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.

Who Was Hillel Ba’al Shem?

A mysterious figure of the early 18th century whose work, recently discovered by Dr. Yohanan Petrovsky-Stern, sheds light on the world of popular culture from which Hasidism emerged.

 

Click here for the Prezi associated with this lecture.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 3, 2016.

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.

March 2016 Lectures: Jews of the 18th Century

Jewish History @ Avenue J

A Community Project of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences

1602 Avenue J

Monday Nights, 7-8pm

Free and Open to the Community

Lectures by Dean Henry Abramson

No hard questions, please.

March 7: R. Pinhas Hurwitz

Author of the influential Sefer Ha-Brit, the work of Rabbi Hurwitz represented the growing influence of modern science in Jewish thought.

March 14. R. Moshe Hagiz

An aggressive opponent of Sabbateanism, Rabbi Hagiz was a staunch defender of Jewish tradition.

March 21. R. Jacob Emden 

Known equally for his Talmudic brilliance and polemic nature, Rabbi Emden’s life illustrates the trials and tribulations of Jewish communal leadership. 

March 28. R. David Sinzheim 

Appointed to Napoleon’s controversial Grand Sanhedrin, Rabbi Sinzheim articulated a modus vivendi for Jews in the political awakenings of the late 18th century. 

Photo: the amazing Yaakov Naumi/Flash 90.

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Who Was Sarah, Wife of Shabbetai Tsvi?

Orphaned by the Eastern European pogroms of 1648-49, the volatile Sarah became the spouse of the infamous messianic pretender. Her life, filled with controversy, illustrates the egalitarian elements in Shabbetai Tsvi’s antinomian message.

 

Here is a link to the Prezi.

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

Abramson-Ganz
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.

Who Was Sarra Copia Sulem?

When Sarra, a bright young poetry lover of 17th century Venice, wrote to a senior literary figure, she thought she was merely expressing her admiration for his literary work.  In the end, she was forced to defend publicly her refusal to leave Judaism.

Click here for the Prezi. 

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.

Who Was Rabbi David Gans?

David Gans (1541-1613) was a Rabbinic scholar, historian, and astronomer.  A student of Rabbi Moshe Isserles and the Maharal of Prague, he collaborated actively with Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and left behind important scholarly works.

 

Click here for the Prezi.

 

 

Sefer HaChinuch (People of the Book)

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Written with a deep humility that nevertheless could not disguise the author’s brilliance,Sefer HaChinuch remains one of the most thought-provoking halachic studies some 800 years after it first appeared in the Iberian Peninsula. The deceptively simple title, “The Book of Education,” alludes to the anonymous author’s intent: to provide his young son with a basic introduction to the Torah and its commandments. Sefer HaChinuch is therefore an example of the medieval genre of “counters of the commandments” (monei ha’mitzvot), books that list the precise number of positive and negative commandments to add up to the 613 as reported in the Talmud. Many rabbis participated in this scholarly quest, often differing with each other with regard to which act was actually a full commandment, which was only a corollary action, and so on.

Sefer HaChinuch, however, was distinguished by one highly unusual feature: unlike the other monei ha’mitzvot, the Book of Education attempted to answer why each commandment exists. Other scholars, Maimonides and Nachmanides among them, relegated this crucial question to more-sophisticated philosophical works. The Sefer HaChinuch, on the other hand, sought to satisfy the basic curiosity of an adolescent youth. In so doing, he left an intellectual legacy for generations.

The book is often attributed to a well-known 14th-century rabbi named Aharon of Barcelona, but most scholars estimate it was written over a century earlier by an unknown scholar, possibly with the same name and hailing from Barcelona. The author’s attempt to hide his identity is betrayed by a few details in the text, such as the emphasis he places on telling his son to pay special attention to commandments relevant to their family tribe of Levi. He was likely a student of Nachmanides, and possibly wrote the text before the great scholar was banished from Spain in the 1260s.

The book is organized according to the sequential appearance of the commandments in each Torah reading, making it ideal for weekly study. After describing the scriptural basis of each commandment, the text briefly describes how it is observed, who is responsible for performing the commandment (men, women, kohanim, etc.), and under which temporal and conditional circumstances it takes effect (while the Temple was standing, or levirate marriage when the widow is childless, etc.). Finally, each mitzvahconcludes with a remarkably concise and often boldly philosophical description of the “roots of the mitzvah,” meaning its purpose in the Divine Plan.

Some of my favorite sections include the author’s discussions of forbidden mixtures (wool and linen, meat and milk, etc.) that draw upon Kabbalistic ideas about the quality of energies that make up material entities and the spiritually deleterious effects of combining them improperly. The author was also sensitive to the psychological implications of the mitzvot, and is perhaps best known for a theme that runs throughout his work: a person is shaped by his or her actions, not vice versa. By training ourselves in the performance ofmitzvot, even in the absence of a clear awareness of their purpose, we purify ourselves and prepare for ultimate understanding. The Sefer HaChinuch’s purpose as a guide for young people thus retains its evergreen status even for adults living in spiritually and intellectually troubled times.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached athenry.abramson@touro.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on January 28, 2016.

People of the Book: The Ways of the Righteous

“When I speak, I regret what I say, but when I am silent, I do not regret. And if I may regret my silence once, I regret speaking many times over.”

—Gate 21: The Gate of Silence,
The Ways of the Righteous

Is it possible that The Ways of the Righteous, among the most influential works of Jewish ethics written over the past millennium, was secretly authored by a woman? Proponents of this controversial view advance three principal points to bolster their argument. First, the text was published anonymously. It was not unknown for authors in the mussar tradition to refrain from claiming authorship. It is also sadly true, even today, that women authors seeking publication are forced to hide their gender with a pseudonym, a single initial for their given name, or even pose behind a living male to have their work circulated. The 15th-century appearance of a deeply learned text like The Ways of the Righteous would certainly have aroused suspicion, even notoriety, with a woman’s name on the title page. Second, the text was first published in Yiddish, the vernacular of Eastern European Jewry, but Hebrew was common language of higher learning. Yiddish was known in some circles as der vayber sprach, the “women’s language,” because female literacy was usually limited to this Hebraized version of Middle High German. Third, and most tantalizingly, internal literary evidence reveals frequent use of domestic metaphors and similes. The author often makes reference to cooking, cleaning, and other home-based work that would have been readily grasped by homemakers. Thus if it were true that a woman authored Orchot Tzaddikim, then she would certainly represent the most learned woman since ancient times.

Tempting as this theory is, the arguments rest on relatively weak foundations. Much more likely is the probability that the author was a conventionally educated man with passing familiarity with domestic chores. Research into the several manuscript versions currently housed in the libraries of Oxford, Hamburg, and Budapest suggests strongly that the original version was written in Hebrew, and then translated into Yiddish for a broader, female audience of readers. The mystery surrounding the author, however, should not distract us from the fact that The Ways of the Righteous is a brilliant exposition of Jewish ethics, demonstrating a profound understanding of human psychology and infused with an abiding message of hope for self-improvement.

The book is divided into 28 “gates,” each of which is dedicated to a particular character trait. Versions of the text circulated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries under the title The Book of Character Traits (Sefer HaMiddot). For each character trait, the author describes both the positive and negative aspects of this particular moral quality, and suggests development of the beneficial and avoidance of the deleterious factors. The influence of Maimonides’ Hilchot Dei’ot is prominent, although an analysis of the author’s source base reveals an exceptionally broad familiarity with the scope of rabbinic writings through the medieval period.

The Ways of the Righteous insists repeatedly that there is no such thing as a bad character trait, only a misdirected character strength. Misunderstood attributes like hatred, cruelty, worry, anger, jealousy, falsehood, flattery, and gossip are treated extensively. Similarly, the text also discusses many positive traits that can be misused, including humility, mercy, alacrity, and repentance. My personal favorites include the remarkably original chapter on silence, and I often turn to the chapter deceptively named “The Gate of Joy” for its moving discussion of faith (bitachon).

The Ways of the Righteous retains evergreen popularity in mussar-oriented yeshivos, especially the Chofetz Chaim movement. It has been adapted into a three-volume children’s book, and a new four-volume translation with commentary was recently completed by my Miami-based colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Yachnes.

This column originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on Thursday, January 21, 2016.