Tag Archives: Abraham

Why Do We Pray and What Should We Pray For?

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

‘Jew Praying’ by Ilya Repin (1875)

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

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

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

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

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

Where Does Prayer Come From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Prayer of the Killed’ by Bronisław Linke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mystical Meaning of Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Should We Pray For?

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

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

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

Courtesy: Temple Institute

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

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

Torah Laws You Really Should Keep – Even If You’re Secular

This week’s parasha is Yitro, most famous for the proclamation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. In the past, we’ve written how some of the Torah’s commandments are impossible to observe today, while others were never meant to be eternal to begin with. We wrote how God gave us the ability to reinterpret the law when necessary—as our ancient Sages did so skillfully—but at the same time, we critiqued those Reform leaders who essentially abrogated the mandatory observance of mitzvot. Many Jews today argue that they believe wholeheartedly in Hashem, and accept the divine nature of the Torah, but they do not accept rabbinic interpretations, or believe that God did not intend for us to keep the law today as it was millennia ago. Let us take this argument to its extremes.

Ignoring everything outside of the Five Books of Moses, let us look into the Torah and find only the laws that are clearly, explicitly, and undoubtedly proclaimed by God to be eternal. Indeed, what we find is that sometimes the Torah says a certain law is chok olam or chukat olam, an “eternal law”, or a brit olam, an “eternal covenant”, while most times it does not. Perhaps, just for a moment, we can entertain the possibility that God only intended laws affixed with this “eternal” description to be observed forever, whereas the rest might no longer be necessary. If so, what are the laws in the Torah which God explicitly says are eternal?

The Torah’s Eternal Laws

The Torah uses different language to affirm that a law should be kept in perpetuity. Sometimes it says the law should be kept l’dorotam or l’dorotechem (“for generations”) and other times it says mi’yamim yamima (“from day to day”). We will avoid such terms, for one can argue that they don’t necessarily mean for all generations or for all days. We will only use instances that undeniably say l’olam, “forever”.

Also, it must be remembered that we are only looking at the Torah’s ritualistic laws, chukim, and not the ethical and judicial laws, or mishpatim (like theft, murder, etc.), which are not exclusive to Judaism and just about the whole world recognizes and understands their necessity.

The first case of an eternal law is in Genesis 17, where God forges the covenant of circumcision with Abraham. Here we see the term l’dorotam l’brit olam (17:7) and then again l’brit olam (17:13). The next case is Exodus 12, where God tells us to celebrate the Passover holiday l’dorotechem chukat olam, repeated in 12:14 and 12:17. In Exodus, too, we have the eternal law of lighting the Temple Menorah (27:20-21), chukat olam l’dorotam, as well as the priestly washing before the Temple service, chok olam… l’dorotam (30:21).* Then, of course, we have Shabbat, l’dorotam brit olam (31:16).

Next, the Torah says the priesthood will be eternal, l’kehunat olam l’dorotam (Exodus 40:15). It is unclear whether this is an actual law (the verse is speaking specifically of the special oil for anointing the priests) or the Torah is simply affirming that Israel must always have priests. Leviticus 7:34-36 says that the priests deserve their terumah (a portion for the priests donated by the Israelites) l’chok olam and chukat olam l’dorotam.** Amazingly, terumah appears to be so important that it is described as l’chok olam at least another five times (Exodus 29:28, Leviticus 10:15, Numbers 18:8, 18:11, 18:19).

Continuing in similar fashion we get a total of seventeen explicit laws, as follows:

  1. Circumcision
  2. Passover (also in Exodus 12:24)
  3. Menorah (also in Leviticus 24:3)
  4. Priestly washing
  5. Shabbat (also in Leviticus 24:8)
  6. Anointing priests/eternal priesthood (also in Exodus 29:9)
  7. Terumah
  8. Not to consume chelev (certain prohibited animal fats) or blood (Leviticus 3:17)
  9. The mincha offering (Leviticus 6:11, 15 and 23:21)
  10. Not to perform priestly service inebriated (Leviticus 10:9)
  11. Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31, 34 and 23:31)
  12. To sacrifice only to God/Not to sacrifice to demons or idols (Leviticus 17:5-7)
  13. Shavuot (Leviticus 23:21)
  14. Sukkot (Leviticus 23:41)
  15. Blowing the Temple trumpets (Numbers 10:8)
  16. Levites to serve God/prohibition for them to own land in Israel (Numbers 18:23)
  17. The Red Cow (Numbers 19:10, 21)

There are several more pertinent cases of “forever”: In fact, the very first instance in the Torah is with regards to Noah (Genesis 9), though that was a covenant over the rainbow with all of mankind, not strictly with the Jews. Secondly, Numbers 15:15 states that Jews and non-Jews should be equal before the law, chukat olam l’dorotechem, particularly with regards to sacrificial offerings. This is not necessarily a law in itself, but simply a proclamation of equality.

Thirdly, Deuteronomy 23:4 and 23:27 cautions Israel not to intermarry with Moabites or Ammonites, or even allow them to convert, ‘ad olam. This does not say definitively that the law is eternal, but that Jews should never accept these particular nations, or at least not to accept them for ten generations. The latter case makes the most sense, since we see that the righteous Boaz married Ruth the Moabite (the grandmother of God’s beloved David), and Solomon married Na’amah the Ammonite. Regardless, there are no more Moabites or Ammonites in our days to worry about.

Fourth, Exodus 19:9 has God promising Moses that the Israelites will believe in him l’olam, forever. This is not a law commanded to Israel; simply a promise made to Moses. And lastly, Deuteronomy 29:28 famously states that “the secret things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and for our children forever to do all of the words of this Torah.” Although the verse suggests we must fulfil the whole Torah forever, it can also be read to mean that we were simply given the Torah forever. The verse says we must “do” (or “complete”) its words—so one can argue it is not necessarily saying to fulfil its mitzvot. It may even be referring to Torah study and interpretation, hence the verse explicitly speaks of secret and revealed teachings. In any case, it can be argued there is no clear law stated here, just a general principle of the Torah’s eternity.

The Minimal Torah

Of the seventeen eternal laws listed above, we find that ten are impossible to observe today because there is no Temple. Most of them can be reinterpreted ever so slightly to make them observable (for example, netilat yadaim, Shabbat and Chanukah candle-lighting, and charitable donations, as discussed in the footnotes below). Or, when Mashiach comes and the Temple is rebuilt, those ten will once more be observed. In the meantime, there are seven clear eternal laws left:

  1. Circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14)
  2. Passover (Exodus 12:14-20)
  3. Shabbat (Exodus 31:13-17)
  4. Not to consume chelev (certain prohibited animal fats) or blood (Leviticus 3:17)
  5. Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31, 34)
  6. Shavuot (Leviticus 23:21)
  7. Sukkot (Leviticus 23:41)

We can now go back to our initial question. For the Jew who accepts Hashem and His Torah, but wants only the scriptural laws that are undoubtedly eternal (assuming all others have become “outdated” and/or without any additional rabbinic interpretations), they are still obligated to observe these seven at the very least. That means keeping Shabbat, which even according to the plain, overt meaning of the Torah requires desisting from one’s weekday labour and not dealing with any flames (including a combustion engine vehicle and barbeque). It means keeping seven days of Pesach, with matzah and no chametz; fasting on Yom Kippur; commemorating Shavuot; and all seven days of Sukkot, in a hut. And while essentially all the laws of kosher seem to be gone, there is still a prohibition of consuming chelev and blood, thus basically invalidating the consumption of any meat that isn’t certified kosher!

Over the years, I’ve met many Jews who made the argument in question, yet none of them really kept these mitzvot. Oftentimes, this argument is only an excuse for not observing anything. If you really know there is a God, and believe in the Torah, even if only the Written, at the very least start with these. Otherwise, you are guilty of hypocrisy. And the Talmud (which you may not appreciate just yet) states in more than one place that God absolutely detests the hypocrite.

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)

*I believe that this phrasing is what gave the Sages the basis to establish the rabbinic mitzvot of lighting Shabbat candles, Chanukah candles, and netilat yadayim. These are three of seven mitzvot which are rabbinic in origin, yet we recite a blessing on them as if God Himself commanded, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav… God did command that we must light candles and wash before serving Him forever, so the Sages instituted these laws, as a way of fulfilling God’s eternal command.

