Menachem Mendel

Menachem Mendel RSS Feed

Video of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in discussion with Tomer Persico

Recently Tomer Persico held a public discussion with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at Tel Aviv University. The questions are in Hebrew and the answers in English. Below is the video:

The Students of the Gra and Messianism

Vilna Gaon Winograd picture

For a number of years there has been an ongoing disagreement between Immanuel Etkes and Arie Morgenstern, with David Assaf later entering the fray, about the role of messianism in the aliyah of the students of the Gaon of Vilna (Gra) to the Land of Israel in the early nineteenth century. Etkes does not think that there was any messianic impulse behind the migration of the Gra’s students to the Land of Israel, while Assaf and Morgenstern disagree. Etkes has written about this topic both in his book on the Gra, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image, and in numerous articles. A summary of Morgenstern’s book on the topic, The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision, can be found here. Assaf has addressed the issue both here and here (Hebrew).

Because of a recent article by Etkes in which he repeats his claim that messianism played no role in their aliyah, Morgenstern has written a short post on the controversy and explained why he thinks that Etkes is wrong. The post is in Hebrew and was published on the website יקום תרבות. One of Morgenstern’s claims is that Etkes minimizes the role of messianism because of his discomfort with expressions of messianism that exist today in Judaism.

She Needed Her Husband’s Signature

Dr. Tova Ganzel is Director of the Midrasha Institute for Advanced Torah Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The Midrasha is one of the premier institutions in Israel that offer women the opportunity to study Torah at an advanced level. Dr. Ganzel is an accomplished scholar who is both a yoetzet halakhah and a recipient of a PhD in Bible. Dr. Ganzel and her husband co-authored an article that addresses halakhic issues related to women in the most recent issue of Tehumin (my copy is on the way so I haven’t seen the article). The thing is that Dr. Ganzel really wrote the article and she added her husband’s name at the request of the publication. This situation was discussed on numerous Facebook pages and now the religious oriented website Kipa has a post on the issue.

Dr. Ganzel is quoted in the post as saying that “They told me that if I want to publish the article then I need to add my husband’s name…This is a bit disturbing, but I didn’t come in order to fight and I therefore honored the request.” This is apparently the policy of a number of other publications.

The editor of Tehumin Rabbi Israel Rosen gave two reasons for the policy: 1. They don’t want to get involved with the question of whether women can decide halakhah; 2. They are also trying to attract authors from the ultra-Orthodox population.

Tehumin is a very important publication for those interested in issues related to halakhah and the modern world and hopefully in the future their policy will change. In the meantime, I think that this reaction of Dr. Ganzel is worth quoting:

This is my choice…It was important for me that the article be published specifically within the halakhic conversation and it was more important that it be published than to be righteous (צדקת) in this case.

Origins of the Mourner’s Kaddish

The most recent issue of the AJS Review has a very good article about the origins of the mourner’s kaddish (קדיש יתום). Unlike many scholars who have written about the origins of the mourner’s kaddish and located its origins as a response the Crusades, David Shyovitz (“You Have Saved Me from the Judgement of Gehenna”: The Origins of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Medieval Ashkenaz) makes a very strong argument that the origins are to be found elsewhere:

Viewed from this perspective, the development of the Mourner’s Kaddish can be seen as an attempt by Jewish halakhists to harness a traditional Jewish practice to fill a ritual need occasioned by shifts in the broader theological milieu. The increasingly “purgatorial” notion of hell presupposed by the Mourner’s Kaddish and its accompanying exemplum developed and spread in precisely the same time (late twelfth century) and place (northwestern Europe) that witnessed the “birth of purgatory.” Like their Christian neighbors, the Jews of Ashkenaz (and eventually, Europe more broadly) tied this shifting conception of postmortem punishment to new means of liturgical intercession, and composed exempla that reflected and circulated the new theological development. And notably, the introduction of the Mourner’s Kaddish, steeped as it was in the surrounding Christian milieu, was couched by late twelfth-century authors in subtly polemical language that ridiculed Christian eschatological beliefs even as it subtly co-opted them.

Shyovitz also has some important comments about the academic elephant that is often in the room, the question of influence between communities, cultures, and religions.

As much recent scholarship has demonstrated, medieval Ashkenazic culture was profoundly embedded within its surrounding Christian society. But this does not mean that Christian theological developments “caused” the birth of the Kaddish. Far from being a mere cooption of regnant Christian beliefs, the rise of the Mourner’s Kaddish reflected afar more nuanced and complicated process of simultaneous distancing and appropriation. Thus the Akiva tale, whose genre and underlying theological symbols both reflect contemporary Christian mores, expresses itself in a polemical idiom, parodying the Harrowing of Hell and describing the suffering of Jesus in the next world—even as it unexpectedly concludes with the Jesus-figure redeemed and restored to heaven. The developments traced here are thus textbook examples of what Ivan Marcus has called “inward acculturation.” As in other spheres of medieval Jewish life, the halakhists of Ashkenaz in this instance “adapted Christian themes and iconography, which they saw all around them every day, and fused them—often in inverted and parodic ways—with ancient Jewish customs and traditions…Jews absorbed into their Judaism aspects of the majority culture, and understood the products to be part and parcel of their Judaism, and they continued to think of them-selves as completely Jewish.

There are numerous versions of the Akiva tale and Shyovitz discusses one of them. A version of the tale that is similar to the one found in the article with some differences in translation can be found here.

Interview with Yoav Sorek on a New Israeli Jewishness

I recommend this interview in English with Yoav Sorek on a “New Definition of Israeli Jewishness.”

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.




Popular Posts

Recent Comments


Sign up for an email subscribtion to this blog.

Michael Pitkowsky


Daf Yomi



Jewish Law


Law and Legal History