Sunday 29 May 2016



Over the last hundred years or so, multiple ancient and original halachik texts have been discovered. Some of these (many of which were found in the Cairo Geniza) are at variance with our version of the texts - while others confirm the veracity of, and even expound upon our standard texts.

In this article, we will explore the halachik ramifications of these newly discovered texts.
We will then take this a step further and deal with the fascinating theoretically possible scenario of what the halachik view would be if Moshe’s original Torah were to be discovered and it turned out to be different from the version we use today!


In an attempt to find halachik precedent, let’s turn to some of our sources to see how they deal with the issue:

RAV SHERIRA GAON (906-1006):

 Rav Sherira Gaon deals with the issue of textual differences found within the Talmud, and suggests that each variant should be taken seriously as they are all predicated upon some validated tradition.

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam relates how he painstakingly researched 500 year old manuscripts and used them to reverse a previously accept opinion of the earlier Geonim.[1]

RAMBAN (1194-1270):

Nachmanides ruled according to Rif, regarding the weight of a Shekel coin. But when he went to Israel and saw an ancient coin, he weighed it and it turned out to be 1/6th lighter (in accordance with Rashi’s view). As a result of this empirical evidence Ramban reversed his ruling to follow Rashi instead of Rif.[2]

Ramban was also prepared to rely on earlier manuscripts that were not part of the general corpus of halachik literature of his day.[3]


Although recognized as a great Rishon, many authorities today do not consider the Meiri’s newly discovered writings to carry any halachik weight whatsoever due to the simple fact that for centuries he was relatively unknown. Thus because there was a ‘break’ in the line of transmission, due to an accident of history, his views are downplayed.

RABBI YOSEF KARO (1488-1575):

According to Beit Yosef, the disputed positioning and order of the four small scrolls inserted into the tefillin could be quickly settled by examining the order of the scrolls as they were placed in a very ancient pair of tefillin discovered in the grave of the prophet Yechezkel[4].

Thus, by implication, archaeological discoveries may be submitted as evidence in a halachik dispute.

[Not everyone agrees with this view. The Drisha, for example, counters by suggesting that the reason the tefillin may have been buried could have been because the scrolls were inserted incorrectly in the first instance!]


Rabbi Yehoshua Ya’akov Helperin, while dealing with an issue of the Rama, cites other views of Rishonim which were not available to Rama, and suggests that had Rama seen those manuscripts he would have ruled another way.[5]


The Alter Rebbe writes that one needs to be strict in the light of the discovery of manuscripts dating back to the Rishonim (regarding an issue of unleavened bread on Pesach). He thus seems to rely on newly discovered manuscripts, but only if the conclusion results in a stricter ruling than before.


Rav Kook took a pragmatic view on the issue. In responding to a question concerning the reading the Megillah on the 15th of Adar in a city that was walled since the time of Joshua. 

He wrote; “The (archaeological) evidence you have sent me is insufficient...Although the efforts of all the scholars involved in this project is worthy, one cannot make halachik decisions based on the common Arab names of a location. Should any new evidence emerge kindly inform me so that I can express my views on the issue.” [6]


In a fascinating study, Rabbi Wasserman shows how many of our accepted commentaries that have been published in standard editions commonly used today, are attributed to the wrong authors.[7]

[Some examples follow:
Tosafot Ri HaZaken on Kiddushin was not authored by Ri.
Rabbenu Gershon on Bava Batra was instead authored by Rabbi Elyakim HaLevi.
Many of the responsa of Rashba were in fact authored by Maharam of Rothenburg.
Rashba on Sukka was instead written by his pupil the Ritva.
Chidushei HaRashba on Ketuvot was authored by Ramban.
Rashba on Menachot is of disputed authorship but not by Rashba.]

This raises another question of the general accuracy, not only of newly discovered, but even of some of the standard texts.


Rabbi Feinstein would not consider newly discovered writings, particularly if they proved to be at variance with his own stated opinion. Responding to a question as to whether or not a non-Jew would receive a reward for the performance of a mitzvah, he responded in the negative.

When challenged by a reference to the (relatively newly discovered) Meiri who is of the opinion that a non-Jew does indeed receive a reward in such an instance – he responded that; “We are not responsible for material found in newly published manuscripts”. [8]


Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, born in Baghdad, was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983. He did rely on newly found manuscripts on numerous occasions to formulate his halachik rulings.


Rabbi Schachter of Yeshiva University cites a recorded episode in the Gemara about how Rabbah bar bar Channah was shown by an Arab guide where the graves of the ancient Israelites were situated. He wanted to remove the tzitzit from one of the bodies to examine how they were tied.[9] This shows that there may be a precedent to consider archaeological evidence as a valid factor in determining halachik decisions.[10]

CHAZON ISH (1878-1953):

Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz, an anti-Zionist leader who shaped the contemporary Chareidi theological and institutional landscape of modern Israel, maintained that new findings have no practical bearing whatsoever on our tradition as we have it today.
In the post Shulchan Aruch era, newly discovered manuscripts are worthless, as halacha has effectively been cast in stone.

He also posits that, contrary to popular belief, the author of the Shulchan Aruch did not always rely on majority opinion when he formulated his law. He said that someone of the calibre of Rabbi Yosef Karo could certainly override the ‘majority rule’ principle.  It is for this reason that even if newly found texts are shown to be accurate, they would have absolutely no bearing on any law as recorded in the Shulchan Aruch.  On this view, from the 1400’s and onwards, Jewish law is effectively ‘frozen’ forever no matter what.[11]

The Chazon Ish further points out that the problem with newly discovered texts, is that they were not subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny of scholars throughout the ages, as our standard texts have.[12]

Rabbi Moshe Bleich[13] supports this point by citing Binyamin Richler[14]:

“It is almost impossible to copy a written text of moderate length without making at least a few errors. Even if a scribe were to copy a 300-page book containing 100,000 words with 99.5 percent accuracy, he would still be responsible for 500 mistakes throughout the book.”

This means that our texts have already been scrutinized for the inevitable mistakes, and this gives them added authority.

In essence, the Chazon Ish believed that the Torah literature as we have it today, was preserved for us by Providence and therefore those texts only recently discovered are of no value to us.


Rabbi Dr. Zvi A. Yehuda[15], a close disciple of the Chazon Ish, writes that in 1943, another (former) teacher of his, the eminent Talmudic scholar Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Menashe Lewin (d.1944), who was completing his thirteenth volume of Otzar HaGaonim asked why his encyclopaedic works were not accepted by the yeshiva world.

They were, after all, simply gleaned from recently discovered but original manuscripts of the Gaonim themselves.

Rabbi Dr. Lewin asked Rabbi Dr. Yehuda to ask the Chazon Ish why his monumental work of collating Gaonic writings was being ignored by the religious world.

The Chazon Ish amazingly responded: “The old material, we have; the new, we don’t need.”

This means that the newly discovered original texts were only of academic interest but had absolutely no bearing on or relevance to halacha! “If the rishonim did not have the material and knowledge we now discover, this was the will of G-d.

He continues in the name of the Chazon Ish:

“Assuming that an old sefer Torah from a very remote past will be found (let us say, of Rashi, Rabbi Akiva...or even of Moshe Rabbenu himself) and that we will detect textual variants distinguishing it from the current masoretic texts (ie the Sifre Torah we use today)...we do not correct our sefer according to the old sefer, but vise versa. 

The old sefer Torah, even if were written by the greatest authority (Moshe), must be considered pasul (invalid) as long as it does not conform to ours. 

In order for it to become kasher, it must be amended and adjusted to comply with the text of contemporary sefarim, according to the most recent halacha.”

Some time back, I wrote an article TheAllepo Codex where it was shown that there were periods in our history where the Torah Codex or Master Copy had disappeared. This undeniable historic fact casts aspersions on the accuracy of our scrolls today, and this was something which I was very hesitant and reluctant to record.  – I was therefore amazed to read in the name of the Chazon Ish:

In Second Temple days, three ancient sefarim were found...they disagreed with each other in text...Probably none was kasher...Thus a ‘compromised’ text emerged for current usage...

But this consideration (of an inaccurate Torah!) presents no difficulty or deterrent for the halachik logic and process...Halacha, then, by virtue of its own organic reasoning...might have ‘created’ a synthetic new text of the Torah, unknown to previous generations, rendering their sefarim for us as halachically pasul. 

In the same way that Moshe, if imaginarily placed in Rabbi Akiva’s academy, would not have understood his oral Torah (Menachot 29b) so, too, he might not have found Rabbi Akiva’s written Torah completely identical to his own.

It is abundantly clear that the present sefarim do not fully correspond with the ancient ones.[16]

Many midrashim and rishonim used sefarim that differed from ours...In their days and places, they were halachically correct; in ours, we are... 

Halacha is rooted in current, ongoing reality and is neither shaken nor fortified by any evidence ferreted out from remote ages...

Halacha requires, thus, that we carefully copy only the prevalent, available, and approved text of the day, not an old and lost one...but a text that has passed the test of time and sanction of the rabbinic tradition, which is dynamic, progressive, compliant and concessionary...
We engage not in bibliolatry but in kiyum mitzvoth (keeping the commandments).”

So, according to the view of the Chazon Ish, if we were to discover Moshe’s original Torah tomorrow: 
- it would be different from the version we use today 
- it would be pasul - and we would not be allowed to read from it in our shulls 
- and we would have to amend it to comply with our halachically correct sifre Torah.


In a way I can understand the view of the Chazon Ish. In a secular sense it is almost like abiding by the ruling of a court of law or the outcome of a political election - whether one agrees with the outcome or not - for the sake of a civil society. There are some processes one just has to accept. So too, in order to preserve halachik integrity, one needs to accept the inevitability of following due process.

It is of interest to note that Rabbi Natan Slifkin similarly writes;

“There is a strong basis for arguing that if a practice has become enshrined in Talmudic law by the Sages, it is authoritative even if the basis turns out to be mistaken...If we were to say that the halacha should change based on each generation’s understanding of scientific truth, then the ramifications for the body of halacha as a whole could be drastic.”[17] 

On the other hand, as we have seen, there are others who do take a different position and try blend respect for traditional halachik process with empirical factors that are still part of the very same methodology.

I think it was Heschel who said; “Law without Spirit is a corpse. Spirit without Law is a ghost.” Human beings have to operate somewhere in-between.

Perhaps there is a space for what Rava called the Gavra Rabbah[18], or Great Personality who is higher than the Scholar, who is able to strike that seemingly impossible balance.

Either way, hypothetically, I certainly would not want to be the person who has to tell Moshe Rabbenu that his Torah is pasul.


The Role of Manuscripts In Halachic Decision-Making: Hazon Ish, his Precursors and Contemopraries – by Rabbi Moshe Bleich,  Tradition 27, No. 2 Winter 1993.

The Role of Archaeology in Halachic Decision-Making – by Rabbi Chaim Jachter.

Hazon Ish on Textual Criticism and Halacha – by Rabbi Dr. Zvi A. Yehuda, Tradition 18 (2) Summer 1980.

[1] Hilchot Malveh VeLoveh 15:2
[2] Ramban’s commentary to Shemot 30:13
(The Shulchan Aruch, however, does not rule according to Ramban or Rashi; Abarbanel says that this may be because it lost some of its weight over time. Tashbetz says that this may be because Ramban relied on the Samaritans to help with the coin, and we ascribe no authority to them.)
[3] See Ramban commentary on Niddah 64a.
[4] These happen to be in the exact same order as that prescribed by Rashi and Rambam, as opposed to Tosfos. See Orach Chaim 34.
[5] Orach Chaim 120
[6] Iggerot HaReiyah 423
[7] See Kovets HeArot, on Yevamot.
[8] Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah II:7 and III:14
[9] Bava Batra 73b
[10] Nefesh HaRav p.53 footnote 26
[11] Iggerot Chazon Ish, III:48
[12] There is at least one instance, however, where Chazon Ish did accept the authenticity of manuscripts; “It appears obvious that this responsum was authored by a Gaon”. (Orach Chaim 39:6)
[13] Tradition Winter 1993, Vol. 27, No. 2
[14] Hebrew manuscripts: A Treasured Legacy, Cleveland and Jerusalem, 1990.
[15] See Hazon Ish On Textual Criticism And Halacha, Tradition 18(2) 1980, by Zvi A. Yehuda.
[16] See Shabbat 55b, Tosafot and R Akiva Eger’s gloss.
[17] See Sacred Monsters by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, last chapter.
[18] Makkot 22b. This is a reference to the gavra rabbah reducing the number of malkot from 40 to 39 or less.

Sunday 22 May 2016


Rabbi Emden's transcription of  a letter he received from Moses Mendelssohn (Hitavkut  p. 162)


Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) is considered to be one of the leading and most authoritative rabbinical figures of the 18th century. What many people don’t realize is that the Ya’avetz[1], as he is also known, was also a most radical and controversial personality with views that would shock even the most open of religious thinkers today.

Rabbi Emden was born in Altona, a borough of the German city state of Hamburg, which at that time was under Danish rule. It is important to remember that he vigorously defended Orthodox Judaism - which had been dealt a harsh blow by the false Messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi who had died just 21 years earlier. 
The Sabbatian movement continued to thrive for a very long time even after their leader’s conversion to Islam and subsequent death. Its influence remained a threatening menace to the rabbinical leadership, which was constantly challenged by very active but secret messianic cells embedded within the Jewish community at that time.


Rabbi Emden became extremely unpopular when he accused his colleague, Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz of Prague, another towering rabbinical figure, of being a secret follower of the false Messiah. He was extremely suspicious of Rabbi Eybeschutz, who had some mystical amulets which appeared to tie him to the secret group. The two leaders had huge followings, and soon violence erupted in the streets to the extent that the authorities had to intervene. 

The situation was so much more complicated because Rabbi Eybeschutz also happened to be the Chief Rabbi[2] with close connections to the Danish King Frederick V. Rabbi Emden, in turn, put pressure on the king to question the Chief Rabbi about alleged voting irregularities relating to his election to this high office.

The controversy turned more ugly when Rabbi Eybeschutz refused to appear before a Beit Din and instead chose to go to the Gentile courts. To make matters worse, he appointed a former pupil, Karl Anton (previously known as Gershon Moshe Cohen) who had converted to Christianity, to represent him.

(Incidentally, Rabbi Eybeschutz, who was one of only seven rabbis to have acquired the illustrious title of ‘Rebbe Reb[3], had a son, Wolf who openly declared himself to be a follower of Shabbetai Tzvi. As a result of this devastating blow Rabbi Eybeschutz’s yeshiva was closed down, never to open again.)

Rabbi Emden went so far as to accuse Rabbi Eybeschutz of incest and fathering a child with his own daughter.[4] Notwithstanding all these allegations, the majority of the Jewish community stood behind Rabbi Eybeschutz, and people were ordered by the rabbinate under threat of excommunication, to refrain from attending Rabbi Emden’s Shull. 

Rabbi Emden’s very life was under threat and he was forced to seek refuge in Amsterdam. Eventually the Danish King intervened and he returned to his home on the condition that he would halt his attacks on Rabbi Eybeschutz.

Rabbi J. Schacter of Yeshiva University, believes that the modern malady of disrespect towards rabbis, and the common tendency to undermine rabbinic authority, has its roots in this bitter and unfortunate controversy.

In a great irony of history, both Rabbis Emden and Eybeschutz were buried in very close proximity to each other.



Rabbi Emden believed that many sections of the mystical work known as the Zohar were forgeries and therefore not authoritative[5].

(Some are of the opinion that the reason why he took this stance, was because of the emphasis the Sabbatteans placed on the Zohar, and he was determined to undermine them at every level.)


He was greatly opposed to philosophy and maintained that the Guide for the Perplexed was not authored by Rambam, but by some unknown impostor.


Surprisingly, he had a very good relationship with Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of the Haskalah or Enlightenment movement, who referred to himself in a letter to Rabbi Emden as; “your disciple, who thirsts for your words”.[6]


Rabbi Emden also believed in the importance of knowing Jewish as well as secular history, since without some historical reference it is impossible to ever grasp the essence of any teaching:

 “The rabbinic scholar should not be devoid of (any) knowledge of history and changing times. (He must possess this information) in order to know how to provide his questioner with an answer and not be considered a fool or simpleton in worldly affairs...There is an obligation to know history. In order to understand Chazal, halacha etc, you need to understand history.” [7]


He seems to have had a keen interest in alchemy, and frequented Gottingen University to access ancient and original books on the subject.[8]


Rabbi Emden suggested that one pronounce G-d’s name in full, instead of the term ‘Hashem’, when studying Torah. He records this in the name of his father, the Chacham Tzvi, who, whenever hearing students studying and using the name ‘HaShem’, would instruct them to use the full name as if they were ‘reading from the Torah’.[9]


More interesting though, is his view on Christianity. He had ongoing interaction with Christian scholars, and wrote that the original intention of that religion, especially under the leadership of Paul, was only to convert Gentiles to the Seven Laws of Noah, and allow the Jews to continue with their Torah.

Rabbi Emden wrote; “The rise of Christianity and Islam served to spread among the nations, to the furthest ends of the earth, the knowledge that there is One G-d who rules the world...

Christian scholars ...have also defended the Oral Law. For when, in their hostility to the Torah ruthless persons in their own midst sought to abrogate and uproot the Talmud, others from among them arose to defend it and to repulse the attempts...

He (G-d)also bestowed upon them ethical ways, and in this respect He was much more stringent with them than the Torah of Moshe, as is well is not necessary to impose upon Jews such extreme ethical practices, since they have been obligated to the yoke of Torah...”[10]


Most surprising and shocking (and certainly not reflecting the view of this writer) is his responsum on the permissibility of a married man taking a pilegesh (even in modern times).
Rabbi Emden taught that at least theoretically, a married man may take another woman besides his wife, and maintain a committed relationship with her. (Pilegesh should not be confused with the biblical permissibility to take more than one wife[11].)

He writes;

“Great men and kings took concubines...A pilegesh is forbidden to another man as long as she is in a private relationship with this one because of the prohibition against prostitution, which is biblical. And also to determine the parentage of each child, which is the reason she needs to wait a period of three months if she leaves the first man and chooses to live exclusively with a second...

Moreover, I have found in the course of my bibliographic search, the response of Ramban where he challenges the ruling of Rambam and says; ‘I do not know why there is any question about (the permissibility of a pilegesh) for she is in an exclusive relationship with him...If he brings her into his home and she is exclusively with him, and thus her children would be known to him and are called by his name, she is permitted...And if you claim that it may be permissible by biblical law but prohibited by rabbinic law, where in the Talmud was such a decree recorded?’

(If she chooses to leave) she would not require a get (divorce), and after three months may marry or live with another man...the relationship is initiated by word and ended by word...

People are trespassing boundaries in sexual morality, and this is certainly so also in our time and in all places because the door of permissibility has been shut in front of their faces...It therefore seems to me that we should be teaching in public that a person is allowed to be in a pilegesh relationship and rescue them from serious violations (such as relationships with other married women) that are occurring daily.

Why should we continue to impose this prohibition without cause, to place stumbling blocks that are based and perpetuated by a stringent ruling that has absolutely no premise to support it?”[12]


It needs to be abundantly clear that this article is in no way intended to be seen as an endorsement of any of the views expressed above.

I happen to believe that in our times these ideas are morally dangerous, and may be (in not have been) abused by some to further their own nefarious agendas.

The family unit is under threat from all sides and certainly does not need a sanctioning religious element to be added to the fray.

These views, however, have simply been recorded to show the scope, range and multifacetedness of some of our Torah thinkers - something which never ceases to amaze me.

A number of popular historical accounts of Rabbi Emden paint him very superficially as just another scholarly rabbi to whom we owe a traditional debt of gratitude.

But I found it fascinating to dig a little beneath the surface.

[1] Yaakov ben Tzvi - His father was the famous Tzvi Ashkenazi or Chacham Tzvi (1656-1718) so named after his responsum by the same title. (The surname Javitz is said to come from Ya’avetz.)
[2] Rabbi was Chief Rabbi of the Triple Communities of Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbeck.
[3] I heard this from a close associate of the Belzer Rebbe. The other six were all Chassidic Rebbes, which shows the high esteem in which Rabbi Eybeschutz was held, as he predated Chassidic movement.
[4] This allegation is recorded in Rabbi Emden’s autobiographical book Megillat Sefer. It was written between 1752 and 1766 and remained in manuscript form for about 130 years until it was found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and only published in 1896 by David Kahane. It is probably the most frank and brutally honest rabbinic autobiography ever written.
[5] See Mitpachat Sefarim.
[6] See Harvey Falk, Journal of Ecumenical studies vol. 19, no.1 (1982)
[7] See Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, ‘History, Truth and Religious Commitment’.
[8] See An Esoteric Path to Modernity: Rabbi Emden’s Alchemical Quest, by Maoz Kahana.
[9] Shealat Ya’avetz vol.1, 91.  See also Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim, vol. 2, 56.
[10] See Seder Olam Rabbah VeZuta.
[11] Which he also wanted to reinstate, overriding the Cherem of Rabbenu Gershom.
Rabbi Emden had three wives (not simultaneously), and fathered twenty children, 16 of which sadly died within his lifetime.
[12] Extracted from Shealat Ya’avetz, vol.2, no. 15 (Translated by Gershon Winkler)
For more insights, see Rabbi Emden’s autobiographical account in Megillat Sefer : http://www.hebrew

Monday 16 May 2016


(NOTE TO READER: It must be pointed out at the very outset that this topic has been abused and distorted by many with varying agendas, both within and without Torah Judaism. The intention of this article is simply to explore a little known avenue of Torah though that many may find theologically intriguing if not challenging.)


While researching the previous article on Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), I happened upon his concept of a theoretically possible ‘new Torah’. Truth be told, I had come across vaguely similar notions as expressed within Chassidic and Kabbalistic literature, but this was the first time I had seen it as emanating from an avowed rationalist like the Albo.

In short, he proposes that under certain conditions, G-d could potentially present us with a ‘new Torah’ at some point in the future.


The Albo posits, similar to Rambam that the Torah incorporated some aspects of its law, such as the sacrifices, directly to accommodate a generation that had emerged from superstitious and idolatrous practices during biblical times (see here).

But then he differs from Rambam who clearly maintained that the Torah can and will never change. Rambam was so firm about the concept of the eternity and immutability of the Torah, that he listed it as the ninth of his Thirteen Principles of Faith.

Rabbi Albo, however, took the view that in the fullness of time, when we have progressed sufficiently from ancient religious practices and become more spiritually ‘sophisticated’, it is theologically feasible that G-d may then present us with a ‘new Torah’.

He writes: “There is nothing therefore to prevent us from supposing that the divine law may in the future permit some things which are forbidden now...These things were originally forbidden when the Israelites left Egypt because they were addicted to the worship of evil spirits...But when that form of worship has been forgotten, and all people worship G-d, and the reason for the prohibition will cease, it may be that G-d will again permit it...I see no evidence nor necessity, from Maimonides’ arguments, that the immutability or eternity  of the law should be a fundamental principle of Judaism...”[1]

“When He gave the Torah He knew that the law would suffice for a time period which would be required to prepare the recipients and allow them to develop until they would be ready to receive the second regimen...”[2]

Rabbi Albo shows how, with time, G-d has already changed some things. G-d, he says, even at the beginning of the Torah permitted Noah to eat meat, something which had previously been forbidden.

Thus, according to Rabbi Albo, there do already exist some precedents which show that the Torah is not unchangeable.

This view, however comes with a very important and critical theological caveat which cannot be overlooked: 

The Albo explains that while Moshe gave us the Torah, and while we will never have another prophet greater than Moshe, it follows that no human can ever nullify Moshe’s Torah – but that does not preclude the possibility of G-d Himself who certainly can change the Torah if He deems it necessary.[4]

The only exception to this would be the Ten Commandments, which since given directly by G-d could never be repealed.


1)      Rabbi Avin bar Kahana says: “ ‘A new Torah will emerge from Me. New Laws will emerge from Me’, says G-d.”[5]

2)      According to Yalkut Shimoni; “G-d will sit...and expound a new Torah which will be given through Mashiach.”[6]

3)      “The Torah which one learns in this world ‘is vanity’ by comparison to the Torah of Mashiach.”[7]


According to Kabbalah, the idea of some degree of change within the Torah structure, is not foreign at all.
The 13th century mystical work, Sefer HaTemunah, writes that creation is renewed every seven thousand years. During the change of cycle, the very letters of the Torah get rearranged to make new words which are appropriate to the new era. In this sense, the Torah remains eternal in its ‘inner’ form while its ‘external manifestation’ undergoes change.[8]

(Sadly this doctrine was exploited by Shabbetai Tzvi who claimed that a new era had begun and that therefore ‘the abrogation of the Torah is its fulfilment’.)


A unique and scholarly argument defending the concept of a ‘new Torah’ was put forth by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (paraphrase):

According to Rambam: “The Mashiach, who will descend from David will be a greater genius than Solomon and a great prophet approaching that of Moses, and he will teach all humanity the way of G-d.”[9]

While this statement of Rambam appears to allude to a possible ‘new Torah’, it seems to contradict another statement of his that; “It is no longer the prerogative of a prophet to introduce a new part of the Torah.”

However, it is no longer a contradiction if one acknowledges that the essence of the ‘new Torah’ will be found hidden within the Torah of Moshe.

The only problem is that the ability to extract this ‘new Torah’ will be so profound that no man will be able to accomplish this. Only G-d will be able to do this.

It is for this reason that Rambam stresses that Mashiach will be both ‘great prophet’ and ‘great genius’ – because being a ‘great prophet’, G-d will reveal to him the ‘new Torah’ - and being a ‘great genius’, he will then be able to teach this profound ‘new Torah’ to all humanity.

Another reason why Mashiach will have to be a ‘genius greater than Solomon’ is because he will have to explain to the reconvened High Court in Jerusalem how the new innovations do in fact comply with Torah law as they know it.

In this sense the ‘new Torah’ will be well rooted within ‘the laws learned through tradition’.[10]

Thus, Mashiah would have to be the greatest genius and scholar ever to have existed in order to convince a reluctant establishment that the ‘new Torah’ (as revealed by G-d to him) has its roots and therefore authenticity in the Torah of Moshe.

[1] Sefer HaIkkarim, Maamar Three, Ch. 16
It’s interesting to see that this view seems to be contradicted by an earlier statement in the Albo’s same book: “It is incumbent upon everyone who professes the Law of Moses' to believe that the Torah will never be repealed nor changed…”  (See Maamar One, Ch. 23)
[2] Ibid. p. 115
[3] Another example he brings is the commandment to count the first month (which we now call Nissan) as the beginning of year. This was to remind the people of the centrality of the Exodus narrative. But when the Jews, centuries later, found themselves in the Babylonian exile, they gave the months Babylonian names, and no longer referred to them by number. When they emerged from that exile they continued to refer to the months by their Babylonian names in contradiction to the Torah command. They did this to replace the remembrance of redemption from Egypt with the new remembrance of redemption from Babylon.
It’s also interesting to see that according to Shaarei Yashar by Rabbi Shimon Shkop (Sha’ar 5 perek 1) the concept of legal ownership is described as being a social concept, not a Torah concept. (I thank Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein for pointing this out to me).
[4] Ibid. ch. 19
There is, however, some discussion as to what would be the case if the same conditions of the Sinai revelation could be matched or beaten by an overwhelming public gathering of over 600 000 people who hear G-d speaking directly to them.
The Albo suggests that; “The opinion of the Rabbis is that there will be such an own opinion is that since this does not necessarily flow from an interpretation of the biblical verses, it is more proper to say that this matter depends on the will of G-d.”  (Ibid. p. 180)
[5] Vayikra Rabbah 13:3 This is in reference to a slaughtering (of the Shor Habor by the Levaithan) to take place in future times which is completely contrary to the halachik process as we know it today.
It should be pointed out that according to Maharatz Chayes and Eitz Yosef, this does not refer to a ‘new Torah’ but rather to a hora’at sha’a or temporary halachik exception or dispensation appropriate only to one particular time. (I thank Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein for this clarification.)
[6] Isaiah, Remez 429
[7] Kohelet Rabbah 11:7
[8]To a lesser degree, while generally we never rule in halachik matters according to the Kabbalah, it is well known that Chassidim who follow the mystical view, often do rule according to it. This creates scenarios that are sometimes at variance to the norms of their mainstream counterparts, and may be seen as ‘spiritual innovation’. 

[9] Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 9:2
[10] Based on a Sicha of Second day Shavuot 5751.

Sunday 8 May 2016



The great 15th century Spanish rationalist and philosopher, Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), distilled Jewish creed down to a mere three Principles of Faith. As a result, he made it almost impossible for even liberal thinkers to be theological outsiders to Jewish faith. 

His philosophical value system resulted in probably the most accepting and inclusive framework of belief to be found within Torah Judaism.


Rabbi Yosef Albo was born in the town of Monreal del Campo which is in the province of Aragon, a landlocked region of north-eastern Spain. His teacher was Chasdai Crescas[1] who in turn was a student of the Ran[2].

In 1413 the Albo was elected, together with twenty other officials, to represent and lead the Jewish community in a forced public debate between Christianity and Judaism. This debate or polemic, which lasted for seven months, was called for by the Antipope, Benedict XIII[3].  

The elected official representing the Christian delegation was a Jewish convert to Christianity, Geronimo de Santa Fe, whose original name was Joshua Lorki[4]. He had the support of seventy cardinals and archbishops together with about a thousand other high ranking Christian clerics.  During the proceedings, hundreds of Jews were led into the hall and were made to declare themselves as faithful converts to the Church.

The Christian delegation proposed that Jews must keep the Sabbath on Sunday instead of Saturday. Rabbi Albo responded that; “the Shabbat Mitzvah was adhered to by Jesus and all his disciples, but three hundred years after Jesus died one pope (Sylvester 1, 314-335) altered the tradition and ordered that they should keep Sunday instead of Saturday.”[5]

This polemic must have been extremely difficult for Rabbi Albo. The terrible anti-Semitic pogroms of 1391 were still fresh in the memories of all present (almost half of the Jews of Spain converted to Christianity after this persecution), and he certainly did not want another pogrom to be unleashed on account of him.

To add to the tension, there was also a resurgence of internal controversies within the Jewish community itself between the rationalists and the mystics. Each school held the other responsible for the calamities that befell the Jewish people at that time, and this only served to complicate matters further.

Eventually, internal politics within the Christian community overshadowed the Jewish issue and the Church Council of Constance declared (Pope) Benedict to be a “withered branch of the Church that has been chopped off.”[6]


Rabbi Albo’s Sefer HaIkkarim (Book of ‘Principles’) was not originally written as we have it today. At first he only wrote what he later referred to as Part One, but after receiving much criticism he decided to elaborate upon it. In his Introduction to Part Two, the Albo criticises his critics by suggesting they had taken his words out of context. He also expounds upon the principles of fair and accurate criticism.  

The main contribution of the Ikkarim, was to reduce the Jewish ‘Principles of Belief’ to just three in number. This was in contrast to Rambam who, two hundred years earlier, presented his famous Thirteen Principles of Faith.[7] It further differed from that of Albo’s teacher, Chasdai Crescas, who presented Six Principles of Faith. (There is even another model advocating that there are twenty six Principles.[8])

The Albo’s three Principles of Faith are:

1)      Belief in existence of G-d.
2)      Belief in revelation (of Torah from G-d to man).
3)      Belief in divine justice (reward and punishment).[9]

His technical terminology is rather novel in that he speaks about ikkarim or primary roots, followed by shorashim or secondary roots, followed in turn by anafim or branches. This language is significant because it is analogous to a real tree, where primary roots are essential, secondary roots are important but branches may be cut off if necessary without damaging the rest of the tree.

Thus he establishes an important hierarchy of defining parameters, within which a believer can operate with much latitude, yet still be considered part of the Torah community.
This must have been his greatest contribution for which he is little recognized and acknowledged.


While belief in Messiah is critical to most other ‘Principle systems’, in Albo’s scheme it is merely an anaf or ‘branch’ which if removed does not damage the rest of the tree. So, according to him, Judaism does not stand or fall on the Messiah issue. This is but one example of how Rabbi Albo is radically liberal compared to his counterparts.

Some contend that the reason he is so compromising on the Messiah question is because of his direct and unsettling experience of polemics with zealous Christian authorities.  He felt the need to undo some of Rambam’s theology particularly with regard to the Messiah concept (which ironically was promoted by Rambam to show how different the Jewish concept of Messiah was compared to the Christian interpretation of Messiah. For the same reason Rambam was a great advocate of non-corporeality). 

The problem was that now Rambam’s Messiah concept was used by the church against the Jews who were threatened with pogroms and forced conversions because of it. This may have been the reason why Rabbi Albo regarded Messiah as a mere ‘branch’ and not a ‘root’, making the point that Judaism is not absolutely predicated on belief in the Messiah.

The Albo writes: “The belief in the advent of the Messiah, which is a special principle according to Maimonides, is in our opinion not a principle at all...for the Christians too regard it as a principle ... it is indeed a special principle to them for their law cannot be conceived without it.”[10]
“Rabbi Hillel did not believe in the coming of the Messiah at all, and if despite this he was not classified as an unbeliever, it is because the dogma of the Messiah is not a fundamental principle of the Law of Moses, as Maimonides thinks.”[11]


Another surprising but significant omission from his Principles is creation ex nihilo.
“Creation of the world out of nothing is a dogma which it behoves every one professing a divine law to believe, though it is not a fundamental principle of divine law.”[12]


The centrality of Moshe is also called into question as a fundamental principle:

“We did not include the superiority of Moses as a prophet among the principles, primary or secondary, as Maimonides did...”[13]  


It should be pointed out that the Albo did not intend to encourage his readers not to believe in Messiah or in creation or in the centrality of Moshe – he simply maintained that these and other concepts were not spiritual ‘deal breakers’.

In fact, non-belief in many of these concepts would still be regarded as negatives for which some form of teshuvah (repentance) may be required, but they would never carry the weight of a charge of heresy.

The Albo says: “A person who violates a commandment of the Torah is called a transgressor...but he is not excluded from those who profess the Torah , and is not regarded as a denier of the Torah who has no share in the world to come...If we would count specific commandments as dogmas, we should have as many principles as there are commandments...None of the specific commandments of the Torah should regarded as principles...(even) the duty to worship G-d alone, which is in Maimonides’ list, should not be counted as a principle...for it is a specific command...Hence a person who violates it is not a denier of the Torah...though he be guilty of a grave sin.” [14]


The Albo’s view on prayer is also nonconventional.  Instead of seeing prayer as a means of ‘changing’ G-d’s mind, he saw it as a means of changing the status of the person who is praying.     (‘Changing’ G-d’s mind would impinge on his fourth shorash describing G-d as a perfect being.) Once the person is elevated through prayer his perception or even his reality may change, but it is he not G-d who changes.[15]


Similar to his understanding of the mechanics of prayer, the Albo also describes the concept of repentance. In his view, the person is elevated through his repentance to a different level from the one he was at when he sinned. In this sense his ‘identity’ has changed and therefore is no longer susceptible to retribution as he is no longer the same person who committed the transgression.[16]


Rabbi Albo’s ideas were so popular and widespread that when his Ikkarim were published in 1485, they were amongst the very first works of Torah literature ever to be printed. This shows the high regard the people had towards his writings.

It also speaks to the idea of earlier generations being subliminally more receptive to a spiritual approach of inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

This is in sharp distinction from today where his philosophy may be considered too inclusive, and perhaps therefore his work has been relegated to a place of less importance.

[1] Rabbi Chasdai ben Yehudah Crescas (1340-1411), philosopher and halachist, who together with Rambam Ralbag and Albo championed the rationalist approach to Judaism.
[2] Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona (1320-1376), one of the last great Spanish talmudists and a halachic authority. He was also a physician, astronomer and opponent of Jewish mysticism. 
[3] An Antipope is one who opposes the elected Pope and claims instead to be the Bishop of Rome and leader of the Catholic Church. An Antipope usually has a significant following due to his compelling claim to authority.
[4] Geronimo had studied Talmud and happened to be the personal doctor of (Pope) Benedict XIII.
[5] See Vikuach R. Yosef Albo, Otzar Vikuchim, Eisenstein, p.115.
[6] See Council of Constance 1414-18.
[7] It’s interesting to see that Abarbanel held that Rambam believed that only the first five Principles were fundamental to Jewish belief, and that the last eight were only meant for the masses who innately felt a need to believe in such things. See

[8] See Yesodot HaMaskil, by Rabbi Yom Tov ben Bila (also 14th century), published in Sefer Divre Hakamim (1849).

[9] The first ikkar (primary root) has four shorashim (secondary roots). The second has three and the third has one. Making a total of 3 ikkarim and 8 shorashim. Thus:

i)Belief in G-d: 1. G-d’s unity. 2. G-d’s incorporeality.  3. G-d’s independence of time. 4. G-d’s perfection.

ii)Belief in revelation: 1. G-d’s knowledge of all things. 2. Prophecy. 3. The genuineness of the divine messenger.

iii)Belief in divine justice: 1. Providence.

[10] Maamar HaRishon, Husik p. 65.
[11] Ibid. p. 47.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid. p. 132.
[14] Ibid p.124
[15] See Treatise 4, ch.16-18.
[16] See Treatise 4, ch.27.