Thursday, 18 October 2018

Letter about Rambam's brother David

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

                      A Letter of Rambam about the Death of his Brother David

     Aside from our knowledge of his father Maimon, we know very little about the family of Rambam. For example, we know nothing about his mother. As to his wife, we know that he married in Egypt late in life, in 1171 or a bit later, and his son Abraham was born in 1186. We know the name of his wife’s father, but not the name of his wife.
       Rambam was born in 1138. Since this marriage was late in his life, while he was in his thirties, biographers often surmise that he must have had a first wife. But there is no evidence for this at present.
      In one letter Rambam mentions a daughter who died young. But it is unclear if the reference is to his own daughter or a friend’s daughter. He did have three sisters and there is a bit of information about them.
      (I am getting all this information from the exhaustive work Maimonides, authored by Joel L. Kraemer in 2008.)
      But we do know much about Rambam’s younger brother David. The most important thing we know about him is that he died in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean. A letter from Rambam has survived that describes his reaction to the death of his brother. That is the letter I will focus on in this column.
        This letter was written in the year 1185 C.E. to a judge named Yefet in Acre. Rambam had become close to Yefet years earlier when Rambam and his father and brother had first arrived in Israel in around the year 1166, landing in Acre. The four of them then went on to visit Jerusalem and the Temple area in approximately the same year. (A famous letter from Rambam describes this visit.)
       This letter from 1185 C.E. has a very unusual beginning. In his letter, Yefet had complained that Rambam had not written to him to inquire about his welfare since their meeting in Acre decades earlier. But Rambam then turns the tables on him and points out that it was Yefet who had ignored him! Here is the letter from that point on:
         “A few months after we departed from [the land of Israel], my father and master died (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing).Letters of condolences arrived from the furthest west and from the land of Edom…yet you disregarded this. Furthermore, I suffered many well-known calamities in Egypt, including sickness, financial loss and the attempt by informers to have me killed.
           The worst disaster that struck me of late, worse than anything I had ever experienced from the time I was born until this day was the demise of that upright man (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing), who drowned in the Indian Ocean while in possession of much money belonging to me, to him and to others, leaving a young daughter and his widow in my care.  For about a year from the day the evil tidings reached me, I remained prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and mental confusion, and well nigh perished.
           From then until this day, that is about eight years, I have been in a state of disconsolate mourning. How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil. It was he who did business in the market place, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security. He had a ready grasp of Talmud and a superb mastery of grammar. My only joy was to see him. “The sun has set on all joy.” [Isa. 24:11.] For he has gone on to eternal life, leaving me dismayed in a foreign land. Whenever I see his handwriting or one of his books, my heart is churned inside me and my sorrow is rekindled…And were it not for the Torah, which is my delight, and for scientific matters, which let me forget my sorrow, “I would have perished in my affliction” [Ps. 119:92.]
           In spite of this, while I complain not of any sage, disciple, friend, or acquaintance, I should complain about you above all others. For…all four of us walked together in God’s house…. But you did not seek or inquire. I would be justified in not answering your letter…But my affection is drawn up in full and secured. I shall not forget our wandering together in wastelands and forests after the Lord, and therefore I do not ascribe to you sin and transgression. “Love covers up all faults.” [Prov. 10:12]….[The letter goes on a bit more with some kind words from Rambam.]”
(Most of my translation is taken from Kraemer, pp. 255-56. This letter was originally written in Hebrew. The Hebrew text is at Y. Shailat, Iggerot Ha-Rambam, pp. 228-230. If the questioner wrote to Rambam in Hebrew, he would typically respond back in Hebrew, as occurred here.)
          A few comments:
          1. From one line in the letter that I omitted, it is evident that the purpose of Yefet’s letter was some financial matter, and not simply to renew his personal connection with Rambam.
         2. Rambam’s remark that David had on his possession money belonging to Rambam is of interest. Perhaps it indicates that Rambam was a partner in this business venture of David. See Shailat, p. 229.  Very likely, Rambam had been a partner in other business ventures of David as well.  
            Some biographers have written that David’s death caused Rambam to relinquish the life of a scholar and take up medicine as a profession.  This is not true. Rambam already attained prominence as a physician in his early days in Egypt. He also seems to have earned money on his own from commerce in precious gems and from teaching sciences (e.g., mathematics, logic and astronomy) to intellectuals. See Kraemer, pp. 161 and 258. Admittedly David’s business trips helped Rambam, as Rambam stated in the letter above: “It was he who did business in the market place, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security.” See also the letter from David cited by Kraemer, at p. 251. But it is wrong to read these letters as implying that Rambam was not earning money on his own.
          3. A letter was found in documents from the Cairo Genizah from David himself, written while he was in the Sudan, talking about his forthcoming continuation of his journey to India. David wrote that in the locale that he was in the Sudan, no imports had arrived recently, so he decided to continue his journey and go by sea to India. There is no date on this letter, but for reasons explained below, it almost certainly came from either 1169, 1170 or 1171.
            Kraemer assumes that this letter was referring to David’s imminent journey to India that ended with his passing. In the 1185 letter, Rambam wrote that the evil tidings about David came to him eight years earlier. This would mean that David left for India around 1170 and Rambam did not find out about his passing until 1177. This seems like an inordinate amount of time.  Shailat (pp. 72-73 and 198) takes a different approach. He believes that the letter that David wrote in 1169-71 concerned an earlier trip to India, and that in 1176-77 he took another trip to India which resulted in his passing.
             How were scholars able to estimate the date of David’s letter to 1169, 1170 or 1171? David dated his letter to the 22nd of Iyyar, and mentioned that the Muslim month of Ramadan was forthcoming. As we have all learned, the Muslims have a lunar calendar without an adjustment. Thus, the beginning of Ramadan moves continually. In 1172 and for the three decades after that, Ramadan preceded the Jewish month of Iyyar. See Kraemer, p. 544, notes 36-37.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He does not have any sea voyages to India planned.

