Thursday, April 26, 2007

Just ban the man already!

Interesting interview with Dr. Marc B. Shapiro at the Jewish Press.


Q: What will your next book be about?

A: My next book is called Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters...And then, following that, I have a contract to do a book that will be called Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History. It’s about how uncomfortable ideas, which used to be acceptable, have basically have been moved out of the tradition through censorship.

But what really might do it is a paper to come out before that:

Q: In one of your recent works you mention that you are writing an article discussing many laws found in the Shulchan Aruch that were not or are not kept by Jews. Can you elaborate?

A: It’s just another misconception people have that the Shulchan Aruch is always the last word in halacha, when there’s plenty of things we do which are not in accordance with it.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, when you lend money to someone, you need to do it in front of witnesses. Despite that ruling, however, nowadays if you lend your friend 50 dollars, you don’t do it in front of witnesses. Already the acharonim want to know why we don’t follow the Shulchan Aruch.

There are loads of examples. Some halachos in the Shulchan Aruch didn’t become accepted because other poskim argued or there was a tradition predating the Shulchan Aruch; others, because they were too difficult to keep, and then later poskim came and found justifications.

I think this sounds more explosive than it is. Everyone who knows halacha knows that there’s plenty of stuff we don’t do according to the Shulchan Aruch; this is not controversial.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Klinghoffer sets aim at Gerschom Scholem, enjoins apologists to counter atheists, claims Mishnaic authority.

David Klinghoffer calls for apologetics in defense of religion when it is blasphemed, in the grand old tradition, he writes, of CS Lewis or Maimonides. link

Although he is chiefly concerned with attacks on religion in general (in popular books that just do not interest me, by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and, now, Christopher Hitchens) he also takes the time to jab at academic study of religion, carefully placing Gershom Scholem in his crosshairs (for finding the Zohar to be a medieval and not tannaitic work; in Klinghoffer's dramatic telling, "a cynical medieval hoax masquerading as the more ancient work it purports to be,"--as if that is what Gerschom Scholem concluded!) .

In any event, Klinghoffer cites the Mishna Avos 2:14, ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס:

In fact, the Mishnah makes it every Jew’s obligation to be an effective apologist, an obligation that most of us ignore nowadays: “Know how to answer an unbeliever” (Pirke Avot 2:14) — with the word for unbeliever being apikorus, a follower of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher.

Epicurus is known as a primary exponent of materialism, the belief that material reality is all there is in the universe. And materialism happens to be one of the most serious challenges that religion is up against today.

Now, we know--assume--that אפיקורוס comes from the Greek for a follower of Epicurus. And Klinghoffer, who eschews academic study of religion assumes, perhaps, that his explanation that Epicurus was the primary exponent of materialism is the Mishna's intention. Although in later Jewish history apikorus אפיקורוס becomes a synonym for unbeliever, Klinghoffer shows how erudite he is by telling us what it is the Mishna is attacking: materialism.

I am reasonably certain he did not find this explanation in the Ra"v mi-Bertinoro or the Tosfos Yom Tov, or perhaps in Rashi someplace. So how does he know who and what Epicurus is or what Epicurianism is?

Okay, that isn't really serious. I accept that he is not a Torah-Onlyist, nor does he purport to be.

However, how did the rabbis understand apikorus אפיקורוס? Did they truly mean an Epicurean?

Let's look at the tape.

Firstly, the Gemara explains ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס in BT Sanhedrin 38b:

ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס אמר ר' יוחנן ל"ש אלא אפיקורוס גוי אבל אפיקורוס ישראל כ"ש דפקר טפי

R. Johanan commented: They taught this only with respect to a Gentile Epikoros; with a Jewish Epikoros, it would only make his heresy more pronounced.

IOW the very rabbinic sources which enjoin us to make an apologia against Epicureanism enjoin us not to do so with a Jewish Epikoros. So much for Hitchens and Harris.

And what is an apikorus according to the rabbis? The Mishna Sanhedrin 11:1 says that an אפיקורוס has no share in the World to Come.

The Gemara (BT Sanhedrin 99b) will offer opinions, but before it does, the term itself is used as one possible meaning of a verse that is used in connection with another person mentioned in the Mishna who has no share of the World to Come, האומר אין תורה מן השמים him who maintains that the Torah is not from Heaven. But there is another interpretation of the verse: ד"א כי דבר ה' בזה זה אפיקורוס, "Because he hath despised the word of the Lord," Numbers 15:31, refers to an epikoros. But we still have no clue what an apikorus is (gotta vary the spellings for Google archiving ;) ).

