Saturday 29 September 2018

Mussar: The Long Spoons

From RRW

The Allegory of the Long Spoons

Legend has it that Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, Lituania, an itinerant preacher, was granted permission to visit both heaven and hell. Upon his return to earth, he traveled from town to town sharing his journey.

With an angel for his guide, the Rabbi is first ushered through the gates of Hell, which, he is surprised to find, are made of finely wrought gold. The gates are exquisitely lovely, as is the lush green landscape that lies beyond them. He looks at his angelic guide in disbelief. “It’s all so beautiful,” he says. “The sight of the meadows and mountains ... the sounds of the birds singing in the trees ... the scent of thousands of flowers ... ” And then the tantalizing aroma of a gourmet meal catches his attention.

Entering a large dining hall, he sees row after row of tables laden with platters of sumptuous food; yet the people seated around the tables are pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. Coming closer, he sees that each man is holding a long spoon, but that both his arms are splinted with wooden slats so that he cannot bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth.

The angel then took the rabbi to Heaven, where he encountered the same beauty he had witnessed in Hell. Entering the dining hall there, he saw the same scene, except in contrast to Hell, the people seated at the tables who had their arms splintered with wooden slates were sitting contentedly, cheerfully talking with each other, as they enjoyed their sumptuous meal.

As the rabbi came closer, he was amazed to watch how each person at a table would feed the person sitting across from him. The recipient of this kindness would express gratitude and then return the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

The rabbi urged his angel to bring him back to Hell so he could share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. Racing into the dining hall, he shouted to the first starving man he saw, “You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.”

“‘You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?’ the man said angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!”

It was then that the rabbi understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The only difference is in the way that people treat each other.

Friday 28 September 2018

Sukkah Sensitivity - A Paradigm for Communing with the Outside World

Sukkah Sensitivity

originally posted Sept. 23, 2013 
Sukkah Sensitivity (c) 2000 by Rabbi Richard Wolpoe
One of the laws of the Sukkah roof {aka SCHACH} tells us if the shade is less than 
50%  it is invalid. And on the other hand, any thatched SCHACH that is so thick that 
rain cannot permeate is also not valid.

So the cover must be more shade than Sun, yet not so shady that neither rain nor the 
Starlight can penetrate.

This can be considered a metaphor for how a Jew should deal with the outside world.

A protection or barrier of less than 50% is invalid,it is too prone to assimilation.
It is by definition more outside than inside, it is too permeable to be considered valid 
protection. However, any barrier that does not allow rain drops or Starlight, that is so 
thick-skinned as to be totally insensitive to the outside world, is also no good.  IOW, 
avoiding assimilation does not entitle us to erect barriers that completely eliminates 
sensitivity to the outside world at large.

Kol Tuv- Best Regards,
Rabbi Richard Wolpoe

Thursday 27 September 2018

Did Moses Have a Speech Impediment?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

                   Did Moses Have a Speech Impediment?

                  I wrote about this topic before, but in revising my article for my forthcoming book, I came across a scholarly article that made me change my mind. Since we are in the midst of Devarim, this is a timely topic.
                  Moses tells God that he is “khevad peh” and “khevad lashon” (Exodus 4:10). But what exactly do these terms mean? 
                  To explain the first of the above expressions, Rashi uses a word from the French of his time. The word is usually translated as “stutter” or “stammer.”  (Rashi does not make any comment on the second expression.)  But where did Rashi get his explanation from? No such view is expressed by the Tannaim or Amoraim.
                   James Kugel, The Bible As It Was (1997), p. 297, points out that there was a Hellenistic Jewish writer from the 2nd century B.C.E., Ezekiel the Tragedian, who wrote that Moses stammered. So Rashi was not the first to give the stammer interpretation.
                   It is possible that Rashi’s source was a story that eventually made its way into Exodus Rabbah 1:26. There a story is recorded about a test put to the infant Moses and that Moses’ mouth and tongue ended up being burned by a piece of coal and that this is what made him “khevad peh” and “khevad lashon.” But I have seen it suggested that burning to a mouth and tongue would more likely cause lisping than stuttering/stammering.  More importantly, Rashi does not cite any such a story in his comments to Exodus 4:10.
                Most likely, Rashi was just interpreting “khevad peh” and “khevad lashon” and offering a reasonable interpretation without any connection to the coal story. (Strangely, Rashi only makes his comments on “khevad peh.” Perhaps he interpreted both “khevad peh” and “khevad lashon” the same way. See his comment at Isaiah 6:8.)

                  How have other commentators understood “khevad peh” and “khevad lashon”? Rashbam thought that the eighty-year old Moses was telling God that he was not familiar with the Egyptian language anymore, having left there when he was young. Ibn Ezra, in his early commentary on the verse (his shorter commentary) agreed with Rashbam. But years later, when he wrote his longer commentary on the verse, he suggested that Moses was telling God that he had difficulty with certain letters. He then suggests that God’s response at 4:11-12 implied that God agreed to provide him with words without the difficult letters! A similar idea was suggested earlier by R. Chananel (quoted in R. Bachya). R. Chananel had written that Moses had difficulty with the letters that were difficult for the teeth: zayin, shin, resh, samekh, and tzade, and with the letters that were difficult for the tongue: dalet, tet, lamed, nun, and tav. 
                 Others have focused more on Moses’ oratorical and persuasive abilities. For example, S.D. Luzzatto suggested that Moses was arguing that he was not a “powerful orator who could speak at length before any audience and not cringe before anyone.” Luzzatto explained that this is alluded to at Numbers 12:3 which refers to Moses as the most modest man on the earth. Luzzatto explained further that having spent so many years as a shepherd it was difficult for Moses to go before a great king and argue with him. Similarly, Umberto Cassuto explained: “the meaning is only that he did not feel within himself the distinguished talents of an orator, and in his humility, he expressed the thought with some exaggeration.”  
            Finally, to give one more example, the Daat Mikra commentary suggested that “khevad peh” meant that Moses “spoke slowly” and “khevad lashon” meant that his “voice was not pleasant.”
            We can evaluate the various suggestions by looking at God’s response. At verse 12, God says: “ve-anokhi ehiyeh im pikha, ve-horeitikha asher tedaber.”  The key phrase is the second one: “I will instruct you what to say.” This phrase fits Rashbam’s approach and the Luzzatto-Cassuto oratorical approach better than it fits the other approaches. But the Rashbam’s approach is problematic because it does not fit well with Moses’ statement. Moses refers only to a general problem of “khevad peh” and “khevad lashon.” He does not say anything about inability to speak Egyptian. Based on this analysis, it would seem that the Luzzatto-Cassuto oratorical approach has the most merit.
             But after I wrote all the above and my earlier column on this topic, I came across an  article on our topic by the scholar Jeffrey Tigay in  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 231 (1978). He defends the “speech impediment” approach. He points to Genesis 48:10 which describes Jacob’s eyes and records: kabdu mi-zoken, lo yukhal lirot. This suggests that K-B-D reflects a medical difficulty. He then looks at evidence from Akkadian and Arabic. He observes that “heaviness,” with respect to a body part, is a medical difficulty in these languages. His evidence from Akkadian is particularly persuasive since it is from kabātu, a cognate of the Hebrew K-B-D. (He admits that the evidence from these languages is not sufficient to pinpoint precisely what medical difficulty was involved.) 
           Most importantly, Tigay advises us to focus on Moses’ entire statement at 4:10: “lo ish devarim anokhi gam mitmol gam mi-shilshom…ki khevad peh u-khevad lashon anokhi.”  Lo ish devarim” seems to be the complaint of lack of eloquence or ability to persuade and the like, and “ki khevad peh u-khevad lashon” seem to be adding something more specific. A speech impediment fits perfectly here. Tigay makes the reasonable assumption that “ki means “because” in the above statement.
              So while God’s response at verse 12 supports the Luzzatto-Cassuto oratorical approach, Moses’ entire statement at verse 10 supports the speech impediment approach.
             But there is a response for the Luzzatto- Cassuto approach. It can interpret “ki” in verse 10 so that it means something like “rather.” This is how the Daat Mikra commentary interprets “ki” here.
             Nevertheless, looked at overall, Tigay’s arguments are strong ones and perhaps his approach, essentially the approach of Rashi, wins the day. It wins the day, despite the fact that it does not fit as well with God’s response at 4:12.
              We still have a little more to discuss. At Exodus 6:12 and 6:30, Moses describes himself as aral sefatayim. We now have to ask whether this is a different flaw, or merely another way of referring to the flaw of Exodus 4:10. Rashi on Exodus 6:12 explains that it means that Moses’ lips were blocked. Although he does not refer to his comments on Exodus 4:10, the simplest approach is to view Rashi as understanding aral sefatayim as another way of describing the stuttering/stammering problem of Exodus 4:10. Rashbam does not comment at all on 6:12. Perhaps he would view aral sefatayim as another idiom for inability to speak Egyptian. Ibn Ezra (shorter commentary) writes that this is just another way of referring to the articulation defect he described earlier.  Luzzatto and Tigay also believe that aral sefatayim is just another idiomatic way of referring to the flaw described earlier, even though they disagree as to what the earlier flaw was.
                   On the other hand, some commentators believe that what we have here is a description of a new flaw. For example, Cassuto believes that aral sefatayim  reflects Moses’ doubting his oratorical capacities in a new and more drastic form. Daat Mikra  believes that the idiom here is that Moses’ lips were closed, and the meaning is that he could not speak words that penetrated to others.
                    But since most commentators are reluctant to attribute to Moses a new flaw, we can conclude that whether or not Moses had a speech impediment depends on how one interprets the flaw (or flaws) of verse 4:10.         
                  Tigay concludes as follows: “History has known other creative geniuses and national leaders, from Demosthenes to Felix Mendelssohn and Churchill, who worked their effect on humanity despite speech impediments. The Bible viewed Moses as an agent of God whose success owed nothing to his natural endowments, but only to the persuasion worked by the words and deeds he uttered and performed under divine direction.”    
Mitchell First does not recall the Hollywood producers giving Charlton Heston any difficulties in articulation. 

