What do Jonah and Noah have in Common?

There is a remarkable correspondence between the biblical story of Noah and the Book of Jonah. The clue lies in the name Jonah, meaning dove in Hebrew. The dove, of course, is the bird that Noah sends out of the ark to discover whether the flood waters have dried out. But the connections between the two tales are far greater than just this.

Noah is told by God that the world is about to be destroyed in a flood. He is commanded to build an ark to save himself, his family and the animal kingdom. He obeys the command, builds the ark and spends the next year peacefully floating above the flood. He is safe from the stormy waters.

Jonah is told by God that Nineveh, the greatest city in the world, is to be destroyed. Even its animals will be wiped out. He is commanded to travel there and urge its inhabitants to repent. Unlike Noah he disobeys the command, runs to Jaffa and boards a boat. Unlike Noah, his time in the boat is not peaceful. The boat is buffeted by a storm, Jonah realises it is his fault and he is ejected into the water. The motifs of destruction, water, storms, boats and God’s command in the Noah story are reversed in the Jonah narrative. Continue reading “What do Jonah and Noah have in Common?”

The Book of Creation

A passing remark in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) states that two rabbis created and ate a three year old calf. They did this by studying something called The Book of Creation, Sefer Yetsirah in Hebrew. One might wonder why, having gone to the trouble of performing such a feat, the two rabbis simply ate the calf. But the Talmud tells us nothing more about it.

This brief reference is the earliest mention of Sefer Yetsirah. Several hundred years were to pass before it was mentioned again. When it did resurface, in the tenth century, it was presented by its commentators as a scientific treatise on the creation of the world. Continue reading “The Book of Creation”

The Secret Things

“The secret things are for the Lord your God, but the revealed things are for us and our children forever; to do all the words of this Torah”. An enigmatic sentence made all the more striking because of the two sets of dots over the Hebrew words for us and our children which are never adequately explained. On its own, the sentence seems to vaunt the inscrutable knowledge of the divine, far more profound than anything we humans aspire to. But, set in the context of the entire passage, the sentence becomes something of a conundrum. Continue reading “The Secret Things”

Ritualised Confession

Chapter 26 of Deuteronomy discusses two offerings that are to be brought to the Temple by farmers and landowners.  One was an annual event: each year villagers would stream into Jerusalem in a colourful and noisy procession, bearing the first fruits of their crop. Fruits which they had marked out on the plant as soon as they had appeared by tying a ribbon around them. Continue reading “Ritualised Confession”

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. Continue reading “Why do we read Song of Songs at Pesach?”

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. Continue reading “A Band of Evil Angels”

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. Continue reading “How Rabbi Akiva Saved the Shema for the Jews”

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. Continue reading “The Dotted Letters in the Torah”

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: Continue reading “A Talmudic Polemic at the Cave of Machpelah”

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. Continue reading “The “Correct” Reading of the Torah”