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

Monday 19 November 2018

Thanksgiving, George Washington, and Separation of Church and State

From RRW 
Tara Ross:

On this day in 1789, President George Washington issues his first Thanksgiving Proclamation. Congress had asked him to do so, and he wasted no time in complying with the request. It was something that he had done many times before as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

The timing of the proclamation tells a story regarding what our Founders believed about our constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

Congressmen sent their request for a thanksgiving proclamation mere days after they’d approved a proposed Bill of Rights for our Constitution. One of these proposals, of course, would later be ratified as our First Amendment. The words in the First Amendment are simple: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....”

Please note that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the amendment! THAT phrase comes from later writings of Thomas Jefferson and the Supreme Court.

Naturally, neither Congress nor the President was bound by the language of the First Amendment on October 3, when Washington issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation. However, Congress had just spent significant time and effort debating the topic of church-state relations. Why would congressmen immediately turn around and violate their own ideas of what was appropriate?

For his part, Washington clearly saw no problem with the request for thanksgiving and prayer. Congress submitted its request to the President by September 28. Washington responded on October 3. His proclamation was a strong statement that stressed the need for public, collective deference and praise to God. Interestingly, he did not speak of it as something that could be optional. Such action, he said, is a *duty* incumbent upon the American people.

Indeed, Washington concluded that, if the country were to “unite” in such a fashion, public benefits would be felt. Americans, Washington wrote, might “render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.”

One last interesting observation on Washington’s proclamation? As was so often the case with him, his proclamation is written in a non-denominational manner. Washington knew, better than anyone, what a great diversity of religion existed in the new country. His approach to religion at this point in his life was pretty clear: He wanted to accommodate and even to encourage the practice of religion, but he seemed to be striving to do so in ways that were non-denominational, recognizing and respecting the nation’s religious minorities.

At this juncture, you know that I pretty much have to remind you that more information about Washington’s views on matters of church and state can be found in the book that I co-authored with Joe Smith: “Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State.” ( ;)

Friday 16 November 2018

Meaning of the word Netzach

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First   

The Meaning of the Word “Netzach”
Since Kislev is the month of a Jewish military “nitzachon,” I thought I would discuss the root “netzach.”
I always knew that N-Tz-Ch was an interesting root, as it meant both “eternal” and “conquer.” But only recently did I decide to investigate it. Of course, the precise meaning of this word is very relevant to us daily. In “Va-yevarekh David” we assign to God “ha-gedulah, ve-ha-gevurah, ve-ha-tiferet, ve-ha-neitzach, ve-ha-hod.” This is a verse at Divrei Ha-yamim I 29:11. We need to determine what the root N-Tz-Ch means here. In rabbinic Hebrew, N-Tz-Ch is often used with a “conquer” or strength-related meaning. (This meaning comes from Aramaic.) Is “conquest/strength/triumph” its meaning in this verse in Divrei Ha-yamim too?
In this column, I will also address that word that appears 55 times in Tehillim (and one time in Habakkuk): “la-menatzeach.” Is this word related to either the “eternal” or “conquer/strength” meanings of N-Tz-Ch?
Regarding the noun forms: “netzach” and “neitzach,” these appear 45 times in Tanach. (Usually our Masoretic tradition utilizes the vocalization “netzach.” Four times the vocalization is “neitzach.” I do not believe that there is any difference in meaning.) The Even-Shoshan concordance gives 40 of these 45 occurrences the meaning “eternal.” Aside from these, in two occurrences (in Isaiah 63) the word seems to have the meaning “blood.” But this meaning probably derives from a meaning like “eternal life force.” So now our key question is whether “netzach/neitzach” has a meaning related to “conquer/strength” anywhere in Tanach?
Even-Shoshan, in his concordance, claims it does three times. Let us look at his claims. First, he gives it the meaning “strength” in the famous phrase at I Samuel 15:29: “ve-gam neitzach Yisrael lo ye-shaker ve-lo yinachem...” But this is very surprising. “Ve-lo yinachem” means “he will not change his mind.” This strongly suggests that the meaning of “neitzach” here is “The Eternal One.” The entire phrase means: “And also the Eternal One of Israel will not change his mind.” This is how the verse is understood by both the Daat Mikra and the Malbim. (Admittedly, many of the traditional commentaries interpret the phrase with a meaning like “The Strong One.” But the traditional commentaries seem to have been overly influenced by the “conquer, strength” meaning that is widespread in rabbinic Hebrew.)
Even-Shoshan also gives N-Tz-Ch the meaning “strength” at Eikhah 3:18: “avad nitzchi.” While this is possible, “nitzchi” here is parallel to “tochalti” which means “my hope.” Therefore, the more probable meaning is “my eternity.” See Rashi and Daat Mikra.
Finally, Even-Shoshan gives “N-Tz-Ch” the meaning “strength” in our verse in Divrei Ha-yamim. But that is precisely the verse I am questioning. How likely is it that the word means “strength” here? In my view, it does not mean “strength” anywhere else in Tanach (except perhaps in a verb used at Daniel 6:4 in the Aramaic section of Tanach, as I will discuss below.)
The Complete ArtScroll Siddur translates our word in Va-yevarekh David with the strength-related word: “triumph.” Every other siddur commentary I have seen does something similar, as do the traditional commentaries on Divrei Ha-Yamim.
But if you agree with my analysis above, N-Tz-Ch never has a strength-related meaning in Tanach and 44 times it has a meaning related to “eternal” This strongly implies that this should be its meaning in its 45th occurrence. I.e., we are assigning “Eternity” to God. Fortunately, the Malbim on our verse in Divrei Ha-yamim agrees with my approach to this verse. It is of course significant that the word “neitzach” is not placed next to the word “gevurah,” but between the words “tiferet” (=splendor, glory) and “hod” (splendor, glory, majesty). (In Yishtabach, just a few pages later in the siddur, “netzach” is placed right next to “gedulah” and “gevurah” and obviously means something like “strength.” But Yishtabach is not a quote from Tanach.)
(Although Malbim agrees with me on the interpretation of our verse in Divrei Ha-yamim, perhaps he does not agree with my claim that N-Tz-Ch never has a strength-related meaning in the Hebrew section of Tanach. I have not checked his commentary on all 45 occurrences of the noun N-Tz-Ch in the Hebrew section of Tanach.)
What is the origin of the rabbinic meaning “conquer, strength”? It seems to be the Aramaic meaning of the word. (One example may be found in the Aramaic section of Tanach at Dan. 6:4. See below.) This meaning is already found, prior to rabbinic Hebrew, in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Of course, it is possible that this meaning already existed in Hebrew by the time of Divrei Ha-Yamim, a late book of Tanakh. But this is the less likely scenario. And, as I suggested above, a strength-related meaning at 1 Divrei Ha-yamim 29 does not fit the context. (I have to add that there is a chance that N-Tz-Ch has a strength-related meaning at Ben Sira 43:5. This is a difficult verse. The Hebrew of Ben Sira dates to approximately 200 B.C.E.)
Do the “eternal” meaning and the “conquer, strength” meaning have a common origin? (After all, Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages.) Certainly, things that are “eternal” are also often “strong,” so a common origin is possible.
N-Tz-Ch is found one time in the Aramaic section of Tanach, at Dan. 6:4. Here, the meaning may be a meaning related to “strength,” but many believe that the meaning here is “distinguished himself.” Aramaic and some of the other Semitic languages have a meaning of N-Tz-Ch as “shine, bright.” If the meaning here is “distinguished himself,” this may have derived from a “shine, bright” meaning.
Perhaps Hebrew too once had a meaning of N-Tz-Ch as “shine, bright.” This meaning is found in Ben Sira, at 32:10 and 43:13. Accordingly, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament and others suggest that the meaning of the word at 1 Divrei Ha-yamim 29:11 may be “radiance.” This fits the context better than “eternity.”
Now let us deal with our ubiquitous word “la-menatzeach.” What does “menatzeach” mean? N-Tz-Ch is used as a verb several times in Tanach. See, e.g., Ezra 3:9: “Le-natzeach al osei melakha.” It clearly means “supervise.” So “la-menatzeach” in Tehillim is most likely a word that gives an instruction to the supervisor of the music about the musical accompaniment to the psalm.
It is hard to connect this “supervise” meaning of N-Tz-Ch with the “eternal” meaning. Therefore, some connect the “supervise” meaning with the “shine, bright” meaning. The suggestion is that from the “shine, bright” meaning came a “distinguish oneself” meaning. One who distinguishes himself then becomes the supervisor. See the commentary of Keil and Delitzsh, quoted in the post at of Feb. 8 2015.
Are “supervise” and “conquer” related? We could relate them but there is less of a need to do so since the “conquer” meaning may have originated separately, in Aramaic.
The reason I have always been interested in this root N-Tz-Ch is because it is found in one of the most famous stories in the Talmud, the story of R. Eliezer and the oven (Bava Metzia 59b). Here the Sages decide that the halakha must always follow the majority of the Sages. They reject the opinion of R. Eliezer, even though R. Eliezer has a “bat kol” descend from heaven and state that the halakha is always in his favor. We are told that, upon hearing all of this, God concludes: “nitzchuni vanai.” This obviously means “my children have defeated me.” But a famous (homiletical) interpretation makes the alternative suggestion that the proper translation here is: “my children have eternalized me.” I.e., by making the determination of the halakha subject to the majority of the Sages (and not Divinely fixed long ago), the halakha is thereby made flexible and can last eternally.
Finally, it is interesting that the root Ayin-L-M has meanings like “eternal” and “hidden.” In contrast, the root N-Tz-Ch has meanings like “eternal” and “shine”!
Mitchell First hopes to write illuminating and strongly convincing articles for the Jewish Link eternally. He can be reached at

Tuesday 6 November 2018


From RRW

"Perhaps this is one thing that Marilyn found attractive in the Jews that she came to be surrounded by in the 1950s – the tradition’s affirmation of critical thinking, rationalism and natural embrace of philosophical ideals "

Thursday 1 November 2018

In the Wake of Pittsburgh -- The Other Demand of Democracy

It may be inappropriate to begin this serious piece reflecting on a most tragic event with a reference to a statement from a comic book -- but the message presented therein is actually most appropriate in our difficult times. "With great powers come great responsibilities." By extension, we must recognize that with rights also come responsibilities.

Western society, indeed, prides itself on the values of democracy and human rights. We strongly advocate for the rights of all and for the various freedoms which have advanced and can continue to advance our society. This standard, though, does not only provide rights but also demands responsibilities. The value of freedom of speech, for example, allows us to voice our thoughts (within reason) without fear but it also demands of us to let the other voice his/her opinion (again, within reason) even if we may disagree with them. The right to speak is, as such, not one-sided, allowing us a simple right to vent. What we are sadly seeing within our modern times, however, is such a misconstrued advancement of such a perception of this freedom and right -- with violent consequences.

Within this same parameter of understanding, as we recognize that democracy gives a voice to all, we must still acknowledge that it also declares that majority rules. People have diverse opinions, and, while there is a value in allowing such diverse opinions to be heard, there is still an inherent parameter to such expression. A conclusion in action still has to be reached and that, within a democracy, is determined primarily by the majority. Freedom thus also demands the responsibility to accept the decision of the majority. Democracy, however, still cannot become the tyranny of the majority. Of course, within the context of the democratic process the minority still deserves continuing voice. The true demand is that reason must still clearly govern.

The true ideals of democracy and human rights. as such, can only be reached if there is a recognition of the value of dialogue and the importance of the positive interpersonal dynamics that can emerge in the sharing of diverse opinions. Freedom of speech was never intended to grant any autocrat the right to simply scream his/her singular viewpoint, developed out of a simplistic, self-centered vision of the world. With this right, we also have a responsibility to give the voice of the other respect and to listen attentively in order to improve upon one's own thoughts. With all the staged protests and the forced effort to drown out any measure of a voice of the other, this responsibility is becoming less and less observed within our society. This is not to say that every opinion is deserving of being heard. While it is fully proper to ignore the rhetoric of the hate-monger, our normative behaviour must include not just the right to speak but the responsibility to listen with thought.

It is praiseworthy to note within Jewish thought the accolade given to Beit Hillel for respectfully presenting the view of Beit Shammai even prior to presenting their own views. Contrast this with the present mood within our society where people only want to hear their own opinions voiced and solely comment on another's differing view simply in order to mock and belittle it and show it lacking in any value. Not only is that ethically problematic but also further distances us from finding a truly exemplary solution to a problem which often only emerges in the heat of the honest debate of ideas. Life is actually most complex and answers can usually only be found if we honestly confront the diversity of opinions on a subject. Tragically, our society is moving further and further away from this ideal.

I write this in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre which continues to affect many of us, including myself, with anguish and tears. Such hate has been expressed throughout history so it cannot be solely seen as a result of the problems of contemporary life. But, nonetheless, in what occurred and continues to occur, we can see weaknesses in present life which need to be addressed. One can only act in such a horrific manner if one so adamantly believes oneself to be absolutely correct in one's views without even a hint of self-questioning. This is obviously the position of the demagogue, the tyrant and/or the extreme, dogmatic individual. Yet, even as one may cry of personal rights, if one only sees oneself in this vein, without any recognition of value in the other, the possibility of harming the other in the advancement of one's cause only grows.

The other is, more and more, inherently being seen as lacking any value, who only has purpose as the target of attack. I can thus disrupt the other when dining in a restaurant for I am not concerned about this other's rights. I can disrupt a Senate vote by shouting that I am not being represented even as there are senators on the floor who share this person's opinion. What these individuals are actually declaring is that it is not the majority of these elected individuals who should make decisions but it should be solely themselves with their dogmatic voice. Is it any wonder that, by extension, the extreme autocrat will then maintain a right to kill? Jewish thought has always argued for the absolute opposite - the full analysis of life in pursuit of the truly thoughtful conclusion under the spirit of the Divine.

The other side of democracy is, indeed, the need to recognize one's responsibility to the other. In shouting for one's rights, one must also shout for the right of the other. If we truly value freedom and rights, we must recognize the overriding value of the dialogue of thought. Rights demand of us to recognize our responsibilities - and to find the proper balance between these two necessary demands.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht