Kabbala, Halakha and Kugel: The Case of the Two Handed Blessing

Kabbala, Halakha and Kugel: The Case of the Two Handed Blessing
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  Kabbala, Halakha and Kugel: The Case of the TwoHanded Blessing Kabbala, Halakha and Kugel: The Case of the Two Handed Blessing * In parshat Vayehi, Yaakov simultaneously blesses his two grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe by placing one handupon each of their heads. Today, there is a widespread custom of blessing one own’s children on Friday night (althoughsome only do it on the eve of Yom Kippur). This custom most likely srcinated with the Hasedi Ashkenaz in the14th century but quickly spread to the rest of Europe, including France, Spain, and Italy.[1] The exact details of theblessing, however, are subject to some variation. The earliest sources mention only the priestly blessing and not Yaakov’s.[2] It was not until the 18th century, R.Yaakov Emden propose the specific usage of Yaakov’s blessing to his grandsons “God shall make you like Ephraim andMenashe.” Likewise, even within those sources they are inconsistent as to whether both hands are to be used or only one. Some provide that one hand should be used because it has 15 joints the same number of words as in the priestly blessing,while others urge two hands because they contain 60 bones which corresponds to the word “” “somekh” “to lay hands”to be read as the letter “” “samach” and correspond to the numerical value of sixty rather than the literal translationequaling the number of letters in Birkat Kohanim. These sources disagree because of the symbolic nature of the hands vis-à-vis the blessing.The anonymous book,  Hemdat Yamim , states that one should only use the right hand to bless. Likewise, R. YitzhakLampronti records that some refrain from using two hands to avoid “mixing hesed with din ” corresponding to the right andleft hands respectively. But he rejects that and he used both hands.R. Emden firmly rejects the idea of singlehanded blessings. He explains that Moshe and others used two. Yaakovwas but an exception as he wanted to bless both of his grandsons simultaneously because he was already changing the orderand wanted to minimize, as much as possible, the differences between the two. Further blessing the younger before theolder would be an unforgivable insult. Thus, this was a special case where he was compelled to use one hand.[3] But in thelate 19th century, a one handed blessing was suggested because of halakhic reasons. In 1779, R. Yehezkel Landau was born in Vilna. In 1793 he married his cousin, the daughter of Tzvi Hirsch andMushka Zalkind, Haye Sorah.[4] Unexpectedly, an event surrounding Landau’s wedding would become a touchstone forbirkat ha-banim. R. Landau was among those who were privileged to study with the Gaon and received his particular form of learningthat eschewed  pilpul and focused on  peshat  .[5] Additionally, R. Landau considered himself a talmid muvhak of and prayedin the same synagogue as R. Hayyim Volozhin.[6] That synagogue, the Parnes Kloyz, also claimed a number of otherimportant members including R. Avraham Abele Poswoler, R. Landau’s brother-in-law.[7] With the death of R. Abele in1806 R. Landau took over the position as Rosh Av bet Din of Vilna.[8] The position was first offered to R. Akiva Eiger buthe turned it down.[9] R. Landau held that position until his death in 1870. Until this point the discussion regarding whether to use two hands or one is limited to symbolic or kabalisticreasons. But there are those who argue that there is a legal issue with using two hands and they attribute this view to the  Gaon. Determining the Gaon’s practices is a very difficult task, he did not write a book of customs and instead most of whatwe have is from second hand or third hand sources, many of which are contradictory or unsupportable.[10] Close to one hundred years after the Gaon died, the siddur, Siddur ha-Gaon be-Nigleh u-Nistar , was published byNaftali Hertz, and for the first time it is recorded that the Gaon only used one hand for a blessing. The source for thispractice is unclear. The “Nigleh” portion is generally taken from  Ma’ashe Rav  and  Likutei Dinim meha-Gra , neither of which records this practice. R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein, however, records a story about that Gaon that is related to the prohibition of a non-kohenreciting the priestly blessings in the synagogue. In Epstein’s commentary on the Torah, Torah Temimah , he posits a novelruling that not only is a non-kohen prohibited from blessing the congregation but is prohibited from ever using two hands –like the priests – to bless anyone. According to Epstein, such a practice would violate a biblical commandment. But hewanted to address as to why he is the first to raise this issue and rather than concede that he is the source of this innovativeruling he records a story from “a trustworthy source” that “when the Gaon of Vilna blessed R. Yehezkel Landau the MorehTzedek of Vilna at his huppa, the Gaon only placed one hand on R. Landau’s head during the blessing. Those present askedthe Gaon to explain his practice and he replied that only the priests in the temple can use two hands.”[11] Thus, R. Epsteinis able to “toleh atsmo be-ilan gadol” (one should hang themselves on a big tree). Indeed, R. Epstein’s version of the Gaon’s position is still accepted today. Two siddurim that were recently publishedbased upon the Gaon’s practices both record that it was his opinion that one must only use one hand because “only thepriests in the temple were permitted to use two hands.” Both cite R. Epstein as their source.[12] That R. Landua received the Gaon’s blessing is attested to on his epithet. “ .”“Grace was placed upon his lips because he was overtaken by the blessing of Eliyahu Gaon of Israel.”[13] Nonetheless, theexact details of that blessing are not as clear. Indeed, the details of R. Epstein’s version that was transmitted by a“trustworthy source” seem somewhat suspect. First, R. Landau would not have been referred to as a becausehe oversaw the entire bet din system in Vilna and controlled all of the moreh tzedeks. Hence R. Landau was referred to asRosh Av Bet Din “Ravad” or 14].] Second, the Gaon was not known for getting out much. He no longer studied atall in what was known as the Gaon’s kloyz that was located in the Great Synagogue Courtyard ( shulhoyf  ) but   studied in thesame house he lived in, a location known as the Slutzki building.[15] While R. Landau was well-regarded none of the otherhistories of Vilna that discuss R. Landau and mention the he studied with the Gaon or the Gaon’s blessing also include theGaon’s attendance at the wedding.[16] Finally, the Gaon’s commentary to Shulchan Orakh does not mention any issue witha non-kohen using two hands, nor does it appear in any of the books collecting the Gaon’s customs.[17] While admittedly none of the above issues are dispostive, there is a far better reason to discount R. Epstein’s versionbecause there is a more reliable alternative version of the story that R. Epstein records, and according to this version, there isnothing to suggest that the Gaon deliberately avoided using two hands nor that there is any reason to do so. Indeed, storiesthat are attributed to the Gaon are notoriously unreliable. Already with the first “biography” of the Gaon, R. Dovid Luriacautioned that “the greatness of my teacher, Rabbenu ha-Gadol z’l [ha-Gaon] is such that there are many stories and legendsattesting to that greatness there are as many variations, embellishments and deficiencies in every story.” In this instance,however, we have the benefit of hearing the story directly from the protagonist, R. Landau.  modified and added additional materials to it for Bar Ilan’s Shabbat Torah pamphlet. Daniel Sperber, “Al Birkat ha-Banim,”  Daf Shevoei (University Bar Ilan) Parshat Vehi, 2008, no. 735.[1] See Yecheil Goldhaver,  Be’er Sheva , in Bunim Yoel Tevesig,  Minhagei ha-Kehilot   (Jerusalem: Le’or, 2005), 186-89. See also, Shmuel Ashkenazi,  Alpa Beta Kadmeta  (Jerusalem, 2010), 207-09.[2] R. Eliyahu Dovid Rabinowich Toemim, however, incorrectly asserts that the priestly blessing was not part of the blessingof the children. Instead, he suggests that since the inception of the custom on Yaakov’s blessing was used. Eliyahu DovidRabinowich Teomim, Shu”t Ma’aneh Eliyahu  (Jerusalem: Yeshiva Har Etzion, 2003), no. 122, 349.[3]  Hemdat Yamim , (Venice, 1812), Helek Shabbat, chapter 7, 48; Yitzhak Lamporti, Pahad Yitzhak ha-Shalem (Jerusalem,1998), ma’arekhet ha”Bet,” 52; Yaakov Emden, Siddur Ya’avetz  (Jerusalem, 1992), 564-65.   See Goldhaver who providesmany of these sources and the additions of Eliezer Brodt in Yerushatanu  2 (2008), 205-206 (Eliezer also kindly providedadditional sources for this post). For an example of a death bed blessing see Michel Hakohen Brever,  Zikhronot Av u- Beno  (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1966) 122[4] The Zalkinds would later establish a kloyz, with a women’s section, that was alternatively referred to by Reb HerschelZalkinds Kloyz and perhaps more notably by his wife’s name: Mushke Leybele Zalkinds kloyz. The kloyz is no longerextant but was located in Vilna’s Old Jewish quarter on what is today Šv. Mikalojaus Street. Synagogues in Lithuania, N-Z: A Catalogue , eds. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, Sergey Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin, (Vilnius: Vilnius Academy of Arts Press,2012) 312.[5] Shmuel Yosef Fuenn, Kenest Yisrael: Zikhronot le-Toldot Gedolei Yisrael ha-No’adim le-shem be-Torotum, be- Hokhatum, ube-Ma’asehem  (Warsaw, 1886), 517.[6] Hillel Noach Steinschneider,  Ir Vilna (Vilna, 1900), 32. [7] For a biography of R. Abele, see  Ir Vilna , 19-29. His third wife, Fagie, was R. Landau’s sister. For more about the Kloyzsee Cohen-Mushlin, Synagogues in Lithuania N-Z  , 308 and for more details on the building and the Parnes see AelitaAmbrulevičiūtė,  Houses that Talk: Sketches of Vokiečiu Street in the Nineteenth Century  (Vilnius: Auko Žuvys, 2015), 91-95.[8]  Ir Vilna , 32. [9]  Ir Vilna , 30-31.[10] See the comments of R. David Luria, “the greatness of my teacher, Rabbenu ha-Gadol z’l [ha-Gaon] is such that thereare many stories and legends attesting to that there are as many variations, embellishments and deficiencies in everystory.” R. David Luria, “Letter from ha-Gaon ha-Rav RD”L,” in Yeshua Heschel Levin,  Aliyot Eliyahu  (Vilna, 1857), 4.[11] Barukh Halevi Epstein, Torah Temimah: Bamidbar  6:33. [12] Siddur Aliyot Eliyahu  (Machon Ma’dani Asher, 1999); Siddur Ezer Eliyahu  (Jerusalem: Kerem Eliyahu, 1998).[13]  Ir Vilna , 35.[14] See  Ir Vilna , 102.[15] For more on this building and the history of it and the Gaon’s kloyz see Shlomo Zalman Havlin, “ ‘Ha-Kloyz’ shel ha-Gaon me-Vilna Zts”l, Helek shel ‘Pinkas ha-Kloyz,’” in Yeshurun  6 (1999), 678-85; Dan Rabinowitz, The Lost  Library: The Legacy of Vilna’s Strashun Library in the Aftermath of the Holocaust (Waltham: Brandeis University Press,2018), 55-58.[16] See, e.g.  Ir Vilna , 32; Keneset Yisrael , 517-18.[17] Even the siddur that does provide that the Gaon’s custom was to use just one hand there is no mention that the practicewas because of potentially violating a biblical commandment. [18] Kugel was among the customary foods eaten on Shabbat across Europe. Herman Pollack,  Jewish Folkways inGermanic Lands (1648-1806): Studies in Aspects of Daily Life (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1971), 112, 275n39. Hasidic thought imbued kugel with special powers and it occupied a lofty place in its rituals. See Allan Nadler, “HolyKugel: The Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidism,” in Food and Judaism: A Special Issue of Studies in Jewish Civilization  15 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 193-214 (my thanks to Shaul Stampfer for calling thissource to my attention). See also Joan Nathan, “Kugel Unraveled,”  New York Times Sept. 28, 2005, F1. Kugel was one of the foods that srcinated in Germany and spread to eastern Europe and both Jews and non-Jews ate it. SeePollack,  Jewish Folkways, 112. Other traditional foods include fish, cholent, tsimes, farfl, kneydlekh, kikhelekh, lokshn andkasha. For fish see Moshe Hallamish,  Ha-Kabbalah be-Tefilah be-Halakha, u-be-Minhag (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan UniversityPress, 2000), 486-506; for the others see Pollack,  Jewish Folkways , 100-112.[19] Ben Tzion Alfes,  Ma’ashe Alfas: Tolodah u-Zikhronot   (Jerusalem, 1941), 9-10.[20] Today if one wants to combine the two, there is a recipe for striemel kugel here.
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