Thursday, 23 May 2019

Meaning of the word "Yovel"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
What is the Meaning of the Word “Yovel”?

                  At Lev. 25:10, we are told: “[This year] shall be a ‘yovel’ to you. You will each return to your land….” What is the meaning of this word “yovel”?
                  Rashi notes that at Lev. 25:9 there is a statement that the shofar is blown to proclaim the “yovel” year. He concludes that the year is called “yovel” based on this shofar blowing. I.e., in Rashi’s view, “yovel” means something like “year when the ram’s horn is blown.”
                   What is the basis for Rashi’s explanation? The word “yovel” and words based on it (e.g., ha-hovel, ba-yovel, etc.) appear 27 times in Tanach. Of course, 21 of these times the reference is to the “yovel” year without any explanation. But four times in the sixth chapter of the book of Joshua we have references to “shofarot yovlim” or “shofarot ha-yovlim.” It is clear that the word means “ram” there. It is also clear that the word means “ram” at Joshua 6:5 and Ex. 19:13.
                  So there is a basis for Rashi’s explanation. But Ramban asks the obvious question on Rashi: Based on various mishnayot in masechet Rosh Ha-Shanah, we see that the shofar blown to declare the year of the “yovel” does not have to be specifically from a ram. The preferred animal for this shofar blowing is a “yael” (= goat).  So why would the year be called “the year when the ram is blown”? Moreover, the “yovel” year would much more likely have a name related to its fundamental aspect as a year of “dror“ (=freedom).
                  Therefore, Ramban takes a completely different approach to the word “yovel.” He cites verses such as Is. 23:7 (“yoviluha ragleha me-rachok lagur” =whose legs carried her off from afar to live) and Isa. 18:7 (“yuval shai”=a gift is brought) and shows that the root Y-B-L often has something to do with an object being brought. He believes that H-B-A-H (hava’ah), being brought, is the fundamental meaning of the root Y-B-L.   He concludes that this better accords with the plain sense of verse 25:10: “[This year] shall be a ‘yovel’ [=being brought] to you.  You will each return to your land…” 
                  Rav S.R. Hirsch agrees with Ramban. At Lev. 25:10, in the Hirsch commentary, “yovel” is translated as “homebringer”!
                  Modern scholars are in rough agreement with Ramban and Rav Hirsch about this root. They view Y-B-L as fundamentally a word meaning “movement” or “flow,” but they agree that it also has the related meaning of “being brought.”
                Other notable verses with the root Y-B-L are, Ps. 60:11: “mi yovileini ir matzor” (=who will lead me into the fortified city?), Isa. 53:7: “ka-se la-tevach yuval” (=as a lamb is led to the slaughter), and Isa. 55:12: “u-ve-shalom tuvalun” (=and you will be led out with peace). Also, the root Y-B-L is connected to water in several verses. See, e.g., Isa. 30:25 and 44:4, Jer. 17:8 and Ps. 1:3.                                         
                  I am telling you all of this because it helps us better understand the word “mabul.” The word “mabul” is commonly translated as “flood” (see, e.g., ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash and the Hertz Pentateuch.) But in order to truly understand the meaning of a word, we must determine its three letter root. There is no root M-B-L in Biblical Hebrew, so we have to look harder for the root. Also, an initial mem is usually not part of the root; it is what is added at the beginning to turn the word into a noun. So we have to figure out what third root letter was originally there and dropped out.

                    Some see the root as B-L-L, with the meaning: “mixture/intermingling/confusion.” (See, e.g., Ibn Ezra.) Others believe that the root is N-B-L, which has the meaning of “fall, decay, destroy.” (See, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Seforno,  Radak and Shadal.) But now we realize there is a third possibility: the root is Y-B-L, with its meaning of “movement, flow.” This is probably the correct approach. It is the approach adopted in the Daat Mikra. It is also adopted by Moses David Cassuto, and by many other modern scholars. (See, e.g., H. Tawil, an Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 196.) I discussed this all at length in an article at, from Oct. 2014.

