Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Interesting page about the recent installation of a mechitza at a Baltimore shul, Beth Tfiloh. Via Cross-Curents.

JB (and I don't mean the scotch)

Ever hear a rabbinic story or saying that unintentionally conveyed something negative?

We have this comment on DovBear by Roni, about the old "JB" issue:

One person asked my Rosh Yeshiva--one of the gedolim on the Moetzes--if he can call RJBS "JB"--the Rosh Yeshiva answered, "Certainly not you. . . " He meant to say that no "bachur" is in the position to talk about him in a deragotory way. Don't discount this.

That's pretty magnanimous. Only a baal madregah may call Rav Yoseph Ber Soloveitchik "JB", but not a mere bochur. Great chinuch strikes again.

Obligatory qualification: this is obviously something that an anonymous online commenter claims his unnamed RY said. Take it for what it's worth.

edit: Happy With His Lot called Roni on it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Who Is a Hebrew?

In an interesting article called Ivri: Naming Ourselves in Judaism Winter/Spring2005, Vol. 54, Issue 1/2, Shammai Engelmayer analyzes the appelation Ivri (Hebrew) in Tanakh.

To begin with, "Ivri" seems related to the biblical Eber, grandson of Noah through Shem. After all, they are from the same root and all Ivrim are descendents of Eber. However, not all descendents of Eber are Ivrim. Furthermore, the Torah calls descendents of Eber something else: benei ever (see: Gen. 10:21). It would thus not seem that an adequate definition of 'Ivri' is "one who is descended from Eber".

Another suggestion is that Avraham was designated 'Ivri' because he was one who "crossed over the [Euphrates] River", "me-ever ha-nahar" (Avraham is so referred in Joshua 24:3). The question then arises as to why this term should apply to Jewsisraeliteswhatever such a very long time later, particularly since a) as we shall see, not all descendents of Avraham are called Ivrim and b) early appearances of 'Ivri' in Tanakh are from the perspective of Egyptians who, it would seem, wouldn't think of the Euphrates as "the river, over". For Egyptians "the river" meant nothing but the Nile.

At this point its worth mentioning the well-known and well-established point that in the Bible Jews, Israelites--whatever you wanna call 'em--are generally seen as Ivrim (Hebrews) from the perspective of outsiders. Engelmayer notes this (as well as the theory linking Ivrim with the Hapiru, something he [and I] consider tenuous).

But he goes further.
How, he asks, can Hebrew have been an ethnic designation if it only consisted of a few people at first? The answer is, presumably, that it wasn't an ethnic designation at first. If so, what was it?

Examining the texts, Engelmayer came to the conclusion that if there is an identifiable characteristic linking all who are called 'Ivri'--that is to say, something that Avraham, Yitzhaq and Ya'aqov were, but Yishmael and Esau were not--it is this: a Hebrew is 1) the progeny of family members, 2) who themselves were products of unions among family members who, in turn, 3) married family members. Got that? Again, an Ivri is someone from a specific family through both parents who were themselves from the same family by both parents, who marry other members of this same family. (a qualification will be added to this definition soon)

Yishmael's mother was Hagar, who was not part of this family, so he is disqualified. Furthermore, his wives were not from this family. Avraham, on the other hand, married Sarah who was from this, his own family. Yitzhaq was the son of Avraham and Sarah, both members of this family, and he too married into this, his own family. His sons were Hebrews too, or rather one of them: Ya'aqov married into this family as well. Esav didn't and consequently wasn't a Hebrew.

Let's look at the evidence. Just recently we read how concerned Avraham was that Yitzhaq marry into only his own family. Yishmael? The benei Keturah? That really wasn't his concern at all. As their mothers were not Hebrews, it wasn't crucial according to whatever value system there evidently was in this family of Hebrews, that they too marry Hebrews.

Esav, on the other hand, is a huge disappointment to his parents over his choice of marriage partners; he married Hittite women (Gen. 25:35).
Why? Because Esav could have and should have retained his Hebrew status by taking a Hebrew wife, one that could only be obtained at this point in time back in "the old country". Ya'aqov did that. Esav didn't-- in fact, at one point Esav realized that he screwed up and tried to rectify it by marrying a daughter of Yishmael. Apparently Esav realized that his parents placed a premium on not marrying local women and marrying in the family, so he did (Gen. 28:6). Trouble is that it wasn't merely a matter of marrying kin or countrymen (namely just anyone back in Paddan-Aram). It was a matter of marrying only another who was considered an Ivri.

And now we run into a problem. Ya'aqov had children by four women, only two of whom were Hebrews. The others, Bilhah and Zilpah, were mothers of four sons of Ya'aqov. Furthermore, at least three others of Ya'aqov's sons married women who were not Ivrim, Shim'on, Yehudah and Yoseph. That leaves five who may have (the Torah doesn't actually say who the others married).

Yet Yoseph is specifically regarded as a Hebrew by the Egyptians. This isn't troublesome, as before he married an Egyptian there was no reason, according to this definition, why Egyptians wouldn't have regarded him as an Ivri. Presumably this is how Yoseph self-identified, whether or not it is correct that an Ivri is as defined above. In Tanakh, Jewsisraeliteswhatever, are found identifiying as Hebrews among outsiders. This is similar to how some people call Jews "Yidden" among insiders but "Jews" for outside ears.

What about all the brothers, though, who are regarded as Hebrews by the Egyptians (Gen. 43:32)? That shouldn't be a problem either. From the vantage point of outsiders, brothers of Hebrews could well have been Hebrews regardless of technicalities. By the way, this peshat makes what might be considered the radical case that, at least in the early part of Jewish history, not all Jewsisraeliteswhatever, were considered Hebrews. In this case, only four of the brothers would have actually been Hebrews while six others were technically not Hebrews.

This begs yet more questions. If Hebrew meant something so narrow then how did the Egyptians come to know the term and use it in the first place? What about Yoseph's claim that he came from "the land of the Hebrews"? That certainly sounds like the term represented a geographical locale. Yet at this point the Hebrews in Canaan were but a handful, even allowing for the extended family that was with Ya'aqov and not specifically enumerated in the Torah. How would the Egyptians have even understoof what Yoseph meant? It would be like a Rhode Islander implying that his "land of Rhode Island" refers to North America in general. But the Egyptians knew what he meant.

