Monday, August 29, 2016

The Meaning of the Word Hitpallel (התפלל)

The Meaning of the Word Hitpallel (התפלל)
By Mitchell First[1]

It is clear from the many places that it appears in Tanakh that התפלל connotes praying. But what was the original meaning of this word? I was always taught that it meant something like “judge yourself.” Indeed, the standard ArtScroll Siddur (Siddur Kol Yaakov) includes the following in its introductory pages: “The Hebrew verb for praying is מתפלל; it is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself. Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgment…”[2]

More recently, when I searched Jewish sites on the internet for the definition that was offered for hitpallel and mitpallel, I invariably came up with a definition similar to the above. Long ago, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (d. 1888) and R. Aryeh Leib Gordon (d. 1912) also gave definitions that focused on prayer as primarily an action of the self.[3]

In this post, I would like to share a different interpretation offered by some modern scholars, one based on a simple insight into Hebrew grammar. This new and compelling interpretation has unfortunately not yet made its way into mainstream Orthodox writings and thought. Nor has it been given proper attention in academic circles. For example, it did not make its way into the widely consulted lexicon of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner.[4] By sharing this new interpretation of התפלל, we can ensure that at least the next generation will  understand the origin of this critical word.
There are two issues involved in parsing this word: 1) what is the meaning of the root פלל? and 2) what is the import of the hitpael stem, one that typically implies doing something to yourself?
With regard to the root פלל, its meaning is admittedly difficult to understand. Scholars have pointed out that the other Semitic languages shed little light on its meaning.[5]

If we look in Tanakh, the verb פלל is found 4 times:[6]

1)      It seems to have a meaning like “think” or “assess” at Genesis 48:11: re’oh fanekha lo filalti…(=I did not think/assess that I would see your face).[7]
2)      It seems to have a meaning like “intervene” at Psalms 106:30: va-ya’amod Pinḥas va-yefalel, va-teatzar ha-magefah (=Pinchas stood up and intervened and the plague was stopped).[8]
3)      It seems to have a meaning like “judge” at I Sam. 2:25: im yeḥeta ish le-ish u-filelo elokim…(If a man sins against another man, God will judge him…).[9]
4)      It also appears at Ezekiel 16:52:  את שאי כלמתך אשר פללת לאחותך גם (= You also should bear your own shame that you pilalt to your sisters). The sense here is difficult, but it is usually translated as implying some form of judging.                                                                                     
What I would like to focus on in this post, however, is the import of the hitpael stem in the word התפלל.  Most students of Hebrew grammar are taught early on that the hitpael functions as a “reflexive” stem, i.e., that the actor is doing some action on himself. But the truth is more complicated.

One source I saw counted 984 instances of the hitpael in Tanakh.[10] It is true that a large percentage of the time, perhaps even a majority of the time, the hitpael in Tanakh is a “reflexive” stem.[11] Some examples:

       “station oneself”; the verb יצב is in the hitpael 48 times in Tanakh (e.g., hityatzev)
       “strengthen oneself”; the verb חזק is in the hitpael 27 times in Tanakh (e.g., hitḥazek)
       “sanctify oneself”; the verb קדש is in the hitpael 24 times in Tanakh (e.g., hitkadesh)
       “cleanse oneself”; the verb טהר is in the hitpael 20 times in Tanakh  (e.g., hitaher)

        But it is also clear that the hitpael transforms meanings in other ways as well. For example: 

       At Genesis 42:1 (lamah titrau), the form of titrau is hitpael but the meaning is likely: “Why are you looking at one another?”   This is called the “reciprocal” meaning of hitpael. Another example of this reciprocal meaning is found at II Chronicles 24:25 with the word hitkashru; its meaning is “conspired with one another.”
       The root הלך appears in the hitpael 46 times in Tanakh, e.g., hithalekh. The meaning is not “to walk oneself,” but “to walk continually or repeatedly.” This is called the “durative” meaning of the hitpael. There are many more durative hitpaels in Tanakh.[12]

Now let us look at a different word that is in the hitpael form in Tanakh: התחנן. The root here is חנן which means “to be gracious” or “to show favor.”  חנן appears in the hitpael form many times in Tanakh (התחנן, אתחנן, etc.). At I Kings 8:33 we even have a hitpael of פלל and a hitpael of חנן adjacent to one another:  והתחננו והתפללו.  If we are constrained to view התפלל as doing something to yourself, then what would be the meaning of התחנן?  To show favor to yourself? This interpretation makes no sense in any of the contexts that the hitpael of חנן is used in Tanakh.

Rather, as recognized by modern scholars, the root חנן is an example where the hitpael  has a slightly different meaning: to make yourself the object of another’s action. (This variant of hitpael has been called “voluntary passive” or “indirect reflexive.”) Every time the root חנן is used in the hitpael, the actor is asking another to show favor to him. As an example, one can look at the beginning of parshat va-et-ḥanan. Verse 3:23 states that Moshe was אתחנן to God.   אתחנן does not mean that “Moshe showed graciousness to himself.” Rather, he was trying to make himself the object of God’s graciousness.

Let us now return to our issue: the meaning of התפלל. Most likely, the hitpael form in the case of התפלל is doing the same thing as the hitpael form in the case of התחנן: it is turning the word into a voluntary passive/indirect reflexive.[13]  Hence, the meaning of התפלל is to make oneself the object of God’s פלל (assessment, intervention, or judging). This is a much simpler understanding of התפלל than the ones that look for a reflexive action on the petitioner’s part. Once one is presented with this approach and how it perfectly parallels the hitpael’s role in התחנן, it is very hard to disagree.[14]
Some Additional Comments

1.      It is interesting to mention some of the other creative explanations for התפלל that had previously been proposed (while our very reasonable interpretation was overlooked!):
a.       The root is related to a root found in Arabic, falla, which means something like “break,” and reflected an ancient practice of self-mutilation in connection with prayer.[15] Such a rite is referred to at 1 Kings 18:28 in connection with the cult of Baal (“and they cut themselves [=va-yitgodedu] in accordance with their manner with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them”).[16]
b.      התפלל  is derived from the root נפל (fall) and reflected the ancient practice of prostrating oneself during prayer.[17]
c.       התפלל  did not originate based on a three-letter root, but was a later development derived from a primary noun תפלה. In this approach, one could argue that התפלל  is not even a  hitpael. (This approach just begs the question of where the word  תפלה would have arisen. Most scholars reject this approach because תפלה does not look like a primary noun. Rather, it looks like a noun that would have arisen based on a verb such as פלל or פלה.) 

2. There are other examples in Tanakh of words that have the form of hitpael but are either voluntary passives (like  התפללand התחנן) or even true passives, as the role of the hitpael expanded over time.[18] Some examples:[19]

a.       Gen 37:35: va-yakumu khol banav ve-khol benotav le-naḥamo, va-yemaen le-hitnaḥem…(The meaning of the last two words seems to be that Jacob refused to let himself be comforted by others or refused to be comforted; the meaning does not seem to be that he refused to comfort himself.)
b.      Lev. 13:33: ve-hitgalaḥ (The meaning seems to be “let himself be shaved by others.”)
c.       Numb. 23:9: u-va-goyim lo yitḥashav
d.      Deut. 28:68:  ve-hitmakartem sham le-oyvekha la-avadim ve-li-shefaḥot… (It is unlikely that the meaning is that the individuals will be selling themselves.)
e.       Psalms 92:10: yitpardu kol poalei aven  (The evildoers are not scattering themselves but are being scattered.)
f.       Is. 30:29: ke-leil hitkadesh ḥag…(The holiday is not sanctifying itself.)
g.      Prov. 31:30:  ishah yirat Hashem hi tithalal
h.      Jonah 3:8: ve-yitkasu sakim ha-adam ve-ha-behemah… (Animals cannot dress themselves!)
i.        II Kings 8:29 (and similarly II Kings 9:15, and II Ch. 22:6): va-yashav Yoram ha-melekh le-hitrape ve-Yizre’el… (The meaning may be that king Yoram went to Jezreel to let himself be healed by others or to be healed.)
3.  As we see from this post, understanding the precise role of the hitpael is important to us as Jews who engage in prayer. Readers may be surprised to learn that understanding the precise role of the hitpael can be very important to those of other religions as well. A passage at Gen. 22:18 describes the relationship of the nations of the world with the seed of Abraham:

.והתברכו בזרעך כל גויי הארץ 

(The phrase is found again at Gen. 26:4.) Whether this phrase teaches that the nations of the world will utter blessings using the name of the seed of Abraham or be blessed through the seed of Abraham depends on the precise meaning of the hitpael here. Much ink has been spilled by Christian theologians on the meaning of hitpael in this phrase.[20]


Whoever suspected that grammar could be so interesting and profound!
             !ונתחזק  חזק חזק

(Does the last word mean “let us strengthen ourselves,” “let us continually be strengthened,” or “let us be strengthened”?   I will leave it to you to decide!)


[1] I would like to thank my son Rabbi Shaya First for reviewing and improving the draft.
[2]  P. xiii.
[3]   The edition of Rav Hirsch’s Pentateuch commentary translated by Isaac Levy includes the following (at Gen. 20:7): התפלל means: To take the element of God’s truth, make it penetrate all phases and conditions of our being and our life, and thereby gain for ourselves the harmonious even tenor of our whole existence in God….  [התפלל is] working on our inner self to bring it on the heights of recognition of the Truth and to resolutions for serving God...Prior to this, the commentary had pointed out that the root פלל  means “to judge” and that a judge brings “justice and right, the Divine Truth of matters into the matter….”

R. Aryeh Leib Gordon explained that the word for prayer is in the hitpael form because prayer is an activity of change on the part of the petitioner, as he gives his heart and thoughts to his Creator; the petitioner’s raising himself to a higher level is what causes God to answer him and better his situation. See the introduction to Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot (1914), vol. 1, p. 20. The Encylcopaedia Judaica is another notable source that uses the term “self-scrutiny” when it defines the Biblical conception of prayer. See 13:978-79. It would be interesting to research who first suggested the self-judge/self-scrutiny definition of prayer. I have not done so. I will point out that in the early 13th century Radak viewed God as the one doing the judging in the word התפלל. See his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, root פלל.
[4] The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (1994). The authors do cite the article by E.A. Speiser (cited in the next note) that advocates the interpretation. But they cite the article for other purposes only. The interpretation of התפלל that Speiser advocates and that I will be describing is nowhere mentioned.
[5]  For example, E.A. Speiser writes that “[o]utside Hebrew, the stem pll is at best rare and ambiguous.” See his “The Stem PLL in Hebrew,” Journal of Biblical Literature 82 (1963), pp. 301-06, 301. He mentions a few references in Akkadian that shed very little light. There is a verb in Akkadian, palālu, that has the meaning: “guard, keep under surveillance.” See the  פללarticle in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 11, p. 568 (2001), and Koehler-Baumgartner, entry פלל, p. 933. This perhaps supports the “assess” and “think” meanings of the Hebrew פלל.
[6]  Various forms of a related noun, פלילים, פללים, פלילי and פליליה, appear 6 times. The meanings at Deut. 32:31 (ve-oyveinu pelilim), Job 31:11 (avon pelilim), and Job 31:28 (avon pelili) are very unclear. The meaning at Is. 16:3 (asu pelilah) is vague but could be “justice.” The meaning at Is. 28:7 (paku peliliah) (=they tottered in their peliliah) seems to be a legal decision made by a priest. Finally, there is the well-known and very unclear ve-natan be-flilim of Ex. 21:22. Onkelos translates this as ve-yiten al meimar dayanaya. But this does not seem to fit the words. The Septuagint translates the two words as “according to estimate.” See Speiser, p. 303. Speiser is unsure if this translation was based on guesswork or an old tradition, but thinks it is essentially correct.
[7]  Note that Rashi relates it to the word maḥshavah. Sometimes the verb is translated in this verse as “hope.” Even though this interpretation makes sense in this verse, I am not aware of support for it in other verses. That is why I prefer “think” and “assess,” which are closer to “intervene” and “judge.” Many translate the word as “judge” in this verse: I did not judge (=have the opinion) that I would see your face. See, e.g., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, entry פלל
[8] Brown-Driver-Briggs translates ויפלל using a similar verb: “interpose.” See their entry פלל.  Alternatively, some translate ויפלל here as “executed judgment.”
[9] It has been suggested that the “judge” meaning is just a later development from the “intervene” meaning.
[10] The exact number given varies from study to study. I have also seen references to 946, 780 and “over 825.” See Joel S. Baden, “Hithpael and Niphal in Biblical Hebrew: Semantic and Morphological Overlap,” Vetus Testamentum 60 (2010), pp. 33-44, 35 n.7.
[11]  We must be careful not to assume that the hitpael originated as a reflexive stem. Most likely, the standard Hebrew hitpael is a conflation of a variety of earlier t-stem forms that had different roles. See Baden, p. 33, n. 1 and E.A. Speiser, “The Durative Hithpa‘el: A tan-Form,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 75 (2) (1955), pp. 118-121.
[12]  See the above article by Speiser. For example, with regard to the hitpael of אבל, the implication may be “to be in mourning over a period of time.” With regard to התמם (the hitpael of תמם; I I Sam. 22:26 and Ps.18:26.), the implication may be “to be continually upright.” Some more examples: משתאה  at Gen. 24:21 (continually gaze),  תתאוה at Deut. 5:18 (tenth commandment; continually desire), ויתגעשו  at Ps. 18:8 (continually shake), and  התעטף at Ps. 142:4 (continually be weak/faint ). Another example is the root נחל. When it is in the hitpael, the implication may be “to come into and remain in possession.”
[13] See T. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (1971), pp. 249-250, and Speiser, The Stem PLL, p. 305.
[14] Rav Hirsch views התחנן as “to seek to make himself worthy of concession.” See his comm. to Deut. 3:23. This is farfetched. Hayim Tawil observes that there is an Akkadian root enēnu, “to plead,” and sees this Akkadian root as underlying the Hebrew התחנן. He views the hitpael as signifying that the pleading is continous (like the import of the hitpael in hithalekh). See his An Akkadian Lexical Companion For Biblical Hebrew (2009), pp. 113-14. But there is insufficient reason to read an Akkadian root into התחנן, when we have a very appropriate Hebrew root חנן.
[15]  See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 11, p. 568, Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (1987), p. 511, Brown-Driver-Briggs, entry פלל, and Koehler-Baumgartner, entry פלל, p. 933.
[16] The Soncino commentary here remarks that this was “a form of worship common to several cults with the purpose of exciting the pity of the gods, or to serve as a blood-bond between the devotee and his god.”
[17] See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol.  11, p. 568,  Klein, p. 511, and Koehler-Baumgartner, entry פלל, p. 933.
[18] One scholar claims to have located as many as 68 such instances in Tanakh, but does not list them. For the reference, see Baden, p. 35, n. 7. Baden doubts the number is this high and believes that the true number is much lower. Baden would dispute some of the examples that I am giving. Hitpaels with true passive meanings are found more frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew. The expansion of the meaning of the hitpael stem to include the true passive form took place in other Semitic languages as well. See O.T. Allis, “The Blessing of Abraham,” The Princeton Theological Review (1927), pp. 263-298, 274-278.
[19] These and several others are collected at Allis, pp. 281-83.  For a few more true passives, see Kohelet 8:10, I Sam. 3:14, Lam. 4:1, and I Chr. 5:17.

[20] See, e.g., Allis, and Chee-Chiew Lee, “Once Again: The Niphal and the Hithpael of ברך in the Abrahamic Blessing for the Nations,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36.3 (2012), pp. 279-296, and Benjamin J. Noonan, “Abraham, Blessing, and the Nations: A Reexamination of the Niphal and Hitpael of ברך in the Patriarchal Narratives,” Hebrew Studies 51 (2010), pp. 73-93.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Torah Under Wraps

Torah Under Wraps
by Yoav Sorek
translated by Daniel Tabak

Their publications are not allowed to get out. Their roiling Internet forums are blocked by filters. The articles they publish omit the names of professors considered verboten. A cohort of Haredi scholars [1] challenge the academy and their natural surroundings, unafraid to deal with subjects deemed taboo in the yeshiva world. Few Religious Zionists have penetrated this alternative ivory tower, but one of them—Eitam Henkin, may his blood be avenged—succeeded in breaking down barriers.
“One needs to strengthen oneself with faith; one should not entertain philosophical questions nor even glance at the books of philosophers,” said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav already at the end of the eighteenth century. This motto is particularly popular today, in the post-modern era of “religious strengthening,” in which religiosity is perceived as synonymous with simplicity and unsophistication. Yet that very approach also runs counter to the Jewish mind, which is by its nature anything but naive. The legacy of Jewish erudition constitutes part of the DNA not only of the academy, but of even the most Haredi sectors of the yeshiva world, and it finds expression in the spirited Jewish Studies scholarship flourishing under the radar in circles that are presumed to recoil from it.

            Israelis distant from the world of Jewish Studies were offered a glimpse of it in the amusing film “Footnote,” but it portrayed only the nerve center of the field’s academic milieu, when in reality a great deal more is out there. In the reading rooms of the National Library, and in many houses in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, many scholars sit and study the same topics as academics but without academic degree, without traveling to conferences, without aspirations toward an academic appointment. The history of medieval and modern rabbinic authorities, the stories of their compositions, the manuscripts and their provenances, variant customs, disputes both ancient and alive—all of these preoccupy a non-negligible group of yeshiva graduates, Haredi in dress and behavior, who publish articles in “non-academic” journals of Torah scholarship and produce corrected editions of sacred texts, some of which can even be considered quasi-critical editions.

            They number Hasidim and Mitnaggedim, the truly God-fearing and those trapped in the Haredi lifestyle who cut corners, those lacking any academic title and others who have earned one—sharp and knowledgeable one and all, still faithful to, and actively participating in, the intra-Haredi discourse. Some of them evidence a dual non-conformism in their lives: on the one hand, they have opted to put distance between themselves and the safe space of the yeshiva, pasturing in the treacherous fields of scholarship; on the other hand, they are Haredim who hail from circles thoroughly suspicious of academia and would not dream of lending credence to its guiding assumptions. Nearly every remarkable personality in the field originates in the circles of Ashkenazi religious zealots, yet the scholarly discussion—which takes place not only on journal pages but in the lively Internet forums of Be-Hadrei Haredim and Otzar HaHochma—is not private, and sometimes a handful of others participate. Rabbi Yoel Catane of Yeshivat Sha‘alvim, editor of the journal HaMa’yan, is one of those others, as his home is in the Religious Zionist world, and his publication represents the enlightened German Zionist Orthodoxy of bygone years. The late Eitam Henkin also was one of them—a Torah scholar and brilliantly wide-ranging scholar who took prominent part in the back and forth of these torani scholars.

            In National-Religious society, there are, to be sure, many others involved in Jewish Studies scholarship, but one would be hard-pressed to find the same kind of polemical verve that exists amongst Haredi scholars. According to K., a young Haredi scholar, the passion attests to the fact that the scholarly endeavor is for them an existential need:

“The Haredi does his research in order to mask his own crisis of faith in a world that forbids thinking. Those who try to identify the composer of a liturgical poem or the copyist of an unknown manuscript, and those who uncover a forgotten rabbinical position held by R. Joel Sirkes, and those who wade through tomes to reconstruct a partially extant word in an Akkadian inscription, are all really fleeing forbidden thoughts. They release the tension between the silent extinguishment of faith in the Haredi world and the soul aflame with newly forged ideas by running for the hills of manuscripts and book archives.”

K.’s criticism begins with the Procrustean bed of Haredi yeshiva education:

“The Haredi kollel fellow is force-fed a diet of Torah study characteristic of the Lithuanian yeshivas of the previous century. Should he not be of a mind to rebel completely, the only somewhat legitimate pursuit open to him is Jewish Studies. In that way he can edit the novellae of the Rosh to tractate Nazir without raising too many eyebrows. For that reason Haredi scholars, at least initially, are more involved in editing and less with research or writing articles. And if they are open to producing scholarship, the closer the subject matter is to our time, the better: better on the modern rabbinic authorities than the medieval ones, better on the medievals than the Ge’onim, and God forbid not on the Talmud—don’t even mention the Bible. Preference is given to writing biographical pieces and endless discussions of historical chronology, such as clarifying the years of rabbi X’s rabbinic post in town Y, rather than anything deep about his method of study.”

Not everyone agrees with K.’s psychological diagnosis. “Some have ventured into the academic world not out of frustration with the kollel world, but because they were introduced to scholarship in minute doses and became enchanted by it,” says R. Yosef Mordechai Dubovick, a Boyaner Hasid who recently completed his doctorate on Rabbenu Hananel. He says that this field presents something the young prodigy would find difficult to resist.

“We have been taught and trained to question, explore, plumb the depths and not be satisfied with a superficial reading or understanding. When the intellectual yeshiva student is exposed to new tools and unfamiliar hermeneutical lenses and modes of understanding, his natural curiosity—nurtured so well—gobbles them up.”

“It’s ‘spontaneous academia,’” says Rabbi J., who would prefer to avoid equating it with academia. “It develops independently, without institutional bodies to dictate rules and regulations. It is anarchic, autodidactic, and exhilarating. It is a breathtaking demonstration of unfettered intellectual ability.”

A Scholar is Born

Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Library at the National Library of Israel, has occasionally bumped into scholars from the very heart of the Haredi world. “They are not the typical kollel fellow because the scholarly approach is not that of yeshiva students,” he says. He continues:

“Look, when I began working here I met a senior rosh yeshiva from a respected hesder yeshiva, and I told him about those who come from the yeshiva world to do research here. He was at a loss. “What sort of thing do they research?” he asked me, and I responded in turn with the example of Hemdat Yamim.[2] “Why would they research Hemdat Yamim,” the Torah scholar asked me, “when they can buy it in any seforim store?” That is the mainstream approach. Those who embark on scholarship are atypical.”

They may be exceptional and individualist, but one unmistakable quality binds them all together: they are autodidacts. This is evident in how they handle material in a foreign language. Some of these scholars have never studied English or German systematically yet refer to non-Hebrew sources in their articles. Each apparently bridged the gap in his own way.

            Anyone interested in this phenomenon is invited to open, for example, a volume of Yerushaseinu, an annual tome published by the Institute for German Jewish Heritage (Machon Moreshet Ashkenaz). Some of the articles published therein would be perfectly suitable for any standard academic journal; among the numerous footnotes adorning the pages one finds references to scholarly literature in Hebrew and other languages. Other publications include Yeshurun, Moriah (published by Machon Yerushalayim, which for decades already has been involved in the professional editing of medieval and modern rabbinic literature), the Chabad journal Heikhal Ha-Besht, and others. Torani scholars fondly remember the journal Tzfunot, which met its demise over a decade ago, and in the meantime they publish in Torah supplements to Haredi newspapers, primarily in Kulmos of the newspaper Mishpacha. Likewise, the new scholarly journal Chitzei Gibborim - Pleitas Soferim, published in Lakewood, NJ, is at the moment taking its first steps.

            Prominent names in the field include Mordechai Honig, a Hasid from Monsey who is extremely knowledgeable in medieval rabbinic literature; Yaakov Yisrael Stahl, a scholar of Franco-German Jewry forced to lower his profile in connection with academia; Moshe Dovid Chechik, a historian who until recently co-edited Yerushaseinu and currently co-edits Chitzei Gibborim; Yehudah Zeivald, a Boyaner Hasid who is quite busy with philosophy and Hasidism; Yitzchak Rosenblum, who had to move from Kiryat Sefer to Bet Shemesh on account of the library he opened, and currently teaches at the Haredi yeshiva high school Nehora; Yaakov Laufer, a scholar who focuses on linguistics and on the conceptual mode of Torah study; Betzalel Deblitsky, a prodigious zealot from Bnei Brak who runs the forum associated with Otzar HaHochma (the monumental digitization project of the Jewish library); Nachum Grunwald of Lakewood, NJ, a Chabadnik who grew up a Satmar-Pupa Hasid and serves as editor of Heikhal Ha-Besht; Aharon Gabbai, a rising star from Bnei Brak who graduated from a Lithuanian yeshiva, of course; Yechiel Goldhaber, slightly older than the rest, a historian and bibliographer whose scholarship is famous, and for whom the National Library is a second home; and Avraham Shmuel Taflinsky, who has toiled for the past few years in uncovering the sources of the aforementioned Hemdat Yamim.

            Once we are mentioning the denizens of the National Library, mention must be made of the all-important tool in their scholarly work—the Internet. The global web of knowledge enables Haredi men from conservative yeshivas, whose library holdings are what you would expect, to come in contact with Jewish Studies scholarship and its historical-critical mindset. Most Haredi scholars have a home Internet connection, but not all. Zvi Leshem relates that some come to the library not to peruse ancient manuscripts or converse with the university’s scholars who use it as their place of study, but simply to work at a place that provides Internet access.

            “In the digital age, Jewish Studies scholarship has successfully managed to wiggle its way, however constrainedly, into Haredi and yeshiva circles via databases such as Otzar HaHochma,” Mordechai Honig relates. “Until recently, it was the books. The birth of a Haredi scholar was generally triggered by incidental exposure to academic scholarship that invitingly charmed him. For me, it was Ephraim Urbach’s The Tosaphists, which I purchased at age fifteen.”

            No one can deny the love story between digital media and the world of Haredi scholarship, with the latter exercising its acumen also in its use of technology. Along those lines, a weekly Internet journal popped up several years ago which, in the course of a couple years, became an especially favored forum for the group of torani scholars. It bore the name Datshe (ДАЧА), a Russian word that made its way into yeshivish slang, which evokes a leisurely space in which people enjoy life, a kind of rare legitimation of self-indulgence and letting loose a bit. The journal, founded and edited by Yitzchak Baruch Rosenblum, was, according to its subtitle, “where sages of Israel come to relax.” The publication insisted upon respectable discussion and high-caliber argumentation, but one also could find among the directives to its readers and writers the following note of caution, which furnishes an additional explanation to the choice of digital format: “Please preserve the low profile of this publication. One can print it for ease of reading but should not show it to just anyone. Wisdom belongs to the discreet.”[3]

Instead of Polemic, Shock

Along with Internet databases and online journals, forums also have an important place in the discourse of these scholars. After many long years in which the forum Soferim u-Sefarim on the site Be-Hadrei Haredim served as the water cooler for torani scholars, the baton was passed to the forums of Otzar HaHochma. A lengthy, fascinating thread recently began there, for example, whose purpose is to generate a list of “dissenting opinions [made by lone rabbinic scholars],” that is, halakhic positions taken by well-known decisors over the generations when their colleagues were of a different mind. The thread reveals the foundational analytic-halakhic erudition of the discussants, expert not only in bibliography and history but also in a wide range of positions expressed by medieval and modern rabbinic authorities on scores of issues.

            The administrator of the Otzar HaHochma forums is, as was said above, Betzalel Deblitsky (under the username “Ish Sefer”). What had been permissible on Be-Hadrei Haredim the fearless zealot Deblitsky bans, censoring discussions and silencing voices he deems unworthy of being heard. But even those who miss the great openness that marked the forum of yore understand that the change is permanent—discussions of relevance within the scholarly community take place principally on the new forum.

            Zeal, parenthetically, is a relative matter: the strict filter Netiv, which runs according to the guidance of a confidential rabbinic board, blocks the Otzar HaHochma forum on account of its content being deemed subversive and problematic. To take but one example, the forum has an intense, politically-charged discussion surrounding one of the veteran decisors of the Edah Haredit in Jerusalem—R. Yitzhak Isaac Kahana. A broadside that circulated in Jerusalem against R. Kahana’s book Orhot Tohorah and his lenient rulings on questions regarding menstruation inflamed not only the physical Haredi street but the virtual one as well, engendering scathing posts on the forum in support of each side. A symptom of one of the forum’s pathologies is partially manifest in this case: the deletion of threads by the moderator, who perceived them as deviating from the Haredi party line. Over three pages of posts inexplicably disappeared from the site, only to return the next day, redacted.

            Rabbi Eitam Henkin was among those disappointed by the limits set on the forum’s discourse as compared with past fora, but he nevertheless realized that this was the place to be. Under the username “Tokh Kedei Dibbur,” Henkin took part in discussions on the forum, and at the same time carried on extensive personal e-mail correspondence with scholars who were active on it. This became the gateway through which Israeli reality penetrated the Haredi ivory tower—users discovered that the man murdered together with his wife, in front of his children, in the middle of Sukkot, was none other than “their very own” Rabbi Eitam. The forum was filled with emotional threads of eulogy and anguish, memorial initiatives and activities to be done in his merit, and the revelation of the many connections that Henkin had weaved amongst his Internet friends.

            It is difficult not to resort to superlatives when speaking about Eitam Henkin. Anyone who had followed his abundant Torah publications — which were marked by eloquent prose, intellectual honesty, and the self-confidence of someone on home turf — had trouble believing the subject of conversation was so young. Even the conversation about him on the forums sketches a fascinating profile. The user known as “Meholat Ha-Mahanayim wrote:

“The distinguished victim, may God avenge his blood, was wondrously knowledgeable about the entire history of our people, and specifically the history of Lithuanian Torah scholars and their writings. I merited corresponding with him a bit here, and as much as he was honest, fair, and truth-seeking, he was also intensely and diligently exacting […]  None of his responses contained any triviality; his prose was shot through with words of Torah and wisdom, brimming with old wine […] One could discern his constant drive for the truth from his responses. He was never too flustered for a retort, and he always based what he said on the most solid of foundations. Even when he argued for an alternative position, he was a fair and honest opponent, unafraid to admit he was wrong when necessary.”

None other than Deblitsky (“Ish Sofer”), who is so distant from Henkin’s worldview and rarely treats anything with a velvet glove, eulogized Henkin at length. The forum’s moderator wrote:

“His statements stood out in their richness, sharpness, and precision—they have no equal. The wide range of people who corresponded with him is astounding. Despite their working in various fields, his correspondents unanimously attested to the immense benefit they gained from him and to the rich sources with which he magnanimously and pleasantly inundated them. Many a time in answering some inconsequential question, he would—as soon as you could say Jack Robinson[4] whip out one of his many lists, chock-full and cornucopian, while noting that he was collecting additional material on the matter and it would have to wait until a future opportunity […]

Many have mentioned honesty and artlessness among his noble qualities. I would like to emphasize one thing that no one like me realized until they fell prey to it: his sharp and resolute style tended to invite polemic, but anyone who responded harshly as a tit-for-tat comeback found himself embarrassed and pathetic upon discovering the affable and unpretentious man behind those words.”

Further on, Deblitsky touched on Henkin’s transcendence of the entire sectoral framework. According to him, Henkin noted in a personal communication “that his unique pedigree as a son and grandson of American rabbis who did not fit in with any of the specific groups of Torah-observant Jews enables him to view himself as free of the shackles of sometimes artificial classification and group affiliation. One could say that this feeling largely allowed him to cast a critical eye upon and evaluate phenomena from all sectors without bias.” Deblitsky claimed this to be evident in the independent stance Henkin took in a slew of polemics, in which his misgivings and speculations were spelled out numerous times in private messages, as he took pains to publish in the forum only those things that he could wholeheartedly stand behind.

            “I, for one, find exaggeration on both sides,” wrote Henkin to Deblitsky regarding the polemic within the forum surrounding the figure of the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. “Be it the disparaging vitriol about him […] or, on the other side, those feigning innocence, as if he was just another link in the chain of Torah sages throughout the ages, some of whom have always engaged to some degree in general culture.” Henkin conceded to Deblitsky that even within the National-Religious community opposition to Rabbi Lichtenstein had existed: “It was undoubtedly quite grating for a regular yeshiva student (excluding those from Har Etzion and to “the left”) to see citations from non-Jewish culture and the like in a Torah article. In this case (of criticism within the National-Religious community—Yoav Sorek), however, opposition to that approach was disjoined from ad hominem attacks.”

            “We should be very sad that ‘sectoral’ boundaries make no exceptions for Torah giants,” wrote Henkin in another e-mail to Deblitsky.

“The definitive assignment of each person into specifically this community or that one is often artificial. It is absurd that the public considers many comedians, musicians, and low-brow entertainers (for purposes of this example) as “Haredi” because they attended heder and wear a hat in the synagogue, while thousands of families who give their all for Torah and are punctilious about every jot and tittle (not to mention that for them television, secular newspapers, and the like are not even up for discussion) are “not Haredi" because they wear a colored shirt and also rejoice on Yom Ha-‘Atzma’ut. Although people can only see externals, they can ascertain what they will have to account for in the Heavenly court, whether they will be asked about Torah study, honesty in business, and hoping for the redemption,[5] or whom they cast their vote for in national elections.”

Henkin wrote the following when describing Rabbi Dov Lior’s Torah greatness. “I can say unhesitatingly that we are talking about a serious heavyweight in Torah erudition and jurisprudence who has the entire Talmud and Shulhan Arukh in his head—incredible!” Still, he noted that the Haredim do not respect him simply because his stance on Zionist matters “meant he was to be associated with only one camp and perforce rendered off-limits for the other camp, even if for him the only thing in his world is Torah, pure and simple. (Elements of Western culture or academia, which are accepted in large segments of his camp, he derides at every turn.)”

            In these citations of Henkin one can hear the Haredi lilt. As Deblitsky and others in the forum pointed out multiple times, Henkin had the ability to converse with various people in language they were comfortable with. In private communication with another user in the forum, Henkin disclosed that when he would write on Otzar HaHochma, he would adopt the appropriate style and cautiously promote topics close to his heart.

            What motive could there be for entering this lion’s den? Henkin had faith that every place has its bright spots, and he was happy to become acquainted with people he would not have otherwise met. He described himself as “attempting to pursue peace, even in a place where they pursue the likes of me.” As he wrote another time under the username “Tekhelet Domah” in the somewhat-calmer forum of Be-Hadrei Haredim: “I try my utmost not to hate anyone and not to write off any community that believes itself to be doing God’s will, even those which, in accord with their own aforementioned belief, would write me off and disparage my Rebbe in an unacceptable way.”

Professor in All But Name

            After Henkin’s murder, a debate arose between his acquaintances and family over the the respective value he assigned to the two antipodes of academic study and religious study. Not surprisingly, the tension between the two constantly taxes many torani scholars. In the Otzar HaHochma forum and others, it is not uncommon to find a venomous and disparaging treatment of classic academics, who are caricatured as wasting their time on the trivial or unnecessary because they do not know how to study Torah, plain and simple. In the acerbic language of one forum contributor: “they are incapable of studying a page of Talmud without Schottenstein and a dictionary.”

            In this way, the methodology of the elderly professor David Halivni, for example, has been pilloried and subject to sharp ridicule, perhaps also on account of his past affiliation with the Conservative movement. Along the lines of the approach with which he is associated (which presumes that most Talmudic passages were edited by a generation of anonymous sages, termed stamma’im, during the Savoraic period), the user “Afarqasta De-‘Anya” writes that he read Halivni’s introductions to two tractates and concluded: “Halivni did not write them himself; rather, he composed specific passages in which even he did not fully understand what he was writing or what he intended. His editor and publisher added stammaitic passages, thereby integrating the scattered pieces into what appears to be a single, unified text.”

            This derision may, of course, result from an inferiority complex afflicting those with no proper academic training, or from the ignorance of those whose intellectual horizons do not extend beyond the narrative in which they were raised. In any case, it is far from being the consensus of the community of torani scholars: some have integrated into academia in recent years, others recognize that the yeshiva world’s disdain toward Jewish Studies is outdated. As Dubovick notes, Jewish Studies of this past generation is not what it had been previously, when scholars had no connection to the traditional study hall, and their scholarship at times revealed their ignorance and at other times could not sort the wheat from the chaff. In this generation, the preeminent scholars in the field are also serious Torah scholars.

            Yet, anyone who publishes in Haredi journals or seeks legitimacy from the Haredi street cannot write without inhibition. “They must be careful about how they write, whom they cite, and even what titles they bestow,” explains Zvi Leshem. “I recall someone here who wanted to cite Rabbi Saul Lieberman’s Tosefta Ki-Feshutah, but he could not figure out which was the worse option—writing Rabbi Lieberman or Professor Lieberman. In the end he simply omitted his name.”

            Though many of them already bear the title Dr., generally the torani scholars are not in the academic race for positions and recognition, and that fact profoundly impacts their lives. “The disconnect from the academic world and all its rivalry makes it easy for a scholar to share his wisdom with his colleagues, without having to worry about material or future scholarship being stolen, as well as to partake of his colleagues’ wisdom,” says R. Yoel Catane. “At the same time, the pressure to publish quality articles in the academic world, and the need to subject one’s research to peer review, occasionally yields excellent results that cannot be achieved in torani scholarship.”

            “The fact that we are not part of that competition,” explains G. to me, “grants us peace of mind, intellectual freedom, the freedom to choose our areas of research without the need for prerequisite courses that are not entirely necessary, and the freedom to develop our ideas as we see fit. I see Haredi scholars benefitting from the sort of freedom enjoyed by the first generation of scholars in the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement.”

Between Seclusion and Entrenchment

The heightened awareness of Jewish sages to the development of their tradition preceded by centuries the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, which set the critical modern gaze upon the Jewish library. Across the generations there were Ge’onim, medievals, and moderns engaging in textual criticism, historicizing customs, unearthing deep-rooted errors, and looking askance at what the ignorant perceived as a “Judaism” that could not be questioned.

            Even from the narrower, more modern perspective of relations between the academy and Haredim, the group that forms the subject of this article certainly cannot claim originality. The “Bibliography of the Hebrew Book,” a superb academic project that catalogs all titles printed in Hebrew and other Jewish languages through the ages, is currently led by Yitzchok Yudlov, an erudite Haredi with no academic schooling. Among the founders of the project Rabbi Shmuel Ashkenazy (Deutsch), raised in Batei Ungarin, stands out. Ashkenazi, one of the most famous Haredi scholars of the book, serves today as an honorary member of the Mekize Nirdamim Society, a venerable publisher identified with the Wissenschaft movement. Two Haredi scholars also stand out among the employees of the National Library: Yehoshua Mondshine, an independently-minded Habadnik known for his scholarship on Hasidism, who passed away this past Hanukkah[6] after a terrible illness; and Meir Wunder, may he live a long life, a bibliophile and historian who wrote, among other things, his monumental project Meorei Galitziya (Luminaries of Galicia). A similar undertaking for Hungarian sages was brought into being by the late Haredi scholar Yitzchak Yosef Cohen, who worked within the framework of Machon Yerushalayim, the most famous of the Haredi publishers with a scholarly inclination. Also worthy of note are Yitzchak Yeshaya Weiss and Moshe Alexander Zusha Kinstlicher, both prolific scholars in the field of rabbinic history, who edited the now-defunct Tzfunot.

            What, then, distinguishes the members of this young group from all their predecessors? Perhaps it is the fact that the integration that had once seemed so organic has become more complicated as a result of two parallel processes: the seclusion of Haredi society, and the entrenchment of the academy’s formality. The world of the learned, from all walks of life, for whom knowledge and curiosity are essential, has been replaced by the reality of evaluative categories within the halls of the academy, and an inflexible, censorial “hashkafah within the Haredi camp. Few are those who seek to restore the former glory of scholarship, back when its throne did not have to be an academic chair nor its crown a black hat.


