A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity

Sometimes even the most obvious biblical passages can be perplexing. One interesting verse is a case in point:

“Therefore, do not say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we do not then sow or reap our crop?’ I will bestow such blessings on you in the sixth year that there will then be crop enough for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will continue to eat from the old crop; and even into the ninth year, when the crop comes in, you will still have the old to eat from” (Lev. 25:20-22).

It is difficult to determine how seriously the ancient Jews observed the שמיטה‎  “Sabbatical Year” (literally “release”). The fact that people attempted to keep it at all, given the hard economic realities, is  remarkable.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem in the 5th cent. B.C.E. swore to let the ground remain fallow during the seventh year (Neh. 10:31). During the Maccabean revolution, the Syrian army led by general Lysias, took over the fortress of Beth-zur because food was in short supply during the sabbatical year when the attack was made. Its people “evacuated the city, because they had no provisions there to withstand a siege, since it was a sabbatical year for the land” (1 Maccabees 6:49, cf. vv. 53-54).

Josephus records that both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar remitted Israel’s taxes during the Sabbatical years.[1] Tactius also attests to the Jewish observance of the Sabbatical year but attributed the custom to “indolence.”[2]

Given the animosity between Judea and Rome, the Romans demanded that the Jewish remnant of Judea continue paying the crop tax. No exceptions were made whatsoever for the struggling Jewish population of the land.

In the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba revolution, the rabbis modified the law regarding the Sabbatical year during the Roman period to allow for food to be grown in order so that the people should survive, and be able to pay its taxes to a hostile Roman government.

What makes this an intriguing passage is the fact that the Sabbatical year continued to be observed even in a post-exilic era and most Halachic authorities ruled that the Sabbatical year was still a rabbinic obligation.  The only reason the Sages exempted the farmers was because the imminent danger they faced should they have disobeyed. Other authorities insisted that it was biblically required, while others still maintained it was a nothing more than a pious custom.[3] Continue reading “A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity”

The Hasidic origin of “Simcha Monica” formerly known as, “Santa Monica”

Some time ago,  I had a friendly discussion with Rabbi Yisrael Goldberg, a young Chabadnik who lives in Israel. In the course of our talk, he mentioned that in California, the late Rabbi Avraymo Levitanski   (a former teacher of mine) had recently died. Avraymo was a great man; he was a brilliant scholar as well and an exceptional human being. He was definitely one of the finest Chabadniks I have ever known. On a light note,  Yisrael told me how Avraymo always referred to Santa Monica as “Simcha Monica,” and San Diego, or, San Francisco as “S. Diego and S. Fransisco.” The name, “Simcha Monica” was a new designation I hadn’t heard before; Avraymo’s designation actually made me chuckle. Where did these ideas originate in the first place? If my memory serves me well, I believe the late Rebbe was fond of using these unusual designations.

By the way, “Simcha Monica” roughly means, “Monica is happy.” I am not sure whether this name was given during the time of the Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, I suspect Monica Lewinsky is not too happy about that chapter of her life.  Actually, the real reason Monica is happy has nothing to do with Bill Clinton. Historically, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the ORIGINAL  Monica  (331 – 387 CE ), Monica was both the Algerian Christian saint and  mother of Augustine of Hippo, the greatest Christian theologian of Late Antiquity. Augustine, ex-lover and whore-monger extraordinaire, loved extolling his mother’s virtues in his Confessions.

No, I don’t think the Chabad rabbis are referring to St. Monica either.

If my sense of humor seems off-colored, it’s because God speaks to me in the language of humor and irony.  Let us return to our topic at hand. At first blush, it seemed there might be some scriptural support for this unusual practice among the Chabad rabbis. Consider two verses: “Give heed to all that I have told you. Never mention the name of any other god; it shall not be heard from your lips” (Exod. 23:13) and “There must be no foreign god among you; you must not worship an alien god” (Psa. 81:10).

Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

But then I started thinking; it seems that the Chabad rabbis are rather inconsistent because the names found in the Gregorian calendar are actually based on the names of pagan deities of antiquity. If  no other gods or goddesses are to be  mentioned, how can Chabad rabbis refer to the name of actual deities whenever they use a secular calendar or at least refer to it in their daily conversation? The inconsistencies ought to create some cognitive dissonance among the steadfast among the Chabad rabbis; maybe they will say in the privacy of their homes: Could it be that we are wrong?

Here are some examples:

May derives from the Roman fertility goddess named Maia.

April is traditionally identified with Venus. April  may possibly derive from Aprilis, the Etruscan Apru, which is also a diminutive of Aphrodite–the Greek goddess of beauty and fertility. The Latin verb aperire, “to open,”  and is related to the Greek name for spring  ἁνοιξις (opening),  the time of the year when spring begins bloom with flowers and trees.

June alludes to Juno, the Roman goddess who served as protector and special counselor of the state.

Indeed, several other examples can be mentioned, but I believe we have made our point perfectly clear. If the Chabad rabbis used Hebrew names for the months, that would make a lot more sense. Then again, even the Hebrew calendar refers to the Sumerian and Babylonian deity known as Tammuz, who is mentioned in biblical times (cf. Eze. 8:14).

Who exactly was Tammuz? He was the chief Sumerian deity, also known as Dumazi–the god of fertility, of vegetation and agriculture, of death and resurrection, and the patron of shepherds. Dumzai was both the son and consort of Ashtar (Inanna). In the Sumerian mythic pantheon, Tammuz represented the annual vegetation cycle of death during the heat of summer and the rebirth of life with the coming of the fall and spring rains, as mythically recounted in the Akkadian poem, “Inanna’s Descent into the Netherworld.”

When our ancestors went to Babylon, they adopted the Babylonian names of the months during the 70 year exile in Babylon, which also  included Tammuz!  The 17th of Tammuz is a special fast day in Jewish tradition. I suspect that the ancient Jews either viewed Tammuz much like we now view the days of the week.  If it didn’t historically bother our people in times of antiquity, then why should it bother us whether S. Monica is Santa Monica?

Continue reading “The Hasidic origin of “Simcha Monica” formerly known as, “Santa Monica””

Two Medieval Jewish Thinkers on the “Image of God”

The concept of the Imago Dei ( “Image of God”) has fascinated Jewish thinkers since the time of Philo and Ben Sira. For now, we will focus only on two famous medieval thinkers: Saadia Gaon and Maimonides.

Saadia points out in his philosophic classic that בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים  (B’tse’lem ´élöhîm= “in the likeness of the Divine image”) is figurative language for God bestowing special honor unto humankind, which He did not confer unto the rest of Creation. This distinctiveness is visible in humanity’s ability to exert dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26).

Among modern scholars, biblical theologian D. Clines clarifies the meaning of Divine image by pointing to the nuanced difference between ”representative” and ”representation” which in many ways complements Saadia’s original insight on the subject:

“Man is created not in God’s image, since God has no image of His own, but as God’s image, or rather to be God’s image, that is to deputize in the created world for the transcendent God who remains outside the world order. That man is God’s image means that he is the visible corporeal representative of the invisible, bodiless God; he is representative rather than representation, since the idea of portrayal is secondary in the significance of the image. However, the term “likeness” is an assurance that man is an adequate and faithful representative of God on earth. The whole man is the image of God, without distinction of spirit and body. All mankind, without distinction, are the image of God. . . .  Mankind, which means both the human race and individual men, do not cease to be the image of God so long as they remain men; to be human and to be the image of God are not separable.[1]

Rashi makes a similar point as well in his famous commentary; the “image of God” is merely the image (or conduit) God personally creates to manifest His reality to the world–but God Himself does not possess an “image.”

