On the Death of Rav Elyashiv

1 08 2012

Two weeks ago, I felt the need to comment on the passing of Rav Elyashiv. In the time since then, a few people have drawn articles to my attention (either privately or on Facebook) that have presented views at odds with the one I shared. Rav Elyashiv had no relationship with his family. Rav Elyashiv was responsible for further estranging Haredim from the state. Rav Elyashiv’s rulings have harmed women and converts. From such allegations, I cannot (nor will not) defend him. Instead, I think it best to make my feelings about Rav Elyashiv more properly understood.

As many people know, I have a love/hate relationship with Haredi Judaism. It is difficult for me to speak about people like the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rov without feeling my pulse quicken, but it is also difficult for me to speak about people like Rav Shach or Rav Steinman without some measure of contempt. Some time ago, a friend of mine asked me why I found the Steipler Gaon so admirable, and my answer probably goes for the former two whom I admire as well: I don’t know much about him.

It seems that the more I learn about individual Haredim whom I admire, the easier it is for me to remember why I left. I look at Haredi society today and I see a community becoming further and further mired in their trenchant opposition to modernity. I see people who seek stringencies where leniencies have greater precedent. I see people who are beginning to manifest attitudes that are revoltingly misogynist and terrifyingly racist. So far as how they got here, they largely have themselves to blame.

To an equally large extent, however, the blame lies with a belligerent Israeli government. Comprised originally of secular European intellectuals who thought their culture inherently superior, they treated North African Jews with disdain, Haredim with condescension, and Arabs with outright contempt. In all three cases, they grossly misjudged the people with whom they were dealing, and while the Knesset today is not plagued with this particular problem (leastways, not so far as Sephardim and Haredim are concerned), the damage has already been done.

That said, I cannot blame secular Zionists for their behaviour any more than I can blame Haredim for theirs; both attitudes were forged in the fires of the Shoah, and both are merely differing manifestations of trauma. With his typical astuteness, Raul Hilberg recognised the striking ferocity with which Zionists suddenly turned against the British and against the Arabs as a case of misplaced anger. The same could be said for the intensity with which Haredim turned against the fledgling state.

It is impossible to predict what Haredi society might have looked like in a world in which it had been allowed to flourish. With the recent advent of schools for girls, and with the solidarity that was afforded Haredim across Europe after the formation of the Agudah, it is tempting to imagine the development of a society both rigidly conservative in its interpretation of the law and socially progressive with its application of it. But such, in Israel, was not to be.

Instead, we see a society in which poskim seek to outdo one another with stringency, and in which any concession to the lifestyle or the background of the petitioner is deemed scandalously liberal. We see a society that is so phenomenally out of touch with the outside world that even the ways of North American Haredim are inscrutable to them. Most alarmingly of all, we see the utterly unprecedented phenomenon of people with deliberately machmir interpretations of the law, forcing their stringencies upon large communities of Jews who do not want them.

Without the politicisation of Haredi Judaism, such a thing would not be possible, but this politicisation was a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the formation of the Agudah in 1912 allowed for Haredi interests to be representated to the state – whether in Poland, where it was formed, or in Palestine. On the other hand, it has also afforded the potential, which we now see expressed, for foisting Haredi legislation upon the general public. This more recent and frightening manifestation was the brainchild of Rav Shach. Until he formed Degel haTorah and its media arm, Yated Neeman, Haredi power (insofar as it existed) rested only in a body of rabbis. The legacy of Rav Shach is such that power in the non-Hasidic world is increasingly coming to be represented in a single individual.

There is a certain irony to the fact that the Brisker Rov strongly opposed Heichal Shlomo, the office of the Chief Rabbinate, on the grounds that religious power should never be concentrated. His protegé, Rav Shach, has succeeded in creating just such a concentration – one that, through the machinations of the Eda haHaredis, is now exerting greater and greater influence over the rabbinate itself. While many Haredim look down on such political manoeuvring, and tend to value more highly a rav who does not dirty his hands in politics, it is frequently the one who professes the greatest disdain for power who wields it most of all.

Rav Elyashiv exerted greater influence than he could possibly have known. So divorced was he from the world around him that he had no comprehension as to how his rulings might affect the lives of other people – or even, perhaps, any real comprehension of other people at all. He was hardly alone for having lacked any vestige of empathy, but he was alone in having turned himself completely into a vessel for the halakha.

The breadth of knowledge of which Rav Elyashiv was possessed was savant-like, and I have great admiration for it. In the eighteen hours-or-so that he studied each day, until shortly before his death at 102, he very rarely opened the Shulchan Arukh. There was one time (and this, alone, speaks volumes), immediately after being informed that his daughter had died, when he is said to have closed the tractate of the Talmud that he was studying and opened up the laws of mourning in Yoreh Deah. Nonetheless, despite almost never consulting such material, when he deigned to answer people’s questions he demonstrated an awe-inspiring familiarity with the content of its commentaries. His preparation in this regard was to reacquiant himself with the relevant Talmudic passages – themselves the basis for the laws within the Shulchan Arukh, on which such texts were commenting.

I have no way of easily conveying just what it means to be able to do that. It’s like preparing yourself for a lecture on Newton’s understanding of Kepler by triangulating the stars. It doesn’t make any sense.

While eulogising him, Rav Nissan Kaplan of the Mir Yeshiva recounted an event when Rav Elyashiv was asked to issue a ruling on the legitimacy of wigs that came from India. He gave his ruling without consulting a single text. Wishing to understand it, a group of scholars came to his house to argue with him on the ruling. Their preparation for the argument was to learn Tractate Avodah Zarah in depth (with all of the mediaeval commentaries) and through to the halakha (to learn the relevant passages in the Rambam, the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh, together with all of the commentaries on the latter). Rav Elyashiv contented himself with merely revising the tractate, and after an hour of arguing they all acquiesced to his understanding of the law.

To so impress a community of people, in which it is not uncommon for a man to devote thirty or forty years of his life to uninterrupted study, is itself a powerful statement. That such a person should also exert so strong an influence over other people is a tragedy, but the problem lies moreso with his society in that respect than it does with him.

In a lecture on the genius of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Prof. Marc Shapiro opines upon the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi poskim. Where the former, for their own sociohistorical reasons, have come to favour stringency and to eschew any form of compromise as needless modernisation, the latter (for sociohistorical reasons of their own) have tended to adopt a more lenient and compromised position. Were I in the market for a posek, it would not be a Haredi posek whom I would want, though that doesn’t mean that I think that Rav Elyashiv was ever “wrong”.

I might disagree with him strongly, but my disagreement merely signals the fact that I do not like his rulings. That he, with his terrifying familiarity with the vastness of halakhic Judaism, should have felt that the rulings he made were consonant with the system as a whole is not something that I, with my knowledge of nothing, can either validate or deny. The greatest scholars often make the lousiest humanists, and Rav Elyashiv (who, were he not Haredi, would very likely be considered on the autism spectrum) was a lousy humanist. He was not a good father, nor a good husband, nor a good posek nor anyone’s friend. He had no personality, save what could be gleaned from his posture or the tone of his voice. He almost never smiled at anybody and his only relationships were with the books that he loved.

Bobby Fisher, despite all of the ugly things that could be said about Bobby Fisher, never ceased being the world’s greatest chess player. Rav Elyashiv, for all of the damage that he might have caused both within and outside of Haredi society, was an unparalleled master of the art of halakha. He had no peer.

Rabbit Season

6 04 2012

Some years ago, a friend of mine bought me a beautiful facsimile of a Haggada from Prague, originally printed in 1527. After a few pages, the Haggada features an odd illustration: a man, mounted atop a horse, blowing a bugle while his dogs chase a group of rabbits. Although the picture is small, it would appear that the rabbits are about to reach a fence, and so I assumed that the drawing was designed to convey the theme of persecution, the threat of annihilation, and the possibility of redemption.

All things told, it’s an odd way to convey this theme. Rabbit hunting was never a popular sport amongst European Jews, with hunting for any purpose other than the utility of animals (food, clothing, etc) being halakhically forbidden as “צער בעלי חיים”: [causing] suffering to living creatures. Does this illustration merely testify to the appropriation of a non-Jewish trope, refashioned into a Jewish message? Are the rabbits supposed to represent Jews, fleeing from their non-Jewish persecutors? If the horseman is a wicked tyrant and his dogs the means of his oppressing Jews, then why do the rabbits not have a leader of their own? Is not the message of Pesach the liberation that occurred under Moses in particular? No matter which way I choose to configure it, this picture causes me consternation.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his remarkable Haggadah and History, presents pages from printed Haggadot over the course of the last five hundred years. Second only to the Torah itself, the Haggada has gone through more reprintings than any other Jewish book, and the variety of different editions over this last half-millennium alone is fascinating. Surprisingly, the image of the rabbit hunt is one that recurs. Here, for example, is an illustration from the Augsburg Haggada of 1534. As you can see, the rabbits are making their way under the fence, but are very close to being devoured by the dogs that follow immediately behind them:

Later within the same Haggada, the image reappears. This time, it is clear that the rabbits have escaped, that the fence now lies between them and their hunters, and that the theme of liberation is the one that is being conveyed:

Still, this doesn’t explain the origin of the motif. Why a rabbit hunt in particular? As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi points out, it is actually an allusion to a sugya in the Babylonian Talmud, which appears in Pesachim 102b-103a. In that discussion, the issue is raised as to the order in which one must make the various necessary blessings, in the event that Pesach coincides either with the onset of Shabbat (as it does this year) or with Shabbat’s conclusion. The relevant section, which truly testifies to the fact that every Jew has his own opinion, reads as follows:

גופא יום טוב שחל להיות אחר השבת רב אמר יקנ”ה ושמואל אמר ינה”ק ורבה אמר יהנ”ק ולוי אמר קני”ה ורבנן אמרי קינ”ה מר בריה דרבנא אמר נקי”ה מרתא אמר משמיה דר’ יהושע ניה”ק שלח ליה אבוה דשמואל לרבי ילמדו רבינו סדר הבדלות היאך שלח ליה כך אמר רבי ישמעאל בר רבי יוסי שאמר משום אביו שאמר משום רבי יהושע בן חנניה נהי”ק אמר ר’ חנינא משל דר’ יהושע בן חנניה למלך שיוצא ואפרכוס נכנס מלווין את המלך ואח”כ יוצאים לקראת אפרכוס מאי הוי עלה אביי אמר יקזנ”ה ורבא אמר יקנה”ז והילכתא כרבא

When the festival occurs at the conclusion of Shabbat, Rav says [that the order of blessings is]: wine, kiddush, the candles and then havdala;
Shmuel says: wine, candles, havdala and then kiddush;
Rabba says: wine, havdala, candles and then kiddush;
Levi says: kiddush, candles, wine and then havdala;
The other rabbis say: kiddush, wine, candles and then havdala;
Mar, the son of Ravina, says: candles, kiddush, wine and then havdala;
Marta, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua, says: candles, wine, havdala and then kiddush.
Shmuel’s father went to Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] and he asked him, “How did the rabbis teach the order of havdalot?”
He was told, “Thus said Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi, who spoke in the name of his father, who spoke in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah: candles, havdala, wine and then kiddush.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah likened this to a king who is leaving while a governor is entering. We escort the king, and only afterwards do we go out to greet the governor.
What is the conclusion?
Abayyei says: wine, kiddush, “time” [a reference to the previously unmentioned blessing of thanksgiving – “שהחינו” – over enabling us to reach this season], candles and then havdala.”
Rava says: wine, kiddush, candles, havdala and then “time”.
The halakha is like Rava.

In this sugya, we have no fewer than eight different opinions and two different conclusions, each one of which is expressed by means of an acronym for the words wine (יין), kiddush (קידוש), candles (נר), havdala (הבדלה) and time (זמן). The resulting halakha, given in the name of Rava (which is a slight modification of the first opinion, given in the name of Rav) is thus conveyed by the acronym יקנה”ז, or yaknehaz. And as it is not uncommon for liturgical texts to feature halakhic information, there were many haggadot that were printed with this acronym, somewhere near the various blessings themselves.

Of course, a picture tells a thousand words, and as יקנה”ז (yaknehaz) sounds an awful lot like יאגן האז (yagn haz), which is Yiddish for “rabbit hunt”, the pictorial mnemonic in question came into existence. Although Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi doesn’t suggest as much, it would appear that this is another instance in which the metaphor is mistaken for the message. The development of the illustration into a motif that conveys the theme of escape, rather than merely a rabbit hunt with the word יקנה”ז beneath it, evidences both a distaste for the hunting of animals, as well as a certain confusion over why the Haggada appears to be advocating such a thing in the first place.


Wishing you all a festive season of liberation, whether you identify with the rabbit or the hound. For my part, I’m still sitting on the fence.

Kosher Blood

27 02 2012

In July of last year, Allan Nadler (Professor of Religious Studies at Drew University, and author of The Faith of the Mithnagdim) wrote an article for Jewish Ideas Daily, in which he discussed the correlation between vampirism and Judaism. Nadler’s post is a review of a book by Sara Libby Robinson, entitled Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors Before World War I.

