Sunday, June 5, 2011

Letter to Tradition

To the Editor:

In Rabbi J. David Bleich’s “Survey of Recent Halachic Literature: Piscatorial Parasites” (Tradition 44:1, Spring 2011) he presents a lengthy and erudite discussion of a variety of halachic positions regarding whether fish infested with anisakis worms is permissible to be eaten. Much to my surprise, however, he did not discuss the position of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner to such topics which is, to my mind, by far the most salient and cogent. Furthermore, as I shall endeavor to demonstrate, this assists with confronting the Gemara in a way that is more accurate from a historical perspective.

Rabbi Bleich observes that the Gemara’s reason for permitting worms that are found in the flesh of the fish “certainly appears to reflect reliance upon a notion of spontaneous generation. Whether that statement is to be understood literally and, if so, whether rejection of that concept by modern science has any bearing upon Halakhah, or whether the Gemara’s statement should be understood as expressing a concept that is compatible with contemporary scientific theory are intriguing questions. Resolution of those questions is, however, irrelevant to the points that have been made herein.” I beg to differ; I would argue that resolving these questions is extremely relevant.

There is certainly no reason to think that the Gemara’s statement is not intended literally. And spontaneous generation was an absolutely normative belief in antiquity. The Gemara discusses several other such cases, including the spontaneous generation of mice from dirt, that of salamanders from fire, and that of lice (where the Gemara specifically rules out the possibility that there could be any such thing as lice eggs). Before modern times, nobody ever claimed that the Gemara in these cases was referring to anything other than spontaneous generation. An honest reading of all these topics in the Gemara results in the clear conclusion that the Gemara is referring to a belief in spontaneous generation, which has since been discredited.

Rabbi Bleich spells out his objection to such an interpretation of the Gemara as follows: “…If the notion of spontaneous generation is rejected and the various theories advanced to reconcile the apparently contradictory talmudic statements with contemporary science are rejected, the resulting conclusion that, contra unequivocal dicta and precedents spanning more than two millennia, all worms and piscatorial parasites found in the flesh of fish are forbidden is compelled. To date, no rabbinic scholar has espoused such a conclusion with regard to piscatorial parasites.” Yet surely even if R. Bleich were correct that this would result in two millennia of error, this is simply an appeal to consequences; it would not mean that this reading of the Gemara is not historically correct. The claim that no rabbinic scholar has espoused such a conclusion with regard to piscatorial parasites is likewise not a reason why this reading of the Gemara is not historically correct. It is also misleading; as Rabbi Bleich acknowledges in a footnote, R. Isaac Lampronti did indeed posit such an approach in the case of lice (where he argues that the Gemara’s permission to kill lice on Shabbos is based on an erroneous belief and should not be maintained), and there is no reason to think that he would not posit the same approach here. This approach was also taken by Rabbi Yosef Kappach (commentary to the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 11:4).

In any case, there is another approach that Rabbi Bleich does not mention, which both acknowledges that the Gemara is recording an erroneous belief regarding spontaneous generation, and yet avoids concluding that Jews were sinning for two millennia. It is the approach of Rav Herzog (Heichal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim 29) and Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner (Dor Revi'i, Chullin, introduction), as stated with regard to the case of lice. They acknowledge that the Gemara is relying upon an erroneous belief in spontaneous generation to permit killing lice on Shabbos, but they maintain that the halachah remains valid, due to the authority of Chazal. In my book Sacred Monsters I explained at length why this position is both cogent and important. As Rabbi Shlomo Fischer explains, based upon Kesef Mishnah to Hilchot Mamrim 2:1, we follow all Chazal’s rulings not because they are necessarily infallible, but because of a nationwide acceptance of their authority (Derashos Beis Yishai 15).

In Rabbi Bleich’s concluding observations, he lists several approaches for dealing with confrontations between the Sages and modern science. Conspicuously absent from this list is the possibility that the Sages were simply mistaken—despite the fact that scores of Rishonim and Acharonim were of the view that the Sages were not infallible in such matters. Instead, Rabbi Bleich presents an explanation according to which the blanket license given in the Gemara (and Shulchan Aruch), that worms found in the flesh of the fish are permitted without qualification, does not actually apply in an overwhelming number of cases. Furthermore, if the Gemara is not permitting anisakis parasites, then what exactly is it permitting? Some say that it is permitting species that actually do spontaneously generate in the fish—but we know that no such species ever existed. Others say that it is permitting parasites that were ingested from outside of the fish but which were too small at that time to be halachically significant—yet this is anachronistic, hardly seems to be the meaning of the Gemara or the Rishonim, and is an obvious apologetic being performed in order to attempt to avoid a conflict with science.

Ironically, although many avoid saying that Chazal erred in science in order to uphold their authority, it can have precisely the opposite effect. Aside from sounding unconvincing, there is a potential for drastic halachic consequences. For example, it could be argued that the Sages only permitted the consumption of honey on the premise that it is only nectar and does not contain anything created by the bee; but now that we see that bees inject enzymes into it, then it must be that the Sages were referring to a different kind of bee honey, and our honey should be prohibited! And so on. We should be extremely wary of diverging from Chazal's rulings based on science, even under the guise of upholding their authority.

Surely in a scholarly discussion, we should never avoid adopting a historically accurate understanding of the Gemara, such as that taken by R. Isaac Lampronti. And with the approach of Rav Herzog and Rav Glasner, we can avoid the unappealing consequences.

Natan Slifkin
Ramat Bet Shemesh


  1. That was a great letter; I hope to see it printed in Tradition.

    Concerning spontaneous generation, I thought I'd share the following quote:

    "It is no easy matter to deal with so deeply ingrained and common-sense a belief as that in spontaneous generation. One can ask for nothing better in such a pass than a noisy and stubborn opponent, and this Pasteur had in the naturalist Felix Pouchet, whose arguments before the French Academy of Sciences drove Pasteur to more and more rigorous experiments. When he had finished, nothing remained of the belief in spontaneous generation. We tell this story to beginning students of biology as though it represents a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact it is very nearly the opposite. The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a "philosophical necessity." It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this necessity is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing."
    (Wald, George [Harvard biochemist, Nobel Prizewinner, 1967], "The origin of life," Scientific American, August 1954)

  2. Haredi-prax said:
    Great letter, but why did not mention Rabbi Carmel's report (published in Michtav MeiEliyahu) in the name of Rav Dessler that Chazal were wrong in their science, yet they were merely offering a (pseudo-scientific) rationale for a halachic tradition they had received. The relevance of this idea to the recent can of worms is readily understandable. Chazal had a tradition that worm found in the flesh of the fish are kosher and they explained it in terms agreeable to their scientific milieu.

  3. Rabbi Bleich mentions that view in another article. I don't find it satisfactory, though - especially in this case. There's simply no evidence for saying that the rule preceded the explanation.

  4. Yet that rule appears elsewhere and not in connection to scientific belief.
    Medication is forbidden to be taken on Shabbos except in serious cases. The reason the Gemara gives is because of grinding. We are worried that if you need to take something, the local apothecary will grind it up fresh for you with violates a melacha.
    So why should this apply to acetaminophen (paracetamol for you Brits)? Whether or not I take twice the recommended dose of Tylenol for my Shabbos afternoon headache does not affect how many tablets are being manufactures at the local factory. Why shouldn't it be okay?
    The Nishmat Avraham, on discussing this, offers up the same reason - taking medication on Shabbos is generally forbidden except in serious cases. While the Chazal attributed this to grinding, even in cases where grinding no longer applies the rule does because the reason was applied after the rule. So why couldn't that be the case here?

  5. MO - As you suggested, I didn't post your comment, but I agree with you. Feel free to email me!

  6. The argument of those who prohibit has been that in this case, anyone familiar with fish and anisakis worms come to the conclusion that these worms are invaders and not developed from within the fish. Chazal have made the distinction between kukiani worms and darna worms, and anisakis worms are clearly for the former category, even when spontaneous generation was assumed to be true! Those who cut up the fish notice the worms in the entrails and see that these are the same worms that are found in the flesh. (Rabbi Elyashiv certainly believes in spontaneous generation as he certainly has the belief that chazal could not possibly be wrong in matters of science, and he is adamant that these worms are prohibited.