The answer might be that from Yoseph's perspective the land was indeed the "Land of the Hebrews", insofar as Hashem gave the land to Hebrews Avraham, Yitzhaq and Ya'aqov. Why would the Egyptians have been aware of Hebrews? Well, there was once an incident in Egypt with Avraham.... The Egyptians may have remembered, oh, did they remember, that Avraham the Hebrew. From their perspective Yoseph would have simply meant "the land that Avraham lived in."

In fact, the memory of Avraham may even explain why Egyptians would not dine with Hebrews: "
Considering the grief that a single social contact with Abraham caused, it is not surprising that Egypt would want to prevent any further social contacts with "the Hebrew."

In any case, it is clear that the distinction between Hebrew and Jewisraelitewhatever--if there indeed originally was any--was lost on outsiders. For some reason outsiders in Tanakh regard Israelites as Hebrew.

What about the insistence of Avraham and Yitzhaq that their progeny--at least those that are Hebrew, disqualifying Yishmael--marry within, while Ya'aqov was unconcerned? Evidently this necessity of marrying within was, quite actually, a horaat shaah, a temporary measure, necessary to ensure stability in this family. Once conditions were such that it didn't matter anymore, Yehudah could marry a Canaanitess, Yoseph could marry an Egyptian etc.

As for the question of whether or not Besuel and Lavan were Hebrews--the Torah calls them Arameans--let Engelmayer take responsibility for this problem. Here are his words:

What would seem to work against this answer is Laban, who would have had to marry in for his daughters to be acceptable as wives for Jacob, yet he and his father are described as Aramaeans, not Hebrews. There is sufficient evidence, however, that both Laban and Bethuel were, in fact, believers in God, albeit not exclusively. Their daughters, however, may not have supported the apostasy.

While the text does not state this, it does offer up the possibility that this was the case. Thus, Bethuel would have been born into a home in which God was known and worshipped. Certainly, in this scenario and Laban's own statement, Bethuel's father Nahor was so raised.

Working against this is Joshua 24:2-3, which states, "Then Joshua said to all the people, 'Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers--Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor--lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring.…'"

Terah, then, was an idol-worshipper, according to Joshua. This obviously conflicts with Laban's statement in Genesis 31:53 that Abraham's God was also "the God of Nahor [and] the God of their father," meaning Terah.

One way to reconcile the two is to suggest that Terah was a God-worshipper, but he had begun to slip, seeking out the support of "other gods" in addition to the God of his family. God then orders him to take his family and move to Canaan, presumably to eliminate the influence Aramaean paganism is having on them. Nahor stays behind, but Terah sets out for Canaan. The pagan influence, however, is too great on him and, before reaching his goal, Terah settles in Haran. God then transfers the call to Abraham.

To sum up, a Hebrew is the progeny of a full descendant of Eber who married another full descendant of Eber and whose house adheres to an exclusive belief in God.

As the family of Abraham grew into a nation, the need for "marrying in" lessened and, eventually, disappeared. Thus, unlike Abraham and Isaac before him, Jacob makes no effort to continue the line with his children. That was important only when the Hebrews were few and far between; Jacob's large brood meant that there were more God-fearers immediately at hand from among whom he could choose spouses for his grandchildren.

I left out portions which pertain to the definition of an eved Ivri, a Hebrew slave. According to Engelmayer at the date of the Torah's giving there were still distinctions between Ivrim and benei Yisrael, with Ivrim, perhaps, being a kind of creme de la creme of Israelite society. This explains the improved treatment that the Torah requires for an eved Ivri, who, according to this peshat wasn't merely an Israelite slave--he was an Israelite slave who was also Hebrew.

Hillel and Torah she-be-'al peh at Maven Yavin.

Monday, November 28, 2005

What can I do to get you to comment?

I admit it. I really love to hear from you, Dear Reader. Not only do I love to hear what you have to say even if its to tell me I'm wrong, I love when you use my posts as a jumping point for good conversations whether or not it stays on topic.

I can tell that a lot of you are reading. So what can I do to get more of you to say something?

Whether the Slifkin matter is over or not....

The following letter is printed in this month's Moment Magazine. As the letters aren't reproduced online I thought it may be of interest.

I would like to register my complaint against the irresponsible and sloppy recording of my views in Jennie Rothenberg's article regarding the ban on the books by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin.

The author reports "[Rabbi Feldman] coondemned Slifkin for defending himself." This has no basis in fact.

Rothenberg continues, falsely giving the impression that this is a reason for her previous statement, that "Felman lamented that Slifkin...has made the ban's signers look like simple-minded fools." A responsible writer would have made it clear that this quotation is part of my introductory comments to an eight-page article aimed at showing that they were not fools.

Rothenberg's slopiness had one beneficial side-effect. Since I was born and raised in Baltimore and the English language is my native tongue, anyone who knows me found her revelation that I "speak English with a thick Yiddish accent" quite amusing.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman
Baltimore, MD


Jenni Rothenberg responds:
Although the goal of Rabbi Feldman's article was to defend the ban's signers, his personal criticism of Rabbi Slifkin created a great deal of buzz in the Orthodox world and was thus relevent to my story. I interviewed many respected rabbis who had read Rabbi Feldman's essay and were concerned by statements such as these: "The ban was met with resistance by Slifkin, who vigorously defended himself on his Internet site....He portrayed the dispute as pro- or anti-science, with himself as a champion of truth and his detractors as uneducated deniers of the discovereis of modern science.... Slifkin's campaign was eminently successful.... As a result, many thoughtful, observant Jews were beset by a crisis of confidence in the judgement of the signatories." A number of rabbis were deeply troubled by Rabbi Feldman's implication that Slifkin ought to have remained silent instead of explaining his views. A few wrote public critiques that can be found at

I wish to apologize for incorrectly characterizing Rabbi Feldman's accent as Yiddish. Our phone conversation took place via a rather scratchy transatlantic phone connection and I mistook his inflection for a Yiddish accent. This mistake was immediately corrected in the version of the article that appears on Moment's website.
Edit: Romach asks a question that I didn't even know I had.

Edit II: The following letter of interest also appears in this issue:
I read Jennie Rothberg's article "The Heresy of Nosson Slifkin" and found it to be excellent. Really well-written and probably the most accurate article written on the subject, both in terms of facts and the larger context.
Rabbi Gil Student
President of Publishing
Yashar Books
Brooklyn, NY

Friday, November 25, 2005

Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet

Judah Monis (1683-1764) was North America's first Hebrew instructor. He taught at Harvard, and was from an Italian family Portugese conversos (he himself converted to Christianity in N. America).

Note the title. I thought this was pretty cool.

On the Main Line, now with helpful tags:

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Things I learned in yeshiva....and things I didn't learn in yeshiva

Wolfish Musings once had a great post called Things I Learned In Yeshiva...And Things I Didn't Learn In Yeshiva. It's worth looking at his list. Bear in mind that I'm not discriminating between what I was taught in 6th grade or 10th. Here is mine:

Things I learned in Yeshiva...
And things I didn't learn in Yeshiva...

Long hair is forbidden by halakha
for men
Long hair is not forbidden for men by halakha. While there are halakhic issues with how long hair lies when putting on teffilin, al pi din a man can wear his hair like King John or John Lennon if he wants.

Christianity is about repressing sexuality and insane asceticism, Islam is the same only in reverse.
Like a lot of stereotypes, there are kernels (or even whole ears) of truth to it. But a true assessment of these religions is far, far more complicated. It's like the old saw about how Judaism is all legalistic show without substance. There were trends, movements, currents and cross currents in Christianity and Islam such that they cannot be boiled down to a trite stereotype. Besides, Judaism, at least as presented to the walking hormones teenagers we were in yeshiva is not exactly providing a sexually healthy environment at all times.

Moses Mendelssohn was the founder of Reform (not Reform Judaism, as it could only be called 'Reform')
While there is simply no way one can maintain that Mendelssohn was Orthodox (even though the term is anachronistic--it was, by the way, acknowledged that he was Orthoprax). However, nothing about Mendelssohn and his chevra was acknowleded apart from the 'fact' that from Mendelssohn came Reform and non-Jewish grandchildren. That the nature of the controversy was over the fact the the Bi'ur was a passport to German literacy (like the KJV of the Bible was earlier), I never heard. Nor, that R. Itzele Volozhiner had a seder in Parshat Hashevua with Bi'ur.

Non-frum and non-Jewish Bible scholars hate the Torah, Hashem and Judaism.
Again with the stereotypes. There were and are Bible scholars who hate some or all of the above (although I keep thinking of nineteenth century Germans when I try to think of names). Its abundantly clear from reading commentaries, studies and articles by Bible scholars that many of them have an abiding love for Torah, Judaism and Hashem (or some combination). In fact, often people become scholars in a field precisely because they love it.

There is a listable group of rabbis called The Gedoilim, most of whom, ironically, are of the Lithuanian yeshiva tradition with a couple of Chassidishe rebbes and an occasional Sephardi Haham thrown in for good measure.
Need I elaborate?

R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was so great that the Vilna Gaon said he would have walked to Italy to meet him. The Vilna Gaon said x% of the Mesilat Yesharim was written al pi ruah ha-qodesh.
Yes, but. R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was highly controversial and not without reason. He may have had messianic pretentions of some sort, wrote secular poetry and plays in Italian and attended the University of Padua.

Ad kan for now.

Ashkenaz unplugged at Maven Yavin.

Monday, November 21, 2005

We told you so

File this one under 'weird'.

Aish HaTorah reprints an article that appeared in Commentary last month by Conservative rabbi Dr. Jack Wertheimer.
Edenics at Maven Yavin. If 'Edenics' sounds as bizarre to you as 'Eugenics', I completely agree.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Jewish issues online

After a long time reading Jewish mailing lists, bulletin boards and blogs I've noticed that there are certain topics that come up over the years and then over and over again. These topics include things like lower (textual) criticism of the Torah, the Documentary Hypothesis, the age of the universe, Who Is A Heretic, how are we to understand fantastic midrashim, the nature of rabbinic authority and so forth. These topics recur again and again, over years and in many forums online.

Why? There is so much more in Torah. There are "famous" sugyas in Gemara. It seems like a relatively little amount of discussion about these issues, as opposed to more foundational or hashkafic issues that seems to occupy us online.

I guess it may that these are the issues that are neglected "in the real world". If you want stimulating discussion or a seder on these issues, it might be hard--or for some, impossible--to find offline. If its so, that these issues aren't discussable in the real world, then it probably indicates a failure of sorts, whether educational, institutional, rabbinic etc. These are things people are thirsty to talk about!

What other reasons might there be?

Applauding at windmills

Yitzchok Adlerstein at Cross Currents on the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the document with which the Catholic Church exonerated all Jews of deicide.

Adlerstein writes that "Nostra Aetate....affirmed that G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people is unbroken and eternal. "

It did no such thing. The text is here, see for yourself. The Catholic Church can and will no more agree that there is another Israel--the Jews--then the Jews can agree that the Church is Israel. It could barely bring itself to recognize a sovereign nation called Israel, and it didn't do that for another 30 years. "Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures."

Adlerstein writes "Jews – especially traditional Jews filled with a sense of the permanence of G-d’s Word – wonder how this could be done. How do you change a belief that the faithful assumed century after century? They do not understand that the Church does not see change as impossible. The Catholic Church overflows with tradition; it allows only for very slow change. But it does allow for it. Later generations can and do rethink old issues as society develops."

How is this different from traditional Judaism? "Judaism overflows with tradition; it allows only for very slow change. But it does allow for it. Later generations can and do rethink old issues as society develops."

Who is a hakham?

He who learns from all people.

Bible scholar and popular Documentary Hypothethist Richard Elliott Friedman writes
In my student days it occurred to me that if I would ever be able to read that list of cubits and materials and care, then I would be a scholar. (In Who Wrote the Bible?, pg. 176)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Am I the 'heir' of the great Godol Hador? GH said I could be; there is a discussion about it at DovBear.

The truth is, there are numerous differences between me and GH, and our respective blogs. There is plenty of common ground as well.

This post is just a marker. On the weekend I plan to post more about this, analyzing my own blog and purpose and contrasting it with GH's--and a separate post in tribute of the great Godol Hador blog (yes, I know that's like saying the Godol Hador Godol blog).

Also, stay tuned for some new j-blog info that cannot be disclosed right now.

A good shabbos to all, and remember to spend time on our father Avraham and the rich sidra of the week this shabbos.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Karaism: on origins and what they were about Pt. II

As we saw in part one, the Karaites were not liberal Jews. The essence of their disagreement with the majority of Jews, the so-called Rabbanites (rabbanim) began with the issue of the authenticity of Torah she-be-al peh and the authority of the Talmud.

In a surprising fact, 'Anan ben David, made extensive use of the 13 rules of R. Yishmael. This isn't hypocritical--'Anan thought they were good logic, just not divinely revealed or the property of the tannaim. Later Karaite scholars used some of those principles as well in interpreting Torah and deriving law from it. The most commonly used rule was heqesh.

'Anan was not the true founder of Karaism, as we said. In fact, in an early phase of Karaism there was a backlash against 'Anan. Not him per se, but his views. Perhaps they were cognizant of the expression he coined, "Search thoroughly the Torah"--"and do not rely on my opinion", which was the later gloss on his words, attributed to him and repeated constantly by Karaite scholars. 'Anan offered many severe interpretations, as we shall see. At the same time, he also wrote that a believer who sincerely studied scripture and came to conclusions that opposed the majority must follow their own understanding. Of course, this is a prescription for anarchy, which is why Karaism ultimately did stabilize.

'Anan interpreted lehem 'oni (matza) to mean matza made only from barley rather than wheat or any of the other "five grains" . He introduced the idea of the dark Friday nights--which Karaites quite literally observed until well into the Middle Ages. He forbade sex on shabbat. He advocated a yearly 70 day fast (although no one listened), modeled on Ramadan, ostensibly. He required the bris milah to be performed on the 8th day--of the month. Thus, if a baby was born on the 7th day, he'd have to be circumcized the following day. If the baby was born on the 9th day, he'd wait a month. He introduced ascetic practices in mourning for the Temple, like forbidding wine (perhaps one is beginning to see why many Jews thought that Karaism was overly Islamized; another was the practice of removing shoes in the synagogue, which he based on the story of Moshe by the burning bush). 'Anan also outlawed all meat besides venison.

In any case, his word was not law, and that itself was a pillar of Karaism. Karaite scholars, taking off from where 'Anan left off, greatly expanded the types of forbidden marriages. For example, they believed that the rabbinic permission to marry one's niece opened the possibility of marrying one's own daughter! Keitzad? A man marries his brother's daughter and dies childless. His brother could the be obliged to marry his own daughter (yibbum). It reached a point where such a complicated web of fobidden marriages between relatives were woven that in smaller Karaite communities there was a shortage of marriage material.

Karaites, naturally, reintroduced the practice of observing the moon to declare rosh hodesh. They took literally the idea of displaying the cloth of a virginal bride as in Deut. 22:17 (Karaite hatanim had two best men, whose task it was to collect and display the sheet).

They had tefillah twice daily, modeled after the daily temidim offerings in the Temple, not unlike the Rabbanite Jews. (Again, this isn't hypocrisy--there is a verse (Hosea 14:3) which specifically equates prayer with sacrifice for the times without a Temple.) Following that route, they added a mussaf prayer on occasions which warranted it--and the mussafim were cumulative. So, for example, if Rosh Hashana happened on shabbos they prayed three mussafim, one for rosh hashana (or Yom Teruah, as they only called it), one for rosh hodesh and one for shabbos. The contents of their tefillos were different, as they dropped the shemona esrei, and substituted intially exceprts from Tanakh and later included some piyuttim by Karaite poets.

Later Karaite scholars came up with new interpretations which they tried to persuade each other and make normative. Daniel al-Qumisi, for example, decided that no birds besides pigeons were permissible, as [we] didn't know the precise meaning of the birds listed in the Torah (aside from pigeons, apparently). Many Karaites ate no eggs or bee honey (because of bee particles in it). They did eat milk and meat (but would never seethe a kid in its mother's milk, of course). They retained, at least initially, the terumos and ma'asros (with unique interpretations) due to kohanim and levi'im. And they paid.

Again, it must be stressed that not every rumor cited in a polemical source about them is true. To show the point in reverse, I will cite the great Karaite scholar Ya'akub al-Qirqisani. In his polemical writings against the Rabbanites he asserted that the Jews in Eretz Yisrael and Bavel criticize each other over the one day/ two days of Yom Tov issue by citing Deut. 13:1 against each other. The Israelis say that the Babylonians are adding and the Babylonians say the Israelis are diminishing from the Torah. Of course we know that this is false. It seems that a rabbinic practice of scorn was kiddush, which the Karaites interpreted and exaggerated. Salmon ben Yeruham attacked R. Sa'adya Ga'on's "lightheadedness" because "this inebriate drinks during the very time of prayer." Similarly, polemical material from our camp also stereotyped and misrepresented opinions and misinterpreted divisiveness in the other camp.

For a time many Karaites rejeted medical attention of any kind because of Ex. 15:26 and Chron. 16:12. Although not empowered to enact any of the punishments prescribed in the Torah, they believed and advocated in an academic sense "an eye for an eye", the death penalties etc.

Now it should be apparent that the cacaphony I described is simply impossible to maintain for long. After some centuries Karaism began to stablize and moderate some of its excesses. They readmitted much traditional lore and practices under the influence and guise of a widely accepted Islamic principle of the day called "idjna", which means "common consent" (they called it "ha'ataqah"). They agreed that wherever ALL Jews agreed on an interpretation then it surely must be the original meaning.This was a saner approach and greatly enabled Karaism to begin to flourish. (It should be noted that it bears some similarity to Solomon Schechter's "Catholic Israel".)

Before any gets smug about the strange development of Karaite halakhah and related things, consider this: One, they never claimed to be strict literalists, and, two, this information was uncovered through historical scholarship, which sees similar things in the development of our own traditions, albeit on a different track, third, their view didn't require the kind of perception of stability in practice that our does.

Two final notes on interesting phenomena. It seems that the still-current practice of calling every Yankel, Shmerel and Berel "rabbi" or "reb", in our version, was a reaction among Rabbanite Jews to Karaism. It was a kind of winking dig at the Karaites. Secondly, Karaites often called their own scholars "rabbi", which after all means "my master". 'Anan was called "Rabbenu" by Yehuda Hadassi, for example.

