Friday, May 27, 2005

Maharam of Rothenburg

As everyone knows, the 18th of Iyyar is the anniversary of the death of R Shimon b Yohai (well, probably not, but anyway). Tomorrow, the 19th, is the anniversary of the death of R Meir b Baruch of Rothenburg, known as Maharam.

Maharam was the foremost halachic decisor of his time, issuing thousands of responsa to rabbinic courts and colleagues throughout Europe. He was born around the year 1220 in Worms.

In 1286, as the legal status of Jews in Germany deteriorated, Maharam attempted to flee the country (as his disciple, R Asher b Yehiel, succeeded in doing shortly afterwards). He was caught and imprisoned, first at Ensisheim, and later, under better conditions, at Wasserburg. For years, while he languished in prison, he continued to teach his students and edited several of his earlier works (I once heard tell of a manuscript, in private hands, written by Maharam on pages from the prison log).

Maharam never left the prison alive. According to Maharshal (Yam shel Shelomo Gittin IV 6), he instructed his followers not to pay the ransom demanded for him because captives should not be redeemed for more than their worth (whether the story is true or not, that was in fact his position - see his responsa, ed. Berlin 1891, p. 205, no. 128; ed. Prague 1608, no. 78). He died on Iyyar 19th, 1293.

Even after his death the ransom was demanded. Eventually it was met, and Maharam was buried in Worms in 1307.


On my last night of miluim, my friends and I wandered into a discussion on the etymology of the word ghetto. I didn't really know where it came from. Today I stumbled across an article on precisely this question, with a suggestive answer, which I thought to share with you.

Sandra Debenedetti-Stow, in an article in the Frank Talmage memorial volume, found documentary evidence demonstrating that the Jews of Rome understood the word as being a form of the Hebrew word "get", meaning writ of divorce.

Which, I think, says a lot about their attitude toward their separation from the rest of the city. Obviously, the concept carried many chillingly dangerous ramifications as well, which history played out all too clearly. Sometimes it is better to break down those barriers and join the rest of society. But I do believe that there is a certain value in having a place of your own, where you can afford to be less self-conscious, where a self-evident identity allows a community to explore itself with more freedom.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

More Manuscripts Online

While I was away, the Jewish Theological Seminary Library launched a beautiful site, allowing full access to some of its wonderful holdings. So far, four illuminated liturgical manuscripts have been scanned and uploaded, including an intriguing "Woman's Siddur" copied by the famous scribe and philosopher Abraham Farrisol.

I'd like to give a little constructive criticism - the Geniza fragments here seem to have been scanned on one side only. And they lack detailed descriptions, which is a shame.

I hope the library continues to develop and augment this site, and that more and more Hebrew manuscripts become available for perusal online.

I'm back

I returned today from two weeks of army reserve duty in the Jordan Valley, patrolling the Israeli-Jordanian border. An interesting experience, driving around in a jeep on Shabbat with a driver named Yasser.

I also spent two days on guard at Naharayim. Since the peace treaty, the inlet just over the border has been named the Isle of Peace. Rather ironic, since the site is dominated by a huge monument to the 14 year old girls who were murdered there in 1997. To add another surreal dimension to it, the grass of the monument is cut by robots.

I'm glad to be back.

Friday, May 13, 2005

New small crossword

This morning I bought the brand new edition of Tashbetz Katan. Tashbetz is a collection of the legal decisions and practices of R Meir b Baruch of Rothenburg, collected by his disciple, Shimshon b Zadok (the epiphet Katan, "minor", is to distinguish this work from the responsa of R Shimon b Zemah Duran, the important 15th century North African decisor).

The book was very popular throughout the Middle Ages, which resulted in its presence in more than 100 manuscripts. It has also been printed many times, and differents editions in both print and manuscript include glosses. The most famous glossator of the Tashbetz, who wrote important glosses on the Semak as well, was R Peretz ben Elijah of Corbeil. All of this conspires to make the editing of such a work quite difficult.

This new edition does not encompass all extant manuscripts. It is based principally on a manuscript which the editor believes was used by R Joseph Karo. But it includes comparisons to some other manuscripts, and references to the other printed editions. In addition, the first printing of the book, Cremona 1556, is reproduced at the end of this edition (pages 43v-45r were photocopied here out of order).

This edition was produced by R Shmuel Schneuersohn (there's something liberating about saying Rabbi Shneerson, isn't there?). He is a man getting on in years, but his energy is amazing. I have often seen him running around Jerusalem while his walking stick tries to keep up. I'm very glad that he has managed to complete this task, which he worked on for more than a decade.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

One small thought

Parshat Emor starts off with the instruction to the priests, the surviving sons of Aaron, that they are not allowed to be defiled by contact with the dead. This rule, however, does not apply to their immediate relatives. Parents, spouse, children and siblings.

