Thursday, December 30, 2010

For whom does Moses Mendelssoh speak? On banning the ban.

A few weeks ago Alan Nadler wrote a review of Shmuel Feiner's new biography of Moses Mendelssohn[1], and he concluded that Mendelssohn "sadly speaks for no Jews today."

On the contrary! One of the hottest issues among Orthodox Jews is rabbinic bans. Even when the issue becomes stale, it can immediately come alive with a new ban, and arouse passionate reactions. For example, see Banning Bans (an article which was circulated by a friend in his email list with more than 150 members). Without a doubt, this is a big topic, even among people who simply do not recognize the authority of banners, or do not face even a shred of pressure to conform to them. But I am also fairly certain that a not insignificant group of people who are inclined to recognize at least some authority in at least some banners are also exercised about the issue.

One of Mendelssohn's chief duties - somewhat reluctantly accepted by him - was to present Judaism in a positive light to the 'republic of letters,' the European community of philosophers and scientists, at a time when it was increasingly recognized that the status quo inherited from medieval times, where Jews were tolerated alien communities who existed at the pleasure and mercy of kings and dukes who saw them as ATM machines, while the Church and the masses despised them as aliens, could no longer continue. It seemed to be an age of reason, liberty, equality, fraternity. All the elements of the old order were subject to critical scrutiny and weighed against the promise of a more sensible future.

In fact, right around that time one group of philosophers were, to a certain degree, using philosophical principles to rebel against what they considered to be a tyrannical king who, in reality, lacked a divine right to rule subjects in an unfair way. (They also used weapons.)

The philosophers knew that the church represented the old ways of medieval Europe, which they believed was despotic and inherently opposed to reason and progress. They succeeded in even converting certain sovereigns to their point of view, some of whom began introducing new laws promoting more education, supporting scientific and medical research, etc. For these reasons, they generally opposed the established churches, or at least the right of clerics to wield political power.

Once the novelty of Mendelssohn wore off, he was basically viewed as a perfect - or perfected - man by much the European elite. Yet they viewed Judaism as much more degenerate than even unenlightened Christianity - all the more so degenerate than an *enlightened* kind of Christianity, which some of them subscribed to. Therefore it made no sense to them that Mendelssohn should remain Jewish. This was seen as his one blemish. Was he allowing his emotions, like nostalgia, or ulterior motives like friendship to make him hold to an unenlightened conclusion (to remain Jewish)? Was it something else? Ultimately, many of them held, if he were truly completely intellectually honest he would convert to (enlightened) Christianity, which was the only path a philosopher could take (other than atheism, which was not at all respectable in conservative Germany).

In reality Mendelssohn held the same opinion they did about religion - enlightened religion - but for him the real world example of enlightened religion was Judaism. He didn't think so much of Christianity, but knew that he wasn't exactly granted the freedom to say so, and even if he had the freedom in a narrow sense, he knew that saying so would harm the Jews generally, and also himself, making many a friend into an enemy. So this really wasn't a conversation he wanted to have, and was in fact furious when one particular so-called friend, the phrenologist cleric Lavater, openly challenged him to convert or explain why not.

Many of his philosopher admirers and friends backed him, and a vigorous debate about the tactic of Lavater ensued. In certain ways Mendelssohn was able to skillfully evade a debate, but not forever. When the dust settled Lavater's Big Question loomed large. Eventually Mendelssohn felt compelled to justify Judaism and himself philosophically, and this he did in his book Jerusalem (subtitled "a treatise on ecclesiastical authority and Judaism"). However, in order to portray Judaism as enlightened - which he truly believed it really was - he could not excuse or deny that which was medieval in contemporary Judaism. At the time the main thing along those lines was coercion, or the power of rabbis to wield the cherem (which in truth was given - and eventually taken - by the state). He felt that Judaism could and should be practiced because God revealed laws which were eternally binding so long as there was no other revelation suspending them. Jews needed to perform these mitzvos, but because they were from God, not because of social pressures or tyrannical rabbis who could punish sinners by harming their livelihood and so forth. All the more so in a time when he - as well as the philosophers - sought to remove the political power of the European clergy, which they blamed for many of medieval and early modern Europe's ills. All the more so in a time when the conversation among Europe's elite was how to end the age-old idea of Jews as barely tolerated aliens, caught in a vicious cycle of being despised by and despising the host.

In any event, the way history was moving, the cherem was on its way out anyway. European governments were not going to allow the Jews judicial autonomy for long. Somewhat amazingly, specifically this point, Mendelssohn's advocacy of removing the great stick from the rabbis never aroused any particular enmity on their part - which may be a healthy sign that in reality they themselves didn't really want to coerce, but only to shepherd sincere communities of voluntary believers. Of course they thought that this had to encompass the entire Jewish community.

All told, this was Mendelssohn's vision of modern Judaism - banning the ban.

So, yes, Mendelssohn does speak for many Jews - Orthodox Jews - who are opposed to banning One People, Two Worlds, Making of a Godol, Natan Slifin, The Big Event at MSG, Lipa Schmelzer, Vos iz Neias - indeed, anything.

Getting back to Feiner's book, although it doesn't really contain anything not already in Alexander Altmann's essentially definitive biography, it is short and easy, whereas Altmann's was long and ponderous. Considering that Feiner is every bit the complicated footnote-heavy academic scholar, his ability to produce this easily digestible work is a wonder to me. In the first few pages I came across an error which is not so minor - Feiner writes that Rabbi Akiva Joseph Schlesinger was a disciple of the Hatam Sofer, whereas he was born the year the Hatam Sopher died. His father and particularly his father-in-law Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein were the disciples. So I was prepared for this to be one of those books where I count the errors and then debate with myself whether it's nice to review it and point out all the inaccuracies. This surprised me, since Shmuel Feiner is a good and careful historian. Fortunately the errors began and mostly ended right there. Of course no work of (any) kind is really going to be perfect. This book is very interesting and accessible and accurate, although for someone interested in really penetrating the mind and deeds of Mendelssohn it should be seen as the prologomena to Altmann and works by Mendelssohn himself.

[1] "Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity" was written in Hebrew but published in English translation.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The real first dictionary of Yeshivish from 1733; on 18th century attempts to Evangelize the Jews in their own language and cultural forms.

The other day I did a post about Callenberg's 1736 lexicon of the Hebraic elements of Yiddish, which I jokingly called the "first dictionary of Yeshivish." The reference is to the ill-considered allusively named Frumspeak: the first dictionary of Yeshivish (Aronson 1995).

The truth is that the Judaic and Hebraic elements in the Jews' vernacular have long been a subject for scholarly study. For example, Mahari"l Zunz explored these in his magnum opus (link). Here is some footnotes from Zunz, where he categorizes terms by topic:



Chassidic Yiddishists have published literature along the same lines, and perhaps uniquely, the Yeshvishe olam even have a Yiddish enthusiast in Rabbi Dovid Cohen, who has published השפה יידיש הקדושה in three quntreisim.[1]

But to go back in time a bit further, the truth is that Callenberg's work was preceded by three years by an earlier lexicon. This one was quite primitive, and more prone to mistakes, but in certain respects much earthier and probably closer to a slightly lower class vernacular than Callenberg's. Another interesting element of this dictionary is that although it does offer a guide to reading "Vayberteitch" the entries are written in Latin transliteration, preserving the nuances of early 18th century Ashkenazic pronunciation, although it must be recalled that it is hardly meticulous enough to be fully reliable.

Here is the title page:



The Kurtze und gruendliche anweisung, zur teutsch-juedischen sprache was published in 1733 by PhilogLotto, an obvious pseudonym. I don't know who precisely identified the author, but we see on pg.223 in v.2 of the language classic Mithradites by Johann Christoph Adelung (1809) the following in the bibliography on Yiddish:



Here Philoglotti is identified as J.P. Lütke. Alas, I have found no further trace of him, so I cannot say what his background or education was, or even what "J. P." stands for.

Here is a sampling. I will add the proper Hebrew or Yiddish spelling, but keep in mind that all the entries are in Latin letters. Thus, the spellings I give here are what appear in the original. Whereas Callenberg's lexicon had "emunah" for "credit." This one has "nemones" (נאמנות). "Brandtewein" (brandy) is "jainsorof" (יין שרף). For thief and thievery it has "ganff" (גנב) and "gneive" (גנבה).

It incorporates the famous Ashkenazic pronunciation of the cholem (/ou/ as in "couch"). For example, a fool "einsaeltiger narr" is a "Schoute" (שוטה). Fast days are "joumei t'schuve" (יומי תשובה). The entry for "Freude" (joy) gives "simche" (בשמחה) with the expansion for great joy, "b'simche g'doule" (בשמחה גדולה). Kupffer (copper) is "Nechousches"(נחושת).

The compiler seems to have had a decent ear, but a poor understanding of the Hebrew basis for the words. For example, on page 21 there is the exclamation "Rachmonolitz lan!" (רחמנא לצלן). "Familie" is "ma schpoche" (משפחה), the good wish "haba alenulethoba," (הבא עלינו לטובה) etc. In his listing of the Hebrew months, he makes a mistake like transcribing "Februarius" as "Schbas" (שבט), where he mistakenly thought that it is spelled שבת.

Interestingly, on pg. 31 it gives "majim medino" (מים מדינה) for Holland. Water Country? I've never heard of that before. I guess it's an allusion to the numerous canals in this low-lying country. "Historie" has two entries, "m'gille" (מגילה) and "maasse" (מעשה). There's an entry for an "ouhefnoschim" (אוהב נשים), a "liebhaber" (lover). Now, what in the world can that be doing in the Yiddish lexicon from 1733! The active form of "kiddush Hashem" is here - "mekudesch haschem" (מקודש השם) - and it refers to "martyrer werden." Nowadays people are told to "make a Kiddush Hashem" by being courteous and pleasant. In 1733 giving one's life for Judaism was no distant memory.

According to this it was typical to call a "mutter" "Imme" (אמא). If a person is doing something "Im Nahmen Gottes," they are doing it "l'schem schomajim" (לשם שמים). A bathroom - "privet" - is a "bais hakisse" (בית הכסא), and a "priester" is a "gallach" (גלח). A "rabbiner" is a "raaf" (רב), Shabbos is "shabs," (שבת), Satan is "sotn," (שטן), and the holy Scriptures is "Toure hakdousche" (תורה הקדושה)."Hakbodes" (הקפדות) and "chumros" (חומרות) are synonyms, translations for "schwierigkeiten" (difficulties). "Sondern" is "adraba" (אדרבא), a genuinely Yeshivish word. "Teuffel" (devil) has fully four entries: aschmedai (אשמדי), masik (מזיק), sotn (שטן) and scheid (שד). "Teutsche" is "Aschkenes" (אשכנז). A terrible predicament or time period is an "Eszora" (עת צרה). "Wie?" is "lomme?" (למה). Finally, here's a good (and timely) one: "Weihnachten" (Christmas) is "Chanike" (חנוכה).

Here's the guide to reading the Hebrew alphabet in vayberteitch in the beginning:



Following this is a sample Yiddish letter with each part meticulously deciphered. For example, the abbreviation לפק ("lephak") is explained as "l'phdak kot'n." This would seem to be another example of PhilogLotto's inexpertise in the language, since לפדק means nothing (it should say לפרט קטן). Since there are two mistakes in the one word, I'm assuming it's not merely a typographical error:



Here are various sample pages:


Friday, December 24, 2010

The first dictionary of Yeshivish from 1736.

Okay, maybe not exactly.

In 1736 Johann Heinrich Callenberg, an Orientalist heavily involved in missionary work, printed a dictionary called Jüdischteutsches Wörterbüchlein (Yiddish-Teitch Dictionary) which is basically a dictionary of the Jewish and Hebrew content of the Jew's dialect of German spoken at the time, which would not have been familiar to Christians. The words and phrases are arranged in alphabetical order, according to the German meaning. Thus, there is no theme or order on the Hebrew side. The purpose of this dictionary was to enable Christians to understand Jews when they spoke amongst themselves, to understand Jewish literature written in Yiddish, and to engage Jews in their own tongue. With 148 pages of entries and an average of 26 or so per page, the lexicon includes approximately 3900 words. Following the lexicon is an alphabetical index of the Hebrew words, and a short guide to the language, including pronunciation rules.

As you can see, the Hebrew text is printed using Wayberteitch, or the special Yiddish font which survived until well into the 19th century. Thus, the text presupposes that the reader not only has a basic reading knowledge of Hebrew but already knows how to read the Wayberteitch font - which anyone who is familiar with the Rabbinic or Rashi script can read with some practice.

The rabbinic font was not widely known to Christians, and this one all the less so. Therefore this book is hardly for a novice Hebraist. Rather, it is for someone who had already been schooled in the Alphabeto Germanico Judaeorum, perhaps by reading a book like the following:


Samples: סתם which is translated as Absolute, מודה זיין על האמת, and צנוע and צניעות as well as שימוש and פסקן, and - oddly? - משכב זכר (da mann mit mann schande treibet). פרנס, which is translated as juedischer buergermeister, חוזר בתשובה זיין, which is proof that there were BTs 275 years ago (also mann mit mann schandes, but I digress). קשר הפסוקים is defined as "context," אמונה is "credit, מפלפל זיין is to Disputiren. Since, in the final analysis, this book is meant for missionary purposes, it also gives a Yiddish (actually, Hebrew) equivalent of the heilige dreyeinigskeit (holy trinity), שילוש הקדושה. In what I suppose is a cultural nod to the culinary realities of the unrefrigerated 18th century, there is also a term for dried meat, בשר יבש. These sample are from the first few pages, but there are - as I said - almost 4000 entries!


