Thursday 31 October 2019

The Language Conflict of 1914 in Israel

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                 The “Language Conflict” of 1914 in Israel

           Herzl had not envisioned Hebrew as the language of the Jewish state. In 1896 he wrote: “who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language?” His plan was that everyone in Palestine would continue to speak the language of their home country. He pointed to Switzerland as a country that existed with a confederation of languages. Thereafter, the official documents of the Zionist Congresses (which began in 1897) were all written in German.
           In his Trial and Error, Chaim Weizmann explains the situation in the years before WW I:            “Every foreign institution in the corrupt and feeble Turkish empire placed itself under the protection of a foreign country, and the European Powers vied with each other for influence and prestige within Turkish territory. The Jews in particular were used as cat-paws in this game of intrigue, and the little community which we were struggling to weld into a creative unit was torn apart by its “benefactors” and “protectors.”  There was one system of Jewish schools supported by the Alliance Israélite Universelle of Paris; there the language of instruction was naturally French. The Germans used the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden with its system of schools as their instrument of intrigue in the Near East. There the language of instruction was German. England was very much behind in the general competition, having under its aegis only the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem, where the language was English. At school Jewish children in Palestine therefore spoke French, English or German according to their foreign ‘protectors.’ ”
           The Hilfsverein was a German-Jewish (but not Zionistic) organization founded in 1901 to improve the social and political conditions of the Jews in Eastern Europe and the Orient.  By the eve of WW I, it had about fifty schools under its auspices in Palestine. Initially their language of instruction was Hebrew.  But during the years immediately preceding WWI, a wave of German patriotism swept through the schools. New teachers from Germany were brought in, some of them Christian. The use of Hebrew as the medium of instruction was discarded, except in the teaching of Hebraic subjects. German songs and literature were being taught. This led to tensions with the Hebraic-minded students.
         In his The Story of Hebrew,  Lewis Glinert writes that on the eve of WW I, “most Jews in the land of Israel, many Zionists included, were skeptical about the future of the new Hebrew, and the majority were still not sending their children to Hebrew-speaking schools. German remained the official language of the international Zionist movement…Some Zionists were learning Turkish, feeling that they had to be part of the state in which they lived. Yiddish, French and Arabic also competed for linguistic attention.”
            The issue of the main language of the Yishuv in Palestine finally was resolved on the eve of WWI with the building of the Technion in Haifa. At the time, it was called the “Technikum.”
            A considerable sum of money for the Technikum was given by Wolf Wissotzky, the Russian tea magnate. The building was completed in 1913. Arthur Zimmermann, who was the German Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, had obtained from the Turkish government the permission for the   land and building, and the Technikum had been placed under the protection of Germany. The Hilfsverein was the sponsor of the institution. But the Board of Governors of the Technikum did have some pro-Hebrew members such as Achad Ha-Am (who worked for Wissotzky).
             The decisive meeting took place in Berlin in June 1914. The representatives of the Hilfsverein were completely against Hebrew as the language of instruction in the Technikum. They argued that German was the great language of science and technology, in contrast to the limited technical vocabulary in Hebrew. Second, the school was under the German flag. Third, Zimmermann had gone to all this trouble to obtain the concessions for the school on the tacit understanding that German would be the language of instruction. But Weizmann warned these German Jewish leaders that if German was voted to be the language of instruction, nobody in Palestine would pay attention, since it would be entirely contrary to the spirit of the new Palestine. The Hilfsverein representatives ignored Weizmann and the Board of Governors voted for German to be the official language.
             As one historian wrote: “If the German language was to be predominant in the one and only Jewish institute for advanced professional studies…, then the prospects of Hebrew as the language of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael…were dim indeed. The elementary and intermediate schools in the Yishuv would take the cue from this highest educational institution…”  
             Weizmann immediately telegraphed the vote to Shemarya Levin who was in Palestine.  Within 24 hours, on the day the Technikum was to open, its teachers and the pupils went on strike. “No Hebrew, no Technikum” was their slogan.
             In the “Technion” entry, the Encyclopaedia Judaica continues the story:  “The decision [adopting German] aroused a storm of controversy, in which the Hebrew Teachers’ Association took the lead. Meetings were held throughout the country; resolutions of protest were passed by practically all Jewish institutions and organizations; the Teachers’ Association issued a ban against the acceptance of posts or the registration of students in the Technikum; pupils at the Hilfsverein’s other schools struck in support of a demand to institute Hebrew as the sole language of instruction...”   A strike fund was established and new Hebrew speaking schools were organized to replace the schools on strike. The authorities of the Hilfsverein employed all sorts of stratagems to break the strike. But it was to no avail.
             Eventually, the Hilfsverein withdrew its support not only from the Technikum, but from all the other schools which it had maintained in Palestine. Levin, who was in Palestine when the strike occurred, left for America to raise funds for the taking over by the Zionist Organization of this section of the Jewish educational system of Palestine. This was the beginning of the Zionist administration of the schools in Palestine, and of the fusion of the divergent linguistic influences into a single Hebrew system. When the cornerstone for the Hebrew University was laid on July 24 1918, it was taken for granted that its language of instruction would be Hebrew.
             As to the Technion building, the above EJ entry continues: “Before the controversy could be settled, World War I broke out. The unoccupied building served as a military hospital…. After the war, the Zionist Organization acquired the property from the Hilfsverein and the first classes on a university level were held in December 1924.”     
            P.S. The Zimmermann mentioned above is famous for sending a secret telegram to Mexico in early 1917, asking them to fight the U.S. and join the German cause. It was deciphered by the British and shown to President Wilson and led to the U.S. finally declaring war on Germany in April 1917.
Mitchell First can be reached at

Solomon Maimon Obituary - Seattle, WA | The Seattle Times

From RRW

Tuesday 29 October 2019

JVO Blog -- What Do You Really Know About Adam and Eve?

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 

Adam and Eve

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

* * * * * 

What Do You Really Know About Adam and Eve?
               At this time of year, Jews around the world are beginning again their yearly communal reading (and study) of the Five Books of Moses. Every week, the focus will be on a different section of the Torah so that the entire work will be covered, in order, during the year. The result is that a significant number of Jews have become familiar with much of the Torah narrative. This is, of course, reinforced by the fact that the Five Books of Moses are a major part of any Jewish educational system, from adult education to day school to Sunday school. It is also – and, perhaps, even more so -- because these Bible stories are existent throughout our society. In the Western World, who doesn’t know the story of Adam and Eve? The question is: do you really know the Jewish story?
Most people do not recognize that there is a challenge in that our holy books were adopted by other religious systems. Works are read within a certain context and any narrative can be understood in a variety of ways depending upon the perspective of the reader. These distinctions in outlook may also not be so clear. Consider, for example, the story of the Garden of Eden. If I asked someone to tell me the difference between the Christian rendering of this story and the Jewish one, no doubt, the answer will focus on the concept of Original Sin. This is a fundamental concept of this story within the Christian perspective while this idea has no role in the Jewish understanding of this story. Of greater import is, actually, why this concept could not even arise in the Jewish reading of this story. The Jewish perspective could never yield the Christian reading of this story. Do you know why? Then, again, the question: do you really know the Jewish story?
          Of course, the words are the words; any reading has to – at least, in some way -- fit into the text. Within any text, though, there is some inherent flexibility which allows, within certain parameters, a reader to understand the text’s meaning one way versus another. The greater call in approaching a Biblical story such as the Garden of Eden is, thus, to recognize how the presentation of the story one is hearing is affected by such perspectives. The further call is to know how this reading connects with one’s own perspective. Recognizing this flexibility potentially inherent in a text, one may also wish to find further substantiation for one’s own perspective. In the case of the Garden of Eden, for example, do you know, that the word chet [sin] is not found even once in this entire narrative? (This word is actually first found in connection to Cain and Abel.) The key is to know that just because you hear the story presented a certain way in one venue does not mean that such a presentation is acceptable in another venue.
          So, what are some factors inherent to the Jewish perspective of the Garden of Eden story. These, of course, would be necessary in understanding the story from this perspective and also warn us to be careful of other renditions of this story. Let me just state two. One is the recognition that Adam and Even were two of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. The challenge they faced has to thus be recognized as a deeply intellectual one and not one that reflects simple foolishness, pettiness and/or immaturity. There is indication of Adam’s intelligence in that God asked him to name each of the animal species with discernment – a challenging intellectual exercise. As such, any portrayal of the story that misses the idea that we are talking about a thoughtful challenge that would require contemplation has problems from a Jewish perspective.
          A second factor would be the Jewish value of growth. Of course, Adam and Eve were created imperfect for if the value of Creation is found in human growth, it has to start with the need for human growth. The whole story begins with God creating human beings to achieve and, as such, an allowance for failure in the human being -- if, at first, he/she does not succeed -- must have been part of the plan. Any idea that the human being has to be saved rather than given the opportunity to improve oneself and grow has problems from a Jewish perspective. And there are, of course, other factors that point to the necessity of understanding the distinction of a Jewish understanding of this story – and we often don’t know them and thus miss this important perspective. (One interested in seeing a Jewish rendering of this story , please see Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Tree of Knowledge, Nishma Journal 7,8 & 9 – see on line at
          The overall point is really simple. Everyone quotes the Jewish Bible and because we hear a story from one source, we simply believe that that is the way everyone hears the story. What we don’t recognize is that a story is always presented from a certain perspective and this can yield a very specific understanding of a story which may not be shared by all. Given the predominance of the Christian perspective of the Jewish Bible stories within our society, it is important that we be aware of this. Just because you heard the story one way – after all, it’s in the movies and on t.v. – doesn’t mean you know the Jewish story.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

Monday 28 October 2019

The Bohr Model

From RRW

"The Bohr model is a relatively primitive model of the hydrogen atom, compared to the valence shell atom model. As a theory, it can be derived as a first-order approximation of the hydrogen atom using the broader and much more accurate quantum mechanics and thus may be considered to be an obsolete scientific theory. However, because of its simplicity, and its correct results for selected systems (see below for application), the Bohr model is still commonly taught to introduce students to quantum mechanics or energy level diagrams before moving on to the more accurate, but more complex, valence shell atom. "

The Bohr Model is a way of introducing a simple model for a far more complex topic.

Amazingly, scientists have gone way beyond this simplistic model but STILL use it for high school classes.  It still works on a basic level.

In Talmud, 3 was used to approximate the Greek PI.  But don't build a bridge substituting 3 for PI.  it works conceptually but not precisely.

In Kabbalah a lot of Spiritual energy is called

OHR. ( No connexion to Bobby Orr afaik)

But the masters warn that this is a model k'dai l'sabber es ho'ozen.

Thus OHR EIN SOF may resemble light, but don't look for photons there.  Light is very ethereal so it's used as a mashal, a dugma, a model for our simple human minds.

when discussing complex topics, simplified models might be used.

S'dom was destroyed by gophris vo'eish.  As a kid, the Jewish Press had a series that suggested this was a nuclear explosion.  Who knows?  But if S'dom was nuked, Gophris Vo'eish was a metaphor of sorts.  But conceptually a good enough model for ancients.
"The most important properties of atomic and molecular structure may be exemplified using a simplified picture of an atom that is called the Bohr Model. This model was proposed by Niels Bohr in 1915; it is not completely correct, but it has many features that are approximately correct and it is sufficient for much of our discussion"

WaPo Mourns the 'Austere, Religious Scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdad i'

From RRW

Saturday 26 October 2019

Mussar: Derech Eretz Kadmah L'Minchah

 originally published on July 27, 2013

Recently, a customer came along and told me a long and very nice story.

The Short Version:

The Rav in his shul is Hassidishe and a very Eidele Mensch. [A Gentleman] B'derech K'lal, he is makpid to daven Minchah AFTER sh'kiah.

Hayom Yom - the Rav invites a Choshuver Litvisher Rosh Yeshiva to his shul. As a result, he moves Minchah up to well before Sh'kiah out of deference for his guest.

The menschlich thing to do:
Forego your own sheetah to honour an important guest.

Best Regards,

Thursday 24 October 2019

Longevity of the Ancients in Genesis

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                            The Longevity of the Ancients Recorded in Genesis

                 We all wonder about those long lifespans recorded at the beginning of Genesis. For example, we are told that Adam lived 930 years, that Shet lived 912 years-and that Metushelach lived 969 years. How have Jewish sources understood these numbers over the centuries?
                   The first Jewish source to address this issue was Josephus (late 1st century). Here is his statement in  Antiquities, book I:
                   “Nor let the reader, comparing the life of the ancients with our own and the brevity of its years, imagine that what is recorded of them is false…For, in the first place, they were beloved of God and the creatures of God himself; their diet too was more conducive to longevity: it was then natural that they should live so long. Again, alike for their merits and to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry, God would accord them a longer life….”
                   Now I will survey the views of our Geonim and Rishonim.
                   R. Saadiah Gaon (10th cent.) discusses this issue in his introduction to Tehillim. He writes that the longevity of these early generations was part of God’s plan for the rapid proliferation of mankind on the earth. The longer people lived, the more children they could have. It would seem that he believed that everyone in those early generations lived a long lifespan.
                  R. Yehudah Ha-Levi (12th cent.) discusses the issue in the Kuzari (sec. 95). He believes that it was only the individuals listed who lived long. Each of the individuals listed was the heart and essence of his generation and was physically and spiritually perfect. The Divine Flow was transmitted from one generation to another through these exceptional individuals.
                 Rambam, in a famous passage in the Guide to the Perplexed (II, chap. 47) writes:  “I say that only the persons named lived so long, whilst other people enjoyed the ordinary length of life. The men named were exceptions, either in consequence of different causes, as e.g., their food or mode of living, or by way of miracle.”
                Ramban (comm. to Gen. 5:4) quotes Rambam’s view and then disagrees, calling Rambam’s words “divrei ruach.” Ramban writes that the individuals with long lifespans named in the Bible were not exceptional in their lifespans. Rather, the entire world had long lifespans before the Flood. But after the Flood, the world atmosphere changed and this caused the gradual reduction in lifespans.
              Most of the Rishonim who discussed the issue thereafter followed the approach of either the Rambam or the Ramban. Either way, they were taking the Genesis lifespan numbers literally. (An underlying factor that motivated Rishonim to accept the Genesis lifespan numbers literally was that the count from creation was calculated based on these numbers.)
              Josephus had mentioned that one of the reasons that God allowed their longevity was to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry. This idea of longevity to enable the acquisition of knowledge and make discoveries (and write them to be passed down) is also included in several of our Rishonim. See, e.g., the commentary of the Radak to Gen. 5:4 and of the Ralbag to Gen. chap. 5 (p. 136), and the Rashbatz, Magen Avot, comm. to Avot 5:21.
       Rashbatz also mentions the idea that the early generations were close in time to Adam and Adam was not born from a “tipah seruchah” like the rest of us, but was made by God from the earth. Those early generations inherited his superior bodily constitution.        
       Another idea found in some of our Rishonim is that those early individuals did not chase after “ta’avat ha-guf,” which reduces the lifespan. See, e.g., the commentary of the Radak to Gen. 5:4.
      But there were some Rishonim who were unwilling to take the Genesis lifespan numbers literally.
     The earliest such source that we know of was R. Moses Ibn Tibbon (late 13th cent.) He suggests that the years given for people’s lives were actually the years of “malkhutam ve-nimuseihim,” i.e., the dynasties and/or customs that they established.
       Another figure who took such an approach was R. Levi ben Hayyim (early 14th cent.). First he mentions several of the possibilities to explain the longevity, e.g., good and simple food and “marrying late” (!). But then he concludes that in his opinion the names mentioned were just roshei avot. In other words, the number of years given for each individual reflects the total of the years of the several generations of individuals named for that first individual.
          R. Nissim of Marseilles (early 14th century) was another who did not take the numbers literally. He took the same approach as R. Moses Ibn Tibbon. The numbers did not indicate the lifespan of the specific individuals named. Rather, it included the total years of the descendants who followed his customs and lifestyle.     
            The most interesting approach I saw was that of R. Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Nathan ha-Bavli (14th century), in his work Tzafnat Paneach, pp. 29-30.  First, R. Eleazar refers to the view that perhaps the individual numbers were not to be taken literally, and points to other statements in the Torah that were not meant to be taken literally, e.g., 1) the Land of Israel was “flowing with milk and honey,” and 2) the cities in Canaan were “fortified up to the Heaven.”
            But then R. Eleazar suggests the following creative approach.  In listing these individual numbers, the Torah was merely recording the legends about these figures, even though they were not accurate. The important thing was to provide data from which the total years from Creation to Matan Torah could be derived, so that the people would be able to know the length of time between these two periods. Even though the numbers for the individual lifespans were not accurate, the Torah made sure that the total that would be arrived at would be accurate.  (In contrast, when it came to events from Avraham and forward, the Torah was careful to preserve a more accurate accounting.)          
            In modern times, one Orthodox scientist who has written much on this topic is Prof. Natan Aviezer of Bar-Ilan Univ. He discusses this topic in a post at their parshah site for  Noach, 1998.  There he explains that modern science has figured out that aging is largely caused by genes, and not by a wearing out of our bodies. He then suggests that when God stated at Gen. 6:3 that man would be limited to 120 years, this was when God first introduced the gene for aging into the human gene pool.
             If you have not found any of the above answers satisfying, I have some good news. R. Saadiah Gaon writes (Emunot Ve-Deot, ch. 7), that in the era of the redemption the human lifespan will be approximately 500 years. Presumably, at that time we won’t be bothered by those long lifespans in Genesis anymore! 
            I would like to acknowledge that most of the material above came from an article by Prof. D. Lasker of Ben-Gurion Univ. in Diné Yisrael, vol. 26-27 (2009-10). 
Mitchell First aspires to longevity and hopes his children can tolerate him for that long.