Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man

From a previous visit to NYC.


אם יש לאדם תלמידים יעסוק בתקנתם. וכך, רב אחד טוב בעיר ויש תלמידים טובים
כתלמידיו, יעסוק בתקנתם כמו בתקנת תלמידיו. ואם יש לו תוספות ואין לרב אחר
לא יאמר לא אשאיל לו ויבאו תלמידיו לפני ללמוד. לכך אומר 'יהי כבוד
חבירך חביב עליך
כשלך', וכתיב 'ואהבת לרעך כמוך'.
ספר חסידים, מהד'
ויסטנצקי, סימן תתתרעח, עמ' 358

If a person has students, he should concern himself with their
edification. If there is a good teacher in the town, and good students who are
not his own, he should labour over their education as if they were his own
students. And if he has Tosafot and another teacher does not, he should
not say "I will not lend them to him and all his students will come to me".
Therefore it says "the honour of your friend should be as dear to you as your
own", and it says "And you shall love your friend as yourself".
Sefer Hassidim, Wistenzki edition, no. 1478
This, apparently, is the source for the assumption that Talmudic students in the Middle Ages would choose their teacher based on the library the teacher owned. See Israel Ta-Shema, Ritual, Custom and Reality in Franco-Germany, p. 128; Mordechai Breuer, 'The Wandering of Students and Scholars', Culture and Society in Medieval Jewry, Jerusalem 1989, p. 450, n. 21.
There may be a hidden dimension here - the first source quoted is apparently a reference to Avot 4:12. 'R Elazar says - The honour of your student should be as dear to you as the honour of your friend'. 4:14 quotes R Nehorai - 'Exile yourself to the place of Torah'.
Anyway, that's what I'm doing. Going off into exile Thursday morning, to the great libraries of New York City. I hope to continue blogging while I am there. I hope to find plenty to write about.

The academy's Academy

You may have heard of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. They're the ones who come up with strange new declensions to help the Hebrew language catch up with the English-speaking world. For instance, they recently decided that a barbecue shall be named matzleh. Try using that in a National Park on Independence Day.

But what they are really useful for (no offense meant!) is their Historical Dictionary. A historical dictionary aims to chart the development of individual words in a language throughout history, through fluctuations of meaning and nuance.

But, as Jacob Nachum Epstein put it, "our primary need is the text". To properly study language without getting caught in anachronisms, linguists must establish a dependable text. So the Academia, as it is called in the right circles, set out to produce such versions of every surviving Hebrew text. They decided that, for each unit of text, they would use only one manuscript, the best one available. This is an arguable choice, but a sensible one, since dealing with multiple textual witnesses would simply make this huge task huger.

To make a long story short, they produced a database of all Hebrew texts (minus the Bible) up to the end of the Geonic period. Each text is based on a manuscript. Every Hebrew word in these texts has been classified and cross-referenced. And all of this was made available on CD-ROM. That includes all of Sifrut Hazal, classic Rabbinic literature. Mishna, Tosefta, Bavli, Yerushalmi. And so on. Many of the piyutim, the ritual poems, are unavailable in print, other than on this database, which is called Ma'agarim.

According to their website, the CD is now available for the price of NIS 800. Bearing in mind that the interface on the database is as helpful as a clerk in a government office, it is still a good price.

The big news is that, at some point in the future, they are planning to launch a subscription service on the Internet, with access to the new version of Ma'agarim. This new version is supposed to have new resources, and a better interface. The rumour was it would cost NIS 100 a year, and would look like the Bar Ilan Responsa Project. I don't know whether that's true, but in any case it's something to look forward to.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Counting scribes

סופרים סופרות

In the rushed few minutes before Shabbat I pulled out my old notes and looked for the pages about R David Oppenheim and his scrivener daughter. Found some, others seem to be missing, and I updated the post.

Tonight I came across another blog that leads to another female scribe. As far as I can tell, Jen is less expansive about her path to writing, but much more generous in her discussion of the halachic questions involved.

So that makes three in the past 200 years. And counting.


Over Shabbat I read Shlomo Naeh's article in Mehqerei Talmud 3. It is dedicated to the art of memory and its traces in Hazal. He focuses on two techniques - visualising a mental image of a book, and creating conceptual compartments to hold different categories of knowledge.

As he mentions at the end (p. 587), this emphasis on visual metaphors is not exclusive, and there are statements of the Rabbis which utilize the sounds of learning as a way to remember. But, nevertheless, this is a far cry from the "Jewish auditory logic" expounded by the Nazir, R David Cohen. Naeh shows how visually the Tannaim conceived of their learning.

Which touches on a hidden struggle between the pages of this collection of studies. Because Naeh believes that, while much of their learning was done by memory, Hazal had access to written books (see n. 64). While Jacob Sussman's long essay was devoted to his claim that the rabbinic tradition was not committed to writing until the 6th century, at the earliest.

Traces of this tradition of memorizing can be found in Jewish culture even later, at a time when books were being written in dizzying numbers. One of the most prolific of the Geonim was R Samuel b Hofni. He wrote dozens of monographs on topics halachic and philosophical. One of his books, which has been published only partially, is his Introduction to the Talmud. Liber Prooemium Talmudis, as it is called in the Latin title of the Mekitze Nirdamim edition (edited by Shraga Abramson, Jerusalem 1990), which includes the Judeo-Arabic original and a Hebrew translation with notes.

The 143rd chapter (there were 145 altogether - Abramson published six of them) of Mavo ha-Talmud is devoted to Talmudic terminology. R Samuel explains there that he arranged his lexicon in alphabetical order "for whoever wants to remember them, and to make it easier for someone looking for them" (p. 163). The secondary reason is for ease of access. The primary one is to help those who would commit his entire lexicon to memory.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Would Rabbeinu Tam have taught at Gush?

Still thinking about my last posting. I just thought of a little story from my more naive years. My havruta, Amichai, was getting seriously disillusioned with the yeshiva. Its emphasis on intellectual probity and lack of emphasis on moral development. The social standards those emphases created. The feeling that a student is valued - by his teachers and peers - on the basis of his brilliance, and not of his personality.

And I showed him Israel Ta-Shema's article on Hassidei Ashkenaz and Talmud Torah. (In his Ritual, Custom and Reality in Franco-Germany, chapter 6; originally published in the Bar Ilan yearbook 14-15, 1977.) He was amazed. Ta-Shema had taken the words straight out of his mouth. The tensions described there between the intellectual Tosafists and the pietists of Ashkenaz seemed not to have changed one iota in 800 years. He photocopied one page and posted it in the "heder cafe".

I grew up, and learned from reading Ivan Marcus that things were not as stark as they seemed, and that the gulf between the groups was probably not so wide. And I began to wonder whether Ta-Shema's account was coloured by his familiarity with the modern yeshiva. And whether this kind of tension is not inherent to an institution dedicated to the pursuit of an intellectual religious tradition.

But I still think that, for better and worse, Har Etzion is reminiscent of a Tosafist academy. The wide range of people (both in terms of expertise and personal background), the competitiveness, the emphasis on theoretical distinctions, the huge numbers (by comparison to other places at the time), the lack of harsh hierarchy. There are, of course, serious differences. The students of the Tosafists had very close relationships with their teachers.

Anyway, I still believe Rabbeinu Tam would have felt at home there, and R Yehuda he-Hassid would have been enraged.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Trouble with Yeshivot

Mississippi Fred mentions people feeling their yeshivot failed them. Yael Unterman interviewed a range of people like that for an article she published a couple of years ago.

I've been itching to write something about Har Etzion since I saw this transcript of a talk R Aharon Lichtenstein gave in the beit midrash there last month. (Don't worry - even if you think that retreat is a horrible mistake, there's nothing in this speech that will bother you in the least.) But having seen the passion of those who see this yeshiva as the embodiment of all evil, I think I will bite my tongue.

Nevertheless, I think that there are certain inherently complicated aspects to a significant yeshiva experience. I tried to touch on some of them in a story I wrote long ago. Others come up in Mordechai Breuer's book Oholei Torah: The Yeshiva, Its Structure and History (try pp. 378-383 on tensions between students and teachers and pp. 431-441 on wandering yeshiva students).


Section 44 in the Prague edition of Maharam's responsa is a missive penned by R Yoel ha-Levi of Bonn. He describes people who go into the fields of non-Jews and cut willow twigs for Hoshana Rabba. His conclusion is that this is forbidden, since stealing from non-Jews is precisely the same as stealing from Jews. In the printed edition, this comparison is qualified by "lehavdil":

מה לי מגוי מה לי מישראל להבדיל, שהרי שניהן תורת גזל נוהג בהן

Lest anyone think that Jews are the same as non-Jews, "lehavdil" comes to say that though someone may be drawing a comparison between them, they are truly incomparable.

The passage is found in Sefer Ra'avya, written by R Yoel's son. There there is no "lehavdil", and R Prof Victor Aptowitzer points out (no. 690, II p. 395, n. 4) that the word was surely added by a later scribe, since the expression is not a medieval one.

Anyway, in a manuscript of Teshuvot Maharam that I'm reading through now (ed. Berlin, p. 121, no. 54), the word is missing too.

Just thought I'd share that with you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Talmudic Neologisms

For some reason, the Talmud department at Hebrew U has always been a fertile bed for unprecedented uses of words in Hebrew. One example I have always liked is Eliezer Shimshon Rosenthal's term, גנואיני. Which seems to carry the meaning of "antedating the Geonim". As in "once we pull away the later accretions, we are left with a Talmudic text that is גנואיני."

So now we have a new one. In Ya'akov Zussman's treatise on the exclusive orality of the Oral law, he says, (MT3, p. 327, n. 25) in talking about the famous mosaic from Rehov (now on display at YU, by the way) that it
מצטרף לעדויות על הפלוקטואציה של הנוסח בספרות חז"ל

In other words, that it demonstrates the malleability of the Talmudic text.

So there you have it. A new word for a future Talmudic lexicon. Fluktuatsia.

Sadness and celebration

Yesterday my family celebrated my sister's Bat Mitzva with a modest, belated but greatly enjoyable meal at an Indian restaurant. From there I staggered home, only to leave a couple of hours later for a wedding. The wedding was great. I found the huppa hilarious (you had to be there), the couple wonderful and I had a nice conversation with Aviad Stollman. Aviad is starting to build the personal part of his website, and there are already some very worthwhile things there. Look at this too. And lots of luck to Yosef and Yehudit!

I came across this blog today. It belongs to someone who describes herself as " the first woman to practice sofrut (creation of sacred Hebrew texts) in over 200 years". I can't say I read everything on both her sites, but I didn't find a place where she explains which historical precedent she is referring to .

I can guess, though. R David Oppenheim was the rabbi of Prague in the early 18th century. He was a phenomenal book collector. He had close connections with the vibrant printing presses in the city, through which he procured many unique printed books. He also acquired a phenomenal collection of (mostly Ashkenazic, I think) Hebrew manuscripts. After his death, the collection was put up for sale. Nobody responded for decades, until eventually the Bodleian Library of Oxford bought it up, and assured its position as one of the foremost Hebrew manuscript libraries in the world.

I digress. In his collection of responsa, Nish'al David, in the section on ritual law - Orah Hayim, number 30, he discusses the question of whether a Megillah written by a woman would be ritually acceptable. His conclusion was that it would be.

A year or two after I read that responsum, I found (through Tzitz Eliezer vol. 11, no. 92) another book from around the same time (R Moses Perles, Megillat Sefer, Prague 1710), which discusses the same question. From this contemporary source it emerges that the woman R Oppenheim had in mind was his own daughter. But tragically, by the time the second responsum was penned, the daughter had died and the question was moot.

There is much to be said about this worst possible loss - the pain of a bereaved parent. Not for now. For starters, you can look at Elisheva Baumgarten's book (in the Hebrew version, pp. 247-253; in the English, 165-169). And, if you feel like it and have an academic subscription, read this article by Ralph Houlbrooke on the way English kings expressed their grief over the deaths of their children.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Shavua ha-Sefer

Well, I finally made it. Bought the Hebrew version of Mothers and Children, printed two months ahead of schedule! There are a couple of sections I read in the original doctorate, and then again in the English translation. It's a nice book, one of the most interesting recently published in the field of medieval Jewish history, and at the book fair it costs 60 shekels. Check it out. I also chatted with the charming Ronit Meroz and heard some feedback on the blog from an esteemed mentor. I was there with my beautiful sister, for whom the highlight was showing me around the ambulance.

I also got my copy of MT3, for those who were concerned.

In other news, happy birthday to Mobius and to the latest scion of the Rosenberg/sweig clan, son of Elisha and Anat.

And for next week - here is the programme for the Kolech conference.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


It's Bloomsday. But I've lent out my copy of Ulysses and I'm tired. So make of that what you will.

I found this link today. Haven't yet explored it enough to say how useful it is.

And the discounts that Magness Press is offering at Hebrew Book Week are unbelievable. The facsimile edition of Gershom Scholem's copy of the Zohar (with his comments), which normally costs almost NIS 1200, is going for NIS 185.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Old Buildings

Today the Talmud department of Hebrew University went on its less-than-annual field trip. We went up to the Golan, where Dr Hayim Ben-David showed us around a couple of synagogues he is excavating. For extensive coverage of one of them, Umm el-Kanatir, follow this link. The site is quite astounding. They hope to reconstruct the Torah Ark, which apparently stood 5 meters high.

The main point that Dr. Ben-David was trying to make, as far as I was able to assimilate, was that Jewish settlement in the Golan after the destruction of the Second Temple was quite extensive. Archaeologists have found remnants of 26 villages with synagogues. They don't know what any of these villages were named. So, the theory goes, perhaps some of the spare names in the Talmudic onomasticon - those place names in Talmud Yerushalmi and midrashim which do not belong to any known town - might refer to places in the Golan. This, on the assumption that the Golan was not considered a distinct geographic entity at the time.

I came back and watched a silly but entertaining movie, which turned out to be full of old and crumbling stone buildings too.

Which ties in with something I was reading on Shabbat - R Ari Chwat's edition of the Testament of R Judah the Pious ("Re'ach Bosem" to his admirers, more commonly known as R Yehuda he-Hassid).

This testament is notorious in halachic writings for its utter disregard for halachic norms, and almost exclusive interest in superstition. For instance, it says that a chicken that crows like a rooster must be slaughtered immediately - a direct contravention of Tosefta Shabbat 6:5.

Another famous injunction in the Testament is that a man may not marry a woman who carries the same name as his mother. So too if his name matches that of his prospective father-in-law.

But Hassidei Ashkenaz are justly famous for their sensitivity to the depths of human nature. So I was intrigued by the following warning:

לא יבנה אדם בית אבנים, ולא יקנה. ואם עשה או קנה, לא ידור בו אם
לא ידורו בו אנשים שנה ראשונה
A person should not build a stone house, nor buy one. If someone
did or bought, he should not dwell in it unless other people occupy it for the
first year.
I think I understand the idea here. Building a stone house, an imposing edifice, is an act of hubris. It implies wealth, power and permanence. Those are potent emotions. Perhaps it were better if they were channeled elsewhere - for instance, towards building a synagogue or some building of public use. If you do insist on taking this step, on building your own private temple, hesitate. Let other people live there first. Be humble.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


Further proof of what a banana republic this is - there are no sweet potatoes to be had in Israel. The reason is hidden in this innocent-looking statement:

For this treason it is solely imported from Israel, where it has adapted
well to growing conditions and can be exported quickly to the UK, reducing
quality issues such as rots.

Treason indeed! They sold the entire crop of Israeli sweet potatoes to the UK. And the sweet-potato and goat's cheese casserole I wanted to prepare for Shavuot had to make do with just plain potatoes.

As Jim Davila pointed out, Second Temple sectarians would have observed Shavuot today. The source for this piece of information, which is cited in the Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 65a, is the scholion of Megillat Ta'anit. All the Scroll itself says is:

מן תמניה ביה ועד סוף מועדא איתקין חגא דלא למספד

"From the 8th of Nissan until the end of the Moed is a festival, and eulogizing is forbidden". But the scholia (two versions, and one hybrid) give a long description of the debate between Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and one of the Baitusians. The crux of the debate was that the sectarians understood "Mi'mohorat ha-Shabbat" to mean the morrow of the Sabbath, i.e. Sunday. The Hachamim, on the other hand, read Shabbat here to mean the festival. And Shavuot is celebrated on the day in the week which follows that on which the first day of Passover was celebrated.

One segment of the dialogue is worth quoting. The sectarian says to Rabban Yohanan that Moses loved the people of Israel, and therefore he gave them Shavuot, so that they would have a long weekend, because he knew Shavuot is only one day long.

Rabban Yohanan answers: If Moses really loved them so much, how come he made them run around in circles for forty years?

On all of this, see Vered Noam's acclaimed edition of the Scroll of Fasts and its scholia, pp. 59-63, 135-140, 174-179.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Ariel and the police

On Friday I heard a new Israeli song on Galgalatz called "To sleep without dreaming". It's by Metropolin and continues the recent trend of including soundbites in foreign languages. In this case, they're recordings of foreign workers in Tel Aviv, explaining why they left the Phillipines and what life is like for them in Israel.

Which reminded me of the ignominy of Israel's Immigration Police. You would have thought that, in a country constantly battling terrorism, eaten away by organized crime and institutional corruption, plagued by an astronomically high road toll, the police would have their hands full. But no. Those problems can wait. First we have to make sure there aren't any unregistered caregivers.

And it's not as if they focus on the horrifying conditions these foreign workers are subjected to by their Israeli employers, not to mention the flourishing sex trade.

It is heartening that the liberal Orthodox community is responding to aspects of this travesty. On Friday night I came across a copy of the Pesach issue of Ma'agalei Tzedek. The issue was dedicated to contemporary applications of biblical ideals of freedom. The articles are here, in Hebrew.

Not that this is something that requires much textual support, since it seems self-evident (to me). But I thought of a Tosafot I came across years ago. Now that I look at it again, it doesn't quite say what I remembered, but maybe it is implied.

Talmud Bavli, Avoda Zara 57b discusses whether a newborn gentile who touches wine causes it to be forbidden, as a full-grown gentile would. The Tosafot, s.v. La'apuke, mention the Ashkenazic custom that "the slaves touch wine immediately after being circumcised and ritually immersed".

It was something of a revelation for me that, not only did Ashkenazic medieval Jews own slaves, but that their ownership was so deep that they circumcised them. For more information see Ra'avya ad loc (p. 21); Simcha Assaf, Zion 4 (1939), 91-125; Carmel Moskin, Tura 1 (1989), pp. 235-245; Michael Toch, Zion 64 (1999), pp. 39-63.

The point is this. Why would these slaves be touching wine immediately after their conversion? I assume (you can argue, but it's a nice idea) that their master had a l'chayim with them to celebrate. Yes, this is a slave, whose body is at the disposal of his owner. But that is no reason for him not to be treated with respect.

Which is a trivial but representative example of the kind of relationship Jewish sources expect between employer and employee. Which, one would hope, would be more respectful than that of a master towards a slave.

The Tannaitic sources are better known. How, if there is only one pillow, then the master must give it to his slave. Things in that vein. Where can you see Jewish values like that in practice today, in Israel?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Aleph 500

I forgot to mention that the JNUL has moved over to a new catalogue interface. It is more convenient, especially in searching for manuscripts by shelfmark. Just choose the option of "Call no. Custodian no.", and then enter the name and number. For instance, if you want to see the record on the marvelously early French siddur with a list of English debtors in Judaeo-Arabic, all you have to do is this:

Choose "Call no. Custodian no.". Type in: Ox Corpus Christi 133. Press enter. Then click on the number next to the entry, and Bob's your uncle.

By the way, I have a friend's copy of MT3. I found a small error in the table of contents, which cleared up something I found confusing. Yoel Florsheim's article is on the significance to the text of Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch of - not Arugot ha-Bosem, but Arugat ha-Bosem. Sorry to nitpick. But the first was written by Tanhum ha-Yerushalmi, and published earlier this year. The second, what he actually meant, was written by R Abraham b Azriel of Bohemia, and was published by Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, in whose honour the article was written.

Something to do

Now that the Canon group at Scholion has come to an end, I'm sure academics are looking for something to do and somewhere to meet. Well, looks like Melbourne is where it's at! Unless you want to start preparing for Shavuot with a pilfered cheese-cake recipe.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Odds and Ends

Look at that! They mention a course I just finished taking at university - apparently, the only course in the History Department on women.

Thanks to the kind help of a couple of my teachers, another item has been ticked off my wish list. And I bought David Golinkin's paleographic work, Ginze Rosh ha-Shana. By the way, the Schocken Institute has just reprinted Robert Bonfil's Hebrew book on the Italian rabbinate.

Happy new month!

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Ashkenazic genetics

A new study, claiming that Ashkenazic Jews underwent a process of natural selection that made them especially intelligent, is making waves in the media. I fully admit I don't understand much of what I read about it. But the gist seems to be this: the genetic diseases which are almost unique to Ashkenazic Jews reveal something about the genesis of Ashkenazic genes. The evidence points, according to this study, to a process of natural selection. What kind of selection would be taking place? Presumably one that was influenced by the concentration of Jews in commerce and their need for high intelligence.

This sounds kind of strange to me. I will try to present some of the facts of early medieval Jewish demographics, to the limited extent that I understand them. First of all, Jews continued to work in a range of occupations, including agriculture, into the 11th century. Haym Soloveitchik recently showed how deeply Jews were involved in wine production in Germany, into the 14th century. Though it doesn't seem to be explicit there (his emphasis is on their economic involvement), halachic considerations demand that at least some of the physical work was being done by Jews. [H. Soloveitchik, Principles and Pressures: Jewish Trade in Gentile Wine in the Middle Ages, Tel Aviv 2003, pp. 80-90 and passim]

Update: I need to add this quote from a short piece on the same topic that Soloveitchik published in English.

"And, in an era before Jews are identified with credit, neither did their
Christian neighbours see them as creditors, anymore than customers of today view Bloomingdale's or Marks and Spencer as creditors rather
than as merchants."

Haym Soloveitchik, 'Halakhah, Taboo and Moneylending', The Jews of
Europe in the Middle Ages (Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries):
Proceedings of the
International Symposium held at Speyer, 20-25 October 2002
, ed. Christoph
Cluse, Turnhout 2004, p. 301

Second, they lived in very small communities. These communities tended to consist of one or two extended families, which gave rise to the problem of convening a court that did not include relatives of either side in a dispute. [H. Soloveitchik, The Use of Responsa as a Historical Source: A Methodological Introduction, Jerusalem 1990, p. 30]

Third, nuclear families tended to be fairly small (Grossman thinks that Stow's conclusion, that the rate of growth was almost negative, but they were still not very large - four children). [A Grossman, The Early Sages of Ashkenaz, 2nd ed., Jerusalem 1988, p. 441]

Doesn't it make more sense to simply assume that all this created a very limited gene pool?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Donate Books!

As is probably well known, there is a shortage of Judaic books in China. A request has been posted online and on bulletin boards in Jerusalem asking people to donate books to this worthy cause.

The long-awaited Talmudic Studies III (Mehkerei Talmud Gimel): Studies in Memory of Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, has appeared. So far I only have an offprint of one of the articles, but I can already give some description of the book.

First of all, a sad sign of how long the book spent in preparation is the number of contributors who have themselves passed away. Shraga Abramson, Meir Ayali, Moshe Beer, Yitzhak Dov Gilat, David Flusser, Shmuel Safrai and Israel Ta-Shma. Many of the articles in this collection have already been referenced in print (Simcha Emanuel's article on Hasside Ashkenaz and prayer, Shlomo Naeh's article on the art of memory, Menahem Kister's article on Avot de-Rabbi Nathan) and at least one has already been published in English translation. The largest contribution is Ya'akov Sussman's massive (about 130 pages) article on the oral transmission of Rabbinic texts. Buy it now!

Correction: A respected mentor pointed out to me that Sussman's piece, which was first slated for publication in Tarbiz in 1980, is 170 pages long.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Why I grow a beard

Walking through Geula last night I noticed, beside denouncements of the Jerusalem kashrut system and warnings about grave desecration, posters inviting people to the Hilula of Ramhal, tonight. The actual anniversary of his death is Friday night.

R Moshe Hayim Luzzatto was a fascinating figure, quite controversial in his time. I think it was the Nazir who said that Ramhal was the founding father of three modern Jewish movements - Mussar, Hassidut and Haskala.

I'm doing this from memory, so be forgiving, and correct me where I'm wrong. Ramhal wrote the first modern Hebrew play, titled Migdal Oz. Thus he became the precursor of secular Hebrew literature.

His various works in Jewish mysticism played a part in the mystical component of Hassidut. And his highly influential Messilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) became a central text in the Mussar movement, which emphasized embarking on a path of moral awareness and improvement.

In his wonderful article, 'The Early Eighteenth Century Confronts the Beard: Kabbalah and Jewish Self-Fashioning', Elliott Horowitz writes:

Early in 1730, shortly after reports had begun o circulate concerning the
young Luzzatto's kabbalistic virtuosity, and, in particular, his clasims to have
been visited regularly (over a period of three years) by a heavenly mentor or maggid, he received a letter from his former teacher, R. Isaiah Bassan,
then of Reggio. The latter refered to some of the doubts which had been raised
in rabbinical circles, both in Italy and abroad, and particularly to the sharply
critical remarks of the Sephardic hakham R. Moses Hagiz of Hamburg,
with which Bassan himself, it became clear, had some sympathy. "His uneasiness
regarding your unmarried state," Bassan wrote, "is no mere quibble, but rather,
a topic concerning which my late teacher and father-in-law [the rabbi and
kabbalist R. Benamin ha-Kohen Vitale of Reggio, d. 1730] and I whispered between
ourselves. We also discussed the fact that you do not grow your beard..." On the
latter issue, the Reggio rabbis had decided to give Luzzatto the benefit of the
doubt, "for we said... he is righteous and upright," apparently choosing to
conclude that the young kabbalist's beard was simply not growing on its own.
Their faith in his heavenly visitations is evident from the requests both had
earlier made to receive "classified" information from Luzzatto's maggid, Bassan to learn, among other things, "the source of his soul"
and his elderly father-in-law to know the reasons for his illness and suffering.
Yet Luzzatto's relatively cleanshaven appearance troubled them nonetheless, and
they were not the only ones to remark upon it.

Update: Just noticed this.


I just came across an article titled "The Healing Power of the Hebrew Tongue", by Mark Zier. It focuses on one of the few Hebrew manuscripts written in medieval England - MS Oxford Bodl. Laud Or. 174, a Psalter (according to Malachi Beit-Arie, it was written in the 13th century, perhaps in France).

In ultra-violet light, a paragraph in Latin was revealed with instructions on using different Psalms for various medical purposes. This is his translation from the Latin:

Concerning the most famous medicine and celestial latitudes, begin at folio 28
at the sign פ; medicine for a tumour of the bowel, folio 25; for bleariness
of the eyes, folio 41; for chronic illnesses, folio 30.

Zier goes on to discuss these instructions, which refer to specific Psalms (88, 79, 48, 77). And from there on to the history of English Jewry and English medicine. But he seems unaware that this practice, of utilizing Psalms for specific medical ailments, is a well-known Jewish custom - Shimmush Tehillim. It is found in plenty of Genizah fragments, and continues to thrive to this day.

As I said, there are very few surviving Hebrew manuscripts from England. They were recently described exhaustively by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, in a special publication by the REJ titled Les Manuscrits Hebreux dans l'Angleterre Medievale: Etude Historique et Paleographique. She describes this manuscript on pages 266-270, but seems to be unaware of Zier's article and the passage he described.

A testimony to the importance of reading outside of your field. Just like the Latin-speaking scribe who used the Jewish healing tradition for his own purposes.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Some new stuff

Just a round-up of a few new and interesting things I've noticed out there in the past few days:

The World Union of Jewish Studies has launched a new website. It includes the programme for the upcoming World Congress of Jewish Studies, and a new version of their database.

Volume 74 of Hebrew Union College Annual has been released.

Through the latest AJS Perspectives, I became aware of a new search engine. Through which I found this database of thesis summaries at Penn.

ATID have placed many of Shalom Carmy's articles online.

A complicated new way of making Gemara easier.

And a revision tool for The Rule of Four.

I'm still waiting for Talmudic Studies III. Meanwhile I'm reading a novel, another one of the Da Vinci followups. The following passage stood out in its stupidity:

"A codex -" She stopped and half turned. She seemed nonplussed at having to define so basic a concept. "A codex is just - it's a codex. As opposed to a scroll, or a wax tablet, or a rock with words chiseled on it. A codex is a set of printed pages, folded and bound with a spine between two covers. It's what someone like you would call a book."