Deciphering the Dialectical Mind of the Talmud

9780873064651: Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure & Methodology

·         Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum;

·         Title: “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology.”

·         Pages: 122 pages

·         Publisher: Feldheim; 2nd edition (1988)

·         ISBN-13: 978-0873064651

·         Price: $29.99 (Amazon prime)

·         Rating: 4 star

·         Reviewer: Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

 

Some Aramaic scholarly friends of mine who speak and know Talmudic Aramaic often complain about the poor syntax of the Talmud. To most English readers, it almost seems as if the rabbis left out every other word in a sentence.

Why is it so hard to decipher Talmudic Aramaic?  It is possible that the Jews who spoke Jewish Aramaic probably sounded like immigrants struggling to express the simplest thought in their communications!

Yet, over time the Talmud did develop its own unique syntax along with its own internal logos that an outsider needs to study and master, if he or she is to become conversant with its message.

That’s how dialects in regional languages are born.

With this short introduction, I will briefly comment about Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum’s  book, “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology.” Talmudic language is a lot like scientific language, and instead of mastering the Periodical Table of Elements, to understand Talmud, you can develop a feel for the language by observing how its language is used.

Most Israelis and people who are fluent in Modern Hebrew will tell you that R. Adin Steinsaltz’s Hebrew translation of the Talmud does a splendid job in helping students master this ancient dialect of Jewish Aramaic.

Despite some of the inherent difficulties present in Talmudic discourse, I think Feigenbaum’s book does a fine job with acquainting the neophyte.

Here are some examples: Peshitta literally means “obvious” and Feigenbaum explains that peshita is an attack question, that while the statement in question is true, it was not necessary to state it. The statement, according to this attack question, tells us something obvious, something we would have known without the statement telling us so.” (Pg. 79).

The author might have considered adding that tonality in Talmudic Aramaic is an important part of how we as human beings communicate. In tonal languages such as Chinese, the slightest inflection in how a word is pronounced may indicate something foolish or wise depending what tone the speaker uses.

Using the case of peshitta, the tonal question might be, “So nuuuuuuuuuuuu! Or, “No daaah, isn’t that obvious???” As you can see the musicality of Talmudic dialogue is one of Talmudic Aramaic’s more endearing and unforgettable qualities I will always remember from my days in the yeshiva world. The yeshiva’s discussion of the Talmud is always animated.

Feigenbaum goes on to say, “The answer to such a question must show why the statement is not superfluous. It must tell us that we would not have arrived at this [logical] conclusion had the statement not been made—and that we would have come to a different conclusion.”

Reading “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology” is full of such examples of Talmudic attack questions. Is not any wonder why only Jewish tradition could create a Freud and a Derrida? The polyvalence of Talmudic concepts also explains why Jews make such excellent attorneys. Truth is fluid and it is always challenging our old suppositions of how we understand a text.  Feigenbaum introduces the assumptions one might have thought (salka da’atcha a’mina) had it not been for the text in question.

Hegel’s dialectic method involving thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is at the heart of Talmudic discourse and yes, had Hegel been Jewish, he would have made an outstanding Talmudist! The same could certainly be said about Socrates who favored truth as the highest value in life.

Rationality always appeals to logic and not emotion; it aims for persuasion and the discovery of truth to guide our behavior. The rabbis were not Sophists, but they believed like Socrates that the logical presentation of ideas provide essential tools for living a holy life.

Faigenbaum does not mention Socrates, but he does mention in the introduction to his book, “We begin with a question. This book is meant, above all, to teach you to ask the right questions. To achieve a precise peshat (understanding) of a section in Gemora, one must first ask the proper questions…” (p. 2). This approach sounds fairly Socratic to me!

To make the arguments easier to grasp, the Feigenbaum uses flowcharting to break the logical sequencing of the discussions and the ideas that they present to the critical mind. Feigenbaum gives numerous other examples of what he calls “attack questions” to his readers to ponder.

Sometimes the rabbis of the Talmud remind me of the person who always hits a bulls-eye by painting a target around the arrow. The rabbis refer to this method as asmakhta – a scriptural support for already existing customs and established traditions. It is a pity the author did not discuss this important aspect of Talmudic thought, for it shows how plastic the biblical text could be in the hands of the Talmudic master.

For the yeshiva alumni, I think the “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology” will provide a pleasant review of the Talmudic concepts yeshiva students once studied but forgot over the years. For the new student of Talmud, I think Feigenbaum’s approach of fleshing out the logic of Talmudic discourse might make the study of Talmud more challenging, and hopefully illuminating for serious students.

Book Review: God and Politics in Esther-

 

Yoram Hazony:  Title:  God and Politics in Esther 2nd Edition. Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition (2015)

ISBN-10: 1107583454; Price $18.27 on Amazon.  Rating ***** out of 5 Stars.

Reviewer: Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Yoram Hazony’s exposition of the Book of Esther is priceless.  In my Judaism 101 class, everyone read a little bit from God and Politics in Esther and the discussions that ensued made the time move so quickly . . . All my students quickly ordered their copies; they are all having an exciting time discussing it with their friends.

The Book of Esther has always been one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible. The absence of God’s Name in this charming book gives it a unique distinction among all the other biblical books. As Hazony points out in his introduction:

  • When the rabbis spoke of the giving of Torah to the Jewish people, they argued that it had been accepted not once, but twice: Once at Sinai at the beginning of the Bible, and then again at the end, in the time of Esther.  (p.2).

The nexus of Sinai and Esther provides a remarkable contrast. The theophany (revelation) at Sinai is replete with what moderns describe as “special effects,” the background and sensory images overpowered the people. But the acceptance of the Torah in Esther’s time marks an absence of the Divine Presence. God is hidden, and Esther’s name intimates a very different kind of reality, Hazony argues, one where the voices of the prophets are no longer discernable:

  • Esther describes a world in which the Jews are distant from their land, their tradition, and their God . . .(p.2)

Like a master artist, Hazony describes Jewish vulnerability at this point in history, where the Jews are no longer master of their own destinies; they exist at the whim of a Persian King who with the power of a word, could decree life and death—as Queen Vashti quickly discovered. He notes:

  • In exile, the Jews must live in dispersion, their institutions weak, their concerns wandering far from Jewish things, and their politics alienated from every obvious source of cohesiveness, direction and strength.  It is clear at the outset that under such conditions, there is no possibility of freely seeking and implementing any Jewish ideal …  (p.2).

Esther reveals the fragility of the Jewish people who are a minority living in a powerful empire that can scarcely notice its Jewish subjects. The Jewish people themselves are not sure where and how they fit; their ambivalence can be seen even in how Mordechai and Esther regard their Jewish heritage by assimilating to their new home. Mordechai’s message to Esther, when she is taken to the harem, “ Just fit in!”

Most Orthodox friends I know might not agree with Hazony’s view that Mordechai and Esther were assimilated Jews (p. 1). However, a similar argument certainly could be made about Joseph, who takes on a completely new identity once he becomes the viceroy of Egypt (Gen. 41:41-45).

Reminiscent of Malbim’s commentary on the Book of Esther, Hazony points out that King Achashverosh never regarded his wife Vashti as a life partner and mate. He viewed her as  yet another, “accoutrement in his demonstration of total power: The empire is to admire her object beauty and to be impressed that the king has—as the Talmudic scholar Rav depicts Achashverosh as saying—such a “vessel” for his “use” (p. 11).

Although there is an almost surreal quality to the Book of Esther, modern readers often fail to take its message seriously. The old Jewish joke about the common theme of most Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us but failed; let’s eat!”  But Hazony’s Esther reveals the serious issues pertaining to our people’s minority status in a superpower that would have been scarcely aware of our existence, had Haman not scapegoated us.

Haman is a descendant of the warlike Bedouin people of Amalek, and the hatred of the Jew for him comes quite naturally. In his treatment of Amalek, Hazony shows that this once ancient marauding people of the Sinai had one simple objective, namely, terrify the Israelites and strike fear into the hearts of their foes so they will not approach their land (Exod. 17:18)

  • Damaged enough in early rounds of applied terror, even the most physically powerful opponent may be made to feel that control is lost and that further engagements will bring worse—even that capitulation “and peace” are preferable to further confrontation. The most basic method of terror even today is just this: the use of applied cruelty against innocents, the more efficiently to forestall the need for military engagement.   (p. 65).

Excellent points!

Hazony goes on to develop a relevant distinction between Amalek and Israel. Amalek has no “fear of God” which manifests itself in his contempt for life; in contrast, God beckons Israel to always show a “fear of God” through reverence. By treating the widow, the poor, the resident alien along with the more vulnerable members of society—with respect, justice and with dignity, we individually and collectively demonstrate a respect for God, Who is always triangulated in every human relationship we encounter.  The absence of this reverence for God makes every conceivable evil deed possible (see pp. 67-68).

(Buber has already written much on this subject as well.)

At any event, Haman is out to get Mordechai because he fears that the King will wake up to Haman’s real goal and political objectives. Mordechai is constantly campaigning daily against Haman and manages to influence the King “to reevaluate the wisdom of relying upon Haman” (p. 186).

In the end, Esther and Mordechai succeed in raising serious doubts to the King about his loyal vizier’s hidden agenda.

Hazony makes his most dramatic point toward the end of the book:

  • Esther is written so as to ensure that the following teaching cannot be missed: God’s salvation is not a thing that exists in the world without reference to the actions of men and women. God’s salvation is emergent upon the salvation that Esther and Mordechai bring about through their own efforts in the policies of Susa. If one looks for it anywhere other than in political endeavors—for example, if one’s eye is fixed on fasting and the sackcloth—then one will still have witnessed a wonder and a miracle, for one will still see that the Jews have been spared, when the warrant for their destruction had already been sealed and delivered. But one will not have understood what this miracle was, or what is that God did for the Jews. (p. 206).

His observation is certainly true. Throughout the pages of the Bible, redemption and salvation never occurs in a vacuum. There must be human actors in every biblical story of redemption. For there to be an Exodus, there must be a Moses, an Aaron, a Miriam, a Shifra and Puah. And this pattern is visible in every story of how our people managed to survive. A thought from the Zohar captures much of Haznony’s theology succinctly and clearly, “Blessings from above descend only where there is some substance and not mere emptiness” (Zohar 1:88a). And from this perspective, Esther serves to remind us that we must do everything that is politically possible within our own means to survive and hope that God will do the rest.

Had some of our European Hassidic leaders realized this important lesson about political activism during the Holocaust, many more people might have been rescued.

Symbolism of the Breastplate Stones

 

Note: I wrote this back in 1988 and it probably needs a new revision. But for those who find such topics interesting, here it is for your enjoyment.

Q.  What were the types of stones used in Aaron’s breastplate? What were the reasons a particular stone represented a particular tribe?

A. Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Exodus 28, noted that we really have no way to positively identifying the stones that were set in the breastplate and that when Saadia translated these stones as he saw fit, and had no tradition to rely upon. Ibn Ezra’s point is very important, for anything we say about this subject is nothing more than conjecture. The problem is especially compounded when we consider that there is no agreement as to what tribe corresponded to the correct stone. In light of this, let’s wade our way through these murky waters and see how these stones have been identified. Some scholars have attempted to establish a relationship between the 12 stones in Aaron’s breastplate, the 12 months of the year, and the 12 signs in the zodiac; however, there is no evidence of this in Scripture. Precious stones are used in Scripture in a figurative sense, to signify value, beauty, durability. Philo of Alexandria felt that each stone correspond exactly to the temperament of each given tribe.

 The First Row of Stones:

Odem ‑‑sardius, or, ruby. Ex 39:10. The Hebrew odem, from adam, to be red, ruddy, seems to denote the ruby; as adam does in Persian a beautiful gem, of a fine deep red color, with a mixture of purple. Jb 28:18. Pr 3:15. 8:11. 20:15. 31:10. La 4:7. The Targum of Yonatan identifies this stone with the tribe of Rueben; some identify this stone with the tribe of Judah. [Note that Judah was known for his passionate nature, as was Rueben]

Pitdah ‑‑ is constantly rendered by the LXX. topadzion, and Vulgate, topazius, with which agrees Josephus. The topaz is a precious stone, of a pale, dead green, with a mixture of yellow, sometimes of a fine yellow; and hence called chrysolyte by the moderns, from its gold color. Job 28:19. According to Saadia Gaon, Kimchi, and Chizkuni this stone is most likely the emerald.  According to the Septuagint, pitdah is identified with the sardian ‑‑  a deep orange‑red chalcedony considered by some to be a variety of carnelian. The Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba 2:7 identify the Pitda with Simon, while some say it was the stone of Issachar.

Bareket ‑‑ is possibly a carbuncle, from the Hebrew word Bareketh, from barak, (lightning) to lighten, glitter, a very elegant gem, of a deep red color, with a mixture of scarlet. It has been suggested that possibly the breastplate stone was not green but of bluish‑ red color, in which case it may have been an almandine (garnet). Is 54:11, 12.. Saadia notes that this stone may well have been the yellow topaz, possibly a citrine. The Midrash identifies this stone with Gad, while others identify Bareket with Benjamin

The Second Row of Stones

Nofech ‑‑ Ex 28:18. The Targum, KJV, and Bahya identify this as the emerald, others would argue that the emerald was unknown in Mosaic times. This last opinion is debatable for emeralds were recently  rediscovered in Upper Egypt, at Mt. Zabarah. and in Cyprus, and Ethiopia.

Another alternative might be turquoise which was certainly mined in Egypt during Mosaic times. Chizkuni identifies this stone with the carbuncle, whereas the Septuagint renders nofech as coal. Some identify this stone with the tribe of Judah while others identify it with the tribe of Rueben.

Sapir ‑‑  Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390‑ 405 C.E..) translates this stone as sapphirus; Pliny describes sapphirus as “refulgent with spots like gold. It is also of an azure color, though sometimes, but rarely, it is purple; the best kind being that which comes from Media. In no case, however, is this stone transparent.”  However, there is ample reason to believe that the sapphire stone of today which is really the corundum, a stone that was not known in ancient times. Pliny 37:39 and Theophrastos, a Greek scholar were of the view that the sapphire of ancient times was really the lapis lazuli.  The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Issachar, while other identify this stone with the tribe of Dan.

 Yahalom ‑‑  This stone has been identified as a rock crystal; clear and colorless gem,  a pearl,  or a bluish glass (considered valuable in very early times), or blue chalcedony, or perhaps even beryl. Ibn Ezra in his commentary notes that Yahalom is most likely a diamond because it has the ability to break up all other stones.  Its root word is according to Ibn Ezra derived from the Hebrew word holem which means “to smite” (Cf. Isa 41:7). Some translations of the Bible translate Yahalom as “diamond” which is incorrect for the diamond was not known before the Middle Ages. Moreover,  for the Biblical stone had a name engraved on it and the method of engraving a diamond was not invented till 2,000 or 3,000 years after the breastplate was made; nor were diamonds, if known at that time and place in history. The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Zevulun, while others say it was Naphtali’s stone.

The Third Row of Stones:

Leshem‑‑ This stone might be jacinth, zircon; amber yellow or orange  The Septuagint renders it  as liguron . Other scholars identify it with aventurine, a quartz containing very fine crystals of hematite, limonite or mica, which sparkle when the light catches them. It has also been identified as  turquoise which is used in jewelry. This stone may have been a  tourmaline, or more definitely the red variety known as rubellite.  Rubellite is a hard stone, and used as a gem, and is sometimes sold for red sapphire. The Midrash associates this stone with the tribe of Dan because the city of Leshem was located in his tribe [Cf. Joshua 19:47].

She’voh‑‑‑  Variegated black and white agate; The Septuagint identifies this stone as  achatis. This  identification with agate is accepted by all scholars.  White‑gray agates were found in Egypt. This is a stone that assumes such a variety of hues and appearances it may  derive its name from the root shuv  (heb 7725), “to turn, to change”; and are capable of changing its appearance without end. Some identify Midrashic sources identify this stone with the tribe of Naphtali, while others suggest it was the stone of Asher or Menashe.

Achlamah  ‑‑‑ which the Septuagint renders as  ‘amethustos  the Greek word for without being drunk’ the Greeks believed that this stone was supposed to  prevent inebriation. This a gem generally is purple or violet in color. Pliny says that it was crimson, that there were four shades of that color and that it was translucent. Ibn Ezra writes that the amethyst was sometimes identified as the dream stone, for it was could induce dreams in anyone who wears it. [note that the word achlamah is related to the Hebrew word  for dream “cholem.” The Targum identifies this stone with the tribe of Gad or Issachar. If this is indeed the dream stone, then it seem logical to identify this stone with Joseph.

The Fourth Row of  Stones

Tarshish ‑‑beryl, a precious stone of a sea‑ green color. Emerald and aquamarine are two types of beryl. It may also be citrine quartz or green jasper; The Septuagint calls this  chrisolythos or  berullion; . In the Hellenistic period this name was applied to the topaz, a stone not known in the earlier periods. Now believed to have been identical with mother‑of‑ pearl. Jerome’s  Vulgate translates it as the hyacinthus. Beryl  is a transparent gem of a bluish‑green colour, found in the East Indies [Saadia, Kimchi and the KJV].  Only the green beryl was known and used in Egypt in Moses’ time, the aquamarine and the yellow and white beryls not being known. The name Tarshish is also the ancient Biblical name for Spain, and if this applies here, then we may assume that it is the yellow rock crystal or citrine quartz. known as “chrysolith” according to Pliny (Natural History, xxxvii. 43). This stone is identified with the tribe of Zebulon who dwelled by the sea (Bahya).

Shoham ‑‑ Onyx sardonyx; variegated red and white Onyx is a member of the agate family and is characterized by its non‑transparency and its parallel layers of alternating colors, as red and white, brown and white, black and white. The Vulgate translates it as the sardonyx, a red and white variegated gem. New English Bible renders shoham as “(red) carnelian.” which is frequently found in the desert. In the Book of Job, Job regarded God’s wisdom as a greater possession than even  costly onyx  (Job 28:16). The Targum identifies this stone with the tribe of Asher.

Yashfeh ‑‑  Jasper jasper; green ; the jasper stone was originally  carved by the Babylonians and was usually green and sometimes even transparent. The Greek and Latin jaspis, and has been found in excavations in ancient Judea and in the neighboring countries. This stone may possibly be the opal or jade or green quartz. The Midrash identifies this stone with the tribe of Naphtali or Benjamin.

According to Philo, Josephus, Maimonides, Rashi, the four rows was arranged according to the order of their birth, others suggest that the rows corresponded to they encamped in the wilderness (T.B. Yoma 73b, Saadia, and the Abravanel). According to the Minchat Chinuch, the rows were arranged vertically by the order of birth (cf. Kaplan’s Living Torah for more details). The purpose of the choshen (breastplate) was to remind the High Priest that he had to represent the Jewish people wherever he would go, and that he was their servant at all times.

I would like to make a few concluding comments about the purpose of these stones and why they were so important .Stones had a wide range of  meanings in the ancient world. They represented   indestructibility, constancy, the unyielding, and dominance. Many of the transparent shiny stones symbolically represented the synthesis of earthly matter bound up with the brilliance of spiritual.  These gems represented clarity and light, and were used by the High Priest when he meditated on the Urim ve Tumim.

At the beginning of this article, I pointed out that the twelve stones corresponded to the twelve signs of the Zodiac. There is also a stone for every month, and these are often featured in brooches inscribed with zodiacal signs portraying a person’s horoscope. According to Eliade, stones were adored by the ancients because they were believed to be instruments of spiritual action and vitality. These stones were believed by many peoples throughout history as carrying the charisma of the sun, the moon and the seven planets. Yellow and white stones bore the influence of the sun, blue stones were associated with the heavenly realm [Cf. the color of techeylet found in the Tzitzit symbolizing the heavens and the waters], red stones bore the influence of Mars and passion, Venus was associated with green stones such as the emerald, Saturn was characterized by black stones such as onyx and so on. These stones were used also as a weapon warding off the baneful influence of the evil eye.

Precious stones were believed to have certain curative powers. Abraham wore a precious stone, hanging from his neck, any sick person who gazed upon it was instantly healed (Bava Bathra 16b); cf. the pearl-bag worn by animals that contained a pearl for medicinal purposes. (Cf.Sanh. 68a and Rashi ad loc.). They were also believed to promote human passions and affections. According to Josephus mentions that the Essenes used precious stones for healing purposes (Wars 2:136) Beryl gives hope; emeralds brought wealth, carbuncle, energy and assurance; rubies and red agates were associated with love.

With regard to the tribes and their respective stones, we find in the Midrash

There were distinguishing signs for each prince; each had a flag and a different color for every flag, corresponding to the precious stones on the breast of Aaron… Reuben’s stone was odem and the color of his flag was red; and embroidered thereon were mandrakes. Simeon’s was pitdah and his flag was of a yellow (or green) color… Levi’s was bareqet and the color of his flag was a third white, a third black, and a third red… Judah’s was nofekh and the color of his flag was like that of the sky… Issachar’s was sappir and the color of his flag was black like stibium… Zebulun’s was yahalom and the color of his flag was white… Dan’s was leshem and the color of his flag was similar to sappir… Gad’s ahlamah and the color of his flag was neither white nor black but a blend of black and white… Asher’s was tarshish and the color of his flag was like the precious stone with which women adorn themselves… Joseph’s was shoham and the color of his flag was jet black… Benjamin’s was yashfeh and the color of his flag was a combination of all the 12 colors.[This Midrash was adapted from the Encyclopedia Judaica]

 

Rabbi Yosef’s Surprising View on Plagiarizing

The Jerusalem Post featured an unusual article about the Chief Rabbi of Holon Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the son of the late Sefardic-Haredi leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. His son sits on the Israel Chief Rabbinate’s council and commands considerable influence in Orthodox politics in Israel and abroad.

In one of his Moreshet Orthodox website, somebody asked him the following question:

  • My friend needs to submit university work; she took the work from someone else and asked me to change the wording so that the work will not look like the same. Is it permissible for me to help my friend to re-word the work?” a woman asked.

Rabbi Yosef said that it is permissible to plagiarize and cheat. “[It is] permitted. And it is [fulfilling the] commandment of bestowing kindness, especially if she has a good command of the material,” Yosef ruled.[1]

There are several halachic problems with R. Yosef’s advice. The primary problem I wish to point out is the issue of ge’nei’vat da’at, which in Hebrew means, “stealing one’s mind,” which can easily apply to all forms of misrepresentation, taking credit for someone’s work. Anytime a person deliberately tries to create a mistaken assumption in the minds of others, this is considered a major breach of Jewish ethics and law. Arguably,ge’nei’vat da’at goes far beyond just lying. It is also a clear violation against bearing false witness—a law that is considered one of the most important of the Ten Commandments.

It is surprising that some medieval scholars thought this is only a rabbinical prohibition, but the verses pertaining to all forms of theft are well-known. In fact, the Tanakh even mentions the crime of plagiarism “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another” (Jer.  23:30). More seriously, Rabbi Yosef is misleading others to sin, which is arguably Judaism’s most cardinal sins and violates just about every biblical law pertaining to fraud and deception. [2]

Then again, there is a famous rabbinical dictum: R. Eleazar further said in the name of R. Hanina: Whoever reports a saying in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world, as it says, And Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai (Esther 2:22). [3]

The literal meaning of ge’nei’vat da’at in Hebrew is theft of one’s mind, thoughts, wisdom, or knowledge, i.e., fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus, the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression, and acquiring undeserved goodwill. Ge’nei’vat da’at goes beyond lying. Deliberately creating false impressions about one’s behavior is also subsumed in this prohibition—whether in words or in deeds.  The Tosefta reads:

There are seven kinds of thieves.

(1)   The first among them is the one who steals the minds of people.

(2)  He who urges his friend to come as his guest, but in his heart does not really wish to invite him.

(3)  One who excessively offers gifts to his friend, knowing that the latter will not accept them;

(4)  One who opens up barrels for another, that were sold to a shopkeeper;

(5)  Anyone who falsifies measures.

(6)  One who secretly pads scales . . .

(7)  Anyone who deceives people is called a thief, as it is written: “And Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Samuel, 15:6).[4]

As a case in point, the sages believed that there are seven types of thieves and, of these, the most serious offenders is someone who “steals the minds” of people.

The Talmud  discusses the principle of ge’nei’vat da’at  and cites the 3rd century scholar named  Shmuel, who taught: It is forbidden to steal the mind of anyone, even idolaters.” [5] The Talmud observes that Shmuel never expressly stated such a law, but it was deduced from an incident in which his attendant duped a heathen ferryman. Scholars were not sure what exactly happened, but here is how the discussion went: One view asserts that Shmuel once told his attendant to give the ferryman a chicken and the latter thought he was getting a kosher chicken but was actually given one that was unkosher. Another opinion is that the ferryman thought he was receiving undiluted wine but was instead given diluted wine.[6]

The “Lemon Laws” of our country certainly have strong antecedents in biblical and rabbinical laws that demand personal integrity and moral excellence.

After the death of his father, the Israeli rabbinate considered him as a possible successor for his the Sephardic position of Chief Rabbi. However, when the police began Examining alleged issues involving a breach of trust, and other sundry ethical violations, they forced him to withdraw his candidacy. “Yosef was a candidate for Sefardi chief rabbi but his candidacy ended when police began investigating him for alleged breach of public trust and an illegal conflict of interest. Yosef allegedly coerced store and restaurant owners to get kosher supervision from a private kosher supervision company started by his late father and run by one of Yosef’s brothers” (JPost). [7]

So what can we deduce from all of this?

Shakespeare perhaps said it best:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul producing holy witness

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,

A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

  • William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, I, iii, 93);

When one examines the religious politics and chicanery in Israel today, we could also add, “The devil can cite Talmud, Halacha, Midrash, Hassidut and Kabbalah as well.”

When one considers the amount of fraud that is publicized on the Web involving kickbacks, racketeering, and other numerous criminal offenses, the Rabbi Yosef embarrasses his community as well as every non-Orthodox Jewish community. If we wish to become a light unto the nations of the world, then we had better start becoming a light to ourselves first.

====

Notes

[1] http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Rabbi-rules-copying-work-in-university-is-permitted-in-Jewish-law-346738

[2]  Regarding theft:

Exod. 21:16. 22:1-5, 7-13. Le 6:1-7. 19:11, 13, 35-37. 25:17. Deut 5:19. 19:14. 23:24, 25. 24:7. 25:13-16. 27:17. Josh 7:24, 25. Job 20:19-22. 24:2. Ps 37:21. 50:18. 62:10. Pro. 1:13-15. 3:27. 6:30, 31. 11:1. 16:11. 20:10, 23. 22:22, 28. 23:10. 28:24. 29:24. 30:8, 9. Isa 1:23. 61:8. Jer 5:26-29. 7:8-11. 22:13. Ezek 33:15. 45:10. Hos. 4:2. 12:7. Amos 3:10. 5:11, 12. 8:4-6. Mic. 6:10, 11. 7:3. Zach. 5:3, 4. Mal. 3:5,

Regarding Fraud and Dishonesty, see Lev. 19:11; Lev. 19:35–36; Lev. 25:14; Deut. 19:14; Deut. 25:13–16; Deut. 27:17; Job 24:2; Ps. 37:21; Prov. 11:1; Prov. 11:26; Prov. 16:11; Prov. 20:14, 17, 23; Prov. 22:28; Prov. 23:10–11; Hos. 12:7–8, 14; Amos 8:5–6; Mic. 6:10–13; Hab. 2:6.

Regarding the sins involving hypocrisy: Job 17:1, 3–9; Ps. 5:9; Ps. 26:4; Ps. 50:16–23; Isa. 29:13; Isa. 32:5–8; Isa. 48:1; Isa. 58:1–2; Ezek. 33:31–32.

Lying and Falsity:  Exod. 20:16; Job 15:35; Job 21:34; Job 24:25; Job 31:33; Ps. 5:6; Ps. 31:18; Ps. 50:19; Ps. 52:2–4; Ps. 55:20–21; Ps. 62:4; Ps. 63:11; Ps. 116:11; Ps. 119:69; Ps. 120:3–4; Prov. 2:12–15; Prov. 6:16–17, 19; Prov. 10:18; Prov. 12:22; Prov. 17:4; Prov. 19:22; Prov. 21:6; Prov. 26:23–26; Isa. 59:2–3; Jer. 5:2; Jer. 7:8; Jer. 9:3–6; Hos. 4:1–2; Hos. 11:12; Zech. 8:16–17.

Causing others  to sin: Num. 25:1–2; Neh. 6:13; Prov. 1:10–16; Prov. 4:14–15, 25–27; Prov. 16:29; Prov. 28:10; Isa. 33:15–16.

[3] BT Megilah 15a, Mishnah Avot 6:6 

[4] Tosefta Bava Kama 7:8; it is shocking that some medieval scholars think that the prohibition against ge’nei’vat da’at is not Biblical but rabbinical (Semak, 262). Such rationalizations only create scandal in the Jewish community and it also reenforces the impression that all Jews are dishonest in business.

[5.] BT Chullin 94a-b.

[6] Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3.

[7]  http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Rabbi-rules-copying-work-in-university-is-permitted-in-Jewish-law-346738

When Court Jews Abandon Their People

 

CHULA VISTA, California –The Mishnah teaches that, “Anyone reading the Megillah backwards (or out of sequence) has not fulfilled his obligation” (BT. Megillah 17a).[1] Hassidic Scholars noted that one should never think that the miracles and the story of Purim are a relic of the ancient past. Rather its message continues to resonate throughout the course of Jewish history.

With this simple thought in mind, we will examine a perplexing passage that appears in the Book of Esther.

  • Hathach returned to Esther and told her what Mordecai had said. Then Esther replied to Hathach and gave him this message for Mordecai: “All the servants of the king and the people of his provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king in the inner court without being summoned is subject to the same law—death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter will such a person live. Now as for me, I have not been summoned to the king for thirty days.” When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he had this reply brought to her: “Do not imagine that you are safe in the king’s palace, you alone of all the Jews. Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source;* but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows—perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen?” [2]

Mordecai warns Esther: Now is not the time to do nothing, for to do nothing would only enable Haman and embolden his spirit to destroy the Jewish people. Not even the seclusion of her palace would protect her—she too, will share the same destiny of her people—one way or another. Fortunately, like Joseph before her, Esther uses her influence to save the lives of her people. The story of Purim reminds us of the old Jewish perennial wisdom that most of the Jewish holidays teach us: “The bad guys tried to destroy us; they didn’t succeed, so let’s eat!”

However,  Jews in high political positions have not always served their people well. There was one Jewish leader in particular, whose villainy demands condemnation. Not only did he fail to do anything to save his dying people in Europe, but he went out of his way to thwart all efforts to rescue the Jews.

His name was Samuel Rosenman,  FDR’s closest Jewish adviser and speech writer; he was also a leading member of the American Jewish Committee. Rosenman believed that a large number of Jewish refugees would “create a Jewish problem in the US.”

On October 6, 1943, the day of the march, he was the one person who advised  Roosevelt to snub the “medieval horde” of 400 rabbis, led by Rabbi Eliezer Silver, who had marched to the White House to plead for rescue. With the spirit of a modern-day Moses, Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968) [3] marched up Pennsylvanian Avenue on and demanded an audience with the President. They said, “We pray and appeal to the Lord, blessed be He, that our most gracious President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recognizing this momentous hour of history and responsibility that the Divine Presence has laid upon him, that he may save the remnant of the People of the Book, the People of Israel.”

Surprised by the large group of rabbis appearing in front of the White House,  FDR managed to quietly escape through the White House’s back door for another event. FDR surrogated the job to Vice President Henry Wallace to meet with the rabbis. Fortunately, the publicity led to the formation of the War Refugee Board, which rescued over 200,000 Jews.

Despite the formation of the War Refugee Board,  Rosenman continued to undermine the campaign to rescue and resettle Jews in the United States. In all the public condemnations of how the Nazis were treating the Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, French, Greeks, Russians, Chinese Filipinos – and many others ethic groups, the word “Jews” did not appear at all in the public announcements. The Jews hardly deserved being mentioned.

Amazingly, the FDR administration had a lot to say to the New York Times about the rescuing of precious European art collections, but they had nothing to say about the rescue of the Jews.

What can we learn from this tragedy?

Hillel said it best, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, then when?” Today’s Jewish leaders—regardless whether they are liberal or conservative—must hold the Obama Administration accountable for giving continuous support to the Iranians. We must insist that the sanctions continue.

I will conclude with a Talmudic tale:

  • Rava and Rabbi Zera made a Purim feast together and became drunk. Rava got up from the table and slit Rabbi Zera’s throat. The next day when he understood what he had done, he prayed for mercy and Rabbi Zera recovered.  The next year, Rava said to Rabbi Zera, “Come let us make a Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zera replied, “No! A miracle doesn’t happen at every single hour.[4]

Israel is a modern miracle and we must do whatever it takes to keep Israel healthy and thriving. The lesson of Purim teaches us that good people of conscience and moral conviction can make a difference.

Let us pray we choose wisely.

[I wrote this article in memory of my beloved father, Leo Israel Samuel, a Holocaust survivor who died on Purim as I was reading the Megillah in Glens Falls, NY for my congregation. Thank you Father for being my inspiration.]


[1] The Soncino Talmud adds in its footnotes, “[Perhaps as a magical incantation for driving away demons.”

[2]   Esther 4:9–14

[3] The only ones who refused to attend was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schnersohn and his son-in-law; they preferred to wait for the Messiah. Schneerson actually thwarted the Orthodox rabbinate’s efforts to persuade the United States State Department to absorb Jewish refugees, see Bryan Mark Rigg, Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) pp. 64-65, 172.

[4] BT Megillah 7b.

Rabbi Akiba’s Hidden Love Life

(Picture: Madam Turnus Rufus probably looked something like Hedy Lamaar!)

One of the most illustrious sages of the Talmudic era is Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (ca.40-ca.137 CE). His life-story has inspired many legends and in many ways Rabbi Akiva’s approach to the interpreting the biblical text has become the foundation for many of the mystical interpretations that have evolved over the centuries. For R. Akiba, the Torah is a love letter from God; every scintilla of the biblical text contains esoteric meanings.

According to legend, Akiba began as a humble and ignorant shepherd. When he was 40 years old, his life took an unexpected turn. According to one ancient tradition, Rabbi Akiba observed how water-droplets had formed a hole through a stone. He mused, ‘If water could leave an imprint on a stone, then surely the words of Torah can penetrate my heart as well.”

A Love Story for the Ages: Rachel and Akiba

However, a different legend purports that the young shepherd had fallen in love with Rachel, ‘the daughter of Kalba Savua’one of the wealthiest Jews of his time during the final days of the Second Temple. ‘Akiba had worked for Kalba as a shepherd and that is how he met Rachel. Despite Akiva’s unfamiliarity with the Torah, there was something remarkable about him; she agreed to marry Akiva on one condition: He had to study Torah for a period of ‘twelve years. ‘Together, they had a quiet clandestine wedding.

As it might have been expected, Kalba did not approve of his daughter marrying such an ignorant man, and he swore that he would not offer any financial support; the young couple were reduced to poverty. She sent Akiba to study for twelve years ‘under the tutelage of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua. When R. Akiba ventured home, he now as a distinguished scholar who had a following of 12,000 students, Akiba overhears a conversation between Rachel and her friends. They said to her, ‘Rachel, how much longer will you live the life of a widow, knowing that your husband is alive but absent’’ She replied, ‘‘If he would listen to me, he would go back [to his place of sacred studies] for another 12 years.’

Twelve years later, R. Akiba has now 24,000 students who escort their teacher. When the townspeople hear about his imminent arrival, they all come out to greet him—including  Rachel! But poor Rachel looked poor and impoverished, dressed in rags. When she approached her husband, the students try to prevent her from speaking with their teacher. R. Akiba instructs his students to stop and says “What ‘is mine and what is yours—all belongs to her!”

All of the townspeople come out to greet him. So does his wife, who appears in ragged clothes and who refuses to heed the advice of her neighbors who suggest that she borrow suitable attire. When his students catch sight of her, they try to prevent her from approaching Rabbi Akiva. However, he immediately calls a stop to their efforts (using one of the shortest and most beautiful statements to describe their mutual relationship): “What is mine and what is yours – belongs to her!”[1]

The narrative implies that they lived happily ever after as a couple in what appears to be a storybook-like ending crafted in Hollywood.’ Maybe they did live happily ever after.

Deconstructing Rabbi Akiba’s Love Life

Using a hermeneutic of suspicion that is so typical of postmodern approaches to literature in general, and to the Bible in particular, we might ask the unthinkable question that no yeshiva student would dare ask his Talmud teacher: What if Akiba and Rachel did not get along after his return home? What if they had grown apart all these years and now they had become two different people?

Obviously, this approach might sound something like you might read in the ancient Judean equivalent of the National Inquiry. However, the lives of famous people often end differently from what people might expect. [2] A third tradition about Rabbi Akiba indicates that he took yet another wife.

Unfortunately, we do not know when exactly Akiba took a second wife. Conceivably, his beloved Rachel may have predeceased her husband. That is a possibility no reader of Akiba’s biography can deny. Perhaps they might have grown apart.

Enter Madam Turnus Rufus

In the third legend, we discover an altogether different story about R. Akiba’s love life, one that certainly raises questions. The Roman general of Judea in R. Akiba’s time was a man named Turnus Rufus. Despite the Roman disdain for Jews in general, it appears that Turnus Rufus and R. Akiba frequently had theological and philosophical discussions together. They jostle together on topics pertaining to circumcision,[3] the Sabbath[4], and the Jewish concept of ‘idolaters,’[5] as well as to the importance of giving charity to the poor.[6] In the midrashic narratives, R. Akiba always emerges as the victor (How could it be otherwise’)

For whatever the reason might have been, R. Akiba serendipitously meets Turnus Rufus’s wife. Medieval rabbinical exegetes suggest that Madam Rufus heard her husband complain about losing one debate after another to R. Akiba. ‘She says to him:

  • She said to him: “The God of those people hates licentiousness. Just give me your permission and I will trip him up and cause him to sin.” He gave his permission. She put on her makeup and, wearing most attractive attire, she went to see R. Akiba’[7]

To make a long story short, Madam Rufus dumps her hubby and converts to Judaism and marries Rabbi Akiba! Would today’s Haredi rabbis would have approved of such circumstances’ I doubt it. If such behavior occurred today between Israel’s leading  Haredi rabbi and a Gentile woman, the news-story would create shockwaves across Israeli society. In the end, Turnus Rufus oversees the torturing of Rabbi Akiba. For Turnus Rufus, this matter was personal.

Did R. Akiba have an affair’ Did he seduce her’ Yes, inquiring minds want to know.’ Strangely, Rachel is not mentioned ever again. As for Madam Rufus/ Akiba, one wonders whether her husband had her killed as well. We can only speculate.

Mishnaic Evidence’

In the Mishnah we find an unusual discussion:

  • The Academy of Shammai said:’A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity, since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything’(Deut. 24:1).’And the Academy of Hillel said: Even if she spoiled his dish, since it is said, because he has found in her indecency—in anything.’R. Akiba says: Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes’(Deut. 24:1).[8]

Hillel’s perspective is problematical; just because a wife may not measure up to the ideal model of Martha Stewart or Donna Reed, doesn’t mean that she ought to be so easily disposed. Perhaps all she needs is a cleaning person or a cook to assist her or tutor in the ‘skill of homemaking. At least Shammai’s perspective is certainly consistent with the simple meaning of the text.

However, Rabbi Akiba’s attitude if taken literally without the Talmud’s spin on his opinion may have been predicated on more than just a scriptural verse that he cited. Is it possible that R. Akiba may have preferred Madam Rufus precisely because she was prettier and sexier than poor Rachel’ If the scandalous interpretation of this Mishnah is true, it may explain why R. Akiba met such a dreadful death where his skin was flayed off his body. The flaying of Akiba’s skin may be an allusion to the verse, “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24). Since Akiba destroyed his marriage by marrying another man’s wife, his flesh is literally torn apart–and could be viewed as tallionic justice (measure for measure).

One is reminded of the scriptural verse from the Prophet Malachi, which may well apply to Rabbi Akiba:

  • And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not’’ Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire’ Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless (Malachi 2:13-16).

This exposition of Rabbi Akiba’s life will obviously strike a raw nerve in the minds of many of my blog’s readers–especially students of the Talmud. ‘But given the complexity of human relationships, Rabbi Akiba was still a man of flesh and flood endowed with the same passions that have caused considerable havoc in the lives of men since time immemorial. Continue reading “Rabbi Akiba’s Hidden Love Life”

A Tale of Two Digitized Talmudic Translations: The Artscroll and the Steinsaltz Digital Talmud

 

ArtScroll App Main Portfolio Image

Steinsaltz Talmud sample page 1

In his Torahmusings,  R. Gill Student cites an endorsement of R. Steinsaltz’s translation from R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. His comments are especially important for anyone interested in the science of translation as it pertains to the translation of the Talmud:

  • Every translation is to some extent a commentary… However, I think a good translator has to know not to give too much of his own ideology or his own commentary. Commentary is necessary to explain the text but a good translator gives over the text, the flavor of the text, with just enough extra commentary to make it clear and the rest is up to the student. What we’ve tried to do in this whole project is to allow the student to study and ask. It’s designed to provoke discussion and to provoke questions, not to provide answers but to open things up.[1]

This pithy statement certainly sums up the nature of translating a monumental work such as the Talmud. In this brief article, we shall examine two new digitized translations of the Talmud: The Koren Edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud and ArtScroll’s The Digital Library of the  Schottenstein Edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Each translation gives the reader a remarkable glimpse into the world of the Talmud as seen from Rabbi Steinsaltz and the rabbis of the ArtScroll Publishers, one of the world’s most successful Jewish publishers of Orthodox books.

Very few publishers have revolutionized the study of the Talmud like R. Adin Steinsaltz and ArtScroll Publishers. In this article, we shall examine some of the fascinating aspects of their newly digitized editions of the Babylonian Talmud.

In many ways, R. Adin Steinsaltz deserves credit for starting the Talmudic revolution; he began making a Hebrew translation of the Talmud in 1965 and completed the project in 2010. This is no small feat. One could arguably say that R. Steinsaltz is like a modern day Rashi—a comparison that makes much of the Haredi world (who also happen to be the producers of the ArtScroll Talmud) bristle with disdain. Random House published a number of volumes between 1989 and 1999, but the project met with little success.

The new Koren Edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud  made several improvements in the design of the Talmudic text and added color pictures to illustrate the various creatures the Talmudists commented upon in their legal discussions. Steinsaltz did something very bold: he altered the text in order to make it a little less cumbersome for a growing and interested Israeli populace. ArtScroll considered Steinsaltz’s innovation heretical. Many Haredi friends of mine used to say, “Who does Steinsaltz think he is to change the Vilna Talmud?”[2] The fact that Steinsaltz is a Chabadnik may account for part of the animus the Litvisher yeshivas feel toward him. In addition, Steinsaltz added partial punctuation for the Tosfot, which made it imminently more readable. Talmudic purists generally look upon these types of innovations as crutches.

Less than a decade ago, Steinsaltz gave in and finally made a Vilna version of his Talmud—one that would appeal to other young yeshiva students of the Haredi yeshivas. It is a pity that the ArtScroll Talmud project has never given any credit to Rabbi Steinsaltz; in many ways, he is the godfather of their magnificent translation. Currently, ArtScroll is rapidly translating the Jerusalem Talmud.[3]  There is also an excellent translation of the Jerusalem Talmud written in Hebrew by the Israeli scholar Rabbi Bar Lev (1943–). Aside from being a Talmudic scholar, he also received his doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Arizona in 1976 and has written several books on Jewish mysticism. Unlike Steinsaltz, he frequently adds philosophical and psychological perspectives to his expositions. Unlike the Steinsaltz and ArtScroll Talmud translations, his work is free (!). His approach is similar to Steinsaltz and there is no doubt that this excellent work will someday be translated into English.

As a student, I can recall the days when the yeshiva administration discouraged the study of the Steinsaltz edition because it was too modern looking of a text. Years later, I discovered that all the yeshiva teachers all had their own Steinsaltz volumes proudly displayed in their dining and living rooms. Steinsaltz’s volumes help Israelis and Haredi scholars alike to learn Talmudic Aramaic. His comparison to Greek and Latin cognate terms makes his study a wonderful resource to have—and now, the English speaking public will find these features very useful and effective.  Steinsaltz’s summaries on the bottom of the Hebrew or English page, along with the biographical sections of the rabbis, or his expositions about rabbinical life in the days of Late Antiquity—make the modern study of Talmud crisp and easy to follow.

