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Volume 24: Number 104

Mon, 24 Dec 2007

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Subjects Discussed In This Issue:
Message: 1
From: Richard Wolberg <cantorwolberg@cox.net>
Date: Sun, 23 Dec 2007 21:02:34 -0500
[Avodah] Nittelnacht


A few centuries before Jews started observing the custom of eating  
Chinese food on x-mas                          																				Eve  
there was another Jewish custom which was observed on that

night called Nittelnacht. Its observance consisted of an avoidance of
studying Torah and people would do such things as play cards. In some
Ashkenazic communities religious study was actually prohibited on x- 
mas. Card playing was considered as a
form of gambling (or at least as a temptation to
gamble) so devout Jews would never do it the rest of the year. But on
Nittelnacht, it was allowed. Why this should be the case isn't clear --
one source says it was to keep the Jews alert in case of an attack,  
but this
seems a bit unlikely. In the terminology of those communities, x-mas is

referred to as Nittel. The simplest explanation of the word is as a  
form of the Latin natalis, as in dies natalis or natale dominus,
meaning day of birth, the same word that gives us the French No?l.  
Nittel is also
the Yiddish word for x-tmas. My grandmother used the word Chrastmich
(scratch me ? a play on the word). However, the Yiddish word also  
another meaning. 'Nit' means 'Nothing' in Yiddish, so with the  
affectionate diminutive ?l ending, Nittlenacht becomes
"The night of little nothing".

However, later generations, for whom the original derivation was no  
longer familiar,
subjected it to their own imaginative attempts at speculative etymology.

The most frequently cited theory traced Nittel to the Hebrew
form nitleh meaning 'hanged', a word that could legitimately be applied
to a victim of crucifixion.

Other writers favored a derivation from Hebrew nittal, meaning taken.
Though this produces a better similarity of sounds, its connection to  
is harder to fathom. Supporters of this reading understood it in the  
sense of
the one who was taken from Judaism or the arrested one, though this  
would apply more appropriately to Easter.

The avoidance of Torah study on a gentile holy day is a
puzzling notion that seems downright pathological in its readiness to  
one's own spiritual growth in order to deny recognition to someone  
faith. While such narrow-mindedness might have been understandable in  
ghettos of medieval Europe where it originated, it is particularly  
to find it continued into our own days.

Evidently, this custom was not merely a marginal phenomenon
in Ashkenazic communities; The proscription of study on x-mas is  
by several respectable halakhic authorities, and in some circles it  
was treated
as a quasi-obligatory practice.

Occasionally, the differing attitudes towards Nittel-nacht
were recognized as criteria for distinguishing between the Hassidim  
and their
opponents. Thus, we find that the scholarly orientation of the  
yeshivas led many of their leaders to oppose any interruption of study  
x-tmas eve, whereas Hassidic lore depicted the night as a time of  
metaphysical foreboding that must be treated with grave vigilance.

It has also been said  that some Jews fasted on that night,
as a sign of sorrow for the start of major troubles for the Jewish  
though there are no sources to that effect.

Nowadays, Nittelnacht certainly isn't observed outside the Haredi  
communities, and
probably even by them either. Some of its customs - like playing cards  
- have
been incorporated, more positively, into Hanukah.

Not convinced that mere religious contempt provided a
sufficient justification for abstaining from such a vital mitzvah of  
some Jewish authors sought other rationales for the custom. Rabbi  
Nathan Adler
of Frankfort interpreted it as an expression of mourning, presumably  
for all
the persecutions that were inflicted on Jews since the inception of x- 
In this respect, it was comparable to the prohibition of Torah study  
that is
observed on Tisha b'Av.

His student, the Hassam Sofer of Pressburg,
objected that Rabbi Adler's explanation failed to account adequately  
for the
widespread practice of limiting the prohibition to the hours until  
midnight. He
therefore proposed a different theory: the real purpose of the custom  
was to
encourage Jews to resume their studies after midnight, because
otherwise they might (from a heavenly perspective) be compared  
adversely with
the devout gentiles who were spending x-mas eve in pious devotion in  

A nineteenth-century scholar suggested that the custom had
evolved from what were initially pragmatic considerations. Because in  
earlier times,
x-mas eve had been an occasion for assaults on Jewish institutions, it  
been recommended that the yeshivas be left dark and empty during that  
night, in
order to keep potential attackers from being attracted to the lights.  
Such attacks often happened, and
the communities responded by keeping quiet and being ready.

Those who forbade study on Nittel night insisted that grave
consequences would befall people who transgressed the prohibition. One  
rabbi attested that irresponsible individuals who insisted on pursuing  
studies had their houses visited by dogs ? a terrifying prospect for  
European Jews, especially since (as the writer hints) dogs have symbolic
associations with the demonic realms.

An odd development in the nineteenth century rabbinic
discourse involved the identification of Nittel with the winter  
Because the astronomical definition of the solstice is at variance  
with the
halakhic usage, and the disparities between the Julian and Gregorian  
lead to divergences in the computations used by different churches, this
interpretation has given rise to some peculiar Gemara arguments over  
questions as: the correct halakhic date of x-mas; whether the ban on
learning can override Shabbos; and how to determine the precise moment  
x-mas night begins!

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik used to comment that "he is willing to see  
the Hell he  
  learning Xmas eve, and the heaven someone  else gets for playing  
cards instead".

In 1911 there was an infamous blood libel in the Ukraine known as the  
Beilis trial. One of  
  witnesses" for the prosecution was the notorious anti-semitic priest  
Justin Pranaitis, the  
  the anti-semetic tract The Talmud Unmasked. Louis Ginzberg was asked  
by Louis Marshall  
  and Jewish communal leader) to formulate a response to Pranaitis'  
testimony. In his response Ginzberg 																		       noted  
that in at least one place in his book Pranaitis wrote that when the  
Jews called x-mas Nitalthey were  
										                       cursing Jesus. Ginzberg points out  
that it is actually from the medieval Latin Natale Domini, which means  
"birth of the lord". 																       Ginzberg goes on to say  
"Is it thinkable that a priest should not know the Latin forx-mas? Of  
course we have to admit, we have 														               no  
knowledge of the education of the Turkestan priesthood, and it is  
perhaps possible that Paranaitis does not know Latin".

One time a Professor who explained the custom of not studying Torah on  
Nittelnacht said that it is
nice to know that, no matter how far away from tradition a Jew might  
be, it is
likely that he or she at least observes this one Jewish custom!

Does anyone have an answer for:  If one of the reasons for this minhag  
was the danger of getting beaten up outside, then why isn't there a  
such minhag for  
?                                                                   In  
fact, the danger was much greater on the latter day, since that was  
when anti-Semitic sermons were delivered blaming the Jews for the  
crucifixion. Any ideas?

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Message: 2
From: "SBA" <sba@sba2.com>
Date: Mon, 24 Dec 2007 13:20:48 +1100
[Avodah] A few Notes on Parshas Vaychi

From: "SBA" <sba@sba2.com>
48:22 Rashi dh: 'V'ani nosati lecho Shechem Echad al Achecho"
"Shechem mamash hi tihyeh lecho chelek echad yesero al achecho".

It occured to me(and I presume someone MUST have thought of this before me)
that as Yosef - was married to Osnas - who was the daughter of Dinah and
Shechem ben Chamor (according to Targum Yonoson), Yaakov thought it would be
only right to hand over the land of his (Yosef's) father-in-law to his

(I drafted the above a few weeks ago and have since been searching -
wherever I could - to see if anyone else has said this. I found nothing
until early this week when I was in London for a simcha that I looked into
my host's Yalkut Meam Loez - who more or less writes this beshem unnamed

An ex-Oz e-pal has now informed me that it comes from the sefer Tzeror Hamor
- who adds that Shechem gave Dina the city in his kesuba (part of the Harbu
olay mohar..")..

Of course if all this is to be taken literally, then it wasn't really a gift
from Yaakov to Yosef - as it was his (or at least her's - Osnas') - anyway.

As I probably won't be posting anything re parsha Shemos (we are off to New
Zealand for a few days), I'll 'chap arein' an interesting thing I saw this
morning in the Torah Temima.

He quotes Pirkei deReb Eliezer (and Sefer Hayoshor) saying that Yosef was
Mishneh Lemelech to Paroy for 40 years and then (presumably after Paroy's
death) ruled as king for the next 40! 
And that explains the p'sukim: "Vayomos Yosef" followed by "Vayokom melech
chodosh al Mitzrayim"..

Very interesting, but also a bit strange that such an amazing occurrence
doesn't get a mention in the Torah.


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Message: 3
From: "SBA" <sba@sba2.com>
Date: Mon, 24 Dec 2007 13:28:50 +1100
[Avodah] : A few Notes on Parshas Vaychi

From: Zev Sero < >
SBA wrote:
> Rashi dh: 'Becharbi ubekashti' - writes that Yaakov had to battle 
> Shechem's neighbours after Shimon and Levi wiped out the population there.
> This seems to contradict the posuk in Vayishlach 35:5 "Vayhi chitas 
> Elokim al ha'orim asher sevivoseihem - velo rodfu achrei Bnei Yaakov"  ??

Rashi doesn't say he had to fight them, he says "vechagar klei milchama
negdam", he girded himself for war.  This is consistent with the earlier
story, where it says he was afraid of what the neighbours would do, so he
would have prepared for a fight which proved unnecessary.  As to why it
proved unnecessary, we know it was because of "chitat Elokim..


Yes that seems pretty consistent with the Midrash upon which this Rashi is

Meanwhile, looking up the Midrash I noticed (at the end of Parsha 97) it
says on "Becharbi ubekashti" - "bemitzvos ubemaasim tovim" !!


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Message: 4
From: "Elazar M. Teitz" <remt@juno.com>
Date: Mon, 24 Dec 2007 03:31:08 GMT
Re: [Avodah] Apikores?

<What it says is that there were too many murderers, not that there was too many executions. (And it says nothing about corporal punishment.)>

RMBerger:<Opening Shabbos 15a...
R' Yitzchaq bar Avdimei says it was to avoid dinei kenasos. This is
questioned and clarified -- it was to avoid dinei nefashos. Dinei
nefashos includes misas beis din as well as malkos, not just judging

<It includes malkos, but the *reason* they moved was because of too
many murderers, not too many treif-eaters or shatnez-wearers.  There's
no mention that they had malkos in mind.>

<Now the question is why they avoided corporal punishment. Was it
because they couldn't politically, or because they weren't willing to
mete it out in such quantity?
Well, as you also seem to recall, Chazal say "misherabu". (I'm looking
for that quote, but keep on turning up Sotah 9:9 about the end of egla
arufah, not galus.)>

<It's at Avoda Zara 8b, at the bottom of the page.  And it says
explicitly that it was because there were a lot of murderers and
they were *not able* to try them.  Not that they didn't *want* to,
but that they couldn't.  Now it doesn't say exactly *why* they
couldn't judge the murderers; that's where outside history can help
us (as we've been discussing in other threads, how limudei chol can
help explain questions in torah).>

<That was where I deduced causality -- too many murderers lead to doing away with trying to kill them. In line with achas lesheva/shiv'im shanah. I'm not sure why being politically unable to mete out capital punishment would justify removing other powers of Sanhedrin.>

<It wasn't just the Sanhedrin, it was every beit din in the country.
There were a lot of murderers *everywhere* in EY, and the batei din
weren't able to try them.  By moving offices, the Sanhedrin removed
the power of every b"d to sit on dinei nefashot.>

     First, there is no mention whatever of corporal punishment, and indeed the ability to administer corporal punishment is not curtailed by the absence of the Beis Din Hagadol from the Lishkas Hagazis.  It is capital punishment -- dinei n'fashos -- and capital punishment alone whose administration requires the presence in Lishkas Hagazis.

    Second, it is Rashi who says (Sanhedrin 41a, s.v. Ela dinei n'fashos) that "v'keivan d'chazu din'fshei rotz'chim v'lo hayu maspikin ladun a'mdu v'galu misham."  It wasn't the lack of authority, which would have been described as "v'lo yach'lu ladun." The words "v'lo maspikin" means that they couldn't keep up.

    Furthermore, if "lo yach'lu l'meidan" means that they lacked the authority to try such cases, why should they go out of the lishka in order not to try those cases, since they couldn't try them even if they stayed put? 

    And what is the meaning of "ki heichi d'lo lichayvei"? If for some reason they couldn't try capital cases, it was not so that the murderers should not become liable; it was because the court had its authority taken away.  And certainly according to the Ramah, who explains in Sanhedrin that "ki heichi d'lo lichayvei" refers to Beis Din, that they not be guilty biydei Shamayim for not fulfilling the duty of killing those who were sentenced -- what chiyuv could they have if they were anoosim by an outside power?

     Also, why "misherabu harotz'chim"?  If it wasn't the increased caseload, but the denial of authority by an outside power, _that_ should have been given as the reason for their galus; the number of cases would have been irrelevant.

     It would seem that the only reasonable way to understand the g'mara is as Rashi did, that they were unable to judge all of them because of the heavy caseload.  Thus, rather than judge some and not others, they decided to make it impossible to impose a death penalty on anyone.

Click here to find the right stock, bonds, and mutual funds.

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Message: 5
From: Michael Poppers <MPoppers@kayescholer.com>
Date: Mon, 24 Dec 2007 00:14:27 -0500
Re: [Avodah] The Five Corners Of A Beard?

In Avodah Digest V24#101, <RallisW@aol.com> asked:
> Where exactly are the corners of  the 
beard according to most poskim? <
I've seen mention made[1] of a pair of points by the ears, the pair of 
points where the jawbone connects with the skull, and the chin.  The 
Tur[2] noted a few main opinions (Rabbeinu Chananeil disagreeing with 
RaShY as well as a 3rd opinion which located four points solely based on 
the jawbone) and then quoted his father, Rabbeinu Asher, that a "y'rei 
Shamayim [should be] yotzei y'dei chulam."  The SA[3] and KSA[4] wrote 
that there were a multitude of opinions re the precise location of these 
"peios."  R'Yisrael Rosen is quoted[5] as saying, "The prohibition of 
shaving applies to five parts of the face. It is difficult to identify the 
exact location of these five places. We are, therefore, stringent about 
the matter and relate to the entire beard as 'corners of the beard' that 
may not be removed with a razor, with the exception of the mustache, which 
is definitely not a corner of the beard."

All the best from
Michael Poppers * Elizabeth, NJ, USA

[1] see RaShY on BT Makkos 21a, d'h' bei pirqa d'reisha and bei pirqa 
d'diqna; re the same sugya, also see RaN d'h' bei pirqa reisha and bei 
pirqa diqna
[2] YD 181 -- see http://jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/books/djvu/1936035/index.djvu, 
[3] YD 181:11, and esp. see TaZ s'q' 4 and GRA s'q' 18
[4] 170:2 (parenthetically, RShG doesn't exclude the mustache/upper lip -- 
see http://www.kitzur.net/main.php?nk=1&;siman=170 -- but IMHO this is 
difficult in view of what the Tur writes at the end of 181 in the name of 
[5] http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/halak65/11halak.htm
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Message: 6
From: David Riceman <driceman@att.net>
Date: Mon, 24 Dec 2007 10:16:47 -0500
Re: [Avodah] Tefillin on Rosh Chodesh

I've been out of town for a couple of weeks, but I'm going to try to 
continue this (very long) analysis.  What I think I shown already was 
that not wearing tefillin all day was widespread in the thirteenth 
century, and practically universal in the sixteenth century.  In 
addition, the bulk of people who mention this adduce two reasons: 
improper thoughts and guf naki.  The conclusion they drew is that one 
must minimize one's wearing of tefillin.

Two incidental remarks.  First, the Rosh's rebbe, the Maharam, also 
mentioned both of these problems.  In Tshuvoth, Psakim Uminhagim, part 
1, ed. Kahana, tshuva #142 he forbids bahurim (which I take to mean 
unmarried teenagers) with uncontrollable concupiscent thoughts from 
wearing tefillin at all (!), even while reciting kriath shma.  In psakim 
uminhagim #44 he forbids women from wearing tefillin because of concerns 
with guf naki.

Second, when I was young and innocent I was taught that the Rambam 
codified all halacha, whether or not it was applicable, and the bulk of 
other poskim intended to codify only halacha l'ma'aseeh.  Why, in that 
case, did the poskim include many halachoth about wearing tefillin all 
day, which were no longer applicable? What really was their intention 
when they wrote their books?

Back on track.  What is the minimum shiur for tefillin? I could try to 
trace this our historically as well, but out of sheer laziness I will 
merely quote the Levush, and leave the search for sources to the more 
diligent among us.  The Levush (OH 37:2) says that even though the 
mitzva is to wear them all day, one fulfills the mitzva even by donning 
them and removing them instantly.

Nonetheless tefillin are not a [pair of] independent mitzvoth, instead 
they are closely connected with kriath shma.  So Hazal say (Berachoth 
14b-15a - as expanded by the Levush in OH 25:1) "someone who wishes 
fully to accept ol malchuth shamayim should, on awaking, go to the 
bathroom so his body will be clean, wash his hands to purify himself and 
his thoughts, don tefillin, recite kriath shma to acknowledge God's 
unityand to accept upon himself ol malchuth shamayim, and pray to Him to 
request his needs, and then his prayer will be requited.

The flip side (loc. cit.) is "anyone who recites shma without tefillin 
is like someone who testifies falsely about himself".

So on the one hand we want to wear tefillin for the minimum possible 
time, and on the other hand we want to wear tefillin during kriath shma 
and shmoneh esraih.

I hope two more posts will do it: one about when we can take them off on 
regular weekdays, and the other about rosh hodesh and hol hamoed,

David Riceman

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Message: 7
From: David Riceman <driceman@att.net>
Date: Mon, 24 Dec 2007 10:26:21 -0500
Re: [Avodah] Apikores?

Micha Berger wrote:
> I didn't read REED like that.
> Say a child was blind, but a surgeon found a way to repair his sight.
> The parents take him in for surgery. Would you consider the parents
> and surgeon to be unjust for imposing such pain on the child? Or does
> eventual reward offset the pain?
> IOW, the justice isn't in the fact that the soul doesn't consider it
> unjust, but that from an objective position, we would know the balance
> rests otherwise.
Two problems.  First, I don't think that's Rabbi Dessler's opinion, and 
second, the analogy is not a good one.  I'll take the second first.  God 
is not only a player in the game, He invented the game and set up the 
rules.  So the proper analogy would be that the parents deliberately 
blinded their child, and then took him in for surgery.  Retrospectively 
the surgery is the lesser of two evils, but it's not just of them to 
blind him and then impose more pain to restore his vision.

If I recall correctly (and I may be wrong on this since I looked for a 
little while a couple of weeks ago and couldn't find the citation I 
remembered) Rabbi Dessler's claim is that everything that happens to a 
person during his entire existence, both in this world and in the world 
to come, are perfectly just.  So "eventual reward offsetting the pain" 
just doesn't fit his opinion.

David Riceman


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