                    Interestingly, Rashi conducts practically the same analysis of the word “mabul” that I did. In his explanation of the word at Gen. 6:17, he writes: “she-bilah et ha-kol, she-bilbel et ha-kol, she-hovil et ha-kol min ha-gavoha la-namukh…” “Bilah” means “destroy and wear down,” similar to N-B-L.  “Bilbel”means “mix,” the equivalent of B-L-L. “Hovil” means “move” and is from the root Y-B-L. But Rashi seems to believe that the word “mabul” was purposely chosen to convey all three connotations.
             Going back to our original word “yovel,” is there a connection between the “movement/bringing” meaning of “yovel” and the “ram” meaning?  Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Lev. 25:10) makes the following  suggestion:  “[T]he  ram is the leader of the flock, the one who ‘brings’ them to  their pasturage… who goes in front, and the flock following him, ‘brings them home.’ “ Such an approach is also taken by E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, entry for yovel=ram, p. 256 (“leader of the flock”). (I am mentioning this approach because it is interesting but I am not yet convinced.)

               What about the word “yevulah” in the second paragraph of the Shema? It turns out that Y-B-L also has the related meaning of “carry.” See, e.g., Ps. 76:12: “yovilu shai” (carry presents). In the Shema, the word “yevulah” is used to mean the produce of the land. Most likely, it has this meaning because produce must be carried in from the land. Alternatively, because produce “flows” from the land.

                   Finally, why is the “yovel” called the “jubilee” year in English? The first English translation of the Bible, the King James Version published in 1611, used the word “jubile.” (This was the spelling of our word “jubilee” at that time.) But why did they use this celebratory word? The answer is that those who were responsible for this English translation should have just transliterated from the Latin and wrote “jobel.” Instead, they got a bit creative and used the word “jubile” which they knew had a positive, celebratory meaning. In this way, they created a connection between the fiftieth year and a jubiliant celebration that is absent from the Tanach. (I admit that the fiftieth year is a year of “dror”/freedom. But this is not the same as a year of joy.)


Mitchell First can be reached at  He is jubilantly looking forward to the next jubilee year, but unfortunately we seem to have lost the jubilee year count long ago.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Anti-vaxxers and Anti-gunners

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Rabbi Mark Weiner
Anti-vaxxers and Anti-gunners

When I was a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) resident at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I was taught to reflect upon my emotions. When I hear of the growing negative feelings towards anti-vaxxers, I realize that I hold a growing negative series of emotions towards anti-gunners and begin to compare the two groups.
Why? In today's climate I have developed negative feelings towards experts that might be discouraging congregations from having licensed concealed carry permit holders from bringing their defensive weapons to houses of worship in states where these permits are accessible. 
There have been two horrible major attacks on synagogues recently.  This year is also the first time that I recall that a terrorist has stated specifically that he wanted to kill a rabbi.  "Joseph also stated specifically that he wanted to kill a rabbi."  This terrorist is not in my prison but this is a situation we should be concerned with. 

Why do I feel so negatively when I hear even in today's climate there are people who are naïve about the need to protect our synagogues with legitimate legal methods of defense?

There is a basic mandate of self-defense in Halacha/Jewish law.  There is a basic Talmudic saying: 'If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, 58A).'
Do I feel this way because of the two tragic shooting attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway?  Rabbi Goldstein of Poway should be praised for encouraging the off-duty border patrol officer to bring his gun to the synagogue where he was able to use it in defense of the congregation.

Perhaps I am so strong in promoting the need to have licensed firearms in our synagogues because of my experience in the military ministering to so many wounded and deceased.

Maybe it is my background as a prison chaplain having regular contact sometimes on a daily basis with radicalized terrorists, white supremacists and murderers, etc.

I must state that I am only speaking of my personal views using public information and not representing any agency.

From my regular conversations with radicalized terrorists that have shown up in the news over recent years, I know that most appear or present themselves as polite young men from different ethnic backgrounds that might not stand out as they approach your institutions’ doors. I know terrorists who have tried to set off bombs, shoot up a mall, tried to join Al Qaeda or ISIS or recruit for ISIS over the Internet.  There was the white supremacist who tried to burn out his minority neighbor.  Maybe it is knowing two cousins who were planning an attack on an Illinois National Guard facility.

Maybe it was speaking to a congressman from out of state who sat on the House Armed Services Committee, and expressing my concern about the lack of security at military reserve centers. That conversation was two weeks before the horrible attack on a Naval Reserve Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee where we lost three sailors and a marine in a terrorist attack.

Maybe it was having spoken to one of the Mumbai terrorists that lived near the Chicago Jewish community and was arrested before we knew of the Mumbai connection, on his way to Denmark with Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s book To Pray as a Jew in his possession. This was the individual that was found to have done reconnaissance prior to the horrible Mumbai attack that included the horrible bloodshed at the Chabad House.

Maybe my concerns stem from being down the block from the anti-Semitic shootings near Yeshiva University in Washington Heights and seeing my friends wounded while sitting in a restaurant.

Perhaps maybe it was being around the corner during the July 4, 1999 weekend shootings when white supremacist Ben Smith shot people walking home from the Friday night service that I also attended. I saw a father who is a medical doctor is treating his wounded son in front of their house and knowing the effects upon other wounded from that incident. I saw a fast response time by our local police but it was not fast enough to prevent the shooter from going up to Skokie where he shot and killed a black Northwestern University basketball coach, and the next day killed a worshiper at a Korean church in Indiana before he was stopped.
A guard at the door of the synagogue although vital, would not prevent attacks on congregants walking home. The above attack occurred before the State of Illinois had concealed carry permits available.

Maybe it was hearing on the news about the Fort Dix 6 arrested before their planned shooting attack at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I worked at the time both in the prison and for the army reserve. 

I learned that these radicalized terrorists had been planning the attack in an apartment a few blocks from both where I lived and the synagogue I attended.  I also learned that two of the terrorists the summer before had been working as roofers on the roof of another rabbi’s house on the next block from where I lived. 

These people are out there in our communities and I feel is dangerous to be naïve and lax about the need for serious security in our institutions. 

An armed security guard at our institutions’ doors is a vital basic step, but it is not enough as we realize that during an attack, if the guard is taken out, there is no real defense. Response by a gun permit holder on site is vital for saving lives.

Time and time again we have learned that it is somebody on site with a weapon that is the only way to stop and minimize fatalities. People die in the minutes it takes for even the best police response.

We know of a number of attacks on places of worship or study where bloody attacks were stopped only with the response of a defender with a gun. This occurred In Israel in 2008 when a reservist stopped the shooting of high school students at the Yeshivat Mercaz Harav library in Jerusalem.  It occurred when someone with a gun stopped the shooting at a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015.  There was also the case of St. James Anglican Church in Kenilworth, Cape Town, South Africa, on 25 July 1993, when someone with a handgun in the back of the church was able to put an end to the massacre.

Clergy may have concerns about the safety of guns in the congregation, but I believe the risks are minimal compared to the real threats that we face in our communities at this time.  Again, I cannot be naïve or for that matter, silent, because of what I have seen and experienced and who I know are out there in our communities, not just from newspaper articles but from personal contact.  I do not understand congregations that are more afraid of their members with guns then they are of terrorists.

For those looking for more background information I recommend the important academic research by University of Illinois economist John R. Lott, Jr., Ph.D. on crime and firearms protection such as his More Guns Less Crime.   
The expression, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” is not just a soundbite.  It is a statistical reality and a clear call to protect our congregations and their families and our families.  Think of the words of Chazal (the sages of the Talmud) and our mandate to defend ourselves.

Mark S. Weiner, Ed.D.
Chaplain (LTC) U.S. Army (Retired)

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Review of Rabbi Bashevkin's new book about Sin and Failure in Judaism

