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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi and Maimonides: a similar approach

On the last day of Passover, 1984, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted a new custom: the study of a section of Maimonides daily that was aimed to unite the entire Jewish people by studying the same subject of the Torah daily. With this, also began the second significant commentary of the Rebbe on a classical work of the Torah: the legal work of Maimonides, Mishneh Torah. This initiative came after eighteen years of the development of the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi, that began in October, 1964, after the passing of his mother, Rebetzin Chana. In this essay, I would like to explore a similarity between these two commentaries: an approach that allowed the Rebbe to develop a unique commentary on two classic works of the Torah, despite… Read More »

Rashi on Esther in the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

Rashi wrote commentary on the whole of the Torah, including the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings, besides on Chronicles that is only attributed to Rashi. The supercommentary of the Rebbe on Rashi was however focused primarily on the commentary on the Pentateuch. The reason for this is as indicated in the reasoning given for the commentary itself: the study of Rashi on Shabbat is based on the clause in Jewish law that the commentary of Rashi may serve in the place of the Aramaic translation of Onkelos in the context of the custom to read each Shabbat the Torah, twice in Hebrew and one with the Targum. Rabbi Joseph Karo writes that a G-d-fearing person should read the Rashi commentary, in addition to the Targum. While the reading of Rashi… Read More »

Midrash in Rashi in the Commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

The commentary of Rashi is based on the level of interpretation of p’shat, as Rashi states in his commentary on Genesis 3:8: ‘There are many Aggadic midrashim, and our Sages already arranged them in their proper order in Genesis Rabbah and in other midrashim, but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture (p’shuto shel mikra) and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way.’ In this statement Rashi acknowledges that he also brings midrashic teachings in his commentary. Complicating the intention of Rashi to follow only p’shat, is the fact that a vast amount of the commentary, estimated seventy… Read More »

Posing questions in the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

The methodology of the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi appears conventional to other super-commentators whereby a question is asked on a text of Rashi and an answer is proposed in validation and explanation of the comment. A unique feature of the Rebbe’s commentary is, however, the style of the questioning. The Rebbe would not suffice in posing a central question but rather on occasion pose up to twenty questions on a particular, sometimes short text of Rashi,[1] before proposing a principle, upon which he would be build a new perspective, fundamentally, upon reflection, simple and obvious, that due to its simplicity was overlooked. The reason for having overlooked the answer proposed may have been due to the conventional… Read More »

The Lubavitcher Rebbe's commentary on Rashi: open and interactive

An interesting style of the way the studies of Rashi were taught was that it was not just frontal teaching but interactive. While the Rebbe had other structured series of studies on different works, including Igeret ha-teshuvah (Epistle of Repentance) in the work of the Tanya by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,[1] the work of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, on the Tanya and the Zohar, Ethics of the Fathers, and in the 1980s on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the studying of Rashi was unique in that the Rebbe invested effort in making it interactive. This was done in various way and in stages. During 1964-5, it began as frontal teaching without interaction. The Rebbe would choose… Read More »

Choosing the Rashi to study in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi

With the closing of the chapter of the explaining a Rashi based on the system of selecting the beginning and final verse in each Parsha, what method did the Rebbe use to decide which Rashi to dwell on and incorporate in his commentary? On most occasions, the Rebbe would unilaterally choose a comment of Rashi to explain. There are other factors that also had influence on the particular Rashi that would be discussed. On occasion it was related to a topic that was being discussed at that time and fit well with the theme. This can be found in 1966 (Pinchas, 21 Tammuz 5726), when the Rebbe linked the discussion on the Exodus as a case of coming out of danger, which would require a blessing of thanksgiving, to an internal exodus from spiritual… Read More »

The genesis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's commentary on Rashi: Why Rashi?

Some of the classic Biblical commentaries on the Torah and Rashi developed in one of two ways: either as a solitary written commentary or a series of Shabbat lectures that were later developed into a commentary. The former occurred with Levush Ha-orah commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1530-1612), who wrote his commentary on Rashi, beginning after he got married in 1553 and continued over a fifty year year period until its completion in Poznan in 1603.[1] He would dedicate time to study a section of the Torah portion each week in depth on Thursday or Friday and write down his commentary. The following year he would continue with the next section of the Torah portion and so on. A further commentary that was written in this… Read More »

Scope of the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

The biblical commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) is the most published and studied commentary on the Torah since the 12th century. The most extensive supercommentary on Rashi in the 20th century is a commentary by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. The commentary developed over many years, beginning on the 10th October, 1964 (Shabbat, Parshat Noach / 4 Cheshvan 5765) and continued as a part of the series, almost every Shabbat when a farbrengen was held, usually introducing the commentary with the standard opening: ‘as is customary to study a comment of Rashi.’ A year after it had started, on Simchat Torah, 5766, before expounding on the beginning and end of the final Torah portion of… Read More »

The Yom Kippur Piyyut of unknown origin: "ki anu ame-cha" (For we are Your nation) through Oxford Hebrew manuscript mahzorim'

MS. Marshall Or. 7 (1334).pngOne of the most well-known piyyutim, of unknown origin, in the High Holidays machzor (prayer book), is known as: ‘ki anu amecha’ (for we are your people). It is recited five times on Yom Kippur, during each of the five prayers: evening service, morning service, mussaf, mincha and ne’ilah, and appears each time in the machzor just before the confession. The piyyut is traditionally sung as a joyous song and in unison, as opposed to being led by the chazzan, as with other piyyutim. In the ‘Companion to the Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, by Raymond Apple, published by the United Synagogue in 1964, it describes this piyyut as follows: ‘Based on a number of Biblical expressions, ‘Ki anu… Read More »

A Passover essay: I am He and there is no other

Screenshot 2022-04-14 at 03.50.41.png

I, and none other

 

In the Haggadah, it states:

 

“And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched forearm and with great awe and with signs and with wonders” (Deuteronomy 26:8). “And the Lord took us out of Egypt” - not through an angel and not through a seraph and not through a messenger, but [directly by] the Holy One, blessed be He, in His glory, and by Himself, as it is stated (Exodus 12:12): “And I will pass through the Land of Egypt on that night and I will smite every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from men to animals; and with all the gods of Egypt, I will make judgments, I am the Lord.”[1] “And I will pass through the Land of Egypt" - I… Read More »

Jewish amulets at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum

Screenshot 2022-02-02 at 16.20.34.pngOxford houses thousands of Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books. In addition, perhaps less known, however, in the museums around Oxford, are held artefacts and objects of Jewish interest. This includes a charity collection bowl, known as the Bodleian Bowl at the Ashmolean Museum, and a collection of Shofars and Jewish amulets at the Pitt Rivers Museum. In this essay, we will explore the history and significance of amulets in Jewish tradition, through the classic period, as recorded in the earliest works of Jewish law, through the medieval period, when this tradition is ridiculed by Maimonides, until its decline in the modern period. Despite the decline of the use of amulets nowadays in Jewish tradition, as reflected in their presence… Read More »

History of the Upshernish: a medieval custom?

 

The custom to have a celebration for the cutting of the hair of a boy at three years old goes back over five hundred years, recorded in a work by Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (1479-1573), known as the Radbaz,[1] to perform this haircut at the gravesite of Samuel the Prophet. Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), disciple of Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Moses Alshich and foremost disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) also records in Sha-ar Hakavanot:[2]

 

The custom in Israel to visit on the 33rd day of the Omer – Lag Ba-omer – to the tomb of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar, who are buried in Maron, as is known, and eat and drink and be joyous… Read More »

Chanukah essay: Lighting one lamp from another on the Chanukah Menorah - Tribute to Rabbi Lord Sacks

Menorah BL Add 15250.pngIn a lecture by Rabbi Sacks to the international Chabad Shluchim rabbinic conference in 2011,[1] he touched on a Talmudic dispute in tractate Shabbat,[2] regarding whether one may light one lamp from another on the Chanukah Menorah. He summarised the subject as follows: The sage Rav maintains it is forbidden to light one lamp from another, while his contemporary Shmuel says that it is permitted. The reason for this dispute is that Rav argues that when one lights one candle from another it diminishes the mitzvah (ka makchi-sh mitzvah) - oil may spill from the first candle.[3] Shmuel, however, is not concerned about this. In all cases, the law follows Rav in disputes with Shmuel,[4] besides three cases, one of which… Read More »

'As the Hart that panteth after the water brooks (Psalm 42:1): Jewish New Year reflections on an Oxford college coat of arms'

Hart.jpgInterspersed around Oxford, one can find mottos in Latin, which have Hebrew Biblical origin. This includes the motto of the university: ‘Dominus illuminatio mea,’ from Psalm chapter 27: ‘The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom then shall I fear: the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid.’ This is read in the Hebrew prayers from the beginning of the month of Elul until the end of Sukkot. A lesser-known motto may be found over the front gate of Hertford College, opposite the Bodleian Library. It bears the motto: ‘Sicut cervus anhelat ad fontes aquarum,’ which is taken from Psalm 42:1, and widely translated, taken from the King James Bible, as: ‘As the hart panteth… Read More »

Moses of London: Insight into Oxford's Jewry through his legal teachings and recent archaeology

MS Parma 933, fols. 77-78 copy.pngOne of the greatest rabbis of the medieval period in England was Rabbi Moses of London, formerly Moses de Oxonia or Moses of Oxford.[1] Born in Oxford, he resided in the Oxford Jewry, before moving to London, until he passed away in 1268.[2] In the records he is known as Magister Moses of London, signalling his position as a respected rabbi and teacher of Jewish law. While little information is known in terms of his day-to-day life, financial activities and social interactions, a glimpse into his life and status in Anglo-Jewry in the 13th century may be viewed from his scholarship and legal rulings. A presentation of his legal rulings and discussions will offer us a meaningful view into the life and influence of this important medieval… Read More »

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