Tags: learning

shiny jen

samuch l'mincha

Learning Gemara at Hadar again this summer. The classrooms are next to each other, separated by thin walls.

We're talking about the first mishnah in the tenth perek of Pesachim, ערב פסחים סמוך למנחה, לא יאכל אדם עד שתחשך. אפילו עני שבישראל, לא יאכל עד שיסב; לא יפחתו לו מארבעה כוסות של יין, ואפילו מן התמחוי.

"Samuch l'mincha," says Rav Eitan. "What's that mean?"

Silence.

"Anyone?"

In the silence, Rav Elie's voice comes through the wall from the next room, where he is teaching his own class.

"Samuch l'mincha?"

Laughter.
shiny jen

halakha yom iyyun

I forgot to post about the Halakha Yom Iyyun - a lot of the sessions were recorded, and you can download source sheets and watch the videos at http://www.mechonhadar.org/yomiyyun.

In particular, I heartily recommend the Opening Plenary: "Framing Halakhah: Law, Ethics, Philosophy or Values?" Professor Chaim Saiman, Villanova Law School - he had that kind of virtuoso skimming through his sources that you can only get away with when you know your topic ridiculously well, which is just good to listen to.

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
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useful torah reading resources

From Yeshiva University, a couple of useful reference sheets by R' Josh Flug:

Reading from a Sefer Torah That Contains an Error

Maintaining and Repairing an Invalid Sefer Torah.

This is jolly jolly good for two reasons: first, that he's collected up lots of useful source references and put them together neatly in an outline of the main opinions. Second, it's much better you should hear it from someone with more learning and experience and authority and suchlike than me. :) So print 'em out and take 'em away.
shiny jen

Large-print Esther tikkun

Tikkun for learning Megillat Esther, in large print for the partially sighted. 48pt bold type, 1.25 line spaced, 4Mb, .pdf file.

Scrolls for ritual readings don't have vowels or cantillation marks, so readers often use a book called a tikkun to prepare readings. A tikkun has the unadorned text on one side and the text with vowels and cantillation on the other side. However, the text is usually pretty small, much smaller than the letters in a scroll, and the vowels and cantillation smaller still, so preparing from a book may be a good deal harder than reading from the actual scroll.

I have a partially-sighted friend who wants to learn to read Megillah, so I made a large-print tikkun. I figure she's not the only such person in the world, so I'm putting it online for all. Here it is. Enjoy. Leave a comment if you find it useful.

Printing and binding 164 pages is annoying, so I have also made it available on lulu.com, for $11.10 (cost of production).

Here are some resources for learning to chant Megillah:

Virtual Cantor - downloadable recordings of each chapter, and CD available

JOFA's Esther resources (mostly not free)

Mechon Mamre's Esther tikkun. When you mouseover words, the vowels and cantillation appear. The text resizes well.

Thanks to Gabriel Wasserman for proofreading.
shiny jen

(no subject)

I went to see the Valmadonna Trust Library on display at Sotheby's. (Article and slide show of exhibition, courtesy of the New York Times.)

The display looked like a permanent exhibition, with stencilling on the walls and fancy lighting and all sorts. I was surprised at just how posh it all looked; I suppose this is good advertising if you are trying to sell something for forty million dollars. Interestingly, it didn't smell like a library (books, leather, dust) or like a museum (clean, dusted, polished), but like a school art room - poster paint, paper, glue.

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Shmuel HaKatan and the Curse Against The Heretics

I went to two Elie Kaunfer sessions at LimmudNY, both on liturgy. Elie likes liturgy, and it's usually fun to hear people talk about things they like.

We looked at two parts of the central prayer, the 18 Blessings Which Are Really 19. One, the part which asks God to do destructive things to people we don't like, and two, the part about We Can Haz Sakrifis?

This post's about the first one, Shmuel HaKatan and the Curse Against The Heretics - you can download a recording of Elie teaching it here, and the sourcesheet is here. You should listen to it - it's an hour and a bit.

The Curse (or Blessing) Against the Heretics is the one that goes something like this: And for the slanderers let there be no hope; and may all evil perish in an instant. And may all your enemies be swiftly cut off, and the evil sinners soon uproot, smash, throw down, and humble, soon, in our days. Blessed Are You God, who smashes enemies and humbles wilful sinners.

From the sources, it seems Shmuel haKatan didn't like the content of this Blessing much either - he was a bit of a liberal, one who cared about how people were feeling (!). But he said some form of it anyway, and that says to me he had a complicated relationship to this part of the liturgy.

I like this. It says to me that parts of the community have always found this blessing problematic; this isn't new. This is interesting because people don't usually keep doing things that are absolutely against their natures. Stuff that's really really vitriolic I think we tend to tone down over time, and stuff that becomes completely irrelevant we smooth out - since we still have it, the saying of this blessing is accomplishing something we're invested in. Shmuel haKatan and Elie between them prompt me to think about what it might be.

The words themselves are saying something we all want to say, if we're honest about it. There's part of all of us that wants to defend our communal boundaries, and reacts very strongly to people who challenge that. When one's (communal) identity is threatened, saying God, Please Squish People I Don't Like In Nasty Ways is natural enough.

However, I think the experience of saying such words and finding it icky is also doing something important, and that's possibly part of why we're still invested in the blessing. The icky feeling is reminding us that such ideas can be extremely destructive, that being on the receiving end of such sentiments isn't nice at all, that this Isn't A Very Nice Thing To Be Saying. That's why we find this text problematic, after all. We don't want to legitimise those feelings by having them in the liturgy.

From where I am, cutting out the words would, I think, be tantamount to denying that we all feel that way sometimes.* That would be comfortable, but leaving them in is perhaps more useful from a personal/communal moral development perspective. Saying the words and being disturbed by them acknowledges the undeniable sentiment and reminds me that I ought to be aware of it, and I ought to keep it in check. Embracing the ick forces me to stop denying that I have those sorts of defensive feelings, and reminds me that they're not very civilised, simultaneously.

So this helps me combine the icky feeling of those words with my reluctance to prune the liturgy, and helps me see it in a way that's useful to me. This I like very much. Cheers, Elie. :)


* Yes, I know some rites already have this cut. Don't go taking that as a moral judgement of intellectual dishonesty or something. I mean for me, right now, to deal with the discomfort by not saying the words wouldn't be quite right.
shiny jen

scribe school

Picture a room with a couple of soferim in it, writing Torah. A proto-sofer is practising letter samekh. The sound of a lecture on the weekly Torah portion floats in from down the hallway. Another proto-sofer takes a deep breath; she's about to start writing her first mezuzah. Her teacher is there, keeping an eye on her as she turns months of hard study into a real scroll.

A rabbinical student drops in with a megillah; he can't quite work out what he's doing wrong, but someone with more experience can get him back on track. Bolstered with good advice, he goes on his way, passing on his way out another proto-soferet who is coming from her Talmud class. Letter samekh is set aside and the two pull out books and tackle halakha. Mezuzah girl, taking a lunch break, helps them out when they get stuck.

They leave - they have Bible class now - and another student arrives. She's an expert on the Ancient Near East, a university professor and rabbi. She lives in the next state and studies on her own, and comes in every few weeks for an hour's lesson, after which someone is bound to get her into a discussion about texts from antiquity, and everyone will get very excited. After she's gone, work resumes, perhaps punctuated by occasional exchanges of advice or the sharing of a thought on the text. Someone will fetch some tea, someone will take a minute to look up a halakhic ruling. Letter by letter, their scrolls grow.

In the late afternoon, a round-eyed eleven-year-old comes in with her bat mitzvah teacher. They're taking a break from a Torah reading lesson, and coming to see the Torah being written. A Torah scholar spends an hour working on her own calligraphy; she doesn't want to be a sofer, but she likes practising here with the scribes. Her Seeing Eye dog sleeps under the table; she's practically blind, but she finds calligraphy inspiring. Everyone else finds her inspiring.

Around suppertime, a sofer and a proto-sofer arrive from their day jobs. Over supper, they catch up, talk shop a bit, and then set to reviewing some of the basics. They'll almost certainly end up chasing a tangent through the rabbinic literature. Someone will bring an academic perspective, someone will share a midrash; they may finish the evening discussing practical concerns, or philosophy, or awed speechless by some particularly astounding idea.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? And the great thing is, it's not just a pretty dream. It happened last week, and the week before, and the week before, and God willing it will happen next week and the week after and the week after. Baby scribes and proto-scribes and getting-better scribes, people sharing what they know and what they've learned, writing and studying and listening together, and all the while the Torah grows and grows. It's very beautiful.

(I can be emailed for more info.)
shiny jen

(no subject)

AyehNormally, words in the Torah look like this. Just the letters - no vowels, no musical notation, nothing. This week's reading is different: there are some DOTS.

But first I'm going to talk about why nothing other than the letters, cos I think it's interesting.

Put on an arch-traditional hat. Now you believe that the Torah was dictated by God, to Moses, on Mount Sinai. God gave Moses the letters; just the letters, nothing else. Later on, the masoretic system of twizzles and oojits (this is a highly technical term) was used in manuscripts so that the Jews would remember how to pronounce the Torah. But we invented those, and it isn't appropriate to add them to God's Torah. A row of letters can have different meanings, depending on how you pronounce it; the different meanings are part of the multi-layered message of the Torah. Vowels remove ambiguity and strip the Torah of meaning. So the Torah, our record of the ultimate divine communication to humankind, stays as it was given.

Now take off that hat and put on a historian's hat. This is making you focus on how the vowel signs weren't invented until a very long time after the alphabet evolved. Probably a lot of people didn't even get to hear about them until decades, or centuries, after they were invented. For a long, long time there would be a cultural awareness that letters basically don't - didn't - have extra marks. Certainly, after a while they are no longer newfangled, and the cultural memory of "vowels didn't used to exist at all" is gone, but add to this a cultural awareness that the sefer Torah is in some way connected to the security of continuity, and you can quite easily see why people might not be inclined to cover the Torah with these newfangled vowel things. It's been replaced by a cultural memory of "this is a text we don't change," with the instinctive corollary "we can't quite explain why, but it makes people feel really weird if we do it, and that's not good for a community."

This, by the way, is an example of how different kinds of Jews can use different language to articulate the same values. Communally, we have a vague kind of instinct that vowels in the Torah aren't good. How we explain that varies, but the practical result is the same; no vowels.

Elav with dotsHere's our dotty verse - Genesis 18:9, where some angels disguised as random travellers have arrived at Avraham's tent during siesta time, and he's bounded out to meet them with abundant hospitality. And: ויאמרו אליו איה שרה אשתך ויאמר הנה באהל

Vayomeru elav, ayei Sarah ishtekha? vayomer, hineh baohel - They [the angels] said to him [Avraham], where is Sarah your wife? And he said, see: in the tent.

Now, the commentators point out that angels are from God, and therefore they know perfectly well that Sarah is in the tent. Why on earth do they ask Avraham where Sarah is?

Because that's a polite way of starting a conversation, they explain. You know - "Hey, Avraham? How're you? What's up with Sarah?" Okay, that's an acceptable answer.

Now, you can see that three letters of elav - to him - aleph, yud, and vav - have dots over them. What does that spell? Ayo. What's the very next word? Ayeh. Ayeh is a word that means "where is she?" Ayo is a word that means "where is he?"

We explain that just like they said "Ayeh," they also said "Ayo." Just like the angels chatted with Avraham and inquired after his wife, they also chatted with Sarah and inquired after her husband.

Which is cute, and a nice extra window into the story. But the rabbis use it to illustrate a point of good manners: when one visits somewhere, they say, one should inquire after the hostess as well as after the host.

Nice for itself, but also awesome for what it's doing with the text. This particular part of the Torah is high on action and low on mitzvot. You can read the text just as an interesting story, and that's nice, but when you mouseover the dots and get the parenthetical storylet, and its associated mitzvahlet of polite behaviour, it stops being just a nice story that you listen to in shul, and turns into an extra thread in the weave that binds Torah, Judaism, and human relationships. This neatly illustrates the idea that the Torah contains more than just the plain text.

If we had vowels, we wouldn't notice the dots. I already suggested that vowels remove ambiguity and take away some of the Torah's layers of meaning. Dots are a hint that there is even more meaning there than we thought, and it would be a pity if we forgot to notice that.
shiny jen

(no subject)

Talmud which made me chuckle:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi queried the verse in Proverbs, All the days of the poor are evil* - but surely they have Shabbat and festivals?
Shmuel said pessimistically, Change of diet leads to indigestion...

(Sanhedrin 101a, Proverbs 15:15)

Talmud which made me sad:

(As a small point in a long discussion about something else entirely) The world cannot exist without both males and females; happy is he whose children are male, and woe to he whose children are female.

(Sanhedrin 100b)

Ouch. Way to feel really alienated.

More Talmud which made me chuckle:

Ulla was in Babylon, and he saw dates were on sale. He exclaimed, "A tub of honey for a quarter, and yet the Babylonians don't occupy themselves with Torah study!"

During the night he suffered hideously from overeating, and he exclaimed, "A tub of knives for a quarter, and even so the Babylonians occupy themselves with Torah study!"

(Taanit 9b, and okay he said zuz and not quarter, but I translated for meaning, okay.)
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Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible

Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible
Karel van der Toorn

I'm not a scholar of Biblical Criticism or Documentary Theory or any of that. I just copy the Torah.

But if I'd tried to articulate how I think Torah got put together, assuming it didn't get blasted down from heaven all in one piece (you can think that if you want. Like dinosaurs. Maybe they got planted in the Earth's crust last Thursday and we just think there was evolution. Maybe the Torah got dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai and I just think it got put together by people. Same idea, different specifics, different significance, but it doesn't matter for present purposes because I'm talking about the consequences of this particular perception), I would have said, roughly...

A long time ago there were a lot of legends and stories about how the Earth and humans and Israel came to be. People in different places told them in different ways. At some point, perhaps coinciding with some sort of national unification, the stories got merged into bigger stories. As well as the stories, there were pieces of civil legal material, since just as peoples need identity legends they need social structures. There was also quite a lot of legal stuff relating to the structure of the cult. Some of it was written down, some of it was oral. Probably no one group had all the bits.

Deuteronomy probably came into being around the time of Josiah, who was doing some serious nationalising and wanted a Book which combined identity stuff with legal stuff and religious stuff so that people would be on board with him forging the kingdom into one nation under God, as it were.

The other stuff was firmly entrenched in the national identity, so at some point, perh under Ezra the Scribe who was also doing some serious nationalising, it got turned into Genesis thru Numbers and tucked into the Written Material of the Jews. Said Written Material was probably quite fluid for some time, bc of approximately-centralised religion and limited literacy, but at some point fluidity stopped being acceptable and One Version was allowed. That is Torah.

Given that, here's what I'm taking away from van der Toorn's book:

a) There were a lot of stories, legends, legal codes and stuff knocking around in early Hebrew oral culture; some of them got written down as aids to oral transmission, preserving different variants of stories (repeated motifs in Genesis, for eg); combining the variants into one large version is quite in line with the sort of thing scribes would do to texts. The idea of fidelity to a set text is anachronistic at this point. Later scribes when writing stuff down would combine material in storyteller-like ways as they saw fit.

b) When Josiah centralised religion in J'lem (c.620 BCE) he needed some sort of legitimisation, so a bunch of stuff got written down and "discovered"; centralised religion => one master copy of covenant with deity = deuteronomy. Later scribes made replacements when earlier scrolls wore out. Because scribes copied but also edited, they added bits as they saw fit, preserving major chunks of text intact but frequently adding opening and closing sections in line with the political, etc, concerns of the time. One master copy => this is easily done.

c) Around the time of Ezra (c.450 bce), Persia ruled Judah and required Judah to come up with some sort of legal code (he brings evidence for this from Darius requiring the same of Egypt). So Ezra and chums wove together the stuff from a)and b) into a single written text.

d) At some point, written text acquired authority over oral text, so "It is written" carries weight that "It is said" does no longer. After this, editing the text as per a) and b) is less acceptable. This takes place over centuries. Also, being written down as per c) and made into administrated law makes it authoritative in the sense that the rulers of the province say this is the law, and you can't change it any longer.

e) I didn't read the stuff on the prophetic material very hard, because I don't know Prophets nearly as well as I know Torah. Similar sorts of things, by and large, but in a later framework with different specifics. Procedure as for b); by about 200 BCE there were no more changes in the text.

It was an interesting book, but it struck me as the sort of thing where an awful lot of scholarly effort goes into demonstrating something which seems more or less common sense. This either means it was trivial or that he is saying things which are probably right. Since I couldn't have provided scholarly evidence for a lot of the things he said about ancient culture, history of writing, social development of the book, etc, I hope that it wasn't trivial. I think I would be glad to know it was in a library I had access to, but I wouldn't spend my own money on it unless I had quite a lot of spare money.