Friday, April 11, 2014

Can a Convert Recite Certain Sections of the Haggada?

At my other blog

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

What is the Tetragrammaton Doing on a Tombstone in a Christian Cemetery?

At my other blog.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Mystery of the Silent Jewish Tombstones of Hevron

at my other blog

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Please Help My Manuscript Come to Fruition.

Are you one of the myriad of Eastern European Ashkenazy Jews wondering about possible (or certain) Sephardic roots? Hundreds of curious individuals have contacted me over the years with questions, comments and observations about their own family background. Some have sent me family anecdotes, others: copies of family heirlooms, documents etc.

I have spent a good portion of the last decade in libraries and archives-both in the US and now in Israel- researching this woefully under-explored subject. Readers of my blog know that I've covered the subject of Eastern European Yiddish-speaking Jews with Sephardic roots several times before-- here and elsewhere. However with the budget at my disposal I am lacking the means to pursue this subject any further and have barely scratched the surface with my hard work thus far. The photo you see is of a raw manuscript that requires much more research (hopefully even travels to European archives) editing and ultimately publishing. With the very difficult times that have come upon me, I simply cannot do it without your generous help. Any donation is extremely welcome and a donation of twice chai: 36 US dollars (or its equivalent) will earn you my heartfelt thanks as well as a complimentary copy of this book. Please help this book get to the press by sending your donation to the following paypal account Its time has come!

With the warmest blessings for the coming spring, I remain.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

On Karaites in Medieval Hevron and a Tantalizing Clue about the Famous Tiberian Masoretes

מספר חברון  (ערך עודד אבישר, ירוש' 1970) עמוד 40:

המאות ה8 ה9 וה10 אמנם לוטות בערפל בדרך כלל ואין בידינו עדויות הקובעת כי היישוב היהודי בחברון עזב את שערי מערת המכפלה במקום שהיה לו בי"כ ובית קברות. נראה כי עדה קטנה של קראים התגוררה בחברון. בשנת תשסב 1002 אנו מוצאים כי סופר קראי אחד  ששמו  צדקה ב"ר שמרון ב"ר מוחה ב"ר משה הסופר ב"ר מורנו ורבנו הרב מוחה רי"ת הטברייני מכרמי
(זה קרים)
1002 כתב שם בחברון ספר נביאים ביום א ב' חשון  ד'תשס"ב
(הורוביץ  עמוד 250)

The gist of this quote (from an article by Horowitz) is that a small Karaite community is attested to in Hevron at the beginning of the 11th century and in that period we find that a certain scribe in Hevron by the name of Sedaka ben Shimron ben Muha ben Moses The Tiberian rit (?) from Crimea, authored a Book of Prophets in the year 1002, if I am reading it correctly. Unfortunately I don't have access to mentioned article by Horowitz at the moment). I am also assuming that this colophon was discovered among the Cairo Genizah and contains this colophon.

The name and description is very interesting to say the least. Sedaka and Shimron don't seem like common Karaite or Rabbanite names (and even sound vaguely Samaritan...). However 'Moshe Hasopher' already sounds familiar. According to the scanty information that we have on the Tiberian Masoretes, one of the early members of the Ben Asher family was named Moshe. What's more is that he is clearly identified as a scribe and of Tiberian provenance! (although he is also described as stemming from Crimea). This definitely deserves a closer examination! (כתב שם בחברון may convey the fact that he wrote this book while visiting The Cave and not necessarily that he was a resident of the city). If this is indeed Moshe ben Asher of Masorete fame then we learn that: 1. The Ben Asher family were indeed Karaites (a vociferous debate that continues to this day) and 2. The Ben Asher family ascended to Eretz Israel from Crimea (which would fit perfectly well as Crimea was host to a large Karaite and Rabbanite ['krymchak'] community dating back to antiquity).

On Moshe b. Asher, Aharon Maman:

Moses ben Asher lived and worked in Tiberias in the second half of the ninth century C.E. He was a member of the fifth generation of the Ben Asher family, which had earned a reputation for raising famous masoretes. The first member of the dynasty was Asher the Elder, who lived in the eighth century, as recorded in an ancient masoretic work: “Asher, the greatest elder of blessed memory, followed by his son Nehemiah, may his soul rest in peace, followed by [his son] Moses ben Nehemiah, followed by his son Asher, followed by his son Moses, i.e., Moses ben Asher, followed by Aaron, i.e., son of Moses. Be aware that this Aaron ben Moses ben Asher ben Moses ben Nehemiah ben Asher the greatest elder of blessed memory, was the close of the dynasty.” Moses ben Asher, then, was the father of the last masorete, Aaron ben Asher. He is mostly known from the Cairo codex of the Prophets, whose colophon ascribes to him the copying of the codex and the addition of the Masora in Tiberias in the year 896.

The codex is beautifully written in three columns and decorated with drawings and illuminations. The text, the vocalization, and the Masora are as accurate as in the famous Aleppo codex, but its Masora magna is shorter. However, the study of the codex tradition vis-à-vis Mishael ben Uzziel’s Kitāb al-Khilāf alladhī bayn al-Muʿallimayn Ben Asher wa-Ben Naftalī (Book of Differences between the Two Masters Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali) reveals that it only fits Aaron ben Asher’s Masora in 33 percent of the disputed cases, whereas in 64 percent it fits the tradition of his opponent, Ben Naphtali. For instance, the pointing of liysra’el with a quiescent yod fits the Ben Naphtali reading of words beginning in yod when preceded by the particle lamed with a shewa (as against Aaron ben Asher’s reading le-yisrael). On the other hand, in vocalizing the word Yissakhar, it doubles the first sin and omits the second, according to the Ben Asher reading, against Ben Naphtali’s reading Yish-sakhar. The codex also fits the Ben Asher–Ben Naphtali list of agreements only in 75 percent of the cases and thus does not follow either the Ben Asher tradition or the Ben Naphtali one in its entirety.

The idea that a father and son of the same family would hold different masoretic views seems implausible. Indeed, in the 1980s some scholars doubted the authenticity of the colophon, claiming that it was added to the manuscript in the eleventh century, which indeed was proved by a chemical test (Carbon 14) in 1996. If one assumes that the Ben Asher family held the same Masora tradition for generations, one can accept Aron Dotan’s view that Moses ben Asher only copied the text of the Cairo codex, whereas the vocalization and Masora marks were added by a different scribe. A facsimile edition of this codex (Jerusalem, 1971) and a critical edition (Madrid, 1979–88) have been published.

Another work of Moses ben Asher is the famous piyyuṭ “The Song of the Vine,” marked by the acrostic Moshe ben Ash . . ., of which the last letter has been lost. The vine in this song (as in biblical poetry) symbolizes the people of Israel and its roots—the patriarchs, from whom came forth the prophets and the sages. The song relates to Masora notions, accents, and to the masoretes. The views expressed in the song are regarded by some as Karaite, whereas A. Dotan regards them as Rabbanite.

Aharon Maman


Cohen, M. “Ha-Omnam Katav Moshe ben Asher et Ketav Yad Qahir?” Alei Sefer (1982): 5–12.

Penkower, Jordan S.“A Tenth-Century Pentateuchal MS from Jerusalem (MS C3), Corrected by Mishael ben Uzziel,” Tarbiz 58 (1988): 49–74 [Hebrew]

Perez Castro, F., et al. (eds.). El Codice de Profetas de el Cairo, 8 vols. (Madrid: Instituto Arias Montana, 1979–92).

Yeivin, Israel. The Biblical Masora (= Studies in Languages 3), (Jerusalem, 2003) [Hebrew].


I've mentioned the custom of the Gaonim of EY to institute a Herem (excommunication) against all schismatics on the Mt. of Olives. According to legend, Rav Hai Gaon himself would ascend from Babylonia in order to lead this procedure. I also noted that 'aliyah l'regel' to Jerusalem during the thrice- yearly biblical festivals continued to be practiced well into the Geonic period (see Goitien, Mann and others) and when Jerusalem was off limits (due to intermittent Islamic-Christian wars or inter-Islamic wars or anti-Jewish persecution), Gaza was seen as an alternative destination for the Jews of the surrounding countries of the Near East.

What is interesting is that Hevron and its holy site: The Cave of The Patriarchs seems to have also been used as a platform from which to proclaim similar bans (it may have been used, as Gaza was at one point, as an alternative site--or there may have been simultaneous bans taking place at several different places at the same time).

Avisar in Sepher Hevron:

...לפי מכתבו של ר' שלמה בן יהודה בסעדיינה (ספר היישוב ח"ב8) מסתבר כי בתקופת הגאונים היו נוהגים להתכנס במערה ובשעת הצורך היו אף מנדים אנשים שהיו גורמים מחלוקת בישראל


1. On ancient Jewish settlement on the Crimean Peninsula, Michael Zand writes:

Hellenized Greek-speaking Jews first settled in Crimea in Panticapaeum (today’s Kerch) in the first century BCE. Their presence in Panticapaeum as well in the Bosporan towns of Phanagoria and Gorgippa in the first through fifth centuries CE is well documented archaeologically. Hebrew names on amphorae dating to the third century were found during excavations of the Bosporan town of Tanais, and may be seen as evidence either of Jews residing in that town or of their involvement in trade there. Archaeological findings attest to the presence of Jews in Chersonesus as early as the first century CE and to the existence there of an organized Jewish community in the late fourth through early fifth centuries. Inscriptions testify to the merging with the Jewish community of non-Jewish slaves released by Jews. Another group that may have merged, albeit partially, with Jewish community was the Sebomenoi ton Theon (God-fearers), whose profession of the Most High God (Theos Hypsistos) was strongly influenced by Judaism. In the early 630s, the Jewish population increased with the arrival of Byzantine Jews fleeing forced conversion in areas of Crimea bordering Byzantium.

Prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs for the Wellbeing of Evyatar ben Eliyahu Hacohen Gaon of Eretz Israel (11th c.)

מספר חברון, עמוד 40

סעדיה החברוני כותב המגילה "החבר לקברי אבות" היה כפי הנראה הממונה על אנשי קברי אבות (ככה קראו לחברה שהיו ממונים על הקדש המערה) וכך אנו קוראים במגילה בין השאר: כי אנו מתפללים עליו (על מורנו ורבנו אביתר הכהן, ראש ישיבת גאון יעקב) בכל יום במערת המכפלה בתפילה...ולי היום שני חודשים חולה, לא האמנתי כי אחיה ונתייאשו מפני כל אנשי קברי אבות זל"ה..ויברך אתכם וישמע תפילתי בעדכם במקום הקדוש הזה..כי התפללתי עליו ביום כיפור במערה הקדושה...המתפלל בעדך סעדיה החבר לקברי אבות זכרם לברכה..

מר י. ברסלבי במחקרו "למינויו של ר' אביתר גאון בחיי אביו ומערת המכפלה" (ארץ ישראל ספר ה מזר 1958 עמוד 221) וכן ממאמרו "קטעי גניזה על חברון" אשר העלה מתוך אוספי הגניזה באנגליה (ידיעות י תש"ג עמוד 65-73 לחקר ארצנו עמוד 95) בהסתמכו על אותה מגילה מבסס את ההנחה המתקבלת על הדעת, כי במאות ה11 וה12 היה ישוב יהודי קבע ליד מערת המכפלה. לפי ברסלבי מסתבר כי ר' סעדיה החברוני שהוא דור שלישי בחברון פעל וחי בעיר האבות כבר בשנת 1081, בימי התמנתו של ר' אביתר גאון ע"י אביו ר' אליהו גאון

to be contd.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rabbi Ebiathar Hacohen Gaon; The Last of the Mohicans of The Eretz Yisrael Gaonate PART I

Elinoar Bareket writes in the Brill Encyclopedia:
Abiathar ben Elijah ha-Kohen, who was born around 1041, probably in Jerusalem, was the last important gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva. He was the eldest of the four sons of Elijah ha-Kohen Gaon, and in keeping with standard practice, his father put him on an advancement track in the yeshiva. By 1067 he was already signing documents as “fourth in line,” thus making him a member of the ḥavurat ha-qodesh (sacred collegium; i.e., the yeshiva); by 1071 he was co-signing responsa with his father and, apparently as his right hand, went on missions to Egypt on his behalf.

In addition to Geniza documents, the most important source of information about Abiathar’s life is Megillat Evyatar (Heb. The Scroll of Abiathar), a work he wrote in 1094. Abiathar’s account of the bitter struggle for authority over Fatimid Jewry begins in the 1050s, when Solomon Gaon, Abiathar’s grandfather, died and was succeeded as head of the Palestinian yeshiva by a newcomer from Baghdad, Daniel ben Azariah, a nasi of the exilarchic house. Daniel died in 1062 and was succeeded by Abiathar’s father, Elijah, who moved the yeshiva to Tyre after the Seljuq conquest of Jerusalem in 1073. Conflict broke out in the 1080s when Daniel ben Azariah’s young son David ha-Nasi attempted to revive the exilarchate, claiming supreme authority over Egyptian and Palestinian Jewry, and denying the superior status of the yeshiva in exile in Tyre under Elijah Gaon and his son Abiathar.

Abiathar ultimately won the bitter struggle. He wrote and disseminated the Megilla to tell his version of events to Jewries everywhere. His account lambasted David ben Daniel and his associates, repudiated their attacks on him and his family, and condemned David’s regime as dictatorial. The correspondence from the Cairo Geniza that documents the other side of the dispute tells a different tale: massive grass-roots support for David, his moderate and sagacious political conduct, and the legitimacy of his Davidic descent.

The conflict between the two extended over fifteen years. It was not an ordinary struggle for leadership of the yeshiva, but rather a conflict between the yeshiva and a new force seeking to create a exilarchate center based in Egypt. The struggle came about as a result of the already diminished status and power of the Palestinian yeshiva, which had been forced into exile, and had lost much of its prestige. The struggle also involved the nagid in Egypt, Mevorakh ben Saʿadya, who was deposed by David ben Daniel and, when reinstated in 1094, renewed his allegiance to Abiathar Gaon. According to the Megilla, divine intervention on behalf of Abiathar induced the vizier al-Afḍal to dismiss David ben Daniel, restore Mevorakh, and thus bring an end to the conflict.

With the coming of the Crusaders, Abiathar and the yeshiva fled from Tyre in or around 1097 and apparently went to Tripoli in Lebanon , since they were there in 1102. Abiathar is mentioned in several Geniza documents from the early twelfth century. He died sometime before the end of 1112 and was succeeded by his brother Solomon. The yeshiva moved to Damascus, but it had already lost its prominence in the Jewish world.

On the aforementioned Scroll of Ebiathar, Bareket writes:

Megillat Evyatar (Scroll of Abiathar) was written by Abiathar Gaon ben Elijah ha-Kohen in 1094. It mirrors the turmoil and internal conflict in the Jewish communities of the eastern portion of the Mediterranean basin at the end of the eleventh century. In particular, it contains direct reverberations of the disasters that befell the Jewish community in Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem, in the wake of a series of political and military vicissitudes that included the Seljuk invasion and the events leading up to the First Crusade.

Abiathar was apparently born in the fourth decade of the eleventh century and was the right hand of his father, Elijah Gaon. The Jerusalem yeshiva remained in Jerusalem until just before the Seljuk conquest in the summer of 1073, but then moved to Tyre, a seemingly logical destination given the close economic ties between the city’s governor and its Jewish merchants. Megillat Evyatar’s retrospective account of the gaonate of Daniel ben Azariah and subsequent events tells us about the conflict that began on the death of the gaon Solomon ben Judah in 1051 and ended with a compromise in 1052. The scroll is practically the only source that discusses Ben Azariah’s successor, Elijah Ha-Kohen, Abiathar’s father, during the period between his ascendancy to the gaonate and his death.

Megillat Evyatar also provides important details about David ben Daniel, Abiathar’s rival. It recounts David’s arrival in Egypt, his sojourn in Damira and afterwards in Fustat, his relations with the nagid Mevorakh ben Saʿadya and other people, his marriage into a prestigious, wealthy Karaite family, his status and activities in Fustat, and his connections with Ashkelon and other communities. David ben Daniel is described as fanatical and authoritarian, a picture confirmed by several letters from the Cairo Geniza.

The scroll also gives a full account of the process of appointing an exilarch and of the problems of the yeshiva in Tyre resulting partly from the uncertain political situation in the city, but also from the disruption of its connections with the Jewish community of Egypt and the other communities that remained under or returned to Fatimid rule. The difficulties for Abiathar and the other members of the yeshiva peaked during the ten months from June 1093 to April 1094, when Mevorakh ben Saʿadya resumed the post of nagid and his close association with the Fatimid regime, bringing about the removal of David ben Daniel.

The ideological portion of Megillat Evyatar is aimed at proving the legitimacy of the Jerusalem yeshiva and of the ha-Kohen family, its heads, as the leaders of the Jewish Diaspora. The relatively numerous statements in the scroll about the blessing of the new month and the leap year seem to have been made chiefly to provoke the Karaites (see Karaism), with whom David ben Daniel had developed a special relationship. In the final analysis, this work is a bitter polemic against David ben Daniel’s attempt to seize the leadership in the name of the house of the exilarchs on the grounds of its descent from King David. Over a period of more than ten years, David ben Daniel gained the support of many Rabbanite as well as Karaite communities, most likely because he spoke to the messianic hopes and yearnings of the masses.

