Sunday, November 20, 2011


This post is for Adam, who may never read it, and Felix, who probably will.
Yesterday evening, at the only public place in downtown San Francisco where you may smoke indoors, I spoke with a gentleman who was here for a convention. San Francisco over the years has hosted many such - the geologists came to town after several months of whacking rocks in the desert with their small hammers, and went giddy at suddenly being surrounded by people again. The dentists have been here, various other branches of medicine, and of course scientific geeks of all kinds.
Such things up the average intelligence level, if only for a few days.

My conversational partner was in town for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.
Bible scholars in San Francisco. It's a miracle.

Among many other things, we discussed Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (whom I mentioned because Dovbear is now rereading (and citing) Rabbeinu Sforno's perush ha Torah, which I first encountered in 2004), Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the documentary hypothesis, and the masoretes.

[Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno: A famous Italian exegete from Bologna (though born in Cesena), whose writings are still consulted to this day. His commentary on Pirkei Avos ('The Chapters of the Fathers') has a favoured place in my library. Dovbear: a well-known and well-regarded Jewish blogger, whom I read on a daily basis - the readers who leave comments on his posts are a very interesting lot, and one can find both thoughts better expressed than one could do oneself, as well as ideas that will repulse and offend. Plus humour, wit, and eloquence. If you have never visited him, you may find the link to his blog to the right on this page. Ibn Ezra: A great twelfth century Jewish scholar from Spain, whose scriptural commentary is clear and clean. Often, like Sforno, it contrasts with or outright negates the mefarshus of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), which too often seeks to clean up loose ends and answer questions of only dubious import - though Rashi's Talmudic expositoria is quite otherwise and almost beyond compare.]

Which, almost automatically brings three great codices to mind, namely the Codex Cairensis, the Leningrad Codex, and the Aleppo Codex.
All three were carefully enscribed nearly a thousand years ago, and are the best examples of what the Masoretes have wrought.

[Masoretes: Baalei ha mesorah: The masters of the tradition. Scholar-scribes who focused on the grammar, cantilation, punctuation, and correct pronunciation of the Biblical texts, producing what is now the standard ketiv menukad of the text. Most notable among them was the Ben Asher family, although Ben Naftali is held in scarcely less esteem. Masorah (tradition) is often applied to the fully vowelized written language, and must be distinguished from the text in a Sefer Torah (a Torah Scroll), which must always be written according to specific rules, and significantly, lacks vowel markings.]

In the same way that scribes have elevated the texts, the texts have molded and marked the scribes.
And, in connection with the last named document (the Aleppo Codex), mention must be made of a man whose name is known because of it.


It is perhaps primarily because of the Aleppo Codex that a Lithuanian rabbi who had moved to Jerusalem in 1857 is best known.
Rabbi Boyarski (Rashash Boyarski, after his two given names: Samuel Solomon) tasked an associate (Moishe Yehoshue Kimchi) to carefully copy the manuscript, and subsequently wrote in detail about the codex in his book 'Ammudei Shesh'. At that time the famous codex was still complete, and was safeguarded by the Jewish community of Aleppo, in whose pssession it had been for centuries, after passing through a thousand hands since it was written. Maimonides examined it, and wrote the Hilchos Sefer Torah in his Mishneh Torah based upon that study, detailing the precise rules for writing Torah scrolls. In 1949 the book was damaged in the Syrian anti-Jewish pogrom which dispersed the Allepan community, and when it was brought to Israel in 1958 a large part of it was missing, presumed lost.

[Aleppo: A town in Northern Syria probably best known for a mild, sweet, and fragrant chilipepper - the 'ful halabi'. Boyarski: regionomen signifying a native or inhabitant of Boyarka, a town near Kiev in the Ukraine (which is where my grandfather was stationed in World War One, when he was with the American Red Cross contingent aiding the Russians - he and several other American officers fled south into Persia when Russia collapsed). The name probably derives from an old Slavic term for great, rich, noble - alternatively, valiant, fierce, bold. It being remembered, of course, that the Kievan oblast is the heart of the Rus frontier, contested for centuries by Varangians, Turks, Bulgars, and Ruthenians. There was much scope for both greatness and ferocity there. Ammudei Shesh: Pillars of marble. The title of Rabbi Boyarski's magnum opus, dealing with a number of different subjects more or less related to the sacrifices and services in the Beis HaMikdash (the Holy Temple which was destroyed, first by the Babylonians, then by the Romans). The name is taken from Shir Ha Shirim asher liShlomo (The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's - the astute reader will naturally notice the titular felicity, given the custom of coinciding one's own name with a scriptural phrase recalling, however distantly, the same), verse 5:15 "shokav amudei shesh meyusadim al-adneifaz mareihu kalvanon bachur ka'arazom" ('his legs are as pillars of marble set on bases of finest gold'), which is taken to metaphorically indicate the righteous who are occupied with the law and with instruction - a young scholar strong as the cedars, an elderly scholar whitened by age and compassion for the house of Israel. Maimonides: Rabbi Moishe ben Maimon of Cordova (1135 - 1204), who fled the insanity of the Almohades in Spain, eventually ending up as physician to the Caliph in Egypt. One of the most famous of Jewish scholars, whose works are an endless sea of brilliance - mi Moishe ad Moishe, lo kam ki Moishe ('from Moses to Moses, there is none like Moses'). Syrian: The modern term for a native of a country to the north of the Holy Land, though in Ottoman times the term Syria encompassed a much larger region, including Lebanon and most of Jordan and Israel. Israel: Jacob and his descendants, as well as the only democracy in the Middle East.]