**The Talmud implies in multiple places that in lieu of priests serving in the Temple, we have rabbis who are devoted to Godly service. Indeed, the non-Jewish world often sees rabbis as priests, and in most countries they are considered “clergy”. Perhaps the Torah means there must always be spiritual leaders for Israel. Similarly, although there hasn’t been terumah since the end of the Temple days, we are obligated to donate a portion of our income. While ma’aser (tithe) refers specifically to agriculture, the Torah uses terumah more flexibly, and it can refer to voluntary financial contributions as well. The fact that terumah is mentioned more than any other mitzvah with regards to being eternal should teach us that being charitable is of utmost importance.

Note: all of the above applies to Christians, too, who also accept the Torah (at least as the “Old Testament”) but generally do not fulfil its precepts. It is commonly believed that Jesus abrogated Torah law, or replaced it, or that it isn’t necessarily to fulfil Torah law because the path to Heaven is supposedly only through Jesus anyway. This is very flawed reasoning, especially when considering that Jesus himself explicitly stated (Matthew 5:17) that he did not come to repeal the Torah’s laws, but rather to ensure their fulfilment! On the validity of Christianity as a whole please read here and here.

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

As we continue to celebrate the festive holiday of Chanukah this week, it is important to remember that not all of the Greeks were wicked and immoral. We have already written in the past about the influence of Greek philosophy and language on traditional Judaism, and that the enemies of the Chanukah narrative were the Seleucids, or Syrian-Greeks, not the mainland Greeks of Europe. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:6-18) records an alliance between Jonathan Maccabee—the kohen gadol and righteous leader of Israel after the deaths of Matityahu and Judah Maccabee—and the famous Spartans of Greece:

Jonathan, the high priest, and the council of the nation and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people send greetings to their brothers, the Spartans. In former times, a letter was sent to the high priest Onias, from Areus who was then king among you, to say that you are our kinsman… And Onias showed honour to the man who was sent to him, and accepted the letter, which contained a declaration of alliance and friendliness.

So, although we are in no need of these, since we find our encouragement in the sacred books that are in our keeping, we have undertaken to send to renew relations of brotherhood and friendliness with you, so that we may not become entirely estranged from you…

Coin depicting King Areus I of Sparta (309-265 BCE)

Jonathan points out that Israel does not need the help of the Spartans to defeat the Seleucids, as God’s help is all they need. Nonetheless, Israel and Sparta were always good friends, and Israel wants to keep it that way. In his letter, Jonathan mentions an earlier letter sent by King Areus of Sparta to Onias the kohen gadol (Onias is the Hellenized name for Choniyahu or Chonio, the son of Yadua the high priest, mentioned in Nehemiah 12:11, and discussed last week). This letter is recorded in the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:20-23) as well, and also in the writings of Josephus:

Areus, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias the high priest. It is found in writing that the Spartans and Jews are kinsman, and that they are both of the stock of Abraham…

Incredibly, the Spartan king suggests that the Spartans are descendants of Abraham, too! Where does this bizarre belief come from?

Greek Sons of Abraham

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE lived a Greek historian and sage named Cleodemus, sometimes referred to as Cleodemus the Prophet. He also went by the name Malchus which, because of its Semitic origins, makes some scholars believe he could have been Jewish. Cleodemus wrote an entire history of the Jewish people in Greek. While this text appears to have been lost, it is cited by others, including Josephus (Antiquities, i. 15).

Cleodemus commented on Abraham’s marriage to Keturah (typically identified with Hagar), and their children. This is recorded in Genesis 25, which begins:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Yokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuach. And Yokshan begot Sheva and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Ashurim, and Letushim, and Leumim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah, and Epher, and Chanokh, and Avidah, and Elda’ah. All these were the children of Keturah. And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, while to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Isaac, while he was still alive, to the east country.

Abraham had six children with Keturah, from which came at least seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren which the Torah names explicitly. The Torah then makes it clear that Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac—including the Covenant with God and the land of Israel—while the others received gifts and were sent away from the Holy Land.

Cleodemus suggests that Epher (or another child named Yaphran), the great-grandson of Abraham, migrated to Africa—which is where the term “Africa” comes from! (This is particularly interesting because Epher was the son of Midian, and Tziporah the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and is described as a Cushite, or African/Ethiopian.) Cleodemus states that Epher, Yaphran, and Ashurim assisted the Greek hero Hercules in one of his battles. Following this, Hercules married one of their daughters—a great granddaughter of Abraham—and had a son with her. This son was Diodorus, one of the legendary founders of Sparta!

It appears that the Spartan king Areus was aware of this possible historical connection, and accepted it as fact. This connection may explain why the Spartans were so similar to ancient Israelites. (Others have suggested that because the Israelite tribe of Shimon—known for being fierce warriors—did not receive a set portion in the Holy Land, many of them moved elsewhere and ended up in Sparta, or ended up in Sparta after being expelled from Israel by the Assyrians alongside the other lost tribes.) In his book Sparta, renowned historian Hugo Jones writes that the Spartans held in the highest regard a certain ancient law-giver, much like Moses the law-giver of Israel. The Spartans celebrated new moons (Rosh Chodesh), and unlike their Greek counterparts, even a seventh day of rest! Of course, the Spartans themselves were very different from other Greeks, particularly those in Athens, whom Sparta often battled. The Spartan form of government was different, too, not an Athenian-style democracy but a monarchy that governed alongside a “council of elders”, much like Israel’s king and Sanhedrin.

Perhaps most similarly, the Spartans were known for their “stoic” way of life. The later Greek school of stoicism was modeled on the ancient way of the Spartans. This meant living simply and modestly, being happy with what one has, and most importantly, putting mind above body, and logic above emotion. This almost sounds like something out of Pirkei Avot, and is a teaching echoed across Jewish texts both ancient and modern. In fact, when Josephus tried to explain who the rabbis were to his Roman audience, he said that they were Jewish stoic philosophers!

Bust of Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Athenian school of Stoicism. Zeno taught that God permeates the whole universe, and knowledge of God requires goodness, fortitude, logic, and living a life of Virtue.

Gideon and Leonidas

Undoubtedly, the most famous story of the Spartans is the Battle of Thermopylae. Around 480 BCE, the Persian emperor Xerxes invaded Greece with a massive force. Xerxes first sent messengers to the Greek city-states to offer peaceful surrender. According to the historian Herodotus, Sparta’s king Leonidas told the messenger: “A slave’s life is all you understand, you know nothing of freedom. For if you did, you would have encouraged us to fight on, not only with our spear, but with everything we have.” Spoken like a true Maccabee.

The messenger then told Leonidas and his men to bow down, to which Leonidas, like his historical contemporary Mordechai, said: “We bow down before no man.” Later, when the Persian boasted that his empire was the wealthiest in the world, with gold reserves the likes of which Leonidas could only dream of, Leonidas replied: “Ares is lord. Greece has no fear of gold.”

This statement almost makes Leonidas seem like a monotheist. Indeed, the Spartans worshiped Ares—the god of war—above all others. Interestingly, the Torah commonly describes Hashem in similar military terms, like a great warrior riding a merkavah or chariot, as a “God of Legions” (Hashem Tzva’ot), and even as a “Man of War” (Ish Milchamah, see Exodus 15:3). Of course, the Spartans had their abominable statues and idols, which is perhaps the greatest distinction (and a critical one) between them and ancient Israel.

‘Gideon choosing his men’ by Gustav Doré. God told Gideon to choose worthy soldiers based on the way they drank from a spring. Those that went on their knees and bent over to drink were disqualified. Those three hundred who modestly took cupfuls to their mouth were selected. (Judges 7:5-7)

King Leonidas went on to assemble just three hundred brave men to face off against the massive Persian invasion. Although they ultimately lost, the Spartans fought valiantly, inspired their fellow Greeks, and did enough damage to hamper Persian victory. This story of three hundred, too, has a Biblical parallel. The Book of Judges records a nearly-identical narrative, with the judge Gideon assembling three hundred brave men and miraculously defeating a massive foreign invasion.

Which came first? The earliest complete Greek mythological texts date back only to the 3rd century BCE. By then, the Tanakh had long been completed, and in that same century was first translated into the Greek Septuagint. It isn’t hard to imagine Greek scholars and historians of the 3rd century getting their hands on the first Greek copies of Tanakh and incorporating those narratives into their own. In fact, the Greek-Jewish philosopher Aristobulus of Alexandria (181-124 BCE) admitted that all of Greek wisdom comes from earlier Jewish sources. The later Greek philosopher Numenius of Apamea said it best: “What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?”

Yafet and Iapetus

The similarities between Greek myth and more ancient Jewish texts are uncanny. Hercules was a mighty warrior whose first task (of twelve) was to slay a lion, like the mighty Shimshon who first slays a lion in Judges. Deucalion survives a great flood that engulfs the whole world as punishment from an angry Zeus. Like Noah before him, Deucalion has a wife and three sons, and like Noah, Deucalion is associated with wine-making (the root of his name, deukos). Pandora’s curiosity brings about evil just like Eve’s, while Asclepius carries a healing serpent-staff like Moses. Aristophanes even taught that Zeus first made man as male and female in one body, and later split them in half, just as the Torah and Talmud do.

Roman mosaic of Hercules and the Nemean Lion, and a Roman fresco of Samson and the lion, from the same time period.

In Jewish tradition, the Greeks come from the Biblical Yavan, son of Yafet (or Yefet or Japheth), son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). Yavan is the same as the Greek Ion (or Iawones), one of the Greek gods, and Ionia, referring to one of its most important regions, and the dialect of the great Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, as well as the scholars Herodotus and Hippocrates. Meanwhile, the Greeks worshipped Iapetus (same as Yafet) as a major god. Iapetus was the father of Prometheus, the god who supposedly fashioned man from the mud of the earth. So, not surprisingly, the Biblical Yavan and Yafet are firmly in the Greek tradition as well.

In the past, we wrote how Greece had a huge influence on Judaism. Now, we see how tremendous an influence Judaism had on Greece. The two civilizations go hand-in-hand, and between them gave rise to the world we live in. Indeed, this was prophesied by Noah, who blessed his sons: “May God make Yefet great, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). Shem is the earliest forefather of Israel, and Yefet of Greece. The two dwell in one tent. Winston Churchill said it best:

No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…

On Chanukah, we celebrate the Jewish victory over the Seleucids. Not of the Greeks as a whole, but of a relatively small faction of Syrian Greeks, far from the Greek heartland which always enjoyed a good relationship with Israel, starting with Alexander the Great and through to the Spartans and Maccabees.

Chag sameach!

New book! 

Seventy revealing essays that take you on a deeper journey through the Torah and Jewish holidays. Collected from some of the most popular essays posted on this site over the years, newly revised and edited, and conveniently organized by parasha and holiday. Makes for a perfect week-by-week reader, dvar Torah source, or Shabbat and holiday companion. Click here to get the book.

The Incredible History and Absurd Politics of Rachel’s Tomb

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob’s return to the Holy Land after twenty years in Charan. After some time, Jacob and the family make a stop in Beit El, where Jacob first encountered God decades earlier. God appears to Jacob once more, and promises that “the land which I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 35:12). God makes it clear that the Holy Land is designated solely for the descendants of Jacob—not the descendants of Esau, and not the descendants of Ishmael, or any other of Abraham’s concubine sons. It is the land of Israel, the new name that Jacob receives in this week’s parasha.

In fact, in this parasha we see mention of many Israelite sites, both ancient and modern, such as Hebron and Bethlehem. In our day, all of these are unfortunately within the political entity typically referred to as the “West Bank”. This title comes from the fact that the area is geographically on the west side of the Jordan River. Initially, the British Mandate for Palestine included both sides of the Jordan River, before the British gave the east to the Arabs to create the state of Jordan. This was the original “partition plan” for Palestine, with the eastern half meant to serve as the Arab state and the western half to become a Jewish one. Many have forgotten this important detail.

British Mandate for Palestine – Before and After (Credit: Eli E. Hertz)

The current flags of the state of Jordan and the Palestinian movement. It is estimated that about half of Jordan’s current population of 9.5 million is Palestinian Arab.

Nonetheless, the unsuitable title of “West Bank” has stuck ever since. Some rightly avoid using the term in favour of the more appropriate “Judea and Samaria”. Truthfully, even this title is not entirely accurate, for the region is nothing less than the very heartland of Israel, the location of the vast majority of Biblical events, and the home of a plethora of Jewish holy sites. Among them is the tomb of Rachel, as we read in this week’s parasha (Genesis 35:16-20):

And they journeyed from Beit El, and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath, and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult… So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

Throughout history, Rachel’s tomb was one of the most venerated sites in Judaism, and is often described as the Jewish people’s third-most holiest site (after the Temple Mount/Western Wall and Cave of the Patriarchs). As early as the 4th century CE the historian Eusebius already wrote of Rachel’s tomb being a holy site for Jews and Christians. Keep in mind that this is two centuries before anyone even whispered Islam. Not that it really matters, since Islam does not consider this a particularly special place. The Arab-Muslim historian and geographer of the 10th century, Al-Muqaddasi, doesn’t even mention Rachel’s tomb in his descriptions of Muslim-controlled Israel and its holy sites.

1585 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Meanwhile, the Jewish traveler and historian Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) describes Rachel’s tomb in detail as being a domed structure resting upon four pillars, with Jewish pilgrims regularly visiting and inscribing their names on the surrounding eleven stones (representing the Tribes of Israel, less the tribe of Benjamin, as Rachel died giving birth to him). The earliest Muslim connection to the tomb is in 1421, when Zosimos mentions a small mosque at the site. (“Zosimos the Bearded” was a Russian Orthodox deacon famous for proposing the Moscow-Third Rome principle—which may be of great significance for calculating the time of Mashiach’s coming, as we’ve written in the past.)

The Ottomans originally transferred ownership of the site to the Jewish community (in 1615) but later reneged on the promise and even built walls to prevent Jews from going there, according to the British priest and anthropologist Richard Pococke (1704-1765). Pococke writes that the Ottomans used the area as a cemetery. Nonetheless, Jews could not be kept away from their millennia-old holy site, and continue to make pilgrimages. Christian writers G. Fleming and W.F. Geddes note in their 1824 report that “the inner wall of the building and the sides of the tomb are covered with Hebrew names, inscribed by Jews.”

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Six years later, the Ottomans officially recognized Rachel’s tomb as a Jewish holy site again, and ten years later the site was purchased by famous Sephardic Jewish financier and philanthropist Moses Montefiore. Montefiore rebuilt the crumbling tomb, and even constructed a small adjacent mosque to appease the local Muslims. Around this time, British writer Elizabeth Anne Finn, who lived in Jerusalem while her husband was the consul there, wrote that Jerusalem’s Sephardic Jews never left the Old City unless to pray at Rachel’s tomb. Similarly, the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle wrote in 1868 that Rachel’s tomb

has always been held in respect by the Jews and Christians, and even now the former go there every Thursday, to pray and read the old, old history of this mother of their race. When leaving Bethlehem for the fourth and last time, after we had passed the tomb of Rachel, on our way to Jerusalem, Father Luigi and I met a hundred or more Jews on their weekly visit to the venerated spot.

Later, Jewish businessman Nathan Straus (of Macy’s fame) purchased even more land around the site that Montefiore had purchased. (Interestingly, Montefiore’s own tomb in England is a replica of Rachel’s tomb.)

Under the British Mandate, Jewish groups applied on multiple occasions for permission to repair the site, but were denied because of Muslim opposition. The Muslims themselves didn’t bother repairing it, of course. Conversely, many of them were (and still are) happy to attack the site whenever an opportunity presents itself:

Throughout the 1800s, the local e-Ta’amreh Arab clan had blackmailed the Jews to pay up 30 pounds a year or else they would destroy the tomb. In 1995, Arabs—led by a Palestinian Authority governor—attacked Rachel’s tomb and tried to burn it down. In 2000, they laid a 41-day siege on the site during the Second Intifada. In light of this, it made total sense when UNESCO declared in 2015 that Rachel’s tomb is a Muslim holy site that is “an integral part of Palestine”. The laughable resolution only confirms the senselessness and irrelevance of the United Nations.

Had they bothered to look at the historical record, they would have seen that Rachel’s tomb is, was, and always will be a Jewish holy site of immeasurable significance. Countless Jewish pilgrims have experienced miracles there, particularly for health and fertility. According to tradition, Rachel is the only matriarch to be buried outside of the Cave of the Patriarchs so that her spirit can weep and pray for her children in exile. Her prayers are successful, for we are in the midst of the exile’s final end, as prophesied by Jeremiah (31:14-16):

Thus said Hashem: “A voice is heard in Ramah, in lamentation and bitter weeping.” It is Rachel, weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not. Thus said Hashem: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded,” said Hashem. “And they shall return from enemy lands. And there is hope for your future,” said Hashem. “And the children shall return to their borders…”

Secrets of God’s Hidden Names and Segulot for Fertility

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Stemler and Cleveland (1925)

This week’s parasha is Vayetze, and begins with Jacob’s departure from the Holy Land towards Charan. Along the way, he has his famous dream of the ladder ascending to Heaven. The Torah introduces this passage with an interesting set of words: “And he encountered the place and lodged there because the sun had set…” (Genesis 28:11) What does the Torah mean when it says that Jacob “encountered” the place, v’ifgah, as if he literally bumped into it? And which “place” is it referring to? Traditionally, this verse has been interpreted to mean that Jacob had arrived at the place, the holiest point on Earth—the Temple Mount. Indeed, after waking from his dream Jacob names the place Beit El, “House of God”.

A more mystical interpretation has it that Jacob encountered God, as one of God’s names is Makom, “Place”. This Name of God denotes God’s omnipresence, the fact that God is everywhere, and more than this, that God literally is everywhere. God fills all space, and is every place. In his Understanding the Alef-Beis (pg. 153), Rabbi Dovid Leitner points out something incredible. When we think of place, or space, we think of area. Area is measured by multiplying the width and length of a space, or “squaring” it. This is why measurements of area are given in squared units, like square feet or square metres. What happens when we “square” the values of God’s Ineffable Name?

The sum of the “squared” value of God’s Name is 186, equivalent to the value of Makom (מקום), God’s Name of “Place”!

The Sufficient One

Another of God’s lesser-known Names is El-Shaddai, literally “the God that is Enough”, or “the Sufficient God”. On the simplest of levels, it means that Hashem is the one and only God, and none other is necessary. The Talmud (Chagigah 12a) comments that this Name means that God is the one who told the Universe dai, “enough” or “stop”. This alludes to the origins of the universe, as God began His creation with a massive burst of instantaneous expansion which then quickly slowed down, as science has finally corroborated.

Building on the Talmud, the Arizal saw within El-Shaddai an allusion to the tzimtzum, the primordial “contraction” of God’s Infinity to produce a “space” within which He could create a finite world. Rabbi Leitner points out (pg. 153) how “contracting” the letters dalet and yud of El-Shaddai makes a letter hei, which represents God.

Our purpose is to similarly find God within this universe, which is nothing more than a contraction and concealment of God’s Oneness.


Interestingly, both El-Shaddai and the letter hei are associated with reproduction and fertility. The first time that the name El-Shaddai appears in the Torah is when God comes to a 99-year old Abraham to bless him and Sarah with a child (Genesis 17:1). God adds the letter hei to their names, thus altering their fate and making them fertile. The second time El-Shaddai appears is in Isaac’s blessing to Jacob: “And El-Shaddai will bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiple you, and you shall be a congregation of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3) Similarly, the third appearance of this Name is when God Himself blesses Jacob: “I am El-Shaddai, be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a congregation of nations will come from you…” (Genesis 35:11) Not surprisingly, some have made the connection between El-Shaddai and shaddaim, the Biblical word for breasts, the latter being a symbol of fertility.

Meanwhile, the Arizal points out (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Vayetze) that because the letter hei is associated with fertility, Rachel was the only wife of Jacob that struggled with infertility, since she is the only wife without a hei in her name. (Leah, לאה; Bilhah, בלהה; and Zilpah, זלפה were the other wives.) Since changing one’s name is one of several things that can change one’s fate (along with charity, prayer, repentance, and changing locations, as per the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b) it has been suggested that a woman struggling with infertility may wish to change her name to one that has a hei in it.

Today, there is a long list of segulot to help woman conceive. One is for a husband to be called up to the Torah on Rosh Hashanah for the haftarah reading of Hannah, who also struggled to conceive before being blessed with Samuel. Another is for a woman to immerse in the mikveh right after a pregnant woman. A third is having the husband light Shabbat candles first (without a blessing), then having the wife extinguish them, and relight them (with blessing). This is said to be a tikkun for the sin of Eden, where Eve caused the consumption of the Fruit and the subsequent “extinguishing” of the divine light. The woman relights the candles that she extinguished, thus performing a spiritual rectification.

Rav Ovadia Yosef was not a big fan of any of these or other fertility segulot, but did hold by one: consuming an etrog after Sukkot. Having said that, because etrogim are very sensitive species and are typically not eaten anyway, they are cultivated with massive amounts of pesticides and other chemicals. They should be washed thoroughly and eaten sparingly.

Lastly, there are those who maintain that the best segulah for fertility is to go to a fertility doctor!