Megillat Evyatar was distributed to Jewish communities far and wide to commemorate the victory of Abiathar and the house of Ha-Kohen over David ben Daniel and the Davidic dynasty. It may be assumed that the scroll was copied many times. The copy preserved in the Cairo Geniza was evidently made by Judah ha-Levi; it had been in the hands of a relative of Maimonides relatives and influenced his views on the Babylonian/Palestinian issue.

And who exactly was this 'pesky' Daniel b. Azaryah? Again Bareket:

 David, the only son of the gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva Daniel ben Azariah was born around 1058. Only four when his father died, he was evidently raised by family members in Damascus. When the Seljuks conquered Syria and Palestine in the 1170s, he went to Egypt, where he was adopted by relatives in Damira in the Nile Delta, who treated him well and pledged him in marriage to a female relative.
David had other plans, however, as well as supporters who saw in him a hope for redemption because of his Davidic descent. Leaving Damira and his fiancée, he moved to Fustat, where he was received with open arms by Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya, the nagid and court physician. There David married a woman from a wealthy Karaite family, a match served him well financially and politically.
From then on he began to overtly oppose the Palestinian yeshiva, promoting himself and the idea of his legitimate right to rule as a member of the House of David. Around 1082, he established his own high court (Heb. bet din ha-gadol; Aram. be dina rabba) and began appointing communal magistrates and officials, a traditional prerogative of geonim. This was apparently the underlying reason for the clash between him and his chief supporters in Fustat, among them Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya, who opposed the idea of a revolt against the Palestinian yeshiva, but David already had many other supporters, among them the Karaites, whose leader was also a scion of the Davidic house.
David now turned against his former supporters. We do not know the details, but according to Megillat Evyatar (Heb. Scroll of Abiathar), he acted maliciously and informed on fellow Jews to the authorities, who ousted Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya from his offices. Geniza documents from this period refer to David as nasi and rayyis (Ar. head). David declared himself exilarch in Egypt in 1091, an unprecedented act, and ruled aggressively over all the Jewish communities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, while mercilessly pursuing his rivals, the geonim of the Kohen line, residing at the time in Tyre, whence the yeshiva had been transferred in 1071.
In 1094, events took a new turn. The vizier Badr al-Jamālī, who had supported David ben Daniel, fell ill and was succeeded by his son al-Afḍal, a close associate of Mevorakh ben Sa‘adya, who was now reinstated as nagid and court physician. David ben Daniel disappeared from the historical records and his fate remains unknown. Jacob Mann has theorized that two Hebrew poems attributed to a David ha-Nasi who expresses sorrow for causing dissension and exhorts his soul to turn from pride and self-aggrandisement were composed by David ben Daniel after he was deposed. 

Let us backtrack for a moment and take a look at how the Yeshibha fared under the leadership of Ebiathar's father, R' Eliyahu Hacohen. Yoram Erder writes:
In about 1076, the Palestinian yeshiva, now led by Elijah ha-Kohen ben Solomon Gaon (1062–1083), was forced to leave Jerusalem and settle in Tyre, which was no longer under Fatimid authority. The move was a result of the Turcoman invasion, which had begun in 1071 and had caused the situation in Palestine to seriously deteriorate for the entire population. The hardships and lamentations of Christian inhabitants and pilgrims following this occupation were one of the factors that led to the launching of the First Crusade. Jerusalem’s Karaite leaders, the nesi’im, moved to Egypt. Elijah’s son Abiathar, the last gaon of the Palestinian yeshiva, never returned to Jerusalem and died as a refugee in Damascus around 1112, while fleeing the Crusaders.
As is apparent from the preceding survey, the Palestinian yeshiva was beset with problems on many fronts—the vicissitudes of relations with the changing Muslim governments and the ongoing attempts by the Babylonia yeshivot to undermine its status. The haughty attitude of the Babylonian yeshivot toward the Palestinian yeshiva was probably the main factor that led to the situation whereby, until the discovery of the Geniza, the existence of an active Jewish center in Palestine during the geonic period was totally unknown. The yeshivot in Babylonia contested both the authority of the Palestinian yeshiva in the Diaspora and the Palestinian tradition of halakhic interpretation. The Palestinian yeshiva also had to contend with the challenge posed by the Karaite community in Palestine, mainly in Jerusalem. Although the Karaite movement began in the Diaspora communities of Babylonia and Persia, the most important Karaite center was established in Jerusalem in the last quarter of the ninth century by the Mourners of Zion. They vigorously challenged the Rabbanite leadership, which they considered the main obstacle to the coming of the messiah. Karaite communities in the Diaspora were less militant.
In addition to these external problems, there was no lack of power struggles over the leadership of the yeshiva among the families whose members routinely filled this position. Two representatives of the exilarchic line, Ṣemaḥ and Jehoshaphat, served as geonim. This branch of the Ananite dynasty was deposed from the yeshiva as the Karaite movement increased in strength. Daniel ben Azariah, who held the office of gaon from 1051 to 1062, was also of exilarchic lineage. He fought against the Kohen family, who hailed from North Africa ( Elijah and Abiathar, mentioned above, were members of this family). From 1038 to 1042, Solomon ben Judah was forced to defend his position against a challenge by Nathan ben Abraham, who attempted to have Solomon removed so that he could declare himself gaon. (On this power struggle see Palestine.)
A twofold disaster brought an end to the geonic period in Palestine. The First Crusade dealt a demographic death blow to the country’s Jewish population. A considerable number of communities simply disappeared. Second, the status of the yeshiva had already suffered a severe setback when it moved to Tyre, since it was cut off from the Jews of the Fatimid caliphate. It remained in exile until the First Crusade and was never able to return to Palestine. As a result, for many generations Palestine ceased to be the center of Jewish authority for the Diaspora. The attempt to preserve the authority of the Palestinian yeshiva in exile failed, and the Diaspora communities that were called Palestinian or Jerusalemite began to wane and finally disappeared altogether.

In the EY Kaddish prayer, they would add this caveat, while the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Ebiathar was alive:

׳בחיי אדוננו אביתר
הכהן ראש ישיבת גאון יעקב ובחיי רבנו שלמה הכהן אב הישיבה ובחיי
רבנו צדוק השלישי בחבורה, בחייכון וביומיכון ובחיי כל ישראל במהרה
ובזמן קריב׳... . ׳בחיי נשיאנו ראש הגולה ובחיי ראש הישיבה
ובחיי כל כלל(!) ישראלי

His relationship to the Jewish community of Hevron (second holiest city for Jews after Jerusalem):
 I've come across some Genizah gragments, cited in Sepher Hevron, that indicates that Medieval EY Jews gathered en masse at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron to pray for the health and wellbeing of this remarkable figure, Ebiathar Gaon, the last EY Gaon of influence.

see also Joseph Elias's article here

His relationship with the Jews of early Ashkenaz from wiki (still looking for a better source on this):
בשנת 1071 עבר עם אביו לפוסטאט (קהיר הקדומה) כנראה בשל פלישת הסלג'וקים. נמצאה בגניזה הקהירית קבוצת שאלות ותשובות משנת 1071 שהובאה בשם "שאלות ששאל רבי משולם בן משה ממגנצא את פי אריות שבירושלם עיר הקודש"

Rabbi Eliyahu Cohen's last resting place is supposedly here
And here is that of his son-the subject of my blog post.

In 1985, during construction work, carried out in the Galilean village of Gush Halav (now known as J'ish), his crypt was (possibly) found. Some hypothesized that it may  be a remnant of his tombstone [others a signpost of the actual entrance to The Academy, similar to this find. For an explanation see here]).

(which would make his final resting place The Galil and not Syria-as sites like MyTzadik would have us believe). See here

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How To Scare People Into Going to Shul in Seventeenth Century Venice

The following is a letter written by Rabbi Leon Da Modena, the Chief Rabbi of Venice, to the the Jewish community of Capodistria. Apparently the community was having trouble with membership attendance (more specifically: completing the ‘ten men quorum’ for Synagogue prayers) and thus turned to the esteemed Da Modena for help. In this letter, written in flowery Hebrew, Da Modena is decidedly stern; he decrees that all male members of the community must attend synagogue services, twice daily (presumably mincha and maariv(arvit) were conducted one right after the other, as was-- and still is quite common), under penalty of ‘nachash’, an acronym which stands for נידוי חרם שמתא loosely meaning complete excommunication. Modena added ‘AND all the curses mentioned in the torah’ for good measure. I was struck by some phrases and their similarity to a similar missive penned by Abraham Firkovich in the 19th century for the Samaritan community in Nablus/Sichem, that experienced similar problems. I was particularly intrigued by Da Modena's directive to appoint overseers to make sure that an attendee does not leave the Synagogue, if there are less than ten in the room. His ordinance that nobody engage in commerce before morning prayers, that nobody miss Synagogue unless one has a valid excuse (illness etc.). Compare Firkovich's 'contract' with the Samaritans after the jump.
First Da Modena:
לקא”וו די איסטריא שילכו לב”ה
לא נפלא היא ולא רחוקה מלבות כל בני ישראל היות העולם מתקיים על העבודה שבלב זו תפלה ומה גם בהיותה בקהל ועדה אין פחות מעשרה כי תפילת ציבור אינה חוזרת ריקם וכל מי שיש לו ב”ה בעירו ואינו נכנס להתפלל  נקרא שכן רע (ברכות ח עא) וקדוש לא יאמר לו, אשר לזאת הוגד לנו כי בעיר קאו”ו די איסטריאה יש ויש שתי בתי כנסיות בנויות כזוייות מחוטבטת להתפלל אל ה’ אחד בבית הישיש הנעלה כהר’ נפתלי יצ”ו ואחת בבית המעולה כמר’ מנחם מרקריאה יצ”ו ופעמים רבות כל איש מאנשי המקום לדרכו פנו לעסקיהם או כי עצלה תפיל תרדמה או למה שיהיה ואינם נמנים יחד להתפלל בעשרה ובטל התמיד ותהי זאת לפוקה ולמכשול ולמזכיר עון. ועל כן בזכרנו את ציון החרבה והשוממה וכי אין לנו כהיום הזה לא זבח ולא מנחה אלא מקדש מעט אלו בתי כנסיות (מגלה כט עא) וכמה גדול עונש המבטל תפלת הרבים ראה ראיתי לחזק את בדק הבית בית תפלה יקרא והנה אנחנו הבאים על החתום לכבוד ה’ להועיל לנפשותיהם של האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות והנלוים אליהם גוזרים בגזירת נח”ש וכל אלות וקללות הכתובות בספר התורה ע”ד המקום ב”ה והרבים על כ”מ הירץ וכ”מ מנחם הנ”ל הם ובניהם ובני בניהם שכיניהם ותושביהם והגרים עמם והנלוים בבתיהם להיות זריזים וזהירים לילך כלם בקר וערב פעמים בכל יום ויום לבית הכנסת בשעה הראויה בבית אחד מאיזה שיהיה ולעמוד שם ולהתפלל תפלתם בהזמנים הנ”ל ובעלי בתים הנזכרים יחוייבו להשגיח לזרזם ולצוותם ואחד מהם לא ימנע מלבוא בשום אופן אם לא לאונס חולי ח”ו אם ד”א ניכר ומפורסם, ובחומר החומרא הנ”ל אנחנו גוזרים על כל אנשי העיר הנ”ל שלא יוכל שום אחד להתחיל ולהטפל בשום עסק מתן הבוקר אור טרם לכתו להתפלל שחרית וכן סמוך למנחה ישתדל כל אחד לפנות מעסקיו ללכת לב”ה ולא יקדימו ויכניעו הנפסד לקויים והיקר לזולל רק כאשר יהיה ידוע ודאי לאיש אחר כי כבר יש בבית הכנסת מנין עשרה בלתו או שיתחילו להתפלל כבר אז יהיה הרשות בידו להתעכב קצת אם יהיה מטופל באיזה דבר עסק אך יחשוב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה וכן יבואר כי כאשר ימצא מנין עשרה בבית אחד מהבע”ת הנז’ יוכל להתפלל בב”ה שלו גם אם יהיה החדש מגיע לחברו ולא יחוייב לצאת עם בעל ב”ב אל בית כנסת האחר--וסוף דבר כל מעשיהם יהיו לשם שמים להודות לו ולברך בשמו. וכל זה גזרנו עליהם במעמד שניהם לפנינו דהיינו הנעלה כמו”ה זלמן….והישיש אביו כ”מ הירץ והמעולה כ”מ מנחם הנ”ל בעצמו ונדרו לשמור ולעשות כל המצוה הזאת לשמוע אל הרנה ואל התפלה כי כן יברכו מפי עליון ומפינו ברכות שמים וארץ
ויניציאה מה טובו אהליך יעקב (פרשת בלר) למב”י השנ”ט
כתבי הרב יהודה אריה ממודינא (Blau, Budapest 1905) pp. 5,6
By the Mt. Sinai covenant and the decrees of Mount Horeb, we, the Israelites, the inhabitants of the town of Nablus in the gathering of the leaders of the community are making a covenant and appending our signets to this document of regulation in order to fulfill  those conditions which are clarified in the Arabic language. It is the eve of the blessed Tuesday, the 28th day of the 12th month of the year 1280 n (4-5 june 1864 a.d.) in the presence of his excellency, the Chief Rabbi (!) of our respected brethren, rabbi אלחכם Abraham Firkovich, in the town of Nablus while meeting his excellency and in the footsteps of negotiation and listening to his magnificent spiritual counsel all we who append our names and signets below have agreed to come the House of God (Synagogue) itended for prayers in order to perform the ritual prayer twice a day in the evening and in the morning in accordance with our duty and the practice of our fathers of long standing. And we will not be restrained from doing so without a clear excuse .And for this agreement of ours we have composed this as notification of what we have agreed upon in the presence  of his excellency referred to on the date mentioned above.  We ask God to give us success (in achieving) what he chooses and wishes and may God’s peace rest upon Moses b Amram.
It is well and if one or 2 persons of the community come (to the Synagogue) then it will not be necessary for the priest to pray unless an assembly of ten persons at least (is present). With less than ten he (the priest), ought not to perform public prayers, and upon this agreement was reached. 
See more here
1. I deliberately refer to the house of worship in question with the ashkenazic term ‘shul’ because the community, Modena addressed in this letter, was apparently composed of Ashkenazim (judging by the surnames mentioned in the letter). It is called ‘kehila kedosha Capo di Istria’.Also known as ‘koper’, it is now a city in southwestern Sloveniawith the other Slovenian coastal towns AnkaranIzolaPiranand Portorožsituated along the country's 47-kilometre (29-mile) coastline, in the Istrian Regionapproximately five kilometres (3.1 miles) from its border with Italy. It was part of the Republic of Venice at that time

