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”

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”

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”

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. Continue reading “The Rise and Fall of the Hasmoneans. A Hanukkah Story”

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?”