Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ishim ve-shittos blog on R. Ya'akov Kamenetzky

Here is a fine series of posts by a very promising blogger, Wolf, of the אישים ושיטות blog:

"The Truth of Yaakov - towards an intellectual portrait of R' Yaakov Kaminetsky Zt"l"

I Introduction
II History
III Etymology
IV Linguistics
V Minhagim

The Vatican Menorah myth

Some contend that the gold menorah from the Second Temple is hidden in the basement of the Vatican.

But according to Steven Fine, this is just an urban myth.1


While no one knows how the myth actually arose, Fine says that it "is not a part of traditional Jewish folklore." Rather, it is a "distinctly American phenomenon."


As for the menorah myth, he’s heard at least 10 to 15 variations of the story, which, he said, have been extremely popular since the 1970s. "I’m fascinated by these stories," he said, so he started following them in an effort to examine the historical material "through the lens of myth. I wanted to see where the path would lead," he said, calling his efforts "an interaction between the culture we live in now and people who died some 1,500 years ago."


Fine said the menorah myth, which apparently started in the United States some 30 to 40 years ago, "is not an easy story to refute. You can’t refute something when you don’t know who started it." link

"The Hebrew collection in the British Museum forms one of the greatest centres of Jewish thought. It is only surpassed by the treasures which are contained in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The fame of these magnificent collections has spread far and wide. It has penetrated into the remotest countries, and even the Bachurim (alumni) of some obscure place in Poland, who otherwise neither care nor know anything about British civilisation, have a dim notion of the nature of these mines of Jewish learning.

All sorts of legends circulate amongst them about the "millions" of books which belong to the "Queen of England." They speak mysteriously of an autograph copy of the Book of Proverbs, presented to the Queen of Sheba on the occasion of her visit to Jerusalem, and brought by the English troops as a trophy from their visit to Abyssinia, which is still ruled by the descendants of that famous lady. They also talk of a copy of the Talmud of Jerusalem which once belonged to Titus, afterwards to a Pope, was presented by the latter to a Russian Czar, and taken away from him by the English in the Crimean war; of a manuscript of the book Light is Sown [ie, Or Zaruah] which is so large that no shelf can hold it, and which therefore hangs on iron chains. How they long to have a glance at these precious things! Would not a man get wiser only by looking at the autograph of the wisest of men ?

Solomon Schechter, "The Hebrew Collection of the British Museum," in Studies in Judaism First Series, pg. 252.

1 No kidding.

Does the JTS still accept credits from the Lakewood Yeshiva?

[R. Saul Lieberman] saw to it that JTS was listed as an accredited institution accepting credits from the Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, New Jersey (pursuant to the request of the Immigration and Naturalization Service); the dean of that institution, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, was an older colleague of Lieberman's from Slobodka.360

360 Rabbi M. Levine, letter to Lieberman, Jan. 25, 1954.

Elijah J. Schochet and Solomon Spiro, Saul Lieberman, the Man and His Work, Pt. II, Character, pg. 185

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When a Hebrew word sounds like a naughty word in another language

On holidays and the first day of every ראש חודש new month we say the יַעֲלֶה וְיָבא prayer. There aren't too many English speaking kids who don't eventually notice that the second syllable in the word וּפָקְדֵנוּ (="remember us") like a very raunchy English word. I figured kids of my generation were the first to discover this amusing and childish fact, but my grandfather ע"ה, born nearly a century ago, assured me that even 90 years ago children knew it. In fact, being that last Monday was Rosh Hodesh one presumes that some children noticed it then for the very first time, as must happen every month; some must have muffled their giggle, others couldn't stop.

Of course we are not children and we understand that syllables and even compounds (=words) repeat in different languages. However, the native speaker certainly hears the same sound!

I am told that there is a Teshuvos Rashbatz 1 which explains an oddity in the pointing of a word in Isaiah 40:5, saying that when we read the verse כִּי פִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר "for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it" in the Haphtarah for Parashat Ve-Va-ethanan, it should be read carefully as written ("ki pi Hashem diber) but should not be modified to read כִּי פִי ("ki fi Hashem diber"), which would seem to be linguistically correct. The reason he gives is that to read it as written out loud sounds blasphemous.

The masoretic Bible commentary Minhat Shai supplies the reason, if it wasn't obvious, commenting on Deut 8:3, כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָה יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם "but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live":

כל בגד כפת דסמיך ליהוא רפי בר מן המבטלים והרבה מהן שהן דגש להוגן קריה כזה כי לא יתכן לומר פי ברפה קודם לשם כי לשון גנאי הוא בלשון צרפת וחלילה לשם יתברך ע"כ מצאתי: ושמעתי שבלשון צרפת פי ר"ל אין ואפס ובכל הספרים הפ"א רפה כדינה ואין לנו לחוש ללשון צרפת שאין מבטלין דרכי לשון הקדש מפני שאר לשונות ומצאנו עוד במיכה א' כי פי ה' צבאות דבר שהוא רפי

All bgdkpt letters that precede God's name are rafeh [ie, they lack a dagesh and are pronounced softly] except one can't say "fi" before the name, because it is a swear in French, and God forbid one says "Fi" followed by God's name [and therefore this peh should be pointed/ pronounced hard, as "pi"]. That's a view I've seen.

The expression of contempt it is talking about is "Fi." In the codices the peh here is rafeh according to the law and we do not worry about French, since we don't abolish the rules of Hebrew [which require the /p/ to soften to an /f/ before a long vowel] because of other languages.

There you have it. By pronouncing Hebrew correctly, when saying "the mouth of the Lord" it sounds like "Fi, the Lord." Some thought the solution is to say "Pi, the Lord," which is incorrect Hebrew but doesn't sound blasphemous. Minhat Shai asserts that this consideration is invalid.

However, in the case of Isaiah 40:5 a quirk in the pointing allows the reader to avoid saying "Fi, the Lord."

1 Haven't been able to find it, although I theoretically have access to this.

Monday, December 17, 2007

An excellent emendation of a Talmud text by R. Saul Lieberman

It must be very satisfying for a textual critic to see a conjectural emendation justified by a manuscript, especially an excellent manuscript.

Here is an interesting example of such.

The Talmud Yerushalmi Kiddushin 1:1 refers to ר' יוחנן דצפרין, Rabbi Yohanan of Sepphoris.

Here is the passage, with translation1:

הרי למדנו גוים אין להן קידושין מהו שיהא להם גירושין ר' יודה בן פזי ור' חנין בשם ר' חונה רובה דציפורין או שאין להן גירושין או ששניהן מגרשין זה את זה ר' יוחנן דצפרין ר' אחא ר' חיננא בשם ר' שמואל בר נחמן (מלאכי ב) כי שנא שלח וגו' עד את ה' אלהי ישראל בישראל נתתי גירושין לא נתתי גירושין באומות העולם

Lo, we have learned that gentiles are not subject to the laws of consecrating a woman as betrothed [through money]. What about their being subject to the laws of divorce?

R. Judah b. Pazzi and R. Hanin in the name of R. Huna the Great of Sepphoris: "Either they [gentiles] are not subject to the law of divorce at all, or [unlike Israelite practice] each issues a writ of divorce to the other."

R. Yohanan of Sepphoris, R. Aha, R. Hinena in the name of R. Samuel bar Nahman: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel' (Mal. 2:16).

"Among Israelites I have framed the law of divorce, and I have not given the law of divorce to the nations of the world."

Something didn't add up to certain scholars. Rabbi Yohanan is not otherwise identified with Sepphoris, rather he is known for living in Caesarea, קצרין. Since there is a known Amora of Sepphoris, sometimes called ר' חנינה דציפורין, in this passage called by the diminutive חנין, Hanin, Wilhelm Bacher emended יוחנן דצפרין to read חנן דצפרין, "Hanan of Sepphoris," חנן or חנין both being a diminutive form of חנינה that is found.

However, R. Saul Lieberman had another idea. He noticed that the word "of Sepphoris," דצפרין is spelled here defective, that is missing the י between the צ and the פ. This does not occur in other places where Sepphoris, ציפורין is mentioned. So he thought that this might be a copyist error. Recalling Genesis Rabbah 18:62 he thought that instead of ר' יוחנן דצפרין the text should read: ר' יוחנן אמר דיופרין, and should be joined to the passage from before.

Instead of it reading:

"[unlike Israelite practice] each issues a writ of divorce to the other."

[new paragraph] R. Yohanan of Sepphoris...