  7. Perhaps we can add rabbi Yosef Karo to the list of rabbis who changed halachic decisions based on science. In SA OC 331:9 he states that in Talmudic times they would wash a baby before his bris milah and on the third day afterwards with hot water even if it was Shabbos, as not to was considered life threatening, and that now it is not customary to do so. Mishna Berura says the reasoning is nishtane hateva, nature changed. But in Bais Yosef, that isn't his explanation. Rather he says "everyone knows" that it is not dangerous.
    Interestingly, Rema doesn't argue on the science of it, rather states that the custom in Europe is to wash with preheated water before his mila.
    It would be hard to argue that science changed in the Middle East but no in Europe, and Mishna Berura explains that even though it isn't dangerous, still it is very beneficial, therefore the ruling of the Gemara was kept.

  8. It's a great letter, but the fundamental problem with it, and Rabbi Bleich's article, and anything remotely similar, is the premise that orthodox judaism is intellectually honest. The fact is, it is not, and never has been. Ever since the close of Tanach, all of orthodox judaism has been about a good-faith attempt to uphold the beliefs and practices of previous generations. The tannaim thus sought to uphold the prophets, the amoraim the tannaim, the geonim the amoraim, and so forth. Whether or not the previous generation was correct or not is simply not part of the equation.

    Thus, that Rabbi Bleich, with all due respect, is incorrect, is obvious. But you too, RNS, and also with all due resepct, are incorrect because you posit that there was a nationwide acceptance of their authority. But in fact, no such thing ever happened. There was never a poll, never a plebiscite - never a nothing. This explanation is only proffered to rationalize why we continue to adhere to old ways. As such, the approach of R's Herzog and Glasner, however nicely presented, is also intellectually dishonest.

    The real reason we do certain things is cultural,not intellectual. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way.) Thus, most attempts to explain them via rational explanations invariably have holes in them. And that's that.

    A. Schreiber

  9. you posit that there was a nationwide acceptance of their authority. But in fact, no such thing ever happened. There was never a poll, never a plebiscite - never a nothing.

    There was no formal declaration of acceptance, true. But there was a de facto acceptance. Nobody has ever declared themselves willing to argue with Chazal in halachic matters - as opposed to the with the Rishonim.

  10. It appears to me that the question may lie in this formulation.
    "Does a Gezeiras Rabanan have effect because it is a gezeira, or is it dependent on the reason given.
    There are examples of both ways.
    Letter is well-written but ,regretfully,I predict
    R.Bleich will not hear it.

  11. I hope that Tradition will publish Rabbi Slifkn's letter, if only to see Rabbi Bleich's response.

    Lawrence Kaplan

  12. If we're speaking nishtana hateva, how about all the laws of tereifa? In the times of the mishna it was assumed that a certain list of animals with certain punctures could not live more than 12 months. Already in the Gemara there was some recognition thit it wasnt true, and many treifahs indeed lived more than 12 months. Even within the list there was a belief, found all over the Gemara, that certain animals injected posion through their claws when they attacked another, and thus an attacked animal was also considered a tereifah. I am certainly no zoo-rabbi, but I dont think today we think animals inject posion through their claws. so perhas derusahs should also be permitted.

    [I ask to R. Bleich.]

  13. "As Rabbi Shlomo Fischer explains, based upon Kesef Mishnah to Hilchot Mamrim 2:1, we follow all Chazal’s rulings not because they are necessarily infallible, but because of a nationwide acceptance of their authority (Derashos Beis Yishai 15)."
    Didn't you write in a previous post that you were unsure why the kezayit hasn't been restored to the size of a normal olive?
    Surely the reason you give here is the reason?

  14. The Gemara did not say that the kezayis is bigger than an ordinary olive!
    (By the way - I never said that I don't understand why the kezayis has not been restored to the correct size. I understand very well - it's because of social forces, similar to those described by A. Schreiber above.)

  15. How do you reconcile your understanding of halacha with the concept of the par helem davar?

    Isn't your understanding also, as you seem to recognize, based more on consequences than truth?

  16. Do journals publish articles or letters that have already been published online? I suspect that by posting the letter here, you have guaranteed that it will not be published by Tradition.

  17. Gil: I would distinguish between a letter and an article.

    Lawrence Kaplan

  18. "There's simply no evidence for saying that the rule preceded the explanation."

    But isn't it more of a macro-view of the Talmudic enterprise? There is never going to be EVIDENCE one way or the other (ie, there is never really going to be evidence in the crime-scene investigation sense, that a particular midrash halacha or psak halacha preceded its accompanying explanation or justification in the text of the gemara, and likewise vice versa there will not be "evidence" to prove that the psak halacha was contingent on the explanation as devised by the saboraim hundreds of years later but would otherwise not stand without it - how could there be such evidence? However, as a macroview of the Talmudic enterprise it seems reasonable and plausible in either direction, or that there is some combination of both aspects throughout the corpus. Otherwise we ignore the entire development of the Talmud throughout many generations and what implications that and the multiple layers of explanation and interpretation added to it actually have.

  19. Anon for this commentJune 6, 2011 at 2:30 AM

    Rabbi Slifkin, I appreciate your blog and read it often. However, I find that when you post more than 2-3 times per week it lessens the value of your blog in a number of ways. One is in the valuable discussions that readers have in the comments. Another is in important posts quickly becoming 'old news'.

    Perhaps you can slow it down a bit so that readers with day jobs can keep up. I would think that I am not the only one who does not comment anymore because posts are moving too fast with new posts almost daily.

    Are there others of this opinion?

  20. While I agree with the thesis of this post, there is yet another reason to reject the current attempts to forbid fish that may harbor the anisakis worm. The current issurim issued in the name of Rav Wosner and Rav Elyashiv conflict with heterim issued by the great poskim no longer with us, i.e., Rav Feinstein and Rav Auerbach. No new facts appear to have been conveyed which justify the new attitude. Furthermore, declaring these fish forbidden implies that all the great sages of the past ate forbidden worms. Even more, it implies that the gemara Hulin and the Shulchan Aruch mistakenly permitted that which the torah forbade. This is, indeed, a radical innovation that would wipe out much of the heterim given in hilchot tolaim in the Shulchan Aruch. According to the latter (based on talmudic discourse) worms found in stored produce and grains are permitted since they are not sheretz ha'aretz,avir, or mayim (the examples given in the torah). Rather they were presumed to come from the produce itself after it was separated from the plant.

    One way of rationalizing the view of the talmudic sages and the authors of the Shulchan Aruch is to assume that microscopic eggs or other such life forms are not significant and aren't included in the torah's prohibitions involving sheratzim. Their later development in the stored produce or in a live fish is then a new category of sheretz that is not forbidden by the torah. Alternatively, life forms totally dependent on the parasitized host are not considered of sufficient significance to fall under the rubric of sheratzim.

    However, these rationalizations would dictate that the anisakis worm is permissible since it lives in the ocean outside of a crustacean or fish or sea mammal only in the form of microscopic eggs and new larvae. Moreover, it requires such a host in order to live, develop, and reproduce. Those who now forbid the anisakis worm appear to reject such arguments. Then their attitude carries implications far beyond this one worm. One example of such an implication is that, to be consistent, they should now declare it forbidden to kill lice on shabbat since we can demonstrate that they are normal life forms that reproduce sexually, but are totally dependent on their host (man) for survival. The Maharal had attempted to excommunicate a prominent posek for just such an attitude. Their only way out is to assume that nature has changed since talmudic times (and the 16th century) so that now life comes only from prior life forms and not from the flesh of plants or animals or fish or man. Few rational people, it seems to me, would subscribe to the latter thesis.

  21. Gil, it might depend on who holds the copyright. If the journal demands that you ascribe the right to them, than having published online in advance would prevent that. On the other hand, if the author retains the copyright then s/he remains free to do as they please with document.

    Ultimately it will come down to how interested the journal is in the dialogue

  22. >Ironically, although many avoid saying that Chazal erred in science in order to uphold their authority, it can have precisely the opposite effect. Aside from sounding unconvincing, there is a potential for drastic halachic consequences.

    For one, it would require a nearly complete overhaul of the halachot of treifot - which would include the canceling of old ones and introduction of new ones.

  23. I suspect that by posting the letter here, you have guaranteed that it will not be published by Tradition.

    I suspect that by signing the letter with the name "Slifkin," you have guaranteed that it will not be published by Tradition.

    And I second Anon who says that the rate of posting is too fast, and interesting discussions get dropped. But that's a "feature" of blogging and modern life in general; there is never any resolution and things eventually trail off into the ether when a glitzy new headline comes along.

  24. I disagree with those who feel that this blog is updated too often. I like when this blog is updated more frequently.
    Besides, when it isn't updated often enough, people stop checking it regularily. I would also argue that after the first few days, the comments tend to veer anyway. And writing new articles doesn't stop relevent comments on the older entries, even if it does lessen the number of comments. Furthermore, in the olden days, R. Slifkin used to be more involved in the comments himself. Now that he writes fewer comments (for reasons he explained a while ago), it seems reasonable that there be more input from him by writing more frequent blogs.

  25. I see no problem with the idea that something not seen by the unaided eye (or other senses) is deemed not to have halachic significance. One need not postulate that the sages were aware of the existence of such life forms (they weren't) in order to reach the above conclusion. In any case, the above assumption is useful in bridging various instances where the talmudic and modern understandings of nature appear to stand in marked contrast.

    I should add that the talmud itself, to my knowledge, doesn't speak explicitly about spontaneous generation. The closest, I believe, is the statement by Rav Yosef in T.B. Shabbat that body lice don't lay eggs and don't reproduce (sexually). The medieval commentators were the ones who speculated that such creatures were derived from sweat (others from dirt and decay).

    A second point is that the rationales offered by the sages for halachot such as the permissibility of killing lice on shabbat or the prohibition against using various liquids that the Gentile may have left uncovered aren't necessarily the original or correct reason. The halacha about killing lice was formulated by Bet Hillel centuries before Rav Yosef offered his rationale. It may well have to do with how to generalize the prohibition of killing creatures from the examples of such actions in the Mishkan - rather than some assumption about their reproduction.

    The issue of bee enzymes in honey is not a problem, as I see it. The amounts are trivial and can be considered nullified. Nor is the permissibility of honey something innovated by the talmud. There are enough indications in Nach (if not also in torah) that such is permitted ("u'mitzur, devash asbi'eka", comes to mind).

    The crux of the matter is not how well the sages understood nature, but whether the formulated halachot aren't nonsensical to a modern understanding. In that light, the permissibility of worms found in the flesh of fish such as the anisakis can be easily rationalized. Whether one would knowingly eat fish that contained such worms is another matter (the yech factor - in raw fish, e.g., lox and suchi, the worms can be hazardous). The issue, however, is the appropriateness of declaring such fish forbidden, contrary to the implication in Hulin, the blanket heter in the Shulchan Aruch, and the practice of very frum Jews in the past.

  26. Jay: Assuming that Tradition would not publish a letter by R. Slifkin because his name is Slifkin and he is a source of controversy is a gross and baseless slur on the Editor and the Editorial Board of Tradition.
    Even a cursory examination will indicate that Tradition has a very liberal policy when it comes to publishing Letters to the Editor.

  27. I think everyone in this forum is ignoring the elephant in the room. That is, even if you except that Chazzal were mistaken in areas of science, the worms found in these fish will be prohibited. As Rabbi Twerski explained in his comment above.

  28. As we are discussing the worms and lice within the fish etc. (Important, I admit.)
    You have brought up an even more immediate concerning matter, and that is of the HONEY.

    I have found it being discussed in Tractate Bechoros 7b.

    And as you said "The Sages only permitted the consumption of honey on the premise that it is only nectar and does not contain anything created by the bee."

    But now that it has been discovered that in fact there are enzymes created by the bees, that is inserted in the honey, and as the Sages have said "Anything that is from non-kosher is non-kosher." (A nobrainer) we must inquiry as to....

    1) What do the Rabbinate of today say about this scientific finding, or are they still disputing what caused the big bang and the age of the universe.

    2) Dose the finding reveal the amount of the enzymes in proportion to the nectar. In other words, is the nectar a sixtieth or less, making it butal?

    No one needs to be told by anyone not to eat fish with worms or lice, I would not even feed it to a dog.

    But whether it turns out that Honey is deemed non-kosher, could mean a major transition in Judaism as a whole.
    Chag Sameach

  29. Y. Aharon:
    I had thought that stam "d'vash" in Tanach was date honey, not bee's honey. Is there a source in Tanach that clearly refers to bee's honey?

  30. How do Rav Herzog and Glasner explain the following:

    It is clear from Maseches Horayos that the Sanhedrin themselves can pasken wrongly, and that any individual that believes they are mistaken are not to rely on their ruling. If they do rely on their ruling they are considered a to be a willful transgressor (maizid), unless they believed, erronously that one is to follow the sanhedrin even when they paskened wrongly in which case they would considered a mistaken transgressor (shogaig) and have to bring a korbon chatas. Is it not clear from this that one is not to follow chazal when they are mistaken? Or do "chazal" in general have more authority than the sanhedrin? But why would that be?

  31. Hesh, It is true that the commentators usually consider the generic 'devash' in Tanach to be date or fruit honey. However, there is an explicit reference to bee honey in the story of Samson and the lion (Jud. 14:8,9) where Samson eats the honey from a beehive and gives some to his parents. Moreover, the evident meaning of 'devash' when associated with words for rock - as in Deut. 32:13 and Psalms 81:17, is bee honey, since bees will establish hives in the clefts of rocks where bears can't get at them.

  32. Hesh, Shoftim 14:8 might work:

    עֲדַ֧ת דְּבֹורִ֛ים בִּגְוִיַּ֥ת הָאַרְיֵ֖ה וּדְבָֽשׁ...

  33. I agree with R. Student that it would probably be proper protocol to allow Tradition to publish the letter first before publishing it yourself, though I understand the temptation to respond immediately to R. Bleich's article rather than waiting months for the next issue of Tradition to come out.

  34. See: for a rejection of this approach

  35. Someone commented earlier that "Rabbi Elyashiv certainly believes in spontaneous generation as he certainly has the belief that chazal could not possibly be wrong in matters of science, and he is adamant that these worms are prohibited."

    In fact R Elyashiv has been quoted as prohibiting the killing of lice on Shabbos. See Orchos Shabbos Vol I, p. 246. One way to resolve the apparant contradiction in these 2 rulings is that you have to go L'chumra both ways when dealing with a biblical prohibition. This would also explain "They can say it we cannot" (counter to R Feldman's explanation), i.e. since this is a question of chilul Hashem, kefira, etc. we have to be machmir like the opinions that Chazal did not err in science.

  36. He'd just say that they are different lice.

  37. For those who don't have the book Sacred Monsters available, can you elaborate a little about this approach that: "we follow all Chazal’s rulings not because they are necessarily infallible, but because of a nationwide acceptance of their authority"
    You'll forgive me, but to the uninitiated this sounds almost like certain Conservative rabbis who claim that their adherents should perform the Passover ritual seder even though the exodus is "historically inaccurate" simply because doing so connects them to the Jewish nation as a whole. I mean isn't what you're saying is that acceptance of Chazal's rulings, based on errors, would trump biblical prohibitions?

  38. That is another possiblity. I said one way.

  39. "can you elaborate a little about this approach that: "we follow all Chazal’s rulings not because they are necessarily infallible, but because of a nationwide acceptance of their authority"


  40. You present a cool סברה by saying "when it says, such and such is allowed, there must be a concrete instance of such and such". I wanted to apply it to מלאכת המבשל, specifically, to the case of בישול על ידי חמה which is allowed according to everyone. But practically impossible, because the parameters are so strict (everything is תולדת החמה which is prohibited rabbinical). Someone purposes colouring an egg with dark dye and having it cooked by the sun! (Still doesn't work, too small surface area...) I wanted to argue there must be some way of solar cooking that's ok.

    In any case, luckily I found a piece of תוספות presenting the same argument. I might find it again, if someone asks. They argue: We know there must be a case where שעטנז is ok with ציצית. On the other hand, we say עשה דוחה לא תעשה only if we have no other solution. But here, we have one: Just make the cloak from a different material! If so, they ask, where do we find שעטנז to be allowed?

    We see this argument is acceptable.


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