Tag Archives: Circumcision

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

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

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

The Torah’s Eternal Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minimal Torah

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A Mystical Look at Pregnancy and Abortion

Tazria begins by stating that a woman who gives birth to a son is spiritually impure for seven days, and requires another 33 days of purification afterwards. If she gives birth to a female, the impurity lasts fourteen days, followed by 66 days of purification.

The Zohar (III, 43b) comments on this section by first reminding us that each soul has male and female halves, and when the soul enters this world, it splits and enters two different bodies, male and female. If the two soulmates merit it, they will find each other and reunite. We are then told that the female part of the soul is larger and more powerful, which is why a woman who gives birth to a female needs double the purification time.

The Zohar explains why the Torah prescribes these specific time periods: 7 and 33 days for boys; 14 and 66 days for girls. It states that at birth, the soul first enters the body and is in complete disarray. For the first seven days, the unsettled soul “roams the body to find its place”. On the eighth day, the soul is finally getting comfortable in its new home. This is one reason why circumcision is done on the eighth day, once the soul is no longer distressed. The soul then needs an additional 33 days to acclimatize to its new environment until it has completely settled into the body. For the greater female souls, the time periods are doubled.

Note how these time periods are referring to the soul of the newborn, yet it is the mother that is described as being “impure”. This is because the mother carried the child, and its soul was housed within her temporarily. (Perhaps this extra soul is responsible for the well-known “pregnancy glow”.) Once the baby is born, its soul leaves the mother’s shelter and is now independent in the baby’s body. (And that pregnancy glow is gone!) The sudden loss of spiritual energy is difficult on the mother as well, and she requires forty (or eighty) days to get back to herself.

A major question arises here: if the soul only enters the newborn at birth, why is abortion forbidden? Religious groups of various faiths have argued for centuries on when exactly the soul enters the body, and many have taken the stance that a fetus already carries a soul, making abortion indistinguishable from murder. What do Jewish texts say?

Abortion and Gestation in the Talmud

In one passage, the Talmud includes abortion under the category of murder. However, it also famously states that if the mother’s life is at risk—at any point in the pregnancy—the fetus must be removed, “limb by limb” if necessary. In such cases, the fetus is seen as a rodef, a “pursuer”, referring to the Torah law that if one is “pursuing” another to kill them, it is permitted to kill the pursuer first. The Talmud concludes that a fetus can be aborted at any point until its head has emerged. Once the head has emerged, the newborn is considered completely alive, and in cases of life-risk, it is no longer clear who the “pursuer” is. The Sages suggest that the soul fully enters the newborn only at birth, and it is only then that the newborn is a complete person.

Three-month old fetus (Courtesy: BabyCentre)

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Niddah 8b), we are told that the fetus already resembles a person at the three-month mark. We now know that it is precisely around this point that the developing baby has the features of a human (and is no longer called an “embryo”, but a “fetus”). The Talmud adds (Berakhot 60a) that until this three-month mark, a person should pray every day that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. After three months, a person should pray that the fetus will not be stillborn, and after six months, a person should pray that the mother has an easy delivery. We are told that one should pray for the baby’s desired gender only before the 40-day mark. This, too, shows incredible wisdom on the part of our Sages. Today we know scientifically that the sex organs begin their development around day 42. The ancient rabbis knew that after day 40, gender development is already in progress, and there is no point praying for something different.

In a related passage, we are told that until day 40, the fetus is insignificant and more lifeless than living (Yevamot 69b). Today we know that the neural tube which will make the brain forms around day 40, and this is when the first neurons start signalling. Scientifically speaking, there could be no talk of any kind of consciousness or brain activity before day 40.

Because of this, most rabbinic authorities are far more lenient when it comes to abortions before the 40th day of pregnancy. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940), who was widely recognized as the greatest posek of his generation, even suggested that abortions before the 40th day are not Biblically prohibited (Achiezer, III, 65:14). Nevertheless, even before the 40th day there is a potential to produce a living human being, and life is valued above all else, which is why abortions are still forbidden except for cases of absolute necessity.

