Thursday, 16 November 2017

Agudath Israel of America: “Jewish Pluralism” Undermines True Jewish Unity

From RRW

Agudath Israel of America: “Jewish Pluralism” Undermines True Jewish Unity
In advance of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, that group passed a resolution on “Jewish pluralism” in Israel, opposing a bill to enshrine a single conversion standard in the country and asserting that the Israeli Government’s decision to freeze an agreement about the Western Wall has “deep potential to divide the Jewish people.”
It is sadly ironic, although not surprising, that leaders of heterodox movements that have in fact undermined true Jewish unity and continuity by inviting intermarriage and breaking away from the Jewish religious heritage have of late been lecturing others about Jewish unity.
More disappointing still are the unity-cries of the Jewish Federation movement. The historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened. Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.
The Jewish Federations of North America, moreover, has traditionally sought to represent all of American Jewry, but here it entirely ignores the feelings of the substantial and growing American Orthodox community.
The Reform and Conservative movements, despite their great efforts over decades, have few adherents in Israel. Most of their members do not visit or settle in Israel, nor do they visit the Western Wall in large numbers. And yet their leaders seem prepared to offend the religious sensibilities of their Orthodox brethren, who regularly visit and move to Israel, and who come to the Kotel to pour out their hearts to G-d there. A holy place should not be balkanized, nor wielded as a tool to advance partisan social goals.
And the patchwork of standards for conversion that exist in America has created an Ameican Jewish landscape where those who respect halacha as the ultimate arbiter of personal status cannot know who is in fact Jewish. Creating in Israel a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples,” as is the tragic reality in America, would not foster unity but its opposite.
To our dear Jewish brothers and sisters, we say: Please do not push for changes at the Kotel that will only cause discord and pain to the vast majority of Jews who worship there. And please realize that the conversion standards that have ensured Jewish unity for millennia are the only ones that can preserve it for the future.
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Agudath Israel of America |


Monday, 13 November 2017

The meaning of the word "Mishtaeh"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                What is the Meaning of  Mishtaeh” (Gen. 24:21)?

