Category Archives: Archaeology & History

Why Do We Pray and What Should We Pray For?

This week’s parasha, Terumah, begins with God’s command to the people to bring their voluntary contributions in support of the construction of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. One of the oldest Jewish mystical texts, Sefer haBahir, explains that this voluntary “offering of the heart” (as the Torah calls it) refers to prayer, and prayer is how we can fulfil that mitzvah nowadays. Indeed, the root of the term terumah literally means “elevation”, just as we elevate our prayers heavenward.

‘Jew Praying’ by Ilya Repin (1875)

Judaism is known for its abundance of prayer. While Muslims pray five times a day, each of those prayers lasts only a few minutes. Jews may “only” have three daily prayers, yet the morning prayer alone usually takes an hour or so. Besides this, Jews recite berakhot—blessings and words of gratitude to God—on everything they eat, both before and after; on every mitzvah they perform; and even after going to the bathroom. Jewish law encourages a Jew to say a minimum of one hundred blessings a day. This is derived from Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now Israel, what does God ask of you?” The Sages (Menachot 43b) play on these words and say not to read what (מה) does God ask of you, but one hundred (מאה) God asks of you—one hundred blessings a day! The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:17) further adds that in the time of King David a plague was sweeping through Israel and one hundred people were dying each day. It was then that David and his Sanhedrin instituted the recital of one hundred daily blessings, and the plague quickly ceased.

Of course, God does not need our blessings at all (as we’ve explained before). By reciting so many blessings, we are constantly practicing our gratitude and recognizing how much goodness we truly receive. This puts us in a positive mental state throughout the day. The Zohar (I, 76b, Sitrei Torah) gives a further mystical reason for these blessings: when a person goes to sleep, his soul ascends to Heaven. Upon returning in the morning, the soul is told “lech lecha—go forth for yourself” (the command God initially gave to Abraham) and it is given one hundred blessings to carry it through the day. There is a beautiful gematria here, for the value of lech lecha (לך לך) is 100. Thus, a person who recites one hundred blessings a day is only realizing the blessings he was already given from Heaven, and extracting them out of their potential into actual benefit.

Not surprisingly then, a Jew starts his day with a whole host of blessings. The morning prayer (Shacharit) itself contains some 47 blessings. Within a couple of hours of rising, one has already fulfilled nearly half of their daily quota, and is off to a great start for a terrific day.

(Courtesy: Aish.com) If one prays all three daily prayers, they will already have recited some 90 blessings. As such, it becomes really easy to reach 100 blessings in the course of a day, especially when adding blessings on food and others.

Having said that, is it absolutely necessary to pray three times a day? Why do we pray at all, and what is the origin of Jewish prayer? And perhaps most importantly, what should we be praying for?

Where Does Prayer Come From?

The word tefilah (“prayer”) appears at least twenty times in the Tanakh. We see our forefathers praying to God on various occasions. Yet, there is no explicit mitzvah in the Torah to pray. The Sages derive the mitzvah of prayer from Exodus 23:25: “And you shall serve [v’avad’tem] Hashem, your God, and I will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from your midst.” The term avad’tem (“worship”, “work”, or “service”) is said to refer to the “service of the heart”, ie. prayer. This verse fits neatly with what was said earlier: that prayer is not about serving God, who truly requires no service, but really about receiving blessing, as God says He will bless us and heal us when we “serve” Him.

So, we have the mitzvah of prayer, but why three times a day? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) clearly explains the development of prayer in his Mishneh Torah (Chapter 1 of Hilkhot Tefillah and Birkat Kohanim in Sefer Ahava):

It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as [Exodus 23:25] states: “You shall serve Hashem, your God…” Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as [Deuteronomy 11:13] states: “And serve Him with all your heart”, and our Sages said: “Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.” The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah, nor does it prescribe a specific formula for prayer. Also, according to Torah law, there are no fixed times for prayers.

… this commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him; each one according to his own ability.

A person who was eloquent would offer many prayers and requests. [Conversely,] a person who was inarticulate would speak as well as he could and whenever he desired. Similarly, the number of prayers was dependent on each person’s ability. Some would pray once daily; others, several times. Everyone would pray facing the Holy Temple, wherever he might be. This was the ongoing practice from [the time of] Moshe Rabbeinu until Ezra.

The Rambam explains that the mitzvah to pray from the Torah means praising God, asking Him to fulfil one’s wishes, and thanking Him. No specific text is needed, and once a day suffices. This is the basic obligation of a Jew, if one wants simply to fulfil the direct command from the Torah. The Rambam goes on to explain why things changed at the time of Ezra (at the start of the Second Temple era):

When Israel was exiled in the time of the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, they became interspersed in Persia and Greece and other nations. Children were born to them in these foreign countries and those children’s language was confused. The speech of each and every one was a concoction of many tongues. No one was able to express himself coherently in any one language, but rather in a mixture [of languages], as [Nehemiah 13:24] states: “And their children spoke half in Ashdodit and did not know how to speak the Jewish language. Rather, [they would speak] according to the language of various other peoples.”

Consequently, when someone would pray, he would be limited in his ability to request his needs or to praise the Holy One, blessed be He, in Hebrew, unless other languages were mixed in with it. When Ezra and his court saw this, they established eighteen blessings in sequence [the Amidah].

The first three [blessings] are praises of God and the last three are thanksgiving. The intermediate [blessings] contain requests for all those things that serve as general categories for the desires of each and every person and the needs of the whole community.

Thus, the prayers could be set in the mouths of everyone. They could learn them quickly and the prayers of those unable to express themselves would be as complete as the prayers of the most eloquent. It was because of this matter that they established all the blessings and prayers so that they would be ordered in the mouths of all Israel, so that each blessing would be set in the mouth of each person unable to express himself.

‘Prayer of the Killed’ by Bronisław Linke

The generation of Ezra and the Great Assembly approximately two and a half millennia ago composed the fixed Amidah (or Shemoneh Esrei) prayer of eighteen blessings. This standardized prayer, and ensured that people were praying for the right things, with the right words. (Of course, one is allowed to add any additional praises and supplications they wish, and in any language.)

Reciting the Amidah alone technically fulfils the mitzvah of prayer, whereas the additional passages that we read (mostly Psalms) were instituted by later Sages in order to bring one to the right state of mind for prayer. (Note that the recitation of the Shema is a totally independent mitzvah, although it is found within the text of prayer. The only other Torah-mandated prayer mitzvah is reciting birkat hamazon, the grace after meals.) The Rambam continues to explain why three daily prayers were necessary:

They also decreed that the number of prayers correspond to the number of sacrifices, i.e. two prayers every day, corresponding to the two daily sacrifices. On any day that an additional sacrifice [was offered], they instituted a third prayer, corresponding to the additional offering.

The prayer that corresponds to the daily morning sacrifice is called the Shacharit prayer. The prayer that corresponds to the daily sacrifice offered in the afternoon is called the Minchah prayer and the prayer corresponding to the additional offerings is called the Musaf prayer.

They also instituted a prayer to be recited at night, since the limbs of the daily afternoon offering could be burnt the whole night, as [Leviticus 6:2] states: “The burnt offering [shall remain on the altar hearth all night until morning].” In this vein, [Psalms 55:18] states: “In the evening, morning, and afternoon I will speak and cry aloud, and He will hear my voice.”

The Arvit [evening prayer] is not obligatory like Shacharit and Minchah. Nevertheless, the Jewish people in all the places that they have settled are accustomed to recite the evening prayer and have accepted it upon themselves as an obligatory prayer.

Since customs that are well-established and accepted by all Jewish communities become binding, a Jew should ideally pray three times daily. The Rambam goes on to state that one may pray more times if they so desire, but not less. We see a proof-text from Psalms 55:18, where King David clearly states that he prays “evening, morning, and afternoon”. Similarly, we read of the prophet Daniel that

he went into his house—with his windows open in his upper chamber toward Jerusalem—and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he had always done. (Daniel 11:6)

The Tanakh also explains why prayer was instituted in the place of sacrifices. The prophet Hoshea (14:3) stated that, especially in lieu of the Temple, “we pay the cows with our lips”. King David, too, expressed this sentiment (Psalms 51:17-18): “My Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare Your praise. For You have no delight in sacrifice, else I would give it; You have no pleasure in burnt-offerings.” This verse is one of many that shows God does not need animal sacrifices at all, and the Torah’s commands to do so were only temporary, as discussed in the past. It was always God’s intention for us to “serve” Him not through sacrifices, but through prayers. (See also Psalms 69:31-32, 141:2, and Jeremiah 7:21-23.)

The Mystical Meaning of Prayer

While the Sages instruct us to pray at regular times of the day, they also caution that one should not make their prayers “fixed” or routine (Avot 2:13). This apparent contradiction really means that one’s prayer should be heartfelt, genuine, and not recited mechanically by rote. One should have full kavanah, meaning the right mindset and complete concentration. The Arizal (and other Kabbalists) laid down many kavanot for prayer, with specific things to have in mind—often complex formulas of God’s Names or arrangements of Hebrew letters, and sometimes simple ideas to think of while reciting certain words.

The Arizal explained (in the introduction to Sha’ar HaMitzvot) that one should not pray only because they need something from God. Rather, prayer is meant to remind us that God is the source of all blessing and goodness (as discussed above) and reminds us that only the Infinite God can provide us with everything we need. By asking things of God, we ultimately to draw closer to Him, like a child to a parent. There is also a much deeper, more mystical reason for prayer. Praying serves to elevate sparks of holiness—and possibly even whole souls—that are trapped within kelipot, spiritual “husks” (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). Prayer is part of the long and difficult process of tikkun, rectifying Creation and returning it to its perfect primordial state.

The Zohar (II, 215b) further states that there are four tikkunim in prayer: tikkun of the self, tikkun of the lower or physical world, tikkun of the higher spiritual worlds, and the tikkun of God’s Name. Elsewhere (I, 182b), the Zohar explains that man is judged by the Heavens three times daily, corresponding to the three prayer times. This fits well with the famous Talmudic statement (Rosh Hashanah 16b) that prayer is one of five things that can change a person’s fate, and annul any negative decrees that may be upon them. (The other four are charity, repentance, changing one’s name, or moving to a new home.)

I once heard a beautiful teaching in the name of the Belzer Rebbe that ties up much of what has been discussed so far:

According to tradition, Abraham was first to pray Shacharit, as we learn from the fact that he arose early in the morning for the Akedah (Genesis 22:3, also 19:27, 21:14). Isaac instituted Minchah, as we read how he went “to meditate in the field before evening” (Genesis 24:63). Jacob instituted the evening prayer, as we learn from his nighttime vision at Beit El (Genesis 28).

Each of these prayers was part of a cosmic tikkun, the rebuilding of the Heavenly Palace (or alternatively, the building of Yeshiva shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Study Hall). God Himself began the process, and raised the first “wall” in Heaven with his camp of angels. This is the “camp of God” (מחנה) that Jacob saw (Genesis 32:3). Abraham came next and built the second “wall” in Heaven through his morning prayer on the holy mountain (הר) of Moriah (Genesis 22:14). Then came Isaac and built the third Heavenly wall when he “meditated in the field” (שדה). Jacob erected the last wall and finally saw a “House of God” (בית). Finally, Moses completed the structure by putting up a roof when he prayed Va’etchanan (ואתחנן). These terms follow an amazing numerical pattern: מחנה is 103, הר is 206 (with the extra kollel)*, שדה is 309, בית is 412, and ואתחנן is 515. Each prayer (and “wall”) of the forefathers is a progressive multiple of 103 (God’s wall).

We can learn a great deal from this. First, that prayer helps to build our “spiritual home” in Heaven. Second, that prayer both maintains the “walls” of God’s Palace in Heaven, and broadens His revealed presence on this Earth. And finally, that prayers are much more than praises and requests, they are part of a great cosmic process of rectification.

What Should We Pray For?

Aside from the things we request in the Amidah and other prayers, and aside from the all mystical kavanot we should have in mind, what else should we ask for in our personal prayers? A person can ask God of anything that they wish, of course. However, if they want their prayers answered, our Sages teach that it is better to prayer not for one’s self, but for the needs of others. We learn this from the incident of Abraham and Avimelech (Genesis 20). Here, God explicitly tells Avimelech that when Abraham prays for him, he will be healed. After the Torah tells us that Abraham prayed for Avimelech and his household was indeed healed, the very next verse is that “God remembered Sarah” and continues with the narrative of Isaac’s birth. Thus, we see how as soon as Abraham prayed for Avimelech’s household to be able to give birth to children, Abraham himself finally had a long-awaited child with Sarah.

Speaking of children, the Talmud advices what a person should pray for during pregnancy (Berakhot 60a). In the first three days after intercourse, one should pray for conception. In the first forty days of pregnancy, one can pray for which gender they would like the child to be, while another opinion (54a) holds that one shouldn’t pray for this and leave it up to God. (Amazingly, although gender is determined by chromosomes upon conception, we know today that gender development actually begins around day 42 of gestation. So, just as the Talmud states, there really is no point in hoping for a miraculous change in gender past day 40.) Henceforth in the first trimester, one should pray that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. In the second trimester, one should pray that the child should not be stillborn, God forbid. In the final trimester, one should pray for an easy delivery.

Lastly, in addition to common things that everyone prays for (peace, prosperity, health, etc.) the Talmud states that there are three more things to pray for: a good king, a good year, and a good dream (Berakhot 55a). The simple meaning here is to pray that the government won’t oppress us, that only good things will happen in the coming year, and that we will be able to sleep well without stresses and worries. Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that a good king (מלך) starts with the letter mem; a good year with shin (שנה); and good dream (חלום) with chet. This spells the root of Mashiach, for it is only when Mashiach comes that we will finally have a really good king, a really good year, and have the most peaceful sleep, as if we are living in a good dream.

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*Occasionally, gematria allows the use of a kollel, adding one to the total. There are several reasons for doing this, and the validity of the practice is based on Genesis 48:5. Here, Jacob says that Ephraim and Menashe will be equal to Reuben and Shimon. The gematria of “Ephraim and Menashe” (אפרים ומנשה) is 732, while the gematria of “Reuben and Shimon” (ראובן ושמעון) is 731. Since Jacob himself said they are equal, that means we can equate gematriot that are one number away from each other!

For those who don’t like kollels and want exact numbers (as I do), we can present another solution: Abraham’s prayer is the only one not exactly a multiple of God’s original “wall” of 103. The reason that one wall is “incomplete”, so to speak, is because every house needs an opening—Abraham’s wall is the one with the door, so his wall is a tiny bit smaller!

An Honest Look at the Talmud

Earlier this week we discussed the necessity of the Talmud, and of an oral tradition in general, to Judaism. We presented an overview of the Talmud, and a brief description of its thousands of pages. And we admitted that, yes, there are some questionable verses in the Talmud (very few when considering the vastness of it). Here, we want to go through some of these, particularly those that are most popular on anti-Semitic websites and publications.

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

By far the most common is that the Talmud is racist or advocates for the destruction of gentiles. This is based on several anecdotes comparing non-Jews to animals, or the dictum of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that “the best of gentiles should be killed”. First of all, we have to be aware of the linguistic style of the Talmud, which often uses strong hyperbole that is not to be taken literally (more on this below). More importantly, we have to remember that these statements were made in a time where Jews were experiencing a tremendous amount of horrible persecution. Rabbi Shimon’s teacher, Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by being flayed with iron combs. This is a man who never hurt anyone, who raised the status of women, sought to abolish servitude, preached that the most important law is “to love your fellow as yourself”, and taught that all men are made in God’s image (Avot 3:14). For no crime of his own, he was grotesquely slaughtered by the Romans. Rabbi Shimon himself had to hide from the Romans in a cave for 13 years with his son, subsisting off of nothing but carobs. The Jews in Sassanid Persia didn’t fare too much better. So, the anger and resentment of the Sages to their gentile oppressors sometimes come out in the pages of Talmud. Yet, the same Talmud insists “Before the throne of the Creator there is no difference between Jews and gentiles.” (TY Rosh Hashanah 57a). Moreover, a non-Jew who is righteous, and occupies himself with law and spirituality, is likened to a kohen gadol, the high priest (Bava Kamma 38a).

In fact, the contempt that the Sages sometimes had for gentiles is not simply because they were not Jewish, for we see that the Sages had the same contempt, if not more so, for certain other Jews! The Talmud (Pesachim 49b) warns never to marry an ‘am ha’aretz, an unlearned or non-religious Jew, and even compares such Jews to beasts. In the same way that gentiles are sometimes compared to animals, and in the same way Rabbi Shimon said they should “be killed”, Rabbi Shmuel said that the ‘am ha’aretz should be “torn like a fish”! Why such harsh words for other Jews? Because they, too, do not occupy themselves with moral development, with personal growth, or with the law. Therefore, they are more likely to be drawn to sin and immorality. (This sentiment is expressed even in the “New Testament”, where John 7:49 states that “the people who know not the law [‘am ha’aretz] are cursed.”) After all, the very purpose of man in this world “is to perfect himself”, as Rabbi Akiva taught (Tanchuma on Tazria 5), and how can one do so without study? Still, the Sages conclude (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch. 16) that

A man should not say, “Love the pupils of the wise but hate the ‘am ha’aretẓ,” but one should love all, and hate only the heretics, the apostates, and informers, following David, who said: “Those that hate You, O Lord, I hate” [Psalms 139:21]

Rabbi Akiva is a particularly interesting case, because he was an ‘am ha’aretz himself in the first forty years of his life. Of this time, he says how much he used to hate the learned Jews, with all of their laws and apparent moral superiority, and that he wished to “maul the scholar like a donkey”. Rabbi Akiva’s students asked why he said “like a donkey” and not “like a dog”, to which Akiva replied that while a dog’s bite hurts, a donkey’s bite totally crushes the bones! We can learn a lot from Rabbi Akiva: it is easy to hate those you do not understand. Once Akiva entered the realm of the Law, he saw how beautiful and holy the religious world is. It is fitting that Rabbi Akiva, who had lived in both worlds, insisted so much on loving your fellow. And loving them means helping them find God and live a holy, righteous life, which is why Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani (the same one who said that the ‘am ha’aretz should be devoured like a fish) stated that:

He who teaches Torah to his neighbour’s son will be privileged to sit in the Heavenly Academy, for it is written, “If you will cause [Israel] to repent, then will I bring you again, and you shall stand before me…” [Jeremiah 15:19] And he who teaches Torah to the son of an ‘am ha’aretz, even if the Holy One, blessed be He, pronounces a decree against him, He annuls it for his sake, as it is written, “… and if you shall take forth the precious from the vile, you shall be as My mouth…” [ibid.]

Promiscuity in the Talmud

Another horrible accusation levelled against the rabbis of the Talmud is that they were (God forbid) promiscuous and allowed all sorts of sexual indecency. Anyone who makes such a claim clearly knows nothing of the Sages, who were exceedingly modest and chaste. They taught in multiple places how important it is to guard one’s eyes, even suggesting that looking at so much as a woman’s pinky finger is inappropriate (Berakhot 24a). Sexual intercourse should be done only at night or in the dark, and in complete privacy—so much so that some sages would even get rid of any flies in the room! (Niddah 17a) Most would avoid touching their private parts at all times, even while urinating (Niddah 13a). The following page goes so far as to suggest that one who only fantasizes and gives himself an erection should be excommunicated. The Sages cautioned against excessive intercourse, spoke vehemently against wasting seed, and taught that “there is a small organ in a man—if he starves it, it is satisfied; if he satisfies it, it remains starved.” (Sukkah 52b)

Anti-Semitic and Anti-Talmudic websites like to bring up the case of Elazar ben Durdya, of whom the Talmud states “there was not a prostitute in the world” that he did not sleep with (Avodah Zarah 17a). Taking things out of context, what these sites fail to bring up is that the Talmud, of course, does not at all condone Elazar’s actions. In fact, the passage ends with Elazar realizing his terribly sinful ways, and literally dying from shame.

Another disgusting accusation is that the Talmud permits pederasty (God forbid). In reality, what the passage in question (Sanhedrin 54b) is discussing is when the death penalty for pederasty should be applied, and at which age a child is aware of sexuality. Nowhere does it say that such a grotesque act is permitted. The Sages are debating a sensitive issue of when a death penalty should be used. Shmuel insists that any child over the age of three is capable of accurately “throwing guilt” upon another, and this would be valid grounds for a death penalty. Elsewhere, the Talmud states that not only do pederasts deserve to be stoned to death, but they “delay the coming of the Messiah” (Niddah 13b).

The Talmud is similarly accused of allowing a three year old girl to be married. This is also not the whole picture. A father is allowed to arrange a marriage for his daughter, but “it is forbidden for one to marry off his daughter when she is small, until she grows up says ‘this is the one I want to marry.’” (Kiddushin 41a) Indeed, we don’t see a single case of any rabbi in the Talmud marrying a minor, or marrying off their underage daughter. Related discussions appear in a number of other pages of the Talmud. In one of these (Yevamot 60b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai states that a girl who was converted to Judaism before three years of age is permitted to marry a kohen, although kohanim are generally forbidden from marrying converts. This, too, has been twisted as if Rabbi Shimon allowed a kohen to marry a three-year old. He did not say this at all, rather stating that a girl under three who is converted to Judaism (presumably by her parents, considering her young age) is actually not considered a convert but likened to a Jew from birth. Once again we see the importance of proper context.

Science in the Talmud

Last week we already addressed that scientific and medical statements in the Talmud are not based on the Torah, and are simply a reflection of the contemporary knowledge of that time period. As we noted, just a few hundred years after the Talmud’s completion, Rav Sherira Gaon already stated that its medical advice should not be followed, nor should its (sometimes very strange) healing concoctions be made. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim III, 14) expanded this to include the sciences, particularly astronomy and mathematics, which had come a long way by the time of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204). The Rambam did not state that the Sages are necessarily wrong on scientific matters—for indeed we see that they are often quite precise—nonetheless:

You must not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science.

Some scientific statements of the Talmud which have been proven wrong include: The earth’s crust is 1000 cubits thick (Sukkot 53b)—today we have mines that go down four kilometres, which is well over 5000 cubits at least! Lions, bears, and elephants have a gestation period of three years (Bekhorot 8a)—while the Talmud is right by previously stating that cows have a nine-month gestation period, lions actually have gestation of 110 days, bears of 95-220 days depending on the species, and elephants of 22 months.

On the other hand, the Talmud is accurate, for example, when describing the water cycle (Ta’anit 9a), with Rabbi Eliezer explaining that water evaporates from the seas, condenses into clouds, and rains back down. It is also surprisingly close when calculating the number of stars in the universe (Berakhot 32b), with God declaring:

… twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created for your sake.

Doing the math brings one to 1018 stars. This number was hard to fathom in Talmudic times, and even more recently, too (I personally own a book published in the 1930s which states that scientists estimate there are about a million stars in the universe), yet today scientists calculate similar numbers, with one estimate at 1019 stars.

History in the Talmud

When it comes to historical facts the Talmud, like most ancient books, is not always accurate. Historical knowledge was extremely limited in those days. There was no archaeology, no linguistics, and no historical studies departments; neither were there printing presses or books to easily preserve or disseminate information. This was a time of fragile and expensive scrolls, typically reserved for Holy Scriptures.

All in all, the Talmud doesn’t speak too much of history. Some of its reckonings of kings and dynasties are certainly off, and this was recognized even before modern scholarship. For example, Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes of the Talmud’s commentaries on the chronology in Daniel that “the commentators spoke falsely because they did not know the history of the monarchies” (Ma’ayanei HaYeshua 11:4).

The Talmud has also been criticised for exaggerating historical events. In one place (Gittin 57b), for instance, the Talmud suggests that as many as four hundred thousand myriads (or forty billion) Jews were killed by the Romans in Beitar. This is obviously impossible, and there is no doubt the rabbis knew that. It is possible they did not use the word “myriads” to literally refer to 10,000 (as is usually accepted) but simply to mean “a great many”, just as the word is commonly used in English. If so, then the Talmud may have simply meant 400,000 Jews, which is certainly reasonable considering that Beitar was the last stronghold and refuge of the Jews during the Bar Kochva Revolt.

Archaeological remains of the Beitar fortress.

Either way, as already demonstrated the Talmud is known to use highly exaggerated language as a figure of speech. It is not be taken literally. This is all the more true for the stories of Rabbah Bar Bar Chanah, which are ridiculed for their embellishment. Bar Bar Chanah’s own contemporaries knew it, too, with Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish even refusing to take his helping hand while nearly drowning in the Jordan River! (Yoma 9b) Nonetheless, the Talmud preserves his tall tales probably because they carry deeper metaphorical meanings.

Having said that, there are times when the Talmud is extremely precise in its historical facts. For example, it records (Avodah Zarah 9a) the historical eras leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple:

…Greece ruled for one hundred and eighty years during the existence of the Temple, the Hasmonean rule lasted one hundred and three years during Temple times, the House of Herod ruled one hundred and three years. Henceforth, one should go on counting the years as from the destruction of the Temple. Thus we see that [Roman rule over the Temple] was two hundred and six years…

We know from historical sources that Alexander conquered Israel around 331 BCE. The Maccabees threw off the yoke of the Greeks around 160 BCE, and Simon Maccabee officially began the Hasmonean dynasty in 142 BCE. That comes out to between 171 and 189 years of Greek rule, depending on where one draws the endpoint, right in line with the Talmud’s 180 years. The Hasmoneans went on to rule until 37 BCE, when Herod took over—that’s 105 years, compared to the Talmud’s 103 years. And the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, making Herodian rule over the Temple last about 107 years. We also know that Rome recognized the Hasmonean Jewish state around 139 BCE, taking a keen interest in the Holy Land thereafter, and continuing to be involved in its affairs until officially taking over in 63 BCE. They still permitted the Hasmoneans and Herodians to “rule” in their place until 92 CE. Altogether, the Romans loomed over Jerusalem’s Temple for about 209 years; the Talmud states 206 years. Considering that historians themselves are not completely sure of the exact years, the Talmud’s count is incredibly precise.

Understanding the Talmud

Lastly, it is important never to forget that the Talmud is not the code of Jewish law, and that Judaism is far, far more than just the Talmud. There are literally thousands of other holy texts. Jews do not just study Talmud, and even centuries ago, a Jew who focused solely on Talmud was sometimes disparagingly called a hamor d’matnitin, “Mishnaic donkey”. The Talmud itself states (Kiddushin 30a) that one should spend a third of their time studying Tanakh, a third studying Mishnah (and Jewish law), and a third studying Gemara (and additional commentary). The Arizal prescribes a study routine that begins with the weekly parasha from the Five Books of Moses, then progresses to the Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim, then to Talmud, and finally to Kabbalah (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Va’etchanan). He also states emphatically that one who does not study all aspects of Judaism has not properly fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study.

A Torah scroll in its Sephardic-style protective case, with crown.

Those who claim that Jews have replaced the Tanakh with the Talmud are entirely mistaken: When Jews gather in the synagogue, we do not take out the Talmud from the Holy Ark, but a scroll of Torah. It is this Torah which is so carefully transcribed by hand, which is adorned with a crown to signify its unceasing authority, and before which every Jew rises. After the Torah reading, we further read the Haftarah, a selection from the Prophets. At no point is there a public reading of Talmud. As explained previously, the Talmud is there to help us understand the Tanakh, and bring it to life.

Ultimately, one has to remember that the Talmud is a continuing part of the evolution of Judaism. We wrote before how we were never meant to blindly follow the Torah literally, but rather to study it, develop it, grow together with it, and extract its deeper truths. The same is true of the Talmud—the “Oral” Torah—and of all others subjects within Judaism, including Midrash, Kabbalah, and Halacha. Judaism is constantly evolving and improving, and that’s the whole point.

For more debunking of lies and myths about the Talmud, click here.

Things You Didn’t Know About the Talmud

Judaism is famously built upon an “oral tradition”, or Oral Torah, that goes along with the Written Torah. The primary body of the Oral Torah is the Talmud. At the end of this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, the Torah states:

And Hashem said to Moses: “Ascend to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the mitzvah that I have written, that you may teach them…

The Talmud (Berakhot 5a) comments on this that the “Tablets” refers to the Ten Commandments, the “Torah” refers to the Five Books of Moses, the “mitzvah” is the Mishnah, “that I have written” are the books of the Prophets and Holy Writings, and “that you may teach them” is the Talmud. The Mishnah is the major corpus of ancient Jewish oral law, and the Talmud, or Gemara, is essentially a commentary on the Mishnah, with a deeper exposition and derivation of its laws. Today, the Mishnah is printed together with the corresponding Gemara, along with multiple super-commentaries laid out all around the page, and this whole is typically referred to as “Talmud”.

Anatomy of a page of Talmud: (A) Mishnah, (B) Gemara, (C) Commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105, (D) Tosfot, a series of commentators following Rashi, (E) various additional commentaries around the edge of the page.

Last week, we wrote how many have rejected the Talmud, starting with the ancient Sadducees, later the Karaites (whom some consider to be the spiritual descendants of the Sadducees), as well as the Samaritans, and many modern-day Jews whether secular or Reform. Such groups claim that either there was never such a thing as an “oral tradition” or “oral law”, or that the tradition is entirely man-made with no divine basis. Meanwhile, even in the Orthodox Jewish world there are those who are not quite sure what the Talmud truly is, and how its teachings should be regarded. It is therefore essential to explore the origins, development, importance, and necessity of the Talmud.

An Oral Torah

There are many ways to prove that there must be an oral tradition or Oral Torah. From the very beginning, we read in the Written Torah how God forged a covenant with Abraham, which passed down to Isaac, then Jacob, and so on. There is no mention of the patriarchs having any written text. These were oral teachings being passed down from one generation to the next.

Later, the Written Torah was given through the hand of Moses, yet many of its precepts are unclear. Numerous others do not seem to be relevant for all generations, and others still appear quite distasteful if taken literally. We have already written in the past that God did not intend for us to simply observe Torah law blindly and unquestioningly. Rather, we are meant to toil in its words and extract its true meanings, evolve with it, and bring the Torah itself to life. The Torah is not a reference manual that sits on a shelf. It is likened to a living, breathing entity; a “tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18).

Indeed, this is what Joshua commanded the nation: “This Torah shall not leave your mouth, and you shall meditate upon it day and night, so that you may observe to do like all that is written within it” (Joshua 1:8). Joshua did not say that we must literally observe all that is written in it (et kol hakatuv bo), but rather k’khol hakatuv bo, “like all that is written”, or similar to what is written there. We are not meant to simply memorize its laws and live by them, but rather to continuously discuss and debate the Torah, and meditate upon it day and night to derive fresh lessons from it.

Similarly, Exodus 34:27 states that “God said to Moses: ‘Write for yourself these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’” Firstly, God told Moses to write the Torah for yourself, and would later remind that lo b’shamayim hi, the Torah “is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). It was given to us, for us to dwell upon and develop. Secondly, while the words above are translated as “according to these words”, the Hebrew is al pi hadevarim, literally “on the mouth”, which the Talmud says is a clear allusion to the Torah sh’be’al peh, the Oral Torah, literally “the Torah that is on the mouth”.

The Mishnah

2000-year old tefillin discovered in Qumran

It is evident that by the start of the Common Era, Jews living in the Holy Land observed a wide array of customs and laws which were not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, or at least not explained in the Torah. For example, tefillin was quite common, and they have been found in the Qumran caves alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls (produced by a fringe Jewish group, likely the Essenes) and are even mentioned in the “New Testament”. Yet, while the Torah mentions binding something upon one’s arm and between one’s eyes four times, it does not say what these things are or what they look like. Naturally, the Sadducees (like the Karaites) did not wear tefillin, and understood the verses metaphorically. At the same time, though, the Sadducees (and the Karaites and Samaritans) did have mezuzot. Paradoxically, they took one verse in the passage literally (Deuteronomy 6:9), but the adjoining verse in the same passage (Deuteronomy 6:8) metaphorically!

This is just one example of many. The reality is that an oral tradition outside of the Written Law is absolutely vital to Judaism. Indeed, most of those anti-oral law groups still do have oral traditions and customs of their own, just not to the same extent and authority of the Talmud.

Regardless, after the massive devastation wrought by the Romans upon Israel during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, many rabbis felt that the Oral Torah must be written down or else it might be lost. After the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), the Talmud suggests there were less than a dozen genuine rabbis left in Israel. Judaism had to be rebuilt from the ashes. Shortly after, as soon as an opportunity presented itself, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was very wealthy and well-connected) was able to put the Oral Torah into writing, likely with the assistance of fellow rabbis. The result is what is known as the Mishnah, and it was completed by about 200 CE.

The Mishnah is organized into six orders, which are further divided up into tractates. Zera’im (“Seeds”) is the first order, with 11 tractates mainly concerned with agricultural laws; followed by Mo’ed (holidays) with 12 tractates discussing Shabbat and festivals; Nashim (“Women”) with 7 tractates focusing on marriage; Nezikin (“Damages”) with 10 tractates of judicial and tort laws; Kodashim (holy things) with 11 tractates on ritual laws and offerings; and Tehorot (purities) with 12 tractates on cleanliness and ritual purity.

The root of the word “Mishnah” means to repeat, as it had been learned by recitation and repetition to commit the law to memory. Some have pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi may have used earlier Mishnahs compiled by Rabbi Akiva and one of his five remaining students, Rabbi Meir, who lived in the most difficult times of Roman persecution. Considering the circumstances of its composition, the Mishnah was written in short, terse language, with little to no explanation. It essentially presents only a set of laws, usually with multiple opinions on how each law should be fulfilled. To explain how the laws were derived from the Written Torah, and which opinions should be given precedence, another layer of text was necessary.

The Gemara

Rav Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy – a depiction from the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv

Gemara, from the Aramaic gamar, “to study” (like the Hebrew talmud), is that text which makes sense of the Mishnah. (Thus, Gemara may also be from the Hebrew ligmor, “to complete”, as it completes the Mishnah.) It was composed over the next three centuries, in two locations. Rabbis in the Holy Land produced the Talmud Yerushalmi, also known as the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud, while the Sages residing in Persia (centred in the former Babylonian territories) produced the Talmud Bavli, or the Babylonian Talmud. The Yerushalmi was unable to be completed as the persecutions in Israel reached their peak and the scholars could no longer continue their work. The Bavli was completed around 500, and its final composition is attributed to Ravina (Rav Avina bar Rav Huna), who concluded the process started by Rav Ashi (c. 352-427 CE) two generations earlier.

While incomplete, the Yerushalmi also has much more information on the agricultural laws, which were pertinent to those still living in Israel. In Persia, and for the majority of Jews living in the Diaspora, those agricultural laws were no longer relevant, so the Bavli does not have Gemaras on these Mishnaic tractates. Because the Yerushalmi was incomplete, and because it also discussed laws no longer necessary for most Jews, and because the Yerushalmi community was disbanded, it was ultimately the Talmud Bavli that became the dominant Gemara for the Jewish world. To this day, the Yerushalmi is generally only studied by those who already have a wide grasp of the Bavli.

The Talmud is far more than just an exposition on the Mishnah. It has both halachic (legal) and aggadic (literary or allegorical) aspects; contains discussions on ethics, history, mythology, prophecy, and mysticism; and speaks of other nations and religions, science, philosophy, economics, and just about everything else. It is a massive repository of wisdom, with a total of 2,711 double-sided pages (which is why the tractates are cited with a page number and side, for example Berakhot 2a or Shabbat 32b). This typically translates to about 6,200 normal pages in standard print format.

Placing the Talmud

With so much information, it is easy to see why the Talmud went on to take such priority in Judaism. The Written Torah (the Tanakh as a whole) is quite short in comparison, and can be learned more quickly. It is important to remember that the Talmud did not replace the Tanakh, as many wrongly claim. The following graphic beautifully illustrates all of the Talmud’s citations to the Tanakh, and how the two are inseparable:

(Credit: Sefaria.org) It is said of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) that past a certain age he only studied Tanakh, as he knew how to derive all of Judaism, including all of the Talmud, from it.

Indeed, it is difficult to properly grasp the entire Tanakh (which has its own host of apparent contradictions and perplexing passages) without the commentary of the Talmud. Once again, it is the Talmud that brings the Tanakh to life.

Misunderstanding this, Jews have been accused in the past of abandoning Scripture in favour of the Talmud. This was a popular accusation among Christians in Europe. It is not without a grain of truth, for Ashkenazi Jews did tend to focus on Talmudic studies and less on other aspects of Judaism, Tanakh included. Meanwhile, the Sephardic Jewish world was known to be a bit better-rounded, incorporating more scriptural, halachic, and philosophical study. Sephardic communities also tended to be more interested in mysticism, producing the bulk of early Kabbalistic literature. Ashkenazi communities eventually followed suit.

Ironically, so did many Christian groups, which eagerly embraced Jewish mysticism. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) translated portions of the Zohar and Arizal into Latin, publishing the best-selling Kabbalah Denudata. Long before him, the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), one of Michelangelo’s teachers, styled himself a “Christian Kabbalist”, as did the renowned scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522). Meanwhile, Isaac Newton’s copy of the Zohar can be still found at Cambridge University. It is all the more ironic because Kabbalah itself is based on Talmudic principles, as derived from the Tanakh. For example, the central Kabbalistic concept of the Ten Sefirot is first mentioned in the Talmudic tractate of Chagigah (see page 12a), which also outlines the structure of the Heavenly realms. The Talmud is first to speak of the mystical study of Ma’aseh Beresheet (“Mysteries of Creation”) and Ma’aseh Merkavah (“Mysteries of the Divine Chariot”), of Sefer Yetzirah, of spiritual ascent, of how angels operate, and the mechanics of souls.

Having said all that, the Talmud is far from easy to navigate. While it contains vast riches of profound wisdom and divine information, it also has much that appears superfluous and sometimes outright boring. In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a) itself admits that it is not called Talmud Bavli because it was composed in Babylon (since it really wasn’t) but because it is so mebulbal, “confused”, the root of Bavli, or Babel.

Of course, the Written Torah, too, at times appears superfluous, boring, or confused. The Midrash (another component of the Oral Torah) explains why: had the Torah been given in the correct order, with clear language, then anyone who read it would be “able to raise the dead and work miracles” (see Midrash Tehillim 3). The Torah—both Written and Oral—is put together in such a way that mastering it requires a lifetime of study, contemplation, and meditation. One must, as the sage Ben Bag Bag said (Avot 5:21), “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it; see through it, grow old with it, do not budge from it, for there is nothing better than it.”

Defending the Talmud

There is one more accusation commonly directed at the Talmud. This is that the Talmud contains racist or xenophobic language, or perhaps immoral directives, or that it has many flaws and inaccuracies, or that it contains demonology and sorcery. Putting aside deliberate mistranslations and lies (which the internet is full), the truth is that, taken out of context, certain rare passages in the vastness of the Talmud may be read that way. Again, the same is true for the Written Torah itself, where Scripture also speaks of demons and sorcery, has occasional xenophobic overtones, apparent contradictions, or directives that we today recognize as immoral.

First of all, it is important that things are kept in their historical and textual context. Secondly, it is just as important to remember that the Talmud is not the code of Jewish law. (That would be the Shulchan Arukh, and others.) The Talmud presents many opinions, including non-Jewish sayings of various Roman figures, Greek philosophers, and Persian magi. Just because there is a certain strange statement in the Talmud does not mean that its origin is Jewish, and certainly does not mean that Jews necessarily subscribe to it. Even on matters of Jewish law and custom, multiple opinions are presented, most of which are ultimately rejected. The Talmud’s debates are like a transcript of a search for truth. False ideas will be encountered along the way. The Talmud presents them to us so that we can be aware of them, and learn from them.

And yes, there are certain things in the Talmud—which are not based on the Torah itself—that may have become outdated and disproven. This is particularly the case with the Talmud’s scientific and medical knowledge. While much of this has incredibly stood the test of time and has been confirmed correct by modern science, there are others which we know today are inaccurate. This isn’t a new revelation. Long ago, Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006) stated that the Talmudic sages were not doctors, nor were they deriving medical remedies from the Torah. They were simply giving advice that was current at the time. The Rambam held the same (including Talmudic astronomy and mathematics under this category, see Moreh Nevuchim III, 14), as well as the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, c. 1635-1682, on Orach Chaim 173:1) and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. One of the major medieval commentaries on the Talmud, Tosfot, admits that nature changes over time, which is why the Talmud’s science and medicine may not be accurate anymore. Nonetheless, there are those who maintain that we simply do not understand the Talmud properly—and this is probably true as well.

Whatever the case, the Talmud is an inseparable part of the Torah, and an integral aspect of Judaism. Possibly the greatest proof of its significance and divine nature is that it has kept the Jewish people alive and flourishing throughout the difficult centuries, while those who rejected the Oral Torah have mostly faded away. The Talmud remains among the most enigmatic texts of all time, and perhaps it is this mystique that brings some people to fear it. Thankfully, knowledge of the Talmud is growing around the world, and more people than ever before are taking an interest in, and benefitting from, its ancient wisdom.

A bestselling Korean book about the Talmud. Fascination with the Talmud is particularly strong in the Far East. A Japanese book subtitled “Secrets of the Talmud Scriptures” (written by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer in 1971) sold over half a million copies in that country, and was soon exported to China and South Korea. More recently, a Korean reverend founded the “Shema Education Institute” and published a six-volume set of “Korean Talmud”, with plans to translate it into Chinese and Hindi. A simplified “Talmud” digest book became a bestseller, leading Korea’s ambassador to Israel to declare in 2011 that every Korean home has one. With the Winter Olympics coming up in Korea, it is appropriate to mention that Korean star speed skater Lee Kyou-Hyuk said several years ago: “I read the Talmud every time I am going through a hard time. It helps to calm my mind.”

 

Has the Erev Rav Infiltrated Orthodox Judaism, Too?

Last week we opened with a discussion of the Erev Rav, a small group within the Jewish people whose souls stir nothing but trouble for the nation. Their origins are not Israelite, and although halachically Jewish—and possibly even well-meaning people who are not consciously aware of their inner nature—they aim to destroy God’s original Torah. We cited the Arizal in explaining how the weapon of the Erev Rav is da’at: logic, reason, and knowledge, which they twist in the wrong ways to lead people astray.

The Zohar continues to speak of the Erev Rav in its commentary on this week’s parasha, Beshalach, most famous for the account of the Splitting of the Sea. The Zohar starts with an examination of the first verses in the portion, which state that God did not lead the nation directly to Israel, but round-about through the wilderness surrounding the Red Sea. The Torah says God did this so that the nation would not march near the mighty Philistines and fearfully want to return to Egypt.

The Zohar asks: why does God say “the people” (ha’am), and not “My people” (‘ami), as He had always said previously? The Zohar answers that this is because the Erev Rav was among the people, and goes on to prove that whenever the Torah says ha’am (such as in the Golden Calf episode), it refers specifically to the wicked Erev Rav. It was they who would fear the Philistines and might wish to return to Egypt, for certainly no true Israelite would ever wish to return to the slavery and brutality from which they had finally escaped.

The Zohar goes on to confirm that it was the Erev Rav who was responsible for the Golden Calf, and the resultant exile of the Jewish people, as well as “the deaths of thousands among Israel, the submission to foreign kingdoms, and the breaking of the Tablets”. It is the Erev Rav that leads Israel astray, and keeps them in exile. They seek to “break the Tablets”—to twist the Torah in a false direction. And the result is the many horrible catastrophes that befall the nation.

We wrote last week how the Shabbateans, Frankists, and even the leaders of Reform Judaism fit the mold of a modern Erev Rav very well. But what about the Orthodox Jewish world? Has the Erev Rav infiltrated traditional Orthodox communities?

A Battle of Rabbinic Giants

Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz

In the first half of the 18th century, in the decades that immediately followed the Shabbatean heresy, two of the great Ashkenazi rabbis were Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) and Yakov Emden (1697-1776). Rav Eybeschutz was born in Poland and was quickly recognized as a saintly prodigy, even as a child. He eventually settled in Prague, and would become the head of the city’s yeshiva and its top judge. In 1750 he was elected as the chief rabbi of the “Three Communities” of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek. Altona was the birthplace of Rav Emden, who presided over one of its main synagogues and the city’s printing press.

As we mentioned last week, Prague was one of the strongholds of the Shabbateans. It seems that a young Eybeschutz may have dabbled in some Shabbateanism early on, but rejected it as he grew older and wiser. A text called V’Avo HaYom el Ha‘Ayin originated in Prague in 1724 and was clearly trying to infuse Shabbatean ideas among traditional Jews. Some, including Rav Emden, pointed a finger at Rav Eybeschutz. The latter defended his innocence, and in 1725 spoke out publicly and passionately against Shabbateanism.

The controversy died down, only to be reignited in 1751 by Emden shortly after Eybeschutz was elected as chief rabbi (beating out Emden, who was also a candidate for the position). Apparently, a number of amulets authored by Rav Eybeschutz had Shabbatean symbolism. Eybeschutz again pleaded his innocence, but the attacks grew stronger. Rabbi Yakov Yehoshua Falk (the Pnei Yehoshua, 1680-1756) weighed in, writing of Eybeschutz that “All of his deeds, from the earliest times, are characterized by deceit.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Rav Eybeschutz went on a campaign to prove his innocence, collecting 50 letters with 300 signatures of various rabbis that attested to his fine character and virtue. Interestingly, one of the people he asked was a young Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797). At this time, the Gaon was virtually unknown outside of Vilnius. He began his response with a long, flattering address to “the leader of the nation… the true gaon, the famous, the profound, the erudite lamp of Israel… our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Yonatan…” yet went on to imply that he could not really take a stance on the matter, for “I come from a distant land, I am young, I hold no office.” He goes on to ask Rav Yonatan for forgiveness, and “that you judge me favourably.” He did seem to suggest that the amulets in question were not inappropriate.

Rav Emden went on to publish his own response to Rav Eybeschutz, and called the Vilna Gaon’s light defence “the testimony of a boor from Vilna, an ignorant youth…” Although Emden later regretted this remark—when he realized how saintly and wise that “ignorant youth” really was—he was known to lash out at others with such fiery language. He accused many more of being closet Shabbateans, even the great Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746)! And he scuffled with those who weren’t Shabbateans, too. Emden got into trouble with Rav Moshe Hagiz (1671-1750), the chief Sephardic rabbi of Altona, as well as with Rav Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen (1670-1749), the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Altona. Some credit Emden with squashing Shabbateanism, while others critique that it was Emden who first made it fashionable to criticize rabbis and speak derogatorily about them—now unfortunately a common practise.

Moses Mendelssohn

Emden was himself a controversial figure, known for a number of questionable stances. He wanted to reinstate polygamy (to be fair, so did the Vilna Gaon, but for other reasons), or at least permit concubines. He spoke negatively of philosophy and science, but positively of alchemy and Christianity; wrote that the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”) was written by an imposter, and that major chunks of the Zohar are false. More disturbingly, he had a great relationship with Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of the Haskalah movement and one of the early fathers of reform—whom we had linked with the modern Erev Rav.

It is therefore quite difficult to determine who was right in the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy. Many scholars believe that Eybeschutz may have been a Shabbatean in his youth until 1724, but certainly was not after this. After all, he himself decreed a herem (excommunication) upon the Shabbateans. Yet, he also spoke positively of Mendelssohn and of Christianity, and even hired a former student who had converted to Christianity. In 1760, a group of students from Eybeschutz’s yeshiva revealed themselves to be Shabbateans, resulting in the closure of the yeshiva. At the same time, his son Wolf Eybeschutz joined the Frankists and claimed to be a Shabbatean prophet!

It appears this was enough proof for Emden, who declared himself the winner of the controversy. In fact, he changed his name from Yakov to Israel (or added “Israel” to his name), just as the Biblical Jacob’s name was changed to Israel because he had “fought with great men and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). The two rabbis died within a couple of years of each other (both were buried in Altona’s Jewish cemetery within a stone’s throw of one another), and the controversy was soon forgotten, replaced by a new one: Chassidim vs. Mitnagdim.

The Battle to Save Judaism

We wrote last week how the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, worked tirelessly to defeat the Frankists and Shabbateans. His Chassidism arguably saved Judaism by providing a kosher alternative to Shabbatean mysticism. At the same time, the early Chassidim appear to have themselves been influenced by Shabbateans, particularly in Poland. The Baal Shem Tov, too, was known to study and speak highly of a book called Sefer HaTzoref. This massive work was written by Yehoshua Heschel Zoref (1633-1700) of Vilna, who had declared himself Mashiach ben Yosef to Shabbatai Tzvi’s Mashiach ben David. Some argue the Baal Shem Tov was unaware of the book’s origins. Nonetheless, Zoref would start a “Chassidic” movement of his own in Lithuania and Cracow. This is one reason why the Vilna Gaon (in Lithuania) was so antagonistic towards the wider Chassidic movement, among whom there could be lurking secret Shabbateans.

In all likelihood, genuine Shabbateanism died out among the Chassidim, and the movement as a whole would prove itself to be legitimate. But various Shabbatean-like tendencies remained, including both occasional antinomianism and frequent messianism. Others “proved” their innocence by being scrupulously pious, as many secret Frankists had done. This kind of piety would become a staple of Chassidism, so much so that “Ultra-Orthodoxy” and “Chassidism” are often used interchangeably by the public. Whether through senseless additional rules that have no origin in Torah, or through blind worship of their rebbes bordering on idolatry, many Chassidic groups have twisted the Torah in a false direction.

Meanwhile, there are those that are vehemently opposed to the State of Israel, as if yearning to stay in exile forever. Yes, the State of Israel is far from ideal, and is not religious as it needs to be, but instead of crusading against it so passionately, why not work to make it the way it should be? Why not put the same effort into infusing Israel with more spirituality and influencing its leaders in a positive direction instead of causing divisions and hillul Hashem? There are even those who have, in a show of support, brazenly met with genocidal Arab and Iranian leaders—do they not realize these people want to “drive the Jews into the sea”? Regardless of one’s stance on the State, there are innocent Jewish families living in the Holy Land, as God commanded them to. Amazingly, the Zohar on this week’s parasha explicitly says that it is the Erev Rav which strives to bring catastrophes upon the Jewish people and keep Jews forever in exile. These “chassidim” do exactly that.

The most famous (and most vehement) of the anti-Israel Chassidic sects, ‘Neturei Karta’ (clockwise from top left) meeting with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, joining an anti-Israel protest in Berlin (under the eye of the Ayatollah), and meeting with former Iranian president Ahmadinejad.

The Battle for Each of Us

We said previously that the power of the Erev Rav is in manipulating knowledge, or da’at. We showed how Reform leaders have used it to twist Jews to the extreme left and abandon the Torah. The same can be done in the opposite direction, though, where Judaism is taken to the other extreme; to the point where the religion becomes a prison of fences, and we forget the real mitzvah that the fences are supposed to safeguard. The Talmud calls this phenomenon being a chassid shoteh, or “pious” to the point of foolishness. Sadly, the Orthodox world of today is full of this. We wrote in the past how the great Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah said this kind of extreme legalism will turn people away from Judaism, make it impossible for the majority to fulfil the law, and destroy the religion in the long run. He went so far as to say that the chassid shoteh “brings destruction upon the world” (Sotah 20a). In many ways, he was right.

Ironically, it is usually these same people who convince others that they are the true holders of Torah and everyone else is only a pretender. The Tanakh speaks of such hypocrites, with God proclaiming that tofsei haTorah lo yeda’uni, “the upholders of Torah do not know Me” (Jeremiah 2:8). God did not say the gentiles don’t know Him, or the idol worshippers, or the Jews that have gone astray, but specifically the Jews who think they know and uphold the Torah best are the ones who are often furthest from Hashem. And this all goes back to another famous prophecy from the Talmud (Sotah 49b):

In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour dwindle… the meeting place of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be missing…

The Talmud speaks of our days as a time when real ancient wisdom will literally “rot” away, when heresy and corruption will be rampant among scholars and leaders, the genuinely righteous and God-fearing will be rejected, and the truth will be hard to find.

It is therefore absolutely incumbent upon every single Jew today to constantly evaluate the community and congregation they are a part of, and to use their critical thinking in analyzing their leaders and their hashkafa. There are many truly virtuous, saintly rabbis, and there are also a fair share of their wayward counterparts that masquerade as such. Do your research, use your head, and listen to your gut. Do not be a sheep.

The Secret Origins of Reform Judaism

Where did Reform Judaism come from? For many centuries, Judaism was a single entity without major divisions or denominations like those in the Christian world (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.) or in the Muslim world (Shiite, Sunni, and others). In the middle of the 19th century, a new “branch” of Judaism suddenly emerged among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. This was Reform Judaism, which quickly separated itself from “Orthodoxy”, meaning the traditional Jewish way.

An 1806 depiction of Napoleon “emancipating” the Jews

The classic answer to explain this development is that once Jews in Europe were “emancipated” at the turn of the 19th century, they assimilated into European society and wished for a more “modern” version of Judaism that would be acceptable to their “enlightened” Christian neighbours. At the same time, the state of Jewry was at a very low point for a number of reasons (including poverty, persecution, and pogroms), and these early reformers wanted to help the poor “ghetto Jew”; to make him more educated and more prosperous.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Of course, this latter reason is admirable, and it is true that many European Jews at this time needed a big boost both morally and financially. This is why the great Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) started a Torah im Derech Eretz movement which strove to educate and empower Jews, but without abandoning Torah and mitzvot, as did his contemporary Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899).

Abraham Geiger

Meanwhile, the Reform movement sought to abandon traditional Torah, and relegate mitzvot to being optional at best. One of the fathers of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) emphatically stated that the “Talmud must go”. He removed prayers that mourned the Temple or spoke of a return to Jerusalem, for this would be unpatriotic for a German to recite. To this day, Reform Jews call their synagogue a “temple”, the idea being that there is no need to yearn for rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the local “temple” being a valid substitute. Geiger admitted that his “new” Judaism is modelled on Protestant Christianity, and that the Torah and Talmud should be studied “from the point of view of the historian”. For Geiger and his successors, Judaism was nothing more than ancient history, with a set of voluntary cultural traditions.

Why take such an extreme position? Why work so hard to assimilate Jews and to abandon the Torah entirely? Why not follow the balanced model of Rav Hirsch or Rabbi Hildesheimer? Where did this strong antinomianism (rejection of law) come from?

The Erev Rav

In this week’s parasha, Bo, we are told that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”, emerged with Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38). These were not Israelite descendants of Jacob, but various Egyptians and other nations among them that were awed and convinced by God’s plagues and miracles, and wanted to join the Israelites. They, too, stood at Sinai, and thus became Jews.

Yet, it was these same erev rav “Jews” that just 40 days later instigated the incident of the Golden Calf. The Sages state there were 3000 of them, and their goal was to incite the Jews to immorality and idolatry, drawing them away from God. After Moses came down from the mountain, we read how these instigators were punished, and Exodus 32:28 states explicitly that 3000 of them were slayed. While this evil erev rav was removed from the Exodus generation, it is said that the same 3000 souls reincarnate in future generations to cause havoc among the Jews (see, for example, the Arizal in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). While they may be halachically “Jewish”, spiritually they are anything but. They are not necessarily conscious of this, and appear to be well-meaning people, but their inner calling is the very elimination of traditional Judaism.

The erev rav accomplishes this through various means, central among them the use of cunning “reason”. The Arizal taught (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa and Balak) that they twist the power of da’at, “knowledge”, and lead Jews from true da’at Hashem, knowledge of God, to a foreign da’at of idolatry and immorality. [For those who like gematria, the Arizal illustrates this beautifully by pointing out that the numerical value of erev rav (ערב רב) is 474, equal to da’at (דעת).]

The Zohar (I, 25) prophesies that this erev rav will be particularly powerful in the End of Days, and will lead countless Jews astray. Thankfully, they will ultimately be destroyed, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2, which states how the “prophets of the impure spirit” will be removed from the earth. Prior to this, though, they will succeed in causing Jews to abandon true Judaism; to assimilate and to forget the God of Israel and His Torah.

Before we get into the depth of the matter, one can already see how “Reform Judaism” has accomplished the above goal quite well: recent statistics show that only 29% of Reform Jews say they have a strong belief in God, and only 4% regularly attend their “temple”. A whopping 80% of Reform Jews intermarry, with the express approval of the “rabbis” who officiate these weddings. The same rabbis are often quite proud to publicly trample Torah law—in fact, the first graduation ceremony of the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College in 1883 featured frog legs and shrimp, and was called the “treif banquet”.

The leaders of Reform Judaism have accomplished the role of the erev rav quite well. Where exactly did they come from?

A New Cult

The story of Reform Judaism actually begins two centuries earlier. In the middle of the 17th century, there was a great messianic fervour, particularly in Europe. Many Christians believed that the year 1666 would be the last (having the symbolic 666), while some Jews also clung to several opinions—including a possible reference from the Zohar—that the End of Days would come in the mid-1600s. Meanwhile, Eastern European Jews were experiencing perhaps their worst catastrophe yet, the Chmelnitsky massacres.

Shabbatai Tzvi

In the midst of this, a mentally-unstable Jew named Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) started to have illusions of grandeur. Although he was a noted Torah scholar, his family and rabbis rejected his fits of megalomania. Tzvi left his hometown of Smyrna and eventually ended up in the Holy Land, where Nathan of Gaza soon proclaimed him the messiah. Although rejected by the majority of rabbis, and at one point excommunicated, Tzvi’s fame continued to spread.

Eventually, he stirred enough of a storm that the Ottomans arrested him and gave him the option of converting to Islam and ending his messianic pretensions, or death. Tzvi converted, and became an honoured Ottoman effendi. His closest followers converted with him. The messianic dream came to an end. Yet, many people still believed him to be the messiah, even after his death. While those of his followers that converted to Islam lived in Turkey and were known as the Dönmeh, there were also Jews who continued to practice Judaism but were secretly “Shabbateans”, particularly in Eastern Europe.

The biggest problem with Tzvi is that he claimed to fulfil the messianic role of bringing a “new Torah”, the Torah of Atzilut, and this Torah does not require strict adherence to mitzvot. He publicly ate chelev, prohibited non-kosher fats, and even recited a blessing over it. The Shabbateans feasted on fast days, and there were also rumours that they suspended the laws of prohibited relationships.

Among the Dönmeh, the latter abolition took particular significance, and their future leader Baruchiah Russo (d. 1720) abolished any restrictions on sexuality, developing a series of bizarre sexual practices. In the middle of the 18th century, this community was paid a visit by one Polish-born Jacob Frank (1726-1791), the son of a secret Shabbatean. In 1755, Frank returned to Poland and started preaching the way of the Dönmeh. He founded his own Shabbatean sect, claiming to be the final incarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi.

Jacob Frank

Following the model of the Dönmeh in Turkey, who outwardly converted to Islam, Frank and his followers outwardly converted to Christianity. Because of this, they were assisted by the Catholic Church. (Frank himself was baptised by King Augustus III of Poland!) The Frankists took antinomianism to an extreme, and sought to destroy Torah law entirely, and all of traditional Judaism with it. While Frank and about 500 of his followers converted, it is estimated that several thousand more (3000?) remained as outwardly practicing Jews, often very religious-looking and supposedly very pious to mask their secret Frankism. Frank believed that in such a way, the Dönmeh will destroy Islam, his Frankists would destroy Christianity, and those secret Frankists among the Jews would destroy Judaism.

Thankfully, their plot was averted. The Dönmeh had no influence on Islam (a tiny isolated community still lives in Turkey today) nor was Christianity affected very much, mainly because there was a much greater wave of atheism and “Enlightenment” already passing over Europe. The Frankists were excommunicated by the rabbis, who also made it incumbent upon every Jew to expose any Frankist they may suspect.

At the same time, the Chassidic movement took off, and it is quite likely that the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) decided to go public with his previously-secret group of Chassidim to counter the Frankist threat and provide Jews with a valid mystical approach. Sadly, the Baal Shem Tov died in 1760, just months after the Frankists publicly converted to Christianity and reignited a blood libel against Jews at the end of 1759. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov succumbed to a young and untimely death because of his grief over the Frankists. He toiled effortlessly to stop them; his efforts were not in vain.

By the early 19th century, Frank himself was dead, and the movement couldn’t live on without his power, wealth, and charisma. His daughter Eva lead for a while, but soon ended up destitute and without followers. The movement was quashed, but thousands of Frankists remained across Europe, ostracized from the Jewish community, and without any leadership, organization, or support. Where would they go?

Reform and the Franks

Gershom Scholem

World-renowned philosopher and scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) thoroughly researched the origins and history of Shabbateanism and Frankism, and published a great deal of literature on these movements. Besides this, Scholem was an expert on Jewish mysticism, and was once called “without challenge the greatest living authority on Kabbalah.” He was professor of Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University for over three decades, and his breadth of Kabbalistic knowledge was astounding.

In The Messianic Idea in Judaism (pg. 141), Scholem wrote:

The leaders of the “School of Mendelssohn”, who were neither Shabbateans themselves, of course, nor under the influence of mysticism at all, to say nothing of mystical heresy, found ready recruits for their cause in Shabbatean circles, where the world of Rabbinic Judaism had already been completely destroyed from within, quite independently of the efforts of secularist criticism. Those who had survived the ruin were now open to any alternative or wind of change; and so, their “mad visions” behind them, they turned their energies and hidden desires for a more positive life to assimilation and the Haskala [“Enlightenment”], two forces that accomplished without paradoxes, indeed without religion at all, what they, the members of the “accursed sect”, had earnestly striven for in a stormy contention with truth, carried on in the half-light of a faith pregnant with paradoxes.

Moses Mendelssohn

Scholem points out that the members of the Shabbatean and Frankist “accursed sect” found a comfortable new home in Reform Judaism, the “School of Mendelssohn”, which accomplished so well what the sect was trying to do through subversion and infiltration. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was the backbone of the Reform founders. While himself initially well-intentioned, and wishing to help the “ghetto Jew”, he would end up raising the platform for Reform. In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant admitted that Mendelssohn’s work was “the proclamation of a great reform”, while Heinrich Heine proudly credited him: “Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud.” (Yes, and five of Mendelssohn’s own six children converted to Christianity. So much for his reformed Judaism.)

Scholem further wrote of the link between the old cult and the new reform religion:

Around 1850, a consciousness of this link between Shabbateanism and reform was still alive in some quarters. In circles close to the moderate reform movement, a very remarkable and undoubtedly authentic tradition had it that Aaron Chorin, the first pioneer of reformed Jewry in Hungary, was in his youth a member of the Shabbatean group in Prague. Prossnitz and Hamburg, both in the eighteenth century centers of Shabbatean propaganda and the scene of bitter struggles between the orthodox and the heretics or their sympathizers, were among the chief strongholds of the Reform movement in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The sons of those Frankists in Prague who in 1800 still pilgrimed to Offenbach, near Frankfort, the seat of Frank’s successors, and who educated their children in the spirit of this mystical sect, were among the leaders, in 1832, of the first “Reform” organization in Prague. The writings of Jonas Wehle himself, the spiritual leader of these Prague mystics around 1800, already display an astonishing mixture of mysticism and rationalism… from which it is clear that his particular pantheon had room for Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant side by side with Shabbatai Tzvi and Isaac Luria. And as late as 1864, his nephew, writing in New York, lengthily praises in his testament his Shabbatean and Frankist ancestors…

Scholem’s conclusions are clear: Reform Judaism became a springboard for a new Shabbateanism. This may explain why it took such a strong antinomian turn, steadily shedding all mandatory observance of mitzvot. And just as it took hold across Europe, it immigrated to the United States, where the New York descendants continued in the footsteps of their fathers, as we see above. Today, the United States is the home of the largest Reform community. The statistics we pointed out earlier confirm that the Frankist vision of a destroyed, assimilated, lawless Judaism—indeed the vision of the first erev rav millennia ago—has been realized in Reform.

It is important to clarify that this does not meant that millions of Reform Jews are all part of some kind of conspiracy or evil faith, God forbid. Rather, Reform Jewish adherents are good-hearted people that have been duped into a flawed system of beliefs. Many are likely unaware of the hidden origins of their religion, and all that it truly represents.

Sure, Reform is not entirely without merit, and has its positive aspects, just as its founders had some valid arguments. Nor is present-day “Orthodox” Judaism perfect (far from it, and even further from it among certain “Ultra-Orthodox” groups). But one side, as a whole, is still cleaving to Hashem, His Holy Land, and His Holy Torah; the other isn’t.

Every Reform Jew, and every Jew in general, should undertake a serious evaluation of their beliefs and the system of which they are a part. Do your diligent research, and find where the real truth lies.