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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 Though Elbogen’s reconstruction of liturgical history and the book’s intellectual matrix are somewhat outdated, his work remains the most exhaustive compendium of factual information about the Jewish liturgy, and it is likely to remain so for some time.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.

Does kosher food really need a hechsher

Two sources:

The first is from Elie Avitan:

Food can be kosher according to Halacha, even without rabbinic certification. And so can converts. All Jews before 1911 ate food without a hechsher, and until a few years ago there was never even a concept of a conversion counsel that “vetted” converts. Rather, our ancestors made sure that food was kosher according to Halachic standards by looking into the ingredients and preparation methods, and Halachically observant rabbis trusted other Halachically observant rabbis when it came to conversions they sanctioned.

Now, many people will argue “What could be wrong with more supervision, wouldn’t we rather be safe than sorry?” I think true Halacha would argue back: Being unnecessarily stringent on kosher supervision leads to serious financial and communal strains, and being unnecessarily stringent on conversions leads to serious emotional suffering – issues the Torah seems to be particularly concerned with. So indeed, it is better to be safe than sorry, by avoiding supervision where Halacha doesn’t demand it.

No one is fully trustworthy, ever. However, Halacha says: eid echad ne’eman. Therefore, I have to treat anyone who would be a kosher eid. Whether you are accepting this fact or not, you are making an assumption that everything is a “safeik Kashrus problem” unless it has supervision. But such an assumption is not based in Halacha. Like it says in the Mishna in Yadayim, 4:3, the person who wants to be strict above the law needs to bring a proof.

אמר רבי ישמעאל: אלעזר בן
עזריה, עליך ראיה ללמד, שאתה
מחמיר–שכל המחמיר, עליו הראיה

See the Tiferes Yisroel on that Mishna who says: “Everything that doesn’t have a known reason to prohibit it, “mutar hu bli ta’am”, because the Torah didn’t come to tell us what is permitted, but rather to tell us the things that are prohibited.”

As I know how things “work” in the frum world, I keep mainstream Orthodox customs at home (like having two sets of all utensils, dishes and pots and only buying food with a hechsher) but when it comes to speaking the truth about these issues I am not bound by communal norms, but rather by truth. And I haven’t yet found a universally accepted Halachic reason to justify needing supervision on commercial food products besides for meat, wine and hard cheese. (For things which are debatable like gelatin or beetle juice (lol), people who want to be strict can know to beware, but there is no reason to ‘protect’ the average kosher consumer from something which was permitted by great chachamim like R Chaim Ozer Grozinsky, Rav Zvi Pesach Frank and R Ovadia Yosef).

Again, if people only want to eat food with a hechsher and are willing to pay for it than fine, but the problem is that people who don’t want to limit themselves to the strictest, most limiting opinions get trapped being labeled “conservadox” or “not really frum” if they follow normative Halachic standards and not contemporary “Orthodox” standards.

Elie Avitan studied at Yeshivat Reishit/Yeshivat Bais Yisroel/Yeshivat Mir. He served as educational program director at Midwest NCSY, and as the Asst. campus director at the Jewish Experience of Madison.


The following was written by Rabbi Marc Shapiro for the website, a website run by Rabbi A. Abadi. Explanatory notes have been added in brackets.

Rav Henkin, who together with R. Moshe Feinstein was the leading halakhic authority in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s, is quoted as saying that the entire basis for the existence of the kashrut organizations is the view of [Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, 1235–1310, known as the Rashba, רשב״א . What did he mean by this?

There is a machloket rishonim [dispute among the Rishonim, ראשונים, leading rabbis during the 11th to 15th centuries] and the Rashba holds that if a non-Jew, in the normal process of making a food product, adds some non-kosher element, even a very small percentage, then it is not batel [nullified, by being mixed in a much larger volume of permitted food.] Bittul [nullification] only works when it falls in by accident. This view is known by those who study Yoreh Deah since it is quoted in the Beit Yosef.

If you look at any of the standard Yoreh Deah [a section of the Shulkhan Arukh] books you will find, however, that the halakhah is not in accordance with this Rashba. Rather, any time the goy puts a small amount of treif [non-kosher food] into the food it is batel [annulled by the larger volume], even if it is intentional on his part.

[The next section references the Noda Biyehudah, נודע ביהודה, “Known in Judah”. This is a book of responsa, answers to questions on Jewish law, by Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau (1713 – 1793).]

There is a famous Noda Biyehudah that discusses this at length. See Mahadura Tinyana, Yoreh Deah no. 56 where he permits a drink that was produced using treif meat in the production but the amount of meat was very small and could not be tasted. He states that it is permissible. There is a Rama who has a teshuvah and states similarly. (I am sure if you describe the Noda Biyehudah’s case to people, even learned ones, and say that there is a contemporary rabbi who permits this, they will mockingly refer to him as a Conservative or Reform rabbi since in their mind no “real” rabbi who knows halakhah could ever permit something that has non-kosher meat in it!)

So now we can understand R. Henkin’s comment. If you go to the kashrut organizations’ websites and speak to them they will tell you that you need the hashgachah because sometimes the runs are not properly cleaned between kosher and non-kosher or milk and meat and some slight amounts of the objectionable ingredient might remain (yet here even rashba will agree that it’s not a problem!), or they tell you about release agents or that small amounts of ingredients are not listed on the label, etc. etc.

The Rashba indeed holds that these last cases are problematic, but the halakhah is not in accordance with the Rashba. The hashgachot have raised the bar and are now operating at a chumra level here as well as in other areas. But the average person has no idea about any of this and has never even heard about the concept of bittul. Even if you explain the concept of bittul to him, his response will be: “OK maybe this is the strict halakhah, but I’m not starving so why should I eat something that we had to rely on bittul for. A person who cares about kashrut won’t eat something that has even the smallest amount of treif.” Since people haven’t been educated about the halakhot, they assume that bittul is a kula to be used in emergency situations, and it is not their fault that they believe this, since this is the view that the kashrut organization hold and publicize.

There is a good article waiting to be written about how in the last thirty years we went from halakhah to chumra when it comes to food issues.

Rabbi Marc Shapiro, 11/11/2003

Marc Shapiro holds the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton and is the author of various books and articles on Jewish history, philosophy, and theology. He received his BA at Brandeis University and his PhD at Harvard University, where he was the last PhD student of Professor Isadore Twersky. He received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt. Shapiro’s father is Edward S. Shapiro who has published books on American history and American Jewish history. Shapiro’s writings often challenge the bounds of the conventional Orthodox understanding of Judaism using academic methodology while adhering to Modern Orthodox sensibilities. His books Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy (a biography of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg) and The Limits of Orthodox Theology (a study of the disputes over Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith) were both National Jewish Book Award finalists. In 2015 he published Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History, which documents the phenomenon of internal censorship in Orthodoxy.
Marc B. Shapiro. (2016, December 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia


Temporary notes, to be added to the main whiskey blog.


Comparing water to flavored ingredients is ridiculous.

Pappy Van Winkle whiskey itself isn’t barrel proof. After aging, they pour it out of the barrel and they add – lots of water!

Further, people who do this for a living don’t drink whiskey at 107 proof: professional tasters usually add water to lower the proof.

Huge amounts of alcohol mask the flavor, despite the amazing amount of pseudoscience on this topic.

Some people claim that they can only taste all the flavors at full strength – but that is actually the placebo effect. You don’t ever hear such statements made during blind taste tests.

The beliefs/ pseudoscience of some whisky fans are similar to the beliefs of people who spend large amounts of money for high-end audio components. They make claims to justify expensive purchases/habits, but few of them listen to high-end audio components in a blind audio test.

What happens when they do a blind test? Most of their claims turned out to be unsupported


whiskey may be considered a highly distilled (and then aged) beer. So although none of these three whiskies struck me as terrific, a fan of these styles of beer may enjoy them very much.

“It’s not whiskey because it’s flavored, but it’s not a flavored whiskey…we don’t even know what to call it,” says Couchot of the holiday spirits that have been distilled from three Sam Adams craft brews. Hence the name “whiskies” in quotation marks.”Bevspot: Holiday Gift Spotlight: Boston Harbor Distillery

13th Hour Stout, the one that tasted most like a traditional whiskey, has a wheat, beer-like finish. Based on the mashbill of Samuel Adams’s “Latitude 48 Deconstructed IPA – Hallertau Mittelfrueh” You can read here more about Hallertauer Mittelfrüh Hops.

New World Belgian Tripel, too spicy for my tastes, perhaps from the hops. The mash bill includes  what Samuel Adams calls “Kosmic Mother Funk”, which means that it is “fermented with multiple micro-organisms including Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and other wild critters found in the environment of our Barrel Room.” Samuel Adams: Kosmic Mother Funk, Grand Cru.

Merrymaker Gingerbread Stout, floral, gingerbread notes. Interesting, and I would like to try this again. The mash bill includes oats, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger, and East Kent Golding Hops.

Chilledmagazine article on this product
Boston Harbor Distillery: Spirit of Boston
You Can Now Drink Whiskey at the Boston Harbor Distillery – BostInno Streetwise


The backs of the bottles provide details.



Is it Whisky or Whiskey?

Contrary to what some self-appointed aficionados might say, “whiskey” and “whisky” are the exact same word. Sure, here in the USA whiskey is usually spelled with an “e” in it, the same is true for Ireland. But not always. For instance, Maker’s Mark is a very popular American bourbon whisky – spelled without the “e”.  And in Scotland and Canada, the spirit is usually spelled whisky, without the “e”, but again, this isn’t traditional at all: historical records clearly show that the two different spellings were used in both countries, right up until the mid 20th century. The current spelling choices are purely arbitrary, and not fixed. Expert Chuck Cowdry debunks these myths in these articles:

Whiskey or Whisky? New York Times Buckles To Pressure From Scotch Snobs. Chuck Cowdry

Whiskey or Whisky? I’m No Lincoln II. Chuck Cowdry.

Maimonides on divine providence

Divine providence (השגחה פרטית /Hashgachah Pratit)

“Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God’s sovereign guidance and control. According to believers, God governs creation as a loving father, working all things for good.”

– Divine Providence (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

How do Jews view divine providence? The existence of it is assumed in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and in all rabbinic literature, yet classical philosophy seems to allow little if any room for God to miraculously intervene in the world.  Divine providence thus became a topic of great discussion among the Jewish philosophers, including Saadya Gaon, Gersonides and Maimonides.

In the Guide for the Perplexed III:17, Maimonides mentions five possibilities for what divine providence could be. The first four possibilities he describes, and politely disagrees with.


e) The fifth opinion is Maimonides’ preferred one: “Divine providence in my personal view is a consequence of divine emanation. The species which is touched by this overflowing of the intellectual and thereby becomes itself endowed with intellect, through which it is made aware of all that intellect can reveal – that species is the one which is attended by divine providence, and all of its actions are accountable. [Maimonides then goes on to explain why animals are not covered by providence, and why Scripture shows that people are.] “Try to grasp my position in its full implications: I do not believe that anything is hidden from God, nor do I ascribe to God any incapacity. Rather, what I believe is that providence is a necessary consequence of intellect. For providence can only flow from a mind of consummate perfection – and all who are touched by that outpouring sufficiently to be reached by mind are reached by providence as well. This is the position which in my view is in harmony not only with reason but also with the texts of revelation.”

Maimonides’ preferred commentator and translator, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, explains that Maimonides held that Providence is intellectual only: Providence is when a man no longer is bothered by any material affliction. No miracles occur. A person of perfected intellect simply no longer gives world problems any significance.

– Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123

Marvin Fox, one of the 20th century’s leading experts on Maimonides, writes that “I am inclined to think that Maimonides’ point is not that God actively intervenes in the natural order so as to protect the deserving from every misfortune, but rather that when one has achieved this very high level of intellectual fellowship with God no earthly misfortune is of any consequence. From a mature perspective the troubles of a child are childish and have little true importance. Men of true knowledge have a similar view of what ordinary men consider to be great misfortunes, and are thus protected from them. It is not that nothing happens to them that is from an ordinary scheme painful or injurious, but that such events are of little consequence in their scheme of values.”

– Marvin Fox, “Interpreting Maimonides”, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990, p.316

Charles M. Raffel, at Yeshiva University, agrees with the philosophical views above. Here are excerpts from his paper “Providence as Consequent upon the Intellect: Maimonides’ Theory of Providence”

AJS Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 25-71 (Association for Jewish Studies)

Maimonides’ own opinion on providence emerges at the end of chapter 17 and is further elaborated in chapter 18 of the Guide, Part III. The theory is encapsulated in the phrase “providence according to the intellect.” Aristotle had been presented by Maimonides (after Alexander) as denying individual providence in the sublunar sphere, but admitting a secondary “kind of providence” to the species of man and other animals. While Maimonides castigates Aristotle’s denial of individual providence, the majority of scholars see in Maimonides’ own opinion, “providence according to the intellect,” an affinity to Aristotle which Maimonides is not willing to admit openly. The most radical claim, namely, that Maimonides’ view is Aristotle’s view (and is in agreement with the hidden view of the Torah), was offered by Joseph Ibn Caspi and was reaffirmed by a modern scholar, Norbert Samuelson. Samuelson writes on Ibn Caspi’s analysis:
“… Maimonides’ real view agrees with that of Aristotle, the view of both agrees with the hidden meaning of the Torah, and the explicit or overt meaning of the Torah, which is the belief of the Jewish masses, is never affirmed to be a dogma or root belief of rabbinic Judaism.6 ”
While Ibn Caspi expresses this view on the three major theories in the Guide, creation, prophecy, and providence, Samuelson agrees definitively only on the last issue: “I am certain that he is right about the issue of divine providence.”7 A similar view, that Maimonides’ opinion is fully consonant with Aristotle’s opinion and, most probably, based on it, had been suggested by Samuel Ibn Tibbon in a letter written in 1199 to Maimonides, and argued for, independently, by Shlomo Pines.8
6. Norbert Samuelson, Review of Studies in Joseph Ibn Caspi by Barry Mesch, Journal of the History of Philosophy 14 (1976): 108.
Joseph Ibn Caspi, ‘Amude Kesef, ed. S. Werbluner (Frankfurt, 1848). On creation, pp. 98-101. On prophecy, p. 113. On providence, pp. 126-128. The comment on providence is as follows: “Undoubtedly, Aristotle’s and even his teacher Plato’s opinion on this matter are equivalent to the Torah’s view, according to the Guide’s interpretation” (p. 128). See also Barry Mesch, Studies in Joseph Ibn Caspi (Leiden, 1975) p. 103.
For the alleged equivalence of Aristotle’s and Maimonides’ views, see also Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov, Commentary on the Guide (in standard Hebrew translation of the Guide) on III/18 27b: “For Aristotle’s view on providence is the Master’s [Maimonides’], no more, no less.”
7. Samuelson, “Review,” p. 108.
8. Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s position is reviewed below. For Pines, see “Translator’s Introduction,” pp. lxv-lxvii.
The identification of Maimonides’ view with Aristotle’s view involves a sophisticated reading of the text in III/17, for Maimonides both explicitly and implicitly denies that connection. The sophisticated reading of the text is ultimately connected to the view that Maimonides at times says what he doesn’t mean and at other times means what he doesn’t say. The champion of this view, which sees an esoteric-exoteric dualism in Maimonides’ thought, has been Leo Strauss. On this particular issue Strauss, however, sees Plato rather than Aristotle behind Maimonides’ treatment of providence.
Strauss’s initial comment on Maimonides’ theory, in his article on Maimonides’ and al-Farabi’s political science,9 is that, both in structure and content, Maimonides’ account of providence parallels Plato’s account. Both state a public doctrine which affirms God’s justice in rewarding and punishing all human behavior, and a private doctrine which restricts divine providence to an intellectual elite. Since Plato is unnamed and apparently unmentioned in Maimonides’ historical review of speculation on providence in III/17, Strauss takes as his task the rehabilitation of Plato as the prime influence on Maimonides’ thinking. Plato’s statement in the Laws that God knows individuals and rewards and punishes justly was voiced for its political utility (according to Strauss). This Platonic move parallels, and perhaps determines, Maimonides’ understanding of the biblical doctrine that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.

….Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s letter represents the most sustained and comprehensive treatment which Maimonides’ theory of providence received at the hands of his medieval commentators. The heart of Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s question is the apparent contradiction between the theory of providence expressed in the early chapters of Part III of the Guide (chapters 17-18, 22-23) and the treatment of special providence for the perfect man in chapter 51 of Part III.
This special providence is described by Maimonides in the following passage from chapter 51:
“If a man’s thought is free from distraction, if he apprehends Him, may He be exalted, in the right way and rejoices in what he apprehends, that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind. For he is with God and God is with him.”‘5
Ibn Tibbon reviews his own understanding of the earlier chapters and concludes that Maimonides’ own theory of providence as a function of intellectual perfection is expanded and clarified in the chapters (22-23) which deal with the interpretation of Job. After experiencing intellectual knowledge of God, Job’s attitude toward the evil and suffering of this world is transformed. After acquiring wisdom, Job’s earthly misfortune, loss of wealth, health, and family, is insignificant in comparison to the fortune of ultimate felicity and immortality, and he may accept his earthly misfortune now as something beyond his understanding.
Ibn Tibbon argues that Maimonides seems to contradict himself. The special providence for the perfect in chapter 51 involves physical immunity from evil, “that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind,” while providence for the perfected Job involves only an intellectual immunity from evil or suffering. Ibn
Tibbon poses the contradiction:
“Because [Maimonides] did not say that only before Job acquired certain knowledge of God was he susceptible to misfortune, while after he knew God it was impossible for misfortune to strike him. …. But he did say in the Guide III/22 if he [Job] had been wise he would not have been affected by any of the [misfortunes] which overcame him.’ 16”
Ibn Tibbon devotes the next section of his letter to an attempt to prove that Maimonides’ own theory of providence, as developed in chapters 17 and 18, is more consonant with general philosophic opinion than Maimonides himself admitted. Ibn Tibbon writes that Job’s view of providence after acquiring wisdom may be seen as equivalent to Aristotle’s own theory. (Maimonides himself identifies Job’s initial, pre-enlightenment view with that of Aristotle: “The opinion attributed to Job is in keeping with the opinion of Aristotle.”) 17 This attempt by Ibn Tibbon to stretch Aristotle’s limited notion of providence from the translunar to the sublunar, however tenuous, is based on the assumption that a universal framework of individual contingencies may be conceived as built into the natural world order.
While Maimonides distinguishes, against Aristotle, between the contingent fact of a ship’s sinking and the providential act of the sailors’ fate, Ibn Tibbon tries to prove that Aristotle himself could maintain this distinction.
Furthermore, basing his argument on other passages in Maimonides’ works and the citation of al-Farabi in chapter 18, Ibn Tibbon envisions a broad consensus of philosophers who share the notion that an individual’s providence is mediated by the development of his intellect.
Maimonides cites the following from al-Farabi: “Those who have the capacity of making their soul pass from one moral qualilty to another are those of whom Plato has said that God’s providence watches over them to a higher degree.” (18) For Ibn Tibbon, the identification of Maimonides’ theory with that of the philosophers is complete, if not total: “Apparently, all the philosophers agree that God’s providence over individual men is consequent upon the intellect.” 19
16. Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon,” pp. 355-356.
17. Guide, 111/23, p. 494.
18. Guide, III/18, p. 476.
19. Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon,” p. 357

…. After exploring three ultimately unsuccessful possibilities-miraculous intervention, physical immunity through divination, and intellectual immunity-Ibn Tibbon explores a fourth possibility. Perhaps Maimonides is contradicting himself on purpose, in order to hide an esoteric doctrine, and our text, therefore, contains a contradiction of the kind which Maimonides describes in his Introduction.
“The seventh cause. In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, whereas in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one. In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.” (24)
… [Maimonides writes in The Guide] “The purpose of all these things is to show that our intellects do not reach the point of apprehending how these natural things that exist in the world of generation and corruption are produced in time and of conceiving how the existence of the natural force within them has originated them.” 79
The lesson to be learned, revealed to Job, is the disjunction in meaning between man’s providence and God’s providence, and between man’s governance and God’s governance.
[Maimonides continues] “But the notion of God’s providence is not the same as the notion of our providence; nor is God’s notion of the governance of the things created by Him the same as the notion of our governance of that which we govern. The two notions are not comprised in one definition, contrary to what is thought by all those who are confused, and there is nothing in common between the two except the name alone.” 80
79. Guide, III/23, p. 496.
80. Ibid.
81. Guide, III/23, p. 497.
…This is the knowledge which Job lacked, which he needed to end his suffering and which he received in prophetic revelation. This knowledge alleviates suffering, and rather than fostering man’s doubts of God’s knowledge or His providence, according to Maimonides’ terse statement, adds to man’s love of God. Job’s acquisition of knowledge involved knowledge of a specific kind, the “negative” understanding that God’s providence is not to be likened to man’s providence, that God’s ways are mysteriously incomprehensible. Job has become privileged to a kind of immunity from suffering, based on his understanding of the limits of human understanding….
… Considering the specific example of the fate of a passenger on a foundering ship, Maimonides argues that a man’s decision to board the ship is not due to chance, but is based on intellect. (96) I take this to mean that the man’s decision to board the ship or not is based on considerations and deliberations of the practical intellect, his appraisal of the ship’s construction, of dangerous wind currents, the competency of the ship’s crew, and given the “great dangers such as arise in sea voyages,” the validity of his need to take this voyage. In the general statement in which the intellectual overflow offers guidance over the actions of righteous men, (97) providential care would seem to be subsumed by one’s personal deployment of moral intelligence or practical wisdom. This interpretation understands providence to be a direct and natural result of the deliberations of one’s own practical intellect.
The Aristotelian notion of phronisis, translated variously as “practical reason,” “practical wisdom,” “practical intelligence,” and “prudence,” would seem to provide the springboard for Maimonides’ theory. Aristotle is the source of Maimonides’ distinction between the practical and theoretical components of man’s rationality. Phronesis is described by Aristotle in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics.
96. Guide, III/17, p. 472.
97. Guide, 111/18, p. 475: “For it is this overflow of the divine intellect that makes the prophet speak, guides the actions of righteous men, and perfects the knowledge of excellent men with regard to what they know.”
… In Maimonides’ base theory, providential man operates within the world of human concerns, of “contingent facts,” and strives to preserve himself, his family, and his community, and to maximize his own perfection. The nature of this sphere of activity ultimately determines the limitations of man’s possible success. While experience counts in negotiating well within the world of contingent events, error, either in understanding a general principle or in particular application, is not only possible but more than probable. While pain and suffering may be minimized, they may not be avoided, and death looms as inevitable
…The switch to theoretical wisdom, the knowledge of “everything concerning all the beings that it is within the capacity of man to know,”’06 as the source for ultimate happiness and, as a result, ultimate providence has a clear Aristotelian breeding. In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to outline and define a state of happiness for man that has permanence and completeness…
“The happy man will have the attribute of permanence which we are discussing, and he will remain happy throughout his life. For he will always or to the highest degree both do and contemplate what is in conformity with virtue; he will bear the vicissitudes of fortune most nobly and with perfect decorum under all circumstances, inasmuch as he is truly good and “four-square beyond reproach.”
…Aristotle continues to speculate to what degree misfortune and suffering can disturb supreme happiness. For the most part, a “noble and high-minded” man can bear “many great misfortunes with good grace.” The happy man may be dislodged from his happiness “only by great and numerous disasters such as will make it impossible for him to become happy again in a short time.” 108
The discussion is resumed and the ambiguities resolved in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle expresses the superiority of happiness as a result of theoretical wisdom (sophia) over the happiness of moral action and virtue…
…These Aristotelian concerns help flesh-out the background of Maimonides’ approach, for Maimonides has adapted the notion of happiness as the basis for his concept of ultimate providence. True and permanent providence is reserved for Job only after he has experienced the ultimate realm of theoretical wisdom and perfection. Maimonides’ implicit argument in the Job chapters for preferring the life of theoretical wisdom, aside from the immediate therapeutic value for a person in Job’s predicament, duplicates the range of Aristotle’s justifications: Job achieves immunity from suffering and misfortune, he realizes the ultimate value of theoretical intellect and its divine nature, and he has achieved a higher, if not the highest, degree of self-sufficiency.
…Maimonides attempted, it would seem, to attack the problem of evil from all angles, to surround it, if not solve it. It is my contention that a different theodicy also emerges from the body of the multidimensional treatment of providence. Within the discussion of providence, Maimonides abandons the refuge of a God-centered universe momentarily, and tries to argue for justice in the ordering of human circumstances from an enlightened human perspective.
This implicit theodicy is multidimensional and corresponds to the three stages of the providence account. At the beginning of chapter 16 of Part III, the question of God’s justice in the ordering of human circumstances is raised, and Maimonides does not refer the reader to his completed theodicy (chapters 8-12). Rather, his discussion of God’s providence (and knowledge) is an attempt to re-solve the question of the apparent suffering of the righteous and the flourishing of the wicked. This solution is composed of the following three stages:
1. In the world of actions and choices, one succeeds or fails in accordance with the successful deployment or neglect of one’s practical intellect.
2. As a response to probable and predictable results (which one does not desire), the intensity of pain or suffering is not absolute, but relative to one’s attitude and ability to maximize or minimize or transcend the particular pain or suffering.
3. Within the theoretical realm which is intellect, one’s own intellect may acquire an immunity from pain and suffering and transcend any and all evils.

Creating Jewish unity

Attempts to solve the “Who is a Jew?” issue

Despite differences between Haredi Judaism (on the theological right) and Reform Judaism (on the theological left), on many occasions rabbis worked to end the rift between denominations. They came very close to healing the divisions, in accord with halakhah.

Sadly, each attempt so far has failed, due to unilateral actions from groups who deliberately prevented more cooperation. Nonetheless, we hope that if more Jews know about these hopeful enterprises, it will inspire people in today’s generation to renew efforts to restore Jewish unity: Click here – Creating Jewish unity

Kol Aleph Jewish Library - Copy


What makes one’s home Jewish?

An essay in progress….

What do we have in our homes that define them as a Jewish space, for a Jewish person?

A mezuzah

Jewish art and music – We live in Western civilization, and our artwork, paintings, murals and music reflect this great heritage. But we also have our own Jewish heritage, and if we are both educated in and proud of our heritage, this should be reflected in some of our artwork on our walls, and in our music choices.

Jewish books – Certainly a Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) – but what about other books on Jewish history, and on the rich heritage of rabbinic Judaism?

Ritual Judaica for the weekly observance of Shabbat, including Havdalah

Ritual Judaica for tefila (prayer) – kippot, tallitot, tefillin

A kosher kitchen – The laws of kashrut have expanded over the last millenia. In order to keep kosher by these increasingly strict rules, Orthodox Jews purchase books about with literally hundreds of pages of rules. Yet when we study Judaism historically, we see that our ancestors never had this amazingly complexity. As such, I understand why many modern Jews rebel against kashrut. But we can still keep kosher without necessarily following the strictest rules: The basics of a kosher kitchen are easy – and while details are best covered elsewhere, I’m suggesting that Jewish homes have kosher kitchens.

What else should be mentioned here?