Sunday 26 December 2021

364) Who should lead – the rabbis or the representatives of the people?


Ateret Zekeinim (Crown of the Elders): Abravanel's first main work defending the negative image of the biblical elders.

Part 1


There is a fundamental difference of opinion between Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204) and Abravanel (1437-1508) as to who is entitled to lead the Jewish people. According to Rambam, it is Moshe (or the relative equivalent in subsequent generations, which we shall refer to as the “rabbis”); and according to Abravanel, it is the representatives of the people (which we shall refer to as the “elders”).

This article is based extensively on the research by Cedric Cohen-Skalli[1] although the adaptation of this debate to modern times is my own.

Sunday 19 December 2021

363) Trying to define the theology of Abravanel



The length, breadth and depth of classical rabbinic thought continues to fascinate and intrigue me unabatedly. One such rabbinic figure is that of Abravanel (1437-1508), who, the more one reads about, the more complicated a personality he becomes.

We noted in an earlier article that Abravanel is difficult to define as being either a rationalist or a mystic as he seems to vacillate between the two approaches. This article, based extensively on research by Professor Eric Lawee[1], explores Abravanel’s complexity even further.

Sunday 12 December 2021

362) Between Talmudic and Academic Academies

Rabbi Dr Binyamin Lau - a man straddling both worlds of Talmudic and Academic Judaism. 


Is Torah study like drawing water from a well, involving a preoccupation only with a set group of ideas laid down by earlier authorities – or is it like a spring, with space for a constant flow of new ideas? This article, based extensively on the research by Rabbi Dr Binyamin Lau[1], explores the question of whether or not only old or precedented material qualifies as Torah study.

Two Talmudic scholars; two different approaches

 The tractate Avot records a debate as to which of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s disciples was the most esteemed: R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (described as the בּוֹר סוּד, orplastered well” who only drew from earlier sources) or R. Elazar ben Arach (described as the מַעְיָן הַמִתְגַבֵּר, anever-flowing spring”.)?[2]

The plastered or cemented well only allows what it already contains to be drawn from it, while the ever-flowing spring simply becomes the means through which new material constantly emerges.

Sunday 5 December 2021

361) What Can't be Said: Social Engagement in the Torah World


"Microphone" by visual.dichotomy is licensed under CC BY 2.0 


The internet crowd has been busy of late grappling with the question of how - or if - the exchange of information should be controlled. Should anyone be free to publish anything, anywhere? Is there an objective way to define things like "harmful misinformation" and even "truth" and "lies" so that filters could be applied fairly?

This post (which also appears on my Substack publication, B'chol Darchecha) will not address those questions, but they were its inspiration. So I'd like to explore how Torah law and practice might address the matter of free speech. How, in other words, citizens committed to Torah values might come to interact with each other. In a way, this post continues on from my Who Makes Decisions for a Jewish Community piece: that one deals with communal authority, while we're now going to think about whether that authority can be brought to bear on the way we share ideas with our peers.

Sunday 28 November 2021

360) Why was The Guide For The Perplexed intended to be a secret document?





Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) places tremendous importance on the meaning and usage of words. He dedicates major sections of his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For The Perplexed[1]) to explain how words are used in the Torah. He believed that most of the rabbinic world during his time misunderstood and misrepresented many basic words, especially those used in relation to G-d. Yet, for some reason, he also wanted this writing to remain hidden. This article explores some readings selected from early sections of the Moreh Nevuchim.

Sunday 21 November 2021

359) Is Torah Statutory Law or Common Law?



Are our modern perceptions of both secular and Halachic law responsible for the way we view the laws contained within the Torah? This article is based extensively on the writings of Rabbi Dr Joshua Berman[1], a professor of Tanach at Bar-Ilan University. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks refers to him as “one of the most original biblical scholars of our time.” Berman presents an interesting approach that allows one to understand how Law, in general, functioned in the Ancient Near East - and in fact, up to recent times. Although he does show theoretical rabbinic precedent, some may find his method theologically challenging while others may find it enlightening.

Sunday 14 November 2021

358) Why the Insatiable Need for Magic?



At what point does religion end and magic begin? Many of the magical activities and beliefs of some of the sages are, as we shall see, quite surprising. Have some religious practices become inherently magical, or is something declared “magic” only when performed (or believed) by the “other”, even if it is identical to ours? This article is extensively based on the research by Professor J H (Yossi) Chajes[1] who has opened up important vistas into the extent of Jewish magic.

Sunday 7 November 2021

357) Tehillim as a Rebellion against the Monarchy

                                       Political and Theological tensions in the Siddur


In this article, I propose that the early to central section of the Shacharit (morning prayer) service, known as Pesukei Dezimra - incorporated into the Siddur (prayer book)  only at around the 10th to 11th centuries - was related to the decline and eventual demise of the office of the Reish Galuta (Exilarch), occurring at that time. The Reish Galuta had overwhelming religious, political and social powers, indeed mirroring the status of a Jewish king. The general tenor of the Pesukei Dezimra (essentially comprising the last six psalms of Sefer Tehillim) is one of rebellion against, and minimising the role of, the monarchy and drawing focus, instead, towards a divine Kingship. In other words, it was a reaction against human intervention and intercession in a theology that was supposed to be monotheistic.

Simply put, this is an attempt at answering why it was that specifically the last six psalms of Sefer Tehillim were chosen to be inserted into an already well-established Siddur, at that late juncture in history. Was it a “re-enactment” of why those types of psalms were instituted in the first place when the parallel and original biblical monarchy was also in decline?

Although I do draw on previous scholarship (in Part I), this hypothesis (in Part II) is my own and any shortcomings or inaccuracies are entirely my own.

Sunday 31 October 2021

356) Tehillim as therapy?



I recall some years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe asked a number of religious psychologists to research Jewish mysticism and develop a “kosher” form of meditation for observant Jews. In this article, based extensively on Brent Strawn’s research[1] on psychology and psalms, we explore the possibility of using Tehillim as a personal form of spiritual therapy.

Attachment Theory

Since earlier times, Biblical psychology was generally synonymous with systemic theology (the theology of any given religious system). Today, we can be a little more universal and use modern psychology by applying it to biblical texts, including Tehillim.

Sunday 24 October 2021

355) R. Moshe Ibn Gigatila: The Psalms are just prayers



In the previous post, The Psalms are not prayers, we saw how Rav Saadia Gaon held the unusual view that psalms may not be used as prayers and that, like the Torah itself they are meant only to be studied but not prayed. Psalms are not liturgy. According to Rav Saadia, the psalms were used as a strictly controlled and regulated ritual during Temple times, but never as liturgy (supplications or prayers). On this view, the psalms were never an ‘early prayer book’ as was claimed by the Karaite Jews. It is believed that Rav Saadia formulated his unusual and limited view on the function of the psalms, in reaction to the Karaites, who had rejected the Rabbanite siddur and used the psalms as their prayer book instead.

In this article, however, based extensively on the work by Professor Uriel Simon[1], we explore another unusual view of the psalms. This is the view held by R. Moshe Ibn Gigatila, who believed that that the psalms are indeed prayers - but nothing more than prayers. And because they are just prayers, they are not profoundly holy nor do they carry any prophetic or spiritually subliminal innuendo.

Sunday 17 October 2021

354) Rav Saadia Gaon: The Psalms are not prayers





Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) was a philosopher and biblical exegete born in Egypt and died in Baghdad during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate. He had some rather interesting views about the origins of the psalms in that he adopted a fundamentalist approach claiming that the five books of psalms served as a ‘second Torah’ revealed to David.

This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Uriel Simon[1].

Sunday 10 October 2021

353) Who Makes Decisions for a Jewish Community?


A page from the manuscript of Pitchei Teshuva by Rabbi Avraham Zvi Eisenstadt (1813-1865)


In terms of Jewish law, exactly what is a kehila (community)? Jewish residents of modern cities like London or Toronto will generally identify with each other only in the loosest of terms. Formal relationships, in non-chassidic communities at least, are usually limited to synagogues and educational institutions of various kinds. 

But it wasn’t always that way. Kehilos in Europe often submitted to the authority of a single rabbi, rabbinical court, and council. It wasn’t uncommon for consumption taxes - typically on the purchase of meat - or membership dues to finance communal services. 

A model based on direct communal responsibility is probably closer to the Torah ideal. But that begs the question: who got to choose the rabbi and his court, and whose voice determined the tax rates everyone else had to pay?

Sunday 3 October 2021

352) The Parshan, Darshan … and Sadran?

Muslim Spain at around the eleventh century 



Parshan and Darshan are terms which usually describe a Torah commentator or exegete, but who is the Sadran? The term Sadran means compiler or editor.  This is not an expression one would expect to find in the context of the Torah. This article, based extensively on the work by Professor Richard Steiner[1] from Yeshiva University explores instances where our classical texts make reference to a Sadran. Interestingly, this is one of the most peer-reviewed papers I have come upon in a long time.

Some of the texts originated in Byzantium (Constantinople) and were discovered in the Cairo Geniza and published by Nicholas de Lange. One is a midrashic commentary on Bereishit and Shemot[2], another is a peshat commentary by R. Reuel of Byzantium, on Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets. Both texts are probably from the tenth or early eleventh century and therefore pre-date Rashi (1040-1105). These different commentaries have one thing in common, they both reference an elusive Sadran or biblical ‘editor’.

Sunday 12 September 2021

351) The Conquest of the Land?



The conquest of the Land of Canaan from the seven nations and the apparent decimation of all its inhabitants, followed by its appropriation by the Israelites, raises some interesting questions. Why did Israel’s history in the land have to begin with a violent conquest? Could not the epic tradition surrounding the founding of a just and moral nation under the guidance of a just and moral G-d, be something other than a conquest that is so typical of the founding traditions of other less moral nations?

In this article, we shall explore some of the primary texts of the Tanach, and try to establish what the biblical verses themselves have to say about this conquest.

Sunday 29 August 2021

350) Messianic Parallelisms



In this article I want to show fascinating parallelism between the twelfth-century story of David Alro’i; the seventeenth-century episode of Shabbatai Tzvi; and a modern event from a completely different culture and context. By comparing these three stories, we might come to a better understanding of modern messianism which is popular within the Jewish world today. And, surprisingly, it may have a stronger component relating to basic sociology and psychology than to spirituality.

Sunday 22 August 2021



Here's another example of the innovation-heavy Tzfas mindset at work in modern Jewish life.
The way most communities perform the mitzva of shofar on Rosh Hashana is an excellent example of the spread of the Tzfas ideology and mindset. Here, based on Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 590:1, is what the Torah requires:

כמה תקיעות חייב אדם לשמוע בר"ה, תשע; לפי שנאמר: תרועה ביובל ובר"ה ג' פעמים, וכל תרועה פשוטה לפניה ופשוטה לאחריה, ומפי השמועה למדו שכל תרועות של חדש השביעי אחד הן, בין בר"ה בין ביוה"כ של יובל, תשע תקיעות תוקעין בכל אחד משניהם: תר"ת, תר"ת, תר"ת

How many tekiyos must a man hear on Rosh Hashana? Nine, for it mentions the word “terua" three times (in the passages concerning) Yovel and Rosh Hashana, and each terua must have a simple sound (i.e., tekiya) both before and after it. And from tradition we learn that all teruos during the seventh month (i.e., Tishrei) are the same…tekiya-terua-tekiya; tekiya-terua-tekiya; tekiya-terua-tekiya.

Sunday 15 August 2021




What is the view of Halachic sources regarding parents who tell their children not to mourn for them? This article is based extensively on the research by Rabbi Dr Shlomo Brody[1] from Bar Ilan University who writes that his parents did not want their children to observe mourning practices for a full year. He then set about researching the matter in Halachic sources and these are some of his findings.

NOTE: This is a purely academic exploration of various sources and is not meant as an authoritative guide. For practical purposes, as always, the reader should consult with his or her competent Halachic decisor on matters of this nature.

Sunday 8 August 2021




As we have seen in a previous article, the theology of  Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) - leader of Spanish Jewry at the time of the Expulsion in 1492 - is difficult to define and characterise.  He seems to have vacillated between rationalist and mystical ideologies, but he also had some interesting views on who wrote some of the books of the Tanach.  This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[1], deals with some of Abravanel’s views on biblical authorship.

Sunday 1 August 2021



The Regensburg Codex from around 1300.


The Regensburg Torah scroll (Ms. Jerusalem IM 180/52) was written in around 1300 and reflects some of the mystical writing practices of the German Pietists known as Chasidei Ashkenaz. Of interest is the unusual use of taggin (crownlets) that differs from our style today and other peculiarities that emphasise the mystical theology of Chasidei Ashkenaz. The Masora notes in the margins include many commentaries that clearly go beyond the usual scope of Masora notes. This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Hanna Liss[1] from the University of Heidelberg.

Saturday 24 July 2021



Did Yosef's brothers want to encourage their dogs to kill him?

                                     GUEST POST BY RABBI BARUCH CLINTON

Note: I'm unsure how to even translate the word "derush". Words like "research" or "investigation" come close, but the way it's used in Torah literature has a clear overtone suggesting greater authority. And then, as we'll see, there are two distinct ways the word is used even within the context of Torah.

What exactly is "Torah"? Are there limits to the kinds of explanations and interpretations that can reasonably be included and, by extension, connected with the Mt. Sinai revelation? It goes without saying that modern efforts to understand how Torah law (halacha) should be applied to our lives are legitimate parts of the process, as are ethical works (mussar) that are designed to inspire us to properly observe halacha. But is any derush-based interpretation automatically included? What about commentaries that claim to fill gaps in the Biblical historical record? Are they "Torah"? By what mechanism could they be included?

Monday 19 July 2021


Antikythera Mechanism from second century BCE. This was an early analog computer which could calculate positions of astronomical objects.


Much has been written about the idea that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are united under the general banner of Abrahamic faiths. This is a good thing because we would all rather live in a world where there is more harmony than disharmony and there are certainly many areas where we have much in common. However, testing the notion of Abrahamic faith from a technically theological position reveals some interesting fault lines.

This article, based extensively on the writings of Professor Jon D Levenson[1] from Harvard Divinity School, explores how differently Abraham is depicted within the three main faith groups of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


Sunday 11 July 2021


A 1767 edition of Abravanel's Mashmia Yeshua.


The Portuguese statesman and commentator R. Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) had lived through the harsh period of the Expulsion of practicing Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively. He sought to inspire his people by encouraging messianic hope in order to counter the general feelings of hopelessness and despair. Between 1496 and 1498 he wrote three messianic works: מעייני הישועה, "The Wellsprings of Salvation", a commentary on the Book of Daniel; ישועות משיחו, "The Salvation of His Anointed", an interpretation of rabbinic literature about the Messiah; משמיע ישועה, "Announcing Salvation", a commentary on the messianic prophecies in the prophetical books. These form part of the larger work entitled מגדל ישועות, "Tower of Salvation". Abravanel counts Daniel - a symbol of the messianic idea - as one of the prophets, which goes against the Talmudic and rabbinic tradition which places the book under Ketuvin (Writings) and not Nevi’im (Prophets)[1].

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[2] deals with some of these messianic ideas expressed by the so-called ‘father’ of Jewish messianic movements, Abravanel. After the Expulsion, Abravanel believed that the messianic arrival was imminent. Most of Abravanel’s messianic writings took place in the post-Expulsion period.

