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?

An Elusive Midrash

9 10 2011

Not so long ago now, I found myself teaching a four-week course on the development of the Kabbalah. Not my area of expertise (an understatement, to say the least), I found it necessary to bury my head in some wonderful literature by the likes of Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby – not to mention getting stuck into some truly fascinating passages from the Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Sefer haZohar, etc. As Rosh haShana was coming up, I also sought to tie in some material each week that pertained to the contributions made by the Kabbalists to the development of this festival and their interpretations of it. In researching that particular component of the topic, I happened to alight upon the following midrash, recorded in a recent acquisition of mine, entitled חגי ישראל:

חכמינו מסבירים: בראש השנה, שהוא יום הדין, מתעוררים הכחות המבקשים להרע לישראל ולהרשיעם בדין. אומר להם הקדוש-ברוך-הוא: לכו והביאו עדים לאשור דבריכם. הולך השטן ומביא את השמש הצופה על כל מעשי האדם, שתבוא ותעיד. רוצה הוא להביא גם אם הלבנה (הירח), שתעיד אף היא, כי צריך שני עדים לאשור דבר. והולכת הלבנה ומתכסית ומסתתרת. ומכיון שהשטן אינו מוצא שני עדים שיאשרו את דבריו, אין טענותיו מתקבלות
– חגי ישראל, p110

Before I translate this midrash, it’s worth noting a curious feature of Rosh haShana, and one that distinguishes it from the other festivals. Hebrew months (which, unlike months in the Gregorian calendar, are not simply divisions of the year) are synodic. That is, they represent the length of time between one new moon and the next. Jewish festivals tend to occur either in the middle of the month, when the moon is at its fullest, or towards the end of the month, as the moon is waning. Pesach occurs on the 15th of Nisan, Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishrei, Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei, Simchat Torah on the 23rd of Tishrei, Hanukkah on the 25th of Kislev, and Purim on the 14th of Adar. The only other festival to come close to the beginning of the month is Shavuot, which occurs on the 6th of Sivan, at a time when the moon is a sliver. But Rosh haShana, to which the psalmist is traditionally believed to be referring in Psalms 81:4, is the day of the moon’s utter concealment.

I translate the midrash that I quoted above as follows:

Our sages explain: On Rosh haShana, which is the day of judgment, the powers that seek to harm Israel and to cause them mischief in judgment are aroused. The Holy One (blessed is he) says to them, “Go and bring witnesses to confirm your words!” The adversary (the “Satan”) goes and brings the sun, who watches over all the deeds of man, that she might come and bear witness. He also wants to bring the moon, that she might testify as well, for one requires two witnesses to confirm a matter. But the moon goes and conceals herself and hides herself away. Since the adversary cannot find two witnesses who will confirm his words, his claims are not received.

Truly fascinating, and yet – like so many of the midrashim recorded in this excellent book – there is no source! So, guessing that the actual midrash in question most probably quotes Psalms 81:4, I whipped out my copy of Torah haKetuvah vehaMesorah, which was gifted to me by my excellent friend, Rivqa. Under this verse, the following sources are listed:

Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 16a;
Babylonian Talmud, Rosh haShana 8a, 11a-b, 34a;
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11b, 96b;
Tosefta, Rosh haShana 1:10;
Mekhilta deRebi Ishmael, Bo 14;
Leviticus Rabba 29:6;
Tanchuma Bo 9;
Pesiqta deRav Qahana 152b, 154a;
Pesiqta Rabbati 40;
Pirqei deRebi Eliezer 7;
Yalqut Shimoni I:177, 210, 645, 646, 782, 860;
Yalqut Shimoni II:278, 419, 436, 534, 831, 923, 1071;
Sheiltot deRav Ahai Gaon Bo 46;
Zohar I:114b;
Zohar II:135b, 184a, 267b;
Zohar III:86a, 98b, 100b, 121b, 231b, 275a.