The son of Moishe Meir Boyarski was born in 1820 or thereabouts in Grodno, which a generation before had been taken by Russia after several centuries of Lithuanian rule. The city is outside Lithuania proper, in Black Ruthenia (part of White Russia - Bellorus). Like many cities and towns in that area it was ethnically mixed - Poles, Litvaks, Russians, and Jews of all stripes. His first wife, the daughter of Rabbi Zev Wolf of Bialystok, died young, leaving him with two sons, Avigdor (named after his great grandfather) and Zev Wolf (probably named after his father in law).
His second wife was the daughter of Rav Baruch of Kovno, who graciously supported him so that he could devote himself to study.

[I have not been able to ascertain who Rav Baruch was, as there were several rabbonim named Baruch associated with Kovno (Kaunas): Baruch Levi Horowitz, Baruch Dov Leibowitz, Baruch Horowitz, Baruch Ber Leibowitz, inter alia.
Kovno, which had at one point been a center of Torah learning, has not been particularly noteworth since Prince Nikolai Nikolaievich expelled all Jewish residents in May 1915, following which the good Christians of the town looted everything, and destroyed what they could. After the Russians lost the town, some of the Jews returned. In World War Two, the Germans established a ghetto which held as many as forty thousand people at one point. Due to the efficiency of the Germans and the fervent Christianity of the Lithuanians, approximately five hundred people survived. It is a beautiful city that reeks of death, and which you have no reason to visit. ]

In 1857, Rabbi Boyarski with his wife and kinderlech moved to Jerusalem, where due to the generosity of his brother Yisroel Chayim (deceased 1888) he could continue to devote himself to his studies. At that time Zionism had not yet become a significant movement, and the Jewish population of the Holy Land live in what has since been referred to as the Yishuv ha-Yashan ('the old settlement), consisting mainly of Yerushalayim, Tzfat, Tveriya, and Hevron, with minor Jewish populations elsewhere. Despite the efforts of the Romans and later the Christian conquerors of the Midlle-Ages, there have always been descendants of Jacob in the land - both those who never left, and generation after generation of those who came back.

It can be assumed that Rav Boyarski was influenced by the thoughts of his first father in law, author of among other things a work on the laws of temple service (Aggudas Ezov - the Congregation of Hyssop), and at that time many of the scholars resident in the Holy Land were rediscovering, or re-examing, the details of ritual life that had over centuries been somewhat obscured, and in some cases, reviving them.
As a sofer, no doubt Rav Boyarski was aware of what characteristics applied to correct ink ( - it is black, it is permanent, it does not fade, and cannot be erased - ), and which recipes for compounding yielded a suitable product, as well as what surfaces are acceptable for a kosher scroll (carefully cured parchment), and how the letters should be formed. A focus on such minutiae underscores an approach to ritualia that is normative in such diverse things as constructing the tefillin, and, in the last part of the nineteenth century, a type of blue dye which had been lost since ancient times.

[Kinderlech: children (Yiddish). Sofer: a scribe, specifically a scribe who writes kosher scrolls, such as the Torah, the book of Esther, and sometimes the entire Tanach ('Torah, Neviim, Ketubim - the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings). Kosher: ritually acceptable, and by extension both clean and correct. As far as meat is concerned that means certain animals only, slaughtered (schechted) in a certain way and with clean internal organs, as far as practices go it implies both halachically ('legally') correct AND with a presumption of ethics, and as far as objects are concerned made correctly and with the proper attention to details. Torah Scroll: Sefer Torah, written with a quill and oak gall ink on cured parchment or hide from a kosher animal, containing exactly 304,805 letters in Ksav Ashuri (Assyrian Script), copied from another Torah Scroll. Tefillin: Phylacteries, also called 'totafos'. Square boxes containing a roll of scripture affixed to the head and weaker arm with straps ('retzuos') tied a particular way. Concerning the order in which the four passages from scripture contained in the shel rosh (the phylactery on the head) are placed, the two variations are according to Rashi (rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) and Rabbeinu Tam (Yakov ben Meir, "our righteous rabbi", Rashi's son in law). Hence the practice among some people to wear both sets.]

While there is NO indication that the ancient dye preoccupied Rabbi Boyarski, it is a sufficiently interesting subject that it deserves mention in greater detail.
That will be the subject of the next post along with some totally immaterial discussion of other colours and a kugel, which, bezras Hashem, will be finished within several hours.

[Boyarski: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.]

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Felix said...

Wow! This post is really fascinating and informative, not to mention helpful. Are you going to continue with the rest of the story, what happened to Boyarski after he got to Jerusalem, and his connection with the Aleppo Codex?

entrepeneurically amphibious said...

Any chance of a series of Rabbinical Trading Cards?

Felix said...

His philosophy? Ideology? Theology, writings? His ideas, his beliefs -- what makes him *interesting*?

The back of the hill said...


That series already exists.

See here:

Quote:"Torah Personalities, which began in 1988, is a non-profit organization that makes unique sets of rbbi cards. There has been wide acceptance throughout the Orthodox communities as well as secular admiration. There have been many articles written on this topic. There are currently six series, 296 cards, and almost three million photo cards sold since its inception. Each of these cards has unique biographical or other interesting information on the back. "

Collect all of them.

The back of the hill said...


There is not much out there to go on. And next to nothing in my library. So rather than his personality and ideology, his environment and place in the transmission will be mentioned.

Felix said...


1. Wow, that looks like a cool trading-card series! I should tell my class about them. Do you have any?

2. There seems to be a lot in the Wikipedia article about Rabbi Boyarski's ideology about scrolls, reading Scripture, and blessings. I don't understand much of it, but the article seems to say that it's quite unique (or "idiosyncratic", as it says there). Could you please do a post about that section, "Idiosyncratic attitude toward biblical scrolls" (with its various subsections), explaining it?

Thanks so much. And this post was great!

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