Thursday, 13 December 2018

Meaning of She'ol

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First  
What is the Origin of the Word “She’ol” (=Netherworld)?
I wrote a column about this word before. But I thought about it again when I wrote my new book Roots and Rituals, and there I revised some of my original conclusions. So I am writing my revised thoughts here.
The netherworld location she’ol is mentioned over sixty times in Tanach. On the simplest level, it is a large place, located deep underground, where the bodies and spirits of dead people dwell (perhaps spending most of their time sleeping.) The verb Y-R-D (=go down) is used in conjunction with she’ol thirteen times.
My question is whether we can relate this place name she’ol to our well-known root Shin-Aleph-Lamed which appears almost 200 times in Tanach with meanings like “ask a question,” and “demand/ask/borrow an object”?
It seems that sh’eol as a term for the netherworld originated in Hebrew (although it is found as a loanword from Hebrew in a few other languages). This means that I will not be able to surprise you with an insight from another language.
In the ancient world, dead people were sometimes consulted for advice. Recall the story at I Samuel (chapter 28) of Saul going to a “baalat ov” to bring the deceased Samuel back for consultation. She’ol is nowhere mentioned in this story, but the fact that Samuel had to be “brought up” is mentioned a few times. This implies that he was located in an underground location. Accordingly, sh’eol can be viewed as “a place that you consult with.” But there is only one such consultation story in Tanach.
Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has a long discussion of our word, presenting many possibilities. The most creative approach suggested is that we should not view the shin as a root letter in this word. Rather, it is a prefix and the root of the word is aleph-lamed. Aleph-Lamed appears many times in Tanach as a word of negation, and seems to have originally meant “nothing.” See, e.g., Job 24:25. With the shin as a prefix, the word could have meant “make into nothing,” “belonging to nothingness,” or “place of nothingness.”
A very interesting suggestion is made by Rav S. R. Hirsch (in his commentary to Psalms 9:18). He states that the grave is called she’ol because it demands the body back. Rav Hirsch’s comment is very brief, but I would like to expand on it. Perhaps there was an ancient belief that, while we attempt to live on earth, there is an opposing force called she’ol which tries to pull us down below, like gravity. She’ol is even described as having “cords” to pull people. See Psalms 18:6 (chevlei Sheol sevavuni). But perhaps the primary purpose of those cords was to restrain people from leaving she’ol.
I also saw a suggestion that she’ol is called this because it is never satisfied and always asks for more (i.e., more dead people to absorb.) The idea that she’ol is never satisfied is found explicitly at Proverbs 27:20 and 30:15-16. (See also Isaiah 5:14 and Habakkuk 2:5.)
But the most likely suggestion proposes that she’ol derives from the root Shin-Aleph-He and that the final lamed is not part of the root. There are many examples in Tanach of words with final lameds that are probably not part of the root. See, e.g., “carmel,” and “arafel,” and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, pp. 287, 487 and 664.

The root Shin-Aleph-He has meanings like “loud noise,” “crash into ruins,” and “desolation.” (Probably, it originally meant “loud noise.” See, e.g, Zech. 4:7. Then it encompassed the meaning “crash into ruins” because of the loud noise. Finally, it developed into “desolation,” since this is the fate of ruins. )

Although “loud noise” and “crash into ruins” would not seem to fit she’ol, perhaps “desolation” can be seen as a main aspect of she’ol, so she’ol can mean “place of desolation.” This approach is taken in the scholarly Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon. At first I did not like this suggestion because she’ol was probably viewed as a crowded place, since it was the destination of everyone. But perhaps it was viewed as desolate of material objects, or at least desolate of comforting material objects. For example, at Isaiah 14:11 it is implied that when one lies down there, one lies on top of maggots and one is covered with worms. I.e., there is nothing to lie down upon there, and no blankets to cover oneself.
Of course, she’ol is not described sufficiently in Tanach, and all of these suggestions are speculative. You are free to reject them and conclude that she’ol may have just meant “deep pit” and has no connection to our familiar root. She’ol is parallel to “bor” in many verses in Tanach. (See, e.g., Psalms 30:4.)
I would like to add that one friend suggested that she’ol may have received its name because the individuals walk around there constantly feeling that they are lacking things. I.e., they are constantly “asking.” Another friend suggested that the place received its name because, upon arrival there, one is questioned about one’s life! Finally, there is an old saying that “one does not die from asking a question.” In light of she’ol being the name for the netherworld, perhaps we should re-examine this old saying!

Regarding the story of Saul bringing up the spirit of the dead Samuel for consultation, I would like to make an interesting observation. What was Samuel’s first comment on being raised? If I were composing the narrative, I would have had Samuel make a comment like: “It’s nice to see some flesh and blood people for a change!” (Or perhaps: “Please get me a tasty slice of ox. I have been longing for one for a while!”) Instead, what does Samuel say? “Lamah hirgaztani le-haalot oti?” =Why are you bothering me! This suggests that she’ol, presumably where Samuel was, was viewed (at least by the author of the book of Samuel) as a somewhat restful place. (But note that midrashically, many of the she’ol references in Tanach are interpreted as “Gehinnom,” a place of punishment. See, e.g., Rashi to Genesis 37:35.)
It is also interesting that, when Samuel was brought up, he was wearing his robe (me’il). This suggests that it was assumed that people dressed in she’ol in the same type of clothes that they wore above ground! See also Ezekiel 32:27 (warriors go there with their war weapons).
Going back to our word she’ol, it is of course ironic that scholars have made extensive efforts inquiring about the meaning of the word she’ol. This is as humorous as the fact that Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, describes the word safek (=doubt) as “of uncertain origin”!
Finally, on a homiletical level, perhaps she’ol is called this to remind us that we are all on “borrowed time” on this earth! We should all use our time here wisely! I thank Shulamis Hes for this inspiring thought.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. When he has a large enough number of difficult words, he may consult with she’ol and bother the wise king Solomon for a consultation. In the interim, he can be reached at

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Mussar - V'al Nissecha ...sheB'chol Yom

originally posted Nov. 23, 2010

Hanukkah is a time for celebrating miracles. Enjoy this list of miraculous thoughts!

23. "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."
Albert Einstein
24. "The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
25. "Expect a Miracle!" James Dillet Freeman
57. "Miracles, in the sense of phenomena we cannot explain, surround us on every hand: life itself is the miracle of miracles."
George Bernard Shaw
58. "The world is full of wonders and miracles but man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing." Israel Baal Shem
For more Miracle Quotations see Bella Online.


Thursday, 6 December 2018

Meaning of Chashmonai

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

The Identity and Meaning of “Chashmonai”
The term “Chashmonai” is widely used in the rabbinic literature about Chanukkah. But nowhere in I Maccabees and II Maccabees is the term used, and these were works composed only a few decades after the revolt of Matityahu and his sons. (The revolt took place in 167-164 B.C.E.). So who or what exactly is “Chashmonai”?
Already in the late 1st century, it seems that the identity of “Chashmonai” was a mystery to Josephus. Josephus must have heard of the name since he descended from this family. Yet he contradicts himself regarding it. In his Jewish War (I, 36) he identifies Chashmonai as the father of Matityahu. But in his later work Antiquities (XII, 265) he identifies Chashmonai as the great-grandfather of Matityahu. Probably, his approach in Antiquities is the result of his learning from I Maccabees 2:1 that Matityahu was the son of a John who was the son of a Simon, and then deciding to integrate the name Chashmonai with this data by making him the father of Simon. It is very likely that Josephus had no actual knowledge of the identity of Chashmonai and was just speculating here. It is too coincidental that he places Chashmonai as the father of Simon, where there is room for him. If Josephus truly had a tradition from his family about the specific identity of Chashmonai, it would already have been included in his Jewish War. (Scholars have observed that it seems that that Josephus did not have I Macc. in front of him when writing his Jewish War.)
The name “Chashmonai” appears many times in the Babylonian Talmud, but usually the references are vague. The references are either to “beit Chashmonai,” “malkhut Chashmonai,” “malkhut beit Chashmonai,” “malkhei beit Chashmonai,” or “beit dino shel Chashmonai.”

At Megillah 11a there is a reference to an individual named Chashmonai, but neither his father nor his son(s) are named. The standard printed text here implies that Chashmonai is not Matityahu, mentioning “Shimon ha-Tzaddik ve-Chashmonai u-vanav u-Matityah kohen gadol… There are also midrashim on Chanukkah that refer to a Chashmonai who was a separate person from Matityahu and who was instrumental in the revolt.

