Tuesday 31 January 2017

Statement of Agudath Israel On President Trump's Executive Immigration Order

From RRW
Statement of Agudath Israel On President Trump's Executive Immigration Order

The immense contributions of immigrants to American life need no elaboration, nor does the importance of immigration to our great nation.  The world refugee crisis, moreover, must compel our deep concern for those fleeing persecution, as did so many of our own forebears.

President Trump's recent executive order seeks to protect the nation's citizens from terrorism, an unarguably honorable quest.

The strict vetting process that has long been in place has certainly helped keep terrorists and their recruiters from entering our country.  The executive order is aimed at temporarily strengthening that line of defense.  As such, it is laudable.  But only if its focus is on places, on countries that are hotbeds of violent radicalism, not on religious populations. 

And only if tempered by true concern for innocent refugees, who do not deserve to be caught up in nets intended to catch their oppressors.

We urge the administration to continue to evaluate the geopolitical situation and exercise great deliberation as it forges a permanent immigration policy, so that what results will well balance security concerns with human and religious rights.

RCA Condemns Attack on Quebec Mosque

RCA Condemns Attack on Quebec Mosque

The Rabbinical Council of America, the leading organization of orthodox rabbis in North America, condemns Sunday's attack on the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center, an attack which the province's premier, Philippe Couillard, called an act of terror.  This is the latest and most lethal attack against this mosque and other centers of Muslim worship.  Just today a pig's head was thrown at a mosque in Philadelphia.  The RCA extends condolences to the families of the six people who were murdered and prays for the recovery of the five others who were wounded.
Rabbi Shalom Baum, president of the RCA said, "We are greatly concerned about persecution and prejudice that targets others based on religion and are outraged by this act of murder in a house of worship.  As a people which has suffered discrimination and persecution because of our own religious beliefs and identity, we are acutely aware of the dangerous consequences of hatred." 
Rabbi Michael Whitman, rabbi of Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff Synagogue in Hampstead, Quebec and RCA Executive Committee member, said, "There is a proud tradition in Quebec of Jews and Muslims standing together in moments of celebration, and at times of sadness. Montreal rabbis, and our communities, stand today with our Muslim brothers and sisters to condemn this hateful attack and celebrate the respect we share."
The RCA supports the statement of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, "Diversity is our strength, and religious tolerance is a value that we, as Canadians, hold dear."

Rabbinical Council of America, 305 Seventh Avenue, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10001

Sunday 29 January 2017

RCA Urges University Leaders to Battle Campus anti-Semitism

From RRW

Dibbur vs. Ma'aseh

From RRW

"Jewish radio columnist Barry Farber, who gave Nixon an "anti-Semite score" of 15-to-20 out of 100, said:

Give me a Nixon who curses Jew boys over in Treasury but resupplies Israel...over a Franklin D. Roosevelt who professes great love for the Jews but lets all those Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis be returned to the death camps of Europe rather than land in the U.S. even though they were close enough to see the lights of Miami Beach.

Friday 27 January 2017

Our Prayer for the Government: Ha-Noten Teshuah

From RRW
 Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

Our Prayer for the Government: Ha-Noten Teshuah

           Every Shabbat, after the Haftarah, our custom is to recite a prayer for the government. The prayer begins Ha-Noten Teshuah la-Melakhim...  (He who gives salvation to kings…).  Where did this prayer come from?

            Before we address this, it is important to point out that there are many sources in Judaism for the idea of praying for the government. The most widely quoted source is Jeremiah 29:7. Here  Jeremiah instructs: “Seek the peace of the city where I caused you to be exiled and pray to the Lord for it…” Even before this, at Gen. 47:7, Jacob bestows a blessing on Pharaoh.  There is also R. Haninah’s statement at Avot 3:2 that we must pray for the welfare of the government since, without fear of the government, men would swallow each other alive. (This statement was made when the hated Romans were ruling Palestine. So even government by the hated Romans was viewed as preferable to a lack of government!)

            Also, there is an interesting legend in Jewish tradition that the Jews told Alexander the Great that he should not listen to the Cutim and their request to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Our Temple, the Jews explained, was a place where the Jews prayed for Alexander’s kingdom. See the baraita to Megillat Taanit, day of Har Gerizim.

            Going back to the Ha-Noten Teshuah prayer, the earliest manuscript that includes the prayer has the name “Selim” inserted in a later hand. It is a Sefardic siddur manuscript. The reference could be to Selim I or to Selim II. The first was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire between 1512-20. The second was its ruler between 1566-74. So we know at least that Ha-Noten Teshuah had already been composed in the 16th century, and was being recited in an area that was part of the Ottoman empire.

           Earlier than that, Abudarham, writing in Spain in the early 14th century, mentions a custom of blessing the king in shul after the Torah reading. It would seem that he was referring to a custom on Mondays and Thursdays as well as on Shabbat. But he does not provide any official text of a blessing. Moreover, from his brief comments,  it does not seem that he was alluding to Ha-Noten Teshuah. Also, around this same time, the Orchot Hayyim of R. Aaron HaKohen briefly mentions a custom in Spain of blessing the king after the Haftarah reading. (See also Kol Bo, section 20, a work perhaps by the same author.)

          Could Ha-Noten Teshuah  have been composed in Spain prior to the 1492 expulsion? No one really knows. But Rabbi Barry Schwartz, who wrote an article about Ha-Noten Teshuah (see HUCA , vol. 57), believes that this is unlikely. On the other hand, he is able to track the spreading of the prayer thereafter. For example, by the mid-17th century, it is found in Italy. It is also cited in the mid- 17th century by Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, leader of the Amsterdam Jewish community, as part of his effort to have the Jews readmitted into England. Rabbi Menashe cited the prayer because it supported his argument that the Jews would be loyal citizens.

         Was there a prayer for the king in the Ashkenazic community in the time of the Rishonim? The Encyclopedia Le-Beit Yisrael, entry Ha-Noten Teshuah, includes a statement that this prayer is mentioned in a document from Worms, Germany from the year 1096. But we do not have documents from Worms from the year 1096, so I decided to investigate this mysterious claim. It turns out that there is a manuscript which describes the rituals of Worms and which includes a very short prayer for the king, but the prayer is not Ha-Noten Teshuah.  Aryeh Frumkin, in his commentary on the Seder R. Amram Gaon, at vol. 2, p. 78 (published in 1910-12), wrote that this manuscript was written at the time of the gezerot of 1096 and 1146.  He came to this erroneous conclusion because the manuscript included some details from these times. But scholars today realize that the manuscript, Oxford 2205, was written several centuries later. Meanwhile, Frumkin’s statement assigning the above very early time period to this manuscript has been followed by many sources, including the above encyclopedia.  The above encyclopedia also erroneously assumed that the prayer in the manuscript was Ha-Noten Teshuah, but it clearly was not, as Frumkin quotes the language of the prayer. So all we learn from this manuscript is that Worms and perhaps other parts of Ashkenaz had their own short prayer for the king, but we do not know how early this prayer arose.  (Frumkin is an interesting figure. He was one of the residents of Petach Tikvah in its early, very difficult stages in the 1880’s, but eventually had to abandon living there. He moved to England where he was able to view manuscripts in the library at Oxford. He eventually was able to return to Petach Tikvah.)

              Going back to Ha-Nanoten Teshuah, many claim that it is actually a subversive prayer with a hidden anti-government meaning. The prayer begins with quotes from Psalms 144:10:  “He who gives salvation unto kings,” and “He who rescues his servant David from the hurtful sword.” But the subsequent verse in Psalms is:  “Rescue me and deliver me out of the hands of strangers, whose mouth speak falsehood and their right hand is a hand of lying.” Perhaps the citation to 144:10 is meant to allude to the subsequent verse! Similarly, the sentence in the prayer, “ha-noten ba-yam derekh...” is a quote from Isaiah  43:16. But just prior to that, at 43:14, the prophet describes the downfall of Babylon. Babylon may be a metaphor for governments of the Jews in exile. Whether  these interesting nearby verses are just coincidence or are of significance, I leave for you to decide. (My friend Sam Borodach suggested to me that if we knew whether or not the prayer was composed under government compulsion or composed voluntarily, that might be the deciding factor. Another friend suggested to me that we should perhaps abandon this prayer entirely and compose a new one, so as to distance ourselves from this controversial allegation!)

             For more insights into Ha-Noten Teshuah, see the Jan. 2017 article by Professor Jonathan Sarna at the Lehrhaus.com. (Sarna also quotes a famous line from Fiddler on the Roof: “A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar…far away from us!”)


            Additional notes: 1) For material from the Cairo Geniza relevant to our topic, see S.D. Gotein, “Prayers from the Geniza for the Fatamid Caliphs…” in Studies in Judaica, Karaitica and Islamica, pp. 52-57. (The Fatamid Caliphs ruled Egypt and its surrounding areas from the 10th to 12th centuries.)  2) For a completely different interpretation of Jer. 29:7, see R. Reuven Margalit, Ha-Mikra ve-Ha-Mesorah, pp. 64-66. 3) The standard ArtScroll siddur does not include the text of either Ha-Noten Teshuah or the prayer for the State of Israel. (But there is a little box on the bottom of p. 450 with the following statement: “In many congregations, a prayer for the welfare of the State is recited…at this point.”) The texts of Ha-Noten Teshuah and the prayer for the State of Israel were added by ArtScroll for its special Rabbinical Council of America edition (with some strange things done to the page numbers of Yekum Purkan, so that the addition would not change all the subsequent page numbers!)


Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com. When he prays for the government, he also has in mind government agencies, like the NJ Transit Authority and the MTA, which enable him to get to work.

Friday 20 January 2017

The Plague of Arov: A New Understanding

From RRW
 Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                      The Plague of Arov: A New Understanding
              When I started the research for this article, I intended to survey the various traditional understandings of the plague. Along the way, I discovered a completely new and intriguing understanding which may be the plain sense. But I am going to hold you in suspense and not reveal it until the end.
               Most of us assume that this plague consisted of an attack by various wild animals (chayot). This is essentially the approach taken by Rashi. But a midrash records two different Amoraic understandings of this plague. According to R. Yehudah, the plague consisted of chayot me’uravevot (=a mixture of wild animals). According to R. Nehemiah, the plague consisted of minei tzirin ve-yitushin (=various species of hornets and mosquitoes/gnats). See Shemot Rabbah 11:3.  Both of these Sages are interpreting the word arov as mixture. Just that in the view of R. Yehudah, it is a mixture of large animals, and in the view of R. Nehemiah, it is a mixture of much smaller ones. In the view of both, the precise animals are not identified in the name of the plague.
                The reason for the disagreement about the identity of the specific animals involved is that the description of the plague at Exodus 8:17-27 does not give enough clues. The text does state that the arov will fill the houses of the Egyptians and be on their land, and va-tishachet ha-aretz mi-pnei he-arov. The text also records that after the plague was removed, “not one remained.” But these statements are  vague as to the precise nature of the arov.
               Descriptions of many of the plagues are also found in chapters 78 and 105 of Tehillim. With regard to the plague of arov, there is a reference to it at 105:31, but it is not helpful. However, at 78:45 the reference to the plague does provide some information. We are told: yeshalach ba-hem arov va-yochlem. The last word (“and it will eat them”) at first glance seems to support the view of R. Yehudah that large animals were involved that ate the Egyptians.              
              Do we have earlier sources for the meaning of arov prior to the Amoraim? Our earliest source is the translation of the Torah into Greek, composed in Egypt around 200 B.C.E. Here the translation is kunomuia, literally: “dog-fly,” a particularly unyielding type of fly. Perhaps this translation was based on an older tradition as to the nature of arov. But I would suggest another possibility. The authors of the Greek translation knew that arov meant mixture, and believed or had a tradition that arov was a very small animal, and then picked kunomuia because it was viewed as hybrid type of animal. In this way, they were able to interpret arov as a “mixture.”
            Another early translation we have is that of Josephus (Antiquities II, 303), writing around 100 C.E. He translates the plague as “wild beasts of every species and kind.” This translation seems to be based on an understanding of arov as “mixture.“
             So according to perhaps all of the views that I have described so far, the Torah is interpreted as having not described the actual animal involved, but having used a word that meant only “mixture.” At first glance, this seems unusual. But perhaps we are dealing with a common ancient idiom and in Biblical times everyone understood what particular mixture was implied by the word arov.
            I should also mention that the church father Jerome (c. 400 C.E.), who was aware of many of the teachings of the Palestinian Amoraim, translated the word with a Latin word that meant “insects.”              
           Many scholars believe that there are a few grounds to prefer the very small animal view and I agree with them. (I am referring here to S.D. Luzzatto and U. Cassuto and many others.) First, the verses in chapter 8 refer to the arov entering the houses of the Egyptians. If the animals involved were large ones, the houses could have been secured to prevent them from entering. Also, if the securing would have been to no avail, the text would have described the animals breaking down the premises upon entering. But no such large-scale destruction upon entering is described. Rather, it is simply stated that the arov would be sent out and fill the premises.