A third installment to follow, including info about later Karaite developments, the Crimea, the issue of Karaite "Jewishness" and so on.

Uninstalling the Torah filter: a manifesto

I saw this very interesting post in a mail list. As the poster is anonymous, I don't think I am doing anything wrong by reproducing it. It reads so true to me and probably many people out there, judging by emails I get. It's almost like the matured yeshiva bochur's manifesto.
The [Chazon Ish's] well known ban on R. Kook's machshava writings (not his halachic writings) was obvious to me. After leaving yeshiva and learning more about the width and breadth of Torah than is shown in yeshiva, I picked up one of R. Kook's sefarim. It was like a child sneaking a peak at something illicit. I felt like I was crossing the line of right and wrong.

His writings are absolutely beautiful, albeit very very difficult due to his writing style. I eventually asked a rav how he understood the ban. He said, would a respectable rav tell you it's ok to read the halachic work of a Reform rabbi, even if it is completely academic and based upon valid poskim and sevaros, but not his hashkafic writings? Of course not. Because if his hashkafos are incorrect it will no doubt affect anything he writes in the halachic realm also. Do you think that the CI believed that R. Kook had improper hashkafos? I said no, of course not. Then what do you think?

I replied that it seems that they just believe that there are issues that even though they are valid Torah ideas and hashkafos and are actually Toras Emess, within the writings of R. kook and that he might discuss that will lead a bachur where they don't want him to go.

He replied, that's what it seems like to me too.

So my question obviously was, "is that what Torah is all about? Withhold Torah because the Torah might lead somewhere that THEY don't want you to go? What happened to learning Torah to find the emess?" So I asked, "what do I do from here?"

"You have the information. Make your choice as you decide to live your life."

I believe that if Torah is such that reading the thoughts of someone that all agree was a great man, but that his thoughts might lead somewhere that (insert sect or rabbi here) doesn't want you to think about, then it's not for me.

But I don't believe that Torah is such. If it is Torah then it is the "inheritance of the Bnei Yisrael". It is all to be learned if it suits the particular nature and neshama of any Jew. Sounds similar to a rabbi saying, "He (R. Avraham b. HaRambam) was allowed to believe that, we're not."

The Archiving of a Godol

Now that the Godol Hador has wandered off into the sunset some people are concerned that the archived material will imminently disappear.

You can, of course, save it to your own computer by clicking the monthly archive links on the bottom right of his page (for example, here is September 2005).

Non techies, to save them just right click anywhere on the page once you've opened up the individual months, then choose "view source" from the menu. A notepad will pop up. Save the notepad as a file named whatever you like with an HTML extention (e.g., godol1.html). Do that to all 14 months.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On David Weiss Halivni

Occasionally Prof. Halivni comes up in the j-blogosphere, particularly with regards to his theory of "chateu Yisrael" (his Talmudic work seems to come up less). It seems like a lot of inquiring, questioning, perplexed people are glad to have his theory. Briefly, and if I understand it correctly, his theory explains how to account for Torah mi-sinai as well as the numerous discrepancies between the traditional, talmudic understanding of the halakhah and the written text. According to him, "Israel sinned" and quite literally forgot the Torah, the true revelation of God, for which they proved unworthy custodians. The great Ezra, whom the rabbis equated in some sense with Moshe, restored as best he possibly could, the Torah to its original glory. Utilizing numerous pieces of evidence scattered in Tanakh about non-observance, and later rabbinic literature about the role of Ezra, tikkunei soferim, the meaning of things like "kimmu ve-kiblu", Prof. Halivni concludes that the Torah we have contains the imprint of human hands, but its also the best possible record of the real deal, Torah mi-sinai.

The trouble is that its a very ad-hoc hypothesis. Ultimately Halivni wants to say that God's Torah said "mammon tahas ayin", ("money for an eye") and not "'ayin tahas 'ayin", ("an eye for an eye"). I don't recall if he words it this way explicitly, but it is the thrust of his argument. That is a big, big leap of imagination.

In my opinion, Prof. Halivini's collecting of the sources is impressive and nicely done. His description of the problems are also laudable. His grand solution, however, is lacking.

(Here is an article by him which sums up his view of "Chate'u Yisrael" and "Revelation Restored".)

IY"H I will post about his Talmudic work at a later date.

Historical evidence & David melekh Yisrael

Interesting discussion at DovBear about sundry topics like the school of Biblical minimalism, Hebrew and King David and evidences for all of the above, as well as what historical evidence itself is.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On Solomon Schechter's Chabad roots

I enjoy discovering delightful archaisms in old books. I think they're fun, and try to remember that if they don't ring true now that doesn't mean that it wasn't true when written. Sometimes there is simply a communication barrier between the ages. For example, in Samuel Johnson's monumental mid-18th century dictionary the entry for "tiger" is "A fierce beast of the leonine kind". "Pygmy" is "one of a nation fabled to be only three spans high. and after long wars to have been destroyed by cranes."

In Norman Bentwich Solomon Schechter: A Biography (New York, 1938) we learn, regarding Schechter's Chabad origin, that "the special sect of the which the Schechter family adhered from the excesses of adoration of the Zaddik."

I don't know if this was true of Chabad Hassidim mid-19th century, or true early-mid-20th or if this was just Bentwich's perception. Interesting.

Not very ProtoPro-Semitic

Jim Davila fisks a blog, calling itself 'Axis of Logic', regarding Semitic languages. From Axis of Logic:
Ancient Hebrew tribes were Aramaic speakers.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Greek names

There is some discussion on the Areivim mailing list about Jewish names. Someone there is blandly taking the maximalist position that, more or less, all names that Jews have taken in antiquity were Jewish names. Naturally, the discussion turned to the name Alexander, which many Jews have been named since antiquity. Jewish lore specifically attributes the kohein gadol Shim'on ha-tzaddik with authorizing (or ordering) the adoption of this name for Jews, after Alexander the Great. That same person writes about this name
It seems that Shimon HaTzadik felt that this warranted calling Jewish boys by his name. Are you on Shimon HaTzadik's level of tzidkus to argue with him?
Antigonus. Hyrcanus. Dosa. Symacchus. Tarfon. Pappus. The list can greatly be expanded.

This is the kind of historical unconsciousness that frustrates me.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Becoming a yeshivish autodidact

Someone at GH wrote "I personally know rabbis who studied at RW yeshivot who are totally comfortable with the modern world and very learned in secular subjects. They did not receive that knowledge in the yeshiva, however."

To this I replied that:

[It's] true. R. Nosson Kamenetzky described himself as an "autodidact in secular knowledge." To whatever extent he is truly educated or not, you aren't going to find that many others with his background who even know what "autodidact" means.

The truth is that outside of Chassidic and extreme RW yeshivish circles it's not considered a great avlah if someone is interested and becomes well read and educated. The trouble with that is that the message that is reinforced among the young while they're in yeshiva is the exact opposite. It may be a case of protesting too much and sincerely only wishing that the youth will spend more time studying the fundamentals of Judaism now, but plenty of people take it very seriously. Some of them even eventually wake up and realize that there are some nuances that they were missing. For some of them its too late. The questions are there, the resentment is there, but they're 30 years old and don't have the ability or time to enlist in college or the knowhow and time to educate themselves.

Someone else remarked that
more than that, in the event, it's often considered a good thing. there's complete dissonance about it.
And this is 100% true!

On the conspiracy to suppress Tanakh in yeshivos

Okay, I got you to look. There is no conspiracy. There is no conspiracy. However--

It is widely believed that modern (small 'm') yeshivos essentially conspire to suppress Tanakh. Why? Because Tanakh can buttress Zionism. Because Tanakh can buttress Christianity (well, a couple of billion people think so). Because Tanakh is at odds with many contemporary yeshiva world norms and values etc. This is one of the constant complaints of, variously, neo-maskilim (and the non-neo ones), Karaites, Christians, Zionists, religious or otherwise and more. The feeling isn't necessarily confined to a critique of the yeshiva. It's also thought of about the general public.

Okay, that's a bit of a caricature. Plenty of people don't go so far as to believe in a conspiracy. But the feeling is widespread that they or we don't know Tanakh, that they or we are uninterested in Tanakh etc.

The truth is that there is enormous ignorance of Tanakh. Ask your average yeshiva bochur (or adult) what the theme of Amos is. Your average response will likely be somewhere between glazed eyes and something about teshuva or maybe avoda zara or mashiach. This is an anecdotal assertion, but come on, you know it's true.

From the perspective of the yeshiva this type of charge is really annoying and unfair! For one thing, they know its untrue. In yeshivos there are often parshas ha-shevua sedorim (even small ones). The bochurim are expected, as benei Torah, to do shenayim miqra ve-ehad targum (although no one is checking). There are more than a few genuine Tanakhic experts in the yeshiva world, and I'm sure most people you ask know people who really do know Tanakh. In yeshivas they themselves criticize the ignorance of Tanakh. The attitudes of people like R. Ya'akov Kamenetzky towards Tanakh is widely known and repeated. A true talmid hakham worth his salt will be able to quote not only all over Chazal, but all over Tanakh as well. The popularity of parsha sheets from people like R. Frand. The weekly nabhi shiurim by people like R. Reisman.

In short, it incenses the yeshiva and the haredim (sure, why not, even though this is the first I mentioned them) to be charged with not studying Tanakh, not knowing Tanakh, suppressing Tanakh. They don't think they're doing that at all, and there is all the evidence to the contrary! The know and believe it isn't true. And yet, it is also true that it really is de-emphasized, even if inadvertantly and even it unconsciously.

There are a variety of reasons for this, some historical, some practical. Firstly, it should be recognized that this isn't a modern issue at all. This goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. In some measure the de-emphasis of Tanakh happened with the rise of an emphasis in the Talmud. We are, after all, rabbinic or Talmudic Jews. It's true! Secondly, its possible that the over-emphasis on Tanakh by midieval antagonists like the Karaites reinforced this. Certainly we know that the rise of the Jewish haskalah and its emphasis on diqduq and Tanakh did in fact inspire a reactionary opposition to these disciplines. There is the matter of time management. Although it seems axiomatic that Tanakh is at the top of the Jewish intellectual food pyramid, there is only so much time and so much one can learn. There is no way for average people to become a Tanakh expert while becoming, for example, a Gemara expert. Although I understand that in some yeshivas Tanakh study is actually openly ridiculed in others it is just assumed that the good bochur will learn Tanakh somehow (and I'm not even going to get into "higayon").

In short, there is no conspiracy. But on some level there is some truth to the feeling that many people have.

Book recommendation: story of a ba'al teshuva

There is a very interesting account of a ba'al teshuva's experience called Journey to Tradition: The Odyssey of a Born-Again Jew by Michael Graubart Levin.

From Amazon:

Five years ago [this review written in 1986], when Levin was an Amherst student, he literally stumbled into Ohr Samayach, a yeshiva in Jerusalem that teaches young Jewish men and women the orthodox way of Judaism. He loved orthodoxy's spirited, family-oriented approach and happily shouldered all the customs, rituals, and restrictions. But only for five yearsand then loneliness did him in. Since he no longer belonged to his old crowd, and since, as he claims, "born orthodox" Jews never fully accepted him, he retreated. This well-written, very readable book is important in several respects: it lends credence to those unique yeshivot in Israel that many people hear about but few actually experience; it explains in simple, often funny language what religious Jews do and why; and it reminds the orthodox community to be extra sensitive to the needs of newly religious young men and women.
If you read carefully in the review, you'll notice that Levin "retreated" after a few years of being frum, for reasons stated in the book, after some years of keeping shabbos, kashruth, wearing a yarmulke even at work etc. When I read this book a few years ago I didn't realize that and was pleasantly enjoying it and really surprised when he mentioned that he is no longer Orthodox. The book is a very sympathetic account without any hard feelings, it seems. It might be dated by its age. But it's a really interesting read. Suffice it to say, he neither joined nor left Orthodoxy for deeply intellectual or philosophical reasons. I suspect that's widely the case.

On Ben Asher's Codex of Aleppo

Interesting Jerusalem Post article from 2001 about the Aleppo Codex/ keter 'aram sova.

