Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Muqata Update - Summer 2015

Hi Muqata Readers.

It's been over 10 years since we started the Muqata Blog.  We've informed, conserved and entertained tens of thousands of readers over the past decade via millions of page views.  Over the past 3 years, we've gradually moved our current event live-news reporting to our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Currently, we are excited to report that we are beta testing a Muqata Android smartphone application which will receive (user-configurable) push notifications of breaking news, news, opinion, life in Israel, and Color Red rocket alerts in real time.  Also in development is an IOS (Apple iPhone) version which we hope to start beta testing soon.

As soon as the apps are deployed we plan on ensuring that all posts also appear here on the blog, so that all our social media platforms will be in sync (blog website, muqata smartphone apps, facebook, twitter and email notifications).

We thank you for your support, friendship and community over the past decade and we hope to continue to an even more exciting future over the next ten years.  Nothing is more exciting than seeing fans, friends and readers make aliya to Israel and we are thankful to have met many of you.

I would like to thank our dedicated development staff at Muqata Development Labs led by senior developer -- Clint Eastwood, our beta testers, our graphic designers, the Muqata news staff,  our news partners at the Jewish Press Internet Edition, and our fans and readers from around the planet.

As we enter the 9 days period of mourning the destruction of the Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, we pray to merit the rebuilding of the Third Temple, along with the ingathering of the Jewish people to our homeland in the Land of Israel.

From the rolling hills of the Shomron,

Jameel Rashid
The Muqata

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Monday, February 16, 2015

A Personal Reflection on MK Uri Orbach z’l

A Personal Reflection on MK Uri Orbach z’l
By Jameel @ The Muqata

Despite the title above, I never met Uri Orbach personally. I read his many books, read his children books to my children and laughed with my kids at his clever poems, rhymes, stories and wit, while we smiled at the outstanding illustrations from Shay Charka (who partnered with Orbach on many books). His books and newspaper articles for adults were witty, funny, introspective and always brought out a smile.

So how did I know him so well – in addition to his books and articles, he co-hosted “The Last Word” daily radio show on IDF radio. Uri was the right-leaning, kippa-wearing host and opposite him was the left-leaning, secular Irit Linor. Their cheerful daily banter on politics and religion was a breath of fresh air in Israel’s strident media – showing that 2 sides of the spectrum could intelligently disagree on issues of major importance with humor and respect. If you wanted to see how Israel’s diverse mosaic of citizens could get along with each other, Uri was a great representative for religious Zionism. He could get his message across without yelling, without insulting, without making someone feel uncomfortable – yet with a kindness and humor that was infectious and left you wanting to hear more.

I looked through my blog for tidbits about Uri from over the years and it brought a smile to my face (nor did it surprise me at all) that he was on the jury for deciding the great Efrat Cholent competition in 2011.

Uri entered politics and represented the “Bayit Yehudi” party and his background was a living example of the party; raised and educated with the values of religious Zionism, he attended the Nechalim religious high school and then the hesder Yeshiva in Kiryat Shmona (a 5 year program of yeshiva studies and IDF combat service).

Uri brought a unique value to the Knesset of togetherness that rarely exists in Israel’s spectrum. Orbach had no “bitter political enemies” in the Knesset, and while he had his direction, ideology and opinions, Orbach was a rare common denominator that all could agree upon – he was a mentsch, a leader, and a friend. Uri was a cabinet member in the current government responsible for senior citizen services and you can still hear his influence in the gently comical ads on the radio, advertising improved services for the elderly.

It is hard to succinctly summarize the life of someone who wrote so much, communicated via radio, TV, internet, newspapers, social media, and touched the lives of so many in Israel during his short lifetime of 54 years. I hope we can continue his legacy of finding some common ground between us to continue the dream of building the State of Israel, together.

May his memory be a blessing.

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Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Herzl's Switzerland Plan

Theodore Herzl founded the Zionist political movement in the late 19th century, aimed at creating a safe haven for the Jewish people.  Besides Israel, he considered various options to serve as the Jewish national homeland: First Argentina, and then later on, Uganda.

Herzl thought that the situation was so dire, that (even temporarily) Jews would be willing to forego Israel as their homeland.  In doing so, however, he showed ignorance of the eternal and ongoing bond of Jews to the  Land of Israel.  Israel was not just a dream, it was and is the core and essence of Judaism.

But Herzl also didn't realize how much Jews were connected to the Hebrew language. In his book, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in 1896, he suggested the Switzerland plan:
It might be suggested that our want of a common current language would present difficulties. We cannot converse with one another in Hebrew. Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language? Such a thing cannot be done. Yet the difficulty is very easily circumvented. Every man can preserve the language in which his thoughts are at home. Switzerland affords a conclusive proof of the possibility of a federation of tongues. We shall remain in the new country what we now are here, and we shall never cease to cherish with sadness the memory of the native land out of which we have been driven. 
We shall give up using those miserable stunted jargons, those Ghetto languages which we still employ, for these were the stealthy tongues of prisoners. Our national teachers will give due attention to this matter; and the language which proves itself to be of greatest utility for general intercourse will be adopted without compulsion as our national tongue. Our community of race is peculiar and unique, for we are bound together only by the faith of our fathers.”

