Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Judaica: The World's Most Expensive Aron Kodesh

Last week, Christie's sold a famous Rotschild Aron Kodesh for a whopping U$1,565,000, a record for a Judaica item. While it's artwork is truly unique, it's hard to understand how such a piece can fetch these kind of prices. However it seems that the Jewish Judaica world is on the up, and people expect prices only to rise.

Last month a bought a book in Hebrew about Judaica in the Synagogue - torah mantels, torah ornaments and arks - called  מעשה רוקםfrom Yaniv Bracha. You can see in this book how these items are easy to find and relatively low in demand, since most of old Judaica items are rather of poor quality. That might explain why an exceptional item like the Rotschild Torah Ark stands out and can fetch such a high bid. Here is the full description:

By the mid eighteenth century, Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) had a flourishing Jewish community, with important commercial ties to Western Galicia. The Breslau fairs had been centers of trade for centuries, attended by Jews throughout Eastern Europe.  

The Rothschild Torah Ark well represents the wealth of Breslau, and its high baroque style relates to the elaborately decorated interiors of the wooden synagogues in the region. A distinctive style of synagogue architecture developed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, characterized by imposing but plain pitch-roofed exteriors which concealed contrastingly complex interiors. These interiors, of wooden truss construction, supported multiple vaults, domes, and profusely carved and painted decoration, much of it focused on the Torah Ark. The wooden synagogue interior is considered one of the most outstanding Jewish artistic achievements in Europe. Because the most significant of these synagogues were completely destroyed during the Second World War, carved wooden Torah Arks are almost unknown today. The survival of this example in silver, undoubtedly used for private services in a wealthy household, is phenomenal.  

The only other silver Torah Arks of this type known are much later in date. A miniature example made in Vienna in 1783 is now in the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, and a Polish example of 1838 from the J. Kaufmann Collection in Frankfurt-am-Main was sold in 1955 (see J. Gutmann, The Jewish Sanctuary, Leiden, 1983, pl. xxxii and Parke-Bernet, New York, 17 March 1955, lot 124). The back plate of a silver Hanukkah Lamp made in Galicia in 1787 takes its form very literally from carved wooden Torah Arks in that region (illustrated in Vivian B. Mann and Norman L. Kleeblatt,Treasures of the Jewish Museum, New York 1986, p. 110). 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Column 3 of 214

Column 2 of 214

Time to update and post here my progress. I fixed a mistake in the line that starts with Hashem Elohim - BH the fixing didn't leave marks and it's a very nice Amud overall.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Girsology blog

I'm a longtime fan of the parshablog, where Rabbi Josh Waxman often writes about mesorah and scribal oddities in the Torah. He stands out for his eclectic selection of sources and also for not being afraid of thinking outside of the box.

Waxman started a new blog called Girsology, dedicated to the different girsaot of the Torah and he wrote an excellent post about the famous פצועי דכא/דכה controversy. 

For those interested in Safrut, this is a must read and something I intended to write about. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Chagiga 15b - the shape of the Lamed

Today's Daf, while discussing the sages of different centuries, says:
איה סופר המגדלים שהיו שונים שלוש מאות הלכות במגדל הפורח באויר
"Where is the one who counts the towers - for they would teach three hundred laws concerning a tower that floats in the air"

The artscroll note says that this is referring to the shape of the Lamed, which looks like a tower that is falling. Thus, many write the upper part of this letter slanted, as if it is falling. See here in full:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tzitzis - wool, cashmere, cotton or silk?

As I wrote my Sefer Torah, I often look topically in a few commentaries to further understand the text and be more focused.

I'm now at Parshat Noach, and I had a chance to study the Ben Ish Chai commentary on the passage (Bereishit 9:7)

  ואתם, פרו ורבו; שרצו בארץ, ורבו-בה

While his kabalistic explanation to this passage is beyond the scope of this blog, the Ben Ish Chai does link this mitzva of having children to the mitzva of tzitzis. Both commandments provide a special protection to those who fulfill it and he goes on to detail the Halachot of tzitzis. By chance this mitzva is also to be found in this week's Parsha גדילים תעשה לך so although I usually only write about Safrut here, I will open an exception just this time. 

The Talmud says that only sheep wool and linen are considered "fabric" in regards to tzizis, and therefore one should only make tzizis from these two fabrics. Other garments are only rabinically required to have tzizis. The authoritative Shulchan Aruch rules this way, and the Sephardim generally are careful with this. 

However the Rema, followed by Ashkenazim, rules like another opinion of the Talmud that fabrics other than wool and linen are also biblically required to have tzizis. That's why Ashkenazim use cotton tzitzis, although many try to be machmir like the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. 

The catch - written in big letters Mehadrin
but on the left side "hashgacha only for
the threads".
Mesh tzitzit

However some fabrics seen today in the market are not required to have tzitzis even Rabinically; polyester is the best example. A square polyester garment does not need tzitzis, even though you can see many judaica stores (and even on Amazon) selling mesh polyester tzitzis as a solution for hot summer days. That's rather ironic - according to Halacha it's totally unnecessary to wear mesh tzitzis and the person might as well wear no tzitzis. If you want to perform the mitzva you should do it right and mesh tzitzis has no Halacha significance according to all (this is the widely accepted ruling of Iggrot Moshe 2:1). 

So we have established that wool and linen are undisputedly the best option for tzizis, as far as the Biblical miztva of tzitzis is concerned. 

Actually, that's imprecise. The wool that is undisputedly subject to tzizis is sheep's wool but other woolen fabrics such as cashmere, which is wool from goats, are not undisputed for Biblical miztva of tzitzis and therefore less optimal specially for Sephardim. Goat and sheep are two completely different animals, and while sheep wool is white, goats wool is more beige.

Cashmere goat wool
Sheep and goat

That's very relevant when buying a Tallit. Since we only wear Tallit briefly every day for shacharit, there's an unofficial consensus of wearing only woolen Tallit to make sure that at least once a day you will be wearing the optimal tzizis fabric - Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike. For this reason, virtually every Tallit sold in Judaica stores is made from sheep wool. 

However lately I've seen some specialty stores selling cashmere Tallit, which would go against the consensus I mentioned. Always make sure you buy Tallit from sheep wool.

Now let's turn to the second undisputedly good tzizis fabric - linen. I personally love everything made of linen for summer use, since it's a strong and breathable fabric - in fact, throughout history linen was regarded as the most superior and fine fabric (see here for more on that). But let's get back to Halacha:

Alongside sheep wool, linen is also a "Biblical fabric" and ideal for tzitzis use according to the Shulchan Aruch I quoted before, but an external factor is a threat to using linen tzitzis - Shaatnez, the Biblical prohibition of mixing linen and wool. I will quote a very good piece delineating this issue I found in YUTorah:

    The Gemara, Menachot 40a, states that the rabbis placed certain limitations on the use of linen garments for the mitzvah of tzitzit.  According to Rashi, ad loc., the rabbis prohibited placing techelet on a linen garment.  The reason is because techelet is not only unique in its color, but it must also be made of wool.  While the Torah does allow a wool techelet string to be placed on a linen garment, this leniency only applies if there is a fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzitzit.  However, if for whatever reason, there is no fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzitzit, one violates the prohibition of sha'atnez by wearing such a garment.  Out of concern that one might wear such a garment without adhering to the many laws of tzitzit and techelet, the rabbis banned placing techelet on linen garments.  Rabbeinu Tam, Shabbat 25b s.v. Sadin, disputes the opinion of Rashi and claims that the ban is not limited to techelet.  The ban extends to the use of any linen garment, even if no techelet is placed on the garment.
    Teshuvot HaRosh 2:8, claims that the common practice is to follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam and to disallow the use of all linen garments for the mitzvah of tzitzit.  However, he notes that upon arriving in Spain he noticed that many people used linen to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit.  He suggests that they might have been relying on the fact that there is no techelet, and perhaps even Rabbeinu Tam would agree that there is less of a concern.
      Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 9:6, cites the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam as normative.  However, Rama ad loc., mentions the leniency of Teshuvot HaRosh that if only linen is available one may use it for tzitzit, as there is no techelet available.  It should be noted, that nowadays there are many people who place techelet on their garments, and Teshuvot HaRosh's leniency may not be applicable.  This would apply even to those who question the authenticity of modern day techelet, as the concern exists that by allowing linen garments, it may lead to someone who does use modern day techelet to violate the prohibition of sha'atnez. 
It's also interesting to add that the influential Chaye Adam (Hil. Tzitzis 11:12) writes:
כלל י״א סי׳ י״ב ״וכבר
 נתפשט המנהג בקהלתינו לעשות טלית של פשתים
 וציצית של פשתים, ע״פ הגר״א ז״ל״
He is saying the custom of his community, in Poland, was to wear linen tzitzis like the ruling of the Gr"a, the Vilna Gaon. In other words, he is giving the same testimony teh Teshuvat HaRosh gave when he arrived in Spain. So it seems clear that it wasn't uncommon to wear linen tzitzit in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities.

Linen tzitsis with Techelet
It seems to me to be a case of Halacha VeEin Morim Kein i.e. it's permissible and optimal to wear linen tzitzit but this should not be a publicized practice because of the concern than less knowledgeable people will eventually transgress Shaatnez as a result. 

And I will also add that this concern for other people is not farfetched - the vast majority of people, even among the observant communities, don't know Hilchot Tzitzis in depth and as you have seen, these Halachot are rather complex and often times a little confusing (I did try my best to keep this post as organized and short as possible..). Click here to see a website selling linen tzizis with techelet, which questionable according to what we have seen.

SO, Tzitzis - wool, cashmere, cotton or silk? Answer: Tallit surely should be made of sheep wool and tzizis you wear all day can be from cotton too.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Amazing Megillot 12: Yonah Weinrib

Rabbi Yonah Weinrib is a great illuminator and also a very knowledgeble scholar who adds explanations next to his works. My Bar Mitzva birkon was made by him and today he is a very famous artist.

Rabbi Weinrib published a very nice Megillat Esther on paper, based on a Megilla he was comissioned to write.

I love the unusual motifs like the Queen of Hearts, symbolizing the demise of Vashti and rise of Esther and the chess board, which is a metaphor for how all the story was orchestraded by Hashem and how each character of the story was carefully controlled by His hidden hand.

Very clever and very beautiful!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Sacred Monsters by N. Slifkin

As I was writing Parshat Bereishit in my ongoing Sefer Torah project, one theme stood out from the story of creation: the Bnei Elohim. The Torah says:

6:2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
The Torah seems to speak negatively of these "sons of God". I quickly realized that although I learn this Parsha every year since I'm a small kid, I never really stopped to think about this.

I suppose my teachers in school intentionally didn't spend much time exploring who these people were. I was told by a very knowledgeable educator that specifically today, in times where Lord of the Rings and other fantasy stories are so popular, there is a point not to explore the theme of giants and unusual creatures mentioned in the Torah. Many educators are afraid kids will start looking at Torah as just another fantasy book, cv"s. 

But even worst than confusing the Torah with fantasy books, kids can find many cartoons and movies inspired in Biblical stories that are visually stunning and often have their own takes on some creatures of the Torah. Most notably, as I a started writing Parshat Noach a few weeks ago, Hollywood released "Noah", a blockbuster movie loosely inspired in the story of Noach. 

Hollywood's Bnei Elohim
These movies can be actually even more dangerous for our kids since they always take artistic license and make up a whole bunch of things. Specifically in "Noah", the film, the Bnei Elohim are depicted as stone monsters made of light, with seven hands (see picture). If we don't teach the "giants" theme for our kids in school, I would say that they should equally not be exposed to cartoons and movies based on Torah stories. 

But not everyone agrees with this mindset. Recently, a Rabbi launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a fantasy book for kids based on the Torah, with the argument that Jewish-fantasy books can be a good alternative to kids who like to read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I disagree. 

So I decided to look for somebody that would shed light in the concept of giants like Bnei Elohim and Og but I found very little resources. The best one I've come across is Sacred Monsters, by Rabbi Natan Slifkin aka Zoo Rabbi. 

For the unninitiated, Rabbi Slifkin was in the epicenter of a huge theological feud a few years ago. He wrote about Creation and how to reconcile the Torah's account with science, based of classical Jewish commentators. Although he got an endorsement from the very respected Rosh Yeshiva of Philadelphia, his book became subject to virulent attacks from a segment of the Haredi world that rejects scientific reconciliation with Torah. I was learning in Ner Yisrael at the time and my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, was a very important figure in this debate. Click here for Rabbi Slifkin's own link list of this controversy.

Be it as it may, Sacred Monsters is a very open and honest discussion about how we should look at the many unusual and strange creatures mentioned in the Torah. Rabbi Slifkin uses a scientific approach and is not afraid of asking questions nor shy to offer unusual answers. 

Og as a real super giant
Rabbi Slifkin discusses how big were the giants mentioned in the Torah. According to some, they were literarily hundeds of meters tall. But he also mentions the Rambam, who says that Og was probably not taller than 5 meters since it's organically impossible to be taller than that. 

Rabbi Slifkin brings many examples of modern day "giants" that measure over 3 meters and notes that the Rambam's estimation would indeed make sense from a scientific point of view. 

Although the book does mention other giants and also the very tall Moshe Rabbeinu, I was disappointed not to see a specific discussion of the Bnei Elohim. After all, they were the first giants mentioned in the Torah and the forebearers of Og. 

After reading almost the entire book, I leave with a feeling that we know very little about most of the unusual creatures of the Torah. There are opinions  that offer some plausible possibilities and Rabbi Slifkin often broadens the discussion bringing in achademics and zoologists, but from the classical Jewish commentators there are many gaps and speculation. 

I do think the book is an excellent resource and introduction guide for those who want to know the a little of everything. It did kind of leave me with even more questions than before but that's not necessarily a bad thing!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hamas in Scripture

As Israel gets more and more entangled in what looks like a full blown war with Hamas, I got to the pasuk which mentions the very name of this terrorist group, when describing the world in the times of Noah. 

וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱלהִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס
"The world was filled with 'Hamas'" Genesis

What’s the translation of the scriptural word “Hamas”? Although I’ve studied the Torah many times, I realized that I didn’t really know the exact translation of this word. I knew it meant something bad, since this was the reason why G-d got angry at mankind and brought the great flood in the times of Noach.

The Artscroll Chumash translates “the earth became filled with robbery”, which is the understanding of Rashi, the main medieval commentary of the Torah. 

Interestingly, the other classic commentator of the Torah - Unkulos -goes in another direction and translates Chamas to mean  חטופין, kidnappers, meaning that the world was full of kidnappers. 

Some commentators relate this to the Bnei Elohim mentioned in the end of Parshat Bereishit, which kidnapped and married woman. But it's clear that Unkulos understands Hamas to mean not monetary robbery but kidnapping, which is a violent act. In fact, many other translations of the Torah mention that "the earth was filled with violence", possibly following the Unkulos' understanding. 

Now the Targum Yerushalmi, which is occasionally different than the Unkelos, seems to merge the explanations of Rashi and Onkelos. 

In other words, the Targum Yerushalmi understands that Hamas is an umbrella term that includes kidnapping and robbery. 

The Or Hachaim goes one step further, perhaps troubled by the fact that the Yerushlami derives two translations for one word. How is that possible? Hamas should either be kidnapping or robbery - how can this word refer to both? 

The Or Hachaim says that Hamas is the umbrella term for evil, in all its different manifestations:

It includes robbery, sexual misconduct, killing, idol worshipping and more. So according to this, Rashi, Unkulos and Targum Yerushlami actually all agree with what Hamas means. They simply struggle to choose one aspect that best represents evil. 

It's interesting to note that like in the times of Noach, when the earth got overrun by Hamas, today we seem to be living a very similar situation. The world today is full of Hamas ideology, be it Hamas itself or other violent ideologies like Al Qaeda, Isis and their kin. 

In the present war between Hamas and Israel, a very large portion of the world is siding with Hamas, be it by explicitly endorsing them or simply by failing to condone their violent ideology. In this sense, the world seems to be full of violent people or people who endorse violence. 

And this present day violent ideology, like in the times of Noach, is multi faceted: it's based on murder, robbery, dishonesty, sexual harassment and kidnappings.

Noach could only save his family by barricating himself in his ark. He publicly built his ark for many years so everyone could see and perhaps change their ways. Eventually only Noach's family got in the ark and got saved. 

How can we react to the modern day world which seems to be more and more full of Hamas and the people who support them? We have to build our ark, which is Israel. That's the only place where we can defend ourselves without relying in others. And like Noach was the last stand against evil, Israel today is the world's last stand against this evil, violent ideology of death that is taking over the world. 

PS: it's interesting to note that according to some, the flood in times of Noah never reached Israel - the holy land enjoys special protection. And many commentators say that this is why the olive branch brought to Noah came from Israel - Israel was the only place that survived. See below:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

My progress: Parshat Bereishit is done!

Today is BH a special day for me as I finished the first Parsha of my Sefer Torah - parshat Bereishit. I never thought I would actually start my own Torah but this is happening! It's important to celebrate this milestone. 

It took me a long time to write it, something like six months, as I have prioritized Daf Yomi but the most important thing is that the project is moving. Moving slow, but moving. 

I will post pictures of all the amudim soon. I BH had very few mistakes and typos - I guess that's one advantage of writing slow. In terms of the quality of my ktav, I'm still not 100% happy with the beauty of the letters, and I'm having difficulty perfecting my Tzadi. 

Also, I twice mispelled the word ויולד, omitting the second Vav. For some reason in my head, unconsciously, the right way to spell it is וילד, which sounds more like the right verb. But I'm wrong and I had to pay special attention at it since this word is recurring in the end of the Parsha. 

In this rithym it will take me a few years, perhaps six, to complete my Torah Scroll but as you see in the picture I'm young and patient. We will get there iiH. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Christie's sells a Chumash from 1400's for record price

The Chumash was sold for almost 4 million dollars, above the 2 million estimate. It is just like a Torah Scroll, but with vowelization, cantillation marks and Unkulus commentary on the side. Below you can read all the information:

Paris – The Department of Books and Manuscripts is pleased to announce the auction of an 
exceptional printed Torah (or Pentateuch: the first five books of the Bible) at their sale on 30 
April 2014. 

A major turning point in the history of printing in general and of Hebrew books in particular, 
this rare incunable, whose value is estimated at €1,000,000-1,500,000, will undoubtedly be the 
highlight of the sale. Printed in Hebrew in Bologna in January 1482, the volume represents the 
very first appearance in print of all five books of the Pentateuch as well as the first to which 
vocalisation and cantillation marks have been added. It is equally the first time that the printed 
Biblical text is accompanied by Rashi’s commentary and the paraphrase in Aramaic (Targum 
Onkelos). The significance of this edition is demonstrated by the fact that this format is still in use 
today when printing the Torah. 

Essential to reading and chanting the text of the Torah, the addition of vocalisation and 
cantillation marks represented a considerable challenge for 15th
 century printers. Abraham ben 
Hayyim of Pesaro was the first to overcome this technical difficulty during the printing of the 
present Pentateuch. Having overcome this first hurdle, he also had the talent and intelligence to 
frame the Biblical text with Rashi’s commentaries in order to facilitate the parallel study of the 
text. The majority of the copies were printed on vellum in accordance with the precepts of the 

The back of the present copy bears the signature of three 16th
 and 17th century censors, testifying to its presence in an Italian library until at least the mid 17th
century: Luigi da Bologna in 1599, Camillo Jaghel in 1613 and Renato da Modena in 1626. The censors had the task of examining and checking all books, both manuscript and printed, in order to authorise or ban ownership and distribution of the work: the text of the Rashi commentary here bears the marks of their work, having been erased or crossed out in a number of places. 

Over the last hundred years only two copies of this rare edition have come to auction: the first in 
1970, printed on vellum and complete, the second in 1998, printed on paper and missing eight 
pages. The Pentateuch to be presented next April is printed on vellum, complete (apart from the 
rear free end paper) and in exceptionally fresh condition. 

Two years after the sensational price realised at Christie’s Paris for a manuscript Mahzor in May 
2012, which set a world record for an illuminated Hebrew manuscript, this is now the second 
occasion on which the Department of Books and Manuscripts has presented a Hebrew book of 
outstanding significance, considered by many to stand alongside the Gutenberg Bible as one of 
the monuments of the history of printing. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Old Torah Scroll

Last week I was approached by a Christian Copt, who was offering this Torah Scroll for sale.

This Torah was missing one Eitz Chayim and the ink was already fading away. All in all, the scroll was in not a great state, and surely not Kosher. Note how it has been cut in the bottom margin, rendering it not Mukaf Gevil, which by itself enough to invalidate the whole scroll. 

The guy wanted 5000 dollars for it, which is an exhorbitant price tag for a scroll that is not usable. Plus, there's a prohibition of purchasing a scroll like this because this kind of transaction will encourage others to steal more scrolls for re-sale. 

Nowadays, many scrolls are inscribed with an invisible mark which allows experts to trace back the origin of the scroll but 150 year old scrolls like this one are difficult to trace and identify. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Yoma 70a - the miztva of "showing off" your Torah Scroll

Here's an interesting anecdote from the Daf Yomi of last month. In Yom Kippur, all (yes, all) the people that were in the temple for the day would bring their personal Torah Scrolls the day before to have a chance of reading from it on Yom Kippur day and displaying the beauty of their scroll. 

From this Gemara we see two important concepts of the Mitzva of writing your own Torah. 
1) you are supposed to use it, be it for learning or just for Krias Hatorah. It is not supposed to be a relic locked inside a safe. 
2) it's commendable to beautify it as much as a person can, so others will see it and appreciate it. This is often called in Halacha זה קלי ואנוויהו.