Monthly Archives: July 2006

R’ Chaim Hirschensohn on differing with the previous generations

I came accross this website with some great extracts from R’ Chaim Hirschensohn (see here for more details) regarding a fundamental topic, that is paramount to any discussion pertaining to Orthodox Judaism. I think his response is refreshing, truthful and loyal to the spirit of Judaism, a religion focused on seeking the truth – wherever it may be found.

(Below is a copy of the extracts from the above mentioned site)

Our Sages of blessed memory have said: “Wise ones, be cautious with your words.” For a hareidi Rabbi visited me and was astonished to see that His Torah Honor [Rabbi Hirschensohn] writes in page 76 of his work contrary to the opinion of Rashi and the Tosafot, and that they [Rashi and Tosafot ] forgot or never knew what had happened in a certain historical instance. The Rabbi who was visiting said, “He must count seven clean days [on account of the impurity of the words].” I showed him that which the Rosh [Rabbeinu Asher, one of the Rishonim] wrote, that concerning the Torah, which is “truth,” one must not show deference to any man. Just as by the honor and fear that must be accorded by a son to his father, there are certain cases where a son may differ with his father. And Maimonides wrote in several instances, “my father and teacher is among those who forbid, while I am among those who permit.” Similarly, Rabbeinu Yaakov Baal HaTurim ruled in several cases contrary to his father the Rosh. However, I ask you to please formulate a proper response to his claim.

From a letter to Rabbi Hirschensohn by Rabbi Yechiel Michal Goldberg 2 Tamuz 5681 [1921] Malki Bakodesh IV, 30

…Regarding that which His Torah Honor wrote about a “rabbi of the hareidim” who visited him: Are there then any rabbis in Poland who are not “hareid” (fearful) of the word/Halakhah of G-d? Has Poland also become sick like Austria, Germany, and America, with “rabbis” of all different types? Undoubtedly, you must have meant by the term “hareidi” one whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom; and even though our Sages of blessed memory have promised that the wisdom of such a man “endures,” they did not promise that it would grow or expand. Wisdom that was not acquired by virtue of hard work and study will not be helped by the fear of sin.

Rashi and Tosafot – indeed, all of the Rishonim – are holy and precious in our eyes; “the earlier ones [lit., rishonim] are as angels.” However, no matter how great a man is, whom “G-d has made a little lower than angels,” he is still mortal in that he cannot know more than he has seen or heard or studied. Even a giant in Torah, if he has not done one of these three things, cannot know something, if not by way of prophecy – which has been removed even from prophets ever since the destruction of the Holy Temple. And even during the days of the Second Temple, it is told (Horayot 10a) that Rabbi Joshua knew that there was a certain star that appeared once every 70 years that could cause ships to go astray, and so he took extra food along on his ocean journey, while Rabban Gamliel did not know about the star. Should this be considered a slur or offense to Rabban Gamliel, who was a great astronomer and who even had a scheme of the moon laid out in his attic? It is also related in the Mishnah (B’chorot 4) that Rabbi Tarfon did not know that cows were not exported from Alexandria with their wombs intact, and that if a certain Dr. Todos had not taught this fact to the rabbis, it would not have been known. Many other such examples of this can be found in the Talmud and Medrash.

If Rashi and Tosafot never read Roman history, and did not know that before Hadrian built Aelia Capitolina upon the ruins of Jerusalem, the wall of the city was simply breached and not totally razed, and that Jews even lived there – this is not a slight at their honor, for they could not have known these facts without having read the history books of the nations. And if, by virtue of knowledge of these facts, a Talmudic passage can be explained differently than the way Rashi and Tosafot explained it, this is the honor of Torah, and not, Heaven forbid, an insult at these earthly angels of G-d. Just as it is not an insult to Rabbi Tarfon and the other rabbis, who would have ruled many animals “unkosher” had not Dr. Todos come along and taught them.

Regarding the concept of dispute with the Rishonim, whose seal is truth, I have already quoted the words of the Rosh (in Malki Bakodesh II, p. 85), and every upright man will concede the truth of this point. The Rishonim themselves will rejoice in their Heavenly paradise over the fact that from their words comes the Halakhah, and that the truth will be established forever.

