Rare Footage of the First Convention of Agudas Yisrael

26 02 2015

This beautiful and incredible footage has been doing the rounds lately, and is well worth watching. The reason for its sudden popularity is no doubt the segment showing the Chafetz Chayim, R’ Yisrael Meir haKohen, at 0:57, flanked by both his son on his left and his grandson on his right. Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein has provided an excellent service in relating the names of various other personalities in this video. They are:

R’ Avraham Tzvi Perlmuter, the “Dameshek Eliezer” (0:27);

R’ Yisrael Friedman, the second rebbe of Chortkov (0:47);

R’ Yitzhak Zelig Morgensztern of Sokolov, the fourth Kotzker Rebbe (1:47);

R’ Dr. Asher Mikhael (“Arthur”) haKohen of Basel (1:57);

R’ Yehuda Leyb Tsirelson, chief rabbi of Bessarabia (2:05);

R’ Elchanan Wasserman (2:22);

R’ Asher Mendelson (2:28);

R’ Dr. Pinchas Kahn (2:56);

R’ Tuvia Horowitz (3:02);

R’ Yaakov Rosenheim, president of the Agudah (3:16);

R’ Dr. Meir Hildesheim (3:16);

R’ Dr. Eliyahu (“Leo”) Jung (3:55);

R’ Shpitzer (3:58);

R’ Yehezkel Sarna, later head of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem (4:13);

R’ Moshe Blau (4:28);

R’ Dr. Tuvia Levenstein (4:34).

And while I’m sharing videos, here are three of my favourites. The first is a famous one, since it commences with footage of the Munkaczer Rebbe at his daughter’s wedding in 1933. Unlike that video, the second and third ones are silent, but while the second is in black-and-white (and is shot in pre-war Ukraine) the third is in colour. It was filmed by Dr. Benjamin Gasul in Warsaw, 1939.

Seder Qodshim: Some Preliminary Reflections

18 02 2015

It has taken me a good few years, but I have finally finished the first four sedarim of the Mishna and am now halfway through the forty-first tractate: Masekhet Zevachim.

These remarks of mine are premature, since I am only at the very beginning of Seder Qodshim, but I cannot help but note a qualitative difference between this tractate and every one of the other forty tractates that I have already covered.

As a general rule, the Mishna’s presentation of rabbinic law is haphazard. In Shabbat, for example, it is not until the second mishna of the seventh chapter that we are informed as to what are the primary prohibitions on the seventh day; in Beitza, it is not until the fifth chapter that learn what may not be done on a yontef. For the most part, the Mishna presents us with case law, and it is up to the student to construct around that legislation a system that can reveal its inner mechanics.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule, perhaps the finest being Bava Qama, which commences with theoretical observations about the nature of different torts. But even that tractate quickly devolves into a series of cases. Not so with Zevachim.

With Masekhet Zevachim one finds a tractate that is thoroughly organised around a methodological exposition of its subject matter. It is procedural, systematic and technical, and appears designed as a manual for students seeking to understand the sacrifices. Every other tractate that I have encountered appears geared towards a student who has already studied the Mishna. So far, Masekhet Zevachim is sui generis in regards to its organisational structure, and to the fact that it can be approached in isolation.

And so I wonder (and prematurely): is this due to the sacrificial procedure having been already entirely theoretical at the time of the Mishna’s composition? While in other areas of legislation one might be able to presuppose a certain familiarity with cultural and ritual norms, and therefore utilise an abundance of cases in a presentation of the relevant law, perhaps this area is one in which a general ignorance is to be expected, and in which cases are rare if they are remembered at all.

I look forward to seeing whether or not this observation holds true throughout the rest of this seder, and throughout the following as well (which, in dealing with purity law, is of a similarly esoteric nature). But if I am correct, it would seem that it is specifically in relation to the arcane that the rabbis felt most at home in developing a system from the ground up and in presenting that system methodically.

In my opinion, it’s a welcome change; the careful delineation of theoretical principles is always so much more interesting than the arbitration of individual cases – even if the latter is more rewarding to the cultural historian.

“Beyond Narrative”

16 02 2015

Here, recently reprinted, is Roger Ebert’s 1978 article, “Beyond Narrative: The Future of the Feature Film”.

It is rather lengthy, but thoroughly engrossing, and comprises in part a highly informative review of the history of arthouse cinema. Within this it features a profound analysis of Robert Altman’s Three Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and the nature of films that eschew conventional narrative. Much that the author has to say (about the relationship between cinema and television, for example) needs to be taken with a grain of salt – the article having been authored, after all, in 1978. That said, several of his predictions concerning the “future” of mainstream cinema have been vindicated, and to a great extent they remain true today.


27 10 2014

While I’ve yet to hear back from my examiners, and truly know not what to possibly expect, I consider the composition and completion of my 75,000-word thesis a minor triumph of sorts. With its submission, as of September 2nd this year, the project that has dominated the last eight years of my life begins to slowly crawl towards its long-anticipated conclusion.

While I have wanted to move on, to write something new and to embark upon a new endeavour – and while my ideas for new projects have been both manifold and exciting – I have found the composition of even a short blog post to that effect to be of insurmountable difficulty. It took me a full week before I was even able to read again, and almost two weeks before I was able to return to my study of the Mishna. Even now, I am not yet entirely ready to render my observations into coherent prose.

It was Winston Churchill who once remarked that, if you find yourself going through hell: keep going. The advice is easier given than followed, and there were very many times when I considered aborting my candidature and putting off indefinitely that which until December last year I’d not yet even begun to write. The task of writing a thesis within the space of a year is not one that I can recommend. The final two weeks were nightmarish; for almost a month after I had finished, my occupation during that time comprised the substance of my anxious dreams.

Now that it is, for the time being, “over”, I have been pleased to rediscover the joys of reading. I hope soon to likewise rediscover the joys of writing. At such a time, I look forward to sharing some of the more interesting and unusual pieces of casuistry that have delighted me over these past several weeks – and hopefully some good news too, once word gets back to me from the university. In the meantime, dear anonymous and faceless friends, I bid you a temporary adieu.

Pale Blue Dot

23 10 2013

Courtesy of a student of mine comes this beautiful and thought-inspiring video, narrated by Carl Sagan: a man with a truly golden voice.


20 10 2013

It is the evening of the third of Shevat, the yahrtseit of the Rav’s father, Rav Moshe, zt”l, and we are in Lamport Auditorium at Yeshiva University awaiting the arrival of the Rav to deliver his annual Yahrtseit Shiur. Some of us have been sitting for a few hours, having come early to obtain seats as close as possible to the Rav. The auditorium is now packed and overflowing. Suddenly, as if an electric current has run through the room, the entire audience, as one, rises: the Rav has arrived!

Sitting in front, we do not immediately see the Rav, for he enters from the rear, and must traverse the entire length of the auditorium to reach us. Everyone is standing, blocking our view; yet the feeling of his presence pervades the room. Finally, the Rav emerges from the crowd, walking briskly, manuscript in hand, steps onto the stage and sits down behind an empty table to begin the shiur.

Then the journey starts. The Rav, usually focusing on one or more halakhot of the Rambam, ticks off one question after another that reflect obvious difficulties in the halakha – at least they are obvious after the Rav sets them out in his clear, lucid and inimitable manner of exposition. Then, after developing each of his questions – superlative pedagogue that he is – he reviews in summary form all of them, to assure that we understand what the problems are that will now be clarified.

That phase of the shiur concluded, the Rav goes on to develop a concept – the hiddush of the shiur – traversing a plethora of passages in the Talmud, commentaries (mostly Rishonim), Midrashim, and others. We watch, listen, and many of us avidly write notes, trying to keep up with the Rav’s rapid-fire delivery as he lays out the hiddush, brick by brick by brick, reconciling all the varied and seemingly contradictory texts.

Now that the foundation has been set and the text reconciliation completed, the Rav returns to the original series of questions. Each is repeated, and then almost summarily disposed of through application of the hiddush, one after the other, after the other. It is more than two hours later and the circuit has been completed; the first portion of the shiur is concluded.

– excerpted from “Dedication”, by Julius Berman. Pages vii-ix of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halakha, Man of Faith (ed. Menachem D. Genack; Ktav Publishing House, 1998).


16 05 2013

In what might be the most hilarious editing fail of the year, it turns out that the algorithm employed by Inagist (a website that “curates tweets based on popularity in real-time”) is unable to differentiate between the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism and the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases. That seems like a pretty easy mistake to make. If you’re a computer.

The upshot of this is that they feature a nice big photo of Australian Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, with the proud declaration that he has just signed the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism, and almost directly underneath it a tweet from @LSHTMPress, to the effect that “we need to understand parasites a lot better to treat them properly”.

At least, I’m assuming that this was an error…

Editing Fail


10 04 2013

This haunting piece is “Moya”, the opening track on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 1999 EP, “Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada”. The image displayed is that of the album’s cover: two words in Hebrew, which are translated by the familiar King James Version as “without form, and void”. As a phrase, it appears both in Genesis 1:2 and in Jeremiah 4:23. Both are descriptions of the earth at the beginning of creation, but the second text also alludes to what the world will be like for a time after God brings destruction upon it.

To which of these texts was the post-rock band alluding? Cleverly (if perhaps unintentionally), to both of them.

The inside of the record jacket includes the text from Jeremiah 4:23-27 in both Hebrew and English, putting the passage into its apocalyptic and eschatological context. A context, I should add, that is most fitting for this and for all of their other albums as well. But the te’amim (the trope signs) on the album cover are those of Genesis 1:2. Had they intended the cover to allude to Jeremiah 4:23, they would have utilised a tifcha under the first word and an atnachta under the second. Since they utilised instead two pashtin above the first word and a zaqef qatan above the second, the passage from which they were copying out their text was from Genesis instead.

If they meant to allude to Jeremiah, why did they copy the words from Genesis? Is it possible that they knew what they were doing, and that they were deliberately alluding to both? If so, I like to assume that they were also aware of the fact that they had included a small circle above the /heh/, which is not part of the te’amim at all. It’s a masoretic notation, found within the Leningrad Codex and other representatives of the MT (such as, as is more likely, the BHS) and it serves to direct the reader to a corresponding gloss in the margin.

The marginal gloss for this phrase features a single letter, ב, which represents the number 2. This means that the phrase in question occurs twice within the biblical literature – the second instance, of course, being Jeremiah 4:23. Copying the te’amim from Genesis and including the circle is both the smartest and the subtlest way that they could have alluded to both passages simultaneously. I really hope that they intended to do so.

Bnei Noach

12 11 2012

The Shulchan Arukh (OC 328:14) rules that if a person is sick on Shabbat and needs meat, it is better to slaughter an animal for them than to feed them an animal that wasn’t slaughtered according to the halakha. This, despite the fact that slaughtering an animal on Shabbat is a far graver violation than consuming non-kosher meat.

There are several reasons for this, the one in the Tur being that,by a sick person, Shabbat is like a weekday. The mechaber’s reason, which he mentions in his Bet Yosef (ibid.), is that it is better to commit a one-off violation than it is to commit frequent violations, even when those frequent violations are of a lesser order. Although there were scholars before the Tur who expressed the same halakha (notably the Rosh and the Mordekhai), this particular reason for it is attributed by the Bet Yosef to Rabbeinu Nissim (“the Ran”; Yoma 4b, s.v. וגרסינן), who holds that when eating non-kosher meat one is in violation of the halakha with every olive-sized mouthful.

Although the Ran doesn’t quote them, the actual origins of this principle appear to lie in the writings of the Baalei haTosafot (Daat Zkeinim, Genesis 12:11), in their resolution of a problem posed by an 11th century French scholar and friend of Rashi’s family, R’ Yosef Qera. According to R’ Yosef, the reason that Avraham feared for his life when going down to Egypt was that the Egyptians, as bnei Noach, were forbidden from committing adultery. Since his wife, Sarah, was so beautiful, perhaps they will kill him in order that one of them might marry her?

As the Tosafot point out, bnei Noach were also warned about murder. Why would Avraham think that they would violate a more serious prohibition in order that they might not violate the milder one? Their resolution, which is subsequently quoted by both the Rosh and the Chizkuni in their commentaries on the Torah, is that it is better to transgress a serious prohibition once than it is to transgress a mild prohibition several times.

If I am correct in supposing that the origins of this idea lie in the writings of the Tosafot, and that it was their resolution that influenced the halakha of the Ran, then we have in our Shulchan Arukh a ruling that (at least according to its author) is learnt out, not “from Sinai”, but through the postulated behaviour of Egyptians.

Additions to my Shelf

5 07 2012

This should be an ongoing series: books that I add to my collection.

For all I know, I’m the only person who reads these particular posts, but for my own edification, the following are the books that I have acquired since last writing about the state of my library:


Torah, and Torah-Related:

• The Kedushas Levi of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, disciple of the Maggid and of one of his disciples, Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg;

• The Yismach Moshe of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, great-great-grandfather of the Satmar Rebbe and the rebbe of Ujhely, in Hungary. The Yismach Moshe was a disciple of Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak (“the Seer”) of Lublin, himself a disciple of the Maggid and of two of the Maggid’s other disciples: Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg and Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk;

• The Kedushas Yom-Tov of Rabbi Hananiah Yom-Tov Lipa Teitelbaum, the father of the Satmar Rebbe and the rebbe of Sighet, in Hungary;

• Something I had never seen before! Known as HaMe’orot haGedolim, this is structured like a Miqra’ot Gedolot: a passage of text on the upper right-hand side, a number of commentaries around it. This time, however, instead of featuring commentaries on Torah or Nach, it features the Torah with Rashi (and Onkelos) and eleven different super-commentaries on Rashi:

1. Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (the “Re’em“. His commentary is referred to as “Mizrachi”);
2. Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (the “Maharal“. His commentary is titled “Gur Aryeh”);
3. Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe (the “Levush“. His commentary is titled “Levush ha’Orah”);
4. Rabbi Shabbetai Bass (the “Siftei Chachamim“, which is the title of his commentary);
5. Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo haLevi Bukrat (His commentary is titled “Sefer haZikaron”);
6. Rabbi Shlomo Luria (the “Maharshal“. His commentary is titled “Yeriot Shlomo”);
7. Rabbi Moshe Mat, a disciple of the Maharshal. (His commentary is titled “Ho’il Moshe”);
8. Rabbi Yissachar Ber Eilenberg. (His commentary is titled “Tzidah leDerekh”);
9. Rabbi Yaakov Solnik, son of Rabbi Binyamin Solnik. (His commentary is titled “Nachalat Yaakov”);
10. Rabbi David Pardo. (His commentary is titled “Maskil leDavid”);
11. Rabbi Meir Binyamin Menachem Donun. (His commentary is titled “Be’er beSadeh”).

• Rabbi Shaul Lieberman‘s incredible Tosefta and Tosefta kiPheshuta. A critical edition of the Tosefta together with an extensive commentary (and one that demonstrates the author’s truly phenomenal knowledge of the rabbinic literature), the project was unfortunately never finished. It is complete for the first three divisions of the Tosefta (Zeraim, Moed and Nashim), and includes the first tractate of the fourth division (Nezikin [= Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra]), which was published posthumously. Altogether, it runs to twelve impressive volumes;

• A new and updated version of the Shemirat Shabbat keHilkheta, by Rabbi Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth, disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. This is the definitive exposition of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s treatment of Shabbat;

• Rabbi Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Character, Context and Creativity: The Second Temple Period (trans. M. Prawer; Connecticut: Maggid Books, 2010);

• Rabbi Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Character, Context and Creativity: From Yavneh to the Bar Kokhba Revolt (trans. I. Kurshan; Connecticut: Maggid Books, 2011);

• Rav Shlomo Lorincz, In Their Shadow: Wisdom and Guidance of the Gedolim (Vol. I; trans. Y. Rosenblum; Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2011). Rav Shlomo Lorincz was an MK for Agudat Yisrael, and a close confidante of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (the “Chazon Ish“), Rabbi Yitzhak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (the “Brisker Rov“) and Rabbi Elazar Shach. This first volume constitutes brief biographies of, and his reminiscences of, those three individuals;

• Rav Shlomo Lorincz, In Their Shadow: Wisdom and Guidance of the Gedolim (Vol. II; trans. M. Musman; Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2011). This volume constitutes brief biographies of, and the authors reminiscences of, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, Rav Yaakov Yechezkiyahu Greenwald (the Pupa Rebbe), Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, Rav Aharon Rokach (the Belzer Rebbe), Rav Akiva Sofer, Rav Avraham Yaakov Friedman (the Sadigerer Rebbe), Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld (the Tchebiner Rav) and Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (the Kopitshnitzer Rebbe);

• Rav Shlomo Lorincz, In Their Shadow: Wisdom and Guidance of the Gedolim (Vol. III; trans. M. Musman; Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2011). This volume constitutes brief biographies of, and the authors reminiscences of, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (the Ponevezher Rav), Rav Eliyahu Lopian, Rav Moshe Yechiel Epstein (the Ozhrover Rebbe), Rav Chaim Meir Hager (the Vizhnitzer Rebbe), Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, Rav Yisrael Alter (the Gerrer Rebbe), Rav Yoel Teitelbaum (the Satmar Rebbe), Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (the Klausenberger Rebbe) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach;

• Rabbi Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb (ed.), Koren Talmud Bavli: Berakhot (Jerusalem: Koren, 2012). I shall write more about this one later!


Shoah, and Shoah-Related:

• Bartrop, P.R. and S.L. Jacobs (eds.) Fifty Key Thinkers on the Holocaust and Genocide (London: Routledge, 2011);

• Feller, R. and S. Feller, Silent Witnesses: Civilian Camp Money of World War II (Ohio: BNR Press, 2007);

• Friedländer, S. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997);

• Friedländer, S. Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination, 1939-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2007);

• Gilbert, M. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (New York: Henry Holt, 1987);

• Gilbert, M. The Macmillan Atlas of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1982);

• Hilberg, R. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992);

• Hilberg, R. The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996);

• Lowy, A. I Am a Survivor (Sydney Jewish Museum, 2011).


From the library of Heinz Bohm, z”l:

• Aharoni, Y. and M. Avi-Yonah. The Macmillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1976);

• Alcalay, R. The Complete English-Hebrew Dictionary (2 vols; Jerusalem: Massada, 1970);

• Alcalay, R. The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary (Jerusalem: Massada, 1970);

• Albright, W.F. From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process (Anchor Books, 1957);

• Amiran, R. Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land: From its Beginnings in the Neolithic Period to the End of the Iron Age (Rutgers University Press, 1970);

• Coggins, R.J. The Cambridge Bible Commentary: The First and Second Books of the Chronicles (Cambridge University Press, 1976);

• Crim, K. (ed.) The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia: Supplementary Volume (Tennessee: Abingdon, 1976);

• Dawidowicz, L. (ed.) The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (New York: Schocken Books, 1987);

• Heschel, A.J. The Prophets (New York: JPS, 1962);

• Koestler, A. The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage (London: Pan Books, 1977);

• Levi, E. משנה מפורשת: מסכת ברכות (Tel Aviv: Sinai);

• Sadek, V., J. Šedinová and J. Macht. Pražské Ghetto (Prague: Olympia, 1991);

• Salfellner, H. Franz Kafka and Prague (Prague: Vitalis, 2002);

• Schüller, E.L. Hebrew Ballads and Other Poems (trans. and ed. A. Durschlag and J. Litman-Demeestère; Philadelphia: JPS, 1980);

• Simon, S. יהושוע און שופטים (New York: Farlag Matones, 1952);

• Thomas, D.W. (ed.) Archaeology and Old Testament Study (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967);

The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, With an English Translation; and with Various Readings and Critical Notes (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1976);

Hilkhot Talmud Torah, with the glosses of the Raavad and the commentary of the Kesef Mishna (Jerusalem: Eshkol, 1968).