Sefer Ha-Hayim Blog
Monday, May 23, 2005
History vs. Storytelling
Should history be looked at through rose-colored eyeglasses, skipping over misjudgments or foibles and merely reporting the positive achievements of Jewish leaders?

Yashar Books' Open Access Project has released an excerpt from Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky’s foreword to his controversial biography of his illustrious father, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky: The Making of a Godol. In this passage, Rabbi Kamenetsky discusses the issues involved in writing a biography and cites rabbinic precedents for his approach of completely honest history.

Available for download here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Publishers Weekly on Students' Guide
The April 27, '05 issue of Publishers Weekly Religion Bookline carried a short review of The Students' Guide Through The Talmud (buy it now) as follows:
Guide to the Talmud Reissued after 45 Years

Yashar Books, a seven-month-old Orthodox Jewish publishing house, thought that the current moment, just after the much-publicized end of the 7 and a half year cycle of studying the Talmud in its entirety, was a good one to re-release a comprehensive guide to the Talmud, the collection of rabbinic laws. Written in Hebrew over 150 years ago by Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Chajes--a noted 19th century Talmud scholar from the Galicia region of Eastern Europe--the guide was last published in English 45 years ago.

"With the fact that there are so many more people studying Talmud today than ever before," said Mordechai Schiller, marketing and publicity director for Yashar Books, "it's important for people to get a grounding in some of the ideas of the Talmud that are mysteries to some."

Translated in the 1950s by the late Rabbi Jacob Shachter, who was the chief rabbi of Northern Ireland, "The Student's Guide Through the Talmud" contains extensive footnotes added by the translator. The book discusses both the legal aspects of Jewish tradition (known as "halakhah") and the non-legal, moral and philosophical
teachings known as "aggadah."

The footnotes are written with the novice in mind, the publisher said, because the original Hebrew text was aimed at rabbinic scholars. The notes give biographical sketches of the rabbis Chajes quotes, and provide other background.

The guide is particularly useful, Schiller said, in helping readers understand the methodology and rationales that the authors of the Talmud had in mind when they first recorded Jewish law around the year 500 C.E.

Chajes "set out a system to explain how to approach these things in a very scholarly and intellectual fashion," said Schiller. "I'm not saying it's a quick read," he added, "but it's very clear."

The Talmud guide will be distributed to trade retail outlets, including and Hebrew bookstores across the country. It can also be ordered at --Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Monday, May 09, 2005
Human Dignity
The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations
Buy it now

Chapter 14 of R. Daniel Z. Feldman's The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations discusses human dignity (kevod ha-beriyos) and when it overrides rabbinic, and sometimes biblical, prohibitions. But what slight to human dignity is sufficient to override a prohibition? R. Feldman (p. 200) writes:
R. Naftali Amsterdam, in a letter to R. Yitzchak Blazer (also know as R. Itzeleh Peterburger), writes that to qualify for the classification of k'vod habriyot the matter must be one of objective degradation for at least the majority of individuals.[19] In this respect, the dignity referred to is that of mankind, rather than of any individual. Along these lines, R. Shimon Gabel[20] explains that it is for this reason that one is not asked to dispense with one's dignity for the sake of the mitzvah; no single person can make that decision. R. Blazer, responding to R. Amsterdam in one of a lengthy series of responsa on this topic,[21] writes to prove the existence of a subjective standard.[22] Nonetheless, R. Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, argues that an observable, albeit individual, humiliation must be present; one's internal, emotional biases may be halakhically relevant, but under other categories.[23]

[19] See also Responsa Divrei Malkiel, ibid.
[20] Sofrei Shimon, Berakhot 20a.
[21] The two rabbis were among the foremost students of R. Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter).
[22] Responsa Pri Yitzchak 1:53, 54. See also R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, Mishnah Berurah 13:12, and R. Baruch Weiss, Birkhot Horai 32:66.
[23] Responsa Binyan Av 2:56. See also R. Shepansky, pp. 223-225.
About whose dignity are we discussing? From p. 199:
It should also be noted that according to many authorities, human dignity is not to be interpreted as Jewish dignity; all human beings merit this prioritization, as the phrase itself suggests. R. Shimon Sofer[10] considers this to be the opinion of the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah[11] and rules accordingly, as does R. Aharon Lichtenstein.[12] R. Yisrael Shepansky[13] and R. Dov Rosenthal[14] ntoe that this conclusion is the logical extension of the fact that concerns of dignity stem from the creation in the Divine image,[15] a fact true of all of mankind.[16] R. Natan Leiter[17] and R. Yitzchak Sternhill[18] also consider this possibility, although they do not rule conclusively.

[10] Responsa Hitor'rut Teshuvah 1:39.
[11] Hilkhot Sanhedrin 24:9.
[12] In the journal Machanayim (new series) 58:8-15. Note his extensive discussion of this detail, and his analysis of various types of dignity.
[13] Ohr HaMizrach, ibid., p. 228.
[14] Divrei Yosher to Pirkei Avot 1:12.
[15] Note R. Malkiel Tannenbaum, Responsa Divrei Malkiel 1:67 and 3:82.
[16] As per Tiferet Yisrael and Tosafot Yom Tov, Avot 3:14. Note also Ramban, in his commentary to Chumash, Deuteronomy 21:22, and R. Moshe Rosmarin, D'var Moshe, Pirkei Avot 3:140. See also R. Avraham Geiser, in the journal Derekh Eretz Dat U'Medinah, pp. 159-165.
[17] Respnsa Me'orot Natan 97.

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