Sunday, 27 November 2016



It is a well established principle that Torah interpretation was handed over to the jurisdiction of human beings who would apply their minds in order to determine a halachic response for all future generations. 
It is similarly established that the Torah is ‘not in Heaven’ because its custodians are not the angels but rather humans of flesh and blood.

The question begs: With humans using their interpretative skills to determine halachic outcomes - to what extent are their deliberations influenced by their obvious and natural subjectivity.
It is the aim of this article to explore just how far the role of subjectivity can be extended with regard to determining halacha, and to observe how this process may sometimes have been abused.


We tend to forget that many things which we take for granted as definitive halacha, were (and still are) part of an evolutionary process.

For example, originally electricity on Shabbat was treated more leniently than it is today. It was only over time that the prohibition of the use of electricity came to be regarded (although not unanimously) as falling under the category of ‘fire’.

Another example is the case of tourists visiting Israel over the festivals. For many years, visitors from the Diaspora kept two days of Yom Tov. However, nowadays due to the fact that more tourists are visiting Israel than before, this view is slowly beginning to be challenged by the popularity of a ruling of the Chacham Tzvi[1] that they need only keep one day. R. Herschel Schachter says; “In recent years this opinion of Chacham Tzvi has gained more popularity among the poskim (halachic decisors).”

So to the careful observer, halacha, far from being static, is often subjected to a process of evolutionary development.


This subtle development is often the result of a greater or lesser degree of subjectivity on the part of the halachic decision maker.

R. Eliezer Berkovits writes;

Halacha is not subjective, but it has a subjective creative element to it....This is our share in the covenant...notwithstanding the risk involved in the subjective aspect of our participation.”[2]

 R. Yitzchok A. Breitowitz writes;

“...the Rabbi cannot answer...a question with his nose buried in the books, but must be sensitive to the individual characteristics of the questioner.” These characteristics will obviously differ from person to person and era to era.

R. Yitzchok Hutner...once told a disciple;

 ‘Do not rely on anything that I ever said to someone else. Each psak (ruling) is unique.’
R. Moshe Feinstein...writes[3] (in his introduction to his epic responsa work) that ‘each Rav must apply his own judgement and discretion in applying the responsa to the facts of his particular case...rather than blindly accepting his reading of them.’”[4]

In essence, the halachic process requires that the rabbi also responds to the questioner – not just the question.

All the above shows how subjectivity plays, not just a de facto role in determining halacha, but also how critical it is in the first instance.

In other words, halacha is meant to be relatively pliable.


Let me share two examples, separated by 800 years, of evolutionary development of halachic rulings that were predicated upon new knowledge that had previously not been available:
In 1964, the Surgeon General determined that smoking was dangerous to one’s health. 

This prompted R. Moshe Feinstein to write;

The truth is that one should not smoke. However since there are very many who do smoke, including Gedolim, it is difficult to say that smoking is an absolute prohibition.”[5]

Years later, his son R. David Feinstein said that had his father been more aware of the medical dangers of smoking, he most certainly would have prohibited smoking outright (see here).

The second example concerns the question of whether or not it is respectful to live in an apartment that is directly above a synagogue. Many poskim ruled against this practice. However the Chida ruled leniently, permitting one to live above a synagogue based upon a ruling of Rambam. The Chida goes on to explain that those who ruled strictly had not seen the ruling of Rambam and had they seen it, they certainly would have reversed their decisions.[6]

Thus different halachic outcomes are reached depending upon the availability of relative information. In this sense, information can often drive a halachic ruling one way or the other – again emphasizing a degree of subjectivity (in terms of who has what information) inherent within the process.


Professor Marc Shapiro points out a number of fascinating cases where it seems as if subjectivity may have been taken too far:[7]

The Talmud records R. Papa’s statement that if one drinks wine instead of beer, he is considered as having wasted the wine (baal tashchit).[8] The Maharsha comments that R. Papa acted out of self interest because he traded in beer!

The Rashash takes issue with the Maharsha for accusing R. Papa of lying regarding a matter of halacha, for personal and selfish reasons.

