Category Archives: Archaeology & History

Secrets of the Star of David

Star of David on the 1000-year old Leningrad Codex (1008 CE).

This week’s double parasha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which speaks of the Sabbath, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the formal establishment of the priesthood. One of the things described is the creation of the Menorah. This seven-branched candelabrum is perhaps the oldest symbol of Judaism. We discussed in the past how King David had the Menorah emblazoned on his shield (with the words of Psalm 67), and this was the famous magen David, “shield of David”. Yet, strangely, the term magen David today is associated not with the Menorah symbol but with the so-called “star of David”. Stranger still, this hexagram was historically known not as the “star of David” but rather as the “seal of Solomon”! Where did this symbol come from, what is its significance, and how did it become associated with the Jewish people?

Alchemy and Mysticism

Star of David in the Capernaum synagogue

The hexagram is a relatively simple shape and is found in art and architecture across Europe and Asia. While few ancient synagogues bear the star, many churches do. The most famous synagogue to have the star is the one discovered in 1866 in Capernaum (Kfar Nachum), a village on the Galilee initially founded by the Hashmoneans following their Chanukah victories. This synagogue is actually more popular among Christians, since the gospels of Luke and Mark describe how Jesus preached there. Archaeologists have also found the symbol on the seal of one Yehoshuah ben Asayahu in the remains of the ancient city of Sidon. The seal is dated all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The great scholar Gershom Scholem (see his Kabbalah, pgs. 362-368) pointed out that the hexagram was used by alchemists to represent the fusion of fire (the up-triangle) and water (the down-triangle). This may have a connection to a Jewish teaching on the meaning of the term oseh shalom bimromav, which describes God as making peace in the Heavenly realms. One explanation is that here in the lower world, water and fire are unable to co-exist, while up in the Heavens God is able to unify these opposing forces. This divine power was demonstrated with the seventh plague in Egypt, which was “hail with fire” intertwined (Exodus 9:24). The fact that it was the seventh plague in particular may be noteworthy, since the Star of David has seven parts: the six points of the star and the inner hexagon.

The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.

That seven-based arrangement has a great deal of significance in Judaism. It represents Creation, with the six days of the week and the special Sabbath. This itself is a reflection of the fact that all physical things in this universe exist in three dimensions, ie. within a “cube” of six faces, while the seventh represents the inner, spiritual dimension. The same arrangement is found in the mystical Tree of Life, where the lower sefirot are arranged as six “male” qualities and the seventh, “female” quality (Malkhut). Because of this, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) arranged his Passover seder plate in a hexagonal style, with each of the components corresponding to one of the lower sefirot, while the three matzahs correspond to the higher sefirot (Chokhmah, Binah, Da’at), and the plate itself (or the cup of wine) paralleling the seventh and final Malkhut. 

The Pesach Seder Plate. There is a debate whether the Arizal intended the items to be placed in a star shape, or with two triangles one atop the other. The latter is likely as it more closely resembles the Tree of Life diagram.

This arrangement of seven (or more specifically, of three-three-one) is found within the Menorah, too, that most ancient of Jewish symbols. For this reason, some argue that the opinion of the Shield of David having the Menorah and the opinion of it having the hexagram are really one and the same. They both reflect a divine geometry of 3-3-1. The sefirot are arranged in the same 3-3-1 manner, and corresponding to them are the seven shepherds of Israel: Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet parallel the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Netzach, Hod, Yesod parallel the next three great leaders of Moses, Aaron, and Joseph; and Malkhut (“Kingdom”) naturally stands for David. David is at the centre of the star, so it is fitting that the star is named after him.

The first row of three (called by the acronym CHaGa”T), is followed by the second row of three (called NeHe”Y), and then the singular, “feminine” Malkhut (or Nukva), which receives from all the others.

Yet, it isn’t clear when and why the symbol became known as the “Star of David”. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman points out that it may come from the fact that in Ancient Hebrew script the letter dalet has a triangular shape (much like the Greek delta), thus making “David” (דוד) appear as two triangles. Whatever the case, the symbol is already described as magen David, the “Shield of David”, in 14th century Kabbalistic texts, as Scholem points out. However, in those days it more commonly went by another name: the Seal of Solomon.

Ancient Hebrew Script. The letter dalet is a triangle.

The Seal of Solomon

In medieval texts, the hexagram is most commonly referred to as the “seal of Solomon”. The earliest texts that mention it are actually Islamic texts, not Jewish ones. They speak of a special ring that King Solomon had which allowed him to interact with jinn spirits (the root of “genie”) both good and bad. Although the texts are Arabic, they are clearly based on more ancient Jewish teachings. In fact, the earliest reference to a special ring possessed by Solomon which allowed him to defend from evil spirits is in the Talmud.

In what is likely the longest story related in the Talmud (Gittin 68a-b), we are told of how Solomon sought to find the special shamir “worm” which would allow him to cut the stones for the Temple without using iron tools. He found the shamir’s whereabouts from the prince of demons, Ashmedai, whom he was able to subdue thanks to his special ring. In an incredible twist, Ashmedai gets a hold of Solomon’s ring and banishes the king from his own kingdom, turning him into a pauper, while Ashmedai himself took the throne impersonating Solomon! Thankfully, this “new” Solomon’s strange behaviour was soon noticed, and the real Solomon eventually made his way back to the palace to reclaim his throne, and his ring.

The Talmud does not state that the ring had a hexagram on it, but rather that it had God’s Name engraved upon it. It is Arabic texts that first connect the ring to the hexagram. Some attempt to distinguish between the “Star of David” and the “Seal of Solomon” by suggesting that the hexagram of the former is made up of overlapping triangles while the hexagram of the latter is intertwined:

This argument seems to be without any foundation; the two symbols are one and the same, with the Star of David often depicted intertwined and the Seal of Solomon depicted overlapping (sometimes within a circle).

“Seal of Solomon” on a 19th-century Moroccan coin.

A Symbol for Israel

Hexagram on ‘Seder Tefillot’, the first siddur printed in Central Europe. (From Scholem’s ‘Kabbalah’, pg. 365)

Gershom Scholem argues that Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries were looking for a unifying symbol to represent themselves, something like the cross of the Christians or the crescent moon of the Muslims. In the city of Prague, the hexagram had been associated with Jews since the 14th century. It was back in 1354 that King Charles IV of Bohemia granted the Jewish community its own flag, with the hexagram upon a red banner. It soon started to appear on the synagogues of Prague. In 1512, the first modern siddur was printed in Prague and, not surprisingly, had the hexagram on its cover. After the Jews’ vital assistance to the city’s defences in 1648, the community was granted another royal flag, now with a yellow star on a red banner. This flag has been used by the community ever since.

The timing couldn’t be better (or worse). Just a few years later, the Shabbatean heresy would begin, and Prague was soon one of the movement’s strongholds. It appears that the Shabbateans adopted the symbol and used it in secret to identify each other. Scholem points out that use of the star was one of the reasons Rabbi Yakov Emden accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz of being a closet Shabbatean (a controversy we have discussed previously).

Star from 5th century CE Byzantine Church uncovered at Khirbet Sufa in the Negev

Interestingly, among the Shabbateans the symbol was known as Magen ben David, the Shield of the Son of David, ie. the Shield of the Messiah. This makes sense considering they believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was Mashiach. This isn’t too different from that star-bearing Capernaum synagogue where Jesus supposedly preached. Not too far away from Capernaum in Israel, a 5th century Byzantine church was uncovered, also with the hexagram symbol. Another ancient church in Tiberias displays the star. Perhaps early Christians believed the hexagram was a symbol of their purported Ben David, too! Indeed, to this day one of the Pope’s mitres (the ceremonial hat) has the hexagram prominently displayed upon it.

Pope Benedict XVI with a star of David mitre

Scholem suggests that the symbol is referred to as Magen ben David in older Kabbalistic texts that predate the Shabbateans (which is where they would have gotten it). Since Kabbalistic teachings date back to at least the Second Temple period, it is possible that even in the time of Jesus there was a tradition of the hexagram being a messianic symbol. In truth, calling it the Shield of David is problematic, since the accepted tradition is that David’s shield had the Menorah upon it. It was Solomon that apparently used the hexagram to shield from demons. And Solomon is literally a ben David, the son of King David, the very first potential Mashiach ben David in history.

Mashiach’s role is to reunite all of the Jews in Israel, and to restore the original Twelve Tribes. The twelve vertices of the hexagram are said to refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all reunited as one. Meanwhile, the land of Israel itself is often described in sevens: the seven Canaanite nations, and the seven shepherds to whom it was promised; the “seven species” through which the land is praised, and the seventy names that the land is known by (see Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 46:8). It is therefore most appropriate that the Zionist movement which sought to restore the Jews to their ancestral land chose the hexagram as its symbol.

While the secular Theodor Herzl drew up a flag that had seven golden stars on a white banner, it was the Orthodox-born and raised David Wolffsohn that came up with the modern flag of Israel, basing the design on the tallit. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl’s call to create a flag for the Jews by stating: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The tallit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.”

By this point in history, the Star of David was used by Jewish communities and synagogues across Europe and beyond, so it was natural for it to be emblazoned upon the blue and white tallit-flag. Around the same time, the Orthodox Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) wrote The Star of Redemption, where he used the hexagram to explain the relationship between God and man. Previously, Rosenzweig had resolved to convert to Christianity, then decided to spend one more day as a Jew on Yom Kippur. That day, in a small Orthodox shul in Berlin, Rosenzweig experienced a mystical revelation and an awakening. He became a pious baal teshuva, and a passionate champion for traditional Judaism. His popular “star of redemption” added further meaning to Israel’s new flag.

Rosenzweig’s ‘Star of Redemption’

There is one last irony in all of this: the same hexagram was used by the Nazis to degrade the Jews in their attempt to eradicate the nation (likely based on the use of a yellow badge forced upon Jews in some medieval-era towns centuries earlier). To proudly fly the Star of David today is to demonstrate that we are still here, stronger than ever, and we are not going anywhere. We took those stars off of our beaten and bloodied robes and put them on our tanks and jets. And now we await Mashiach ben David, Magen ben David, to come and take command of them. It is, after all, his symbol.

 

Who is Ahashverosh?

This Wednesday evening marks the start of Purim. The events of Purim, as described in the Book of Esther, take place in the Persian Empire during the time of King Ahashverosh. Who is this king? Is there a historical figure that matches up with what we know of the Biblical Ahashverosh? And when exactly did the Purim story happen?

Ahaseurus and Haman at Esther’s Feast, by Rembrandt

Not long after Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Jews exiled to Babylon, the Babylonian Empire itself fell to the Persians. This was prophesied by Isaiah (45:1), who went so far as to describe the liberating Persian King Cyrus as “mashiach”! In one place (Megillah 12a), the Talmud states that he was obviously not the messiah—though perhaps a potential one—while in another (Rosh Hashanah 3b) it admits that he was “kosher”, and this is why his name (Koresh in Hebrew and Old Persian) is an anagram of kosher.

According to the accepted historical chronology, Cyrus took over the Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE. The Temple was destroyed some five decades earlier in 586 BCE. Our Sages, too, knew that the Babylonian Captivity lasted less than the seventy years prophesied by Jeremiah. They explained that although Cyrus freed the Jews before seventy years, they were unable to actually rebuild the Temple until seventy years had elapsed. In secular chronology, its rebuilding thus took place in 516 BCE. This was in the reign of the next great Persian king, Darius (r. 522-486 BCE). His son and successor was the famous Xerxes I (485-465 BCE), or in Old Persian Khshayarsha, ie. Ahashverosh.

Despite the name, many believe that the Ahashverosh of Purim is not Xerxes I. Scholars have suggested other possibilities, including one of several kings named Artaxerxes. The problem with Artaxerxes is that first of all the name does not match at all, being Artashacha in Old Persian, and second of all the name actually appears elsewhere in Scripture, in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, as Artachshashta (אַרְתַּחְשַׁשְׂתָּא). This is clearly not Ahashverosh (אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ). Having said that, Ezra 6:14 may imply that Artachshashta and Ahashverosh are one and the same. This verse lists Cyrus, then Darius, then Artachshashta, whereas we know from historical sources that following Cyrus was Cambyses, then the more famous Darius, followed by Xerxes I.

The Book of Daniel complicates things further. Daniel speaks of a Darius that conquers Babylon. Yet we know for a fact that it was Cyrus who conquered Babylon. Some scholars therefore say that Daniel is confusing Darius with Cyrus. Others say this “Darius the Mede” conquered Babylon alongside Cyrus, and this version has been accepted by many in the Jewish tradition. Later, Daniel 9:1 says that Darius was a son of Ahashverosh! Hence, some Jewish sources state that the Persian king Darius was the son of Esther. This suggests an entirely different Darius, and historical sources do speak of three Dariuses, the last one being defeated by Alexander the Great.

Perhaps the only way to find the real Ahashverosh is to ignore the other Biblical books and focus solely on Megillat Esther. In this case, the name Ahashverosh only fits Xerxes. There were two Xerxeses in ancient Persia. Xerxes II, though, ruled for just 45 days before being assassinated. That leaves us with Xerxes I. Does the Purim Ahashverosh match the historical Xerxes?

Xerxes the Great

Xerxes was born around 518 BCE to King Darius I and his wife Atossa, who was the daughter of Cyrus the Great. Xerxes was thus a grandson of the first Persian emperor. When Darius I died, his eldest son Artobazan claimed the throne. Xerxes argued that he should be king since he was the son of Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. Ultimately, it was Xerxes that was crowned, thanks to his mother’s influence. This may be related to the Talmud’s suggestion that Ahashverosh claimed his authority through his wife Vashti, who was the daughter of a previous emperor, while Ahashverosh was just a usurper.

Xerxes immediately solidified his rule and crushed a number of rebellions. He melted down the massive idolatrous statue of Bel, or Marduk, the chief Babylonian god, triggering a number of rebellions by the Babylonians. Xerxes thus removed “king of Babylon” from his official title in an attempt to wipe out any mention of the former Babylon. He remained as “king of Persia and Media, great king, king of kings, and king of nations”.*

Xerxes is undoubtedly most famous for his massive invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, and particularly the difficulties he experienced at the Battle of Thermopylae (where he faced off against “300” Spartans). Returning home without victory, he focused on large construction projects. The ancient Greek historian (and contemporary of Xerxes) Herodotus (c. 485-425 BCE) notes that Xerxes built a palace in Susa. This is, of course, the Shushah HaBirah, “Susa the Capital” mentioned multiple times in the Megillah. Herodotus further states that Xerxes ruled from his capital in Susa over many provinces “from India to Ethiopia”, just as the Megillah says.

Bust of Herodotus

Herodotus also writes how Xerxes loved women and regularly threw parties where the wine never stopped flowing. Indeed, Megillat Esther speaks of the mishteh, literally “drinking party” that Ahashverosh threw. More specifically, Herodotus wrote how Xerxes returned to Persia from his failed Greek invasion in the “tenth month of his seventh year” and spent a lot of time sulking with his large harem of women. Incredibly, the Megillah also states that “Esther was taken unto king Ahashverosh into his palace in the tenth month, which is the month Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign” (Esther 2:16). This is unlikely to be a coincidence.

More amazing still, among the historical records from the time of Xerxes I that have been found we find the name of a court official named Marduka. Interestingly, this Marduka is given no other titles. It isn’t hard to see the connection to Mordechai, also an untitled official in the court of Ahashverosh.

Xerxes’ reign came to an end in 465 BCE when he was unceremoniously assassinated. His eldest son Darius, who should have succeeded him, was killed, too. This once again may relate to the Jewish tradition of Ahashverosh having a son with Esther called Darius.

However, Xerxes’ son Darius was the child of his queen Amestris, or Amastri, the daughter of a Persian nobleman. Historical sources speak of her in the most negative of terms. Herodotus writes that she buried people alive, and she apparently brutally tortured and mutilated a relative she wanted to punish. She was jealous of her husband’s extramarital affairs, and power-hungry in her own right. Although the name Amestris may sound more similar to the name Esther, Amestris’ character fits the profile of a cruel Queen Vashti quite well (see Megillah 12b).**

A Historical Nightmare

One of the greatest issues in Biblical chronology is the problem of the so-called “missing years”. As mentioned, secular scholarship has 586 BCE (or 587 BCE) as the year of the Temple’s destruction and 516 BCE as its rebuilding. Traditional Jewish dating has around 424 BCE (or 423 or even 421 BCE) for the destruction and 354 BCE (or 349 BCE) for the reconstruction. That’s a discrepancy of some 160 years!

Generally, it is concluded that the Jewish traditional dating is simply wrong, as the Sages did not have access to all the historical and archaeological sources that we have today. As we wrote in the past, the Talmud and other ancient Jewish sources do have occasional historical errors, and this has already been noted by rabbis like the Ibn Ezra and Azariah dei Rossi (c. 1511-1578). Still, the traditional Jewish dating need not be thrown out the door just yet.

In his The Challenge of Jewish History: The Bible, The Greeks, and The Missing 168 Years, Rabbi Alexander Hool makes a compelling case for rethinking the accepted chronology. He brings an impressive amount of evidence suggesting that Alexander the Great did not defeat Darius III, but rather Darius I! After Alexander, the Seleucids did not rule over all of Persia, but only the former Babylonian provinces, while the Persian Empire continued to co-exist alongside the Greek. Interestingly, there is another version of Megillat Esther (sometimes called the Apocryphal Book of Esther) which may support the theory. While the apocryphal version is certainly a later edition and not the authentic one, it still provides some additional information which may be useful. This Book of Esther actually says Haman was a Macedonian, like Alexander the Great, which fits neatly with Hool’s theory. Having said that, Hool’s theory is very difficult to accept, and would require rewriting a tremendous amount of history while ignoring large chunks of opposing evidence. Elsewhere, though, he may be right on point.

Hool suggests that Cyrus and the mysterious “Darius the Mede” are one and the same person, with evidence showing “Darius” is a title rather than a proper name. He argues that “Ahashverosh” may be a title, too, and concludes that the Ahashverosh of Purim is none other than Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BCE), the son of Cyrus. This suggestion fits well with the chronology presented in Jewish sources (especially Seder Olam) and with the Tanakh (where, for example, Darius I is the son of Ahashverosh in the Book of Daniel). It also fits with the description of Cambyses given by Herodotus, who says Cambyses was a madman with wild mood swings, much like the Ahashverosh in the Megillah. The timing is excellent, too, fitting inside the seventy year period before the Second Temple was rebuilt and while the Jews were still in exile mode.

Identifying Cambyses with Ahashverosh opens up a host of other problems though. The Megillah has Ahashverosh reigning for at least a dozen years, whereas Cambyses only reigned for about seven and a half. The other details that we know of Cambyses’ life and love interests do not match Ahashverosh either. Point for point, it seems that Xerxes I still fits the bill of Ahashverosh much better than anyone else, despite the chronological mess.

At the end of the day, history before the Common Era is so frustratingly blurry that it is difficult to conclude much with certainty. Without a doubt, there are historical errors and miscalculations in both secular scholarship and in ancient Jewish sources. It seems the identity of Ahashverosh and the exact chronology between the destruction of the First and Second Temples is one mystery that can’t be solved at the moment.


*Perhaps Xerxes’ father Darius is the one called “Darius the Mede” (being unrelated to Cyrus). This makes more sense chronologically if Daniel was one of the original Jewish exiles, as the Tanakh suggests. The Book of Daniel should have said that Ahashverosh was the son of Darius, and not vice versa. In fact, the Talmud (Megillah 12a) admits that Daniel erred in some chronological details. This may be why the Book of Daniel is not always considered an authoritative prophetic book, and is included in the Ketuvim, not the Nevi’im. In Jewish tradition, Daniel is typically excluded from the list of official prophets.

**The Talmud suggests that Vashti was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar (Megillah 10b) or Belshazzar (Megillah 12b), while Ahashverosh was only the son of their stable-master. This makes little sense chronologically or historically. Scholars have pointed out that this extra-Biblical suggestion in the Talmud may have been adapted from the popular Persian story of the king Ardashir I (180-242 CE), which would have been well-known in Talmudic times.

Why Do We Pray and What Should We Pray For?

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

‘Jew Praying’ by Ilya Repin (1875)

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

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

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

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

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

Where Does Prayer Come From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Prayer of the Killed’ by Bronisław Linke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystical Meaning of Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Should We Pray For?

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

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

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

Courtesy: Temple Institute


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

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

An Honest Look at the Talmud

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

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

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

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

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

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

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

Promiscuity in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

Science in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

History in the Talmud

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

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

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

Archaeological remains of the Beitar fortress.

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

Things You Didn’t Know About the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

An Oral Torah

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

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

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

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

The Mishnah

2000-year old tefillin discovered in Qumran

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

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

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

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

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

The Gemara

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

Gemara, from the Aramaic gamar, “to study” (like the Hebrew talmud), is that text which makes sense of the Mishnah. 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.”