Category Archives: Archaeology & History

Who Was the First Rabbi in History?

Tomorrow evening we welcome the holiday of Chanukah. This is the only major Jewish holiday without a basis in the Tanakh. However, there is a scriptural Book of Maccabees—which recounts the history of Chanukah and the chronicles of Matityahu, Judah and the Hashmonean brothers—but it was not included in the Tanakh. Some say it was not included because by that point (2nd-century BCE), the Tanakh had already been compiled by the Knesset haGedolah, the “Great Assembly” which re-established Israel after the Babylonian Exile. Others argue that the Tanakh was not completely sealed by the Knesset, since it appears that the Book of Daniel may have been put together around the same time as the Book of Maccabees, but was included in the Tanakh, while later still the rabbis of the Talmud debate whether certain books (such as Kohelet, “Ecclesiastes”, and Shir HaShirim, the “Song of Songs”) should be included.

It is possible that the Book of Maccabees was not included for the same reason why there is no Talmudic tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a tractate for every other major holiday. (Chanukah is discussed in the Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat). Some argue that the events of Chanukah were so recent at the time that everyone knew them well, so having a large tractate for Chanukah was simply unnecessary. The other, more likely, reason is that although the Hashmonean Maccabees were heroes in the Chanukah period, they soon took over the Jewish monarchy (legally forbidden to them since they were kohanim) and actually adopted the Hellenism that they originally fought so valiantly against!

The first Hashmonean to rule was Shimon, one of the five sons of Matityahu. He was the only son to survive the wars with the Seleucid Greeks. He became the kohen gadol (high priest), and took the title of nasi, “leader” or “prince”, though not a king. Although he was a successful ruler, Shimon was soon assassinated along with his two elder sons. His third son, Yochanan, took over as kohen gadol.

Yochanan saw himself as a Greek-style king, and took on the regnal name Hyrcanus. His son, Aristobulus (no longer having a Jewish name at all) declared himself basileus, the Greek term for a king, after cruelly starving his own mother to death. Aristobulus’ brother, Alexander Jannaeus (known in Jewish texts as Alexander Yannai) was even worse, starting a campaign to persecute rabbis, including his brother-in-law, the great Shimon ben Shetach. Ultimately, Yannai’s righteous wife Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion) ended the persecution, brought her brother Shimon and other sages back from exile in Egypt, and ushered in a decade of prosperity. It was Salome that re-established the Sanhedrin, opened up a public school system, and mandated the ketubah, a marriage document to protect Jewish brides. After her death, the kingdom fell apart and was soon absorbed by Rome.

‘Alexander Jannaeus feasting during the crucifixion of the Pharisees’ by Willem Swidde (c. 1690)

Sadducees and Pharisees

While Alexander Yannai was aligned with the Sadducees, Salome Alexandra was, like her brother Shimon ben Shetach, a Pharisee. The Sadducees (Tzdukim) and Pharisees (Perushim) were the two major movements or political parties in Israel at the time. The former only accepted the written Torah as divine, while the latter believed in an Oral Tradition dating back to the revelation at Sinai. Thus, “Rabbinic Judaism” as we know it today is said to have developed from Pharisee Judaism.

Because the Sadducees only accepted the written Torah, their observance was highly dependent on the Temple and the land of Israel, since most of the Torah is concerned with sacrificial and agricultural laws. When the Romans ultimately destroyed the Temple and the majority of Jews went into exile, Sadducee Judaism simply could not survive. (Later, a similar movement based solely on the written Torah, Karaite Judaism, would develop.) Meanwhile, the Pharisees and their Oral Tradition continued to develop, adapt, and flourish in exile, resulting in the Judaism of today.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan states that the Sadducees get their name from one Tzadok, a student of the sage Antigonus. Antigonus famously taught (Pirkei Avot 1:3) that one should serve God simply for the sake of serving God, and not in order to receive a reward in the afterlife. It is this teaching that led to Tzadok’s apostasy. Indeed, we know that the Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead or apparently any kind of afterlife at all. This makes sense, since the Sadducees only accepted the Chumash as law, and the Chumash itself never mentions an afterlife explicitly.

