Sunday 27 September 2020

Se'udah Hamafseket

From RRW
 The final meals before the fasts of Tisha B'AV and Yom Kippurt

  1. The most obvious parallel is that both fasts last for a full day - about 25 hours - as opposed to other fasts which last from early morning until night.
  2. Both Final Meals traditionally follow the Minchah Service.
  3. Both Final Meals have several customs and rituals unique to these meals.
What makes these meals so special?
Nearly every holiday has a special mealtime ritual. The most obvious is the Passover Seder. On the New Year, we eat special symbolic foods to start the year off right. At Sukkos we eat in the Sukkah. On Shavuos, we have the custom of eating dairy meals.

We cannot possibly engineer a meal symbolizing either Yom Kippur or Tisha b'Av. The problem is obvious. They are both FULL DAY fast days. 

That is where the final meal comes in. The reason we eat it after Minchah is to connect as closely as possible to the upcoming fast day. This explains, perhaps, why we specifically recite the confession at Minchah before  the meal on Yom Kippur eve.

This final meal is somewhat festive since Yom Kippur is, after all, a Yom Tov. We eat Challah, some have honey and we eat meat - although it is wise to eat bland and easily digested foods to prepare for the fast.

On the other hand, Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning. Mourners coming back from the burial normally DO have a special Mourner's Meal. Since we cannot eat on Tisha b’Av, this Mourners Meal takes place before the Fast.

Therefore, these final festive meals function as substitutes for the meals that should have been consumed on the days themselves, but could not be eaten due to the fasts.

The Talmud teaches us that whoever eats on Yom Kippur Eve for the sake of the Yom Kippur Fast Day is considered to have fasted Both Days.

Friday 25 September 2020

The Goat to Azazel

 From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                                    The Goat to Azazel

        At Leviticus chapter 16, there is a strange ritual that takes place on Yom Kippur. The high priest takes two goats. After a lottery, the one designated for Hashem is sacrificed as a חטאת. On the other one, the high priest puts both hands on its head and confesses the sins of the entire nation. He then sends it לעזאזל via an appointed man who takes it to the “midbar.” The goat ends up taking all those sins to an “eretz gezeirah” (=a land that is cut off). 

          In the Torah, we are told four times that the goat is sent off. There is nothing at all about it being killed. But in the Mishnah (Yoma, sixth chap.), the end of the procedure is that the goat is pushed off a mountain cliff to a certain death.

          The widespread explanation for the different endings is that in Biblical times, it was possible to send the goat to an area where it could not wander back. But in later times, this was no longer possible, so the animal had to be killed. See, e.g., Pentateuch of R. Hertz, p.  483.

         The ending of the procedure in Mishnaic times is interesting because the Torah seemed to go out of its way to imply that the goat was not going to be killed. (Perhaps there was a ritual in some other culture at the time of the Torah which killed the animal to whom the culture’s sins were transferred. The Torah was perhaps declaring that its ritual was different. This suggestion is made by I. Sassoon, in his remarkable work Destination Torah, p. 169.)   

         (The Mishnah does recognize that the official ritual was over once the goat reached the “midbar.” See Mishnah Yoma 6:8.)

          (There is a statement in Sifra Acharei Mot 2:6 that derives from verse 16:10 that the goat needs to be killed.  It is paraphrased at Rashi on this verse. But the statement in the Sifra is most likely merely a homiletical justification for what had become the accepted practice.)                                                   

         As to the purpose of this “escapegoat” ritual, we will discuss this more below. (This ritual is the origin of our word “scapegoat.”)


       What about the word עזאזל? At 16:8, we are told that Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one goat “to Hashem” and the other לעזאזל.  Based on this verse, it seems that Azazel is a demon or spirit. Based on the other verses, if it is a demon or spirit, it would seem that it resides in the desert.  This is the view of many rabbinic figures and scholars, and I agree. (The word עזאזל only appears in Tanach in this chapter).

       If עזאזל  is the name of the demon/spirit of the desert, it is not that important to figure out its etymology.   But it has been suggested that it originated as עזז + אל, “strong god.”  See, e.g., H. Tawil,  ZAW 92 (1980), and Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, p. 128.


       For those who reject the demon/spirit approach (and there are many), it is important to give the word a meaning. Here are some approaches.

                -    עזאזל  is a combination of  עז  plus  אזל:   “the goat went.”  This is the view of Radak.  Many preceded him with this view.

                     -There is a root in Arabic עזל that means “remove.” A reduplicative form of this root would be עזלזל. The reduplicative emphasizes, so the meaning is: “entire removal.” Our word derived from this. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, and Rabbi Hertz. (But explaining Biblical words with words from Arabic, where are sources are only from the 7th century C.E., is not so convincing.)

                    -The root is עזז, with the meaning “strong.” The word describes the hard (=rocky) mountaintop from where the goat was pushed. The aleph and lamed are just added letters that do not effect the meaning. See Daat Mikra. (Other examples of lameds added include: כרמל and ערפל.)   But this approach is just an attempt to give the word an etymology consistent with the practice as described in the Mishnah where the goat is led to a mountaintop. In Lev. chapter 16, “midbar” and “eretz gezeirah” are not mountain-related words.

             Moreover, the key issue for all the alternative interpretations is whether we can fit them into 16:8: “goral echad la-Shem ve-goral echad la-Azazel.” The first certainly does not work.

            Yoma 67b has two interpretive statements:  וקשה  עז  and  שבהרים קשה. (See also Rashi on Lev. 16:8.)   It is unclear whether these statements are based on עז only, or on אל as well, which also means “strong.” But these interpretations of the Talmud seem to be proposed only to give the word an etymology consistent with the mountaintop practice described in the Mishnah.

            Most creative is that of Rav S. R. Hirsch:  He views the meaning of the word as: firmness has disappeared (עז + אזל), and that Azazel represents a “sinking into the power of sensuality, in contrast to attachment to God [and] obeying His laws of morality.” See also his comm. to 17:7.


           If Azazel was a demon/spirit of the desert, what was the purpose of the original ritual? Was the goat meant as a gift for Azazel? Why would Azazel be given a gift laden with sin? Does the gift reflect homage to Azazel? Or perhaps it reflects a complete rejection of Azazel?

            Nachmanides suggests a compromise. The sin-laden goat is not a rejection of Azazel, but neither is it homage to him. Rather, we are following God’s instructions to send sins to the Sar who rules these matters and was their source.

            A very interesting verse is Lev. 17:7. Here we are told that the Israelites are no longer to sacrifice to “seirim.” (But see II Chr. 11:15 mentioning such worship in the time of Rechobam.)  R. Hertz writes that the worship of the goat prevailed in lower Egypt at the time the Israelites were there.   It is at least possible to suggest that the sending off of the goat to Azazel (without any sacrifice) was a lesser form of worship, as part of a weaning process from old rituals. But again the goat is a sin-laden one, so it would be an unusual form of worship and homage.

          Rambam (Moreh 3, 46) writes that the sin-removal is only symbolic. But it serves to encourage people to repent because it impresses upon them the idea that their sins have been removed as far as possible.  (The idea that God can cast away all our sins to the depths of the sea is mentioned at Michah 7:19.)

          Most unusual is Ibn Ezra who writes that he will give a partial explanation of the ritual to one who is age 33!


          Many have observed that the ritual of sending sins to a distant place is similar to a ritual involving the cleansing of the metzora at Lev. 14. One bird was slaughtered and the blood was sprinkled on the metzora. The other bird was sent off “al pnei ha-sadeh.”

         For parallel goat rituals among Hittites and Akkadians, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 3:1001. For more ancient rituals involving elimination through the use of physical substitutes, see Dictionary of Deities and Demons, p. 129.  For much more on our entire topic, see Rabbi Nachshoni.


Mitchell First can be reached at Rather than killing insects that invade his home, his family typically traps them and sends them back outdoors. He hopes this is not interpreted as paying homage to the outdoors.

Monday 21 September 2020

History of Acco

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                      The History of the City of Acco
        Someone in our family in Israel was in Acco recently. This led my wife Sharon to suggest to me that I write about Acco. Acco was always a big blank in my mind, so I thought it would be a good idea. It is only mentioned one time in Tanach so I thought the topic would be easy. But was I wrong! It turns out that Acco is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the earth! Also, due to its excellent anchorage area for ships, it has been constantly fought over by armies of the world. To write the history of Acco is to write the history of the Mideast from 2000 BCE and forward!  (Acco is like Forest Gump. It constantly appears in important moments!)
         Acco is at the northern end of the Bay of Haifa, 14 miles north of Haifa. In Biblical times, it furnished the best anchorage for ships of all the harbors in the region. (The other ancient harbors in the region were Joffa, Dor, and Ashkelon.)  
          In its one occurrence in Tanach (Judges 1:31), we are told that the tribe of Asher was not able to drive out the inhabitants of עכו and Tzidon and a few other cities. 
        But what about prior to Tanach?  About 1 mile east of the modern city of Acco, there is archaeological evidence of a site from around 3000 B.C.E. This seems to have been a farming community that perhaps endured for a few centuries before it was abandoned. But Acco was resettled during the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BCE) and has been continuously inhabited since then.
          It is first mentioned (as “Akka”) in Egyptian Execration texts from 1800 B.C.E. These are texts that list enemies of Egypt. A symbolic damaging ritual would be performed on the writing with the intent to cause harm to the enemy.  Acco is mentioned in writings from Ugarit as well.
          Thereafter, it appears as one of the cities conquered by the Egyptian king Thutmose III in the mid-15th century B.C.E.
           It appears thereafter (as “Acca”) in the Tell el-Amarna letters (14th century BCE; on these letters, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 15:933). In one of these letters, its governor wrote to his suzerain in Egypt professing loyalty. But Egyptian rule over Acco was lost later in this century. It was regained under Seti I and his son Rameses II, to be again lost in the 12th century BCE.
          Although the Tanach states that the Israelites could not conquer the city in the period of the Judges, there is a passage in Josephus (1st century C.E.) that mentions Acco being ruled in a later period by one of Solomon’s governors.
          Yohanan Aharoni, a scholar of the geography of ancient Israel, wrote that Acco was under Israelite control in David’s reign (citing 2 Sam. 24:7, which does not mention Acco). But he notes that 1 Kings 9:11 states that Solomon gave twenty cities in the Galilee to King Hyram of Tyre, and he  believes that Acco was one of them. See his The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, pp. 17-18. (But 1 Kings 9:12, in a very odd passage, reports that Hyram did not like this gift! This seriously undermines Aharoni’s suggestion. Surely Hyram would have been happy to receive the port city of Acco.)
            Around 725 BCE, Acco joined Sidon and Tyre in a revolt against the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser V. Later, it submitted to Sancheriv but it revolted against Ashurbanipal. He took revenge on the city with a massacre in about 650 BCE.
             Persian rule in Eretz Yisrael began in the 6th century BCE. Ancient historians record that Cambyses (son of Cyrus) attacked Egypt after amassing his army on the plains near the city of Acco. (In 2018, archaeologists unearthed remains of what might have been this site.) Cambyses was the first Persian king to conquer Egypt.
            Alexander the Great conquered ancient Israel from the Persians. After his death, his generals divided his empire among themselves. At first, Acco came under the jurisdiction of the Egyptian Ptolemies. Ptolemy II renamed the city “Ptolemais” in the 260s BCE. The city was mainly known by this name until the Arab conquest in the early 7th century C.E. This is how Josephus, I and II Maccabees, and Greek and Roman writers refer to it. (The Talmud refers to our city as תלבוש. See, e.g., Sotah 34b and Yoma 10a. The Wikipedia entry does not understand why. But the answer is easily seen. This is a rough equivalent of “Ptolemais.” B/M switches are common.)
          Antiochus III conquered the city for the Syrian Seleucids around 219 BCE, taking it from the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty. His son, the one who persecuted the Jews, founded a Greek colony in the city. It was called “Antioch in Ptolemais.”
         (Forgive me for now skipping the Roman and Byzantine periods.)
          The Arabs conquered the city in the early 7th century C.E. But in 1104, it was captured by the Crusaders from the Arabs following the First Crusade. It remained in their hands until 1187 when it was taken from them by Saladin.
          But a few years later, in 1191, the Christians were able to recapture it, with the forces of the Third Crusade led by King Richard I of England (the Lion Hearted) and King Philip II of France. (This was at a cost of 100,000 men.)
          After the victory, the city was given over to a certain order of Knights (“the Order of Saint John”) by whom it was held for 100 years and it was given the name “Saint Jean d’Acre.”  (“Acre” seems to be the French way of writing Acco.)
        In 1291 the city was conquered by the Mamluks, who massacred most of its Christian and Jewish inhabitants. This was the last city that the Crusaders had held in Eretz Yisrael.
          Let us talk now about the original name of the city. The meaning of the name is uncertain, but legends have arisen about it. A legend in Hebrew is that, when the ocean was created, it expanded until Acco and then stopped: כה עד (=until here), giving the city its name. A Greek legend is based on the Greek word akē that means “healing.” Their legend is that Hercules found curative herbs at the site.
     Today Acco’s old city is a UNESCO-recognized heritage site.        
      As to Acco’s connections to Maimonides and Nachmanides, and to the Aliyah of Rabbis from Europe in the 13th century, and its connection to R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (18th century), and Napoleon’s failure to defeat the Ottomans there in 1799, and the battles in the 1948 War of Independence, all of this will have to wait for another article. (Also, the explanation of why it is the holiest city to the Bahai, a religion that commenced in the 19th century.)
       P.S. The reason my relative was in Acco recently? Covid-19. Israel has designated it as an area for Covid-19 quarantines! This is consistent with my original point: Acco is like Forest Gump. It constantly appears in major events in our history!
Mitchell First can be reached at  Last week, I wrote about what last name I would adopt if I made Aliyah. I suggested “Rishon-First.” But Judy Heicklen came up with a much better suggestion: “Rishon-LeTziyon”!

Thursday 17 September 2020

Some Interesting High Holiday Words

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                          Some Interesting High Holiday Words
        Many interesting words come up in the context of the High Holidays. (Many of the paytannim enjoyed using rare words!) I will discuss a few of them.
      דפי: Dibarnu dofi. This word appears only one time in Tanach, at Psalms 50:20: “You sit and speak about your brother; regarding the son of your mother you give דפי.”  From the context, it seems to be a type of slander. But what is its root and what exactly does it mean? Some relate it to the root  גדף  (blaspheme, defame, scorn). But why would the gimmel drop? Some relate it to the root הדף (push). The meaning would be “words that push someone away.” Some relate it to the word  דבה, which means “slander” (see Num. 14:36). (The origin of this word is itself an interesting issue!)
      Whatever its root, we do see from its use in Aramaic in the Talmud that דפי  means some type of defect.  (See, e.g., Pes. 60b, and Jastrow, p. 287). An important Biblical etymology work (The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) defines the Biblical word דפי  as “blemish, fault.”
       סלד: This root appears many times in the high holiday liturgy. For example, we have the phrase: “viysaledu ve-chilah panekha.” This is translated in The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Rosh Ha-Shanah: “in your presence they will pray with trepidation.”  But is this translation correct?
      The root סלד  appears only one time in Tanach, at Job 6:10. The Targum translates it with a word derived from the Aramaic root  בעי, which means “request, pray.” Based on this, the word is used by the paytannim throughout the liturgy as if it is a synonym for “pray.” But we know the root  סלד from the Mishnah and the Talmud. It is found in the expression “yad soledet bo.” Most likely, it means something like “jump up,” both in this expression (the hand jumps up from the heat) and at Job. 6:10. (Some suggest a relation between סלד and סלל=“raise.” P.S. The word           סלה was likely an instruction to the singers or musicians to raise their voices or the music level and likely derives from סלל. See Daat Mikra to Tehillim 3:3, note 3.)
          כפר: Rashi (comm. Gen. 32:21) understands this root as having a fundamental meaning of “wiping away and removing.” In contrast, S. D. Luzzatto (commenting on the same verse) understands this word as having a fundamental meaning of “covering.” This same debate exists among modern scholars. A leading scholarly article on this topic concludes that the root is used in both ways in Tanach and that the only real issue is whether these different meanings of the root כפר are related and come from a common source. (This issue, he believes, can never be resolved.)
            Of course, whether our sins are “wiped away and removed” or are merely “covered” is a major difference theologically.

            On a related note, I would like to add that the English word “atonement,” however we understand it now, has an interesting origin. It meant to be “at one” with God. The implication was to be reconciled with God, and united with Him and at peace. See W. Funk, Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, p. 268.
            תעתענו:  This is the last word in the Ashamnu prayer. Words with the four letters תעתע  appear four times in Tanach. The most famous is the statement of Jacob at Genesis 27:12: “ve-hayiti be-einav ke-metate’a.” From the four instances, we see that the root of the word is either תעע  or תעה, and that the meaning is either “deceive” or “mock.” (These roots are probably related.) Accordingly, תעתענו  means “we have mocked” or “we have deceived.”
              Yet The Complete ArtScroll  Machzor: Yom Kippur (1986) translated it: “You have led us go astray.” Why would they do this?  The explanation is that the sin specified before this one in the Ashamnu prayer is תעינו=“we have strayed.” The proximity of the  תעינוand  תעתענו sins in this prayer seems to have led ArtScroll astray (!) into interpreting  תעתענו in light of תעינו.
             (Admittedly, the truth is a bit more complex. The explanation that ArtScroll offered came from an earlier source, Etz Yosef. See this commentary in Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot, p. 1117. It was the second explanation offered there. In the first explanation, it was implied that the word meant “we have mocked.” But ArtScroll chose to present the second explanation.)

              Fortunately, years later, in their interlinear edition, ArtScroll corrected their translation and translated the word as: “we have scoffed.”
             I will now conclude with my favorite High Holiday word: 
             פשׁפשׁ:  The Rama writes (Orach Chayyim 603) that during the ten days of repentance “yesh le-khol adam le-chapes u-le-fashpesh be-maasav.” We all know that those last two words mean “examine his deeds.” But where exactly did this root פשׁפשׁ  come from?
              It turns out that פשׁפשׁ  is the word for bedbug! It is found in Mishnah Terumot 8:2 and in both Talmuds. See M. Jastrow, p. 1248 (פשׁפשׁ).
              In his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (p. 535), Ernest Klein writes that the verb פשׁפשׁ  is usually connected with the word  משׁמשׁ  (touch, feel, examine, search), from the root  משש. But he concludes that it is more probable that the verb פשׁפשׁ  comes from the noun for “bedbug,” and that the original meaning of the verb was “he searched for bedbugs.” From this, arose the meaning “he searched in general.” Whoever would have imagined!  (Beth Aaron member Menachem Shapiro pointed out me that we have an analogous case of meaning expansion in English. The word “nitpicking” has expanded from its original meaning of picking and removing “nits”!)

               I also have to point out that the term “le-fashpesh be-maasav” did not originate in the High Holiday context. The Talmud, Berakhot 5a, uses the term as the recommended course for someone who sees that troubles have come upon him. See similarly Tosefta Negaim, chapter 6. Nevertheless, since the Rama and his predecessors the Meiri and the Maharil have all used the term in the context of the High Holidays, there is justification for my including this term in this article.
In preparation for the high holidays, Mitchell First searches the machzor for interesting words.  He can be reached at For more of his articles, please visit his website