Tag Archives: History

An Honest Look at the Talmud

Earlier this week we discussed the necessity of the Talmud, and of an oral tradition in general, to Judaism. We presented an overview of the Talmud, and a brief description of its thousands of pages. And we admitted that, yes, there are some questionable verses in the Talmud (very few when considering the vastness of it). Here, we want to go through some of these, particularly those that are most popular on anti-Semitic websites and publications.

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

By far the most common is that the Talmud is racist or advocates for the destruction of gentiles. This is based on several anecdotes comparing non-Jews to animals, or the dictum of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that “the best of gentiles should be killed”. First of all, we have to be aware of the linguistic style of the Talmud, which often uses strong hyperbole that is not to be taken literally (more on this below). More importantly, we have to remember that these statements were made in a time where Jews were experiencing a tremendous amount of horrible persecution. Rabbi Shimon’s teacher, Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by being flayed with iron combs. This is a man who never hurt anyone, who raised the status of women, sought to abolish servitude, preached that the most important law is “to love your fellow as yourself”, and taught that all men are made in God’s image (Avot 3:14). For no crime of his own, he was grotesquely slaughtered by the Romans. Rabbi Shimon himself had to hide from the Romans in a cave for 13 years with his son, subsisting off of nothing but carobs. The Jews in Sassanid Persia didn’t fare too much better. So, the anger and resentment of the Sages to their gentile oppressors sometimes come out in the pages of Talmud. Yet, the same Talmud insists “Before the throne of the Creator there is no difference between Jews and gentiles.” (TY Rosh Hashanah 57a). Moreover, a non-Jew who is righteous, and occupies himself with law and spirituality, is likened to a kohen gadol, the high priest (Bava Kamma 38a).

In fact, the contempt that the Sages sometimes had for gentiles is not simply because they were not Jewish, for we see that the Sages had the same contempt, if not more so, for certain other Jews! The Talmud (Pesachim 49b) warns never to marry an ‘am ha’aretz, an unlearned or non-religious Jew, and even compares such Jews to beasts. In the same way that gentiles are sometimes compared to animals, and in the same way Rabbi Shimon said they should “be killed”, Rabbi Shmuel said that the ‘am ha’aretz should be “torn like a fish”! Why such harsh words for other Jews? Because they, too, do not occupy themselves with moral development, with personal growth, or with the law. Therefore, they are more likely to be drawn to sin and immorality. (This sentiment is expressed even in the New Testament, where John 7:49 states that “the people who know not the law [‘am ha’aretz] are cursed.”) After all, the very purpose of man in this world “is to perfect himself”, as Rabbi Akiva taught (Tanchuma on Tazria 5), and how can one do so without study? Still, the Sages conclude (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch. 16) that

A man should not say, “Love the pupils of the wise but hate the ‘am ha’aretẓ,” but one should love all, and hate only the heretics, the apostates, and informers, following David, who said: “Those that hate You, O Lord, I hate” [Psalms 139:21]

Rabbi Akiva is a particularly interesting case, because he was an ‘am ha’aretz himself in the first forty years of his life. Of this time, he says how much he used to hate the learned Jews, with all of their laws and apparent moral superiority, and that he wished to “maul the scholar like a donkey”. Rabbi Akiva’s students asked why he said “like a donkey” and not “like a dog”, to which Akiva replied that while a dog’s bite hurts, a donkey’s bite totally crushes the bones! We can learn a lot from Rabbi Akiva: it is easy to hate those you do not understand. Once Akiva entered the realm of the Law, he saw how beautiful and holy the religious world is. It is fitting that Rabbi Akiva, who had lived in both worlds, insisted so much on loving your fellow. And loving them means helping them find God and live a holy, righteous life, which is why Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani (the same one who said that the ‘am ha’aretz should be devoured like a fish) stated that:

He who teaches Torah to his neighbour’s son will be privileged to sit in the Heavenly Academy, for it is written, “If you will cause [Israel] to repent, then will I bring you again, and you shall stand before me…” [Jeremiah 15:19] And he who teaches Torah to the son of an ‘am ha’aretz, even if the Holy One, blessed be He, pronounces a decree against him, He annuls it for his sake, as it is written, “… and if you shall take forth the precious from the vile, you shall be as My mouth…” [ibid.]

