Category Archives: history

Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History

Excerpts from the foreword of “Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History”
Ismar Elbogen, Translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Publication Society and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1993

Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (Amazon, USA)

Jewish Liturgy Elbogen
Foreward by Raymond P. Scheindlin

Seventy years after its first appearance Ismar Elbogen’s “Der Judische Gottesdienst in seizer geschichtlichen Enrwicklung” remains the only academic study of the Jewish public liturgy in its entirety. It is a monument to the historical and philological approach that characterized Jewish studies — and humanistic studies generally — in the last half of the nineteenth century. It is an ambitious work, covering the areas traditionally treated by liturgical scholars and going far beyond them to deal also with synagogue organization, architecture, and music. Though Elbogen’s reconstruction of liturgical history and the book’s intellectual matrix are somewhat outdated, his work remains the most exhaustive compendium of factual information about the Jewish liturgy, and it is likely to remain so for some time.

Elbogen’s book can be read in two ways: as a scientific history and description of the Jewish liturgy; or as a monument to the outlook of a religious Jewish intellectual in nineteenth – and early twentieth—century Germany.

Elbogen’s book is very much a product of turn-of-the-century German Jewish scholarship. Like many works of the period, it impresses the contemporary reader with its sheer erudition, its delight in facts, and its bravura citation of sources. It breathes confidence that, given patience, common sense, objectivity, and exhaustive knowledge of the sources, the truth can be found. Yet, for all its objectivity and despite its marshaling of evidence for every claim, it is also an engaged book — engaged sometimes to the point of lyricism, and sometimes to the point of crankiness.

Liturgy was a living issue for Elbogen, for he saw the challenge facing the liturgy as a miniature version of the challenge facing Judaism in general. For Elbogen, the question of whether the liturgy could adjust to modernity while retaining its authentic character was a test case for the ability of Judaism as a whole to survive in a manner that would do justice to its past.

Writing soon after a period of radical experimentation with all forms of Jewish life, Elbogen was sympathetic to the need for reform. He saw the orthodox refusal to diagnose accurately the dangers faced by Judaism as a symptom of atrophy. He denounced the orthodox rabbis of Germany for refusing to participate with other rabbis who attempted to confront these dangers more actively. He was convinced that the fossilized orthodoxy of his age would strangle Jewish religiosity unless the spirit of life could be salvaged from its ritualism. He knew that the true spirit of Judaism did not lie in blind traditionalism; yet he had faith that beneath the petrified religious institutions a real religious spirit was still alive, waiting to be blown to life. In our age of fundamentalist revival, Elbogen needs to be heard again, for he reminds us that the path of uncompromising traditionalism leads nowhere.

But Elbogen was not complacent about the Reform movement, for he did not believe in radical upheaval. He believed that the ancient liturgy gave voice to simple, eternal truths, and that these truths could be recovered not by radical change but by careful, scientific restoration. He held that an awareness of the history of the liturgy could provide the discipline that would prevent reform from turning into anarchic experimentation. He sought legitimate rather than indiscriminate change; restoration and refurbishing rather than revolution.

Thus, Elbogen’s history of the Jewish liturgy is a work of pure scholarship, yet at the same time it is a contribution to the urgent debate on the future of Jewish religious life. In treating matters of fact, Elbogen is rigorously objective, marshaling sources and weighing evidence down to the finest minutiae. But the objective data are in service of a larger religious vision, and in matters of opinion bearing on this vision Elbogen is passionate. Precious traces of the man behind the book and of the intellectual climate of his times are scattered throughout these pages: the author’s polemics against what he saw as superstition, rigidity, and illogic; his lyrical effusions on the synagogue poetry of the Golden Age; and his pride in Judaism’s contribution as the first Western religion to devise a verbal means of communication with God.

Elbogen’s Judaism was traditional, yet rational and anti-mystical. His warm feelings about tradition are couched in language that today may ring too sweet for some; yet in these expressions he is quite as sincere as he is in his harsh condemnations of both radical reform and blind traditionalism. His anger at liturgical changes made out of ignorance is as vehement as is his anger at hidebound orthodoxy.

His opposition to mysticism reflects a nineteenth-century perspective that some of today’s religious liberals might find odd. Insofar as mysticism represents a religion of the heart and a rebellion against rigidity, Elbogen is inclined to describe it favorably; accordingly, his tone grows agreeably warm at the beginning of his chapter on the influence of mysticism on the liturgy. But when mysticism crosses a certain intellectual line he sees it as superstition not only because of its inherently irrational character, but also because of its association with socially reactionary forces. Here Elbogen provides us with a badly needed corrective. For in our desperate late twentieth-century quest for spirituality we tend to forgive mysticism its ties to intellectual reaction and superstition, which Elbogen could still observe in full bloom.

Thus, Elbogen’s peculiarly objective yet engaged work has wisdom for our own time.

History of Publications

Elbogen’s magisterial work first appeared in German in 1913; second and third editions appeared in 1924 and 1931, respectively, each edition being revised and supplemented with additional notes. An abridged Hebrew translation of Part 1 by B. Krupnick appeared in 1924. In the course of the fifty years following the original publication of the book, Judaic scholarship made considerable progress in several fields related to the liturgy. Materials discovered in the Cairo geniza contributed to knowledge of the ancient Palestinian rite and of medieval liturgical poetry. Developments in archaeology enhanced the knowledge of the ancient synagogue. The study of Jewish mysticism became a full-fledged academic discipline. By the time the work began on a new, complete Hebrew translation, it was felt that ir was necessary not merely to translate but to update Elbogen’s work.

Accordingly, a team of scholars was formed under the general supervision of Professor Hayim Schirmann to provide supplementary material for the new Hebrew translation of Elbogen’s book. Professor Joseph Heinemann served as coordinator and editor for this new Hebrew edition, which appeared in 1972. Professor Heinernann also added the supplementary material for the sections dealing with the wording and history of the statutory prayers, the reading of the Torah, and the liturgical customs of the synagogue — that is, §§6-30, §§34—38, and perhaps §§43~44. Professor Schirmann edited the chapters of the book bearing on Hebrew sacred poetry, its development, genres, and forms (§§3l—33, 39—42). Professor Jakob Petuchowski wrote the supplementary remarks to the chapters on the history of the Reform movement and its prayer books (§§45~47); Dr. Abraham Negev brought up to date the treatment of ancient synagogue buildings (§§48—49); and Dr. Israel Adler summarized the consensus of scholarship on the history of synagogue music (§54).

Introduction: The Historical Development of the Liturgy

Jewish liturgy has unparalleled importance in the history of religions, for it was the first to free itself completely from the sacrificial cult, thus deserving to be called “The Service of the Heart.” Likewise, it freed itself of all external paraphernalia, such as worship sites endowed with special sanctity, priests, and other incidentals, and became a completely spiritual service of God. Because its performance required no more than the will of a relatively small community, it was able to spread easily throughout the world. It was also the first public liturgy to occur with great regularity, being held not only on Sabbaths and festivals, but on every day of the year, thus bestowing some of its sanctity upon all of life. This effect was all the more enduring in that the daily morning and evening services, originally the practice of the community, soon became the customary practice of individuals, even when they were not with the community.

The format of Jewish prayer was not always the one that is familiar to us today; at first it was neither as long nor as complex. Both the order of prayer as a whole and the individual prayers have changed in the course of time, so that “the liturgy of today is the fruit of a thousand years’ development.” (Zunz, Haderashot, 180).

At first there was no fixed liturgy, for the prayers were not set down in writing; only the gist of their content was fixed, while their formulation was provided by the presenter in his own words. Public prayer was brief, and when it came to an end, the individual worshiper laid out his own petition in silence. But the prayer of the individual was displaced little by little until it vanished completely from public worship. The ancient prayers could not be lengthy, and their content had to be clear and simple; there was no room for convoluted language or structure. But once these prayers had become entrenched, they were subject to continual unconscious expansion, resulting from the need for innovation, changes in taste, outside influences, and the practice of individual holy men.

These expansions consisted of wordier development of the existing themes, the insertion of biblical verses and verse-fragments into the text, and poetic embellishment of the established text. They were small in scale, simple in form, and clear in their manner of expression. Thus, there crystallized little by little a stock of prayers that was in use every day of the year, though with minor changes on particular days; and since these prayers were closely attached to the old nucleus of the prayers, we call them “statutory prayers” (Stammgebete).

Beginning in the fourth, fifth, or sixth century, soon after the recording of prayers in writing was permitted, there arose another type of expansion—free poetic compositions based on religious teachings, particularly on the themes of the festivals. These were called piyyutim [singular, piyyut — Engl. trans.] a term derived from Greek. The piyyut brought into the liturgy a dynamic element that lent it variety. Its character was formed and its content fixed by artistic taste and religious outlook, which varied considerably by country and period. The piyyut was entirely optional; its content and form were not subject to regulation or limitation. Because of it, public worship became long and involved, resulting in the great variations between countries and communities that we designate by the term ‘rites’ (minhag).

No sooner had the wanderings of the Jews and the invention of printing begun to reduce these differences somewhat when along came mysticism, which introduced a new influence into the service, one that was deep and not always beneficial. It brought new outlooks, additions, and expansions; it occasioned a shift in the conception of prayer, emphasizing the secondary and obscuring the essential. From this point on, the quantity of prayers was taken more seriously than the correctness of their wording. Late additions and petty usages were cultivated industriously, while the statutory prayers were treated casually, and the behavior of the worshipers became undisciplined.

Only the critique of Mendelssohn’s circle and the Reform movement one hundred years ago brought about an effort to elevate and refine worship in the synagogue. The newly revived taste for simplicity, sublimity, and solemnity found in the realm of prayer a rich and rewarding field. Since then all movements have worked to improve and simplify public worship. And while the early attacks had to do with the external form of prayer, the transformation of the Jewish people’s civil status and advances in theological study soon gave rise to other demands. Ample room was demanded for the vernacular, both in the prayers and in sermons. Like the tradition as a whole, the statutory prayers become subject to critical judgement; to the extent that their content or style did not suit the spirit of the times, they were altered or eliminated. The prayer books of the Reform congregations adopted a fundamentally different form from the one that had preceded them. Since these books were first composed, prayer has been the subject of intense struggles that are waged passionately to this very day.

Essays by Raḥmiel Ezra Travitz

About the author: I love studying and the pursuit of knowledge. I have wide-ranging interests in many fields, including philosophy (especially epistemology and legal philosophy) and specifically Jewish philosophy; Jewish law, western law and comparative law, politics, general semantics and languages (including ancient languages and comparative language), psychology, economic theory, anthropology, and much more.

Rabbinical College of Australia, Talmud and Jewish Studies, Alumnus
Deakin University, Faculty of Arts and Education, Faculty of Business and Law, Undergraduate

Calligraphic Art by Rahmiel Ezra Travitz


The Original Source and Halakhic Status of the Custom of wearing Costumes on Purim

The Custom (Minhag) of Eating Dairy on Shavuot

Practical Guide to the Laws of Ḥanukka according to the Geonic/Maimonidean Tradition

Responsum on the Applicability of Decrees and Laws in Changing Circumstances in Jewish Law: the legal principles ‘Shema’ and ‘BeMiltha deLo Shekhe’ha Lo Gazru Rabbanan’ in Jewish Law

The Arabic Poem “I am the Iraqi, I am” by Emile Cohen, with a Historical and Explanatory Commentary

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Decree Against Drunkenness (Booklet titled “To Drink Like a Chossid”)

Pages of Talmud


Peshat and Derash

Jews study the Tanakh (Bible) on multiple levels: The two basic levels of Tanakh study are termed peshat and derash.

The first is the פְּשָׁט‎ “peshat”, taking the story of the text at face value. It should not be translated as “literally”, as the peshat level of analysis takes into account idioms, metaphors, personification, etc. The peshat is the message that the original author intended to get across to the original audience.

The second level is the distinctively Jewish דְּרַשׁ “derash” method: the way that Ḥazal (חז”ל‎‎) – the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds – interpreted the text: In derash we ask why the text is phrased the way that it is: we uses rabbinical literary techniques to plumb the depths of the text to find new meaning, or bring out connections and lessons that may not have been intended by the original authors. Sometimes the results are imaginative, and not the meaning intended by the original author. Indeed, some parts of the midrash literature are clear that the authors knew this. They were teaching lessons and writing Biblical homilies.

In the Mishnah and Talmud itself, some discussions show that rabbis felt that the derash was the original meaning of the text, while other discussions clearly understood the derash as filling-in-the-blanks, and creating meaning, laws and structure.

Even during the medieval era both schools of thought continued: Some meforshim (classical Bible commentators) such as Rashi, often accepted the derash as literally and historically true, while others (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra) felt otherwise.

Conflating the derash with the peshat later became a defining characteristic of more fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism. Understanding that they are not identical became characteristic of non-fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism.

Ari Marcelo Solon writes “Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir) clearly
distinguished between peshat and derash. His terminology relating to the peshat category is well-defined. Rashbam consistently interpreted in accordance with the peshat method; that is to say, he limited himself to the text itself, interpreting it according to its vocabulary, syntax and context, in relation to biblical parallels, according to common sense as well as derekh eretz (what is customary). Unlike Rashi, Rashbam did
not integrate biblical text and Midrash. It was Rashi who paved the way towards a clear distinction between peshat and derash in the writings of his successors. Yet in his commentaries, such a distinction still remains unrevealed.”

Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) may deny that there is any difference between peshat and derash, and they characterically teach that we are obligated to accept the derash as if it is the literal, original and only interpretation of the Bible. They may refer to any other approach as heretical.

In contrast, rabbis who appreciate great medieval Bible commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, or who follow philosophical rationalism, often have exactly the opposite approach: Such rabbis are found within much of Modern Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox Judaism.

Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shalom Carmy (Yeshiva University) explains the difference between peshat and derash like this

1. Peshat–what text meant for first generation audience. Derash- what it may mean in retrospect. (Rabbi D.Z. Hoffmann says this).
2. Peshat– what’s in the lines; Derash- what’s hinted at between the lines, OR
2′. Peshat–what’s in the text; Drash- “filling in gaps” of what’s not explicit in text.

The relations between these levels is complicated & function differently in Halakhic and narrative contexts.
There are also ambiguities–what’s written in the first chapter of a book often has one meaning when you read the book the first time and another meaning when you get to the end. Likewise what a pasuk means in Shemot may appear different after you have reached Dvarim.


Correctly Construing Biblical Verses Upon which Halakhot Claim to be Based, Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Ibn Ezra vs. Rashbam –  Can The Torah Contradict  Halacha (Jewish Law)?

Does Halakha Uproot Scripture? Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis” by Rav Prof. David Weiss Halivni (Oxford U. Press 1991)

The Religious Significance of the Peshat, Uriel Simon. Tradition 23 (2), Winter 1988 also here at

Book: Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath, Edited by Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris. Chapter Abraham Ibn Ezra as an Exegete, by Nahum M. Sarna

What do we do when a verse in the Torah says one thing but halakha, Jewish law, attributes a very different meaning to it? Some people engage in fundamentalist wordplay to conclude that there’s no difference between the peshat of the Torah, and Halakhah. But such differences exist; Even the Talmud notes this:

In the nineteenth century, Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal; 1800-1865) developed a new way of solving the peshat-halakha dilemma, suggesting that midrash halakha (rabbinic interpretation of biblical legal texts) often represents rabbinic legislation, and NOT biblical commentary. He makes his clearest and most detailed statement on the topic in his commentary on Parashat Tzav…. Shadal’s approach to the peshat–derash issue is novel and simple: Whenever the peshat says one thing and the midrash says something very different, Shadal says that the peshat is what the Torah means and the midrash represents rabbinic legislation, not biblical interpretation…. From a halachic point of view, this approach may be problematic: these laws that were connected to biblical verses by means of a derashah were standardly considered by the rabbis to be of Torah, not rabbinic, origin (דאורייתא, not דרבנן), as Shadal’s approach apparently implies. Remarkably, for Shadal, the classical rabbis were religious reformers who changed the laws of the Torah, making them less stringent. Shadal lived in the early days of Reform Judaism and took issue with its innovations. Accordingly, he takes pains to distinguish the motivations of the classical rabbis from what he understood to be the motivations of his more liberal contemporaries [Classic German Reform Judaism]

Peshat vs. Halakha Dilemma: Shadal and Tradition

Influence of Arab Islamic thought on Maimonides


Perhaps the most imporant book on Jewish philosophy ever written in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (מורה נבוכים, Moreh Nevukhim.) Yet it is also one of the most misunderstood Jewish books.

The Guide of the Perplexed

Maimonides’s arguments can’t be followed at all, unless one is first familiar with the Hebrew Bible, and the relation of it to classical rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud.) Next, one must understand that all of his philosophy relates to Aristotle, and the contemporary neo-Aristotelian literature discussed by that era’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars.

One doesn’t need to be an expert one’s self in all these philosophers, but one does need to know Maimonides brought these ideas into his own work (it is standard for philosophers to read each other’s works, and share and critique ideas.) In particular Maimonides references the ideas of:


Abu Bakr al-Razi (850-925 circa)

“As for Maimonides’ harsh judgement of al-Razi as a philosopher, it was clearly based upon the knowledge of the general contents of his metaphysics and theology as found in al-Razi’s Book of Divine Science as found both in his Guide of the Perplexed (Dalalat al-ha’irin) and in one of his letters to the “official” translator of his work, Samuel Ibn Tibbon. ”

al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c.870-950)

“As for logic, al-Farabi even exerted a stronger influence over Medieval Jewish philosophy… According to Maimonides, there was no need to study logical texts, apart from those by al-Farabi, since “all that he wrote… is full of wisdom, and… he was a very valid author.” Surely, al-Farabi’s logical (and also non-logical) works influenced the Treatise On the Art of Logic (Maqala fi sina‘a al-mantiq) usually ascribed to Maimonides, and probably written around 1160”

“…According to Pines, although al-Farabi’s former work is not explicitely quoted in the Guide of the Perplexed, it was surely among the main sources of Maimonides’ doctrine about the different roles played by the philosopher and by the prophet. Al-Farabi’s idea about the relationship between philosophy and religion, according to which the former is in a substantially higher position with respect to the latter, as found in his Book on Letters (Kitab al-huruf) and Book on Religion (Kitab al-milla), strongly influenced Maimonides’ ideas about this; moreover, the Book on Letters was later employed as a source for Falaquera’s treatment of linguistics in his Beginning of Science. According to Davidson, Maimonides explicitly quoted and employed al-Farabi’s Political Regime under the title The Changing Beings (al-Mawjudat al-mutaghayyira) for discussing the question of the world’s eternity in part two, chapter 74, of the Guide”

Avicenna (real name: Ibn Sina, Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn) (980-1037)

“. Although clear echoes of Avicennian doctrines about the distinction between essence and existence, between necessary and contingent beings, as well as the well-known Avicennian proof of the existence of God, have been found in the Guide of the Perplexed (see Moses Maimonides 1962, 1:xciii-ciii), the explicit judgement of Maimonides about Avicenna’s thought appears to be substantially cool (for a different interpretation of this judgement, see however Dobbs-Weinstein 2002). In his letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, he affirms that “Avicenna’s books, although they are subtle and difficult, are not like those by al-Farabi; however, they are useful, and he too is an author whose words should be studied and understood”

Abu Bakr Ibn Bajja aka Ibn al-Sa’igh (d. 1138),

“…Maimonides had the highest esteem of Ibn Bajja: he affirmed that “he was a great and wise philosopher, and all his works are right and correct”, and possibly appreciated him as a commentator of Aristotle too (Marx 1934–1935, 379). In some cases he was surely influenced by Ibn Bajja’s thought: in the Guide of the Perplexed, he explicitly refers to some of his philosophical and scientific ideas”

The above is a short excerpt from the article “Influence of Arabic and Islamic Philosophy on Judaic Thought” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Jews and whiskey during prohibition

Who knew that prohibition was good for the Jews?!

The Prohibition, in the United States, was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, from 1920 to 1933.

Prohibition loopholes

“The first was that [alcohol] enabled the farmer to preserve his fruit … which is to say, to take the fruit crop and preserve it over the winter, which literally meant take the apple. Turn it into hard cider. And the hard cider into apple jack, which was legal in the farm districts across the country. Interestingly, the farm districts were the ones that most supported Prohibition.

“The second one was medicinal liquor. I have a bottle on my shelf at home — an empty bottle — that says Jim Beam, for medicinal purposes only. In 1917, the American Medical Association — supporting Prohibition — said there was no reason at all to use alcohol as a therapeutic remedy of any kind. Then they realized with this loophole that there was an opportunity to make some money. And capitalism abhors a vacuum. Within two or three years, you could go into virtually any city in the country and buy a prescription for $3 from your local physician and then take it to your local pharmacy and go home with a pint of liquor every 10 days. And this is really how many of the large distilleries in Kentucky and the middle of the country stayed in business throughout the Prohibition years.
“The third loophole is sacramental wine. Among the groups who opposed Prohibition were the Catholics and the Jews — very avidly — and not necessarily for religious reasons; I think more for cultural reasons. … Tangentially to that, there was the reality that wine is used in the Catholic sacrament for Communion. … ”

“The Jews needed their sacramental wine for the Sabbath service and other services. They were entitled — under the rules — for 10 gallons per adult per year. … There was no official way to determine who was a rabbi. So people who claimed to be rabbis would get a license to distribute to congregations that didn’t even exist. On the other side of that, one congregation in Los Angeles went from 180 families to 1,000 families within the very first 12 months of Prohibition. You joined a congregation; you got your wine from your rabbi.”


Prohibition: Speakeasies, Loopholes And Politics. NPR Fresh Air


Prohibition allowed for rare exceptions, most notably in the case of religious or medicinal alcohol, and bootleggers took full advantage of the loopholes. Section 6 of the Volstead Act allotted Jewish families 10 gallons of kosher wine a year for religious use. (Unlike the Catholic Church, which received a similar dispensation, the rabbinate had no fixed hierarchy to monitor distribution.) In 1924, the Bureau of Prohibition distributed 2,944,764 gallons of wine, an amount that caused Izzy to marvel at the “remarkable increase in the thirst for religion.” Izzy and Moe arrested 180 rabbis, encountering trouble with only one of them. The owner of a “sacramental” place on West 49th Street refused to sell to the agents because they “didn’t look Jewish enough.” Undeterred, and hoping to prove a point, Izzy and Moe sent in a fellow agent by the name of Dennis J. Donovan. “They served him,” Izzy recalled, “and Izzy Einstein made the arrest.”

Prohibition’s Premier Hooch Hounds, Smithsonian.Com


The anti-alcohol movement, although politically based in a strange coalition of evangelicals, progressives and women’s suffrage advocates that had recently won women the vote, coincided with the arrival in the United States, between 1880 and 1920, of about 2 million Eastern European Jews, most with limited economic resources. These opposed Prohibition from the start, not least because alcohol was central to their culture. Also by the late 1800s, acculturated Jews were widely represented in the liquor industry. “At first,” said Marni Davis, author of the forthcoming “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition”, “alcohol offered a way for American Jews to present themselves as the best sorts of Americans, as the ones who consume alcohol regularly but are not drunkards, who participate in the economy in ways that benefit communities and society at large.”

As Prohibitionists touted the evils of drink, it was the Jewish distillers, wholesalers and saloonkeepers who found themselves cast as outsiders. Attacking the liquor industry, “dry” politician John Newton Tillman said: “I am not attacking an American institution. I am attacking mainly a foreign enterprise.” To prove it, he listed distillers’ names: Steinberg, Hirschbaum, Shaumberg.

….Section 6 of the Volstead Act, which allowed Jewish families 10 gallons of kosher wine a year for religious use, left an especially large loophole. For unlike the Catholic Church, which got a similar dispensation, the rabbinate had no fixed hierarchy to oversee distribution. Infractions were rampant.

In 1924, the Bureau of Prohibition distributed 2,944,764 gallons of wine; the American Hebrew marveled at the “rapid growth of Judaism.” Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein — himself a Jew from New York City’s Lower East Side and able to spot a ruse — arrested numerous rabbis for dispensing “sacramental” brandy, crème de menthe, vermouth and champagne. The scam was as common among actual rabbis as among those only claiming to be such: Einstein also arrested rabbis of convenience, named Houlihan and Maguire, as well as African Americans who claimed, according to Okrent, to have recently “got religion in the Hebraic persuasion.”

… This, Okrent says, was bad for the Jews. Reform leaders believed that Section 6 gave the impression that they were not held to a common standard of law, and sought to abolish it. Doctrinal warfare over wine divided Jews by immigrant and economic status and denomination, pitting Orthodox against Reform. The result, as Davis put it, was a “shande for the goyim.”

Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claimed that Jewish transgressions against Prohibition represented widespread conspiracy against American morals. “The Jew is on the side of liquor,” Ford wrote, “and always has been.” Part of what made this screed horrible was that it was partly true: Okrent estimates that half the bootleggers were Eastern European Jews; as a result, Jews were seen as delinquents who neither understood nor respected American culture. This despite the fact that, Davis says, bootlegging was so common that it could almost be seen as part of the Jews’ Americanization process.

…By the end of Prohibition, so many Americans were involved in producing, selling and consuming alcohol that Jewish participation seems unremarkable. Eventually, the public came around to the view that most Jews held all along: Prohibition, which had begun as anti-immigrant, was now widely seen as anti-American. The start of the Great Depression was the last straw. With the Repeal of Prohibition, passed in 1933, Jews were among those who rerouted their illegal operations into legal channels. Bronfman moved his business to New York, paid a fine for violating the Volstead Act and bought out Newark’s bootleg kings, Zwillman and Joseph Reinfeld. For him and other Jewish bootleggers, Prohibition had ended by providing a path to status and respectability.

The struggle for American Jewish identity was, at a time when both Jews and alcohol were cultural flashpoints, brought into sharper focus by drink. Ridiculous as the Prohibition experiment seems today, its lessons remain relevant. The issue pitted city against country, rich against poor, and immigrant against native born. Released in an America dividing along similar lines, PBS’s “Prohibition” deserves the notice of Jew and non-Jew alike.

‘Prohibition’ Tells Changing Story of Jews in America, by Jenny Hendrix

Movies, books and articles

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

by Marni Davis. New York and London: New York University Press, 2012. x + 262 pp.

Let Them Drink and Forget Our Poverty” : Orthodox Rabbis React to Prohibition, By Hannah Sprecher, American Jewish Archives 43,2 (1991) 135-179

PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.

Rupture and Reconstruction

Page of Talmud

Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy

Published in Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994).

The author asserts that contemporary Orthodox Jewish religion and practice has undergone a major and profound change in nature during his lifetime. Where observance of Jewish law was once organic and transmitted through family tradition as much as by text and rabbinic literature, it has now become disconnected from family practice and connected only to the written word, the author explains. He explores the contours, sources and implications of this shift as pertains to Jewish (especially Orthodox Jewish) culture, philosophy, spirituality, education and relationship to the surrounding world.


This essay is an attempt to understand the developments that have occurred within my lifetime in the community in which I live. The orthodoxy in which I, and other people my age, were raised scarcely exists anymore. This change is often described as “the swing to the Right.” In one sense, this is an accurate description. Many practices, especially the new rigor in religious observance now current among the younger modern orthodox community, did indeed originate in what is called “the Right.”

Yet, in another sense, the description seems a misnomer. A generation ago, two things primarily separated Modern Orthodoxy from, what was then called, “ultra-Orthodoxy” or “the Right.” First, the attitude to Western culture, that is, secular education; second, the relation to political nationalism, i.e. Zionism and the state of Israel. Little, however, has changed in these areas. Modern Orthodoxy still attends college, albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm than before, and is more strongly Zionist than ever. The “ultra-orthodox,” or what is now called the “haredi” camp is still opposed to higher secular education, though the form that the opposition now takes has local nuance.

In Israel, the opposition remains total; in America, the utility, even the necessity of a college degree is conceded by most, and various arrangements are made to enable many haredi youths to obtain it. However, the value of a secular education, of Western culture generally, is still denigrated. And the haredi camp remains strongly anti-Zionist, at the very least, emotionally distant and unidentified with the Zionist enterprise. The ideological differences over the posture towards modernity remain on the whole unabated, in theory certainly, in practice generally.

Yet so much has changed, and irrecognizably so. Most of the fundamental changes, however, have been across the board. What had been a stringency peculiar to the “Right” in 1960, a “Lakewood or Bnei Brak humra,” as—to take an example that we shall later discuss shiurim (minimal requisite quantities), had become, in the 1990’s, a widespread practice in modern orthodox circles, and among its younger members, an axiomatic one.

The phenomena were, indeed, most advanced among the haredim and were to be found there in a more intensive form. However, most of these developments swiftly manifested themselves among their co-religionists to their left. The time gap between developments in the haredi world and the emerging modern orthodox one was some fifteen years, at most. It seemed to me to that what had changed radically was the very texture of religious life and the entire religious atmosphere.

the full article is here

Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik teaches Jewish history and thought in the Bernard Revel Graduate School and Stern College for Woman at Yeshiva University

Oral law

The Written law [Tanakh] makes it clear that it was being transmitted side by side with an oral tradition. Many terms and definitions used in the written law are undefined. Many fundamental concepts such as shekhita (slaughtering of animals in a kosher fashion), divorce and the rights of the firstborn are all assumed as common knowledge by text, and are not elaborated upon. The Oral Law, then, is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. – Wikipedia, Oral Torah

Pages of Talmud

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes:

Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone is an insufficient guide to carrying out the laws in practice. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the Sabbath’s inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, and plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness – lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion – are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.

The Torah also is silent on many important subjects. The Torah has nothing to say concerning a marriage ceremony. To be sure, the Torah presumes that people will get married “Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) – but nowhere in the Torah is a marriage ceremony recorded. Only in the Oral Law do we find details on how to perform a Jewish wedding. {Telushkin}

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (see Deuteronomy 6:4).

“Bind them for a sign upon your hand,” the last verse instructs. Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

Despite its name, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in law collections known as the Mishna and the two Talmuds. It used to be passed along orally, but after many centuries it was finally written down so that information wouldn’t be lost.

Strangely enough, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in the Mishna and Talmud. Orthodox Judaism believes that most of the oral traditions recorded in these books dates back to God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. When God gave Moses the Torah, Orthodoxy teaches, He simultaneously provided him all the details found in the Oral Law. It is believed that Moses subsequently transmitted that Oral Law to his successor, Joshua, who transmitted it to his successor, in a chain that is still being carried on (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).

Given this chain of authority, one might wonder why the Mishna and Talmud are filled with strong debates between rabbis,who have very different understandings of what the law shoud be. Shouldn’t they have all been recipients of the same, unambiguous tradition Orthodox teachers respond that the debates came about either because students forgot some of the details transmitted by their teachers, or because the Oral Law lacks specific teachings on the issue being discussed.

– Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. William Morrow and Co.