Category Archives: Archaeology & History

Is Kabbalah Kosher?

In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) The verse is a significant one for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is used as Scriptural proof for the Jewish mystical tradition, commonly referred to as “Kabbalah”, those esoteric secrets—“hidden things”—of the Torah. The Torah cautions that these secrets are best to be kept for God, while the revealed parts of the Law are for us and our children.

And yet, Jewish mysticism has been a very popular area of study for millennia. We know of the existence of multiple “mystery schools” in the Second Temple era. Some of the earliest mystical texts were composed in this time period, and have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, a number of new mystical texts appeared, known as the Heikhalot, Heavenly “Palaces”.

The main protagonists of the Heikhalot are Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael. We know from the Talmud that these two were great mystics. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) famously records how Rabbi Akiva led three other rabbis to the Heavenly realms of Pardes. This is traditionally taken to mean that they plunged into the depths of Jewish esotericism, where “Pardes” is an acronym for pshat, remez, drash, sod, the four main levels of Torah study: the simple, surface meaning; the sub-textual allusions; the allegorical, metaphorical, and extra-Scriptural narratives; and the mystical secrets of Kabbalah.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The three rabbis that went along with Rabbi Akiva didn’t fare so well: Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma apparently lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “exited in peace”. There were many other mystics in their day. The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) states that although Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (whose students were the teachers of Rabbi Akiva) was the least knowledgeable of Hillel’s eighty disciples, even he was an expert in Ma’aseh Merkavah, “the Work of the Chariot”. Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to the opening account of the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes God’s “Divine Chariot”. Similar holy visions were beheld by the other prophets, including Isaiah and Daniel, while Elijah was taken up to Heaven in such a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). Thus, Ma’aseh Merkavah is believed to be concerned with attaining prophecy, or with spiritual ascent to the Heavens. This is precisely how one might elevate to Pardes.

The other major area of mysticism in Second Temple and early Talmudic times was known as Ma’aseh Beresheet, “the Work of Creation” (Chagigah 11b). This refers to the opening account of Genesis, and the secrets of God’s formation of this universe. The study of Ma’aseh Beresheet would presumably allow one to attain certain divine creative powers. This is what the sages Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia delved into every Friday afternoon, and were able to produce a lamb out of thin air—then barbecue it for lunch! (Sanhedrin 65b)

Such great power exists within the study of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Beresheet that the Sages caution these subjects must not be taught publicly, and not to all those who wish to learn them: “Maaseh Beresheet must not be expounded upon before two, and Maaseh Merkavah even before one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge.” (Chagigah 2:1) Even to the understanding scholar, the Sages permit only the “chapter headings” to be revealed. The master points the student in the right direction, and nothing more. In this way, only the truly deserving wise one will come to understand the mysteries. Perhaps this is why the study was eventually called Kabbalah, from the root meaning “to receive”, for one could only receive it through divine inspiration from Above, and after having received the chapter headings from a master.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Interestingly, the term Kabbalah in the Talmud refers not to mysticism but to the Tanakh, specifically to the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim which follow the Five Books of Moses. This actually makes a lot of sense, since most of Kabbalah is built upon verses and passages in the Prophets and Writings. One who studies Kabbalistic texts will quickly recognize how most of the passages open with Scriptural verses, with concepts supported by Scriptural verses, especially from the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Shir haShirim, and of course, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Other texts of Tanakh are frequently cited, too. In fact, it is said that the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), among the greatest of Kabbalists, studied nothing but Tanakh after a certain age, since he could derive everything directly from Scripture.

This may be one reason, among others, why study of Nevi’im and Ketuvim is so rare in the Orthodox yeshiva world today. Since Kabbalah is often seen as taboo, especially for young minds, it may be best to avoid study of Scriptural passages that may bring up uncomfortable or mystical questions. Indeed, it is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes that is most commonly used as proof that the young, the uninitiated, or those that have not mastered every facet of Torah must not delve into Kabbalah. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies this as law.

The Sages of the early generations commanded that these matters should not be explained except to a single individual [at a time]. He should be a wise man, who can reach understanding with his own knowledge. In such an instance, he is given fundamental points, and an outline of the concepts is made known to him. He [is expected to continue to contemplate] until he reaches understanding with his powers of knowledge and knows the ultimate meaning and depth of the concept. (Yesodei HaTorah 2:12)

The Rambam is an interesting case, for he was no Kabbalist by any means. A strictly rationalist thinker, he rejected any notion of evil spirits and demons, thought superstitions to be silly at best, and made sure to expunge all sorts of mysticism-based rituals from his code of law. For the Rambam, Maaseh Merkavah simply refers to the various spiritual entities that God created, mainly the ten types of angels (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 2). What the prophets saw were just “visions and parables”, not actual concrete things. Maaseh Beresheet, meanwhile, is essentially science and physics—the study of the elements and their properties, the various “spheres” of astronomy, the nature of the luminaries, stars and planets—these are the things he calls “Maaseh Beresheet” (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 3-4). The Rambam believes this is what is meant by “Pardes” (4:3). For him, Kabbalah is not an exercise in amulets or magic, exorcism or demonology, astrology or fortune-telling—all of which he expressly rejects as irrational, unreal, and absurd.

Ironically, it was the Rambam’s own son, Rabbeinu Avraham (1186-1237), who became a great mystic and played a huge role in the development of modern Kabbalah.

The New Kabbalah

A 17th-century illustration of a Sufi meditating

Rabbeinu Avraham wrote a monumental 2500-page philosophical work called Kitab Kifayah al-Abidin (“A Guide for the Servants of God”). Scholars note how Rabbeinu Avraham integrated a great amount of material from Muslim Sufi mystics. Incredibly, Rabbeinu Avraham himself writes in his book that the ancient mystical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets was forgotten among Jews, “because of their iniquities”, and has been carried forward by the Sufis! He argues that the Sufis “imitate the Prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps.”

The fusion of Jewish and Sufi mysticism continued strongly in Egypt for several generations. Rabbi Gavin Michal beautifully traces how these traditions made their way to Tzfat: Rabbeinu Avraham’s great-great-grandson, Rabbeinu David, the last official nagid of the illustrious Jewish community in Egypt, packed his bags and resettled in Aleppo, Syria in the early 1400s. He brought with him his massive Sufi-inspired Jewish mystical library. This library was a key source of literature for the early Tzfat Kabbalists, who lived a short trip away from Aleppo. Amazingly, historical sources suggest that one of these early Kabbalists was a Sufi convert to Judaism.

Hamsas: not a Jewish thing

It therefore isn’t surprising that Arab and Muslim mystical beliefs strongly influenced Jewish mysticism. In his Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem points out numerous examples of this. While most of these concepts are valuable, some are most unfortunate: Arab demonology and superstition, too, neatly made its way into Kabbalistic literature. This is most evident in the plethora of Arabic hamsas and “evil eye” amulets that have sadly infiltrated so many Jewish homes. (We have also written in the past how Muslim ritual inspired the “mystical” custom of upsherin.)

At the same time that this was happening in the Middle East, a parallel Jewish mystical movement was rapidly developing on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain. Their Kabbalah, too, was not immune to the beliefs and practices of the neighbouring Christians.

Rise of the Zohar

In the 11th and 12th centuries, mysticism was slowly spreading in the Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain. It wasn’t until the late 13th century that Kabbalah received an immense boost with the publication of Sefer HaZohar, aka. “The Midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”. The publication was spearheaded by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305), a great Kabbalist in his own right. He claimed that this book was the unadulterated teachings of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

While the Zohar was undoubtedly full of profound wisdom and authentic mysticism, it immediately aroused a great deal of suspicion. After all, no one had ever seen, or even heard of, such a text before. One scholar who took up the mission of discovering the Zohar’s real roots was Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco (“Isaac of Acre”, c. 13th-14th century). Rabbi Itzchak was possibly a student of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), who had made aliyah after his famous Disputation and settled in Acre, where Rabbi Itzchak was apparently born. Rabbi Itzchak studied among those pre-Tzfat era Kabbalists in Israel. The Crusades made life difficult, and Rabbi Itzchak fled to Spain in 1305.

