Mekori Q&A – Major Problems with the Kabbalah

Q: Someone asked…

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

A: Thank you for your questions.

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

Zohar 1:15a [ד] –

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

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

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

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

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

The commentary of the Tosafot on this passage says that,

הרי בראשית אינו שם כלל אלא בתחילה

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

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

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

From page כ”ו – [brackets mine]

“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]

“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,


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,


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


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


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


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


החדש אסור מן התורה בכל מקום


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:


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


“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


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


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.



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


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


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,


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,


Did the Rambam Codify a Prayer to Angels?

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

The version preserved in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy is:


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

No, he did not.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Kol tuv,


Minimum Days To Wait Before Counting Seven Clean Days – An Amazing Meqori 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-Hayyim regarding taharath 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 shiyva` neqiyyim (“seven [clean] days”), or whether she may begin counting mi-she-tifsoq (“from [the day] that she will cease”) – i.e. from after sseth ha-kokhaviym on the day she properly ascertains that she has stopped bleeding. Rav Bar-Hayyim rules like the Rambam and other rishoniym 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 Ashkenaziy work Terumath 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). The Sifthey Kohen there (pop. “Shakh”) writes that it is a lo pelugh (“not [able to be] disputed”) – i.e. no later authority may rule differently (see there).

Of course, while rabbaniym of other parts of the world took a similar position that required a minimum number of days before counting the shiyva` neqiyyim, 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 Ashkenaziym 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.

The reason these rabbis approached me – rather than simply calling Rav Bar-Hayyim 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 friends with him, [2] an apparent preference for speaking lashon hara` and mossi 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-Hayyim 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 piyrush 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 piyrush of Mori Yusuf z”l until that point.

In Hilkhoth Iyssurey Biy’ah 11 the Rambam discusses the laws of a yoledheth (a woman unclean from the bleeding that accompanies childbirth) and counting the shiyva` neqiyyim (the seven clean days). While recounting the halakhoth, 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 humroth. Throughout this section, the Rambam demolishes the notion that such humroth 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, “eyn zeh minhagh ela ta`uth – this is not custom, but error.” It is important to note that in the view of the Rambam, ta`uth (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 Natrona’iy Gaon, as I have written elsewhere.

He writes,


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 nidduth even though she only sees blood for one day, and after those seven she will sit for [a further] seven clean days (shiyv`ath yemey neqiyyim) – 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 nidduth – and she is then permitted to her husband.

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

On these two halakhoth (12-13) the Maggiydh 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` BiYehudhah writes (in Yoreh De`ah, Mahadurah Tinyana, siyman 125):

“…The Ge’oniym did not mention this matter of setiyrath shikhvath 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 Beyth Yosef, that the fact that the Rif omitted this law is not a proof that he holds [a similar opinion] to the Ra’avadh, namely, that this matter was not explained [by the hakhamiym] 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 Beyth 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 shiyva` neqiyyim]

But I say that his reasoning is strained [devaraw dahuqiym – 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-`aniyuth da`atiy – לעניות דעתי], that the intention of the Rif and the Ge’oniym in omitting this matter of setiyrath shikhvath zera` is not because of the position of the Ra’avadh, but because of what the Tosafoth wrote in b.Niddah 33a, starting at the words רואה הויא : ‘Our teacher Yisshaq says that it is possible to find that a woman that had permissible relations whose clean days are canceled out by peliytah [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 `Aqiva, that they require six full `onoth [an `onah is a 12-halakhic-hour period, either a day or a night, and so one day is thereby equal to two full `onoth] etc.” (see what the Tosafoth write there). [On the same subject] the opinion of the Rambam – in Hilkhoth She’ar Avoth HaTuma’oth 5:12-13 –  is that leaked semen does only imparts uncleanness [metam’ah – מטמאה] up until three `onoth, 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 Tosafoth explain, a tum’ah mafseqeth cannot interrupt the count if it appears and resolves on only one day – see Table 1a below and the explanation of the Tosafoth 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 Ge’oniym did not teach about this matter of peliytath shikhvath zera` because they held as did the Rambam that shikhvath zera` can only impart uncleanness for three `onoth 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 Beyth Yosef is strained.” etc. – see there in the Noda` BiYehudhah.

See also above in comment #17.

It appears to me that the opinion of the Rif, the Rambam, the Ra’avadh, and the Rashba that there is no halakhic concern for peliytath shikhvath zera` at all, but rather she begins to count the shiyva` neqiyyim from the time that she stops bleeding [mi-she-tifsoq – משתפסוק] and afterward immerses. The practical ramifications of this opinion is that in not a few cases there are humroth that prevent couples from fulfilling the misswah 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 shiyva` neqiyyim specifically according to the methodology of the Rambam, which is the received tradition from the Ge’oniym, as was mentioned above, because in most cases [today] counting the shiyva` neqiyyim is not just the stringency of Jewish women [humrath banoth yisra’el – חומרת בנות ישראל], but is actually de-oraytha [i.e. since nowadays the majority of women do not menstruate at a consistent time each month and never establish a wesseth (וסת) at all, they are zavoth in the actual sense and are obligated to carefully count shiyva` neqiyyim before being able to go to the miqweh]. In Yemen there were various customs. There were those who began counting shiyva` neqiyyim as soon she stopped bleeding, there were those who waited [a minimum of] four days and then counted shiyva` neqiyyim, there were those who waited [a minimum of] five days and then counted shiyva` neqiyyim, and there were those who waited [a minimum of] seven days and then counted shiyva` neqiyyim. And the one thing that they all had in common is that they all were careful to count shiyva` neqiyyim 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 shiyva` neqiyyim and now want to return to the methodology of the Rambam may, and they do not even require hatarath nedhariym 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-Hayyim. 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’toyrah 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 mesoyrah,” 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` BiYehudhah 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 piyrush. He used sefariym and 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 talmidh ha-hakhamiym.


Noda` BiYehudhah - Mahadurah Tinyana 125

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

Shavua` tov le-kulam,


Counting the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

Sefiyrath Ha`Omer – A Relatively Simple Misswah

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


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


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

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

What Does It All Mean?

