Tag Archives: Hebrew

The Secret Behind Wearing Masks and Getting Drunk

This Wednesday evening marks the start of the festive holiday of Purim. There are four central mitzvot to be done on Purim: listening to the reading of Megillat Esther, sending gifts of food to one’s fellow, giving charity to two or more people in need, and enjoying a holiday feast. In addition to these, there are two well-known and widespread Purim customs: dressing up in costumes, and getting inebriated. Although these two customs are unfortunately sometimes taken to improper extremes, the meanings behind them are quite profound.

Searching For Yourself

1882 Lithograph of ‘The Disgrace of Vashti’

The practice of wearing costumes comes from the Megillah itself. One of the major themes of the Purim story is the characters “dressing up”. First there’s Vashti, who is asked by her husband to get dressed up in her royal garments and present herself before all of his guests (Esther 1:11-12). She refuses to do this, thereby losing her queenship. A search for a new queen begins, and the winner is a modest Jewish girl who has no interest in being a royal. The humble Hadassah is dressed up and transformed into the Persian Queen Esther. (Ironically, while “Esther” is a very common Jewish name today, Esther’s own Jewish name was Hadassah; “Esther” was her non-Jewish name, from the very non-Jewish idol Astarte, or Ishtar. Of course, Esther does have a Hebrew root as well, meaning “hidden”, which fits neatly into the Purim story.)

There is more dress up to follow: Haman wishes to be dressed up in the king’s robes and, in another bit of irony, it is Mordechai who ends up being costumed as king (Esther 6:6-11). The Talmud (Megillah 12a) adds that King Ahashverosh came to his banquet dressed up in the special garments of the kohen gadol, the Jewish high priest. Some are of the opinion that the reason he held the banquet in the first place was to mark the end of the prophesied 70-year exile of the Jewish people, which he miscalculated. With the Jews remaining in exile as his subjects, he felt a victory banquet was in order. Dressing up as the kohen gadol was meant to symbolize the end of Jewish hopes of returning to their Promised Land and rebuilding their Temple, with Ahashverosh himself now being their “high priest”.

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624). Historical records from Ancient Persia show that there was indeed a courtier to the Persian king in Shushan (Susa) named Marduka. It looks like he was originally the king’s accountant.

So, wearing costumes is a major Purim theme right from the Megillah. And the Megillah is full of many more hidden identities. The Talmud (Megillah 12b) reveals that Memuchan (Esther 1:16), the advisor who instructs King Ahashverosh to get rid of Vashti, is the same person as Haman. Meanwhile, Hatach (4:5), Esther’s trusted attendant, is one and the same as the prophet Daniel (Megillah 15a). The Talmud also brings an opinion that Mordechai was really the prophet Malachi. (“Mordechai”, too, appears to be his non-Jewish name, based on the name of the supreme Babylonian deity, Marduk.)

Therefore, the custom of getting dressed up and taking on a different identity is very much in the spirit of Purim. In ancient times, Purim was more specifically celebrated with a masquerade. Why wear a mask? Why hide who we really are? The truth is, we don’t just get “dressed up” on Purim. Each of us puts on a metaphysical mask every day of our lives, and we wear different masks in different settings. There is the mask that we wear at work, and the one that we have in front of our kids, and a different mask entirely when we’re out with friends. When can we really be ourselves?

In yet another irony (irony is a major theme of Purim, too), we only get the chance to truly be ourselves when we hide behind a mask! It is behind a mask—when no one can recognize us—that we finally feel free to let go and be ourselves. This is hinted to in the Hebrew word for getting costumed up, l’hitchapes (להתחפש).

In Hebrew, a verb that begins with the prefix l’hit (להת) is reflexive, ie. something that you do to yourself. For example, lirchotz (לרחוץ) is to wash something, while l’hitrachetz (להתרחץ) is to wash one’s self. To dress a child is lehalbish (להלביש), while to get yourself dressed is l’hitlabesh (להתלבש). The verb for putting on a costume, l’hitchapes (להתחפש), is reflexive. What does it mean when we remove the reflexive prefix? Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh beautifully points out how it becomes l’chapes (לחפש), “to search”. In other words, l’hitchapes—to put on a costume—literally means “to search for yourself”!

It is often only when we mask our identity that we can act as we truly are. This can be a powerful tool for introspection and self-discovery. It can especially reveal one’s vices, and this will hopefully allow a person to recognize what they have to work on to become a better person. On Purim, there is huge potential for real teshuva, “repentance”, like no other time. No wonder that our Sages compared Purim to Yom Kippur, and it is commonly said that Yom HaKippurim (the way it is referred to in the Torah) can be read Yom k’Purim, “a day like Purim”.

Alcohol has a similar function.

What Alcohol Does to Your Brain

The human brain is a complex network of billions of neurons that interact chemically and electrically with each other. The molecules that turn these neurons on and off are called neurotransmitters. The brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter is glutamate, while its main inhibitory neurotransmitter is gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short. Alcohol in the brain causes an increase in GABA. (Others hold that alcohol doesn’t necessarily increase the amount of GABA, but binds the same receptors, causing the same inhibitory effect.)

The result is a steady “shutting down” of more and more of the brain. Inhibition in the prefrontal cortex would cause poor decision making. Inhibition in the motor cortex would affect movement, and in the occipital lobe, vision. Speech is slurred, hearing is affected, and the more alcohol that is consumed, the more of the brain is suppressed. If a person drinks far too much alcohol it could be fatal because eventually even the brain stem, which controls vital functions like breathing, will be inhibited.

