Menachem Mendel

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Jeffrey Rubenstein Looks Back at his Work

At the Ancient Jew Review Jeffrey Rubenstein has written a reflection on his scholarship about stories in the Babylonian Talmud.

For all the work of the past fifteen years, the study of Bavli stories is still in its infancy. I routinely receive emails asking if there is any scholarship on a certain story. Sometimes there is a study or two, often there is nothing. Compared to the scholarship on any chapter of Bible or line in the Dead Sea Scrolls, not to mention the prodigious body of research on any passage in the Christian Scriptures, rabbinic stories are unexplored territory. We still have a great deal of work to do, and continued study should help clarify some of the questions above.

Another scholarly desideratum is to set Bavli stories in the context of Pahlavi and Syriac literature of the Sasanian world. At some point we have to get outside of the Bavli to the ambient culture fully to appreciate Bavli narratives, as is true of the study of any other text. Greco-Roman literature and literary models have been used to great benefit in the study of narrative sources in the Yerushalmi and in the Amoraic Midrashim, and even for some Bavli stories, which evince Hellenistic influences. But many Bavli stories feature motifs, images and narrative devices which we do not fully understand. Greater comparative study hopefully will help clarify these obscurities.

History of the Jewish Calendar

Moshe Benovitz has written a nice overview of the history of the Jewish lunisolar calendar.

It is true that the ancient Egyptians, Persians and Romans had solar calendars of various types, but the lunisolar calendar was more prevalent: it was common to the Celts of Gaul, most of the ancient Greeks, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and many of the peoples leaving in the Indian subcontinent in ancient times, and to this day it is the calendar according to which the traditional festivals of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other East Asian nations are celebrated. It was the secular calendar of the world-embracing Babylonian and Persian empires, and of the Macedonian Empire and Hellenistic world that succeeded them. For the Babylonians and Macedonian Greeks, this was merely a matter of imposing their own local calendar on their subject peoples; for the Persians, who had their own 365-day solar calendar, the exigencies of running the empire they inherited from the Babylonians made it prudent for them to adopt the dominant lunisolar calendar as the secular calendar of the empire, and they relegated their own calendar to ritual use in the Zoroastrian religion…

The calendar that we consider “Jewish” was thus common to most ancient peoples. In fact, some scholars believe that the ancient Israelites, like the ancient Egyptians, were among the few ancient peoples who had a solar calendar! According to these scholars, the current Jewish calendar was adopted during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. To support this view they adduce the following arguments: Ancient Canaan, both before and after the Israelite conquest, was part of the Egyptian sphere of influence, and the ancient Egyptians, along with the Romans and the Zoroastrian Persians, were among the few peoples who had a solar calendar.

Finally a Reliable Book on the Laws of Shabbat in English

Peninei shabbat i for website

I am often asked by people to recommend a good book in English on Hilkhot Shabbat. There have been numerous books in English that have been written on Hilkhot Shabbat, but I never liked any of them enough to really feel comfortable recommending them to anyone. They either weren’t comprehensive enough, too strict, not very clear, not entirely accessible to those who don’t understand Hebrew (e.g. the footnotes in Rabbi Shimon Eider’s books), or incomplete translations of the Hebrew (e.g. the English edition of Shemirat Shabbat Kehilkhatah leaving out footnotes).

Koren Publishers was kind enough to send me some of their new books by their Maggid Books, and among them was a book on Hilkhot Shabbat that I can feel comfortable recommending to people. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series has been a runaway success in Israel, recently celebrating the sale of the 500,000th (!) volume. Maggid Books has already published in English a number of volumes of Peninei Halakha and they have now published Peninei Halakha: Laws of Shabbat, Vol. 1 and Laws of Shabbat, Vol. 2. I have numerous Hebrew volumes of Peninei Halakha and find them informative, comprehensive, and clearly written.

These volumes also include aggadic sources about Shabbat and its meaning, giving the reader a more holistic presentation about Shabbat observance. If I had to name another series on halakhah to which the structure and presentation of Peninei Halakha is similar it would be Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi’s Mekor Hayyim Hashalem. While not as comprehensive as Peninei Halakha, it does present the halakhic and aggadic material in a similar manner. In addition to buying these volumes, you should listen to this interview by Nachum Segal with Yocheved Cohen, the translator of these volumes, and Elli Fischer, the editor of the English language Peninei Halakha series.

On the possible larger communal and sociological place of Koren Publishers see this recent blog post at Rationalist Judaism.

Yishar Koaḥ to all of those involved in bringing these volumes to print.

Prof. Aaron Kirschenbaum z”l

The scholar of Jewish law Prof. Aaron Kirschenbaum z”l has passed away. It is difficult to summarize Prof. Kirschenbaum’s scholarly achievements, they range from popular booklets on studying Talmud to a massive tome on self-incrimination in the history of Jewish and Roman Law. A web site dedicated to his scholarship has begun to be built and it will be expanded in the future. Some of his writings can be found here.

