The Rabbis' Advocate
Chacham David Nieto and The Second Kuzari

ISBN 1-933143-16-9, 221 pages, $22.95
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By David Nieto, translated by Meir Levin

Matteh Dan, or Kuzari Hasheini, is a defense of the Jewish oral tradition against attacks by Karaites and skeptics. Rabbi David Nieto, Chacham of the Sephardic congregation in London in the early eighteenth century, responded to criticisms of the rabbinic tradition by writing this wide-ranging defense of the Talmud and the Oral Law. Matteh Dan is widely considered a classic of Jewish apologetics in the best sense of the term and is still widely studied and quoted, even into our day. Although the field of heresy has unfortunately undergone much growth and development since R. Nieto’s time, his contribution remains important, and his arguments continue to ring true today.

The nineteenth century was a tumultuous time for the Jewish nation. Never before has traditional Jewish society and its worldview been under such a sustained and destructive attack. New patterns of thought impacted Jewish life with an unparalleled force. Emancipation weakened the bonds that held communities together, and the explosion and brilliance of new knowledge made the old way of life appear to be a mere relic of the crumbling past. The lights of progress beckoned. The winds of change within and unyielding hostility from the outside began to erode the authority of tradition, culminating over time in the wholesale abandonment of religion by the Jewish masses. Today, we still struggle with the effects of modernity’s impact on traditional Judaism.

The fortress of tradition could not have fallen if its walls were not first breached. Those who attacked Judaism found ready ammunition in the writings of skeptics who came before them. Since they longed to be accepted by the community of nations, the Jews of this time could not attack Scripture outright, for it was still revered and honored among Gentiles. In its place, many Jewish thinkers of the 1800s focused their barbs and arrows against the Oral Law. These attacks did not arise from nothing: feelings of personal rejection often fueled the spiteful arguments of these critics. Some Marranos, even after return to Judaism, remained subliminally influenced by the anti-Jewish diatribes to which they were exposed while living as Christians in Spain. Others found it difficult to re-enter Jewish life as rank beginners. Accomplished physicians, attorneys, and diplomats, they found themselves bereft of the status and standing that they had so laboriously cultivated in Spain. Some were humble and adjusted easily, while others rebelled and set forth their own alternatives. Some, such as Uriel Da Costa, wrote polemical tracts attacking Oral Law and the rabbinic establishment of their day. Other descendents of Marranos, such as the philosopher Spinoza, left Judaism altogether to proclaim new teachings. Deism-the belief that God is exalted far above nature and does not involve Himself in human affairs-slowly gained ground among the thinking classes of society. In this fashion, just as with the Holocaust of our own day, the effects and repercussions of the Spanish Expulsion and Inquisition continued to reverberate far beyond the generations that had personally experienced them.

However, the new skeptics were not content to move past Judaism in order to pursue novel ideologies. They revived the accusations and claims of the Karaites, which sought to demonstrate that the Oral Law was wholly an invention of the Rabbis and therefore did not obligate them at all.

R. David Nieto was a valiant fighter who stood in the breach at this time. A classically educated Rabbinic scholar, he was at home in all branches of contemporary science; he used his wide ranging erudition and penetrating intellect to respond to the arguments that were beginning to gain currency among educated Jews of his time. His best known work, Matteh Dan, or Kuzari Hasheini, is widely considered a classic of Jewish apologetics and is still widely studied and quoted, even into our day.

Inside the Book

Table of Contents

The First Dialogue
  • Introduction and Statement of Purpose
  • Pre-Sinaitic Commandments
  • Sabbath Labors
  • Various Other Laws
  • Commerce on the Sabbath and Intermarriage
The Second Dialogue
  • The Sages Did Not Create the Traditions
  • Rabbinic Derivations Are Eminently Reasonable
  • Who Gave the Sages the Authority to Interpret the Law?
  • The Sages Did Not Abuse Their Authority
  • The Sages Interpret Scripture According to Its True, Received Meaning
  • Historical Arguments That There Did Exist an Ancient Tradition That We Call the Oral Law
  • The Mishnah Contains Ancient Material
  • Of the Greatness of the Sages and Their Righteousness and Truthfullness
  • Certain Derivations of the Sages Are Mnemonic Devices
The Third Dialogue
  • Tradition and Innovation
  • The Process of Transmission and the Generation of Disputes
  • Why Are There Disagreements About Routine Religious Rituals?
  • A Transmission Process is Evident, For the Amoraim Would Not Dispute the Tannaim
  • The Argument From Historic Uncertainty
  • Special Case: Secondary Sabbath Labors
  • Making Blessings on Rabbinic Enactments
  • What Claim Do Authorities of Old Make On Us Now?
  • The Sages Have the Power to Suspend Biblical Obligations in Certain Circumstances
  • Why Are Later Generations Incapable of Reforming Rabbinic Laws that Stem from a Different Time and Circumstances?
  • Legal Fictions
  • The Thirteen Rules of Interpretation


The Second Dialogue
The Sages Did Not Create the Traditions

About the Author

Chacham David Nieto (Wikipedia entry), was born in Venice on January 18, 1654. Not much is known of his father, Pinchas, although he must have been a scholar of note for there exists a responsum dated 1674, given to R. Pinchas Nieto at Rome by R. Samuel Abohab.

R. Nieto undoubtedly received the standard education of those times that, in addition to rigorous Talmudic training, included Italian, Latin, studies in the writings of Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance, philosophy, and natural sciences. He attended the University of Padua where he received a medical degree. Padua’s medical school was the only European institution of secular learning open to Jews, and many of the Jewish students combined Torah study with attendance at this university. He practiced as a physician and religious judge in Leghorn (Livorno) for nearly twenty years. He was called to the position of Chacham of the Sephardic congregation in London in 1701, and held it until 1728.

R. Nieto was unusually proficient in astronomical sciences and he was the first to fix the time for the beginning of Sabbath in England. His calendar of 1717 served the London community as a guide for the Sabbath and festivals until the nineteenth century. He also translated parts of the Day of Atonement Service into Spanish for the benefit of the Marrano members of his congregation who could not follow Hebrew; many of his sermons were published in Spanish for the same reason. R. Nieto’s wide-ranging erudition is evident in Esh Dat (1715), a work directed against a covert Sabbatean, Nehemiah Hiyya Hayon; Pascalogia in Italian (1702), dealing with Gregorian and Julian calendar date for the Christian Easter in relation to that of the Jewish Passover; and De La Divina Providencia (1704), in Spanish. Several poems and two responsa have also been preserved. R. Nieto’s Reply to the Archbishop of Cranganor, published posthumously in 1729, debunks the christological interpretation of the Bible. It is, however, his magnum opus, Matteh Dan (1714), which earned for R. Nieto a singular place among great Jewish thinkers of the modern period. R. David Nieto passed away on Sabbath, Teves 28, 5488 (1728).

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