Saturday, 25 March 2023

423) Maimonides calls the belief in Angels an “evil and blind foolishness”



By all accounts, Maimonides (1135/8-1204) had some interesting views on Angels. He certainly did not view angels the same way as most other rabbis did, especially the mystics. In this article, although the style is somewhat cumbersome, we turn to Maimonides’ text in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed 2:6) to see his actual words describing his position. 

The first challenge often posed to Rambam’s view that angels do not exist as the spiritual beings most understand them to be, is that the Torah mentions angles in contexts that seem to support these popular conceptualisations. However, Rambam does not read angels that way. 

Saturday, 18 March 2023

422) The opening and closing blessings of the Amidah have not changed for more than a thousand years?


The world's oldest siddur from about 1 200 years ago.


This article, based extensively on the research by Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber,[1] looks at the popular perception that the daily prayer known as the Shemoneh Esrei, or Amidah particularly the opening and closing blessings have not changed an iota for more than a thousand years.

Saturday, 11 March 2023

421) Hirsch, Hildesheimer and Hoffmann: Examining the boundaries of Orthodox modernity

R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch
R. Esriel Hildeshimer
R. David Tzvi Hoffmann


R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888), R. Esriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) and R. David Hoffman (1843-1921) were early protagonists of what has become known as the Modern Orthodox movement. There were, however, some major disputes between them. This article, based extensively on the research by Professor David Ellenson and Dr Richard Jacobs,[1] looks at some of the differences between these early Modern Orthodox rabbis. 

Sunday, 5 March 2023

420) Alleged recruiting methodologies of the early Chassidic movement


The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Immanuel Etkes,[1] looks at the recruiting processes and other activities of the two early Chassidic courts of R. Dov Ber, known as the Magid of Mezrich, and R. Chaim Chaikel of Amdur. Etkes bases himself on two separate texts allegedly presenting an ‘inside view’ and a personal account of the internal world of early Chassidim. 

Sunday, 26 February 2023

419) Priestly politics, Calendar wars and early Jewish mysticism


The Dead Sea Scrolls from around the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE


The Hebrew Calendar that we use today has undergone some dramatic transformation over time. What is most interesting is it seems that control over the calendars was often directly related to control over mysticism. In this article, based extensively on the research by Professor Rachel Lior,[1] we examine some of the fascinating developments of the Hebrew Calendar. Much of this information has only come to light in relatively recent times. It must be emphasised that these are Elior's views and not everyone necessarily agrees with the position she takes. Nonetheless, her observations are of great interest.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

418) Sefer Chassidim: A little-known, unpublished and anonymous anti-Chassidic manuscript from 1818


The anonymous anti-Chassidic polemic, Sefer Chassidim, 1818


If you are interested in texts and manuscripts with their varying Hashkafot (worldviews), then you may find the anonymous 1818 work, entitled Sefer Chassidim[1] to be of interest. This little-known work, a polemic (theological argument) against Chassidism, is a challenge to some of the then-new principles of the Chassidic movement. The manuscript was never published. In this article, based extensively on a review[2] by Professor Jonatan Meir, we look at some of the content of this manuscript, without necessarily taking any one particular side. 

Sunday, 12 February 2023

417) The shift from experiential Chassidism to an expansion of Chassidic literature.


Toledot Yakov Yosef (1817 edition) by R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye.


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Zeev Gries, deals with the often-overlooked role of the editor in producing Chassidic texts and in communicating Chassidic doctrines.[1] Many are familiar with the impressive stories of the great Rebbes but very little is known about the: 

“scribes, copyists, editors, and printers who, for better or for worse, have determined the shape in which hasidic tradition has come down to us and dictated the course and pace of its transmission” (Gries 1996:141). 

We shall also examine how these editors helped shift Chassidism from what started out as an experiential movement with little concern for an authoritative literature, to one that is today defined by this very literature. 

Sunday, 5 February 2023

416) What really happened on the last Friday night in Kotzk?


A letter written by the Kotzker Rebbe's son, R. David in 1855. It was penned during the period of his father's seclusion and R. David requests from one of the followers: that he collect the debts from our people, for the house of [our master, my father..] may he live long, good days…and Hashem should give him success.”


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Morris Faierstein examines the various accounts of the last night the Kotzker Rebbe spent with his followers in Kotzk.[1] 

The popular version

The popular version of the story goes like this: One Friday night in 1839, R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1789-1859) sat with his followers and in front of them he either smoked a pipe or extinguished the Shabbat candles, proclaiming “Leit din veleit Dayan,” (there is no Law and there is no Judge). Thereafter he excused himself from the gathering and secluded himself (or was forced into seclusion by his family) for the next twenty years until his passing in 1859. 

Faierstein, however, presents a series of the written accounts that led to this popular version and deconstructs them in an attempt to better understand the evolutionary process behind this story. We will look at six different written sources to see how they depicted the alleged events of that ‘last night in Kotzk.’

Sunday, 29 January 2023

415) The changing face of mysticism in the evolution of Chassidism


The Grand Synagogue of R. Yisrael of Ruzhin (der heiliger Ruzhiner) in Sadigur. 


This article, drawn extensively from the research by Professor Benjamin Brown, looks at how Chassidism, which started out as a mystical movement, slowly redefined its mysticism and, over time, replaced it with various substitutes.[1] 

From what began as a small movement in the eighteenth century with relatively common mystical ideas, the nineteenth century brought with it:

“deep ideological transformation…the vast majority of which were not mystical” (Brown 2017:247).

The mystical fervour of the early generations soon dissipated and became ‘neutralised’ by Chassidic substitutes. We shall look at a number of such examples. 

Sunday, 22 January 2023

414) Did the first three Rebbes of Chabad credit the Vilna Gaon for saving Chassidism?

Mekor Baruch R. Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941)


In a most interesting source found in Mekor Baruch, the first three Rebbes of Chabad are said to have acknowledged the Vilna Gaon for his role in keeping Chassidism within the framework of traditional Judaism. Considering that the Vilna Gaon was Chassidism’s most ardent opponent, this seems like quite an outlandish and unlikely claim.

Mekor Baruch

Mekor Baruch was written by R. Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941) and is a four-volume collection of memoirs and recollections from leading personalities of previous generations. His father, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1908), the author of Aruch haShulchan, is said to have studied together with R. Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866) the third Chabad Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek.

Sunday, 15 January 2023

413) Did R. Nachman meet Napoleon?

Napoleon's unsuccessful attempt to siege Acre in 1799


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor David Assaf, looks at the historicity of the claims by a veritable literary tradition that the 26-year-old R. Nachman of Breslov had met with the 29-year-old Napoleon while both were in the Holy Land.[1] 

Sunday, 8 January 2023

412) Can Targumim clarify a Torah text?


Targum Yonatan fragment in the Cairo Geniza.


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Raanan Eichler, explores whether the study of Targumic texts (=Torah translations into Aramaic) can sometimes lead us closer to the original intent of the Torah text.[1]