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December 20, 2014 / 28 Kislev, 5775
 
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The Rare Torah Oracle

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Rebecca, hitherto infertile, became pregnant. Suffering acute pain, she went to inquire of the Lord – “vateilech lidrosh et Hashem” (Bereishit 25:22). The explanation she received was that she was carrying twins who were contending in her womb. They were destined to do so long into the future:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger – “v’rav ya’avod tzair” (Bereishit 25:23).

Eventually the twins are born – first Esau, then (his hand grasping his brother’s heel) Jacob. Mindful of the prophecy she has received, Rebecca favors the younger son, Jacob. Years later, she persuades him to dress in Esau’s clothes and take the blessing Isaac intended to give his elder son. One verse of that blessing was “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you” (Bereishit 26:29). The prediction has been fulfilled. Isaac’s blessing can surely mean nothing less than what was disclosed to Rebecca before either child was born, namely that, “the older will serve the younger.” The story has apparently reached closure – or so, at this stage, it seems.

But biblical narrative is not what it seems. Two events follow that subvert all that we had been led to expect. The first happens when Esau arrives and discovers that Jacob has cheated him out of his blessing. Moved by his anguish, Isaac gives him a benediction, one of whose clauses is: “You will live by your sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck” (Bereishit 27:40).

This is not what we had anticipated. The older will not serve the younger in perpetuity.

The second scene, many years later, occurs when the brothers meet after a long estrangement. Jacob is terrified of the encounter. He had fled from home years earlier because Esau had vowed to kill him. Only after a long series of preparations and a lonely wrestling match at night is he able to face Esau with some composure. He bows down to him seven times. Seven times he calls him “my lord.” Five times he refers to himself as “your servant.” The roles have been reversed. Esau does not become the servant of Jacob; instead, Jacob speaks of himself as the servant of Esau. But this cannot be. The words heard by Rebecca when “she went to inquire of the Lord” suggested precisely the opposite, that “the older will serve the younger.” We are faced with cognitive dissonance.

More precisely, we have here an example of one of the most remarkable of all of Torah’s narrative devices: the power of the future to transform our understanding of the past. This is the essence of midrash. New situations retrospectively disclose new meanings in the text (see the essay “The Midrashic Imagination” by Michael Fishbane). The present is never fully determined by the present. Sometimes it is only later that we understand the now.

This is the significance of the great revelation of G-d to Moses in Shemot 33:33, where G-d says that only His back may be seen – meaning, His presence can be seen only when we look back at the past; it can never be known or predicted in advance. The indeterminacy of meaning at any given moment is what gives the biblical text its openness to ongoing interpretation.

We now see that this was not an idea invented by the Sages. It already exists in the Torah itself. The words Rebecca heard – as will now become clear – seemed to mean one thing at the time. It later transpires that they meant something else.

The words, “v’rav ya’avod tzair,” seem simple: “the older will serve the younger.” Returning to them in the light of subsequent events, though, we discover that they are anything but clear. They contain multiple ambiguities.

The first (noted by Radak and Rabbi Yosef ibn Kaspi) is that the word “et,” signaling the object of the verb, is missing. Normally – but not always – in biblical Hebrew the subject precedes, and the object follows, the verb. In Job 14:19, for example, the words “avanim shachaku mayim” mean “water wears away stones,” not “stones wear away water.” Thus the phrase might mean “the older shall serve the younger.” But it might also mean “the younger shall serve the older.” To be sure, the latter would be poetic Hebrew rather than conventional prose style, but that is what this utterance is: a poem.

Crossing Borders: Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Jewish Museum: 1109 Fifth Avenue @ 92nd Street www.thejewishmuseum.org – 212 423 3200 Until February 3, 2013

In the eyes of the ram lies the artist’s commentary on the Rosh Hashanah piyyut “The King Girded with Strength.” From the Tripartite Mahzor (German 14th century), this illumination simultaneously echoes the piyyut’s praise of God’s awesome power and expresses the terror of actually being a sacrifice to God. The ram is but a reflection of Isaac. It is all in the eyes.

Nearby another German Mahzor (14th century) is open to the same piyyut,here illuminated in a simpler manner: Isaac is on the altar ready to be slaughtered, Abraham heeds the angel and a collection of medieval grotesques, animals and men react to the horrible event. God’s strength is reflected in the ability to summon obedience to a deadly command.

Mahzor (14th century) “King Girded with Might”
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Two very different interpretations of the same piyyut probably created within decades of one another. And are both shown at the Jewish Museum’s “Crossing Borders,” an exhibition of medieval manuscripts from the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. This extraordinary exhibition presents the vibrant cross-cultural influences in the creation of medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the context of both Christian and Islamic cultural production. Additionally it explores the fascinating relationship between text and image in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition opens with three radically different manuscripts. A Hebrew Bible from Tudela (or Soria), Spain by artist and scribe Joshua ibn Gaon of Soria, (c.1300) displays the overwhelming Islamic decorative influence in Spain at the time. The facing carpet pages brilliantly shows interlocking abstract designs, one framed by a textual border, the other a heavy gold-leaf frame.

Michael Mahzor (1258) piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Next is the earliest known dated and illustrated Mahzor (1257-1258) from Germany open to the page with the special piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim. The initial word panel is illuminated with an intriguing stag hunt scene featuring the two hunters whose helmets cover their faces. This sensitivity about depicting the human face is seen throughout this Mahzor and likely reflects a lingering concern over the second commandment that flourished in southern Germany in the 1230’s. But most surprisingly is the fact that the whole charming scene is depicted upside down! One reason given in the original catalogue essay by Eva Frojmovic for this singular depiction has been attributed to a Christian artist’s mistake, being unable to read the Hebrew text, and assumed it worked better upside down with the image centered at the bottom of the page. The curator of the Jewish Museum installation, Claudia Nahson, more plausibly explains that this upside down scene may be a reflection of the piyyut being recited right before Purim, when everything is “turned upside down,” especially in the narrative of the oppressed and hunted Jews.

Finally, the “Even HaEzer” (1438) from the Arba’ah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (the Tur) reveals sumptuous early Italian Renaissance manuscript illuminations. Gold leaf abounds amid peacocks, exotic birds and fantastic creatures surround the text “It is not good for man to be alone…” echoing the depiction of the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam lies asleep as a winged Creator, complete with halo, kneels next to him, about to extract Eve from his side. On the right we see Adam and Eve poised before the forbidden tree and the tempting snake. The extremely unusual depiction of the Deity in a Hebrew manuscript reflects the highly acculturated nature of the Italian Jewish community almost certainly working with a Christian artist.

In these intriguing examples one can treat the visual as decorative and incidental to the text, thereby discounting the inherent and potentially disruptive meaning of the images. Or one can attempt to integrate image and text and see them in a creative relationship, effectively arriving at a new meaning of both text and image. Considering the enormous cost of illuminating manuscripts, the competition with surrounding non-Jewish elites, and the fact that manuscripts with such subversive images continued to be prized and used, I cannot believe for a moment such images were anything but intentional.

The Metzitzah B’Peh Controversy

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Anyone who reads the text of the New York City Department of Health’s proposed rule regarding metzitzah b’peh will immediately notice that two fundamental concerns have been virtually ignored in all of the public debate over the measure.

Certainly there have been very public arguments over the propriety or impropriety of governmental regulation of a religious practice and over the evidence or lack of same linking the procedure to herpes. And there are many who have raised the “slippery slope” concern that regulating an adjunct of bris milah will inevitably lead to further restrictions on the core practice itself, even though the DOH proposal would only require that parents be made aware of the risks associated with the practice in order to be able to make an informed consent. But therein lies the rub.

In pertinent part, the proposed new rule provides as follows:

Consent for direct oral suction as part of a circumcision.(a) Direct oral suction means contact between the mouth of a person performing circumcision and the infant’s circumcised penis.

(b) Written informed consent required. A person may not perform a circumcision that involves direct oral suction on a child under one year of age without obtaining, prior to the circumcision, the written informed consent of a parent or legal guardian of the child who is being circumcised in a form approved or provided by the Department. The written informed consent must include notice that direct oral suction exposes the infant to the risk of transmission of herpes simplex virus infection and other infectious diseases.

(C) Retention of consent forms. The person performing the circumcision must give the parent or legal guardian a copy of the signed consent form and retain the original for one year from the date of the circumcision, making it available for inspection if requested by the Department.

For one thing, we do not know the language the actual consent form will contain. Indeed, after the adoption of the general rule, it would seem the DOH will have open-ended authority to come up with descriptions of the alleged risks and its choices will not be subjected to standard limitations on rule-making authority. The possibilities are enormous if not endless. This is especially problematic since the rule is not limited to the risk of transmission of the herpes virus but to “other infectious diseases” as well.

Also of great concern is the possibility of child-abuse charges being leveled against the mohel or parents should metzitzah b’peh be performed and, God forbid, one of the diseases described in the consent form is thought to have resulted. Indeed, there have been reports that the Brooklyn district attorney is looking into bringing criminal charges in a case where a child who underwent metzitzah b’peh died.

And it just seems incongruous that parents will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they are knowingly placing their child in harm’s way.

Moreover, what we have here is a government regulation that will declare – with unknown particulars – that a time-honored Jewish religious practice, albeit one not universally accepted and employed by all observant Jews, risks the health and well-being of newborns. This is never a good thing for Jews, particularly so today, as witness the outbreak of challenges to circumcision and schechita in a number of countries.

It is crucial that our community stand up in defense of our traditions. In this connection we are still uncomfortable with the election to the New York City Council three years ago of a Jewish candidate who never fully apologized for publicly describing bris milah as “the ritual violence of circumcision.” The Jewish Press at the time forcefully condemned the comments of that candidate, who ran in a majority Jewish district with the fulsome support of an elected official well known for his advocacy of Jewish causes.

Effective free passes like that are not helpful no matter who bestows them.

Clint Doing the RNC (with Video)

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Lynne Lechter is on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Women’s Committee.  She is at the Republican National Convention as a guest of the RJC.  She is one of our good friend Lori Lowenthal Marcus’s sources on what Jewish Republicans have been up to in muggy Tampa. She’s been telling Lori this and that, until, last night, it all came to a giant crescendo with the appearance of the Man. Clint Eastwood.

Lynne wrote:

“It was unexpected. He was hard to hear from where we were, but he did get a lot of applause and chants – make my day. He got a lot of laughs from the empty chair routine and saying Mutt cant do that to himself as if Obama said it, got huge laughter. I think his early comment was about what I am doing here aren’t all Hollywood types liberal. And then saying there are a lot of conservatives in Hollywood. Being conservative they are more quiet about it.”

The note “Sent from my iPhone” explains some of the condensed nature of the text, but we get the gist of it. And we added the video, so you’ll see what she’s talking about. Clint is the man. Which is why they should have made the theme of “For a Fistful of Dollars” the campaign song.

I would totally vote Republican if Clint was running. Are you kidding me? But he’d have to drop the cigar stub. Federal buildings are a no-smoking zone.

Oh, yes, totally forgot – Some guy named Mitt Romney did the acceptance speech thing last night, too. Apparently he’s running for this or that federal post. I think Clint even recommended him…

IDF to Test Missile Attack Alert System on Mobile Phones

Monday, August 13th, 2012

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday began a week-long test of a text-message warning system that sends alerts to cellphones about imminent missile attacks in particular areas.

The drill will consist of messages sent to different geographic areas across Israel throughout the week, and will be sent in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Russian. The alert system delivers location-specific warnings, according to the projected trajectory of rockets or missiles. It is seen as a more effective and efficient alert than existing air raid sirens.

The test is the culmination of years of development, and officials have stated that the alert system would become operational in September. The IDF has been fine-tuning the system over the past few months, with special focus on ensuring its resistance to cyber-attacks, from which IDF officials said the system “must be immune.”

Officials at the IDF Home Front Command said that the goal is simple – save more lives in case of war or other emergencies. One official told Xinhua, China’s official news agency, that the system could also “help civilians who are not in a dangerous area carry on with their routine and also help save lives of those traveling on the road while an attack takes place.”

Recent statements from the upper echelons of the Israeli government suggesting that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program may be in the offing have brought Israel’s home front preparedness -or lack thereof – to the fore.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed claims that Israel’s home front was unprepared to deal with impending military threats. “I think that there has been a very great change during our Government’s term in office…We are investing billions in home front defense, in Iron Dome, in the Arrow, and in other systems that are under development. We are investing a lot of money in defending facilities, institutions and homes. We are holding preparedness exercises for various scenarios regarding home front defense.”

In reference to the new text-message alert system, Netanyahu said, “we are thoroughly upgrading our warning systems, in which Israel is among the most developed in the world.” At the same time, he acknowledged that “one cannot say that there are no problems in this field because there always are.”

Netanyahu concluded by again reiterating that Iran is Israel’s greatest threat: “All of the threats that are currently being directed against the Israeli home front pale against a particular threat, different in scope, different in substance, and therefore I reiterate that Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons.”

Koren Publishers Introduces New English Talmud

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Koren Publishers Jerusalem has launched the first volume of a new English edition of the Talmud with commentary by renowned Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. The Koren Talmud Bavlioffers a variety of features never seen before in an English edition of the Talmud: Vilna pages with vowels and punctuation, text presented in individual learning units, a clear, concise English translation, background information on history, the sciences and nature, and color photographs and illustrations for the first time since the Talmud appeared in print nearly 500 years ago.

The Koren Talmud Bavli also has been designed as a state-of-the-art iPad app that will enable people to interact with the Talmud as never before. The Koren Talmud App will include in-sync, side-by-side translation, a text-hide function for single language viewing, text zoom and re-sizing, continuous scrolling, vibrant color images designed for Retina display, and more.

According to Publisher Matthew Miller, the Koren Talmud Bavli achieves a balance between tradition and innovation that no other English edition of the Talmud achieves. “The Koren Talmud Bavli preserves the traditional Vilna page, and enables people to engage deeply in the traditional process of Talmud study at the same time that it embraces contemporary scholarship and technology.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who has been on a life-long mission to popularize Talmud study, says, “The Talmud expresses the deepest Jewish spirit. My hope is that the Koren Talmud Bavli will render the Talmud accessible to millions of Jews, allowing them to study it, approach it, and perhaps even become one with it.”

The first volume of the Koren Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, is available online and at bookstores everywhere in Standard and Daf Yomi Editions. Consecutive volumes will be available ahead of the Daf Yomi schedule. The complete set will comprise 41 volumes. Version 1.0 of the Koren Talmud App will be available in the summer from the App Store.

Q & A: Chazzan And Congregation (Part VII)

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Question: I understand that at a minyan, the chazzan is required to repeat Shmoneh Esreh out loud so that people who may not know how to daven can fulfill their obligation to daven with the chazzan’s repetition. What, however, should the chazzan do when he reaches Kedushah and Modim? I hear some chazzanim say every word of Kedushah out loud and some only say the last part of the middle two phrases out loud. As far as the congregation is concerned, I hear some congregants say every word of Kedushah and some say only the last part. Finally, some chazzanim and congregants say Modim during chazaras hashatz out loud and some say it quietly. What is the source for these various practices?

A Devoted Reader
(Via E-Mail)

Answer: The Shulchan Aruch Harav (Orach Chayim 124:1) explains that a chazzan repeats Shmoneh Esreh out loud to fulfill the prayer obligation of those who can’t pray on their own (see Rosh Hashana 33b-34a).

The Mechaber (Orach Chayim 125:1) states that congregants should not recite Nakdishach [Nekadesh] together with the chazzan; rather they should remain silent and concentrate on the chazzan’s recitation until he finishes that portion, at which point they should say, “Kadosh, kadosh…” The Mishnah Berurah (ad loc. sk1) explains that congregants should remain quiet because the chazzan is their messenger, and if they say Nakdishach along with him, he no longer appears as their messenger.

Many do not follow the correct responsive procedure for Kedushah, and since the practice is widespread, it may have to be overlooked (Berachot 45a). If the congregants will miss z’man tefillah, however, the Rema (Orach Chayim 124:2) writes that they should quietly recite along with the chazzan until after Kedushah. At least one person who already prayed, even a child, should answer “Amen” to the chazzan’s blessings to substantiates the shlichut of the chazzan. Those praying with the chazzan may not respond “Amen.”

Another prayer style when time is pressing is as follows: The chazzan begins the Amidah, and after “HaKel HaKadosh,” everyone begins their silent Amidah (while the chazzan continues quietly with his own Amidah). (See Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chayim 124 sk8.) This procedure is commonly performed for Mincha, especially in yeshivot.

The tefillah of Modim within the Amidah is so important that Berachot 21b instructs one who arrives late (after kedushah, explains Orach Chayim 109:1) to begin praying only if he will conclude before the chazzan reaches Modim. The Mishnah Berurah (sk2) notes that this applies to a latecomer in middle of birkat keriat Shema attempting to catch up to the minyan and debating whether he should start his personal Amidah after the congregants have started theirs. Tosafot explain that one must bow with the congregation at Modim in order that he not appear as a denier of G-d to whom they are praying (see Rabbenu Tam, Tosafot s.v. “ad sh’lo yagia…” Berachot 21b).

Modim D’Rabbanan is discussed in the Gemara in Sotah. Rav offers a text to recite for Modim and Shmuel, R. Simai, and R. Acha b. R.Yaakov all add more verses to recite. R. Papa says to recite them all – hence the name “Modim D’Rabbanan,” the Modim of (all) the Sages. Our Modim text also includes additions by sages listed in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 1:5).

We now continue with an important observation by the gaon Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick, zt”l.

* * * * *

Rabbi Soloveitchik (as cited in Nefesh Harav by Rabbi Herschel Schachter, p. 128-129) notes that the congregation should say Modim D’Rabbanan and also listen to the entire Modim of the chazzan. This position is similar to that of several Amora’im who maintain that congregants should recite pesukim during Birkat Kohanim in addition to listening to the kohanim.

Not all sages, however, agree with this position. In Sotah 39b-40a, R. Chanina b. R. Pappa asks, “Is it possible that a servant is being blessed and he does not listen?” The Tur (Orach Chayim 128) adopts this standpoint and states that congregants should not say any pesukim while the kohanim are blessing them because, if they do, they will be unable to concentrate fully on Birkat Kohanim.

Rabbi Soloveitchick reasons that the same logic applies to the recitation of Modim D’Rabbanan. Even if the chazzan says his Modim very loudly, congregants will still find it impossible to both listen to the chazzan and concentrate on their own recitation of Modim D’Rabbanan. Therefore, in his synagogue in Boston as well as at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Soloveitchick instituted that the chazzan recite the beginning of Modim in a loud voice and then pause somewhat to allow the congregation time to recite Modim D’Rabbanan. The chazzan would then continue with his Modim out loud.

Now, if saying Modim D’Rabbanan causes such difficulties, why say it altogether? After all, many authorities rule that we should not say pesukim during Birkat Kohanim. Why should Modim D’Rabbanan be different?

To answer this, we have to take a better look at the Gemara’s question in Sotah 40a: “At the time that the chazzan recites Modim, what does the congregation say?” We should wonder why the Gemara only asks this question about Modim. Why doesn’t it ask, for example, what the congregation says during the berachah of Techiyat Hameitim, Ata Chonen, or Shema Kolenu? Why does the Gemara assume that the congregation should say something during Modim when none of the other blessings of chazarat hashatz have a corresponding prayer?

The Abudarham (Seder Shacharit shel Chol, p.115) resolves our difficulty. He states: “And when the chazzan reaches Modim [in his repetition] and bows, all the congregation bow [as well] and recite their “hoda’ah ketana – small thanks” [i.e. Modim D’Rabbanan]…because it is not proper for a servant to praise his [human] master and tell him, ‘You are my lord,’ by means of a shliach (messenger). [How much more so when the recipient of praise is Hashem.] Rather, every person has to express with his own voice his acceptance of the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom upon himself. If he accepts via a messenger, it is not a complete acceptance, as he can always deny that acceptance and say ‘I never sent him as my agent.’

“However,” the Abudarham continues, “as regards to the rest of the [blessings in the Amidah that the chazzan recites aloud], which is supplication, one can request one’s needs via a messenger because every person seeks that which benefits him. Thus, he will not deny and say, ‘I never sent him [as my messenger].’ ”

The Sefer Kol Bo (Siman 11, Hilchot Tefillah) interestingly points out that the gematria of the word Modim equals 100. This corresponds to the 100 blessings one is required to say each day (Mechaber, Orach Chayim 46:3; also, see Tur ad loc. who attributes this enactment to King David). We thus see an allusion to the additional efficacy of Modim.

If I may, I might add the following. If one adds the number of words in the opening paragraph of Modim to the number of words in Modim D’Rabbanan (nusach sefard, exclusive of the chatimah, “Baruch E-l Ha’hoda’ot”) one arrives at that same number of 100. Thus, it would seem that the efficacy of this blessing enjoys even further enhancement when the prayers of the chazzan and the yachid are combined.

As we thank Him for all His munificence, we hope and pray that Hashem answer all our supplications.

(To be continued)

Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/ask-the-rabbi/q-a-chazzan-and-congregation-part-vii/2012/07/05/

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