Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Yashar of Candia questions if the printing press is so great after all.

In 1631 a student of Yashar of Candia printed a work of his without permission. The teacher was not pleased, and sent him a letter expressing his displeasure. The student dutifully added it to the book as an introduction. In it, the aforementioned Rabbi Yosef Shalom Delmedigo (=Yashar, Yosef Shalom Rofe) expresses his views about the printing press. To summarize: not such a big fan.

Before I post an excerpt, here is a piece from much later in the book, where Yashar shows his erudition and familiarity with the history of printing in general:

"We know that prior to the discovery of the art of printing in Europe it was known as long as a thousand years in the kingdoms of China and Japan. Many of their printed books on medicine and astronomy have been brought to Amsterdam, with illustrations, and we know that they have the Elements, albeit not as Euclid arranged it. We also observe that their form of printing does not utilize separate letters, rather, it uses blocks of complete words . . . This makes it difficult for them, since it requires cutting many separate blocks of complete words, whereas for us we need only have quantities of the 22 letters [of the Hebrew alphabet], so long as we have enough of each letter in type. Their method is good for printing images in geographic and topographic works, but in general the European method is superior . . . "
Here's a book from 1611 which goes into less detail, but mentions the prior invention of printing in China:

Getting back to the introduction, Delmedigo tells his pupil that he doesn't think so highly of printing, and he doesn't desire so much that his work ought to be printed. He writes "בגלל הדפוס עולם הפוך," "Because of the press/ the world is a mess." An excerpt (link):
"You wrote me that you are surprised that I don't want to print this book. I too was surprised about many great ones, specifically my rabbis and fathers whom I learned from, such as my great-grandfather of blessed memory, a great light, who was sharp and constantly innovating halachic ideas, he studied in yeshivos over 45 years . . . [much more praise about their learning and erudition] and they didn't want their written work printed. I was surprised, but then  I saw many manuscript works by the earlier ge'onim and sages, which were never printed; [if they weren't printed then] they wrote them for nothing? Where is the commentaries of Rabbi Hai, Rabbi Saadiah, Rabbenu Nissim Gaon and Rabbi Hananel, who were the rabbis of Rabbi Gershom, the Light of the Exile, whose commentaries were abstracted by Rashi, who commented on the whole Talmud? Where are the commentaries of Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan, who is mentioned by both the author of the Aruch and Rashi? Or the original explanations by Rabbi Joseph Migash, rabbi of Maimonides, who wrote about him in the introduction to the Mishnaic Order of Zeraim? . . . Where is the Book Yashar by Rabbenu Tam? Where are the original explanations of the Raabad, Ramban, Ran, Ritva, Rabbi Peretz and Remah? - all mentioned by other authorities. . .  
"Everyone says that printing was beneficial, but it is the opposite. In earlier times books were precious and  it was expensive to hire scribes, and people only acquired those books which were beneficial, and unworthy works languished in obscurity. Nowadays, most of the people are arrogant (רבים מעמי הארץ מתיהרים), and as soon as they have a little money they want to print and spread silly works. The printers are mostly busy with printing new works, and are not caring for the earlier works, which lie in the dust. I see that because of the press, the world is a mess (בגלל הדפוס עולם הפוך); 'the familiar are in the ground, the stranger in heaven.'  . . . it isn't for nothing that in Latin a "son" and a "book" are called by the same name: liber."
Speaking of the last observation of his, I once heard R. Yisroel Reisman quote R. Yaakov Kamenetzky to the effect that as a child he had a volume of one of the prophets - perhaps Yechezkel - and on every page it bore the Latin title "Liber Ezechiel." Being a young, Yiddish speaking boy, he thought it said 'lieber,' or 'dear.' He said that this helped inculcate a love for Tanakh in him.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On visiting the Garden of Eden.

The 16th century Tishbi lexicon of R. Elijah Bahur (Levita) has some really fascinating entries. On Gan Eden (Garden of Eden) he first explains its usage in rabbinic texts, and then addresses the obvious question: can't you visit?

"The Sages called the enjoyable place where the righteous receive their reward "Garden of Eden," after the the garden which the Lord planted in Eden and placed the first man in, since it is the choicest place on earth, without a doubt. Therefore the named this enjoyment the "Garden of Eden." Some ask, if we know that it is in a place called Eden, and we were given various signs, such that it is east of Eden, why is it that no man has seen the place and its garden? The response is that without a doubt many people have gone there! But all who go do not return, because of the great pleasures there. Who is the fool who would leave the Garden of Eden? All remain there. Or, perhaps the reason is the ever-whirling flaming sword (Gen. 3:24) is still whirling and no one can enter."
R. Yeshaya Berlin-Pick's note here (2002 edition) says that it is certainly the ever-whirling sword that prevents people going. He adds that Levita's first answer is only a joke. 

