Thursday 26 September 2019

JVO Blog -- The Question

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 

The Question

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

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The Value of the Question

               The Torah reading for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah is the powerful account of the Akeidat Yitzchak [the Binding of Isaac] (Bereishit 22:1-19). We are told how God commanded our forefather, Avraham, to take his son, Yitzchak, and offer him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Many issues emerge from the account and include topics which fill the world stage. How can we understand the very nature of Biblical morality when God seems to demand of Avraham an act that is so contrary to our very perception of the ethical? For the student of Torah, though, the initial question which jumps out at the reader is much more specific. Why did Avraham not even question God in regard to this command?
          The reason why this issue of Avraham’s quiet is the one which will first strike the Torah student is because we have just read of Avraham not doing this – and receiving a positive response for questioning. In regard to God’s intent to punish the people of Sodom (Bereishit 18:17-33), Avraham immediately questions God as to the propriety of this decision. Avraham is a questioner. We further see that God even welcomes such questions. What is thus most striking about Avraham’s response to the call of Akeidat Yitzchak is that he really seems to be acting out of character. Why did he not respond to God as he did before – with a question?
The significance of this insight cannot be overlooked. Many wonder why Avraham acted as he did, not challenging God in regard to the command. Some, within the broad realm of world opinions, wish to even contend that Avraham’s real test was to see if he would stand up to God and, on moral grounds, decline to follow this directive. Such responses obviously have their own problems and difficulties. The question, however, is different. In the act of questioning one is not necessarily challenging God but wishing for an explanation. The objective is to know. The Jew, in the service of God, indeed wishes to understand. When we accepted the Torah, we did not just say that we will do – i.e. follow the commands – but that we will do and strive to understand (Shemot 24:7). To question is actually a most essential undertaking within Jewishness. It is the opening step on the path to understanding. Therein, as such, lies the first issue we face in regard to the Akeida. How could the first Jew not question?
The Rabbis inform us that, indeed, questions abounded at the time of the Akeida. How could Avraham argue for justice – more explicitly, for justice to be explained to him -- in regard to God’s actions against Sodom – and not raise the issue of justice in regard to his own son, the righteous Yitzchak. The Midrash further informs us that at the very conclusion of the event, upon Avraham’s sacrifice of the ram instead of his son, the first thing Avraham did was turn to God with a question that had bothered him from the very onset of the matter. How could God call upon Avraham to sacrifice his son when God previously told Avraham that he would have descendants through Yitzchak? Indeed, Avraham, the first Jew, a thinking person, was full of questions whenever he lacked a level of understanding. He wanted to understand. Furthermore, from what occurred in reference to Sodom, he believed that it was God’s very Will that one should strive to understand to the extent that one can. This is identified in the question. How could he thus not question at the Akeida?
We may state that a problem, however, arises in regard to questioning when we are specifically called upon to act. We might then use a question to somehow avoid an obligation. So, it may be that, as God was commanding Avraham to act, our forefather was concerned that, perhaps, he would use the question to circumvent the command. As such, he acted as he was simply told or as he simply understood what he was told. When God explains to Avraham, in answer to the question the latter asked at the conclusion of the event -- that a careful analysis of the original command would show that it never called upon Avraham to kill Yitzchak and, as such, indeed, Yitzchak would still be the next father of the Jewish People -- He was further stating that the Jew must still always question even in regard to a command of God. Indeed, one can use a question to avoid what is Divinely demanded. Nonetheless, a true and full relationship with God’s Will still requires human query. Even in His commands, in any manner in which He relates to humanity, He demands thoughtful human involvement in the encounter. While there can always be a problem in a question, we must still always recognize the value of the question.
Our Jewish goal of emulating God is only possible in also striving to understand. Of course, such understanding is not always possible – but it is still always a most important goal. This is the value of the question and this is why the question is so significant within Jewish thought. Just as we are to learn from the event of the Akeida the extent of the commitment we are to have to God – that we are to follow Him even as we may not fully understand – we are to also further learn the value of the question. Even when we are called upon to thus follow His Will, just as Avraham learned at the conclusion of the Akeida, we are still to strive toward the utmost clarity possible.
What God effectively told Avraham was that when He communicates with humanity, even within a command, in the process He will still call upon the human being to think. To truly relate to God, the human being is always called upon to analyze, reason and to raise the necessary questions. This does not mean, though, that questions will be necessarily answered. The Divine truth is, in fact, always a step beyond us. This is actually most effectively transmitted through the question. It is thereby – when it is answered and when it is not answered -- that one gains a fuller appreciation of the Divine to the extent that one can.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Aleinu: a RH Prayer that Migrated into the Daily Service