In Nadler’s article, he indicates the fact that Dracula is nowhere described as having been Jewish himself, although he does remark upon the similarities that he has to Jewish stereotypes:

“Rootless, of East European origin, dark-complected, and lustful for the money and blood of others. Assessing a wide range of themes in which blood and vampirism were evoked in late-19th-century European “scientific” thought (Social Darwinism and criminology in particular), Robinson argues that Stoker’s depiction of Dracula exploited widespread anxieties about the dangers posed by the flood (and the blood) of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to Great Britain.”

Is it a coincidence, then, that the individual whom Dracula enlists to assist him in his escape from England be none other than Immanuel Hildesheim: “a Hebrew of rather the Adelphi Theatre type, with a nose like a sheep, and a fez. His arguments were pointed with specie – we doing the punctuation – and with a little bargaining he told us what he knew” (Bram Stoker, Dracula, XXVI). Is it a coincidence that Dracula’s facial features may appear stereotypically Semitic, that his greatest concern lies in his accent divulging his East European origins, or that the vampire motif had long been employed for the characterisation of Jews as usurers? Nadler, in his review of Robinson’s book, seems to think that it is not. In fact, he even notes with interest the connection that Robinson creates between the fear of kosher slaughtering in the ethnic German population, and the ineradicable blood libel.

In the 1880s, for example, there was a widespread campaign in Germany to forbid any form of animal slaughter that was not preceded by electrical stunning. As Robinson notes (and I quote from Nadler’s review), “Jews supposedly took pleasure in their method of slaughtering, which strengthened their insensitivity and brutality. Propaganda depicted them as a “blood-drinking people,” erroneously positing that Jews drank the blood of their slaughtered animals.” I am sure that it goes without saying that animal blood is not something that religious Jews have ever consumed, and it is an unfamiliarity with Jewish religious law that strikes at the heart of such a depiction, as unfamiliarity strikes at the heart of all racial prejudices.

And yet, while it has long been contended that this same consideration automatically falsifies that version of the blood libel that is of greater antiquity – that Jews slaughter Christian children and use their blood for making food – such is not to be the case. While the libel is most certainly that, the reason that religious Jews would shun such a practise is the more commonplace aversion to murder, together with the fact that drinking human blood – if not necessarily unkosher – just sounds a little bit off.

With the approach of Purim, it is customary to deliver a “Purim Torah”: an halakhic or Talmudic exegesis, designed for the purposes of mockery. This year, I would like to share one of the most enjoyable halakhic exegeses (of this genre) that I have read: Yitayningwut’s discussion of kosher blood for Jewish vampires, found on his The Beis Medrash Blog. Rather than reproduce it below, I encourage you all to have a look at it in situ, for there are many other posts there that are also very interesting. For my part, I don’t think that I’m about to avail myself of this surprising leniency any time soon, but it pleases me to know that my options are open.

Homosexuality and Witchcraft

19 02 2012

I recently wrote the following note on Facebook:

The Eternal Torah

The sad reality is that, every year, more and more young people in Australia are coming out of the closet and identifying as ***s. This is despite the existence of a clear verse in the Torah, condemning *** as an inappropriate lifestyle. The books that they read, the films that they watch, and every aspect of this ***-enabling country is only encouraging our youth to experiment with activities that are physically and morally harmful. Because I truly care about the moral bedrock of our society, I say that ***s should not be allowed to get married. While it is true that the Torah doesn’t actually condemn their marrying one another, it is clear that allowing them this liberty will only encourage their sordid lifestyle further, and God forbid a child be raised in such an unhealthy home. After all, everybody knows that being a *** is a choice. Trying to market it as a choice that one is entitled to make (when nothing can be more contrary to God’s will) is a travesty, and a clear indication of how low our society has sunk.

There are those who say that the Torah’s message should be reinterpreted. That perhaps it was being specific and referring only to particular activities. This is an ignorant assertion and should be completely ignored. While one who knows nothing of rabbinic law might read the relevant verse in this fashion, the truth is that the rabbis understood this prohibition as relating to both males and females. As such, the Torah deals with the sin of *** categorically. While we may no longer be allowed to actually kill these people (despite the fact that the Torah mandates the death penalty for their crime), granting them equality in the eyes of the law when all they need to do is change their sordid lifestyle is a crime unto God himself.

In a last-ditch attempt to make sacred the profane, there are those who liken the crime of *** to other “outdated” laws in the biblical literature, but they do this completely ignorant of the way that halakha works. The simple truth is that the rabbis of the Talmud did not see fit to recontextualise this particular law. If they didn’t reframe it, and make the crime of *** a phenomenon no longer in effect, then what gives us the audacity to do so? Not only that, but the law that pertains to *** is phrased in the negative! It is one thing to recontextualise a positive commandment, but another thing entirely to recontextualise a prohibition.

The number of ***s in Australia today is growing. The amount of ***-themed literature and film is on the rise. In my own neighbourhood, I see people who are proud of being ***s and it is time that rabbis take a stand. *** is disgusting. *** should still be illegal. ***s should not be allowed to marry, should receive no recognition for their activities, and should be dealt with by psychologists and counsellors only.

God’s holy Torah is immutable and in effect. If the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t recontextualise it, then who the hell are you?

– Exodus 22:17 (18 in the English).

Regrettably, not everybody understood what I was trying to say. Some thought that I was having a go at homosexuals, some thought that I was having a go at witches, and some thought that I was trying to imply that homosexuality is a type of witchcraft! By way of explaining the point that I was trying to make, consider the following reasons so often given by rabbis as to why homosexuality must not be tolerated in our society. I think this list is fairly exhaustive:

• The Torah’s condemnation of homosexuality is clearly stated (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13);

• While the Torah only prohibits sexual intercourse between two men, the rabbis broadened the prohibition to include two women;

• The Torah describes homosexuality as a “toevah” (an abomination);

• The Torah relates homosexuality to the practices of Canaanites (as per the declaration in Leviticus 18:3, which precedes a string of prohibitions, one of which is homosexuality, and the declaration in Leviticus 20:23, which concludes a string of prohibitions, one of which is homosexuality);

• The Torah relates homosexuality to bestiality: the latter is forbidden in Leviticus 18:23, immediately after the prohibition of male homosexual intercourse;

• The penalty for homosexual intercourse is death;

• The rabbis of the Talmud never saw fit to mitigate this penalty, to recontextualise the prohibition, nor to limit its application;

• While the Torah does not speak of same-sex marriage, such a thing would be impossible: any marriage between two people of the same sex would lack kiddushin and be non-halakhic, and any permissibility granted for same-sex civil marriages will only encourage homosexuality and lead to children being raised in an environment conducive to illegitimate sexual experimentation.