The ArtScroll Digital Library  has been described as “a revolutionary new way to study the Talmud! Ground breaking technology enhances the bestselling Schottenstein Talmud – and will allow you to study the Talmud in ways never before possible.”

This statement is quite accurate.  The Schottenstein Edition of the Babylonian Talmud by ArtScroll (hence referred to as the “ArtScroll Talmud”) is much more of a Lithuanian rabbinical product—one which captures the rich intellectual environment of a forgotten era. Anyone who wants to delve into intricate halachic details of a Talmudic text will never tired studying the ArtScroll Talmud, which replicates most of the great debates of the Rishonim (medieval) and Achronim (modern rabbinical) scholars. Unlike the Steinsaltz edition, the ArtScroll edition is not terribly interested in the historicity on how the Talmud originated. Unlike R. Steinsaltz’s herculean stamina in producing his translation and commentary, ArtScroll uses a committee of several rabbinical scholars. In this sense, R. Steinsaltz is more like Rashi and Maimonides—both of whom did not employ a committee in producing their works.

ArtScroll preserves the Vilna Talmudic text’s classical style. However, it is important to note that they too—like Steinsaltz—added a Modern Hebrew translation on the opposite side of the page (in the Hebrew editions). They did the same with their English translation as well.  Each Hebrew page is contrasting a page of English translation—one Hebrew folio takes approximately six to eight pages of English to translate. This layout can be a tad bit tedious—certainly much more tedious than the Steinsaltz edition, or for that matter—the Vilna edition itself.

The ArtScroll Talmudic notes are superlative; as an avid student of the Talmud, I thoroughly enjoy the scholarship the ArtScroll writers demonstrate. Since their work is annotated with countless cross-references of the Talmud and the legal codes, one would have to sometimes open several volumes to flow the train of Talmudic thought. In my opinion, the newly digitized version of the ArtScroll Talmud’s best feature is its ability to hypertext a Talmudic text to other discussion found elsewhere in the Talmud. Moreover, when you read a specific section of the Talmud, the text immediately is highlighted in yellow—both in the text and in the ArtScroll notes. Note that the ArtScroll Talmud has the strange habit of transliterating in Ashkenazic Hebrew rather than Sefardic Hebrew. (Incidentally, this was one of the principle reasons why I sold my English ArtScroll Talmud for the Modern  Hebrew translation. One suspects that the Brooklyn-based company has always felt somewhat ambivalent about the Modern State of Israel, but that’s for another discussion.).

Unlike the ArtScroll Talmud, R. Steinsaltz is far from finishing his English translation. That being said, Koren is rapidly keeping up with the Daf-Yomi (a lectionary for the daily study of the Talmud). In addition, the ArtScroll lets you know which Talmudic tractate is being studied so that one may study with the international Jewish communities whom have made the Talmud an important part of their daily lives.

The new Digital Steinsaltz Talmud is printed in a PDF format, and it assumes that the purchasers of these books will not illicitly use a pirated copy. On the heading of each folio is a warning to that effect. Personally speaking, I have always found it odd that yeshiva students would literally “steal” an electronic rabbinical text in order to study Torah. Such behavior is strangely reminiscent of Alice and Wonderland. However, there is must be a kosher way to go down the “Rabbi hole.” As a PDF, the text files are easily downloadable for and PC or Android device. The Digital ArtScroll Talmud is produced in an Apple and Android version. Sorry, this product is not available for Windows. Since I wanted this product so much, I went to the Sprint store to purchase a cheap Samsung Tablet for $50 and I have downloaded the volumes from the Android shop. Continue reading “A Tale of Two Digitized Talmudic Translations: The Artscroll and the Steinsaltz Digital Talmud”

Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion

 

Rabbi Kamin’s interesting article on the subject of Halloween reminded me of many of my own childhood experiences.

Is Halloween “permitted”? Is the children’s ritual of “Trick and Treating,” considered forbidden because it emulates the practices of the non-Jewish world?

Many years ago, a learned colleague of my from Yeshiva University once mentioned to his Young Israel congregation in Binghamton, NY, something that I have never forgotten. He claimed to have come across an Italian responsa dating back to the 17th century that claimed that the ritual had no religious significance whatsoever, and he concluded that there was nothing Halachically forbidden for Jewish children to dress up and collect candies on the night of Halloween.

Unfortunately, I have never been able to locate the source of this mysterious responsa. I have attempted many times to look it up in the Bar Illan University database, but with no success. However, the logic of the responsa makes sense to me. Rabbinic scholars have also pointed out the pagan roots of Halloween, which has its roots

Many Jews seem to forget that many practices in Jewish tradition had their origins in pagan culture and beliefs. For example, the practice of wearing tefillon (not to be confused with Teflon) originated in the pagan world of Babylonian magic. In one issue of the Bible and Review Magazine, the author showed a picture of a Babylonian prostitute wearing golden phylacteries! The word “tefillin” is better known in English as “phylacteries,” which derives from the Greek word φυλακτήριον (phylaktērion), meaning “defenses,” as in charms and amulets.

One late 19th century scholar correctly noted:

  • [Among the Jews] It was customary to tie certain kinds of phylacteries into a knot. Reference to this ancient practice is found in certain Assyrian talismans, now in the British Museum. Following is a translation of one of them: “Hea says: ‘Go, my son! take a woman’s kerchief, bind it round thy right hand; loose it from the left hand. Knot it with seven knots; do so twice. Sprinkle it with bright wine; bind it round the head of the sick man. Bind it round his hands and feet, like manacles and fetters; sit down on his bed; sprinkle water over him. He shall hear the voice of Hea. Darkness shall protect him, and Marduk, eldest son of Heaven, shall find him a happy habitation.'”[1]

The famous Assyriologist A. H. Sayce (1846-1933) cites another reference that may explain why Jews wind the tefillin straps seven times:

  • Even medical science, however, was invaded by superstition. In place of trying the doctor’s prescription, a patient often had the choice allowed him of having recourse to charms and exorcisms. Thus the medical work itself permits him to ‘place an incantation on the big toe of the left foot and cause it to remain’ there, the incantation being as follows: ‘O wind, my mother, wind, wind, the handmaid of the gods art thou; O wind among the storm-birds; yea, the water dost thou make stream down, and with the gods thy brothers liftest up the glory of thy wisdom.’ At other times a witch or sorceress was called in, and told to ‘ bind a cord twice seven times, binding it on the sick man’s neck and on his feet like fetters, and while he lies in his bed to pour pure water over him.’ Instead of the knotted cord [121] verses from a sacred book might be employed, just as phylacteries were, and still are, among the Jews. Thus we read: ‘In the night-time let a verse from a good tablet be placed on the head of the sick man in bed.’ The word translated ‘verse’ is masal, the Hebrew mashal, which literally signifies a ‘proverb’ or ‘parable.’ It is curious to find the witch by the side of the wizard in Babylonia. ‘The wise woman,’ however, was held in great repute there, and just as the witches of Europe were supposed to fly through the air on a broomstick so it was believed that the witches of Babylonia could perform the same feat with the help of a wooden staff.

Historians of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion have taught us much about the practice of phylacteries among the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. In the marketplace of ideals, every culture has influenced its neighboring culture and religion. The ancient peoples of Egypt also were phylacteries as protective symbols of the deity. Cultures around the world used phylacteries for a variety of magical purposes.

So, what does all of this prove? Nobody has ever lived in a cultural vacuum. Subsequent Jewish tradition managed to detach the pagan roots of this custom. Maimonides heaps criticism upon anyone who thinks the mezuzah and tefillin are designed to ward off evil spirits. In a rationalistic manner, he writes:

  • It is a common custom to write [God’s name,] Shaddai, on the outside of a mezuzah opposite the empty space left between the two passages. There is no difficulty in this, since [the addition is made] outside. Those, however, who write the names of angels, other sacred names, verses, or forms, on the inside [of a mezuzah] are among those who do not have a portion in the world to come. Not only do these fools nullify the mitzvah, but furthermore, they make from a great mitzvah [which reflects] the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the love of Him, and the service of Him, a talisman for their own benefit. They, in their foolish conception, think that this will help them regarding the vanities of the world. [3]

Elsewhere he adds:

  • A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: “And they shall be life for your soul.”[4]

Maimonides sums up the essential purpose of the ritual:

  • For as long as one wears them on his head and arm, he is obliged to be humble  and God-fearing; he will not allow himself to be carried away by laughter or idle talk, nor indulge in evil thoughts, but must turn his attention to the words of truth and justice.[5]

Toward the end of his life, Maimonides reaffirms the purpose of the mezuzah in his Guide for the Perplexed.  He notes that the express goal of this precept and others aims to instill a love for God that produces a God-consciousness that is permanent:

  • The precepts of the ninth class are those enumerated in the Section on Love. Their reason is obvious. The actions prescribed by them serve to remind us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and to love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe. This class includes the laws of Prayer, Reading of Shema, Grace, and duties connected with these, Blessing of the priests, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Zizit, acquiring a scroll of the Law, and reading in it at certain times. The performance of all these precepts inculcates into our heart useful lessons. All this is clear, and a further explanation is superfluous, as being a mere repetition and nothing else.

Despite Maimonides’ attempt to redefine the precept of mezuzah and tefillin, subsequent rabbis like R. Menachem Mendel Schnersohn (a.k.a. Lubavitcher Rebbe) did his best to restore the precepts of tefillin and mezuzah as modern day talismans and amulets for the modern era.

Throughout his lengthy career as the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schnersohn always instructed his followers to check their tefillin and mezuzot when they were ill or had any number of problems in their lives. Schnersohn’s followers believed that hundreds and thousands of Israeli soldiers’ lives were saved due to the tefillin campaign the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated during the six-day war. This brought protection and salvation to the soldiers.  The Rebbe’s theological position became internationally known shortly after the terrorist attack of the northern town of Ma’alot on May 15st, 1974. The massacre of seventeen children was due to the fact the school building did not have any “kosher” mezuzahs. Continue reading “Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion”

Living Your Life With Hope Renewed

 

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So many problems in our society are because of the resentment that we have allowed to fill our lives with bitterness and a perceive sense of self-righteousness. While we cannot change the events of the past that have brought us sadness, we can liberate ourselves from the pain these memories bring us in the present.

Liberation is a spiritual process. It begins with a decision that each of us must make to be spiritually whole and integrated: I will not let the past define who I am this moment. By making such a simple affirmation, we can take the steps to improving our world–beginning with ourselves. Although we cannot change the past, we can choose how we allow it to affect us. My father was a Holocaust survivor who managed to survive Auschwitz. Yet, despite everything sad he had experienced, he lived his life with a joyous spirit. He chose to live in the present than remain in the past.

Our tale began long ago in the 18th century, in Eastern Europe.

In the Hassidic village of Meseritz, there lived a long thin baker named Jacob—a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Jacob was so upright that he seemed to spray morality from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Meseritz preferred to stay away.

Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was beautiful and stunning. Everyone wanted to be in her soft and radiant presence.

Rachel loved Jacob her husband, too, as much as he allowed her; but her heart yearned for human affection and attention, for her husband Jacob was too busy studying Talmud or praying.

And from this seed of sadness and loneliness, she strayed.

One early morning, having worked all night long in the bakery, Jacob came home and found a stranger in his bedroom lying in Rachel’s arms.

Soon everyone gossiped about Rachel’s infidelity. People everywhere whispered her name with contempt and shock.

Everyone assumed that Jacob would quickly divorce Rachel, for after all, he was a righteous man. But to everyone’s surprise, Jacob remained committed in his relationship to Rachel, and said that he forgave her as the biblical prophet Hosea forgave his wife for straying.

But in his heart of hearts, however, Jacob could not forgive Rachel for bringing shame to his name, nor could he forget. Whenever he thought about her, his feelings toward her were angry and hard; he despised her as if she were a common whore. When it came right down to it, he hated her for betraying him after he had been so good and so faithful a husband to her.

Jacob only “pretended” to “forgive” Rachel so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.

But Jacob’s hypocrisy did not sit well in Heaven.

The Kabbalah teaches, “As above, so below.” God orchestrates the powers of transformation and growth in the universe based on our actions.

So each time Jacob felt contempt toward Rachel, an angel came to him and dropped a tiny pebble, hardly the size of a pebble, into Jacob’s heart. Each time a pebble dropped, Jacob would feel a stab of pain like the pain he felt the moment he discovered Rachel’s infidelity.

And so he hated her the more; his hate brought him pain and his pain made him hate.

The pebbles of his heart multiplied as his heart slowly turned into stone. Over time, Jacob’s heart grew very heavy; he could barely walk straight without feeling the immense weight of the pebbles, which now felt like boulders. With the weight of them, he looked like bent and broken man. Like Jonah in the Bible, Jacob felt weary from the pain he was carrying; he began praying to the Angel of death.

One night, the angel who dropped the pebbles into his heart, came to and told him how could he find healing for his pain and broken heart.

“There is one remedy,” he said, “only one, for the wounded heart. Jacob would need the miracle of the magic eyes. He would need eyes that could look back to the beginning of his hurt and see his Rachel, not as a wife who betrayed him, but rather as a weak woman who needed him.

Only a new way of looking at things through the magic eyes could heal the hurt flowing from the wounds of yesterday.

Jacob protested. “But nothing can change the past,” he said. “Rachel is guilty—a fact that not even an angel can change.”

“Yes, poor pitiful man, you are right,” the angel said. “What you said is partially true. You cannot change the past; you can only heal the hurt that comes to you from the past. And you can heal it only with the vision of the magic eyes.”

“And how can I get your ‘magic eyes’?” pouted Jacob.

“Only ask, desiring as you ask, and they will be given you. And each time you see Rachel through your new eyes; one pebble will be lifted from your aching heart.”

Jacob could not ask at once, for he had grown to love his hatred. But the pain of his heart finally drove him to want and to ask for the magic eyes that the angel had promised.

So he asked. And the angel gave. He began focusing on only her positive qualities and attributes.

Soon Rachel began to change in front of Jacob’s eyes, wonderfully and mysteriously. He began to see her as a needy woman who loved him instead of a wicked woman who had betrayed him. He begins to realize his part, and how his own lack of affection and attention pushed Rachel away. He too, required forgiveness, but of a different kind.

The angel kept his promise; he lifted the pebbles from Jacob’s heart, one by one, though it took a long time to take them all away. Jacob gradually felt his heart grow lighter; he began to walk straight again, and somehow his nose and his chin seemed less thin and sharp than before. He invited Rachel to come into his heart again, and she came, and together they rededicated their lives anew.

 

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The Mystical Wanderings of the Shekhinah (revised)

As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed. The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.  In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.



[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.