By the 20-week mark (midway through pregnancy), fetuses are seen rolling around, sucking their thumbs, and responding to the prodding of the ultrasound. There is no doubt that the fetus is alive and aware at this point, and any abortion other than a life risk is hardly distinguishable from murder.

Soul Infusion

The fact that the fetus is aware by the 20-week mark (if not sooner) suggests that it does indeed have some level of soul. Yet, earlier we saw sources seemingly propose that the soul does not enter until birth. How do we reconcile these apparent contradictions?

To answer this question it is important to keep in mind that the soul is not one uniform entity. Rather, the soul is composed of multiple layers, each made up of countless sparks. The lowest level of soul is called nefesh, the basic life essence. Above that is the ruach, “spirit”, an animating force that, among other things, gives a person their drives and inclinations. Then comes the neshamah, a higher level of consciousness and the part that gives one their unique traits and qualities. Further still is the chayah, the aura that emanates from the body, followed by the loftiest level, the yechidah, which may be described as a spiritual umbilical cord between each soul and its Creator.

The Arizal taught that ever-higher levels of soul are accessed gradually over the course of one’s life. At birth, a person has only a complete nefesh. As they grow, they are infused with ruach, which becomes fully accessible at bar or bat mitzvah age. At this point one starts to tap into their neshamah, which is wholly available only at age 20. (For this reason, the Torah considers an adult one who is over 20 years of age. Only those over 20 were counted in the census and allowed to join the military. Our Sages state that although one may be judged for their crimes before age 20 here on Earth, only those sins accrued after age 20 are judged in Heaven. Meanwhile, the Midrash notes that Adam and Eve were created as 20 year olds.) The Arizal taught that most people never end up accessing their entire neshamah, and only the most refined individuals ever unlock their chayah and yechidah.

Based on this model, we see that right from conception the developing embryo is steadily infused with nefesh, the basic life force. By day 40, there is enough nefesh for the embryo to be considered alive. In fact, it is said that this is why the gematria of אם, “mother”, is 41, since a woman becomes a mother on the 41st day of pregnancy.

Once its entire nefesh has been infused, the baby is ready to be born. At birth, it begins to receive its next soul level, the ruach. A careful look at the Zohar passage with which we started reveals that this is precisely what the Zohar meant, as it explicitly mentions the ruach entering at birth, requiring forty days to fully settle in. Therefore, a developing fetus does indeed have a soul, which is why abortion is so highly discouraged—reserved only for true medical cases—and why it has been compared to murder.

Solving a Scientific Mystery

The above also answers a mystery that has been perplexing biologists for decades: what is it that drives an embryo to grow? Why do the cells multiply, and how do they know to differentiate? Each cell is exactly the same, with the exact same set of DNA, yet one clump of cells knows to form the eyes while another knows to form the liver, and so on. Scientists have still not been able to figure out how the embryo “knows” what to do. (For that matter, we can’t figure out how any cell really “knows” what to do.)

The Kabbalists have an answer: it is the steady infusion of soul that drives a mass of undifferentiated cells to do what it needs to. It is the soul that gives the instructions for how the DNA is to be transcribed and translated in each cell, and how the cells are to interact with one another. As the soul grows, so too does the body. It is therefore not surprising that around the age when most people’s bodies stop growing, their souls tend to stop “growing” as well.

This should remind us that our education does not end with formal schooling, nor does maturing stop with the end of puberty. The process of growth and refinement, both physical and spiritual, must continue throughout life. This is the key to true self-fulfillment and happiness.

The Flood, the Tower, and Egypt: Why Did the Israelites Have to be Enslaved?

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, which continues the narrative of Joseph’s meteoric rise to power in Egypt. Two years after Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of his co-prisoners, the Pharaoh’s servants, he is summoned to interpret the bizarre dream of Pharaoh himself. Contrary to popular belief, it was not that Joseph was the only one who had an interpretation at all. The Pharaoh had his own soothsayers, priests, and interpreters. Rather, Joseph’s dream was the only one that came with a plan of action. Impressed, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to put his plan in motion. And Joseph did not disappoint.

After seven years of bountiful harvests, the seven years of famine began. The people quickly ran out of food. (Rashi comments here that although all of Egypt knew that a famine would come, and the whole population stored food for themselves, they found that what they had stored had rotted away.) Thankfully, Joseph had stored plenty of provisions in the royal granaries. The populace “cried out to Pharaoh” for bread, and Pharaoh told them: “Go to Joseph, and do what he tells you.” Rashi quotes a famous Midrash that says Joseph decreed that anyone wanting to receive food must first be circumcised!

Carved Circumcision Scene from a Temple in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 BCE (Credit: Lasse Jansen)

Carved circumcision scene from a temple in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 BCE (Credit: Lasse Jansen)

Amazingly, archaeological evidence shows that circumcision was, in fact, common during Egypt’s 18th dynasty (1543-1292 BCE), which is when these events of the Torah would have taken place. Last year, we wrote of the archaeological evidence corroborating the story of Joseph through the historical figure of Yuya. Yuya also lived during the 18th dynasty, around the time of the carved scene depicted here.

History aside, the big question is: why would Joseph want the Egyptians circumcised?

Adam, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel

The bulk of the Arizal’s commentary on this parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim) is dedicated to the above question. He presents an incredible answer, and starts with the following:

“Those 130 years before Moses was born were in order to bring down the sparks of the holy souls that were released by Adam, the first man, through his wasted seed during his first 130 years.”

Biblical chronology shows us that the Israelites spent a total of 210 years in Egypt. The Torah also tells us that Moses was around 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. That means he was born 130 years after the Israelite immigration to Egypt. At the same time, the Torah tells us that Adam had his third son, Shet (or Seth, in English), when he was 130 years old.

Many Jewish texts suggest that after Cain had tragically killed Abel, Adam decided not to have any more children. After 130 years, he was rebuked by the wives of Lemech for separating from Eve, and immediately realized his faulty ways. At that point, Adam and Eve had Seth. However, during those 130 years apart, it is said that Adam had wasted his seed. Since the seed contains the potential for life, when it emerges it produces a soul. However, these souls that Adam created over the 130 years had no body to inhabit. Where did they go? The Arizal continues:

“First, [the souls] came into the bodies of the people of the Flood generation, who also wasted their seed… so they were reincarnated once more in the generation of the Dispersion.”

The damaged souls that Adam had created came down into this world into the bodies of the pre-Flood generation. It was incumbent upon them to perform a tikkun, a correction for their souls, accomplished through meritorious deeds and mitzvot. Unfortunately, the damaged souls were drawn to evil, and themselves became very licentious. They perished in the Great Flood, and were reincarnated into the next generation. However, that generation also went waywardly, and built the infamous Tower of Babel.

“Now, they reincarnated once more into those Egyptians. Joseph knew through Ruach HaKodesh [Divine Inspiration] that they possessed those souls from the wasted seed, and therefore decreed circumcision upon them, to begin the repair of their soul roots.”

Kabbalistically, circumcision is meant to be a reparation for sexual sins. Even on the simplest of levels, a man’s circumcision is supposed to constantly remind him that sex is not to be abused or misused. A man is supposed to be in control of his sexual urges, and channel them only for holy purposes: building a loving relationship with one’s spouse, as well as establishing a proper, righteous family. More spiritually, the act of circumcision creates a metaphysical imprint that is meant to repair sins of a sexual nature, not only for the individual, but also on a more elevated, cosmic level.

“…After they were circumcised, their process of tikkun had begun, and they were then reincarnated into the generation of Israelites during those 130 years [in Egypt, before Moses was born]. And they were forced into difficult labour to purify them, especially to correct the sin of the Tower generation, who also built with bricks and mortar.”

The Egyptians that Joseph had commanded to be circumcised ended up reincarnating as the Israelite slaves. It was decreed upon them from Heaven that they should work hard in servitude as a means of spiritual purification. The mechanism of servitude – construction of buildings through brick and mortar – was meant to be a measure for measure retribution: just as they had built the Tower of Babel for evil means, they were now building in order to reverse their previously sinful ways.

Once their purification was complete, these souls were ready for redemption, and thus Moses was born, precisely 130 years into the timeline, just as Adam had initially created those souls over a 130 year period. It is also interesting to point out that the physical father of all these Israelite souls was Jacob, who came to Egypt when he was 130 years old (as we read next week in Genesis 47:9).

The Arizal thus gives us a profound answer, and not only to the question of why Joseph had the Egyptians circumcised. This short passage also explains why the Flood and Tower generations were particularly drawn to evil, why the Israelites had to be enslaved (since God does not decree any undeserved suffering upon anyone), and why Moses was born exactly when he was.

Ultimately, it is said that the generation of Mashiach will be a rerun of the generation of Moses. It is therefore not surprising that the world today is once again mired in sexual immorality and licentious behaviour. May God give us the strength to overcome all those challenges, and merit to see the coming redemption soon.

 

Monkeys, Circumcision, and God’s Covenant

This week’s Torah reading is Lech Lecha, which begins the narrative of Abraham, the first of the forefathers of the Jewish people. In the past, we have written about what it was that made Abraham so special, and why he merited to become the primary forefather of God’s chosen people. It is at the end of this week’s reading that God makes an eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants:

Abraham Journeying to the Land of Canaan, by Gustav Doré

Abraham Journeying to the Land of Canaan, by Gustav Doré

“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, throughout their generations, an everlasting covenant… And this is My covenant which you shall observe, between Me and you, and between your descendants after you, that every male be circumcised… at the age of eight days every male shall be circumcised throughout the generations…” (Genesis 17:7-12)

God makes a pact with Abraham that reads something like this: Abraham and his descendants take upon themselves the task of observing God’s commandments in order to repair a once-perfect world, and to spread knowledge of Godliness, righteousness, and morality; to be a “light unto the nations”. In return, God promises Abraham constant blessing and protection, as well as the rights to the beautiful, holy land of Israel.

As a sign of this eternal covenant, God requests that Abraham and all of his heirs be circumcised. The reasons for this are numerous and carry a profound meaning. One of these reasons is to serve as a constant reminder to men – who are naturally very prone to sexual immorality and licentiousness – the true purpose of sexual intimacy and reproduction. A deeper reason is that originally, God had created man without the foreskin. As a result of Adam’s consumption of the Fruit, and the subsequent exile from Eden, the foreskin grew out as a mark of imperfection. As always, the physical world is only a reflection of the spiritual, and just as man’s spiritual composition was tainted, so too was man’s physical composition.

Indeed, from a biological perspective, the foreskin serves no significant purpose. Although many hypotheses have been proposed for why it may exist, none have been corroborated. Moreover, it is well-known that circumcision reduces the risk and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. (Despite the objections of many in recent years who claim that circumcision does not reduce risk of STDs, recent studies do in fact show a clear advantage. Click here to read more.)

Finally, it is interesting to note that the animal world is devoid of foreskins. (Many animals do have a ‘penile sheath’ which is often mistaken for a foreskin.) However, there is one family of mammals that do exhibit a foreskin quite similar to that of humans: primates.

Ape, Humans, and Opposable Thumbs

Although the religious community and the scientific community are frequently at odds with one another when it comes to evolution, both sides agree on one thing: humans and apes share a very special bond. From a scientific perspective, humans and apes share over 95% of our genes, as well as a very recent common ancestor. It is important to note that this does not mean, as many wrongly believe, that “humans came from monkeys”. Humans did not come from monkeys, nor any other apes that exist in the world today. What science suggests is that humans and apes descended from a common ancestor. (So, apes would be more like our biological cousins, and not our “grandparents” as many wrongly assume).

What may surprise a lot of people is that traditional Jewish holy texts say something similar. Judaism divides all created things into four categories: domem, inanimate matter; tzameach, plant life; chai, animal life; and medaber, speaking beings. Humans alone are in the category of medaber, while all animals are in that of chai. The apes, however, are an exception, as they are considered neither chai, nor medaber, but something in between! (A discussion of this can be found in Sha’ar HaMitzvot, on parashat Ekev.)

The Opposable Thumb: essential for fine dexterity, grasping, and making tools.

The Opposable Thumb: essential for fine dexterity, grasping, and making tools.

The great apes are unique in that they, too, are very intelligent, can make tools, and even have opposable thumbs. The opposable thumb is a defining feature, and often said to distinguish humans and apes from the rest of the animal world. Incredibly, nearly 500 years ago the Arizal wrote of the opposable thumb’s spiritual significance, and described it as an appendage that stems from, and symbolizes, the sefirah of Binah, literally “understanding” and intelligence (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 36).

So, both Torah and science agree that apes are unique and human-like. What exactly is their spiritual significance?

Stop Monkeying Around

Although apes are very similar to humans from a physical standpoint, when it comes to spirituality we inhabit totally opposite spheres. Though apes can communicate, humans alone possess verbal language. Although they can also make rudimentary tools, humans alone have the ability to create, construct, and build civilizations. Whereas apes are known for their sexual promiscuity and polyamorous relationships, humans are meant to be monogamous and loving. Whereas apes are wild, instinctual, and prone to petty violence, humans are meant to be cultured, restrained, and peaceful. In short, apes symbolize the worst of what it means to be human. Those humans that are promiscuous, violent, and animalistic essentially fall to the level of an ape.

In an intriguing passage, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109a) tells us what happened to those people that built the Tower of Babel. Those that built it with the intention of dwelling in the Heavens were scattered around the Earth. Those that built it simply for idolatrous purposes had their language confounded. Finally, those that built it in order to wage war, to gain more power and material gain, were turned into apes – an appropriate measure-for-measure punishment.

It is therefore not surprising that of all animals, only apes and humans share the trait of foreskin. Apes represent the very spiritual imperfection that humans aim to repair. And of course, while apes are powerless to do anything about it, humans alone have the ability to remove their foreskins. Humans have the power to repair their imperfections, to restore their divine image, and to return to a perfect state of Eden, as God had originally intended.

The Amazing Story of Og, the Giant King of Bashan

Devarim, or Deuteronomy in English, is the fifth and final book of the Torah. Deuteronomy comes from the Greek deuteronomion, meaning “second law”, which itself comes from the alternate Hebrew name of the book, Mishneh Torah, meaning “repetition of the law”. The name stems from the fact that Deuteronomy is essentially a summary of the four previous books of the Torah. The key difference is that it is given in the point of view of Moses, and records his final sermon to the people before his death.

One of the enigmatic figures mentioned in this week’s parasha is Og, the king of the land of Bashan. This character is explicitly mentioned a total of 10 times in the Torah, of which 8 are in this portion alone. He is first mentioned in the introductory verses of the parasha (1:4), which state how Moses began his discourse after smiting Sihon, the king of the Amorites, and Og, the king of Bashan.

Og’s Bed, by Johann Balthasar Probst (1770)

We are later told how Og had come out to confront the children of Israel, and the Israelites defeated his army in battle. Og is said to be the last survivor of the Rephaim (3:11), which were apparently a nation of giants. His bed is described as being made of iron, and being nine cubits long, or roughly 18 feet!

Rashi provides a little more information. He tells us that Og was the last survivor of the Rephaim in the time of Abraham. It was then that the king Amraphel, together with his allies, dominated the Fertile Crescent region, and decimated many nations that inhabited it. One of these groups of victims were the Rephaim, and Og was the sole survivor among them. He was the “refugee” mentioned in Genesis 14:13 that came to Abraham to inform him of what had happened.

So, who was Og? Where did he come from? Why did he initially help Abraham, but then come out to battle Moses centuries later? And was he really a giant?

Half Man, Half Angel

The Talmud (Niddah 61a) tells us that Og was the grandson of Shemhazai. As we have written previously, Shemhazai was one of the two rebellious angels that had descended to Earth. These two angels argued before God that He should not have created man, who was so faulty and pathetic. God told the angels that had they been on Earth, and given the same challenges that man faced, they would be even worse.

The angels wanted to be tested anyway, and were thus brought down into Earthly bodies. Of course, just as God had said, they quickly fell into sin. This is what is meant by Genesis 6:2, which describes divine beings mating with human women. Their offspring, initially called Nephilim, were large and powerful, and were seen as “giants” by common people. However, during the Great Flood of Noah, all of these semi-angelic beings perished. Except for one.

The Sole Survivor

Midrashic texts famously record that Og was the only survivor of the Great Flood, aside from Noah and his family. When the torrential rains began, Og jumped onto the Ark and held on tightly (Zevachim 113b). He swore to Noah that he would be his family’s eternal servant if Noah would allow him into the Ark (Yalkut Shimoni, Noach 55). The Talmud (ibid.) states that the rain waters of the Flood were actually boiling hot. Yet, the rain that fell upon Og while he held unto the Ark was miraculously cool, allowing him to survive. Perhaps Noah saw that Og had some sort of merit (after all, his grandfather was the one angel that repented). Noah therefore had mercy on Og, and made a special niche for Og in the Ark. This is how the giant survived the Flood.

A variant account suggests that Og survived by fleeing to Israel, since the Holy Land was the only place on Earth which was not flooded.

Abraham’s Servant

As promised, Og became the servant of Noah and his descendants. The Zohar (III, 184a) says that he served Abraham as well, and as part of his household, was also circumcised. As Rashi says (on Genesis 14:13), Og informed Abraham that his nephew Lot was kidnapped, and that the armies of Amraphel and his allies were terrorizing the region. Rashi quotes the Midrash in telling us that Og hoped Abraham would go into battle and perish, so that Og would be able to marry the beautiful Sarah. For informing Abraham, Og was blessed with wealth and longevity, but for his impure intentions, he was destined to die at the hands of Abraham’s descendents (Beresheet Rabbah 42:12).

Whatever the case, the giant soon fell into immorality. The Zohar continues that although he had initially taken the Covenant upon himself (by way of the circumcision), he had later broken that very same Covenant by his licentious behaviour. He used his physical abilities to become king over 60 large, fortified cities (Deuteronomy 3:4). When the nation of Israel passed by his territory, he gathered his armies to attack them.

It is said that Moses feared Og for a number of reasons: Og had lived for centuries, and was also circumcised, so Moses figured the giant had a great deal of merit. God told Moses not to worry, and gave Moses the strength to slay Og himself. As the famous story goes, Moses used a large ten-cubit (roughly 20 foot) weapon to jump ten cubits high in the air—and was only able to strike Og’s ankle! Still, it caused Og to trip over and be impaled by a mountain peak. (On that note, there is a little-known Midrash which states Og survived the Flood simply because he was so large, and the floodwaters only reached up to his ankles! See Midrash Petirat Moshe, 1:128)

It is important to remember once more the old adage that one who believes that the Midrash is false is a heretic, yet one who believes that the Midrash is literally true is a fool. It is highly unlikely that Og was actually so immense (especially considering that this would make him bigger than the dimensions of Noah’s Ark). The Torah tells us his bed was nine cubits long, which the most conservative opinions estimate to be closer to 13 feet, a far more reasonable number.

There are many more colourful stories about Og, including one where a Talmudic sage found his thigh bone and ran through it (Niddah 24b). Another suggests that Og is actually Eliezer, Abraham’s trusty servant (Yalkut Shimoni, Chayei Sarah 109). This is an intriguing possibility, and might help explain how Abraham and Eliezer alone were able to defeat the conglomeration of four massive armies (See Genesis 14, with Rashi).

Archaeologists have even found mention of Og in ancient Phoenician and Ugaritic texts. One clay tablet from the 13th century BCE (Ugarit KTU 1.108) is believed to be referring to him as Rapiu, or the last of the Rephaim—as the Torah states. It suggests that Og’s grandeur got the better of him, and he began to consider himself a god among puny men:

May Rapiu, King of Eternity, drink [w]ine, yea, may he drink, the powerful and noble [god], the god enthroned in Ashtarat, the god who rules in Edrei, whom men hymn and honour with music on the lyre and the flute, on drum and cymbals, with castanets of ivory, among the goodly companions of Kothar…

Perhaps this hubris was Og’s fatal flaw, and brought about his ultimate downfall.

Dolmen (courtesy of www.museodeidolmen.it)

Dolmen (courtesy of www.museodeidolmen.it)

Interestingly, there are also a number of dolmen found in the modern-day area that would have been Bashan. These dolmen are massive stone structures that were erected millennia ago, with some rocks weighing many tons and perplexing scholars as to how they were put together. It is thought that dolmen served as burial tombs, and perhaps have a connection to the tradition of giants living in the Bashan area.