Friday, September 30, 2005

Gossip and Goodies

Gil posted some ethical guidelines for Jewish blogs, courtesy of Asher Meir. Interesting to see how they can be applied to the Aviner Niddah embarrassment.

In Geulah this week I bought a somewhat battered copy of the biography of R. Yitzhak Isaac Yehuda Yehiel Safrin of Komarno. Written by Hayim Yehuda Berl, published by Mossad Harav Kook in 1965.

The Matan journal, Masechet is partially available in full-text here. Having mentioned Hassidut, I recommend the article by Uzy Fuchs (an important young Talmudist) on the Eish Kodesh, Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus Shapira of Piacezna, and his wife, Rachel Haya Miryam. The rabbi, who is best remembered today for having delivered searingly honest speeches to his followers while they were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, was widowed in 1937. Uzy demonstrates, in what I thought was a beautiful and touching article, how his memory of his wife coloured his description of feminine characters in the Bible - principally Miryam, whose death is accounted in the Biblical portion of Hukat, which is read at the time of year that his wife died.

Sex and Ego

My brother invited me to an evening at Yakar to celebrate the publication of a volume of studies by students at the Siach Yeshiva in Efrat. The book, titled Va'yikra et Shemam Adam (and He called them Adam), focuses on sexuality and relationships, as they relate to halacha and Jewish spirituality in contemporary religious society. The book was reviewed, favourably, in Ha'aretz last week.

The table of contents follows (the English was done by my brother, I would have changed a few things):
Introductory essay - Rabbi Yair Dreifus
First Section - Pru U'rvu
Zohar Maor - Pru U'rvu: Between Naturalness and The Image of G-d
Rabbi Harel Gordin - Usage of Contraceptive Methods

Second Section - Modesty, Holiness and Liveliness
Neil Manusi - The Mystery of Diminishing, the Diminishing of Mystery
Rabbi Yair Dreifus - The Covenant and the Yetzer
Avishar Har-Shefi - Intention in Sexual Relations
Rabbi Shagar - Mitzvat Onah

Third Section - Relationships in the Religious Community - Between Holiness and Modernity
Rabbi Itay Mor-Yoseph - About the Religious-Zionist Coupleship Culture: Rationality, Holiness and Romance
Itamar Brener - The Marriage Guidance Literature
Dov Simchon - Coupleship Metaphors: Torah, Poetry and Life

The first speaker at this evening was Rav Shagar himself. He started by speaking about the Lurianic description of the creation of man, with male and female conjoined back-to-back. In that position, when they are dependent on each other but not facing each other as equals, there is no room for love.

Mostly, though, he spoke about fear and its place on Rosh Hashanah. Natural disasters seem to have filled us with a fear of God, but why is that something to ask for (in the prayer Uvechen Ten Pahdecha, And so please instill Your fear in all Your creatures). His answer was that this fear is an awareness of our lack of freedom in the face of God and in the flow of destiny. The judgement of the Jewish new year is actually being conducted by each person on his own, because only you can decide that you are guilty. I think it tied in to relationships, but I didn't follow the whole thing.

Another issue that surfaced a few times was the Hitnatkut (it amazes me how many people reach this blog through that search term) and its significance. He described how his son, who was in Kfar Darom trying to block the evacuation, was speaking on his cellphone when a policeman came over and told him "You're under arrest". How, the moment those words were pronounced, his son realized he had lost his freedom, his rights, even his right to speak on the phone. So it is on Rosh Hashanah - we stand before God and realize we have no freedom. And that is why people are afraid of relationships - because they reduce their freedom. But really, it is about facing one's destiny. Which is a frightening experience, but a great one, one that leads to self-awareness.

After Rav Shagar's speech there was an interlude, during which some guys played guitars. Then a panel was convened. The first speaker was Rav Yair Dreyfus, who co-heads the yeshiva. He spoke about Rambam's description of complete repentance. A man slept with a woman "in sin", and later finds himself in the same situation, with the same feelings and the same physical ability, but this time he holds himself back. The question is (I suspect there is a long path that led to this interpretation, but Rav Dreyfus spoke for only a few minutes) what sin it is that the man transgressed. The answer, said Rav Dreyfus, is hubris. Masculine pride. Only when the man gets over himself and becomes receptive to the woman beside him, to her feelings and needs, is he serving God properly.

The next speaker was Rav Elyashiv Knohl. Until recently he was the rabbi of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and he still teaches at Yeshivat Hakibbutz Hadati in Ein Zurim. He recently published the second edition of his book on marriage. See here and here (a short description in English), and a review by Aviad Stollman here. He has also drawn up a prenuptial agreement that is making inroads in Religious Zionist circles in Israel. He spoke about the happiness that comes from giving to the other. How that can be seen now in the faces of former residents of Atzmona now reestablishing themselves in Yated, a moshav in the deep south (near Shivta!), and also in couples who focus on what they can give to each other instead of what they can receive.

Yardena Cope-Yossef spoke as the token feminist. She seems quite happy with the book, and apparently took part in the group discussions that preceded the writing of the articles.

Dr Tuvya Peri spoke last. He is a psychologist who teaches at Herzog College. He pointed out that contemporary psychology identifies sexuality less as a basic driving force, and more as an aspect of the human need for relationships with other humans. Therefore, he doesn't think that the tension which the book endeavours to bridge, between sexuality and spirituality, is necessarily so central. He also feels that books being written by rabbis about relationships put too much emphasis on instructions and don't leave room for just having fun.

[A short discussion of Homo Ludens and Jewish culture can be found in Roni Weinstein's very good book Marriage Rituals Italian Style, which I am now reading piecemeal, pp. 313-314]

Then they finished, just in time for Selichot. The crowd was overwhelmingly young, and mostly Siach students, past and present. An interesting group to observe. The only older people I recognized were Yinon Achiman (former mayor of Efrat) and Kalman Neuman, and the non-Siach graduates included my former chavruta.

From there we moved on to the Daila, to say goodbye to Dan, and then my brother met some of his friends from his One Family group at Tmol Shilshom.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In Honour of a Friend and Mentor

In two weeks, Tuesday, October 11th 2005, the JNUL will be hosting a morning of lectures in honour of Mr. Benjamin Richler, who is retiring. Richler has been the director of the IMHM for the past decade, and has worked in the Institute since at least the early 1970s. Though his absence from the library will be sorely felt, I hope it will be for the best, giving him the leisure to prepare a new edition of his Guide and of his article (Assufot 1) on manuscripts that have been divided, as well as new articles from his wealth of knowledge.

Among the speeches to be delivered over the course of the morning are:
Dr. Edna Engel of the Hebrew Paleography Project, speaking about Abraham Farissol (on whom she wrote her MLS thesis) at 9.30 am.
Dr. Simcha Emanuel, on whether the advent of printing had a negative or positive effect on the Hebrew book, at 10.30 am.
Ms. Yael Okun of the IMHM, on one of her specialties, books of lots (goralot). There is a whole mess of works on this topic, which present tables, instructions and recipes for predicting the future or gaining hidden knowledge. Yael will be speaking at noon.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Something to do before Rosh Hashana

Over Shabbat I read an article by Moshe Idel on Abraham Abulafia. Yes, I know, there are lots of those. This one was published in AJS Review 7-8 (1983) and deals with Abulafia's attempt to convert the Pope to Judaism.

Abulafia (who refers to himself as, among other names, Raziel) had been travelling Italy and preparing those willing to listen for the imminent arrival of Mashiach since a revelation he received in 1270, while still in Barcelona. He reached Rome right after Tisha b'Av, but found that the Pope had retired to his country house in Soriano. When word got out that Abulafia was there to convert him, Nicholas III gave orders to burn the Jew as soon as he entered the town.

Abulafia had decided that this particular Pope would be particularly receptive to his particular brand of mysticism. He was also familiar with a Jewish tradition that Mashiach would convert the Pope. And his calculations had led him to conclude that this had to happen in the year 40, i.e. 1280. His very last opportunity was during the last days of that year, just before Rosh Hashana.

So he risked his life, and set off for Soriano, knowing full well that the wood for his burning was already set out in the courtyard of the papal villa. On his arrival, probably August 23rd 1280, he discovered that the Pope had died suddenly the day before. And so his plan, as well as his execution, came to nothing.

World Congress of Jewish Studies - Liturgy

The lecture by Avi Shmidman dealt with poetic expansions of Birkat haMazon. Versions of the Grace after Meals composed for special occasions abound in the Genizah (Avi has identified more than 200 different compositions), and one was found in the Dura-Europos synagogue. These versions contained a more specific, personal liturgy, appropriate to a wedding, a house of mourning or the Shabbat following Tisha b'Av.

The question Avi dealt with in this lecture was whether these compositions were meant to replace the standard text of the blessing, or to supplement it. This is a question that has been asked about other forms of Piyut - especially the monumental compositions we get a glimpse of in the High Holiday mahzor, the Yotserot and Kedushta'ot. Ezra Fleischer has claimed that they were indeed intended to stand on their own, as a sufficient form of prayer. The difficulty is in proving this.

Shmidman pointed out that many liturgical Genizah fragments were clearly copied in a way designed to skimp on space and outlay, leaving it to the reader to supply many different elements. Therefore, the absence of the standard blessings is not a sign that they were not meant to be said - perhaps the scribe assumed that his reader knew those blessings by heart.

However, there are some (13) pages which supply a complete text, and leave nothing to the imagination, or the memory. They spell out all the verses and all the blessings to be said, without abbreviation. But they do not provide the canonical text of the blessing. Therefore, it would seem clear that these copies reflect a practice that required the recital of some elements of the blessing - the "Baruch Ata" formulae, and certain verses that preceded them - but not others, which were replaced by the poem.

This is, though, an intermediate stage. Originally, it would seem, most of the verses were dispensed with as well, and the poetic compositions were recited in pristine independence. Later, however, the need was felt to add biblical verses - perhaps, to anchor the frighteningly original lines in a more familiar text. This later stage is reflected in the akwardness that these verses create, interrupting the flow of the poem into the traditional blessing.

I often feel that kind of akwardness on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when the hazan (and the congregation) tries to incorporate the unfamiliar structures of the piyutim into the regular forms of prayer. For instance, the difficulty with refrains. The piyutim were written to allow the congregation to respond to the leader with a shorter, repetitive exclamation. In the shuls I have davened in, people seem reluctant to make do with this short response, and squeeze in the entire line of the piyut. And so it becomes easier for everyone to just mumble the passage to themselves.

Eco and dim echoes

Turns out Umberto Eco is still a step ahead of the rest of us. The Rule of Four has been touted as belonging to the genre of writing represented by Eco. The Rule revolves around a book titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Well, turns out that even that obscure work was mentioned first (actually, I'm not sure which came first) by Eco. This, from his latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (published in Italian in 2004):

"By the way, Paola, what did I major in?"
"In letters, with a thesis on Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
Unreadable, at least to me."

Meanwhile, the high ethical standards of the Jewish blogosphere are exposed. A credit to us all.

By the way, Totchanim (artillery batteries) were used today in Gaza. If you're looking for parallels to Lebanon, that should be a good one.

Friday, September 23, 2005


The Jewish National & University Library in Jerusalem is looking for a new Director-General. The principal requirement seems to be "a sympathetic approach to the world of books and academic research, as well as identification with the aims of the change in the Library's status". That last phrase refers to the fact that the library will no longer be part of Hebrew University, though the details of it are beyond me. The ad appeared in English in this morning's IHT-Ha'aretz, but online it seems to be in Hebrew only.

I thought I should mention a couple of new search engines - Google's Blogsearch, which has some nifty features, and a Nestorian search engine (with some Jewish content) mentioned on Paleojudaica.

Speaking of Open Access, I have to mention two other Open Access Jewish projects, both being run by friends of mine. The first focuses on the liturgical texts of the Siddur, and the second is more ambitious.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Rav Shemaya and Rav Ovadia

Rav Shemaya is a figure hidden in the shadows of Jewish intellectual history, though his contribution was probably quite profound. He was, as Abraham Epstein described him, the secretary of Rashi (on this term, see Simcha Emanuel's recent lecture at the Rashi conference). He played a central role in the ongoing evolution of Rashi's work, emending and editing his teacher's commentaries and decisions.

The nature of his work was that he would insert short comments into the text of Rashi's exegesis, usually marked with some kind of introduction or endnote. Several of these comments are listed and discussed in an article by Aharon Ahrend on additions to Rashi's commentary on Tractate Megillah (Sidra 14). However, copyists often failed to understand the meaning of Shemaya's markers, and assimilated them as part of the commentary itself. This only made it easier for generations of Jewish scholars to overlook Rav Shemaya and his contribution, which was from its inception framed in an extremely self-effacing medium.

I noticed an additional example of this in one of Ahrend's examples, something he didn't remark upon in the article. He quotes a line from a manuscript of Rashi's commentary on Megillah, a line found only in a manuscript fragment from Pappenheim. The lines begins:

הג"ה אני שמעתי כך אמרתי לר'...
Gloss: I heard, thus I said to Rabbi (a reference to Rashi).

The illogic of the sentence (I heard that I said) is self-evident. I think it is clear that the text originally read:

אני שמעיה כך אמרתי לרבי
I Shemaya said this to Rabbi

but the copyist misunderstood, and Rav Shemaya's name was lost. But somehow, I don't think Rav Shemaya would have resented that. He made his contribution to his master's work, and that contribution was preserved.

I see a different kind of humility in a book recently published and launched in Jerusalem. Rav Beni Lau (son of Naftali Lavie) wrote his PhD on the halachic work of Rav Ovadia Yosef. That work has just been released as a book titled MiMaran ad Maran, a reference to both the similarity and special relationship between Rav Ovadia, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Rav Yosef Karo, 16th century author of the Shulhan Aruch.

The first page of this book, published by Yediot Aharonot and aimed at a non-academic, mainstream Israeli audience, is a letter sent to the author by the subject of the book. Rav Ovadia tells Rav Beni that he has read his work and enjoyed it, and wishes him good luck. This is a graphic testimony to the cooperation Beni Lau received from the rabbi during the course of his work - more substantive support came in the form of private journals and unpublished writings that the rabbi and his son shared with the doctoral student.

It may seem strange to view this response as showing humility. But I think it does. True humility requires a healthy apprecation of one's own worth. Rav Ovadia clearly does not underestimate his own importance. But he is confident enough in his own identity to welcome critical scrutiny. That is a rare quality, especially in contemporary rabbinic circles. It creates an atmosphere of openness, a willingness to engage other opinions and a responsibility for the influence he wields in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, that level of responsibility and humility does not seem to carry through to his comments on current events.

Update: I made a quick tour of the Geulah bookstores this week, and found Beni Lau's book for sale in ALL OF THEM!

Quick update

I've been away for a few days. There is something I've been meaning to write, and surely many things I need to catch up on. For the moment, I just want to note a fascinating new blog devoted to Hebrew books, and a dissertation available in full text online, as part of Gil Student's Open Access Project. The dissertation deals with one of the commentaries on Tractate Avot composed in the fifteenth century. As far as I can tell, it does not deal much with the general rebirth of interest in the Mishna in the pre-modern period, a fascinating topic that has yet to be plumbed. Gidon Rothstein, in this work, seems to focus more on questions of interpretation. Anyway, it's nice that more material is becoming available online.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A few different things, without a unifying message

First of all, about the magic bowl. Steg, I think you have found your niche. I was amazed by your skill at deciphering and translating the text. If you are looking for more magic bowls, these are my instructions. There is a nice little store in Jerusalem, the only useful place on Safra Square, called Kad Vachomer. You buy a white bowl, and spend an enjoyable afternoon painting it. You have to scrape out the letters first, and then go over them with black paint. I suppose there are such stores in other places of the world, where you can paint your own pottery, but clearly their magical efficacy would be inferior.

Talk in the Knesset (again) about closing down the Hesder yeshivahs. I don't do politics, but I will say this. Lo zu haderech ve-lo zo ha'ir. That is not the way - yeshivah heads were called in for questioning after Rabin's assassination. None were ever charged with anything. I remember a guy from Har Beracha telling me (while we were serving together in a hesder unit) how his teacher arrived at the police station, accompanied by several huge, gun-toting students. Which proved, for one, how misguided that rabbi was, and, for another, that this kind of investigation would quickly turn into a farce.

And that is not the goal. The yeshivot hesder provide a very good environment within which to serve the country. I have a lot to say about negative yeshivah experiences, and have said some of it in the past. But, without question, it is a good thing. For one, because the years after high school are crucial for personal development, and one of the deep reasons why Israeli society is messed up is because everyone spends their formative years wearing a uniform and being bored (which is, romance aside, the typical experience of the vast majority of Israeli conscripts). Hesder gives people an opportunity to give some attention to their minds and souls, without shirking responsibility. It would be good for the whole country if secular kids did the same.

According to the article, 24 Hesder soldiers refused orders. For sake of proportion, my original Hesder unit consisted of 40 young men. Hundreds of people are serving as Hesder soldiers at this very moment. Maybe, perhaps, Ran Cohen is overreacting, just a little?

And, back to more important things, I spent five minutes in a bookstore today. And found that Yehudah Felix has published, as promised, his new edition and commentary on the Palestinian Talmud, tractate Ma'aserot.

Also out is the collected studies of Moshe Samet, including his famous work on Besamim Rosh. I don't know whether the articles are copied verbatim from the original publications, or whether they have been updated.

Oh, and Mar Gavriel's blog is refreshingly obscure. Except when he veers off into strange discussions of silly questions. It is a shame that his contributions (and everyone else's!) to Reclaiming the Daf have ceased.

MyObiterDicta has launched an additional blog, in Hebrew. Not something I plan to do anytime soon. But it will be interesting to see what kind of audience he finds there.

Take a look at the Yakar Learning Community, which Mobius is promoting personally and intensively. His take on it is somewhat idiosyncratic, but if you are looking for an interesting, liberal-minded program that actually learns Torah, it's worth trying out. Or so I hear.

Monday, September 05, 2005

More practical magic

Read the previous post first!

But if you want a contemporary example of the classic magic bowl - admittedly, it's in Hebrew, not Aramaic, and it does involve ingesting food from the utensil - here you go.

Practical magic

I started reading Yuval Harari's article in the latest Pe'amim. It is a study of the use of magic bowls in the Middle East since Antiquity. The only remarkable thing about this article is its point of departure. Harari saw a newspaper clipping from 1997, with a photo of a magic plate that had turned up in the Yeroham cemetery. The plate had been wrapped in plastic and placed in a fresh grave. In other words, it was placed there in the 1990s. The plate itself is modern, as evidenced by the trademarks stamped into it.

A Yeroham rabbi is quoted as denouncing this act of agression, meant to scare the inhabitants of Yeroham, and also declared that it reflected a tradition foreign to Judaism.

The writing on the plate was clearly meant to be apotropaic - the recurring supplication is "refu'ah guf, refu'ah nefesh", healing for the body, healing for the soul. The aggression the rabbi was alluding to probably had more to do with local politics than it did with the content of the plate.

Jews have been producing magic bowls for centuries. And their purpose was usually benign, achieved by invoking holy or angelic names, or biblical and mythical motifs. In one case (a bowl that has not yet been published), a mishnah provides the magic. But this praxis, found throughout the Middle East in Late Antiquity, changed character in Muslim society. There it became associated with a different kind of magic, one of power channeled into the body . The bowl or plate would be filled with water and then swallowed by the person who was supposed to benefit from the magic. It is this tradition which was behind the magic plate of Yeroham. And Harari will explore it more in his next installment.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Wall

Some musings from just before the end of Shabbat (checked and written up a couple of hours later, but the vague feeling of things making sense is still in the air).

