Monday 30 December 2019

Monsey shooting: Automated license plate reader led police to suspect

From RRW

Was Hanukkah a Reaction to Secular Liberalism?

Originally published 12/8/10, 8:02 pm.

«In a broader sense, the miracle of Chanukah was much more than the over-extended burning of a bottle of oil; it was the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks, of the Torah over secularism. The Greeks were in essence a liberal, open-minded society, not a barbaric nation given to mass-executions and bloodbaths. Their desire was to "enrich" Jews with their "enlightened" way of life; with their arts, culture and philosophy.»

Olas Shabbos - Chanukah, 5760 -


Sunday 29 December 2019

Pirsumei Nissa & Af Hein Hayu - Connecting the Dots

Originally published 12/5/10, 7:32 pm.

Based upon my preliminary research we have at least three cases that manifest Pirsumei Nissa in Halachah - (perhaps there are more?)
A. Ner Hanukkah
B. Megillat Purim
C. Arba Kossot

We have several Halachot flowing from this designation
1. "Af hein hayu b'oto hanneis" implies gender equality in the performance of all of the above Mitzvot
2. We are also enjoined to "sell the shirts off our backs" to fulfill these Mitzvot
Some observations
• Women are usually enjoined from drinking too much wine. Obviously this is suspended during arba kossot
• However, re: Megillah, it seems that many Posqim refuse to waive issues of "kol ishah" to permit women to read the Megillah in Public.
Perhaps the Hilluq is the private nature of the Seder vs. the public nature of Megillah
V'tzarich Iyyun
• Another anomaly is that regarding Ner Hanukkah, husbands and wives usually fulfill this jointly. This may be driven by the "uveito" nature of the Mitzvah which pertains to the household [heftza] as opposed to the individuals [gavra].


Thursday 26 December 2019

Our Ancient Sources on Chanukkah

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                            Chanukkah: A Survey of the Ancient Sources

         The holiday of Chanukah is mentioned only briefly in the Mishnah and the Talmud. In fact, the names of the sons of Matityahu are not mentioned.  How do we know the background to this holiday? The purpose of this article is to describe three of the main sources that we have and to understand the differences between them.  These sources are I Maccabees, II Maccabees, and Megillat Antiochus.
           I Maccabees spans the period from the beginning of the reign of Antiochus IV (the  Antiochus who persecuted the Jews) until the death of Shimon, son of Matityahu. These are the years 175-134 B.C.E. (The persecution by Antiochus took place during the years 167-164 B.C.E.)
         The author of I Maccabees is unknown, but it is evident that he was a Jew who was an admirer of Matityahu and his sons.  I Maccabees was probably composed sometime after the death of John Hyrcanus (son of Shimon) in 104 B.C.E.
           The work was originally composed in Hebrew, but what has survived is only the Greek translation.  The church father Jerome (4th cent.)  reports that he saw the original Hebrew.
         Another early church father refers to the First Book of Maccabees by the title sarbĂȘthsabanaiel. But what does this garbled title mean? Probably, it is connected to the nickname for the priestly order Yehoyariv, the order that Matityahu came from. The nickname for this order was something like MSRBYY. See J. Talmud, Taanit  4:5. Probably, the original title was something like sefer beit sarbanei el = the book of the dynasty of God’s resisters.  
           II Maccabees is an entirely different work. It was composed in Greek, likely in the Diaspora (perhaps in Alexandria). The unknown author tells us that his work is an abridgement of the work of Jason of Cyrene. (Cyrene is a city on the northern coast of Libya.)  Unfortunately, this Jason is unknown. But it is widely agreed that Jason wrote very close in time to the events he described. 
         II Maccabees covers a shorter time period than I Maccabees. It begins in the years before the reign of Antiochus IV and ends with Judah’s victory over the general Nicanor in 161 B.C.E.  

          Both I and II Maccabees were preserved because they were incorporated into the canon of the early church. Probably, the books were canonized by the early church because they modeled steadfastness in the defense of God, and because the persecuted Jews were seen as forerunners of Christian martyrs. 

            With regard to why I Maccabees is not included in Tanakh, probably the Biblical canon was considered closed by Jewry even before I Maccabees was composed. For example, Sid Z. Leiman, in his authoritative work, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture, takes the position that the Jewish Biblical canon was already closed in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E. But even if this canon was still open at the time I Maccabees was composed (see, e.g., L.H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 162-169), I Maccabees was probably never a candidate for canonization since it did not claim to be a book composed before the period of prophecy ended. With regard to II Maccabees, it would never have been a candidate for canonization since it was composed in Greek.
                     The third work that I mentioned at the outset is Megillat Antiochus. This work is familiar to many in modern times because a Hebrew text of this work was included in the Birnbaum Siddur. But this work was originally composed in Aramaic, and the Aramaic text has been recovered. There are several important contradictions between this work and I and II Maccabees and the work is generally viewed as very unreliable. See, e.g., Encyclopaedia Judaica 14:1046-47. Most likely, it was composed in the Geonic period. See A. Kasher, “The Historical Background of Megillath Antiochus,” PAAJR (1981), pp. 207-30, and Z. Safrai’s article in The Literature of the Sages, vol. 2, eds. S. Safrai, et al, pp. 238-241. According to the latter, linguistic analysis of the Aramaic indicates that the scroll dates from sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries.
                       Interestingly, in some communities in the time of the Rishonim and even later, Megillat Antiochus was read on Chanukkah. See the article in D. Sperber’s Minhagey Yisrael, vol. 5, pp. 102-113, for some references.  The earliest reference to a practice of reading Megillat Antiochus on Chanukkah is a statement by R. Saadiah Gaon (10th century). In his introduction to Megillat Antiochus, R. Saadiah writes that “most of the nation read it.” R. Saadiah does not state that it was read as part of a Chanukkah ritual, but that would be a reasonable interpretation of the passage.  
                      One interesting example of a difference between I Maccabees, II Maccabees, and Megillat Antiochus is with regard to their understanding of what motivated Antiochus to issue his decrees against the Jews. According to I Macc. (1:41-42), Antiochus had a grand plan to unify his empire through Hellenism and the Jews resisted his plan. But II Macc. does not mention any such grand plan of Antiochus. Rather, according to this work, the decrees were merely a response by Antiochus to what he erroneously perceived as a revolt by the Jews of Judea. See II Macc. 5:11. Finally, according to Megillat Antiochus, Antiochus announces to his ministers, without any particular provocation, that the Jews need to be eliminated, and that the rituals of shabbat, rosh hodesh and milah must be abolished. The king’s complaint was that the Jews do not sacrifice to his gods or follow his laws, and someday hope to rule the world. (In my book Esther Unmasked, pp. 94-117, I extensively discuss the issue of what motivated Antiochus’ decrees. Almost certainly, the approach taken by II Macc. is the correct one.)

                 Another ancient source that discusses the background to Chanukkah is Josephus. But he is largely relying on I Macc. (It seems that he did not have II Macc.) With regard to non-Jewish sources, Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews is mentioned in ancient sources such as Diodorus and Tacitus but the references are very brief. They are collected in M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism.                    

Wednesday 25 December 2019

JVO Blog -- A Halachic View of ‘Freedom of Religion’

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 

A Halachic View of ‘Freedom of Religion’

is now available 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

* * * * * 

A Halachic View of ‘Freedom of Religion’

            It’s Chanukah time and Jews, around the world, are again celebrating this holiday which is said to mark our nation’s freedom from the tyranny of the Syrian-Greek overlords who controlled the land of Israel at this time. What we have already previously addressed, though -- in the blog article, ‘Why Chanukah Isn’t About What You Think It’s About’ -- is that this is not actually a correct presentation of the story behind this holiday. The original battle, which eventually led to the involvement of the Syrian-Greeks, was a civil war within the Jewish nation between the traditional Maccabees and the Jewish Hellenists. The whole Chanukah story began with a religious war between these two factions within Israel. The Syrian-Greeks only got involved because the Jewish Hellenists called for the overlord’s intervention on their behalf, falsely telling the Syrian-Greeks that, if the Maccabees won, the traditionalists would then fully rebel. The Syrian-Greeks really only became involved to protect, effectively, their financial interests.
            This misrepresentation of what occurred has then led to another misconception that permeates our modern discussion of the holiday – that the battle was for freedom of religion. While it was true that each faction within Israel wanted the freedom to follow their specific religious beliefs, the concept of ‘freedom of religion’ (as we understand and practice it today) declares that there should be a general tolerance (within certain parameters) for the different practices of religion of all people. This was not generally the issue in regard to Chanukah. The Hellenists began the whole war because they wished to prevent the traditionalists from practicing traditional Judaism. They were totally against freedom of religion. When the traditionalists won, it would seem that they then tried to impose the practices of traditional Judaism on the Hellenists. The advocation of ‘freedom of religion’ would not seem to actually be one of the lessons of Chanukah.
            Yet the traditionalists only attempted to restrict the Hellenists’ faith after their victory; before the war they did practice tolerance. Why was this so? And why did these Jewish Hellenists attempt to restrict the practices of the traditionalists when, throughout the ancient world dominated by Hellenism, there was general acceptance of other religions? In regard to this last question, the answer may lie in the fact that the tolerance expressed by Hellenism, in general, was towards other pagan religions. The Jewish Hellenists faced a different issue: monotheism. This reflected a whole different problem and is why the Jewish Hellenists could not, like Hellenists elsewhere, express the tolerance of their compatriots in other lands. Monotheism really challenged them.
            What is perhaps of more interest to me, though, is the other question – why the traditionalists practiced tolerance towards the Hellenists before the war but did not do so after the war? It would seem obvious that if they practiced tolerance at anytime, there must be some halachic concept of freedom of religion. The first challenge is then in explaining why they only observed it in one set of circumstances and not the other. The further and, perhaps, greater issue is explaining this very concept which, in effect, would be tied to the circumstances.
            A senior rabbi once explained to me that, after the Hellenists attempted to violently impose their beliefs upon the traditionalist Jews, it would have been foolish for the traditionalists to then be tolerant of these Hellenists. This would only allow the Hellenists to rebound and then attempt to attack the traditionalists again. You simply cannot be tolerant of others when this tolerance will only provide the means for this other to attack you. Once the Hellenists showed their true violent hatred of tradition, the traditionalists could not express tolerance towards the Hellenists.
             This idea actually also presents an interesting insight into the halachic view of ‘freedom of religion’. In many ways, it is different than the general secular view. Within this secular viewpoint, in accepting freedom of religion, we accept the right of individuals to simply maintain their views in this regard. ‘I believe’ – and that should be enough for the other to stand back and not interfere. In the secular eye: religion is an expression of the ego and the call is for one to be allowed to express and follow the decisions of one’s ego.
             From a Torah perspective, though, the issue is truth, yet the truth is actually difficult to ascertain. What we are thus to further recognize, and this is reflected in the value of tolerance, is the inherent fallibilities within the human being which make this goal so, so difficult. Halachic freedom of religion is not about ego. Even one striving to reach the right conclusion, though, can make a mistake and the call of freedom of religion, in this regard, must flow from the recognition that one is not necessarily culpable for a mistake if one is still striving to reach the truth and do right. Halachic freedom of religion is not a call to accept another’s view as correct but, rather, a recognition that the other may not be culpable for his/her view, if mistaken, and should be treated, as such, as if innocent. We may still be called upon to recognize the need and right of all to express their thoughts and be adamant in their positions. The further call is that this must necessarily be accompanied with the recognition of human fallibility.  
             This should actually be the way with all our freedoms. They should not be expressions of unbridled egos but also recognitions of our fallibilities. This would, in fact, change their natures. Freedom of speech then would not be only a right to yell what I want to say as an expression of ego. It would also include a call to listen for it would demand of everyone to consider their fallibilities and human shortcomings. Coupled with a faith in the human spirit should also be a recognition of our limitations. The expression of this truth indeed may be part of the Chanukah story.        
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Monday 23 December 2019

HatRadio! Episode 49 - Rabbi Hecht: Helping Thinkers Find a Home!

HatRadio!: The Show that Schmoozes is home to magical in-depth and inspirational interviews with regular folk, stars and up-and-comings, hosted by the highly curious veteran radio personality, Avrum Rosensweig.

Episode 49  featured Nishma's Rabbi Hecht. It can be heart at:

Sunday 22 December 2019

New RBH shiur on Koshertube: Is it really always better to give than to receive?

It's that time of year again -- when people talk about it being better to give than to receive. What, though, is the Torah perspective regarding this idea? A response to this question would seem to demand, though, a further investigation of the variant motivations to give. In this shiur, Rabbi Hecht undertakes such an investigation from a Torah perspective

We invite you to view Is it really always better to give than to receive? at

Biden blames Trump for Jersey City kosher market shooting

From RRW

Saturday 21 December 2019

Mussar: Get if from "The Horse's Mouth"

 Originally posted March 17, 2012

It's one thing to speculate what the Rambam or Rashi meant in a given passage
But when a living being writes or speaks, and says something that is fuzzy or controversial, to me it is downright lazy or perhaps dishonest not to verify and clarify with the author or speaker.
People often put their own "spin" on things, often in a critical way, without concern of how it was actually intended.
EG In Avot derabbi Nosson we see how Tzaddok and Baituss ran with a mis-interpretation or a mis-understanding of their mentor Antigonos Ish Socho. Did they first verify their denial of s'char in the next world with their Rebbe?
If the agenda is honesty, then go to "the Horse's Mouth" and verify, verify, verify.


Thursday 19 December 2019

Shifchah and Mishpachah: is there a connection:?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

       Is There a Connection Between the Words “Mishpachah” and “Shifchah”?

