Foie Gras "Fake News": A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Willby Ari Z. Zivotofsky Controversial topics can sometimes lead to contrived sources, i.e. fake news. That is certainly true with the effort by vegetarians to find traditional ...

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"the Seforim blog" - 5 new articles

  1. Foie Gras "Fake News": A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Will
  2. Young Rabbis and All About Olives
  3. Simchas Torah & a Lost Minhag of the Gra
  4. Kol Nidrei, Choirs, and Beethoven: The Eternity of the Jewish Musical Tradition
  5. A Compromise in Halacha - On Menachot 33a
  6. More Recent Articles

Foie Gras "Fake News": A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Will

Foie Gras "Fake News": A Fictitious Rashi and a Strangely Translated Ethical Will
by Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Controversial topics can sometimes lead to contrived sources, i.e. fake news. That is certainly true with the effort by vegetarians to find traditional sources to support their position. In the past I have shown how a booklet claiming Judaism supports vegetarianism was full of misquotes (here here ) and how a "quote" of the Rema was fabricated ( here ). Here I will expose two fake quotes that have been used by vegetarians in the battle against foie gras.

Foie gras (pronounced "fwä-grä, meaning "fat liver" in French) is the fattened liver of a waterfowl that grew to 5-10 times its usual size due to gavage. Foie gras, a delicacy today rightly associated with the French who are indeed by far the largest producers and consumers of it, was for much of history an Ashkenazi Jewish expertise. This luxury item has been the subject of a great deal of controversy in recent years. Until its production was banned in 2003 by the Supreme Court, Israel was one of the leading producers in the world. Within the last year, kosher foie gras has begun to be produced in the US for the first time in history.

The issue driving the current debate is animal welfare, or in the Jewish world, tza'ar ba'alei chaim. For hundreds of years, in traditional Jewish sources "stuffed goose" was indeed controversial, but not because of animal welfare. The debate revolved around potential treifot due to possible damage to the esophagus caused during the feeding process. it was a widespread debate involving the greatest of authorities. The Rema (YD 33:9) notes that in his town they would stuff geese to make schmaltz and they would check the veshet of each bird. Rav Yoel Sirkis (Bach, YD 33) was in favor of banning force feeding because of this potential serious problem. The Aruch Hashulchan (YD 33:37) says they did not do force feeding in his town. The Chochmas Adam (16:10) preferred to ban the gavage process because of the concern for treifot of the veshet, but agreed that if done, it could potentially be kosher. In modern times the Tzitz Eliezer (11:49, 11:55, 12:52) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 9:YD:3) came out against foie gras, while Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was reported as approving the foie gras that was being produced in 2005. The most famous posek to permit stuffed geese was the Chasam Sofer (2:YD:25; Chullin 43b).

Despite the centuries long debate, force feeding geese was extremely common among Ashkenazic Jews. Many of the greatest poskim lived in regions where they would have been personally exposed to the process and yet none of them ever suggested that it was cruel and bordered on tza'ar baalei chaim. The issue was not even raised for discussion until the late 20th century. The only place tzaar ba'alei chaim is mentioned in the context of fattened geese is in the opposite direction - the rabbis were aware that geese used to being fed in this manner would not eat any other way and thus, out of concern for tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, permitted, with certain stipulations, gavage for these geese on Shabbat (Mishna Berurah 324:27). This is as opposed to other chickens and geese, for which this is not permitted.

Despite efforts by some to demonstrate that force feeding geese is cruel and was recognized as such by Jews in previous generations, it's a common misunderstanding based on a mistranslation that seems to defy explanation, and one of these situations where people keep repeating an error because they didn't examine the primary source. In contemporary Jewish anti-foie gras literature, two "quotes" are regularly bantered about, even by scholars. One is a "quote" from Rashi and the other from a 14th century ethical will.

Both quotes can be found in the book "The Foie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight" (2011) by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro. On p. 26 he writes:

"Rashi interpreted the tale to mean that Jews would have to face the music 'for having made the beasts[geese] suffer while fattening them'."

And on p. 26-27 he writes:
"In a 14th-century ethical will, a dying man, Eleazar of Mainz, instructs: "'Now, my sons and daughters, eat and drink only what is necessary, as our good parents did, refraining from heavy meals, and holding the gross liver in detestation'."

The comment of Rashi sounds like it may indeed be a condemnation of fattening geese. It turns out that Rashi never wrote any such thing. First, the source for this "quote" is Bava Basra 73b and as is well known, on 29a of Bava Basra of our printed texts, there is a note in bold letters in the Rashi column that says: “until here is the commentary of Rashi zt”l, from here on in is the commentary of Rabbeinu Shmuel ben Rav Meir”, ie Rashbam. The first error is therefore that the comment was not written by Rashi but by his grandson. 

Nonetheless, even if Rashbam had written that, it would be of significance. But he didn’t.

The comment was made on the 10th of the fantastic, esoteric tales of Rabbah bar bar Chanah. The story is:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף עג עמוד ב
ואמר רבה בר בר חנהזימנא חדא הוה קא אזלינן במדבראוחזינן הנהו אווזי דשמטי גדפייהו משמנייהו וקא נגדי נחלי דמשחא מתותייהואמינא להואית לן בגוייכו חלקא לעלמא דאתיחדא דלי גדפאוחדא דלי אטמאכי אתאי לקמיה דרבי אלעזראמר ליעתידין ישראל ליתן עליהן את הדין.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana also related: We were once travelling in the desert and saw geese whose feathers fell out on account of their [excessive] fatness, and streams of oil [fat] flowed under them. I said to them: 'Shall we have a share of your [flesh] in the world to come?' One lifted up its wing, the other lifted up its leg. When I came before R. Elazar he said to me: Israel will be held accountable because of them.

Commenting on the last line, Rashbam commented:

רשב"ם מסכת בבא בתרא דף עג עמוד ב
ליתן עליהם את הדין שבחטאתם מתעכב משיח ויש להם צער בעלי חיים לאותן אווזים מחמת שומנן.

According to the Rashbam, the Jews are responsible for the suffering of the geese in that the geese had to live extra-long with unnatural fat because the Jews sinned and thereby delayed the coming of the Messiah and the slaughtering of these geese. The Rashbam was discussing a fanciful story involving the suffering of mythical geese whose feathers fall out and whose fat drips off of them, i.e. who were clearly suffering and are different from a typical goose. Such geese he suggests may suffer due to their excessive fat. He makes no mention of the fattening process and says nothing about any suffering during that process or about the suffering of geese that his Jewish neighbors were raising.

And how about the ethical will? Hebrew Ethical Wills (JPS Library of Jewish Classics) (English and Hebrew Edition) [1976], Israel Abrahams (Editor), Judah Goldin (Foreword) is a facsimile edition of the 1926 original. Beginning on p. 207 is "The Ideals of an Average Jew (Testament of Eleazar of Mayence)" and on p. 212 it indeed says: "Now, my sons and daughter, eat and drink only what is necessary, as our good parents did, refraining from heavy meals, and holding the gross liver in detestation." 

From this it is not at all clear why liver should be so disliked, and it is certainly not obvious that he is talking about foie gras. It could be that he simply abhors liver (perhaps because, as Chazal note, it is full of blood). In an effort to better understand, I looked on the other side of the page, at the Hebrew text. And what a shock! It seems that when Israel Abrahams (Reader in University of Cambridge and a Senior Tutor at Jews' College) translated this text he used some poetic license, likely never suspecting it would be then adopted by the anti-foie gras activists. Here is what the Hebrew found in Abrahams says:

בניי ובנותי פחותו נא מאכילה ושתייה רק כדי צורךואל תבזבזו ממון לאכילה ולשתייהכן היו אבותינו החסידים אוכלים כדי הצורך ולא אכילה גסה ולמלאות כריסןלהיות כל ימיהם כחוש.

No mention whatsoever of liver! It appears that it is not an actual translation. It seems strange that Abrahams fabricated the liver in the English. He says the translation was made on the basis of two Hebrew texts. Maybe he translated straight off of them and the Hebrew in his edition is not accurate. The first is a text that is based in a Munich MS and appears on Moritz Güdemann's Quellenschriften (Berlin, 1891, reprinted by Philo Press in 1968).

There on p. 296 one finds an almost identical text:

בניי פחותו נא מאכילה ושתייה רק כדי צורך ואל תבזבזו ממון לאכילה ולשתייהכן היו אבותינו החסידים אוכלים כדי הצורך ולא אכילה גסה ולמלאות כריסן להיות כל ימיהם כחוש

The other manuscript is Bodleian MS cat Neubauer No. 907, fols. 164a-166a (not 166b as Abrahams erroneously wrote) and the relevant section is at the top of 165a. As can be seen the text is identical to that found in the Abrahams' book. 

There seemed to be a final possibility. In his introduction, Abrahams notes that a previous translation, into German, had appeared in the journal Jüdische Presse, Berlin 1870, p. 90.

The journal is available here (I think Sharon Liberman Mintz for finding that link for me). In issue 11 (Sept 9, 1870) a translation appears on the 6th and 7th page of the issue, pages 90-91 of the volume, as can be seen in the figure below.

However, it is only a translation of the first half of the will, ending just before the relevant section. It says that it was to be continued, but unfortunately that was the first year of the journal and the next issue (12) is missing (as are several others such as 3, 7, 9, 10) from the digitized microfilm at that website and I have been unable to locate it in any Israeli library. the translation until that point seems to be accurate and it is hard to ascribe the insertion of the liver to the German translator (I thank Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel and Prof Michael Segal for assistance with the German).

It thus seems clear the liver was inserted into the English transition for some inexplicable reason, but certainly does not appear in this 14th century ethical will.

Once an author is convinced of the authenticity of the sources they often embellish. In the academic work, Food and Morality: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery (2007) edited by Susan R. Friedland, there is a chapter called the foie gras fracas: sumptuary Law as Animal welfare? By Cathy K. Kaufman, a scholar-chef and Adjunct Chef-Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education, in New York City.

On p. 126 she writes: 
"The best written evidence for the medieval production of foie gras – and its ambiguous moral status – is found among the writings of the Ashkenazi Jews who spread throughout Europe. Rabbi (sic) Rashi …..."

But in fact we have shown that among the Jewish writings there is ZERO evidence regarding any ambiguous moral status!

Even the well-known American cookbook author Joan Nathan couldn't avoid this pitfall. 

Recently, in her King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World (2017) on p. XXI she wrote: 
"Rashi was a thinker who knew both religion and agriculture. He condemned, for example, the force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras ….".

In 2013, an article in Moment magazine (here) stated: 
"More complex, however, were the ethical questions. In the 11th century, the French scholar Rashi warned Jews against the force-feeding practice, “for having made these beasts (geese) suffer while fattening them.” This went against Jewish law prohibiting tza’ar ba’alei chayim, suffering to animals, although some rabbis claimed that since none of the geese’s limbs were harmed and the geese did not feel discomfort in their throats, foie gras was not treyf, or forbidden. Other rabbinic scholars suggested that it is only permissible to inflict pain on an animal when the benefit of doing so is significant; since there are no real nutritional benefits to foie gras, the process of force-feeding was questionable."

One can only wonder who these "some rabbis" and "other rabbinic scholars" were who argued with this non-existent Rashi!

The book that is the source for many of these other articles is the beautiful coffee-table book Foie Gras: A Passion (1999) by Michael Ginor and Mitchell Davis. Ginor, an American who spent two years in the IDF and while in Israel discovered foie gras, co-founded, co-owns, and is President of NY based Hudson Valley Foie Gras and New York State Foie Gras, the most comprehensive foie gras producer in the world. His book is an absolutely comprehensive book on everything one could possibly want to know about foie gras. And there on p. 11 he quotes the non-existent Rashi and on p. 12 the English version of the strangely translated ethical will. I have no idea where he found those two quotes that have today become so common in the vegetarian literature. 

The fact that all one has to do is look in the Hebrew originals to see that these quotes are fake news, explains why they are found in English sources and I have not yet found them in any of the Hebrew works on animal rights.

Young Rabbis and All About Olives

Young Rabbis and All About Olives

Marc B. Shapiro

I am currently working on a book focused on the thought of R. Kook, in particular his newly released publications. A book recently appeared titled Siah ha-Re’iyah, by R. David Gavrieli and R. Menahem Weitzman. It discusses a number of important letters of R. Kook. In addition to the analysis of the letters, each of the letters is printed with explanatory words that make them easier to understand. We are also given biographical details about the recipients of R. Kook's letters. Here is the title page.

In reading the book, I once again found myself asking the question, how can intelligent people sometimes say nonsensical things? On p. 252 the book states that R. Menahem Mendel Cohen studied in yeshivot in Tiberias and Safed, and was appointed as chief rabbi of the Ashkenazic community of Cairo in 1896 when he was only ten years old!

How is it possible for anyone to write such a sentence, that a ten-year-old was appointed as a communal rabbi? Let me explain what happened here, but first, I must note that the name of the man we are referring to is not R. Menahem Mendel Cohen, but R. Aaron Mendel Cohen. Here is his picture, which comes from a very nice Hebrew Wikipedia article on him.

As for R. Cohen being appointed rabbi at age ten, whoever prepared the biographical introduction must have had a source which mistakenly stated that R. Cohen was born in 1886. Since this source also said that he became rabbi in Cairo in 1896, this means that he was ten years old was he was appointed rabbi. Yet we can only wonder how the authors did not see the obvious impossibility of a ten-year-old being appointed rabbi of Cairo, which should have led them to investigate a little further. Simply by googling R. Cohen’s name in Hebrew, the Wikipedia article will come up, and it tells us that R. Cohen was born not in 1886 but in 1866. Thus, instead of a ten-year-old rabbi he is now thirty years old.

With regard to young rabbis, let me repeat, with some slight edits, something I wrote in an earlier post here.

In terms of young achievers in the Lithuanian Torah world, I wonder how many have ever heard of R. Meir Shafit. He lived in the nineteenth century and wrote Sefer Nir, a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, when not many were studying it. Here is the title page of one of the volumes, where it tells us that he became rav of a community at the age of fifteen.

The Hazon Ish once remarked that the young Rabbi Shafit would mischievously throw pillows at his gabbaim![1]

Regarding R. Jacob Schorr [mentioned earlier in the original post] being a childhood genius, this letter from him to R. Shlomo Kluger appeared in Moriah, Av 5767.

As you can see, the letter was written in 1860 (although I can’t make out what the handwriting says after תר"ך). We are informed, correctly, that R. Schorr was born in 1853, which would mean that he was seven years old when he wrote the letter. This, I believe, would make him the greatest child genius in Jewish history, as I don’t think the Vilna Gaon could even write like this at age seven. Furthermore, if you read the letter you see that two years prior to this R. Schorr had also written to R. Kluger. Are there any other examples of a five-year-old writing Torah letters to one of the gedolei ha-dor? From the letter we also see that the seven-year-old Schorr was also the rav of the town of Mariampol! (The Mariampol in Galicia, not Lithuania.) I would have thought that this merited some mention by the person publishing this letter. After all, R. Schorr would be the only seven-year-old communal rav in history, and this letter would be the only evidence that he ever served as rav in this town. Unfortunately, the man who published this document and the editor of the journal are entirely oblivious to what, on the face of things, must be one of the most fascinating letters in all of Jewish history.

Yet all that I have written assumes that the letter was actually written by R. Schorr. Once again, we must thank R. Yaakov Hayyim Sofer for setting the record straight. In his recently published Shuvi ha-Shulamit (Jerusalem, 2009), vol. 7, p. 101, he calls attention to the error and points out, citing Wunder, Meorei Galicia, that the rav of Mariampol, Galicia was another man entirely, who was also named Jacob Schorr.

This is what I wrote in the prior post. Let me now add some additional information about R. Shafit, the fifteen-year-old communal rav. The first thing I want to point out relates to the city in which R. Shafit became rav at age fifteen. If you look at the title page you can see that its name is מיצד. This is actually an alternate way of spelling the city which is better known as מייצ'ט. Anyone who knows their Lithuanian rabbinic history will recognize this city as Meitchet (Molchad in English), made famous by the great R. Solomon Polachek, known as the Meitcheter Iluy. (R. Polachek was not actually born in Meitchet, but in a small town nearby.) There is so much to say about R. Polachek, but it will have to wait for a future post.

Returning to R. Shafit, although he is hardly a household name, in his day he was actually quite a well-known rabbi. He contributed to R. Israel Salanter’s journal Tevunah,[2] and those who study the Jerusalem Talmud know that his commentary is a very important work.[3] R. Adin Steinsaltz, who is from R. Shafit’s family, even took time away from his own work on the Talmud to publish from manuscript a commentary of R. Shafit on the Jerusalem Talmud. Here is the volume that appeared in 1979.


In the preface, R. Steinsaltz writes:

כל החכמים הלומדים בירושלמי בכל השיטות, למן חכמי בית המדרש נוסח ליטא העתיקה עד לאנשי המדע המובהקים, כולם כאחד הודו שפירוש "הניר" הוא מחשובי הפירושים שנכתבו אי פעם על התלמוד הירושלמי

I do not need go into more detail on R. Shafit since in 2014 Hillel Rotenberg published an entire book on him.[4] And while it is true that, as mentioned already, R. Shafit is not a household name, there are today people who celebrate his hillula. See here. In case you are wondering what a Lithuanian rabbi is doing with a hillula, R. Shafit was actually a Slonimer Hasid.

In response to my earlier comments about the young R. Shafit, Seforim Blog contributor R. Ovadiah Hoffman sent me another example of a young rabbi: Avigdor Aptowitzer. Aptowitzer, who was one of the twentieth-century’s leading academic scholars of rabbinic literature, is best known as the editor of R. Eliezer ben Joel Halevi's halakhic work Ra’avyah, concerning which he published another important volume as an introduction to the Ra’avyah, and a book called Hosafot ve-Tikunim le-Sefer Ra’avyah (Jerusalem, 1936). 

According to Abraham Meir Habermann, when Aptowitzer was around seven years old his father, the rabbi of Tarnopol, became ill. Young Avigdor took the place of his father as rabbi. During the week he taught students and on Shabbat people carried him to the synagogue so that he could deliver the derashah.[5] As far as I know, this makes Aptowitzer the youngest person ever to serve as a communal rabbi, even though he was never officially appointed to the position.

It is also reported that R. Shimon Sofer, the son of R. Abraham Samuel Sofer (the Ketav Sofer), was so learned as a child that he received the title חבר from R. Judah Aszod when he was only nine years old.[6]

In speaking about young rabbis, it is also important to mention a passage in R. David Abudarham’s[7] commentary on the Haggadah, s.v. אמר רבי אלעזר הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה. Abudarham cites the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:1, that R. Elazar ben Azariah was appointed nasi of the Sanhedrin at age 13. Our version of the Jerusalem Talmud has "age 16", but the version cited by Abudarham appears in other early sources.[8]

Regarding age 16, R. Solomon Ibn Gabirol wrote his azharot for Shavuot when he was that old. At the beginning of the azharot he wrote (with great self-confidence, I might add):[9]

והנני בשש עשרה שנותי ובי שכל כמו בן השמונים

Avodah Zarah 56b tells about a child who learned Tractate Avodah Zarah when he was six years old. The Talmud describes how he was asked halakhic questions on the tractate, and his replies apparently signify that he was deciding halakhic matters at the age of six.

He was asked, ‘May [an Israelite] tread grapes together with a heathen in a press?’ He replied, ‘It is lawful to tread grapes together with a heathen in a press.’ [To the objection] ‘But he renders it yein nesekh [10] by [the touch of] his hands!’ [he answered], ‘We tie his hands up.’ [To the further objection] ‘But he renders it yein nesekh by [the touch of] his feet!’ [he answered], ‘Wine touched by the feet is not called nesekh.  

Although not an example of a child rabbi, I think it is worthwhile to mention R. Jacob Berab’s statement that when he was only eighteen years old, and did not yet have a beard, he was the rabbi and halakhic authority for a community of 5000 families in Fez.[11]

Returning to Aptowitzer, R. Meir Mazuz directs a comment at him in a recent issue of his weekly Bayit Ne’eman.[12] In discussing the proper size of a kezayit, R. Mazuz notes that the Ashkenazic rishonim did not have any personal knowledge of olives, and thus did not know how big they were.[13] He cites R. Eliezer ben Joel Halevi, the Ra'avyah, who writes as follows:[14]

וכל היכא שצריך כזית צריך שיהיה מאכל בהרווחה, לפי שאין אנו בקיאין בשיעור זית כדי, שלא תהיה ברכה לבטלה

You cannot get any clearer than this that R. Eliezer, who lived throughout Germany, had no idea how big an olive was.[15] Yet in Aptowitzer’s note to the words לפי שאין אנו בקיאין בשיעור זית, he writes:

כלו' אלא ע"י מדידה וחשבון, וכאן שבברכה אחרונה אנו עסוקין וכבר אכל ואי אפשר לחשוב ולמדוד, לכן יזהר שיאכל מתחילה שיעור גדול שאין להסתפק בו שהוא כזית

He explains the Ra’avyah to be saying that we do not know how large our portion of food is without measuring it. Since we are dealing with the final blessing and the food is already eaten and thus can no longer be measured, people should eat enough so that there is no doubt that they ate an olive’s worth and thus no problem with a berakhah le-vatalah.

It is hard to understand how Aptowitzer could have written something so obviously incorrect, as there is no doubt as to the passage’s meaning. R. Mazuz writes:

איזה "חכם", שנכון שאחרי שכבר אכל את הזית לא יכול למדוד, אבל לפני שאכל הוא רואה את הגודל אז למה צריך לאכול בהרווחה?! אלא לא היו מכירים את הזיתים

Here is something else relevant to Aptowitzer. Nahmanides, Commentary to Genesis 31:35, writes (Chavel translation):

The correct interpretation appears to me to be that in ancient days menstruants kept very isolated for they were ever referred to as niddoth on account of their isolation since they did not approach people and did not speak to them. For the ancients in their wisdom knew that their breath is harmful, their gaze is detrimental and makes a bad impression, as the philosophers have explained. I will yet mention their experiences in this matter. And the menstruants dwelled isolated in tents where no one entered, just as our Rabbis have mentioned in the Beraitha of Tractate Niddah: “A learned man is forbidden to greet a menstruant. Rabbi Nechemyah says, ‘even the utterance of her mouth is unclean.’ Said Rabbi Yochanan: ‘One is forbidden to walk after a menstruant and tread upon her footsteps, which are as unclean as a corpse; so is the dust upon which the menstruant stepped unclean, and it is forbidden to derive any benefit from her work.’”

Baraita de-Masekhet Niddah is a strange work, with all sorts of extreme statements not found in mainstream rabbinic literature. This is not the place to review in any detail the various scholarly views about the text’s origin.[16] Suffice it to say that Saul Lieberman thought that the author was a sectarian, but not a Karaite.[17] Aptowitzer, however, took issue with Lieberman and argued that Baraita de-Masekhet Niddah is a Karaite forgery designed to insert Karaite views into the Rabbanite community, and also to make the Sages look like fools. As an example of the latter, Aptowitzer quoted the “halakhah” recorded in Baraita de-Masekhet Niddah that a kohen whose family member  by which it means one he lives with  is a niddah cannot offer a sacrifice or perform birkat kohanim.[18] Aptowitzer concluded that it is “very unfortunate” that some rishonim were misled by this forgery, thinking it an authentic work.[19]

Aptowitzer’s work, Mehkarim be-Sifrut ha-Geonim, in which he expressed this judgment, was published by Mossad ha-Rav Kook. R. Hayyim Dov Chavel also published his commentary on Nahmanides with Mossad ha-Rav Kook, and on the just-mentioned passage of Nahmanides to Genesis 31:35, R. Chavel quotes Aptowitzer’s view.

It is easy to see why, from a traditional perspective, what Aptowitzer said is problematic. After all, he posits that Nahmanides, one of the greatest of the medieval sages, was taken in by a heretic’s forgery. His apology, as it were, that Nahmanides and other medieval sages were not critical scholars, and thus it is not a cause for wonder that they were fooled in this matter, is not the sort of thing that will be seen as respectful in traditional circles. It is one thing to write about more recent sages being fooled by Besamim Rosh and the Yerushalmi on Kodashim, but when dealing with a figure like Nahmanides such a position is bound to be more controversial.

This is exactly what happened, and R. Chavel must have been subjected to criticism for citing Aptowitzer in this matter. In the second edition of his commentary, vol. 1, p. 554, R. Chavel backtracks from what he wrote. Had he been able to reset the type and delete the entire note from the text of the commentary I am sure he would have done so. However, he had to settle for a comment in the hashmatot u-miluim, which most people never bother to look at. He writes as follows:

על דעת בקורתית זו יש להוסיף: אף כי חכם גדול היה ר' אביגדור אפטוביצר, ונאמן רוח לתורה ולחכמה, נתפס כאן לסברה בעלמא, שלא שזפה עינו החדה כי הברייתא הזאת (ברייתא דמסכת נידה) היא עדות מוכחת עד כמה גידרו קדמונינו עצמם להתרחק מטומאת הנדה. כטומאת הנדה היתה דרכם לפני (יחזקאל לו, יח). ואף שלא היו הדורות נוהגים למעשה בכל החומרות הנזכרות בברייתא זו, הלא כבר כתב ה"חתם סופר" [או"ח  סי' כג] שאולי נשתנו הטבעים והמקומות, או כיון שדשו בה רבים שומר פתאים ה

As readers can see, R. Chavel’s point is completely dogmatic without any scholarly argument. 

Returning to Nahmanides’ comment to Genesis 31:35, he tells us that he will have more to say on this matter. This is found in his commentary to Leviticus 18:19, where he writes that the blood of menstruation “is deadly poisonous, capable of causing the death of any creature that drinks or eats it.” He further states:

If a menstruant woman at the beginning of her issue were to concentrate her gaze for some time upon a polished iron mirror, there would appear in the mirror red spots resembling drops of blood, for the bad part therein [i.e., in the issue] that is by its nature harmful, causes a certain odium, and the unhealthy condition of the air attaches to the mirror, just as a viper kills with its gaze.

I find it noteworthy that such a great figure as Nahmanides, who was also a doctor, was able to be taken in by these fairy tales. He certainly had never seen any red spots showing up on a mirror so why did he believe such a story without attempting to confirm its accuracy himself? I realize that in medieval times people were much more credulous, and repeated all sorts of far-fetched things that they heard.[20] Nahmanides himself repeats that people in Germany would make use of demons, and he had no reason to doubt this report.[21]

שמעתי בבירור שמנהג אלמניי"ו לעסוק בדברי השדים ומשביעים אותם, ומשלחים אותם ומשתמשים בהם בכמה ענינים

He also believed a report that travelers to the east had discovered the Garden of Eden, but were then killed by the flaming sword that guards the Garden.[22]

 ובספרי הרפואות היונים הקדמונים, וכן בספר אסף היהודי סיפרו כי אספלקינוס חכם מקדוני וארבעים איש מן החרטומים מלומדי הספרים הלכו הלוך בארץ ועברו מעבר להודו קדמת עדן למצוא קצת עלי הרפואות ועץ החיים למען תגדל תפארתם על כל חכמי הארץ, ובבואם אל המקום ההוא ויברק עליהם להט החרב המתהפכת, ויתלהטו כלם בשביבי הברק, ולא נמלט מהם איש

However, when dealing with red spots on a mirror this was something that Nahmanides could have easily confirmed, and yet instead he relied on what he heard, or perhaps read. In seeking to understand how Nahmanides could have been misled in this matter, it helps to be reminded of Bertrand Russell’s famous comment made with reference to Aristotle’s assertion that men have more teeth than women.

To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.[23]

Returning to the matter of olives, it is noteworthy that the halakhic authorities, including those in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who argued that olives have shrunk since the days of the Sages did not actually seek to prove this with historical evidence. Had they done so they would have found that the size of olives has not changed. However, concerning another measurement we find that the Steipler was indeed interested in what the historical record revealed. R. Avrohom Marmorstein and Jacob Djmal both called my attention to a letter of the Steipler that was recently up for auction. Here is the item from Kedem’s January 2018 auction catalog (catalog no. 59), pp. 269-270 (item no. 298).

This letter already appeared in Aleh Yonah (Jerusalem-Bnei Brak, 1989), p. 134.

We see that in trying to determine the size of a cubit, the Steipler actually wrote to the archaeology department at “the university” (i.e., Hebrew University). This sort of effort is exactly what is required when trying to investigate a matter such as this. Yet look what happened when this letter was published in the Steipler’s Karyana de-Igarta, vol. 2, no. 402. The section showing that the Steipler reached out to the academic world was simply deleted, with no indication given that anything has been removed from the letter.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the Hazon Ish’s position that although the various measurements go back to Sinai, the actual size of the measurements required in order to fulfill an obligation was established by the Sages. In other words, while the measurement of a kezayit is mi-deoraita, how big this olive is – as there are different size olives – was given to the Sages to be determined.[24]

וכשנאמרו שיעורין בסיני נאמרו על האומד ומה שנראה לו לאדם זהו שיעורו, ואמנם הדבר מסור לחכמים לקבוע גדרי השיעור לכל ישראל וכמו שאמרו חכמים כזית שנאמרו זה אגורי כשעורה זו מדברית כעדשה זו מצרית לא שנאמרה למשה כך אלא נאמרה סתם והיא הבינונית אלא חכמים עיינו בדבר וקבעו לכל ישראל שכזית אגורי ושעורה מדברית ועדשה מצרית הם הבינונים, וכשם שמסור לדעתו של רואה להכריע על הבינוני של הפרי בין חביריו הגדולים והקטנים כן מסור לחכמים לקבוע את המדידה שיש להגיד עליה שפירותיה הם הבינונים בהגלילים והארצות השונות

Regarding the kezayit measurement, there is one other point worth mentioning. Everyone knows that one is required to eat a kezayit of maror at the Seder. Nevertheless, the practice of the Ropshitz hasidim used to be precisely the opposite, as they were careful not to eat a kezayit of marorThis strange practice goes back to the founder of the Ropshitz dynasty, R. Naphtali Zvi Horowitz (1760-1827). (I don’t know if the practice continues today.) Not only is the lack of a kezayit problematic, but there is the other issue regarding whether one can even say a blessing on the maror with less than a kezayit

R. Aryeh Zvi Frommer deals with Ropshitz practice, and also mentions that he heard that R. Shalom of Belz and R. Ezekiel of Shinova also told people to eat less than a kezayit of maror and to make the blessing on it.[25] R. Frommer attempts to justify this practice halakhically, and he states explicitly that he is doing so in order that the actions of these hasidic masters not be in contradiction to the Mishnah, Pesahim 2:6, the meaning of which appears to be that a kezayit is the minimum amount required for maror.[26] He also notes that he wants to justify the practice of "most of Israel" who use horseradish for maror and also do not eat a kezayit. His justification is only of eating less than a kezayit of horseradish, so it does not seem that this will be of any help with regard to the view of the Ropshitzer, as his avoidance of a kezayit of maror apparently applied to all types of maror, even lettuce. 

Many people probably remember their grandparents telling them that in Europe they used horseradish for maror, but that unlike today there was no concept of being careful to eat a kezayit. If you had any doubts about what your grandparents reported, R. Frommer tells us the exact same thing. Are we to say that most Jews in Europe did not fulfill the mitzvah of maror? This is a conclusion that no rabbi wants to reach, and that is why R. Frommer is motivated to find some justification for the practice.

כנלע"ד ליישב דברי הצדיקים ז"ל שלא יסתרו למשנה מפורשת הנ"ל וליישב מנהג רוב ישראל שאוכלין למרור חריין פחות מכזית ומברכין עליו על אכילת מרור

R. Frommer was obviously concerned that what he wrote would be regarded as too radical. Thus, on the very last page of the book, where one finds the corrections, he stressed that his words were only a limud zekhut because most people do not eat a kezayit, but le-khathilah one cannot rule this way.

כ"ז כתבתי רק דרך למוד זכות מחמת שרוב ההמון ונשים נוהגין כן אבל לכתחלה אין להורות כן וכ"מ באבני נזר סי' שפ"ג

R. Frommer has another relevant comment on this matter:[27]

ביום ג' שמות חלם לי, שהגידו לי בשם הרה"צ ר' פינשע ז"ל מפילץ דאף מי שמגיע לו יסורים ר"ל, סגי ביסורים כ"ש [כל שהוא], דלא עדיף ממרור דלא בעי כזית, ומה"ת סגי במשהו כמ"ש הרא"ש פ"י דפסחים סי' כ"ה, כמו בזה סגי במשהו

There is no need for me to go into this matter in any detail, as it has been comprehensively analyzed in a wonderful article by Levi Cooper.[28] I would just like to call attention to some sources not mentioned by Cooper. 

1. R. Mordechai Shabetai Eisenberger, Berurei Halakhot (Netanya, 2006), no. 51, offers a halakhic justification for the Ropshitzer, and claims that it is only applicable to horseradish.

2. The following story, quoting R. Aaron Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe, appears in Aharon Pollak, ed., Beito Na’avah Kodesh (2007), vol. 2, p. 482:

פ"א, בליל הסדר שנת תש"ט, נכח דודי הר"ר יוסף צבי וועבער ז"ל (לאחר שניצל מגיא ההריגה במלחמה  באירופה, וזכה לעלות ארצה אחר החורבן שם), והנה כ"ק מרן זי"ע נתן לו בידו מעט מאוד מה"מרור". אחד מן הנוכחים שם, הרהיב עוז והעיר למרן זי"ע, ש"זה רק כל שהוא". נענה מרן זי"ע והתבטא בלשונו "ער האט  שוין געהאט גענוג מרירות"! - (בשם בעל העובדא

3. The following story, that R. Joel Teitelbaum of Satmar refused to follow his father-in-law's practice of eating less than a kezayit of maror, appears in Aharon Perlow, Otzroteihem shel Tzadikim al ha-Torah ve-ha-Moadim (2006 edition), p. 323, quoting Moshian shel Yisrael, vol. 4, p. 17:

בליל התקדש חג הפסח בעריכת הסדר היה המנהג בבית דזיקוב לברך על אכילת מרור בשיעור פחות מכזית, וכן נהגו גם בפלאנטש. אולם רבינו (כ"ק מרן אדמו"ר מסאטמאר) ז"ל נהג כפשטות לשון הפוסקים וכנהוג בבית אבותיו הק' לאכול שיעור מרור כזית כדאיפסקא הילכתא. וכשהיה רבינו ז"ל סמוך על שולחן חותנו (מזיוו"ר – הרה"ק רבי אברהם חיים הורביץ מפלאנטש זצוק"ל) לא נתנו לו שיעור מרור כראוי. ורק פחות מכזית – כמנהגם – ולא רצו שרבינו ז"ל יתנהג אחרת ממנהגם. אבל רבינו ז"ל השכיל להכין ולהצניע מראש מקדם בכיס הגלימא שלו שיעור כזית לאכילת מרור, ובעת עריכת הסדר כשהגיע לקיים מצות אכילת מרור אכל רבינו כשיעור
4. Matityahu Gutman, Belz (Tel Aviv, 1912), p. 31, states:

רבי יהושע מבלז אמר: אבי היה פוסק, והוא אמר שאין צריך לאכול כזית מרור, ובתשובות הנדפסות בסו"ס אמרי נועם למועדים כותב שמקובל כך מזקנו הק' מרופשיץ וכן היו נוהגין כל בני ביתו, מחמת אי בריאות

The words I have underlined are how later generations mistakenly attempted to reconcile the practice of the Ropshitzer and his descendants with the halakhah.


Another proof that the medieval German sages never actually saw olives is provided by R. Hayyim Benish – the expert in all matters of halakhic measurements and times – in what is still probably the best discussion of the history and halakhah of the kezayit measurement (and he did not need an entire book to make his points). See Benish, “Shiur Kezayit: Berur Da’at ha-Rishonim ve-ha-Aharonim,” Beit Aharon ve-Yisrael 50 (Kislev-Tevet, 5754), pp. 107-116. 

R. Benish calls attention to a medieval Ashkenazic series of halakhic rulings published by Shlomo Spitzer in Moriah 8 (Sivan 5738). On p. 4, in discussing the size of an olive and the problem created by the medieval Ashkenazic assumption that two olives equal one egg, the unknown author writes:

ולי הכותב אינו קשה כי ראיתי זיתים בא"י ובירושלים אפילו ששה אינם גדולים כביצה

From this we see that the medieval Ashkenazic sages did not know what an olive looked like, and because of this they were mistaken in their assumption that two olives equal one egg. The author himself, who had journeyed to Eretz Yisrael and had seen actual olives, was able to correct his Ashkenazic contemporaries. Yet his statement that an olive is not even one sixth the size of an egg is not in line with the Rashba, Torat ha-BayitMishmeret ha-Bayit, Mossad ha-Rav Kook ed., vol. 2, col. 52 (bayit revi’i, sha’ar rishon), who had olives at his disposal and describes them as less than one fourth the size of an olive. (See R. Benish, p. 109, for the common view that according to Maimonides an olive is one third of an egg.) See also R. Jacob Moelin, Sefer Maharil, ed. Spitzer (Jerusalem, 1989), Likutim, no. 55, that whereas two olives equal one egg, three dried figs also equal an egg. In other words, he believed that a fig is smaller than an olive, which could only be said by someone who never saw an olive. Perhaps he never saw a fig either, but the measurement of three figs equaling one egg is held by the geonim and Maimonides. See R. Eliyahu Zini, Etz Erez, vol. 3, pp. 201-202.

There are, of course, different types of olives, and R. Benish, p. 114, has a chart with the different measurements. Regarding the anonymous medieval Ashkenazic author, who stated that an olive is not even a sixth the size of an egg, it is possible that when he returned to Germany he forgot the exact size, and recalled them as being smaller than they actually were.

The editor of Torat ha-Bayit, R. Moshe Brun, finds the Rashba’s statement that an olive is not even a quarter of an egg so significant that he remarks:

חדוש גדול חידש לנו רבינו בהלכות שיעורין, דיותר מד' זיתים בכביצה

R. Benish concludes that the size of a kezayit is 7.5 square centimeters. Recognizing that this is a good deal smaller than what people are told today, he concludes with the following important words which explain why a kezayit by definition must be a really small size.[29] What he says would appear to be basic to all of the Sages' measurements, but for some reason I was never taught this in yeshiva:

רבים יתמהו ודאי, האם בשיעור זעיר כל כך מקיימים מצוות אכילה הכתובה בתורה. תמיה זו יסודה בחוסר הבנה במושג שיעורי תורה בכלל, ובשיעור אכילה בפרט. בסיס השיעורים בכל מקום ומקום הוא השיעור המזערי ביותר שעליו ניתן לומר שיש לו מהות. וכמו שיעור רוחב אגודל במדות האורך  מדה מחייבת בענינים התלויים במדות אורך (כמו לאו דהשגת גבול. ראה רמב"ם הל' גנבה פ"ז הי"א), ושיעור פרוטה, שיעור מתחייב בממון, למרות שהוא שיעור זעיר ביותר . . , ואם יקדש אשה בשיעורי ממון זה  מקודשת. וכן הוא ה"כזית"  שיעור אכילה: השיעור המיזערי ביותר שיצא מכלל פירור ויש בו חשיבות אוכל . . . ואין תנאי במצות אכילה שיהיה בו שיעור מיתבא דעתא או שביעה

See also Beit Aharon ve-Yisrael 53 (Sivan-Tamuz 5754), pp. 91ff., where R. Benish responds to criticisms of his article. On p. 96 he mentions that one person criticized him by saying that the information he wrote about should not be made public!

והנה אמר לי חכם אחד: לא חידשת במאמרך מאומה, הדברים הינם ידועים, אלא שנאמרו, אפילו ע"י גדולי הפוסקים, מפה לאוזן, ואתה הוצאת זאת שלא כדין ושלא לצורך לרשות הרבים

Finally, no mention of the size of an olive would be complete without referring to R. Natan Slifkin’s essay on the topic available here.

One complicating factor in any discussion of the kezayit is that R. Joseph Karo, Shulhan ArukhOrah Hayyim 586:1, writes:

שיעור כזית יש אומרים דהוי כחצי ביצה

R. Karo knew what an olive looked like, so why in his codification of the Passover laws would he record the view that it is the size of half an egg? Furthermore, why does he ignore the views of R. Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides, and R. Asher who held that a kezayit is less than this? And finally, how come in Orah Hayyim 210 when he discusses the kezayit he does not define it as half an egg? 

These points are all raised by R. Hadar Yehudah Margolin in support of R. Benish’s position that when, in the laws of Passover, R. Karo mentions the view that a kezayit is half an egg, this is only to be regarded as a humra. However, R. Karo himself holds that the basic law is that a kezayit is really the actual size of an olive (which is certainly smaller than half an egg). See Beit Aharon ve-Yisrael 51 (Shevat-Adar 5754), p. 119.

In the recently published De-Haziteih le-Rabbi Meir (Jerusalem, 2018), vol. 1, p. 399, we see that R. Meir Soloveitchik did not like the suggestion that medieval Ashkenazic sages did not know how big an olive was.

אמר על כך הגר"מ שהרי ההגהות מיימוניות (פרק א' ממאכלות אסורות אות מ') מביאים שרבינו תם נתקשה בסימני עוף טהור, ואז עף אל שולחנו עוף טהור, ועל ידי זה ידע את הסימנים. ומזה רואים כמה סייעתא דשמיא היה להם שלא יטעו לומר דבר שאינו נכון, וא"כ איך אפשר לומר שכיון שלא ראו זיתים לכן לא ידעו מה שיעור כזית

* * * *

My Torah in Motion 2019 summer trips will be to Morocco, Central Europe, and Greece. Information about them will soon be up on the Torah in Motion website.


