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?
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.
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…’.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
The Book of Leviticus discussing sacrifices far more widely than any other section of the Bible. Most of us do not find the idea of sacrifices stimulating, indeed many people are repelled by the thought of them. But if you believe that it is possible to find ideas and insights below the surface text of the Bible, then it is instructive to try to investigate what we may be able to learn from the lengthy and complex descriptions of sacrifices. Particularly since sacrifice does not necessarily mean slaughtering animals. A sacrifice is the giving of something one values, or of oneself, for a higher purpose, for reconciliation or propitiation.
One of the most intriguing concepts in the whole sacrificial system is the concept of piggul. It is introduced in Leviticus 7,18 where we read that if someone delays eating eats their sacrificial meal until its allotted time has passed, the sacrifice will not be accepted, it has become piggul. Continue reading
There is a clear literary structure to the Book of Exodus. It runs far deeper than just the bare outline of the tale, opening with the enslaved Israelites being forced to build pyramids for Pharaoh and ending with them liberated, voluntarily constructing a tabernacle for God. The details of the plot, and the very choice of vocabulary itself indicates a deliberate contrast between the first and second halves of the book. Continue reading
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
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
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
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