Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty

The sequence of events in the Bible is often confusing, leading to multiple, seemingly conflicting interpretations. Even though the Talmud declared long ago that “There is no before or after in the Torah”, in other words it is not written in chronological order, this did not solve all the problems.  Indeed, some biblical commentators, most notably the great 12th century exegete Ramban rejected this principle, because as far as he was concerned it just doesn’t work.

An example of chronological confusion occurs when Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt for the second time. Joseph finally makes himself known to them. he reassures them of his good intentions by saying that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives, because there were still five years of famine left to run. He means that they are now in the second year of the seven year famine which his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream had foretold. Continue reading “Egypt’s Famine and the Importance of Uncertainty”

What happened to Esau?

In the rabbinic imagination Esau is the ancestor of the wicked Roman Empire. They drew this concusion from a creative interpretation of the story of Jacob and Esau, and from the Book of Daniel.
Daniel had predicted that the Jews would be subjugated successively by four kingdoms. When the fourth kingdom was overthrown the messianic age would begin. Continue reading “What happened to Esau?”

Laban- A Villain in the Family?

The Midrashic tradition seems to do a great disservice to Isaac’s brother-in-law Laban. It casts him as an out-and-out villain, a trickster who according to the Passover Haggadah, wanted to prevent the creation of the Jewish nation.

“Go and see what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. For Pharoah only issued a decree against the men (casting the baby boys into the Nile) whereas Laban wanted to uproot all (the whole nation).”

Continue reading “Laban- A Villain in the Family?”

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”

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”

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? Continue reading “God’s Will or Human Reasoning? Which is More Important?”

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. Continue reading “History Education Is So Much Better Today”

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. Continue reading “The Talmud and Islam”

The Talmud: A Biography now published

It’s already been on sale through Amazon for the last few days and The Talmud: A Biography is now officially published everywhere.

I’ll be speaking about the book at various venues over the next few months, full details on my events page. First up is this Sunday, March 2nd at 11.00 at Jewish Book Week. If you are in London, please come along.

The Unexpected Appearance and Influence of the Talmud

One of the remarkable things about the Talmud is that it came from nowhere, entering a national-religious culture that was already strong and thriving yet rapidly becoming that culture’s dominant text.

The Bible and the subsequent, vast corpus of Jewish literature is self-confident in its religious identity and highly prescriptive in terms of belief, practice and behaviour. It doesn’t seem to be lacking a great deal of further illumination. There is certainly no suggestion that this whole corpus will one day be eclipsed by a text that will become the cornerstone of Jewish religion. The emergence of the Talmud as a written summary of centuries of academic debate is unexpected. The dominance of the Talmud in the Jewish world today could not have been anticipated, even in the first centuries of the common era. Continue reading “The Unexpected Appearance and Influence of the Talmud”