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A watershed moment — Parshat Mishpatim

Bill Phillips with his MONIAC computer. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Bill Phillips with his MONIAC computer. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Alban William Housego Phillips (Bill to his mates) was born on a dairy farm in Te Rehunga, New Zealand, in 1914. The town in the Manuatu Whanganui Region is still known today for its sheep and dairy farming. It has an elementary school, but locals have to go to Dannevirke for high school. That didn’t really matter to Phillips, because he never finished school. He moved to Australia and worked as a crocodile hunter, cinema manager and a variety of other jobs.

In 1937 he went to China, but fled to Russia after the Japanese invasion. He took the Trans-Siberian Railway across Europe and ended up in England in 1938, where he began studying electrical engineering. Less than a year later, he joined the Royal Air Force and served in Singapore. When Singapore fell in February 1942, he fled to Java. But just a few weeks later, the Japanese invaded Java and Phillips was taken as a prisoner of war. He spent three and a half years in a POW camp in what is now called Indonesia. During this time he learned Chinese, repaired a secret radio, and built a secret hot water boiler to make his tea. Upon his release and return to England, he was awarded an MBE for his war service.

Despite his minimal formal schooling, Phillips enrolled in the London School of Economics. Initially he studied sociology because of his interest in how prisoners of war organized themselves while in captivity. But he grew bored with that and switched to economics.

Post-war Britain was an economic mess. The country was in massive debt, had virtually nothing to export, and had to rely on loans from abroad. The nation was bankrupt, there was food rationing, austerity and the Labour Party was nationalizing important parts of the economy. This was also when the welfare state and the National Health Service was born.

The thing about macroeconomics is that it is extremely difficult to understand. Although there are a relatively small number of theoretical inputs, predictions and models are notoriously difficult to make accurately. Even a small change in any one of the inputs can have a massive impact on the national economy.

Economists of the time were arguing about how to stabilize the country’s finances, to end the see-sawing from boom to crisis. Using his engineering training, Phillips decided to ignore the competing theories and actually build a model of the economy, to see in real time what would happen as different variables changed.

This was a time before digital computers, so Phillips started building his machine in his landlady’s garage in Croydon. He collected many of the components from war surplus, including parts from Lancaster bombers. He simulated the flow of money in the British economy by actually causing water to flow through pipes. He named his machine “MONIAC” which stands for “Monetary National Income Analogue Computer.”

MONIAC in the Science Museum, London. (CC BY-SA, Tiia Monto/ Wikimedia Commons)

The various tanks represented the different components of the economy, including households, business, government, exports, and imports. When he pumped water through this computer, he could measure income, spending and GDP. The water sloshing through Phillips’s pipes could perform far more accurate macroeconomic modeling than any other computer or economist of the time.

Phillips first demonstrated the MONIAC in 1949 to a group of leading economists. Perhaps they were not expecting much from this undergraduate ex-soldier, adventurer and most importantly, a New Zealand farmer. But when he demonstrated his machine, the audience was blown away. The MONIAC was able to perform real time simulations that would help with decisions about fiscal policy, monetary policy and exchange rates. Shortly afterwards, he was offered a teaching position at LSE.

Although Phillips originally built his water-based computer as a teaching tool, it could be used to generate economic forecasts. Using colored water, the machine could simulate relationships between nine variables, and show the resulting effect on interest rates, GDP and a host of other real-world properties.

Professor A.W.H (Bill) Phillips. (Public Domain, Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Wikimedia Commons)

Phillips went on to become a professor of economics at LSE and later at the Australian National University. He moved to Auckland in 1969, after suffering a stroke, but continued teaching at the University of Auckland. Phillips passed away in 1975.

He is most famous today for the Phillips curve, which describes the relationship between inflation and unemployment, which remains an important feature of macroeconomic analysis to this day. Many have speculated that had he lived longer, he would have won a Nobel Prize. Not bad for the son of a dairy farmer from Manuatu.

If you happen to be visiting Wellington, you can see one of Phillips’s MONIACs in the Reserve Bank Museum.

Seeing the water sloshing through pipes as a model for the complexities of the modern economy is both hilarious and brilliant. The science fantasy author Terry Pratchett included his version of the MONIAC in the book “Making Money” (only he called it the “Glooper”). Pratchett wrote in his author’s note:

Students of the history of computing will recognize in the Glooper a distant echo of the Phillips Economic Computer, built in 1949 by engineer-turned-economist Bill Phillips, which also made an impressive hydraulic model of the national economy.

In Pratchett’s book, the Glooper became such a good model of the economy, that it not only exactly modeled the reality of Ankh-Morpork (the largest city on Discworld), but also affected the economy of the city. Moving the analog of gold within the Glooper resulted in an increase or decrease of the amount of gold in the bank vaults

The relatively few economic inputs and the huge number of potential real-world outcomes modeled by MONIAC and the Glooper bring to mind the relatively small number of mitzvot listed in the Torah, and the almost infinite number of real-world applications.

We find this highlighted in this week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim.

Last week’s Torah reading, Yitro, included the Ten Commandments. According to Ramban, these ten principles included the entirety of the Torah mitzvot. However, as Rashi states at the beginning of the parsha, the 53 mitzvot listed in Mishpatim are equally from Sinai, and there is no real distinction between them and the ten that came before.

Then, at the end of the parsha (Exodus 24:12), we find this verse:

God said to Moses, ‘Ascend to Me on the mountain, and be there. And I will give you the tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah, that I wrote, to teach them.

The Talmud (Berachot 5a) understands that each of these words refers to another piece of Torah:

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: … ‘The tablets’ refer to the Ten Commandments; ‘Torah’ is the Five Books of Moses; ‘And the Mitzvah’ is the Mishna; ‘That I wrote” these are the Prophets and Writing; ‘To Teach’ is the Talmud. This teaches us that all of them were given to Moses at Sinai.

At face value this is difficult to understand. How could Moses have received every word that would be spoken by every rabbi in the Mishna or Talmud? Not only would that preclude free choice, but also, how would we explain disputes between the rabbis? Unless God Himself was in two minds as to whether the New Year for trees should be on the first or the 15th of Shevat.

A deeper understanding would be similar to economic modeling. In economics, a small number of inputs can lead to an impossibly large number of outputs. Similarly, the relatively small number of mitzvot given to Moses at Sinai, led to the vast number of real-life applications. Each time one of the rabbis of the Mishna or Talmud made a halachic ruling, they were applying the principles given by God to Moses at Sinai.

This explains the Talmudic story (Menachot 29b) about Moses being transported in time to Rabbi Akiva’s class. Moses could not understand what Rabbi Akiva was teaching. However, when a student asked the source of the halacha, Rabbi Akiva replied, “It is a halacha given to Moses from Sinai.” And this response put Moses’s mind at ease.

But the Talmud itself goes one step further. Not only is halacha similar to the inputs and outputs of the MONIAC, but like the Glooper, the rulings of the rabbis also influence what is taught by God.

In Gittin 6b, the Talmud records a dispute between Rabbi Evyatar and Rabbi Yonatan about the reason the man sent away his concubine (in Judges 19:2).

Rabbi Evyatar said: He found she [had left] a fly [in his food]. Rabbi Yonatan said: He found she [had left] a hair [in his food].

Rabbi Evyatar met Elijah the prophet. He asked him, ‘What is the Holy One, blessed be He, doing?’ [Elijah] replied, ‘He is learning the story of the concubine.’ [Rabbi Evyatar asked], ‘And what is He saying?’ [Elijah] replied [that God is saying], ‘Evyatar, My son says this, and Yonatan, My son, says that.’

There are several other examples of God teaching halacha in the names of the rabbis (see, for example, Hagiga 15b, where God was saying halachot from all the rabbis except for Rabbi Meir, until Rabba bar Sheila argued that Rabbi Meir’s teachings should also be taught by God; and Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Chukat 8) where God teaches the laws of the Red Heifer in the name of Rabbi Eliezer).

According to this interpretation, Sinai was not a one-time event, but a constant voice, echoing through the ages, including within it everything that the rabbis would teach.

Rashi perhaps alludes to this in his commentary on Deuteronomy 5:19. The verse states, “God spoke these words to your entire congregation on the mountain from the fiery, dark cloud, in a great unending voice.”

Rashi writes:

For His voice is strong and continues forever.

Parshat Mishpatim contains the famous declaration of the Jewish people, “We will do and we will understand,” (Exodus 24:7). According to the Talmud (Shabbat 88a), when the Israelites said those words, a voice came out of heaven and asked, “Who revealed My secret, used by the ministering angels, to My children?”

But it turns out that only through the actions is it possible to understand. And through the teachings of the Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis, we are able to tap into the Sinai experience.


My current series on WebYeshiva is live every Tuesday and is entitled “Rishonim You Probably Never Heard Of.” You can listen to the live or recorded Torah classes on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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