Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Variants In Talmud and RIF - RABH Disagrees With His Father.

An apparently innocuous comment by RABH opens up an interesting window on variants of the Talmud and RIF.

Rambam in Hilchot Tefillah 7:6 as part of a discussion of the morning blessings we make when we wake up writes:
כשחוגר חגורו--מברך ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, אוזר ישראל בגבורה.  כשלובש מנעלו--מברך ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שעשה לי כל צרכיי.  כשמהלך לצאת לדרך--מברך ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, המכין מצעדי גבר.  ומברך אדם בכל יום--ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שלא עשני גוי; ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שלא עשני עבד; ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, שלא עשני אישה

The three blessings שלא עשני גוי, שלא עשני עבד and שלא עשני אישה are said daily as opposed to the others which are said only when appropriate. Indeed in Halacha 9 he writes:
ט  נהגו העם ברוב ערינו, לברך ברכות אלו כולן זו אחר זו בבית הכנסת, בין נתחייבו בהן, בין לא נתחייבו בהן.  וטעות היא בידם, ואין ראוי לעשות כן.  ולא יברך אדם ברכה, אלא אם כן נתחייב בה.

Apparently the latter applies to all the other blessings except for these three which are said always on a daily basis. The Rambam commentators pick up on it and Rabbeinu Manoach explains that as it is probable that one will encounter during the day one of the three, a woman, a slave and a non-Jew, therefore these three blessings are said daily as opposed to the others which are said only when applicable. RABH in his sefer Hamaspik refers us to this Halacha in MT, repeats the rule with the other blessings and then comments:

My father Z”L already warned about this erroneous custom in Hilchot Tefillah however it becomes clear from his words that three of these blessings, שלא עשני גוי, שלא עשני עבד and שלא עשני אישה are said under all circumstances whether one encountered a Goy, slave or woman or did not. It also appears to be so from the popular edition of the Pirush of rabbeinu Yitzchak the author of the Halachot (RIF). However someone who saw a copy of an earlier edition of the Talmud that is brought down in this Pirush reads “when one sees a Goy one says שלא עשני גו” and so too concerning a woman and a slave. That edition (copy) is correct as it makes sense. So too can be found in the siddur of Rabbeinu Amram ben Shoshanna (died 875). ”  

RABH blames his father’s ruling regarding these three Brachot on a faulty edition of RIF. (As an aside and letting my anal persona take over, Frankel Rambam Mekorot Vetziyunim misunderstood RABH and says that he quotes an old edition of the Talmud. A careful read makes it clear that he is referring to a version of RIF who quotes the Talmud.) Having heard about a different edition which makes more sense to him he disagrees and relies on the latter against his father’s ruling. This is not new as many Rishonim deal with the variants as anyone who learns Gemara is familiar with the many Hachi Garsinan in Rashi. What I find interesting in this comment is that RABH who was only four generations away from RIF (Rabbeinu Maimon, Rambam’s father was a pupil of RI Migash who was a pupil of RIF) relies on a variant that he heard about from someone, a variant RIF quoting a variant in a Gemara.

The RIF edition we have is not reliable. Dr. Ezra Chwat on his blog Giluy Milta Be’alma writes that Hamaor is about to publish a new edition of RIF in their new Shas with many of the variants which explain many difficulties found in Rishonim who quote RIF different than our edition.  See there for some examples of clarifying variants.

The problem with the variant that RABH quotes is that it does not fit well into the text of the Gemara. The source of this Halacha is TB Menachot 43b which quotes a Tosefta Brachot 6 (see R. Lieberman Tosefta Kifshuta Zera’im page 38 and comments on page 119) and the suggested variant would have to be a few lines addition to the current text by the editor which did not make it into the known editions of the Talmud. Be it as it may it does open a window on how varied the texts of the Talmud were even at those early times only a few centuries after the sealing of the Talmud. These early variants impact Halacha. This case is a very minute ritualistic detail but these variants can have an impact on more serious issues. No wonder that we are so dependent on the Rishonim who, predating the many incidents of burning of the Talmud during the Middle Ages, had many variants at their disposal and were able to critically analyze them.  

Friday, July 06, 2012

Washing Hands After Meals - Halacha or Superstition?

Another fascinating (to me) comment by RABH in his Sefer Hamaspik in a discussion about Mayim Acharonim caught my attention. The traditional explanation given by Halacha as the reason for Mayim Acharonim, washing hands after eating a meal before benching is to remove “Melach Sedomit” Soddomite salts from the hands. Apparently the salt used during the meals that remained on the hands could be dangerous if they ended up in the eyes.

(Rambam Hilchot Brachot 6:4)
   כל את המלח, צריך נטילת ידיים באחרונה--שמא יש בו מלח סדומית או מלח שטבעו כטבע מלח סדומית, ויעביר ידיו על עיניו וייסמה; ומפני זה חייבו ליטול ידיים בסוף כל סעודה, מפני המלח.  ובמחנה, פטורין מנטילת ידיים בתחילה, מפני שהן טרודין במלחמה; וחייבין באחרונה, מפני הסכנה

RABH writes:
“Externally, the reason for Mayim Acharonim is given by Halacha to prevent the risks caused by Soddomite Salts. In my opinion the reason for Mayim Acharonim and the Rabbi’s making them more important than pre-meal washing as they said “Pre-meal is a mitzvah, post- meal is an obligation and in an [army] camp one is not obligated to wash before a meal but obligated to wash after the meal”, is because one needs to make preparations for Benching (the blessing after the meal) which is De’oraita (a Torah obligation) and a minor Tefillah. They gave danger as the exoteric reason and set it into Halacha so that people should take it seriously and not be lenient [and not wash hands after the meal], making them fear for their life. I report something similar from my father A’H on the Rabbi’s saying “a person may not eat pairs and may not drink pairs [of cups]” (TB Pessachim 109b). He said that the rationale for the prohibition is to distance from the custom of doubling up in the Beit Hamikdash, where the reason for doing so was to be blessed, therefore the Rabbis said this and tied it in with danger to prevent them from doing so.”

RABH reports that his father, Rambam, explained the famous Issur of “pairs”, Zugot, which is discussed in the Gemara. The supposed reason as given by the Gemara is that pairs are dangerous apparently for mystical or spiritual reasons and could harm a person that indulges in them. Rambam apparently was bothered by this reason as it seems to endorse superstition. He therefore explained that, and this is just a guess on my part as to what he means exactly, there was a superstition in the Beit Hamikdash for people going for doubles as a talisman, and the rabbis frowned at that. To dissuade people from it the Rabbis claimed that it was dangerous and harmful, knowing full well that this is the only thing that would work for the masses.

I understand doubles as a talisman based on the Gemara Yoma 26a that explains the drawing of lots for which Cohen will have the privilege to do the Ketoret because of the popularity of the ritual as it supposedly brings riches to the person who does it. I cannot put my finger on the location but I seem to remember the same thing regarding who gets to eat the Lechem Hapanim. If anyone has a better idea, please don’t hesitate to comment and straighten me out.  

“What caught my attention and made me revisit the reason for Mayim Acharonim is the rule that “immediately after washing one must make the blessing” and the prohibition of using hot water, because hot water does not clean. If the reason for post-meal washing was danger these restrictions would not apply. Furthermore the Rabbis giving the reason for using good oil {on the hands after the meal] “because a dirty person is not allowed to worship [in the temple] (TB Brachot 53b)” is a direct proof to my thesis, for one who understands. It is not just a hint. Pay attention well as it a secret that is only understood by scholars”.

RABH is arguing that if the reason for the obligation to wash after the meal is to avoid a dangerous situation why does the Halacha forbid delaying the blessing after washing?[1] He then points to the Gemara that requires quality oil to be used to anoint hands after the meal, and explain that requirement by comparing Benching to the Avodah in the Beit Hamikdash. Clearly, the Rabbis considered Benching as a replacement or a process similar to the one done in the temple. All temple worship requires washing hands so too does Benching. Indeed so does Tefillah which we know that the Rabbis see it as mirroring the Korbanot. (See Hilchot Tefillah 1:5)
There are several interesting undercurrents in this discussion. The general custom nowadays is to bring a small cup or at more elegant homes a special silver Mayim Acharonim plate with a cup at the end of a meal to wash the fingertips. This is based on Tosafot Brachot 53b s.v. Vehe’yitem Kedoshim that says that nowadays there is no more concern about Melach Sedomit as it is not available and therefore Mayim Acharonim washing is no longer obligatory. We therefore wash symbolically rather than as a Mitzvah. Rambam on the other hand does not make that distinction making it an obligation even nowadays and the way the Halacha is organized in Hilchot Brachot 6, it is clear that the same rules of washing with a Revi’it, a Kelli etc… apply to Mayim Acharonim. RABH’s explanation fits very well with this.

The other issue is the rationale for the Halacha of washing hands in general. The Rishonim had different understandings of the basis for the obligation.  In the Gemara there are a variety of reasons given for different situations; Tume’ah for Teruma and Kodashim which is the only Halacha where hands only are seen as unclean versus the whole body as a Rabbinical obligation; bad spirits on hands overnight; preparation (Hikon) for Tefillah and Kery’at Shema and of course plain cleanliness as in the Melach Sedomit explanation for Mayim Acharonim. (I am sure I forgot one or two more reasons.) The Rishonim apply the different reasons to each situation and from a practical standpoint, details of praxis differ according to each situation based on which reason is seen as the correct one. Rambam breaks up the Halacha of hand washing placing it in two separate places. The one for Teruma and Kodashim he places at the end of Hilchot Mikva’ot, the end of Sefer Tahara in MT, because it is another detail in how to prepare for dealing with matters of holiness such as Kodashim, Beit Hamikdash etc… which is the core for Hilchot Tahara ( a discussion which I will leave for another post). The other Halacha which covers washing hands for Kery’at Shema, Tefillah, bread (and liquid dipped foods) and Mayim Acharonim he places in the 6th chapter of Hilchot Brachot. He does not give an explicit reason other than it being a Mitzvah Derabanan and for Mayim Acharonim – Melach Sedomit. He links the Halachot from a practical standpoint in Hilchot Mikva’ot (11:11) referring back to Hilchot Brachot.  There is no mention of any of the other reasons. In practice according to Rambam one does not have to wash hands in the morning before making a Bracha just for Kery’at Shema and Tefillah.  On Yom Kippur one does not have to wash hands at all as well as on Tisha Be’av. In fact one is prohibited from doing so (however RABH disagrees in Sefer Hamaspik). There are other differences but I don’t want to digress here.

RABH in this piece addresses the reasoning behind this Mitzvah Derabanan and explains that it is because Tefillah is organized as a parallel to the worship in the Beit Hamikdash, the Korbanot Tamid and therefore require washing hands just like there was such a requirement before Korbanot. This idea is mentioned in Beit Yosef on the Tur where he quotes a Teshuvah of the Rashba that is struggling to understand the basis of this Takanah of washing hands for Tefillah and suggests the comparison to the washing in the Beit Hamikdash as one possible explanation among others. In Hilchot Tefillah 4:3 Rambam rules that before the Morning Prayer one should wash hands, face and feet. Ravad questions the basis for washing feet. Rabbeinu Manoach ad locum points to a Gemara ignored by Ravad and suggests that it is based on the washing from the Kiyor in the Beit Hamikdash where hands and feet were washed. These two Provençale Rishonim apparently arrived at the same conclusion as RABH. Rabbeinu Manoach went one step further and saw it as Rambam’s underlying idea for the Halacha.  

What I find interesting is the context that RABH uses to introduce this idea. He struggles and does not accept the reason for Mayim Acharonim given by the Gemara as apparently it was not something that made sense to him. He compares his objection to the danger reason given for Mayim Acharonim with the reason given for pairs - Zugot. This to me indicates that he saw the ostensible danger of Soddomite salts as a superstition rather than a scientific fact.  He then proves internally, from the praxis the Halacha requires that it is not the true reason as it does not explain the praxis. We have here a Straussian approach to Halacha – an exoteric and an esoteric reason. RABH adds that the reason for keeping the real reason secret is because it would not have guaranteed compliance[2]. The Rabbis then give a reason that will induce the masses to follow their Takanah. Another interesting thing is that this rationale binds the two Halachot of Netilat Yaday’im of Rambam – Hilchot Mikva’ot and Brachot – both have a Beit Hamikdash component.  
Shabbat Shalom.


[1] I am not sure what his problem is with using hot water as that does make sense. Hot water prevents one from washing carefully as he said in an earlier piece leaving some residual salt on the hands
[2] Similar to his father’s explanation why the Gemara would allow a superstitious reason for pairs

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Rabbeinu Avraham on Customs - Minhaggim.

Rabbeinu Avraham in his sefer Hamaspik is very concerned with the decorum in Shul during prayer; to stand or to sit; in what direction one should sit; people should sit in rows; etc…. In a discussion where he argues that people should always be facing towards the Aron Hakodesh, including when sitting, he quotes a Tosefta which describes seating arrangements during prayer. One of the details in that Tosefta is that the elders sit with their back to the Aron Hakodesh facing the people (see Hilchot Tefillah 11:4). Here is an interesting snippet about the elders.

“It is incorrect to sit other than facing the Holy (Aron Hakodesh) except for the elders who sit at the front of the Beit Knesset. These elders are sages, based on the rabbi’s explanation of the verse “And you shall defer to an elder” (Vaykra 19:32) they comment “An elder is one who acquired knowledge” (TB Kiddushin 32b). The reason why elders are permitted to sit in such a way is so that “the people should fear (respect) them”. In my mind, that [their sitting this way] is not to be seen as obligatory, but rather as a concession. Or possibly, the elders the Tanaim of that generation were referring to, were those that seeing their faces elicited a greater concentration on the part of the public, thus bringing them great benefit. In our generation such people or any coming close to their status are non-existent and no benefit will accrue from contemporary elders sitting that way, “with their back to the holy”, other than their striving for power. Learning from them, emulating them, causes people to sin rather than fulfill the purpose of their sitting thus as described in the Tosefta.  As we can see their sitting [facing the people] they are perceived as a group that is schmoozing amongst themselves rather than talking to God”.

 How little things have changed!

One of the things RABH is known for is his attempt to introduce into the ritual the requirement to prostate spread eagled on the ground during certain parts of the davening especially during the saying of the Kadish, Halel, after every Halleluiah in the Pessukei Dezimra part of the Morning Prayer, during the blessings for Kryat Shema etc…. He argues that one of the reasons it did not make it as a requirement in Talmudic Halacha is because of the difficulty people have doing this act so many times during prayer. As he goes along in the discussion he proposes several other reasons for the disappearance of this ritual. However, real authentic worship should include it according to him. He writes a lot about it in a very polemical fashion. It is clear that he encountered a lot of resistance to this idea. There are some very interesting points that he brings out in this heated discussion. He then lists several objections that people had and apparently voiced to him against his introducing this form of worship as a normal part of the ritual. One objection is that it is a form of worship that is customary with non-Jews. Interestingly, many scholars have argued that RABH was strongly influenced by Sufi theology. Apparently RABH himself already had to confront that accusation. His answer is lengthy arguing that just because other religions, religions that stem from Judaism adopt a Jewish ritual, that ritual does not become illegitimate.

Another objection that RABH addresses is that it is presumptuous for simple people to act in such manners of extreme devotion. He differentiates between different acts of devotion, those that are presumptuous and those that are acts of submission. RABH then quotes his grandfather’s explanation of the verse:

יח  פָּנָה, אֶל-תְּפִלַּת הָעַרְעָר;    וְלֹא-בָזָה, אֶת-תְּפִלָּתָם.              
18 When He hath regarded the prayer of the destitute, and hath not despised their prayer.

The word עַרְעָר which JPS translates destitute and Alter translates desolate is a word found only twice in Tanach; here and in Yirmiyahu 17:6. Its meaning is obscure though in both places the context is negative. Aruch based on the Targum Yehonatan translates it as a thorny fruit or vegetable, others, including RABH quoting an explanation he rejects, think it refers to a type of insect similar to the locust. Others see it as referring to a childless barren person, one who cannot have children, from the word ערירי. The problem is that if the verse is taken literally none of these translations make sense contextually. A fruit or vegetable or an insect do not pray and a barren man who cannot conceive, no amount of prayer will help. This word עַרְעָר must therefore have an allegorical meaning.

“I copy from my grandfather Rabbeinu Maimon: the verse is referring to a person who is the opposite of a Tzaddik or a Chassid …. As if saying even one who is not worthy to pray, should he turn to Him and petition Him, He will not disappoint him depending on his concentration and genuineness. Not that it refers to the prayer of an insect, a tree insect or something similar as many mistakenly believe. This is the gist of his [grandfather] Pirush though not verbatim and it is one of those wondrous explanations to one who understands. It [not ignoring the prayer] is a generosity from Him; it is through the merit of the earlier generations during which the prophets taught this based on the spirit from the Holy [they had access to] that we dare in the later generations to praise and exalt even if we have not reached perfection. Thus the next verse:
  יט  תִּכָּתֶב זֹאת, לְדוֹר אַחֲרוֹן;    וְעַם נִבְרָא, יְהַלֶּל-יָהּ.  
19 This shall be written for the generation to come; and a people who shall be created shall praise the LORD. “

RABH does not dwell on the exact meaning of the word. He says that should one understand it to be an insect it cannot be taken literally. It is a metaphor for an unworthy human who is allowed to praise and exalt HKBH in spite of his low status. One can do so only if supported by revelation.   
Another objection that RABH addresses is that it is not customary for people to prostrate themselves during Davening. Here are excerpts from his response:

One may oppose what we have clarified and proven regarding prostration by resorting to the argument that these things are not according to custom and that it is difficult to go against a custom since the Mishnah obligates one to follow the custom…. Even more as the customs used to argue against our proposed custom [of prostration] are very old and were performed in front of respected sages, Torah scholars and promulgators of Halacha, and they did not see as wrong what we have shown to be wrong nor have they suggested what we suggest. This [my suggested custom] seems to be an innovation and an indictment of the earlier [generations]. You may say anything you want in this matter, it brings us back to what I said earlier that the widespread customs (minhagim) whether they are popular or unpopular, ancient or recent, done in front of respected [sages] or not, if we can prove them to be defective, we may not follow them. For it is not impossible for later [scholars] to clarify matters that earlier ones could not; it is quite common for the later ones to build on what the earlier ones have already clarified giving them the ability to progress further and arrive at conclusions that are different from the earlier ones…. This is not because the later ones are always and in all circumstances better than the earlier ones but because they have the ability to analyze the sayings of the earlier generations building on them and learning from them. Using deductive rules they [the later generations] can arrive at conclusions that obligate us to act accordingly as long as they make sense and are based on accepted logical rules…. There is therefore no reason for a fully rational person, one whose intellect is perfect, to oppose things that were clarified by a later [sage] who uses correct proofs, by arguing that earlier authorities have not said so. It is well known that many of the Geonim argued on earlier ones unearthing things the earlier ones did not discover. See the critical notes that Rabbeinu Yitzchak the author of the Halachot (RIF 1013-1103) made on the Pirush of Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) in spite of the latter’s great abilities and knowledge, so too [his critical notes] on Rabbeinu Nissim the author of “Megillat Setarim” (990-1062). See all the critical notes on these two and others in his Halachot. Rabbeinu Yosef Halevy (R. Yosef Migash (1077-1141) his [RIF] pupil disagreed with him on many issues. My father, although he considered himself their pupil and in his magnum opus refers to them as “my teachers”, because his father (Rabbeinu Maimon) who was his [Rambam’s] teacher was a pupil of Rabbeinu Yosef, disagrees with them wherever he found the truth to be against them. He even argues with his father and says “my father is amongst those who forbid it and I am amongst those who allow it” [MT Hilchot Shechita 11:10)[1]. There is nothing wrong with sages and men of religion doing that. It is only the ignorant masses and the like who must rely on their leaders but that does not obligate sages to follow in their path.”

This is an amazing piece. RABH is suggesting that no custom (minhag) is inviolate. If a scholar finds a minhag to be wrong and does so using the proper rules that the Halacha systems dictate, he may follow his conclusions and change that custom. A minhag is not necessarily an act but could also be a lack of an act. If a scholar feels something should be done when it is not, such as prostrating in the case of RABH, he must do his utmost to implement what he believes to be correct. There is however a very important proviso; one must be knowledgeable, well informed and use the tools Halacha provides. That condition satisfied, when it comes to the truth, precedent is not binding.     
So far I have pointed to interesting (at least to me) things that RABH dealt with from a practical perspective. What were his theology and his philosophy and how did that influence his Halachik and general thinking? I will hopefully address that in upcoming posts.

[1] יש מקומות שמנהגן אם מצאו סרכה מן האוזן לבשר ולעצם שבצלעות, והסרכה דבוקה בשתיהן--אוסרין אותה.  ואבא מרי זצ"ל, מן האוסרין; ואני, מן המתירין.