Pesah Matters – Meqori Perspectives – Part I: Definition of Hamess

[Note: The following is, as is everything on this site, for information purposes only. The decision to act on any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

As I said in the introductory post, the goal of this series is not to deal with the halakhoth in depth, but to briefly address certain myths and misunderstandings regarding the laws of Pesah in an effort to help people change their Pesah experience. As such, the following is brief, but the information contained in it is enough to re-frame the common [mid]conceptions of hamess.

Definition of Hamess

I decided to begin with this topic because many mistaken ideas and myths have cropped up about what hamess actually is and where it comes from. The definition, as related by the halakhah, is surprisingly simple:


אין אסור משום חמץ בפסח אלא חמשת מיני הדגן בלבד והם שני מיני החיטים שהן החיטה והכוסמת ושלושת מיני השעורים שהן השעורה ושיבולת שועל והשיפון


“There is no prohibition of hamess on Pesah except in regard to the five species of grain alone, and they are: two species of wheat, which are wheat and wild wheat, and three species of barley, which are six-rowed barley, two-rowed barley, and wild barley.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:1a)

And, in our modern era when so many hybrids of wheat and barley have been created (to the point that the original “heirloom” varieties are all but lost), it is good to simply say that the prohibition of involves any species of wheat or barley. But does this mean that if someone keeps dry wheat berries or barley corns in bulk that they must get rid of them on Pesah? No. It is only when they are either soaked in water or ground into flour and kneaded with water do they become hamess.


ואם נתערב בהן מים כל שהוא הרי אלו מחמיצין


“…And if any amount of water is mixed with [their flour – i.e. of the five grains listed above], behold they become hamess.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:2)

In order to avoid the prohibition of hamess with regard to these grains, it is absolutely forbidden to make any kind of noodle or dumpling on Pesah, to soak grains in water until they crack open (the Rambam mentions that it has become the general practice not to do so for any length of time, even if they have not cracked open), chew whole kernels, to put flour as an ingredient into anything not baked into massoth, or to knead a large amount of dough at one time (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5 – read entire chapter).

Essentially, anything with wheat or barley that is not baked carefully into massoth is forbidden – this is hamess, nothing else. This includes all derivatives, liquid or solid, from such a mixture, e.g. beer, kutah, some types of vinegar, brewers’ yeasts, etc.

Qitniyoth and “Levels” of Hamess

The issue of qitniyoth has become one of contention among poseqim and religious Jews in the last decade or so, but has been a source of dispute ever since the practice was introduced in France during the Middle Ages. Much has been written on this subject, so I will not write about it extensively here. However, the Rambam succinctly rules on the subject and, as he usually does, leaves no doubt as to how qitniyoth are viewed halakhically on Pesah.


אבל הקטנייות כגון אורז ודוחן ופולים ועדשים וכיוצא בהן אין בהן משום חמץ; אלא אפילו לש קמח אורז וכיוצא בו ברותחין וכיסהו בבגדים עד שנתפח כמו בצק שהחמיץ הרי זה מותר באכילה שאין זה חימוץ אלא סירחון


“But qitniyoth, such as rice, millet, beans, lentils, and other such species like them – there is no prohibition of hamess with regard to them at all. Rather, even if one were to knead rice flour, or any other kind of qitniyoth flour, with hot water, cover it with a cloth until it rises like a dough that has become hamess – behold this is permitted to be eaten on Pesah since it is not hamess, but is rather decay (sirahon).” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 5:1b)

The halakhah is very clear – there is absolutely no prohibition of hamess with regard to qitniyoth. The overwhelming amount of evidence that this practice was based on misconceptions about the nature of hamess is almost incontrovertible, and it was also likely due to Karaite influences whose definition of “hamess” included anything fermented, such as yogurts, cheeses, etc.

Yeast – of the variety NOT derived from flour and water mixtures – is also not hamess and may be used on Pesah. In fact, there are Sefaradim that use baking soda and yeast with rice flour to make bread, rolls, or cookies during Pesah.

There is no such thing as a “secondary form” or “rabbinic level” of hamess – it is either hamess or it isn’t.

Conclusion: Beware of the Bubbe-Meisios

To conclude, I would like to relate a Hasidic story that I – almost without fail – hear every year at Pesah from either a Haredi figure, publication, or in the mouth of some poor shmoe who has been unwittingly taken in by their nonsense.

The story is told about a certain chasid that brought a gift of large, prize-winning sized carrots to the Belzer Rebbe on the morning of `Erev Pesah to be used for karpas during the seder. The chasid returned home, happy with himself that he had given the rebbe such a gift. Upon returning home, his gardener makes mention to him that the secret to such large, beautiful carrots is watering them with beer. A sense of horror overtakes the chasid because he thinks that he has just gifted chametz to his rebbe, and for use the seder no less. He then races back to the home of the Belzer Rebbe to inform him that the carrots are chametz and should not be used. Upon his arrival, the rebbe informs him that the carrots were already burned with the rest of the chametz that morning because the rebbe knew that since it was not the “minig” to use carrots for karpas, he perceived that something must be wrong and decided to destroy them. At this point, the one telling the story expects those listening to be struck with awe at the piety of chassidus and the mystical insight of the Belzer Rebbe.

What a crock!  There are so many things wrong with this story, it is difficult to know where to begin. Carrots, or anything else, watered with beer (or any other type of hamess) do not become hamess! Vegetables are regularly fertilized with animal fecal matter and they are not thereby considered tamey as is fecal matter! The whole idea that the carrots were hamess is patently ridiculous. And carrots are perfectly fine for use at karpas during the seder – they are a vegetable which has a berakhah of Borei feri ha-adhamah. And the rebbe has an excuse to rudely destroy a perfectly kosher gift of food because he supposedly felt a “disturbance in the force”? The prohibition of bal tash’hith doesn’t apply to Jedis I guess. The entire story is ludicrous and contrary to all mesorah and halakhah found in Hazal.

This, as well as many other supposedly “inspiring” Hasidic stories, only serve to show how false and empty the “piety” of Hasidism really is. In future posts, I will address other Pesah inventions of Hasidism, such as the entirely baseless practice of “gebrokts.” Until then, however, beware of bubbe-meisios and settle yourself in the halakhic directives of Hazal and their faithful expositors.

More to come.

Kol tuv,


“Oh, Crap! Pesach is Coming.”

Let’s be honest, the hearts of many Jews – especially those of women – sink with the approach of Pesah on the calendar. The cleaning, the seders, the menu-planning, the expensive food, the kashering, the cleaning – did I mention the cleaning? Instead of welcoming it with excitement and joy as “Zeman Heruthenu – The Time of Our Freedom,” many – because of the intense amount of work, the obsessive definition(s) of hamess, and the ever-growing mountain of humroth – see it on the horizon and whisper to themselves, “Oh, crap! Pesach is coming.” What was once a time of joy has now largely become a time of drudgery. This is why spending the holiday in a Florida hotel somewhere is so appealing.

Some who are reading this may find my title a bit abrupt and possibly a little offensive, but if we are honest we know that it matches the feelings of many men and women regarding this time of year. So, what happened? How did the Jewish people get here? The answer is at once simple and complex; simple, in that all areas of frustration share a common root, and complex, in that the answer contains many parts that developed over more than a thousand years of Jewish history.

Several years ago, after hearing from my wife and many other women (and men, but for different reasons) about their general displeasure with Pesah, I made it my business to change Pesah in our home forever. Now, my wife loves Pesah and actually looks forward to it. This was made possible by meqoriyuth – an honest assessment of the sources. It is my hope that this change can take place in other homes as well.

Over the next month, I would like to address some of these frustrations and re-evaluate many areas of the halakhoth of Pesah in light of the Rambam and other sources. This series will not be exhaustive by any means, as such as undertaking would be incredibly difficult within the span of a month, but it will touch on the main areas of the issue in a practical way in an attempt to revise the common view of Pesah, hamess, the sedher, etc.

More later,

Kol tuv,


My Recent Discussion with a Chabadnik

Currently, my family and I belong to a really warm and exceedingly friendly “Modern Orthodox” shul. It was originally a small, traditional community synagogue that broke away from the local Conservative place two decades ago and many of the families who founded it can still attend. Occasionally, we have “visitors” from the local Chabad-Lubavitch outpost, whose missionary efforts are in full swing among our membership. These subverters attend when they need to escort someone over to their home whom they have invited for a meal. They also show up to shul functions, working the crowd as if they are the hosts, even though they have opened their own meeting hall right up the road. It is well-known that their entire presence in our shul is for the purpose of a long-sighted coup d’état – through erosion, not force – and it would be comical if it weren’t so sad.

While I normally do my best to ignore them, there are times when I can no longer take their suffusive know-it-all comments and I engage them. I have called-out several Chabadniks who have quoted passages from the “Rambam” that do not exist, asking them to open the Mishneh Torah and “prove it,” and I have had to break it to them that their Torah scrolls are not “the most kosher” but are actually pasul, etc.  A few nights ago after `Arviyth I decided to educate one of them about the heretical nature of his beliefs about God, good and evil, and creation. As I later told the community rabbi, “Someone has to keep them honest. Plus, I tire of their continually confident ignorance about Judaism.”

Most people only see the externals of dress, apparent piety, and the ease of participation in Jewish rituals that Lubavitchers offer. Underneath, however, lies an entangling web of heresy and `avodhah zarah. The theology of Hasidism in general – and of Chabad-Lubavitch in particular – stands in complete opposition to Judaism in its most basic definition of monotheism. I cannot tell you how many times that I, after expressing concern over their core beliefs, am told, “But they do so much good work! And they are non-judgmental and accepting. Many of the Jews who go to their functions would never even observe Shabbos if it wasn’t for them. At least it’s something.” Yet I am completely sure that if these same Jews were going to functions sponsored by Jews for Jesus, none of these same individuals would make reference to “all the good work” that Jews for Jesus does in an effort to excuse their religious doctrines – even if they were to, for some reason, hold them on Shabbath. Instead, their hospitality would be seen as predatory and the greatest fear of these same people would be the possible conversion of these irreligious Jews to another religion altogether. All “the good work” they do would be viewed as drawing these poor Jews into a religious trap.

Before I relate the contents of the discussion I had with this “rabbi,” I want to emphasize a point of central importance. When the majority of the world was not monotheistic, it was incumbent upon religious monotheists, such as Muslims and Jews, to philosophically explain what they meant by the “unity” and “incorporeality” of the One God. Even Christians entered the discussion, albeit with a paganized form of Platonism that, on the one hand rejected the pantheon, but on the other hand was not truly monotheistic, as it admitted multiplicity, corporeality, and spatial reference in regard to God (has wa-halilah). However, in our post-modern and post-monotheistic society today, most people assume that professing a belief that “there is only one God” is enough to qualify for being called a “monotheist.” Since most people in our times who believe in God do not accept explicit polytheism, the ability to explain the philosophical tenets of pure monotheism has fallen largely into disuse. According to the Rambam and others, learning them is a misswath `aseh (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6]).

In Shu”t HaRiva”dh, Mori Yusef Qafih z”l is asked the following question (p. 3):


שאלה: מדוע פותח הרמב”ם את חבורו בהלכות יסודי התורה דווקא – ח אדר תשנ”ט

תשובה: הרמב”ם פתח ספרו בעניני אמונה. הוא סבור כי ללא אמונה טהורה ומזוקקת אין יהדות טהורה והקימה להלכות ודינים


Question: Why is it that the Rambam begins his work [i.e. the Mishneh Torah] with Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah [dealing primarily with the philosophical tenets of pure monotheism]? (8 Adar 5759)

Answer: The Rambam began his book with matters of belief.  He is of the opinion that without pure and unadulterated belief [one’s] Judaism is [thus] not pure and so he put it first, before halakhoth and diniym.

Books such as Kellner’s “Must a Jew Believe Anything?” and Shapiro’s “The Limits of Orthodox Theology,” while making some important observations and raising some good points, attempt to place the “blame” for the concept of necessary beliefs on the shoulders of the Rambam, who formulated the 13 Principles of Jewish Faith (as they are popularly known), and act as though necessary beliefs are not an authentic Jewish value. However, this is incorrect as both the Mishnah and the Gemara make statements regarding basic necessary beliefs, as well as the division between Judaism and heresy, in just as strong a fashion. Aristotelian philosophy, despite what many may prefer to believe, was not the source of Jewish “dogmatics.” Instead, it was Hazal who made these determinations in the mesorah they authored for us. The answer to Kellner’s question is “Yes” and the actual limits that Shapiro is looking for are likely more narrow than he envisions. [1]

Twice in the Mishneh Torah the Rambam refers to pure monotheism as “she-zeh hu `iqqar ha-gadhol she-hakol taluy bo – this is the greatest principle [of belief] upon which everything depends” (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6] and Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema` 1:2). In other words, if an idolater were to outwardly live an “orthodox lifestyle,” but inwardly was an atheist, a polytheist, or believed that the Transcendent God is subject to physicality, then none of his mechanical carrying-out of the commandments would matter – it would be nothing more than an act of futility. In fact, this is exactly what Mori Yusef Qafih z”l writes in his introduction to his edition of the Moreh HaNavokhiym (Intro, p.17):

“…For a great many are those who are involved with the intricate details [of halakhah] and forget the principle above all other principles [of belief], and there are those who indeed turn to a path of personal piety, but submerse their days in intricate halakhic analyses and in casuistry regarding far-fetched and invented situations, which who knows if they will ever occur in actuality, and yet they neglect the foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom, that is the [proper] knowledge of HaShem – Blessed is He – just as the Rambam began his greatest book [i.e. the Mishneh Torah], ‘It is the foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdom to know that there is a Prime Being, and He causes to exist everything that does exist, and everything that exists, whether in heaven or earth or that which is between them, does not exist except by the verity of His existence…and this [concept] is what the prophet means when he says, And HaShem, God, is true.’ For without knowing this greatest fundamental [principle], as much as is possible [2], a person is liable to be externally observant of the commandments without ever becoming aware of this. According to the opinion of the Rambam, the essence of these commandments performed with external appendages without [proper] knowledge of the One who commanded them and without knowing their nature or purpose, are merely (in the definition of Rambam in [the Moreh HaNavokhiym] III:51, ‘like one who turns the soil with the spade or hew trees in the forest.’ [i.e. those who perform intensive yet mindless labors]”

[I would encourage anyone who is able to read the 51st chapter of the third volume of the Moreh for a complete overview of this concept.]

My discussion with this particular Chabadnik was as follows. Although I have taken great care to preserve the content and verbiage, in the interest of organization I have taken some constructive liberties in laying out the material (much like Rav Yehudhah HaLewiy did in putting together the Kuzari). The topic begins as seemingly innocuous, but it progresses to become more serious and comprehensive. This was not the first difficult conversation he and I have had, but it was our first time discussing these particular issues.


As I was walking out of evening prayers last Friday night and wishing everyone “Shabbat Shalom,” I was met by a local Chabad “rabbi” who greeted me with a hollow, “Good Shabbos. It’s good to see you.” I responded jokingly as follows:

Me: “Jews in shul is always a good thing…that is unless we are hiding from someone!”

Chabadnik: “Even then there is good. There is good in everything.” 

Me: “Except in evil of course. There is no good in evil.” (This is where I essentially baited him, knowing he would immediately object.)

Chabadnik: “That’s not true, everything is a mixture of good and evil. The Tanya says…” (He began to make a reference to the Lubavitcher “bible,” Likkutei Amarim Tanya, a collection of discourses and letters by the first leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic sect, Shneur Zalman of Liady, which explain the kabbalistic doctrines of Hasidism. )

Me: “Now, rabbi, the idea that there is evil even in good is a latter-day Hasidic doctrine and it belonged to the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi before it belonged to you. The Rambam says that evil is not a positive substance, but is the absence of good. Evil is a privation. Have you read the Moreh HaNavokhiym? The Ramban also refers to the Moreh on this subject in his commentary on the Torah. Don’t Lubavitchers study the Rambam?” (cf. Rambam, Moreh HaNavokhiym III:10-12 for an explanation of evil from a Jewish philosophical perspective. In the Kabbalah, God has a “right” and a “left” emanation, the left being Sitra Ahara [Aramaic for “the Other Side”] and the source of evil. For kabbalists, evil is just another action of God – has wa-halilah. This entire idea flies in the face of Hazal in Bereshiyth Rabbah 1, “No evil comes down from above” – which, of course, is twisted around by kabbalists to be a proof for their error that, since they hold that evil comes from God, all evil is actually good since “No evil comes down from above.”)

Chabadnik: “So there’s no such thing as evil, then?” (This was not a genuine inquiry. He actually thought this was going to be a “gotcha” moment.)

Me: “No, there is evil, but evil is not a positive creation, it is the absence of good. Like darkness is the absence of light and not a substance in and of itself. God is not the source or the Creator of evil.” (See the Moreh there where Rambam utilizes this very metaphor. The Rambam in the Moreh, Rav Sa`adyah Gaon in Emunoth wa-Dhe`oth [1:3], Ralbag in Milhamoth HaShem, and many others among the Rishonim who quote or refer to these works, affirm that God is indeed not the author of evil. Saying “evil is not a positive creation” or “evil has no positive reality” is not the same as the kabbalistic notion that “evil is an illusion,” which means that things which we perceive as being evil – tragedies, sickness, disabilities, starvation, rape, murder, etc. – are really “good” [halilah] and, according to such a view, it is only our perspective that is skewed.)

Me: “But even those who hold that evil has positive existence among the Rishonim do not hold that good can be found in it. They hold them to be polar opposites.” (Rabbenu Nissim in Meghillath Setariym appears to [possibly] espouse an ontological understanding of evil, as does Rav Yehudhah HaLewiy in the Kuzari [i.e. those things which lack the `inyan elohiy].)

Chabadnik: “So what about a pig?”

Me: “What about a pig?”

Chabadnik: “It’s evil isn’t it?”

Me: “No, it’s just a pig.”

Chabadnik: “But you can’t eat it.”

Me: “You can’t eat your children either. Are they evil?”

Chabadnik: [Looks a bit stunned, but continues] “So why can’t we eat it?”

Me: “Because HaShem forbade it to us as a tamei animal.”

Chabanik: “Well, isn’t tum’ah evil?”

Me: “No. When your wife has children she becomes tamei’ah, right? Is having children evil or sinful? When you have relations with your wife, you become tamei, right? Is a married couple having relations evil?” (In the kabbalah, as well as the superstitious environment that preceded it, ritual impurity is understood to have an objective reality, whereas the Rambam in the Moreh [III:66] explains ritual impurity as being [essentially] a legal state meant to deter an over-emphasis of the temple cultus (and also to keep us from handling harmful, unhygienically-filthy objects, e.g. carcuses, corpses, bloody cloths, etc.). The Mishneh Torah is explicit that the concepts of ritual impurity – tum’ah – and purity – taharah – are legal concepts meant to impress themselves on the human intellect, being divorced from any physical reality [Hilkhoth Miqwa’oth 11:15[12].)

Chabadnik: [At a bit of a loss, but setting up for another intended “gotcha” moment.] “So where does my energy come from?” (I assumed when he said this that he meant “negative” energy, but then he waved his hand over his entire body, indicating that he meant the entirety of his “energy.”)

Me: “It’s a beriyyah (a creation). It’s not the essence of God, if that’s what you mean. You are a creation of God, not a piece of God. God does not have pieces or parts. Again, this is right in the Rambam.” (I was referring to the Hasidic/Kabbalistic idea that every Jew is a “chelek elokai mimaal mammash – a literal ‘piece’ of God above” – cf. Tanya, chapter 2 – which Lubavitchers love to cite since it features popularly in their ideology.)

Chabadnik: “So there’s something outside of God? How can there be anything but Him?”

Me: “Are you referring to the misreading of ein `odh milevado? Look at the pasuqiym again in context and with the traditional commentators. It means ‘there is not another God beside HaShem,’ not that God is the only thing in existence. God is not inside of you, this table, the trees, or anything else.” (In context [cf. Devariym 4:35-39], this is meant as a statement against polytheism, not against the reality of the created world. דו”ק)

Chabadnik: “Why can’t God be inside of everything? Why can’t everything be an emanation of God?”

Me: “Again, don’t you Lubavitchers learn the Rambam? He writes very clearly in the third Principle of Jewish Faith that “eyno guf” – He is not a physical body – “wa-lo koah be-ghuf” – and He is not a force that resides within bodies. God is transcendent and completely separate from the creation. This is a central tenet of monotheism!” (cf. Rambam, Piyrush HaMishnayoth, Sanhedriyn 10:1 – The word ‘body’ here is being used here it the philosophical sense of ‘an object or entity which has substance and/or form.’)

Chabadnik: “So you’re saying that HaShem is not continually recreating the world and bringing it into existence at every moment?” (This Gnostic idea is another major doctrine in Hasidism.)

Me: “Yes. The world has been created already and now continues on it’s natural course, as it says in the Gemara, ‘`olam ke-minhago nohegh.’ He does not need to ‘redo’ anything after He has decreed it.” (cf. b.`Avodhah Zarah 54b – In other words, since the time of creation, the universe moves along its natural course. The Rambam in the Moreh [2:29] discusses this very principle in regard to the nature of miracles and whether they should be seen as innovations within, or permanent/temporary changes to, the natural order.)

Chabadnik: “So then what does it mean when it says, ‘ha-mechadesh b’khol yom tamid maiseh breishis’?” (This is from the first berakhah of Qiryath Shema` in the morning recitation. This text of the berakhah also appears in the seder tefiylloth of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah and in the siddur of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon.)

Me: “That is a Hasidic misinterpretation of the text of the berakhah. It says explicitly in the Gemara that ‘ha-mehadhesh be-khol yom tamiydh ma`aseh bereshiyth’ refers to the sun coming up and re-illuminating the darkness of night. Look at Rashi there and you’ll see how it was understood originally.” (cf. b.Haghighah 12b – This is an explicit explanation of exactly what is meant by the wording of this berakhah, and it has nothing to do with a supposed continual recreation of the universe. Rather, it is referring to the darkness of night being dispelled by the light of rising sun, and vice-versa, thus “re-enacting” the original “Let there be light” of Bereshiyth 1:1-3. Rashi appears to re-interpret the simple meaning of the Gemara  to make it fit with his own understanding of astronomical processes, but it is nevertheless a astronomical process being related by Hazal, not a Gnostic process of continual emanation –


Haghighah 12b - Ma`aseh Bereshiyth - Text

Haghighah 12b - Ma`aseh Bereshiyth - רשי


Gemara – “…Rather, morning enters and night exits, and [He thereby] ‘mehadhesh be-khol yom ma`aseh bereshiyth – renews daily the Work of Creation’…”

Rashi – “Morning enters – into its container and the light becomes visible. And night exits – from its container and spreads out beneath the light, and behold the world becomes dark. And this is His ‘daily renewal of the Work of Creation.'”)

Chabadnik: “Well, the Ramban (Nachmanides) talks about a continual creation.”

Me: “I don’t believe you. But if you can produce it, I would love to see it. Another Chabad rabbi who comes here regularly quotes fictional Rambams. You guys are in the habit of misquoting things.”

Then the community rabbi interrupted us and asked if we would lock up before we left. We both responded that we were just leaving. I ended up walking the rabbi home. He was amused at my confrontation with the Chabadnik. I just told him that I was just “having some fun.”

I will try to publish updates and answer questions as they come up.

Kol tuv,



[1] I in no way intend to express disrespect for the work of either Dr. Menachem Kellner or Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, for whose scholarship I have a great respect in many ways. I only intend to strongly disagree with their assessments of the nature and necessity of correct beliefs within Judaism and Jewish tradition.

[2] “As much as is possible” is an important point to note, since it is meant to assuage fears that the proposition of proper beliefs necessarily damns those who, either by mistake or by mental incapability, cannot fully grasp them.

Does Judaism Affirm a Form of Panentheism?


The third Principle of Jewish Faith, as codified by the Rambam (cf. Piyrush HaMishnayoth, Sanhedriyn 10:1), states explicitly that the Creator “has no physical body and is not a force which resides within a physical body” (אינו גוף ולא כח בגוף). This statement precludes the basic tenet of Panentheism, i.e. that God resides actually within everything that exists. And this sentiment does not originate in the philosophy of the Rambam. There were others – such as Rav Sa`adyah Gaon – who affirmed this as well.

Additionally, Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, in his well-known work Emunoth Wa-Dhe`oth, discusses extant ideas of creation as postulated by the various religions and philosophical schools around in his day. Although he was referring to his contemporaries, his list is still fairly comprehensive for our times, and one would be hard-pressed to find another metaphysical cosmology not mentioned by him there. One of the twelve theories of creation discussed is Emanationism (אצילות – i.e. the idea that God emanated his own essence into the lower forms of the creation, referred to by Rav Sa`adyah as “The third theory is that of him that asserts that the Creator of physical bodies has created them out of His own essence… [Ma’amar Rishon, III]). He then goes on to refute this theory with 13 separate refutations. Emanationism requires a belief in Panentheism. It is not possible to believe in emanation and to be a pure monotheist, dissociating God completely from any form or accident of physicality or spaciality.

Judaism has always championed the belief in creatio ex nihilo (“creation from nothing” – e.g. Rambam, Ramban, Rasag, et al), and has traditionally tolerated a belief in an [Aristotelian] primordial substance from which the world was created (e.g. Rambam, Kuzari, Ibn `Ezra, et al), by a completely transcendent and incorporeal God whom is completely removed from His creation and is not associated in any way with it. 

Panentheism, although championed by many as being the true view of the Torah, is certainly a mistake and an aberration [read, “heretical,” i.e. incompatible with authentic Jewish teachings]. Equally as many cannot fathom how a veritable majority of “orthodoxy” has accepted idolatrous ideas. However, we are not more “special” today than were out ancestors in their day. Throughout our history, we have gone astray after idolatry, superstitions, and false gods/conceptions of God. These types of issues are dealt with all the time by the Biblical prophets, everything from actual prostration to statues to simply holding such beliefs inwardly. This is why Yehezqel (14:17) refers to those who “wayyinnazer me-aharay wi-ya`al gillulaw el libo – who separates himself from Me and brings his idols into his heart.” The only course to remedy – offered every time, whether in exile or in the Land – is through teshuvah and getting people back on track through proper teaching and education. Silence on these foundational issues in the name of “unity” has only led to the current situation where the tenets of monotheism have been all but eroded from the Jewish nation.

The reason why Panentheism and other constructs featuring emanation (אצילות) seem to make sense to people is due to the basic error that in order to interact with the world, God needs some physical mechanism. It is reasoned that since God upholds the existence of the universe at every moment then He must be involved at every moment with making sure that it endures – this is false. We say that the world was created by God through His “will” or “decree” because these are the least physical anthropomorphic descriptions we can come up with. In other words, we are trying to avoid the mythologies of ancient pagan cultures who maintained that the world was fashioned through the very actual labor of the gods. However, it must not be extrapolated from these terms that God must then be maintaining continual concentration to uphold the existence of the world. Although this is how “will” works for us, it is not how it works for HaShem. There is no concept of haysah ha-da`ath (“mental interruption” or “loss of concentration”) with HaShem.

Instead, the “decrees” of HaShem in creating the world should most aptly be viewed from the perspective of law. In other words, when a beyth diyn makes a decree, it continues (generally) until either the reality of the circumstances in which and for which the decree was originally made significantly change or until another, usually greater, beyth diyn arises who decides to overturn it. This is the implication of the pasuq, “Forever HaShem, Your word stands firm in the heavens” (Tiliym 119:89). HaShem is the sovereign Judge who “decreed” the world into existence and that reality has not changed, nor will anyone ever arise who may overturn His words.

In short, God created the world and is completely separate from it – He does not reside inside of it, nor is the world constructed “out of Him” (if such a thing were even possible, has wa-halilah). And if the complete separation between HaShem and the world gives you pause and makes you wonder “If HaShem is so far away, then how does He interact with the world?” then your view of God is ultimately physical. He – Blessed is He – does not need physical senses, tools, mechanisms, or spatial proximity to accomplish anything.

More on this later.

Kol tuv uverakhah,


“Daas Torah” and the “Agentic State” – Virtue or Vice?

The Experimenter - Movie PosterMy wife and I watched another excellent film the other night entitled The Experimenter which, in a unique and almost documentary style, portrays the life and work of the well-known Social Psychologist, Dr. Stanley Milgram, whose groundbreaking work on the nature of obedience continues to be featured in psychology textbooks today. Throughout the show, the actor playing the role of Milgram speaks to the viewer in his dual role as the main character and the movie’s narrator. The content of the story focuses primarily on his various psychological experiments and their significance in understanding the nature of human behavior. Having studied in the 1950’s under Dr. Solomon Asch, who also supervised his Ph.D. at Harvard, Milgram earned his doctorate in Social Psychology in 1960 and then spent the next three years at Yale performing his famously controversial experiments related to the nature of human obedience to authority, publishing his findings in 1963. Dr. Asch was a major influence on the direction of Milgram’s work, being the famed psychologist who demonstrated the phenomenon of human social conformity with his “line experiment,” wherein a single subject was tested in a group setting to see if they would conform to the blatant error of the majority or maintain their personal resolve in the face of social opposition. Through their work, both men provided the world with startling insights into human moral resolve and how, for the majority of people, any such resolve dissolves under the slightest prompting or pressure.

Dr. Milgram was a child of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Hungary. At several points throughout the film he is questioned about the origin of his surname, to which he responds, “‘Milgram’ is Hebrew for ‘pomegranate,’ one of the seven fruits of the Bible. I’m Jewish.” As a Jew, the events of the Holocaust had a profound effect on Milgram, especially the 1961 trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi officer who had fled to Austria and then Argentina following the war. Although Eichmann had been personally responsible for the deportation of many of Germany’s Jews to death camps, during his trial he claimed that he himself could not be held liable since he was merely “following orders.” This confident shirking of responsibility by Eichmann was not unique to him, at least not in the mind of Milgram, since the Nazi extermination efforts were facilitated by many people – soldiers and civilians alike – all of whom seemed to think that through committing horrendous acts of animalistic brutality and systematic genocide they were merely “following orders.” The question for Milgram was “How?” as much as “Why?” How do relatively normal, moral human beings become the agents of such evil against their fellow creatures?

In 1974, Milgram published a book – which has now become a classic text in the field of Social Psychology – wherein he expounds his theories and conclusions based on the experiment held at Yale. Since more than a decade had passed between the initial publication of his findings and his book, there was a great deal of critical reaction to everything from his interpretations of the data to the ethics of the methods he used during the experiment. Milgram expends considerable effort in his book answering the objections of his critics and providing justifications for his approach. Drawing on the work of Asch and the outcomes of his research, he expounds on two socio-psychological theories:

  1. The “Theory of Conformism” (largely based on the findings of Asch) – That individuals who have no particular experience or competence in making decisions will, when in confronted with crisis or a moral dilemma, will simply conform to the majority consensus within a group, even when the outward action of such conformity conflicts with his own inner convictions. In essence, the majority of people will simply allow their decisions to be made by the group in which they participate.
  2. The “Agentic State Theory” – According to Milgram in the preface of his book “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow” (Obedience to Authority, 1973, p. vii). The antithesis of the “agentic state” – viewing someone else as responsible for one’s actions – is the “autonomous state” wherein an individual views themselves as responsible for their own actions. The adoption of the “agentic state” is viewed by Milgram as being volitional. In other words, even when a person is subject to an abusive authority figure they remain ultimately responsible for any action they commit.

According to Milgram, the volitional abdication of responsibility and the abandonment of decision-making to an authority figure was responsible, in part, for the complicity of millions of people during the Holocaust in carrying out Nazi directives. These tendencies of human behavior – conformism and the agentic state – are essentially negative and viewed as detrimental aspects of human behavior, indicative of character flaws, and something to be cautioned against.

In Haredi-Hasidic circles, however, both conformism and being agentic are encouraged, and even praised, as traits that religious Jews are duty-bound to espouse. This ideology, known popularly as “Daas Torah,” “Kabbalas Ol,” and “Bitul Daas,” posits that a special echelon of rabbinic personalities have a unique and infallible, or nearly infallible, power of insight in all spheres, secular and religious, representing God in such a way that the general population of Jews are obligated to obey them, irrespective of inner conviction or commonsense.

These rabbinic figures – known collectively as “Gedolim” – is an amorphous group whose status is determined via a combination of “mob rule” consensus and political affiliations. The authority of the “Gedolim” is considered – by them and their followers – as being inherent and absolute, obligating everyone with whom they speak or over whom they supposedly have “jurisdiction” to very literally obey them. Usually this group consists of roshey yeshivah and Hasidic “rebbes,” but anyone with either prestigious lineage extending back to Old World Jewish leadership or who is considered prodigious in their level of knowledge can be a “gadol.”

It is demanded of adherents to have “Bitul Daas” – a very literal surrendering of the will and authority to make decisions – and to simply obey the spiritual directives of their particular “tzaddik” in both religious and secular matters. Any refusal to do so is considered an expression of rebellion and arrogance, often compared to such rebellion in the Torah as that of Qorah against Mosheh Rabbeynu (`alaw ha-shalom). This type of mass consent usually leads to an almost overwhelming sense of social conformism wherein any deviation in either dress, personal expression, or halakhic position is considered sinful or, at the very least, spiritually “dangerous.” Everything from the color of one’s shirt, the style of talliyth, the way in which the lolav is waved, and even one’s manner of Hebrew pronunciation are considered decisions that must be directly approved of by the “Gedolim.”

The historical origins of this type of thinking are rooted firmly in Hasidic movements of Europe and their unique conceptions of the nature and function of rabbinic leadership. “Daas Torah” is essentially the result of Hasidic theology infecting the European Haredi world. And although the idea certainly appears in many Hasidic works, it is never referred to specifically as “Daas Torah” until after World War II, when European Jewry myopically declared that due to the Holocaust that “Torah learning was all but destroyed” due to the severe crippling of European Jews when they were murdered by the Nazis (yimah shemam). Co-opting the term from the writings of Rav Yisra’el Salanter and the Hafess Hayyim, they began to see the authoritarianism and absolutism of the Hasidic construct as the only way forward in the struggle to rebuild and fight assimilation.

In no way do I mean to minimize the loss sustained by the Jewish people during the Holocaust, but the call for a re-invention of Judaism – in both practice and methodology – even to the point of invoking “`eth la`asoth HaShem heferu torothekha – It is a time to act for HaShem – they have nullified Your Torah” (cf. Tiliym 119:126) to justify subverting basic Torah directives in an effort to direct everyone into full-time learning while living on public charity was without justification. We have seen the clear warnings of Hazal come to pass before our eyes with regard to learning Torah without having a worldly occupation, giving formal instruction to those who are not worthy, and living on the largess of the community. HaShem yerahem. The stubborn and elitist refusal on the part of Ashkenazi Jewry to acknowledge that the Torah was still strong among the Jews of Yemen, Turkey, North Africa, North America, etc. has ultimately led to the Haredi-Hasidic world of today, a subculture and ideology almost completely divorced from the Torah except in outward modes of practice. I admit that this is a strong assessment, but the truth is apparent to all who are honest with the facts. Much of what the Haredi-Hasidic world today extols as virtuous is, according to the halakhah, actually destructive and sinful (but this topic is for another post).

The distinction between the philosophy of normative Judaism and that of “Daas Torah” is elucidated in the well-known article Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority (printed in Moshe Sokol’s Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy – 1992), as well as the background behind the invention of the latter. Referring to normative Judaism as “halakhic pesak,” he makes the following assessment:

“For the difference between the [Daas Torah and halakhic pesak] is not just a matter of halakhic – and particularly haskafic! – pluralism versus halakhic – and haskafic – uniformity. The difference also touches upon profound epistemological and axiological matters. For whereas halakhic pesak allows for, indeed encourages, reasoned debate and disagreement – within, of course, the framework of the halakhic system – Daas Torah… requires the suppression of one’s own critical faculties and submission to the superior, if at times incomprehensible, wisdom of the gadol. And one must submit to the views of the gadol not simply because the halakhic system, in terms of its complex rules for resolving disputes, ascribes greater authority to his decisions. Rather, the views of the gadol are true and authentic, while my differing views are false and inauthentic. What is required of me, then, is, again, intellectual submission and faith in the gadol and his superior wisdom.

This being the case, it follows that the ideology of Daas Torah is a central, perhaps the central, element in the ethic of submission that characterizes the rejectionist approach [i.e. those who reject any form or aspect of modernity]. For at the heart of the rejectionist approach is the view that unquestioning submission to authority, the authority of the halakhah, of the gadol, of God, is the highest religious value and one that is absolutely opposed to the modern values of intellectual autonomy and self-expression.” (pp. 23-24)

As is fairly obvious, the distinction between both philosophies is at times very subtle – at least in the way each is worded. “Daas Torah” is read back into both ancient and relatively recent rabbinic sources as if it were merely the continuation of authentic Jewish thought. This, however, is not the case, as is clearly laid out by Lawrence Kaplan in the article cited above.

But who wouldn’t want to be obedient to God? To the Torah? To the halakhah? Isn’t that what Judaism is, a covenant between God and `Am Yisra’el predicated on dutiful and loyal adherence to the misswoth? The answer is “Yes.” Service of God through the Torah is the foundation basis upon which all other functions and observances of Jewish life are supposed to be based – and through which any association with the Torah as a religious document makes sense. Of course, this acceptance of the Torah is predicated on an even more basic fundament, namely that of pure monotheism (cf. Rambam, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6]; Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema` 1:2), something which also seems to be lacking due to the popularity of Hasidic doctrines, on the basis of which many make the cavalier statement that “everything is God” or “we are all pieces of God” – statements that, before Hasidism and World War II, would have been roundly rejected as heresy.

Opposition to “Daas Torah” is not the promotion of anarchy or rugged individualism. Anyone who believes in the truth of the Torah and verity of the halakhah as it was communicated by Hazal and their direct expositors necessarily believes in a submission to authorities. Those who adopt the position of meqoriyuth simply recognize the pre-eminent authority of Hazal in halakhic matters and reject the self-styled “heirs” to their position in the Haredi-Hasidic world. Meqoriyyim do not have a problem with authority, just a problem with corrupt and invalid authority. Inherent in the halakhah itself is the power of the courts, from a local gathering of three judges to the supreme power of the Sanhedriyn of seventy-one, to settle legal disputes, and disobedience to their directives is a transgression. So the question of distinction becomes not the question of whether there are rabbinic authorities and the duty to abide by their rulings, but rather the question of the nature, extent, and propriety of such rabbinic authorities – as well as their identity.

The philosophical components of the “Daas Torah” position that distinguishes it as a latter-day innovation are as follows. There are certainly other possible ways to frame the issues, but this is my estimation:

  1. “Gedolim” viewed as a continuation of Hazal – For the vast majority of Haredi-Hasidic Jews, there is no real separation in their minds between the status and authority of Hazal and the “Gedolim.” Although Hazal are viewed as being on a “higher spiritual level” with the ability to raise the dead and perform other types of miracles at will, the rabbis of today are still viewed as being able, by virtue of their comparison to Hazal (and sometimes even Mosheh Rabbeynu, `alaw ha-shalom) to legislate their opinions to the Jewish world. In fact, this view was somewhat standard among Ashkenazi Jewry, as is evidenced by the vast body of tosafoth (“additions”) written which were intended to serve as extensions and continuations of the discussions of the Gemara itself. The position of [Old] Sefaradi Jewry (i.e. Spain, not Morocco), however, was that legislative authority had essentially ended with the close of Talmudic literature (i.e. hathimath ha-talmudh). This is evidenced by the codification that came from the Geonim (e.g. Halakhoth Gedholoth) and the Rishonim in Spain and Turkey (e.g. Hilkhoth HaRif and Mishneh Torah). This aspect of “Daas Torah” is a failure to distinguish between “lawyers” and “lawmakers” and removes virtually all boundaries to their legislative abilities since many “Gedolim” feel very much at liberty to dismiss interpretations of the Rishonim and reinterpret the Gemara (usually in the interest of either reinforcing superstitious ideas or producing excessive and baseless humroth).
  2. Rabbinic authority based on ontology and not legal appointment – Whereas the authority of Hazal rested in the facts of their legal appointment, being either on courts (e.g. the Sanhedriyn) or halakhic decisors for their local area, the “Gedolim” are viewed as being ontologically elevated above other Jews. In the Hasidic conception, the “Gedolim” (or “rebbes”) are “tzaddikim” whose very souls are composed of the spiritual stuff of the higher kabbalistic realms. In this way, “Gedolim” are popularly viewed as being “revealed” and not made, since their status was pre-ordained by the innate superiority of their “neshamos.” In other words, adherents to “Daas Torah” view their leaders as having an innate privilege to rule over other Jews. No such concept has ever been a part of Judaism or the writings of Hazal. Rather, those who were worthy – based on halakhic competency and refined personal standards of conduct – were appointed to courts and positions of authority. One of the harshest complaints found in the letters of the Rambam is in regard to the dynastic nature of leadership that developed over the yeshivoth.  He regularly complains that due to prestigious lineage possessed, many imbeciles and ignorant fools were appointed to positions of rabbinic authority. The plain halakhic [read, not absurdly mystical] definition of a “tzaddik” (ssaddiyq – צדיק) is “one whose merits are greater than his iniquities is a ssaddiyq” (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:1; b.Yevamoth 49b-50a), and conversely “one whose iniquities are greater than his merits is a rasha`” (Ibid.). Ironically, by this definition many self-styled “Gedolim” and “rebbes” are actually not “tzaddikim” at all (דו”ק).
  3. Rav seen as “conduit” to God rather a bearer of wisdom – Again, in Hasidic fashion, many adherents to the “Daas Torah” ideology view their leaders as their spiritual connection to God – a conduit or pipeline of sorts – who channels blessings and spiritual energy to his followers. Such an idea does exist outside of Hasidic writings and latter-day Haredi texts. Although there is a concept of connection to Torah Scholars (talmidhey hakhamiym), it is in order to gain wisdom and instruction from their learning, as well as gain a good example from their deeds (cf. Rambam, MT Hilkhoth De`oth 6:3[2]). In other words, the true concept of “connection” with a rabbinic leader is not abstract or spiritual, but actual and practical – in the same way that a student of science gains knowledge through listening to the words of his professors and gains experience through conducting research in the field under their direction. The alternative, that the souls of all involved become linked in a chain to God, as it were, is at the most idolatry (`avodhah zarah) and at the very least stupidity (shetuyoth), having no basis in authentic Jewish sources. Again, viewing the Torah scholar as a respectable “lawyer” in a position to help you be “righteous” in the eyes of the law leads to the most healthy conceptions of and respect for rabbinic authority.
  4. Attribution of infallibility and prophetic ability to “gadolim” – Related to the previous point, “Gedolim” – being viewed as being directly connected to God – are viewed as possessing prophetic abilities (ruah ha-qodhesh) and thereby are considered necessarily infallible. Beside the fact that Hazal clearly taught that prophecy has ceased (cf. t.Sotah 13:4; b.Bava Bathra 14b), infallibility has not ever been granted to any court, prophet, or rabbinic authority in Judaism. Even the Sanhedriyn is not to be obeyed in certain rare circumstances, since it is considered possible for them to err in a matter of halakhah and become liable to bring a qorban (cf. Wayiqera 4:13; Masekheth Horayoth; Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Shogheghoth). Although we do have a misswah of “lo thasur – לא תסור” (cf. Devariym 17:11), i.e. that it is forbidden to deviate from the instructions of the Sanhedriyn, it DOES NOT apply to singular rabbis, especially not those today who do not have authentic semikhah! This pasuq and the halakhoth built upon it are in sole regard to the rulings of the Sanhedriyn alone (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Mameriym 2:1). Although there are those who will attribute expansion of the concept of “lo thasur – לא תסור” to the Sefer HaHinukh (Spain, ca. 13th Century), it is actually the 19th Century Polish-Ukranian rabbi Yosef Babad who does so in his commentary on the Sefer HaHinukh, known as Minhath Hinukh (cf. Misswah 496), long after the spread of the Hasidic movement into those areas.
  5. Expansion of rabbinic authority into secular matters disconnected with halakhah – In former times, Torah scholars were consulted to resolve matters of halakhic difficulty or to clarify legal points, the “Gedolim” have conflated all areas of life and have brought them under their [supposed] authority. Never were midrashic disputes settled in the courts, as this was not a practical matter, but a matter of open – yet educated – discussion meant to stay in the beyth midrash. In the Haredi-Hasidic world, however, it is not uncommon to hear that this or that “gadol” has “poskened” that a particular peshat in Rashi is correct or that a certain “tzaddik” has “ruled” about the correct age of the earth. Such arrogance has never been seen among the Jewish people since ancient times – it is patently ridiculous for anyone to attempt to make these things halakhic issues when they are not. People ask rabbis who have never held a day job or paid their own bills to help them make important business decisions which have nothing to do with the halakhoth of business ethics. This has caused many who adhere to “Daas Torah” to suffer great losses financially. And what else should we expect? Going to yeshivah does not qualify one, for instance, to give sound marketing advice or tax consultation.
  6. Redefinition of miynuth (heresy) and apiyqorsuth (Epicureanism) – One of the bully tactics most-commonly used by the Haredi-Hasidic world in service of “Daas Torah” is the attribution of heresy to any detractors. Those who refuse – for any reason – to submit and/or obey the “Gedolim” are referred to as “heretics” and “kofrim” as if their refusal constitutes a rejection of Judaism, fundamental tenets of Jewish faith, and even God Himself. Heresy (miynuth) and Epicureanism (apiyqorsuth) have well-defined halakhic parameters and neither category includes disobedience to an amorphous group of “Gedolim” (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:14-16[6-8]). Such a person is often said to lack “emunas hachamim” (“confidence in [Torah] scholars”), a halakhic concept which, like “lo thasur – לא תסור,” is co-opted by the Haredi-Hasidic world since it too only refers to confidence in the general competence in the rulings of the Sanhedriyn, and even then it doesn’t mean robotic obedience in every case, as has already been explained. (An excellent exposition of emunath hakhamiym from the sources can be found an article by Rav Nachum Rabinovitch.)

The way in which “Daas Torah” conceives of rabbinic authority is nothing like that which historical Judaism has countenanced or that which has been communicated to us by Hazal, rather it bears an unseemly resemblance to Christian doctrines of “papal infallibility” and “vicarious Christi” wherein the bishops – including the pope – are viewed as “ruling in the place of God” (cf. Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesians – II, 6:1). Like many of the spiritual and messianic ideas of Hasidism, “Daas Torah” appears to be an adoption of Christian doctrines, not an authentic Jewish teaching. In fact, it appears that many of the core elements of the current “Daas Torah” ideology would have been objectionable even to some leaders of the early Hasidic movement. Shneur Zalman of Liady, author of the central Lubavitcher text known as the Tanya, bemoans the attribution of prophetic abilities to him and other rabbinic leaders and says that the way in which people treat him as a “rebbe” is unfounded in Jewish precedent. The following is taken from Iggerot HaKodesh #22:


אהוביי אחיי ורעיי מאהבה מסותרת תוכחת מגולה לכו נא ונוכחה זכרו ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור ההיתה כזאת מימות עולם ואיה איפוא מצאתם מנהג זה באחד מכל ספרי חכמי ישראל הראשונים והאחרונים להיות מנהג ותיקון לשאול בעצה גשמיות כדת מה לעשות בעניני העולם הגשמי אף לגדולי חכמי ישראל הראשונים כתנאים ואמוראים אשר כל רז לא אנס להו ונהירין להון שבילין דרקיע כ”א לנביאים ממש אשר היו לפנים בישראל כשמואל הרואה אשר הלך אליו שאול לדרוש ה’ על דבר האתונות שנאבדו לאביו כי באמת כל עניני אדם לבד מדברי תורה וי”ש אינם מושגים רק בנבואה ולא לחכמים לחם כמארז”ל הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים


“My beloved brothers and friends,

From my hidden love for you comes an open rebuke. “Come now and let us reason together” (Yesha`yahu 1:18). “Remember ancient days, consider the years of every generation” (Devariym 32:7). Was there anything like this from ancient days? Where therefore have you found this custom in any of the books of the earlier or the later Sages of Israel that it should be the the established custom to ask advice about mundane things, about what should be done in matters related to the physical world? Even to the early Great Sages of Israel [such questions were not asked], such as the Tanna’iym and the Amora’iym, to whom no secret was withheld and to whom the paths of the heavens were illuminated, but only to actual prophets (le-nevi’iym mamash) who lived in Israel, such as Shmu’el the Seer to whom Sha’ul went to inquire of HaShem concerning the donkeys that his father had lost. For truly all human affairs, with the exception of halakhic judgments and that which is related to the fear of Heaven, are not apprehended except through prophecy, [as it says] “there is no bread for the sages” (Qoheleth 9:11), and as Hazal said, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven” (b.Berakhoth 33b).

What are we to conclude? Is “Daas Torah” a virtue or is it a vice? Should we have an attitude of “live and let live” and “to each his own” regarding those who promote it? To Dr. Stanley Milgram, the “agentic state” (a psychological term roughly equivalent to “Bitul Daas” in my opinion) was not virtuous, but was disastrous, and the mechanism that made the Nazi machine possible, as well as the horrors perpetrated by them. When normal and basically decent people decide to negate personal responsibility and give over their will to another, human suffering is inevitably the result. What other use is there to demand such compliance? What purpose can it possibly serve other than the personal interests of those in such autocratic positions of authority?

If we are honest, “Daas Torah” and its “Gedolim” have been responsible for countless cases of corruption, abuse, and even the shielding of molesters. They are largely racist and bigoted, having intensely elitist attitudes toward other segments of religiously “orthodox” Jewry. The institutional poverty that now has become a full-fledged theological position is vigorously defended by them, allowing hundreds of thousands of their followers to believe that they are above the dignity of working for a living and that their learning Torah requires that others support them and thereby halakhically misappropriate millions of dollars in charity funds. This is not to say that there are not human problems among other Jews in communities outside of the “Daas Torah” spectrum, however the reality is that there is a marked concentration and higher incidence of such abuses, made possible by masses of followers entering into the “agentic state” and “merely following orders,” among Haredim in particular.

All things considered, “Daas Torah” seems to be a vice and not a virtue…and certainly not meqori.

For further reading:

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Dr. Stanley Milgram (1974)

Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority by Lawrence Kaplan (1992)

What is “Emunat Hakhamim”? by Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch (2007)

Perhaps more later.



Did Anyone Question the Authenticity of the Zohar?

The Zohar literature, including the Zohar, Zohar Hadash, and the Tikkunei HaZohar – along with their respective books and sub-divisions – was published over the course of almost 300 years (approx. 1300-1587 CE) and straddles the periods of the late rishonim and early aharonim; with the era of the former generally held to have been during the 11th to 15th centuries, and that of the latter from the 16th century until the present time.

Although there was much written on the subject of the Zohar and the authenticity of its content, only a minority of what is extant was authored in the narrow window between the publication of the Zohar literature and the end of the period of the rishonim. Much of what exists in this genre was written in the period of the early aharonim and remains very valuable to anyone engaging in a historical study of the Zohar. The main reason for the lack of earlier literature is that the Zohar, even after its initial publication, was not a very widespread or well-known book.

What is available exists in two types:

[1] independent works authored specifically on the subject of the authenticity of the Zohar literature, and [2] quotes from Hazal, geonimand rishonim (e.g. Rasag, Rashi, Tosafot, Rambam, et al) whose explicit statements in times prior to the Zohar are directly contradicted by, and in many cases preclude, explicit statements made later by the Zohar and its commentaries.

Works in the period of the [later] rishonim which dispute the Zohar and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Behinat HaDat – Rav Eliyahu Del Medigo (15th Century CE)
  • Sefer HaYuhasin, account of Rabbi Yitzhak de-min Akko – Rav Avraham Zakuto (15th Century CE)

Works in the period of the aharonim which dispute the Zohar literature and its authenticity:

  • Sefer Ari Nohem – Rav Yehudah Aryeh DeModena (17th Century CE)
  • Mitpahat Sefarim – Rav Yaakov Emden (18th Century CE)
  • Shu”T Hatam Sofer (6:59), referring to the work of Rav Emden – Rav Mosheh Sofer (18th Century CE)
  • Teshuvah Me-Ahavah (1:14) – Rav Eli`ezer Fleckeles (19th Century CE)
  • Milhamot HaShem – Rav Yihya Shelomo Al-Qafih (19th Century CE)

These are by no means exhaustive lists, but they do comprise the majority of what is available.

The following are examples of literature prior to the publication of the Zohar which discuss similar topics:

  • HaNivhar Emunot ve-Deot by Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (10th Century CE) – This work is a comprehensive compendium of explanations that not only sets forth the hashkafah of Torah Judaism on many topics, but also includes the arguments of detractors and the basis for their being rejected. The interesting thing about this work is that it deals with almost every major theme which was to emerge under the later “Kabbalah” which became embodied in the Zohar literature – and it roundly rejects them as not being authentic or based in Hazal. These topics include the idea of multiplicity or aspects as relates to the One Transcendent God, Reincarnation, and Emanation (atzilut אצילות), among others.
  • Moreh HaNavokhim by Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE). THis work details the necessity of intellectual and rational approaches to the Torah and the Prophets, as well as explaining the meaning of many mitzvot and the various reasons behind them. It also deals with concepts which were later embodied in the “Kabbalah,” such as “secret” mystical names of God and amulets, which are roundly rejected as superstitious, idolatrous, and foolish.
  • Ma’amar Tehiyat HaMetim by Rav Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam – 11th Century CE). In the first section, the Rambam accounts for the misunderstanding of his own teachings regarding the resurrection from the dead by bringing an example of a gross misunderstanding of God’s own words in the Shema (Devarim 6:4). He refers to the “belief of the dualists” who believe that the three mentions of the Divine Name in the Shema (i.e. HaShem, Elohenu, HaShem) are three separate forces/entities/modes of the Divine (halilah) that supposedly comprise some sort of composite unity. The Rambam flatly rejects this reading of the Shema in his statements there. However, the Zohar (2:53b) espouses just such a nonsensical interpretation. Ironically, this passage was used by later Christian Hebraists, and even the Catholic church, in justifying the supposed validity of their belief in a “Trinity” from “Jewish” teachings.
  • Rashi and Tosafot on b.Megillah 9a (11th, 12th-13th Centuries CE). In an interesting passage about the request of King Ptolemy (Talmai HaMelekh) that the hakhmei HaSanhedrin write for him a copy of the Torah in Greek, the Gemara explains that several deliberate changes to the text were unanimously made by them during their translation in order to avoid certain polytheistic errors by Greek readers. Two of the notable changes were made in Bereshit 1:1 and 1:26 – the former being that instead of the text reading “Bereshit bara Elohim” they wrote “Elohim bara bereshit,” and the latter being that in place of “Na’aseh adam” they wrote “E’aseh adam.” In the first instance – since syntax in the Greek language often puts the most important noun in the sentence first and sorts out the meaning and parts of speech via case endings – the hakhamim did not want the Greeks to think that “Bereshit” was the name of one deity which created a second deity named “Elohim” (halilah) and that there are thus multiple powers in Heaven (halilah), so says Rashi. The Tosafot add to this by saying that “Bereshit eino shem kelal ela ba-tehilah” meaning that the term “bereshit” is not a name at all, but is rather just the Torah’s way of saying “In the beginning.” The second change was made due to the presence of the plural form (i.e. “Let us make man”), lest again the Greeks think that the Torah promotes polytheism and that multiple gods created mankind (halilah – see Rashi there). However, the Zohar – in commenting on these very passages – adopts the mistaken and erroneous views which these changes were specifically intended to negate. On Bereshit 1:1 the Zohar says that “Reshit” is the name of a partzuf/sefirah and it creates/emanates another partzuf/sefirah named “Elohim” which it can then inhabit. On Bereshit 1:26, the Zohar depicts two of the partzufim (faces/personalities which supposedly make up the Divine), “Abba” and “Imma,” arguing whether or not they should make man – “Abba” is con while “Imma” is pro – and in the end “Imma” says that although mankind will sin against us “Let us make man” anyhow. The implications of these interpretations in light of the Gemara and its commentators are both shocking and wide-reaching.

There are many more things which could be listed here, but much of it is already written in the works mentioned above.

More on this later,

Kol tuv,


Talking and Handwashing – A Meqori Perspective

Is it really forbidden to talk between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi?

And is it ever okay to speak between birkath ha-mossi and eating some bread?

These questions are explicit in the halakhah and it is only due to a personal custom of the Rosh brought down by the Tur (see OH 166 – where he re-interprets the Gemara to fit this practice of the Rosh – see Rabbeynu Yoel there) has there been any confusion on the issue. Rambam, Rashi, the Ba`alei Tosafoth, and many others agree that dibbur (talking) between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi does not constitute a hefseq (unless a heysah ha-da’ath is thereby created – see below).

The concept of hefseq (“interruption”) is only applicable between a berakhah and that which was the occasion of the berakhah (e.g. eating, drinking, performing a misswah, etc). In the case of netiylath yadhayim there is no hefseq through dibbur since one has already said the berakhah`al netiylath yadhayim” and has washed [and dried] their hands. The saying of birkath ha-mossi is a separate matter which does require clean [washed] hands, but may be said hours after netilath yadhayim is performed as long as one is mindful of his hands (presumably to guard them from filth). [cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Berakhoth 6:18(17)]

In fact, heysah ha-da`ath [or coming into contact with filth – tenufah (e.g. feces) – which is the reason for guarding the hands in the first place] is the reason for the need to re-wash in every case. [cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Avoth HaTum’oth 13:3 , Hilkhoth Bi’ath HaMiqdash 5:1-6, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 8:6, et al] In fact, it is explicit that when one touches either his head or a wall his hands remain tahoroth and he need not wash netiylath yadhayim again because of it. [cf. Hilkhoth Miqwa’oth 11:5]

The Rambam writes in Hilkhoth Berakhoth 1:8 (in the midst of his list of general principles with regard to berakhoth – i.e. “kol ha-berakhoth kulan…”) the following:


 כל הברכות כולן לא יפסיק בין הברכה ובין דבר שמברכין עליו בדברים אחרים ואם הפסיק צריך לחזור ולברך שנייה ואם הפסיק בדברים שהן מעניין דבר שמברכין עליו, אינו צריך לברך שנייה כיצד כגון שבירך על הפת וקודם שיאכל אמר הביאו מלח הביאו תבשיל תנו לפלוני לאכול תנו מאכל לבהמה וכיוצא באלו אינו צריך לברך וכן כל כיוצא בזה

Kol ha-berakhoth kulan, lo yafsiyq beyn ha-berakhah uveyn ha-davar she-mevarkhiyn `alaw bi-dhevariym aherim. Wa-im hifsiyq ssariykh la-hazor ulevarekh sheniyyah. Wa-im hifsiyq bi-dhevariym she-hen me-`inyan davar she-mevarkhiyn `alaw eyno ssariykh levarekh sheniyyah. Kessadh? Keghon she-beyrekh `al ha-path wa-qodhem she-yokhal omer hevi’u melah, hevi’u tavshiyl, tenu lifloni le-ekhol, tenu ma’akhal livhemah, ukheyosse ba-ellu eyno ssariykh levarekh wa-khen kol ka-yosse ba-zeh


“With regard to every berakhah, one should not interrupt between the berakhah and the matter which is the occasion of the berakhah with other matters. And if one does so interrupt, he must go back and bless a second time. But if he interrupted with matters that are related to the subject of that which is the occasion of the berakhah, he does not need to go back and bless a second time. How is this? Like when one blesses upon bread and before he eats he says, “bring salt,” “bring the dish,” “give to so-and-so to eat,” “give food to the animal,” and other things like these – he does not need to bless [a second time] and the halakhah is the same for all similar cases.”

It can be clearly seen from here that it is permissible to ask someone to pass the salt in between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi. In fact, bedi`avadh one can still ask for the salt even AFTER birkath ha-mossi before he has even taken a bite of bread! Additionally, if one speaks or makes a request directly related to eating or the laws of se`odhoth, it is not considered hefseq that would require a new berakhah.

The majority of the Rishonim and the Geonim interpret the phrase tekhef le-netiylath yadhayim berakhah – תכף לנטילת ידים ברכה (“Immediately following netiylath yadhayim is the berakhah“) as referring to mayim aharoniym (which is a full netiylah and is referred to as such – cf. Hilkhoth Berakhoth 6:1, 21[20]) and not to mayim rishoniym at all. And even in the case of between mayim aharoniym and saying birkath ha-mazon it is not completely forbidden to speak, as long as such speech is relevant to the recitation of grace after meals.

It has been the custom of Yemenite Jews for millenia to speak at the table after washing netiylath yadhayim. Many have noted that it is actually a good time for singing songs or discussing divrey torah (as long as it is not in a heated manner since getting upset or angry can cause a heysah ha-da`ath). 

But, hey, if you enjoy the serenity before eating, and if you enjoy listening to adults comically trying to communicate in strings of “tisk” and “nu?!,” then perhaps continuing the popular practice modeled after the Rosh is for you. Just don’t stay silent because you think it’s forbidden, because it’s not.

Kol tuv,