BREAKING: Rabbi files lawsuit against 55 + community for religious and disability discrimination

From RRW

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Nishma-Parshah: Lech Lecha

Take a look at what's on
for Parshat Lech Lecha

RCA Letter to Ambassador Nikki Haley

From RRW

The following letter was sent, from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), to Nikki Haley, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Click here to open PDF.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Thank Nikki Haley for her AMAZING support

From RRW
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Shalom Friend,
We are proud to express our deep appreciation and thanks to US Ambassador Nikki Haley for her unwavering support of Israel and the Jewish People and for her courage and strength in confronting anti-Israel hypocrisy at the UN.
She stood up for what is right and staunchly defended the State of Israel in the halls of a hostile, biased, anti-Israel United Nations.
Ambassador Haley is a true friend of Israel who greatly improved the US-Israel relationship as well as Israel's standing in the eyes of the world.
We are sorry that Ambassador Haley is leaving her position but wish her well in all future endeavors.
Please join United with Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu in wishing the best to Nikki Haley and in thanking her for leading "an uncompromising struggle against the hypocrisy of the UN and the truth and justice of our country."
We ask that you sign your name and forward this email to everyone you know so that we can present Ambassador Haley with a beautiful thank you letter with hundreds of thousands of signatures.
Thank you for participating in this important initiative and for standing united with the People, Country and Land of Israel.
With Blessings from Israel,
The United with Israel Family
PS - Please REMEMBER to forward this email to your family, friends and colleagues. Give them the opportunity to express their thanks too!

From RRW

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Enhance Your Shul with an Aravos Garden

From RRW

The devastating impact of American non-Jewish Jews

From RRW

"These Jews not only adhere to but are often at the forefront of the anti-Trump hysteria. Non-Orthodox Jewish organizational leaders – even traditional Zionists – remain silent or cozy up to their liberal constituencies even as DonaldTrump treats Israel better than any previous American president and, for the first time, is publicly exposing Palestinian intransigency, promotion of terror and the millions of dollars awarded to killers and their families. These same Jews never raised an eyebrow when President Barack Obama was uttering his outrageous statements morally equating Palestinian terrorists with Israeli defenders."

Saturday, 13 October 2018

MUSSAR: Projection and Introspection

From RRW 
"When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger."

~ Epictetus

Friday, 12 October 2018

Book Review: Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual, by Moshe Sokolow

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

                Book Review:  Tanakh: An Owner’s Manual, by Moshe Sokolow

               Dr. Moshe Sokolow, a professor of Bible at Yeshiva University for many years, and Associate Dean of Azrieli, came out with this book in 2015. I love the title! The book covers the following subjects: Authorship and Editing, Canonization, Masoretic Text, Parshanut, Translations (e.g., Targumim and Septuagint), Tanakh and Modern Scholarship, and Pedagogy.

               The best section of this book is the one on “Parshanut.” First Dr. Sokolow writes about “Parshanut” in general. Then he has a section on the following leading exegetes from the 10th through 19th centuries:  R. Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Ibn Kaspi, and Malbim. He places them each in historical context and provides insights into each. For example, regarding Rashi, he writes that just prior to Rashi (11th century), the Jews of France had developed two principal approaches to the study of the Bible. The first approach, personified in Rabbi Moshe Ha-Darshan, was the way of derash. (Note that Rabbi Moshe and his colleagues were the ones who put together the midrashic collection “Bemidbar Rabbah.”) The second approach, personified in R. Menachem bar Chelbo, adopted a more philological approach to the text. He writes that “Rashi sought to steer a course between these two extremes and to balance the tendency to rely, invariably and uncritically, on the talmudic and midrashic Aggadah with the opposite tendency to disregard Aggadah [and rely essentially on] grammar and lexicography.” He quotes the famous passage of Rashi at Genesis 3:8: “va-ani lo bati ela le-peshuto shel mikra, u-le-aggadah ha-meyashevet divrei ha-mikra...” As Dr. Sokolow puts it: “Rashi’s exegetical credo, then, was that his use of Aggadah would be determined by the service it rendered to the resolution of a specific textual problem. No aggadah, as it were, would get a free ride.” (Then he discusses the issue of whether Rashi was entirely faithful to his own credo! I.e., does Rashi ever quote Aggadah without a textual problem motivating him?)
            I would now like to digress a bit and point out the evolution in my own understanding of Rashi. In my elementary school in the 1960’s, we used those blue linear Rashi’s with English translation. We saw that Rashi was continually providing us with comments, but we had no idea that he was providing these comments to answer a question! In fact I do not recall ever seeing an editorial comment in these five volumes that pointed out that Rashi was here writing to answer a question! Only in high school was I finally told that Rashi was writing because there was a question in the text that was bothering him.
          But Rashi regularly gives midrashic answers. Should he be considered a “peshat commentary” or a “derash commentary”? It was only years later, while studying in Israel at age 24, that a Rabbi Baruch Kaplan gave me the proper explanation in a nutshell: “Rashi asks peshat questions, but gives derash answers.” I.e., he is motivated by a question in the text. But instead of suggesting his own answer (as the commentators after him are willing to do), he generally limits himself to the answers already found in the midrashic corpus (and tries to choose the midrashic answer that most closely fits the text).  If you knew this already, great, but I am sure that some of you out there did not.  (P.S., I went to Columbia College. Surely, I would have learned this earlier in life if I had been at Y.U. for college and took a class from Dr. Sokolow or one of their other Bible instructors.)
                Going back to Dr. Sokolow’s book. I would like to share a few more insights. Regarding Ibn Ezra, he quotes the following interesting passage from Ibn Ezra’s introduction to Eikhah: “Midrashim are divided into several categories. Some are riddles, enigmas and lofty aphorisms, while others are intended to provide relief after adversity and still others come to fortify those about to succumb, and to fill a spiritual void. Therefore, one should compare the meaning of a verse to a body, and its midrashim to clothing. Some [midrashim] are fine as silk, while others are coarse as burlap.”
