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VeZot HaBerachah: Postscript

Dead men write no books, whether they're known for their almanacs or for the Five Books of Moses (VeZot HaBerachah)
Figurines of (l-r) Paul Stanley and Benjamin Franklin. (David Sedley)
Figurines of (l-r) Paul Stanley and Benjamin Franklin. (David Sedley)

On my desk at work I have two figurines, one of Benjamin Franklin and the other of Paul Stanley (which probably tells you a lot about me). They are intended to inspire me while I work, but people often ask why Ben Franklin is on my desk (for some reason, they never ask about the KISS frontman). There are many reasons why I consider him a true hero.

Apart from all the “obvious” reasons, there are a couple of less well-known reasons why I love Franklin.

One reason is that an idea he mentioned in his autobiography was “borrowed” by Rabbi Mendel of Satanov and turned into the well-known mussar book, “Cheshbon Hanefesh.”

But now I want to write about another reason:

Franklin began the very first edition of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” in December 1732, with an explanation to the reader of what led him to publish the work. He began by stating that he was extremely poor, but his wife was very proud, and he needed to make ends meet. However, he was reluctant to enter the field and reduce the market share of another Almanack publisher – Titan Leeds. “Poor Richard” then made a startling prediction:

Indeed, this motive would have had force enough to have made me publish an almanack many years since, had it not been overpowered by my regard for my good friend and fellow-student, Mr Titan Leeds, whose interest I was extreamly unwilling to hurt: But this obstacle (I am far from speaking it with pleasure,) is soon to be removed, since inexorable Death, who was never known to respect merit, has already prepared the mortal dart, the fatal sister has already extended her destroying shears, and that ingenious man must soon be taken from us. He dies, by my calculation, made at his request, on Oct. 17, 1733, 3 ho. 29m PM, at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury. By his own calculation he will survive till the 26th of the same month. This small difference between us we have disputed whenever we have met these nine years past; but at length he is inclinable to agree with my judgment.

Franklin predicted not only the date, but also the exact time that Leeds would pass away, and it was less than a year away. The fact that Franklin made such a prediction is startling, but not nearly as incredible as what he wrote a year later in the second edition of the Almanack.

In the preface to my last Almanack, I foretold the death of my dear old friend and fellow-student, the learned and ingenious Mr Titan Leeds, which was to be the 17th of October, 1773, 3 h. 29 m. PM… By his own calculation, he was to survive till the 26th of the same month and expire in the time of the eclipse, near 11 o’clock AM. At which of these times he died, or whether he be really yet dead, I cannot at this present writing positively assure my readers… Therefore it is that I cannot positively affirm whether he be dead or not.

Presumably, Franklin’s readers were shocked at the accuracy of the prediction. One person, however, was less impressed – Titan Leeds. He was by no means dead and not happy his death had been publicly announced.

The truth is that in announcing his death, Franklin was doing more than simply pranking his main competitor. Of course, it was excellent as a publicity stunt.

But Franklin was also mocking “The American Almanack,” founded by Daniel Leeds (Titan’s father) in 1687, because it published astrological predictions.

The Leeds family were members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. And Quakers did not like astrology. And so they forced Daniel Leeds and his family out of their circle.

Brian Regal wrote in the Skeptical Inquirer:

Leeds’s astrological data did not please all his readers. Several members of the Quaker Meeting complained that Leeds had used inappropriate language and astrological symbols and names that were a little too “pagan.” The notion of predicting the movements of the heavens did not sit well with Quaker theology.

He went to the next meeting and publicly apologized. To his surprise an order was sent out to collect up all the copies of the almanac not in circulation and destroy them. Daniel Leeds determined privately to break with the Friends and continue his almanac.

(Anyone from New Jersey may have heard the myth of the Jersey Devil. It is a legend about a woman – Mother Leeds – who, as she was about to give birth to her 13th child, cried out, “Oh, let this one be a devil.” And so it was. At least, that’s how the story goes. That myth was the Quaker’s response to Daniel Leeds’s breaking with the Circle of Friends – Mother Leeds was Daniel’s wife.)

Franklin was also not a believer in astrology and wanted to show Titan Leeds how foolish such predictions were.

Perhaps if social media had been around in the 18th century, Titan Leeds would have known better than to respond to being trolled by Franklin. But it wasn’t. And he didn’t.

In the American Almanack of 1734, Leeds wrote the following:

Kind Reader, perhaps it may be expected that I should say something concerning an Almanack printed for the Year 1733. Said to be writ by Poor Richard or Richard Saunders, who for want of other matter was pleased to tell his Readers, that he had calculated my Nativity, and from thence predicts my Death to be the 17th of October, 1733. At 22 min. past 3 o’clock in the Afternoon, and that these Provinces may not expect to see any more of his (Titan Leeds) Performances, and this precise Predicter, who predicts to a Minute, proposes to succeed me in Writing of Almanacks; but notwithstanding his false Prediction, I have by the Mercy of God lived to write a Diary for the Year 1734, and to publish the Folly and Ignorance of this presumptuous Author.

I can imagine Franklin clapping his hands in delight as he read the insult from Leeds and penned the next edition of his calendar. Not only did he continue the prank, but he now did the 18th century version of claiming that Leeds had been hacked.

There is however, (and I cannot speak it without Sorrow) there is the strongest Probability that my dear Friend is no more; for there appears in his Name, as I am assured, an Almanack for the Year 1734, in which I am treated in a very gross and unhandsome Manner; in which I am called a false Predicter, an Ignorant, a conceited Scribler, a Fool, and a Lyar. Mr. Leeds was too well bred to use any Man so indecently and so scurrilously, and moreover his Esteem and Affection for me was extraordinary: So that it is to be feared that Pamphlet may be only a Contrivance of somebody or other, who hopes perhaps to sell two or three Year’s Almanacks still, by the sole Force and Virtue of Mr. Leeds’s Name; but certainly, to put Words into the Mouth of a Gentleman and a Man of Letters, against his Friend, which the meanest and most scandalous of the People might be ashamed to utter even in a drunken Quarrel, is an unpardonable Injury to his Memory, and an Imposition upon the Publick.

Franklin continued trolling his competitor for the next seven years. In 1740, a year after the actual death of Leeds, Franklin claimed to have been visited by the ghost of the late publisher. He wrote that he fell asleep at his table, and when he awoke, he found a letter written by Leeds, admitting that he really did die at the exact moment predicted by Franklin back in 1733.

It is possible that without this ongoing hoax against his main rival, Franklin’s Almanack would have languished in obscurity. But by accusing Leeds of dying and continuing to write from beyond the grave, the founding father ensured that even to this day, far more people have heard of Poor Richard’s Almanack than of Leeds’s American Almanack.

However, Franklin’s publicity prank wasn’t actually original. Way back in 1708, the author Jonathan Swift wrote a series of letters as an elaborate April Fools’ Day joke, in which he predicted the death of Almanac maker and astrologer John Partridge.

Jonathan Swift. (CC BY-SA, Frédéric/ Wikimedia Commons)

Swift wrote under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. and went so far as to print an elegant, black-framed elegy announcing Partridge’s death. The hoax was so successful, that on April 1st, Partridge was woken by the sexton asking him if he had any instructions for his funeral. Friends would stare at him as they passed Partridge on the street and occasionally stop him to tell him how much he looked like a deceased friend of theirs. Poor Partridge would often be woken by mourners crying outside his window, lamenting his death.

Unfortunately, Partridge knew no better than Leeds, and in his anger, he wrote a pamphlet insisting he was still alive, and accusing Bickerstaff of being a fraud. To which Swift replied with a pamphlet of his own (using his pseudonym), pointing out that Partridge must certainly be dead, because no living man could have written such words. He also included yet another attack on astrology:

And my first argument is thus: Above a thousand gentelmen having bought his almanacks for this year, merely to find what he said against me; at every line they read, they would lift up their eyes, and cry out, betwixt rage and laughter, “They were sure no man alive ever writ such damn’d stuff as this.” Neither did I ever hear that opinion disputed: So that Mr. Partridge lies under a dilemma, either of disowning his almanack, or allowing himself to be “no man alive”. But now if an uninformed carcase walks still about, and is pleased to call itself Partridge, Mr. Bickerstaff does not think himself any way answerable for that. Neither had the said carcase any right to beat the poor boy who happen’d to pass by it in the street, crying, “A full and true account of Dr. Partridge’s death, etc.”

Secondly, Mr. Partridge pretends to tell fortunes, and recover stolen goods; which all the parish says he must do by conversing with the devil and other evil spirits: And no wise man will ever allow he could converse personally with either, till after he was dead.

Eventually Swift was unmasked as Bickerstaff, but not before he had ended Partridge’s career as an almanac-maker, and more importantly, his line of business as an astrologer.

Now, I could have written this great story for another Torah portion as an introduction to the Torah’s prohibitions on trying to predict the future or using astrology. But instead, I want to write about the difficulty of understanding the last eight sentences of the Torah, read on Simchat Torah in Parshat VeZot HaBerachah.

According to the eighth of Maimonides’s 13 Principles of Faith, Moses wrote the entire Torah. Which would include Deuteronomy 34:5-12. Those verse state (Deuteronomy 34:5-8):

Moses, servant of God, died there, in the land of Moab… and he was buried there in a valley in the land of Moab… And Moses was 120 years old when he died. And the Children of Israel cried for Moses in the Plains of Moab for 30 days.

Those verses also include phrases very uncharacteristic of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10):

There was never another prophet among Israel who was like Moses, who knew God face to face.

Are we to believe that Moses wrote these words after his death, and Franklin claimed that Leeds had done? Or were they not written by Moses?

The rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a and Menachot 30a) asked the same question (though without referencing Franklin or Swift).

Is it possible that Moses was alive, and he wrote ‘Moses died there’? Rather, Moses wrote until this point, and from here on it was written by Joshua bin Nun. This is the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, and some say of Rabbi Nechemia.

Rabbi Shimon said to him, ‘Is it possible that the Torah lacks a single letter?… Rather, until this point, God dictated and Moses wrote and told [the Children of Israel]. From this point God dictated and Moses wrote in tears [bedema].

The rabbis are confronted with an impossible dilemma. If they say that Moses wrote that he was dead while he was still alive, then the Torah would contain words of falsehood. And the rabbis believed every word of the Torah to be true.

Conversely, if those verses were not written by Moses, then they would not have the same spiritual importance as the rest of the Torah written by Moses and should not have been included as part of the Five Books. After all, the book of Joshua begins by mentioning the death of Moses. If Joshua wrote the last verses of the Torah, they should have been included in his book, not in the book of Moses.

The Vilna Gaon proposed a different solution, based on combining the two opinions of the talmudic rabbis.

He pointed out that according to Bereishit Rabbah 1:4 (and other sources), the Torah was written before the creation of the world. But if every word of the Torah is true, how could it write about creation, the flood, the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt or anything before it had actually happened?

The Vilna Gaon redefined what the Torah is. It is not a history book, describing events as they happened. Rather, the entire Torah is combinations of God’s names. This idea was first written by Nachmanides, citing a kabbalistic tradition, in his Introduction to the Genesis.

The entire Torah is the names of God. Letters can be divided in words in multiple ways. For example, the verse, ‘In the beginning God created [bereishit bara]’ could be divided up into ‘At first, God will create [berosh yitbara].’ And so too the entire Torah.

The Vilna Gaon wrote that before the world was created, it was understood purely as names of God. When Moses came to write the Torah, he was not writing a new book, but merely dividing up the letters to match the reality of the events that had occurred (but which could have been divided up differently if events had occurred differently).

All except for the last eight verses. Those were written by Moses, as Rabbi Shimon states. But they were written “be-dema,” which should not be understood as “in tears,” but “undivided.” All the other verses were “told by Moses” – i.e., divided up into meaningful words, by Moses, based on events. But the last eight verses were left without meaning.

After Moses died, Joshua took the last few lines of letters left by Moses and divided them up into meaningful words, based on what had just transpired. This is the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda or of Rabbi Nechemia.

So, the Torah was written entirely by Moses but the meaning of the words was given by Joshua.

With this explanation, the Vilna Gaon not only resolves the dilemma of the Talmud, but also explains the evolution of Judaism. The entire Torah was given through Moses. But the meanings of the words and their implications for Jewish law are continually interpreted and updated based on realities of the world.

We celebrate Simchat Torah as we complete the cycle of Torah readings and begin again. And we may even sing a song stating that the entire Torah of Moses is true. Yet Simchat Torah itself is a much more recent tradition which actually contradicts earlier Jewish law.

Rabbi Moses Isserless wrote (Darkei Moshe Orach Chaim 669:3) that the tradition of dancing on Simchat Torah dates back to the time of the Geonim (approximately 7th – 10th centuries):

The Maharik (Rabbi Yosef Colon) wrote in the name of responsa of the Gaonim that on Simchat Torah the custom is for even the elderly [scholars] to dance when they sing praises to the Torah scroll. Even though it we do not dance on festivals, for the honor of the Torah they were accustomed to be lenient.

The strict law banning dancing on festivals was pushed aside by a more modern custom of dancing in celebration of completing the Torah.

This is an example of what the Vilna Gaon was implying. The Torah changed and evolved, yet still remained true to the word of God as dictated to Moses. The words and letters can be divided up in many different ways, and those meanings constantly change as the realities of the world evolve.


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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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