Tag Archives: Vilna Gaon

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.

Did Bilaam Prophesize 9/11?

This week’s Torah reading is Balak, which describes how the Moabite king Balak hired the (non-Jewish) prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Balak saw what the Israelites had done to neighbouring kingdoms, and feared that he would lose his own as well. He therefore sought to reverse their fortunes through a curse. The Sages state that Bilaam could sense the precise moment when – just once a day, for precisely 1/58,888th of an hour (or about 61 milliseconds) – God was in his “strictest” mode, and Bilaam could take advantage of this moment to kindle God’s wrath against His chosen people (Berakhot 7a).

The plan ultimately failed, of course, and instead of cursing the Israelites, Bilaam’s mouth uttered blessings and praises. Perhaps most interesting, Bilaam also spoke a series of prophecies about the End of Days. They begin like this:

I see it, but not now; I behold it, but it is not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel which will smite the Moabite princes and uproot the sons of Seth. Edom shall be inherited, and Seir will become the inheritance of its enemies, and Israel shall do valiantly. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, and will destroy the remnant of the city… (Numbers 24:17-19)

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

Bilaam describes a time in the very distant future, and the Sages agree that the “star of Jacob” refers to Mashiach. The Zohar (III, 212b) further elaborates on Bilaam’s prophecies, and describes what precisely is supposed to happen, and when that star of Jacob will be seen. Within this lengthy passage are a few verses that describe a scene quite familiar to the modern reader, and have therefore been used to suggest that the Zohar predicted the events of September 11, 2001:

… And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall…

In traditional Jewish texts, Rome is typically referred to as Edom, and represents the entire Western (or European/Christian) world. The “city of Rome” represents whatever place is the centre of the Western world at a particular period of time. After the city of Rome itself had fallen in 476 CE, the “new Rome” was Constantinople. When this new Rome collapsed as well (and became present-day Istanbul), a “Third Rome” was said to arise. In the past, we have written about the identity of the Third Rome. Most scholars – at least in Jewish circles – agree on two possibilities: the Third Rome is either Moscow (as we have written about before), or New York.*

World Trade Centers: North, South, and 7

World Trade Centers North, South, and 7

If it is indeed New York, then the Zoharic passage above makes a lot of sense. A great edifice of three high structures will fall? Yes, on September 11, three of the iconic World Trade Center buildings collapsed (WTC1, WTC2, and WTC7). And the dates match quite closely, too. The Zohar says the 25th of the sixth month, ie. the 25th of the month of Elul. September 11, 2001 happened to be the 23rd of Elul!

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a number of articles circulated online (for example, here) suggesting that the Zohar predicted this tragedy, and added an additional detail of great interest: These articles claimed that Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, better known as the Vilna Gaon – who lived in the 18th century – corrected the Zohar and wrote that the event will, in fact, take place on the 23rd of Elul. These articles claim that the Vilna Gaon’s correction is recorded in a mystical text called Sifra DiTzniuta.

Are these claims true, and did the Zohar really predict the September 11 attacks?

What Do The Prophecies Actually Say?

First of all, Sifra DiTzniuta was written and published long before the Vilna Gaon’s time, so suggesting that his correction of the Zohar was recorded there is already unlikely. The Vilna Gaon did write a commentary to the Sifra DiTzniuta (full text is available here).

Having searched through both Sifra DiTzniuta and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on it, I was unable to find any reference to the 23rd of Elul, or any correction of the Zohar’s prophecy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is false, but it definitely looks like the source is incorrect.

Either way, we have to go back to the Zohar and read the entire passage, not only those few verses describing the fall of the buildings. It reads like this:

It is taught that in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will rebuild Jerusalem and reveal one firm star, glowing with seventy pillars of fire, and with seventy sparks flashing from it in the middle of the Firmament, and they will be reigned over by seventy other stars, and they will glow and burn for seventy days.

And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall. The ruler of that city will die. Then the star will spread out to be seen in the rest of the world. In that time, great wars will stir all around the four corners of the world and no faith will be found among [its people].

In the middle of the world, when that star will shine in the middle of the Firmament, a great king will arise and rule the world, and his spirit will gain pride over all the kings, and he will awaken a war between both sides, and he will become strong against them.

On the day that the star will be hidden, the Holy Land will tremble forty-five miles around the place of the Holy Temple, revealing an underground cave. From this cave will come out a blazing fire to burn the world. And from this cave a great branch will grow out, and it will rule over the whole world, and to it will be given the kingdom. The Holy Beings will gather to it. Then Mashiach will be revealed to the entire world…

Clearly, there is a lot more going on! While Jerusalem has been rebuilt, we have yet to see the emergence of a star glowing with seventy pillars of fire, with seventy other stars glowing for seventy days. (These may be metaphors, of course, and may not be literally referring to celestial objects.) The Zohar says the edifice would fall at the end of seventy days (or at the beginning, depending on how one reads the passage). There was nothing particularly salient about the period of seventy days before or after 9/11. Moreover, “the ruler of that city” did not die on that day. The events of 9/11 did instigate “great wars” and it is true that we live in an increasingly faithless world. Ultimately, a “great king” to rule the entire world has not arisen (as far as we can tell), nor did the Holy Land tremble to reveal a cave from which Mashiach sprang forth.

Therefore, to suggest that this Zohar is speaking of the 9/11 attacks is perhaps a bit premature. While there are several parallels, the entire sequence of events has not occurred in the years since September 11, 2001. It appears that we have yet to witness the true fulfilment of Bilaam’s and the Zohar’s prophecies.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*While New York is the largest city in the United States, and by far its most important and famous, another candidate for the “Third Rome” is Washington, D.C. Washington has the plus of being a capitol city, the seat of “the ruler” as the Zohar says. It, too, was attacked on 9/11, and its major edifice – the Pentagon (the world’s largest office building) – damaged. Interestingly, long before Washington became America’s capital city, it was settled by a man who named it Rome!

When is Mashiach Coming?

This week’s Torah portion is Metzora, loosely translated as “leper”. It begins by detailing the procedures for the purification of one who has been afflicted by leprosy. The Sages famously state (Arachin 15b) that the term metzora comes from “motzi shem ra”, slandering one’s fellow. Thus, a person would be afflicted with skin ailments if they were guilty of slander and evil speech. Since the slanderer is making their fellow look bad in the eyes of the public, they are appropriately punished by becoming visibly unsightly.

The connection between a metzora and a slanderer is seen in the case of Miriam, the sister of Moses. In chapter 12 of Numbers, we read how Miriam confronted Moses about his personal affairs in the presence of others. As a result of this public embarrassment, she was afflicted with leprosy, and became “white as snow” (v. 10).

Strangely, there is one more important figure that is said to be afflicted with leprosy, and for this person, the reasons appear inexplicable. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) recounts the following:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Elijah [the Prophet] by the entrance of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb… and asked him:
“When will the Messiah come?”
[Elijah responded:] “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“At the entrance [of Rome].”
“And how will I recognize him?”
“He is sitting among the poor lepers, who are untying [their bandages] all at once, and retying them all at once, whereas he unties and reties each bandage separately, thinking, Should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.”

This fascinating passage suggests that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome (according to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary) among all the lepers expelled from the city. Unlike all the other lepers, Mashiach treats one bandage at a time, just in case he might be called to his mantle at any moment, and must always be ready. Indeed, the following page of the Talmud asks what Mashiach’s name might be, and after citing several possibilities, the rabbis conclude that he is known as the “Leper Scholar” (or “the Leper of Rebbi’s School”).

Why would Mashiach be a leper?

The Leper Scholar

The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers one interesting answer to the puzzle. He teaches (Likutei Sichot, Vol. 7, pg. 100) that Mashiach is essentially a perfect person on the inside; however, no human being is completely perfect – such a distinction is reserved only for God – and so, his minor spiritual imperfections appear only on his most outer garments – the skin. The Rebbe goes on to say that the leprosy appearing on his skin is actually a sign of Mashiach’s tremendous spiritual powers. Rabbi Eli Touger describes the Rebbe’s teaching like this: “…there are sublime spiritual influences which, because of the lack of appropriate vessels… can produce negative effects. For when powerful energy is released without being harnessed, it can cause injury. This is the reason for the [leprosy] with which Mashiach is afflicted.”

The Midrash writes that Mashiach’s most powerful weapon is his tongue, and he slays evil with his speech. In one passage (Pesikta Rabbati 37), Mashiach is said to be confronted with 140 wicked kingdoms, and God comforts him: “… do not be afraid, for all of them will perish by the breath of your lips.” This is based on the verse in Isaiah 11, where the Messiah is similarly described as destroying the wicked with his speech. The power of speech is perhaps the greatest of all – it is through speech that God created this entire universe (“And God said ‘Let there be light’…”) – one who knows the true powers of speech can create and destroy worlds!

The power of speech is precisely what the metzora abuses in slandering a fellow, and is thoroughly punished for it with leprosy. Meanwhile, Mashiach uses the same power to root out all evil. Yet, his power is so great that containing it in his feeble body inevitably manifests as a leprosy on his skin.

With this definition in mind, we may see the word metzora in a new light. The Sages say that metzora means motzi ra, literally one who brings out evil. While this can be taken to mean one who brings out evil words about others, it can also be read as one who removes evil from the world, which is Mashiach’s ultimate purpose.

When Will Mashiach Come?

The same pages of Talmud quoted above (Sanhedrin 98a-b) record that the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him: “‘When will the Messiah come?’… So he answered them: ‘When this gate falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.’” Rashi comments here that the “gate” which Rabbi Yose is referring to is none other than Rome (just as the Vilna Gaon commented above that Mashiach is sitting at the gates of Rome).

Rabbi Yose is saying that Rome will fall, and will be rebuilt two more times. When the Third Rome falls, one is assured that Mashiach’s arrival is imminent. Amazingly, historians often speak of “Three Romes”. The first Rome was the original Latin Rome. It collapsed in the 5th century CE, and was replaced by the Greek-speaking Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, later referred to as the Byzantine Empire. When Constantinople fell, the new, “Third Rome” was said to be Moscow. Moscow reached the peak of its global power with the Soviet Union, and collapsed just as dramatically less than 30 years ago.

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Three Romes: Ancient Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow

Interestingly, Jewish literature commonly referred to Rome as Edom, literally the “red” empire. The Soviet Union, too, was known for its association with that colour; the Communists were commonly referred to as “the Reds”, the Soviet Army as the “Red Army”, with the focal point of their empire being Red Square in Moscow.

It is commonly taught that God created civilization as we know it to last 6000 years, followed by a seventh millennium of a peaceful, cosmic “Sabbath”, mimicking the seven days of Creation (see, for example, Sanhedrin 97a). Throughout the ages, various rabbis attempted to calculate the coming of Mashiach based on this principle. If the Final Era of mankind is the 7th millennium – the Sabbath – then the Messianic Era is the preparatory period that immediately precedes the Sabbath. How long should this period be? Well, how long do we spend preparing for Shabbat?

In Jewish law, one should stop working and start preparing for Shabbat six hours before its onset. If each millennium of human history corresponds to one day, then six hours corresponds to 250 years, which means that the official starting point of the Messianic Era was the year 5750 (since this is 250 years before the start of the 7th millennium). Indeed, 5750 is commonly cited as the beginning of the Ikveta d’Mshicha, the “Footsteps of Mashiach”.

Incredibly, Rosh Hashanah of 5750 was celebrated in September of 1989. The Berlin Wall – and the Soviet Union along with it – came crashing down less than two months after, that same November. The Third Rome had fallen right in line with the prophesized starting point of the “Footsteps of Mashiach”, just as the Talmud records in two brief pages of the tractate Sanhedrin (97a, 98b).

Needless to say, it appears that Mashiach’s arrival may very well be imminent.

Hammurabi, Abraham, and an Eye for an Eye

This week’s Torah reading is Mishpatim, literally “ordinances”, which is primarily composed of legal matters, as its name suggests. One of the most famous Torah phrases is found in this parasha: “you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” (Exodus 21:23-24). In legal terms, this is known by the Latin lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

Most people are well aware of the fact that in Judaism, this verse was never taken literally. It does not mean that if one person poked out the eye of another, then his eye gets poked out in turn. A simple example: what if the person doing the poking out is blind? Then poking out his eye in retaliation wouldn’t accomplish anything! And so, Jewish law is unequivocal on the fact that the Torah verse simply means that the punishment should fit the crime. In most cases, the punishment comes in the form of appropriate monetary compensation. The compensation should include medical expenses, lost wages, and the costs for the damages, both physical and emotional.

The Vilna Gaon had a beautiful way of proving that the Torah never meant retaliation, but financial remuneration instead. In Hebrew, the verse literally says “an eye under an eye” (ayin tachat ayin). The word for eye is עין, where the first letter is “under” (ie. alphabetically before) the letter פ, the second letter is under the letter כ, and the final letter is under ס. The letters above spell כסף, literally “money”. Thus, when the Torah says an eye under an eye, it secretly hints to monetary compensation.

In Roman law, as well, lex talionis referred to financial compensation, and not direct retaliation. However, a more ancient legal system – one that predates both Roman law, and even Jewish law – did indeed use this principle literally. In fact, this legal system phrases the law in a very similar way.

The Code of Hammurabi

In 1901, archaeologist Gustave Jéquier made a monumental discovery while excavating around the ancient Persian city of Susa. A massive stone stele with 44 columns of text written in the ancient Akkadian language. By the following year, the stele had been translated. It was a legal code, composed of 282 laws, dating back almost four thousand years to the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 BCE). The code begins with a brief legendary history of Babylon:

Stele of Hammurabi's Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris

Stele of Hammurabi’s Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris. The top of the stele depicts Hammurabi receiving the laws from his patron god, Marduk.

When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, god of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak…

The text (which can be read in full here) then lists the laws of Hammurabi’s kingdom. It is amazing to see how many laws parallel those of this week’s parasha, among them laws of slavery, theft, and damages. Some are even expressed in similar phrases. Law #196: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”

Who is Hammurabi?

Hammurabi’s code is perhaps the earliest known legal system. In fact, it is one of the oldest pieces of text ever discovered. Incredibly, archaeologists have also uncovered a multitude of tablets and writings from his reign, including as many as 55 of his own letters. And Hammurabi’s greatness goes far beyond these writings.

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Though initially his reign was peaceful, Hammurabi was soon mired in various wars by the aggression of neighbouring city-states. Hammurabi came out on top, and by the end of his reign had unified all the city-states of Mesopotamia under the Babylonian banner. He transformed Babylon into a metropolis and temple-laden holy city, putting it on the map for eternity. Thousands of years later, Jews still refer to the Talmud as the Bavli, the Babylonian (due to its composition in formerly-Babylonian lands, and to distinguish it from the lesser-known Yerushalmi Talmud).

Of course, Babylon also made its way into the Torah. Before there is mention of any of our patriarchs, there is mention of the city of Babylon, with its Tower soaring to the Heavens, and drawing God’s wrath. And it appears that Hammurabi himself made it into the Holy Book.

While “Hammurabi” is an Anglicized name, the king’s name was actually pronounced Ammurapi, or Ammuraphi. In Genesis 14 we read: “And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar…” Shinar is the Biblical name for Mesopotamia (likely stemming from shnei naar, the land between the two rivers, which is the same as the Greek Mesopotamia). Meanwhile, Rashi comments that Amraphel was none other than Nimrod, the great king of Babylon.

The tradition surrounding Nimrod is rich and varied. The Torah says he was a “great hunter before God” (Genesis 10:8) which some interpret to mean that he was a righteous, God-fearing man (Hammurabi’s stele also describes him as God-fearing). Others point out that his name Nimrod means “to rebel”, so he must have been the rebel who built the Tower of Babel in an attempt to conquer the Heavens.

Whatever the case, after the Great Dispersion and the confounding of languages that followed the Tower, Nimrod became Amraphel. His exit from the Torah comes at the hands of Abraham, who miraculously defeated him in the War of the Kings.

Though there is no way to say for sure that Hammurabi is Amraphel, or if he ever encountered Abraham, what we do know is that their lifespans certainly overlapped. The traditional Jewish dating for Abraham’s birth corresponds to the year 1812 BCE, while historical records suggest that Hammurabi was born around 1810 BCE.

Unfortunately, looking back so far into history is often futile, and presents a murky image at best. Perhaps future archaeological discoveries will clear up the past. Alas, for the time being we are left only to wonder about what could have been…