Saturday 29 December 2018

Mussar: IY"H, Emunah,

originally posted June 7, 2014

Sefer HaShelah HaKodesh,
Shaar HaOtiot,
Ot Aleph, Emet VeEmunah, paragraph 14:
Included within adhering to the [Jewish] faith [emunah] is this:
When he [a Jew] attempts to accomplish anything, even in the very near future, he should say:
I WILL ACCOMPLISH THIS IF G-D IS WILLING [Im Yirtzeh HaShem], whether the thing [he wants to accomplish] is big or small…*
Furthermore, if he [a Jew] wants to buy or sell anything, he should say:
Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham HaLevi Horowitz lived from year 1565 CE to 1630 CE.

Shelah is an acronym for Shnei Luchot HaBrit, **
which translates into English as Two Tablets of The Covenant, a reference to the two stone tablets that Moshe [Moses] brought down from Mount Sinai.

I usually say B'Ezrat Hashem which to me indicates a more active commitment to get it done than I'm Yirtzeh Hashem which seems to come across as more passive.

The acronym Shelah might also allude to Shayah Levi Horowitz as well as to Sh'nei Luchot Habbrit.

Kol Tuv,

Thursday 27 December 2018

Book Review: Ally by Michael Oren

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

Book Review: Ally by Michael B. Oren (2015)
Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. during President Obama’s first term. The first part of the book tells us about Oren’s early years. After all, how does someone who grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, who cannot even read Hebrew as a child, end up as an ambassador representing the State of Israel? The second part of the book deals with all the crises in American-Israeli relations during Obama’s first term.
I first read this book when it came out in 2015 and learned much from it. Now, re-reading it during the Trump years, when Israel’s relationship with President Trump is very good, this crisis-filled book seems like ancient history! Remember Obama’s continued insistence on settlement freezes as a pre-condition to negotiations? His disavowal of the 2004 “new realities” letter from Bush to Sharon? His purposely putting “daylight” between the American and Israeli positions? Oren cleverly analogizes the repeated crises of his term to Job 1:16: While Israel is still internalizing one crisis, suddenly comes another! (P.S. Do you remember Rahm Emmanuel and his famously “limited” vocabulary! Oren advises that he learned to curse back when talking to him! )
First let us summarize Oren’s early life. He was born in 1955 to parents named Borenstein in West Orange, N.J. (Oren dropped the “B” and the “stein” when he made Aliyah. “Oren” means “pine tree.”) Oren had little background in Hebrew and admits that he read his bar mitzvah portion in transliteration! But he felt the anti-Semitism in his New Jersey neighborhood, learned how Jews were unable to protect themselves in the Holocaust, and was inspired by the idea of a Jewish country where Jews could defend themselves. He strongly wanted to be a part of the Jews’ return to history. Already in his teens, he joined a Zionist youth organization and was able to shake the hand of Yitzchak Rabin. This was in 1970, when Rabin was Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Oren vowed to himself at the time: “This is what I’ll be someday- Israel’s ambassador to America.” He was also inspired by a famous statement made in the early 20th century by the first Jewish U.S. Supreme court Justice, Louis Brandeis: “Every American Jew who supported Zionism was a better American for doing so.”
Oren went to Columbia College and majored in Mideast studies. In 1979, he made Aliyah and lived in Israel as a lone soldier. In 1982, he served in Lebanon.
He met his future wife Sally Edelstein in Israel in 1981 and married her in 1982. Sally was originally from San Francisco and had spent time in her youth with Janis Joplin and the rock group “Jefferson Airplane.” (In 1995, Sally’s sister Joan Edelstein Davenny was one of several killed in a terrorist bus bombing in Jerusalem.)
After the war in Lebanon ended, Michael and Sally returned to the U.S. so Michael could pursue a doctoral program at Princeton in Near Eastern Studies. There he studied under Bernard Lewis and wrote his thesis on the origin of the 1956 Suez crisis.
In the mid-1980’s he returned to Israel, and worked on post-doctoral fellowships from Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University. He tried to be a scholar and a writer, but publisher after publisher rejected his books, novels and plays. He writes that “barely able to support [his] family, for the first time [he] wondered if [he] could afford to remain in Israel.”
How did Oren finally achieve his success? He tells the story as follows. In 1995, after Rabin was assassinated, Oren was very troubled by the bitter division in Israel. He then decided to research something related to the 1967 war, when Israel was united, so as to attempt to restore a level of unity in Israel. Moreover, by 1995, much material about the 1967 war had become declassified, so the book had potential to be groundbreaking. He was able to receive funding to work on the book from the Shalem Center. He was finishing the concluding chapter at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. As a result of this tragedy, Americans became much more interested in understanding the Mideast and the cause of the 1967 war. He writes that “after decades of receiving only rejection notices, I could scarcely believe that the prestigious Oxford University Press agreed to publish my manuscript. Never in my dreams did I imagine that [my book] would sell out in a week.” His book, of course, was “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.” All of a sudden he went from a little known writer who could barely feed his family to a sought-after commentator and public figure.
