Sunday, 18 March 2018


Shaar Gan Eden, by R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz.


In order to understand the milieu into which the Baal Shem Tov was born, one must take into consideration the widespread - yet devastating - success of the false messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi who had died just two decades earlier.

Shabbatai Tzvi and his followers, known as Sabbateans, managed to engineer one of the biggest movements in Jewish history, with estimates that more than half of Jewish population at that time believed him to have been the Messiah.

These followers included many scholarly rabbis and even kabbalists. After Shabbatai Tzvi died in 1676, the Jewish world was permeated with secret Sabbateans, many of whom presented a facade of Halachik observances to hide their messianic agendas and aspirations. See Shabbatai Tzvi – Roots run Deep.

In this article, we will look at the question of whether or not R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz was such an individual:


R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz is best known for his Shaar Gan Eden which he wrote in Volhynia in the early 1700’s and which was printed posthumously in 1803.

In the preface to Shaar Gan Eden, R. Yaakov Koppel writes strongly against Sabbateanism. However, the actual contents of his book show subscription to much of Sabbatean ideology. This disavowal was a common technique used frequently by many secret Sabbateans during that time.

Shaar Gan Eden, by R. Yaakov Koppel Lifschitz.

In one section of Shaar Gan Eden, R. Yaakov Koppel writes:

At the end of the sixth millennium the light which precedes the cosmic Sabbath will spread its rays, swallowing death and driving the unclean spirit from the world. Then many commandments will be abrogated, for example, those relating to clean and unclean...

(and) ‘A new Torah will go forth’...the letters of the Torah will combine in a different way, according to the requirements of this period, but not a single letter will be added or taken away.”[1]

These, as well as other references, lead some to believe that R. Yaakov Koppel may have been sprouting aspects of Sabbatean ideology. The original Sabbateans (and I am certainly not implicating R. Yaakov Koppel with this) were known to have been quite promiscuous, and the notion of the ‘abrogation of clean and unclean’ was distorted to allow for such behaviour in an era believed to be preceding the Messiah. In other words, these rules of ‘clean and unclean’ would fall away and no longer be applicable.

In another section of Shaar Gan Eden, Moshe Rabbeinu is described as being both human and divine:

It is said about Moses that he is an ‘ish ha-Elokim (a man of G-d). But if he is a man (‘ish) then he is not G-d (Elokim)?!

- Rather, Above (i.e. in Heaven) he is called G-d (Elokim) and below he is called a man (‘ish).”[2]

According to Shaul Magid:

This is so striking rejects, even subverts, the more common euphemistic rendering of the passage (i.e. Moses is a “godly man”) opting for a rendition that enables Moses to be both human and divine simultaneously.”[3]

Thus “Moshe” or any corresponding leader would assume a type of role of G-d incarnate!

We know that Sabbateans did give divine-like reverence to their leader, which correlates with this ‘precedent’ of ‘Moshe’ being ‘both human and divine’.

According to Gershom Scholem:

"Although the book was regarded with some suspicion by orthodox Kabbalists outside the Hassidic camp it enjoyed a wide reputation with the Hassidim. But only recently it has been proved conclusively...that the author was an outstanding crypto-Sabbatian and based his doctrine to a very considerable extent on the Sabbatian writings of Nathan of Gaza (the prophet of false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi)." [4]   


R. Yaakov Koppel also produced a prayer book with Lurianic and Kabbalistic meditations, entitled Kol Yaakov[5], which followed the rite of the Ari Zal; as well as a Kabbalistic commentary on the Haggadah. His prayer book was to form the basis of later Chassidic prayer books:

Kol Yaakov Siddur with reference to Shaar Gan Eden.

The Kol Yaakov Siddur contains the approbation of R. Asher Tzvi of Ostroh, who writes “I heard that the Baal Shem saw this siddur and it pleased him”:

In the siddur there is a clear reference to his other work Shaar Gan Eden - so it is likely that the Baal Shem Tov was aware of the existence of the book:

According to the title page and the approbations, when the Baal Shem Tov saw the manuscripts of Shaar Gan Eden and Kol Yaakov, he "hugged and kissed them...and used a lot of energy to hug with his arms the author's writings".

The approbations include R. Efraim Zalman Margoliot, as well as R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who wrote that the author "was a loyal Kabbalist and all his words were said with divine inspiration...This is the gate to approach the inner hall, the inner sanctum of the holy writings of the Ari Zal."


Professor Joseph Dan writes in no uncertain terms:

Jacob Koppel...was influenced by the Shabbatean movement in Poland, and he himself influenced Ḥasidism.

Besides (Shaar Gan Eden and Kol Yaakov)...he apparently wrote Naḥalot Ya'akov, an extensive commentary on the Zohar, which has been lost.