            A second reason to prefer the very small animals approach is that the root ayin-resh-bet with the meaning of “mixture” is more naturally applied to small objects. Large objects, each taking up its own  space, are inherently less of a mixture. A third reason to prefer the very small animals approach is based on a widespread view that the plagues came in pairs. (See, e.g., the commentary to Exodus of Cassuto, and the Daat Mikra commentary, p. 127 and p. 174, n. 77.) For example, the first and second plagues, blood and frogs, were both primarily addressed towards the Nile. The seventh and eighth plagues, hail and locusts, were both primarily addressed to the crops. If our fourth plague, arov, was meant as a pair to the third plague, kinim (=lice), obviously the very small animal interpretation fits bitter. The va-yochlem of Tehillim 78:45 can easily be interpreted metaphorically to include damage inflicted by very small animals.                                                                
                  An altogether different approach to the plague is adopted by Rav S.R. Hirsch. He suggests that the word arov derives from the word aravah (= wilderness), and that the plague alludes to “animals from the wilderness.” I would respond that, although there are verses that refer to animals in the context of an aravah, animals do not seem to be a primary characteristic of an aravah. It is therefore a leap to claim that the word arov alludes to animals from the aravah.
                   An even more speculative approach is adopted by Rashbam. He notes that the Tanakh refers to ze’evei  erev at Zefaniah 3:3, and to ze’ev aravot at Jeremiah 5:6. These could mean “wolves of the wilderness.” But Rashbam suggests that both mean “wolves of the evening” and that the plague arov is referring to such wolves, who typically go out and attack at night.
                 There is, however, an alternative approach to identifying the Biblical arov. It relies on looking at other ancient languages. For example, in Akkadian there was a word urbatu that meant “worm.” Some theorize that this was the arov of the Bible.  But there is a much better suggestion.
                Let us meet the beetles. A scarab is a type of beetle. It was called karabos in Greek. It was called kh-p-r in Egyptian. There was probably a variant pronunciation in Egyptian, kh-r-p, which would explain the way the name was recorded in Greek. Karabos and Kh-r-p would both be very close to the Hebrew ayin-resh-bet, due to the guttural sound that the ayin made. (The “os” in the Greek is likely just a Greek addition to a foreign word.)
                 What do we know about the scarab in ancient Egypt? As Isaac Mozeson phrased it, the ancient Egyptians had “beetlemania.” They worshipped this particular beetle! In ancient Egypt, the scarab was sculptured on monuments, painted on tombs, and worn around the neck as an amulet. Many (or perhaps all) of the plagues were attacks on the various deities of Egypt. This would be another such example! Here at the end of the plague Hashem took away all the arov (Ex. 8:27: “not one remained”). In contrast, a plague of “a mixture of animals” is not a clear judgment on an Egyptian deity. 
                 The “scarab” suggestion (originally made by a 19th century British scholar) was referred to by Rabbi J.H. Hertz in his note on Ex. 8:17, and seems to have been his preferred interpretation. But R. Hertz did not sufficiently explain it. The suggestion was also referred to without sufficient explanation by R. Aryeh Kaplan in The Living Torah. But the suggestion was explained well by Isaac Mozeson in his book The Word and in his edenics.net site, entry “scarab.”  The source I have found that best describes the explanation is a blog entry of Mar. 13 2012 by Seth Ben-Mordecai, at the site exodushaggadah.com. (He is the author of a book: The Exodus Haggadah.)
                    To summarize, a widespread view is that the word arov represents some kind of mixture. Perhaps in Biblical times, everyone understood the idiom and knew what that mixture was. But if you believe that the Torah was likely referring to a specific animal, then the ancient scarab is a very good suggestion.  (Perhaps I should have titled this article: “John Lennon and the Plague of Arov”!)                     
            Additional notes: 1) Some sources that said the beetle was called a’ov in Egyptian. But I did not find this in the more reliable sources. 2)  I mentioned only one midrash above, a dispute in Shemot Rabbah between R.  Yehudah and R. Nehemiah. But there are many other midrashim that include an interpretation of arov. The views expressed in most of these midrashim are similar to that of R.  Yehudah (large animals).  Some further midrashic sources are Shemot Rabbah 11:2 and Midrash Tehillim 78:11.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com.
His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.
(Kodesh Press, 2015). He enjoys mixtures but is not fond of animals, small or large. He was fond of, but did not worship, The Beatles.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Words that appear only one time in Tanakh

From RRW
 Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                        Words that Appear Only One Time in Tanakh
               There is a special term for words that appear only one time in Tanakh.They are called “hapax legomena.” (This is Greek for “once said.”) There are about 1300 such words in Tanakh. Of course, a form of a word might appear only one time, but the root itself may appear many times.  An example is emdato (“standing place) of Michah 1:11. We all know the root ayin-mem-dalet, so there is no problem in understanding this one-time word. The more interesting words are words that appear only one time and do not share a related three-letter root with other known words.  There are about 400 such words. 
              Both the Encyclopaedia Judaica and the old Jewish Encyclopedia include an entry for “hapax legmonena.” But the Jewish Encyclopedia also includes an attempt at a list of such words. Many of the hapax legmonena are words for animals, plants and diseases. Others are loan words from foreign languages.
             Sometimes the meaning of these words can be guessed at from the context. If not, sometimes we can find help in one of the other Semitic languages. Other times we can find the word in Hebrew from a later period such as the Mishnah. We can also look to how the word was translated into Greek in the Septuagint around 200 BCE. Finally, sometimes we make a reasonable conjecture that the word is related to another Hebrew root that shares some of its root letters.
             The Jewish Encyclopedia lists 15 hapax legomena in the book of Genesis. I will now go through some of them. (For brevity, I will shorten the term to hapax.) You will see that for many of these words, there is a question as to whether or not the word is properly considered a hapax.
           Hal’iteini (25:30) (used by Esau when asking to be fed): Although the root lamed-ayin-tet appears nowhere else in Tanakh, it does appear in the Mishnah and Tosefta (e.g., Mishnah Shabbat 24:3). We can deduce from these sources that it means to put food into someone’s mouth. (It is in the hiph’il, so literally it means “to cause someone else to swallow.”)
            Batnim (43:11) (sent by Jacob to Joseph): From the context, these seem to be a type of nuts.  The word is usually translated as “pistachios.” Even though this word only appears once, the word for stomach, beten, appears many times. S. Mandelkern suggests that batnim are called this because they have the shape of a stomach. If this unlikely conjecture would be correct, then batnim should not be considered a hapax.
             Gofer (6:14) (a type of wood used to make Noah’s ark): A different word with the same root letters, gafrit, appears many times and means “sulphur.” If gofer and gafrit would be related, then gofer should not be considered a hapax. But admittedly a relationship between the two seems unlikely.
              Avrekh (41:43) (used regarding Joseph, after his important appointment: va-yikreu lefanav avrekh): Perhaps this is an Egyptian word, some kind of title that Joseph was given. But it is possible that it is a Hebrew word and is related to the word for knee (bet-resh-caf) and means “bend down, kneel” (as Joseph passes by). If so, it should not be considered a hapax.
         Meshek (15:2): u-ven meshek beiti hu Damesek Eliezer. It seems that the reason this unusual word was chosen was a play on words with Damesek (even though Damesek has a sin, and not a shin). From the context, it seems that meshek means something like “support” (Rashi, Targum) or “manage” (S.D. Luzzatto). Many suggest a relation with yishak of Gen. 41:40.  (Note that another difficult word, mimshak, appears at Zeph. 2:9. If it would be related to meshek, then meshek would not be a hapax.)
           Mishtaeh (24:21) (describing Eliezer looking at Rivkah): The root here is shin-aleph-he. This root does appear elsewhere in Tanakh. It has the meaning of “desolation” or “ruin.” The author of the Jewish Encyclopedia list included mishtaeh because he believed that the underlying shin-aleph-he root here is not related to the other shin-aleph-he root. But many disagree and do relate Eliezer’s action to the “desolation” meaning. They view the meaning of Eliezer’s mishtaeh as “astonished,” and believe its origin is “desolation/emptiness of the brain.”  I find this hard to accept.
        Looking outside of Genesis, here are some of my favorite hapax:
         Maakeh (Deut. 22:8): The Torah commands us to build a maakeh for our roofs, so people will not fall. But what is a maakeh? The root ayin- kuf-he appears nowhere else in Tanakh. But from the context, we understand that it must mean some kind of railing. (Many also suggest a connection with the root ayin-vav-kuf, which means “press.”)
         Mesakrot (Isaiah 3:16): This is described as something that haughty women do with their eyes. The root here is sin-kuf-resh. But wait a minute, the root shin-kuf-resh (to lie) appears 119 times.  Why was the dot put on the left here? Why was not the dot put on the right like all the other times? Obviously, those who were responsible for the nekudot must have had a strong tradition that the letter here was a sin and not a shin. As to the meaning of the Biblical root sin-kuf-resh, some attempt to deduce its meaning from the Mishnaic root samekh-kuf-resh, which itself has two different meanings: paint red, and look.
         Ha-Achashtranim Bnei Ha-Ramakhim (Esther 8:10): Here we have two such words. This is a well-known phrase because an amora in the Talmud (at Meg. 18a) seems to admit that even the amoraic Sages did not know the meaning of the phrase.  Ramakhim is found in Mishnah Kilaim 8:5, and is a kind of horse, so perhaps the amoraic statement is really focused on the first word. The solution to achashtranim was found in the mid-19th century, when ancient Persian cuneiform was deciphered. It likely means “governmental.” (For those curious, the phrase is discussed at length in an article by Rabbi Zvi Ron in the Jan.-Mar. 2008 issue of The Jewish Bible Quarterly.)
     There are words that appear twice in Tanakh but effectively appear only once. This occurs when an identical passage is repeated in two different books of the Tanakh. An example is shenhabim (ivory), found only at 1 Kings 10:22 and its repetition at II Chronicles 9:21. (Shenhav is a combination of shen/tooth and hav/elephant.) Another interesting word is amtachat (sack), repeated 14 times in Genesis chapters 42-44, but found nowhere else!
     Finally, there is a very unusual root, tet-aleph-tet-aleph, that appears only twice in Tanakh, both times at Is. 14:23. It means “sweep.” According to the Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shanah 26b), the Sages only learned the meaning of this word by overhearing it being used by the handmaid of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi!
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com.  He regrets not having used any hapax in his book title.