And then, of course, there’s the real zinger:

Homosexuality has been illegal throughout the world for the longest time. Lifting it now to the level of heterosexuality is a slight against centuries of tradition.

Now let’s consider the prohibition of witchcraft:

• The Torah’s condemnation of witchcraft is clearly stated (Exodus 22:17/18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:10-11);

• While some verses in the Torah only prohibit female practitioners of witchcraft, the rabbis broadened the prohibition to include men;

• The Torah describes witchcraft as a “toevah” (an abomination);

• The Torah relates witchcraft to the practices of Canaanites (as per the declaration in Deuteronomy 18:9, which precedes the prohibition of witchcraft);

• The Torah relates witchcraft to bestiality: the latter is forbidden in Exodus 22:18/19, immediately after the prohibition of witchcraft;

• The penalty for witchcraft is death;

• The rabbis of the Talmud never saw fit to mitigate this penalty, to recontextualise the prohibition, nor to limit its application;

• While the Torah does not speak of practitioners of witchcraft marrying, such a thing could be viewed as impossible: any marriage conducted in accordance with pagan or Wiccan traditions would lack kiddushin and be non-halakhic, and any permissibility granted for civil marriages between two such people will only encourage witchcraft and lead to children being raised in an environment conducive to illegitimate spiritual experimentation.

And while one never hears it, the following assertion is no less ridiculous than what one hears from those who lament the supposed proliferation of homosexuality:

Witchcraft used to be illegal. Justifying it now would be an insult to centuries of beautiful tradition, like the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europe and North America burned with a passion that surely ignites the spirit.

Let’s face it, Judaism seems to have developed something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in relation to the practise of witchcraft. The reason for this is that, deep down, nobody really cares too much about whether or not you think it’s awesome to hold a séance with your friends, to go dancing in the forest when it’s a full moon, or to ask questions of a dead rabbi by writing them down and sticking them in his books. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.

But when it comes to homosexuality, people just feel a bit yuck about the whole thing. That’s a perfectly normal reaction. It’s all part of growing up and being stupid.

If you cannot think of a good reason to stamp up and down and lament the proliferation of witchcraft-themed books and films, to decry the fact that kids these days are painting their fingernails black and listening to goth music (they’re still doing this, right?), to lament with anger this “witch-enabling” country of ours and to cry about the global witch agenda, then it might be time for you to exercise a little restraint in other areas as well.

After all, if neither the rabbis nor the Torah itself drew any real distinction between the two, it’s hardly worth pretending that your hatred of only one of them is fuelled by anything other than simple-minded prejudice. Time to give it a rest.

… and a Happy New Year

23 12 2011

I am about to leave for a camping trip that won’t see me in front of a computer (Hallelujah!) until the beginning of January, at which time I will be back, and teaching Intermediate Hebrew studying Modern Literary Arabic at Macquarie University Summer School! Given that I now have to approve comments from new readers before they are posted (thanks to some well-meaning spambots), I apologise in advance to anybody who may find themselves unable to leave feedback.

In the meantime, you might enjoy this truly outstanding article by Rabbi Shlomo Brody of Yeshivat haKotel. In it, he considers the role of the Zohar on Rabbi Yosef Karo’s formulation of the halakha, and appraises the author’s controversial Magid Mesharim as a treatise that testifies to his unifying of the two worlds:

Halakha and Kabbalah: Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch and Magid Mesharim
by Rabbi Shlomo Brody.

Amongst the great kabbalists and legalists produced in 16th century Safed, R. Yosef Karo clearly stands out as one of, if not the, most influential figure. Though his legal compendium Bet Yosef and code Shulchan Aruch, Karo helped shape the course of halakha for the next five centuries. Karo produced these works while the Zohar’s influence on the Jewish world greatly expanded, a process to which he contributed. In this essay, we will examine the impact of the Zohar on his halakhic jurisprudence. We will furthermore explore the influence of the personal revelation Karo received from his magid, as recorded in his spiritual diary Magid Mesharim.

[read more]

“These Lights”

20 12 2011

In honour of Christopher Hitchens, whose deliciously scathing attack on Hanukkah deserves to be posted and posted again, and in honour of this evening actually being the first night of Hanukkah, I thought that I might share some of the earlier stories and laws of the festival that has come to be seen as the Jewish Christmas.

For a start, and as I imagine that most people know already, Hanukkah is nowhere mentioned within the Hebrew Bible. Whether or not it appears within Christian Bibles depends entirely upon the denomination of Christianity: the two books of Maccabees, while make passing allusion to the festival, are deuterocanonical to Catholics and apocryphal to (almost) everybody else.

The following is the relevant passage in 1 Maccabees (4:36-59), dated to within the last quarter of the 2nd century (ie: 125-100) BCE. I have emphasised those parts of it that might resonate with traditional perspectives on the festival:

But Judas and his brethren said: ‘Behold, our enemies are discomfited; let us go up to cleanse the Holy Place, and re-dedicate it. And all the army was gathered together, and they went unto mount Sion. And they saw our sanctuary laid desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest or upon one of the mountains, and the chambers (of the priests) pulled down; and they rent their garments, and made great lamentation, and put ashes on their heads; and they fell on their faces to the ground, and they blew the solemn blasts upon the trumpets, and cried unto heaven…

So they pulled down the altar, and laid down the stones in the mountain of the House, in a convenient place, until a prophet should come and decide (as to what should be done) concerning them. And they took whole stones according to the Law, and built a new altar after the fashion of the former (one); and they built the Holy Place, and the inner parts of the house, and hallowed the courts. And they made the holy vessels new, and they brought the candlestick in order to give light in the temple. And they set loaves upon the table, and hung up the veils, and finished all the works which they had undertaken.

And they rose up early in the morning on the twenty-fifth (day) of the ninth month, which is the month Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, and offered sacrifice according to the Law, upon the new altar of burnt offerings which they had made. At the corresponding time (of the month) and on the (corresponding) day on which the Gentiles had profaned it, on that day was it dedicated afresh, with songs and harps and lutes, and with cymbals. And all the people fell upon their faces, and worshipped, and gave praise, (looking up) unto heaven, to him who had prospered them. And they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed a sacrifice of deliverance and praise… And Judas and his brethren and the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their seasons year by year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth (day) of the month Chislev, with gladness and joy.

– R.H. Charles (ed. and trans.), The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Volume One: Apocrypha (Berkely: The Apocryphile Press, 2004), 81-82 – parentheses in the original; emphasis mine

This reference, while it might not exactly align with what we learn in Hebrew School, is not too far off. There is a reference to the name of the festival (Hanukkah meaning “dedication”), to the fact that it begins on the 25th of Kislev, the fact that it lasts for eight days, and the fact that it has something (something) to do with the repurification of the altar. There is no reference to the miracle of the oil.

There is a reference to the festival in 2 Maccabees as well but, like much of 2 Maccabees, it is rather strange. The text opens with a letter, containing an injunction to commemorate Hanukkah in Kislev, but refers to it as the festival as Sukkot instead, which is in the month of Tishrei. The second letter makes clear that we are speaking of the festival of the purification of the temple and that it should be celebrated on the 25th of Kislev, but it doesn’t name the festival, and it relates it to an event in the life of Nehemiah: approximately three hundred years before the Maccabees. The second chapter notes that Solomon had celebrated his dedication of the temple for eight days as well, so it is not surprising that certain scholars see the origin of this festival in a winter solstice that greatly predated the events to which it is usually attached.

Josephus mentions Hanukkah as well, but as with much of what Josephus says it’s unclear precisely what his sources are. For the most part, he relates a story not dissimilar from what we find in 1 Maccabees, but he adds a curious detail:

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon… They were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of the temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.

– Antiquities 7.7.323-325 (trans. W. Whiston)

That Josephus should have known of a tradition that Hannukah was in some way a “festival of lights”, but not known of any custom as regarded the actual kindling of candles, or of any miracle that related to the kindling of a lamp, is astonishing – and says much as regards what may be the late development of those traditions. To find them stated explicitly, we need to turn to the rabbinic literature next, and when we do we are hit with a resounding silence.

The following is the sum total of all references to the festival of Hanukkah within the Mishna, and I hope it explains everything you ever wanted to know about the festival:

Mishna, Tractate Bikkurim 1:6
הקונה שני אילנות בתוך של חברו מביא ואינו קורא רבי מאיר אומר מביא וקורא יבש המעין נקצץ האילן מביא ואינו קורא רבי יהודה אומר מביא וקורא מעצרת ועד החג מביא וקורא מן החג ועד חנכה מביא ואינו קורא רבי יהודה בן בתירא אומר מביא וקורא

One who purchases two trees from another’s [field], must bring [the first fruits to the priest], but he does not recite [the traditional formula, found in Deuteronomy 26:3, 5-10).
Rabbi Meir says, he brings them and he recites it.
Should the spring dry up or the tree be chopped down, he must bring [the first fruits to the priest], but he does not recite [the traditional formula].
Rabbi Yehuda says, he brings them and he recites it.
From the reaping [ie: from Shavuot] until the festival [ie: until Sukkot], he brings [the first fruits to the priest] and he recites [the traditional formula], but from the festival [of Sukkot] until Hanukkah he brings [the first fruits to the priest] but he does not recite [the traditional formula].
Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira says, he brings them and he recites it.

Mishna, Tractate Rosh HaShanah 1:3
על ששה חדשים השלוחים יוצאין על ניסן מפני הפסח על אב מפני התענית על אלול מפני ראש השנה על תשרי מפני תקנת המועדות על כסלו מפני חנכה ועל עדר מפני הפורים וכשהיה בית המקדש קים יוצאין אף על איר מפני פסח קטן

There are six months on which emissaries would go out [in order to alert distant communities as to the sighting of the new moon]:
On Nisan, because of Pesach;
On Av, because of the fast [ie: Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av];
On Elul, because of Rosh haShana [which occurs on the very first day of the following month];
On Tishrei, in order to align the festivals [of Yom Kippur, presumably, and Sukkot];
On Kislev, because of Hanukkah;
On Adar, because of the Purim.
And, when the temple existed, they would also go out on Iyyar, because of Minor Pesach (ie: the second Pesach, which is referred to in Numbers 9:10-11).

Mishna, Tractate Taanit 2:10
אין גוזרין תענית על הצבור בראש חדש בחנכה ובפורים ואם התחילו אין מפסיקין דברי רבן גמליאל אמר רבי מאיר אף על פי שאמר רבן גמליאל אין מפסיקין מודה היה שאין משלימין וכן תשעה באב שחל להיות בערב שבת

One may not establish a communal fast on the first of the month, on Hanukkah or on Purim, but if they began [fasting already], they may not interrupt it: the opinion of Rabban Gamliel.
Rabbi Meir says that even though Rabban Gamliel said that one may not interrupt it, he agrees that one may not complete it either [but that he must break his fast, one presumes, close to the hour at which it would otherwise be scheduled to end].
This is also the case with Tisha b’Av that falls on Erev Shabbat [- an unfortunate calendrical coincidence, which no longer occurs with the established calendars currently in use].

Mishna, Tractate Megillah 3:4
ראש חדש אדר שחל להיות בשבת קורין בפרשת שקלים חל להיות בתוך השבת מקדימין לשעבר ומפסיקין לשבת אחרת בשניה זכור בשלישית פרה אדמה ברביעית החדש הזה לכם בחמישית חוזרין לכסדרן לכל מפסיקין בראשי חדשים בחנכה ובפורים בתעניות ובמעמדות וביום הכפורים

If the first day of Adar falls on a Shabbat, one reads the section [known as] Sheqalim [“Coins”, Exodus30:11-16]; if it falls on a weekday, one commences with the previous [Shabbat, reading the section then] and pauses on the following Shabbat [and leaves until the Shabbat following that one the order that, otherwise, would be as follows]:
On the second [Shabbat of the month of Adar, one reads the section known as] Zachor [“Remember”, Deuteronomy 25:17-19];
On the third [Shabbat of the month of Adar, one reads the section known as] Parah Adumah [“Red Heifer”, Numbers 19];
On the fourth [Shabbat of the month of Adar, one reads the section known as] HaChodesh haZeh laKhem [“This Month, to You”, Exodus 12:1-20];
On the fifth [Shabbat of the month of Adar], one returns to the regular order [of haftarot, persumably].
For all [of the following] one breaks off [from the regular reading and reads the sections described in a subsequent mishna, Megillah 3:6]:
The first days of the months, Hanukkah, Purim, fast days, appointed times [when, according to the Mishna in Taanit 4:2, segments of the population would make their way to Jerusalem in order to be present for the regular daily offerings] and Yom Kippur.

Mishna, Tractate Megillah 3:6
בחנכה בנשיאים בפורים ויבא עמלק בראשי חדשים ובראשי חדשיכם במעמדות במעשה בראשית בתעניות ברכות וקללות אין מפסיקין בקללות אלא אחד קורא את כלן בשני ובחמישי ובשבת במנחה קורין כסדרן ואין עולין להם מן החשבון שנאמר וידבר משה את מעדי יי אל בני ישראל מצותן שיהו קורין כל אחד ואחד בזמנו

On Hanukkah, [one reads the section known as] Nesiim [“Princes”, Numbers 7];
On Purim, [one reads the section known as] VaYavo Amaleq [“Then Amalek Came”, Exodus 17:8-16];
On the first days of the months [one reads the section known as] BeRoshei Chodsheikhem [“One the First Days of Your Months”, Numbers 28:11-15];
At the appointed times [that were mentioned above, one reads] the work of creation;
On fast days, [one reads the] blessings and the curses [Leviticus 26]. One may not break up the curses [and divide them between more than one reader], rather one person must read all of them.
On Monday and Thursday [mornings] and on Shabbat afternoons, one reads according to the regular order and does not raise [?] them from the count [ie: one reads portions from that which is going to be read the following Shabbat morning, and makes sure to actually reread them that following Shabbat – acc. to R’ Obadiah of Bertinoro], since it says: “Moses declared the set times of the Lord to the Israelites” (Leviticus 23:44) – their commandment is that they should read every section in its season.

Mishna, Tractate Moed Katan 3:9
בראשי חדשים בחנכה ובפורים מענות ומטפחות בזה ובזה לא מקוננות נקבר המת לא מענות ולא מטפחות איזהו ענוי שכלן עונות כאחת קינה שאחת מדברת וכלן עונות אחריה שנאמר ולמדנה בנתיכם נהי ואשה רעותה קינה אבל לעתיד לבא הוא אומר בלע המות לנצח ומחה יי אלהים דמעה מעל כל פנים וגו

On the first days of the months, on Hanukkah and on Purim, women may cry out [in lamentation, during a funeral] and clap their hands. On each of these [days] they may not wail. Once the deceased is buried, they may neither cry out [in lamentation] nor clap their hands.
What is “crying out”? When they all cry out as one.
[What is] “wailing”? When one declares and they all cry out after her, as it says: “Teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament” [NRSV, Jeremiah 9:19; v20 in English Bibles].
But in time to come, it says: “He will swallow up death forever and the Lord God will wipe each tear from every cheek” [Isaiah 25:8].

Mishna, Tractate Bava Kama 6:6
גץ שיצא מתחת הפטיש והזיק חיב גמל שהיה טעון פשתן ועבר ברשות הרבים ונכנסה פשתנו לתוך החנות ודלקה בנרו של חנוני והדליק את הבירה בעל הגמל חיב הניח חנוני נרו מבחוץ החנוני חיב רבי יהודה אומר בנר חנכה פטור

A spark that flies out from under the hammer and causes damage: he is obligated [to make financial restitution].
A flax-laden camel that is walking in a public place, whose flax [is so bulky that it] goes into a shop and catches fire on the shop-owner’s candle and sets fire to the establishment: the owner of the camel is obligated. [But,] had the shop-owner left the candle outside, he is liable.
Rabbi Yehuda says, he is exempt if it is a Hanukkah candle.

From the foregoing, we can determine the fact that Hanukkah is celebrated in the month of Kislev (Rosh HaShanah 1:3), that between Sukkot and Hanukkah one does not recite the traditional formula over the first fruits (Bikkurim 1:6), that communal fasts are impermissible on Hanukkah – or, at least, they must be cut short (Taanit 2:10), that the day features its own special Torah reading (Megillah 3:4, 6), that women may not wail on Hanukkah during a funeral, and must desist from crying out and clapping after the body has been interred (Moed Katan 3:9) and – most importantly! – that there is such a thing as a “Hanukkah candle”, and that it is supposed to be left outside the shopfront (Bava Kama 6:6). It’s not exactly the Shulchan Arukh already, but at least we’re getting somewhere.

Now, if this were to be an exhaustive analysis of Hanukkah in the early rabbinic literature (and it is most certainly not), I would next have to note all of the references to this festival in the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud, the halakhic midrashim, and maybe even some of the midrash aggadah. As it is, I’m going to skip straight to the Babylonian Talmud, and as much as I would love to append Rav Saadiah Gaon’s description of Hanukkah from his siddur (the first ever written, for all of the year), that will just have to wait for a later post.

So! What does the Talmud have to say?

The relevant passage can be found in Tractate Shabbat 21a-23b, and can be divided into four sections. The first section concerns the material from which the Hanukkah wicks and oil can be made, the second concerns the procedure whereby one lights the candles, the third concerns the nature of the festival itself, and the fourth constitutes a smattering of unrelated laws, found amongst discussions of other Shabbat-related and temple-related topics:

1. The substance of the wicks and the oil

The Talmud presents three opinions, together with rationalisations of all three. The opinions are those of Rav Huna, Rav Hisda, and either Rav Matana or Rav (the Talmud is unsure):

Rav Huna declares that the same wicks and oil that are forbidden on Shabbat (due, it would seem, to their inferior quality) are also forbidden on Hanukkah, whether the day in question is a Shabbat or a weekday;

Rav Hisda declares that the same wicks and oil that are forbidden on Shabbat are forbidden on Hanukkah, but only if the day in question is a Shabbat. On days of Hanukkah that are not Shabbat, one may use whatever he wants as a wick and as oil;

Rav (or Rav Matana) declares that the same wicks and oil that are forbidden on Shabbat are permissible on Hanukkah, both on weekdays and on Shabbat.

What is the logic? According to the Talmud, the dispute centres around two Hanukkah-related laws: whether or not it is necessary to repair the candle after it goes out, and whether or not it is permissible to use the light of the candle for something else – reading, for example.

We can therefore assume that Rav Huna permits both, and therefore forbids the use of low quality wicks and oil on a weekday (low quality means that they will go out easily, and one might forget to repair them), as well as on Shabbat (being allowed to use the light for reading might mean that you forget that it’s a Shabbat and fix them if they go out);

We can assume that Rav Hisda holds that it is not necessary to fix the candle if it goes out, and that he therefore permits the use of inferior products on the weekdays of the festival, but that he permits using the light for other activities, making them unsuitable for Shabbat;

Finally, we can assume that Rav (or Rav Matana) both denies the necessity of fixing the wick, and disallows the usage of the light for other activities. According to him, therefore, such products are permissible on Hanukkah irrespective of the day of the week.

What follows this discussion is a brief interlude, the point of which is that it is better to learn new things as a child than as an adult, followed by a meta-discussion on whether or not Rav’s (or Rav Matana’s) position is tenable. The overall conclusion of this section is… Wait, you were looking for a conclusion??

2. The procedure of lighting the candles

There are two discussions in this section, the first of which concerns the procedure by which the candles, themselves, are lit, and the second of which concerns the placement of the candelabrum (the hanukkiah):

The rabbis teach that the obligation of lighting candles on Hanukkah rests on the head of the household, who lights on behalf of his family. Nonetheless, those who are expedient (or those who beautify the commandments, depending on your favourite etymology of mehadrin) will light one candle for each member of the household. Those who are particularly expedient (mehadrin min hamehadrin) will do one of the two following things:

a) According to the school of Shammai, they will start by each lighting eight candles, then diminish the number by one every evening, lighting seven on the second night, six on the third and so on. The final night of Hanukkah, every member of the household lights a single candle;
b) According to the school of Hillel, they will start by each lighting a single candle, then increase the number by one every evening, lighting two candles on the second night, three on the third and so on. The final night of Hanukkah, every member of the household lights eight candles.

The Talmud goes on to discuss the nature of this particular dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, and their respective philosophical views. Here, as in most instances, the halakha follows the school of Hillel (although the Talmud doesn’t say so, and we are left – again – without a clear conclusion. You might have to get used to that).

The second discussion in this section concerns the placement of the hanukkiah, which – as we saw in the Mishna (Bava Kama 6:6) – needs to be public.

The rabbis teach that it is necessary to place the Hanukkah candle outside the house, on the doorstep. Should one live in an upper storey, one places it at a window that overlooks a public space. In times of danger, when one doesn’t wish to advertise the fact that one is lighting Hanukkah candles, one is allowed to place the hanukkiah inside, on a table. In agreement with the view expressed above by Rav/Rav Matana (that the Hanukkah candles cannot be used for any other purpose), an additional candle is necessary if one requires light, but a fireplace is considered sufficient for all but an important person (אדם חשוב).

At this particular juncture, you’re probably wondering the same thing that I’m wondering, and it’s nice to know that the rabbis are wondering this as well. In amongst all of these discussions, we haven’t once answered the most basic question of all, which is the question that the Talmud asks next: “מאי חנוכה”

3. What is Hanukkah – or, as I prefer to translate it, “What the hell is Hanukkah anyway?”

Given the incredible importance of this particular question, I feel that it is worthwhile to present what the Talmud says directly:

תנו רבנן בכ”ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה

The rabbis taught: On [ie: from] the 25th of Kislev, there are eight days of Hanukkah, on which it is forbidden to eulogise or to fast, since when the Greeks entered the sanctuary they contaminated all of the oil in the sanctuary, and when the Hasmonean monarchy prevailed and defeated them, they checked but could only find one container of oil, with only enough to burn for one day, lying with the seal of the high priest. A miracle occurred for them and they lit [the lamps] with it for eight days. A subsequent year, they established these [days] and they made them a festival with praise and thanksgiving [ימים טובים בהלל והודאה].

This, in a nutshell, has become the official Hanukkah story. We now have all of the key ingredients: the name, the date and the mythology. As with the story of the 72 sages who wrote the Septuagint, it is fascinating to see this one grow, but unlike that particular tale, we’ve very little to go on besides the sources that I’ve listed here. References within the Tosefta, the Palestinian Talmud and the midrash, as mentioned before, will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting the fact that the Talmud’s story doesn’t stop quite yet. So far as Hanukkah-related legislation is concerned, the Talmud continues by noting a variety of other laws, found over the next couple of pages.

These laws concern the placement of the candles (their height from the ground, as well as which side of the door they are to be placed at), the explicit impermissibility of using their light for any mundane activity (the example given is of counting money), the legality of using a Hanukkah candle in order to light another Hanukkah candle, the nature (and the number) of any blessings to be recited by those who are lighting them and those who are witnessing them being lit, and the extent of the obligation:

• Guests who are lodging overnight are obliged to light their own candles, according to Rabbi Sheshet, although Rabbi Zeira qualifies this assertion;
• Women are allowed to light their own candles, according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, as they also benefitted from the miracle;
• Deaf-mutes, people who are mentally incompetent and children are all disqualified – as they usually are.

So far as whether or not any or all of the laws mentioned here are still current, the development of the halakha is such that, were one to gain a true insight into the evolution of this festival, one would need to consult the traditional commentaries and meta-commentaries, compendia and responsa. That would best be left for another time, and to one with greater textual competence than myself.

Memory and Analysis

19 12 2011

I hear of feats of memory from time to time, such as the man who recited all of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and while such feats are beyond my skill (and patience), they are generally unimpressive. This morning, however, I read of a truly impressive feat of memory and skill, and I already balk at how best to comprehend it. A full description is provided by Mohan K.V., with an excellent summary by S at The Lumber Room.

From Panini to Ramanujan, India has had more than its fair share of brilliant individuals, although the feats performed by Dr R. Ganesh are sui generis. The only way that I can translate them into a culture similar to my own is by imagining the following:

A performer stands upon the stage; before him is his audience. As a feat, he must compose a poem on a theme to be determined by a random audience member, and do so in a strict metrical arrangement. What is more, he must compose this poem only one syllable at a time, and between each syllable, the audience member who suggested the theme must call out a syllable that he is not allowed to use next. He progresses in such a fashion until he has concluded the first line, at which point he is offered a new challenge. The new challenges mount up, between each of which (and without the aid of writing anything down) he must return to the original challenge and, in similar fashion, add another line to it. The challenges that are interspersed throughout include answering random questions from the audience, composing poems on specific themes (again, constrained by metre), adding lines to poems that are given to him, recognising the provenance of quotes that are called out from the audience, composing verse that contains specific sounds that are words in other languages but which must be included as morphemes in the speaker’s own tongue, and completing a magic square to certain specifications. This last challenge, like the first, is broken up and interspersed around others.

This all sounds like quite a mess, and I would have enough difficulty completing even the first of those tasks without being distracted by so much as one of the others. Apparantly, Dr. R. Ganesh is quite adept at this particular feat of memory, which is called an “avadhana“, and his ability to do it with one hundred parallel questions (a “shatavadhana”, instead of the traditional eight) has led to his being named a “Shatavadhani”.

Reading this got me to thinking about feats of memory in general, and it was but a small step from there to the world of the yeshiva in particular. I am reminded of a parlour trick, for want of a better term, that had some measure of popularity for a time. Known by many as “the pin trick”, it involved choosing a random tractate of the Talmud, opening it to a random page, and then placing a pin through one of the words: the person who was “performing”, so to speak, would be told the tractate, the page and the word, and would then disclose exactly which word it was going to go through on the other side of the page. In order to make the enormity of this feat clear, the Babylonian Talmud comprises a vast corpus of legal and dialectic literature, spanning almost 2,700 double-sided pages of unvocalised, unpunctuated Aramaic text. To perform a feat like this – and one which was looked down upon by many members of the establishment – it is necessary to have committed the entire Talmud to memory. Such a skill relies greatly on natural gifts, but is also an indication of an incredible time spent in the pursuit of Talmudic fluency.