From a response to Rabbi Y.M. Goldberg Malki Bakodesh IV, 33

The axis revolves here around the matter of issur (forbidden) and heter (permitted). If it were to be forbidden for later authorities to rely upon their own thoughts and intelligence against the opinion of the earlier authorities, then there would be no difference between issur and heter, for the main issue here is the power of the intellect, understanding, and logic.

Being that the Torah has granted the later authorities the right to reason and deliberate, even only to forbid that which the Rishonim permitted, we may rely on this power also to permit that which the earlier ones forbade, in the case where a later authority has reached, after careful study, what he considers to be the true Torah conclusion. He is then obligated, or at least permitted, to act according to his conclusion, even if it is contrary to that of the Rishonim, as I have explained in Malki Bakodesh II, p. 85, and in a footnote on p. 86; I quoted the Rosh, who said (Sanhedrin IV, par. 6), “Everything whose law was not presented conclusively in the Talmud, one may build up and tear down, and even differ with the rulings of the Geonim.” See also Vol. IV of Malki Bakodesh, p. 64, and see my response to Letter 13, and p. 67, and other passages there. The chief proof of my point is from Hezekiah, about whom it was said that he knew something that those who preceded him did not – not because of their ignorance, but rather because G-d decided that Hezekiah should merit this knowledge. It is not haughtiness [on the part of those who claim to know], but this is rather the natural way: when a matter arises in practice, those who must deal with it learn new aspects that those who preceded them – who did not have to deal practically with the issue – never had a need to know other than in their academic studies. I wrote a similar point concerning Beit She’an.

From a letter to Rabbi Yosef Ben-Tzion Baavad 6 Kislev 5684 (1923) Malki Bakodesh VI, p. 111

R Nachman on Skepticism

It is written, ‘A fool believes all things’ (Proverbs 15:15). It is good to be such a fool. If you believe even that which is false and foolish, you will also believe the truth. You are better off than he who is sophisticated and skeptical of everything.

One can begin by ridiculing foolishness and falsehood. Eventually he will ridicule everything and end up denying even the truth. As one of our greatest sages once said, ‘It is better that I be called a fool all my life and not be wicked even one moment before God (Eidiyot 5:6).

Sichos HaRan/ Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #103 (

Graphic video of Israel

It was great trepidation that I post the link to this video, for the content is graphic beyond words. But, I think it unfortunately takes a video like this to make us realize the true depth and depravity of the situation, past and present. My only response can be that of silence…

Rambam on cure for melancholy

Shomoneh Perakim – The Rambams introduction to the Tractave of Avot, Chapter 5 [pg 35 of the Moznaim English Addition of the Mishne Torah by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger]

"Similarly, if a person is overcome by melancholy, he should endeavor to purge himself of it by listening to songs and music, strolling through gardens and magnificent buildings, and frequenting attractive works of art [4]. (In these activities,) his internet should (not be for pleasure per se, but rather) be for his physical health. And the purpose of attaining physical health is to attain knowledge."

What is more intriguing is the footnote at the bottom of the page:

[4] Although the traditional interpretation of the Rambam’s works is as above, based on Hilchot Teshuva 8:6, it is possible to render the phrase “associating with attractive woman”

I am not quite sure what to make of this suggestion. See here ( for further discussion of the Rambam’s opinion with regard to these issues.

Below is the Hebrew and English Translation of the relevant Rambam. I have underlined what I persume R’ Touger is refering to. However I do not have the Hebrew version of Shomoneh Perakim. (If somone can send it to me and show where in the Hebrew R’Touger gets this possible interpretation, I would be most appreciative)

Hilchot Teshuva 8:6

6) Do not under-rate this goodness by reckoning that the reward for mitzvot is not that one will be perfect on the way of truth, but that one will eat and drink good foods, involve oneself in coition with people of outstanding appearance, dress in purple embroidered clothes, live in a tent of ivory and use vessels of gold and silver, and have similar things, in the way that the stupid and adulterous Arabs occupy themselves. The Sages said that those who possess knowledge know that all these things are just rubbish and nonsense, and are useless. We have no goodness better than this in this world, for we have physical bodies. All these things are bodily requisites, and the soul desires and wants them only for the sake of the body so that the body’s wants will be met and will continue to exist. When there is no body, all these things become as nothing. The great goodness which the soul experiences in the World To Come is beyond any means of comprehension in this world. In this world we know only the physical pleasures to which we are tied, but that goodness [in the World To Come] is exceedingly good, and has no rating when compared to the pleasures of this world, except figuratively. In the way of truth, however, which continues physical pleasures into the World To Come for the soul by way of food and drink is not so, but that goodness is beyond investigation, and has no limit or comparison. David said, "How great is Your goodness which you have laid up for those who fear You; which You have performed for those who trust in You in the sight of the sons of men!".


Hilchot Teshuva 8:6 (Hebrew):

Definition of Melancholy:

1 a : an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile and characterized by irascibility or depression
2 a : depression of spirits : DEJECTION b : a pensive mood    

I persume the Rambam as a doctor held of the first definition

Josephus on the life span of the ancients

I am currently working my way through “Antiquities of the Jews” by Josephus. [Full online text can be found here]

In Chapter 3 of “From the Creation to the death of Isaac” in AOTJ, I found a rather interesting paragraph:

9. Now when Noah had lived three hundred and fifty years after the Flood, and that all that time happily, he died, having lived the number of nine hundred and fifty years. But let no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our lives, and with the few years which we now live, think that what we have said of them is false; or make the shortness of our lives at present an argument, that neither did they attain to so long a duration of life, for those ancients were beloved of God, and [lately] made by God himself; and because their food was then fitter for the prolongation of life, might well live so great a number of years: and besides, God afforded them a longer time of life on account of their virtue, and the good use they made of it in astronomical and geometrical discoveries, which would not have afforded the time of foretelling [the periods of the stars] unless they had lived six hundred years; for the great year is completed in that interval. Now I have for witnesses to what I have said, all those that have written Antiquities, both among the Greeks and barbarians; for even Manetho, who wrote the Egyptian History, and Berosus, who collected the Chaldean Monuments, and Mochus, and Hestieus, and, besides these, Hieronymus the Egyptian, and those who composed the Phoenician History, agree to what I here say: Hesiod also, and Hecatseus, Hellanicus, and Acusilaus; and, besides these, Ephorus and Nicolaus relate that the ancients lived a thousand years. But as to these matters, let every one look upon them as he thinks fit.

The following observations can be made:

1) Already 2000 years ago(!), there was a concern over the lengthy life span of our forefathers, with the accusation being mounted that the recordings of such life spans were false.

2) The scientific method of extrapolating from current conditions to the past was already in vogue (ie since common man can only life a certain number of years, this must have always been the case, even in the past). This approach is rejected by Josephus

3) Josephus resorts to naturalistic explanations for the lengthy life span, proposing that “their food was then fitter for the prolongation of life”

4) As evidence for the lengthy life spans of the ancients, Josephus makes reference to ancient and contemporary non jewish historians who record similar life spans in the history of their own people.

I think the following can be deduced from the above

1) The ancients were not primitive people, the contradiction between science, history and the contemporary opinion were issues of concern for them as well. They considered these conflicts to be a real issue, that required a response. I hardly imagine that Josephus was the only individual to have encountered these issues, and I guess it was rather a popular concern of the intellectual elite of that era.

2) The ancients already had advanced procedures and methodologies to obtain, quantify and communicate evidence for their respective positions. The scientific methodology of extrapolating from the present to the past was in use at that time and was used as evidence against traditional accounts of history. The historical – critical method of consulting sources outside the traditional cannon was implemented to resolve / propose contradictions and to seek parallels in the historical record for common themes / events.

3) As can be seen, the tension between Science and Torah is nothing new. The tools and methodologies used are the same then as they are now. The camps of believers, disbelievers, scientist and traditionalist are still alive and well in year 2006 as they were then. 

This should give us hope and encouragement in light of the Slifkin Saga. No less a figure than Josephus found the strength to believe and profess his faith in spite of the opposition and difficulties. The same issues were around then, with the same tools and the same evidence. Yet, Josephus and people like him felt the "call of the hour" and responsed to the challenge. We would be wise to follow his example…

Rambam on Scrolls of the the forefathers

R’ Gil Student, in his article entitled “On the Authorship of the Torah” relays the ideas of certain authorities that there were pre-existing manuscripts that contained the recorded histories of our forefathers, Eg Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc. (See the section Scrolls of the Forefathers).  R’ Student wishes to propose that these manuscripts served as the source for much of our text of Genesis, although they were edited summarized and collated by G-d himself.

