What is the origin of the term “kosher”? What does it take to make an animal “kosher”?

It may seem strange to the reader, but the term “kosher” only appears twice in the entire Bible (and in the only place where it appears, it does not pertain to food!! Originally, “kasher” meant “to be right and proper” (as in Esther 8:5), or “to prosper” (cf. Ecc. 11:6). As a noun, it connotes, “skill,” or “success” (Ecc. 2:21; 4:4), or “advantage.” The term originally came to designate proper and fit food only during the rabbinic era that is in accordance to the rules of ritual purity. Many of the basic laws of permitted and forbidden animals can be found in the Book of Leviticus (11:1–23, 29ff.) and in the Book of Deuteronomy (14:3–21). One of the best known restrictions is the law forbidding the cooking a calf in its mother’s milk (Exod. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Jewish thinkers beginning with Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) suggest that the reason is so that we will learn to respect the importance of motherhood. God intended for the milk to enhance the life of the infant animal—and not so that we may use it as a condiment for dinner! Continue reading “What is the origin of the term “kosher”? What does it take to make an animal “kosher”?”

Who did Jacob really wrestle with in the Bible?

Q. I’m confused about who wrestled with Jacob the night before he was to meet with his brother Esau. My NIV bible states it was GOD himself. My Chumash (Sages commentary) states it may have been Satan that wrestled with Jacob. If it was Satan why did he give Jacob the name Israel and why would Jacob ask Satan to bless him? If it was GOD, what was the purpose for the confrontation?

A. Good question.

Without a doubt, this section is indeed one of the most difficult to understand in the Bible.

The identity of Jacob’s assailant has been the subject of over 2000 years of speculation. Jacob didn’t know who ambushed him. He assumed it was a man; from Jacob’s view, his assailant could have been anyone — maybe even Esau himself! As the wrestling match continued, Jacob finally realized that he was fighting with an angel. The Midrash identifies the mysterious assailant as the guardian spirit of Esau.

The battle between Jacob and the angel represents the archetypal struggle between good and evil. Some of the Hellenistic Judaic thinkers suggest this entire episode reflected an inner struggle within Jacob’s own soul, and may have even occurred in a dream or vision. Given the surreal nature of the narrative I think this clearly was the case. Jacob’s struggle with the angel in has the qualities of a visionary experience.

God wanted Jacob to know that Esau was not his real enemy, rather, Jacob’s himself! The angelic being Jacob wrestled was really a symbolization of himself. Once he learned to resolve his inner conflict, dealing with Esau would prove quite easy.

When the Sages described the mysterious assailant as Satan, they wished to convey an important symbolic lesson. In the Tanakh, Satan is not an enemy of God, nor is he a “fallen angel” — such a notion is a Christian myth. God uses Satan to test the moral caliber of a man, and in this case,

Again, let me reiterate that God uses Satan to help Jacob realize that his real enemy is none other than himself!

Sun Tzu (6th–5th century BCE.) may have expressed this idea best in his Art of War, (ch. 3, Axiom:):

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel

Bk. Reviews on: The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of the Caring God

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5.0 out of 5 starsChallenging, spiritually healing work!,
January 21, 2009
By loves life (NC

Using the shepherd imagery of Psalm 23, Michael Samuel powerfully depicts God as a shepherd who constantly cares for His sheep. The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Theology of A Caring God awoke in me afresh the truth that God is for me and with me always–both in the pits and the peaks of life–leading, guarding, guiding, providing and nurturing me through my journey on this earth. That reminder has invigorated my spiritual life and inspired me to consciously relate to others as God relates to me. This work is a must read for all who question, struggle and who seek guidance in our challenging times.

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant work!, June 16, 2008

was very intellectually stimulated and inspired by this book, and everyone of our club’s readers really enjoyed reading it. If any of you have struggled with faith, this is one book you cannot afford to ignore. Although the book was written twelve years ago, the material found in it is quite excellent and current. Samuel is correct in asserting that dysfunctional images of God are the source of a lot of suffering in the world. Psalm 23 addresses the issues we all have with God’s relationship with the world. One of the best parts of the book is how Samuel explains the Book of Job; equally compelling are the mediatations a number of people did on Psalm 23. This exercise ought to be tried in more congregations. I think you will enjoy “The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of the Caring God.”

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5.0 out of 5 stars What does a shepherd do, anyway?, December 28, 2000
By David Willig “rabbidw” (perth amboy, nj USA) – See all my re

We live in an urban society and don’t understand the shepherd mataphor. Rabbi Samuel shows us the true caring necessary in the ancient role of shepherd and applies the insights of the Psalm to our view of God. This book is meant for everyone who thinks about, or questions, the idea of a personal God. It is a scholarly work, well researched, with citations covering the historical period from Plato to the present and philosophically from the atheist to the pious believer. But don’t let me scare you. It is written for the laymen, entertaining and at times, witty. If you wrestle with the concept of a caring God in the 21st century, you must read this book

Does a clone have a soul?

Does a clone have a soul? God creates human who have souls, but when people create people, do they have a soul? Where do they go when they die? If a clone is not considered to possess a soul, would it be permitted to clone a human being for merely its spare parts? Is Cloning permitted according to the Halacha?

A. Some years ago, the Israeli Chief Rabbi Lau offered an opinion on cloning. The Chief Rabbi said that although there is no specific prohibition in Jewish Law to utilize artificial genetics to reproduce a human being, it is entirely against basic Jewish conceptions to do so. “The Torah gave a specific dispensation for doctors to use their knowledge to cure, and even to lengthen life, but the formation of new life goes way beyond that. We have no permission to enter the domain of the Creator on questions of life and death.” He said that he does not know of one rabbi who permits genetic engineering in this manner.

The Chief Rabbi’s comments, although provocative, makes one wonder: Is the Halacha as obvious as the Chief Rabbi thinks? Perhaps the matter is not as simple as Rabbi Lau. Continue reading “Does a clone have a soul?”

Why did God create evil? A Parable from the Zohar

The fact that evil confronts good, gives man the possibility of victory.


Let us assume for a moment that the rabbis and the allegorical school are correct in identifying the serpent as a metaphor for the evil inclination. But why did God create the impulse for evil? Would humankind have been better off not having to deal with such an urge? The Zohar raises this question, and offers the reader a most intriguing thought-provoking response with respect to the phenomena of moral evil (for more information regarding the relationship concerning natural evil and God, see my notes on Genesis 1:2 and the excursus at the end of Genesis 6):

  • Should it be asked, ‘How can a man love Him with the evil inclination? Is not the evil inclination the seducer, preventing man from approaching the Blessed Holy One to serve him? How, then, can man use the evil inclination as an instrument of love for God?’ The answer lies in this, that there can be no greater service done to the Holy One than to bring into subjection the “evil inclination” by the power of love to the Holy One, blessed be He. For, when it is subdued and its power broken by man in this way, then he becomes a true lover of the Holy One, since he has learnt how to make the “evil inclination” itself serve the Holy One. Here is a mystery entrusted to the masters of esoteric lore. All that the Holy One has made, both above and below, is for the purpose of manifesting His Glory and to make all things serve Him. Now, would a master permit his servant to work against him, and to continually lay plans to counteract his will? It is the will of the Holy One that men should worship Him and walk in the way of truth that they may be rewarded with many benefits. How, then, can an evil servant come and counteract the will of his Master by tempting man to walk in an evil way, seducing him from the good way and causing him to disobey the will of his Lord? But, indeed, the “evil inclination” also does through this the will of its Lord. It is as if a king had an only son whom he dearly loved, and just for that cause he warned him not to be enticed by bad women, saying that anyone defiled might not enter his palace. The son promised his father to do his will in love. Outside the palace, however, there lived a beautiful harlot. After a while the King thought: “I will see how far my son is devoted to me.” So he sent to the woman and commanded her, saying: “Entice my son, for I wish to test his obedience to my will.” So she used every trick in her book to lure him into her embraces. But the son, being good, obeyed the commandment of his father. He refused her allurements and thrust her from him. Then did the father rejoice exceedingly, and, bringing him in to the innermost chamber of the palace, bestowed upon him gifts from his best treasures, and showed him every honor. And who was the cause of all this joy? The harlot! Is she to be praised or blamed for it? To be praised, surely, on all accounts, for on the one hand she fulfilled the king’s command and carried out his plans for him, and on the other hand she caused the son to receive all the good gifts and deepened the king’s love to his son.

The Zoharic passage just cited illustrates a remarkable concept that exists in many of the primal religions of the world, the notion of the coincidentia oppositorum, also known as “the reunion of opposites.” As Eliade has already noted, the lost memory of this unitive existence with reality emanates from a part of humanity that yearns to overcome the duality and opposites we now experience in a post-Fallen world. Eliade adds that: “On the level of presystematic thought, the mystery of totality embodies man’s endeavor to reach a perspective in which the contraries are abolished, the Spirit of Evil reveals itself as a stimulant for the Good.

Zohar 2:162b–163a (all translations of the Zohar are from the Soncino translation).

What does “rabbi” mean and when was the title first introduced?

What does “rabbi” mean, and when was the title “rabbi” first introduced?

This question is much more complex than most people realize. However, antecedents to the term רַב (rab) has some basis the Tanakh, where it denotes “great,” or chief (2 Kgs 18:17;  Isa 36:2). Elsewhere the expression rab māg means “chief of princes” (Jer 39:3, 13), while rab tabbāım, is “captain of the guard” (2 Kgs 25:8, etc.). By the time of the 1st century, the title of “rabbi” probably derived from the term, “Raboni,” meaning, “My Master” and was roughly the equivalent of saying “Sir,” or “My Lord”–especially if one happens to be wealthy or politically powerful!

The author of Mathew in 23:1–3, 8 suggests that “rabbi” might have been used for individuals who engage in public teaching. The gospel of John uses the term rabbi of Jesus eight times (1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8; 20:16), Reflecting an older and probably more correct tradition, Luke never refers to Jesus by this title at all, but simply refers to him as Luke uses διδάσκαλος (didaskalos = “teacher,”) 7:40; 8:49; 22:11. According to this reading, Jesus criticizes this group of scholars for enjoying the public recognition that came with appearing to be “pious” men before the masses. However, there is reason to believe that this particular passage is an example of what is commonly called an interpolation that was added long after the death of Jesus. A similar feature occurs in the Talmud, where Hillel is called, “Rabbi Hillel.” Since the writers of these ancient wrote for a later audience, they took certain poetic licenses with respect to the text.[1]

According to the Mishnah, the Sages of the 1st century never used this title at all. The Sages simply went by their ordinary names, e.g., Simon the Just, Jose b. Joezer, Joshua b. Peraiah and Nittai the Arbelite, Judah b. Tabbai and Simeon b. Shetah, Shemaiah and Abtalion, Hillel and Shammai never used the title, although sometimes Hillel was referred to as “Rabbi’ but I suspect these citations reflect unconscious tampering with the original names by scribes who may have assumed the name “Rabbi” was already in vogue in the 1st century, when in actuality it wasn’t.

One of the greatest rabbinical scholars of the 10th century, Rav Sherira’ Gaon of Babylonia, writes that the title “rabbi” was not used before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. He explains, “The designation rabbi came into use with those who were ordained then after the Temple’s destruction beginning with Rabbi Tsadok and Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov. The practice spread from the disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakk’ai.” Before that time, great sages (like Hillel the Elder) were cited without honorific title. However, sometime during the first century C.E., the title “rabban” (Aram., “our master”) was accorded to the patriarch and other especially distinguished sages. Later on, the epithet “Rav” was later employed in Babylonia as equivalent to rabbi in Palestine.

Rabbinical ordination often claims that “semicha” (ordination) is a tradition holds that derives from the time of Moses; leaders of every generation are thus purported to have been conferred by this unbroken succession of “laying on of hands.” Even Moses is referred to frequently as “our rabbi.” Verily, based on the literature and history we know about ancient times, no such specific ceremony existed—especially during the first century C.E.[2]

[1]The Gospels confirms, there was no class of “rabbis” as we have today, but instead there were classes of scribes (i.e., “Scripture experts,” γραμματεῖς, (grammateis), who functioned as the “undisputed spiritual leaders of the people,” as well as “lawyers” (νομικοί, nomikoi) Matt. 22:35; Luke 7:30; 10:25) or “teachers of the law” (νομοδιδάσκαλοι, nomodidaskaloi, cf. Luke 5:17; Acts 5:34).

Cain and Abel: According to Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas was in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, he enlisted in the French army. In 1940 he was captured and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps. Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. Levinas  eventually became one of the greatest ethical philosophers of the 20th century.

In one of his books, Levinas writes a special dedication that reads: “To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions of all nations,  victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism” [1]

According to Levinas, whenever a human face calls out to me. I can only respond with the words, “Here I am ….” We might wonder: “Why should I feel responsible in the presence of another person’s face?” But that is precisely why Cain asks of God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain was not being sarcastic or coy with his question to God. Quite the contrary: Cain’s question reveals to us that he is a man who has yet to learn and appreciate the importance of human solidarity. Cain feels as though each person lives solely for oneself and that everything is permitted. He has no idea what it means to be responsible for another human being.

Although Cain’s answer is sincere, his question reveals that he lacks a conscience; he is out of touch with his own humanity. He doesn’t understand that the human face is special because it bears a trace of God in each person. Yet, God holds Cain accountable—not because of any verbal commandments instructing how not to behave toward his brother. Levinas writes, “The human face is different speaks out and speaks to me without words, ‘Look at me, I am a human being much like yourself. Respect me as you would want to be respected.’”

Even without hearing a divine commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” certain truths are embedded within the soul. Whenever we see a human face suffering, we ought to perceive the Word of God telling us, “You shall not kill” and respond with the gift of presence, “Here I am …. how can I help?”


[1] OB, vii.

Why does the Bible tolerate slavery?

Q. I honestly would like to believe that the Bible is the untainted Word of God, but there are several passages that very clearly go against any sane standard of human decency. Two quick examples are Numbers 31, and the commandment that a Canaanite slave must be kept forever. I don’t understand how my God could demand such grotesque acts in the former tale, and condone eternal slavery in the latter bit. Since you are far more learned than I am, I thought you would be able to offer explanations.

A. I enjoyed your question. I wish everyone read the Torah with such a critical eye.

By the way the verse speaking of the Canaanite slave being kept forever is not from Numbers 31 but from Leviticus 25:46. Even there, nothing prevent a slave from having a family member purchase his freedom, or if he is determined to be free, he can choose to run away from his master for the Torah grants the slave instant freedom — even if he is a Canaanite slave!! “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has taken refuge from him with you. Let him live with you wherever he chooses, in any one of your communities that pleases him. Do not molest him” (Deut. 23:16-17).

I would encourage you to bear in mind that any passage dealing with slavery must be viewed in light of the cultural and social setting of its day, and for this reason, the Sages taught: “The Torah speaks in the language of humankind.” The wisdom of this aphorism is significant. Language is never static, but continues to evolve in new and unpredictable ways. Each new generation must add its own interpretive voice, which will periodically require constant re-visioning and reinterpretation. Although there are numerous precepts that no longer apply to our day, nevertheless, there is wisdom to be gleaned from every precept — even the commandments that from a moral perspective strike a modern reader as offensive (e.g., laws regarding genocide of the Canaanites, “holy” war, the laws regarding slavery, and so on.). Rabbinic tradition in many ways “reformed” many of the more problematic passages of the Torah (e.g., the rabbinic interpretation of the lex tallionis – “the eye for an eye” found in Exodus 21:24) liberators. There are many other examples I could give, but time is limiting.

As an institution, slavery has existed in human societies since the dawn of human history. In societies that endorsed slavery, the number of slaves was always disproportionate to the number of free people. Four-fifths of ancient Athens was considered slaves. To maintain their control over the masses, the aristocracy imposed severe guidelines to ensure that the slave populations remain psychologically dispirited, insecure and fearful of ever staging a rebellion against their masters.

Even in the 21st century, developed and under-developed nations alike still practice slavery in one form or another. In modern Western countries like the United States, Japan, Israel, and the European nations, “white slavery” is a booming business. Arabs continue to sell black slaves while the Western world looks the other way. The Torah recognized its evils, and in the following section, took significant steps to try to ameliorate its dehumanizing power both on the slave, the master, and upon society as a whole. The Torah begins with delineating the laws affecting slavery because in the ancient world, slaves were considered nothing more than property. All the civilizations of antiquity had considerable difficulty separating human personhood from property and this area of social life needed careful defining.

According to Aharon ben Eliahu (ca. 14th century), the various laws of this chapter regarding the Hebrew slaves cannot be viewed apart from Chapter 25 of Leviticus. With respect to the latter, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that the Hebrew servants were not “servants” in the conventional sense of the term—especially when compared to how the Egyptians and ancient Near East nations treated their slaves. The Torah specified that the Hebrew slave was more like a hired worker, than he was an actual slave (Lev. 25:40) Moses created a work system within society where individuals could voluntarily sell their services to another for up to six years, in order to either pay their debts or make restitution, if the person was convicted of theft.

For a newly emancipated people who could easily remember their former experience as slaves, the laws governing slavery proved to be a litmus test as to whether the ethos of the Exodus experience had any effect on the way average people would relate to those who were society’s most marginalized and the disenfranchised members. Rather than banning the institution of slavery altogether, the ancient biblical writers realized that human nature is slow to change; therefore, the Torah imposes many rules and regulations upon a master so as to gradually domesticate the institution of slavery, with the purpose of eventually legislating it out of existence. The biblical ethos stresses: be considerate of your slave’s welfare. Every citizen ought to recall, “Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you; that is why I am giving you this order today” (Deut. 15:15).

The laws regarding the resident alien in ancient Israel is a profound witness to how the ethos of the Exodus inspired the nation to act kindly toward the resident stranger in their midst (Lev. 17:8; 22:17–19; Num. 15:14–16). After Israel became established as a nation and a people, remembrance of Israel’s past alien status justified laws regarding fair treatment of the alien among them (Exod. 22:20; 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19). Officially, aliens in Israel enjoyed equal status with regard to worship and Sabbath rest (Num. 9:14; 15:15–16; Exod. 23:12; Deut. 5:14), and, with widows and orphans, protective care (Exod. 22:21–24;20–23; Deut. 24:17, 19–20; cf. Mal. 3:5). If you were resident alien living in ancient Israel, you could expect fairness in every civic area of life, and enjoy equal participation in rituals, participate at the holiday celebrations, and the list goes on. The ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) once wrote regarding the Essenes:

  • And they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession of servants of slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature, for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker.” In the Contemplative Life [9:80]

Philo also wrote,

Behave well to your slaves, as you pray to God that he should behave toward you. For as we hear them so shall we be heard, and as we treat them, so shall we be treated. Let us show compassion for compassion, so that we may receive like for like in return.”

Maimonides’s own teaching on this particular subject is illuminating.

  • The quality of benevolence and the paths of wisdom demand that a human being conduct himself mercifully and justly toward his slave. One should not press his heavy yoke on his slave and torment him, but he should give him ample food to eat and drink of everything. The sages of old were in the habit of sharing with their slaves every dish they ate, and they fed the cattle as well as the slaves before they fed themselves. Nor should a master disgrace his slave by hand nor should he verbally abuse him, the Biblical law surrendered them to slavery but not to disgrace (Niddah 47a). Neither should he scream at them angrily, but rather should patiently listen to his complaints. Cruelty is frequently found among the heathens who worship idols, but for the progeny of Abraham however, the people upon whom God bestowed the goodness of the Torah, commanding them to observe laws of virtue, we are enjoined to be merciful towards all creatures. So too, when speaking about Divine attributes, He commanded us to imitate God through the mitzvot. As the Psalmist said, “His mercy is upon all His works” (Psa, 145:9) Whoever is merciful will receive mercy, for it is written ‘”He will be merciful and compassionate to you and multiply you’”(Deu. 13:18). (Maimonides, Hilchot Avadim 9:8)

Significance of the Number Four

Question: The Passover Hagadah speaks of four cups of wine, four sons, the four questions, and so on. What is the number four so significant in the Passover Seder?  I would also like to know about the specific origin of the famous Four Questions during Seder.

Answer: Good question. In the interest of time, let me be succinct. The idea of “four questions,” the “four types of children” draws heavily on the symbolism of the number four. The number four represents a totality e.g.,  world’s four cardinal directions, the cosmic ordering of time as seen in the four seasons, the four elements, and the four temperaments of classical thought. Basically, the number four conveys how reality is experienced in this world.

This is certainly evident with respect to the “Four types of Children” which covers every kind of conceivable child. The wise, the contrarian, the simple, and the silent serves as a spiritual diagnostic for the healthiness of the traditional Jewish family. Our Sages used the number four to stress the importance of having each child present at the Seder.

Continue reading “Significance of the Number Four”

The Inconspicuous Messiah

As Napoleon marched triumphantly through Europe, the Jews of the ghetto felt joyous by his arrival. Was Napoleon really the Messiah? Many of our ancestors thought so; but again, that was before Napoleon got defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. And then there was Franklin Delano Roosevelt better known to my parent’s generation as “FDR.” Many Jews living back in the gloomy days of WWII believed that FDR might have been the Messiah, but that was before we learned that FDR decided not to bomb Hitler’s crematoria.

To our surprise, the Messiah, it turns out, didn’t dress like an emperor, nor did he appear as a president. In Jewish tradition, the reality of deliverance comes disguised. At the Passover Seder, Jews express hope that the following year will be redemptive in character. By opening the door for Elijah, we keep the flame of hope alive that redemption is near at hand. Yet, for all the fanfare about the Messiah, the redeemer of Israel’s birth is uneventful and anonymous. Yet, curiously, he walks hidden among us.

When Moses first appeared to the Israelites, they never thought for a minute that this strange speaking man would be the savior of whom their ancestors had spoken. Here was a person who was originally discovered as a foundling in Pharaoh’s court, then as a shepherd who stammers and stutters before a burning bush. So, too, the ultimate messianic presence that we seek may lie hidden in the least likely person around. Continue reading “The Inconspicuous Messiah”