Saturday 29 February 2020

Mussar - Dismissing Dismissiveness

 originally published January 22, 2011

One great Jewish Leader confided with me, we Jews are entitled to our opinions of course, but the level of dismissiveness is IMHO too high; unacceptable.

I was debating parshanut with a former Orthodox scholar. I pointed to him that Onkelos supported my hypothesis that Rivkah induced Yaakov to usurp the Brachah al pi n'vuah.

He dismissed this as "what is Onkelos - a mind reader?"

Certainly we may object to Onkelos' take on any passuq. Rashi does so respectfully EG in P. B'shalach on the word "ozzy".

But this dismissiveness on the part of the former Orthodox scholar wasn't part of his adherence to some objective scientific methodology over obscurantist beliefs! This was disdain from a position of moral superiority in order to further an agenda of portraying Yaakov as a usurper, and Jewish Tradition is to be condemned for defending our Patriarch.

Is his dismissive attitude co-incidental to his abandonment of Torah-True Judaism. I think not. It is true that there is dismissiveness WITHIN the Orthodox world itself. To the extent that it fosters a dismissive atmosphere, they too must account for the trade-off


Thursday 27 February 2020

Meanings of Midbar and Devir

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                  The Origin of the Words “Midbar” and “Devir”      

        It is very easy to intuit that the root of the word “midbar” (=desert) is D-B-R, since a typical way that Hebrew forms its nouns is by taking a three-letter verbal root and adding an initial mem. But our next question is much harder: what meaning of D-B-R generated this noun?
         Of course, we all know the verb D-B-R, “to speak.” Could a midbar fundamentally be a place where people went to speak (to themselves!)?  Creative but unlikely. We also know the letters D-B-R as one of the ten plagues. Could a midbar fundamentally be a place of plague/disease/ pestilence? Again, creative but unlikely.
         I am going to present what I think is the most reasonable explanation. (But admittedly not everyone agrees with this.)  In Akkadian and Arabic, there is a root D-B-R which means something like “to push from behind and drive away.” See, e.g., H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew,  p. 71, and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language,  p. 113. With this in mind, when you look through Tanach, you see that this was probably the meaning of the root at II Chr. 22:10: va-tedaber et kol zera ha-mamlakhah (=she drove away all the royal seed). (There is a parallel to the above verse at II Kings 11:1. There, a different verb is used, a verb that means “destroy.”)
            Perhaps the root D-B-R has the “push from behind and drive away” meaning elsewhere in Tanach as well. See, e.g., Ps. 127:5 and the Daat Mikra commentary, n. 7.
            Based on this meaning, a later meaning also developed: to subdue/rule over. See Ps. 18:48: va-yadber amim tachtai, and 47:4: yadber amim tachteinu.
          When a shepherd was out with his animals, what he was doing was pushing them from behind and leading them in this manner. The explanation I am now offering is that a midbar was called this because it was fundamentally a place where one went to push and lead one’s animals. See, e.g., Klein, p. 317, and the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon, pp. 209-210 and 546-547.  Biblical verses that refer to sheep being lead in the midbar are Ex. 3:1 and Ps. 78:52.

            Radak, in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim (D-B-R) also understands midbar as a place where one leads animals. Although he does not mention anything about the Arabic root D-B-R  (and Akkadian was not known to him), he does explain (citing Targum Onkelos) that in Aramaic, the root D-B-R is the equivalent of the Hebrew N-H-G (=lead). He concludes that a midbar is called this because this is where a shepherd is noheg his animals.
            Even though we are used to thinking of a midbar as a dry area, it could have been any wide and open area that was used for pasturing animals. As S. D. Luzzatto writes in his comm. to Ex. 3:1: “Perhaps because the term midbar was used for places of pasturage with no houses or trees but only wide, open space, the term was retained for dry desert places which are likewise wide and open without houses or trees.”  
           We now have a reasonable explanation of the origin of the word midbar.  We also see that the letters D-B-R have at least three different meanings in Tanach: speaking, pushing, and pestilence.
           An interesting issue is whether the word for bee, devorah, has some relation to the “speak” meaning. I have seen it suggested that the root D-B-R originally meant “to buzz or to hum” before it meant “to speak,” and that this is the relation to the word devorah! See, e.g., Klein, p. 113, and Koehler-Baumgartner, p. 210.


          The above is essentially what I wrote in my article on the meaning of “midbar” in my book Roots & Rituals (2018). I surveyed the main words with the root D-B-R, but I did not discuss the word “devir” (=dalet-bet-yod-resh). I now see that I should have!

          Devir” is a word that we recite in every Amidah: “ve-hashev et ha-avodah li-devir beitecha…” It is in many other places in the liturgy as well (e.g., Maoz Tzur.)What does it mean and where does it come from?  It is nowhere in the Chumash. It is only one time in Psalms (28:2). Other than that, it appears only at I Kings chapters 6,7 and 8, and in the reiteration at II Chronicles.

              It is evident from 1 Kings 8:6 that “devir” is just a synonym of “kodesh ha-kodoshim.”  Moreover, when you look at any diagram of the beit ha-mikdash, you will see that the “kodesh ha-kodoshim” is the room that is behind the “heichal.” The “kodesh ha-kodoshim” is also the room that has the “aron” which contains the “luchot.”

                One possible explanation for “devir” is that it is the room that holds the “aseret ha-dibrot.”  But the verses refer to it as the room of the “aron ha-edut” and the “aron brit Hashem.” See, e.g., Ex. 26. 33-34, and I Kings 6:6 and 19. They do not refer to it as the place of the “dibrot” or “devarim.” Therefore, this explanation is unlikely.

                But there are two better explanations. One is that it is the room from which God speaks. See, e.g., Ex. 25:22: “ve-dibarti itcha me-al ha-kaporet…asher al aron ha-edut” and Num.7:89: “ha-kol mi-daber eylav me-al ha-kaporet asher al aron ha-edut.” See further, B.S. Jacobson, The Weekday Siddur, p. 252. The other is that it is the room that is “behind” the heichal, related to the “push from behind” meaning that I mentioned above. Scholars prefer this latter explanation, perhaps because it is more concrete.  See, e.g., Brown-Driver- Briggs (“hindmost chamber of temple”),  Soncino and Daat Mikra to I Kings 6:5, E. Klein, p. 113, and the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon.


            P.S. There is a passage on the meaning of “devir” in the Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot chap. 4, end of section 5. Two explanations are offered, although both are unclear. One perhaps connects it to the “aseret ha-dibrot.” The other is very unclear: “mi-sham DBR yotze le-olam.” The ArtScroll edition gives two explanations here, neither of which is convincing (pestilence, and, based on Ps. 47:4, submission of the nations). See also Metzudat David to I Kings 6:5 who seems to allude to the passage but spells the word “dibur” (dalet-bet-vav-resh). Perhaps this was the original reading in the J. Talmud. See also Tosafot Yom Tov to M. Midot 4:1 for a completely different version of the passage in the J. Talmud!
        (P.P.S. Perhaps “devir” is used loosely with another meaning in I Kings. See, e.g., Rashi and Daat Mikra to 1 Kings 6:16, and 19-20, and Metzudat Tziyon to 6:5.)
Mitchell First can be reached at   When he wrote his article on “midbar” in his book, he was looking all through Tanach for verses that might have a “behind” meaning for D-B-R. But he overlooked “devir.” The answer was literally under his nose as he was reciting the Amidah!  

What I Can’t Stand About the Democrat Presidential Candidates

From RRW
An article from Rabbi Dov Fischer

Saturday 22 February 2020

Mussar: Hilchot Ona'at D'varim

 originally published on 03/24/12

Shulchan Aruch, Chelek Choshen Mishpat, Siman 228, Sif 4:

Some specific examples of hurting people with words [onaat devarim] [that are forbidden by the Torah]:

• Do NOT say [to a storekeeper]: How much [money] are you selling this item for? if you do not want to buy that item.

• Do NOT say to people who want to buy grain: Go to Mr. Ploni, if you know that Mr. Ploni has no [grain] to sell.

• Do NOT say to a person who repented from his sins [baal teshuvah]: Remember your previous [sinful] deeds.

• Do NOT say to a person who converted to Judaism: Remember the deeds of your ancestors.

• Do NOT speak to a person who suffers the way the friends of Iyov [Job] spoke* to him.

• ...Do NOT ask a question about a topic, if you know that the person you ask does not know that topic.

And all things that are similar to these.

* NOTE: Tractate Baba Metzia 58B, last thin line on page, teaches that it is wrong to harshly criticize a suffering person. by telling him that his suffering was caused by his sins. For example, the Biblical Book of Iyov [Job], chapter 4, verse 7.


Courtesy of:


Thursday 20 February 2020

Nechama Leibowitz (the early years)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                          Nehama Leibowitz: The Early Years
                I just came across a very interesting book: Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar.  The author, Yael Unterman, worked on this book for ten years and it spans 600 pages! It was published by Urim in 2009. It warrants many columns! Here I will limit myself to the story of her early years.
               As Unterman points out, Nehama Leibowitz preferred to be called “Nehama.” Using only her first name evokes her humility and warmth. That is how Unterman refers to her and how I will as well.
               Nehama hated publicity. She would say: “I’m not worth writing about- go learn Torah instead.”  But after her death, much has been written about her. There is a motto that people follow in these situations:  acharei mot kedoshim emor” (= after saintly people pass away, speak). So even those who kept silent during her life (pursuant to her request) were willing to speak her praise after her death!
               Nehama requested that there be no eulogy at her funeral and her request was honored. The author continues:  “Nevertheless, Nehama’s biography belongs not to her alone, but also to the Jewish people whom she loved so much, and to history, and it is under this premise that the book was written.” The author continues: “The only apology owed her is in writing this work in English, for she believed that the Hebrew language is the only proper medium for all Jewish life.”
              Nehama was born in Latvia in 1905.  She was born two years after her brother Yeshayahu. (On this famous individual, see below.)
              Her family was religious and broadly educated. The children spoke Hebrew with their father, and German or Yiddish with their mother. Her parents’ social circles included many non-Observant Jews. Her father created weekly Tanach quizzes for his children. Her mother died early on.
               Nehama did not go to the schools in Latvia.  She and her brother were taught by hired teachers.
               In 1919, due to the creation of the independent republic of Latvia, the family was forced to move to Berlin. Berlin of the 1920’s included many Jewish giants. For example, on the street, Nehama may have passed R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson, and R.  Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik.  One Habad Hasid insisted to her: “Everyone knows that you sat drinking coffee with the Rebbe and R. Soloveitchik in the caf├ęs in Berlin!” Nehama replied: “It could be that we sat at the same table for lunch, but if we did, I didn’t know it.”
             Another story (slightly contradictory to the above) is that Nehama was told of the brilliant young Jewish scholar, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik who sat in the library “behind the tallest stack of books.” With a description like that, she located him easily, but never introduced herself. (But in another version of this story, it was he who was told to look for her, but he could not locate her because she was hidden behind her tower of books!)
            Reportedly, her mother never allowed her into the kitchen! She was treated as the intellectual equal of her brother.
              She spent the years 1925-30 in the Universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, and Marburg, studying English and German philology and literature, and Bible studies.
               At the same time, she advanced her Jewish studies at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. This was the only institution where she did any formal learning of Jewish studies. The college’s doors were open to all, including women and non-Jews, and it was the closest thing to a yeshiva that a woman could attend at the time. Here, as nowhere else at the time, Nehama could interact on an equal footing with Jewish scholars, rabbis and rabbinical students. One of her classmates was Leo Strauss. Strauss taught Nehama philosophy, reading Plato with her in the original Greek, while she taught him Hebrew, studying Saadiah Gaon’s Emunot Ve-deot and other Hebrew works with him.
                This is the era when Nehama began to teach high school students. She used the Ivrit be-Ivrit method, so that Hebrew might be experienced as a living language. This technique was first used by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in 1883, but it was unheard of in German schools at that time.                      
                  She married her father’s brother Yedidyah Lipman Leibowitz in Berlin in 1930. (She did not have to change her name!) He was 31 years older than her! He died in 1970. Decades later she said to a friend about marrying her much older uncle: “This was the wisest decision I ever made, and I have been extremely happy my entire life!”  The only thing she regretted was never having children. (Of course, her thousands of students are her “children”!)
                   The couple left Germany at the end of 1930.  After they arrived in Israel, her first position was teaching at the Mizrachi Teachers Seminary of Jerusalem. She did this for over 20 years. From 1957, she taught Bible at Tel Aviv University.  After she came to Israel in 1930, she only left one time, when she went to meet her parents in Europe and accompany them to settle in Israel.
                   A future column will be about her weekly “gilyonot” (questions about the parsha) which she mailed out to thousands over the years and graded their responses!
               Regarding her brother Yeshayahu:  Wikipedia describes him as follows:  He was “an Israeli Orthodox Jewish public intellectual and polymath. He was professor of biochemistry, organic chemistry, and neurophysiology at the Hebrew University…, as well as a prolific writer on Jewish thought and western philosophy. He was known for his outspoken views on ethics, religion, and politics.”
              It is of interest that in the original Encyclopaedia Judaica (1972), he has his own entry with a photo, while Nehama’s entry is a very small one subsumed within his. (Unterman suggests that the original Encyclopaedia Judaica was guilty in general of neglecting women.) The updated Encyclopaedia Judaica (2006) grants Nehama her own entry.
               P.S. There is a story of two brothers, one a philosophy professor and the other a history professor. They used to argue which was more important, history or philosophy. Eventually, it was the Encyclopaedia Judaica that decided the issue. They both had entries, but only the history professor had his entry with a photo! See the entries for Irving and Jacob Agus! (I thank Richie Schiffmiller for sharing this story with me.)
Mitchell First can be reached at Like Nehama, he avoids the kitchen. He is hoping to get into a future edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. For more of his articles, see his website