Sunday 28 June 2020

Parshah: Hukkat, Great Snakes

 originally posted June 14, 2013

Given: Hashem asked Moshe to make a "S'raf"

Question: Why did Moshe change that and make a "n'chash n'choshet" instead?


«Why copper?  Why the play on words?  By making it out of NECHOSHES, copper, Moses was emphasizing that the snake on the pole was a NACHASH, a snake defending G-d's honor, rather than a SARAF, a fiery serpent defending the honor of Moses. ...»
CHUKAS (Numbers, 19:1-22:1) — "Tattle-Snakes & Copperheads" | Torah Talk
R' Seplowitz

Best Regards,

Thursday 25 June 2020

Rambam's Letter to the Scholars of Lunel- Book Review

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
             Book Review: Maimonides’ Grand Epistle to the Scholars of Lunel
       One of the most interesting chapters in the life of Maimonides in Egypt is his correspondence with the Sages of southern France. Why did they write to him? And why did Maimonides take the time from his busy schedule to respond to this community in a Christian land? A new book by Rabbi Charles Sheer, Maimonides’ Grand Epistle to the Scholars of Lunel: Ideology and Rhetoric (2019), focuses on one of Maimonides’ letters to these Sages. It sheds light on these questions and on many other questions regarding Maimonides’ correspondence with them.
        Sheer first traces the background to this correspondence. Maimonides completed his Mishneh Torah (=“MT”) around 1177. But it probably did not reach Southern France before 1193.
          In an undated letter, scholars from this region (e.g., Montpellier, Lunel and other cities in southern France) asked Maimonides for his opinion regarding the status of astrology in Judaism. They were perplexed by contradictory sources regarding its acceptability.
          They had not heard of his MT when they wrote their letter. (The MT had not yet reached southern France.) But they had seen his letter to Yemen (although they were misinformed about the community it was addressed to). They were impressed at the manner in which Maimonides’ letter had handled the several difficult situations that arose at that time, and this inspired them to submit their astrology question to him.
           Maimonides did not respond until 1194 or 1195, which was probably a few years later. He advised that thinking that the stars influence human behavior is stupidity. Of course, he makes clear that studying the motion of the stars and the like is a real science. Maimonides’ response is included in I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, pp. 463-473 (“Letter on Astrology”).
             At the end of this letter, he explains what moved him to respond: “Were it not for the fact that Rabbi Phinehas had sent a messenger who pressed [me until I was too] embarrassed [to resist], and who didn’t leave me until I wrote the letter, I would not have responded at this time because I do not have free time.” As Sheer explains, Rabbi Phinehas was a rabbi from southern France who had settled in Alexandria and became a judge. Sheer surmises that R. Phinehas had received an appeal from his former compatriots to intercede on their behalf with Maimonides of Cairo. (R. Phinehas could have quoted from the MT itself and responded on his own to his compatriots. But he chose not to. Maimonides discusses the prohibition on astrology in Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim.)
                 Sheer observes that Maimonides’ important correspondences with the Sages of southern France might never have occurred were it not for the presence of this “French agent” in Egypt!
              Maimonides also writes in the above letter: “It seems clear that the code which we composed…has not reached you….It seems to me that it will reach you before this responsum since it has already reached the island of Sicily…” (As we know from a later letter of Maimonides to the Sages of southern France, when a country received even one copy of his MT, Maimonides was happy.)
             When the scholars of southern France finally obtained the MT, they made an exhaustive study of it and found various places where they disagreed with Maimonides’ decisions. They composed 24 questions which they sent to him.
               It took three more letters and a few years for the exceptionally busy Maimonides to respond. But he eventually answered their 24 questions, and he prefaced his response with a separate letter. This separate letter is the main focus of Sheer’s book.
             This separate letter is intriguing because the first part of it was written in a poetic style, with many quotations and adaptations from Biblical verses. This was not the way that Maimonides typically wrote. In general, Maimonides did not approve of poetical writing. (Sheer devoted a section in his Appendix to Maimonides’ attitude towards poetry.)
              More substantive is the non-poetic section. (The non-poetic section is included in I. Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, pp. 39-41.)  Here are some excerpts:
              -  “When your letters and your questions reached me, I was truly overjoyed on account of them…I understood that my words had reached someone who understood their content…All you asked, you asked well…”
             - “I am now sending you a response… The reason why the responses were delayed for a few years was due to my anxiety over my illness and from a multitude of disturbances. I was ill for about a year and although I have now recovered, I am like one who is ill but not in danger. I remain in bed much of the day. The yoke of responsibility for the health care of the gentiles which is upon my shoulders has dissipated my strength. They do not leave me one free hour…”
               -“I am today not like I was in my youth. My strength has become weak…my speech is slow, my hands tremble…Please do not be offended that I arranged for someone else to transcribe my responses [to the questions]…”
               -“I declare…that before I was created in the womb the Torah selected me…[an allusion to Jer. 1:5]. She is… the wife of my youth [Prv. 5:18]…Nonetheless, ‘foreign women’ became her rival-wives…[an allusion to 1 Kings 11:1]…. Initially, they were taken only to be her [assistants]…However, her time…became diminished because my heart was divided in to many parts by so many branches of wisdom [=hokhmah].”
               -“How I labored –day and night- for some ten consecutive years, putting together this composition [=his MT]….Great men like you will understand what I have done since I brought together things that were scattered and dispersed…It is appropriate to search through my words and to check up after me…You scholars have done me a great favor, and so has anyone else who finds something [in error] and informs me..”
                  What Sheer finds most significant is that aside from his excuses of not responding due to illness, disturbances, and taking care of his patients, Maimonides was willing to state that “hokhmah” took up much of his time. This term referred to the study of philosophy, the sciences, and human knowledge. Maimonides explains that these studies were initially undertaken to advance the appreciation of Torah. But with the passing of time, these “foreign women” became co-wives and competitors for his affection. Ultimately, the love of his life, the study of Torah, had to compete with these branches of wisdom.  As Sheer writes, “Maimonides shared with these men his inner torment as he struggled to balance his ideological and scholarly passions…His vivid description of a heart ‘divided into many parts’ by so many fields of knowledge resonates loudly today to anyone so afflicted.”
         Sheer’s book makes a significant contribution to the study of Maimonides’ correspondence with the Sages of southern France. It is based on up to date research and the footnotes are terrific as well. It was published by Academic Studies Press.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar and can be reached at

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Korach: The Opposite of Love is not Hate

Guest Blogger:
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth 

The Opposite of Love is not Hate

The word Machloket (dispute) is often perceived as a negative concept. Korach's story in this week's Torah portion is a classic example of a negative dispute - a controversy full of intrigue and egotism. Yet the opposite of Machloket is not the avoidance of conflict. The Sages taught us that the opposite of a negative dispute is Machloket L’Shem Shamayim, a dispute for the sake of Heaven, such as the dispute between Hillel and Shammai.

According to the Sages, any positive dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will always endure. If such a Machloket is destined to endure, it means that it is essential and required in the world!

The root of the word ‘Machloket’ is ‘chelek’, a ‘part’, whereas the root of the word ‘peace’ is ‘Shalem’, ‘whole.’ Machloket arises because, owing to our very natures, we are divided by our differing opinions. Peace is achieved by building the full picture that is composed of all of the pieces. Since each of us is just a small part of the bigger picture, it is imperative that we contribute the shape, depth, weight and color of each of our unique pieces to the full puzzle.

Sometimes we feel that another ’piece of the puzzle‘ threatens us, and that is usually how a Machloket begins. However, along with the sense of threat and insecurity, it may actually help us to sharpen our minds and to understand more accurately the importance of our part in the puzzle.

Only by putting all the pieces together can we build the whole picture and achieve ’Shalom’”. That is how our nation was formed, with different tribes playing different roles in the story, as happened during our forty-year journey in the desert.

The opposite of love is not hate, but rather apathy, which can be more painful than hatred. The avoidance of conflict can sometimes be even more aggressive than a dispute which is not for the sake of Heaven. This is because avoidance conveys detachment, disconnection, indifference and apathy, while
Machloket is essential to establishing connection and closeness, even between people who disagree.

Shalom Bayit – making peace within families - is not meant to stop a disagreement, but rather to help each of the parties appreciate and respect their Chelek - their position - and the position of the other party, in order to build Shalom, peace, together. In fact, each one of us can serve as a mirror for the other, if we can manage any conflict with respect, compassion and empathy. Only by working through the Machloket can we achieve Shalom and see the whole (shalem) picture, and this is why a disagreement that is conducted respectfully, for the sake of Heaven, will always endure. 

So why can't we fix the rifts in our world? Sometimes it is because we do not know how to communicate. We tend to judge, blame and hurt one another, or use forcefulness and aggression. All these methods actually emanate from our insecurities. When we feel threatened, we fear that our ’part’ will be harmed, and we tend to escape and hide behind the veil of defensiveness. We attack instead of listening, and hurt others to protect our own ego and to cover-up for our weaknesses. Becoming judgmental is a psychological reaction that stems from the fear of exposing our flaws and weaknesses. As our Sages say: "Anyone who disqualifies others disqualifies them with his own flaws."

If we can pay attention to how we manage conflicts, along with truly listening respecting the other party;
If we can find the courage to replace our ego with love of the other;
If we can let go of our judgment and engage in compassion instead;
If we can convert our apathy into empathy; then we can conduct our disputes for the sake of Heaven, ensuring that every Machloket will lead to Shalom Bayit – fraternal peace - and hence endure forever, since it will enable an open-ended journey of personal and collective growth.

Rav Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra'anana is author of “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, published in May by Urim Publications.