10 04 2013

This haunting piece is “Moya”, the opening track on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 1999 EP, “Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada”. The image displayed is that of the album’s cover: two words in Hebrew, which are translated by the familiar King James Version as “without form, and void”. As a phrase, it appears both in Genesis 1:2 and in Jeremiah 4:23. Both are descriptions of the earth at the beginning of creation, but the second text also alludes to what the world will be like for a time after God brings destruction upon it.

To which of these texts was the post-rock band alluding? Cleverly (if perhaps unintentionally), to both of them.

The inside of the record jacket includes the text from Jeremiah 4:23-27 in both Hebrew and English, putting the passage into its apocalyptic and eschatological context. A context, I should add, that is most fitting for this and for all of their other albums as well. But the te’amim (the trope signs) on the album cover are those of Genesis 1:2. Had they intended the cover to allude to Jeremiah 4:23, they would have utilised a tifcha under the first word and an atnachta under the second. Since they utilised instead two pashtin above the first word and a zaqef qatan above the second, the passage from which they were copying out their text was from Genesis instead.

If they meant to allude to Jeremiah, why did they copy the words from Genesis? Is it possible that they knew what they were doing, and that they were deliberately alluding to both? If so, I like to assume that they were also aware of the fact that they had included a small circle above the /heh/, which is not part of the te’amim at all. It’s a masoretic notation, found within the Leningrad Codex and other representatives of the MT (such as, as is more likely, the BHS) and it serves to direct the reader to a corresponding gloss in the margin.

The marginal gloss for this phrase features a single letter, ב, which represents the number 2. This means that the phrase in question occurs twice within the biblical literature – the second instance, of course, being Jeremiah 4:23. Copying the te’amim from Genesis and including the circle is both the smartest and the subtlest way that they could have alluded to both passages simultaneously. I really hope that they intended to do so.


Bnei Noach

12 11 2012

The Shulchan Arukh (OC 328:14) rules that if a person is sick on Shabbat and needs meat, it is better to slaughter an animal for them than to feed them an animal that wasn’t slaughtered according to the halakha. This, despite the fact that slaughtering an animal on Shabbat is a far graver violation than consuming non-kosher meat.

There are several reasons for this, the one in the Tur being that,by a sick person, Shabbat is like a weekday. The mechaber’s reason, which he mentions in his Bet Yosef (ibid.), is that it is better to commit a one-off violation than it is to commit frequent violations, even when those frequent violations are of a lesser order. Although there were scholars before the Tur who expressed the same halakha (notably the Rosh and the Mordekhai), this particular reason for it is attributed by the Bet Yosef to Rabbeinu Nissim (“the Ran”; Yoma 4b, s.v. וגרסינן), who holds that when eating non-kosher meat one is in violation of the halakha with every olive-sized mouthful.

Although the Ran doesn’t quote them, the actual origins of this principle appear to lie in the writings of the Baalei haTosafot (Daat Zkeinim, Genesis 12:11), in their resolution of a problem posed by an 11th century French scholar and friend of Rashi’s family, R’ Yosef Qera. According to R’ Yosef, the reason that Avraham feared for his life when going down to Egypt was that the Egyptians, as bnei Noach, were forbidden from committing adultery. Since his wife, Sarah, was so beautiful, perhaps they will kill him in order that one of them might marry her?

As the Tosafot point out, bnei Noach were also warned about murder. Why would Avraham think that they would violate a more serious prohibition in order that they might not violate the milder one? Their resolution, which is subsequently quoted by both the Rosh and the Chizkuni in their commentaries on the Torah, is that it is better to transgress a serious prohibition once than it is to transgress a mild prohibition several times.

If I am correct in supposing that the origins of this idea lie in the writings of the Tosafot, and that it was their resolution that influenced the halakha of the Ran, then we have in our Shulchan Arukh a ruling that (at least according to its author) is learnt out, not “from Sinai”, but through the postulated behaviour of Egyptians.

Additions to my Shelf

5 07 2012

This should be an ongoing series: books that I add to my collection.

