The First Pillar of Jewish Law: The Rif

The First Pillar of Jewish Law: The Rif
Appreciating the trailblazing scholarly work of Rabbi Yitzchak al-Fasi.

Students with even a cursory familiarity with Halacha, Jewish law, are aware of the importance of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo’s comprehensive 15th century magnum opus that informs, directs, and inspires the daily behavior of observant Jews worldwide. Fewer people know, however, of the scholar that Rabbi Karo termed “the first pillar” of Jewish Law: the Algerian-born Rabbi Yitzchak al-Fasi, whose yahrtzeit is observed on the 10th of Iyar. Together with the rulings of Maimonides and R. Asher (“the Rosh”), Rabbi al-Fasi’s work formed the basis of all the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch.

The Old City of Fez

The Rif, as he has been known to generations of Yeshiva students, spent the majority of his life in Fez, Morocco (hence his surname, which means “of Fez”). At the age of 75 he was forced to flee persecution and settled in the Iberian Peninsula, where a more tolerant environment contributed to the famed Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. He established a Yeshiva in Lucena, and rapidly attracted a number of brilliant students, including Rabbi Yosef ibn Migash and the poet-philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, author of The Kuzari. Among his students was Rabbi Baruch Albalia, the orphaned son of one of the Rif’s most vocal opponents. Despite a long-standing and public dispute, moments before he succumbed to an untimely illness the child’s father directed his son to turn to Rabbi Alfasi for support. Moved to tears by his rival’s words of forgiveness, the Rif compassionately took the young boy into his household and raised him to greatness.

The Rif composed hundreds of Rabbinic responsa in Arabic, but his greatest contribution to Torah literature is certainly his Sefer Halakhot, a brilliantly innovative work that revolutionized the study of The Talmud. Indeed, in regions like Italy where the study of Talmud was banned by Church authorities, the Sefer Halakhot served as its substitute for 300 years.

The genius behind Sefer Halakhot is not so much the information it contains as the information it omits. The Talmud is a massive, fantastically complex series of associations connected by a fine, delicate thread of argument. It is utterly unique, completely distinct from the Greco-Roman models of jurisprudence that dominate western culture. A tractate may be dedicated to a single subject – Shabbat, for example – but the content of that volume will draw from discussions in the entire corpus of Rabbinic literature. Absolutely nothing is tangential because every apparent distraction is followed to its logical conclusion before returning to the main line of discussion. Thus, while Tractate Shabbat is the locus classicus for a discussion of the seventh day, it also contains key discussions of a thousand topics, and other tractates also contain key information on Shabbat in turn.

Lucena Cordoba

The Rif radically simplified the study of Jewish law by creating a carefully edited version of the most widely researched tractates of the Talmud (especially those that dealt with contemporary practice). Sefer Halakhot, sometimes simply called “the Rif,” is thus a condensed, to-the-point version of the Talmudic back-and-forth, with occasional artful notes and clarifications by al-Fasi.

Of course, Rabbi al-Fasi’s surgical method sacrificed much fascinating material. Talmudic aggadah – meaning the cryptic legends, biographies, and other teachings of the Sages – was generally omitted, although the Rif includedaggadah that had halachic implications. His editorial choice simplified halachic study at the expense of inspirational text, was later addressed by Rabbi Yaakov ibn Habib in his Ein Yaakov, essentially a mirror edition of the Rif that passed over most Halacha and preserved aggadah instead.

The Rif was a transitional, pivotal figure in the history of Torah scholarship. He was 25 when the last of the Babylonian Rabbis known as Geonim passed away, and thus he was among the first generation of scholars called Rishonim. His work earned prime Rabbinic real estate when it was included in the standard edition of the Vilna Talmud in the 1860s, printed as a primary reference for serious students. His scholarship has been praised by the greatest Rabbis over the last millennium, including a member of the school of Tosafot, Rabbi Yaakov of Marvege, who once went to sleep troubled by a controversy that questioned a halachic ruling of the Rif. In his dreams he was visited by a heavenly voice that quoted Genesis 17:21: I shall establish my covenant with Yitzchak. Indeed, as the First Pillar of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yitzchak al-Fasi’s covenant has been firmly established as definitive Jewish law.


The Soviet Campaign to Eliminate Passover

The Soviet Campaign to Eliminate Passover
“Red Haggadahs” were published in the 1920s with the explicit goal of replacing belief in God with faith in Communist Russia.

One of the most unusual episodes in the long history of anti-Semitic persecution is the Soviet anti-Jewish campaign of the 1920s. Utilizing formerly Jewish converts to the new secular messianism known as Communism, under the leadership of a former Rabbi, Shimon Dimanshteyn, the Soviets embarked on a bizarre yet creative program of anti-Jewish propaganda.

Cover of the fall edition of Der Apikoyres, Kiev 1923Cover of the fall edition of Der Apikoyres, Kiev 1923

Some of this was expressed in traditional media, such as the Jewish version of the Russian-language magazine Bezbozhnik (literally, “The Godless”), published in Yiddish under the appropriately Talmudic title Der Apikoyres (“The Heretic”). Communist youth were enlisted to organize lavishly catered Yom Kippur dances and stage anti-Jewish plays. Recognizing the powerful hold that religion had on Soviet Jews, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party (Yevsektsiia) also attempted to co-opt the population by capturing and transforming Jewish traditions and texts, including the Passover Haggadah. Called “Red Haggadahs,” several were published in the 1920s with the explicit goal of replacing belief in God with faith in the Soviet Union, and they have been the subject of recently published studies by Dr. Anna Shternsis of the University of Toronto.

The traditional text, read at Seder tables for generation after generation, reads “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not take our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would remain slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Cover illustration of a Red Haggadah by Alexander Tyshler, Moscow 1927Cover illustration of a Red Haggadah by Alexander Tyshler, Moscow 1927

The officially atheistic Soviet Union could not tolerate such a passage, so the text of a Red Haggadah read instead: “We were slaves to capitalism until October (Soviet shorthand for the Communist Revolution of 1917) led us out of the land of exploitation with a strong hand. Were it not for October, we and our children would still be slaves.” Instead of God’s destruction of Egyptian army, the Soviet Haggadah describes success of the Red Army; instead of washing hands for ritual purity, the Communist text eliminates “rabbinical laws and customs, Yeshivot and schools that becloud and enslave the people.”

At the Seder’s conclusion, Jews famously proclaim “This year we are here – next year in Jerusalem!” Following the Red Haggadah, participants at the Seder are urged to pronounce, “This year, we have revolution in this land – next year we will have a world revolution!”

By 1930, the notoriously antisemitic Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lost patience with the quixotic and typically unsuccessful propaganda efforts of the Yevsektsiia. Under his influence, the attacks on Jews and Judaism grew far more vicious and deadly, and celebrating even Sovietized Passover Seders became dangerous, entering a phase of persecution that is unfortunately familiar to students of Jewish history.

The Red Haggadahs of the 1920s, however, testify to an unusual period when overt government discrimination was milder. In her research Dr. Shternsis transcribed the childhood memories of Samuil Gil, who recalled how the Komsomol (Communist Youth) movement organized distribution of forbidden hametz on the first day of Passover: “We were given the task of going to Jewish homes and throwing a piece [of bread] into the window of ten different houses. The one who was fastest would receive a prize. We enjoyed the game very much, especially when the old, angry women ran out of their houses and ran after us screaming ‘apikorsim![heretics]We felt like heroes of the Revolution and were very proud. In the evening, though, we would all go home and celebrate the traditional Seder with all the necessary rituals.”

Gil’s experience, specific to the unusual conditions of 1920s Ukraine, is also illustrative of the eternal pattern of Jewish history: “In every generation, someone rises to destroy us – but the Holy One rescues us from their hands.” Just as this truism is affirmed, so too may the conclusion of the Haggadah become our collective reality – next year in Jerusalem!


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Tractate “Prohibition” (Purim Torah)

Tractate “Prohibition”People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Henry Abramson

“Reverend” Gershon Kiss of Brooklyn captured the spirit of Purim brilliantly in his 1929 parody of the Talmud, “Tractate Prohibition,” which pokes fun at both Rabbinic dialectic and American society. Written in a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic and the occasional Anglicism (“do not read for the Jews there was light and joy va-yikar, rather there was light and joy and liquor”) and formatted like a traditional Talmudic tractate with a “gemara” framed by a Rashi-like commentary, this little-known work makes for excellent reading and even study as part of the holiday festivities.

“Prohibition” refers of course to the bizarre social experiment of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Passed in 1919, it effectively banned the sale and distribution of alcohol, spawning a massive black market industry catering to the proclivities of large numbers of Americans who chose to flout the law of the land until the amendment was undone by the 21st Amendment (1933). Religious groups were allowed wine for ritual consumption, and Jews had an advantage over Catholics in that the latter only drank sacramental wine in Church, whereas Jews were free to do so at home.

Tractate Prohibition is best enjoyed by readers familiar with Talmudic terminology, who will appreciate its subtle allusions to classic passages Mishnah and Gemara (“ha-kol shokhtin,” the opening of tractate Hulin, is rendered as “ha-kol shotin:” “everyone is eligible to perform ritual slaughter” now reads “everyone is eligible to drink). Even readers with less experience in Talmud, however, will enjoy the social satire evident on every page. The text wonders, for example, if the mandated temperance extends to “Mar Vilson,” meaning President Woodrow Wilson, during whose term the 18th Amendment was enacted. The “Rabbis” conclude that President Wilson is exempted from prohibition “ki gavra rabah hu,” meaning “he is a great man.”

The author obviously had some concern about the legality of his publication, which openly (at least in Aramaic) spoofed American law. The text therefore replaces the traditional approbation (Haskamah) with a disclaimer that “the law of the land is the law.” Still, memorable passages include this hilarious passage that describe the subterfuges utilized by secret drinkers: “MISHNAH: How does one hide the drinks? One hides them in the walls and under the floor, in pits, ditches, and caves, in toilets, bathrooms, and any place out of reach of the police.” GEMARA: The rabbis have taught: The pious ones of olden days used to hide the drinks…but pious ones of our days have decided that there is no hope of storing them, so they immediately store them in their stomachs.”

Tractate Prohibition follows a traditional, jocular mode of “Purim Torah” that stretches back at least to the 14th century, when Kalonymus ben Kalonymus composed “Tractate Purim.” Few, however, have expressed this genre of social satire as well in the American context as well has Gershon Kiss in his classic Tractate Prohibition.  

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish Mystery and Naught, serving as Don at the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College in Vatican City, Italy. He cannot be reached.

This article appeared in the Purim edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 23, 2016.  


Who Was R. Yaakov Emden?

Intimidated by neither power nor position,  Rabbi Yaakov Emden left a remarkable literary legacy in the form of his autobiography, Megilat Sefer. This brief lecture provides an overview of his life and work, including his epic controversy with Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz.

R. Yaakov Emden, Megilat Sefer

People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Henry Abramson

One of the more remarkable documents to emerge from the contentious 18th century is Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Megilat Sefer, the first known autobiography of a major Rabbinic figure.  Surprisingly frank and comprehensive, Megilat Sefer provides an unique glimpse into the mind of one of Europe’s most celebrated Judaic scholars, known not only for his erudition but also for his strident attacks on his contemporary Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschutz, a popular figure who stood accused of neo-Sabbatean tendencies.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) took his surname from the German town where he briefly held his only formal position as a community Rabbi. Most of his scholarly and communal activity, however, took place in Altona, which together with Hamburg and Wandsbeck formed the important “Triple Community.”  Frustrated by his inability to win a permanent position as a communal leader, he maintained himself as an independent scholar, pursuing a variety of business ventures (mostly unsuccessful) until he paired his extensive learning with a private printing press that he set up in his home. He published widely, and his incisive commentary on the Siddur in particular has withstood the test of centuries.  An autodidact and polymath, he once hired a young Dutch boy to teach him the German alphabet, and went on to study a wide variety of scientific and medical texts.