Finally we get to the explanation of the Mishna San 11:1

רבי ורבי חנינא אמרי תרוייהו זה המבזה ת"ח

Rab and R. Hanina both taught that this means one who insults a scholar.

and also

רבי יוחנן ור' יהושע בן לוי אמרי זה המבזה חבירו בפני ת"ח

R. Johanan and R. Joshua b. Levi maintained that it is one who insults his neighbour in the presence of a scholar.

Further clarification of the term is given

אמר רב יוסף כגון הני דאמרי מאי אהנו לן רבנן לדידהו קרו לדידהו תנו

R. Joseph said: E.g., Those who give, 'Of what use are the Rabbis to us? For their own benefit they read [the Scripture], and for their own benefit they study [post-Scriptural learning, particularly the Mishnah]'.

An anecdote

לוי בר שמואל ורב הונא בר חייא הוו קא מתקני מטפחות ספרי דבי רב יהודה כי מטו מגילת אסתר אמרי הא לא בעי מטפחת אמר להו כי האי גוונא נמי מיחזי כי אפקירותא

Levi b. Samuel and R. Huna b. Hiyya were repairing the mantles of the Scrolls of R. Judah's college. On coming to the Scroll of Esther, they remarked, 'O, this Scroll of Esther does not require a mantle.' Thereupon he reproved them, 'This too savours of אפקירותא.

and finally,

רב נחמן אמר זה הקורא רבו בשמו

R. Nahman said: [An epikoros is] one who calls his teacher by name.

In short, whatever an apikorus is, there is also what it was. I don't think Klinghoffer is one who will explain a Mishna in a way unlike the Gemara, and there is no internal evidence in the Mishna to define an apikorus. Therefore, whatever דע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס means, I am not at all sure it means to defend against materialists. Perhaps it means to defend against rabbi bashing? Sure. But to take up the cudgel against Dawkins? That may be a practical consideration for believers, but the Mishna doesn't say so!

Interesting historical note for all you On the Main Line chroniclers: when I first begun my blog I had spent a couple of years reading other blogs, and several months commenting on them. Realizing I wanted to say some things, I jotted down some thoughts which I planned to make posts out of when I would begin blogging. Having just finished Klinghoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, in which he informs the world that Jews don't like Jesus, but that without the Jews crucifying Jesus, America and Europe would be Muslim today. Well, that's basically the gist of his book. I wrote a long exhasperated fisking of that book. Never posted, but just so you know.

Le-moshol: Why did the dinosaurs die?

Larry Lennhoff presents a beautiful fable:

"When the time came for Hashem to give the Torah, he went to all the species of dinosaurs. Hashem approached Tyrannosaurus Rex and asked "Will you accept my torah?" T. Rex asked "What does it say?" Hashem said "Of all the animals that walk on the land, these you may eat..." T. Rex said "I am the mightiest carnivore to ever walk on the land. Anything and everything is my prey. I will not accept the Torah."

Then Hashem approached the Apatosaurus. "Will you accept my Torah?" "What does it say?" "The fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually, it may not be extinguished." "Oh no", the Aptosaurus replied. "Fire is wild and uncontrolled, and when the land burns we must flee before it or die. I couldn't keep a fire burning. I won't accept the Torah."

Hashem went to the Velociraptor, from there to all the other species of dinosaurs. None would accept the Torah.

Then a small Hadrocodium wui, the earliest mammal spoke up. "I will accept the Torah, Hashem". Hashem said "But you are too small and feeble - you cannot fulfill the mitzvot. But because your desire to serve me exceeds your ability, I will make sure your descendants have the ability you desire. And the dinosaurs shall learn that without my Torah they have no purpose."

This could have come from the Hertz Chumash, והמשכיל ידום.

Monday, April 23, 2007

When a rebbe slaps you for impudent questions, don't get mad--open a museum.

Many people are aware of the Living Torah Museum in Boro Park. On the other hand, many are not.

A couple of years ago Hershel Shanks profiled this museum in his Biblical Archaeology Review (30:06, Nov/ Dec 2004):

I have often lamented that, although there are thousands of museums in the United States devoted to every conceivable topic, there is not a single museum here devoted to Biblical archaeology.

I have recently been challenged on this assertion—and from a most unlikely source. I am wrong, I am told. There is a Biblical archaeology museum above a little shtibl in Boro Park, led by a chasidic rabbi.

The article describes it as the brainchild of its founder, Shaul Deutsch. How did he get interested in Biblical archaeology? Why did he create this museum (which has some impressive artifacts)?

When Rabbi Deutsch was eight years old...Shaul and his teacher were studying the [Mishna] tractate on damages, Baba Kama. The particular passage concerned what would happen if a person left a kad in a public place: What if someone stumbled over it and broke it: Was the man who stumbled over it and broke it liable for damages? What if someone slipped on the water released by the kad and injured himself or was hurt by the broken pieces of the kad? Was the owner of the kad liable to the injured person for his injuries? In English translations, kad is variously translated pitcher, jug or pot. Shaul asked his teacher what a kad looked like. The teacher slapped him twice across the face. His teacher thought he was “acting up,” being a smart aleck, questioning the text. According to traditional study, everything is there in the text—no need to ask a question like this.

As Rabbi Deutsch now puts it, he was never one to take “no” for an answer. So he kept asking. Gradually, he looked at books. And he found answers—in archaeology. And he asked other questions. And he found more answers. And he became fascinated with archaeology. He was not becoming an apikoros (a heretic); he simply wanted to see the realia (although he would not use that word) that the holy texts were describing.

Read the rest of the BAR article.

He says he has had no opposition from the observant, devout community in which he lives. Yeshiva students (a yeshiva is a traditional rabbinic academy) are flocking to the museum, he says. He recalls for them a passage or an episode from the holy texts and then points to the item that is being referred to in the text. That is what he wants to do, he says: to teach Torah (in its broadest sense, all religious learning) through archaeology. Even the heads of leading yeshivot have come to see and admire his museum, he says.

A dissenting view by Freelance Kiruv Maniac (surprised?).

The museum is located at 1601 41st Street in Brooklyn. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Closed Friday afternoon and Saturday until 1 hour after sundown and on Jewish holidays. Telephone: 718–686-8174. Website:

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Is pardes--peshat, remez, derush, sod--a Biblical-era acronym?

No, of course not.

But read about it at English Hebraica.

'Pardes,' from a 'Talmud Babylonicum' introduction: complete with a gaping anachronism.

In the October 1867 issue of the British periodical the Quarterly Review appeared an article called "Talmud Babylonicum," which meant to inform readers "What is the Talmud?" The article noted (claimed?) that "Turn where we may in the realms of modern learning, we seem to be haunted by it," and "that strange production of which the name, imperceptibly almost, is beginning to take its place among the household words of Europe." In short, this article was meant for the curious.

I uploaded the whole thing for download.

Here is an interesting excerpt:

Nothing new, of course, but it is noteworthy that at this relatively late date (1867) Jewish learning was still sufficiently shrouded in mystery that a simple anachronism is committed: pardes as an acronym for peshat, remez, derush and sod is a medieval mnemonic and thus does not apply to anything related to the Talmud, much less to the period of Chronicles (given that the term midrash first appears in that book), when this article assumes the term came into use!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What's peshat with the Peshitta, Part III: Jewish? Christian?

Having twice posted about the פשיטתא, Peshitta ('What's peshat with the Peshitta I, II) I now return for round three.

As previously mentioned, an interesting (and to my mind) attractive theory of the origins of this Syriac translation of the Bible ascribes is to Jewish origin; perhaps it was even prepared for the Syriac-speaking Jewish converts of the royal house of Adiabene (חדיב) in the 1st century CE.

In any case, J. Perles, in 1859, first advanced the notion of a Jewish origins for the Peshitta in his doctoral dissertation Meletemata Peschitthoniana.

He noted many quirks which, he felt, could only be explained by a Jewish origin. Here are several examples:

1) Gen. 8:4. Ararat, אררט, given as Qardu, קרדו, in Targum Onqelos. So too in the Peshitta.

2) Gen. 30:28. Noqbhoh, נקבה, translated as 'appoint' in JPS, 'name' in Kaplan's Living Torah, and so forth, is rendered פריש, which literally means 'to separate' or 'set aside.' This is just what the Peshitta translates it as. Evidently this usage comports with a Jewish dialect of Aramaic.

So much for lone words. Now comes the matter of translation which is looser, but richer in interpretation.

3) ii Chr. 33:7. 'he set the graven image of the idol,' (JPS). The Peshitta takes this further and writes לצלמא דארבעה אפין (I didn't actually do my homework yet, and I need to look up the exact wording and spelling; this is from memory), 'a statue of four faces.' This is found in BT Sanhederin 103b (look it up!), commenting on this verse:

[Scripture writes, And he set] the graven image,' but it is also stated, [And the groves and the] graven images, [which he had set up].R. Johanan said: At first he made it with one face, but subsequently he made it with four faces. (Soncino)

4) Ezra 9:4. The verse says "at the evening offering," (JPS). The Peshitta foreshadows BT Berakhos 26a, in that it renders this as 'at the ninth hour,' i.e., the precise rabbinical time of the 'afternoon.'

Seems Jewish, doesn't it? However, another school of thought (begun by Gesenius) held that it did not have Christian origins. In response to these things this school modified its position a bit and allowed that the translator(s) might have been Jewish, but could well have been a Jewish Christian.

They noted that the Peshitta includes christological translations, such as in Is. 7:14, giving `almah as betulta (virgin) instead of tselaymeta, as used elsewhere for `almah. The response to this, naturally, is that it might have been a later interpolation. Of course this may be, but there obviously is no proof that it is.

Secondly, Is. 53:8 (the suffering servant part) translates lamo as to him, instead of to them, which is theoretically the Christian and not Jewish interpretation of this chapter. This is, in my opinion, a particularly slender reed.

Finally, an interesting piece of evidence for the Christian side was advanced by L. Hirzel in 1825: that the list of unclean birds in Lev. 11 sometimes transliterates from the Hebrew, rather than translates, and in some cases skips terms entirely. The interpretation given to this fact was that this sort of negligence could only have come from a Christian translator who was a) less fluent in the Hebrew original than would be expected of a Jew, and b) such matters as the dietary laws of the Old Testament would be of great concern to a Jew, but of considerably less to a Christian, therefore this sort of haphazard translation must have been the work of a Christian.

The reply to this, of course, is perhaps the translator was merely at a loss for the correct Syriac word to use.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Rashi tells us how Amen is pronounced according to Old Ashkenazic Hebrew

It's well known that Ashkenazim distinguish between the qomatz and patah vowels (אָ and אַ), while the Sepharadim and Mizrahim don't, pronouncing both as a patah (with the notable exception of the Yemenite Jews who do distinguish between them, pronouncing the qomatz much like the Ashkenazim).

For those who are not following, here is a graphic illustration: Ashkenazim would pronounce the word 'luck' and 'lock' as we are accustome, but Sepharadim would pronounce them both as 'lock,' were these two words Hebrew.

These two distinct pronunciations is paralleled in the two ways that Syriac is spoken by Christian Aramaic-speakers; a point noticed by Samuel David Luzzatto, which he took as evidence in favor of the correctness (in the sense of conforming to Tiberian Hebrew) of the Ashkenazic qomatz, at a time when Ashkenazic Hebrew was viewed with disfavor (early 19th century, but that view never seems to have properly faded). The difference: there are those Syriac Christians who say 'Abun di-bishmayo' and those who say 'Abun di-bishmayah,' in The Lord's Prayer (both mean 'Our Father who art in Heaven').

An interesting fact in the history of Ashkenazic Hebrew is that, apparently, Ashkenazim (Franco-German Jews) did not always distinguish between these two vowels, like their Spanish, North African and Middle Eastern counterparts. This is attested in early Ashkenazic manuscripts in which confusion between these two vowel's graphic symbols (ָ and ַ) are found in great abundance, exactly as in Sepharadic manuscripts. Although I don't have a handy example of a genuine Ashkenazic manuscript, a picture is worth a thousand words, and I reproduce an image which adorned my post How a 12th century English gentile vocalized Hebrew:

(click to enlarge; the heh in the last word on the second line should have a qomatz, but it has a patah, reflecting the vocalizer's pronunciation.)

But manuscripts are only part of the evidence.

A juicy piece of evidence[1] for this can also be found in Rashi's (1040-1105) comment on TB Berakhos (or should I say Berakhoth, in homage to early Ashkenazis?) 47A. There the Gemara discusses amens, and says ...אין עונין לא אמן חטופה , "the Amen uttered in response should be neither hurried..." To this Rashi gives the interpretation of what an hurried Amen is: שקורין את האלף בחתף ולא בפתח ואמר אמן והוא שצריך לומר אמן, "He reads the 'aleph with a sheva (אְמֵן, [short first sylabble] E'mein) and not with a patah (Ahmein)" (presumably in Rashi's text the two אמןs were vocalized, but in the standard printed editions Rashi is never pointed).

Thus, we see that Rashi said a word written אָמֵן as if it were written אַמֵן, just like the Sepharadim. Rashi said ahmein, not ohmein. It should be noted that in Artscroll's Schottenstein Talmud the explanatory notes say that Rashi terms the qomatz godol a patah and gives several references; but it does not explain why. Patah itself means that the mouth is to be opened wide; that is how the ah sound results.

Rabbi Dr HJ Zimmels, in his classic Ashkenazim and Sephardim: Their Relations, Differences, and Problems As Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa discusses their respective pronunciations and adduces other proofs, among them the fact that Rabbenu Asher (13th century), who moved from Ashkenaz to Sepharad, becoming one of the foremost leaders in Spain, discusses the differences between the Hebrew scripts used by the respective communities but doesn't seem to notice any difference in pronunciation at all.

In any event, following Rashi, over the last hundreds of years Ashkenazic Jews pronounced, and still pronounce, amen as something sort of like 'ohmein.' But evidently at this early period in Ashkenazic history the qomatz was not yet pronounced distinctly, and pronounced ah, like the Sepharadim.

The question is when and why and how did this change? Did this come about due to a happy accident, normal sound shifting? That seems unlikely if these two vowels were pronounced identically. How could normal changes come about conforming correctly to the graphic differences in the written texts? Rather it seems like a deliberate effort to conform to the Tiberian pronunciation. Could this have really happened? I don't think there is any evidence that it did. But perhaps gradually it was noticed that Hebrew was spoken in a 'mistaken' fashion, meaning that it did not conform with the graphic symbols, the signs devised by the Tiberian Masoretes. Like other, periodic efforts to improve spoken Hebrew, perhaps somehow this change occurred. Maybe it first occurred among exacting Torah readers. Maybe some pedantic melamdim (children's teachers) taught it to their 3 and 4 year old charges. In any case, it seems irrefutable that at some point in the past 900 years (and perhaps in the past 700 or even more recently) Ashkenazim begun pronouncing the qomatz properly, in the sense that it is distinct from the patah, and in the sense that Tiberian Hebrew is proper Hebrew.

However one lingering doubt remains in my mind: it is generally believed that Ashkenazic Jewry had roots in Eretz Yisrael at a later date than Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewry, whose roots seem to be in Bavel. This is reflected in various Ashkenazic customs and liturgies which stem or seem to stem from an Eretz Yisrael origin. Historically and politically it makes some sense as well, since it is generally presumed that the core Ashkenazic community emigrated from Italy and other areas of Europe which were Christian and thus this Jewry was under the influence of Eretz Yisrael, also under Christian rule, rather than Bavel, then under Islamic rule. If so, it would seem natural that Ashkenazic Hebrew would be more greatly influence by Tiberian Hebrew at the outset. צריך עיון.

( By the way, I recently had my two year Bloggiversary.)

[1] Credit where credit is due. I came across this reference in a Mail-Jewish post by Mechy Frankel.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Baltimore rabbis take a clear, emulation-worthy first step

on sex abuse in their community.

Not that I know all the players, but it seems like the major ones are squarely represented.

On the one hand it's a local matter so it's none of my business. On the other hand--well, you know the other hand.

Yasher koah.

Via Presence.

Yiyshar kohakhah, Artscroll.

Perusing The Early Acharonim by R. Hersh Goldwurm z'l I learned that Dinim de Sehita y Bedica was written by R. Menasseh Ben Israel.

Electric menorah in the Beis Hamikdosh?

"I hold it to be clear and simple that, if electrical lighting had been extant in Temple times, most certainly it would have been employed in the Temple candelabrum. for it is inconceivable that we should illuminate our private homes with that great, wonderful electric light, which is verily after a heavenly model - and yet illuminate God's holy palace with olive-oil, which even the poorest of the poor despise in our time. It is therefore obvious that we shall illuminate the future Temple, may it be built speedily in our days, with electrical lights. Amen"

(R. Yosef Messas; Ner Mitzvah, 1939. Trans. Zvi Zohar: Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, p.76)

Via Pierre Sogol, who likes the "seemingly "modernist-romantic" sentiment towards electrical light."

Thursday, April 12, 2007


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