Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Minhag jokes and their historical kernels.

Over at Hirhurim Rabbi Ari Enkin posts about the prevalent custom of changing the tune for Lecha Dodi at the stanza of Hisoreri. This post provoked the usual musings about minhagim and their significance.

I wonder if anyone's discussed the issue of anecdotes about customs which actually hint, by their details, to significant issues, but the significance is since forgotten, at least in the vulgar versions? I can think of two examples:

1. The tale of the rebbe who cut his fingernails after the mikva. His Chassidim thought it was imbued with significance and wanted to imitate him, until he pointed out to him that his nails are softer and easier to cut after the mikva. In the retellings of this story, the issue of fingernails as a resting spot for ruach ra is not noted. Whether or not such a story is true, surely the issue of whether to cut the nails before or after the purifying agent of the mikva is of some concern to mikva going rebbes.

2. Someone told me the following joke he heard from a leading rosh yeshiva of an earlier generation (its context was the issue of ecumenism in the early '60s): A priest, a minister and a rabbi decide that in the spirit of tolerance and the times, each ought to modify tenets of their religion to bring all men closer together. So the priest says "Well, we'd be willing to do away with Immaculate Conception." The minister says "We'd be willing to do away with the Trinity." The rabbi says "We'd be willing to get rid of the second yequm purkan." This joke almost turns its grain of historical basis on its head. If I understand the joke correctly, the rosh yeshiva meant to say that for Judaism even the least practice is as significant as the chief dogmas of the other religions; ecumenism is pointless. The issue of removing the second yequm purkan (or the whole thing) was a topic in 19th century Reform, and especially in Orthodox polemics about Reform.


  1. I've heard the joke too -- but in slightly different form.

    In the version I heard, the punchline was the same, but it was Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis negotiating. Reform agreed to give up eating traifus or something like that, Conservative to give up mixed seating, and the Orthodox conceded the second Yekum Purkan.

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    IIRC,it was Shadal who quipped re Reform Judaism "First they did away with yekum purkan, and then it was va-yemach et kol ha-yekum!"

  3. Fotheringay-Phipps5:16 PM, January 26, 2010

    When I was in HS there was a chassidish-oriented older bochur there who believed that there was great significance in the fingernail story. He told a friend of mine "you think he meant the simple meaning 'the fingernails are softer'? There were deep meanings in those words ..."

    [Ironically I was just telling my son this incident last night (and I had not seen the Hirhurim post). Is that Ruach Hakodesh or what?]

    Which goes to show that people will believe what they want and it's hard to get them to come off it. Like the joke about the BR and the broom in the room during hadlakos neiros.

  4. LK, the Shadal quip is quoted in print by R. Soloveitchik in two places. Yemei Zikaron 17.8 pg 178. R. Hershel Schachter gives a slight critique of the way it is brough in YZ in Be-ikvei ha-Tzon pg 30 fn 10. Although I have seen both sources, I don't remember exactly what RHS's critique was, although in Vol 2. of the Rakefet book he says that RHS felt that the Hebrew translation of his words in YZ was inexact. He also relates that R. Soloveitchik said this a number of times. Rakefet himself translates an excerpt from a Chag Ha-semicha address in 1953, but I'm not sure if this is the same as YZ or not.

    However, I have been unable to discover where Shadal said this. It's not in his Iggrot, it's not in Hamishtadel. I don't think it's in Epistolario.

    Not only that, but I have come across many permutations of the juxtaposition, some in the mouths of Reformers themselves. JD Eisenstein brings it in Otzar Yisrael Vol 9 pg 313 (just an aside, in his article on Reform). In short, until someone can show the source in Shadal I'm going to guess this was a widely circulated quip in the 19th and into the 20th centuries, but as yet it's source is unknown!

  5. I see that a version of the vayimach es kol hayekum thing is brought in Moshol U-melitza by R. Abraham Galante (pg 58-9). Who knows, maybe Galante > "sound Italian" > Shadal.

  6. Lawrence Kaplan

    S. Thanks for the info. I should have remembered seeing it in the writings of the Rav. But I also remember hearing it many years ago from Rabbi Harry Kaufman of the Young Israel of Montreal. I do not remember if he attributed it to Shadal or not.

    Of course, as I need not tell you or the learned readers of this blog, this sort of multiple attribution is a common phenomenon. See the post of Yitzkak of Ben Din le-Din in the Seforim blog December 30, 2009, where he shows how the same bon mot has been attributed to four different women. I also remember that Tovia Presechel had an article (in Or Ha-Mizrach?) showing how the same rabbinic conversation was attributed to various different permutations in terms of the participants involved.

  7. Just for the record: "Immaculate Conception" is quite different from "Virgin Birth". It refers to the conception of Mary (in the womb of her mother) free of original sin. I seem to recall Rabbi Soloveitchik as saying that Judaism does not recognize original sin. If that this the case than we believe in immaculate conception - but in a wide sense.

  8. Don't Sephardim not say Yekum Purkan at all?

  9. Fotheringay-Phipps12:51 PM, January 27, 2010

    The version I always heard was that at an early Reform conference the proposal was made to eliminate one (or combine the two, more likely) and someone else said they should eliminate both.

    I think it might be in Druyanov's jokebook (Sefer Habedicha V'Halatzon, IIRC).

  10. I'm doing a little research into it. At the moment, the earliest I've come across is an 1839 letter by Aron Chorin which advised removing the first yekum purkan, because its irrelevant (Bavel). The second should be removed as well, because it is essentially the same as the misheberach which follows (which should be retained). So it seems that at least in general respects, the thinking was along those lines. It's interesting how symbolic yekum purkan became as a wedge issue. I've found many references from the reformist point of view to yekum purkan as a dogma (ie, its laughable) and from the Orthodox point of view that it's just the tip of the iceberg.

    Thanks for the book reference.

  11. It should be in R Baruch Epstein's Tosefes Bracha on that pasuk in Noach. Its the kind of joke that was probably going around orally.

    1. It is in his Mekor Baruch, where he discusses Reform.
      I think the originator of the joke is even less relevant than "What color was Rashi's shirt"...

  12. Of course. I'm not sure exactly when Tosefes Bracha was first published, but I imagine it was the 1920s. But I've seen it in earlier sources, from Hungary to Lithuania to America (ie, Eisenstein), although that probably came from Hungary or Lithuania. However, they are all early 20th century. Yekum purkan issues come up earlier, but so far it looks to me like davka this quip relating to vayimach is early 20th century. Could well be that some wit discovered it in a mid-19th century Haskalah journal or something, and introduced it to the Orthodox only in the beginning of the 20th century (that would explain the Shadal attribution, although I'm inclined to think it was just a mistake) but that remains to be seen.

  13. Saying the first yekum purkan should be problematic because of saying untruths before hashem, similar to one who mentions rosh chodesh on another day. When there were some Jews living in Iraq it could have been interperted as a blessing to the Rabbis living in there. However today it should be forbidden to say it.

  14. Yehuda, I'm sorry, that's just weird.

  15. As a Sephardi, the yekum purkans give me ample opportunity to make use of the washroom before musaf

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