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JTS Booksale December 2015


Lashon Hakodesh: History, Holiness, and Hebrew


Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein was kind enough to send me a copy of his most recent book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew. Rabbi Klein has done an admirable job of presenting the multi-faceted history of the Hebrew language within Jewish tradition and culture. This is not a critical history of the Hebrew language, for that I would recommend either Angel Sáenz-Badillos’s A History of the Hebrew Language (which is cited by Klein) or Joel Hoffman’s In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language. Klein’s book does contain a lot about the history of the Hebrew language, but I think that this book addresses other questions.

A look at the table of contents will give you some idea of the issues that are addressed by this book.

Chapter 1. The Language of Adam
Chapter 2. The Tower of Babel
Chapter 3. Abraham the Hebrew
Chapter 4. The Jews in Egypt
Chapter 5. Replacing Lashon Hakodesh
Chapter 6. The Language Wars
Chapter 7. Foreign Influences on Lashon Hakodesh
Chapter 8. Development of Aramaic


Appendix A: The Scripts of Lashon HaKodesh
Appendix B: Egyptian Names in the Bible
Appendix C: Prayers in Aramaic
Appendix D: Maharal on Aramaic and Lashon HaKodesh

The discussion of any of the topics in Klein’s book is comprehensive and filled with a copious amount of sources from traditional Jewish literature ranging from the Talmud and Midrash, traditional parshanut (interpretation), halakhic and responsa literature, and works of Jewish thought and philosophy. All throughout the book Klein also brings modern scholarship about Hebrew, referring to the research of such scholars as Gilad Zuckerman and Gary Rendsberg.

In addition to enjoying all of the information and sources that are found in Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew, I think that I can say that I had two important takeaways from this book.

The first is how important the Hebrew language has been for traditional Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities. Whether it was thinking about which language was spoken in the Garden of Eden or what was the script (Ancient Hebrew or Aramaic) of the Ten Commandments that Moses received at Mount Sinai, it was an important question that had to be addressed. The second takeaway, and in my opinion the more important one, is how intertwined language and identity have been throughout Jewish history. Whether it was which languages Jews at any given moment were speaking, writing, or reading, or which languages they weren’t speaking, writing, or reading, be it because of ideology or history, these helped shape both who we have been and often who we would like to be.

Valmadonna Trust Library to be Broken Up and Sold

The rumors are true, after no one was found who would buy the entire collection, the famed Valmadonna Trust Library is to be broken up and sold.

If you have the money, a complete Bomberg Talmud is being sold for an estimated $5-7 million.

Parashat Hashavua in the Israeli Public Square

If you find yourself in downtown Jerusalem on a Wednesday night and you happen to hear about hundreds of people who are gathering in order to hear someone speak about parashat ha-shavua, the chances are that you are hearing about Sivan Rahav-Meir’s talk on Parashat Hashavua that takes place every Wednesday evening.


Rahav-Meir wears many hats. She is a journalist who is involved in pretty much every medium of media in Israel. She is a presenter and reporter on Israel Channel Two news, has a weekly column in the Friday edition of Yediot Aharonot, tweets, writes on Facebook, and speaks in many different forums. Rahav-Meir started her journalistic career as a teenager and along the way published a book (17 years old), received a B.A. (18 years old), became religious, married the religious media personality Yedidya Meir, and became a mother (a few times over).

In addition to the weekly talk on parashat ha-shavua, Sivan and Yedidya have a wonderful weekly radio program that is broadcast on Galei Tzahal Friday afternoon, Sof Shavua Zugi (A Couple’s Weekend), that touches upon current events, parashat ha-shavua, children, family, media, you name it. This program can almost always be heard soon after it is broadcast on the Galei Tzahal app and a few days later on the website. You should also give a listen to Yedidya’s morning program on Radio Kol Hai.

There was recent newspaper article (Hebrew) about her parashat ha-shavua talk and I am sure that it has brought even more attendees.


Videos and transcriptions of her talks on parashat ha-shavua can be found on the website of the organization Leeba and Youtube.

I also recommend listening to this radio interview (Hebrew) with Rahav-Meir. If you want to understand what is happening with Judaism and Jewish culture in today’s Israel, she is a good place to start.

Is Halakhah About Submission or Freedom

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of online discussions about the nature of halakhic authority and development. Beginning with discussions about the ordination of women within Orthodoxy, the past few days have seen a number of worthwhile discussions about the macro discussion of halakhah and authority.

The first post that I would like to point is is at The Book of Doctrines and Opinions that examines Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s approach to halakhah. I recommend that you read Alan Brill’s post and the essays of Ethan Tucker to which he has linked. You should also be following the discussion about this post on Facebook.

