Thursday, 11 April 2019

Was Rambam a Karaite?

The ostensible answer to that question would be no.  He was the Rabbi and law maker par excellence.  Indeed, he writes against the Sadducees and Karaites, and also devotes many chapters to the strengthening of the oral law and rabbinic laws/additions.

However, there is a counter-current where he seems to be saying the opposite of all his rabbinic notions. In his legal corpus, the “Mishneh Torah”, a section known as “De’ot”, he writes  the following:

Ch. 3:
A person might say, "Since envy, desire, [the pursuit] of honor, and the like, are a wrong path and drive a person from the world, I shall separate from them to a very great degree and move away from them to the opposite extreme." For example, he will not eat meat, nor drink wine, nor take a wife, nor live in a pleasant home, nor wear fine clothing, but, rather, [wear] sackcloth and coarse wool and the like - just as the pagan priests do.
This, too, is a bad path and it is forbidden to walk upon it. Whoever follows this path is called a sinner [as implied by Numbers 6:11's] statement concerning a nazarite: "and he [the priest] shall make an atonement for him, for his having sinned regarding [his] soul." Our sages declared: If the nazarite who abstained only from wine requires atonement, how much more so does one who abstains from everything.
Therefore, our Sages directed man to abstain only from those things which the Torah denies him and not to forbid himself permitted things by vows and oaths [of abstention]. Thus, our Sages stated: Are not those things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you that you must forbid additional things to yourself?
This general statement also refers to those who fast constantly. They are not following a good path, [for] our Sages have forbidden a man to mortify himself by fasting. Of all the above, and their like, Solomon directed and said: "Do not be overly righteous and do not be overly clever; why make yourself desolate?" (Ecclesiastes 7:16).
שמא יאמר אדם הואיל והקנאה והתאוה והכבוד וכיוצא בהם דרך רעה הן ומוציאין את האדם מן העולם אפרוש מהן ביותר ואתרחק לצד האחרון עד שלא יאכל בשר ולא ישתה יין ולא ישא אשה ולא ישב בדירה נאה ולא ילבש מלבוש נאה אלא השק והצמר הקשה וכיוצא בהן כגון כהני העובדי כוכבים גם זה דרך רעה היא ואסור לילך בה המהלך בדרך זו נקרא חוטא שהרי הוא אומר בנזיר וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש אמרו חכמים ומה אם נזיר שלא פירש אלא מן היין צריך כפרה המונע עצמו מכל דבר ודבר על אחת כמה וכמה לפיכך צוו חכמים שלא ימנע אדם עצמו אלא מדברים שמנעתו התורה בלבד ולא יהא אוסר עצמו בנדרים ובשבועות על דברים המותרים כך אמרו חכמים לא דייך מה שאסרה תורה אלא שאתה אוסר עליך דברים אחרים ובכלל הזה אלו שמתענין תמיד אינן בדרך טובה ואסרו חכמים שיהא אדם מסגף עצמו בתענית ועל כל הדברים האלו וכיוצא בהן צוה שלמה ואמר אל תהי צדיק הרבה ואל תתחכם יותר למה תשומם:

Interesting is the counter-statement of the Jerusalem Talmudic Sages, which opposes that of the Babylonian Talmud – “Are not those things which the Torah has prohibited sufficient for you that you must forbid additional things to yourself?” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1).

The argument could be made that this is referring to personal vows, and that what the Rabbis forced is valid. However, what applies to individuals also applies to other individuals. The message of the Jerusalem Talmud is giving a rationale to the Torah prohibition of adding.  The violaters of this principle, say the reverse, to justify the adding of laws and restrictions.
Rambam wrote a compilation of halachic rabbinic Judaism from various sources, and there is no guarantee that his writing is internally consistent (after all the Talmud is not without contradiction).  It is sufficient, however to take this point of view into account, to show that even the Talmudic rabbis of the Yerushalmi  had severe reservations about the newish Testament of the oral law.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Talmud agrees with me!