Jacob denounces the followers of Shabbetai Zevi and messianic speculation in general in a few scattered remarks. However, it has been proved that he was the brother and pupil of a known Shabbatean, Ḥayyim of Ostraha (Ostrog), who influenced his writings.

A close study of the kabbalistic doctrine of Jacob proves conclusively that his works included at least one part of a "credo" of Nathan of Gaza, the prophet of Shabbetai Ẓevi... his descriptions of development within the realm of the Sefirot (the divine emanations), Jacob uses a series of extremely radical sexual symbols found only in Shabbatean writings...

Finally, some scattered hints (which were fully developed in at least one of his works) allude to a heretical, antinomian concept of the Torah and the mitzvot, following the Shabbatean distinction between the laws governing the world before the coming of the messiah, Shabbetai Ẓevi, and the new laws following his appearance.

Jacob and his writings were highly praised by the early Ḥasidim, who published his works and used them extensively.

A reliable ḥasidic tradition even quotes some words of praise attributed to Israel b. Eliezer Baal Shem Tov.

Thus Jacob's Shabbatean writings form one of the links between late East European Shabbateanism and early Ḥasidism.”[6]


Fascinatingly, according to R. Dovid Sears, R. Nachman of Breslov discusses Shaar Gan Eden in his Chayey Moharan, and he is critical of the work.

And R. Natan of Breslov mentions the Introduction to the Siddur Kol Yaakov in his Likkutei Halachot and is similarly critical of it. [7]   


According to Pinchas Giller, the contemporary kabbalist R. Yaakov Moshe Hillel recommends against reading Kabbalistic works which cite R. Yisrael Sarug (1590-1610), who was one of the students of the Ari Zal. He believes it was only through the other student, R. Chaim Vital, that the authentic Lurianic teachings were transmitted.

However, in the strangest of ironies:

"...some works are acceptable, notwithstanding their citation of Sarug. These include the Sabbatean work Sha'arei Gan Eden by Jacob Koppel Lifscheutz...For Hillel, the odd inclusion of occasional Sabbatean less of a problem than the appearance of Sarugian materials." [8]

According to this view, there is not even a question as to the Sabbatean nature of Shaar Gan Eden.


The possible influence of Sabbateanism on early Chassidism has intrigued me since I started translating the Letters of the Cherson Archive and found numerous references which indicated a frantic need to hide certain writings from unnamed rabbis and sources.

Considering the historical timing, it is not a big jump to speculate on the nature and content of those writings.

Sabbatean writings were very mystical and messianic - and although they distorted and often even perverted Kabbalistic teachings - in principal, they presented a worldview of mysticism for the masses, not unlike that of the Chassidic movement which followed so close on its heels.

It is possible that the early Chassidim had found a model that had proven successful in terms of disseminating mystical teaching amongst the common folk and may have adopted some of those proven and positive techniques, while leaving aside the negative aspects.

This would not have been the first time in Jewish history that various elements from contemporary popular worldviews were selected and infused back into the mainstream.

[NOTE: One needs to be careful how one interprets the above-mentioned suggestion. Chassidism is a mystical movement which undoubtedly has roots in ancient Jewish mystical traditions. Whether there may or may not have been some overlap with the popular mysticism of the time is up to the Reader to decide. Any tradition can be shown to have common overlap with another - especially with another contemporary tradition.]

To be clear: The suggestion is not that the Baal Shem Tov was a secret Sabbatean – but rather that he may have used some of their neutral mystical content and approach, after eliminating and discarding the more subversive aspects of that movement.

Besides R. Yaakov Koppel, this apparent association between both movements is particularly evident with regard to the Sefer haTzoref, by R. Yehoshua Herschel Tzoref (1623-1700).

It is this connection that may have had to be hidden away because the rest of the orthodox mainstream would not have entertained the notion that anything was salvageable from the Sabbatean movement.

Were it not hidden away, it is probable that the new movement would never have enjoyed acceptance and the extensive success it managed to achieve.



[1] Sha’ar Gan Eden by R. Jacob Koppel, Cracow 1880, p. 12c:
Interestingly, he provides a reference to Sefer haTemunah or Book of the Shape (of the Hebrew letters), written in the late 1200’s but attributed to Nechunya ben Hakanah and R. Yishmael, Tanaim of the first and second centuries.
[2] Shaar Gan Eden 44b.
[3] Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism, by Shaul Magid, p.18.
[4] Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p 333
[5] Also known as HaKol Kol Yaakov.
[6] Joseph Dan, Encyclopaedia Judaica under R. Yaakov Koppel ben Moses of Mezhirech, based on Isaiah Tishby, in Netivei Emunah u-Minut (1964), 197–226, 331–43.
[7] Breslov Center, Gates of Eden, 11 Nov 2010.
[8] Shalom Shar'abi and the Kabbalists of Beit El.

Sunday, 11 March 2018



In this article, we will highlight two very different approaches to the concept of a Rebbe. We will look at extracts from two contemporary English books which reflect, in modern parlance, the basic differences between how Breslov and Kotzk define the role of the Rebbe.

The first book, Rebbe Nachman’s Soul, is compiled by R. Shlomo Katz, and is ‘A Commentary on Sichos haRan from the classes of Rabbi Zvi Aryeh Rosenfeld z’l.” R. Rosenfeld (1922-1978) is credited with bringing the Breslov teachings to the English speaking world.

The second book is The Quest for Authenticity by Rabbi Dr Michael Rosen (1945-2008) and deals with ‘The Thought of Reb Simcha Bunim’, who was the teacher of Rebbe of Kotzk. Rabbi Rosen studied at Yeshivat Beer Yakov and received ordination from Chief Rabbi Unterman.

To emphasize the extreme differences in attitudes towards the tzadik, we will simply cite extracts from both books, without any additional comment or analysis.

Please bear in mind that the aim is not to have a competition between both approaches, but simply to show two very different spiritual paths.

I have intentionally chosen to use newly published English books to emphasize the ‘current’ nature of these approaches which are indeed adopted by the followers of these movements today and are quite common and widespread:


‘Above all, Rabbeinu zal (Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)[2] designates this one thing - travelling to the tzaddik emes (the true tzaddik)[3] - as the definitive sign of emunah (faith)[4], because the faith of a person can only be strengthened through binding himself with the tzaddik emes...

...’tzaddik’- first seek out a tzaddik- ‘be’emunaso yichyeh’- by faith in this tzadik you will live...

Netzach means eternity, and the gematria (numerical value)[5] of netzach (148...) is Rabbeinu zal’s name (148...) (Nachman = 148)[6]. Eternal life is dependent on a person’s simple and pure faith in the tzaddik emes. If a person has that emunah, he is automatically assured of having faith in HaShem...[7]

Rabbeinu zal is the greatest expert in the true knowledge of what’s happening in Olam Haba, in heaven...

If a person repents, there is no limit to the infinite mercy of HaShem. But HaShem has mercy only while a person is alive. When the person passes away, that mercy comes to an end. Then there is HaShem of vengeance and HaShem who pays.

HaShem pays reward to the tzaddik and HaShem avenges the evil acts of the wicked. There is no mercy or kindness in the heavenly court at all; there is purely din (judgement)[8]...

In heaven there are souls who lie outside the gates of Gan Eden. They lie there screaming very bitter screams: “Give us something to eat!”

Others come to them and say, “Here is food and drink. Eat your fill.”

These poor souls reply, “No, no, this is not the food that we want. We want the food and drink of Torah and tefillah...

We have not learned enough Torah during our lifetime and we haven’t had Torah and tefillah in our life. We don’t have the food and drink that is necessary in heaven. We don’t have the spiritual food and drink that a person can acquire only through Torah and tefillah.”

These are souls lying around in heaven freezing, bare of clothes, and they scream in pain: “Give us something to cover ourselves with.”

There is no greater pain and suffering than the suffering of embarrassment. This is worse than the fires of Gehinnom...

Therefore Rabbeinu zal says: There is no way to help these people. One who is left there unclothed, bare and without food – woe is to that soul who is so embarrassed, so isolated, and suffers continuously.

No one can help that person. You cannot offer him clothes, because that’s not the kind of clothes he needs...

However, there is one who has the unusual heavenly power to help these souls. This is the tzaddik emes.

The key to it is if a person during his lifetime has had solid emunah, solid faith, in the tzaddik emes, to the point that he actually merged with the tzaddik emes.

“Merged” means they became one. This merging refers to the mind – one mind only, and that is the mind of the tzaddik.

This is when a person says, “I have no thought of my own, I have no mind of my own, I have no opinion of my own.

I accept completely and implicitly the words of the tzaddik emes, without question at all.”
This is what is meant by merging and becoming one.’


‘It is interesting to note that in Przysucha (pronounced Pesishcha, the school from which the Kotzker came)[10] they did not talk much about Olam Haba (the world to Come)...

Przysucha did not believe in Zaddikism (the veneration of rebbes or other tzaddikim)[11] in the way Hasidism in general did. Furthermore, it was an implied critique of the Hasidic establishment which could not be ignored...

The following story is told about R. Bunim (the Kotzker’s teacher)[12] in response to the “style of prayer” of one of his students:

Our holy teacher, our master from Alexander (Hanoch Heinich), told that once when he visited R. Bunim, he recited the morning prayers in a house which was close to that of R. Bunim, and he prayed in a loud voice with a lot of movement [which was then the norm; however, this approach did not appeal to R. Bunim].
In the middle of praying, R. Bunim came in. Immediately he stopped his noise and movement.
But in a moment he settled his mind, saying: “Indeed, I am standing now before G-d, so why am I concerned at this moment with my rebbe?”
He returned to his former style of praying loudly.
After he concluded his prayers, the rebbe invited him to his house and said to him thus: “Heinich, today I enjoyed your praying.”[13]

If this story can be relied upon...then it...reflects...the relationship between a zaddik and himself (the student)[14]...

Clearly it doesn’t mean he (the student)[15] is abdicating his own judgement, nor does it even mean that he will necessarily listen to his zaddik.

Moreover, R. Bunim not only approves of Hanoch Heinich’s disregarding him because his behaviour was authentic...

It was impossible for someone who had absorbed the world of Przysucha to have a one-dimensional relationship with a zaddik: That which for the rest of Polish Hasidism was a sign of faith – namely, total reliance on the zaddik – was anathema to the world of Przysucha...

...if he does nothing but simply relies on the zaddik, then, unfortunately, the zaddik cannot help him.[16] could journey to zaddikim till kingdom come without achieving anything. Without doing the real work within oneself, the Hasid, or devotee, was wasting his time.

...their journey to zaddikim for periods of time adds nothing, and nothing will come of it.[17]

...Responsibility could not be absolved. Moreover, anything that detracted from the individual’s personal responsibility – be it the miraculous, the belief in salvation by another, or the external trappings of the zaddik’s court – was to be shunned....

The entire role of the zaddik in Przysucha was understood in such a way as not to create dependency. For dependency meant that the very quality on which everything hung – namely personal authenticity – was emasculated...

All a zaddik could do was to be a guide, a role his own spiritual integrity, the student could find his own integrity as well.

The function of the rebbe was to help people become themselves and to serve G-d in their truth.
Vicarious redemption runs counter to the most basic values of Przysucha.

(In Kotzk/Przysucha)[18] the rebbe(‘s)[19]...focus is on how to make the pupil autonomous.
Such a teacher is truly kind, unlike the one who makes the other dependent...

In Kol Simcha[20] R. Bunim says...:

...someone who has the quality of learning from everyone, even from simple people speaking about mundane matters...- such a person does not need a master at all.

The statement “does not need a master at all” could not have been made in any other stream of Hasidism...other than Przysucha...

The real concerned with making his disciple independent...
The (biblical) verse itself warns “Do not trust in princes,” the intention being to warn against...the righteous of the generation...And in truth...Przysucha...would (talk) a lot about this: that maybe it would have been better to abolish this type of leadership since the “world” relies too much on the zaddikim.[21]

[1] Extracted from Rebbe Nachman’s Soul, A Commentary on Sichos Haran from the classes of Rabbi Zvi Aryeh Rosenfeld z’l, compiled and edited by Rabbi Shlomo Katz, p. 186-190..
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Parenthesis mins.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] Parenthesis mine
[7] Rebbe Nachman’s Soul, p. 298.
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] Extracted from The Quest for Authenticity, The Thought of Reb Simcha Bunim, by Michael Rosen, p. 113-122.
[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Siach Sarfei Kodesh 5:21
[14] Parenthesis mine.
[15] Parenthesis mine.
[16] Toldot Adam, eight night of Hanukkah, 100.
[17] Chiddushei haRim, hasidut, 350.
[18]Parenthesis mine.
[19]Parenthesis mine.
[20] Kol Simcha, Veyetze 35.
[21] Hiddushei haRim Hasidut, 352, 356.

Sunday, 4 March 2018




There are some interesting instances where oft-repeated ‘quotations from the Talmud’ are not found in the Talmud at all. One example is where R. Moshe Feinstein quotes a famous ‘Chazal’ (statement of the Talmud) about: ‘More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.’ However, that statement doesn’t exist in Talmudic literature but is instead a quote from the Zionist thinker, Achad haAm.

And there is also The Famous Midrash Which Doesn’t Exist, which lists the ‘three things’ our forefathers observed, to merit being saved from Egypt.

Let’s take a look at another famous statement and see whether it is also falsely attributed to a Talmudic source. It goes something like this:

The High Priest had a rope tied to his ankle when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, so that if he died he could be pulled out; because no  one else was permitted into the sanctuary.”


According to the Talmud[1], towards the end of the period of the Second Temple, most of the High Priests were unfit for the holy task. Many bought, or bribed their way to, their positions - and some, apparently, died within the first year of their appointment.

The Talmud says: 

Since they (the priests) were giving money (in order to be appointed to the High) Priesthood, they were replaced every twelve months.”

Rashi comments: 

“Because the priests of the Second Temple gave money to the Hasmonean Kings in order to buy the position of High Priest, these wicked priests did not live out a year and another had to take his place. Each subsequent priest outdid his predecessor by building a better structure and calling it after his (own) name.”

According to the Talmud[2], during the 410 years of the existence of the First Temple, there were eighteen High Priests – whereas during the 420 years of the Second Temple there were only four righteous High Priests and over three hundred[3] others who were unfit and didn’t serve out their first year in the position[4].

The Talmud does tell us that there was a very real sense of fear on the part of the other worshippers who were waiting to see if the High Priest would emerge from the Sanctuary alive.

The Talmud says: “He (the High Priest) would pray a short prayer (as he exits) the outer chamber. He would not extend his prayer so as not to alarm the (people of) Israel.”[5]
This does seem to imply that there were times when the High priest did not emerge from the Holy of Holies.

Furthermore, the Mishna says: :

After the Yom Kippur Service; "They would give him (the High priest) back his (ordinary) clothes to wear, and accompany him back to his house, where he would make a festive meal for his beloved (family and friends) to celebrate his emergence from the  Holy sanctuary in peace."

Again, this clearly shows the fear that must have existed for the possibility that the High Preist may not survive the day.


Some High Priests were apparently afraid to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and therefore had a rope tied around their ankles lest they died while inside the sanctuary and had to be pulled out (as no one other than the High priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies).

This last extrapolation of the rope, however, is not found in the text.

Is the statement textually and historically true?

First of all, it must be pointed out that there is no Talmudic source referencing the ‘rope around the ankle’. It’s not in the Gemora text nor the Rashi quoted above, nor anywhere else in the Talmud.

According to Dr W. E. Nunnally:

 “The rope on the high priest legend is just that. It has obscure beginnings in the Middle Ages and keeps getting repeated. It cannot be found anywhere in the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, Mishna, or any other Jewish source. It is just not there.[6]

So there you have it. The story appears to be a legend and a myth and nevertheless, it managed to become one of those ubiquitous fables that get widely perpetuated despite its untruth.


A particularly astute congregant of mine recently made this observation and wrote to a well-known Jewish historian who had quoted, and posted on, the story of the rope around the ankle of the High Priest. He pointed out to the historian that there was no textual basis for this myth. 

The historian thanked the writer and responded by retracting his account, acknowledged the lack of textual evidence, and set about removing the inaccurate post from a kiruv website.


Further research, however, reveals that Dr Nunnally is correct in everything he writes, except his last few words concerning the myth which is not found: “ any other Jewish source.”

There is indeed a Jewish source for the ‘rope around the ankle’ story!

It is from the Zohar which describes the preparation the High priest undergoes on Yom Kippur as he is about to enter the Holy of Holies:

“...he was to enter into a place more than holy than all. The other priests, the Levites and the people stood around him in three rows and lifted their hands over him in prayer, and a golden chain was tied to his leg. He took three steps and all the others came to a stop and followed him no further. He took three more steps and went round to his place; three more and he closed his eyes and linked himself to the upper world.”[7]

A second reference in the Zohar refers to a ‘golden rope’. Rav Yitzchak said: ‘A rope was tied to the Kohen’s leg when he went in, so that should he die there they could pull him out.” [8]

Thus we have two textual references to the ‘rope around the ankle’ story.


Without going into the thorny issue of who wrote the Zohar and when it was written (see Mysteries Behind the Origins of the Zohar), it must be pointed out that our only intention was to show a textual basis for the story of the rope, not necessarily to prove its historicity.

In other words, one could still argue that the practice of tying a rope around the High Priest’s ankle never happened (perhaps because of the prohibition of ‘adding to the number of priestly vestments’) – and one could also argue that we don’t draw historical (or – at least theoretically* - halachik) conclusions from the Zohar – but the fact remains that there are at least two Jewish sources which reference it.


The Talmud records that a certain Sadducee was once appointed as High Priest. During the Yom Kippur service, a noise was heard and the other priests thought he had died, and immediately “the other priests entered after him” into the sanctuary. There is no reference in this text to any rope around the leg.


There are also some Halachik difficulties with the ‘golden chain/rope’ because it meant adding an impermissible item to the clothing of the High Priest on Yom Kippur - known as ‘yitur begadim’. This is something that would have been taken extremely seriously because any deviation from the priestly dress-code would have been on pain of death. A rope worn around the foot may have constituted additional vestments.

A metal chain[9] may have created issues with the laws of purity as metal contracts impurity easily.
Gold, in general, should have been a Halachik issue on Yom Kippur when the High Priest was only permitted to wear white.

And finally, assuming a High Priest dies in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, there would be no need to haul him out by a rope, because his body could simply be removed by another Cohen, a Levi, or even a Yisrael if necessary:

As the Talmud states:

Anyone may enter the sanctuary (Heichal[10]) whether to build, to repair or to remove impurity.”[11]


Our intent was only to show that there is a Jewish source for the story. The bearing this source may have on Halacha, history or possible spiritual symbolism, is an issue for further study.

[1] Yoma 8b, and 18a.
[2] Yoma 9a.
[3] The number 300 is calculated from Yoma 9a, where we see that Yochanan served for 80 years, Shimon haTzadik for 40, and Yishmael ben Pavi for 10 years. (Some say that Elazar ben Charsum served for 11 years.) So for the remaining 279 years, there was approximately one High priest per year, due to the corruption.
[4] According to R. Dr Ari Zivotofsky: “It should be noted that although the Gemara says they did not serve an entire year, it does not specifically state that they died on Yom Kippur; while some definitely died then, others may have died under different circumstances or simply lost the position to a higher bidder.” See: Tzarich Iyun – The Kohen Gadol’s Rope.
[5] Yoma 52b.
[6] Dr W. E. Nunnally is Associate Professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Central Bible College, and also Adjunct Professor of Hebrew, The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
[7] Zohar, Parshat Acharei Mot, 67a.
[8] Zohar Vol. 16 Emor (102a), Section 34. Yom Kippur, Par. 251.
[9] The Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud translates Kitra as a ‘knot’ or ‘band’ (which may imply a rope which alleviates the metal issue).
[10] See Rambam, Beit haBechira 7:23, where this is extended to the Holy of Holies as well.
[11] Eiruvin 105a.

Sunday, 25 February 2018



King Herod - Friend of Hillel, foe of Shamai.

Recently, shocking headlines in the Israeli news read: “Police called to intervene as mass brawl breaks out between factions at haredi Ponovezh Yeshiva.[1] Could it be that this is mild compared to what may have occurred in a House of Study two thousand years ago?
There are two Talmudic accounts[2] describing an event which took place in the Study Hall where it seems that the House of Shamai attacked and possibly murdered some of the students of the House of Hillel!
Obviously, many say that this is a purely figurative description of a ‘robust debate’.
However, there are a number of commentators who believe the description of ‘murder in the Beit Midrash’ to have been devastatingly real and quite literal.[3]

Here is a description of the event in the Babylonian Talmud:

Leaving the technicalities for the footnote[4], Shamai became frustrated with Hillel in a debate concerning grapes - and then violence erupted. 
The Talmud records that immediately Shamai:          
thrust a sword into the House of Study and declared:
Whoever wants to enter may enter, but no one may leave!’
And on that day Hillel was made to sit in submission before Shamai, like one of his disciples.
And it was as terrible for Israel as the day on which the (golden) calf was made.”[5]
This reference to a sword is even more surprising considering the prohibition against bringing a sword into a House of Study.[6]
And we know that the day on which the golden calf was made was the day a civil war erupted when brother killed brother:
The Torah states:
Put every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion.”[7]
Some interpret this event at the House of Study as a description of a real battle - while others simply interpret this as being a metaphor and that there was no real physical conflict.

However, according to the Jerusalem Talmud:

In the Talmud Yerushalmi it is recorded that the rabbis went to visit Chananya ben Garon in his attic. There they counted the rabbis and ascertained that Beit Shamai was in the majority, so they voted in eighteen new laws that day.
That seems like quite a routine description of a typical voting session, until the Yerushalmi continues:

The students of Beit Shamai stood below them and began to kill[8] the students of Beit Hillel.
It was taught: Six of them ascended and the others stood over them with swords and lances.”[9]

This description by the Jerusalem Talmud is very difficult to interpret figuratively and it seems as if some violent conflict ensued.
Interestingly, the two major commentaries on both sides of the page are at complete variance with each other over the issue of whether or not murder took place:
According to the Pnei Moshe[10] commentary, Hillel had to sit subjugated before Shamai while Beit Shamai literally killed the students of Hillel. This was how Shamai was able to win the majority vote.
However, the Korban haEidah[11] commentary refuses to accept the violent account of real murders taking place in the study house. According to him, Beit Shamai only threatened Beit Hillel if they tried to climb up the stairs. They stood with spears and lances preventing Beit Hillel from ascending, so that Beit Shamai could have the majority vote - but ‘G-d forbid that they actually killed them’:

Thus we see that the main commentators on the page are fundamentally divided over the issue as to whether or not murders took place in the House of Study.
The Meiri[12]  takes the story as being the literal killing of the students of Beit Hillel. He says that the eighteen laws enacted that day will never be withdrawn because lives were lost that day. He further says that it was not just Beit Hillel who were the victims of murder, implying that the murders were quite widespread.   
Rav Saadiah Gaon[13], on the other hand, interprets it figuratively. We know this from the fact that he was attacked by the Karaite, Shlomo ben Yerucham, regarding this issue of alleged carnage in the Talmud. Rav Saadia denied any record of murders taking place.
ונ"ל סעד לדבריו מדברי רס"ג שכתב ע"ד הקראים שכתבו שהיה הריגה בין בית שמאי ובית הלל, ורב סעדיה כתב שלא נמצא כן בתלמוד, וע"ז השיבו הקראים דמבואר כן בירושלמי
Interestingly, historical evidence points in the direction of those who believe the Talmudic description was indeed one of violence and murder:
A fragment found in the Cairo Geniza (See KOTZK BLOG 91) which describes the same battle, records that a mourning period was actually instituted during Tannaic times:
On the forth of Adar, a dispute erupted between the students of Shamai and Hillel and many were killed.”[14]
This evidence is in contradistinction to many other rabbinic statements that the debates between Shamai and Hillel were well-intended, peaceful, and ‘for the sake of Heaven[15].
The Babylonian Talmud relates:
Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love truth and peace.” (Zech. 8:16)[16]
The Shulchan Aruch[17] records the ninth[18] of Adar as a fast day because Hillel and Shamai disagreed, but does not go into the details. R. Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, incidentally, adds that he had never known of anyone fasting on that day.
The Eliyah Rabbah[19], a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, writes that on the ninth of Adar, real violence erupted resulting in three thousand people dead.[20] (The same number were said to also have died during the episode of the golden calf.)
Apparently, some mournful piyuttim or dirges were composed commemorating the disaster (although I have not been able to locate them).
Perhaps an understanding of some historical perspective can give us some degree of clarity:
These events took place around the time of the Jewish[21] King Herod (173BCE- 4BCE) who maintained good relations with Rome, sent his children to be educated there, and who was dubbed by the Romans as the ‘friend and ally of Rome’.
This gave Herod a period of tranquillity in which he had time to build great structures including renovating the Second Temple. According to R. Avraham Zacuto (1452-1515), who writes in one of the first Jewish books on history, Sefer Yochasin:
Herod built the Temple of a beauty that exceeded that of Solomon.[22]
But this expansion into the aesthetics brought with it some mixed feelings amongst the rabbis because they were fearful of this new secular Greek influence.
It appears, however, that Hillel was quite supportive of Herod while Shamai felt threatened by the secular cosmopolitanism. 
R. Zacuto continues: “Indeed, Herod greatly respected Hillel, for they supported his rule...The disciples of the School of Shamai were killing the disciples of the School of Hillel and threatened their lives.”[23]
According to R. Binyamin Lau:
At this stage the Jewish forces were split and turned against each other in a civil war between the supporters of Herod and the supporters of the Hasmoneans.”[24]
Besides their political differences, Shamai was always stricter than Hillel.  Shamai, for example, taught that children should not eat on a Fast Day, as apparently, the custom had always been. Hillel’s leniency and innovation was that fasting should only be observed after puberty.[25]
Another example is that Shamai only believed in teaching ‘respectable people’ while Hillel believed in teaching all people. [26] When Hillel first arrived in Israel, he found the Torah world to closed and elitist and we all know the story of him having to climb onto the roof in the freezing snow to listen to Torah because he could not afford the entrance fee to the Beit Midrash.
Hillel and Shamai were the last of the five Zugot (Pairs of leaders), who led Jewish people for two hundred years (170 BCE-30 CE). The Zugot filled the positions of Nasi (President) and Av Beit Din (Head of the Court) respectively. Hillel was the Nasi, while Shamai was the Av Beit Din.
Under the leadership of Hillel and Shamai, the Sages “became immersed in halachik matters” more than in previous generations, and this sparked “the emergence of the phenomenon of dispute”.
Hillel and Shamai became symbols for characteristic Talmudik and Halachik dispute and debate.
However, “Our sources indicate that their disputes were filled with tension, and at times even danger:[27]
This was the background against which one has to interpret the events in the Study Hall.
It is significant that a historical event concerning an incident in the Study Hall, obviously witnessed by many and recorded in strong words and for which we even have a date (- as opposed to a theoretical Halachik dispute) was subjected to such divergent interpretation by the later Sages. Obviously, it touched a nerve.
If the account was indeed a metaphor for a robust debate[28], then long may such debates continue.
However, if the account was factual, it is a scourge on the history of Talmudic debate.
It is generally understood that the period of Shamai and Hillel was the first ‘peaceful era of debate’ following rabbinic involvement in the Hasmonean civil wars that had dogged the previous few generations.
This is how the history of that period is usually depicted.  –That with the advent of Hillel and Shamai, rabbinical Judaism moved from a period of political conflict to a focus on a scholarly debate within a framework of respect and tranquillity.
However, it is possible, as we have seen, that some aspects of the previous political upheaval - in which rabbinic leadership played active roles - were indeed perpetuated well into the so-called ‘tranquil period of scholarly debate’.
The only difference was that instead of the violence remaining within the political and transactional arena, it may sadly have regressed to encroach on the boundaries of Halachik discourse.
Observing some of the ugliness which often takes place within the zealous factions of the Torah community to this day, sometimes it seems that it would be safer to lean more towards the metaphorical reading than to think we have precedent in the more historic or literal view.
A respected colleague of mine suggested a possible motivation (although not a justification) for the killing:
Beit Shamai may have thought that they were acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’ out of a conviction that they were protecting future Judaism from corruption by foreign and secular influences which they perceived to be emanating from Hillel through his connection to Herod and Greek culture.[29]
Could it be that, based on the many commentators who take the literal interpretation, we can re-read the well-known statement from Pirkei Avot:
 “Any controversy ‘for the sake of Heaven’ will abide forever... And what is an example of such a controversy – that between Hillel and Shamai! [30]
When people think they are acting ‘for the sake of Heaven’, there is no way to stop or prevent whatever they deem necessary to do. And this righteous indignation that stems from being on G-d’s side is so dangerously ingrained in the psyche, that it remains intergenerational.[31]

[1] See here.
[2] One reference is from the Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 17a. And the other is from the Talmud Yerushalmi 1:4. According to some the two incidents (regarding the ‘wine’ and the ‘attic’) are related, according to others they are separate incidents.
[3] I thank the Honourable Mr Jack Bloom for sparking my interest in this matter and for pointing out some of the sources to me.
[4] Wine is one of seven liquids (wine, honey, olive oil, milk, dew, blood and water) which are susceptible to becoming contaminated. If these liquids come into contact with an unclean object, they retain the contamination and pass it on to whatever other objects they come into contact with.
According to the Mishna, solid foods only transmit impurity to other foods, while liquids contaminate even the vessels.
Furthermore, with solid foods, the severity of contamination reduces with each successive contact – while liquids do not diminish their ability to contaminate other objects with each successive contact.
Now, the question arises as to what is the status of grapes (a solid food) that are harvested for the express purpose of being converted to a wine (a liquid)? Would they be regarded as a solid or a liquid?
Shamai, who typically renders strict rulings, maintains that those grapes are ‘liquid’ and susceptible to contamination immediately upon being harvested. Therefore, they need to be harvested by persons in a state of purity.
Hillel, on the other hand, is typically more lenient and maintains that the grapes are not susceptible to contamination until they are actually turned into a liquid and therefore the harvesters need not be in a state of purity.
Hillel then points out an inconsistency with Shamai’s ruling and asks why it is that only grapes need to be harvested in a state of purity - whereas olives (which are to be turned into olive oil, also a liquid) need not also be harvested in purity?
Shamai was easily annoyed and provoked by this question and responded sharply: “If you continue to provoke me, I will also decree impurity for the olive harvesting.”  
At this point, swords came out and that day was described as calamitous as the day of the Biblical golden calf, where many were killed in a brother versus brother battle.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 17a.                                                                                                            
[6] Sanhedrin 82a. (It is possible, though, that this ruling came about later, as a result of the violence that had erupted in the House of Study.)
[7] Shemot 32:26-28.
[8] I noticed that some English translations use the word ‘slaughter’ instead of ‘kill’. The reader can decide what the word ’horgin’ means.
[9] Jerusalem Talmud 4:1.
[10] R. Moshe Margalit (1710–1780).
[11] R. David ben Naftali Hirsch Frankel (1707–1762)
[12] Avodah Zara 35b.
[13] Amudei Yerushalayim on the Yerushalmi.
[14] Mordechai Margaliot, Hilchot Eretz Yisrael min Hageniza, 142.
[15] Avot 5:17
[16] Eruvin 13b.                  
[17] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Hilchot Taanit 580.
[18] The Cairo Geniza records the date as the forth of Adar.
[19] R. Eliyahu Shapiro (1660-1712).
[20] Eliyah Rabba, Orach Chayim 580:7
[21] There is much debate as to the actual Halachik status of Herod. He was raised as a Jew but his father was descendent from the Edomites, many of whom had converted to Judaism.
[22] Sefer Yochasin, translated by Israel Shamir and edited by Prof. Joseph Kaplan, p. 18. (I thank Mendy Rosin for pointing this source out to me.)
[23] Ibid. Sefer Yochasin.
[24] The Sages – Character, Context and Creativity Vol 1, by Binyamin Lau. Part Three : Hillel and Shamai and their Students, p. 180.
[25]Tosefta, Yom Kippurim 5:2                                            
[26] Avot de Rabbi Natan, ch. 4.
[27] Ibid. The Sages, R. Binyamin Lau.
[28] Although many who purport this view acknowledge that real swords were drawn and people were prevented from voting.
[29] I thank Rosh Yeshiva R. Chaim Finkelstein for this innovative suggestion.
[30] Pirkei Avot 5:17
[31] I thank Mr Bloom for this fascination interpretation.