Sunday, 20 November 2022

406) Rashbam as Rashi’s exegetical ‘enfant terrible’?[1]



This article, based extensively on the research by Professors Jason Kalman,[2] and Hanna Liss, deals with the commentaries of R. Shmuel ben Meir known as Rashbam (1085-1158),  Rashi’s grandson. Some of Rashbam’s commentaries on the Torah were, and to this day are still considered contentious. In a recent paper, for example, Professor Hershey Friedman writes:

“Regrettably, publishers today want to censor opinions that do not fit the mainstream way of thinking. [Ben Zion] Katz (2020, para. 1) asserts: 'Orthodox theology today is much narrower than what was acceptable in the Middle Ages.' He mentions that ArtScroll Publishing is editing and removing comments made by Rashbam that the editors believe are too radical from the new  Mikraot Gedolot.”[3]

Sunday, 13 November 2022

405) The ‘middle to upper-class’ Mishnaic rabbis.

הֶעָנִי עוֹמֵד בַּחוּץ The poor man stands outside


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Gregg Gardner,[1] explores issues of status, wealth and poverty in Mishnaic writing and thought. During Mishnaic times (10-210 CE), detailed discussions are developed around biblical principles concerning tithing and how sections of a field are set aside for the poor. So we know that a poor class certainly existed - but what was the socioeconomic standing of the rabbis who formulated those laws?  Were they rich or poor, or somewhere in between, and were their laws concerning the poor, perhaps informed by their own economic reality?

Sunday, 6 November 2022

404) The melamed who experienced the stirrings of the shift to Daat Torah


Signature of Moroccan born R. Chaim ben Attar, known as the Or haChaim (1696-1743)


This article, based extensively on the work by Professor David Assaf,[1] discusses a dispute over the honour of the famed Moroccan rabbi, Chaim ben Attar (1696–1743), known as the Or haChaim after his book by that name. The Sefer Or haChaim has always been highly praised by the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) and his Chassidim. This, even though culturally, the Moroccan Or haChaim was far away from the nascent Chassidic movement just beginning in central Europe.

Sunday, 30 October 2022

403) Hillel Baal Shem Ra: the Master of the Evil Name.


Petrovsky-Shtern discovers the Sefer haCheshek


Many are familiar with the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good name) but who was the Baal Shem Ra (Master of the Evil name)? I have drawn extensively from the research by Professor Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern,[1] who in 1993, whilst senior librarian at the Vernadsky Library in Kiev, discovered an unusual manuscript, entitled Sefer haCheshek.

Sunday, 23 October 2022

402) Was R. Nachman’s Tikun haKelali a ‘fixing’ of Sabbatianism?




Years ago, when I was in yeshiva, Breslov was a rather unknown Chassidic sect. Today R. Nachman (1772-1810) and his Breslov movement need no introduction as it has become one of the most popular of the Chassidic movements. I spent about fifteen years in the movement and have always been fascinated by the personality of R. Nachman. According to Professor Yehuda Liebes (1995:109),[1] when it comes to machshvet Yisrael (Jewish theology), R. Nachman is certainly one of its key personalities. However, Liebes boldly maintains that R. Nachman was - at least in his early days (Liebes 1995:109 in the Appendix) - influenced by the secretive yet powerful and widespread Sabbatian and Frankist movements of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) and particularly Jacob Frank (1726-1791) respectively.[2] Liebes suggests that in his youth, R. Nachman may have had contact with Frankists who had remained Jewish and who were plentiful in Podolia at that time. Although, Liebes continues, these influencers may have been factors, nevertheless, R. Nachman indeed produced highly individualised and unique teachings (Liebes 1995:109).

Sunday, 2 October 2022

401) Classical Sefaradic and Ashkenazic approaches to Talmud


al-Andalus (Muslim Spain)


This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Talya Fishman[1] on the differences between the classical approaches of Sefaradim and Ashkenazim to the Talmud. By ‘classical’ is meant the period prior to the thirteenth century, when there was a very distinct difference between how Sefarad (Spain) and Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany) approached Talmud study.

Study differences between Ashkenaz and Sefarad

In Ashkenaz, the main focus of Torah study was centred primarily around Talmud study, while in North Africa and al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) they were more concerned with the study of practical Halacha as found in the locally produced eleventh-century codes of R. Nisim, R. Chananel, and R. Yitzchak Alfasi (1013–1103, ‘Alfasi’ implies ‘from Fez’, Morocco). Later in the twelfth century, the Sefaradim added the code of the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides to their study curriculum which thus continued to remain distinctly Halachic and non-Talmudic.

Sunday, 18 September 2022

400) Was it forbidden to write down the Oral Tradition?



This article, based extensively on the work by Professor Yair Furstenberg,[1] explores the very notion of the well-known ban against writing down the Oral Tradition. It is generally accepted that rabbinic literature essentially remained in an oral form since Sinai; and that only from around the period of the redaction of the Mishna in 210 CE was it finally permitted to be written down for the first time.

However, Furstenberg writes in his Abstract that:

“multiple Talmudic anecdotes point to a complex reality that does not align with what seems as an explicit prohibition.” 

To resolve this complexity, Furstenberg suggests that we need to understand that two distinct “book cultures” existed between the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia at that time.

Sunday, 11 September 2022

399) Why Did Ramchal Write Mesilas Yesharim?

A Guest Post by Rabbi Boruch Clinton 

Mesilas Yesharim: Perhaps it really is nothing more than a magnificent guide to Torah perfection

No one who’s spent serious time learning Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ramchal)’s ethical masterpiece Mesilas Yesharim can walk away uninspired. It’s possible to return to sin after being confronted with Ramchal’s powerful arguments, but it won’t be easy.

There’s no doubt that Ramchal gave the world his Mesilas Yesharim out of a genuine desire to have a positive impact. But what was the precise impact he hoped for? A simple reading of the book suggests it’s nothing more than a guide to perfecting our observance of the Torah’s timeless principles. But some claim the book was also designed to subtly introduce esoteric kabbalistic ideas into mainstream Jewish culture.

Sunday, 4 September 2022

398) Maimonides’ view on the parameters of ‘faith in the sages’


Dr Avi Harel

Guest post by Dr Avi Harel

[Translated from the Hebrew by Gavin Michal  אבי הראל: אמונת חכמים והיקפה על פי הרמב"ם - ייצור ידע (]

Dr Avi Harel holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy and history. He served in the IDF, Border Police and Israel Police for three decades in various command positions. In his last position, he was the historian of the Israel Police. He has published four books and dozens of articles.



In the weekly portion of Shoftim in the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a general biblical overview of the style of governance which is to be established in Canaan when the Israelites eventually enter the land. Firstly, there is a reference to adherence to an appropriate system of law. Then there is an injunction to establish a form of law enforcement, along the lines of an efficient policing body, that is ethical and effective. And finally, the Torah specifies the principles that pertain to the appointment of the ruler of the people - the king. This came with the ethical requirement that his power is to be limited so that his rule is not supreme.

Sunday, 28 August 2022

397) Italian Chasidim, coffee, chocolates and Sabbatians


A section of the Padua eruv document of 1720 discovered by Dr David Sclar.


This article is based extensively on the research by Dr David Sclar[1] who discovered a fascinating document in Padua’s Jewish community archives[2] describing an eruv (a ‘closed off area’ allowing Jews to carry on Shabbat) which R. Isaiah Bassan (a teacher of R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) had established in Padua (northern Italy) in 1720.

Sunday, 21 August 2022

396) Which Ovadiah the Ger?


Obadiah the Norman Proselyte who entered the covenant of the God of Israel in the month of Ellul, year 1413 of Documents which is 4862 of Creation

Obadiah the Norman Proselyte and Maimonides - a Case of Non-Intersection

Guest Post by Professor Larry Zamick[1]


I meet such interesting people through this blog. One such personality is Professor Larry Zamick, a distinguished professor of physics at Rutgers University in Piscataway, NJ. Born in Winnipeg, Canada in 1935, he attended the University of Manitoba as an undergraduate and received his PhD in nuclear physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962.

In his own words, Professor Zamick describes himself as “definitely not a Hebrew scholar.” However, his research and findings on the famous twelfth-century Ovadiah the Ger (Convert) contribute towards, if not change the way we understand this chapter of Jewish history. It seems that many confuse two very different Ovadiahs who were both gerim (converts). Some of the errants are distinguished scholars. The first Ovadiah was a former Christian monk born in Oppido Lucano (Southern Italy) as Johannes, the son of a Norman aristocrat named Dreux. He lived just before the second Ovadiah, a former Muslim, who is famous for interacting with Maimonides (when he inquired if, in the prayers, he was permitted to refer to Abraham as his 'father').

Sunday, 14 August 2022

395) The Alter Rebbe’s great-grandson who became a proto-Zionist and developed a form of 'natural' messianism.


Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Schneersohn


R. Chaim Tzvi Schneerson (1834-1882) was a fourth-generation descendent of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement (Gartner 1968:33).[1] He was known as the נין של בעל התניא, or great-grandson of the Baal haTanya.[2] Born in Lubavitch, Belarus in 1834, he emigrated to Palestine with his family in 1840 and was ordained as a rabbi at his Bar Mitzvah. Later, he taught himself English and became an important emissary and fund-raiser for Collel Chabad, which was founded in 1788 by R. Shneur Zalman, and is to this day the oldest continuously operating charity in Israel. 

During one of his fundraising trips outside of the Holy Land, R. Schneersohn became convinced that the Jews would be redeemed - not by messianic forces(!) - but instead by a series of natural and human events eventually culminating in the fulfilment of the Jewish eschatological dream of the final redemption.