Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fixing a masoretic scribal manual

Here is an interesting excerpt from Dr. B. Barry Levy's Fixing God's Torah: The Accuracy of the Hebrew Bible Text in Jewish Law:

Fixing God's Torah is a study of the rabbinic effort to find, fix and preserve a perfect masoretic text of the Bible. This excerpt illustrates in an ironic way some of the difficulty in such a task.

Guess who?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Which Talmud edition is 600 folio pages?

This following was written by Judah David Eisenstein in a letter to the editor of the Hebrew Standard (Dec. 14, 1900, pg. 7), concerning Ridbaz1:

The standard editions contain over 2700 folio pages. Does anyone know which edition of the Talmud is referred to? Or is it no edition at all, but rather his projection of the amount of pages the Talmud would take to print without Rashi, Tosafos and all the other commentary that appears on the pages? Is it a reference to the Munich manuscript, which is nearly 600 folio pages?

1 This excerpt is actually from the following article: Rothkoff, Aaron, The American Soujourns of Ridbaz: Religious Problems Within the Immigrant Community, American Jewish Historical Quarterly, 57:4 (1968:June) p.559

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Isaac Leeser as an example of a challenge to contemporary notions of what it means to be a great fighter for Torah; an Orthodox historical conundrum

I do not come here to defrumify Isaac Leeser, but to offer a little bit of perspective on one reason that the nuances of history are challenging to Orthodoxy.

Isaac Leeser needs no introduction to one who knows even a little bit about American Jewish history.

He is the sort of person about whom the Jewish Observer prints an article Lynn M. Berkowitz, "A Preacher of the Word of God: The Rev. Isaac Leeser, " Jewish Observer 26:1 (February 1993), pp. 27-37 (reprinted in Torah Lives: A Treasury of Biographical Sketches, part of Artscroll's Judaiscope series). In fact, that's Isaac Leeser, bottom row, second square from the left:

In any event, Leeser was known as a tenacious fighter for traditional, Torah True, non-Reform Judaism in America, the sort that was called 'orthodox' or 'conservative' (lower cases both) in those days.

So what's the problem? The problem is simply that which was hinted at in the paragraph above: it is essentially that although yirat shamayim is timeless, the sort of traditional, Torah True Jew that Isaac Leeser was doesn't really 'work' in a contemporary context, and only in a 19th century American one.

One of his greatest accomplishments was his creation of the very first Jewish Bible translation in English (see). Begun in 1838, the Pentateuch portion was completed and published in 1845; Hebrew and English with haphtarot and annotations.The entire work was completed and published in 1853, in five handsome volumes, and it quickly became THE Tanakh used by English speaking Jews, a position it enjoyed until the 1917 JPS edition (which was, in part, inspired by it--it seems Bible translations have a shelf life of about 50 years, unless it's a Targum).

Since Leeser was a one man dynamo [1], and he produced a quality work, it's no shame to point out that he wasn't the greatest scholar (or so I am told often)--he was a talented man and a very good student. It is for that reason that he didn't invent the wheel, relying heavily on the King James Version, making changes in conformity with Jewish interpretations and tradition [2], as well as the modern German versions by Mendelssohn and Zunz, as well as Ludwig Philippson.

Of the latter, Isaac M. Wise wrote in his obituary for Leeser that he had to convince him to use Philippson's translation. Leeser had initially been unwilling because Philippson was a "reformer." [3] So that much is Torah True. But Zunz? Mendelssohn? Wos ist? How does a Torah Personality rely on them, or make a distinction between them and Philippson?

The answer is simply that this is 19th century American Orthodoxy, not 21st century.

This is not to say that Leeser therefore agreed with everything that Mendelssohn and Zunz ever wrote; obviously quoting someone does not mean that. However, it is clear that he did not view Mendelssohn or Zunz in any way comparable to 'reformers.'

He wrote, in 1829, of Mendelssohn:

"Moses Mendelssohn has done more than any other individual who has lived since the days of Maimonides and Yarchi, for the improvement of his fellow believers." [4]

Of course Mendelssohn's translation is cited constantly in a Torah True commentary , the majestic הכתב והקבלה, sometimes to agree and sometimes to disagree. This is another illustration of this challenge (on this, see a response here--which, by the way, really might have acknowledged that I was the catalyst for it. After all, I was referred to as "[Those] who milk the episode for its controversy," because of this and this).

There is much more to say on this topic, particularly about Zunz. I will say it eventually.

Read from the Introduction to the 1953 edition here.

See here for the interesting catalog of the Leeser Library.

[1] He only received slight assistance from Joseph Jaquett; besides that it was the work of one man.

[2] For example, the KJV translates Lev 23:15 as ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath; Leeser gives the halakhic from the morrow after the holy day.