             This is a question that has been troubling me for decades (along with whether there is a connection between “milchamah” and “lechem”!) Both “mishpachah” and “shifchah” are based on the root Shin-Peh-Chet, so our initial presumption should be that there is a connection.    And yet the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, which discusses both in adjacent entries, makes no attempt at a connection. Also, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has an entire article on the word “mishpachah” and no mention is made in this article of the word “shifchah.” And their article on “shifchah” (by a different author) explicitly denies a connection, declaring that “the two Hebrew nouns are unrelated etymologically.”
               Similar (but not as rejecting) is the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon. Their “mishpacha” entry makes no mention of “shifchah.” Their “shifchah” entry refers to the connection between the two words but calls it “questionable.”
              Radak, in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, includes both in his one entry for the root Shin-Peh-Chet, but he too denies that they are connected. We see this because after he discusses the “handmaid” meaning, he discusses the “family” meaning, but he prefaces the latter with the phrase “ve-inyan acher” (=a different matter).  Those familiar with this work understand that this is his way of denying a connection, even though he has placed the words in the same entry.
            (Among the Rishonim, Rashi usually presumes that words with the same three-letter root are connected and tries to determine the connection. But many of the other Rishonim, especially in the Sephardic world, did not think like this. Sephardic Rishonim were influenced by Arabic where words with the same root are often not connected. Professor Richard Steiner of Yeshiva University has written an important article on this topic. See JQR 88, 1998, pp. 213-258.)
            Going back to “shifchah” and “mishpachah,” some scholars today do see a connection. They generally take the following approach. There is a Biblical root Samekh-Peh-Chet and this root sometimes has the meaning of “join, attach.” See, e.g., Isa. 14:1 and I Sam. 2:36.  (In modern Hebrew, a “nispach” is an appendix/attachment.) If Samekh-Peh-Chet has the “join, attach” meaning, perhaps Shin-Peh-Chet had it too.  A “shifchah” is attached to a family, and a “mishpachah” is a group of people who are attached to one another.
          Some who take this approach are S. Mandelkern, p. 1221, M. Jastrow, pp. 857 and 1614, and Rav S.R. Hirsch, comm. to Num. 1:2. This approach is also taken by the Academy of the Hebrew Language.
           Rav Hirsch, in his commentary on Gen 8:19, makes the following comment: “Note how the “shifchah,” that person who, in the non-Jewish point of view, stands at the very lowest social grade, in the Jewish point of view…is raised to a member of the family.”
          A ramification of whether “shifchah” and “mishpachah” are related is how one should translate the former. Those who believe that the words are not related are free to translate it as something like “slave.” Those who believe that the words are related will translate it with a more elevated word.
          (I saw one view that theorized that a “shifchah” was the lowest rank of maidservant; this type of maidservant was required to pour water over the hand of her master. This view is based on the unlikely assumption that the Shin-Peh-Chet of “shifchah” derived from an original Shin-Peh-Caf, the verb for “pour.”)
          The Academy of the Hebrew language, on their website, suggests that a “shifchah” was attached to the family for her entire life and also points to Genesis 16 where Sarah’s “shifchah” Hagar was given the role of building a family for Abraham. This implies an attachment and elevated status for the “shifchah.”
          The above site also points out that in Latin, there is a similar phenomenon. “Familia” is the word for family, and “famulus” and “famula” are the words for male and female slaves. “Familia” as “family” was derived from the latter two.  (The English word “familiar” is also related to these words.)
           My gut feeling tells me that our proposed connection between “shifchah” and “mishpachah,” both coming from an “attached” meaning, is correct. I believe this despite the fact that a connection is largely denied by perhaps most scholars today. Sometimes, in these etymological issues, one has to go with one’s gut feeling!
           (In fact, we are lucky that most modern scholars deny a connection. If they believed that there was a connection, they might have theorized that ancient Biblical society was so patriarchal that the head of the family viewed all his household members (“mishpachah”) as slaves! I am sure that there is someone out there who theorizes this!)
        On an unrelated but adjacent topic, let us briefly mention an unusual aspect of the root Shin-Peh-Tet.  In Hebrew, the word “mishpat” means “sentence” in the judicial context, and “sentence” in the grammatical context. The English word “sentence” also reflects both these meanings.  Why should this be the case? I have no answer yet and await your suggestions. (A first step is to determine when the Hebrew word “mishpat” took on the meaning of “sentence” in a grammatical sense. This is certainly not a Biblical or Talmudic meaning of the word “mishpat.”)
Mitchell First supports his “mishpachah” as a personal injury attorney, and his “shifchot” as a Jewish history scholar.  He can be reached at