Friday, October 28, 2005


Yesterday I found myself (and gemaragirl) walking through Meah She'arim. We stopped at some silver stores. Excuse my self-righteousness. But I find silver stores sickening. Especially when they are invested with religious meaning.

Can there be anything more ironic and self-defeating than a silver charity box?

The Jerusalem Talmud tells a story:
דלמא. ר' חמא בר חנינא ור' הושעיה הוון מטיילן באילין כנישתא דלוד. אמ' ר' חמא בר חנינא לר' הושעיא - כמה ממון שיקעו אבותיי כאן! אמ' ליה - כמה נפשות שיקעו אבותיך כאן!
A story. R Hama bar Hanina and R Hoshaya were walking in the synagogues of Lod. R Hama said - how much money did my ancestors invest [literally: bury] here! [R Hoshaya] replied - how many souls did your ancestors bury here!
Peah 8:9, 21b (p. 114)

This story is quoted by R Meir of Rothenburg, in response to the question: if someone promised money to an unspecified charity, should the money go towards candles for the synagogue, or for sick people? The answer was, of course, to give it to the sick.

In manuscript versions of this responsum (ed. Prague no. 692 - actually, only the account of a discussion, not a written response), instead of just punning on שקע, the full implication is made explicit - כמה נפשות אבדו אבותיכם , how many souls did your ancestors kill!

So, please, use your money wisely.

Monday, October 24, 2005

A new epithalamion

אפתח בשיר לבחור בכתבים
באירוס משוש כגפני ענבים
יהי כן דודיכם מיין טובים
וכצלם תתענגו בעילוס אהבים
Composed and recited by Avi Shmidman, Jerusalem, Hoshanah Rabbah 5766

Thanks, Avi. It's beautiful.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Ta Shema

Tomorrow, Tishre 19, is the first anniversary (yahrzeit) of Israel M. Ta-Shema. Prof. Ta-Shma was on the faculty of the Talmud department at Hebrew University, and headed the IMHM for several years. He was born in Tel Aviv on September 4th 1936, was a central figure in editing the Hebrew Encyclopedia, wrote his doctorate on R. Zerahiah ha-Levi of Lunel and published several books and hundreds of articles (many of them were short pieces in Mahanayim, but most of the major ones are being published in several volumes titled Knesset Mehkarim, being published by Mossad Bialik. The volumes on Ashkenaz and Sefarad have already appeared, and the one on Italy is supposed to appear soon).

Ta-Shema's impact on Jewish studies, especially on medieval rabbinics, was very significant. Speaking personally, his evocation of the tensions and dramas hidden in Hebrew manuscripts played a major role in pushing me in the direction of study I have been following for several years. But he also left enough room, both in terms of topics untreated, and sources underutilized, for his students and his students' students (that would include me, I hope) to carry his work forward in new directions.

One of Ta-Shema's most intriguing books is titled Ha-Nigleh sheba-Nistar. It is a (controversial) attempt to analyze the Zohar as a halachic book, and thereby to put it in a historical perspective that scholars of Jewish mysticism have not seen. Basically, he says that the halachic tradition of the book is Spanish, but that it contains a great many Ashkenazic customs.

On pp. 30-31 of this book he discusses Hoshana Rabba. Specifically, the idea that looking at a person's shadow on the night of Hoshana Rabba can reveal his future. If he has no shadow, or if the shadow is missing a head, he will die in the coming year.

One of the sources in which this custom appears is Sefer Rokeah. I have read the passage through a few times, and there is something I am confused about. Suggestions would be welcomed.

לפי שבחג עת המים והוצרכו בלילה שלפניו לראות כמה קרקפתא דגברי צריכין לפרנסה ומראין בצל ואומרים המלאכים פלוני לא יחיה הרי אינו צריך למים ולפרנסה סר צילם מעליהם וה' אתנו, סר צלם מעליהם בגימטר' ס"ר שנ"ה למי שסר צילו לא יחיה שנה לפי שכתוב בצל ידי כסיתיך ובצל כנפיך תחסה והשדים מצויין אצל צל של לבנה כדאמרינן בפרק ערבי פס' אצל הצל עוברים על לא תשיג גבול רעך ואותם מזיקים הם של אש וברד. על כן קטנים הניזוקין בלבנה יש להם חמימות וקרירות ושילשול ומועיל להם הלחישות. ולזה מועיל גודל ימין בשמאל וגודל של שמאל בימין ובזה מתהפכין פיסת יד על מזלו של מעלה אז מגינים על הדם למטה שדומה למזלו למעלה זהו בצל ידו החביאני...
רוקח, סימן רכא

I'm not going to attempt to translate that right now. But if I understand it correctly, it says that holding your right thumb in your left hand, and the left in the right, can change your fate. Or is that talking about something else?