Promiscuity in the Talmud

Another horrible accusation levelled against the rabbis of the Talmud is that they were (God forbid) promiscuous and allowed all sorts of sexual indecency. Anyone who makes such a claim clearly knows nothing of the Sages, who were exceedingly modest and chaste. They taught in multiple places how important it is to guard one’s eyes, even suggesting that looking at so much as a woman’s pinky finger is inappropriate (Berakhot 24a). Sexual intercourse should be done only at night or in the dark, and in complete privacy—so much so that some sages would even get rid of any flies in the room! (Niddah 17a) Most would avoid touching their private parts at all times, even while urinating (Niddah 13a). The following page goes so far as to suggest that one who only fantasizes and gives himself an erection should be excommunicated. The Sages cautioned against excessive intercourse, spoke vehemently against wasting seed, and taught that “there is a small organ in a man—if he starves it, it is satisfied; if he satisfies it, it remains starved.” (Sukkah 52b)

Anti-Semitic and Anti-Talmudic websites like to bring up the case of Elazar ben Durdya, of whom the Talmud states “there was not a prostitute in the world” that he did not sleep with (Avodah Zarah 17a). Taking things out of context, what these sites fail to bring up is that the Talmud, of course, does not at all condone Elazar’s actions. In fact, the passage ends with Elazar realizing his terribly sinful ways, and literally dying from shame.

Another disgusting accusation is that the Talmud permits pederasty (God forbid). In reality, what the passage in question (Sanhedrin 54b) is discussing is when the death penalty for pederasty should be applied, and at which age a child is aware of sexuality. Nowhere does it say that such a grotesque act is permitted. The Sages are debating a sensitive issue of when a death penalty should be used. Shmuel insists that any child over the age of three is capable of accurately “throwing guilt” upon another, and this would be valid grounds for a death penalty. Elsewhere, the Talmud states that not only do pederasts deserve to be stoned to death, but they “delay the coming of the Messiah” (Niddah 13b).

The Talmud is similarly accused of allowing a three year old girl to be married. This is also not the whole picture. A father is allowed to arrange a marriage for his daughter, but “it is forbidden for one to marry off his daughter when she is small, until she grows up and says ‘this is the one I want to marry.’” (Kiddushin 41a) Indeed, we don’t see a single case of any rabbi in the Talmud marrying a minor, or marrying off their underage daughter. Related discussions appear in a number of other pages of the Talmud. In one of these (Yevamot 60b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai states that a girl who was converted to Judaism before three years of age is permitted to marry a kohen, although kohanim are generally forbidden from marrying converts. This, too, has been twisted as if Rabbi Shimon allowed a kohen to marry a three-year old. He did not say this at all, rather stating that a girl under three who is converted to Judaism (presumably by her parents, considering her young age) is actually not considered a convert but likened to a Jew from birth. Once again we see the importance of proper context.

Science in the Talmud

Last week we already addressed that scientific and medical statements in the Talmud are not based on the Torah, and are simply a reflection of the contemporary knowledge of that time period. As we noted, just a few hundred years after the Talmud’s completion, Rav Sherira Gaon already stated that its medical advice should not be followed, nor should its (sometimes very strange) healing concoctions be made. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim III, 14) expanded this to include the sciences, particularly astronomy and mathematics, which had come a long way by the time of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204). The Rambam did not state that the Sages are necessarily wrong on scientific matters—for indeed we see that they are often quite precise—nonetheless:

You must not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science.