Now let us move on to the main section of the book, the period from 2009-2013 when Oren was the ambassador. Here the book is full of insight and wit.
At the beginning of his Presidency, Obama called the Israeli-American alliance “unbreakable.” But as Obama and Netanyahu began to constantly disagree, Oren realized that in order to succeed he “would have to learn the full meaning- and the limits- of that deceptively straightforward word, “ally.” (I recall the wry comment of one pro-Israel public figure at the time: “Obama states that the alliance is “unbreakable.” He should know, because he has been trying to break it!”)
One of the most important things that I learned from this book was something that a friend of Oren repeatedly reminded him of: “Obama’s first memory of Israel would not be the heroic Six-Day War, but rather its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. (Obama was born in 1961.)
Another interesting observation relates to official governmental portraits. Oren writes that U.S. Presidents and vice-Presidents smile, show twinkling eyes and appear beneficent, charismatic and nice. In contrast, Israeli officials, always determined to project strength, “confront the camera with a mixture of intelligence and grit. Their lips never smile, never even part.”
In another clever passage, he writes: “After a career of striving to write the truth about history, bending it in the interests of security did not come easily to me. The seventeenth century English author Henry Wotton observed, ‘An ambassador is a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country.’ But Wooten underestimated the dilemma. An ambassador sometimes lies for two countries.”
An amusing anecdote: At the beginning of his Presidency, Obama told American Jewish leaders that it was important to put “daylight” between the American and Israeli positions. Obama said: “When there is no daylight …that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.” Shortly thereafter, Oren went for a medical check-up, as the job was beginning to take its toll on him. His doctor told him that his body was deficient in vitamin D. “You need to get out more into the sun.” Oren demurred. “No thanks, I’ve already seen enough daylight.”
Finally, a very sentimental section of the book is a chapter called “The Perforated Passport.” Michael grew up very proud of being an American and a Zionist and was very proud of being able to integrate these two identities and hold two passports. But under U.S. law, any American who officially served a foreign country had to renounce his U.S. citizenship. So in July 2009, after Oren agreed to serve as the ambassador from the State of Israel, he had to enter the U.S. Embassy and present his U.S. passport for perforation and cancellation. He had to recite: “I absolutely and entirely renounce my United States nationality together with all rights and privileges and all duties and allegiance and fidelity thereunto pertaining.” He recited those words while gazing at the flag that he had pledged his allegiance to every school day from kindergarten through high school. He writes that “the consul general inserted [his] American passport into an industrial-sized hole puncher and squeezed. The heart of the federal eagle emblazoned on the cover of the document was pierced.” Implicitly, his own heart was as well.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at While Michael changed his name from “Boren” to “Oren,” “First” to “Irst” does not have the same ring to it.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Mussar - The Road to the Holocaust was Paved by Demonizing the Jews

I think this is also applicable in preparation of Shemot. - RBH

originally posted on July 17, 2013

As a History student, I wondered, how did the Nazis get away with the Holocaust's atrocities?
The Holocaust did not start with the ascent of the Nazis to power. What did begin, at that time, was Joseph Goebells YSvZ, his evil propaganda machine and Die Stuehrmer, etc. Over time, the Nazi portrayal of the Jews as the Misfortune of Germany took hold. This took the planted spark of anti-Semitism and fanned it to become the flames of the Holocaust.

«The propaganda of the National Socialist German Workers' Party regime that governed Germany from 1933 to 1945 promoted Nazi ideology by demonizing the enemies of the Nazi Party, notably Jews and communists, but also capitalists and intellectuals»

Themes in Nazi propaganda - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The lesson is clear to me. Beware of the tendency to "demonize," especially when committed by powerful people. I suspect demonization played a role in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It certainly did in the case of  Anwar Sadat.

Best Regards,

Friday 21 December 2018

Meaning of "Morat Ruach"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   
What is the Meaning of “Morat Ruach”?
In Toledot, at the end of chapter 26, we are told that Esav took two Hittite wives and these became “morat ruach” to Yitzchak and Rivkah. The question for this column is what precisely is “morat ruach”? (“Morat” is spelled Mem-Resh-Tav.)
First let us briefly address the word ”ruach.” Although it has concrete meanings like “air,”
“wind” and “breath,” it can also mean “mood/spirit.” See, e.g., Exodus 6:9, which tells us that Bnei Yisrael did not listen to Moshe due in part to their “kotzer ruach” (=impatience of mood/spirit).
“Ruach” in Tanach can also mean “ratzon“ (=will). See Moreh Nevukhim, part I, chap. 40, which gives some examples. Although Rambam does not cite our verse, R. Saadiah Gaon’s commentary gives “ruach” the meaning of “ratzon” in our verse. So now we have two possible meanings for “ruach” in our verse: mood/spirit, and ratzon (=will).
As to “morat,” two main possibilities present themselves. One is the root M-R-R= bitter. (The dropping of the third root letter is not uncommon when the third root letter is identical to the second root letter.) The other possibility is the root M-R-H=“rebel.” We all know this root from the depiction in Devarim chap. 21 of the son who is “sorer u-moreh” (=stubborn and rebellious).
(As to the distinction between M-R-D and M-R-H which both mean “rebel,” I have not figured that out yet and will leave that for another column!)
The “mood, spirit” translation of “ruach” fits nicely with the M-R-R explanation (bitterness of spirit), and the “will” translation of “ruach” fits nicely with the M-R-H explanation (rebelling against the will).
How have our commentaries dealt with the phrase ”morat ruach”? Onkelos uses the words “mesarvan” and “margezan.” “Mesarvan” seems to be based on the “M-R-H”= rebel approach. Is “margezan” based on the “M-R-R”=bitter approach? “Anger” is not the same as “bitterness” but it is not far off.
Rashi cites to Devarim 9:24 “mamrim hayyitem,” where “mamrim” means “rebellious.” But then he adds that the deeds of the Hittite wives were an “itzavon” to Yitachak and Rivkah. “Itzavon” is from the root Ayin-Tzade-Bet which means “grief. “ So like Onkelos, Rashi too was not satisfied with translating the phrase with only the meaning “rebel.” But he gave the second meaning a different spin than Onkelos did.
Rashbam cites to “yamreh et pikha” of Joshua 1:18, where the meaning of “yamreh” is “will rebel” (from the root M-R-H). He also uses a French word that we all recognize: “contrarians.”
Ibn Ezra first cites to the meaning in the phrase “ben sorer u-moreh” (M-R-H=rebel) but then writes that that, in his view, “morat” has the meaning of “bitter.” (Prior to Ibn Ezra, the “bitter” interpretation was adopted by the important 10th century grammarian R. Judah ben Hayyuj.)
(For further reading, see also the commentary of Radak to our verse.)
One of the verses cited by the commentaries is Isaiah 63:10 which uses the word “maru.” Here, the Daat Mikra commentary suggested that the word could have both the “rebel” and “bitter” meanings, i.e., that a double meaning was intended in this verse in Isaiah. The Daat Mikra commentary on our verse suggests that “morat” has such a double meaning as well.
This got me thinking that perhaps we have a “double double” meaning in our verse. As I suggested above, “ruach” in our verse can mean both “mood/spirit” and “will.” Perhaps our verse is trying to express both the “bitter of spirit” meaning and the “rebelling against the will” meaning. That is why it is so hard to understand. It is purposely ambiguous to allow for these two different meaning of each of the two words!
There is one more interpretation of “morat ruach” that I need to mention. I purposefully saved this most creative one for last. It is the suggestion of Seforno. He is aware that “morah” means “razor” in Tanach in three verses: Judges 16:17, Judges 13:5, and I Sam 1:11. Based on this, he suggests that the meaning of “morat ruach” is that the spirit of Yitzchak and Rivkah was being “cut” by the Hittite wives.
How does “morah” end up with a meaning like “razor”? One view connects it with the rare Biblical root Mem-Resh-Chet, which means “rub.” (See Isa. 38:21.) Rashi (Judges 13:5) relates it to the root Y-R-H which means “throw,” since the razor throws away the hair. A different approach is taken by Rav S.R. Hirsch. He notes that a razor has to run contrary to the hair. This enables him to suggest a derivation from M-R-H=rebel, act in opposition. See his comm. to Gen 26:35.
There is also a midrashic source (Numbers Rabbah 10:5) that interprets M-V-R-H=razor as if it is related to M-V-R-Aleph (fear), since hair is afraid of the razor!
But the most widely held view today postulates that the root of the word M-V-R-H=razor is Ayin-Resh-Heh which means “to lay bare, uncover.” (This is the root of the word “ervah”=naked). The explanation is that the razor was originally called M-A-R-H, but the ayin dropped over time, and the word evolved into M-V-R-H. Another word for “razor” in Tanach is “taar” (Tav-Ayin-Resh). This word too probably derives from the root Ayin-Resh-Heh.
Going back to our original verse, Gen. 26:35, one authority who discusses this verse is Maimon b. Yosef, the father of Rambam. (Maimonides means “son of Maimon.” “Maimon” means “fortunate” in Arabic. It is the Arabic version of “Asher.”)
We know that Maimon discusses our verse because the commentary to Genesis and Exodus of R. Abraham son of Rambam has survived and he quotes his grandfather on this verse! According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (11:744), “Maimon wrote commentaries on the Talmud, from which his son quotes abundantly.” But I have never run into these quotes. This was the first time I ever saw the Rambam’s father quoted. (Abraham also quotes his grandfather other times in this Genesis-Exodus commentary.)
What exactly did Maimon explain about our verse? He asks the question how Yitzchak could possibly have thought to give the blessing to Esav after this rebellion of marrying two Hittite women? His answer is that by giving Esav the blessing, Yitzchak was hoping him to lead him to do teshuvah from this sin. (He suggests that Yitzchak was not aware of other sins by Esav.)
We do know much about Rambam’s father (unlike the practically nothing we know about Rashi’s father). One day I will write a column about him.
Acknowledgement: Much of my discussion of “morat ruach” comes from a book that collects the parashah thoughts of Yeshayahu Liebowitz, brother of Nechama. The book I have is called “Sheva Shanim shel Sichot al Parashat Ha-Shavua.”
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. Many times he takes views that are opposite of conventional views. If you want to hear his “contrarian” views, you can reach him at

Saturday 15 December 2018

Do You Really Need a Mussar Sefer to Learn Mussar?

originally published on Feb. 5, 2011

My friend was learning Shulchan Aruch and found it dry. Eventually that led him to R Nachman's Liqutei Halachos on the SA which added the dimension of Hassidut

In learning Kitzur SA, I have been able to find many valuable lessons in Mussar w/o having to read too far between the lines.
Of course having learned Mussar over the years helped to train my eye a bit. So after a while one can derive Mussar from Humash, Tehillim, Mishnah or Kitzur. It matters not the text so much as the approach to seeking the Mussar Heskel behind the text.
That doesn't necessarily obviate the need or desirability of engaging in a Mussar text. It just means that useful Mussar is independent of the classic Mussar texts and may be derived from many and various Torah Texts.


Thursday 13 December 2018

Meaning of She'ol

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

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

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

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

Thursday 6 December 2018

Meaning of Chashmonai

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

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

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

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

Tuesday 4 December 2018

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

originally posted on Dec. 19, 2017

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

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

His latest post 

Chanukah – The Holiday of Judaism's Oral Law

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

Sunday 2 December 2018

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

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

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

His latest post 

Why Be Jewish?

Defining the Question
is now available at

A link is also up on Facebook at  

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

* * * * *

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

Saturday 1 December 2018

Mussar: Purifying the Mind

originally published Jan. 25, 2014

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

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

Kol Tuv,

Thursday 29 November 2018

The Division of the Torah into Five Books

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First  

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

Sunday 25 November 2018

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

From RRW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday 24 November 2018

Mussar: Most Important of All - Just Be a Mensch

originally posted Nov, 16, 2013

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

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

Mensch - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kol Tuv,

Thursday 22 November 2018

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

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

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