Monday, March 29, 2010

What's an afikomen? Some 19th century sources for discussion.

There was an exchange in 'One People, Two Worlds' by Ammiel Hirsch and Yosef Reinman concerning the seder:




It should not be surprising that the awareness of many similarities between the forms of the Passover seder and the Symposium seder can be found in Christian literature for centuries. After all, the seder plays an important role in the New Testament and the classical literature where it's form is described was on the reading lists of those scholars. Note: similarity means . . . similarity. Naturally the question is not as simple and simple-minded as either Hirsch or Reinman presents it. But I'm more interested in the afikomen (see Balashon).

I can't resist an aside regarding Reinman's distortion (or misunderstanding) of Albright. Although I don't know exactly where in Albright's writings he refers, given that the book can't be bothered with providing sources, let's assume that at least this position is articulated in his most famous, most popular book From the Stone Age to Christianity - Monotheism and the Historical Process, which you can already tell from the title that he probably doesn't support Reinman's positions. In this book, the alphabet to which he refers is called "the North-Semitic (Phoenician) alphabet, and in other cases "Canaanite". He writes that the Phoenician script is descended from the "proto-Cananite," and "That this alphabet was known to nomads as well as to sedentary Canaanites is certain from the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, dating from between 1800 and 1600 B.C." It's not as if he doesn't know how to write the word "Israelite" (or "pre-Mosaic Hebrews," as in "the pre-Mosaic Hebrews had also been accustomed accustomed to thinking of their chief god, the storm-god Shaddai, as standing on a bull, and the pre-Israelite Hebrews of central Palestine almost certainly shared ideas of this kind with their Canaanite neighbors, who portrayed Baal in the same way.")

In short, Albright is not the source of the centuries-old observation that "alpha beta gamma" are not Greek words, but they are Semitic words. It is also known from the Greeks themselves that their alphabet comes from the Phoenician; a mythical Phoenician (ie, Northern Canaanite) named Kadmus is supposed to have delivered them their alphabet. However, see below for a source which is נאמן יותר ממאה עדים:

In Rabbi Elijah Levita (Bachur)'s Tishby we find the following entry for afikomen, where we see that he is surprised that the obvious Greekness of the word eluded earlier scholars in favor of a far-fetched notaryekon:

In case anyone is wondering how reliable Levita is, in the Peri Megadim's opinion התשבי נאמן יותר ממאה עדים:

Below is a very interesting passage in Isaac Baer Levinsohn's Efes Damim (1837) in which he refutes the blood accusation against the Jews. The book takes the form of a dialog between a rabbi (Abraham ibn Maymun) and a Greek Orthodox patriarch (Simeias) in Jerusalem. Here is an extensive passage in the original Hebrew and in Louis Loewe's English translation of 1841 (the English translation was commissioned by Sir Moses Montefiore on the occasion of the 1840 Damascus Blood Libel):

Efes Dammim in English 1841:

For completion, below is the 1819 entry for afikomen in Landau's edition of the Arukh which Loewe refers to in a footnote (he calls him "Lando"), followed by Alexander Kohut in the Arukh Hashalem, where he is sure that it is a Persian word:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler: Stop sending us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, please!

Here is a fascinating letter British Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler sent to Hamaggid (January 10, 1889). He urges his rabbinic colleagues in Russia, Poland and Lithuania to help stem the tide of Jewish emigration to Great Britain, which had begun in waves after 1881 when a great wave of pogroms had begun to take place. Rabbi Adler points out that the British Jewish community has done it all it could for the refugees. The rabbis should know that there is no livelihood for them in Britain. Most work on the Sabbath and holidays, and some have even converted to Christianity. It is simply not possible for the Jewish community to do more. London is not a golden city. Therefore he requests all these rabbis publicize these things, so the people will know that immigration to Britain is not an ascent, it's a descent..

The same letter was also sent to Yehuda Leib Gordon's Hameliz, where for some strange reason R. Adler labored under the impression that the rabbinic audience he addressed was reading. It appeared in the January 11, 1889 issue:

181 Jewish schools in New York City in 1917

Here is an interesting list of Jewish schools (of all sorts) which were in existence in New York City in 1917. While obviously the quality and religious orientation of these schools were hardly uniform (some were Sunday schools, others had sessions every day; some had 40 students and a couple over 1000) I'll bet it is nevertheless surprising to many that 181 such places in New York City alone existed in 1917.


My new favorite past-time is Mi.Yodeya which I discovered about 5 minutes ago. Thus far it looks fun and possibly addictive, not to mention newfangled.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Why was Mendelssohn so bad again?

One of the more fascinating memes (did I use that correctly?) in the j-blogosphere (to me at least) is the perennial struggle over the meaning and person of Moses Mendelssohn. If people thought that history had paskened and Orthodoxy conclusively decided he was an oysvorf, that was revealed to be a faulty or incomplete assumption once the world of Jewish blogging was underway. Full disclosure: I am often part of the discussion.

This topic must recur three or four times a year on various blogs over the past 5 years (and earlier on the various Jewish discussion lists). Most recently in this Hirhurim comments thread. Little new ground is broken ("his children converted" "so did other's" "blah blah").

One of the themes which emerges in these discussions is that once it appears conclusively demonstrated that the simple, canonical view is not historically accurate --eg, if he was terrible, why did Rabbi Akiva Eger give an approbation to and order and advance copy of a new edition fully 50 years after he died, while he was already in his 20s when the original scandal and debate over that very Chumash (and by extension, Mendelssohn himself) was raging? In other words, in the same person you had someone who experienced the issue when it was current events, as an adult, and the maturity of experience and age, and the passage of time to reflect on it. It is well known and clear that his colleage and son-in-law the Chasam Sofer took an opposite approach, which means that there are two views in the 1830s, not one-- once that emerges, inevitably some try to show that they have in fact uncovered the heresy in his work, so all the rest is a sideshow.

In 1986-87 this occurred when Rabbi Simon Schwab responded to a proto-blogging discussion which occurred in the pages of the Jewish Observer (and probably in offices and private homes) and noted that Mendelssohn was thoroughly heretical after all. In support he cited some statements in Mendelssohn's translation of the Psalms in which he compared them to secular poetry, or in some other manner regarded the Psalms as literary creations which can be analyzed and criticized as such. This was heresy. (Indeed, Mendelssohn had been reading Lowth. Here would be a good place to mention something about Malbim, but perhaps that should wait for the comments. It should also be borne in mind that his Psalm translation was not aimed exclusively at Jews, thus he had to sidestep modern text critical and christological issues, all while producing a sound, lingsustically and aesthetically pleasing and unheretical translation.) Left unexplained was why it took until 1986 for the evident heresy of a book published in 1770 to be revealed. Not only that, it isn't as if his Psalm translation was unknown to traditional rabbis (eg, R. Zalman Trier subscribed to the 1804 edition) until a German-speaking rabbi opened it up for the first time in 1986. In other words, my contention is that Rabbi Schwab interpreted comments he did not like uncharitably because a historical position required justification after an uproar emerged on the pages of the Jewish Observer.

Today a commenter at Hirhurim relates that s/ he knows what the heresy is. It is that the Bi'ur consistently fails to interpret verses, which some meforshim understand as relating to the Messiah and the World-To-Come, in that light, always accepting alternative explanations by the meforshim. Thus, he could not have accepted the 13th principle of Maimonides. Assuming s/ he is correct, is that the heresy of Mendelssohn? Why did it take until 2010 to discover it? Why didn't the Chasam Sofer explain it?

Am I off base? Truth is, this was a hastily written post meant, hopefully, to provoke some interesting discussion. I can already contradict myself by pointing out that I don't really believe that novelty of interpretation means that it is wrong. Still, I can't understand why these things were overlooked, were they sound and clear reasons why he was and is treif-passul, as opposed to modern meaningful midrash, sort of a yeshivish orange on a seder plate.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Pesach Miscellany

Here are various Passover related items of interest.

1. Below is a newspaper account, from what is essentially the international news page of the Boston News-Letter, of the week of March 23-30, 1713, of a Passover blood libel on the Greek island of Zante, controlled at the time by Venice. (I included a little bit before and after to illustrate the point that this is a miscellaneous news item someone might have read as he drank his coffee one March morning in Boston):

2. This is from the New York Post in 1906. For some reason the New York Post hasn't yet made or contracted out a digital archive of a newspaper that used to celebrate its relationship with Alexander Hamilton. So this piece is from a news roundup magazine called The Summary. Pesach preparations in the Lower East Side of New York:

3. Below is the section on Pesach from Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Modena (Leone Modena)'s (1571-1648) Italian book about Judaism, the Historia de' riti Ebraici. I am including the two English translations. The first is from 1650 and the second from 1707. It's interesting to compare the language and other aspects, not to mention the interest of the material itself:



4. Since the book above mentions matzah of various shapes, it is interesting to read what Israel Abrahams wrote in his Book of Delight and Other Papers in an essay called 'The Shape of Matzoth.' I've never seen a matzah monkey, much less eaten one. How about you?

5. Finally, below is a table from Rabbi David Nieto's Pascalogia ovvero discorso della Pasca, one of the more unusual seforim our mesorah and bais midrash has preserved for us. This book dealt with the Gregorian and Julian calendar date for Easter in relation to that of Passover.


Related Posts with Thumbnails