Saturday, November 26, 2005

Remembering the joy of a birthday

Tomorrow, November 27th 2005, would be Malki's twentieth birthday.

Last year I taught a piece of midrash in her memory. It is an orphaned passage, unclear on where it belongs. Published by Bernard Mandelbaum in his edition of Pesikta deRav Kahana from a single manuscript, it may possibly be a remnant of the lost midrash Harninu. [For this see Shibole Haleket 174, Abraham ben HaGr"a in Rav Pealim p. 47, David Henshke in Akdamot 6 [1999] p. 67). It is all about happiness.

ושמחת בחגיך - את מוצא שלש שמחות כתובות בחג... אבל בפסח אין את מוצא שכתובה
בו אפילו שמחה אחת, ולמה, אלא את מוצא שבפסח התבואה נידונית ואין אדם יודע אם עושה
היא השנה אם אינה עושה, לפיכך אין כת' שם שמחה. ד"א למה אין כת' שם שמחה, בשביל
שמתו בו המצריים... וכן את מוצא שאין כת' בעצרת אלא שמחה אחת... ולמה כת' שם שמחה
אחת, מפני שהתבואה נכנסת בפנים. ומאי טעמא אין כת' שם שתי שמחות, שכן את מוצא
שאעפ"י שנכנסה התבואה בפנים אבל פירות האילן נידונין, לפיכך אין כת' שם שמחה שנייה.
אבל בראש השנה אין כת' שם אפילו שמחה אחת. מאי טעמא, שהנפשות נידונות ומבקש אדם
נפשו יותר מממונו. אבל בחג לפי שנטלו הנפשות דימוס שלהם ביום הכיפורים... ועוד
שהתבואה ופירות האילן בפנים, לפיכך כת' שם שלש שמחות...
And you shall rejoice on your festival. You find three mentions of joy in
relation to Sukkot... But on Pesah only one. Why? Because on Pesah, the produce
is being judged (by God, whether it will be bountiful or not) and a person does
not know whether it will yield this year or not, therefore there is no (extra)
joy. Another explanation - because on Pesah the Egyptians died... And so you
find that on Shavuot there is only one (mention of) joy... because then the
produce is being harvested. But even so, the fruits of the trees are being
judged. On Rosh Hashanah there is no mention of joy, because then people
themselves are being judged, and a person worries more about his life than his
money. But on Sukkot, after people have been pardoned on Yom Kippur, and both
the produce in the fields and on the trees is stored away, there are three

So life is measured in terms of hurdles to be cleared, stressful periods to be survived, and then relief finally sets in and allows a person to be truly happy. But the midrash raises a different fear:

ד"א והיית אך שמח - מהו אך שמח? את מוצא אעפ"י שאדם שמח בעולם הזה, אין שמחתו
שלמה. היאך? בעולם הזה, אדם נולד לו בן והוא מיצר עליהם למר שהן בנים של קיימא או
אינם של קיימא, והילכך הוא מיצר. אבל לעתיד לבא, הקב"ה מבלע את המות, שנאמר ובלע
המות לנצח. אותה השעה שמחה שלימה, שנאמר אז ימלא שחוק פינו ולשונינו רנה.
Another way - "And you shall be only happy". What is "only happy"? You find
that, even when a person is happy in this world, his happiness is not complete.
Why? In this world, a person has sons, and he worries about them, whether they
will survive or not. But in the future, God will swallow up death... Then there
will be complete joy, as it says "Then will our mouth be filled with laughter
and our tongue with joy."

So, in fact, we are never clear of all the hurdles. Every occasion of joy hides within it the potential of grief. The fear of loss is everpresent. In the world as we know it, there is no room for true, unfettered joy.

Are we supposed to learn from this that we should never be happy, always waiting for the next calamity to arrive? The fact that this is, after all, a homily for Sukkot should hint to us that the answer is no. Though the first section of the midrash does indeed draw a graph marking the level of tension in life, which would seem to stabilize when we reach Sukkot, the second midrash makes it clear that with that attitude, joy on Sukkot is also impossible. But joy on Sukkot is the focus of the midrash. One should rejoice on Sukkot. Accepting with full awareness that this is not a complete, carefree joy. Just as on Pesach we should be mindful of the Egyptians who died, on Sukkot we should be mindful both of those who have died and of our own precarious position. And yet, rejoice.

One take on this kind of happiness is found in a song by Gilad Segev, about the good times he had with his brother, who was killed in the army. The lyrics are here, and you can hear the song on his site. The song is called עכשיו טוב, Now [things are] good. If I understand it properly, he means that there were moments when things were good, times he spent with his brother with no inkling of his impending death. And then things were good. If he can still reach back to those times, then the present can be a little good as well.

Malki also wrote a song about happiness. Without any illusions, it is a song that draws its strength not from the past, but from the present and the future. You are alive now. That is a reason to be happy. You can move forward. That is another reason.

At times, that is an vital message for me and for others. To look forward and be astounded by the future that lies ahead. I'm getting married soon. That's definitely a reason to be happy. But at other times - very often - it is in the past, in memories of Malki as my sister, as a real person who laughed and cried hugged me and got into fights with her mother and left a God-awful mess in her room, that is the only place to find joy.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Medieval Talmudics

Over the years, in explaining to people that I study in the Talmud department at university, I have elicited a fairly narrow spectrum of responses. First, there are most people, who make some noncommittal grunt and move on to someone they understand. Which is fine.

And there are those who conclude that I must be a holy man, entirely immersed in the world of Torah. You don't believe me? My driving teacher, at the end of my first lesson, asked what I do. As soon as I told him, he started explaining. "Don't think that I'm not religious, just because I don't cover my head. I am. My children went to religious schools. I taught in a religious school myself for many years. But..." I have no idea why he thought that academic Talmud would make me critical of him, but he did.

Then, there are the religious people. Who divide into two types. The kind who was to engage, and ask me innocently why learning in yeshiva wasn't good enough for me. And the "perushim", who end the conversation there and never speak to me again. That happened to me repeatedly in miluim after my first year of studies, and it really hurt.

And then come the academics. Who don't understand how it is possible to study Talmud while focusing on the Middle Ages. Because they know that the Talmud is a phenomenon of Late Antiquity. They have read books in comparative religion. Talmud and medievalism does not go together. I must be wrong. Even a highly intelligent, scholarly and friendly ex-blogger said something like that to me, just yesterday.

Now, the first group doesn't bother me. The second does sometimes, depending on my mood and surroundings. But it's not an argument I have any interest in having, while there are plenty of people who do. The question is why I care about the last group. Do I really feel such a sense of loyalty to the Isaac Wolfson Center of Talmudic Studies?

I think the point is something like this. [Having rewritten this section twice, I still feel it sounds cliched. And so] I just like it. It makes sense to me, to focus on the text for its own sake, and not simply as a historical document. Why medieval halachic texts should be defined as Talmud? Because they are. It is the people who define Talmud narrowly, as a shelf of books produced in between 200 and 500 AD who are being anachronistic.

Some new books

I stopped by the Magnes office last week, and noticed a couple of new books. One is the Ze'ev Falk Memorial Volume. Another was a book by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, based on his MA thesis. It deals with the fascinating topic of the impact Catholic censorship during the Counter-Reformation had on Jewish books. This was the first time that external censorship had a real impact on Judaism, and the changes imposed then have left their marks on Jewish culture ever since.

Raz-Krakotzkin's book contains a section on Domenico Gerosolimitano's book, Sefer ha-Ziquq. This book, actually an index, was compiled by one of the main censors, and a converted Jew. It lists the problematic passages in hundreds of Hebrew books which he recommended be censored, and sometimes replaced with less offensive terms. The index was recently published in a dissertation by Gila Prebor. It is fascinating to see which passages were considered anti-Christian, and which books got off scot free.

In the field of rabbinics, I became aware of two books this week. One was published a year ago, but I only became aware of it this week. The other I heard about yesterday for the first time (though there were rumours), but have not laid eyes on yet.

