We will do, but do we hear?

How could the Israelites have made the Golden Calf? They had just witnessed the most awe-inspiring, mind boggling miracles- the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and to cap it all God’s revelation to them on Mount Sinai. And yet here they were only a few weeks later making a golden calf and proclaiming: “these are your gods Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

Many explanations have been put forward. Moses had been up the mountain for longer than they expected, so they assumed he was dead and sought a substitute for his leadership. Alternatively, the calf was made by the foreigners in their midst- they blamed the foreigners in those days too. Or they were so subsumed in their slave mentality that they could not deal with the idea of an unknown invisible deity; they needed a concrete representation. Continue reading “We will do, but do we hear?”

Sparkling Fringes- How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss

The High Priest in the Israelite Tabernacle, and later in the Jerusalem Temple, was told to wear an object, identified as a tzitz, on his forehead. The instruction to make this object is found in the book of Exodus (28, 36-38), but no details are given as to its size, shape or weight. All we are told is that it is to be made of pure gold, placed upon the priest’s linen headdress and suspended from a woollen thread dyed with t’chelet, a blue pigment extracted from a particular species of marine snail. The tzitz is to have the words Holy to the Lord engraved upon it.

As we would expect, rabbinic tradition amplifies this very vague instruction. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 63b) the tzitz was a plate, two fingerbreadths in breadth, that extended the full width of the forehead, from one ear to the other. To the Lord was written on one line, the word Holy was written beneath. R. Eliezer ben Yosé disagreed; he claimed to have seen the tzitz in Rome, taken there with the other treasures after the Romans had destroyed the Temple. The words Holy to the Lord were, he said, written on one line. Continue reading “Sparkling Fringes- How Language Helps Us Make Connections We Might Otherwise Miss”

God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat

After he has given them the Torah, God instructs the Israelites to build him a sanctuary, out of materials that they will voluntarily donate.

The idea that the nation needs a sanctuary in which to worship is reasonable. What is harder to understand is the biblical idea that God needs a house to dwell in (Exodus 25,8). Equally difficult is  the rabbinic interpretation that implies God needs the sanctuary as much, or even more, than the Israelites. Continue reading “God Doesn’t Need a Granny Flat”

Akiva’s Educational Manifesto

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the Jewish religion could easily have vanished with it. The Temple was Judaism’s cultic centre, without it the faith’s survival seemed impossible. Had it not been for a small group of people, who we now call the Rabbis. They took it upon themselves to reshape Judaism for a new future, one in which individuals rather than priests were responsible for their own spiritual needs, in which the home and synagogue rather than the Temple became the centre of religious life.

The first generation of rabbis began the process of establishing the religion’s framework. They drew on the traditions they knew, and they expounded the text of the written Torah. Subsequent generations clarified, expanded and supplemented their work. But they were a small, isolated group of scholars. For their work to have any meaning at all they would have to inspire and enthuse the masses. They needed to get their message out. Continue reading “Akiva’s Educational Manifesto”

Jethro’s profound, mundane message

Chapter 18 of the book of Exodus feels a little like an anti-climax. The previous chapters have been high drama: the ten plagues, departure from Egypt, splitting of the Red Sea, the miraculous descent of the manna; all powerful, stirring stuff. Then we get to chapter 18, Jethro arriving at the Israelite camp, seeing Moses trying to resolve the disputes that people are bringing to him, a growing crowd of litigants lining up, all awaiting their turn.

Jethro, quite wisely, informs him that the way he is going about this is unsustainable. ‘It is too much for you. You can’t do it alone.’ Jethro tells Moses he has to delegate, appoint judges, divide the tasks up. Continue reading “Jethro’s profound, mundane message”

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”