In an earlier post,

I explained why the Oral Law is not a good idea.  Questions of its authenticity aside, the method of oral transmission of a vast and complex legal system is definitely not a good idea.

The Talmud (Temurah 16a-b) goes so far to say that when Moses died, 3000 laws were forgotten by the next generation , i.e. Joshua and his leadership.


These are supposed oral laws. Now this itself is an interesting topic of discussion, but in essence, the Talmud itself is providing evidence that supports my claim.  If Joshua could forget 3000 laws which Moses allegedly taught him, then the oral law is a complete disaster.

Again, this claim by the Talmud must be scrutinized,  but that is for a later occasion.  It is important to note that the system of oral law is so dysfunctional, that within the very first generation, according to the Talmud itself, it has already broken down.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Rabbi David Segal (the TaZ)

Rabbi Segal is widely known as the TaZ , after the name of the commentary he wrote on the Shulchan Aruch – the rabbinical work of day to day practical halacha.

He was greatly respected and is still considered a major Rabbinic authority.

It is stated by tha Taz on several occasions that “although the Sages have leeway to enact their own new prohibitions, they may not prohibit something explicitly permitted by the Torah” 

Indeed, this is itself derived from the Talmud.

If this is to be the case, and it appears to be quite widely accepted, then he is essentially making the same argument as Karaites do.  Of course there are endless examples,  but if we look at the prohibition of consuming chicken with dairy products, which is purely rabbinical, it is quite clear from the Torah that this is not forbidden.  It might be argued that not everything is explicitly permitted, however, that is nitpicking. The principle is very powerful, and can be applied to almost every case where Karaites would argue against adding to the Torah.

This one idea of the Taz, repudiates the entire Oral law thesis, the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch which he comments upon.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Is the Oral Law a Good Idea?

From a purely pragmatic perspective, is it a good idea to have a large body of vital law and principles committed to memory and not to writing?

The believers in the oral law claim that an Oral law was given to Moses and not written down. They then argue that it was transmitted /taught orally for another 1500 years or so.  The excuse they give for it to be written down is:

"In the lifetime of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (around 1700 years ago), Roman persecution, the recent destruction of the second Temple and the disruption of stable Jewish community life threatened our ability to properly retain and transmit this oral law. Rabbi Yehuda, therefore, wrote down the bare basics in the Mishna. A couple of centuries of hardship and persecution later, the rabbis of Babylonia saw a need to record even more detail and compiled a written version of what is known as the Talmud"

It seems to be a very inefficient  system and design.  Why would this section be given in oral form originally, if it was inevitable for it to be written down?
And what is unique about the the hardship of Roman persecution?  There was persecution even before the Romans, and there was the destruction of the First Temple. In First Temple times, there were many periods of idolatry, when even the Written law was lost or forgotten. how could the oral law be remembered then?  And if it existed, why wasn't it written down in those times?

So the form of oral transmission is really not a good idea. it is impossible to verbally remember a mass of information the size of the Talmud.  If there was no written format, then even a photographic memory would not suffice.  So it follows that not only is it a bad idea, it was impossible to implement.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Aryeh Kaplan's False Translation

The late Aryeh Kaplan was quite poplar in his time, an he even wrote a Translation of the Torah. However, this would be better described as a mistranslation.  He consistently misrepresented what is written in the Torah, and instead puts down false statements that suit his own goals.

One example is in this article he wrote about the Oral Law.

He alleges "If I would have written the majority of my Torah, [Israel] would be counted the same as strangers" (Hosea 8:12).

However, this is not what Hoshea wrote or said.

The plain translation is given on Mechon mamre:

יב  אכתוב- (אֶכְתָּב-) לוֹ--רבו (רֻבֵּי), תּוֹרָתִי:  כְּמוֹ-זָר, נֶחְשָׁבוּ. 12 Though I write for him never so many things of My Law, they are accounted as a stranger's. 

The Law was written, containing so many things, but still considered as "foreign" - because the sinners in Israel and Ephraim had taken to false gods.

This in no way is alluding to the existence or necessity of a an oral law, quite the opposite. It is attesting to the fullness and completeness of the written law, which is still rejected, by the idolaters, and perhaps also by those who feel it is incomplete.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Halacha LeMoshe Mi Sinai

Image result for shin on tefillin

 The 4-headed "shin" on the Tefillin is an unusual variation of the modern Hebrew letter shin, which ordinarily has only 3 heads.  There is also a 3 headed shin  on tefillin, with the same calligraphy.  It appears nowhere else in Hebrew literature, And, the explanation, according to Maimonides, is that is is one of the 31 alleged Halachot that were given orally to Moses at mount Sinai, but not committed to writing (until the Oral Law became a book).

In fact, apart from this list of 31 halachot, many others are also claimed to have been given to Moses but not mentioned in the Torah.  It is interesting - how does one verify philosophically such a claim?
The problem  is that there is no written contemporaneous evidence of there being an oral law or these specific halachot being given to Moses. The claim occurs some 1150 years after the event.

This particular claim, of the style of the shin, its calligraphy etc. can be refuted. That is because the Hebrew script at the time of Writing of the Torah was not the same as the one we have today or at the time of the Mishnah.  The Hebrew script of the Bible was paleo-Hebrew.  And the paleo-hebrew alphabet does not look the same as the modern square letters , which are in fact Aramaic.

Paleo-hebrew alphabet.jpg

The second last letter of this alphabet looks very much like an English "w" and that in fact was a Biblical shin.

Had the halacha of this shin (and indeed tefillin ) been given to Moses at Sinai, it is unthinkable that it would be written in the form of a future vulgate language. It is likely that the scholars who concocted this story of the 31 or so laws were unaware of the history of the Hebrew language.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Dessler's Strive for "Truth"

A famous ultra-orthodox rabbi,  Eliyahu Dessler, was primarily active in the Gateshead yeshiva of England and later the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel. His books have become a set piece fo the Lithuanian Hareidi stream of orthodoxy, who consider  his every word as being scientific and Divine truth all in one.  However, even a brief  familiarity with his writings reveal that not only are his views  questionable, but they are often entirely false.

According to one lecturer at

" Rav Dessler opened the shiur with an important statement of purpose. Rav Dessler did not see the תנ"ך as a history book. He also did not see it as a book of theology, which is an abstract inquiry into the meaning of Judaism. The stories in the תנ"ך are there to teach, to instruct us how to serve Hashem"

Firstly, the  תנ"ך is not a single book, it comprises of various books, some of which are Prophetic, others are more historical or Chronicles.   The Books of Kings and Chronicles have many functions, but they are primarily historical records of leaders of Israel or history of Israel.

Furthermore,  there are many prophetic and theological books within the TNK. That doesn't exclude the moral and ethical instruction.  However, just as an example, the book of Daniel, can hardly be described as an ethical work.  It is full of miracles, mystery, prophecy and eschatology.

Even in Kings, we see, for example, Elijah's battle with the prophets of baal.  This is not an ethical instruction, it is about supernatural events, which are not applicable today since we do not have Prophets.  It is thus all the more surprising that Dessler, who takes his name from that very prophet, is making false statements about the TNK.

What is more worrying, is that thousands of rabbis who are his followers take his words as Gospel, when in fact they are false speculations.

Monday, 5 March 2018

The “Rabbi” - Yosef Mizrachi, and Holocaust Denial

A while back, the popular but controversial so-called Rabbi Y. Mizrachi caused yet another stir when he denied that 6 million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Although he subsequently apologized for this, it is worth analysing how and why such crass stupidity was ever publicised.

The lecture, given in Hebrew begins with him “revealing a secret” (sod). He then says that the “emet” (truth) is that less than 1 million Jews were killed. This figure is in line with holocaust deniers, revisionists and neo nazis – whom he supposedly opposes. Why has a man who claims to be a rabbi, who allegedly studies and teaches Kabbalah, and speaks in Holier than thou language to everyone else – fallen to such a low, even in his own poor history of offensive remarks?

I suggest we try to reconstruct some of his world view.

He tells a story of how he left school and then left the army, to look for work in the USA. Here he got a job in a bagel shop. Working at the till, he claims that he calculated the receipts of customers in his head, without using the till itself. By this he implies that he is some unrecognised mathematical genius. However, he has no formal education, and has no credentials or recognised mathematical or scientific qualifications. He also has no formal training in statistics, so he is not a reliable person to pontificate on matters so grave as the Holocaust and its victims.

Next, he repeatedly barks at his critics, claiming that he has brought more people back to “Orthodox Torah” than anyone else in history. Again, a tall story. However he has signs of arrogance and megalomania, and has hidden messianic pretensions. This same line was used by the followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who claimed him to be the messiah. It was also part of the Shabbetai Zvi movement, which initially gained many followers, who became religious and fooled even the some of the leading rabbis of thee time.

In the same lecture, Mizrachi claims that the American DJ Howard stern is not Jewish, because his mother is allegedly not Jewish. However, this is false. Stern's parents both were Jewish (although he may have joked about being half Jewish at some point). Now Mizrachi is not a qualified Rabbi, and is also not a Dayan, so he is not someone who can answer halachic questions or make decisions regarding Jewish status. But his comments show that he has an arrogance way above what his actual capacity and status is.

So what would possibly motivate a person to come to with such nonsense?

Here are some possibilities:

1) Simply, he has to create material for his lectures, so he has a fertile imagination. He has no scientific research programme, these are all conjectures, perhaps ideas that come to him when he is traveling from one lecture to another.

2) He may have delusions of grandeur. This is supported by the terms he uses. He didn't present this claim as a theory or hypothesis, but he presented it as a “secret” ans as the “Emet” or truth. The evidence was self generated, i.e. the workings of his own mind. So a serious researcher, historian or scientist would not make such grandiose statements without having them verified by independent experts. Thus, it seems he has a superiority complex, and that also explains how he reacts to people who criticise him. To him any idea that comes into his head must ipso facto be true, and that is how he makes such insane comments, and tries to back them up by appeal to religion or “Divine Information” (the name of his website).

3) It is not clear where his influences come from. He mentions Satmar, Neturei karta , but also criticizes them at times. Yet he is repeating the same kind of Holocaust denial that Neturei karta made when they visited Iran. They said on BBC news that they felt only 1 million Jews were killed, because they held that 6 million was a figure created by Zionist propaganda. He is anti-Zionist, so some of these negative influences may well have come from the NK .

There are also false allegations made by  Mizrachi that Theodore Herzl wrote to the Pope with a programme for mass conversion of the Jews. This is another false claim, but it comes from the same type of Neturei Karta/satmar sources, who have a pathological hatred for Zionism.  Just as he himself has criticised NK for attending a holocaust denial rally in Tehran, and prayed for the health of the PLO terrorist, so he himself (Mizrachi) had fallen into the trap of Holocaust denial.

It is important to note that he tried to make a public apology to a Holocaust survivor, but the survivor attacked this man's nasty behaviour.

The sad thing is that Mr Mizrachi does have some worthwhile thins to say. I find that listening to a 1 hour lecture of his might actually have 1 or 2 very interesting points. One such point is that it is forbidden by the Shulchan Aruch to listen to a Rabbi who is nasty – that means insulting, offensive, arrogant, extortionate, or dictatorial. Unfortunately, by applying this principal to Mizrachi himself , which a lot of people will intuitively do, it would mean we should not listen to anything he says, even if some of his ideas are valid or true.

