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(Maimonides) Talmud Torah (Mean As Spit)


Curious about the initial reluctance among Haredi authorities to shut down the yeshivot in response to the coronavirus, I went to take another look at the Hilkhot Talmud Torah in the Mishneh Torah. My thoughts about the Haredi response were and remain two. The first concerns the importance of talmud Torah as a supreme and overriding value in those communities. The second is the notion that the value of talmud Torah is social-structural, not strictly “spiritual” as such.

Hilkhot Talmud Torah suggest something of a piece. They lack the charm of the paean to Torah and to Torah study in the midrashic sources, or that spiritual sublimation in Talmud and Kabbalah. One could chalk that up to the fact that this is a halakhic document, that it lacks that warm glow. But more to the point is the rationalism brought to the text, and that this rationalism draws attention to social function. Not God and not even Torah, what matters unambiguously to Maimonides in this Hilkhot Talmud Torah is first and foremost the social authority and privilege of the sages.  No kidding around and almost nothing soft about it, there is a rough and nasty feel to the laws of Torah study.

Chapter 1 is largely about fathers and sons. It outlines the obligation of talmud Torah, namely who is and is not obligated to study Torah themselves and to teach their sons, establishing designated times, etc. While women are not obligated (1:1), they do receive reward for Torah study, but not as much as men do, because men are obligated, and women are not. But Maimonides does not want fathers to teach their daughters Torah because they will turn it into something idle, etc, etc.  (1:13).

Chapter 2 concerns children and teachers. The reference here is to the melamed. There is some concern about unmarried melamdim and the mothers of students. Of special note. Children should never be interrupted from their studies, not even for the sake of building the Temple (2:2). We see here the supreme value placed on talmud Torah, and will see it again in the next chapter.

Chapter 3 is very important. It establishes the authority of Torah as one crown next to the crowns of kingship and priesthood, while placing alongside the authority of Torah the authority of the sages. Of interest is the relation between the Torah study and his business interests. Of special note is the notion that none of the mitzvot are equal to the mitzvah of talmud Torah, that its study is equal to all the mitzvot on the talmudic rationale that study being prior to and the condition of deeds (3:3).

Chapter 4 concerns the moral deot of teachers and students, and teacher-student etiquette.  The reference here now shifts to the rav or master.

Chapter 5  highlights the importance of honoring the rav, respecting their authority; a student should never contest a rav. Attention is paid to worthy and unworthy students and to the social hierarchies of the academy.

Chapter 6 upholds the privileged social status, not of the rav, but of the sage or Torah sage (chacham or talmid chacham), including proper deference. When to sit, when to stand, etc. Among many things, Torah sages are exempt from contributing to taxes and to public work projects (6:10). Of particular note. The entirety of the last four halachot of this chapter concern the great sin (avon) of disgracing or hating sages. Included are the rules for placing under the ban of ostracism (nidui) those who do so. Maintaining the social and moral order, the last halakha of this chapter lists twenty-four cases that would submit a person to a ban in relation to the disrespect of Torah sages and in general (6:11-14).

Chapter 7 opens with the touchy subject of the conditions under which and how a sage or other communal functionaries might be banned (7:1) before continuing to discuss bans and the lifting of bans in general. Starting in the last halkhot of the previous chapter, talmud Torah has completely dropped out from view as a subject matter.

Without naming it as such, chapter 7 and the tractate as a whole brings the student back to the middle way. It is not a good thing for a Torah sage to get accustomed to banning people, and to that effect, he should not be in the habit of listening to the words of common people. The pious of previous generations would pardon insult and take pride in pleasant deeds, and never issue bans to secure their own honor. Note that this is not a legal norm, but a pious one that is worthy of being followed.  But there is a definite condition. If the insult is in private, then okay. In response to public insult, the Torah sage is forbidden to forgo his honor because of the disrespect to Torah. This is the final word of the tractate. In such a case and until the offender requests pardon,  the Torah sage should seek vengeance, acting in the matter like a snake (7:13).

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Biden & FDR & Walter Lippmann


Watching some progressives [fill in verb of your choice] online about Biden while others, for instance here, are kvelling at the same time about Cuomo. Tis little bit here at Politico about political resilience and adaptability with reference to Walter Lippmann and FDR is what caught my attention. Against the rigid binaries of radical thought, thinking in particular about liberal resilience and the capacity to meet political challenges in situ.

“Ambition and anxiety both gnaw at him constantly,” the columnist Walter Lippmann wrote Felix Frankfurter, then a law professor and later a Supreme Court justice, as Hoover floundered desperately during the early days of the Great Depression. “He has no resiliency. And if things continue to break badly for him, I think the chances are against his being able to avoid a breakdown. When men of his temperament get to his age without ever having had real opposition, and then meet it in its most dramatic form, it’s quite dangerous.”


The phenomenon works in reverse: presidents who displayed leadership dimensions that were unseen by most observers, and possibly by the presidents themselves, until crisis summoned greatness. Lippmann famously described the man campaigning to be Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as “an amiable boy scout,” and “a pleasant man, who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.”

As Lippmann’s biographer, Ronald Steel, explained, the columnist’s critics never stopped rubbing his nose in that quote. But Lippmann lived for more four decades insisting, accurately, “That I will maintain to my dying day was true of the Franklin Roosevelt of 1932.”

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(Coronavirus Tent) Mount Sinai St. Luke’s (Now Mount Sinai Morningside)


(W. 113th between Morningside Drive and Amsterdam Ave.)


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(Maimonides) The Difference Between Religious & Secular Is The Difference Between Heaven & Earth (Mishneh Torah)


By way of a little contribution via Maimonides to academic arguments about the existence or non-existence of “religion” and “the secular.” The argument is that the two terms along with the judgment that posits either the difference or separation between them is a modern-Christian-Protestant projection onto non-Christian discursive traditions that allow for either no such separation or no such distinction. Part of the argument, in Judaism, is that there are no indigenous terms for what we call “religion.” For instance, the modern Hebrew term for religion (dat), Persian in origin, in ancient, antique, and medieval Hebrew simply means law (h/t Joshua Schwartz).

This is by no means entirely true. There is a structure to things. For an indigenous term in medieval Hebrew to signify what we moderns mean today by religion, look for the term shamayim (heavens), and eretz (earth, land, world).

Right now for the purpose of this short post, I’m looking at Hilkhot Deot, an emblematic textual site dedicated to “laws” dedicated to human virtues and norms, morality and physiology. Situated in the Mishneh Torah, the monumental code of Jewish law coded by Maimonides, it is the second collection of law in the first “book” or section, Sefer Madda (the Book of Knowledge).

Instructive there is this. On one hand, Maimonides  tells his students to direct all their physical actions l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of heaven) (3:3), the consideration of which drops out almost entirely in the next chapter (chp.4) detailing the physician’s best advice regarding how to eat, sleep, engage in sexual intercourse, bathroom etiquette and bathing, etc.  In chapter 6, regarding when to rebuke a fellow person, a distinction is made between “matters between one person and another” (devarim sh’bein adam lachaveiro) versus “matters of Heaven” (divranei Shamayim).  About the former one should never scorn or otherwise abuse one’s fellow. About the former one is  encouraged to do so, as per the practice of the prophets (6:8).

On the other hand is the proper virtue (deah nechunah) that concludes Hilkhot Deot, which is yishuv ha’aretz (stabilizing the land). The reference is to the secular telos of social order and interaction represented by trade and commerce between one human being (ben adam) and another (7:10).  (Fitting into this paradigm we could add the rabbinic concepts bein adam l’chaveiro versus bein adam la’Makom [matters between a human person and their fellow versus matters between a person and God] and also the terms derech eretz [ways of the world] and even the rabbinic tikkun olam [mending the world])

What’s left to work through in their full complexity is the relative separation and non-separation between these two value-orientations. For an outline of the entire Mishneh Torah, see here at Sefaria and pasted below.  Confusing the issue only a little or a lot is that the Book of Holiness considers the laws of forbidden intercourse, forbidden foods, and ritual slaughter. But that only means that, in Judaism, the axis between the religious and the secular does not run completely through the axis of the physical and the non-physical. For the most part, the division of halakhic material is organized according to a more or less clear division between what we today would call religious-ritual law and secular law, between matters of heaven versus matters between one human being and another.

Clear enough and for the purpose here, in the medieval Hebrew of Hilkhot Deot, the difference between the religious and the secular is the difference between heaven and earth.

Mishneh Torah משנה תורה

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(Zohar Says) Burn Incense To Forge Bonds with Ein Sof (Coronavirus)


Reading around I learned something, this about the Zohar on the power of the Tabernacle-Temple incense and, today, regularly reciting the verses concerning it to stay the plague and all other demonic forces. The Zohar picks up its cue from Aaron who steps into breach between the living and the dead with a pan of burning incense to save the people from the divine rebuke of a pestilence. The incense is special, more beloved than all rituals and devotions, the flesh, as it were, that forges every single day binding links and bonds with the Ein Sof, producing radiance, removing filth. In the Zohar, I’m pretty sure that “Preparation of the Incense” refers to those biblical verses that note the ingredients that went into the making of the incense. The main body of material is in Zohar 2:218b-219b.

Elon Gilad here at Haaretz refers to a passage from the Midrash Ha’Ne’lam portion of the Zohar that describes a ritual based on these verses. “In this case, the Zohar, which appeared in 13th century Spain, relates a legend about the 4th century Palestinian rabbi called Rabbi Aha, who arrived at a town ravaged by an epidemic. The townsfolk ask for his advice and he tells them to assemble their 40 most pious men in the synagogue. After they studied the Talmudic passages concerning the incense in groups of ten in each of the four corners of the synagogue, the epidemic stopped.” Gilad claims that this became a traditional ceremony, still practiced today.

Usually I prefer to transcribe this kind of material, but I can’t find anything readily online in English, so I decided to photograph and post below the pages from the Pritzker translation from the main body of the Zohar. The story about Rav Aha, alas, is from a volume of the Pritzker (vol. 10) locked away up in quarantine, up in Syracuse.



I’m being reminded that the Pitum Ha’Koteret was incorporated into the Ashkenazi and Sephardi siddur (prayer book). (You won’t find it in the Conservative Movement’s Siddur Sim Shalom). Shaul Magid is pointing me to b.T. Keritut 6a and Yerushalmui Yoma 4:4. for the original language brought into to the language of the Siddur. Note, however, that the point of the mishnah (2a) is to threaten with karet anyone who intentionally blends the Temple incense and anointing oil. In the gemara, the rabbis reveal the ingredients.

Keritot 6a:

ת”ר פיטום הקטרת הצרי והציפורן והחלבנה והלבונה משקל שבעי’ של שבעים מנה מור וקציעה שיבולת נרד וכרכום משקל ששה עשר של ששה עשר מנה הקושט שנים עשר קילופה שלשה וקנמון תשעה בורית כרשינה תשעה קבין יין קפריסין סאין תלתא קבין תלתא אם אין לו יין קפריסין מביא חמר חיוריין עתיק מלח סדומית רובע מעלה עשן כל שהוא ר’ נתן אומר אף כיפת הירדן כל שהוא

The Sages taught in a baraita: How is the blending of the incense performed? Balm, and onycha, and galbanum, and frankincense, each of these by a weight of seventy maneh, i.e., seventy units of one hundred dinars. Myrrh, and cassia, and spikenard, and saffron, each of these by a weight of sixteen maneh. Costus by a weight of twelve maneh; three maneh of aromatic bark; and nine maneh of cinnamon. Kersannah lye of the volume of nine kav; Cyprus wine of the volume of three se’a and three more kav, a half-se’a. If one does not have Cyprus wine he brings old white wine. Sodomite salt is brought by the volume of a quarter-kav. Lastly, a minimal amount of the smoke raiser, a plant that causes the smoke of the incense to rise properly. Rabbi Natan says: Also a minimal amount of Jordan amber.

ואם נתן בה דבש פסלה חיסר אחת מכל סממניה חייב מיתה רש”א הצרי אינו אלא שרף [הנוטף] מעצי הקטף בורית כרשינה ששפין בה את הציפורן כדי שתהא נאה יין קפריסין ששורין בו את הציפורן כדי שתהא עזה והלא מי רגלים יפין לה אלא שאין מכניסין מי רגלים למקדש

And if one placed honey in the incense he has disqualified it, as it is stated: “For you shall make no leaven, nor any honey, smoke as an offering made by fire unto the Lord” (Leviticus 2:11). If he omitted any one of its spices he is liable to receive death at the hand of Heaven. Rabbi Shimon says: The balm mentioned here is nothing other than a resin exuded from the balsam tree, not the bark of the tree itself. The Kersannah lye mentioned is not part of the ingredients of the incense itself, but it is necessary as one rubs the onycha in it so that the onycha should be pleasant. Likewise, the Cyprus wine is required as one soaks the onycha in it so that it should be strong. And urine is good for this purpose, but one does not bring urine into the Temple because it is inappropriate

From Jewish Virtual Library, the following information:

PITTUM HA-KETORET (Heb. פִּטּוּם הַקְּטֹרֶת; “ingredients of the incense”), the initial words of a baraita (Ker. 6a and TJ, Yoma 4:5, 41d) which enumerates the various species of incense offerings in the Temple service every evening and morning (see: Ex. 30: 34–38). In the Ashkenazi liturgy, this talmudic passage is recited on Sabbaths and festivals at the end of the Musaf prayer immediately after the *Ein ke-Elohenu hymn; in the Sephardi ritual it is recited every morning and afternoon. The custom of reciting Pittum ha-Ketoret is based on a quotation in the Zohar (to Num. 224a), where it is stated that a person who recites the section of incenses will be spared death (see also: Num. 17:12 and Yoma 44a). In Provence (southern France), it was customary to recite Pittum ha-Ketoret at the departure of the Sabbath, after the Havdalah service, as a good omen for wealth and prosperity (Abraham ha-Yarḥi, Sefer ha-Manhig, ed. Berlin (1855),

The Hebrew from the Ashkenazi Siddur at Sefaria is here:

פִּטּוּם הַקְּטרֶת. הַצֳּרִי. וְהַצִּפּרֶן. הַחֶלְבְּנָה. וְהַלְּבונָה. מִשְׁקַל שִׁבְעִים שִׁבְעִים מָנֶה. מור. וּקְצִיעָה. שִׁבּלֶת נֵרְדְּ. וְכַרְכּום. מִשְׁקַל שִׁשָּׁה עָשר שִׁשָּׁה עָשר מָנֶה. הַקּשְׁטְ שְׁנֵים עָשר. וְקִלּוּפָה שְׁלשָׁה. וְקִנָּמון תִּשְׁעָה. בּרִית כַּרְשִׁינָה תִּשְׁעָה קַבִּין. יֵין קַפְרִיסִין סְאִין תְּלָתָא וְקַבִּין תְּלָתָא. וְאִם אֵין לו יֵין קַפְרִיסִין מֵבִיא חֲמַר חִוַּרְיָן עַתִּיק. מֶלַח סְדומִית רובַע. מַעֲלֶה עָשָׁן כָּל שֶׁהוּא. רַבִּי נָתָן הַבַּבְלִי אומֵר. אַף כִּפַּת הַיַּרְדֵּן כָּל שֶׁהוּא. וְאִם נָתַן בָּהּ דְּבַשׁ פְּסָלָהּ. וְאִם חִסַּר אַחַת מִכָּל סַמָּנֶיהָ חַיָּב מִיתָה:

רַבָּן שִׁמְעון בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אומֵר. הַצֳּרִי אֵינו אֶלָּא שרָף הַנּוטֵף מֵעֲצֵי הַקְּטָף. בּרִית כַּרְשִׁינָה שֶׁשָּׁפִין בָּהּ אֶת הַצִּפּרֶן. כְּדֵי שֶׁתְּהֵא נָאָה. יֵין קַפְרִיסִין שֶׁשּׁורִין בּו אֶת הַצִּפּרֶן. כְּדֵי שֶׁתְּהֵא עַזָּה. וַהֲלא מֵי רַגְלַיִם יָפִין לָהּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁאֵין מַכְנִיסִין מֵי רַגְלַיִם בַּמִּקְדָּשׁ מִפְּנֵי הַכָּבוד:

Ittai Hershman shared this photo from the Koren OU Sacks Siddur:



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(Maimonides Says) Cultivate the Middle Way (Hilkhot Deot) (Coronavirus)


At the time of a global health pandemic, where better to turn than to the Great Eagle? Hilkhot Deot is a moral-medical compendium, famous for its elaboration upon the Aristotelean mean. But that’s not the half of it. The larger prospectus on moral and physical health includes a spiritual or religious orientation while remaining, on the whole and in the round, “secular,” meaning social, not “religious” as such. About this polemical distinction, a hot topic in academic Religious Studies, more below.

In broad outline:

Chapters 1-2 lay out the middle path, naming the virtues one should cultivate, being humility and silence, and against arrogance and anger. Be gracious,  merciful, and holy, just like God (1:6). Some traits you are born with, others you have to acquire (1:2). Maimonides understands the force of habit and behavior on moral disposition. From one extreme, bend back to the middle (1:3). Included are behavioral modification tips meant to habituate the student vis-a-vis actions conducive to moral balance, as well as tips meant to cure those whose moral traits or habits are flawed (2:1-2). The middling affect is flat and evenly balanced (1:4, 2:7). Silence is a fence for wisdom (2:5).

Chapter 3 is “religious.” Don’t abstain from what the Torah permits (3:1). But don’t be a glutton and eat like a dog or donkey (3:2). The main thing is to be whole and strong in body in order to know God and to serve God constantly, every deed directed for the sake of Heaven (3:3). Chapter 3 is relatively short, which may not be entirely irrelevant if one assumes that this is not a “religious” body of law.

Chapter 4 is very long, a point that is not entirely irrelevant. The opening halakhah reminds the student that health and sound body are among the ways of God. But the moral and religious themes from the previous chapters drop off in this chapter as attention turns to all the rules of healthy living related to digestion, physical exercise, bathing, bloodletting, and sexual intercourse (4:2-22). Torah sages are forbidden to live in a town without a doctor, a bloodletter, a bathhouse, a latrine, a reliable water source, synagogue, a teacher of children, and a scribe, a charity supervisor, a rabbinical  that can’t impose corporeal punishment (4:23).

Chapter 5 returns the student to the moral ideal represented by the wise man (chacham) and Torah sage (talmid chacham). Masculine archetypes, these are ideal types whose de’ot or traits must be especially perfect in relation to food and wine, sexual morality and the appearance of sexual morality, bodily comportments, dress, and personal finances and business dealings (5:1-12).  The final halakhah of this chapter concludes with this decorative flourish. The sage is the servant through whom God is glorified (5:13).

Chapter 6 has its focus social associations and norms. Avoid bad people and places where the norms are wicked.  Always keep the company of the righteous and wise. Cleave to them and through them to the Divine Presence (7:1-2), love your neighbor and love each and every Jew, and converts (7:3-5).  This is a mitzvah-commandment. While you should never hesitate to rebuke your fellow person there are proper and improper ways to do this  (7:6-7). Be especially careful for widows and orphans, special objects of God’s concern (7:10). The introduction of God in this context looks like a tactical stand-in for the absence of any court-of-law-punishments for those who violate this social norm.

Chapter 7 is dedicated especially against malicious gossip (lashon ha’ra), revenge, and grudge holding. Chapters 1-4 speak to individual student. These are the right moral characters. Here’s how you take care of the body. Chapters 5-7 turn to social authority and to the social good. The last word of the last chapter sets aside intellectual perfection or spiritual illumination. The “proper de’ah” is social, the primary good in this text and the telos of this body of law, including the religious piety it evokes. It makes it possible to maintain the stabilization of society (yishuv ha’aretz), trade, and commerce between human beings (bnei Adam) this with the other (7:8).

On the difference between what we today call the religious and the secular, I don’t think this is simply a modern construction. There are indigenous terms for it here in Maimonides and in his 12th C. milieu in the Islamicate world. In Hebrew, we have already seen the term “for the sake of Heaven (l’shem Shamayim) in chapter 3.  In chapter 6 Maimonides makes a distinction about how and under what circumstances to rebuke other people. One should never embarrass a fellow person in public, he says, but then adds, only regarding “matters between one person and another” (devarim sh’bein adam lachaveiro). Religious would be those “matters of Heaven” (divrei Shamayim) about which one may not only shame a person in public but abuse, scorn, and curse people, as was the practice of the prophets (6:8). Between heaven and earth, “l’shem Shamayim” and “divrei Shamayim” refer to something distinct, if not entirely separable from yishuv ha’aretz.



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