Noah, Abraham and the Future of the World

Noah, Abraham and the Future of the World

The compilers of the Midrash were aware that the Jewish tradition was conflicted about Noah’s merits. The Torah seems to have no such qualms, describing him as righteous man, perfect among his generation, who walked with God. But some rabbis saw things differently, and they looked for hints in the Torah’s language which might suggest that Noah was not as great as he appeared.

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Belief in an Age of Uncertainty

Belief in an Age of Uncertainty

My review of Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s book Being Jewish Today appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on October 25th, 2019.

Jews, on the whole, do not do theology. We have no catechism, not official beliefs that we theorise about and try to make sense of. The nearest thing we have is Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, which he wrote to define Judaism against Islam and Christianity, and which the few theologians among us have argued about ever since.

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Adam and Eve’s Scaly Clothes

Adam and Eve’s Scaly Clothes

According to the Bible, when God expelled Adam and Eve, wrapped in fig leaves, from the Garden of Eden he made them clothes from animal skin. The midrashic collection known as Genesis Rabbah, probably compiled in the 5th or 6th century, says that in Rabbi Meir’s Torah it did not say they were clothes of skin, but clothes of light. The Hebrew words for clothes and light differ by only one letter, and are pronounced almost identically.

Leaving aside the question of the authenticity of the biblical text (and this is not the only occasion when the 2nd century Rabbi Meir seems to have had a different version of the Torah), the suggestion that Adam and Eve may have had ethereal clothes made of light, rather than ordinary animal skins, connects this Midrash to a legend, now mostly lost, which casts Adam and Eve in a very different light. Continue reading

Korach’s Rebellion: A Case Study

Korach’s Rebellion: A Case Study

The story of Korach’s rebellion offers an interesting insight into the responsibilities that accompany leadership and privilege

The story is simple. Moses had appointed his brother Aaron as High Priest. He did so at God’s command but nobody, other than Moses knows this; to everyone else it looks like a classic case of nepotism. Moses’s cousin Korach leads a rebellion, reasoning that if there are privileges to be handed out in the family they should just as easily be given to him as to Aaron. Joining with various other malcontents he demands a share in the priesthood. Continue reading

To Look and To Remember: When Strings Act as an Aide-Memoir

To Look and To Remember: When Strings Act as an Aide-Memoir

What are we to make of the puzzling instruction that the Israelites – men and women- are to place fringes on the corners of their garments? The reason, given in Numbers 15, is that they will look at these fringes and remember all of God’s commandments. They seem to be an aide-memoir, in much the same way as people used to tie knots in their handkerchiefs for similar reasons. Are these  fringes- tzitizit in Hebrew- a sophisticated way of knotting a hanky?

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How The Talmud Downgraded the Pillar of Cloud

How The Talmud Downgraded the Pillar of Cloud

When the cloud rose from the tabernacle the Israelites would set out; and at the place where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.

It’s well known that, as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, they were guided by a pillar of fire by day and a pillar of fire by night. The pillar stopped when it was time to make camp, moving off when it was time to get going again. When they camped the cloud rested atop the sacred tabernacle. The only time it deviated from this pattern was right at the beginning, at the Red Sea, placing itself between the Israelites and the Egyptians to obscure Pharaoh’s view of his quarry. God looked through it at the Egyptian camp before bringing disaster upon them. (Exodus 14, 24).

That is all know about the pillar of cloud and that of fire. It’s a little surprising, given their miraculous nature. After all, nearly every other miracle wrought for the Israelites in the desert is described in detail. We know what the manna looked like and how it tasted, we know the how the quails arrived, how the Red Sea was divided, and the manner in which the water-gushing rock was split. But, other than the drama at the Red Sea, the pillars of fire and cloud are treated in such a matter of fact way that we almost take them for granted. They are not mentioned in the dayyenu hymn, which lists many of the other miracles that happened to the Israelites. Nor is there significant mention of them anywhere else in the Bible, there are just three passing references in the Book of Psalms.

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The Sin of the Nazirite- Why the Torah Frowns on Excessive Piety

The Sin of the Nazirite- Why the Torah Frowns on Excessive Piety

Every religion knows of people who aspire to lives of excessive piety. Some religions choose to venerate them, others shut them away in closed communities. The Torah takes a decidedly ambivalent view, providing pietists with the opportunity to consecrate themselves, but refraining from praising or even encouraging them.

The Torah calls such people Nazirites, from the Hebrew root meaning a crown. It implies that their decision is extraordinary, although most English translations miss the point. The English is usually rendered as something like ‘a man or woman who will specify, to vow a vow to God’ whereas the literal sense is ‘who will be extraordinary, to vow a vow…’.

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Excommunication- the biblical origins of a medieval punishment

Excommunication- the biblical origins of a medieval punishment

In the Middle Ages, excommunication, the cutting off of an offender from the religious community, was a severe and fearsome punishment. In the Catholic church an offender was cast out in a ceremony involving twelve priests and a bishop, each holding a lighted candle. A bell was rung and a decree of anathema pronounced, condemning the reprobate to the devil and eternal fire, at least until he repented. After the curse was pronounced, the candles were extinguished.  

A similar ritual was performed in the synagogue for the most severe cases of excommunication. A Torah scroll was taken, the participants in the ceremony held candles, a shofar was blown, curses pronounced and the candles extinguished. This ceremony was known as placing someone under the ḥerem; it was the ultimate sanction in an increasingly stringent series of bans placed on a recalcitrant who refused to repent his offence against the community.

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© 2019 Harry Freedman Books