Who were the Pharisees?

The name “Pharisee,” often gets a lot of bad press because of Jesus’ criticism, which we will shortly examine. Historically, they proved to be great people; the gentle Hillel, who taught the “Golden Rule,” was certainly one of its best examples of Pharisaic ethics and piety. The same could be said of numerous other great teachers of the 1st-2nd century. Their wisdom can be found in the ancient Jewish tract of “Pirke Avoth,” The “Ethics of the Fathers.”

Some of their wise aphorisms include:

Moses received Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly. They said three things: (1) “Be prudent in judgment, (2) “Raise up many disciples,(3) “Make a fence for the Torah.”

Simeon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the great assembly. He would say: “On three things does the world stand: (1) “On the Torah, (2) “and on the Temple service, (3) “and on deeds of loving kindness.”

Antigonos of Sokho received [the Torah] from Simeon the Righteous. He would say, (1) “Do not be like servants who serve the master on condition of receiving a reward, (2) “but [be] like servants who serve the master not on condition of receiving a reward. (3) “And let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

There are hundreds of examples found in this wonderful work and I would encourage you the reader to study these texts if you really wish to understand who the Pharisees were.

But were all those who purported to be Pharisees such noble souls? Not quite. For the record, there were Pharisees who obviously did not excel in the area of religious ethics—much like we see in the Haredi world today! This should not come as a great surprise to any of us because it is a lot easier to be observant of Halacha minutia than it is to be an ethical human being. Various moral lapses within both the Haredi and Hassidic communities painfully illustrate that developing an expertise in Jewish law is absolutely meaningless unless it engenders personal piety in the sphere of human ethics. The human face demands we treat all people with respect and dignity–this was the great lesson of Hillel, who taught: “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your fellow man.”

Now back to our original topic…

“Pharisee” probably comes from the Hebrew word prš meaning “expositors.” They were among the very first individuals who championed biblical interpretation (Jastrow). However, it is also possible the name prš might also mean “separate,” “detach.” Thus the Pharisees were probably the separated ones,” whose commitment to Jewish law and ritual set them apart from everyone else. However, Pharisaic piety pales in comparison with the Essenes  whose scrupulous observance of the purity laws make the Pharisees seem almost “secular.” Continue reading “Who were the Pharisees?”

What does Joseph’s Egyptian name “Zaphenath-paneah” actually mean?

Byline:  Dec. 18, 2009–4:00 PM

41:45 וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה שֵׁם־יוֹסֵף צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ  — Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah — Like other foreigners, Joseph assumes an Egyptian name so that he would better fit in Pharaoh’s court and be better accepted by the Egyptian people. The meaning of this Egyptian name is remains unclear and the certainty of its meaning has eluded scholars since the time of the Septuagint and rabbinic tradition.

For example, the some early exegetes think the name means, “revealer of secrets” [1]. More correctly, R. David Kimchi and Ibn Ezra  (ca. 13th century) observe that  Zaphenath-paneah is really an Egyptian name. Some suggest that  the name Zaphenath-paneah is a Hebrew transcription of an Egyptian name meaning “the god speaks and he lives.” [2]

Professor Kenneth Kitchen, points out that  Zaphenath-paneah was originally Zat-en-aph, for in ancient Egyptian was pronounced Djed(u)en-ef (‘he who is called’). This point, he asserts, is a familiar phrase to all Egyptologists. Furthermore, it is an example of where the letters ‘t’ and ‘p,’ became reversed. Such orthography illustrates the common (but unintentional) practice whenever difficult words and names  are transferred  from one language into another. A Hebrew scribe most likely slipped into the use of a common Semitic root zaphan while writing zaphenat, for the unfamiliar vocalization of Joseph’s Egyptian name. The second part of the name, “Paneah,” may be derived from the Egyptian word,  “aneah” ankh or ankhu (signifying ‘is alive’). The initial “Pa” or “Pi,” corresponds to the Egyptian word Ipi or Ipu. Therefore, “Zaphenath pa’aneah” means, “he who is called Anakh.”[3]

Lastly, Yoshiyuki Muchiki proposes yet another possible rendering, “My provision is god, the living one.” [4]

[1]  See Onkelos,  Rashi, Septuagint and Josephus’ Antiquities 2:6:1. Kimchi also suggests, “Revealtor Occuti” – “revealer of hidden things.”

[2] Other suggestions worthy of consideration: In the Septuagint, we find: Ψονθομφανηχ (Psonthomphantech), “the one who furnishes the nourishment of life” or “healer of the world” (Vulgate).  Some scholars propose that in the Coptic language, it signifies a “revealer of secrets,” or, “the man to whom secrets are revealed,” or, “The man who  knows all things” (Vergote). This name may also  mean “The Nourisher of the Two Lands, the Living One”; or possibly, “savior-of-the-world, or -land”;  or “sustainer of life” (Albright) In any case, the name suggests that it was through Joseph life in Egypt had been preserved

[3] K.A. Kitchen, “On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 345-346.

[4] Yoshiyuki Muchiki, Egyptian Proper Names  and Loanwords in North West Semitic (Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series  173) Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pp. xxv, 326-327.

The Dreidel as a Spiritual Metaphor

I often get asked the questions, “What is the symbolism of the dreidel? What exactly is its origin?” The dreidel is a four cornered top that was popular in the medieval era and originally used for gambling. Jewish folklore purports that when the Syrians prohibited the study of Torah, the Jews insurrectionists would take a top to gamble with, so that the soldiers would let them play their game in peace. The name, “dreidel,” is a Yiddish word that derives from the German verb, “drehen,” (“to turn”).

Historically, the origin of the dreidel is not quite so apocryphal. During the medieval era, gambling dice often had four letters inscribed, N,G, H, and S, representing “nichts,” (nothing), “ganz” (i.e., winner takes “all”), and “shtell arein” (“put in”).  Jews subsequently transformed the dice into a top and added four Hebrew letters, נ (N), ג (G), ה (H), and שׁ (S)—signifying, נֵס גָדוֹל הָיָה ֹשָם  “nes gadol hayah sham” (“A great miracle happened there”).

The symbolism gets more interesting when we take into consideration the numerological patterns the Kabbalists cleverly add when redesigning the dreidel during the medieval era.  The value of the four letters equals 358, the same numerology (gematria) as Moshiach (Messiah)! This could suggest several things:

(1)   The wandering of the Jews (drehen) is not purposeless, though it may seem that way at times. Israel’s wandering serves to bring the world that much closer to its final redemptive stage of human history—the Messianic era.

(2)  As the dreidel spins, it represents the pulsating movement of the Divine; we who observe it, cannot see how its final stage will unfold until it actually occurs. Such a concept has its antecedents in the Talmud’s famous statement, “Three come unawares: Messiah, a found article and a scorpion” (T.B. Sanhedrin 97a). I have always liked this passage, for in its simplicity, the Sages teach us that it is not for mortal men–or women–regardless how pious or learned they happen to be, to engage in the mindless pursuit of messianic prognostications. The Messiah will appear when we least expect him to arrive.

(3)  Our fortunes in life are much like the chaotic turnings of the dreidel; those of us who lost our fortunes with the crash of the Stock Market crash, know the wisdom of this teaching only all too well …

In short, although our existence is unpredictable, faith is the compass that provides us with the wisdom and radar to navigate through even the most difficult of times, like today.

Why did God punish Onan with death?

Here is the passage we are examining from Genesis 38:9-10:

38:9 וַיֵּדַע אוֹנָן כִּי לֹּא לוֹ יִהְיֶה הַזָּרַע וְהָיָה אִם־בָּא אֶל־אֵשֶׁת אָחִיו וְשִׁחֵת אַרְצָה — But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, — The wording of the text  “ba” suggests Onan’s behavior was not a one time action; he seems to have habitually climaxed in this manner. The NRSV’s  translation, “whenever he went in . . .” is preferable to other Bible translations that read “when he went in.”

וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיָּמֶת גַּם־אֹתוֹ — What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also — We really don’t know why Onan died. The ancients viewed the sudden death of a young person as an act of God, Who serves as the Ultimate Cause for everything that unfolds within the natural world. Moderns, in contrast, tend to attribute events that occur in the phenomenal world to more direct and scientific causes. To understand the Bible, it is helpful to see it through the eyes of the people who wrote it.

To the rabbinic imagination, God punishes Onan because he preferred to spill his seed rather than give it to Tamar, his levirate wife.

However, a closer examination of the text reveals a different approach that contradicts conventional rabbinic thinking found in the rabbinic writings of the Talmud, Midrash and especially the Zohar.[1] It is apparent from the narrative Onan’s sin was not primarily sexual in nature. Rather, it was his refusal to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage (Deut. 25.5–10). On a historical note, several Jewish and Christian exegetes interpret the story of Onan  as a condemnation any sexual act other than for the purpose of procreation[2], as one notable 20th century Halachic scholar, R. Aharon Walkin, explains:

“As for the doubt about whether it is permitted to follow this procedure because of the prohibition against ‘bringing forth seed in vain,’ if we follow the earlier sages, it seems that the Talmud and subsequent halachic scholars  agree that doctors are to be trusted even in cases where certain prohibitions (of the religious law) are involved. If, then, the doctors’ words are correct, that by this procedure it will be easier for her to become pregnant, since this is the physical nature of this woman, then this procedure (of taking the seed) is not ‘in vain’ at all. On the contrary, it is for the purpose of achieving pregnancy more easily. The rabbis forbade bringing forth seed in order to destroy it, but here there is no destruction; it is placed into the womb of the wife in order that she shall be impregnated. Then, clearly, there is nothing wrong with this procedure.[3]Continue reading “Why did God punish Onan with death?”

A Modern Hanukah Story in Iowa

Byline: December 11, Friday 4:00 PM

Here is a story I read in Aish.com, it is about my present community; I hope you enjoy the story!


My younger sister and I were the only Jewish children attending Monroe Elementary school in Davenport, Iowa in the sixties. In most ways I was just like any other little girl in the Midwest. I went sledding in the winter and caught fireflies in the summer. Only a few symbols formed my Jewish identity. For instance, the mezuzah on our front door was my daily reminder that I was part of a Jewish family.

Like most red-blooded Americans enjoying the freedom of living in the melting pot, the extended family gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving with all the trimmings (our stuffing actually had farfel, which was purchased across the river in Rock Island, Illinois from the kosher deli).

However, this attitude of “when in Rome” did not extend to the next holiday. As the orange, yellow and brown displays in the supermarkets were replaced by green and red, a voice from within said, “This is not mine.”

Each year, I would have to break in a new teacher. This happened in the fall. I was just an ordinary student, maybe a bit more gabby than the rest, until Rosh Hashana approached and I would quietly inform the teacher that I’d be missing school.

“Oh, you’re Jewish?” was the usual response.

Once through the Jewish holiday season, my Jewishness was forgotten until the X-mas recital. Suddenly, my Jewish roots were recalled and considered of great educational importance. For this glorious gathering the entire school body was squeezed into the auditorium to hear speeches, a few carols, and view the lighting of my Chanukah candles.

It was a silence that impressed upon me that I was doing something important…that being a Jew was important.

This practice, year after year, tended to be the show stopper. The night before, I would carefully choose the nine candles according to some color pattern that I felt would make the best impression. These candles were promoting the entire Jewish religion and culture, competing with large evergreen trees covered with tinsel, lights and ornaments. As

I took center stage and set my menorah onto a tabletop, I was amazed by the total silence around me. It was a silence that impressed upon me — more than the gratuitous applause that would follow — that I was doing something important…that being a Jew was important.

Lighting the shamash with a match was not a particularly religious aspect of the menorah lighting, but being nine years old and allowed to use fire added an air of authority to the ceremony. In a loud, clear voice I would recite the blessings according to the tune my father taught me. Then, one by one I would light all eight candles. It was usually not the last day of Chanukah when I made this presentation, but I felt it was important for everyone there to know that Chanukah was celebrated for eight days.

After the menorah was lit, my teacher would ask if there were any questions about Chanukah. Inevitably, some doubting Thomas would ask, “Is it true that you get a present each night?” Believing this to be one of the foundations of my holiday, I would announce, “That is correct!” which always got a few oohs and ahhs.

Once in a while a question would be considered out of line, asking if I “believed in” Christmas. My teacher would intervene, explaining that all questions should be about Chanukah. I had no problem announcing that I did not “believe in” Christmas. It was foreign to me. It was them, not me.

I knew I was the only Jewish child in the auditorium, and sometimes felt I was the only Jewish girl in the entire world. And yet, like Judah Maccabee, I had no sense of weakness or lack of importance. As I stared at the small dancing flames, I thought of the children’s poem, “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and I felt like a small, but precious diamond connected to an eternal People throughout time and space.

Today I no longer live in Iowa. And I am definitely not the only Jew around. I live in Jerusalem, with children ranging from still in diapers to recently married. The small twinkling light of Chanukah that built the strong Jewish identity within me in my childhood is the core of my present Torah observance that permeates my consciousness and every action. Continue reading “A Modern Hanukah Story in Iowa”

Explaining why Maimonides’ view of the Menorah is incorrect . . .

The menorah’s physical dimensions have puzzled many scholars for centuries. This famous image of the menorah raises several problems and much has been written on it.  The authenticity of the depicted menorah’s base is sometimes called in question since it consists of two hexagons, the one superimposed on the other, on whose sides dragons are depicted–images that one would hardly expect to see on a sacred Jewish artifact! Perhaps Roman artists added these embellishments for the public procession of Israel’s captured treasures.

Those scholars who regard it as genuine article insist that the Roman triumphal arches were designed as historical documents and toward that end; in general, they strove to be as accurate as possible. Most of the details demonstrate to the sculptors’ intimate knowledge of the Temple’s vessels as described in the Bible and other Jewish sources. Moreover, the proportions of the menorah, with its over-sized base, are in such blatant conflict with the classical notions of aesthetic form that it is inconceivable that a Roman craftsman would have invented them.

Conversely, those who argue against its authenticity are quick to point out that certain elements of the menorah are omitted in this depiction. For example, the menorah had feet extending from its base [1] whereas the menorah on the Arch of Titus has no feet. The base of the menorah certain fits the Hellenistic and Herodian style which was current at that time and there is ample reason to suggest Herod redesigned the menorah to make it more atheistically appealing. Perhaps Herod followed Solomon’s example who constructed ten single lampstands (1 Kings 7:49). Solomon built ten menorot of gold, five along the northern and five along the southern wall of the Heikhal (1 Kings 7:49; 2 Chron. 4:7). These were ornamented with carvings of flowers and furnished with appliances of gold for tending the lamps (1 Kings 7:49-50), the number of which on each menorah is not stated. This being the case, the Arch of Titus merely shows just one menorah which was taken by the Romans, to whom in all likelihood did not care what kind of  menorah they were carrying. One menorah was probably just as good as another.[2]

Over the last couple of years or so,  the feet of the menorah unearthed from a newly-discovered synagogue not far from the Migdal Beech in Jerusalem, strongly resembles the feet of the menorah depicted on the famous Hasmonean coin. But the synagogue menorah is resting on a square base, whereas the coin’s menorah is not. Perhaps the base of the menorah was placed on top of a square base in the days of the Temple, under Herod’s watchful engineering eye. Simply put, Herod added style and flare, and his aesthetic judgments were quite exceptional indeed.

It is also possible that when the menorah was taken to Rome, Roman artisans fused the base of the menorah with the menorah itself for practical and aesthetic purposes.

So much for history … Continue reading “Explaining why Maimonides’ view of the Menorah is incorrect . . .”

Prof. Warren Zev Harvey endorses the new Genesis commentary

“A fascinating, learned, and wide-ranging commentary that creatively blends the  insights of ancients, medievals, moderns, and post-moderns.”
Prof. Warren Zev Harvey, [Chair, Department of Jewish Thought], The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Newest Endorsement of the “Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis” commentary

Hello everyone!

Professor Allan C. Emery is a Harvard graduate (Class of 1999), as well as the Senior Editor of Hendrickson Publishers.  Allan was gracious enough to write an endorsement for my new commentary on Genesis, which will be available to purchase by the end of February of 2010. The book will be about 530 pages. Due to the time constraints of Hendrickson Publishers, the proposed book could not be published within the next 2-3 years, so I decided to go with Llumina Press instead as my publisher.


A few reflections on Rabbi Michael L. Samuel’s Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation (Genesis 1–3)

It is a brave soul who will devote the time, study, and effort to devote a full-length book to exploring just three chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures. As senior editor at a publishing house devoted to the subject of Biblical Studies, I am fully aware of this reality. But Rabbi Samuel has done just that and in doing so has brought forth a marvelous theological reflection on the opening chapters of Genesis. The first portion of the book is devoted to a discussion of the foundations of how best to understand and benefit from the study of Genesis 1–3 using imagination, the understandings of past theologians and philosophers, all the while taking advantage of the benefits of a postmodern approach to this ancient text. The second portion of the book is given to a phrase-by-phrase translation of the Hebrew and discussions as to various appropriate interpretations of these Hebrew texts. The third section, almost half of the entire book, provides thirty fascinating theological reflections on the contribution of these three chapters to matters of modern interpretive interest. These include such diverse issues as “The Nature of Biblical Interpretation,” “Romantic Theology: Creation Flows from Love,” “Time, Creation, and Theology,” “A Theological View of Evolution,” “Examining the Biblical Concept of ‘Dominion’,” “The Meaning of Clinging,” “The Serpent as a Psychological Metaphor,” and “Why Did God Create Evil? A Parable of the Zohar,” to name fewer than a quarter of them.

All this said, there is little question that both in Jewish and Christian theological circles, the opening conversation of the Scriptures and of the Pentateuch itself is understood by many scholars to be pivotal to theological reflection on the whole of revelation. Issues related to the place of humanity within the cosmos with its ecological implications, issues dealing with the present state of humankind with respect to various moral issues related to how we deal with one another, and serious thought about the proper way to approach all theological reflection, spring from these seminal chapters. The importance of these opening chapters of the Pentateuch has been understood by both Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Scriptures for most of two millennia. And Rabbi Samuels draws from the rich resources of their thinking throughout his own work with a genuine appreciation for what each tradition has brought to the fore.

While this is a book written by a rabbi well-versed in the rabbinic tradition, one cannot read more than a few pages to discover that his research, his interests, and his appreciation of critical thought span the centuries of both Jewish thought and Christian, while encompassing the best of the non-faith-bound philosophers of these same millennia. Buber, Kohen, Kung, Derrida, and many, many others all have something to contribute to the discussion of these three brief chapters and Rabbi Samuel is fearless in drawing on their works and their thinking in order to provoke his reader to leap beyond the well-worn paths of the past.

I am aware that this book is but an opening salvo of a larger work encompassing the whole of the Pentateuch. We look forward to hearing more from Rabbi Samuels in the years ahead.

Allan C. Emery III, PhD

December 10, 2009

Celebrating Hanukah in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp

Hanukah Reflections

This month we will be celebrating the holiday of Hanukah. If you were to ask most Jews living in the United States about the significance of Hanukah, you might be shocked and surprised by many of the responses you would most probably  receive. Many Jews don’t attach a great religious significance and view Hanukah as   a holiday for gift-giving. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the “Jewish Christmas,” adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration.

Hanukah is in my opinion, is undervalued largely because it is so widely misunderstood. This is in part to the spirit of commercialism that has  blinded us from appreciating this holiday’s timeless message: the triumph of light over darkness. To honor the memory of our ancestors’ victory, we must hold true to the values that make us and keep us Jewish.

Here is an anecdote adapted from the E. Yaffe’s  wonderful book, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust.

The pious Jewish inmates in Bergen-Belsen were determined to kindle Hanukah lights and chant the appropriate Hebrew blessings. They were abject slaves, temporarily permitted to live and toil until their strength gave out. Death lurked on all sides. Even if they could manage to avoid detection by their taskmasters, they lacked the essential materials: Chanukah candles and a Menorah.

Yet, a seemingly impossible celebration came about on the first night of Hanukah 1943 in Bergen-Belsen. One of eleven fortunate survivors, Rabbi Israel Shapiro, better known among his Hasidim as the Bluzhever Rebbe, was the central figure of that macabre Hanukah celebration.

Living in the shadow of death, and not knowing when their own turn would come, the Jewish inmates were determined to celebrate Hanukah in the traditional manner and draw whatever spiritual strength they could from the story of the Maccabees. From their meager food portions, the men saved up  some bits of fat. The women, for their part, pulled threads from their tattered garments and twisted them into a makeshift wick.  For want of a real menorah, a candle-holder was fashioned out of raw potato.  Even Hanukah dreidels for the dozen children in the camp were carved out of wooden shoes that the inmates wore. Continue reading “Celebrating Hanukah in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp”