Sunday 14 April 2024

469) Examining an unpublished manuscript of the Zohar

 Part 2


A hitherto unknown manuscript of the Zohar was found in the Vatican Library. It tells the story of R. Yosi and R Aba going on a journey. R. Yosi reprimands R. Aba for not discussing Torah and keeping silent while travelling. R. Aba responds and eventually convinces R. Yosi that silence is a better path to follow. This would have been no minor matter, because the standard practice amongst the characters represented in the Zohar was indeed to travel and speak Torah words. It offered protection and rectification along the way. R. Aba’s path of silence, however, which was based on the importance of silent  Kavanah (concentration) and the fact that he then initiated R. Yosi into that unconventional path of silent Kavanah was seen as a subversive mystical theology. More importantly, R. Aba’s path of silent Kavanah may have represented a counter and threatening spiritualist movement of Kabbalists who opposed the dominating, standard and relatively conservative mystical school of the Zohar, where practice, words and sounds had to be appended to the Kavanah. These politics of theological subtleties may explain why this short manuscript text never made its way into the printed editions of the Zohar. 

Sunday 7 April 2024

468) Possible implications of common themed textual layering within the Zohar

 Part 1


Based on the analysis of divergent concepts and theosophies evident within the Zohar in addition to the discovery of Zoharic texts hitherto unknown it is apparent that within the same topics and genres, a number of variants and diverse textual layers exist. These diverse layers indicate the possibility of not just multiple authorship but an extended timeline over which the Zohar, as we now know it, emerged as ‘comprehensive’ literature. This observation adds a new dimension to the once-binary debate over whether the second-century R. Shimon bar Yochai, or the thirteenth-century R. Moshe de León, authored the Zohar, as there are now numerous other considerations to factor into the discussion. 

Sunday 24 March 2024

467) Lechu Neranena on Wednesday


 Guest post by Moshe Tzvi Wieder


I thank Moshe Tzvi Wieder for sharing with us his research into the early Siddur (prayer book). Moshe Tzvi Wieder is the author of “The Siddur from Its Sources” (הסידור ממקורותיו) a unique Siddur which provides the earliest known sources for every part of the Siddur.  To learn more about הסידור ממקורותיוsee the site here.


Lechu Neranena on Wednesday


The Siddur from Its Sources, by Moshe Tzvi Wieder, Wieder Press, 2023.

The Mishna (Tamid 7:4) delineates which chapters of Tehillim the Leviim would say for each day of the week. While it does not explicitly state the ending of each section, both logic and early manuscript evidence bear out that the Leviim would stop at the end of each chapter.  

Sunday 17 March 2024

466) Separating the text from the context: an early Chassidic approach to Torah study


Toledot Yakov Yosef: The first Chassidic book to be published. Koritz 1780.


We examine Chassidic sources that show how early Chassidism reworked the traditional methodologies of classical Torah study. They did this by separating the text from the context and focusing, instead, on the divine light contained within the letters and the words themselves. They did this regardless of the position and meaning of these words in the sequence of the biblical storyline. This approach was generally used to enhance the experientialism of the study process which now became a spiritual, as opposed to an intellectual, enterprise. It also opened a space for the theurgic or ‘magical’ use of Torah study to benefit the student (or perhaps more appropriately, the practitioner) to utilise the exposed light or energy to effect a change in their material reality. 

Sunday 10 March 2024

465) Did R. Chaim of Volozhin intentionally alter the image of the Vilna Gaon?


A 1704 manuscript of an early Hebrew translation of Euclid’s Elements. Later, in 1780, the first printed Hebrew edition of Euclid's Elements, was published in Amsterdam, translated into Hebrew by R. Baruch Schick of Shklov, on the instruction of the Vilna Gaon. 


Based on a comparison between the various representations of the Vilna Gaon’s worldview by his different students, it seems that his main student, R. Chaim of Volozhin, meticulously selected, if not shaped, only certain aspects of his teacher’s ideology to present to future generations. We shall examine how R. Chaim of Volozhin crafted an image of the Vilna Gaon as: 

1) a religious scholar not interested in the secular scholarship; 

2a) a theoretical or theosophical master of mysticism with no interest in theurgical or practical Kabbalah;

2b) a master practical Kabbalist (the previous characterisation of the Vilna Gaon as a 'theoretical Kabbalist' was later changed to present him as 'practical Kabbalist'), and

3) a spiritual innovator who intended to present an ‘authorised’ version of mysticism, in lieu of Chassidism, to the Lithuanian Mitnagdim. 

These representations are then compared to how other students and family members charactersied and witnessed the Vilna Gaon, and to what the Gaon himself had expressed on these matters.

464) Interesting math in the Hebrew Bible


Guest Post by Professor Larry Zamick

There are numerous examples in the Bible of lists of numbers with totals that don't add up correctly. For example, when God asked Moses to count the descendants of Levi, the results were given in a table. 

Sunday 3 March 2024

463) The discovery of R. Nachman’s Secret Scroll

Megilat Setarim - The Secret Scroll of R. Nachman of Breslov


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Zvi Mark[1] − examines the relatively recent emergence of a work by R. Nachman of Breslov, Megilat Setarim, that was thought to have either been lost or hidden away. 

A cloud of secrecy has always hung over this enigmatic work, particularly concerning the reasons for it to have remained a secret document, but as we shall see, many elements of secrecy surrounded the personality of R. Nachman of Breslov in general. For some reason, secrecy seemed to often go hand in hand with R. Nachman and his teachings:

“We know of one book which R. Nachman hid away, another which he burnt, as well as tales he forbade to reveal to outsiders. So it was that Breslav Chasidim, as a group, enshrouded themselves within a certain air of mystery and kept up a continual discourse concerning hidden works and hidden meanings in their Rebbe’s teaching” (Mark 2010:23). 

Sunday 25 February 2024

462) Efodi’s challenge to the study of Talmud, Maimonidean Philosophy and Kabbalah



Efodi (d. 1433) is well acquainted with three powerful streams of Jewish learning ─ Talmud, Maimonidean Philosophy and Kabbalah. He argues that each of these schools has inherent and significant flaws in terms of their authenticity of tradition, let alone that they promote scholarly elitism. In their place, he boldly and controversially suggests a democratisation of Jewish scholarship through a return to the basics of Torah (i.e., biblical) study. Was this radical attempt at reshaping the Jewish learning curriculum a response to the Christian persecutions in Spain in 1391, or was it meant only as a remedy for the hour?


This article ─ based extensively on the research by Professor Yoel Marciano[1] ─ examines how Perfeyt Duran, known as Efodi, introduced and proposed a change in the traditional study curriculum, ironically by going back to pure grassroots.  His approach was anti-elitist and empowered all Jews, particularly non-scholars, to reach perfection without the need to pass through the three options of the rigours of Talmud study, Maimonidean Philosophy, or Kabbalah. He suggested, instead, a return to the simple study of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). 

Sunday 18 February 2024

461) Maimonides unplugged


Recently discovered text in Maimonides' handwriting


This article – based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1] penetrates directly into the thought of Maimonides. It offers a no-holds-barred approach to pure Maimonidean ideology as interpreted by Kellner, a recognised authority on Maimonidean thought. 

Most Torah lectures, and Halachic decisions reference Maimonides, yet astoundingly very few of the presenters of those forums are always aware of how Maimonides (Rambam) actually viewed Judaism. Not surprisingly, then, many will find Kellner’s research into Maimonidean thought to be perplexing if not perilous to the traditional ideas they cherish and hold dear. 

Sunday 11 February 2024

460) Martyrdom in Sefaradi and Ashkenazi traditions



This article based extensively on research by Sam Millner[1] and Leon Stitskin[2]− deals with different approaches to Jewish martyrdom as evidenced in Sefaradi and Ashkenazi rabbinic writings. These divergent traditions are essentially rooted in the controversy between Maimonides and Rashi (and his disciples, the Tosafists), respectively.  Maimonides was active in Spain, North Africa and Egypt and came to represent the Sefaradi position on the matter of martyrdom − while the Rashi and the Tosafists characterized the Ashkenazi approach of Northern France and Germany. 

Rashi (1040-1105) and his students, the Tosafists, advocated for martyrdom in light of the forced conversions to Christianity around the time of the First Crusade (1095—1099). On the other hand, Maimonides (1135-1204) argued for a more tolerant approach and did not advocate martyrdom for the Jews subjected to Muslim and Christian persecution during the Almohad Berber conquest in 1172 and the various Spanish-Christian campaigns. 

Sunday 4 February 2024

459) Chassidic literature – beyond the Hebrew texts


Emet veEmunah, an anthology of teachings from Kotzk


This article based extensively on the research by Professors Evan Mayse and Daniel Reiser[1] examines a fascinating anomaly within Chassidic literature: Most of the formal Chassidic texts used today are in Hebrew, but Hebrew was not the medium through which the discourses were generally transmitted. The original teachings were mainly presented orally and in Yiddish. 

The question is whether or not this is a significant distinction, and can it have some bearing on how we read the popular Chassidic texts today? 

Sunday 28 January 2024

458) Why is Judaism no longer sufficient - again?


I always wonder why some religious people, besides their wonderful virtues, often fall for vices. In a previous article, we looked at the question of smoking and Halacha [see Kotzk Blog: 069) Cigarettes and Halacha Don't Mix:]. I concluded that article by suggesting that we also need to address the incidence of drinking alcohol which is quite endemic in many communities. Alcohol is ubiquitously accepted as the norm, sometimes to the extent that it is abused. Some battle to get home after shul on Shabbat mornings. 

Sunday 14 January 2024

457) “Religion – the greatest cause of wars” (Gersonides)


Torat haMelech published in 2009


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1] dating back to 2014 examines some extremist contemporary approaches to modern Jewish messianism. Kellner argues, instead, for a more rationalist approach to messianism, along the lines of Maimonides’ natural Messiah and his unusual vision of a non-supernatural messianic era and eschatology. 

If Gersonides[2] is correct in his assertion that religion is the greatest cause of wars, then various forms of messianism and eschatology must surely be a significant component thereof.