Shavout 18b ~ The regularity of the menstrual cycle

שבועות יח, ב

ת"ר "והזרתם את בני ישראל מטומאתם" אמר רבי יאשיה מיכן אזהרה לבני ישראל שיפרשו מנשותיהן סמוך לוסתן וכמה אמר רבה עונה 

Our Rabbis taught: "You shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness"[Lev. 15:31]; R.
Yoshiah said: From this we deduce a warning to the children of Israel that they should separate from
their wives near their periods. And how long before? Rabbah said: One ‘onah [either the whole day or the whole night].

From here.

From here.

In tomorrow's page of Talmud, Rabbah (~270-330 CE), who lived in Babylonia, ruled that a couple must refrain from intercourse if menstruation is expected to begin within a twelve hour window.  This ruling is included in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law, as the required Jewish practice:

שולחן ערוך יורה דעה קפד, ב

בִּשְׁעַת וִסְתָּהּ, צָרִיךְ לִפְרֹשׁ מִמֶּנָּהּ עוֹנָה אַחַת, וְלֹא מִשְּׁאָר קְרִיבוּת אֶלָּא מִתַּשְׁמִישׁ . אִם הוּא בַּיּוֹם, פּוֹרֵשׁ מִמֶּנָּהּ אוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם כֻּלּוֹ אֲפִלּוּ אִם הַוֶּסֶת בְּסוֹפוֹ, וּמֻתָּר מִיָּד בַּלַּיְלָה שֶׁלְּאַחֲרָיו, וְכֵן אִם הוּא בִּתְחִלָּתוֹ, פּוֹרֵשׁ כָּל הַיּוֹם וּמֻתָּר כָּל הַלַּיְלָה שֶׁלְּפָנָיו

During her veset, [the expected onset of menstruation, her husband] must separate from her for one onah, not from all contact but only from marital relations. If her period is expected in the daytime, separate from her for that entire day, even if the veset is at the end of the day, and it is permitted [to have marital relations] immediately the following evening. Similarly, if [the veset] is at the beginning, separate the whole day and it is permitted the entire preceding evening...

This ruling suggests that women can predict when the onset of menses will be. How often is that in fact the case? Well, for the half of you who are men, it might surprise you to learn that this ability to predict the onset is less common than you would think. Women, I am sure, already know this.  

How Regular is Regular?

In a 2011 review paper "The normal menstrual cycle in women," the authors point out that the 28 day"text-book" length of the menstrual cycle in young healthy women is in fact highly variable. Even between similarly aged women the cycle may range from 25 to 34 days. More to our topic, there are many women in whom the cycle length changes. In those aged around twenty, about 47% of women have a variation by as much as 14 days annually.  

Variation of menstrual cycle length as a function of age in the woman. This graph shows mean cycle length and the range (5th and 95th percentile) reported in 4 studies. yrs = years, d = days. Triangles indicate the age group in which the indicated percentage of women shows more than 14 days variation in cycle length annually. From M. Mihma, S. Gangooly, S. Muttukrishnab. The normal menstrual cycle in women. Animal Reproduction Science 124 (2011) 229–236.

Variation of menstrual cycle length as a function of age in the woman. This graph shows mean cycle length and the range (5th and 95th percentile) reported in 4 studies. yrs = years, d = days. Triangles indicate the age group in which the indicated percentage of women shows more than 14 days variation in cycle length annually. From M. Mihma, S. Gangooly, S. Muttukrishnab. The normal menstrual cycle in womenAnimal Reproduction Science 124 (2011) 229–236.

Another study on the variability of menstrual length from one cycle to the next comes from the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at the University of Pittsburgh.  They asked 130 women to keep menstrual diaries and record their menstrual flow for at least four menstrual cycles and for as long 30 weeks. 

Participants prospectively recorded their menses for the up to 30 weeks. Each subject’s estimated cycle length was compared to the average of her actual cycle lengths and the range and variability in each individual’s cycle length was calculated. A total of 786 cycles from 130 women who recorded 4 or more cycles were analyzed.

They found that 46% of all subjects had a cycle range of 7 days or more, and 20% had a cycle range of 14 days or more. In other words, almost half of the women had a cycle-to-cycle change of at least a week, and one in five had a change of two weeks or more.  "Therefore" they wrote, "one out of every five subjects who reported that they had regular cycles were experiencing periods that occurred 1 week away from the expected date."

Irregularity in Jewish Law

For those who wish to learn more, there is a long section in the Shulchan Aruch (יורה דעה הל׳ נידה  קפט) that addresses the complicated issue of irregular menses and the required time for a husband and wife to refrain from intercourse. This long section is needed because for many (?most) women, the length of the menstrual cycle changes from one period to the next. R. Yoshia's ruling that a couple must refrain from marital relations "סמוך לוסתן"  - at the expected time of menstruation -  turns out to be a rather complicated thing to do.  

This study establishes that “regular” menstrual cycles are quite variable from cycle to cycle. The inherent variability in menstrual cycle length, which is likely a function of when ovulation occurs, must be studied prospectively to understand its full impact on contraceptive research trials and pregnancy-related care.
— Crenin, M.D. Keverline, S. Meyen, L.A. How regular is regular? An analysis of menstrual cycle regularity. Contraception 2004:70;289-292
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Rashi and Why Women Light the Menorah

[A repost from Dec 2015]

Don't Share This With Your Young Children

Ask a well-educated Jewish child about the origins of Chanukah, and they will likely tell you about the wicked Greeks who defiled the Temple, about the brave Maccabees who fought them, and about the miracle of the oil.  But in Rashi's commentary to the Talmud where this story is told, there is another part of the story. Here it is:

דאמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בנר חנוכה, שאף הן היו באותו הנס

 רש"י שם:  שגזרו יוונים על כל בתולות הנשואות להיבעל לטפסר תחלה  

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated to take part in the lighting, for they were included in that miracle...

Rashi: For the Greeks made an edict that all virgins who were about to marry must first have intercourse with the Prefect...

The great French exegete Rashi (d.1105) is referencing the Law of the First Night - Jus Primae Noctis, also known more graphically as The Right to the Thigh - Droit du Cuissage. We first encountered this when studying Ketuvot 3a. So let's go back to that daf.  

MAZAL TOV; WHEN'S THE WEDDING?

Today, when a bride and groom wish to secure a wedding day, it will depend on their budget and the availability of the caterer. My, how things have changed. In the times of the Mishnah, the wedding day was decided by the availability of the local rabbinic court, the Bet Din. Then, a wedding (of a virgin) could only take place on the night before the Bet Din convened.  This would ensure that if, after their magical first night, the groom suspected that his bride had not been a virgin, he could take his claim to court the very next day.  

מפני מה אמרו בתולה נשאת ליום הרביעי שאם היה לו טענת בתולים היה משכים לב”ד

Why did they teach that a virgin must only marry on a Wednesday? So that if the groom questioned her virginity, he could hurry to the Bet Din...
— Ketuvot 3a

The Talmud (Ketuvot 3a) explains that this happy custom changed during a period of persecution. Rabbah, a forth century Babylonian sage, explained what this is all about: "[The authorities] said, "a virgin who gets married on Wednesday will first have intercourse with the governor" (הגמון). In order to avoid this awful legal rape, the wedding was moved a day early, to fly, so to speak, under the radar of the local governor. 

JUS PRIMAE NOCTIS IN THE TALMUD & MIDRASH

The law that Rabbah referenced is the same one that Rashi claims was imposed on Jewish brides by the Greeks. Its origins are further explained in the Talmud Yerushalmi, which dates it to the time of the Bar Kochba revolution:

 תלמוד ירושלמי כתובות פרק א הלכה ה  

בראשונה גזרו שמד ביהודה שכן מסורת להם מאבותם שיהודה הרג את עשו...  והיו הולכין ומשעבדין בהן ואונסין את בנותיהן וגזרו שיהא איסטרטיוס בועל תחילה התקינו שיהא בעלה בא עליה עודה בבית אביה 

In the beginning, they [the Romans] decreed destruction in Judea (for they had a tradition that Yehuda killed Esau) ... and they enslaved them and raped their daughters, and decreed that a soldier would have intercourse [with a bride] first. It was then enacted that her husband would cohabit with her while she was still in her father's house. 

A reference to Primae Noctis also appears in the Midrash Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic homilies edited sometime in the forth or fifth century. As told in Genesis 6, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were beautiful (tovot), and they took wives from whoever they chose.” The Midrash focuses on that word beautiful, and explains:

 

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה כו 

אמר רבי יודן טבת כתיב, משהיו מטיבין אשה לבעלה היה גדול נכנס ובועלה תחלה, הדא הוא דכתיב כי טבת הנה, אלו הבתולות ויקחו להם נשים מכל אשר בחרו, אלו נשי אנשים, 

“Rabbi Judan said the word tovot (טבת) – beautiful – is written in the singular, [but read as a plural]. Meaning that the bride was made beautiful for her husband, but the lord of the nobles had intercourse with her first...”

JUS PRIMAE NOCTIS...IN THE MOVIES

There are numerous references to Primae Noctis in ancient and modern literature, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Marriage of Figaro. One recent example can be seen in the movie Braveheart, when the evil King Edward gallops into a village, to interrupt a wedding celebration. “I’ve come to claim the right of Primae Noctis. As lord of these lands, I will bless this marriage by taking the bride into my bed on the first night of her union.”  And as the groom is restrained by Edward's henchmen, Edward reminds the peasants “it is my noble right.”  

Jus Primae Noctis. Is there a more fearsome example of feudal barbarism? Of what one scholar called “a male power display…coercive sexual dominance…and male desire for sexual variety”?  But the legend, despite its appearance in many guises, is, fortunately, likely to be nothing more than just that: a legend.  

JUS PRIMAE NOCTIS...IS A LEGEND

Perhaps the most comprehensive investigation of the legend of Primae Noctis is The Lord's First Night: the Myth of the Droit de Cuissage, by the French social scientist Alain Boureau. His careful analysis is particularly important since, as we have seen, Rashi, our favorite French commentator, cites this legend twice. After a meticulous two-hundred page review of every alleged appearance of the legend, Boureau is clear:

[T]he droit de cuissage never existed in medieval France. Not one of the arguments, none of the events insinuated, alleged or brandished, holds up under analysis.
— Alain Boureau, The Lord's First Night.

Others scholars agree with Boureau. In 1881, the German historian Karl Schmidt concluded that the right never existed.  In 1973, the historian J.Q.C. Mackrell noted that there is "no reliable evidence" that it existed. And Prof. Tal Ilan, now at the Free University of Berlin, addressed the myth of Primae Noctis in a magnificently titled 1993 paper: Premarital Cohabitation in Ancient Judea. Prof. Ilan noted that that “all medieval literature that evokes the custom of Jus Primae Noctis has been proven to be folkloristic and has no historical basis.” But what about the evidence from the Talmuds, and the Midrashim? Don’t they provide evidence that Primae Noctis was indeed practiced in the time of the Talmud? Not so, claims the professor:

If a motif of this sort could have appeared in a sixteenth-century document and upset the entire history of medieval Europe for the next two centuries, the same motif likewise could have cropped up in the fourth -or fifth-century Palestinian Talmud, falsely describing events of the second century.

Instead, Prof Ilan suggests that the Talmud used the myth of Primae Noctis to excuse the behavior of some prospective couples, who would engage in sexual relations before they married.  “the jus primae noctis was conveniently drawn in order to explain and justify a custom that seemed to the rabbis to undermine their view of proper conduct in Jewish society.”

Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred.
— Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time

There is some further support to the claim that primae noctis never existed, and it is not one I have seen suggested before.  It is a claim from silence.  I've checked over 100,000 responsa, and there is not one on this topic. Not a single one.  If primae noctis really was a law of the Greek and Roman empires, and a feudal right across medieval Europe, then why were its implications for the Jewish community never discussed in the responsa literature?  This silence supports the conclusions of work done by Boureau, Ilan and others: it never existed. In fact Boureau wonders what muddled thinking would lead anyone to believe it existed in the first place: 

It has been clear from the start that no matter what social restrictions were put on conduct and the management of wealth, and no matter how violent mores became, the principle of free choice of an unfettered matrimonial life was the most sacred area of individual liberty in medieval Europe. The Church, European society's principal normative center, very early removed all restrictions on the marriage of dependents, and it imposed consent as a sacramental value.  No juridicial form, no custom, could attack that principal...sanctified in the twelfth century by the establishment of the sacrament of matrimony.  

HISTORY AND HERITAGE

The historian David Lowenthal has explained the differences between history and heritage. While history "seeks to convince by truth," heritage "passes on exclusive myths of origin and endurance, endowing us alone with prestige and purpose." Heritage, continues Lowenthal, commonly alters the past: sometimes it selectively forgets past evils, and sometimes it updates the past to fit in with our modern sensibilities. Sometimes it upgrades the past, making it better than it was, and sometimes it downgrades the past, to attract sympathy.  And so, how we read the Talmud will depend on whether we see it as a work of history or as a book of our heritage.  

There you have it...some of it fact, and some of it fiction, but all of it true, in the true meaning of the word
— Miles Orvel, The Real Thing: Imitiation and Authenticity in America

There are stories both wonderful and terrible from our Jewish past. Some are factual, and some are not, and a measured approach to how we might approach these stories has been suggested by Judith Baumel and Jacob J. Schacter. They explored the claim (published in The New York Times) that in 1942, ninety-three Beis Yaakov schoolgirls in Cracow committed suicide rather than face rape by their German captors. They concluded that the evidence to support the truth of the story is not conclusive one way or the other

Whether or not it actually happened as described is difficult to determine, but there is certainly no question that it could have happened...in response to those claiming that the incident was "unlikely" to have occurred, let us remind the reader that the period in question was one during which the most unlikely events did occur, when entire communities were wiped out without leaving a single survivor...Maybe it did happen. But maybe again it didn't. Could it have happened? Of course.

So Why Should Women Light the Menorah?

It seems very unlikely that Rashi's explanation for why women should light the Menorah has any factual basis; the legend of Primae Noctis is not likely to have been trueBut some stories are true, even though they never happened. Ask yourself, from what you know about Jewish history, could it have been true? Yes. And that's what makes it all the more terrifying. Sadly, we have plenty of tragic stories from our Jewish history, and there is no need to create one that probably never happened. 

But if Rashi's reasoning was based on a myth, why should women - who according to traditional teaching are exempt from a positive time bound command - why should they light?  For an answer that should satisfy moderns, we need look no further than the Code of Jewish Law - the Sulchan Aruch (written about 460 years after Rashi's death).   

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות חנוכה סימן תרעה סעיף ג 

 אשה מדלקת נר חנוכה, שאף היא חייבת בה

 A women should light a light on Chanunkah, for she is obligated to do so...

So there you have it. Women should light...because they should light. We need no more of a reason than that.

Happy Chanukah.

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Sanhedrin 107a ~ Blushing, Shame, and Humiliation

סנהדרין קז, א

דוד הבא על אשת איש מיתתו במה אמרתי להם הבא על אשת איש מיתתו בחנק ויש לו חלק לעוה"ב אבל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים אין לו חלק לעולם הבא

The enemies of King David would taunt him. "David! What is the form of execution for a man who committed adultery?" I [David] replied: "He is executed by strangulation, but he still has a share in the world to come.  One who embarrasses another in public, causing his face to turn white [as you are doing to me] has no share in the world to come."

Embarrassing  another is considered a grievous transgression.  Elsewhere, the Talmud suggests a person must commit suicide rather than shame another: 

 תלמוד בבלי כתובות סז ב 

נוח לו לאדם שימסור עצמו לכבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים

It is better for a person to jump into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass his friend in public
Humiliation photo.jpg

The phrase used to denote embarrassment in the Talmud is להלבין פני חבירו – to whiten the face of another. At first, embarrassment causes the face to redden as the blood pools; then, as it drains away the victim is left "white with shame."  As a child, I blushed easily. This did not rise to the level of an illness (I think) but I was most certainly aware of of how easily I blushed, and so were some of my high school teachers, who would only need to call my name and my face would turn red. (I now know this is not that uncommon. The easy blushing that is. Actually, nor is the cruelty of teachers, now I come to think of it.)  Darwin called blushing "the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions." It occurs when the face, ears, neck and upper chest redden on darken in response to perceived social scrutiny or evaluation. 