While I am disinclined to minimise in any respect the performance of such a feat, if I were to say anything to its detriment I would note that it is uncreative. While it testifies to the practitioner’s incredible familiarity with the corpus, it says nothing at all for his comprehension. In that respect, more popular amongst many individuals (particularly in Lithuania) was the delivery of a pilpul: a Talmudic homily that linked together a large number of Talmudic discussions and meta-discussions, commentaries and super-commentaries. In many respects, this practice served the same purpose as the pin trick: to demonstrate the acumen of the “performer” by revealing his incredible feats of memorisation, and to show that he was possessed of a keen and analytical mind.

To demonstrate just how ingrained such attitudes are, within the Haredi world today, consider the following example. Just down the road from one of the yeshivot at which I studied in 2003 was a kindergarten. There were signs in the street around it, advertising it as a good place to send your children. Not one of the signs mentioned the conditions of the rooms, the quality of the equipment, the professionalism of the staff or even the rates. Instead, they all asked a simple question: “Do you want your sons to know Shas?”

Shas, which is an acronym for Shisha Sedarim (ששה סדרים, “six orders”), refers to the Babylonian Talmud. It is certainly no mistake to think that a young man need start (reasonably) early if he wishes to truly master this corpus, and must learn to work diligently in the process. While I applaud the enthusiasm of the parents, I do think that kindergarten might be a little bit too early.

During my time in yeshiva, I heard of young men who lived locally and who had completed Shas in time for their bar-mitzvah. While that was certainly rare, completing it in time for their twentieth birthday was not. What is more, there were a number of young men, ranged through their twenties and thirties, who appeared to know large sections of it off by heart. If I were to be cruel, I would say that they didn’t appear to know anything else.

There are a number of different sociological factors that come into play here. Central, in many respects, is the sense of loss that follows in the wake of the Shoah. Whole communities of learned, Torah-observant Jews were shuttled by the trainload to Chełmno and Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor, Majdanek and Auschwitz. Libraries, like the famed collection at the Chochmei Lublin yeshiva, were put to the torch. Despite the fact that more people are learning Torah today than have ever been learning Torah in the past, the sense that one needs to rebuild something is pervasive.

Secondarily to that, although intimately connected with it, is the success of the Lithuanian approach to Torah study. Between the death of Rabbi Moshe Sofer in 1839 and the outbreak of the first world war, there were over two hundred yeshivot in Hungary. In the minds of many people, however, the yeshivot of Lithuania and Poland (institutions like the Mir, Novaradok, Ponevezvh and Volozhin) were rabbinic institutions par excellence. The differences between the two styles of institution are noteworthy: while Hungarian yeshivot featured holidays during the year, allowing students to spend time away from the study hall, the Lithuanian yeshiva system emphasised the need for perennial learning. While the Hungarian yeshiva system had a focus on tutelage and regular examinations, the Lithuanian yeshiva system placed its focus on individual study with a study partner (a chavruta). While Hungarian rabbis were renowned for their cogent responses to legal questions, Lithuanian rabbis were renowned instead for their dialectic analysis and their feats of memory. Heads of Lithuanian yeshivot, as a general rule, did not decide on matters of law.

[If you are interested in reading more about Hungarian yeshivot, I append links to two excellent articles that appeared in Jewish History (1997): “On the Hungarian Yeshiva Movement“, by Rabbi Prof. Mordechai Breuer, and “Hungarian Yeshivot, Lithuanian Yeshivot and Joseph Ben-David“, by Prof. Shaul Stampfer.]

To all things, of course, there is a limit. Defining the uppermost boundary of Lithuanian analysis is the school of Brisk: a method of intense dialectical analysis that is likened by its detractors to chemistry. Its origins can be found in a collection of discourses on the Rambam’s Mishne Torah, composed by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who was the Rav at Brest-Litovsk in Belarus – “Brisk” in Yiddish. While the Rambam’s reliance on the Palestinian Talmud and other non-Babylonian sources is no secret, Reb Chaim Brisker’s attempts to align the Mishne Torah with the Babylonian Talmud resulted in a tremendously conceptual presentation of the halakha, breaking individual discussions in the halakhic literature into their constituent components and aiming at a philosophical appraisal of the Torah’s underlying mechanics. Those who oppose such an approach nonetheless recognise the greatness of his work, and a conceptual approach in non-Brisk circles, while it is not the norm, is also reasonably common.

Supporters of this school may see its true origins in the writings of Reb Chaim’s father, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), who penned a collection of analytical discourses on the Mishne Torah and on the Torah itself, entitled “Beis haLevi”. He was the great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim ben Yitzchak (“Chaim Volozhiner”), who founded the yeshiva in Volozhin and who was himself a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797). The methodology of the Vilna Gaon and of his disciples was one of extreme memorisation, and it is said of the Gaon (the Gra, as he is known) that if given the name of a Talmudic sage and the name of a chapter of the Talmud, he was able to declare the number of times the former appeared within the latter. In the school of Brisk, the two approaches of memorisation and analysis came to a head: two characteristics, while not always approved of in the extremes to which Reb Chaim Brisker took them, that are admired and striven for in the Ashkenazi Haredi world today.

The intensity and the devotion of these people, and the limits to which they have succeeded in memorising so vast a body of literature, are most certainly beyond the norm. One individual in our own age who has accomplished such a feat is haRav Ovadiah Yosef, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel and the spiritual leader of the Shas party. He has attained a degree of memorisation and fluency across the vast bulk of Jewish legal literature to an extent unparalleled since the Rambam himself. Nonetheless, his lack of analysis is one of the several factors (according to Dr Marc Shapiro, one of the major factors) in his being so disrespected by the Ashkenazi Haredi establishment. For those who model their education system on the Lithuanian yeshivot, analysis is as integral as memorisation.

For my part, I fear that the analysis in which they take such pride is in many respects as uncreative as the pin trick that so many of them disparaged. While it contributes a great deal to certain philosophical conceptualisations of the halakha, it does nothing in the realm of advancing Jewish legislation in practice. Like the shatavadhana of Dr R. Ganesh, it is impressive to behold, and a true testimony to the brilliance of he who can execute such feats of memory and analysis. Like the shatavadhana of Dr R. Ganesh, however, it remains no more than a performance.