Maimonides: “Image” as Reason

Like Philo and Saadia, Maimonides takes sharp issue with scholars who believe that God actually possesses a humanoid shape.[2] The image of the Divine is most present in the human being’s capacity to reason[3] and ascertain abstract spiritual truths so that human beings may in part, resemble angelic beings.[4] Moreover, the soul’s eschatological standing in the Afterlife depends upon the cultivation of the human intellect in grasping these higher truths.[5] Maimonides begins his Guide by theologically defining what exactly “image” and “likeness” mean, so that an average person—whether Jew or non-Jew—can develop an acceptable and rational conception about the true nature of God[6]

In addition, Maimonides states that without a rational and theologically correct understanding of God, even one who claims to be monotheistic is essentially not much different from the pagan who imagines the gods resembling human beings. In some ways, he is worse, for he is guilty of transforming the God of Israel into a pagan fetish. Like Aristotle, Maimonides believes that the faculty of reason enables one to become most God-like when that person develops the capacity to partially grasp the nature of God’s ultimate reality.


[1] D.J.A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968), 101.

[2] Maimonides’ great critic, R. Abraham Ibn Daud (ca. 1110-1180), rebuked him: “Why has he called such a person a heretic? וכמה גדולים וטובים ממנו  — Many people greater and better than him adhered to such a belief on the basis of numerous Scriptural passages [that indicate Divine corporeality]. Just as the Tanakh can be so easily misunderstood, how much more so can the Aggadot [Talmudic ethical and theological teachings] confuse the mind!” (R. Avraham Ibn Daud’s notes on MT Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7). A more polite re-wording of Ibn Daud can be found in R. Joseph Albo’s version: “Although the component part of belief is so, nevertheless, he who believes that His Being is corporeal—as a result of anthropomorphic phrases found in the Scriptures and in the Midrash—does not deserve to be identified as a “heretic” (Sefer HaIkarim 2:41). For a comprehensive survey on the literature dealing with this issue, see Marc Shapiro’s “The Limits of Orthodox Theology” (Oxford, G. B.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), 45-70.

[3] Like Maimonides, Rashi wrote in his Torah commentary that the excellence of the divine image is seen in the human capacity to discern and understand.

[4] Guide 1:26.

[5] MT., Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:8,12.

[6] MT., Hilchot Shemitah V’Yobel 13:13.

Rediscovering the Soul-Breath of the Sabbath

While it is true that many translations of the Bible such as the New Revised Version Standard (NRSV), the King James’ Version (KJV) and others render the verb וַיִּשְׁבֹּת (wayyišböt) as “rested,” a more accurate translation is “ceased,” i.e., “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because He ceased from all His work which God created to make” (Gen. 2:2). Ramban (12th century) interprets these words to mean “He ceased performing all His creative work.” Hence, for God, the Shabbat is really more a day of “ceasing,” rather than “resting,” as commonly believed.

But why does God need to abstain from producing new creative work? Obviously it is not because of tiredness! As theologian John Shea notes, a story about God is really a model for how we are to conduct our lives. God’s “ceasing” from Creation thus provides us with a template for emulating God’s behavior. As human beings created in the image of God, we too need to make time for rest and purposely abstain from interfering with Creation one day of the week. The passion to create can sometimes be dangerous—especially in a highly technological society that prides itself on its ability to create, manipulate and control the world around it. In our modern world, we often tend to think of ourselves as being completely self-sufficient.

There’s a great story I would like to share with you from Mrs. Lettie Cowman’s wonderful book, “Springs in the Valley.” In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a long trek. Coolies had been engaged from a tribe to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.

Then Mrs. Cowman concludes with this penetrating exhortation: “This whirling rushing life which so many of us live does for us what that first march did for those poor jungle tribesmen. The difference: they knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.”

It is incredible to realize that Lettie Cowman wrote these words eighty-five years ago.

Later in the Book of Exodus we read: בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי־שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ “It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested” (Exod. 31:17).

Consider the following: The Hebrew verb וַיִּנָּפַשׁ (wayyinnäpaš)  in Exodus 31:17  can sometimes mean “rest,” “ensouled,” “breath,” and  “to catch one’s breath.”  It often points to the inner being of a person. Hence, a nefesh can also mean a living being. In the context of Shabbat, God ensouled this day when He rested with a dimension of His Presence, which the Kabbalists interestingly enough identified as feminine! The Sabbath reveals the reality of the Divine Feminine better known as the “Shekhinah.”

Why did God need to rest on the Shabbat day? Was He tired from creating the world? Hardly. Maybe it’s because the Sages wished to teach us that work is not an end in and of itself. To be healthy, to be free from the problems of earning a livelihood, we must have Shabbat as a day to renew our strength and spirits. Like the natives of Mrs. Cowman’s stories, we must have time to renew our spirits, to catch our breath and to become a living being once more. On Shabbat, God created the possibility of renewal, which, in turn, is one of the fundamental teachings of our faith.

The concept of the Shabbat is radical in many respects. For hundreds of years Jews, the ancient Greeks and Romans ridiculed the Jews for being lazy for resting on the Shabbat day. Yet, paradoxically, the Sabbath is perhaps one of ancient Israel’s greatest gifts to human history. While the Babylonians produced the ziggurats, and the Egyptians built the pyramids (No, the Israelites did not build the pyramids!), the Israelites introduced the concept of “holiness of time.”

The concept of rest is not just to members of the human family, the Ten Commandments insists that even animals rest on the Sabbath—how much more so should every person, whether Jew or Gentile! [1] In biblical psychology, even the earth itself possesses  a sentience just like human beings (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22; 25:2). In short, contrary to the view espoused by the behaviorists and the philosophers of positivism, man is infinitely more than a complex biological machine. According to Pharaoh, the Israelites were nothing more than animated tools, not much different from the bricks his slaves gathered. For Pharaoh, human beings live to produce–and nothing more. Continue reading “Rediscovering the Soul-Breath of the Sabbath”

“Lady Wisdom–the Firstborn Daughter of Creation”

Sometime during the fifth or fourth century B.C.E., the Wisdom/Sophia tradition began to infiltrate Jewish religious sensibilities. At first it was introduced as a series of epigrams containing proverbial wisdom; however, in theological terms, the notion of Sophia came to personify God’s own wisdom. Over the centuries, this new concept influenced generations of Jewish thinkers and mystics—especially during the medieval period when Jewish thought renewed its historic love affair with Greek wisdom. Abraham Ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1164) asserts that the creation of heaven and earth is preceded by the mystical appearance of Wisdom who is sometimes called רֵאשִׁית (rë´šît = “beginning”) (See Prov. 3:19; Ps. 104:24).

Kabbalists would later view Wisdom as the seminal seed and geometric point from which all creation emanates.[1] Their ideas were indirectly shaped by the early Judaic and Hellenistic texts which conceived of Wisdom poetically as being the “firstborn daughter of God” and “Mother of Creation.” According to the Jewish mystical imagination, wisdom truly personifies the “thought” of God that is ever-present in the universe. In light of this reason, Wisdom is plainly presented here as the first of God’s creatures and as God’s collaborator in the creation of all that was yet to be created, and it is Her presence that now suffuses the entire created order. In the book of Proverbs, “Lady Wisdom” is portrayed as saying:

The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,

the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,

at the first, before the beginning of the earth …

When he established the heavens,

I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep.

Prov. 8:22–27

A similar thought is also poetically expressed in the Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus):

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people:

“Before the ages, in the beginning,

He created me,

and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.”

