Friday, June 06, 2008

A Woman Who Covers Her Head With an Apicorus

I was recently surprized by a visitor from the Old Country, Walnut Creek. It was Rabbi and Rebbetzin Kagan of Chabad of Contra Costa!

It's always nice when friends come for a visit.

On Motzei Shabbat (Saturday Night) they took me out for a bagel. Of course, you can't eat until you've made havdallah (ceremony separating Shabbat from the week,) so...

Making Havdallah with a match and beer.
I had a great time. Looking forward to more visitors from the Old Country, so let me know if you're coming!

What I learned in Yeshivah today

We’ve been reading in Masechet Shabbat (The Talmud section relating to the laws of Shabbat) about knot tying, a forbidden activity. But, because the Talmud is basically an endless stream-of-consciousness holy debate between hundreds of rabbis over a period of four centuries, our topic of discussion wandered off, to how to deal with Christian missionaries, which I’ve been discussing earlier on the blog.

While reading the discussion, the conversation also occasionally refers to an “apicorus.” An apicorus is a Jew who has, through intellectual or spiritual drift, decided to leave the Torah world and dropped all distinctly Jewish behaviors such as observance of Sabbath and Kashrut (Jewish dietary restrictions.) Most contemporary non-observant Jews were not raised with an authentic understanding of Torah from birth, or they believe the anti-Semitic slander that they read in the press, or see the members of the Torah-observant public who don’t live up to the Jewish standard of ethical behavior. While there is some debate over who counts as an apicorus today, it is widely agreed that although a shrinking majority of worldwide Jewry today is not Torah-observant, they lack the basic knowledge to make an honest intellectual rejection Torah and do not qualify as apicoruses.

The page we read (Tractate Shabbat, Page Ayin Hey, Side Alef) refers to the prohibition of learning from a Magoshta. Two opinions then come from the debating partners Rav and Shmuel arguing whether a Magoshta is a sorcerer or a Christian missionary. Later commentators then debate the subject further, when suddenly, in the Shulchan Aruch (the code of Jewish Law, written about a thousand years later,) refers to a Magoshta as an apicorus. What? Weren’t we just talking about Sorcerers and Missionaries? And the context of the wording is even stranger, that, “one is not allowed to learn the foreign worship of an Apicorus.” But an apicorus is by definition a non-believer, so how could he be worshipping? What gives?

Well, it turns out the Shulchan Aruch was censored. In the middle ages, a Jew would, from time to time, convert to Christianity. These apostate Jews would fight to prove their loyalty to their new friends by becoming the worst of the tormentors of their estranged brother Jews, much the like assimilated Jewish anti-Zionists of today. Because they had inside knowledge of Hebrew, these apostates invaded Jewish Batei Midrash (Houses of Study) and went through Jewish books with a pen knife, erasing any reference to a Missionary and replacing it with the word apicorus.

Of course, such apostates were not exactly the crème de la crème of the Beit Midrash to begin with. They would visually scan the texts, find the word, and replace it, lacking even the ability to read the context. This results in some very bizarre passages. For instance, the term “Nochri” can mean either a missionary or a wig. In one reference, we found a sentence reading, “A woman covering her head with an apicorus.” The student has to back-track through the censorship to figure out the original intent.

In some cases, entire sections or paragraphs were eliminated from the Talmud, resulting in wide blank spots in the middle of the page, which still appear in some contemporary editions. This also results in some misunderstandings of what should be done with apicoruses. A religious Jew might read certain passages which originally described how to handle missionaries which was censored to read, “Apicoruses,” and, God forbid, think that such treatment applies to his non-observant brethren. Fortunately, the Islamic world had its own religious gripes against the Christian world and was perfectly happy to leave the passages intact. Thus, today, many of the original manuscripts brought from Jews in Islamic countries are now being used to restore the original texts.

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