For all I know, I’m the only person who reads these particular posts, but for my own edification, the following are the books that I have acquired since last writing about the state of my library:


Torah, and Torah-Related:

• The Kedushas Levi of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, disciple of the Maggid and of one of his disciples, Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg;

• The Yismach Moshe of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, great-great-grandfather of the Satmar Rebbe and the rebbe of Ujhely, in Hungary. The Yismach Moshe was a disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak (“the Seer”) of Lublin, himself a disciple of the Maggid and of two of the Maggid’s other disciples: Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk;

• The Kedushas Yom-Tov of Rabbi Hananiah Yom-Tov Lipa Teitelbaum, the father of the Satmar Rebbe and the rebbe of Sighet, in Hungary;

• Something I had never seen before! Known as HaMe’orot haGedolim, this is structured like a Miqra’ot Gedolot: a passage of text on the upper right-hand side, a number of commentaries around it. This time, however, instead of featuring commentaries on Torah or Nach, it features the Torah with Rashi (and Onkelos) and eleven different super-commentaries on Rashi:

1. Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (the “Re’em“. His commentary is referred to as “Mizrachi”);
2. Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (the “Maharal“. His commentary is titled “Gur Aryeh”);
3. Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe (the “Levush“. His commentary is titled “Levush ha’Orah”);
4. Rabbi Shabbetai Bass (the “Siftei Chachamim“, which is the title of his commentary);
5. Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo haLevi Bukrat (His commentary is titled “Sefer haZikaron”);
6. Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the “Maharshal“. His commentary is titled “Yeriot Shlomo”);
7. Rabbi Moshe Mat, a disciple of the Maharshal. (His commentary is titled “Ho’il Moshe”);
8. Rabbi Yissachar Ber Eilenberg. (His commentary is titled “Tzidah leDerekh”);
9. Rabbi Yaakov Solnik, son of Rabbi Binyamin Solnik. (His commentary is titled “Nachalat Yaakov”);
10. Rabbi David Pardo. (His commentary is titled “Maskil leDavid”);
11. Rabbi Meir Binyamin Menachem Donun. (His commentary is titled “Be’er beSadeh”).

• Rabbi Shaul Lieberman‘s incredible Tosefta and Tosefta kiPheshuta. A critical edition of the Tosefta together with an extensive commentary (and one that demonstrates the author’s truly phenomenal knowledge of the rabbinic literature), the project was unfortunately never finished. It is complete for the first three divisions of the Tosefta (Zeraim, Moed and Nashim), and includes the first tractate of the fourth division (Nezikin [= Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra]), which was published posthumously. Altogether, it runs to twelve impressive volumes;

• A new and updated version of the Shemirat Shabbat keHilkheta, by Rabbi Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth, disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. This is the definitive exposition of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s treatment of Shabbat;

• Rabbi Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Character, Context and Creativity: The Second Temple Period (trans. M. Prawer; Connecticut: Maggid Books, 2010);

• Rabbi Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Character, Context and Creativity: From Yavneh to the Bar Kokhba Revolt (trans. I. Kurshan; Connecticut: Maggid Books, 2011);

• Rav Shlomo Lorincz, In Their Shadow: Wisdom and Guidance of the Gedolim (Vol. I; trans. Y. Rosenblum; Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2011). Rav Shlomo Lorincz was an MK for Agudat Yisrael, and a close confidante of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (the “Chazon Ish“), Rabbi Yitzhak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (the “Brisker Rov“) and Rabbi Elazar Shach. This first volume constitutes brief biographies of, and his reminiscences of, those three individuals;

• Rav Shlomo Lorincz, In Their Shadow: Wisdom and Guidance of the Gedolim (Vol. II; trans. M. Musman; Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2011). This volume constitutes brief biographies of, and the authors reminiscences of, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, Rav Yaakov Yechezkiyahu Greenwald (the Pupa Rebbe), Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, Rav Aharon Rokach (the Belzer Rebbe), Rav Akiva Sofer, Rav Avraham Yaakov Friedman (the Sadigerer Rebbe), Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld (the Tchebiner Rav) and Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (the Kopitshnitzer Rebbe);

• Rav Shlomo Lorincz, In Their Shadow: Wisdom and Guidance of the Gedolim (Vol. III; trans. M. Musman; Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2011). This volume constitutes brief biographies of, and the authors reminiscences of, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (the Ponevezher Rav), Rav Eliyahu Lopian, Rav Moshe Yechiel Epstein (the Ozhrover Rebbe), Rav Chaim Meir Hager (the Vizhnitzer Rebbe), Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, Rav Yisrael Alter (the Gerrer Rebbe), Rav Yoel Teitelbaum (the Satmar Rebbe), Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (the Klausenberger Rebbe) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach;

• Rabbi Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb (ed.), Koren Talmud Bavli: Berakhot (Jerusalem: Koren, 2012). I shall write more about this one later!


Shoah, and Shoah-Related:

• Bartrop, P.R. and S.L. Jacobs (eds.) Fifty Key Thinkers on the Holocaust and Genocide (London: Routledge, 2011);

• Feller, R. and S. Feller, Silent Witnesses: Civilian Camp Money of World War II (Ohio: BNR Press, 2007);

• Friedländer, S. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997);

• Friedländer, S. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2007);

• Gilbert, M. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (New York: Henry Holt, 1987);

• Gilbert, M. The Macmillan Atlas of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1982);

• Hilberg, R. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992);

• Hilberg, R. The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996);

• Lowy, A. I Am a Survivor (Sydney Jewish Museum, 2011).


From the library of Heinz Bohm, z”l:

• Aharoni, Y. and M. Avi-Yonah. The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1976);

• Alcalay, R. The Complete English-Hebrew Dictionary (2 vols; Jerusalem: Massada, 1970);

• Alcalay, R. The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary (Jerusalem: Massada, 1970);

• Albright, W.F. From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process (Anchor Books, 1957);

• Amiran, R. Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land: From its Beginnings in the Neolithic Period to the End of the Iron Age (Rutgers University Press, 1970);

• Coggins, R.J. The Cambridge Bible Commentary: The First and Second Books of the Chronicles (Cambridge University Press, 1976);

• Crim, K. (ed.) The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia: Supplementary Volume (Tennessee: Abingdon, 1976);

• Dawidowicz, L. (ed.) The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (New York: Schocken Books, 1987);

• Heschel, A.J. The Prophets (New York: JPS, 1962);

• Koestler, A. The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage (London: Pan Books, 1977);

• Levi, E. משנה מפורשת: מסכת ברכות (Tel Aviv: Sinai);

• Sadek, V., J. Šedinová and J. Macht. Pražské Ghetto (Prague: Olympia, 1991);

• Salfellner, H. Franz Kafka and Prague (Prague: Vitalis, 2002);

• Schüller, E.L. Hebrew Ballads and Other Poems (trans. and ed. A. Durschlag and J. Litman-Demeestère; Philadelphia: JPS, 1980);

• Simon, S. יהושוע און שופטים (New York: Farlag Matones, 1952);

• Thomas, D.W. (ed.) Archaeology and Old Testament Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967);

The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, With an English Translation; and with Various Readings and Critical Notes (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1976);

Hilkhot Talmud Torah, with the glosses of the Raavad and the commentary of the Kesef Mishna (Jerusalem: Eshkol, 1968).

Online Torah Resources

4 07 2012

As the days turn to weeks and the weeks to months, I realise that this is the longest I have ever been away from my blog. In truth, I have been very busy.

In addition to everything else (preparing classes, teaching classes, slamming my head repeatedly against the desk, etc), I’ve been setting aside time each day to learn some Mishna. As it is, I’ve now worked through all eleven tractates of the first division, about six or seven times each, and am halfway through Masekhet Shabbat: the first tractate of the second division, “Moed”. My original plan was to then compile a breakdown called Rabbinic Agricultural Law, separated into neat categories, with an appendix noting every halakhic opinion (both stated and inferred), arranged alphabetically in accordance with its source. On closer consideration, I decided that if I were to be omitting the Yerushalmi, the Bavli’s treatment of these passages and their ‘related’ toseftot, the Rambam and all of the various mefarshim on the Mishna (not to mention the various codes, from Or Zarua to the Arukh haShulchan heAtid), then my title might be something of a misnomer.

Settling instead for Tannaitic Agricultural Law, I next demurred at the prospect that I’d need (at the very least) to also cover these tractates in the Tosefta, and any relevant passages in the halakhic midrashim. Not to worry: I shall call it Mishnaic Agricultural Law instead! An excellent idea and an exciting project, were it not for the simple fact that I am almost certainly going to encounter relevant material in the subsequent fifty-two tractates of the Mishna, and so such a project is best left off until I’ve finished the entire corpus.

It was a good idea at the time.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some excellent Torah resources (some old, some new) that I have discovered online:

• I have long been a great fan of the DAF (“Dafyomi Advancement Forum”). If you click the tab that says “Talmud” in the menu on the left, you can then choose the tractate that you are studying, click on the tab marked “Point by Point Summary”, and then choose a page number. This is the Point by Point Summary of Masekhet Shabbat, by way of an example. If you play around with the site, you will find a number of other useful tools there as well;

• Rav Nissan Kaplan is the mashgiach ruchani at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. As I’ve had occasion to mention already, his website (incongruously called “Daf Yomi Review“) contains a remarkable collection of mussar schmuessen and halakha shiurim, and more. If that’s your kind of thing of course;

