Too Much Heart – Comments on Parashat Kedoshim

The 15th of Shevat

Not long ago, we celebrated the holiday of Tu BiShevat (ט”ו בשבט), commonly referred to as “the new year for trees.” In actuality, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat is not a “holiday” at all. In was only in the 16th century that the kabbalists of Tzefat, most notably Yitzhak Lurya (the “Arizal”), imbued the day with mystical significance and even formulated a “seder” after the fashion of the seder shel Pesah – complete with four cups of wine, a haggadah, and special foods – a rite which has unfortunately become nearly ubiquitous among Jewish communities today. Being a late contrivance that was specifically invented to further the dualist mystical system of Luria, it should be altogether avoided. The more modern modern conception of Tu BiShevat as “Israeli Arbor Day,” wherein children are taught about the fruits of the land of Israel and the regulation of agriculture by the Torah, is a positive development and should be encouraged.

Tu BiShevat is actually nothing more than a calendrical marker created by Hazal in order to facilitate the observance of the laws of orlah. The Mishnah, in Masekhet Rosh HaShanah 1:1, lists Tu BiShevat  as one of the four “new years” that takes place throughout the year. It says,


באחד בשבט ראש השנה לאילן כדברי בית שמאי בית הלל אומרין בחמישה עשר בו


“On the first of the month of Shevat is the ‘new year for a tree,’ according to the words of Beit Shamai, but Beit Hillel say, ‘One the fifteenth day of the month.'”

This rosh ha-shanah le-ilan (ראש השנה לאילן) is a necessary institution in order to objectively determine when the fruit of newly-planted trees becomes permissible according to the Torah in Vayikra 19:23-25, which says:


כג וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עָרְלָתוֹ אֶת-פִּרְיוֹ שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים לֹא יֵאָכֵל כד וּבַשָּׁנָה הָרְבִיעִת יִהְיֶה כָּל-פִּרְיוֹ קֹדֶשׁ הִלּוּלִים לַיהוָה כה וּבַשָּׁנָה הַחֲמִישִׁת תֹּאכְלוּ אֶת-פִּרְיוֹ לְהוֹסִיף לָכֶם תְּבוּאָתוֹ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם


23 – And when you come to the land and you have planted every type of [fruit-bearing] tree for food, you shall consider its fruit as forbidden as the orlah of the uncircumcised. For three years shall those trees be as uncircumcised to you and you shall not eat from them. 24 – In the fourth year all of its fruit shall be holy to, and comprise a praise of, HaShem. 25 – In the fifth year you shall eat its fruit so that it may thereby produce additional fruit. I am HaShem your God.”

The word “uncircumcised” is arel (ערל) and refers to an uncircumcised male, while the world orlah (ערלה) is a direct reference to the remaining foreskin of such males. But what do a tree or fruit have to do with either circumcision or foreskins? This question will be answered in the course of this essay, but first let us consider the overall process regulating the life of a fruit tree.

  • First, the tree is planted.
  • Second, it is left completely alone for its first three years.
  • Third, the fruit produced by it in the fourth year is brought to Yerushalayim to be consumed there.
  • Fourth, from the fifth year onward its fruit is permissible and may be eaten as usual.

This wasn’t the end, however. From the fifth year onward, most trees were subject to further laws, such as the bikkurim. These laws applied to grapevines, olive trees, pomegranate trees, fig trees, and date trees – which, together with wheat and barley, comprise the shiv’at minin (the “seven species” of special produce grown in the land of Israel). Beyond these five, the fruit of all trees were subject to the laws of berakhot, which one is required to recite before and after consuming them. In other words, the tree goes from a state of being completely forbidden to being regulated by laws and principles of the Torah. But what is the connection to circumcision?

Brit Milah and Milat HaLev

In Vayikra 12:3, the Torah commands the circumcision of eight-day-old infant males when it says,


וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ


“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin (orlah) shall be circumcised.”

What is the purpose of this operation? The Rambam says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Milah 3:8, that its reasons are two:


מאוסה היא העורלה שנתגנו בה הרשעים שנאמר כי כל הגויים ערלים. וגדולה היא מילה שלא נקרא אברהם אבינו שלם עד שמל שנאמר התהלך לפניי והיה תמים ואתנה בריתי ביני ובינך


“The foreskin (orlah) is disgusting and the wicked of the world were deprecated thereby, as it is said, ‘For all of the nations are uncircumcised (arelim)’ [1]. Great is circumcision (milah), for Avraham Avinu was not called complete until he circumcised himself, as it is said, ‘Walk before me and be perfect, and I will give you my covenant, between me and you’ [2].”

[1] cf. Yermiyahu 9:25
[2] cf. Bereshit 17:1-2

So, (a) the foreskin is considered disgusting, and (b) it is the sign of completion and the covenant (berit) between the Jewish nation and God.

In the Moreh HaNavokhim (“Guide to the Perplexed”) III:49, the Rambam further explains his view of circumcision from the standpoint of philosophical erudition. He states that, “One of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse, to weaken the organ of procreation as much as possible, and thereby cause man to be moderate…The natural drive [for sexual fulfillment] retains its full power, but is guarded against excess.” In other words, the functional purpose of circumcision is to make it easier for Jewish men to make less use of their genitals’ sexual function.

The removal of the foreskin, beside its influence on sexual function, also has hygienic and practical daily ramifications. Uncircumcised males are often faced with the build-up of bacteria, discomfort, infections, and an extra need to touch or handle their members when urinating. All of this extra touching and the need for daily pre-occupation with and care for the sexual organ is obviated through the removal of the foreskin.

After the circumcision of a male, the surgical removal of the orlah, the usage of that organ is regulated by the wisdom and laws of the Torah related to sexual relationships. So it seems that the concept underlying the “circumcision” of trees and of Jewish males is the same: to lessen its overall usage and subject it to the laws of the Torah. For trees, years in which we can make use of their fruit are lessened and we are commanded to exercise complete restraint for the first four years. For males, their foreskins are circumcised, they enter into a time of complete sexual restraint, and then, once married, are directed to manage their drives and body in accordance with the regulations of the Torah.

“Circumcision” of the Heart?

Perhaps the imagery of circumcision makes sense when applied by the Torah to fruit trees, but what relevance could it have to one’s “heart”? In Devarim 10:16, the Torah commands us to,


וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד


“Circumcise the foreskin (orlah) of your hearts, and do not anymore stiffen your necks.”

In the Torah, the heart is seen as the seat of an individual’s emotional as well as intellectual activity. However, it requires development and training and is not naturally governed by principles or intellectual virtue. Without such training, the heart is essentially no different than that which is possessed by animals, operating on a level of reaction and instinct. So, what does this have to do with a “circumcision” of the heart?

In Bamidbar 15:39, we are warned,


וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם


“Do not turn aside after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you tend to go astray.”

The word usually translated “go astray” is zonim, which literally means “to prostitute oneself” or “to commit illicit sexual acts.” And herein lies the connection between one’s heart and circumcision.

Apparently, when we circumcise our hearts, we train ourselves to utilize it and be pre-occupied with it less, not more. It seems to me that the common conception of the Biblical phrase of “circumcising the heart” having the implication that we will have a greater and more intense use of our will and passions, may be mistaken. When one removes the orlah of their heart, they are effectively making it a subservient psychological organ with which they are not constantly pre-occupied. By virtue of being endowed with our rational capacity, signified by the tzelem elohim, we are supposed to be ruled by our intellects and not our passions.

Reflect on that for awhile.

Perhaps more later,

Kol tuv,


Did the Rambam Codify a Prayer to Angels?

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

Learning through the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, one will soon reach the seventh chapter of Hilkhoth Tefiyllah. The main subject of this chapter is the order and number of daily berakhoth and the general structure of the three daily prayers. However, in the fifth halakhah one encounters something apparently difficult in light of the general approach of the Rambam – a recitation that sounds very much like an entreaty or prayer to “angels.” The recitation is as follows:


וכל זמן שייכנס אדם לבית הכיסא אומר קודם שייכנס התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון שמרוני עד שאיכנס ואצא כי זה דרכן של בני אדם


“Each time that one enters the bathroom (beyth ha-kisse’), he says just before entering, ‘Be honored, O honored holy ones, servants of the Most High, guard me until I both enter and exit, for this is the way of human beings.'”

This version of the recitation is essentially the one that is found in the Talmudh Bavliy, but there are other versions. For instance, in the siddur of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (p. 88) the text, mostly identical to that of the Rambam, differs slighty:


התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון עמדו במקומכם והזהרו בי שזו דרכן שלבני אדם


“Be honored, O honored holy ones, servants of the Most High, stand in your place and beware of me, for this is the way of human beings.”

[It is likely that the phrase in the text of the Rambam “shimruniy – guard me” (שמרוני) is not actually a request to guard the one saying it, but should be understood as a terse form of that which is in the text of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, i.e. a warning that the “angels” should not follow the person into the place of uncleanness due to base human functions. At least, this is how I imagine that the Rambam understood it. In the intensely mystical Sassanian (Persian) environment of the Babylonian hakhamiym, it is likely that they did intend to entreat angels to guard them against “demons” or negative forces that they believed to be present in unclean places such as the bathroom. It is interesting to note that in some manuscripts of the Mishnah Torah the word המתינו (hamtiynu – “wait for me”) is found in place of שמרוני.]

Personally, as with most things, I believe that the original intention of this recitation is expressed in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy. The hakhamiym of Eress Yisra’el were generally more rational and divorced from superstition. There are several possible reasons for this, but in my opinion it is due to being surrounded by overtly idolatrous polytheism and their seeking to separate fully from it – seeing it for what it is – as opposed to the Zoroastrian culture which maintained an approximation to “monotheism” although not in pure form, the its abstract ideas being more subtle in their error than the concrete rituals of the Romans. As such, the popular astrological wisdom and superstitions regarding numbers and orientations of objects that was widespread in that part of the world – being unconnected with the worship of statues and various gods – had the appearance of wisdom and what we might call today “scientific knowledge” which was likely the basis that the hakhmey bavel allowed themselves to accommodate them. This can be understood similarly to how the halakhah requires that one rely on common medical knowledge to make determinations about when to profane the Shabbath for the sake of preserving life. Later readers and students of the Talmudh Bavliy, among both the Geoniym and the Rishoniym, tended to move the text away from such a context, alternately ignoring and/or reinterpreting the meaning of such statements, and many times choosing to base themselves on the more sensible (read, “less mystically-charged”) Talmudh Yerushalmiy.

However some of the Geoniym, most famously Rabbenu Hananel, began to learn the sughyoth of each Talmudh in a side-by-side comparative fashion, coming to conclusions on the meaning of the Mishnayoth on the basis of this type of contrastive study. It is likely that the Rambam also engaged in a similar type of study, as did Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, judging from their writings and halakhic rulings in various places which adopt the position of the Yerushalmiy over that of the Bavliy. This, despite the fact that the Bavliy was considered the more normative source of practical Jewish law. In a contemporary context, Rav David Bar-Hayyim יצ”ו of Makhon Shilo regularly holds classes wherein he has revived this method of study and pesaq, his close students referring to it as the “Bar-Hayyim method.” Even in the writings of Rav Hayye Gaon, there was at times a tendency to mention the halakhic practices of the yeshivoth of Eress Yisra’el with a tolerant attitude, even to the point of stating that although such was not the practice in Bavel, it was nevertheless acceptable to comport oneself according to their practices, should one personally elect to do so (cf. Ramban on b.Niddah 51b in reference to y.Berakhoth 2:3). This open attitude on the part of the Geoniym (and particularly Rav Hayye) speaks volumes with regard to the meqoriy understanding of regional mihaghiym, the elucidation of which is perhaps for another post.

The version preserved in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy is:


נכנס לבית הכסא מברך שתים אחת בכניסתו ואחת ביציאתו בכניסתו מהו אומר כבוד לכם המכובדים משרתי קודש דרך ארץ הוא פנו דרך ברוך האל הכבוד כשהוא יוצא מהו אומר ברוך אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה


“One who enters the bathroom (beyth ha-kisse’) makes the blesses twice; once on the occasion of his entering and one on the occasion of his exiting. On entering, what does he say? ‘Honor to you, O the honored ones, servants of the Holy One, this is the way of the world, turn to your path. Blessed is the honorable God.’ When he exits, what does he say, ‘Blessed [are you, HaShem Eloheynu, King of the universe,] who formed the man with wisdom.'”

In this version, the “angels” are simply enjoined not to follow, as if the one entering the bathroom is merely taking a respectful leave of their presence. It also lacks an entreaty of any kind, whether for protection or for them to “wait.”

Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, in his commentary to Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 7:5, seems to prefer the version of the Yerushalmiy since it is obviously less problematic in its phrasing. Rav Qafih there [הערה יז], after commenting on the problems of adulteration to the printed texts of the Gemara and the Rambam (as opposed to the uncensored handwritten manuscripts), quotes the Yerushalmiy and then writes, ונאה ויאה בהתאם למטרה (“…and [this version] is pleasing and befitting in accordance with the goal [of saying it in the first place].”) However, as we shall see, the Rambam did not consider it problematic because of his rational meqoriy understanding of who or what these “angels” truly are and the overall function of the recitation (referred to by the Yerushalmiy as a “blessing”) in the first place.

Never did the Rambam understand this declaration as a “prayer,” nor at any time did he deem requests or favors as permissible when asked of mal’akhiym (“angels”). In the fifth of his thirteen foundations (note: יסודות not עיקרים) of Jewish faith, the Rambam states emphatically that

The fifth foundation [of faith] is that God, blessed be he, is worthy that we serve him, to glorify him, to make known his greatness, and to perform his commandments, but not to do this to those that are below him, that is, in the creation. Not to the angels, or to the stars, or the planets – or anything else – for they are all created things in nature and in their function, there is no volition or judgment [of their function] except by God himself. It is also not fitting to serve them as intermediaries to God. Only to God should you incline your thoughts and your actions. This is the fifth principle and it warns against `avodhah zarah (idolatry) and most of the Torah speaks out against this.

From here it is clear as to what the exact position of the Rambam was regarding the concept of entreating entities other than God himself. He forbade it completely and considered it to be completely outside the realm of proper monotheistic faith. But with all of the other adjustments in the Mishneh Torah that the Rambam makes in order to present the halakhah in a way that is free from superstitious concerns, why did he not simply leave out this recitation before entering the bathroom? Did the Rambam indeed codify a prayer to angels?

No, he did not.

In an article by Rabbi Dr. Hananel Sari (Shevat 5773) written for the monthly newsletter of the organizations Makhon Mosheh and Halikhoth `Am Yisra’el entitled Or HeHalikhoth, the position of the Rambam from his own writings is explained as regards the nature of mal’akhiym and specifically the purpose and identity those that are constantly referred to by Hazal as accompanying each individual (cf. b.Ta`aniyth 11a).

The following is my translation of the article by Rabbi Dr. Sari:


…The mal’akhey ha-shareyth that the Gemara describes, such as that they accompany a person home from the beyth kenesseth on Shabbath, appear to be the same mal’akhiym that are mentioned in other places in the sayings of Hazal. They testify to the deeds of a person if he acts in a way that is not appropriate (cf. Ta`aniyth 11a), and it seems that a person is supposed to separate and take leave of them by reciting various apologies before they enter to perform their needs (i.e. use the bathroom – cf. b.Berakhoth 60b).

The Shulhan Arukh writes that today we no longer have the custom to say this apology, called hithkhabdu mekhubadim (“Be honored, O honored ones…” cf. Orah Hayyim 3:1), since we are not so strong in our yirath shamayyim (“fear of Heaven”) that mal’akhiym accompany us (cf. Mishnah Berurah). In the halakhic work Kaf HaHayyim an opinion is brought in opposition to this that there are mequbaliym who recommend to say it also in our times, since these mal’akhiym continue to accompany each person also today. This mahloqeth, whether mal’akhiym still accompany people in our generation or not and if it is feasible to turn to them (for they comment on their observation that reciting this passage accomplishes not only positive assistance to those who say it, but it is also an important part of promoting a more meticulous inspection of our deeds), these issues are debated due to a conception of mal’akhiym which is far removed from that of the Rambam.

In the Moreh Navokhiym (2:6, 3:22) the Rambam, in dealing with the explanation of the nature of mal’akhiym, mentions that the meaning of the “mal’akh” is not always consistent, however the basic meaning is always “shaliyah” (emissary). Because of this, each naviy is worthy of being called by this name and even the forces of nature through which the Holy One, blessed be he, manages His world, all of them are worthy to be called “mal’akhiym” and they are known as the pamalya shel ma`alah (i.e. the entourage of the Holy One, blessed be he). After this introduction, the Rambam brings a passage from Midrash Qoheleth that tells how when a person sleeps “nafsho omereth le-mal’akh umal’akh omer le-keruv – his soul speaks to the ‘angel’ and the angel speaks to the ‘cherub’.” And from here he learns that in the language of Hazal the creative faculty of a person is called a “mal’akh” (‘angel’) and his intelligence is called “keruv” (‘cherub’).

The Rambam knew that the majority of people were not accustomed to designating these parts of the soul as being mal’akhiym and would even resist accepting this fact. Therefore, he continues and says, “How important this is for the one who knows, and how ugly it is to those who are fools.” We find therefore who these mal’akhiym are according to the Rambam that accompany a person to every place that he goes, and it is clear now that in his opinion each person is accompanied by these two mal’akhiym also in our times. Now it only remains to clarify who is the “evil mal’akh” and who is the “good mal’akh.” The question is not so difficult, yet the Rambam also deals with this question, but in another chapter of the Moreh (2:12) – see there.


Making requests – either for intercession or favors – from objects or beings other than HaShem is a violation of the fifth foundation of Jewish faith and is the basis of all idolatry. Even nevi’iym who received their prophecies through the agency of a mal’akh didn’t ever make requests of them. Instead, they prayed directly to God and allowed God to use whatever means he deemed necessary to answer them.

This short recitation instituted by Hazal amounts to little more than a dual reminder to oneself while tending to regular bodily needs: (a) to hold off thinking holy and religiously-constructive thoughts while in the bathroom until we are finished and exit, and (b) that our intellects – our rational capacity (צלם א-להים sselem Elohiym)- are intensely powerful tools for serving the One and only Creator of the Universe, blessed is he.

So, we truly do have two angels sitting just above our shoulders. Now, that is something to think about.

Kol tuv,


To Kippah or Not to Kippah – A Meqori Question

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

While learning with my son through the Qissur Shulhan Arukh – Hazon Ovadyah, we came upon a curious passage regarding the [supposed] modern meaning of kippoth. Now, to be sure, we do not learn the Qissur Shulhan Arukh as halakhah le-ma’aseh, but primarily as a guide for discussing halakhah, as some of the time what it puts forth as law is actually latter-day custom and ritual which one may either take or leave. However, since Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l was overwhelmingly driven by the sources and by iqqar diyn in his halakhic approach, this particular edition usually does a fine job of spelling out the basics.

In the section of Orah Hayyim, Hilkhoth Hanhaghath Adham Ba-Boqer (siman alef – siman zaan), I encountered the following statement:


גילוי הראש לאנשים אינו אסור מן הדין ואין בזה משום בחוקותיהם לא תלכו אלא מידת חסידות היא לכסות את ראשו אולם בזמנינו שהחופשיים הולכים ברשות הרבים בגילוי הראש אדם שהוא דתי עליו להזהר במשנה זהירות לכסות ראשו תמיד שיש בזה יותר ממידת חסידות כי הכיפה שעל ראשו היא לסמל ולמופת שמעידה עליו שהוא דתי


“Bareheadedness (giluy ha-rosh) for men is not halakhically prohibited, and there is no relationship between not covering one’s head and the Torah prohibition of ‘you shall not walk in their statutes’ (cf. Wayyiqra 18:3). Rather, it is noted [in the sources] as a practice of the exceptionally pious (middath hasiydhuth). However, in our times where secular people walk around in public bareheaded, it is incumbent upon a religious man to be careful in following the advice of the Mishnah that advises one to cover their head always because there is something more in covering the head than just an exceptionally pious practice, for the kippah upon his head is a symbol and a sign that testifies concerning him that he is [properly] religious…”

Upon reading this, my son and I were both struck with the vast assumption that the final line was making and how, for the most part, it was simply untrue. The kippoth on many people we have encountered in the religious Jewish world are simply not a “symbol and a sign” that they were religious. It seems that in many cases the kippah on the heads of “frum” Jews “testifies” about them, but this testimony is nothing more than `eduth sheqer. With so much blatant dissonance between perceived values and the significance attached to kippoth, I think it is an important question to ask what actual purpose they serve.

In our times, far from being an assurance of actual piety, the kippah has become little more than a sectarian I.D. badge. And I would further contend that, because the Haredi-Hasidic world has decided to focus so much on external modes of dress while allowing spiritual and moral bankruptcy among many of their members, the kippah has essentially become meaningless as an indication of yirath shamayim and instead serves in most cases to project false piety. So it behooves us, in my opinion, to ask the fundamental questions of who, when, where, why, and how Jewish men are supposed to cover their heads after it has been clarified whether Jewish men are even required to cover their heads at all. And, as with most halakhic discussions on this site, we will begin with the statements of Hazal.

Passages from the Gemara


A Jordanian Arab wearing a keffiyeh, a garment essentially identical to the sudra/sudar mentioned in the Gemara.

Masekheth Berakhoth 60b – Gives the nosah for the berakhah of “spreading one’s sudar upon his head” as “oter yisra’el be-thif’arah – who crowns each Jew with beauty.” The nosah found in the siddur of Rav Saadyah Gaon, however, is “‘otef yisra’el be-thif’arah – who wraps each Jew with beauty” and he instructs that the berakhah should be said upon donning a [main; outer] garment that is exempt from ssissiyoth (Siddur Rasag, p.89). A sudar that is not too large may be such a garment (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Ssiyssiyth 3:1). Giving the text of a blessing without an explicit directive to wear a particular garment carries with it the strong implication of “if” a person chooses to wear such a garment, then they must pronounce the appropriate blessing, but if they choose not to, then they [obviously] do not need to do so. However, there is nothing in this Gemara that would suggest that it is required for Jewish men to wear a head covering.

Masekheth Shabbath 118b – Among various hakhamiym stating why they felt that they merited to greater spiritual reward(s), Rav Huna is recorded as saying that his reward will be due to the fact that in his life he never walked even the distance of four cubits with a bare head (giluy ha-rosh). This, too, does not mandate that Jewish men cover their head, and it shows that Rav Huna’s practice was a matter of personal piety, not a universal law.

Masekheth Shabbath 156b – Perhaps the central reference to covering the head within the talmudhiym, in this passage astrologers are said to have informed the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yisshaq that he is destined to become a thief. Because of this his mother famously told him, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and request [Divine] mercy.” The Gemara says that Rav Nahman was unaware of the reason for her instructions (apparently she did not tell him about the astrologers) and that one day while sitting bareheaded under a fig tree belonging to someone else he was so overcome by temptation that he climbed the tree and began eating a cluster of figs using just his mouth. This passage does not address the covering of the head being required, in fact it indicates again that most Jewish men did not cover their heads. However, doing so – when coupled with prayer – can be a tool for personal development and mussar.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 29b – Rav Hisda is praising the person of Rav Hamnuna, his friend, to Rav Huna. Rav Huna says that when Rav Hamnuna visits he would like to meet him. Upon his arrival, Rav Huna noticed that Rav Hamnuna did not wear a sudar and when he asked him why he didn’t cover his head, Rav Hamnuna responded that the reason was because he was not yet married. Rav Huna is then said to have turned away from him, telling him not to appear before him again until he was married. This Gemara indicates two things: [1] that in some parts of the Jewish world in the times of the Amora’iym men did not cover their heads at all until they were married and [2] that appearing before hakhamiym with an uncovered head was considered disrespectful in the opinion of some, but not all.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 31a – As mentioned in Masekheth Shabbath, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, is said to have not walked even the distance of four cubits because he stated that he believed that the Shekhinah (the “presence” of God; a created light sometimes accompanied by other physical phenomena to indicate holiness and/or blessing – NOT a manifestation of the Divine itself) resided just above his head and he wanted to be reverent. Again, no directive for all Jewish men to cover their heads.

There are other instances in the talmudh where kisuy ha-rosh (“covering of the head”) is mentioned in passing, but these are the main ones that are generally referenced by the literature. And, as is clearly seen, no universal directive for Jewish men to cover their heads exists as a matter of law.

The Opinion of the Rambam

The Rambam essentially codifies the sentiments expressed in the above sections of Gemara and relates them to the practices of the talmidhey ha-hakhamiym in which they engage due to their exalted status in Jewish society (cf. Hilkhoth De’oth 5:10[6]). In the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:52), he relates similarly to covering the head, again calling it the practice of Torah scholars, but also noting that – metaphysically – it is a recognition that the Shekhinah hovers just above the head of a person. His reference there is specifically to the spiritually elite who are on a high level of personal piety.

There is one place in the Mishneh Torah where the Rambam requires that the head be covered – during tefiyllah and especially as shaliyah ssibbur (cf. Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 5:5). This requirement is based on the explicit directive in this regard in the minor tractate Masekheth Soferiym (14:15). However, the Rambam is not referring to a kippah, but rather the covering of one’s head with a talliyth gadhol.

The opinion expressed by the Rambam is generally considered as normative across the board, encompassing the views of both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi rishoniym.

The Opinion of the Taz

The Turey Zahav (pop. “Taz” – Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, c. 1586-1667) was a Polish rabbi whose commentary on the Shulhan `Arukh by the same name is one of the central works reprinted since the 17th Century. Segal was likely an admirer and believer in the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo wa-zikhro), although he passed away before the entirety of his pseudo-messianic charade came to light.

In his comments on Orah Hayyim 8:3, the Taz states that it is forbidden halakhically to uncover one’s head – even for a moment. His reasoning is that being bareheaded is, in his view, an explicit practice of the non-Jewish nations and their cultures, being therefore a violation of Wayyiqra 18:3, which says, “be-huqqotheyhem lo telekhu – in their statues you shall not walk.” Although Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l rules based on the strict opinion of the Taz that one should do their best to keep their head covered whenever possible (cf. Iggeroth Mosheh, Orah Hayyim 1:1), most authorities – including Rav Feinstein himself – reject the position of the Taz and instead maintain that wearing a kippah is a matter of custom, not law, and that covering the head in general is a middath hasiydhuth for men and is not a halakhic requirement.

The Coup de Gr”a

Perhaps the most famous opinion on the matter is that expressed by the Gaon of Vilna (pop. “Gra” – Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720-1797). After examining all of the aforementioned passages and opinions, the Gr”a states emphatically that there is never a halakhic requirement for any Jewish man to cover his head, even while praying. His conclusion (as found in Biur HaGr”a, Orah Hayyim 8:6) is as follows:


Biur HaGra OH 8-6 A

Biur HaGra OH 8-6 B


“The fundamental principle of the matter is that there is not a prohibition at all to have an uncovered at any time. Only in front of great Torah scholars and also during prayer is it the astute thing to do from the standpoint of proper character development (mussar). And the rest of the day [i.e. outside of prayer and standing before Torah scholars] is only for those holy ones who stand continually before HaShem.”

The last line is meant as a reference to those who, of their own personal piety, decide to cover their heads continually in imitation of those hakhamiym of the Gemara who were said to have done likewise. But the reiteration of the sources by the Gr”a, and his exposition of them, is generally taken as iqqar ha-diyn, as was initially stated above by Qissur Shulhan Arukh of Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l.

What to do?

Let me be perfectly clear: I am NOT suggesting that anyone change their current practice. I am not on a campaign to have anyone remove their kippah. However, what I am certainly suggesting is that we see kippoth for what they are – a Jewish custom that is both expedient and astute in certain religious and social contexts, but also possessing the potential (under the current general mindset) to deceive. Therefore, kippoth are not “meaningless” as a symbol of Jewish identity in and of themselves, but they are “meaningless” as a tool for one Jew judging another.

I was once learning with a close friend of mine – who softly identifies as “Haredi” – and in the course of our discussion, the subject of wearing a kippah came up. My friend related that his rav, a prominent Haredi-Hasidic rabbi under whom he learned in yeshivah for years, once stated emphatically that if a Jew does not wear a kippah in public, then he may be assumed to be a qal (“a lightweight,” i.e. someone who is lax in their observance of the Torah and halakhah; in other words, such a person cannot be trusted with kashruth or other religious duties). I was taken aback. “Just like that?” I said, “Without any halakhic basis or personal knowledge of the individual?!” My friend almost immediately realized how harsh and potentially damaging a statement that was and started to try and find a justification for it. I told him that his rav had no right to classify good Jews as sinners without sound halakhic basis for doing so. I further told him that if his rav truly upheld such a position, then ironically it was he himself that was the “qal.” To treat someone as a sinner when they are not – or for a contrived reason not based in halakhah – is the classic definition of siynath hiynam, or “baseless hatred.”

There is a fear, I think, that if rabbis assert the actual laws regarding kippoth and headcovering in general that people will become even more assimilated into non-Jewish culture and eventually leave Judaism as a result. I have seen many great rabbaniym, including Rav Ratson Arussi shlit”a, assert that today “it is different” and that we are now obligated by popular [Haredi-Hasidic] custom to cover our heads, especially when making a berakhah or mention a Divine Name, even though no such halakhic obligation exists. But this begs the question that if not wearing a kippah was somehow some sort of a fast track into apostasy, why didn’t either Hazal, the Geoniym, or the Rishoniym address it? With all of the persecutions and the outright practices of idolatry by the non-Jewish nations around them which historically led to assimilation and apostasy among Jews, yet never was there a decree by Hazal made that Jewish men need to cover their heads in order to solve the problem. And if they did not see it as a solution, then why should we?

The fear is that as secularism encroaches daily upon our faith and our morality, we need every bit of sanctity and personal piety that we can get as religious Jews. Ergo, so this line of thinking goes, giving orthodox Jews the room to choose whether they will wear a kippah or not puts us in danger of losing spiritual ground.  We must make a para-halakhic decree and force everyone to abide by it! In my humble view this is a mistaken philosophy. Not mistaken as in a misunderstanding of the sources, has wa-shalom, but rather a misunderstanding of social reality. As noted above, the orthodox world has unfortunately developed into a situation where dress, not (or, at least more than) deeds or manners, dictate one’s level of devotion to Judaism, and where the presence of a kippah – or lack thereof – can determine how someone will be treated and how their family will be treated. Even the mere color or style of a kippah leads others to make grotesque personal judgments – all completely divorced from an actual examination of moral character. Le-`aniyuth da’ati, it would serve the spirituality and moral atmosphere of Kelal Yisra’el if such empty, external, and ultimately baseless ways of relating to fellow Jews were discouraged, not reinforced. Not placing so much ill-founded emphasis on the wearing of a kippah would eventually force orthodox Jews to relate to actually relate to the person and not their choice of hat.

A Possible Way Forward?

I think that if a significant number of orthodox Jews returned to the practice of carrying a kippah with them to wear at times of prayer, religious ceremonies, or for showing respect to prominent Torah scholars – while all other times being without one – it would eventually cause the Jewish world to be forced to redefine their values. A person who is meticulously shomer shabbath, is careful with kashruth, and in all other ways follows halakhah, yet does not usually wear a kippah while in public might be a moral force to be reckoned with. Perhaps.

So, “to kippah or not to kippah?” is a meqori question – with an answer that definitely comes out on the side of not needing to wear one, but the social impact such a decision makes is potentially complicated and someone who chooses to take that option should think carefully about this.

More later,

Kol tuv,


Lag Ba-Omer – A Mekori Perspective

The thirty-third day of sefirat ha-omer is widely referred to as “Lag Ba-Omer” (lag being the acronym for 33 in Hebrew – ל”ג) and is usually accompanied with celebrations featuring massive bonfires and singing the praises of a certain Mishnaic sage, among other things. The day is also colored by intensive study of the Zohar and special trips, parties, and dancing – all leading to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai in Meron, Israel.

As with most practices invented in more recent history, the exact origins of this day are unknown. And although it was at one time meant to commemorate the end of the plague/execution that was said to have affected the students of Rebbi Akiva in b.Yevamot 62b, it has been co-opted by kabbalists and has now become the flagship day of latter-day mystics and their celebration of the Zohar – along with Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai as its patron saint.

More than simply being of dubious and unknown origin, the celebratory practices and the piles of “halakhic rulings” that have accrued in the name of Lag Ba-Omer are completely without basis in Hazal. In fact, Lag Ba-Omer is not mentioned in any rabbinic text prior to the 14th century. And when it is first designated as a distinctive day during the weeks of the omer, it is referred to in the context of a Geonic tradition that it on this particular day the students of Rebbi Akiva stopped dying/being killed (cf. Menahem Meiri, Beit HaBehirah to b.Yevamot 62b). And it is for this reason that there was [supposedly] a call for some sort of celebration, or at least a relaxing of the traditional mourning rites, such as taking a haircut or getting married.

It was not until the early part of the 17th century that the spuriously honored day of Lag Ba-Omer was co-opted by Lurian kabbalists, specifically by Luria’s well-known publicist (and likely producer of pseudepigraphic sayings and ideas in his name) Chaim Vital. In Vital’s work, “Etz Chaim” (cf. Sha’ar Sefirat Ha-Omer, chapter 7) he equates the hilula (pop. “yahrtzeit”) of Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai with the 33rd day of the omer. According to the Zohar literature, the anniversary of Rebbi Shimon’s death is actually a day of celebration and great joy (cf. Idra Zuta, Parashat Ha’azinu). This connection is centered around the false claim that Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai was actually authored the Zohar, having supposedly written it while hiding in a cave with his son from the Romans (cf. b. Shabbat 33b). According to the Arokh HaShulhan (493:7), Lag Ba-Omer is the day when Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai emerged from the cave.

Based on the reports of the personal practice of Luria, and those seeking to imitate him, masses of people go to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shimon in Meron to seek his blessing. Additionally, there has developed a practice of dancing around bonfires and singing praise songs to Rebbi Shimon ben Yohai (e.g. “Bar Yohai nimshakhta ashrekha…”), and sometimes silk scarves or other elements of clothing are burned while reciting kabbalistic incantations in an effort to dispel demons and evil spirits. The entire enterprise has turned into a dangerous, primitive, and idolatrous activity that certainly falls under the category of darkhei emori (the “ways of the Amorite”). A great many celebrants and would-be pilgrims to Meron end up turning to Rebbi Shimon in prayer, making all sorts of requests to their patron saint of the Zohar, committing one of the simplest forms of avodah zarah, namely, placing intermediaries between themselves and God (Rambam, Mishneh TorahHilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:1-2:1).

I have written before on this site about the dubious origins of the Zohar literature and of it being a forgery. And now there has developed around it an equally dubious day – a baseless holiday for a baseless book.

The crafting of pseudo or para-halakhic regulations that have no basis in Hazal is actually discussed within the halakhah and is related as being the activity of the Tzaddukim (“Sadducees”), the heretics who denied the Oral Torah itself. The Rambam mentions this illegal tendency in Hilkhot Parah Adumah 1:14, where he says:


הצדוקין היו אומרים שאין מעשה הפרה כשר אלא במעורבי שמש לפיכך היו בית דין בבית שני מטמאין את הכוהן השורף את הפרה בשרץ וכיוצא בו וטובל ואחר כך עוסק בה כדי לבטל דברי אלו הזדים שמורים מהעולה על רוחם לא מן הקבלה


“The Tzaddukim used to assert that the preparation of the parah was not acceptable (kasher) except for those who, [after having immersed in a mikveh,] wait until after the sun completely sets (i.e. tzet ha-kokhavim). Therefore [in order to completely dismiss with their heretical contentions] the beit din (i.e. the Sanhedrin) during the Second Temple period would purposefully make the kohen who burned the parah impure through contact with a dead reptile, or something similarly impure, have him immerse [in a mikveh], and directly afterward complete his appointed task. All of this was to nullify the words of these [heretics] who willfully give legal instruction based on what whimsically arises in their mind and not based on the received halakhic tradition…”

Now, I am not saying that inventing religious practices and creating pseudo and/or para-halakhic days of celebration is necessarily equivalent to being a heretic, but judging from the above statement it must be close – or at the very least, viewed negatively by Hazal. And it is certainly considered dangerous enough to warrant the performance of details that directly defy such things in order to keep the halakhah clear in the minds of the people. This concern for halakhic clarity, I suspect, was the reason for the strong reaction from Rebbi Yosi in the following story related in b.Pesahim 100a.


Pesahim 100a - selection


“Once Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rebbi Yehudah, and Rebbi Yosi were reclining [together around a table for a meal] in Akko and [while they were eating] the sun set, signaling the beginning of Shabbat. Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to Rebbi Yosi, ‘Would Be-Ribbi (the form of address for one eminent scholar addressing another) like to interrupt the meal now and follow the more stringent halakhic opinion of Yehudah our colleague?’ He said to him, ‘Each and every day you prefer my halakhic opinions over those of Rebbi Yehudah, and now [i.e. when he is here with us] you act as though you prefer his opinions in front of me? Will you also rape the queen with me in the house (quoting from Megillat Esther, 7:8)?’ He said back to him, ‘If so, then we shall not interrupt the meal now lest the students see us and determine the halakhah throughout the generations [incorrectly].’ The students who were there said, ‘They did not move from there until they established that the halakhah was in accordance with the opinion of Rebbi Yosi.”

There were two opinions about what was necessary if, while eating at a seudah that began after Minhah on a Friday afternoon, the sun completely set: [1] the opinion held by Rebbi Yehudah was that once the sun sets one must interrupt the seudah, re-wash, make kiddush, and begin a completely new meal in honor of Shabbat, and [2] the opinion held by Rebbi Yosi was that it was not necessary to interrupt one’s meal at sundown at all.

Between these two opinions, that held by Rebbi Yosi had already been determined as the halakhah. However, Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel decided to ask Rebbi Yosi if he wanted to be hoshesh to the other opinion, since Rebbi Yehudah was there with them – apparently as some gesture of respect to his participation in the meal. But Rebbi Yosi, immediately sensing the potential damage that could be done due to the many students observing their teachers and listening intently to their conversation, reacted very harshly and made a clear and unquestionable declaration about which opinion was actually the halakhah. He even quotes Ahashvarosh who, returning from the garden to find Haman prostrate on Esther’s couch, says, “Will you also (i.e. after everything else) rape the queen with me here in the house?!” Rebbi Yosi intends, le-aniyut da’ati, to indicate that setting a mistaken halakhic example for the students, and by extension the Jewish public, is akin to raping the legal process (i.e. forcing a halakhic position which is not halakhah). Now, in this case the position of Rebbi Yehudah was not heresy and he was not a Tzadduki, but nevertheless they made sure that everyone in attendance understood clearly that his position was not the halakhah and need not be followed.

When it comes to kabbalistic practices that were instituted by various latter-day mystics and “prophets” (although they did not always lay claim openly to the title of “prophet,” they nevertheless claimed – or their followers claimed on their behalf – to have possessed “ruach ha-kodesh,” a form of prophecy) we need to be diligent to resist them, in my opinion, through non-participation. The incredible number of urban myths and legends regarding actual Jewish law and practice among the religious Jewish public is proof-positive that too many have stood by and consented to the inventions of regional scholars which have no basis in the received halakhic tradition, and an even greater number have helped to cement the general Jewish sentiment that such practices, once inaugurated, can never be annulled since they somehow magically became a part of the “mesorah.”

Once again, the Jewish people today lacks the legal authority of a lawmaker in respect to halakhah and retains solely the potential for an authority of expertise, comparable to that of a lawyer. All that any rabbi, teacher, scholar, or beit din can do is apply the law as it stands to various circumstances and make very limited, low-level, regional rulings within the bounds of codified halakhah. While there still remains legal diversity within the bounds of such halakhah as it currently stands, any real changes to its determinations cannot take place until proper universal (i.e. Sanhedrinal) authority is restored.

The policies of “live and let live” and “go along to get along” with regard to the constant religious extremism and social pressure of the Haredi-Hasidic world is how we got to where we are in the first place. Years ago, when a more-or-less docile (passive) orthodox mainstream was faced with a pushy elitist (expansive) Haredi-Hasidic fringe, the latter was either tolerated by the former or – as the case usually is – succeeded in intimidating them into obedience.

As a result, the twisted religious outlook of the once Haredi-Hasidic fringe has been allowed to infect and overtake the vast majority of “orthodox” Judaism. In the name of “unity” between Jews (which is ludicrous since the Haredi-Hasidic camp unites with no one), we have allowed error, idolatry, corruption, and a plethora of contrived Eurocentric practices to enter Judaism and masquerade as authentic tradition. If we do not stop giving them our tacit consent and passive allegiance, then they will continue to destroy peoples’ faith and to obscure the message of the Torah and the purpose of the Jewish people. If we want our sane, rational, reasonable, vibrant, compelling, and practically-useful Judaism back, then we need to take it back through a consistent call for authenticity and realism.

Lastly, we need to stop giving them our money.

  • Stop giving charity to Haredi-Hasidic organizations, stop sending our young men to their yeshivot to be ruined by the roshei yeshivah and brainwashed into submission to their agenda.
  • Stop sending our young women to their seminaries to be equally brainwashed into obsessive worry about their appearance and thinking that marital servitude is religiously noble.
  • Stop purchasing their books and materials, and stop supporting the members of any kollel. We do not need their system to spread Torah and uphold its values.

Basically, we need to stop seeking their approval. We have our own non-Haredi, non-Hasidic yeshivot, printing presses, seminaries, and rabbinical programs that are beautiful and which produce wonderful young Jewish men and women committed to a life of Torah. Haredi-Hasidic groups are part of a system that subsists almost entirely on welfare and public charity – remove your support and you remove their ability to intimidate and perpetuate their ideology.

 What I am NOT calling for is violence, disrespect, or rudeness. Not at all. Instead, the most effective way to assert your resistance is to simply stop participating and to become educated enough to argue for a reasonable mekori position. The goal is not to offend, but to convince; not to hurt, but to help. Anyone who makes it their business to openly and loudly say confrontational and controversial things – especially within the communal setting of a shul – is not a part of the solution, but is a [truly embarrassing] part of the problem. Such people are usually only egotistically looking for a fight.

Our true desire should be for positive and lasting change.

May HaShem give us the wisdom that grants us success.

Happy 22nd day of the omer,

Kol tuv,


Counting the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

Sefiyrath Ha`Omer – A Relatively Simple Misswah

The Torah, in Wayyiqra 23:15, commands us as follows:


וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה


“And you shall count for yourselves, [beginning] from the day after the [festival] sabbath, from the day that you bring the `omer-offering of waving – there shall be seven complete weeks.”

From this pasuq, Hazal taught – among other things – that each male of Kelal Yisra’el, beginning with the second night of Pesah, needs to begin counting (vocally, and with a berakhah) seven weeks (49 days), after which would be the festival of Shavu`oth. Although we cannot currently offer the `omer, we nevertheless count the days and weeks as was done in the days of the Beth HaMiqdash.

What Does It All Mean?

Usually around the time of sefiyrath ha-`omer we begin hearing the kabbalistic buzz of latter-day interpretations of these 49 days, seven weeks. Everything from combining supposed “sefiros” to “tikkun ha-middos” is mentioned in Jewish books and religious newspapers. Some even relate it to the “49 levels of tumah” that are mentioned in the Tiqquney Zohar.

The truth, however, is that the Gemara merely states that it is “zekher le-miqdash – a remembrance of the Temple” (b.Menahoth 66a) and nothing further. The Rambam in the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:43) expands on this idea and tells us that it is a “countdown” to the anniversary of the Matan Torah (“the Giving of the Torah”) and that, just as one counts the weeks, days, and hours before the arrival of a dear friend, so also does the Jewish nation build anticipation toward Shavu`oth by counting these seven weeks of days.

Traditionally, the anticipation of receiving the Torah “anew” – as it were – has generated a focus on teshuvah and the improvement of the miyddoth (character traits). This is an excellent idea, but unfortunately it has taken on a flaky mystical focus and any real personal growth is usually overshadowed if not forgotten. Le-`aniyuth da’ati (in my humble opinion), I think that the best and most productive tradition in this vein in that of learning a chapter a week of Pirqey Avoth. I also would HIGHLY recommend learning a chapter each day of Hilkhoth De`oth (laws of character development) from the Mishneh Torah, and I consider it no accident that it too contains exactly seven chapters.

Focusing on one’s miyddoth before receiving the Torah is completely appropriate since the halakhah states that Torah is only to be taught to a student whose character is refined and whose deeds are good (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Talmudh Torah 4:1).

The Rambam in the MT: Just Two Short Halakhoth

Did you forget to count at night? Did you forget to count an entire day? Did you forget more than one day? Do you make a berakhah during the day? Can you make a berakhah if you forgot a day? These and other considerations are the common discussion points of the obligation to count the `omer today. The entire conversation has become one infused with many doubts due to a lack of confidence to decide the actual halakhah and has also become subsumed – as have many areas of Jewish law – in kabbalistic sentiments and concerns.

For all of the questions, doubts, and supposed halakhoth that can be found related to sefiyrath ha-`omer – comprising a veritable mountain – the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah dedicates only two to the subject. Two short halakhoth, placed in Hilkhoth Tamiydhiyn Umusafiyn (7:19-20 in the Yemenite [i.e. Correct and Uncorrupted] Editions), give the definition of one’s obligation, and they are as follows:


יט מצות עשה לספור שבע שבתות תמימות מיום הבאת העומר שנאמר “וספרתם לכם ממוחרת השבת” ומצוה למנות הימים עם השבועות שנאמר “תספרו חמישים יום” ומתחילת היום מונין לפיכך מונה בלילה מליל שישה עשר בניסן שכח ולא מנה בלילה מונה ביום ואין מונין אלא מעומד ואם מנה מיושב יצא

כ מצוה זו על כל איש מישראל ובכל מקום ובכל זמן ונשים ועבדים פטורין מספירת העומר וצריך לברך בכל לילה אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציוונו על ספירת העומר קודם שיספור מנה ולא בירך יצא ואינו חוזר ומברך


19 “It is a positive commandment [of the Torah] to count seven complete weeks, from the day that the `omer is first brought, as it says, ‘And you shall count for yourselves [beginning] from the day after the [festival] sabbath.’ And the commandment includes the counting of the days along with the weeks, as it says, ‘You shall count fifty days.’ And we count at the very beginning of the day, therefore we count at night, from the night of the sixteenth of Nisan onward. One who forgot and did not count at night should count during the day.

And we do not count except when standing [le-khatehilah], but if one counted while sitting then [bedi`avadh] he fulfills his obligation.

20 “This commandment is an obligation for every man of [Kelal] Yisra’el, and it applies in every place and in every time. Women and servants are exempt from sefiyrath ha-`omer. It is necessary to make the berakhah each night, ‘who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded concerning the counting of the `omer‘ before one counts.

[Bedi`avadh] if one counted without making a berakhah, he [nevertheless] fulfills his obligation and he does not go back and make the berakhah.”

The Rambam seems to hold the following:

[1] Only men are obligated to count the `omer. Women may [and likely should] count, but without a berakhah. There are opinions that include women fully in the obligation and allow her to count with a berakhah, but this position is not that of the Rambam and I myself do not hold this way. Although, as an aside, I have daughters who hold like me and do not count with a berakhah, another who does not count at all, and another who counts with a berakhah. It is important to me that my children do not feel too separated from their religious Jewish peers as that can be psychologically damaging. If I make distinctions between our family and others in our community in terms of practice, it is only in very foundational issues and the vast majority of the time these distinctions consist of hashqafic tenets (e.g. monotheism, superstitions, `avodhah zarah, “rebbe” worship, “gadolatry,” etc.) – making a berakhah when their hearts are happy and full to do the will of God, especially when they have on whom to rely, is not something that I insert myself too strongly into. I give them a pleasant and non-threatening explanation of how I hold halakhically and leave it at that. (This is good advice for the many meqori parents out there who tend to be too exacting and harsh on their children – believe me this does critical damage to their little psyches!)

[2] Both weeks and days must be enumerated. This is normative halakhah today and needs no explanation.

[3] Counting begins the second night of Pesah. This is normative halakhah today and needs no explanation.

[4] Counting is [le-khatehilah] done at night. This means after complete nightfall (sseth ha-kokhaviym) and no earlier. If one forgot to count at night, then they should still count during the day – and apparently with a berakhah. Although the position of the majority of later rishoniym and poseqiym is to count during the day only without a berakhah, there were Geonic opinions (such as the Halakhoth Gedholoth) who did not object to making the berakhah even during the day. It seems that this was also the opinion of the Rambam. In the style of the Rambam, if he felt that making a berakhah during the day was prohibited, then he would have said so – and he does not. It is important to note that Mori Yusef Qafih z”l interprets the Rambam as being of the position that the berakhah is not said when counting during the day, and since we do have a general halakhic principle of safeq berakhoth le-haqel (“in a doubt of the obligation to make a berakhah we always refrain”), perhaps this is the best course of action. After all, the Rambam states explicitly that the berakhah does not prevent one from fulfilling his obligation.

[5] Counting should be done while standing. As is clearly stated above.

[6] The berakhah is – ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו על ספירת העומר

Forgotten Days

Although the Rasa”g (Rav Sa`adyah Gaon) in his siddur rules that one may continue counting with a berakhah through the entire seven weeks of the `omer, he does note that if one forgets to count the very first night then he cannot continue counting at all with a berakhah. This is because of his diyyuq of the word “temiymoth – complete” from the pasuq in Waiyyiqra (p. 155 – קנה).

The position of the Rambam in his teshuvoth (as brought there by Mori Yusef Qafih z”l in his commentary on the MT) is that one who forgets on any night, even the first, even if he misses multiple days, may upon remembering (or simply doing teshuvah, whatever the case may be) continue to count throughout the entire seven weeks with a berakhah. The Rambam adds, however, that one who forgets a day may not say the word “temiymoth – complete” in the declaration made on the last night of the `omer. The word “temiymoth – complete” is not said in the nosah of the Baladi Yemenite tradition, but rather the Aramaic word “shalmey – complete,” and it too should be avoided by one who forgot to count for an entire day during the `omer.

Enjoy your countdown to Shavu`oth. I will be posting about the contrived “holiday” of “Lag BaOmer” in the next post.

Until then, berakhoth le-kulam.


[Note: The above is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon 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.]

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,


Becoming Mekori – What It Isn’t

Being mekori does not mean joining a new Jewish sect. There is no such thing as “Mekori Judaism” or “Mekori Halakhah” per se. Mekoriut is not a sect or an “ism” and there are no charters, manifestos, or statements of faith attached to it. In fact, it is not a list of beliefs that one ascribes to, nor is it really a label at all. However, the terms mekori and mekoriut definitely do describe something. So, what is it?

The terms “mekori” and “mekoriut” are collective terms used to describe a social and religious phenomenon within the Jewish world. Perhaps it could also be described as a trend – a trend of returning to the texts of Hazal and their direct expositors in a search for simplicity, truth, and authenticity in halakhah and hashkafah. This phenomenon is most often a reaction to the overwhelming Euro-centrism that has come to stereotype orthodox Judaism along with the superstitious, dogmatic, and authoritarian approach that comes with it.

This return is largely taking the form of baalei teshuvah and gerim accepting upon themselves the ways of Sefardic and Yemenite Jewry – both of which tend to be more reasonable and markedly authentic [read, closer to the plain meaning of the Talmudic texts] in their determinations of halakhah. However, I am also aware of Ashkenazi/Haredi families that, being burned-out with excessive humrot and halakhic additions (many of which cause not only emotional strife, but financial strain), have begun to privately practice the simple halakhot of Hazal and the Rishonim in areas of shemirut shabbat, taharat ha-mishpahah, and kashrut. The Jewish populace is beginning to demand that their leadership be reasonable, and due to the fact that the Haredi/Hasidic world demands years of constant exposure to learning Jewish sources, they are unable to keep their adherents from accessing the information directly in the event that they desire to examine things for themselves. This dynamic often upsets their division of clergy versus laity, so they engage in shaming and scare tactics in effort to elicit obedience, but many are starting to see through the insecurity inherent in this approach.

There is also less and less tolerance for the [near obsessive] force of “minhag” in the orthodox world, especially when it is used by Haredi/Hasidic leaders to simply blot out, brush aside, or overturn clear halakhot that are recorded in the sources and were handed down to us by Hazal and their expositors. Religious Jews are beginning to tire of re-enacting the less-than-ideal conditions of Poland and the Ukraine when the actual observance of the halakhah as formulated in the Mishnah and Gemara is entirely within their grasp. Attendant to this is that a growing number of Jews want their religion to make sense and to be in step with reality, rather than the superstitious dissonance that the Haredi/Hasidic world often demands of its adherents.

Mekori” and “mekoriut” are not particularlistic terms meant to further divide, instead they are broad terms intended to unite. Just as “martial arts” collectively refers to any and every fighting style irrespective of national origin, or “Arabic” collectively refers to a variety of standard and dialectal forms of the language, or “phone” collectively refers to everything from a rotary to a smartphone, so also do “mekori” and “mekoriut” collectively refer to the scholars, halakhic decisions, modes of Jewish practice, and methodologies that share these trends in common. The inclusion of all mekori streams of halakhic Judaism under one umbrella is also not intended to create something distinct from the rest of Jewry, rather it is meant to engender teamwork and community around something unique that we desire to share with the Jewish world.

I believe that mekoriut is a major key to positive change within Judaism – only good can come from trying to be more faithful to Hazal and their wise direction – but it will be a tool for destruction if it becomes just another way to break off from the rest of the Jewish world and condemn them (has ve-shalom). This is also true of each movement or stream of mekori Judaism that decides that they alone have something to offer to the Jewish future – a “messiah” complex, so to speak. Throughout our history such sectarian neuroses have only led to Jewish deaths. This potential for destruction is even true of the Torah itself, as it says in the name of Rava, “…if you are a workman for [the Torah] then it is an elixir of life, but if you are not a workman with [the Torah] then it is an elixir of death” (cf. b.Yoma 72b – see also Rabbenu Hananel there). We have to be workmen on behalf of Torah values, not workmen on behalf of ourselves.

So, no sects, no groups, no “isms” – just Torah and authentic halakhah for all Jews. That is the vision and that is the phenomenon we see gaining momentum in orthodox Judaism today.