Thursday, September 28, 2006

New blog to bookmark

Longtime insightful j-blogosphere commenter Larry Lenhoff has begin his own blog, Eclectic Jewish Thoughts and it is--you guessed it--insightful!

Begin with The Baby and the Bath Water.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Bible cantillation news to Albert Schweitzer

(I shudder to think what sort of googling will turn up a post with this title!)

I know, why don't I just rename the blog English Hebraism already. ;)

I found this interesting letter by theologian, musician and philosopher Albert Schweitzer.

King Solomon Entertains a Bible Critic

Monday, September 25, 2006

Today's shophar blasts projected onto the recent past

Than Book has an interesting post tracing the Ashkenazic customs of the number of shophar blasts; from suggestions of 40, 60 or 100 in the 12th century to later suggestions like 60 (the Gra) to the actual practice of eastern and western European Ashkenazim in the early 19th century; 42 and 40 respectively. Than writes that "by the end of the 19th century, most poskim were pushing for 100 to become universal," and thus about a hundred years ago it began to be correct that 100 was "almost universal," as the Artscroll mahzor says it is today.

What motivated the search? A friend's dispute with a daughter's teacher over how many shophar blasts are traditional for Ashkenazim.

Here is an interesting example of how even what was the norm 100 years ago can easily be forgotten and supplanted by something new; then projected back onto the past.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Dear friends (aka Gentle Reader[s]),

I wish you all a Shana Tova. Remember that שנה, shana, year, comes from the root שנה which implies not just a year but also two-fold, repetition, change and even teaching. May the coming year bring all of you double blessings, repetition of the good things from the past, positive change and may you be open to learn new things and teach new things to others.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell (not literally) ;)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Is Philo פלוני?

Is Philo of Alexandria mentioned in rabbinic literature?

Midrash Tannaim 6.7, Sifre Deut. 34 (in MSS.)

ודברת בם עשם עקר ואל תעשם טפלה שלא יהא משאך ומתנך אלא בהם שלא תערב בהם דברים אחרים כפלוני שמא תאמר למדתי חכמת ישראל אלך אלמד חכמת האומות תל ללכת בהם (ויקרא י"ח ד') ולא ליפטר מתוכן

"And thou shalt speak of them: Make them thy main concern, and not ancillary to other things; so that thy discussions will be only about them, and thou shalt not mix other things with them, like Peloni*. Perhaps thou maysest say, I have studied the wisdom of Israel, I will now go and study the wisdom of the nations, therefore doth Scripture say, To go in them (Lev. 18:4), and not to turn away from them."

In JBL 53:2 R. Louis Finkelstein asked a very good question: who is meant here by פלוני, P

Some have suggested it referred to Aher, but Finkelstein rejects this because
'Aher' is itself a euphemism. Where do we find him called Peloni? Secondly, we do not actually find a decription of him as a Greek philosopher in the Talmud (despite popular conceptions).

We find him trying to get Jewish children to stop learning Torah (B
. Hagigah 15b), reporting Jews who tried to minimize their hillul shabbat which was required by Roman decree (Jer. Hagigah ch. II). These depictions portray him as one who collaborated with the Romans. The story of him entering the pardes doesn't impy his engagement with Greek philosophy, because R. Akiva and others did the same. The Gemara does say that he carried סיפרי מינין, but מין refers to Jewish heretics, not the Greek philosophers.

Then who is intended by P

The answer might be that כפלוני, like P
eloni, is a mistake that should have read כפילוני or כפילון, "like Philo." The passage becomes even more clear if this is so, because it is not discussing an apostate--Philo was certainly no such thing. If so, then this midrash disapproves of this person because he was a Torah u-Maddanik, not mamash a heretic! :)

R. Finkelstein tentatively suggests a couple of other references to Philo in rabbinic literature, of which he is less certain, but this one is cleaner.

In rabbinic literature Peloni is used for "so-and-so." The origin is from Ruth 4:1, where פלני אלמני, meaning "such a one" ie, so-and-so is used.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Autograph copy of Mishna Berura

As a kind of complement to the post directly below:

Jeffrey Saks at Lamed posts about a supposedly autograph copy of a volume of Mishna Berura with the word מוגה written inside the cover in the Chafetz Chaim's own hand. (I say supposedly since the provenance is unknown, according to Saks).
I showed it to a rare Judaica dealer, who pointed out that in the upper right hand corner of the inside cover is the Hebrew word "mugah" (checked, inspected). He told me that the Chofetz Chaim himself (and his sons-in-law) inspected each volume as it came back form the printers to make sure there were no mistakes in the binding, etc. That notation, "mugah", is none other than the Chofetz Chaim's own handwriting (according to the book dealer).
The photo of the inside cover is here.


Hating a hagiography

I came across this rather unflattering review from 1940 of Saint and Sage the English language version of the biography of the Chafetz Chaim by Moshe Yoshor. As you can see, it basically says about this biography what many people say about many modern rabbinic biographies.

Artscroll reprinted a version of this book, and can be bought here. I was a little suprised that Artscroll writes that it was "first published in Yiddish in 1937 and considerably enhanced in a 1946 edition, the biography was published in Hebrew in 1959 with much additional material" without ever mentioning this English edition.

Incidentally, I read this book (the 1937 English edition) years ago and quite liked it myself.

(click on photos to enlarge for easier reading)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Yated's scrapbook

This article, which Wolf posts about, proceeds from the premise that half of whatever is currently accepted in science is in reality false and will later be shown to be so to discredit science in toto (we are definitely not in Kansas anymore). The contrast, naturally, is between things like the "four categories of damagers — arba ovos nezikin (Bava Kama 2a)," which will not be revised in ten years.

The article lists several examples to illustrate this point.

  1. the recent demotion of Pluto
  2. a marine report from December 1994
  3. an undated Biblical Archaeology Review story (its muttar to read that?) about the Qumran community
  4. a New York Times article about from August about poisonous fish
  5. a declaration from American Association of Pediatrics from about two years ago
I can't help but imagine someone from the Yated family scouring the newspapers and magazines for such treasured finds. Perhaps he pastes them into a scrapbook.

Ad kan
the leytzanus. In fairness, the same article makes the point that "If someone is a doctor, or an astronomer, or a professional oceanographer, or an archaeologist, then of course he or she must learn the conventional wisdom of their field." It just wants "we," meaning haredim, to have no part in those fields.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Areivim, a "Kosher pyramid scheme"

"It’s simple yet elegant idea: 10,000 haredi households combine into a cluster. When a cluster member dies, the others give five dollars a piece to each of the orphans..."


Monday, September 11, 2006

How could Yoseph have been named Yoseph? A theophoric* problem.

Shemot 6:2-3

ב וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: 'I am the LORD;

ג וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב--בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.

Aren't the names יוסף (Yoseph) and יוכבד (Yocheved) theophoric, that is, aren't they shortened forms of יהוסף (Yehoseph) and יהוכבד (Yehocheved)? Although I am a little more hesitant to say that with certainty about the second name, I think its fairly certain that Yoseph is Yehoseph.

This phenomenon is not that dissimilar to how יהונתן (Yehonatan) and יהוחנן (Yehochanan) become יונתן (Yonatan) and יוחנן (Yochanan) respectively, especially in pronunciation--a later example is from European Jewish culture, in which יהודה (Yehuda) became יודה (Yuda) or even יהודא?

If "by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them," then how were Yoseph, if not Yocheved, named with the י-ו element in their name?

*Theophoric names are personal names which contain elements of a deity's name within it. There are many Hebrew and Arabic names with theophoric elements. An old post about these names.

Interesting comment

Wait a second. Cassuto, in his Torat Hate'udot, says, and I quote from a thirty some year old memory, that "the consistency and brilliance demonstrated in the Torah understandably would lead one to believe,if not for the impossibility, that the Torah is min hashamayim." R' Yakov Weinberg gave me his copy to show me that a mummar knows he's wrong deep inside. Is there more than one scholarly Cassuto?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

R. Hirsch on R. David Zevi Hoffman's Mar Samuel

From Rabbiner Esriel Hildesheimer Briefe by Mordechai Eliav:

This translation comes from Scholarship and Faith: David Hoffman and His Relationship to "Wissenschaft des Judentums" by David Ellenson and Richard Jacobs.

This is from a letter written by R. Esriel Hildesheimer's son regarding the matter of how R. Samson Rafael Hirsch reacted to R. David Zevi Hoffman's book Mar Samuel.

Mar Samuel was a juedische Wissenschaft book; what we would today call an academic study of the third century 'amorah Shmuel. Although it must be stressed that R. Hirsch maintained cordial relations with R. Hoffman, who had taught in R. Hirsch's day school, he was a strident opponent of juedische Wissenschaft. As you can see, he believed it was heresy; it was heresy to write a biography of a Talmudic sage, to systematize his views, to correlate them with his environment and personality.

Thus, R. Hirsch's view. The corrolary, of course, is that R. David Zevi Hoffman felt otherwise.

Thursday, September 07, 2006



I have decided to initiate what I hope might turn into something fun and productive:


Let me explain. Gmail offers an inbox with a whopping 2 gb of storage space. I have a lof of sundry articles in .pdf and .doc format about all sorts of Jewish topics: Talmud, Jewish history, seforim, Judaic studies, articles etc. I know a lot of people have similar collections which they've accumulated.

If we pool our resources together this email address can serve as a great database of great articles and essays, similar to web sites like or

So I have set up this account The password will be sent to anyone who is interested. You have only to You have only to email me to ask for the password. I will add interesting articles as soon as I can. The only condition I ask of anyone who is interested in joining is that they too add something. Be a contributor and not just a consumer. Add anything. There is no religious litmus test, no "That's not interesting" litmus test. It need only be Jewish themed and of interest to you.

How to add files to this email address? Well, I think the best way is to use the firefox browser and download the Gspace extension. Once downloaded, you can access Gspace under the tools menu and use it as a regular FTP client. You will need to know the user name (jewisharticles, obviously) and the password, which I will email upon request. Of course you can also send files via normal email.

One more thing: so that we all know what is going on, I ask that we adopt some sort of uniform system for labeling files. For example, suppose I wished to add the following (which will actually be the first file I add): the critical review of the Jastrow dictionary by R. Salomon Alter Halpern which appread in Hamoreh (which I received from Menachem Butler originally). It is presently titled "Jastrow_Pamphlet_by_Salomon_Alter_Halpern" but I might want to note that the name of the article is "Some Facts About Marcus Jastrow's Dictionary." So I renamed the file "Some_Facts_About_Marcus_Jastrows_Aramaic_English
_Dictionary_Salomon_Alter_Halpern_1970." This gives more info and will be better once many files are added and it searching by keyword becomes the only viable option. Thus, anyone who searched for "Aramaic" or "dictionary" will be able to download this file.

This is only the beginning, I intend to add more. Just make sure to add relevent keywords and perhaps the title to your file's name.

And finally, this will be an honor system project since obviously a malicious person can do all sorts of things. I will trust and hope that a circle of people comitted to spreading knowledge and sharing will develop.


A couple of months ago I wondered if it is appropriate for a blogger to repost some old posts. I reasoned (imagined?) that "how a post is received depends a lot on mazal* as well as content." Given that I believe that "the best part of blogging is what goes on in the comments" it might not be a bad idea to sometimes repost something that I thought was good that either may have gotten overlooked or it would be great to talk about all over again. In the comments to that post people said its not a bad idea; they would have no problem with it.

So, I am doing that right now. I am reposting Remember, originally posted at Maven Yavin ten months (i.e., a blogging lifetime) ago.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's classic big-little book ZAKHOR is subtitled 'Jewish History and Jewish Memory'; and that is what it is: an exploration of the fact that Jewish history and Jewish collective memory diverges and converges. The book begins with a reminder that to remember is commanded in the Torah: "altogether the verb zakhar appears one hundred and sixty-nine times" in Tanakh.

And yet as many of us are fully aware, the two--Jewish memory and Jewish history--do not always converge. This is today typified by the phenomenon of the 'Artscrollization' of east European Jewish history. While many of us who've caught the history bug deplore it, the simple truth is that the only way they can and do get away with it is because of the failure of collective Jewish memory. If everyone knew that the portrait of recent and distant Jewish history was being distorted then we would all reply, as in the 'Kuzari proof', "Hey, I don't remember that. My grandfather never told me that. You're making it up." The facts are that this doesn't occur. Only those of us who've chased down the history know it. In fact, I don't think there is much of a conscious effort to rewrite history. I think that in many cases, probably, the revisionists are wholly unaware that they're doing anything but recording history--they're recording memory.

This is only a recent example. Whether Jewish memory forgot nearly two centuries of the Bayit Sheni period or all but forgot an entire Diaspora Jewish culture, the Hellenic Jewish world typified by Philo of Alexandria, this concept of the disconnect between memory and history is very old--and is NOT a Jewish phenomenon in the least bit. It is a human phenomenon. (As an aside, the culture that was Jewish Hellenism is preserved within the tradition only in tantalizing hints, like the references to the Great Synagogue of Alexandria or the curious and notoriously ambiguous attitudes towards the Greek language and the Septuagint in the Talmud--these only became clear, or more clear, when the existence of that culture was essentially rediscovered in modern times. Imagine if in 2000 years Judaism in America was forgotten almost entirely--no Lakewood, Yeshiva University, Schottenstein Edition or Groucho Marx.)

A perfect example is the Jewish view of how the Talmud was written or edited or published or whatever you want to call it. The fact is, Jewish memory did not really preserve this information. To begin with, contrary to popular belief, the Talmud doesn't say (“Rav Ashi ve-Ravina sof hora'ah” is not the information that is missing). The little we do know comes primarily from the famous Iggeret R. Sharira Gaon, the 10th century letter, in which Sharira Gaon answered a query about the Talmud's origin. Were it not for the curiosity of Jews in Kairuan what the 10th century ge'onic view of this question would not be known to us. It is from R. Sherira that we learn of the existence of the mysterious Saboraim, the rabbis who, depending on your point of view, put the finishing touches on the Talmud or did much more than that. (More than one or two rabbis mentioned by name in the Talmud were Saboraim; the opening Gemara Kiddushin was Saboraic according to R. Sherira. Other parts were identified as Saboraic by classic Talmud commentators.)

The trouble is that there are two rescensions or versions of R. Sherira's letter! One Spanish and one French. In the French version the Mishna and Talmud were not written until after the crucial eras in question (e.g., the Mishna was composed about 200 CE, but wasn't written until the Talmud too was written centuries later--for that matter, according to this version of the letter, the Talmud was composed but not written until after the Talmudic period.) In the Spanish version, they were written at the same time as they were composed. These two opinions in turn lead to multiple possibilities as to how this great book, the Talmud, came to be. So we just don't know. But how can we not know? Answer: you can't ask a kashya on a ma'aseh.** These 'details' were forgotten, and attempted reconstructions by later authories like the Rambam (or critical Talmudic scholars) are not the result of Jewish memory regarding the Talmud's origin.

Many of us have been to a pesach seder in which someone offered an explanation of the story of the tannaim who have to be told that its time to recite keriat shema by their students. The explanation is that they were shut into a room without a window, because that seder was during an era of Roman persecution. This vort*** is an example of a modern attempt to recover history. Suffice it to say, the story says nothing about Roman persecution or if the room had windows. But even at traditional sedorim the modern urge to anchor the story into history is there. I assure you that a thousand years ago no one suggested Roman persecution as an element in this story (or the Lag Ba-'omer one).

Yerushalmi writes that "only in the modern era do we really find, for the first time, a Jewish historiography divorced from Jewish collective memory, and, in certain crucial respects, thoroughly at odds with it." (emphasis mine)

Yerushalmi gets it exactly right when he says that "modern Jewish historiography cannot address itself to those Jews who have never "fallen." The potential dialogue of the historian is with those who, consciously or unwittingly, have tasted the forbidden fruit and can never be the same."

I am among those who have ‘fallen,’ who have the history bug. I bet many of us are too. It makes for some haunting discomfort.

*mazal = luck
**lit. you can't ask questions on stories i.e., as imporable as it is, this is what happened; we just don't know this information even if we imagine that we should know it.
***vort literally means word in Yiddish, but idiomatically can mean a brief thought on a Torah topic, a devar Torah, and not necessarily a profound one.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

English Hebraica

is back!

Hebrew influencing Nathan Bailey's 18th century English dictionary

English is a very dynamic language. It expands at a rate no other language can (or wants to) match. By the 17th century literally thousands of words were being added yearly and people were very conscious of this fact. The language was in a state of ferment, England's power was on the rise and the French and Italians had already established language committees to keep their respective tongues pure (this, 300 years before there was a nation called Italy).

In England it was believed by many that the English tongue had reached a stage of sufficient maturation and magnificence that it now needed to be protected, for its fate would be degradation without some way of fixing it in place. While we now know that this is essentially impossible to do with a dynamic language, at that time, the scientific method was ascending and the necessity of defining and fixing all sorts of things was agreed. Exactly how long was a yard? What exactly is the color red? All those questions and more were being considered and the move was in the direction of precision. So although one might think Jonathan Swift stuffy for objecting to the contraction "couldn't" (*gasp*), few among us would think the idea of a uniform orthography (spelling) is stuffy. In fact, most people can't really understand how there could not have been one. Bear in mind also that at the time the flux and ferment in English was far more extensive, and more importantly, visible than it is for us.

This would mean, at the very least, the assembly of a lexicon or word list. Several modest attempts were made in this direction, such as Henry Cockeram's The English Dictionarie: or, an Interpreter of hard English Words (1623). By the eighteenth century English dictionaries were being produced with many tens of thousands of words. Naturally the most celebrated achievement in that century was Samuel Johnson's, but the march towards better dictionaries continued unabated before and since.

To backtrack before Johnson, one such dictionary of English was compiled by Nathan Bailey, whose Dictionarium Britannicum Or, A Compleat Etymological English Dictionary Being Also An Interpeter of Hard and Technical Words (1721) was a monumental work which served as the bedrock for Johnson's.

In it there are some interesting supposed Hebrew etymologies for English words. Some of them are fanciful and some are, of course, derived from Hebrew. Here are some:


The root here, אבך, is meant in the sense of וַיִּתְאַבְּכוּ in Isa. 9:17 (to roll up, " they roll upward in thick clouds of smoke.") OED knows nothing about it.


In modern Hebrew, אויר avir, certainly sounds a lot like air! Is אויר derived from ו?אור


No comment.

Okay, one comment: I've seen some speculation that ערב is the same root as עבר with some natural letter transposition. In other words, think of Arabs as Herbews. Maybe.


This word seemed interesting in its own right. Before the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) no serious attempt to catlogue every word in the English language was made. The task was too herculean to contemplate (see Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything for the ingenious solution the OED used to achieve the feat it did; which even then did not literally catalogue every word, and besides took almost 70 years to do it) . Bailey's dictionary, as others, were generally one-man attempts to catalogue as much as one could. Since they were not exhaustive, the words chosen do reveal some window into the worldview of the lexicographer as well as in some sense into the culture of the time. Words like this are included, as well as many, many other biblical allusions, Hebrew weights, ancient Near Eastern gods etc.


This word is pretty archaic, but according to the OED an athanor is "a digesting furnace used by the alchemists[...]" and made its way into English through Arabic (hence the "a-" prefix) but a tannur תנור should be pretty recognizable to anyone who learns Talmud, or a six year old who learns Mishna (e.g, Akhnai's Oven (תנורו של עכנאי).


Fun archaic word. I doubt that "cock-loft" is from גג. Call me a cynic.


This one is a bit predictable, and interesting also because as far as I can tell a ד should be able to switch to a צ (shouldn't it?). But, alas, the English word "earth" didn't form fully from a Hebrew womb, but comes from a common Old German word. Biblical influences on English are very plausible. Biblical influences on ancient Teutons are less so. Edenics aren't my cup of ch'a.


This one was chiefly interesting to me because I learned that the word comes from the coin it cost to read the newspaper. It would be as if many newspapers were called dimes or whatever they originally cost. The Daily Dime sounds nice.


I think this etymology is a Bailey original. OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary basically have no clue where this one comes from, except that it shows up around 1300. Hebraism in England had already begun by that date, so I leave open the window about a millimeter on this one. If no one knows, then who knows?


One of the many words which are English but are actually Hebrew, thanks to the Bible. Of interest is that its meaning reflects some of the debates in biblical scholarship of the day.


Outsider perception is always interesting.


This reflects the debate which raged for a couple of centuries on the origin and authority of the nekkudot (see here and here). Bailey seems to favor the view that they were originated by Ezra (and in so doing indicates his more traditionalist bent), but is gracious enough to mention the other view.


I have no idea if there is any relationship between the Greek and Semitic סתר, but I suppose its possible. After all, those two regions were only a sea away, and the two language groups did influence each other.


This one is great!

To clarify, Nisan is the first month of the Jewish calendar and correlates, roughly, with April. However, the Jewish New Year is in the seventh month, Tishrei (don't ask! ;) ). Presumably Bailey knew that Nisan is the first month and knew of Rosh Hashanah in the seventh month. As there is no entry for Tishrei, he must have figured that Nisan is the seventh month in which the New Year occurs.


Fanciful, but fun.


This one is really something. I think there are parallels for such etymologies in rabbinic literature, although I can't offer an example at the moment.


Sign of the times. Deism and free-thinking enjoyed a particularly good reputation in the 18th century, thus projecting themselves onto the ancient Sadducees.


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