The Haftara today, Aniya So'ara (Isaiah 54), mentions God's promise to build the walls of Jerusalem of "avne ekdach". The Pesikta de-Rav Kahana ad loc (ed. Mandelbaum, p. 297) says:
ר' ירמיה בשם ר' שמואל בר יצחק, עתיד הקב"ה לעשות שער מזרחי של בית המקדש הוא
ושני פשיפשיו אבן אחת של מרגלית
R Yirmiyah said in the name of R Shmuel Bar Yitzhak: in the future, God
will make the southern gate of the Temple - it and its two wickets - of one
piece of pearl.

This image is picked up by the Kalir, who writes:
שעריך אשר בשם מיוחסים
שוהם ומילואים היות טכוסים
תכונים ומקשיטה אחת נעשים
תפארת ושם אותם להשים
(שולמית אליצור, קדושה ושיר: קדושתאות לשבתות הנחמה לרבי אלעזר בירבי קליר,
ירושלים תשמ"ח, עמ' 46)
Your walls which are given names... and made of one stone...

The idea of a gate made all of one stone is fascinating. A wall is meant to be solid, as monolithic as possible. But every wall needs to be passed sometimes, and so walls tend to have opening in them. The laws of eruv recognise this, and make room for the eventuality of part of the wall swinging open at times. But the presence of this opening, of the gate, undermines the wall, opens the way for importune openings. But what if the gate could be all of one stone? As monolithic as, even more than, the walls?

Can we ourselves be solid and smooth, innocent of any cracks, and yet open?

Interesting, also, that the next date commemorated in Megillat Ta'anit is the inauguration of the wall of Jerusalem.
בארבעה באלול חנכת שור ירוש[לם] ודלא למספד
The fourth of Elul, the inauguration of the wall of Jerusalem, and not for
eulogizing on.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


The latest issue of HaMa'ayan (48/4, 2005) there is a short article that raises once again the tiring question of who wrote the Sefer ha-Hinnuch. Was it R. Pinchas ha-Levi, brother of R. Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona, or was it an anonymous student of the Rashba?

In this short piece, R. Yosef Abramson recounts a conversation he had with the late Prof. Israel Ta-Shma three years ago. Ta-Shma had declared quite emphatically, starting with an article he published in 1980 (now reprinted in his Knesset Mehkarim) that the author was, in fact, R. Pinchas.

One of those who disagreed with Ta-Shma was Prof. Y. S. Spiegel, who wrote a rejoinder to Abramson's article. He describes the telephone conversation he had with Ta-Shma after his dissenting article appeared. After arguing back and forth for more than an hour, they agreed that it was impossible to reach a clear and unequivocal conclusion. "Then why", asked Ta-Shma, "did you write that my conclusion is untenable?"

That was, in fact, what Spiegel's article said. "From all of this it is apparent that Ta-Shma's conclusion has no basis". מכל אלה נראה שהשערתו של תא שמע אין לה על מה שתסמוך.

And this was the answer. The reason I have bothered blogging about this whole debate. Spiegel explained that what he himself had written was simply that the matter required further investigation. השערתו של תא שמע צריכה עוד לפנים. It was the editor who, finding this too meek, changed the wording.

Once, while still in yeshiva, I wrote an article relating to the week's Torah reading, and gave it to the editor of the yeshiva's in-house parsha sheet. The editor accepted it, but when I came to take a look at it before publication, I found that he had rewritten the entire conclusion. He thought my take on it was incorrect, and therefore saw it as his duty to change it. I was apoplectic. As luck would have it, the editor was green, and his immediate predecessor is a good friend of mine. So, with the application of moderate force, the editor backed down and my article was published with my own ideas in it.