It is with great pleasure that I am able to declare that every single one of these texts is in my bedroom, and it was with great pleasure that I devoted a full hour to trying to discover which of them contained this particular midrash. Would you believe it? It was the very last one on the list. Rosh haShana may be over for another year, but the midrash in question is so interesting that I thought I would share it. This is how it appears in the Zohar, together with my translation:

ולא עוד אלא שמשא וסיהרא סהדין על בר נש כמה דאוקמוה תקעו בחדש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו מאי בכסה ביומא דסיהרא מתכסת ואמאי מתכסת בגין דכד מטי ראש השנה יתי סמ”אל למתבע דינא לבנוי קמי קדשא בריך הוא והוא ימא לה דיתי סהדין והוא יתי לשמשא עמה אזל לאיתי סיהרא והיא מתכסית באן אתר מתכסת אלא סליקת לההוא אתר דאתמר בה במכוסה ממך אל תחקור לפיסא לה על בנהא

Not only this, but even the sun and the moon testify against a person, as they established: “Blow the shofar at the start of the month, at the concealment, on the day of our festival”. What does “at the concealment” mean? On the day when the moon is concealed. And why is the moon concealed? Because as soon as Rosh haShana arrives, Samael comes to indict his children before the Holy One, blessed is he, and he tells him to bring witnesses, so he brings the sun with him. He goes to bring the moon, but she is hidden. Where is she hidden? She has gone up to that place, of which it is said, “Do not investigate that which is concealed from you”, in order to conciliate him concerning her children.
– Zohar III:275a

In the original version, as you can see, the adversary is Samael and not the Satan, although the role that he plays is the same. If you are interested, the Jewish Encylopedia has an article on him. For my part, I find far more interesting the quote that is employed, concerning the place to which the moon has gone.

במכוסה ממך אל תחקור (“Do not investigate that which is concealed from you”) may appear to be a straight quote from the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 13a. In fact, in my version of the Zohar al-haTorah (published in three volumes by Mossad haRav Kook), it is Hagigah 13a that is listed as the source. But if you consult this particular source, you will find that the full quote is במופלא ממך אל תדרוש ובמכוסה ממך אל תחקור (“Do not seek out that which is too wondrous for you, nor investigate that which is concealed from you”). Are you curious? It’s not from the Hebrew Bible, but from Ben Sirach 3:21.

Given that a major part of my focus during this course was on the ways in which the “apocryphal” literature resurfaced in the Kabbalah, this was a real find. We witnessed the emergence of the Enoch traditions and their utilisation in the Heikhalot of Rabbi Ishmael, and we considered the possible role of the calendar from Jubilees in the very early mystical literature. It seems a curious feature of the kabbalistic tradition that it came to serve as a storage house (a metaphysical geniza, of sorts) for all that was marginalised and rejected. It is likewise a curious feature of this tradition that it was to internalise the anti-mystical tendencies of halakhic Judaism, even after its normativisation in the 16th century, and to develop a certain anti-mysticism of its own. Before that could happen, and long before the extreme popularisation of the Kabbalah under the aegis of the Hasidic movement, texts like the Zohar were to straddle both worlds.

On the one hand, they serve as a veritable cornucopia of the esoteric and the bizarre. They feature characters and traditions from the farthest flung reaches of unorthodox Jewish thought, and reference on more than one occasion books that are well outside the established rabbinic tradition. On the other hand, however, they are closed books to all save the initiated, amongst whom I cannot even begin to imagine including myself. By closing themselves off from the eyes of outsiders (a tradition that I believe originated with the prophetic guilds, during the movement from prophecy to apocalyptic), they not only internalised the ban on studying mystical matters, but they testified to the need for such a ban in the first place. It is ironic that Ben Sirach’s warning against investigating that which is hidden and obscure (a warning which finds its parallel in Deuteronomy 29:28) should have been utilised in a text that, to all intents and purposes, could have constituted the subject of the warning itself.

Nowhere to Sleep

27 09 2011

As per the title of this post, I have had to start putting books on my bed. This is becoming a problem. And yet, when I walked into shul yesterday afternoon (a kid whose bar-mitzvah is coming up wanted to “interview” me about his parasha, vaYeitze), I couldn’t help but ransack three boxes of old books that were on their way to the Chevra Kadisha for burial. The things that people just throw away.

Because I know how much you like to read about my acquisitions (you do, don’t you?), I have decided to share.