      This week’s parshah has a very interesting word: M-Sh-T-A-H. The entire phrase is: “ve-ha-ish mishtaeh lah.” The man is Eliezer and the “lah” refers to Rivkah. So what exactly is Eliezer doing? We will learn a lot about Biblical Hebrew by attempting to decipher this word.
       The first step is to realize that the word should be understood as if it was written M-T-Sh-A-H. M-T is a standard hitpael prefix, but sometimes the T of the hitapel and the first root letter have ended up in switched positions (for reasons related to ease of pronunciation). This is what happened here. Therefore, we have to reverse the order of the second and third letters to properly decipher the word, and pretend we are looking at the word M-T-Sh-A-H.
       As to the meaning of the hitpael stem, many of us are taught in our youth that the hitpael stem means “to do something to yourself.” But it has other functions as well. For example, sometimes it means “to do something continually.” (An example: “hit-halech”= to walk continually.)
      We have now gotten over the preliminaries in our attempt to decipher M-Sh-T-A-H. We see that our word has a root Sh-A (aleph)-H and is in the hitpael stem (and that the hitpael can serve a few different functions).
         Do you know this root Sh-A-H? Of course you do, it is the same root as the word shoah. This word was chosen to describe the destruction of European Jewry because the root Sh-A(aleph)-H appears many times in Tanakh and often means “to ruin, lay waste, make desolate.” See, e.g., Is. 6:11.  (This root has other related meanings as well, e.g., a noisy, roaring tumult. This probably preceded the “ruin-lay waste-make desolate” meaning.)
       The reason we are not so familiar with the Biblical root Sh-A(aleph)-H is that all the occurrences of this root are found in Nakh. The only time this root appears in the Chumash is here at Gen. 24:21, and it is hard to fit the “ruin, waste, desolate” meaning into this verse.
        R. Saadiah Gaon saw the root of M-Sh-T-A-H as Sh-T-H. The phrase would then mean that Eliezer was waiting for or accepting a drink from Rivkah.  But this approach does not account for the aleph, so most authorities reject his approach. The widespread understanding of the structure of the word is that the M-T is there to indicate that the word is in the hitpael, and the root of the word is Sh-A-H.
         Rashi provides a lengthy attempt at explaining our word. He takes the position that the root of the word is Sh-A-H, which had an original meaning of “ruin, desolation.” How does that fit into the context? Rashi notes that there was another root Sh-M-M which meant “ruin, desolation,” and that root developed a secondary meaning of “confused, silent and deep in thought.” See, e.g., Job 18:20, Jer. 2:12, and Dan. 4:16. Rashi believes that the same thing happened in the case of our Sh-A-H root.
         “Ruin and desolation” evolving into “confusion/silence/astonishment”? Initially, I disliked this approach. But then my dentist Richard Gertler reminded me of the modern English expression: “blew my brains away.” So we see that in English a term of ruin can be a metaphor for “astonishment.” (Due to their familiarity with teeth and tongues, my experience is that dentists have very good linguistic abilities!)
           Rashi’s view is followed by many, such as Rashbam and Ibn Ezra. Rav S.R. Hirsch writes something similar. He takes the position that the fundamental meaning of Sh-A-H is “bleak, dull, desert,” and from that we get “unclearness of mind.”
          If you are not satisfied with Rashi’s approach (and I am not completely satisfied), there are alternatives. The Daat Mikra mentions that R. David Tzvi Hoffman suggested that the root was Sh-H-H, which means “delay.” But there is no such root in Tanakh. This root entered Hebrew later, from Aramaic.
         The best alternative is to understand the aleph of M-Sh-T-A-H as if it were an ayin. The Biblical root Shin-Ayin-Heh means: to look. See e.g., Gen.4:4 and Is. 31:1. Many scholars advocate this approach. See, e.g., Ernest Klein (A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 633). This approach is also mentioned in the Daat Mikra. It is significant that Targum Onkelos uses the word “mistakel” (=look), but we do not know what led the Targum to this conclusion.
           Although we do not ordinarily want to understand words by postulating switches of alephs and ayins, such switches are not uncommon. For example, many times in Tanakh the root Gimmel-Aleph-Lamed appears with a negative meaning and clearly does not mean “redemption.” Biblical Hebrew has a root Gimmel-Ayin-Lamed that means “loath, reject.” A widespread view today understands all those Gimmel-Aleph-Lamed occurrences with a negative meaning as if they were spelled Gimmel-Ayin-Lamed. For some examples (there are twelve such occurrences), see Malachi 1:7 and 1:12. Aleph and ayin must have originally been very close in pronunciation. Also, spelling in ancient times was probably much more fluid than it is today.
           If we understand the aleph of M-Sh-T-A-H as if it were an ayin, and if we adopt the meaning “look,” we have a simple understanding of the role of the hitpael as well. M-Sh-T-A-H would mean “continually looking” towards her. This fits the context well.
           We all know that Shin-Ayin-Heh (=sha’ah) is also as a measure of time. But this meaning is only found in the Aramaic portions of the book of Daniel. It is nowhere else in Tanakh. It originally meant “a short period.” Most likely it has no relation to Shin-Ayin-Heh =look. S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, attempts to connect the two Shin-Ayin-Heh meanings, but most scholars would not accept his suggestion.
             Earlier, we mentioned the root Sh-T-H=drink. I would like to mention an interesting phenomenon related to this root. The root Sh-K-H is another verb that means “to drink.” But there is an important difference between Sh-T-H and Sh-K-H. When you drink yourself, the root is Sh-T-H. But when you give a drink to someone else, the root is Sh-K-H. In other words, in the hiphil (=causative), the tav becomes a kof:  H-Sh-K-H. (There are other examples of verbs which have similar meanings with tav and kof. An example is Peh-Tav-Chet and Peh-Kof-Chet. Both mean “open.”)

              One day, when I understand this exchange of T and K better, I will write a column on it. I even recall that my dentist Dr. Gertler had some insight on this one as well!  Meanwhile,
I have to stop writing now. I am having too many ruinous and astonishing thoughts and am also getting thirsty.   
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

"Antifa and anti-Semitism," Arutz Sheva, November 6, 2017

From RRW
Antifa and anti-Semitism
What distinguishes the left these days is its compulsion to forego dialogue and portray conservatism as inherently evil, while giving a pass to progressives who engage in violence, intimidation, and public vandalism.
Matthew M. Hausman, י"ז בחשון תשע"ח, 11/6/2017

The American media has been straining mightily to link Donald Trump to the “Alt-right” and to blame conservatives for increased anti-Semitism and social unrest.  Nevertheless, the uptick in partisan violence and anti-Jewish rhetoric these days seems to come more from the left than the right.  This is not to ignore the actions of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and right-wing extremists; but they don’t have sympathetic journalists portraying them as legitimate protesters or mainstream politicians rationalizing their conduct.

The Alt-right are also not instigating much of the conflict marring town squares and college campuses today.   No, this is most often the work of progressive activists and groups, like the Antifa movement, who engage in confrontation and seek to suppress speech.  And the epidemic of campus anti-Semitism is largely attributable to liberal BDS advocates, leftist faculty stooges, and Islamists – not neo-Nazis or white supremacists, who unlike progressives don’t have a symbiotic relationship with American academia.

One can disagree with President Trump or dislike him for any number of reasons, but he cannot reasonably be blamed for suppressing speech, encouraging political violence, or promoting anti-Semitism.  These excesses today are more closely associated with leftists who justify radicalism with dubious victimhood narratives and benefit from media enablers who downplay their extremism.  They are also empowered by the refusal of many Democrats to categorically condemn progressive intolerance...


Monday, 6 November 2017

Dead Sea Scroll text of Samuel

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

The Most Important Dead Sea Text:
Lost Paragraph from the Book of Samuel!

              Among the ancient texts found in the Dead Sea region are both Biblical and non-Biblical texts. In this column, I am going to focus on the Biblical texts.
            Texts of a large percentage of Tanach have been discovered. (But nothing at all has been discovered from the book of Esther.)  If you are interested in whether a text of a particular Biblical verse has been discovered, there are resources you can consult. For example, I typically use the list in The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years, eds. Flint and Vanderkam (1999). (But there has been some material that came to light after that, including the first material from the book of Nechemiah. Material continues to come to light periodically.)
              The Dead Sea texts date from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE. This makes them older by many centuries than the earliest manuscripts of Biblical texts that we had previously possessed. For example, the Aleppo Codex dates from the 10th century (and is missing most of the Pentateuch). The Leningrad Codex, which has a complete text of the Bible, dates to the early 11th century.
             What happens when we examine these Dead Sea texts? There are differences from our Masoretic text but they are generally very minor. Most of the differences involve different spellings of the same word. Sometimes there is a different word altogether. For example, at Deut. 32:8, our Masoretic text has “yatzev gevulot amim le-mispar bnei yisrael,” while the Dead Sea text has “sons of God.”  Very rarely there are a few additional words. (One such example is at Deut. 32:43.)  Sometimes the letters are the same, but the division of the letters into words differs.
            Another interesting variant is in the first chapter of Eichah. Our Masoretic text of Eichah has an unusual inconsistency. The pe verse precedes the ayin verse in the acrostics of chapters 2, 3 and 4, while the acrostic in chapter 1 is in the traditional ayin preceding pe order.  But in the Dead Sea text of Eichah chapter 1, the pe verse precedes the ayin verse here too as well. In other words, verses 1:16-17 are in the reverse order from our Masoretic text, giving a consistent pe preceding ayin order throughout  chapters 1 through 4. (I have written much about this elsewhere.)
            There is one glaring exception to our principle of minor differences between the Dead Sea and Masoretic texts. That is what I will discuss now.  At the beginning of chapter 11 of 1 Samuel, the Dead Sea text has a few extra sentences and it is very likely that they were there originally and got lost!
              Here is our present text of 1 Sam 11:1-3:
               “Nachash the Ammonite went up, and encamped against Yavesh Gilead. The men of Yavesh Gilead said to Nachash: ‘Make a covenant with us and we will serve you.’  Nachash the Ammonite said to them: On this condition will I make a covenant with you, that all your right eyes be put out; and I will make this a reproach upon all Israel.  The elders of Yavesh said to him: Give us seven days respite that we may send messengers throughout the borders of Israel. Then if there will be none to deliver us, we will come out to you.”
             Now let us read it with the added material from the Dead Sea text:
              “Nachash, king of the people of Ammon, sorely oppressed the people of Gad and the people of Reuven, and he gouged out all their right eyes and struck terror and dread in Israel. There was not one left among the people of Israel beyond the Jordan whose right eye was not put out by Nachash king of the people of Ammon; except that seven thousand men fled from the people of Ammon and entered Yavesh Gilead. About a month later, Nachash the Ammonite went up….[continue with the paragraph above].”
              In our Masoretic text, Nachash besieges the Israelites of Yavesh Gilead for no reason. Yavesh Gilead was on the west side of the Jordan and was not part of the territory that Nachash would have claimed as his own. With the added material from the Dead Sea text, we now understand why Nachash besieged Yavesh Gilead: seven thousand Israelites from Gad and Reuven had fled there!
              It seems that an ancient scribe, while copying the text, erroneously jumped to a later word “Nachash” instead of to the initial word “Nachash.” This caused the omission of the material. This is a common type of scribal error.
              Note also that in our Masoretic text, Nachash is introduced merely as “Nachash the Ammonite.” In contrast, in the Dead Sea text, he is introduced with a full title: “Nachash, king of the people of Ammon.” In Tanach, kings are typically introduced with a full title. This also supports the idea that the Dead Sea text is preserving the original material.
               Critically, the additional material is also found in the ancient Greek text of the book of Samuel. It is also evident that Josephus (1st century C.E.) had this material. See Josephus, Antiquities VI, paras. 68-69.
               There are many other minor differences between the Masoretic text of Samuel and the Dead Sea text. One example is the height of Goliath. In our text (1 Sam. 17:4), Goliath is described as having a height of six amot. In contrast, in the Dead Sea text, his height is given as four amot. Also, at 1 Sam. 15:27, a tear is made in the garment of Samuel. (It is a very important tear, symbolizing the tearing away of Saul’s kingship.) Our text is ambiguous as to whether Samuel or Saul made the tear. In the Dead Sea text, the tear is explicitly attributed to Saul.
               Finally, I will mention three other interesting but erroneous Dead Sea scroll variants: 1) The Dead Sea Isaiah scroll has “kadosh, kadosh” at verse 6:3, instead of our “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.” (This scroll can be viewed on line. Just google:  “The Great Isaiah Scroll.”) I was very surprised when I first came across this. Then I investigated further and found that many times, when our Masoretic text has a doubling of words, the Dead Sea texts have the word only one time. There must have been some ancient symbol on their words that indicated when a word, written once, was meant to count twice.  Probably such a symbol was once found on one of the two “kadosh” words (either in the Dead Sea Isaiah scroll that survived or in earlier Dead Sea Isaiah texts no longer extant). 2) At the beginning of Psalm 145, the Dead Sea text has “tefilah le-david,” instead of our “tehilah le-david.”  3) The Dead Sea text of Psalm 145 includes a verse that begins with nun (“ne’eman elokim be-devarav, ve-chasid be-chol ma’asav”) As is well-known, our Masoretic text of Psalm 145 has no nun verse. Most likely, the verse in the Dead Sea text was a later addition. The name used for God, elokim, is not the name used in the rest of the Psalm, and “chasid be-chol ma’asav” is suspicious because it is already found elsewhere in the Psalm. See further the Daat Mikra (Mossad Harav Kook) edition of Tehillim, p. 579, note 23.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at When copying material from another source, he is always careful to make sure there are no omissions.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Jewish Count from Creation

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                              The Jewish Count from Creation (5778)

             Nowhere in Tanakh is anyone counting the year from creation. What is the origin of this counting method?
           As further background, if one looks at how Jews dated events in the Amoraic and Geonic periods, we see a contrast between the Jewish community of Palestine and that of Babylonia.  In Amoraic and Geonic Palestine, Jews counted mainly from the second churban.  Either 69 or 70 C.E. was year 1. We know this from many Jewish tombstones from the town of Zoar (south of the Dead Sea). For example, one reads: “May the soul rest of Shaul...who died on the first of the month of Marcheshvan of the first year of the shemitah, the year 364 after the churban beit ha-mikdash.” There are many more tombstones from this site, mostly from the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., and all use a date on the churban beit ha-mikdash count. Another example of a churban beit ha-mikdash count in Palestine is a sixth century inscription found at a synagogue in the Galilee: “built 494 years after the churban beit ha-mikdash.”
          In contrast, in Amoraic and Geonic Babylonia, the main dating system used by the Jews was minyan shetarot (=“the count of contracts”). This was a counting system used in much of the secular world at the time; its name in the secular world was “the Seleucid Era.” Its year one was 312 B.C.E., due to a military victory in Gaza by Seleucus I in that year.  (In some regions, 311 B.C.E. was year one on this system.) Seleucus I had been a general to Alexander the Great.
          We do have evidence from the Talmud that there was knowledge of the Jewish year from creation in the Amoraic period in both Palestine and Babylonia, but it seems not to have been the most commonly used method of dating in either region. (The Talmud, at Avodah Zarah 9b, also refers to one source from the late Tannaitic period that reflects use of the date from creation.)
           How did the Jews in the late Tannaitic and Amoraic periods get their knowledge of what year it was from creation? The starting point is the work Seder Olam, put into final form by R. Yose b. Halafta in the 2nd century C.E. Although this work does not give the total of the years from creation, it gives the length of time for each of the individual periods mentioned in Tanakh, and it gives the length of the Second Temple period. From the data conveniently collected in this work, a Jew could easily calculate the date from creation. For example, Seder Olam starts with the following passage:  “From Adam to Noach, 1656 years.”  Here, the work has conveniently added up all the years listed at the beginning of Genesis.
         Although the lengths of all the different periods from Adam to the second churban are  listed in Seder Olam, it seems that R. Yose did not intend that people total them up and start using a count from creation based on his work. The conclusion of the work instructs people in Palestine to date from the second churban. It also remarks that people in the golah  (=Babylonia) date on the minyan shetarot system.
         But over time, the count from creation, based on the data in Seder Olam, came to be used more and more. Eventually, in the period of the Rishonim, it became the main count used by most Jewish communities. (Interesting is a passage in the Rambam, writing in Egypt in the late 12th century, where he provides the count on each of the three systems. See his Hilkhot Shemitah ve-Yovel 10:4.)
      We do not have enough sources to understand why the Jews slowly began to favor the count from creation. It has been theorized that it was a response to the fact that the Christians began using their own count from creation. (They calculated a different count from creation than us.) The result of the spread of the use of the Jewish count from creation among world Jewry was that world Jewry began to slowly unite behind one counting system. Perhaps this was one of the motivating factors for the shift to this count as well. The Jews in Babylonia had no tradition of a count from the second churban and the Jews in Palestine had abandoned the Seleucid era count in the second century. The count from creation, in contrast, was something that both societies were familiar with, even though it had not been in prevalent use.
         Interesting are tombstone inscriptions from a Jewish community in Italy from the 9th century. (In general, the Jewish customs in Italy followed the customs of Palestine.)  All twenty- three surviving inscriptions bear a date from the second churban but three bear an additional date on the count from creation. These inscriptions show that the date from the second churban was still the dominant chronology in the 9th century C.E. in the areas under the influence of Palestine, but the count from creation was slowly making some headway.
         It is unfortunate that, out of the 3 possible schemes, it was the count from creation scheme that became the mostly widely used one; it is the most problematic of the three. With regard to the other two, there is no dispute how long it is today from the second churban, and no dispute how long it is today from the beginning of the Seleucid era. (I am ignoring trivial issues of 1-2 years.)  The count from creation scheme, on the other hand, has difficulties with it.
          I am here only going to discuss the major difficulty with it. (In 1997, I authored a book on this topic: Jewish History in Conflict.)  When R. Yose in the 2nd century C.E. had to figure out the length of the Second Temple period, where did he get his data?  The Tanakh gives the data for the Biblical period, but the Biblical period only spans up to the mid- 5th century B.C.E. It stops in the middle of the Persian period.  To get the length of the entire Second Temple period, R. Yose had to rely on a prediction in the 9th chapter of Daniel, which refers to a future 490 year period, the endpoints of which are ambiguous. R. Yose interpreted this prediction as referring to a 70 year exilic period and a 420 year Second Temple period. He accordingly assigned 420 years to the Second Temple period. In truth however, the Second Temple period spanned 589 years, from 520 B.C.E (2nd year of Darius) until 70 C.E. (There is no year zero.) This means that our count from creation lacks 169 years if we focus solely on the Second Temple period. (On the other hand, R. Yose assigns 410 years to the First Temple period, and this is about 29 years too big. The First Temple period spanned 967-586 B.C.E.)  A 16th century  Italian Jewish scholar named Azariah de Rossi wrote much about the error in the count from creation due to the 420 versus 589 year problem, causing much controversy.
        Fortunately, in some contexts we use the phrase le-minyan she’anu monin kan, which would seem to cover ourselves for errors. (I.e., we are not claiming that our count is accurate, only that we are giving this specific date according to the way we count.)
       I mentioned earlier that in the Amoraic and Geonic periods in Palestine, the surviving sources mainly reflect a count from the second churban. There is one notable exception. A synagogue mosaic in the town of Susiya, in southern Judea, uses the count from creation. Unfortunately, the precise year inscribed has not survived. But a paleography expert has estimated the date of this particular mosaic inscription to be the sixth or seventh century.
       Finally, the system of counting that counts the present year as 2017 was invented by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus (the latter word means “the humble”) in the early sixth century C.E. He did not like the system in use in his time which was pegged to Roman emperors who were notorious for persecuting Christians. Accordingly, he invented a system where year 1 was the year that Jesus was born. (But he was wrong in his assumed year of Jesus’ birth; Jesus was born a few years earlier.) It took about two hundred years for the counting system of Dionysius to become the standard one.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at  Since the Jewish count from creation is significantly incorrect and the 2017 count has a Christian origin, he thinks that we should consider going back to dating from the second churban.