Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Eating a peacock. On rabbis who rule strictly and act leniently.

In a chapter called "The Fourth Great Cause Which Separated the Hebrews From Any Intercourse With The People With Whom They Lived,—The Prohibition Of Partaking Of The Food Of Whoever Was Not An Israelite" in Isaac D'israeli's The Genius of Judaism (London, 1833), the author writes that "the Opinionists" [ie, פוסקים] can establish any opinion they choose." To convey this, he offers an anecdote:

(Since it takes up four pages in his book, the extract above is from the London Saturday Journal of Aug. 24, 1839.)

This reminded me of other stories of פוסקים who ruled strictly because of their adherence to the rules of פסק of but practiced leniently because of their lack of piety. The first story comes from Rabbi Baruch Epstein's Mekor Baruch (Vilna, 1928), v. iii pp. . Below is a partial English version of the story, and then the original Hebrew. ('My Uncle the Netziv,' a partial translation of a part of Mekor Baruch by Moshe Dombey is a very well known book due to well-known circumstances, but most do not realize that he published a second volume called 'RECOLLECTIONS The Torah Temima Recalls the Golden Age of European Jewry Rendered into English by Moshe Dombey Edited by N.T. Erline' (Targum Press, 1989):

At this time I want to mention a thing I've noticed many many times over the years. Many books translated from Hebrew use the most ridiculous transliteration of unfamiliar names of people and places. You can never go wrong if you write אלעזר פלעקלש without having a clue how that surname is pronounced, but once you try rendering it into English you run the risk of writing Eliezer Palklash (two absurdities in one) as he does on pg. 156 (should be Eleazar Fleckeles, although other spellings which basically convey this would do). Another book, a popular two-volume work on Jewish history by a notable Bible exegete renders עזריה די רוסי as "de Russo" (here the blame lies with his translator, who made many of those errors). These things detract from otherwise reasonable works.

Getting back to the excerpts above you can see that according to this story the rabbi renders a correct and strictly halachic decision for one who asks, but in practice didn't follow it since he felt that the halacha itself was incorrect, based on a misunderstanding by the rabbis of a biblical verse. When asked to explain himself, he says that the rabbi is like the pharmacist whose only role is to fill a prescription, not to debate it if he doesn't agree with it.

The rabbi is teasingly (and honorably) referred to by Rabbi Epstein as בפז, but he is Zacharias Frankel; the footnote gives it away to all but the most clueless. Rabbi Epstein instruct the reader that the euphemism is to be read left to right. Read that way, the first two letters are initials of his name. He even helpfully notes that the פ is to be read "f," not "p." The last initial is for the city in which his was ראש ישיבה, i.e., Breslau. In the first footnote (pp. 3-4) of Louis Jacobs' 'A Tree of Life' it is opined that it is "doubtful whether, in fact, Frankel actually said this, since it is contrary to his general philosophy of the halakhah." Unfortunately Jacobs says no more than this, but I think he meant that for Frankel, although halacha has a history, there can be no such thing as "the rabbis were wrong, so privately I won't listen to them." Alternatively, perhaps the story is true, but the identity of the rabbi is mistaken. Also interesting is that to Rabbi Epstein (writing possibly as late as 1923 when it was first published) and Rabbi Zalman Spitzer, the aged son-in-law of the Chasam Sofer, Zechariah Frankel was an Orthodox rabbi. A bad one, in their view, but they know nothing of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch's contention, which is basically accepted today, that he was not Orthodox at all, or more likely they just ignore it.

I blogged about the second story almost three years ago, concerning Alexander Marx asking Louis Ginsberg if one was permitted to ride an elevator on shabbos. The latter replied no, but then took the elevator to a high floor where he was waiting for Marx who had taken the staircase. When Marx registered his surprise, Ginzberg tells him "You asked what the law was, so I told you. I didn't ask!"

The truth is, I confess that I don't understand this precisely. The book is called 'Keeper of the Law,' and although this is not meant to imply that Louis Ginzberg was scrupulously careful in religious practice, observant he was supposed to be. This story has him not merely bending the law, but flouting it. However, the book was written by Louis Ginzberg's son Eli, who acknowledged that he himself didn't really understand much about Jewish learning. It is possible that Ginzberg had halachic reasons for leniency and thus was not violating what he knew to be the halacha. That this may be the case is hinted at by Eli's telling of his "father, always restive when confronted with the rigidities of German orthodoxy." That he was fond of telling this story and considered it humorous, and a joke at the expense of Alexander Marx ("the rigidities of German orthodoxy") lend further support for this interpretation.

All in all, here we have three versions of what are essentially one story. The first is reported by Isaac D'israeli (although it's unclear if he's made it up, or if it was an illustrative anecdote in the form a joke, etc.). D'israeli, it will be recalled, allowed his children to be converted to Christianity as part of his gradual response to London's Bevis Marks Synagogue hierarchy's election of him as a member of the Mahamad in 1813. Not religious in the best of times, D'israeli wanted nothing less than to be a synagogue officer. The rules of the synagogue stated that members couldn't refuse election or they'd face a hefty fine. The coercion outraged him, and he consented to have his children baptized into the Church of England instead, one of whom later gained fame as a novelist, although others might argue that Benjamin Disraeli's fame was as British Prime Minister.

Perhaps this sounds bizarre, but below you can see this rule in print, still extant in the very same synagogue in 1872, although by then the fine was half what it was in 1813. Bear in mind that in today's money £40 is almost $3000!

Although in the broad sense D'israeli wrote sympathetically of Judaism, clearly he found those who handled the rules, if not the rules themselves, utterly ridiculous. Thus his story of the rabbi who paskened that you can't eat a peacock, but ate it himself because his father paskened you can!

The second story, about Rabbi Zecharia Frankel may or may not be true, but it encapsulates very well the attitude of traditional Orthodox rabbis toward those of their colleagues who don't tamper with the halacha, but think in an unorthodox way.

The third story, concerning Ginzberg and the elevator, has the distinct advantage over the others in probably being mostly true (it is reported by his son that he was fond of telling it). However, it's unclear what was really going on there. What is clear though is that it's the opposite of those rabbis who pasken leniently, often for gain (as in kashrut or eruvin), but practice strictly themselves.


  1. Differenyt version of first joke - http://www.anvari.org/fun/Ethnic_Jewish/Tisha_Bav_Fasting.html

  2. Ginzberg was might have been intentionally referring to this joke which is an old one

  3. I'm sure it's a very old joke. After all, D'israeli's version was published in 1833. But the version you cite is from Ausubel's 'A Treasury of Jewish Folklore,' published in 1948. What was his source?

    But you're right, that's a possibility too, maybe even the most likely explanation.

  4. According to the OU KOsher magazine, I forgot which one, peacocks are kosher and were eaten a long time ago, but we don't eat them today because we don't eat them today.

  5. Here's an OU Radio thing called A Peek at the Peacock by Rabbi Chaim Loike.

  6. It's more than likely (considering the year) that there was an elevator operator. That, of course, changes the whole story.

  7. Oh, and Sepharadim of that era- and probably most Jews- had zero problem, halakhically, with peacock, so D'Israeli's story doesn't really hold up.

  8. elis understanding of jewish practice is poor. i believe he writes that his father was a 'keeper of the law' yet he also writes that his father wouldnt call someone on shabbos, but would answer the phone.

  9. I'm no expert, but I believe that since this is an electricity issue it was certainly a legitimate halachic opinion that you could use a telephone. Eli writes that his father didn't use it because he felt it wasn't shabbosdik, and only once or twice made an exception.

    That said, obviously his halachic views were not Orthodox; he wasn't an Orthodox rabbi, so none of this is any ra'ayah.

  10. I don't really agree with the whole premise. There are many grey areas in Halacha and one of the things that a true posek must do is be aware of his personal bias when responding to a question, so as not to let it influence his decision. For this reason, many Poskim tend to rule strictly. Without this basic principle of avoiding "negiyos", the whole notion of Psak is, as you point out, a travesty.

    avakesh at avakesh.com

  11. Nachum, I doubt this was an example that D'israeli simply made up. We know that there is halachic discussion about the peacock; the story only maintains that its kashrus was doubted by some. It would be like a similar story today about turkey. You could write the same thing about today, everyone eats turkey, but of course what you really mean is that the overwhelming majority eat turkey with some who doubt it's kashrus.

    What he does introduce, which is new, is the supposed circumstance that a posek could rule strictly but not feel bound by it personally because he accepts the leniency of his own rabbi, his father.

  12. Fotheringay-Phipps1:52 PM, March 24, 2010

    On another note, I found the discussion by R' Epstein of R' Frankel's position odd. He notes at length that his position is that of a tanna but that we don't hold like it. Actually, we do hold like this tanna, but hold that techumin is an issur derabanan. (There are some rishonim who hold that techumin is d'uraisa, but only 12 mil.)

  13. There was a review of Ginzberg's book in Tradition that criticized him for that.

  14. I remember many years ago when the Rebbe zy"a came out against Mendel the Mouse a woman called my father to ask whether the peacock is kosher. She had a blouse with a peacock on it and wanted to know if she could keep it.

  15. Indeed. Here is a relevant excerpt from Philip Zimmerman's review:

    "One of the most positive things about this work is the expression of filial respect, which is maintained by the son towards his father. And it seems worthy of note that the elder Ginzberg also possessed this virtue as we are informed in his son's book. Yet, greater knowledge of what is meant by a "Keeper of the Law" would have caused the author to eliminate many of his trivial anecdotes which can only lessen the stature of his father. What is Louis Ginzberg attended "a church ceremonial on the Sabbath" at the christening of a friend's child (p. 302) , sanctioned use of the telephone in his home on the Sabbath (p. 216), or rode in an elevator on the Sabbath immediately after paskening for a colleague that this was forbidden (p. 214)? There are many more examples of this type. I do not suggest that all personal matters ought to be tabu - indeed one of the most important chapters in the book gives the Ginzberg side of the relationship between the Professor and Miss Henrietta Szold. The historian of Jewish life at the turn of the century will also find many other facts of interest not formerly known."

    My thoughts:

    One, he really knows how to write a review, stressing the positive and praiseworthy before knocking.

    Two, while he's probably right about Eli not really getting it, I think that Zimmerman himself doesn't get that you can't hold Ginzberg for failure to conform to Orthodox halacha, and recognizing this is not to recognize the legitimacy of any other kind of halacha. It's just to explain that, indeed, Louis Ginzberg could be described as a Keeper of the Law, probably, by his own standards and that of the nascent CM.

    Three, his wish that such things had not been included. Why? PZ doesn't seem to have a great opinion of him in the first place. Unless he's simply arguing that Eli should not have included them, as a devoted son. On the other hand, maybe he's just a classy guy and doesn't like to see anyone's rep maligned, however unintentionally, in print. Either way, this seems to bear on the larger question of what's fit to print in a biography and why.

    Andy, don't tease. What did the Rebbe zy"a answer?

  16. Isn't טווס a peacock?
    Doesn't seem to have been an issue here (although eating it with milk is a dif. story..).



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