There, he met Rabbi Moshe de Leon, and questioned him about the Zohar, pointing out that the Kabbalists of the Holy Land knew nothing of such a work. Rabbi Moshe swore that he possessed an original manuscript from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, back in his hometown of Avila. He promised to fetch the text and show it to Rabbi Itzchak, but suddenly died. Perhaps this untimely death is itself proof enough that Rabbi Moshe de Leon swore falsely!

For Rabbi Itzchak, it was not enough, and he decided to continue his search in Avila. There, he met a rabbi who knew Moshe de Leon’s family, and the rabbi told him that de Leon’s wife admitted he had composed the Zohar by himself, attributing it to Rashbi so that it would be accepted as authentic (and sell more copies). Many later Kabbalists reject this narrative, and believe it is a legend meant to discredit the Zohar. The story appeared in the first edition of Sefer Yuchasin (by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, 1452-1515), and was censored out of all subsequent editions for over 300 years.

Over those centuries, the Zohar became the primary Kabbalistic text, so much so that it essentially became synonymous with Kabbalah. More ancient and once prominent texts like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir fell far behind. The Zohar inspired a massive new wave of mysticism that made a permanent impact on Judaism. It was the Tzfat Kabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular that neatly analyzed, categorized, and made sense of the Zohar, producing a whole new worldview and publishing a vast array of novel mystical literature that took the Jewish world by storm.

While halacha was once clearly separated from mysticism, the distinction started to get blurry. We sometimes forget that the Shulkhan Aruch, still the most famous of Jewish law codes, was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a noted Tzfat Kabbalist. As such, he couldn’t possibly omit Kabbalah entirely from his laws, and mystical rituals and beliefs seep in on multiple occasions. The trend would continue, and reach even greater heights under the later Hasidim.

By this point, the authorship of the Zohar was seldom disputed. Still, the belief that it was written by Rashbi himself is false. After all, the Zohar clearly states that Rashbi charged his disciple Rabbi Abba with composing his teachings (see Zohar III, 287b). The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Galante (d. 1560) held that the Zohar was compiled sometime in the Geonic period (c. 589-1038 CE) from these ancient manuscripts of Rabbi Abba. The fore-mentioned Sefer Yuchasin holds that the Zohar may have originated with Rashbi, but was reworked and expanded by future generations of Kabbalists. No one knows exactly where it came from.

Some said it was the Ramban who discovered the Zohar when he arrived in Israel, then shipped it back to Spain (to save it from the Crusader wars or to reveal it to the Sephardi Kabbalists). The ship capsized or went off course, and the text ended up in the hands of Moshe de Leon! Others still believed that the Zohar was discovered by an Arab king, or by Spanish conquistadors, and sent over to the Sephardi Kabbalists for translation.

The Problem with Kabbalah

Gershom Scholem notes a number of issues within the Zohar that make it impossible to have been composed by Rashbi, Rabbi Abba, or anyone else from that time period. In fact, it appears that the person who put together the Zohar was not even a very good Talmudist. For example, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) says that Pinchas ben Yair was Rashbi’s son-in-law, whereas the Zohar inaccurately says he was his father-in-law. Similarly, the Zohar is pretty confused about its Talmudic history, and in listing Rashbi’s ten main disciples, mixes together Amoraim and Tannaim from different centuries. Scholem also points out that the Zohar improperly uses the Aramaic language, while clearly incorporating many words with Spanish origin (such as esnoga, “synagogue” or gardin, “guardian”).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

These issues were already noted by earlier Jewish scholars. Rabbi Eliyahu del Medigo (c. 1458-1493), another great Italian sage, was part of a Kabbalistic circle before growing distant from the mystics. He noted how the Zohar has names of rabbis that lived long after Rashbi. A fellow Italian, Rabbi Leon da Modena (1571-1648) wrote an entire treatise, Ari Nohem, debunking the Zohar. He concludes that it must be only a few centuries old, and its Chokhmat haKabbalah is neither Chokhmah (wisdom) nor is it authentic Kabbalah! Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776) was most vocal in his attack on the Zohar, and stated it was a complete forgery. The Yemenite sage Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) believed the same thing.

Others have staunchly defended the Zohar, of course. Those Spanish-looking words may be there because they come from earlier Latin words, which would have been familiar to Rashbi. The names of sages from different time periods may be mixed together in one passage, but we often find the same thing in the Talmud. Truly, one who studies the Zohar will find it hard to believe that it could have all been composed by one Kabbalist, whether Moshe de Leon or someone else. In fact, the Zohar isn’t a monolithic text at all, and is composed of various distinct parts (Raya Mehemna, Midrash haNe’elam, etc.) It probably was pieced together from earlier genuine manuscripts, and was probably edited by a circle of Sephardi Kabbalists in the 13th century, who firmly believed the teachings dated back to Rashbi in some way.

It should be mentioned that Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco’s account does not end with Moshe de Leon’s family. He continued his search, and met at least two other rabbis that swore on the Zohar’s authenticity. Even Gershom Scholem held that Moshe de Leon was an honest scholar, and certainly no faker who was out to dupe others or make money. (Scholem nonetheless believed that de Leon and his circle were the Zohar’s originators.)

Rav Dessler

Today, the Zohar has seemingly become accepted by all Orthodox communities, and some claim that denying the authenticity of the Zohar is heresy. This is not true. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) held that there is nothing wrong with believing the Zohar was composed by someone in the 13th century. Meanwhile, Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) said that the Yemenite communities that do not accept the Zohar should not be considered heretics. After all, these communities existed long before the Zohar’s publication, and were never exposed to it. He even conceded that some of their arguments may have substance. (See Ma’ayan Omer, Perek 7, Siman 93.)

Illustrations of Sefirot in von Rosenroth’s ‘Kabbala Denudata’

One of their arguments is that the Zohar was influenced by Christian belief. Gersom Scholem illustrates multiple instances of this in his Kabbalah, especially when it comes to Christian demonology. Aside from that, some of the Zohar’s teachings may be seen as inadvertently supporting Christian theology. In fact, Christian scholars (like Picco della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, and even Newton and Leibnitz) actually took up the study of the Zohar themselves, and believed that this text would result in Jews finally converting to Christianity willingly. History shows that while some Jews may have done so, many more Jews instead started to believe in Christian ideas like man becoming god (or god becoming man), and that a messiah can die without completing his task, to return in a future “second coming”. This was a huge issue in the heresy of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), and continues to be a significant problem with certain Hasidim today.

One specific example of how Christianity influenced post-Zoharic Kabbalah is particularly relevant now, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. It is customary to recite Tefillat HaParnasah, a prayer for sustenance, at the end of each prayer service during the High Holidays. In many Sephardic siddurim, a supposed “name of God” is invoked (though not recited aloud) during this prayer. The “name” is Dikarnosa (דיקרנוסא), which apparently comes from Malachi 3:10, though it is difficult to see how other than the appearance of the word די in the verse.

In reality, Dikarnosa means absolutely nothing in Hebrew or Aramaic. However, it has a clear Spanish (or Latin) root: dei (“god”) and karne (“meat” or “flesh”). Some believe karnosa is a combination of karne and sanguis, “blood”. Whatever the case, the meaning is pretty clear: either the name is invoking a “god of meat” or speaking of a “god of flesh and blood”. Dikarnosa may be the name of an old pagan Spanish deity of abundance (hence the association with parnasah) or, according to one Catholic priest, potentially rooted in an old appellation for Jesus who, according to Christianity, is God literally incarnated in “flesh and blood”.

While Dikarnosa is not explicitly mentioned in the Zohar, it emerged in post-Zoharic Kabbalah circles, and was already firmly accepted in the times of the Arizal. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), wrote about it in Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar HaAmidah, ch. 19). It isn’t surprising then that the Dor De’a of Yemen claimed that modern Kabbalah is contaminated with paganism.

Such are the possible dangers of studying the Zohar, and the Kabbalah that emerged from it. Some become imprisoned in demonic fears, others become extremists, or adopt all sorts of bizarre rituals, while others still are drawn to real heresy. This is one reason why the Noda b’Yehudah (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713-1793) went so far as to ban (unsuccessfully) the study of Zohar and Kabbalah. There are so many mystical texts out there that it isn’t clear which are genuine and which are not, which have been influenced by Christianity or Shabbateanism (or other heretical movements) and which have not. It is easy to be led astray.

That brings us back to the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes. We learn from that story that maybe one in four who delve into Kabbalah will emerge unscathed. The remaining three are in danger of being lead to heresy, mental issues or extreme asceticism, or worse, an untimely death.

In Search of Authentic Kabbalah

Having said all that, we mustn’t forget that there absolutely is an authentic Jewish mysticism out there. As already stated, the Tanakh itself is full of genuine mysticism, as is the Talmud. The schools of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Beresheet are real, and existed. There were mystical texts that predated the Zohar, as did the central concept of Ten Sefirot. There is no doubt that much of this authentic mysticism made its way into the Zohar and subsequent works, which is why it became so popular, spread so quickly, and was accepted by so many.

Certainly, there are countless kernels of truth within the Zohar, which were further refined and polished by later Kabbalists like the Ramak and the Arizal. It is a repository of tremendous wisdom (and we have, of course, cited it frequently in this forum). It played a key role in preserving Judaism in the face of attractive Christian and Muslim mysticism in the first half of the last millennium, and in the face of enticing secular “Enlightenment” in the second half. (Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, 1728-1790, famously said that “the Zohar has kept me Jewish.”)

Today, Kabbalah has become inseparable from Judaism, and has engrained itself into every aspect of our faith—without most Jews even being aware of it. Simple things like doing netilat yadayim in the morning to rid of an impure spirit (something completely omitted in the law code of the rational Rambam), staying up all night on Shavuot, or just commemorating Hoshana Rabba are all based on mystical teachings. Any discussion of reincarnation, cosmogony, eschatology, or even a classic Torah-versus-science debate is impossible without Kabbalah. There is little doubt that the mystical tradition has immensely enriched Judaism.

But what do we make of those foreign influences? Some have argued that foreign influence is actually a good thing. After all, the Rambam himself had stated that we should “accept the truth from whomever speaks it”. There is an old mystical idea that the Torah, too, is in exile among the nations, and we must rediscover these true concepts from the nations, refine them, and restore them to their holy source. When looking from this perspective, we recognize that even the Talmud had adopted (or rediscovered) countless ideas from neighbouring Greeks, Romans, and Persians. And ancient Kabbalah, too, long before the Zohar, drew from other mystical traditions.

Like the critics of today, Rabbi Leon da Modena recognized way back in the 16th century that Kabbalah was essentially Greek Neoplatonism in Jewish clothing. Meanwhile, in his Jews, God, and History, historian Max I. Dimont argues that from the very beginning, Kabbalah “fed on noncanonized prophecy, Zoroastrian resurrection mythology, Greek science, numerology, gnostic heresies.” He concludes that “This was the material Jewish saints and scholars worked on for centuries, distilling it, shaping it, blowing life into it.” There is still much work left to be done in distilling, shaping, and refining Kabbalah. There are some ideas that are best to be buried and forgotten, and some truly profound ideas that should be disseminated further.

Dimont goes on to credit the Zohar and subsequent Kabbalistic texts with having “a large share in the sudden efflorescence of science…” and “laying the intellectual foundations for the seventeenth-century rebirth of philosophy and the establishment of scientific methodology…” A multitude of scholars share his conclusions. At the end of the day, Kabbalah has had a tremendous (mostly positive) impact not only on Judaism, but on the whole world.

What can we conclude from all of this? At the very least, that Kabbalah should be studied carefully, with a grain of salt and an open mind. It is very important to temper the study of Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts with more rationalist sources like the Rambam. We shouldn’t confuse Kabbalah with halacha. We should keep in mind the many authoritative voices in Jewish history that cautioned against, if not outright rejected, the Zohar, and we should never forget those Four Who Entered Pardes.

Those who choose to enter, beware.

Gog u’Magog & The Secret History of Zionism

This week’s parasha begins by stating: “And it will be, when you come to the land which Hashem, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it, and settle in it…” (Deuteronomy 26:1) The term “when you come”, ki tavo, appears at least three more times in Deuteronomy as a preface to various mitzvot. In fact, out of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, nearly half are only possible to fulfil in the Holy Land. Judaism is completely inseparable from the land of Israel.

For this reason, when the First Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled for the first time, there was a deep confusion as to how Judaism would continue to be practiced, and a great fear that the Torah would simply not survive the catastrophe. After all, how could the Jews continue to keep the Torah in a foreign land? How could they continue to serve God without a Temple? Without a priesthood? Without the dozens of agricultural laws that are dependent upon farming in the Holy Land? Without the pilgrimage festivals, the tithes, and the first fruits?

The Sages and Prophets of the day, two-and-a-half thousand years ago, had a mission to preserve their ancient faith and practices. This is precisely what they did. They taught that we don’t necessarily need to give sacrifices anymore, for we can “pay the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3). Daily prayer was thus instituted in place of daily sacrifices. Similarly, they taught that we don’t necessarily need a physical Temple, for God Himself had stated that the Temple was nothing but a means to “dwell among you” (Exodus 25:8), and God’s Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, remains among us in exile.

The Talmud (Berakhot 55a) would later state how in lieu of the Temple altar, each person has their mealtable, and the Sages modelled much of the mealtable procedure on the Temple ritual. For example, just as the Kohanim would wash themselves before and after the sacrifices, we do netilat yadayim and mayim achronim before and after the meal. Just as each sacrifice had to be brought with salt (Leviticus 2:13), we dip the bread in salt before eating it. And just as the altar used to atone for us, the Talmud says, now the mealtable atones for us. (For more on the mealtable-altar connection, see Secrets of the Last Waters.)

Instead of making pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Shalosh Regalim, the three major festivals were adapted with new types of celebrations, gatherings, and customs. Holy texts were collected and canonized. Charity replaced tithes; rabbis and scholars took the place of priests; and studying the Torah’s mitzvot (especially those that could no longer be done) became synonymous with actually fulfilling them. New holidays would be instituted (like Tisha b’Av and Purim), as would new mitzvot like reciting Hallel and lighting Shabbat candles. In these ways, Judaism not only survived, but thrived.

Still, it was impossible to forget God’s Promised Land. While Judaism could be adapted to the diaspora, no one could erase what the Torah stated: we must fulfill all of these mitzvot “when you come to the land which Hashem, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it, and settle in it…” Jews are meant to live by the Torah in Israel. It is our indigenous land, and our God-given inheritance. And God Himself told us that if we are righteous and live by His Word, we will merit to dwell in His most special territory, and if not, the land itself will “vomit” us out (Leviticus 18:28), as it does all of those who are impure.

It is amazing to see how history corroborates this incredible prophecy. For thousands of years, the Holy Land essentially lay desolate, save for small Jewish and non-Jewish communities here and there. No empire was able to hold onto this territory for long, and no foreign kingdom was able to establish itself in any kind of perpetuity or prosperity.

The Babylonians very quickly lost Israel to the Persians, and the Persians soon lost it to the Greeks. The Ptolemys and Seleucids fought over it unsuccessfully for decades until the Maccabees restored a prosperous Jewish kingdom. Their sins and infighting led to the Roman takeover of Israel. But the Romans, too, had an extremely hard time holding onto it. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, their fate was sealed as well. Their golden age was behind them, and Rome was henceforth on a steady decline. The Byzantines and Sassanids would fight over Israel back and forth until the Arabs took it. Then the various Arab caliphates fought over it, until the Crusaders decided it should be theirs. The Crusader era was one of indescribable violence and bloodshed, following which the Holy Land remained fallow for centuries. When Mark Twain visited in 1869, he wrote that it is a:

Mark Twain

desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent mournful expanse… A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action… We never saw a human being on the whole route….There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country… Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince… Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. (The Innocents Abroad)

On that note, it is important to remember Twain’s account when dealing with Pro-Palestinians who falsely (and quite humorously) claim that Israel was full of Arabs when the Zionists arrived and “displaced” them. The historical reality, confirmed by accounts like Twain’s and other travellers, is that there was hardly “a human being” there. The Ottomans didn’t have too much of a problem allowing Jews to buy land in Israel or to settle it, for there wasn’t much going on there anyway. (When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them to his domain, and reportedly said, “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Many Jews would settle in Ottoman Israel at the time, and soon transform Tzfat into the world’s epicentre of Jewish learning and mysticism.)

Sultan Bayezid II

Ironically, the vast majority of “Palestinians” only came to settle in Israel when the Zionists arrived and created new prosperity and work opportunities. Occasionally, the Arabs admit this themselves, as did Fathi Hammad, Hamas’ Minister of the Interior, when he passionately spoke in a television address (see here) and said:

Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis. Who are the Palestinians? Egyptian! They may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta, from the North, from Aswan, from Upper Egypt. We are Egyptians. We are Arabs.

History makes it undoubtedly clear: Israel is the land of the Jews, for the Jews. No other nation has ever been successful in Israel except for the Jews. No other nation has ever established any lasting, flourishing presence there except for the Jews. Just as there was a vibrant Jewish kingdom in Israel three thousand years ago in the time of Solomon, there is a vibrant Jewish state there today.

It is important to keep in mind that the Torah clearly states that those who are impure—whether Jews or not—will be expelled from the Holy Land. We can therefore reason that those who do dwell in it securely are permitted to do so by the Land, which is not expelling them, and are its rightful inhabitants. Based on this, the great Rabbi Avraham Azulai (c. 1570-1643) wrote:

And you should know, every person who lives in the Land of Israel is considered a tzadik, including those who do not appear to be tzadikim. For if he was not righteous, the land would expel him, as it says “a land that vomits out its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 18:25) Since the land did not vomit him out, he is certainly righteous, even though he appears to be wicked. (Chessed L’Avraham, Ma’ayan 3, Nahar 12)

In this light, we can understand that even the most secular Zionists—who may appear to be “wicked” and “impure”—are still considered tzadikim in some way. With that lengthy preamble, let us try to understand the Zionist mindset and vision, and explore the true, little-known origins of Zionism.

A Religious Movement

It is commonly believed that Zionism essentially began as a movement of secular Ashkenazis in the late 1800s, with Theodor Herzl (wrongly) credited as the movement’s founder. The surprising reality is very different.

While it is hard to credit any one person with lighting the spark of Zionism, the best candidate is probably Rabbi Yehuda Bibas (1789-1852), the scion of a long line of illustrious Sephardic rabbis. Rabbi Bibas was the head of the renowned Gibralter yeshiva, and later the Chief Rabbi of Corfu, Greece. Throughout his travels across the Mediterranean, both in Southern Europe and North Africa, Rabbi Bibas witnessed constant persecutions of Jews. Regardless of whether Jews tried to fit in with mainstream society or not, or whether they were productive good citizens or not, the anti-Semitism would not abate.

Rabbi Bibas became convinced that the only solution is for Jews to return to their Biblical homeland and rebuild their kingdom. Like Mark Twain a couple of decades after him, Rabbi Bibas recognized that the land of Israel was lying fallow, accursed, devoid of inhabitants, and was ripe for Jewish resettlement. In 1839, he embarked on a world tour to convince Jews to make aliyah, and to gain support for a mass movement of Jewish settlement and nation-building.

Sir Moses Montefiore

Rabbi Bibas’ trip was funded by fellow Sephardic Jew Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), who was born in Livorno, Italy, where Rabbi Bibas had studied in his youth. Montefiore became exceedingly wealthy in England, and later served as the Sheriff of London before being knighted by Queen Victoria. During his first trip to Israel in 1827, Montefiore was deeply touched and resolved to become a fully Torah-observant Jew. He established a Sephardic yeshiva, and built what is now the Montefiore Synagogue in Kent, England. He was known to bring a shochet with him on every trip to ensure he would have kosher meat. (A wealthy anti-Semite once told Montefiore that he had just returned from Japan, where there are “neither pigs nor Jews.” Montefiore replied: “Then you and I should go there, so that they should have a sample of each.”)

Montefiore made a total of seven trips to Israel, and like his friend Rabbi Bibas, was convinced that the Jews must return to their homeland and rebuild their nation-state. In fact, Montefiore laid the groundwork for the later Zionist movement. He paid for the construction of Israel’s first printing press and textile factory, rebuilt a number of synagogues and Jewish holy sites (including Rachel’s Tomb) and established several agricultural colonies. He commissioned censuses of the Holy Land’s population, which are still valuable to historians today (you can scan them here). His 1839 census of Jerusalem, for example, found that more than half of the city’s population were Sephardic Jews (over 3500 people). These statistics show that Jews were already the majority in much of the Holy Land, long before the Zionist movement officially began.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer

One of Montefiore’s most vocal Ashkenazi supporters was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874). Rabbi Kalischer was a student of the renowned Rabbis Akiva Eiger and Yakov Lisser, the Baal HaNetivot. Rabbi Kalischer saw firsthand the struggles that German and Eastern Europe Jews were living through. He was also frustrated by the abject poverty experienced by the Jews living in Israel. At that time, it was common for Jews to collect funds from the diaspora to send to their brothers in Israel. Rabbi Kalischer believed that Israel’s Jews must return to an agricultural life, and learn to cultivate the rich land on their own, so that they could become self-subsisting. He believed that the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe should go back to their homeland, too, where they would finally be safe from pogroms and expulsions.

In 1862, Rabbi Kalischer collected his ideas and plans in a book called Drishat Tzion. In this book he outlined, among other things, the need to build a Jewish agricultural school in Israel, and to create a Jewish military force to protect Israel’s inhabitants. He concluded that the salvation of the Jewish people, as prophesied in the Tanakh, would only come about when Jews start helping themselves instead of relying entirely on God and waiting passively. God is waiting for us to make the first move and show our deep yearning to return to our land, much like God had waited for Israel to make the first move at the Splitting of the Sea, as per the famous Midrash (see Nachshon ben Aminadav). Rabbi Kalischer’s activism was successful, and in 1870 the Mikveh Israel agricultural school was opened on a tract of land now within the boundaries of modern Tel-Aviv.

Rabbi Yehuda Alkali

Finally, the most influential proto-Zionist was Rabbi Yehuda Alkali (1798-1878), whom some scholars actually credit with being the true founder of Zionism. Rabbi Alkali studied under the great Sephardi kabbalists of Jerusalem, and went on to serve as a chief rabbi in Serbia. It was the 1840 Damascus Affair that inspired him to take up the cause of aliyah. That summer, 13 Jews in Damascus were arrested following a baseless blood libel accusation. Riots followed, resulting in attacks on Jews, the capture of 63 Jewish children, and the destruction of a synagogue. The imprisoned Jews were tortured to try to get them to confess. Four of the 13 Jews died during that torture, so it isn’t surprising that seven others ultimately “confessed” to the absurd crime.

The international community was aware of what was going on, and the story was covered by Western media. Many governments attempted to intervene and stop the madness. A Jewish delegation—led by Moses Montefiore—was sent to deliberate with the authorities in Damascus.  They were ultimately successful, and the nine surviving Jewish prisoners were exonerated and freed.

Rabbi Alkali was horrified at these events, and saw how Christians and Muslims in Syria had conspired together against the Jews. This was the last straw for him. By a stroke of fate, he happened to meet Rabbi Bibas right around this time. The conclusion was obvious: the Jews must have a strong state of their own. There was no other way to prevent the ludicrous, unceasing anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews. That same year Rabbi Alkali established the Society for the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael. It was 1840, or 5600 on the Hebrew calendar, precisely the year that the Zohar prophesied to be the start of the Redemption.

Incredibly, Rabbi Alkali made a prophecy of his own based on the words of the Zohar: that the Jews have exactly one hundred years to bring about the Redemption. If Jews do not take on this challenge, he warned, then God would bring about the Redemption anyway, but through much more difficult means, through “an outpouring of wrath”. Of course, this is exactly what had happened one hundred years later.

In 1857, Rabbi Alkali published Goral L’Adonai (named after the Biblical lots—goral in Hebrew—that the Israelites cast before settling the Holy Land). This was a step-by-step manual for how to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. In it, he proposed the resurrection of Hebrew as the spoken language of all Jews, the piece-by-piece purchase of the Holy Land from the Ottomans, and the necessity of the Jews to return to an agrarian lifestyle and work their own land. All of these would, of course, materialize in the coming decades.

It is with this book of Rabbi Alkali that the Zionist story comes full circle. Rabbi Alkali was the chief rabbi of the town of Semlin in Serbia. One of the congregants of his Semlin synagogue was a man named Simon Loeb Herzl, a dear friend of his. Rabbi Alkali presented one of the first copies of Goral L’Adonai to him. Three years later, Simon Loeb Herzl welcomed a new grandson: Theodor. It was in his grandfather’s study that a young Theodor Herzl came across Goral L’Adonai, and it was this work, scholars now conclude, that planted the seeds of Zionism in his mind.

By that point, the foundations of the Jewish State had already been laid by Rabbis Alkali and Bibas, by Moses Montefiore, and by the many that they had inspired, including Rabbi Kalischer. And so, Zionism did not begin as a secular Ashkenazi movement at all, and instead began, quite ironically, as a religious Sephardi movement. Of course, it was the Ashkenazis that took the movement to the next level, and without that great push the Jewish State would not have materialized.

This brings to mind an old Jewish idea: we see a pattern in the Tanakh based on the interplay between the children of Rachel and Leah. Back in ancient Egypt, it was Joseph (a child of Rachel) that set the stage for Israel to come down there. And it was Yehudah (a child of Leah) that then took the reins of leadership to bring the family together, and ensure their successful settlement in the land. Several centuries later, it was Joshua (a descendent of Rachel) that led the way to conquer the Holy Land. But it was only Othniel (of Yehudah, a descendant of Leah) that completed the resettlement. Later still, when Israel’s monarchy was established, it was Saul (a Benjaminite descendant of Rachel) who was the first king, and laid the framework for a Jewish kingdom, before David (of Leah, of course) unified all the tribes and established an everlasting dynasty. The same is said for the future messiah, who is said to come within two figures (or two phases): first Mashiach ben Yosef (of Rachel), then Mashiach ben David (of Leah).

It has been said that Sephardis are the descendants of Rachel (from the tribe of Joseph), while Ashkenazis are the descendants of Leah (from the tribe of Judah)—not biologically, of course, for we all come from the same singular Judean lineage, but perhaps spiritually. Not surprisingly then, when it comes to the Jewish State, the children of Rachel set the foundations, as they always do, before the children of Leah complete the process. Some believe this is the meaning of the famous prophecy in Ezekiel 37:15-21:

And the word of Hashem came to me, saying: “And you, son of man, take one stick, and write upon it: ‘For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions’; then take another stick, and write upon it: ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and of all the house of Israel his companions’; and join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. And when the children of your people shall speak to you, saying: ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ Say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his companions; and I will put them unto him together with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in My hand.’ And the sticks upon which you have written shall be in your hand before their eyes. And say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land…’”

Redeeming Zionism

We began this journey with the verse in this week’s parasha which suggests that the Torah can only really be fulfilled in Israel. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) spoke of this explicitly (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah), and went so far as to suggest that keeping the mitzvot in the diaspora is only practice for when we can properly keep them in our Promised Land. At that point, it will be possible to fulfil all the mitzvot, and we will restore a more Biblical style of Judaism. Similarly, numerous Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts speak of a future time when Judaism will not be practiced as it is today, but will either revert to its Biblical style, or an even more primordial variety, or evolve to a completely new phase, or a combination of these. (See, for example, Vayikra Rabbah 13:3; Kohelet Rabbah 11:12; Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429; Midrash Tehillim 146:4; Raya Mehemna on Nasso, 124b-125a)

This brings us back to Zionism. The interesting thing about those later, secular Zionists is not that they wanted to abandon all religion and have an entirely secular state (though some certainly wanted this), but that they wanted to restore a more Biblical style of Judaism. They sought to rid of the weak, diaspora Jew and replace him with the strong, ancient Israelite as described in Tanakh: a land-owner, a farmer, a warrior. This is why study of Tanakh was actually considered very important among many Zionists. It is known that David Ben-Gurion had a passionate Tanakh study group, and he even wrote a Tanakh commentary! Professor Nili Wazana argues that the aim of the Zionists was to replace the “diaspora literature” of the yeshivas with the ancient Scriptures of Israel, and to make the Tanakh the sole religious text of the Jewish State.

Of course, this is highly flawed thinking, for that “diaspora literature” is precisely what brings the Tanakh to life, and makes sense of it all. The secular Zionists were wrong about this one for sure. The idea here is only to highlight that the majority of Zionists had no intention of destroying Judaism, as some believe, but rather sought (perhaps naively) to restore a more ancient type of Judaism. Even the ultra-secular Herzl, in his Altneuland, dreams of a reconstructed Third Temple in Jerusalem. He describes in his vision (Book V, Ch. I) how

Throngs of worshipers wended their way to the Temple and to the many synagogues in the Old City and the New, there to pray to the God whose banner Israel had borne throughout the world for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, Zionism went on to take a very secular turn. While Herzl had no problem speaking of God, the composers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence didn’t want to explicitly mention Him. (They ultimately conceded to the more religious voices and included mention of the “Rock of Israel”.) This variety of atheistic, ultra-secular Zionism simply cannot work. Zionism without God is doomed to fail, and there are those who argue it already has.

Rav Kook

The only way to ensure the survival and success of Israel is through religious Zionism—which is how it was always intended by its earliest founders, those great rabbis that are sadly so little-known today. Rav Avraham Itzchak Kook (1865-1935), possibly the most well-known religious Zionist rabbi, believed that it was the holy work of these sages—along with others like the Vilna Gaon and multiple Chassidic rebbes who encouraged their disciples to make aliyah long before—that set the spiritual wheels in motion for Zionism:

… the lofty righteous of previous generations ignited a holy inner fire, a burning love for the holiness of Eretz Yisrael in the hearts of God’s people. Due to their efforts, individuals gathered in the desolate land, until significant areas became a Garden of Eden, and a large and important community of the entire people of Israel has settled in our Holy Land.

… Recently, however, the pious and great scholars have gradually abandoned the enterprise of settling the Holy Land… This holy work has been appropriated by those lacking in [Torah] knowledge and good deeds… Nonetheless, we see that their dedication in deed and action is nourished from the initial efforts of true tzaddikim, who kindled the holy desire to rebuild the Holy Land and return our exiles there.

Rav Kook, too, believed that secular Zionism will fail unless we “energetically return it to its elevated source and combine it with the original holiness from which it emanates.”

This is the task at hand. The first stage of the Redemption has already been ushered in. Indeed, the Kabbalists always spoke of two phases to the Redemption. The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 1707-1746) clearly elucidated these stages—Pekidah and Zechirah—in his Ma’amar HaGeulah (‘Discourse on the Redemption’). The source of this two-stage process may very well come from that same prophecy of Ezekiel cited earlier, part of the longer “End of Days” narrative commonly referred to as Gog u’Magog.

Ezekiel uses cryptic names to tell us that the villain “Gog” (who hails from the land of “Magog”, hence the name of the prophecy) will come upon Israel in the End of Days:

in the Last Years [he] shall come against the land that is brought back from the sword, that is gathered out of many peoples, against the mountains of Israel, which have been a continual waste; but it is brought forth out of the peoples, and they dwell securely… (Ezekiel 38:8)

It is precisely when the Jews already return to Israel, “back from the sword”—from a great catastrophe (the Holocaust)—“gathered out of many peoples”, returning to a Holy Land that had been a “continual waste”, as seen earlier, that the Gog narrative takes place. God further confirms that this will happen in “the day My people Israel settles securely, you shall know it.” (38:14) After the Jews have already firmly settled in Israel can the final End of Days sequence of events occur. Ezekiel goes on to describe a tremendous war that will forever change the whole world. Only after this will God finally bring all the Jews to settle peacefully in Israel:

Now will I bring back the captivity of Jacob, and have compassion upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for My holy name. And they shall bear their shame, and all their breach of faith which they have committed against Me, when they shall dwell safely in their land, and none shall make them afraid… neither will I hide My face any more from them; for I have poured out My spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 39:25-29)

These are the concluding words of the Gog u’Magog prophecy. What we clearly see is that many Jews already return to settle in Israel before the final calamity occurs, and only after this will come the complete Ingathering of the Exiles, when “the whole house of Israel” will return to the Holy Land. This time, “none shall make them afraid”, and God will never again “hide [His] face.”

Redemption comes in two phases: the initial, incomplete return of the Jews to Israel, followed by the Final Redemption when the process is complete. History confirms that we now stand between the first and second phase. Each person must do everything they can to prepare for the imminent conclusion. How do we do so? Rav Kook had a few suggestions. To paraphrase one of his famous quotes, we must study not only “the Talmud and the legal codes” but also aggadah and ethics, Kabbalah and Chassidut, science and “the knowledge of the world”. And it isn’t enough to work on our intellectual and spiritual heights, for we must be physically strong, too:

Our return will only succeed if it will be marked, along with its spiritual glory, by a physical return which will create healthy flesh and blood, strong and well-formed bodies, and a fiery spirit encased in powerful muscles.

We must live up to our name, and be not just Yakov, the quiet one who “sits in tents” (Genesis 25:27), but Israel, who “battles with God, and with great men, and prevails” (Genesis 32:29).

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Things You Didn’t Know About Shabbat

Moses looks out to the Promised Land, by James Tissot. This week’s parasha begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book is Moses’ final speech to his people in the last 37 days of his life.

This week’s parasha begins with the words Eleh hadevarim, “These are the things” that Moses spoke to all of Israel. Our Sages taught that the term eleh hadevarim is particularly significant. The words appear just three times in the whole Torah. By stating that these, specifically, are the things that God commanded, we are being called to give extra attention to them. The first instance of this term is in Exodus 19:6, where God promises that “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—these are the things that you should relate to the Children of Israel.” God underscored that Moses should make it clear to the people: they are absolutely unique in the world, and their task is to be entirely righteous and holy. This is probably the most essential thing that every Jew must remember.

The only other instance of the term (aside from the introduction to this week’s parasha) is in Exodus 35:1, where we read how

Moses assembled the entire congregation of the Children of Israel, and said to them: “These are the things which Hashem has commanded, that you should do them: Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be for you a holy day, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to Hashem…”

Here God is underscoring what may be the most important mitzvah: Shabbat. This mitzvah is among the very first mentioned in the Torah, and one of the most frequently mentioned. It is certainly among the severest, being one of 36 mitzvot whose transgression carries a death penalty. Unlike many other well-known mitzvot which are not explicitly mentioned outside of the Chumash (such as tzitzit or tefillin), Shabbat is clearly noted throughout the Tanakh. It is the reason that today the whole world follows a 7-day week. There are more halachot regarding Shabbat than perhaps any other topic. While the Talmudic tractate of Bava Batra may be the longest by number of pages, the tractate Shabbat is by far the longest by number of words. (The former has 89,044 words while the latter has a whopping 113,820!) And to determine if a person is Torah-observant or not, it typically suffices to ask if they are shomer Shabbos.

Ahad Ha’am

The power of Shabbat was best described by Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (1856-1927, better known by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am). He famously said that “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Ginsberg was born into a Hasidic family and raised very religiously. Though he later had many issues with ultra-Orthodoxy and became mostly irreligious, he nonetheless opposed political Zionism and argued for a spiritual Zionism based on traditional Jewish values. He accurately wrote that Israel must be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.” Among other things, it was Ginsberg who played a key role in convincing the Zionists that Hebrew must be the official language of Israel, and not German as pushed by Herzl. He also argued for state-wide Sabbath observance. In his 1898 essay Shabbat v’Tzionut, “Sabbath and Zionism” (where that famous quote above is from), he wrote:

Anyone who feels a true bond in his heart, with the life of the nation over many generations, simply will not be able—even if he believes neither in the World to Come nor the Jewish State—to imagine the Jewish people without Shabbat Malketa.

While his wife was strictly shomer Shabbos, Ginsberg himself wasn’t so careful with all the rules. It seems he disagreed with the Talmudic derivation of the 39 melachot, the categories of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. Ironically, the Talmud (Chagigah 10a) itself admits that “the laws of Shabbat… are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they have little scriptural basis but many laws.” Keeping Shabbat to rabbinic standards is hard and hefty like a mountain, yet the basis for doing so from a Torah perspective is minimal.

The Torah does not list the 39 prohibited works. Rather, the Talmud explains, they were derived from the 39 works done to build the Tabernacle, based on the juxtaposition of the command to keep the Sabbath and the command to construct the Tabernacle in Exodus 35. Elsewhere (Shabbat 70a), Rabbi Natan shows how the number 39 can be derived from the words eleh hadevarim in that Exodus passage. The plural word devarim implies a minimum of two, and the definite article “ha” adds another, making three. The gematria of the word eleh is 36. Altogether, we have 39!  

Today’s halachot of Shabbat have come a very long way since the 39 melachot of the Talmud. Each generation since has added more and more fences, and in recent centuries Shabbat observance has become ever more stringent. A story is told of the Baal Shem Tov that he saw a vision of two men, one going to Heaven and the other to Gehinnom. The first, while being entirely ignorant of the law, would enjoy himself mightily on the Sabbath and have a day of true rest, as the Torah commands. The second was so strict with every little halacha that his Shabbat was nothing but prohibitions, restrictions, and fears that he would inevitably transgress something. Above all else, Shabbat must be a day of rest and joy.

Shabbat in Jubilees

Interestingly, the ancient Book of Jubilees (written in the late Second Temple era, and before the Mishnah and Talmud) provides a different list of Shabbat restrictions. While Jubilees is considered an apocryphal text, and is generally not accepted in traditional Judaism (Ethiopian Jews are pretty much the only ones that consider Jubilees a canonical text), it did make an impact on other traditional Jewish texts, especially midrashic and mystical ones.

Jubilees lists fifteen prohibitions: doing one’s professional work, farming, traveling on a journey, and riding an animal, commerce, water-drawing, carrying burdens, and carrying things from one house to another, killing, trapping, fasting, making war, lighting a fire, cooking, and sexual intercourse. (See Jubilees 2:29-30 and 50:8-12.) Just about all of these—the major exception being sexual intercourse—is also forbidden in the Talmud. When we keep in mind that 11 of the 39 Talmudic prohibitions fall under the category of farming and baking, and many more under trapping, killing, and cooking, the two lists start to look very similar.

In some ways, the Jubilees list is even more stringent, which fits with the assertion of historians that Jubilees was probably composed by the Essene sect (or their forerunners). The Essenes were the religious “extremists” of their day, who fled the corruption of Jerusalem to live in isolation, piety, celibacy (for the most part), meditation, and study. Interestingly, the oldest known tefillin that archaeologists have uncovered are from Essene caves around the Dead Sea.

The Mishnah was first recorded about a century after the Essenes all but disappeared. There (Shabbat 7:2) we have the following list of melachot:

The principal melachot are forty minus one: Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking; shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], untying [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches; hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it; writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another.

A Periodic Table of the 39 Melachot, by Anshie Kagan

A Taste of Eden

The Midrash relates the 39 melachot of Shabbat to the 39 curses decreed following the sin of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden. God pronounced 9 curses and death upon the Serpent, 9 curses and death upon Adam (and all men), 9 curses and death upon Eve (and all women), as well as 9 curses upon the earth itself (with, obviously, no death). That makes a total of 39 curses (see, for example, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14). Thus, keeping the Sabbath reverses the curses of Eden, and is simultaneously a taste of Eden before the fall of mankind.

The Zohar (III, 182b) explicitly compares Shabbat to a “lower” or “earthly” Garden of Eden. The Talmud (Berakhot 57b), meanwhile, states that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. On the same page, we are told that three things give one a sense of Olam HaBa. One is basking in sunshine. Another is “tashmish”—either sexual intercourse, or that feeling of satisfaction when relieving one’s self in the bathroom. The third is Shabbat.

The Arizal (in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh) taught that Shabbat is the only day when the highest realm of Atzilut is revealed. The lowest of the olamot or “universes”, Asiyah, is revealed on Tuesday and Wednesday. In the account of Creation, it was on these days that Earth and the luminaries—ie. this lower, physical cosmos that we are familiar with—were made. The second, Yetzirah, is revealed on Monday and Thursday, days on which the Torah is publicly read. In Creation, on Monday the waters were split into upper and lower domains, while on Thursday the waters below and the “waters above” (the skies) were filled with life (fish and birds respectively). The higher universe of Beriah is revealed on Sunday and Friday, corresponding to the first day of Creation when God brought forth divine light, and the last day of Creation when God made man. Only on Shabbat is it possible to glimpse into the highest universe of pure divine emanation, Atzilut.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The Arizal also taught that only on Shabbat are the highest states of consciousness completely open (Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Hanagat Limmud, 1). He was referring to the inner states of the Mochin, the three highest, “intellectual”, sefirot. The first of these is the sefirah of Keter, willpower. The second is Chokhmah, typically translated as “wisdom”, but more accurately referring to knowledge. The third is Binah, “understanding”. The Sages say there are 620 pillars in Keter, 32 paths in Chokhmah, and 50 gates in Binah. The 620 pillars correspond to the 620 mitzvot in the Torah (613 for Israel, and 7 Noahide laws for the rest of the world, or sometimes the 7 additional rabbinic mitzvot). The 32 paths correspond to the 22 Hebrew letters and the 10 base numerical digits (as well as the Ten Sefirot) that form the fabric of Creation. The 50 gates correspond to, among other things, the 50 times the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah, the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot, the 50 questions posed to Job, and the 50 levels of impurity and constriction. The mysteries of all these esoteric things is revealed on Shabbat. For this reason, the Arizal taught, the sum of 620 pillars, 32 paths, and 50 gates is 702, the gematria of “Shabbat” (שבת).

Shamor v’Zachor

So significant is Shabbat that it is one of the Ten Commandments. The Torah relates the Ten Commandments on two occasions. In the first account of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), we read:

Remember [zachor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… for in six days Hashem made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day…

In the second account of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5), we read:

Observe [shamor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as Hashem, your God, commanded you. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Hashem, your God, brought you out from there…

The first case uses the verb zachor, to commemorate, while the second uses shamor, to safeguard. The first refers to the positive mitzvah of resting and delighting on the Sabbath, while the second refers to the negative mitzvah of not transgressing the Sabbath through work and other profane things.

We further see that the first instance ties Shabbat to Creation, while the second instance ties Shabbat to the Exodus. In the former case, since God created the universe in six days and “rested” on the seventh, we should emulate His ways and do the same. In the latter case, since we were once slaves—working round the clock, seven days a week—we must always take a full day off work so as to remember that we are no longer in servitude. Only slaves work seven days a week! Thus, the first instance uses the verb zachor, to remember Creation, and the second instance uses the verb shamor, to make sure we do not labour on this day.

In reality, the two are one: when we remember Creation we are reminded that we are here for a reason. We are not a product of random chance in a godless, purposeless universe—as some would have us believe. We were created with a divine mission, in God’s image. And thus, we must make sure that we never fall into servitude; that we do not live under someone else’s oppression or dominance (whether physical, emotional, or intellectual). We must be free people, in God’s image, with no one above us but God.

Sefer HaBahir (#182) adds another dimension to the two verbs: it states that zachor alludes to zachar, “male”, and shamor relates to the female. For men, it is more important to remember Creation when it comes to Shabbat, while for women it is more important to remember the Exodus. Perhaps what the Bahir means to say is that for men—who are prone to have big egos—it is vital to think of Creation and remember who the real Master of the Universe is. For women—who are generally the ones cooking and preparing for Shabbat, serving food, and taking care of the kids while the men are at the synagogue—it is vital to think of the Exodus and remember that they are not slaves! Take it easy and ensure that Shabbat is a complete day of rest for you, too.

To conclude, the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) famously states that if all the Jews of the world kept two consecutive Shabbats, the final redemption would immediately come. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai bases this teaching on Isaiah 56:4-7, where God declares that those who “keep My Sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant… them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer…” The verse says Sabbaths in plural, and as stated earlier, this implies a minimum of two. Perhaps we can say that Israel needs to observe one Shabbat in honour of zachor and one in honour of shamor. The upcoming Jewish New Year of 779 may be a particularly auspicious time to do so, for the gematria of shamor (שמור) and zachor (זכור) is 779. We should redouble our efforts to create a truly restful, spiritual Shabbat for ourselves, and strive to open the eyes of those who are not yet fortunate to do so.

The Jewish View on Cards and Gambling

In this week’s parasha, Matot-Massei, we read how the Israelites were supposed to divide up the Holy Land between the Twelve Tribes:

And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the more [numerous] you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the lesser inheritance; wherever the lot falls to any man, that shall be his…

We learn that the land of Israel was apportioned based on family size, with larger families logically receiving a larger share. Now, to determine which chunk of land a family would receive, the Israelites cast lots. The Talmud (Bava Batra 122a) describes how this was done: two urns were prepared, one containing the names of the Twelve Tribes, and the other containing the names of the various allotments of land. Elazar the High Priest would pick one name from each urn, thus designating a piece of land for a particular tribe.

Casting lots was very common in Biblical times, and is mentioned frequently in the Tanakh. For example, the Torah commands casting lots to determine which goat is sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:8). In the Book of Jonah (1:7), the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to determine who was guilty of causing the storm. In the time of King David, the kohanim were thus divided into 24 groups (I Chronicles 24). Haman cast lots to determine the best day to attack the Jews, and this is why the holiday is called “Purim”, since purim was the Persian word for “lots” (Esther 3:7).

Casting lots suggests a large degree of chance or randomness in the process. Yet, people of faith are naturally quite averse to the concept of random chance, for isn’t everything determined by God? Not surprisingly, the word “lot” (goral) also takes on the meaning of “fate” in the Tanakh. For instance, Isaiah (17:14) prophesies: “At evening there will be terror, and before morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the goral of them that rob us.” The ultimate fate of those that harm the Jewish people will be utter destruction. The Sages, too, were uncomfortable with the idea of dividing the Holy Land by seemingly random lots. They therefore stated (ibid.) that the lots were really just a show for the people to see what God intended. In reality:

Elazar was wearing the Urim and Tumim, while Joshua and all Israel stood before him… Animated by the Holy Spirit, he gave directions, exclaiming: “Zevulun” is coming up and the boundary lines of Acco are coming up with it. [Thereupon], he shook well the urn of the tribes and Zevulun came up in his hand. [Likewise] he shook well the urn of the boundaries and the boundary lines of Acco came up in his hand…

Elazar would prophetically see which tribe needed which land, and when he then shook the urns those exact pairs that he foresaw would emerge! So, the process was not random at all, but simply a materialization of the Divine Will. Still, the Sages insist that in the messianic era the Holy Land will not be apportioned through this method of casting lots, but rather “The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, will divide it among them; for it is said [Ezekiel 48:29], ‘And these are their portions, says the Lord God.’”

If the Sages were not fond of casting random lots by chance, how would they feel about playing games of chance and gambling?

Gambling in the Talmud

In 1999 and 2000, the Muslim Waqf (Temple Mount authority) dug up 9000 tons of Temple Mount soil and unceremoniously dumped it in the Kidron Valley, creating one of the largest archaeological catastrophes in history. Thankfully, archaeologists did not give up on this precious soil, and began the “Temple Mount Sifting Project”. Among the many incredible finds are these Second Temple-era playing dice.

In a list of people that are ineligible to serve as witnesses or as judges, the Mishnah includes a mesachek b’kubia, a person who plays with dice, and mafrichei yonim, “pigeon flyers”. According to the Talmud, the latter most likely refers to people who bet on pigeon races, which were apparently common in those days. We know from historical sources that gambling with various dice games was very popular in Greek and Roman times. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24b) goes on to discuss what the problem with such people is.

Rami bar Hama teaches that the issue with gambling is that it is essentially built on a lie: each player agrees to pay a certain sum of money if they lose, yet they hope (and fully intend) not to lose at all! That means the initial agreement made by the players is not even valid. The losing gambler is entirely dejected, and gives up their money reluctantly, often with a nagging feeling of being robbed or cheated out of their money.

Rav Sheshet disagrees. After all, there may be some people who are not so sad to part with their money, or are simply addicted to the game itself. Whatever the case, Rav Sheshet holds that gambling is inappropriate because it is a terribly unproductive waste of time, and the gambler contributes nothing to “the welfare of the world”. This is why, Rav Sheshet says, the Mishnah above concludes by saying that only a full-time gambler is prohibited, but one who has an actual job and just plays for fun on the side is permitted.

Nonetheless, Rav Yehudah holds that regardless of whether the gambler has an occupation or not, or whether he is a full-time player or not, a gambler is disqualified from being a kosher witness or judge. Rav Yehudah bases his statement on a related teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, and on this Rashi comments that a gambler is likened to a thief. The Midrash is even more vocal, saying that gamblers “calculate with their left hand, and press with their right, and rob and wrong one another” (Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 26:10).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) goes on to state that the prohibitions above don’t only refer to a literal dice-player, but any kind of gambler, including one who plays with pebbles (or checkers), and even with nuts. The Sages state that such a person is only readmitted when they do a complete repentance, and refuse to play the game even just for fun without any money!

Halachically-speaking, the Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 370:2-3) first states that any kind of gambling is like theft and is forbidden, but then suggests that while it may not exactly be theft it is certainly a waste of time and not something anyone should engage in.

A Ban on Gambling

While the Talmud does not explicitly forbid gambling, later rabbis recognized its addictive nature and sought to ban the practice entirely. In 1628, for example, the rabbis of Venice issued a decree (to last six years) excommunicating any Jew who gambled. Part of the motivation for this decree was the case of Leon da Modena (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena, 1571-1648).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

Born in Venice to a family of Sephardic exiles, da Modena went on to become a respected rabbi and the hazzan of Venice’s main synagogue for forty years. A noted scholar, he wrote about a dozen important treatises. In Magen v’Herev, he systematically tore down the major tenets of Christianity, while in Ari Nohem he sought to discredit Kabbalah and prove that the Zohar has no ancient or divine origin. (The latter is probably why he isn’t as well-known in Jewish circles today as he should be.)

In 1637, he published Historia de’riti hebraici, an overview of Judaism for the European world, meant to dispel myths about Judaism and quell anti-Semitism. Historians credit this with being the first Jewish text written for the non-Jewish world in over a millennium, since the time of Josephus. The book was incredibly popular, and played a key role in England’s readmitting Jews to the country in the 1650s (after having being expelled in 1290).

More pertinent to the present discussion, Rabbi da Modena wrote Sur miRa (“Desist from Evil”), outlining the problems with gambling. He would know, since he was horribly addicted to gambling himself. He wrote of this problem in his own autobiography, Chayei Yehudah. And because such a high-profile sage was a gambler, his rabbinic colleagues in Venice issued that decree to ban any form of gambling.

Rabbi da Modena’s game of choice was cards. At that point in time, playing cards had become wildly popular in Europe. First invented in China in the 9th century, playing cards slowly made their way across Asia, and reached Europe around 1365. They have remained popular ever since, both for gambling and non-gambling games. While it is clear from an halachic standpoint that card games involving money (like Poker or Blackjack) should not be played, is it permissible to play non-gambling card games (like Crazy Eights or Go Fish)?

At first glance, it may not seem like there should be a problem with this. Yet, some rabbis have recently spoken out against all playing cards. Usually, this prohibition is connected not to gambling or wasting time, but rather to cards’ apparent origins in idolatry or the dark arts. Although it is true that some types of cards are used in divination and fortune-telling, it is important to examine the matter in depth and determine whether cards really are associated with forbidden practices.

The History of Playing Cards

Mamluk Cards

The exact origins of cards are unclear. We do know that they come from China, where paper and printing were invented. Card games are attested to in Chinese texts as early as 868 CE. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Muslims brought cards across Asia. They were particularly popular in Egypt during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The Mamluks created the first modern-style deck of 52 cards with 4 suits. The suits were sticks, coins, swords, and cups. In the 15th century, Italians started to make cards of their own, with the suits being leaves, hearts, bells, and acorns. The French had three-leaf clovers for leaves, square tiles (or diamonds) for bells, and pikes for acorns. Although these suit symbols remained, the English names reflect the earlier suits of sticks (“clubs”) and swords (“spades”).

The Muslim Mamluks did not draw any faces on their court cards (since depicting faces in art is forbidden in Islam). The Europeans did not have this issue, and adapted the Muslim court cards of malik (king), malik na’ib (deputy king), and thani na’ib (second deputy) to king, queen, and prince or knight (“jack”). In 16th century France, the four kings were depicted as particular historical figures: the King of Spades was King David, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, and the King of Diamonds was Julius (or Augustus) Caesar.

We see that playing cards have no origins in idolatry. The style of cards we know today were developed by staunchly monotheistic Muslims. They were further developed by mostly non-religious European renaissance printers, against the wishes of the Church which sought to ban cards on a number of occasions. Neither are playing cards known for being used in fortune-telling. However, a related type of card is used in divination today.

Tarot Cards and Kabbalah

In 15th century Italy, a different type of playing card developed. These were called trionfi, later tarocchi, and finally “tarot cards”. They, too, have four suits, but with 56 cards. These were, and still are, used for a number of different games, just like regular playing cards are. Outside of Europe, tarot cards are not well-known, and are generally associated with fortune-tellers.

In reality, the earliest mention of tarot cards being used in divination is only from 1750, and it was essentially unheard of until the late 19th century. Besides, most diviners actually use a different deck of 78 cards. Of course, such divination is entirely forbidden according to the Torah. So, it seems like some well-meaning rabbis have confused these tarot cards with regular playing cards. Ironically, many occultists actually claim that tarot cards come from Kabbalah!

The Tarot “Tree of Life” (Credit: Byzant.com)

These occultists tie the 22 additional divination cards to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths on the mystical “Tree of Life”. The ten numeral cards (naturally) correspond to the Ten Sefirot, while the four suits correspond to the four olamot, or universes. Finally, the four court cards and the ace represent the five partzufim (with the king and queen appropriately being Aba and Ima). While these parallels are neat, there is absolutely no known historical or textual basis to support these claims. Tarot cards have nothing to do with traditional Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. (There is a concept in Kabbalah of a negative set of Ten Sefirot belonging to the Sitra Achra, so perhaps there is some connection between these tarot cards and certain evil spiritual forces.)

Having said all that, to forbid playing with cards (or even standard tarot cards) just because some people recently started using them in divination is like forbidding drinking coffee because some people recently started divining with coffee (a practice called “tassology” or “tasseography”). While playing cards copiously is certainly a waste of time, there is nothing wrong with the occasional—no gambling—game.

Ba’al HaTurim

It is fitting to end with the words of the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) who writes in his commentary on the Torah (Tur HaAroch on Deuteronomy 1:1) that Moses himself cautioned Israel about gambling in his final speech before passing away:

Before Moses got ready to relate all these various commandments, he used the present opportunity, a few weeks before his death, to admonish the people, and to remind them of past sins, and how they had caused Hashem a lot of grief during these years. He reminded them how God had treated them by invoking His attribute of mercy and loving kindness time and again. He warned them not to become corrupt again by gambling… They should not rely on the fact that because they were human they were bound to err and sin from time to time and that God, knowing this, would overlook their trespasses.

The Difference between “Jew” and “Hebrew”

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?

Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.

The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).

Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)

Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.

Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.

Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?

Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?

The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Babel to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.

An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.

“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform

From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”.  The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”

One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.

Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.

Rebels and Mystics

Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.

His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.

In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.

A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)

Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.

Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)

Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Israel and Jeshurun

The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.

The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.

Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.

What is a Jew?

By the middle of the 1st century BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.

As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.

Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!

All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?

It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).

So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.

And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:

Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…

There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.