But the fact that I Maccabees does not mention any separate individual named Chashmonai involved in the revolt strongly suggests that there was no such individual. (The lack of mention of Chashmonai in II Maccabees is not significant.) Moreover, there are alternative readings at Megillah 11a. Also, the midrashim on Chanukkah that refer to a Chashmonai who was a separate person from Matityahu are very late midrashim.
It seems from I Maccabees that there was no separate person named Chashmonai at the time of the revolt. And I have argued that the statement of Josephus that Chashmonai was the great-grandfather of Matityahu is only a conjecture. If so, who was Chashmonai?
There are two Tannaitic references to Chashmonai. Let us look at them. One of these is Mishnah Middot 1:6: “ganzo bnei Chashmonai et avnei ha-mizbeach she-shiktzum malkhei Yavan.” (This is the text in the earliest Mishnah manuscript, the Kaufmann manuscript.) From here, it seems that Chashmonai may just be another name for Matityahu. This is also the implication of Chashmonai in many of the later rabbinic passages. (See, e.g., Bereshit Rabbah 99:2, and Tanchuma Va-Yechi 14.)
The other Tannaitic source for Chashmonai is Seder Olam, chap. 30. Here the language is: “malkhut beit Chashmonai meah ve-shalosh =the dynasty of the House of Chashmonai, 103 [years].” Although one does not have to interpret Chashmonai here as a reference to Matityahu, this interpretation can at least fit this passage (even though many other interpretations would fit as well.)
I would like to take the position, based on the Mishnah in Middot, that Chashmonai was just another way of referring to Matityahu, i.e., an additional name that he had. 1 Maccabees states that each of his sons had additional names, so it is reasonable to suppose that Matityahu had one too. (People did not have last names in antiquity, so additional names were common. They helped distinguish someone from others with the same name.)
But here is the issue: I Maccabees, which stated that each of Matityahu’s sons had an additional name, and provided the name, did not make any such statement in the case of Matityahu himself.
So we need to find an explanation of why, if Matityahu had an additional name, I Maccabees would have avoided giving it to us.
An explanation for this has been suggested. But first let me discuss the meaning of the name. We do not know what it means, but the most widely held view is that it derives from a place that some ancestor of Matityahu hailed from a few generations earlier. (Matityahu and his immediate ancestors hailed from Modein.) For example, Joshua 15:27 refers to a place called Cheshmon in the area of the tribe of Judah. Alternatively, a location Chashmonah is mentioned at Numbers 33:29-30 as one of the places that the Israelites encamped in the desert.
Going back to our question, scholars now realize that I Maccabees was a polemical work: the main purpose of the work was the glorification of Matityahu in order to legitimize the rule of his descendants. There is evidence for this throughout the book. (See particularly 5:62.) Their rule needed legitimization because the family was not from the priestly watch of Yedayah, the most prominent watch. Traditionally, the high priest came from this watch. (Of course, the rule of Matityahu’s descendants would have needed additional legitimization even if Matitayahu came from the watch of Yedayah. His descendants were priests and not from the tribe of Judah or the Davidic line.).
Perhaps, it has been suggested (see, e.g., J. Goldstein, I Maccabees, pp. 17-19), the author of I Maccabees left out the additional name for Matityahu because it would remind readers of the obscure origin of the dynasty. Reminding readers of this would be inconsistent with the purpose of the book. So we can now suggest that Chashmonai was the additional name of Matityahu and we have a reasonable explanation for why I Maccabees omitted it.
1. I did not rely on Al-Hanissim in the above discussion of Chashmonai. Like most of us, I used to think that this prayer was composed in the 2nd century B.C.E. Now I think that this is not the case and that the prayer had a later origin.
2. The two earliest Mishnah manuscripts (Kaufmann and Parma) spell the name Chashmonai with two yods at the end (=no aleph). This was probably the original spelling. This is also how the name is spelled in the Jerusalem Talmud. See Taanit 2:12 and Megillah 1:4. As is the case with many other names that end with aleph-yod (such as Shammai), the aleph-yod spelling is probably a later variation that reflected the spelling practice in Babylonia.
In the Kaufmann Mishnah manuscript, there is a patach under the nun and a chirik under the first yod. Also, the vav has a shuruk. This means that “Chashmunai” may have been the original pronunciation. (The Kaufmann manuscript dates to the 10th or 11th century, but the vocalization was inserted later. The Parma manuscript does not have vocalization in Middot.)
3. There was no group at the time of Matityahu and his sons called “Chashmonaim.” Josephus, writing at the end of the first century C.E. is the first person to use the plural.
To end with some humor: When he was a young child in school, David Gertler heard his teacher talking about Matityahu and his five sons and then heard his teacher calling him “Chashmonai.” David then came up with the idea that “Chashmonai” must have been called this because he had five sons, and that Ch-M-Sh simply evolved into Ch-Sh-M!
This is an abridgement of my article at on Nov. 27, 2013, and included in my book Esther Unmasked (2015).
Mitchell First is a kohen. Based on his name “First,” he speculates that he was from the first mishmar, Yedayah. He can be reached at, but a change to may be forthcoming!