The second discussion to which I would like to bring your attention began with an article (Hebrew) in the Israeli magazine Motza”sh (מוצ״ש) about religious women who no longer cover their hair. This article led to another article (Hebrew) by the journalist Yehuda Yifrach in response to the first article and a lively debate on his Facebook wall.

A common thread that runs through both of these discussions are questions about submission to God’s will, human freedom, and ethics.

There was also a discussion on the radio program לא סותם ת׳פה (at 26:30) about the article in Motza”sh and Yehuda Yifrach’s response.

Update: The program לא סותם ת׳פה had another discussion about this subject  (at 25:45). (Hebrew)

A Thousand Year-Old Sheet from Torah Scroll


Michelle Chesner, the Librarian for Jewish Studies at Columbia University, has posted on Facebook a link the auction site of what is claimed to be a parchment from a Torah scroll dating from 10th or 11th century. The following is from the auction site’s description of the sheet of parchment.

This extraordinary manuscript is one of the three earliest known Torah scroll sheets and one of the most important ancient Hebrew scrolls in the world after the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only other Torah scroll sheets of this date or earlier are the Jews’ College Scroll (Exodus 9:18-13:2) and its twin, the virtually unreadable Duke University fragment by the same scribe (Exodus 13:19-16:1). As the Dead Sea Scrolls are extremely fragmentary for Exodus, the present scroll is the most complete, and the only obtainable, early Exodus manuscript scroll sheet…This is the oldest known scroll with the Masoretic Text of the Exodus saga from the plagues through the Song of the Sea. The manuscript dates to the height of the Masoretic tradition, having been written at the time of the 10th-century Aleppo Codex (now missing Genesis through Deuteronomy) and the 11th-century Leningrad Codex.

From the discussion about the parchment in the Hebrew Codicology and Paleography group it seems that scholars do date this sheet of parchment to the 10th or 11th century. For a detailed discussion of this sheet read this article by Jordan S. Penkower.


Update: When it rains it pours. See this auction page of maybe the oldest complete Ashkenazi Sefer Torah (c. 1270) ever offered at auction.

Pass the Guinness

Today’s NY Times had an article about a change in the ingredients of Guinness stout:

Guinness, the Irish stout that once famously advertised itself under the slogan “Guinness is good for you,” took a step this week to inject 21st-century food culture into its 256-year-old product. Guinness is going vegan.The company announced on Monday that starting at the end of 2016, its beer will no longer contain trace amounts of fish bladder, an integral part of its filtration process.

See this video for a description of how isinglass that is derived from fish bladder helps the clarification process.

The use of fish bladder for the filtration of beverages is well known from halakhic literature. Rabbi Yehezkel Landau answered a question (Noda Biyehudah Kama, YD 26) about the use of fish bladder for the filtration of wine. Below is a translation of some of the Noda Biyehudah’s responsum from this responsum about drinking wine that was not produced under rabbinic supervision by Rabbi Elliot Dorff. The original Hebrew can be found here.

(The question revolves around) Krok, which some call Heusen Bleusen, which is the bladder of the fish called Heusen, which is an unkosher (טמא) fish. People dry the bladder of that fish and insert it into the drink which is called med in Poland, or honey juice. Its nature is to precipitate the lees and to clarify the drink. In Germany they are already used to acting like this, i.e., to put it into barrels of wine for this reason, and it is now about twenty years that they began doing this also in Poland in the drink of honey juice called med. And the great scholars of the generation were aroused by this to forbid it on the grounds that it remains in the drink, and “that which is preserved is treated legally as if it were cooked” (i.e., it is as if the juice and the unkosher fish were cooked together). And if one argues that it (the unkosher fish) is nullified by being less than one part in sixty, we do not nullify a forbidden substance ab initio. And there are those who want to permit the practice on the grounds that it is dried out, and it is therefore like wood which has no taste whatsoever, and they see it as being analogous to the inner lining of a stomach. And there are those who want to permit the practice on the grounds that we only restrict prior nullification when it is one’s intention to nullify, but here the intention is only to clarify the wine and not to give it a taste. My honored cousin, the rabbi, the great luminary, Rabbi Joseph, the head of the court and the academy of the city of [Neustadt]* in the region Cracow, ruled to forbid the practice. But since the custom has already spread to permit the practice in the regions of Germany and Poland, I have decided to write according to my humble opinion.

At the end of his long responsum, Rabbi Landau concludes that

For all the reasons mentioned above, it seems that it is permitted to put Heusen Bleusen into the wine or the drink which they call med in Poland because the intention is not to nullify but only to clarify the drink and to precipitate the lees. And “it is good for Israel, for if they are not prophets, they are children of prophets.” (Pesaḥim 66a) According to my humble opinion it is completely permissible (היתר גמור הוא). And what seemed right to me I have written.

מכל הטעמים הנ״ל נראה שמותר לתת הויזן בלאזי״ן לתוך היין או המשקה שקורין בפולין מע״ד כיון שאין הכוונה לבטלו רק להצליל המשקה ולהוריד השמרים. והנה לישראל אם אין נביאים הם בני נביאים הם והיתר גמור הוא לעניות דעתי. ומה שנראה לי כתבתי:

So if you have been drinking Guinness for a while, you have no need to worry that it wasn’t permissible to drink.

*Translation has been corrected. See Avrohom’s comment below.

Micah Goodman on Israeli Judaism 2.0

Micah Goodman has written an interesting series of articles (Hebrew) in Musaf Shabbat on the future of Judaism, Religious Zionism, and Jewish law in the State of Israel. (Parts I, II, III) Hopefully Micah will write at least a summary in English. Tomer Persico has written two posts (Hebrew) about the series. Below is an interview (Hebrew) with Micah by Erel Segal that was broadcast on Galei Yisrael.

Desecration of Terrorist Bodies

While there have been many heroic actions by Israeli citizens and security personnel during the past few weeks when responding to vicious terrorist attacks, there have also been a number of incidents in which citizens or even security personnel have beaten and attacked wounded terrorists who posed no threat or even desecrated dead bodies of terrorists. In yesterday’s attack on the Beersheva Central Bus Station a refugee from Eritrea was unfortunately killed when a security card mistakingly thought that he was a terrorist. The Eritrean was unarmed and after he was severely wounded a number of Israelis began to beat and kick him, hitting him with chairs and other objects. It is unknown whether these actions contributed to his death, but the Israeli Police are opening an investigation into this incident.

In a discussion on Twitter, Hillel Gershuni posted an interview with Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin from 1974 when Rabbi Henkin was the regional rabbi of Beit Shean that was originally posted on Facebook by Rabbi Henkin’s son Yagil and original found by Rabbi Eitam Henkin hy”d. While Rabbi Henkin was living in Beit Shean there was a terrorist attack in which four Israelis were killed. After the terrorists were killed a mob began to desecrate the bodies of the terrorists, throwing them out of the windows of the apartment building and lighting them on fire. One of the bodies that they burnt was that of an Israeli who was killed in the attack.

Below is the interview with Rabbi Henkin from Maariv (Dec. 2, 1974) in which he critizes the desecration of the terrorists’s bodies.

Harav Henkin terrorist bodies

A larger version of the article that is easier to read can be found here. Here are some translations of selections from the interview.

Question: Who said that it is forbidden to burn?

Answer: Here we are not talking about the actual act of burning. Burning bodies is thought to be a desecration among Jews, but it is not clear if it is forbidden to burn the bodies of non-Jewish casualties instead of burying them, and there are peoples who actually prefer to burn their dead. What is forbidden is the desecration of the dead that accompanied the burning, including that of throwing them from the window, spitting and hitting, stripping the bodies and cutting them in the presence of a raucous crowd. The abuse of the dead is definitely forbidden.

Question: The terrorists lost their image of God. Do they deserve anything else?

Answer: The souls of the terrorists lost the connection to God. They behaved like animals and not like people, but after they were killed their souls already left them and all that was left were their bodies that even they were created in  the image of God. What punishment do the bodies deserve? The terrorists no longer feel any abuse, they are already dead. But in reality this has nothing to do with the image of God of the terrorists, it is a matter of our being in the image of God. If we behave like animals then we lose our connection to God.

There are numerous Biblical texts that address this issue: Proverbs 24:17; Deuteronomy 21:22; Joshua 8:29; 2 Samuel 21:10.

Update: According to newspaper reports from the days after the attack, local students protested the desecration of the bodies and carried signs that read “We must decide if we are human beings or animals and if people are different than animals”; “It can’t be that our urges will get the best of us”; “In what enlightened society do they burn bodies?”; “We can’t stoop down to their level”; “Instead of fighting bodies we should fight terrorists.”

New Additions at Sefaria-Rabbi Shraga Silverstein Library

Sefaria has announced a very nice addition to their website, the Rabbi Shraga Silverstein zt”l Library. The library will contains numerous translations into English that were done by Rabbi Silverstein including important midrashei halakhah such as Mekhilta, Sifra, and Sifrei. A full list of the translations that have already been posted and future additions can be found here. HT and yishar koakh to Elli Fischer who was involved with the project.




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