Sunday 2 June 2024

474) A mind in motion: Maimonides correcting Maimonides

An example of Maimonides correcting his own text of Pirush haMishna


This article based extensively on research by Professor Marc Herman[1] shows how Maimonides (1138-1204) was not averse to changing his positions on various matters as he progressed through his life. We know this was the case regarding the development of his philosophical writings, but as we shall see, he followed the same pattern with his Halachic work, as well. We briefly examine three of Maimonides’ rabbinic and Halachic writings and do not engage with his philosophical writings here.[2] 

Sunday 26 May 2024

473) ‘Der Pintele Yid’ − the evolution of the term and concept


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Yehuda Liebes[1] examines the theological development of the term ‘Der Pintele Yid.’ We trace the evolution of conceptualisations of ‘energy points’ from emtza (center), to nekuda (point), to Pintele Yud and finally to Pintele Yid. 

Der Pintele Yid is the Yiddish equivalent of haNekuda Yehudi or haNekuda haYehudit, which, in its common usage today, simply refers to an essential ‘point’ of Jewishness that lies dormant within every Jew even the most assimilated and emerges at unexpected times. 

Sunday 19 May 2024

472) Expanding on Rabbinic Distinctions Between the Titles and Texts of the Psalms


Psalms in the Aleppo Codex showing spacing after the paratexts


This article examines how the subtle ‘textual framing’ embedded within the titles and headings of texts, and can affect texts even before they are read. Using the Psalms as a point of departure, 116 of the 150 psalms, begin with introductory titles or superscriptions also known as paratexts. An example of a paratext would be “Lamenatzeach – For the Choirmaster; or “Livenei Korach – For the sons of Korach. Depending on the editions, these paratexts are often distinguished from the base or main text of the Psalms by some form of spacing to indicate that they were not part of the original text. The purpose of these paratexts was to frame the Psalms for the reader. We first show how the Talmudic rabbis dealt with these paratexts by either heeding, ignoring, altering or challenging them. Then we attempt to extend and analogise this rabbinic approach and apply it to the ubiquitous ‘paratexts’ or ‘framing devices’ inherent, not only in the Psalms but within the presentation of all forms of theology in general. In other words, we look at the important but often unnoticed ways religion is framed and presented to the people. We also note a contemporary example of paratextual framing in a recently published popular edition of the Hebrew Psalms, which subtly interpolates a Jewish messianic reading into its English “explanatory translation.” Essentially, this study explores the paratext as an idiom for the general framing devices of religious ideology and suggests similar multifaceted responses as those adopted by the rabbis in their relationship to Psalm framing.

Sunday 12 May 2024

471) Tzafnat Paneach – a ‘counter Rashi’ commentary

Extract from a 1364 manuscript of Tzafnat Paneach by R. Eleazar Ashkenazi


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[1] − is divided into three parts:

Part 1 is a brief presentation of how the early Rashi texts were surprisingly diverse, and only emerged in the ‘standard’ form as we know them today at around the sixteenth century.

Part 2 looks at the early rabbinic reception of the Rashi texts.

Part 3 discusses and examines extracts from a little-known fourteenth-century ‘counter commentary’ to Rashi’s commentary. This ‘counter commentary’ was authored by R. Eleazar Ashkenazi, a Maimonidean rationalist, and entitled Tzafnat Paneach (Revealer of Secrets). 

Sunday 5 May 2024

470) Nineteenth-century Jewish Messianism



In our lifetimes, we have experienced multiple events that have sparked the notion that there is something unique in the air and Mashiach is on the way. Many great leaders have indeed declared this to be the case and it has become rather commonplace in the minds of the masses across the religious and even the secular spectrums that we are living in messianic times. Some suggest that Mashiah is already here. While this may or may not be the case, this article looks at another period in Jewish history (and there have been very many similar periods) where the same sentiment had been expressed. We shall explore various approaches to messianism during the nineteenth century as articulated by some in rabbinic leadership positions. 

This article based extensively on the research by Dr Arie Morgenstern[1] − examines some of the messianic statements emerging from rabbinic leadership in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These statements were generally made in reaction to specific events of the Modern Period, which began around the French Revolution of 1789 and culminated with universal messianic expectations for the year 1840 − the year for the Messiah to appear according to predictions in the Talmud and Zohar. 

Sunday 14 April 2024

469) Examining an unpublished manuscript of the Zohar

 Part 2


A hitherto unknown manuscript of the Zohar was found in the Vatican Library. It tells the story of R. Yosi and R Aba going on a journey. R. Yosi reprimands R. Aba for not discussing Torah and keeping silent while travelling. R. Aba responds and eventually convinces R. Yosi that silence is a better path to follow. This would have been no minor matter, because the standard practice amongst the characters represented in the Zohar was indeed to travel and speak Torah words. It offered protection and rectification along the way. R. Aba’s path of silence, however, which was based on the importance of silent  Kavanah (concentration) and the fact that he then initiated R. Yosi into that unconventional path of silent Kavanah was seen as a subversive mystical theology. More importantly, R. Aba’s path of silent Kavanah may have represented a counter and threatening spiritualist movement of Kabbalists who opposed the dominating, standard and relatively conservative mystical school of the Zohar, where practice, words and sounds had to be appended to the Kavanah. These politics of theological subtleties may explain why this short manuscript text never made its way into the printed editions of the Zohar. 

Sunday 7 April 2024

468) Possible implications of common themed textual layering within the Zohar

 Part 1


Based on the analysis of divergent concepts and theosophies evident within the Zohar in addition to the discovery of Zoharic texts hitherto unknown it is apparent that within the same topics and genres, a number of variants and diverse textual layers exist. These diverse layers indicate the possibility of not just multiple authorship but an extended timeline over which the Zohar, as we now know it, emerged as ‘comprehensive’ literature. This observation adds a new dimension to the once-binary debate over whether the second-century R. Shimon bar Yochai, or the thirteenth-century R. Moshe de León, authored the Zohar, as there are now numerous other considerations to factor into the discussion. 

Sunday 24 March 2024

467) Lechu Neranena on Wednesday


 Guest post by Moshe Tzvi Wieder


I thank Moshe Tzvi Wieder for sharing with us his research into the early Siddur (prayer book). Moshe Tzvi Wieder is the author of “The Siddur from Its Sources” (הסידור ממקורותיו) a unique Siddur which provides the earliest known sources for every part of the Siddur.  To learn more about הסידור ממקורותיוsee the site here.


Lechu Neranena on Wednesday


The Siddur from Its Sources, by Moshe Tzvi Wieder, Wieder Press, 2023.

The Mishna (Tamid 7:4) delineates which chapters of Tehillim the Leviim would say for each day of the week. While it does not explicitly state the ending of each section, both logic and early manuscript evidence bear out that the Leviim would stop at the end of each chapter.  

Sunday 17 March 2024

466) Separating the text from the context: an early Chassidic approach to Torah study


Toledot Yakov Yosef: The first Chassidic book to be published. Koritz 1780.


We examine Chassidic sources that show how early Chassidism reworked the traditional methodologies of classical Torah study. They did this by separating the text from the context and focusing, instead, on the divine light contained within the letters and the words themselves. They did this regardless of the position and meaning of these words in the sequence of the biblical storyline. This approach was generally used to enhance the experientialism of the study process which now became a spiritual, as opposed to an intellectual, enterprise. It also opened a space for the theurgic or ‘magical’ use of Torah study to benefit the student (or perhaps more appropriately, the practitioner) to utilise the exposed light or energy to effect a change in their material reality. 

Sunday 10 March 2024

465) Did R. Chaim of Volozhin intentionally alter the image of the Vilna Gaon?


A 1704 manuscript of an early Hebrew translation of Euclid’s Elements. Later, in 1780, the first printed Hebrew edition of Euclid's Elements, was published in Amsterdam, translated into Hebrew by R. Baruch Schick of Shklov, on the instruction of the Vilna Gaon. 


Based on a comparison between the various representations of the Vilna Gaon’s worldview by his different students, it seems that his main student, R. Chaim of Volozhin, meticulously selected, if not shaped, only certain aspects of his teacher’s ideology to present to future generations. We shall examine how R. Chaim of Volozhin crafted an image of the Vilna Gaon as: 

1) a religious scholar not interested in the secular scholarship; 

2a) a theoretical or theosophical master of mysticism with no interest in theurgical or practical Kabbalah;

2b) a master practical Kabbalist (the previous characterisation of the Vilna Gaon as a 'theoretical Kabbalist' was later changed to present him as 'practical Kabbalist'), and

3) a spiritual innovator who intended to present an ‘authorised’ version of mysticism, in lieu of Chassidism, to the Lithuanian Mitnagdim. 

These representations are then compared to how other students and family members charactersied and witnessed the Vilna Gaon, and to what the Gaon himself had expressed on these matters.

464) Interesting math in the Hebrew Bible


Guest Post by Professor Larry Zamick

There are numerous examples in the Bible of lists of numbers with totals that don't add up correctly. For example, when God asked Moses to count the descendants of Levi, the results were given in a table. 

Sunday 3 March 2024

463) The discovery of R. Nachman’s Secret Scroll

Megilat Setarim - The Secret Scroll of R. Nachman of Breslov


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Zvi Mark[1] − examines the relatively recent emergence of a work by R. Nachman of Breslov, Megilat Setarim, that was thought to have either been lost or hidden away. 

A cloud of secrecy has always hung over this enigmatic work, particularly concerning the reasons for it to have remained a secret document, but as we shall see, many elements of secrecy surrounded the personality of R. Nachman of Breslov in general. For some reason, secrecy seemed to often go hand in hand with R. Nachman and his teachings:

“We know of one book which R. Nachman hid away, another which he burnt, as well as tales he forbade to reveal to outsiders. So it was that Breslav Chasidim, as a group, enshrouded themselves within a certain air of mystery and kept up a continual discourse concerning hidden works and hidden meanings in their Rebbe’s teaching” (Mark 2010:23).