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New and Important Article on Alenu

Jeff Hoffman has written an important article on the Alenu prayer, The Image of the Other in Jewish Interpretations of Alenu. Hoffman not only addresses interpretations of the Other, but also gives an informative overview of the liturgical history of the Alenu prayer.

The text of Alenu can first be documented in the 10th century as part of the introduction to the Malkhuyot (“Kingship verses”) section of the Amidah of Musaf (the additional service) on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is found in that location in Siddur Rav Saadya Gaon as well as in several documents from the genizah. It ultimately appeared as part of the introduction to Malkhuyot in the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah in all rites. While there is one Genizah fragment that contains Alenu in the liturgy for Yom Kippur in its Musaf service, it was incorporated into the liturgy for Yom Kippur at a slightly slower pace than it was into that of Rosh Hashanah. Alenu gradually became one of the concluding prayers of daily services beginning in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries in the Franco-German region. It entered the morning Shaḥarit service first, and within a couple of centuries, it concluded all services, three times a day, throughout the entire liturgical year.

The Jews Own Manhattan

An eruv is one of the markers of a vibrant observant Jewish community, thus it is no surprise that there is an eruv around most of Manhattan. The Manhattan Eruv has an interesting history, and Adam Mintz has written a good overview of that history. The Manhattan Eruv has already been written up in the New York Times (twice), so it is no rookie when it comes to media coverage. One of the requirements of an eruv is that the area enclosed by the eruv must be private property, so you may be wondering how an eruv is constructed around Manhattan? Well, a recent news story from the New York Daily News tells us:

Jewish leaders came to City Hall Friday to renew the lease on the Manhattan eruv — a thin wire boundary that allows observant Jews to perform simple tasks on the Sabbath. As part of the lease renewal – which happens every 20 years — the city accepts a symbolic gift, which this year was a crisp five-dollar bill. Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier of Fifth Avenue Synagogue presented the gift to Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alicia Glen.

There is some disagreement over the original purchase price of Manhattan, but it seems that Rabbi Kermaier got a pretty good deal.

A Censored Volume of the Beit Yosef

Musings of a Jewish Bookseller has a nice post with images about a censored volume of the Beit Yosef, Even Ha-Ezer, that was printed in Venice in 1565. Apparently this censor was quite prudish about sexual matters.

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.)




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