Some scientific statements of the Talmud which have been proven wrong include: The earth’s crust is 1000 cubits thick (Sukkot 53b)—today we have mines that go down four kilometres, which is well over 5000 cubits at least! Lions, bears, and elephants have a gestation period of three years (Bekhorot 8a)—while the Talmud is right by previously stating that cows have a nine-month gestation period, lions actually have gestation of 110 days, bears of 95-220 days depending on the species, and elephants of 22 months.

On the other hand, the Talmud is accurate, for example, when describing the water cycle (Ta’anit 9a), with Rabbi Eliezer explaining that water evaporates from the seas, condenses into clouds, and rains back down. It is also surprisingly close when calculating the number of stars in the universe (Berakhot 32b), with God declaring:

… twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created for your sake.

Doing the math brings one to 1018 stars. This number was hard to fathom in Talmudic times, and even more recently, too (I personally own a book published in the 1930s which states that scientists estimate there are about a million stars in the universe), yet today scientists calculate similar numbers, with one estimate at 1019 stars.

History in the Talmud

When it comes to historical facts the Talmud, like most ancient books, is not always accurate. Historical knowledge was extremely limited in those days. There was no archaeology, no linguistics, and no historical studies departments; neither were there printing presses or books to easily preserve or disseminate information. This was a time of fragile and expensive scrolls, typically reserved for Holy Scriptures.

All in all, the Talmud doesn’t speak too much of history. Some of its reckonings of kings and dynasties are certainly off, and this was recognized even before modern scholarship. For example, Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes of the Talmud’s commentaries on the chronology in Daniel that “the commentators spoke falsely because they did not know the history of the monarchies” (Ma’ayanei HaYeshua 11:4).

The Talmud has also been criticised for exaggerating historical events. In one place (Gittin 57b), for instance, the Talmud suggests that as many as four hundred thousand myriads (or forty billion) Jews were killed by the Romans in Beitar. This is obviously impossible, and there is no doubt the rabbis knew that. It is possible they did not use the word “myriads” to literally refer to 10,000 (as is usually accepted) but simply to mean “a great many”, just as the word is commonly used in English. If so, then the Talmud may have simply meant 400,000 Jews, which is certainly reasonable considering that Beitar was the last stronghold and refuge of the Jews during the Bar Kochva Revolt.

Archaeological remains of the Beitar fortress.

Either way, as already demonstrated the Talmud is known to use highly exaggerated language as a figure of speech. It is not be taken literally. This is all the more true for the stories of Rabbah Bar Bar Chanah, which are ridiculed for their embellishment. Bar Bar Chanah’s own contemporaries knew it, too, with Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish even refusing to take his helping hand while nearly drowning in the Jordan River! (Yoma 9b) Nonetheless, the Talmud preserves his tall tales probably because they carry deeper metaphorical meanings.

Having said that, there are times when the Talmud is extremely precise in its historical facts. For example, it records (Avodah Zarah 9a) the historical eras leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple:

…Greece ruled for one hundred and eighty years during the existence of the Temple, the Hasmonean rule lasted one hundred and three years during Temple times, the House of Herod ruled one hundred and three years. Henceforth, one should go on counting the years as from the destruction of the Temple. Thus we see that [Roman rule over the Temple] was two hundred and six years…

We know from historical sources that Alexander conquered Israel around 331 BCE. The Maccabees threw off the yoke of the Greeks around 160 BCE, and Simon Maccabee officially began the Hasmonean dynasty in 142 BCE. That comes out to between 171 and 189 years of Greek rule, depending on where one draws the endpoint, right in line with the Talmud’s 180 years. The Hasmoneans went on to rule until 37 BCE, when Herod took over—that’s 105 years, compared to the Talmud’s 103 years. And the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, making Herodian rule over the Temple last about 107 years. We also know that Rome recognized the Hasmonean Jewish state around 139 BCE, taking a keen interest in the Holy Land thereafter, and continuing to be involved in its affairs until officially taking over in 63 BCE. They still permitted the Hasmoneans and Herodians to “rule” in their place until 92 CE. Altogether, the Romans loomed over Jerusalem’s Temple for about 209 years; the Talmud states 206 years. Considering that historians themselves are not completely sure of the exact years, the Talmud’s count is incredibly precise.

Understanding the Talmud

Lastly, it is important never to forget that the Talmud is not the code of Jewish law, and that Judaism is far, far more than just the Talmud. There are literally thousands of other holy texts. Jews do not just study Talmud, and even centuries ago, a Jew who focused solely on Talmud was sometimes disparagingly called a hamor d’matnitin, “Mishnaic donkey”. The Talmud itself states (Kiddushin 30a) that one should spend a third of their time studying Tanakh, a third studying Mishnah (and Jewish law), and a third studying Gemara (and additional commentary). The Arizal prescribes a study routine that begins with the weekly parasha from the Five Books of Moses, then progresses to the Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim, then to Talmud, and finally to Kabbalah (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Va’etchanan). He also states emphatically that one who does not study all aspects of Judaism has not properly fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study.

A Torah scroll in its Sephardic-style protective case, with crown.

Those who claim that Jews have replaced the Tanakh with the Talmud are entirely mistaken: When Jews gather in the synagogue, we do not take out the Talmud from the Holy Ark, but a scroll of Torah. It is this Torah which is so carefully transcribed by hand, which is adorned with a crown to signify its unceasing authority, and before which every Jew rises. After the Torah reading, we further read the Haftarah, a selection from the Prophets. At no point is there a public reading of Talmud. As explained previously, the Talmud is there to help us understand the Tanakh, and bring it to life.

Ultimately, one has to remember that the Talmud is a continuing part of the evolution of Judaism. We wrote before how we were never meant to blindly follow the Torah literally, but rather to study it, develop it, grow together with it, and extract its deeper truths. The same is true of the Talmud—the “Oral” Torah—and of all others subjects within Judaism, including Midrash, Kabbalah, and Halacha. Judaism is constantly evolving and improving, and that’s the whole point.

For more debunking of lies and myths about the Talmud, click here.

The Year 5778: Apex of the Messianic Era

The stars of this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, are Joseph and Judah. We are told how the sons of Jacob were envious (and suspicious) of Joseph, and ended up throwing him in a pit, while deliberating what to do with him. Shimon wished to kill him, Judah to sell him, and Reuben to save him. Meanwhile, Midianite merchants found the helpless Joseph and abducted him, later selling him to Ishmaelites who brought Joseph down to Egypt. There, Joseph enters into servitude in the home of a well-to-do Egyptian family.

The Torah diverges from this narrative to describe what happens to Judah. Judah marries and has three sons. The elder Er marries Tamar and dies because of his sinful ways, as does the second son Onan after fulfilling the law of levirate marriage and marrying his former sister-in-law. After Judah fearfully avoids another levirate marriage for Shelah, his last son, Tamar seduces Judah and becomes pregnant. She gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach.

Peretz would go on to be a forefather of King David, and thus a forefather of Mashiach. As is known, there are actual two messianic figures (or two aspects to Mashiach): Mashiach ben David, and Mashiach ben Yosef—one from the line of Judah and one from the line of Joseph. It is therefore in this week’s parasha where the spiritual origins of the two messiahs are laid.

Samson and the Messiahs

Mashiach ben Yosef is the first messiah. He is the warrior that battles evil in the “End of Days”. Unfortunately, he is destined to die in these battles. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) states how the entire nation will mourn his tragic death. However, it will not be too long before Mashiach ben David arises. As the direct descendant of the royal line, he re-establishes the rightful throne and restores the holy Kingdom of Israel. The Third Temple is built thereafter, and according to some Mashiach ben David reigns for forty years, as did his progenitor King David (Sanhedrin 99a, Midrash Tehillim 15).