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

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

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

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

The Rambam in the MT: Just Two Short Halakhoth

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

The Rambam seems to hold the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgotten Days

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

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

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

Until then, berakhoth le-kulam.


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

What Happened To Jewish Prayer? – A Mekori Perspective – Part II: External Additions to the Siddur

While siddurim are useful tools for accessing the texts of tefillah and the laws relevant to them, they are also one of the major reasons that many find prayer a cumbersome and almost unmanageable burden. Before the mid-fifteenth century, siddurim were handwritten texts and were not commonly used as individual tools for daily recitation. Instead, they were used as compendiums and reference guides for hazzanim.

The first two siddurim in Jewish history were compiled by Rav Amram Gaon (Seder Rav Amram – ca. 870 CE) and Rav Saadiah Gaon (Siddur Rasa”g – ca. 900 CE), the former being especially for talmidhei hakhahmim and the latter being intended for access by the common man. Other early versions included the Seder HaTefillot of the Rambam, included in the Mishneh Torah (ca. 1180), and the Mahzor Vitri which was produced in France in 1206.

The writing of prayerbooks continued until the mid-fifteenth century with the advent of the printing press. With printed texts being laborious to create and the costs of printing being relatively high, siddurim began to be produced in an encyclopedic fashion. The goal of the publisher was to include anything and everything in the way of prayers, blessings, and poetry (piyyutim) so that he could market his edition as being the most complete. Along with printing also came many errors. Many who worked in manual typesetting were unable to read the text that with which they were working. In fact, some of the phraseology in blessings and prayers said by many today are practices that arose due to typesetting and formatting errors in those original printed siddurim.

As a result of this continual trend, the siddur has gone from being a relatively short kuntres to a massive tome over the last 500 years. Add to this the additions made by the kabbalists (this will be discussed in another post) and the amount of material that must be “gotten through” in a prayer service is incredible.

Another error that has crept in since the printing of siddurim is the idea that “everything must be said.” This is true not only of the daily prayers, but also of holiday prayers. Many do not know that only certain parts of the prayers are obligatory while others are highly recommended and still others are simply customary and may be dispensed with altogether. (Remember all of the long piyyutim added to the shemoneh esrei during the high holiday services?) Many also do not know that the hazzan for special services used to prepare a selection of them that were meaningful to the community – they would not all be said by the community.

The misconception of the need to “say it all” is still prevalent today and many who skip parts of the siddur do so with a feeling of shame, inadequacy, or irreligiosity. It is important remove the occasion of these feelings from Jews because otherwise they will harden themselves against sin through doing something permissible (has ve-halilah). In my opinion, it is a case of “one who intends to eat pork, but ends up [unwittingly] eating sheep [instead]” (cf. b.Nazir 23a). In other words, although they are not sinning or being irreligious, they nevertheless – due to ignorance about what is actually required – feel that by skipping parts of the siddur they are showing a lack in religious devotion. Many thereby become hardened to their actual religious duties. And many eventually give it up altogether. Perhaps if such Jews had the confidence that they were what was required of them (and in most cases more than what is required of them), their contented sense of religious dedication would return. I have watched many people walk away from the practice of prayer, with poor feelings about praying in general and about their own religious self-image.

The expansion of the tefillot is largely due to two types of additions: [1] external additions in the form of prefixal and suffixal selections being added to the main components of the prayers, and [2] internal additions where lines of text have been added to the phraseology of the prayers themselves. The first type of addition is the most obvious and may be perceived by simply comparing the core of each prayer service with the many things that, within the modern siddur, appear before Barekhu and after Uva Le-Tzion (i.e. when praying with a minyan, but when praying alone it would be between Yotzer Ohr and Tehillah Le-David). In the following table, the additions are italicized while the main components are in bold:

[NOTE: ** – indicates something recited only when praying with a minyan only, * – indicates something which is technically an addition, but has been standard since the times of the Geonim, [ ] – indicates something said by relatively few, but still suggested by some to be said]


  • Preparatory recital for tallit
  • Four parashiyot of tefillin
  • Piyyutim (e.g. Yigdal, Adon Olam)
  • Akedah
  • Korbanot
  • Kaddish De-Rabbanan**
  • Mizmor Shir and Kaddish Yatom
  • Pesuqeu De-Zimra/Zemirot*
  • Hatzi Kaddish**
  • Birkhot HaShahar
  • Barekhu**
  • Kriat Shema
  • Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei
  • Hazarah**
  • Tahanun
  • Tehillah Le-David
  • Uva Le-Tzion**
  • Kaddish Shalem**
  • Aleinu*
  • Kaddish Yatom**
  • Seder HaYom
  • Kaddish Yatom**
  • Piytum HaKetoret
  • Kaddish De-Rabbanan**
  • [Shesh Zikhronot]
  • [Aseret HaDiberot]
  • [Shelosh Asar Ikkarim]


  • Tehillah Le-David
  • Hatzi Kaddish**
  • Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei
  • Hazarah**
  • Tahanun
  • Kaddish Shalem**
  • Aleinu*
  • Kaddish Yatom**


  • Wa-hu Rahum
  • Barekhu**
  • Kriat Shema
  • Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei
  • Kaddish Shalem**
  • Alenu*
  • Kaddish Yatom**

Some initial observations are that both Minhah and Arvit are essentially free of external additions, with the exception of Alenu (which was instituted early in the Geonic era) and the mourners’ Kaddish, which was added because of Alenu. Shaharit has been recipient of the vast majority of external additions and innovations. While what is listed above may vary slightly from one siddur to another, the length is fairly standard. And to say all of this with proper intention (kavanah) and at a speed at which such intention is humanly possible can take close to two hours. Most people, however, opt to simply race through it without much thought.

The core structure of the prayers as instituted originally by Hazal for each of the services is as follows (I have left out mention of each Kaddish):

Tefiyllah Chart 3A

The various components of the prayers fall into three general halakhic categories: hovah, reshut, and minhag.

