Thursday, June 14, 2012

THE 13 PRINCIPLES: #8. The accuracy of the Biblical Text

The Eighth of the Thirteen principles of Jewish faith asserts that the Tora which at present time is in our possession is the same that was given to Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) in Sinai.  
The Tora, as we have it today, contains the words which God gave to Moses. These words have been preserved all these centuries by the care of our scribes or writers (Soferim), our rabbis and other learned and pious men. The scribes were called Soferim, a term related to "counting", not "writing", because they counted the letters of the Tora. From a very early time we know by actual count how many sentences, words and letters are in each of the five books of the Tora. We know also how many times each letter is used. We reproduce in every copy the exceptional letters, those enlarged or reduced letters, etc.  A scroll of the Tora found incorrect or missing one single letter is not used in public worship until corrected. These are all precautions adopted to secure the accuracy of the text and that no alterations whatsoever take place.   

I have a personal simple example to show how knowing the number of letters reassures the accuracy of the transmission of a word.  My email is "rabbibitton@yahoo...".  When I dictate the first part of my email address to someone over the phone I always clarify and say: "one word, 11 letters". Many times they tell me that they counted the letters and then they realize that they have to write a double "t".  Knowing the exact number of letters prevents mistakes which could be made in such areas. Bear in mind that in Biblical Hebrew you can write the VAV or the YOD, or omit them (chaserot veyeterot) without altering the meaning of the word. That is why it was so critical to know the exact number of the letters in order to preserve the precise text during centuries of exiles, persecutions, etc.   

Adapted from the book:  Jewish Religion Ethically Presented, by Rabbi Hayim Pereira Mendes. 

(To be continued...)

                          Words                Letters          

Bereshit              20,512                78,064
Shemot               16,723                63,529  
Vayqra               11,950                 44,790
Bamidbar           16,398                 63,530
Debarim             14,294                 54,892

TOTAL             79,847                304,805

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Rabbi Ricci (or Riqi) was born in Ferrara, Italy. When he was six his father died and his mother's brother, Jedidia Rabbino, undertook to provide for the family and the education of the children. On Rabbino's death his son took charge of the family and married Ricci's sister. At the age of 20 Riqi began to travel around various Italian cities, making his living as a teacher.  In 1717 he was ordained rabbi in Trieste by R. Hillel Ashkenazi.  

He then settled in Israel but because of a plague that ravaged the country, in which his daughter died, Rabbi Ricci left Eretz Israel. On his way back to Italy, his ship was captured and taken to Tripoli, but he was released after 40 days. He settled in Leghorn, but later journeyed to Smyrna, Salonika, Constantinople, and London. He spent two years in Aleppo and in 1737 he arrived in Jerusalem, where he stayed for three years. In 1741 he returned to Leghorn to settle business matters connected with his books. While on one of his trips he was murdered by robbers.

His books, in the order in which they were written, are 

(1) Ma'ase Chosheb (Venice, 1716), a commentary on the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle built in the desert 

(2) Chosheb Machashabot (Amsterdam, 1727), on the technical Halakhic issues which bear no Biblical textual source,  known as Halakha leMoshe miSinai, like the size of a mikveh or some specifics of the Tefilin, etc. The book also analyzes homiletic commentaries on the Bible and Talmud; 

(3) Hon 'Ashir (Amsterdam, 1731), this is probably his main work, a commentary on the six orders of the Mishna, written in Gorizia and completed and expanded in Safed.  

Click here Download Rabbi Ricci's main work, HON ASHIR, on the Mishna, from 

See a new edition here

Rabbi Ricci also composed a famous Kabbalistic work: Mishnat Chasidim (Amsterdam, 1727), a book modeled on the six orders of the Mishnah, with each order divided into tractates. Rabbi Ricci considered that the act of Creation lies beyond the power of human understanding and arrived at the conclusion that the Kabbalistic idea of tzimtzum (withdrawal) is essentially metaphorical, based on the pasuq: melo kol ha-aretz kebodo as referring to the providence of God, which is found everywhere. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

RELIGIOUS INTEGRITY: Can we lie to avoid embarrasment?

The Tora instructed us to stick to the truth and stay away from lies. We have already seen, however, that in some exceptional cases the Rabbis acknowledged that it was permitted or even recommended to withhold the true facts (see here).

The Rabbis also considered that when a person is faced with an embarrassing situation, he is also allowed to change the story. For example, if a person goes to an hospital to see a doctor or a therapist and he does not want people to know about his or her specific problem, and he meets his neighbor in the hospital, he is allowed to withhold the truth and conceal the real reason for his visit to the hospital.

It is important to remember that all the exceptions we have mentioned so far, i.e., all the cases in which we can depart from the truth, refer to situations where our narrative does not affect, damages or hurts somebody else. If there are two partners, in a business, for example, and one of them made a mistake that somehow affects the company, he can not conceal his mistake from his partner adducing embarrassment.

Similarly, a son or a daughter should not lie to his or her parents (or teachers) in an attempt to avoid embarrassment. Adults are supposed to know (and accept!) that a son or a student might fail or make a mistake. And adults are there to guide and teach him or her to learn from mistakes.

By the way, we see how important is for parents to praise our children when, despite the embarrassment, they dare to tell us the truth. When children find a mature, confident and empathetic adult that helps the child processing his embarrassment in a positive way, learning for the future, in all likelihood, that child will have no reason to hide his mistakes from his parents, and he will be in a better position to avoid repeating them in the future.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

CHUPA: Why the ring?

As we previously explained, it is an ancient custom to use a ring for the wedding ceremony to do the Kiddushin or consecration of the wife (see here).   According to some authorities (Tosafot) a ring was the normal means of binding a marriage, even in the time of the patriarchs as it could be interpreted from the story of Yehuda and Tamar (Bereshit 38:18).
Today the custom of the wedding ring or band is almost universal. However there are some communities that use a coin rather than a ring for marriage. For example, in some Syrian and Iraqi communities this is the prevalent custom (Ben Ish Chay).  In the times of rabbi Sa'adia Gaon the tradition was to make the kiddushin with the cup over which the wine blessing was said.  In other places, like Georgia (in Eurasia) it was the custom to place the ring in a cup. 
One of the reasons why a ring is used is that a ring is worn all the time, as a permanent reminder of love and commitment.  The rabbis compared the pact between God and Israel as a wedding. Every Jew, when he wears the Tefilin,  winds the straps around his middle finger saying: "ve-erastikh li le'olam.... "., "I (=God) will betroth you for ever" etc.,  symbolizing that in the same way the wedding band represents the permanent union between husband and wife, the Tefilin is a symbol of the constant love and commitment between Israel and God.  

A very original reason brought by Keter Shem Tob for using a ring is that giving a ring symbolizes giving over of authority. Pharaoh transfered his authority to Yosef and so did Achashverosh with Haman and later to Esther: the monarchs were empowering them and giving them authority over their kingdom. Similarly,  "In giving his wife a ring, the husband is symbolically giving her authority over his household and everything else that is his. From that moment on, everything in their lives will be shared". 

(Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, "Made in Heaven").