Monday, December 20, 2010

The prayer service of Rabbi Nosson Adler's rebbe Rabbi David Tevele Schiff, printed in London 1793.

Here's an interesting document. It is the published version of the "Song and Praises to be performed at the dedication of the Great Jews Synagogue" on March 26, 1790 (with English translation by David Levi).

These services were "composed in Hebrew" by the rabbi The Rev. David Solomon Shiff, "High Priest of the Said Synagogue," otherwise known as David Tevele Schiff (or רבי דוד טעבלי כ"ץ שיף). Rabbi Schiff (1715?-1791) was the Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazim (although this was not an official position yet) from 1765 until his death.

As an aside, some have wondered at the oddity of early British Chief Rabbis styled as "High Priest" of the Jews by the British press. I wonder if this tradition (carried on most especially through his eventual successor, Rabbi Solomon Hirschell) was not in some way due to the fact that Schiff was a kohen. Sometimes in overly flowery rabbinic salutations a kohen might be addressed as a כהן הגדול, lit. "Great Priest," but very similar in construct to the original Hebrew for "High Priest," כהן גדול. Maybe some such letter was seen and gave birth to this quasi title. Or, perhaps the mere fact that he was a kohen and was the rabbi, or head, of the congregation is what gave rise to it.

Rabbi Schiff had a distinguished rabbinic career on the continent, holding respected positions in Worms andFrankfurt A.M. Here is how he (and his wife) were listed in the Worms Memorial Book (printed in Kobetz al Yad v.3):



His most famous student is undoubtedly Rabbi Nosson Adler, one of the primary teachers of the Chasam Sofer. In the introduction to Mishnas Rabbi Nathan he is described as one of Rabbi Adler's three rabbis, alongside the author of Penei Yehoshua (who was a rebbe of Schiff as well) and Rabbi Moshe Rapp. However, only Rabbi Schiff is called his רבו מובהק. Both rabbi and student published nothing in their lifetime. However, each of them had a great work recording their teachings published posthumously. Rabbi Schiff's לשון זהב was published in 1822, and Rabbi Adler's משנת רבי נתן was published in 1862. Rabbi Markus Horovitz showed, in volume 4 pg. 39 of Frankfurter Rabbinen, that many explanations in Mishnas Rabbi Nathan are the same as in Leshon Zahav, suggesting that Rabbi Nosson Adler faithfully taught Torah which he received from his rebbe. [1]



This prayer service begins with the sifrei Torah being brought into the synagogue from a side room, under a canopy. While they are brought in, the people are to say ברוך הבא בשם ה. The Torahs are deposited into the aron. Prior to mincha, the chazzan is instructed to recite a special piyut composed by Rabbi Schiff. The piyut forms two acrostics woven together. One consists of verses beginning with the letters which spell out דוד טעבלי ברבי שלמה זלמן כהן, and the other is the order of the אלפא ביתא. Although you can see the entire piyut in the Scribd document, I will include one line right here, because it is interesting. It reads במדינה זאת הקים אדונינו המלך שארש השלישי על שכמו המשרה/ As in this country, where George the Third sways the sceptre (as translated by Levi, who notes that the Hebrew is "the government is on his shoulders"). Thus, Rabbi Schiff transliterated George as שארש in Hebrew.

After the reading of this poem, the Torahs are brought out and a series of seven hakafos, circuitous processions were to take place, while seven especially chosen psalms are recited. Afterward, the Torahs are returned to the aron. Then another piyut was to be recited, this one also written by Rabbi Schiff, but recycled from its use in the dedication of the Great Synagogue in 1766 (that time Handel's "Coronation Anthem" was performed, and Rabbi Schiff recited prayers in English - which he never mastered, although more on that below). In 1766 this prayer was printed in Amsterdam as a special broadside:



Afterward, a special poem was to be recited in honor of the woman responsible for it all, Judith Levy, who had provided the most money for the construction. The poem is an acrostic of her name, יטה בת משה זל - the service gives no indication who wrote it, but presumably it was Schiff.

Then, three sifrei Torah were to be removed from the aron, and the Chazzan, while holding one Torah, with two others on his right and left, is to intone the הנותן תשועה למלכים prayer for governments. As it is printed, it appears that while the prayer was said in Hebrew, the English phrases "Our sovereign Lord King George the Third" and "Our most gracious Queen Charlotte," etc. were recited in English.