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought
Rabbi David Bashevkin, director of education for NCSY, and an instructor at Yeshiva University (and Teaneck resident) has just authored a fascinating book. The creative title is: Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Cherry Orchard Books, 2019). There is much to be learned from this book. I am going to present a very small sample.
In an early chapter on the origin of sin, he analyzes the creation story. The story of the sin of Adam and Chavah starts in the last verse in chapter 2, long after the first week of creation is described. But how does the Talmud understand the timing of the story? According to the Talmud (San. 38b), the sin took place on erev Shabbat and they were banished from the Garden on erev Shabbat as well. Bashevkin writes: “The Talmud’s chronology is startling. We are used to thinking about the sin of Adam and Eve as a perversion of God’s pristine creation…Creation is complete- sin destroys the perfect world. The Talmud’s chronology tells a very different story. The story of Adam and Eve’s sin was a part of the seven days of creation.”
What did sin create? Bashevkin explains that sin created Adam’s sense of self. Following the sin, Adam emerged as an autonomous being with free will and capable of choice.
A verse in Mishlei (24:16) reads “the righteous fall seven times and stand up.” Bashevkin cites a famous interpretation of this verse by Rav Hutner. It is not despite their failures that the righteous stand up- it is because of their failures. Greatness does not emerge despite failure; it is a product of failure.
Sin can be viewed as a physical burden that one carries. But another way to look at it is as a debt that one owes to God. In the latter image, being a Rebbe can be viewed as the way the sinner pays off his own debt to God. The Rebbe atones for his own sins by bringing others to repentance!
Just like Eskimoes have many words for snow, Judaism has many words for sin. For example: chet, avon, and pesha. A mainstream view is that each of these words reflects a different degree of intent. A chet is a sin committed inadvertently. An avon is an intentional sin. A pesha is a sin that is committed intentionally but also meant as an act of rebellion. Bashevkin writes: “An otherwise minor infraction can be classified as a pesha if the sinner committed such an act as a marked act of rebellion against God. Conversely, an egregious sin can be characterized as a chet if the sin was unintentional. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the severity of sin, according to the Talmud, is in the mind of the transgressor.” He contrasts this to American law, where the severity of the crime is typically measured by the severity of the punishment.
He has an interesting discussion of the word “aveirah.” This word, frequently used for sin in the Mishna, is not found in the Tanach. The Tanach does have “la-avor” as a verb indicating that a sin has been committed (i.e., a line has been crossed). He quotes a scholar who explains that “many Biblical verbs later emerged within Mishnaic literature as conceptualized nouns.” (Another example is the noun “shekhinah.”)
Why did “aveirah” become such a common term for sin in rabbinic literature? He suggests that rabbinic Judaism was establishing more and more legal borders, so the image of sin being a crossing of a border became more and more appropriate. Then he suggests another answer, which is admittedly more homiletical. The root “ayin-bet-resh” also means “the past.” Sin consists of being mired in your past behavior, while repentance involves changing one’s behavior and taking control of the future.
There is a famous passage in Rambam (based on a passage in the Talmud) that teshuva gemurah consists of being in the same situation with the same woman and not sinning again. But the unresolved issue is: should the sinner be putting himself into this situation again? He discusses the varied rabbinic approaches to this issue and postulates a disagreement between two Chasidic masters. He also notes that, in the secular world, a similar problem arises with cured alcoholics. What do they do after recovery? Should they be frequenting the locations again or should they be avoiding them?
The book quotes a wide variety of sources: Jewish and secular. To quote from the review of Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb: This is a “book that can be read as a masterful theater production, upon whose stage a wide-ranging variety of characters are in dialogue with each other: Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor with Jonah..; 19th century Chassidic masters with 21st century thinkers…” To quote from another reviewer, “by weaving together classical Judaic sources…with contemporary discussions from ethicists, scientists, social scientists, literary figures, and philosophers, Bashevkin brings alive material the secular world had no access to, and material the ‘yeshiva’ world did not know existed.”
Even though Bashevkin admits that he often found hagiographic rabbinic stories inspiring, the book makes a strong case against the fantasized depiction of great figures that shield such figures from the sins and failures that helped make them great.
He has a chapter on the tanna Elishah ben Avuyah who left our tradition and came to be known as “acher.” Another chapter is about the mid-20th century figure, “Brother Daniel.” He was born a Jew, became a monk, and then tried to make aliyah under the law of return. This resulted in a famous case in the Israeli court system which needed to define “Jew” under the law of return. Another chapter is on the difficulties faced by rabbi’s sons. (He points out that long ago, the Talmud, at Ned. 81a, asks an analogous question: why do the children of talmidei chakhamim often not end up as talmidei chakhamim? The Talmud suggests a few answers.)
The author points out that, while he wants his book on your shelf, it should certainly not be the only book on your shelf!
The best part of the book is the last line in his biography on the back cover: He begins his blurb normally: “David Bashevkin is the director of education for NCSY…. .“ Then he concludes: “David has been rejected from several prestigious fellowships and awards.” As he points out throughout the book, failure is a normal part of life. This was his contribution to biography blurb truthtelling!
P.S. I also learned from this book that one of the leaders of the American Atheist movement invented a ritual for Christians to reverse their baptism: With a blowdryer, he would symbolically blowdry the liquid remnants of the baptism out of the supplicant’s hair!
Mitchell First is willing to admit his main failure in life: He has spent a lot of time solving historical and etymological problems, but not enough time promoting his personal injury law business!