Monday evening is the start of Lag b’Omer. This special day commemorates a number of important events in the history of the Jewish people. One of these is the revelation of Jewish mystical teachings (Kabbalah) by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Recall that Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students during the days of the Omer, then managed to instruct five new students before being executed by the Romans. Those five students—Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi)—transmitted the bulk of the teachings in the Mishnah. In other words, it is these five rabbis that kept the Oral Torah alive. Of the five, Rashbi is by far the most famous, and the only one that has a holiday in his honour. What was it that made him so special, and distinguished him from the others? Continue reading
In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of God’s covenant with Abraham, which was sealed with a circumcision. For centuries, the most important honour given at a traditional brit milah is the role of sandak, or sandek, the person who holds the child during the circumcision. While everyone knows what a sandak is, few actually know what a sandak is! Where did this role come from? What does it mean? And what is the deeper spiritual significance behind it?
In this week’s parasha, Devarim, Moses recounts the journeys and battles of the Israelites and mentions a number of mysterious peoples:
The Emim dwelled there previously, a great and numerous and tall people, like the Anakim. They are also considered Rephaim, like the Anakim, and the Moabites called them Emim… Rephaim dwelled there formerly, and the Ammonites called them Zamzumim. A great and numerous and tall people, like the Anakim, but God exterminated them… For only Og, the king of Bashan, was left from the remnant of the Rephaim. His bed was a bed of iron… nine cubits was its length and four cubits its width… (Deuteronomy 2:10-11, 20-21, 3:11)
Moses is apparently describing a race of giants, “great and tall”, of whom only one remained—Og (of whom we’re written in the past)—whose bed was nine cubits long, or approximately 18 feet! Who were these Rephaim, and how are they different from Anakim? What do they have to do with the Nephilim of Genesis, who are also thought to be giants?