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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.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

This week’s parasha is named after Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, who is commended for taking action during the sin with the Midianite women. Pinchas was blessed with an “eternal covenant”, and Jewish tradition holds that he never really died. Pinchas became Eliyahu, and as the Tanakh describes, Eliyahu was taken up to Heaven alive in a flaming chariot (II Kings 2). While we know what the name “Eliyahu” means, the name “Pinchas” is far more elusive. It doesn’t seem to have any meaning in Hebrew. Historical records show that there was a very similar name in ancient Egypt, “Pa-Nehasi”. Did Pinchas have a traditional Egyptian name?

When we look more closely, we find that multiple figures of the Exodus generation actually bore Egyptian names. For example, “Aaron” (or Aharon) doesn’t have a clear meaning in Hebrew, and appears to be adapted from the ancient Egyptian name “Aha-Rw”, meaning “warrior lion”. Even the origin of Moses’ name is not so clear.

Although the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter named him “Moshe” because she “drew him [meshitihu] from the water” (Exodus 2:10), it seems very unlikely that an Egyptian princess should know Hebrew so well and give her adopted child a Hebrew name. Our Sages noted this issue long ago, and grappled with the apparent problem. Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) writes that it was actually Moses’ own mother Yocheved that named him “Moshe”, and then informed Pharaoh’s daughter of the name. Yet, the Midrash affirms that Yocheved called her son “Tuviah”, or just “Tov” (based on Exodus 2:2), and Moshe was the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter. Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Munius”. Josephus takes an alternate approach entirely, saying that Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name was Thermuthis, before she became a righteous convert and was called Batya or Bitya in Jewish tradition) named him Moses because the Egyptian word for water is mo.

The most elegant solution might be that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Mose” (spelled the same way, but pronounced with a sin instead of shin), which means “son” in Egyptian. This is most fitting, since Pharaoh’s daughter yearned for a child of her own, and finally had a “son”. In fact, we see this suffix (and its close variant mses, from which the English “Moses” comes) used frequently in Egyptian names of that time period, such as Ahmose, Thutmose, and Ramses. Thus, he would have been known as Mose (or Moses) during his upbringing, but later known to his nation as Moshe, with a more appropriate and meaningful Hebrew etymology, yet without having to change the spelling of the name (משה) at all.

All of this begs the question: is it important to have a Hebrew name? And is it okay to have a Hebrew name together with an English name, or a name in the local language of wherever a Jew may live?

Why Are So Many Sages Called “Shimon”?

When looking through the names of the many rabbis in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, we find something quite intriguing. Although we would expect the Sages to be named after great Biblical figures like Moses, David, or Abraham, in reality there are essentially no sages with such names! Instead, we find a multitude of names of lesser-known Biblical figures, and many names that have no Biblical or Hebrew origin at all.

One very common name is Yochanan: There’s Yochanan ben Zakkai and Yochanan haSandlar, Yochanan bar Nafcha, Yochanan ben Nuri, and Yochanan ben Beroka. Another popular name is Yehoshua. While we might not expect this name to be so popular (considering its association with Jesus), we still find Yehoshua ben Perachia, Yehoshua ben Levi, Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Yehoshua ben Korchah, and many others. There are also lots and lots of Yehudas like Yehuda haNasi (and his descendents, Yehuda II and Yehuda III), Yehuda ben Beteira, Yehuda bar Ilai, and Yehuda ben Tabbai. And there are tons of Elazars: Elazar ben Arach, Elazar ben Azariah, Elazar ben Pedat, and many more with the similar “Eliezer”.

Perhaps the most common name is “Shimon”. There is Shimon haTzadik and Shimon bar Yochai, Shimon bar Abba and Shimon ben Shetach, Shimon ben Gamaliel (both I and II), Shimon ben Lakish (“Reish Lakish”), and more. We would think this is a strange choice, considering that the Biblical Shimon was actually of somewhat poor character (at least compared to the remaining Twelve Sons of Jacob). In fact, on his deathbed, Jacob did not bless Shimon at all, and instead said he wanted nothing to do with his violent nature. Moses, meanwhile, completely omits Shimon in his last blessings! So why would so many of our Sages be called “Shimon”?

A Good-Sounding Name

What might explain the strange selection of names among our ancient Sages? While no clear reason stands out, there is one plausible answer. It appears that the choice of names above was heavily influenced by the contemporary Greek society. Just as today many Jewish parents seek Hebrew names that also sound good in English, it seems parents back then wanted names that sounded good in Greek (since most Jews lived in the Greek part of the Roman, and later “Byzantine”, Empire).

We find that Greek names tend to end with an “n”: Platon (“Plato” in Greek), Jason, and Solon, for example. Numerous others end with “s”: Aristotles (“Aristotle” in Greek), Pythagoras, Philippos. Indeed, many of our Sages actually have such Greek names directly: Yinon, Hyrcanus, Pappus, Symmachus, Teradyon, and Onkelos. There is no indication that these great rabbis had some other “Hebrew” name.

Those that did want to bear Hebrew names could choose names already ending with an “n” like Shimon and Yochanan. Or, they could choose names where adding an “s” to the end would be easy: Yehoshua in Greek is Yeosuos (later giving rise to Yesus, ie. Jesus), while Yehuda is Yudas (Judas). Such names would be easy to convert between Hebrew and Greek. We know from historical sources that several people named Chananiah were simultaneously called “Ananias” in Greek.

The same is true for Elazar or Eliezer. Many Greek names transliterated into English and other languages simple lose their “s” and end with an “r”: Antipatros becomes Antipater, while Alexandros becomes Alexander. In reverse fashion, Elazar could easily become Elazaros (or Lazarus)—very palatable in the Greek-speaking world which our early Sages inhabited.

On that note, what do we make of “Alexander”? A great number of Jews both modern and ancient (there is Alexander Yannai and Rabbi Alexandri in the Talmud) have this name. Some cite a famous Midrashic account of Alexander the Great’s arrival in Jerusalem as being proof that while Alexander is not a Hebrew name, it is something of an “honorary” Jewish name. This requires a more careful analysis.

Is Alexander a Jewish name?

The Talmud (Yoma 69a) describes Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea. As he is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, Shimon HaTzadik goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol at the time). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle. Alexander proceeds to treat the Jews kindly, and leaves the Temple intact. The Talmud stops there, though it does mention that this event took place on the 25th of Tevet, which was instituted as a minor holiday on which mourning was forbidden. (The story is also attested to by Josephus, though with a different high priest—see here for more.)

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

According to one tradition, the priests at the time wanted to honour Alexander for his kindness, and named all the boys born that year “Alexander”. In another version, Alexander was given a tour of the Holy Temple and, naturally, wished to place a statue of himself inside. Since this was impossible (but they couldn’t refuse the emperor), Shimon haTzadik convinced him that it would be a greater honour for all the children born to be named “Alexander”. Either way, some like to say that “Alexander” has become a Jewish name ever since.

In truth, this suggestion looks more like a modern way of explaining why so many Jews were named Alexander. In reality, the Midrash clearly states that a Jew should not name his child Alexander. We read in Vayikra Rabbah 32:5:

In the merit of four things was Israel redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names*, nor their language, they did not speak lashon hara, and not one among them committed sexually immoral sins… They did not call Yehuda “Rufus”, and not Reuben “Lullianus”, and not Yosef “Listus”, and not Benjamin “Alexander”…

Apparently, when Midrash Rabbah was composed—just like today—it was common for Jews to have a non-Jewish name that they would use regularly, together with a Hebrew name that they would use only in Jewish circles. The Hebrew name “Benjamin” was often paired with “Alexander”.

We see from the Midrash above that it is important to have a Hebrew or Jewish name. But what exactly counts as a “Jewish” name?

Non-Jewish “Jewish” Names

Although today most Jews insist on having Hebrew or Biblical names (and rightly so), it seems that our Sages weren’t so strict in this regard. Indeed, many of them bore Greek, Latin, or Aramaic names with no second Hebrew name. Akiva, Avtalyon, Nechunia, Mani, Nittai, Nehorai, Adda, Papa, Simlai, Tanhum, Tarfon, Ulla, and countless others are cited in rabbinic literature. As we saw earlier, those that did have Hebrew names naturally chose names that would be palatable to the surrounding Greeks, much like many Jews today choose names that have easy English homonyms.

This trend continued for centuries, all the way up to modern times. The result is that many seemingly “Jewish” names are actually adaptations of very non-Jewish names. For example, one popular name among Ashkenazi Jews in the past was Feivel or Feibush. This name, meaning “bright”, comes from Phoebus, one of the appellations for the Greco-Roman god of light, Apollo. With this in mind, there may actually be a big halachic problem of bearing this name, since it is forbidden to recite the names of idols. (Some say the name was only meant to substitute the Biblical name Shimshon, the root of which is “sun”, thus having a similar meaning to Phoebus.)

Another appellation for Apollo was Lycegenes or Lukegenes, “born of a wolf” (possibly the source of the name “Luke”), which would be “Wolf” in Germanic countries, where the wolf was an important symbol in European mythology. Wolf also became very popular among Ashkenazis, who usually added the Hebrew translation Ze’ev to the name. The same is true for the classic German/Norse name Baer (“Bear”), to which Ashkenazis added Dov, its Hebrew translation. None of these names are Biblical or Talmudic, nor is their origin truly Hebrew. (Ironically, the name Ze’ev appears in the Tanakh [Judges 7:25] as the name of an enemy Midianite prince that the Israelites slayed!)

Having said that, many have linked these names to Biblical characters. For example, Benjamin is described in the Torah as a wolf (Genesis 49:27), so some carried the name “Binyamin Wolf”, where the former was their actual Jewish name while the latter was their social name. The same goes for “Yehuda Leib”, where Leib means “lion”, like Aryeh, the symbol of the Biblical Yehuda. It has even become common to combine all three to form “Yehuda Aryeh Leib”. Similarly, there’s “Naftali Tzvi Hirsch”, since the Biblical Naftali is described as a deer, ayalah or tzvi, and “Hirsch” is German for “deer”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

“Schneur”, too, is of non-Jewish origin, and comes from the Spanish name Senor (and is sometimes a German equivalent for Seymour). Chassidim have since reinterpreted it in the Hebrew as Shnei Or, “two lights”. It probably didn’t have this meaning when it was given to Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad. In his case, “Schneur” was likely meant to be his social name while “Zalman” (Solomon, or “Shlomo) was his traditional Jewish or Hebrew name.

Sephardic Jews are just as culpable. Many have Arabic names like “Massoud” (which means “lucky”) or “Abdullah”. In fact, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s birth name was Yusuf Abdullah, and it was only when the family made aliyah to Israel that “Abdullah” was replaced with its Hebrew translation “Ovadia” (which is a Biblical name). At one point, a popular female Sephardic name was “Mercedes”. This one is highly problematic, as it happens to be a Spanish appellation for the Virgin Mary! (The automobile brand Mercedes is named after a Jewish girl of that name, the daughter of the company’s founder Emil Jellinek and his French-Sephardi wife.) A similar problem lies with the very popular “Natalie”, which literally means “Christmas” in Latin.

Is it okay to bear such names? A distinction must be made between those that clearly have an idolatrous origin versus those that were simply adapted from non-Jewish names but still carry a good meaning. The latter are certainly permissible, since many of our great Sages had such foreign names. Over time, many of these evolved a deeper, Jewish meaning. For instance, Adele was a classic German name (meaning “noble”) and yet the Baal Shem Tov chose it for his daughter. He explained to his chassidim that he received this name through divine inspiration, and that it is an acronym (אדל) for the important words in the Torah אש דת למו—that God gave His people “a fiery Torah” (Deuteronomy 33:2). The Torah, like fire, purifies all things. The Baal Shem Tov’s daughter went on to become a holy chassid of her own, imbued with so much Ruach haKodesh that she was nicknamed Adele HaNeviah, “Adele the Prophetess”.

Jewish “Non-Jewish” Names

The opposite case exists as well: names that appear to be non-Jewish but actually have a clear Jewish origin. Take “Elizabeth”, for example. While it may sound like a classic European name, it is actually the transliteration of “Elisheva” (אלישבע), the righteous wife of Aaron (Exodus 6:23). Some Jewish name sources incorrectly write that John is a non-Jewish name, associating it with the “New Testament” John. Yet, even that John was originally a Jewish man living in Israel, and “John” is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yochanan”. (It sounds closer in Germany and Eastern Europe, where “John” is “Johan”, or “Yohan”.)

There are numerous other examples. Susanna is Shoshana (שושנה), and Abigail is Avigayil (אביגיל). In the Tanakh, the latter makes an important comment about names, pointing out that because her first husband’s name was Naval (“abomination”) he acted abominably (I Samuel 25:25). She later married King David and is considered a prophetess in her own right.

Many are surprised to discover that “Jessica” comes from the Torah. It is an English adaptation of Iscah (יסכה), mentioned in Genesis 11:29 and, according to our Sages, the birth name of Sarah. Rashi comments:

Iscah. This is Sarah, because she would see [סוֹכָה] through divine inspiration, and because all gazed [סוֹכִין] at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom [נְסִיכוּת], just as Sarah is an expression of dominion [שְׂרָרָה].

Interestingly, it appears that the earliest recorded use of the transliteration “Jessica” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Here, Jessica is the Jewish daughter of the play’s Jewish villain, Shylock. Although many see The Merchant of Venice as an anti-Semitic work, others actually see it as Shakespeare’s cunning manipulation of that era’s rampant anti-Semitism and his own “plea for tolerance”. After all, Shylock’s most famous speech (Act III, Scene 1) reads:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Shylock argues that his own villainy is nothing but a reflection of the villainy of the Christian world. Shakespeare recognized the cruelty that Jews had suffered, and tells his anti-Semitic audience that Jews are human, too.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

Ultimately, it is certainly beneficial to have a Hebrew name of some sort, whether Biblical, Talmudic, adapted, or modern. After all, Hebrew is a holy language, and each of its letters carry profound meaning. The Hebrew term for “name” is shem (שם), which is a root of neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, and spelled the same as sham (שם), “there”, for it is there within a person’s name that his or her essence is found. For this reason, the Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells us that Rabbi Meir used to carefully analyze people’s name to determine their character. (This Talmudic passage was explored at length in Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) also notes that changing one’s name is one of five things a person can do to change their fate. Indeed, we see this multiple times in Scripture. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed (from Abram and Sarai) to allow them to finally have a child. Jacob becomes Israel, while Hoshea becomes Yehoshua (Joshua). At some point, Pinchas becomes Eliyahu, and even Yosef (Joseph) becomes Yehosef (Psalms 81:6). On that last name change, the Midrash explains that it was only because Yosef had an extra hei added to his name that he was able to ascend to Egyptian hegemony.

Thus, having a name with a deep meaning, in Hebrew letters, and one that is actually used regularly (as opposed to a secondary Hebrew name that no one calls you by) is of utmost significance. If you don’t yet have such a name, it isn’t too late to get one!


*This Midrash presents a possible contradiction: how can it say that the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names when we see that some clearly did? Maybe most of the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names, though some did. Thankfully, another Midrash (Pesikta Zutrati on parashat Ki Tavo) steps in to offer an alternate reason. Here, Israel was redeemed in the merit of three things: not changing their clothing, their food, and their language. Changing their names is conspicuously absent.

The Mystical Meaning of Exile and Terrorism

This week we once again read a double parasha, Behar and Bechukotai. The latter is famous for its list of blessings, and curses, should Israel faithfully follow God’s law, or not. In Leviticus 26:33, God warns that “I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” These prophetic words have, of course, come true in Jewish history. Israel has indeed been exiled to the four corners of the world, and experienced just about every kind of persecution. Yet, within every curse there is a hidden blessing.

‘The Flight of the Prisoners’ by James Tissot, depicting the Jewish people being exiled to Babylon.

The Talmud (Pesachim 87b) states that the deeper purpose of exile is for the Jews to spread Godliness to the rest of the world. After all, our very mandate was to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) and to spread knowledge of Hashem and His Torah. How could we ever accomplish this if we were always isolated in the Holy Land? It was absolutely necessary for Israel to be spread all over the globe in order to introduce people to Hashem, to be a model of righteousness, and to fulfil the various spiritual rectifications necessary to repair this broken world.

The Arizal explains that by praying, reciting blessings, and fulfilling mitzvot, a Jew frees the spiritual sparks trapped within the kelipot, literally “husks”. This idea hearkens back to the concept of Shevirat haKelim, the “Shattering of the Vessels”. The Arizal taught that God initially crafted an entirely perfect universe. Unfortunately, this world couldn’t contain itself and shattered into a multitude of pieces, spiritual “sparks” trapped in this material reality. While God had rebuilt most of the universe, He left it to Adam and Eve to complete the rectification through their own free will. They, too, could not affect that tikkun, and the cosmos shattered yet again. The process repeated itself on a number of occasions, the last major one being at the time of the Golden Calf.

Nonetheless, with each passing phase in history, more and more of those lost, trapped sparks are rediscovered and restored to their rightful place. The mystical mission of every Jew is to free those sparks wherever they go. The Arizal speaks of this at great length, and it permeates every part of his teachings. Eating, for example, serves the purpose of freeing sparks trapped within food—which is why it is so important to consume only kosher food, and to carefully recite blessings (which are nothing but fine-tuned formulas for spiritual rectification) before and after. The same is true with every mitzvah that we do, and every prayer we recite.

Thus, while exile is certainly difficult and unpleasant, it serves an absolutely vital spiritual purpose. This is why the Midrash states that exile is one of four things God created regretfully (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah, passage 424). It is why God already prophesied that we would be exiled—even though we hadn’t yet earned such a punishment! And it is why God also guaranteed that we would one day return to our Promised Land, as we have miraculously begun to do in recent decades.

Four, Five, or Eight Exiles?

In Jewish tradition, it is said that there are four major exiles: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. We are still considered to be within the “Roman” or Edomite (European/Christian) exile. Indeed, the Roman Empire never really ended, and just morphed from one phase into another, from the Byzantine Empire to the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.

Babylonian Shedu

This idea of four exiles originated with Daniel’s vision of four great beasts (Daniel 7:3-7). The first was a lion with eagle wings—a well-known symbol of ancient Babylon. Then came a fierce bear, an animal which the Talmud always likens to the Persians. The swift leopard represents the Greeks that conquered the known world in lightning speed under Alexander the Great. The final and most devastating beast is unidentified, representing the longest and cruelest exile of Edom.

The Midrash states that Jacob himself foresaw these exiles in his vision of the ladder (Genesis 28). There he saw four angels, each going up a number of rungs on the ladder equal to the number of years Israel would be oppressed by that particular nation. The last angel continued to climb ever higher, with Jacob unable to see its conclusion, alluding to the current seemingly never-ending exile.  The big question is: why are these considered the four exiles. Haven’t the Jewish people been exiled all around the world? Have we not been oppressed by other nations besides these?

The Arizal explains (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh) that while Jews have indeed been exiled among all seventy root nations, it is only in these four that all Jews were exiled in. Yet, he maintains that any place where even a single Jew has been exiled is considered as if the entire nation was exiled there. The Arizal further explains that these four exiles were already alluded to in Genesis 2:10-14, where the Torah describes the four rivers that emerged from Eden. Each river corresponds to one exile. The head river of Eden that gives rise to the other four corresponds to the very first exile of the Jews, the exile within which the Jewish people were forged: Egypt, the mother of all exiles.

Elsewhere, the Arizal adds that there is actually a fifth exile, that of Ishmael (Etz Ha’Da’at Tov, ch. 62). History makes this plainly evident, of course, as the Jewish people have suffered immensely under Arab and Muslim oppression to this very day. The idea of Ishmael being the final exile was known long before the Arizal, and is mentioned by earlier authorities. In fact, one tradition holds that each exile has two components:

We know that before the Babylonians came to destroy the Kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem, the Assyrians had destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel with the majority of the Twelve Tribes. We also know that the Persians were united with the Medians. Technically speaking, Alexander the Great was not a mainstream Greek, but a Macedonian. While he was the one who conquered Israel, his treatment of the Jews was mostly fair. It was only long after that the Seleucid Greeks in Syria really tried to extinguish the Jews. Thus, the doublets are Assyria-Babylon (Ashur-Bavel), Persia-Media (Paras-Madai), Macedon-Greece (Mokdon-Yavan), with the final doublet being Edom-Ishmael. The latter has a clear proof-text in the Torah itself, where we read how Esau (ie. Edom) married a daughter of Ishmael (Genesis 28:9). The Sages suggest that this is an allusion to the joint union between Edom and Ishmael to oppress Israel in its final exile.

The Arizal certainly knew the above, so why does he speak of a fifth exile under Ishmael, as well as a fifth (original) exile under Egypt?

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

One of the most well-known principles in Kabbalah is that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning in the end”. What the Arizal may have been hinting at is that the final Ishmaelite exile is a reflection of the original Egyptian exile. Indeed, the Arizal often speaks of how the final generation at the End of Days is a reincarnation of the Exodus generation. (According to one tradition, there were 15 million Jews in ancient Egypt, just as there are roughly 15 million in the world today.) The first redeemer Moses took us out of the Egyptian exile, and we await Moses’ successor, the final redeemer Mashiach, to free us from the Ishmaelite exile.

In highly symbolic fashion, the land of ancient Egypt is currently occupied by Muslim Arabs. The Ishmaelites have quite literally taken the place of ancient Egypt. Come to think of it, the lands of all the four traditional nations of exile are now Ishmaelite: Bavel is Iraq, Paras is Iran, Seleucid Greece is Syria, and the Biblical land of Edom overlaps Jordan. The four rivers of Eden would have run through these very territories. It is quite ironic that Saddam Hussein openly spoke of himself as a reincarnated Nebuchadnezzar, seeking to restore a modern-day Babylonian Empire. Meanwhile, each day in the news we hear of the looming Syria-Iran threat. Just as Egypt was the mother of all four “beasts”, it appears that the four beasts converge under a new Ishmaelite banner for one final End of Days confrontation.

There is one distinction however. In the ancient land of Egypt, all Jews were physically trapped. We do not see this at all today, where very few Jews remain living in Muslim states. Nonetheless, every single Jew around the world, wherever they may be, is living under an Ishmaelite threat. Muslims in France, for example, have persistently attacked innocent Jews in horrific acts—so much so that recently 250 French intellectuals, politicians, and even former presidents banded together to demand action against this absurd violence and anti-Semitism. Similar acts of evil have taken place all over the world. This has been greatly exacerbated by the recent influx of Muslim refugees to the West, as admitted by Germany’s chancellor Angel Merkel who recently stated: “We have refugees now… or people of Arab origin, who bring a different type of anti-Semitism into the country…”

In 2017, Swedish police admitted that there are at least 23 “no-go” Sharia Law zones in their country.

It is important to note that when Scripture speaks of the End of Days, it is not describing a regional conflict, but an international one. The House of Ishmael is not a local threat to Israel alone, or only to Jewish communities, but to the entire globe. Every continent has felt the wrath of Islamist terrorism, and whole communities in England, France, and even America have become cordoned off as “sharia law” zones. Ishmael is even a threat to himself. Muslims kill each other far more than they kill non-Muslims. In 2011, the National Counter-Terrorism Center reported that between 82% and 97% of all Islamist terror victims are actually Muslim. All but three civil wars between 2011 and 2014 were in Muslim countries, and all six civil wars that raged in 2012 were in Muslim countries. In 2013, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom showed that 10 of the 15 most intolerant and oppressive states in the world were Muslim ones.

The Torah wasn’t wrong when it prophesied (Genesis 16:12) that Ishmael would be a “wild man; his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him, and upon all of his brothers he will dwell.” Every Jew—and every human being for that matter—is experiencing an Ishmaelite exile at present.

The Exile Within

There is one more way of looking at the four exiles: not as specific nations under whom we were once oppressed, but as four oppressive forces that have always constrained Israel, and continue to do so today. These are the four root issues plaguing the Jews, and keeping us in “exile” mode.

The first is Edom, that spirit of materialism and physicality embodied by Esau. Unfortunately, such greed and gluttony has infiltrated just about every Jewish community, including those that see themselves as the most spiritual. The second, Bavel, literally means “confusion”, that inexplicable madness within the Jewish nation; the incessant infighting, the divisiveness, and the sinat chinam. Yavan is Hellenism, or secularism. In Hebrew, the word for a secular Jew is hiloni, literally a “Hellene”. Just as this week’s parasha clearly elucidates, abandoning the Torah is a root cause of many ills that befall the Jews. Finally, there is Paras. It was because the Jews had assimilated in ancient Persia that the events of Purim came about. Paras represents that persistent problem of assimilation.

It is important to point out that assimilation is different from secularism. There are plenty of secular Jews that are also very proud Jews. They openly sport a magen David around their neck, worry every day about Israel, want their kids to marry only other Jews, and though they don’t want to be religious, still try to connect to their heritage, language, and traditions. The assimilated Jew is not that secular Jew, but the one that no longer cares about their Jewish identity. It is the Jew that entirely leaves the fold. Sometimes, it is the one that becomes a “self-hating” Jew, or converts to another religion. Such Jews have been particularly devastating to the nation, and often caused tremendous grief. Some of the worst Spanish inquisitors were Jewish converts to Catholicism. Karl Marx and the Soviet Communists that followed are more recent tragedies. Not only do they leave their own people behind, they bring untold suffering to their former compatriots.

While there may be literal Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Edomites out there, the bigger problem for the Jewish people is the spiritual Bavel, Paras, Yavan, and Edom that infects the hearts and minds of the nation: infighting, assimilation, secularism, materialism. It is these issues that we should be spending the most time meditating upon, and expending the most effort to solve. Only when we put these problems behind us can we expect to see the long-awaited end to exile.

Who is Ahashverosh?

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

Ahaseurus and Haman at Esther’s Feast, by Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

Xerxes the Great

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

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

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

Bust of Herodotus

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

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

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

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

A Historical Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

An Honest Look at the Talmud

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

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

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

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

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

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

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

Promiscuity in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

Science in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

History in the Talmud

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

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

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

Archaeological remains of the Beitar fortress.

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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