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. Continue reading “A Festival of Rabbinic Judaism”

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”

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. Continue reading “British Jews Should Not Play the Anti-Semitism Card”

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”