The doctoral advisor of Eitam Henkin, may God avenge his blood, was convinced that his student had chosen academia over the halakhic discourse of the yeshiva. Others attest that Henkin viewed halakhic discourse, in fact, as paramount.
Although his world was built upon foundations quite different from those of his Haredi interlocutors, Eitam Henkin had no difficulty finding a shared language with torani scholars. An autodidact to the core, he also held fast to the truth, was intellectually curious, loved profound discussion, and was prepared to swim against the tide. And as can be expected from anyone who has an independent love for knowledge, it turns out that he also wrote for—or at least corrected and made changes to—the Hebrew Wikipedia. On his user page, under the username “Shim‘on Ha-Eitan" (which he used in other contexts, such as on the site Mida), he opted for a pithy self-description that speaks volumes: “a Jerusalemite with diasporic roots, whose world is Torah and whose occupation is writing and research.”

            Henkin began his doctoral research under Prof. David Assaf of Tel-Aviv University. He dedicated it to the biography of R. Israel Meir Ha-Kohen of Radun, the Hafetz Hayyim (1839-1933), one of the mythic personalities who have exercised incredible influence on contemporary Orthodoxy. Assaf, who deeply admired Henkin, published a eulogy on his blog Oneg Shabbat that aroused immediate contention. He wrote:

“Eitam was a wunderkind. I first met him in 2007. At the time he was an avrekh meshi (by his own definition), a fine young yeshiva fellow, all of twenty-three years old. He was a student at Yeshivat Nir in Kiryat Arba, with a long list of publications in Torah journals already trailing him. He contacted me via e-mail, and after a few exchanges I invited him to meet. […] We spoke at length, and I have cared about him ever since. From his articles and our many conversations I discerned right away that he had that certain je ne sais quoi. He had those qualities, the personality, and the capability—elusive, unquantifiable, and indefinable—of someone meant to be a historian, and a good historian at that.

I did not have to press especially hard to convince him that his place—his destiny—did not lie between the walls of the yeshiva, and that he should not squander his talents on the niceties of halakha. He needed to enroll in university and train himself professionally for what truly interested him, for what he truly loved: critical historical scholarship. […]

Eitam, hailing from a world of traditional yeshiva study that is poles apart from the academic world, slid into his university studies effortlessly. He rapidly internalized academic discourse, with its patterns of thinking and writing, and began to taste the distinct savors of that world.”

In the continuation, Assaf heaps praise upon his young student. The sharp opposition that he posed between “the niceties of halakha” and critical scholarship, however, engendered grievances on the part of several Oneg Shabbat readers, particularly those familiar with Henkin’s other side. His brother Dr. Yagil Henkin criticized Assaf’s piece relatively delicately. “He believes Eitam saw himself primarily as a scholar, not a rabbi with plans to fill a rabbinic post,” he told Yosef Ehrenfeld in the newspaper Shevi‘i. “I have a different take on the matter […] His first and foremost desire was to be a Torah scholar, but he also wanted to be an academic scholar. In everything that interested him and everything he engaged in, he strove to do his best, to go the extra mile.”

            Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham protested Assaf’s denigration of Torah discourse, leading with the following cynical preface:

“I am unable to restrain myself from making the objective academic comparison (apparently the product of systematic methodology and critical-historical scholarship) between “squandering one’s time on the niceties of halakha” and “entering the precincts (heikhalot) of the academy.” I won’t lie: a quiver of holiness washed over me upon reading those words, but I nevertheless summon my courage and dare to murmur something in the heart of the sanctuary (heikhal). May its priests, Levites, and prophets forgive me after kissing their sacred, perfumed feet.”

Offended, Assaf responded with a stinging riposte of his own, explaining that he was not deriding the yeshiva’s methods of study; rather, he was convinced that Eitam, as a young man who had needed to choose his intellectual path, was inclined more towards academic methods of study and writing. This assertion would seem to fit the activity of Eitam’s final years, but it somewhat contradicts the testimony of Deblitsky, according to which Henkin viewed his thoroughly halakhic composition about Sabbath law—a book that has yet to be published[7]—as his most important work.

Translator’s Notes:

This article was first published in Hebrew in Mekor Rishon (30 October 2015), and is translated here with permission of Mekor Rishon and the author. The translator would like to thank Shaul Seidler-Feller for his invaluable assistance. A groysn shkoyekh!

[1] A preliminary terminological distinction in order to forestall confusion:
       A hoker is someone with the skills to conduct sustained research on a topic of interest and produce noteworthy scholarship. Such a person may have academic training and credentials, but the subjects of this article, for the most part, do not. I translate ‘hoker’ as ‘scholar.’
       A hoker torani is such a scholar who happens to be firmly ensconced in the world of Torah, and whose research interests center around topics related to that world. Owing to the lack of suitable English adjective, I will leave the adjective in the Hebrew, yielding “torani scholar.”
       A talmid hakham is someone with measurably significant Torah erudition, but that knowledge does not necessarily have any bearing on his ability to produce scholarship. I will retain the standard translation of ‘Torah scholar.’
[2] A compilation of customs, prayers, and kabbalistic practices printed about 300 years ago that has had tremendous influence ever since. It nevertheless generated controversy regarding its author’s identity and its content due to suspicions of Sabbateanism.
[3] Cf. Prov 11:2.
[4] The closest idiomatic equivalent of tokh kedei dibbur, Henkin’s username.
[5] cf. Shabbat 31a.
[6] Hanukkah 5775 (24 December 2014). A tribute has been published on these pages by Eli Rubin, “Toil of the Mind and Heart: A Meditation in Memory of Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine,” the Seforim blog (13 December 2015), available here.

[7] The book, Zeh Sefer Esh Tamid, has since been published by Mossad HaRav Kook in April 2016.

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