Wednesday 30 December 2020

Miscellaneous Words of Interest

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

                                  Miscellaneous Words of Interest

     Many times I come across interesting words that do not deserve an entire column. Here are a few:

בל,  בלי: We know these words as meaning “not” and “without.” But where do they come from? Most believe that they derive from the root בלה, “wear out.”

לוה: This word means both “borrow” and “join.”  At first glance, these meanings do not seem to be related. After all, the borrower is taking something away from the lender.

But when one borrows something, one is connecting himself on some level with the lender. So the scholarly world is split on the issue of whether these meanings might have had a common origin.  Brown-Driver-Briggs and many others list “borrow” and “join” as two separate roots and do not even mention the possibility of a common origin. On the other hand, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament does raise the possibility. See vol. 7, pp. 475 and 477.

Some others who advocate for a common origin are S. Mandelkern and Rav S. R. Hirsch (comm. to Ex. 22:24). Mandelkern points out that in Latin, a debt is called an “obligation.” This word comes from a root “leig” that means “to bind.” (So does the word “ligament”=connective tissue in one’s body.)

There is an interesting phrase at Proverbs 22:7: “The borrower is the servant to the lender.” This supports the idea that there is a connection between the two.

לכאורה: This means  "at first view." It is based on the word אורה= its light.

מורה:  This is a word for “razor.” It only appears three times: once in the first chapter of Samuel and twice in Judges. There is another word for “razor” that appears many times in Tanach: תער. It comes from the root ערה which means “to make bare.” That is what a razor does to the face.

Most think that מורה is an evolution from an original מערה, coming from the same “bare” meaning. But it is interesting to see other approaches. Rashi on Judges 13:5 connects  מורה to the root ירה with the meaning “throw,” since the razor throws away the hair. Another view connects it with the root מרח which means “rub,” since a razor rubs against the hair. Another view connects it with an Aramaic word מרא, a  hoe. Most interesting, however, is Rav S.R Hirsch. He writes: (comm. to Gen. 26:35):  מרה has the basic meaning ‘to counter, to act in opposition,’ hence  מורה, a razor which has to run against the hair…”

מחמת: This word originated as “from the heat of.” It then developed into “as a consequence of.” It was originally vocalized as “mei-chamat.” See Jastrow, pp. 480 and 762.

עטש: This root appears only one time in Tanach, at Job 41:10. It means “sneeze.” It is surely an  onomatopoeia, as it sounds like our “hatchoo”! As Alan Schwartz pointed out to me several years ago, there is another word for “sneeze” that appears only one time in Tanach, at 2 Kings 4:35 (in a story about Elisha):  ויזרר, from a presumed root זרר.

נפש  פקוח : This phrase does not literally mean “saving a life.” It means “opening [to save] a life.” The meaning expanded to the idiomatic meaning because a much discussed case in early rabbinic times was the issue of opening up a heap of debris on Shabbat to attempt to save a life.

 We all know the root פקח from the phrase in the morning blessings: “pokeach ivrim” =God opens [the eyes of] the blind. (An interesting issue is whether there any difference between the roots פקח and  פתח. Both mean “open.” Note similarly that both שקה and שתה  are roots that mean “drink.”)

קפץ: This root appears seven times in Tanach. Six times it means “draw together, shut.” One time (Song of Songs 2:8) it means “leaps” (mekapetz al ha-gevaot). (In the latter, it is in the piel form.) One might think these are two separate roots. But the widespread view connects them. When one leaps, one makes a contraction of the body first.

 A phrase with this word appears in the High Holiday liturgy in the ובכן prayer: “ve-olatah tikpatz piha” (=and iniquity will shut its mouth). This phrase is adapted from Job 5:16.  

 תו: “again, furthermore.”  For this insight, I have to credit my daughter Rachel. When she was in her teens, she came across this word and I told her what it meant. Then she said: “It does not have enough root letters.” So I looked in Jastrow and saw that she was correct! It is a shortened form of תוב. I.e., it is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew: שוב (“return,” “come again”).

תרגם: A form of this word appears at Ezra 4:7 (an Aramaic section of Tanach). A widespread view relates this word to an Akkadian verb “ragamu” = “to shout” (related to the Biblical root רעם.) See, e.g., E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 716, and Jastrow, p. 1695. But more recently, H. Tawil points to similar words with the meaning “interpreter” found in Ugaritic and Hittite. He rejects an Akkadian origin for the word and rejects the connection to “ragamu.” See his An Akkadian Lexical Companion For Biblical Hebrew, p. 435.

The official student newspaper at Rutgers is called The Daily Targum. It was founded in the 19th century.

Levant: This word originated in Europe to mean "the Mediterranean lands to the east.” It is borrowed from the French “levant” =rising. It refers to the rising of the sun in the east. It began to be used in France in the 12th century. “Levant” is ultimately from the Latin word “levare”= lift, raise.

Naples: This is a form of “Neapolis.” This name means “new city,” from neo  + polis. There were many cities with the name “Neapolis” in the ancient world. It has been remarked that, in the ancient world, “creating colonies was all the fad but coming up with snazzy new names apparently wasn’t.” (In the U.S. today, there are many towns named “Newton,” from new + town.)

In Israel, the city of Shechem is called “Nablus” by the Arabs. Nablus also comes from neo + polis, but Arabic lacks a letter for “p.” (Their letter that is parallel to פ is pronounced “F.”)

The new area was founded in the year 72 by Vespasian, just west of the original Shechem. The new area was originally called Flavia Neapolis= “Vespasian’s New City.” (Vespasian’s full name was Titus Flavius Vespasianus.)  

Sanction:  This word has opposite meanings. Sometimes it means “approve” and other times it means “penalize.”

Table: In British usage, “to table” a motion means to present it for formal deliberation. (Originally this was done by putting the motion documents on a table.) But for Americans, “to table” means to postpone the consideration of something, based on the image of a document lying on a table awaiting further action.

Thomas:  This name comes from the Hebrew/Aramaic word תאום= twin.


Mitchell First can be reached at Please excuse him now as he leaps to a new city to save the life of Thomas, a twin. At first view, it seems that he was injured from the heat of a razor. Furthermore, while there, he will borrow a book and table, join them together, and engage in some translation activity.

Why did the Volozhin Yeshiva close?

 From RRW 

What prompted the Netziv to close the Volozhin Yeshiva?

I had heard 3 versions, each one with a different Hashkafic ramification:

1.  The Netziv opposed secular learning (at least in the confines of the Yeshiva).

IOW secular subjects were considered assimilationist

2.  The Russian Czarists imposed an onerous volume of secular learning, leaving little time for proper Talmudic learning.  

IOW too much bittul z'man

3. The Netziv felt that the Roshei Yeshiva should determine the proper curriculum.  The Czarist government infringed upon the Yeshiva's independence.

IOW an issue of Control vs. Freedom


Volozhin Yeshiva - Wikipedia

"The Volozhin yeshiva closed in 1892. The reason for the closure was the Russian government's demand for a dramatic increase in the amount of time spent teaching certain secular studies.[5] The pressure from the Russian government came from the Maskalim accusing the yeshiva of being subversive.[6] It is to note that it is documented in the biography of R. Chaim Soleveitchik that there were secular studies taught for a short period some nights that were barely attended. However these were concessions legally mandated that the rosh hayeshivas felt were necessary rather than shut down the yeshiva. When the government imposed extreme guidelines Rabbi Berlin refused to comply and allowed the government to close the yeshiva. : "All teachers of all subjects must have college diplomas ... no Judaic subjects may be taught between 9 AM and 3 PM ... no night classes are allowed ... total hours of study per day may not exceed ten."

Others, such as historian Shaul Stampfer, say the root of the problem was Rabbi Berlin's attempt to install his son as Rosh Yeshiva in the face of opposition. Russian government documents that have recently come to light seem to indicate that this was a consideration in the yeshiva's closure.[9]"


At any rate, the Russians were  kind of successors to the Hellenists of ancient days, in oppressing Torah learning.

The Jewish collaborators with the Czar paralleled the Misyavnim of old

"The pressure from the Russian government came from the Maskalim (sic) accusing the yeshiva of being subversive."

IOW there a great deal of pressure to assimilate was spearheaded by fellow Jews.

We can find other parallels in Jewish History...


Sunday 27 December 2020

The American Yeshiva Day School fraud

 From RRW

Looking Back on 2020 Losses

 From RRW 

Among all the tragedies and challenges of 2020, this has indeed been a terrible year in terms of the passing of great Torah scholars and rabbinic leaders.

This is true in the Haredi American community, with two of the most senior members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah – Rav Yaakov Perlow (the Novominsker) and Rav Dovid Feinstein entering the Olam HaEmes this year.

Leaders of Sefardic and Hasidic communities in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron and the Pittsburgher Rebbe (Rav Mordechai Leifer), both also died of COVID in the early days of the virus.
But this tragic outcome of the virus might be even sharper with regard the global Modern Orthodox community, as it has lost so many of its senior leaders on a variety of fronts.

Arguably the three greatest living expositors of traditional Judaism to the broader world – R. Norman Lamm, R. Adin Steinzaltz, and R. Jonathan Sacks – all passed away within months of one another.

Two leading Dayyanim who commanded cross-communal respect and may have done more than anyone to resolve Agunah issues – R. Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rav Gedalyah Dov Schwartz – both passed away this year.

Two leading Halakhists who presented bold and modern positions while remaining consensus Poskim – Rav Nahum Rabinovitch and Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin – succumbed in 2020.

As the calendar year comes to a close, this is an opportunity to reflect on these rabbinic legacies, mourn what we have lost, and hope an pray that 2021 offers us some respite, in this regard and in all others.

Tikhle (secular) Shana ve-Kileloteha.

Thursday 24 December 2020

Were the Fast Days Observed During the Second Temple Period?

 From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

                     Were the Fast Days Observed in the Second Temple Period?

      The Tanach describes several important events that occurred in the era of the destruction of the First Temple: the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem on the 10th of Tevet (Jer. 52:4, this was 1 ½ years before the destruction), the breaching of the wall of Jerusalem on the ninth of Tammuz (Jer. 52:6-7), the burning of the temple on the 7th and 10th of Av (2 Kings 25:8 and Jer. 52:12), and the assassination of Gedaliah in Tishrei (Jer. 41:1 and 2 Kings 25:25).

      (The Tanach does not use the names Tevet, Tammuz, Av and Tishrei. It merely gives the number of the month.)

      There are no verses that describe enactments of fasts to commemorate the above events. (Presumably, the fasts were first enacted in Babylonia.) But there is evidence of fasting during the 70 years between the temples. It comes from the book of Zechariah.  In the fourth year of Darius, this prophet was asked what to do when the temple was rebuilt: “Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself [from bodily pleasures], as I have done these ‘kamah shanim’ “?   (The work on the rebuilding had started in the second year of Darius.)

        Here is the beginning of the prophet’s response, passing along the answer from God (with some criticism): “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh [months] for these seventy years, did you fast for My sake?…”

        Thereafter at 8:19, the prophet declares: “The fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth [month], the fast of the seventh [month] and the fast of the tenth [month] will be for the house of Judah le-sasson u-le-simcha u-le-moadim tovim, love truth and peace.”

            It is clear from this verse that the fasts in Tammuz, Av, Tishrei and Tevet had already been observed in the time of Zechariah.

           Going back to the question posed in the title of this column, the prophet at 8:19 answers the question posed him. But his answer is a prediction, not a description of what actually occurred. Moreover that last phrase may have been a condition for the prediction to come true (see, e.g., Radak and Malbim), and the condition may not have been fulfilled. (For example, The Living Nach translates: “provided you love truth and peace!”) Alternatively, the prophet’s statement may merely have been a prediction for some far off time. See, e.g., Metzudat David.

            Our verse is discussed in the Talmud at Rosh Hashanah 18b. It interprets the prediction as meaning that the days will be holidays “be-zeman she-yesh shalom.” Although this is sometimes interpreted as meaning “when the temple is standing,” on a plain sense level it is a different criteria. See, e.g., Rashi, who interprets: “when the arm of the idol worshippers is not strong over Israel.” We certainly did not have political independence for most of the Second Temple period (except for a few decades during the Hasmonean period). Or is it enough to have peace, even without independence? The Persian period may have been one of peace, but what about the Greek and Roman periods?

            Moving away from Zechariah’s prediction, let us now look at Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:3, dating from the late Second Temple period or thereafter.

            “In six [specific] months, the messengers are sent. In Nissan, because of the Pesach. In Av, because of the Taanit. In Elul, because of Rosh Hashanah. In Tishrei, because of the fixing of [the date of] the holidays. In Kislev, because of Chanukah. In Adar, because of Purim. When the Temple was up, they would also be sent in Iyyar (=“yotzin af al Iyyar”) because of Pesach Katan.”

              One way of interpreting this Mishnah is that even during Temple times messengers would be sent out during Av because of the Taanit. Just that messengers were also sent out in Temple times in Iyyar. In this view, the ninth of Av was observed as a fast day during the Second Temple period.  (This view is followed by Rambam. See his comm. on this Mishnah. He adds that fasting on the other three days was optional during the Second Temple period.)

             There is an issue whether “af” is really in the text of the Mishnah, but probably it was originally there. (If it was not, one could interpret the Mishnah as referring to a constant number of months with messengers, six. During Temple times, messengers were sent in Iyyar but not in Av. In this interpretation, the ninth of Av and the other fast days were perhaps not observed during the Temple period in any form.)                                              

            Another relevant source is Megillat Taanit. This is a list of festive days on which one was not allowed to fast. The earliest layer of Megillat Taanit is the Aramaic portion which dates to around 50 C.E. Here there is a listing for the third of Tishrei as a date where one is not allowed to fast. (This was a commemoration of a certain unusual event, the details of which are not relevant here.)

          On the simplest level, the fact that such a holiday was declared suggests that there was no practice of fasting (or of not fasting!) before its enactment. If the fast on the third of Tishrei was not observed in any way at that time, this is evidence for the same regarding some or all of the other fasts.

          (No specific date in the seventh month was provided in the Biblical verses for the killing of Gedaliah.   But the tradition that Gedaliah was killed on the third of Tishrei is already found in Tannaitic sources. See, e.g., Seder Olam ch. 26 and Tosefta Sotah ch. 6.)

         To conclude, we do not have enough evidence to definitively answer our question about the observance of the four fast days during the period 516 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. The period is usually divided into four different eras: Persian, Greek, Hasmonean and Roman. The practice in each period may have differed and the practices in Israel and Bavel may have differed from one another.

           Even the practices in the different communities within Israel may have differed. Perhaps some communities continued to fast during the Second Temple period on one or more of these days, while others stopped. And perhaps some even observed some or all as holidays, following the statement of Zechariah.  

          But one scholar’s observation is noteworthy: “It is difficult to imagine…that for a period of close to 600 years…these fast days had fallen into oblivion and then were suddenly reinstituted…Especially puzzling is the supposed reinstitution of the fast days of Tebet 10 and the Fast of Gedaliah, since these have nothing to do with the Second Temple….We are therefore led to accept the assumption that these fast days continued to be observed by the people during the Second Commonwealth.” This statement is by Judah Rosenthal in JQR 57 (1967) in his article on this topic. (There are traditional sources that take this approach as well. See his n. 64.)  I would just modify his conclusion by changing it to “some of the people.”

           P.S. There is another view that the fast of the tenth month referred to by Zechariah is the 5th of Tevet. See Rosh Hashanah 18b, citing Ezek. 33:21.


Mitchell First can be reached at For those who need memory aids for history, he recalls hearing an expression: “Boys Pants Get Ripped.”  This is meant to remind of the order: Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman.