Tuesday, January 17, 2017

When a Prominent Chassidic Rebbe Sanctioned the Opinion of a Prominent Karaite Exegete (Against a Prominent Rabbinic Exegete).

This is not something you see every day.

I've already written  innumerable times about how Rabbinic authorities studied and even encouraged the study of Karaite works.

However, in this one, we have a prominent Chassidic Rebbe, namely Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheneersohn (not to be confused with his namesake, the last Rebbe of Chabad), known for his magnum opus Zemach Zedek. This is doubly unusual because one would not expect this from a member of such a conservative denomination of Judaism --and because he takes the side of a Karaite against a (somewhat) traditional Rabbanite: Abraham Ibn Ezra (who himself often quotes Karaite exegetes) on the meaning of a Biblical verse. As you can see from this comment by an adherent of Chabad- Rabbi Aharon Chitrik- this left some of the Rebbes followers somewhat baffled. 

הרב אהרן חיטריק
תושב השכונה

ב'ספר החקירה' להצ"צ (דף צו, א) מביא פירוש האב"ע שבו מביא פי' מ'יפת' הקראי, - אלא שהאב"ע דוחה אותה, אבל הצ"צ מבאר פירושו, וז"ל הצ"צ: "אבל הראב"ע בפ' וישלח כ' אכפרה פניו לשון אכסה ואסתיר, הנה פי' אכפרה ע"ד וכפרת וע"ד כפורת, שהוא לשון כסוי. וכ"כ עוד בפ' תרומה ע"פ ועשית כפרת, כי כמוהו לכפר עליו כמו כסוי חטאה. אך פי' זה כ' בשם יפת, והוא ז"ל עצמו חלק ע"ז - שמלת לכפר עליו מגזרת כפר נפשו. והביא ראיה מר"פ תשא: כופר נפשו; לכפר על נפשותיכם. והנה לדברי יפת - י"ל שהוא ע"ד על כל פשעים תכסה אהבה, א"כ האהבה היא כסוי חטאה", עכ"ל הצ"צ.
והנה, 'יפת' היה אחד מגדולי הקראים בפי' המקרא, וכל הרבנים שלחו חיצים נגדו ופירושו. וזה שהצ"צ מביא ראי' לפירושו - צריך עיון.

- דרך אגב: בספר הליקוטים ממאמרי הצ"צ העתיקו הקטע הנ"ל, ועל שם 'יפת' הוסיפו הערה - שהכונה לספר "יפת תואר" (sic יפה תואר), שהוא פי' למדרש!!

The Rebbe of Chabad cites two variant explanations for the etymology of the cognate k/p/r/ כפר
Ibn Ezra explains that it denotes 'covering' or 'hiding' and that it shares common etymologicl roots  with the word כפורת (Kaporet) which was the name given to the golden lid that was placed on the Ark of the Covenenant. However [the Karaite exegete] Yefet ben Ali contends that it is related to the word כפור which denotes 'atonement' (as in Yom Kippur).  The Rebbe seems to attempt a rapprochement between the two seemingly different opinions namely that Ibn Ezra's opinion jibes with Yefet's, based on the verse על כל פשעים תכסה אהבה trans. On all sins, love is a cover. In other words, atonement and covering up both mean the same thing in this context [in the Rebbe's words: the love serves as a covering up for sin].

Rabbi Chitrik is taken aback by all this and states incredulously: this Yefet was one of the Karaite greats and all the Rabbis sent barbs toward his direction and this that the Zemach Zedek butresses his [Yefet's] opinion requires a deeper investigation.

Chitrik adds:

Incidentally, In Sefer haLiqutim (which consists of sayings from the Zemach Zedek) they excerpted this passage and added the 'explanation' that 'yefet' here refers to the commentary on Midrash Rabbah, Yefeh (not Yefat!) Toar.

Kudos to Rabbi Chritrik for implicitly calling out the ridiculousness of the editors of the aforementioned Sefer. These types of apologetic revisionist explanations are not uncommon. For instance see this:

בפרשת בא [שמות יב ה] "שה תמים זכר בן שנה יהיה לכם" ומה שכתב על זה הראב"ע וז"ל "אמר ר' ישועה: כי יש הפרש בין בן שנה ובין בן שנתו. כי בן שנה עלתה לו שנה ובן שנתו כמשמעו. [והשיג עליו הראב"ע שאין נכון הדבר:] והנה בקרבן הנשיאים: כבש אחד בן שנתו. ובאחרונה כתוב: כבשים בני שנה."
ובמהרי"ל דיסקין מובא "אמר רבי יהושע" במקום שמו של הקראי ישועה, ויש שם אריכות גדולה ביותר בפלפול בדברי חכז"ל כדי ליישב שיטת 'רבי יהושע' על אפניו, ולהגן עליו מפני קושייתו של הראב"ע עליו. ואיני יודע איך ליישב דבר תמוה כזה

As you can see, Rabbi Diskin changed the name of Yeshua ben Yehuda (another prominent Karaite exegete) to Rabbi Yehoshua, the famous Tanna!

I am indebted to my colleague ישבב הסופר for pointing this out to me.

It is interesting to note that the Zemach Zedek had some dealings with the Karaite of this day.

One of my favorite scholars, Golda Akhiezer recently published, for the first time, a letter from Hakham Avraham Firkovich's personal archive. This document is highly unusual and very interesting. It is addressed to none other than the third Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheneersohn. The issue at hand was a squabble within a Chabad family and the estrangement of a father toward his son. It is not immediately clear why Firkovich, of all people, was chosen to be the referee here. Of particular interest is the manner in which he addresses the Rebbe; with flowery titles and beautiful prose. I have blogged about Firkovich many times and the man was anything but a harmonious individual. If in this letter he takes upon himself the mantle of national peacemaker and extolls Chassidus etc., in many other instances he is involved in squabbles of his own, some of which included physical altercations(!) with Chassidic personages no less. See my blog post here read Akhiezer's article here

Monday, January 16, 2017

Seneor's Sons; The Story of a Sephardic Clan That Settled in Hungary (and then Prague and Vilna et al).

 Shlomo Seneor and his Descendants

The first Sephardic Jew recorded to have settled in Buda is one Shlomo ben Efraim Seneor (Senior) who escaped from Spain after the expulsion of its Jews in 1492. A copy of one of the books in his library is still extant and the inscription on it reads, “my name is Shlomo Seneor, I learned Torah and Torah became my wealth.” Seneor quickly ingratiated himself into the Hungarian upper class, changing his name to Etil (Atilla) and learning the Hungarian language. He eventually became close to the King, Lajos (Louis) II who appointed him as chancellor of the treasury. However a scandal soon erupted when it was discovered that he carried on an affair with a Christian woman. In order to avoid punishment, and or to further his career, he had himself baptized in circa 1510. His new Christian name was now “Imre Szerencses” (later Emericus Fortunatus) . He left his Jewish wife and two sons, married a Christian woman and retained his position as the King's treasurer.  It wasn’t long before he made some powerful enemies in the king’s court, who blamed him for various things that went wrong, including a series of defeats at the hands of Hungary's implacable foes: the Ottoman Turks.

A Commentary on Genesis by the famed Sephardic Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (with a super commentary by the famed Shlomo of Dubna) is inscribed With Shlomo Seneor's Name. Seneor left behind many such manuscripts as well as a personal notebook inscribed in Hebrew. (Courtesy of Jewish Budapest: Monuments, Rites, History By Kinga Frojimovics, Géza Komoróczy)

Seneor was eventually caught up in yet a new scandal that involved the debasement of Hungarian coinage- minting money worth about half its face value- in 1521. The king had Seneor imprisoned and, before long, a death sentence loomed on the unfortunate man. However he was released after a large sum of money was paid on his behalf. After his release, he celebrated at his house with friends and family. The raucous celebrations soon attracted an outraged mob  which proceeded to attack and ransack his house. Remarkably, Seneor was able to convince the magnates that he is able to restore the financial situation of the royal court and, as a result, he was entrusted with the profitable copper mines at Fuggers. A few weeks before the Battle of Mohacz (which was to end in a historic Turkish conquest of the city), he donated a large amount of money to support the city’s defenses against the Turks. The date of his death is uncertain but it is assumed that he died around the time of the aforementioned battle.

Interestingly enough, a contemporary rabbinical responsum later claimed that in the hour of his death, crying and praying in the presence of several Jews, he returned to the Jewish faith.

But the story does not end there. Still in his lifetime, a Halachic dispute arose as to his status. Seneor’s two sons from his Jewish wife, Avraham and Efraim, who remained part of the Jewish community, would be called up to the Torah by their grandfather’s name rather than that of their apostate father. The sons did not like this state of affairs one bit. Only after the death of Shlomo did the Rabbi of Buda at the time, Naftali Hacohen (Katz), allow the name ben shlomo to be used again when calling the sons to the Torah.

The foremost Halachic decisor of that time, Rabbi Meir Katznellenbogen (the progenitor of a large portion of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewry) gave his halachic sanction to this decision and claimed that if the kings and nobles who certainly are not Jews, can be mentioned in blessings in the Synagogue, so too can the name of Seneor (adding that according to all reports, Seneor retained his affections to his former co-religionists and showed them favor).

A Sephardic Rabbi in Istanbul goes even further in portraying Seneor in what can only be described as "glowing terms". Eliyahu ben Benjamin Halevi of Istanbul described him as a person of great generosity who would give charity to poor Jews every Friday and who spared no money and effort to save the Jewish community when it was in danger (most notably during a blood libel). One of his sons wrote that his father warned the Jews in a secret Hebrew letter that they were in danger— thereby saving their lives. He also reportedly prevented the expulsion of Jews from Prague, when the city was under Hungarian rule.

From that point on, the attitude toward Seneor changed drastically. It was 'universally' accepted that his apostasy was never sincere and that he did so for the good of his people. It was announced in Synagogues that whoever maligned his Jewishness would be “punished in person and in his belongings by the prefect”. The decision to rehabilitate Seneor’s reputation was given halachic sanction by Rabbi Moses Isserles, a major authority on Jewish law, known as“Rama”. Isserles based his opinion on the earlier ruling by Rabbi Katznellenbogen and concluded “once he [Katznellenbogen] gave his permission, who can have a word after the king?”.

The two Jewish sons of Seneor, apparently still uneasy about being reminded of their scandalous familil past, left Buda after the Battle of Mohacz and changed their name to Zaks (Sachs). The name is supposed to be an abbreviation of “zera kadosh seneor”, literally,  “holy seed of Seneor”. One of his sons, Abraham settled in Kismarton (Eisenstadt) with his family. Some of his descendants were to be found later as far away as Vilna among other places.

Marc Chagall's Praying Jew and the origins of the Jewish People.

The latest edition of Segula Magazine features an interview with Aharon Melamed, a former Haifa District Judge. One of the illustrations caught my eye. It was a reproduction of Marc Chagall's famous painting Praying Jew. As you can see from the caption, the subject of the article is convinced that it is based on a true live portrait of his direct ancestor. This, incidentally, does not jibe with Chagall's own recollections as recorded in his autobiography My Life see here

In his 1931 autobiography, My Life, Chagall related how, while visiting Vitebsk (present-day Belarus), the city in which he was born, he realized that the traditions in which he had grown up were fast disappearing and that he needed to document them. He paid a beggar to pose in his father’s prayer clothes and then painted him, limiting his palette primarily to black and white, as befit the solemnity of the subject.

Be it as it may, the painting reminded me of the now widely discredited book The Thirteenth Tribe by Hungarian Jewish novelist, Arthur Koestler. This painting graces its cover. As you can see, the painting on the cover differs slightly from the other one. This is because Chagall made three different versions of it see here

Chagall often painted variants or replicas of works he particularly loved. The Art Institute’s Praying Jew is one of three versions of this composition. He painted the original canvas in 1914, and when he traveled back to Paris in 1923, he took this painting with him. He learned upon his return that much of the work he had left in France had been lost during World War I. This prompted him to make two versions of The Praying Jew before it left his studio: they are the present work and another in the Ca’ Pesaro, Venice; the original is now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. The later compositions differ from the original only in small details.

If Aharon Melamed is indeed correct, however, it magnifies Koestler's ironic choice of jacket design. The Melamed family is one of those old established 'litvak' families who descend from the earliest Sephardic and Ashkenazic families.

Friday, April 03, 2015

DO YOU HAVE TO BURN YOUR HAMETZ? IS WINE CHAMETZ?. A Look at the Passover Letter from the Elephantine Papyri.

at my other blog

Reading Song of Songs in the Karaite Synagogue

at my other blog

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Archaeology Illuminates the Parsha; Parashat Mishpatim, The Case of the Poor Man's Cloak


Sunday, February 01, 2015

"Build Houses and Plant Vineyards"; Arguably The Greatest Discovery Since the Dead Sea Scrolls!

ירמיהו פרק כט

 כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  לְכָל-הַגּוֹלָה--אֲשֶׁר-הִגְלֵיתִי מִירוּשָׁלִַם, בָּבֶלָה.  ה בְּנוּ בָתִּים, וְשֵׁבוּ; וְנִטְעוּ גַנּוֹת, וְאִכְלוּ אֶת-פִּרְיָן.  ו קְחוּ נָשִׁים, וְהוֹלִידוּ בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת, וּקְחוּ לִבְנֵיכֶם נָשִׁים וְאֶת-בְּנוֹתֵיכֶם תְּנוּ לַאֲנָשִׁים, וְתֵלַדְנָה בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת; וּרְבוּ-שָׁם, וְאַל-תִּמְעָטוּ.  ז וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת-שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר, אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַעֲדָהּ, אֶל-יְהוָה:  כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שָׁלוֹם.  ח כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אַל-יַשִּׁיאוּ לָכֶם נְבִיאֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר-בְּקִרְבְּכֶם, וְקֹסְמֵיכֶם; וְאַל-תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-חֲלֹמֹתֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם, מַחְלְמִים.  ט כִּי בְשֶׁקֶר, הֵם נִבְּאִים לָכֶם בִּשְׁמִי:  לֹא שְׁלַחְתִּים, נְאֻם-יְהוָה.

Jeremiah 29

1Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem unto the residue of the elders which were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon; 2(After that Jeconiah the king, and the queen, and the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and the carpenters, and the smiths, were departed from Jerusalem;) 3By the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, (whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent unto Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon) saying, 4Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; 5Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; 6Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. 7And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.


These verses echo through the mists of history and come to life in an astonishing new exhibit in Jerusalem entitled By the Rivers of Babylon

What Do These Two Symbols Have in Common?

I'll let you do the homework.

See here at the 12:51 mark

and Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (Prague 1608), nos. 65, 532.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Two New Exciting Projects

1. From Beit Hamikdash to Beit Haknesset; How Much Did Judaism Really Change in the aftermath of 70 CE

2. Archaeology and the Parasha; How Archaeological discoveries enrich and illuminate our understanding of the weekly parasha.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Note about Festivus

Most of us are familiar with the time-hallowed tradition of Festivus. Commonly thought to have originated with a neurotic New York Jewish man sometime at the end of the 20th c. some of its customs can actually be confidently predated to at least 1000 BCE.

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְנֵר אֶל יוֹאָב יָקוּמוּ נָא הַנְּעָרִים וִישַׂחֲקוּ לְפָנֵינוּ וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹאָב יָקֻמוּ.
Then Abner suggested to Joab, "Let's have a few of our warriors fight hand to hand here in front of us." "All right," Joab agreed.

(II Samuel 2:14)

Gil expounds:
let the young men now arise, and play before us; with their swords after the manner of gladiators or duellers; that it might appear who were best skilled in the use of the sword

In modern Hebrew Parlance this phrase came to be used as a form of mockery against an opponent who is perceived to be unqualified or incompetent with the matter at hand.

Yigael Yadin (one of my favorite people of all time) in an interesting article on what this term really means reproduces an ancient relief (circa 9th c. BCE) from Assyria which shows two opponents sparring against one another


In the Gallilean village of Peqiin, a mixed village of Christians, Muslims, Druze and Jewish Mustara'abin, an interesting custom is recorded. On the night of the a young man's nuptials, various performances were staged for the assembled. One of them included a display of strength from the family member on the bride's side. This was meant to send a message that the bride is well protected by capable men, should the need ever arise.


For more on Jewish Peqi'in,see here and here

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