We have already discussed why Mashiach ben Yosef must die in the past. How he will die is not exactly clear. What will bring him to his death? It appears that Mashiach ben Yosef will be sold out by his own people. This is what happened to one of the earliest prototypes of Mashiach ben Yosef: the Biblical judge Shimshon (Samson).

As is well known, when Jacob blessed his children, he concluded the blessing to Dan with the words “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18) which Rashi says refers to Samson, a descendent of Dan. Samson was the potential messiah of his generation. He was a warrior fighting the oppressive Philistines. Yet, the people of Judah did not appreciate the “trouble” he was causing, and apprehended him (Judges 15:11-12):

“Death of Samson”, by Gustav Doré

Then three thousand men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Eitam, and said to Samson: “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?” And he said to them: “As they did to me, so have I done to them.” And they said to him: “We have come to bind you, that we may deliver you into the hand of the Philistines.”

Samson turned himself in voluntarily, but with God’s help smote the Philistine oppressors and freed himself. He would be betrayed again by Delilah, but would manage to defeat the Philistines for good, though at the cost of his own life. Like Mashiach ben Yosef, Samson sacrifices himself.

The text above specifically states that three thousand men of Judah came for Samson. What is the significance of this numeric detail?

The Evil 3000

At the Exodus, the Torah states there was a “mixed multitude” (erev rav) of three thousand men among the Israelites. They, too, accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai, only to instigate the Golden Calf incident forty days later. It is said that the same will happen at the End of Days, with an “erev rav” among the Jews who will instigate all sorts of problems for the nation from within (see, for example, Zohar I, 25 or Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). Like Samson’s three thousand men of Judah, Mashiach ben Yosef is sold out by three thousand “Jewish” individuals.

And the fact that they are men of Judah is all the more significant. It was Judah in this week’s parasha who proposed selling Joseph. And to whom did he want to sell him?

And Judah said to his brothers: “What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.” (Genesis 37:26-27)

Judah wanted to sell his brother to the Ishmaelites. In speaking of the battles of Mashiach ben Yosef and the End of Days, it is often the Ishmaelites (or the Ishmaelites banded together with Esau) that are implicated (see, for example, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 30). Today, of course—quite conveniently—the modern “Philistines” are Ishmaelites, and among their biggest supporters are the descendants of Esau.

In The Era of Mashiach

This discussion is particularly timely in light of what’s currently happening in the Middle East. It seems the region is preparing for a massive war, one that would inevitably engulf the entire Ishmaelite sphere, if not the whole world. We’ve written before that we are undoubtedly in the “footsteps of the Messiah” and here is another intriguing point:

God originally intended Adam to live 1000 years. Yet, we see in Genesis that Adam lived only 930 years. This is because, as is well known, Adam foresaw that David would be stillborn, and donated 70 years of his life to him. Indeed, David went on to live exactly 70 years. The Arizal saw in the name Adam (אדם) an acronym for three figures: Adam, David, Mashiach. These are the first, middle, and last major figures of human history. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh stresses that David is supposed to be the literal midpoint of history. If that’s the case, then we only need to see when David lived to calculate the era of Mashiach.

The traditional lifetime for David is 2854-2924 AM (Anno Mundi, Hebrew calendar years, corresponding to about 907-837 BCE). To find the time period for the End of Days we must simply multiply David’s years by two. This gives 5708-5848, or 1947/1948-2087/2088 CE. That’s quite amazing, considering that Israel officially became a state in 5708 (the UN vote to create Israel took place in November 1947, and Israel declared independence in May 1948—both dates fall within the Jewish year 5708). And what would be the midpoint, or perhaps the apex, of the “End of Days” period? None other than 5778, the year which we are currently in.

Stay tuned.

The Shocking Opinion that the Akedah Never Happened

This week’s parasha is Vayera, which concludes with the famous account of the “binding of Isaac”, or Akedah. Last year we explored how God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, nor did He command it. This year we explore a much bigger question: did the Akedah even happen? In his Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”, Part II, Ch. 41) the Rambam writes:

Know again that in the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from God, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy.

The Rambam gives a number of examples of events that did not physically happen, but were only dreamt, including, quite surprisingly, Jacob wrestling the angel, Bilaam and his donkey, and the three angels that visit Abraham at the start of this week’s parasha. The Ramban, meanwhile, criticizes the Rambam for his approach, going so far as to say that “It is forbidden to listen” or “to believe” in such ideas.

Nonetheless, the notion that the Akedah happened entirely in a dream vision persisted long after the Rambam and Ramban. Marc B. Shapiro presents a thorough analysis of this conflict in his Changing the Immutable (pgs. 67-71). Shapiro notes that among those who accepted the Rambam’s opinion are the great Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), the Efodi (Rabbi Isaac ben Moses haLevi, c. 1350-1415), and Rav Nissim of Marseilles (c. 13th-14th century), who stated that Ibn Ezra (c. 1089-1167) also took this approach.

These sages argue that the Akedah passage is highly uncharacteristic of Abraham. When God told Abraham that He would smite Sodom, Abraham immediately protested and argued with Him. Yet here, God commands something incomprehensible, and Abraham does not even say a word? Abraham spent his entire life combatting idolatry, including child sacrifice, and now he suddenly and willingly goes to sacrifice his own child? It simply cannot be! The Akedah must have been a dream.

Is the Torah a History Book?

In truth, the notion that the Akedah was only a vision doesn’t hold much water. The text itself states that “Abraham woke up in the morning”—God’s command was certainly a vision, but the rest did physically happen. It was a three day’s journey, and after the incident Abraham names the place that would eventually be Jerusalem. At the end, we are told that Abraham returned to Be’er Sheva. It is difficult to see how the whole thing could be a dream. The same is true for the three angels visiting Abraham. How could it be a dream if Sarah interacted with these angels as well, and two of the angels went on to destroy Sodom?

Of course, there are those who argue that none of this happened at all, and the Torah is nothing but a set of national myths or stories. This brings up an important question: is the Torah a history book?

The answer is a definitive no. “Torah” can mean a lot of things (“law”, “instruction”, “teaching”, “guide”) but it does not mean “history”. The Torah is an instructional manual for life. Some of it describes historical events, but most of it records laws, ethics, rituals, and metaphysical realities. The purpose of the Torah is for us to study it and discuss it, “turn it over and turn it over”, analyze it and develop its ideas, and thereby bring the Torah to life. We have already written in the past that Jews don’t really “follow” the Torah, we live it, and we grow with it, and evolve together with it.

Besides, archaeologists have found a plethora of evidence to support the historical aspects of the Torah, including multiple seals bearing the name Yakov, the tomb of a Semitic-Egyptian official that fits the bill of Joseph exactly, Egyptian records describing the expulsion of a large Semitic nation of “shepherd-kings”, and many more events from the Tanakh.

Still, the Torah is not a history book and should not be studied that way. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) wrote that the narratives of the Torah are only its outermost garment, the legal and homiletical aspects are its main body, but it is the spiritual and mystical wisdom within it that is the true soul of the Torah. He based this on the Zohar (III, 152a), which speaks with even harsher language:

Rabbi Shimon said: “Woe to the person who says that the Torah comes to give instructions and tell descriptive stories and simple tales. … Every word in the Torah reflects higher wisdom and higher secrets… The narratives of the Torah are only the outer clothing of the Torah. Whoever thinks that this outer clothing is, in fact, the Torah and there is nothing underneath the clothing is spiritually backward and has no portion in the World to Come…

One who studies the Torah superficially, and accepts its laws and narratives only at face value, without penetrating into the Torah’s depths, is making a big mistake and will ultimately forfeit their portion in Olam HaBa. Such a person’s faith will be weak, and they will be unable to deal with supposed “historical inaccuracies” or “scientific contradictions” which we are bombarded with constantly. In reality, when delving deeper into the Torah and embracing it entirely, it becomes abundantly clear that there are no inaccuracies or contradictions at all. The Torah is truth.

The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka! 

Tu b’Shevat: The Prime Ministers of Israel and the Coming of Mashiach

This Shabbat we celebrate the little-known though highly significant holiday of Tu b’Shevat. This special day is commonly referred to as Rosh Hashanah l’Ilanot, “the New Year for Trees”. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 2a) tells us that there are four “new years” on the Hebrew Calendar:

The first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing of cattle… The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for sabbaticals, Jubilees, plantation, and tithing of vegetables; on the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to Beit Shammai, however, Beit Hillel places it on the fifteenth of that month.

The general rule is that we always follow Hillel’s opinion over Shammai’s, and so the New Year for Trees is commemorated on the 15th of Shevat. The Talmud doesn’t explain why Hillel and Shammai disagreed about the date. Perhaps because of this confusion, we are told that Rabbi Akiva would tithe his fruits on both the first and fifteenth of Shevat.

Nonetheless, by the 16th century, Tu b’Shevat had developed into an important mystical holiday, and the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria) introduced a Tu b’Shevat seder that mirrors the Passover seder. In addition to eating a variety of different fruits that are kabbalistically symbolic, the Tu b’Shevat seder includes drinking four cups of wine like on Passover. The connection is made very clear: Passover celebrates our First Redemption, and Tu b’Shevat celebrates our future redemption with the coming of Mashiach.

Indeed, Mashiach is often likened to a tree or sprouting plant. For example, Zechariah 6:2 tells us that Mashiach’s name is Tzemach, literally “plant”, while Psalms 92:13, in describing the End of Days, says “the righteous one will flourish like a palm tree.” Jewish tradition holds that a potential messiah lives in each generation, so that he may come immediately if the world is ready. Moses was the first redeemer, so his successor Joshua was the first possible mashiach.

Joshua was the first of the so-called “Judges”, the Shoftim that led Israel over the period of nearly five centuries before Israel had a king. It wasn’t just Joshua who was a potential messiah, but each and every one of the Judges. Each was a saviour in their generation, fighting off Israel’s enemies and bringing peace to the Holy Land. Each had the opportunity to reclaim Jerusalem and build the Holy Temple upon it, but failed. We read in Joshua 13:1 how God reprimands Joshua for growing old without completing his task, while the commentaries on Genesis 49:18 tell us how downtrodden Jacob was to prophetically foresee Samson fail to bring about the redemption.

The period of Judges would come to an end, and soon David would ascend the throne. It was he who acquired the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant there. David besought God to allow him to build the Temple, but God denied the request. However, he promised David that his dynasty would be everlasting, and that he would be the progenitor of the Messiah, who would complete David’s divine task.

It took a long and difficult, lawless period of Judges (where each person falsely did “what was right in their own eyes”, as we are told in Judges 17:6 and 21:25), full of warfare and oppression before the first footsteps of the Final Redemption were laid. This strongly resembles our present situation. “There is nothing new under the sun,” said King Solomon, and it appears we are reliving the past in our modern day.

Israel’s Prime Ministers

In 1948, a fully independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was finally re-established, under miraculous circumstances. Jews were returning en masse to their ancestral home, on a scale unseen since the time of Joshua. There was a chance to reclaim all of the ancient borders and even (though it would be astronomically difficult) rebuild the Temple. An even better opportunity presented itself in 1967, after the phenomenal Six-Day War. Yet time and again Israel failed to fulfil its Biblical mission. Alas, we must wait for Mashiach, the scion of David’s dynasty, to get the job done. The feeling among many Jews today is probably similar to that of the Jews in the period of Judges. And the similarities don’t end there.

The Israelite leaders in the period of Judges did some great things, but ultimately failed to realize their main task. A careful reading of the Book of Judges reveals that not all of the Judges were divinely appointed, and some weren’t even righteous! For the most part, the Judges were military leaders selected by the people. The Judge Avimelech was a powerful warrior, but such a wicked man that he was severely punished by God. Nonetheless, he is counted among the Judges because he was elected by the people. Sound familiar?

