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. They were, however, 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

Too Much Heart – Comments on Parashat Kedoshim

The 15th of Shevat

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

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

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

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

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

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

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

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

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

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

Brit Milah and Milat HaLev

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

TEXT

וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ

TRANSLATION

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

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

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Circumcision” of the Heart?

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

TEXT

וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד

TRANSLATION

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

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

In Bamidbar 15:39, we are warned,

TEXT

וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם

TRANSLATION

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

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

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

Reflect on that for awhile.

Perhaps more later,

Kol tuv,

YB

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

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 for the fast, was yesterday – on Shabbat, when it is forbidden to fast – the observance of Tzom Tammuz was delayed until today. As many are aware, Tzom Tammuz begins a period of time that many refer to as “The Three Weeks” and which lasts until Tisha Be-Av (the ninth of the month of Av), a day that traditionally commemorates 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 perhaps the majority of mainstream orthodox and Modern Orthodox communities – as an obvious fact of Jewish law, the truth is that it is no such thing. Like many observances that developed over the course of the current long exile, the observances of the “Three Weeks” have no basis in the words of Hazal and amount to little more than a bundle of para-halakhic customs which have led, in certain cases, to the violation of actual halakhot.

Stemming from ascetic Ashkenazic sentiments, 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, referred to as “The Nine Days,” as will be explained below).

The “Three Weeks” are also known as bein ha-metzarim (“between the narrows”), an designation that arises from an alternate explanation of Eikhah 1:3, “…all of her pursuers overtook her within the straits (bein ha-metzarim)” in 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 publication of Sefer HaMinhagim by Austro-Hungarian rabbi, Isaac Mi-Tirna (or, Tyrnau), that the practices of the “Three Weeks” were recorded. This work was then 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.

An extended period of abstention from haircuts, shaving, trimming the beard, bathing, and laundering clothes, ends up blatantly impinging on proper kevod Shabbat. During this time, many Haredi/Hasidic Jews enter into Shabbat 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, an assessment which is not my own, as will be seen below.

The Nine Days

Nested within the “Three Weeks” are “The Nine Days,” the 1st to the 9th day of Av, which is the actual time of mourning according to Hazal, the Geonim, and all of the early Rishonim. But what forms of mourning are actually required by halakhah? Is the mekori position simply to abide by these strictures for only nine days as opposed to twenty-one? Is everything that the Haredi-Hasidic world forbids actually forbidden? The answer to these questions is “no.”

Hazal were not ascetics. In fact, they actively opposed asceticism as “sinful” and out of balance – and this is why there was no original practice of “Three Weeks,” despite the statement of the Midrash. 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). Their stance is clear, instructive, and eye-opening.

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

TEXT (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 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-shemashot 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] Any 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. 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, unless he understands there to have been a genuine change in reality or circumstances since that era, 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 which were 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 that accompanied weddings, which are already forbidden during the first nine days of Av anyhow. Our habits of listening to music today are 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. What they exclude instead is live music or concerts during this time. 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 in honor of Shabbat, while others delayed bathing for even longer periods. Those who bathed regularly in Talmudic times were referred to as istenisim – based on a Greek loanword meaning “weak” which the hakhamim used 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:

Forthodoxy Image - 3wks

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” had apparently changed from ancient times during the Geonic era. Directly after the halakhot cited above, the Rambam makes the following important statement regarding most peoples’ ability to endure asceticism:

TEXT (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 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 with it a pitcher of water 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 important observation that the majority of people simply cannot endure too much suffering (i.e. deprivation, asceticism, etc.). He relates how Rav Yehudah bar Ilai (b.Ta’anit 30a-b) used to take his final meal, stating 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 clearly says that, apart from these particularly pious people, the majority of the Jewish nation cannot stand up under overly stringent mourning practices. This is a fact that unfortunately eluded the notice of European authorities who many times felt that the evils of the common people needed to be exorcised through harsh ascetic practices, an idea based mostly on ideas associated with the “kabbalah” and mysticism. In my humble opinion, the contrived customs developed around “The Three Weeks” and “The Nine Days” should be all but ignored in favor of the simple, straightforward, mekori instructions of Hazal.

Enjoy your music, meat, and wine.

Minimum Days To Wait Before Counting Seven Clean Days – An Amazing Mekori Perspective from Rav Yosef Qafih z”l

Miqwah Water

[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.]

Several years ago, I was approached by members of the local community kollel in protest of a halakhic ruling made by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim regarding taharat ha-mishpahah which they had found on the internet. It was specifically in regard to whether or not a woman needs to wait a minimum number of days before beginning to count her shivah nekiyim (“seven [clean] days”), or whether she may begin counting mi-she-tifsok (“from [the day] that she will cease”) – i.e. from after tzeit ha-kokhavim on the day she properly ascertains that she has stopped bleeding. Rav Bar-Hayim rules like the Rambam and other rishonim in not requiring a wait for any number of days once bleeding has completely stopped, even if the woman bled for only one day. Since most of the Haredi-Hasidic world – indeed, most of orthodoxy in general – follows the ruling of the Rema in the Shulhan Arukh (cf. Yoreh De’ah 196:11), they were almost beside themselves with concern.

The Rema, who is merely taking the position expressed in the well-known 15th century Ashkenazi work Terumat HaDeshen, requires women to wait at least five full days before being able to count their first clean day, even if they only bled for a day or two. Additionally, the Rema relates that this excessively strict and, as we shall see, nearly baseless ruling, and others similar to it, are “not to be changed” (אין לשנות).

Of course, while rabbanim of other parts of the world took a similar position that required a minimum number of days before counting the shivah nekiyim, the strict “decree” related by the Rema has been ignored by various non-European authorities, including Hakham `Ovadyah Yosef z”l who upheld the opinion of Rabbi Yosef Qaro and required waiting only four days and Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, as we will see shortly, who did not require any at all. Needless to say, the stark contrast in positions between Yemenites and Ashkenazim put these Haredi-Hasidic types on the verge of conniption and they felt constrained to protect the “sanctity” of Judaism from those who would dare take a different approach (note sarcasm).

The reason these rabbis approached me – rather than simply calling Rav Bar-Hayim on the phone and respectfully inquiring as to the reason behind his position – is another story, but it was basically due to three factors: [1] their knowledge that I was connected with Machon Shilo while I lived in Israel and am his friend, [2] an apparent preference for speaking lashon hara and motzi shem ra instead of properly investigating the facts, and [3] a penchant for cowardice. Basically, they thought that it would be easier to discredit Machon Shilo by attacking me, figuring that they would overwhelm me and I would be unable to provide them with a cogent answer as to why the rabbi had ruled this way in such a sensitive area of halakhah. What ended up happening was quite to the contrary.

My immediately reply was that since Rav Bar-Hayim studied under Rav Yosef Qafih z”l, and had acquired personal semikhah from him, he was merely following his rav in this pesaq.

“So, you’re saying that Rav Kapach poskened this way lamaiseh?” they asked.

“Yes,” I said, “and he is not alone. This ruling is somewhat common in the Baladi Yemenite community.”

With looks of disgust and disbelief, they simply said, “We are not mekabbel. There is no way that a gaon like Rav Kapach could be such an am ha’aretz that he doesn’t even know how to read the Shulchan Aruch!”

I responded matter-of-factly, “Well, I have the complete pirush of Rav Yosef Qafih on the Rambam at home. I can prove to you that he held this way. I will find the exact source and get back to you.”

Assuming that in my looking I would find out how mistaken I was, they said, “We would love to see where he says that.”

They carried the content of our conversation back to the ears of the vindictive Rosh Kollel who sent them, and I returned to my office to find proof. What I found was nothing short of amazing. I had seen this elsewhere while doing translations for Makhon Mosheh, the Rambam research institute headed by Rav Ratson Arussi, but I had never looked directly at the pirush of Mori Yusuf z”l until that point.

In Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 11 the Rambam discusses the laws of a yoledet (a woman unclean from the bleeding that accompanies childbirth) and counting the shivah nekiyim (the seven clean days). While recounting the halakhot, he also addresses some errors that had crept in during the Geonic Era under the influence of Karaite practices and interpretive errors that brought about the adoption of excessive humrot. Throughout this section, the Rambam demolishes the notion that such humrot and foreign practices – even though they had become fairly common in some regions – were acceptable post facto due to the force of custom. Twice he says, “ein zeh minhag ela ta’ut – this is not custom, but error.” It is important to note that in the view of the Rambam, ta’ut (טעות – “error”) can never be elevated to the level of “custom” just because a lot of people have been engaging in a mistake for an extended period of time. Error must always be corrected and dispelled. The Rambam was not alone in this; it seems that this was also the view of Rav Natronai Gaon, as I have written elsewhere.

He writes,

HALAKHAH (Text)

יב (יד) זה שתמצא במקצת מקומות שהנידה יושבת שבעת ימים בנידתה ואף על פי שלא ראת דם אלא יום אחד ואחר השבעה תשב שבעת ימי נקיים אין זה מנהג אלא טעות היא ממי שהורה להם כך ואין ראוי לפנות לדבר זה כלל אלא אם ראתה יום אחד סופרת אחריו שבעה וטובלת בליל שמיני שהוא ליל שני שלאחר ימי נידתה ומותרת לבעלה

HALAKHAH (Translation)

[12] (14) This [practice] that is found in some places where the niddah will dwell seven days in her niddut even though she only sees blood for one day, and after those seven she will sit for [a further] seven clean days (shivat yemei nekiyim) – this is not a “custom” but an error from the one who told instructed them thusly, and it is not proper to pay attention to this opinion at all. Rather, if [a woman] saw blood for one day, she counts seven [clean days] after that day and immerses on the night of the eighth – which is the second night after the days of her niddut – and she is then permitted to her husband.

COMMENTARY (Rav Yosef Qafih – Bracketed comments [ ] are mine)

On these two halakhot (12-13) the Magid Mishneh writes words that are simple and clear. These words are also no secret and well-known [i.e. there is no need for them to be quoted here].

The Noda BiYehudah writes (in Yoreh De’ah, Mahadurah Tinyana, siman 125):

“…The Geonim did not mention this matter of setirat shikhvat zera [i.e. that semen which issues out of the vagina in the days following marital relations can ‘undo’ or cancel out clean days, causing the need for her count to be restarted] and explained the matter as it was brought by the Rema in Yoreh De’ah 196:11. And there the Rav, the Beit Yosef, that the fact that the Rif omitted this law is not a proof that he holds [a similar opinion] to the Ra’avad, namely, that this matter was not explained [by the hakhamim] except in relation to ritual purity, not in relation to [whether a woman is permitted to have relations with] her husband, since the Rif omitted many laws, for it is his method to omit that which is not common. And says that this is also not a common occurrence since the majority of women usually ‘continue seeing [blood] for five or six days and they therefore have no need for this law’ (see there). [i.e. even if a woman has relations just prior to the onset of her menstruation, she will – according to the view of the Beit Yosef – bleed for a sufficient length of time that even if she were to issue semen at the same time it would not affect her counting of the shivah nekiyim]

But I say that his reasoning is strained [devarav dahukim – דבריו דחוקים] because many women see [blood] for only one or two days and then stop [bleeding]. And it appears, in the poverty of my personal estimation [le-aniyut da’ati – לעניות דעתי], that the intention of the Rif and the Geonim in omitting this matter of setirat shikhvat zera is not because of the position of the Ra’avad, but because of what the Tosafot wrote in b.Niddah 33a, starting at the words רואה הויא : ‘Our teacher Yitzchak says that it is possible to find that a woman that had permissible relations whose clean days are canceled out by pelitah [i.e. the leaking of semen following relations], even after three consecutive days, because the halakhah has been established for us in accordance with the rabbanan, as explained by Rebbi Akiva, that they require six full onot [an onah is a 12-halakhic-hour period, either a day or a night, and so one day is thereby equal to two full onot] etc.” (see what the Tosafot write there). [On the same subject] the opinion of the Rambam – in Hilkhot She’ar Avot HaTuma’ot 5:12-13 –  is that leaked semen does only imparts uncleanness [metam’ah – מטמאה] up until three onot, which is equivalent to a day and a half after the onah is which she had relations. It is not possible to find a practical application of this law that would occur under permissible circumstances at all [i.e. since, as the Tosafot explain, a tum’ah mafseket cannot interrupt the count if it appears and resolves on only one day – see Table 1a below and the explanation of the Tosafot in b.Niddah 33a, starting at the words רואה הויא]. No, this law can only imply in a case where she had transgressed and had relations at a time when she was forbidden to do so, and such a thing is certainly not a common occurrence. And it was for this reason that the Rif and the Geonim did not teach about this matter of pelitat shikhvat zera because they held as did the Rambam that shikhvat zera can only impart uncleanness for three onot and that it is only possible to find these circumstances when a woman has had forbidden relations which is not a common occurrence. The reasoning of the Beit Yosef is strained.” etc. – see there in the Noda BiYehudah.

See also above in comment #17.

It appears to me that the opinion of the Rif, the Rambam, the Ra’avad, and the Rashba that there is no halakhic concern for pelitat shikhvat zera at all, but rather she begins to count the shivah nekiyim from the time that she stops bleeding [mi-she-tifsok – משתפסוק] and afterward immerses. The practical ramifications of this opinion is that in not a few cases there are humrot that prevent couples from fulfilling the mitzvah of ‘be fruitful and multiply’ [i.e. פריה ורביה – having children], especially for those women who ovulate early and, through [unnecessarily] delaying immersion, miss their time for becoming pregnant. The plain halakhah is to be diligent and careful concerning the shivah nekiyim specifically according to the methodology of the Rambam, which is the received tradition from the Geonim, as was mentioned above, because in most cases [today] counting the shivah nekiyim is not just the stringency of Jewish women [humrat banot yisra’el – חומרת בנות ישראל], but is actually de-oraita [i.e. since nowadays the majority of women do not menstruate at a consistent time each month and never establish a veset (וסת) at all, they are zavot in the actual sense and are obligated to carefully count shivah nekiyim before being able to go to the mikveh]. In Yemen there were various customs. There were those who began counting shivah nekiyim as soon she stopped bleeding, there were those who waited [a minimum of] four days and then counted shivah nekiyim, there were those who waited [a minimum of] five days and then counted shivah nekiyim, and there were those who waited [a minimum of] seven days and then counted shivah nekiyim. And the one thing that they all had in common is that they all were careful to count shivah nekiyim in accordance with the truth of the Torah. And that which the Rambam wrote, ‘and it is not proper to pay attention to this opinion at all’ appears to me to indicate that even women who have been accustomed to counting a full seven days before beginning to count the shivah nekiyim and now want to return to the methodology of the Rambam may, and they do not even require hatarat nedarim to do so since ‘this is not a custom but an error.'”

(End Commentary)


And there it was. Nothing could have been a more clear statement by Mori Yusef z”l of his position on the matter – and it indeed was identical to that of his student, Rabbi Bar-Hayim. I sent a picture of this section of commentary to each of the rabbis who had confronted me about this.

One read it and immediately conceded by saying, “Wow. Rav Kapach was a gaon b’toyreh and if he said it then I have no arguments. Yasher koach.”

The other wanted to discuss it and so we met in the shul and I took him through the entire passage. His reaction was guarded and he was in disbelief. “This must just all be his learning. It can’t be lamaiseh,” he said. Then I pointed to the last paragraph. “Ah, so he was discussing the Yemenite mesoyreh,” he said. Then I pointed to the last sentence and he said nothing else but, “Okay. Thank you.”

Once it reached the eyes of the vindictive Rosh Kollel, I got no response other than a smoldering disapproval.

For anyone interested, the following is the passage from the Noda BiYehudah quoted at length above. It is not exact, but remember that Mori Yusef z”l did not use computers or a searchable Bar-Ilan when writing his pirush. He used only a collection of sefarim along with his vast memory and knowledge of the sources – writing each note on 3 x 5 cards in pen before sending the stacks of cards in rubber bands to his students for typesetting. He was nothing short of an amazing talmid ha-hakhamim.

NODA BIYEHUDAH – MAHADURAH TINYANA 125

Noda` BiYehudhah - Mahadurah Tinyana 125

One of the things that really rocked these two Haredi rabbis was not only that Mori Yusef was posek this way le-ma’aseh, but also that a major Ashkenazi figure like the Noda BiYehudah explained his position, even though he himself ruled like the Rema in the end.

Shavua tov le-kulam,

YB

The Voice of a Woman – 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.]

On a Saturday Afternoon

This past Shabbat, I spent some time during the afternoon – as I often do – sitting in the living room of a dear friend, enjoying the air conditioning, and engaging in discussion with couples from our community. During a lull in the various exchanges taking place, a group of boys came into the house and briefly sat in the room with us. Upon hearing my friend’s wife singing and humming zemirot in the kitchen nearby, they began to pejoratively shout “Kol ishah! Kol ishah!” in the midst of laughter. I was immediately struck by this response, and noticed that the boys represented a mixed group of religious, irreligious, or non-religious Jewish families, so I decided to engage them a little.

“Do you know what kol ishah is? Do you know what it means?” I asked them.

“Um, that you can’t listen to women singing or you will go to hell?” They responded with sarcasm, looking at each other and laughing.

“Actually, no,” I said, “It means that you cannot listen to women talking or singing while reciting the Shema. According to one opinion, if the women are members of your immediate family and you are used to hearing them, and are able to ignore them and concentrate, then you don’t have to worry about it even then.” I explained.

Their sarcasm and deprecation almost immediately turned to intrigue. Their faces turned serious, their expressions a bit suspicious of my answer.

“Is that it?” They asked.

“Yes, that’s it.”

“What about non-Jewish music?” They inquired again.

“According to the Rambam in a teshuvah, music can be in any language and written or sung by non-Jews, so long as it promotes proper values and erudite culture. Neither men nor women are allowed to sing about inappropriate or sexual things according to halakhah. The issue of music has nothing to do with women or their voices.”

The boys began looking at one another and one of them spoke up:

“That makes total sense; way more sense.” He said.

Like many Jewish boys, these young men had been given a definition of kol ishah that was decidedly Haredi and linked to asceticism, as we shall see.

Years ago, when my own son was enrolled in a Haredi elementary school, he and his classmates were told by their “rebbe” that if they listened to a woman sing, they would be punished very literally by having their bodies consumed with fire in hell. Apparently, this was supposed to be middah ke-neged middah (“measure for measure”) for all of the lust that would consume them by listening to women sing. Unfortunately, this kind of nonsense is all-too-common fare in Haredi-Hasidic circles and only serves to disillusion intelligent young people and drive them away from orthodox Judaism – an orthodoxy that no longer makes sense and is deeply out of step with reality.

Kol ishah, as will be shown, began with a reasonable and universal rabbinic interpretation, but ended up – for various reasons – being extended by a small number of European expositors into a general ban on listening to the voice of women (even their speaking voice!)

Before we begin digging into the mekorot, it should be noted that although the original parameters of kol ishah are fairly straightforward (and the various opinions among the Rishonim divide across regional lines), many of the sources themselves are intricate. In translating them, I did my best to present them clearly, giving bracketed explanations where necessary.

Kol Ishah – The Sources

The Gemara

There are two places in the Talmud Bavli – b.Berakhot 24a and b.Kiddushin 70a – where the halakhic issue of kol ishah (קול אישה) is mentioned. Both instances appear to be aggadic in nature (i.e. non-halakhic) that are ancillary to the sugyah in which they appear.

In Masekhet Berakhot (24b), in the midst of a discussion regarding where, when, and in what circumstances it is permissible to recite Kiryat Shema, the following list of statements discuss parts of a woman’s body that are considered to be ervah (ערווה – “nakedness”) and which, if they are visible, prevent the recitation of Shema:

TEXT

Qol Iyshah - Berakhoth 24a

TRANSLATION (Straight Read)

“Rebbi Yitzhak said, ‘An area the size of a hand’s breadth of a woman is nakedness.’ With regard to what? If we say gazing at it, doesn’t Rav Sheshet say, ‘For what purpose did the pasuk enumerate the outer ornaments along with the inner ornaments? To say to you that anyone who gazes upon the little finger of a woman, it is as if he had gazed at the place of shame.’ Rather, he spoke regarding one’s own wife in the context of Kiryat Shema. Rav Hisda said, ‘The thigh of a woman is nakedness. As it says, Reveal a thigh and pass through rivers, and then it is written, You shall reveal your nakedness and also your shame shall be seen.’ Shmuel said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness. As it says, For your voice is sweet and your appearance is lovely.’ Rav Sheshet said, ‘The hair of a woman is nakedness. As it says, You hair is like a flock of goats.'”

TRANSLATION (Technical)

“Rebbi Yitzhak said, ‘An [exposed] hand’s breadth [tefah] of a woman is nakedness [ervah].’ With regard to what? If we say [that he is referring to] gazing [licentiously] at it [i.e. at the exposed hand’s breadth], doesn’t Rav Sheshet [already say], ‘For what purpose did the pasuk enumerate the outer ornaments [i.e. garments] along with the inner ornaments [i.e. of the Midianite women in Bamidbar 31]? To say to you that anyone who gazes [licentiously] upon the little finger of a woman, it is as if he had gazed [licentiously] at the place of shame [makom ha-toref, a descriptive term used by Hazal for the vagina – “shame” having only connotations of modesty, not negativity].’ Rather, [we must conclude that Rebbi Yitzhak spoke] regarding one’s own wife in the context of Kiryat Shema. Rav Hisda said, ‘The [exposed] thigh [shok] of a woman is nakedness [ervah]. As it says [i.e. in Yeshayahu 47:2], Reveal a thigh [and] pass through rivers, and then it is written [i.e. in 47:3], You shall reveal your nakedness and also your shame shall be seen.’ Shmuel said, ‘The voice [kol] of a woman is nakedness [ervah]. As it says [i.e. in Shir HaShirim 2:14], For your voice is sweet and your appearance is lovely.’ Rav Sheshet said, ‘The hair [se’ar] of a woman is nakedness [ervah]. As it says [i.e. in Shir HaShirim 4:1], You hair is like a flock of goats.'”

(End Translation)

We will return to the meaning of Shmuel’s terse, and seemingly broad, statement that “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness” below, but I feel that it is necessary at this point to explain that the word usually translated “nakedness” (ערווה – ervah) does not carry with it the sole meaning of “nudity” (which would be the word arom – ערום), but usually implies “sexual impropriety,” “immodesty,” being “unchaste,” etc.

In Masekhet Kiddushin (70a-b), the statement of Shmuel regarding kol ishah (קול אישה) is mentioned within the context of a much larger story regarding a contention that arose between Rav Yehudah ben Yehezkel (of Pumbedita) and a “certain man” from Neharda. Apparently, this Nehardean man was in the Pumbedithan meat shop demanding meat, but when he was told that he would have to wait for the messenger of Rav Yehudah to take his meat first before he was to be served, the Nehardean made a disrespectful remark, calling Rav Yehudah a glutton through an intentional mispronunciation of his name. Upon hearing this, Rav Yehudah put the man under a ban and pronounced him a slave (i.e. a “slave” from a legal standpoint). In response, the Nehardean brought a case against Rav Yehudah to be heard in front of Rav Nahman, the son-in-law if the reish galuta (ריש גלותא – “exilarch”), the political head of the Diaspora Jewish community. Rav Yehudah, however, was incensed and did not want to appear in front of Rav Nahman, but Rav Huna advised him to do so anyway. Upon arriving before Rav Nahman, Rav Yehudah was incredibly contentious about being there and harshly contradicted everything Rav Nahman said or did during their exchange, using almost exclusively the halakhic sayings of Shmuel to do so – and “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness” was one of them.

The brief section containing this statement is as follows:

TEXT

b.Qiyshushiyn 70a - Qol Iyshah

TRANSLATION (From נשדר)

“‘Would the rav like to send greetings [i.e. shelama, “peace”] to Yalta?’ He said to him, ‘Shemu’el said, The voice of a woman is nakedness’…”

(End Translation)

Rav Nahman’s wife, Yalta, was a well-known and educated woman. She was also the daughter of a reish galuta, a prestigious position stationed in Neharda. Wishing her well – rather than ignoring her – would have made sense due to her prominence, but Rav Nahman probably suggested it since she unusually (i.e. unusual for her era) demanded a level of respect for herself that was accorded to the greatest of hakhamim (cf. b.Berakhot 51a). Rav Yehudah, however, stubbornly refused to do so – as he stubbornly refused every other suggestion of Rav Nahman on that occasion – by citing Shmuel’s statement “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness.” So much did he insist on resisting the suggestions of Rav Nahman (even Yalta advised him that Rav Yehudah was seeking to make him look like a fool – see there), that he even refused to send greetings indirectly to her through Rav Nahman himself! This instance, much more than the one in Masekhet Berakhot, appears aggadic rather than halakhic. Rav Yehudah’s application is seriously disputed by  Rav Nahman’s own commonsense, but, as has already been noted, this use of Shmuel was most likely due to his contempt for having to appear before Rav Nahman, rather than an actual halakhic position which he espoused.

The Talmud Yerushalmi

In the Talmud Yerushalmi, the statement of Shmuel regarding kol ishah appears only once. Although the discussion is characteristically brief, the hakhmei eretz yisra’el do a tremendous service to us in giving an explanation of “קול באישה ערוה – The voice of a woman is nakedness.” It is the following statement (found in y.Hallah 2:1) that, I believe, holds the key to understanding the position of the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah, and also why he seems to have mentioned kol ishah at all (as opposed to the Rav Alfasi, as we shall see shortly).

TEXT

כהדא דתני המסתכל בעקיבה של אשה כמסתכל בבית הרחם והמסתכל בבית הרחם כילו בא עליה שמואל אמר קול באשה ערוה מה טעם והיה מקול זנותה ותחנף הארץ וגומר

TRANSLATION

“…As has been taught in a baraita, ‘The one who gazes [licentiously] on the heel of a woman, it is as if he gazed [licentiously] at the house of the womb [beit ha-rehem, i.e. her vagina]. And the one who gazes [licentiously] at the house of the womb, it is as if he had intercourse with her.’ Shmuel said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness.’ What is the reason for this [i.e. for saying so]? [Because of the pasuk in Yermiyahu 3:9, which says] ‘From the voice of her fornication the land became polluted,’ etc.”

(End Translation)

It appears that in the Yerushalmi, kol ishah is viewed as specifically within a context of either a man deriving licentious sexual pleasure from a woman or, conversely, a woman being overtly sensual with her voice. The beauty of this passage is that it places the responsibility for tzeniut (modesty) on both men and women jointly. Men must be very careful not to misuse women, degrade them, or treat them as sexual objects – i.e. the male sex drive must be controlled and accounted for by the male. Women, however, cannot simply say, do, and dress in an overtly skimpy or sexual fashion and then tell men that if they are uncomfortable it is “their problem” – i.e. females must acknowledge their sexual beauty and be responsible with it. There are two roles to play in sexual attraction and there are therefore two roles to play as regards modesty.

The Geonim

Of all the literature left to us by the great scholars of the Geonic era (ca. 650 – ca. 1050 CE), there are several works which are considered the most influential, and served as veritable “standards” of halakhic literature for the Rishonim.

In the areas of hashkafah and Biblical studies, Rav Sa’adia Gaon (also known as Rasag) is the premier Gaon with his HaNivhar Emunot Va-De’ot, Arabic tafsir (translation) of the Torah along various books of the Tanakh, his siddur, and his manuals of Hebrew grammar. Although Rasag did write about halakhah, he is usually remembered as a philosopher and a grammarian, not a halakhist.

Halakhically, however, four Geonim stand above the rest, being extensively quoted by the subsequent Rishonim: Rav Haye Gaon, Rav Yehudai Gaon, Rav Shimon Kayara, and Rav Ahai Gaon. There were others, such as Rav Natronai Gaon, Rav Amram Gaon, and Rav Sherira Gaon whose quotations also found some prominence in the works of the Rishonim, but because they did not produce comprehensive halakhic codes or compendiums, they occupied a more limited sphere of influence on later authorities.

Rav Haye ben Sherira Gaon (969 – 1038 CE, Pumbedita) was considered to have been the last of the Geonim, as well as one of the most prolific. His teshuvot and personal customs are cited by numerous later authorities as proof of certain legal positions in various areas of halakhah.

Rav Yehudai Gaon (Reish Metivta in Sura, 757 – 761 CE) is most famously the author of a Geonic code known as the Halakhot Pesukot (sometimes referred as Sefer Halakhot Katan). This work is only extant in a partial manuscript from Yemen and citations in the works of various Rishonim. He is sometimes confused with Shimon Kayara, the author of the Halakhot Gedholot, another – and, perhaps the best known – Geonic codification of Talmudic halakhah.

Shimon Kayara (known also as the Bahag – Ba’al Halakhot Gedholot) appears to make extensive use of the She’iltot in his work. Although he lived and was known as a great Talmudic scholar during the Geonic era, he was never the head of either academy and therefore was never known by the appellation “Gaon”.

Last, but certainly not least, is Rav Ahai Gaon (8th century CE) the author of a compendium of halakhic derashot which are organized according to the weekly parashah known as the She’iltot. Of a decidedly different style than later works, such as the Gedholot or the Pesukot, the She’iltot does not simply cull statements from the Mishnah, Baraitot, and Talmudim. Instead, it fuses a fair share of midrashim into its discussions, apparently tailoring them so as to be read to ba’alei batim on a weekly basis. Ahai also was never officially the head of an academy, but “Gaon” is often appended to the mention of his name.

Aside from the plethora of responsa on numerous questions of law that were written by other rabbanim who served as Gaon, it is chiefly the works of these four men which are collectively referred to as “the Geonim” and which are viewed being generally representative of the shitot of that era.

Of these works, neither the She’iltot nor the Halakhot Pesukot appear to mention, or even record, Shmuel’s statement at all, not in the context of berakhot or Kiryat Shema and not in the context of general feminine modesty. The Halakho Gedholoth, however, does codify the statement of Shmuel, but places it under the laws of Kiryat Shema – an association that will make more sense as we proceed. Rav Haye Gaon – as his words appear in the Otzar HaGeonim (Perushim 102) – also place kol ishah squarely within the context of Kiryat Shema. He additionally makes several important distinctions in the arena of tzeniut.

TEXT

Ossar HaGe'oniym - Perushiym 102

TRANSLATION

[24a] “…but it is regard to one’s wife at the time of Kiryat Shema.”

“…that even one’s own wife, if a hand’s breadth [tefah] of her body is uncovered, it is forbidden to recite Shema in front of her.”

And Rabbenu Haye Gaon z”l writes that it is the law for any woman who uncovers a hand’s breadth [tefah] in a place on her body that is [normally] covered, that it is forbidden to recite [Shema] in front of her because [of what is written in the Gemara, that] “a hand’s breadth [tefah] of a woman is nakedness.” And also one should not recite [Shema] during a time when she is singing because [of what is written in the Gemara, that] “the voice of a woman is nakedness.” But in front of her face or an area that is not normally covered, or at a time when she is speaking in her regular manner, it is permitted [i.e. to recite Kiryat Shema]. And even at a time when she is singing, if one is able to properly direct his heart toward his prayer as if he were engaging in an action during which he does not hear her, and he will pay no attention to her [i.e. even though she is singing], it is permitted [i.e. to recite Kiryat Shema]. And there is no need to interrupt his recitation [i.e. should his wife begin singing in the middle of it]. And also if she uncovers a hand’s breadth [tefah] it is only forbidden [i.e. to recite Kiryat Shema] if he then gazes at it, but just having it in his general field of view is permitted [i.e. during Kiryat Shema].

(End Translation)

The opinion of Rav Yehudai Gaon – presumably of the Halakhot Pesuqot – is cited in the Sefer Yere’im (392) and essentially echoes the sentiments of Rav Haye in Otzar HaGeonim.

TEXT

Sefer Yereiym 392

TRANSLATION (From שמואל to של אישה)

“Shmuel said, ‘The voice of a woman is nakedness. As it is written, For your voice is sweet… – This refers to a singing voice. And all of this was explained by Rav Yehudai Gaon z”l as being relevant to Kiryat Shema. It is therefore forbidden to say Kiryat Shema or another davar kedushah while listening to the singing voice of a woman.”

(End Translation)

The practical conclusions drawn from the Geonim are as follows:

[1] The statement(s) of Shmuel apply – at most – specifically to Kiryat Shema (and, presumably, to Shemoneh Esreh) not to any general context of singing or talking.

[2] The singing and talking being referred to applies to any woman, even one’s own wife.

[3] Listening or looking is only a problem when it is done to derive pleasure or when gazing intently and, possibly, licentiously. Just listening to a woman sing or having [non-private] parts of her body in you general view is not forbidden and – if one can still concentrate properly – does not prevent him from being able to recite Kiryat Shema.

[4] The passage in b.Kiddushin 70 is apparently ignored and/or is considered to be an aggadic passage rather than a halakhic one.

The Rishonim

First of all, there is a marked divide regarding the parameters of kol ishah among the Rishonim; a chasm that faults generally along mystical/ascetic lines and which coincides roughly with geographical boundaries. Whereas the Spanish (Iberian), North African, Arabian, and Persian (Babylonian) authorities take the position of the Geonim, those of France, Italy, and Germany – particularly those with a mystical or ascetic bent – interpret the Gemara as implying that listening to the voices of women at all – even while merely speaking, and not specifically during Kiryat Shema – is expressly forbidden. This latter position comprises a very small minority among the commentators.

Yehudah HeHasid (pop. “HaChasid”), a prominent leader of the 12th and 13th century dualist group of Jewish ascetics known as the “Hasidei Ashkenaz,” forbids even listening to a woman talk on the basis of Shmuel’s statement, as does Yeshayah of Trani (pop. “Rid”) from Italy, and the Ra’avad of Provence, France. The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel), although he resided in Toledo, Spain, was originally from Germany and at times expressed halakhic opinions like those of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, as did his son, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, the author of the Tur. This position seems, in my own estimation, to have been driven by predominantly ascetic concerns that are usually found among those who were also concerned with mysticism. (An excellent example of this type relationship between sexual asceticism and kabbalistic concerns can be found in a book by the Ra’avad on the laws of taharat ha-mishpahah entitled Ba’aley Nefesh.)

Being from Germany, however, did not guarantee that a Rishon would be an ascetic. At roughly the same time as Yehudah HeHasid was leading the “Hasidei Ashkenaz,” there were other hakhamim who seem to have been more inclined toward strict Talmudic and Geonic interpretations, rather than contrived stringencies produced by mystical speculations accompanied by an unprecedented re-interpretion of the language of the sugyah. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer ben Shmuel of Metz (? – 1175 CE), the author of the Sefer HaYere’im noted above, held as the Geonim did, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi (1140 – ca. 1220, known popularly as the “Ra’avyah”) also takes a very reasonable approach, to both kol ishah and tzeniut in general, and strives to put the seemingly rigid statements made in Masekhet Berakhot regarding the hair, exposed skin, thigh, and voice of a woman into reasonable practical parameters. He explains in his Sefer HaRa’avyah as follows [NOTE: The following version of the Ra’avyah possesses some small lacunae and inaccuracies, so in translation I am working from the latest critical version of the text. Each divergence from the scanned text below will be marked with an asterisk in the translation.]:

TEXT

Sefer HaRaavyah - Berakhoth 76 A

Sefer HaRaavyah - Berakhoth 76 B

TRANSLATION (Technical)

76. The Halakhot Gedholot ruled that all of these [principles] that we say here, i.e. “A hand’s breadth [tefah] of a woman is nakedness” – [it understands it to imply that this is] even in regard to one’s own wife, and with regard to another woman [the law is that] even something smaller than a hand’s breadth [is forbidden]. And also “The thigh [shok] of a woman is nakedness.” And also “The hair [se’ar] of a woman is nakedness.” And also “The voice of a woman is nakedness” – [with regard to] all of these [the meaning is that] it is forbidden to recite Shema in front of them. This is also the explanation of Rabbenu Hananel.

And I say that the reason that [the voice is included with the skin, hair, and the thigh] is that, although the voice is not something that is visible to the eye, it can nevertheless arouse [licentious] thoughts. And everything that we mentioned* as being ‘nakedness’ is specifically referring to [skin, hair, thigh, voice] that they [i.e. women] do not normally uncover or show in public, but an unmarried virgin who normally does not cover her hair in public, we do not suspect that [she has violated the halakhah] since there are no [licentious] thoughts aroused by it [i.e. the sight of an unmarried woman’s hair]. This is also the case for the voice which she uses normally,* etc.

And a voice should not be likened to excrement that is visible from behind a glass partition [עששית – cf. Rashi on b.Berakhot 25b and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Kiryat Shema 3:16] – in front of which it is permissible to recite Kiryat Shema. For there [i.e. on b.Berakhot 24a] the voice that is considered nakedness is like something revealed that the eye apprehend it in order to see it, and therefore it should be likened to nakedness that is revealed in front of a blind man [who, even though he is unable to see it is nevertheless disallowed from reciting Kiryat Shema in front of it]. And this is also my opinion on the matter.

A proof of this is what we read in the Talmud Yerushalmi there [in the same sugyah – i.e. y.Berakhot 3:5]: ‘Rav Ila and his colleagues were sitting in front of an inn at night and they said to him, ‘Why not say some words of Torah?’ He said to them, ‘Since if it were day we would be able to see what is in front of us [i.e. the dung produced by the animals tied there – cf. Penei Mosheh], so it is seems that even now [i.e. at night when we nevertheless cannot see the dung] it is forbidden.’

Although it appears possible to be less stringent with regard to a woman’s voice since it is in no way related to what the eye sees [i.e. like hair, skin, and a thigh – it is probable that the Ra’avyah is mentioning this possibility due to the well-known position of Rav Haye Gaon mentioned above], neither to him or to others. Although this possibility exists, it is more proper to be strict [i.e. and treat it with the same care as those parts of a woman which can be seen].

In Masekhet Hallah of the Talmud Yerushalmi, we read about what they taught in a mishnah: ‘A woman may sit and separate her hallah while nude.’ From this statement they said that buttocks are not considered nakedness [ervah] with regard to the woman saying a berakhah, but [for someone other than her] to even just look at her [in that case] even her voice* would be forbidden. As it is written [in Yermiyahu 3:9, which says] ‘From the voice of her fornication the land became polluted,’ etc. There are those who explain that this is because it is the normal way of men to gaze [licentiously] at a woman while she is singing. This is like what they taught in a baraita, ‘The one who gazes [licentiously] at the heel of a woman, it is as if he gazed at the house of the womb [i.e. the vagina]. And one who gazes at the house of her womb, it is as if he had intercourse with her.’ This implies that for making a berakhah it is not forbidden [to hear the voice of a woman singing], but to look at her is forbidden.”

(End Translation)

The important things to note about the approach of the Ra’avyah are:

[a] He explains that the “nakedness” statements of the Gemara in Berakhot are dealing specifically with hair, skin, and voice that is normally covered in either public or private. If something normally covered becomes commonly uncovered, like the hair of unmarried women for example (which, according to the original ruling of the Gemara, also needs to be covered in the public square), then the status of that part of the body changes and it is no longer considered “nakedness.” The potential implications of this reading are vast.

[b] The feminine voice that is mentioned in Shmuel’s statements is primarily a singing voice, not a speaking voice.

[c] The forbidden aspect of a woman’s voice is only of concern while a man is gazing licentiously at her. Otherwise, there appears to be no isur at all. This probably means that the Ra’avyah agrees with the heter of Rav Haye Gaon of being able to recite Shema if one is accustomed to the speaking or singing voice of women, to the point that he can sufficiently ignore them and still have proper intention during his recitation and the attendant berakhot. However, he disagrees with Rav Haye Gaon in that he would not permit this if the woman could be seen.

[d] The Ra’avyah, like so many others, places this entire discussion in the context of Kiryat Shema and making general berakhot.

These are the hakhamim of Germany, France, and Italy. As for the rest [read, majority] of the Rishonim, they ruled very similarly – if not identically – to the Geonim.

The Rif (from Fez, Morocco) in his Halakhot simply ignores the statements of Shmuel regarding kol ishah in both places in the Gemara where it appears. Apparently, according to the Rif, a woman’s voice was simply not an issue with much halakhic import. According to the style of the Rif, wherein he simply omits those Talmudic opinions which he views as being either rejected or purely aggadic, his consistent omissions of Shmuel indicate that he did not consider this statement to be halakhah. The Rif also ignores Talmud Yerushalmi in his Halakhot, expressing his opinion that the Bavli is superior and was composed later (cf. Rif on b.Eruvin 104b). He therefore also completely omits the Yerushalmi passage cited above.

Other non-European Rishonim echo – or directly quote – the sentiments of the Geonim. The Ritva (13th-14th centuries, Spain), whose opinions and hidushim on the Gemara were compiled in an abridged form by the 16th century commentator, Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi (Ottoman Palestine) and published as the well-known Shitah HaMekubetzet. Rav Ashkenazi wrote as follows:

TEXT

Shitah Mequbesseth - Berakhoth 24a

TRANSLATION

Kol be-ishah ervah (“The voice of a woman is nakedness”). Explanation: With regard to Kiryat Shema. And there are those who say that these statements are specifically dealing with a singing voice and hair which is normally covered, but a non-singing voice and the hair that is [normally] outside of her hairnet – we do not worry about them.”

(End Translation)

This is the general position of those Rishonim who lived in Muslim and Arab lands, including the Rambam, to whose words we shall now turn.

The View of the Rambam

With relatively few exceptions, the Rambam follows the Rif in the determination of which opinion in each sugyah is to be accepted as halakhah. He also affirms that the Talmud Bavli is the generally superior document in determining practical halakhah (cf. Hakdamah to the Mishneh Torah). Unlike the Rif, however – and more in line with the methodology of Rabbenu Hananel – the Rambam does not ignore the determinations of the Talmud Yerushalmi, routinely including them in his summations of various halakhic topics – and the topic of kol ishah is no exception.

Similar to the Rif, the Rambam omits any mention of a prohibition on hearing the voice of a woman in his Hilkhot Kiryat Shema, meaning that he essentially ignores the statement of Shmuel from Masekhet Berakhot. He likewise ignores the aggadic mention of kol be-ishah ervah from Masekhet Kiddushin. The passage found in the Yerushalmi, however, he does include, but under the laws of forbidden sexual relations. The Rambam places it in the context of prohibiting men from deliberately attempting to derive sensual pleasure from either flirting, looking at, and listening to women who are forbidden to them (arayot – Hilkhot Isurei Bi’ah 21:2). He codifies it as follows:

TEXT

ואסור לאדם לקרוץ בידיו וברגליו או לרמוז בעיניו לאחת מן העריות וכן לשחק עימה או להקל ראש ואפילו להריח בשמים שעליה או להביט ביופייה אסור ומכין המתכוון לדבר זה מכת מרדות והמסתכל אפילו באצבע קטנה של אישה ונתכוון ליהנות כמי שנסתכל במקום התורף ואפילו לשמוע קול הערווה או לראות שיערה אסור

TRANSLATION

“And it is forbidden for a man to signal with his hands and feet, or to hint with his eyes, to any woman that is forbidden to him [ha-arayot]. It is likewise forbidden to flirt jokingly or to engage in frivolity with such a woman – even to merely smell the fragrance which is on her or to look at her beauty is forbidden, and the one who does so intentionally is given lashes for rebelliousness. And the one who gazes [licentiously] even at the little finger of a woman – and he intends thereby to derive [sensual] pleasure from it – is like one who gazes [licentiously] at the place of shame [makom ha-toref, a descriptive term used by Hazal for the vagina – “shame” having only connotations of modesty, not negativity] – and even to listen to the voice of one of the arayot, or even seeing her hair, is forbidden.”

(End Translation)

The association of leering licentiously at even the parts of a woman’s body that are normally uncovered (e.g. her feet, her fingers, etc.) with listening to her voice with similar intentions arises not from the text of the Bavli, but from the Yerushalmi.

It appears from here, and from the juxtaposition of various aspects of modesty into a single halakhah, that the position of the Rambam is that everything is dependent upon the intention of the listener or the onlooker. He quotes the baraita that discusses looking at a pinky finger “to derive pleasure from it” – yet he does not suggest that women wear gloves to avoid that possibility! Only the hair, skin, voice, and yes, the pinky finger of one’s wife is permitted to be viewed by him in a sensual and sexual manner. As for kol ishah during Kiryat Shema, to the Rambam it does not even seem to be an issue. And as for general interactions between men and women, it seems that it is upon men halakhically to be self-aware – it is not upon women to run and hide to keep men from having impure thoughts.

The Shulhan Arukh

Rav Yosef Qaro in the Shulhan Arukh records what seems like a soft prohibition in Orah Hayim (75:3), “יש ליזהר משמיעת קול זמר אישה בשעת קריאת שמע – One should be wary of hearing the singing voice during Kiryat Shema.” I say “soft” because he does not write “אסור לשמוע וכו – It is forbidden to hear…” only that “one should be wary.” He does, however, generally prohibit listening to women sing in Even HaEzer (21:3). The Rama adds to the statement in Orah Hayim, “ואפילו באישתו אבל קול הרגיל בו אינו ערווה – Even that of his own wife, but any voice that he is used to hearing is not considered as ervah for him.” This is clearly being drawn from the position of the Ra’avyah cited above.

It is important to note that the halakhic methodology of the Shulhan Arukh differs greatly from that of earlier authorities. Whereas earlier halakhists sought to come to a conclusion after examining all of the sources, the Shulhan Arukh seeks many times to combine various sources to form a new opinion. He also took the rulings of various regional authorities and combined them, or at least recorded them side by side – a method advocated earlier by the RambaN. However, this methodology produced as many humrot as it did kulot, and commentators have spent as much time trying to unravel apparent internal contradictions in the Shulhan Arukh as they have trying to determine halakhah from it.

This is not to denigrate the Shulhan Arukh in any way (halilah). To the contrary, it is a very important and useful work of halakhah, and it certainly does not need my approbation. However, it must be understood what Rav Karo was trying to accomplish when he wrote it; he sorted through halakhic opinions and chose to record one – many times arbitrarily. He also set aside unanimous opinions of the Rishonim – even the three that he generally selected in his hakdamah, the Rif, the Rosh, and the Rambam – and decides in favor of ideas expressed in the Zohar. A prime example is where he discusses the kabbalistic concept of an evil spirit dwelling on the hands that is supposedly excised by the morning washing, an idea that is rejected unanimously by the Rif, Rosh, and Rambam who explain the morning washing in terms of hygienic concerns.

It was due to this state of affairs behind the text of the Shulhan Arukh that many subsequent halakhists, although they consulted it and the Tur regularly, did not always feel constrained by its rulings. Instead, they drew from Hazal and their direct expositors in making halakhic determinations. Such hakhamim include: the Maharal, the Maharshal, the BaH, the Gra, Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l, Hakham Ovadiah Yosef z”l, Rav Yosef Messas z”l, the Rogathchover Gaon z”l, Mori HaYashish Rav Yihya Al-Qafih z”l, Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, Rav Ratson Arusi (יצ”ו), Rav David Bar-Hayim (יצ”ו), and many others.

Summation

From the standpoint of the sources, there are various positions that one could take in relation to kol ishah, from a very limited stance to a very prohibitive one. And as long as no one turns to his fellow and condemns him for following the de’ah (halakhic opinion) that he or she has arrived at, they are all conceivably valid. Each person should always strive to look at his neighbor and judge him favorably, and should admit “yesh lahem mishehu al lismokh – they have someone on whom to rely” whenever it is possible to do so. This is unity and the opposite is sinat hinam, i.e. finding an aveirah where there isn’t one.

From the standpoint of the future of orthodox Judaism vis-à-vis current realities, I believe – le-aniyut da’ati – that it behooves us to look at the history behind the development of the current Haredi-Hasidic definition of kol ishah (that is taken almost for granted in nearly every halakhic discussion of the subject), and to seriously re-evaluate it.

Like the young men with whom I spoke, many religiously orthodox Jews are simply unable to process the ascetically and mystically-charged position which is currently promulgated as a singular halakhic fact. Not only this, but many feel that when they listen to women sing (appropriately, of course) they are living in violation of halakhah, which can be psychologically and emotionally damaging. Rabbis also feel as though they are “looking the other way” or “turning a blind eye” to the community members under their care and guidance when they know that they are routinely listening to women sing.

But what if both of those situations could be alleviated by returning to the sources as they were historically interpreted before the rise of kabbalistic and ascetic trends in the Jewish world? What if the young men who listen to [appropriate] music that features female voices could be confident that they are not sinning and also re-sensitize their moral consciences after years of telling themselves, “I know this is forbidden, but oh well”? This is not always possible as right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of how we feel about it. But in the case of kol ishah it certainly seems to be both possible and warranted to return to the historic majority pesak of restricting the concern to distracting singing heard during Kiryat Shema.

In conclusion, it appears clear to me from the sources above that kol ishah is about women singing (and possibly talking) while a man is reciting Shema, even his own wife – ONLY. This is the universal opinion of the Geonim. Based on Rav Haye Gaon and the Ra’avyah, if a man is used to hearing such singing to the point that he can concentrate while ignoring it, then he does not need to worry about kol ishah at all. It does not appear that there was ever a blanket prohibition on listening to women sing, but even if there was originally such a prohibition, it seems that today, since we are used to regularly hearing women sing, that such a prohibition [if it did exist] would simply no longer apply.

Perhaps I will discuss the general halakhot related to music in another post.

Kol tuv,

YB

Women Covering Their Hair – 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.]

At the outset, I want to admit that what I put forth here is my own understanding of kisui rosh le-nashim (כסוי ראש לנשים – “headcovering for women”). As with nearly every subject, there will always be another who disagrees, but when one speaks his own view he cannot be divided. Honest and sincere study demands that one arrive at an honest and sincere conclusions. There are certainly other ways to approach the covering of women’s hair from a halakhic standpoint, but what follows is the approach that I have arrived at based on my own study and consideration – while standing on the shoulders of others – in search of “where hokhmah will be found and in which location is understanding” (Iyov 28:12, see Rashi there). My conclusions are consistent with those of several major Sefardi posekim and allow me to be intellectually honest about this topic, so I am not worried that I have somehow misled myself.

Hair Down 1The subject of women covering their hair when in public has been, and continues to be, a topic of intense discussion among both women and halakhists alike. Who is required to cover their hair? Where are they required to cover their hair? How much of their hair is required to be covered? What type of covering(s) may be used? What is the purpose of covering hair, modesty or some other consideration? Is it a matter of cultural practice or positively enacted law? Although these are all important questions, it seems that many of them elude any explicit explanation by Hazal. In fact, because the primary sources seem to be so sparse on the subject, the few statements which Hazal did make regarding kisui rosh le-nashim gave rise to a host of interpretations by the rishonim. What’s more, the actual text of the Gemara uses terminology that unfortunately caused some expositors – including the Rambam, the “Great Eagle” on whose wings many are carried out of the darkness of ignorance  – to turn an explicit statement of the Mishnah on its head, as will be discussed below, leading only to further confusion among later writers who referred to him.

It is my firm belief that the explanation put forth by the late, innovative, and intrepid halakhist, Rav Yosef Messas z”l (1892-1974) – Moroccan by birth and former rabbi of Tlemcen, Algeria and Haifa, Israel – cohesively explains all relevant texts and correctly contends that kisui rosh le-nashim is no longer a halakhic requirement in our times. The sole English translation of Rav Messas’ teshuvah on this subject is available for free download HERE. My understanding is largely based on his conclusions, but the majority of the analysis below is not covered in Rav Messas’ famous teshuvah.

However, before we discuss the conclusion, let us begin at the beginning.

The Mishnah – Dat Mosheh & Dat Yehudit

The entire subject begins with a short passage in m.Ketubot 7:4[6] that is as follows:

TEXT

אלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית איזו היא דת משה מאכילתו שאינו מעושר ומשמשתו נידה ולא קוצה לה חלה ונודרת ואינה מקיימת איזו היא דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע וטווה בשוק ומדברת עם כל אדם

TRANSLATION

“These are the women that are divorced (lit. “who go out”) without their kethubah payment: one who transgresses a matter of dat Mosheh or [dat] yehudit. What is considered to be dat Mosheh? She feeds her husband produce from which terumot and ma’aserot have not been taken, she has intercourse with him while she is niddah, she does not separate hallah, and she makes a neder and does not fulfill it. What is considered to be dat yehudit? She goes out in public and her head is uncovered, she spins thread in the open marketplace, and she speaks with any man who will engage her.”

As is clearly demonstrated from the text, dat Mosheh refers to the “religious practice” (the actual meaning of “dat – דת”) established by the laws of the Torah, and dat yehudit refers to the religious practices established by Jewish women. While dat Mosheh is never explicitly defined in the sources, dat yehudit is, as the Rambam states in Hilkhot Ishut 24:11[12]: “ואיזו היא דת יהודית הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל – What is dat yehudit? It is the custom of modesty that Jewish women practice.” Rashi defines it similarly: “שנהגו בנות ישראל ואע”ג דלא כתיבא – That which Jewish women practice even though it is not written explicitly in a Biblical verse.” Lastly, the Tosafot HaRid defines it as follows: “דבר שאין בו איסור אלא שהנשים נהגות בו דרך צניעות – Something which is not connected to an actual prohibition, but women practice it as a part of feminine modesty.” But what is most important to note at this point is that the Mishnah places the uncovering of a woman’s hair in public (peru`at rosh – פרועת ראש) firmly in the category of dat yehudit and not in that of dat Mosheh.

Does The Gemara Disagree?

The attendant Gemara for the Mishnaic phrase “she goes out in public and her head is uncovered” on b.Ketubot 72a-b is fairly brief, but its terse and somewhat unclear phrasing has become the occasion for volumes of commentary since the era of Ravina and Rav Ashei (the original redactors of the Talmud Bavli).

TEXT

ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי”ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר’ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי

TRANSLATION (INITIAL)

“What is considered to be dat yehudit? She goes out in public and her head is uncovered: An uncovered head is referred to in the Torah itself, and it is written, ‘And he uncovers the head of the woman’ (cf. Bamidbar 5:18). The school of Rebbi Yishma’el taught that it is a warning to the daughters of Israel that they should not go out in public with their heads uncovered. [Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shemu’el – girsa of the Rif and other rishonim], ‘According to the Torah, a kalatah (קלתה) is permissible, but [according to] dat yehudit even a kalatah (קלתה) is forbidden.’ Rebbi Asi said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘[While wearing] a kalatah (קלתה) she is not considered to have an uncovered head.’ Rebbi Zeira raised a difficulty, ‘Where [is the statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable]? If we say that [he meant] in the open marketplace, then [we already have a statement by Shemu’el that] it is forbidden by dat yehudit, and if [he is referring to] a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Avinu to remain married to her husband [i.e. since there is hardly a woman who covers her head while in her private courtyard]!’ Abaye said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘[Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from] courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.'”

Several interpretive issues and questions should stand out at first:

[1] NOWHERE in the passage does it mention dat Mosheh, but only dat yehudit. (The use of the term de-oraita will be discussed below, but dat Mosheh is simply not under discussion here.)

[2] Much depends in this passage on the definition of kalatah (קלתה). What is it?

[3] What does “according to the Torah” mean? Is it indicative of a law, or is it merely discussing the implications of the Scriptural passage in Bamidbar 5:18?

[4] Where is the description of the headcovering? The passage never discusses materials, how much hair needs to be covered in each context, or what a covering is supposed to look like. Wouldn’t Hazal have simply told us the answers to all of these pertinent questions, especially when matters of family life (i.e. divorce) is at stake?

[5] What is the meaning of “uncovered” (פרוע)? What does it mean when the kohen “uncovers” (ופרע) the hair of the sotah?

The Meaning of “De-Oraita”

Twice in the above passage, the Gemara uses the Aramaic phrase de-oraita (דאורייתא), generally understood to mean the same as min-hatorah (מן התורה – “from the Torah,” i.e. a Biblical law), but it can also have other meanings. The Sedei Hemed (4:19) demonstrates that there are numerous instances where the term de-oraita (דאורייתא) indicates something rabbinic in nature or that a law is merely hinted at in the Biblical text, using the passage as an asmakhta (“support” – i.e. a verse used as a mnemonic to remember a law, or to lend it Biblical credence, but not as the actual derivation of it). He writes as follows:

TEXT

Sedey Hemedh 4-19

TRANSLATION

19: de-oraita (דאורייתא) – We find that this language is used to describe matters that are not min-hatorah, but the Gemara only wants to say that it has a support in the Torah. This is what maran the Bet Yosef wrote in Yoreh Deah at the beginning of siman 184 (beginning with the words “And at the time…”) with regard to the rulings of the Tosafot, the Rosh, and the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag) with regard to the mandatory separation before the menstrual cycle, as determined by a woman’s veset (וסת), being de-oraita (דאורייתא) – see there. Our blessed teacher the Derishah writes similarly in Yoreh Deah (at the beginning of siman 183) regarding the opinion of maran (the Tur) that such separation prior to menstruation is “a law of the Torah…” – see there. We also find that maran the Bet Yosef writes in Orah Hayim 418 – at the end of the section beginning with “And the individual…” – that what it says in the Gemara regarding rosh hodesh, that it is de-oraita (דאורייתא), is only the Gemara wanting to say that its asmakhta is only hinted at in the Torah – see there. And look at the Shakh in Hoshen Mishpat 28:14 where according to both the author of the commentary known as Megillat Ester and the Shakh himself, there is a principle of Talmudic interpretation that when it says that something is “de-oraita (דאורייתא),” and is not saying so while asking a question, then it is possible to interpret it as indicating an asmakhta. Also the Afra De-Ara, in commenting the opinion of the Ara De-Rabbanan in 42:144, writes that what Rashi wrote on the Rif in tractate Beitzah (folio 37) that when it states that conducting business on Shabbat is “a Biblical prohibition” (isur de-oraita איסור דאורייתא) it is not necessarily so since it is clearly only rabbinic in origin and the Scriptural verse only comes to strengthen it. In Helek HaShitah 42b, writes in the name of the Mehazeh Avraham that he takes the position on the meaning of what Rabbenu Yonah writes in the third chapter of that Berakhot when he says that it is min-hatorah (“from the Torah”) that he wanted to say that it is hinted at in the Torah. And he concludes by admitting that this is a strained interpretation of Rabbenu Yonah, but that it is reasonable to appeal to this idea that “the Scriptural only comes to strengthen it,” since, being that it is explicit in the words of the Rambam that it is rabbinic in origin, we are comfortable in our opinion that the words of Rabbenu Yonah are in agreement with the reasoning of the Rambam – see there. And there is a further support for this in that we see that also the holy masters mentioned above are comfortable with this interpretation. And see what I have written in the second volume of this work in sections 115 (beginning with the words “And thus”) and 116. Regarding what is stated in the Gemara about melakhah on holo shel mo`ed (b.Mo`ed Katan 11b) where it says, “The laws of avelut (‘mourning’) are rabbinic, melakhah on holo shel mo`ed is Biblical (de-oraita דאורייתא),” There are those among the rishonim that maintain that the intention of saying it is de-oraita (דאורייתא) is to indicate that it has an asmakhta from what is written in the Torah [not that it is necessarily a Biblical law]. See Rabbi Eli`ezer of Metz in the Sefer Yere’im #113, the Hagahot Maimoniot on Hilkhot Yom Tov chapter 7, the Rosh at the beginning of tractate Mo`ed Katan, and the Tosafot on b.Hagigah 18, beginning with the words “The intermediate days…”

It is abundantly clear from the words of the Sedei Hemedh that the term de-oraita (דאורייתא) does not always indicate a Biblical law, but often refers to a rabbinic law that has an allusion within the Biblical text. Le-aniut da`ati, I believe that this is how de-oraita (דאורייתא) in the b.Ketubot 72a-b is properly understood. I am not alone in this, as Rashi there writes in response to the opening assertion that “An uncovered head is de-oraita (דאורייתא)” that “…[if this is so] then why did [the Mishnah] not call it dat Mosheh?!?” (72a). In other words, if going out with an “uncovered head” is Biblical in nature, then why didn’t the Mishnah list it under dat Mosheh instead of dat yehudit? Note this well.

We should hereby take notice of two things: [1] the phrase de-oraita (דאורייתא) is equated to dat Mosheh [at least possibly] by Rashi (the Rambam and other rishonim make this leap as well, as we will see), and [2] with the language of the Mishnah immediately available, why would the Gemara – if it desired to argue that covering the head was not dat yehudit – not simply say “It is dat Mosheh” instead of using the somewhat generic term “de-oraita (דאורייתא)”?

The Mysterious Kalatah

Much of the discussion around this passage of the Gemara hinges on the definition and identification of the word kalatah (קלתה), referred to three times. Rashi (72b) identifies it as a small basket used by women for carrying goods – mostly likely the Greek work basket known as a callathus. The Rambam identifies it as a mitpahat (“kerchief” – cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 24:9). Other rishonim also identify it with some sort of cloth. This is most probably due to the reference of a “scarf” in the Tosefta being removed from the head of the sotah (see below), but this doesn’t necessarily make sense since the Gemara here in Ketubot is not discussing the sotah ritual at all.

What is the common thread driving these various identifications? Their relation of the Aramaic word kalatah to a root meaning “woven.”

There are several difficulties with these identifications, however, that occur to me:

[i] If it is a basket, then what does that have to do with the shaming of the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18? Does the kohen remove a basket from her head? Certainly not. Besides, the Tosefta in t.Sotah 3:1 specifically indicates that in those days the kohen removed a tza`ifah (צעיפה – a “scarf”) from the head of the sotah during the process, not a kalatah.

[ii] What are the descriptive parameters of such a basket, a scarf (צעיפה), or kerchief (מטפחת)? If kalatah was meant to refer to either of them, then why did the Gemara not simply use those terms?

[iii] If the assumption of a cloth or kerchief on the head is due to the implication of para` during the sotah ritual, as noted previously, and it may make some initial sense on its surface, but it requires an assumption of other headgear and perhaps even a series of garments by logical extension which are not even mentioned by the Gemara. This seems to be an overly-complicated solution to properly understanding the text of the Talmud itself.

Rabbi Ya`akov Reischer (1661-1733), in his responsa collection entitled Shevut Ya`akov (1:103), suggested a unique position, accepted by several major halakhists (including Rav Yosef Messas z”l), that kalatah (קלתה) means “braids” or “braiding.” He relates the Aramaic kalatah (קלתה) to the Hebrew keli`ot (קליעות). This identification makes sense in the context of the sotah, since the Mishnah says in b.Sotah 7a that “ufara` – and [the kohen] uncovers” means that “he undoes her hair” and Rashi explains “from its braids (מקליעתו) – as the Gemara will explain below.” (see 8a)

It seems clear, then, that kalatah here is a reference to the woman’s hair while braided and/or tied upon her head, apparently even without a covering over the top of them (e.g. a scarf, hat, etc.) This understanding of the word kalatah is also maintained by the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, ca. 1635-1682), as is referenced in the teshuvah of Rav Messas z”l on this topic, available on the website.

The Meaning of “An Uncovered Head”

It is seemingly taken for granted by most commentators that the meaning of word para` (פרע) is “uncovered.” This, however, is not true – or, at least, not completely. What the word means – both in Biblical and Rabbinic usage – is “loose” or “unrestrained,” and has the connotation of hair that is uncovered and unkempt.

Here are examples of Biblical usage with regard to hair:

[a] Vayikra 21:10 – The kohen gadol is not allowed to grow his hair “long” (and unkempt).

[b] Bamidbar 6:5 – The hair of the nazir is supposed to “grow wild” throughout the nezirut.

[c] Devarim 32:42 – Enemies described as having “long/wild hair.”

[d] Yehezkel 44:20 – The kohanim not allowed to either shave or let their hair grow “long/wild” (i.e. unkempt).

Examples of para` not in reference to hair:

[e] Shemot 32:25 – Mosheh saw that the people had “gone wild” or “become unrestrained” during the worship of the golden calf.

[f] Mishlei 29:18 – Without prophecy, the nation is “unrestrained” or “loose.”

In rabbinic usage, the meaning of “loose,” “unrestrained,” “unkempt” is maintained. Also masekhet Kethubot (15b), in the Mishnah there, discusses a virgin bride on her wedding day leaving her special canopy on the way to the huppah while “her head is ‘uncovered'” (roshah parua` – ראשה פרוע), signifying that this is her first marriage. Both Rashi and the Tosafot HaRid explain that this means that her hair is loose and “upon her shoulders.” They further explain that this is the custom of how the bride is when she is escorted from the house of her father to the house of her husband.

Rashi makes a blanket statement in b.Sotah 8a regarding the word para` (פרע):

TEXT

ופרע: בכל מקום לשון גילוי הוא

TRANSLATION

And he loosens: In every place it is the language of revealing.”

This is an interesting statement by Rashi, especially in light of his other explicit statements about the meaning of Bamidbar 5:18 to the effect that it means “to loosen [hair from its braids].” It seems clear, however, that para` in the context of the sotah implies the entire act of removing the covering from the head, revealing the hair underneath, and disheveling it so it is loose across the shoulders.

Putting It All Together

With the language clarified, it is now possible to suggest a more cohesive reading of the Talmudic text. What I suggest is as follows:

TEXT

ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע:  ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא דכתיב ופרע את ראש האשה ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש [אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – רי”ף] דאורייתא קלתה שפיר דמי דת יהודית אפילו קלתה נמי אסור אמר רבי אסי אמר ר’ יוחנן קלתה אין בה משום פרוע ראש הוי בה רבי זירא היכא אילימא בשוק דת יהודית היא ואלא בחצר אם כן לא הנחת בת לאברהם אבינו שיושבת תחת בעלה אמר אביי ואיתימא רב כהנא מחצר לחצר ודרך מבוי

TRANSLATION (RESEARCHED)

“What is considered to be dat yehudit? She goes out in public and her hair is loose and upon her shoulders: Having her hair loose and on her shoulders is alluded to by the Torah, as it is written, ‘and the kohen shall loosen the woman’s head [of hair] from its braids [and let it rest upon her shoulders].’ And the School of Rebbi Yishmael taught that this passage is a warning to the daughters of Israel (i.e. Jewish women) not to go out in public with their hair loosened and unkempt. Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Shemu’el, ‘From the simple implication of the Torah, having her hair up and braided while in public is permissible, but according to the custom of Jewish women even hair while braided in also forbidden to be worn in public (i.e. the braids need to be covered as well with some sort of hat or kerchief).’ Rav Asi said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘While her hair is braided, we do not consider a woman to have infringed on the prohibition of having her hair loose (i.e. she cannot be divorced without her kethubah as described in the Mishnah).’ Rebbi Zeira raised a difficulty with this statement, ‘Where [is the statement of Rebbi Yohanan applicable]? If we say that he meant in the open marketplace, then we already have a statement by Shemu’el that it is forbidden by the custom of Jewish women, and if he is referring to a courtyard, then we will not be able to allow a single daughter of Avraham Avinu to remain married to her husband [i.e. since there is hardly a woman who worries about her hair while in her private courtyard]! Abaye said – and some say it was Rav Kahana – ‘[Rebbi Yohanan was referring to a woman going from] courtyard to courtyard by way of an alley.'”

So according to the Gemara, nothing – not a covering and not braids – is required either within a house or a private courtyard. Braided hair – as opposed to it being down and loose upon the shoulders – is acceptable when briefly going between private spaces via a semi-public thoroughfare. Another covering, presumably a scarf or a hat, is required by standards of modesty practiced by Jewish women. Although no garment specific is mentioned in the Gemara, it seems reasonable that Hazal assumed that the hair coverings used in each community by women – a practice that was nearly universal in the ancient world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa – would suffice to fulfill dat yehudit and thus did not require an explicit description.

This interpretation makes much more sense and requires the least amount of innovation an assumption on the part of the reader.

The Talmud Yerushalmi

The text of the Talmud Yerushalmi is often terse and uses unfamiliar language and terminology – this case is no exception. This is not to say, as is unfortunately common, that it should be disregarded or that it is not useful as a halakhic source (halilah). To the contrary, it is extremely valuable in a great many ways and for very important reasons. However, due to it being less-developed and less-studied throughout the centuries following its redaction, it often offers us less in the way of explanation than does the Bavli – but this is certainly not always the case. So, for the sake of being thorough and in order to properly honor the hakhamim of Eretz Yisra’el, we will briefly examine y.Ketuvot 7:6, which contains the following passage:

TEXT

וראשה פרוע לחצר אמרו ק”ו למבוי רבי חייה בשם רבי יוחנן היוצאה בקפלטין שלה אין בה משום ראשה פרוע הדא דתימא לחצר אבל למבוי יש בה משום יוצאה וראשה פרוע יש חצר שהוא כמבוי ויש מבוי שהוא כחצר חצר שהרבים בוקעין בתוכה הרי הוא כמבוי ומבוי שאין הרבים בוקעין בתוכו הרי הוא כחצר

TRANSLATION

“…and her head [of hair] is loose – This was spoken in reference to a woman being within a private courtyard, so all the more so (קל וחומר) should this be the case in an alleyway. Rebbi Hiyyah said in the name of Rebbi Yohanan, ‘The woman who goes out with her kaflatin (קפלטין), we do not considered to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public [i.e. she cannot be divorced without her ketubah payment because of this].’ This is what you say with regard to a private courtyard, but in an alleyway we do consider a woman to have transgressed the prohibition of having her hair loose in public [i.e. even while wearing her kaflatin (קפלטין)]. There is a courtyard that is like an alleyway – a courtyard into which the public traffic breaks. And behold there is an alleyway into which the traffic of the public does not break and it is like a courtyard.”

Some differences – and possible similarities – with the sugyah in the Bavli are as follows:

[i] Whereas the Bavli uses the word kalatah, the Yerushalmi uses another word altogether: kaflatin (קפלטין), a word that may possibly be in the plural. Both the Penei Mosheh and the Korban Eidah explain kaflatin (קפלטין) with the word mitpahat (מטפחת) and the Arukh brings an opinion that it is Latin for hanging curls of hair and a pe’ah nokhrit (פאה נכרית) which, according to certain opinions, means a wig. The Me’iri, in his Bet HaBehirah on b.Ketubot 72a equates kaflatin (קפלטין) with the kalatah of the Bavli, which he views as being a kerchief (mitpahat מטפחת).

[ii] Rebbi Yohanan, if we assume that this is the same or a similar statement as the one attributed to him in the Bavli, is understood here to be giving the law for a courtyard, whereas in b.Ketubot 72a-b it is determined that he is giving the law for passing between courtyards briefly via a semi-private alley.

[iii] Perhaps the most obvious difference from the Bavli is that the Yerushalmi does not build its case from the parashah involving the sotah in Bamidbar 5:18.

[iv] The passage in the Yerushalmi ends by stipulating that the status of both a courtyard and an alleyway is subject to change on the basis of the amount of public traffic they receive. The Bavli makes no such stipulations.

Tzarikh Iyyun. (The matter needs further investigation.)

The View of the Rambam

Due to the magnificence and centrality of the Mishneh Torah to halakhah, and particularly to mekoriyut, we will now examine the view of the Rambam on this subject. And while I certainly do not believe, as is unfortunately the common conception in the Haredi-Hasidic world, that the Mishneh Torah is essentially a closed and incoherent work from which it is nearly impossible to perceive the position of the Rambam from Hazal on any given issue, in this case a complete understanding is, in some ways, truly difficult.

Completely elucidating the opinion of the Rambam with regard to the issue of kisui rosh le-nashim, dat Mosheh, and dat yehudit is not the most difficult task at hand, however, as he does clearly state his understanding of the law in plain language. The most difficult task in regard to the Rambam is ascertaining how he gets from the text of the talmud to arrive at his particular position.

There is neither need nor space here to go through all the details that comprise the breadth of the view of the Rambam – which would be a major undertaking all by itself – but there are two main points I would like to address here:

[1] First, but not entirely relevant to the main point of our discussion here, is that in the Mishneh Torah, “dat Mosheh” does not refer only to things which are min-hatorah necessarily, but also includes things which are rabbinic in nature (as the Rambam highlights in Hilkhot Ishut 24), yet they are nevertheless thought by the Rambam to be based on actual directives of the Torah itself. This ambiguity as to the definition of dat Mosheh – seemingly being composed of both laws that are min-hatorah and mi-divreihem – is perhaps the central reason for the difficulties present in the Rambam’s expressed perspective vis-à-vis the text of the Gemara in b.Ketubot 72a-b.

[2] Second, and most important to our discussion, is that while the Mishnah clearly lists “going out with an uncovered head” in the category of dat yehudit, the Rambam lists it under dat Mosheh (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 24:9[11]), creating an entirely different category for what constitutes a violation of dat yehudit, namely going out without a full-body cloak known as a radid (רדיד), which is analogous to the khimaar (خمار) or abaayah (عباية) worn by Muslim women (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 13:13; 24:11 and Shir HaShirim 5:7). His understanding of dat Mosheh is his perception of a requirement from the Torah for women to wear a headscarf called a mitpahat (מטפחת – cf. Hilkhot Ishut 24:9). So we can clearly see that the Rambam essentially relates dat Mosheh and dath yehudit to two different garments, each increasing in their level of coverage respectively. But it does not stop there since, as we will see shortly, the Rambam assumes the presence of yet a third garment.

It is my firm contention, and I am not alone in this reading of the Rambam, that he more or less draws lines between the text of the Gemara to the pieces of women’s clothing commonly worn in the Arab-Muslim world in which he resided. The section of the Mishneh Torah that bears this out most clearly is in Hilkhot Sotah 3:5, where he describes the shaming of the suspected adulteress as follows:

TEXT

וכל איש שיחפוץ לבוא ולראותה יבוא ויראה והיא עומדת ביניהן בלא רדיד ולא מטפחת אלא בבגדיה וכופח שעל ראשה כמו שהאישה בתוך ביתה

TRANSLATION

“…and any man who so desires to come and see her comes and sees her, and she stands among them without a full-body cloak (רדיד), without a headscarf (מטפחת) – nothing except for her clothes and the cap (כופח) which is upon her head, just as a woman is dressed while within her house.”

Headcoverings in MT - Table 3

Table 1.1

[Just a side note before moving forward: Whenever punitive “shaming” is mentioned in connection with Jewish jurisprudence, especially when it is a woman, it is important to clearly explain that it is always “measure for measure” (middah ke-neged middah). In other words, the person who is the object of the shame is first found guilty of shameful behavior. In the case of the sotah, it is not true that simply any jealous husband may simply subject his wife to the drinking of the mei ha-marim hame’orerim (“the bitter waters that cause curse” – cf. Bamidbar 5:18). She must first have repeatedly demonstrated the shameful and distasteful behavior of openly spending time alone with other men and talking flirtatiously with them, even after her husband has asked her not to do so. Without these prerequisite actions on her part, establishing her behavior patterns through valid witnesses, and having been properly warned – not only should he not make her drink the waters of curse, it is forbidden by halakhah for him to do so (cf. Hilkhot Sotah 1). Judaism is a system of order based on reason and law – it does not obsess itself with subjugating women and it does not indulge obsessively jealous husbands. דו”ק]

Headcoverings in the MT - Table 2

Table 1.2

Le-aniut da`ati, the claim that the Rambam assumed Arab norms of dress and modesty, reading it back into the Gemara, is incontrovertible based on this text.  The kupah (כופח), which is a small “cap” similar to what some Arab-Muslim women wear under their hijaab, is also mentioned as being part of the kesut (“clothing”) that a husband owes his wife according to halakhah (cf. Hilkhot Ishut 13:1). No reference to this garment or the full-body cloak (radid רדיד), however, exists in the words of Hazal.

Headcoverings MT vs Gemara - Table 4

Table 1.3

Ardent “Rambamists” must deal with this reality. It is incumbent upon them to admit that the construct – as presented in the Mishneh Torah and displayed in the tables above – is derived independently of Talmudic law and only alludes to it in a cursory manner. All of this is said, of course, with only the greatest respect and honor for the Nesher HaGadol, Rav Mosheh ben Maimon z”l.

Practical Summary

In response to the questions posed in the introduction:

Where were Jewish women required to cover their hair in the times of the Gemara? In the times of the Gemara, when it was the standard “custom of Jewish women,” they were only required to cover their hair fully in the public sphere (“the marketplace”) and partially – or perhaps just braided and not covered – in a semi-public place (“an alleyway”). And these places, if frequented by the public may also be places where it is required for a woman to cover their hair (Yerushalmi).

What type of covering is required? A type of covering required to be worn on a woman’s head is never specified by Hazal. Apparently there is a partial type of covering (or, again, more likely not a covering but a woman’s hair being braided), a mysterious object referred to as a kalatah. The required size, material, shape, etc. is never mentioned for the kalatah either.

How much hair needs to be covered – every single hair, most of it, part of it? The amount of hair required to be covered is never explicitly discussed in either the Mishnah and the Talmud.

What is the purpose for covering the hair according to the halakhah? The purpose for covering the hair was for modesty and propriety because it was “the practice of Jewish women.” Rabbi Yishma’el only says that the pasuk in the Torah regarding the sotah is only a “warning” (אזהרה – azharah), not an actual law. Neither the Sanhedrin nor any other bet din ever ruled on this. The courts only upheld the common practice of women, just as they upheld common practices when it came to hiring day-laborers and other halakhic matters tied to the cultural context of a particular place and time.

Jewish women covered their hair in the ancient world because it was the custom of women in nearly every culture in those times to do so. This is the reason why it was not necessary to make it a law in the Torah or for Hazal to make it a ruling. Since the Torah did not make a law, Hazal did not feel it was necessary for them to legislate every detail of feminine modesty, but only to enforce the sentiments of propriety for married women in that time. Since the cultural sentiment of modesty at that time included women covering their hair while in public, and that not doing so was considered shameful and lewd, Hazal entitled a husband at that time to divorce his wife, should she carry herself that way in public, because it was embarrassing. This would also have also been the case, according to the Mishnah, for women who carried on conversations with men who were not their relatives, but today since women and men talk normally in public, no bet din would grant a divorce without a ketubah payment for this reason.

Other things we know:

The covering of heir is listed by Hazal under the category of “custom” not “law” – the Mishnah explicitly calling it dat yehudit and NOT dat Mosheh. Placing it under “dat Mosheh” is a misreading of the Gemara by the Rambam (and those who followed him in his error) which was apparently motivated by Islamic cultural norms.

We also know that covering the hair is no longer “the custom of Jewish women” today. Nothing proves this more than the widespread custom of Haredi women to wear wigs in order to “cover” their hair. There is no difference, in either reality or halakhah, between a woman’s hair and a wig (a pe’ah nokhrit is not a sheitel, and notice that the Gemara here in this sugyah doesn’t mention one either – cf. GR”A, Shenot Eliyahu on Masekhet Shabbat 6:5). All that sheitels have proven is that even the most stringent sectors of orthodox Jewry are completely fine with women wearing a fashionable yet modest hairstyle today.

Finally, Who is required to cover their hair today? In reality, no one. Rav Yosef Messas z”l has written an unassailable defense of women no longer being required to cover their hair at all in modern times. A full English translation of his teshuvah can be downloaded HERE. He explains that since it was merely the custom of Jewish women tied to the broader context of feminine modesty in that time and place, since the societal norms have changed, so has the halakhah in this matter.

Final Thoughts

A great deal more could be written on this subject from the standpoint of halakhah, but perhaps more important is the over-arching religious philosophy connected to it. In other words, what are we trying to accomplish and what reality is before us? These are central questions that demand an answer.

When women are asked why they cover their hair today, they usually respond that it has to do with “tznius” (modesty), but when they are asked how wearing a wig – or even covering their hair in the first place – makes them more modest than the next woman who doesn’t, most women will respond that they do not think that a woman with uncovered hair is necessarily “not tznius” or immodest at all. Instead, they propose new definitions of modesty, such as “modesty does not mean being unattractive or hiding beauty” which of course cannot be true as this is exactly what the concept of modesty was in the ancient world, and to a certain extent it still is. In fact, the word for “modesty” (צניעות) comes from a root meaning “hidden” or “to hide.” Other times, women will express how covering their hair is a personal choice that helps remind them of their “submission to God.” This certainly a nice and meaningful idea, but really has no source in Hazal. Lastly, and this is especially true when discussing wigs, women often give kabbalistic reasons why they cover their hair. All of this is to highlight the fact of Rav Messas’ assessment that the status of women’s hair in our modern world has completely changed from how it was viewed socially in previous eras and in ancient times. Because it is not seen as anything other than a personal religious choice, one which no longer contains any real moral value – only social implications – new reasons for continuing the practice of covering the hair in public needed to be sought out.

This is the reality in front of us. And so the next question is: What is the goal given this reality? Is it to re-create the past? Is it to re-invent the rationale behind Jewish practices? Is it to pretend that cultural norms in this area haven’t changed? As I have said before, other than examining the halakhah honestly, which is the duty of Jews for any subject in Judaism, I do not believe that women’s modesty really even needs to be on the docket. I have never met an honestly religious woman who was not modest. Women already have an innate sense of propriety within moral cultures and so there seems to be little need for Jewish men to worry about it. Maybe this is why the Sanhedrin never ruled on this matter, but simply upheld “the custom of Jewish women” (i.e. dat yehudit)?

Kol tuv,

YB

Lag Ba-Omer – A Mekori Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEXT

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

TRANSLATION

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

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

TEXT

Pesahim 100a - selection

TRANSLATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly, we need to stop giving them our money.

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

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

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

Our true desire should be for positive and lasting change.

May HaShem give us the wisdom that grants us success.

Happy 22nd day of the omer,

Kol tuv,

YB

Haircuts, Shaving, and Music During the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

No haircuts, no trimming, no shaving, no music, no engagements, no marriages – at least not until “Lag Ba-Omer.” Right? …Not exactly.

We have all heard the story about Rabbi Aqiva’s 12,000 (some say 24,000) students who, because they were not polite enough to one another, were wiped out in some sort of a plague. Because of these incredibly sad events – so the traditional story goes – we need to nationally mourn during these days. But when did this begin? Where is it written in Hazal that we need to abstain from such things? The fact is – it doesn’t.

The section of the Gemara that discusses this incident is found in b.Yevamoth 62b, which says:

TEXT

אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר”מ ור’ יהודה ור’ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר’ חייא בר אבין כולם מתו מיתה רעה מאי היא א”ר נחמן אסכרה

TRANSLATION

“They said, ‘Rebbi Aqiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Givath to Antifras and all of them died at once because they did not conduct themselves with honor one to another, and the world was desolate until Rebbi Aqiva came to our teachers in the South and taught them [Torah]. Those masters were Rebbi Me’iyr, Rebbi Yehudhah, Rebbi Yosiy, Rebbi Shim’on, and Rebbi Eli’ezer ben Shammua. And they upheld the Torah in that [difficult] hour. It was taught by a Tanna that all of them died between Pesah and Shavu’oth. Rav Hama bar Abba, or possibly Rav Hiyya bar Abiyn, All of them died an evil death. What was it? Rav Nahman says, Asphyxiation.”

Despite the fact that Rav Sherira Gaon (in his well-known Iggereth) describes the cause of death as being shemada (i.e. the Aramaic form of “shmad,” or government murder of Jews), and not askarah (“asphyxiation”) – which lends itself more plausibly, in the view of some scholars, that the original reference is to the death of Rebbi Aqiva’s students who fought during the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Kokhvah and perished at the hands of the Romans – this passage leaves us with several questions.

[1] Where does it say that Kelal Yisra’el needs to nationally enter a state of mourning due to this?

[2] Which students died between Pesah and Shavu’oth, the twelve thousand pairs or the rabbaniym from the South who arose after them?

[3] Is the story – as told in the Bavli (and the parallel passage in Bereshiyth Rabbah) – midrashic, and therefore metaphoric, in nature or are we to take it literally? It doesn’t seem likely that Rebbi Aqiva would have produced students who were so terrible that they deserved Divine destruction to the point of endangering the Torah.

[4] If it is obvious that the import of this passage is to cause Kelal Yisra’el to actively mourn during sefiyrath ha-omer, then why does the passage not just say so? And, further, why do neither Rashi nor Tosafoth discuss it there on the daf? In fact, the Mahzor Vitry does not mention this practice [i.e. to mourn] at all.

[5] The Rambam never mentions such a thing as national [quasi] mourning for any event during the omer. When he mentions other later customs, why doesn’t he mention this one?

As far as being meqori is concerned, a few of the Geonim mentioned in their writings that due to the tragedy of Rebbi Aqiva’s students some did not contract marriages during the omer. And this is probably a good idea, although it is not a halakhah that was ever mentioned, or even a suggested practice, in the Mishneh Torah. Refraining from the contracting of marriages during the omer likely falls under being respectful to Jewish communal traditions. But refraining from music, haircuts, or shaving – things which are private – are certainly mutar according to halakhah.

According to the Rambam, there is no directive to mourn in this way except for actual halakhic mourning (such as during shiva and sheloshiym – Hilkhoth Evel 6:1-3) and the week in which Tisha Be-Av falls (Hilkhoth Ta’aniyoth 5:6). And so, that which is permissible throughout the year is halakhically permissible during sefiyrath ha-omer.

The entire timbre of the omer period seems to have been turned on its head; from a time of joy and celebration to a time of sadness and mourning. Shavu’oth is referred to as Assereth (עצרת) and as “the” assereth to Pesah. This designation means that Shavu’oth is meant to be the official end (read, culmination) of the Pesah celebration in the same way that Sheminiy Assereth is the capstone to Sukkoth in the Fall. This should strongly indicate to us that the omer is supposed to be a time of quasi-celebration for Kelal Yisra’el, not mourning and sadness at all.

This is yet another example of asceticism and kabbalah obscuring the true meaning of the Torah and the halakhah. In fact, it is a misswah to trim your beard and cut your hair bikhvodh shabbath, which is why Rav Soloveitchik z”l and others took a “lenient” position with regard to the custom of not shaving or taking haircuts during the omer. For those who are interested in his position on the matter, it is easily located in sources written about Rav Soloveitchik and his teshuvoth on various halakhic questions.

In the next post, I will talk about the fake holiday of “Lag Ba-Omer” that has led to some idolatrous practices (halilah) and should, in my opinion, be avoided as much as possible.

Enjoy your haircut and your tunes,

YB

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