A history of, plus mention of an interesting incident in 1994:

In 1994, with the codex in hand and books of the Prophets intact, Yitzchaki, with the help of a scribe, printed a new addition of the Prophets. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Hoffman, an American-born haredi residing in Mea She'arim, was outraged. He claims that changing even one letter of the canonized text is heresy. Hoffman galvanized haredi leaders to condemn Yitzchaki and he plastered broadsides throughout Jerusalem denouncing the publication and its editor.

Yitzchaki claims that although Hoffman lives in Mea She'arim he does not speak ex cathedra and, he asserts, Hoffman had misled rabbinic leaders about the importance of the codex. "When I explain to these rabbis the context in which the codex was created, they back down and even support my work," says Yitzchaki.

Hoffman disparagingly refers to the Aleppo Codex as a "new archaeological find" and insists that Jews must adhere to the 13 principles of faith as dictated by Maimonides. He is referring specifically to the eighth principle, commonly understood to mean that every letter and dot, no matter how small, is of Divine origin. Indeed, in Orthodox synagogues, if a reader of the Torah makes the most minor of mistakes (which is easy to do since Torah scrolls contain no vowels), the congregants shout the correct version at him until he reads it correctly.

The irony is that Maimonides himself gave currency to the codex. It is, in fact, the Bible of today that differs from Maimonides' edition a millennium ago.

Although there exist various biblical codices containing textual variations, Orthodox Jews are typically exposed to only one unified text. The reason is simple: with the invention of movable type in the 15th century, printed Bibles became uniform.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


The trouble with us ex-yeshiva guy bloggers is this: we've looked behind the curtains and seen what the 'Positive-Historical' Jews of the 19th century did. What this means, practically speaking, is that what we've taken to be axiomatic about nearly everything, what halakhah is, what Torah she-be-al peh is, Jewish history, how to learn the Talmud, heck, even how to pronounce words!--is simply not something that we can continue to subscribe to. Some J-bloggers have given up, others are excited about the prospects of forging new understandings, and others are just perplexed. We need a new Moreh Nevuchei Ha-zeman, don't we? ;)

Roughly speaking, we're at the exact same spot that people like Zechariah Frankel were at a hundred a fifty years ago. That's more than a little unnerving.

Eventually, 'positive-historical' turned into Conservative/ Masorti Judaism. They claimed to be the natural heirs of traditional Judaism, while the Orthodox Jews are the intransigents who dug their heels into the dirt and stuffed their fingers in their ears. En hachi nami. The trouble from our perspective is that fifty years ago the Conservative movement did exactly what the Orthodox always suspected they would do and initiated a permission to be mechalel shabbos, probably mi-de-oraisa. You know, the driving thing. Earlier, they boldly broke halakha by permitting 'family seating', something that is often admitted has no halakhic basis for. in fact, there is an interesting article from 1987 called 'Minhag America' (a deliberately provocative title, meant to invoke the first American Reform siddur) in the journal Judaism (available online) about mixed seating. The point is admitted, that there is no real halakhic justification for it, however it is and was widely done and was therefore "minhag America", and minhag oker halakhah blah blah blah. So what does this mean? It means that protestations to the contrary, the Positive-Historicals turned their backs on tradition and halakhah. If it seemed predictable, it was. To many Orthodox Jews another nail was ordination of women which even Halivni couldn't justify halakhically and another were the essays in the Etz Hayyim chumash. Finally, it also seems to be the case that halakhah observance is confined chiefly to the Conservative rabbinate. Hey, its great to be exicted and positive about Jewish tradition and halakhah. But what about everyone else? A fraction of a percent of the Jewish people who actually learn Gemara and are meticulous about halakhah is not going to preserve Jewish practice and belief.

So for many of us, it would be the height of folly to simply repeat the mistakes of generations ago. But where does that leave the Orthodox Jews who looked behind the curtain? Well, some are fortunate and have a like-minded chevra. There are many Orthodox academics, both here and especially in Israel, who are very 'positive-historical' and perfectly frum. It's nice to have a chevra. But what if you don't?

By the way, don't bother suggesting "get a rebbe". I have, or should I say had, a rebbe. :( I have a rebbe who I love but what good is it if he can't address my historical knowledge or himself holds what I must say are misconceptions? I can smile and split myself into two and learn the traditional way, and I do--in fact I do that with a daily chavrusa. Same probably goes for others.

On a side note, I am reminded of a ma'aseh about Franz Rozenzweig Hirsch Grätz. It seems that he was visiting in England and given maftir one shabbos and he read the haftarah with emendations he had made in the text (!). He was afterwards seen wrapping his hankerchief around his neck before he left shul. This story, no doubt, has appeal to some of us. But how depressing too!

Karaism: on origins and what they were about Pt. I

Ever since I first heard of Karaites, probably at age 12 or so, I was fascinated with them. Why this is can be summed up with three words: The Twilight Zone. Karaism seemed to be a Twilight Zone version of Judaism, far more so than orthodox Islam (which I see as kind of a photo negative version) in two ways:

  1. The kind of religious schism that I, as an Orthodox Jew, was acquainted with was one that seemed motivated by the desire to abrogate or follow less halakhah, to be less frum, to be more lenient and convenient.As we shall see, this isn't the case with Karaism. My examples ranged from Christians to Sabbateans to Reform and Conservatives, all of whom seemed to make religious life less of a burden on time and/ or more "fun".
  2. In form. From a purely aesthetic perspective, Karaism really resembled Judaism as I know it. Karaism happened to have risen at the end of the Talmudic period, during the ascent of Islam. Insofar as the Jewish 'edot mizrahim managed to be less touched by modernity, and for longer, and preserved a very 'Oriental' character in their minhagim, religious expressions and aesthetic forms which seem to go back to that period and that type of environment. The Karaites seemed very "Sephardic" and used plenty of original Talmudic terminology--not because they were Talmudic, but because their culture had its origin in the same culture that our own religious culture was greatly shaped.
And of course, The Twilight Zone if very popular. Many people are intrigued by the Twilight Zone or the X-Files. I am intrigued by the Twilight Zone version of my life. From my conversations with other people I gather that the Sabbatean movement is roughly the same for them, which explains the widespread appeal of Scholem's "Sabbetai Zevi" and the kiddy version, "The Imposter" by "Avner Gold".

My apologies in advance to online Karaites who may be reading this, they are of course free to regard us as their own Twilight Zone version of themselves.

Where did Karaism come from? There are three basic opinions. One is the traditional Jewish view, one is what historical scholarship seems to show and one is that of the Karaites themselves (it should be noted that there is some overlap between the scholarly views and the traditional as well as overlap between the scholarly and the view of the Karaites).

Briefly, the most popular version is the traditional Jewish view. According to this view it was founded virtually ex nihilo from one 'Anan ben David. According to the story, 'Anan, was the nephew of the Baylonian resh galuta (exilarch). When the post became vacant, 'Anan felt that he was entitled to it. However, his brother was appointed in his stead and the Muslim khalif confirmed the appointment. Incensed, 'Anan declared himself resh galuta and was promptly rewarded for this rebellion by being thrown into prison. There he met Abu Hanifa, also in prison, who was a distinguished Muslim jurist, the founder of the Islamic Hanafi school of sharia, in fact. Abu Hanifa counseled him as follows: declare yourself and your circle of followers an entirely separate type of Judaism. If the khalif would recognize that then 'Anan would have a good claim to not being subject to the authority of the establishment and a valid reason for seceeding. Which 'Anan proceeded to do and, his claim given validity, was released and he proceeded to create a new Judaism or "write a new Talmud" in the words of R. Sharira Gaon (referring to his Sefer ha-mitzvot). Another version of this story has 'Anan claiming that Eliyahu Ha-navi visited him and gave him a new revelation (and not Abu Hanifa).

The trouble with this story is that it comes from only one source, about two centuries after the fact, and from a Rabbanite (that's us ;) ) source. In defense of the story, the Karaites themselves seem never to have addressed this story, which is curious due to the level of polemics going back and forth.

In any case, Karaite and Rabbanite literature make distinctions between benei miqra or karaim and 'Ananites, which would seem to indicate that he didn't actually found the movement. While it didn't exist as a movement per se until after his time, and while Karaites did attribute much signifigance to him, it seems likely that he was viewed as an important early defector from the rabbinic establishment. 'Anan came from the distinguished family of the exilarchs. He was not, no matter what any polemics say otherwise, an am ha'aretz (in fact, the traditional view has him as a willful changer of Judaism, not an ignoramus). From this view, he may have been seen by Karaites as a trophy to display. (I plan to discuss his views and rabbinic characterizations of them, including the claim that all of his stuff actually come from the Talmud in another post)

What seems to have been the case is that all sorts of intellectual malcontents existed at the time. Many of them saw the ridiculous sophistries that Muslim scholars were going through at the time and the extreme lengths to establish the 'true traditions of the prophet'. It seemed to them that if a nonsensical oral Islamic tradition could be both made up in such a short time, a period of only a century or two, as well as such completely mutually contradictory views that this cast doubt on the Talmudic view of Torah and halakhah. These people weren't organized in any way, but began to crystalize as a movement after the period of 'Anan. Perhaps many of them were actual or spiritual descendents of earlier sects that never truly disappeared.

The Karaites themselves, naturally, maintained that they were nothing new at all, that there were always bene miqra, that is Jews who remained faithful to Tanakh--in contrasdiction to the majority who they felt were deviating from the Torah and Nakh. Some of them found support in the existence of different groups in antiquity, such as the Zedukim (while later Karaites tended to deny that they were modern Sadduccees, since they felt that the Sadduccees were themselves in error as regards to tehiyas ha-metim and other issues). For their part, Rabbanites (or rabbanim, as the Karaites called them, which is to say "rabbinic Jews", e.g., us) also identified them with the Sadduccees. Not that they considered them actual Sadduccees, but it provided a frame of reference. In Jewish literature in subsequent centuries there is a constant confusion between actual Karaite beliefs and doctrines and that of the Sadduccees, as articulated in the Mishna and Gemara. An interesting thing is that many Karaites came to believe that they were descended (physically or spirituallu) from an ancient Jewish group called the Tzadikkim. They were well aware of the Zedukim, and most definitely did not mean the latter.

Finally, I should mention that a great deal of material about and also by Karaites is stereotyped and polemical. While its worth studying those views, they aren't necessarily accurate. An example: many Jews believe that the Karaites wore teffilin between their eyes and hand tzitzis on their walls. They don't wear tefillin and do wear tzitzis, on their garments. Someone once adamantly refused to believe this telling me that the Mishna Berura repeats this claim (anyone know where?). In other words, its true because the MB repeated a vintage polemical claim, it doesn't matter what they say they do or what they actually do!

More to follow... (edit: much of this overview comes from Salo Baron's Social & Religious History and Nemoy's Karaite Anthology, among other sundry sources)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Ba'al Tshuvas Anonymous

New blog on the block: Ba'al Tshuvas Anonymous.

Hopefully we can all learn something from it.

edit: it should, but probably doesn't, go without saying that I am not thrilled with the other title "off the derech". But I do contend with some of the apparent excesses in the kiruv world from a failure to articulate an intelligent Orthodoxy that holds up to scrutiny. Much good is done, apparently, but also much harm. Hopefully this blog will result in some constructive criticism of the ways that Orthodoxy has tried to attract outsiders and result in improvement--and in any case, one person's honest thoughts about his true experiences are what they are.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

All the Jews who ever lived

People who know how to calculate these kinds of things have determined that there have been about 80 billion people that have lived. Whatever the methodology and whether they're counting Neanderthal estimates or not, the number is a good illustration.

Anyone who knows these things, including population stats, want to take a stab at guessing how many Jews have lived (even with the many complicated questions about defining Jewishness)? Mathematicians?

Blog suggestions

I find myself going to the same blogs over and over again. Anything really good out there that not a lot of people don't know about?

Biblical Hebrew fun facts

Some interesting info about Lashon ha-qodesh/ Biblical Hebrew I came across:
  • Tanakh uses about 8,000 different Hebrew words
  • 2,000 of them appear only once
  • the estimated available Hebrew vocabulary for our Biblical ancestors is 30-40,000 words
  • Mishnaic Hebrew uses words that were likely used in the Biblical period, but aren't in Tanakh. The word "mash-chezet", a "grinding stone", appears in the Mishna (source anyone?) and is found in the very ancient Tel-Amarna letters which were written in Akkadian.

An earlier post that touched on this.

On the Main Line, now with tags:


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