Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Vilna Gaon, part 3 (Review of Eliyahu Stern, The Genius) by Marc B. Shapiro

The Vilna Gaon, part 3 (Review of Eliyahu Stern, The Genius)
by Marc B. Shapiro

In honor of Sean Penn and Mark Wahlberg, who understand what pidyon shevuyim is all about.

Continued from here.

Returning to R. Sternbuch’s Ta’am ve-Da’at, vol. 1, earlier in this book, p. 88, we find the following passage.

שמעתי ממרן הגריז"ס זצ"ל (הגאב"ד דבריסק) שאברהם אבינו לא היה עצבני וחושש ומפחד שהולך לשחוט בנו יחידו, אלא היה לו הלילה שלפני העקדה ככל הלילות, ולא נתרגש מצווי זה וקם בבוקר לקיים המצוה כשם שמקיימים כל מצוה, והשכים כזריזין שמקדימים למצוות, ושש ושמח לקיים מצות בוראו

According to R. Velvel Soloveitchik, Abraham was not emotionally affected by the command  to sacrifice Isaac, and on the night before he was to go to Mt. Moriah he slept as well as on any other night. He approached this commandment like any other commandment, and was ready to do it with joy. It is hardly an accident that the Abraham described by R. Velvel very much resembles R. Velvel himself. See also my earlier post here. [1]

Yet doesn’t R. Velvel’s understanding conflict with the notion that the Akedah was a test or trial? What kind of test was it if Abraham related to this command just like any other?


The Gaon is quoted as having a different perspective on the Akedah.[2] According to him, since Abraham was engaged in acts of loving kindness all the time, this commandment was designed to develop in him the attribute of cruelty, which is also required at times.

וז"ש כאן בעקידה עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלקים אתה, לפי שקודם לכן לא היה אלא רחמן מאד שהיה מכניס אורחים וגומל חסדים. אבל המדה של אכזריות ולכוף א"ע ולקיים מצות הבורא ית' עדיין לא היה ניכר בו והיו יכולים לומר שאברהם איננו צדיק גמור ח"ו. אבל בעקידה שעשה ג"כ מדת אכזריות שרצה בכל אות נפשו לקיים מצות הבורא ולשחוט את בנו יחידו אשר בו תלוי כל חיותו א"כ עתה נשלם וניכר שהוא צדיק גמור

The Gaon connects this to the commandment to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs. In the Guide 3:48, Maimonides understands this as designed to avoid cruelty to the mother bird. However, the Gaon has the exact opposite interpretation. He assumes that sending away the mother is very cruel, and that is the entire point of the commandment. He points out that in only two commandments does the Torah promise long life. One is respect for parents, which is about compassion. The other is sending away the mother bird, which is about cruelty, The complete personality, i.e., the tzaddik, needs to have both of these characteristics.

לפי שאין השלימות ניכר באדם אלא כשיש לו מדות הפוכות, כגון מדת רחמנות ואכזרות

As the Gaon explains, if someone had only one of these characteristics, you could say that this was just his nature. However, when you see in the same person the opposite characteristics of compassion and currently, applied at different times, this shows that the person is a tzaddik. This also explains why God gave commandments that are characterized by compassion as well as commandments that cause one to act with cruelty.

(R. Moses Cordovero writes that "kindness is not valued in an individual who is naturally kind, only in a person who overcomes his inclination to act contrary [to the dictates of kindness]." See Or YakarHayyei Sarah, p. 110, translation in Paul B. Fenton, "The Banished Brother: Islam in Jewish Thought and Faith," in Alon-Goshen-Gottstein and Eugene Korn, eds. Jewish Theology and World Religions [Oxford, 2012], p. 251.)

Directly before this explanation in Divrei Eliyahu, the Gaon discusses God’s commandment to Abraham to circumcise himself and every newborn boy. According to the Gaon, Abraham was in doubt whether he should fulfill the commandment, since the requirement of such a practice would discourage the pagans from conversion. He thought that perhaps it would be better for him to disobey God’s command, and give up his heavenly reward, in order to increase believers in the world.

נתיירא אאע"ה שמא עי"ז לא ימשכו אחריו הבאים להתגייר ונוח היה לו להפסיד לעצמו משכרו הטוב ורק לקבץ מאמינים בעולם

Not knowing what to do, Abraham consulted with Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre, and the first two advised not doing the circumcision, but Mamre advised him to listen to God and that is what he did.

This is a development of an older theme that appears in a number of midrashim and is alluded to in Rashi, Genesis 18:1. According to these sources, Abraham was indeed unsure whether to listen to God, but none of the midrashim offer a reason for Abraham’s hesitation. [3] The midrashic notion that Abraham hesitated over following God’s command is quite startling, and many commentators deal with it in all sorts of creative ways.[4] The Gaon softens the difficulty somewhat by explaining that Abraham was not in doubt regarding whether to follow God’s command because he was afraid of the procedure, but his motivation was much more exalted. Yet the Gaon’s explanation is somewhat difficult because the midrashim have Mamre convincing Abraham to do the procedure by reminding him how God saved him from the fiery furnace or how in general God has always watched over him, and there is thus no justification for ignoring His command. This implies that Abraham’s reason for hesitation was fear over the operation rather than concern that his proselytizing efforts would suffer.

I would love to know what R. Velvel would say about these midrashim, which show Abraham in a very different light than the way he describes the Patriarch.

Finally, let me mention a story famous in Habad and recorded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in various places. It shows an attitude entirely at odds with the sort of piety we saw in the last post. Here is a selection from the Rebbe’s letter in Iggerot Kodesh, vol. 22, no. 8558 (p. 366). The translation is taken from here.

