At the end of this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we read how Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with his face glowing brilliantly (Exodus 34:29-30). The people could not look at his face directly, so he had to wear a mask. The exact wording in the Torah is karan ‘or panav (קָרַ֖ן ע֣וֹר פָּנָ֑יו). The latter two words are clear: “the skin of his face”. But what does karan mean? The most direct translation would be “horn” which is actually why, comically, throughout history some artists depicted Moses with horns! Another way of translating it is as “radiant” (based on this, the Modern Hebrew term for a ray or radiation is k’rinah, קרינה). Rashi comments that both are accurate; karan does indeed come from the word for “horn” because light rays shoot forth like “horns”. If we take a look at Midrash (with a little help from science), we will find that the Torah is secretly encoding something much more profound. Continue reading
In this week’s parasha, Shemot, God first reveals Himself to Moses. He introduces Himself thus: “I am the God of your forefathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6) Later on in the conversation, Moses asks God how he should tell the Children of Israel about God, and what name should he use in referring to God? God replies that He is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I will be what I will be”. The simple meaning here is that God is trying to convey that He is not some idol or pagan deity. He has no shape or form; he has no location. He is everywhere and imbues everything. He is everything. He will be whatever He needs to be; wherever, whenever. Only after that introduction, God says:
Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: YHWH, the God of your fathers; the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all generations. (Exodus 3:15)
God reveals His eternal name: YHWH (יהוה), a term so holy and powerful it is not uttered. It is referred to as God’s “Ineffable” Name, or just the Tetragrammaton (literally the “four-letter” name), and by Jews as Hashem (“The Name”), or Adonai (“My Lord”) in prayers or Torah readings. Some Jews refer to it by rearranging the letters and saying Havaya. (Some non-Jews have transliterated it into English as “Jehovah”.) Whatever the appellation, this name of God carries infinite depths of meaning. Several of these will be explored below. Continue reading
The Haftarah of this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, ends with these words (Ovadiah 1:20-21):
And this exiled host of the children of Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as Tzarfat, and the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad shall inherit the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
This verse happens to be the origin of the term “Sephardic Jew”. By the 13th century, Jews on the European continent were divided into four groups: the Ashkenazis were those in the Germanic lands, the Sephardis in the Iberian Peninsula, the Tzarfatis in France, and the “Canaanites” in Bohemia and Moravia (roughly what is today the Czech Republic). Those last two groups have been forgotten in our days. Yet, Jewish texts from that era make it clear that Tzarfati Jews were once a distinct category, as were the Canaani Jews (which in some texts appear to refer to those Jews living in all Slavic lands). These divisions were based on the verse above from this week’s Haftarah, which describes the Jewish people exiled as far as Tzarfat and Sepharad, and dwelling among distant Canaanites. (It is important to remember that in the Tanakh the word “Canaan” does not always refer to the ethnic Canaanites, but can also mean “merchant” more generally.)
Today, the Jewish world is often divided more simply among Ashkenazi and Sephardi lines. Having discussed the origins of Ashkenazi Jews in the past, we now turn to the Sephardis. However, I don’t want to focus here on the history of Sephardic Jewry. (In short: Jews arrived in Iberia at least as far back as Roman times, and began to migrate on mass after the Muslim conquest in 711.) The big question is: what makes a person “Sephardi” today, considering that Spain expelled all of its Jews in 1492—and didn’t officially rescind that decree until 1968!