Novel ideas needed for Simchat Torah

Image result for Simchat Torah pictures

Simchat Torah is a relatively new holiday. Nowhere is it mentioned in the Talmud; nor is it mentioned in Maimonides or the Tur Shulchan Aruch. But it is explicitly mentioned in the Zohar,[1] a work that dates back to about 1270—although it is a holiday that probably began many centuries earlier when the Babylonian and Palestinian communities finished reading their Torah cycles. Undoubtedly, just as the conclusion of Talmudic tractate always served as a festive occasion—it is a certainty Jews rejoiced in deed whenever their communities finished reading the Torah.[2]

And now for my story . . .

One of my Modern Orthodox colleagues, who works as a day-school teacher  in New York, surprised many of us with a candid remark about his experience of Simchat Torah. He confessed that he struggled with the holiday more so than any of the other High Holidays of the year. He felt that its celebration felt “mailed in and tired.”

Interestingly enough, several other Orthodox friends chimed in and expressed similar thoughts. Some complained about the length of the service. Some people felt they preferred making their own “personal” Simchat Torah concluding a Talmudic tractate or section of the Mishnah. Others thought the synagogues lengthen the Hakafot beyond the realm of sensibility.

As I thought about this discussion, I realized that many people may feel simply overwhelmed with the plethora of holidays we celebrate this time of the year. In other words, people’s ambivalence may in fact reflect tiredness.

Here at Chula Vista’s Temple Beth Shalom, most of our growing congregation is made up of Spanish members who have re-embraced Judaism over the last several years. I often like to tell them about how marvelous their spiritual journey has been for them. Despite several centuries of efforts to forcibly convert the Spanish Jews to Christianity, the Church failed. The fact they are here among us is proof positive that the Jewish spark of their ancestral identities could not ever be destroyed. So it remained dormant—but on one unexpected day, something awoke from within them.

Reclaiming the “lost children” of Latin American countries can help revitalize any Jewish community that is willing to welcome them back. One of my favorite newly minted Spanish Jews went with his friend to a Chabad store on Fairfax Ave. The rabbi had no problem asking the Jewish woman to say a blessing over the lulav, but when her Spanish friend asked to say the blessing, the rabbi looked at this dark-skinned Spanish looking Jew in total disbelief. “Are YOU Jewish?” he asked. “Yes I am,” and he took the lulav and etrog and said the appropriate blessing—while the Rabbi looked astonished.

It is high time we welcome back our Spanish Jews. We are the “Jewish people” and not “The Jewish Club.” It is time to welcome back all the lost Jewish tribes. That is debt we owe to our ancestors. We can do no less.

At our shul on Simchat Torah night, you could see all the Spanish Jewish men and women lost in a state of ecstasy, as they danced with the Torah. Since we have trouble getting a Minyan on the second day of Yom Tov, I instituted that we finish the Torah on Simchat Torah night; everyone celebrated with clapping and dancing, as we danced throughout the synagogues with our Torah scrolls, and on the sidewalk facing the shul for the whole world to see.

This modern custom actually dates back to the time when Russian Jews lived under the yoke of Soviet tyranny. The Russian government allowed Jews to affirm their Jewish identity by letting them dance in the streets. Elie Wiesel once commented that he was deeply amazed by the joy these Jews exhibited whenever he visited Moscow when he joined them in their celebration of Simchat Torah.[3]

For obvious reasons, this was something all the Spanish Jews of TBS could easily relate to; and so too, they all danced.

Even on Shabbat, at the end of the Torah reading, we took out all the Torah scrolls so that everyone who could not make it to the Shul on Simchat Torah could dance on Shabbat Bereishit—the first new parsha of the year. I explained that Shabbat absorbs the holiness of all the other days of the week, and that the lesson of Simchat Torah reminds us that everyone needs to celebrate the study of the Torah not only once a year—but throughout the year as well.

As rabbis, we need to think more imaginatively of how we can make the holidays more meaningful; sometimes, thinking outside the box can go a long way in improving the spirit of this most remarkable holiday.

*

[1]Zohar 1:33; Raya Mehemna  Vol. 3; Parshat Pinchas 256b; Tikunei Zohar 56a.

[2] Other rabbinic sources record the observance  of Simchat Torah in a number of communities.   The Machzor Vitri 185 (an important 11th Halakhic work) describes the observance in clear detail and it corresponds exactly to how we nowadays observe Simchat Torah. In one passage he describes how the Second Day of Shimini Atsereth was observed in the French communities. The name “Simchat Torah” came only later.

[3]Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence, ch. 5.

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

Rediscovering the Meaning of Yahrzeit

One of the most important but also neglected customs of the year is when we observe the Yahrzeit of a loved one.  It occurs with such frequency that we often will forget about the date altogether because we may have forgotten the Hebrew calendar date.

According to R. Solomon Freehoff, this circumstance is the principle reason why he thinks a secular date of death may be used lest the actual day of Yahrzeit be forgotten. Nevertheless, he encourages synagogues and rabbis to instruct people how to observe the traditional Yahrzeit based on the Hebrew calendar—a point that is pragmatic as it is effective. [1]

With the plethora of Jewish calendar programs available in Android, determining the Yahrzeit is no longer a daunting task. Yet, human laziness being what it is, it is still easy to overlook a Yahrzeit—whether one has a computerized program or not.

For some of us, the Yahrzeit date involves no great effort to remember—especially if our parents or loved ones died on a Jewish holiday.

On Purim of 1996, my father Leo Israel Samuel died as I was reading the Megillah at my old beloved congregation in Glens Falls, New York. As a Holocaust survivor, my father’s death left a lasting mark on many of my old congregants who remembered what happened that fateful evening—many of whom remembered speaking to my father who had lived with us during the last year of his life.

Yahrzeits are so personal—most of us have difficulty remember their own Yahrzeits, let alone someone else’s Yahrzeit.  However, this past week, I found myself deluged by dozens of Yahrzeit acknowledgements from people who remembered my father.  Someone had sent me with a beautiful Yahrzeit candle with an acknowledgement. I felt very touched and moved beyond words . . .

As a side note I want to add that as I thought about this experience I suddenly realized how valuable the Facebook website could be in helping people reconnect with old friends and family. It seemed as though the arms of the cyber community lifted me up and I realized that if it could lift me up, it can lift up other lives detached by geographical distance, but united in a spirit that transcends distance—and even time. Creating a web of cyber relationships can also help you expand your sphere of friendships and family many of us have lost touch with over the years. Facebook also can help us renew these old friendships–it is a forum where cyber-friends become almost like an extended family. This past year, I have also discovered many lost relatives bearing the same Samuel name–all through Facebook. No longer do we have to wait to see pictures in the mail of our grandchildren, with a keystroke, suddenly the pictures are there for everyone to see.

Jewish mystical teaches us that the death of a good man or woman represents a moment when the soul graduates to the next higher level of existence. At the time of death, the soul experiences a transcendent release enabling it to grow wings as  it ascends into the eternal reality of spirit. When a loved one dies on a Jewish holiday, this can have great spiritual significance. I remember many people I have helped buried as a rabbi, who passed away on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish legend and folklore, if your loved one dies on Yom Kippor, all of one’s sins are completely forgiven. As a Holocaust survivor who defied Hitler’s hoards with his body and soul, it seemed only apropos my father died on the day of Purim—a time recalling how our ancestors survived the Hitler of their time—Haman.

Rest in peace in the world of eternity—in a realm where suffering no longer has any bite or reality.



[1] Solomon Freehoff, Contemporary Reform Responsa (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1974), 1:168, 2:17.

‘Twas the night before Purim …

Haredim Purin Mea  Shearim Santa Claus
My good friend Yochanan Lavie  sent me some time ago one of the best Purim stories that I have read in a long time.
Now, who says the Haredim don’t have a good sense of humor?
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Posted by Yochanan Lavie on 28.02.10 at 4:18 pm

‘Twas the night before Purim, when all through the shul

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mule;

The stockings were hung by the aron with care,

In hopes that St. Mordecai soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their pews,

While visions of humantashen danced in their shoes;

And mammaleh in her ‘kerchief, and I in my kipah,

Had just settled down for a late winter’s sleepa,

When out in the shul there arose such a clatter,

I looked from the megillah to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of chatzot to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should show,

But a miniature grogger telling Haman to go,

With a little old maidel, so lively and festive,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Esther.

More rapid than eagles the groggers they rattled,

And they whistled, and shouted, as Haman they battled:

“Parshandatha, and Dalphon, and Aspatha, and Poratha, and Adalia, and Aridatha,
Parmashta, and Arisai, and Aridai, and Vaizatha,”

To the top of the gallows! to the top of the tree!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away thee!”

As slush that before the morning sun plops,

As the temperature rises, like a tchinek is hocked,

So down to the bottom of the halters they dropped,

With the sleigh full of shalach manot, and St. Mordecai too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard in the shul

The dancing and applauding of each happy Jew.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Mordecai came with a bound.

He was dressed all in purple, from his head to his tuchus,

And his clothes were all garnished with kasha and varniskes;

A bundle of shalach manot he had flung on his back,

Like a Lower East Side peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes — how they twinkled! his dimples how freilich!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a dreidel! [wrong holiday!]

His droll little payot were drawn up like a bow,

And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight like a villain,

And the smoke it encircled his head like tefillin;

He had a broad face and a little round pupik,

That shook, when he laughed like a tray full of cupcakes.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old Yid,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of my Id;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his keppie,

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to worry;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his avodah,

And gave us shalach manot; then drank Mountain Dew soda,

And laying his finger aside of his payot,

And doing a schuckle, the chimney he went up;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a yashar koach,

And away they all flew like a Chabad shiliach

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of the way,

“Happy Purim to all, and to all an oy vey.”

Posted by: Yochanan Lavie |

Why Do We Celebrate Hanukah?– A Potpourri of Judaic Perspectives

One of the famous and most important questions asked about Hanukkah reads: What is Hanukkah? [i.e., “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?”]. The question strikes a modern reader as odd. Surely, the Jews must have known about the holiday’s significance for several centuries! On the surface, one could argue that the question is purely rhetorical in nature. It serves to help provide the rabbinical teachers with a new interpretation of the famous Maccabean triumph over the Syrian-Greeks: The Talmud replies:

  • On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary; they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. When the Hasmonean monarchy emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. There was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The following year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

One 9th century Midrashic work, Pesikta Rabbati, records a legend: Why did the rabbis make Hanukkah eight days? Because … the Hasmoneans  entered the Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils. They were kept busy for eight days. And why do we light candles? When the Hasmoneans entered the Temple, there were eight iron spears in their hands, which they covered with wood and drove into the ground, lighting oil in each and using them as lamps.[1] This reinterpretation of the Hanukkah story has no support in none of the 2nd century B.C.E. literature, or for that matter in the  1stcentury stories concerning Hanukkah, which we will soon examine in detail. The miracle of the Hanukkah has a different narrative in the Book of Maccabees 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 —the oldest record of the Hanukkah story that differs considerably from the Talmudic version found in BT Shabbat 21b that was recorded several centuries after the holiday had become a commonplace Jewish observance.

  • 36Then Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.”37So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion.38They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished. 39Then they tore their clothes and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes 40and fell with their faces to the ground. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
  • 41Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary.42He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; 43these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the Abomination to an unclean place. 44They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of holocausts that had been desecrated. 45The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. 46They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them. 47Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one.
  • 48They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and purified the courts. 49They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. 51They also put loaves on the table and hung up curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
  • 52Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, 53they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made.54On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. 55All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.  56For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. 57They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers and furnished them with doors. 58There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.  59Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev.

Note that the original date of the Hanukkah celebration occurred on December 14th, 164 B.C.E. Hanukkah was thus called, “The Feast of Dedication” and this name also appears in the Book of John 10:22 of the NT. Josephus refers to the celebration as the “Feast of Lights.” Josephus adds an altogether different spin on the story of Hanukkah.

  • (321) This desolation happened to the temple in the hundred forty and fifth year, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Apelleus, and on the hundred and fifty-third olympiad: but it was dedicated anew, on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apelleus, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, and on the hundred and fifty-fourth olympiad. (322) And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel, which was given four hundred and eight years before; for he declared that the Macedonians would dissolve that worship [for some time]. 7. (323) Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. (324) Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. (325) And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. (326) Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

One might wonder why did Josephus refer to Hanukkah as “The Festival of Lights”? Curiously, he does not mention anything about the custom of lighting the menorah, as we commonly do today. One would think he would have gone to greater lengths explaining the tradition, since he wrote The Antiquities of the Jews as guide to curious gentiles who wanted to learn more about the Jewish people. Josephus stresses that the holiday of “Lights” represents the light of religious freedom—the ability to worship God in a manner that is free from foreign interference.

It would seem that the last thing Josephus wanted to do was the extoll the military victories of the Maccabees over their enemies—especially since Titus captured the menorah as the Romans displayed it in the streets of Rome after defeating Judea and destroying her Temple. From this perspective, one may conclude that both the Rabbis and Josephus wished to stress the spiritual victory of the Maccabean revolt—one which would not appear threatening to an anxious Roman government. Continue reading “Why Do We Celebrate Hanukah?– A Potpourri of Judaic Perspectives”

The Metaphysics of the Dreidel

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.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

Winding Road In Tibet Royalty Free Stock Photos - Image: 23557958

The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Tonight we begin our spiritual journey with a celebration of Yom Kippur—a holiday that is wholly devoted to the cultivation of forgiveness and spiritual renewal—both as individuals and as a community.

