Monthly Archives: July 2014

How Communities with Different Halachic Traditions Coexist

In the past I have discussed issues that arose in poskim in the age of denominations.  Recognizing the existence of large groups of Jews who have fundamentally different assumptions about Halacha and Hashkafa presented a series of challenges for poskim who dealt with the issues in different ways.   Another social issue that arose, this time within the Orthodox community, was how to deal with varying Orthodox groups with divergent legitimate traditions and practices.  Specifically, while Ashkenazim and Sfardim living in Europe or the Middle East may have had different Halachic positions, they mostly lived independently so this did not cause a problem.  However, once the communities left for America, Israel, Europe, etc., they created communities together, forcing people to deal with multiple Orthodox traditions in the same place.  I explored one example of this issue: here.

In Israel, at first, the reaction was an attempt to enforce Ashkenazi hegemony, which some of the Sfardi rabbanim were willing to go along with, such as Rav Uziel.  Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef spent much of his life fighting back, restoring the legitimacy of the Sfardi tradition.  How he did this and the implications of this for the many divergent traditions that he included within his community has been dealt with extensively by Rabbi Benny Lau in his book about R. Ovadiah.  Here I wanted to explore one small issue that highlights the types of problems and solutions that arose – the issue of bishul akum.  Continue reading How Communities with Different Halachic Traditions Coexist

Another Thought about Covenant

BY: Alex Tsykin

George Mendenhall wrote in “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition” about the relationship between the biblical text and Hittite suzerainty treaties. In that piece he had the following paragraph:

The primary purpose of the suzerainty treaty was to establish a firm relationship of mutual support between the two parties (especially military support), in which the interests of the Hittite sovereign were of primary and ultimate concern. It established a relationship between the two, but in its form it is unilateral. The stipulations of the treaty are binding only upon the vassal, and only the vassal took an oath of obedience. Though the treaties frequently contain promises of help and support to the vassal, there is no legal formality by which the Hittite king binds himself to any specific obligation. Rather, it would seem that the Hittite king by his very position as sovereign is concerned to protect his subjects from claims or attacks of other foreign states. Consequently for him to bind himself to specific obligations with regard to his vassal would be an infringement upon his sole right of self- determination and sovereignty. A most important corollary of this fact is the emphasis upon the vassal’s obligation to trust in the benevolence of the sovereign.

I wonder if these words are applicable to our relationship with Hashem. We are sworn (מושבע ועומד מהר סיני) to obey His will. However, seemingly, he is not (formally, legally) bound to reward us in any specific incidence (as opposed to the general oath he swore to give us the Land of Israel). We simply hope and trust that he will keep his word to us and reward us for our good deeds.

As proof for his analysis of the nature of the obligations in the suzerainty treaty, Medenhall points out that the covenant was actually referred to as an oath. However, the oath seems to have only been taken by the vassal. In his oath, he include the promises of protection from the suzerain. The interesting point in favor of this analysis is that in the covenental ceremony between Hashem and Am Israel (meaning Har Sinai), we  don’t find an explicit promise from Hashem, only commandments. This stands in sharp contrast to Arvos Moab, for example, where the goal seems to have been the areivus and not the covenant with Hashem. It is true that the relation at Sinai, which would seem to be the oath in this case (or perhaps parashiyos Behar and Bechukosai as they might be the sefer habris refered to in Mishpatim according to some Rishonim), was said by Hashem to Israel, and in the classic suzerainty treaty the wording is of the vassal committing to his obligations to the suzerain. Nevertheless, this analysis does seem to hold some promise.

Quality of Life and Yishuv Eretz Yisrael

In a previous post (here), I began to deal with some parameters of the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael, focusing on the element of protecting the land.  There are several indications that the notion of yishuv Eretz Yisrael means that there is a value to increasing the quality of life in Eretz Yisrael and not ensuring that Jews live in it

The first source is from the Gemara in Tamid 29b.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תמיד דף כט עמוד ב

החלו מעלין בגזירין לסדר את המערכה [וכו’] חוץ משל זית ומשל גפן [וכו’]. הני מ”ט? רב פפא אמר: משום דקטרי, רב אחא בר יעקב אמר: משום ישוב דארץ ישראל.

The Gemara rules that grape and olive trees should not be used for the mizbeach.  The Rosh writes that, as the mizbeach needs a lot of wood, if we used these trees there would be not olive or grape trees left (and therefore no wine or oil).  The Mefaresh adds that then the land would be charev.  This may mean that people will move away, though he could simply mean, as is the simple understanding of the Rosh, that destroying the quality of life in Israel is problematic.  Continue reading Quality of Life and Yishuv Eretz Yisrael

On Mezuzot, the Iron Dome, and Yishuv Eretz Yisrael

In a shiur by Rabbi Binyanim Tabory exploring the teshvuot of Rabbi Menachem Kasher (here), I came across a teshuva that resonates very strongly with me at the moment.