A list of educated Jews throughout history.

The amazing has a fascinating and rare pamphlet called Reshimos Anshei Mofes published in Rausnitz in 1838 (supplied by the YIVO library, its owner was the great bibliographer Benjacob)

It's author, Joseph Flesch, intended it as a compilation of "mighty scholars, old and new, who distinguished themselves by their commentaries on the Bible, as great grammarians, Hebraists and experts in other languages ... who grasped Talmudic and various other branches of knowledge." In doing so he hoped to show the panoply of great Jewish scholars throughout the ages. Arranged alphabetically, by first name, and also chronologically - his first entry, under aleph, is Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus amd the last, under aleph, is Rabbi Abraham Geiger. He tries to list everyone he can think of. Thus, there is Ptolemy (who spearheaded the LXX, he thinks), Spinoza and Salomon Maimon, alongside various Tannaim and posekim. Each entry is accompanied with a few words or lines of biography, explaining why they are on the list. For obvious reasons, the more recent ones (18th and 19th century) are the most interesting.

Oirignally I thought it might be interesting to type out his complete list of names, only arranged chronologically. I got this far, and then thought that I have better things to do:

73 R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus
80 Onqelos Ha-ger
173 R. Eliezer Ha-qalir (that's right)/ or 970, he adds, according to R. S.J. Rapoport
219 R. Oshaiah
900 Adonim/ Dunash ibn Labrat
950 Menachem ben Saruk
1037 R. Aharon ben Asher
1050 Avicena
1105 Avraham b. Yihye
1174 Avraham ibn Ezra
1180 Avraham ben Dior
1180 Avraham ben Chisda
1200 Avraham ben David, Rabad
1200 Ibn Rushad
1238 R. Eliezer of Worms
1247 R. Eliezer ben Nathan Ashkenazi
1250 R. Abraham Maimonides
1286 R. Aharon Halevi of Barcelona
1286 R. Isaac Tirnau
1290 R. Aharaon ben Yoseph of Kairwan
1305 R. Asher ben Yechiel
1350 R. Aharon ben Elijah of Cairo
1400 R. R. Elijah Bashyatzi
1463 R. Abraham Bibago
1490 R. Elijah Delmedigo
1509 R. Elijah Mizrahi
1509 or 1523 R. Abraham de Balmes

so instead I will list some of  interesting people he gives in his chain-of-tradition. In no particular order:

- R. Shimon ben Yochai is the "baal ha-Zohar"
- He lists R. Isaac Bernays, only for some reason he calls him R. Shlomo Bernays, and is under the impression that he is the "Chacham of the Sephardim in Hamburg."
- On the last page he adds some young rabbis and scholars who are educated and making positive impressions on the youth. Among them future Chief Rabbi of Great Britain "Adler, darshan and mochiach in Hannover) and Frankel of Dresden.
- You have R. Pinchas Halevi Horowitz  (Haflaah) but not a contemporary rabbi, R. Moshe Sofer, his student. But you do have R. Moshe Kunitz.
- For some reason he decided that Maimonides' father's name was Yoseph, and that Maimon was the family name.

There are several other examples of the maskilic chains of tradition. Yitzchak Baer Levinsohn included one in his Teudah Be-yisrael, and R. Samson Rafael Hirsch's uncle Moses Mendelssohn Frankfurter of Hamburg also wrote one, although it was only published in 1872, in his Pene Tevel.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Moritz Steinschneider deigns to drop down into the fray to defend the Talmud in a footnote.

Johann Andreas Eisenmenger earned a place in infamy for his anti-Jewish book Endecktes Judenthum (Koenigsberg 1711) - Judaism Discovered - which compiled countless strange or offensive aggadot from a great variety of rabbinic sources. At the beginning of the book he lists about 225 separate Jewish works which he used (the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi are two single sources out of the 225). 

Here is how it begins, in the English translation printed in 1742 (although this is from another part of the book):
Enthusiasm on the one Hand, and a Spirit of Domination on the other, are, and have ever been, the Disgraces of the Priests of most Religions: But None are, or have been, more extravagant on the other, than the Rabbins, or Teachers amoung the Jews. The Rabbinical Domination and Enthusiasm will appear in the following Extracts from the best and most celebrated Writings of the Rabbins . . . 
Moritz Steinschneider, celebrated as the father of modern Jewish bibliography - which, I promise, is more exciting than that sounds - was commissioned to write an encylopedia entry on Jewish literature for Ersch and Gruber's Allgemeine encyclopädie der wissenschaften und künste. He submitted a very, very, very long article - book, really - and it was actually  printed under the heading Judische Literatur covering pages 357 - 471 in the 20th volume, which was printed in Leipzig, 1850. Several years later this "article" was translated to English as Jewish Literature from the Eighth to the Eighteenth Century, a 375 page book, which is still useful - believe me. Now, Steinschneider (1816-1907), scholarly to a ridiculous degree and legendarily unsentimental, was one of the scholars who took writing with objectivity as the 11th Command, to unprecedented degrees. Thus, while his works are brimming with useful and fascinating information, he generally took care to betray not the slightest bit of enthusiasm or personality in his work. (Yes, there may be no Yiddish hartz, but often this means that you get facts which you yourself are then free to project your own opinion on.) Thus, it is interesting that he inserted what is, truthfully, a useless - but interesting footnote - into his encylopedia entry, concerning Eisenmenger. Useless as scholarship per se, but useful as a stealthy defense of the Jews in a scientific German encyclopedia in 1850.

Writing about the history of the development of Halacha after the Temple's destruction, there is the following (p. 365):

In the sfas hamedinah, this says that "under the Halacha more and more things were collected which would not be of practical import until the advent of the Messiah (Hilchetha Lemeshicha). Thus arose the idea that the law can be fulfilled through study, since with the Temple's destruction, it was impossible any other way: "Since the Temple was destroyed, God has only the four cubits (one's personal space) of the Halacha." 

Moritz footnotes: "Eisenmenger writes: "[God has ] Only four cubits [ells] of space to go," while halacha can only be taken to mean "to go" by translating it maliciously, since in this sense the term is halicha. In his translation he ignored the genius of the language!

In other words, this aggadic passage in Berachos says that after the destruction of the Temple, God's place on earth, his place became the four ells of the halacha. Eisenmenger says that the passage means that after the destruction of the Temple God is restricted in space, period.

Here is Eisenmenger in the original:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tilting at Windmills? My attempt to make sense of the Asifa.

It was like sausage being made. Having seen all the rumors and alleged plans going on over the past few weeks, being the curious sort, and frankly wondering if there was indeed anything for me to learn, a friend and I decided to see that sausage. Would the message be that we can't live with the internet, we can't live without it? What would the mood of the crowd be? Did they really sell it out? Also, I knew that whatever would happen it would literally be historic. Would I have missed a chance to witness the Michalowitz conference in 1866? Not on your life. Finally, I honestly wanted to know how I would feel there, in a gathering that in an earlier phase of my life I may have felt fairly at home in.

So we made our way to Citi Field, and witnessed something that was far more subdued than the Beatles in Shea in 1965, true, but possibly far more interesting - in a meta sense. In fact, I think many people would say that it was rather quite boring concerning the nitty gritty details. But it wasn't about the details, really. So without further ado, I will now proceed to recount the details!

Throngs of people were calmly waiting their turn for security screening. Once inside, you were handed a branded Ichud Hakehillos goodie bag, consisting of a bottle of water, a plastic cup, a Stern's chocolate danish, a little bag of Bloom's pretzels, ineffective binoculars, and two printed pamphlets; one containing an interlinear translation of the second part of kaddish, beginning with amen, yehei shemei rabbah, Yiddish and English. The other was a copy of the tefillas ha-Sheloh. The bag was a nice gesture. A lot of people seemed to have a kuntres called Ha-internet be-halacha, but I couldn't tell if my bag was just defective, or if they were being distributed or sold (yeah, right) elsewhere. Eventually I saw someone put one down near a drinking fountain. I asked him if it was his, and he said I could have it. It consists of eight simanim. 1.  Is there a halachic obligation to filter one's computer? 2. Is there a prohibition of yichud on Skype or a Webcam? 3. Can a kinyan be enacted over the internet, such as for a sale of chametz? 4. If someone sends someone else a virus, is he liable to pay for the damage it causes? 5. Is using another's wifi without permission stealing? 6. Is it permissible to download and collect music? 7. Can one allow his internet business, such as ebay, accrue sales over shabbos? 8. On web sites in Israel which update on shabbos, can one read it after shabbos? In 300 years I guarantee that this will be a quality collectible sefer.

First of all - it was a full house. This was no Million Man March with 110,000 people. It was full. Score one - a big one - for the Ichud Hakehillos Letohar Hamachane (which actually sounds as odd in the original as it does in English, something unusual for rabbinic idiomatic language, which generally sounds perfectly fine in  rabbinic Hebrew). One of the things I really wanted to get a sense of was, what was the mood of the crowd? It was hard to say. It was certainly not mournful, but neither was it especially jubilant. No one looked very annoyed to be there, that I could tell, but no one seemed excited.  I did hear a fair share of quasi-cynical comments all night, but really only very mild ones. Also, half the place was texting and emailing all night. By half I of course mean something like 5-10%. There was an awful lot of texting going on. At one point one of the speakers was speaking and the camera picked up a guy on his iphone and everyone could see this on the big screen - lots and lots and lots of iphones all around. No one was hiding them, and I think that is the main point. They are facts of life.

Mincha began 45 minutes late, but of course that's to be expected. It seemed like quite a few people davened early, presumably because they did not expect to be there at 6:30. They could have waited. In any case, at some point some unspecified person grabbed the mike and told us that al pi hora'as ha-gedolim this revolution will not be broadcast online. Then we recited 5 kapitlach tehillim; #s 51, 41, 102, 130 and 133. Look them up. I almost hesitate to mention this, because in a way it's shallow, and it's also besides the point. But I think it bears mentioning. The leader in the recitation had, well, a kind of terrible voice. Now I realize that substance over style is more important, but I think this is kind of a comment on the lack of aesthetic appreciation which seems to be current in Chareidi society. There is a concept of hiddur, and one of the qualifications for a shaliach tzibbur is to have a nice voice. It's not finicky artists who say this. This is in the codes. It may not be the main thing, but it is not nothing.

The evening's emcee, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, began in Yiddish. He was talking about the tough challenges. A simultaneous translation was being typed on the big screen as he spoke. Unfortunately the person they employed was not fully up to the task, see my note about aesthetics above, for just as Rabbi Wachsman mentioned the "shver nisyonos," "the harsh challenges," the caption read "that have bee set us." I was not the only one to notice, as I distinctly heard some snickers. What a pity. Substance over style, yes. But wouldn't it have been fairly simple to get someone who would have written "beset us?" And there was more of this all night. At this point, Rabbi Wachsman apologized because he was going to switch over and speak in the "sefas medina," the State Tongue, "Ainglish." And that is just what Rabbi Wachsman, who is a masterful orator and a darshan did. He began mentioning the "dangers of the internet," which was what I was waiting to hear. It seems like the euphemism "technology" was used in a lot of the buzz prior to the event.   Would the word actually be mentioned? Yes indeed.

At this point, according to my notes, I noticed that the Cholula Hot Sauce ads surrounding the big screen had large white canvases hanging on them blocking a part of the bottle. I was curious what was on the bottle. Here it is:

Rabbi Wachsman began quoted a Rambam about the very negative repercussions of departing from the congregation, and said that people who are otherwise okay must know that they "cannot repudiate 40,000 Yidden." The crowd has spoken. The Rambam says that if you disagree with this then you have no share in the World To Come. אם בקשת ליחנק היתלה באילן גדול?

Then Rabbi Wachsman delivered the first of several conciliatory messages. It is clear that unlike some other speakers, he has a real sense of people and things happening outside his immediate environs. He said that a message must be delivered, we must also "speak to our brethren." At this point he began speaking in more English. He mentioned Mount Sinai, the Oral Tradition. (Watching the faces of the Chassidishe rebbes was interesting.) Then he said that people ought to realize that the media will be covering this event. Frankly, we don't need media coverage, but they are covering it. We don't consider media attention an accomplishment: "even a bank robber" gets media attention! Then he said we are a holy people, a chosen people, even though we, admittedly, sometimes fail. Then he delivered a paean to the holy tefilos of Jewish mothers as they light candles on Friday night, and recalled that our tradition is to cover our 3 year old boys as we take them to cheder for the first time. Then, he said that we "cherish this great country which has been good for us, and done a tremendous force for good all around the world" - my paraphrase, but very close - but he urged that the United States should please "come to your senses, come to your senses" - regarding gay marriage (although I don't remember precisely what he said, and he obviously didn't say "gay marriage").

Next a certain rebbe from Montreal spoke. Let's say he was not the 1st rate darshan that Rabbi Wachsman was, and I will not mention the rumor a$ to why he was given such a prime spot. He spoke in mamme loshn, rather than sefas hamedinah. My correspondent at Arthur Ashe Stadium later told me that there was no translation for the Yiddish speeches there, which led to a great deal of restlessness. The rebbe began by mentioning the talmidim of the Chasam Sofer who took the initiative to oppose and separate from the bad things, like haskalah. He then referred to "Tzionisten," which the translator promptly gave as "the ism which sought to substitute the Land of Israel for the Land of Torah." His motif was "Mi Lashem Elai," Moshe's clarion call, "Whoever is for the Lord, join me!" He then said that in all the earlier challenging periods, we knew who the enemy was. Today they are disguised and are not discernible. He then said that baalebatim sometimes say that the rabbis don't really know the internet ('terNET is how he pronounced it) and therefore don't understand the challenge. This may be true, he said, that we don't know the internet. But we know about the crying fathers who present us with the bad results of the internet. Then he said that the only heter for using the internet is for parnassah, and only with a filter. ("Can't live with it, can't live without it?") He said that some people had ridiculed the event, they say that there just is nothing that can be done about the challenge of the internet. But those who don't mock, Hashem will ensure that they have good children. He then began to quote Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman's restatement of the argument for design (spilled ink on paper), and the inept translator promptly wrote "Rebbe Wasserman the great great dot dot." Hm. He was speaking for a long time, for it was at this point that I began counting people in blue shirts (which I decided to define as non-white). I wasn't the only one who was distracted, as someone began passing notes up to him telling him his time is up, and it apparently reached the point where his chevra surrounded him to make sure that he was not removed from the podium.

Rabbi Wachsman then returned and, basing himself on a Tana De-vei Eliyahu, quoted the Opatow Rebbe, saying that when a group of 20,000 gather they have the strength of Avraham Avinu. Thus, when 40,000 gather they have the strength of two Avraham Avinus. In case it was not clear, the speakers seemed to again and again promote the idea that the medium is the message. We are united. Although we've got no weapons in our arsenal, because of this gathering we are strong. It's all about this, the gathering. He referred to the isms, Communism, Haskalah, Tziyonus (audible groans, at least near me). He then said "we will determine what Yiddishkeit will look like a few years from now." The internet "is no longer a tool or a device. It is a culture. It is a psychology. A way of life." He reminded us that "heimishe yungerleit and frauein" are ensnared in "social media" which is "the technological equivalent of the dor hamabul." Speaking of these lost souls, he expounded on the gemara that everyone can do teshuva, besides Acher (Elisha ben Avuya). He asserted that you can see the ruin "in the eyes of yungerleit." Can't we see that "people are changing?" We "gave the world a Yirmiyah, a Rambam, a Chasam Sofer." Who are we becoming? "" End quote. 

He continued that the internet is about the superficial, the lack of focus, the instant, and that even secular sources are bemoaning this, decrying that children are becoming "click-vegetables." He then delivered what was a truly conciliatory message: even these "brazen" people, the people the internet ruined, are still acheinu benei yisrael, our brothers, and Hashem loves "you." Yes, he said this. If no one else reports it, he still said it. He then spoke about how this is simply the biggest challenge the Jews have ever faced, and we are weaker than all our predecessors. Yet, he said, even one step forward can make a difference. Even though "the webbed mind has to struggle to understand Torah," what if a person is determined to have "an internet massechta," instead of wasting X amount of time online, he takes that time and completes a Talmudic tractate? He said that someone told him that he was passing some kind of obscene billboard on the way to work every day, and he determined that every time he chose not to look, he would give himself $1. In no time at all - (if you do the math it would have had to have been a considerable amount of time) - he accumulate $2000, and bought himself an awesome silver menorah. Transforming tumah to taharah. He referred to the internet as a "kli mashchis," a "destructive vessel." He bemoaned the "billions of hours and dollars" which went into producing and maintaining the internet. Then he made a most interesting comment: Even if, he said, we have lost the 25 - 35 year olds! - and maybe we haven't - that doesn't mean we have to lose the 0 - 20s. He feels that the Chareidim have been retreating (!) and there can be no more retreating. It is time to arise like a lioness. This garnered, for the first time, applause.

Then he said (claimed? hoped?) that "there are thousands here tonight who have no shaychas to internet. Don't think that only a black hatter in Lakewood, or a man in a shtreimel in Williamsburg can do without. Even a Yid in a blue shirt can!" (This prompted me to count blue shirts once more, and also collected kippot of various sorts as well). Then he began to say something which I was starting to get excited about, but I didn't realize what he was going to mean. He said there are other forms of entertainment. Was he about to acknowledge that people need leisure and entertainment? Was he going to suggest walks with children? But then he continued - and we eschew these entertainments. Which Yid hunts? Do you have or want a moose head in your living room? No, you hang pictures of gedolim! In other words, don't think you need Netflix - you already don't partake in many alternative things which you have no desire for. You can do it with the internet too. You can scale back. 

The fact is, Rabbi Wachsman provided the most realistic approach. I no longer recall if he also reiterated that the internet is only permitted for business and with a filter, but even if he did, it was pretty clear that he was under no illusion about what people do, and was really trying to promote a lessening of use and dependence on the internet. At point he had also mentioned that people who give their 11 or 12 year old kids internet access, or an ipod, are crazy. He wisely and realistically pointed out that if someone had given him an ipod when he was 11 years old he would immediately have hacked that thing.

Next came the Skulener Rebbe, who had been alleged to have been one of the rabbis who called for the event to take place. The rebbe is quite aged and apparently somewhat weak, and he could barely talk. But he was clearly very, very passionate about the event and the message and summoned up much strength. Since he could barely speak in an audible voice, he had a meturgeman with him, who repeated everything he said. Again, in reality substance is supposed to trump style, but what can I say? The man who repeated his speech for twenty minutes had the voice of a cartoon character. Again, this is not the message, but these are things which could be avoided, even if the man is his gabbai or whomever. R. Elya Ber Wachtfogel was sitting next to him and looked embarrassed, or maybe pained. You could see the Skulener's passion and that he was genuinely moved, and he spoke a lot about the milachama with the klipos. He referrred to the internet as chochmas behemos (which the intrepid translator rendered as "subhuman"). He noted that an animal looks down to the ground, whereas humans can raise their head to look at things on high.

At 9:15 the Asifa received a telephone call from Rav Wosner, a true living legend. His face appeared on screen next to the caption: hagaon ha-adir posek ha-dor ba'al shevet ha-levi shlita, "the mighty gaon, halachic decisor of this generation, author of  the responsa Shevet Halevi, may he live long," and his purpose was apparently to lay down the law. He spoke in Yiddish, and no translation appeared for 5 or 6 minutes. While people began to get really, really restless and get up to walk around or go home, the Shevet Halevi restated that the internet is just assur for anything besides business, with a filter, and he added that if a child has the "mashchis internet" access at home then he should be expelled from yeshivos. I honestly and truly felt that it was a terrible choice in timing because, you know, people were walking up and going home while Rav Wosner was speaking! But at this point my chavrusa decided he had enough, and we also made the strategic decision to go home.

I know there were other speakers, I know that some guy streamed the whole thing live, but I will just read what others say they said. The bottom line? There was a major, major disconnect from reality. In Rabbi Wachsman's case maybe it was major, rather than major, major. As I said, people were using their smartphones all night. Openly. Does anyone think they were conducting business? "Buy 1000 shares of Faceschmutz!" Everyone uses it. No one is going to stop. In five years, more, not less people will be online.  I was thinking about that, and I realized that the insular life depends upon free choice as much as coercion. Thirty or forty years ago, people were still largely choosing the insular life. But they had large families, and not all of the children would or will choose it. People who wanted to be part of something, and were willing to not own a television and not read newspapers had children and grandchildren who never asked for that. They can't even ban it in China - the only people who can be kept away from the internet are those who will freely choose to eschew it.

Perhaps some will take the healthy message to heart that they should while away less time online. There were flashes of inspiration. It was a nice crowd. I felt fine there. I'm sure plenty of people would have thought that they were watching a Fascist rally, but I didn't, which was interesting to note about myself and how I would feel. I guess I just felt like it didn't affect me? After all, my kids are not going to be subjected to Rav Wosner's ruling. Was it ironic, and perhaps apt, that it took place the very week that the proverbial you-know-what began to hit the fan, as the six years of not facing up to our own abuse scandal finally really began to get serious coverage, fueled of course by the tumeneh mashchis, and that it is not going to be wished away or disappear? Yes. 

My email companion on the outside asked me at one point to scale it, 1 to 10, in terms of weirdness. I had no answer. I replied, I will have to tell you later.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

On that Arabic Talmud

Recently the new kind-of-cool, kind-of-creepy Arabic translation of the Talmud has gotten a lot of attention. Obviously. (link)

Talmud--Arabic-01.jpg (1000×750) 
It it surprising to me that no one seems to reference the alleged Arabic translation of the Talmud - if that's what the source means - by R. Joseph ibn Abitur, about 1000 years ago, as reported in Sefer Haqabbalah and another source.

"Rabbi Moses of Cordoba had many disciples, among them Rabbi Joseph bar Isaac ibn Satnas (?), known as Abitur; he [explained? translated? wrote a digest?] all of the Talmud into Arabic for the Ishmaelite caliph, known as al-Haqim."

So, we can now consider it mentioned.

Krochmal complains that it's hard to speak to all Jews.

Here's a great excerpt from a letter from Nachman Krochmal to Shadal, bearing the date of  1st day rosh chodesh Elul 5536/ Aug. 25, 1836.

"[The Rambam] conveyed his teachings of the inner part of the Torah only to the Arab Jews of Spain, including those of neighboring Provence. The rest of the Jews were as if they didn't exist, since there was such little bonds of communication with them then. But now, how does one speak one way, with the same message, that will be acceptable and able to penetrate the hearts of Italian Jews and Oriental Jews? In the ears of those in Germany who think they are scholars, and in those who think they are hasidim in Poland and Russia? Even if these communities are all still far apart in location and views, there is still no little connection between them nowadays. They all know each other, and despise each other. Each group of Jews feels that if its views and approach were adopted by the others, the redemption would arrive!"
(From Letteris' Mikhtevei Benei Kedem, pg. 66.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Shadal's series #11 - coping with the loss of a daughter.

Certainly not to minimize the many tragic losses people suffer every day, yet there can be little doubt that in earlier times untimely death was lurking ever closer, with minor illnesses posing greater threats. Hardly a family was untouched by the Grim Reaper and the loss of a child or more. So it was with Shadal, who lost several of his children. Originally, the apple of his eye was his eldest son, Ohev Ger, who many believed (the father included) was possessed with an even greater mind than his father. He died in 1853, aged 23, and with him Shadal's dream of a scholarly successor. 

Of his other children's deaths, one which struck him particularly hard was the loss of his 18 year old daughter Miriam, who died the night after Shavuot, 1862. He had grown extremely close to Miriam, his oldest child by his second wife, and as we shall see, he studied with her, and of her own initiative she made herself very helpful to him. Always a man dealing with his own illnesses, he had become blind in one eye as a relatively young man. In his middle age he also lost most sight in his good eye, and of course this constrained him, since pretty much all he did was read and write. Miriam stepped up and from that point on she copied all his letters (his practice had been to actually write two copies of each letter, one to send and one to save). From time to time Shadal letters turn up on the market. If you have one from those later years, it may have been written by Miriam.

When she suddenly became sick and then died, he was heartbroken, as all parents are. He wrote movingly of this loss several times.

In the 1870s Shadal's son, the physician Isaia Luzzatto, began to publish many of his father's letters and writings. In 1878 he had an index of Shadal's letters printed, the Index raisonné des livres de correspondance de feu Samuel David Luzzatto, which not only lists all (or at least many) of Shadal's letters, broken down by date and language, but also includes short notes describing the content of many of them. The purpose of this index was to pave the way and whet the appetite of the public for the actual collected letters, which were eventually published in two separate collections; Igrot in Hebrew, and Epistolario, which gathered letters written in Italian, French and Latin. Isaia also included some specimens of letters at the end of the Index, as well as a couple of French poems, of a personal nature. One of them was written on the loss of Miriam and is dated the day after she died. Here is my translation:
6 June 1862 
My Daughter is No More 
After thirteen days of illness
(Febris miliaris)
At 2:30 this morning 
She ceased living.
She was a force of brightness,
A superior mind.
Disregarding human weaknesses
(without affectations)
Extremely rare for her sex. 
Like that! my last hope vanished
I had hoped for a son, my pupil. (I had a lot of trouble with this line. Help?) 
She studied with me all of the Torah,
Also half of Kohelet
And after learning that 'all is Vanity,'
At eighteen years
She left this world.

He wrote at least two more letters describing her virtues and his devastation at the loss. One was written in French, the same month, and is printed on the next page in the Index:

It describes how he continued to cope with the loss. Here is my translation:
". . . the world lost an angel of virtue, intelligence, diligence, modesty and beauty. A mind superior to its age and sex. She lived 18 happy years, then began to suffer, for her mind was above rank. Death delivered its inevitable sentence. Her father and mother remain forever inconsolable; this affliction will not fail to produce its positive effects. . . The wise man knows he is an instrument for the Most High, and he sees this.  
"At first he is angered when events do not go his own way: לאויל יהרג כעש ('Anger kills the foolish man' Job 5.2). Then he adjust to the will of one wiser than his, and strives to task it imposes on him. It does not yield to blind necessity - it obeys the supreme wisdom. He is not a Stoic. He is not a bigot. He sees the final reasons, he loves the eternal wisdom, and is happy to go where it calls, ודי בזה, and this is enough.  
"Sir, I received your two letters. Your words, your sympathy have relieved my pain . . ."

Finally, he wrote a Hebrew letter to Eliezer Lipmann Silbermann about one month after Miriam died. Here it is:

"God's hand touched me and took her from me these 30 days ago, the eve after Shavuot - the beloved of my soul, my only daughter[1] Miriam, aged 18. None was like her with her combined qualities of intelligence, good character and beauty. This has further weakened and aged me, all the more as I see my wife in great sadness, inconsolable.  My daughter had no other teacher but her mother, who read with her French, Italian, and German authors, and with all this, she was constantly involved in the housework, major and minor work, ironing and so forth. She even taught herself to write in Rashi script and to read and write Greek. She began to copy my letters, for her desire all her days was to help and assist, without any self-aggrandizement. Her face appeared like God's angel, delightful to all who saw her. Her wisdom and righteousness were apparent in her countenance, while she was modest and quiet. She was healthy and strong all her life, and in 13 days she took ill and died, and no one knows what her illness was. "
[1] His first daughter, Regina Malkah, was born in 1833 and died in 1851, also aged 18.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is this Abarbanel?

Probably not, but it is an interesting and somewhat tantalizing idea.

In 1882 a magnificent 400-year old series of painted panels were (re)discovered in a Lisbon church. Painted between 1471 and 1482, by Nuno Gonçalves, these Boards or Panels of Saint Vincent depict various ecclesiastical and court personalities in 15th century Portugal. I will leave the symbolism and interpretations to the art historians. But of interest is a figure who appears on the sixth panel. Wearing a six pointed red star, he must be a Jew, as Jews were required then to wear such a symbol on their clothing, holding open a Bible with some indeterminate characters.

Although I do not think this is the mainstream opinion, some scholars argued that this man must be/ could only be/ hopefully was, none other than Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel. Others are less certain, and will only agree that he must be a rabbi, or certainly a Jew.

In 1968 Charles Sterling and Jean Rosenwald wrote an article on 'The Panels of Saint Vincent and their Enigmas' (French) in  L'Œil (1968), n° 159. Taking the position that it is Abarbanel, they made the following arguments.

First, he is beardless. Other depictions of Portuguese rabbis showed them with beards. Abarbanel was not a rabbi, at least nor professionally, and at least not then. He was, rather, a figure of the Portuguese royal court. Secondly, and more dubiously, the Bible that he is holding is opened roughly two thirds which is where the Prophets are located. Furthermore, some say that the Bible which Saint Vincent holds, elsewhere in the panel, is opened to John 14:30-31. I haven't seen a clear enough image to know if this is so. In Christian exegesis, these verses in John find its parallel in Isaiah 66:18-19. It is clear that actual Hebrew is not written in the Bible the Jewish man is holding, so historians basically have to guess based on the shape of the fake letters and the fact that it is a Jew holding it, that it is a Hebrew Bible. Some argue, however, that it is a Latin Bible, in Gothic characters. Again, not having seen a clear high resolution image I wonder if the Saint Vincent Bible is actually in clear characters and if the identification of the passage as John 14 is accurate or a guess.

Abarbanel is identified with his biblical commentaries (which, I might add, were authored years and even decades in some case after these panels were painted) and as a theologian. Thirdly, they note that as a Jew of high standing Abarbanel was specifically exempted by the king from wearing the six-pointed red star. If so, what to do about the fact that this man wears the star? They claimed that examination of the panels indicate that the red star was added later and this can be seen by the way it does not naturally flow with the material of the cloak. I might say that if this is so then we might have to be at least cautious that this man is Jewish altogether. Another thing I think has to at least be pointed out is that Abarbanel was born in 1437. Now, the precise date of the panels is unknown. Some sources indicate between 1471 and 1482, as I wrote at the beginning. Wikipedia paskens the 1460s, or at least between 1450 and 1471. Goncalves' page would seem to indicate that as late as 1490 was a possibility (see here). Nevertheless, Abarbanel fled to Castile in 1483, so if the famous Jewish court figure Abarbanel is truly being depicted, we ought to assume that it was prior to 1483.

Now I ask you: if we assume 1470s, is this the face of a man born some 35 years earlier or less? I doubt it.

See here and here for some excerpts from the article by Sterling and Rosenwald.

Here is the panel, followed by a detail:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

"There are no pogroms, but if there were, it would be because the Jews deserved it!"

Here's a pleasant little piece from a 1918 journal called The Weekly American Courier. Apparently the interest of America, Poland, and the Allies, as per the periodical's subtitle, involved countering reports from Poland of pogroms against the Jews.

The report can be summarized as follows:

- A bunch of Jews must get together every Friday night in Austria somewhere to concoct a story about a pogrom to send out to the world.
- A joke: Two Jewish traders swindled a Polish farmer, and he caught on and hit one of them. They ran to the police yelling "Gevalt! Murder!" The cops asked who is being murdered, and they said "All the Jews! They already murdered him, and now they are murdering me!"
- If there are pogroms in Krakow, it's like the pogroms, i.e., riots, in New York, where Jewish women protested against high prices by Jewish butchers and food merchants, only in Krakow its the Polish people who are suffering from the Jewish traders.
- Ninety percent of the Jews in Poland are pro-German. They even are German, really. They speak Yiddish. They are spies and informers.
- Of the two million Jews in Poland, only 10% are really Polish (i.e, they speak Polish and are basically decent. They warn the rest to stop slandering Poland. Not only do the others not heed them, but they consider them heretics.
- Polish people are and were always tolerant of the Jews, or else the Jews wouldn't have lived there for 800 years. But if any pogroms really do occur, it would be because the German "jargon" Jews provoked it.


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