[i] Hovah (“obligation”) is something that must be done so that by not doing so one is prevented from fulfilling his general obligation to prayer in some part. One cannot and should not dispense with this without express halakhic reasons for doing so.

[ii] The nature of Reshut (“optional [practice]”) is often misunderstood to be something that is unimportant and may be dispensed with lightly. This is a mistake. Rather, a reshut is something that is recommended by Hazal and has been directed by them as something to be said or done, but is not technically obligatory. Therefore, if one does not do it they neither transgress or, in this case, affect the fulfillment of their general obligation to pray. However, not reciting something in the category of reshut means that a spiritual opportunity has been lost and it therefore detracts from their fulfillment of the obligation to pray.

[iii] Minhag (“custom”) in this context – and in a general mekori context – does not refer simply to “what lots of Jews have been doing” or “what your grandparents did,” but is a reference to a custom ratified and spread on the basis of proper rabbinic authority. The term is used, for example, in the hakdamah to the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. Unlike a reshut, something which is minhag has not been rabbinically prescribed per se, but only rabbinically approved. In other words, if someone desires to say it, then there is nothing wrong with it and the practice is deemed proper and permissible, however if one decides to dispense with it completely, then there is no loss whatsoever insofar as prayer is concerned.

The Rambam lays out very succinctly – as is his usual way – the basic order and structure of the daily services, both when praying with a minyan and praying alone (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 7:17-19; 9:1-19).

All of these ideas are more complicated and involve many more details than can be adequately presented here, but I think that the general picture can be properly perceived. In future posts I plan to refer back to these ideas and to deal with them in more detail. The next post in this series is dedicated to the “internal” additions as mentioned above.

There is one more question that I would like to address, and that is: “If not hours, then how long are the prayers supposed to reasonably take?” This is a great question. In fact, the Rambam actually comments on the approximate length of Kriat Shema indicating that it (along with its berakhot) takes about 6 minutes (cf. Hilkhot Kriat Shema 1:12). The Amidah is supposed to take a reasonable amount of time, without being rushed, and one is required to sit (and this literally means “sitting,” not standing) before and after in order to not treat the Shemoneh Esrei as a burden to be dispensed with as quickly as possible (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 4:16 – “hour” [שעה] is to be understood as a short period of time, as it is translated quite often by Targum Onqelos as רגע, not literally an hour of 60 minutes – see the comments of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l there).

The “sitting” before and after are usually accomplished by either Kriat Shema or Tehillah Le-David (before) and Tahanun along with Tehillah Le-David and/or Uva Le-Tzion (after). Other portions of the prayers are relative to these in length. There are other considerations as well, such as that Shaharit on Shabbat (which contains a lengthy Torah service and an added Amidah and Hazarah) would begin close to sunrise and people would arrive home from synagogue to eat their first meal while it was still morning. The advice in the sefarim is to refrain from taking a nap after the day meal until after mid-day (hatzot) and instead one should learn for several hours until then. This is unlike today where some shuls have Shabbat services that begin at 8:30 am and last for almost 5 hours! Regarding Tahanun, it is unknown by many that it halakhically has no set text, only a traditional one put forward by some of the Geonim and the Rambam. There are many other factors that might shorten the nosah of daily prayer as well, but I will not list them here.

Using some commonsense measurements based on experience, I think it is reasonable to estimate the length of prayers as follows, using a weekday Shahariyth for an example

At home:

  1.  Morning berakhot and washing: 7-8 minutes
  2. Zemirot (Pesuqei De-Zimra): 10-12 minutes

In synagogue:

  1. Barekhu: 10 seconds
  2. Shema and its berakhot: 6-7 minutes
  3. Amidah: 5-10 minutes
  4. Hazarah: 5-6 minutes
  5. Tahanun and bowing/prostration: 2 minutes
  6. Ashrei: 1-2 minutes
  7. Uva Le-Tzion: 1-2 minutes

TOTAL: 20-29 minutes

A half of an hour is more than reasonable to dedicate in the morning to prayer and service to God. Many who read this might say, “What is the big deal? Our shul finishes in a about a half an hour too. So?” But what I am referring to here is a half an hour, not of speed-talking and murmuring and slurring through page after page of rote textual material, but of even-paced, clear recitation of the prayers and berakhot with proper intention. The two are VERY different from one another, as anyone who has experienced both can affirm.

Not only this, but it is a certainty that many of those chosen lead public prayer in the synagogue are not actually saying or reading anything. I have literally counted the seconds it takes various [would be] shalihei tzibur to finish certain sections of the siddur and it is simply not humanly possible for anyone to read anything that fast! And even it were, perhaps by some method or technique of “speed-reading,” this is not the mitzvah of prayer – prayer is careful recitation and enunciation with proper kavanah (intention).

For example, I once heard someone leading Minhah begin “Aleinu le-shabeah …”, go silent, and then six seconds later say “…Adhonoy ehad ushemo ehad.” Six seconds?!?! This same person read the hazarah like a Micro-Machines commercial, stumbling over words and gasping between lines. Shema took about 17 seconds with the berakhot before and after taking 3-5 seconds a piece. I am not exaggerating. Try this yourself privately, you will find that it is not possible without simply scanning the pages with your eyes. It should be said that without proper intention, the shaliah tzibur cannot be motzi the people in anything according to halakhah.

Many mistakenly believe that the public repetition of the Amidah is only for the purpose of providing a service for amei ha-aretz who cannot pray on their own to be yotzei yedei hovatam. This is simply untrue. While it is true that those who cannot pray or do not know how may fulfill their obligation through the hazarah, the intention of the hazarah is public and corporate worship. This means that we are not supposed to sit down and look at our phones or wander around the hekhal waiting for it to be over. Read the Rambam in Hilkhot Tefillah – those in the minyan are supposed to remain standing and to concentrate on repetition no matter who they are. This is because the hazarah is the epitome of the corporate service to God. Unfortunately, however, due to a lack of intention or of being careful with the recitation of the prayers, services within the synagogue have become largely an exercise in futility that accomplishes very little. If we are honest, we know that this is true – or, at least this is how we feel. And more importantly, the younger generation also sees it for what it is and takes it as a sign that prayer is boring, accomplishes nothing, and that religious Jews really don’t care much about it. This alone should give us enough pause to want to work for change in this important aspect of daily Jewish life. HaShem ya`azor.

Does Shorter = Better?

When advocating for a shorter nosah, many have asked me if shorter really is better. They contend that a shorter nosah will just mean that people spend even less time in prayer, that they will fly through the little that is required, and then go about their business. My response is that such an assessment is almost certainly correct, but not because the nosah will be shorter, but because a shorter nosah is simply not enough to change the current situation. Along with restoring the original nosah comes the teshuvah and re-education of religious Jews with regard to the “service of the heart.” It also comes with the responsibility to refuse appointing amei ha-aretz who cannot properly recite the prayers to lead the minyan. And just as the culture of slobbing through the mounds of words in the modern siddur led to people racing through the material as hurriedly as possible, so also will prayer leaders who clearly and evenly enunciate the prayers with proper intention eventually lead to people slowing down. And perhaps the damage has already been done and the change will only take place generationally, i.e. with our children growing up in a renewed reality of public prayer. HaShem ya`azor lanu lahzor bi-teshuvah.

Next post will be about “internal” additions and the requirements for a proper shaliah tzibur.

What Happened To Jewish Prayer? – A Mekori Perspective – Part I: Introduction

“It is a positive commandment [mitzvat aseh] to pray each day, as it is said, ‘And you shall serve HaShem your God’ (Shemot 23:25). From the part of the Oral Torah heard by Mosheh himself, they learned that this ‘service’ is a reference to prayer. And it is said, ‘And you shall serve Him with all of your heart’ (Devarim 11:13). The hakhamim said regarding this verse (b.Ta`anit 2a), ‘What is this service that is in the heart? This is prayer.”

(Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 1:1)

Jewish prayer 1And so begins the laws of prayer in the Mishneh Torah. The Rambam goes on to explain that throughout the Biblical era prior to the Babylonian exile each person composed his own prayers in pure Hebrew (called “yehudit” – cf. Nehemyah 13:24). Hazal relate to us that the morning, evening, and afternoon times of prayer were instituted by the avot themselves (cf. b.Berakhot 26b). However, after Ezra HaSofer returned with the exiles from Babylon, he set up the supreme court of 120 hakhamim (a court unmatched at any time in history) known as the Anshei Keneset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”). These great visionaries set up the entire system of what is recognizably rabbinic Judaism today; the official formula of berakhot and the proper occasions to recite them, the minyan, the synagogue system, public kriat ha-torah, and the texts of the prayers were all instituted by Ezra and his grand beit din.

The reason for this sudden change in protocol was that, due to the exile, the majority of the Jewish people were unable to adequately compose their prayers, let alone in their own native language of Hebrew (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 1:4). To remedy this, the hakhamim created a standard prayer of eighteen short blessings to express the collective and individual praises, gratitude, and needs of the Jewish nation (1:5). The hakhamim knew that praying and expressing religious concepts in foreign languages – or, more accurately the inability to verbalize them in Hebrew – could be a doorway to avodah zarah and religious misconception. One example of such misconception is illustrated by the common [mis]translation of the Hebrew word kippur (כפור) by the English term “atonement,” which is an expressly Christian idea related to their idolatrous conceptions of God. This is why prayers and blessings that are said in foreign languages, although allowed, are subject to intense rabbinical scrutiny. The translation of their wording and content must be by an expert, and even in translation such blessings require the mention of the Hebrew names of God (i.e. untranslated) in order to be halakhically valid (cf. Hilkhot Berakhot 1:6, and the comments of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l there).

The purpose of composing various blessings, and developing them in accordance with a set structure and formulation, was to make them “well-ordered prayers and blessings in the mouth of all Israel, so that all of the subject matter of each blessing will be prepared and ordered in the mouth of the non-native Hebrew speaker” (1:6). The people who occasioned the drafting of the prayers and blessings were not religiously educated. It is not as if they were all benei yeshivah.I Rather, the text of the Tanakh shows that they were fairly ignorant of Jewish laws, the Hebrew language, and even elements of their own culture. Only the scholarly elite such as Ezra and his colleagues still understood the Torah and its laws. And this is the point: the prayers were meant to be relatively simple to memorize for the sake of such under-educated people, but their text has grown to be something that is overwhelming and unfortunately irrelevant to many. What happened?

nosha'oth comparedOver time, the text of the prayers has grown from something that – in the rite that I personally use – consists of a few double-sided pages and takes roughly 7-15 minutes to complete (depending on the time of day) into something that spans hundreds of pages and requires anywhere from 20 minutes to more than an hour and a half. And this is just for daily prayers. When we look at the nosah for the entire year, the Rambam records roughly 20 pages of text whereas the common mahzor set today includes six or seven volumes, each of them containing several hundred pages. So, I ask again, what happened to Jewish prayer? What caused something that was easily memorized and required relatively little time to perform to become a task that cannot be reasonably completed without having a textbook and half an hour?

If we are going to be completely honest, we have to admit that most “orthodox” Jews – whether they were raised in religious Jewish homes, are baalei teshuvah, or are gerim – alternately do not enjoy prayer, do not pray properly, and in many cases simply neglect daily prayer altogether. The reasons for this are simple:

[a] The nosah is incredibly long.

[b] The physical posture employed is passive rather than active.

[c] It requires uncomfortable equipment.

[d] The prayers are hurried and rushed through, leaving all but the trained ‘murmurer’ behind.

[e] Late kabbalistic additions are many times strange and change the simplicity of focus.

[f] There is much mis-education regarding the true nature of prayer and its centrality in the daily worship of the One God of Israel.

All of the aforementioned reasons tend to cause a sense of futility and intimidation in religious newcomers while cultivating a numbness among seasoned participants. These factors often lead people not to care about or even desire understand what they are saying, being more concerned with racing through a mumbled string of paragraphs to fit everything in. Even our children have become infected with this dysfunctional relationship to prayer. I have watched as young benei yeshivah race through their shemoneh esrei, counting out the seconds and only reaching 12 to 15 before they take three steps backward. And we know this is true. I would bet that the majority of us have, at one time or another, witnessed young men rocking back and forth during prayer – giving an external show of participation – while being completely disengaged.

The Haredi/Hasidic approach to prayer has arguably destroyed its original intent, having replaced it with cheap spiritualism and over-active emotionalism. If we want a meaningful prayer experience wherein we feel at once close to and humbled before the Creator, then we need to re-align ourselves with the wisdom of Hazal and the halakhah. We need to re-discover prayer as a deep form of worship and of aligning oneself with the Divine will.

In this series of posts, I intend to address several of the issues with Jewish prayer in our times and what I see as needing to change in order to restore the beauty, simplicity, and meaning of this “service of the heart.”

Why is the Zohar Considered Authoritative? – A Mekori Perspective

According to the hakdamah of the Mishneh Torah, it seems that any book(s) or commentary(s) which may have arisen after the hatimat ha-talmud (“the sealing of the Talmud” – see there) – such as the writings of the Geonim (or even the Mishneh Torah itself) – are measured by their faithfulness to the halakhic and aggadic literature which was bequeathed to us by Hazal and their students (i.e. MishnahTosefta, Mekhiltot, Sifra, Sifre, Bavli, Yerushalmi, and the Tannaitic midrashim/baraitot). Much like the prophets were tested against the collective mesorah up until their time, and by abrogation of it they themselves were rejected, so also are books composed since the close of the Talmudic age are in need of similar such “testing.”

Now, granted that there are two types of potential errors in such books:

  1. Unintentional errors of interpretation or logical understanding, etc. – In other words, a certain talmid hakhamim codifies the halakhah as he sees it and explains hashkafah as he understands it from Tanakh and Hazal, but perhaps the halakhah is not like him or perhaps he misunderstands such issues as the nature of suffering or the function of sekhar ve-onesh (or similar issues). These types of potential “mistakes” do not necessarily disqualify the author. Rather, we see that the attempt to understand Torah is a process wherein one is obligated to accept that different views of Torah from the sources is not only possible but probable.
  2. Departures from mesorah or attempts to replace it/abrogate it – Should a new book or treatise be written that stands in opposition to the halakhah or hashkafah as expressed by Tanakh and Hazal – especially that which seeks not to understand but to supplant – is to be rejected. Examples are “new revelations” that, rather than seek to understand the statements of Hazal in aggregate, attempt to make the case for “secret teachings” or “hidden meanings” that are in contradiction to established mesorah – such books and their authors are to be rejected.

[NOTE: I am aware that the above are fairly general and that it could be discussed in more detail, such as when to set aside midrashim in favor of peshat or outdated “scientific” ideas in order to incorporate new ones. However, for now these definitions should suffice for this discussion.]

Each of the above certainly has limitations. For example, and perhaps most importantly, there are ideas about which alternate views are not acceptable and cannot be tolerated, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem, or the fact of a physical (read, bodily) resurrection, or the permanence and immutability of the Torah. Diverging from such foundational tenets (and those like them) define apikorsim and minim, and the Rambam – drawing on both the text of the Mishnah and the logical outcomes of rational monotheism – composed his 13 Foundations of Jewish faith to show us where our speculation may go before it is undone and we undermine ourselves (cf. Hilkhot Teshuva 3:14-17).

Many books have come on the scene – both pre-Talmudic and post – claiming to be authentic to our mesorah, or to be an extension of it, or even to replace it. Examples include the “New Testament,” the “Qur’an,” the “Kebra Nagast,” the books of the Shabbateans (followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, yimah shemo ve-zikhro), and many others. Many of these works were accepted by great and learned people. If Shelomoh HaMelekh could worship idols, if Elisha ben Avuyah (“Aher“) could accept the idea of ribbui reshayot from the books of the dualists, if Yohanan Kohen Gadhol could become a Tzaduki at the end of his life, if the Hakham Tzvi z”l could accept Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo) as the mashiah, and if the Hafetz Hayim z”l could be led to accept the blatantly forged (supposedly lost) Seder Kodashin of the Talmud Yerushalmi (to the point of changing his halakhic practices based on it), then the fact that the Zohar was accepted by many great scholars when it first published should neither surprise us nor become the sure basis for its acceptance.

As an aside, one of the most common mistakes is the equation of “kabbalah” with the Zohar literature itself; if the latter is rejected, it is thought, then the former ceases to exist. Such an idea is patently false, but nevertheless demonstrates how entrenched in the minds of contemporary Jews is the idea that all authentic spirituality or “mysticism” in Judaism is inextricably linked to the ideas expressed in the Zohar. The truth of the matter is that the bodies of knowledge known as maaseh merkavah (“Workings of the Chariot” – i.e. metaphysics) and maaseh bereshit (“Workings of the Creation” – i.e. physics) – as mentioned in the Mishnah, Masekhet Hagigahpreceded the 13th century publication of the Zohar by [possibly] thousands of years, as did the Sefer Yetzirah. The Sefer Yetzirah is referred to and expounded by the Kuzari and Saadiah Gaon, among others – all before the Zohar. The Rambam himself makes veiled references to these same ideas in his Moreh HaNavokhim, expounding (where possible) mystical and philosophical concepts related to both maaseh bereshit and maaseh merkavah – again, all before anyone had ever heard of the Zohar.

But this leads to another fact that is often overlooked in the history of the Zohar – many kabbalists at the time of its publication (and afterward) also rejected it as being authentic. Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, in his Sefer HaYuhasin, relates the extant portion of an account written by the well-known kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak De-Akko (a talmid of the Ramban) who traveled to the home of Mosheh De Leon and offered to purchase the original manuscripts of the Zohar from his widow, whereupon she confessed to him that there were no original manuscripts and that her late husband had forged it and attributed it to Shimon ben Yohai in an effort to gain acclaim and a higher purchase price. Other well-known kabbalists who rejected the Zohar as an authentic book of mesorah were Rabbi Yaakov Emden and the Hatam Sofer (who was the student of the famed and intense mystic, Rabbi Nathan Adler). Their use of language is strong against the Zohar, using words like “forgery” and “lies” to describe it. All the while, however, these men and others maintained a highly-developed mystical system based on earlier literature.

The facts are clear to all who are willing to take an honest look: the Zohar contradicts a great many things which came before it in both the realm of halakhah and hashkafah – even contravening such things that are “off limits” halakhically, such as the nature of the yihud HaShem. And these things are well-known, they are not my invention nor the invention of secular scholars seeking to defame religion. They have been discussed and wrestled with for hundreds of years by rabbis and scholars in every area of Jewish literature. It has been proven that the Zohar borrows and incorporates sections of Rashi, Tosafot, the Rambam, and other works which preceded it. It also contains a vast amount of original material, much of which is controversial and contrdictory when compared to works possessing an established mesorah from Hazal.

Nevertheless, it is true that there are genuinely positive statements and spiritual truths expressed in the Zohar. However, it is also true that there are explicit statements of polytheism and dualism expressed there as well. So, the operating principle (it seems) is that anything valuable in the Zohar may already be found in uncontested and authentic works that preceded it, and anything questionable is of its own invention. Such an observation makes the Zohar superfluous and the attempt to incorporate it into the corpus of Jewish literature as being arguably more trouble that it is worth – a fact that is well-attested to by Jewish theological history since its publication in the 13th Century.

The continuous heretical movements which base themselves upon it (e.g. the Shabbateans) and the seemingly endless stream of charlatans offering miracle cures, instant wealth, and super powers of protection to those who embrace the Zoharic kabbalistic system are a proof that giving Zohar a prime place in Judaism has proven almost disastrous. It appears also to be the case that the positive parts of the message endorsed by hasidism (i.e. that every Jew is important, serving God with joy, etc.) could have been brought about without the aid of Zoharic literature – in fact, such ideas already existed outside the dark, pietistic world of the mitnagdim in other parts of the [non-Ashkenazi] Jewish world.

The historical Jewish response to the Zohar can – in my estimation – be divided into three basic approaches:

  1. Full acceptance – The full acceptance of the Zohar and its attendant literature as being 100% authentic is most aptly characterized by the Hasidic movement(s) and the North African Sefaradim. Such adherents hold it to be the holiest text in Judaism and that it should be used to “correct” (read, supersede) all other texts – especially those which came before it – which are viewed as being “ignorant” or “unaware” of the secret tradition that it holds.
  2. Modified acceptance – This approach, most commonly associated with the Gr”a and his talmidim, is to effectively accept the Zohar, but to reject its commentaries. In other words, the Gr”a took great liberties to “re-read” (however, I am sure that he himself did not see it that way) the text of the Zohar in order to make it fit into the established mesorah. By doing so, he rejected many of the ideas of Lurianic kabbalah, and sought new readings (many of which are either based on his own emendations of the text or forced readings of the plain meaning of the Aramaic) to remove conflict and controversy. However, in doing so, the Gr”a also “re-reads” the text of the Gemara in certain places, and in some cases he reverses generations of clear and uncontested pesak halakhah from the Gemara to accommodate the clear “ruling” of the Zohar to the contrary (one example of this is the wearing of tefillin on holo shela-moed).
  3. Full rejection – Characterized most aptly by the 19th-century Dor De`ah movement in Yemen led by Rav Yihyah Qafih z”l. Rav Qafih authored a book entitled Milhamot HaShem (“The Wars of HaShem”) wherein he effectively demonstrates (like other hakhamim before him) that the Zohar simply cannot be a product of Hazal and their students, is subsequently not an authentic work of mesorah, and therefore must be rejected. He brings a myriad of proofs for this.  The Darda`im (i.e. adherents to the teachings of Mori Yihyah, also known affectionately as “Mori HaYashish” z”l) and other groups choose to rely instead on the works of previously established authors for spirituality, such as the Rambam (Moreh HaNavokhim), Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari), Rabbi Bahyah ibn Pekuda (Hovot HaLevavot), Rav Saadiah Gaon (Pirush al Sefer HaYetzirah and HaNivhar Be-Emunot Ve-Deot), and others.

We have a principle of “lo ba-shamayim hi“, i.e. that the Torah is not “in heaven” and therefore we do not base our belief in any certain book or teacher based on purported “miracles” or claims of special “revelation” or “prophecy.” Instead, we are charged with being faithful to the texts and the mesorah that we have to judge all that comes after it. This is why the latter two approaches (i.e. any approach beyond blind acceptance) take measures to study the relevant sources in order to formulate their opinions, rather than seeking a sign or relying on the fact that the likes of the Arizal gave it their approbation.

The Zohar has been accepted – and continues to be so – based almost solely on “mob rule” as it were. In other words, since it has been read and used by a lot of Jews for a long time, most Jews simply assume that it “must” be true. In reality, however, there is no basis for its acceptance, but rather to the contrary. And as has been mentioned, there is nothing on the part of its supporters to substantiate their claims other than dogmas and the attribution of “special powers” or “revelations” or mystical “prophecy” on the part of those famed historical figures who did accept it, while attributing error and arrogance to those scholars who argued against it. It is no different than the many false religious movements that have arisen in world history; they begin with charismatic and bold claims based essentially on nothing and demand blind obedience from all with whom they speak. But in the end, their claims are empty and their reasoning is circular. And, more importantly, they are out of line with the authentic mesorah of Hazal.

Have you ever wondered why those who merely question the authenticity of the Zohar are threatened with excommunication and charges of heresy, while those who propose that a section of the Gemara should be emended (and other such normal acts of Torah scholarship) are met with none of these? Le-aniyut da’ati, it seems that those without truly substantive arguments have nothing left but threats of Divine judgment and ad hominem attacks. Sound familiar?

And PLEASE do not take my word for it – go and see for yourself. Investigate the matter thoroughly and with an open mind. If you come thereby to different conclusion, then you will have no threats and suffer no humiliation from me. And I certainly will not threaten you with a charge of “arrogance” for not seeing things the way that this or that scholar has seen them.

UPDATE: Rabbi Berel Wein (may he live and be well) gives an honest historical talk on the subject of the Zohar. HERE is the link to a short version and HERE is the link to the full lecture. They are both well-worth watching. 


Becoming Mekori – Some Sources on Hametz and Nullification


Mori Yusef Qafih z”l compiled a sefer entitled Ra`avad Teshuvot Ufesakim (ראב”ד תשובות ופסקים). While reading through it, I found the following – very interesting – passage:


נ”ב: כרי חטים שנפל עליו דלף מעט בשאר ימות השנה במקומות מועטין ואותן החטים שנפלו עליו מעורבין בתוך הכרי בטלין הן ברוב ואין צורך לבערן בפסח וביטול בעלמא סגי להו ואפילו לכתחילה ואף על פי שחמץ אוסר בכל שהו הני מילי כשהו בעין לענין לאכלו בפסח ולא נתבטל קודם זמן איסורו אבל מאחר שנתבטל קודם הפסח ברוב אינו חוזר וניעור ואפילו לכתחילה מותר


“52: A pile of wheat [kernels] that a small trickle has fallen upon during the rest of the days of the year [i.e. not during Pesah] in a few small areas, when that wheat becomes mixed in the pile it is nullified in a majority [batelin hen ba-rov] and there is no need to destroy such [kernels] on Pesah, and general nullification is sufficient for it, even le-khatehilah. And although hametz is said to forbid an entire mixture in any amount, these words only apply to an amount which can be seen, and is related to whether one can eat such a mixture on Pesah itself. It is not discussing a mixture in which hametz was nullified before such a time as it becomes forbidden, but after it becomes nullified in a majority [bitul be-rov] before Pesah it does not return and ‘awaken’ [hozer ve-nei`or] – even le-khatehilah such a mixture is permitted.”

The practical implications of this are astounding. What the Ra`avad is saying is:

[i] Grain that got a little wet due to dripping before Pesah [i.e. the kernels did not soak until they cracked open] may be mixed with other grain to nullify it in a simple majority (and apparently a 1/60 ratio is not required).

[ii] An amount of forbidden hametz that would forbid an entire mixture of food on Pesah is ONLY regarding a perceptible amount (i.e. that can be seen). The invisible “blios” of hametz apparently do not count! This means that worrying about supposed “traces” of hametz – not visible to the eye – is not necessary according to the Ra`avad, and it would explain the ruling of the Beit Yosef that cooking on Pesah using a hametz pot that is eino ben yomo does not cause the food to become forbidden bedi`avad (OH 447).

When I read this approach, I was so impressed by how reasonable it was in comparison to the contemporary approach that is something similar to a compulsive disorder.

I also thought that perhaps when the Rambam mentions that hametz forbids a mixture in any amount (i.e. his afilu ba-elef, etc.), they are also speaking about perceptible amounts of hametz like the Ra`avad. This may very well have been the way that the Ra`avad read the Rambam as well since in his hasaghot he makes no comment on this point in the Mishneh Torah nor does he argue with the codification of the Rambam – a fact that usually indicates agreement.


Another interesting and very important statement that I came across recently is that according to the Sheiltot De-Rav Ahai Gaon (Parashat Tzav 3:80) – and subsequently Rabbenu Tam (cf. b.Pesahim 30a) and the Ri’az – hold that even during Pesah hametz may be nullified in 1/60th like all other forbidden substances.


The Kashruth of Knives: An Amazing Mekori Perspective from Rav Yosef Qafih z”l

I have been studying the laws of kashrut as formulated by the Rambam in Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Assurot (Laws of Forbidden Foods) lately, and more in-depth than I ever have previously. Along the way, I have examined several elements of kashruth – particularly with regard to the status of kelim – that have bothered me for a while as either being unreasonable or illogical – i.e. out of step with visible and perceptible reality. One such subject is the kashrut of knives.

I have heard from various rabbis and mashgihim that knives which have been used to cut meat at any time, if they are used to cut an onion (a possible example of a davar harif – “sharp thing”) – EVEN IF THEY ARE CLEAN AND ARE COLD – the cut onion thereby “absorbs” the residue/taste of meat that are supposedly absorbed into the blade of the knife. As a result, according to those who maintain that this actually happens, the cut onion may thus not be eaten with dairy because it has now become “meaty.” This idea implies that there are invisible meat substances that we cannot perceive but are still there, and which present a problem halakhically. But as I reflected on this, it appears to fly in the face of other areas of kashrut where we rely on a principle of shalta be-`eina (“what is visible to the naked eye”). For instance, when it comes to insects on food, those which cannot be seen by the naked eye are halakhically insignificant, otherwise any microscope would no doubt reveal microscopic mites that feature on many things we are in daily contact with – even our own bodies. And if such a thing can be said about a bug – which is potentially forbidden de-oraitha – how can it not be said about supposedly invisible meat residue which is only forbidden de-rabbanan? I have suspected for a long time that there must be something lost in translation or a misunderstanding of Hazal in regard to knives.

My suspicions were delightfully confirmed upon reading the pirush of Rav Yosef Qafih (“Mori Yusef”) z”l on the Mishneh Torah. The following is my translation of a comment on Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Assurot 9:24. In it, Rav Qafih explains these laws from a sensible and reality-based perspective, one which brings the kashrut of knives and food cut by them back down to earth. Please note that all bolding, italics, bracketing, and underlining is for emphasis and is not in the original passage(s).


סכין שחתך בה בשר צלי וחזר וחתך בה צנון וכיוצא בו מדברים חריפין אסור לאוכלן בכותח אבל אם חתך בה קישות או אבטיח גורד מקום החתך ואוכל השאר בחלב

“A knife that was used to cut roasted meat, and it was then used again to cut ssenon [radish] – or things like it from the category of ‘sharp’ things – it is forbidden to eat them [i.e. the ssenon and similar things] with kutah [a thick dairy dip]. But if he used it afterward to cut kishut or avatiyah [types of melon], he scrapes the place where it was cut and he may then eat the rest with dairy.”


[30] In Hullin 111b, Hizkiyah says in the name of Abbaye, “Hilkhata [the final ruling is]… tzenon that one cut with a knife with which he cut meat – it is forbidden to eat it with kutah, and these things were said about tzenon since it, on account of its sharpness, will absorb, but with kishut he scrapes the place where it was cut and eats it [with kutah].” Behold, in the Gemara a knife used to cut roasted meat is not specifically mentioned, but only meat generally, and so it appears that Rabbenu [Rambam] is of the opinion that duhka (“pressing”) and harifuta (“sharpness”) never cause kelim to either give taste or absorb. And therefore, he adds “roasted meat” because by cutting roasted meat it will have lots of visible fat on it, and even though the following is not a formal proof of the matter, there is nevertheless an indication of this fact in what is brought in Beyssah 16a: “Rabbi Yisshaq says… the fat which is congealed on the surface of a knife, we scrape it off and rely on it for an eruv tavshilin.” And Rabbenu writes in Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6,4: “Even the fat that is congealed on the surface of the kind of knife that we use to cut roasted meat, it may be scraped together and if it contains the volume of an olive etc.” We see that according to Rabbenu a knife that we use to cut roasted meat usually has on it a thick layer of visibly congealed fat, such as that we can scrape from it an olive’s bulk. And therefore what is forbidden regarding ssenon is that, due to it’s sharpness, it will absorb the fat that is visible. This is not the case for something that is not sharp, since it merely wipes the fat off from the surface of the knife when it is cut and thus it is only necessary to scrape the fat from the place where it was cut. And in the printed edition, the redactors did not understand this emphasis of Rabbenu, namely that this halakhah deals specifically with a knife used to cut roasted meat, so they added the phrase “but if it was used to cut meat and then used again to cut kishut,” but this is not in the original handwritten manuscripts.

The Kesef Mishneh [written by Rav Yosef Qaro] writes here:

“In the chapter of Hullin entitled ‘Kol HaBasar‘ [page 112]: ‘Hizkiyah says in the name of Abbaye… ssenon that one cut with a knife with which he cut meat – it is forbidden to eat it with kutah, and these things were said about ssenon since it, on account of its sharpness, will absorb, but with kishut he scrapes the place where it was cut and eats it [with kutah]. Turnip stalks are permitted, but those of beets are forbidden. However, if he began by cutting a turnip and then proceeded to cut a beet stalk, then the beet stalks are permitted [to be eaten with kutah].’ And Rashi explains this passage as follows: ‘Even though it has been established for us that na”t bar na”t (i.e. transferred taste that is second-hand) is permitted, it is a different case to consider a knife that sometimes has congealed fat on it but is not recognizable as such. And when it cuts the tzenon, the na”t will come from the actual substance [i.e. it will be firsthand – na”t – and not second-hand – na”t bar na”t]. And further, due to its sharpness, it will absorb more that does boiled fish, and through the pressure exerted on the knife [duhka de-sakina], the knife will give taste and the tzenon will absorb it.’ And the Rashba writes: ‘The Rif did not write in the Halakhot regarding either turnip stalks or beet stalks, and neither did he include the statement that if one cut turnip stalks before he cut beet stalks, then the beet stalks [although sharp] are permitted [to be eaten with kutah]. Also the Rambam deleted it, and I have no idea why they both did so.’ And I maintain that Rabbenu, even though he did not write them explicitly, nevertheless they are included in his words in accordance with his explanation of the Gemara, for behold he wrote from ‘A knife that was used to cut roasted meat, and it was then used again…’ until ‘…he may then eat the rest with dairy.’ It appears that he is explaining that tzenon is lav davka [not specific, i.e. it could also something else similar to tzenon] since this is the rule for all sharp things, and it appears that he is also explaining that turnips are lav davka as well since this is the rule if one were to first cut bread or some other vegetable or fruit – because the prohibition to cut ssenon with such a knife is for no other reason than the congealed fat on its surface which strongly adheres to something sharp. So when that knife is first used to cut bread or any other thing, behold the knife is wiped clean thereby and no fat remains on its surface – so it is therefore permitted thereafter to cut tzenon with that knife. And now everything the Rabbenu states here is made clear, for from what he writes that ‘a knife that was used to cut roasted meat, and it was then used again to cut tzenon’ it is implied that what he means is: when a knife was used to cut the meat and then it was to cut ssenon without cutting anything else in between them and because of this lack of interruption it is forbidden. And since if he cuts something else between them it is thus permitted [!!!], there was no need for him to include the statement that ‘if he began by cutting a turnip and then proceeded to cut a beet stalk, then the beet stalks are permitted.’

And in regard to his statement that the knife was used to cut “roasted meat” being also lav davka since it is the same rule for meat that is either being cooked or boiled (however, there is room to say that he does specifically mean roasting meat like we said above because the fat of cooked meat is dissolved into the water and it does not congeal in a thick layer on the surface of the knife).  And he did not employ the phraseology of “meat” by itself in order to teach us that the cutting of boiled meat is what we are discussing here, but with regard to cold meat the fat does not congeal on the surface of the knife to the point that it would be forbidden to cut tzenon with it [!!!]. And it is not necessary to write about beets since they are included in what he writes “or things like it from the category of ‘sharp’ things.” And for this reason it is also not necessary to write “turnip stalks are permitted” since turnips are not in “the category of ‘sharp’ things.” And in this way it is possible to reconcile the summation of the Rif and it appears to me that it would be difficult to do so if their text of the Gemara was like ours, but it is already possible – even without this issue – that these words [i.e. regarding turnips and beet stalks] were not written in their versions of the Gemara [and therefore they did not write them down]…

This is nothing short of AMAZING! The implications of this beautiful and cogent explanation of the halakhah are apparent to anyone who is familiar with the traditional understanding of these laws. Basically, Rav Qafih is saying here that only visible, actual fat adhering to the blade is of halakhic concern – no invisible, lurking fat that is somehow [invisibly] “possessing” our kitchen cutlery to worry about!

Please let me know your thoughts and comments on this. This understanding completely revolutionized my understanding of kashruth in general and that of knives specifically.