In a question (Divrei Menachem 4:3 – here) about placing a mezuzah on the gates of courtyards, he has a general discussion about the role of mezuzah as protection.  He notes that the Gemara in Menachot 44a says that if one rents a house in the Diaspora, one is exempt from putting up a mezuzah for thirty days.  There are varying opinions as to whether this means that one is always exempt from putting up a mezuzah for the first thirty days even if one intends to be there long term, or if the exemption only applies to people who are planning to live in a given place for less than thirty days.  Either way, the Gemara then says that one who rents in Israel must put up a mezuzah immediately because of yishuv Eretz Yisrael.  Continue reading On Mezuzot, the Iron Dome, and Yishuv Eretz Yisrael

Bringing a Sefer Torah to Soldiers (A Teshuva from Rav Amital)

I have started going through Rabbi Binyamin Tabory’s series on She’elot UTeshuvot from the 20th century (a KMTT series). In a special shiur recorded right after the passing of Moreinu V’Rabbeinu HaRav Yehuda Amital zt”l (here), he explores several responsa written by R. Amital to students in the army. These were published in the early journals of Alon Shevut, though they have never been collected into a Sefer. One that caught my attention (from Year 4 Volume 2), primarily because it related to by chabura on the Kriat HaTorah of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur (here), dealt with the question of whether a group of soldiers were allowed to have a Sefer Torah brought to them for a temporary period of time. As long as I am summarizing it for myself as part of chazara on Yoma, I will post it here. Also, as the Shiur Bet in Yeshiva get drafted next week (and many other people have been called up for Miluim), it is a good time to think about some Hilchot Tzava. Lastly, this question comes up often during the summer when camps or other groups go on trips and bring Sifrei Torah with them, so it seems like a relevant time to talk about this question.

The question was whether the soldiers could bring a sefer Torah with them when they would be away for a Monday or Thursday. Continue reading Bringing a Sefer Torah to Soldiers (A Teshuva from Rav Amital)

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Covenant

BY:  Alex Tsykin

Our religious consciousness, as Jews, is pervaded by two separate perceptions. Indeed they are at some level contradictory. I write not of the much discussed (and hugely important) dichotomy between avinu and malkenu, our father and our king. What interests me here is the distinction between bris and tzivuy. The word bris translates into English as covenant whereas the word tzivuy means command. Both of these words are applicable to the Torah, as we experience it. It both constitutes a command to us, a series of directives which collectively form Hashem’s will, and a covenant or agreement between Am Yisrael and Hashem. The content of this agreement is, broadly speaking, that if we fulfill the Torah we will be rewarded in this world and in the next and if we do not we will be punished.

However, seemingly, these two realities are a tortology. Is it fair to distinguish between the reality fo being commanded and the promise of reward and punishment related to that commandedness? While the distinction does hold true logically, it seems to be overly technical and not capture the spirit of these two terms. To me, the term covenant implies the willing agreement to complete certain acts whereas the term command implies compulsion. If so, we return to the contradiction.

An interesting point of comparison to our covenant with Hashem might be the ancient suzerainty treaties of the Middle East. In essence these treaties stated that one party agreed to unquestionably obey another, becoming the second party’s vassal. Many scholars have suggested these treaties as a model for understanding the covenant between Hashem and Israel in the Tanach. The first of these, Korosec, identified six elements to the typical ancient suzerainty treaty:

1. Preamble

2. Historical prologue

3. The actual terms of the treaty

4. Placing the record of the treaty in a temple and regularly bring it out to read it

5. List of gods as witnesses

6. Curses and blessings.

As would seem obvious, this particular structure closely matches what we find in chumash. As such, it becomes immediately obvious that what we are dealing with in chumash, at least partly, is a sovereignty agreement between us and Hashem where we choose to place ourselves under his sovereignty. I think this perspective is useful to explain a number of mitzvos, midrashim and halachos, as I hope I will write about in the next few days. However, there is a theological problem. As any number of people have noted, simply by creating the world, God gains the right to command anybody within it. In fact, he does (in the form of the Noahide laws). Why does he need us to voluntarily submit in the form of a covenant? He could have simply told us what to do!

Part of the answer is probably the famous statement in Chazal that רחמנא ליבא בעי, that God desires our hearts, meaning that God desires not merely our adherence to his mitzvos but our willing adherence, something which is hard to command from above absent some agreement from below. However, this does not really answer the question. That statement seems most obviously to refer to and individual’s relationship with Hashem. It prima facie says little about our national perspective since a nation has no heart, both literally and metaphorically. The corporate entity of a nation, even if it is to be viewed as real legally, does not in any obvious sense exist in reality. Anyway, while I hope to write about this again as I think about the topic more and flesh out the ramifications of the perspective as a whole (again, it is not my invention, however, most of the people who wrote about it are Bible scholars and not theologians and were therefore uninterested in pursuing the more interesting theological ramifications), I would be very appreciative of any comments which help, either with the specific problem (I think) I identified here or anything else on the topic.

A Methodological Point in Reading Aggadeta

BY: Alex Tsykin

I was recently reading an article by Geoffrey Herman (someone who has greatly advanced the study of Persian influences on the writing of the Gemara) called “Ahasuerus, the Stable-Master of Belshazzar” where he advances the following interpretation of a famous gemara in Megillah. The Gemara says as follows:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף יב עמוד ב

ויקצף המלך מאד, אמאי דלקה ביה כולי האי? אמר רבא: שלחה ליה: בר אהורייריה דאבא! אבא לקבל אלפא חמרא שתי ולא רוי, וההוא גברא אשתטי בחמריה.

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “the son of the stablemaster of my father! father would drink wine in front of one thousand people and would not be satisfies and you are drunk from wine!”

The second insult, that Ahashverosh could not hold his liquor, seems to be a relatively clear insult to his manliness that we can still understand today, but the first is very strange. Herman points out that the stablemaster was the least important member of the Persian court at the time of the Gemara and therefore to be addressed as his son emphasizes that not only was Ahashverosh a usurper but he was of low birth as well. Additionally, there was a very well known myth in Persia about a king who started off as a stablemaster’s assistant and rose to rule by killing the previous occupant of the throne. This myth seems to have informed the Bavli’s statement. If so, the passage from the Gemara should read:

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “(insult about llineage)! (insult about virility)!”

It would seem that Rava did not really mean that Ahashverosh occupied a specific position, for how could he know that? Instead, Rava intended that Vashti insulted Ahashverosh, for she was descended from the old Persian line. This poses two points as food for thought. Firstly, we see here the importance of knowing the cultural background of Chazal. By knowing some Persian legends you understand better a story that they relate. Instead of looking for symbolic value to the office of stable master and his son, you can understand the true intent behind the statement. Secondly, given this understanding of the story (which seems to me quite persuasive), is there any Talmud Torah value left in the literal statement that Ahashverosh was the son of a stablemaster, given that the term has lost the particular cultural valence it once possessed. Perhaps instead we should say “Son of my father’s garbage collecter!”

Help Tracing Down a Source

Yesterday (here) I noted that the earliest explict source of a Jew being named at a Brit Milah seems to be from the Christain Bible.  I was thinking about it a bit more, and now I wonder whether there was an earlier source, or if perhaps this source snuck in to classic works.  The Tzitz Eliezer (18:54)cites the Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun, citing the Otzar HaShemot that the minhag to only name the child at the Brit existed on Bayit Sheni.

 וכפי שראיתי בספר אוצר כל מנהגי ישורון סימן מ”א אות ז’ הוא כותב בשם אוצר השמות שנדע כי כבר בימי הבית השני נהגו כן. לקרוא בשם להבן הנולד בעת המילה.

He seems to be referncing the passage in the tenth volume of Otzar HaShemot of Avraham Chaim Rosenberg – here – who claims that this custom has been around since the fourth century before the common era.  He cites no proof for this assertion.  Does anyone know who he was and what his source could have been?  Could it be related to the Christain Bible, or perhaps some other source that is even earlier?


A Jew Named on the Eighth Day

In a previous post (here) we mentioned the possible sources for the minhag of not naming a baby until the day of the Brit on the eight day.  Mark Glass mentioned to me from Prof. Steven Fine that the earliest explicit source we have (Avraham was not circumcised on the eighth day) is actually from the Christian Bible – where Jesus was named on the eighth day at his Brit Milah.  See Luke 2:21 (here).  Don’t know what to make of it, but I guess it’s worth putting out there.

How the Notion of Chumra Can Unite or Divide a Community: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on Chalav Yisrael

Everyone knows the power of chumra to divide people.   In the past we have discussed the problems that can emerge because of yuhara (here), lo taaseh aggudot aggudot (here), and other issues. However, sometimes chumra can be used as a way to unite a community, as can be seen from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s treatment of chalav stam yisrael. The shiur and sources can be found: here.

The Gemara prohibits a series of products and interactions with non-Jews. Some of those are prohibited because of concerns for chatnut, roughly translated as intermarriage, though the actual definition is probably more expansive. Others are prohibited for concerns of kashrut. The Gemara entertains other explanations for some of these prohibitions as well. One of the prohibitions is that of chalav akum, milk that was milked by a non-Jew. The Gemara limits this to cases where there was not a Jew watching the milking, or at least sitting outside where he could in theory come in and see. The Gemara suggests that this was instituted to prevent the mixing of non-kosher milk, though there are commentaries who assume that it was also for issues of chatnut. Continue reading How the Notion of Chumra Can Unite or Divide a Community: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on Chalav Yisrael