Tag Archives: Names

The Names of the Torah’s Hidden Women

‘Shemot’ is also the name of the second book of the Torah, known in English as ‘Exodus’.

This week’s parasha, Shemot, literally means “names”. The Sages stress how important a name really is, so much so that the word shem and neshamah (“soul”) appear to share a root. The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that a person’s name affects their destiny, and changing one’s name can change one’s fate (Rosh Hashanah 16b). (Other things that can change one’s fate: moving to a new place, charity, prayer, and repentance.) The Zohar (II, 179b) further elaborates that the combinations of letters in a person’s name can reveal much about them.

Jewish tradition holds that an angel whispers a baby’s name to its parents. And yet, many Jews don’t have a Jewish name or don’t connect to their given name. Thus, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 23) that a person can have two names: a name from the side of kedushah, “holiness”, and a name from the side of kelipah, unholy “husks”. Meanwhile, the Midrash states that each person has three names: the name given by the parents, the common name (or nickname) called by close ones, and the name that a person acquires for himself. (The best of these, the Midrash concludes, is the name one makes for himself.)

The Midrash also states that Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt because they preserved their Hebrew names, among other things.* Fittingly, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the midwives Shifrah and Puah ensured the survival of the Jewish babies, so the gematria of their names equals 746, the value of shemot (שמות).

Where Are The Women?

Clearly, names are very important. Yet, while the names of Shifrah and Puah are mentioned, the names of many other important female figures are not! The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) is troubled by this, and even states that in those days people argued against the Torah’s authenticity by pointing out all those missing female names (especially because Judaism passes down through the mother). And so, the Talmud fills in the details and tells us some of these important names:

Rav Chanan bar Raba stated in the name of Rav: the mother of Abraham was Amatlai, the daughter of Karnevo [אמתלאי בת כרנבו]; the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Oravti [אמתלאי בת עורבתי]… The mother of David was Nitzevet, the daughter of Ada’el [נצבת בת עדאל]. The mother of Samson was Tzlelponit [צללפונית], and his sister was Nashyan [נשיין]…

What about the others? What was the name of Rachel and Leah’s mother? How about Lot’s salt-pillar-turning wife? The wife of Potiphar that tried so hard to seduce Joseph? It is said that one of the reasons Cain killed Abel is because of a dispute over a girl (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 21 or Beresheet Rabbah 22:7). What was her name? Luckily, other texts provide the answers.

Sefer HaYashar states that the mother of Rachel and Leah was called Adina (עדינה), while the wife of Potiphar was Zuleikha (זליכא). There are two main opinions as to the name of Lot’s wife: either Idit/Edith (עידית), according to sources like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 25), or Irit (עירית), according to the commentary of the Ramban (on Genesis 19:17).

Another great source for names is the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. Here (4:2) we learn that the name of Cain and Abel’s sister was Aven (און). In traditional Jewish texts, Cain was born with a twin sister and Abel was born with two twin sisters, whom they were meant to marry. Cain reasoned Abel’s second twin should be his wife since he was the elder, and the firstborn deserves a double-portion. Abel argued that if that was the case she would have been born alongside Cain! This was one of their major points of contention, leading to Cain’s murder of Abel. The Book of Jubilees says none of this, and holds that Cain killed Abel out of anger that God did not accept his offering.

The Book of Jubilees also states that Noah’s mother was called Bethnah (ביתנה), and his wife was Emtzarah (אמצרה). Meanwhile, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 23:3) holds that Noah’s wife was Na’amah (נעמה), the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 4:22). Interestingly, Jubilees gives us the name of Shem’s wife, too: Tzedeket-Levav (צדקת לבב). This is fitting, since Jewish tradition identifies Shem with Melchizedek. Interestingly, Jubilees states that all three of Noah’s sons built cities for themselves, and named the cities after their wives!

The Mothers of Israel

The Torah devotes quite a bit of attention to the Four Mothers of Israel (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), but what about the names of the wives of the Twelve Tribes? The Torah only mentions the wife of Joseph (Osnat) and passively mentions the wife of Judah, calling her the daughter of Shuah. Seder HaDorot states that her name was actually Eilat, and fills in the rest:

The wife of the elder Reuben was a Canaanite woman named Elyarem. Shimon’s wife—according to this particular text; there are other opinions—was his sister Dinah, the daughter of Leah. (The Midrash explains that Shimon had to marry her because he killed Shechem, whom she was meant to marry.) Levi married Adina, a descendent of Ever, one of the forefathers of Abraham. It seems Issachar married Adina’s sister, Arida.

Zevulun married a Midianite named Marusha, while Dan married a Moabite woman named Aflala. Naftali married Merimat, a distant cousin descended from Nachor, the brother of Abraham. Gad married her sister Utzit. Asher married a great-granddaughter of Ishmael named Adon, and after she passed away, married a woman named Hadurah. Benjamin had two wives: one called Machlat, and another Arvat, the granddaughter of Abraham from his later wife Keturah.

Each of these names certainly carries deep meaning, as do all names and appellations. Jewish texts call God by many different names and titles, each of which captures a different essence of God, and thereby helps us understand Him. Similarly, all of a person’s various names and titles combine to make up who they are.

To conclude with a famous story that illustrates this, it is said that a three-year old Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866) was once sitting on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, 1745-1813). The Rebbe asked his grandson: “Where is grandpa?” The child quickly pointed to his grandpa’s head, to which the Rebbe said, “That’s just grandpa’s head! Where is grandpa?” The child tried again and again, pointing to other parts of the body to which the Rebbe similarly replied. Later on, the young Tzemach Tzedek was playing outside and called his grandfather. The Rebbe immediately hurried over to him, and the smiling child said: “There’s grandpa!”

The Alter Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek

*This is actually a problematic Midrash. Names like Aaron and Pinchas don’t seem to have a meaning in Hebrew but do in ancient Egyptian! Aaron is believed to come from the Egyptian aha rw, “warrior lion”, while Pinchas sounds like the common Egyptian name Pa-Nehasi, “the bronze one”. Thankfully, a variant Midrash preserves a different tradition. While Vayikra Rabbah (Ch. 32) states that Israel was redeemed on account of their names, language, abstaining from lashon hara and licentiousness, Pesikta Zutrata (on Ki Tavo, 46a) states that it was because of their clothing, food, and language.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is concerned with the first major set of laws that the Israelites received following the Ten Commandments. While the term mishpatim literally means “ordinances” or “judgements”, the Zohar (II, 94a) suggests a very different interpretation:

“And these are the judgements which you shall set before them…” These are the rules concerning reincarnation, the judgement of souls that are sentenced according to their acts.

The Zohar goes on to interpret the laws in the Torah with regards to the mechanisms of reincarnation. For example, whereas the Torah begins by describing a Hebrew servant who is indentured for six years of labour and must then be freed in the seventh year, the Zohar interprets that this is really speaking of souls which must reincarnate in order to repair the six middot before they could be freed. (The middot are the primary character traits: chessed, kindness; gevurah, restraint; tiferet, balance and truth; netzach, persistence and faith; hod, gratitude and humility; and yesod, sexual purity.)

While the Zohar speaks at length about reincarnation, it is the Arizal who systematically laid down the rules of reincarnation and explained the Zohar in depth. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded these teachings in a famous treatise known as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnation”. The following is a brief condensation of the basic rules of reincarnation that are defined in this tremendous text, answering many of the common questions people have about spiritual transmigration.

Why Do People Reincarnate?

At the start of the eighth chapter, Rabbi Vital writes:

למה מתגלגלים. דע, כי הנשמות יתגלגלו לכמה סבות, הראשונה הוא, לפי שעבר על איזו עבירה מעבירות שבתורה, ובא לתקן. הב’ הוא, לתקן איזו מצוה שחסר ממנו. השלישית היא, שבא לצורך אחרים, להדריכם ולתקנם… לפעמים יתגלגל, ליקח את בת זוגו, כי לא זכה בראשונה לקחתה

Why do people reincarnate? Know that souls reincarnate for several reasons: The first is that one transgressed one of the prohibitions in the Torah, and returns to repair it. The second is to fulfil a mitzvah that one lacks. The third is in order to assist others, to guide them, and rectify them… Sometimes one reincarnates to marry their soulmate, which they did not merit to do in a previous life.

The Ari explains that people mainly reincarnate in order to atone for sins of past lives, or to fulfil mitzvahs that they didn’t do previously. Later, in Chapter 16, we read that people who return do not have to fulfil all the mitzvahs in one lifetime, but only have to accomplish those that their souls are still lacking. Some reincarnate not for their own rectification, but to assist others. We are told elsewhere that these are usually very righteous individuals who agree to return to this world in order to help others.

Fresco of the Resurrection of the Dead from the ancient Dura-Europos Synagogue

Some also reincarnate because they either did not marry, or married the wrong person. They must return to reunite with their true soulmate. The Arizal teaches that, unfortunately, some people are so deeply mired in kelipot, negative spiritual “husks”, that they are unable to find their soulmate in this world. These people will reunite with their other half only in Olam HaBa, the “next world” at the time of the Resurrection. With regards to finding soulmates, this is directed particularly at male souls, for it is primarily a man’s responsibility to find his soulmate.

On that note, the following chapter tells us that female souls actually reincarnate very rarely. To begin with, female souls are more refined than male ones, and are unlikely to require more rectifications. What does happen more commonly is that male souls are reincarnated into female bodies! This opens up a number of fascinating scenarios which Rabbi Chaim Vital describes.

What Do People Reincarnate Into?

In Chapter 22, we read that people can reincarnate not only into human bodies, but also animals, vegetation, and even inanimate matter. For example, a person who feeds others non-kosher food reincarnates as a tree; one who sheds blood reincarnates into water; those who transgress various sexual prohibitions reincarnate into bats, rabbits, and other animals; while proud people and those who talk too much reincarnate into bees. (We are told that this is what happened to the judge Deborah who, despite her greatness and wisdom, had a bit of pride and was required to reincarnate into a bee, hence her name devorah, which literally means “bee”!)

It is important to mention, though, that an entire human soul does not fully reincarnate into another organism. Rather, souls are complex entities made up of many different interacting sparks. It is only those sparks that require rectification that return to this world (Chapter 14). Interestingly, the Arizal teaches that when two people really dislike each other, and are constantly in conflict with one another, this is often because the two are sharing sparks from one soul!

How Many Times May One Reincarnate?

Sha’ar HaGilgulim records that a person can reincarnate thousands of times—but only on the condition that they improve at least a little bit in each incarnation. If they fail to improve, they can only reincarnate a maximum of three times. After three strikes, that particular spark is sent to Gehinnom (loosely translated as “hell”) where it will be purified. However, the souls of those who regularly learn Torah are never sent to Gehinnom, and always merit reincarnation. This is one of the incredible protective powers of regular Torah study.

In multiple places, the Arizal teaches about the reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam. Abel (הבל) had a good side and a bad one. The good side was represented by the letter Hei (ה) of his name, and the bad by the Beit and Lamed (בל). The bad part needed to be rectified, so it reincarnated in Laban (לבן), the wicked father-in-law of Jacob. Laban didn’t do much better, so he was reincarnated in the gentile prophet Bilaam (בלעם). He, too, was an ungodly person, so the Beit-Lamed soul was reincarnated for the third time in Naval (נבל), the ungrateful man who rejected David. Naval was strike three, and that Beit-Lamed soul no longer returned in a reincarnation.

We see from the above how a person’s name may offer tremendous hints as to their soul sparks, previous lives, tests, challenges, and character traits. When we read about the above individuals in the Tanakh, we see how similar they were. All three were very wealthy, famous, and participated in divination and sorcery. All were cunning, greedy, and deceitful individuals. The Arizal explains in detail what rectifications each was supposed to do, and how one life affected the next, weaving together these three seemingly unrelated Biblical narratives that span nearly a thousand years into one beautiful tapestry.

Which Body Will A Person Have at the End?

Perhaps the most famous question: if a soul has so many different bodies over so many different lifetimes, which body will that soul inhabit in the afterlife, or in the world of Resurrection? Rabbi Vital writes:

וכן הענין בכל נשמה ונשמה, וכאשר יהיה זמן התחיה, כל גוף וגוף יקח חלקו של נשמתו, כפי חלק הזמן שלו באיזו מדרגה היתה

And with each and every soul, when the time of the Resurrection comes, each and every body will take its corresponding soul, according to the part that it had at that particular time.

Thus, each part of the soul will have its own body, and all reincarnations will exist simultaneously as individuals in Olam HaBa!

Breaking Free from Materialism

In Chapter 23, Rabbi Vital suggests that the most important thing to take from all of this is to live a meaningful, spiritual life. When a person is mired in materialism, and cares only for their physical aspects, they become so attached to their bodies that they cannot exist without one. And so, when that person’s body dies their soul is in complete disarray; frightened, pained, and unable to ascend onwards. Angels must come and quickly place the soul in a new body. As such, this person can never free themselves from endless reincarnations into this imperfect, difficult world.

However, those who in their lifetimes tap into their souls, and are comfortable with their spiritual side, are able to simply take off their dead bodies like an old garment, and move on. For such people, their wonderful portion in Olam HaBa is not too far away.

Should Jews Believe in Astrology?

This week’s parasha, the second last of the Torah, is Ha’azinu. This parasha is unique in that it consists almost entirely of one lengthy song – clearly visible when looking at a Torah scroll, where the text of Ha’azinu is split into two narrow columns. Moses sang this prophetic song to the nation right before his passing.

Two columns of parashat Ha'azinu

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu

In the verses that introduce it (Deut. 31:19), we see God commanding Moses to write the song and “teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it in their mouths so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.” God wanted Moses to diligently teach this song to the entire nation. In fact, the actual wording of the verse has God commanding everyone – each member of the nation – to write the song for themselves. It is based on this verse that the Sages drew the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll (or participating in writing one), even though the plain text of the verse states only to write this particular song, Ha’azinu.

Perhaps because of this, the Ramban taught that Ha’azinu contains the entire Torah within it. Moreover, he believed that every detail of every person’s life is somehow encoded within this song! In one famous story, when a student of the Ramban, a man named Avner, heard this teaching, he was so baffled by it that he left Judaism entirely, converted to another religion, and became a prominent anti-Semite. When Avner later confronted the Ramban, the Rabbi showed him how one verse in the song did indeed accurately point to this man’s life. Avner was so ashamed that he disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Heavenly Princes

And so, each and every one of the song’s 43 verses has a great deal to teach us. The eighth verse begins by telling us that God gave each nation their lot, and the ninth verse says that “Hashem’s portion is His people, the lot of His inheritance.” The Zohar comments on these words that while God established Heavenly “princes” to watch over every nation in the world, Israel is watched over by God Himself. The Ramban (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah) elaborates:

He gave each and every nation… some known star or constellation, as is known by means of the science of astrology… Higher above [the constellations] are the angels of the Supreme One, whom He appointed as “princes” over them… It is further written, “So shall you be My people, and I will be your God, and you will not be subject to other powers at all.” (Jeremiah 11:4)

When we often say that Hashem is our God (as we do in the daily Shema), or when the Tanakh writes that we are God’s people, this does not mean that gentiles cannot have a relationship with God, or that there are other gods out there for the non-Jewish world. Rather, it means that while God oversees absolutely everything in His universe, and has created all people, He has also appointed various Heavenly (or astrological) forces above each nation – except Israel. These forces are not independent in their own right, as they are subject to the angels above them, and these angels ultimately serve God. As such, the nations of the world have various Heavenly intermediaries between themselves and Hashem. Israel, however, has a direct connection to Him. In fact, this is the hidden meaning within the name “Israel” (ישראל), which can be read as yashar El. (ישר-אל), “straight to God”.

Ain Mazal L’Israel

Long before the Ramban, the Sages of the Talmud debated whether the constellations had an effect on people (Shabbat 156a). The consensus of the Rabbis was that constellations do impact people, but Jews are free from this influence. They learn this from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied: “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.” (10:2) God tells Israel not to draw meaning from heavenly signs as the other nations do. The Talmud goes on to tell us a story about Abraham, who cried out to God: “Master of the Universe! I have looked at the constellations and find that I am not fated to have children.” To this, God replied: “Stop your star-gazing! Israel has no constellations.”

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th Century Synagogue

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th-Century Synagogue

Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that Abraham was once a powerful astrologer, and great men from around the world came to consult with him about their fortunes (Bava Batra 16b). When Abraham looked into his own fate, he saw that he would not have children. God commanded him to desist from astrology, for the Jewish people have the power to transcend the stars. Of course, Abraham went on to have many children.

Later on, Moses would record in the Torah the prohibition for Jews to consult various fortune-tellers and astrologers. The Rambam codifies the law in this way:

It is forbidden to tell fortunes. [This applies] even though one does not perform a deed, but merely relates the falsehoods which the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his journeys to fit a time that was suggested by the astrologers is [liable for] lashes, as [Leviticus 19:26] states: “Do not tell fortunes.” (Sefer HaMadda, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, Chapter 11, Halacha 9)

Transcending Nature

We see from the above that various Heavenly forces, angels, and constellations do exist, and certainly do influence the world. Astrological signs can be potent forces. Ironically, earlier in his discourse, the Ramban points out how astrology is intricately tied into the Jewish calendar: it is no coincidence that Pesach is celebrated in the month of Nisan, the sign of which is Aries (the ram, or sheep), since the main mitzvah of Pesach was to sacrifice a lamb; and it is no coincidence that Rosh Hashanah – judgement day, when each person is put on trial – is in the month of Tishrei, the sign of which is Libra, the scales of justice. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 418) even tells us how each of the 12 Tribes of Israel corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac!

And yet, all the sources are clear: Jews are not to dabble in astrology, for we have no need for intermediaries, and we have all the power to break free from the influence of the constellations. It is precisely when we believe in astrology that it becomes real, just as Abraham had no children as long as he believed in the heavenly signs that he saw. Every Jew must realize that we are Israel, yashar El, and that Hashem alone is our astrological sign. There is no need to believe in what the Rambam calls “emptiness and vanity”. The Rambam ends his laws on this subject by telling us to live up to the Torah’s call (Deut. 18:13) to be of “perfect faith with Hashem, your God.” When one has perfect faith in the Master of the Universe, anything is possible, and this is how God finished his rebuke to Abraham:

“Stop your star-gazing! Ain mazal l’Israel. What is your calculation? Is it because Jupiter stands in the West? Then I will turn it back and place it in the East!”

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.

With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle? The Surprising Identity of Jacob’s Angel

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Gustave Doré (1855)

This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, begins with the famous story of Jacob’s brawl with the angel. This occurred during Jacob’s return to Israel after twenty years living with his father-in-law Laban in the land of Charan. Upon his return, Jacob knows that his brother Esau is waiting for him, and looking for revenge. After all, Esau was the main reason why Jacob left the Holy Land to begin with, having heard that Esau intended to kill him for “stealing” their father’s blessing.

Now, Jacob is journeying back home and receives word that Esau is on his way with four hundred soldiers. The Torah goes on to describe how Jacob prepared for the encounter in three ways. First, he devised a battle strategy and divided his camp into two. Then, he prayed fervently to God. Finally, he sent messengers with very large gifts (over five hundred animals from his flocks) to appease Esau. This in itself is a beautiful lesson. When coming up against conflicts, we too should have these three considerations in mind: trying foremost to solve the issue peacefully, praying to God for some Heavenly assistance, and in case all else fails, carefully preparing for battle.

The Nighttime Brawl

After setting up the narrative with this introduction, the Torah goes on to state that Jacob was left alone that night, and “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). The story ends with Jacob being renamed “Israel” by his adversary. Despite the fact that most people immediately recall that this “man” was actually an angel (as Rashi comments), there is no explicit mention in the Torah that this figure was indeed an angel. The angel interpretation is derived indirectly from the fact that the adversary later says of Jacob that he “struggled with God, and with people, and prevailed” (v. 29). Furthermore, after the battle is over Jacob says that he “saw God face-to-face, and my soul was saved” (v. 32).

However, a careful reading shows that neither of these two verses suggests that he battled an angel. The first simply states that Jacob had struggled in his life both with people and in his service of God. The second verse says that Jacob saw a vision of God during the fight, and praised God for saving his soul; it does not say that he wrestled an angel!

On top of this, many more difficulties arise with the angel version. For one, how is Jacob, a mere mortal, able to physically defeat an angelic entity that is not even limited by physical dimensions? The angel surely could have “flown away” at will! Secondly, Jacob’s adversary is fearful of the coming dawn, and begs Jacob to be freed before sunrise. Third, when Jacob asks the name of his assailant, the latter does not want to divulge this information. Rashi dispels with this last problem by saying that angels don’t have permanent names. But we know that they certainly do! For example, Michael is considered the “guardian angel” of Israel, Gabriel is an angel of justice, while Raphael is described as the angel of healing. Funny enough, Rashi himself identifies these angelic names in Genesis 18:2 and 37:15!

So, if it was not an angel, with whom did Jacob do battle?

Identifying Jacob’s Adversary

After the narrative of the brawl ends, the Torah states, “And Jacob lifted his eyes and saw that Esau was coming…” (33:1).That was fast! Shortly after the “angel” is gone, Jacob only has to lift his eyes and Esau appears. Most surprising is what Jacob later tells Esau: “…I have seen your face, which is like the face of God, and you have accepted me” (v. 10). The striking parallel is impossible to miss. After battling the “angel”, Jacob says he saw the face of God (“ki ra’iti Elohim panim al panim…”) and now he tells Esau that Esau’s face is like the face of God (“ki ra’iti panecha kir’ot pnei Elohim…”) – the Hebrew wording is nearly identical! It appears that Jacob is giving us a big clue, and he is also hinting something to his brother: Jacob knows that the supposed “angel” who battled him not long before was none other than Esau himself!

This explains why the “angel” snuck up on Jacob in the darkness of the night, and feared the rising sun so that his identity would not be revealed in the light. This is why the “angel” could not reveal his name to Jacob. And this is why the “angel” gave Jacob a new name:

After Jacob took the blessing from Esau, the Torah records how Esau asked: “Is it because his name is Jacob that he has deceived me…?” (Genesis 27:36). This is a play on words in Hebrew, since Jacob is Ya’akov, and “deceived me” is ya’akveni. The root of Jacob’s name shares the root with the term for trickery and deception. Esau wondered then whether Jacob’s name alluded to his deceptive nature. Now, having battled Jacob and seen that he is truly a great and powerful man—deserving of their father’s blessing—Esau admitted that he is not at all “Jacob”, a name which denotes trickery, but rather, he is the mighty Israel, a true warrior.

One-on-One

If we can conclude that Jacob’s adversary was indeed Esau, another beautiful dimension is added to the story. We saw how Esau was racing towards Jacob with a fierce contingent of four hundred armed men, while Jacob prepared his own sons, workers, and followers into a defensive battalion. Ultimately, instead of starting a war where potentially hundreds of innocent people might perish, the two found each other at night, alone, and faced each other one-on-one, face-to-face, panim al panim. They put to rest their personal issues, ending the animosity between them, and so the next morning they embraced and wept on each other’s shoulders. The two brothers had finally made peace.

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Update (April 9, 2015): This cool video takes a similar approach to Jacob’s brawl with the angel: