New Review on Rabbi Samuel’s many insights into Maimonides Hidden Torah Commentary

November 3, 2019 / L

Book Review:Maimonides Hidden Torah Commentaries: Genesis: 22-50by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel.

By Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin

Rabbi Israel Drazin

BOCA RATON, Florida — This is the wonderful second volume on Genesis by the very wise scholar Rabbi Michael Samuel. It is part of his series of easy-to-read books that he is writing on Maimonides. This is a second volume on Genesis because Rabbi Samuel has much to reveal to us about the first of the Five Books of Moses. This volume and the others is divided by parasha, the traditional division of 54 weekly portions that are read during synagogue services and which rabbis in the Talmud encouraged Jews to read and study weekly.

Rabbi Samuel notes that the teachings of Maimonides are embedded and scattered throughout his philosophical, legal, and even medical and other writings. He collected and distilled the teachings from the various sources and offers them in a clear organized fashion.

His work is comprehensive, full of information, and eye-opening. The writings on each parasha is divided by chapters; each of which is subdivided by subjects that Rabbi Samuel addresses in clear detail. For example, in Genesis chapter 1, he examines 22 subjects, such as the meaning of Elohim, the purpose of creation, the reason for marriages, God does not decree moral behavior, the nature of biblical metaphors, exempting women from some biblical commands, and more.

Similarly, chapter 22, which contains the well-known story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, contains 11 subdivisions. Among them are the nature of divine trials, Isaac’s age at the time of the near sacrifice, the objective of God’s commandments, Maimonides vs. Gersonides on divine knowledge of human activities before they occur, and did the Akedah actually happen or was it a vision.

In chapter 4, to site another example, among much else, he offers views on the origin of idol worship by such people as Thomas Aquinas, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, David Hartman, and others. In chapter 9, he includes a discussion on the Seven Noahide Commandments. In chapter 15, there is Maimonides’ position on divine determinism. In chapter 19, what is an angel. In chapter 23, Maimonides’ view on visiting graves. In chapter 32, the issue, among much more, is can a human wrestle with an angel?

In other chapters, he discusses Maimonides’ teachings on subjects such as the origin of the annual Torah reading cycle, the difference between “believing in God” and “knowing God” and how can one know God, the thirteen principles that Maimonides wrote, why one can violate the sabbath to save a life, and much more.
If these many discussions were all that Rabbi Samuel offered his readers, this would have been a valuable book, but there is much more.

Rabbi Samuel begins this wide-ranging and far reaching book with a prequel which contains significant facts about the great sage’s life and his books – philosophy, legal, medical, responses, letters – and the criticism by Ra’avad, ibn Daud, and others. He tells, for example, the fact that Maimonides was almost executed by Muslims for acting as a Muslim to save his life while he and his family lived in Morocco but returned to being openly Jewish when he arrived in safety in Egypt.

The book compares Maimonides to Saadiah Gaon, to Ramban (Nachmanides), Abraham ibn Ezra, and many others. It gives Maimonides’ views on many other subjects, including aggadic language and midrash generally. It tells about the treatment of the biblical text by the Greek translation called the Septuagint. It is filled with the keen views of Maimonides’s son Abraham. It discusses subjects such as omens, visions vs. dreams, and whether Abraham ibn Ezra is correct when he maintains that some parts of the Five Books of Moses were added after his death.

The book also has many excurses. There are those on Targum Onkelos, the Shekhinah, the differences between Maimonides and famous Bible commentators such as Rashi, Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, Saadiah Gaon, Nachmanides, Hasdai Crescas, and many others, Jews and non-Jews.

There is no doubt but that readers of Rabbi Samuel’s book will enjoy what they read and learn much.

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Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and the author of more than 50 books.

The Ethical Problem of the Kapparot Ritual

What is Kapparot?

Yom Kippur has its own unique customs and traditions, and one of the most historically controversial customs involves taking a chicken and swinging it around one’s head. When I was a Hasidic youth, I recall getting up early in the morning before dawn to reenact the tradition better known as “Shlugging Kaparos,” or “Kapparot.”

According to the Artscroll Machzor for Yom Kippur, scriptural verses from   Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24 are recited. Then a rooster (for a man) or a hen (for a woman) is held above the person’s head and the participant swings the bird  in a circle three times, while the following is spoken: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.” The chicken is then slaughtered and may or may not be given to the poor for food.

If the woman is pregnant, then she takes two hens and a rooster instead (one for her and the other for her unborn child, depending upon the gender—thus equaling three altogether).[1] I always found this aspect of the ritual puzzling, especially since who could be more innocent than a fetus? After all, Jews aren’t supposed to believe in Original Sin! In terms of the color, it became customary to use a white chicken, to recall the verse ‎ אִם־יִהְיוּ חֲטָאֵיכֶם כַּשָּׁנִים כַּשֶּׁלֶג יַלְבִּינוּ אִם־יַאְדִּימוּ כַתּוֹלָע כַּצֶּמֶר יִהְיוּ“Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool” (Isa. 1:18). Curiously, one should not use a black chicken, as black is the color that represents divine severity and discipline. Nor should one use a blemished chicken.

The Talmud did not mention such a ritual; it was discussed only in the 9th century. One reason why the early sages did not mention it is because the rabbis were very cautious to avoid enacting ritual sacrifices for atonement—especially since the Temple had long been destroyed.

A scriptural allusion to Kapparot derived from the word גֶּבֶר “gever,” which may mean either “man” or “cock,”[2] and the medievalists supposed that a rooster or hen could serve as an instrument of atonement.

History of Kapparot

Ever since biblical times, the Torah used animal sacrifices as a surrogate for the sinful individual wishing to seek atonement.

Most of our readers might be surprised to know that some of the most significant medieval rabbinical scholars regarded the Kapparot as a heathen superstition.[3] Rashbam objected to the ritual in Barcelona, which included killing one chicken for each child in the house and then hanging the chicken heads on the doorpost along with garlic (it keeps away vampires I am told.)

Many years ago, a former witch in my community returned to her Jewish roots and commented how the Kapparot rituals resembled customs practiced by witches. She was correct!  The Santeria, an Afro-American religion of Yoruba origin that developed in Cuba among West African descendants. Often chickens are sacrificed to ward off illnesses believed to be caused by evil spirits, or for divination.[4]

The waving of the chickens in a circle three times also constituted a “magic circle” (a.k.a. a mandala in the Eastern religious traditions) where spiritual forces are evoked to protect a person from evil. This idea is commonplace in almost all religious communities around the world. Spiritual forces can thus be evoked without danger.

Modern Objections to Kapparot

One of my favorite criticisms against Kapparot derives from R. Shlomo Goren, who was arguably one of the greatest Chief Rabbis of Israel in recent memory. Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren notes that “Kapparot is not consistent with Jewish teachings and law. Repentance and charity can be better accomplished by using money instead of a slaughtered chicken”

Humanitarian considerations is another important reason to discontinue Kapparot. “Anyone who walks through the markets can see that the manner in which the chickens are held before the Kapparot is insufferable. There is no veterinary supervision and no concern for the feelings of these poor creatures.” -Rabbi Gilad Kariv.[5]

Rabbinical tradition basing itself on the ethos of the Torah stressed we must do everything in our power to prevent tsar’ ba’ale hayyim—cruelty toward animals. Between 2005 and 2006, the SPCA in New York City confiscated hundreds of starving chickens who were abandoned in crates after the ritual was finished; these creatures were crammed in cages while sitting in their own excrement. It is hard to imagine how any pious Jew could act so indifferently toward these forlorn creatures of God.

But in 2006 in Los Angelos, the birds had their vocal cords removed so none of the participants would feel repulsed by their screams of pain.  

Although it is frequently claimed these slaughtered chickens are given to charity, the reality is that there is never refrigeration equipment at a Kapparot event. This meat is probably not edible, or shouldn’t be eaten and would never meet the rigorous requirements of the federal Poultry Products Inspection Acts for human consumption. But this much we know for sure. Helpers for the ritual slaughterers could be seen tossing the birds, covered in blood and often dusted with feces from their time in stacked crates, into trash bags and cans after their throats were slit.

It is important to note that the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Pasadena heard an argument on behalf of United Poultry Concerns in a case against Chabad of Irvine for unfair business practices in charging a fee to illegally kill and dispose of chickens for Kapparot. Unfortunately, “the district court ruled it was not a business practice.  However, the decision is being appealed.  The district court expressed no opinion on the underlying legality/illegality of the manner in which the chickens are killed and disposed.”[6]

The winds of change do occur—howbeit slowly—among the Orthodox.

As R. Shlomo Brody suggested that there is a new sensibility is becoming the new standard for our ethical behavior concerning animals:

  • “On the eve of this holy day,” said the late Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi, “why should we display unnecessary cruelty to these animals and mercilessly kill them before requesting from God mercy upon us?” The mass killing of animals, he added, contradicts a different medieval custom, almost entirely forgotten today, of refraining from all slaughter before the New Year as an act of increased mercy on God’s creatures. In this spirit, and given increased accusations of mishandling of the chickens, prominent figures like Rabbis Shlomo Aviner and David Stav have urged Jews to err on the side of treating animals kindly and use money instead. Traditionalism should, of course, have its place, but on the eve of Yom Kippur, we shouldn’t turn a request for mercy into an act of cruelty.[7]

I will conclude with a brief anecdote from the Hassidic community—an appropriate reference for todays’ Hasidic Jews to remember and ever be mindful of observing.  I came across an article written by a colleague, Rabbi Everett Gendler, who wrote:

  • Rabbi Zusya used to travel around the countryside collecting money to ransom prisoners. One night he came to an inn in which there was a large cage with all kinds of birds in it. Zusya saw that the creatures wanted to fly free through the spaces of the world. He burned with pity for them and said to himself, “Here you are, Zusya, walking your feet off to ransom prisoners, but what greater ransoming of prisoners can there be than to free these birds from their prison?” Then he opened the cage and the birds flew out to freedom.[8]

Although the Chabad website claims the practice of Kapparot also serves a humanitarian purpose, “In fact, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that we take the innards and liver of the Kapparot chickens and place them in an area where birds can feed off them. “It is proper to show mercy to the creatures on this day, so that in Heaven they should have mercy upon us [too].”[9] In actuality, as mentioned earlier, in Brooklyn as well as in Los Angelos, and other places, the slaughtered birds are discarded as garbage. There is nothing even remotely kind about this kind of cynical behavior.[10]

If you’re going to slaughter a chicken, biblical law requires that one at least eat the chicken. To do otherwise is violation of the negative commandment of bal tashchit—do not destroy or waste—has long been considered central to a Jewish environmental ethic (Deut. 20:19–20)

The Chabad movement and other Hasidic communities ought to atone for its callous disregard for these birds.


[1] OH 605:4.

[2] Cf. BT Shabbat 67b. This usage is much rarer and does not occur in Biblical Hebrew.

[3] Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488 – 1575) in his Shulchan Aruch, OH 605:1. Other notable detractors include Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman 1194–1270; Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (Rashba, 1235–1310) in Teshuvot HaRashba 1:395. ). Comp. in OH, Hilkhot Erev Yom Kippur 1.

[4]Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, Mysteries and Secrets of Voodoo, Santeria, and Obeah (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008), p. 203.

[5] Quoted in ynetnews.com 09/28/2006

[6] https://edboks.com/2018/11/kapparot-9th-circuit-argument-tuesday/

[7] https://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/185741/a-brief-history-of-a-fowl-custom

[8] Rabbi Everett Gendler, The Life of His Beast.

[9] Tur Shulchan Aruch & Shulchan Aruch OH Rama 605. Tashbatz. Bayit Chadash. Turei Zahav 104. OH 605:6.

[10] https://gothamist.com/news/are-thousands-of-ritually-slaughtered-chickens-being-turned-into-biodiesel

NY Times Defiles the Memory of 9-11

CHULA VISTA, California –George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This statement has proven true time and time again. Such common-sense wisdom ought to be obvious to any student of history. How many revolutions have we seen in the past two hundred years where popular revolts end up with individuals seizing absolute power as we witnessed with Napoleon, Stalin, and Mao? Yes, despite our superior intellects, human beings have yet to show the wisdom to evolve to the next level of human consciousness.

The inner primitive which I call the “atavist” is always lurking in the shadows of our soul; but to evolve, we must, as the Psalmist would put it, “obtain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12)

Therefore, it is with great surprise—as we recall the attacks upon our nation on September 11, 2001— that The New York Times wrote:

18 Years have passed since airplanes took aim and brought down the World Trade Center. Today, families will once again gather and grieve at the site where more than 2000 people died.

Notice the politically correct nomenclature the writer chose, “airplanes took aim,” and not Jihadi terrorists.

Imagine if the NY Times had covered Pearl Harbor attack much in the same way, “On December 7, 1941, airplanes took aim and seriously damaged the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.”

The Times deliberately left conspicuous facts out of their story; the writer also deliberately reduced the number of people that were murdered. Seldom have I seen such outrage from the vox populi, as I did with this tweet.

Finally, they relented; the Times deleted the tweet and rewrote the article. The new text read, “Eighteen years have passed since terrorists commandeered airplanes to take aim at the World Trade Center and bring them down.”

The manipulative motive behind this correction that omitted the words, “Islamists” or even “al Qaeda.”  And on the Op Ed page, all the editor could focus upon is the effects of Islamophobia on American Muslims post-9/11.

Jewish readers need to ask themselves the obvious question: Why is the Times being so coy and deceptive?

In his famous book, 1984, George Orwell coined the phrase “memory hole.” Defined: the memory hole was a small incinerator chute used for censoring, through destroying, any information that Big Brother considered necessary to censor. In 1984, Orwell depicted legions of bureaucrats, who was led by the “Minister of Truth,” whose task was to erase actual historical records; alter its documents, newspapers, books, and so on. The “Memory Hole” also helped to eradicate any trace of a person or event’s actual existence.

Orwell reminded us of an ancient device used by historians since antiquity. By the changing the narrative, one can control history.

Radical Islamic apologists are skilled at this artifice. Changing the narrative is what the Islamic fanatics of ISIS have done in destroying ancient artifacts and remnants. Among casualties of history that ISIS destroyed, the ancient city-state of Palmyra was destroyed; it had remained an important tourist site in Syria for over millennia. ISIS destroyed the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baalshamin with explosives. ISIS sacked artifacts from another famous city, selling priceless Roman mosaics for tens of millions of dollars to fund their operations. In 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamyan which were two large monumental statues.

A rich Roman-era trading city, Apamea has been badly looted since the beginning of Syria’s civil war, before ISIS appeared. Satellite imagery shows dozens of pits dug across the site; previously unknown Roman mosaics have reportedly been excavated and removed for sale. ISIS is said to take a cut from sales of ancient artifacts, making tens of millions of dollars to fund their operations.

Concerning the NY Times, the “memory hole” is no less evident in the infamous discourse when Ilhan Omar nonchalantly said, “‘some people did something.” And in one gathering, she expressed sympathy for radical Islamists and made a special request to a Minnesota judge that he  rule “compassionately” towards nine men who were planning to join ISIS.

It is astounding how we have soon forgotten the real truth that happened on that terrible day. As Americans, we should feel a collective sense of outrage for the deliberate attempt of those who wish to destroy one of the darkest chapters of American history in the name of “political correctness.”

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

Return of the Morlocks

One of the most brilliant science fiction writers of all time was H. G. Wells (1866-1947). His insights into human nature might possibly qualify him as a modern-day prophet. In one of the most exciting stories he wrote, “The Time Machine,” a story that has been adapted for several movies.

The protagonist travels into the distant future to a post-apocalyptical era where the remnants of humanity have evolved into two distinctive groups: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are docile people who comprise small, elegant, childlike adults. They live in small communities within deteriorating buildings; they subsist on a fruit-based diet. This people seem peaceful and have no ambition or desire to learn. Yet, there is something wrong about the Eloi. Members of the Eloi disappear at night. What he discovers is that the Morlocks have been hunting them at night, using them as a food source.

I am referring to this story for a specific reason. It seems as though H.G. Wells’ vision of the Morlocks may not be a thing of fiction—it could become a reality for today, and possibly the future.

A behavioral scientist from Sweden thinks cannibalism of corpses will become necessary because of the effects of climate change. The name of this person is Magnus Söderlund, and he is associated with the prestigious Stockholm School of Economics. In his dystopian vision of the future, he proposed that in order to truly take on the effects of climate change, we must “awake the idea” that eating human flesh should be discussed as an option in the future.

But wait, his justification gets increasingly gross. Söderlund realizes that present-day society would find the idea of consuming flesh “repugnant.” Historically, existing “conservative” taboos against eating human flesh date back to some of the most primal periods of human history. But Söderlund thinks that to combat climate change, people could eventually learn to get over their hang-up about eating human flesh–provided they do so incrementally. Moreover, he thinks human beings can be “tricked” into “making the right decisions.” [1]

This begs the question: Who gets to determine whose life is carnally expendable? The poor and under-trodden? Will it be the lower class? What about the members of the upper echelons of society? What about the rich and powerful?  Söderlund has no answer to these questions.

In a society that places zero moral value on life in the womb, perhaps proposals from men like  Söderlund is something that was bound to happen sooner or later.

It reminds me of the story about the missionary who brought Christ to a community of cannibals. When honored at a dinner, they asked him, “How did you succeed in such an amazing feat?” The missionary sheepishly replied, “You see, before I arrived, the cannibals used to eat with their hands. But after I told them about the power of Christ, the cannibals learned to eat their prey with forks and knives.”

Once Mahatma Gandhi was asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?” “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied. …”

Today’s Western Civilization and its fanatical scientists have a lot to learn about the true meaning of “civilization.”

As I wondered about this insane idea deliberated by this Swedish scientist, I found myself recalling the words of Haim Ginott, an Israeli educational psychologist Haim Ginott writes about a letter that teachers would receive from their principal each year:

  • I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is this:  Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

What bothers me the most is that the climate-change alarmists have developed a self-righteous morphed into a religious-like cult. Anyone who questions the veracity of its claims is considered heretical. It is not surprising that some people think we ought to promote zero population growth. The most populous areas of people are in Asia and Africa. I often wonder what some deluded people will propose next to depopulate the human race to a size that poses little threat to the environment.

Was H. G. Wells, correct?

Time will tell.

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NOTES: [1] https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/swedish-scientist-eating-humans-climate-change?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2

The Ramban vs. Maimonides in theological debate

August 23, 2019 / Leave a Comment

Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker by Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin, Geffen Publishing House (c) 2018, ISBN 9789652-298874.

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — One of the most interesting books I have read in years is Rabbi Israel Drazin’s excellent primer on the Ramban, entitled, Nachmanides An Unusual Thinker about a brilliant rabbinic scholar of the 13th century. He was born in Gerona in Northern Spain in 1194 and he was a man who had many remarkable experiences. And while he is best known for his biblical commentaries on the Pentateuch and other biblical books, Ramban is no less famous for his debate with the apostate Jew Pablo Christiani, which took place in 1263 in Barcelona before King James 1.

As Rabbi Drazin pointed out, Christiani attempted to prove to the community that the Sages “foreshadowed the birth and mission of Jesus.” And surprisingly, Nachmanides downplayed the significance of the midrashic texts, pointing out that these writings were only legends and should not be taken seriously. In rabbinical school, we studied this debate.

 Rabbi Drazin noted:

Maimonides was a rationalist and his philosophy was expressed systematically and explicitly, open to thinkers in every generation, whereas the majority of Ramban’s basic ideas are rooted in the metalogical realm of the Kabbalah. Their manner of expression is the allusion, which only a select few were able to fathom throughout the generations.

What I liked about his book is how the author delineated many of the key conceptual differences that best characterize Ramban’s approach and how it contrasted with Maimonides. Think of it as the mystic vs. the rationalist. Being that Ramban was a mystic, his viewpoint tends toward a greater belief in supernatural events that are recorded in the Tanakh.

The author noted:

As a mystic, Nachmanides was the first person to introduce the idea that the Torah contains mystical notions, and the first to offer a mystical interpretation of the Bible. He was also the first to state that the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, Targum Onkelos, contains imaginative aggadic material and mysticism. It was as if he were arguing that if the Torah is true, and mysticism is true, and Targum Onkelos is true, then it follows that the Torah and Targum Onkelos must contain mysticism.

It is ironic that both Nachmanides and Maimonides share a common attribute in their exegetical styles: each one reads their personal Judaic philosophy into the biblical text. Unlike Maimonides, whose ideas fused elements of Greek and Muslim philosophy into his theological worldview, Ramban drew much of his inspiration from the area of Jewish tradition known as the Kabbalah—and this sphere of Jewish learning was one that Maimonides examined with the utmost of his intellectual criticism. According to Ramban, the midrashic hermeneutic constitutes the simple and literal sense of Scriptures, the entire Tanakh makes up the Name of God. Supernaturalism is the peshat of the Torah according to him. Nachmanides promotes the Torah as a mystical text— and this view has left a lasting impression on all subsequent Judaic mystics down to the present era.

As one of Maimonides’ foremost critics, Nachmanides challenged many of Maimonides’ philosophical expositions of how he interpreted familiar biblical narratives and laws. Being that Ramban was a mystic, he interpreted supernatural events as they were recorded in the Tanakh. He had no interest in Maimonidean rationalism.

Let us consider the following examples:

Unlike Maimonides’s parabolic approach to the Book of Genesis, Ramban takes the opposite position in keeping with his understanding of the peshat. For him, when the Torah speaks about an actual Garden of Eden and that Adam’s disobedience was a historical event that occurs in real time; Eden occupies an actual place in the ancient Near East. According to Maimonides—the story possesses a distinctively allegorical meaning. But for Ramban, the Edenic serpent was more than just a mythical character or a psychological symbol—it walks, and it talks too!

As R. Drazin observed:

“Nachmanides used the commentaries of Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, and less frequently Maimonides as a springboard with which to contrast his own original mystical biblical interpretation. He disagrees with these sages, often with strong disparaging words. He also cites the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch, Targum Onkelos, but always with admiration, deference, and respect. Yet, although he mentions Onkelos 230 times in his commentary to the Pentateuch, generally to support” his point of view.

 There are many interesting selections the author mentions. For example, he raises the questions:

·         Do Animals Sin? Similarly, Genesis 6:12 states, “all flesh corrupted their ways.” Rashi argues that “all flesh” means that animals and birds also sinned. Nachmanides recognizes that animals do not sin and states that “all flesh” denotes “all people.”

·         Why State Both “Created” and “Made”? Genesis 2:3 seems to have a duplication, “which God created, had made.” Ibn Ezra states that “had made” means that God gave the items the power to reproduce. Rashi opines that it suggests that God did double work on the sixth day. Nachmanides understands “had made” as suggesting, “that which He had made out of nothing.”

Similarly, later on in the Pentateuch, when Balaam’s donkey speaks, the story means exactly what it says. Once again, for Maimonides, he argued that in psychological terms, Balaam’s donkey can only be understood as a prophetic event; the Torah narrated a biblical character’s visionary experience. The theme of prophecy continues to be a bone of contention with Ramban, who differed with Maimonides’ view that the story about the three strangers who visit Abraham also occurred in a vision. Ramban, argues to the contrary, citing the detail given in the narrative occurs in real time. Abraham entertains real guests, not figments of his imagination. Beyond that, Ramban regarded all the midrashic stories mentioned in rabbinic tradition as having occurred.

Ramban also did not believe in the existence of “natural law” and that God is literally micromanaging all of His Creation, tweaking it from time to time. “God is constantly and directly involved in every human act and thought and frequently interferes and even controls them. He calls these divine manipulations ‘hidden miracles.’” This concept is fascinating, but Maimonides differed, arguing that God’s Providence over nature does not extend to a leaf falling from a tree, or whether every minor event operates with a special imperative from God.

 Along the same line of thought, Ramban believed demons are the product of sorcery, and possess bodies composed of air and fire,[1] which enable them to take flight.[2] are familiar with future events because they communicate with the angels in charge of the stars.[3] More seriously, Ramban takes indirect aim at Maimonides by asserting anyone who does not believe in demonic beings suffers from a heretical attitude toward the world. According to Ramban, if you believe in miracles, then you ought to believe demonic beings exist as well. Elsewhere, Ramban writes:

It is from this standpoint that you can come to realize the ruthlessness and stubbornness of the principal Greek Philosopher Aristotle—may his name be erased from memory—who denies the truth of many things which we have seen and has been publicized throughout the world. In Mosaic times, these truths were known to all for the wisdom of that generation pertained to spiritual matters, e.g., entities involving the demonic and sorcery. However, when the Greeks arose, Aristotle believed only in what the physical sciences could confirm. In his effort to establish the scientific disciplines, he denied the realm of the spiritual. Aristotle denied the existence of demons and all magical acts. For him, the world operated solely by natural law. But it is well-known and shown that this is not the case at all. [4]

Maimonides considered such a perspective to be superstitious nonsense, and never does he endorse such a belief in demonology throughout all his writings, which are considerable.

The reader will find the material presented in this book fascinating. Nachmanides may not be necessarily correct in all of his claims, but as an expounder of the peshat (plain meaning of the text), readers will feel challenged to debate his position with other great ideas expressed by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and other famous Judaic luminaries.

I really enjoyed reading Nachmanides: An Unusual Thinker, and I know you will too.

 This book merits a 5 star rating from this reviewer.


NOTES:

[1] Ramban’s Commentary to Leviticus 17:7. Ramban’s description of demons is almost identical with the Muslim belief in Jinn (الجن‎, al-jinn) who are shape-shifting spirits composed of fire and air.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ramban’s Commentary to Leviticus 17:7.

[4] Charles B. Chavel, Kitvei Ramban, “Derashat Torat Hashem Temimah,” vol. I, pp. 147, 149)

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.comPosted in: Books & PoetryJewish ReligionRabbi Israel DrazinRabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Afterthoughts of the Chabad Poway Shooting

I’m in trouble!

Sometimes, wisdom tales of the past have a way of speaking to us in the present. And although we often think of ourselves a product of the present, in reality, our personal narrative is inextricably connected to those who have preceded us from the past. This especially true when observing Jewish history. By the same token, future generations of Jews will be profoundly affected by the choices we make as Jews today.

Toward the end of the second century C.E., the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiba, lived under the harsh yoke of Roman oppression. Notwithstanding the dangers Jews faced, he boldly defied the Roman ban on studying and publicly teaching Torah.  He once used the following parable about a fox to explain why he did so:

A hungry fox once trotted alongside a river teeming with fish. As the fish darted back and forth, the fox came up with a subterfuge to win the fishes’ attention. The fox exclaimed, “What’s going on?” he called to the fish. “The fisherman is coming with his nets!” came a garbled reply. “I’ve got an idea!” the crafty fox hollered. “Leap out of the water and join me on the riverbank. There are no nets here.”  “You’re not so bright, are you?” came the scornful reply.  “If we remain here, we may or may not get caught.  But if we leave the water, we will die!” Rabbi Akiba said, “The Romans may or may not take my life, but I cannot abandon the Torah, much like a fish cannot give up living in the water.”

But doing nothing is no longer an option.

Verily, every battle against the reality of evil is not limited to just the physical plane we occupy. There is also a spiritual battle that we must engage in. Specifically, if we allow our enemies to frighten us from attending the synagogue, then we have given them a victory they do not deserve. Judaism cannot survive, much less thrive, in such a fearful environment. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria offers us this tidbit of advice, “Cowardice a disease. It poses a far graver threat since it affects not only the body but also destroys the faculties of the soul, unless God heals the person of this condition, for with God all things are possible to Him.”

As I thought about the misery, we have seen this past year, where many Jews have suffered for the crime of being Jewish, it is important to keep in mind this recent shooting occurred in the week of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Memorial Day. And although the face of anti-Semites has changed, their dark character reveals that much of the “civilized” world has not learned any wisdom from one of the darkest periods of human and Jewish history. Even here in the United States, according to the Pew Reports, a third of the American population is not sure whether the Holocaust ever occurred. We have also witnessed a resurgence of hatred in Poland, Germany, the Ukraine, in Russia.[1]

From a theological perspective, the legion of attacks against the Jews raises a question that I am certain many of us have wondered about:  What does it mean to be God’s “Chosen People”? My grandfather, Moshe Samuel, on the way to the crematoria said to my father, “God, if we are Your “Chosen People, then why don’t you choose somebody else for a change?” In moments of great evil, even the most pious can sometimes experience doubt about their faith. Sholem Aleichem also had Tevye express this same question in Fiddler on the Roof.

I believe that as Jews we have a moral purpose to teach the nations of the world about ethical monotheism—i.e., the belief that we must treat each person with the dignity that each person deserves. But Judaism is also more than just a religion of ethics—even if its ethical monotheism. It is a spiritual way of life that summons us to live with dignity, inspires us to sanctify the most ordinary of relationships—toward each other, toward our environment, toward the world; our faith summons us to be hopeful, and courageous when it comes to sticking together during rough times.

This time of the year, let us honor Lori Gilbert-Kaye’s courageous sacrifice by keeping strong the synagogue institution she so deeply loved. Our condolences go out to and her family, to Rabbi Goldstein, and to all those who were directly affected by the attack.

As Jews we have walked this way before in our history. As of this moment, remember each of us is making Jewish history.

What will our legacy be as the future generations of Jews read about our experiences and how we reacted? Will we be remembered for the strength we exuded in standing together as previous generations have done?

The answer is up to each and every one of you.

I encourage each Jewish person to make this Shabbat a Shabbat where we celebrate our Judaism—even as we travel through the Valley of Darkness, knowing full well, that God is with us.

Was Jesus a Palestinian?

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Congresswoman Ilan Omar never ceases to surprise us with the countless inane claims she makes on a daily basis. In one of her more interesting canards, she claimed that “Jesus was a Palestinian.”

One might imagine that she will soon claim that the Israelites were also really Palestinians, and that the God gave Moses the Quran on Mount Sinai.

Her ignorance of the ancient history of Judea is mind-numbing.

We ought to ask the more obvious question. What inspired Omar to make this unusual claim about Jesus being a Palestinian? Just one day before Omar’s tweet appeared, a writer named Eric V. Copage wrote an article, “As a Black Child in Los Angeles, I Couldn’t Understand Why Jesus Had Blue Eyes,” he wondered: Why did Christian artists typically portray Jesus as though he had blue eyes? After all, he reasoned, “Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was most likely a Palestinian man with dark skin.”[1]

And while I might agree that the European depictions of Jesus as having blue eyes is doubtful, it is surprising that Copage assumed that Jesus was a “Palestinian.” The writer obviously is unfamiliar with ancient history.  The myth that “Jesus was a Palestinian” can be traced back to the days of Yasser Arafat, when his trusted Christian-Palestinian adviser Hanan Ashrawi made the outlandish claim.

The Christian scholar Michael Brown said something that I must agree with, “Let’s set the record straight. Jesus was a Galilean Jew, not a Palestinian Muslim. He celebrated Passover, not Ramadan, and he was called “Rabbi” not “Imam.” His followers were named Yaakov and Yochanan and Yehudah, not Muhammad and Abdullah and Khalid.”

Surprisingly, it took one week for the NYT to correct the record,

Frankly, I am surprised Copage and Omar did not also claim that “Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Palestinians.’”

It seems at first blush that Omar read Copage’s article and assumed the New York Times must be correct, and without a second thought, she published her tweet on the following day. Omar must have been perplexed by the reaction she received; might be probably more astonished by how the NYT would later print a retraction one week later after the original article appeared on April 26th, 2019. It read, “Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Jesus’s background. While he lived in an area that later came to be known as Palestine, Jesus was a Jew who was born in Bethlehem.”

There are many ways of viewing this story. So, in the spirit of Socratic dialogue and Freudian analysis, let us ask the obvious question: Why should the Times care? For one thing, it is commonly asserted among Palestinian “historians” that the Jews are not really indigenous to the Middle East, but are descendants of a European people are known as the “Khazars,” who lived in the 8th century in present-day Russia.

Admitting that the Jews have a legitimate history or claim on the Land of Israel that antedates the rise of Islam is something Palestinians do their best to avoid. In East Jerusalem, Muslims have done their best to destroy any archaeological remnants indicating the presence of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem dating back to the First Temple period.  

Most readers of the NYT, and most Jewish readers, in general, are unfamiliar with the real objective that Omar shares with her brethren from the Palestinian, Taliban, and ISIS movements—promotes the systematic destruction of ancient, non-Islamic civilizations.

  • In 2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan shocked the world when their armies blew up the gigantic, statues of Buddha, nearly 50 meters tall. Their justification? They regarded the statues as a violation of the prohibition in against the worship of idols. Protests by both the West and Afghans fell on deaf ears.
  • In the interest of brevity, let us examine several examples we have seen in the last two decades.  In 2015, ISIS singlehandedly destroyed the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria.
  • In August 2015, ISIS destroyed a fifth-century Christian monastery in the Syrian town of Qaryatain, claiming that the monastery was “worshipped without God.”[2]
  • In 2013, more than, Palestinians orchestrated over 200 terror attacks at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, where the Jewish matriarch Rachel is said to be buried—119 of those attacks included the use of explosives at the sacred site.
  • In September 2015, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus was also singled out by Palestinians for destruction—despite the fact, this area is governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is bound by the 1993 Oslo accords to apprehend terrorists and prevent attacks.

The ISIS is very proud of their achievements. In their films documenting the destruction of the Mosul Museum and Nineveh, their film begins with the following statement:

  • Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshipped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices… Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if they are worth billions of dollars.[3]

More recently in France, the French Catholic community has been in a state of shock over the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral. However, we must not lose sight of the fact there have over 1,063 incidents of vandalism against 875 of France’s 42,258 churches since 2018.

he fire to the iconic church, however, may have raised awareness to a rash of vandalism to French churches. A total of 875 of France’s 42,258 churches were vandalized in 2018, with a small fire set to the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris in March, according to French police. Statues of Mother Mary have been discovered decapitated, another 129 churches had thefts on their property with still another 59 cemeteries vandalized.[4]

In summary, Jihadi Islam has a goal to eradicate the religious symbols and sacred places of all the peoples it considers “pagan” or “heretical.” It is an assault on history is no less evident in how Ilan Omar and her NYT cohorts misrepresent history. As a civilized people, we cannot stand by and say nothing while this attempt to destroy civilization—ancient and modern—continues on.

NOTES:


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/reader-center/jesus-images.html

[2] See “Islamic State Destroys Assyrian Christian Monastery in Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 21, 2015.

[3] http://theconversation.com/erasing-history-why-islamic-state-is-blowing-up-ancient-artefacts-78667

[4] https://www.ibtimes.com/notre-dame-cathedral-fire-not-arson-875-french-churches-vandalized-2018-2785886

Book Review: In Good Faith: Questioning Religion & Atheism

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In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism Hardcover
by Scott A. Shay
640 pages
Publisher: Post Hill Press (2018)
ISBN-10: 1682617920

Often the greatest critics of religion offer us a series of criticism about the depth of our faith; they confront us with our hypocrisy. They challenge us to reexamine what it means to “believe.” As a young teenager, I remember hiding Raphael Patai’s book, “Hebrew Myths” in the library because I did not want this book to poison any reader’s mind, even though I thought the author may have “poisoned” my mind by forcing me to take a new look at the Bible and its ancient sources through the prism of myth.

After I read Scott Shay’s remarkable book, “In Good Faith: Understanding Religion and Atheism,” I discovered a fellow pilgrim who has thought very deeply about the meaning and the possibilities of religion. I should point out that Shay is the son of Holocaust survivor. Shay and I have that much in common; my father was also a survivor from Auschwitz. His father had developed (like my own), his own concept of God (p. xviii). Children of survivors often become philosophically or theologically obsessed with trying to make sense of the Big Picture, pertaining to God and the Holocaust.

I get it and I have the tee shirt to prove it!

Part I of his book began with a sushi dinner he had with a friend who was a non-believer. Sushi bars (I can personally attest to this fact!) is often a wonderful place for people to have a spirited dialogue about life, God, or just about anything! In this section Shay argues that without the religious dimension that pertains to God, why should Jews bother worrying about preserving a “Jewish identity”?

Shay might have considered the famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth about the purposeless nature of life, “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28).

Shay perceptively observed that many of his friends feel, “The Bible is just so primitive and obscure, it is no longer relevant to educated adults.” Shay added, “These people believe that the book Religion for Dummies should have been titled, Religion Is for Dummies.” (p. xvii)

After reading the introduction, I felt interested enough to read the rest of the book. In Good Faith: Understanding Religion and Atheism” is very well researched, and it covers a vast area of interesting interlocking topics, from the various scientific areas, quantum theory, relativity, and the new miracles of molecular genetics and so on.

To his credit, Shay shows a willingness to engage the modern atheistic writers in an honest and thoughtful manner. The list includes Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and (my personal favorite!) Christopher Hitchens. While Shay could agree with their critique of religious dysfunction, he differed with their carte blanche rejection of religion.

Shay believes it is not fair or accurate to blame monotheistic religions for the most violent crimes perpetrated in its name. According to Shay, the real enemy of society is idolatry. In the hands of an ancient shaman, the power of idolatry gave the ancients considerable power; this pattern can be seen in the long line of 20th and 21st century dictators, and Scott identifies these leaders as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Kim Jung-On.

In terms of freedom vs. determinism, Shay agrees with the writer Balshevis Singer, who said, “We have to believe in free will—we have no choice.” A world without such freedom would be undesirable. “Everyone would have to behave the same. There would be no need to teach children to be moral, no need to teach adults the path of justice” (p. 241).

Shay is correct—up to a point. I would only add that a Maimonidean approach to the problem reveals that idolatry often hides under the guise of “believing monotheists.” This point would have strengthened Shay’s overall thesis. And this point is more relevant because of the emergence of religious totalitarianism we have witnessed in many of the Muslim countries today (and in Israel today, I might add), who wish to destroy the separation of Mosque/Church/Synagogue and State. Maimonides more than anyone of his time, and probably afterward, understood the danger in monotheistic religions that promote retrograde images of God that reflect human depravity.

Shay does not deny the horrible record organized religion has in the history of human civilization in perpetuating human suffering. Yet, he counters that religion has also civilized humanity. He contends, the Torah limited the number of cases that could result in capital punishment—in fact, any court that executed a single person once in seventy years was considered a murderous court. Shay is correct. The nation’s religious leaders largely inspired the Abolition movement of the 19th century.

Yes, religion can be a healing force in the world. Shay’s book reminds me of an old Jewish story that has been told countless times over the years.

Once a rabbi had a discussion with a soap maker who did not believe in God. As they were strolling down the street, the freethinking soap maker asked the rabbi, “There is something I cannot understand. We have had religion for thousands of years. But everywhere you look there is evil, corruption, dishonesty, injustice, pain, hunger, and violence. Religion has not improved the world at all. In all earnest, please answer me: What good is it?” The rabbi listened and did not reply. They continued their walk. Eventually, they approached a playground where children, covered in dust, were playing in the dirt. The rabbi said, “There is something I don’t understand,” the rabbi said. “Look at those children. We have had soap for thousands of years, and yet those children are filthy. What good is soap?” The soap maker replied, “But rabbi, it isn’t fair to blame soap for these dirty children. Soap has to be used before it can accomplish its purpose.” The rabbi smiled and said, “Aha, aha! That’s exactly the point—you have to use religion if you want it to better the world.” 


This book is full of wonderful ideas that will make you rethink what it means to be a Jew who embraces faith in an age of unfaith such as ours.

It is a book well worth reading, discussing, and sharing with some friends.

Review on the Siddur Avodat Halev (5*) — This is a Siddur you want to own!


Siddur Avodat HaLev (Hebrew and English Edition) Hardcover – August 20, 2018
by Rabbinical Council of America; Editor: Rabbi Basil Herring
1346 pages
Publisher: Koren Publishers Jerusalem; Bilingual edition 2018
Language: Hebrew, English
ISBN-10: 9653019368
ISBN-13: 978-9653019362
Price $24.73. Rating: 5*

The brand new Siddur Avodat Halev is a fabulous new commentary on the traditional siddur, but unlike most commentaries you have read, the writers of this project have incorporated many significant and thought-provoking articles on the theology and praxis of Jewish prayer.

Each page of the siddur contains short pithy remarks that remind me of the old Phillip Birnbaum Siddur and the Artscroll Siddur. The commentary features a brief digest of many of the halakhic perspectives and customs that govern Jewish prayer. It is not verbose, but actually quite succinct. While many commentaries intimidate the reader, the Siddur Avodat Halev’s does not.

Under Rabbi Basil Herring’s fine leadership, the siddur also traces many of the prayers to their scriptural origins—something many prayers after the Birnbaum Siddur neglected to do. In fact, I was curious to see how they explained the blessing, “Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates all things” (p. 90), and sure enough the same explanation Birnbaum gave in his siddur notes appears in the Siddur Avodat Halev. Giving credit to the Birnbaum Siddur would have been nice, but the explanation he gives is satisfying to a reader like myself who enjoys studying the history of what inspired  the ancient prayers.

Women’s participation in traditional prayer is always a hot-button subject. To the siddur’s credit, it tries to be more inclusive than other Orthodox siddurim of the past. For example, instead of using the traditional male-oriented language which invariably uses the male pronoun “he,” the siddur uses the more gender-inclusive pronoun, “one.” Or, in the Grace After Meals, it uses the expression, “esteemed companions” in place of “rabbotai,” “head of the house” instead of “master of the house.” It also mentions “With your permission, (my father and teacher,”/ “ my mother and my teacher” in the opening words of the Grace.

This is very appropriate, and it reminded me of the Scriptural passage, ‎ שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ “Listen, my child, to your father’s instruction, do not reject the Torah (lit. instruction) of your mother” (Prov. 1:8), for our mothers do teach us Torah by their values and lessons we learn from the age of infancy onward. This verse would have made a terrific footnote for the siddur, and I would encourage adding this concept in a future edition.

The siddur also contains additional prayers such as those relating to the Holocaust, the State of Israel, and personal events such as thanksgiving and dedication of a home. In the original Artscroll Siddur, references to the Shoah and the State of Israel do not appear until Artscroll later partnered with the RCA in producing a more updated siddur.

In the Mi’Sheberech prayer that is said after one is called up to the Torah, the Siddur included the mentioning of the Matriarchs—this is the second Modern Orthodox Siddur I have seen in which the authors include this. The other siddur is the Nahalel Siddur. These changes represent a dramatic mind-shift in the Modern Orthodox community.

The old albatross of a prayer blessing God, “for not making me a woman” is still included; the same old tired apologetic exposition is used. I think this Siddur should have included the 15th-century Italian version of the prayer, “Blessed are You… .Who did not make me a man.” Not only would this have been a provocative change, but it would also stress that we ought to thank God for making us who we are. Better still, it would have really been terrific to say these blessings in the positive. Instead of defining ourselves by what we are NOT, we should take a positive approach and thank God for making us who we ARE. Thus, a man should say, “Blessed are You . . . for making me a man,” or “Blessed are You . . . for making me a woman,” and lastly, “Blessed are You for making me an Israelite.” This version completely sidesteps the usual awkward problems associated with these particular prayers.

While Siddur Avodat Halev has made great strides, sometimes it still operates within the confines of a medieval Procrustean bed, named after Procrustes, the bandit from Greek mythology who stretched or amputated the limbs of travelers to make them conform to the length of his bed. Rabbis need greater freedom to improve upon Jewish tradition and I pray that someday the Modern Orthodox movement will seriously change their overall thinking on this sensitive matter. No amount of apologetic explanations can justify the animus of a prayer that has offended Jewish women for many centuries.

Another piece of anachronistic history in the siddur is the section pertaining to the Kapporet prayer. Frankly, the old practice of Orthodox Jews swinging a frightened chicken over their heads on the eve of Yom Kippur seems antithetical in every way to the modern facelift the Siddur Avodat Halev wishes to make. And while the commentary points out its shortcomings, I think no explanation can sanitize the inappropriateness of this prayer—especially since the practice of the Kapporet more often than not violates the biblical prohibition of causing animals needless pain (tsar ba’alei chayim).

The authors should have included the Tefilah Zakah instead. It is a much more powerful prayer that captures the beauty of the High Holidays and its emphasis on forgiveness. This prayer actually appears in the siddur on pages 338-339. In Jewish liturgical history, the Tefilah Zakah is a part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, and in this prayer, a people enumerate and connect their various sins with various acts and ask for forgiveness. More significantly, people forgive any who have caused them pain or harmed them. R. Avraham Danzig (1748-1820) popularized this prayer in his famous Halakhic digest, Hayye Adam. It is definitely a better alternative to the Kapporet ritual.

Perhaps the most critical part of the Siddur Avodat Halev pertains to the attempt of its writers to explain the theology of Jewish prayer with a particular focus on the nature of Kavanah, or “intentionality.” And while the siddur does a fine job in examining the nature of Kavanah, it sheepishly avoids dealing with most perplexing questions of our age: What is the nature of a personal relationship with God? Is God “responsive” to our prayers? Does prayer truly have or evoke healing power? Nothing challenges the theological beliefs of a Jew—regardless of our denomination—more than prayer. Prayer calls into question all of our most fundamental beliefs in a “personal” God and this area poses tough questions for Modern Orthodox intellectuals and theologians alike, as well as their Conservative and Reform colleagues.

The Halakhic Controversy Regarding the Status of Turkey

 

turkey bird, caruncle, courtship, domestic turkey, galliformes, hen, meleagris gallopavo, poultry, red, turkey bird

The question of turkey’s status as a permitted bird is a topic that comes up every Thanksgiving holiday season. Nevertheless, many Orthodox Jews I personally know will never eat turkey since there is no tradition permitting it.

Clearly, the Torah does not mention turkey at all since it is native to North America. Based on the criteria the Mishnah provides, the turkey does possess all the kosher signs one would expect of a kosher bird.[1] However, the absence of having a tradition going back many generations is one reason why some pious observant Jews will not eat turkey. This is in accordance with the view expressed in the Shulchan Aruch that ruled, “no bird should be eaten unless there is a mesorah (tradition) that it is a kosher species.”[2]

The fact the Torah mentions only twenty-four species of birds implies that only those species are considered impure and unfit for consumption, but the majority of birds are considered permitted.  It was only in the 16th century the custom arose not to eat any bird that did not have a tradition permitting it. Since turkeys had already been eaten by Jews prior to that time and therefore the rabbis did not consider it “unkosher.”

Although the Torah did not state the specific tokens regarding fowl, the Sages ruled: “Any fowl which seizes is unclean.  Any fowl which has an extra talon [the hallux] and a craw and the skin of the stomach of which [can] be stripped off are clean.” R. Eleazar b. Sadoq says, “Any bird which parts its toes evenly two in front and two in the back is unclean” (Mishnah Hullin 3:6). It is significant the 4th century Amora named Amemar said, “The law is that every bird that has one characteristic [of cleanness] is clean, that is, if it does not seize prey.” Rashi notes the meaning of Amemar’s opinion is, so long as it does not seize prey and it has, in addition, one characteristic of cleanness it is clean. However, Tosafot (s.v. tuvu) takes the scholar literally; the fact that it does not seize prey is the only characteristic of cleanness that it need possess (BT Hullin 62a).

So how did turkey suddenly gain a kosher status?

Enquiring minds really want to know!

Some of the rabbis of the previous centuries identified the turkey as the הוֹדוּ תַּרְנְגוֹל “Indian chicken,” and thought the bird originated in India. Jews were not the only ones who thought this way. The French referred to turkey as poulet d’Inde (“Chicken from India”), as did the Polish, Ukrainian and Russian countries. It was assumed that the rabbis in India permitted it. However, this was an assumption that could never be proven since it was based on a false assumption: Turkeys did not exist in India!

But as erroneous as this view was, subsequent rabbis realized that people had already accepted it as a kosher bird—especially since it had all the kosher characteristics mentioned in the Mishnah.[3] But here is the real reason why turkeys ought to be permitted—from a scientific perspective, is because turkeys belong to the family of Phasianidae.

From the perspective of taxonomy, the Phasianidae includes a wide variety of birds that include pheasants, partridges, quail, chickens, pea-fowl, the wild turkey, and jungle-fowl. The red jungle-fowl (Gallus gallus), is actually primary progenitor of the domestic chicken. Even if Moses’ time did not specifically know about turkey, they were certainly familiar with quail and chicken, turkey, pheasants, peacocks—are only a few examples of birds that are part of the Phasianidae genus.

And for those Jews who worry about turkey, it is strange that nobody—not even in rabbinical times ever wondered as to why chicken was permitted. Chickens did not exist in Mosaic times! But once again, even if the rabbis did not know about the Phasianidae genus, they were most certainly familiar with quail and pheasant. Chickens are kissing cousins of these two birds.

Although pheasant does not appear in the Tanakh, rabbinic tradition[4] identified it with the שְׂלָו (selav) the Israelites had eaten mentioned in Exodus 16:13. The appearance of pheasant and quail are very similar.

The Romans enjoyed eating pheasant. According to one midrashic text, Emperor Hadrian was surprised to discover that pheasants existed in Judea in great supply.[5] The Tosefta mentions pheasants were bread together with peacocks, which is another member of the Phasianidae genus.[6] The Midrash mentions the pheasant as among those rare delicacies, the taste of which the manna could acquire should a person yearn for it.[7]

Historically, the chicken actually makes its first appearance in Israelite art in seals dating back from the late 8th century B.C.E.  Poultry and eggs probably did not become common before the 5th-6th-century B.C.E. Some scholars think King Solomon might have served chicken to his royal guests, for the word (barb-rîm = fattened fowl) may be related to the Arabic birbir, meaning, young chickens.  As a man of means, King Solomon certainly would have been able to import this delicacy.

The earliest drawing of a chicken is that of a rooster on a seal found at Tell en-Nasbeh, some 8 miles north of Jerusalem, which dates back to about 600 B.C.E.    The ancient Israelite diet might have consisted of beef, lamb, roebuck, gazelle, wild goat, and deer, quails, turtledoves, pigeons, partridges, geese, (possibly swans) and ducks—but no chickens! In Mosaic times, the chicken was completely unknown. Let us further add, that there is no Hebrew word for chicken, even the name, which later came to describe it, (tarnegol) is really a Sumerian loanword that Biblical Hebrew later adopted during the Persian period. It was at that time, the Jews began to eat chickens and eggs (2 Esd. 1:30).

Here is another piece of kashrut trivia most of you might be surprised to know. In rabbinical times, the Sages ate peacock as a delicacy. The Talmud records an interesting discussion pertaining to R. Yose the Galilean, who ate chicken with milk. On one occasion:  Levi visited the house of Joseph the fowler. They served him the head of a peacock cooked in milk.  Levi would not eat it. When he came before Rabbi, he said to him, “How come you didn’t excommunicate them?” He said to him, “It was the locale of R. Judah b. Beterah, and I thought, maybe he expounded for them the rule in accord with the position of R. Yose the Galilean.”[8]

Like the pheasant, chicken, and turkey, the peacock is also a member of the  Phasianidae mishpacha!

——–

NOTES:

[1] “Although the Torah did not state the specific tokens regarding fowl, the Sages ruled: “Any fowl which seizes is unclean.  Any fowl which has an extra talon [the hallux] and a craw, and the skin of the stomach of which [can] be stripped off is clean.” R. Eleazar b. Sadoq says, “Any bird which parts its toes evenly two in front and two in back is unclean” (Mishnah Hullin 3:6). It is significant the 4th century Amora named Amemar said, “The law is that every bird that has one characteristic [of cleanness] is clean, that is, if it does not seize prey.” Rashi notes the meaning of Amemar’s opinion is, so long as it does not seize prey and it has in addition one characteristic of cleanness it is clean. However, Tosafot (s.v. tuvu) takes the scholar literally; the fact that it does not seize prey is the only characteristic of cleanness that it need possess (BT Hullin 62a).

[2] Ari Z. Zivotofsky, “Is Turkey Kosher?” The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society , 35(Spring, 1998):79-110.

[3] See the Responsa Meishiv Davar YD:22 by R. Naftali Tzvi Berlin, a.k.a., Netziv.

[4] BT Yoma 75b mentions a tradition associated with R. Hanan b. Abba said: “There are four kinds of slaw [quails]: thrush, partridge, pheasant and quail proper.” Comp. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Exodus 16:13. Cf. BT Kiddushin 31a.

[5] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 2:8.

[6] Tosefta Kilayim 1:7. The Tosefta considered the crossbreeding of these birds as violating the laws of Kilayim (forbidden mixtures), despite the fact that these birds belong to the same scientific genus. However, The Talmud mentions a rule known as the “hybridization principle.” This principle states that kosher species cannot mate with non-kosher species; hence, the fact that a suspect species can interbreed with a known kosher species confirms the kosher status of the unknown species (BT Bechorot 7a). This is a question I will address at another time.

[7] Num. Rabbah 7:4. מי שהיה מתאוה תרנגול או פסיון וכ׳ “whoever desired to eat chicken or pheasant, found the taste of it in the manna.”

[8] BT Shabbat 130a.