Monday, May 23, 2011

Audio Shiur - Semicha and Mashiach

Here is a shiur I gave yesterday to Midreshet Rachel (for Lag BaOmer) about the concept of Semicha (which is one of the reasons given for the celebrations of Lag BaOmer)

and here are the source sheets to go with it (in Hebrew only I'm afraid)
Download Source Sheets

I recorded it with a new app on my new Motorola Defy, so you will have to decide for yourselves about the quality. It was also given in the Har Nof forest, so there are all sorts of background noises (included one of my kids needing the toilet half way through).

The shiur discusses the historical background of Semicha, when it was given and to whom, the end of Semicha in the time of Theodosius (and the failed rebuilding of the Beit HaMidkash in the time of Julian). I also speak about Rav David HaReuveini, Rav Shlomo Molcho, Don Yosef Nassi, and the dreams of Mashiach following the expulsion from Spain. There is a discussion of the attempt to reinstate semicha, based on Rambam's system, by Rav Yaakov Bei Rav in Tzfas. And finally a brief mention of the current Sanhedrin, and their semicha which was given to Rav Moshe Halberstam zt"l.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Gene Simmons on Obama's Speech

This is too good to miss. Gene Simmons (the one with the tongue from KISS) on the Israeli political situation and Obama's lack of understanding.

I love it when Israel and music come together. And for Lag BaOmer too - when we can discover the secrets of the Zohar and the brilliance of KISS. Hod she-beHod.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Yom HaAtzma'ut in Bnei Brak

I found this poster from Bnei Brak for Israel Independence Day 1949.

It says:

Bnei Brak Local Council
Yom HaAtzma'ut Festival in Bnei Brak!

On Tuesday 4th Iyar 5709 (3.5.49) at 8 in the evening, a festive parade will take place for all the local organisations with the participation of the Israeli Armed Forces and sponsored by the head of the local council.
The parade will leave from the main entrance next to the Petach Tikva-Tel Aviv road, and will pass down Rabbi Akiva Street.
It is an obligatoin for all residents to wave the national flag over their homes from Tuesday evening and throughout Wednesday.
All residents are invited to join the parade and to celebrate Yom HaAtzma'ut with great splendour inkeepign with the instructions.
The local council of Bnei Brak

How times have changed!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Yaakov Bei Rav and Semicha

Today, 1st Iyar, is the yarzheit of a very interesting person in Jewish history. Rav Yaakov Bei Rav passed away on this day in 1546. His main contribution to history was that in 1538 R' Yaakov Bei Rav reintroduced semicha in Eretz Yisrael for the first time in several hundred years.

The background to the story is as follows: When Moshe passed on the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua, he placed his hand on his head. The Torah says (Bamidbar 27:18-21)

And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay thy hand upon him
and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight.
And thou shalt put of thy honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may hearken.
And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the LORD; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.'

Since that time Rabbinic leaders were inducted by someone who already had semicha from the previous generation, with the approval of the Nassi (political leader). In addition, this semicha could only be given and received in Eretz Yisrael. For this reason the Babylonian Amoraim in the Talmud are never called 'Rabbi' but always 'Rav' (or sometimes simply by their name - for example Shmuel).

Only someone with semicha was permitted to rule on cases of fines (knasot) and some other kinds of rulings. In addition, the Sanhedrin (both the main Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and the smaller Sanhedrins in each town) could only convene if at least one of their number had semicha.

When the Romans took control of Israel they banned semicha and threatened to kill anyone giving or receiving semicha. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) records how Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava gave up his life in order to give semicha to five of his students, who became the leaders and decisors of Judaism - Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah (ben Ila’i), Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua.

Despite this sometime in the 4th or 5th century the Romans succeded in banning semicha and dismantled the Sanhedrin. This was probably because the greatest Rabbis, the ones who would have been worthy of receiving semicha, were no longer residing in Israel. The centres of Torah had moved to Bavel.

Since that time there has been no semicha (what is today called semicha is named that in memory of the authentic semicha which was traced back to Moshe).

However, Rambam writes in two places that if all the Rabbis of Israel would agree, they could jointly give semicha to someone, and restart the process. He writes in his commentary on the Mishna (Sanhedrin 1:1) and Mishne Torah (Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:11):

נראין לי הדברים, שאם הסכימו כל החכמים שבארץ ישראל למנות דיינין ולסמוך אותן--הרי אלו סמוכין, ויש להן לדון דיני קנסות, ויש להן לסמוך לאחרים. אם כן, למה היו החכמים מצטערין על הסמיכה, כדי שלא ייבטלו דיני קנסות מישראל: לפי שישראל מפוזרין, ואי אפשר שיסכימו כולן; ואם היה שם סמוך מפי סמוך, אינו צריך דעת כולן, אלא דן דיני קנסות לכול, שהרי נסמך מפי בית דין. והדבר צריך הכרע.

It appears to me [Maimonides] that if all the sages of the Land of Israel consent to appoint dayanim (judges) and grant them semichah (ordination), they have the law of musmachim and they can judge penalty cases and are authorized to grant semichah to others [thus restoring Biblical ordination].
If so, why did the sages bemoan [the loss of] semichah? So that the judgment of penalty cases wouldn't disappear from among Israel because Jews are so spread out that it's not possible to get their consent [to authorize a dayan]. If someone were to receive semichah from someone who already has semichah, then he does not require their consent – he may judge penalty cases for everyone since he received semichah from beis din (rabbinical court). However, this matter requires a final decision.

(Translation from wikipedia's website)

(Paranthetically - I just found that you can download two sedarim of Rambam's commentary on Mishna IN HIS OWN HANDWRITING from this website. WOW!)

Based on this view of Rambam, R' Yaakov Bei Rav tried to reinstate semicha in Tzfat in 1538 by getting the agreement of all the Rabbis of Israel.

It is getting late, so I'll just copy and paste what wikipedia has to say on the matter:

In 1538 Rabbi Jacob Berab of Safed, Land of Israel, attempted to restore the traditional form of Semikhah. His goal was to unify the scattered Jewish communities through the re-establishment of the Sanhedrin. At his prompting, 25 rabbis from the land of Israel convened; they ordained Jacob Berab as their "Chief rabbi". Berab then conferred semikhah through a laying on of hands to four rabbis, including Joseph Caro, who was later to become the author of the Shulchan Aruch, widely viewed as the most important code of Jewish law from the 17th century onwards. Joseph Caro in turn ordained Rabbi Moshe Alshich, who in turn ordained Rabbi Hayyim Vital.
Berab made an error in not first obtaining the approval of the chief rabbis in Jerusalem, which led to an objection to having a Sanhedrin at that time. One should note that this was not an objection to the semikhah, but to reinstituting a Sanhedrin. Levi ibn Habib, the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, wrote that when the nascent Sanhedrin took the authority of a Sanhedrin upon itself, it had to fix the calendar immediately. However, by delaying in this matter, it invalidated itself. Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra (Radvaz) of Egypt was consulted, but when Berab died in 1542 the renewed form of semikhah gradually ground to a halt.

If you have spare time over Shabbat and want to read the dialogue between R' Yaakov Bei Rav and R' Levi Ibn Chaviv (who was the father of the author of Ein Yaakov) it is recorded in the Responsa of R' Levi Ibn Chaviv. It is quite a lengthy discussion of the subject (just under 50 pages) and I have not yet gone through most of it. (actually I just found another wikipedia page which summarizes the main arguments)

I wonder whether semicha gave the Shulchan Aruch more authority, and gave R' Yosef Karo the ability to complete such a task. I also wonder what could have happened if politics and machlokes had not got in the way of halacha.

The final question is what, if any, implications this event in history has for the Sanhedrin of today.

One very final note - I visited the Mossad HaRav book sale this week (as I do every year - though this year for the first time ever I didn't actually purchase anything). You may be familiar with the building on the corner at the entrance to Jerusalem. I seem to remember once being told that when the State was established, Rav Yehuda Leib Maimon tried to create a Sanhedrin, and this semi-circular building was originally intended to house that Sanhedrin (since the Old City was not under Jewish control at the time. And the Sanhedrin sits in the shape of a semi-circle).

When fashion meets Chareidim

Not so long ago the Vizhnitzer Rebbi banned his students from wearing anything but plain plastic framed glasses.

The rabbi called on students wearing modern metal glasses to remove them and move to anti-modern plastic glasses. Rabbi Hager also spoke out against yeshiva students wearing contact lenses.

According to a Hasidism source, metrosexual men and students of the modern Lithuanian yeshivot were the only ones wearing contact lenses.

"This is the reason why the rabbi called on the students not to wear them. We are well aware of the statement made by the former Vizhnitz rebbe, who said we must wear the exact opposite of what is worn in Paris."

I don't know why it is always Paris that dictates the fashion for Hasidim. What happens if hip people in New York start wearing things? Are Hasidim supposed to wear the opposite?

That may cause problems. Because the trend-setters (and the modern LIthuanians for that matter) have started wearing black hats.

SPOTTING a Borsalino, a black wide-brimmed felt fedora, in the traditionally Jewish section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is no strange thing. What was surprising was the wearer: Theophilus London, a hip-hop artist from Trinidad. “This one is from the Jewish store,” Mr. London said, motioning toward southern Williamsburg, where the haredi still outnumber the hipsters.

Does that mean that Hasidim, anxious to avoid being trendy and following their golden rule of always doing the opposite of what happens in Paris, will not have to start wearing turbans on their heads? Or a fez? Or perhaps they'll simply turn their hats around so that the bow is on the other side - that way people will not mistake them for Theophilus London. - Oh wait! They've already done that!

Vizhnitzer Chassidim are uniquely dressed in that they are the only group − besides Stropkov − who wears their hat bow on the right side, not left, which makes it appear backwards compared to similar hats.

If they would switc their hats around again someone may mistake them for a New Square Hasid! In my opinion it is better that they stick to imitating Theophilus London and his team of hipsters!

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Queen Speaks

With all the royal excitement going on, and some people (but probably not most Americans) coming to see the beauty of the Royal family, I thought this clip of Her Majesty speaking about her life, and what she does, was touching, and also very interesting.

One does tend to forget that when one speaks to G-d and about G-d, one is supposed to think of Him as king. One must first understand what it means to be a king before one can truly connect with G-d.

(and after watching this video it is hard not to start speaking using 'one' instead of 'I')

Royal Wedding and the Chief Rabbi

Some people are very upset that the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, attended the Royal Wedding. I am not a posek and will not make a halachic ruling, but I do have personal experience. Her Majesty the Queen invited me, representing the Jews of Scotland, to attend a service of thanksgiving in St. Gyles Cathedral before the opening of Scottish Parliament.

At the time the presiding officer explained:
The official programme actually begins on the evening of Wednesday, June 30 with the ‘Kirking’ of the Parliament at St Giles Cathedral. At 6.30pm, the Very Reverend Gilleasbuig Macmillan will conduct a service attended by Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

I spoke to the Dayanim of the London Beis Din who explained that there is a very simple principle: If the Queen invites you - you attend! Anything less would not be representing the Jews of Britian in a good light to the monarchy and the non-Jewish population of Britain.

So I sat there during the service, next to a Muslim cleric and a Buddhist monk, and we commiserated with each other about having to be in such a place.

If you look on this clip at about 15:06 minutes, you can see me (for a second) as we walked to the opening of parliament the next day.

So, for whatever reasons, it seems clear to me that the Chief Rabbi did absolutely the correct thing in attending the Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey last Friday.

It also struck me that we should not take such invitations lightly. If we think back to another event that happened at Westminster, the coronation of Richard the Lionheart (he of Robin Hood fame), we see that Jews were not invited. In fact they were actively banned from attending, and later were murdered!

At the coronation of Richard the Lion Hearted in 1189, Jews bearing handsome gifts were refused entry by officials and pelted by mobs. The story circulated that the king wished them exterminated and many Jews were killed in riots and their stately homes were burned. Richard punished the ringleaders and sought to prevent further outrages and protect his financial interest in "his Jews". When Richard left for the third crusade in 1190 a series of terrible massacres wiped out several Jewish communities. The York riot was the worst. Before following Richard to the crusades, warriors, many of whom were heavily in debt to the Jews, plundered the possessions of the Jews. The Jews fled to the castle and were besieged by the warriors. When the Jews realised they were doomed they took their own lives. The few surviving when the tower was stormed were slaughtered. The attackers then went to the cathedral and burned the records of their financial obligations to their victims.

One of those murdered was one of the Baalei Tosefot - R' Yaakov of Orleans (a student of Rabbeinu Tam).

For the record (not that I remember) it seems that when the Prince and Princess of Wales were married (Charles and Diana) Rabbi (later Lord) Jakobovits was not invited, so we don't know whether or not he would have gone to such an event.

Finally, I'm not sure if this is actually a true story (I suspect it is not), but it is told often enough that it should be true. The Chief Rabbi owes his position to the Queen's great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. It was she who conceived of the position and enshrined it in British Law:

Years later, Queen Victoria's attention was directed to an announcement issued by the Dukes Place Synagogue in London, requesting applications to be submitted for the prestigious position of Rabbi there. This was publicised internationally, and many renowned Rabbis applied, including Rabbi Samson Rafel Hirsch and others.

The Queen sent a note to the synagogue, stating, ''Since Rabbi Adler saved me when I was in trouble, he will certainly be the right guardian and leader for your congregation.'' And so it was.

When the Queen's advice was accepted and Rabbi Adler was chosen as the Rabbi of the Dukes Place Synagogue, she further suggested that this position was not enough - he should become Chief Rabbi of England, or better yet, of the British Empire! A bill was raised in Parliament in order to decide whether the Empire required a Chief Rabbi. When put to a vote, a substantial majority chose Rabbi Adler as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, a post he filled with honour and distinction for 45 years.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Status of Jews before Matan Torah and Why Jews Stink

I will be giving a shiur next Shabbat, and I want to speak about the machlokes between Ramban and 'the French Rabbis' (quoted by Ramban) about the status of Bnei Yisrael before Matan Torah. Ramban is commenting on Toras Cohanim (cited by Rashi) at the end of the Parsha which states that the 'blasphemer,' who was the son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man, converted.
The French Rabbis (i.e. baalei Tosefot) claim that before Matan Torah Jewish identity went through the father, and only after the Torah was given did the Jewish people follow matrilineal descent. For this reason the 'blasphemer' had to convert.
In other words the descendants of Avraham remained B'nei Noach, with extra 'stringencies' of being part of Avraham's covenant. But they did not take on the 'leniencies' of being Jewish until after the Torah was given.
Ramban argues strongly on this, and claims that from the time of Avraham the Jewish people had unique laws and were no longer considered to be B'nei Noach at all. Therefore Ramban says that there was no need for the 'blasphemer' to convert. So the midrash must be referring to the 'conversion' at Mount Sinai of all the Jewish people.
Parshat Derachim is a book written by the author of Mishne L'Melech, which builds almost entirely on this idea of whether the Jews were considered Jewish before Matan Torah or not.
So that is the outline of my shiur for next Shabbos (if you are a woman and wil be in Har Nof next Shabbos afternoon you are welcome to come. The shiur will be in 16 Brand at 4:45 - I think).
Over Shabbos I was rereading Stephen Jay Gould's 'The Mismeasure of Man' and he refers to Sir Thomas Browne's 'Pseudodoxia Epidemica' which is a
One of the chapters there debunks the myth that Jews stink. After demonstrating that Jews in general to not smell, and explaining that their eating habits and hygiene habits are unlikely to cause them to smell, he adds another point, which is that Jews are so assimilated and intermarried, that it is impossible to make any biological claim about Jews. There are many Christians who are biologically Jewish and vice versa. Therefore any claim about Jews, based on their ethnicity, is necessarily false.
This is a point that is worthwhile for us to always remember, especially with debates about 'who is a Jew'. The attributes of a Jewish person are not determined biologically, but through halacha, and through our behaviour. The 'blasphemer' became infamous not because of his parentage, but because of how he acted. Yichus is all fine and dandy, but the key thing is how we act.
Of course if it were true that Jews do smell, it would solve the conversion crisis in a minute. The Beis Din could just train sniffer dogs, and would know whether or not a convert is sincere, and whether or not the Beis Din that converted them was kosher.