                Regarding Ramban, Dr. Sokolow quotes an interesting passage from Ramban’s introduction regarding Ibn Ezra: “We shall conduct an open rebuke and a secreted love.” Who knew that Ramban had a secret love for Ibn Ezra’s commentary!
               Now it is time to discuss the weakness of Dr. Sokolow’s book. My 2016 Honda Odyssey manual is 561 pages. This book is only 219 pages. Given all the topics it was meant to address, this book needs to be something like that length as well! For example, his discussions of the authorship of each book and of the canonization process are way too brief. I am not interested in who invented each part of my Honda Odyssey, or how the Honda Odyssey evolved over the decades. But in the case of Tanakh, I am interested in authorship and evolution/canonization. These sections of the “manual” should have been longer!
             For example, in the case of the authorship of Tehillim, he is willing to adopt the position that some of the material dates to early Bayit Sheni. (E.g., Psalm 137, which commences “al naharot Bavel.”) But he does not trouble to mention two important passages in classical rabbinic literature that support this position. These are Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:4 and Kohelet Rabbah 7:19. These passages include Ezra as one of the ten authors of Tehillim. (These passages contrast with the well-known passage at Bava Batra 14b which attributes Tehillim to David “al yedei asarah zekenim,” all of whom lived either in David’s time or earlier.)
            Another example of his being too brief is his discussion of canonization. He cites Dr. Sid (Shnayer) Leiman’s important book: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence (2nd edition, 1991). But he does not mention Dr. Leiman’s conclusion that the Tanakh was closed around 164 B.C.E. and that a passage at II Maccabees 2:14:15 may allude to the closing of the Tanakh by Judah Maccabee. He also does not mention Dr. Leiman’s important distinction between inspiration and canon. Dr. Leiman writes that a book can be in the canon, but that does not necessarily mean that it was viewed as being composed with “ruach ha-kodesh.” Whether Shir Ha-Shirim and Kohelet were composed with “ruach ha-kodesh” is what is being debated by the 2nd century C.E. Sages in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5. But all agreed that they were already in the canon.  Even if Dr. Sokolow disagreed with Dr. Leiman’s points, they deserved to be mentioned.
             Of course, had Dr. Sokolow attempted to be more comprehensive in each chapter and set out to produce a 500 page manual, he likely would never have finished. So I sympathize.
            There is of course much to learn in this book and I recommend it.  One very simple thing I learned  is something I am embarrassed that I had not realized. I have opened the Soncino edition of the Five Megillot at least 10,000 times in my life. I knew that Shir Ha-Shirim was in the front and Esther was at the back, but I never understood the rationale for the order. Dr. Sokolow’s book explained that they are presented in the order that they are read during the year: Shir Ha-Shirim, Ruth, Eikhah, Kohelet and Esther. This is an ancient order, found in many Biblical manuscripts.  (In contrast, in the Daat Mikra they are presented in a presumed chronological order: Ruth, Shir Ha-Shirim, Kohelet, Eikhah and Esther. This is the order in the 10th century Aleppo Codex, our earliest source that has an order for them.)
        Finally, I would like to point out one interesting suggestion that he makes (at p. 61) that I am still trying to digest. He says that the Hebrew phrase “leshon ha-kodesh” does not mean the “holy language.” That would be “ha-lashon ha-kedoshah.” “Leshon ha-kodesh,” he suggests, means “the language of the sacred one,” i.e., God. Similarly he suggests that “leshon ha-ra” means the language of the Satan. I am not yet convinced that either of these interpretations is correct. I would be interested in hearing from any of you with your thoughts on this matter. I find that “ha” in “leshon ha-ra” especially troublesome!

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar.  When not contemplating the meaning of the term “leshon ha-ra,” he can be reached at