Blog Archives

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 »

History Education Is So Much Better Today

I failed Latin and History O-levels at school (that’s the old-fashioned equivalent of GCSEs). It wasn’t because I was too stupid at school, I did well in my other subjects. It was because I found both Latin and History to be boring, and I couldn’t summon up the motivation to study them. And yet today I have a PhD in a classical language and write well-received books, on the history of ancient texts. My O-Level teachers would never have predicted that, and with hindsight I’m surprised at my lack of schoolboy enthusiasm for History and Latin. Read more »

The Talmud and Islam

The Talmud, the great multi-volume compendium of Jewish law and thought is based on discussions in rabbinic colleges alongside the Tigris and Euphrates, in modern day Iraq. The discussions took place between the third and fifth centuries, but the Talmud was still being compiled and collated two hundred years later. By then the area was under the control of the Islamic caliphate.

In the year 750 the caliph built the sparkling city of Baghdad, not far from the site of the ruined Babylon. The new city was the most magnificent the world had ever seen. Its dazzling splendour forms the backdrop to the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Read more »