Tag Archives: Book of Jeremiah

How Many Books Are in the Torah?

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, there is a strange occurrence in the text of the Torah. The traditional way of writing Numbers 10:35-36 in a Torah scroll is with two inverted letter nuns around it:

There are a number of reasons given to explain this strange phenomenon. One answer from the Talmud (Shabbat 115b-116a) is that the nuns are there because the two verses that it surrounds make up a whole independent book of the Torah! So, the first part of Numbers, 1:1-10:34, makes up one book, then come these two verses which are a book of their own, and then the rest of Numbers, 11:1-36:13. This means that the Torah is not composed of five books, but seven books, and this is the meaning of King Solomon’s words: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn seven pillars.” (Proverbs 9:1) The seven books of the Torah correspond to the seven classical pillars of wisdom (which we have discussed before here).

Others hold that the nuns are there because these two verses belong earlier in the book of Numbers, but were moved here for various reasons. The Talmud does not actually say that the two verses are surrounded by nuns specifically, which led some authorities to suggest putting those nuns in actually makes a Torah scroll not kosher! This was the opinion of the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria, 1510-1573), who stated that the inverted nuns are an entirely Kabbalistic thing, and suggested the current way of writing it isn’t exactly accurate. (See Chokhmat Shlomo on Shabbat 115b, and his Shu”t #73.)

Whatever the case, there is some beauty in saying the Torah is made up of 7 books, considering the importance of that number in Judaism. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the Torah is a chumash made up of the Five Books of Moses, not seven. One of the earliest sources to state this is the ancient Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (37-100 CE). In Against Apion 1:8, he wrote:

For we do not have an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia [Ahashverosh], who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.

It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them.

Josephus explains that the first five books of the Tanakh are those written by Moses. The following 13 were composed by the prophets that followed him, until the time of Esther. The remaining four are hymns and precepts for life. Josephus explains how there are indeed more books (referring to the apocryphal ones), but they are not included in the official canon since the era of prophets had ended, and the divine nature of those additional books is uncertain. Altogether, he says the Jews have 22 books—yet today we number the Tanakh as having 24 books! How do we account for this discrepancy?

Which Books are Holy?

The standard explanation for this discrepancy is that in the time of Josephus the book of Lamentations was combined with Jeremiah (since he wrote it), and the book of Ruth was included within Judges, where it belongs chronologically. The thirteen books of the prophets were: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The remaining four “poetic” books are Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Indeed, the traditional way of writing the scrolls for three of these books—Psalms, Proverbs, and Job—was unique, in two-column fashion, and with special cantillation marks. They were collectively called Sifrei Emet, “Books of Truth”, where Emet (אמת) stands for Iyov (איוב), “Job”; Mishlei (משלי), “Proverbs”; and Tehilim (תהלים), “Psalms”.

The Song of Songs was always a controversial book. Because of its explicitly sexual language, and the fact that it seemingly offers little in the way of history, prophecy, or law (at least not in its simple reading), there were those who wanted to remove it from the Tanakh. Rabbi Akiva famously defended its inclusion in Scripture, calling it the “Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5). There in the Mishnah, the Sages debate the holiness of one other book: Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). This one, too, offers little in the way of history, prophecy, or law (at least in its simple reading), and of course, is quite depressing, too. The entire passage in the Mishnah is a fascinating read, and connects to our weekly parasha:

A scroll on which the writing has become erased and eighty-five letters remain, as many as are in the section beginning, “And it came to pass when the ark set forward…” (Numbers 10:35-36) defiles the hands. A single sheet on which there are written eighty-five letters, as many as are in the section beginning, “And it came to pass when the ark set forward”, defiles the hands. All the Holy Scriptures defile the hands. The Song of Songs and Kohelet defile the hands.

Rabbi Yehudah says: the Song of Songs defiles the hands, but there is a dispute about Kohelet. Rabbi Yose says: Kohelet does not defile the hands, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs. Rabbi Shimon says: Kohelet is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai said: I have received a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah head of the academy that the Song of Songs and Kohelet defile the hands. Rabbi Akiba said: Far be it! No man in Israel disputed that the Song of Songs does not defile the hands, for the whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. If they had a dispute, they had a dispute only about Kohelet. Rabbi Yochanan ben Yehoshua, the son of the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva, said in accordance with the words of Ben Azzai: so they disputed and so they reached a decision.

The Sages use the term “defiling the hands” to refer to a sacred book. If it is truly divine, it is said to cause the hands to become spiritually “unclean”. The idea is that we should be careful to touch its holy parchment. To this day, people avoid directly touching the scroll of Torah when they go up for an aliyah, and instead use their tallit. The Mishnah states that all books of the Tanakh “defile the hands”, ie. they are all sacred. The same is true for any writing that has at least 85 letters worth of Torah. How do the Sages derive this? From that special section in our weekly parasha that is delineated by two inverted nuns. There are 85 letters in them, and they are likened to a book of their own. Therefore, any time there are 85 letters of Torah written on some parchment, that piece of parchment becomes sacred.

The Mishnah then goes on to debate whether Shir HaShirim and Kohelet “defile the hands”. Rabbi Yehuda holds that Shir HaShirim is holy, but Kohelet’s status is unclear, whereas Rabbi Yose insists that Kohelet is not holy, and the status of Shir HaShirim is unclear! Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that Beit Shammai considered Kohelet not holy, but Hillel considered it holy. Shimon ben Azzai confidently states that he is certain both books are holy. Rabbi Akiva is certain about Song of Songs, but suggests there may have been a dispute on Kohelet. The final word goes to Rabbi Yochanan ben Yehoshua, who concludes that the earlier Sages did debate on whether these two books should be included, and decided at the end that they should.

Considering that all of the great rabbis cited above were born after Josephus (except possibly Rabbi Akiva, who in any case was not a rabbi until much later in life), it might be that Josephus speaks of the Tanakh as having 22 books because Shir HaShirim and Kohelet were still under debate in his day. It is possible that he placed them with the other apocryphal works whose sacred status is unclear, which he briefly mentions. (In that case, Lamentations would probably be among his four books of hymns, and Ruth among his 13 prophets.) There is a certain elegance in organizing the Tanakh into 22 books, one for each letter of the divine Hebrew alphabet. Since God created the universe through these divine letters, and by using the Torah as a blueprint, and since God Himself states that were it not for His Torah He would not have created the universe to begin with (Jeremiah 33:25), having 22 books of Tanakh is fitting.

(There is a similar tradition regarding the Zohar: It is said that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught 22 volumes of mysticism, one for each letter of the alphabet. All were lost except the volume on the letter zayin, hence the Zohar.)

36 for Light, 40 for Purification

Having said all that, the reality is that the Tanakh has neither 22 nor 24 texts. Ezra and Nehemiah are always combined into one, even though they are separate books with different authors. The book of Twelve Prophets, Trei Assar, is a collection of twelve “minor” prophets, short texts that were put together for convenience. If we count each of these as a separate book (since it is), we get 36 books. This is a good number because 36 represents or haganuz, the divine light of Creation which shone for 36 hours before being concealed.

Even that number is not complete, though. The book of Psalms is actually five different books (Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150). Each has an overarching theme, and each ends with a concluding line to close the book. (This is most evident with Psalm 72, which closes Book Two with the verse “The prayers of David, son of Yishai, have ended.”) With Psalms divided into its 5 parts, the total number of books in the Tanakh comes to 40!

Forty is not without significance either. That number parallels the forty days and nights Moses spent on Sinai receiving the Torah. This is also the number of days and nights it rained during the Great Flood to purify the world, and the minimum amount of water necessary for a kosher mikveh (40 se’ah). Study of Tanakh similarly serves to purify us, and we wrote recently of the mystical meaning of the letter mem—whose value is forty—and its intrinsic connection to the Torah.

Names of God  

The text of Ana b’Koach, and the 42 Letter Name of God on the left.

Finally, if we take this week’s parasha and the Talmud into consideration, and assume the Torah has seven books, it brings our total up again to 42. This number is associated with one of the most important names of God. The Talmud (Kiddushin 71a) states that the Forty-Two Letter Name of God cannot be revealed to a person unless they are “modest, and humble, and at least middle-aged, and does not get angry, and does not get drunk, and does not insist upon his rights.” The Talmud does not state what this name is. It is generally accepted to be the initials of Ana b’Koach, which has 42 words. At least one alternate tradition is that the Name is composed of the first 42 letters of the Torah. Another is that it is made up of the Tetragrammaton, plus the milui (“letter-filling”) of the Tetragrammaton, plus the milui of that. Some say there are multiple versions of the Name, corresponding to different dimensions of Creation.

The Name of 45 Using Milui

The number 42 is significant for many other reasons. It represents the entirety of Torah, since the Written Torah begins with a letter bet (“Beresheet”), and the Oral Torah (ie. the Mishnah/Talmud) begins with the letter mem (“M’imatai”), together adding up to 42. When God told us to speak words of Torah all the time (Deuteronomy 6:4, which we recite daily in the Shema), the words used are v’dibarta bam (ודברת בם), alluding to the Written and Oral Torahs. And, of course, in Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is the answer to “life, the universe, and everything”.

It should be mentioned that when the Tanakh was first translated into Greek over two thousand years ago, the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were split in half. This is because while Hebrew lacks vowels, Greek doesn’t, so the translations were a lot longer than the originals. The Greek versions could not fit on standard scrolls, so they were divided in two. A whole system of numbering and citation was built around that. Eventually, that system was adopted by Jews, too, and we use it today. Although this division is seemingly non-Jewish in origin, the most likely case is that the division was instituted by Jewish scribes, as they were the ones translating the Hebrew into Greek (see Septuagint). If we maintain those divisions, the Tanakh would have 45 books!

Forty five is the gematria of Adam (אדם), and also another important Name of God in Kabbalah (יו”ד ה”א וא”ו ה”א), referred to as Shem Mah, “the Name of Forty-Five”. This is the name most associated with tikkun, man’s rectification and perfection. A person who fully rectifies themselves, ascends to the highest spiritual levels, and unites with God is said to be a complete “Adam” of Forty-Five, and is one with God’s Name of Forty-Five. This monumental task would be impossible to accomplish without study, meditation, and practice of the Tanakh and its 45 parts.

Why 24?

Despite all of the above possibilities, the Sages set the official number of Tanakh books at 24. Why this number in particular? Several weeks ago we discussed the significance of this number as it pertains to the traditional 24 ornaments of a Jewish bride. Since the Jewish people standing at Mt. Sinai were compared to a bride—with God being the groom, and the Torah being the ketubah—and a bride is to be adorned with 24 ornaments, God “adorned” us with 24 precious holy works of the Tanakh.

Another explanation is that there are 24 hours in a day. We read in the Tanakh that words of Scripture should never leave our lips, and that we should be meditating upon these holy words yomam v’lilah, “all day and night” (Joshua 1:8). This is the exact same term used in Jeremiah 33:25 (cited above) where God states that were it not for His covenant yomam v’lilah, ie. if His Torah was not observed and studied 24/7—He would “not establish the laws of Heaven and Earth.” God created this universe, with all of its natural laws and cycles, on the condition that His Torah would be diligently kept. And the most important cycle of nature for us humans, giving structure to our lives, is the daily rhythm of 24 hours. The 24 books of Tanakh appropriately parallel this.

Some scholars have pointed out another interesting parallel: in the ancient Greek world the most important text of study was Homer’s Iliad, which was generally divided into 24 books. Rabbi Burton Visotzky writes:

Much as the Greeks and Romans wrote commentary and endlessly quoted from the twenty-four books of “the divine Homer”, so the rabbis quoted and commented on the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. That the number of books is the same is not a coincidence; it required the rabbis to do some creative accounting in order to show that the rabbinic canon and the Greco-Roman “canon” were libraries with the same number of volumes. (Aphrodite and the Rabbis, pg. 11)

While Visotzky suggests that the Sages wanted to make the Tanakh 24 books so that it resembles Homer’s 24 books, it might have happened the opposite way.

Jews vs. Greeks

It isn’t clear when Homer’s Iliad was first divided into 24 books. The consensus is that it wasn’t until around the 2nd century BCE. The Tanakh was first compiled by the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly”, before this. Although we saw above that the status of a couple of books was still in debate, the overall structure of the Tanakh was set by the 2nd century BCE, and it was around that same time that the Tanakh was firstly translated into Greek.

Scholars generally like to point out how much the Jewish Sages adopted from the Greeks, yet they forget how much more was adopted by the Greeks from the Jews! This was well-known in ancient times, too. The 2nd century CE philosopher Numenius of Apamea famously admitted “What is Plato if not Moses speaking Greek?” Perhaps more than any other historian, Samuel Kurinsky shows in great depth the forgotten (and often deliberately buried) impact that the Jews had on the ancient world, including the Greek world. To offer just one example, he writes of the great Pythagoras, among the most famous of Greek philosophers:

Josephus quotes from a book by Hermippus of Smyrna in which Hermippus baldly stated that Pythagoras had plagiarized Thracian and Jewish concepts, accusing Pythagoras of the “imitation of the doctrines of the Jews and Thracians, which he transferred to his own philosophy.” Josephus then adds a pointed emphasis of his own: “For it is truly affirmed of this Pythagoras, that he took a great many of the laws of the Jews into his own philosophy.” (The Eight Day, pg. 290)

Kurinsky then refers to the ancient works of Hecataeus of Abdera, a 4th century BCE Greek historian who described the Exodus, and the leadership of Moses, “famed for his wisdom and valor”. Hecataeus goes on to state that the founders of Greece, the heroes Cadmus and Danaeus, were also part of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt! Kurinsky concludes:

Hecateus thus places the purported founder of the Hellenic culture as emerging from within a Judaic matrix. Whether Cadmus and Danaeus were fictional characters or not, they symbolize the process by which fundamental Judaic precepts arrived on the Greek scene.

Therefore, it is just as likely that the Greeks organized their Homer into 24 books to mimic the Jews’ 24 books of the Tanakh! The only good argument in favour of the Greeks doing it first is that by the end of the 4th century BCE, the Greek alphabet had been reduced to its current 24 letters. So, Homer was divided into 24 parts, one for each letter of the Greek alphabet. Maybe this is why Josephus speaks of the Tanakh in 22 parts, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Repairing the Jewish World

A mausoleum in Yavneh believed to be the tomb of Rabban Gamliel II.

So how did 22 books of Tanakh become 24? One possible answer might lie with Rabban Gamliel II, a contemporary of Josephus. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 83a) states that the house of Rabban Gamliel was filled with 1000 students, 500 of whom studied Torah, and 500 of whom studied Greek wisdom. It seems Rabban Gamliel presided over a massive and important academy where scholars poured over these texts 24 hours of a day—half of them studying and discussing the 24 books of Homer, and half of them studying and discussing the 24 books of Tanakh. It isn’t difficult to imagine the two halves of Rabban Gamliel’s school dividing their work into an equal number of textbooks.

Rabban Gamliel lived through the destruction of the Second Temple. He was the first president of the Sanhedrin once it moved to Yavneh at the conclusion of the Great War with Rome. And this leads us to one final suggestion as to why the Sages grouped the Tanakh into 24 books.

The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 53b) states: “The Jews were not exiled until they had divided into 24 sects.” As is well-known, the destruction of the Second Temple was decreed in Heaven because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred and divisiveness among the Jews. The antidote is ahavat hinam, love and unity among all Jews. Achieving this begins with the individual. Each person needs to refine themselves to the highest degree in order to love their fellow. And refinement is impossible without the Torah. As the Midrash states, the Torah and mitzvot were given in order to refine us (Beresheet Rabbah 44:1). And therefore, the antidote for Jewish divisiveness—symbolized by the number 24—is study and practice of the 24 books of the Tanakh.

Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read about the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda’s eldest son, Er, marries a beautiful woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was evil in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) As was customary in those days, since Er died without a son, it was expected that his brother, Onan, would perform levirate marriage and take Tamar as his wife. As the Torah describes, the purpose of this is to essentially provide a sort of heir for his childless brother. Onan was happy to marry Tamar, but

knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. And what he did was evil in the eyes of God, and He put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9-10)

As we know, Yehuda would end up being with Tamar himself, and out of that union would come Peretz, the ancestor of King David.

‘Judah and Tamar’

The big question is: what was it that Er and Onan did that was so despicable to God? The classic answer is that they wasted their seed (as the Torah states above), which is why they were punished so severely. This narrative is then used as proof from the Torah that wasting seed is among the gravest of prohibitions.

And yet, the Torah itself does not actually prohibit wasting seed anywhere, at least not explicitly. Considering how strictly the Sages spoke about not wasting seed, we might be surprised to find that it is not one of the 613 commandments. So, what is the true extent of this prohibition? Where did it come from? And what was really going on with Er and Onan?

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

While the Torah tells us that Er was evil in God’s eyes, it does not explain why. Many commentators (including Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye) assume that he must have been evil for the same reason his brother Onan was: for wasting seed. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) clarifies that the sin was not the act of wasting seed itself, but rather for an ulterior motive. Er did not want to impregnate Tamar so that her beauty would not be ruined. He wanted her solely for physical pleasure. This is what was despicable to God.

Similarly, a careful look at the Torah makes it clear that Onan’s sin was not wasting seed either. What the Torah says is that Onan did not want to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage. He avoided impregnating Tamar because he “knew the progeny would not be his”, and the reason he spilled his seed on the ground was “in order not to give seed to his brother”. The sin here was not the act of wasting seed, but rather disrespecting his own brother, and refusing to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage.

Such is the opinion of Tzror haMor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508), and we see similar comments by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) goes even further, saying that Onan was really out to increase his share of land, for if he would have fulfilled the mitzvah, the child would receive Er’s portion of land, and if not, then Onan would be the inheritor. From these commentaries, and the Torah’s own simple reading, we can definitively conclude that the sin was not the wasting of seed itself but the evil ulterior motives behind it, especially the disrespect for a brother.

All of this is right in line with the Torah’s persistent theme of brothers failing to love each other, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Yehuda’s sons. The Torah takes every possible opportunity to remind us to love each other wholeheartedly (as we are all brothers), and that tragedies always befall the Jewish people when we lack brotherly love—as our Sages explicitly state countless times.

Going back to the subject at hand, nowhere else in the Torah is wasting seed an issue. The Torah does state that a man who has an “emission” is impure for purposes of going to the Temple. What he must do is bathe in water, and wait until the evening for the impurity to go away (Leviticus 15:16). No other punishment is prescribed, irrespective of why the man might have the emission.

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

It is in the Talmud where wasting seed takes on its grave overtones. The Sages compare one who wastes seed to a murderer, an idolater, and an adulterer (Niddah 13a-b). This is quite shocking, considering that murder, idolatry, and adultery are the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. These are the things one must give up their life for in order to avoid, even if coerced. The Sages are equating wasting seed with the worst possible sins.

In the same pages, we read how Rav Yochanan holds that one who wastes seed “deserves death”. Interestingly, he bases himself on the verses in the Torah concerning the deaths of Er and Onan! Yet, as we’ve seen, their sin was not the act of wasting seed, but their evil ulterior motives. In reality, the Sages are hard-pressed to find a good source for the prohibition. They resort to various colourful interpretations of Scriptural verses in an attempt to illustrate the evils of wasting seed. For example, Isaiah 1:15 says “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear, [because] your hands are full of blood.” Rabbi Elazar says that “hands are full of blood” is referring to those who masturbate, since spilling seed is like spilling blood! This is far from the plain meaning of the verse, which is obviously talking about actual bloodshed.

We should keep in mind that in these Talmudic pages, the Sages are not just prohibiting masturbation or wasting seed, but even for a man to simply touch their “member”—even to urinate! “Rabbi Eliezer said: Whoever holds his member when he urinates is as though he had brought a flood on the world.” Rabbi Tarfon later adds that his hand should be cut off! It goes without saying that the Sages were exceedingly careful to avoid any sexual transgressions, and raised many “fences” to ensure that no one should even come close to sinning so gravely. We must remember that the Talmud often uses hyperbole to get a point across and it isn’t always wise to take statements literally. The Sages themselves question Rabbi Eliezer, and say that not holding one’s member would be very impractical, for “would not the spray splatter on his feet…?”

The point, rather, is to teach us that “such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.” (Niddah 13b) The Sages are specifically referring to one who fantasizes to “give himself an erection”, and that such a person “should be expelled”. After all, the yetzer hara works in such a way that it gets a person to make a tiny sin, and slowly leads them to greater transgressions. It might start with a small thought, grow into a consuming fantasy, and eventually leads one to grossly misbehave. In short, the fear is that a person will get accustomed to bad habits, and it will end up leading to more severe transgressions.

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law the prohibition of wasting seed, whether with one’s partner or on their own (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 21:18):

It is forbidden to release semen wastefully. Therefore a person should not enter his wife and release outside of her… Those who release semen with their hands, beyond the fact that they commit a great transgression, a person who does this will abide under a ban of ostracism. Concerning them, it is said: “Your hands are filled with blood.” It is as if they killed a person.

The Rambam makes a distinction between a situation of husband and wife versus a man doing it on his own, which is far worse and likened to murder. Having said that, many other great authorities in Jewish law were more lenient when it comes to wasting seed, especially when the intention is not evil. The Rambam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda haHasid (1150-1217), wrote in his Sefer Hasidim that while masturbation is forbidden, and requires a great deal of penance to repair, it is occasionally permitted if it will prevent a person from a more serious sin. On that note, the Rambam himself wrote elsewhere (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) that wasting seed is not an explicit Torah prohibition, and carries no actual punishment of any kind. However, he writes in the same place that although many things are permitted when done consensually between husband and wife, it is nonetheless important to be exceedingly modest when it comes to sexuality.

The later Kabbalists understood that the Torah carries no explicit punishment for wasting seed, but found an allusion to a more mystical punishment. They taught that wasting seed produces banim shovavim, literally “wayward children” (a term that comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and 3:22). These impure spirits—potential souls that are brought into this world without a body—attach to a man’s neck and cause him great damage, and can harm his children, too. There is no doubt that the Rambam, being a strict rationalist and staying away from anything “Kabbalistic”, would disagree with this approach. The Rambam did not believe in demons or evil spirits, and refused to accept the validity of many (if not all) Kabbalistic ideas and practices.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), perhaps the greatest of Kabbalists, was a major proponent of the banim shovavim notion. Since his time, it has become customary in some communities to focus on purifying from sexual sins and from wasted seed during the weeks when we read the consecutive parashas of Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim. Since the initials of these parashas spell “shovavim”, it is thought to be an auspicious time for such repentance. Yet even the Arizal taught that wasting seed is primarily a problem when a person does so on their own, for selfish, lustful reasons. If one is married, and there is genuine loving intimacy between husband and wife, the prohibition is no longer so clear cut. (See, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Noach).

Indeed, many authorities were lenient with regards to wasting seed in the context of a husband and wife being together—as long as they are not like Er or Onan. If the intention is pure, and the couple has fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation (so they are obviously not trying to avoid having children), then occasionally wasting seed is permissible. Among those that held this opinion include the tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Shmuel (c. 1115-1184, in his comments to Yevamot 34b) and the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, in his comments on Nedarim 20a).

In fact, even the Arizal taught that, in certain special cases, wasted seed can serve a positive purpose. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim (ch. 26), we read how the ten drops of wasted seed that unintentionally emerged out of Joseph (as per the famous Midrash) resulted in levushim, protective “garments” for the soul. The seed wasted indirectly by tzaddikim may similarly produce such protective garments, especially when it happens during proper, loving, holy zivug (union) between husband and wife. Such union, while not fruitful in this world, corresponds to “heavenly unions” that are spiritually fruitful. It is important to repeat that this entails being an actual tzaddik—being righteous, just, observant, modest, humble, selfless—and being intimate in a holy, loving, kosher, monogamous union.

On that note, it is worth mentioning that a couple that is childless, or already pregnant, is absolutely allowed to continue to be intimate, and this is not at all considered “wasting seed”. (The Talmud adds that intimacy during the third trimester is particularly healthy for both mother and baby, see Niddah 31a.) At the very start of Sha’ar HaMitzvot, the Arizal explains that such unions might not produce physical children, but they produce many spiritual children. This is one meaning for the verse in the Torah that says Abraham and Sarah “made souls” in Charan (Genesis 12:5)—although they were physically childless, they had produced many souls in Heaven, and these souls later came down into human form. In fact, there are those who say these souls are given to converts, who receive a Jewish soul upon their successful conversion. The souls that Abraham and Sarah made all those years come down into the bodies of converts, which is the deeper reason why all converts are referred to as “ben Avraham” and “bat Sarah”.

To summarize and conclude, the issue of spilled seed is indeed a serious one, and should not be taken lightly. There is room to be lenient in certain situations, such as a righteous married couple who already has multiple children, or a young, unmarried gentleman, whose frustration might reach a point where he is led to worse sins. The Sages recognized how incredibly difficult the latter case can be, and stated that a young bachelor who lives in the city and can still hold himself back from sexual sins is so praiseworthy that God personally calls out his name in Heaven every day (Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Chiya, meanwhile, said that it is best to stay married no matter what, and to always treat one’s wife exceedingly well—even if she is the worst possible wife—because wives “save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a). It is fitting to end with another famous adage from the Talmud (Sukkah 52b): אבר קטן יש לו לאדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב “There is a small organ in a man’s body—if he starves it, he is satisfied; if he satisfies it, he starves.”

The Origins of Ashkenazi Jews

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read about how the seventy primary descendants of Noah settled the Earth after the Great Flood. Noah had three sons, and it is often said that they divided the three continents of the Old World amongst them: Yefet (Japheth) got Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham got Africa. This is not exactly accurate.

For one, Canaan is a son of Ham, but did not inhabit Africa, while Nimrod is said to be a son of Cush—also of Ham—yet we know Nimrod ruled Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:10). Another son of Ham is Mitzrayim, which is Egypt, yet Mitzrayim’s own children include Pathrusim and Caphtorim, names generally associated with Greek lands. (There is historical evidence to suggest that the early pre-Greek peoples did come from Egypt.) Yavan, the classic term for Greece, is a son of Yefet. As discussed in the past, Yavan is the same as Ionia, which is the western coast of Turkey, then inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples. (The famous city of Troy was in Ionia, in modern-day Turkey.)

In fact, essentially all of the seventy places inhabited by Noah’s descendants are places in modern Turkey or the Middle East. This makes sense, since the Torah was originally speaking to an audience that was unaware of most of Europe, the Far East, sub-Saharan Africa, and needless to say, the New World. The Torah mentions the origins of those territories that were familiar to the ancient Israelites, and that would have been their immediate neighbours. It also makes sense practically, since Noah got off the Ark in Ararat—somewhere in modern Turkey—and his children and grand-children would have settled lands that weren’t too far away from there.

Mt. Ararat, as seen from Yerevan, Armenia. It isn’t certain whether this Ararat is the Biblical Ararat.

One of Noah’s descendants is named Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3). He is a grandson of Yefet, whose children all seem to have inhabited territories in Asia Minor and Armenia. Ashkenaz, too, is in that vicinity. Even in the time of the prophet Jeremiah centuries later, Ashkenaz was a kingdom in Turkey: “Raise a banner in the land, blow the shofar among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz…” (Jeremiah 51:27) The prophet goes on to call on these and other powers in the area to come upon Babylon. Ashkenaz is one of the Turkish kingdoms bordering Babylon to the north, along with Ararat.

Modern-day villages in Northeastern Turkey. (Credit: theconversation.com)

Amazingly, to this day ethnic Armenians in the region name Ashkenaz as one of their ancestors! This claim is not recent; the fifth-century Armenian scholar Koryun described the Armenians as an Askanazian people. Not surprisingly then, multiple places in Northeastern Turkey today still bear similar-sounding names, including the villages of Iskenaz, Eskenez, and Ashanas.

If Ashkenaz is a place in Turkey, how did it become associated with European Jews? Did Ashkenazi Jews come from Turkey?

Debunking Khazaria

One popular explanation for the Turkey-Ashkenaz connection points to the Kingdom of Khazaria. This was a wealthy and powerful kingdom that ruled the Caucasus, southern Russia, and parts of Turkey and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Historians credit the Khazars with checking the rapid Arab conquest, and preventing a Muslim takeover of Europe from the East. It is said that around 740 CE, King Bulan grew tired of his people’s backwards pagan beliefs and converted to Judaism. According to legend, he had invited representatives of the major faiths to argue their case, and concluded that Judaism was the true faith. (This is the basis of Rabbi Yehuda haLevi’s [c. 1075-1141] famous text, the Kuzari.)

Although Bulan did not impose his new religion on anyone, it is thought that much of his kingdom had become Jewish anyway within about a century. Remarkably, a large reserve of antique Khazar coins was found in Sweden in 1999, bearing the inscription “Moses is the Prophet of God”. (Modeled on, and sometimes just refashioned from, Arab coins saying that “Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”!) Archaeologists have found similar Khazar coins all over the Old World, from England to China, showing the tremendous extent of Khazaria’s wealth and influence.

Khazar coin from c. 837 CE, with the inscription “Moses is the prophet of God”.

Like all kingdoms, Khazaria had an expiration date. It was eventually overrun by the Rus, Mongols, and others. Some say that many Jewish Khazar refugees migrated westward to Europe, and settled in the sparsely populated and resource-rich lands of Germany. Since they had come from a place traditionally known as Ashkenaz, they were labelled “Ashkenazi Jews”. This is a great story, but one that has far too many holes.

From a historical perspective, most scholars reject the Khazar hypothesis simply because there is little evidence that Khazaria experienced a mass conversion to Judaism. It is generally agreed that only a small portion of the Khazar nobility had converted, at best. Khazaria simply attracted many Jews to settle there since it was a rich kingdom with freedom of religion. In that case, any Jewish refugees that might later flee Khazaria to Europe would not be ethnic Khazars anyway.

The Schechter Letter

Then came a huge discovery from the Cairo Geniza. Now known as the Schechter Letter (as it was discovered by Solomon Schechter, 1847-1915), the text is a correspondence between a Khazari Jew and a Sephardi Jew, most likely Hasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915-970 CE). The letter includes a brief history of Khazaria, and states that Khazaria’s Jews originally came from Persia and Armenia, from which they had fled persecution. One of their descendants, named Sabriel, eventually rose to Khazarian nobility, and finally became king. His wife, Serach, convinced him to go public with their Jewish heritage, and they did, inspiring others in the kingdom to convert to their new king’s religion.

The Schechter Letter confirms that the majority of the Jews in Khazaria were not actually Turkic converts but migrants from Persia and Armenia. Shortly after the letter was written, the Khazari Kingdom fell apart in 969 CE. (We know the letter must have been written after 941 CE, since it refers to a battle in that year for which we have other historical records.) The supposed Jewish exodus from Khazaria would have happened in the ensuing decades.

Yet, we read in the commentaries of French-born Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1135) how he learned certain things from his visits to Jewish communities in neighbouring Ashkenaz (see, for example, Ketubot 77a), and that Ashkenaz is undoubtedly German (with Rashi occasionally using German/“Ashkenazi” words, as in Sukkah 17a, for instance). This implies that by Rashi’s time—less than a century after the fall of Khazaria—a geographical region in Western Europe referred to as “Ashkenaz” was already well-known, with Jews there freely conversing in German. It is unlikely that this would happen so soon after the fall of Khazaria; Ashkenaz must have existed long before.

Besides, we know that Jews already lived in Europe at the time of Charlemagne (742-814 CE), who had a good relationship with his Jewish subjects. Charlemagne was born right around the time King Bulan is supposed to have converted to Judaism, and before the rise of Sabriel (whom some identify with Bulan). This alone proves that Jews were already living in Europe long before any Khazari Jews appeared on the scene.

Among the Ashkenazi Jews of the Middle Ages themselves, the tradition was that they had been there since the destruction of the Second Temple. For example, the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327) wrote in one of his response (20, 20) that when he moved to Toledo, Spain:

I would not eat according to [Sefardi] practice, adhering as I do to our own custom and to the tradition of our blessed forefathers, the sages of Ashkenaz, who received the Torah as an inheritance from their ancestors from the days of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise the tradition of our predecessors and teachers in France is superior…

A portrait identified with Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, the “Rosh”

The Rosh speaks of three distinct European Jewish communities: Sefarad, Ashkenaz, and Tzarfat (France). This makes one wonder whether Rashi would have considered himself Ashkenazi (as people typically see him today) or Tzarfati? Rashi was born and died in Troyes, France, though he spent time in Worms and Mainz in Germany, hence the reference above to his having learned things while visiting “Ashkenaz”. This implies that Rashi may not have considered himself Ashkenazi at all. (His father was called Rabbi Itzchak haTzarfati, and though he lived for a time in Worms, probably hailed from Lunel in Southern France.) Whatever the case, we see that the Sefardi, Ashkenazi, and Tzarfati Jewish communities were already firmly entrenched at the time of Khazaria’s fall.

Delving into Ashkenazi Genes

Science can shed further light on Ashkenazi origins. One study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, which is passed strictly from mother to child) found that some 40% of Ashkenazi Jews come from a group of mothers in Europe, possibly converts, approximately 2000 years ago (another related study here). This would have been around the destruction of the Second Temple. We know that many Jews fled Judea (or were expelled) at the time, and settled across the Roman Empire and beyond. Similarly, a study of Y chromosomes (passed strictly from father to son) shows that most Ashkenazi Levites have a common ancestor who lived at least 1500 years ago, most likely in the Middle East or already having migrated to Europe. These scientists conclude that the Khazar hypothesis is “highly unlikely”.

Other genetic studies do appear to show high degrees of relatedness between Turkic and Iranian peoples with Ashkenazi Jews, especially males. Of course, Jews have lived and migrated just about everywhere, and undoubtedly mixed with local populations, while drawing numerous converts. One interesting study found that about 5% of Ashkenazi males are part of the Q3 haplogroup, part of the wider Q group which represents Native Americans and Asians. The researchers concluded that Q3 entered the Jewish gene pool sometime in the 1st millennium. Some say this is due to the Ashina Turks (among the Khazar elite) who converted to Judaism and took Jewish wives. Either way, it is only a tiny minority of Ashkenazis that carry such genes.*

What we see from genetic studies is that most Ashkenazi Jews today descend from ancestors that were already in Europe long before the rise of the Khazars. Historical evidence confirms the existence of widespread Jewish communities in Europe before the time of Khazaria, too. In reality, the Khazar hypothesis keeps being resurrected because it is a convenient tool for anti-Semites to attack modern Jews as “imposters” (meanwhile completely forgetting the other half of the world’s Jews which are not Ashkenazi at all!) or for anti-Zionists to deny a Jewish connection to the land of Israel.

Having said all that, we must still answer the key question: where did the “Ashkenazi” label come from?

Adapting Names

When we look at the seventy “original” nations—descendants of Noah—we find that they represent a very small geographical area. Of the seventy, fourteen come from Yefet and represent Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Aegean islands (Genesis 10:5), nine are Cushites (presumably dark-skinned people), eight of Mitzrayim, twelve are Canaanites, and twenty-six are Middle Eastern, or possibly even just Mesopotamian. As already mentioned, the Torah’s narratives are confined to a narrow geographical space that was relevant to the ancient Israelites.

A “Table of Nations” from the ArtScroll Stone Chumash

When Jews started migrating out of Israel and beyond the Middle East, they needed to come up with names for these new territories they inhabited. So, they adapted the Biblical place-names of locations that no longer existed or whose identity was no longer known. For example, Sefarad became Spain and Tzarfat became France. When scripture speaks of Sefarad or Tzarfat (as in Ovadiah 1:20), it is certainly not speaking of Spain or France! For instance, the prophet Elijah went to Tzarfat, which is described as being next to Sidon (I Kings 17:9). Sidon is, of course, a well-known ancient city, in what is now Lebanon.

For the first Jews who settled in Spain and France, they had migrated the farthest West they could possibly go at the time. For them, these new lands were the most distant from Jerusalem, so they fittingly adapted terms for places described as being exceedingly far from the Holy Land (as in Ovadiah 1:20). They couldn’t use the names of places that were still extant, but only those ancient names that were no longer relevant. In the same fashion they described Germany as “Ashkenaz”, while Bohemia was surprisingly called “Canaan”. Therefore, to say that Ashkenazi Jews are Turkish because Ashkenaz was originally a place in Turkey is like saying French Tzarfati Jews are Lebanese because Tzarfat was originally a place in Lebanon!

It is worth pointing out here that scholars have also recently pinpointed the Biblical Sefarad. There is now strong historical evidence to identify Sefarad with the ancient town of Sardis, also in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), of course. Sardis was known to the Lydians who inhabited it as Sfard, and to the Persians as Saparda. It goes without saying that Sephardic Jewish origins have nothing to do with Turks, as don’t the origins of Lydians (probably the “Ludim” of Genesis 10:13, or the Lud of Genesis 10:22), nor the Yavanim, the Greek Ionians, all of whom inhabited that same area of Asia Minor.

The Tower of Babel

‘Turris Babel’ by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)

After telling us the divisions of the nations in Genesis 10, the Torah goes on to relate the narrative of Migdal Bavel. We are told that the people were all still unified at this point, speaking one tongue. They gathered in Babylon to build a tower to the Heavens, with nefarious intentions. Their plans were thwarted by God, who then scattered the people all over the world and confounded their tongues.

From a mystical perspective, at this point those seventy root nations—which originally inhabited Asia Minor and the Middle East—were spread all around the globe into a multitude of various peoples with new cultures and languages. Thus, all of the world’s thousands of nations and ethnicities, wherever they may be, are spiritually rooted in one of Noah’s seventy descendants.

Consequently, there were those who believed that Ashkenaz was dispersed to Central Europe. What’s amazing is that this was not only a Jewish belief, but a Christian one, too. The evangelical Christian pastor Ray Stedman (1917-1992) wrote:

The oldest son of Gomer was Ashkenaz. He and his descendants first settled around the Black Sea and then moved north into a land which is called Ascenia, and which later became known as the Islands of Scandia, which we now know as Scandinavia. You can trace a direct link between Ashkenaz and Scandinavia.

Basing himself on earlier sources, he lists Ashkenaz as referring to all Saxons, Scandinavians, and Germanic tribes. This argument was made at least as far back as the 4th century (long before the Khazars appeared on the scene), in Eusebius’ Historia Eccliesiastica, where Ashkenaz is Scanzia, another name for Scandinavia and/or Saxony.

Around that same time, the Talmud (Yoma 10a) identifies Gomer (the father of Ashkenaz) with Germamia. While this Germamia is possibly referring to Cimmeria, or Germanikia in Syria—which would have been more familiar to the Babylonian Sages living in the Persian Empire—it is very likely that Jews who settled in Germany would see Germamia as referring to their new land. Combined with the alliteration between “Ashkenaz” and “Saxony”/“Scanzia”, we can understand why the Jews that settled in Germany adapted the name Ashkenaz.

As an intriguing aside, the Talmud cited above holds that Yefet is a forefather of the Persians, too. The Talmud reads: “How do we know that the Persians are derived from Yefet? Because it is written: ‘The sons of Yefet: Gomer, and Magog…’” The Sages seem to connect Magog with the Persians. That might make alarm bells go off in the heads of modern readers who see Iran as playing a central role in an End of Days Gog u’Magog scenario.

To conclude, the hypothesis that Ashkenazi Jews originate among Turkish converts is completely false. While some Turkish converts certainly joined the Jewish nation in the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Judaism predates this phenomenon by centuries. Both historical evidence and genetic analyses confirm a European Jewish presence as far back as 2000 years ago.


*Shortly after publishing this article, Kevin Brook pointed out the following to me, from his book The Jews of Khazaria (pg. 204):

Some researchers thought it was possible that these could have been inherited from the Khazars, but this idea is no longer viable. Ashkenazim belong to the Q haplogroups that were later precisely identified as Q-Y2200 (Q1b1a1a1a) and Q-YP1035 (Q1b1a1a1a2a2). On the Y chromosome tree, Q-Y2200’s parent haplogroup Q-Y2225 (Q1b1a1a1) was found in an Italian sample from Sicily, and geneticists determined that QY2225’s distant ancestors had apparently lived in the Middle East. The Ashkenazic branches of Q are very different from Q1a1b-M25 and Q1a2-M346, which are common among Turkic-speaking peoples, and the common ancestor between them all lived many thousands of years ago, far in advance of Khazaria’s existence.