Sunday, 22 November 2020


Part of the copious writings of R. Yitzchak Safrin (1806–1874) of Zhidachov-Komarno referred to here as the "Great Eagle, the living Ari, and the G-dly Tanna."


I have tried to show, in a previous article Displacing Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah that whoever controls Halacha controls the future of Judaism. This is why we have a surprising number of versions of what is essentially a singular code of law and often the authors of such works were from very mystical backgrounds (see A Mystical Side to R. Yosef Karo). It seems possible that the mystics were attempting to reclaim control of the law from the early codifier, Rambam the rationalist.

In more recent times, there emerged the Shulchan Aruch haRav, by R. Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1812) the first rebbe of Chabad. Interestingly, this work generally steers clear of mystical references. 

Around the same time another work surfaced, Likkutei Halachot by R. Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780–1845), a student of R. Nachman of Breslov, although this is more of an explanation of the ideas of his teacher than a code of law per se.

This article, based extensively on the research of Professor Ariel Evan Mayse[1], deals with a most unusual and little-known Halachic work, the Shulchan haTahor by R. Yitzchak Ayzik Yehudah Yechiel Safrin of Komarno[2] (1806–1874). The Shulchan haTahor is presented as a new code of law specifically for Chassidim. It not only alludes to, and includes Chassidic practices and ideology but it draws primarily and in the first instance from the mysticism of Chassidut and Kabbalah.


Mayse describes this fascinatingly bold and overtly Chassidic Shulchan Aruch as follows:

The book is, at heart, a systematic reformulation of Jewish law in light of Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the quest for personal mystical experience. Shulchan haTahor offers a rare case study for the interface of mystical experience, Hasidic devotional values, and kabbalistic doctrine as they explicitly shape the codified forms—and norms—of halakhah.

R. Safrin of Komarno was a prolific writer. He wrote commentaries on the Torah, Talmud and Zohar, kept a dream journal, authored a mystical autobiography and of course his new Shulchan Aruch for Chassidim. He was born into the Zhidachov Chassidic community which was known for its emphasis on strict observance of Halacha. Yet, his Shulchan haTahor was not just a mystical commentary on the Shulchan Aruch but a complete reworking of it.

Initially, his Shulchan haTahor was distributed amongst the Zhidachov-Komarno Chassidic community and remained in manuscript form. It was only published as late as 1963 almost a century after R. Safrin’s passing.


The Shulchan haTahor follows a similar format to that of the Shulchan Aruch. It is also divided into the common simanim and se’ifim, but although presented in a seriously legalistic format, the content is very unusual.

The work contains a second section, entitled, Zer Zahav, which acts as a commentary on the first section.[3]


While R. Yosef Karo, in his Shulchan Aruch, does sometimes venture into sources from the Zohar, the general consensus is that Kabbalah must not inform Halacha. Thus, for example, R. Moshe Sofer known as the Chatam Sofer (1736–1839) writes:

“I say that one who mixes Kabbalah with legal rulings (halakhot pesuqot) is culpable as one who sows a forbidden mixture (kilayim).”[4]

Ironically, although R. Safrin showed great respect for the Chatam Sofer, he certainly did not follow this sentiment about not mixing Kabbalah and Halacha when he came to writing his Shulchan haTahor.

Mayse shows how, from a tender age, R. Safrin was drawn to the mystical teachings, particularly of the Ari Zal (1534-1572). These Lurianic Kabbalistic teachings “burned” within him “like a torch”.

Setting the tone for his Shulchan haTahor, R. Safrin nails his colours to the mast by writing:

In any case where it is impossible to reconcile the words of the Talmud with the Zohar, even though the authorities (posqim) did not say so [explicitly], the [opinions conflict] because they did not see the brilliant light of the Zohar. Had they glimpsed it, there is no doubt that they would have bowed their heads in fear and awe to its words, for they are holy! [5]


According to R. Safrin, one who ignores the customs of the Zohar reveals that there must be “an element of heresy (tzad minut) hidden in such a person.”

He also claims that if one disagrees with a custom of the Zohar it is as if one disagreed with a Talmudic sage. This is probably because although the Zohar was only published around 1290,  the traditional view is that the Zohar was authored by the second-century Tanna, R. Shimon bar Yochai.

R. Safrin certainly held the mystics in the highest esteem because he continues that “one who disagrees with the ARI, disagrees with shekhinah.[6]


On the subject of immersing in a mikva, R. Safrin writes:

It is a commandment, an obligation from the teachings of our master the ARI and from the holy Zohar, to immerse oneself in the river or miqveh every Sabbath eve. One is also required to immerse in the morning before prayers on the Sabbath day, according to our master the ARI. One who transgresses his words without being compelled to do so is called a sinner, for all of his words [i.e., those of the ARI], even the most minor, were received—not from an angel or Seraph—but from the blessed Holy One Himself.[7]


The Shulchan haTahor encourages one to “take care and immerse oneself each day for it purifies the life-force, spirit, and soul (nafsho, ve-ruḥo ve-nishmato).[8]


All men are obliged to follow the Ari’s “injunction” to wear two pairs of tefillin:

“[E]ach Israelite, who has some Jewishness within, is obligated by the Torah to put on two pairs of tefillin—those of RaSHI and Rabbenu Tam. One who does not wear those of Rabbenu Tam is a fool and coarse of spirit.” [9]


In addition to Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, there are also Shimusha Rabba and Ra’avad tefillin[10], which according to R. Safrin are not obligatory but optional for those who feel they are on a ‘higher level’:

“One whose heart has been touched by awe before God should put on the tefillin of Shimusha Rabba and the RaBad…. Only one who has maintained piety from the days of his youth (maḥazik nafsho mi-ne‘urav ba-ḥasidut) and fear of sin should do so. Thus shall he feel a wondrous light in them as well.”[11]


R. Safrin encourages “one who has attained the holy lights and vitality of the tefillin” to “wear them also at minḥah.[12]


Mayse explains that in R. Safrin’s commentary on the Book of Esther, he permits tefillin strengthened with a small piece of leather called a “punternik”. The reason why it is permissible is that he saw them on the tefillin of R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, “a holy man who was punctilious and careful in all commandments.[13]      

Interestingly, Israel Berger cites an oral tradition where R. Safrin tells a student that he saw the tefillin in a dream because tradition has it that the tefillin of R. Shneur Zalman were lost. However, R. Safrin then claims that “And yet, before all the people, I did not want to write this down, and therefore I simply wrote that I saw them,[14] - even thought he only ‘saw’ them in a dream.


Regarding the strict ‘prohibition’ of wearing tefillin on the intermediate days of a festival, R. Safrin rules:

“It is forbidden to put on tefillin during the intermediate days of a festival, and one who does so is liable for two heavenly deaths.” [15]


Because the Shulchan haTahor is based on mystical practices, it often rules more stringently than normative Halacha. According to most authorities, if one reads from a Sefer Torah that was found to have a mistake, one may continue from another Sefer Torah from where one left off in the first. However, Shulchan haTahor rules that even for a minor mistake where the meaning of the word is not changed, one must start from the beginning of the weekly portion in the second Sefer Torah all over again.[16] This is because the Ari ruled like this “in his wisdom and with his holy spirit”.

In R. Safrin’s Zer Zahav commentary section, he claims that the well-known ruling of Rambam[17] – that one may even read from a defective or pasul Sefer Torah – is not just incorrect but a forgery!

The truth is more beloved to me, and I must dare to contravene my teachers. The truth is with those [who rule] that reading a pasul Torah scroll is totally meaningless, according to the Zohar, and our master the ARI.

Without a doubt, one must go back and read [the entire portion from the very beginning].[18]


Unusual for a Halachic work R. Safrin includes some of the practices of the Baal Shem Tov. Mayce shows how influences from dreams and visions were incorporated into the Halacha by citing the mystical autobiography of R. Safrin:

The door opened and I was worthy to see the face of our master, the BeSHT, may his merit protect us. As a result of my great joy and fear I was not able to move from my spot. He walked over to me and greeted me with a joyful face and I had great pleasure. His visage is engraved in my mind and is always before me. Perhaps I had been worthy to attain this because I had given charity that day, as is right and proper.[19]


As a result of the influence of the Baal Shem Tov, the Chassidic custom to wear a gartel or prayer belt, becomes a Halachic requirement and it is prohibited to pray without one.[20]


Similarly, one must follow the Ari’s version of the Tachanun prayer and nefilat apayim which was established by the “true tzadikkim, the disciples of the BeSHT.”[21] The descent into the kelipot or husks of the nether realms becomes exemplified during the ‘descent’ in the nefilat apayim, and it is necessary to ‘fall down’ in order to free the trapped sparks contained within those lowly realms.


Although some authorities do regard Mayim Acharonim as a chova, or obligation, and R. Shneur Zalman of Liady calls it a mitzvah - R. Safrin cites the Baal Shem Tov’s emphasis on ensuring that the water is poured into another vessel and not onto the ground.[22]


Brandy is regarded as so important and delightful that it takes Halachic precedence over some baked items known as mezonot. R. Safrin supports this notion by writing that such was the practice of R. Avraham Yehoshua of Apt as well as his uncle Tzvi Hirsch of Zhidachov.[23]


R. Safrin writes that the Baal Shem Tov said a blessing when he smoked his pipe:

Our divine master, holy of holies, our teacher Israel ben Eliezer Ba‘al Shem Tov, recited a blessing on smoking his pipe (lulke) and on drawing the tobacco into his nose [i.e., on using snuff]. Because I do not know the formulation of this blessing, but rather simply received the tradition that he did so, my custom is not to offer a blessing.[24]

R. Safrin claims that the Baal Shem Tov received the tradition and the wording of this blessing from his teachers who are said to have been Eliyahu haNavi and Achiya haShiloni.

…But a renowned scholar can establish a blessing for himself upon smoking the pipe, and other such things. The one who blesses, shall be blessed![25]


There is a well-established[26] principle in Halacha that in a doubtful situation (say, for example, one does not remember if a blessing was recited for food), one does not recite a second blessing as it may be superfluous. (By ‘blessing’ is meant the formula Baruch atah etc.) However, Shulchan haTahor takes a very different approach to the matter and says that one should recite a blessing in cases of doubt.

R. Safrin writes that he cannot see why one should not be permitted to simply praise G-d as one does anyway throughout the day – and why does it change matters when the praise just happens to begin with the formula Baruch atah etc.?[27]

The Shulchan haTahor wites:

Each person, should arrange the blessings according to his nature and according to the hour.[28]

Regarding formulating new blessings entirely, although he does not permit the outright composing of berachot by just anyone, he does say:

Each person of Israel, if he is an expert (bar hakhi), may come up with a new blessing to offer praise for each and every one of his needs, for each and every limb. This [practice] requires great discernment.[29]

He also writes:

“Each person should act as is best for him, according to his mind and his temperament, to illuminate his soul with sublime lights” (orot tzaḥtzeḥot).[30]


The Shulchan haTahor mentions the tradition that the Baal Shem Tov did not recite the lengthy Ashkenazi piyyutim, or poems, on the High Holidays. He claimed they were a later insertion and interrupt the prayers. However, in this instance, it rules against this custom of the Baal Shem Tov and instead cites R. Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717–1787) who did recite these piyyutim because it was in accordance with the remembered practice of the Ari.[31] This way, some Chassidic recollections and oral traditions were incorporated into the Shulchan haTahor.


Many Chassidim have chosen to follow the Sefaradic (Eastern) rites over those of (German) Ashkenaz. The Shulchan haTahor, however, is vehemently against this adaptation of Sefaradic rites and exhorts one not to “change anything from the Ashkenazi rite”.[32]

Whatever our master the ARI did not specifically command us to do, we should not change from the [liturgical] order of the Ashkenazim. I thunder against … certain fools who recite the [blessings following the] order of the Sephardim … what are the Sephardim to us? We are the descendants of the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz—all of our customs and the liturgy were established by those who possessed the Holy Spirit, “descenders of the chariot.”[33]

R. Safrin points out that although the Ari did indeed base himself on both Sefaradic and Ashkenazic rites, he nevertheless prayed in an Ashkenazi synagogue on the High Holidays - and the Baal Shem Tov, he says, only made a few changes to the Ashkenazi rites. [See Musings on an ‘Ashkenazi’ Arizal.]