The funeral procession will begin at Shamgar, Jerusalem at 10:30 on Sunday, February 7th, כ”ח שבט  and continue to the cemetery in T’zfat. Shiva will take place at Ramat Tamir, Shefa Chaim 2, Jerusalem.

יהי זכרו ברוך.

The Kotel Compromise: Good or Bad?

Much has been written and spoken about the “Kotel Compromise” both in favor and against. Two of the more interesting things that I heard were two interviews (Hebrew) with Israeli Orthodox women who have come down on different sides of the compromise, one in favor and one against. While the agreement is not without its problems, I think that it is a good compromise, not only for non-Orthodox movements, but also for the many other Jews (secular, traditional, and liberal Orthodox) whom I think will use it. Last month I was in the designated area (עזרת ישראל) and the largest bar-mitzvah there was from a traditional Israeli Sephardic family. Also see this picture below. While I am hesitant to guess a person’s religious affiliation by how they dress, I don’t think that this woman is Reform or Conservative. (Photo credit: Michal Fattal)


Here are the two interviews, judge for yourself. The first is with Hannah Kahat (against) and the second with Ricki Shapira Rosenberg (for).

The second interview is from 25:00.

Is Israeli Ultra-Orthodoxy in Crisis?

Avishai Ben-Hayyim, a reporter for the Israeli TV Channel 10 who specializes in the religious community, has been broadcasting a series of reports this week about the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community called “The Ultra-Orthodox: The Dissolution.”

According to Ben-Hayyim the foundations of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox world are undergoing an unprecedented shake up. These foundations are the study of Torah, the status of its rabbinic leaders (gedolim), and the ghetto walls that separate it from larger society, and Ben-Hayyim thinks that these are all experiencing a weakening that is having large repercussions. In the Israeli Twitter World there was a lively discussion that Haaretz has written about and I’ll post some of them below in addition to Ben-Hayyim’s series of reports as they are broadcast.

One statistic that Ben-Hayyim mentioned was that one in ten members of ultra-Orthodox is leaving the ultra-Orthodox community. See this post from a few years ago on this subject.

Here are some of the tweets from Twitter.

Eugene Borowitz z”l

Eugene Borowitz, one of the most influential Jewish theologians of post-WW II America has passed away. Borowitz, an ordained Reform rabbi, taught for many years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He engaged with the thought of Jewish thinkers of all stripes, writing about not only liberal Jewish thinkers but also Rav Soloveitchik. In one of his last books he included a abridged translation of the introduction of Yosef Karo to the Beit Yosef because he felt that it was a fine example of a holistic view of halakhic development. For him all of Jewish tradition and teaching was there for us to engage with and to be inspired by. יהי זכרו ברוך.

Conservative Movement Officially Permits Kitniyot on Passover

Not that anyone is already thinking about Passover, but the CJLS of the Conservative Movement has just posted online two responsa that permit kitniyot on Passover. The first is a translation and modification of an already existing responsum in Hebrew by David Golinkin and the second is a new one.

Interview with Shai Held about Heschel, Honor, and Doubt

I highly recommend this interview with Shai Held from Mechon Hadar about Mechon Hadar, Heschel, the role of doubt in religion, and a few other things.

New Book: Halakhic Writing in a Changing World


Tomer Persico has a quick summary (Hebrew) of Maoz Kahana’s new book Halakhic Writing in a Changing World, from the ‘Noda Biyhuda’ to the ‘Hatam Sofer’, 1730-1839 (Hebrew). The book, based upon Kahana’s dissertation, examines the differences between the halakhic approaches of the Noda Biyhudah and the Hatam Sofer.

The following is from the English introduction to the book:

From the Noda BeYehuda to the Chatam Sofer – Halakha and Thought in their Historical Moment describes a formative stage in the creation of modern halakha, in its historical context. First, the book analyzes the severe literary purification demanded by the Noda BeYehuda (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713–1793), rabbi of the city of Prague, and the most prominent halakhic writer in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. Rabbi Yechezkel sought to rid halakha of all “non-Talmudic” literary sources. Not only did he wish to remove from halakhic writing all kabalistic influence – which were under suspicion due to the subversive presence of Sabbateanism in Europe throughout the entire eighteenth century – but he even objected to primary segments of traditional Ashkenazi halakha, one of whose hallmarks was its diverse, non-talmudic sources.

The second part of the book deals with the profound internalization of this critical approach in the writings of the greatest rabbi of the succeeding generation, the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762–1839). This in turn led to various “corrections” as well as sharp, intense censures of the writings of the Noda BeYehuda by the Chatam Sofer, throughout the decades of his creative work.

The full English introduction and table of contents can be read here.




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