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K’lal Yisra·el: Which Is the K’lal and Which Is the Yisra·el?

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 3, Spring 2013
pp. 50-61 | 10.1353/coj.2013.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I admit the title is based on the old joke about the non-Jew who orders “Jewish” food for the first time in a New York restaurant, a bagel and lox. When the waiter brings the dish, the customer asks, “Ok, but tell me: which is the bagel and which is the lox?” Once upon a time that was very funny, but today—when bagels and lox are universal food, even in small towns in the South—one may wonder what was the point of the joke altogether. I feel as if in the case of our subject, the matter is reversed. Today everyone thinks they know what the phrase k’lal yisra·el means, but I wonder if it ever had that meaning when it was first coined.

Today the phrase is bandied about as if it represents a kind of concept of the unity of the people of Israel. Perhaps that is the intention behind the organization CLAL. But is “unity” the right word to describe the intent of the Hebrew phrase? It seems to me to be a category mistake, unless defined in a way that “unity” is not usually used. Or, more accurately, it may refer to Jewish solidarity despite disputes. In either case, I would like to take a look at the use of the term as coined in early rabbinic literature. The phrase is, according to our teacher Professor Max Kadushin, a value-concept—that is, a phrase coined by the sages of antiquity to represent a concept which is also part of an organic value system.

As in all value-concept phrases, one needs to look at all parts of the phrase: both the phrase as a whole, and its use in the value system. This attempt is thus to delineate the values associated with and thus folded into the phrase. Then we can understand the meaning of the term, not only linguistically but also its place in the value system of Jewish thought and religion. I will start by dealing separately with the two parts of the phrase, k’lal and yisra·el.


The term k’lal is a specifically rabbinic term. It does not appear in the Bible at all. Where does it come from, and what does it signify in rabbinic Hebrew?

There are many instances in the Mishnah of the phrase zeh ha-k’lal, this is the k’lal. In all of these cases the phrase comes to summarize the outcome of distinctions which are made in the Mishnah. The word seems to imply a general principle that can be applied to every case where it would not be clear how to act on specific distinctions. For example: “If salted food is set out and bread with it, one says a blessing over the salted food and this serves for the bread, since the bread is only subsidiary to it. This is the general principle [zeh ha-k’lal]: whenever with one kind of food another is taken as subsidiary, a benediction is said over the principal kind and this serves for the subsidiary as well” (M B’rakhot 6:7).

What is special about the general principle, the k’lal, is that it is almost always used to distinguish between at least two different things. We are used to general principles in many different configurations, but here it is mostly a principle that enables us to distinguish between things—in this case, when a blessing is said over a principal dish of the meal and when over the subsidiary. The cases where this phrase is applied as a general principle without signifying specific distinction are a minority. Still, the function of a k’lal is always the same: namely, to assert that if certain conditions, A and B, exist, then the halakhah is X; if these conditions do not exist, then the halakhah is Y.

In the light of this one might ask: what distinction does k’lal yisra·el come to make? If we look at the use of the phrase, we find examples that will help us answer this question.

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