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                 Aleinu:  A Rosh Ha-Shanah Prayer That Migrated into the Daily Service

                        Every Rosh Ha-Shanah (=RH), many are puzzled by the flow of the musaf Amidah, when Aleinu suddenly appears. After all, Aleinu is a prayer recited all year long at the conclusion of the daily services. Why does it suddenly appear in the middle of the Amidah on RH?

                         It turns out that the question we should be asking is the reverse. Aleinu was part of the RH musaf Amidah for centuries before it began making its way into the end of the daily shacharit service in France, England and Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries.

                         The earliest source we have that records Aleinu at the end of daily shacharit is a manucript of Machzor Vitry. This is a work usually attributed to R. Simcha of Vitry (a town in northern France). The most recent scholarship dates this manuscript to the second quarter of the 12th century. 

                         We have documentation that in 1171 the martyrs of Blois (another town in northern France) chanted Aleinu with their last breaths as they were being burned to death. Many scholars had theorized that this is what led Aleinu to penetrate the hearts of the people and be incorporated into the daily shacharit. But now that we can document that Aleinu was already being recited in shacharit several decades earlier than this, this theory is disproven. (Of course, the events of 1171 may have contributed to the spread of the custom to recite daily Aleinu.)                 
                       In recent years, a novel theory was proposed by the scholar Israel Ta-Shema. In the 11th century, a R. Elijah of Le Mans (another town in northern France) established a special prayer service for his select circle, modeled after the maamadot of Mishnaic times. This special prayer service was conducted after the daily shacharit. Aleinu is included in this special service in a siddur from the end of 12th century. Based on this, Ta-Shema theorized that Aleinu first entered the daily prayer service by way of the special service, and from here made its way into the regular daily shacharit.  But the siddur that Ta-Shema cites for the proposition that Aleinu was included in this special service is only from the end of the 12th century. One can just as easily argue that Aleinu made its way into the special service from the daily shacharit service.
                      In my view and in the view of many scholars (see, e.g., the EJ entry for Aleinu, last sentence, 2:559), Aleinu was introduced into the daily shacharit as a prayer meant to express a rejection of Christianity. Its introduction probably came as a response to the Crusades of 1096 or due to the general feeling of downtroddenness that the Jews of France felt while living as second-class citizens in a Christian land.

                   Interestingly, there is an instruction in Machzor Vitry that the daily Aleinu is to be recited be-lachash (silently). The reason for this instruction may be that the Jews understood that the Christians would view the prayer as an anti-Christian one.
                  We have clear documentation starting from the end of the 12th century and continuing for centuries that Aleinu was viewed by Jewish communities in Christian Europe as an anti-Christian prayer. See, e.g., Ta-Shema, Ha-Tefillah Ha-Ashkenazit Ha-Kedumah, p. 147, n. 20. But this was probably already the case in the second quarter of the 12th century as well. If one looks at the text of Aleinu, it has the following passages: she-lo asanu ke-goyey ha-aratzotshe-hem mishtachavim le-hevel va-rikle-haavir gilulim min ha-aretz, ve-ha-elilim karot yikaretun… Jews reciting these passages in northern France in the second quarter of the 12th century would likely have recited these passages with a rejection of Christianity in mind.

