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Are You a Mishnah Berurah or Arukh Hashulhan Person

One of my favorite footnotes in Haym Soloveitchik’s seminal article Rupture and Reconstruction is n. 6. First, the text on which the footnote is commenting:

This dual tradition of the intellectual and the mimetic, law as taught and law as practiced, which stretched back for centuries, begins to break down in the twilight years of the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The change is strikingly attested to in the famous code of the next generation, the Mishnah Berurah.(6) This influential work reflects no such reflexive justification of established religious practice, which is not to say that it condemns received practice. Its author, the Hafetz Hayyim, was hardly a revolutionary. His instincts were conservative and strongly inclined him toward some post facto justification. The difference between his posture and that of his predecessor, the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, is that he surveys the entire literature and then shows that the practice is plausibly justifiable in terms of that literature. His interpretations, while not necessarily persuasive, always stay within the bounds of the reasonable. And the legal coordinates upon which the Mishnah Berurah plots the issue are the written literature and the written literature alone.7 With sufficient erudition and inclination, received practice can almost invariably be charted on these axes, but it is no longer inherently valid. It can stand on its own no more.

Now the footnote:

Israel Meir ha-Kohen, Mishnah Berurah. This six volume work, which has been photo-offset innumerable times, was initially published over the span of eleven years, 1896-1907, and appears contemporaneous with the Arukh ha-Shulhan. Bibliographically, this is correct; culturally, nothing could be farther from the truth. Though born only nine years apart, their temperaments and life experiences were such that they belong to different ages. The Arukh ha-Shulhan stands firmly in a traditional society, un-assaulted and undisturbed by secular movements, in which rabbinic Judaism still “moved easy in harness,” R. Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, better known as the Hafetz Hayyim, stood, throughout his long life (1838- 1933), in the forefront of the battle against Enlightenment and the growing forces of Socialism and Zionism in Eastern Europe. His response to the growing impact of modernity was not only general and attitudinal, as noted here and below, n. 20 sec. c, but also specific and substantive. When asked to rule on the permissibility of Torah instruction for women, he replied that, in the past, the traditional home had provided women with the requisite religious background; now, however, the home had lost its capacity for effective transmission, and text instruction was not only permissible, but necessary. What is remarkable is not that he perceived the erosion of the mimetic society, most observers by that time (1917-1918) did, but rather that he sensed at this early a date, the necessity of a textual substitute.  (Likkutei Halakhot, Sotah 2 la [Pieterkow, 1918].) The remarks of the Hafetz Hayyim should be contrasted with the traditional stand both taken and described by the Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De’ah 246:19. One might take this as further evidence of the difference between these two halakhists set forth in the text and documented in n. 7. One should note, however, that this passage was written at a much later date than the Mishnah Berurah, at the close of World War I, when traditional Jewish society was clearly undergoing massive shock. (For simplicity’s sake, I described the Mishnah Berurah in the text as a “code,” as, in effect, it is. Strictly speaking, it is, of course, is a commentary to a code.)

These comments of Soloveitchik are discussed by Mark Washofsky in his insightful review of Simcha Fishbane’s book in English on the Arukh Hashulhan, The Boldness of a Halakhist: An Analysis of the Writings of Rabbi Yechiel Mechel Halevi Epstein’s “The Arukh Hashulhan”. In this review Washofsky addresses many of the issues relating to the questions raised by Soltoveitchik and the differences between the Mishnah Berurah and the Arukh Shulhan.

I always thought that a great question to ask someone who interested in modern halakhah is “Are you are a Mishnah Berurah or Arukh Hashulhan person?” The continued dialogue between these two schools of halakhah has reached new heights with the publication of an edition of Arukh Hashulhan that includes references to the Mishnah Berurah. Also see this post at the Seforim blog about this edition of the Arukh Hashulhan.

Probably the most important person writing today about the Arukh Hashulhan and its author is Eitan Henkin. We are lucky that Eitam has posted his articles online, allowing us to benefit from his scholarship. Henkin wrote a book review the above mentioned edition of the Arukh Hashulhan in which he addresses the relationship between these two works. Another important article that he has recently published is a discussion of the writing and publication of the Arukh Hashulhan. It is filled with lots of information including a reference to this advertisement from Hatzefirah (9 Kislev 5646, p. 354) for the Arukh Hashulhan soon after it was published.

arukh hashulhan hatzefirah 9 kislev 1885

Here’s the article.

חצי גבורים פליטת סופרים

Henkin’s other articles on Arukh Hashulhan can be found here.

Listening to the Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hear the Epic of Gilgamesh being read in Akkadian? Well, now is your chance. The SOAS, University of London has posted on their web site a number of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts being read in ancient languages. (here) HT to the Ancient Jew Review on Twitter.

New Book: The Israeli Covenant



Yoav Sorek has just published a new book, Ha-Brit Ha-Yisraelit (The Israeli Covenant: On the Possibility and the Need to Form an Israeli Judaism as a Contemporary Link of the Tradition and the Covenant). Below is a radio interview with Yoav and the book’s table of contents.



What is the Bavli

The Talmudblog has posted the first installment of a panel discussion from this past December’s AJS conference on “What is the Bavli?” It will definitely not disappoint.

Rabbi Nati Helfgot on Revelation Revealed

Rabbi Nati Helfgot teaches at our daughter’s high school, SAR High School. He is currently teaching a series of Adult Ed classes titled “Revelation Revealed: Traditional Conceptions of the Development of Torah Shebaal Peh.” SAR HS has done a great service to us all and has taped this class of Rabbi Helfgot and posted it to Youtube. The first class can be found below and the other classes will be found here after they take place. If you click on “Show More” under each video you can find a link to a source sheet.

Getting to Know Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin

The Jweekly has a nice profile of the important scholar of Talmud Daniel Boyarin. Even those who know a bit about Boyarin will enjoy the article. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Boyarin went to the same high school as Bruce Springsteen and knew him. He was a few years ahead of Springsteen and both of their pictures are hanging in hallways as examples of successful graduates.

(photo by Cathleen Maclearie)

Iggeret Haman and Putting the Persia Back into Purim

There are many satirical or parodic compositions associated with Purim. A good overview of these different compositions can be found in Israel Davidson’s Parody in Jewish Literature, pp. 115-147. One of these compositions is Iggeret Haman, “Haman’s Epistle.” There are numerous version’s of Iggeret Haman (see Davidson, pp. 121-123) and Yosef Tobi has written about a Yemenite version of Iggeret Haman (Shevet ve-Am 6, pp. 223-231). I recently came across an a different version that was published in Jerusalem a number of years ago and scanned it. You can view it here in PDF format.

People who enjoy learning about the historical and cultural context should be celebrating the publication of Thamar E. Gindin’s new book Megillat Esther: Behind the Mask.


Information about ordering Thamar’s book can be found here. Besides the content, what makes this book so good is that its publication was funded through crowd-sourcing on Headstart.

Here is Thamar speaking about the historical context of Megillat Esther on an Israeli TV program last year.

A new book in English that includes a discussion of the Persian origins of Purim is Mitchell First’s  Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy in the chapter on “Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources.” First’s book also includes the definitive discussion about the origins of Taanit Esther.

While we are on the topic of Jews and Persians, Khodadad Rezakhani has written a blog post describing some of the more positive moments in Jewish-Persian relations throughout history.

Purim Sameaḥ.

Rabbi Zvi Tau and the Future of Religious Zionism

It is common for people to speak about Religious Zionism as if it is a monolithic ideological group that shares common assumptions about the State of Israel, secular studies, the army, etc. Religious Zionism is actually made up of numerous smaller groups, some more dominant than others, which all together make up what insiders call the migzar/מגזר, or the sector. One of the most important figures within this constellation is Rabbi Zvi Tau. Rabbi Tau was a student of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and an important figure at Mercaz Harav, but in 1997 Rabbi Tau broke away from Mercaz Harav.

In one of the only English treatments of Rabbi Tau, Yehudah Mirsky wrote that educational institutions associated with Rabbi Tau or his students “are characterized by nationalism, a holistic reading of the ostensibly true will of the people, thoroughgoing rejection of any form of academic Jewish studies as well as of literary and humanist approaches to the Bible, and a sacralization of the state and its institutions as such.”

In a recent edition of Makor Rishon, Yoav Sorek wrote an in-depth analysis of recent developments in Rabbi Tau’s philosophy that is bringing him closer to an ultra-Orthodox approach to the state, its institutions, and the rest of the Jewish people. Rabbi Tau is now teaching that Rav Kook’s understanding of the role of the entirety of the Jewish people is reserved for the messianic era. In his article Yoav quotes one of Rabbi Tau’s students who described the ultra-Orthodoxization of Rabbi Tau’s present day teachings in the following manner:

In the past he [Rabbi Tau] had great trust in the Israeli reality…He followed Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook who would insisted that “the people are with us,” because the people knows what is right. Today, in Rabbi Tau’s eyes, there is simply no people with whom to speak. He doesn’t reject the teaching of Rav Kook, but rather turns it into “Messianic halakhah,” something that is essentially irrelavent to reality. The ideal of the unification of the holy and the profane is in his eyes something that is reserved just for supremely righteous people, for a level that doesn’t exist now. The role that Rabbi Tau’s beit midrash fills today on the ideological map is identical to that which Agudath Israel played against Zionism in the past.

If Rabbi Tau was a rabbinic figure who had few disciples, the change in his thought would be of little more than academic interest, but in addition to those who are directly influenced by him, Rabbi Tau has a very large number of disciples and educational institutions that were founded by his disciples in which thousands of people study. Therefore his influence is much larger than those who study in his yeshiva, and Yoav’s article addresses the tensions that some of his students are beginning to feel between the “old” and the “new” Rabbi Tau.

The change in Rabbi Tau’s theology might also have an impact on the upcoming Israeli elections. Rabbi Tau is associated with the Hardal group within Religious Zionism and has become a very outspoken opponent of the Bayit Yehudi party. He has instead thrown his support behind Eli Yishai’s ultra-Orthodox Yahad party which was joined by Yoni Chetboun after he left the Bayit Yehudi.

The article is a must read for anyone interested in the future of Religious Zionism, and Yoav was kind enough to make his article (Hebrew) available in PDF and it can be read here.

Did Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg Refuse Release from Prison

One of the most important figures in Jewish history during the Middle Ages is Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (Maharam), author of hundreds of responsa and communal leader. A tragic episode of his life is his imprisonment (1286) after a failed attempt to flee Germany, his eventual death in prison (1293), and that it was forbidden for his body to be buried for a number of years. One aspect of his imprisonment that has been discussed by many is whether or not Meir of Rothenberg refused to be ransomed from captivity.

In a new article (Hebrew), Simcha Emanuel examines Meir of Rothenberg’s captivity, and specifically whether he refused to be ransomed. The tradition that Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg refused to be ransomed because of the high price is found in Rabbi Shlomo Luria’s commentary on the Talmud Yam shel Shlomo (Gittin, Berlin ed. 4, 66 from Emanuel’s article).

שמעתי על מהר”ם מרוטנבר”ק ז”ל שהיה תפוס במגדול אייגזהם[!] כמה שנים, והשר תבע מן הקהלות סך גדול, והקהלות היו רוצים לפדותו, ולא הניח, כי אמר
אין פודין השבויים יותר מכדי דמיהם.

I heard that Maharam of Rothenberg z”l was held captive in the Tower of Ensisheim for a few years. The Emperor demanded from the community a large sum, and the community wanted to redeem him, but he would not agree, since he said that you don’t redeeem captives for more than their worth.

Emanuel points out that Luria’s testimony is contradicted by other sources, most notably that of Rabbi Judah son of the Rosh, who wrote that a deal for Meir of Rothenberg’s release was in the works when Rabbi Meir suddenly died.

After examining numerous earlier attempts at explaining the contradictory accounts of Meir of Rothenberg’s imprisonment and death, Emanuel proposes that we understand Luria’s tradition about Meir of Rothenberg’s refusal as a variation of an earlier story from the 12th century that is found in the Tosafot of Rabbi Yehuda Sir Loen on Berakhot 18a and in the Ramban’s Torah ha-Adam about a certain rabbinic sage whose captive body was not redeemed because of the high ransom that was demanded of the Jewish community. (Torah ha-AdamSha’ar ha-Sof, Inyan Mi she-Meito Mutal Lefanav)

ונשאל הרב ז”ל [=ר״י הזקן מבעלי התוספות]
על אדם גדול שבדורו שתפסו שלטון ומת בתפיסה ולא נתנו לקבורה, והיה מעכבו בתפיסה כדי לגבות עליו ממון הרבה יותר ממה שהיד משגת,
ואפילו היה ספק בידם לעשות אסור לפדותו באותו ממון (גיטין מ”הא’) מפני תיקון העולם,
והשיב הרב ז”ל יש לומר דלא קרינא בהו מי שמתו מוטל לפניו לאסרם בבשר ויין, הואיל ואינו מוטל על הקרובים לקברו עד יערה עליהם רוח אלהים ממרום.

Emanuel admits that he doesn’t have conclusive evidence for this theory, but that it is as convincing as the previous attempts to understand the contradiction between the different traditions about Meir of Rothenberg’s imprisonment.

Hoshana Like You’ve Never Seen it Before

A very nice modern interpretation of a traditional Jewish liturgical prayer.




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