Israel and the Iron Age

In this week’s parasha, Ekev, Moses describes the rich land of Israel and says it is “a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey…” This first part of the description is well-known, and the source for the Seven Species of Israel. These are the seven plants that are particularly praiseworthy, and are native to the Holy Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (which were used to make the honey that Moses is speaking of). The Zohar explains that all other species of plants have various angels appointed over them, but God alone oversees the growth and flourishing of the Seven Species (see Zohar Chadash on Ruth, 106a).

What we often overlook is the next part of Moses description: “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.” Moses promises the Israelites a land full of iron and copper. This statement is actually just as significant as the Seven Species! What is so special about iron and copper that it was so enticing for Israel? Continue reading

The Myth of Moses Mendelssohn

Was Moses Mendelssohn really out to destroy traditional Judaism? Did he launch Reform Judaism? Find out who Mendelssohn really was and why he became such a notorious figure in the Orthodox Jewish world. (Also discussed is a brief explanation of the three major Kabbalistic movements that arose in the 18th century.)

Is Playing Sports a Mitzvah?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we read the famous words: v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem, “Guard your souls very much…” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The plain meaning of the passage within which these words are found is to be careful not to descend into idolatry, nor to make any sculptures or images of any figures that might be idolatrous. However, since ancient times the phrase to “guard your souls very much” has also been used to mean that it is our obligation to stay healthy and in good physical shape. If the body is not healthy and dies, then the soul will depart it. Having a healthy soul therefore requires maintaining a healthy body, and a pure soul requires a pure bodily vessel.

Interestingly, it was the great Hillel who first pointed out the connection between the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) recounts how Hillel once took leave of his students and they asked him where he was going, to which he replied: “To do a mitzvah!” They asked which mitzvah, and he replied that he was going to the bathhouse. The puzzled students questioned him: is taking a bath a mitzvah? Hillel replied affirmatively, and explained: if all the statues and icons erected in public places needed to be constantly washed, and they are nothing but man-made objects depicting flesh-and-blood kings and nonsensical idols, how much more so must we keep our bodies clean since we were made in the image of God? And this is the deeper meaning behind King Solomon’s words gomel nafsho ish chassed (Proverbs 11:17), that a kindly or pious man makes sure to take care of his soul.

Our Sages had much to say about maintaining good health. For instance, in Gittin 70a, we are taught that there are 8 things that are healthy in small quantities, but harmful in excess. These eight are: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, labour, wine, sleep, baths, and bloodletting. When it comes to the latter, in those days bloodletting was a popular therapy and it was thought that draining out some “old” blood will stimulate the production of new, healthier blood. There may be something to this, with recent research showing that bloodletting may indeed have been beneficial, and was possibly even effective against bacterial infections. Today, bloodletting is no longer done, but there may be a way to reap the same benefits (and do a double-mitzvah) by going to donate blood. Continue reading