Here is an interesting letter from H. Guedalia to the Jewish Standard (December 7, 1888) concerning the hymn Bar Yochai. He asks whether anyone knows if it was ever translated into another language. So after five generations I answer H. Guedalia's question and I say, yes, it was. Oluf Gerhard Tychsen translated it to Latin in 1763, an "Elegia elegans e terra Israel" in honor of "R. Schimenois Filii Iochai,"and he should see my post (link).
He also has some interesting comments about how he supports memorial celebrations like Lag B'omer.
As you can see, I changed commenting platforms to Disqus. I hope this will solve the spam problem. Old comments are still importing, and I hope that everything will be retained. Thank you for bearing with me in this trying time. I mean, I'm working on it.
Here's an interesting article about the Cecil Roth heresy scandal at Bar-Ilan University in 1964. The author is Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, former Chief Rabbi of South Africa. Jerusalem Post, Nov. 11, 1964.
I once picked up a Jewish Observer for sale at Pinter's for something like fifty cents, attacking Cecil Roth. I don't know where my sense was, because I didn't buy it.
Here is an interesting article about Yiddish from the American Hebrew (May 6, 1892). It's got everything you could want; condescension toward "Jargon," historical and contemporary social information. The author - more about him in a moment - endorses the proposal that the eastern Yiddish word for prayer, to daven, comes from the Aramaic daf (folio). He also gives an etymology for nebbich. Finally, despite Yiddish's "degrading ugliness," he sees the bright side that it has done for the Jews. Even though being bred on Yiddish makes it extremely difficult to learn a correct, unaccented German, when a Polish or Russian Jew emigrates, he finds himself well off with his "poor German" where he can better succeed in either western Europe or America; if he spoke only Russian or Polish, not so much. However, because his German is so poor, it induces him to learn English and speak it at home right away.
The author is Lewish Nathan Dembitz (1833-1907) of Louisville. Among other things, like a distinguished legal career, the Posen-born Dembitz is also known for his German translation Onkel Tom's Hutte.
Here is Benjamin of Tudela's 12th century account of visiting Meron, and you could see he visited the kivrei tzaddikim:
"...and Jewish sepulchres. R. Johanan ben Zakkai and R. Jehudah Halevi are buried here. All these places are situated in Lower Galilee. From here is is two days to Tymin or Timnathah, where Simon the Just and many Israelites are buried, and thence three parasangs to Medon or Meron. In the neighbourhood there is a cave in which are the sepulchres of Hillel and Shammai. Here also are twenty sepulchres of disciples, including the sepulchres of R. Benjamin ben Japheth, and of R. Jehudah ben Bethera."
 I used the image from the 1633 edition, because I like it, and as you can see, it says Jonathan. But in Marcus Nathan Adler's critical edition the text has Jehudah on the authority of two good manuscripts, while two others which he used have Jonathan. Adler writes that as R. Yehudah Ha-levi died 30 years before Rabbi Benjamin visited, "the question of the burial-place of our great national poet is thus finally settled," contra the suggestions of earlier scholars (e.g., Shadal) that R. Yehuda Ha-levi didn't really reach Eretz Yisrael, much less die there. And see these two posts by Eliezer Brodt (here and here).
 He cites the manuscripts, and the better reading is "Medon, that is Meron."
Thinking out loud. Thursday night I attended a fascinating lecture by Rabbi Yechiel Goldhaber at the home of Dr. Shlomo Sprecher (as advertised here, on the Seforim Blog). I think there were about 50 people there, a few had to stand. I've been an admirer of Rabbi Goldhaber's articles for some time, but to be honest, it was a pleasure to hear him speak and to meet him. Although doubtlessly many readers of this blog are already familiar with him, I would like to describe him as a special hybrid of a talmid chochom and an academic scholar. He is rigorous and critical and fascinating, and seemed to possess one of the finest qualities which I admire in a scholar: humbleness.
The topic which he discussed - the Zohar's influence on halacha - drew all kinds of like-minded people out of the woodwork, scholars and dabblers alike, which was a pleasure to see. As someone told me, it was nice to see a room full of people who do not hold naive assumptions about the historical development of kabbalah. Rabbi Goldhaber commands his topic, is highly organized, and you can tell he is an original researcher, not merely an aggregator of scholarship (although clearly he is abreast of the scholarship as well). In this case, while modestly disclaiming tons of knowledge of the Zohar per se, this is a man who knows Shulchan Aruch and, to be honest, he knows Zohar too. A nice moment for me was when he mentioned the National Library in Israel which, I guess, is a place he enjoys very much, and his face was positively glowing.
After the lecture, I had a somewhat unique opportunity to meet a number of people who read this blog, and it was a pleasure to meet you (you're reading this, right?). The unanimous consensus was that I was taller than they thought, and my hair was redder. Or maybe not.
Anyway... I'm not sure how long Rabbi Goldhaber is in the States, but the bottom line: get to know him if you can, if you see him advertised as speaking somewhere - go.
See here for how to buy or order his latest book, Konditon, in two parts - a lengthy research on the Titanic disaster, in all its Jewish angles, as well as an essay on the alleged herem of dwelling in Spain that offers much original research on a topic that was not put to rest by Cecil Roth or Marc B. Shapiro in their excellent essays on the same.
Yesterday I posted about Joseph Wolff's interaction with a Jerusalem Ba'al Shem in 1823. Having previously posted several times about his talks with Rabbi Mendel of Shklov, who was if not the most famous student of the Vilna Ga'on after Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, certainly in the top five, I thought of posting something interesting about R. Mendel which I don't think is to be found in Wolff's Missionary Journal. Rather, this is from an oral conversation Wolff had with John Cam Hobhouse, Lord Broughton (1786-1869).
Lord Broughton's daughter published four volumes of his memoirs, called Recollections of a Long Life. In Volume 3, pp. 171 - 172, Broughton discusses Wolff, whom he met in 1827. He tells an anecdote about Rabbi Mendel, which he may have read in Wolff's Journal, since it is brought there. The anecdote is that after Wolff told Rabbi Mendel that he could achieve peace by converting to Christianity, the rabbi took Wolff to a window and pointed to Mount Calvary, and pointed out the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And he said to him, In this monastery, Armenians, Catholics, and other Christians are daily quarreling, and would kill each other, if not for the swords of the Muslims who keep the tensions in check and preserves some order.
As you can see in Wolff's Journal, in these conversations two things were going on. He was trying to convince Rabbi Mendel of the truth of Christianity, and Rabbi Mendel was trying to make a ba'al teshuva out of Wolff.
On this, Broughton quotes Wolff further.
You call it "plumb pudding," I call it "kugel." Rabbi Mendel of Shklov was trying to get Wolff to say or feel something nice about the Talmud over kugel, and the nice experience of a shabbos se'udah, and Wolff said: "'Tis a lie in spite of your plumb pudding."
This is an interesting excerpt from Joseph Wolff's Missionary Journals, his diaries from his period in the Holy Land in the early 1820s. It concerns his meeting with Rabbi Joseph Marcowitz and their discussion of the 72 letter name of God, and Marcowitz's alleged use of it in performing a miraculous exorcism in Constantinople.
Marcowitz is identified by Wolff as 80 years old, from Poland, and regarded by the Jews as a Ba'al Shem. Later in his journal he writes that the Sephardic Jews became angry with Marcowitz for teaching the 72 letter Name to Wolff. In other places in the journal, Wolff writes about various discussions about passages in the Talmud which he had with Marcowitz, including an instance of a fantastic aggadah which other Jews were annoyed at Marcowitz for showing him, because, writes Wolff, it would make the Talmud appear ridiculous to him.
All of it is interesting and worth a read, but the part I like best is a little mistake that Wolff makes, so I will highlight at the top:
As you can see, Wolff writes that Marcowitz showed him a copy of the Sefer Raziel Ha-malach, and he translates the title page. In doing so, Wolff identifies the edition; Amsterdam 1701. And as you can see, he rather clumsily misconstrued the name of the printer, who was not Moses Ben Ayeshish, but Moses ben ha-yashish [=the aged] and honorable gentleman Abraham Mendes Coutinho z"l. What is strange about this is the way the names are actually set apart in large type, so not only is this Wolff not understanding the Hebrew word הישיש, for some inexplicable reason he failed to notice the last two lines which give the printer's complete name. Maybe he copied wrong, or didn't see it fast enough to get all of it. Who can tell?
This account, all too brief, is interesting because it comes so shortly after the establishment of the controversial Temple (1818) and only just before the appointment of Chacham Isaac Bernays, a modern (small m) Orthodox rabbi (1821) as Chief Rabbi of Hamburg.
In his account, Downes describes the hats worn by "the rabbies" (more likely, the rabbi and community notables) and which is probably the schabbes deckel, as I posted about here. He describes the bowing gesticulations of the cantor, presumably at the end of the Amidah.
He also contrasts the lighting in the old and new synagogue. In the old one, ten yellow tapers stood on each side of the pulpit. In the Temple, the lighting consisted of candlesticks painted blue and gilt. He also describes part of the prayer service, which consisted of German hymns, with occasional Hebrew and Aramaic phrases.