Monday, January 25, 2010

R Yaakov Kamenetsky, Mendelssohn and Jastrow's dictionary

There seems to be a story circulating to the effect that:

When R. Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l was Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodass, students used to help him prepare his house before Pesach. One group checked for chometz the seforim that might have been brought to the table. The work proceeded without event, until one bochur let out a shriek, having discovered a copy of Mendelsohn’s famous (infamous?) and ground-breaking German translation of Chumash, known today simply as “The Biur.” While there are likely fewer students in Torah Vodaas today who would know about the Biur and its author, that particular bochur did, and his horror was visceral. Rav Yaakov immediately understood, and reportedly smiled (he seemed always to smile) and said, “They are surprised that I would own such a work. If only they knew how many difficulties it helped me solve.”

Although not an irrefutable proof, the following excerpt (Emes L' Yaakov YD 281) would seem to falsify the above to some extent:

The ruling that the Biur should be left in a place where it will rot ought to preclude the possibility of R Yaakov owning a copy himself.

Even in his famous permissive ruling allowing usage of the Jastrow dictionary, R' Yaakov does not appear to be exceptionally tolerant of heresy. He writes (YD 246):

I assume R Yaakov was told that Jastrow was the head of a Reform congregation which would render him a heretic, although at that time being connected with the Reform movement was not necessarily synonymous with heresy (as can be seen from the wiki entry on Jastrow).

The distinction made between Torah and lexicography seems somewhat difficult. According to this, one can learns the following Talmudic passage Kesubot 17a:

מאי הינומא סורחב בר פפא משמיה דזעירי אמר תנורא דאסא רבי יוחנן אמר קריתא דמנמנה בה כלתא

without reciting Birkas HaTorah (but see the commentary of Rebbenu Chananel there) and there are many other passages in which lexicography is of great value.


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Call it a hunch, but I'm not buying it. "Mipi ha-shemua?" Maybe this was some kind of provoked response, but in a vacuum it makes little sense.

mba said...

No contradiction just a dual standard. Someone as intellegent as RYK understood the danger of exposing young unlettered talmidim to the biur, while at the same time appreciating the good found therein. Also, do you mean Tos. Rid? He says the same thing as Rashi.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The problem is, what's the danger of exposing young unlettered talmidim to the Biur? Especially in the second half of the 20th century; where is a young talmid even going to find a Biur? Besides, Biurs didn't come with a history lesson. In fact, they usually didn't even have the word Mendelssohn anywhere. Any naive yeshiva bochur coming across it, with the name Rabbi Moshe Dessau would probably have no idea what it was.

On the other hand, you might be right, especially as such was not the situation in R. Yaakov's youth, and he might not have seen it in the light I described.

Wolf2191 said...

I was thinking more along the lines of a Hungarian-style questioner who would not accept that Mendelssohn wasn't evil incarnate. That is the difficulty of M'Pi Ha'Shmua's

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Not only that, since this was oral, it's not clear why brackets were put around those words. Who even knows if it wasn't an insertion? See the first set of brackets. That looks very much like an explanatory insertion, since if it was RYK's own words there really is no reason why it would be in brackets.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Wolf, what you're saying has some merit. What I mean is, even if it is true that RYK was 'enlightened' or elitist or plain normal enough to utilize Nesivos Ha-Shalom, surely he was not a Mendelssohn fan or sympathizer, and had no reason for convincing anyone who held that he was evil incarnate otherwise.

Wolf2191 said...

Rach is in Aruch here -

S. - True. He may even have been trying to dissuade the questioner from burning the Biur.

Anonymous said...

I actually have an a copy of the Biur on Beraishis. I havnt read it properly, because its old, and not in great condition. But I'm sure anyone who read it today would not notice even a hint of controversey. It deals a lot with dikduk.

[That's probably true with many seforim. There are all sorts of talmudic statements and rishonim with pasages in them that people just gloss right over, and dont even realize how controversial they are until they end up somewhere in a Marc Shapiro footnote.]


Lion of Zion said...


i also have only the bereshit volume.
the dikduk content is probably more of a turn off to contemporaries than anything else about the work

Anonymous said...

Opulently I agree but I think the post should prepare more info then it has.

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