The Israelite, XIV [No.32; February 14, 1868, cited by Matitiahu Tsevat, "A Retrospective View of Isaac Leeser's Biblical Work," in Essays in American Jewish History, pp. 295-313. The full quote is given by Lance J. Sussman in "Another Look at Isaac Leeser and the First Jewish Translation of the Bible in the United States," Modern Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 2, Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue. (May, 1985), pp. 159-190:

"We saw him in his house. He informed us of his enterprise and of the German translations which he consulted. . . . Why do you not use Philipson's? we asked; because he is a reformer, was his reply. We convinced him, however, to the contrary in regard to that Bible and he bought a copy. With admirable skill, he used Philipson without betraying one word that this was his main authority, in the notes especially."

Actually, Leeser cites Philippson in the preface as well as the notes.

[4] In his The Jews and the Mosaic Law. He certainly was not oblivious to the Reformist appropriation of Mendelssohn, writing in 1839 "Our philosopher is often invoked in defence of reform, so-called, and, at times, of absolute infidelity when, in point of fact, nothing can be farther from the truth, than that he coincided with the wild schemes of our moderns, who reject rabbinical authority and tradition, not to mention that he had the fullest faith in the absolute inspiration of the Scriptures." (Quoted by Sussman.)

It is, admittedly, unclear to me how much, if anything, Leeser knew about the controversy over the Bi'ur, Mendelssohn, Wessely, the Me-assefim, etc. from the traditionalist side, whether original 18th century traditionalists like R. Yechezkel Landua (who condemned both the Bi'ur and Wessely's Words of Peace and Truth) or his 19th century contemporaries.

Ktav Ivri (Phoenician/ Paleo-Hebrew alphabet) in Popular Culture; A.J. Jacobs living Biblically

There is an interesting (and hilarious) new book by A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically, One Man's Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

Cover shot:


As you can see, A.J. pasekens like the first view quoted by Rabbi Levj in Yerushalmi Megillah פרק א הלכה ט, instead of the Bavli Shabbos דף קד:


אמר רבי לוי מאן דאמר לרעץ ניתנה התורה עי"ן מעשה ניסים מאן דאמר אשורי ניתנה התורה סמ"ך מעשה ניסים

Rabbi Levy said that according to the view that the Torah was given in r'tz script (paleo-Hebrew), the 'ayin stood by a miracle. According to the view that it was given in ashuri script (the square antecedent of modern Hebrew), the samekh stood by a miracle.

In both scripts the letter in question looked very much like this: ס, the point being that the Ten Commandments were carved clear through to the other side, so the little hollowed out center could only have stood by a miracle.

cf. Bavli

א"ר חסדא מ"ם וסמ"ך שבלוחות בנס היו עומדין

Rabbi Hisda said that the mem and the samekh stood in the Tablets by a miracle.

The point here is that all instances of the final מ, twenty-two by my count, which look like this: ם and ס, two of them by my count, stood by a miracle. Clearly this opinion regards the script of the Tablets as the present Hebrew script (the second opinion mentioned in the Yerushalmi).

So A.J. holds like the first view.

In any case, what's written on his tablets? Firstly, the very first word of the Ten Commandments, I, אנכי, is the first word on the tablet on the left. I imagine most of us would picture the tablet on the right, seeing as Hebrews reads right to left. The first word on the other tablet is Honor, כבד, which means it is the sixth commandment. Rather strange, since apparently no tradition has Honor thy father and thy mother as the sixth commandment. Really, Wikipedia says so.

It's not so interesting who designed it, as what was the designer thinking?

Well, I thought of a more famous instance of paleo-Hebrew in popular culture, the Ten Commandments in The Ten Commandments (see). Indeed, it is clear that A.J.'s cover was modeled on that prototype. Aside for the fact that Charlton Moses held them correctly, the text is exactly the same (if not the font).

For the record, here is the text just as it appears in the classic 1956 film:

את אביך ואת אמך
לא תרצח
לא תנאף
לא תגנב
לא תען ברעך
עד שקר
לא תחמד בית רעך

יהוה אלהיך
לא יהיה לך
אלהים אחרים
לא תעש לך פסל
זכר את יום
השבת לקדשו

Poetic license aside (eg, there are about as many words in the first two commandments as there are in all ten in this abbreviated list) it is evident that some form of realism was intended, hence the 'research' which suggested to the makers of the film that Honor thy [parents] belong on the second table. Two things are interesting about the orthography (spelling). One is that although I broke the words up, on the prop itself there are no breaks between words (except for line breaks). Evidently the research revealed to them that early Hebrew would have been written using scripta continua, a position that no ancient Hebrew inscription confirms, but nevertheless a theory that was not entirely dead at the time, and also one alluded to by Nahmanides.

The second thing is the orthography, which does not match the massoretic text. For example, Massoretic תַעֲשֶׂה is written defective as תַעֲשֶׂ. The same for זָכוֹר vsזָכר and תַעֲנֶה vs תַעֲן. It's possible that whoever wrote down the commands for the prop department deliberately left these words defective on the theory (and evidence) that the earlier one goes in Hebrew the less words are spelled plene.

Or not.

This post took me ten minutes. No, really.

A famous son of Roedelheim?

Wolf-Heidenheim-Straße, Rödelheim-- (click to enlarge)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Maharatz Chajes: "Goethe is dead"

In Zolkiew, Galicia, a very popular anecdote was told until the 1930s about Rabbi Zwi Hirsch Chajes (1805-55), a famous scholar and grandfather of Zwi Perez Chajes (1876-1927), later the chief rabbi of Vienna. One day Rabbi Chajes was deeply grieved when he came to the synagogue. The people asked him why he was sorrowful. "Goethe st gestorben ("Goethe is dead)," he answered. The whole Kehilla became sad, and some pious people considered reciting the kaddish for 'Reb' Goethe.

Erinnerungen an Galizien by Salcia Landmann, pg. 33-34. (Translation mainly from In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany," ed. R. Po-chia Hsia and Hartmut Lehmann).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Maharatz Chajes' theory of the true invention of printing

An interesting bit in שו"ת מהר"ץ סימן יא page תרמד in כל ספרי מהר"ץ חיות ב which explains a mishna in a novel manner.

Yoma 3:12

ואלו לגנאי...בן קמצר לא רצה ללמד על מעשה הכתב...ועל אלו נאמר ושם רשעים ירקב

Here is a list of families or people who lived in Second Temple times and apparently hoarded techniques or technological secrets used in the Temple. Since they did not share them they were criticized and the verse the name of the wicked shall rot (Prov 10:7) was applied to them.

One of these was Ben Qamtzar who would not share the special way he wrote. The mishna does not explain what this was, but the Gemara (38b) gives an explanation

אמרו עליו שהיה נוטל ד' קולמוסין בין אצבעותיו ואם היתה תיבה של ד' אותיות היה כותבה בבת אחת

He could take four pens between his fingers and write a four-letter word at once.

The commentators suggest that the four-letter word is none other than the Tetragrammaton. The general thrust of the commentaries is that it's a good thing to be able to write God's name at once rather then to have it partially written at any stage, which is to say, the normal way of writing, one letter after the other.

To R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (Maharatz Chajes), a 19th century rabbi-maskil, it is obviously impossible for someone to write a word with four pens between five fingers. So he assumed that this Ben Qamtzar had a metal device which he'd ink, enabling him to imprint four letters at once. In other words, he invented printing.

And he shouldn't have kept it to himself, the רשע!


R. Chajes' explanation was anticipated by R. Yonah Landsofer in his בני יונה (pg. י"ד second column), in a discussion about printing סת"ם.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Azaryah de Rossi as seen by Artscroll


What would R' Azaryah surely have resented? The portrayal of a controversial rabbi by Artscroll.

From The Early Acharonim:

R' Azaryah min HaAdomim
(de Rossi)

b. Mantua, Italy, c. 5271/1511
d. Bologna (?) Italy, 5338/1578

According to an old tradition, the family de Rossi was brought to Italy by Titus after his victory over Jerusalem.

R' Azaryah combined Talmudic erudition with a great proficiency in the Latin and Greek classics, as well as in the writings of medieval Christian scholars. In his works he draws upon Jewish, Christian, and secular sources. De Rossi resided in Bologna and Ferrara, and was present in Ferrara during the terrible earthquake on 17 Kislev (Nov. 18) 5331/ 1570. He and his family narrowly escaped death during that catastrophe, and he devoted a section of his Meor Einayim to a narration of it.

R' Azaryah is known for his controversial work Meor Einayim (Mantua, 5333-35/1573-75). This sefer is divided into three parts: I. Kol Elokim, a report on the earthquake which hit Ferrara in 5331/ 1570, including an essay on the natural and supernatural causes of natural catastrophes; II. Hadras Zekeinim - a translation (the first in Hebrew) of the epistle of Aristeas which contains the narrative about the Septuagint (translation of the Torah into Greek by seventy two sages in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus [3476 3515/285246 B.C.E.]), a partial description of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the answers given by the Sages to some philosophical questions; III. Imrei Binah - the most extensive part of this work. It contains an examination of the writings of Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the first century C.E.; a comparison of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible) in its prevalent version with the reports about it in the Talmud; inquiries into the Talmudic chronology of the first and second Temples, comparing the traditional dates with those given by secular writers; inquiries into the calendar systems in use among Jews in the Talmudic era, i.e., the Seleucid calendar (minyan shtaros) and the now-prevalent custom of dating events from Creation; a dissertation on the priestly vestments as described in the works of Philo, Josephus Flavius, the Epistle of Aristeas and Christian writers; and comments on some wondrous aggados in the Talmud and midrashim.

De Rossi's inquiries led to many conclusions which contradict the tradition of the Tannaim and Amoraim; he maintained that this was permissible in the realm of history and other areas not pertaining to halachah. R' Azaryah's views raised a great furor in the Italian community of his day, and two prominent rabbis - R' Moshe Provencal of Mantua and R' Yitzchak Finzi of Pesaro - wrote letters protesting the author's views, and refuting his assertions. R' Moshe Provencal's criticism reached R' Azaryah while the book was yet in proof form, so he printed it and his rejoinder as an appendix to the book. Various local batei din banned the book, some restricting the ban to people under the age of twenty-five, while others prohibited even having the book in one's house. Some of the extant copies of the Meor Einayim have written dispensations by local batei din attached to them, allowing the owner to keep the book.

News of the controversial sefer even reached Eretz Yisrael, and *Chida reports that in Safed a general ban (cherem) against it was drawn up and was to be signed br R' Yosef Caro, but he died before signing it. The *Maharal of Prague, upon reading this sefer, was outraged that the rabbis of Italy had allowed its publication, and he wrote a lengthy critique of the sefer in his Be'er HaGolah. Nevertheless, some later sages, among them Chasam Sofer, and two of Maharal's pupils, *R' David Ganz Tzemach David) and *R' Yom Tov Lipman Heller, cite Meor Einayim, if only to refute its views. R' Azaryah later wrote another work, Matzreif LaKessef (Edinburgh, 5614/1854), defending his views.

Meor Einayim regained popularity in modern days, when the Maskilim misrepresented R' Azaryah as a progressive Jew, a denomination R' Azaryah would surely have resented.

Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi, incidentally, makes the following claim (Zakhor, pp. 74-75)

The fact that, in 1794, the Me'or 'Einayim was reprinted in Berlin by the Maskilim, the proponents of Jewish enlightenment, should not mislead us in this respect. By that time the general revolution that is modern critical historiography was about to burst forth in Germany. The Historisches Journal had already appeared in Göttingen for more than two decades, Barthold Niebuhr was eighteen years old, and Leopold Von Ranke would be born a year later. The modern Jewish historian is not the heir of Azariah de' Rossi, but of these men and others.

More controversial rabbis to come...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Reb Chaim Heller

A great, free resource for American Jewish history is Carnegie-Mellon University's Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, which contains digital versions of three Philadelphia newspapers spanning the period of 1895 to the present.

There are many treasures to be found, among them the following article about R. Chaim Heller (The Jewish Criterion, September 15, 1944). The extent of the praise is almost unbelievable, so it's fun to read. R. Heller (1879-1960) was a great influence on, as well as an elder mentor-colleague to R. Soloveitchik.

Here is a brief bio, and an essay influenced by his teachings.

Incidentally, one looks forward to the eventual appearance of his Untersuchungen über die Peschitta zur gesamten hebräischen Bibel (1928), the text of the first two books of the Peshitta transcribed in Hebrew letters, on Google Books.

Birnbaum Siddur II: No Mei Raglayim in the Azarah, no translation in the siddur. The timidity of a prayer book from 1949.

(See post I.) Perhaps the content of the post is given away by its title.

Be that as it may, have a look at at this excerpt from the פיטום הקטורת service on page 31:

The text says that Cyprus wine was used to steep the incense mixture in the Temple, to make it more pungent. However, מי רגלים mei raglayim would have been an even better mixing agent, but it wasn't decent for use in the Temple. Why not?

Because it is urine. I'm sure most of us know that our relationship to human and animal waste today tends to be very different from what it was in the past. We may know of manure, but most of us don't get that close to it. And certainly we don't think of urine as a cleaning agent, but it is an excellent source of ammonia, and it was used to clean clothes and prepare dyes, among other things. Our waste disappears quickly, and its scent with it.

However, urine is still urine. So even though it would have been even better than Cyprus wine, it wasn't used in the incense.

As you can see, the Birnbaum siddur delicately declines to translate mei reglayim. I really would like to compare it with other English siddurim of the period, but I cannot at the moment.

However, I can compare it with a British mahzor from 17961:

It is interesting that it too simply has mea raglayem, but a footnote says urine. If I had to guess, I'd say that in late 18th century England some people prayed in English, and David Levi, the translator, preferred to have people read mea raglayem when they prayed, but felt fine letting these people know what it meant. Obviously the sensibilities of some people in another land 150 years later are not to be found in or understood through this example.

Also, here is the acknowledgments from the original 1949 editions, removed in subsequent editions:

(Yes, that's Noam Chomsky's father--for the two readers that didn't know.)

Inside the introduction (later removed) is a list of scholars which influenced him: Israel Abrahams, Seligmann Baer, Abraham Berliner, Ismar Elbogen, Louis Finkelstein, Michael Friedlander, Louis Ginzberg, Wolf Heidenheim, Abraham Idelsohn, Pool and Yaavets (at first I though this was R. Ya'akov Emden, who he quotes in the siddur, but I believe it refers to another scholar of the liturgy).

1 מחזור לשבועות כמנהג פולין The form of prayers, for the Feast of Pentecost. According to the custom of the German and Polish Jews, carefully translated from the original Hebrew. By David Levi. London 1796.

Friday, October 12, 2007

How the Jewish Observer edits articles

The Agudah monthly The Jewish Observer has a section devoted to the problem of "Adults at-risk." In the present issue there is an article called “Will Your Grandfather be Jewish?” by R. Mordechai Becher and R. Chanan (Antony) Gordon.

An excerpt:

"A yeshiva student was happily dancing at his former room-mate’s wedding, and pushed his way “to the middle of the circle” to entertain the chosen and kallah (successfully, we should add) with a break-dance (ask your teenager if you don’t know what this is). He was in a great mood, full of simchah, full of love for his fellow Jews,and feeling good about himself, until his Rosh Yeshivah pulled him aside at the chasanah and strongly criticized him for a dance step “from the street.”

"What will the Rosh Yeshiva say after 120 years when he learns that his comment was one of a series of little pushes, and perhaps even “the last straw,” that eventually sent this promising student “out of the circle completely” and out of Torah observance?"

"(The authors do not, of course, condone a ben Torah break-dancing or engaging in any other behavior derived from secular culture that isn't consistent with Torah value.)"

This last bit was an editorial insertion, according to the author of the article."

"...the JO placed it there without consulting me. Breakdancing does not bother me in the least.... just some "frum" editing by JO."

The editors unaccountably sides with the Rosh Yeshiva who nudged the boy in the wrong direction, even as they print an article which offers it as an example of what not to do and a diagnosis that such an incident was indeed a cause in nurturing the phenomenon this issue is trying to counter.

Read it here (without the comment that undermines the article).

Hat-tip: Neo-Haskalah

The Upside Down Bible: Mendelssohn's Bi'ur with its legs sticking up in the air

Commenter Daniel Scheide informs that the famous and controversial ספר נתיבות השלום Pentateuch, otherwise known as the Bi'ur (after its commentary), edited by Moses Mendelssohn (רמבמ"ן , רמ"ד) was digitized by Google (here).

This is great. No edition of this historical Chumash was previously available online, and believe me, I looked.

This edition, the 1846 Vienna printing includes Targum Onqelos and Rashi, which were absent in the original, but printed in many subsequent printings, as well as the Ha-mishtadel commentary by Samuel David Luzzatto and בוצר עוללות by Simon Szántó, and another appendix called הכורם.

Actually, this is only the fifth volume, Deuteronomy, with Haftaros and the five Megillos.

Here's the fun part: it is upside down. Take a look:

It obviously should look like this:

Incidentally, here is a page. Not everyone has seen what the German translation with Hebrew letters looks like:

So it's upside down. It must be a sign.

Perhaps Google will correct it. In the meantime, it's not at all impossible to download it as a PDF and correct it yourself, as I did.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Shakespeare, oft-repeated tropes, long Ss, Google Books and digitization.

Volokh Conspiracy has a good post called 'How much did Shakespeare embiggen* the English vocabulary?'

Basically, there is an old trope that the great English moshel William Shakespeare introduced a huge amount of neologisms (words which he himself coined) into the language. Many of them are still in use. While this is true, it seems that the number is vastly overstated. Sources which Volokh cites claim that fully 1700 words were created by Shkspr, words like "majestic," "pious" and "obscene."

Nowadays digitization is all the rage in information dissemination. There are all sorts of companies working on digitizing an amazing range of literature, and it's no secret that my blogging is highly influenced by the opportunity this affords. Anyway, using Chadwyck-Healey's Early English Books Online [EEBO] Volokh can show that many of these words were not coined by Shakespeare, but are found in published works that precede him.

The source for this trope (apart for its grain of truth) is the majestic** Oxford English Dictionary, which often cites Shakespeare as the first usage of a word in literature. Now, this is not the OED's fault. First of all, it doesn't make the claim that the earliest usage they were able to find is the earliest usage in all of literature. Secondly, the earliest usage in print or handwriting is evidence of usage but not coinage.

So it's very cool that non-professionals (and professionals) now have tools at their tips to do research that normally would require trips to great libraries and jumping through hoops for access to 500 year old books that one may look at (but not touch) so long as one could explain to someone else why exactly you need to look at them.

However, it's crucial not to think of digitization as a panacea. For one thing, things exist even if they haven't been scanned. For another, OCR (Optical character recognition) is still in its infancy. One small example: in Hebrew, teaching a computer to tell apart a ג and a נ or a ד and a ר is hard enough. But not only in non-Latin alphabets.

Go to Google Books and try to find all the references to the word "masorah" that occurs in the books published between 1700 and 1900 that they've digitized. 504 results. But don't forget also to search for maforah.

You try telling a computer that there is no difference between an "s" and a long S, or rather that an f (long ess) isn't an f (eff).

This will be fixed,*** but that will take time.

* If you get the Simpsons reference, you get it. NDY LKWMEV
** That's the leitwort of this post.
*** In fact, EEBO's technology pretty nicely distinguishes between long s and f; however, Google's doesn't.

The unexpected flexibility and fluidity in the laws of writing a Torah scroll

Halakhah can be minutely precise. So it seems, and so it is. Thus it is interesting when it fails to be precise, especially in an area where one would expect rigorous precision. Particularly in an area where not only does one expect rigorous precision, but rigorous precision is actually mandated. I mean, specifically, the halakhot of writing a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll.

Here is an excerpt from the Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. IV (K-N), pg. 212, entry "Language (Hebrew)" by Gene M. Schramm:

"In copying a Torah scroll, the scribe was bound to copy his text as a virtual facsimile of all other authorized Torah scrolls, with leeway to do little more than reduce or enlarge the page size of the parchment leaves. Everything else had to be true and exact and scaled to the template. The copyist faithfully began each line with the same first word, ended each line with the exact last word, and included the same number of lines and the same blank spaces which indicated the pericopes. An oversized letter was reproduced as oversized, a miniscule was copied as a miniscule. Upside-down letters, backward letters, and flawed letters--all were faithfully reproduced as seen. Even the mysterious dots that appear here and there over letters were copied. A Torah scroll that failed to be a faithful replica of its authentic prototype was unfit for use and had to be duly corrected."

This is actually a good description (as an aside, Schramm uses a good analogy in describing masoretic notes. He compares them to the modern editorial comment sic). But as you surely know, that which I highlighted in red is a mistake.

Indeed, there are conventions with the force of law designed to produce highly faithful reproductions of other kosher Torah scrolls. The general thrust of this paragraph is true. But the halakhah actually does not mandate which word begins and ends lines, only that a line includes a defined range of letters, namely it must have enough room to write the longest word in the Torah, לְמִשְׁפּחֹתֵיהֶם (Gen 8:19) three times. This obviously leaves room to write a range of words on each line, and scribes may write more or less in the space of that size. (Exceptions, of course, are where a word ends a pericope called pesuha, for the next word must begin on a new line, and the poetic songs in Exodus and Deuteronomy, which require a specific formatting.)

In addition, no specific number of lines per column, or columns per scroll is mandated, something which I first realized after seeing a very old Torah on display at the Jewish Museum. Knowing that there are 42 lines per column, I was surprised to see that this one had many more. This led me to learn Torah and discover that, indeed, the number is not standardized by halakhah.

It is, however, standardized by convention (why do you think I thought it had to be 42 lines? It's because just about all Torahs use 42 lines per column!). From the Encylopedia Judaica entry Sefer Torah:

Although there is no law regulating the number of pages or columns a Torah must have, from the beginning of the 19th century a standard pattern of 248 columns of 42 lines each was established.

(The above was written by Louis Rabinowitz and R. Aharon Rakefet-Rothkoff, back when he was Rabbi Dr. Arnie Rothkoff, rabbi and Wissenschafty type. ;)

I assume (should I?) that this practice is in R. Shlomo Ganzfried's Keset ha-Sofer (1835), which has been enormously influential in standardizing those areas of safrut which remained unregulated.

And, of course, although there are detailed instructions for adorning the letters with תגין, they are not מעכב.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

James Kugel on Neusner, or Neusner Knives II: When knives are turned back at "a certain prolific but misguided student of rabbinic Judaism"

החכם Evanstonjew pointed out that in James Kugel's new book* How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now there is a reference (almost certain) to Jacob Neusner.

Kugel is discussing Gunkel's theory that the Psalms were formulaic liturgy for the Temple, which meant they lack specificity (see). By way of illustration, he points out how he, James Kugel, would pray to God for the downfall of his enemies in a specific way (as opposed to the Psalms, which are general).

Pg. 464

* Haven't read it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Maccabean Psalms in the Birnbaum Siddur? An unorthodox comment in an Orthodox prayer book, via Nachman Krochmal's influence

The Birnbaum Siddur (Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem, 1949, edited by Philip Birnbaum used to be ubiquitous in English speaking Orthodox synagogues. Due to a variety of historical circumstances, use of this particular prayer book in synagogues has waned.

Be that as it may, many still use, appreciate or at least fondly remember this siddur.

In addition to its clean printing and strong binding (mine is from 1949 and in great shape), the siddur featured a fine translation, along with interesting notes that offered commentary as well as historical information about the liturgy. Birnbaum was, in my estimation, a good scholar, possessing a poetic mind, and a gifted translator.

One should make no mistake, the siddur is Orthodox, despite occasional citations from Wissenschaft scholars like Zunz (these are, in any event, essential to presenting any sort of historical view of the liturgy). There is no deviation or omission from the "standard" text. Passages that could call for an apologetic or critical comment receive neither. It quotes well known homiletical explanations (like the reason for the number of knots and strings in tzitzis).

However it is most interesting that he occasionally slips in something rather unorthodox (or subtly makes an emendation via the translation--post forthcoming). For example:

(click to enlarge) Readers will recognize this as part of the daily Pesukei De-zimra, the morning recitation of a selection of Psalms. Psalm 149 is part of that liturgy.

Commentary detail:

Readers will know that according to tradition the entire book of Psalms was written by King David. More perceptive readers will know that many Psalms are ascribed to other figures, such as Moses, Assaf, the sons of Korach. Indeed, the Talmud states that the collection of Psalms include compositions by ten people, David included, who also collected them and compiled it as one book.

Orthodox Judaism holds to this position, despite the presence of a psalm like 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion, ' (Psalm 137), which plainly is set in the post-exilic period, centuries after David. Traditionally this psalm was (and is) seen as written by David, however with prophetic inspiration and insight.

With the rise of biblical criticism in the 17th through 19th centuries, the ascription of this psalm (among others) to David became untenable. Among Jews an early figure who taught that psalms were written in the 2nd Temple period was Nachman Krochmal (Ranak).

In his posthumously published Moreh Nevukhei Ha-zeman (Guide for Today's Perplexed, being one possible translation) he offers the view that many of the modern discoveries in Bible scholarship were known to the rabbis of the Talmud (proofs, as he saw it, supplied) but they explicitly taught otherwise, for the needs of their own time were better served by the older teachings. Thus, the people in the time of the Talmud were edified to think of a psalm like 'By the rivers of Babylon' as written by David, as it enhanced people's perception of divine involvement with the world, and that is why the Sages, who knew better, taught such things. These days (Ranak died in 1840) people realize that a psalm like this one was not written by David, thus it is no longer edifying or useful to maintain this view. Therefore the actual authorship of these and other psalms--which were known by the Sages--ought now be revealed and expounded, as the new knowledge and keener historical understanding is what edifies people these days.

Krochmal, who wrote the book for 'kol ohev sekhel ve-shomer torah,' wrote the following in his introduction:

In the book there is a section which deals with the authorship of many of the psalms. Paralleling the Talmudic designation (BT Shabbos 118b) of Psalms 113-118 an 'Egyptian Hallel,' Krochmal thought that the last five psalms (146-150) also formed a unit, a 'Greek Hallel,' being that they were written in the Hasmonean period to commemorate the Maccebean victories over the Seleucids of Syria, and were in fact modeled after the Egyptian Hallel.

Let us then revisit the Birnbaum Siddur, commentary on Psalm 149:

'The Maccabean warriors were described as "fighting with their hands and praying with their hearts.' Where do Maccabeans come into the picture? This, I submit, is a very subtle allusion to the idea that this psalm (and presumably others) were written in that period. Birnbaum doesn't mention it, but the Psalm also mentions חֲסִידִים, otherwise known as Assideans, players in the Maccabean revolt.

Here is Krochmal's treatment of Psalm 149:

One last word:

"Orthodox Judaism believes in the divine authenticity of whole Bible and knows neither of the various authors of the Pentateuch, nor of Pseudo-Isaiah, nor of Maccabean songs under the name of David, or of Solomon's Ecclesiastes from the days of the second Temple, and so forth."

I quote Samson Raphael Hirsch here not because he personally was entitled to define what is and is not Orthodox, but because this post provides the context in which he wrote the above. Indeed, if we are simply describing the Orthodox position, rather than fighting for what it can encompass or may one day be, he was no doubt right.

Ranak's view was unorthodox and so was Paltiel Birnbaum's comment on pages 63-64 of his Siddur Ha-shalem.

Suggestion for further reading:

[I] Moreh Nevukhei Ha-zeman

[II] Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age by Jay Michael Harris

[III] All roads lead back to On the Main Line

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Simchas Torah repost: חתן חתם תורה

From last year.

An interesting excerpt from R. Daniel Sperber's Minhagei Yisrael (from the excerpts in the English version translated by R. Yaakov Elman). (click to enlarge, or download it as a more readable pdf)

Monday, October 01, 2007

On average? Hyperbole, apologetics or reasonable characterization? Yeshiva education in 'One People, Two Worlds'

In One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them (Ammiel Hirsch and Yaakov Yosef Reinman) the following passages by R. Reinman appear in praise of yeshiva education:

IPB Image


IPB Image

Granting that the second passage (which occurs first in the book) concerns his son in particular, who may be exceptional and can really be described as understanding Aramaic, for example, does anyone think these passages are reasonably accurate or at least defensible?

Would, perhaps, parents of children this age weigh in?

Dear Reader

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A second source for Jacob ben Chaim's conversion, reported by Shadal.

A few days ago I posted about R. Eliyahu Bahur (Elijah Levita) and, invariably, the apostasy of Jacob ben Hayyim came up. I said, in the comments, that the sole evidence for this piece of information was Levita himself.

However, I was mistaken. There is another source.

The following is the response Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto) sent to Solomon Frensdorff, who asked him this very question (printed in Otzar Nechmad Vol. III, p. 112):

ולענין דברי הבחור שכתב בהקדמתו החרוזית למסורת המסורת "אחד מהנבונים היה שמו לפנים בישראל נקרא יעקב תהי נשמתו צרורה בצרור נקוב" ששאלת אם אאמין שכוונתו לומר שר יעקב בר חיים ן' אדניהו המיר דתו---ודאי כן הוא. והדבר הזה היה סבה שנמנעתי מהשיב למכתבך כי הרבה הייתי נבוך בענין הזה כי אמנם משמעות דברי ר' אליה הנ"ל היא בלא ספק כי ר' יעקב המיר דתו. ולא הייתי רוצה להוציא לעז על חכם כמהו בטרם אשמע עד שני. ואולם בשנה שעברה מצא אחד מידידי המשכיל ר' משה סואבי מעיר ויניציאה משניות עם פירוש הר"ם והר"ש דפוס ויניציאה 'יוסטיניאן' שנת ש"ו. ובסוף סדר טהרות כתוב כך (וכן ראיתי גם אני בעיני) "ואלה הם דברי המגיה הראשון שהיה שמו לפנים בישראל יעקב בר חיים שהגיה סדר טהרות עם פירוש רבינו שמשון ז"ל. ולפי שאמר החכם קבל האמת ממי שעמרו ראינו להדפיס דבריו פה"---היתכן להכזיב גם העדות הזאת, להוציאה ממשמעות דבריה.י:

ואני קודם לכן ששתי כמוצא שלל רב כי קניתי חומש עם תרגום דפוס בומבירג שנת ש"ג וש"ד ובסופו ז' דפים על התרגום, תחלתם "אמר יעקב בן חיים בן יצחק ן' אדניהו יש"י עמה"ן" ואמרתי הרי מבואר כי בשנת ש"ג וש"ד היה חי והיה יהודי, ואיך בשנת רצ"ח (כשנדפס ס' מסרת המסרת) כבר היתה נשמתו צרורה?---אבל כשראיתי המשניות הנ"ל, אמרתי מה אדבר? ובמה אצידקהו? הלא על פי שנים עדים יומת המת ואז אמרת: אין ספק כי ן' אדניהו כתב מאמרו על התרגום כשהיה יהודי, ואולי כבר נדפס בחייו בחומש אחר שלא בא עדיין לידי. ואולי ג"כ לא נדפס בחייו, אבל נשאר ביד דניאל בומבירג קצת שנים עד שהדפיס חומש עם תרגום ואז הדפיס המאמר ההוא בסופו.י

Free translation:

"About Bahur's words in his poetical introduction to Massoreth Ha-massoreth: "One of the learned, whose name among Jews used to be Jacob--may his soul be wrapped in a bag with holes..."--you're asking me if I believe his intention was to say that R. Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adoniyahu converted--it is absolutely true [ie, that is what Bahur meant].

"This matter gave me reason to delay replying to your letter, because I was really quite perturbed, since the implication of the aforementioned words of R. Elijah is that [Ibn Adoniyahu] converted, and I did not want to publicize something negative about this great scholar [Ibn Adoniyahu] before I had another witness [ie, more proof].

"Last year my friend, the maskil R. Moshe Soave of Venice, discovered a Mishnayos printed in Venice by Giustiniani, 1546, with the commentaries of Rambam and R. Shimshon [of Sens]. At the end of Seder Taharos the following was written (I saw it myself): "And these are the words of the first proofreader, whose name among Jews used to be Jacob bar Hayyiim, who proofread Seder Taharos with R. Shimshon's commentary. Since the Sage [ie, Maimonides] taught that the wise accept the truth from whoever speaks it, we thought it appropriate to print his words here..."

"Can you also deny this testimony, or does it establish the fact?

"Before this I had been very happy when I acquired a Pentateuch with Targum, printed by Bomberg in Venice, 1543-44, at the end of which are seven pages about the Targum. They begin "Jacob ben Hayyim ben Isaac Ibn Adoniyahu says..." and I thought this showed that in the years 1543-44 he was alive--and a Jew! So how could it be that in 1538 (the year that Massoreth Ha-massoreth was printed) his soul should have been bound (ie, he'd already died)?

"But when I saw this Mishnayos, what was I to think? How could I reconcile it; aren't two witnesses establishment of proof? So I figured that Ibn Adoniyahu wrote his essay on the Targum while he was a Jew, and perhaps it was printed in an edition of the Pentateuch that I haven't seen, or wasn't printed during his lifetime, but was kept by Bomberg until he printed the edition of Chumash with Targum in my possession, and he printed the essay at the end.

Here's the reference to the 1546 Venice Mishnah:

In fact, according to the Wikipedia page on Ben Hayyim, Bomberg's 1527 edition of the Chumash included the essay on the Targum, so at least one of Shadal's conjectures was correct (that it had been printed earlier, in an edition he hadn't seen; the 1527 edition). Furthermore, it may well be that he hadn't converted by 1527 (he certainly hadn't by 1525, when his famous edition was printed.) Thus, this piece of evidence which gave Shadal pause would seem to be immaterial, just as he surmised.

It also must be considered - and I don't know why Shadal missed this - that the writer of these words in 1546 may have gotten his information from Levita's 1538 edition of Masoret ha-Massoret, so it's not a second witness.


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