There is another case where R. Yehudah haNasi declared thirteen fasts during a time of distress and wanted to introduce another one when the situation did not get any better. However, R. Ami said they should not overburden the community with the discomfort of yet another fast. R. Abba remarked that R. Ami only said what he did because he personally did not want to fast another day. Thus he too was acting out of selfish considerations.[9]

A third example is where R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Yochanan; “It is permitted for a man to teach Greek to his daughter, because such learning is an ornament to her.” Shimon bar Ba heard this and said; “It is (simply) because R. Abbahu wants to teach his daughter Greek, that he (selfishly and falsely) assigned the teaching to R. Yochanan.”[10]

Incidents like these must have been relatively common because the Ramoh writes; “Any scholar who says something out of self interest should not be listened to.[11]

So we see that although a degree of subjectivity is inevitable within the halachic process, one has always to be cautious not to allow subjectivity to lean towards personal interest.


Nevertheless, the popular perception is that the halachic process is very logical, orderly, following clear and incontrovertible guidelines, and well controlled by careful unambiguous and unanimous oversight.

But as we have seen, a study of the actual historic halachic process reveals a very different story.
According to R. Moshe Sokol[12];

“...the innumerable changes in the Halacha – drastic modifications as well as moderate adjustments...are so varied – in subject matter, in geographic distribution, in historical period – that one is at a loss to delineate the precise parameters of halachic development...”[13]

Accordingly, the process of halachic development may actually be more random and organic than most people realize.

This apparent natural and multifaceted approach was already alluded to in the Talmud;
“G-d said: Do it (build the Sanctuary) in whichever way you are able - and it will be satisfactory.”[14]

So, as we mentioned in the introduction, the Torah was handed over to human beings to apply their minds as they saw fit and thereby determine halachic outcomes which would then become universal Jewish practices. And this was not an accident or a mistake - but rather part of the plan to keep halacha within the human domain.


Thinking that this almost ‘haphazard’ process of halachic transmission is a terrible weakness, I discussed the matter with an observant psychologist friend, Kevin Furman, and he said it was anything but. He went on to explain that a society is strongest when allowed to develop freely.

He explained that “identity ‘is also formed’ by what we choose to reject. This is important as it allows particular thought objects to be revealed as a spectrum which has grades. This allows flexibility and relativity. E.g. Shabbat observance if seen as an ‘absolute truth’ would not allow saving a life.

This means that what may appear as rivalry within a group (of people or even thought concepts), is healthy because it guarantees the group’s survival - and is even more beneficial than apparent cohesion of thought.

It’s like the old story about a Jew on a desert island who needs two shuls –  one to go to and one not to go to. The truth is that even the shul he won’t go to is just as important for the perpetuation of his faith as the one he does go to!

The openness and free flow of the halachic process is what gives it its strength and endurance.
This is why halacha is allowed to meander somewhat because it is FROM Heaven but not IN Heaven. 

And counter intuitively, it is precisely because subjectivity and individuality are tolerated and even encouraged within the halachic sphere, that the system has proved to be so effective.




By Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein.

Head of the Yeshiva L'Rabbanut and Institute for Halachik Research South Africa.

I was most excited when Rabbi Michal mentioned the subject of his next blog as being the flexibility of Halacha and its evolutionary process, not only due to the nature of the composition but also because it is something that I have dedicated my life to and founded two institutions on.

The essence of the blog is to introduce the role of subjectivity in the halachik making process and the scope of such latitude when faced with a set construct of rules and regulations, namely the Shulchan Aruch and its commentators. Contemporary writers on the genre, which include esteemed Rashei Yeshivos and Rabbonim, have clarified for the greater public the need and historical useage of subjectivity in dealing with novel and or scientific phenomena that require halachik attention. However what the writers and indeed the protagonists themselves have not clarified for themselves, let alone the public, is an aspect of the halachik decision making process that lies at the heart of "psak", of a final verdict, and it is this aspect which determines the place of human intervention in the halachik decision.

Even to the seasoned Rav the sea of Halacha can be a maelstrom of diverging opinions ad infinitum, compounded sometimes by the lack of a president from an earlier source that can guide one through these opinions. The obvious issue is how to choose an opinion or how to proceed when a novel situation, previously never dealt with, presents itself? The article quoted by Rabbi Michal from senior Rosh Yeshivas does not address this issue clearly, which may indicate that there is no clear cut guide. This would appear to be disturbing as the halachik mode is now called into question, lacking a proper method of conclusion drawing!