Sadly, his impressive Rabbinic credentials were overshadowed by a major campaign he championed to discredit Rabbi Eibeschutz. After brief involvement with Rabbi Moshe Chagiz’ attack on R. Eibeschutz (see, Rabbi Emden took his cause to another level when copies of a number of amulets, written by R. Eibeschutz for the protection of pregnant women, were sent to R. Emden for scrutiny.  R. Emden determined that the Kabbalistic formulations used in the amulets were veiled references to the false messiah Shabbetai Tsvi.  The ensuing controversy engulfed Europe for much of the 18th century and involved hugely influential Rabbinical figures such as the Pene Yehoshua and the Vilna Gaon. R. Eibeschutz was ultimately vindicated, but R. Emden maintained his efforts to discredit his rival even after the latter’s passing in 1764.

Megilat Sefer is R. Emden’s personal account of his life, written in the midst of the controversy. The autobiography is characterized by an unusual degree of transparency, with R. Emden describing everything from his unhappiness as a husband and a parent to the minutiae of his business failures.  His personal ill health is also chronicled, including his passion for the curative properties of a particular tea to which he may have developed a dependence. Prominent in the memoir, of course, is his dispute with R. Eibeschutz, and the reader gets a clear sense of how all-consuming the conflict was for R. Emden, who was prepared to sacrifice all in his relentless search for ideological truth.

An unflattering biography of R. Emden based on Megilat Sefer appeared in the 1930s, taking unfair liberties with the author’s searing honesty. The great historian Salo Wittmayer Baron of Columbia University published a rather devastating book review of this work, identifying the multiple weaknesses of the biographer’s tendentious, Freudian psycho-social interpretations of R. Emden’s account of his life.  Professor Baron also pointed out that R. Emden’s life and work should not be viewed solely in terms of his opposition to R. Eibeschutz, but also in terms of his phenomenal contribution to Jewish scholarship and spirituality.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought, serving as Dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College.  He may be reached at


Who Was R. Moshe Hagiz?


Detractors and admirers alike called him a “zealot, the son of a zealot” a fitting title for arguably the most divisive figure in early eighteenth-century Jewish history. A native son of Jerusalem, Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (1671-1751) originally journeyed to Europe to raise funds for his beleaguered Yeshiva. Within a short period of time, however, he commanded center stage as  a major polemicist in the movement to extirpate all traces of Shabbatai Tzvi’s confused legacy in the Jewish community. Chagiz published widely, both his own Rabbinic works and those of others, but he is best known for his aggressive attacks against Jewish heretics, real or perceived. Unfortunately, his zeal for ideological purity ultimately drew him to criticize the activity of a young Kabbalist named Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. R. Chagiz’ persistence drove R. Luzzatto into exile and an early death.  History would nevertheless vindicate the victim of Chagiz’ calumnies as one of the greatest minds of the Jewish people since the 16th century Safed circle.

After the conversion of Shabbetai Tzvi in 1666 and his death a decade later, his eighteenth century followers may be divided into three categories. The core supporters followed Shabbetai Tzvi into Islam. Known as the Doenmeh, they continued to maintain a distinct communal status for centuries. A second group retained Jewish identity, but openly practiced antinomian Sabbatean practices such as the elimination of fast days and radical experimentation with traditional Jewish marital laws. Certainly the most visible and controversial, these Sabbateans attracted the most attention of polemicists. Rabbi Chagiz, however, was especially concerned with a third category, potentially the largest and certainly the most insidious: crypto-Sabbateans. These Jews, often very learned and occupying leadership positions in the community, secretly harbored Sabbatean inclinations and ambitions, hoping to slowly infiltrate key sectors of the Jewish population and ultimately win the community over to the messianic delusion of Shabbetai Tzvi.

“The Destruction of Sinners” (1714) was Rabbi Chagiz’ first major polemical work, attacking the crypto-Sabbatean Nechemia Chiya Chayon. The text pioneers many techniques that became standard practice for anti-Sabbatean attacks: a relentless search for hidden allusions in the writings of a given Rabbi, the meticulous examination of signatories of his letters of approbation, and the secret collection of testimonies about his personal practice. After a drama that involved several major European communities, R. Chagiz emerged victorious over Chayon.

The experience was transformative, and R. Chagiz went on to build a virtual career as a type of Jewish Inquisitor. For some, he became a heroic defender of Torah-true Judaism, teaming with other opponents of Shabbetai Tzvi like Chacham Tsvi Ashkenazi and Yaakov Emden. For others, he was the pinnacle of intolerance and a purveyor of artificial controversy. After the success of “The Destruction of Sinners,” however, there was no stopping his “pursuit of heresy” (the title of a brilliant biography of R. Chagiz by Columbia professor Elisheva Carlebach, whose career includes teaching at Touro College). When news of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Kabbalistic circle reached him, R. Chagiz embarked on his final crusade. The highly respected Rabbi Isaiah Bassan, teacher to R. Luzzatto since his youth, shielded him from the most egregious charges of crypto-Sabbateanism, through R. Luzzatto was coerced into signing an oath severely limiting his public teaching. After wandering through Europe, R. Luzzatto journeyed to Israel where the ban on his activity did not apply, ultimately dying a premature death.  The victory of R. Chagiz was a tragic loss for the Jewish intellectual tradition.

This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2016 issue of the Five Towns Jewish Times. 

Who Was R. Pinhas Hurwitz?


Two hundred years ago, Sefer Ha-Brit was a fixture in the library of every educated Jewish home. First published anonymously in 1797, this hugely popular 800-page tome appeared in forty editions, including translations into Ladino and Yiddish. It was widely read by Ashkenazim and Sefardim, western and eastern European Jews, Hasidim, Mitnagdim and Maskilim with equal enthusiasm. Indeed, the author’s initial decision to hide his identity sparked rumors that the book was written by figures as diverse as the Vilna Gaon and Moses Mendelssohn. After a poorly produced pirated edition appeared in 1801, however, the author revealed his identity in an expanded second edition. His name was Pinchas Hurwitz of Vilna, and his unique passion for both Lurianic Kabbalah and modern science ultimately articulated a theological space for Jewish identity in the modern world.

Despite its longevity through the 19th century, Sefer Ha-Brit has not retained its universal popularity over the last fifty years. This is probably because the first half of the book is dedicated to an exuberant survey of the scientific world as it existed at the end of the eighteenth century. Modern readers would find this information about subjects like the technology of hot air balloons quaint, but only specialists in the history of science would read it seriously today. For traditionalist Jews emerging into a rapidly changing industrial society, however, Sefer ha-Brit represented an accessible, authoritative, and religiously kosher view of modern science, and its endorsement by leading Rabbinic figures guaranteed its widespread adoption by intellectually curious Jewish readers.

A recent study of Sefer Ha-Brit by distinguished University of Pennsylvania historian David Ruderman explores the larger significance of Hurwitz’ work, arguing that scholars have underestimated the importance of Sefer Ha-Brit. Ostensibly, Rabbi Hurwitz was inspired by Safed thinker Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Classic work of Kabbalistic ethics, Shaarei Kedushah (discussed in this column: see At first glance, the rapid pace of scientific change represented a grave intellectual challenge to religious piety: given the demonstrable successes of the scientific worldview, what hope of survival would traditional Judaism have for the future? Borrowing from contemporary philosopher Immanuel Kant’s decisive attack on accepted wisdom, Rabbi Hurwitz confidently proposed a theological posture that consisted of two distinct elements. First, the euphoria associated with scientific discovery must be tempered by the realization that later scholars will ultimately refine and even reverse these “laws of nature,” just as Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian models, and would in turn be superseded by Einstein’s theories. Ultimate truth may only be found in faith, eternally outside the dimensions of empirical measurement. Second, scientific discovery should be received by Jews with open hearts and open minds, recognizing the advance of secular knowledge as the gradual unfolding of Divine wisdom, “the wonders of the Creator.” This twofold proposition, a remarkable combination of contemporary science and Lurianic Kabbalah, created an intellectual space suitable for the adaptation of Jews to the modern world without sacrificing religious integrity.

