Saturday 31 October 2020

Mussar: Life is Precious

 From RRW 

Wisdom from Frank Zappa who knew this 45 years ago!

"None of us have the promise of tomorrow, God forbid this is my last day on this beautiful earth, it won’t be spent listening to some news person telling me how rotten we are, how rotten life is, heck no, I’m going out and seeing how beautiful life is. As humans, our time on this planet is very limited...
Turn off, tune out and turn on your life. Peace"

~ Frank Zappa

Thursday 29 October 2020

Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro

 From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

(Once you read the article, the connection to Lech Lecha is obvious.)

                                     Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro

       We all know of him from his commentary on the Mishnah. But what about his biography?

       We would know very little of his life except that fortunately, in the years 1488-1490, he wrote three letters from Israel about his journey from Italy and his early impressions of Israel, and copies of these letters (not the originals) have survived. We also have a letter by a student of his in Jerusalem, composed in 1495.

        These letters were written in Hebrew, but CIS publishers published an English translation: Pathway to Jerusalem: The Travel Letters of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (1992).

          We do not know the year or decade of his birth.  We know practically nothing about those first decades of his life in Italy since he does not discuss them in these letters. He mentions that his last position was in Citta di Castello. Perhaps he was a rabbi in Bertinoro before that.

         From the first letter he wrote (to his father, in Elul 1488), we learn that he left Citta di Castello in 1485, and stayed temporarily in Naples, Salerno, Palermo, Messina, Rhodes, Alexandria, Cairo, Gaza, and Hebron. He finally reached Jerusalem on the 13th of Nissan in 1488.

         The first letter describes in detail the Jewish communities in the above places.  He had promised his father that he would describe the communities he saw along the way and fortunately, he kept his promise. His descriptions of these communities are of tremendous interest. I will discuss them next week.  This week I will limit myself to his comments about Jerusalem. I include only a very small selection.

            -There are only 70 Jewish families. They are very poor. The total number of families in Jerusalem is 4000. The city has no wall. [MF: This is before the Turkish conquest of the city in 1516.]

             -There are in addition many old and lonely widows, “seven women to a man.”

             -Earlier, there had earlier been 300 Jewish families. But the Sultan had appointed certain Jewish elders to collect taxes and the elders became corrupt. Any Jew of stature decided to leave. The elders  sold almost all the Torah scrolls to Christian merchants. More recently, the elders regret what they did and are trying to get people to return.

             -The Muslims come from very distant lands to bow down at the site of the Beit Hamikdash, which they regard with great awe.

              -Most people who come to Jerusalem from distant lands become ill because of the change of atmosphere and rapid changes of temperature.

               -The Jews in Moslem countries have been brought up for many generations to be more God-fearing than the Jews in Italy.

               -False witnesses are common among both the Christians and the Muslims. The Muslim courts do not cross-examine witnesses. The courts believe and immediately act on their testimony. (He adds that if such laws existed in Christian countries, people would swallow each other alive!)

              -The legal system allows Muslims to twist things. A Muslim in Jerusalem murdered his mother. He claimed he acted under the influence of alcohol. The judges decided that the Jews and Christians were responsible, because they were the only ones who made wine there. The Jews and Christians were fined and the Muslim went free.

            - At the beginning and the end of this letter, he writes how bad he feels that he left his father in his father’s old age. (Feeling guilty about leaving ones parents when making Aliyah is not just a modern problem!)  It has been suggested that he was a widower when he left for Israel.

           His second letter was written to his brother in 1489. Some selections:

            -“You asked me about the miracles that you have heard about that are supposed to occur at the site of the Beit Hamikdash and at the gravesites of the tsaddikim. What can I tell you? I myself did not see any such miracles.”

             -“I deliver a sermon to the community twice a month in the synagogue in Hebrew, which most of the people understand. Unfortunately, the people regard my speeches primarily as entertainment. They praise my sermons but they do not really change.”

              -“I am happy with my work here in Jerusalem and no one bothers me. We gather in the morning and evening to learn Halachah. Two Sephardi students learn with me regularly, and now two Ashkenazi rabbis have joined us.”

              -“The king had demanded that the Jews pay four hundred ducats a year, regardless of the number of Jews living here, causing each one to be at the other’s throat. But God has had mercy and influenced the king to charge a poll tax- that is, to tax each individual separately, and not the community as a whole. This is a great improvement which has made things better than they have been for fifty years. Many people who had left Jerusalem are now returning. Perhaps, with God’s help, the city will be rebuilt.”

            From his third letter in 1490 written in Hebron:

              -“I had gone to Hebron for an extended period. I ultimately came to enjoy living in Hebron more than Jerusalem because Hebron is populated by a small elite of Jews with excellent traits. They comprise about twenty families in all.”

            Regarding the letter from R. Ovadia’s student, it was written shortly after the student’s arrival in Jerusalem. This student had left Italy earlier that year in order to study with R. Ovadia. This letter first describes the dangerous trip in detail. Finally, the youth arrives in Jerusalem and meets R. Ovadia:  “The man is very great, ‘ve-al piv yishak kol ha-aretz’. No one argues with him. From the ends of the earth [Jews] stream to him and do exactly what he says. When he makes a decree, it is enforced as far away as Egypt and in all the [surrounding] lands. Even the Yishmaelim honor him and are in awe of him…. He is very humble and he knows how to deal with people in a pleasant way.…. About him, it is said: ‘ein zeh yelod ishah’.”

           The student also mentions that R. Ovadia helped him find a place to live, and to reduce a tax placed on him.

           He continues that Jerusalem has about 200 families, most of whom are reliant on charity. A certain elderly sage spoke daily after Shacharit and Maariv, but only for 15 minutes, so as not to impose on anyone. (R. Ovadiah would give beautiful speeches, but only spoke on the holidays.) Every day, after Shacharit and the sermon, the people sit in the bet midrash and learn Mishnah or Talmud for about 3 hours.

         The Encyclopaedia Judaica gives the year of R. Ovadia’s death as “before 1516.” But Pathway cites a passage from Chida (18th cent.) that gives the year as 1530. It also cites a letter from a rabbi who came to Jerusalem in 1516 that mentions that R. Ovadia was still conducting a yeshivah there at that time.

           According to the EJ entry, “other works and exchange of letters as well as poems and prayers remain in manuscript.” Pathway also mentions that there may be more letters that he wrote from Jerusalem that have never been published. (Mossad Harav Kook published a biography. But there is little  information there aside from what I have written here. The book  largely addresses his commentary on the Mishnah.)


Mitchell First can be reached at  When starting this topic, he thought he would be learning about Bertinoro. Instead, writing this article was an education in everything else!  Please visit his website at



Monday 26 October 2020

TORAH PATHS with Rabbi Michael Skobac

 It is a pleasure and an honour to inform everyone of a new Torah website from Rabbi Michael Skobac, noted Torah scholar and teacher -- and a long-time friend of Nishma. 


Rabbi Skobac, of course, is one of the foremost anti-missionaries in the world today, having spoken in numerous locales internationally in response to the global effort by various Christian entities to convert Jews. His knowledge and teachings are, however, not just limited to this subject. As experienced by many, his unique method of teaching Torah is of value to all.

Sign up for his free e-book -- A Guide to Torah Literature -- available on the site  and through this work and this site enjoy and experience the benefit of Rabbi Skobac's Torah.

Saturday 24 October 2020

Attacking ad hominem Attacks

Originally posted 9/7/07, 4:30 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
"I cannot STAND rabbi X. He always uses Ad Hominem atacks. How can I take him seriously!?
Dear Readers,
I hope you sense the irony and self-contradictory nature of the previous statement. Regardless of your reaction [or perhaps lack thereof!] Rabbi Hecht and I have both agreed to eschew Ad Hominem attacks. We feel this policy serves this blog better.

  1. We avoid personalizing attacks in order to focus upon the issue at hand
  2. Furthermore, many of us are potentially guilty of the behavior in question
  3. Finally, as Bruria has taught us: "Learn to HATE the sin and to LOVE the sinner."

I had a rebbe in yeshiva who would attack many of the Modern professors at Yeshiva University. His attacks were sharp, entertaining, and informative. The targets seemed clear to the entire class. Nevertheless - in order to remove any doubt about his intentions - I confronted my rebbe privately after Shiur.

RRW: So what is it with Professor X? Is he a kosher Jew or what?
My Rebbe [MR]: Well he keeps Shabbes, puts on Tefilin keeps Kosher, etc.

After some back and forth, I realized that MR would attack this professor all day long in his Shi'ur but not mean to personally assail the man. Later on, I would discover that perhaps he meant not to attack the professor per se, just his teachings. That he really did like the guy, but was eschewing his methodology alone!

Fast Forward Many years Later

I was reading Artrscroll's biography of R. Baruch Ber Lebowitz. [FWIW, he was acquainted with MR above]. In this book,  R. Baruch Ber is described as having lashed out at many secularists and Maskillim whom he felt were damaging Judaism during his era. Nevertheless, he refrained from naming names. Why? He was attacking their behavior not their persona.

Rav Schwab ZTL reputedly attacked a certain behavior. When confronted by a congregant re: the intended target of his article, he coyly responded: "If the shoe fits -wear it." Rav Schwab was out to make a point about something he opposed. He did not mean it to get personal, and certainly not personal in the PUBLIC domain.

As a personal Policy I have avoided politics from the pulpit. Why? I feel that it dilutes my position of spiritual leader to get involved with politics. I did make an exception when an obvious anti-Semite ran for City Council and I recommended that he be opposed for that very specific reason. As I see it [AISI] making only 1 exception in 16 year enhanced my "moral authority."

Similarly, when the shenanigans of a recent President of the USA who engaged in questionable moral conduct became all the rage, I described in very general terms what was wrong and why it should be condemned. I named no names and just referred to a political leader who was involved in misbehavior with an intern . Although it was quite obvious to whom I was referring, I avoided naming names.

I feel that personalizing the attack by naming names weakens the message. Frankly, I am also not sure if the aforementioned politician behaved significantly worse than many of his colleagues. I instead attacked his overall lack of morality, but did not name him. Furthermore - other than this misbehavior - I really had no personal animus for the guy, and there were probably other politicians that I liked even better who may have even done worse. So why start name calling?!

On the other hand, I cannot condone the behavior. To my mind, it was clearly reprehensible and called for a statement. I framed it more as a teaching rather than preaching, through pointing out a topical moral lesson in that week's Parsha. By presenting the Torah point of view first, and then following up with a tangential reference to the behavior, I feel that I got my point across without making it into a personal attack. Personal attacks carry with them an animus that I feel undermines the message.

Another Illustration:

Some prominent members of my former congregation were suspicious of a prospective convert. Without confronting any individual I taught a class on the Aggadita concerning Hillel and the three prospective Roman converts. I'm not sure if all of my targeted audience made the connection, nevertheless I felt I had disabused many of some highly erroneous notions about potential Geirei Tzedek. Had I resorted to personal attacks, I would have triggered a certain lose-lose situation.

BEH, I will follow up with some illustrations of Ad Hominem attacks that I consider  misguided and counterproductive!

Shana Tova!

Thursday 22 October 2020

Origin of Y-Sh-N (Sleep, Old) and Saba (grandfather)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                The Two Meanings of Yod-Shin-Nun:  Sleep and Old

        There are two Biblical roots with the letters ישׁן. One has the meaning “sleep.” The other has the meaning “old.” An issue had always been whether they were related.

        The traditional view had been that the two were related. But the exact nature of the relationship was debated. In a mainstream view, the original meaning of the root was “sleep” and “old” was just a later expansion.

           The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906) had suggested that the original meaning of “old” was “withered, flabby, like a lifeless plant with top hanging down, as if in sleep.” (This seems very farfetched!)   Another suggestion was that the basic meaning of the root was “be quiet.” This also could explain both meanings in some (unsatisfying) way.

        But then the language of Ugaritic was discovered in the early 20th century in archaeological finds on the western coast of Syria. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is closely related to Hebrew. It dates from the early Biblical period (and earlier).

         It turns out that our two ישׁן roots had different letters in Ugaritic. “Old” was Y-Th-N and “sleep” was Y-Sh-N. See, e.g.,  The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, pp. 447-48, and Edward Horowitz, How the Hebrew Language Grew, p. 107. (Everyone can learn tremendous amounts from this book by Horowitz.)

        To explain further, our present letter is the result of a merger of two different letters that were in the original 29 letters of Proto-Semitic (=the hypothesized original Semitic language). One of the original letters was pronounced “sh.”  The other was pronounced “th.” Eventually, both merged into in our 22 letter Hebrew alphabet (misleading all of us who have the practice of attempting to unite words with similar looking roots).

         That our Hebrew is the result of a merger of two different root letters explains why we do not have to stretch to find a relationship between other words as well such as: “shemen” and “shemonah,” “cheresh” (=deaf) and “charash”(=cut, plow), “shelach” (send) and “shulchan,” and “she’ar” (remainder) and “she’eir” (kin). In all of these pairs, the latter most likely had an original “th.” See Horowitz, pp. 106-07.  (Usually, it is Ugaritic that helps us determine the original Proto-Semitic letter.)

          We can also now explain why the Hebrew word for “three” is שׁלשׁ while its Aramaic counterpart is תלת.  Both Hebrew and Aramaic share the same 22 letter alphabet. The Proto-Semitic letter that was pronounced “th” usually became a “shin” in Hebrew, while it usually became a “tav” in Aramaic.  Most likely, this “th” letter was the first and third letter in the Proto-Semitic word for “three.”


         On the subject of ישׁן and its “advanced in years” meaning, perhaps now is a good time to talk about the words for grandfather and grandmother in modern Hebrew: סבּא and סבתא.

              If one looks through Tanach, surprisingly there is no word for either grandfather or grandmother.  (For example, at I Kings 15:10, אמו seems to mean “his grandmother.” See Radak and Soncino. See also Daat Mikra. At I Kings 15:11, אביו seems to mean “his grandfather.”)

               In the modern period, the words seem to have gone through some evolution.

              The 1943 official dictionary of kinship terms in Hebrew lists grandfather as סב (sav) and grandmother as   סבה   (savah).  But then it adds that “saba” and “sabta” are permitted as terms of affection, due to their similarity to the word “abba.”  A smaller line adds that “saba” and “savta” are permitted for general use as well (even when not involving affection).

                Edward Horowitz describes the origin of the word סבּא as follows: “It is a word created by the little children in Israel, following closely the word “abba.” The children were told to call this relative סב but it was simply much easier for them to link both these older loving male adults with these two similar sounding names: “abba” and “saba.”   See his How the Hebrew Language Grew, p. 100.

              The seventeen-volume Ben-Yehuda dictionary (begun by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1910, and continued after his death in 1922 by his wife, son and other scholars) does not include “sav,” “saba,” “savah” or “savta.” But one of the definitions of זקן mentioned was “grandfather.” 

             Of course   זקן could never take off as a word for “grandfather” because it would confuse people who would think it is a reference to advanced age and limited abilities.

             The word סב, suggested for “grandfather” by the 1943 official dictionary of kinship, is related to the Biblical word שׂיבה. (The Bible has שׂב  at Job 15:10. See also 1 Sam. 12:2.) This Biblical word means “old” and “gray hair” but never “grandfather.”

             In the Talmud, one can find סבא  (sava) as “grandfather.” See, e.g., Ketubot 72b, and Yevamot 38a and 40b.  (“Zaken” and “avi av” are also used in the Talmud.)  One can also find סבתא  (savta) as grandmother. See, e.g., Bava Batra 125b.

              Finally, the latest challenge for modern Hebrew is a word for great-grandparents. The 1943 official dictionary of kinship suggested שילש-אב  and שלשה-אם . But people today use רבּא-סבּא (saba raba) and רבּא-סבתא. (Both words could be spelled with ה at the end as well.) The more grammatically correct term for great-grandmother would be רבּתא-סבתא (savta-rabta), but this is rarely used today.

              My discussion of “saba” and “savta” has been based on the post on this topic at of 9/2/08.  The author, David Curwin of Efrat, writes that he really would like to know what the common Hebrew words for grandfather and grandmother were in the first half of the 20th century because he cannot tell from the sources he has seen. He awaits a digital compilaton of Hebrew literature from this period so computer searches can be performed!

           I would like to thank Steve Schaffer for getting me interested in the word “saba.”


Mitchell First can be reached at He has two grandchildren, the oldest is two. She is not (yet!) interested in these etymological discussions and merely calls him “Zeidie.”   His mother is over 90 but has endless energy and refers to her age as “three time 30.”




Saturday 17 October 2020

MUSSAR: no two are alike

originally posted Sept 8, 2018

From RRW   

"Just as we accept that our neighbor’s face does not resemble ours, so must we accept that our neighbor’s views do not resemble ours."

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

Thursday 15 October 2020

Friday night Shalom Aleichem Song

 From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First


                                          The “Shalom Aleichem” Prayer

       We all sing this song peacefully. Could anything be controversial about it? (This is aside from the mild disagreement that might occur over whether each stanza should be recited three times!) Let us analyze the history of this prayer.

         The idea for the prayer is based on the passage at Shab. 119b that states that two “malachei ha-sharet” escort a person home from the synagogue on Friday night.  If there is a lamp burning, a set table and a made bed, the good angel says: “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the evil angel is compelled to answer “Amen.” If the three above items are not prepared, then the evil angel says: “May it be this way next Shabbat,” and the good angel is compelled to answer “Amen.” 

       The author of the prayer felt it was appropriate to write a prayer greeting these two angels and seeking their blessing. The first stanza says “shalom” to these angels; the second says: “may your coming be in peace”; the third asks “bless me for peace,” and the fourth concludes: “may you depart in peace.”

       The prayer first appears in one of the early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat. There were many editions of this type of siddur. My research indicates that the prayer first appeared in an edition published in Prague sometime between the years 1615-29. (But the new RCA Siddur says it is found in an edition published in 1613.) Seder Tikunei Shabbat were siddurim that incorporated much kabbalistic material. (The meaning of “Tikunei” in kabbalistic thought is “spiritual rectification.”)

       The prayer’s author is unknown, but perhaps it was authored by a Kabbalist from Tzefat in the decades preceding. Kabbalists from Tzefat were the ones who authored the entire Kabbalat Shabbat service. (But there was already a custom among some Sefaradim to recite Psalm 92. See B.S. Jacobson, The Sabbath Service, pp. 7-8, citing a responsum of Rambam.)

        Many editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat state that they are based on the teachings of the ARI (R. Isaac Luria).   But with regard to ARI, R. Chaim Vital kept a record of his Kabbalat Shabbat service and there is no mention of “Shalom Aleichem” there. Perhaps it did not exist in his time.  ARI died in 1572.


       When you look at our text of “Shalom Aleichem,” the first stanza refers to “malachei ha-sharet” and the three subsequent ones refer to “malachei ha-shalom.” “Malachei ha-sharet” is the term found in the Talmud. The switch to “malachei ha-shalom” is very puzzling. The explanations I have seen are not satisfying. I think I can explain the switch. The second word in the second, third and fourth stanzas is “shalom.” To parallel this, the angels in these paragraphs were called “malachei ha-shalom.”  (The second word in the first stanza is “aleichem.”)

