Wednesday, February 25, 2015

New Book Announcement: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy by Mitchell First

The Seforim blog is proud to announce the publication of our contributor Mitchell First’s newest book, Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015), available here (http://www.amazon.com/Esther-Unmasked-Solving-Mysteries-Holidays/dp/0692375422).

Table of Contents


Introduction by Rabbi Hayyim Angel   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   9
Preface   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   13

1. עולם לתכן: Establishing the Correct Text in Aleinu   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   17
2. What is the Origin of the Word הליחמ?   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   30
3. והו ינא: What is the Meaning of this Cryptic Mishnaic Statement?  .   42
4. What is the Meaning of “Maccabee”?   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   60
5. What is the Meaning of Ḥashmonai?   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   76
6. What Motivated Antiochus to Issue
His Decrees Against the Jews   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   94
7. The Origin of Taanit Esther   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   118
8. Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   129
9. Mah Nishtannah: The Three Questions   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   168
10. Arami Oved Avi: Uncovering the Interpretation
Hidden in the Mishnah   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   189
11. The Pe/Ayin Order in Ancient Israel and its
Implications for the Book of Tehillim   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   207

Abbreviations   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   231
Index   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   232

Preface

This book consists of eleven articles that address interesting questions that arise in connection with the liturgy and origin of the Jewish holidays. Too often, Orthodox Jews take the liturgy and the origin of the holidays for granted, without adequate investigation.
For example, regarding the liturgy:
       The Jewish obligation of תקון עולם, “improving the world,” is widely referred to and it is traditionally assumed that the Aleinu prayer is one of the texts upon which this obligation is based.  The first article shows that a very strong case can be made that the original version of Aleinu read לתכן עולם, “to establish the world under God’s sovereignty,” and not לתקן עולם, “to perfect/improve the world under God’s sovereignty.” If so, the concept of תקון עולם has no connection to the Aleinu prayer.
       A phrase that is part of the traditional Sukkot hoshanot liturgy is אני והו הושיעה נא, based on the text of a Mishnah at Sukkah 4:5. The meaning of the phrase אני והו has been a puzzle throughout the centuries. The third article shows that almost certainly the original text of the Mishnah read  אני והוא.  With this reading,  the statement can be explained.
       It is usually assumed that the Passover recital of “Four Questions” is one of the fundamental rituals of rabbinic Judaism. The ninth article explains that the original mah nishtannah only included three questions. The variation in the number of questions in the mah nishtannah over the centuries is then described, and the evolution of the number of questions into the present four is then explained.

Regarding the origin of the Jewish holidays:
       The sixth article discusses what motivated Antiochus to undertake his persecution of the Jews. The three main theories will be discussed and evaluated.
       In the seventh article, the origin of the fast of the 13th of Adar (Taanit Esther) will be addressed.  No fast in Adar is mentioned in the book of Esther or the Talmud, and the origin of this fast has always been difficult to understand. The 13th of Adar was even a holiday (Yom Nikanor) in the late Second Temple period, a day on which fasting was prohibited. Based on a careful examination of Geonic sources, the seventh article will explain how this fast first came into existence in Geonic Babylonia.
       The identification of Achashverosh in secular sources had always been a puzzle. The eighth article will explain how, in the middle of the nineteenth century, Achashverosh was finally able to be identified. He is the king that the Greek historians referred to as “Xerxes.” The article will detail the basis for this identification, and will show that Esther can be identified in secular sources as well.
Regarding the balance of the articles:
       The second article suggests explanations for the origin of the mysterious Tannaitic root מחל, a root not found in the Bible. The article further attempts to distinguish this root from its synonym סלח.
       The fourth article explains the correct spelling of the term Maccabee (מקבי) and points to its likely original meaning.
       The fifth article discusses the identity and meaning of חשמונאי.
       The tenth article conducts an analysis of Mishnah Pesaḥim 10:4. It shows that it is likely that this Tannaitic source understood arami oved avi to mean “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean.” Typically, it is assumed that this interpretation of arami oved avi did not arise until the time of the Rishonim.
       The final article explains the reason why the pe verses preceded the ayin verses in the acrostics in chapters 2-4 of the book of Eikhah (and in the acrostic in chapter 1 in the Dead Sea text of Eikhah).  It turns out that pe preceded ayin in the order of the alphabet in ancient Israel! The implications of this explanation for dating the book of Tehillim (interspersed with many acrostics) are then addressed.
• • •

Many of the articles included in this book have been published in earlier forms in Ḥakirah, Biblical Archaeology Review, AJS Review, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament and seforim.blogspot.com.  (For the references to the earlier articles, see the first footnote in each article.)  


Several of the articles: the first (establishing the reading לתכן עולם), seventh (origin of Taanit Esther), eighth (the identification of Esther in secular sources), and eleventh (the implications of the ancient pe/ayin order) have been viewed by many as groundbreaking.

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