Jacob’s fight with the angel is one of the best known and most frequently interpreted narratives of the Torah. Most modern commentators consider it to be an allegory, reading psychological interpretations into it. They see it as reflecting Jacob’s fears and apprehensions as he prepares to meet Esau, the brother he had not seen for over twenty years, whom he cheated and who had threatened to kill him. The struggle with the angel symbolises Jacob’s internal conflict.
Ancient and medieval commentators did not have an awareness of psychology or a knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. They took the text at face value, imposing upon it the beliefs and assumptions of their own times, ideas in which they had as much faith as we have in the science of our own age. Continue reading “Who Was Jacob Wrestling With? Does It Really Matter?”
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?”
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”
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?”
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”
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.
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”