While the first half of Sefer Ha-Brit is of great value to intellectual historians, the second half remains directly relevant to a much wider audience. Rabbi Hurwitz was deeply concerned with the state of Jewish society, and the second part–significantly expanded after his work was produced in a plagiarized edition in 1801–was a large, substantive discussion of traditional Jewish ethics. Of particular value was the section entitled “Ahavat Re’im,” in which Rabbi Hurwitz argued that the commandment to “love your neighbor as your self” should be understood as a broader directive to respect and hold the dignity of all human beings. Professor Ruderman points out that Rabbi Hurwitz’ moral cosmopolitanism reached further than most commentators, who tended to interpret this verse more narrowly. Rabbi Hurwitz’ wide experience with diverse populations, undoubtedly a result of his extensive European travels, inspired him to promote a more expansive view of human society. Ahavat Re’im was published as a stand-alone work several times after Rabbi Hurwitz passed away in 1821.

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2016 issue of the Five Towns Jewish Times.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought, serving as Dean on the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at

Sefer Ha-Heshek

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 3, 2016. Click here for a video lecture on the topic.

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Working in the abandoned Judaica collection of the Kiev Vernadsky Library during the immediate post-Soviet period, a brilliant young Jewish historian named Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discovered a rare 300-year-old manuscript. Ignored by Communist scholars for a century, the well-thumbed, 760-page manuscript, bound in leather with a wooden cover and copper breastplate, was not catalogued in any of the collections of the library. Its unusual Ashkenazic script and numerous drawings of complex Kabbalistic symbols fascinated Petrovsky-Shtern, who was on a personal journey to rediscover his ancestral faith. What was this mysterious, one-of-a-kind book?

After nine years of extensive research that took him to archives around the world, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern published the answer. Sefer HaCheshek was a rare, secret guide to practical Kabbalah, written when Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the Chassidic movement, was just beginning to deliver his revolutionary teachings. The author’s name itself sheds light on the significance of the text. Hillel styled himself as a Ba’al Shem, literally Master of the Name [of G‑d], a term used to describe itinerant amulet-makers who typically sold their services to simple Jews seeking Kabbalistic remedies for their problems. Shaman-like, these frequently unlearned and often unscrupulous individuals traveled from shtetl to shtetl, performing exorcisms, treating various ailments, and writing amulets for a wide variety of purposes: health, prosperity, marriage, children. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, by contrast, was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the “Good” Master of the Name, because his work was of an entirely different order.

The Sefer HaCheshek contains both extensive instruction in Kabbalistic healing and a surprising degree of autobiographical information. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern, now a distinguished historian at Northwestern University in Chicago, argues convincingly that the manuscript was written as a type of curriculum vitae, as Hillel wished to end his peripatetic existence and secure a permanent position, preferably in Germany. Sefer HaCheshek was intended as a demonstration of his experience and expertise, having apprenticed to both medical doctors and reputable Kabbalists. Whether or not he received the position—an honor that was bestowed on his contemporary, the Ba’al Shem Tov, in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh—is unknown. Nevertheless, Hillel Ba’al Shem’s description of his prior experiences (especially a dramatic exorcism in Ostrah) illustrates the state of popular religious practice in pre-Beshtian Eastern Europe, and provides a vivid backdrop for the emergence of Chassidism.

Why did Chassidism flourish, and the populist, theurgic Kabbalah of Hillel and other ba’aleiShem decline? Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern provides a salient analysis by identifying what was absent in Sefer HaCheshek. Despite its encyclopedic coverage of remedies for every possible physical, psychological, romantic, and economic malady, Hillel Ba’al Shem delivers no message of universal human redemption. Unlike the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings emphasized human potential and the value of community, Hillel relies on magical one-time fixes, not personal spiritual growth. To the crestfallen he offers no counsel; to the bereft, no benefit. The terminology employed in his work is similar—Hillel refers to Kabbalistic disciples as chassidim, for example—but the contrast between the numerous but forgotten Ba’alei Shem and the magnificent Chassidic world founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov could not be more profound.

Tanya: People of the Book

People Of The Book:

Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

This article appeared in the February 25, 2016 edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times.

The appearance of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya at the turn of the 19th century represented a sea change in Eastern European Jewish history. With this work, the Chassidic revolution, which had been building momentum in western Ukraine and southern Poland, burst into a constituency that had until that point prided itself on its immunity to the Kabbalah-inspired populism of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

The publication of Tanya dramatically illustrated the profound intellectual foundations of Chassidic thought, placing it in direct competition with the traditional Talmudic community in Lithuania for the hearts and minds of spiritually sensitive Jews. The Lithuanian yeshiva community, centered around Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, principal disciple of the recently deceased Vilna Gaon, could no longer dismiss the chassidim as superstitious, uneducated folk (or worse, as neo-Sabbatean heretics).

The Tanya placed Chassidism firmly within the Jewish literary tradition, articulating a fully documented path to holiness that had until then received little attention from more left-brained Talmudic thinkers.

The book itself was published in several stages, some posthumously, until it reached its current form in 1804. It begins with the modestly titled LekuteiAmarim (“Collected Statements”), which is a bold and psychologically gripping analysis of the human condition. Opening with the Talmudic passage that describes the angelic oath given to a person in utero (“be righteous and not wicked”), Tanya offers a remarkably original and persuasive description of the inner conflict of the soul as it encounters the challenges and temptations of the temporal world.

The title “Tanya,” literally “it is taught,” is taken from the opening line of this Talmudic citation. The remaining four sections of the work continue the discussion in several modalities, including a novel understanding of the meaning of repentance and deeper Kabbalistic insights on the nature of the soul. Overall, the work is deceptively complex, with sections that appear highly accessible while others hint to arcane, elusive depths.

The Tanya is known as the “Written Torah of Chassidism” because it represents the first work authored directly by a Chassidic master (previous works were collections of teachings published by various disciples). Rabbi Schneur Zalman is recognized as the first Rebbe of the Chabad movement, but the influence of his work reaches into every Chassidic dynasty and is regarded with great respect by non-Chassidic thinkers as well.

Tanya proved itself highly popular in the yeshiva world, much to the chagrin of traditional authorities, who could barely keep Talmudic students away from its intoxicating introduction of Kabbalistic concepts to pragmatic elements of the Jewish condition. In response, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin composed his master work, Nefesh HaChaim (1824), a Lithuanian-style primer in Kabbalah that provided an alternative to students attracted to the rapidly expanding Chassidic movement.

For its part, Chabad embraced Tanya by instituting a daily study regimen to promote yearly completion of the entire work. Tanya remains a brilliant gem in the treasure of Jewish spirituality.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at

Sarra Copia Sulem’s Manifesto

Sarra Copia Sulam’s Manifesto

People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Henry Abramson

This article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times. 

An unlikely literary duel in Venice took an unexpected turn in 1621 with the appearance of a slim volume entitled “The Manifesto of Sarra Copia Sulam the Jewess, Who Therein Refutes and Reproves Signor Baldassare Bonifacio’s False Accusation that She Denies the Immortality of the Soul.” In concise, even blunt language, the young socialite took arms against a Catholic priest and philosopher who had written a direct attack on her religious beliefs under the title “On the Immortality of the Soul: A Discourse by Baldassare Bonifaccio for Signora Sarra Copia.” This was no mere pamphlet:  charging a Jew with nonbelief in a central article of faith could draw the unwanted attention of the Inquisition, with deadly results. Bonifaccio, however, had no idea who he was dealing with. Young Sarra’s direct and unequivocal response was the first example of a Jewish woman defending her faith in print in early modern Europe.

The roots of the confrontation went back several years, when Sulam began a correspondence with the respected Genoese author Ansaldo Ceba. Deeply impressed with his epic poem on the life of Queen Esther, Sulam gushed that she even slept with the poem on her pillow, such that it might be the first thing she sees upon waking. Ceba, some thirty years her senior and now retired to a monastery, was flattered by her exuberant praise, and resolved to persuade her to convert to Christianity. In a flurry of letters that extended over several years, Ceba directed every literary device to this goal, without success. In a final act of attempted proselytism months before his death, he published all his letters to Sulam in a single volume. Her letters, unfortunately, were not included.

Awareness of Ceba’s pet project to convert this perspicacious young Jewess was well known in Venetian literary circles, motivating a Priest (later Bishop) Baldassare Bonifacio to force her baptism through more aggressive means, thinking that his public attack on her personal Judaism might pressure her to accept Christianity. When news of the publication reached Sulam, she wrote her impassioned defense in two short days and rushed it into print before Bonifacio’s broadside could have any impact: the narrative shifted from Sulam’s intransigence to her brilliant “smack-down” of a meddling interloper. Brilliantly, she dedicated the Manifesto to her late father, pointedly asking Bonifacio how she could do so if she truly believed that the soul of her father was no more? She had no compunction against defending herself with an aggressive counter-attack.

Sulam’s Manifesto did not break new ground philosophically, but it stands alone as an unique statement of a Jewish woman’s voice in early 17th century Venice. Taking advantage of the relatively new technology of printing, Sarra Copia Sulam fearlessly defended her faith from senior Church officials, leaving her mark in Jewish literary history.


The Tzemach David

Note the goose emerging from the Star of David on the tombstone of David Gans (1541-1613)

The Tzemach David

People Of The Book:  Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

(This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on February 11, 2016.)

David Gans (1541–1613) was a scientist and a rabbi in an age when the dual pursuit of these intellectual passions was a life-threatening occupation. He studied Torah under Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Cracow and the Maharal of Prague, and his expertise in astronomy was so formidable that he collaborated with Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.

Rabbi Gans made a signal contribution to this field by translating the Alphonsine tables from Hebrew into German. Originally compiled in 1252 by a commission of Jewish and Muslim scholars for King Alphonso X, the Wise of Spain, these navigational charts were essential to the seafaring nation, and Jewish astronomers had been updating them for centuries in Hebrew. (Columbus relied on the version prepared by Joseph Vecinho, one of many Jewish contributions to the discovery of the New World.)

Despite the obvious advantages of the emerging scientific wisdom of the era, the Catholic Church reacted with a terrifying fanaticism, burning Converso Jews and Christian scientists alike for suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun. Even the supposedly more moderate Protestant Church arrested Kepler’s aged mother and tried her as a witch.

The work of David Gans, by contrast, illustrates the scope of academic freedom in the Jewish world. Following Maimonides, the bulk of Jewish thinkers favored the establishment Ptolemaic vision of a flat earth surrounded on all sides by water, with a heavenly parade of celestial orbs circling this stable center. Scattered early references to the spherical shape of the world, however, were increasingly confirmed by the age of exploration, including the remarkably prescient passage in the Zohar III 10a: “The earth is round as a globe . . . Revolutions make it daytime in one half and night in the other . . . There are places where it is perpetually light and places where it is perpetually dark.” Gans did not completely accept all the implications of the new Copernican, heliocentric model, but he engaged fully in the intellectual commerce of the late 16th and early 17th centuries with a refreshing open-mindedness tempered by traditional learning.

His most important contribution to Jewish studies is the highly original Tzemach David (“Shoot of David,” 1592). As fascinated by history as he was by science, he composed a one-volume history of the world, divided into two parts. The first explored the history of the Jews from Adam to the late 16th century, relying heavily on the limited historical studies produced till then, such as the ancient work of Josephus and the medieval Hebrew version, Yosippon. The second and larger section is a survey of world history, using secular calendars. Interestingly, he defends his work as appropriate Sabbath reading, relying on the ruling of his early master the Rema in Orach Chaim 307:1.

By modern standards, Tzemach David is more of a chronicle than a history, with the events presented simply in linear, chronological format with limited interpretive content. The bifurcation of Jewish and secular history is reflective of a Jewish Weltanschauung common even today: Jews move in history, but are not of history, a view that modern historians consider as retrograde as Ptolemaic astronomy. Nevertheless, Tzemach David is a pioneering work, especially valuable for the study of Ashkenazic Jewish history.

David Gans is also known for his popularization of the six-pointed Star of David, a symbol first associated with the Jews of Prague some 100 years prior. (The legends that the Magen David decorated the shields of King David’s troops have no literary basis.) Gans saw in the star, with its repeating symmetries of two overlapping equilateral triangles, a symbol for the mathematical perfection of G‑d’s universe. His gravestone in Prague is thus proudly adorned with a Magen David, surmounted by a line drawing of a goose: his family name in Hebrew was Avuz, translated into German as Gans (goose).

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on February 11, 2016.

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