Monday, April 26, 2010

What are the "fifty levels of defilement"?

Question: I have heard that there is a Jewish concept known as the "fifty levels of defilement". Would you recommend a source that would name and explain these "levels of defilement"?

Answer: The tumah (ritual impurity or defilement) caused by a corpse and other impurities is divided in halakhah (Jewish law) into only six levels. My colleague, Ina Rubin Cohen, suggested that you are referring to the "fiftieth gate of tumah" that the Jews would have descended to had they remained in Egypt a moment longer then they had (see, for example, the Bible commentary Or ha-Hayim, by Rabbi Hayim ibn Atar, on Exodus 3:7 s.v. va-yomer Hashem ra’oh raiti). This concept of tumah is not a halakhic one related to ritual impurity, but rather a kabbalistic one that uses the term "tumah" to indicate sin and estrangement from God. See:, where it discusses the concept of 49 gates of holiness that correspond with the counting of the Omer. The holiday of Shavuot represents the fiftieth gate of holiness that encompasses the other 49. In kabbalistic thought what exists on the side of holiness is mirrored on the side of impurity. Hence, the Jews had descended to the 49th gate of impurity in Egypt. Had they remained any longer they would have fallen to the fiftieth and been lost. Through the redemption from Egypt and improving themselves during the 49 days between leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai they merited to leave the 49 gates of impurity and ascend through the 49 gates of holiness. On the fiftieth day they received the Torah. During the counting of the Omer we reenact this process every year. A good book for introducing kabbalistic concepts is Innerspace by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan [Jerusalem : Moznaim, 1990].

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Midrash Yelamdeinu

Question: Where can I find the Hebrew text of
מדרש ילמדנו (מאן) ילקוט תלמוד תורה - פרשת בהעלתך
Midrash Yelamdeinu, Yalkut Talmud Torah, Parshat Beha'alotecha
The citation I have states that it was published as the "Mann edtition", in Cincinnati, 1940. No other details are provided.

Answer: This midrash was published in volume 2 of The Bible As Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue, by Jacob Mann. Although this book appears to be in English, both volumes include extensive Hebrew sections with the texts of midrashim. Volume 1 was published in 1940; Volume 2, published in 1966, includes this midrash on Bamidbar, Parshat Beha'alotecha. This chapter is entitled:
ילקוט תלמוד תורה לבמדבר ודברים
At JTS, this book is in the Reference and Main collections at BM 660 M3.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Books Containing Photographs of Torah Scripts

Question: Would you suggest some works that contain photo-reproductions of scripts used in Torah scrolls? I am trying to learn about the various scribal styles used in Torah scrolls throughout the world and in various time periods.

Answer: Dr. Jay Rovner, the library's Manuscript Bibliographer, made the following suggestions:

- Muʻalem, Shelomoh. Sefer Yeriʻot Shelomoh : kolel pisḳe dinim be-hilkhot Sefer Torah, tefilin u-mezuzah : ʻim beʾur Śefat ha-yeriʻah : tsiyunim u-meḳorot u-maśa u-matan be-divre ha-posḳim, rishonim ṿe-aḥaronim ʻad aḥarone zemanenu ʻal ha-halakhot sheba-sefer [Bene Beraḳ : Sh. Muʻalem, 755 (1995)]. BM659.S3 M83 1995

- Perets, Mikhaʾel ben Yosef. Masoret tsurat ha-otiyot : kollel tsurat ha-otiyot, gedrehen ve-hilkhotahen, pesakim ha-keshurim le-otiyot ha-shonot, halakhot kalaliyot ha-kedoshim le-S.T.M. [Yerushalayim : Hotsaat "ha-Mekhon le-heker ha-halakhah veha-musar : Yerid ha-Sefarim, 755 (1994 ot 1995)]. BM659.S3 P47 1995

- Kohen, Aharon. Masoret ha-otiyot : Sefer Mishmeret ha-emet. [Yerushalayim : n.p., 761 (2000 or 2001)]. BM659.S3 K8 2001

- O svitku = Form of the scroll : [katalog k výstavě konané v Galerii Roberta Guttmanna Židovského muzea v Praze od 22. června do 26. července 2006]. [V Praze : Židovské muzeum, 2006]. OVERSIZE BM657.T6 O22 2006

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lower East Side Synagogues

Question: We are attempting to locate a source identifying synagogues and temples no longer functioning or destroyed, in the lower east side of New York City.

Answer: Joyce Mendelsohn's guidebook, The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited: History and Guide to a Legendary New York Neighborhood (2001) identifies some of the synagogues which are no longer functioning. Oscar Israelowitz's Guide to the Lower East Side mentions both former and "current" (in 1991) synagogues in walking-tour format.

You could compare these brief lists with the extensive lists of synagogues in the American Jewish Yearbooks of 1899/1900 and 1907/1908 [see the "Directory of Local Organizations" section]. The Yearbook volumes list synagogues (and their addresses, rabbis, and officers, activities) in existence at the time of publication. Another extensive list of synagogues, dating from 1917/18, is in the Jewish Communal Register of New York City (1919).
In addition, you may be interested in David Kaufman's "Constructions of Memory: the Synagogues of the Lower East Side" in Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections, edited by Hasia Diner et. al. (2000), p. 113-136.