• A friend and old yeshiva colleague of mine is working on a tool for helping people study Daf Yomi. With one cycle coming soon to a conclusion and another one about to begin (not to mention, with ArtScroll’s latest monstrosity soon to hit the virtual shelves), their timing is excellent. Check it out: it’s called The Mercava;

• Mordechai Torczyner, all on his lonesome, has created (and is still creating) a truly remarkable index of topics in the Talmud. It’s called WebShas, and I encourage you to have a look! I typed in “oxen”, on a whim, and it gave me this page on “Zoology“;

• Lastly, although by no means least, I would like to draw your attention to Mi Yodeya. This is an example of a Stack Exchange: a Q&A website, where anybody can ask questions and all can answer them. You can find me there under “Shimon bM”, asking and answering away.

So that’s it, folks. I hope to be able to write again soon – at the very least, in order to report on the new Koren translation of Masekhet Berakhot, about which I have very mixed feelings.


14 12 2011

Ever wonder why it was necessary to bless somebody after they sneeze? Then wonder no longer!

מופת רביעי מיום שנבראו שמים וארץ לא היה אדם חולה אלא אם היה בדרך או בשוק היה עוטש והיתה נשמתו יוצאת מנחיריו עד שבא יעקב אבינו בקש על זאת רחמים ואמר לפניו רבון כל העולמים אל תקח את נפשי ממני עד שאצוה את בני ואת בני ביתי ונעתר לו שנאמר ויהי אחר הדברים האלה ויאמר ליוסף הנה אביך חלה ושמעו הדברים כל מלכי הארץ ותמהו שלא היה כמותו מיום שנבראו שמים וארץ לפיכך חיב אדם לומר בעטישתו חיים שנהפך המות הזה לאור שנאמר עטישתו תהל אור

This section, which is taken from a midrash called Pirqei deRebi Eliezer (§52), contains a list of seven wonders that were wrought for various of the characters in the Bible. The first wonder was Abraham’s surviving being placed in a fiery furnace, which (according to a midrashic tradition) was where King Nimrod confined him. The second wonder was Sarah’s conceiving and delivering a baby at ninety years of age. The third wonder was in Abraham’s casting aside the appearance of great age, which is deduced from a midrashic tradition that has him appear physically identical to his son, Isaac.

The fourth wonder: from the time that the skies and the land were created, no man had ever been sick. Rather, one would be walking on the road or in a market when he would sneeze and his soul would fly out of his nostrils. Then Jacob came along and requested mercy for this. He said, “Lord of all Worlds, do not take my soul from me until I have commanded my sons and the people of my household.” It was acceded to him, as it says, “And it was after these things that he said to Joseph, Look: your father is sick” (Genesis 48:5). All the kings of the earth heard these things and they were astounded, for there had been nothing like since the day that the skies and the land had been created. Therefore, one is obligated to say “Life!” when somebody sneezes, for such a death has been transformed to light – as it says [in relation to the Leviathan], “Its sneezes flash light” (Job 41:10; v18 in English Bibles).

The fifth wonder was the parting of the sea for the Israelites, the sixth was the stilling of the sun and the moon in the days of Joshua, and the seventh was the recovery of King Hezekiah. None, however, are so great as this: that in the merit of Jacob, our forefather, God caused people’s souls to cease flying out of their nostrils the moment they sneezed.

Bless you.

All Together Now

5 12 2011

Are you a true Beatles fan? Can you think of nothing better than sitting at home and listening to every single one of their songs? Do you have somewhere you have to be in nine minutes? Then this sound file is for you! Put together by “ramjac”, whose full list of shared creations is available on SoundCloud, the following constitutes every single song that the Beatles ever recorded… performed simultaneously.

The start times are staggered so that the songs can all end at the same time, and you need only click the little speech bubble in the bottom righthand corner if you want to hide the comments that other listeners have appended to the track. Enjoy!


6 11 2011

The following is an absolutely incredible example of Nazi propaganda, drawn to my attention recently by a friend:

The poster was designed by a Norwegian cartoonist named Harald Damsleth, and was produced in 1944. The Dutch writing at the bottom reads, “De USA zullen de Europeesche Kultuur van den ondergang redden”. I am told that this means, “The USA will save the European culture from ruin”. It is hard to see it in the picture, but the writing around the midriff states “JITTERBUG – Triumph of Civilization”. If you click on it, you can zoom in for higher definition. I do not think that the Hebrew writing is actually Hebrew writing, but was unable to find a clearer image than this one. A smaller, albeit colour version can be seen here.

How many anti-American tropes can you spot?