Welcome to the Sefer Ha-Hayim Blog of Yashar Books (what's a blog?). This blog will give you a taste of books available from Yashar by discussing issues that emerge from them and summarizing their contributions to the literature. Links will take you to relevant places on the internet and within the Yashar Books website, where you will be able to learn more about the subject and purchase the books for yourself.
Unless otherwise noted, all posts will be written by Gil Student. If you would like to comment on these posts, feel free to send them in an e-mail.
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R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes, The Student's Guide Through the Talmud
Beruriah, the scholarly wife of the Tanna R. Meir, is mentioned a handful of times in the Talmud, always in a very positive light. It is therefore surprising that Rashi, in his commentary to Avodah Zarah (18b), should relate a very negative story about Beruriah in which she ends up committing suicide. There is no extant earlier source for this story, yet anyone familiar with Rashi's style of commentary knows that it is not in his nature to create stories.
R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes (AKA Maharatz Chayes) offers an explanation of this puzzle in a brief comment in chapter 31 (pp. 237-238) of his Mevo Ha-Talmud, translated into English and annotated by R. Jacob Shachter as The Student's Guide Through the Talmud and now being reprinted by Yashar Books. In a helpful footnote, R. Shachter summarizes the story of Beruriah's fate as told by Rashi:
The Gemara relates that in the opinion of some, R. Meir ran away to Babylon because of the incident involving Beruriah. Rashi, however tells the following story: Once Beruriah criticized the Rabbinic view (Kid. 80b) that women are light-minded, to which R. Meir replied that one day her own experience would testify to the truth of the Rabbi's words. The day came when she succumbed to the temptation of one of R. Meir's own disciples. Beruriah committed suicide and R. Meir fled from his home for shame.
R. Chajes explains that "all such stories relating to various Talmudical sages as reflect no honour upon them... have been removed from our editions of the Talmud" but might still be reflected in the manuscripts or traditions available to the Geonim and early Rishonim. Thus, for example, the Halakhos Gedolos contains a story about how Mar Shmuel's father almost succumbed to a certain Median woman. Similarly, R. Chajes suggests, the story of Beruriah's fate was removed from the Talmud by an early editor but Rashi recorded the tradition in order to explain the cryptic passage about R. Meir.
Posted Tuesday, Nov. 30 2004 9:10 AM link
Musar and Benjamin Franklin II
Menahem G. Glenn, Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker
R. Ari Waxman e-mailed me the following in response to my previous post:
Regarding your Benjamin Franklin post - my father's father, Rav Nissan Waxman, wrote an article entitled, "Sefer Shenitalem Min Haayin - Al "Cheshbon HaNefesh" Umechabro". The article was printed in Heichal Shlomo's Shana Beshana in 1969, pp. 303-315. In this article my grandfather argues with those who claim that "Cheshbon HaNefesh" is a translation of Benjamin Franklin's memoirs, and (along with a dose of criticism of Lefin's occasional inappropriate literary style) reaches the conclusion that Menahem Glenn reached, as you summed up, "Basing himself on Franklin's method, Lefin wrote an original work that elaborates passages of Franklin's autobiography and expands upon his ideas."
On a similar topic, I am attaching Rav Yoel Katan's article (PDF), printed in Hamaayan, Nissan 5752, which deals with a maamar of Rav Dessler given in Ponevitch during Elul 1949 and appears in Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. IV, P.234. Rav Katan claims that it is based on Dale Carnegie's writings. Actually, before I read this article I heard a rumor about Rav Dessler being fond of Dale Carnegie's writings and I called Rabbi Aryeh Carmel in an attempt to clarify. Rabbi Carmel confirmed the rumor telling me that Rav Dessler felt that the writings of Dale Carnegie are beneficial to the avodah of Mussar. I asked Rabbi Carmel if Rav Dessler read the books themselves and he clarified, "No, Rav Dessler didn't actually read the books, but rather he read an article in Reader's Digest which gave a synopsis of Dale Carnegie's principals." (At one point in our conversation Rabbi Carmel's wife, who suspected that the person on the other side of the line was having a difficult time swallowing the information, yelled out from the background, "Tell him - Mekol melamdai hiskalti! Mekol Melamdai hiskalti!")
Posted Tuesday, Nov. 23 2004 9:20 AM link
Musar and Benjamin Franklin
Menahem G. Glenn, Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker
Conventional wisdom among "those in the know" is that a classic Musar work that was enthusiastically supported by R. Yisrael Salanter, Sefer Heshbon Ha-Nefesh, is a Hebrew translation of Benjamin Franklin's memoirs. This, of course, does not diminish the utility of the book. Any book can be helpful if written with wisdom and insight, regardless of the author's identity. However, this little-known "fact" of the book's real author is somewhat jarring to those uninitiated to the secret.
The truth, however, as explained by Menahem Glenn in his Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker, is that Heshbon Ha-Nefesh is not a translation of Franklin's memoirs. Mendel Lefin (Levin), a maskil, had read Franklin's autobiography and found his system of cultivating virtues daily to be quite useful. Basing himself on Franklin's method, Lefin wrote an original work that elaborates passages of Franklin's autobiography and expands upon his ideas. Lefin even omitted some of Franklin's thirteen virtues and substituted others.
The truth, that Sefer Heshbon Ha-Nefesh was written by a maskil, is still surprising. However, that still should not detract from the usefulness the book has in assiting a person to change his life for the better.
Posted Friday, Nov. 19 2004 1:20 PM link
R. Yehuda Henkin, Bnei Banim vol. 4 - $10 buy it now
The status of a non-observant Jew in the worldview of traditional Judaism is complicated by the fact that society has changed so much since the Talmud that finding the proper talmudic category for such people is a complex matter. However, when was the major point of change? Was it the turn of the modern era and the rise of secularism or earlier than that? As we shall see, R. Yehuda Henkin points to nineteenth century Germany as the turning point.
In talmudic times there were certainly Jews who seceded from the community of traditionally observant Jews. However, they were generally either apostates who adopted idolatrous practices or sectarians who actively rejected the dominant form of Judaism.
In the post-talmudic era, communities arose in which the dominant form of Judaism was something considered sectarian by normative Judaism. How does the traditional community - we'll call it Orthodoxy for convenience - relate to Jews who accept the dominant form of Judaism with which they were raised, one that is otherwise considered sectarianism? Are they treated as sectarians, with all the stigma involved, or are they treated otherwise?
For example, a Jew raised in America today is following the majority position if he refrains from attending synagogue or observing the Sabbath. Is that really rejecting traditional Judaism or is it merely mistakenly accepting an incorrect version of it?
Conventional wisdom has it that such people do not fall into the category of sectarians or rejecters of the faith but, rather, tinokos she-nishbu - children who have been captured and raised outside of a Jewish community. In other words, they are not blamed for their lack of adherence to traditional Judaism and do not fall into the talmudic categories of sectarians, apostates or rejecters. This classification has significant halakhic ramifications.
However, the matter is quite complex. While it is an open question why it was not raised during the pre-Tannaitic era regarding those raised in, e.g. Essene communities, the issue was raised during the medieval era about those raised in Karaite communities. Are they sectarians or "captured babes"?
R. Yosef Karo, in his Beis Yosef (Yoreh De'ah 159), quotes two conflicting views regarding whether Karaites have the status of apostates. According to Maimonides, they do not because they are considered tinokos she-nishbu. However, according to the Nimukei Yosef, the status of tinok she-nishbah only applies to someone who is entirely unfamiliar with Judaism but someone who is not, even if he did not receive a conventional Jewish education, is considered a rejecter or apostate. Significantly, R. Karo rules according to Maimonides' view.
However, the debate continued after R. Karo's life. The Radbaz, living in Egypt, was forced to deal with the status of Karaites in his day. He ruled in a long responsum (2:796) that the Karaites, despite being raised in their own community with an anti-rabbinite bias, could not be classified as tinokos she-nishbu despite Maimonides' ruling.
This position of the Radbaz has echoes today. In the early twentieth century, the Minhas Elazar (1:74) issued a similar ruling as the Radbaz's, thereby rendering today's secular Jews ineligible for the category of tinok she-nishbah. Similarly, much more recently the Shevet Ha-Levi (9:198) ruled likewise. This is in contrast with the Hazon Ish (Yoreh De'ah 2:28 ) who ruled that all non-observant Jews today are tinokos she-nishbu, thereby going even farther than Maimonides. Also, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, the "Hafetz Hayim," reviewed a particular work named Marganisa Tova twice every day. In that work (par. 17), which was appended to R. Kagan's book Ahavas Hesed, the author also writes that non-observant Jews today, like tinokos she-nishbu, fall into the category of accidental sinners and not intentional. This is only a small sample of the halakhic literature on this subject.
Thus, the final halakhah is still a matter of controversy, even if most mainstream halakhists tend to follow the view of the Hazon Ish.
In the forthcoming volume 4 of Bnei Banim, R. Yehuda Henkin adds his voice to this discussion with an essay on this subject (essay no. 7 in PDF format). R. Henkin points out that the application of the status of tinok she-nishbah to secular Jews began in 19th century Germany with the great leaders R. Ya'akov Ettlinger and, somewhat later, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann. This has been the approach accepted by mainstream halakhists, including the author's illustrious grandfather R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin. However, R. Henkin objects to extending this concept beyond its current application or to using this status as a justification for non-observance. Most importantly, one should never think of himself as a tinok she-nishbah because this only becomes an excuse for sinning.
Posted Monday, Nov. 15 2004 1:00 PM link