[1] A. Horowitz, Orhot Rabbenu (Bnei Brak, 1991), vol. 1, p. 364. Horowitz adds that he asked the Steipler how they could appoint a fifteen-year-old rabbi when it says in Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat that a dayan has to be eighteen-years-old. The Steipler replied that a rabbi is not a dayan, as he only decides halakhic questions and is not on a beit din. Horowitz also asked the Steipler about what appears in the Beit Yosef, that semikhah should not be given to anyone under eighteen. The Steipler replied that this is only a general rule, but there are exceptions.

Regarding eighteen as the minimum age of a dayan, contrary to what Horowitz states, this is actually not recorded as halakhah in the Shulhan Arukh. R. Karo writes as follows inHoshen Mishpat 7:3:

יש אומרים שאינו ראוי לדון אלא מבן י"ח ומעלה והביא שתי שערות. וי"א דמבן י"ג ומעלה כשר ואפילו לא הביא שתי שערות

This is actually a case of יש אומרים ויש אומרים, and according to R. Yitzhak Yosef the general rule in such a case is that the second opinion is the one we accept. See Ein Yitzhak, vol. 3, pp. 438ff. (Kelalim be-Da'at ha-Shulhan Arukh, no. 28).

Sefer Meirat Einayim explains the position that allows a thirteen-year-old dayan as due to the fact that being a dayan is only dependent on חריפותו ובקיאותו .

R. Kook refused to give semikhah to a young man as he believed that semikhah should only be given to one who was knowledgeable in the entire Torah (!). See his responsum published in Peri ha-Aretz 5 (1982), pp. 6-9.
[2] Tevunah (1861), nos. 39, 40.
[3] Sections of this commentary that have not yet appeared in print were recently offered for sale at an auction. See here.
[4] Ha-Gaon ha-Hasid Rabbi Meir Marim Shafit. See also the very nice story about R. Shafit recorded here.
[5] Habermann, Anshei Sefer ve-Anshei Ma’aseh (Jerusalem, 1974), p. 139.
[6] R. Asher Anshel Yehudah Miller, Olamo shel Abba (Jerusalem, 1984), p. 181.
[7] The common pronunciation of his name as “Abudraham” is a mistake. See here.
[8] See R. Menahem Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, p. 17 n. 141.
[9] Israel Davidson, Otzar ha-Shirah ve-ha-Piyut (New York, 1924), vol. 1, p. 303. As Davidson notes, this is the correct version of the text.
[10] This is how the words are pronounced, not yayin nesekh.
[11] See R. Levi Ibn HabibTeshuvot, no. 147 (Kuntres ha-Semikhah, no. 4), s.v. ומתחלה. R. Baruch Rabinovich, about whom I have written a good deal in recent posts (and more is to come) was appointed גאב"ד of Munkatch immediately upon his marriage, when he was only eighteen years old. See R. Nathan David Rabinowich, ed., Hashav Nevonim (N.Y.-Jerusalem, 2016), p. 9.

This post deals with young rabbis, not precocious children. However, regarding children wise beyond their years, I just came across the following from R. Hayyim ben Bezalel, Be'er Mayim Hayim (London, 1964), vol. 1, p. 165:

ואני בעודי נער כמו בן ז' שנים פעם אחת בליל שבת של פרשה זו הסיבו יחד זקנים בעלי הוראה ונתנו ונשאו בזאת הקושיא והייתי מקשיב לקולם לאחר דבריהם אמרתי לחוות דעי גם אני ברשותם . . . והודי לי רבותיי והנהתי להם מאד

[11] No. 99 (18 Shevat 5778), p. 6 n. 35. Regarding R. Mazuz, I think readers will enjoy the song devoted to him that recently appeared.


Here are other songs devoted to him



Here is Lipa Schmeltzer on Sukkot 2018 singing before R. Mazuz and R. Shlomo Amar. The first song he sings is a poem that R. Mazuz wrote about Maimonides.


[13] R. Mazuz also shows that the medieval French sages never saw a date, and this explains why they describe it incorrectly. See Bayit Ne’eman, Orah Hayyim, no. 25 (pp. 135, 137-138).
[14] Berakhot no. 107.
[15] See Excursus.
[16] Interested readers can consult the numerous sources listed by R. Eliezer Brodt, Likutei Eliezer, pp. 38ff.
[17] Sheki'in (Jerusalem, 1939), p. 22.
[18] See R. Moses Sofer, She’elot u-Teshuvot Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, no. 23, who discusses the matter of birkat kohanim, as it is also quoted by Rabad in his commentary to Tamid 33b from Sefer ha-Mikzto’ot. R. Efraim Zalman Margulies, Beit Efrayim, Orah Hayyim no. 6, explains the Ashkenazic practice of not reciting birkat kohanim every day as due to the concern that there might be a niddah in a kohen’s house. With reference to the notion that a kohen does not recite birkat kohanim if there is a niddah in his house, which as just noted is quoted by Rabad from Sefer ha-Miktzo’ot, R. Joseph Kafih writes (commentary to Moreh Nevukhim 3:47, n. 31):

והדעות הללו חדרו גם לשכבות מסוימות של היהדות והחלו להתנהג במנהגותיהם, ראה לדוגמא פירוש הראב"ד למסכת תמיד הפרק האחרון בשם ספר המקצעות

In other words, R. Kafih is in agreement with Aptowitzer that this is an example of sectarian ideas finding their way into the writings of rishonim

The late Yaakov Elman even saw Zoroastrian influence in a practice that would become part of the Niddah laws. He wrote the following here:

As to the non-elitist Babylonian Jews, we have a report regarding the ordinary Babylonian Jewish women. Rabbi Zera reports that the “daughters of Israel had undertaken to be so strict with themselves as to wait for seven [clean] days [after the appearance] of a drop of blood the size of a mustard seed [although biblically they are required only to separate for seven days from the onset of menstruation]” (Berakhot, fol. 31a; Megillah, fol. 28b; Niddah, fol. 66a). It is clear from Niddah (fol. 66a) that this stringency was a popular practice and not a rabbinic prohibition, probably in response to a “holier than thou” attitude perceived by the populace as emanating from their Persian neighbors. It seems that Babylonian Jewish women had internalized their Zoroastrian neighbors’ critique of Rabbinic Judaism’s relatively “easy-going” ways in this regard.

[19] Mehkarim be-Sifrut ha-Geonim (Jerusalem, 1941), pp. 166-168.
[20] Of course, in modern times people can also be quite credulous. Since we are discussing menstruation, here is another myth repeated by R. Hayyim David Halevi, Mekor Hayyim, vol. 5, p. 70:

וכבר הוכח שאחיזת יד האשה הנדה בפרחים ממהרת נבילתם

[21] Kitvei Ramban, ed. Chavel, vol. 1, p. 381. See also ibid., p. 149, that he believed it is possible for necromancers to raise the spirits of the dead.
[22] Kitvei Ramban, vol. 2, p. 296. Nahmanides wrote this in the thirteenth century when all sorts of tall tales were believed. Yet I still recall how surprised I was when told by a high school rebbe in the 1980s that he believed that the Ten Tribes were hidden somewhere on earth, waiting to be discovered. Perhaps relevant to this, R. Aharon Leib Steinman writes that the reason we cannot find the Sambatyon river is because of hester panim. See Ayelet ha-Shahar, Devarim, p. 190.

In general, it never ceases to amaze me how even very great figures have been taken in by phony stories. For one example (and I could provide a very long list of similar examples), here is a story about the power of the evil eye that R. Joseph Zechariah Stern records inZekher Yehosef, vol. 4, Tahalukhot ha-Agaddot, p. 13a. It actually upset me when I saw this, as I am a big admirer of R. Stern and was disappointed that he, too, readily accepted a phony story as fact.

ובענין עין הרע שנמצא באגדות הנה גם אנשים שאין להם חלק בתלמוד מחכמיהם ענו אמן על התאמתם וכנודע ע"פ מ"ע [מכתבי עת] כי הרופאים בע"מ פ"ב [בעיר מלוכה פטרבורג] עשו נסיון מבחינה שעשו שהניחו ככר לחם לפני אחד מחייבי מיתות ושהרעיבו אותו שלש ימים מקודם, ואותו חלק מהלחם שהניחו לפניו מבלי ליתן אותו לנגוע בו רק במבטי עיניו נהפך אח"כ לסם המות

This source, and the one from R. Steinman mentioned earlier in this note, are referred to in the recently published Otzar Hemdah (n.p., 2018), pp. 81, 150. See also ibid., p. 219, which cites R. Elijah David Rabinowitz-Teomim, Over Orah (Jerusalem, 2003), p. 237:

כבר נודע שבעת פריחת הגפנים אז גם היין שכבר הוא מכמה שנים במרתפים תוסס, (וכן אנו רואים בעת פריחת התבואות אז העיסה תוססת), ודבר זה נעלם מחכמי הטבע, אבל הכל רואים דבר זה בחוש, וא"כ ודאי שגם מה שכשאומרים דבר שמועה בשמו גורם ששפתותיו דובבות בקבר אין להתפלא כלל, אף שאין אנו מבינים דבר

How is it that R. Rabinowitz-Teomim can write that everyone sees the phenomenon with grapes and wheat he describes when the entire description is completely without basis? Otzar Hemdah, p. 219, cites a similar passage from R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai,Homat Anakh (Jerusalem, 1986), parashat Matot (p. 67a):

הלא תראה היין שהוא במרתף ומונח בחבית סתומה בעת שדורכים הענבים אף שהוא רחוק מאד היין שבחבית מתנועע והוא פלא

Again, we have to ask, how is it that so many people believed that they saw something which never occurred?
[23] The Impact of Science on Society (London and New York, 2016), p. 6.
[24] Hazon Ish, Hilkhot Shabbat 39:1 (Kuntres ha-Shiurim).
[25Eretz Tzvi, vol. 1, no. 85.
[26] I say the meaning “appears to be,” as there is a famous comment of R. Asher ben Jehiel, Pesahim, ch. 10, no. 25, which some understand to be suggesting a different approach to maror and the obligation of kezayit. See R. Aryeh Leib Gunzberg, Sha’agat Aryeh, no. 100; R. Mordechai Shabbetai Eisenberger, Berurei Halakhot (Netanya, 2006), no. 51; R. Samuel Pardes, Avnei Shmuel (Jerusalem, 1993), no. 13; R. Asher Weiss, Minhat Asher: Haggadah shel Pesah (Jerusalem, 2004), pp. 203ff.
[27]  Eretz Tzvi, vol. 2, p. 401.
[28“Bitter Herbs in Hasidic Galicia,” Jewish Studies Internet Journal 12 (2013), pp. 1-40.
[29] See also R. Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin, Meromei Sadeh, Pesahim 39a, who states that a kezayit is very small:

וזה ברור דשיעור כזית המבואר בשו"ע הוא שיעור קטן מאד

Simchas Torah & a Lost Minhag of the Gra

Simchas Torah & a Lost Minhag of the Gra
By Eliezer Brodt

Chol HaMoed Succos is the Yarzheit of the Vilna Gaon (for an earlier post on the Gra see here and here). In this post I hope to show a source for a “forgotten” Minhag of the Gra.
In 1921 the great bibliographer (and much more) Yitzchak Rivkind described a strange custom he saw during the time he learned in Volozhin (after it was reopened and headed by R’ Rephael Shapiro), in an article about Minhag HaGra. On Simchas Torah they would open the Aron Kodesh when saying Aleinu, both at night and during the day, and while singing the Niggun of Mussaf of Yom Kippur would bow on the floor exactly like we do on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. When he asked for the source of this Minhag he was told it comes from the Gra. When he visited Vilna sometime later he found the only place that they observed this unique Minhag was in the Kloiz of the Gra, but nowhere else in Vilna.[1] 

In 1933 R’ Meir Bar Ilan printed his memoirs in Yiddish for the first time (in book form); in it he describes the great Simcha in Volozhin on Simchas Torah, that of his father the Netziv and of the Talmidim. He then writes that when they got to Aleinu they would open the Aron and with Niggun of Mussaf of Yom Kippur would sing and bow on the floor exactly like we do on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur.[2] However, this custom is not mentioned in the Maaseh Rav or any of the other collections of Minhagim of the Gra.

Earlier this year (2018) R’ Dovid Kamenetsky published a very important manuscript related to the Maaseh Rav. This work sheds light on how this important sefer of the Gra’s Minhaghim was written. The Gra had a very close talmid named R’ Saadyah who wrote up the various things he witnessed the Gra doing. This formed the basis of the Maaseh Rav who then went and added to it from other sources. This original manuscript work was recently discovered and printed by Rabbi Kamenetsky; in it we find that R’ Saadyah writes that on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur the Gra would fully bow (prostrate himself) during Aleinu, and did the same on Simchas Torah at night. Thus we now for the first time have the actual exact source of the Gra doing this.[3] 

בר"ה וי"כ וש"י כשאומר הש"ץ זכרנו:... כשהגיע לכורעים היכורע ונופל על אפיו בפשיטת ידים ורגלים וכן בשמחת תורה בלילה היו אומרים מזמורים ותפילות ...בים ואח"כ היו נופלים על אפיהכנ"ל באימ[הבעלינו...

Here is a copy of the page in the manuscript (thanks to Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky):

A possible explanation for this Minhag is that when things were getting a bit too wild, i.e. too leibedek, they did this to remind the crowd it’s a Yom Tov. This is not the only minhag done like Yomim Noraim, in one account we find “The Musaf was chanted with the music of the New Year's ritual.[4] 

[1] HaIvri, 10:35, (1921), pp. 6-7. See Yaari, Toldot Chag Simchas Torah, p. 366.
[2] MeiVolozhin Ad Yerushlayim, 1, p. 115.
[3] See TorasS Hagra, p. 212. On this work see Toras Hagra, pp. 127-226.
[4] Between Worlds, p. 93

Kol Nidrei, Choirs, and Beethoven: The Eternity of the Jewish Musical Tradition

Kol Nidrei, Choirs, and Beethoven:  The Eternity of the Jewish Musical Tradition  

On April 23, 1902, the cornerstone to the Taharat Ha-Kodesh synagogue was laid, and on Rosh Ha-Shana the next year, September 7, 1903, the synagogue was officially opened.  The synagogue building was on one of Vilna’s largest boulevards and constructed in a neo-Moorish architectural style, capped with a blue cupola that was visible for blocks. There was a recessed entry with three large arches and two columns.  The interior housed an impressive ark, located in a semi-circular apse and covered in a domed canopy. But what really set the synagogue apart from the other 120 or so places to pray in Vilna was that above the ark, on the first floor, were arched openings that served the choir.  In fact, it was generally referred to by that feature and was known as the Choral Synagogue.  The congregants were orthodox, most could be transported to any modern Orthodox synagogue and they would indistinguishable, in look – dressing in contemporary styles, many were of the professional class, middle to upper middle class, and they considered themselves maskilim, or what we might call Modern Orthodox.[1]

The incorporation of the choir should be without controversy.  Indeed, the Chief Rabbi of Vilna, Yitzhak Rubenstein would alternate giving his sermon between the Great Synagogue, or the Stut Shul [City Synagogue], and the Choral Synagogue. [2]  Judaism can trace a long relationship to music and specifically the appreciation, and recognition of the unique contribution it brings to worship.  Some identify biblical antecedents, such as Yuval, although he was not specifically Jewish.  Of course, David and Solomon are the early Jews most associated with music.  David used music for religious and secular purposes – he used to have his lyre play to wake him at midnight, the first recorded instance of an alarm clock.  Singing and music was an integral part of the temple service, and the main one for the Levite class who sang collectively, in a choir.  With the destruction of the temple, choirs, and music, in general, was separated from Judaism.  After that cataclysmic event, we have little evidence of choirs and even music.  Indeed, some argued that there was an absolute ban on music extending so far as to prohibit singing. 
It would not be until the early modern period in the  16th century that choirs and music began to play a central role in Jewish ritual, and even then, it was limited – and was associated with modernity or those who practiced a more modern form of the religion. 
Rabbi Leon (Yehudah Aryeh) Modena (1571-1648) was one of the most colorful figures in the Jewish Renaissance. Born in Venice, he traveled extensively among the various cities in the region. [3] He authored over 15 books, and made his living teaching and preaching in synagogues, schools, and private homes; composing poems on commission for various noblemen; and as an assistant printer.  In 1605, he was living in Ferrara where an incident occurred in the synagogue that kickstarted the collective reengagement with music. Modena explained that “we have six or eight knowledgeable men, who know something about the science of song, i.e. “[polyphonic] music,” men of our congregation (may their Rock keep and save them), who on holidays and festivals raise their voices in the synagogue and joyfully sing songs, praises, hymns and melodies such as Ein Keloheinu, Aleinu Leshabeah, Yigdal, Adon Olam etc. to the glory of the Lord in an orderly relationship of the voices according to this science [polyphonic music]. … Now a man stood up to drive them out with the utterance of his lips, answering [those who enjoyed the music], saying that it is not proper to do this, for rejoicing is forbidden, and song is forbidden, and hymns set to artful music have been forbidden since the Temple was destroyed. [4]
Modena was not cowed by this challenge and wrote a lengthy resposum to defend the practice which he sent to the Venetian rabbinate and received their approbation.  But that did not put the matter to rest. 
In 1610, as he approached forty, Modena received his ordination from the Venetian rabbis and settled in Venice to serve not only as a rabbi but as a cantor, with his pleasant tenor voice.  In around 1628 in the Venetian ghetto, an academy of music was organized with Modena serving as the Maestro di Caeppella . Both in name and motto that academy embraced its subversive nature.  It was called the Academia degli Impediti, the Academy of the Hampered, named in derision of the traditional Jewish reluctance to perform music because of "the unhappy state of captivity which hampers every act of competence." In this spirit, especially in light of Modena's responsum on music in 1605, the Accademia took the Latin motto Cum Recordaremur Sion, and in Hebrew, Bezokhrenu et Tzion, when we remembered Zion, based paradoxically on Psalm 137, one of the texts invoked against Jewish music: "We hung up our harps.... How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?"
On Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in October 1628, a spectacular musical performance was held in the Spanish synagogue, which had been decorated with silver and jewels. Two choirs from the academy sang artistic Hebrew renderings of the afternoon service, the evening service, and some Psalms. Their extensive repertoire lasted a few hours. A throng of Christian noblemen and ladies attended the Simchat Torah service. The applause was great, and police had to guard the gates to ensure order
Beyond his musical endeavors, Modena also served as an expert in Hebrew publishing. The two would create a confluence that enabled the first modern Jewish book of music. 
For Rabbi Leon Modena, his young friend, the musician Salamone Rossi, would herald the Jewish re-awakening. We know very little about Rossi’s life. He was born circa 1570 and died sometime after 1628, possibly in 1630. He is listed as a violinist and composer on the payroll of the Gonzaga dukes, rulers of Mantua, and was associated with a Jewish theater company, as composer or performer or both. In addition, Rossi was also writing motets – short pieces of sacred music typically polyphonic and unaccompanied – for the synagogue using contemporary Italian and church styles. He was specifically encouraged in this endeavor by Modena, who urged the composer to have this music published so that it could have an even greater impact. [5] In 1622 the publishing house of Bragadini in Venice issued thirty-three of Rossi’s synagogue motets in a collection, Shirim asher le-Shlomo, that Modena edited. This extraordinary publication represented a huge innovation. First, the use of musical notations that required a particularly thorny issue to be resolved right versus left. Rossi decided to keep the traditional musical notational scheme and provide those from left to right and write the Hebrew backward, because the latter would be more familiar to the reader.  Second, it was the first time the Hebrew synagogue liturgy had ever been set as polyphonic choral music. Polyphony in the Christian church had begun centuries earlier. Rossi’s compositions sound virtually indistinguishable from a church motet, except for one thing: the language is Hebrew – the lyrics are from the liturgy of the synagogue, where this music was performed.
There was bound to be a conflict between the modern Jews who had been influenced by the Italian Renaissance and who supported this innovation, and those with a more conservative theology and praxis. But the antagonism towards music, especially non-traditional music, remained strong. Anticipating objections over Rossi’s musical innovations, and perhaps reflecting discussions that were already going on in Venice or Mantua, Modena wrote a lengthy preface included the responsum he wrote in 1605 in Ferrara in support of music in which he refuted the arguments against polyphony in the synagogue. “Shall the prayers and praises of our musicians become objects of scorn among the nations? Shall they say that we are no longer masters of the art of music and that we cry out to the God of our fathers like dogs and ravens?”3 Modena acknowledged the degraded state of synagogue music in his own time but indicates that it was not always so. “For wise men in all fields of learning flourished in Israel in former times. All noble sciences sprang from them; therefore, the nations honored them and held them in high esteem so that they soared as if on eagles’ wings. Music was not lacking among these sciences; they possessed it in all its perfection and others learned it from them. … However, when it became their lot to dwell among strangers and to wander to distant lands where they were dispersed among alien peoples, these vicissitudes caused them to forget all their knowledge and to be devoid of all wisdom.”  
In the same essay, he quotes Emanuel of Rome, a Jewish poet from the early fourteenth century, who wrote, “What does the science of music say to the Christians? ‘Indeed, I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews.’” Using the words of Joseph from the book of Genesis, Modena was hinting that the rituals and the music of the Catholic church had been derived from those of ancient Israel, an assertion that has been echoed by many scholars. Although it can be argued that Modena indulges in hyperbole, both ancient and modern with some attributing the earliest ritual music to Obadiah the convert who noted a Jewish prayer that was only then appropriated for use in Gregorian chants. [6] 
Directly addressing the naysayers, Modena wrote that “to remove all criticism from misguided hearts, should there be among our exiles some over-pious soul (of the kind who reject everything new and seek to forbid all knowledge which they cannot share) who may declare this [style of sacred music] forbidden because of things he has learned without understanding, … and to silence one who made confused statements about the same matter. He immediately cites the liturgical exception to the ban on music. Who does not know that all authorities agree that all forms of singing are completely permissible in connection with the observance of the ritual commandments? … I do not see how anyone with a brain in his skull could cast any doubt on the propriety of praising God in song in the synagogue on special Sabbaths and on festivals. … The cantor is urged to intone his prayers in a pleasant voice. If he were able to make his one voice sound like ten singers, would this not be desirable? … and if it happens that they harmonize well with him, should this be considered a sin? … Are these individuals on whom the Lord has bestowed the talent to master the technique of music to be condemned if they use it for His glory? For if they are, then cantors should bray like asses and refrain from singing sweetly lest we invoke the prohibition against vocal music.
No less of an authority than the Shulhan Arukh, explains that “when a cantor who stretches out the prayers to show off his pleasant voice, if his motivation is to praise God with a beautiful melody, then let him be blessed, and let him chant with dignity and awe.” And that was Rossi’s exact motivation to “composed these songs not for my own honor but for the honor of my Father in heaven who created this soul within me. For this, I will give thanks to Him evermore.” The main thrust of Modena’s preface was to silence the criticisms of the “self-proclaimed or pseudo pious ones” and “misguided hearts.”
Modena’s absurdist argument – should we permit the hazzan to bray like an ass – is exactly what a 19th-century rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Zechariah Stern, who was generally opposed to the Haskalah – and some of the very people who started the Choral Synagogue, espoused. Stern argues that synagogal singing is not merely prohibited but is a cardinal sin.  To Stern, such religious singing is only the practice of non-Jews who  “strive to glorify their worship in their meeting house [בית הכנסת שלהם] so that it be with awe, and without other intermediaries that lead to distraction and sometimes even to lightheadedness.  In the case of Jews, however, there is certainly be a desecration of G-d’s Name when we make the holy temple a place of partying and frivolity and a meeting house for men and women … in prayer. there is no place for melodies [נגונים], only the uttering of the liturgy with gravity [כובד ראש] … to do otherwise is the way of arrogance, as one who casts off the yoke, where the opposite is required: submission, awe and gravity, and added to this because of the public desecration of G-d’s Name – a hillul ha-Shem be-rabbim.” (For more on this responsum see here.)
 Similarly, even modern rabbis, for example, R. Eliezer Waldenberg, who died in 2006, also rejected Modena’s position, because of modernity.  Although in this instance, not because of the novelty or the substance of Modena’s decision but because of the author’s lifestyle.  Modena took a modern approach to Jewish life and was guilty of such sins as not wearing a yarmulke in public and permitting ball playing on Shabbos. 
Despite these opinions, for many Orthodox Jews, with some of the Yeshivish or Haredi communities as outliers, song is well entrenched in the services, no more so than on the Yomim Noraim. Nor is Modena an outlier rabbinic opinion of the value of music and divine service.  No less of an authority than the Vilna Gaon is quoted as highly praising music and that it plays a more fundamental role to Judaism that extends well beyond prayer.  Before we turn to the latter point it is worth noting that at times Jewish music was appropriated by non-Jews – among the most important composers, Beethoven.  One the holiest prayer of Yom Kippur, Kol Nedri, is most well-known not for the text (which itself poses many issues) but the near-universal tune.  That tune, although not as repetitive in the prayer can be heard in the sixth movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in C# minor, opus 131 (you can hear a version here).  One theory is in 1824, the Jews in Vienna were finally permitted to build their own synagogue and for the consecration asked Vienna’s most famous composer to write a piece of music. [7]  Although Beethoven did not take the commission, he may have done some research on Jewish music and learned of this tune.  We could ask now, is Beethoven playing a Jewish music? [8]
R. Yisrael M’Sklov, a student of the Gaon records that he urged the study of certain secular subjects as necessary for the proper Torah study, algebra and few other, but “music he praised more than the rest.  He said that most of the fundamentals and secrets of the torah … the Tikkunei Zohar are impossible to understand without music, it is so powerful it can resurrect the dead with its properties.  Many of these melodies and their corresponding secrets were among the items that Moshe brought when he ascended to Sinai.” [9] 
In this, the Gaon was aligned with many Hassidim who regularly incorporated music into their rituals, no matter where the origin.  Just one of many examples, Habad uses the tune to the French national anthem for the prayer Aderet ve-Emunah.  The power of music overrides any considerations of origin.  Indeed, they hold that not only can music affect us, but we can affect the music itself, we hold the power to transform what was impure, the source and make it pure.  That is not simply a cute excuse, but the essence of what Hassidim view the purpose of Judaism, making holy the world.  Music is no longer a method of attaining holiness, singing is itself holiness. [10]  
Today in Vilna, of the over 140 places of worship before the Holocaust five shul buildings remain and only one shul is still in operation.  That shul is the Choral Synagogue – the musical shul.  Nonetheless not all as it should be.  In the 1960s a rabbi from Israel was selected as the rabbi for the community and the shul.  When he arrived, he insisted that choirs have no place in Judaism and ordered the choir arches sealed up.  We, however, have the opportunity, as individuals and community to use the power of music to assist us on the High Holidays – that can be me-hayeh ma’tim.

[1] See Cohen-Mushlin, Synagogues in Lithuania N-Z, 253-61. For more on the founding of the congregation see Mordechai Zalkin, “Kavu le-Shalom ve-ain:  Perek be-Toldot ha-Kneset ha-Maskili ‘Taharat ha-Kodesh be-Vilna,” in Yashan mi-Pnei Hadash: Mehkarim be-Toldot Yehudei Mizrah Eiropah u-ve-Tarbutam: Shai le-Imanuel Etkes, eds. David Asaf and Ada Rapoport-Albert (Jerusalem:  Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2009) 385-403. The images are taken from Cohen-Mushlin. 
[2] Hirsz Abramowicz, Profiles of a Lost World (Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1999), 293.
[3] Regarding Modena see his autobiography, translated into English, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth Century Rabbi, ed. Mark Cohen (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1988); and the collection of articles in The Lion Shall Roar: Leon Modena and his World, ed. David Malkiel, Italia, Conference Supplement Series, 1 (Jerusalem:  Hebrew University Press, 2003).
[4] His responsum was reprinted in Yehuda Areyeh Modena, She’a lot u-Teshuvot Ziknei Yehuda, ed. Shlomo Simonsin (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1956), 15-20.
[5] See generally Don Harrán, Salamone Rossi:  Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Michelene Wandor, “Salamone Rossi, Judaism and the Musical Cannon,” European Judaism 35 (2002): 26-35; Peter Gradenwitz, The Music of Israel:  From the Biblical Era to Modern Times 2nd ed. (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1996), 145-58. 
The innovations of Rossi and Modena ended abruptly in the destruction of the Mantua Ghetto in 1630 and the dispersion of the Jewish community. The music was lost until the late 1800s when Chazzan Weintraub discovered it and began to distribute it once again.

[6] See Golb who questions this attribution and argues the reverse and also describes the earlier scholarship on Obadiah.  Golb, “The Music of Obadiah the Proselyte and his Conversion,” Journal of Jewish Studies 18: 43-46.
[7] Such ceremonies were not confined to Austria.  In Italy since the middle of the seventeenth century, special ceremonies for the dedication of synagogues had become commonplace.  See Gradenwitz, Music of Israel, 159-60.
[8] Jack Gotlieb, Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish, (New York:  State University Press of New York, 2004), 17-18; see also Theodore Albrecht, "Beethoven's Quotation of Kol Nerei in His String Quartet, op. 131:  A Circumstantial Case for Sherlock Holmes," in I Will Sing and Make Music:  Jewish Music and Musicians Through the Ages, ed. Leonard Greenspoon (Nebraska:  Creighton University Press, 2008), 149-165. For more on the history of the synagogue see Max Grunwald, Vienna (Philadephia:  Jewish Publication Society of America, 1936), 205-21.
[9] R. Yisrael M’Sklov, Pat ha-Shulhan  (Sefat, 1836).
[10] See Mordechai Avraham Katz, “Be-Inyan Shirat Negunim ha-Moshrim etsel ha-Goyim,” Minhat ha-Kayits, 73-74.  However, some have refused to believe that any “tzadik” ever used such tunes.  Idem. 73. See also our earlier article discussing the use of non-Jewish tunes “Hatikvah, Shir HaMa’a lot, & Censorship.” 

A Compromise in Halacha - On Menachot 33a

A Compromise in Halacha - On Menachot 33a
By Eli Genauer

A common D’var Torah delivered at a wedding goes something like this: “Dear Chatan and Kallah. You are standing beneath a Chupah which is representative of the home you will build within the Jewish people. When you walk into your home, you will notice that that Mezuzah is placed in a diagonal position on the doorpost. There is a disagreement between Rashi and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam as to whether the Mezuzah should be affixed in a vertical or horizontal position. Later decisors ruled that a compromise between those two opinions was in order and therefore prescribed that the Mezuzah be affixed diagonally. This lesson of compromise is an important one as you embark upon you marriage and the Mezuzah on your door is an important reminder of this principle. Mazal Tov!”

This wedding Dvar Torah is based on a Gemara in Menachot 33a
אמר רב יהודה אמר רבעשאה כמין נגר פסולה.
איניוהא כי אתא רב יצחק בר יוסף אמר כולהו מזוזתא דבי רבי כמין נגר הוו עביד……. ?
לא קשיאהא דעבידא כסיכתאהא דעבידא כאיסתוירא
Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: If one affixes a Mezuzah like a bolt, it is invalid. Is this so? But when Rav Yitzchak bar Yosef came ( from Eretz Yisroel ) he said that all Mezuzot in the house of Rebbe ( Yehuda HaNasi) were affixed like a bolt……? This is not difficult. This ruling (where it is ruled as being unfit) is where it was prepared like a peg; that ruling (in the house of Rebbe where it is ruled as being fit) is where it is prepared like an ankle. [1] 

Rashi explains that a “נגר” is something that is embedded in a wall “שתוחבין הנגרין בכותל”[2] 2. He then writes the word “כזה” and illustrates this with a drawing showing a horizontally placed Mezuzah. This is one of many times here that Rashi tells us something and then uses the word “כזה” which is then followed by a diagram. In this case, the illustration shows a horizontally affixed Mezuzah and it is a mezuzah affixed in this direction that is improper.

Rabbeinu Tam (תוסד״ה "הא דעבידא כסיכתא) is bothered by the explanation of Rashi because he feels that it is more honorable to have the Mezuzah affixed in a horizontal position just as it is more honorable to have a Sefer Torah lying horizontally than standing vertically. He therefore translates the word “נגר” as a “peg” and says that the disqualification of a Mezuzah affixed כמין נגר is that it is affixed vertically, like a peg. He also translates the word כסיכתא as a peg and therefore disqualified because it is vertical, and the word איסתוירא, which is considered to be proper, as the part of the foot below the ankle which is horizontal.

The idea that affixing the Mezuzah diagonally is a compromise between the positions of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam is based on the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 289:6

צְרִיכָה לִהְיוֹת זְקוּפָהאָרְכָּהּ לְאֹרֶךְ מְזוּזַת הַפֶּתַח..... הַגָּהוְכֵן נָהֲגוּ. (בֵּית יוֹסֵףאֲבָל יֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים שֶׁפְּסוּלָה בִּזְקוּפָהאֶלָּא צְרִיכָה לִהְיוֹת שְׁכוּבָהאָרְכָּהּ לְרֹחַב מְזוּזַת הַפֶּתַח (טוּר וְהַפּוֹסְקִים בְּשֵׁם רַבֵּנוּ תָּם). וְהַמְּדַקְדְּקִיןיוֹצְאִין יְדֵי שְׁנֵיהֶםוּמַנִּיחִים אוֹתָהּ בְּשִׁפּוּעַ וּבַאֲלַכְסוֹן (טוּר וְהַגָּהוֹת מַיְמוֹנִי ומהרי''ל ות''ה סינ''ב), וְכֵן רָאוּי לִנְהֹגוְכֵן נוֹהֲגִין בִּמְדִינוֹת אֵלּוּ.

In truth, it is not really a compromise but rather an effort to affix the Mezuzah in a way in which both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam would approve. Rashi says that vertical is the proper way, horizontal is Pasul, but bent ( or diagonal) is also Kosher. Rabbeinu Tam says that horizontal is the proper way, vertical is Pasul, but bent is also Kosher. Some Meforshim take this idea even further by saying that since in the house of Rebbe the Mezuzot were affixed כאיסתוירא, this was some sort of Hidur and therefore something to be emulated.

The classic edition of the Vilna Shas (Vilna 1885) renders this Sugya and the accompanying diagrams as such

Here are the words of Rashi which correspond to these two diagrams which show the positioning of four Mezuzot
  1. עשאה כמין נגר שקבעה ותחבה בסף כנגרשתוחבין הנגרין בכותל כזה.
  2. פסולה דמצותה לתתה באורך בסף כזהנגרקביליא
  3. עבידא כסיכתא נגר כשל אומנים כזה פסולה
  4. איסתוירא היינו מקום חיבור השוק והרגל ומעומד הוא כזהכשירה:
  5. ל"א איסתויראכי היכי דמקום חיבור השוק והרגל הוי השוק זקוף מלמעלה והרגל שוכב כזה כך הניחה למזוזה כשירה הואיל וראשה אחד זקוף:
The doorframe in the top illustration shows the position of two Mezuzot.

The one on top is horizontal which is improper, and the one on the bottom is vertical which is Kosher.
  1. עשאה כמין נגר שקבעה ותחבה בסף כנגרשתוחבין הנגרין בכותל כזה.
He affixed and inserted it in the doorpost like a bolt, for workmen who work with bolts insert it in the walls like this[3] 
  1. פסולה דמצותה לתתה באורך בסף כזה.
It is improper- Because the Mitzvah is to affix it vertically in the doorpost like this….

The doorframe in the lower illustration also shows two Mezuzot.

The one on top is horizontal and therefore improper and the one on the bottom is bent (it looks like the Hebrew letter Nun), and therefore Kosher. Here are the words of Rashi which correspond to these two Mezuzot.

עבידא כסיכתא נגר כשל אומנים כזה פסולה
A bolt as fashioned by workmen like this is disqualified

ל"א איסתויראכי היכי דמקום חיבור השוק והרגל הוי השוק זקוף מלמעלה והרגל שוכב כזה כך הניחה למזוזה כשירה הואיל וראשה אחד זקוף

Another explanation of איסתוירא – like the point at which the “Shok” joins the ”Regel”, where the “Shok” is upright and the “Regel” rests, like this, so too if he affixes the Mezuzah like this it is Kosher because the top part is upright.

There is no diagram associated directly with this comment of Rashi

איסתוירא היינו מקום חיבור השוק והרגל ומעומד הוא כזהכשירה:

Whether a נגר is normally inserted horizontally or vertically is also “illustrated” in Jastrow’s explanation of the word

In Bava Batra 101a he describes it “like an upright bolt” and in our Gemara he describes it as “like a bolt shoved into a case, i.e. horizontally

There are two issues with the standard depiction of the two diagrams in the Vilna Shas. Rashi uses the word כזה five times and there are only four “illustrations” (2 in each diagram) Also, we would expect that there would be a diagram after each time it says כזה.

This problem is solved when we look at the only handwritten manuscript we have of Rashi on this part of Menachot.

The National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg, Russia Ms. EVR IV 25:

It contains five depictions of the placement of the Mezuzot and each כזה is followed by a depiction.

The problem is also solved when we look at the first printed edition of Menachot ( Bomberg 1522) whose source had to be a manuscript. [4] 

This printed edition leaves space after every כזה. It even includes a rudimentary depiction of the last כזה looking like a “Nun” which is supposed to depict where the ankle meets the leg.

It looks very much like the Nun in the National Library of Russia manuscript and may have emanated from the same source.

It was very exciting for me personally to discover this “diagram” which clearly was added to illustrate the כזה. In his Maamar 'al hadpasat ha-Talmud with Additions, (ed. A.M. Habermann, Mossad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem: 2006, p.41)  Rav Natan Nata Rabbinowicz, writing about the first Bomberg edition, states as follows:
״ובכל התלמוד (וכן בכל הדפוסים הישנים עד דפוס בערמןנשמטו הציורים בגמרארש״י ותוספות,ונשאר מקומם חלקמלבד בסוטה מגשישנו הציור ברש״י
In all of the Talmud (and in all other older printed editions of the Talmud until the Berman edition ( Frankfurt an Der Oder 1697-99) the diagrams were not included in the Talmud, Rashi and Tosfot, and their space remained empty, except for Sotah 43A, where we find a diagram in Rashi.”
It turns out there was a diagram included in the second Bomberg edition of Zevachim( 1528) on 53b, which Rabbinowicz probably never saw. See my article here.
He may have also missed this one because it does not look much like a diagram, but just a letter, or perhaps he felt it was of no significance.
This depiction of the last כזה looking like a “Nun” was maintained by subsequent editions of the Talmud printed in Basel 1580, Cracow 1605, Amsterdam 1644, and Frankfurt an der Oder in 1699.
It was only dropped and replaced with the two larger diagrams we have today in the Frankfurt am Main edition of 1720.

Since many people follow the advice of the Rema and affix the Mezuzah diagonally, it is important to understand the source. This is the word in the Gemara which state that in the house of Rebbe, the Mezuzot were affixed כאיסתוירא. This word is etymologically related to the Latin word astragalus which is described as “the bone in the ankle that articulates with the leg bones to form the ankle joint”. It is more commonly known today as the Talus and looks like this:[5] 

As used in the Gemara, it probably meant the entire area where the bottom of the foot ( which is horizontal) met the bottom of the leg ( which is vertical) at the ankle, thereby looking like something that was bent.

Finally, there is a fascinating story about the Talus bone related by Rav Yisroel Shachor in the Sefer “Dovair Yesharim”.[6] In discussing the איסתוירא, he writes that he was in a terrible automobile accident and בחסדי ה׳ escaped death by climbing out of the rear of the car only seconds before it burst into flames. The only injury he sustained was a broken bone in his foot, which he identified as the Talus. He had many opportunities to view x-rays of his broken foot and concludes “I see this as a source of amazement that the only bone of all 248 bones in my body which was broken, allowed me to understand the words of Torah, and to understand that this was the איסתוירא which is mentioned in Gemarot.”[7]

[1] Translation courtesy of and follows the interpretation of Rashi.
[2] There is discussion on whether what is shown as Rashi in our editions of Menachot was actually written by Rashi. Rav Natan Nata Rabbinowicz ( author of Dikdukei Sofrim) writes that our “Rashi” was written by a student of Rabbeinu Gershom. ( Dikdukei Sofrim on Menachot 86a note 6 where he writes ...מפני שהפרוש הזה המיוחס לרש״י הוא כנראה מתלמיד הרבינו גרשום מאור הגולה והעתיק ברובו לשון הרבינו גרשום מאור הגולה) Rav Betzalel Ashkenazi (the author of the Shita Mekubetzet) writes that for chapters 7-10, the “Rashi” in the standard editions was not written by Rashi and he substitutes his own version which is indicated by the words “Rashi Ktiv Yad” in the Vilna Shas. The editors of the Vilna Shas record this opinion at the beginning of the 7th chapter ( Menachot 72a) as follows: וזה לשונו "זה הפּרוש אשר הוא בדפוס מפרק אלו המנחות עד שתי הלחם אינו מפי׳ רש״י ז״ל והוא של פרשן אחר, וזה לשון רש״י כּ״י".But Rav Ashkenazi seems to indicate that the Rashi of other chapters was in fact written by Rashi. ( see his note to the beginning of Menachot chapter 11 where he writes מכאן ואליך הוא פירוש רש״י ז״ל).
[3] We only know that it is affixed in a horizontal direction from the picture, not from Rashi’s words.
[4] The Soncino family printed many tractates of the Talmud from 1483-1519 before Bomberg printed the complete Talmud in 1520-1522, and those Soncino editions often formed the basis for the text of the Bomberg edition. But the Soncino family did not print tractate Menachot meaning the Bomberg edition was based solely on manuscripts.
[5] My source for this information is Dr. Carol Teitz who is a member of my Shul. Dr. Teitz is an orthopedic surgeon and most recently, the dean of admissions at the University of Washington Medical School
[6] Doveir Yesharim, Sefer Shemot, Jerusalem. 2014, page 128
[7] This source was brought to my attention by a Torah scholar named Aharon who has helped me immensely in my research on diagrams.

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