Saturday, 16 November 2019

In Memorian -- I am in pain

From RRW
 (This is presented in recognition of the year anniversary of the 
Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre,  
Cheshvan 18, 5779

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Origin of Gematria

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                          When Did We First Use Gematria?

       Samuel 13:1 tells us that Saul was one year old when he began to reign: “ben shanah Shaul be-malkho.” If you look at the Soncino, their translation suggests that there is a textual difficulty here and offers: “Saul was __ years old when he began to reign.” But the Daat Mikra suggests: “b-n” was a way of writing “52.”  This raises the issue of whether the ancient Israelites thought in terms of numerical equivalents of letters.
       There are many references to gematria by Amoraim and some halakhot seem to be derived from them. For example, when a nazir takes a vow for an unspecified period, the period is assumed to be 30 days based on a gematria.  See Nazir 5a. 
       But what about derivations from gematria, or at least the use of numerical equivalents of letters, earlier than the Talmud?
       At Avot 3:23 there is a statement that “tekufot ve-gematriot” are only “parperaot” (=peripheral) to wisdom. But the meaning of “gematriot” here may simply be “mathematics.” (“Tekufot” means “astronomy.”)
       The last Mishnah in Uktzin uses a gematria and states that God will give each tzaddik 310 worlds, citing a verse that uses the word “yesh” (yod-shin).  But this statement is in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi, an Amora.
         If we look further, we can find Tannaitic sources that employ gematria. Scattered statements of gematria are made by Tannaim that are found in the Talmud. One example is a statement by a R. Natan at Shabbat 70a. (See Encyclopaedia Judaica 7:369.) He cites a gematria based on a verse to explain the source of the concept of 39 forbidden labors on Shabbat. Another example of a gematria from the Tannaitic period is the baraita at Ber. 8a about the word “totzaot.”       
          But what about before the Tannaim? Can we find examples of gematria in the B.C.E. period? Even simpler, do we know that Jews understood their letters as having numerical values in the B.C.E. period?
          The earliest source for the use by Jews of letters to reflect numerical values are coins issued by King Yannai. Among the coins he issued are ones in which the letters “caf-heh” are used to indicate the 25th year of his reign (=78 B.C.E.) (Some coins perhaps have the date “caf.” There is a dispute as to the actual readings.)  (Also relevant in the pre-70 C.E. period is Mishnah Shekalim 3:2.)
          But is it possible that we used letters to reflect numerical values even in the First Temple period and earlier? It is possible, but we have no sources for this practice. (The fact that we have no sources here is not surprising. We barely have sources for anything outside the Tanach in the Biblical period.)
          Already in the 3rd century B.C.E. and probably earlier, the Greeks used letters to reflect numerical values and they too had a system where equations between words were made based on numerical values. Their system was called “isopsephy.” (It means “equal pebbles.” The early Greeks used pebbles arranged in patterns to learn arithmetic. The word “calculate” derives from the Latin word “calculus”=pebble. There is an interesting article on Wikipedia on “isopsephy.”) The scholar S. Lieberman (Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 1962, p. 73) theorizes that the use of letters as numerals was “a Greek invention which was adopted by the Semites at a much later time.” But no one really knows.  (It is interesting that in the Greek system the value for their 11th letter is 20, the value for their 12th letter is 30, etc., etc., just like in our system. This perhaps implies a common origin for the two systems but is not telling us which came first.)
           Now let me address a different issue. There is a system that we call today “A-T-B-Sh.” It is a way of writing where you write the last letter, “tav,” to mean “aleph”, “shin” to mean “bet,” etc., etc. The Talmud refers to this system. (It refers to this system as “gematria,” see San. 22a.)
           At Jeremiah 51:41, a place name Sheshakh is referred to in the same verse as a reference to Bavel (Bet-Bet-Lamed) and seems to be another way of referring to Bavel. Is it possible that Jeremiah is using “A-T-B-Sh” here? In “A-T-B-Sh,” “B-B-L” would be written as “Sh-Sh-C.” Many scholars are willing to accept this approach since we have never found a place named “Sheshakh” in or around Babylonia. Also,  “A-T-B-Sh” is not dependent on the use of letters to represent numerals. Scholars also observe that letters in antiquity were sometimes written in the following pattern: one line left to right, the next line right to left, the next line left to right, etc... If an ancient Israelite wrote the alphabet in this manner, he would regularly see the “A-T-B-Sh” correspondences.     
           There is other evidence for the use of “A-T-B-Sh” by Jeremiah. At 51:1, he uses the phrase “lev kamai” (=the heart of those who stand against me).  L-B-K-M-Y is the equivalent of K-S-D-Y-M in “A-T-B-SH.” The Kasdim are another Biblical term for the Babylonians.
           To sum up, a mainstream (but unproven) view is that Jews did not use gematria prior to the Hellenistic period, since we may not have equated letters with numerical values until the Hellenistic period.  But “A-T-B-Sh” may have already been in use in the Biblical period. (Its use was not necessarily to conceal, but more likely, to amuse.)
         Three more points:
           1. Scholars who write about the origin of gematria often point out that the Assyrian king Sargon II (8th cent. B.C.E.) wrote that he made the wall of his newly-founded capital 16,283 cubits long in accord with the numerical value of his name. (Scholars do not yet understand how the length was made equal to his name.) This is the earliest instance of gematria in some form in the ancient near East. But the issue remains whether this has any relevance for ancient Israel.                                                         
        2. Regarding the etymology of the word “gematria,” the Greek word (“geometry”) originally meant “measuring the earth.”  Jastrow and many other scholars observed that the way the Talmud used the word “gematria” did not correspond with this. They suggested that the word “gematria” in the Talmud was a transposition from a Greek word “gramattia” that meant “letters.” But more recent scholarship observes that even in Greek we can find the word “geometry” used as a number that results from a numerological calculation. So there is no reason to posit a transposition and connect it with “grammatia.”
         3.  Rav Hershel Schachter discusses gematria briefly in his Divrei Soferim. He concludes that gematria is “not the actual source for any matter in Halakha or in Jewish thought.” He is willing to take this position because there are Rishonim who write, in particular instances, that the gematria mentioned in the Talmud is just an allusion to an idea that was derived independently. (He cites Rambam and Ramban, for example.) Rav Schachter concludes that “it would be advisable for the yeshivot that educate young children to de-emphasize these derivations and to greatly decrease the time spent on them.”
         (Many of the points I made come from an article by Stephen Lieberman in HUCA, vol. 58, 1987.)
Mitchell First can be reached at MFirstAtty@com. In his own alternative gematria system, the gematria of his last name is “1.”