Sifra, the Tannaitic midrash ad loc, asks why such enumeration was necessary. If the Bible had said only siblings, we could have learnt logically that children are also included in this category. Why? Because a parent has legal obligations toward his children - their education, their welfare are the legal responsibility of the parents. But siblings do not have formal obligations towards each other.

But, I'm thinking, now that siblings are included in the category of people for whose burial a Kohen is required to defile himself, what does that tell us? Doesn't it mean that the relationship between siblings really is one which carries mutual responsibilities? In life, and in death.

I wanted to post something tonight in memory of my grandmother's first cousin, Eliyahu Hershkowitz, who was one of the 35 Palmah soldiers who set off in January 1948 to relieve the siege on Gush Etzion. They were all killed before they reached the Bloc.

So, one of my responsibilities to Eliyahu, who was an only child, is remembering, telling his story. Another is serving in the army that he would have joined, had he lived a few months longer [the issue of Israeli citizens who consider themselves exempt of any duty to enter the compulsary draft is an incendiary one I don't want to enter into, but, especially on Memorial Day, it seems like an incredibly selfish, callous position to take, that Haredim do not serve]. There are more responsibilities, of course. And other siblings to whom I owe them. But that's enough for tonight.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Rav Elyashiv's responsum II

כבוד ידידי הגאון הרש"פ כהן שליט"א

ע"ד השאלה במקרה וההורים מתעוללים בילדיהם [מכות לילד] והחוק מחייב למסור הדבר לפקיד הממשלה והממשלה עלולה להוציא הילד מבית ההורים ולהשיבם בבתים אחרים אף בבית של נכרי, עד שיתברר הדבר האם רשאים למסור הדבר לממשלה באופן שאכן אמת נכון הדבר.

הדבר תלוי בכמה גורמים, ואם הילד נמצא בבית שומרי תו"מ ומתחנך בבתיהם הרי ע"י מסירת הילד לבית נכרי ואף לבית חילוני ה"ז בגדר מסירת זרע ישראל למולך כי אין ספק שזה יפגע בנפש הילד גם אם זה לזמן קצר וזה ישפיע על חינוכו של הילד בעתיד [מדובר במקרה שאין בהתעוללות ההורים משום פקו"נ] יש גם לשקול בגדר של ההתעוללות, שבהשקפה שלהם היא אחרת לגמרי משלנו.

ובכן איפוא על כל מקרה ומקרה צריך שיקול דעת והכרעה ע"י ת"ח גדולים בתורה ויר"ש.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Rav Elyashiv's responsum I

בס"ד צום העשירי תשס"ד
לידידי וכו' הגרש"פ כהן וכו'
מכתבו קבלתי במועדו ולא עלתה בידי להשיבו עד שהגעתי ליומא דמפגרי ביה רבנן, תוכן השאלה אחד יודע שמישהו מתעלל בילד או בילדה בעניני מין, ובאופן שאין בידינו לעצור בעדו שלא ימשיך במעשיו הרעים, האם מותר להודיע על כך לפקיד הממשלה.
והנה ז"ל הרשב"א בתשו' ח"ג סי' שצ"ג "רואה אני שאם העדים נאמנים אצל הברורים רשאים הן לקנוס קנס ממון או עונש הגוף הכל לפי מה שיראה להם וזה מקיים העולם שאם אתם מעמידין הכל על הדינין הקצובים בתורה ושלא לענוש אלא כמו שענשה התורה - נמצא העולם חרב - ונמצאו פורצין גדרו של עולם נמצא העולם שמם, וכבר קנסו קנסות במכה את חבירו וכו' בכל מקום ומקום דנין לגדור את הדור וכן עושין בכל דור ודור ובכל מקום ומקום שרואין שהשעה צריכה לכך - והנה אמרו דרב הונא שהיה מבבל קץ ידא - ולפיכך ברורים אלושעשו זה אם ראו צורך השעה לתיקון המדינה - כדין עשו, - וכ"כ בדאיכאהורמנא דמלכא וכענין שעשו ר' אליעזר בר"ש בר"פ הפועלים"
מתוך דברי הרשב"א שמעינן דבדבר שיש בה משום תיקון העולם יש כח לחכמי ישראל שבכל דור ודור לגדור גדר ולעמוד בפרץ גם במקום שאין לנו צירוף שלהורמנא דמלכא וממ"ש הריטב"א בחי' לב"מ [פ"ד ב'] משמע לכאורה דכחו שלהורמנא דמלכא הוא וזל"ש "אמר להו תפסוהו, והא דדאין בלא עדים והתראה, ושלא בזמן סנהדרין, שאני הכא דשליחא דמלכא הוא ומדיני המלכות להרוג בלא עדים והתראה לייסר העולם כמו"ש בדוד שהרג גר עמלקי ושלוחו של מלך כמותו-", אך כפי האמור בדבר שיש בו משום תיקון העולם א"צ בקבלת הורמנא דמלכא.
אכן כ"ז להתיר להודיע לממשלה הוא באופן שהדבר ברור שאכן ידו במעל, ובזה יש משום תיקון העולם אך באופן שאין אפי' רגלים לדבר, אלא איזה דמיון אםנתיר הדבר לא רק שאין בזה משום תיקון העולם אלא הרס העולם יש כאן ויתכן שבגלל איזה מרירות של תלמיד כלפי המורה מעליל על המורה או בגלל איזה דמיון שוא מכניסים אדם למצב שטוב מותו מחייו, - על לא עול בכפו, ואין אני רואה שום היתר בדבר.
והנני בזה ידידוש"ת יוסף שלום אלישיב

