Monday, April 30, 2007

Rabbi Leone Da Modena and the custom of Yom Kippur Katan

Yom Kippur Katan,literally, "Minor Yom Kippur" is the name given to the day before Rosh Chodesh ("New Moon"), in that this day is treated as one of fasting, repentance, and supplication similar to Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur Katan originated among the Safed Kabbalists in the 16th century and is referred to by a disciple of Moses Cordovero, Abraham Galante, who states that it was a local custom in Safed for men, women, and schoolchildren to fast on this day and to spend the whole day in penitential prayer, confession of sin, and flagellation.

There is no reference to Yom Kippur Katan in the standard Code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh, but a later Halakhist, Joel Sirkes, in his commentary to Jacob ben Asher's Tur, mentions it and as a result the day acquired something of a Halakhic footing and came to be observed in communities with little connection to the Kabbalah. A number of small booklets were published containing the prayers and customs of the day. Nowadays, Yom Kippur Katan has largely fallen into disuse, yet the rite itself is of interest for its amalgam of Talmudic and Kabbalistic themes.

Yom Kippur Katan is very interesting for a number of reasons.

Its main piyut (liturgical poem) yom ze yehi mishkal kol chatotai, was composed by a vociferous opponent of Kabballa, namely the 17th century Italian Rabbi, Leone(Yehuda Aryeh)Da Modena (1571-1648). Rabbi Da Modena was a fascinating and highly colorful figure, one of the few early Rabbis who wrote an autobiography (and a fascinating one at that, highly candid and often emotional, which I urge everyone to read, particularly the annotated english translation by Mark Cohen).

Rabbi Da Modena also authored a classic anti-Kabbalistic tract called Ari Noham and is considered to be one of the most outspoken opponents of Lurianic Kabballah and Zohar. It is interesting and highly ironic that he is so tied in with a custom that has its origins in Kabballah. I often wonder what the people who say this poem would think, if they knew who the author was.

There is an additional interesting paradoxical twist to this ritual. A friend pointed out to me that this is one of two customs-clearly based on the Kabballah- that was universally accepted and held in high regard by the true Ashkenazic kehilot (Germany, Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary) which were generally wary (to say the least) of practices based on Kabballah. The other one is saying the Tikkun Leil Shavuot as established by the Kabbalists.

He also pointed out that apparently there were indeed several Charedi Rabbis who felt that the aforementioned piyut (yom zeh) should not be said, due to the controversies surrounding its author. The most prominent of these was Rabbi Dovid Jungreis, of the Edah Hacharedit of Jerusalem [1].

More on Rabbi Da Modena in upcoming posts. (why did Shadal dislike him? Why was he bareheaded? is it true that he changed his views on gilgul toward the end of his life, and what prompted him to do so? and more).


[1] see Minhogei haKehilot, Volume 1 under the customs of Rosh Chodesh.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. Binyamin Ze'ev (Theodore) Herzl's Sephardic Roots

I recently came across an article in the Sephardic Heritage Update newsletter edited by David Shasha, entitled Kelal Yisrael: Definition, History, Facts, Application written by Dr. David Rabeeya. In that piece, Dr. Rabeeya attempts to dispel erroneous notions and stereotypes about Sephardic Jews. What caught my eye was this:

Myth: Theodore Herzl was from Eastern European Ashkenazic stock. He was the only founder of the modern political Zionist movement.

Fact: Herzl came from an assimilated Sephardic/Ashkenazic family that had lived in Hungary for several generations. At least several decades before Herzl’s ideas appeared, another Sephardic Jew, Rabbi Judah Alkalai, of Serbian descent, advocated that a Zionist organization be established in order to negotiate with western powers. He emphasized the necessity for political negotiation with Turkey if a Jewish state was to be established. He also advocated the establishment of a special fund for the purchase and colonization of Palestine.

Actually, Herzl's purported Sephardic background is shrouded in obscurity. The only mention of it is in his conversations with the early English Zionist Jacob de Haas (1872-1937). He told the latter that his paternal grandfather was a Spanish Jew who had been forced to convert to Christianity and had later fled to Constantinople where he re-embraced Judaism. In a different version he traced his descent to a high-ranking converso monk who returned to Judaism while abroad on a mission[1].

The late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (the younger) claimed that he once met the noted Hassidic historian Aaron Marcus who related to him that Herzl had told him personally, on one occasion, that he was a direct descendant of the noted Sephardic Kabbalist, Rabbi Yosef Taitaczak.

הרצי"ה מציין שהסופר הרב אהרון מרקוס סיפר לו כי בנימין זאב הרצל שהיה מקורב לו מסר לו אישית על היותו צאצא ישיר (בן אחר בן) של ר' יוסף טאיטאצאק‏

(על פי שיחות הרצי"העיטורי כהנים, 126, וכן לנתיבות ישראל חלק ב', מאמר "להצדיק צדיקים

(Interestingly enough, the surname 'taitaczak' shows up in Hungary and in Morroco respectively to this day. It is a subject that merits further research).  
Contemporary Israeli poets, twin brothers Herzl and Balfour Hakak, write about Herzl's Sephardic ancestry as if it were an established fact[2]. Now while it may very well be true, I have yet to come across any hard evidence pointing toward Iberian origins. I would appreciate if anyone could further enlighten me on the subject (UPDATE: The evidence seems to be pointing in the affirmative. Check back on this blog for a new post on Herzl's Sephardic origins).

Dr. Rabeeya touched upon a very interesting and important point however, namely the (forgotten) Sephardic roots of Zionism. Before Herzl came on the scene, forcefully advocating political Zionism, there was the aforementioned Rabbi Alkalay, as well as Rabbi Yehuda Bibas among others (Budapest-born Zionist leader Max Nordau was of Sephardic origin as well), but more on that in a different post.


[1]see "Benjamin Disraeli and the myth of Sephardi superiority" Todd M. Endelman, in Jewish History Volume 10, Number 2 / September, 1996: Page 32.
In a personal email to me, Endelman casts doubt on the claim and writes "As for Herzl's claim, I do not know whether anyone has really taken it seriously and sought to prove or disprove it".

[2]see hereופרט פיקנטי במיוחד: התברר לי שמוצא משפחתו של בנימין זאב הרצל אינו מבודפסט כמו שלמדנו בספרי הלימוד. הרצל היה נצר למשפחה ספרדית ממגורשי ספרד שגרה בזמון (זמלין), עיר הולדתו של הרב ח"י אלקלעי, ובבית הקברות היהודי קבורים אבות אבותיו של חוזה המדינה. משפחתו נדדה לבודפסט, וזה מה שנשאר בדפי ההיסטוריה.
See also Peres, Shimon in The Imaginary Voyage where he writes that Herzl was part Sephardic.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Professor Marc Shapiro on the Moroccan Rabbinate (Audio)

Professor Marc B. Shapiro (Author of the excellent biography of Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, Between the Yeshiva world and Modern Orthodoxy ),delivered the 2nd annual Dr. Asher Siev Memorial Lecture at Yeshiva University, entitled "A Non-Orthodox Traditional Approach: Reflections on the Authority of the Moroccan Rabbinate." Listen here

Hat tip to Menachem Butler at the Seforim blog.

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