Saturday 30 November 2019

Mussar: The Ethical Teachings of Rav

First posted December 14, 2013
Rav, says tradition, found an open, neglected field and fenced it in (Hullin 110a). Special attention was given by him to the liturgy of the synagogue. He is reputed to be the author of one of the finest compositions in the Jewish prayerbook, the Mussaf service of the New Year. In this noble prayer are evinced profound religious feeling and exalted thought, as well as ability to use the Hebrew language in a natural, expressive, and classical manner (Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashanah i. 57a). The many homiletic and ethical (haggadistic) sayings recorded of him show similar ability. As a haggadist, Rav is surpassed by none of the Babylonian Amoraim. He is the only one of the Babylonian teachers whose haggadistic utterances approach in number and contents those of the Palestinian haggadists. The Jerusalem Talmud has preserved a large number of his halakic and aggadistic utterances; and the Palestinian Midrashim also contain many of his aggadot. Rav delivered homiletic discourses, both in the Beth midrash (college) and in the synagogues. He especially loved to treat in his homilies of the events and personages of Biblical history; and many beautiful and genuinely poetic embellishments of the Biblical record, which have become common possession of the aggadah, are his creations. His aggadah is particularly rich in thoughts concerning the moral life and the relations of human beings to one another. A few of these utterances may be quoted here: (Shabbat 10b)
• "The commandments of the Torah were only given to purify men's morals" (Genesis Raba 44).
• "Whatever may not properly be done in public is forbidden even in the most secret chamber" (Shabbat 64b).
• "It is well that people busy themselves with the study of the Law and the performance of charitable deeds, even when not entirely disinterested; for the habit of right-doing will finally make the intention pure" (Pesahim 50b).
• "Man will be called to account for having deprived himself of the good things which the world offered"
(Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin end).
• "Whosoever hath not pity upon his fellow man is no child of Abraham" (Beitzah 32b).
• "It is better to cast oneself into a fiery furnace than publicly to put to shame one's fellow creature" (Bava Metzia 59a).
• "One should never betroth himself to a woman without having seen her; one might subsequently discover in her a blemish because of which one might loathe her and thus transgress the commandment: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself'" (Kiddushin 41a).
• "A father should never prefer one child above another; the example of Joseph shows what evil results may follow therefrom".
Abba Arika, Ethical teaching - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kol Tuv,

Thursday 28 November 2019

Meaning of "Michtam" in the book of Tehillim

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                           What is the Meaning of “Michtam” (Mem-Caf-Tav-Mem)?

    Our subject is a word that appears only six times in Tanach, only in the book of Psalms, and only in the first verse each time. Our word appears in chapter 16, and in chapters 56 through 60. Two times we have: “michtam Le-David.” Four times we have: “Le-David michtam.”
     This word is part of our liturgy, as Psalm 16 can be recited at a funeral and in a house of mourning. Also, in the Sephardic ritual, it is recited before Maariv on motzaei Shabbat.
       It is such a difficult word that several etymological works (e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language) are not willing to make any suggestion. Also, the King James Bible (1611) did not translate it and merely wrote “Michtam,” as do many of our sources (e.g., Koren Tanach).
        The root would seem to be Caf-Tav-Mem. This root appears 9 times in Tanach with the meaning “gold.” It also appears at Jer. 2:22, which we will discuss below.
       Does the “gold” meaning get us anywhere?  Some suggest that the meaning is: a psalm as honored or beloved as gold. See e.g., Ibn Ezra to 16:1, first suggestion, and Metzudat Tziyyon. At 56:1, Ibn Ezra goes even further: the initial “mem” teaches that the psalm is more honored than gold.  Rashi (in one of his approaches at 16:1) suggests that the gold meaning implies that the psalm was worn as an “atarah” (=crown or wreath). The implication is that the psalm was one that David regularly recited.  Rav S.R. Hirsch suggests that gold is an allusion to the everlasting nature of the Psalm: “David has recorded for himself an everlasting memorial, a tenet to which he would adhere forever.”   
       Several of our Rishonim give “michtam” a melodical or musical meaning. For example, Rashi (in one of his approaches) suggests that it denotes a type of melody or rhythm. 
      The introductory verses to the psalms often use liturgical and musical terms that are difficult for us moderns to understand.  A survey of these terms is found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica at 13:1319-1321.  Another such survey is found in the introduction to the Daat Mikra edition of Psalms. In this survey (pp. 5-6), the author distinguishes between two types of terms: 1) those that describe the different types of psalms, and 2) those that are melodical and musical instructions. (The survey in the EJ had lumped them all together.) The Daat Mikra commentary takes the position that “michtam” is of the first category.  It puts it in the same category as: mizmor (this appears 57 times in the book of Psalms), shir (30 times), maskil (13 times), tefilah (5 times), shigayon (1 time), shirah (1 time), and tehilah (1 time).
     I am going to agree with Daat Mikra that “michtam” is not a melodical or musical instruction. For example, the melodical and musical instructions often have the word “al” preceding them (e.g., al ha-gitit, al ha-sheminit, al machalat, and many more). Moreover, one can see from 56:1 that “al yonat eilem rechokim” is the musical instruction there. (It is undoubtedly the title of a song to whose melody the psalm was song.) “Le-David michtam” there (and presumably in all six of its occurrences) must be something else, of a more general nature.     
      There is an Akkadian root “katamu” that means “to cover.” Based on this, some suggest that a “michtam” was a psalm of atonement. See, e.g., EJ 13:1320. But “katamu” does not have the connotation of atonement. (This is in contrast to the Hebrew root C-P-R, which has both connotations.) See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 211.
      Based on this “cover” meaning, another view is that a “michtam” was a prayer that, when David originally composed it, was said silently (=secretly). I.e., David’s lips were covered. Four out of the six times where “michtam” is used, it is used with a historical background and some of these backgrounds imply that a silent prayer was necessary.  See, e.g., 57:1, “when he fled from Saul in the cave,” and 59:1: “they watched the house to kill him.” See B.D. Eerdmans, The Hebrew Book of Psalms, pp. 75-76.  (In this view, one can interpret the “nichtam” of Jer. 2:22, as “covered by a blot.”)
     There is another direction that some take. The suggestion is that the root Caf-Tav-Mem meant “write” in Biblical Hebrew. Jeremiah 2:22 has the following language: “Even if you wash yourself with nitre and take much soap, your sin is ‘nichtam’ before Me.” Now let us look at 17:1 “The sin of Judah is written (=”ketuvah”) with a pen of iron…” Although these verses are from different chapters (and the Hebrew word used for “sin” differs in each), one can suggest based on the parallel that the root C-T-M at Jer. 2:22 means “written.” (It is typically translated as “stained,” consistent with the later meaning of the root in Rabbinic Hebrew.)
      Accordingly, perhaps “michtam” means a psalm that is “written.” One who makes this suggestion is S. Mandelkern.
     There is another basis for a claim that “michtam” means something that was written. At Tosefta Shab. 18:4, we are told not to read certain “michtavim.” There are at least two manuscripts that read “michtamim” here.    
       What could be the implication of a psalm being “written”? It seems unlikely that all the other psalms were oral. Could the implication be that it was to be recited silently? The fact that there is a musical instruction at 56:1 and 60:1 immediately preceding the “michtam” phrase refutes this. (The obscure phrase at 57:1, 58:1 and 59:1 also probably reflects a musical instruction.)
       Perhaps the implication of “written” is that it was written on a stone as a way of publicizing it. See Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume, vol. 1, pp. 169-171.  Support for this translation of “michtam” is found in the Greek translation of the Torah (3rd century BCE, Egypt). Here the translation for “michtam” is “stelographia”= an inscription upon a slab. See also the Targum to Psalms 16:1. (But we have to be cautious in relying on the Greek translation. My experience tells me that those translators living in Egypt only had a limited understanding of Biblical Hebrew. The fact that their interpretation bears some resemblance to our suggestion may only be fortuitous.)
       At Isa. 38:9, a prayer of Hizkiyahu is referred to as a “michtav.” Also, it would be very reasonable to interpret C-T-M as being related to C-T-B (=write). The letters “mem” and “bet” are both bilabial consonants, sharing a place of articulation.
       In modern times, the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon adopts “inscription” as its main definition, but also mentions the “secret prayer” definition.
        For another approach to “michtam,” interpreting it in light of “maskil,” “mizmor,” and “shigayon,” see Tawil, p. 211 (bottom). (In the approach suggested there, all these terms are musical terms, unlike my assumptions above).
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney. When he is not working, he likes to ponder those difficult terms in the introductions to the psalms. He can be reached at

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Saturday 23 November 2019

Mussar: Who was R Yisroel Salanter father of the Mussar Movement?

First posted November 2, 2013

In recognition of the English anniversary of the birth of Rabbi Yiroel Salanter

Rabbi Yisroel ben Ze'ev Wolf Lipkin, also known as "Yisroel Salanter" or "Israel Salanter" (November 3, 1810, Zhagory – February 2, 1883, Königsberg), was the father of the Musar movement in Orthodox Judaism and a famed Rosh yeshiva and Talmudist. The epithet Salanter was added to his name since most of his schooling took place in Salant (now the Lithuanian town of Salantai), where he came under the influence of Rabbi Yosef Zundel of Salant.
Yisroel Salanter - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kol Tuv,

Thursday 21 November 2019

Book Review: Shadal on Genesis

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                     Book Review: Shadal on Genesis by Daniel Klein (Kodesh Press, 2019)

            Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) was the preeminent Italian Jewish Bible scholar of the 19th century. There are two main ways in which Shadal’s commentary is unique. First, he quotes from a variety of sources, Jewish and Gentile. Second, he tries very hard to figure out the root of each word.  This is very useful, because once you understand the root of a word, many other words become understandable. One example is at Gen. 24:20. Here we are told: “va-te’ar cadah.” From the context it means that Rivkah “poured out her pitcher.” But Shadal points out that fundamentally the root of that first word is Ayin-Resh-Heh, “to expose.” We all know this root from the word “ervah.” Shadal explains that one who pours from a vessel exposes its base. On my own I never would have thought to connect this “pour” word with Ayin-Resh-Heh (expose, bare)!

             “The work would be a noteworthy one if only for its range of knowledge, references to the Bible being supported from the Greek and Roman classics, the medieval talmudists jostling incongruously with the Church Fathers, and contemporary humanists figuring side by side with the Jewish writers of every land and age.”  This was a comment by a modern historian about a 16th century Italian Jewish scholar. Klein points out this statement could serve equally well as a description of Shadal’s commentary.
             We all appreciate the Torat Chayyim of Mossad Harav Kook and its improvement over the traditional Mikraot Gedolot. But Shadal’s work takes one’s scholarship to an entirely different level, with the range of sources quoted.
             The above book just now published by Kodesh Press is essentially a republication of Klein’s first edition of this work, published by Jason Aronson in 1998. Shadal wrote a translation of each verse in Italian, and a commentary in Hebrew citing extensive sources. These were written at different times. Klein’s editions include both. 
            How did Klein got interested in Shadal? It was not planned. He decided to learn Italian in his youth. Then his grandmother, who had studied Italian in college, gave him an edition of Shadal’s translation so he could practice his Italian. First he simply enjoyed the practice. But then he realized that he benefited greatly from the translation. This led him to study the Hebrew commentary as well. In 1976, Klein set a goal that he would translate Shadal’s translation and commentary into English. Since Klein was an attorney, he could only do this as a side project. After 20 years he finished Genesis and in 1998, this volume came out. In 2015, with Aronson no longer publishing Judaica books, he finished Exodus and had it published by Kodesh Press. Now Kodesh Press has republished the Genesis volume.
            How did I get interested in this work? This was also not planned. My book on Jewish chronology and ancient Persia (Jewish History in Conflict) was published by Aronson in 1997.  My chavruta at the time (and for many years) was Steve Leichman. One day in 1998, Steve’s wife Abby Klein Leichman told me that her brother had just published a book with Aronson: Shadal on Genesis. I had never heard of Shadal. But out of loyalty to Steve and Abby and to my new publisher, I bought this book.
            Buying that 1998 Genesis edition was life-changing for me! I now divide my life into two parts: pre-Shadal and post-Shadal. In my pre-Shadal life, I was like every other intelligent Orthodox person. I was interested in the standard Rishonim, and I also happened to have a side interest in chronology.  But it was from studying Shadal that I learned how to figure out roots of words and realize commonalities between words. So now I spend much of my time on etymology.  If I give a “devar Torah” now, my first thought is always to find some unusual word in the parshah.
            After I finished the Genesis volume in 1998, I was so addicted to Shadal that I had to acquire the Hebrew edition for the rest of the four books. I acquired the Hebrew edition that was most available at the time: the 1965 Schlesinger edition. But this edition is problematic: The material from non-Jewish authorities was often deleted. (Schlesinger does provide a weak rationale for doing this.  More recently, E. Munk did an English translation of this edition.)
          The original Genesis edition and the new edition have an appendix with biographical summaries of the wide range of individuals cited.  In my view, the original Genesis edition was flawless. Nevertheless the new edition has an improved introduction and some added footnotes.
         Rabbi J.H. Hertz cites “Luzzatto” very frequently. He is always citing to Shadal, and not to his 18th century relative Moshe Chayim Luzzatto. Nechama Leibowitz cites Shadal often as well. I am not aware of citations to Shadal in ArtScroll’s works. I don’t think the failure to cite him is because he was too modern. He was Orthodox in actions and beliefs (e.g., Divine origin of the Torah and its accurate transmittal). Rather, his works although known in the scholarly world, did not spread into the yeshiva world.
         The main weakness with Shadal’s commentary is that he was writing at the dawn of biblical archaeology, when Akkadian had only recently been deciphered. But Klein writes that a high portion of Shadal’s root derivations are borne out by modern lexicography. (Today if you want to double-check whether your proposed devar Torah based on Shadal is correct, you can simply go to H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew (2009) to see if a better alternative is presented there.)
          To give an example of a Shadal in Genesis, I will cite his comments on Gen. 12:8. Regarding Avraham, the Chumash records: “va-ya’atek mi-sham.” The root of this first word is Ayin-Tav-Kof. He first points out that this verb means “to uproot.” But adds that this root was transferred to denote the copying of a book from another book, as if the scribe were “uprooting” the writing and putting it into another place. We all know the modern Hebrew word for “copy.” Whoever would have imagined that it comes from here! Then he explains the origin of another textual variant word: “nusach.” Then he points out that the word “girsa,” on the other hand, referred (originally at least) to an “oral teaching,” as the root G-R-S meant “grinding” or “chewing.”
           My favorite Shadal is in parshat Chukat. He writes “Moshe sinned one sin, but the commentators have heaped many sins on him. I was always afraid to write about this because I didn’t want to add an additional sin.”  Fortunately, he writes about it and does not add a new sin!
           I plan to pick one parshah and do a separate column with excerpts from his commentary so you can see his freedom of inquiry and variety of sources.  The book is available from and
             One of Shadal’s later family members was Fiorello Laguardia, former mayor of New York City.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish scholar. On Simchat Torah, he can often be found walking slowly in the dancing circle with an etymology book in his hand.