The first is a text called Iggeret Ha-Te'amim. It is a halachic work, apparently written in Zaragoza somewhere in the fifteenth century (the manuscript, Oxford Neu. 890, has watermarks from the late 15th/early 16th century). This edition was published by Nissim Mizrahi in Neveh Daniel 2005, on the occasion of the Bar Mitzvah of his son, Amichai. It is described, both in this publication and in the catalogue of the IMHM, as an abridgement of Abudarham. However, in the introduction, the author describes a manuscript he had access to, an autograph copy of Toldot Adam ve-Hava by R Yeruham. It seems clear to me that he is explaining about one of the souces he used in compiling his work. But R Mizrahi (who should be well known to anyone who spent time in Alon Shevut) understands this to mean that he is simply notifying us that, elsewhere, he copied out R Yeruham's book, and it has no relevance to the book at hand. The quote is as follows:
אמר המאסף - יען דברי רבי' ירוחם בעיני נכשרים, שהן ברורים ובדעות מגדולי המורים ובמראי מקום נזכרים, ומצאתי אדם וחוה מכתיבת ידו, והעתקתיו

Be that as it may, I noticed something interesting at the very end of the publication. In the section on engagement and marriage, he says:
הטעם שנהגו להמתין לישא אשה עד מילוי הירח, לפי שהוא סימן טוב לישראל, ואין
בזה משום לא תנחשו ולא תעוננו. כי הירח והשכינה שבה שלנו היא.
The reason it is customary to wait with the wedding until the moon is full,
is because it is a portentuous sign for Israel. And there is no issue of "Neither shall ye practise
divination nor soothsaying
", because the moon and the Shechinah within it is

I'm not sure exactly what that means. Anyone ever heard of the Shechinah in the moon? But it is definitely cool.

The other book, which Simcha Emanuel mentioned in class yesterday, is a new edition of the entire Sefer Avi Ha-Ezri by R Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi of Bonn (Ra'avya). The first three volumes of this monumental work of Ashkenazic halacha were edited by Victor Aptowitzer. The fourth was done by the Harry Fischel Institute. And the last four volumes were published by R David Deblitzky. That same rabbi has now gone back and republished the entire book, based on a new reading of the manuscripts. Meanwhile, last year, the Fischel Institute published their own edition of one of the volumes that he had published a few years ago.

If I get to see the book itself, I'll try to tell you more.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

David Tamar z"l

At the library today I saw a notice with the details of a memorial service marking thirty days to the passing of Prof. David Tamar, this coming Tuesday. I feel bad - I had no idea he had died. Now I see that he passed away on Erev Sukkot. An obituary written by Neryah Gutal in HaZofeh is here.

I met Tamar only once. His father, Yissachar Tamar, devoted his lifetime to the study of the Jerusalem Talmud. He wrote a commentary titled Alei Tamar and amassed a library focused on the topic. That library was transferred after his death to Yeshivat Har Etzion, and his yahrzeit is observed there every year. One year, the son came for the memorial service and came up to the beit midrash. He was a sorry sight. His clothes were unwashed, his thoughts were scattered, but he was looking for intelligent conversation. He approached my havruta and myself, and starting showing us letters he had received from the Lubavitcher Rebbe (and other people, but I don't remember who).

As it happens, I read an article by Tamar less than a week after he died. Though republished in a collection of his articles on Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael and Italy, it was about R. Israel Isserlein, a 15th century Austrian rabbi known to some by the name of his book, Terumat HaDeshen. It is an article that has been harshly reviewed by Yaakov Elbaum, and contains some very unscholarly comments on topics like the literary quality of R Isserlein's poetry.

I learned one fascinating piece of information from David Tamar's article. He refers to a sentence in Leket Yosher, a description of life with R Isserlein written by one of his students. In discussing mourning customs he tells how:
וזכורני ששכיבא ליה ברתא קטנה שמה מושקט ז"ל לעת זקנתו ואין לו עוד בת ואין אנו יכולים לאמר לו דברי תנחומים...
And I remember that his young daughter died in his old age. Her name was Muscat and he had no other daughter and we could not say anything to console him...
Leket Yosher part 2. p. 97

Later, reading Avraham Grossman's book on French sages, I found that Rashi also buried a daughter:
ורבי' שלמה קרע על בתו בחול המועד אעפ"י שאין דין אבילות נוהג בם כלל
And R Shlomo tore his clothes over his daughter on Hol HaMoed even though there is no mourning on those days at all
Sefer HaNiyar, p. 60

Grossman suggests that this daughter was the youngest of Rashi's children. And he, like R Yisrael, was also inconsolable, refusing to wait until after the festival in order to mourn his child.

Avraham Grossman, Hachmei Zarefat HaRishonim, Jerusalem 1997, p. 125, n. 13
David Tamar, 'Demuto HaRuhanit shel R Israel Isserlein', Sinai 32 (1953), pp. 175-185 = idem, Mehkarim be-toldot ha-Yehudim be-Eretz Israel uve-Italya, Jerusalem 1973, pp. 55-65
Yaakov Elbaum, Teshuvat haLev ve-Kabbalat Yissurim, Jerusalem 1993, p. 28-29

Monday, November 07, 2005


I have a question, and wonder whether anyone out there has an answer. No, not that kind of question.

Hebrew manuscripts abound with substitutes for the Tetragrammaton. Jacob Lauterbach wrote an article with a long list of examples. Having a critical list, one that catalogues usage of different letters and graphic schemes by date and geographic distribution, would be a boon to scholars. But, as David Golinkin has pointed out, this work has yet to be done, and Lauterbach's list is not particularly useful.

My question is this - when did spelling out השם, Hashem, first crop up? I don't remember seeing it discussed anywhere, but chances are it is. I would have assumed it was quite late, but the manuscript I am working on now is probably from around 1300.

Googling the word Hashem, I found a preponderance of messianic sites. I don't know why. Any ideas on that?

There are two auditory memories that Hashem brings to me. The first is Rav Mordechai Breuer talking about the documents in the story of the Ten Plagues. One of the two is, of course, that of Shem Havayah.

The other memory is from a Beit Morashah conference on mysticism. Prof. Philip Alexander spoke about Metatron, calling him "Hashem Ha-Katan". With his accent, it sounded really funny, and has stuck in my mind ever since.

Jacob Lauterbach, “Substitutes for the Tetragrammaton”, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 1/2 (1930-1931), pp. 39-67
David Golinkin, Ginzei Rosh Hashanah: Manuscript Fragments of Bavli Rosh Hashanah from the Cairo Genizah, New York and Jerusalem 2000, p. 7

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A really exciting new blog

Ezra Chwat and a friend have launched a blog, to fill a need that Ezra has felt for a long time. Plowing through the Geniza collections throughout the world, he (and others) comes across many minor finds that could be significant but do not warrant a full-scale publication. So he will be placing short pieces online, inviting comments and further discussion. Anyone else with similar finds is invited to join in.
The blog is called Gilui Milta B'alma, emphasizing its purpose of publicizing new manuscripts in the judeoblogosphere.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Clouds of Dissent

Now that the Holidays are behind us, more variety in Jewish blogging should be in store. I just read through with a group the Tosefta in Sanhedrin which says that "At first there were no disagreements in Israel". Can't say I much like it (I remember that DZ Hoffmann has an explanation of that baraita in his HaMishna HaRishona, but I don't remember whether it was convincing).

Mobius gave a talk about open-source Internet resources as the cure for the ills of institutional Judaism. A nice new initiative which contributes something to the cause of Open Source Judaism is a blog devoted to discussing the Passover Haggadah. It's called 4 Sons and Sons.

Looking forward to cloud-filled skies glowing a pleasant grey. Hodesh tov.

You too can own a Geniza fragment

Act now! Manuscripts from the Schocken collection are being sold in two weeks, and the first lot consists of liturgical Geniza fragments.

I think it is this. Not sure.