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Because They Didn’t Change Their Language: Hebrew and Egyptian

There are a number of midrashim that list the ways through which the Israelites were able to preserve their uniqueness and prevent assimilation during their sojourn in Egyptian, eventually bringing about their redemption from there. Among those things listed were that they didn’t change their dress, their language, their names, reveal their secrets, repeat gossip, or let their wives be sexually violated. (See e.g. Mekhilta Bo, parashah 5; Shemot Rabbah ed. Shinan, chap. 1; Vayikrah Rabbah 32:5. Read here and here for discussions of these sources.) Here is the version found in Shemot Rabbah:

אמר רב הונא בשם בר קפרא: בשביל ד’ דברים נגאלו ישראל ממצרים, שלא שינו את שמם ושלא שינו את לשונם ושלא גלו סודם ושלא הפקירו נשותיהן

I just wanted to bring some recent scholarly discussion about one of these claims, “שלא שינו את לשונם”, because they didn’t change their language. Since the 19th century scholars have been writing about the relationship between the Hebrew and Egyptian languages, along with other Ancient Semitic languages, and we are lucky to have a very recent summary of the findings. The following selections are from the articles “Egyptian and Hebrew” and “Egyptian Loanwords” by Aaron Rubin in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics.





Israeli vs. Diaspora Judaism: Micha Goodman vs Shai Held

Take time out of your day to listen or watch this discussion between two of the most important Jewish thinkers today. (HT to Life in Israel)

The Saga of the Bible Project 929


Recently a Bible study project was launched in Israel that was suppose to provide a platform for Israelis from all different backgrounds to study the Bible together. 929, named after the number of chapters in the Tanakh, seemed to be doing exactly what it was doing until a number of things happened. The first cracks occurred when Rabbi Shlomo Aviner came out and strongly criticized (Hebrew) the endeavor. Soon afterwards an article by Ari Elon, one of the participants in 929, was removed from the site after he and one of the coordinators of the project, Rabbi Benny Lau, had a disagreement about one of Elon’s posts and Rabbi Lau’s reaction to a conversation that they had in which he felt that Elon was disrespectful. In the pre-social media age I imagine that very little of this would have been made public, but now it’s all for everyone to read. Here is Elon’s post (Hebrew) and Lau’s response (Hebrew). As of now there is now going to be a “parallel” site for individuals who do not want to be exposed to “heretical” interpretations. Tomer Persico’s comments are a helpful guide to the whole episode.

All I can say that it is disturbing when rabbis and educators don’t trust people to make their own decisions about what they should and shouldn’t read. It’s nice to see that some (Hebrew) rabbis agree with this attitude.

If any of you are wondering, the five-year project is expected to cost (Hebrew) 47 million NIS (approximately $12 million), of which 23 million NIS (approximately $5.8 million) is coming from the Ministry of Education.

Update:  Two updates from this morning. First, I remembered that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has been promoting a Perek Yomi, Chapter a Day, of Tanakh for a number of years. The project’s web site includes resources for study. The second update is that the guest on this past Friday’s episode of Sara Beck’s wonderful program Oneg Shabbat was Zvika (Biko) Arran, the director of Project 929. The two spoke about the project and some of the controversy around it. You can listen to the episode below. (Hebrew)


New Book-In God’s Image


Yair Lorberbaum’s important work on the role of the concept of Tzelem Elohim, image of God or Imago Dei, in Jewish law and rabbinic theology has now been translated into English and will soon be published. I have not seen the English version, In God’s Image: Myth, Theology, and Law in Classical Judaism, but the Hebrew edition was an excellent book that integrated a number of different disciplines.

The idea of creation in the divine image has a long and complex history. While its roots apparently lie in the royal myths of Mesopotamia and Egypt, this book argues that it was the biblical account of creation presented in the first chapters of Genesis and its interpretation in early rabbinic literature that created the basis for the perennial inquiry of the concept in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yair Lorberbaum reconstructs the idea of the creation of man in the image of God (tselem Elohim) attributed in the Midrash and the Talmud. He analyzes meanings attributed to tselem Elohim in early rabbinic thought, as expressed in Aggadah, and explores its application in the normative, legal, and ritual realms.

New Edition of Sefer Ha-Aggadah

In the Hebrew edition of Haaretz there is an article of sorts that describes the new edition of Sefer ha-Aggadah on which Avigdor Shinan is working. It is expected to be published next year.The new edition will includes corrections to the text, vocalization, and a short commentary by Shinan. Some of the midrashim in Sefer ha-Aggadah were translated from the Aramaic or edited, but because of space limitations Shenan decided not to point out all of the cases when this was done.

“בתחילת הדרך גם חשבתי לשים כוכב ליד כל טקסט שתורגם מארמית, לשים עיגול ליד כל טקסט מעובד ולשים מעוין ליד כל טקסט שהוא צירוף של מקורות, אבל אז הספר היה נהיה למסע בין כוכבים, אז ויתרתי. נוסף על כך, תיקנּו מראי מקומות, ציטוטים חלקיים של פסוקים.
הניקוד תוקן ונבדק. אנחנו יודעים היום הרבה יותר על הניקוד. כל הטקסטים מתוקנים בעדינות, בזהירות, בחרדת קודש”.

An interested fact pointed out by Shinan is that approximately two thousand copies of Sefer ha-Aggadah are sold every year.

While we are writing about midrash, I recommend this recent article from the Forward on Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews.

Sources for History of Bar and Bat Mitzvah Ceremony


Rabbi Michael Hilton, rabbi of the Kol Chai Hatch End Jewish Community and author of Bar Mitzvah, a History, has conveniently posted on his web site some important sources for the history of the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

An Interesting Hanukkah Custom

In rabbinic literature there is a lot of discussion about the status of lighting Hanukkah candles in the synagogue. It is clearly a custom, so do you bless? Should a minor recite the blessings? One custom found in some Hassidic communities is that in order to emphasize that the lighting of Hanukkah candles in the synagogue is just a custom people throw things at the person lighting the Hanukkah candles. The blog about the Haredi world בעולמם של חרדים has posted the following video that shows the person lighting the Hanukkah being pelted with different objects.

The blog post includes a page from the popular book נטעי גבריאל that discusses this custom. On Shabbat I also saw a discussion about it in מנהג ישראל תורה, whose author unfortunately died earlier this year at a young age. (HT to a friend on FB.)

Western Sephardic Liturgy-Online resources

Last year the blog Homes da Nação compiled a list of online resources for Western Sephardic liturgy.

The Western Sephardi Diaspora began its development in the mid 16th century when Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who had been forced to convert to Christianity during the previous two centuries, returned to Judaism in considerable numbers. Before that time, many of the conversos flew to North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean countries. There they joined the large communities that had been established by the Sephardi Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and 1497. Yet many others moved gradually to Western Europe and established flourishing communities in Northern Italy (Venice, Ferrara and later-on in Livorno) and southeastern France (Bayonne and Bordeaux). Communities were subsequently formed in the Netherlands (Amsterdam), Germany (Hamburg) and England (London). Finally, Western European colonial expansion led to the establishment of Sephardi communities in Northern Brazil, Surinam, and the Caribbean and later on in North America. These communities are referred to as Western Sephardi in order to distinguish them from those of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The list includes links to siddurim, mahzorim, and other liturgical collections. (HT)

New Website for Torah Study

Roni Tabick alerted me to a website that is trying to make the study of the Torah very accessible to people. AlHaTorah promotes the following goals: is a one-stop Tanakh study resource, providing the tools, techniques, and technology to make Torah come alive in the home, classroom, and synagogue. Enter the site to explore 2,500 years of Biblical interpretation and enjoy a rich, multi-dimensional, learning experience.

The website was built last year and will hopefully continue to grow.

New Book: Ultra-Orthodox Women at the Threshold


A new book in Hebrew has been published that addresses ultra-Orthodox women and the changes that they are experiencing in education, employment, and society. The book, Women of the Threshold − Orthodox Women in Front of a Modern Change (נשות הסף: נשים חרדיות מול השינוי המודרני), was written by Bella Layosh. Below is an interview (Hebrew) with Layosh from the wonderful radio program Sefarim Rabotai, Seforim.




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