The situation in Israel today is much the same, with the people electing their leader – the prime minister – who is often a military hero and sometimes not so righteous. The parallels between the ancient Judges and the modern prime ministers of Israel are striking:

The fifth Judge was Deborah, the only female; the fifth prime minister was Golda Meir, also the only female. Prior to Deborah was Shamgar, who had such a brief stint that he is not included in the chronological record. Likewise, before Golda Meir was Yigal Allon, who served for just 19 days and is often excluded from the list of official prime ministers. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the Judges to make more detailed comparisons. Many are described in only one or two verses, and some just by name. (Did Prime Minister Ehud Barak appreciate the significance of his name, considering both Ehud and Barak were two central figures in the Book of Judges?)

What we do know is that there were a total of fifteen Judges, who reigned from the time the Jews returned to Israel after their calamity in Egypt. Three thousand years later, the Jews once again return to Israel after the Holocaust, and thus far there have been thirteen prime ministers. The era of Judges concluded with the start of the monarchy and the subsequent construction of the Temple. It took fifteen judges to get there. Will it take fifteen prime ministers to do it again?

The Secret of Tu b’Shevat

Although the School of Shammai taught that the “New Year for Trees” is the first of Shevat, the School of Hillel insisted that it was on the fifteenth. This is where the holiday gets its name: Tu b’Shevat literally means “fifteenth of Shevat”, where Tu is the traditional Hebrew designation for the number fifteen. (In Hebrew, Tu [ט”ו] is composed of the letters ט and ו, where the former has a value of 9 and the latter 6, totalling 15. It might seem more logical to use the letters yud [10] and hei [5] to represent 15, but that would inadvertently spell a name of God in vain!)

Perhaps the School of Hillel insisted on the fifteenth to remind us of the deeper meaning of the holiday: the Final Redemption that it symbolizes, the foundation of which was laid by the first fifteen Judges and which, perhaps, will be fulfilled by another set of fifteen modern “judges”.

The Kabbalists teach that the letters beit and pei are linked, and are sometimes interchangeable. In fact, within the shape of the letter pei is a hidden beit. With this in mind, the word Shevat (שבט) can be read Shofet (שפט), “Judge”. Thus, Tu b’Shevat may very well hint to the fifteen Judges.

When it comes to the modern-day “judges”, the Prime Minster of Israel is officially the leading member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And it is the Knesset that gives the necessary “vote of confidence” to elect a prime minister. Incredibly, Israel’s very first Knesset convened on February 14, 1949, which just happened to be Tu b’Shevat!

Prophecies and Miracles

The Tu b’Shevat seder instituted by the Kabbalists cites the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) that “there is no greater sign of the Redemption than the fulfilment of the verse, ‘And you, mountains of Israel, you shall give forth your branches and you shall bear your fruit for my people Israel, for they shall soon come’ (Ezekiel 36:8).” The Sages state then when we see the land of Israel flourishing once more, and yielding great quantities of fruit, we should know that the Redemption is imminent. Indeed, the modern State of Israel has flourished, growing a whopping 95% of its own produce, and exporting over $1.3 billion in agricultural goods – despite having a land mass that is officially 50% desert!

Back in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz started a tradition by taking his students to plants trees on Tu b’Shevat. Soon after, the custom was adopted by the Jewish National Fund, which has since planted an astonishing 260 million trees in Israel, and played a central role in the nascent state’s success. Today, it is estimated that over a million Jews still participate yearly in JNF’s Tu b’Shevat tree-planting. As such, Tu b’Shevat has grown from an obscure, mystical holiday – a footnote on the Hebrew calendar – to an important holiday marked even by secular Jews, bringing the entire nation together, very much in the spirit of the coming Redemption.

‘The Mulberry Tree’ (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh