At the end of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that it was “Pharaoh’s birthday” (Genesis 40:20). This is the only place in the Torah that explicitly mentions a birthday, which leads to the question: are birthday celebrations kosher? Where did birthday parties come from, and what is so special about the day of birth anyway?
The Haftarah of this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, ends with these words (Ovadiah 1:20-21):
And this exiled host of the children of Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as Tzarfat, and the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad shall inherit the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
This verse happens to be the origin of the term “Sephardic Jew”. By the 13th century, Jews on the European continent were divided into four groups: the Ashkenazis were those in the Germanic lands, the Sephardis in the Iberian Peninsula, the Tzarfatis in France, and the “Canaanites” in Bohemia and Moravia (roughly what is today the Czech Republic). Those last two groups have been forgotten in our days. Yet, Jewish texts from that era make it clear that Tzarfati Jews were once a distinct category, as were the Canaani Jews (which in some texts appear to refer to those Jews living in all Slavic lands). These divisions were based on the verse above from this week’s Haftarah, which describes the Jewish people exiled as far as Tzarfat and Sepharad, and dwelling among distant Canaanites. (It is important to remember that in the Tanakh the word “Canaan” does not always refer to the ethnic Canaanites, but can also mean “merchant” more generally.)
Today, the Jewish world is often divided more simply among Ashkenazi and Sephardi lines. Having discussed the origins of Ashkenazi Jews in the past, we now turn to the Sephardis. However, I don’t want to focus here on the history of Sephardic Jewry. (In short: Jews arrived in Iberia at least as far back as Roman times, and began to migrate on mass after the Muslim conquest in 711.) The big question is: what makes a person “Sephardi” today, considering that Spain expelled all of its Jews in 1492—and didn’t officially rescind that decree until 1968!
This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob’s famous vision of the Heavenly Ladder, upon which he saw angels “ascending and descending” (Genesis 28:12). Many of our Sages have pointed out that the gematria of “ladder” (סלם) is equivalent with “Sinai” (סיני). The Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) states that Jacob saw a vision of his descendants receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Zohar goes on to discuss the profound connection between the two, focusing on the mysterious words of Psalm 68, which describes the Sinai Revelation.
It begins by stating that atop the Ladder, Jacob saw the chief angel Metatron, the “elder” of the Heavens. In the Talmud (Chagigah 14b), we read how the rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah became an apostate after ascending to Heaven and seeing Metatron, the Heavenly “scribe”, sitting on what appeared to be a throne. In a serious error, Elisha confused Metatron for some kind of deity of his own. The Talmud doesn’t say too much more on this, but the Zohar passage here clarifies the matter.