—Sir. 24:1–9

Both readings constitute an intrabiblical commentary on the original story of creation as depicted in Genesis. Wisdom acts as the foundation of the cosmos, and as the sole witness to God’s Creation of the world.  In the later Midrashim, the wisdom principle came to be redefined and personified as the Torah itself. “God looked into the Torah and created the world” (Gen. Rabbah 1:1).[2] Literary scholar Susan Handelman observes, “In the rabbinic imagination, the Torah is not an artifact of nature, a product of the universe; the universe, on the contrary, is the product of the Torah.”[3]

[1] The difference between the Hellenistic and the Kabbalistic view of Wisdom is that the former views Wisdom as a feminine principle, whereas the latter views it as essentially a masculine principle.
[2] The Jerusalem Targum paraphrases בְּרֵאשִׁית as בחכמה “With [or ‘In’] wisdom God created . . .” Compare this text with the Targum Neofiti’s interpretive rendering (מלקדמין בחכמה ברא דייי), while the Targum of Onkelos translates the opening salvo as בֲקַדמִין בְרָא יוי (“At first God created . . .”). Likewise the Midrash also alludes to this same theme: “God looked into the Torah and created the world” (Gen. Rabbah 1:1). Wisdom acts as the foundation of the cosmos, serving as the sole witness to God’s Creation of the world.

[3] Susan Handelman, Slayers of Moses, op. cit., 37.

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

Byline:  Dec. 18, 2009–4:00 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the meaning of the names “Esau” and “Jacob”?

The story about Esau and Jacob may be found in the book of Genesis 25-27. Here is a brief passage we shall examine:

24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.d Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them (NRSV).

d That is He takes by the heel or He supplants


25:24 וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ עֵשָׂו  — so they named him Esau. — The etymology of the name עֵשָׂו (asev = Esau) is unclear. Some scholars think that it is related to the Arabic athaya to be covered with hair;  athai, ‘hairy’  Based on this conjecture, Esau may mean “the hairy one” The Hebrew wording suggests that he was completely developed, made, formed, or perfected; or perfect, robust.

Esau’s hairy skin also becomes an important detail in the story of Jacob stealing his father’s blessing (Gen. 27:11-23). In addition, it hints at Esau’s wild and unrefined nature which is in some ways, and is reminiscent to the Babylonian hero Enkidu (whose hairy body is similar to Esau), who also  lived  among the animals in the forest.

25:26 וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב — so he was named Jacob — The name “Jacob” means  “one who grabs the heel,” or “one who trips up,”  or “one who supplants.”  Jacob’s name comes from  the root  עָקַב (eqab) “to take by the heel,” or “supplant.” Hence, the name “Jacob” ought to be rendered as “Supplanter,” or, “Deceiver.” Further scriptural evidence supports this hypothesis.  The verb עָקַב   is often used for those who ambush an unsuspecting party (this was actually Gad’s method of warfare alluded to in Gen. 49:19),  and implies cunning and deceit (e.g. Psa. 41:10;49:5; et al.).

Only a punster could appreciate the beauty of the biblical text here. Puns embedded in this name might suggest an interesting translation seldom seen in English translations. Jacob might just as easily mean “trickster”  and lends itself to an unusual but common English pun–we could say that Jacob behaves like a real “heel”!

The narrative’s irony is remarkable–note how the “quiet homebody” Jacob hunts and ambushes his brother–Esau–“the hunter”!

Think like a Haredi?! The Roots of Haredi Misogyny

It has long been my contention that if you want to understand the mindset of the ultra-Orthodox world in Israel and in the Diaspora today, one must first learn how to think like one. Having been once an ultra-Orthodox Jew, I thought it would be helpful to deconstruct their way of thinking, which is probably a mystery to most normal thinking people.

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ  — You shall teach them to your children  . . .  (Deut. 6:7).

The Talmud in tractate Kiddushin 29b discusses the scriptural obligation of teaching children Torah and its limitations. Commenting on the Mishnah’s directive, “a father is obligated to teach his son Torah,” the Talmud later asks: “How do we know it? — Because it is written, “you shall teach them unto your sons” (Deut. 6:7). If his father failed to instruct him in Torah study, he is obligated to teach himself, for it is said, “ and you shall study …”

But does the mother have a duty to instruct Torah to her children? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem. According to the Talmudic scholars, “The mother has no legal obligation to provide instruction since she is exempt from Torah study herself, and anyone who is exempt from Torah study has no obligation to instruct others!”

Obviously, the Talmudic discussion reveals some harsh economic realities of the age; unlike today, most families could not afford to provide a Jewish education to all their children. In terms of the hierarchy of responsibility, men had to first provide themselves with a good Jewish education so that they could teach their children. However, if a child was exceptional, the son took priority. With respect to a woman who was struggling to provide food on her table, the Sages out of compassion exempted her for survival of the family mattered most.  If she could not provide her children with an education, the responsibility fell upon the community itself (Kiddushin 29b).

Scriptural proofs more often than not are used as props for already existing social practices; this was undoubtedly the case in the centuries that followed the destruction of the Temple. Needless to say, בָנֶיךָ “your children,” invariably meant all children—sons and daughters alike, and one would be hard pressed to cite examples in the Tanakh where it is otherwise.

In  summary, the Talmudic discussion all depends  interpretation  on how literal one wishes to translate the word בָנֶיךָ “your children,” which many of the Sages understood as referring to בָּנִים—male children and not בָּנוֹת “daughters.”

While economics plays an important role in the development of the Halacha, so too does misogyny; one could say that misogyny is the original sin of human civilization–and its roots certainly can be traced throughout the bible, when Adam blames Eve for the problems of humankind.

Early rabbinical thinking reflected here certainly is consistent with the majority of Sages of Late Antiquity, but not everyone concurs. The Mishnah in Sotah 3:4 records the view of Simeon ben Azzai, who argues that a father is obligated to instruct Torah to his daughter since the term  בָּנִים can just as easily refer to daughters as well! Continue reading “Think like a Haredi?! The Roots of Haredi Misogyny”

Word Focus: What is a Mamzer?

לֹא־יָבֹא מַמְזֵר בִּקְהַל יְהוָה גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׂירִי לֹא־יָבֹא לוֹ בִּקְהַל יְהוָה

“No child of an incestuous union (mamzer) may be admitted into the community of the LORD, nor any descendant of his even to the tenth generation” (Deut. 23:3).

What is a מַמְזֵר  “mamzēr”?

The Septuagint (which is the world’s oldest  translation of the Bible), translates מַמְזֵר as referring to “a child of adultery” (πορνῆς = pornes). Some modern Hebraic scholars think that the root of מַמְזֵר might be מָזַר which is probably related toנָזַר  “to separate but used in a bad sense,” “to despise,” or “to condemn”(HALOT 595).

Elsewhere in the Tanakh, it appears that a mamzēr refers to a child of mixed Jewish and gentile parentage, “And a mongrel people shall settle in Ashdod. I will uproot the grandeur of Philistia” (Zec 9:6). [1] On this passage, the Septuagint renders מַמְזֵר as  ἀλλογενής, -ες (ἄλλος and γένος), “sprung from another race,” a foreigner, alien, cf.  Luke 17:18. The prophet is probably referring to a mixed race situation similar to that described by Nehemiah, “At that time too, I saw Jews who had married wives from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab; as regards their children, half of them spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, but could no longer speak the language of Judah. . . (Neh. 13:23-25).” Continue reading “Word Focus: What is a Mamzer?”

Why does the Torah begin with the letter “beth”?

I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.

AUGUSTINE, Confessions, Book XI

When it came to the beginning of creation, Augustine was not the only person who struggled with the meaning of time. Rabbinic wisdom teaches that there are some aspects to creation that are hidden; we cannot presume to know the mind of God. “Why does the Torah begin with the letter בּ (beth = “b”)? Just as the letter בּ (beth) is closed at the sides but is open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind.”[1] The Judean sage Jesus ben Sirach (is 200–180 B.C.E.) offers this practical advice to those who speculate about the “hidden matters” alluded to in the

Creation story:

Neither seek what is too difficult for you,

nor investigate what is beyond your power.

Reflect upon what you have been commanded,

for what is hidden is not your concern.

Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,

for more than you can understand has been shown you.[2]

Sirach 3:21-23 Continue reading “Why does the Torah begin with the letter “beth”?”