Generally speaking, scholars have held that Abravanel’s messianism was influential in shaping future messianic trends within Judaism, but as we shall see, Lawee points out that that assumption is not always so clear.


Sunday 4 July 2021



R. Baruch haLevi Epstein (1860-1942) is best known for his Torah commentary Torah Temima.  His father was R. Yechiel Michel Epstein of Novarodok, author of the Aruch haShulchan. R. Baruch Epstein moved to Pinsk where he remained all his life, besides for a short time he spent in America trying unsuccessfully to get a job as a rabbi. He worked as a bookkeeper. R. Epstein had studied at Volozhin Yeshivah under his uncle Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv (who later became his brother-in-law after being widowed and remarrying R. Epstein's sister[1]). He died in Pinsk during the Nazi occupation of that city, while he was a patient in the Jewish hospital which the Nazis had burned down.

Besides his Torah and other commentaries, he also wrote an autobiography entitled Mekor Baruch. Some of this work was translated into English under the title, My Uncle the Netziv. Surprisingly, this book was later banned, see Kotzk Blog: 053) Hey, Teacher Leave the Text Alone!.

This article, based extensively on the research by Don Seaman and Rebecca Kobrin[2], will examine one aspect of that autobiography, concerning R. Epstein’s aunt, Rayna Batya – the first wife of the Netziv - who was denied the Torah education she so longed for.

Sunday 27 June 2021




The Portuguese Torah commentator Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) was an interesting exegete who was not afraid to pose penetrating questions or even criticise earlier texts.

During the 1460s, Abravanel wrote to R. Yosef Hayyun (d. 1497), the rabbi of Lisbon and presented a challenging question to him:

“My question and request is whether this book of Deuteronomy was given by the Lord from heaven, and its contents are like the rest of the Torah that Moses placed before the Israelites and everything from ‘in the beginning’ through ‘in the sight of all Israel’ are the words of the living God; or whether Moses himself composed Deuteronomy in order to expound what he understood of the divine intent in the elucidation of the precepts?”[1]

In other words, was Deuteronomy essentially the work of Moshe or was the authorship of purely Divine origin?

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eran Viezel[2], deals with some of the related issues that arise from this fascinating piece of rabbinic communication.


Sunday 20 June 2021



Suzerain Vassal Treaty, as found in the British Museum, calling the sun and the moon as witnesses to land grants. These stones were often placed at the boundaries of the land indicating legal ownership.


Maimonides (1135-1204) writes that if he had access to ancient historical works, he would have had a much better understanding of the laws and institutions in the Torah. He refers, in particular to the writings of the ancient Sabians:

“I…say that the meaning of many of the laws became clear to me and their causes became known to me through my study of the doctrines, opinions, practices…of the Sabians.”[1]

However, writing over eight hundred years ago, Maimonides expresses dismay that these works were largely lost to history:

“[T]hey have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws….”[2]

The fact of the matter is that only since the time of Napoleon, have these types of writings, known as the traditions of the Ancient Near East, been discovered and analysed. We now know more about the practices of the Ancient Near East than ever before.

This article, based extensively on the writing of Rabbi Professor Joshua Berman[3], deals with an interpretation of Torah based on an understanding of the writing style of the Ancient Near East of which we now know much about. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has described Berman as “one of the most original biblical scholars of our time.”[4]


Sunday 13 June 2021



Image from The Temple Institute


In 1975 Rabbi Yitzchak Shimshon Lange published a collection of commentaries by R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1271), a leader of Chasidei Ashkenaz, entitled Commentaries on the Torah by R. Judah he-Hasid[1].

Despite the rather innocuous-sounding title, this anthology included three commentaries that suggest that certain sections of the Torah were added after the time of Moshe Rabbeinu. A fourth commentary suggests that David removed sections of poetry from the Torah and included them in his book of Psalms. All this coming from someone like R. Yehuda heChasid naturally raised some eyebrows.

In this article, based extensively but not exclusively on the research by Professor Eran Viezel[2], we examine one of these four commentaries.

Saturday 5 June 2021



A 19th century depiction of the Ten Sefirot (unknown origin).


Kabbalists always had to deal with the challenge of their seemingly multiple perceptions of G-d coming very close to a violation of the monotheistic idea of a single unity of the divine being. In this article, based extensively on the research by Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro[1], we delve into some of these perceptions in an attempt to see just how far they have sometimes gone.

Saturday 29 May 2021



 Three angels, Senoy, Sans(m)enoy and Semangelof, tasked with protecting newborn babies. 


In this article, we examine the debate between the rationalist, Maimonides (Rambam, 1135-1204), and the mystic, Nachmanides (Ramban, 1195-1270) on the nature of the angels.  Our starting point is the episode in Genesis 18 describing the “three men” who visit Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.

There are a number of questions one could ask on the basic structure of the well-known text: G-d appears to Abraham in verse 1 and the three men, apparently unrelated to the initial vision, appear in verse two. Abraham leaves G-d and attends to the men. Then verse three suddenly changes from the plural to the singular: “My lord, if I find favour with you.” And in verse thirteen, G-d unexpectantly enters the conversation asking why Sarah laughed.


Saturday 22 May 2021



Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn 1856-1935.


R. Chaim Hirschensohn (1856-1935) is another of those forgotten rabbis whose voices have been quietened and whose ideas have been, unintentionally or otherwise, overshadowed by history. This article seeks to explore some of R. Hirschensohn’s thinking and is based extensively on the research by Dr David Zohar[1] who is republishing an updated version of R. Hirschensohn's writings.

Saturday 15 May 2021



In reading rabbinic responsa literature (She’elot uTeshuvot), Halacha, and other writings, one sometimes notices a certain ambiguity. The subject matter is weighed up from all angles and then a final verdict is provided. Before reaching the final conclusion, however, one is presented with a number of options. What is the purpose of those options if the field of choice is narrowed down to only one ruling at the end?

Is it just a style of writing or,  depending on the personality of the writer, is another dynamic perhaps at play?

Some examples follow:

Sunday 9 May 2021


Ketav Ivri


If the person of faith has not lost their ability to think, they soon realise that facts sometimes get in the way of faith. What happens when faith and facts collide?

This article, based on the writing of Haggai Misgav[1] from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explores three rabbinic approaches to this question.[2]



There are two forms of Hebrew script, Ketav Ivri or Old Hebrew and Ketav Ashuri, the square script of the Hebrew we still use today. Technically, our ‘Hebrew’ script is not really Hebrew but Ashurite.

The Talmud[3] records a second century CE discussion between three rabbis about the original format of Hebrew writing:

Sunday 2 May 2021

334) Torah Institutions and the Truth




Rabbi Boruch Clinton is a regular contributor to Kotzk Blog. He is most qualified to write about Torah education and Torah institutions, having taught at both yeshiva and Bais Yakov schools for twenty years. He currently works as an information technology provider, authoring books and courses on cloud computing, technology security, server virtualization, data analytics, and Linux system administration.

 Do people running Orthodox communal institutions have a responsibility to the truth? By which I mean: is the active use of deception and misrepresentation reasonable when, say, you’re attempting to protect individual children and families from possible harms associated with school closures and pandemic-related shut downs?

The problem

Here’s what I’m talking about. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of Torah schools were faced with mandated closure alongside all the public and private schools in their city. Rather than shut down, these schools claimed to comply while, in fact, remaining effectively open in one form or another. They also issued vaguely worded communications to parents that, in plain English, suggested compliance while hinting to alternate guidance.

There is no question that remote schooling is, in nearly all cases, less effective, perhaps even disastrous. Nearly everyone agrees that children should be in school whenever possible. The issue I’ll be discussing here involves the use of deception to achieve that goal. Is such behavior within the bounds of accepted Torah tradition? And, from the perspective of a straightforward cost/benefit analysis, does it even make sense?