Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Shirat Haazinu: 70 or 67 lines?

One of the few columns that stand out in a Sefer Torah is Shirat Hayam, with its “brick and mortar” shape, and Haazinu, with its “two towers” shape. As a general rule, the Torah Scroll has small blank spaces scattered around every column, and they serve to delineate paragraphs and to provide to the reader a moment of reflection.

I have written about the importance of the correct placement of these blank spaces, called in Rabbinic parlance Parshiot Petuchot and Setumot, in an older post and I encourage you to look there too.

But as a whole, the Torah layout is a continuous prose in all its columns, save the two instances mentioned above. Both are songs, and it seems that the unusual layout is intended to highlight their poetic structure. Commentators offer more esoteric explanations, that the two towers Haazinu layout allude to the downfall of the wicked, which are mentioned in one of the stanzas (this explanation is also applied to the two tower layout of Haman's wicked sons in Esther's Scroll, discussed here).

The Rambam dedicates many pages to the correct layout of all Parshiot in the Torah, and he writes that Shirat Haazinu should be divided in 70 lines. Look at the text in Sefaria:
צוּרַת שִׁירַת הַאֲזִינוּ - כָּל שִׁיטָה וְשִׁיטָה יֵשׁ בָּאֶמְצַע רֶוַח אֶחָד כְּצוּרַת הַפָּרָשָׁה הַסְּתוּמָה. וְנִמְצָא כָּל שִׁיטָה חֲלוּקָה לִשְׁתַּיִם. וְכוֹתְבִין אוֹתָהּ בְּשִׁבְעִים שִׁיטוֹת. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן.

That’s indeed how our Torahs (see example pic at the top of this post) are structured - both Ashkenazi and Sephardi scrolls - in accordance to the Rambam’s account and we would expect that to be the case, as the Rambam had in his possession the prized Aleppo Codex - the most authoritative codex according to our tradition.

The Yemenite Jews have a handful differences in their Mesora of the Torah text, minor differences in the spellings but one very visible variance stands out. Their parshat Haazinu is written in 67 lines, unlike Ashkenazi and Sephardic scrolls.

When looking closely, they have a different arrangement in three stanzas, which are merged together forming a longer, more squeezed, line. Because of that, the layout of their Haazinu column is much less homogenic and the “two towers” are not perfectly aligned. See a picture of the Yemenite tikkun:

We all know the Teimanim follow the rulings of the Rambam closely, which in turn begs the question - how do they reconcile their Mesora with the Rambam?

Let’s turn to the Aleppo Codex again. As I discussed elsewhere, this codex is attributed to the Masorete Ben Asher, and was salvaged from the Aleppo synagogue pillaging in the 1947 Arab protests against the establishment of the State of Israel..

The local Sephardi community guarded the Codex closely, and very few outsiders managed to find a way to look at it. One of the few was Humberto Cassuto, a famous scholar who wanted to investigate if this Codex was indeed the one attributed to the Ben Asher lineage. Professor Cassuto was granted limited access and couldn’t study it throughly, but he cast doubt at the provenance of the Codex because he saw that the Haazinu of the Codex had 67 lines, and not 70 lines as discussed in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah.

Many scholars started to investigate this finding. It turned out that the Yemenites have a different reading of the Rambam and in their manuscripts it states that Haazinu has 67 lines - just like Professor Cassuto observed in the Codex, except he wasn’t aware that his own Rambam’s edition was corrupted. The very feature Prof Cassuto found to be suspicious turned out to be the best proof of the authenticity of the Codex. An early manuscript of the Rambam from Oxford's collection has the same version as the Yemenites, and that's how Mechon Mamre has it in their online Rambam:
יא  צוּרַת שִׁירַת הַאֲזִינוּ (דברים לב,א-מג)--כָּל שִׁטָּה וְשִׁטָּה, יֵשׁ בְּאֶמְצָעָהּ רֵוַח אֶחָד כְּצוּרַת הַפָּרָשָׁה הַסְּתוּמָה, וְנִמְצֵאת כָּל שִׁטָּה חֲלוּקָה לִשְׁתַּיִם; וְכוֹתְבִין אוֹתָהּ בְּשֶׁבַע וְשִׁשִּׁים שִׁטּוֹת.  וְאֵלּוּ הֶן

Although almost all the Chumash part of the Codex was destroyed (or hid away, as claimed by Matti Friedman’s great book discussed here), the Haazinu pages observed by Prof Cassuto have survived and can be seen in the Israel Museum and online. See it here:

The Yemenites kept the Rambam’s Mesora (save one puzzling, small variance towards the end of Haazinu in the stanza starting with "Gam Betula" which the Yemenites start with the preceding "Gam Bachur" - the similar words seemed to have caused this confusion). The Ashkenazi and Sephardi did not, and there was an obvious attempt to cover up the discrepancy between their tradition and the Rambam’s.

The Ashkenazi and Sephardi structure of 70 lines has its source in the Masechet Sofrim 12 (exact link here, where it states the first word of every line totaling 70), which is one of the handful small tractates found in the Babylonian Talmud and is generally attributed to the Gaonic period. Even though the Codex was housed in Aleppo - a major Sephardic center - for a very long time, the Sephardic world adopted the 70 line tradition which was the most prevalent and based their text in Rabbi Meir Aboulafia’s (who was an opponent of the Rambam) Masoret Seyag Latorah - not the Aleppo Codex. Ironically, the Aleppo community guarded the Codex as its prized relic while following another Mesora for the Haazinu parsha.

A few scholars have attempted to conduct studies of Torah Scrolls from different pre-war communities in regards to their Haazinu structure, in order to discover how prevalent was the 70 line structure. Scholars have found that there were more than two options - some scrolls had a little more than 70 lines while others fewer than 67, some had no unique structure at all, while others had Haazinu in the brick and mortar layout of Shirat Hayam! It seems like the scribes generally knew that Haazinu had a special layout but had limited knowledge of how to write the special structure.

The difficulty in regards to Haazinu stems from this Talmudic passage in Megillah:
אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר פָּפָּא, דָּרֵשׁ רַבִּי שֵׁילָא אִישׁ כְּפַר תְּמַרְתָּא: כּל הַשִּׁירוֹת כּוּלָּן נִכְתָּבוֹת אָרִיחַ עַל גַּבֵּי לְבֵינָה  חוּץ מִשִּׁירָה זוֹ וּמַלְכֵי כְנַעַן, שֶׁאָרִיחַ עַל גַּבֵּי אָרִיחַ וּלְבֵינָה עַל גַּבֵּי לְבֵינָה. מַאי טַעְמָא — שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא תְּקוּמָה לְמַפַּלְתָּן — 
Said Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, Rabbi Shila, a man of the village of Temarta, expounded: all songs -- all of them -- are written a small brick (writing) above a brick (blank space), and a brick above a small brick, except this song (Sons of Haman) and [the song of] the kings of Canaan, which are a small brick above a small brick and a brick above a brick.
Note that Haazinu is not mentioned as one of the exceptions, and you could infer from this passage that Haazinu should be written like all other songs - in a brick and mortar fashion! That is the likely explanation of why some older scrolls have this feature - perhaps some scribes based themselves in the simple understanding of this Gemara. The Noda Biyuda discusses the Halachic status of this layout and based on this understanding he tries to find a way to not invalidate these scrolls. See below how a Haazinu in brick-and-mortar shape would look like:

However, the Masechet Sofrim mentioned above is categorical, and clearly states that Haazinu is not to be written like Shirat Hayam, and that's the normative Halacha - even though the Masechet Sofrim is from the Gaonic period and hence, theoretically less authoritative than the Talmud.

Professor Mordechai Breuer, one of the leading experts of the Aleppo Codex of his time, attempted to harmonize the Talmudic passage above with the ruling of the Masechet Sofrim by developing the idea that Haazinu is not a real Song/Shira, and therefore not the subject of the Talmud's discussion above. In other words, Haazinu is in a category of its own and it's unlike Shirat Hayam, Bnei Haman and Shirat Devorah (see here page 23 for further discussion and a great resource in this topic).

The complexity of this Talmudic passage is the best explanation of why there's not one single option when it comes to writing Haazinu - the Talmud is not unambigious and the scribes had a tough time getting it right.

However, studies have shown that in both Ashkenazi (Prof Goshen-Gottstein) and Italy (see Prof. Orlit Kolodny here with more details), the most common layout was undoubtedly the 70 line structure, as per the Masechet Sofrim. Less than 10% of the 250+ scrolls surveyed have the 67 layout, which means that the Rambam/Yemenite Mesora was actually not very popular. While the Rambam tried to push for the 67 Mesora in his very detailed account of how Haazinu should be written, it seems clear that already in his time this Mesora was not dominant and his initiative did not gain much traction in the wider Jewish world. The fact that the Rambam's manuscript was censored to conform with the 70 line Mesora is an indication that there was a heads on push back to the Rambam's directive, and the censorship was a very efficient way to safeguard the prevalent Mesora of the Masechet Sofrim - it even fooled an expert scholar like Prof Cassuto.

So next time you go to the Israel Museum and see the Aleppo Codex page of Haazinu, you will see in it not only a strange layout but also a story of competing Mesoras going back over 1500 years, and why we don’t follow the Codex in our Torah Scrolls today.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Rabbi Meir's Torah

"בתורתו של רבי מאיר מצאו כתוב, "והנה טוב מאד" (בראשית א, לא) - "והנה טוב מות" (בראשית רבה וילנא, ט, ה)

"ויעש ה' אלקים לאדם ולאשתו כותנות עור וילבישם" (בראשית ג, כא). בתורתו של ר' מאיר מצאו כתוב: "כותנות אור" (בראשית רבה תיאודור-אלבק, כ, כא)

This Medrash says that Rabbi Meir’s Torah had some variant readings distinct from our mainstream Mesora. Instead of טוב מאד, his text was טוב מות; instead of כותנות עור, he had כותנות אור

This is a puzzling and difficult concept to understand. The Talmud (Eiruvim 13a) says that Rabbi Meir was an expert Sofer, who learned by the foremost leaders of his generation - Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. 

While a small variant reading of עור and אור is a relatively minor issue, Rabbi Meir’s other variant - טוב מות - seems completely different and unrelated to the mainstream text. What can be the connection between טוב מאד and טוב מות, which was highlighted by Chazal as a point of variance between two traditions ?

I usually like to follow a somewhat scholarly approach in my posts, but to answer this question I will turn to Derash. 

There are many comments about  the connection between עור and אור, mostly based one the famous Zohar that originally the skin of Adam was translucent, full of light, but after his sin it turned like our skin, hence the connection between the words. 

Exploring this concept further, I've heard in the name of Reb Tzadok Hacohen |(please comment if you have the written source)  that specifically Rabbi Meir had the unique ability to understand the ultimate purpose of everything in this world and how all connects in a meta-physical reality. In his perception, כותנות עור was very clearly not just leather clothes but clothes hiding a spiritual light and Rabbi Meir could perceive that in all creation at any given time - not only before Adam’s sin. For Rabbi Meir, all creation was connected and he saw how that worked.

What about the connection of מאד and מות

If we take Reb Tzakok’s insight a step further, that our traditions and Rabbi Meir's reflect two different worldviews, let’s analyze why this specific variant has been highlighted. Both מאד and מות start with the Mem, the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the letter representing the present time. We can see that Rabbi Meir could start from the Mem and perceive the very end-objective of everything, and this is codified in the word מות, going from the Mem directly to the Tav - the final letter of the alphabet and the ultimate goal. 

However, our perception is not like Rabbi Meir’s, and we cannot connect all the dots of the world around us. The best we can do is try to go back to how things started and from there try to find meaning. That’s the מאד - starting from the Mem, going to back to the Aleph which is the symbol of Hashem’s unity and then to the Daled, which is the letter highlighting how Hashem interacts with our world. That’s our approach to dealing with this world (see more about this concept in Ari Bergmann's podcast here).

Hence we find a possible connection between the two readings and how they represent differing worldview approaches, as explored by Reb Tzadok. It turned out to be that Rabbi Meir’s approach was not tenable, and the mainstream text is indeed טוב מאד

Of course, this discussion leads to the question of how the Torah text can have variant readings, which in turn challenges the Rambam’s view that our Masoretic text is the “immaculate text”, without any changes through time. To read a great piece on this, which requires a more scholarly approach, see this great post at the Kotzk Blog, discussing what would happen if we would find an authoritative old scroll that differs from our accepted Masoretic text. 

One possible conventional answer is brought by the Torah Temima (source), who writes that some understand the Medrash to be referring not to Rabbi Meir’s actual Torah Scroll but his written novelea, where he expounded the meaning of the Torah text. Or perhaps his marginal glosses written around his personal Torah Scroll. In other words, he had no actual variant Mesora. 

Be it as it may, as for the connection between מאד and מות, we have found that these variant readings can be understood not as a mere curiosity; it’s a hidden message highlighted by the Medrash, and up to us to understand its message.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Lavlor Judaica - it's here!

As a Sofer I have spent countless hours looking at letters and also studying different concepts and ideas brought down in Chazal in the field of Safrut. By definition a Sofer is a copyist, and my job is do write my Torah Scroll as uniformally and perfectly as possible, without much room for creative work.

When I started in Safrut, I even considered adopting the obsolete Mesora of Otiot Meshunot for my personal Torah, as these letters are a great medium for creative and artistic work. I quickly realized it was a bad idea, as the mesorah of these odd letters is lost and not in use, so how could I write a scroll with a lost mesora? The whole point of a Torah Scroll is adhering to the accepted mesora of our day, and that's what I did in the end.

I'm exploring my creative urge in Safrut in a different way. I developted a design concept that is rooted in a sofer's work and also in many commentaries in the Torah - the concept of the interplay between Black Fire (written letters of the Torah) and White Fire (invisble letters that surround the written letters). 

According to tradition, the white letters will be revaled in the future, and we can only ponder what they actually are. It's hard to visualize how these invisible letters will actually appear in the Torah Scroll, as our scrolls today are so simple and unidimensional. But the invisible letters are there, and it is said in the name of the Arizal that while all Jews have a corresponding letter in the Torah, this personal letter might be actually not a written letter but an invisible one located in the blank klaf (by the way, this is way many have the minhag of looking at the Torah Scroll at the time of Hagba in shul, as the Ari said that you might evetuallt peek at your letter and connect to it).

My design is an attempt to crystalize this interplay between visible and invisble letters, and I got inspired when writing my recent post on the Four Legged Shin of the Tefillin. This odd letter is precisely one of the invisible letters which surround a normative written Shin, and it got me thinking how each letter from the Hebrew alphabet can relate to others. The most obvious combination is the famous Peh-Bet interplay, which scribes always make sure to create whenever writing a Peh in the Torah (with a small inner Bet). But there are many other possibilities, for example, a Yud inside a Kuf and so on. 

My first design variation is called Black and Color Fire, which is the best way to visualize how a black letters might be surrounded by many other invisible letters (represented by the colored letters) at any given time.

Then you have the fully colored design, called Color Fire, which is more uniform and perhaps more pleasing to the eye.

Lastly, I made a B&W version called Black and White Fire, which was the hardest but surely my favorite. It was a challenge to form the letters using only grayscale colors, because it's harder to spot the different letters around the canvas. It brings me back to the black and white scheme of the Torah Scroll, which is the pallete I always face when writing.

These designs are available for everyday items, as there's no reason why we should not be constantly reminded of the sanctity of the Hebrew letters and their relevance to our daily lives. While a Torah Scroll is mostly kept safe out of eyesight, my design is made with our modern world in mind and with the intention of bringing scribal ideas out in the wild. You have shabbos mugs, backpacks, phone cases and pillows. Soon you will be able to buy Mezuzot as well. It's more traditional then my wacky Banana art Mezuzah, which was really my first attempt at creating a Judaica piece.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Tefillin's Four-Legged Shin

The Tefillin shel Rosh has the distinctive feature of possessing a regular Shin in its right side, and a bizarre four legged Shin in the opposite side. Considering that the Tefillin is a very popular and publicly displayed Mitzva, most people are aware of this strange four-legged Shin but few know the story behind it. We we will explore this topic in this post.

The Talmud in Shabbat 62a and in Menachot 35a brings in the name of Abaye that the "Shin, Daled and Yud of the Tefillin are all 'Halacha LeMoshe Misinai'" i.e. an oral tradition dating back to Sinai. The comentators note that there are allusions to the Daled and Yud in the Tefillin's knots, and these allusions are not literal but rather loosely based in the letters Daled and Yud - see diagram on the right. Only the Shin is clearly written as a full fledged letter.

Before we delve into the Shin, which stands out from the other two letters, it's worthwhile mentioning the great controversy in regards to the Daled which is related to our topic - how to identify the letters in the Tefillin.

Up to a few hundred years ago, all communities - Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite - had the same Daled-style knot in the back of the head and it looked like a square knot (also referred to as Double Daled knot) - see image below. Looking at the Original Daled (below), it's not immediatedly evident the resemblance to the letter Daled but if you consider two Daleds, connected to each other, you can arrive at that picture. Then it came the "new Daled", which is more like a single letter Daled and more immediatedly identifiable.

Rabbi Fleckless (1754-1826), a student of the Noda BiYuda, writes in his response (link here) that we must keep the established square knot, and refrain from adopting the "new daled knot which has surfaced around 50 years ago... and we only have our tradition to rely on (square Daled)". We can gather that the new Daled shape (also called Single Daled knot) was introduced in the 18th century by the influence of Kabbalah, and Rabbi Fleckless (like his teacher) was a staunch traditionalist and fought any changes introduced by Hassidim based on Kabbalistic ideas (other changes include the Leshem Yichud prayers before Miztvot, which I explored in an earlier post).

The new, single Daled knot proved to be very popular and with the expansion of the Hassidic movement in Europe and also with the wide adoption of Kabala by the Sephardic communities, the Single Daled eventually became the standard knot present in most Tefillins sold in the marketplace. I've seen this phenomena in my own family - while my grandfather has the square knot, most of my cousins today have single Daled knots in their Tefillins - only because the new Daled is the standard in the shops and they didn't pay attention. 

From this discussion, we can already glean that the letters in the Tefillin are very loosely based on the actual scribal letters used in scrolls and not meant to be actual letters. The same used to be the case with the Shin - it wasn't originally a full fledged letter as we have today in our Tefillins, and like the Daled knot - which with time evolved to be more clearly identified with the letter - the Shin also underwent transformations.

While the Talmud does not elaborate on the nature of the Shin, early sources point out to a possibility that the original allusion to Shin was actually just the actual shape of the Tefillin shel Rosh - the four different compartments resemble the Shin when looked straight on (or from the back) - see picture to the right. Rav Elyakim, a tosafist (quoted by the 13th century work Or Zarua), brings this possible explanation along with the more popular and accepted tradition - writing the shape of the Shin in the sides of the box. 
The box itself alluding to the Shin
The Box itself looking like a Shin of 4 heads (black part)

Also possible to observe a traditional Shin of 3 heads if you focus in between the compartments

Notwithstanding this novel Shin allusion brought by Rav Elyakim, the prevailing custom throughout the ages evidently is to write Shins on the sides of the boxes. The earliest clear mention of the Shins in the sides of the Tefillin is the Shimusha Raba (who, by the way, has a different order of the four parshiot in the Tefillin unlike Rashi and R. Tam - explored here), an ancient work on Tefillin from the Gaonic period (roughly 589-1000CE):

"צורה דשין דימינא ג' רישי, ודשמאלא ד'
רישי, ואי אפיך לית לן בה"

"The shape of the right Shin is with three heads, and of the left is four heads. And if he made the opposite, it is of no concern"

Note how this passage only talks about three and four heads - that’s no coincidence; the original tradition was to write only the Shin lines without a base. The base of the Shin was the actual Tefillin Box base, serving as a flat base, as we learn from the talmud the the Shin should be touching the base (וצריך שיגיע חריץ למקום התפר) and the lines were not even very clear scribal letter - just lines (see below).

Ancient Tefillin, where the Shins are only lines touching the box base (source). See another example here

A scribal shin without a base, as per Yemenite custom 

As time passed, people started to made the Shin look more and more like the scribal shin, abandoning an allusion to an actual literal interpretation, leaving no mistake that this is a Shin. However, the Tefillin producers were carefull to always make sure the Shin is touching the base of the box even with the modified custom. 

Rabbi Yosef Karo writes explicitly, that "he heard that the Ashkenazi Jews make the Shins as simple lines... but we make them as actual printed letters... and go out to see what is the custom today (printed letters)". (see source here, midway through the page: ושמעתי שהאשכנזים נזהרים בכך, שמקמטים העור במלקט על ידי כפילה שכופל מהעור עד שנעשים סעיפי השיני"ן בחקיקת ירכות. אבל אנו נוהגים לעשות השיני"ן בדפוס, וגם בארחות חיים כתוב שיש אומרים שאין לחוש בזה, ופוק חזי מאי עמא דבר, עד כאן לשונו)

It is clear that the Shin in the Tefillin went through some significant transformation over time. Rabbeinu Simcha even writes that one should not "change from the old minhag of simple lines. If he wrote as an actual printed letter...we don't have the power to invalidate it" - a clear indication that he favors the early custom. (in hebrew:  וזה לשון הגהות בברוך שאמר, בשם רבינו שמחה: ושי"ן אין לשנותה ממנהג זקנים, שהיו עושין בקמט של עור הבית. ומיהו אם עשאה בדפוס, או כתבה בדיו על בית לבן, אין בידינו לפוסלה, עד כאן לשונו)

Now that we have established the two options of displaying the two Shins - either simultaneously in the shape of the actual box of the Tefillin or as two actual letters in the sides - we must understand what is the need of showing the second Shin. 

There are two forms of writing in Hebrew. One is what is referred to as “Moshe Rabeinu’s writing”, which is the standard writing method of a quill and parchment. The other writing form is the Ktav of the Luchot - Decalog, which was not written as a Torah Scroll but through carving in stone - and it was a Godly work,  delivered to Moshe at Sinai. In this form of writing, the letters are formed by the surrounding space made from stone. The letters themselves are hollow, nothing on their own. When writing a Shin, the surrounding space of the standard Shin looks like a four-legged Shin. 

According to Kabbala, the written Torah is only a part of our Torah - the surrounding spaces (i.e. negative spaces) are also part of the Torah but they are not revealed to us readily. They are mostly concealed, but they can make up sentences and a whole different level of teachings. 

The extra Shin is there to symbolize the hidden Torah from the surrounding letters, perhaps to remind us we only have access to part of the Torah. We can only speculate about the novel letters and wordings that will be revealed in later days, but I have seen an interesting drawing that helps illustrate how many possibilities there can be. 

Interporsing possible wordings within letters
Peh Bet
Famous interplay between Pei and inner Bet

The Arizal (quoted here ) says that a person should look at the Torah Scroll after the weekly portion, when the Torah is displayed to the congregation (hagba’a), because every Jew has a corresponding letter in the Torah and perhaps he will find his if he looks for it. 

I've also heard in the name of the Ari, a person who yearns for wealth will have a letter connected to a word or sentence in the Torah relating to money. Someone who is drawn to helping people or healing people will be drawn to a letter corresponding to this topic. But, says the Arizal, a Jew can have not a letter but an empty space surrounding the letter of the Parsha and that carries meaning and relates to the person in some esoteric way. Hence, the written and blank spaces in the Torah scroll are equally important, and that is the message of the two Shins in the Tefillin.

I suspect that this can also explain one well established scribal tradition in the beginning of the Torah. While the tradition relating to extra tagim in the Torah as brought by the ancient Sefer HaTagim has been lost, scribes still do four extra tagim in the Bet of Bereishit - one of the very few surviving extra Tagim in our modern day Torahs. Perhaps these four lines convey the same message of the four-legged Shin of the Tefillin - it relates to the other writing form which was found in the Luchot. While our Torah Scroll is written in the traditional way, we keep tagim that look a four-legged Shin in the very first letter of  the Torah to allude to the invisible Torah, just like we do in the Tefillin, because the written Torah and space surrounding it are actually one unit, although we only have access to the Torah we see in writing. 

As we have seen, the shape of the Shin in the Tefillin evolved through time and it carries a great deal of symbolism. The Shin is also the main feature of the Mezuza, which has the Shin Daled Yud inscribed in the outside of the parchment and the widespread custom is to write a Shin in the outside of the Mezuza case - similar to what’s done in the Tefillin shel Rosh. The Tefillin and Mezuza have this commonality, and  they stand out in regards to the importance attached to the Shin, one of Judaism‘a most mystical and beautiful letters.

I conclude with the Talmud in Brachot 6a:
א"ר אבין בר רב אדא א"ר יצחק מנין שהקב"ה מניח תפילין שנאמר (ישעיהו סב, ח) נשבע ה' בימינו ובזרוע עוזו בימינו זו תורה שנאמר (דברים לג, ב) מימינו אש דת למו ובזרוע עוזו אלו תפילין שנאמר (תהלים כט, יא) ה' עוז לעמו יתן ומנין שהתפילין עוז הם לישראל דכתי' (דברים כח, י) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה' נקרא עליך ויראו ממך ותניא ר' אליעזר הגדול אומר אלו תפילין שבראש 
In short, the Talmud says that even God himself dons the Tefillin (!) and that the Tefillin relate to the passage "all the people of the world will see the name of Hashem in you, and they will fear you" - they will see the Tefillin shel Rosh and become fearful. Throughout the ages, the Tefillin has been a staple of Jewish life with amulet-like status, and archeologists even found them in Qumran, dating over 2000 years, and they look very similar to ours today - that alone, a great feat and giant testament of how well we kept our traditions, if if there were some minor tweaks in the body of the Tefillin.
Tefillin found in Qumran (source)

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Mezuza Art

Mezuza Art! 

How far can Judaica art go? 

In my opinion, it hasn’t gone far enough. Of course, there must be respect and reverence to the subject matter - holy scrolls that need to be treated as such. With that said, it’s hard to find Judaica items that are modern or inspired in pop-art, for example. 

Perhaps this has to do with the history of the Jewish people, who often needed to hide their religious items or at least be discreet. But in the present time such concerns no longer apply, and at the same time art has become ubiquitous and present in most homes - even if their Mezuza cases are passable. I think modern art can elevate Jewish practice in a very unique way, infusing it with added symbolism and imagination. 

Not long ago, M. Cattelan was able to elevate a simple banana into a 6 figure art piece (sarcastically called Comedian), which has become an instant pop art hit. This is my prototype for my house’s Mezuza case, which is suitable for 10cm Mezuza scroll. I needed a way to add the traditional Shin to the case, so I used the theme of Chiquita bananas, which is the most popular brand here in Europe. A mezuza case inspired by a banana pop artpiece? Why not. If we keep it respectful, a Mezuza Banana art case can be a tool towards elevating your home and perhaps showing that if a banana artpiece hung in a wall can fetcha whooping U$120,000 price tag, our Mezuzot are surely worth more. Or is this only good enough for Purim? 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Pitum HaKetoret on Klaf - a Good Idea?

One of the most popular Judaica items today is the Pitum HaKetoret, an excerpt of the Tamud in Kereisos 6, written like a Sefer Torah in parchment in various layouts, often times together with a Menorah-shaped Lamnazeach alongside it. This is probably the cheapest Safrut item a person can buy, and it can be used daily in Shachrit and Mincha prayers. 

This item always puzzled me. It’s an oddity to write Talmudic passages in parchment like a Torah or Megillot - there’s no precedent to this. The Ketoret has two passages of the Torah, and then a Baraita expanding on all the ingredients of the Ketoret as it was done in the Temple.

Before addressing this minhag of writing the Ketoret in Klaf, let’s step back and understand why we recite the Pitum Haketores every day and it’s importance.

The Beis Yosef (OC 133) writes that in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (9th century) there was the full passage of Pitum Haketoret as in our Siddurim today - a testament of how old is the custom of reciting this passage in the prayers.

It would seem that its importance is similar to all the other passages about the Temple services in our daily prayers - as we cannot perform them in our days, we recite them and it's considered like we made the sacrifices, or in the words of the prophet Hosheaוּֽנְשַׁלְּמָ֥ה פָרִ֖ים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ, "instead of bulls we will pay with our lips" - our prayers are today's sacrifices.

But there's a stringency in the Ketoret, already mentioned by the Rama (16th century - source here), that a person must read it from a written text but not from memory, because of the halacha that in the times of the Temple, forgetting any of the ingredients of the Ketoret incense was punishable by death. As mentioned, we recite the Pitum Haketoret in order to emulate the Ketoret preparation, therefore a person must make sure not to forget any ingredients, and reciting it by heart will inadvertently cause you to skip something some day. 

In fact, this is why Sephardim to this day, and Belz Hassidim, are careful to count with their fingers each ingredient while reciting the Pitum Haketoret - an extra layer of protection against skipping an ingredient (the source of this Minhag is Rabbi Chaim Vittal, the Arizal's prime disciple, in his Pri Etz Haim - here). See video below where you can visualize this Minhag, as performed by an Iraqi Jew. 

Therefore, we can say that there's definetly something different about the Pitum Haketoret, unlike other passages we recite in everyday prayers.

The emergence of the Zohar (see Vayakhel) and Kabbalistic minhagim in the 16th century brought the concept of reciting the Pitum Haketores to a whole new level, highlighting its esoteric value and protective properties (specially against plagues; that's why many are reciting it in the current Covid-19 epidemic, see article) to those who recited it, with the note that “there’s nothing as dear to Hashem as the Ketoret”. 

The Arizal popularized this concept and encouraged his followers to recite this passage twice daily, in Shachrit and Mincha, with maximum concentration, with the caveat that it should only be recited during the day but not in nighttime because of Kabbalistic considerations (although the Rama, mentioned above, and others specifically advised to recite it after Maariv). 

In our Siddurim today, the Ketoret is printed twice in Shachrit - once in the very beggining, before Hodu, and a second time in the very end before Aleinu, but this came about because of conflicting opinions about the optimal placement for the Ketoret in the morning prayer, and Siddur printers opted to follow both opinions. Many people only recite it once in Shachrit, usually at the end, and once again before Mincha.

Rabbi Moshe ben Machir, another famous Kabbalist who lived in Safed at the same time, wrote in his important work Sefer Hayom (source here);

החושש עליו ועל נפשו ראוי להשתדל בכל עז בענין הזה ולכתוב כל ענין הקטורת בקלף כשר בכתיבת אשורית ולקרות אותו פעם אחד בבקר ובערב בכוונה גדולה ואני ערב
He who is afraid for his life, should focus all his might in this topic and write it in a Kosher parchement, in Ktav Ashuri script, and recite it once in the morning and again in noon with great concentration. And I am the guarantor.

This is the earliest source recommending the writing of the Pitum Haketores in parchment, with Safrut lettering. Note his unusual wording "and I am the guarantor", meaning that he is personally attesting the protective powers of this passage if recited in the prescribed manner.

The Kaf Hachaim (19th century - source here), respected Kabbalist and Chief Rabbi of Turkey, also brings that the Ketoret "should be written like a Sefer Torah and it will bring him constant wealth", in addition to many other segulot associated with the Ketoret.

But there aren't many more sources to the Minhag of writing the Ketoret in klaf, and while all Kabbalists highlight the importance of the Ketoret, almost no one writes anything about writing it specifically in Klaf like a Torah Scroll. Perhaps this connected to the prohibition of writing a Torah scroll with only a few scattered passages, mentioned in the Talmud (Gittin 60a) and seemingly undisputed in practical Halacha, as quoted by the Rambam:

מֻתָּר לִכְתֹּב הַתּוֹרָה כָּל חֻמָּשׁ וְחֻמָּשׁ בִּפְנֵי עַצְמוֹ וְאֵין בָּהֶן קְדֻשַּׁת סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה. אֲבָל לֹא יִכְתֹּב מְגִלָּה בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָהּ שֶׁיִּהְיֶה בָּהּ פָּרָשִׁיּוֹת. וְאֵין כּוֹתְבִין מְגִלָּה לְתִינוֹק לְהִתְלַמֵּד בָּהּ. וְאִם דַּעְתּוֹ לְהַשְׁלִים עָלֶיהָ חֻמָּשׁ מֻתָּר.:  
It is permitted to write the Pentateuch, each book in a separate scroll. These scrolls have not the sanctity of a scroll of the Law that is complete. One may not however write a scroll containing some sections. Such a scroll may not be written for a child's instruction. This is permitted, however, where there is the intention to complete the remainder of the book. 
The Shulchan Aruch follows suit (here), therefore casting serious doubts about the permissibilty of writing the Pitum Haketores, which has a few Biblical passages, in parchement like a Torah Scroll. It's perhaps no coincidence that we have no precedent to writing something like the Ketoret in Klaf, and the question is not anymore why there are so few sources to this Minhag but how is it at all permitted. 

This prohibition is also applicable in everyday issues like writing Psukim in wedding invitations, which are commonly adorned with passages like אִם לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת יְרוּשָׁלַֽיִם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי or Kol Sasson veKol Simcha (see picture). Many scupulous individuals avoid writing it, or modify the passages slightly in order to avoid writing a scattered Pasuk (see here for an interesting article discussing this and other Halachic problems involved in Psukim in wedding invitations, by Rabbi Kaganoff) - and the Pitum Haketores, written in parchement and Ktav Ashuri like an actual scroll, would be even more problematic if written exactly like a Sefer Torah.

Perhaps the supporters of writing Ketoret in Klaf today utilize the Halachic heter of Es Laasos Lashem, which justifies writing Oral Torah even though there's a different, all encopassing prohibition of writing it in any form. This Halachic justification, which overrides the prohibition on the grounds that Chazal at the time of the Mishna felt that there was no other way to preserve the Torah, could be extended to the idea of writing a small scroll like the Pitum HaKetoret. This possibility is brought down by the Mizahav Umipaz (link), which has an excellent overview about many of the issues raised in this article.

Any way you slice it, it's difficult to find Halachic precedent to justify writing the Ketoret like a Sefer Torah and I haven't found many responsa on this issue. Perhaps this custom was not as widespread in previous generations. I was pointed to Rav Ovadia's responsa , in his magnum opus Yebia Omer (ח"ט יו"ד סי' כג) who disapproves this minhag (rather surprising, as it goes against the Kaf Hachaim, and Rav Ovadia was often careful to justify established Sephardic customs) but says that if you already have a Ketoret written in Klaf, it's no problem to read from it - a paradoxical answer (see this link for a quite and discussion about Rav Ovadia's ruling).

In practice, the Pitum Kaketores today is commonly a scribes' inauguration work because the Halachot of Torah, Tefillin and Mezuza do not apply to this novel scroll and therefore it's a good way to practice while not being afraid of making mistakes. One of my first works was indeed a Pitum Haketoret and guess what, I skipped a line but never thought it was a big deal (see picture). But as we have seen, there's one Halacha about this scroll that is more stringent than any other scroll - a Sofer cannot skip a word from the Ketoret ingredients lest he will be punishable by death! Baruch Hashem, it turns out that I skipped one of the very last lines, so without knowing at the time, I actually dodged a bullet by sheer luck.

After I got familiar with the issues discussed above, I have a whole different level of appreciation for the Pitum Haketores recitation - it is really a standout feature of our daily prayers. However, the sad reality is that, as the Rama predicted, people run through this tefillah because it is at the end of morning prayers and everyone is rushing for their daily schedules. I don’t remember last time I davened in a Minyan that gives enough time to say it word by word - the Chazzan will always rush towards Aleinu. And as noted by the Kaf Hachaim, if recited without the proper focus and rhythm, it has no esoteric value and even worse, it can even cause a major transgression of skipping a word from the Ketoret. The Ein Maavar Yabok (17th century) writes that the Chazzan must recite the whole section aloud just like the Shemone Esre, in order to make sure the Shul will have enough time to recite the Ketoret.

Notwithstanding the obscure origin of this Minhag, the reality is that it is very widespread today and one can find a Pitum Ketoret in hanging in many synagogues around the world and also in private people's tefillin bags - Ashkenazi and Sephardi. While the Halachic weight seems to be against this practice, some authorities try to find Halachic loopholes (see Mizahav Umipaz here for some suggestionsin order to justify this widespread Minhag, which could perhaps be referred to as a "Minhag Israel Torah Hi" - a well established Minhag can have validity even if it's not well justified. However, the most important thing to discuss is not whether the Ketoret should be written in parchement or not. What is crucial is having the proper state of mind, and knowing how important the Pitum Haketores is in our daily prayers.