It should read:

[unlike Israelite practice] each issues a writ of divorce to the other; R. Yohanan said [a gentile woman gives] a double payment.3

What had happened? The copyist had before him a text where the י and ו were joined together (=יו) and it appeared to him as a צ. The phrase ר' יוחנן אמר דצפרין did not make sense to that scribe, so he deleted the אמר and copied it as it appeared, leaving the sensible but highly suspect ר' יוחנן דצפרין.

This emendation was proposed in R. Lieberman's תיקוני ירושלמי in Tarbiz 2:2 (1931). It turned out that ר' יוחנן אמר דיופרין was the reading in the 13th century MS Leiden, Scaliger 3; the only complete Yerushalmi manuscript.

See Ha-Moreh by Eliezer Shimshon Rosenthal, PAAJR, 31 (1963) pg. 34.

1 Qiddushin: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation by Jacob Neusner.
2 אמר רבי יוחנן אשתו מגרשתו ונותנת לו דופורון. "R. Johanan said: His wife can divorce him and she gives him a double dowry." (Trans. by Maurice Simon, on the basis of Rashi.)
3 In other words, by Jewish law only the husband can divorce the wife, and he must give her an alimony payment. However either the husband or wife can divorce the other if they are gentiles, and the one that initiates the divorce pays the other.

A Samaritan parallel to a famous saying in Pirkei Avot

This Samaritan prayer for שבת (attributed to Joshua ben Nun) appears in A.E. Cowley's The Samaritan Liturgy, the Common Prayers (Volume 1) (1909).

It contains a most interesting line, which does not take a whole lot of Aramaic knowledge to understand if you've heard its famous cognate in rabbinic literature:

לפם די עבדתה הו אגרה
In proportion to the action is the reward.1

Mishnah Avot 5:26:

בן הא הא אומר לפום צערא אגרא
Ben Hé-Hé said: According to the effort is the reward.2

The Samaritan saying in this prayer is found elsewhere in Samaritan literature, specifically in מימר מרקה which is a sort of commentary on part of the Torah by a noted Samaritan scholar of the 4th century called Marqah. 3

In that book we find the following:

וכן אמר בן בן עדן לפם די עבדתה הוא אגרה
Thus said the son of Ben Eden: "In proportion..."

We have an interesting parallel, virtually the same saying, the one from rabbinical literature attributed to an otherwise unknown בן הא הא and the Samaritan one to a בן בן עדן.

It is merely an interesting factoid that this saying is in Aramaic, because generally the sayings in Avot are in Hebrew. The exception is sayings by Hillel, which are often in Aramaic. Hillel's origin was in Babylon, so it would seem appropriate that the sayings attributed to him are in Aramaic, which was spoken by Jews in Babylon.

As it happens, the commentary on Avot the אבות דרבי נתן attributes this saying not to to Ben Hé-Hé but to Hillel, with an accompanying story illustrating where he heard it from:

הוא היה אומר...ולכולהון לפום צערא אגרא: מעשה בהלל הזקן שהיה מהלך בדרך ופגע בני אדם שמביאין חטין. אמר להם סאה בכמה. אמרו בשני דינרין. ופגע באחרים אמר להם סאה בכמה. אמרו לו בשלשה דינרין. אמר להם והלא ראשונים אמרו בשנים. אמרו לו בבלאה טפשאה אי אתה יודע שלפום צערא אגרא. אמר להם שוטים וריקים על שאני אומר לכם אתם מחזירין לי כך. מה עשה להם הלל הזקן החזירן למוטב

He used to say:...According to the painstaking, the reward.
Once Hillel the Elder was walking along the road and met men carrying wheat. "At how much a se'ah?" he asked them.
"Two denar," they replied.
Then he met others; he asked them: "At how much a se'ah?"
"Three denar," they said.
"But the former said two!" he protested.
"Stupid Babylonian!" they retorted, "knowest thou not that 'according to the painstaking is the reward'!"
"Wretched fools!" he answered, "is this the way you retort to my question?"
What did Hillel the Elder do with them? He brought them to a correct understanding.4

What do we see from all this? "[T]he saying attributed to the mysterious Ben He-he was a popular adage current in Palestine, and various sages were credited with it."5

We have a saying attributed to (1) Ben Hé-Hé, to (2) Ben Ben Eden and (3) to Hillel, who reported it in the name of wheat merchants.

1 Translation by John F. MacDonald in his Memar Marqah: The Teaching of Marqah, pg. 145.
2 Translation by Philip Birnbaum in his Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem.
3 "According to the chronicle Eltholideh...Marqah lived in the time of Babba Rabba. An angel appeared at his birth, and bade his father call the child's name Moses. As, however, this name was too sacred for common use, he was called Marqah, which has the same numerical value. He was of priestly family, though not High Priest." Some Remarks on Samaritan Literature and Religion by Arthur Cowley, JQR 8:4 (Jul. 1896), pg. 566.
4 This translation is by Judah Goldin in his The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, pg. 70.
5 "Greek and Latin Proverbs in Rabbinic Literature" by R. Saul Lieberman in Greek in Jewish Palestine, pg. 70.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I am not the first blogger to post a link to rising star Menachem Butler's new Michtavim Blog (link). But I figured it should get all the exposure it could, and that includes this post.

Menachem will, of course, continue to run Seforim alongside its founder Dan Rabinowitz, and the archive of his American Jewish History blog is still available.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"God"or "G-d"? A responsum

Here is an interesting responsum by Reform Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof on the question of writing the word "God" with a dash ("G-d")1.

Reform responsa, you say?

From the abstract of Joan Susan Friedman's dissertation "Solomon B. Freehof, the 'reform responsa', and the shaping of American Reform Judaism":

Between the world wars, the influx of East Europeans into the Reform rabbinate and the decline of historicism led the CCAR to view ritual in a more positive light and to reopen the question of standards of Reform observance. Solomon Freehof was chosen to address this issue. Though ideologically a classical Reformer, he was the logical choice due to his expertise in halakha acquired as Jacob Lauterbach's protégé, his wartime service as chairman of the Jewish military chaplaincy's Responsa Committee, and his personal stature in the movement. In the 1940's Freehof developed a taxonomy of Reform Jewish practice whereby only personal status and liturgical matters were to be decided authoritatively by the CCAR, while in all other areas of practice, popular creativity or “minhag” was determinative, subject to loose rabbinic oversight guided by the “ethical spirit” of the halakha.

See also this post.

1 The responsum is undated, but it is from a collection from 1963 called "Recent Reform Responsa."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The O. Henry-like death of R. Judah Ha-levi

I came across something which I think is fascinating.

First the background. The great Jewish philosopher and poet of the Middle Ages, Spanish-born Yehudah Ha-levi (1075-1141) was a great lover of Zion. It was he who wrote the moving words that stirred the hearts of countless for a thousand years: "My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west..." --

...ליבי במזרח ואנכי בסוף המערב

Eventually, according to legend (and documentary evidence from the Cairo Geniza) he did travel to the land of his heart and dreams, the land of Israel. In a legend, first recorded in Gedalyah ibn Yahya's 16th century historical chronicle שלשלת הקבלה, a tragedy occurred after arriving in the Holy Land:

וקבלתי מזקן אחד שבהגיעו אל שערי ירושלים קרע את בגדיו והלך בקרסוליו על הארץ לקיים מה שנאמר כי רצו עבדיך את אבניה ואת עפרה יחוננו והיה אומר הקינה שהוא חבר האומרת ציון הלא תשאלי וכו' וישמעאל אחד לבש קנאה עליו מרוב דבקותו והלך עליו בסוסו וירמסהו וימיתהו

"I heard from an old man that when he reached the gates of Jerusalem he tore his garment [as a symbol of mourning the destruction of Jerusalem] and knelt on the earth to fulfill the verse ' For Thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust,' [Psalm 102.15] and he recited the elegy which he had written, 'Zion, will you not inquire . . . ?'. [And at that moment] an Arab [Muslim] rider [who has witnessed the sight] grew jealous of his ecstatic state and trampled upon him with his horse and he died."

(Pg. 92 in the edition I linked to.)

However, as Eliezer Brodt wrote (in an excellent, thorough post at the Seforim Blog) this legend was doubted in the 19th century, chiefly because at the time of Yehudah Ha-levi Jerusalem was ruled by Crusaders, and so it seemed impossible that such a lawless action, that of a haughty noble, could be taken by a Muslim in Jerusalem at that time.