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Yom haShoah

A couple of interesting things in Shahar Ilan's article in Ha'aretz. He picked up on the Yeshurun article I blogged about a couple of weeks ago.

And an article by Dov Schwartz and Moshe Blau, on the origins of the Pulsa deNura ceremony. As my friend Blau explained it to me, the content of the ceremony is the excommunication formula which was published in the Sefer Kolbo (though not in Orhot Hayim. I told him to check the manuscripts of OH, which contain an entire section that was not published). The scary name and mystical trappings were added by his great-uncle, Amram Blau, as a tool in his various political struggles.

Finally, on the topic of tragedy and liturgy - one of the new titles on sale now at Mossad haRav Kook is a book by Alter Velner on the Ten Executed Rabbis. He explores the different (mostly hagiographic) midrashim about this group of tannaitic martyrs, and then publishes a selection of piyutim on the theme from throughout the Middle Ages. Such dirges usually incorporated current events. Several poems in this genre were composed after the Holocaust, but they never seemed to gain much popularity. I guess the Conservative Movement realized that Midrash speaks to people today more than religious poetry.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Ashkenazic pronunciation and a joke

I am on reserve duty in the army for the next few weeks, so my blogging routine will be even more erratic than it usually is.

The topic of Ashkenazic pronunciation and linguistic tradition seems to have sparked some interest. First, strictly about pronunciation, see Prof Asher Laufer's article, "Thoughts on pre-Ashkenazic pronunciation", Kol le-Yaakov: A Festschrift for Professor Ya'akov ben Tulila [=Eshel Be'er Sheva 8], Beer Sheva 2003, 259-275. His contention is that Yemenite pronunciation reflects the Babylonian tradition, Sephardic reflects the Palestinian punctuation system - and Ashkenazic is closest to the Tiberian system, which is the only one used for the past millenium. He also says that pre-Ashkenazic pronunciation (which was studied in depth by Ilan Eldar) is essentially Sephardic.

The Shamma Friedman article I was referring to is: Shamma Yehuda Friedman, 'Manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud - Typology of Spelling', Studies in the Hebrew Language and Jewish Languages: Shelomo Morag Festschrift, Jerusalem 1996, 163-189. He demonstrates that Ashkenazic manuscripts preserve ancient linguistic forms, specifically those which seem to reflect a more popular, "vulgar" language. Friedman suggests that the vaunted Spanish manuscripts (especially Hamburg 165) were "corrected", so that their language would be more uniform and formally correct.

For Zelda Kahan Newman's article, see 'The Jewish Sound of Speech: Talmudic Chant, Yiddish Intonation and the Origins of Early Ashkenaz', Jewish Quarterly Review XC (2000), 293-336.

All of which supports the point I was making - that Ashkenazic speech is more than an unfortunate by-product of exile. I think that such a deprecatory attitude towards Jewish life in the diaspora is completely inappropriate, and Yom ha-Shoah seems like a good opportunity to debunk it.

There is a famous story, about the Galician apikorus whose greatest pleasure was sitting back, after a good Shabbos meal, lighting up a cigar and learning Gemara. Today I discovered that this was actually told about someone specific.

I was looking through one of the chapters in Chaim Gertner's doctorate, Rabbinate and Dayyanut in Galicia during the first half of the 19th century: a typology of traditional leadership in crisis, Hebrew University 2004. On page 39 he brings a description of Lemberg, written by the historian Simon Berenfeld. The passage emphasizes the tolerance of the Lemberg community at the time.

Among other colourful characters, he mentions "a wise and learned man, a Ben Torah, of whom it was said that he was a student of R Nachman Krochmal. He was very wealthy, and lived on the outskirts of the city. Every day he sat and studied Torah and [general] knowledge. This was his custom: On Shabbat he would sit and smoke and study the decisors [to determine] whether "hotza'at machase" (?) on Shabbat is permitted or not. On Passover he would sit and eat hametz, while exploring the Acharonim, to see whether eating legumes could be permitted on Passover".

In a footnote, Gertner identifies this person, based on another statement by Berenfeld, as one Hillel Lechner.

It's still a good story, isn't it?