Now, a person should certainly not drink anywhere near that amount. But, alcohol in moderation does allow a person to mellow out, loosen up, and act more like themselves. In this way, drinking alcohol is similar to putting on a costume. By drinking a little bit, a person can discover who they really are. This is further assisted by the fact that GABA is also involved with reorganizing the brain, and causing the formation of new neurons and new synapses, or connections. (Note: this does not mean that alcohol is somehow healthy or that it should be imbibed regularly. On the whole, it is damaging to the brain and possibly even worse for the liver.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) states nichnas yayin, yatza sod, “when wine goes in, secrets come out.” One can understand this statement on two levels: the simple meaning is that, as everyone knows, a person who gets drunk is quite likely to let their mouth run wild and spill their secrets. On a deeper level, “secrets” may refer not to one’s own inner secrets, but to the secrets of the Torah.

One who has a few drinks, inhibits their conscious mind a little bit (maybe even stimulates the formation of some new synapses a little bit) might able to peer deeper into the Torah, revealing previously unknown secrets. One such mini-secret is hidden within that Talmudic statement itself, where the gematria of “wine”, yayin (יין), is 70, equal to the value of “secret”, sod (סוד). Nichnas yayin, yatza sod; seventy goes in and seventy comes out. What the Talmud is saying (and what neuroscience has now confirmed) is that alcohol may lead one to think more creatively, or outside the box, or differently than the way they usually do.

The Kabbalah of Ad d’Lo Yada

When it comes to drinking on Purim, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) famously states that a person should drink to the point of ad d’lo yada, “not knowing” the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman”. This statement is highly problematic. One would have to be incredibly intoxicated not to know such a basic distinction, yet Jewish law prohibits a Jew from ever being so heavily under the influence. Most halachic authorities maintain that a person should drink just enough to feel soft and sleepy. So, why describe such an extreme state of intoxication on Purim?

Basic Gematria Chart

In reality, drinking on Purim isn’t at all about getting smashed to the point of losing control. On the contrary, what we should be doing is drinking just enough to allow us to see beyond. Nichnas yayin, yatza sod—take in a little to reveal those hidden secrets. The clue is in that very maxim, where “wine” and “secret” had the same gematria, 70. Now, look at “Blessed is Mordechai” (ברוך מרדכי) and “Cursed is Haman” (ארור המן). The gematria of these two terms is also the same, 502! When the Talmud states that one should drink until they can’t tell the difference, what it really means is that one should drink until they can look more acutely, and recognize that the two are numerically the same. The message is to look deeper into the text to find the secrets hiding within. That is, after all, the main theme of Purim. It is the very meaning of Megillat Esther, which can literally be translated as “revealing the hidden”.

Why would the gematrias of “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman” be the same to begin with? This brings us back to the first idea that Purim is about discovering our true selves. Mordechai and Haman are equal because they represent two forces which reside inside each person. There is Mordechai, the yetzer hatov, the good inclination; and Haman, the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The two are in a constant struggle with each other, each seeking to gain the upper hand, and it is our duty to nurture the former and restrain the latter.

On Purim, when we wear costumes and get a little inebriated, one or the other may get the upper hand. For some, hiding behind a mask and mellowing out makes them a better person, while for others it makes them worse. If we take the time and effort to observe ourselves carefully in that state—observe our thoughts, words, and actions—we can thereby understand ourselves more thoroughly, and discover what we need to do to maintain the right balance of “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman”, 502 and 502. We can learn how to better nurture the good inclination, and more effectively restrain the other one. In fact, this is alluded to in another term from the Megillah which has that numerical value. At the end of the narrative, we read the following important verse:

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on its thirteenth day, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them, it was turned to the contrary: that the Jews had rule over those that hated them… (Esther 9:1)

In this verse we find the key term v’nahafoch hu, that everything was “turned upside down”. On Purim, sibru oivey haYehudim lishlot bahem, “the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them”, but then everything flipped around and the Jews dominated their enemies instead. The words haYehudim lishlot bahem, literally “the Jews, dominated over them”, has a gematria of 502 as well. Perhaps there is a latent message here for each of us today, all Jews, to dominate over them, our inclinations, our 502s. To learn to become fully in control of ourselves. That way, regardless of whether we are inebriated or sober, in costume or not, we will always be completely righteous and holy.

This Purim, look deeper inside the text, and deeper into yourself. Drink a little and get in costume; be yourself, observe your actions and words very carefully, and aim to discover who you really are.

Chag sameach!

The Origins and Kabbalah of Kaddish

This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).

 

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor. 

And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?

Praying for Redemption

The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.

Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.

In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.

If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.

Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”

The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.

This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.

The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.

I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:

The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.

Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Birth of a Custom

Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.

That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?

Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.

‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’ by Émile Signol

Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.

It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.

The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Rabbi Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.

In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.

It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?

Enter the Arizal

As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.

The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.

Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.

The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.

More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.

Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!

Repairing the World

Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.

The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.

This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”

Things You Didn’t Know About Abraham

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

After two parashas that span the first two millennia of civilization, the Torah shifts its focus to the origins of Israel and the Jewish people starting with, of course, Abraham. Abraham is probably most famous for something that he actually isn’t: being the first monotheist. Noah was a monotheist long before Abraham, as was Noah’s son Shem, who was already a priest of the one Supreme God (El Elyon, as in Genesis 14:18). In Jewish tradition, it is said that Shem established the first yeshiva, and the patriarchs studied there. Was Abraham the first monotheist? No, but he is described as being the first person to actively preach monotheism to the world. He took it upon himself to crusade against idolatry—and the immoral behaviours that went with it.

Some of our Sages also state that Abraham invented the concept of a positive mitzvah. This means drawing closer to God not by abstinence and asceticism but through acts of kindness and the performance of physical actions. For this reason, the gematria of “Abraham” (אברהם) is 248, equal to the number of positive commandments in the Torah. Not surprisingly, Abraham is well-known for his legendary hospitality, his great compassion, and his ceaseless efforts on behalf of his fellow man.

Jewish tradition describes Abraham’s house as having a front door on each side so that guests wouldn’t have to look for the entrance. Meals were always on the house, as long as the guest was willing to thank God for it. Of his compassion, we read in the Torah how Abraham questioned God before the destruction of Sodom, seeking to exonerate the people despite their cruelty (Genesis 18). In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of all the “souls that they had made” (Genesis 12:5), the countless people that Abraham and Sarah inspired and brought closer to God. In fact, the Meshekh Chokhmah (of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) on Genesis 33:18 states that Abraham later migrated to Egypt specifically because it was the capital of idolatry and impurity at the time, and Abraham wished to bring some light to that dark place.

What else do we know about Abraham? Extra-Biblical texts reveal some intriguing details in the life of Judaism’s first patriarch.

Discovering God

There are three major opinions as to when Abraham came to know God. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) holds that he first recognized his Creator when he was three years old. This is deduced from Genesis 26:5, where God says Abraham had “listened to My voice”, ekev asher shama Avraham b’koli. The term “ekev” (עקב) has a numerical value of 172, and since we know Abraham lived 175 years, we learn that Abraham had listened to God’s voice for 172 of them, starting at age 3.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), meanwhile, writes in his Mishneh Torah that Abraham came to know God at age 40 (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). A more commonly-held view is that Abraham came to know God at age 52. This is based on the Talmudic statement that history is divided into three eras: the first 2000 years being the era of “chaos”, the next 2000 years being the era of Torah, and the final 2000 years being the era of Mashiach (Avodah Zarah 9a). Since we know that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948, and the era of Torah started in the year 2000, Abraham must have been 52 when he came to know God.

One way to reconcile these three opinions is as follows: Abraham first realized there must be one God when he was three years old. By age 40, he was ready to begin his life’s work, and set forth in preaching his message. This got him into a lot of trouble, for which he was imprisoned, and ultimately sentenced to death. The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) clarifies that he was imprisoned for 10 years. Then came the day of his execution. Abraham was thrown into the flames of Ur Kasdim when he was 52, and at this point God actually revealed Himself to Abraham for the first time, miraculously saving him from death. Therefore, there are those who say it wasn’t God who chose Abraham, but Abraham who chose God.

Abraham was already preaching long before he received any kind of prophecy or communication from Hashem. He logically deduced there must be one Creator to this world, and recognized the folly of idolatry on his own. He then took it upon himself to teach this truth, despite never having “heard” anything from God, or being summoned to do so. God chose him precisely because of this incredible initiative. We learn this explicitly from Genesis 18:19, where God says:

For I have known him, that he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice; therefore God brings upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him.

God chose Abraham because he was already teaching others to be more Godly! At age 52, the God that Abraham had been preaching about for so long finally revealed Himself, in miraculous fashion. This sets off a new 2000-year era, that of Torah and prophecy, spanning from Abraham until the times of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnah, thus putting the Oral Torah in writing for the first time.

Abraham the Kabbalist

The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) states that Abraham was world-famous for being an unparalleled astrologer and healer. According to tradition, he was also a great mystic. It is believed that he authored, or in some other way originated, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic text. The book explains how God fashioned the universe through the Hebrew letters. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67a) suggests that mastery of this text would allow the mystic to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and such was done by Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina every Friday afternoon. These two rabbis would create a chunk of veal, and make a barbecue!

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

It appears the same was done by Abraham. We read in Genesis 18:7 that when the angels visited him, Abraham hastened to “make” a calf, v’imaher la’asot oto. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) comments on the Torah’s strange choice of verb by stating that Abraham literally created a calf through the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah. This is why, he explains, the next verse has Abraham serving butter and milk. It is unthinkable that Abraham would serve veal with dairy—an explicit Torah prohibition—unless the veal was of his own creation, and was therefore not real meat that once had a soul. Abraham may have been the first person to serve vegan burgers.

Where did Abraham get this wisdom? According to one tradition, the angel Raziel (literally “God’s secret”) taught these mysteries to Adam. Adam passed it down to his son Seth, and onward it went down to Noah, then to his son Shem. Midrashic texts have Shem teaching Abraham, circumcising Abraham (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29), and even ordaining Abraham as a priest (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 14:19).

Alternatively, Abraham received mystical knowledge on his own. Kabbalah implies something “received”, and is often seen as being conferred directly by the Heavens to those who are worthy. In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) lists the names of the angels that taught our patriarchs this mystical wisdom:

The master of Shem was Yofiel. The master of Abraham was Tzidkiel. The master of Isaac was Raphael. The master of Yakov was Peliel. The master of Yosef was Gabriel. The master of Moshe Rabbeinu was Metatron. The master of Elijah was U’maltiel. Each of these angels passed down Kabbalah to his disciple, whether through a book or orally, in order to enlighten him, and to inform him of future events.

According to the Book of Jubilees (12:25), Abraham was also taught Hebrew directly from Heaven. It had been lost following the Great Dispersion of the Tower of Babel. Now, the Holy Tongue was restored. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Abraham to learn Kabbalah and the mysticism of Sefer Yetzirah without knowledge of Hebrew, upon which it is all based. Interestingly, the Book of Jubilees (11:6) also paints Abraham as a great engineer. He first became famous for inventing a seed-scattering device attached directly to a plow, as well as a method for keeping birds from eating the seeds of farmers.

The Torah tells us that at the end of his life, Abraham gave over his entire inheritance to Isaac, his rightful heir, but left various matanot, “gifts”, for his other children (Genesis 25:6). He then sent those other children eastward, to live outside the borders of Israel, so that it would be clear that the Holy Land belongs solely to Isaac and his descendants. What were these gifts? The Sages state that these were kernels of mystical wisdom to take with them. Some say this was white magic, and others black magic. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) associates it with impure wisdom of some sort. Many see in these gifts the mystical wisdom that would give rise to the ancient religions of the Far East. So perhaps there is a connection after all between the Hindu concept of Brahman—and the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins—with the name Abraham.

While Abraham is generally seen as a forefather—whether biological or spiritual—of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he is also a forefather of many other nations through his many other children that we often forget about (see Genesis 25). Our Sages say he is called “Avraham” because he is av hamon goyim, the father of a multitude of nations. He might very well be the father of all the world’s major religions, too.

Things You Didn’t Know About Shabbat

Moses looks out to the Promised Land, by James Tissot. This week’s parasha begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book is Moses’ final speech to his people in the last 37 days of his life.

This week’s parasha begins with the words Eleh hadevarim, “These are the things” that Moses spoke to all of Israel. Our Sages taught that the term eleh hadevarim is particularly significant. The words appear just three times in the whole Torah. By stating that these, specifically, are the things that God commanded, we are being called to give extra attention to them. The first instance of this term is in Exodus 19:6, where God promises that “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—these are the things that you should relate to the Children of Israel.” God underscored that Moses should make it clear to the people: they are absolutely unique in the world, and their task is to be entirely righteous and holy. This is probably the most essential thing that every Jew must remember.

The only other instance of the term (aside from the introduction to this week’s parasha) is in Exodus 35:1, where we read how

Moses assembled the entire congregation of the Children of Israel, and said to them: “These are the things which Hashem has commanded, that you should do them: Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be for you a holy day, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to Hashem…”

Here God is underscoring what may be the most important mitzvah: Shabbat. This mitzvah is among the very first mentioned in the Torah, and one of the most frequently mentioned. It is certainly among the severest, being one of 36 mitzvot whose transgression carries a death penalty. Unlike many other well-known mitzvot which are not explicitly mentioned outside of the Chumash (such as tzitzit or tefillin), Shabbat is clearly noted throughout the Tanakh. It is the reason that today the whole world follows a 7-day week. There are more halachot regarding Shabbat than perhaps any other topic. While the Talmudic tractate of Bava Batra may be the longest by number of pages, the tractate Shabbat is by far the longest by number of words. (The former has 89,044 words while the latter has a whopping 113,820!) And to determine if a person is Torah-observant or not, it typically suffices to ask if they are shomer Shabbos.

Ahad Ha’am

The power of Shabbat was best described by Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (1856-1927, better known by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am). He famously said that “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Ginsberg was born into a Hasidic family and raised very religiously. Though he later had many issues with ultra-Orthodoxy and became mostly irreligious, he nonetheless opposed political Zionism and argued for a spiritual Zionism based on traditional Jewish values. He accurately wrote that Israel must be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.” Among other things, it was Ginsberg who played a key role in convincing the Zionists that Hebrew must be the official language of Israel, and not German as pushed by Herzl. He also argued for state-wide Sabbath observance. In his 1898 essay Shabbat v’Tzionut, “Sabbath and Zionism” (where that famous quote above is from), he wrote:

Anyone who feels a true bond in his heart, with the life of the nation over many generations, simply will not be able—even if he believes neither in the World to Come nor the Jewish State—to imagine the Jewish people without Shabbat Malketa.

While his wife was strictly shomer Shabbos, Ginsberg himself wasn’t so careful with all the rules. It seems he disagreed with the Talmudic derivation of the 39 melachot, the categories of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. Ironically, the Talmud (Chagigah 10a) itself admits that “the laws of Shabbat… are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they have little scriptural basis but many laws.” Keeping Shabbat to rabbinic standards is hard and hefty like a mountain, yet the basis for doing so from a Torah perspective is minimal.

The Torah does not list the 39 prohibited works. Rather, the Talmud explains, they were derived from the 39 works done to build the Tabernacle, based on the juxtaposition of the command to keep the Sabbath and the command to construct the Tabernacle in Exodus 35. Elsewhere (Shabbat 70a), Rabbi Natan shows how the number 39 can be derived from the words eleh hadevarim in that Exodus passage. The plural word devarim implies a minimum of two, and the definite article “ha” adds another, making three. The gematria of the word eleh is 36. Altogether, we have 39!  

Today’s halachot of Shabbat have come a very long way since the 39 melachot of the Talmud. Each generation since has added more and more fences, and in recent centuries Shabbat observance has become ever more stringent. A story is told of the Baal Shem Tov that he saw a vision of two men, one going to Heaven and the other to Gehinnom. The first, while being entirely ignorant of the law, would enjoy himself mightily on the Sabbath and have a day of true rest, as the Torah commands. The second was so strict with every little halacha that his Shabbat was nothing but prohibitions, restrictions, and fears that he would inevitably transgress something. Above all else, Shabbat must be a day of rest and joy.

Shabbat in Jubilees

Interestingly, the ancient Book of Jubilees (written in the late Second Temple era, and before the Mishnah and Talmud) provides a different list of Shabbat restrictions. While Jubilees is considered an apocryphal text, and is generally not accepted in traditional Judaism (Ethiopian Jews are pretty much the only ones that consider Jubilees a canonical text), it did make an impact on other traditional Jewish texts, especially midrashic and mystical ones.

Jubilees lists fifteen prohibitions: doing one’s professional work, farming, traveling on a journey, and riding an animal, commerce, water-drawing, carrying burdens, and carrying things from one house to another, killing, trapping, fasting, making war, lighting a fire, cooking, and sexual intercourse. (See Jubilees 2:29-30 and 50:8-12.) Just about all of these—the major exception being sexual intercourse—is also forbidden in the Talmud. When we keep in mind that 11 of the 39 Talmudic prohibitions fall under the category of farming and baking, and many more under trapping, killing, and cooking, the two lists start to look very similar.

In some ways, the Jubilees list is even more stringent, which fits with the assertion of historians that Jubilees was probably composed by the Essene sect (or their forerunners). The Essenes were the religious “extremists” of their day, who fled the corruption of Jerusalem to live in isolation, piety, celibacy (for the most part), meditation, and study. Interestingly, the oldest known tefillin that archaeologists have uncovered are from Essene caves around the Dead Sea.

The Mishnah was first recorded about a century after the Essenes all but disappeared. There (Shabbat 7:2) we have the following list of melachot:

The principal melachot are forty minus one: Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking; shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], untying [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches; hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it; writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another.

A Periodic Table of the 39 Melachot, by Anshie Kagan

A Taste of Eden

The Midrash relates the 39 melachot of Shabbat to the 39 curses decreed following the sin of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden. God pronounced 9 curses and death upon the Serpent, 9 curses and death upon Adam (and all men), 9 curses and death upon Eve (and all women), as well as 9 curses upon the earth itself (with, obviously, no death). That makes a total of 39 curses (see, for example, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14). Thus, keeping the Sabbath reverses the curses of Eden, and is simultaneously a taste of Eden before the fall of mankind.

The Zohar (III, 182b) explicitly compares Shabbat to a “lower” or “earthly” Garden of Eden. The Talmud (Berakhot 57b), meanwhile, states that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. On the same page, we are told that three things give one a sense of Olam HaBa. One is basking in sunshine. Another is “tashmish”—either sexual intercourse, or that feeling of satisfaction when relieving one’s self in the bathroom. The third is Shabbat.

The Arizal (in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh) taught that Shabbat is the only day when the highest realm of Atzilut is revealed. The lowest of the olamot or “universes”, Asiyah, is revealed on Tuesday and Wednesday. In the account of Creation, it was on these days that Earth and the luminaries—ie. this lower, physical cosmos that we are familiar with—were made. The second, Yetzirah, is revealed on Monday and Thursday, days on which the Torah is publicly read. In Creation, on Monday the waters were split into upper and lower domains, while on Thursday the waters below and the “waters above” (the skies) were filled with life (fish and birds respectively). The higher universe of Beriah is revealed on Sunday and Friday, corresponding to the first day of Creation when God brought forth divine light, and the last day of Creation when God made man. Only on Shabbat is it possible to glimpse into the highest universe of pure divine emanation, Atzilut.

The mochin above (in blue) and the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The Arizal also taught that only on Shabbat are the highest states of consciousness completely open (Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Hanagat Limmud, 1). He was referring to the inner states of the Mochin, the three highest, “intellectual”, sefirot. The first of these is the sefirah of Keter, willpower. The second is Chokhmah, typically translated as “wisdom”, but more accurately referring to knowledge. The third is Binah, “understanding”. The Sages say there are 620 pillars in Keter, 32 paths in Chokhmah, and 50 gates in Binah. The 620 pillars correspond to the 620 mitzvot in the Torah (613 for Israel, and 7 Noahide laws for the rest of the world, or sometimes the 7 additional rabbinic mitzvot). The 32 paths correspond to the 22 Hebrew letters and the 10 base numerical digits (as well as the Ten Sefirot) that form the fabric of Creation. The 50 gates correspond to, among other things, the 50 times the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah, the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot, the 50 questions posed to Job, and the 50 levels of impurity and constriction. The mysteries of all these esoteric things is revealed on Shabbat. For this reason, the Arizal taught, the sum of 620 pillars, 32 paths, and 50 gates is 702, the gematria of “Shabbat” (שבת).

Shamor v’Zachor

So significant is Shabbat that it is one of the Ten Commandments. The Torah relates the Ten Commandments on two occasions.* In the first account of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), we read:

Remember [zachor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… for in six days Hashem made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day…

In the second account of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5), we read:

Observe [shamor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as Hashem, your God, commanded you. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Hashem, your God, brought you out from there…

The first case uses the verb zachor, to commemorate, while the second uses shamor, to safeguard. The first refers to the positive mitzvah of resting and delighting on the Sabbath, while the second refers to the negative mitzvah of not transgressing the Sabbath through work and other profane things.

We further see that the first instance ties Shabbat to Creation, while the second instance ties Shabbat to the Exodus. In the former case, since God created the universe in six days and “rested” on the seventh, we should emulate His ways and do the same. In the latter case, since we were once slaves—working round the clock, seven days a week—we must always take a full day off work so as to remember that we are no longer in servitude. Only slaves work seven days a week! Thus, the first instance uses the verb zachor, to remember Creation, and the second instance uses the verb shamor, to make sure we do not labour on this day.

In reality, the two are one: when we remember Creation we are reminded that we are here for a reason. We are not a product of random chance in a godless, purposeless universe—as some would have us believe. We were created with a divine mission, in God’s image. And thus, we must make sure that we never fall into servitude; that we do not live under someone else’s oppression or dominance (whether physical, emotional, or intellectual). We must be free people, in God’s image, with no one above us but God.

Sefer HaBahir (#182) adds another dimension to the two verbs: it states that zachor alludes to zachar, “male”, and shamor relates to the female. For men, it is more important to remember Creation when it comes to Shabbat, while for women it is more important to remember the Exodus. Perhaps what the Bahir means to say is that for men—who are prone to have big egos—it is vital to think of Creation and remember who the real Master of the Universe is. For women—who are generally the ones cooking and preparing for Shabbat, serving food, and taking care of the kids while the men are at the synagogue—it is vital to think of the Exodus and remember that they are not slaves! Take it easy and ensure that Shabbat is a complete day of rest for you, too.

To conclude, the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) famously states that if all the Jews of the world kept two consecutive Shabbats, the final redemption would immediately come. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai bases this teaching on Isaiah 56:4-7, where God declares that those who “keep My Sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant… them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer…” The verse says Sabbaths in plural, and as stated earlier, this implies a minimum of two. Perhaps we can say that Israel needs to observe one Shabbat in honour of zachor and one in honour of shamor. The upcoming Jewish New Year of 779 may be a particularly auspicious time to do so, for the gematria of shamor (שמור) and zachor (זכור) is 779. We should redouble our efforts to create a truly restful, spiritual Shabbat for ourselves, and strive to open the eyes of those who are not yet fortunate to do so.


*There is a hidden, third place where the Ten Commandments are discussed in the Torah. To learn about this see ‘The Real Ten Commandments You’ve Never Heard Of‘ in Garments of Light.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

This week’s parasha is named after Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, who is commended for taking action during the sin with the Midianite women. Pinchas was blessed with an “eternal covenant”, and Jewish tradition holds that he never really died. Pinchas became Eliyahu, and as the Tanakh describes, Eliyahu was taken up to Heaven alive in a flaming chariot (II Kings 2). While we know what the name “Eliyahu” means, the name “Pinchas” is far more elusive. It doesn’t seem to have any meaning in Hebrew. Historical records show that there was a very similar name in ancient Egypt, “Pa-Nehasi”. Did Pinchas have a traditional Egyptian name?

When we look more closely, we find that multiple figures of the Exodus generation actually bore Egyptian names. For example, “Aaron” (or Aharon) doesn’t have a clear meaning in Hebrew, and appears to be adapted from the ancient Egyptian name “Aha-Rw”, meaning “warrior lion”. Even the origin of Moses’ name is not so clear.

Although the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter named him “Moshe” because she “drew him [meshitihu] from the water” (Exodus 2:10), it seems very unlikely that an Egyptian princess should know Hebrew so well and give her adopted child a Hebrew name. Our Sages noted this issue long ago, and grappled with the apparent problem. Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) writes that it was actually Moses’ own mother Yocheved that named him “Moshe”, and then informed Pharaoh’s daughter of the name. Yet, the Midrash affirms that Yocheved called her son “Tuviah”, or just “Tov” (based on Exodus 2:2), and Moshe was the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter. Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Munius”. Josephus takes an alternate approach entirely, saying that Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name was Thermuthis, before she became a righteous convert and was called Batya or Bitya in Jewish tradition) named him Moses because the Egyptian word for water is mo.

The most elegant solution might be that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Mose” (spelled the same way, but pronounced with a sin instead of shin), which means “son” in Egyptian. This is most fitting, since Pharaoh’s daughter yearned for a child of her own, and finally had a “son”. In fact, we see this suffix (and its close variant mses, from which the English “Moses” comes) used frequently in Egyptian names of that time period, such as Ahmose, Thutmose, and Ramses. Thus, he would have been known as Mose (or Moses) during his upbringing, but later known to his nation as Moshe, with a more appropriate and meaningful Hebrew etymology, yet without having to change the spelling of the name (משה) at all.

All of this begs the question: is it important to have a Hebrew name? And is it okay to have a Hebrew name together with an English name, or a name in the local language of wherever a Jew may live?

Why Are So Many Sages Called “Shimon”?

When looking through the names of the many rabbis in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, we find something quite intriguing. Although we would expect the Sages to be named after great Biblical figures like Moses, David, or Abraham, in reality there are essentially no sages with such names! Instead, we find a multitude of names of lesser-known Biblical figures, and many names that have no Biblical or Hebrew origin at all.

One very common name is Yochanan: There’s Yochanan ben Zakkai and Yochanan haSandlar, Yochanan bar Nafcha, Yochanan ben Nuri, and Yochanan ben Beroka. Another popular name is Yehoshua. While we might not expect this name to be so popular (considering its association with Jesus), we still find Yehoshua ben Perachia, Yehoshua ben Levi, Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Yehoshua ben Korchah, and many others. There are also lots and lots of Yehudas like Yehuda haNasi (and his descendents, Yehuda II and Yehuda III), Yehuda ben Beteira, Yehuda bar Ilai, and Yehuda ben Tabbai. And there are tons of Elazars: Elazar ben Arach, Elazar ben Azariah, Elazar ben Pedat, and many more with the similar “Eliezer”.

Perhaps the most common name is “Shimon”. There is Shimon haTzadik and Shimon bar Yochai, Shimon bar Abba and Shimon ben Shetach, Shimon ben Gamaliel (both I and II), Shimon ben Lakish (“Reish Lakish”), and more. We would think this is a strange choice, considering that the Biblical Shimon was actually of somewhat poor character (at least compared to the remaining Twelve Sons of Jacob). In fact, on his deathbed, Jacob did not bless Shimon at all, and instead said he wanted nothing to do with his violent nature. Moses, meanwhile, completely omits Shimon in his last blessings! So why would so many of our Sages be called “Shimon”?

A Good-Sounding Name

What might explain the strange selection of names among our ancient Sages? While no clear reason stands out, there is one plausible answer. It appears that the choice of names above was heavily influenced by the contemporary Greek society. Just as today many Jewish parents seek Hebrew names that also sound good in English, it seems parents back then wanted names that sounded good in Greek (since most Jews lived in the Greek part of the Roman, and later “Byzantine”, Empire).

We find that Greek names tend to end with an “n”: Platon (“Plato” in Greek), Jason, and Solon, for example. Numerous others end with “s”: Aristotles (“Aristotle” in Greek), Pythagoras, Philippos. Indeed, many of our Sages actually have such Greek names directly: Yinon, Hyrcanus, Pappus, Symmachus, Teradyon, and Onkelos. There is no indication that these great rabbis had some other “Hebrew” name.

Those that did want to bear Hebrew names could choose names already ending with an “n” like Shimon and Yochanan. Or, they could choose names where adding an “s” to the end would be easy: Yehoshua in Greek is Yeosuos (later giving rise to Yesus, ie. Jesus), while Yehuda is Yudas (Judas). Such names would be easy to convert between Hebrew and Greek. We know from historical sources that several people named Chananiah were simultaneously called “Ananias” in Greek.

The same is true for Elazar or Eliezer. Many Greek names transliterated into English and other languages simple lose their “s” and end with an “r”: Antipatros becomes Antipater, while Alexandros becomes Alexander. In reverse fashion, Elazar could easily become Elazaros (or Lazarus)—very palatable in the Greek-speaking world which our early Sages inhabited.

On that note, what do we make of “Alexander”? A great number of Jews both modern and ancient (there is Alexander Yannai and Rabbi Alexandri in the Talmud) have this name. Some cite a famous Midrashic account of Alexander the Great’s arrival in Jerusalem as being proof that while Alexander is not a Hebrew name, it is something of an “honorary” Jewish name. This requires a more careful analysis.

Is Alexander a Jewish name?

The Talmud (Yoma 69a) describes Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea. As he is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, Shimon HaTzadik goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol at the time). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle. Alexander proceeds to treat the Jews kindly, and leaves the Temple intact. The Talmud stops there, though it does mention that this event took place on the 25th of Tevet, which was instituted as a minor holiday on which mourning was forbidden. (The story is also attested to by Josephus, though with a different high priest—see here for more.)

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

According to one tradition, the priests at the time wanted to honour Alexander for his kindness, and named all the boys born that year “Alexander”. In another version, Alexander was given a tour of the Holy Temple and, naturally, wished to place a statue of himself inside. Since this was impossible (but they couldn’t refuse the emperor), Shimon haTzadik convinced him that it would be a greater honour for all the children born to be named “Alexander”. Either way, some like to say that “Alexander” has become a Jewish name ever since.

In truth, this suggestion looks more like a modern way of explaining why so many Jews were named Alexander. In reality, the Midrash clearly states that a Jew should not name his child Alexander. We read in Vayikra Rabbah 32:5:

In the merit of four things was Israel redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names*, nor their language, they did not speak lashon hara, and not one among them committed sexually immoral sins… They did not call Yehuda “Rufus”, and not Reuben “Lullianus”, and not Yosef “Listus”, and not Benjamin “Alexander”…

Apparently, when Midrash Rabbah was composed—just like today—it was common for Jews to have a non-Jewish name that they would use regularly, together with a Hebrew name that they would use only in Jewish circles. The Hebrew name “Benjamin” was often paired with “Alexander”.

We see from the Midrash above that it is important to have a Hebrew or Jewish name. But what exactly counts as a “Jewish” name?

Non-Jewish “Jewish” Names

Although today most Jews insist on having Hebrew or Biblical names (and rightly so), it seems that our Sages weren’t so strict in this regard. Indeed, many of them bore Greek, Latin, or Aramaic names with no second Hebrew name. Akiva, Avtalyon, Nechunia, Mani, Nittai, Nehorai, Adda, Papa, Simlai, Tanhum, Tarfon, Ulla, and countless others are cited in rabbinic literature. As we saw earlier, those that did have Hebrew names naturally chose names that would be palatable to the surrounding Greeks, much like many Jews today choose names that have easy English homonyms.

This trend continued for centuries, all the way up to modern times. The result is that many seemingly “Jewish” names are actually adaptations of very non-Jewish names. For example, one popular name among Ashkenazi Jews in the past was Feivel or Feibush. This name, meaning “bright”, comes from Phoebus, one of the appellations for the Greco-Roman god of light, Apollo. With this in mind, there may actually be a big halachic problem of bearing this name, since it is forbidden to recite the names of idols. (Some say the name was only meant to substitute the Biblical name Shimshon, the root of which is “sun”, thus having a similar meaning to Phoebus.)

Another appellation for Apollo was Lycegenes or Lukegenes, “born of a wolf” (possibly the source of the name “Luke”), which would be “Wolf” in Germanic countries, where the wolf was an important symbol in European mythology. Wolf also became very popular among Ashkenazis, who usually added the Hebrew translation Ze’ev to the name. The same is true for the classic German/Norse name Baer (“Bear”), to which Ashkenazis added Dov, its Hebrew translation. None of these names are Biblical or Talmudic, nor is their origin truly Hebrew. (Ironically, the name Ze’ev appears in the Tanakh [Judges 7:25] as the name of an enemy Midianite prince that the Israelites slayed!)

Having said that, many have linked these names to Biblical characters. For example, Benjamin is described in the Torah as a wolf (Genesis 49:27), so some carried the name “Binyamin Wolf”, where the former was their actual Jewish name while the latter was their social name. The same goes for “Yehuda Leib”, where Leib means “lion”, like Aryeh, the symbol of the Biblical Yehuda. It has even become common to combine all three to form “Yehuda Aryeh Leib”. Similarly, there’s “Naftali Tzvi Hirsch”, since the Biblical Naftali is described as a deer, ayalah or tzvi, and “Hirsch” is German for “deer”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

“Schneur”, too, is of non-Jewish origin, and comes from the Spanish name Senor (and is sometimes a German equivalent for Seymour). Chassidim have since reinterpreted it in the Hebrew as Shnei Or, “two lights”. It probably didn’t have this meaning when it was given to Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad. In his case, “Schneur” was likely meant to be his social name while “Zalman” (Solomon, or “Shlomo) was his traditional Jewish or Hebrew name.

Sephardic Jews are just as culpable. Many have Arabic names like “Massoud” (which means “lucky”) or “Abdullah”. In fact, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s birth name was Yusuf Abdullah, and it was only when the family made aliyah to Israel that “Abdullah” was replaced with its Hebrew translation “Ovadia” (which is a Biblical name). At one point, a popular female Sephardic name was “Mercedes”. This one is highly problematic, as it happens to be a Spanish appellation for the Virgin Mary! (The automobile brand Mercedes is named after a Jewish girl of that name, the daughter of the company’s founder Emil Jellinek and his French-Sephardi wife.) A similar problem lies with the very popular “Natalie”, which literally means “Christmas” in Latin.

Is it okay to bear such names? A distinction must be made between those that clearly have an idolatrous origin versus those that were simply adapted from non-Jewish names but still carry a good meaning. The latter are certainly permissible, since many of our great Sages had such foreign names. Over time, many of these evolved a deeper, Jewish meaning. For instance, Adele was a classic German name (meaning “noble”) and yet the Baal Shem Tov chose it for his daughter. He explained to his chassidim that he received this name through divine inspiration, and that it is an acronym (אדל) for the important words in the Torah אש דת למו—that God gave His people “a fiery Torah” (Deuteronomy 33:2). The Torah, like fire, purifies all things. The Baal Shem Tov’s daughter went on to become a holy chassid of her own, imbued with so much Ruach haKodesh that she was nicknamed Adele HaNeviah, “Adele the Prophetess”.

Jewish “Non-Jewish” Names

The opposite case exists as well: names that appear to be non-Jewish but actually have a clear Jewish origin. Take “Elizabeth”, for example. While it may sound like a classic European name, it is actually the transliteration of “Elisheva” (אלישבע), the righteous wife of Aaron (Exodus 6:23). Some Jewish name sources incorrectly write that John is a non-Jewish name, associating it with the “New Testament” John. Yet, even that John was originally a Jewish man living in Israel, and “John” is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yochanan”. (It sounds closer in Germany and Eastern Europe, where “John” is “Johan”, or “Yohan”.)

There are numerous other examples. Susanna is Shoshana (שושנה), and Abigail is Avigayil (אביגיל). In the Tanakh, the latter makes an important comment about names, pointing out that because her first husband’s name was Naval (“abomination”) he acted abominably (I Samuel 25:25). She later married King David and is considered a prophetess in her own right.

Many are surprised to discover that “Jessica” comes from the Torah. It is an English adaptation of Iscah (יסכה), mentioned in Genesis 11:29 and, according to our Sages, the birth name of Sarah. Rashi comments:

Iscah. This is Sarah, because she would see [סוֹכָה] through divine inspiration, and because all gazed [סוֹכִין] at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom [נְסִיכוּת], just as Sarah is an expression of dominion [שְׂרָרָה].

Interestingly, it appears that the earliest recorded use of the transliteration “Jessica” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Here, Jessica is the Jewish daughter of the play’s Jewish villain, Shylock. Although many see The Merchant of Venice as an anti-Semitic work, others actually see it as Shakespeare’s cunning manipulation of that era’s rampant anti-Semitism and his own “plea for tolerance”. After all, Shylock’s most famous speech (Act III, Scene 1) reads:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Shylock argues that his own villainy is nothing but a reflection of the villainy of the Christian world. Shakespeare recognized the cruelty that Jews had suffered, and tells his anti-Semitic audience that Jews are human, too.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

Ultimately, it is certainly beneficial to have a Hebrew name of some sort, whether Biblical, Talmudic, adapted, or modern. After all, Hebrew is a holy language, and each of its letters carry profound meaning. The Hebrew term for “name” is shem (שם), which is a root of neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, and spelled the same as sham (שם), “there”, for it is there within a person’s name that his or her essence is found. For this reason, the Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells us that Rabbi Meir used to carefully analyze people’s name to determine their character. (This Talmudic passage was explored at length in Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) also notes that changing one’s name is one of five things a person can do to change their fate. Indeed, we see this multiple times in Scripture. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed (from Abram and Sarai) to allow them to finally have a child. Jacob becomes Israel, while Hoshea becomes Yehoshua (Joshua). At some point, Pinchas becomes Eliyahu, and even Yosef (Joseph) becomes Yehosef (Psalms 81:6). On that last name change, the Midrash explains that it was only because Yosef had an extra hei added to his name that he was able to ascend to Egyptian hegemony.

Thus, having a name with a deep meaning, in Hebrew letters, and one that is actually used regularly (as opposed to a secondary Hebrew name that no one calls you by) is of utmost significance. If you don’t yet have such a name, it isn’t too late to get one!


*This Midrash presents a possible contradiction: how can it say that the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names when we see that some clearly did? Maybe most of the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names, though some did. Thankfully, another Midrash (Pesikta Zutrati on parashat Ki Tavo) steps in to offer an alternate reason. Here, Israel was redeemed in the merit of three things: not changing their clothing, their food, and their language. Changing their names is conspicuously absent.