Herzl did not realize that the Jewish nation is bound both by a common tongue (Hebrew) and by a common land (Israel).

But Herzl quickly realized his mistake.  Michael Berkowitz, Der Judenstaat's Hebrew translator, wrote in his foreword 'to the Hebrew readers' that Herzl asked him to erase that section.

In a later edition of the book, he retells the tale:
"When [Herzl] entered the Zionist circle and came to know the eastern Hovevei Zion group − their demands and aspirations and the state of their Hebrew education − he realized that there are among us many readers of Hebrew, not only of books but also of newspapers. And when he gave me permission to translate his book into Hebrew, he found in this very fact − that Hebrew readers would read his book − proof that this language can and will be rejuvenated as the national language and that it must be the sole dominant language in the Jewish state.  And then he asked me to erase from my translation the entire chapter which talks about the 'language of the land'.  But, for the literary truth, I chose to present the book with its original content and format, since even the German original didn't change in the newer editions, though the author had already changed his mind as to some details."

כשנכנס לחוג הציוניים והכיר את חובבי ציון המזרחיים, דרישותיהם ושאיפותיהם, ומצב השכלתם העברית, נודע לו, כי יש בקרבינו הרבה קוראים, לא רק לספרים אלא גם לעתונים יומיים, בעברית; וכשנתן לי הרשות לתרגם את ספרו לעברית מצא בעובדה זו עצמה, שקוראים עברים יקראו את ספרו, ראייה, כי שפה זו יכולה ועתידה לחדש נעוריה בתור שפה לאומית, וצריכה היא להיות השפה השלטת היחידה במדינת היהודים, ואז מלא את ידי למחוק בתרגומי את כל הפרק המדבר על אודות ״שפת הארץ״. אולם, למען האמת הספרותית, בחרתי לתת את הספר בתכנו הראשון ובצורתו המקורית, יען כי גם המקור האשכנזי לא נשתנה במהדורות החדשות, אף-על־פי שבכמה פרטים נשתנו כבר אז דעתו ומחשבתו של המחבר.

The 'details' in question were: Israel as the national homeland and Hebrew as the national tongue.

Herzl wrote his book in 1896, more than 15 years after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda launched his 'revival of Hebrew', but apparently nobody bothered to inform Herzl.  Herzl did not realize that Jews had been reading newspapers in Hebrew even before he was born.  He did not know that Jews met and conversed in Hebrew.  He was completely unaware that Hebrew was still living and breathing, just as he was unaware that the Land of Israel was still living and breathing.

And so Berkowitz translated the book, including the paragraph about 'nobody being able to order a train-ticket in Hebrew', in Hebrew.
  הן לא נוכל היום לדבר עברית, כי מאתנו יש לאל ידו לדרוש פתקא למסעו במסלת הברזל בשפת עבר? אבל גם הדבר הזה פשוט הוא מאד. 

It's interesting to note that though the modern words for 'ticket' and 'train'  (כרטיס and רכבת) had already been invented many years previously - 'ticket' by Yehuda Leib Gordon and 'train' by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda - Berkowitz used the more antiquated words.

In fact, those 'new' words weren't really needed.  Hebrew was a living lanugage, and Hebrew speakers and writers could communicate quite well about the most mundane matters even before Ben-Yehuda appeared.  It is true that we were missing some vocabulary, but many newly coined words replaced existing words .   For example, using one-word nouns instead of compound nouns.

Though Berkowitz  preferred to retain the language issue in the Hebrew version of Der Judenstaat, he published a letter in the most popular Hebrew-language newspaper of the time, Hamagid, informing readers that Herzl had realized his mistake.

Berkowitz later served as Herzl’s Hebrew-language secretary. Herzl needed to know how the Zionist movement was portrayed in the Hebrew press, and needed somebody to assist him answering all the Hebrew letters he received…

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד

Thursday, January 08, 2015

What Convinced Ben-Yehuda That Hebrew Could Be Revived?

During the past millennium and a half, Hebrew was used by Jews mainly as a literary language (and, in fact, as the sole literary language).  However, Jews did use Hebrew in speech as well, when it was necessary to communicate with other Jews.

Linguist Chaim Rabin points out that since every Jewish man had to know Hebrew on some level, Hebrew was the natural candidate for the inter-Jewish 'lingua franca' - the common language.

As we'll see, Israel was the one place where Hebrew was consistently in use. Both because Israel is the birthplace of Hebrew and traditions remained for generations, and because Israel was the place where Jews from all over the world converged. And they usually shared only one language: Hebrew.

Since this use of language was anecdotal, all evidence is also anecdotal. This article does not intend to be complete - there are many more examples, from all over, of Jews speaking Hebrew.

Rabbi Saadia Gaon, of the 10th century, wrote the first Hebrew-language dictionary, where he explains: I've seen that many Jews aren't using our language properly, even on its simple level; and so of-course they aren't familiar with its more difficult words. And when they speak, they use many words erroneously."

"ראיתי שרבים מבני-ישראל אינם בקיאים בצחות לשוננו הפשוטה, ועל אחת כמה וכמה במלים הקשות שלה. וכאשר הם מדברים, הרי מלים רבות בשגיאות."

The dictionary was written mostly for poets, but Rav Saadia Gaon points out that the book it also intended to help Jews speak with God, wherever they go, in their business dealings, in the privacy of their homes, and to their children.

"שוח ישיחו בו עם אלהינו , בצאתם ובבואם , ובכל משלח ידם , ובחדרי משכבם, ואל עולליהם."

We have a few pieces of anecdotal evidence regarding 10th century Jews speaking Hebrew in Tiberias. Eli ben Yehudah ha-Nazir, a Hebrew grammarian, writes (in his Arabic book on the Hebrew language): "I would sit long hours in the town squares of Tiberias and its villages, listening to the speech of the simple and common folk, and studying the language and its foundations, and what they pronounced in the Hebrew language, and the Syriac language and its kinds, that is, the language of the Targum and the rest, for it is close to the Hebrew language..."

Aharon Ben Moshe Ben Asher, a grammarian as well, writes that a certain Hebrew pronunciation was common in Tiberias, "whether they read from the Torah or speak in conversation: men, women and children".

Jacob Mann, the great researcher of the Cairo Genizah, wrote that those documents show that Hebrew might have been spoken during the 10th-12th centuries, and that they supply material for study "on Hebrew in speech and in writing throughout the centuries both in Palestine and in the countries of the Diaspora."

Writing about a 12th century woman's letter, written in fluent and poetic Hebrew, he points out that she came from a learned family and that it "would not be unusual for her to have possessed a good knowledge of the Hebrew language".

The ability to write personal letters - which we can find Jews doing throughout the generations - shows that Jews had the vocabulary and capability to handle a Hebrew-language conversation. If you can write your friend what you did today, then, theoretically, you can also speak to him about it.

Rabbi Shlomo Parhon, a 12th-century North African scholar, wrote a lexicon in Hebrew called "Mahberet He’arukh" (מחברת הערוך). At the time, Sephardi linguists wrote their books in Arabic, which meant they were inaccessible to Ashkenazi Jews. Rabbi Shlomo Parhon wanted to introduce Ashkenazi Jews to the advances of Hebrew grammar by the Sephardi linguists.

In the introduction he apologizes for his bad Hebrew. Unlike European Jews, he says, he wasn't very experienced in speaking Hebrew.

"Because those who live here were not so accustomed to speaking the holy tongue, because all the places in Muslim lands share the same language, and all the visitors who come to them are familiar with their language, so that they had no need to use the holy tongue or to be accustomed to it. But each of the Christian lands has a different language, and when visitors come to them they don’t understand what they are saying, and they had to speak to them in the holy tongue, and therefore are more accustomed to it."

"Sefer Hasidim", written in Germany in the early 13th century, also mentions spoken Hebrew .

In one story, an elderly man is asked what he did to deserve such long life. He answers: "Because I had guests in my home and they did not understand my language and spoke Hebrew to me while I was in the bathhouse, and I never spoke [Hebrew] in the bathhouse or toilet, also for secular matters, even though it's allowed. And because I was strict [about the sanctity of Hebrew], I was awarded with long life."

Notice that the man spoke Hebrew, and could do for both religious and secular matters, but refrained from speaking it when he was in the bath or toilet.

Another story describes a Jew who was taken captive in a distant land. One day a group passed by, and the captive identified them as Jews, as they spoke Hebrew amongst themselves.

Sefer Hasidim also gives advice to those who don't speak Hebrew well. "If somebody comes to you who doesn't understand Hebrew and wants to focus in his prayers, or if a woman comes to you, tell them to learn the prayers in a language they can understand."

Obviously, not everybody could understand or speak Hebrew. Women, for example, weren't even expected to in that era. But most men were expected to pray in Hebrew and understand what they were saying.

Another example of Hebrew speech doesn't even involve Jews. Bertrandon de la Broquière, a French nobleman, visited Israel in the early 15th century and wanted to return to Europe overland, a very risky venture at the time for a Christian. In Damascus, he approached a Muslim, Kodja Barqouq, who was going towards Bulgaria and asked to join him. Barqouq who was concerned about whether Broquière could pass himself off as a local, asked him whether he could understand Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, the vulgar tongue or Greek.

In the late 15th century, a German traveler by the name of Arnold von Harff visited Jerusalem and wrote down a few words and sentences he learned from a few local German Jews. The accent, as he wrote it down, is very much Ashkenazi, and there are some mistakes, but they even gave him an example of a short conversation:  "Are you Jewish? Yes."

"יהודי אתה? כן דיברת!"

Towards the end of the 16th century, in 1597, Rabbi Yosef ben Elchanan Halperin wrote a grammar textbook for children called "Em Hayeled" (The Child's Mother). This book was meant to teach Hebrew verb conjugation to seven-year olds. As the author explains: it's meant to teach children to speak properly and to write Hebrew, so that when a father asks his child a word, the child could respond without hesitation and without confusing tenses etc.

A year later, Rabbi Morderchai Yaffe wrote of his own experience: "I've heard the author's seven-year-old students with my own ears and they knew all the verb forms."

Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz, the Shelah, came to Israel in the early 17th century. He passed through Aleppo, where he gave a sermon. He tells about it in his letter to his family (written in Hebrew): "They only speak Hebrew, and whenever I gave a sermon there, I did so in Hebrew."

"וכל לשונם לשון הקודש, ובכל עת שדרשתי שם, דרשתי בלשון הקודש באר היטב"

Obviously, the Jews of Aleppo did not only speak Hebrew. But they could communicate with a rabbi who came from afar and did not know Arabic.

This is just one example of many. Many Jews were sent by the Israeli community to collect money abroad. They too often spoke Hebrew with their Jewish hosts.

In the mid-17th century, Rabbi Nathan Nata Hannover wrote a Hebrew-Latin-German-Italian dictionary meant to teach Jews how to speak other languages ("to teach you to speak to kings and dukes"). The premise, of course, is that Jews knew Hebrew fluently enough and that it was possible to teach regular speech in another language, using Hebrew.

One chapter is dedicated to talking business, or in other words: a conversational guide. Here's part of the conversation he brings, discussing going to the market: "We'll get there first, then we can choose the better and cheaper produce. After that, a lot of traders come to the fair, and they raise the prices."

The dictionary was quite popular and was reprinted several times throughout the 18th century. A later printer added French and more conversations, this time of a general nature (such as visiting friends).

Back to Israel. The early 18th century German Franciscan Monk, Friar Elzearius Horn, reports from Jerusalem that the Europeans mostly speak Italian, the Orientals speak Arabic or Turkish, and the Jews speak Hebrew.

Stephan Schultz, a German Protestant missionary, visited Israel in the mid-18th century. He tells of his meeting with Jews in a yeshiva in Tiberias, "which they, after that of Safed, hold to be the biggest in the Orient. Here I found about 20 youngsters who were studying the Talmud; some of them were from Poland, others from Italy and elsewhere. One among their teachers still knew some Yiddish, but the others, however, because they had left their fatherland very young, spoke Portuguese or Spanish and Arabic. I had to speak Hebrew therefore, which they understood best, but were not used to speaking."

And now we get to the 19th century, and to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. In his article "The Dream and its Realization" (החלום ושברו) (*), he explains that he believed Hebrew could be revived as a spoken language, because he met Jews who spoke Hebrew.

The first person Ben-Yehuda met who spoke conversational Hebrew was George (Getzel) Selikovitch - a Russian Jew who spent some time in North Africa. It was also the first time Ben-Yehuda heard the Sephardi accent. Selikovitsch told Ben-Yehuda that, until he learned Arabic, he spoke to the North African Jews in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda summed up his meeting: "The question of the revival of spoken Hebrew was immediately solved".

Ben-Yehuda met M. Zundelman, an Israeli teacher, in Paris, where they sat at a cafe, and spoke in Hebrew for a couple of hours about Ben-Yehuda's plans. This was Ben-Yehuda’s first long, serious conversation in Hebrew, which wasn't aimed at 'speaking Hebrew', but rather to discuss the topic at hand.

Ben-Yehuda, who for the first time felt that he spoke Hebrew as if it was his natural language, realized how difficult it would be to use this language in day-to-day life and that he needed to make a list of words. He therefore coined his first new word: מילון ("milon", dictionary).

[Though Rabbi Saadia Gaon already coined a perfectly good word for it: אגרון - agron.  Today this word developed to 'egron', meaning 'theasaurus']

In 1875, Ben-Yehuda was hospitalized in Paris, and there he met Avraham Moshe Luntz, who came from Jerusalem and spoke Hebrew fluently.  All of Ben-Yehuda’s conversations with Luntz were in Hebrew, and he started getting used to the Israeli (ie, Sephardi) accent. Luntz told Ben-Yehuda that all the Jewish communities of Jerusalem spoke amongst themselves in their own tongue, but the only language they all shared was Hebrew, which they spoke with a Sephardi accent.

Ben Yehuda wrote that these conversations strengthened his belief that Hebrew could be revived in Israel.

It's interesting to note that by this time, the situation had completely changed from Parhon's time. Ashkenazi Jews all spoke a common tongue (Yiddish), while different Sephardi communities spoke different languages and could not understand each other. Therefore Sephardi Jews were more used to speaking Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda could speak to people in Hebrew almost immediately when he got to Israel. When he spoke Hebrew to the landlord of his inn in Jaffa, the man was surprised, but answered him in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda then went out for a stroll. The city was mostly Arab at the time, but there were a few Jewish merchants. He stopped by a Jewish money-changer, and conducted his first business deal in Hebrew. The man's easy Hebrew was like a 'salve to a sore soul, and the revival of the language shined again before my eyes."

"ויהי לי הדבר הזה באמת כצרי לנפש העגומה.  תחיית הלשון הבריקה שוב לפני עיני."

Ben-Yehuda took a wagon to Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda asked the driver if he knew Hebrew. The driver answered 'a little', and though he stuttered, he was able to speak it in light conversation.

In Jerusalem he was met by Dov Frumkin, his boss at the Hebrew-language Havatzelet newspaper, who spoke to him in Hebrew. While he was by Frumkin, Ben-Yehuda had time to observe the many guests who came by. The Sephardi Jews spoke Hebrew, while the Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, though they also spoke a bit of Hebrew, in honor of Ben-Yehuda.

Ben-Yehuda also met with Yehiel Michael Pines, with which he spoke Hebrew.  Ben-Yehuda noted that Pines' wife could understand some of that conversation. However, Ben-Yehuda was critical of Pines, who always spoke Hebrew with him, but not with his family and friends.

Because Ashkenazi Jews continued to speak Yiddish to each other, though they could speak Hebrew to Sephardi Jews, later on Ben-Yehuda took to dressing up like a Sephardi Jew. That way Ashkenazi Jews didn’t feel uncomfortable speaking Hebrew to him.

Throughout the generations, Jews spoke Hebrew.  They did not use Hebrew in regular speech, but they could, when they needed to.

Hebrew is the only language in the world today to have been "revived", but that's because it was never dead.  Ben-Yehuda did not start from scratch, and as he himself recognized, that was a most significant factor in the revival of spoken Hebrew.

(*) Ironically, in modern Hebrew the phrase is used to mean "a dream and it's dissolution”.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hebrew Firsts

A few 'firsts' in Hebrew. All stories mentioned here took place between the 3rd and 20th century, when Hebrew was (supposedly) 'dead'.

If you know of earlier examples, I’d be glad to know.

First medical treatise

The first medical book in Hebrew is Sefer Harefuot (ספר הרפואות) - the Book of Medicines, written by Assaf ben Berechiah.  He was also known as Assaf Harofe (Doctor Assaf), and is commemorated by the Israeli hospital of that name.

He lived in Israel around the 3rd-7th century, as can be seen (among other things) by the purity of his Hebrew and by the fact that he was influenced by Talmudic and Greek knowledge, but not by Arabic medicine.

The book expects physicians to uphold a high moral standard. It discusses illnesses, treatments and prevention and prescribes exercise, healthy food and sanitation. It also describes around 100 medicinal herbs and stresses cheap medicines which can also be afforded by the poor.

The book also describes Israel's climate, waters and natural resources.

The book was known in France in the 9th century, and later in Italy as well.

In the introduction Assaf brings an oath and prayer for Jewish physicians.

It begins as follows:

זאת הברית, אשר כרת אסף בן ברכיהו ויוחנן בן זבדא עם תלמידיהם, וישביעום בדברי האלה: אל תצודו (תצדו) להמית כל נפש במשתה העקר

"This is the pact which Asaph ben Berakhyahu and Yohanan ben Zabda made with their pupils, and they adjured them with the following words: Do not attempt to kill any soul by means of a potion of herbs”

Full oath here in Hebrew and English.

First poem written by a woman

The first Hebrew poem (that we know of) that was written by a woman, was written by Mrs. Donash Labrat, who lived in 10th century Spain.

Her poem was discovered in the Cairo Genizah, in an exchange of letters with her husband, the famous grammarian and poet.

In this poem Mrs. Donash chastises her beloved for leaving her and the family while he traveled to far-off lands.

הֲיִזְכּוֹר יַעֲלַת הַחֵן יְדִידָהּ 

בְּיוֹם פֵּירוּד וּבִזְרוֹעָהּ יְחִידָהּ 

וְשָׂם חוֹתַם יְמִינוֹ עַל שְׂמֹאלָהּ
 וּבִזְרוֹעוֹ הֲלֹא שָׂמָה צְמִידָהּ 

בְּיוֹם לָקְחָה לְזִכָּרוֹן רְדִידוֹ
 וְהוּא לָקַח לְזִכָּרוֹן רְדִידָהּ – 

הֲיִשָּׁאֵר בְּכָל אֶרֶץ סְפָרַד
 וְלוּ לָקַח חֲצִי מַלְכוּת נְגִידָהּ?
And will her love recall his graceful doe 
Cradling her son and left alone?

Who set his right hand’s seal on her left 
Is not his arm wrapped with her precious stones?

That day she made a keepsake of his cloak 
And he made hers a keepsake of his own

Would he remain in all the land of Spain 
If he’d been given half her prince’s throne?

Original and translation via Soul and Gone.

The only other Hebrew poetess of the medieval era that we know of is Merecina from Gerona, who lived in the 14th-15th century and wrote a piyyut which begins: "מי ברוך נורא ואדיר" ("Blessed, Majestic, and Terrible").

First BDS manual

Samuel Vivas was born in Israel in 1550. He served as a rabbi in Safed, then practiced medicine in Cairo, then he moved to Istanbul and finally to Italy. In 1593 he converted to Christianity and changed his name to Domenico Gerosolimitano (Domenico of Jerusalem).

Then he got a new job - censoring Jewish books. In fact, many Hebrew-speaking Jewish converts worked as censors for the Church, and so Samuel/Domenico wrote a helpful instruction manual for them, which he named Sefer Hazikkuk (ספר הזיקוק), the Book of Censorship.