"R. Matisyahu Strashun . . . questions the legend. He explains that Jerusalem, in the times of R. Yehuda Halevi, was ruled by Christians and not by Arabs. R. Strashun allows that although it is possible R. Yehuda Halevi composed Zion Halo Tishali when he got to Jerusalem -- not that we know that he did -- but the part of the story with the Arab killing him is certainly not true . . . R. Shmuel David (ShaDaL) Luzzatto in his collection of poems from R. Yehuda Halevi, Besulas Bas Yehuda (Prague, 1840), also questions the the legend due to the Christian and not Arab control during the time of R. Yehuda Halevi. Further, even if there were Arabs around they would not have done such a blatant act right at the city gate (pp. 25-26). So Shadal concludes that he died on his way from Egypt never even reaching Eretz Yisroel. . . ."

Indeed, at that moment in time Muslims were in the same boat as Jews in Jerusalem; that is, downcast. Furthermore, there wasn't even any evidence that Yehudah Ha-levi had ever even reached Israel. A happening first reported 400 years after the fact, without evidence and a major question about the plausibility of it (coupled with the fact of Muslim rule in Jerusalem at the time of the story's reporting) certainly suggests that the story be classified as legendary. (Even without this doubt, one can discern that this story is almost O. Henry-like, that is, it seems like a great story, just not what probably happened in real life." It has since been established that he did reach the Holy Land, but the circumstances of his death are not known. Most recountings responsibly note that it is a legend.1

I came across A Brief History of the Jewish People by Moshe Weiss (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) and read the following:

As you can see, this retelling does not report it as fact, but as a legend. However, presumably being aware of the objection that the story could not have occurred as reported, the author takes the liberty of conjecturing that it was a Christian, not Arab [Muslim] horseman. Indeed, that could have been the case--but the only source for the story specifically says that it was a Muslim!

An interesting synthesis. I am not suggesting that Weiss meant to suggest that the story occurred as a historical fact, but for some reason he seems to have felt that it was a good idea to at least make the legend plausible!

As an aside, searching on Google Books one sees many retellings of this story. In some he is trampled by the horse (as written) and in a few he is speared by the rider. I am not sure where the spear or lance came from, but it is interesting how some imagine details that are not in texts which they are retelling.

1 Including Artscroll's edition of Tisha B'av kinnot.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Win $100,000 for a shul lotto drawing

To be held November 10, 1808.

Sorry about the deadline.

Click to enlarge.

More Aleppo Codex, please

Previous post

Scholars at Yad Ben-Zvi research institute in Jerusalem have called on Jews around the world who originally come from Aleppo, Syria and may possess fragments of the ancient Aleppo Codex to turn them over to Israel.

The call came yesterday at an event marking the 60th anniversary of riots against the Jews in Aleppo during which most of the codex, the authoritative copy of the Hebrew Bible written in the 10th century, was lost.

The head of Yad Ben-Zvi's Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, Prof. Yom Tov Asis, who witnessed the riots from the window of his Aleppo home when he was five years old, said yesterday: "We know for a fact that pages are being kept in various places in the world and we hope we can touch the hearts of those who are holding them."

The institute confirmed yesterday that talks are under way with former residents of Aleppo who are believed to be holding fragments of the texts, but declined to comment further so as not to jeopardize the negotiations. "This is the No. 1 asset of the Jewish people," Dr. Zvi Zameret, head of Yad Ben-Zvi said, "and I believe the Jewish people would do a great deal to have it back."


Monday, December 03, 2007

Original names of Hebrew vowels (nekkudot)?

Here is n interesting footnote in Samuel David Luzzatto's Prolegomeni ad una grammatica ragionata della lingua ebraica (Aaron Rubin edition, pg. 9):

[A]lterations are met in the names of the Hebrew vowel points. . . The vowels שׁוּרֶק ,חֹלֶם ,חִירֶק, are all words distorted for the purpose of presenting in their first syllables which vowel is indicated by these words. Ḥayyuj in the Tractate on quiescent letters, writes always שֶׁרֶק , חֶלֶם, חֶרֶק, with two Seghols.

Edit: there is a weird, distracting formatting glitch as explained here. Unfortunately the Hebrew appears incorrect above. For some reason my seghols appear as tzérés. I will fix it as soon as I can.


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