The above box, which is about 32cm in length, sports a depiction of two lions atop two pillars, holding between them a crown. Alongside the crown are the letters כ and ת, for כתר תורה (“Crown of the Torah”). Between the two pillars is a quote from Deuteronomy 4:44 – וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל. At the bottom, a declaration that this is the product of an Israeli publishing house called Sinai. What might be inside?

It’s a scroll! As you can see from the picture, the actual scroll itself is only about 25cm in height. It is, of course, machine-printed and on paper, though the paper is quite thick and soft. The garment in which it is clothed is fraying, but the scroll itself appears to have suffered no damage at all. The depiction is of the tablets of the law, numbered from א to י, with a crown above them and, again, the letters כ and ת. The inscription beneath the tablets reads מזכרת ירושלים, meaning “a remembrance of Jerusalem”, in which Jerusalem has been spelt in accordance with rabbinic orthography (ירושלים, not ירושלם). Below is an image of the scroll itself.

As you can see, it is in excellent condition, and entirely legible. I reproduce a somewhat more magnified portion below:

Because I don’t want to fiddle too much with unrolling and rerolling it, I didn’t look through too much of the text. I did check to see whether Leviticus 1:1 featured a small aleph at the end of the first word (it did), and I did confirm that Exodus 15 was typeset as “brickwork”. I would have liked to look at Deuteronomy 32 as well (although I have every reason to suppose that it will be presented in columns), and would especially like to confirm that the ketivim are all written as ketivim, the inverted-nunim are to be found in their appropriate places, and there are dots above the correct letters, etc. Perhaps another time.

In the meantime, this is a most sensational find, and while I am sure that such things can be acquired at (reasonably) minimal expense, I am gobsmacked that it would have been so casually thrown away. Who could simply bury such a thing?

Secondary to the scroll, I also acquired another two siddurim. One beautiful little pocket siddur, titled שפת אמת, was printed in Warsaw in 1927. Another, beautifully ornate and hardcover siddur, printed in London in 1864, features the Hebrew text (נוסח פולין) and a translation into English by Rabbi Abraham Pereira Mendes. Titled “Daily Prayers”, this volume is also replete with halakhic and ritual notations from Rabbi Ya’akov Lorberbaum‘s דרך החיים.

On the subject of law, I nabbed an English translation of the קיצור שלחן ערוך (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh). I have two copies of the Kitzur in my room: one with glosses from the Shulchan Arukh haRav, and one with glosses from the Mishne Berurah. This translation dates from 1927, and was composed by Hyman Goldin, in New York.

Likewise, on the subject of historical curios (if these volumes count as historical curios), I grabbed three works by celebrated historians and social critics:

• Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews: Vol. I. This volume spans from the patriarchs until the death of Simon the Maccabee (c.135 BCE), and was printed in 1891, the year of Graetz’s death. It was translated by Bella Löwy;

• Hilaire Belloc, The Jews. There are many fly spots on this volume (which is a first edition, published 1922), but the pages are of cloth, as all pages should be. Belloc was infamous at times for having possibly been an antisemite (that word, it seems, was no less frequently bandied about before the Shoah), though there appears to be little within this particular text that could possibly substantitate that. His seventh chapter, “The Anti-Semite”, when one considers the year of publication, is frighteningly prescient;

• Max Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People. Spanning from the patriarchs until the opening of the Hebrew University in 1925, and despite occasional moments of silliness as when the authors remark upon the development of the “Cabala” with no real understanding of the kabbalistic literature (I blame them not; the world was different before Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends), their breadth of knowledge is inspiring. Nonetheless, despite concluding with a mention of the publication of the infamous Protocols, and the fact that people in Germany and Austria are beginning to unite “with the swastika as their badge”, the sanguine tone with which they conclude their volume is frighteningly unprescient.

And speaking of the Shoah, as I very nearly was, somebody else (whose name is in the front of it, but whom I won’t embarrass by mentioning) threw away a beautiful and heartbreaking book, entitled “The Children We Remember”. The author is Chana Byers Abells, and the photographs therein are all from the archives at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. A children’s book, if you can believe it, this volume features photographs of European Jewish children in the years immediately prior to the Shoah, as well as in the ghettos and in Christian homes, in hiding. In one instance there is even a (somewhat famous) photo of a woman clutching her baby in the moments before an officer with a rifle took off their heads. Do people really show these things to their children? I thought that my education was explicit.

To happier things! I also took three other volumes of pictures – two of photographs, and one by illustration:

• Franz Hubmann, The Jewish Family Album: Yesterday’s World in Old Photographs. After an introduction, pages 17-79 are of the ghettos and the shtetls in the years before the Shoah; pages 79-225 are of “the emancipated” (with photos from Vienna, Prague, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin, as well as of the Rothschilds and “the world of film”); pages 225-271 are of “the New World”; and pages 271-317 are of Palestine before and under the British Mandate;

• Published by the Old Yishuv Court Museum in Jerusalem, חצר הישוב הישן: Old Yishuv Court is a lovely collection of photographs of Palestinian Jews of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi descent (the musta’arabim), as well as some interesting pictures of Palestinian synagogues from before the state;

• Gustave Doré, תנ”ך בתמונות: The Bible in Pictures. With 140 illustrations taken from books of the Tanakh (as well as, most interestingly, I Maccabees, II Maccabees, Judith and Susanna!), this is another wonderful volume in excellent condition that should really never be thrown away. For a sample of Doré’s beautiful work, the Wikipedia article has some lovely selections. The copy that I have is hardcover, embossed with an image of Moses descending the mountain with the tablets of law in his hand, and was published in 1954 by Sinai.

It is a curious fact of Jewish life that nobody really knows, nor ever has really known, which books can be discarded and which must be buried. I can understand somebody deciding that they no longer want a particular text, but to assume (for no other reason than the fact that its content touches somehow upon Judaism or Jewish history) that it should go to the Chevra for burial is absurd. Not that I am complaining, of course. Were people more in the know, the vast bulk of the Cairo Geniza would have disappeared centuries ago, and my room would have more walking space in it today. For “academic” purposes (although, of what precise benefit these texts will be, I don’t know), I also took the following items, only one of which possibly falls into the category of “sacred literature”:

• William Foxwell Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (London, 1960);

• Yigael Yadin, The Message of the Scrolls (London, 1959);

• Fritz Reuter, Warmaisa: 1000 Jahre Juden in Worms (Worms, 1984). It was my growing interest in mediaeval Ashkenaz which inspired me to take this one, and it will hopefully be my growing interest in mediaeval Ashkenaz that sees me able to read it before too long;

• חגי ישראל: חלק א. The first volume of a two-part series by an Israeli organisation that neither wanted to disclose their name, the place in which they published it, nor the year in which they saw fit to do so. This volume deals with the laws of Shabbat, Rosh haShana, Yom haKippurim, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Chanukka and Tu biShevat.

It remains for me now only to mention what appears to be a tremendously entertaining read, written by (Rabbi) John S. Levi and George F.J. Bergman, entitled Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers, 1788-1850. I had the very good pleasure of listening to Rabbi Levi last year, when he presented a lecture in Sydney on the history of non-Orthodox Judaism in Australia. The first “home-grown” Australian rabbi, he impressed me with his breadth of knowledge no less than his wit. The history of Australian Judaism is not something for which I usually care, although I found myself intrigued with his presentation and look forward to reading his book. Chapter headings include “The Honest Jew of Parramatta”, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang”, “The Redemption of Sydney Sam” and “The Jewboy Bushranger and Family”. I love a good yarn.

And if I had to choose between these sixteen acquisitions and a place to rest my head? I can always sleep on the couch.

Damn You, Spammers

27 09 2011

I don’t get many comments on this blog, but an increasing number of them are from spambots who wish to offers me pills to increase my height (unless I am misreading something), photos of “nubile teens” (does the word “nubile” even exist in a non-porn context anymore?), and congratulatory remarks for having written a “ssenbational artilcle”, or for being the “enemy of conffusion”. As a result, future comments from unknown personages are going to be withheld until I can approve them. It seems that the sins of the few must inconvenience the ever-so-slightly more than a few.

Should anybody wish to contact me directly, I can be reached at…
Hmm. Maybe another time.


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