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Mussar: Optimism vs. Pessimism

From RRW
Einstein was asked, what is the most important thing for a person to determine about their world? Einstein’s response was simple, “To decide for yourself whether you believe your Universe is friendly or an unfriendly place”?

That one belief will determine how you view your entire world. You will be an optimist or a pessimist and that one decision will make all the difference in your life."

Now add lol d'avad Rachmanah
l'tav avid....

how does that feel?

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Book Review: My Father's Paradise by Ariel Sabar

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                           Book Review: My Father’s Paradise by Ariel Sabar (2008)

      This was one of the most interesting books that I ever read! Ariel grew up in Los Angeles.  His father Yona was born in Kurdistan (in Iraq), where, after 2600 years, the Jews still spoke Aramaic. Yona’s family was brought to Israel in 1951. After a decade in Israel, Yona moved to the U.S. and eventually became a professor of Aramaic at UCLA. Ariel rejected his father for the first 31 years of his life.
       The author writes: “Ours was a clash of civilizations…He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980’s L.A.” While Ariel tried to be cool in California, his father spoke English poorly and dressed embarrassingly. Ariel rejected his father so much that he stopped calling him “Abba” and instead called him by his first name “Yona.” “He was the odd-looking, funny-talking man with strange grooming habits who lived with us and who may or may not have been my father, depending on who was asking.”
    When Ariel was born, his father had wanted to name him “Aram.” But his mother knew the cruelty of children to others with weird names. She told her husband that “Aram” was a nonstarter. The author writes: “And so even before I drew a breath, I had landed my first blow.”  
    Eventually the author went away to college and became a writer. When he was thirty-one years old, his wife gave birth to a son. Ariel asked: “Would [my son] break with me as I had with my own father?” Ariel realized he had to make peace with his father. He started to question his father about the past and the history of the Jews of Kurdistan. This book was the result. The subtitle of the book is: A Son’s Search for his Family’s Past.
     What I love about this book is that it covers practically the entire history of the ancient and modern world. It starts in the 8th century B.C.E. but continues with the story of the mass immigration of the Kurdish Jews to Israel in the 1950’s. Then it continues with Yona going to the U.S. and being a student at Yale, and also teaching at Yeshiva University and living in Teaneck. Finally the story continues with Yona’s academic career in California. Later, it involves Saddam Hussein and modern-day Iraq when father and son travel there.
     In the eighth century BCE, a practical decision was made by the Assyrian leaders to adopt Aramaic as its official language. The Arameans had originated in Syria. They were poor and had a tendency to wander. (I hope you are reminded of a certain Biblical verse here!) The author writes that the Arameans were so powerless that the Assyrians saw no threat in using their language, instead of their own, Akkadian. Akkadian had to be written on clay. But Aramaic could be written on papyrus. This made it much easier to use.  Over the centuries, the language crossed borders and bridged faiths as no other language had.
          The author writes:  “The death of Aramaic as one of the world’s greatest languages came suddenly. In the seventh century, Muslim armies from Arabia conquered Mesopotamia and Arabic was steamrolled by Arabic… Middle Eastern Jews switched to the Arabic of their Muslim neighbors. Aramaic clung to life in just one place: on the lips of Jews, and some Christians, in Kurdistan.”
            When other Jews, even those from elsewhere in Iraq, first met their Kurdish brethren in the twentieth century, they could scarcely believe their ears. The Baghdadi doctor H. M. Haddad recalled: “Single words were understandable, or almost, and all at once I knew their source. This…[was] a derivative of Aramaic, the language I’d encountered in the Zohar! Impure, admixed, distorted but unmistakably the ancient tongue!”
             The longevity of the language was due to the isolation of the Kurdish Jews. These Jews saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
              A prominent story in the book relates to Yona’s sister as a newborn. Her mother was unable to nurse her. They reached out to a Muslim wet nurse, which Jews had done before. They paid the wet nurse in advance and told her to come back with the baby in two months. But she never returned!  (This occurred in 1936. Seventy years later, the author goes back to Kurdistan to try and find her!)
             Yona was the last bar mitzvah boy in his Kurdish town before the mass immigration of the Kurdish Jews to Israel.
             What happened when Yona’s parents and grandparents came to Israel? The Kurdish Jews had their own customs. At his first Shabbat in Israel, Yona’s grandfather went from shul to shul, not recognizing the customs. “Is there any way to tell from the outside which are Israel’s Jewish synagogues?” he asked! It was exceptionally difficult for the Kurdish Jews to get acclimated to Israel.
             Yona’s life work was an Aramaic to English dictionary, published in 2002, which catalogued over eight thousand Aramaic words.
              Why did Ariel call his book My Father’s Paradise? The title alludes to the fact that Yona lived in a paradise of words, even though the people who spoke the language were not near him anymore and were dying out. Ariel observes that his father had sublimated homesickness and made it into a career. He asks at one point:  How could a man abandon his past and hold on to it at the same time? The answer: Become a professor of this language. Ariel remarks: “Teaching Aramaic in America…was how he sang God’s song in a strange land.”  (See Ps. 137:4.)
              Interestingly, it was while living in Teaneck that Yona made the decision not to return to Israel after his PHD from Yale, and to go to UCLA for his academic career. One cannot fault him as Israel had failed his parents’ generation of Kurdish Jews.
              Before Ariel had a child, there was another turning point in his relationship with his father. The producers of “The X-Files” had asked his father to read some Aramaic words on the show. Ariel was intrigued and wrote an article about his father, explaining that his father grew up speaking Aramaic in Kurdistan and then became a professor in UCLA. Everyone loved the article and Ariel began to realize that his father was unique and popular. His father had also assisted in the movie “Oh, God!” (with George Burns and John Denver).

       The producers of “The X-Files” also asked Yona to say the phrase “I am the Walrus” on the show in Aramaic. But there was no word for “walrus” in Aramaic, a language that arose in an inland area. Yona made up a phrase “kalbid maya” (=dog of water).  Yet on a later visit to Israel speaking to his elderly mother, he found out that there was such an Aramaic phrase! (But it did not mean “walrus.” It was a way of referring to someone who loved playing in water.)
     P.S.   I wrote this column 2 months ago. President Trump had not told me at that time that he was withdrawing from Syria and that the Kurds would be in the news every day!
Mitchell First can be reached at He intends to buy the father’s Aramaic to English dictionary. He never watched “The X-Files.”