Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The wonderful world of book collecting

I have been collecting old and sometimes rare Hebrew books ever since I was a young teen.

The book that travelled halfway around the world.

Several years ago i decided to do a search on the internet for more information on an obscure Rabbi named Yonah Mordechai Zlotnik of Zakracyn, Poland. I had several of his books in my possesion and was curious to learn more about the man. I found mention of him on a family website maintained by his grand-niece and I wrote to her.

She turned out to a typical Ashkenazy middle-aged Israeli woman,living in yuppy Neve Sharett. When I went to Israel later that year, I gave her the book which she was very thankful for.

I have since gotten "acquainted" with the previous owners of some of my other books. It's been an exciting journey so far and I've learned alot.

One of the the books in my collection belonged to a Rabbi Yehoshua Halevi Hershorn of Montreal, Canada.

I did a search on him and found a link to his work of reponsa here

Ah.. the wonders of book collecting and the internet...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sidelocks (Peyot) in Jewish tradition

Ye shall not round the corners of your heads. Leviticus 19:27

Peyot lit. sidelocks are the long extra hairs at either side of the head worn mostly by Charedi Ashkenazim and Yemenite Jews.

The custom is apparently ancient. It is interesting to note that in Yemen they were never called peyot but rather simanim literally signs, apparently it was some sort of hairstyle to make it easier to tell the Jews apart from their Arab neighbors.

Yemenite Rabbi Yosef Kapach claims that it was an ancient custom dating back to Temple days but then again he is not exactly an unbiased source on this.

Monroe Rosenthal in his book "Wars of the Jews" (a fascinating book by the way) mentions the Jewish (convert) king of Yemen, Yusuf Dhu Nuwas who wore his sidelocks long "as was the custom of the princes of the Davidic royal house". (looking for source)

The Otzar Yisrael encyclopedia by Yehuda David Eisenstein writes that to the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa this custom was unknown and foreign.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (Ben Ish Chai)however, was a strong proponent of it writing in one of his works " I do not propose wearing long sidelocks as our Ashkenazi brethren in Poland and Galicia do but.."

Some Chassidic and non-Chassidic groups have the custom of hiding the sidelocks behind the ears or under the skullcap. The origins of this curious phenomenon are not known for certain. I think it had something to do with anti-Jewish persecutions in some parts of Europe. I am also reminded of the Zoharic prohibition against the peyot harosh (sidelocks) coming in contact with the peyot hazaken (beard) due to mystical reasons.

Your input.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sephardim and Ashkenazim communities in history; friction and cooperation

Large concentrations of the 2 groups living in close proximity to each other was something that was not very common up untill the creation of the State of Israel. Such communities were once to be found in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Germany and parts of Italy and England. There were also smaller Sephardic communties in Eastern Europe that eventually assimilated within the dominant Ashkenazi communties in Transylvania for example (Particularly Dej, Carei and Cluj) and in Poland. Romania actually managed to keep intact a separate Sephardic community up untill the Holocaust (see Yaakov Geller, Hasefardim asher b'Romania).

There was also an opposite phenomenon of Ashkenazim who emigrated to Spain and assimilated among the Iberian Jews. Some examples include the children of the Rosh (Rabbenu Asher) and Rabbi Vidal, a descendant of Rashi who left France for North Africa. It is also interesting to note that the common Sephardic surname "Ashkenazy" denotes an Ashkenazic ancestry. (More on this cross-pollination in a different post).

In the United States the Sephardim-who were the first Jews to settle these shores- replicated their parochial existence but by the 18th century there was a fairly high rate of intermarriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. According to one historical source (I have seen conflicting information on this) Emma Lazarus' was half-Ashkenazy as her mother was German-Jewish.

Rabbi Marc Angel in his book Remnant Of Israel ; A Portrait of America's First Jewish Congregation writes:

"Almost all of the 23 founders of of Shearith Israel were of Sephardic descent..The Sephardim seem to have constituted a decisive majority at least untill 1700...According to the 1721/1722 synagogue record book the cong. then had 37 members. Of these 15 were of Sephardic background, while 22 were of Ashkenazy background..In communities such as Amsterdam and London, relations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim were less than cordial. Each group maintained seperate congregations and communal institutions. Fortunately the antagonisms between the 2 groups in the old world were overcome in the new world. Sephardim and Ashkenazim in New York worked together, married each other, prayed in the same synagogue, and were buried in the same cemetery one next to the other." (pp. 52-23)

In Eretz Israel there seems to have been less friction and closer ties between the 2 communities at least untill the major aliyot from Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. One exampe that indicates the cordial relations between the 2 communties is the personage of Rishon Lezion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi) Rabbi Yaakov Elyashar (Also known as the Yisa Bracha after his most famous work). Born to an old Jerusalemite Ashkenazic family, he studied under the Sephardic sages and was eventually appointed their leader.

The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi (known as the Arizal) who was the son of an Ashkenazy father and a Sephardic mother may also be an indication of this trend.

Friction and cooperation between the sides.

The case of Benedict Spinoza and Uriel Acosta in Amsterdam were one of the few instances where the the Sephardic and Ashkenazy kehillot cooperated with each other but the general attitude was one of mutual wariness and often open hostility. There was-for example- a strict takana (ordinance) in the Amsterdam Sephardic community against patronizing Ashkenazy merchants for example (see Benjamin Disraeli and the myth of Sephardi superiority Todd M. Endelman, Jewish History Volume 10, Number 2 / September, 1996). So we see that there is a long history of friction as well as cooperation between the 2 streams of Judaism.

Favorite short quotes on and about History

History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.
Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC), Pro Publio Sestio

History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.
Kurt Vonnegut

History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.
Etienne Gilson

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
George Santayana

Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.
Oscar Wilde

History is Philosophy teaching by examples.

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.
Winston Churchill

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Beards in Jewish Tradition

Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard. (Leviticus 19:27)

Although the ancient Hebrews from the Biblical era up until the second Temple period sported beards, shaving was not forbidden . The Talmud discusses the prohibition of shaving with a razor, however scissors and other non razors were permitted (though they too were probably discouraged).

The Romans were apparently the first in the “modern world” who instituted the practice of shaving as a sign of nobility and aristocracy. (In this I am corrected by a colleague who pointed out that the ancient Egyptian priests considered facial hair to be uncultured and uncivilized. There were similar customs among Israelite Priests but that for a different post). As can be evidenced by the Roman busts, most Roman emperors were clean shaven. Needless to say, the Roman culture had a strong influence on the Judean way of life. (See for example the Talmud, Tractate Me'ilah 17b)

The first Rabbis or Jewish spiritual leaders who did away with the beard were apparently those of Renaissances era Italy. The Italian Rabbis (some of whom were well too enlightened for their pious fellow rabbis in Europe and Eretz Israel, some like Azarya De Rossi were nearly banned) The reasoning behind it was that they felt themselves unworthy to grow a beard in their spiritual state, especially since they dwelt outside the land of Israel . A not very illogical argument which would apply nowadays since beards are mostly worn by spiritual leaders, therefore this worthy concept should not be cheapened by unworthy people.

One of the more well known and highly respected Italian Jewish figures who apparently did not wear a beard is the very eminent Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azarya of Fano (alleged portrait, top). Although some later argued that this was not true (See argument mentioned by Rabbi Chaim Elazar of Munkac known as Minchat Elazar and others). Apparently neither did Luzatto (Ramchal) and that was one of the complaints leveled against him by his Rabbinic contemporaries.

(My next post will deal with the practice of growing sidelocks [Peyot] and its origins).

free counters