The Alter Rebbe shared his house with his oldest married son, Rabbi Dov Ber (who later succeeded him as the Mitteler Rebbe). Rabbi Dov Ber was known for his unusual power of concentration. Once, when Rabbi Dov Ber was engrossed in learning, his baby, sleeping in its cradle nearby, fell out and began to cry. The infant’s father did not hear the baby’s cries. But the infant’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, also engrossed in his studies in his room on the upper floor at the time, most certainly did. He interrupted his studies, went downstairs, picked the baby up, soothed it and replaced it in its cradle. Through all this Rabbi Dov Ber remained quite oblivious.

Subsequently, the Alter Rebbe admonished his son: “No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”[5]

In the last post I showed examples of removing material from the English translation of a Hebrew book, so as not to scandalize the English reader. Here is another example. The Hebrew text comes from Shimon Yosef Meller’s biography of R. Velvel Soloveitchik, Ha-Rav mi-Brisk (Jerusalem, 2006), vol. 2, pp. 546-547. I previously mentioned this passage here.



Here is the relevant page in the translation, The Brisker Rav (Jerusalem, 2009), vol. 2, p. 573, and you can see that the story I am referring to has been removed.




For another story about vomiting, see the following passage which comes from the introduction of the Gaon’s sons to his commentary on the Shulhan Arukh.




Here is a similar story recorded about R. Yisrael Salanter.[6]


Whether these stories actually happened is not important. What is important is that they were regarded as examples of piety in those days, while today if someone would act this way people would feel revulsion. In fact, since people had such a different response years ago, there is no need to assume that the stories did not happen simply because today the stories seem impossible. When it comes to what people regard as appropriate, one sees enormous changes between generations and cultures. An obvious example is the matter of homosexuality. While a century ago this was pretty much universally regarded as repulsive, among today's younger generation of college educated people you would be hard pressed to find anyone to say this (as I can attest from interactions with hundreds of college-age students). Even among the halakhically observant, i.e., those who accept the prohibition on homosexuality, many do not regard it as inherently repulsive.

When it comes to The Brisker Rav, I have to confess that I was also certain that another passage would be removed, and it was not. I have in mind vol. 3, p. 428 n. 19 (the last paragraph).[7]



P. 140: Stern cites a comment that appears on every other page in R. Israel Salanter’s journal Tevunah:

All laws concerning monetary transactions have absolutely no practical authority. For we follow the law of the land. And this is the meaning of the great principle of “the law of the land is final.” We study, analyze, and debate monetary topics in the same way in which we study the laws of donations to the temple, tithes, sacrifices and purities, which are not practiced today. They are discussed only in terms of fulfilling our duty to study the Torah. 

Upon this, Stern remarks, “While one cannot discount the pressures of governmental censorship that may have contributed to this position, still it marks an important development in rabbinic history. As Elchanan Reiner correctly notes, ‘Diverting attention from the actual ruling to the text itself, namely to the very practice of interpretation, constitutes a dramatic shift in the history of knowledge.’”

I don’t accept this at all. There is no question that the words quoted from Tevunah were directed towards non-Jewish governmental authorities, if not in Germany (where the journal was published), certainly in Russia, where the journal would find its major readership. How is this an important development, and how does it relate to Reiner’s point (made in an entirely different context) when every Jew who read these words understood that that they were not to be taken seriously, any more than the passages on the second page of many rabbinic books stating that all references to non-Jews only refer to pagans in places like China and India?

Let me make just a few more comments about the Gaon. Some people refer to him as Rabbi Elijah Kramer. When I first saw this name a number of years ago, I didn’t know who was being referred to since I had never heard of any Elijah Kramer. The first reference in print to Elijah Kramer (or Kremer) that I have been able to discover is Maurice Samuel’s 1963 book, Little Did I Know, p. 257. (If anyone is aware of an earlier reference, please let me know) The name was later made popular after appearing in the title of Yaacov Dovid Shulman’s 1994 book, The Vilna Gaon: The Story of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer.[8]

If this post does nothing else, I hope it puts an end to this mistaken practice. The Vilna Gaon was not named Kramer! He was descended from someone named R. Moses Kramer (his great-great grandfather), but the Gaon never used this name and no one ever used it about him, so it is a mistake to call him this.[9] See also note 1 in S.’s post here.

The mistake of referring to the Gaon as Kramer appears in a 2012 book by Rabbis Berel Wein and Warren Goldstein, The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, p. 130. The particular chapter I refer to was written by Wein, and on the same page that he mentions Kramer he refers to the Gaon’s foremost student as “Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz”. As far as I know, this is the first time R. Chaim of Volozhin has been given the last name Rabinowitz, and I have no idea what led Wein to write this. Perhaps there was some confusion between R. Chaim of Volozhin and R. Chaim Rabinowitz of Telz.

This book (which I do recommend) has an approbation by R. Shmuel Kamenetsky in which he writes that “everything in it is true.” I am inclined to think that R. Kamenetsky was only referring to the larger issues discussed in the book rather than attesting to the accuracy of every fact. There is an old saying

כשם שאין בר בלא תבן כך אין ספר ללא טעויות

We can update this saying by adding the word “blog post” after the word “sefer”.

Bezalel Naor has published the following letter he wrote to Elliot Wolfson.

Have you read the new book by Eliyahu Stern, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)? In a lengthy endnote on pp. 196-198 (note 19), Stern polemicizes against your reading of the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of “sefer ve-sefer ve-sippur” (Sefer Yetsirah 1:1). Stern refers to your essay “From Sealed Book to Open Text: Time, Memory, and Narrativity in Kabbalistic Hermeneutics,” Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age, ed. Steven Kepnes (New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 145-178, especially footnote 14.

Not wishing to rely on memory alone, I consulted the beginning of the Bi’ur ha-GRA le-Sifra di-Tseni’uta:

Sifra–A book (sefer) is the revelation of the thought, for the thought is closed within man and is revealed only by his speech or by his writing. And so En Sof was revealed, and created the world for [the purpose of] revelation and to make Himself known, as it says in the Zohar, and so the tikkunim that are explained in the continuation [of Sifra di-Tseni'uta] also [come about] through these two things, as it says in Sefer Yetsirah (The Book of Creation), “and [He] created His world with book, book and narrative (sefer ve-sefer ve-sippur). The matter of the two books and [single] narrative is due to the fact that in speech, at one stroke his thought is revealed, whereas in a book it takes two times: once when he writes and his thought is revealed in the world, but the book is yet closed; and a second time when the book is read and then revealed. But in speech, both are included at one time.” (Elijah of Vilna, Bi’ur ha-GRA le-Sifra di-Tseni’uta, ed. Bezalel Naor [Jerusalem, 1997], 1a)

Elliot, your understanding of the passage is sound. On the other hand, Stern’s translation of the first term ”sefer” (which he is forced to revocalize “sefar”) as “mathematics,” would appear to be without foundation. As for the revocalization from sefer to sefar, Stern has drawn on Yosef Avivi, whom he cites. (See Yosef Avivi, Kabbalat ha-GRA [Jerusalem: Kerem Eliyahu, 1993], pp. 32-35.) Yet even Avivi did not have the audacity to inject into the Gaon’s commentary the concept of “mathematics.” This mathematicization of Elijah’s worldview awaited Leibniz.

I am not qualified to express an opinion on the merit of Stern’s opinion vs. that of Wolfson when it comes to understanding what the Gaon says. However, when it comes to the Sefer Yetzirah text, we should not assume that Yosef Avivi and Stern are the first ones to revocalize ספר as sefar. This passage in Sefer Yetzirah appears in R. Judah Halevi, Kuzari 4:25, and Hartwig Hirschfeld, in his translation, writes “S’far Sefer, and Sippur.” Also, here is a page from the edition of the Kuzari with the commentary of R. David Cohen, the Nazir (Jerusalem, 2002), p. 227, and you can see this vocalization. (On the previous page, he, like Hirschfeld, vocalizes the word sefar in the text of the Kuzari). 




R. Joseph Kafih also vocalizes the word as “sefar” in his edition of the Kuzari.

Naor is mistaken when he states that understanding sefar as referring to “mathematics” is without foundation. While it is true that contrary to the implication of Stern, p. 196 n. 19, Avivi does not say anything about mathematics, there are others who do. Returning again to R. Judah Halevi, Kuzari 4:25, here is Hirschfeld’s translation:

As to sefar, it means the calculation and weight of the created bodies. The calculation which is required for the harmonious and advantageous arrangement of a body is based on a numerical figure. Expansion, measure, weight, relation of movements, and musical harmony, all these are based on the number expressed by the word sefar.

See also the page from R. David Cohen above, where he quotes R. Judah Barceloni who states: וספר – זה חשבון והוא המספר

Here is another text woth noting. It is from R. Joseph Kimhi’s Sefer ha-Galui (Berlin, 1887) p. 3.




Kimhi tells us that he is going to let us into the secret of this text, which hasn’t yet been explained, and he writes: ספר חשבון ומניין. He then explains that this is one of the wisdoms that only humans are privy to. See also the anonymous commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, published by Israel Weinstock (Jerusalem, 1984), which explains ספר ספר וספור as follows:

לעיין תמיד בספרים, ולספור דרכי המספרים, ולחשוב בם תמיד

There are other sources that can be cited, but I think this suffices to show that Stern’s reading has to be taken seriously.

Let me conclude by mentioning something already well known, that the Gaon’s writings are full of original views. Stern deals with some of them, and there are many others. In The Limits of Orthodox Theology, p. 14 n. 55, I already note that the Gaon apparently believed that of the Thirteen Principles, only the first and second were real dogmas (in the Maimonidean sense).

Needless to say, each of the views I will now mention could have a detailed post of its own. There are obviously many other unique views of the Gaon, but for now I think these few will be of interest to readers as they are not that well known.

1. The Gaon did not wear R. Tam tefillin. We are told that he didn’t want to be without tefillin for even a small amount of time. Since the halakhah is in accordance with Rashi, the time spent wearing R. Tam tefillin would be regarded as bitul mitzvat tefillin.[10] R. Elijah Rabinowitz-Teomim writes[11]:

מתחרט אני כל פעם בלבי, על שהנהגתי בתפלין של רבנו תם, בראותי דעת רבינו הגר"א זצ"ל בזה, ככתוב בס' שערי רחמים משמו, אך אי אפשר לי שלא להניח עוד

2. According to the Gaon, non-Jews in the Land of Israel have to observe all the mitzvot. I know this will be hard for people to believe, so here is the text to see with your own eyes. It comes from the first edition of Aderet Eliyahu (Halberstandt, 1859-1860), Deut. 32:9.



This is a very unusual position, and I don’t know of any precedent for it.[12] It is so unusual, in fact, that the next printing, Warsaw 1887, simply cut this section out. Here is how the page looks in the Warsaw edition.






Raphael Shuchat notes that in a manuscript version of the Aderet Eliyahu text there is an important addition, which I have underlined:[13]

ואפילו הגוים הדרים בא"י צריכים לקיים כל המצוות, לפי שכל המצוות תלויים בארץ ישראל

But even with this addition the text is still very difficult, and no one has been able to find a source for the notion that Gentiles have to observe all the mitzvot in the Land of Israel, meaning that the idea is probably original to the Gaon. Shuchat offers two suggestions neither of which really fit with the Gaon’s words. One is that the Gaon means to say that since today there is no longer a law of ger toshav, any non-Jew who wishes to live in the Land of Israel has to convert. According to Shuchat, that is what he means when he says that non-Jews in the Land of Israel have to observe all the mitzvot. His other suggestion is that while there is no halakhic obligation for non-Jews to observe the mitzvot, by not doing so they are not respecting the sanctity of the Land.

שנכרי אינו חייב מצד ההלכה במצוות בארץ, אך מצד קדושת א"י הוא פוגם אם לא יקיים את המצוות בארץ

R. Eliezer Waldenberg also takes note of the passage in Aderet Eliyahu, and seeing no way to explain it assumes that the text is a mistake – מפי שמועה לא נכונה.[14]

Yet R. Waldenberg was unaware that in Aderet Eliyahu, Deut. 1:5, the Gaon says the exact same thing, namely, that in the Land of Israel non-Jews are obligated in all the mitzvot.[15]

ולכן נענשו אפי' נכרים מפני שלא שמרו את התורה בארץ כמ"ש (מ"ב י"ז) לא ידעו את משפט א-להי הארץ, שישראל מצווה על כל התורה בח"ל ובארץ מצווה אפי' נכרי

This text appears in full even in the second edition of Aderet Eliyahu, which is the edition that censored the comment to Deut. 32:9. R. Elijah Dessler used the censored Aderet Eliyahu so he didn’t know the Gaon’s comment to Deut. 32:9, but he noted the comment to Deut. 1:5 and expressed his great surprise.[16]

וזה דבר פלא לאמר דע"פ דין תורה כל נכרי הדר בא"י יהי' מחוייב בכל המצוות כל זמן שבחפצו לדור בה, ותו מה יהי' בדבר שמירת שבת, שהרי הגוי אסור בשמירתה, ומה יהי' באכילת קרבן פסח, וכדומה.

While I don’t know of any talmudic or midrashic sources to support the Gaon’s position that a non-Jew in the Land of Israel has to observe all mitzvot,. there are some earlier texts that place additional obligations on non-Jews than what we normally assume.

Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber), Metzora 13, states that non-Jews are punished with karet if they violate the laws of Niddah.[17]

Ibn Ezra, Ex. 13:7, 20:8, Lev. 17:13-14, 20:25, states that a non-Jew living in the Land of Israel (i.e., a ger toshav) is obligated to observe Shabbat. He is also not to work on Yom Kippur, to refrain from eating hametz on Passover, and to only eat kosher food. This is Ibn Ezra's understanding of the peshat of the Torah, but the Talmud records no such laws.

The most significant of the sources I can cite, and the one closest to the Gaon's position, is found in Avodah Zarah 64b. Here the Talmud quotes אחרים as saying that a ger toshav has to observe all the mitzvot with the exception of ritually slaughtered meat. The Hazon Ish, Yoreh Deah 65:6 wonders about this position, since does it mean that a non-Jew must wear tefillin and eat in a sukkah? He assumes that the talmudic passage means that non-Jews in the Land of Israel are only obligated in the negative commandments, and this is required so that Jews not be negatively influenced by their non-Jewish neighbors. See also R. Asher Weiss, Minhat Asher, Bereishit, p. 19.

Subsequent to the Gaon, the Hatam Sofer claims, based on a comment of Tosafot,[18] that when the Torah forbids something for Jews, it is praiseworthy for non-Jews to also abstain from this. See Hatam Sofer al ha-Torah, ed. Stern, vol. 1, p. 216: 

דמה שהוא מדינא אסור לנו, נכנס עכ"פ בגדר החסידות גבי ב"נ

*******

1. If, after all I have written, people are still not motivated to read Stern’s book, or they simply don’t have the time, you can watch him discuss the topic here.


Quite apart from Stern’s work on the Gaon, Shlomo Pick wrote the following in his just published article, “Al Prof. Shaul Lieberman ve-ha-Makhon ha-Gavoah[19] le-Torah she-Al Yad Universitat Bar-Ilan – Perek me-Hashkafato,” Badad 28 (Kislev, 5744), p. 10 n. 10.








2. On a recent trip to Toronto I had the pleasure meeting the indefatigable Yehuda Azoulay. Anyone who is interested in the history of great Sephardic rabbis should check out his books here.

3. In the previous post I wrote about the title of the newspaper Yated Ne’eman, and how yated is actually a feminine noun. All that I wrote in that section was tongue in cheek, as I think readers realized, but by mistake I didn’t include a footnote that was supposed to go in. In that note I pointed out that despite what the grammarians might say about the word yated, there are plenty of sources, from long before the newspaper came into existence, that use yated as a masculine noun. The following passage, which has both masculine and feminine,[20] appears in Teshuvot ha-Rashba, ed. Dimitrovsky, vol. 2, p. 529:

ובמלאת הימים האלה יהיה היתד הנאמן תקועה בלבם יתד לא תמוט

4. In the last post I referred to R. Mordechai Agasi’s Asurei ha-Melekh, a recent book dealing with the halakhot of being in prison. One of the commenters noted that this is an example of “life imitating art”, and he referred to a parody of Artscroll available here here where you can see the imaginary new English sefer The Laws of Incarceration. (I recommend also clicking on the links at the bottom of phony Artscroll website.)

Yet what we see from Asurei ha-Melekh is that this is anything but a joke. The parody has as one of the questions answered by the fake Artscroll book, “What are the requirements for conducting Bedikas Chometz in one’s cell?” In Asurei ha-Melekh, vol. 1, pp. 161-162, Agasi, discusses this very case. (All references to Asurei Melekh will be to vol. 1 unless otherwise mentioned).

Believe me when I tell you that pretty much all the possible halakhic problems a prisoner can think of are dealt with in the book. He even deals with some very far-fetched cases. For example, on p. 17 he discusses how one is to put on tallit and tefillin if his hands are in chains. His answer is that a non-Jew can put them on the prisoner, and the prisoner can still make the blessing.

I know that many people have made a joke of Asurei ha-Melekh. But this is a very serious book that serves a real purpose. It also comes with a letter of approbation from R. Shalom Lipskar. He heads the Aleph Institute, one of whose purposes is to reach out to Jews in prison. With the great increase in haredi prisoners, it is important for them to be given halakhic guidance, and the way to do this is with a sefer. (The Modern Orthodox will need an English language book.) Just because someone makes a mistake and has to go to prison doesn’t mean that he should make matters worse and give up Torah observance. There are also new halakhic problems that have to be dealt with. For example, Agasi, p. 123, discusses the case of one who is under house arrest but is permitted to go to synagogue. To enforce the house arrest, the man has to wear an electronic monitor. Is one permitted to go to synagogue on the Sabbath with the electronic monitor since as soon as he leaves his house it starts to record his movements and causes various LED lights to go on? Agasi’s answer is that the man must not leave his house on the Sabbath.

The federal government has made matters easier for observant prisoners by turning Otisville Federal Penitentiary into the place where many non-violent haredim (and other Orthodox Jews) are sent if they are convicted of a federal crime. It has a full-time Jewish chaplain and kosher kitchen.[21] The prison commissary list of food[22] helpfully notes those that are kosher (regular hashgachah) and also those that are “super-kosher” under the hashgachah of the CRC (Central Rabbinical Congress, i.e., Satmar).



Returning to Agasi’s book, while it has certain value, as I indicated, it also has great problems. Let me begin, however, by noting something positive. On p. 42 he states in no uncertain terms that one must follow the Law of the Land, and this includes taxes, traffic, and building laws. He states that violation of the Law of the Land is a Torah prohibition.

Yet I must also state that the book is biased against the American justice system, which he thinks is putting away too many haredim. He tells us that Jewish law, unlike secular law, does not sentence people to prison as a punishment (p. 11). Historically this has been true, but that is because the Jewish communities didn’t have real prisons. At most they had small jails to keep people for limited periods of time. (See R. Ephraim ha-Cohen, Sha'ar Ephraim, no. 83, who discusses if the communal jail needs a mezuzah.) If they were dealing with a real criminal who had to be stopped, they turned him over to the non-Jewish authorities or they dealt with him through physical punishments. Jewish courts in Spain would deal very harshly with those they wanted to punish. They even cut off tongues and  noses as forms of punishment. Considering the alternative, one would think that Agasi would be happy that we have progressed to prisons, which seem much more humane than how medieval Jews dealt with troublemakers. Yet from Agasi’s standpoint, long prison sentences are what he regards as cruel and unusual punishment.

מאסר למשך זמן רב הינו עונש עינוי אכזרי מתמשך ביותר

He also states that prison is not a deterrent. But his real problem with prison is that the Jewish prisoner, once he is incarcerated, can’t fulfill his appropriate spiritual tasks (p. 12).

המאסר שולל ממנו את החירות הדרושה לו כדי למלא את תפקידו הרוחני בעולם הזה, וכיון שכך, הינו מעכב את טובתו

Agasi contrasts the moral bankruptcy of prison with the Jewish approach, which doesn’t sentence a thief to jail but forces him to become a slave. And when someone kills accidentally, he is not sent to jail but instead has to live in a City of Refuge.[23] Agasi tells those unfortunate enough to be sentenced to prison that they should reflect on the fact that this is not the Torah way (p. 23):

אם חלילה נגזר עלינו לשהות בו תקופה ממושכת, בגין כל סיבה שרק תהיה, יש לנו להתבונן בהבדל המשמעותי שבין תורת ישראל לבין חוקי כל עם ולשון, בבחינת "ראו מה בין בני לבן חמי."

In order that the prisoner not feel alone in his predicament, Agasi includes a long list of stories so the prisoner can read about how others had also been improperly incarcerated. Among the figures to read about include Joseph, Samson, R. Meir of Rothenburg, R. Yom Tov Lippman Heller, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, R. Yehezkel Abramsky, and many others.

At the beginning of vol. 2, pp. 1-2, he notes that many of those sitting in prison are wondering what they are doing there when lots of non-Jews who did worse are free. Agasi’s response is to blame anti-Semitism. The non-Jews have it in for the haredim and that is why they are putting them in jail.

מאז ומקדם היו אומות העולם שונאים לבני יעקב. . . . נהנים ומתענגים לראות את בני ישראל שבורים ברוחם ורצוצים בגופם

His reply to the anti-Semites is that while they can imprison the Jew’s body, they can’t destroy his soul  (p. 4):

עם ישראל לכל אורך הדורות תמיד ידע דבר אחד: אפשר לכלוא את גופם בתא מאסר, אפשר להצר את רגליהם מלכת, אפשר לאסור באזיקים את ידיהם, אפשר להשליכם אל צינוק חסר אוויר, אך, אי אפשר לכלוא את רוחם ונשמתם של בני מלכים הדבוקה בחי העולמים, אי אפשר להגיע אל נקודתם הפנימית המקושרת תמיד בבורא כל עולמים.

On p. 43 he states that according to Jewish law you can’t punish someone without two witnesses, even if you have clear proofs: הוכחות אפילו ברורות ביותר

Since the U.S. government is not obligated to operate according to Jewish law, I don’t know why this is relevant (unless he assumes that lacking witnesses the government only has the right to charge non-Jews). I have said it before, and let me now say it again. The Torah obligation for two witnesses was never how Jewish society operated. As has been pointed out by many, it is impossible to run a society that would require two male witnesses – not to mention the requirement of warning a perpetrator – in order to punish criminals, as such a system would not be able to convict anyone and thus would not have any power of deterrence. (Why the Torah has rules and procedures for criminals that can’t be implemented in the pre-Messianic world is a topic for a future post.) Jewish courts always did what they thought was necessary in order to secure order, and halakhah gives them this authority. To say otherwise is itself a hillul ha-shem because it means that when it comes to dealing with crime Jewish law is unworkable, while the truth is that Jewish law can deal with every possible situation.

Here is what the Rashba says on this issue  (Teshuvot vol. 3, no. 393), and his words have been quoted again and again. Note expecially his strong language that insisting on Torah requirements will “destroy the world”.

ורואה אני שאם העדים נאמנים אצל הברורים רשאים הן לקנוס קנס ממון או עונש גוף, הכל כפי מה שיראה להם, וזה מקיום העולם, שאם אתם מעמידין הכל על הדינין הקצובים בתורה ושלא לענוש אלא כמו שענשה התורה בחבלות וכיוצא בזה נמצא העולם חרב, שהיינו צריכים עדים והתראה, וכמו שאמרו ז"ל לא חרבה ירושלים אלא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה, וכ"ש בחוצה לארץ שאין דנין בה דיני קנסות ונמצאו קלי דעת פורצין גדרו של עולם ונמצא העולם שמם

See also R. Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, Iggerot R. Hayyim Ozer, vol. 2 nos. 833, 837.

On p. 58, Agasi writes:

הנוגע בנכרי ובכל חפץ של עבודה זרה או הנוגע בישראל מומר יש להחמיר ליטול ידיו

Something tells me that this is not exactly the type of “humra” to be adopted when one goes to prison. Heaven help the Jewish prisoner if the non-Jew or non-observant Jew figures out what’s going on. To put it another way, I wouldn’t want to be in the prison yard when the good ol’ boys hear that Yankel has a problem shaking their hands. 

I also wonder how smart it is for Agasi to tell the haredi prisoner the following:

אוכל נבילות להכעיס הרי הוא אפיקורס, והאפיקורס או ישראל המחלל שבת בפרהסיא אסור להחזיר להם אבידה, כעובד כוכבים.

Agasi does add that there are times when the lost object should be returned, but still, why even create the possibility that someone might want to be mahmir? Again, I wouldn’t want to be there when the non-Jew or non-observant Jew figures out who has taken their lost property.

I also don’t know how practical the following halakhah is, since prisoners don’t get to choose who their cellmate is (p. 58).

לא יתייחד ישראל עם נכרי, מפני שחשודים על שפיכות דמים

Finally, on p. 184 he gives us the following halakhah:

 אסיר שברח מבית הסוהר, מברך ברכת הגומל, שאף אם ייתפס וייאסר פעם נוספת אין זה המשך המאסר הקודם אלא מאסר חדש, ואין לומר דכיון שיש חשש שמא ייתפס עדיין לא מקרי שישתחרר לגמרי.

When I told a friend this halakhah, he assumed that I was pulling his leg, just like the story of the man who had to be unburied since his tachrichin were made of sha’atnez, which was around the same time as the sha’atnez in the baseball gloves.







[1] Among the stories I record in this post is that when one of R. Velvel Soloveitchik’s sons died shortly after birth, and the family was crying, R. Velvel insisted that they stop their tears, since there is no avelut before thirty days. This sort of response can also be found in medieval times. In thirteenth-century England, R. Moses the Pious’s son hanged himself before Shavuot. R. Moses “did not leave his room nor did he shed a tear, but studied in his library as if no evil had befallen him, asserting that his son had caused his own death.” See Elliot Horowitz, Reckless Rites (Princeton, 2006), p. 154.
[2] See Divrei Eliyahu (Israel, n.d.), parashat Va-Yera. The two passages I quote also appear in Kol Eliyahu (Petrokov, 1905)
[3] See Torah Shelemah, Genesis, chs. 14 no. 56, 17 no. 173, 18 no. 17.
[4] For one creative solution, see R. David Halevi (the Taz), Divrei David to Gen. 18:1, that Abraham was never actually commanded to circumcise himself!

אין מצוה זו לאברהם דרך צווי כשאר מצות, אלא נתן לאברהם הברירה אם חפץ הוא שיתקיים העולם ימול, ואם לאו שאינו חפץ לימול לא יתקיים העולם, וא"כ אין הכרח שימול עצמו, לזה ביקש עצה מג' אוהביו מה יבחר לו

R. Judah Kahana (died 1819), Terumat ha-Kari (Jerusalem, 1997), Introduction, claims that Abraham never had any doubt that he would follow God’s command. However, he wanted his companions to attempt to convince him not to circumcise himself, as his fulfillment of the commandment in the face of such arguments would therefore be a higher level of service of God, as the Sages tell us: לפום צערא אגרא. This is a strange position, since when is one supposed to purposely test oneself in such a way? Just as strange is R. Yisrael Yaakov Fisher, Even Yisrael al ha-Torah (Jerusalem, 2007), pp. 19-20. He argues in a similar fashion as R. Kahana and claims that just as Maimonides in Shemonah Perakim, ch. 6, tells us that the highest level is one who desires to commit (certain) sins but overcomes his inclination, so too one should feel a desire not to observe positive commandments and nevertheless overcome this desire. Since Abraham had no evil inclination, and was obviously going to observe God’s command, he wished to create the equivalent of an evil inclination by having his colleagues argue against circumcision.

מעתה מבואר היטב הא דנטל אברהם אבינו עצה על המילה, דהרי אמרו חז"ל בב"ב (יז ע"א) שלשה לא שלט בהן יצה"ר אברהם יצחק ויעקב, וא"כ כשנצטוה על המילה לא היה לו יצה"ר להסיתו שלא יעשה ויהיה כוסף שלא לעשות, ואח"כ יעשה, כי הוא המעולה והמשובח כמש"כ הרמב"ם, ולכן הלך אצל ג' אוהביו כדי שהם יסיתוהו שלא יעשה ואח"כ יעשה כי הוא המשובח והמעולה.

Try to imagine going through life thinking that the positive commandments you do (wearing tzitzit, eating matzah, taking a lulav, etc.) you really don’t want to do but only do so because you are commanded. This is not exactly a recipe for making Judaism appealing, however much it might please Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
[5] One day during the forced evacuation of Amona, R. Avraham Shapiro was unable to deliver his shiur. He told the story of R. Shneur Zalman and his son and concluded, “I too cannot teach at a time when children in Israel are crying from the cruel blows delivered by their brothers.” Yitzhak Dadon, Rosh Devarkha, p. 160. See also Daniel Sperber, On the Relationship of Mitzvot Between Man and His Neighbor and Man and His Maker (Jerusalem, 2014), pp. 57-58.
[6] The story appears in R. Ephraim Zaitchik, Ha-Meorot ha-Gedolim (Jerusalem, 1969), p. 38 (no. 108).
[7] This last paragraph brings up an issue that I have discussed quite a bit on this blog. Recently, the news was awash with the great kiddush ha-shem performed by Rabbi Noah Muroff when he returned a bag containing nearly $100,000 to its rightful owner. I then listened to his talk at the Agudah convention here



I am curious if anyone else had my reaction. While his return of the money was definitely a kiddush ha-shem, I think that his speech has the potential to be a hillul ha-shem, nullifying the kiddush ha-shem. First of all, he lets the world know that there are those who told him that it was forbidden (!) to return this money. He then tells the audience that his justification of returning the money was in order to make a kiddush ha-shem. This approach, which received applause at the convention (but not from those on the dais!), is not what he explained in a prior interview with the Los Angeles Times that his reason was “to do what is right, and thinking about the feelings of others. It’s looking out for one’s fellow man, and not just for one’s self.” (I assume this is how he really feels, not how he expressed himself at the convention.)

Let’s leave aside the point that as best as I can determine, according to secular law one is indeed obligated to return lost property of this sort. I understand that for those who don’t accept the Meiri, the halakhah Muroff is discussing can be quite a challenge in modern times. But I wonder what is going through the heads of the Agudah leadership. Do they really want the entire world to know that their approach in this matter has nothing to do with helping one’s fellow man, but is about doing what will make Jews look good in people’s eyes? Isn’t this the sort of thing that would be best not spoken about in public?
[8] R. Nathan Kamenetsky, Making of a Godol, vol. 2, p. 1261, refers to R. Eliyahu “Kremmer”.
[9] A great nephew of the Gaon was named Elijah Kramer. See R. Avraham Benedikt, “Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Neiman,” Moriah 10 (Heshvan 5742), p. 82.
[10] See R. Asher ha-Kohen, Keter Rosh (Jerusalem, 2012), no. 13. See the discussion of the Gaon’s opinion in R. Hayyim Eleazar Shapira, Divrei Torah, vol. 7, p. 865, and in Ot Hayyim ve-Shalom 34:2.
[11] Nefesh David, p. 123, published with Seder Eliyahu (Jerusalem, 1983).
[12] For Karaites who held this position, see David Sklare, “Are the Gentiles Obligated to Observe the Torah,” in Jay M. Harris, ed., Be’erot Yitzhak (Cambridge, MA, 2005), pp. 311-346.
[13] “Eretz Yisrael be-Mishnat ha-Gra,” Ha-Ma’ayan (Tamuz 5758), p. 16.
[14] Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 16, no. 60. (In Hilkhot Medinah, vol. 3, p. 6, R. Waldenberg quotes this text of the Gaon and doesn’t raise any questions about its authenticity.)

This is the exact sort of approach that R. Waldenberg criticized R. Moshe Feinstein for adopting when confronted with a difficult Tosafot. R. Moshe argued that the text should be emended. R. Waldenberg responded forcefully (Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 14, no. 100):
                                                                                            
והנה עם כל הכבוד, לא אדוני, לא זו הדרך, וחיים אנו עפ"ד גאוני הדורות, והמה טרחו כל אחד ואחד לפי דרכו לבאר ולהעמיד כוונת דברי התוס' בנדה וליישבם, ואף אחד מהם לא עלה על דעתו הדרך הקלה והפשוטה ביותר לומר שיש ט"ס בדברי התוס' ובמקום מותר צריך להיות אסור.

I have earlier commented on how on a number of occasions R. Moshe discarded sources that did not fit in with his understanding. See The Limits of Orthodox Theology, p. 101 n. 73. See also R. Yehoshua Mondshine’s discussion in Beit Aharon ve-Yisrael 21 (Tishrei-Heshvan 5766), pp. 150-151. Mondshine discusses a text of R. Jacob Emden that R. Moshe declared inauthentic, yet we have the text in question in Emden’s own handwriting.

New information on R. Moshe’s outlook can be found in the recently published Mesorat Moshe (Jerusalem, 2013). Not only was R. Moshe’s approach in this area not scientific, but it is quite untraditional, even radical. See ibid., pp. 506, 507, 508, 520, 522, 525, 590, where R. Moshe rejects the authenticity of comments of Rashbam, “Rashi” on Chronicles, Ramban, and Sforno. Regarding the Ramban, he thought that real heresy had maliciously been inserted into the commentary, a view that as far as I know has never before been suggested. In other cases where he rejected the authenticity of comments of Rashbam and Or ha-Hayyim, he only retracted his view when he saw that there was midrashic support for these comments.

After seeing all this, I think it is impossible to take seriously R. Betzalel Deblitsky’s assumption that when R. Moshe referred to a text as inauthentic, it is likely that he didn’t mean this literally but was merely adopting a respectful way of disagreeing with an earlier authority. See Deblitsky, Beit Aharon ve-Yisrael 21 (Kislev-Tevet 5766), p. 170:

והכל יודעים שברוב המקומות אין לשון זו אמורה אלא כלפי דברים הדחוים מחמת עצמם אם מסברא ואם ממשנה. ולשון כבוד הוא, כאומר שאין לתלות האשמה במחבר עצמו ובודאי תלמיד טועה כתבו. הנסיון לאמת קביעה זו של "תלמוד טועה כתבו" בבדיקה בכת"י, משול כמעט למי שילקט לשונות "כי ניים ושכיב אמרה", ויברר ע"פ מקורות נאמנים כי אותו חכם אשר עליו נאמר לשון זה, אמר לההיא שמעתתא בשעת צילותא ולא כמתנמנם.

See also the discussion here.

Finally, R. Hillel Goldberg called my attention to the Gaon's commentary to Yoreh Deah 201:1 where he writes: וכתבו בספרי הטבע. This is further evidence that the Gaon read scientific works. Goldberg also called my attention to the Hazon Ish, Mikvaot 7:4 (first series) who refers to the Gaon's commentary ad loc., and writes: ונראה שאין זה ממשנת הגר"א ז"ל. Yet this is incorrect as the Gaon's commentary was printed from his manuscript without any changes being inserted. Goldberg discusses the Hazon Ish's comment in his Hallel ha-Gadol (Denver, 2008), p. 20. See also Betzalel Landau, Ha-Gaon he-Hasid mi-Vilna (Jerusalem, 1978), p. 220, who cites a hasidic author, R. Abraham Joshua Freund, who stated that this passage was not written by the Gaon, "but some mistaken student wrote it in his name."
[15] For earlier statements regarding Aderet Eliyahu, and the assumption that certain passages were actually authored by his son R. Avraham and others, see Dovid Kamenetsky, “Kitvei ha-Gra bi-Defus u-vi-Khetav Yad,” Yeshurun 24 (2011), pp. 940-951. R. Avraham denied the accusation that his words are included in the commentary. See Yeshurun 4 (1998), pp. 2-3. Regarding the general issue of citations of the Gaon in later works, including their reliability, see Yaakov Shmuel Spiegel, “Kuntres Amar Eliyahu,” Yeshurun 6 (1999), pp. 734-762, ibid., 7 (2000), pp. 707-734. (Here is good place to note that many writers use Spiegel’s research without acknowledgment.)
[16] Sefer ha-Zikaron le-Ba’al Mikhtav me-Eliyahu (Bnei Brak, 2004), vol. 1, p. 45. R. Dessler mentions which edition of Aderet Eliyahu he used.
[17] See R. Yaakov Hayyim Sofer, Kerem Yaakov (Jerusalem, 1989), pp. 92-93.
[18] Ta’anit 11a s.v.אסור
[19] According to some, including the Gaon, this is how the word גבוה is pronounced. See the Gaon’s Dikdukei Eliyahu (Lodz, 1939), p. 22. Others think it should be pronounced “gavowah”. See R. Ben Zion Cohen, Sefat Emet (Jerusalem, 1987), p. 59. It is a mistake to pronounce it “govoha” (as in the official name of the Lakewood yeshiva), or “gavoha” (as in the official English name of Yeshivat Or Etzion in Israel). 
[20] It is corrected to all masculine in one of the manuscripts. See Dimitrovsky’s note, ad loc.
[21] See here.
[22] See here here.
[23] R. Yissocher Frand has a similar approach to that of Agassi. See his essay here where he writes:

Torah justice differs significantly from today's legal systems. Modern justice attempts to go beyond the actual crime, into the mind of the criminal, to determine why he committed the crime. Was he abused as a youngster? Perhaps the discrimination suffered by people of his race caused him to commit the crime? Was he fully coherent when he committed the crime? Maybe he was insane at the time… Hundreds of criminals are freed each year because the jury or judge trying their case felt that they were able to evaluate the motives of the criminal, and based on their evaluation, the criminal should not be punished for his crime.

Truthfully, however, we mortals have no way of determining most people's motives. In the Torah justice system, the dayanim (judges) are required to rule cases based on cool, calculated examination of the evidence, with absolutely no leniency for what they might consider to be extenuating circumstances.

This is a complete distortion of how Jewish courts operated. There was a reason why it was so rare that the courts executed someone. It was precisely because they did not rule cases “based on cool, calculated examination of the evidence.” Based on what I have quoted, it appears that Frand believes that Jewish courts are supposed to execute someone even if he was not fully coherent. Some people assume that the reason the Sages set up so many roadblocks in the way of executing someone was because they wanted to prevent possible execution of an innocent man. Yet Gerald Blidstein suggests that it might be because they didn’t want to execute a guilty man. See his "Capital Punishment – The Classic Jewish Discussion," in Menachem Kellner, ed., Contemporary Jewish Ethics (New York, 1978), p. 316.  

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