The book lists general rules for censoring Jewish books and discusses specifically 426 Hebrew books.

Some examples of these rules:

כל שם משומד, כשאינו מדובר על דבר מה לחרפה לו, ימחק ויכתב במקומו: עכו"ם. אמנם אם הוא יזכר לחרפה לו ימחק לגמרי

כל שבח שמשבח אומה ישראלית, אשר ימשך ממנו חרמה לנו ויובן בזמן הזה, ימחק כל הענין כולו

All mentions of the term משומד (apostate) which are not insulting should be replaced by עכו"ם, but if it is insulting it should be erased entirely. 

Any praise to the people of Israel which implies disgrace for us, and is understood to be referring to the present time, should be entirely erased.

It’s interesting to note that back in those days, self-hating Jews converted.  They didn’t work for the enemy while claiming to still have Jewish interests at heart.

In today’s world, Samuel might have remained Jewish and would have justified to himself that by censoring our most holy books he was just helping Judaism and Jews. Otherwise the nations might hate us and we would bring ruin upon ourselves.

First native speaker in the modern era

In 1866 a man in Minsk by the name of Mordechai Aharon Teomim decided to raise his newborn son in Hebrew, and only Hebrew.

In 1873, when the child was seven years old, he was met by several Maskilim - members of the Haskalah movement.  They were quite impressed with his Hebrew speech: “He speaks whatever he wishes in pure Hebrew, just as people speak in any other language.”

Indeed, they wrote about it in the "Hamagid" newspaper, hoping that other people would follow in his footsteps.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was only 15 at the time, so he probably missed it.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wanted: Dead, Alive or Hebrew

As is commonly known, Hebrew was a dead language for close to 2000 years.

As Israeli linguist Chaim Rabin explains:
The speaking of Hebrew ceased about 200 CE (...) Since 1881 Hebrew again became a language spoken by the people.

Note the exact date when Hebrew became a spoken language again.  1881.  Unsurprisingly, this is the same year when the first Zionist aliyah began and when Eliezer Ben Yehuda came to Israel.

So what happened between 200 and 1881?  Hebrew was dead and Jews had no common language, right?

As the Guardian puts it, in their review of Shlomo Sand's book:
In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common "ethnic" lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them?

Well, let's go back to what Rabin has to say.
[The Jews] did indeed speak [Hebrew] sometimes, on the Sabbath, or when they desired not to be understood by gentile bystanders, or with Jews from other countries; but this ability to speak occasional Hebrew did not move them to any attempt to speak Hebrew at all times.

He's right.  Jews did not speak Hebrew at all times.  But if Hebrew was a dead language and if Jews did not speak Hebrew, how were they able to speak it occasionally?

The answer is that while Hebrew was not 'alive', it wasn't 'dead' either.

As much as people like Shlomo Sand would like to think otherwise, the Jewish people have had two constants in their history which united them into one nation: a common land and a common language.

And just as there were constant attempts to renew the land, there were constant attempts to renew the language.

It's easy today to dismiss those attempts, because they were not as successful as those of the past century or two, but it is a mistake to do so.  We build on the efforts of those who have come before us.  If the Jews of the 5th, 10th, and 15th century hadn't taken concrete steps to renew Jewish sovereignty in Israel, we wouldn't have been able to do so in the 20th century.

And if the Jews of the 5th, 10th and 15th century hadn't written and used Hebrew and hadn't taught their children to do the same, we wouldn't have been able to do so today.

Other nations today want to emulate us and cannot understand why the Jews were so successful in returning to their land and language and they are not.  They do not realize that keeping your link to your ancient heritage is a lot of hard work.  Once you let it go, it is almost impossible to get it back.

In the years when Hebrew was 'dead', Jews created an impressive body of literature, from religious works to historical narratives, translated works and original creations, poems, plays and personal letters.  In some cases, they also spoke Hebrew.

This article is the first in a series.  In future articles I will discuss the history of our language.

I'll end here with a short quote from Yannai, one of Israel's foremost poets.  This piyyut (hymn) was written about 1500 years ago, when Hebrew was officially 'dead' for over 300 years.  It was part of the prayer for the Torah portion relating to Jacob's return to the land of his ancestors.

In simple, clear language, Yannai draws the parallels between Jacob and his descendants - the Jew standing in prayer - both of whom are named 'Israel'; between returning to the land and returning to God.

Yannai, who lived in Israel, points out that no matter where we go, we will always be strangers in a strange land, and he asks God to return us, in peace and quiet, as sovereigns in our homeland.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael טובה הארץ מאד מאד

Friday, December 05, 2014

The Rabbi Who Got Us To Sing

393 years ago, at the beginning of Kislev (November 1621), Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz entered the gates of Jerusalem.  He commemorated this uplifting event by naming the prayerbook he wrote "The Gate of Heaven".

The Parsha, the portion of the Torah read that week, was Vayetze, which tells us of Jacob's dream.  When Jacob wakes up, he looks around and says 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven' (Genesis 28, 17).

