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!

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Mussar: Dan L'kaf Z'chut

Originally posted July 6. 2013

After reading. Several articles about some contentious issues in the media, I opened the Breslover Peirush on Avot 4:10, which was the next one in my seder! Hasgachah P'ratit.

B'Kitzur when you keep these things in mind, you can avoid fights and dissension

1. Bittul [ego-nullification] before Hashem

2. Realizing that we are not mind readers [part of cognitive therapy]

3. We are not in a position to judge another's circumstances and personal pain.

4. We should find the "Positive" N'kuddah in everyone.

Exceptions might be a Beth Din of 3. At that point, after investigation, and the checks and balances of a committee against the lone ego of the individual, a fair judgment could be rendered. But that takes a due process

מסכת אבות פרק ד

ד,י  [ח] הוא היה אומר, אל תהי דן יחידי, שאין דן יחידי אלא אחד; ואל תאמר קבלו דעתי, שהן רשאין ולא אתה.

Best Regards,

Monday, 6 May 2019

What Academic Bible Gets Wrong… And Right

From RRW

What Academic Bible Gets Wrong… And Right
By: Alec Goldstein

As an undergraduate, I loved the synthesis of traditional Torah and secular wisdom. My undergraduate degree was in French Language and Literature. I read Aristotle and Kant for fun. I delighted in how Maimonides and Rabbi Soloveitchik imbibed secular ideas, and absorbed them in the name of traditional Judaism.
In a similar vein, I have found that academic Bible can enhance some people’s appreciation for Tanakh. At the same time, many professors do not approach Tanakh with reverence. For this reason, some segments of the Orthodox community have been skeptical of academic Bible. The religious individual approaches Tanakh with a sense of God, faith and reverence, expecting to find religious inspiration. These traits are not always present in academic Bible scholarship. Currently, certain segments of the Jewish community are at a crossroads about how (if at all) to teach academic Bible to the next generation. What follows — it should be stressed — are my personal encounters.
As an undergraduate, when my colleagues resented the Bible requirements, I was eager to learn Tanakh with academic scholarship. I took four undergraduate and three graduate courses; I devoured scholarly commentaries. I would sooner consult Baruch Levine and Jacob Milgrom before Rashi and Nahmanides. Much of this work was technically heretical, but I believed that academics were more objective. I revered the Rishonim for their mastery but considered them less advanced than modern scholars because of their tenuous fealty to fantastical Midrashim and rabbinic hyperliteralism. Yet as the semesters drew on, I began to recognize the limitations of academic Bible as well.
First, I observed a lack of reverence for the text of the Tanakh itself. Academics often assume the received text is corrupt and/or written without Divine inspiration (called lower criticism and higher criticism, respectively). Scholars frequently opined that the biblical text was written in a certain way to further the agenda of an ancient editor. For example, many academics envision a rivalry between the followers of Moses and followers of Aaron about who would earn the priesthood; ultimately, the Aaronides won out, which is why the text was edited to indicate that Moses anoints his older brother. Bible scholars often did not hold the sacred text in the same esteem that I did. Many academics believe Tanakh to be the work of man, and some consider it a poorly edited work at that.
Second, many academics were overly insulting towards the biblical figures as people. For example, Nahum Sarna writes that the patriarch Jacob “is portrayed as having acquired the birthright, first, by the heartless exploitation of the suffering of his own brother and then, by the crafty deception practised upon his blind old father” (“Understanding Genesis,” p. 183). While Midrashim and Rishonim think critically about the actions of our forebearers, there is a world of difference between questioning specific actions and characterizing a person as a scoundrel.
Third, academics neglected or even mocked the traditional sources, while over time I became more interested in learning from traditional viewpoints as well. I wanted to see how traditional commentaries addressed questions academics were asking. Academics demonstrated hubris in assuming that when a particular scholar asked a question, nobody had ever asked it earlier. With few exceptions, most academics couldn’t care less about traditional Jewish interpretation. In many of the Bible classes I took, we never studied a piece of Talmud or comment of a Rishon seriously.
Fourth, I remember having a conversation with a professor about some detail I’ve since forgotten. The professor proclaimed that the Bible lifted this idea from another culture. I asked him why he thought we had taken it from them, and not the other way around. He replied, “We were a small culture so we probably didn't develop it.” Taken to its logical extreme, that statement — and attitude — indicates that there is nothing unique about the Tanakh. The Hebrew Bible is no different than other ancient Near Eastern texts, just luckier.
Fifth, the academic culture was intolerant. Once in conversation, a professor asked what my father did for a living. I responded, “He works for the Republican caucus of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.” This professor replied, “All Republicans are resha’im merushaim,” using a yeshivish term for “extremely wicked.” Regardless of one’s political opinions, to say such a thing to me — and to accuse my father of wickedness merely on account of his post as a bureaucrat — was offensive and did not foster an open environment of learning and mutual respect.
My personal turning point was editing a book for a professor whom I knew to be a mentchma’amin and yorei Shamayim. I asked him why his writing was lettered with J, E, P and D, the jargon of the Documentary Hypothesis, which Orthodox Jews regard as heretical. He replied that if he didn’t write that way, the academic community would not consider his conclusions.
I was stunned. This God-fearing professor who believed in Divine authorship of the Torah was forced, for professional reasons, to feign that he believed a heretical doctrine. Clearly there are challenges for a religious individual to partake in the discipline of academic Bible.
It is no surprise that many religious people demur to the study of academic Bible. To recapitulate: (1) academic Bible assumes the text is not of Divine authorship and is edited (sometimes sloppily) by man, (2) it is excessively critical of biblical personalities, (3) there is a neglect or mockery of traditional sources, (4) it denies the uniqueness of Tanakh, (5) it is hostile and does not foster an environment of openness.
Surely there are religious individuals who can navigate these obstacles and emerge unscathed or even edified. I have worked with — academically, professionally and personally — truly great, God-fearing academics who have forever enhanced my appreciation of Tanakh and its messages. I would be spiritually poorer had I not encountered them, and I hope I have expressed my gratitude to them satisfactorily over the years. Here are some places where academic Bible excels:
First is comparative Semitics. Classical and Medieval sources did not have access to the inscriptions and documents of the Ancient Near East that have been unearthed in the past two centuries. These discoveries can help us understand the meaning of biblical words, both common and rare. Academics have tools the Rishonim did not. For example, the word shotrim might very well be “scribes” (or “court reporters”), based on the Akkadian word for “write.” This meaning reemerges in the word shtar, “contract.” (Compare this to Rashi’s definition of “enforcers.”) A discussion of a word’s meaning will benefit from comparative Semitic analysis. For example, the first chapter of my book on holiness (“A Theology of Holiness,” pp. 23ff) analyzes how the root k-d-sh is used in other Semitic languages.
Second, modern commentaries excel at providing comprehensive cross-references of words and concepts, spanning biblical, ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, Christian and Greek sources. Rishonim will often use one or two prooftexts, and with few notable exceptions look beyond traditional sources. Academics can supply more exhaustive lists.
Third, the historical context is important. For example, did the story of Esther occur immediately before the Second Temple was built, or once construction was underway? The story becomes far more critical of the Jews if we read it against the backdrop of a Temple in the process of being reconstructed.
Fourth, related to the historical context, is the religious context, which is crucial because the Bible is primarily a religious work. When there are purported parallels between ancient Near Eastern beliefs and biblical ones, it is essential to examine how the Bible treats those beliefs, whether by accepting, modifying or rejecting them. For example, I have examined the possibility that the ten plagues in Egypt were a response to Egyptian belief, showing the futility of pagan deities. Some of this material is already in the Rishonim, but academics deal with these questions more fully.
Fifth, academic Bible excels at showing how plots and characters develop. Some traditional comments show this development, but it is rarely fleshed out. Traditional sources level out the characters and transform them to archetypes. For example, there is a common trope that Abraham represents chesed(lovingkindness), Isaac represents gevurah (strength) and Jacob represents tiferet (splendor, a synthesis between the two). Similarly, on the phrase hu Mosheh ve-Aharon, which is grammatically awkward, Rashi writes that Moses and Aaron remained unchanged in their mission and their righteousness “from beginning to end” (on Exod. 6:27). Such analysis reduces these personalities to automata: Did Abraham have doubts when he was told to travel to the land of Canaan? Did Moses have doubts when the nation’s rebellions were at their bitterest? Robert Alter is absolutely correct that there is great value in reading the Bible as literature, meaning focusing on linguistic cues and character development.
To summarize, academic Bible's greatest contributions are (1) comparative Semitics, (2) providing comprehensive parallels, (3) examining historical context, (4) examining religious context and (5) literary reading and character analyses.
There is an added difficulty in translating academic Bible for a curriculum en masse. Browbeating traditionally-minded students to enroll might compel them to complete a college course or two, but it will not facilitate their appreciation of how academic Bible might enhance their religious growth or appreciation of God and Jewish identity. Rather, here are some questions we should be asking:
  • How do we properly teach a synthesis of Masorah and academia, if at all? Are we overloading our students with too much information and not enough critical analysis? Synthesis, the forerunner of Torah Umadda, is about actively accepting certain aspects and just as consciously rejecting other aspects.
  • Should there be Bible classes that just use traditional Jewish sources without academic ones?
  • How accountable are the professors? Should they have Orthodox explanations for the questions that academic Bible poses? Are professors responsible for their students’ spiritual welfare or for merely teaching the text according to the academic method?
  • Should there be a class based on the principle da mah le-hashiv, “know how to respond,” to a heretic? In other words, should there be a course — either mandatory or elective — that focuses exclusively on how to respond to academic heresies?
  • Should we focus on the Bible’s contribution to Western thought at large? One can barely read Locke or Hobbes without encountering scriptural passages. Capitalism and communism, nationalism and universalism, parochialism and egalitarianism, slavery and emancipation, pacifism and militarism have all been imputed to have their roots in the Bible. In other words, is the Bible an academic discipline, or should we examine its impact on world history?
Tanakh is open to many modes of interpretation. Some individuals find academic Bible enriching, others find it disgraceful and permeated with heresy. Some can navigate the ancient Near Eastern parallels to find reward, some find it a path of confusion and others find it a waste of time. There is no question that academic Bible poses significant theological risks. Whether those risks are worth the reward is something that each student of Tanakh needs to decide. That decision should be made on the grounds of halakhahhashkafah, a priori preferences in Torah learning and the religious resiliency of the students. An Orthodox Jew, even a so-called “Modern Orthodox” Jew, has excellent and justifiable reasons for expressing healthy skepticism. In other words, each person has every right to pursue a path of religious growth he or she finds most conducive. We should never sacrifice our students’ spiritual welfare on the altar of devotion to the academic method. If in pursuit of the fruits of academia, our community chooses to accept the risks, we must be cognizant and even vigilant. Whatever choice we make, we should make that choice with an eye on growing intellectually, emotionally and above all religiously.
Alec Goldstein received his B.A. and ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the founder of Kodesh Press ( and author of “A Theology of Holiness: Historical, Exegetical, and Philosophical Perspectives” (2018).

Sunday, 5 May 2019

New Resource from Shapell's/Darche Noam

From RRW
The Rosh Yeshiva of Shapell's, Rabbi Dovid Schoonmaker, has started a new WhatsApp group, "RDS Weekly"- which has over 200 members since just before Pesach. Every week members get an inspirational 1-2 minute video. You- along with family, friends, congregants, students, families, colleagues, etc.- are invited to join! Simply follow this link to join the WhatsApp group:
Please share this resource!

Thursday, 2 May 2019

JVO Blog -- Why Be Jewish? (3): Roots and Beyond

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? (Part 3)

Roots and Beyond
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

* * * * *
                In our opening discussions on this topic (please see Why Be Jewish? - Defining the Question and Why Be Jewish? - The Forces Within and the Forces Without), we effectively described the tension that exists between individual definitions of Jewishness and the collective definition of the group itself. The challenge is that when one describes oneself as Jewish, one is really defining oneself as a member of the Jewish group, the group that embodies Jewishness. The problem is, though, that we all are applying our own individual definition to this term notwithstanding that it may not necessarily be shared by others. We can then be left with a group of individuals each believing the other to share a similar perception of Jewishness when this is, in fact, not the case. And if and/or when this is discovered, many are then left wondering about the very idea of Jewishness. If we all simply believe Jewishness to be something different based upon our own personal definitions, what is, in fact, the very point of identifying oneself as Jewish? Why, indeed, be Jewish?

            The fact is that Jewishness, of course, does indicate a collective but, within this collective, there has always been much diversity. There are, in fact, many personal paths by which one may choose to define his/her Jewishness but the question still remains: how do they come together to form the collective? The reality is, though, that Jewishness has never been monolithic. Being Jewish, in fact, has always been built on a base of diversity for, while Torah applauds the value of the communal, it also recognizes the value and necessity of individuality. Diversity, as such, is actually somewhat inherent to Jewishness. How, though, does this diversity, flowing from individuality, come together into a collective?

                To answer this question, we must first recognize that this acceptance of diversity does not mean that any possible divergent perception of Jewishness can then be included within the bounds of the collective. This diversity must still have its parameters. As much as Jewishness accepts diversity, it also necessarily demarcates a boundary on this diversity in the formation of the collective. This is what we may describe as ‘the inherent force of the Jewish collective’. This declaration as to boundary is not a result of some formal vote. It is, perhaps, somewhat  intuitive -- although connected to the principles of fate and destiny we introduced in our previous discussion (Part 2). The challenge is that, in a barrage of extreme diversity – such as exists today -- there is a greater need to more formally articulate and define this force of the collective. The value of our Jewish acceptance of diversity still cannot allow us to ignore our unified, collective Jewish essence. We also have an obligation to clearly recognize this essence. The fact is, though, that this essence is, in many ways, tied to this acceptance of diversity.

            To truly understand this ‘inherent force of the collective’, we must first return to our very roots – specifically that which makes our group unique; specifically, that which makes our nation unique. What is demanded, though, is not simply to show how the Jewish nation is different from any other nation – that is, as different as any nation is from another. The goal, as such, cannot be to simply show how our culture is unlike the culture of any other nation. To truly understand Jewishness, we must recognize how we are distinctive in our very definition of nationhood, how the Jewish nation is absolutely unique amongst all the other nations. In this regard, we must first recognize that, in general, nations are formed by people, drawn together because of the parameters of geography, who then develop a distinct culture which further bonds them together. All our ancient works describing the formation of the Jewish nation, however, declare, emphatically, that we were not formed and determined by a land. Our nation existed before it entered its land. Its formation was in its spirit.

                We are instructed that the very force which drew the Israelite people together and bonded them initially was a specific collective consciousness. It is only once they were bonded as a nation that they then connected with a land which would further unite them. It is in this initial connection of the mind that we actually find the beginnings of the unique force of Jewish collectiveness. The nation was not pushed together through some external parameter of geography, separated from others simply by physical space. It was an internal sense of belonging, the heart of an internal idea, that pulled the people together -- and, this occurred in the context of the broader globe. As such, this force also contained elements of connection to all humanity. The emotions of particularism that were instrumental in the formation of the initial Jewish group also reflected an emotion of universalism which led Jews to think beyond their own group. Right from our forefather Avraham, we saw value in ourselves but, also, in the other. A recognition of a dialectic in human identity is inherent to the Jew. This recognition of the dialectic in life is a reflection of why diversity is part of Jewishness.  Such recognition of the dialectic is also reflected in the inherent force of the Jewish collective.

                To see the dialectic demands of an individual to see the broadest picture and contemplate different possibilities because the elements of life are so broad. A dialectic only exists because we see beyond a singular possibility. From this dialectic existent in our very identity, the Jew, furthermore, finds value in the breadth of human existence. In the concept of monotheism, the Jew further recognizes how this breadth of human existence also reflects One Source. It is in this intellectual, as well as emotional, dynamic of recognizing the details of life and the overall picture – the gestalt -- that we find the inherent force of the Jewish collective. Oneness within Jewishness is not the result of simplicity and similarity. The Oneness of Jewishness emerges from the very complexity of existence. The inherent force of the Jewish collective flows finally from this recognition of this Oneness as its source and destiny. This is why unity is also inherently connected to diversity within Jewishness.

                Being Jewish is being involved in this dynamic. Individually, we each find our own point along the spectrum of existence which we define as our own. As Jews, however, we still also recognize our place in the full spectrum of existence. We see ourselves and we see the other. Our collective respects diversity. Being part of the Jewish collective means we wish to bond with those of a similar perspective – who want to experience the dynamic of seeing the details as well as the greater picture – as we also co-exist with all others. Why be Jewish? Because we truly wish to respond and relate to true Oneness.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Nishma-Parshah: Acharei Mot

Take a look at what's on
for Parshat Acharei Mot

Sunday, 28 April 2019

The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah With the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook

From RRW
Kodesh Press
Rabbah bar Bar Hannah has been referred to as the Jewish Sinbad the Sailor. His tall tales, fifteen in all, are recorded in the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra (73a-74a). The particular chapter in which they are situated is named “The Seller of the Ship” (“HaMokher et ha-Sefinah”). Appropriately, these tales of seafarers (nehutei yama) were inserted in that legal discussion, as is the wont of the Talmud to mix Aggadah with Halakhah, thus tempering law with lore and legend.
Rav Kook’s commentary to the Legends first appeared in print in Jerusalem in 1984 in the second volume of his collected essays, Ma’amrei ha-Rayah. In this early work (written at age twenty-five), Rav Kook yet cites sources. Later, when his style of writing switched to “stream of consciousness,” sources were eliminated. For this very reason, the commentary to the Rabbah bar Bar Hannah legends is of extreme importance. Here, Rav Kook divulges the many and varied Kabbalistic sources that informed his view, and it is one of the few places that he openly includes Kabbalistic terminology in his writings.

Rav Kook continues a long tradition of interpreting these legends. The Vilna Gaon, as well as his rival Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, both wrote commentaries on the aggadot of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah.

Rabbi Bezalel Naor is one of the most prominent scholars and interpreters of Rabbi Kook.  In The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah, Rabbi Naor presents – for the first time in any language – Rabbi Kook’s commentary along with much needed explanatory notes.  Rabbi Naor’s most recent works include Orot (Maggid, 2015), When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (2016, Kodesh), and The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017).

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Mussar: Avot 1:11 When NOT to say Mussar!

Originally published 8/6/11, 9:56 pm.

I was reading about a famous Rav who darshened re: Avot 1:11 «Hachamim Hizaharu b'divreichem» ...

He was concerned that Mussar to a large audience can be a win-lose situation. EG some talmiddim or listeners will need Hizzuk, while others will need castigation etc.

By speaking Mussar to a wide audience, one is bound to help some and to hurt others. And some of those hurt feelings may lead to yei'ush Chas v'Shalom!

The eitzah this Rav gave was to speak of "Y'shuat Yisrael" and "dibburim ham'shivim et hannefesh"


Since I'm not clear about what he meant, I myself may be in jeopardy of transgressing this myself! It seems he meant that a positive and loving message always makes sense barabbim. It's win-win But a negative tone is a "medicine" best administered in private, when justified, lest it lead sensitive listeners to take an improper message.


Monday, 22 April 2019

Sefirat Ha-Omer

originally published April 14, 2014

There are two very important links by Rabbi Doniel Neustadt that you may find of great value.

Link #1 - Sefiras Ha-Omer: Forgetting To Count One Day
Link #2  Counting Sefiras Ha-Omer Unintentionally
<> .
Lz"n Areyh Isser Ben Tzvi Hirsch Z"L

Kol Tuv,

Sunday, 21 April 2019


origianlly posted May 3, 2014

Derech Emet:

Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah, chapter 57, remez 490:
«[The Biblical Book of] Isaiah [chapter 57, verse 20] taught:
The first wave [in the sea] says:
I will ascend and flood the entire world; but when he arrives at the sand, he bows before it.  But the second wave does not learn from the first. 
Similarly, Pharaoh arose like a wave against Israel, but the Holy One Blessed Be He threw him down.

And similarly Amalek, and similarly
Sichon and Og, and similarly Bilaam and Balak; none of them learned from [the mistake of] the

Thus you find that all who cause Israel to worry, they [the aggressors] fall before them [Israel]:

Nimrod fell before Abraham;
and Abimelech [fell before] Isaac; and Esau [fell before] Jacob;
Pharaoh and the Egyptians
[fell before] Israel;
Amalek and Sichon and
Og and the 31 Kings [of the land of Canaan] [fell before] Moshe and Joshua;
[fell before] [King] Hezekiah;
Haman [fell before] Mordechai;
and in the future Gog
and Magog [will fall before] Israel…»
Yalkut Shimoni was compiled by
Rabbi Shimon HaDarshan of Frankfort (Germany) in the 13th century of the Common Era. 

One manuscript refers to him as chief of the preachers [Rosh HaDarshanim] of Frankfort.
The earliest known edition of Yalkut Shimoni is dated 1308 CE in the Bodlian Library (the
main research library of the University of Oxford in England), according to one of the appendices at the end of Love Your Neighbor
by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin.

Kol Tuv,

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Interesting Words in the Seder

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                          Some Interesting Words of the Seder

          Seder: A word with this root appears only one time in Tanach, at Job 10:22 (sedarim). As we would expect, it means “order.” 
          Karpas: This word appears in the Tanach only 1 time, at Esther 1:6. There it means “fine fabric, linen.”  In the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud, it has the meaning of a plant, or celery/parsley, but it is never used in connection with the Seder.
              It is only in the Geonic period that we first find karpas (in the form “karpasa”) used in connection with the Seder. It is mentioned as one of the permissible options for the bore pri ha-adamah at this stage. The earliest such reference is in a Geonic responsum published in L. Ginzberg’s Ginzei Schechter, vol. 2, pp. 252-260. For another early reference to karpasa at the Seder, see The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 922 (citing an 11th century piyyut).
              We are all misled by the introductory kadesh u-rechatz piyyut to view the word karpas as integral to the Seder. But many other such introductory piyyutim have come to light, and many of them do not include the word karpas. This stage of the Seder is there in these piyyutim, but it is represented by a different word or words. Some of these other piyyutim are collected at M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 77-82.
             Maror: The word maror in the singular appears nowhere in Tanach. The word used in Tanach is the plural: merorim. It appears three times: in the commandment of pesach (Ex. 12:8), in the commandment of pesach sheni (Numb. 9:11), and at Lamentations 3:15 (hisbiani va-merorim; he has filled me with bitterness.)  Almost certainly, the original formulation of the mah nishtannah question described the herb in the plural: merorim. See, e.g., Siddur Rav Saadiah Gaon, p. 137, and Rambam, Hilkhot Chametz U-Matzah 8:2.

            In rabbinic Hebrew, the singular refers to only one of the five herbs with which one can fulfill one’s obligation. See Mishnah Pesachim 2:6.
            It is interesting that the Torah never tells us why merorim are to be eaten with the pesach and pesach sheni sacrifices. It has been suggested that merorim were merely added as a condiment to the sacrificial meat. See, e.g., Daat Mikra to Ex. 12:8. But the phrase va-yemareru et chayeyhem is found earlier in the story (at Exodus 1:14). Therefore, it is a compelling interpretation to understand the inclusion of merorim in the sacrificial pesach meals as symbolic of the bitterness of the slavery.
          Chasal (Chet-Samekh-Lamed): This word, which means “finish,” is used at the end of the Seder. The root appears seven times in Tanach. Six times it appears as chet-samekh-yod-lamed =locusts. The other time, at Deuteronomy 28:38, it appears as yechaslenu ha-arbeh (=the locusts will finish it/eat it away).  Most likely, locusts are called “chasil” because they finish off the crops.  This explanation is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 3:6), and modern scholars  agree.

         Sipur: In Biblical Hebrew, the root samekh-pe-resh  means both “to count” and “to tell a story.” It means “count” in the kal. It means “tell a story” in the piel. Can we find a common ground here?

            Interestingly, there is such a phenomenon in English as well: “to count,” and “to recount” a story. Also, an “accountant” works with numbers, but a newspaper “account” is a retelling of a tale. The relationship between counting and telling a story is found in words of other languages as well. See Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 626.The simplest explanation for all of this is that a story is the sum of details and that, in telling a story, there has been a counting and an ordering of all the details.       

         Interestingly, the English word “tell” also has the connotation of “telling a story” and of “counting.”  (Think of a bank “teller.”)      
            Cherut: The root chet-resh-tav only appears one time in the Tanach, at Exodus 32:16. It means “engraved,” so we have to look elsewhere for the origin of this word as “freedom.”
               One approach is to relate it to chet-vav-resh=nobleman. This word appears many times in Tanach (always in the plural).  That this is the origin of the word “cherut” for freedom is the approach taken by R. Joshua b. Levi at Mishnah Avot  6:2. Here the word  from Exodus 32:16 is cited  (charut al ha-luchot) and then the following statement is made: “ein lekha  ben chorin    ela mi she-osek be-talmud Torah.” Of course, the statement is only a homiletical one, so the etymology may be homiletical as well.
             A different approach to “cherut =freedom” derives it from an Aramaic root “chet-resh-resh”  that means “to be or become free.” (See, e.g., the word “shin-chet-resh-resh.”  The shin here is not a root letter. )                     

              The word in the Tanakh for freedom is “dror” (occurring 9 times).   It is interesting that the text of the Kiddush uses the word “cherut”  instead of the word “dror.”      
        Hesebah: The meaning of the word “hesebah” is ingrained in all of us. Wake any of us up from our reclining position in the middle of the night and we will tell you that “hesebah” means “recline.”  But wait a minute. Everyone will agree that the root of this word is S-B-B, which has a meaning of “round.”  What is going on here?  How did this root S-B-B turn itself into a root meaning “recline”?
         Surely the process was as follows.  The root first evolved into a word for “eating a meal,” since meals were eaten in a circle. Then it evolved into eating a meal with couches around the table, where the practice was to recline on the couches. Eventually, it came to mean “recline,” even when no couches were involved!
           The above discussion is taken from my new book Roots and Rituals. (There I also discuss the words “matzah,” and “haggadah.”)
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He enjoys his freedom and his couch. There he reclines and counts the number of times difficult words appear in Tanach and recounts this material to others, all the while avoiding those all-consuming locusts. He can be reached at