“Most importantly, G-d had to edit the scrolls in order to perfect the exact wording and phrasing of the Torah so that many meanings can be found in it. While a good writer can insert two or three layers of meaning into a text, only a divine Author can insert dozens of meanings. Despite all this editing, the inspired scrolls of the patriarchs form the basis of the book of Genesis”

Now this theory may be well and true, with authoritative sources to support it. However, I think the following quote from the Rambam in his letter “The response to Joseph Ibn Gabir” seems to dismiss this theory. The “scrolls of the forefathers” if they existed, had no role in the composition of the Torah. The revelation at Sinai was an original creation, the content only being revealed to Moshe “for the first time” (i.e he did not get a ‘sneak preview’ from previous manuscripts)

This is my understanding of what the Rambam is saying in this letter. If anyone feels I have misinterpreted this letter, please feel free to leave a comment or email me.

“You mention further an objection made against my judgment that the rite of circumcision we are commanded to observe is Mosaic law rather than a tradition of Abraham. My opponents argue that, inasmuch as on the occasion of that Commandment, the Lord made a thirteen-fold covenant of that Commandment, the Lord made a thirteen-fold covenant with Abraham, we may assume that the obligation to observe the rite of circumcision dates back to Abraham. The argument is inadmissible and their alleged evidence demonstrates that they do not understand the very foundation of our religion. My judgment, I assure you, is correct without any doubt.

Included in the six hundred thirteen precepts that were commanded at Sinai are the injunction of circumcision and the prohibition of the sinew which, although they existed in earlier times as recorded in scripture, have been in force as prescriptions only since the time of Moses. You ask those blind people – who pretend to be seers and cite as evidence against me the thirteen-fold covenant with Abraham – to tell you if Abraham himself had perhaps written the thirteen fold covenant with all the verses contained in that portion, and Moses simply copied them, as some people are wont to copy ancient works of another author, or whether the verses have been composed by Moses for the first time under inspiration? Whoever does not believe that these verses, together with the whole Torah, were composed by Moses under inspiration denies that the Torah is of Divine origin.

How would one indeed know what was communicated to Abraham, were it not for the account communicated by Moses? Hence, the foundation and the injunction of that precept, as well as the thirteen-fold covenant stem from Moses. This matter is obvious except to those who do not posses the capacity to reflect and who do not concentrate on the roots of religion but on its branches. The Torah enjoined by Moses is in its totality a revelation of God. If it contains ancients laws, as the Noahide law and the sign of the covenant, we are not bound by them because they were observed in ancient times but because of the later Sinaitic legislation vouchsafe exclusively to us.”

[The Response to Joseph Ibn Gabir, Letters of Maimonides – Leon D Stitskin (Pg 88-89) ]

Rambam on learning Torah from a translation

Over Shabbat I read a fascinating work, a series of letters from the Rambam translated into English. The work is entitled “Letters of Maimonides” and is authored by Leon D Stitskin.

Below is an extract that I feel is most encouraging to those who aspire to learn Torah, but are crippled in the sense that they are unable to learn from the original sources independently. (I myself fall into this category, as I am sure do many others)

Maimonides to Joseph Ibn Gabir (pg 87-88)

I have place the Lord before me always. The letter of the wise and cherished Mar known as Ibn Gabir has reached me. He describes himself as an ignorant man and laments his inability to read the work I composed in the Hebrew language, the Mishneh Torah. It is clear, however, from this epistle that he has a great enthusiasm for studying Torah, and that he occupies himself steadily in My commentary on the Mishnah. He also mentions that he heard from some scholars in Baghdad (may the Lord protect them) are critical of some of my decisions, and request that I reply in my own handwriting in order to help him with his studies. I hereby comply with his request.

First of all, I must tell you, may the Lord preserve and increase your welfare, that you are not justified to call yourself ignorant. You are my beloved pupil, and so are all those who are inclined to pursue zealously the study of Torah and attempt to understand even one biblical verse or a single halacha. It makes also no difference whether one pursues his studies in the holy language or in Arabic or Aramaic, as long as one understands the issues involved. This applies especially to the commentary and the summaries. The most important thing is to be involved in learning. But of one who neglects his studies, or who has never studies, it is said “he has despised the word of the Lord (Num 15,31). This refers also to a man who fails to continue his studies even if his a great scholar, for he thereby neglects the positive precept of advancing his learning which his highest commandment.