Shame is, in one sense, nothing more than the loss of honor. Shame depends of the failure to measure up to the external standard imposed by the honor group
— William Ian Miller. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence. Cornell University Press 1993. 114

When Do We Blush?

There appear to be four social triggers that result in blushing: a) a threat to public identity; 2) praise or public attention 3) scrutiny, and oddly enough, 4) accusations of blushing. This last trigger is especially fascinating: just telling a person that they are blushing - even when they are not - can trigger a blush. 

Blushing is not only triggered by certain social situations; it also triggers other responses in those who blush. The most commonly associated behaviors are averting the gaze and smiling. Although gaze aversion is a universal feature of embarrassment, its frequency differs across cultures: in the United kingdom 41% report averting their eyes when they are embarrassed, whereas only 8% of Italians report doing so. Smiling is also a common response. Up to a third of those who are embarrassed display a "nervous" or "silly grin." 

Why Do We Blush?

We blush when we are embarrassed, but why should this physiological response occur? The blood vessels in the face (and the other areas that blush) seem to differ structurally from other vessels, and so respond in a unique way. But just how they do so, and why, remains a physiological mystery.  Here's the surgeon Atul Gawande's explanation, from the pages of The New Yorker.

Why we have such a reflex is perplexing. One theory is that the blush exists to show embarrassment, just as the smile exists to show happiness. This would explain why the reaction appears only in the visible regions of the body (the face, the neck, and the upper chest). But then why do dark-skinned people blush? Surveys find that nearly everyone blushes, regardless of skin color, despite the fact that in many people it is nearly invisible. And you don’t need to turn red in order for people to recognize that you’re embarrassed. Studies show that people detect embarrassment before you blush. Apparently, blushing takes between fifteen and twenty seconds to reach its peak, yet most people need less than five seconds to recognize that someone is embarrassed—they pick it up from the almost immediate shift in gaze, usually down and to the left, or from the sheepish, self-conscious grin that follows a half second to a second later. So there’s reason to doubt that the purpose of blushing is entirely expressive.
There is, however, an alternative view held by a growing number of scientists. The effect of intensifying embarrassment may not be incidental; perhaps that is what blushing is for. The notion isn’t as absurd as it sounds. People may hate being embarrassed and strive not to show it when they are, but embarrassment serves an important good. For, unlike sadness or anger or even love, it is fundamentally a moral emotion. Arising from sensitivity to what others think, embarrassment provides painful notice that one has crossed certain bounds while at the same time providing others with a kind of apology. It keeps us in good standing in the world. And if blushing serves to heighten such sensitivity this may be to one’s ultimate advantage.

Blushing and Crossing Boundaries

So blushing may confer an advantage. It keeps us in good social standing, insuring that we do not step outside of the bounds of accepted behavior. This notion is supported by some recent work (published more than a decade after Gawande's 2001 article) that supports this notion of blushing having a social utility.  Those who blush frequently showed a positive association between blushing and shame. These frequent blushers generally behaved less dominantly and more submissively. Writing in the journal Emotion in 2011 (yes, that really is the name of this academic journal), three Dutch psychologists demonstrated that blushing after a social transgression serves a remedial function. In their (highly experimental lab) work on human volunteers, blushers were judged more positively and were perceived as more trustworthy than their non-blushing counterparts.  

Still, helpful as it may be to regain the trust of others, social embarrassment can come at a huge cost - including the suicide of those who have been embarrassed. As we have seen, in the Talmud embarrassing another person is called הלבנת פני חבר - literally translated as "making the face of another turn white." This is of course quite the opposite of what actually occurs when a person blushes, and seems to suggest another, deeper level of embarrassment, (though it's not something discussed in the scientific literature). According to the Talmud, the person is so embarrassed that the blood drains from his face, causing him to turn pale.  This raises an interesting question: if  blushing serves an important social function - reminding a person that he has violated rules which should be held sacred - why does the Talmud tell us to to avoid causing embarrassment? Haven't they been caught in the act of  violating our rules?  King David transgressed religious boundaries and committed a capital offense. When called out on this, he felt deeply ashamed and embarrassed. But isn't that precisely how he should have felt? As Gawande wrote: "...embarrassment provides painful notice that one has crossed certain bounds while at the same time providing others with a kind of apology. It keeps us in good standing in the world."

Nuanced Translations

In our discourse we have three words that have nuanced but important differences. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

Embarrass The archaic use of this word meant to hamper or impede. Today we use it to mean to cause someone to feel awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed.

Shame The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonoring, ridiculous or indecorous in one's own conduct. Or of being in a situation which offends one's sense of modesty or decency.

Humiliate To make low or humble in position, condition or feeling. 

To describe each of these emotions, the Talmud uses only a single term, להלבין פני חבר.  It is translated into English in various ways. The Artscroll and Soncino translations use the term shame whereas the Koren Talmud translates it as humiliation.   In modern Hebrew each of these three emotions has its own word. Embarrassment is מבוכה; shame is בושה, and humiliation is השפלה. 

The three terms are often used interchangeably, but humiliation is perhaps the harshest of them.  To feel embarrassed in public seems to be less of a big deal than to feel humiliated in public, although both are surely unpleasant. The best way to translate what King David felt is humiliation. And it is to avoid humiliating others the Talmud takes its extreme position: "It is better to jump into a fiery  furnace than to humiliate another in public."

DO MONKEYS FEEL SHAME?

In a 2006 paper, a group of researchers demonstrated that primate color vision has been selected to discriminate changes in skin color - those changes (like blushing) that give useful information about the emotional state of another.  But does this mean that non-human primates feel shame? That's a harder question.

Frans De Waal directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. In his wonderful book The Bonobo and the Atheist (guess which of these he is), De Waal discusses emotional control among primates - and in particular, the role of shame. When a human feels shame after a transgression, "we lower our face, avoid the gaze of others, slump our shoulders, bend our knees, and generally look diminished in stature...We feel ashamed and hide our face behind our hands or "want to sink into the ground." This is rather like the submissive displays made by other primates: "Chimpanzees crawl in the dust for their leader, lower their body so as to look up at him or turn their rump towards tim to appear unthreatening...shame reflects awareness that one has upset others, who need to be appeased."

Only humans blush, De Waal writes, and he doesn't know of "any instant face reddening in other primates."

Blushing is an evolutionary mystery... The only advantage of blushing that I can imagine is that it tells others that you are aware of how your actions affect them.  This fosters trust.  We prefer people whose emotions we can read from their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt. That we evolved an honest signal to communicate unease about rule violations says something profound about our species. (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 155.)

And then De Wall makes a remarkable observation: 

Blushing is part of the same evolutionary package that gave us morality.

So it turns out that evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and social scientists, while they may disagree on some details, agree on one feature of the emotion of shame. It is a vital emotion for any ethically sound society. This is echoed in Nedarim, the tractate we learned a couple of years ago: 

נדרים כ, א

תניא "בעבור תהיה יראתו על פניכם" זו בושה "לבלתי תחטאו" מלמד שהבושה מביאה לידי יראת חטא מיכן אמרו סימן יפה באדם שהוא ביישן. אחרים אומרים כל אדם המתבייש לא במהרה הוא חוטא, ומי שאין לו בושת פנים בידוע שלא עמדו אבותיו על הר סיני

It was taught in a Baraisa: "So that the awe of Him will be on your faces" (Ex. 20:17). This refers to the characteristic of being susceptible to shame [since bushing is that which is noted "on your faces". The verse continues] "So that you will not sin". This teaches that shame leads to the fear of sin.  From this [teaching] they said it is a good sign for a person to be [easily] embarrassed. Others said that any person who feels embarrassed will not quickly sin. And if a person is not [the kind of person who is] embarrassed - it is known that his ancestors did not stand and Mount Sinai. 

 

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