In that same first chapter of Pirkei Avot, we read that Antigonus was the student of Shimon haTzadik, the last survivor of the Knesset HaGedolah. Antigonus passed down the tradition to Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, who passed it down to Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nitai haArbeli, who passed it down to Shimon ben Shetach and Yehuda ben Tabai. This means that Shimon ben Shetach, brother of Queen Salome Alexandra, lived only three generations after Shimon haTzadik, the last of the Great Assembly. This presents a problem since, according to traditional Jewish dating, the Great Assembly was about 300 years before the rule of Salome. (It is even more problematic according to secular dating, which calculates nearly 500 years!) It is highly unlikely that three generations of consecutive sages could span over 300 years.

The rabbinic tradition really starts with Shimon haTzadik, the earliest sage to be cited in the Talmud. He is said to have received the tradition from the last of the prophets in the Great Assembly, thus tying together the rabbinic period with the Biblical period of prophets. Yet, Shimon haTzadik himself is not called a “rabbi”, and neither is his student Antigonus, or Antigonus’ students, or even Hillel and Shammai. The title “rabban” is later used to refer to the nasi of the Sanhedrin, while the first sages to properly be called “rabbi” are the students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader at the time of the Temple’s destruction by the Romans.

Despite this, the title “rabbi” is often applied retroactively to earlier sages, including Shimon ben Shetach, Yehoshua ben Perachiah, and others, all the way back to Shimon haTzadik, the first link in the rabbinic chain. Who was Shimon haTzadik?

The Mystery of Shimon haTzadik

The most famous story of Shimon haTzadik is recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 69a). In this story, Alexander the Great is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, so Shimon goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle.

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

While it is highly doubtful that the egomaniacal Alexander (who had himself declared a god) would ever bow down to anyone, this story is preserved in a number of texts, including that of Josephus, the first-century historian who was an eye-witness to the Temple’s destruction. In Josephus, however, it is not Shimon who meets Alexander, but another priest called Yaddua. Yaddua is actually mentioned in the Tanakh (Nehemiah 12:22), which suggests he was a priest in the days of the Persian emperor Darius. Of course, it was Darius III whom Alexander the Great defeated. It seems Josephus’ account is more accurate in this case.

In fact, in Sotah 33a, the Talmud tells another story of Shimon haTzadik, this one during the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula. We know that Caligula reigned between 37 and 41 CE—over three centuries after Alexander the Great! The Talmud thus gives us three different time periods for the life of Shimon haTzadik: a few generations before Shimon ben Shetach, or a few centuries before in the time of Alexander the Great, or centuries after in the time of Caligula. Which is correct?

The First Rabbi

The Book of Maccabees (I, 2:1-2) introduces the five sons of Matityahu in this way:

In those days, Matityahu ben Yochanan ben Shimon, a priest of the descendants of Yoariv, left Jerusalem and settled in Modi’in. He had five sons: Yochanan, called Gaddi; Shimon, called Thassi; Yehuda, called Maccabee; Elazar, called Avaran; and Yonatan, called Apphus.

Each of the five sons of Matityahu has a nickname. The second son, Shimon, is called “Thassi” (or “Tharsi”). This literally means “the wise” or “the righteous”, aka. HaTzadik. It was Shimon who survived the Chanukah wars and re-established an independent Jewish state. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 14:41-46) tells us:

And the Jews and their priests resolved that Shimon should be their leader and high priest forever until a true prophet should appear… And all the people agreed to decree that they should do these things to Shimon, and Shimon accepted them and agreed to be high priest and general and governor of the Jews…

Apparently, Shimon was appointed to lead the Jews by a “great assembly” of sorts, which nominated him and, after his acceptance, decreed that he is the undisputed leader. The Book of Maccabees therefore tells us that Shimon the Maccabee was a righteous and wise sage, a high priest, and leader of Israel that headed an assembly. This is precisely the Talmud’s description of Shimon haTzadik!

Perhaps over time the “great assembly” of Shimon was confused with the Great Assembly of the early Second Temple period. This may be why Pirkei Avot begins by stating that Shimon haTzadik was of the Knesset haGedolah. In terms of chronology, it makes far more sense that Shimon haTzadik was Shimon Thassi—“Simon Maccabeus”—who died in 135 BCE. This fits neatly with Shimon ben Shetach and Salome Alexandra being active a few generations later, in the 60s BCE as the historical record attests. It also makes sense that Shimon haTzadik’s student is Antigonus, who carries a Greek name, just as we saw earlier that following Shimon the leaders of Israel were adopting Greek names.

Thus, of the three main versions of Shimon haTzadik in the Talmud, it is the one in Avot that is historically accurate, and not the one in Yoma (where he is placed nearly three centuries before Shimon ben Shetach) or the one in Sotah (where he is in the future Roman era).

‘Mattathias of Modi’in killing a Jewish apostate’ by Gustav Doré

Furthermore, we must not forget that Shimon the Maccabee was one of the instigators of the revolt against the Greeks and their Hellenism. He was the son of Matityahu, a religious, traditional priest, who fled Jerusalem when it was taken over by Hellenizers (as we quoted above, I Maccabees 2:1). Shimon was certainly aligned with the traditional Pharisees, and it was only his grandson Alexander Yannai who turned entirely to the more Hellenized Sadducees and began persecuting the Pharisees. As Rabbinic Judaism comes directly from Pharisee Judaism, it makes sense that the tradition begins with Shimon the Maccabee, or Simon Thassi, ie. Shimon haTzadik.

Interestingly, the Book of Maccabees states that Matityahu was a descendent of Yoariv. This name is mentioned in the Tanakh. I Chronicles 24:7 lists Yoariv as the head of one of the 24 divisions of kohanim, as established in the days of King David. The same chapter states that Yoariv was himself a descendent of Elazar, the son of Aaron the first kohen. Thus, there is a fairly clear chain of transmission from Aaron, all the way down to Matityahu, and his son Shimon.

Shimon continued to pass down the tradition, not to his son Yochanan—who was swayed by the Greeks and became John Hyrcanus—but to his student Antigonus. (Depending on how one reads Avot, it is possible that Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan were also direct students of Shimon haTzadik.) It appears we have found the historical Shimon haTzadik, and closed the gap on the proper chronology of the Oral Tradition dating back to Sinai.

If this is the case, then Chanukah is a celebration of not only a miraculous victory over the Syrian Greeks, but of the very beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, with one of Chanuka’s central heroes being none other than history’s first rabbi.

Chag sameach!

The Year 5778: Apex of the Messianic Era

The stars of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, are Joseph and Judah. We are told how the sons of Jacob were envious (and suspicious) of Joseph, and ended up throwing him in a pit, while deliberating what to do with him. Shimon wished to kill him, Judah to sell him, and Reuben to save him. Meanwhile, Midianite merchants found the helpless Joseph and abducted him, later selling him to Ishmaelites who brought Joseph down to Egypt. There, Joseph enters into servitude in the home of a well-to-do Egyptian family.

The Torah diverges from this narrative to describe what happens to Judah. Judah marries and has three sons. The elder Er marries Tamar and dies because of his sinful ways, as does the second son Onan after fulfilling the law of levirate marriage and marrying his former sister-in-law. After Judah fearfully avoids another levirate marriage for Shelah, his last son, Tamar seduces Judah and becomes pregnant. She gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach.

Peretz would go on to be a forefather of King David, and thus a forefather of Mashiach. As is known, there are actual two messianic figures (or two aspects to Mashiach): Mashiach ben David, and Mashiach ben Yosef—one from the line of Judah and one from the line of Joseph. It is therefore in this week’s parasha where the spiritual origins of the two messiahs are laid.

Samson and the Messiahs

Mashiach ben Yosef is the first messiah. He is the warrior that battles evil in the “End of Days”. Unfortunately, he is destined to die in these battles. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) states how the entire nation will mourn his tragic death. However, it will not be too long before Mashiach ben David arises. As the direct descendant of the royal line, he re-establishes the rightful throne and restores the holy Kingdom of Israel. The Third Temple is built thereafter, and according to some Mashiach ben David reigns for forty years, as did his progenitor King David (Sanhedrin 99a, Midrash Tehillim 15).

We have already discussed why Mashiach ben Yosef must die in the past. How he will die is not exactly clear. What will bring him to his death? It appears that Mashiach ben Yosef will be sold out by his own people. This is what happened to one of the earliest prototypes of Mashiach ben Yosef: the Biblical judge Shimshon (Samson).

As is well known, when Jacob blessed his children, he concluded the blessing to Dan with the words “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18) which Rashi says refers to Samson, a descendent of Dan. Samson was the potential messiah of his generation. He was a warrior fighting the oppressive Philistines. Yet, the people of Judah did not appreciate the “trouble” he was causing, and apprehended him (Judges 15:11-12):

“Death of Samson”, by Gustav Doré

Then three thousand men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Eitam, and said to Samson: “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?” And he said to them: “As they did to me, so have I done to them.” And they said to him: “We have come to bind you, that we may deliver you into the hand of the Philistines.”

Samson turned himself in voluntarily, but with God’s help smote the Philistine oppressors and freed himself. He would be betrayed again by Delilah, but would manage to defeat the Philistines for good, though at the cost of his own life. Like Mashiach ben Yosef, Samson sacrifices himself.

The text above specifically states that three thousand men of Judah came for Samson. What is the significance of this numeric detail?

The Evil 3000

At the Exodus, the Torah states there was a “mixed multitude” (erev rav) of three thousand men among the Israelites. They, too, accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai, only to instigate the Golden Calf incident forty days later. It is said that the same will happen at the End of Days, with an “erev rav” among the Jews who will instigate all sorts of problems for the nation from within (see, for example, Zohar I, 25 or Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). Like Samson’s three thousand men of Judah, Mashiach ben Yosef is sold out by three thousand “Jewish” individuals.

And the fact that they are men of Judah is all the more significant. It was Judah in this week’s parasha who proposed selling Joseph. And to whom did he want to sell him?

And Judah said to his brothers: “What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.” (Genesis 37:26-27)

Judah wanted to sell his brother to the Ishmaelites. In speaking of the battles of Mashiach ben Yosef and the End of Days, it is often the Ishmaelites (or the Ishmaelites banded together with Esau) that are implicated (see, for example, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 30). Today, of course—quite conveniently—the modern “Philistines” are Ishmaelites, and among their biggest supporters are the descendants of Esau.

In The Era of Mashiach

This discussion is particularly timely in light of what’s currently happening in the Middle East. It seems the region is preparing for a massive war, one that would inevitably engulf the entire Ishmaelite sphere, if not the whole world. We’ve written before that we are undoubtedly in the “footsteps of the Messiah” and here is another intriguing point:

God originally intended Adam to live 1000 years. Yet, we see in Genesis that Adam lived only 930 years. This is because, as is well known, Adam foresaw that David would be stillborn, and donated 70 years of his life to him. Indeed, David went on to live exactly 70 years. The Arizal saw in the name Adam (אדם) an acronym for three figures: Adam, David, Mashiach. These are the first, middle, and last major figures of human history. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh stresses that David is supposed to be the literal midpoint of history. If that’s the case, then we only need to see when David lived to calculate the era of Mashiach.

The traditional lifetime for David is 2854-2924 AM (Anno Mundi, Hebrew calendar years, corresponding to about 907-837 BCE). To find the time period for the End of Days we must simply multiply David’s years by two. This gives 5708-5848, or 1947/1948-2087/2088 CE. That’s quite amazing, considering that Israel officially became a state in 5708 (the UN vote to create Israel took place in November 1947, and Israel declared independence in May 1948—both dates fall within the Jewish year 5708). And what would be the midpoint, or perhaps the apex, of the “End of Days” period? None other than 5778, the year which we are currently in.

Stay tuned.

The Incredible History and Absurd Politics of Rachel’s Tomb

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob’s return to the Holy Land after twenty years in Charan. After some time, Jacob and the family make a stop in Beit El, where Jacob first encountered God decades earlier. God appears to Jacob once more, and promises that “the land which I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 35:12). God makes it clear that the Holy Land is designated solely for the descendants of Jacob—not the descendants of Esau, and not the descendants of Ishmael, or any other of Abraham’s concubine sons. It is the land of Israel, the new name that Jacob receives in this week’s parasha.

In fact, in this parasha we see mention of many Israelite sites, both ancient and modern, such as Hebron and Bethlehem. In our day, all of these are unfortunately within the political entity typically referred to as the “West Bank”. This title comes from the fact that the area is geographically on the west side of the Jordan River. Initially, the British Mandate for Palestine included both sides of the Jordan River, before the British gave the east to the Arabs to create the state of Jordan. This was the original “partition plan” for Palestine, with the eastern half meant to serve as the Arab state and the western half to become a Jewish one. Many have forgotten this important detail.

British Mandate for Palestine – Before and After (Credit: Eli E. Hertz)

The current flags of the state of Jordan and the Palestinian movement. It is estimated that about half of Jordan’s current population of 9.5 million is Palestinian Arab.

Nonetheless, the unsuitable title of “West Bank” has stuck ever since. Some rightly avoid using the term in favour of the more appropriate “Judea and Samaria”. Truthfully, even this title is not entirely accurate, for the region is nothing less than the very heartland of Israel, the location of the vast majority of Biblical events, and the home of a plethora of Jewish holy sites. Among them is the tomb of Rachel, as we read in this week’s parasha (Genesis 35:16-20):

And they journeyed from Beit El, and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath, and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult… So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

Throughout history, Rachel’s tomb was one of the most venerated sites in Judaism, and is often described as the Jewish people’s third-most holiest site (after the Temple Mount/Western Wall and Cave of the Patriarchs). As early as the 4th century CE the historian Eusebius already wrote of Rachel’s tomb being a holy site for Jews and Christians. Keep in mind that this is two centuries before anyone even whispered Islam. Not that it really matters, since Islam does not consider this a particularly special place. The Arab-Muslim historian and geographer of the 10th century, Al-Muqaddasi, doesn’t even mention Rachel’s tomb in his descriptions of Muslim-controlled Israel and its holy sites.

1585 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Meanwhile, the Jewish traveler and historian Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) describes Rachel’s tomb in detail as being a domed structure resting upon four pillars, with Jewish pilgrims regularly visiting and inscribing their names on the surrounding eleven stones (representing the Tribes of Israel, less the tribe of Benjamin, as Rachel died giving birth to him). The earliest Muslim connection to the tomb is in 1421, when Zosimos mentions a small mosque at the site. (“Zosimos the Bearded” was a Russian Orthodox deacon famous for proposing the Moscow-Third Rome principle—which may be of great significance for calculating the time of Mashiach’s coming, as we’ve written in the past.)

The Ottomans originally transferred ownership of the site to the Jewish community (in 1615) but later reneged on the promise and even built walls to prevent Jews from going there, according to the British priest and anthropologist Richard Pococke (1704-1765). Pococke writes that the Ottomans used the area as a cemetery. Nonetheless, Jews could not be kept away from their millennia-old holy site, and continue to make pilgrimages. Christian writers G. Fleming and W.F. Geddes note in their 1824 report that “the inner wall of the building and the sides of the tomb are covered with Hebrew names, inscribed by Jews.”

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Six years later, the Ottomans officially recognized Rachel’s tomb as a Jewish holy site again, and ten years later the site was purchased by famous Sephardic Jewish financier and philanthropist Moses Montefiore. Montefiore rebuilt the crumbling tomb, and even constructed a small adjacent mosque to appease the local Muslims. Around this time, British writer Elizabeth Anne Finn, who lived in Jerusalem while her husband was the consul there, wrote that Jerusalem’s Sephardic Jews never left the Old City unless to pray at Rachel’s tomb. Similarly, the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle wrote in 1868 that Rachel’s tomb

has always been held in respect by the Jews and Christians, and even now the former go there every Thursday, to pray and read the old, old history of this mother of their race. When leaving Bethlehem for the fourth and last time, after we had passed the tomb of Rachel, on our way to Jerusalem, Father Luigi and I met a hundred or more Jews on their weekly visit to the venerated spot.

Later, Jewish businessman Nathan Straus (of Macy’s fame) purchased even more land around the site that Montefiore had purchased. (Interestingly, Montefiore’s own tomb in England is a replica of Rachel’s tomb.)

Under the British Mandate, Jewish groups applied on multiple occasions for permission to repair the site, but were denied because of Muslim opposition. The Muslims themselves didn’t bother repairing it, of course. Conversely, many of them were (and still are) happy to attack the site whenever an opportunity presents itself:

Throughout the 1800s, the local e-Ta’amreh Arab clan had blackmailed the Jews to pay up 30 pounds a year or else they would destroy the tomb. In 1995, Arabs—led by a Palestinian Authority governor—attacked Rachel’s tomb and tried to burn it down. In 2000, they laid a 41-day siege on the site during the Second Intifada. In light of this, it made total sense when UNESCO declared in 2015 that Rachel’s tomb is a Muslim holy site that is “an integral part of Palestine”. The laughable resolution only confirms the senselessness and irrelevance of the United Nations.

Had they bothered to look at the historical record, they would have seen that Rachel’s tomb is, was, and always will be a Jewish holy site of immeasurable significance. Countless Jewish pilgrims have experienced miracles there, particularly for health and fertility. According to tradition, Rachel is the only matriarch to be buried outside of the Cave of the Patriarchs so that her spirit can weep and pray for her children in exile. Her prayers are successful, for we are in the midst of the exile’s final end, as prophesied by Jeremiah (31:14-16):

Thus said Hashem: “A voice is heard in Ramah, in lamentation and bitter weeping.” It is Rachel, weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not. Thus said Hashem: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded,” said Hashem. “And they shall return from enemy lands. And there is hope for your future,” said Hashem. “And the children shall return to their borders…”

The Shocking Opinion that the Akedah Never Happened

This week’s parasha is Vayera, which concludes with the famous account of the “binding of Isaac”, or Akedah. Last year we explored how God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, nor did He command it. This year we explore a much bigger question: did the Akedah even happen? In his Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”, Part II, Ch. 41) the Rambam writes:

Know again that in the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from God, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy.

The Rambam gives a number of examples of events that did not physically happen, but were only dreamt, including, quite surprisingly, Jacob wrestling the angel, Bilaam and his donkey, and the three angels that visit Abraham at the start of this week’s parasha. The Ramban, meanwhile, criticizes the Rambam for his approach, going so far as to say that “It is forbidden to listen” or “to believe” in such ideas.

Nonetheless, the notion that the Akedah happened entirely in a dream vision persisted long after the Rambam and Ramban. Marc B. Shapiro presents a thorough analysis of this conflict in his Changing the Immutable (pgs. 67-71). Shapiro notes that among those who accepted the Rambam’s opinion are the great Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), the Efodi (Rabbi Isaac ben Moses haLevi, c. 1350-1415), and Rav Nissim of Marseilles (c. 13th-14th century), who stated that Ibn Ezra (c. 1089-1167) also took this approach.

These sages argue that the Akedah passage is highly uncharacteristic of Abraham. When God told Abraham that He would smite Sodom, Abraham immediately protested and argued with Him. Yet here, God commands something incomprehensible, and Abraham does not even say a word? Abraham spent his entire life combatting idolatry, including child sacrifice, and now he suddenly and willingly goes to sacrifice his own child? It simply cannot be! The Akedah must have been a dream.

Is the Torah a History Book?

In truth, the notion that the Akedah was only a vision doesn’t hold much water. The text itself states that “Abraham woke up in the morning”—God’s command was certainly a vision, but the rest did physically happen. It was a three day’s journey, and after the incident Abraham names the place that would eventually be Jerusalem. At the end, we are told that Abraham returned to Be’er Sheva. It is difficult to see how the whole thing could be a dream. The same is true for the three angels visiting Abraham. How could it be a dream if Sarah interacted with these angels as well, and two of the angels went on to destroy Sodom?

Of course, there are those who argue that none of this happened at all, and the Torah is nothing but a set of national myths or stories. This brings up an important question: is the Torah a history book?

The answer is a definitive no. “Torah” can mean a lot of things (“law”, “instruction”, “teaching”, “guide”) but it does not mean “history”. The Torah is an instructional manual for life. Some of it describes historical events, but most of it records laws, ethics, rituals, and metaphysical realities. The purpose of the Torah is for us to study it and discuss it, “turn it over and turn it over”, analyze it and develop its ideas, and thereby bring the Torah to life. We have already written in the past that Jews don’t really “follow” the Torah, we live it, and we grow with it, and evolve together with it.

Besides, archaeologists have found a plethora of evidence to support the historical aspects of the Torah, including multiple seals bearing the name Yakov, the tomb of a Semitic-Egyptian official that fits the bill of Joseph exactly, Egyptian records describing the expulsion of a large Semitic nation of “shepherd-kings”, and many more events from the Tanakh.

Still, the Torah is not a history book and should not be studied that way. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) wrote that the narratives of the Torah are only its outermost garment, the legal and homiletical aspects are its main body, but it is the spiritual and mystical wisdom within it that is the true soul of the Torah. He based this on the Zohar (III, 152a), which speaks with even harsher language:

Rabbi Shimon said: “Woe to the person who says that the Torah comes to give instructions and tell descriptive stories and simple tales. … Every word in the Torah reflects higher wisdom and higher secrets… The narratives of the Torah are only the outer clothing of the Torah. Whoever thinks that this outer clothing is, in fact, the Torah and there is nothing underneath the clothing is spiritually backward and has no portion in the World to Come…

One who studies the Torah superficially, and accepts its laws and narratives only at face value, without penetrating into the Torah’s depths, is making a big mistake and will ultimately forfeit their portion in Olam HaBa. Such a person’s faith will be weak, and they will be unable to deal with supposed “historical inaccuracies” or “scientific contradictions” which we are bombarded with constantly. In reality, when delving deeper into the Torah and embracing it entirely, it becomes abundantly clear that there are no inaccuracies or contradictions at all. The Torah is truth.

The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka!