Tag Archives: Hebrew Calendar

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

This Sunday night we celebrate Shavuot, staying up all night learning Torah and showing our devotion to God’s Word. Previously, we traced the origins of this custom to the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century, based on the teachings of the Zohar that date back to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century CE. However, there is actually one more historical mention for a tikkun leil Shavuot, of sorts, that predates Tzfat, the Zohar, and even Rashbi. The first-century Jewish sage and philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE), describes a ritual where certain Jews would stay up all night on Shavuot:

And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night; and this nocturnal festival is celebrated in the following manner: they all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, the one of men and the other of women, and for each chorus there is a leader and chief selected, who is the most honourable and most excellent of the band. Then they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of God in many metres and tunes, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony and, uttering in an inspired manner, songs of thanksgiving…

The ideas were beautiful, the expressions beautiful, and the chorus-singers were beautiful; and the end of ideas, and expressions, and chorus-singers was piety; therefore, being intoxicated all night till the morning with this beautiful intoxication, without feeling their heads heavy or closing their eyes for sleep, but being even more awake than when they came to the feast, as to their eyes and their whole bodies, and standing there till morning, when they saw the sun rising they raised their hands to heaven, imploring tranquillity and truth, and acuteness of understanding. (On the Contemplative Life, XI, 83-89)

Philo calls this sect of Jews the Essenes, or the Therapeutae, the “Healers”. They have become more well-known in recent decades because of their association with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Who were the Essenes? What did they believe? Why did they stay up all night on Shavuot? And how did they come to influence Kabbalah and other mystical movements? Continue reading

Secrets of God’s Ineffable Name

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

An Eye-Opening History of the Sanhedrin

This week’s parasha begins with the command to appoint shoftim v’shotrim, “judges and officers” who will enforce the law. The Torah warns that judges must not pervert justice, show favouritism, or accept bribes (Deuteronomy 16:19). If there is some kind of civil dispute, the Torah instructs the nation to turn to the “kohanim, Levites, and judges who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgement.” (Deuteronomy 17:9) From this the Sages derive that the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jewish people, must contain a mix of all three types of Jews: kohanim, levi’im, and Israel. What exactly is the Sanhedrin? When did it emerge, and why is it referred to by a Greek word? Continue reading