           In the third stanza, we ask for these angels to bless us. Many objected. For example, R. Chaim of Volozhin (d. 1821) wrote: “One must not address petitions to angels since they do not possess any power, even to the lightest [degree]. Whatever they do is by compulsion. If man is worthy, they are forced to bless him; and if not, they are forced, God forbid, to curse him.” R. Yakov Emden (d. 1776) also objected to asking for a blessing from angels. Of course, there are answers to these objections. (See, e.g., the answer of Prof. David Berger quoted in the new RCA Siddur.)

              In the last stanza, we ask the angels to leave: “Tzeitchem Le-Shalom.” This is objected to by many as well. For example, R. Emden writes: “It would be better for them to tarry a while and rejoice at the meal…”   R. Emden concludes that he was willing to recite the first stanza only.

             Of course, the angels are not really being asked to leave. The phrase can merely mean: “when you decide to leave, leave in peace.”

             But there is another possible solution. Some early editions have a slightly different text than what we have. The second stanza starts with בבואכם, and the fourth starts with  בצאתכם. These may be the original readings. If so, the first and second stanzas may merely reflect one long idea, and the third and fourth stanzas may merely reflect one long idea. When read in this manner, the question goes away.

             A note in a siddur published in 1880 states that if there has been a quarrel in the home, the last stanza should be omitted. The idea is that the angels remaining in the home will cause the quarrel to end.

               Chatam Sofer wrote that one should not recite “Shalom Aleichem,” as it was presumptuous of anyone to consider himself worthy of an angelic escort. But his student Maharam Shick wrote that his teacher did recite it, but recited it silently lest he give the impression that he considered himself worthy of this.

                The standard Sefaradi text of “Shalom Aleichem” has an added stanza, between the third and fourth.

                There is a prayer “Ribbon Kol Ha-Olamim” that typically follows “Shalom Aleichem” in our siddurim. It followed it in many of the early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat. The prayer has some of the same ideas as “Shalom Aleichem.” The new RCA siddur takes the position that this prayer and “Shalom Aleichem” were one unit, by the same author. I am not yet convinced. But if this is true, then one can use the ideas expressed in this prayer to shed light on our (too short) “Shalom Aleichem” prayer. There is also language in this prayer (“I have entered your house…”) that suggests that it was originally recited in the synagogue. If so, this would be the case with “Shalom Aleichem” as well.

            The new RCA Siddur also points out that there is a brief mention of greeting Friday night angels in a book of customs from thirteenth-century Italy, and it is recorded as the practice of the Tosafist R. Aharon of Regensburg. Thus “Shalom Aleichem” is not as great an innovation as is typically thought.


         Some early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat instruct to recite each of the “Shalom Aleichem” stanzas three times. In the context of Kiddush Levanah, ARI had explained that reciting the phrase “Shalom Aleichem” three times served to remove “kitrug” (=prosecution). See the Etz Yosef comm. in Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot. Most likely, from this practice in Kiddush Levanah, ARI’s followers extrapolated that it would be good to recite each of the stanzas in the “Shalom Aleichem” prayer three times as well. Rabbi Rothwachs had challenged our shul with this question on a Friday night in 2002. I am glad that I could finally, if belatedly, provide the answer!  (The recital of the phrase three times in Kiddush Levanah is mentioned in Soferim 10:2 without explanation.)                                                      


           The early editions of Seder Tikunei Shabbat also typically include the recital of Eshet Chayil on Friday night. The recitation of this section (Prov. 31: 10-31) was probably introduced by Kabbalists from Tzefat who understood the woman being referred to as the Shechinah.

             If this prayer was introduced by Kabbalists from Tzefat, this suggests that the neighboring prayers “Shalom Aleichem” and “Ribbon Kol Ha-Olamim” were introduced by them as well.                                                                                                  


             I would like to acknowledge the assistance of R. Arie Folger and Efraim Palvanov.


Mitchell First can be reached at He is an attorney and Jewish history scholar, has authored three books and many articles, and is a regular columnist for this important paper. He feels worthy of angelic escort.