Tag Archives: Avodah Zarah (Tractate)

The Caesar Who Saved Judaism

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s parasha, Toldot, begins with the births of the twins Jacob and Esau. Their mother, Rebecca, felt trouble brewing in her womb, and received prophecy that “two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your innards” (Genesis 25:23). Jacob, of course, is the forefather of the Jewish people, while Esau would become the spiritual progenitor of the Roman Empire, and then the entire Christian world as a whole (see ‘How Esau Became Rome’).

The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) comments on the above verse that the words shnei goyim b’vitnekh (שני גוים בבטנך), “two nations are in your womb”, has the same gematria as “this is Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus” (זה רבי יהודה ואנטונינוס). Recall that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was the president of Israel in the 2nd century CE, and is credited with composing the Mishnah, the first complete corpus of Jewish law, while Antoninus was a Roman official who was his close friend. The Ba’al haTurim is telling us that there is a profound connection between these two sets of people that are separated by nearly two millennia. What is the connection between the pair of Jacob and Esau, and the pair of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi and Antoninus? Continue reading

Should Jews Celebrate Birthdays?

At the end of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that it was “Pharaoh’s birthday” (Genesis 40:20). This is the only place in the Torah that explicitly mentions a birthday, which leads to the question: are birthday celebrations kosher? Where did birthday parties come from, and what is so special about the day of birth anyway?

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God’s Entourage

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Albert Huthusen

This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob’s famous vision of the Heavenly Ladder, upon which he saw angels “ascending and descending” (Genesis 28:12). Many of our Sages have pointed out that the gematria of “ladder” (סלם) is equivalent with “Sinai” (סיני). The Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) states that Jacob saw a vision of his descendants receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Zohar goes on to discuss the profound connection between the two, focusing on the mysterious words of Psalm 68, which describes the Sinai Revelation.

It begins by stating that atop the Ladder, Jacob saw the chief angel Metatron, the “elder” of the Heavens. In the Talmud (Chagigah 14b), we read how the rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah became an apostate after ascending to Heaven and seeing Metatron, the Heavenly “scribe”, sitting on what appeared to be a throne. In a serious error, Elisha confused Metatron for some kind of deity of his own. The Talmud doesn’t say too much more on this, but the Zohar passage here clarifies the matter.

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