 16b), “so are the Jewish people different in their actions.”

One might assume that the intention of that explanation is simply that, while most people often act thoughtlessly or selfishly, Jews, if they live as they should, do otherwise, planning their every action, concerned about their obligations to the Creator, and to others.

But the Chasam Sofer’s interpretation of the Talmudic comment (he apparently had “the righteous” in place of “the Jewish people”) goes in a different direction, and makes a point as fundamental as it is timely.

His words:

“It is well known that every Jew is required to observe all the mitzvos.  But there is no single path for them all.  One Jew may excel in Torah-study, another in avodah (service, or prayer), another in kindnesses to others; this one in one particular mitzvah, that one in another.  Nevertheless, while they all differ from each other in their actions, they all have the same intention, to serve Hashem with their entire hearts.

“Behold the Kushite.  Inside, his organs, his blood and his appearance are all the same as other people’s.  Only in the superficiality of his skin is he different from others.  This is the meaning of ‘[different] in his skin,’ [meaning] only in his skin.  Likewise, the righteous are different [from one another] only ‘in their actions’; their inner conviction and intention, though, are [the same,] aimed at serving Hashem in a good way.”

There are two messages to glean here.  One—which wasn’t intended by the Chasam Sofer as a message at all, but as a truism—is that people of different colors are only superficially different from one another.  What lies beneath our shells are the same veins, sinews and organs, no matter our shades.

The Chasam Sofer’s novel message, though, is that there are different ways, no one of them any less essentially worthy than any other, of serving Hashem.

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking that we, or our children, must follow a particular trajectory and land in a particular place in life.  But when Chazal teach that “just as people’s faces all differ one from the other, so do their minds,” they are informing us otherwise, that there are different, equally meritorious, trajectories, different, equally praiseworthy, landing places for different people.  It’s not just that people are dissimilar and will choose a variety of vocations, excel in a variety of fields, and establish individual priorities.  It’s that in all our diversity of vocations, fields and priorities, we can be entirely equal servants of Hashem.

Consider Rav Broka, who, the Talmud recounts (Ta’anis 22a), was often accompanied by Eliyahu Hanavi, and once asked the prophet whether in a certain marketplace there were any people who merited the World-to-Come.  The individuals Eliyahu pointed to turned out to be a prison guard who made special efforts to preserve prisoners’ moral integrity and who interceded with the government on behalf of his fellow Jews; and a pair of comedians, who used their humor to cheer up the depressed and defuse disputes.

One wonders if the parents of those meritorious men felt disappointed at their sons’ choices of professions.  Or whether they realized that there are, in the end, many paths that can lead to the World-to-Come.


Deconstructing Dayeinu

Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear.  Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Like Dayeinu.

On the surface, it is a simple song – a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land – with the refrain “Dayeinu”: “It would have been enough for us.”  It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have “been enough for us” had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army?  Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place to save the Jews, but that seems to weaken the import of the refrain.  And then there are the other lines: “Had G-d not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us?  “Had He not given us the Torah.”  Enough?  What are we saying?

Contending that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d’s kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion and make faces at.

One path, though, toward understanding Dayeinu might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child – or even an ex-child – is to hide one’s message, leaving hints for its discovery.  Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant –in fact, in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that require time for the mind to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image’s meaning, and emerge only later.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle.  And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song’s recountings is in fact not followed by the refrain at all.  Few people can immediately locate it, but it’s true: One of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word “dayeinu.”

Can you find it?  Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious?  You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience.  I’ll wait…

…Welcome back.  You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem.

Dayeinu begins: “Had He taken us out of Egypt…”  That phrase – and it alone – is never qualified with a “dayeinu.”  It never says, “Had You not taken us out of Egypt it would have been enough for us.  For, simply put, there then wouldn’t have been an “us.”

The exodus is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable.”  It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings.  Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people, born. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Israel,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, “did G-d create the heavens and the earth”), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, of course, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover.  When the Torah recounts the wicked son’s question (Exodus12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving.  What were they thankful for?  The news that they would sire wicked descendants?

The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), known as the “Shem MiShmuel,” explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews’ joy.  When we were merely a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits.  Yishmael was Avraham’s son, and Esav was Yitzchak’s.  But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People.  That people was forged from Yaakov’s family, at the exodus from Egypt.

That now, after the exodus, even a “wicked son” would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days.  The people had become a nation. And that well merited an expression of thanksgiving.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be precisely that: The sheer indispensability of the Exodus – its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for centuries upon centuries, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably entering new generations of Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing the message they absorbed.


The Man on the Bima

He ascended the steps to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read, with the strangely hurried movements of someone who would rather be traveling the other way.

This middle-aged fellow, apparently something of a stranger to a shul, had just been “called up” from his seat in the back of the small shul to make the blessing on the Torah.

They get so nervous, I thought to my cynical, teen-age self that day several decades ago; they should really come more than just a few times a year, if only to get the feel of things.  The blessings, after all, are not very long, the Hebrew not particularly tongue-twisting.

“Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Ho’amim (who has chosen us from among all nations)” – I prompted him in my mind – “V’nosan lonu es Toraso (and has given us His Torah).”

C’mon, man, you can do it.

His life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion, for the man on the bima, was both momentous and terrifying.

Then he did something totally unexpected, something that made me smirk at first, but then made me think, – and made me realize something profound about our precious people.

He made a mistake.

Not entirely unexpected.  Many a shul-goer, especially the occasional one, leaves out words here and there, reverses the order, or draws a traumatic blank when faced with the sudden holiness of the Torah.  That would have been unremarkable.  But this congregant was different.

His mistake was fascinating.  “Asher bochar bonu”  he intoned, a bit unsure of himself, “mikol,” slight hesitation, “…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim.”

The poor fellow had jumped the track of the Torah blessing and was barreling along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Passover seder!  “Who has chosen us from…all other nights, for on all other nights we eat…”!!

For the first second or two it was humorous.  But then it struck me.

The hastily corrected and embarrassed man had just laid bare the scope of his Jewishness.  He had revealed all the associations Judaism still held for him – all that was left of a long, illustrious rabbinic line, for all I knew.

My first thoughts were sad… I imagined a shtetl in Eastern Europe, an old observant Jew living in physical poverty but spiritual wealth.  I saw him studying through the night, working all day to support his wife and children, one of whom later managed to survive Hitler’s Final Solution to make it to America and gratefully sire a single heir, the man on the bimah.

We have so much to set right, I mused, so many souls to reach, just to get to where we were a mere 70 years ago.

But then it dawned on me.  Here stood a man sadly inexperienced in things Jewish, virtually oblivious to rich experiences of his ancestral faith.

And yet, he knows the Four Questions.

By heart.

When he tries to recite the blessing over the Torah, the distance between him and his heritage cannot keep those Four Questions from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined.  The seder is a part of his essence.

I recall a conversation I once had with a secular Jewish gentleman married to a non-Jewish woman and not affiliated with any Jewish institution.  His en passant mention of Passover prompted me to ask him if he had any plans for the holiday.

He looked at me as if I were mad.

“Why, we’re planning an elaborate seder, as always.”

Astonished at the sudden revelation of a vestige of religious custom in his life, I told him as much.  He replied, matter of factly, he would never think of abolishing his Passover seder.  I didn’t challenge him.

When living in Northern California, I became acquainted with other Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice.  I always made a point of asking whether a seder of any sort was celebrated on Passover.  Almost invariably, the answer was… yes, of course.

It is striking.  There are more types of haggadahs than other volume in the immense literary repertoire of the Jewish people.  The Sixties saw a “civil-rights haggadah” and a “Soviet Jewry haggadah.”  Nuclear disarmament, vegetarian and feminist versions followed.  At the core of each was the age-old recounting of the ancient story of the Jews leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah.  It is as if Jews, wherever the circumstances may leave them, feel a strange compulsion to preserve the Passover seder and its lessons whatever the costs, and whatever the form most palatable to their momentary persuasions.

Events that took place millennia ago – pivotal events in the history of the Jewish nation – are regularly and openly commemorated by millions of Jews the world over, many of whom do so out of an inner motivation they themselves cannot explain.

They may not even realize what they are saying when they read their haggadahs, beyond the simplest of its ideas:  a Force saved their forefathers from terrible enemies and entered into a covenant with them and their descendants.

But that is apparently enough.

A spiritual need that spawns an almost hypnotic observance of the seder by Jews the world over is satisfied.  And even if, after the seder, mothers and fathers go back to decidedly less than Jewishly observant lives, their daughters and sons have received the message.

As did their parents when they were young, and their parents before them.

The seed is planted.

The seder is indisputably child-oriented.  Recitations that can only be described as children’s songs are part of the haggadah’s text, and various doings at the seder are explained by the Talmud as intended for the sole purpose of stimulating the curiosity of the young ones.

For the children are the next generation of the Jewish nation; and the seder is the crucial act of entrusting the most important part of their history to them, for re-entrustment to their own young in due time.

And so, in the spring of each year, like the birds compelled to begin their own season of rebirth with song, Jews feel the urge to sing as well.  They sing to their young ones, as their ancestors did on the banks of the Red Sea, and the song is a story.  It tells of their people and how the Creator of all adopted them.  And if, far along the line, a few – even many – of us fall from the nest, all is not lost. For we remember the song.

Just like the man on the bimah.



The Gorilla’s Lesson

The little boy was petrified, as one might imagine, by the gorilla who sat down next to him at the table in his (the child’s) home. I hadn’t meant to scare the kid; I was just tired and needed to get off my paws.

It was a very long-ago Purim (the child is now a father and accomplished talmid chochom) and a group of us had rented costumes to use in Purim visits to homes while collecting for a worthy charity. The gorilla suit was very realistic (and very hot).

Sheftel, as I’ll call the boy (because it’s his name) was around three years old at the time. I was around 19. I felt bad, and immediately removed my head—that is to say the gorilla’s.

Sheftel’s eyes shrunk back to their normal size and the scream that had lodged in his lungs never made it to his wide open mouth. He saw it was only me.

When, a bit later, I replaced my gorilla head, Sheftel let out a scream. I reminded him from inside that it was only me. He screamed again. I took off the head and he immediately calmed down. I put it back on and, once again, he screamed.

Children, apparently, have to reach a certain stage before they realize that a costume is only a costume, that the person wearing it remains the person wearing it even when he’s wearing it. Sheftel had yet to internalize that truth.

Related and more poignant is the lesson of an old Yiddish joke, about Yankel informing Yossel that, unfortunately, Shmelkeh had just passed away. “Shmelkeh?” asks Yossel, “the guy with the oversized ears?”

“Yes, that Shmelkeh,” Yankel says sadly.

“The fellow with the terrible skin condition, the rash covering most of his face?

“Yes,” once again.

“The Shmelkeh missing an eye, and with the large wart on his chin?

“Yes, yes, that Shmelkeh,” Yankel confirms.

“Oy!” exclaims Yossel. “Azah shaineh Yid!” (“Such a beautiful Jew!”)

Superficial things, we come to realize if we’re perceptive, are, well, superficial. Masks, in other words, mask.

The theme of misleading appearances is, of course, central to Purim. Esther, the heroine of the historical happening commemorated on the day, hides her identity from the king who takes her as his queen. Her very name is rooted in the Hebrew word for “hidden,” and is hinted to, the Talmud teaches us, in words the Torah uses to refer to Hashem “hiding” Himself, rendering his providence undetectable.

Which it is in the Purim story. The absence of Hashem’s name from Megillas Esther reflects the fact that His presence was not overtly evident in what happened. Yet, His “absence” was itself but a mask; Divine providence, in the form of delicious ironies, informs the story at every turn. From Achashverosh’s execution of his first queen to suit his advisor and then execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai’s happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in Klal Yisroel’s salvation; to Haman’s visiting the king at the perfectly wrong time… Hashem’s presence loudly hums, so to speak, in the background. If anything merits being called The Purim Principle it would be: Nothing is an Accident.

Even the very symbol of meaningless chance, the casting of lots, turns out to be Divinely directed and crucial to the Purim miracle.

Klal Yisrael, too, is “masked.” The people seem beholden to an idolatrous, lecherous king, and readily participate in his grand ball where he celebrates, of all things, the finality of the Beis Hamikdosh’s destruction, chalila.

But that was, as the Talmud teaches us, a merely superficial stance. In truth, behind the unimpressive Jewish veneer lay Jewish hearts dedicated to Hashem. And when events began to blow like a strong wind, the masks were ripped away. Our ancestors, in their fasting and prayers, showed their true essence.

Is it any wonder that on Purim we wear masks? And make fun—of ourselves and even (good naturedly) of others? What we mock are the masks we all wear, the particular character each of us projects. The mockery declares that such things are superficialities, camouflaging what really matters: the Jewish soul that resides in, and ultimately defines, us.



As a boy growing up in the 1960s, I became intrigued with handwriting analysis. It’s an intriguing notion, an almost obvious one: our character traits are subtly expressed in our handwriting. Every person is unique, after all, and so is every person’s handwriting. Our brains are the physical organs that mediate our “selves” and ultimately produce our writing. It seems reasonable that our handwriting unconsciously reveals things about our personal characteristics. The revelations will be subtle, to be sure, but with enough research, studies, and testing, it should be possible, the reasoning goes, to establish rules to allow for the accurate analysis of personality from handwriting.

And, indeed, the claim that such rules are available and can be practically applied, at least by experienced initiates, is the fundamental principle underlying the discipline of graphology, or handwriting analysis.

I read whatever material on the topic I could find. In the end, though, I concluded that if graphology were in fact a science, it was too inexact and fuzzy to be of any use. And so I lost interest and moved on to model rocketry.

But graphology, to understate things, went on quite well without me. Today, there are scores of books on the topic; companies specialize in analyzing handwriting; individual graphologists offer their services for a fee; people use graphological analyses of their strengths and weaknesses to make life decisions; and employers routinely evaluate applicants at least partly on graphologists’ judgments of handwriting. (The use of graphological profiles as an employment tool is particularly popular, for reasons not clear, in Western Europe and Israel.)

Some Clarifications Up Front

When approaching the subject of graphology, it’s important to realize that the phrase “handwriting analysis” is sometimes used to refer to an expert document examiner’s comparison of a person’s handwriting with writing introduced as evidence in a civil or criminal trial. In such cases, the analyst (often called a “questioned document examiner”) is simply comparing details in one sample of handwriting with those in another and rendering his or her judgment about whether both were produced by the same person. Such expertise has nothing to do with graphology, the assertion that people’s character traits are discernable in their handwriting.

A second important point to keep in mind when investigating graphology, at least as it is embraced by most people today, is that it is presented as a scientific discipline. There are those who claim a mystical ability to divine personality and facts about individuals from their handwriting, just as there are people who claim to be able to do the same from facial birthmarks or palm creases or tarot cards. Some of those methods, depending on how they are used, may be halachically forbidden, although there have been Jewish mystics who, it is claimed, could “read” a person from his face or his writing. Whatever the merits of such claims, though, graphology’s contemporary promoters do not claim any such supernatural divination. What they say they do, rather, is a form of scientific analysis, the interpretation of handwriting quirks and patterns, based on what they claim to be a cause-and-effect premise, to yield subjects’ psychological, occupational, and even medical attributes.

A Little History

The earliest use of handwriting as a window into the mind may go back to the Roman emperor Nero, who is said to have judged people by their writing. The first written treatise on graphology is generally considered to have been produced in 1625 by an Italian named Camillo Baldi. In the nineteenth century, members of the Catholic clergy in France founded “The Society of Graphology” and one of them, Abbot Jean-Hyppolyte Michon, wrote several books on the topic. Within a hundred years, German thinkers had embraced the idea that state of mind affects handwriting; and Americans soon followed, with the establishment by a Kansas shorthand teacher of the International Graphoanalysis Society in 1929. (“Graphoanalysis” refers to one of a number of different schools of graphological methodology, which all differ in their assignment of meanings to certain writing patterns.)

It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that experimental claims of graphology’s validity as a psychological tool were put forth, and its popularity began to soar both in America and Europe.

Method in the Manuscript

Although, as noted earlier, there is no canonical school of graphology, but rather an assortment of schools that each claim a particular technique of ferreting details of a mind from the writing that it has produced, most graphologists pay particular attention to the size and slant of characters, their curvature, and things like the pressure of upward and downward strokes. A right slant generally correlates with extroversion, and a left slant with introversion. The shape of the letter ‘t’ and the way it is crossed are important markers in most systems, as are the size of the personal pronoun “I” and the way it is rendered. Anyone interested in the finer points of the methodology used by the various approaches within graphology can choose from dozens of books and papers outlining the details of all the various systems.

Sifting Through the Studies

The intricacy of the systems utilized by graphologists is clear, as is the popularity of graphology itself. But is it justified? Have the claims made on its behalf been borne out by facts? Has handwriting analysis been proven to be a useful tool? The answers are clearer than one might expect, and—at least to some—may be surprising.

There have been literally hundreds of studies aimed at finding evidence for graphologists’ claims. The ones that have demonstrated efficacy on any level for handwriting analysis have been those conducted by graphologists themselves, or have appeared in journals where payment is rendered for the inclusion of papers. Objective studies in recognized professional scientific periodicals have yielded no evidence that personality traits can be reliably divined from handwriting.

Anat Rafaeli and Richard J. Klimoski, for example, studied expert graphologists’ interpretation of the handwriting of 104 real estate agents in 1983 and compared the assessments with the agents’ performance. No relationship was found. In a 1992 survey of research on handwriting analysis for personnel selection, Mr. Klimoski concluded that the “credible, empirical evidence” does not support the claims of graphology as applied to personnel selection.

In 2009, Carla Dazzi and Luigi Pedrabissi published a paper in Psychological Reports on a study they conducted about graphology and summarized their findings thus: “No evidence was found to validate the graphological method as a measure of personality.”

Even one of the very few studies that yielded a slightly greater correct/incorrect ratio in the judgments of graphologists over a control group—a 1973 paper for the Netherlands Society of Industrial Psychology—provides little succor for proponents of handwriting analysis. The Dutch researchers concluded that for judging an individual, “…graphology is a diagnostic method of highly questionable and in all probability minimal, practical value.”

More enlightening are the results of “meta-analyses” of studies on the issue. A meta-analysis is essentially an evaluation of a group of studies, which—since the weaknesses of individual studies are diluted in the pool of others considered—yields a clearer and more accurate picture.

In one such meta-analysis of 17 graphology studies in 1988, Efrat Neter and Gershon Ben-Shakhar found that graphologists were no better than nongraphologists in predicting future performance by examining an applicant’s handwriting. The researchers concluded that in cases where “neutral scripts” (writing samples whose content did not reveal anything about the writers’ lives, attitudes or interests) were used “the validities of the graphologists were near zero.” Their results, they wrote, suggested that the source of whatever “limited validity” may have been demonstrated for graphologists’ appraisals “may be the script’s content”—in other words, the content of the writing sample, not the handwriting itself.

In 1992, Australian researcher Geoffrey Dean published, in the journal of the American Psychological Association, a review of 200 studies of graphology’s efficacy. He found that no graphologist of any of the schools of handwriting analysis fared better than untrained amateurs making guesses from the same materials presented to the graphologists. In the vast majority of the studies surveyed, neither group exceeded chance expectancy.

The late professor of psychology Barry L. Beyerstein was a particularly blunt critic of graphology, calling it “scandalous that a pseudoscientific ‘character reading’” like handwriting analysis “should be used to make decisions that can seriously affect people’s reputations and life prospects.”

“The scientific literature,” he said, “overwhelmingly supports the notion that handwriting analysis is pseudoscientific bunk.”

The Handwriting Analysts’ Response

What do graphologists say when confronted with such comments and the results of studies finding no validity to their claims?

To answer that question, I interacted with accomplished handwriting analysts. They don’t dispute the fact of the scientific findings but insist that the studies are flawed. Some will point in the direction of their own, or other graphologists’, studies. Others claim that if handwriting analysis were unreliable, courts would not employ it. But I could find no evidence that any court of law in the United States has ever relied in any way on graphology (although, again, comparisons of handwriting samples to identify writers is commonplace in courts).

And some say, in effect, leave the studies aside; look instead at the facts—namely the convictions of their clients, who claim that analyses of their handwriting (or that of others that they have submitted) have been accurate, even astoundingly perceptive.

When such claims are examined, though, they tend to lose some luster. In many cases, the accuracy of the readings can plausibly be tied to the content of the written questions or writing sample submitted. The graphologist need not have consciously intended to mine that content but may nevertheless have registered elements of it in his mind, which later emerge in his evaluation. In cases of public figures, the evidence of reputations often seems to inform (again, consciously or not) analyses of their handwriting.

An example would be one graphologist’s analysis of presidential candidates’ handwriting before the 2008 elections. He concluded that Senator John McCain has an “optimistic nature” and also “a restless inner temperament, with elements of impulsivity and impatience. He can blow up in an instant… prefers to defend the given order and is stubborn, determined and unyielding in his approach to life.”

And, the analyst added, the senator is a “maverick.” All of which is common knowledge.

As to then-Senator Barack Obama, an analyst said that he “needs to always be the center of attention,” has a “seemingly informal style” and “has overcompensated for an absent father and a overbearing mother and grandmother.” (The same handwriting expert also saw in Mr. Obama’s writing “a Christian cross and the alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet… hinting at the crescent, the symbol of Islam.”)

And, in consonance with popular opinion at the time, he added on a radio program that “Barack’s signature scared the daylights out of me.”


In other cases, vagueness and what might be called “or/but/while” statements allow people to see perception where in fact there may be none.

Examples of vague, open-to-many-meanings, or universally applicable phrases include things like: “divided nature,” “compatible with most people,” “protects innermost feelings,” “strives for independence,” “always asking questions and seeking answers,” and “sense of pride and dignity”—all actual phrases culled from random published analyses of handwriting samples. At first glance each phrase might seem to communicate something clear and discrete; but a second look and bit of thought yields the realization that each phrase is sufficiently vague to apply to almost anyone. Or consider (also from an actual analysis) the following: “Had trouble with parents in teens.” The inherent vagueness of the word “trouble” and the essential psychology of adolescence combine to make such an assessment more of a truism than a revelation.

Someone, however, predisposed to seeing himself in a graphological analysis would readily feel, about any or all of the phrases above, that the graphologist has indeed divined elements of his personality.

“Or/but/while” statements also abound in most graphoanalyses. Those would be things like the following (also culled from random actual readings): “has an opinion… [either] because he has character, or because he is arrogant”; “can be compatible with most personalities but will not hesitate to argue her point of view”; “charming in social situations while remaining socially distant”; “take[s] great pains to be impartial… [but] can be contentious, argumentative”; “takes [money] seriously but doesn’t allow financial concerns to consume him.”

The upshot of “or/but/while ” statements is that the subject can choose to focus either on what precedes the “or,” “but” or “while,” or on what follows it. If he’s inclined to want to believe his character has been plumbed, he’ll likely zero in on the description he feels suits him best.

A Case Study

The more daring graphologists, however, do indeed include, at least inter alia, clear assessments in their analyses of handwriting samples, descriptions of character traits that are neither vague nor qualified. It would seem that evidence for graphology’s effectiveness would assert itself in such judgments.

“Moshe,” who is something of a public figure, challenged a respected graphologist to provide scientific evidence for the efficacy of handwriting analysis. The handwriting professional told him that the fact that people found analyses of their handwriting to be accurate descriptions of themselves is the only evidence needed. And he offered to analyze Moshe’s handwriting. Moshe confided to me that he took up the offer but, to make the experiment a truly “blind” (unbiased, scientific) one, he submitted instead the handwriting of someone else—“Tzipporah”—whose character traits are markedly different from his. He is analytical, philosophical, lawyerly, and gregarious; she is intelligent but emotive, quiet, and unpretentious. While he is systematic, very organized and calculated, she has more of a “go with the flow” personality. He is very self-assured; she is modest and reserved.

The following are Moshe’s words, after receiving the detailed analysis of “his” (actually, Tzipporah’s) handwriting:

Most of the analysis reflected things about me that are easily available on the web. And those things are simply not true about [Tzippora].

Other parts of the analysis are open to broad interpretation, and in some cases even contradictory. For example, it claims the writer is ‘not meticulous about details’ and ‘given to procrastination’ but in the very next paragraph says he is “organized, with good planning skills” and, earlier, that he ‘pushes himself’ and “rarely allow[s] obstacles to deter him.”

And where the analysis does state clear “facts,” they are generally without basis—either regarding me or “Tzippora.” Neither of our fathers were delinquent in establishing “clear direction” in life. Neither of us has “past experiences [that] have created aggressive feelings.” Neither of us had unusual “trouble with parents” in our youths, and certainly don’t “blame” ourselves for that nonexistent trouble. There is much more, too, that is wildly inaccurate about both “Tzipporah” and me.

The graphologist didn’t even indicate that the writing was that of a female, not a male like me.

Moshe does not believe that the handwriting analyst consciously sought to fool him. He thinks the graphologist actually believes in his ability to see character traits in handwriting. “But,” says Moshe, “he is wrong. He somewhat described things fairly well known about me—even though it wasn’t my handwriting he analyzed—and totally struck out when he tried to go further.”

Where There’s A Will…

There will always be people who want to believe that they can obtain insight into themselves through various means. Whether they pursue a psychotherapist or a soothsayer, their goal is the same: to better understand themselves and, hopefully, better utilize their strengths, address their weaknesses,  and live better lives. And so it might well be asked what gain is to be had by presenting handwriting analysis in its true colors—something bearing the patina of “science” but lacking any evidence for its validity. After all, even if it is just a parlor game, where’s the harm in playing it?

The answer lies in the stark fact that many who seek analyses of their (or others’) handwriting actually make life-altering decisions based on what they are told. A potential marriage partner may be nixed, or a job not offered. One graphologist told me that his skills resulted in a student being revealed as guilty of a crime committed in his yeshiva. He claimed that the student subsequently admitted his guilt. But there have been many cases of admissions of guilt under pressure that turned out—on the basis of hard evidence or eyewitnesses— that emerged only later to be false. A handwriting analysis can itself be a crime, and not a victimless one.

There are, however, effective ways to receive accurate and truthful information about one’s character, strengths, and weaknesses; and to obtain useful advice for how to make life-choices. For a believing Jew, the path to such good advice has been clearly pointed out by Chazal, in Avos (1:6): “Choose for yourself a rav,” the Sages advised, “and acquire for yourself a friend.”

And when you need personal guidance, turn to them.

© 2011 Ami Magazine


A Song From Beyond

My dear mother, of blessed memory, has been gone for 22 years.  Her yahrtzeit, the Jewish anniversary of her passing, 22 Adar I, fell on a Shabbos this year, several weeks ago.  All who knew her will readily testify that she was one of the kindest, most caring people they had ever met.  Despite her transplantation from Poland to the U.S. as a little girl, and then the loss of her grandmother, a brother and her father when she was a teen, no scars of those challenges were ever evident in her interactions with people—the moment she met you she began caring for you—and she was the most wonderful mother any child could ask for.

And she was present at our Shabbos table on her yahrtzeit this year.  She even taught my grandson a song.

Two year old Shmuel, who was visiting with his parents and little brother, is an adorable, rambunctious little boy; to his good fortune, his propensity to display his impressive pitching arm and ability to break things have been divinely counterbalanced with preternaturally blue eyes and a smile that could melt Pharaoh’s heart. He’s a quick learner too.

At one point, someone at the meal claimed to be directionally challenged, needing to consciously think about which way was right and which was left.  I smiled as I realized, and explained, how I came to have a split-second recognition of which way is right.

When I was a little boy, probably a bit older than Shmuel, I would accompany my mother on Shabbos afternoons to the shul in Baltimore’s LowerParkHeights neighborhood where my father, may he be well, was rabbi.  There, she would host a gathering of neighborhood children for snacks and songs and stories.  One song has remained with me over the more than half-century since.  It consisted of the verse “Kol rina viy’shua bi’oholei tzaddikim; yemin Hashem osoh choyil”: “The sound of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; Hashem’s right hand does valiantly” (Tehillim 118, 15).  And, in the song, the word for “right hand”—“yemin”—was repeated with gusto thrice, each time with everyone thrusting a right fist into the air.

And so, I recounted, I need only think of the word yemin and my right arm starts automatically to move. I demonstrated the song and the motion, much to the amusement of Shmuel, who then shouted “Yemin!” three times, complete with hand motion.  As we all laughed, I realized with a start that, my goodness!, my mother had just reached through the years—on her yahrtzeit no less!—and taught her great-grandson a song.

Of course, I think she is constantly teaching him, many other more important things as well.  Every time I am moved to do something kind or considerate, I know it is her legacy (bequeathed to her no less by her parents) that I am, if imperfectly, embracing, and hopefully passing on to others.  My wife and I, and our children—Shmuel’s mother among them—along with their spouses are all links in a chain of generations, passing on the Jewish beliefs and values we have absorbed from our forebears to the young with whom we have been entrusted.  In fact, being such links is arguably our most important role in life.  And whether we’re adequately filling it should be our constant concern.

More recently, my wife, perhaps in the spirit of chaos associated with the season, invited Shmuel’s parents to leave him with us for the Shabbos before Purim, an offer they couldn’t refuse.  We had a wonderful time hosting our grandson.  He managed to break only one child-proof gate, open only one child-proof cabinet (though several times) and drop just one book into the aquarium.  (My wife’s quick move prevented Shmuel’s socks from following.)

That Friday night, when I returned from shul, the house was very quiet.  Shmuel had been put to bed, but hadn’t yet fallen asleep.  To soothe him and ensure that he didn’t climb out of his crib (something in which he has considerable expertise and experience) and wreak havoc, our daughter was sitting in the darkened room with him.  He was babbling quietly, probably planning his mischief for the next day.

While we were waiting for the babble to fade to the peaceful slow breathing of well-deserved sleep, my wife excitedly motioned to me to come closer to the bedroom door, which was slightly ajar.

And then, bringing me a rush—and a smile leavened with a tear—I heard what she had: “Yemin!” Shmuel’s little-boy voice was piping. “Yemin! Yemin!”


Mindless Purity

I’m hesitant to put my Mama Jean story in writing.  There’s so much improper imbibing on Purim, so much regarding of “lib’sumi” (to become tipsy) as license instead of mitzvah

But the story’s too good, and its message too meaningful, to leave unshared.

“Mama Jean,” as she liked to be called, was the cook in a small yeshiva where I studied many, many years ago.  She was a very large, very jovial, very middle-aged ethnic Italian from “the other side of the tracks.”  While she was serving us pasta with meat sauce, her son was serving a life sentence in San Quentin.

Her first year with the yeshiva brought revelations to both us and her.  We learned about fresh oregano.  And she learned about strange Jews.  How they could feast so incessantly on Sabbaths and holidays, eating odd things like cholent, and how they suddenly ate nothing at all on fast days.

When Purim was imminent, we thought Mama Jean should be prepared for yet a new strangeness.  Gingerly, we told her about breaking the fast after Taanit Esther, about the festivities of that night and the next day, about the festive meal, about how some might be drinking a bit more than they otherwise might.  She wasn’t fazed and not only prepared a royal spread (and special punch) for the yeshiva but watched the singing and dancing from the kitchen throughout the day.

It was a wonderful Purim, what I remember of it.  What I clearly remember, though, was an early morning later that week.  My mind is sharpest in pre-dawn hours, and I had entered the yeshiva’s beis medrash, or study hall. well before morning services.

Expecting an empty room, I was startled to see a formidable form sitting on the floor before a bookcase at the back of the hall.  Mama Jean was oblivious to my arrival, deeply engrossed in an English holy book that had been on a shelf.

When she sensed my presence, she was startled, and I apologized.  “But Mama Jean,” I said, “What are you doing here?”

She stood up and smiled sheepishly.  “Avi,” she said.  “I’m thinking about becoming Jewish.”

Mama Jean struck me as an unlikely convert (and, to the best of my knowledge, never became one).

“Why?” I asked, sincerely curious.  “Purim” was her response.

Her elaboration has remained with me for decades since.  “Over my years,” she explained, “I’ve seen a lot of people plenty drunk.  But I’ve never seen so many people so drunk… without a single fight.”  All that she had seen at the yeshiva, she explained, was friendship, joy, laughter, tears, and religious devotion.

Mama Jean, I realized, had sensed what the rabbis of the Talmud teach: that a person’s true character is evident in “his cup”—in how he acts when intoxicated.  She had perceived Klal Yisrael.

The Talmud (Shabbos, 88a) teaches that something was missing when our ancestors received the Torah at Mt.Sinai, something only supplied centuries later by the Jews in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther.

Because the revelation at Sinai involved an element of coercion: “G-d held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis (a barrel).”  Explains the Maharal: The powerful nature of the experience, the terrifying interaction of human and Divine, left no opportunity for true free choice.

And for years that “coercion” remained a moda’ah, a “remonstration,” against the Jewish People.  Until the Purim story.  Then, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive G-d’s presence where it was not obvious at all.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, they recognized it as G-d’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance.  And by choosing to see G-d’s  hand, they supplied what was missing at Sinai, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was—and is—wholehearted, sincere and pure.

When I think of my early morning conversation with Mama Jean, I think of the Talmud’s image of G-d “holding the mountain over their heads,” and, especially, of the phrase “like a barrel.”  What’s with that?  Is a mountain overhead not frightening enough?  Who ordered the barrel?

A gigis, however, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.

In Pirkei Avos, we are taught not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.”  I suspect that advice may apply here.  The Jewish nation’s reaction to coercion may not reveal its truest nature; what does, though, is how we express our dedication in a state of mindless purity. 


Our Own Private Passover

One day during my teenage years I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age.  The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family’s flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland at the outbreak of World War II to my own 14th year of life – when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar-mitzvah portion.

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia – as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna – alongside my high school trials for comparison.  At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive.  As years progressed, I continued to ponder our respective age-tagged challenges.  Doing so has lent me some perspective.

As has thinking about my father’s first Passover in Siberia, while I busy myself helping (a little) my wife shop for holiday needs and prepare the house for its annual leaven-less week.

In my father’s memoirs, which I have been privileged to help him record and which, G-d willing, we hope will be published later this year, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941.  Over the months that followed, while laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid.  This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous.  But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and so they were really only being good Marxists.  They had spiritual needs, including kosher-for-Passover matzoh.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small hand coffee grinder, ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzohs to ensure their quick and thorough baking.  In the middle of the night the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost’s other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzohs.

On Passover night they fulfilled the Torah’s commandment to eat unleavened bread “guarded” from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Passover experience of my wife’s father, I.I. Cohen, may he be well.  In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive” (ArtScroll/Mesorah, 2001), he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzoh.  All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could.  In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested.  “What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?” they asked.  “Do you have matzohs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder?  Sheer stupidity!”

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment – and no one could know if their “seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

Those of us indeed in such places can glean much from the Passovers of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A Chassidic master offers a novel commentary on a verse cited in the Haggadah.  The Torah commands Jews to eat matzoh on Passover, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life.”

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: “When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his life – the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for him throughout…”

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank G-d, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that.  But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless “miracles and wonders.”  We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed – or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take.  But that reflects only our obliviousness.  At the seder, when we recount G-d’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we’ve been given.

Should that prove hard, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.