Tag Archives: Guide for the Perplexed

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 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.

What’s The Deal With Not Shaving?

This week’s parasha is Behaalotcha, which starts with God’s command to light the Temple menorah, followed by a description of the Levite initiation ritual. This ritual required the Levites to have their entire bodies shaved with a razor (Numbers 8:7). Yet, it is well-known that Jewish law forbids shaving the face with a razor. Where did this law come from?

The nobility in many Mesopotamian cultures sported square beards. Is this what the Torah means when it says not to “round” the beard’s corners?

The Torah source is found in Leviticus 19:27, where God commands that “you shall not round the corners of your head, nor shall you destroy the corners of your beard.” The wording here is ambiguous and perplexing. What does it mean to not “round” the head’s “corners”, or not to destroy the beard’s “corners”? The verse does not say anything about shaving with a razor either. Moreover, the context of this verse is amidst a set of things not to do while mourning the dead. This is precisely how the Mishnah (in the tractate Makkot) understands it:

If a man makes a baldness on his head, or rounds the corner of his head, or destroys the corner of his beard, or makes a cutting in his flesh for the dead, he is liable [to flogging], whether he makes one cutting for five dead, or five cuttings for one, he is liable for each.

Shaving is included among a set of things not to do when mourning the dead, such as making a bald spot on the head, which comes from a related verse in Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corners of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh.” Here again we see a prohibition against shaving the beard’s corners. This one, however, is in a set of laws directed only at kohanim. The Talmud (Makkot 20a) explains how even though this verse applies only to priests, other Torah verses expand the prohibition to all of Israel. Nonetheless, all of this only applies when mourning the dead.

Historians have indeed found that shaving was a common mourning ritual in the ancient Near East. Tearing out hair in grief (thus making a “bald spot” for the dead), or shaving hair as an offering to the dead were frequent sights. The Torah prohibits this type of extreme mourning.

The Mishnah cited above continues by saying that one is only liable for punishment if they used a razor to shave their hair. However, another opinion is that any hair removal – even if plucking out each hair one by one – is forbidden. The first opinion is the one that is followed, and thus, shaving hair with a razor in connection to a mourning ritual is forbidden.

If that’s the case, why is shaving with a razor for hygienic or aesthetic purposes forbidden?

Reinterpreting Verses

The Rambam takes an alternate approach in explaining the prohibition of shaving. He writes (in Moreh Nevuchim, Part III, Ch. 37) that shaving was the practice of idolatrous priests, who were clean-shaven in those days. Therefore, maintaining a beard was a way to distinguish Jews from idolaters. This idea appears to be supported by verses in the Book of Jeremiah. For example, Jeremiah 9:24-25 states:

Behold, days are coming, says Hashem, that I will punish all of them that are uncircumcised: Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the children of Ammon, and Moab, and all ketzutzei pe’ah, that dwell in the wilderness; for all the nations are uncircumcised, but all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.

Jeremiah prophesies that a day will come when God will punish all the uncircumcised idolaters (as well as Jews who may be circumcised physically, but are not circumcised “spiritually”). A list of nations follows, and then appears the term ketzutzei pe’ah. This phrase (which also appears in Jeremiah 25:23 and 49:32) can be translated as “trimming the corner”. Thus, some took it to mean that God will punish all those nations that trim the corners of their beards.

However, reading the verse in context shows that it is unlikely to be speaking about trimming beards. Ketzutzei pe’ah is more likely referring to those who live in the distant corners of the world. God is saying he will punish Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab, the nations of the wilderness, and all the uncircumcised in the farthest corners of the Earth, wherever they might be. This is made even clearer in the second passage (Jeremiah 25:23) where the term appears:

… and all the kings of the land of Uz, and all the kings of the land of the Philistines, and Ashkelon, and Gaza, and Ekron, and the remnant of Ashdod; Edom, and Moab, and the children of Ammon; and all the kings of Tyre, and all the kings of Zidon, and the kings of the isle which is beyond the sea; Dedan, and Tema, and Buz, and all ketzutzei pe’ah; and all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mingled people that dwell in the wilderness; and all the kings of Zimri, and all the kings of Elam, and all the kings of the Medes; and all the kings of the north, far and near, one with another; and all the kingdoms of the world, which are upon the face of the earth…

Assyrian priest and king, with beards

Looking at the historical record, we see that while certain nations’ priests were clean-shaven, most were not. Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian priests had nice long beards. These were the Israelites’ primary neighbours and adversaries for most of ancient history, and none were clean-shaven. Therefore, the argument of not shaving because of idolatry is of little substance. Besides, the Torah’s prohibition applies only to cases of mourning, and this is a major reason why halakha forbids a Jew from shaving for thirty days following the death of a family member.

To be fair, Kabbalistic texts do explain why shaving is forbidden from a mystical perspective. The Tanakh itself, though, is mute on this point. In fact, when speaking of a razor specifically, the Torah seems to be quite positive about it. In this week’s parasha, shaving with a razor is part of a cleansing purification, as it is for someone who was afflicted with tzaraat, or someone who had been a nazir (Numbers 6:9). Most tellingly, Isaiah prophesies that a day will come when God Himself will purify us all by shaving us with a razor:

In that day, Hashem will shave with a razor… the head and the hair of the feet; and it shall also sweep away the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow, and two sheep; and from the abundance of milk that they shall give, he shall eat butter; for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the midst of the land…

This verse explicitly mentions shaving the beard with a razor as part of mankind’s final purification. The verse is found in a long passage (Isaiah 7-9) that weaves in prophesies about the coming of Mashiach and the return to an idyllic world, where “… endless peace will be upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it through justice and through righteousness, from henceforth and forever…”

May we merit to see it soon.

The Real Ten Commandments You’ve Never Heard Of

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

Tuesday evening marks the start of Shavuot—the second of the Torah’s pilgrimage festivals—commemorating the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Not surprisingly, the Torah reading for the day is the text of the Decalogue, more commonly known as “the Ten Commandments”. It is well-known that the Decalogue text actually appears in two places in the Torah: Exodus 20:1-14, and Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The latter is in the final book of the Torah, written from the perspective of Moses. The two texts are nearly identical, with the only major difference being the description of the Shabbat commandment. In Exodus, we are told to remember (zachor) the Sabbath, while in Deuteronomy we are told to observe or safeguard it (shamor). The former explains Shabbat being in commemoration of God’s creation of the universe, while the latter ties it to God bringing the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.

If we have two different Decalogue texts, which one was it that the Israelites heard at Sinai? Some say they heard both simultaneously. (Every Friday night in Lecha Dodi we sing shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad, “‘safeguard’ and ‘remember’ in one utterance…”) Others say the Israelites heard the Exodus version, and the Deuteronomy version is simply Moses’ recollection forty years later, or that Moses purposefully made slight changes to better reflect the needs of the Israelites at the time.

Whatever the case, few are aware that there is actually a third Decalogue text in the Torah! This one is in Exodus 34. Here, we are given a very different set of Ten Commandments:

[1] You shall make no molten gods. [2] The feast of unleavened bread shall you keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of spring, for in the month of spring you came out of Egypt. [3] All firstborn are Mine; and of all your cattle you shall sanctify the males, the firstlings of ox and sheep. And the firstling of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before Me empty. [4] Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. [5] And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, [6] and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before Hashem, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; neither shall any man covet your land when you go up to appear before Hashem, your God, three times in the year. [7] You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; [8] neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover be left unto the morning. [9] The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring unto the house of Hashem, your God. [10] You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Aside from idolatry and Shabbat, the above text is a totally different Decalogue! And just in case you thought that this was an unrelated set of ten laws, the Torah continues by emphasizing in the following two verses (Exodus 34:27-28):

And Hashem said unto Moses: “Write these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And he was there with Hashem forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

The Torah makes it explicitly clear that these ten are the Ten Commandments that Moses wrote upon the Tablets, and with these ten did God seal the covenant with Israel! What’s going on?

The Golden Calf

The key to solving this mystery is understanding when the second Decalogue was given. This set came after the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf. That one monumental incident totally changed the course of history. The Arizal explains how the Israelites had affected many tikkunim (spiritual rectifications) during their long years of slavery in Egypt. The Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea accomplished even more rectifications. The preparatory period leading up to the Sinai Revelation ascended the Israelites even further, and when they witnessed God’s Revelation, they had climbed all the way up to the highest level, nearly repairing the entire cosmos. All that was left was to receive the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue which they had heard). This Decalogue was the whole Torah. Once they would have received it and wholeheartedly accepted it, that would have completed the entire rectification of all of Creation, and it would have ushered in the Messianic Age (Moses being Mashiach). Unfortunately, the people worshipped the Golden Calf which, the Arizal explains, now shattered the cosmos once more. Everything reverted to the way it was before the Exodus.

Israeli commemorative stamp of the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), better known as “Maimonides”.

The Sages teach that before the Golden Calf incident, every firstborn male was meant to be a priest. After the Calf, the Levites became the designated priests (since they were the only tribe to abstain from the idolatrous act), and among them, only the descendants of Aaron could serve as high priests. Meanwhile, the Rambam writes that God never wanted the Israelites to bring any sacrifices or offerings (Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). It seems that this only became necessary after the Golden Calf incident. The Rambam explains that the Israelites could not separate themselves from the old pagan ways they were accustomed to. Offering sacrifices is what they knew; this was their way to connect to a higher power. So, God reluctantly gave them various sacrificial rituals, but only to wean them off this unnecessary practice. The Rambam bases his argument on the words of several prophets, including Jeremiah 7:22, which explicitly has God stating that He never commanded any sacrifices! A careful reading of this verse in Jeremiah shows that God said He never wanted sacrifices when He took the Israelites out of Egypt. Later, however, they became necessary, though only as a temporary measure.

And so, after the Golden Calf incident, God gave Moses a new Decalogue. He affirmed that it was with this new Decalogue that He was forging a covenant with Israel. Reading through these commandments, we see how they are all related to the Golden Calf incident.

The first one commands not creating molten gods. The phrasing here uses the exact same words that were used to describe the Golden Calf. The second commands observing the Passover holiday. Recall that at the Golden Calf incident, the people declared that it was the Calf that took them out of Egypt. Now, the second commandment makes clear that God took them out of Egypt. (This also explains why Moses modified the text of the original Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, changing it from remembering Creation, to remembering coming out of Egypt.)

The third commandment is to redeem the firstborn males. As we saw above, before the Golden Calf, all firstborn were priests; after, only the Levites and their descendants. Thus, each firstborn now had to be “redeemed”, since they would not be serving as priests. The fourth commandment is the only one to stay the same: keeping the Sabbath.

The fifth and sixth are celebrating Shavuot and Sukkot, the remaining two of three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover, which was the second commandment). The seventh command introduces sacrifices, and the eighth deals with the Paschal offering. The ninth is about bringing first fruits, another type of offering. All of these fit under the Rambam’s explanation of God giving the Israelites something they were familiar with, since pilgrimage festivals and sacrificial offerings were the two major staples of pagan religion at the time.

The final commandment is not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, or the prohibition of consuming a mixture of meat and dairy foods. There are many explanations for this enigmatic mitzvah. One of the mystical explanations is once again tied to the Golden Calf incident. It is said that the incident occurred just six hours before Moses returned from Sinai. The nation had only to wait several more hours to avoid the catastrophe. Therefore, waiting six hours to consume dairy after eating meat is seen as a spiritual rectification for that bit of impatience.

Restoring the Ten Commandments

The words of the original Decalogue of Exodus 20 have precisely 620 letters. This is famously said to parallel the 620 commandments in Judaism, 613 being derived from the Torah, and an additional seven that were instituted by the Sages. All of the mitzvot were included in the original Ten Commandments. The entire Torah could be found inscribed on the first set of Two Tablets through those 620 letters. From a mystical perspective, these Ten Commandments were all that was necessary. The 610 commandments that followed only came as a result of the Golden Calf incident, and the need to repair the cosmos from the beginning.

For over three millennia, we have slowly been fulfilling the tikkunim once more. The events that surround Mashiach’s coming are the final steps of that process. Mashiach will come and usher in the grand finale. The Tanakh tells us that he will then establish a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:30-31):

Behold, days are coming, said Hashem, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429) says Mashiach will bring a “new Torah”, and the current Torah will be “vain” compared to the Torah of Mashiach (Kohelet Rabbah 11:12). Midrash Tehillim 146:4 is even more specific, suggesting that all non-kosher animals will become kosher, and intimacy with a woman still in the state of niddah will be permitted. A better-known midrash teaches that all of the Torah’s holidays will be abolished (with only Purim—which is not a Torah holiday—remaining).

So, which commandments will be left? The original ten of the first Decalogue; the one that was intended for a Messianic Age to begin with. A simpler set of laws for all of mankind, in an era when (Zechariah 14:9) “Hashem will be king over all of the earth; in that day, God will be One, and His Name will be One.”


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.