Why do we read Song of Songs at Pesach?

There are five books in the Hebrew Bible that known as Megillot. The word means scrolls, because that is how they were originally written. We read each scroll in a cycle throughout the year.

Esther is read at Purim because it tells the festival’s story; the scroll even contains the instruction that Purim is when it should be read. Lamentations, bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem is read on the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the city’s fall. The story of Ruth, which is set at harvest time is ideal for the agricultural festival of Shavuot. And Ecclesiastes is linked to Sukkot because of an ancient tradition. Every seven years, when the land lay fallow and the people had time on their hands, the nation is said to have gathered at the festival of Sukkot to hear the Torah read. The person who read them the Torah was known as Kohelet, the one who gathers. The book of Ecclesiastes opens with “the words of the Kohelet”. Ecclesiastes, also known as Kohelet in Hebrew, is clearly the appropriate for reading Sukkot.

As for the Song of Songs, it is a love story that is set in Spring: “For behold the winter is passed, the rain has ceased, it is gone. Buds are seen on the earth, the time of the birds’ singing has arrived and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in the land. The figs put forth their young fruit, the tender grapes on the vines give off their fragrance, arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come with me.” Passover, which of necessity coincides with the onset of Spring is the season to read Song of Songs. Read more »

A Band of Evil Angels

In the section of the Haggada that calculates the number of plagues at the Red Sea, Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva each quote from Psalm 78: “He sent against them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, indignation and trouble, a band of evil angels”. They chose to quote from this psalm because it elaborates on the plagues sent against the Egyptians. But it is not clear why the fierce, destructive angels sent against the Egyptians are described as ‘evil’. Unpleasant as they were, surely they were acting for good, not evil. Read more »

How Rabbi Akiva Saved the Shema for the Jews

In 1898 the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, Walter Nash purchased four fragments of a sheet of papyrus from a dealer in Egypt. Written on them were the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Dated probably to the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the Nash Papyrus confirms the statement in the Mishnah (Tamid 5:1) that the Ten Commandments and the Shema were recited together. The Mishnah is referring to practices in the Temple; the Nash Papyrus (which may have come from a set of tefillin) shows that these two passages were also regarded as a single unit outside the Sanctuary. Read more »

The Dotted Letters in the Torah

Maimonides, in his introduction to the last chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin, writes “There is no distinction between a verse of Scripture like “…And Timna was a concubine” (Gen. 36:39,12), and one like “Sh’ma Yisrael”. For Maimonides, the Torah is a unit, and every verse, indeed every word is of equal value. Read more »

A Talmudic Polemic at the Cave of Machpelah

The Talmud occasionally introduces polemics against what it considers to be misinterpretations of Jewish ideas. Frequently these polemics seem obscure to us. Either because we are not familiar with the issue the Talmud is arguing against or, particularly in the case of anti-Christian polemics, because the text was doctored by medieval censors.

One such polemic relates to this week’s Torah reading, which describes Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah. It occurs in Bava Batra 58a: Read more »

The “Correct” Reading of the Torah

A few weeks ago the Israel Antiquities Authority announced that scientists had digitally deciphered 8 verses written on a charred, 6th century scroll of the Book of Leviticus. The scroll had been unearthed at Ein-Gedi in 1970, but could not be unrolled without damaging it. New technology has now made it possible to read the text without unrolling the scroll.

The 8 verses that have been deciphered come from the book of Leviticus. They are identical to those in our bibles today. It is not surprising; throughout history Torah scribes have been meticulous in copying the text. But in fact the most ancient manuscript of the Bible does differ, in small ways, from the text we use today. Read more »

A Festival of Rabbinic Judaism

Rosh Hashanah is an outstanding example of a rabbinic, as opposed to a biblical, festival.

The Torah (Leviticus 23,24) requires the first day of the seventh month to be a rest day, a ‘memorial of blowing’, whatever that may mean. Elsewhere it is simply described as a ‘day of blowing’ (Numbers 28,1) . The words Rosh Hashanah are not mentioned, and the day is not described as a New Year. Indeed, although it falls on the first day of the month, it is month number seven and not number one, as we would expect for a new year. There is also no mention of prayer, repentance, hours in shul or anything else we associate today with Rosh Hashanah. The only thing the Torah has in common with the festival we celebrate is the idea of blowing; but even the word shofar is absent from the biblical verses. Read more »

The Rise and Fall of the Hasmoneans. A Hanukkah Story

The villain of the Hannukah story, Antiochus IV, succeeded his brother Seleucus IV, at a particularly burdensome time for the Syrian-Greek dynasty. Some years earlier their father, Antiochus III had been defeated at the battle of Magnesia by a rampant Rome.  As the newly emergent masters of the world, the Romans demanded a considerable tribute from the Greeks. When Antiochus III died Seleucus inherited an economically straitened kingdom, and when he was murdered its financial woes were passed onto his brother, the new king. Read more »

British Jews Should Not Play the Anti-Semitism Card

Once again the conflict in Gaza has generated an outburst of anti-Semitism across Europe. Some of the stories coming out of France are horrific. As for Germany, even the faintest whiff of anti-Semitism is an outrage; clearly those responsible for assuaging that country’s collective guilt still have much to do.

The picture in the United Kingdom is different though. The level of anti-Semitism is nowhere near that of France or Germany. Yet, reading some of the press articles over the past week one could be excused for thinking that the country was on the verge of an outbreak of pogroms against the Jews. Read more »

God’s Will or Human Reasoning? Which is More Important?

A fascinating discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 6,2) illustrates the tension in rabbinic thought between human creativity and divine power. The discussion concerns the blessings that are to be made over food. Generally, when eating something that grows on a tree, a blessing is made to God who creates the ‘fruit of the tree’. If it grows in the soil the blessing is for the ‘fruit of the soil’. But some foods, notably bread and wine have their own specific blessing. The question is, why? What makes these foods different, and who said that they are? Read more »