“I have forgiven you as you have spoken” Fewer subjects personally challenge our moral sensibilities like forgiveness—both as individuals and as a society.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is important for us to revisit some of the important questions about the nature and dynamics of forgiveness.

But what are the limitations of forgiveness? What are its possibilities? Should a person forgive unconditionally?

In Jewish tradition, it is often customary to broach an important topic with a story.

You are a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. You are sent to work in a hospital. A nurse brings you to a German soldier named Karl, who is mortally wounded. The dying soldier confesses that he has committed terrible atrocities against your people and asks you to forgive him. What would you do? ‘

Actually, this was the question faced by renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and is the focus of his autobiographical novel, The Sunflower. Wiesenthal took the soldier’s hand listened to his story.

The patient recounted a horrible act in which he had participated. All of the Jews, mothers with infants and children, young and old, were rounded up and crowded into a large yellow house. The commanding officer ordered the house to be set afire.

When the Jews started running from the burning building and jumping out windows, the commander ordered the troops to fire. After telling the story, the patient asked Wiesenthal if he would forgive him for his role in the massacre.

Ultimately, young Wiesenthal walks away in silence. He can’t forgive the man. But his own soul is scorched with the agony of his decision to walk away.  Liberated from the camps, Wiesenthal seeks out the dead soldier’s mother to ease his mind. He finds a broken woman, left with nothing but the good memory of her son.

Wiesenthal decided not to tell her of her son’s confessed atrocities, his silence brings him peace of mind. He couldn’t forgive the soldier for the murder of others; he can spare an old woman suffering.

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO FORGIVE?

Wiesenthal later wrote, “Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is a choice, and only the person who suffers is qualified to forgive”

As the years went by, his conscience still haunts him: Did I do the right thing in refusing to forgive the SS soldier? What do you think? Are there some crimes that simply cannot be forgiven?

When Wiesenthal first printed his book, there was a remarkable range of responses. Most Jewish respondents felt that Wiesenthal was right in not forgiving the dying Nazi. How could a mass-murderer be forgiven?

POSTSCRIPT

Did Karl truly repent? Only God knows, but it is possible that he took a significant meaningful first step toward some form of redemption . . .  The rest of his journey can only continue in the World of Eternity . . . As I mentioned earlier, The Chinese say, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

In Karl’s case, we cannot confuse the beginning of a journey with its ending. It seems only apropos for the souls of the victims to deal with the souls of their perpetrators on their own terms. But regardless how one views the story, this much is known: Could either young Simon or Karl have ever imagined that their mysterious encounter would challenge the moral sensibilities of countless millions of people across time?

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The Sabbath as an “architecture of sacred time”

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) posits that the Sabbath is an “architecture of sacred time.”[1] He poignantly argues that while it is true that all peoples of antiquity venerated certain places as holy, the Torah places a far greater emphasis on the sanctification of time versus the sanctification of space. It is no coincidence that the word for sanctity is first associated with the Sabbath. When God blesses the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:3), it literally becomes, “a sanctuary of holy time.”

Sabbath rituals exemplify Judaism’s quest to sanctify time. To the pagan, the notion of holiness is inextricably related to sacred space; as a result, there is a tendency for the primal psyche to project its concept of the divine into an object that is found in the phenomenal world. But the Sabbath is radically different. With the Sabbath, as Heschel notes, human beings leave the realm of holy space and enter into the realm of holy time.[2]

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.[3]

The Sabbath also exerts a profound economic impact upon a society. As a symbol of sanctified time, the Sabbath releases men and women from the tyranny of a consumer-driven market economy. Keeping the Sabbath must be more than just a mere activity—it must foster a renewal of the soul. The Sabbath symbolizes the ideal state of creation where every creature great and small, stands in cosmic unity together in honor of the Creator. As a symbol of rest and renewal, the Sabbath signifies an inner serenity that permeates the spirit. Continue reading “The Sabbath as an “architecture of sacred time””

How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt (Part 2)

As we mentioned earlier, exegetic scholars–both Jewish and Christian–have long recognized the problems with the numbers mentioned in the Bible. Judging by the numbers listed in the beginning of Numbers, the Israelite nation must have consisted of about two and a half million people. This must have been a rigorous job for the two midwives in charge of their birth (Exod 1:15 )! There were precisely 22,273 firstborn males (Num. 3:43); given 600,000+ males, this would mean an average of at least 27.1 sons per mother.  Not even today’s Haredi or Hassidic communities (who do not practice birth-control) have numbers like that! One is almost reminded of the famous Groucho Marx cigar joke, which we will not mention at this time (Generation X-ers, Google the joke).

Some scholars, like the 19th century commentator G. B. Gray, and others to conclude that either the numbers are a fiction, or are outright exaggeration. Not all modern biblical scholars take such a dim view. For example, W. F. Albright has argued instead that the large numbers in the census lists of Numbers actually were derived from the population figures as they existed during the monarchy of King David.[1]

With unusual insight, one early 20th century scholar, Flinders Petrie was the first to point out that the term אֶלֶף  (‘e’lep) can have multiple meanings, such as “cattle,” “family,” “tribe,” “chieftain,” and “friend,”  in addition to the connotation of “thousand.”

The problem, Petrie argued, was due to the early translators of the Torah, who chose to use the word “thousand” instead of using a more practical nuance which would have made more contextual sense out of the passages. Over time, this mistaken translation, was replicated by other translators,  thus creating the problem in the text.[2] With this theory, he reduced the size of the Exodus to about 20,000 people including women and children. Continue reading “How Many Israelites Actually Left Egypt (Part 2)”

‘Twas the night before Purim …

Purim picture of the day.

Haredim Purin Mea  Shearim Santa Claus
[Purim in Meah Sharim–Haredi style] compliments of Failedmessiah.com.
Now, who says the Haredim don’t have a good sense of humor?
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Posted by Yochanan Lavie on 28.02.10 at 4:18 pm

‘Twas the night before Purim, when all through the shul

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mule;

The stockings were hung by the aron with care,

In hopes that St. Mordecai soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their pews,

While visions of humantashen danced in their shoes;

And mammaleh in her ‘kerchief, and I in my kipah,

Had just settled down for a late winter’s sleepa,

When out in the shul there arose such a clatter,

I looked from the megillah to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of chatzot to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes should show, Continue reading “‘Twas the night before Purim …”

“Purim Torah” or Purim Synchronicity?

Purim Torah is a remarkable genre of Jewish literature. It is rabbinic satire at its best that centers around the festivities of Purim. Those individuals writing Purim Torah display remarkable wit in weaving Talmudic logic in fabricating conclusions that border the absurd and sublime.

Earlier this week, I received a delightful section of a fabricated Talmud–replete with all the Aramaic expressions one would expect to find in a Talmudic debate. The selection contains a discussion involving President Obama, Al Gore, and the debate about global warming.  Even the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfot that explained the make-believe text looked pretty authentic. The name of the tractate is Mesechect Obama Metzia (a pun on Bava Metzia).

Here is another example of “Purim Torah” that almost sounds like a Rod Serling story from the Twilight Zone.

The story is well-known. Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews of the Persian Empire ended in disaster for Haman and his family. Queen Esther and Ahashverus have a conversation (Esther 9:12-14).

And the king said to Esther the queen: The Jews have slain and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the capital, and the ten sons of Haman…Now whatever your petition, it shall be granted; whatever your request further, it shall be done.

Then said Esther: If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews that are in Shushan to do tomorrow also as this day, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows.

One might ask: Esther’s request seems somewhat strange. The ten sons of Haman had already been killed, why bother to hang them? The simple approach suggests she made this request so that everyone would know the consequences that would befall them, should anyone attempt to harm the Jews.

Rabbinic commentaries have a different spin. Commenting on the word “tomorrow,” in Esther’s request, the Sages comment:

“There is a tomorrow that is now, and a tomorrow which is later.” (Tanchuma Bo 13 and Rashi on Exodus 13:14).

From this interpretation, 20th century rabbis extrapolate that Esther was asking that the hanging of Haman’s ten sons not remain an isolated episode in history… But wait! What other “tomorrow” could Esther have been alluding to? Inquiring minds want to know!

And now you are going to hear–the rest of the story …

Rabbi Moshe Katz writes about one of the most remarkable “Torah Codes” of all time. In general, I have never subscribed to the belief in a hidden computerized message that is embedded within a biblical text. This particular interpretation is too striking  to ignore. If nothing else, it is an incredible synchronicity. He writes: Continue reading ““Purim Torah” or Purim Synchronicity?”