Eclipses in Jewish Tradition

This past week, some of my congregants asked me: What does Jewish tradition have to say about solar eclipses?

Like many ancient peoples, the Jews did not develop a scientific understanding of eclipses until much later in its history. Before we examine what exactly Jewish tradition says about this topic, I would like to preface my remarks with some general observations drawn from human history. The human evolution regarding how eclipses occur forms the cultural backdrop that will help us better understand and appreciate the views that emerged in Jewish folklore and history.

Mythical Perspectives on Eclipses

When our prehistoric ancestors first began observing the sun, moon, stars and planets, they realized that all life on this world depends upon the orderly movement of these celestial bodies. Should one of these bodies get displaced, the ancients feared that the world might come to a sudden end. Without the aid of science to explain how and why eclipses occur, the ancients resorted to myth to explain the nature of these anomalies of nature. Some of these myths portray the Sun fighting with its lover, the Moon. Other myths depict the sun and moon making love under a cloak of darkness. One myth that has enduring value is that the belief that the concord and well-being of the Earth depends upon the Sun and the Moon. Although we live in a scientific world, still, nothing conveys the visceral power of this realization such as the power of myth. It is in the realm of myth all these celestial bodies become larger than life.

According to ancient Egyptian myth, the evil deity Set disguised himself as a black pig and leaped into the eye of his brother Horus, the sun deity and blinded his eye. But eventually, Horus regains his vision through the work of  Thout, the moon goddess, who regulates such disturbances as eclipses and is also the healer of eyes. In one of the ancient depictions, the emblem of the winged Sun resembles modern day pictures of the sun’s elongated corona. It is important to remember that myth and science have one thing in common: each approach attempts to understand the order and mysteries of the universe. Sometimes mythic expositions can be very imaginative and profound.

In Tahiti it was believed that eclipses occurred when the sun and moon were mating. Indian tribes such as the Tlingit Indians of the Pacific coast in northern Canada, and other North American Indian tribes had similar beliefs. A Germanic myth sees the love relationship going sour as the principle reason why eclipses occur, as one scholar explained:

  • The male Moon married the female Sun. But the cold Moon could not satisfy the passion of his fiery bride. He wanted to go to sleep instead. The Sun and Moon made a bet: whoever awoke first would rule the day. The Moon promptly fell asleep, but the Sun, still irritated, awoke at 2 a.m. and lit up the world. The day was hers; the Moon received the night. The Sun swore she would never spend the night with the Moon again, but she was soon sorry. And the Moon was irresistibly drawn to his bride. When the two come together, there is a solar eclipse, but only briefly. The Sun and Moon begin to reproach one another and fall to quarreling. Soon they go their separate ways, the Sun blood-red with anger.[1]

Eclipses in the Tanakh?

Although eclipses are not specifically mentioned in the Tanakh, but there are some passages that speak about celestial anomalies that include the darkening of the skies—either by clouds or eclipses, or some inexplicable phenomenon.[2] For example, the prophet Isaiah says, “I clothe the heavens in mourning, and make sackcloth their vesture” and this verse could be alluding to a solar or lunar eclipse.[3] The medieval exegete Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) thought that the verse, “I go about in sunless gloom, I rise in the assembly and cry for help” (Job 30:28) might also refer to solar eclipse since the verb  קָדַר (ḏǎr) means to grow dark, or the darkening of the sun and moon.[4]

Perhaps the most important passage that bears wisdom on our discussion is from Jeremiah 10:2.

Thus says the LORD:

Learn not the customs of the nations,

and have no fear of the signs of the heavens,

though the nations fear them.

Throughout the ancient Mesopotamian world, people worshiped the celestial gods (sun god, moon god and Venus particularly; in Babylonia, Shamash, Sin and Ishtar respectively) were primary in most ancient religions. Their followers looked for astrological signs and omens how to live their lives. Human beings were believed to be at the mercy of these cosmic deities, and that is why Jeremiah warns the Israelites to abandon these foolish beliefs. Jeremiah’s warning is no less relevant today. In the next section, we will give some examples of how some rabbinic teachers rejected Jeremiah’s wise teaching.

Early Rabbinic Discussions

Similar to other ancient traditions in the world, Talmudic texts assert that an eclipse of the sun is an evil omen for the peoples of the world. However, a lunar eclipse is a particular fatality for Israel, the reason being is since Jews reckon their calendar by the phases of the moon.[5] Rabbi Meir in the Talmud offers an analogy, “A parable: This can be compared to a human monarch who prepared a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, “Take away their lantern away, and let them sit in darkness!”[6]

And the Talmud goes on to elaborate about the root causes of eclipses.

  • If, during an eclipse, the visage of the sun is red like blood, it is an omen that sword, i.e., war, is coming to the world. If the sun is black like sackcloth  made of dark goat hair, it is an omen that arrows of hunger are coming to the world, because hunger darkens people’s faces. When it is similar both to this, to blood, and to that, to sackcloth, it is a sign that both sword and arrows of hunger are coming to the world. If it was eclipsed upon its entry, soon after rising, it is an omen that calamity is tarrying to come. If the sun is eclipsed upon its departure at the end of the day, it is an omen that calamity is hastening to come. And some say the matters are reversed: An eclipse in the early morning is an omen that calamity is hastening, while an eclipse in the late afternoon is an omen that calamity is tarrying.[7]

I can sense what some of you are probably thinking—modern Jews don’t think or believe this way! Let us borrow a page from Maimonides’ play book. We are not obligated to justify every remark found in the Talmud if it violates common sense, science, and reason. This is not meant as a blasphemous criticism of the rabbis, it is merely a statement of fact. All of us today living benefit from the evolution of our society. We are no longer living as Carl Sagan once described, “a demon-haunted world.” Socrates once said, “We are all midgets standing upon the shoulders of giants” and as a result, we are able to see further than our forbearers did.

The Talmudic discussion about eclipses continue:

  • The Sages taught that on account of four matters the sun is eclipsed: On account of a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized appropriately, and the eclipse is a type of eulogy by Heaven; on account of a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and there was no one to rescue her; on account of homosexuality; and on account of two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. And on account of four matters the heavenly lights are eclipsed: On account of forgers of a fraudulent document [pelaster] that is intended to discredit others; on account of testifiers of false testimony; on account of raisers of small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel in a settled area; and on account of choppers of good, fruit-producing trees.

To Rashi’s credit, he admitted, לא שמעתי טעם בדבר —“I do not have an explanation for this …,” and I would venture to say Maimonides and the other rationalist medieval thinkers of his age probably felt the same. But the same cannot be said about the Kabbalists, for their mystical writings often gives credence to superstition. This was one of the principle reasons Maimonides warred with the Kabbalists regarding their use of magic and other superstitious practices. Hassidic homes still feature amulets designed to chase away the evil eye.

While most ancient rabbis were unfamiliar with Greek science and astronomy, there were some notable exceptions. The Talmud records, “Rabban Gamaliel had a tube through which he could see at a distance of two thousand cubits across the land and a corresponding distance across the sea” Steinsaltz explains that Rabban Gamaliel utilized a device known as the astrolabe, which was first invented by the Greek astronomer Apollonius of Perga between 220 and 150 B.C.E. This device made it possible to make astronomical measurements regarding the altitudes and movements of the stars; it was especially used in navigation for calculating latitude before the sextant was developed. We must not think all rabbis were primitive, but they were, after all, men of their age.

Concluding Thoughts

Personally speaking, I think the mythic accounts depicting the eclipse as a dangerous phenomenon of nature were more correct than moderns might be willing to admit. That being said, the Talmud and other mythic accounts overlook the most obvious reason why the ancients feared solar eclipses: blindness! As we read in the news the other day, hundreds of thousands of people across the world might go blind or have their vision permanently impaired as a result of gazing at the solar eclipse. There can be no doubt this was certainly no less true in primal times and this simple fact is probably why the ancients viewed the solar eclipses with trepidation and fear.

Among Halakhic scholars, there is no reference for anyone having to say a blessing be recited over the eclipse, especially when considering the potential danger it poses to our vision. This, in my opinion, seems sensible and logical. However, as one modern Halakhic scholar observed, “R. Lau noted that his own religious response to witnessing the eclipse had been to say Psalm 19, “The Heavens tell of God’s glory,” and Psalm 104, “My soul will bless God.”

[1] Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak, and Ken Willcox, Totality: Eclipses of the Sun (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 43-44.

[2] Isa 5:30; 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7–8; Joel 2:15; 2:30-32; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Zeph. 1:15

[3] Ibn Ezra thought it might be referring to angels.

[4] Cf. Job 6:16; 30:28; Jer. 4:28; Joel 2:10; 4:15; Mic 3:6.

[5] Mekhilta Bo, 1.; BT Sukkah 29a.

[6] BT Sukkah 29a.

[7] BT Sukkah with Steinsaltz’s Commentary Sukkah 29a.

[8] See Jeremy Brown’s fine article, The Great American Eclipse of 2017: Halachic and Philosophical Aspects, in http://www.hakirah.org/vol23brown.pdf.  See also Rabbi Tendler in Moreshet Moshe v. 2 p. 51 quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein as explaining that “there’s no bracha for seeing a solar or lunar eclipse and in fact it is a negative sign” And the Responsa Aseh Lecha Rav 150 agrees that a beracha should not be recited because no such beracha is mentioned in the Gemara.

Book Review on Rabbi Drazin’s Commentary on Jonah

Image result for jonah whale picture

Was the whale created by Jonah’s subconscious mind?

Posted on 08 June 2017.

Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos, by Rabbi Israel Drazin; Gefen Publishing House, 2016; ISBN-10: 9652298859; ISBN-13: 978-9652298850By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Depiction of Jonah and the “great fish” on the south doorway of the Gothic-era Dom St. Peter, in Worms, Germany (Wikipedia)

CHULA VISTA, California — I would like to begin this book review with a conversation I had with the publisher of San Diego Jewish World, Don Harrison. He asked me whether there was any truth to the story that a whale swallowed Jonah? Let me share with you a story that might surprise you. James Bartley (1870–1909) is the central figure in a late nineteenth-century story according to which he was swallowed whole by a sperm whale. He was found days later in the stomach of the whale, which was dead from constipation. … The news spread beyond the ocean in articles as “Man in a Whale’s Stomach.”

Did Jonah’s whale get constipated and vomit Jonah?
Sometimes fact can seem stranger than fiction, or as Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Yet as colorful as the Book of Jonah is as sacred literature, it is a book that contains profound theological and psychological insight. Its inclusion in the Yom Kippur services is not fortuitous.
You could say that it is one whale of a tale! (Oy, did I really say that?)
And it is perhaps because of the sensational imagery of this book, many people on Yom Kippur often have only a facile grasp of the story. One of the newest commentaries I have encountered recently was written by Brigadier General, Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, entitled, Unusual Bible Interpretations: Jonah and Amos.” Due to my limitation of time, I will focus on Jonah for now and later write about his treatment of Amos in another article in the near future.
Rabbi Drazin’s book certainly lives up to its title! In his introduction to Jonah, the author immediate confronts the reader with a series of compelling questions that require thoughtful reflection and answers.
  • Did Jonah “convert” the people of Nineveh when he told them that unless they repent the city and all in it will be destroyed? How did Jonah communicate his message to the inhabitants of Nineveh? Did he speak their language? How did the king hear about his prediction? Is it reasonable to suppose that the Bible is correct that “every” inhabitant of Nineveh repented? Why did the people put on sackcloth and ashes? Why did they clothe the animals in sackcloth? Should we be reminded that the animals were also killed during the flood in the days of Noah? What did the people of Nineveh do that required being punished? Did every citizen of Nineveh do this wrong? Why in Jonah’s message to the Ninevites did he not mention that if the people repented they would be saved?
Perhaps the most important question he raises is “Did the author give the prophet this name to indicate that the book contains a profound truth? What is the message of the book?”
From the outset the author points out that it is no fluke that Jonah means “dove” for the dove has come to personify peace and its role in the Noah story symbolizes how God’s war with the antediluvian world had come to an end. I would only add doves are known for their devotion to their mates, and Jonah’s devotion to Israel is so powerful, Jonah is willing to defy God to show his faithfulness to Israel. As a patriot of the Hebrew people, he would much rather see the Assyrian capital of Nineveh crumble into dust for their belligerence against Israel (based on the medieval commentaries Rashi and Kimchi, p. 3).
He also cites approvingly the 19th century German biblical scholar Arnold Bogumil Ehrlich who states that this book is a parable “because it states that Jonah tried to hide from God and everybody knows that this is impossible. He understands that Jonah felt it was improper to prophesy to non-Israelites. Ehrlich adds that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, an enemy of Israel, and the author of this tale wanted to stress that God cares for everyone[1] (p. 3).
In the first chapter, R. Drazin mentions some very interesting interpretations predicated largely on Maimonides’ psychological view of prophecy, and one of his latter defenders, R. Joseph Caspi. Caspi reinterprets the Book of Jonah in light of Maimonides’ view of prophecy, which he regarded as a visionary experience or a dream-state vision. Maimonides himself says that whenever God speaks to a prophet, the prophet is never in a wakeful state of mind, but is in what moderns call “an altered state of consciousness.” R. Drazin utilizes Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams and explains that whenever you see something unnatural in a dream, odds are that object symbolizes something you have thought about during the daytime.
Caspi’s idea of the whale as a parable or a dream, along with his Freudian insight made me start to think.  R. Drazin’s insight reminded me a little bit of the insights of a little known German anthropologist named Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), as well as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), and Carl G. Jung (1875-1961). Each of their insights bear a striking similarity, despite the fact that Frobenius intuited these ideas first. In any event, as Campbell commented about Jonah in the belly of the whale’s symbolism, “The belly is the dark place where digestion takes place and new energy is created. The story of Jonah in the whale is an example of a mythic theme that is practically universal, of the hero going into a fish’s belly and ultimately coming out again, transformed.”[2] Jung also viewed this symbol is a kind of Journey into Hell comparable with the journeys described by Virgil and Dante, and also a sort of journey to the Land of Spirits, or, in other words, a plunge into the unconscious.
Like Jung, Frobenius also thought that Jonah’s ordeal represents on a psychic level a rebirth of the individual.[3] In psychological terms, Jung expanded this thought to incorporate the sudden changes that engulf a person’s life, leaving him completely disoriented and confused, as though he were swallowed by a whale, who has spat him out into a new world and reality. As the protagonist learns to redefine himself, he comes to a new understanding of self and eventually develops a whole new personal identity.[4]
So while the story about Jonah and the large fish or whale is mythic as R. Drazin noted, bear in mind that myths are symbolic stories that go beyond the surface meaning of its narrative. As Jung noted, “When we take a myth literally, we do injustice to the myth.  Indeed, such an argument is decidedly ridiculous because it takes the myth literally, and today this seems a little bit too naïve.”[5]
In another important section, R. Drazin examines the meaning of Jonah’s attempt to flee God, where he sees Jonah as attempting to flee his prophetic obligation to preach to the people of Nineveh. Throughout the commentary, he combines a peshat (or contextual interpretation of the verse), valuable Hebrew word studies, along with some very keen moral insights associated with derash (a homiletical approach to the Scriptures). Throughout the book, he brings in modern scholars—Jewish and non-Jewish—and his running commentary is keeping with the finest commentaries written by bible scholars today.
The theme of Jonah’s rebirth is certainly symbolic of the kind of rebirth we all need to undergo on Yom Kippur.
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) felt so inspired by the story of Jonah that he developed a theory called, “The Jonah Complex.” Maslow argued that like Jonah, many people have a fear of being successful and choose poorly with respect to life choices. All of this ultimately prevents a person’s self-actualization, or the realization of one’s potential. It is the fear of one’s own greatness, the evasion of one’s destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one’s talents.[6] Jonah, from Maslow’s perspective, is his own worst enemy, much like many of us, I suppose.
I give this book  5* rating and it will  enliven any serious discussion on this very important text.

[1] Arnold B. Ehrlich. Mikra ki-Pheschuto, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, first published 1901.
[2] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), p. 180.
[3] Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), pp. 228-229.
[4] Jack E. Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols (New York: Routledge, 1962, repr. 2001), p 229.
[5] Carl G. Jung, The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950),  p. 592.
[6]  Abraham H. Maslow, Maslow on Management (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 1990), p. 149.

The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings — Book Review

 

The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings by Dr. Fred Reiss — Reviewer Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The study of the Jewish calendar is not one of the easiest topics to research.  It is an area that most rabbis have at best a general knowledge of the history. Dr. Fred Reiss chronicles how the Jewish calendar evolved over the centuries and for that alone, his new book, The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings is a good read.

Although the existence of a calendar is implied in the early books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, it is only in the book of Numbers the first formal imperative to celebrate the New Moon is found (Num. 10:10), despite the fact that Leviticus 23 mentions all the festivals and holy days! Historically and biblically Rosh Hodesh certainly figures prominently in the original Passover holiday. Reiss points out that “based on the Book of Exodus, the Israelites, as a nation, officially adopted a lunar calendar about the middle of the 15th century BCE, but rejected the foreign names for the days of the week and months of the year” (pp. 29-30).

Unlike the Muslims who employ a purely lunar calendar, the Hebrew calendar, as Reiss explains is a lunisolar calendar, “whose months start with the New Moon and seasons of the year regulated by the sun.” Reiss is correct, for the Passover holiday must always occur in the month of aviv (often rendered as “spring”) but means “barley harvest.” As Reiss noted further that in the event the barley harvest was not ready, the ancients intercalated a month. Interestingly, as Philo noted (I am quoting my research on this matter), the Passover always had to occur at the vernal equinox. Reiss also makes reference to this point as well, but the origin traces back to Philo of Alexandria. Rosh Hodesh (“the head of the month”) has historically been determined by the sighting of the new moon’s crescent. In a lunar calendar, it occurs on a cycle of slightly more than 29 days. In ancient times, the Sanhedrin used to determine whether a month had 29 or 30 days and all this was predicated upon the visual observation of witnesses.

In the first chapter of the book, Reiss chronicles the development of the Hebrew calendar and its various permutations over the centuries. When the witnesses appeared, the Rosh Hodesh was celebrated and that day it was counted was marked as the first of the month. If no witnesses appeared, then the next day was designated as the Rosh Hodesh.

It is often hard for moderns to grasp what the world was like without the Internet. How did peoples communicate with one another about the Rosh Hodesh? Well, fires were lit on the Mount of Olives and this signaled to other communities to light their bonfires, and within minutes, the entire country knew when it was the New Moon. The High Priest used to make the final ruling whether or not to declare a new month.

Reiss documents how the Babylonian Jews used the Assyrian/Babylonian calendar month names, which are pretty much the same names Jews use today. When the Greeks conquered the Ancient Near East, Greek astronomy and mathematics enabled “clandestine” rabbinic councils to ascertain the arrival of the New Moon.
When one considers the number of Nobel Prize winners that happen to be Jewish, it is sometimes difficult for me to imagine why our ancestors struggled so hard in developing a Jewish calendar that was based in mathematics that would supplant the older witnessing system used by the previous generations of Jews.  Why didn’t our ancestors figure this out centuries before?

Historically, after the Jewish revolts against Rome, most Jews were dispersed from Judea, the old system certifying and signaling new moons and months in what the Romans had renamed Palestine, was in dissolution. This problem certainly worried the early generations of rabbis who realized that a new calendar for fixing our months became essential based on mathematical calculations.

A small council of rabbis guarded the secret instructions for constructing the calendar, until the mid-fourth century CE when, due to repressive acts and ultimate dissolution of the Jewish Court by Roman emperors, Hillel II, President of the Jewish Court in Babylonia, revealed those rules, so that Jews are able to construct their religious calendar.

As Reiss noted the Jewish calendar, once established by Hillel the Second in the middle of the fourth century, has never been adjusted. Even though the monthly moon cycle varies by as much as +/- 0.7 days per lunar cycle, and this can complicate the actual times when a holiday is supposed to begin. Interestingly, there has never been an instance where a new moon was ever sighted before the Hebrew calendar date. NASA claims to have improved on the amazingly precise lunar cycle of 29.53059 days used in the Jewish calendar. It has been said that even the great 18th century Vilna Gaon believed there were mistakes in the Jewish calendar.

Toward the end of the book, Reiss discusses some of the problems inherent in the Jewish calendar and the Orthodox rabbinic responses have varied over time. He discusses a number of different suggestions to the problems, but this is one topic that does not seem to have any immediate resolution as the author noted.

Personally, I have read a number of articles in Israeli journals and papers written by Orthodox scholars who think with the help of computer technology, we can now correct a number of these internal flaws embedded in the Jewish calendar we now use.

Although we have two days of Yom Tov in the Diaspora, there is still value in keeping the tradition because it reminds us that the majority of the Jews living today do not live in the Land of Israel. Yet, even in the medieval period, three days dedicated to Yom Tov and Shabbat often made it very hard for a struggling Jewish family to make a living.

Whether such changes will occur, this remains to be seen.

Reiss raises many interesting question readers might find interesting in knowing about the ancient Jewish calendar’s history: What is the definition of lunation time? Why have the rabbis condensed seven days into four days? Why is the High Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah often postponed? The civil calendar is either 365 or 366-days long, why does the Jewish calendar have six different year lengths? The Julian calendar repeats every twenty-eight years, the Gregorian calendar every four hundred years, why does it take 689,472 years for the Jewish calendar to repeat? All calendars have errors, what are the Jewish calendar’s errors and what do they affect?

When you read this book, you will find the answers quite illuminating and informative.
*
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, is author of numerous books including the Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria Commentary on the Pentateuch.

 

 

Special Dispensation: Ivanka: A fitting successor to Queen Esther?

 

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — Someone in my synagogue asked me an interesting question about Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner: What kind of Halakhic dispensation was given to them to drive on the Sabbath to the Inauguration of the President? The same question came up recently when the Trump entourage traveled on the Sabbath to meet with the Arab leaders from forty countries in Saudi Arabia.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who presided over Ivanka’s Orthodox conversion, sheepishly said, “Not me!” Who might the rabbi have been? Obviously, this is not the kind of publicity most Orthodox rabbis of any genre would want. One theory was that the special dispensation (known as a heter in rabbinic nomenclature) was due to the “safety concerns.”
Think for a minute.

Washington D.C. doesn’t have the best reputation for being a safe city, in fact it is considered one of the more dangerous cities to live in. Would safety be an issue? Possibly, but with all the presidential bodyguards looking over the family, it might not have been that serious of a problem.

There is a funny story attributed to Bill Clinton.
·         A former White House chief of staff Jack Lew, who was known for strictly observing the Sabbath, refused to work or to pick up any phone calls from Friday to Saturday sundown. That is, until Bill Clinton couldn’t reach him — and the then-president reportedly said into the speakerphone: “I know it is the Sabbath, but this is urgent. God would understand.” Lew consulted his rabbi, and it was decided that if the phone calls were emergency, he would not be breaking Shabbat by picking up the phone.[1]
Since the days of the Bible and throughout much of Jewish history, there have always been prominent court Jews in the political arena who have often played a significant role in shaping or influencing public policy.

The images of the lovely Ivanka Trump observing Jewish customs and traditions may remind us of how Queen Esther was depicted in rabbinic folklore and tradition. In some of the early midrashic texts, Esther is an exemplar of Judaism.

For example, Esther is depicted as observing the Sabbath, along with the other holidays. In fact, she is also described as eating challah and avoiding non-Jewish wine. She even observed the laws of Nidah, so that she would not have sexual relations during certain days of the month (Targum Rishon)

You’re probably wondering, why did the Rabbis add these fanciful comments? What purpose did these folktales about Esther serve? The answer I wish to give may upset some of my Orthodox and Hasidic friends, but Aristotle once was purported to have said, “Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend.”[2]

The Book of Esther on some level embarrassed the Sages because the Book of Esther says very little about her religious orientation; her Jewish identity was to her more like an ethnic identity. It is highly doubtful she observed much of anything living in the palace of Xerxes (Ahashuerus) and when push came to shove, she opted not to get involved in the rescue of her endangered people. Mordechai scolded his niece, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:12-16)

Yet, her piety and willing to sacrifice herself for her people ultimately made her into the heroine we all know and love. Yet, despite the happy ending, the Sages debated whether this book should even be included in the biblical canon because God’s Name is absent throughout the text. With all of Esther’s faults, the Sages gave her a special pass in many ways–a point that the Talmud itself admitted [3].

In a way we should all be proud that Ivanka is teaching people about the joys of being Jewish and traditional. To be honest, whenever I hear questions about Ivanka and her Orthodox husband Jered “driving on the Sabbath” to the inauguration of her father, I find it amazing how critical people are of her. I suspect one reason people don’t like her is because of the national schism that has pitted the Republicans and the Democrats. In the eyes of many liberals, there is nothing—I mean, “NOTHING” that President Trump can do since liberals see the President in the most uncharitable terms.

The same nastiness has been directed toward his lovely wife, Melania and the President’s immediate family. Liberal-minded Jews in general often get nervous whenever they see fairly traditional observant Jews involved in the political arena. However, I have heard many friends express similar comments about liberal Jews who love to bluster their opinions—regardless whether some non-Jewish folks might find their attitudes obnoxious or insulting to their traditional American Christian beliefs.

After watching the meeting that took place between the President and the Arab leaders, I must admit I felt very proud of how the President conducted himself; I believe Jared Kushner played a significant role in trying to promote better American and Sunni-Arab & Israeli relations—and that is something we have not seen at all in the last two decades. Such behavior is important–even on the Sabbath!

In the final analysis, maybe the time has come for us to try to promote bridges that foster and facilitate understanding.

Is Ivanka Trump an echo of Queen Esther?

Maybe with a little bit of encouragement from her fellow Jews.

============================================
[1] http://forward.com/schmooze/360453/ivanka-trump-and-jared-kushner-get-rabbinic-pass-to-ride-in-car-on-inaugura/
[2] This aphorism is actually a paraphrase of the Nicomachean Ethics 1096a11-15.
[3] BT Sanhedrin 74b.

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com



[1] http://forward.com/schmooze/360453/ivanka-trump-and-jared-kushner-get-rabbinic-pass-to-ride-in-car-on-inaugura/

[2] This aphorism is actually a paraphrase of the Nicomachean Ethics 1096a11-15.

[3] BT Sanhedrin 74b.

Deciphering the Dialectical Mind of the Talmud

9780873064651: Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure & Methodology

·         Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum;

·         Title: “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology.”

·         Pages: 122 pages

·         Publisher: Feldheim; 2nd edition (1988)

·         ISBN-13: 978-0873064651

·         Price: $29.99 (Amazon prime)

·         Rating: 4 star

·         Reviewer: Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

 

Some Aramaic scholarly friends of mine who speak and know Talmudic Aramaic often complain about the poor syntax of the Talmud. To most English readers, it almost seems as if the rabbis left out every other word in a sentence.

Why is it so hard to decipher Talmudic Aramaic?  It is possible that the Jews who spoke Jewish Aramaic probably sounded like immigrants struggling to express the simplest thought in their communications!

Yet, over time the Talmud did develop its own unique syntax along with its own internal logos that an outsider needs to study and master, if he or she is to become conversant with its message.

That’s how dialects in regional languages are born.

With this short introduction, I will briefly comment about Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum’s  book, “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology.” Talmudic language is a lot like scientific language, and instead of mastering the Periodical Table of Elements, to understand Talmud, you can develop a feel for the language by observing how its language is used.

Most Israelis and people who are fluent in Modern Hebrew will tell you that R. Adin Steinsaltz’s Hebrew translation of the Talmud does a splendid job in helping students master this ancient dialect of Jewish Aramaic.

Despite some of the inherent difficulties present in Talmudic discourse, I think Feigenbaum’s book does a fine job with acquainting the neophyte.

Here are some examples: Peshitta literally means “obvious” and Feigenbaum explains that peshita is an attack question, that while the statement in question is true, it was not necessary to state it. The statement, according to this attack question, tells us something obvious, something we would have known without the statement telling us so.” (Pg. 79).

The author might have considered adding that tonality in Talmudic Aramaic is an important part of how we as human beings communicate. In tonal languages such as Chinese, the slightest inflection in how a word is pronounced may indicate something foolish or wise depending what tone the speaker uses.

Using the case of peshitta, the tonal question might be, “So nuuuuuuuuuuuu! Or, “No daaah, isn’t that obvious???” As you can see the musicality of Talmudic dialogue is one of Talmudic Aramaic’s more endearing and unforgettable qualities I will always remember from my days in the yeshiva world. The yeshiva’s discussion of the Talmud is always animated.

Feigenbaum goes on to say, “The answer to such a question must show why the statement is not superfluous. It must tell us that we would not have arrived at this [logical] conclusion had the statement not been made—and that we would have come to a different conclusion.”

Reading “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology” is full of such examples of Talmudic attack questions. Is not any wonder why only Jewish tradition could create a Freud and a Derrida? The polyvalence of Talmudic concepts also explains why Jews make such excellent attorneys. Truth is fluid and it is always challenging our old suppositions of how we understand a text.  Feigenbaum introduces the assumptions one might have thought (salka da’atcha a’mina) had it not been for the text in question.

Hegel’s dialectic method involving thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is at the heart of Talmudic discourse and yes, had Hegel been Jewish, he would have made an outstanding Talmudist! The same could certainly be said about Socrates who favored truth as the highest value in life.

Rationality always appeals to logic and not emotion; it aims for persuasion and the discovery of truth to guide our behavior. The rabbis were not Sophists, but they believed like Socrates that the logical presentation of ideas provide essential tools for living a holy life.

Faigenbaum does not mention Socrates, but he does mention in the introduction to his book, “We begin with a question. This book is meant, above all, to teach you to ask the right questions. To achieve a precise peshat (understanding) of a section in Gemora, one must first ask the proper questions…” (p. 2). This approach sounds fairly Socratic to me!

To make the arguments easier to grasp, the Feigenbaum uses flowcharting to break the logical sequencing of the discussions and the ideas that they present to the critical mind. Feigenbaum gives numerous other examples of what he calls “attack questions” to his readers to ponder.

Sometimes the rabbis of the Talmud remind me of the person who always hits a bulls-eye by painting a target around the arrow. The rabbis refer to this method as asmakhta – a scriptural support for already existing customs and established traditions. It is a pity the author did not discuss this important aspect of Talmudic thought, for it shows how plastic the biblical text could be in the hands of the Talmudic master.

For the yeshiva alumni, I think the “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology” will provide a pleasant review of the Talmudic concepts yeshiva students once studied but forgot over the years. For the new student of Talmud, I think Feigenbaum’s approach of fleshing out the logic of Talmudic discourse might make the study of Talmud more challenging, and hopefully illuminating for serious students.

More Thoughts on the Origin of Minyan

Image result for pictures of a minyan

Askarabbi: What is the origin of the Minyan?

The custom of the minyan is only rabbinic in origin. When examining the minyan’s origins, it is vital we remember that this custom is not something that is etched in stone. However, as a custom, it does have a rich and variegated history that cannot be reduced to a single point of view–nor should it be.

The origin of the minyan is discussed in the Talmud. Some expositions are much more oblique than others  [1], while other suppositions are by far, more lucid. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Miketz 6) explains that since the time of Abraham’s famous defense of the Sodomites, namely that a “congregation” consisted no less than ten people, for ten constitutes an “edah” a “community.” On the other hand, that both Talmudic traditions stress only men make up a “congregation,” even though the Abrahamic story clearly indicates that women also made up part of the minyan Abraham was seeking to extricate!! [2]

On the other hand, there are other rabbinical passages dating back to the Gaonic era (8th-10th centuries) that in Palestine, a minyan consisted may have consisted of seven or six people.[3]

The liturgical historian Abraham Milgram notes that after WWII, a number of Jewish communities actually went back to counting six or seven people as a “minyan,” until the time their ranks would grow in number. This specifically happened in the city of Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. Incidentally, the framers of the Halacha were well aware of this possibility and its antecedents in Jewish tradition.  In functional terms they ruled, if a prayer leader began saying the Kaddish, or for that matter any other portion of the service that would ordinarily require ten people[3], one may conclude any of these services so long as at least six men remain in the sanctuary.[4]

Some sources suggest that even nine people could constitute a minyan so long as the Ark is open; this does not mean that the “Ark is a person,” but rather God’s Presence can also make up as the “tenth man” so to speak.  There is some Aggadic basis for this custom. When Joseph disappeared, the verse later says that “his father wept for him,” which could mean either Jacob (the plain meaning of the text) or possibly, Isaac. One Midrashic account raises an obvious question: “If Isaac knew that Joseph was alive, why doesn’t he reveal this fact to Jacob?” The Midrash answers, “The Holy One, blessed be He, has not revealed it to him; am I then to reveal it to him?” This statement gave rise to the odd rabbinic theory that God was part of the brothers’ conspiracy never to reveal the whereabouts of Joseph!!

Elsewhere, the Halacha mentions a number of other secondary Halachic references indicate that even a child may be used to make up the 10th person of a minyan—so long as he knows how to pray or holds a chumash in his hand (O.H. 55:4, see Mishnah Berurah on note 24), or according to another Ba’al HaMaor (cited in by the Rav 55:5), even four minors may be added to the minyan. One medieval source, Rabbanu Simcha adds that even a woman may count as the tenth person; it is remarkable that R. Sheneir Zalman of Liadi rules in his Rav’s Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 55:5) that one may rely on this lenient opinion—despite the fact that one would never expect to see such a leniency ever practiced in a Lubavitcher minyan!! (When I once brought this to a local and well-known Chabad rabbi, he looked at me with great surprise. But the truth and the texts speak for themselves!)

This type of reasoning is called, “pilpul” (pepper), and such didactic approaches while they may be interesting, are obviously far from being the contextual meaning of the text.

When examining rabbinic traditions regarding the minyan, it is important to bear in mind that in rabbinic times, only men attended the congregations to pray. In reality it is not the interpretation of the verse that creates the custom, but quite the reverse: it is the already existing custom that creates the interpretation that justifies its etiology.  Nowadays, since women also form a part of our society’s leadership, there is ample reason to argue that a woman should be included as part of the minyan. As social realities change, so too does the interpretation. This is the way it has always been, there is no logical or compelling reason to think otherwise.


[1]One traditional source in T.B. Megillah 23b records that a minyan derives a semantic connection regarding the word “midst,” mentioned in the precept of sanctifying God’s Name (Lev. 22:32) and another passage that speaks about Moses and Aaron separating themselves from the “midst,” of the congregation (16:21). Concerning the latter, the term “midst” is used in conjunction with the phrase “congregation,” i.e.,  the ten spies who brought back a negative report of the Land of Israel. This interpretation is hopelessly contorted and forced.

[2] Tractate Soferim 10:8. According to the Zohar: זוהר – השמטות כרך א (בראשית) דף רנה עמוד א
, וכשאינה מוצא חוזרת ופותחת ואומרת רבש”ע אולי ימצאון שם עשרה כלומר אולי ימצא ביניהם מי שעוסק בעשרה מאמרות ובעשרת הדברות בכל יום וכן אולי ימצאון ביניהם עשרה שמקדימים לבית הכנסת דהא תנן כל הנמנה עם עשרה ראשונים לבית הכנסת נוטל שכר כנגד כלם שבאים אחריו מה כתיב לא אשחית בעבור העשרה כל זה יש לנשמת הצדיק ללמד סניגורייא וזכות על הרשעים להשקיט האף והחמה וכיון שלא מצאה שום זכות ללמד

Keter Yonathan

כתר יונתן בראשית פרשת וירא פרק יח
(לב) ויאמר אנא ברחמים מלפניך אל נא יתחזק רוגזו של רבון כל העולמים יי ואדבר אך הפעם הזאת אולי ימצאון שם עשרה ונהיה אני והם ונבקש רחמים על כל המקום ותמחל להם ויאמר לא אשחית בגלל זכות עשרה:

[3] Rabbanu Yona of Gerona (ca. 14th century, Spain)  notes that not all rituals which sanctify the Almighty’s name are classified as “de’varim shebikdusha” ( BT Berachot 21a, s.v., “v’nik’dash’ti”). Such examples would include: Kedusha, Cha’zor’at Hashatz, Ne’si’at Kapayim, K’riat Hatorah, or the recitation of the  Haftorah with its accompanying blessings. Simply put, the acceptance of the heavenly yoke in the recitation of the “Shema” is not a precept requiring a minyan per se.  Wherever there is a sanctification of God’s Name, that is where a minyan is thus required. These specific services cannot be performed in the absence of the minyan quorum. There are other important implications with respect to the precept of martyrdom that requires that one be willing to die in the presence of at least ten Jews–and Maimonides makes no distinction about the gender or even the age of these individuals. Since the laws of minyan derive from this particular biblical precept, it follows that there is ample room for a different and newer kind of deconstruction of the minyan concept that modern Orthodox rabbis have neglected to consider.

[4] O.H. 55:2, with the Mishnah Berurah’s notes.

[5] See Genesis Rabbah 84:22.

A Memorable San Diego Yom HaShoah Program

Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto (häftad)

 

April 23rd, 2017

This year’s San Diego Yom HaShoah presented one of the finest programs I have experienced in many years since arriving in San Diego almost eight years ago. The musical selections were excellent; the theme of the program was “Memory and Morality” and featured Roberta Grossman, who is the director and producer of new Holocaust film, “Who Will Write Our History?” Her movie is based on upon Samuel D. Kassow’s book, Who Will Write Our History? (Vintage Press, 2009). The book is a compelling read and I hope to have more to say about this remarkable testament to history in the weeks to come. Although Grossman was not a survivor or even the child of a survivor, I admire her iron determination in directing a new film that every person needs to watch, witness, and learn.

 Kassow narrates the tragic story of Ringelblum and his heroic resolve to utilize historical scholarship in preserving the memory of the endangered Jews of Warsaw. Her soon to be released film is scheduled for January 2018 and it offers a remarkable glimpse into the world of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which took place in the summer of 1942.

While many cinematic presentations of the Holocaust often portray Jews acting passively during the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising tells a different story that is seldom ever told—Jews taking their destinies into their own hands by organizing armed resistance against the Nazis. They did this by smuggling weapons and improvising homemade weapons. Actually many Jews in the ghettos across Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1943 formed over one hundred Jewish battalions against the Nazis. The Warsaw Ghetto was by far the most famous of these efforts. That year in 1942, over 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka, Poland, where between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were exterminated. When the Warsaw Jewish residents in Warsaw heard about this, a young 23 years-old heroic figure named Mordecai Anielewicz, called upon Jews to resist going to the railroad cars. With the weapons they smuggled, they fired upon the Nazis—and they retreated.

Grossman pointed out how the resistance against the Nazis took an unusual form—a group of Jews prior and during the uprising in 1940  knew that they would not survive, but they nevertheless got together to create an underground archive that would preserve their memories as a people. The man who created this archive was named Emanuel Ringelblum. He began formed a secret “sacred society” he called, “Oyneg Shabes” (literally, “Joy of the Sabbath,” as members often met on Saturday). Its purpose was to create a comprehensive archive of life in the ghetto, “to meld thousands of individual testimonies into a collective portrait.” Ringleblum’s archives present a realistic picture of what the people were like and he minced no words in telling a future audience about the heroes, villains, bystanders and the perpetuators’ stories. He instructed them to collect everything they could. Some were artists, thinkers, intellectuals, teachers, factory workers, and so on.

In one story, Ringleblum’s life was also saved by Poles, who also resisted the Nazis. Indeed, many Poles took considerable risks saving Jewish lives. Yet, in his chronology, he also wrote about how other Poles chose to do nothing for their Jewish neighbors. He expressed the hope that someday Jews and Poles would come together and honestly share their stories. His description reminded me of a story I had heard from my father, whose life was saved by a young Pole. In one of the ghettos, the Nazis went on a wild shooting spree, and my father was with his Polish friend. His friend was shot, and knew he was going to die. To save my father, he hit in the head and knocked him out. The Nazis thought he was already dead. Were it not for the gratuitous kindness of this Polish young man, I would not be writing about his heroism.

On another personal note, in my rabbinic career, I was privileged to know a woman named Esther Avruch, whose petite presence survived the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto. She too recalls how some of the Poles could act just as cruel as the Nazis; some would beat the Jews and seize their meager rations of food and water. Yet, other Poles exhibited profound humanity toward her and her family. Starving for food and drink, simple Polish peasants, like a miracle from God, shared their food with the family. They were friends of Esther’s father’s business partners. They acted morally and with compassion.

Ultimately, on September 18th, 1946, Jews and Poles dug through the rubble of the remains of a former school located on Nowolipki St. What they discovered were three buried caches of the Oyneg Shabes archive. Some of the records suffered from decay and decomposition from moisture that seeped in the documents.

Eli Wiesel once told his Nobel Peace Prize audience when he delivered his acceptance lecture in December 1986. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history, “Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered. New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. On that day, the day of universal judgment, man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it. If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost. Thus, the rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.”

Book Review on Yoram Hazony’s God and Politics in Esther

God and Politics in Esther

— Yoram Hazony’s exposition of the Book of Esther is priceless. In my Judaism 101 class, everyone read a little bit from God and Politics in Esther and the discussions that ensued made the time move so quickly . . . All my students quickly ordered their copies; they are all having an exciting time discussing it with their friends.

The Book of Esther has always been one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible. The absence of God’s Name in this charming book gives it a unique distinction among all the other biblical books. As Hazony points out in his introduction:

When the rabbis spoke of the giving of Torah to the Jewish people, they argued that it had been accepted not once, but twice: Once at Sinai at the beginning of the Bible, and then again at the end, in the time of Esther. (p.2).

The nexus of Sinai and Esther provides a remarkable contrast. The theophany (revelation) at Sinai is replete with what moderns describe as “special effects,” the background and sensory images overpowered the people. But the acceptance of the Torah in Esther’s time marks an absence of the Divine Presence. God is hidden, and Esther’s name intimates a very different kind of reality, Hazony argues, one where the voices of the prophets are no longer discernable:

Esther describes a world in which the Jews are distant from their land, their tradition, and their God . . .(p.2)

Like a master artist, Hazony describes Jewish vulnerability at this point in history, where the Jews are no longer master of their own destinies; they exist at the whim of a Persian King who with the power of a word, could decree life and death—as Queen Vashti quickly discovered. He notes:

In exile, the Jews must live in dispersion, their institutions weak, their concerns wandering far from Jewish things, and their politics alienated from every obvious source of cohesiveness, direction and strength. It is clear at the outset that under such conditions, there is no possibility of freely seeking and implementing any Jewish ideal … (p.2).

Esther reveals the fragility of the Jewish people who are a minority living in a powerful empire that can scarcely notice its Jewish subjects. The Jewish people themselves are not sure where and how they fit; their ambivalence can be seen even in how Mordechai and Esther regard their Jewish heritage by assimilating to their new home. Mordechai’s message to Esther, when she is taken to the harem, “ Just fit in!”

Most Orthodox friends I know might not agree with Hazony’s view that Mordechai and Esther were assimilated Jews (p. 1). However, a similar argument certainly could be made about Joseph, who takes on a completely new identity once he becomes the viceroy of Egypt (Gen. 41:41-45).

Reminiscent of Malbim’s commentary on the Book of Esther, Hazony points out that King Achashverosh never regarded his wife Vashti as a life partner and mate. He viewed her as yet another, “accoutrement in his demonstration of total power: The empire is to admire her object beauty and to be impressed that the king has—as the Talmudic scholar Rav depicts Achashverosh as saying—such a “vessel” for his “use” (p. 11).

Although there is an almost surreal quality to the Book of Esther, modern readers often fail to take its message seriously. The old Jewish joke about the common theme of most Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us but failed; let’s eat!” But Hazony’s Esther reveals the serious issues pertaining to our people’s minority status in a superpower that would have been scarcely aware of our existence, had Haman not scapegoated us.

Haman is a descendant of the warlike Bedouin people of Amalek, and the hatred of the Jew for him comes quite naturally. In his treatment of Amalek, Hazony shows that this once ancient marauding people of the Sinai had one simple objective, namely, terrify the Israelites and strike fear into the hearts of their foes so they will not approach their land (Exod. 17:18)

Damaged enough in early rounds of applied terror, even the most physically powerful opponent may be made to feel that control is lost and that further engagements will bring worse—even that capitulation “and peace” are preferable to further confrontation. The most basic method of terror even today is just this: the use of applied cruelty against innocents, the more efficiently to forestall the need for military engagement. (p. 65).

Excellent points!

Hazony goes on to develop a relevant distinction between Amalek and Israel. Amalek has no “fear of God” which manifests itself in his contempt for life; in contrast, God beckons Israel to always show a “fear of God” through reverence. By treating the widow, the poor, the resident alien along with the more vulnerable members of society—with respect, justice and with dignity, we individually and collectively demonstrate a respect for God, Who is always triangulated in every human relationship we encounter. The absence of this reverence for God makes every conceivable evil deed possible (see pp. 67-68).

(Buber has already written much on this subject as well.)

At any event, Haman is out to get Mordechai because he fears that the King will wake up to Haman’s real goal and political objectives. Mordechai is constantly campaigning daily against Haman and manages to influence the King “to reevaluate the wisdom of relying upon Haman” (p. 186).

In the end, Esther and Mordechai succeed in raising serious doubts to the King about his loyal vizier’s hidden agenda.

Hazony makes his most dramatic point toward the end of the book:

Esther is written so as to ensure that the following teaching cannot be missed: God’s salvation is not a thing that exists in the world without reference to the actions of men and women. God’s salvation is emergent upon the salvation that Esther and Mordechai bring about through their own efforts in the policies of Susa. If one looks for it anywhere other than in political endeavors—for example, if one’s eye is fixed on fasting and the sackcloth—then one will still have witnessed a wonder and a miracle, for one will still see that the Jews have been spared, when the warrant for their destruction had already been sealed and delivered. But one will not have understood what this miracle was, or what is that God did for the Jews. (p. 206).

His observation is certainly true. Throughout the pages of the Bible, redemption and salvation never occurs in a vacuum. There must be human actors in every biblical story of redemption. For there to be an Exodus, there must be a Moses, an Aaron, a Miriam, a Shifra and Puah. And this pattern is visible in every story of how our people managed to survive. A thought from the Zohar captures much of Haznony’s theology succinctly and clearly, “Blessings from above descend only where there is some substance and not mere emptiness” (Zohar 1:88a). And from this perspective, Esther serves to remind us that we must do everything that is politically possible within our own means to survive and hope that God will do His part in ensuring our survival.

Had some of our European Hassidic leaders realized this important lesson about political activism during the Holocaust, many more people might have been rescued.
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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista and an author of several works on biblical topics.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com.  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and his/her city and state of residence.

Wisdom from the Septuagint

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Translations of the Bible often reveal more about a translator’s world view than they do about the actual text. Once we decipher the context, a translation reveals something that is hidden to the reader.

This is especially the case with respect to one of the more straightforward passages pertaining to the laws of blasphemy found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim. The verse that is relevant to this passage reads, “You shall not revile God… (Exod. 22:28).

Blasphemy, you say? Blasphemy laws have been out of vogue for centuries. The U.S. Constitution as defined by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .”

Just imagine what our country would be like if critics of religion like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Cristopher Hitchens had not offered their sharply worded barbs against religious and iconic people and the institutions they represent.

Arguably, blasphemers may actually provide a necessary public service in helping us correct the excesses of religion. If nothing else, the critics of religion keep us honest and accountable. Lampooning religious beliefs whether in the press or at gatherings is considered fair game. Anyone attempting to limit free speech is guilty of censorship. Moreover, this applies to all faiths. The government has no right to get involved in cases involving real or imagined attacks upon any given religious doctrine.

Yet, as straightforward as this position might be, Jewish history has sometimes taken a different perspective. Toward the beginning of the Common Era, Jews found themselves living in a world that was full of graven images; their neighbors believed in a pantheon of deities. The scholars who translated the Septuagint deliberately subverted the biblical law.

Their textual reading reflected a very different understanding about the nature of blasphemy—one predicated upon a philosophy of expedience and Jewish survival “You shall not revile gods…”

Not only is blaspheming God a sign of extreme disrespect, so is blaspheming the gods of other peoples. Anyone reading this might wonder: Wait a minute, the Bible is famous for its polemics against paganism and idolatry. How can the translators of the Greek Bible ignore this fact?

Philo offers an important explanation, “Since the entire inhabited world is full of statues and images, and similar constructions, it is most prudent for us to refrain from speaking insultingly of these national deities, lest any of Moses’ disciples fall into the habit of treating lightly the name “god” in general, for it is a title worthy of the highest respect and love. Philo was not the only one who felt this way. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus echoes Philo’s words, “Let no one blaspheme gods whom other cities believe in, nor rob foreign temples, nor take a treasure that has been consecrated to some god.”

Why did these thinkers take a view that almost inverts the meaning of the biblical verse? We know from the story of Purim how dangerous anti-Semites can be to a Jewish community struggling to survive in the Diaspora.

Any Jew disrespecting a pagan belief not only endangered himself, he also endangered other members of the Jewish community. In Alexandria, during the first century, over 50,000 Jews were murdered by anti-Semites. Jewish life in one of the most dynamic and ethnically rich ancient cities proved dangerous at times.

Jewish history bears witness to this sad historical reality—even as we see it today unfold in our communities.

When we think about the recent vandalism that we have witnessed in Jewish cemeteries, threats to blow up JCC’s in our country, Jews in the United States have been complacent for a very long time. We have enemies on the far right, as well as enemies who are on the far left. Hating Jews has become fashionable in some circles.

Whether from the right, or from the left, Jews still have plenty of enemies who seem to be coming out of their hiding places. Hating Jews, Zionists, and Israelis seem fashionable in certain places—especially on the university campuses.
As the vanguard of Western democracies, Jews often meet stiff resistance from those on the political right. In hard times, everyone loves a scapegoat—enter the Jew.

A week ago, the Forward featured an article about the comedian Sarah Silverman who on more than one occasion said, “I hope the Jews did kill Christ…I’d F_cking do it again in a second.” Granted Silverman is a comic, and a mediocre one at best (in my opinion), but her thoughtless comments can infuriate certain Christians who may have a latent hatred toward the Jew.

As a minority people, we have had more than our fair share of enemies threatening to kill us and complete the job started by Hitler in the early 20th century.

As Jews, we have often been our own worst enemies. Pogo famously said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

Anti-Semitism is a lot like a virus; it may remain dormant, but sooner or later it will awaken and explode. The words of the ancient Jewish thinkers of the first century offer us some practical advice. Don’t exacerbate hatred by making thoughtless insults about another person’s religion. In addition, the laws against blasphemy remind religious people not to behave in a manner that inspires hate, ridicule, and revulsion.

Judaic wisdom from the Hellenistic era offers a sober prescription for the modern world.

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

Wisdom from the Septuagint: Do Not Blaspheme Gods

Translations of the Bible often reveal more about a translator’s world view than they do about the actual text. Once we decipher the context, a translation reveals something that is hidden to the reader.

This is especially the case with respect to one of the more straightforward passages pertaining to the laws of blasphemy found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim. The verse that is relevant to this passage reads, “You shall not revile God… (Exod. 22:28).

Blasphemy, you say? Blasphemy laws have been out of vogue for centuries. The U.S. Constitution as defined by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .”

Just imagine what our country would be like if critics of religion like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Cristopher Hitchens had not offered their sharply worded barbs against religious and iconic people and the institutions they represent.

Arguably, blasphemers may actually provide a necessary public service in helping us correct the excesses of religion. If nothing else, the critics of religion keep us honest and accountable. Lampooning religious beliefs whether in the press or at gatherings is considered fair game. Anyone attempting to limit free speech is guilty of censorship. Moreover, this applies to all faiths. The government has no right to get involved in cases involving real or imagined attacks upon any given religious doctrine.

Yet, as straightforward as this position might be, Jewish history has sometimes taken a different perspective. Toward the beginning of the Common Era, Jews found themselves living in a world that was full of graven images; their neighbors believed in a pantheon of deities. The scholars who translated the Septuagint deliberately subverted the biblical law.

Their textual reading reflected a very different understanding about the nature of blasphemy—one predicated upon a philosophy of expedience and Jewish survival “You shall not revile gods…”

Not only is blaspheming God a sign of extreme disrespect, so is blaspheming the gods of other peoples. Anyone reading this might wonder: Wait a minute, the Bible is famous for its polemics against paganism and idolatry. How can the translators of the Greek Bible ignore this fact?

Philo offers an important explanation, “Since the entire inhabited world is full of statues and images, and similar constructions, it is most prudent for us to refrain from speaking insultingly of these national deities, lest any of Moses’ disciples fall into the habit of treating lightly the name “god” in general, for it is a title worthy of the highest respect and love. Philo was not the only one who felt this way. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus echoes Philo’s words, “Let no one blaspheme gods whom other cities believe in, nor rob foreign temples, nor take a treasure that has been consecrated to some god.”

Why did these thinkers take a view that almost inverts the meaning of the biblical verse? We know from the story of Purim how dangerous anti-Semites can be to a Jewish community struggling to survive in the Diaspora.

Any Jew disrespecting a pagan belief not only endangered himself, he also endangered other members of the Jewish community. In Alexandria, during the first century, over 50,000 Jews were murdered by anti-Semites. Jewish life in one of the most dynamic and ethnically rich ancient cities proved dangerous at times.

Jewish history bears witness to this sad historical reality—even as we see it today unfold in our communities.

When we think about the recent vandalism that we have witnessed in Jewish cemeteries, threats to blow up JCC’s in our country, Jews in the United States have been complacent for a very long time. We have enemies on the far right, as well as enemies who are on the far left. Hating Jews has become fashionable in some circles.

Whether from the right, or from the left, Jews still have plenty of enemies who seem to be coming out of their hiding places. Hating Jews, Zionists, and Israelis seem fashionable in certain places—especially on the university campuses.
As the vanguard of Western democracies, Jews often meet stiff resistance from those on the political right. In hard times, everyone loves a scapegoat—enter the Jew.

A week ago, the Forward featured an article about the comedian Sarah Silverman who on more than one occasion said, “I hope the Jews did kill Christ…I’d F_cking do it again in a second.” Granted Silverman is a comic, and a mediocre one at best (in my opinion), but her thoughtless comments can infuriate certain Christians who may have a latent hatred toward the Jew.

As a minority people, we have had more than our fair share of enemies threatening to kill us and complete the job started by Hitler in the early 20th century.

As Jews, we have often been our own worst enemies. Pogo famously said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

Anti-Semitism is a lot like a virus; it may remain dormant, but sooner or later it will awaken and explode. The words of the ancient Jewish thinkers of the first century offer us some practical advice. Don’t exacerbate hatred by making thoughtless insults about another person’s religion. In addition, the laws against blasphemy remind religious people not to behave in a manner that inspires hate, ridicule, and revulsion.

Judaic wisdom from the Hellenistic era offers a sober prescription for the modern world.

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com