If I had one message to give to Mizrachi, it would be to check his own arrogance, and wonder why he has aroused so much anger, unparalleled by any other rabbi on the current scene. He could potentially be a truly righteous person, and not drive away so many people. He has been banned from the UK for example as a hate preacher. Part of his own defence mechanism is to see everyone who opposes him as evil and impure – but he has made the most evil statements, which are on the same level as those made by neo nazis and holocaust deniers. This perhaps refutes his claim that everyone who opposes him is evil.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Maimonides vs Raavad – Modern Orthodox revolutionary?

The 2 great Rabbinic scholars of the 12th century were known as Maimonides (Rambam) and his frequent controversialist, Abraham ben David (RABaD or Raavad). Whereas Maimonides is well known throughout the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world, with hundreds of books about him, hospitals, and schools named after him and is a celebrated figure of Jewish intellect in areas of philosophy, medicine, astronomy etc. Rabad is scarcely known outside of rabbinical scholarship and the experts in halacha (and Kabbala) who study his original critiques of Maimonides.

Maimonides is known as a towering intellect, who was esteemed by surrounding Muslim and Christian cultures; as a philosopher whose magnum opus The Guide for the Perplexed is still the mainstay of Jewish philosophy and theology, and whose original 13 principles of faith have become a declaration of faith for the rabbinical orthodox world. Rabad was known as a great talmudist, who had the entire Talmud deeply ensconced in his memory, and he was reputed to be able to access any part of it on demand. He was the major rabbinic authority for France and Ashkenaz, whereas Maimonides was the authority for Spain and Sepharad.

Maimonides is considered a “Modern” orthodox proponent, because of his philosophical and rational thinking, his use of science and rejection of mysticism and superstition. Rabad, on the other hand, is largely claimed as a model for Ultra-Orthodoxy precisely because of his espousal of and expertise in Kabbalah, and his alleged disregard of science. However, neither of these stereotypes are necessarily true. I will argue quite the opposite.

A statement I have often heard from the Yeshiva world is that they follow Maimonides in halacha (legal interpretation) but not in philosophy. Indeed, the relatively modern Shulchan Aruch is largely based on Rambam's legal works. This statement, however, is problematic, because the one authority who is supposedly authentically Orthodox – Rabad – was also the chief critic of Maimonides' halacha, and not philosophy. Rabad leveled severe criticism against the “Mishneh Torah” of Maimonides, both methodological and substantive. The main methodological criticisms were that Maimonides was not providing sources for his statements, and that a text book of halacha is a bad thing, rather it should be derived through consideration of the various opinions in the Talmud. Indeed certain of Maimonides' statements seem to be in error (or fabricated) and Rabad will show that there is in fact much evidence to support the opposite conclusion.

The key problem with Maimonides is that he tends to present a strict position, when in fact the Talmud suggests a lenient or permissive position on many matters. He also seems to be aloof and unconcerned by the real world burden he is imposing on people, whereas Rabad is very concerned by the increasing burden of rabbinically added extras. In one famous controversy, Rambam is suggesting that a rabbinic Gezeira (added restriction) cannot be undone by a later generation. Here, the Rabad presents a case where this was precisely occurred since the reasons for that restriction were no longer relevant.

So whilst it may be claimed that Rambam was a Modern orthodox revolutionary, he was in practice an extreme conservative, who often presents halachic views which are impractical and unwarranted, whereas Rabad was the true revolutionary. Revolutionary is a relative term, since our impression of Rabbinic law is one of strictness and ascetism. Rambam, the philosopher was the ascetic, and he imposed an ascetic halacha, whereas Rabad, the Kabbalist was the most open minded thinker in the past 1000 years. His vision of Talmud was not one that strangles a person's humanity, happiness of enjoyment in this world – this was the conclusion that Rambam reached. Rabad viewed the Talmud as a way of living and allowing people to fulfil there lives in this world, and not to wait for the next. Hence, it is my view that Abraham ben David was the true Modern Orthodox revolutionary.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Single Lineage Theory

As previously discussed, the mainstream Rabbinic concept of Matrilineal descent is a single lineage theory. That means the woman can conceive by any man, or anonymous donor, and the child will still be considered Jewish.  In fact even in the case of adultery, if the male cohabiter is not Jewish, the child will (according to Rabbinic halacha) be both Jewish and kasher, ie  without the taint of mamzerut. (Mamzerut is a complex matter and is not supported by the textual reading of the Torah).

There is evidence that refutes the matrilineal theory.  Today’s evidence is from the Mitzvah of Levirate marriage or Yibum.

Deut 25:

ה  כִּי-יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּו, וּמֵת אַחַד מֵהֶם וּבֵן אֵין-לוֹ--לֹא-תִהְיֶה אֵשֶׁת-הַמֵּת הַחוּצָה, לְאִישׁ זָר:  יְבָמָהּ יָבֹא עָלֶיהָ, וּלְקָחָהּ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וְיִבְּמָהּ.
5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one not of his kin; her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her.
ו  וְהָיָה, הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵד--יָקוּם, עַל-שֵׁם אָחִיו הַמֵּת; וְלֹא-יִמָּחֶה שְׁמוֹ, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
6 And it shall be, that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel.
ז  וְאִם-לֹא יַחְפֹּץ הָאִישׁ, לָקַחַת אֶת-יְבִמְתּוֹ; וְעָלְתָה יְבִמְתּוֹ הַשַּׁעְרָה אֶל-הַזְּקֵנִים, וְאָמְרָה מֵאֵן יְבָמִי לְהָקִים לְאָחִיו שֵׁם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל--לֹא אָבָה, יַבְּמִי.
7 And if the man like not to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate unto the elders, and say: 'My husband's brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband's brother unto me.'
ח  וְקָרְאוּ-לוֹ זִקְנֵי-עִירוֹ, וְדִבְּרוּ אֵלָיו; וְעָמַד וְאָמַר, לֹא חָפַצְתִּי לְקַחְתָּהּ.
8 Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak unto him; and if he stand, and say: 'I like not to take her';
ט  וְנִגְּשָׁה יְבִמְתּוֹ אֵלָיו, לְעֵינֵי הַזְּקֵנִים, וְחָלְצָה נַעֲלוֹ מֵעַל רַגְלוֹ, וְיָרְקָה בְּפָנָיו; וְעָנְתָה, וְאָמְרָה, כָּכָה יֵעָשֶׂה לָאִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִבְנֶה אֶת-בֵּית אָחִיו.
9 then shall his brother's wife draw nigh unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say: 'So shall it be done unto the man that doth not build up his brother's house.'
י  וְנִקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:  בֵּית, חֲלוּץ הַנָּעַל.  {ס}
10 And his name shall be called in Israel the house of him that had his shoe loosed. {S}

According to rabbinic thought, the father of a child has no bearing whatsoever of the identity of the child, i.e. being part of Israel or being a “Jew”.  This is entirely from
the mother. Thus the father could be a Chinese Buddhist,  an African tribesman, or a native American, and the child would still be Jewish.  However, the Torah refutes this claim.  

In the case given in the Torah above, the problem with the husband dying childless is that his name is blotted from Israel:  6 And it shall be, that the first-born that she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother that is dead, that his name be not blotted out of Israel.”

From here, we can deduce that for a person born to be considered an Israelite, he must have his father’s name, i.e. identity.  This sounds like the mirror image of the rabbinic claim.  It doesn’t tell us whether both parents need to be Israelites. However, the  Yibum does not apply to a wife who dies childless, i.e.  her sister is not obligated to marry the husband  whose wife dies (assuming the sister is not already married). This means that the name of the mother is not passed on to the child, and hence the Israelite identity is passed on from the father.

The Yibum procedure has a single function, which is to perpetuate the name of a deceased man, should he be childless.  One might ask, what would be the purpose of this mitzvah if the Israelite identity were passed on from the mother?