What is also bothering is the prevalent attitude amongst the halachik leaders in their ideology of paranoia against territory new and unchartered. What is new is best left untouched. In addition to the fact that not all new cases can realistically be left untouched, the evolution of Halacha, and indeed the oral Torah, is left stunted and atrophied, doomed to a fate similar to other dogmas stuck in time.

There is indeed a methodology in deciding which opinion emerges as the final ruling. There is also a methodology in dealing with new and uncharted territory. It is the same methodology employed by the earlier codifies, dating back to the Talmud, nay, even to Sinai. This method involves distilling principles from the halachik material studied. The way to extract the principles is involved, it involves a clear analysis of the provenance of the Halacha, viz. the sugya or Talmudic discussion which created the background and context of that Halacha. This includes asking questions, posing contradictions and being intellectually brutal in the pursuit of the underlying principle. And the coup de gras; formulating a chidush.
A chidush is a novel idea that the learner has read into the sugya which unlocks the depth and scope of the sugya. That idea can then be seen to run through the thought processes of the codifiers who followed the era of the Talmud. When the idea runs consistently a halachik principle has been successfully formed. And it is precisely this principle which determines the final ruling and whether the circumstances presented by the petitioner are worthy of the application of the principle.
This method of halachik exposition dates back to Biblical times, as the Gemara demonstrates in that halachik precepts which became obfuscated and forgotten after Moshe Rabbeinu's passing, which were restored and clarified by the expository vision of Osniel ben Knaz (Talmud Temurah 15b). Not through prophesy nor intuition, not even through combing a plethora of halachik opinions,but through "pilpul", analytical insights. And post Biblical times too, this style of analysis was the method of halachik exposition employed by the Talmud itself, as is stated that the purpose of group study is to arrive at principles (Talmud Brochos 6b).
Not to increase dissent and overly detailed case studies, but to simplify a course of study by reducing it to its basic rationale. And it didn't stop at the close of the Talmud, for we can clearly see this system of analysis in the responsa literature of the Rishonim and Achronim. Even in our times we have prime examples of the classical halachik analysis in the works of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach Zt"l and Rav Moshe Feinstein Zt"l, who carefully dissected the opinions before them and drew their own conclusions. And this is the way of the future, for scholars to unabashedly question and plumb and innovate and test and apply. For opinion polls are not always an accurate alternative.

To illustrate our point let us present a contemporary halachik controversy; the need to wait after eating hard cheese before eating meat. The idea first appeared in the work entitled Issur veheter by Rabbeinu Yona (ch.40 #10) and was discussed by the Turei Zahav, one of the most significant commentaries on Shulchan Aruch ever written ( siman 89 #4 ) . The original sources discussed the sharp tasting cultured and matured cheeses of their time and the contemporary works debated whether our processed cheeses are also classified as "hard cheese" insofar as requiring a waiting period before eating meat. Here begins the controversy, for one opinion maintains that our processed cheese resembles the old style hard cheese, only that the maturation is accelerated by modern technology. While others opine that a slow maturation is key to creating the old style hard cheese. See responsa of Rabbi Evers שו״ת ושב ורפא סימן כו which includes a list of various cheeses and their maturation schedules.
The result; a debate with no borders, details with no end and a need to err on the side of caution by waiting after every cheese meal. Whereas if we were to probe the matter further and ask ourselves whether there is a need to wait after cheese at all since the Talmud only mentioned waiting after meat (Hullin 105a), and then further probe why hard cheese was ever comparable to meat, and then through understanding the principles of Talmudic preventative measures we arrive at a conclusion that the debate over contemporary cheese is over an unknown entity. Which gives us a different result; that our processed cheeses are at best a dubious rabbinic injunction (ספיקא דרבנן לקולא ) which is inclined to the side of permissibility. Without the extraneous facts and figures we arrive at a simple and workable maxim (although we could extend this issue further, more crucial factors to address lie beyond the scope of this article).

The above thesis gives us an idea of where human interpretation meets Divine origin in the halachik making process. The human intellect that has been fine honed by Talmudic studies now applies itself to Halacha and brings a degree of intellectual subjectivity into the interpretation of the halachik code, while remaining intellectually honest to keep the interpretation accurate and  undiluted. The checking process is achieved by sounding the ideas off other halachik thinkers with no agendas, what the Mishnah (Avos 6:1) calls "dibbuk chaveirim", intellectual discourse. In addition to the human checking process, the scholar must research proofs or precedents in earlier writings, which will guarantee the outcome to be unbiased and well founded.

Unfortunately the yeshiva and rabbinic communities have separated the "lamdan", the learner capable of abstruse conceptual reasoning, and the "posek" the halachik decison maker, in that the latter is more capable of sourcing numerous opinions in the pursuit of a final head count, rather than analysis of texts and reason. That is why the posek of the current generation cannot account for the final conclusions drawn. Instead the system should and must encourage the lamdan to graduate to become the posek, the one using analytical skills in determining rulings in Halacha. Another unfortunate feature is the yardstick by which we measure competence in Halacha, for we are inclined to venerate scholars with keen memories and vast book knowledge instead of scholars with refined analytical skills who can determine the appropriateness of a law and its application far better than the former. Although the last sentence is worthy of its own article, suffice to say that the wealth of Torah information available today and the search engines to access it, obviates the need for a human repository of such nature. 

I hope the above has provided more light than heat on a subject that touches me deeply and I am one dedicated to the restoration of the halachik lamdan, the healthy combination of well rounded knowledge and creative insight allowing for the continued evolvement of the oral Torah.

A fitting conclusion to this essay lies in an interpretation of a piece of Talmud proffered by Rabbi Shlomo Eidels in his work Chidushei Maharsha. The Talmud (Bavaria Metziya 59b) presents an epic tale of fierce rabbinic debate resulting in Rabbi Eliezer manipulating the forces of nature to dramatically prove his view, eventually receiving Divine confirmation by way of a Heavenly voice announcing to the rabbis that the Halacha is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer. The dissenting rabbis proclaim that Torah is not in Heaven, but rather a human project for man to decide over, a project which no Heavenly proclamations can interfere with. And Hashem's response to such an affront: נצחוני בני נצחוני, you have defeated me my sons, you have defeated me.
The Hebrew word נצח, in addition to meaning gain victory can also mean eternal, and based on the latter meaning of the word the Maharsha translates Heaven's response of נצחוני בני נצחוני as "you have immortalized me my sons you have immortalized me!" For by defending the position that Torah is a human project the sages had made the Torah an eternal truth, one that cannot be adjusted by any concerns, human or Divine.
For me this confrontation of the sages is seminal, second to the giving of the Torah on Sinai itself, for in their confrontation with Heaven the sages asserted the human aspect of developing G-d's Torah, precisely the aspect that keeps the Torah and the learner dynamic and alive, leaving every generation and its scholars to unlock and decode the great depth therein.
Ultimately immortalizing the word of G-d. 

[1] Chacham Tzvi  167
[2] Essential Essays on Judaism, by Eliezer Berkovits and David Hazony, p. 97
[3] Introduction to  Volume 1, Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 1
[4] R, Yitzchok A. Breitowitz, Synopsis of Presentation, Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics, San Francisco, CA 1996:  
“In cases, however, of genuine unresolved disagreement (some authorities conclude one way, others conclude another way), the halachic system does contain within its own structure the recognition of extenuating circumstances that may allow the consideration of particular "extralegal" factors in a case. These include, in part, concepts such as "hefsed merubah" (great financial loss), "shaat ha'dechak" (a situation of urgency), "shalom bayit" (promotion of domestic tranquility in a marriage), "darchai noam" (the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness, not dissention). It must be emphasized that these factors alone are rarely taken into account in determining halacha on a primary level. In the event that the objective halachic considerations are balanced in both directions, however, these subjective factors will often tip the scale.”

[5] See Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah vol. 2, 49
[6] See Peninei Halacha, Likkutim 1, p. 165
[7] See Seforim Blog, April 22 2010
[8] Shabbat 140b
[9] Ta’anit 14a: Rashi - ‘DeLoh amar elah lefi sheHu lo rotzeh leHitanut.’ On ‘le Azmo dorash.’
[10] Yerushalmi, Shabbat  6:1 Of course R. Abbahu denied this.
[11] Yoreh Deah 242,36: ‘Talmid Chacham sheAmer davar halacha beDavar haShayach leDideh...ein shomin leDideh.’
[12] R. Sokol is the Dean of the Lander College for Men, and a graduate of Torah Vodaas. He has a Doctorate in Philosophy and is a member of the Vaad HaRabbanim of Flatbush.
[13] Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy. Ed. By Moshe Z. Sokol, p.87
[14] Berachot 17b.  See also  Ohr Yisrael: The Classic Writings of Rav Salanter and his Disciple Rav Yitzchak Blazer, ch. 30

Sunday, 20 November 2016



In this article we will look at the fascinating view that it was none other than St. Peter (!) who may have composed the beloved Nishmat kol chai prayer which is recited every Shabbat morning and every Pesach Seder night.

Some may find this an interesting study while others may take umbrage to it. The intention is simply to analyse the body of Torah literature both for and against this seemingly outrageous and incongruent notion.


The Nishmat prayer is considered to be one of the most beautiful liturgical compositions of the siddur[1]. [Nishmat and Yistabach are technically one long prayer. On weekdays it is abridged to just Yishtabach for purposes of brevity.][2]

There is much debate as to who wrote this prayer and to when it was written.
Some maintain the Nishmat prayer was instituted during the early Amoraic era (200 – 500 CE) because the earliest reference to it is by R. Yochanan bar Nafcha (180-279) who suggests that it should be recited during the Pesach Seder after Hallel.[3]

Unfortunately this reference does not provide us with a date of its origins nor with an indication as to who its author was.

An early to reference to Nishmat occurring within the Shabbat morning service is in Seder Rav Amram Gaon (810-875).

We do know that by the time of Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) Nishmat had become a standard component of the liturgy.

Rambam (1135-1204) writes that the Sefardic practice was to include Nishmat in the Shabbat morning service ( - but this was not a unanimous Askenazic practice).


Some suggest that a certain (unknown) individual by the name of Yitzchak with a wife named Rivka, authored the prayer as their two names are to be found in a very prominent acrostic within the prayer.

Others suggest the writer was a Shimon (ben Shetach?[4]) whose acrostic also appears within the prayer.[5]

Then there is the view of Rashi’s grandson Rabbenu Tam that the author of Nishmat may have been Shimon Kipah otherwise known as St. Peter!



Who was this man who became known as St. Peter and what did he have to do with Judaism?
While Paul the Apostle was charged with Christian/Gentile relations, and James with leading the Jewish Christians, Peter (also known as the first Pope) was charged with being the apostle to the Jews.

The new Christians were faced with a theological question: Since Christianity had its roots in Judaism, did the new pagan converts to Christianity have to simultaneously convert to Judaism? And if they had to ‘convert’, how much Judaism did they have to observe?

Some believed they would have to fully convert to Judaism before they could be Christians, while others (like Paul) believed they did not have to be circumcised nor adhere to the dietary laws. Peter, on the other hand believed that certain Torah laws (including some of the Seven Noachide laws) would have to be observed.


There is a very old Jewish legend that was once very popular and widespread. It speaks about Peter as an observant Jew (hence the reason why even the New Testament records Peter as originally opposing Jesus[6]) who was subversively sent by the rabbis to infiltrate the early church.

It seems as if the rabbis were afraid that early Christianity resembled Judaism too much. This resemblance had the counter effect of making it more appealing for Jews to look towards Christianity as a viable alternative without being labelled as outcasts.

To remedy the situation, the rabbis devised a plan to send Shimon Kipah (Cephas) later to be known as St. Peter, to infiltrate the new movement. The plan was that he rise to an influential position in the church so that he could make some radical changes which would give Christianity an identity of its own, thereby severing many of its earlier similarities with Judaism. 

Shimon was successful in his mission and managed, among other innovations, to move the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and also instituted different holidays to the original Jewish ones.
Now with a distinctly different identity as a new religion, Jews would no longer regard Christianity as a theological option as it would have lost some of its ‘authenticity’. 

To maintain his secret connection with Judaism, Shimon/Peter composed the Nishmat prayer, the Etan Tehillah prayer we recite on the High Holidays as well as Ahava Rabbah.[7]


We know that Peter’s Yartzeit (anniversary of his death) is the 9th of Tevet.

The Tur and Shulchan Aruch mention this date in their list of fast days but add that no reason is given for this particular fast.[8]

It is only in a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch that it states:

I found in a manuscript that Shimon HaKalphus (Kipah) who saved Israel from distress at the time of the pritzim (violators of the Torah), died on the ninth of Teves, and the day of his death was established as a fast day in Jerusalem.[9]

It’s interesting to note that it is only in an obscure reference in a commentary to an unnamed manuscript, that the story which appears to have been hidden away, is finally corroborated.

RABBEINU TAM (1100-1171):

This amazing story (or legend) of St. Peter infiltrating Christianity appears to have been supported by a piece of writing by the Tosafist Rabbeinu Tam[10]:

“(Peter) was a devout and learned Jew who dedicated his life to guiding gentiles along the proper path (by incorporating Noachide Laws into Christianity).”

Rabbeinu Tam similarly concurred that Peter authored the Nishmat prayer and it appears as if this view was widely held by many of the Rishonim.

Adding fuel to the fire, there is an overriding universal theme appealing to the oneness of humankind that pervades throughout this prayer. This includes passages that refer to ‘every living being’, ‘spirit of all flesh’, ‘every knee shall bend’ and ‘G-d of all creatures’.[11] 


There is also an old Yemenite prayer book that similarly purports that St. Peter was the author of the prayer. This source, dated at around the 1500’s, is a handwritten note in Yehiya Bashiri’s Baladi-Rite Siddur.[12]


R. YEHUDAH HaCHASID (1150-1217):

R. Yehudah HaChasid wrote in his Sefer Chassidim that:

Shimon Kipah was a righteous man but the Christians…venerated him as one of their saints and gave him the surname Peter. Even though he was a righteous man, the Jews gave him the nickname ‘Peter’ as in ‘peter chamor’ (firstling donkey).”[13]

In this source, although not entirely complimentary, Peter is nevertheless referred to as a ‘righteous man’.



Not everyone agreed with this positive image of St Peter. Most strenuous among the objectors was R. Simcha of Vitry (d. 1105) a student of Rashi who wrote in his Machzor Vitry:[14]

There are those who say concerning...Peter...that he established this prayer...along with other prayers...But G-d forbid, no such thing should occur in Israel. And anyone who says this thing, when the Temple is built, he shall bring a sin offering.”

Instead of Peter, the Machzor Vitry suggested that it was (another Shimon) Shimon ben Shetach (120-40 BCE) who compiled the Nishmat prayer. This would have predated the Christian era by a number of years.

SHADAL (1800-1865):

Another objector was R. Shmuel David Luzzatto, who wrote in his Introduction to the Italian-Rite Prayer Book that:

“...the remarks of Rabbeinu Tam are based on a false rumour that spread among the Jews in days of old, in the time of the troubles and devastations, with good intention to strengthen the faith of the masses, for they would hear that the first Apostle wrote the liturgical hymns in praise of the Jewish faith, and that his intention when he founded the new faith was only for the sake of Heaven and for the welfare of the Jews.”

According to Shadal, the story of Peter infiltrating the Church was nonsense and was just part of the imaginative psyche of a persecuted people trying to diminish the historical pain of their Christian tormentors.


Whether factually accurate or not, we have established that there was indeed widespread acceptance of the notion that St. Peter had composed the Nishmat, Etan Tehillah and Ahavah Rabbah prayers. This appears to have been supported by Rabbeinu Tam and other Rishonim.

On the other hand this perception was vehemently challenged by Rashi, his student the Machzor Vitry and others who suggested the prayers may have predated the Common Era.

It is interesting to see that the brunt of the debate is played out between both Rashi’s grandson (Rabbeinu Tam) and his student (R. Simcha of Vitry).

In an attempt at reconciling the variant opinions, some suggest that there may have been two Shimons. One was Shimon ben Yona, the Apostle who was known as St. Peter who was viewed rather negatively by Rashi and the Machzor Vitry. The other was Shimon Kipah who was the righteous man who acted as the agent for the rabbis.

But that is just speculation.

In general the difficulty that confronts us is that;

Since the names of the first paytanim (composers of liturgical poems) have been lost to memory, it has happened that the liturgical poems have been attributed to people who never thought to write them.[15]

This means that we may never have any real resolution to our question as to who the mysterious author was who penned these prayers.

[1] According to R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi it is replete with very deep mystical references.
[2] See Essays on Pesach and the Haggadah by R. Joseph Dov Soloveitchick.
[3] Pesachim 118a. 
[4] Or Shimom ben Yona, or Shimon Kipah? (See later on in article).
[5] Sochen ad, Mi yidmeh, Ad hena, Veilu pinu, Nishmat (in reverse order).
[6] See Mark 8:31 and Matthew 16:13
[7] See Otzar HaMidrashim, Eisenstein, p. 557 for more details.
[8] Orach Chaim 580 : בו לא כתבו רבותינו על מה הוא
[9] See Baruch Ta’am ibid. R. Baruch Frankel-Teomim (1760-1828) was the father-in-law of the Sanzer Rebbe (The Divrei Chaim) and great grandson of the great kabbalist R. Noson Nota Shapira (The Megaleh Amukot). Many regarded him as a Gadol HaDor of his time.
[10] As quoted in Machzor Vitry.
[11] There is also a reference to; ‘You redeemed us from Egypt’, which may or may not have relevance to this point (as the redemption from Egypt is recognized by Christianity  - and additionally  - many early Christians were Jews). On the other hand, Ahavah Rabah has continuous references to the uniqueness of Israel and appears to be a rallying cry in solidarity with the specific mission on the Jewish nation without any hint of universalism. Could these two prayers represent the alleged two sides of his persona?
[12] See Microfilm # 1219 Ben Tzvi Institute.
[13] A play on Shemot 13:13. See Sefer Chasidim 191.
[14] R. Simcha appears to be stating the view of his teacher Rashi, with whom he concurs.
[15] Shadal, in his Introduction to the Italian Rite Prayer Book (Mavo le’Machzor Bnei Roma)

Sunday, 13 November 2016


Midrash Pinchas by R. Pinchas of Koretz


Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1728-1790) was a talmid chaver (student and contemporary) of the Baal Shem Tov, and rose to become one of the leading lights of the new Chassidic movement.[1] 

R. Pinchas received a thorough Lithuanian style Torah education and wrote many Talmudic and Halachik novellae while still a young man. He was also interested in the writings of the Rishonim (medieval scholars and philosophers) and additionally mastered secular studies like engineering science and mathematics. This may have been because he was influenced by the Gaon of Vilna who placed great emphasis on secular education for Torah scholars (see here). Apparently a page of Euclides which was translated into Hebrew under the Vilna Gaons’s instruction, made its way to R. Pinchas and he studied it with the same diligence with which he applied to his Talmudic studies.

However, with time he eventually ‘grew tired’ of science and philosophy and was drawn to mysticism particularly the Zohar and became one of its greatest proponents ever (see here).

His father, R Avraham Abba Shapira was a staunch opponent of the Chassidic movement, but after fleeing from his hometown of Shklov he happened to meet the Baal Shem Tov. He changed his views and became a follower. 

His son Pinchas became one of the Baal Shem’s closest friends (although they may only have met on four occasions[2]). There is some debate as to whether R. Pinchas was indeed his best friend or his closest disciple[3]. The Baal Shem entrusted the education of his grandson R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh to R. Pinchas.


R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) arguably created a movement that almost rivalled that of Chassidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov himself. This brought him into sharp focus by many of his contemporary rabbinic colleagues and caused him to be constantly surrounded by great controversy[4]

This controversy came from both Chassidic and Mitnagdik sources. Some Mitnagdim felt he was even more radical in his teachings than the Baal Shem himself - while some Chassidim saw him as a threat because he didn’t believe in the concept of dynastic rule which was already well entrenched within the general Chassidic movement.

In the early 1800’s R. Nachman moved to Zlatipol, a town in the Ukraine. This move was seen by some as a challenge to the authority of R. Aryeh Leib known as the Shpoler Zaide (1725-1812) who resided in Shpola, a mere two miles away and under whose jurisdiction the town of Zlatipol fell. 

Although the Shpoler Zaide, who was 75 years old at the time, had originally supported R. Nachman he now became one of his fiercest opponents. It seems as if R. Nachman chose the Shpole Zaide as a symbol of the mainstream Chassidic Rebbes he had set out to oppose.[5]

The Shpoler Zaide was a student of R. Pinchas of Koretz, and he now accused R. Nachman of deviating from the path of the Baal Shem Tov!

I would like to propose the following question:

Did the Shpoler Zaide draw from an alleged text (or even just from the tenor) of his teacher R. Pinchas of Koretz, to justify his negative opinion of Breslov?


About a century later in the early 1900’s, R. Meir Shapira[6] the head of the Bet Din of Lublin (who also happened to be a direct descendant of R. Pinchas of Koretz) once told about how in his youth he was drawn towards the teachings of R. Nachman. However, he records that his father had expressly forbidden him from reading any of R. Nachman’s books.

His father, on his own admission, based his opposition to R. Nachman upon something he had read in Midrash Pinchas, a work of (his ancestor) R. Pinchas of Koretz (loose translation follows)[7]

“(R. Pinchas of Koretz) rebuked his students, after he heard them speaking (positively) about R. Nachman of Breslov, because Breslov was not part of traditional Judaism![8]

However, R. Meir paid no heed to his father’s words (nor to the alleged proof text from his own ancestor) and defiantly continued to surreptitiously study R. Nachman’s teachings.

Once, his father caught him secretly studying R. Nachman writings by candlelight in his bedroom, and became very angry. This tension between honoring his father and needing to study R. Nachman, deeply affected the young man and tore at his soul.

Then, one day R. Meir met the illustrious R. Avraham Mordechai of Gur (1866-1948) author of Imrei Emet. R. Meir asked what he thought about the shocking comment against Breslov as recorded in Midrash Pinchas.

The Gerer (Gur) Rebbe responded:

The words printed there (in Midrash Pinchas) are a huge mistake. For in the original hand written manuscript it reads that R. Pinchas would rebuke his students who (incorrectly) said that Breslov was not part of traditional Judaism!

[The difference appears to me as to whether the original text said the R. Pinchas would rebuke those he heard speaking MEY- for-  or AL – against-  CHASSIDEI BRESLOV.] 

Thus, according to this reading of the text, R Pinchas was a supporter and not an opponent of the Breslov movement.

Now R. Meir must have felt justified in his secret studying of R. Nachman’s works against the wishes of his father!

He then went back to his father and asked him to check his original handwritten copy of Midrash Pinchas (which he happened to have in his possession probably as a family heirloom) and indeed it was in accordance with the version of Gerrer Rebbe!  (Although the printed and published versions ran with the contversial text.)


Original grave site of R. Pinchas in Shepetovka, Ukraine.

The whole matter of the handwritten manuscript is rather confusing in the first place:

R. Pinchas refers to the term ‘Breslover Chassidim’ in his manuscript. The problem is that R. Pinchas of Koretz passed away when R. Nachman was only 19 years old.  At that stage R. Nachman did not yet have a following and he certainly wasn’t yet living in Breslov (where the followers were only later referred to as Breslover Chassidim).[9]

A probable answer is that the actual words quoted from Midrash Pinchas were not written by R. Pinchas himself but perhaps by his student R. Refael of Bershid who (writing some time later) took the liberty of referring to them as Chassidei Breslov! 

It’s also interesting to note that both the Shpoler Zaide and R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh had issues with R. Nachman, and both were (coincidentally?) taught by R. Pinchas of Koretz!

Either way, it turns out that there is a significant discrepancy between the apparent original handwritten manuscript and the subsequent printed versions.

The difference between the two spells the difference between the Midrash Pinchas -  a work of one of the most respected Chassidic leaders - either endorsing the early Breslov movement, or distancing itself from them in the strongest of terms by going so far as describing Breslovers as no longer being within the pale of Judaism itself!

The question is:

- Was it just a simple printer’s error?

- Or was this indicative of a more sinister agenda?

[1] His father was R. Avraham Abba who was a descendent of R. Natan Shapira, author of Megale Amukot.
[2] R. Pinchas is said to have visited the Besht twice and the latter visited him twice as well.
[3] The Baal Shem Tov is said to have had some followers who were more learned than him. Nonetheless he could still teach them more than they could have learned from books.  It appears as if R. Pinchas may have been one of these, hence the appellation talmid chaver.
[4] See introduction to Shivcho Shel Tzadik (second page); “...R. Nachman was birthed in conflict and defined by it”. This was something R. Baruch of Mezhibuzh already made reference to at his nephew’s brit milah. [‘Ki hamachloket hayeta hechrach hametziut’.]
[5] See Tormented Master, by Arthur Green, p. 100
[6] R. Meir Shapira (1887-1933), also known as the Lubliner Rav, is famous for his introduction of the Daf Yomi learning programme and also for his founding of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin.
[7] As with many Chassidic books, although it is commonly assumed that they were authored by the Rebbes themselves, they were often written by their students instead.
[8]Lo be’eleh chelek Yaakov.’ See Shivcho Shel Tzadik p. 69
[9] See footnote 8. Shivcho Shel Tzadik p. 69