Thursday, July 28, 2011

A strange Hebrew Benjamin Franklin story.

The following is from A.M. Habermann's Masekhet Sofrim ve-Sifrut (Jerusalem 1976) pg. 269, in a section on the love of books:

"The letters themselves contain secret magical properties. Gazing at them, even without understanding penetrate the heart and soul. Benjamin Franklin related: 'One time I was sitting and reading books, and a Jew named Peretz was also bent over a book. I knew that this Peretz was illiterate. Being curious by nature I asked him about it. He responded that it is due to God's benevolence that man can be involved with books, even if he does not know how to read!'"
Does anyone have any idea what the source for this Benjamin Franklin story is? I'd never heard of it. It even has the Jew's name?! Most strange.

The only thing I can think of is that it actually refers to Benjamin Franklin Peixotto (1834-1890), U.S. consul to Romania during a period of terrible persecution of the Jews. In Bucharest he did much for the rights of the local Jews.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An unusual paraphrased poetic rendition of Psalm 119 by an early 20th century socialite.

Here's a really unusual book called "PSALM CXIX The Hebrew Alphabet A Rosary An Inventory The Kabbalah." The title hardly makes sense, but the book is actually an artistic gem. Here is the title page:

The book is apparently hand written (and lithographed, I guess) and was published around 1913. The author's name is Grace Sanders Keefer (she was also known by other names). The book is her own poetic rendition of Psalm 119 in English, preserving the alphabetic character of this 176-verse Psalm. Thus, the aleph verses begin with the letter A, beis with B, etc. She carries it all the way through, with some creative license.

To illustrate what I mean, here is how the JPS 1917 translates Psalm 119:1-2:
1 Happy are they that are upright in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD
2 Happy are they that keep His testimonies, that seek Him with the whole heart.
3 Yea, they do no unrighteousness; they walk in His ways.
Here is how she paraphrases these, so that they begins with an A:
1 A straight man goeth about in perfect equanimity: he keeps on going in the Law of Jahweh.
2 A straight man guards The Spirit (of The Law) with all his heart expressing it.
3 Added to this he does not leave behing him a trail of crookedness.
Here are two sample pages:

The copy of the book (owned by U Mich) has the following inscription by the author:

Since that probably isn't easy to read, here is what it says:
Rabbi Emanuel Sternheim,

The purpose of this translation is to testify in I-Am-ness: Individualism the Equilateral Concepts/ Symbolism of AREALISM JUDAISM ROMANISM and to open the "Sealed Orders," "The Veil of The Temple", To The Light of the Simple Truth.

Grace Sanders Keefer
No, that doesn't make any more sense to me. Still, the translation is very creative, the lettering very nice (I assume she did it herself). Unfortunately I wasn't able to uncover much about her other than that she was a socialite based in Atlanta and New York and involved in two messy divorces, which made the newspapers (her first husband was of the Macy family, as in Macy's). Judging by the year of her first marriage (1905) I'll guess that she was about 30, or in her early 30s when this book was produced.

Incidentally, the idea of re-writing Psalms has a long history. For example, see כהנת אברהם (1719) by Abraham Hakohen ben Shabbetai of Zante, which features lengthy poems based on all 150 Psalms. It also includes poems based on Perek Shirah, which is usually not mentioned when this book is discussed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Midnight Intruders - I review Avner Gold's historical novel about Chacham Tzvi and Nechemia Chayun.

Almost one year ago I referenced Midnight Intruders (Artscroll 2009) by Avner Gold (pseudonym for Yosef Reinman). I said that I would review it shortly. Recently someone reminded me that 11 months later is not shortly. So here is my review.

Midnight Intruders is a historical novel set during the early period of Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi's life, climaxing during his rabbinate in Amsterdam where he was initially popular and respected. It did not take long though before he made some enemies. An unsuccessful attempt was even made to dismiss him. Then when a genuine scandal/ machlokes erupted, Chacham Tzvi's enemies whipped up a situation to the point where he felt compelled to literally flee Amsterdam clandestinely.

In brief, Nehemiah Hiyya Hayun (sometimes described as a 'Heresiarch') appeared in Amsterdam in 1713. Hayun was in Amsterdam aiming to print a book called Mehemnuta de-Kula (which some think was actually written by Shabbetai Tzvi himself) with his own commentaries. Chacham Tzvi (and R. Moshe Hagiz, although we will leave him out of this abstract) examined the book and declared it heretical. He informed the Sephardim of this decision, and their rabbi, Solomon Ayllon, became very angry, insisting that it was a major slight to the Sephardim that Tzvi should feel that he can dictate to the Sephardim, who were the older and better community. The reverse should be true.

So the Mahamad (the lay leadership of the Sephardim) appointed a commission of 7 members, including Ayllon, who would investigate Hayun's book and make an independent judgment. Each member received a copy.

In the meantime, Chacham Tzvi (and Hagiz) were trying to procure a copy of the book so that they could set out the case against Hayun clearly, and wrote to those who had given approbations to determine the circumstances, if they were authentic, etc. Then they wrote an official ban on the book, which angered Ayllon further. In response, he and his committee declared that Hayun is free of guilt, and that the book was fine and should be considered a standard Kabbalistic book. They apologized to Hayun and then he was treated like a respected guest.

One thing led to another, letters from near and far, bans, broadsheets, insults, interest from the secular authorities - when all was said and done, Chacham Tzvi and his family slipped out of Amsterdam, lest he be arrested on grounds of disturbing the peace.

Midnight Intruders is set against this background, although the first part of the book takes place earlier in Chacham Tzvi's life. The main character of the book is a fictional person called Rabbi Amos Strasbourg, who Gold/ Reinman sets as a close personal friend of Chacham Tzvi. Rabbi Amos Strasbourg is a character in several other books of the same series. Therefore Gold is able to set him up as a witness to the events, and to a certain extent they are seen through his eyes. There's a bit of a thriller element to the plot, but I assume readers of this blog are not going to be particularly interested in my take on that, so I decided not to summarize it - except for a little bit at the end.

I will point out here that I have a possible quibble with Amos Strasbourg's name. The book is set in the late 17th and early 18th century. As far as I can tell Jews were not allowed to live in Strasbourg until the late 18th century, making this surname impossible, I think. But of course I could be mistaken.

The narrative is colorful, and full of historical tidbits, Jewish and non-Jewish. It is definitely of acceptable quality, and often even better than that. On the other hand, the book makes heavy use of what they call "the exposition fairy," that is, when characters explain things which in reality would not be explained by the real characters. "The exposition fairy" is when a cop tells another cop what an "alibi" means, or explains an interrogation technique to a colleague, or some such thing. So, for example, on pg. 45 we read of a conversation where young Chacham Tzvi explains the meaning of the acronym "zak" (zerah kodesh) in his grandfather's name to Amos, who says that it is "an unsual name." On pg. 127 there is a random aside where one character explains that the Italian minhag is older than both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic.

I'll admit it is somewhat odd to read of the youngish Chacham Tzvi "grin[ning]" and telling Amos "I can't let you carry your own bags. I mean, what kind of host would I be if I did that?" Actually, in my opinion Gold has Chacham Tzvi acting too young at first. He treats him almost like he's a little bit giddy, but he's 30 years old at the time. I guess the narrative could have been impossible if it had been set any earlier, but in my opinion Chacham Tzvi acts like he's in his 20, not 30. That said this is only my impression. It is evident that Gold did not mean to do this. As he writes in the introduction, "I would not presume to put words into the mouth of Chacham Tzvi other than ordinary conversation, which I labored to portray in a manner suitable to a rabbi of such stellar stature." As we shall see he does not *entirely* succeed. That's understandable. Gold asks for Chacham Tzvi's forgiveness if he unintentionally wrote anything which impinges upon his honor. I'd say he is covered.

When he discussed R. Elijah of Chelm's golem (pg. 47) Gold makes the all-too-common mistake of taking "zikni" literally, and calls him his "grandfather." But this "grandfather" of Chacham Tzvi died in 1583, or approximately 73 years before Tzvi was born. Nearly impossible, and very improbable. R. Elijah was not his grandfather, but his ancestor.

I also take issue with Gold's reinforcing the historical truth of this golem, as he does by having Amos react mildly skeptically, and then Tzvi assuring him that it is "Absolutely" true, since "everyone the story passed through was a reliable talmid chacham." He then seals the deal by citing the Gemara that Rava made a golem. Although I'm not fully within my rights to complain about it since obviously Gold believes it himself, in my opinion this is not a good thing to reinforce in children, because it endlessly creates generations of children, many of whom will go through various kinds of painful withdrawals from such beliefs.

On pg. 49 there is a nice little message, that "it's good to know something about the Jewish people outside your own little circle," which is placed in the mouth of Tzvi, explaining why his father sent him to the Sephardic yeshiva in Salonica. Gold clearly believes this, as he has written numerous books describing upstanding Jews with Spanish names and manners and so forth. I will go out on a limb and say that I believe more than one frum kid has learned a little bit about the diversity of the Jewish world and history from his books. Just to throw out one random example, on pg. 134 we hear tell of a young lady named "Signora Raquel Tarantella," who is obviously not a Bais Yaakov girl, but presumably a kallah nangeh vaasuda.

On the same page he - surprisingly, I think - has Chacham Tzvi say that when he was 8 years old - the year of Shabbetai Tsvi - he was disappointed, having held out hope that maybe he was the Messiah. As far as I can tell there is nothing historical to support this, but this is a didactic moment for Gold, who then has Tzvi saying that afterward "there was nothing more to talk about," people were disappointed, they went on with their lives, and continued to pray and yearn for the Messiah. This also is an opportunity to explain about the Donmeh and other Sabbatians.

There's nothing wrong with colloquialisms, and the characters certainly speak in a mixture of 21st century English and Yeshivish, but I have to smile at Tzvi saying "there were many talmidei chachamim in Amsterdam with whom to talk in learning" and the like. (pg. 51) Incidentally, on the same page Gold has Amos opine that 25 is a good age to get married, with the caveat that "there's no guarantee that you'll get married within six months" if you start looking at 25. Tzvi agrees.

On pg. 73 & 78 he indulges very mildly in a stereotype which made me a little uncomforable, when Amos promises a Dutch captain who helped him with a night of drinking on his tab. The captain agrees, but says he'll take two nights. Amos agrees once more. Then later he reminds Amos that he expects him to pay up, "I want those free drinks." To be sure, many good qualities of this captain, as well as the Dutch in general, are enumerated, and Amos specifically says that he knows that the captain helped him because of his kind heart, and not becuase he needed free drinks. And yet, we can well imagine a parallel scenario with a Jew and money or some such thing, and I've no doubt that Gold himself would feel uncomfortable by that. I don't think any harm was meant here at all. I'm just saying. Not being totally PC is not the crime of the century, but it rubbed me wrong, especially as this is a book for children and an opportunity to reinforce values and ideas, which is clearly not lost on Gold.

On pg. 85 Tzvi is telling Amos about the pain of losing his wife and child, and how he recalls her. He lists her good qualities, and then says that he remembers her sitting with pleasure at the Shabbos table, listening to him and his father discuss a very complicated sugya "even though she really couldn't be expected to understand what we were saying." Although from a historical perspective this is almost certainly true, one can't help but feeling that here the Chacham Tzvi is Gold commenting about the 21st century as well. The whole scene is actually very moving, but I had to mention it.

Referring to what I wrote earlier, that Gold labored not to put thoughts and ideas into Tzvi that you can't find in his own writings, he also writes that he took the liberty of including some of his own Torah, putting it in the mouth of Strasbourg, as he does for example on pg. 130-31. Clever, and nothing wrong with it, but I thought the idea of having Chacham Tzvi approve is a little . . . self-confident. To be sure, he actually has another historical rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Aboab, do the approving, while Chacham Tzvi stands by and listens (except to say "And I," seconding the rabbi's agreeing with Amos/ Gold's description of a certain human experience). Obviosuly Chacham Tzvi doesn't disagree. It's okay, really, but it is what it is: Gold says over his Torah while the Chacham Tzvi listens and does not object. On pg 182 - 3 he does this again, and this time Chacham Tzvi claps his hands together with delight upon hearing a Torah thought from Gold. He even says "I love [the explanation], and I believe it is true."

On pg. 138 we meet a "Rebbetzin," which I suspect (but I am not certain) is not a term in use yet. I know people will point to the Romance suffix -etze, but I'd need to see some proof. Since I know that the burden of proof can't be on him unless I have some good grounds for doubting that this word was used, I mention it only so that some reader might be able to set the record straight. He has this Rebbetzin say a certain Yiddish saying in the name of her grandmother. I doubt this saying goes back to the early 1600s.

On pg. 139 there is a little dig at early modern medicine, the four humors and so forth. Hm.

On pg. 149 Gold has one of his main protagonists in earlier books, Rabbi Shlomo Pulichev, clarify that some people don't have the temperament to learn Gemara all day, and that they should set aside some time daily, and learn what appeals to them. Further, if the main pillar in one's life is not Torah, then they should build up the pillar of kindness. If they cannot learn Torah every minute, then live Torah.

On pg. 157 he has Hayun taking in people by posing as a holy man. He declares a baby a gilgul (reincarnated soul). And herein lies the rub. You can't really tell the difference between a fake kabbalist and a real one, can you? Later in the book Gold will make an effort to explain that Hayun's teachings are only subtly different from actual kabbalah, but of course his are very bad and very dangerous. Of course he doesn't explain what those teachings are, or why they should be only subtly different from authentic kabbalah. Point of interest: Hayun's teaching combined a sort of Deism and a Triune conception of God. He felt that God is three; one is called Atika Kadisha, the Ancient Holy One. This aspect of God is removed from the creation, and indeed did not even create. But emanating from Atika Kadisha is Elohei Yisrael, the God of Israel who is the God of cretion and history who is not remote from creation, and Shechinah, or the Presence. Not sure what the Presence does, but of course Elohei Yisrael and Shechinah have to be united, etc. Is this is subtly different from Kabbalah?

On pg. 183 the fact that Chacham Tzvi constantly eschewed gifts and "extras" routinely offered to rabbis is stressed (as it is in several other places in the book) with the explanation that accepting largesse (apart from an earned salary) results in corruption and the tainting of leadership, even subtly. In case the point isn't clear, Gold mentions "money, honors, favors" as well as "support for our yeshivos and charities," all of which are in order to gain some control over [them].

This is an authentic view of Chacham Tzvi, at least how he conducted himself personally, and the reader can be forgiven for wondering if/ how it applies to contemporary times and the community which Gold himself lives in and associates with.

On pg. 187 he mentions the nature of Chacham Tzvi's klaus in Altona, as described by his son. There the study was "Gemara, Rishonim, Halachah, Aggadah, Midrash and even the rules of grammar." Again, thinking of contemporary times, what is a young reader supposed to think when his Beis Midrash studies, well, a very different sort of curriculum?

On pg. 198 the exposition fairy comes to explain to the reader what Sabbatians are all about (this time its Amos who suddenly knows nothing about Sabbatians). Chacham Tzvi tells him that "Believe me, they sound just like you and me. Even when they discuss Kabbalah, it's hard to recognize their true colors." He also states that their understanding of the nature of God "in a certain way, it has a strong resemblance to Christianity." In any case, this leads to an opportunity for them to dicuss a situation which would appear as #13 in Shu"th Chacham Tzvi.

On pg. 204 the fine quality of printing in Amsterdam is mentioned, along with R. Moshe Frankfurt, who published the 1724 Amsterdam edition of the Mikrah Gedola, called Kehillat Moshe.

On pg. 210 there is mention of a character (known from earlier books, apparently) formerly called Felipe, now known as Rabbi Pinhas Dominguez, an up-and-coming Dayan. "Who knows? Maybe someday they'll be calling him Chacham Pinhas?" says a character. In my opinion this is a mischaracterization of the nature of the Western Sephardim, using the behavior of present-day ba'alei teshuva as a model. Today ba'alei teshuva are likely to take or begin using a Hebrew name. As far as I can tell, the Western Sephardim used their Hebrew name in Hebrew, whether in writing or when called to the Torah, but their Spanish name when the language was spoken or written. This is not in fact substantially different from the Ashkenazim, who also used Hebrew names in Hebrew and their Yiddish (i.e., Germanic) name when that language was spoken or written. Don't be fooled by the Hebrew letters. Thus I don't think that Felipe to Pinhas was a sign of a change for the better, of increased piety and religiosity. I think that Haham Pinhas probably continued to be called Felipe - as long as Spanish (or Portuguese, of course) was being used.

On pg. 214 there's a black man dressed in a cape and a wide white felt hat with purple plumes. I'm sure Gold meant well, as the character (who is also from earlier books) is clearly meant to be portrayed positively, and Amos and the man embrace. Nevertheless, the imagery is interesting, albeit unintentional I'm sure.

Pg. 238 is interesting, because here Chacham Tzvi talks about the famous case of the "chicken with no heart." Gold has Tzvi says that "It most certainly had a heart. Chickens cannot live without hearts. Any rational person can understand that, but I wrote back many proofs from the Zohar and the Maharal to make sure they accept my ruling. Can you imagine what I have to contend with?" - which encapsulates his position very well, but is a little surprising in view of the fact that other rabbis disagreed, including most famously a young R. Yonasan Eybeschutz, who presumably is considered a rational person.

The treatment of Rabbi Solomon Ayllon is interesting. On the one hand he was the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardim of Amsterdam, a very important community and rabbinate. On the other hand he really was a Sabbatian, and an antagonist of Chacham Tzvi. Yet I am guessing that in a book for children, to portray him as totally a bad guy does not do wonders for the institution of the rabbinate. So Gold downplays Ayllon's Sabbatianism, only allowing that he dabbled in it in his youth. Give this, his youthful - rather than ongoing - Sabbatianism, how to explain his support for Hayun? Was it stupidity? Honor? Gold concocts an explanation that Hayun had something on him and forced him to support him. He even has Ayllon refuse to write a haskmah for Hayun outright.

Furthermore, Ayllon was one of the early "recognizers" of Chacham Tzvi's worth as a great scholar, dating to his time in London, and Gold realizes that this is useful. So why do away with him? Instead of portraying him as you'd expect, a really bad guy, he portrays him as basically innocent, kind of doddering (at age 50!) and the object of blackmail. In my opinion this works for fiction, but doesn't match the history.

On pg. 281 once again the "subtle" differences from the teachings of Hayun and Sabbatian kabbalah from the genuine article is stressed. The youthful reader must be awfully intrigued at this point!

On pg. 284 - 86 a meeting between Tzvi and Hayun is described (indeed, the meeting is depicted on the book's cover).

This brings us back to pg. 11, where Gold writes that "there seems to be some confusion [in the historical sources] about whether Chacham Tzvi and Chayun had met previously in Sarajevo and if they had a face-to-face confrontation in Amsterdam. For the purposes of this book I have assumed that both events took place, and I have described them." In my opinion there is no confusion. Before Hayun even arrived in Amsterdam, but his impending arrival was known, Chacham Tzvi initially thought that he was the very same Hiyya Hayun - a different man know as "ha-Arukh," "the Tall One" - with whom he had an argument earlier in his life in Sarajevo (and as a result of which he had to leave that rabbinate). Hearing that Hayun was set to arrive, Chacham Tzvi informed the Portuguese Jews that he was a bad man and no assistance should be given to him. When he was refused entry to the synagogue by the Sephardim, he came to Chacham Tzvi, who realized that he had been mistaken, and so he retracted his statement. Of course this got everything off to a bad foot. However, it is difficult to argue that what resulted would not have occurred anyway. That this occurred can be proven by documents published by Freimann, in which the episode concerning Chacham Tzvi's initial warning about Hayun, and then his retraction when he realized that he mistook him for his earlier enemy are published.

Gold portrays the whole situation very differently. I can only conclude that Gold decided to assume that he was the same man because if he wasn't then Chacham Tzvi looks a tiny bit bad. Yes, he was right about Hayun in general, but before reading one word he wrote or meeting him, he declared him treif-possul - thinking he was a man that he himself had quarreled with previously. The fact that he retracted his criticism might make him look very honorable, but the problem is that the real Hayun turned out to be someone who you would not want to apologize to. So the matter disappears entirely if you assume that they were the same person, and don't mention anything about the initial accusation and retraction.

In any case, when all is said and done the book ends with a deathbed confession by a fictional character called Gunther Wieselthier, a German printer, who appears throughout the book and is described as a very nice guy. It turns out that he was really a character called Sergio Setubal, from an earlier story. Apparently he had a personal problem with one of the characters, and so he decided to reinvent himself and plotted for nearly thirty years to take his revenge, not only against this man, but against the entire Jewish community of Amsterdam. He confesses that he basically used Hayun in Amsterdam, and that he was responsible for many of the broadsides on both sides once the controversy erupted. He had used his knowledge of the community, gained by a network of spies whom he had employed, to set people against one another. In other words, the entire Hayun episode was really orchestrated by this fictional character. He does express regret as he lay there dying, and Gold even makes the man's conscience cause him to make sure that Chacham Tzvi know that he was about to be arrested, enabling him to sneak out of Amsterdam. But there is something unsettling about an entirely invented character, who happens not to be Jewish, responsible for a series of unfortunate events which, sadly, all indications are that they were the responsibility of those involved.

A couple of more comments and then the bottom line. The primary source for the historical events is the account provided by Chacham Tzvi's son R. Yaakov Emden in Megillas Sefer (I will review the new English edition soon). Obviously this source is one-sided, but Gold also acknowledges that he used "secular sources" or "general sources which I have not enumerated." An explanation of this might be nice. There are a few dozen footnotes and, as indicated, the only historical source cited is Megillas Sefer (apart for Shu"th Chacham Tzvi). I don't know which other sources he used. Did he use the Encyclopedia Judaica? Freimann's Inyanei Shabbetai Sevi (which is a collection of primary sources, so I'm not sure why it would be "general" or "secular)? The articles on Hayun or Ayllon in Sefunot (including the latter's Sabbatian writings)? Judith Bleich's MA dissertation on Chacham Tzvi in Amsterdam? Elisheva Carlebach's The Pursuit of Heresy? He doesn't say. So on the one hand, it would have been nice to know what he used. On the other hand, it is good that he acknowledged that these sources exist and that he used them. The footnotes are a positive step for historical fiction, and especially for a book for frum kids. Even the very fact of referencing Megillas Sefer is a good thing.

When all is said and done, the book is acceptable. I think on balance it does more good for kids than not. I will acknowledge that I myself was very drawn to certain books by Avner Gold when I was a child. He certainly succeeds in whetting appetites for historical knowledge of a very interesting period in Jewish history. His own love for history is apparent. His use of responsa to derive historical information is sound. The plot and narrative are fine for children. The prose is uneven, but sometimes it's very good. I obviously have my quibbles, but when all is said and done the balance sheet is in Avner Gold/ Yosef Reinman's favor. I know some will say that I am damning with faint praise, but I like to think that I used תוכחת מגולה ואהבה מסותרה (Ramban's introduction to the Torah, regarding Ibn Ezra). I commend and encourage Avner Gold/ Reinman to keep on keeping on.

Monday, July 25, 2011

On Rabbi Moses Kunitz's interesting responsa.

In my opinion one of the most interesting works of responsa literature is R. Moshe Kunitz's המצרף (Vienna 1820; Vol II. Prague 1857). A good chunk of it deals with questions he received concerning his book בן יוחאי (Vienna 1815), which he wrote to prove that the Zohar was really the work of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, although the work is much more than that since it also deals with all of Rabbi Shimon's statements in rabbinic literature. Judging by the amount of questions asked and the variety of the correspondents, the book had made a very big splash.

Here is his picture:

R. Moshe Kunitz was not entirely "traditional," for lack of a better term. However, we might take his book as a defense of the traditional opinion about the Zohar, and R. Yaakov Emden's book מטפחת ספרים as championing the non-traditional view. Along these lines, there is a statement attributed to the Chasam Sofer by his son R. Shimon, to the effect that his father had wished that the authorship of these two books were reversed, to which Dan Rabinowitz called attention. I'm not entirely convinced that the meaning of this statement, assuming it's true, can be understood. I see it as having two possible meanings.

1) The Chasam Sofer felt that Ben Yochai was the stronger and better book, only he wished that it could have had the authority it would have received by being written by a stronger and better rabbi. Conversely, Mitpachas Sefarim would have been taken considerably less seriously if it had been written by someone like R. Moshe Kunitz.

2) The Chasam Sofer felt that Mitpachas Sefarim was the stronger and better book, but attacks on the Zohar were harmful to the traditionalist cause, while defenses were helpful. Therefore even though the stronger book was the one attacking the Zohar, it would have been more helpful to the traditionalist cause if it had not been written by an authority such as R. Yaakov Emden, but only a R. Moshe Kunitz. Conversely the defense of the Zohar would have been better for the traditionalists had it been written by the greater authority, Emden.

Here is the statement mentioned before, and after this I digress:

In Hamatzref, R. Kunitz responds to many queries over a broad range of topics. Many of the questions are from famous Maskilim. Here are some:

#3 some rabbis prefer that Jews call the city Lvov by that name, rather than "Lemberg," (its German name). Why is that, considering that Lvov is not a name in Hebrew? R. Kunitz answers that we can see in rabbinic literature "הר שומרון" is sometimes referred to by its Roman name "סבסטי." If it was not important for our ancestors who used the Hebrew language in their own land, to refer to a certain place by its Hebrew name, all the more so is it unimportant to prefer one gentile name for a place over another. He adds the caveat that his comment is not intended to give any ruling about writing a get in Lvov/ Lemberg.

#14 Herz Homberg asks, when did the Jews begin counting in writing using Hebrew letters?

#19. Judah Leib Benzeev asks, with regard to 1 Kings 17:19, when Elijah resurrected a boy from the dead, how was this permitted in light of Chazal who taught that Elijah was a kohen, and thus contact with the dead not permitted?

#23 is from - you cannot make this up - Dr. Frankenstein of Vienna (מו"ה יצחק אייזק פראנקענשטיין רופא אומן בווין הבירה), who asks regarding if it is preferable for a mohel to also be a physician.

#41 is from Moses Israel Landau, who asks why precisely the age of 13 and a day is when the obligation for mitzvos commences.

#56 is from a Christian scholar (מופלג בתורה) named Ferdinandus Bonadi [? sic] of Klausenberg, who asks to explain a passage in Eruvin 21b concerning Solomon's 3000 proverbs for every word of the Torah and 5 reasons for every word of the Sofrim.

#63 is from Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio. At the time this was printed (1820) Reggio was still a staunch believer in Kabbalah, and his questions concern Ben Yochai, which he was much taken by. He even writes that had Mendelssohn read Kunitz's Ben Yochai then perhaps he would not have written in Ohr Le-netiva (his introduction to the Torah) that the Zohar did not enjoy the sanction of all Jews once it was revealed!

Here is as good a place as any to point out that Mendelssohn believed in the authenticity of Kabbalah, or at least did not disbelieve in it. The context of Reggio's remark concerns a passage in the Ohr Le-netiva about the nekkudot and te'amim (see here). Mendelssohn mentions the view of R. Eliyahu Bachur that the signs and accents were invented after the Talmud. Mendelssohn writes that R. Azariah de Rossi refuted his view using the writings of the Zohar, Bahir, etc. and - writes Mendelssohn - these preceded not only the Talmud, but even the Mishnah's composition.

He then mentions a defense one might offer for Levita's (Bachur's) opinion, that the books of the Mekubalim were not yet printed and widely circulated in his day. However, had he lived now (i.e., 1770 or so) he surely would have admitted his mistake! However, admits Mendelssohn, the reality is that the proofs from the Zohar and related works are problematic because 1) the books of Kabbalah do not have the same authority as the Mishnah and Talmud and 2) they undoubtedly include later additions, as proved by R. Yaakov Emden in Mitpachas Soferim. However, ultimately R. Eliyahu's view has been refuted and rejected by later authors, and the passages cited by R. Azariah de Rossi from the Zohar and such works is sufficient to defeat his view.

Contrast this with Rabbi Dov Eliach's tendentious view expressed here, to show that of Mendelssohn's circle Solomon Dubno alone was righteous:
It is known that all the individual members of the Berlin haskalah were tainted with either false ideas, Bible criticism, reform-style demands for change, or a combination of these. Reb Shlomo Dubno however, has never been accused of harboring any such ideas. His sole occupation was with Torah, either in explaining the pesukim according to the rishonim or studying their grammar and the traditions for reading them. Throughout his life, he was scrupulous in his mitzvah observance. A list of the volumes and manuscripts in Dubno's library, which was published prior to the library's sale in Amsterdam in 5574 (1875), contains the names of many works on kabolo, which their owner studied during his lifetime. This is further evidence of his dissimilarity from his former colleagues, who denied the authenticity of the kabolo to a man. (This was pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky.)
The argument is that "to a man" the Mendelssohn circle denied the authenticity of kabbalah. On what basis other than a stereotype could Rabbi Eliach say that Dubno's former colleagues denied Kabbalah "to a man?" Instead we see that Mendelssohn accepted the authenticity of the Kabbalah (at least as much as did Yaavetz), and we have even stronger proof of this than the fact that Solomon Dubno owned works on Kabbalah - as did, no doubt, Mendelssohn too.

#96 - 99 concerns the Targum to Amos 6:1 which laments those who name their children with gentile names. Kunitz was asked if this is not a basis for those who are opposed in their own time to Jews using non-Jewish names. Kunitz finds that it is not. #99 in particular justifies such use, giving a laundry list of Talmudic sages who used non-Jewish names. In addition, he shows that 'modern' Yiddish names are German. Kunitz writes that this was the Jewish practice in all ages, and if they are not prophets than they are the sons of prophets.

#119 is an interesting question, concerning the fact that in Poland the rabbis call the laymen "Rabbi." Isn't this מחזי כיהורא, religious haughtiness? R. Kunitz answers rather ingeniously, quoting Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan, that Eve used to call Adam "Rabbi" (i.e., My master). Kunitz points out that this is equivalent to "Adoni," which is Scriptural usage for "Sir." Therefore it is not inappropriate to call laymen in Poland "Rabbi" at all.

In Pt. II (printed by his son in 1857):

#131 Shimshon Bloch asks where certain ma'amarei Chazal concerning how a person is supposed to view forbidden things (with desire, but resolve to abstain for them because God so decreed). I guess this is a graphic reminded that at the time indexes, thesauri and encyclopedias of rabbinic literature were lacking. Today it's very easy to pretend you know everything.

#152 Judah Leib Benzeev asks a very interesting question. The Talmud Berachos 55b says "לקיים מה שנאמר כל החלומות הולכין אחר הפה." Nothing like it is found in Tanach. He paranthetically adds that given his own interests (Bible expert, translator of Ben Sira) you can believe that he searched carefully, including in the Apocrypha. While noting that the Gemara itself in this very spot seems to recognize the problem, what is the real answer?

#167 is from Herz Homberg, who asks when the Jews adopted the month names and why.

#231 Shlomo Pergamenter asks why Mah Nishtana begins with "mah" rather than "lemah." Secondly, how could the son ask about things he hasn't yet seen?

The book includes many, many more interesting things. For example, it includes a written teshuva from R. Nosson Adler, to a question asked by Kunitz (#20); Kunitz includes as well a letter from the Chasam Sofer certifying that it is authentic. It includes (#42) a question on Kunitz's Ben Yochai from R. Yaakov Emden's Mitpachas Sefarim by a student of R. Yaakov Emden, signed from Berlin "ידידיה בנ אבישלום מבית מדרש של יעב"ץ." There are many letters from R. Elazar Fleckeles, R. Bezalel Ranschburg, and many concerning לימוד תורה לעכו"ם. Also, as I said, by far most questions concern his Ben Yochai.

Although this post is about the book, not the man, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Kunitz had the misfortune of having a letter of his included in the Reformist book Nogah Ha-tzedek. Being a somewhat liberal rabbi, it is not surprising that he had some positive things to say in response to some suggestions of reform. Thus, he supported the suggestions of using the organ in prayer, reserving the silent Shemoneh Esrei for recitation at home (this is most interesting, since today there are many Orthodox Jews who have little use for the Reader's repetition. But my guess is they would never have thought of retaining it but omitting the silent Shemoneh Esrei instead.) and for changing the Hebrew pronunciation from Ashkenazic to Sepharadic. On the last point he makes the amazing claim - from our perspective - that 7/8ths of the world's Jews were Sephardim. Although I don't know if anyone in 1818 could have known one way or the other, in actual fact the situation was almost exactly the opposite. He also mentions the fact that R. Nosson Adler prayed using the Sefardic pronunciation, which he personally witnessed. Interestingly in a letter printed directly before R. Kunitz's. R. Aharon Chorin also says that he witnessed R. Adler pray in this fashion many times when he visited Vienna.

When all is said and done Kunitz does not seem to have been remembered by Orthodox history as a Reform rabbi, unlike Choriner (and Reform history). In addition, you can see from many of the rabbinic letters in the second volume of Hamatzref (the letters all date to after the publication of the first volume, and thus after his letter was printed in Eliezer Libermann's Nogah Hatzedek) that he remained in the good graces of his colleagues. Ultimately Kunitz remains one of those rabbis who one can cite if one likes what he has to say, or one can dismiss and condemn if someone else quotes something by him that one doesn't like, after the fashion of certain writers.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Chutzpah.

Michelle Bachman's mispronunciation of "חוצפה" of as "choot spa" made the news recently. She is hardly the first to make this mistake. In "Onward and upward: a biography of Katharine S. White," by Linda H. Davis (pg. 3) we see that S.N. Behrman always called White "Madame C." It seems the genesis of this nickname came about in 1954 when she mispronounced "the Yiddish colloquialism chutzpah, which the usually correct [New Yorker] editor called "chootsbah." White herself recalled that "It tickled Sam [Behrman] pink and he later told me I was known all over Broadway as Mme. C."

Regarding chutzpah, in a review essay of several books on and about the Jews in an 1896 issue of the Quarterly Review, called The Modern Jews, we read the following:
The Berlin salons, though never equal to the French in wit or politeness, soon gained a reputation; it was chiefly in them that the peculiar effluence called 'Geist' might be discerned. For this kind of light sarcastic humour, smart but superficial, and manufactured every day according to a recipe which is simple enough when stated, the fashionable Jew has always shown his aptitude. We cannot overlook it in Disraeli's novels; and French writers like Drumont confess with a sigh that the young Hebrew of the 'Gaulois' or the 'Figaro' is, in this respect, more Parisian than the Parisians themselves. Its native name is chutzbah, or—to translate very mildly—' self-confidence.' Schopenhauer has remarked, with his usual acuteness, that there is one quality which is conspicuous by its absence from the Jewish character,—it is verecundia, modesty, the shy feeling which in true genius resembles the blush on a maiden's cheek, and heightens the grace that it seems to render uncertain. Compare, from this point of view, Shelley's or even Shakespeare's lyric verse with Heine's,—and yet Heine, in the ' Buch der Lieder,' is supreme among the New-Hebrew singers. But he is never diffident, not in the most troubled or the most passionate hour of his serenading. And his prose, with its Oriental richness, its epigrams, its lightning-flashes, abounds in chutzbah; it has the insolence of a parvenu that has ' arrived,' not by reason of his wealth, but thanks to his undeniable gifts of genius.
The modern reader is no doubt perplexed by such passages. What is wrong with "self-confidence?" Or "undeniable gifts of genius?" The writer also states that "It has taken some thirty centuries to make the modern Jew. Will it take fewer to unmake him? Jacob reforms his Liturgy in Hamburg and New York; but himself neither he, nor we, can reform."

The rabbinic family with the 'Christian' surname Kristianpoller.

Without a doubt one of the most unusual Jewish surnames is Kristianpoller. People bearing this name originate from Krystynopol. A famous Galician rabbinic family bore this surname, particularly R. Meir Kristianpoller (1740-1815) and his son R. Yechiel Michel (?-1863), both rabbis of Brody.

While is is true that this town was known by many names (according to this source), there can be little doubt that the family used , Kristianpoller. See, for example, the title page of this dirge which R. Yechiel Michl wrote for the death of Kayser Franz I. (You can read it here. Oddly, it is bound - or at least the pdf is included with - the 1809 edition of the letters of the Rashba.)

Similarly, you can see how he spelled his name in this letter included in Hirsch Edelmann's biography of Saul Wahl, Poland's Jewish "king for a day."

It's interesting, if not somewhat suspicious, how the name is spelled in Rabbi Meir Wunder's אנציקלופדיה לחכמי גליציה (Vol. 4. Column 618).

קריסנפולר instead of קריסטיאנפאללער or some modern Hebrew variant of it. There's even a bit of a discussion about the spelling here. I'm not going to be so quick to assume that an attempt was made to cover up the name, because the following does appear in Vol. 2 of Rabbi Wunder's Encyclopedia:

This could be the result of a clash of sources. Another example of the name spelled קריסנפולר can be seen here.

In any case, there can be no question that this surname is surprising. As I have shown before in some circles there was a reluctance to use + as a plus sign. Here's an example of a math book from 1829 which uses an inverted kometz for a plus sign, as it explains here:

I can't say for sure that it is out of reluctance to use a regular + symbol, but it seems likely. In one of the missionary journals I recall reading about a tumult that was caused by the footnote symbols used in a Hebrew Tanach which the missionaries were distributing, as was their custom. Often Jews were happy to receive such a free gift which ostensibly came without conditions. (The missionaries felt that there was value in the Jews having a Tanach unmediated with rabbinic interpretations, thus no Onkelos, Rashi, etc.) However, in this case the people were very disturbed that one of the symbols was a cross.

In any case, whether or not it can be argued that the name is similar or different, it seems a little odd (and, I might add, whether or not the name of the town technically means what it sounds like).

Leopold Zunz also knew it was odd, so he made mention of it in his 1837 book Namen der Juden. Namen der Juden was written to counter a Prussian decree banning Jews from using German names. So Zunz investigated the history of Jewish naming practices and showed that the Jews continuously adopted the names - including German ones - from the surrounding culture. (What do you think "Zalman" is?) Conversely, loads of "German" names were actually Jewish names, being derived from the Bible. It worked; the decree was modified to only forbid specifically Christian names. Thus Jews were allowed to continue to call themselves Heinrich, if they wanted to, but not Peter. On pg. 124-5 of his book, Zunz concludes with a passionate defense of a parent's right to name children as they see fit. He says that this is not a religious issue, as Christians can name their children highly religious Christian names if they want (such as Dodjeschu (דודישו), which he points out is a Syriac Christian name, or Christbold and the like). But is a Jew going to name their child Christlieb? Such names would be very, very unusual. So nothing to worry about, from a Christian perspective. "Christian" is a less distinctively Christian name (from a religious point of view) and it is rare among Jews. Here Zunz mentions 'the living "Rabbiner zu Brody,"' that is, R. Yechiel Michel Kristianpoller. Note though that he does not mention his name.

In 1843 a book about the Galician Jews called Galizisch-jüdische Zustände appeared anonymously, but obviously written by a Jew (he quotes Baba Bathra 89b, אוי לי אם אומר אוי לי אם לא אומר, on the title page). Writing about the rabbi of Brody, the author says:
At the top of the spiritual hierarchy [in Brody] is the honorable rabbi Herr Michel Kristianpoller, a man of justice and truth. His noble virtues, dignified demeanor, his impeccable reputation for deep Talmudic erudition, make him a man loved by the people. His bright views on the issues of life, his sharp attention to the conditions of his environment, his openly expressed tolerance for people of different religious viewpoints, his gratitude to people, make him a man of the time. He was almost unanimously elected to his position [av beth din] after the death of his predecessor, the revered rabbi Herr Lazarus Landau.
The author footnotes his name, and says
I must criticize a little mistake in Dr. Zunz's work on the origin of Jewish names. The doctor studied the widely-held misimpression concerning the Germanization of Jewish names, even proving the remarkable fact that the rabbi of Brody uses the name "Christian." The Galician Jews are not so culturally advanced. The first name of the rabbi is Michel. The surname "Kristianpoller" is merely the town, Krystianpol, where the rabbi's family comes from.
In any case, R. Michel Kristianpoller's daughter Breindel married Nathan Kallir (1821-1866), a man who eventually would be knighted (and known as Nathan Ritter von Kallir) and became the first Jewish member of the Austrian parliament. She was renowned for being very very pious. Him, observant, but less pious. In fact, according to this memoir (dictated in 1929), Breindele Kristianpoller Kallir was known as a tzadekes and her grave was a site of pilgrimage and prayer. The story goes that she was concerned that her husband should put on his tallis and tefillin every day. But as a very busy man constantly traveling to Vienna, without deep piety, she felt that he needed coaxing. One time she packed his clothes, but he could not find his woolen underwear which he would need as it was winter. He wrote back to his wife asking her where she packed it. Her response: "Go pray to God and you'll have your prayer answered." He understood: he opened his not-so-used tallis bag and found the underwear inside.

On that note, in the Artscroll book Aleppo City of Scholars a story is told of how the lack of piety of an Alliance Israélite Universelle school teacher was exposed when a piece of meat was put into his tallis bag. When it began to rot and the smell spread all over the school it was proved that he did not put on tefillin.

EDIT 7.22.11

In the comments someone asked about "Satmar," which is allegedly "St. Mary." While most people now know that it doesn't mean that at all, the idea that it meant St. Mary is not something new. Many Jews called it "Sakmar," including the most famous Satmar Jew of all, R. Yoel Teitelbaum. See, e.g., this letter from him from 1934:

סאקמיר, not סאטמיר. You can do a search for both terms (and other spellings) at and see many examples, both ways.

It also bears pointing out that Jews generally referred to "St. Petersburg" as "Peterburg" in Yiddish. One hears of "R. Itzele Peterburger," not "R. Itzele St. Peterburger." However, not too much can be made of such things, as in most cases the Yiddish names of cities and towns did not exactly match the name in the local language, particularly if there was a long history of Jewish settlement.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

AJ Heschel and the Philosopher's Dictionary

Abraham J. Heschel's A Concise Dictionary of Hebrew Philosophical Terms (Cincinnati, 1941) was recently added to This 86 page mimeographed booklet was apparently composed by himself and students at the Hebrew Union College. It's largely based on Klatzkin, but it is in English. It's quite interesting, and very probably still useful to people.

Here's a sample page:

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tractate Reds; a Talmudic parody of Russian Communism from 1923.

Here's the first page of מסכת אדמונים מן תלמוד בולשבי. This parody Talmud was signed by Avshalom bar Daroma, which is a pen name of Abraham Solomon Melamed (who wrote another Talmud parody about twenty years earlier). It was published in Tel Aviv in 1923. The Massekhet is 24 dafim, encompassing 5 perakim. Naturally it would be humorous if it wasn't so horrifying; the parody is dedicated to a certain person who, we are told, was killed by the Communists in 1920. This individual requested that he be hung first so as not to witness the executions of his companions. On that same page is a quotation from Megillah 25a: אמר רב נחמן כל ליצנותא אסירא בר מליצנותא דעבודת כוכבים דשריא.

The 'Mishnah' begins 'All are Red. There is no difference between Red and White, apart for the name alone. Rabbi Yarkan says the Yerokin (Greens) are included. 'Rashi' says that the Gemara will explain who the Yerokim are. On 3a, for example, we see that 'the Whites call 'Zhid!' loudly, while the Reds say it quietly.' i.e., they are both antisemitic.

In the 'Gemara' (3b) Rabbi Yarkon 'darshens' Lev. 13:49 ('If the plague be greenish or reddish') to prove that in regards to plagues both Green and Red are the same. By 'Green' he means the, armed peasants.

The first part of the last 'Mishnah' (daf 23b) says 'Three things were decreed by the followers of the Reds for Israel: That they should not teach faith and religion to their children, until they are 18 years old. It is prohibited to teach Hebrew with Tanach, and any school which teaches Torah must be closed, and the teachers and parents arrested and tried. And it is prohibited for a father to go with his child to the synagogue until he is eighteen years old. An incident occurred in Strodov (?), someone circumcised his Communist daughter's son, and the case was brought before the followers of the Reds. They arrested and tried the grandfather and imprisoned him.' The second part continues, 'Even though it is prohibited to teach children Torah, but it is permitted to teach politics . . .' Then the 'Gemara' asks, 'What is politics? To teach them to distinguish between the Bourgeois and the Communist . . . '

If anyone is interested in the entire thing, you can read it here; it doesn't appear on Google Books.

And to those who asked, I am going to resume a full schedule of posting soon. Thanks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Shadal series #3 - On the important role played by printing never-published old works.

In 1845 R. Eliezer Ashkenazi published a 16th century supercommentary to Rashi by R. Abraham Bacrat. His ספר הזכרון, written (or completed) in the year 1507 in Tunis, his place of exile from Spain, had never before been printed, although there were several manuscript copies and the work was not unknown in North Africa. In his introduction, Ashkenazi writes that he prints many never-before-printed works, and he beautifully states that he likes to make Ashkenazic works known in the Sefardic lands, and Sefardic works known in the Ashkenazic lands.

The book was printed in Livorno, as were many North African and Italian books of the time. It featured three different sets of haskamos, by Italian, Tunisian and Moroccan rabbis, for those three respective book markets. The approbations in the Italian version were written by R. Isaac Samuel Reggio (Yashar) of Gorizia, R. Mordecai Samuel Ghirondi of Padua, and Shadal. In his introduction, Ashkenazi singles out Yashar and Shadal for their publications of never-published material; Yashar having published the shorter Ibn Ezra commentary to Exodus, and Shadal having published the Divan of R. Yehuda Ha-levi.

You can see there was a mutual hotzi la-or appreciation society of sorts. Since printing was invented, it took some time for it to become widespread enough and cheap enough. The result being that many works in earlier centuries fell behind, having never been printed. These manuscripts lay all over the Jewish world, in private libraries, in genizot, in the hands of people who know what they were, in the hands of people who had no idea. So it was that in the 19th century there was an explosion of acquiring and printing these manuscripts for the first time, which has never abated.

Shadal's haskamah is very interesting because it contains his attitude toward uncovering and printing these old works. He believed they are like a gift from God, who is providentially ensuring that the present generation receives Torah instruction from the earlier generations.

He begins by praising God for the depth of his wisdom. God sees how topsy-turvy the present (=mid-19th century) is and he acts for the good of his creation, knowing that each generation needs its teachers and judges. To understand how God acts, think of a king who rules over a vast empire. When he sees that his subjects in the farthest reaches lack proper supervision, he sends them leaders and judges from other provinces. So it is that God saw that the generation is orphaned, with many following nothing and nonsense. Even the sages and wise men are ineffective as leaders. So what does God do? He sends them sages and leaders from another generation. He causes old books to be lifted out of the dust piles, in order that their voices can be heard in a later generation. It is as if he returns the soul to the dead, breathing new life into the hearts of those that are straying. He turns the heart of the fathers - already dead - to the children, in order to turn the heart of the children toward their fathers. This is just in time before it's too late and the generation all goes to waste. This is divine providence, good medicine for the present generation, which is a vain one, a generation which forgot Zion, and is pining for Emancipation (check out that font size). Then he refers to his own publication of R. Yehuda Ha-levi's poems which are full of love for Torah (and Zion, although he does not mention this). Those poems were a big hit, with people even translating them to the vernacular. Thus, good teachings from the past are spreading among the Jews, to counter the bad tendencies of the age.

He then praises the present work, R. Abraham Halevi Bakrat's Sefer Ha-zikaron, for his commentary on Rashi ("Rosh Shivtei Yisrael," - Ghirondi calls Rashi "Hamelech Shlomo Yitzchaki" in his haskamah),which was written in clear language, with straight reasoning, manifesting a love for the truth, pursuing the peshat, eschewing pilpul, showing his expertise in all areas of Hebrew grammar, as well as Aramaic, Arabic, and Mishnaic Hebrew. He also enumerates various other qualities of this commentary, such as explaining matters through textual criticism of the Targum, supplying an example or two for each one. Can you imagine? A haskmah which actually shows that the muskam read it, and even tells the reader were some of the good material is to be found! Finally, he closes by assuring everyone who purchases this book and reads it that they will not regret it!

(This letter is also printed in Penine Shadal (Przemsyl 1888) pp. 47-49. Monford Harris quoted a little bit of it in his article "The Theologico- Historical Thinking of Samuel David Luzzatto," JQR 52 (1961-62), but the entire letter needs to be seen for its full context. My thanks to Leor Jacobi who copied the letter for me from Penine Shadal - which seems to be the only important Shadal source which is not yet digitized. Harris gave no indication of where the letter originally appeared, but Penine Shadal told me where to find the haskamah itself. Without knowing where it was originally printed, and the attitude of the publisher himself, much important context would be missing.)


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