                (Whether Aleinu was originally composed as an anti-Christian prayer is a separate issue, and depends on when and where Aleinu was composed. Certain statements in the Jerusalem Talmud imply that Aleinu was composed by Rav, early 3rd century C.E. See J. Talmud Av. Zar. 1:2 and RH 1:3 and my Esther Unmasked, pp. 18, and 26-27. Although Rav gained prominence in Babylonia, he had been a student of R. Judah ha-Nasi in Israel, where Christianity was practiced. Also, Christianity was not entirely absent from Babylonia.) 
                Outside of France, we have documentation of Aleinu in daily shacharit from Germany and England from a slightly later period. The recital of Aleinu in England is almost certainly an outgrowth of its recital in France. Its recital in Germany may simply be an outgrowth of its recital in neighboring France, or may have developed independently in Germany for other reasons. The earliest sources for Aleinu in daily shacharit in Germany are: 1) Siddur Hasidei Ashkenaz, a work which reflects the order of prayers of R. Judah he-Hasid (d. 1217) and 2) Sefer Ha-Rokeach of R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms (d. 1230).
               Aleinu at daily maariv and minchah are later developments. (The former preceded the latter.) Most likely, Aleinu began to be recited at maariv because it was viewed as a prayer parallel to Shema. See, e.g., its language: hu Elokeinu, ein od. The idea of this parallel has long been forgotten, as Aleinu came to be recited three times per day.

               Up until now, I have been addressing Aleinu’s recital at the end of the daily services in Europe. But what was going on in Palestine and its surrounding areas? In the Cairo Genizah there was found a Palestinian siddur which includes Aleinu in the middle of the daily pesukei de-zimrah. (Genizah texts generally date from the 10th -13th centuries.) Almost certainly, Aleinu was introduced into their daily pesukei de-zimrah because a prayer that begins with the theme of shevach (Aleinu le-shabeach) was thought of as appropriate for pesukei de-zimrah, a section whose purpose is one of shevach and which begins and ends with blessings which focus on the theme of shevach.

                 A very strong case can be made that the original version of Aleinu spelled le-tacen olam with a caf, meaning: to establish the world under God’s sovereignty. The kof spelling, to perfect/improve the world under God’s sovereignty, seems to be a later erroneous spelling that arose in Europe in the time of the Rishonim. See my Esther Unmasked, pp. 17-29. Nevertheless, the end result of this process is fitting. As Aleinu evolved from being a RH prayer to a daily prayer, we no longer think about establishing the world under God’s sovereignty but have shifted focus to our daily task of perfecting and improving the world under God’s sovereignty.

           Throughout my discussion above, I have been assuming that Aleinu was originally composed as a RH prayer (as an introduction to the malkhuyyot verses). Although many take this approach, there is another (less likely) view that Aleinu was originally composed in another context and then borrowed into the RH Amidah.

Mitchell First can be reached at He wishes all his readers a shanah tovah u-metukah!



Thursday 19 September 2019

Trump's total culture war

From RRW

The Meaning of Hitpalel

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                              What is the Meaning of “Hitpalel” (To Pray)?

              This is a good time to discuss this all-important word. There are two issues involved: 1) what is the meaning of the root PLL? and 2) what is the import of the hitpael form, one that we usually assume implies doing something to yourself?
               With regard to the root PLL, this is admittedly a difficult root. It seems to have a range of meanings, such as “assess,” “intervene,” and “judge.” For “assess,” see Genesis 48:11. For “intervene” see Psalms 106:30: va-yaamod Pinchas va-yefalel, va-teatzar ha-magefah (=Pinchas stood up and intervened and the plague was stopped.)  For “judge,” see I Sam. 2:25.
               But the more interesting issue is the import of the prefix HT, the hitpael form. One source I saw counted 984 instances of the hitpael in Tanakh. Of course, a large percentage of the time, the hitpael in Tanakh is a “reflexive” form, i.e., it implies doing something to yourself. Some examples are chazek and kadesh. In the hitpael, these are transformed from “strengthen” and “sanctify” into “strengthen yourself”  (hitchazek )   and “sanctify yourself”  (hitkadesh ).
               Based on this reasoning, hitpalel (“to pray”) is typically translated as implying some form of action on oneself.  For example:
          -      The Otzar Ha-Tefillot Siddur (p. 20) includes the explanation that prayer is an activity of change on the part of the petitioner, as he gives his heart and thoughts to his Creator; by raising himself to a higher level, he will cause a change in his situation. 
          -    The standard ArtScroll Siddur (p. xiii) includes the following:
                        [It] is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself.                                                                       
                        Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgment...

See also the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch to Gen. 20:7.
             But I would like to offer a very different approach that has been suggested by some scholars. (I will point out that long ago Radak understood that God was the one doing the judging in the word HTPLL. See his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, root PLL.)
             To understand the meaning of the HT prefix in HTPLL, we must closely analyze the various hitpaels  in Tanakh. It turns out that the hitpael has a few different meanings.
            For example, at Genesis 42:1 (lamah titrau), the form of titrau is hitpael but the meaning is: Why are you looking at one another?   This is called the “reciprocal” meaning of hitpael. Another example of this reciprocal meaning is found at II Chronicles 24:25 in the word hitkashru. The meaning here is “conspired with one another.”
          A different meaning of the hitpael is found in the case of the word hithalekh . (This word appears many times in Tanakh). The meaning is not “walk oneself,” but “walk continually or repeatedly.”  There are many other examples of this “durative” meaning of the hitpael. 
          I mention all this as background to another word that appears in the hitpael form in Tanach: hithanen. The root here is “HNN” (chet, nun, nun) which means “to be gracious” or “ to show favor.” (For simplicity, I am representing the chet with “H.”) HTHNN appears many times in Tanach, and at I Kings 8:33 we even have HTPLL and HTHNN adjacent to one another: ve-hitpalelu ve-hithanenu.   If we are constrained to view HTPLL as doing something to yourself, then what would be the meaning of HTHNN? To show favor to yourself? This interpretation makes no sense in any of the contexts that HTHNN is used in Tanakh.
        Rather, as recognized by many modern scholars, HTHNN is an example where the hitpael  has a slightly different meaning: to make yourself the object of another’s action. (This variant of hitpael has been called “voluntary passive.”) In every HTHNN, you are asking another to show favor to you. As an example, we can look to the beginning of parshat va-et-hanan.  Verse 3:23 states that Moshe was et-hanan to God.  Moshe was not doing HNN to himself. Rather, he was trying to make himself the object of God’s HNN. 
       Let us now revisit our word HTPLL. Most likely, the HT in the case of HTPLL is doing the same thing as the HT in the case of HTHNN: it is turning the word into a voluntary passive. The meaning of HTPLL then is to make oneself the object of God’s PLL (assessment, intervention,or judging). This is a much simpler understanding of HTPLL than the ones that look for a reflexive action by the one reciting the prayer. Once you are presented with this approach and how it parallels the hitpael’s meaning in HTHNN, it is very hard to disagree with it.
          Of course, the idea that prayer involves self-evaluation and self-judgment is a beautiful and highly motivational concept. But it does not seem to be the most likely interpretation in this  case.    
          (I would also like to point out that the meaning of the hitpael stem is not just of interest to Jews. Christian theologians are also very interested in it because of the word hitbarchu at Gen. 22:18 and 26:4. The hitpael issue there is whether these verses teach that the nations of the world will utter blessings using the name of the seed of Abraham or be blessed through the seed of Abraham. These are very different interpretations!)
        The above is an abridged version of my article on in Aug. 2016. I refer interested readers to this longer version. The longer version is also found in my book Roots and Rituals (2018), pp. 240-47.

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. When not self-reflecting, he can be reached at