As for your own situation, I would suggest that you do not disparage yourself or abandon the prospect of achieving perfection. There are great scholars who commenced their learning at an advanced age and yet developed into distinguished scholars. It behoove you, therefore to study the Hebrew text of the volume I composed. It is not difficult to understand it lends itself easily to study, and in fact, if you master on part you will eventually be able to understand the whole work. Keep in mind, however, that I do not intend to produce and Arabic edition of the Mishneh Torah, as it would lose its specific flavor. Moreover, how can you ask me to do this when I hope to translate even my Arabic writings in the holy language? In any event, you are our brother, may the Lord guard you, lead you to perfection and grand you bliss in both worlds.

My Sephardi Shabbat

The Sephardi Shul in Sydney is too far from my house to walk, and I always wanted to daven there. My friend who is Sephardi, kindly allowed me to sleep over at his house and have my meals there. I had a fanatastic time and my taste buds got a lesson in culture and history.

I thought it would be interesting for others to read, therefore I am posting a point form summary of some of the things I learnt and experienced.


Sephardi food is very different to the type of food I usually eat, however that doesn’t mean it isn’t good, on the contrary it tastes fantastic! The spices, the aroma are out of this world. My friend’s family originally come from India and Singapore, the majority of the Sephardim who reside in Sydney come from that part of the world as well. I’ll spell out the foods phonetically and give a brief description of what each food is.

Friday Night

“Aloo makala” = basically just roast potatoes cuts up into smaller chunks
“halba” = a green dip made out of coriander, garlic, salt and fenigrade(?) seeds
“plau” = yellow rice with spices
“aruk” = fried fish balls with rice and shallots

(Plus chicken schnitzel, chicken, icecream and salad. I only mentioning the food with the Indian / Iraqi names)

“Agar agar” – hard jelly made of seaweed

Saturday Day

“Hamim” – chicken and rice cholent with whole eggs with there shells in it.
“Kaka” – round biscuit

Davening / Halacha / Custom

The Sephardim daven the whole of the Pesukei Dezimra aloud. They have 2 or 3 chazzanim who take turns reading out the psalms.

Because there are less brachot on Shabbat, they pass around “koom-koom”, a gold genie looking bottle of rose water, which everyone makes a bracha on.

While in the ark the Torah is opened for a while and then closed, before being taken to the bimah

Their davening is more or less the same in comparison to Nusach Ashkenaz, with a couple of differences in the Amida, etc. What I found very interesting was their version of Adaon Olom which had a couple of extra verses that our version does not have.

Their tunes that they sing the prayers to are unique and quite beautiful. The trop with which they lain the Torah is completely different to Ashkenazim, both in speed, style and how they accentuate the words

I had to crack my egg myself. The reason being, is that when one is in mourning, the Sephardim have a custom that another person will crack open the egg for you. I also had to eat the egg with salt as they do not have salt with eggs during the mouring period.

I have summarised my weekend in point form and have to say I had a fantastic Shabbat and was exposed to a different side of Yiddishkeit that really gave me inspiration and a greater appreciation of minhag and our different cultural heritages. At the end of day, its wonderful to think that beside all the differences we are all still part of Am Yisrael and all follow the same religion, praying to the same G-d.

(If anyone knows any websites on Sephardim, in particular recipes for their food :) please email me)

Working for a living 4

Marty Bluke over at Jewish Worker has two thoughtful posts about working for a living in Israel.

The Number of Poor People in Israel
Charedi Poverty in Israel  (clarification and extension of above post)

Interesting tid bit…

About two weeks ago we had the honour of hosting R’ Leibel Groner, the secretary of the Lubivatcher Rebbe ZT"L for over 40 years. He related lots of interesting stories. After he left, I heard from Rabbi Pinchas Feldman (Head Lubavitch Shliach in Sydney) a rather interesting fact. R’ Feldman asked R’ Groner, "How many dollars would the Rebbe give out on an average Sunday".

The answer: "Between 6000 – 8000 dollars, and he stood the entire time".