Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Jewish Oath pt III. Rabbi Elazar Fleckeles takes on the Zohar in 1806.

In two prior posts about the so-called Jewish Oath required in most European courts into the 19th century, I presented a particular form of the oath from 1737, where a Jew was required to put on his tallit and tefillin (and recite the blessings), hold a kosher Torah scroll and recite various Hebrew formulae (link). This was actually far more civilized than earlier forms of the oath. For example, one which required the Jew to stand on a bloody pig skin while wearing very little clothes (or a hair shirt) and touching a Torah. Below is a well-known example depicted in 17th century Breslau:

My second post presented a responsum by R. Ezekiel Landau, who was asked by the Imperial Censor of Hebrew books, if in fact Jews are allowed to swear falsely if they're holding a Torah that isn't kosher. I noted that that the question was being asked of a rabbi. That seems counter-intuitive. Someone who is so suspicious of Jews that they'd have such a question doesn't seem likely to inquire of a rabbi, or expect him to tell the truth. Bu it seems that the censor Leopold Tischler was actually trying to put rest to the idea that Jews allow themselves to lie under oath if only they are holding an invalid Torah. Thus he was working with Rabbi Landau.

This third post is about a responsum written almost exactly 204 years ago by the foremost pupil and rabbinic successor of R. Ezekiel Landau, namely Rabbi Elazar Fleckeles. Following in the footsteps of his rebbe, and following in the footsteps of his predecessor Imperial Censor, Responsum #26 in Teshuva Me-ahava is a question from Karl Fischer concerning Jewish oaths. (For more about the bond of friendship between Rabbi Fleckeles and Karl Fischer, see here.)

Fischer asked, Is it true that in halacha there is a recognized difference between a Jew making an oath to a fellow Jew, as opposed to making an oath to a Gentile? If there is a difference, does it make a difference if the Jew swears while lying in a coffin dressed in a burial shroud (kittel)? For that matter, what about someone who had suggested to swear while holding a Zohar, since in the opinion of the pious Jews (Chassidei Yisrael) the Zohar is especially holy and awesome? - they believe that if someone was touching it and said anything false they'd die in a matter of days:

Rabbi Fleckeles' response is roughly as follows: The answer to the first question is no. Wherever the Torah mentions an oath it gives no indication that there is any difference between an oath sworn to a Jew or non-Jew, as opposed to other things which the Torah does make a distinction. He then brings many proofs by analyzing biblical and rabbinic texts.

Although a "no" to the first question should make the other questions moot (obviously the answer is, these things make no difference) Rabbi Fleckeles took the opportunity to address them as well.

In his opinion these extras are a bad thing, because although the law is that all oaths are binding in and of themselves, adding things gives the ignorant Jew the impression that without them his oath isn't binding. The person with the new, brilliant idea of swearing while holding a Zohar will raise scorn out of all who hear of it, because it suggests that a Jew who feels something lacking in God's Torah to the extent that he would swear falsely while holding it, would anyone believe that by holding a Zohar he'd be afraid to swear falsely?

Rabbi Fleckeles then takes the opportunity to give his opinion regarding those who say that the Zohar is entirely holy: "I say, I would swear on a Torah that the Zohar contains many forgeries and mistaken additions." One bit of Talmud dealing with the arguments of Abbaye and Rava is holier than the whole Zohar. Furthermore, the Zohar lacks all pedigree or a single mention in all of rabbinic literature before its appearance, purporting to be written by the tanna Rabbi Shimon bar [sic] Yochai. It isn't mentioned by Rabbenu Hakadosh in the Mishnah, nor by Rabbi Yochanan in the Yerushalmi, nor by Ravina and Rav Ashi in the Bavli. Rabbah ban Nachmani didn't mention it in the Midrashim, nor the Rabbanan Savorai, nor the Ge'onim, the Rif, Rambam, Rashi, Tosafists, Ramban, Rashba, Rosh or the Tur. Nor is it mentioned in the Yalkut Shimoni, Mechiltot or Beraitot. Not one of them knew it, until 300 (!) years ago when it was said that it was discovered and accepted like the Rambam explained the that the Bavli and Yerushalmi were.

Rabbi Fleckeles pauses from this very very clear position to clarify that he most certainly does not, God forbid, mean to cause even a slight lessening of respect for the honor of the godly tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was one of the greatest saints. He is just pointing out that he did not nor could he have written it, and anyone with half a mind will agree. Many Tannaim and Amoraim who lived long after Rashb"y are mentioned. These[i.e., the anachronisms] are listed in Rabbi Yaakov Emden's Mitpachat Sefarim, who suspected Rabbi Moshe de Leon of being responsible for them.

He then opines that from the day that the Zohar appeared many stumbled because of it, the believers in Shabbetai Zevi, Beruchya of Salonica, Jacob Frank. They all relied on the Zohar, and certainly the righteous Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai cannot be responsible for them.

Speaking of Frank, in the time of the writing of this responsum (=1806) the Frankists were widely known as Zoharites.

I would like to thank Eliezer Brodt for calling my attention to this teshuva many months ago. At the time the interest was concerning the Zohar, but it's really about Jewish oaths.

Interestingly enough, the phrase that the Zohar was unknown until 300 years earlier (=1500) is not a misprint. Eliezer pointed out to me several other places where Rabbi Fleckeles mentioned the Zohar, such as the following from his book מלאכת הקדש:

והיא נפלאת בעיני כפי המפורסם זה שלש מאות שנים חבור הספר הזוהר מהתנא האלקי רשב"י עליו השלום . . . יאמר נא יראי ה' אם זה הספר תולדות אדם גדול וקודש רשב"י הוא הוי ליה על פנים להזכיר דעתו בזה וצריך עיון רב ליישב על פי פשוט

One wonders why he Rabbi Fleckeles reckons 300 years since the Zohar, when it really was closer to 500 years. It can't even be since the Zohar was printed, because that didn't occur until 1588. The only thing I can think of is that the Spanish expulsion occurred 300 years earlier, and perhaps Rabbi Fleckeles dates the negative effects of the Zohar to that period.

Compare to Shadal in his introduction to the Hebrew language (1836). He explains the reasons for the decline in what he calls the "theoretical study" of the Hebrew language among Jews in the 300 years since the expulsion from Spain, while Christian Hebraism ascended and advanced during the same period. Shadal explains how conditions for such study were very favorable for Christian scholars but unfavorable for Jews. The former were salaried by the government in universities. The latter had to support themselves, and teaching - much less studying - grammar was not a way to do that. In addition, Jews knew Hebrew, however "well or badly" almost from infancy, while Christians picked it up at an older age and were more sensitive to their own shortcomings. That spurred higher quality study:
"This need was still less perceptible by the Israelites in the last three centuries than it was beforehand, due to the moral dejection of the entire nation brought on by its expulsion from Spain.
This fatal event damaged philological studies in two ways.
Firstly, the downcast spirits were afraid to stray from the judgments of the ancients, who were blindly venerated and almost worshiped by them. The pusillanimous mind sees with the eyes of others, resting on the knowledge of some notorious scholar,
Di quel si pasce, e piu oltre non chiede.
No one ever dared to contradict Kimhi; and having assumed that this maestro was ignorant of nothing and was mistaken about nothing, who would ever feel a need to repeat the research and investigate further? We have already seen the scandal aroused by Hanau with his book criticizing the ancient Grammarians.
Secondly, the same disheartenment, inclining spirits toward allegorical and mystical interpretations, did not allow the need to be felt for deeper philological investigations. The anomalies were mysteries that were adored, and Kabbalistic doctrines gave reasons for everything. Grammatical explanations were not appreciated: the philologist seemed, and still seems to some, a profaner of sacred things, a sacrilegious person; or at least was pitied as a poor man with narrow views."
(Prolegomena to a grammar of the Hebrew language, p. 62, trans. by Aaron Rubin)

Perhaps in some similar way Rabbi Fleckeles traced the negative effects of the Zohar to the same period (albeit not necessarily for the same reason!). The fact that he didn't date it to 150 years before 1800 - that is, in the period when Shabbetai Zevi arose - may be a proof that those who dismiss his view of the Zohar as insincerely held and merely a polemical point in his war against Sabbatians and Frankists are mistaken.

Incidentally, one would probably expect that Rabbi Fleckeles's responsum would somehow have been censored at some point. Eliezer told me that "According to Shmuel Werses in Haskalah and Sabbatianism, (Heb.) pp. 68 and and Boaz Huss in his KeZohar Harokeyah (p.323) this teshuvah has been censored out of the 1912 edition of TM (I have not yet confirmed this independently). However, most reprints available today of the TM have this teshuva in full, including the edition found on Hebrew books."

I don't know why they wrote that, because the copy of the 1912 edition on Otzar Hachochma contains this teshuva sans censorship.

See also this post by Eliezer Brodt at the Seforim Blog.


  1. It could be that he simply considered (and correctly so) that the Zohar was not in any way a unified text until the late 15th century. Before then, sections of it are most commonly refered to as midrah, haggada and a variaty of other names (Tishbi lists them in his intro to Mishnat HaZohar) The term Zohar is used earlier than this period but it is not clear that it refers to a fully compiled and organized text such as we have today. Tishbi opines that the printing of the Zohar is the only thing that trully framed its scope. It could be that R' Fleckeles had a similar intution regarding how the Zohar developed.

    Another theory could be that he felt that the Zohar could not have existed long before the earliest critical treatments of its vintage were published. Since the first systematic criticism of the Zohar is Sefer Behinat haDat by R' Delmedigo which was published in 1491, it could be that Rabbi Fleckeles assumed that the Zohar must not have been much older than this work.

  2. Re the first theory, that could be, but that would seem to make a gap of almost a century. What makes 1500 significant?

    The second makes more sense, but it also presumes ignorance of the relevant dates, such as when R. Moshe de Leon lived - unless you mean to say that he considered it to have been a unified work only as early as its critical treatment? If so, that's a pretty good theory.

  3. > unless you mean to say that he considered it to have been a unified work only as early as its critical treatment?

    That is what I meant. The fact is that before this period (and a bit after it as well), you are more likely to referenced to "HaMidrash HaNeelam" than to the Zohar as such. It would not be a big jump for him to assume that the first critical treatments coincided with the popularization of a book called the Zohar.

    Regarding the first question:
    "Re the first theory, that could be, but that would seem to make a gap of almost a century. What makes 1500 significant?"

    Here is a relevant passage from Tishbi's Mishnat HaZohar (David Goldstein's translation):

    "The 'canonization' of the Zohar and its wider influence were consequent upon the expulsion from Spain, which shook the bery foundations of Judaism. The decline of Spanish Jewry was accompanied by a decline in rationalistic philosophy with its tendency to universalism, whereas the esoteric doctorine of the kabbalah, which had become more and more intermingled with Jewish apocalyptic and expressed the yearning for national redemption, was regarded as the last hope for the spiritual salvation of a desolated people. This historico-spiritual transformation, which brought the kabbalah out of a closed circle of mystical initiates into the wider world and also into the homes of the Jewish masses, raised the Zohar to a most exalted position, where it was surrounded by an aura of antiquity and a wondrous light. In the Zohar the mysteries of existence and of the divine were already combined with accounts of the messianic days and calculations of the end of time, and so its subject matter was fully suited to the spiritual condition of a shattered generation, who were anxious to find an answer to the perplexing terrors of exile and longed to hear the steps of the Messiah approaching."



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