How classical Halacha is now presented through the lens of modern Chassidut can be seen in the way R. Safrin explains the Talmudic prohibition against greeting others before the Shacharit prayer service. He writes that the progression of each day is determined based upon one’s first thoughts in the morning:

[T]he essence of Judaism—devequt and divine vitality that is showered upon (nispha‘) a person each day—is drawn from the first thought and first utterance of the morning.”[34]


The Shulchan haTahor exemplifies concentration and intention so much that it rules:

“[It is better to say the] Amidah while seated and thus settle the mind and cultivate intentionality than it is to stand while worshipping and do so without kavvanah”.[35]


The Chassidic Rebbe Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin (1796-1850) married a woman who was an isha katlanit (a married woman who had become a widow twice. Based on a Talmudic ruling[36], she should not marry again because of the fear that her third husband may also die – although today one can make a legal argument to permit such a marriage).

However, when some scholars criticised R Yisrael of Ruzhin for his actions, R. Safrin came to his defence by writing:

“the deeds of the tzaddik are firmly established law (halakhah kevu‘ah), clear as the sun…. Everything that the tzaddikim do is wholly Torah (torah sheleimah)!”[37]

Mayce writes that:

…Safrin…makes a deeper point about the power of the tzaddik to establish the halakhah—made possible because the Hasidic leader embodies the halakhah in the personhood of his charismatic self and deeds.


Mayce shows that what previously - during the time of the Ari - was a practice of the mystical elite had now become something the common people were encouraged to emulate:

“If all Israel wore white clothes on the Sabbath, the redemption would arrive … and in this bitter time, there is no arrogance (yuhara) whatsoever. ”[38]


These types of cases are highly unusual for a Halachic code of law and they make R. Safrin’s Shulchan haTahor a most noteworthy exception to the general genre of Halachic works. Although the presentation is lively in that it does include mystical explanations and emphasises the power of individuals to make choices and he certainly does not just present a dry list of do’s and don’ts – many, even within the Chassidic community, might argue that he went too far.

Perhaps Shulchan haTahor shows how Judaism can sometimes be reformed not only by the left but also by the right. [See Reforms of the ultra-Orthodox.]

The Kotzker Rebbe, who passed away fifteen earlier than R. Safrin, said:

There will come a time when those who dress in white garb will need all the help they can get, to prevent them from turning to a distortion of Judaism.[39]

[1] Ariel Evan Mayse, Setting the Table Anew: Law and Spirit in a Nineteenth-Century Hasidic Code.

[2] For more about R. Safrin, see Hayyim Yehudah Berle, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac miKomarno: Toldotav, Ḥiburav, Ma’amarav (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1965).

[3] The citations in this article are all from the Shulchan haTahor published by Avraham Aba Zis, Jerusalem 2005. Translations are by Mayse.

[4] She’elot uTeshuvot Chatam Sofer, Oracḥ Cḥaim, no. 51, 1:88.

[5] Shulchan haTahor 2:2, Zer Zahav 5.

[6] Shulchan haTahor 203:5.

[7] Shulchan haTahor 260:7. 

[8] Shulchan haTahor 88:1.

[9] Shulchan haTahor  34:1.

[10] See here for the differences between the various tefillin.

[11] Shulchan haTahor 34:5.

[12] Shulchan haTahor 25:3, 37:2.)

[13] Ketem Ofir (Jerusalem: N.p., 2012).

[14] Israel Berger, ‘Eser Qedushot (Jerusalem: N.p., 1949/50), 68.

[15] Shulchan haTahor 31:1.

[16] Shulchan haTahor 142:4.

[17] Teshuvot haRambam, ed. Yosef Blau, 2 vols. (Jerusalem: Reuven Mas, 2014), no. 294, 2:550–553.

[18] Shulḥan Tahor 142:4, Zer Zahav 2.

[19] Faierstein, Jewish Mystical Autobiographies, 279.

[20] Shulchan haTahor 91:1.

[21] Shulchan haTahor  131:3, 9.

[22] Shulchan haTahor 181:2, Zer Zahav 1.

[23] Shulchan haTahor 212:10.

[24] Shulchan haTahor 210:3, Zer Zahav 2.

[25] Shulchan haTahor 6:4, Zer Zahav 5.

[26] See the Rif on b. Berakhot 6a; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Berachot 8:12; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 210:2 and 209:3

[27] The actual reason for this principle, however, is fascinating. Many believe it is so as not to take G-d’s name in vain. However, the real reason (as I saw in Peninei Halacha) is out of deference to the Sages who carefully instituted such blessings. Its is their rulings that we do not want to slight and has nothing to do with taking G-d’s name in vain.

[28] Shulchan haTahor 46:3.

[29] Shulchan haTahor 6:4, Zer Zahav 4.

[30] Shulchan haTahor 46:1, Zer Zahav 2.

[31] Shulchan haTahor 68:2.

[32] Shulchan haTahor 66:6.

[33] Shulchan haTahor 46:2, Zer Zahav 1.

[34] Shulchan haTahor  1:3, Zer Zahav 7.

[35] Shulchan haTahor 94:3.

[36] b. Yevamot 64b.

[37] Notzer Chesed (Jerusalem: N.p., 1982), ch. 3, no. 4.

[38] Shulchan haTahor 262:8.

[39] Amud HaEmet p. 187, par 3. Translation mine.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

The Retraction of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In honour of the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, this is a re-post of an article I wrote some years ago. Rabbi Sacks had read it and had the dignity to acknowledge even thank me for it.



While walking through a Modern Orthodox institution recently, I was chatting to a colleague who noticed I was holding a copy of the book; ‘To Heal a Fractured World’, by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Being a great admirer of Rabbi Sacks, I was rather taken aback when he asked why I was reading such ‘controversial literature’. Intrigued to find out what was so contentious about the man, I discovered that in 2003, Rabbi Sacks was pressured into retracting and deleting sections of his book; ‘The Dignity of Difference’. 

Apparently, his own Beit Din had said that parts of the book were “inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs.” 

And Rabbi Elyashiv said it was “contrary to our faith in the Holy Torah”, and was unfit to be brought into the home.

What did Rabbi Sacks say that brought about such scathing attacks?

In the ‘censored’ version, he wrote:

G-d is universal, religions are particular...G-d has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims... G-d is greater than religion...He is only partially comprehended by any faith...He exists in my faith, but also in yours.

However, this sentence had been deleted:

No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth.

Some felt that he had gone too far in accepting the ‘validity’ of other religions.

I can understand why some felt he had gone too far. There are some major and fundamental differences between Judaism and other faiths. Many of these differences are theologically and philosophically irreconcilable.

However, as an intellectual exercise, and in the interest of freedom of (Torah) expression, take a look at some very different perspectives on other religions, by some of our leading rabbinical thinkers.


Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (1135-1204) writes that in general, both Christianity and Islam pave the way for universal acceptance of Mashiach. As a result of the emergence of both these religions:

[T]he world has become full of the ideas of Mashiach, Torah and commandments, which have spread to distant lands and nations.[1]

Notwithstanding this broad and sweeping statement, the Rambam bluntly considers Christianity to be a form of idolatry. He says this in a number of different places[2], and is quite outspoken in his reference their houses of worship as:

[P]agan houses of worship without any doubt.

His view on Islam is very different:

The Ishmaelites are not idol worshippers at all and they worship the singular G-d properly and without blemish.[3] 

As a consequence of this view, Jews and Muslims have often shared the same houses of worship.

Then, in a surprising and dramatic turnaround, the Rambam adds a caveat: When it comes to social and religious interaction with members of both faiths, he says:

It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our religion, while one should not do the same with Ishmaelites.

This is because Christians accepted the authority of the Torah and never denied its authenticity. Whereas Muslims, he says, although their books describe the giving of the Torah to the Jews, consider every point of difference between them and Jews to be either a falsification of, or mistakes in, textual transmission on the part of the Jews, and that they (the Muslims) indeed have the correct tradition.

The Rambam’s view is clear albeit rather paradoxical: Christianity is idolatry. Islam is monotheistic. Yet, theologically, Christians may be engaged with in preference to Muslims because they accept the basic authority of the Torah. Yet overall, both are indispensable in terms of core principles and preparation for Mashiach.

Concerning the oft-quoted Talmudic statement that “the pious of the nations have a share in the world to come” (San.105a) -  Rambam is of the view that this is only when they declare their commitment to upholding the seven Noachide laws[4] before a Jewish Beit Din.[5] This, not being a common practice, puts a very different pragmatic spin on the popular perception of this famous statement, and is indicative of the Rambam’s uncompromising stance on the matter.

RASHBA (1235-1310):

The Rashba[6], holding a similar view to the Rambam, says that Moslems are not idol worshippers, but:

all other gentiles are considered to be idol worshippers.

THE MEIRI (1249-1315):

Rabbi Menachem haMeiri[7], on the other hand, has probably the most radically liberal view on Christianity and Islam that is to be found in all of Torah literature.  He posits that the notion of idolatry has absolutely disappeared from society (barring what he refers to as some fringes or ‘extremities’ of civilization). Idolatry, in his view, has essentially become extinct, and replaced by more developed religions, with Christianity and Islam both falling under the broad rubric of monotheistic religions. He refers to them as ‘umot ha-gedurot be-darcei ha-datot’, or ‘nations restricted by ways of religion’, as opposed to the idolaters of old who thrived on total anarchy.[8]

Jewish law does contain several references to inequality between Jews and non-Jews. For example; If a Jew’s animal damages the property of a Gentile, the Jew is not liable. But if a Gentile’s animal damages the property of a Jew, the Gentile is liable. According to the Meiri, the ‘non-Jews’ in such examples of asymmetry in Jewish law, are specifically the ancient idolaters, who lost their rights to be protected by the very laws they sought to undermine.  He says of the ancient pagans; “All these people possess no religion and submit to the fear of no divinity”. Contemporary Gentiles, however, were to be treated no different from Jews, because their religions gave them a sense of law and order.

The Meiri continues:

Discriminatory rules such as this were instituted in times when those Gentiles were devout in their idolatry. But now their idolatry has come to an end in most places, and there is accordingly no need to be stringent with them as in the old regulations.[9]

In a similar vein, the Meiri offers a remarkable explanation in his commentary to a text in the Gemara:

A Notzri (Christian) may not be traded with” -This refers (not to Christians but) to the (idolatrous) nation of Nevuchadnetzer , the Babylonian King.[10]

Commenting on the Gemara in Bava Kama, he says:

All the people who are of the nations that are restricted by the ways of their religion and worship the divinity in any way, even if their faith is far from ours, are excluded from the principle of inequality. Rather, they are like full-fledged Jews with respect to these matters, with no distinction whatsoever.[11]

Regarding the mitzvah of returning lost property, which only has to be performed to “your brother[12], and not to Gentiles, the Meiri says:

The reference is to everyone who is ‘restricted by the ways of their religion’.[13] 

Accordingly, the Meiri regards contemporary non-Jews to fall under the technical category of ‘achicha’, your brother, and ‘re’ehu’, your peer.

Again, commenting on Bava Kama, he says:

All those who follow the seven laws of Noah are treated in our courts as we are treated in theirs, and we do not accord ourselves favourable treatment. It goes without saying that the same applies to nations restricted by ways of their religion.[14]

Significantly, here the Meiri seems to regard contemporary non-Jews as having a higher status than those who merely observe the seven Noachide laws.

As demonstrated, the Meiri differs spectacularly from the view of the Rambam. So much so that some simply couldn't accept his radically tolerant outlook and insisted that he wrote these commentaries specifically for the censors in order to appease the non-Jews. The Chatam Sofer[15], for example, wrote about a Meiri text:

It is a mitzvah to wipe it out, for it did not emerge from his holy mouth.[16] 

The implication here is not just that the Meiri wrote to appease non-Jews but that his views on that issue were outright forgeries.

The interesting thing though is that the Chatam Sofer never gave any reasons for his sweeping statement[17]. And he never saw the writings of the Meiri on Bava Kama first hand, because he only quoted them through secondary sources (such as the Shita Mekubetzet in the above example). Also, he couldn't have been familiar with the Meiri on Avodah Zara (where the “nations bound by religion” concept was formulated), because it was only published in 1944, more than 100 years after his passing. Yet, notwithstanding all this, from then on, the views of the Meiri regarding non-Jews lost much of their credibility.[18]

RAMO (1520-1572):

Rabbi Moshe Isserless explains that in Jewish Law, the Trinity is considered to be “Shituff” or “partnering” G-d with another being. For a Jew, “Shituff” would be absolutely forbidden. The question is whether or not it is forbidden for a non-Jew.  The poskim (halachik authorities) are divided on this issue. As we have seen, the Rambam holds that it is forbidden even to a non-Jew, to the extent that if he practices “Shituff”, he is considered an idolater. The Ramo, however, takes a different view. He maintains that partnering G-d with another being is permitted to non-Jews.[19]

MAHARAL OF PRAGUE (1520-1609):

The Maharal[20], taking a similar tack, writes:

Anyone who accepts upon himself to worship the First Cause, falls into the category of a ‘ger toshav’[21] (a resident stranger), who is not discriminated against by the laws (as in Bava Kama 4,3).

BE’ER HAGOLAH (1596-1671):

In a similar vein, R Moshe Rivkes, commentating on the Shulchan Aruch, says that the discriminatory laws were only directed towards the:

idolaters of earlier times, who believed in neither the Exodus from Egypt nor Creation ex nihilo. But concerning contemporary gentiles...since they believe in the Exodus, Creation ex nihilo, and other fundamentals (these laws do not apply), since their intent is to the Creator.


One of the first rabbinic authorities to actually acknowledge the Meiri as a source text, was R Zvi Hirsch Chayes[22]. Fascinatingly, he is the only commentator in the Vilna Shas to hold a PhD. He writes:

Christians, who believe in religion...Torah from Heaven and in the existence of G-d, are absolutely regarded by us as ‘gerim toshavim’, and the seven Noachide laws are built into both Christian and Moslem legal systems.[23]

TORAH TEMIMAH (1860-1941):

About fifty years later, the Torah Temimah[24] writes that the discriminatory laws:

do not apply to those nations who observe the seven Noachide laws, and these are most of the contemporary nations, which are regarded as Jews in regard to these matters.[25]

RAMACH (1874-1950):

R. Chalfon Moshe haCohen[26] ruled that:

The bans[27] only applied to the idolatrous nations of ancient times. But today, when idolatry has ceased to exist in almost all parts of the world, and all the Gentile nations believe in the Creator...we make no distinction with regard to Jew and Gentile in these matters.


The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel declared that Moslems and Christians living in a Jewish society are to be treated as ‘gerim toshavim’, with full civil liberties, just like Jews.[28] He wrote

The fundamental view is the Meiri’s. Nations bound by descent customs between man and his fellow, should be considered ‘gerim toshavim’.[29]


According to a 10th Century text from Tanna de'vei Eliyahu (ch 9):

I call heaven and earth to witness that whether man or woman, whether servant or maidservant, whether Gentile or Jew, the Holy Spirit rests upon a person according to his deed.


It is well known that throughout our history, some sensitive texts had to be amended because it was feared that the original texts would fuel anti-Semitism. However, no absolute certainty exists as to exactly which texts were amended.  We have taken a look at many texts spanning a period of almost a thousand years. Some may have been written for ‘appeasement’.  But by the same token, some must have been the authors genuine interpretations.

If one does accept the authority of even just some of these texts, the questions beg:

·        Would our modern-day ‘censors’ who confronted Rabbi Sacks, similarly want all these texts to be retracted retroactively?   

·        Would these views also be branded as “inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs” and unfit to be brought into the home?

Submitting to the fact that our traditional opinions on other religions do differ significantly and dramatically, surely we must also submit that they all still exist within the broad framework of Torah theology. One could find many reasons to take umbrage to what Rabbi Sacks wrote. But one could also, surely, make an argument that the Chief Rabbi was drawn to his way of thinking, by much textual precedent.

I can also understand, as Rabbi Norman Bernhard used to say, that; “There is salvation outside of the synagogue.” He told me he chose the term ‘salvation’ deliberately, because of its non-Jewish connotation. Non-Jews have no need for Judaism and can and should perfectly function within their own belief systems. If another religion is relevant to another creed, why can that religion not be valid for THEM? 

In this sense, could one not also understand the context and tenor of the Chief Rabbi’s pre-censored statements - remembering that he was communicating with an international readership including people of diverse creeds, many of whom respectfully consider him to be a leading thinker of our times? 

He was speaking as a representative of Judaism to the widest of audiences and was taking full advantage of his honed ability to wax philosophical.

In the final analysis, considering that Rabbi Sacks was speaking Hashkafa (theological philosophy), writing to ‘appease’ - to create tolerance in an age of intolerance - and not to formulate or pasken Halacha (religious legalities) or look for stringencies -  was his punishment not perhaps a little disproportionate to his ‘crime’?


[1] Yad haChazakah.

[2] Hilchot Avoda Zara 9,4.  Commentary to Mishna Avoda Zara 1,3. Avoda Zara 4.

[3] Letter to Ovadya the Convert.

[4] These seven laws are: The prohibitions of committing murder, idolatry, theft, incest, blasphemy, cruelty to animals, and the injunction to establish civil court of law.

[5] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim  8:10-11.

[6] R. Shlomo ben Avraham Aderet, Torat haBayit, book 5, chapter 4.

[7] The Meiri is one of the most monumental commentators on the Talmud. Yet, interestingly, his work was largely unknown until recent times. This is why its influence has been rather minimalised because it was left out of the halachic process. Some authorities, although having great respect for him, will not rely on his teachings because of this.

[8] See “Ones possessed of Religion”, by Dr Moshe Halbertal.

[9] Beit haBechira, Avodah Zara p. 28. (Schlesinger ed.)

[10] Ibid p 4.                             

[11] Beit haBechira, Bava Kama p. 330.

[12] Deut. 22,3.

[13] Beit HaBechira, Bava Metzia, p. 100.

[14] Beit HaBechira, Bava Kama p. 122.

[15] R. Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839).

[16] Kovetz Teshuvot paragraph 90.

[17] See Kotzk Blog 48) ‘Contemporary Daas Torah’; where (unlike traditional halachic rulings), according to the Daas Torah concept, no explanations are necessary.

[18] Even the the Chatam Sofer Institute which published the Responsa Anthology (1973), while quoting our abovementioned statement, added in a note; “The words of our master ‘It did not emerge from his holy mouth’, are puzzling, for the Meiri explicitly stated this view numerous times in his works.”

[19] Darchei Moshe 2 on Orach Chayim 156. (However see Nodah BeYehuda, who says the Ramo holds that worshiping ‘beshituff’ is forbidden to a non-Jew.)

[20] R. Yehudah Loew.

[21] An interesting halachik conundrum, however, is created when a gentile is considered to be a ‘ger toshav’- because the prohibition against intermarriage with them would shift from a Torah prohibition, to that of a rabbinic prohibition. This, of course, would be halachically untenable, (unless the distinction is made that a gentile is a ‘ger toshav’ only with regard to the discriminatory laws, but not with regard to intermarriage, which would remain a Torah prohibition.)

[22] Rabbi Berel Wein calls him the R. Samson Rephael Hirsch of Eastern Europe, and says he was; “simultaneously a talmid chacham and secular scholar. He aimed to fight the haskala with its own weapons, but because of his time and place, he came under suspicion as a maskil himself. The tragic story of this misunderstood genius is the eternal story of the Jewish people, struggling to walk the tightrope between Torah and modernity.”

[23] Compendium of R' Chajes, p. 489  (published by Divrei Chachamim, 1958).

[24] R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein, a bookkeeper by profession, and author of the Torah Temimah commentary to the Torah and Five Megilot.

[25] Torah Temimah on Shemot 21,35.

[26] A leading rabbi of the island of Djerba in Tunisia. In 1943 the Nazis came to Tunisia, and demanded that Rabbi Moshe collect 50 kilos of gold in three and a half hours and hand it over to them; otherwise, they would bomb the Jewish communities of Djerba and Tunis. The next day the Allies conquered Tunisia and the Nazis were gone from Tunisia. The gold that the Jews managed to collect was not handed to the Germans. He was a great Zionist and hatched a plan to establish a League of Nations and a World Court, both of which would have their headquarters in Jerusalem.

[27] These refer to not having to return a Gentile’s lost articles and not having to return funds overpaid in monetary transactions.

[28] Iggeret 89, Mishpat Cohen 63.                

[29] Igrot ha-Raayah, 89, v. 1, p. 99 (Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition, Jerusalem, 1962).