Thursday, August 30, 2007


The current issue of Hispania Judaica Bulletin contains a Hebrew article by Hannah Davidson on Nahmanides' understanding of the menstruant. He believed, in the wake of Arabic scientists and Aristotle's experiment with the mirror. In his reading of Aristotle, the gaze of a menstruating woman, and definitely close contact with her, could cause great physical damage. He compares her look to that of a basilisk. I'm reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets this week, and Colin Creevey just fell to such a gaze.

In Davidson's article, she quotes Ramban's writings on the basis of manuscripts, with references to the appropriate page in Charles Chavel's editions. As has been noted recently, Chavel's work can definitely be improved upon, and better use of manuscripts is key. What I found frustrating, however, was that Davidson does not explain how she chose the manuscripts she uses, nor does she note where they differ from the printed text. Other than that, it is a fascinating read on a topic recently discussed by Sharon Koren as well.

Yeshiva life

I just received an alumni journal from the yeshiva I spent 5 1/2 years at. Through it I learned of this website, showcasing a comicbook written by Eli Misgav. I recognized quite a few people in the pictures, which is quite impressive. And it looks really good.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Halakhah in the news

David Malkiel, “Technology and Culture Regarding Cremation: A Historical and Phenomenological Analysis,” (Hebrew) Italia 10 (1993) pp. 37-70

Mourning and Society

On August 7, the 20th day of Av, I delivered a lecture in memory of my sister Malki, on the sixth anniversary of her murder. Please read about her life and death, and my parents' efforts to keep her memory alive, here. The topic I spoke about was the tension I see as existing between bereaved parents and their ongoing need to mourn, and society's expectation that they move on.

The first source I discussed is from the Babylonian Talmud, and it is the locus classicus for the statement, quoted in many halakhic codes, that excessive grief is frowned upon.

תלמוד בבלי מועד קטן דף כז ע"ב
ואמר רב יהודה אמר רב: כל המתקשה על מתו יותר מדאי - על מת אחר הוא בוכה. ההיא איתתא דהות בשיבבותיה דרב הונא, הוו לה שבעה בני. מת חד מינייהו, הוות קא בכיא ביתירתא עליה. שלח לה רב הונא: לא תעבדי הכי! לא אשגחה ביה. שלח לה: אי צייתת - מוטב, ואי לא - צבית זוודתא לאידך מית. ומיתו כולהו. לסוף אמר לה: תימוש זוודתא לנפשיך, ומיתא. 'אל תבכו למת ואל תנדו לו', אל תבכו למת - יותר מדאי ואל תנדו לו - יותר מכשיעור. הא כיצד? שלשה ימים - לבכי, ושבעה - להספד, ושלשים - לגיהוץ ולתספורת. מכאן ואילך - אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אי אתם רחמנים בו יותר ממני.
R. Yehudah said, citing Rav: Whoever indulges in grief to excess over his dead
will weep for another. There was a certain woman that lived in the neighbourhood
of R. Huna; she had seven sons one of whom died [and] she wept for him rather
excessively. R. Huna sent [word] to her: ‘Act not thus’. She heeded him not
[and] he sent to her: ‘Act not thus’. She heeded him not [and] he sent to her:
‘If you heed my words it is well; but if not, are you anxious to make provision
for yet another?’ He [the next son] died and they all died. In the end he said
to her, ‘Are you fumbling with provision for yourself?’ And she died.[Our Rabbis
taught]: ‘Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him’ (Jer. 22:10). ‘Weep not
for the dead’ – [that is] in excess, ‘neither bemoan him’ – beyond measure. How
is that [applied]? Three days for weeping and seven for lamenting and thirty [to
refrain] from cutting the hair and [donning] fresh clothes; hereafter, the Holy
One, blessed be He, says ‘Ye are not more compassionate towards him than I’.

This is an extremely harsh sugya. It seems to say that a parent who grieves more than thirty days will be punished with the death of another child. One reason for this harshness, I think, is that contemplating something so horrific and senseless as the death of a child will lead one to question God's ways, and those are questions that have no good answers.

Two people who heard my speech suggested alternative readings, which I thought had great merit. The first was that a parent who cries so much over a dead child as to ignore the living siblings needs to be shaken out of it. And the second, which requires detaching the first sentence from the rest of the paragraph, was that someone who remains stiff and unemotional at such a loss is destined to suffer a loss that will make them cry.

In any case, the story within this sugya tells of a woman who cried for her dead child, and Rav Huna her neighbour berated her very harshly. She did not follow his advice, though, and died of sorrow after burying all of her seven children (a classical motif). A striking parallel story is found in BT Sanhedrin, playing off a verse in Lamentations:

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין דף קד ע"ב
'בכה תבכה בלילה', שתי בכיות הללו למה?... דבר אחר: בלילה - שכל הבוכה בלילה קולו נשמע. דבר אחר: בלילה שכל הבוכה בלילה כוכבים ומזלות בוכין עמו. דבר אחר: בלילה - שכל הבוכה בלילה השומע קולו בוכה כנגדו. מעשה באשה אחת שכנתו של רבן גמליאל שמת בנה, והיתה בוכה עליו בלילה, שמע רבן גמליאל קולה ובכה כנגדה, עד שנשרו ריסי עיניו. למחר הכירו בו תלמידיו והוציאוה משכונתו.
‘She weepeth, yea, She weepeth in the night’. Why this double weeping? … Another
interpretation of ‘in the night’: whoever weeps at night, his voice is heard.
Another meaning: whoever weeps at night, the stars and constellations weep with
him. Another meaning: whoever weeps at night, he who hears him weeps. It
happened to a woman, a neighbour of Rabban Gamliel, that her son died, and she
was weeping for him at night. R. Gamliel heard her voice and cried with her
until his eyelashes fell out. The next day, his disciples saw this and removed
her from his neighbourhood.
Here again we find a bereaved mother in the neighbourhood of a great rabbi - Rabban Gamliel. She too cries, and the rabbi hears her grief. This time, however, the rabbi responds in a completely different way - he cries with her, sharing her grief. Interestingly, there are two versions regarding this sharing. One is that he actually identified with her pain. The other, found in Eicha Rabba (the printed edition) is that her crying reminded Rabban Gamliel of the destruction of the Temple. While creating some distance between the rabbi and the mother, this version still preserves his sensitivity, which moved him to remember a pain that he felt himself. However, this neighbourly support was not allowed to persist, and Rabban Gamliel's disciples evicted the mother from the area.
I think that the disciples here represent society, which Hazal recognize as playing a necessary but deeply problematic role. Perhaps society really doesn't have the room for people to express their feelings openly. But it should.
The second half of the shiur focused on two medieval Ashkenazic sources, which also brought out the problematic relationship between the grieving parent and society. However, I think that - for various reasons - Ashkenazic society was more open to accomodating and even participating with grieving parents.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Paleojudaica has mentioned many articles about the manuscripts in Timbuktu. Now the story, along with photos, has reached the NYTimes.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hebrew palimpsest

As noted in a recent post, the Cairo Genizah contains several palimpsests, most of which contain very early copies of rabbinic texts written over Christian ones. Some speculated that this was done purposely, maybe in a kind of reversal of the Christian belief in supersessionism. Prof. Neil Danzig once wrote that he had identified a fragment where both layers of text were in Hebrew.

The latest issue of Revue Etudes Juives - vol. 166, 1-2, January-June 2007 - contains an article by three people, one of whom I have not heard of. Judith Olszowy-Schlanger is emerging as a prolific paleographer, and Nicholas de Lange is, among other things, a scholar of Hebrew-Greek translations. The main discovery presented in this article is that another palimpsest, CUL T-S F 17.4, also contains two layers of Hebrew text. The upper text contains part of Yerushalmi Sotah, and was published by Ginzberg in his Seride Yerushalmi. The lower text was unidentified until now. Using digital images manipulated on Adobe Photoshop and ultra-violet images taken the old-fashioned way, they identified it as containing a Hebrew-Greek biblical glossary. The biblical words are written in a Hebrew script which the researchers were not able to date on its own merits. Nor were they able to date the Greek script. Assuming the upper text is from the 10th century, they attribute the glossary to around 900 CE.