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Passion and the Tabernacle

Passion and the Tabernacle

Thirteen of the last sixteen chapters of Exodus deal with the construction and fitting-out of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. It is a remarkably lengthy passage, in contrast to the economical treatment of every other topic in the Torah. The attention paid to the construction of the Tabernacle shows just how important sanctuaries and temples were in the ancient world.

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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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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 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

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

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 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

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

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