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rabbi Leone Da Modena and His Unlikely Grandson

I posted about this very colorful and enigmatic (perhaps even troubled) personality many times before.

While Da Modena's life and work has been extensively covered by such illustrious scholars as Talya Fischman and Howard Adelman (and also recently by Yakobh Dweck), the same is not true for his son-in-law and grandson.

Da Modena was a vociferous opponent of Kaballah and famously wrote  his anti-Kabbalistic treatise Ari Noham creating a firestorm in his day.

He ostensibly opposed all superstition and mysticism yet he engaged in quite a bit of the former himself (such as writing amulets for his personal use).

Da Modena was a tortured soul and it is likely that he was a manic depressive.

What i find most interesting though is his relationship with his son-in-law Jacob b. Kalonymous Halevi and his grandson Isaac Min Haleviim.

Da Modena did not experience much joy from his family, as he famously laments in his memoir. Several of them died (one was murdered by rival mobsters) childless in his lifetime. One son: Isaac was a drifter and a gambler. Perhaps discouraged by the constant stream of bad fortune striking the Da Modena family left Venice for the New World, leaving a wife and child behind, and only returned to get his piece of the inheritance (which he took by force and intimidation).

There was one however one ray of joy in Modena's life and ironically it came from the man who would marry his beloved daughter Diana. His name was Jacob ben Kalonymous (Kalonymous is also referred to as Calman di Padovani in some sources). He was a trained Kabbalist, well versed in Kabbalah. He received his education at the academy of Rabbi Ezra of Fano (the teacher of the Rema, Menachem Azaryah of Fano who Da Modena highly respected). Interestingly enough, Jacob pursued other extra-curricula activities such as dancing. In a later description of the man his profession is given as 'dancer', that is a dance teacher (Da Modena himself was intimately familiar with the arts and wrote many plays of a secular nature)

How he came to know and take his daughter's hand in marriage is unknown. It is likely that the young miss was rebellious and, as is so often the case, sought out someone very much NOT like her father.

Da Modena was of course not too thrilled with the marriage at first but soon came to appreciate the good nature and spirit of young Jacob engendering a warm and abiding friendship between the two. A touching testimony of the relationship between the two is found in Modena's writings:

 וכך היה לי ממש עם חתני, חתן דמים למעלות, כמהר"ר יעקב מן הלווים זצ"ל, נבון דעת וכולל בלימודים, אוי ואבוי על שברי כי לקחו אלוהים מאתי במיטב שנותיו, אשר גם אתה ידעת את האיש ואת שיחו בקבלה הזאת, כי מנעוריו גדל בה, ולמד אותה מפי הוותיק כמה"ו עזרא מפאנו ז"ל, שהיה רבו של הגאון הרמ"ע, כדברו בהקדמתו לפלח הרימון, ואצלך חבור חתני הנזכר הנקרא נחלת יעקב - קיצור לחלק הפרדס, וכללי החכמה ההיא בלשון זהב והאדרת, אין ערוך אליו, המהולל בתושבחות מאתך על יופיו וטובו: כי גם אני והוא תמיד כל היום היינו מתווכחים על זה, ברזל בברזל יחד, והתשובות אשר ראית כתובים בהקדמתו לחבור הנזכר, מתשדל וטורח להשיב, למטיל ספק בקבלה ובמחבר ספר הזוהר ויסודה ומכונה, היו נכונים לי ולדברי, אשר פעם הקשיתי לשאול ולדבר נגדו, ואף הוא היה מתכווין לפייסני בהם, ולהכניסני במסורת ברית הכרוכים אחריה, ולא שמיע לי, כלומר לא סבירא לי, ובכל זאת לדרכי הייתי מהלך ולא נתתי חכי לחטוא נגדם, ורק היה זה דברי כדברי אותו פילוסוף, חכמתכם האלוהות איני כופר בה, אבל אין דעתי נוחה הימנה עד היום הזה: כי בהתחש לי הלכה זו עמך, נלווה אפי עליהם, ונספחו לי זעם וקצף, מה שהיה כבר הוא, כל ימי כאש עצור בעצמותי, בראותי מתוך ספריהם וכשמעי מפיהם כי נמנו וגמרו ויחלטו הממני, כי זולתם מחכמינו לא ידעו ולא יבינו בחשיכה יתהלכו, וכל ישראל אין להם חלק לעולם הבא, רק אשר זרח עליהם אור, זה דרכם שכל למו.

In this eulogy for his son-in-law (in the preface to his Ari Nohem), Da Modena displays both his charitable side (disagreeing with his son-in-law without being disagreeable) and ingeniously adapts biblical verses in order to convey entirely new meanings while retaining an echo of the original (a classic Modena trademark). In describing Jacob Halevi. Modena changed the words in Exodus 4:36 "hatan damim la-mulot" (a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision) to "hatan tamim lema'alot" (a son-in-law of perfect virtues).

Tragically, Jacob died young and it seemed that bad fortune would forever be the lot of Da Modena's progeny. However he left a precocious child, a lad by the name of Isaac. Isaac was the apple of his grandfather's eye (albeit not seeing eye-to-eye as it were). Isaac followed in his father's footsteps and immersed himself in Kabbalah. He gained some prominence in Venice and in the world of his Kabbalistic peers. His writings include an autobiography of sorts (writing it perhaps as an affectionate nod to his grandfather)  and glosses on the writings of one of the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordeovero.

Isaac himself married Esther, the daughter of Judah Monte Scudolo who bore him three children: Sarah, Judah Aryeh (named after his beloved grandfather) and Jacob (named after his father).


1. For Venetian inquisitional material on "Isacco Levi," (our Isaac) from 1658, see: Pier Cesare Ioly Zorattini, ed. Processi del S. Uffizio di Venezia contro ebrei  e Guidaizzanti (1642-1681), 11 (Firenza: Olschki, 1993), pp. 7-14 and 107-1 23 0A 

Many thanks to Prof. Howard Adelman for referring me to this information.

Dr Adelman adds:

He was one of Leon Modena's many grandchildren - see the family tree in Cohen's edition of Hayyei Yehudah.  To this can be added a Leon, the son of Moses Saltero Fano, and he had a son, Leon, making him one of Leon Modena's great-grand sons. This Leon is listed in Asher Selah's compendium of 18th c
entury Italian rabbis and doctors, no. 364.  Isaac min Haleviim, whose father Jacob ben Kalonymos Halevi was a kabbalist and Leon Moden's interlocutoron matters kabbalistic, does not leave much of a kabbalistic footprint. He
dealt with occult books and became an anti-Shabbatean when the movement came to Venice (see Gershom Scholem). Isaac min Haleviim was also a poet, publisher, preacher, among other things, as well has his grandfather's scribe.

2. Daniel Carpi's edited edition of Medabber Tahpuchoth by Itzhak Min-Haleviyyim, published by the Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, Tel-Aviv University 1985. The late Prof. Carpi also edited  Chayye' Yehuda, the autobiography of Yehuda Aryeh Modina (1985). Both in Hebrew

3. See also Jacob Dweck's  The Scandal of Kabbalah, and the book review here 

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Was Gamaliel VI (ca. 370 – ca. 425) the last nasi of the 'ancient' Sanhedrin?

Note I've just recently come across a fascinating piece by Dr. Alan Applebaum entitled  Hillel II ; Recovering an obscure figure of Late Antiquity, The Jewish Studies Quarterly (Vol. 20, 2013). That article sheds further light on this murky period of Jewish history and I will update this post once I transcribe the relevant parts.

Wikipedia would have you believe that:

"Gamaliel VI (ca. 370 – ca. 425) was the last nasi of the ancient Sanhedrin"

This is a blatant error.

Due to intermittent persecutions and upheaval in the Holy Land, the Sanhedrin and the central Yeshibha/Academy of The Land of Israel (heretofore referred to as EY), would often move around (sometimes it would be forced to uproot to locales as far away as  the coast of Lebanon and Old Cairo). What we do know for certain is that both institutions (The Sanhedrin and the Yeshibha) stayed alive way after the death of Gamaliel VI. The subsequent Nesiim (Patriarchs) may not have been descendants from the House of Hillel (although Aharon ben Meir, who flourished in the 10th c. and functioned as both Rosh Yeshibha and Nassi, did claim descent. See note where I express skepticism regarding that claim) but the post of Nassi was not abolished as can be clearly evidenced from the Genizah findings and the extant responsa of the Gaonim.

We unfortunately do no possess an equivalent of Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon for the Gaonim of the Eretz Yisrael Yeshibha. The closest we have to that is Megilat Ebiathar, penned by the 12th c. Gaon Rabbi Ebiathar b Eliyahu Hacohen, Rosh Yeshibha and Nassi of Eretz Yisrael (and a descendant of the aforementioned Aharon b. Meir).

The community in EY was drastically reduced in size by the end of the Millenium and as a result both the Yeshibha and Sanhedrin often lost its prestige. It may be said that they suffered from an inferiority complex and when given the opportunity, they would assert the primacy of the EY authorities as can be seen with the Ben Meir affair and most tellingly the biting words of his descendant, the Nassi and RY, the aforementioned Rabbi Ebiathar Ben Eliyahu Gaon:

ארץ ישראל אינה קרואה גולה שיהא ראש גולה נסמך בה, ועוד שאין עוקרין נשיא שבארץ ישראל, שעל פיו מעברין את השנה וקובעין את המועדות הסדורים לפני הקב"ה קודם יצירת העולם, דהכי גמרי בסוד העיבור

The basic gist of it is that Eretz Yisrael is not termed exile (and by implication is not under the jurisdiction of the Exilarch in Babylonia or the Academies there).

There were sporadic comings and goings to and from the Babylonian Diaspora however during virtually all periods of Jewish history.

Take for instance this:

In the year 520, the Davidic Mar Zutra III , son of the Babylonian Exilarch, established himself at the helm of the Eretz Israel Sanhedrin and Yeshibha. Seven generations of his descendants succeeded him at this post.

I have yet to study the exhaustive writings of S.D. Goiten and Moshe Gil but they are the preeminent experts on EY during the Geonic Period. Much of the history of that period seems to be shrouded in obscurity but there are tidbits that can be culled from various non-Jewish sources. An example of something very interesting I came across was the Sanhedrin's involvement with the failed Samaritan Revolt led by Justus.

One interesting detail about that revolt was that they invited the Jews to participate and the issue of whether to join the Samaritans or to stay neutral went before the then Sanhedrin (which was then operating in Tiberias). Most of the members of the Sanhedrin voted against the alliance except for one young member (IIRC his name was R. Uzi b. Berekyahu). He claimed that based on one opinion in the Talmud the 'kuthim' (a Rabbinic term used to describe Samaritans) are kosher Jews and therefore Jews should come to their aid. As mentioned, his opinion was a lone one and it was just as well because the revolt was cruelly crushed shortly thereafter.
(I recall reading about this years ago in Monroe Rosenthal's Wars of the Jews).

Be it as it may, as can be seen from these early sources (and there is no reason to doubt their veracity), there was a fully functioning Sanhedrin with a Nassi at its head, way after the deposing of Rabban Gamaliel VI.


There were some who claimed that Aharon Ben Meir (who was a Cohen) claimed descent from the line of Hillel II (the alleged composer of the so-called Hillel Calendar which is still in use today). However, as mentioned Ben Meir was a Cohen and I am not sure what setting the Calendar has to do with being descended from Hillel. Yes, the Chairman (Nassi) of the Sanhedrin has the final vote on such important issues as setting down the dates of the new moon and holidays, but how does being a descendant of a Nassi (and certainly not a patrlineal one) add any power of authority?

Parenthetically, the founder of the Hillelite line, Hillel I, himself the Nassi of the Sanhedrin of his time is alleged to have claimed descent from King David, yet there is contradictory evidence in the Talmud regarding his alleged royal credentials. Suffice it to say that the first one who tied him directly to King David was Ibn Daud (Raabad) in his Book of Tradition (he flourished in Medieval Spain). In the Talmud itself we found evidence of a weak connection through matrilineal descent (since when was any importance attributed to matrilineal Davidic descent?!).

One should also bear in mind that while the Exilarchs in Babylon needed to prove their Davidic credentials in order to attain the aforementioned position, the Patriarch (Nassi) in Eretz Israel did not need it all; his position was based solely on his ability and knowledge (although such a claim, whether authentic or not, probably helped him gain prestige and support). Of course, we should likewise bear in mind that the Nassi in Eretz Israel was also the head of the Sanhedrin--the most important Jewish legislative body in ancient Byzantium, while the Exilarch was very often only a (royal) figurehead for the Jews residing in the rest of the Diaspora.

*I must qualify my previous statement about the Nassi being elected solely on account of his qualifications and not pedigree. This is isn't particularly true in the case of the House of Hillel. The Hillelites maintained a stranglehold on the Nesiut beginning with Hillel I at the start of the common era until the 5th c. CE. Not all the Hillelites were necessarily fit for the job. The latter turned the Nesiut into an hereditary institution (it was not like that before they were at the helm, e.g. Elazar ben Azaryah, Bnei B'teyrah, etc.). After the death of Gamaliel VI (some claim he was executed by the Byzantines but I haven't seen any corroborating sources. Also oddly enough this is also said of the 'last Exilarch' in Babylonia, Hizkiyahu. See following post), there was a gap, probably due to renewed persecutions but the Nesiut and Yeshibha were reestablished not long after and it lasted until close to the 14th century.

In addition it should be pointed out that sometimes the post of Nassi and RY were combined (as was the case with Ben Meir). In Babylonia too, the Exilarch could also simultaneously function as the powerful Rosh Hayeshiva as well (as was the case with the Exilarch Hizkiyahu who in 1038 became the RY of the Babylonian Academy at Pumbeditha).

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