[More sources on this custom - Daniel Sperber, Minhage Yisrael 6, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 173-182; Ya'akov Yisrael Stal (ed.), Sefer Gematriot le-R. Yehuda he-Hassid, Jerusalem 2005, pp. 866-871 - thanks to Eliezer Brodt for the second reference.]

Yes, there is another update, but it is personal and I have not decided yet whether to share it with the blogosphere. You can contact me directly if the suspense is killing you.

Monday, October 17, 2005


The Academy for the Hebrew Language has indeed released its online database, Ma'agarim. NIS 200 or $50 a year, and you have unlimited access to the full text of all Hebrew literature up to the year 1038 (I think), based on the best manuscripts (they hope), with every Hebrew word hyperlinked into a historical dictionary.

Machon Yerushalayim and the Shlomo Aumann Institute have published a new edition of Zichron Yehudah, the responsa of R. Yehudah ben Asher, the son of the Rosh.

In the wake of the comments on my previous post, I checked out the new book Avodah, edited by Michael Swartz and Yosef Yahalom. Very nice. But it doesn't contain the panegyric I was talking about.

Friday, October 14, 2005

More priestly praises

On Yom Kippur I read what is arguably the earliest seder avodah, a prose description known as Shiv'at Yamim. It was published from 5 genizah fragments by Ismar Elbogen. One of the fragments contains a panegyric for the High Priest, after he successfully completed the Temple service of the day. The liturgy used in the Ashkenazic rite for this purpose has the refrain "Truly, how wondrous was the high priest when leaving the holy of holies safely, without being harmed", and every line compares him to some beautiful sight.

Shiv'at Yamim contains a different version of this, with some interesting lines:
כאור בקוע באשנבו
כבחור עומד על פרקו
כדורש משיב לב קהלו
כהדס קשור בלולבו
כיורה ומלקוש בעונתו
כלביא שואג מסובכו
כשר נאה בממשלתו
As light refracting through the window
As a young man in his prime
As a preacher restoring the spirit of his audience
As a myrtle branch tied to a lulav
As rain in its time, first and last of the season
As a lion roaring from its lair (Ben-Yehuda p. 3919)
As a minister, glorious in his authority (it's just after YK, so I will
resist my urge to link to a photo of a specific minister)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Halacha and Modernity

As I have mentioned, Moshe Samet's collected works were recently published as a book. An evening, under the auspices of Scholion and the hospitality of Yad Ben Zvi, is planned for November 3rd.

Maoz Kahana will speak about the Hatam Sofer. Benny Brown will pick up on that theme and discuss Halacha and modernity from the Hatam Sofer to the Hazon Ish. Shlomo Tychozcinsky is slated to describe the Lithuanian yeshivot in British Mandate Palestine, and Shlomo Deshen will speak (in a second session, on current trends) about the Oriental (Mizrahi) Haredi movement.

Update: After Simcha's speech, Moshe Samet asked about a computer system he had heard of which reveals whether a particular author wrote a particular book. Simcha answered that he had no idea, and Ezra explained that he meant Ben Chorin. So I guess the list of people making the connection with Besamim Rosh includes Samet himself.

The Evils of Printing

The conference in honour of Benjamin Richler took place yesterday in Givat Ram. The hall was full, with people standing at the door for lack of empty seats.

The only lecture I was able to take notes from was that by Dr. Simcha Emanuel. He spoke about the impact of printing on Hebrew manuscripts, focusing on central Europe. During the sixteenth century, Hebrew printing houses were producing three kinds of books - reprints of books that had already been published in the 15th century, works by contemporary authors (e.g., the Shulhan Aruch) and first editions of older works which had existed until then in manuscripts. In this last category, most of the books being published were Ashkenazic in origin.

During the 17th century, this last category was severely neglected. Simcha says he knows of only two books published from medieval manuscripts in Central Europe during this period - the Responsa of Maharam Mintz (Cracow 1617) and Pesiqta Rabbati (Prague 1657).

In the 18th century, the publishing of medieval works picked up again. This was largely under the influence and support of David Oppenheim, rabbi of Prague. But this time, it was different. Most of the books were being published from Sefardic or Oriental manuscripts, many of which had only recently arrived in Europe (some from the library of R. Bezalel Ashkenazi).

During the interim period when the publication of manuscripts was neglected, many unique works were lost. During the Middle Ages, people knew that, for a book to survive, it needed to be copied. After the advent of the printing press, though, people became complacent in their feeling that, even if a book had not yet been published, it surely would be soon. And if it hadn't, then it probably wasn't that important anyway.

To demonstrate the ramifications of this attitude, Simcha mentioned the example of the Talmudic novellae (hiddushim) of R. Abraham b. David of Posquieres. The Ra'avad was principally known to medieval talmudists as the author of commentaries (R. Menahem ha-Meiri named him gedolei ha-mefarshim, the giant[s] of commentators). And yet, until the 20th century, none of his novellae had been published. Over the past century two books were published - his commentary on Baba Kamma (by Samuel Atlas) and Avodah Zarah (by Abraham Sofer). Both, from a single surviving manuscript. A manuscript containing his novellae on Berachot was lost in a flood in the 1920s. The novellae on Baba Batra survived in a unique manuscript as well, and will be published imminently. But that's all that's left.

Dr. Emanuel ended by emphasizing how important it is for the IMHM to continue its work of collecting copies of all Hebrew manuscripts, the world over.

After all the speeches, Benjamin spoke for a few minutes about his path to the library, which included a stint of teaching English at Midrashiyat Noam in Pardes Hannah. Then he regaled us with one of his latest discoveries, uniting under a single author disparate manuscripts in Jerusalem, Oxford, Budapest and Cincinatti.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Lulavim and Ephithalamia

Apparently the lulav crisis has passed. I was planning to say something about it. In short (and I will try to get back to this later):
מה שמברכין כל הציבור על אתרוג אחד ולולב אחד בכל מלכות אשכנז, נוהגין זה שדעת
כל אחד ואחד מסכים שינתן לכל אחד ואחד כלו עד שיצא בו ואז יחזירנו, ומנהג יפה
לקנותו חבר עיר או הגבאים משלהם ואחר כך יגבו דמים מן הקהל...
That the entire community makes the blessing on one citron and one lulav in all of Ashkenaz, this is because each person agrees to give it
to each other person until he fulfills his obligation and then returns it. And
it is a nice custom that the leaders of the community or the gabbaim
should buy it with their own money and then collect the expense from the
(Ra'avya no. 654, quoted in Sefer Assufot, Meorot Harishonim p. 136)

Avi Shmidman has completed his MA thesis. It is titled "Epithalamia for the Grace after Meals from the Cairo Geniza", Bar Ilan University, 2005. I'm really excited about reading it!

Friday, October 07, 2005


אמר ר' - לא דיין לבעלי תשובה שמקבלין אותן [בתשובה] אלא שקורין אותן ר'
Rabbi said - Is it not enough for Ba'alei Teshuva that they are accepted [as penitents], that they are even called Rabbi?
Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 17a
This must be one of the most ironic sentences in the Talmud, which is a pretty ironic work to begin with. But there are certain people who tend to miss the irony in life. And they take this, too, literally. Clearly, they apparently say, it is better not to accept penitents. Not that they should not do teshuvah. But even when they do, they will not be accepted into society.

The Bible devotes a great effort to emphasizing the importance of not mistreating proselytes, the strangers in your midst. While there are obvious differences between proselytes and the newly-religious, the similarities are very strong.

It would seem that Jewish society has long been lax in its performance of this commandment. In an article I hope will appear soon, an important young scholar charts changes in the attitude of Ashkenazic society towards converts. During the First Crusade, a convert who was about to murdered, along with the rest of the Jewish community in which he lived and which had refused to be baptised, shouted out to his compatriots: "You, who always doubted my sincerity - watch as I am killed for my adopted faith!"

Speaking of medieval converts to Judaism - a new collection of studies has just been published on Ovadiah of Oppido, a convert whose existence was revealed by the Genizah. He was born Johannes, a Norman in southern Italy. He converted to Judaism in 1102 and moved to Aleppo. He is the first person known to have used musical notations in Hebrew. He also wrote an autobiography, which was published in the 1970s and '80s. Mauro Perani edited a volume titled Giovanni-Ovadiah da Oppido, proselito, viaggiatore e musicista dell'eta normanna, Firenze 2005. Besides studies by a wide range of scholars (including Robert Bonfil, Norman Golb, Cyril Aslanov, Benjamin Zvi Kedar, Elinoar Barkat and Andre Hajdu), the book contains facsimiles of all the pages identified as having been written by Ovadiah.

As the example of Ovadiah the Norman demonstrates, converts and other newcomers contribute a great deal to the vitality of the society which they join. If there is any downside to such a transition, it is the price these people pay, both in terms of the group they are leaving which feels betrayed, and the group they are joining which - at the best of times - is more comfortable with oldtimers. To ostracise them is not only to sin, but also to lose out on what they have to offer. And to accuse them of being a bad influence on the "pure-bloods" is both wicked and stupid.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

New volume of Yeshurun

Volume 16 of Yeshurun has just been published. Worth noting here are at least three of the articles. The first is a section of early Tosafot on Shabbat, which is apparently a sample of an extensive manuscript that is going to be published soon by Machon Ofeq. The second is a few pieces of novellae on Shabbat by R. Baruch (the Spaniard or Greek or Syrian - Ta Shema places him in southern Italy in the mid-12th century), extracted from the Judeo-Arabic anthology Sefer Ha-Ner by R. Zecharia Agamati. Further on in this hefty volume is a section of historical research on R. Meir Shapiro, who started the Daf Yomi movement. Also, a debut article by Moshe Dovid Chechik on a 17th century figure named R Binyamin Ha-Dayan.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A new year

The Pesikta on Rosh Hashana says:
ר' ברכיה בשם ר' ירמיה פתח - אורח חיים למעלה למשכיל למען סור משאול מטה. אורח
חיים - אין אורח חיים אלא דברי תורה, דכת' עץ חיים וג'. ד"א אורח חיים - אין אורח
חיים אלא ייסורים, דכת' ודרך חיים תוכחות מוסר.
R. Berechia opened in the name of R. Yirmiyah: "The path of life
goeth upward for the wise, that he may depart from the nether-world beneath" (Proverbs
"The path of life" - there is no path of life other than Torah,
as it says "It is a
tree of life"
. Another opinion: "The path of life" - there is no path of
life other than suffering, as it says "and reproofs of
instruction are the way of life"
(Piska 23, 5, ed. Mandelbaum p. 338)

I don't think anyone actually chooses a path of suffering in life. But there are plenty of people whose path chose them. And I shudder at the thought that this path is meant to steer them away from the nether-world, when that nether-world itself yawns at their feet every day. I can't say I understand why someone chose to place this second choice after R. Berechia's homily. But there is definitely something sobering about it, something that reminds me that homilies about the value of learning Torah fall short of the reality of existence.

One of the most annoying things I remember from Rosh Hashana in yeshiva was the people who would constantly remind those around them of the custom to avoid sleeping too much over the New Year. "If you sleep on Rosh Hashana, your luck will sleep all year".

So I was gratified to find, just a few days ago, a short article by Yisrael M. Peles (Moriya 17, 7-8, 1991, pp. 106-108) titled "Some say we sleep on Rosh Hashana". Apparently, Minhag Zarefat (and, to some degree, Ashkenaz) modified the words of the second blessing of the Amida. Instead of ונאמן אתה להחיות מתים, "and we trust You to resuscitate the dead", they would say נרדמים, "the sleeping". Because, as an anonymous glossator said, שאנו נרדמים עד יפסק הדין, we sleep until our fate is determined.

Sleeping is a great act of faith. Someone whose existence is in jeopardy will not sleep. He will stay awake as long as he can.

Wishing all my readers, my friends, family and everyone else a somnolent year.