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.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

394) Berachia’s attempt to replace ‘Midrashic fantasy’ with ‘naturalistic rationalism’


Mishlei Shu’alim (“Fox Fables,” Hebrew Version Of Aesop’s Fables) By Berachia Ben Natronai HaNakdan.


This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Tamás Visi[1] and explores the thought of Berachia ben Natronai haNakdan who lived around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Normandy, England and Provence (southern France). Berachia bases himself on some of the more rationalist ideas of Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) and develops them further in his Sefer haChibur, Mussar, Sefer haMetzaref as well as his Dodi veNechdi (a work of twelfth-century scientific questions and answers, supposedly between an uncle and his nephew).[2]

Sunday, 31 July 2022

393) The travel bans of R. Yehuda heChasid

Travel by ship in the 12th century


This article draws extensively on the research by Dr Ahuva Liberles[1] and explores a unique path within Jewish theology (and messianic eschatology) where personal redemption is emphasised, over the more common notion of national redemption. This path, it is suggested, was championed by R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1217), a leader of the mystical group known as Chasidei Ashkenaz (or German Pietists) which flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. R. Yehuda heChasid is one of the authors of Sefer Chasidim[2] containing almost two thousand brief teachings on mystical, pietist and ascetic practices interspersed with German folk traditions. R. Yehuda heChasid’s restriction of travel is an area of scholarship that has not achieved much attention and the lacuna is filled by Liberles’ enlightening research.

Sunday, 24 July 2022

392) Causes of the Sabbatian movement: Revisiting the (unpopular) view of Gershom Scholem.


A work of Lurianic kabbalah



The Sabbatian movement, founded by the messianic claimant Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) was the largest and most influential Jewish messianic movement since Christianity.[2] Shabbatai Tzvi is one of the best-documented personalities in Jewish history,[3] yet ironically both he and his movement are perhaps the least taught topics in classes on Jewish history today.[4] During the peak of the Sabbatian movement, the majority of the Jewish population believed Shabbatai Tzvi to be the final and righteous Messiah. This sentiment was endorsed by most leading and authoritative rabbis of that period, despite revisionist attempts to later hide these facts.[5] When Shabbatai Tzvi eventually apostatized to Islam, the ma’aminim or believers as his followers were known, experienced a major crisis of faith, the effects of which many maintain are still felt today. For these reasons, scholars have always been intrigued as to what exactly led the Jewish people to accept Shabbatai Tzvi as the Jewish Messiah.

Sunday, 17 July 2022

391) Does morality come from religion or does religion adopt morality?


This is the position taken by advocates of the Strong Dependence Theory. This article argues that Judaism adopts the Weak Dependence Theory.


This article, drawn extensively on the research by Professors Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman,[1]  explores the nature and provenance of Jewish morality and ethics. I found this particularly interesting because, like most rabbis, I had always thought (and taught) that morality springs from G-d. This seemed obvious. However, Sagi and Statman show that foundational rabbinic sources point to an autonomous and independent existence of morality very much defined by humans, which is then adopted by G-d as the model for Judaism.

Sunday, 10 July 2022

390) A History of Torah Observance: The widespread rejection of Judaism is certainly tragic. But is it unusual?

Photo by Federico Di Dio photography on Unsplash

A Guest post by Rabbi Boruch Clinton

Some appear to assume that the current state of Jewish observance - where only a small minority of Jews are Torah-loyal - is an historical anomaly. The centuries and millennia preceding the European Enlightenment, so the thinking goes, saw more or less universal halachic compliance, and it was only through a combination of hostile external and internal 18th Century forces that we lost most of our population.

But I'm not sure that's true. First of all, mass defections seem to have been common through most periods of Jewish history. And second, Jewish life could hardly be considered "settled" during the early modern period (c. 1450-1800) that preceded the Enlightenment. In other words, while things may not be great right now, I'm not sure they were ever all that much better. There has always been free will and bad choices have always been an option.

Sunday, 3 July 2022

389) Morality and the question of rabbis who fled the holocaust



This article is based extensively on the research by Isaac Hershkowitz which he conducted while preparing his PhD dissertation.[1] It deals with the morality of rabbis and Chassidic rebbes who left their communities and reached Budapest in 1943-4 just before the Nazi takeover and escaped the holocaust. Some used Aliyah certificates for Palestine despite their long-standing opposition to Zionism.

Sunday, 26 June 2022

388) The Sword of Moshe: Adjuring “אהיו פסקתיה”



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Yuval Harari from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, examines the book Charva de Moshe (Sword of Moses), one of two ancient magical works[1] to have survived from antiquity.[2] It is based on the notion that Moshe brought a sword down from heaven and is said to have used its ‘magic’ to accomplish supernatural deeds. This work gives a fascinating insight into how people believed the structure of the heavenly realms operated, and more importantly, how they could be easily manipulated by a skilful practitioner.

Sunday, 19 June 2022

387) The Apocalyptists and the rise of a supernatural Messiah

The small dagger known as a sica.


This article is based on the research by Professor Solomon (Shneur Zalman) Zeitlin (1886-1976) considered to have been a leading authority on the Second Temple period.[1] Although a sequel to the previous article, it can be read independently. We trace the origins of the idea of a supernatural Messiah within Judaism. A supernatural Messiah is only mentioned for the first time in the late Apocalyptic literature[2] of the Second Temple period, and in the New Testament (Zeitlin 1979:103). Both these works of literature are far from normative rabbinic Judaism, so how, then, did the idea of a supernatural Messiah become so entrenched within Judaism? To answer this question, we must look to the political and spiritual conditions during and just after the Second Temple period.

Sunday, 12 June 2022

386) The difference between Mashiach then and Mashiach now.

A fragment of Ben Sira as found in the Cairo Geniza

This article attempts to understand whether the idea of the Messiah as it originated in early biblical times, differs from its current conception. I have drawn extensively from the research by Professor Solomon (Shneur Zalman) Zeitlin (1886-1976) considered to have been a leading authority on the Second Temple period.[1]

NOTE TO READER: The Mashiach concept is always a very emotive and sensitive issue. If, like me, you were raised in the belief that Mashiach, as we understand the popularist concept today, has always been part of Judaism since time immemorial, you might find this article disquieting. I am fascinated by the robust approach of scholars (which whom I may, or may not, always agree with) to try and understand the fundamentals of our faith, history and hashkafa  - but I know this approach is not for everyone.

Monday, 6 June 2022

385) Civil Infrastructure and a Torah State


How should a Jewish state manage the mundane tasks involved with administering daily life?

This article also appeared on the B'chol D'rachecha publication

For any complex modern society, keeping the lights on and the chaos at bay is no simple job. Imagining how the Torah would expect us to handle things is not only an interesting daydream, but a question of immediate and practical concern for many growing communities - especially in Israel.

Sunday, 29 May 2022

384) A rare glimpse into the critical mind of a Chassidic Rebbe – Yitzchak Nachum Twersky.


R. Yitzchak Nachum Twersky of Shpikov (1888-1942)

Samson Kemelmakher - SHTETELE BELTZ - Yiddish Song - Bing video


R. Yitzchak Nachum Twersky of Shpikov (1888-1942) from the Chassidic lineage of Chernobyl, had an unusual critical perspective of the Chassidic world during the early 20th century. Shpikov is now known as Shpykiv, in present-day Ukraine. I have drawn extensively from the work of Professor David Asaf[1] who has researched a letter written by R. Yitzchak Nachum Twersky, which has become a most compelling document in Chassidic history.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

383) Traces of a messianic feminist revolution in Chabad ideology



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert (1945-2020)[1] traces the evolution of women within Chabad thought. While some leaders within the contemporary Chareidi and Chassidic world are not permitting women to drive, and are obscuring women’s faces in media publications, the views emanating from the last Chabad Rebbe are rather enlightening.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

382) Is "holy sin" a bad theology?


Yitav Lev is an acronym for Yekutiel Yehudah (Zalman Leib) Teitelbaum of Sziget, known as the  (1808–83). 


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Benjamin Brown[1] deals with the paradoxical idea of “holy sin” or “aveirah lishma”- where sometimes it is considered a mitzvah to sin - as found in some kabbalistic and Chassidic thought.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

381) Midrashic sources referring to the actual sacrifice of Isaac?


The reader is cautioned not to regard this article as historiography but rather as an analysis of various modern and ancient readings of the biblical story of the Akeidah, where Abraham was ‘tested’ to see if he was willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to G-d. We shall investigate two very different, if not antithetical systems of biblical study - one the modern Documentary Hypothesis also known as Biblical Criticism, and the other, certain older traditional Midrashic sources. Surprisingly we find some degree of synergy between these disparate systems when it comes to the question of what happened to Isaac after the Akeidah.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

380) Appropriating penitence?



This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Talya Fishman,[1] explores the origins of the extreme teshuvah, or penitential practices of the Chassidei Ashkenaz (also known as the German=Ashkenaz Pietists). This intensely ascetic, pietist and mystical movement was founded by R. Yehuda HeChassid and flourished in Germany and France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Were some of their self-punishing penitential practices appropriated from the surrounding Christian culture or were they purely of Jewish origin - or somewhere in between?

Sunday, 10 April 2022

379) Dealing with a Talmudic view that there is “No Messiah for Israel”


The Babylonian Talmud, particularly, is authoritatively quoted as the foundational text to support and bolster almost any argument within Jewish law and theology. But what happens when a talmudic view seems to fly in the face of principles that are held as true, fundamental and essential to the very faith itself? A case in point is the statement by R. Hillel that “There is no Messiah for Israel”:

R. Hillel says: ‘There is no Messiah [coming] for Israel, as they [the prophesies relating to the Messiah] were already fulfilled during the days of Hezekiah’. Said R. Joseph [in response]: 'May R. Hillel's Master forgive him! When did Hezekiah live? In the time of the first Temple. Yet Zechariah, prophesying during the time of the second Temple, said: "Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion, shout, daughter of Jerusalem; behold, your king comes unto you”’[1]  (b. Sanhedrin 99a).

Sunday, 3 April 2022

378) The first Yiddish translation of Rashi’s Commentary – outreach, business venture, or disingenuous?


Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Semangelaf in Rashi?


In 1560, a Yiddish Chumash (liturgical Hebrew Bible) was printed in Cremona, Italy, the city later to become famous for its Stradivarius violins. The edition was produced by Yehuda ben Moshe Naftali, known as Leb Bresch, and it included the first published Yiddish translation of Rashi’s Torah commentary. Yiddish Chumashim were known as “Teitch[1] Chumashim”. I draw extensively on the research by Professor Edward Fram from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Sunday, 27 March 2022

377) Early Jewish Messiahs and their movements

Rambam's Letter to Yemen

In this article, we look at some of the early Jewish messianic claimants and their movements, of which there have been many throughout history.

Judaism is well-known for its rejection of the Christian Messiah, yet it embraced numerous other messianic claimants and developed an intricate and complicated relationship with messianism. With the current resurge in messianism in the Jewish world in general and in movements like Chabad in particular, it may come as a surprise that this rejuvenation is nothing new. We see that throughout Jewish history there has always been the belief held by significant numbers of the population, that we were on the cusp of the great eschatological event heralding the imminent arrival of an identifiable and righteous Messiah.

Sunday, 20 March 2022

376) Babylonian influences behind the Mourner’s Kaddish

The first mention of mourners reciting Kaddish is found in the 13th century Or Zarua


Most discussions on the origins of the Mourner’s Kaddish as we know it today, only begin from around the twelfth century in Germany. It was there that the Kaddish - which had existed from much earlier times although not necessarily relating to mourning - was finally institutionalised as mourning ritual.

This article, based on the research by Professor David Brodsky[1], traces the development of the now widespread custom of reciting Kaddish for beloved ones who have passed away, and explores where the idea originates that a child can ‘redeem’ a deceased parent.  

Saturday, 12 March 2022

375) New research on Maharal of Prague


Maharal is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetary in Prague


There has been a recent resurge of interest in R. Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal (Moreinu haRav Loew) of Prague (1520/5-1609). His legacy has been largely veiled by legend. However, the study of some hitherto unknown, unpublished or neglected manuscripts in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, by Professor Pawel Sladek[1] upon whose research I have drawn, may shed some light on his “intellectual biography”.

Sunday, 6 March 2022

374) Stagnation in the inquiry into reasons for the commandments


 R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, El Rab d'España (The Rabbi of Spain) 1235-1310.


It is sometimes of great benefit to view theological ideas and concepts within their historical context. This way, one would not mistakenly think that the idea or concept has always been there since antiquity. So, for example, when it comes to the notion of ta’amei hamitzvot, or reasons for the commandments - whatever one’s personal view on the matter is - it does help to realise that it was only as late as around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that the idea developed that the reasons for the mitzvot are beyond human comprehension. Until that time, it was quite common for rabbis to give rational or logical reasons for the mitzvot. But then the theology changed and the preferred approach became one of ‘transcendence’ whereby the reasons behind the Torah’s commandments were considered beyond human comprehension.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

373) Kabbalah – a product of the East or West?


Jews and Sufis shared music traditions


Kabbalah, until just a few decades ago, was generally understood in as originating within a Eurocentric context. It was believed to have emerged essentially from centres like Italy, Provence (southern France), Germany and Spain. In scholarly circles, this was the result particularly of the work by Gershom Scholem,[1] who was convinced of Gnostic origins to Kabbalah: He writes that it is:

surprising that the [Kabbalistic][2] doctrine…was deeply related to Gnosticism, but such are the dialectics of history” (Scholem 1941:286).

Sunday, 20 February 2022

372) R. Yitzchak Arama and the subtle demise of Jewish rationalism



Many people, including rabbis, are surprised to discover that the concept of a rationalist Maimonidean Judaism exists. Maimonides’ thought is not the Maimonides of the Mishna Torah compiled around 1180 which many are familiar with (and which, by Maimonides’ own description, was just his summary of the Talmud) - but rather the philosophical Maimonides of the Moreh Nevuchim or Guide of the Perplexed, compiled later in 1190. The personal hashkafa or worldview of Rambam can only be seen in the latter work. Although Rambam passed away about eighty years before the Zohar was first published in 1290, he presented a strong rationalist worldview and deeply opposed the mystical thought that was brewing during his lifetime. The mystics repressed his rationalist ideology during the following few centuries when Kabbalah became dominant (and they continue to do so today), and his rationalist thought was essentially eradicated from Judaism.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

371) ‘Tikla’ and the zoharic concept that sin can bring redemption


The potter's wheel gives shape to a lump of clay.


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel[1] as well as Rabbi Moshe Miller[2], deals with the fascinating yet paradoxical notion in the Zohar of sin as a harbinger or precursor of redemption. The discussion revolves around the Aramaic word Tikla, which appears on two occasions in the Zohar.[3]

Sunday, 6 February 2022

370) Did the Mitnagdim create a counterpart to the Chasidic model of a Rebbe?


Yoreh Deah with Biur haGra


Mitnagdim, or opponents of the Chasidic movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov in the early eighteenth century, have generally emerged relatively unscathed by accusations of exaggerated veneration of their Mitnagdic rabbinic leaders.[1] This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Alan Nadler[2] explores the notion of a Mitnagdic counterpart to the Chasidic model of veneration of their rebbes.

‘Decline of the generations’ (Yeridat hadorot) - the Mitnagdic argument against Chasidism

Sunday, 30 January 2022

369) Menachem Tziyoni’s kabbalistic writings on demonology


Sefer Tziyoni, Korets, 1785.


This article, following the theme of the previous post, further pursues the notion of demonology within Kabbalistic theology. I have drawn extensively upon the research by Professor Boaz Huss[1], a leading contemporary scholar in Kabbalah. This brief study will show just how far into the occult the mystical tradition is sometimes prepared to go.

Sunday, 23 January 2022

368) Ramban and his surprising references to ‘necromancy’


Ramban's Commentary on the Torah form an edition printed in Lisbon in 1489
(Marsh's Library Exhibits, accessed January 23, 2022,


Ramban (Nachmanides 1194-1270), known as the ‘father’ of Kabbalah, was a Spanish born rabbi from Girona, whose Catalan name was Bonastruc ça Porta (Mazal tov at the gate). This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Reimund Leicht[1] from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as Professor Dov Schwartz[2] from Bar Ilan University, deals with Ramban’s unusual usage of the word נגרמונסיא, or ‘necromancy’, which occurs four times[3] in his Commentary on the Torah. “Necromancy” is defined as “the act of communication with the dead in order to discover what is going to happen in the future”.[4] Although Ramban does not necessarily follow this exact technical definition of the term, he has some very interesting views on magic, idolatry, demons and astrology.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

367) The “Shevartzeh Chaseneh” or Black Wedding

 The Yizkhor bukh fun der Zhelekhover yidisher kehileh (Chicago, 1953) shows a Black Wedding taking place in Zelechów during the time of the Holocaust.

This article explores the very strange practice of performing a Shevartzeh Chaseneh or Black Wedding at a Jewish cemetery. It entailed the conducting of a legal wedding ceremony between two people in the belief that such an event would appease the dead to intercede on behalf of the community and halt a crisis such as a typhus epidemic. I have drawn extensively upon the writings of Hanna Wegrzynek[1] who has researched this very strange yet quite common phenomenon and has traced it roots and origins.

Sunday, 9 January 2022

366) Changing perceptions of the “other”


This manuscript is of the Hebrew translation from the original Arabic Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Samuel Ibn Tibbon (died c. 1230). It was produced in Spain, around 1350. 


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1], examines various perspectives of the “other” in the writings of Maimonides and traces how these teachings were sometimes changed by later editors who attempted to “correct” the original Maimonidean texts. Kellner (2007:1) explains that the reason why later editors and copyists were keen to change the original Maimonidean texts was “to pull the sting of their universalism and make them accord with more widely accepted notions of Jewish separateness and superiority”.

Sunday, 2 January 2022

365) Leniencies in conversion or stringencies in avoiding assimilation?



The discussion on conversion to Judaism has once again assumed a position of centre stage within Israeli and Jewish politics. This article explores a number of approaches as articulated by Professor Richard Hidary from Yeshiva University[1] in Part I; as well as some recent writings by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, author of the Peninei Halacha series[2] in Part II.