Monday, February 28, 2005


At a poetry slam I once heard someone declaim:

I read Kohelles on acid.
Does that make me a Hassid?

Well, I'm struggling through Latin poetry while listening to Jewish hip-hop. Does that make me neo-Classidic?

I just want this exam behind me already.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Moving at a different pace

Speaking of cycles, you should check out a new site. From what I hear behind the scenes, things should get interesting there in the (hopefully) near future.

The English version there isn't working yet, so I'll attempt a short explanation. Most (Orthodox) congregations read the entire Torah in the course of one year, completing the cycle on Simchat Torah. Various sources reveal that, according to the Palestinian rite (minhag Eretz Yisrael), they took three and a half years to finish. That may sound a little inelegant, but - as Shlomo Naeh pointed out in Tarbiz 67 (1998) - it's really aimed towards a major public finale once in seven years. Like Hakhel.

Anyway, Sidra aims to present the alternative division of the Bible to accomodate this triennial cycle. This is supposed to be complemented by the appropriate haftara sections from the Prophets, and by midrashic and liturgical compositions which were composed around them. The system survived until sometime in the 12th century, mostly in the Jerusalemites' synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo). Mordechai Akiva Friedman wrote a fascinating article on its demise, in the Ezra Fleischer festschrift, Knesset Ezra.

If they do in fact bring all that material together, it will be enlightening and exciting. I hope they succeed.


The beer glass was drained and paid for.
Piles of assignments covered the floor.
Your t-shirts are clean.

Shabbat review

Picked up a leaflet at shul, illustrating the centrality of Gaza in the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism. E.g., Avoda Zara 20a, where they find it written that it is forbidden to relinquish Gush Katif. And historical tidbits, like the fact that R Israel Najara lived in Gaza. But they didn't mention another famous Gazan.

I read an old article by Yedidya Dinari on menstruants and holiness in Judaism. He tried to track the development of the idea that niddot should not enter a synagogue or look at a Torah scroll. The late lamented Ta-Shma wrote a short article on this topic, as did Jeffrey Woolf in the second volume of Kenishta, and Evyatar Mareinberg as well, I assume (unfortunately, I can't read French). It is apparently an example of an unofficial tradition, perhaps stemming from sectarian beliefs, that exerted subterranean influence on Halakha for centuries.

I started reading an article by Amos Goldreich, on Tikkunei Zohar and Shabbat, from the new BGU book on Shabbat. I didn't get it all, but it's about pessimism on Shabbat, and I can identify.

And I read a little about Solomon Skoss (1884-1953), who published some Judeo-Arabic books and was an amateur bee-keeper.

Sorry I haven't posted anything significant in the past few days. Some personal issues, and no exciting ideas. We'll see how it goes. I'm reading Talya Fishman's latest article, and it seems interesting.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Just a thought. There are some important books out there which deserve good indices. The prime example, which has frustrated me innumerable times, is Daniel Sperber's seven-volume book, Minhagei Yisrael. There is a huge amount of information there. Much of it appears as BTW footnotes in random places, or scattered in the addenda to the later volumes. It takes ages to find what I want, and I'm never sure there isn't some crucial passage hiding somewhere I didn't notice.

If Sperber intends to publish additional volumes, and I certainly hope he does, perhaps a good way of keeping the index up-to-date would be online. This worked well for another book that kept coming out in clumps.

By the way, a slightly edited version of one of my postings is now on Jewschool.

Monday, February 21, 2005


I said I wouldn't comment on the Slifkin story. But there was one point that rankled me: the accusation that the treatise on rabbinic aggadot, which is part of Abraham Maimonides' book High Ways to Perfection (HaMaspik leOvdei Hashem, Kitab Kafaya alAbadin), is a modern forgery.

Rabbis have often used the forgery tack to wave away sources they found unacceptable. Spiegel discusses several such examples in his book Amudim beToldot haSefer haIvri, part II, pp. 252-275. His main topic is responsa which have been suspected as forged, but he mentions other books as well.

One well known example is R Yehuda heHassid's Bible commentary. It was published in 1975 by Y.S. Lange, who had already published many volumes of the Meiri's Beit haBehira and other manuscript works. Rav Moshe Feinstein was told that the commentary contains explanation which assume that passages in the Bible were inserted after the time of Moses. His response (Iggerot Mosher YD 3, 114 and 115) was that the book must be a forgery, or at least those passages, and that the printing must cease. Lange pointed out that these explanations were brought in the name of R Yehuda heHassid in a later book, Sefer HaZiyyuni - and R Feinstein's response was that the second book should be banned too.

Since then, it has emerged that this commentary is simply one more example of an ancient Jewish exegetical tradition which had no problem in seeing the Bible as a document which was edited over time. Read about it here if you want, or in the fourth section of the late Prof. Ta-Shma's book, Knesset Mehkarim, volume I: Ashkenaz, Jerusalem 2004.

I think this is an illuminating example that holds true for the some of the other cases Spiegel mentions as well (the Rema's responsum on Stam Yeinam, or the geonic sources requiring a menstruant to immerse herself in a "live" spring - see Dov Zlotnick's article in Atara laHayyim). The opinions may seem strange or beyond the pale today, but they authentic. You can reject them, but you can't erase them (you can try. I'll try to stop you).

On the other hand, there always have been genuine cases of forgery. But they tend not to present heretical opinions. Another example that Spiegel brings - Shaarei Teshuva. This collection of Geonic responsa, which has been discussed extensively in the past 15 years (see Neil Danzig, Tarbiz 58 [1989]), contains many paragraphs which were either doctored or made of whole cloth. An example I once looked at: many sources condemn wine-songs because they lead to moral turpitude.

But in Shaarei Teshuva, it says this specifically against songs in foreign languages. Checking the manuscripts showed that those two words, "foreign language", are missing. Provisional conclusion - they were added later. But they never bothered anyone when the book was published, because everyone felt quite content with this anachronistic idea that Hebrew is intrinsically a better, more moral language.

Most medieval forgery seems innocuous to us. As far as I can remember, Moshe Botril was not writing heresy. The motive for forgery was self-promotion. The content was not usually insidious.

I am reminded of a book I once saw, and have no idea anymore what the title or the author was. But the author tells how, at some point in the 1930s, the Nazis unearthed the medieval Christian complaints against the Talmud - that it is full of anti-Christian venom, immorality, absurdities and superstition. The author took it upon himself to answer their charges, and his blanket solution was that the problematic passages had been planted by Christian censors. I can't imagine it had much of an impact at the time. But what really surprised me was that, living in Israel after the Holocaust, he still saw some need to publish this book. Apparently, he really believed the passages were forged. Today we know that all these passages existed long before any Christian had looked at the Talmud.

Even the slightly bizarre midrashim that Raymond Martini collated in Pugio Fidei and which did not seem to be found in any known collections of midrashim, were probably not invented by any Christian (Ta-Shma has some interesting comments on obscure midrashim that seem foreign, in his lecture on R Moshe haDarshan, Jerusalem 2001).

Those cases which do seem to sometimes fit the Haredi conception of forgery are modern - Besamim Rosh being the most famous example. But such examples are very rare.

The Middle Ages is often surprising to us. That's what makes it interesting - to see how, in some ways, we are strongly influenced by our predescessors, and in others, very different from them. Attempts to write out the dynamics of the past, but to retain its prestige, are infuriating to me.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

On taking our culture as a whole

In the past year, several Talmudic manuscripts have been scanned and posted online. I was just thinking about Munich 95, the only extant manuscript of the entire Talmud (and perhaps the only one ever to exist). It is a massive tome, difficult to use in facsimile, and the website is frustrating as well (it doesn't seem to be working at the moment).

What I like about the site, though, is that they scanned the manuscript in its entirety - including the sections which are not part of the Talmud. A fascinating article appeared recently, exploring the magical texts on the last page of the manuscript (Guiseppe Veltri, ' "Watermarks" in the ms "Munich, Hebr. 95"; magical recipes in historical context ', in: Jewish Studies between the Disciplines = Judaistik zwischen den Disziplinen; Papers in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. Ed. by Klaus Herrmann, Margarete Schlüter, Giuseppe Veltri. Leiden: Brill, 2003, pp. 243-256).

The French and German Jewish culture which produced the Munich Talmud was full of magic. The same culture which produced the vaunted Tosafot. I can understand why some people would feel uncomfortable with certain aspects of their heritage. But that is no reason to forget them.

A very important link



I want Koren Publishers to reprint the Mahzorim that Daniel Goldschmidt produced for the High Holy Days (and which, with the help of his son-in-law, Yona Frankel, was done for Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot). They are not the most exciting of books, but if you feel like reading critical editions and commentaries on the piyutim that are recited in Ashkenazic communities, or if you're trying to identify a fragmentary piyut ripped out of a medieval manuscript, it's helpful. And long out of print. The three festival volumes, by the way, are still available. Check with the Leo Baeck Institute.
Anyway, if you're interested, send an email. When enough people come forward, I will try to convince the publishers.

First post

My friend Mobius suggested I start posting on Jewschool about the things that interest me. This is an attempt, to see whether I can actually come up with things like that.

My main field of interest is medieval Jewish religious literature. Mostly Halakhah, definitely not philosophy, but other specific topics are negotiable. Lately I've been looking at some of the topics that dominate the Jewish blogosphere. While I am intrigued by contemporary developments, I am not usually passionate about them. So don't look here for my take on the Zoo Torah scandal or political developments in the State of Israel or Yeshiva University, or wherever else some find the focal point of their existence.

One of the books I recently bought is the David Weiss Halivni festschrift, titled Netiot le-David. I haven't had the chance to read much of it yet. But just looking at the table of contents commends the book as a rare example of scholars from different institutions coming together in honour of someone.

[Update: The link to the table of contents of Netiot le-David doesn't seem to be working. Now it should link to the site of the publisher, and you can find the book there, along with other titles they have published. The book on the Italian Geniza is very interesting, in my opinion.]

Another new book, closer to my field, is Yaakov Spiegel's book, Amudim be-Toldot ha-Sefer ha-Ivri ( Chapters in the History of the Jewish Book). It was first published in 1996, focusing on glosses and glossators (Hagahot - see the name of this blog! - u-Magihim). That has now been revised, and a second, new volume deals with the process of writing the Jewish book.

Speigel says that in this book he deals with the second and third periods of Jewish publishing - manuscripts and early publishing. The first period was when the Jewish tradition was oral (a lot has been written about this fascinating topic. This is one good source), the fourth is offset printing and the fifth is the computer world. The different periods influence and illuminate each other. I'll try to illustrate this with an example I recently worked on.

R Isaiah ben Mali of Trani (southern Italy) wrote several books. One of them is his Tosafot on the Talmud. These tosafot are famous for the fact that they were apparently published in several different editions. Rid himself refers to different versions (in one place he refers to his fifth edition on a certain tractate), and on one or two tractates we actually possess two discrete editions. There is more to be said about this, and Spiegel's discussion is not very extensive. But it is especially fascinating in a time when authors can constantly update their work, often without leaving any traces for readers to pick apart.