The gate of heaven is Jerusalem.

Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz is more well-known as the Shelah Hakodosh (The Holy Shelah).  As is common among Jews, the Shelah is named after his book "Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit" (Two Tablets of the Covenant).  The book was printed only after he passed away.

The Shelah was a great Torah scholar. He served as a Rabbi and Dayan (Judge) in various cities in Europe: in Ostroh and Dubno in Ukraine, Frankfurt in Germany and Prague in the Czech Republic.  When he was about 45-50, after his first wife passed away, he decided to move to Israel so he could better study Kabbalah (Jewish mystic thought).

He traveled to Israel via Syria.  The two main Jewish communities in Israel in those days were in Safed and Jerusalem.  Both communities sent emissaries to convince the Rabbi to accept a position as their leader. The emissaries from Safed made it first and met the Shelah in Damascus, where he told them that he intended to stay in Safed anyway for a few days and that they could talk further there.

The Jerusalemite emissary met the Rabbi on his way out of Damascus.  The people of Jerusalem were generous in their offer as they were concerned that Safed would bait the Rabbi before they even got there.  And so they offered the Shelah to be head of both the Rabbinical court (Av Beit Din) and the Yeshiva in the Holy City. They were willing to pay him any salary he wished.

But the Shelah didn't need convincing: he was simply overjoyed that he could realize his dream and live in Jerusalem. He even refused to accept a salary, because he knew that the Jerusalem community was sunk in debt, and instead he asked for a furnished apartment and for the community to cover his tax bill.

An apartment, because "there is not much room in Jerusalem, because the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem is twice as large as that of Safed, and it's growing daily."

Of all the letters he sent to his family and friends in Europe, two survived - one from his stay in Safed and one from Jerusalem. From those letters we learn both of the general situation in Israel in those days, and of his great love for the Land and especially Jerusalem.  He writes that in Jerusalem "Jews have lived continuously for hundreds of years".  Throughout history, the only times when Jews were absent from Jerusalem were those times when they were banished from the city - under Byzantine and Crusader occupation.  But Jews always returned to their most cherished city as soon as it was possible again.

In the Shelah's days, at the beginning of the 17th century, the Golden Age of Safed was at an end, while Jerusalem was flourishing.

The Shelah writes that in Safed he found abandoned, ruined synagogues with Torah scrolls inside. "The Muslims don't touch them, in fact - they treat them with respect."  In Safed the Jews suffered from marauders as the city was unwalled, while in Jerusalem the Ashkenazi Jews were living in a closed compound.

When the Shelah got to Safed, his first stop in Israel, he writes: "I fell on the ground and kissed the stones and earth."

In Safed he was honored with copying the book "Magid Meisharim", one of Rabbi Joseph Karo's mystical works.  He also visited saintly tombs in Safed and the surrounding area.  From Safed he traveled to Jerusalem, journeying via Meiron, Tiberias and Nablus (Shechem).  At every stop, he visited the local holy sites.

From Jerusalem he reported that the city is as big as Krakow. "And every day more and more grand buildings are built... we see the Ingathering of Exiles every day.  Every day they come. Walk the streets of Jerusalem - it's filled with Jews, Yeshivas and children studying."

The Shelah was asked by his acquaintances back in Europe whether Jews are allowed to live in Jerusalem, since there's a concern they'll accidentally step into sacred areas and by so transgress.  But the Shelah, despite being very strict about such matters, wrote that there's no problem at all, since the area of the Temple Mount is well-defined and obvious to anybody who comes to Jerusalem.  The opposite is true, he wrote, not only are Jews allowed to live in Jerusalem, they should live there.  Jerusalem is especially the place for the more observant Jews.

More Jews followed in the Shelah's footsteps, and the Ashkenazi community grew, as did the Sephardi one.

Life was not easy in Jerusalem.  In the Shelah's first year there, a famine hit the city and the rabbi fell into debt.  But despite that, he did not request a salary, since he knew the community itself had no money.  In fact, he warned Jews who thought of coming that they should not expect to rely on charity as the local community was very poor.

In 1625 the despot Muhammad Ibn Faruch took power in Jerusalem. We learn about his reign from a pamphlet titled: "The Suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem in the Days of the Pasha (Governor) Muhammad Ben Faruch". It was written by an unidentified Jew who wrote under the pseudonym - "Man of Jerusalem".

With sharp Jewish wit, "Man of Jerusalem" tells us how Ibn Faruch terrorized the residents of the city - Muslims, Christians and Jews - so much so that he had to lock the gates to prevent them from fleeing.  But his main victims were the Jews.

In the summer of 1625, Ibn Faruch was sent to accompany the pilgrims to Mecca, and in his stead he appointed his brother-in-law, Othman.  At first, the Jews were afraid of the acting governor, but when Othman told them that instead of the 'holiday gift' that the community was obligated to give him, he'd accept a new suit, they were ecstatic.

"I think Othman's almost becoming Jewish," one of the community leaders said. "He spoke to me today with such great love."

But this love did not last for long.  The next day, on the Sabbath, Othman sent his soldiers to both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues and arrested 15 rabbis, including the Shelah.

Othman demanded a very large ransom for his prisoners. After two weeks of begging by the Jews, he agreed to lower his demands just a bit, and the Jews managed to collect enough money to release nine of the rabbis.  The six others remained in jail for a few more days and were released on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

The Ashkenazi rabbis fled Jerusalem to Safed.  The Shelah lived in Safed for a few years and then moved to Tiberias.  The synagogue where he prayed on the shores of the Kinneret is today a Greek-Orthodox monastery.  About 200 years ago, the Jewish community was forced to sell some of its properties.  The contract stipulated that they could buy the place back, but the Church has never allowed it.  Today, Jews are not allowed to enter.

The Shela left us a spiritual legacy which has sustained Jews till today.  All of it is from the period when he lived in Israel.  His book, Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit, written in Jerusalem, laid the foundations for the Hasidic movement, which sprouted a century later in Europe.

Here in Israel, he had access to ancient manuscripts. In one of them he found prayers, which he copied.  The most famous of them is today known as "The Shelah's Prayer" - a prayer for parents to say over their children.

Out of his love for the Land, he also popularized the custom of reciting the Psalms "On the Rivers of Babylon" (Psalm 137) and "Shir Hama'alot" (Psalm 126) after the meals.  The former expresses our longing for the Land, while the latter expresses our joy at returning to it.

In the early 20th century, the great cantor Yossele Rosenblatt popularized the following tune for "Shir Hama'alot".

The Shelah passed away about a decade after arriving in Israel.  Life expectancy in Israel was very low at the time.  The many hardships, government persecution, recurring plagues and earthquakes that hit every once in a while - all conspired to shorten the lives of the Jews who lived here.

Despite this tough reality, the Shelah was filled with love for the Land, which he expressed in his books and in his letters, in which he called on Jews to follow in his footsteps and return to their Land.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Israeli History: UN, 9th century CE

Every Sabbath, Jews read a portion of the Torah (the parsha).  Today we read through the whole Torah in one year, but the ancient Israeli custom was to finish the Torah twice in a 7-year cycle.  

The Midrash are compilations of ancient synagogue Sabbath sermons, originating from the period knows as the Dark Ages (3rd-13th centuries) and mostly written in Israel.  They generally follow the Israeli custom.   Most Midrash focus on the first verse or two of the Israeli 'seder', the 'portion of the week'.

Midrash Tanhuma was written in Israel around the 9th century.

Here is my translation for one of the sermons for the seder starting "And these are the generations of Isaac" ("chapter 5" of Toldot, this week's parsha).
You find that Israel tell God: "Lord of the Universe, see how the nations persecute us, they have nothing else to do but sit around and scheme against us", as it says in Lamentations 3:63 "Behold Thou their sitting down, and their rising up; I am their song."

God told them: "Take no heed. They pass evil decrees and I cancel them.  As it says 'I am their song'.

The Midrash then continues, giving examples of Biblical history.  Pharaoh wanted to kill all Jewish boys, but God did not wish it, and therefore it did not happen.  Haman wanted to kill all Jews, but God did not wish it, and therefore it did not happen.  Balak and Bilam wanted to curse the Jews, but God did not wish it, and therefore it did not happen.

The Midrash then adds a conversation between the Roman emperor Hadrian and the Israeli Jewish leader Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah.

Hadrian: How great is the sheep that is surrounded by 70 wolves. 
Rabbi Yehoshua: How great is the shepherd, who saves it and guards it.

Hadrian's question can be understood in different ways.  He's either praising the sheep (Israel), who manages to withstand the hungry wolves (nations) around it, or he's praising the wolves, who are not eating the sheep.

Rabbi Yehoshua answers him that it's not up to the sheep or the wolves, it's all in God's hands.

Antisemitism is not new.  Even back in the first millennium, the Jews who lived here in Israel felt that the nations of the world were scheming against us.  Just like today, they asked themselves: Don't the nations have anything better to do?  Don't they see the real evil in their world?

As it says in the Sifrei, a Midrash written around the 3rd century: "Everybody knows that Esau hates Jacob".  Esau is the Romans and the Christians.  Jacob is Israel.  Since then, the list of our enemies has only grown.

It sometimes seems as though we are pressured like never before.  But we should remember that nothing is new under the sun. Just as the Jews who lived here before us survived the antisemitism of old, we will survive the antisemitism of today.  The wolves can continue howling, they can continue scheming against us, but we will survive.

See here for an archive of articles about our history in Israel.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Holiest Sports Arena on Earth

FirstEnergy Stadium, Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium?

Rome's Coliseum?

The Holiest Sports Arena on Earth is right here in Jerusalem...on the Temple Mount! Or as the rest of the world likes to refer to it, Haram al-Sharif.

This holy place which "offends" Muslim leaders when Jews silently and peacefully walk through the area, is also the place where holy Muslim children play holy sports games, such as soccer (European football), volleyball and others.

Yet it's a terrible provocation for Jews to walk there....let alone move their lips in silent prayer in the holiest sports arena on the planet.

On the bright side, at least the ball is blue and white...

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