Next Week’s Podcast

לק”י

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Join us next week, Thursday March 16th, when we will discuss the question: “How will Judaism survive?” Tackling questions that arise from history, science, philosophy, and some of the functional aspects of Jewish law, we will try to determine a way forward to brighter present and a brighter Jewish future.

Tentative program:

  • Must Judaism change or die?
  • Positive identity Judaism
  • The power is with the people, not institutions
  • What kind of book is the Torah?
  • Truth and information in an era of accessibility and education

Be sure to send in your questions and comments for the TRA Mailbag!

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Happiness, Mazal, and Eating Sweets – Solving the Mystery of Drinking on Purim

לק”י

The Dictum of Rava

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

“Rava says, A person is obligated livsumei on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’” (b.Megillah 7b)

Many people, adopting a widespread view, interpret Rava here to be communicating some sort of obligation to excessively consume alcohol on Purim until one either loses some or all of their senses.

What many do not know – or choose to ignore – is that there were those among the Geonim and the Rishonim who understood this statement, as it appears within the context of the Gemara, as being nidheh (“pushed out,” “set-aside,” “excluded”) from the halakhah. These posekim maintain that there is, in reality, no obligation to drink at all other than the inclusion of wine at one’s Purim seudah, and much less to get drunk.

The Rishonim most notably of this position are the Ran and the Rabbenu Efraim (see Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Megillah 695:1-5 for a full discussion). In his siddur, Rav Saadia Gaon lists and explains the laws of Purim, but makes no mention whatsoever of drinking or becoming drunk. He merely instructs that a seudah be eaten during the day that includes meat and wine, both which usually accompany any festive meal in the halakhah.(cf. b.Pesahim 109a, Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:1). He also nowhere mentions falling asleep from drunkenness (cf. Siddur Rasag pp. 256-257).

However, it is likely that we are missing the entire point that Rava intended to make in his famous statement. The entire enterprise of drinking on Purim in the first place is suggested based on reading the word livsumei as “to make [oneself] drunk.” In full context of the Gemara and the Geonic codes, the basis for such an interpretation is in actuality fairly weak, and is even forced. As was asked above, what if livsumei doesn’t refer to drinking alcohol at all?

Happiness, Not Drunkenness

The so-called “minor tractates” (masekhtot ketanot) of the Talmud include textual material which dates to the time of the Mishnah which was arranged, expounded upon, and then formally redacted during the Geonic era into fourteen separate discussions. In printed editions, these smaller tractates usually appear just after Seder Nezikin. One of them, Masekhet Soferim, appears just after Avot De-Rabbi Natan and discusses various laws related to the public Torah readings and various sacred books.

In Masekhet Soferim 20:1 (19:1 in some editions), it says:

“And we do not make the blessing on the new moon except for on motza’ei shabbat when a person is happy (mevusam) and in nice clothing…”

The word “happy” (mevusam) is the adjective describing someone who has performed the action of livsumei, used in Rava’s statement on b.Megillah 7b. If we understand livsumei to mean “getting drunk” then we have to reasonably conclude that Masekhet Soferim is instructing one to do kiddush levanah while intoxicated. Such a reading is not only incorrect, but absurd.

The word livsumei means “to make [something] pleasant or sweet” (from the Hebrew word bosem, referring to spices) not “to become drunk,” and it is being used here to metaphorically indicate “happiness,” i.e. the happy mood resulting from the proper observance of the weekly Sabbath was considered – at least by this opinion – to be the best time to recite the blessing upon the new moon.

The Ra’avyah (Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi, 1140-1225) also appears to confirm such a meaning for livsumei. His text of the Gemara was apparently at slight variance from our printed editions. He quotes Rava as saying:

מיחייב איניש לבסומי נפשיה עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

This reading appears to make even more sense (especially in immediate context, as will be explained below) and very likely means:

“A person must make himself happy (lit., pleasant) to the point that he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’”

In his commentary, the Ra’avyah makes no mention of drinking or drunkenness on Purim, but only cites his unique version of the Gemara (cf. Sefer Ra’avyah, Megillah, Siman 564) which he apparently views as being enough of a straightforward instruction regarding the nature of celebration of Purim.

The Sheiltot De-Rav Ahai Gaon: From Pretext to Context

Probably the greatest and most cohesive proof that the meaning of livsumei is “to makes oneself pleasant” comes from the Sheiltot De-Rav Ahai Gaon (8th century). Divided into sections according to the weekly parashah, each section in the Sheiltot contains both halakhic and hashkafic Q&A that is arranged topically. The answers to the questions asked are selected from the Gemara and the Midrash and often contain readings that do not match our printed editions of the Talmud. More often than not, Geonic works such as the Sheiltot and the Halakhot Gedolot hold more accurate versions of Talmudic passages and are regularly used by Talmudic scholars to solve textual difficulties – and it appears the statement of Rava in b.Megillah 7b is no exception.

In Parashat Vayakhel (Sheilta 67), Rav Ahai Gaon relates the dictum of Rava as follows:

ואמר רבא מיחייב איניש למיכל ולמישתי ולאיבסומי בפורייא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

“Rava says, ‘A person is obligated to eat, to drink, and to be happy (le-ivsumei) on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordekhai.’”

It seems that Rav Ahai’s version of the Gemara (or, perhaps his elucidation of it) is meant to mirror the pasuk in Kohelet 8:15 which says, “And so I praised happiness (simhah), that there is no good for a man under the sun except to eat, drink, and to be happy…”

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah of Berlin, 1816-1893), in his Emek HaSheilah to this passage, has a lengthy comment which features his very thorough his assessment of this citation of the Sheiltot:

[1] He begins by noting that the Gemara in the Talmud Bavli does not include a mention of eating and drinking, but only says livsumei.

[2] He notes that Rav Ahai Gaon, by first mentioning eating and drinking, is reminding the reader that the main point of the seudah is to “thank and praise” HaShem, as it states in the beginning of the sheilta. A state of thankfulness and praise, says the Netziv, cannot be attained while drunk (cf. Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:20).

[3] He also notes that the only “drunkenness” (shikhrut) that should result from this seudah is the normal “intoxication” that happens in the course of a hearty meal of meat and wine. He makes reference to b.Ta’anit 26b where a kohen does not lift his hands at either Minhah or Neilah of Yom Tov for the reason that “intoxication” is common on those days. Rashi there explains that the reference is to a “kohen shatui” and being a shatui means only that one has had a minimal amount of wine (approximately 3 oz.) – he is not “drunk” in the forbidden conception of drunkenness (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 4:17). Although still in his right mind, a kohen shatui is nevertheless forbidden from performing his priestly duties after having recently consumed even a single serving of alcohol.

[4] He cites the opinion of Rabbi David Luria (Radal) who notes that the meaning of livsumei – as it is used in the Gemara directly in the discussion that directly precedes Rava’s famous statement – is to eat sweet delicacies at the seudah (“revaha livsima shekhiha – room for sweets can always be found” – see b.Megillah 7b). The Radal goes on to say that “It has been established for us that any drinking is supposed to be during the seudah, and wine which is taken with a meal does not get one quickly intoxicated,” a reference to Maimonides in Hilkhot De’ot 5:3.

[5] He then brings the Ba’al HaMaor who, citing Rabbenu Efraim, is of the opinion that, due to the violent narrative involving Ravah and Rabbi Zeira at the Purim seudah, the statement of Rava is nidheh from the halakhah.

[6] To counter the Ba’al HaMaor, the Netziv brings a teshuvah from the Hatam Sofer (OH, Siman 196) where it is explained that the narrative of Ravah harming Rabbi Zeira cannot be applied broadly because Ravah was a special case (i.e. shani – see there). His special circumstances were due to him having been born under the planet Mars, as it explicitly says in b.Shabbat 156a:

האי מאן דבמאדים יהי גבר אשיד דמא א״ר אשי אי אומנא אי גנבא אי טבחא אי מוהלא אמר רבה אנא במאדים הואי אמר אביי מר נמי עניש וקטיל

“One who is born under Mars will be one who sheds blood, as Rav Ashi observed such a one will either be a surgeon, a thief, a slaughterer, or one who circumcises. Ravah said, ‘I was born under Mars.’ Abaye responded, ‘You also inflict punishment and kill.’”

After hearing the pronouncement about those born under Mars and what their professions will be, Ravah notes that he too was born under Mars and yet he engages in none of these professions. Abaye responds to Ravah that he is nevertheless a violent person. According to the Hatam Sofer, Abaye made this statement in reference to the very incident of Ravah and Rabbi Zeira at the Purim seudah!

That there is in reality no such thing as astrology or astrological influences is the topic for another discussion. However, within the general Persian worldview of the hakhmei Bavel in the Gemara it seems that what took place during their Purim seudah was not due to drinking at all, but was instead attributed to the predisposition of Ravah to violence. The Gemara also states that specifically during the month of Adar is when a person’s individual mazal is very strong (b.Ta’anit 29b), which may – in the view of the Amoraim – have pushed Ravah over the edge toward being actively violent. In fact, when this story is related in the Sheiltot, it entirely lacks the word ivsum (intended as “became drunk” – a word present in the Gemara’s version) before kam Ravah (“Ravah arose [and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira]”) and does not seem to attribute Ravah’s violent episode to drinking at all.

Instead, the Hatam Sofer explains that Rabbi Zeira refused to make a seudah with Ravah the following Purim because there was a clear and present danger (i.e. shekhiah hezika – see there) that needed to be avoided, as it is forbidden to rely on miraculous intervention for safety in the face of practical realities. This is perhaps instructive for us today when choosing what company to keep for the Purim festivities. There are those who will undoubtedly be violent and inappropriate on Purim, but such people should be avoided out of a concern for our personal safety and the safety of our children.

Conclusion

The version of the Sheiltot supports the reading of the Ra’avyah, Rav Sa’adia Gaon, and others who never viewed Rava’s statement as being a reference to becoming drunk, and therefore saw no need to exclude it from the halakhah, as did the Ran and Rabbenu Efraim. Instead, Rav Ahai Gaon in his Sheiltot understands Rava to be referencing a normal, Biblical rejoicing where the Jewish people eat, drink, and are happy (Kohelet 8:15). The word livsumei is either a reference to rejoicing or to the eating of delicacies, as mentioned in the direct context of the Gemara just before the statement of Rava. The narrative of Ravah slaughtering Rabbi Zeira was not due to drinking at all, but was instead due to Ravah’s supposed astrological inclination toward violence, caused by the supposed strengthening of his mazal during the month of Adar. Rabbi Zeira’s refusal to make another seudah with Ravah is also not due to his prior excessive drinking, but due to the prohibition of relying on miracles in the face of practical safety concerns. On that page of the Gemara, the story should be seen as a related tangent – something that is highly common in the flow of the Talmudic discussion – being apropos because of the context of the incident having taken place at a Purim seudah.

It should now be abundantly clear that there is simply no way to justify the drunken and intensely shameful behavior that is perpetrated year after year on Purim in the name of Torah and Judaism.

Purim Sameah,

Kol tuv,

YB

Mekori Q&A – Major Problems with the Kabbalah

Q: Someone asked…

I have heard you mention on several occasions that you object to the kabbalistic idea of there being multiple manifestations of divinity. Do you believe that such ideas are avodah zarah (idolatry)? The kabbalists who employed such language were strict monotheists, and it seems that their depictions amounted to little more than poetic illustrations of the many perceptions of God found within the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. If someone were to affirm such ideas, but still believed in Ein Sof, would you still have a problem with that? Thanks.

A: Thank you for your questions.

I do indeed view the “multiple manifestations of divinity” concept (referred in the kabbalah to as partzufim, or “faces”) as being avodah zarah. The Kabbalists who used this language were not strict monotheists. Rather, they were instead very strict dualists who affirmed a belief in a transcendent god (which they termed Ein Sof, or “The Infinite”) who, prior to the creation, “creates” (or, emanates) another god which is imminent (i.e. finite). This language is explicit in the Zohar literature, especially in its explanation of Bereshit 1:1.

Zohar 1:15a [ד] –

 בְּהַאי רֵאשִׁית בְּרָא הַהוּא סְתִימָא דְּלָא אִתְיְידַע לְהֵיכָלָא דָא
הֵיכָלָא דָא אִקְרֵי אֱלהִים וְרָזָא דָא בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלהִים

“With this Reishit (beginning), the Concealed One which is not known created (bara) this chamber, and this chamber is called Elohim (God). This is the secret meaning of the verse, ‘Be-Reishit bara Elohim‘ [i.e. ‘Using Reishit, Ein Sof created Elohim’]”

This passage reads Bereshit 1:1 as referring to two gods (powers, potencies, emanations, or what have you), one creating the other. Incidentally, the Gemara on b.Megillah 9a discusses certain changes that were made by the hakhmei ha-sanhedrin when preparing the first Greek translation of the Torah as requested by King Ptolemy. One of the changes they made was to switch the order of the words in their translation from בראשית ברא אלהים to אלהים ברא בראשית in order to avoid the appearance of polytheism since, due to the common style, as enabled by the syntax of the Greek language, the most important word would be placed first. This being the case, the hakhamim were afraid that בראשית, appearing first in the Torah, would be misunderstood as a reference to a deity. As Rashi explains there:

אלהים ברא בראשית. את השמים – שלא יאמר בראשית שם הוא ושתי רשויות הן וראשון ברא את השני

“God created in the beginning – the heavens, etc. [This rewording] was so that no one would say that Bereshit is a name and that there are therefore two gods (reshuyot, “powers”), and the one created the other.”

The commentary of the Tosafot on this passage says that,

הרי בראשית אינו שם כלל אלא בתחילה

“Behold, Bereshit is not a name at all, rather [it means] ‘In the beginning.'”

The Zohar not only adopts the mistaken reading of Bereshit 1:1, but it also purports that it is the “secret” meaning of the original words.

Just in case you think that my reading of the Zohar is uncharitable, the Kisei Eliyahu (written in the 19th century by Eliyahu Suleiman Mani as an introduction to the Zohar and Lurianic Kabbalah) makes a sharp distinction between the Ein Sof – to which he says it is forbidden for us to direct our prayers – and Zeir Anpin (one of the lower manifestations/faces), which is referred to as “our God” and which, together with his celestial wife Nukba, cares for and governs the world on behalf of the Ein Sof.

From page כ”ו – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-1

“The principle that arises [from the previous section] is that the First Cause – which is called Ein Sof by mouths of all the kabbalists – is the one who emanated, created, formed, and made all things, and he conceals himself within Zeir Anpin. Therefore Zeir Anpin is the ruler of all the created things, and directs them, and nourishes them, and provides for them with the power of Ein Sof that is in him. Therefore, he [i.e. Zeir Anpin] is our God and we are his people, for our souls are a part of him, and he is whom we should worship, etc.”

From page כ”ז – [brackets mine]
kisei-eliyahu-citation-2

“And so you see that all the directing of the world is done through Zeir Anpin, and everything is by the power of Ein Sof, blessed is he, which illumines him like a soul within him For with his power [i.e. the power of Ein Sof] Zeir Anpin performs all of his deeds, and also with all of our calling out to him. All of our prayers are to him [i.e. to Zeir Anpin] because ‘he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock of his hand’ [cf. Tehillim 95:7]. And just as our teacher [Yitzchak Luria] has written (may his merit protect us) in the book Mavo Shaarim, ‘We are his people Israel and all of us are guarded by Zeir and Nukba, and we are their children, as it is written: You are children of HaShem your gods’ [cf. Devarim 14:1, apparently elohim here is being taken by Luria to be plural and a mystical reference to the heavenly couple of Zeir Anpin and Nukba].”

This type of language is unfortunately not rare, and it is highly problematic.

As for the monotheism of those who espoused such ideas, I would say that while they may have strongly professed a strict monotheism, their writings betrayed otherwise. Rav Yihyeh Qafih, z”l refers to this type of profession in his Milhamot HaShem as being no different than when Christians, after explaining all of their ideas about multiplicity within God, the incarnation through a virgin, etc. then proceed to say “but we really just believe in one God” – it is not much more than lip service to a monotheistic idea. In saying this, Rav Qafih quotes directly from a very important passage in the Moreh HaNavokhim of the Rambam which says,

If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts. This is like the doctrine of the Christians, who say that He is one and He is three, and that the three are one. Of the same character is the doctrine of those who say that God is One, but that He has many attributes; and that He with His attributes is One, although they deny corporeality and affirm His most absolute freedom from matter; as if our object were to seek forms of expression, not subjects of belief. For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true. Renounce desires and habits, follow your reason, and study what I am going to say in the chapters which follow on the rejection of the attributes; you will then be fully convinced of what we have said: you will be of those who truly conceive the Unity of God, not of those who utter it with their lips without thought, like men of whom it has been said, “Thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). It is right that a man should belong to that class of men who have a conception of truth and understand it, though they do not speak of it. Thus the pious are advised and addressed, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Selah.” (Ps. 4:5)

(I:50 – Friedlander Edition)

True monotheism is necessarily apophatic, and consists in our taking every measure to nullify any corporeality or spatio-temporal attributes from our conception of God. Doing this is essential to “pulling the plug” on even the possibility of idolatry, which a proper monotheistic conception of God necessarily precludes.

The Kabbalah, however, is not only decidedly cataphatic, but its practitioners relate to divinity in very practical and matter-of-fact ways on the basis of such mistaken descriptions of God. I wish that it were an uncommon occurrence, but I regularly hear the kabbalistic rabbis in my own city make bold and unabashed statements such as, “You’re God, I’m God, everything is God. In Judaism we believe that the entire world is just God” (this is a direct quote). The repeated instances of these and similar statements simply disallow me from accepting the thesis of the kabbalistic apologists. To claim that all of the cataphatic statements made in the Zohar and other mystical books are mere “metaphors” or “poetry” to illustrate certain concepts does not stand up to textual scrutiny. Further, it defies the consistent events of history and cannot be maintained with complete intellectual honesty. While I do believe that some kabbalists (e.g. the Ben Ish Hai) worked very hard to distance the kabbalah from this troubling phenomenon, and they should be respected and praised for doing so, the fact is that the majority then did not, and today still do not, do so.

Another important point about the “poetic” language used to express acts of God in the kabbalah is the switch from kingly decrees in the Torah’s creation narrative to very intense and graphic sexual imagery in the narrative of the Zohar. One of the reasons, in my view, that the Torah expressed creation in terms of statements or decrees (i.e. “let there be,” etc.) is because an expression of God’s will in a decree or a statement is one of the least corporeal concepts we can relate to, being readily translated into simile and metaphor. This portrayal was in sharp distinction to nearly every other creation myth in antiquity wherein the world was seen as either being manufactured from the bodies of the gods and goddesses themselves, or as a product of copulation between various divinities. Even the eminent scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, acknowledges the sexual mythos inherent in the Zoharic depiction of God in the act of creation, describing it as a “re-emergence” and admitting that such imagery is foreign and in direct tension with the Biblical account (cf. On The Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 108).

The purpose of not employing such common ancient mythological imagery – even though we do have a principle of torah dibrah ke-lashon benei adam (“the Torah speaks in human terms”) – was, I believe, to immediately divorce the ancient hearer of the Torah from such ideas. That the basis of creation are divine pronouncements or decrees was also explicitly championed by Hazal (cf. Pirkei Avot 5:1ff) – they never made any mention of supposed “divine sexuality.” The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so also does a fool repeat their folly” (Mishlei 26:11). May we be delivered from all such foolishness.

Lastly, and most importantly, the standard for idolatry is much lower than needing to express cataphatic views of God or adopting a form of Panentheism. As Rambam explains in the opening chapters of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, idolatry – in its most basic form – consists of merely using or appealing to other beings (or perceived beings) as intermediaries between oneself and God – even if one does not believe that such intermediary beings are themselves gods or a part of God (cf. 1:2-3, Yemenite Manuscripts). Rambam is very clear there that professing a strict monotheism does not rescue one from committing serious acts of idolatrous worship.

Thanks for writing. I hope this helped to answer your questions.

Kol tuv,

YB

Parashat Vayetze: HaMakom – God’s Place or the Place of God?

Forthodoxy

From Parashat Vayetze arises the source for the well-known title for God Ha-Makom (“The Place”).  This title is traditionally used in the Haggadah Shela-Pesah and is sometimes translated into English as “the Omnipresent.” But how does the Hebrew phrase “the place” give rise to the concept of omnipresence?

The popular teachings of the Kabbalah and Hasidism have postulated that HaMakom is a veiled reference to Panentheism and the central Lurianic doctrine known as “tzimtzum” (i.e. that God somehow made a “void” in the midst of himself into which he placed the created universe). This idea, of course, is completely without basis within the teachings of Hazal and its explanation entails the setting aside of several tenets of Judaism and principles of pure monotheism. This misunderstanding of the meaning of HaMakom is based on a passage from the Midrash Rabbah that says “He is the place of the world, but the world is…

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The Prohibition of Hadash – A Meqori Perspective

[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.]

[Further Note: The position expressed below does not necessitate a functional change in the kashruth of hadash as commonly practiced today. However, it does place an almost identical practical outcome on a newer, and squarely meqori, line of reasoning. This is the intended purpose of what follows.]

What in the world is “hadash”?

The word hadash means “new” and is a reference to “new grain” – in other words, grain that has taken root after the sixteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nisan of one year until after the sixteenth of Nisan of the following year. During that time, the grain which took root is referred to as hadash or “new” and it is forbidden to eat it until after the sixteenth of Nisan.

So, what happens on the sixteenth of Nisan? This is the second day of the week of Pesah when the first of the grain offerings for the year – called the Omer – is offered in the Beyth HaMiqdash, or the Temple. In a time like today when there is no Temple, new grain is forbidden for the entire day of the sixteenth, but when the offering is brought in the time of a Miqdash, new grain becomes permitted directly after the Omer is offered during the day of the sixteenth within Jerusalem and surrounding areas, and after halakhic midday (hassoth) in the outlying areas. After either the Omer is offered or midday or the end of the sixteenth of Nisan, the grain is no longer referred to as hadash (“new”), but yashan (“old”), signifying its new permitted status.

Interestingly enough, the laws related to hadash and yashan stem from a single verse in Wayyiqra 23:14 which says,

TEXT

כג:יד  וְלֶחֶם וְקָלִי וְכַרְמֶל לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, עַד עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה עַד הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת קָרְבַּן אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם.

TRANSLATION

23:14 And you shall eat neither bread, nor parched grain, nor fresh kernels, until this very day, until you have brought the [omer] offering of your God; it is a statute forever throughout your generations and in all your dwellings.

With such large legal implications stemming from such a short passage, the laws governing the consumption of hadash and yashan seem to be in the category of what the Mishnah in Masekheth Haghiyghah (1:8) refers to as כהררים תלויים בשערה מקרא מועט והלכות מרובות – “Like mountains suspended by a hair, [meaning that in connection to this body of laws there is] little scriptural basis and a multitude of halakhoth.”

This prohibition, however, does not apply to all grains. As with the laws of hallah and hamess, the first mishnah in Masekheth Hallah tells us that the application of the law is the same also with regard to hadash and yashan – namely, that the only grains under the prohibition are the hamesheth miyney daghan (“the five species of grain”) which are listed there as החיטים והשעורים והכוסמין ושיבולת שועל והשיפון. The Rambam in Kitab As-Siraj (his commentary on the mishnayoth) explicitly says – as does the Mishnah and Gemara – that these are exclusively species of Wheat and Barley. The common identification of שיבולת שועל with “oats” is an incorrect identification made by Rashi (cf. b.Pesahiym 35a), as is his identification of several others. This means that oats, rice, and even “buckwheat” (which is actually not “wheat” at all) do not come under the prohibition of hadash at all. As an aside, I always refer to oats by the Modern Hebrew designation קוועקר (pronounced “Keveyker” – i.e. “Quaker [oats]”) and not שיבולת שועל in order to avoid furthering the confusion and misidentification. 

The exact reasoning behind this commandment is unclear. However, In the Guide the Rambam generally places particulars of agricultural commandments under the rubric of opposition to the vast array of idolatrous practices by ancient pagans which were practiced by them in their agriculture. He also usually views them as being important, unlike animal sacrifices, for engendering respect for God and gratitude for His provision for mankind and specifically the Jewish nation. The Sefer HaHiynukh (#303) explains that the offering of the Omer prior to partaking of any grain from the wheat or barley harvest from the previous year is analogous to the requirement to make a berakhah before partaking of food, drink, smell, before performing misswoth, or witnessing certain types of people or phenomena.

Who, When, Where, and How

So, we have gone over the “what” and the “why” – remaining are the questions of “who,” “when,” “where,” and “how.” In other words,

  • Who is obligated to observe the prohibition of hadash, and on whose grain does the prohibition fall?
  • When does this prohibition apply? Just when there is a Beyth HaMiqdash, or in the current era as well?
  • Where does it apply? In the land of Israel, or does it apply outside as well?
  • How does one observe this prohibition in the places and times that it does apply?

The Rambam in Hilkhoth Ma’akhalot Asuroth 10:2-6 specifies that the prohibition of hadash applies in every era, even when there is not a Miqdash. This is the undisputed law from Hazal and it is contested by no one. So, then, this answers the question of “when.” And we will revisit the specific of the Rambam’s opinion a little later on in our discussion.

As for the “who,” it applies to Jews wherever they live whether men or women – and even servants, i.e. everyone who is obligated to the public misswoth associated with the Land. However, there is another aspect of the “who” question which we will also return to in a bit.

However, the central question in our time – and indeed in every era in which these halakhoth were discussed – is the question of “where”: Where does the prohibition of hadash apply? Within Israel or outside of it also?

The Mishnah states in Masekheth Qiydhushiyn (1:9) that

TEXT

א,ט  כל מצוה שאינה תלויה בארץ נוהגת בארץ ובחוצה לארץ וכל מצוה שהיא תלויה בארץ אינה נוהגת אלא בארץ חוץ מן העורלה והכלאיים ורבי אליעזר אומר אף החדש

TRANSLATION

Every commandment which is not dependent on the Land, we conduct ourselves [in accordance with it both] in the Land and outside of the Land. And every commandment that is dependent on the Land, we conduct ourselves [in accordance with it] only in the Land, except for `orlah and kilayyim. And Rebbi Eli`ezer says, even hadash.

Rebbi Eli`ezer includes hadash, along with `orlah and kilayyim, as a prohibition that although it depends on the land it nevertheless is kept even outside of the land. We will examine the position of Rebbi Eli`ezer momentarily.

In Masekheth `Orlah (3:9) it says explicitly that

TEXT

החדש אסור מן התורה בכל מקום

TRANSLATION

Hadash is forbidden from the Torah in every place.

Because of the seemingly explicit nature of this Mishnah, many Rishoniym rule in accordance with the opinion of Rebbi Eli`ezer. However, as we shall see, the opinion of Rebbi Eli`ezer may not be as simple or as straightforward as it seems.

The Unresolved Bavliy

The issue of whether the prohibition of hadash applies everywhere or just in the land of Israel is based on the interpretation of the last phrase in the pasuq (Wayyiqra 23:14) where it says be-khol moshvoteykhem – “in all of your dwelling places.” In other words, what are the halakhic implications of the word be-khol?

In the Talmudh Bavliy, Qiydhushiyn 37a-38b, the discussion of what exactly is implied by the phrase be-khol moshvoteikhem seems to have never been truly resolved, with the hakhamiym being essentially divided. As Rashi comments in his piyrush on the Torah there:

TEXT

בכל משבתיכם: נחלקו בו חכמי ישראל יש שלמדו מכאן שהחדש נוהג בחוצה לארץ ויש אומרים לא בא אלא ללמד שלא נצטוו על החדש אלא לאחר ירושה וישיבה משכבשו וחלקו

TRANSLATION

“The sages of Israel were divided on this matter (i.e. the extent of the halakhah as determined by the interpretation of be-khol moshvoteykhem). There were some that learned [from here] that the [prohibition] of hadash applies outside of the land, and there are some who say that this phrase does not come to teach us anything except that we were not commanded concerning hadash until after taking possession and settling [of the land] after its conquest and division [among the tribes].”

Because of this lack of clarity in the sughyah of the Bavliy, most poseqiym were left to determine their positions on the basis of the Mishnah.

The only direct examination of the position of Rebbi Eli`ezer suggests two different ways of understanding him: [a] he holds that due to be-khol moshvoteikhem the prohibition of hadash applies only in the land, and [b] that he held that it only applied in the land of Israel and was not related to `orlah or kilayyim (this view sees that the Tana Qama in the Mishnah only mentioned `orlah and kilayyim but thereby implied hadash) but was instead governed by the general rule stated by the Mishnah

In other words, his statement in the Mishnah either comes to argue for leniency or stricture. In the end of the discussion, they conclude that Rebbi Eli`ezer’s statement should be seen as an argument for a stricter interpretation as opposed to that of the Tana Qama which excluded hadash.

It should be very carefully noted that the seemingly explicit statement from Masekheth `Orlah cited previously is never brought as a decisive proof in the course of the sughyah in Qiydhushiyn with regard to hadash. It stands to reason that if the Mishnah in `Orlah was supposed to be understood as constituting an explicit and incontestable prohibition of all hadash everywhere in the world that it would have been brought in this discussion. Had they done so, it seems that they would not have had anything much to discuss.

Either way, as noted by the Taz on Shulhan `Arukh, Yoreh De`ah 293:4, the Gemara does not conclude in a very definitive way in favor of the view that the halakhah is definitely like Rebbi Eli`ezer. In fact, it appears that even in the generation of Rav Ashey there was a difference of opinion as to whether the prohibition of hadash outside of Israel was de-rabbanan or a de-oraytha, as it states in b.Menahoth 68b.

So, it seems that the Talmudh Bavliy holds that there is a prohibition of hadash even outside the land, but many particulars seem to simply be left un-examined. For instance, does this apply to Jewish grain outside of Israel, or does it apply to non-Jewish grain as well? What about grain that has been exported to lands outside of Israel – does this have the prohibition of hadash as well?

The Simple and Succinct Talmudh Yerushalmiy

Interestingly enough, the statements of Rebbi Eli`ezer in the Mishnah of both Qiydhushiyn and `Orlah are met with the exact same (i.e. uniform) explanation in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy. For those who may not know, there is no Gemara in the Talmudh Bavliy for any masekhta in the first order of the Mishnah, except for Masekheth Berakhoth. For this reason, `Orlah is simply left without commentary by the Persian hakhamiym. This is mostly due to the fact that such laws were agricultural and tied directly to the land of Israel. In Babylon they simply had little or no relevance.

In `Orlah 20a of the Talmudh Yerushalmiy it comments on the statement of the Mishnah that החדש אסור מן התורה בכל מקום by stating the Mishnah from Qiydhushiyn, but qualifying it as follows

TEXT

החדש אסור מן התורה בכל מקום:  מתניתא דרבי ליעזר דתנינן תמן כל מצוה שאינה תלויה בארץ נוהגת בארץ ובחוצה לארץ וכל [מצוה] שהיא תלויה בארץ אינה נוהגת אלא בארץ חוץ מן הערלה ומן הכלאים.  רבי ליעזר אומר אף החדש.  מה טעמא דרבי ליעזר (ויקרא כג) בכל מושבותיכם בכל מקום בין בארץ בין בחוצה לארץ.  מה מקיימין רבנין טעמא דרבי ליעזר בכל מושבותיכם בחדש שכן יצא בחוץ

TRANSLATION

Hadash is forbidden from the Torah in every place. The Mishnah of Rebbi Li`ezer (i.e. a shorter form of “Eli`ezer” used in the Yerushalmiy) that we learned there: “Every commandment which is not dependent on the Land, we conduct ourselves [in accordance with it both] in the Land and outside of the Land. And every commandment that is dependent on the Land, we conduct ourselves [in accordance with it] only in the Land, except for `orlah and for kilayyim. And Rebbi Li`ezer says, even hadash.” What is the reason [for the statement] of Rebbi Li`ezer? [It is because of the phrase] Be-khol moshvoteykhem, meaning in every place whether in the land or outside of the land. What did the sages realize was the reason [for the statement] of Rebbi Li`ezer? Be-khol moshvoteykhem, meaning that [the prohibition applies] even to hadash that has traveled (i.e. has been carried; exported) outside the land.

Both the Peney Mosheh and the Qorban `Eydhah on the Yerushalmiy affirm that the Yerushalmiy meant by this explanation to exclude grain grown outside of Israel itself, and that Rebbi Eli`ezer’s statement was intended to prohibit only grain grown within Israel that was exported to outlying areas or surrounding countries. This interpretation actually fits quite nicely within the seeming vague resolution of the Bavliy. Being that the vast majority of farmers outside the land of Israel were non-Jews in the Talmudic era, it makes sense that this limitation was put on the prohibition of hadash.

The Position of the Ba”H and Non-Jewish Grain

But what about in later eras when Jews were allowed to own land and farm it in various lands of the Diaspora? Does hadash apply to Jewish grain grown outside of Israel?

First of all, let’s consider the common reasoning given for why the majority of orthodox Jews do not observe the prohibition of hadash today. In fact, it is almost completely ignored. There are two reasons: First is the halakhic position of the Ba”H (the Bayith Hadash) written by Rav Yoel Sirkis z”l on the Tur, and the second – referenced mainly by Hasidic Jews – is a supposed dream of Israel Baal Shem wherein he supposedly received a permissive answer to the question of the halakhic status of hadash.

The second of these reasons is ridiculous and is not worthy of wasted breath. The Torah is not in Heaven (i.e. lo ba-shamayim hiy) and the hakhamiym ruled in the Talmud that דברי חלומות לא מעלין ולא מורידין – “the words of dreams neither elevate a matter or bring it down,” meaning that we do not take the contents of dreams into account as regards halakhic decisions. This is true even for a naviy emeth – a “true prophet” – so how much more so for anyone else, especially a dubious character like the supposed founder of the Hasidism.

As for the position of the Ba”H, it is a bit complex and enlists many different aspects found in the sefariym of his predecessors. His position is basically that since he saw that all of the rabbis of his locale (sixteenth century Poland) – including the more pre-eminent ones among his teachers – completely ignored the prohibition of hadash, there must have been a cogent halakhic reason and therefore he sought a legal justification of such a practice. Citing Rishoniym who held that hadash never applies in the fields of grain which were grown by non-Jews, he brings evidence from several places in the Gemara that the `Omer offering was not able to be offered from grain grown in the fields of non-Jews. He extrapolated from this that grain unsuitable for the `Omer offering must likewise not be subject to the prohibition of hadash.

The view of the Ba”H was harshly criticized by many, most notably the Gr”a and the Sifthey Kohen on the Shulhan `Arukh. The Shulhan `Arukh itself rules that the laws of hadash apply even to grain grown in the fields of non-Jews. However, Rav Qaro likely wrote this because he read the words of the Rambam in Hilkhoth Ma’akhaloth Asuroth chapter 10 as referring to all grain everywhere. However, this – like his reading of the Rambam with regard to `eruviyn – may possibly be an overly strict reading. Nowhere does the Rambam specify in the Mishneh Torah that the grain under discussion is of either Jews or non-Jews.

The Practice of Yemen and the Rambam

Mori Yusef Qafih z”l writes in his piyrush on the Rambam there that while many people understand the position of the Ba”H to be a hiydhush and a da`ath yahiydh (a singularly novel halakhic position), this is actually not the case as it was the practice in Yemen from early times to take a similar position to the Ba”H. In Yemen, the practice was not to apply the prohibition of hadash to the grain of non-Jews. He also writes that while he was growing up and learning in Yemen that he heard from hakhamiym there that it was very possible that this was in actuality the position of the Rambam himself, and he brings various indications for this assertion from within the text of the Mishneh Torah itself.

Rav Ratson Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono, rules that this is exactly the position of the Rambam with regard to hadash and the grain of non-Jews. He writes so specifically in a teshuvah.

TEXT

לק”י

כבוד הרב שלום וברכה

רציתי לדעת מה הדין ביום בנושא של תבואה חדשה לדעת הרמב”ם

איזה תבואה אסורה רק בשדה של יהודי? בארץ או גם בחו”ל? האם מותר “להעלים עין” ולא לשלוח משגיחים וכו’ לחו”ל על מנת לפטור את החדש בדרך של ספק ספיקא והאם בכלל אנו צאן הרמב”ם נוקטים בשיטת ספק ספיקא ואם כן מהם התנאים לסברה שכזאת

יורנו הרב וה’ יסייעהו בדבר תורתו

גלעד

תשובה: רק תבואת חו”ל של יהודי – אסורה. אבל תבואת חו”ל של גוי – אינה אסורה

TRANSLATION

Peace and blessing to his honor, the Rav.

I would like to know what is the proper ruling with regard to the new grain today in opinion of the Rambam.

Which grain is forbidden, only that which is grown in the field of a Jew? In the land or outside of it? Is it permitted to “turn a blind eye” and to purposefully not send kashruth inspectors to areas outside of Israel [where grain is grown] etc. and to render it permissible in any case through use of a safeq-safeqa? And can we who are included in the flock of the Rambam adopt the halakhic methodology of such a safeq-safeqa, and if so then what are the conditions for being able to use a line of reasoning such as this?

Guide us, our teacher, and may HaShem give you assistance in the matters of his Torah,

Gil`adh

Response: Only the [new] grain grown outside of Israel by a Jew is forbidden, but the [new] grain grown outside of Israel by a non-Jew is not forbidden.

Summing It All Up

So, it would seem from the sources that there is indeed a prohibition on hadash today, and that it applies even outside of the land of Israel. However, it only properly applies to grain grown by or in the fields specifically owned by Jews. Inside the land, however, it would seem that all grain – whether grown by Jews or non-Jews – is subject to the prohibition of hadash. This appears to be the best and most reasonable interpretation of both Talmudhiym overall, as well as the nuanced position of the Rambam himself.

Practical Considerations and Outcomes

And this brings us to the practical questions of “how”.

In Israel, the Rabbanut and other agencies are already very careful to monitor all grain grown in the land and to make sure that all products sold are, in fact, yashan and not hadash. However, while many Jews avoid imported products, specifically from America, due to concerns of hadash, it seems that there is really no halakhic concern in these instances and those living in Israel may eat of imported products made of wheat and barley grown by non-Jews from outside of Israel.

In America, the only possible concern for yashan would be the imported Israeli products which, as we just said, really present no concern (as long as they are certified kosher) since the Rabbanut and certifying agencies already monitor very closely for hadashThe same goes for most other countries throughout the world.

Europe is mostly the same, however I do remember hearing that Israel exports a lot of durum wheat used for semolina flour to some places along the coast of the Mediterranean. This type of flour is used mainly for noodles, so those in Europe may want to check into the source of flour for these products to make especially sure. Other than this, however, there does not seem to be any real concern for hadash.

I hope that this was clear, insightful, and helpful. I plan to draft a more concise Hebrew version of my understanding with regard to this important halakhic topic, so be on the lookout for that in the near future, be-`ezrath HaShem yithborakh.

Kol tuv,

YB

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:

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

“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:

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

“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:

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

“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:

TRANSLATION

…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.

END TRANSLATION

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,

YB

One Story or Two? – Rosh HaShanah and Breishit 1 & 2

[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.]

The Discussion Of Creation On Rosh HaShanah

In the Talmud Bavli (Rosh HaShanah 11a-b) there is a mahloket between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua regarding whether the creation of the world took place in the month of Tishrei or the month of Nissan. While Rabbi Eliezer maintains that the former position, Rabbi Yehoshua is adamant of the later. While both views eventually took on their own respective midrashic implications, only the view of Rabbi Eliezer was accepted for halakhic purposes (cf. b.Rosh HaShanah 27b).

The Baal HaTurim, commenting on the first pasuk of Sefer Breishit, refers to the well-known fact that the letters of בראשית can be rearranged to spell א’ בתשרי (“the first of [the month of] Tishrei”) which would cause the opening phrase of the Torah to be homiletically read as, א’ בתשרי ברא אלוקים – “On the first of Tishrei Elohim created [the heavens and the earth].” This is seen – at least by the author of the Baal HaTurim, Yaakov ben Asher – as decisive proof Rabbi Eliezer’s position on the matter.

As is pointed out by several Talmudic commentators, the actual discussion between these two Tannaim is not when the world was created, but specifically when man – the ultimate purpose of the world – was created (cf. Tosafot on b.Rosh HaShanah 8a, and the Ran on the Rif to b.Rosh HaShanah 3a). In other contexts it is related explicitly that Adam was created on the day of Rosh HaShanah itself (cf. Vayikra Rabbah 29:1, and implied in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 8). Thus, both the creation of the world and the creation of Adam Ha-Rishon have been traditional subjects (among others) which make up the study and spirituality of Rosh HaShanah.

Breishit 1-2: Two Creation Stories?

A discussion of creation and the origins of man necessarily brings one to the first two chapters of Parashat Breishit. However, due to the yearly cycle of sidrot both ending and beginning anew within the same festival week on Shemini Atseret (popularly “Simhat Torah”), it rarely – if ever – is apportioned the same one-week period for its study as is the case with the other portions of the Torah throughout the year. Therefore, it makes sense to take the thematic opportunity in the month of Elul to take a closer look at the account of creation found in the opening chapters of the Humash.

As is well-known, the narratives contained in the first two chapters of Sefer Breishit tell very different stories, each seeming to have a respective account of “creation.” This unfortunately has led many to err and assume that these chapters represent two ancient Mesopotamian accounts of the creation of the world which were placed at the beginning of the Torah by a “redactor” who, being religiously unable to decide between them, ultimately settled on including them both. This position has grown to be almost standard in most academic circles of critical Biblical scholarship. However, I would like to suggest that this reading of the text is premature. The claims of redaction and the presence of separate contradictory stories are made in an attempt to account for the various glaring differences between them. However, a question not often considered is: How different do two stories need to be before we must conclude that they were never meant to be the same story? The common position of critical Biblical scholarship – and particularly the Documentary Hypothesis – asserts that Breishit 1-2 were at one time two narrative with conflicting details, but once the Hebrew of the Biblical text is properly examined and understood in context – being taken at face value – it can be clearly seen that these two stories are actually one continuous narrative speaking about different things. Further, when we note certain general findings in the field of anthropology, we find that the cohesive truth of the Torah comes into uncanny focus.

The Rambam’s Use Of Anthropology

It is often wondered whether there is validity to using anthropology to aid our understanding of the Torah. However, the use of relevant cultural, scientific, and historical information is the hallmark of many commentators, from Rav Saadia Gaon to Rashi and many others throughout the ages of Jewish history.

One of the most well-known usages of anthropological texts amongst the Rishonim is found in the Guide to the Perplexed of the Rambam. He makes heavy reference to the culture of the “Sabeans” whom he understood as being a people extant during the lifetime of Avraham and the Avot. Additionally, he refers extensively to a work cited as the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture” which Rambam presents as giving a direct look into the practices of the ancient Canaanite societies of Erets Yisrael (cf. Guide 3:29, et al).

Using these tools, the Rambam comes to many conclusions about the meaning and intent of certain mitsvot that are unique and which are not necessarily in line with the views of his predecessors. He was well aware that as the world progresses, the knowledge of history progresses and it is therefore not only possible but important to use what is available to us in order to better understand the Torah.

Examples of such conclusions, based directly on the “Book of Nabatean Agriculture,” and are in response to ancient pagan agricultural practices. In 3:37 of the Guide, the Rambam explains that the laws of orlah (not eating or benefiting from the fruit of a newly planted tree in its first three years – cf. Vayikra 19:23-25) are to prevent a certain act of witchcraft, wherein the “Sabeans” (an ancient people that the Rambam is convinced by his cultural-anthropological studies are contemporaries of Avraham) put a certain rotted matter around the base of a tree, accompanied by some incantations, as a way to ensure growth. He also explains there that the laws against kilayim (planting mixed seeds in a field) and the cross-grafting of fruit trees stem from similar idolatrous concerns. Throughout the Guide, but especially in the third volume, the Rambam describes the ancient context and cultures of the Biblical world through his research into the pagan and pantheistic cultures of the time. In his view, there was simply no other way to study and obtain an understanding of the practical reasons behind the legal pronouncements of the Torah.

Breishit 1-2: How Are They Different?

While there are many differences between the First Narrative (henceforth FN) and Second Narrative (henceforth SN) of the creation account, I will attempt to highlight those generally viewed as the most significant.

  1. FN recounts a creation of heaven and earth in six days (1:1ff, 2:1-2), while SN states that they were created in a single day (2:4).
  2. FN begins with “the beginning” (1:1) in a seemingly ultimate sense while SN begins with the world already created (2:4-5).
  3. FN mentions the creation of light, day, and night (1:3-5), the sky or atmosphere (1:6-8), land and seas (1:9-10), sun, moon, and stars (1:14-18), fish and sea life (1:20-22) – SN mentions none of them.
  4. SN mentions a “garden” in a place named Eden (2:8,10,15), four rivers (i.e. Pishon, Gihon, Hidekel, and Farat), specific outlying geographical locations (i.e. Havilah, Gihon, Kush, Asshur), and precious metals and stones that are indigenous to the region of Havilah (2:10-14) – FN mentions none of them.
  5. FN presents a chronology wherein vegetation is created first (1:11-12), then animals (1:24-25), and then mankind (1:26-27), whereas the chronology of SN has first the formation of man (2:7-8), then vegetation (2:9), and then animals (2:19).
  6. In FN man and woman appear to be created simultaneously (1:26-17) and both of them only after plants and animals have already been created. In SN man is created first (2:7), then plants (2:8-9), then animals (2:19-20), and then woman (2:21-25).

It is also important to note some key differences in Hebrew terminology between FN and SN.  The terminology is listed below and then defined in the following section.

  1. Creation – In Breishit 1-2 the operative terms of “creation” are bara (ברא), asah (עשה), and yatsar (יצר). FN uses only the bara and asah, while SN uses only yatsar (with a single couplet usage of bara and asah in the introductory statement of 2:4).
  2. Earth – The terminology used for “earth” are more diverse: arets (ארץ), adamah (אדמה), and gan (גן). With a single exception (1:25 – adamah is used as an Adjectival Noun to describe a certain type of animal), FN uses only arets, while SN uses mostly a combination of adamah and gan (the exceptions being the use of arets in the introductory statement in 2:4-2:5 and in reference to certain outlying regions in 2:11-13).
  3. God – In reference to “God,” FN exclusively uses Elohim (א-להים), while SN uses HaShem-Elohim (הוי”ה א-להים).

From the above list of narrative and linguistic discrepancies between the two accounts of Breishit it should become clear that the differences between them are neither subtle or nuanced.  Instead, there is a clear and fundamental diversion of SN from FN, all the while maintaining central themes between them – the Creator, the world, and man.

Lashon HaKodesh: No Synonyms

When these two accounts are read – especially when in English translation – it is often taken for granted that words used in reference to creation, earth, and God are either the same or similar. Even among those who are aware of the essential differences in Hebrew terminology (some of which are listed above), there is a tendency to see these terms as synonymous with one another. It is perhaps from this simplistic error, more than anything else, that the difficulty and confusion among critical Biblical scholars arises in attempting to interpret FN and SN.

The assumption of synonymous language is only made worse when the difference in Hebrew terminology is ascribed to multiple authors, each of which are supposedly using their own unique literary style to relate the same story in contradictory fashion – an a priori assumption which is based on similar unnecessary a priori ontological commitments to multiple authors. Noting such abrupt differences in almost every aspect, a student of the Biblical text must ask themselves at what point it must be concluded that the two narratives are not telling the same story in contradictory fashion, but they are instead telling two different stories.

The Rambam in the Guide dedicates the majority of the first section to making distinctions between various words and phrases used in Biblical Hebrew which appear to be synonyms but in reality are not – their respective nuances being essential for a proper understanding of both the Tanakh and, by extension, the incorporeality and unity of HaShem. There are places in Hazal which either list different Biblical terms used to refer to the same concept or which comment on the use of two words used in similar passages of the Torah. However, the overwhelming consensus among Torah scholars is that although lashon ha-kodesh (i.e. Hebrew used in the Tanakh) contains general synonyms, it does not contain any true synonyms (cf. Malbim, Mevo HaMahberet and Yair Or). While being generally similar in meaning and scope, words in lashon ha-kodesh always maintain a unique meaning and purpose which makes them wholly distinct from all other similar terms.

For a Semitic language such as Hebrew, one which likely began as purely logographic (each symbol representing a word or idea) and eventually – like many Ancient Near Eastern languages – became a purely phonetic language, it makes sense that every word is unique and has no true synonyms, even if it has a relative synonym. Due to the tri-radical system of roots used by Hebrew – which anciently were a combination of [usually] three logograms – many times words which appear to be generally synonymous are in actuality vastly different from one another.

The following is a list of basic definitions of the Hebrew terms listed above:

[A] Arets (ארץ) – A general term for earth or land, which includes all strata within in it and what is on the surface (cf. Malbim, Yair Or – Ot Alef, 42).

[B] Adamah (אדמה) – Denotes “soil” and is used to refer to the top layers of earth (cf. Malbim, Ibid.)

[C] Bara (ברא) – Creation of something from nothing (i.e. yesh me-ayin יש מאין); not necessarily absolute nothingness, but rather the creation of a thing which did not exist prior (cf. Ibn Ezra on Breishit 1:1, Rambam, Guide 2:30, and Malbim, Yair Or, 10:9).

[D] Asah (עשה) – According to some commentators (cf. Rambam, ibid.), asah is a general term for action which can take on the nuances of other verbs used in conjunction with it (essentially equating it in FN with bara). According to others (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it specifically communicates the idea of completing something.

[E] Yatsar (יצר) – The verb form of the word tsurah (צורה), meaning “form” (cf. Malbim, ibid.), it denotes the application of a physical attribute (i.e. “accident”) to an already existing substance (cf. Rambam, ibid.). In other words, the creation or modification of something which existed previously.

[F] Elohim (א-להים) – Used in reference to God when performing strict justice, i.e. calculating and inflexible (cf. Breishit Rabbah 12:15 & 14:1, Shemot Rabbah 30:13, and Pesikta Rabbati 40. See also Rashi on Breishit 1:1). It is also the plural of eloah (אלוה) which is the general term for “god” or “deity,” being coupled with singular verbs when used in reference to God – the plural being what the grammarians call the pluralis excellentiae (“plural of excellence”) or pluralis majestatis (“plural of majesty” – often referred to as the “Royal We”), of which there are many examples in the Tanakh, even in reference to great human figures or those occupying positions of political power (cf. Rav Saadia Gaon, HaNivhar Emunot Ve-Deot II:6). The word underlying both elohim and eloah is el (אל) which can mean deity, but also “power” or “judge.” As such, term can even be used to refer to human judges or courts (cf. Shemot 21:6, Tehilim 82:1, et al).

[G] HaShem (הוי”ה) – The Four-Letter Name, this name of God denotes principally the attribute of mercy (cf. Ibid.). Known also as the Shem Ha-Meforash, this name most aptly expresses the personality and actions of the Creator (cf. Rambam, Guide 1:61) in relation to mankind, and especially Am Yisrael (cf. Shemot 6:1-2, and see Rashi there).

Macro & Micro: Putting It All Together

Based on the above-listed definitions, differences in general context (also listed above), as well as many other details which are too many to enumerate here, it should be clearly seen that is indeed possible to propose an informed and non-forced reading of FN and SN that shows them to be continuous not contradictory at all.

In basic terms, FN (Breishit 1:1-2:3) should be understood to giving a macro perspective – the overall creation of the world (i.e. every location in the world) – and SN  (Breishit 2:4-2:25) to be presenting a micro perspective – the development of Adam and Havah in the garden (i.e. in a specific location in the world, namely Eden). In other words, it might be said that FN is dealing with physical cosmology while SN is dealing with anthropology.

In this vein, the following understanding can be easily proposed:

FN begins with a generic declaration of the creation by God (1:1) and then proceeds to describe a planet which is tohu va-vohu (1:2) – “astonishingly empty” according to Rashi and “completely covered with deep waters like an ocean” according to Rav Saadia Gaon – with the unrealized potential for organic life. After this brief introduction, we see the stages of development from the perspective of the entire planet (which may or may not be intended to be sequential) in a series of separations – light and darkness, clouds and seas, water and dry land, etc. – and a series of generations – vegetation, fish, birds, animals, etc. In the end, we see the creation of mankind, creating them generically as “male and female” with a divinely-appointed purpose to rule the earth (1:26-28).

SN begins with a declaration acknowledging the events of FN, but then proceeds to announce the presentation of the toledot (“outcomes” or “recorded genealogy”) of the creation of heaven and earth (2:4). It begins with noting that no vegetation had sprouted, but uses a curious modifying noun “of the field” (2:5, ha-sadeh) which denotes crops which are cultivated rather than just general flora. In fact, the text of SN explicitly attributes the lack of such cultivated crops being due to that fact of there being “no man to work the soil” (2:5). Man is “formed” (2:7, vayyitser…et ha-adam, from yatsar) – meaning that there was a pre-existing creature known as man that was imbued with a divinely-bestowed faculty that enabled human spirituality, rationality, and intelligence (cf. Ramban on Breishit 2:7, Sforno on Breishit 1:26, and Rambam, Guide 1:7). After “the” man (ha-adam in 2:7 – note the definite article) is formed, he is placed in a garden (2:8, 2:15) which has fruit trees (2:9) and rivers flowing from it, which flow to neighboring lands which are deemed good for mining various metals and stones (2:10-14). The intention of the man being placed there is to engage it agriculturally (2:15). Shortly after this, various animals “of the field” (2:19-20, see above explanation) are “formed” – i.e., “domesticated” (cf. Rashi and Rav Saadia Gaon on 2:19) – and then given names by the man (2:20), which in an Ancient Near Eastern context implies ownership. A woman suitable for the man’s new pursuits is provided for him (2:21-25) and the couple becomes the model for future marital relationships among mankind (2:24).

The basic components of both FN and SN may also be seen as follows:

FN 1:1-2:3 SN 2:4-2:25
Creation of the human species in general Specific human couple being “formed” (i.e. modified) into spiritual and fully rational beings
Creation of the world and what it contains (i.e. a general perspective) Formation of a “garden” (i.e. agricultural plot) in a specific location, complete with cultivated crops and domesticated animals
God is referred to by Elohim, creating definite boundaries and physical “laws” (i.e. the natural order) as applies to the universe as a physical entity – i.e. the raw natural order God is referred to by HaShem Elohim, creating a defined system of human society, industry, and relationships (HaShem being a name signifying self-expression and covenant-devotion to human beings) – i.e. the raw natural order plus the imposition of man’s rational faculty on that order

Far from being contradictory, FN and SN constitute the Torah’s expression of two different and important beginnings – general and specific – each account complimenting the other.

The Neolithic Revolution

According to modern anthropology, humans have undergone several stages of development. The longest stage of human development lasted from their inception (estimated around 2.6 million years ago) until around 5,000-10,000 years ago, known generally as the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. During this time, humans were hunter-gatherers that were basically nomadic and lived in groups, very much akin to packs of animals. They had no developed language, only primitive superstition as their religion (if any), and no technology other than primitive implements made of stone, bone, and wood. They ate only what they could fish, hunt, gather from the wild, or scavenge. Human life continued this way until the time which anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution.

General estimates are proposed for its subtle beginnings (i.e 10-15,000 years ago), but generally date its most complex and punctuated phase (a sort of “boom”) in the region of Mesopotamia (and particularly in region of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, the site of modern-day Iraq) between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. This estimate works well if we understand the current Jewish calendar as being representative of the record from mankind in the “Garden” (retrojected at some point when calendrical years began to be tracked by human society) rather than being representative of the complete span of time since the initial creation – which is dated at roughly 13.5 billion years ago.

Thus, Breishit 2:4-2:25 seems to record (not in the technical sense) the evolution of Adam and his mate, Havah, and their sanctification by HaShem from the primitive, brutish (and one could even say that in many ways it was animalistic) hunter-gatherer mode of life, to a more refined pair of the human species which engaged in cultivation of plants for harvest, domestication of fowl and livestock, the systematic use of language, spirituality, monogamy, and other positive developments of the Neolithic Revolution. These developments set the stage for the eventual building of civilizations and societies (cf. Breishit 3-4), which in turn set the stage for the very purpose of the world: Israel and the observance of the Torah (cf. Rashi on Breishit 1:1).

The ultimate goal of this divine bestowal and direction of human development is to refine a person in his relationship with God and with his fellow man (cf. Rambam, Guide 3:27), leading to the merit of Olam HaBa.

Rosh HaShanah, Teshuvah, & Humanity

“Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree of the pasuk, it has in it an allusion [to something deeper], as if to say, ‘Awake, awake you sleepers from your sleep! And arise slumberers from you slumber! Search your deeds, return in teshuvah, and remember your Creator…”

– Rambam, Misneh TorahHilkhot Teshuvah 3:4

The connection between the theme of teshuvah and creation on Rosh HaShanah is that we, as the Jewish Nation, are called by the kol shofar to return to our essential God-given human distinctions and fully acknowledge the Source of all existence, HaKadosh Barukh Hu. The Torah reminds us of our “animal” potential and the need to re-dedicate ourselves to the ways in which we are different than the animalistic cultures which bustle around us (cf. Rambam, Pirush HaMishnayot – Intro to Sanhedrin 10:1) while we labor in the “garden” of the Torah and the mitsvot (cf. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel on Breishit 2:15). In other words, we are not supposed to be merely “humans” but “Jews” (cf. b.Keritot 6b, b.Bava Metsia 114b, and Maharal mi-Prag, Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 1).

Breishit 1-2 give us a deep explanation of our origins. It tells us that without that which we share in common with the Divine, we are merely an animal living in the outward form of a human body, but not truly people. We would all do well to remember the fate of Nevukhadhnetsar in Sefer Daniel (chapter 4) when HaShem removed from him his Tselem Elohim (“Divine Image”) for a period of seven years. The passage says that the lesson for Nevukhadhnetsar in being made to live like an animal was so that he would “know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of man, and to whomever He wills, He gives it.” (ibid. 4:29)

When hearing the tekiot ha-shofar on Rosh HaShanah, may we all awaken from the sleep of complacency, shake off the slumber of exile, consider our ways, return to the Torah of HaShem our Creator, and recognize that there is only One King who should rule absolutely in kingdoms of mankind.

Hotamo shel HaKadosh Barukh Hu emet – The seal of the Holy One Blessed is He is truth.” (b.Shabbat 55a)

“Gemar Be-Hathimah Tovah! – Finish with a good seal!”

 

There Are No Three Weeks – A Mekori Perspective

[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.]

The Three Weeks

Today is the 18th day of Tammuz, and most Jews are fasting from sun-up until sundown. Since the 17th, the usual day was yesterday – on Shabbat, when it is forbidden to fast – the observance was moved to today. As many know, Tzom Tammuz begins a period of time that many refer to as “The Three Weeks” which lasts until Tisha Be-Av (the ninth of the month of Av), the traditional commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, as well as a host of other tragedies which occurred in Jewish history.

Although the observance of this period of time is understood by the Haredi-Hasidic world – and even the mainstream orthodox and Modern Orthodox – as being an obvious fact of Jewish law, the truth is that it is no such thing. Like many observances that have developed over the course of the current long exile, the observances of the “Three Weeks” have no basis in the words of Hazal and are a bundle of para-halakhic customs which have ultimately led, in certain cases, to the violation of actual halakhot. Stemming from an ascetic Ashkenazic practice, most Jews refrain from shaving, trimming, haircuts, listening to music, purchasing new items (especially clothing), swimming, conducting weddings, and some even refrain from bathing during this time (although most who do so usually only abstain specifically between rosh hodesh Av and Tisha be-Av, which is referred to as “The Nine Days,” as will be explained below).

The “Three Weeks” are also known as the time of bein ha-metzarim (“between the narrows”), an expression and designation that arises from an alternate explanation of Eikhah 1:3, “…all of her pursuers overtook her within the straits (ben ha-metzarim)” in the Midrash Eikhah Rabbah (1:29). “Within the straits,” says the Midrash, are the days between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. But it wasn’t until the 14th century Austro-Hungarian rabbi, Isaac Mi-Tirna (or, Tyrnau), in his Sefer HaMinhagim that the practices of the “Three Weeks” were recorded. This work is later cited by the Rema in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 551:1,2,4, and 10), along with a similar work by the Maharil, as the basis of the European customs observed during this time.

But an abstention for such an extended period of time from haircuts, shaving, trimming the beard and mustache, as well as bathing and laundering clothes, ends up blatantly impinging on proper kevod Shabbat. Many Haredi/Hasidic Jews enter into Shabbat during this time unkempt, unpresentable, and emitting a foul odor, the result of refusing to properly bathe. Many Ashkenazim have the custom on the Shabbat directly preceding Tisha Be-Av (called Shabbat Hazon) to not wear Shabbath clothes at all, but weekday clothes that have not even been freshly laundered! Aside from these flagrant violations of decorum in halakhah, a mourning period for such an extended period of time is simply too much for people to reasonably handle – and this assessment is not my own, it is actually written in the sources, as will be seen below.

The Nine Days

Then there are “The Nine Days,” the 1st to the 9th day of Av, from rosh hodhesh Av until Tisha be-Av – and this is the actual time of mourning according to Hazal, the Geonim, and all of the early Rishonim. So what is actually required by halakhah? Is it mekori to simply abide by the strictures followed by most for twenty-one days for only nine? Is everything that the Haredi/Hasidic world forbids actually forbidden? The answer to these questions is also “no.”

Hazal were not ascetics and they actively opposed ascetic practices as being “sinful” and out of proper balance – and this is why there was no original practice of “Three Weeks.” (Anyone who wants to read further can look into the discussion in the Gemara as to why the Nazir is required to bring a sin-offering – cf. b.Ta`anit 11a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De`ot 3; Rambam, Shemoneh Perakim 4).  דו”ק – למד היטב חקור והשכלת

The Summation of the Rambam

The Rambam summarizes the observance of the “Nine Days” in three short halakhoth as follows:

TEXT (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ta`aniot 5:6-8)

משייכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה ושבת שחל תשעה באב להיות בתוכה אסור לספר ולכבס וללבוש כלי מגוהץ אפילו כלי פשתן עד שיעבור התענית ואפילו לכבס ולהניח לאחר התענית אסור וכבר נהגו ישראל שלא לאכול בשר בשבת זו ולא ייכנסו למרחץ עד שיעבור התענית ויש מקומות שנהגו לבטל השחיטה מראש החודש עד התענית

תשעה באב לילו כיומו לכל דבר ואין אוכלין אלא מבעוד יום ובין השמשות שלו אסור כיום הכיפורים ולא יאכל בשר ולא ישתה יין בסעודה המפסיק בה אבל שותה הוא יין מגיתו שיש לו שלושה ימים או פחות ואוכל בשר מליח שיש לו שלושה ימים או יתר ולא יאכל שני תבשילין

במה דברים אמורים שאכל ערב תשעה באב אחר חצות אבל אם סעד קודם חצות אף על פי שהוא מפסיק בה אוכל כל מה שירצה וערב תשעה באב שחל להיות בשבת אוכל ושותה כל צורכו ומעלה על שולחנו אפילו כסעודת שלמה וכן תשעה באב עצמו שחל להיות בשבת אינו מחסר כלום

TRANSLATION (Bracketed comments [ ] are mine)

“From the time that Av enters, we decrease our joy” [a direct citation of the Mishnah in Ta`anit 4:6] and the week within which the 9th of Av falls, it is forbidden to cut hair, to do laundry, or to wear a freshly-ironed garment – even a linen garment [i.e. since they are so drastically prone to wrinkling] – until after the end of the fast [i.e. of the 9th of Av]. And even to launder or iron something that will be set aside and worn only after the fast is forbidden. It has already become a common custom among Jews not to eat meat during this week, or to enter into the bathhouses until after the fast, and there are even places where they have the custom to stop the slaughtering of meat from rosh hodesh until the fast.

The 9th of Av – its night is like its day in every respect. And we do not eat [the day before] unless it is still during the day, since it is forbidden to eat during the beyn ha-shemashoth of [the evening before] just like Yom Ha-Kippurim. One does not eat meat or drink wine at the meal just prior to the beginning of the fast [seudah ha-mafsik bah], but wine may be drunk from the press which is three days old or less [i.e. unfermented in any real way; grape juice], and it is permitted to eat salted meat that is three days old or more, but [nevertheless] one should not eat two cooked dishes [at the final meal before the fast].

With regard to what are we speaking? Where someone ate on the day before the 9th of Av after halakhic mid-day [hatzot], but if he ate a meal before halakhic mid-day, even if he considers it his final meal prior to the fast [seudah she-hu mafsik bah], he may eat whatever he wants [at that meal – i.e. since it is before hatzot]. When erev Tisha be-Av falls on Shabbat, one eats and drinks whatever he needs and brings food up onto his table, even to the point of it being as lavish as a meal of Shelomoh HaMelekh. Also if the 9th of Av itself falls on Shabbat, one should not detract from [either the quality or quantity of his food or drink] in any way.”

Important points to note about the Rambam’s words are:

[a] Halakhic abstentions only apply to the week in which the 9th of Av falls, not to all Nine Days. This means that when Tisha be-Av falls on the first day of the week, then one need not observe any prohibitions on haircuts, drinking wine, eating meat, doing laundry, ironing, etc. at all. According to halakhah, the greatest number of days that these various abstentions could be observed is six, since Shabbat is excluded from expressions of mourning.

[b] Post-Talmudic customs are subject to dismissal. Although he initially mentions a few common customs that he had heard of in his own time in the initial halakhah, the Rambam goes on to overturn those customs by what he codifies – i.e. the law of the Talmud – in the two halakhot that follow. This again shows the methodology of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah where, although he may make mention of certain customs, and may even praise them as being good or useful options at times, the law ultimately remains as it was determined by Hazal. This is the case, unless the Rambam understands there to have been a genuine change in reality or circumstances since the era of Hazal, on account of which the law needs to be re-applied.

[c] No mention is made of music, either listening to it or not listening to it during the month of Av. Music, other than folk melodies sung a capella, was not a daily occurrence in the times of Hazal or even in the times of the Rambam. Usually, music was associated with the celebrations included with weddings, which are already forbidden during the first nine days of Av anyhow. Our music listening today is much different, however, and there are various modern rabbanim that permit listening to music as something ordinary and normal since many today would become unduly depressed without music for more than a day or two. But again, this ruling is not even a contrivance since the halakhah makes no mention of forbidding music during this time in the first place.

[d] There is no halakhic prohibition on bathing during the Nine Days at all. Beside the fact that the Rambam mentions the abstention from bathhouses as being merely a custom, it must also be remembered that in his time – as well as that of the Gemara – people did not bathe regularly. Many bathed only once weekly likhvod Shabbat (“in honor of the Sabbath”). Those who bathed regularly were referred to as istenisim – a borrowed Greek word meaning “weak” – but used by the hakhamiym to refer to someone who is sensitive or finicky about cleanliness. Today, since nearly all people in our culture bathe regularly, the prohibitions on bathing or washing apply only to the specific narrow times in which they were expressly forbidden by the hakhamim – namely, on the days of Tisha Be-Av and Yom Ha-Kippurim.

[e] There is no halakhic prohibition on eating meat during the Nine Days. Again, not eating meat for the first nine days of Av is is mentioned as a custom, not law. The law with regard to the consumption of meat is related in the following halakhot, which expressly permits the eating of meat during this time.

The practical summary from the Rambam is as follows:

Table - Tisha be-Av and Nine Days

Too Much Mourning

While excessive mourning is always discouraged by Hazal, and even forbidden (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Evel 13:12), the extent of mourning that is considered “too much” has apparently changed from ancient times. Directly after the halakhot cited above, the Rambam makes the following important statement regarding most peoples’ ability to endure asceticism:

TEXT (Hilkhot Ta`aniot 4:9)

זו היא מידת כל העם שאינן יכולין לסבול יותר מדיי אבל חסידים הראשונים כך הייתה מידתן ערב תשעה באב מביאין לו לאדם לבדו פת חרבה במלח ושורה במים ויושב בין תנור לכיריים ואוכלה ושותה עליה קיתון של מים בדאגה ובשיממון ובכייה כמי שמתו מוטל לפניו וכזה ראוי לחכמים לעשות או קרוב מזה ומימינו לא אכלנו ערב תשעה באב תבשיל אפילו תבשיל של עדשים אלא אם כן היה בשבת

TRANSLATION (Bracketed comments [ ] are mine)

This is the attribute of the entire nation [kol ha-am], that they are not able to suffer too much. But the ancient pious ones [hasidim ha-rishonim] used to conduct themselves [during the final meal before the fast] on erev Tisha be-Av in this way: They would bring him – while he sat by himself – dried bread with salt. He would dip it into water and sit between the oven and the stove-top, drinking a pitcher of water with it amid worry, dark emptiness, and weeping like one whose dead is lying before him. And in this way, or close to it, it is proper for hakhamim to conduct themselves. Never in all my days [i.e. growing up in the house of his father, Rabbi Maimon] did we eat a tavshil [cooked dish] on erev Tisha`be-Av, even a tavshil of cooked lentils, unless that day fell on a Shabbat.

Here the Rambam makes the observation that the majority of people cannot stand up under too much suffering (i.e. deprivation, asceticism, etc.). He relates how Rav Yehudhah bar Ilai in b.Ta`anit 30a-b used to take his final meal and says that it is indicative of how the early pious ones used to conduct themselves. Also, he says that “hakhamim” – which I believe specifically refers to acting dayyanim sitting on courts over Israel (see where a few halakhot later, he uses the term talmidhei hakhamim (“Torah scholars”) which are those educated people in any era who may or may not serve on a public court – should strive to act likewise. He also relates how he was raised in the house of his father, the great Rav Maimon.

However, he makes the observation that apart from these particularly pious people, the majority of the Jewish nation cannot stand up under overly stringent mourning practices. This is an observation that unfortunately escaped the European authorities who felt that the evils of the common people needed to be exorcised through harsh ascetic practices – mostly based on the “kabbalah” and mysticism. This certainly escaped those early European architects of the customs now known as “The Three Weeks” and “The Nine Days,” customs that le-aniyut da`ati should be all but ignored in favor of the mekori instructions of Hazal. Many people, when faced with this acknowledgement of “levels,” feel a sense of guilt in not striving to emulate the piety of the ancients, but this should not be the case. Each person should understand who he is and joyfully accept it in humility. May HaShem help us all in this regard.

Enjoy your music, meat, and wine.

Being Meqori – Rav Yitzchak Abadi: An Excellent Response to Mikveh Lady Meddling

לק”י

As many of you know, I am a fan of the [chiefly] Sefaradiy approach to halakhah wherein everything is considered – historical precedent, the state of the people at large, technology, the lack of proper authority to make new gezeroth in our times, pressing societal needs/problems, and most of all the willingness to reassess the halakhah as it has developed in light of the meqoroth (sources). The goal is to make Torah livable and not require more than Hazal required while also not demanding that people somehow re-create a bygone era or society that no longer exists.

Rabbi_Yitzchak_AbadiOne such Sefaradiy rav working hard in this endeavor is Rav Yisshaq `Abadi of Yerushalayim. Rav `Abadi, who was born in Venezuela and grew up in Israel, was discovered and sent by Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz z”l (the “Hazon Iysh“) of Beney Verak to study under Rabbi Aharon Kotler z”l in Lakewood, NJ. In the mid-1960’s, after the passing of Rav Kotler, Rav `Abadi became the sole poseq for the expanding community of Lakewood, singly rendering decisions for both Ashkenaziym and Sefaradiym, until he was ousted years later by descendants of Rav Kotler for political reasons. Although I myself do not always agree with the particulars his approach (mainly because he tends to rigorously follow the Shulhan `Arukh for better or worse, and while there is a principle of following a halakhic authority in their leniencies and stringencies alike, the Shulhan `Arukh itself is itself an amalgamation that does not itself follow that model, and this is not to mention the fact that since today most of our halakhah comes from books and not personally from rabbaniym, this principle does not, le-`aniyuth da`ati, have much place in the current era), nonetheless my admiration and respect for Rav `Abadi as a rav is due to his confidence and bravery in making halakhic decisions. Known by outsiders as a “makel” in many areas, he is known by his students and admirers as an incredibly capable rav with a knowledge of halakhic sources unparalleled by few in our time. As it says in Masekheth Sanhedriyn 6b, “אין לו לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות – there is nothing for [the hakham] to judge except for that which his eyes see” meaning that the halakhah is determined by each hakham or dayyan according to the best of what he can assess about the situation and he must follow his own understanding as he sees it, and when the hakham searches a matter properly and gives a ruling, the Gemara says that we assume that “God is with him in judgment” (cf. Rashi, Mussaf Rashi there).

Nevertheless, my own differences of opinion with him notwithstanding, the work that he and his sons do on their website kashrut.org is nothing short of incredible. What they have produced is a resource that is open, accessible, and valuable. And while they are most known for their work in the areas of kashruth and hilkhoth Shabbath and Yom tov, they are willing to answer any halakhic question sent to them. Much of their aim is to utilize the historic pisqey diyn (rulings) available to make orthodox Judaism more accessible and affordable to a wider segment of Jewry. Examples of such rulings are his promotion of Torah scrolls that are produced through a silk-screening process (an explanation may be found HERE) and his certification of Hebrew National brand meat products – together with Rav Ralbag of the Triangle-K – as being kosher for those who do not require “glatt.” Other rabbinic work includes a shortened form of birkath ha-mazon, which is available digitally from the Google Play app store HERE, something that I find useful and have on my own phone.

But perhaps one of the smartest arenas they engage in is defending women against the onslaught of the dreaded “mikveh lady.” You know, the nosy Yentas who are less than discreet and think that their job is to embarrass women who come to use the mikveh, all while apparently being qualified as halakhic decisors. Mikveh ladies, much like the stereotypical lunch ladies who make you lose your appetite and avoid the cafeteria, unfortunately are responsible for driving many Jewish women away from the misswah of miqweh as well as turning them off from taharath ha-mishpahah altogether. Rav `Abadi and his sons have risen to this challenge by taking complaints and personally interceding on behalf of many women, setting more than a few of these tyrannical biddies straight. They do this because, unlike other poseqiym, they allow women to immerse in a bathing suit (which is fine in the Gemara, even le-khatehiylah), to keep things like permanent belly-button piercings in, and to check themselves for cleanliness – all things which make many women who are returning to observance, and to taharath ha-mishpahah specifically, much more comfortable and willing to go immerse once a month.

Several times on their site, they have posted their correspondences with mikveh attendants. One which I thought was particularly excellent can be found HERE.

In closing, I want to highlight the fact that Rav `Abadi, although he is not a “Rambamist,” Yemenite, a follower of Rav David Bar-Hayyim, or a part of some other particularly meqori group, is still very much considered by me to be meqori. The reason that this is important is that I have received comments lately that “returning to Second Temple Judaism does not seem to be the way forward” in response to the work of this site. But this is a gross misstatement based on a complete misunderstanding of what meqoriyuth is and what this site stands for. Meqoriyuth means returning to the texts of Judaism written in ancient times, not a return to ancient times. No one thinks that when they follow a pesaq of the Rambam, or even of the Shulhan `Arukh for that matter, that it is then required of them to dress in garb from a thousand years ago and learn Arabic. This would be absurd. What we are interested in is the is the purity and simplicity of Hazal in their legal reasoning and the universal focus of their wisdom. There is, of course, much more that could be said about this, but I’ll end it here for now.

Perhaps more later.

Until then, kol tuv.

YB