Supreme Court Justice recalls ‘very strange Jewish upbringing'

From RRW

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Chamesh Megillot

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

The Origin of the Reading of the “Chamesh Megillot”

               Today we are all familiar with the term “Chamesh Megillot.” We also probably imagine that there were once five books that were each called a “megillah” and that the custom or enactment to read each arose at the same time. But these are all misconceptions. The term “Chamesh Megillot” and our five readings are only the end result of a long evolutionary process.
              The origin of the reading of Esther on Purim is an obligation set forth in Mishnah Megillah, and repeated in the Talmud. (The yearly ritual reading may even have long preceded the time of the Mishnah.)
               In contrast,  there is no Mishnaic or Talmudic obligation to read Eikhah on the 9th of Av. Rather, the Talmud (Taanit 30a) lists “Kinot” (= Eikhah) as one of the texts that we are permitted to read on the 9th of Av, despite the general prohibition of  study on this day. (See also Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 16:1, that refers to Amoraim who were studying “megillat Kinot” on the eve of the 9th of Av, after minchah.)
              So at least with respect to Esther and Eikhah, a connection between the texts and the holiday  is found in Talmudic sources or earlier.
              This is not the case with regard to the other three readings. For two of these, our earliest source is a post-Talmudic work, Masekhet Soferim. The Encyclopaedia Judaica entry on Masekhet Soferim in the 1972 edition viewed it as a compilation dating from the 8th century Palestine. According to more recent scholarship, the work was not completed until the ninth or tenth century. (Unfortunately, the new Encyclopaedia Judaica did not revise their entry to reflect the latest scholarship, and merely reprinted the 1972 entry. This is unfortunately typical.)
             There are three relevant passages in Masekhet Soferim.  14:3 states briefly that for Ruth, Shir Ha-Shirim, Eikah and Megillat Esther one recites the blessing “al mikra megilah.” 14:18 refers to a practice of reading Shir Ha-Shirim on Pesach and Ruth on Shavuot. The custom referred to was to read these at night on separate evenings, breaking the reading into two. Finally, 18:4 tells us that some read “sefer Kinot” (=Eikhah) in the evening and others read it in the morning. (Nowhere does Masekhet Soferim provide the reason for the Ruth and Shir Ha-Shirim readings.)
            Critically, Masekhet Soferim does not refer to any practice of reading Kohelet on Sukkot. (There are Rishonim who quote the passage at 14:3 with the word “Kohelet.”But most likely the word “Kohelet” was not in the original passage.)
            So even though we have a concept of “Chamesh Megillot” today, the origin of each ritual reading differs widely.
             What exactly is our earliest source for the practice of reading Kohelet on Sukkot? The introduction to Kohelet in the Daat Mikra edition (p. 5) is very vague on this issue, and I wondered for decades about it. Only in preparing this column did I discover the answer. I will now explain.
                   The Tannaitic baraita found at Baba Batra 14b lists the order of the Ketuvim as follows: Ruth, Sefer Tehillim, Iyyov, Mishlei, Kohelet, Shir HaShirim, Kinot, Daniel, Megillat Esther, Ezra, and Divrei Ha-Yamim. (“Ezra” included Nechemiah. They were one book in this period.) As you can see, the books that we read today as “megillot” are scattered in this list. (Even though Jews were not yet using codices in this early period, they still needed guidance for an order in the event that they wrote multiple biblical books on one scroll.)
                  A few weeks ago I wrote about the Aleppo Codex from the early 10th century. This was a Biblical text that had been stored in Aleppo, Syria from the 14th century until recent times. Large sections of the Aleppo Codex are now missing, due to anti-Jewish riots that broke out in Aleppo on Dec. 1, 1947 after the U.N. voted to partition Palestine. In 1958, what remained was smuggled to Israel.
                 In the Aleppo Codex, Kohelet, Eikhah and Esther are all missing now. But over the centuries, the Aleppo Codex was much studied, so we know how it presented the order of its books. Its order in Ketuvim was:  Divrei Ha-Yamim, Tehillim, Iyyov, Mishlei, Ruth, Shir HaShirim, Kohelet, Eikhah , Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nechemiah.  All of our five ritual reading texts are grouped together! This strongly suggests that they were all read on our five holidays in the early 10th century in the locale where the Aleppo Codex was written, Palestine. So this 10th century source from Palestine is our earliest source documenting or at least strongly implying a Kohelet reading on Sukkot.
                I mentioned earlier that Masekhet Soferim itself was not compiled until the 9th or 10th century. So our implied reference to the reading of Kohelet on Sukkot is not much later than the estimated date of the compilation of Masekhet Soferim. (I am willing to conjecture that after readings originated for Pesach and Shavuot, it was decided that the third regel, Sukkot, needed a reading as well. Kohelet was perhaps the obvious choice from the remaining books of the Ketuvim.)
                 As is evident from what I have written so far, there is no reference at all to the Ruth, Shir Ha-Shirim and Kohelet readings in the Babylonian Geonim. The origin of all these readings seems to be Palestine. 
               With regard to the order of the five in the Aleppo Codex, they are presented in chronological order. Ruth, from the time of the Judges is listed first, followed by two works attributed to Shelomoh. Eikhah and Esther are listed last. Later, a different order is found in Biblical manuscripts, the order the books were read in the calendar year. This order is Shir Ha-Shirim, Ruth, Eikhah, Kohelet, Esther. In modern times, the former is the order in the Daat Mikra. The latter is the order in the Soncino.
               What about the term “megillah”? In the passage at Baba Batra 14b (a baraita which probably dates from the 2nd century C.E.), the term is only used in connection with Esther. Later, we find the term “megillah” used in connection with Eikhah in the Jerusalem Talmud: “megillat Kinot” (Shabbat 16:1).
                I was going to suggest that the term “megillah” only came to be used with the three others after the custom to read them ritually developed. But the book of Ruth is referred to as a “megillah” by an amora named R. Zeira at Ruth Rabbah 2:14, and this reference would seem to precede the practice of reading Ruth on Shavuot. (But note that the term used here is not “Megillat Ruth.” The statement is “megillah zo ein bah lo tumah ve-lo taharah…)
                  A close look at the passage at Masekhet Soferim 14:3 reveals something very interesting. The passage states briefly that for Ruth, Shir Ha-Shirim, Eikah and Megillat Esther one recites the blessing “al mikra megillah”. Yet the passage itself only used the term “megillah” for Esther!
                 I also want to mention a responsum of R. Moses Isserles (Rama). He explains that in his time (16th century), the practice was for Shir Ha-Shirim, Ruth, and Kohelet to be read by each individual. There was no public reading. (This and more is discussed by Rabbi S.Y. Zevin, in Festivals in Halachah [ArtScroll translation, Shavuos section], pp. 284-286.)  This responsum supplements Rama’s comments in Orach Chayyim, sec. 490.
                 Finally, an easy question is the root of the word “megillah.” It comes from the root “GLL” which means “to roll.”
                 P.S. There is a word “biglal” found ten times in Tanakh. It always means something like “because of.” But most likely it derives from “GLL”=roll, and it originally meant “as a result of the way things rolled.”  Similarly, is “sibah” for “reason.” This comes from “SBB” which means “turn.”  Even in English we explain a result by saying “this is how things turned out!”
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish History scholar. He can be reached at There are Jews all over the world who have fragments of the Aleppo Codex. He does not (yet) have one.