After the prayer for the King and Queen, a Mi Sheberach was to be recited in honor of Judith Levy, where the sum of her donation was read - בעבור שנדבה ארבעה אלפים ליטרות שטערלינ לבנין בית הכנסת הזה - four thousand pounds, which was a gazillion dollars in those days. Finally, the three seforim were to be returned to the aron and the Chazzan and his choir were to sing the joyous and musical Psalm 150 with mincha, and probably Kabbalat Shabbat following.
Thus, the road to Pressburg (i.e., the Chasam Sofer's שלשלת הקבלה) did begin, in part, through a Reverend High Priest who composed a unique prayer service for the dedication of his synagogue.

Since he was a rabbi in London for almost 27 years - the Worms yizkor book is mistaken in writing that it was 30 years - what of Rabbi Schiff's English? As I mentioned before, when the Great Synagogue was enlarged and rededicated in 1766, Rabbi Schiff recited a prayer in English - but that could have been coached and memorized. The truth is that at the beginning of his career in London, and probably at the end too, the vast majority of congregants probably conversed among themselves in Western Yiddish. The first time it occurred to this congregation to require its rabbi to know English was as late as 1842, when it embarked on a search for a successor to Rabbi Solomon Hirschell. One of the conditions was that whomever was elected would learn to speak English withing one year - as it happens, Rabbi David Tevele Schiff's sister's grandson was appointed, another rabbi named Nathan Adler. Although I'm sure it would have required its Chief Rabbi to speak English 10 years earlier too, and probably also 20 years earlier - it is a fact that when Rabbi Solomon became Chief Rabbi 40 years earlier no one thought that acquiring English was necessary (although he of course did acquire at least some English).

Thus it does not seem that in the 1760s, and possibly as late as 1790, there was any special reason for Rabbi Schiff to have bothered learning English. However, you can't live for decades in a country without picking up some of the language anyway. A few interesting personal letters of his were published by Charles Duschinsky, most to his brother. Naturally they are written in an admixture of rabbinic Hebrew and Western Yiddish. Duschinsky points out that in a few places he uses English words (e.g., פאוועראבל for "favourable" or פארטיקלאר, "particular"). With regards to his skill in English, Duschinsky points out that David Levi "had to" translate the pamphlet highlighted in this post to English but I don't think we can use this as proof one way or another. Although I agree that he probably did not have a good English, even if he spoke a decent English that would not make him capable of translating Hebrew poems - even composed by himself - into English. Furthermore, that's not the sort of task one would expect of a learned rabbi of the time, and the title page said that David Levi was commissioned to translate it by the order of the lay leadership of the shul. Even were Schiff perfectly capable of translating or composing in English, one would expect someone else to do the translation.

Finally, some time ago I posted about an 18th century responsum from Holland which mentions a donation by famous Colonial Jewish-American Haym Solomon (link). In the comments the question was raised, how can we be certain that the "famous donor Chaim of Philadelphia" was Haym Solomon? It turns out the proof was published more than 70 years ago in an article when a 1784 correspondence between Haym Solomon and Rabbi Schiff was printed in the AJHS journal by Hyman B. Grinstein, titled "A Haym Salomon Letter to Rabbi David Tevele Schiff, London, 1784." In this fine Hebrew and Yiddish letter Solomon, addressing Rabbi Schiff as ידיד בכל דרכי' משכיל, mentions sending money to the same Gumpel Wolfenbuttel to whom the responsum in my prior post was addressed. Here too Solomon mentions giving money to him. In short, he was Haym Salomon's go-to guy in Europe. Thus, there is no doubt that it is the famous Haym Solomon mentioned in the responsum in the Pene Aryeh (the author of PA was a contender for Chief Rabbi of London after R. Schiff died, which gives you an idea of how intertwined the rabbinic elite were in those times).

The letter was not written by Solomon himself, as apparently his education did not enable him to compose a Hebrew letter. However, on the theme of Englishisms, the letter is headed with the following: קאפּי מן ז' אלול, that is Copy [of the original letter] made on 7 Elul [1784].

Here is Rabbi David Tevele Schiff's portrait:



[1] It occurs to me that something may be worth investigating. As is well known, Rabbi Nosson Adler maintained the unique practice - or non-practice - of not writing down his Torah thoughts. The reason he gave for this was his prodigious memory. He felt that since he did not forget any of his Torah thoughts that the dispensation to write Torah she-be-al peh did not apply to him. How then do we know what he taught? Not from his writings, but from his students. How did it come about that the publisher of Mishnas Rabbi Nathan had a Mishnah commentary of Rabbi Nosson Adler to publish? The publisher, Rabbi B.H. Auerbach's, father was a student of Rabbi Adler. Thus, according to Rabbi Auerbach, these teachings of Rabbi Nathan Adler were taught to him by his father.

Now, I am definitely not accusing Rabbi Auerbach of manufacturing this, but since he has already been indicted (if not convicted) as a literary forger (link) one might say that the Mishnas Rabbi Nathan is in need of authentication, and one wonders if the way to authenticate it is not to note that many of the teachings are the same as those in Leshon Zahav, by his rebbe, which Auerbach could have seen, but if some of these teachings are also found among other students of Rabbi Adler. The Chasam Sofer famously maintained that he only taught that which he received from his teachers. Putting aside whether or not this was an exaggeration, are parallels to Mishnas Rabbi Nathan to be found in his writings? What about those of other students of Rabbi Adler? - living students, whom I may add, were probably in short supply in 1862, if any were still alive at all (Rabbi Nosson died in 1800). In short, since Rabbi Auerbach unfortunately is not above suspicion, and since a brilliant forger could well have decided to base some of it on the verifiable teachings of Rabbi Adler's rebbe, it would be interesting to see if these teachings have been, or could be, confirmed through the writings of other students of Rabbi Adler. Of course these could also be a source for such a forgery so long as they were published prior to 1862, but at least we might have further independent confirmation of what Rabbi Adler's teachings were.

UPDATE: In the comments a reader points out that the primary accuser of Rabbi Auerbach as a forger already accused him of forging Mishnas Rabbi Nosson as well - almost exactly 100 years ago.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Vilna Girl Believes She is Possessed by a Dybbuk; JTA 2/18/1929

RABBIS TAKE ACTION; ADMINISTER CHEREM IN SOLUTION

Dateline: Vilna

The scenes of S. Ansky's play, "The Dybbuk," which was presented last year in leading cities throughout the world, being played in New York in Yiddish, English and Hebrew, were enacted in real life here when a Jewish girl in the city declared she was possessed of a Dybbuk (evil spirit) which was torturing her to death.

The rabbis decided to cast out the dybbuk by pronouncing a Cherem (religious ban) against it. The girl objected, however, to the ceremony connected with casting out the dybbuk, declaring that the black candles, the white cloaks of the rabbis and the blowing of the Shofar would terrify her.

The rabbis decided to write the Cherem on parchment, to dip the written document in water and to give the solution to the girl to drink. In order that she might not be harmed by the dissolved ink, fruit juice was used to write the Cherem.

Vilna Jews are awaiting the results.

Hebrew odes to Vampires and pretentious wearers of two pairs of tefillin from the 1850s.

Joseph Almanzi's 1858 collection of Hebrew poetry נזם זהב includes a few poems about some interesting subjects.

Vampires (subtitled "Between the Dead and the Living"):



People, in his time primarily Chassidim, who wear Rabbenu Tam tefillin:



An ode to cigarettes:



See here for more about Almanzi.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Yeshiva bochurim in Radin: "Feed us, or we won't learn." JTA 12/29/1933

Talmudic Scholars at Radin Yeshiva on Strike for Food

Dateline: Warsaw

A unique strike was declared here today by the students of the Radin Yeshiva, a Jewish theological seminary.

The students announced that they would refrain from participation in Talmud study, the chief occupation at the Yeshiva, so long as they are not provided with food.

The Radin Yeshiva was founded by the late "Chofetz Chaim", aged Jewish scholar and sage who died a short time ago. Since his death officials in charge of the Yeshiva have been unable to provide the students with food. As long as the "Chofetz Chaim" was alive, his enormous prestige among orthodox Jews and the world-wide recognition of his saintly character brought heavy contributions to the Yeshiva, which appear to have stopped on his death.

"Awed by Ban, Thief Returns the Torah" JTA story, 1922.

A September 21, 1922 JTS newswire story:

That the threat to place a person under the rabbinical ban may sometimes prove effective is shown by the restoration at Bialostock of the Sefer Torah stolen from Krochmal synagogue. The rabbis announced that they would pronounce a "cherem" on the thief if the scroll was not promptly returned to the synagogue on the following day. Botices were posted at conspicuous places. The next day the scroll was found in the corridor of the Beth Midrash.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A rarely seen portrait of the Beis Halevi.

At least rarely seen by me. Rabbi Yoseph Ber Soloveitchik; from the YIVO Collection; undated:

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Deploring the excavation of an ancient Jerusalem tomb in 1863.

Jerusalem is never without scandal and never without outrage over archaeological excavations of graves. In 1863 the French archaeologist Louis de Saulcy excavated (or ransacked) the Jerusalem site known as the Tomb of the Kings, which was regarded by Jews as the tomb of Ben Kalba Sabua, one of Jerusalem's 1st Century wealthy elite, a charitable man who employed a shepherd named Akiva according to the Talmud Bavli.

The mid-19th century archaeological assumption about the site was that it was the tomb of several of the kings of Judah. Apparently this was because the tomb is so striking, and was known in Arabic as the tomb of kings. As it happens, with some irony perhaps, the Kalba Savua tradition, which is late and based on the teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, is closer to the truth about this site, which is that it is not the tomb of kings of Judah, but it is indeed the tomb of another notable 1st century Jew. Queen Helena of Adiabene is also remembered fondly in Jewish tradition, but apparently her tomb was not, although anyone reading Josephus ought to have been able to realize that this was her tomb. Interestingly, in the Artscroll book "History of the Jewish people: the Second Temple Era" by Hersh Goldwurm and Yekutiel Friedner the tomb is identified as belonging to Helena and not Kalba Savua (p. 204).

Here is a 19th century drawing of this site:



When de Saulcy began excavating the site in late 1863, with permission from the Ottoman authorities, the Jerusalemite Jews were outraged at the desecration of a venerated tomb. What exactly occurred cannot be known, since both accounts differ, but archaeologists were interested in things, not bones. So de Saulcy scraped the place clean of sarcophogi and the angry Jews reburied the bones.

The November 19, 1863 issue of the Levanon, which can be somewhat anachronistically be called Chareidi in orientation published an article about the incident. The following issue, December 18, 1863 featured a follow-up. Both are at the end of this post.

One of the more famous 19th century Eretz Yisrael emissaries was Rabbi Chaim Zvi Schneersohn (Chayim Zvee Sneersohn), a great-grandson of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi (hence the surname). Knowing English quite well - he eventually acquired American citizenship - he penned the following letter describing the outrage to London's Jewish Chronicle, date 15 Tevet 5664 (December 15, 1863). Most interestingly, he mentions that he sent a separate letter to London, declining to sign another letter because of some signatories, who were "unbecoming figures." Seeing their signatures made him laugh, although the content of the letter made him cry. It would be interesting to know who these figures were and what sort of internal Jerusalem Jewish politics made him decline to sign a letter alongside these "unbecoming figures."



Here is what Sneersohn looked like:


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Jewish boy makes an offer of protection in Hebrew in 1839.

Many 19th century Missionary narratives offer fascinating insights on Jewish life, as seen from the outside. Below is a description of an incident in Safed in 1839. A Sephardic youth makes a request, in Hebrew, of the missionary Robert Murray M'Cheyne's walking stick. He offers to use it to protect him from Arabs, "תן לי המטה הזה ואם הגוים יבוא אני אכה אותם בעץ הזה":



Reminds me of a passage or two in Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, although that took place in Afghanistan in early 2002.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Lighting Chanukah candles according to Minhag America.

Here is the Chanukah candle lighting service as it appears in the siddur מנהג אמעריקא (Minhag America) The Daily Prayers, for American Israelites as Revised in Conference (Cincinnati, 1872):



The first and third blessing are combined into one, with certain ideological omissions from the first. The objection is to the traditional formula's, invoking God's "command" of the act about to be performed - in this case, a practice ordained by the rabbis. Since there is nothing for the words "to kindle the lights of Hanukah" to hang on, the Shehecheyanu blessing is compounded to produce a new blessing.

This specific issue is addressed most cogently in Emanuel Schreiber's Reformed Judaism and its pioneers: A contribution to its history (1892) in his section on Gotthold Salomon. The quote below references a sermon the latter delivered in 1846:



Back to Minhag America - The major change in the הנרות הללו recitation is the omission of the reference to the role of כהניך הקדושים, God's sacred priests. Naturally the piyut מעוז צור is omitted entirely.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

An 18th century Chanukah pastime - going to the opera.

The takkanos of Altona-Hamburg-Wandesbeck in 1715 forbade going to the opera, except during the week of Chanuka and Purim: "Dass ueberhaupt niemand in die Opera gehen darf ausser in der Purimwoche oder an den Chanuckatagen."

These takkanos were originally written in Hebrew and Judeo-German, but translated and printed in Mitteilungen zur jüdischen Volkskunde by Max Grunwald (it includes the regulations from 1715 and 1726). Below is this specific communal regulation, and several other interesting ones:



#5 says that before the repetition of the Shemone Esre prayer, employees of the synagogue must announce that everyone should remain quiet, and on Shabbat and Yom Tov it should be announced before the Torah reading.

#33 says that once a boy reaches age 13 (bar mitzvah) then he may appear in synagogue wearing a black hat.

#34, which includes the opera regulation I began the post with, says in full that both males and females may not visit taverns on Shabbat or holidays to drink. They also may not visit fencing schools (competitions?) or comedy shows on these days, under threat of a 4 Reichsthaler penalty. Everyone is forbidden to go to the opera entirely, except for the week of Purim and during Chanukah. Anyone who violates these regulations will be subject to the penalties, regardless of who they are, and if they are a communal elder, they will lose their position.

Good to know that both men and women are forbidden from going to the tavern to drink on Shabbos. And no opera, ever - except for Chanukah and Purim! Sort of puts the socio-religious situation in perspective.

Some of these communal takkanos are very era-specific. For example, this one forbade women and girls from applying artificial beauty marks on the face, except on their temple:



In 1754 the communal takkanos of Fürth (ק"ק פיורדא) from 1728 were published in German in a book called the Tekunnos Büchlein:



Here we see among other things that wearing a powdered wig to shul was forbidden (for men). It points out that the old, pious men have the decency not to wear their powdered wigs to shul, but not the young men:



And for women, we see that short pinafores, facial beauty marks, and learning to dance were forbidden.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

R' Akiva Eger's Menorah.

Confusing Maharam Ash with Meir Ish Shalom, or, Did Solomon Schechter's teacher ever sermonize against rabbis who speak German instead of Yiddish?

Of course not. You always have to check original sources so as not to repeat mistakes made in the secondary source.

Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz's monumental work The Jew in the modern world: a documentary History is an incredible 700+ page sourcebook of various documents relating to modernity. Some, like "the Jew Bill" of 1753 are already in English, but many others are translated from Hebrew, German, French, Italian, etc. It is an incredible mix of highly interesting material, a sermon by R. Ezekiel Landau, a responsum by R. Moses Sofer, pro and con Reform polemics, learned material and legal material and much much more. But everyone makes mistakes.

Below is the section titled An Ultra-Orthodox Position, which is basically a translation of a footnote and some other parts in R. Akiva Joseph Schlesinger's Lev Ha-ivri (1864). The Lev Ha-ivri is a 100 page commentary on the ethical will of the Chasam Sofer, which is kind of wild, if you think about it - I mean, the Chasam Sofer thought that three or four paragraphs was enough to convey his deepest religious emotions to his family. In this book 5 or 6 words can generate a densely packed page filled with many hundreds of words of commentary, and a lengthy footnote or two.

I'll summarize the piece, since not everyone will want to read it. A learned and pious rabbi who preached his sermons in German was hired. Maharam A"sch (Eisenstadter) said that to think this is to follow the Yetzer Horah. Today they appointed a learned, pious rabbi who preaches in German, but next they'll hire someone who speaks German, but isn't learned or pious. Eventually they'll hire a gentile. And the story gets far more heated.

Here it is in the original:



and in The Jew in the modern world: a documentary History:




Here's what happened. I was looking for something relating to Targum, and a search of the term "we translate" resulted in this very entry. So I started reading, and as you can see, the text says "the gaon, Rabbi Meir Ish Shalom." My very first reaction was "Huh?" - because Rabbi Meir Ish Shalom was a critical scholar, co-head of the Vienna Beis Midrash with Isaac Hirsch Weiss and the primary teacher of Solomon Schechter. Then in about two seconds I quickly thought "Oh, wait. There must have been another Rabbi Meir Ish Shalom." Then I thought, hold on, it probably says "A"sh" (ie, Aleph"Shin"). And then I thought, wait, so that's Maharam Ash, Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt. Then I looked in the footnote and it reads "Rabbi Meir Ish-Shalom (Friedman: 1831-1908) was a rabbinic scholar who published highly acclaimed critical editions of midrashic and aggadic works."

So what indeed happened was the the acronym was misunderstood, and not only was it misinterpreted but it wasn't enough to assume it was some Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Meir Ish Shalom-the wrong man (indeed, one who never lived), but at least it would make sense - but the text assumed it was Schechter's teacher, depicted below:



Quite amazing. In fact, what happened was this was someone else's mistake and this book just passed it on. The footnote says that the source is Alexander Guttmann's The Struggle Over Reform in Rabbinic Literature During the Last Century and a Half (New York, 1977) pp. 252-57. I haven't seen that book, but snippets are viewable on Google Books:



It cannot be stressed enough: everyone makes mistakes. It's a pity I have to even say that. Nevertheless mistakes can often be cleared up just by checking. One gets the sense that in compiling The Jew in the modern world no one bothered to even look at the original, to say nothing of how the rabbi in that footnote (who is even more vehement and stringent than the Chasam Sofer on the issue!) was confused with Meir Ish-Shalom.

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