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

JVO Blog: Chanukah – The Holiday of Judaism's Oral Law

originally posted on Dec. 19, 2017

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website now offers a new service -- a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

Chanukah – The Holiday of Judaism's Oral Law

is now available at
A link is also up on Facebook at

Sunday, 2 December 2018

JVO Blog -- Why Be Jewish?: Defining the Question

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website also offers a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

Why Be Jewish?

Defining the Question
is now available at

A link is also up on Facebook at  

While comments are most welcome at both these sites, as we also would like to develop a discussion on this topic here at Nishmablog, we also present the article below

* * * * *

            Why be Jewish?  It seems to be a simple, straightforward question, often employed to begin  a presentation on the accolades and benefits in choosing to be a Jew. The problem is, in the vast majority of cases, this question, understood in this manner, is actually inappropriate and problematic. While there are, indeed, some ‘Jews by choice’ -- that is, people who have chosen to become Jews (i.e. gerim [generally translated as converts]) – the status of being a Jew, in the vast majority of cases, is imposed on a person at birth. The natural child of a female Jew is, pursuant to Halacha [Jewish Law], by definition, a Jew. You cannot, thus, really ask such a person ‘why be Jewish’ – that is, why he/she should choose to be a Jew – because, by definition, he/she simply is. The question, however, is still being constantly posed and in a vast array of circumstances. To make some sense of this, we must in turn ask: what exactly is one really asking with this question?
            Of course, we could try to say that when such a question is posed, it is really solely intended for the convert – the Jew by choice – specifically asking these individuals why they chose to become Jews. The circumstances in which we see this question raised, though, obviously point to a much broader context; we find it directed at all Jews. The reality is that this question is not really about our simple identity as a Jew but about the expression of our identity as a Jew, our Jewishness. There has always been an associated distinctive system (or systems) of thought and behaviour which we may term Jewishness that was connected to the natural identity, from birth, of a Jew. What this question is thus really asking is why one chooses to integrate this Jewishness into one’s life. Just being a Jew does not necessarily mean that one will reflect Jewishness in one’s life. Active Jewishness has to be chosen; thus, the question: why be Jewish?
            It was actually this Jewishness which motivated the ‘Jew by choice’ to become a Jew. It was the desire to connect to Jewishness that led this person to adopt the very identity of being a Jew. In first wishing to incorporate Jewishness in his/her life, this person then chose to become a Jew. Concerning one born a Jew, what we are now actually identifying is that this process is precisely the opposite. Being born a Jew does not necessarily result in a person adopting Jewishness. There is the status identity of being a Jew and then there is Jewishness. With the question ‘why be Jewish’, we are thus not actually investigating why one is a Jew but, rather, we are beginning a discussion of Jewishness. You may be a Jew but now why be Jewish – why choose to integrate Jewishness into your life?
            On a certain level, this distinction between the identity of a Jew and the concept of Jewishness is already acknowledged within the general Jewish community. For example, it was basically accepted that Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris, was clearly, by the standards of Halacha, a Jew. but that his lifestyle in no way reflected Jewishness. His lack of Jewishness, however, did not make him no longer a Jew. Pursuant to Halacha, in fact, it would be wrong to say he was no longer a Jew. It would be more correct to state, rather, that he was a Jew who lived a life that did not reflect Jewishness. The problem in our world today, though, is that this distinction is no longer so clear. The definition of Jew and Jewishness is, in a certain way, becoming more and more integrated. In one way, this leads to some declaring that if one’s being does not reflect Jewishness (as they define it), that person is not a Jew. In the extreme opposite manner, though, others seem to maintain that once you call yourself a Jew, you are almost inherently defined as reflecting Jewishness. The resultant effect is, actually, extreme confusion about identity and Jewishness.
            The recent case of the Messianic Rabbi who spoke at a rally in Michigan that followed the recent, tragic shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, may serve as an illustration of this problem. It was argued that he was clearly not a representative of the Jewish People (let alone a leader) as he, simply, was not a Jew. This was then met with the response that this argument was incorrect for he clearly was, from birth. The more correct argument, of course, was that, just like Cardinal Lustiger, his lifestyle in no way reflects Jewishness and it is for that reason that he could not be presented as a representative of the Jewish People. The only thing is that, unlike the Cardinal, this individual was contending that he was reflecting Jewishness, at least as he defines it. Murmurings then began to arise which reflected the challenge of a more problematic broader issue. So what’s the problem? That’s the way he defines his Jewishness. Isn’t the nature of one’s Jewishness essentially personal and how one defines it for oneself? If it is not, how, then, do we define it?
            This issue actually goes beyond this Messianic Rabbi and extends, for example, to the  existence of variant organizations today which define themselves as Jewish – even in their name – although they only draw the ire of the general Jewish community. And if Jewishness is solely a personal decision, why can’t they indeed describe themselves as such? Of course, the reality is that Jewishness, actually, reflects a group definition; it defines a certain association with others. As such, it cannot be totally personal – it, by definition, describes a certain connection others. But then, what really is the nature of this connection to others?
            In a certain way, people want the definition of Jewishness to be essentially personal for it thereby allows for broader flexibility in how one may define it for oneself. The nature of the group definition, though, has, thereby,suffered. We may, in fact, have wanted to focus on the more objective definition of a Jew – by birth – because it allowed for the possibility of broader personal definitions of Jewishness. It may thus be, though, that those who founded the above noted organizations, which call themselves Jewish although at odds with the general Jewish community, felt that they could do so because they were born Jews. As noted above, however, the question of ‘who is a Jew’ and the definition of Jewishness are not one and the same. Furthermore, as Jewishness reflects the nature of a group with whom I wish to be involved, there are simply problems when we believe this definition to solely be personal. Yet, how do we actually arrive at an honest group definition that is not simply an attempt to impose one’s personal definition on everyone? What are the yardsticks to be applied in such a process?
            Why be Jewish? First, we have to arrive at some understanding of what Jewishness is. My hope is to continue this study and investigation next time. In the meantime, please comment; I look forward to your thoughts on the matter.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Mussar: Purifying the Mind

originally published Jan. 25, 2014

Derech Emet:
Yaarot Debash, Volume 2 of 2,
Derush 5:
To purify thoughts, nothing helps more than Torah [study] and rejoicing about performing good deed[s] [simchah shel mitzvah]. 

Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz was born in Kraków (Poland) in 1690 CE, became dayan [Rabbinical Judge] of Prague (Czech Republic) in 1736 CE,
became Rabbi of Metz (northeast France near Germany) in 1741 CE, and died in Altona (Germany) in 1764 CE.
Yaarot Debash volume 1 was published in Lvov in 1798 CE;
volume 2 in 1799 CE.

Kol Tuv,

Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Division of the Torah into Five Books

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First  

The Division of the Torah into Five Books
I came across an interesting article recently. The article is by a scholar named Elaine Goodfriend, and it discusses the division of the Torah into Five Books. We are so used to this division take we take it for granted. But the article inquires: 1) when did this division start? and 2) what was its purpose?
The earliest references to the division of the Torah into five books are found in statements by Philo. He was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Egypt in the early first century C.E. In two different works (On Abraham, and On the Eternity of the World), he notes that the Torah has five books, but he does not give any reason. (His lack of explanation for this is somewhat surprising. He loved to explain the symbolic meanings of numbers in Jewish traditions.)
Josephus (Against Apion, I, 8) also refers to the division of the Torah into five books. Josephus was writing towards the end of the first century C.E.
Do we have evidence for the division into five books any earlier than Philo and Josephus? Scholars have observed that the Greek translations of the different books of the Pentateuch have different styles. This suggests that they had different translators. This implies that the books of the Torah were already separate books before their translation into Greek in the mid-third century B.C.E.
There is other evidence that suggests the antiquity of the division of the Torah into five books: the fact that the book of Tehillim is divided into five books. Very likely that division was meant as a parallel to the five-book division of the Torah.
How early is the division of Tehillim into five books? I admit that when I first saw this division years ago in the back of the ArtScroll siddur, I thought it was something they had invented! How wrong I was! This division is already implicit in Tanach!
Here are the verses that close the first four books of Tehillim:
- Book 1/Chapter 41: Barukh Hashem Elokey Yisrael me-ha-olam ve-ad ha-olam amen ve-amen.
- Book 2/Chapter 72: U-Varuch shem kevodo le-olam ve-yimale khevodo et kol ha-aretz amen ve-amen. Kalu tefilot David ben Yishai.
- Book 3/Chapter 89: Barukh Hashem le-olam amen ve-amen.
- Book 4/Chapter 106: Barukh Hashem Elokey Yisrael me-ha-olam ve-ad ha-olam, ve-amar kol ha-am amen hallelluyah.
As you can see the above verses are all very similar. Moreover, the above verses are the only verses in Tehillim in which the word “amen,” a liturgical response, appears. Accordingly, most scholars see these as special verses marking the end of each book of Tehillim. (As to chapter 72, it is easily seen that this verse marks the end of a book.)
Since these verses appear in the Greek translation of Tehillim as well, they must have been present in the Hebrew before its translation into Greek. The translation of the book of Tehillim into Greek took place in the 2nd century B.C.E., although a third century B.C.E. date has also been suggested.
(Very likely, most of the books of Tehillim originated as independent collections. This is seen, for example, by the fact that chapter 53 (in book 2) is an almost identical repetition of chapter 14, and chapter 70 (a superscription plus 5 verses) is an almost identical repetition of chapter 40:14-18. Note also the end of book 2: “Kalu tefilot David ben Yishai” =the tefillot of David ben Yishai are finished. This sounds like it was once the end of an independent collection. With regard to books 4 and 5, a widespread view is that these were originally one book and then artificially divided so that there would be a total of five books.)
OK, so we have established the relative antiquity of the five-part division of the Torah. But for what purpose was this division made? Was the Torah perhaps designed as a book to be organized in five parts?
A simple explanation for five books might be that in ancient times it was difficult to write a work as long as the Torah on one scroll. However, there is a large disparity between the lengths of the five books. Here are the number of words in each: 1) Genesis: 20,512, 2) Exodus 16,723, 3) Leviticus 11,950, 4) Numbers 16,368, and 5) Deuteronomy, 14,294. If size was the sole factor, we would have expected a much more even distribution.
Therefore Goodfriend suggests that a division into 5 may have been the original plan. She also observes that is easy to see why Genesis is a book into itself. It focuses on a family that constitutes the ancestors of Israel. Israel as a people (“am”) only appears for the first time in Exodus 1:9. Goodfriend also observes that Deuteronomy is fittingly its own book. It has a major theme: an address by Moses that begins the book and runs through most of it.
The issue, as Goodfriend sees it, is why Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were divided into a total of three separate books, given that there was much overlap between them.
One approach Goodfriend mentions is that the five-book arrangement highlights Leviticus as the central panel. This may have been done to emphasize the importance of the sacrificial services described there. Or, taking an entirely different approach, when Leviticus is made central, the holiness section at chapter 19 (“kedoshim tihiyu”), and the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (19:18), end up being roughly at the center of the center of the Torah, emphasizing their importance.
Of course, neither 19:2 (“kedoshim tihiyu”) nor 19:18 are at the exact middle of Leviticus. Moreover, Goodfriend observes that a seven-book Torah could also have accomplished the goal of having Leviticus and chapter 19 roughly in the middle. Goodfriend decides instead that we should look for symbolism in the number “five” or its equivalent, the letter “heh.”
With regard to the letter “heh,” this was the letter added to the names of Sarah and Abraham to indicate their new relationship with God. “Heh” is also two of the letters of the four-letter name of God. Of course, “heh” may not have been viewed as connected with the number “five” in this ancient era, pre-1000 B.C.E. (Exactly when letter-number equivalencies came into use is a bit of a question. ---This deserves its own column!) So instead of focusing on the symbolism of the letter “heh,” we should focus on the possible symbolism of the number “five.”
The number five may symbolize the fingers of God’s hand. God is described in Tanach as having both an “etzba” and a “yad.”
The “yad” of God is connected with prophecy in the book of Yechezkel. See, e.g., verse 1:3: “va-tehi alav sham yad Hashem.” See also I Kings 18:46 and 2 Kings 3:15.
An image of a benevolent God with a “yad” is found at Ezra 8:22. Ezra writes: “For I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us against any enemy on the way, since we had told the king ‘The hand of our God is for all who seek him le-tovah...’ .”
Goodfriend also reminds us that the luchot were “written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18.)
Accordingly, Goodfriend suggests that the five-ness of the Torah functions as “a subtle image for God’s hand and thus represents God’s presence,” and “the Torah’s five-ness may have suggested that the divine hand- conveyor of revelation and benevolence- rests not only upon prophets and priests, but upon the entire nation who received the Torah.”
Of course, this is speculative. But it is at least thought-provoking and we have learned much along the way!
The article I summarized above is: Dr. Elaine Goodfriend, “Why is the Torah Divided into Five Books?” It can be found online.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He has authored two books already, his third is forthcoming. He now aspires to write five!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

US Jewish self-rejection in the face of political anti-Semitism

From RRW

US Jewish self-rejection in the face of political anti-Semitism

Matthew M. Hausman, י"ג בכסלו תשע"ט, 11/21/2018

When Jeremy Corbyn and other members of the Labour Party make anti-Semitic comments or impugn Israel’s legitimacy, British Jews denounce them as bigots and question the party’s moral integrity.  But when American Democrats embrace anti-Semitic ideologues, endorse the BDS movement, or apply classical stereotypes to Israel, Jewish liberals cling to the party and deny bigotry within its ranks.  Or worse, they jump on the Israel-bashing bandwagon and become vocal critics of traditional Jewish values.

Anti-Semitism in the US is real and troubling, but it was not created by Donald Trump. Rather, it has been on the rise, particularly on the left, since the preceding administration spent eight years courting Israel-hating progressives, legitimizing Islamist organizations and regimes, validating BDS, and attempting to isolate the Jewish State.  

And this trend has been exacerbated by a mainstream that expresses excessive outrage at conservatives while ignoring the progressive roots for much of today’s political anti-Semitism.

Whether progressive Jews reject Israel and traditional values out of ignorance or self-hatred, they nevertheless provide cover for left-wing anti-Semitism.  Though many claim to support Israel’s right to exist, they often legitimize progressive haters by espousing similar negative views on Israel, traditional Judaism, and Jewish nationalism.  And while some make impassioned public statements condemning anti-Semitism, their ambivalent, often hostile attitudes regarding Israel and Jewish tradition serve to enable the hateful bias of others wherever progressives wield power and influence, including public schools, college campuses, and within the Democratic Party....

Matthew M. Hausman, J.D. Matthew M. Hausman is a trial attorney and writer who lives and works in Connecticut.


Saturday, 24 November 2018

Mussar: Most Important of All - Just Be a Mensch

originally posted Nov, 16, 2013

My late Brother Ronnie A"H's birthday was 16 November. Largely due to our age difference, we were not particularly close. Yet, as I was becoming "frummer" EG by attending Yeshiva, he advised me - "Most Important of All - Just Be a Mensch". As I've grown in The Torah World, I've almost always been aware of this sage wisdom. It colours almost all that I do as a Jew - to be a Mensch. Yiddishkeit without Meschlichkeit, is like a body without a soul.
From Wikipedia:

«Mensch (Yiddish: מענטש mentsh, cognate with German: Mensch "human being") means "a person of integrity and honor."[1] The opposite of a "mensch" is an "unmensch" (meaning: an utterly unlikeable or unfriendly person). According to Leo Rosten, the Yiddish maven and author of The Joys of Yiddish, "mensch" is "someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character.»

Mensch - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kol Tuv,

Thursday, 22 November 2018

What is the Meaning of “Sekhvi” in the First Morning Blessing?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

What is the Meaning of “Sekhvi” in the First Morning Blessing?
The phrase “mi natan la-sekhvi vinah?” (=who gave the “sekhvi” understanding?) is found at Job. 38:36. The verse has two parts: who put wisdom in “tuchot,” and who gave understanding to the “sekhvi”? (“Le-havchin bein…” is not in the verse.)
With regard to the word “tuchot,” it also appears at Psalms 51:8. It is evident from there that its meaning is “covered/hidden part of the body” (from the root “Tet-Vav-Chet” = covered). It is usually interpreted as “kidneys.” (ArtScroll’s Tehillim commentary remarks: “The kidneys [were] considered to be the seat of human intellect, as in Job 38:36, Psalms 7:10, 16:7.”)
Since the word “sekhvi” at Job 38:36 is parallel to the word “tuchot,” “sekhvi” almost certainly refers to a body part. The root of “sekhvi” is Sin-Caf-Heh which means “to see.” Most of the traditional commentaries interpret it as “heart.” Another reasonable interpretation is “mind.” This is the only time that the word “sekhvi” appears in Tanach, which makes its proper interpretation difficult. But even though its precise meaning is hard to discern, there is no reason from the context to suggest that it is an animal.
Several centuries later, at Berakhot 60b, there is a statement that when one hears the sound of the “tarnegola”(=rooster), one should recite the blessing “asher natan la-sekhvi vinah le-havchin bein yom u-vein laylah.” The statement utilizes the text of our verse in Job for the beginning of the blessing, but we saw above that “sekhvi” did not mean any kind of animal there! How can we understand this passage in the Talmud?
The Talmud, at Rosh Hashanah 26a, gives us two clues: 1) we are told that in a city in Syria, “sekhvi” meant “tarnegol” and 2) a statement is reported in the name of either Rav or R. Yehosua b. Levi that the “sekhvi” of Job. 38:36 is a “tarnegol.”
So a possible scenario is that Rav or R. Yehoshua b. Levi (or Sages prior to them) picked up the sekhvi=tarnegol interpretation from another region and language, such as Aramaic.
We have to remind ourselves that our Tannaim and Amoraim did not have our standard Tanakh commentaries to assist them. They were faced with a vague one time word in “sekhvi” at Job 38:36. They may have learned a possible meaning from another region and this became the widespread way to understand the word’s meaning. OK, the meaning did not fit the context of Job 38:36 well. But it was not egregiously inconsistent with the context and at least now they had a meaning for this vague word.
Once “sekhvi” in this verse was understood as “tarnegol,” it became reasonable to utilize this verse when enacting a blessing about God’s special gift to the tarnegol.
The reason I am elaborating on this is to avoid the “heart” meaning or “double meaning” interpretation of our blessing. All Siddur translations and commentaries are faced with a dilemma here. They know (from Berakhot 60b) that the blessing is a response to the sound of a “tarnegol” and they also most likely believe that the verse is about a body part like the heart. So how should they translate “sekhvi” in the blessing? The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, in its text of the blessing, translates “sekhvi” as “heart.” But then the commentary below writes: “In the context of this blessing, both meanings are implied.” Indeed, many of the commentaries on this blessing write that both meanings are implied.
But the other preliminary morning blessings listed at Berakhot 60b are all simple blessings without double meanings. As we are slowly getting our bearings upon arising, do you think the Sages would enact, as the first blessing for the day, a blessing with a wordplay and double meaning? Moreover, do we think they would have intended us to focus, even partially, on a Tanach meaning that was itself vague? The simplest approach to this blessing is that at the time it was enacted, the widespread understanding of “sekhvi” was “tarnegol.” Nothing deeper than that. Wordplays with double meanings are features that authors of piyyutim use, not enactors of simple preliminary morning blessings.
I am here reminded of an article I read recently about paradoxes. One “paradox” mentioned was that there are people in the world who cannot do anything in the morning until they drink their coffee. The problem is, if this were literally true, these people would not be able to function ever, as they are unable to make their coffee in the morning! Surely our blessing authors were sensitive enough not to make us think too much with the first blessing! (By the way, the suggestion for those dysfunctional coffee drinkers is for them to do most of the steps of making the coffee the night before, and only leave a minimal amount of coffee preparation for the morning!)
Further notes:
1. For more on “sekhvi” and “tuchot,” see the Daat Mikra commentary to Job. 38:36.
2. I never realized until I wrote this article that the simple Hebrew word “bein” (B-Y-N, between) is almost certainly related to the word “binah.” In other words, the original meaning of “binah” was “to distinguish between things”! See Mandelkern’s concordance, p. 187, Jastrow, pp. 162-63, and Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 99.
3. I mentioned above that at Rosh Hashanah 26a, we are told that in a city in Syria, “sekhvi” meant “tarnegol.” At Lev. Rabbah 25:5, we are told that this was the meaning of the word in Arabia. At Jerusalem Talmud, Berkahot, chap. 9, we are told that this was the meaning of the word in Rome. But perhaps “sekhvi” did not mean “tarnegol” in all these regions, and that what we have here are merely different variants of one tradition. (The exact city name recorded at Rosh Hashanah 26a is “Kan-Nishraya.” According to Jastrow, p. 1387, this is “Kennesrin,” a city in northern Syria.)
4. I mentioned above that the Biblical root Sin-Caf-Heh meant “to see.” We see this root elsewhere in the word “maskit,” which appears six times in Tanach and likely means “image.” In rabbinic Hebrew, the Biblical “sin” often evolved into a “samekh” (see, e.g., the word “erusin.”) In the zemer “Barukh Kel Elyon,” we refer to God as “kol sokheh” (with a samekh). The meaning is “the One Who sees all.”
5. I mentioned above that there was an interpretation reported in the name of either Rav or R. Yehosua b. Levi that the “sekhvi” of Job. 38:36 was a “tarnegol.” Perhaps this interpretation did not arise from a foreign region as I suggested earlier. Rather, one of our Sages saw the root Sin-Caf-Heh in the word “sekhvi,” and knew that the root meant “see,” and then decided that the word was an allusion to the rooster who sees the dawn. But this is still far-fetched, as there is little reason to have read an allusion to an animal into this verse.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. After he says his morning blessings and tries to block out the Biblical meaning of “sekhvi” and have only the “tarnegol” meaning in mind, he can be reached at