Tag Archives: Idolatry

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.

Are Tattoos Really Forbidden?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we read: “You are children of Hashem, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” Here, the Torah repeats the prohibition of extreme mourning for the dead, which includes making cuts in one’s flesh or tearing out one’s hair in grief. The parallel passage in Leviticus 19:28 states “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.” The Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) elaborates on these verses that there are two forms of cutting: one is an incision alone, and the other is an incision with ink, ie. a tattoo.

The Torah’s prohibition in Re’eh makes it clear that it is forbidden to make any cuttings in the flesh for the dead. In Leviticus (parashat Kedoshim), however, cutting in the flesh is juxtaposed with tattooing (ketovet ka’aka’a). More accurately, Leviticus uses the term “scratches” (seret) instead of “cutting”, which implies making shallow incisions that don’t necessarily result in deep wounds or profuse bleeding. This is not referring to cutting one’s self in grief, but a slightly different case where a person might incise or scratch the name of the deceased into their flesh, resulting in a permanent scar that bear’s the deceased’s name. The Mishnah concludes by stating that “If he writes without imprinting, or he imprints without writing, he is not liable for lashes, until he writes and imprints with ink or pigment or anything that leaves an impression.” Thus, while cutting deep wounds for the dead is forbidden, a person who only scratches (literally “writes”) into their skin leaving a faint scar has not sinned, unless they scratched with ink to leave a very clear impression.

Conversely, a person who uses ink alone, without any scratches or incisions, has not sinned either. So, there is little to worry about if your children come home with those temporary sticker-like “tattoos” that are rubbed onto the skin with some water. Neither is there a problem with things like henna.

Having said that, the Mishnah does not end with the words quoted above. It continues to state a teaching in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “He is not liable until he writes a name there, as it says: ‘… nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.’” The Talmud (Makkot 21a) asks what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai meant by this: Did he mean it is forbidden to write a Name of God, since the verse says “I am Hashem”? Or, did he mean that it is forbidden to write the name of an idolatrous deity, and it says “I am Hashem” to remind us that there is only One God?

The Sages conclude that Rashbi meant it is forbidden only to write the name of an idol or false deity. Does that, then, imply it is permissible to tattoo God’s Name? Interestingly, it has been pointed out that Isaiah 44:5 might refer to such a tattoo: “One shall say: ‘I am to Hashem’, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob, and another shall write his hand to Hashem…” What does this last phrase—yikhtov yado l’Hashem—mean? The verb used (likhtov) is the same as that in Leviticus and in the Mishnah’s discussion of tattoos. Does this suggest that in Isaiah’s time people did have “holy tattoos” on their arms?

Holy Tattoos

The suggestion that Jews may have had “kosher” tattoos seems quite unlikely. The verse in Isaiah makes no reference to a ka’aka’a or seret, or even gadad (the root used in parashat Re’eh). Perhaps a better interpretation is that it refers to tefillin, whose writings are bound upon the arm. Besides, Isaiah is not speaking of his own time at all, but prophesying to a distant future when the righteous shall “spring up among the grass” (44:4).

Whatever the case, the Mishnah holds that tattoos are only forbidden when bearing a name. It appears that tattooing for other reasons, including decorative ones, is not forbidden. Indeed, the Torah’s prohibition is only stated with regards to mourning the dead. This would forbid, for example, tattooing the name of one’s beloved that has passed away—something quite common today, and clearly in ancient times, too. If the tattoo is not associated with idolatry or mourning, there is technically no Scriptural or Talmudic basis for forbidding it.

The popular belief that a Jew who has a tattoo will not be buried in a Jewish cemetery is entirely untrue. Some say it began with one particular cemetery that refused people with tattoos to be buried there. Rabbi Gutman Locks proposed that it came from the need to identify dead bodies: if a corpse had a tattoo, it was assumed that the person wasn’t Jewish, so they were buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. Either way, it became a useful tool for fearful parents who tried to discourage their children from getting inked. The fear is justified, for Jewish tradition has always strongly frowned upon tattooing. Despite the fact that our ancient holy texts do not expressly forbid it, avoiding tattoos has become a firm Jewish custom accepted by all communities.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), in his authoritative Mishneh Torah, records the prohibition as law (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 12:11). He argues that tattooing is a practice of idolaters, invented by idolaters, for idolaters, and tattoos generally symbolize a mark of submission to some false deity. Since the Torah is so adamant about staying away from anything that is even remotely connected to idolatry, tattoos should be completely forbidden—even if the tattoo bears a holy Name of God or a verse from the Torah.

Today, there aren’t a lack of people who sport such tattoos. While the faith of such people is commendable, using a tattoo to express that faith is ironically inappropriate since Jewish law forbids tattooing! If these people feel like Isaiah 44:5 is a Scriptural support for them, perhaps they should, instead, be more scrupulous with the mitzvah of tefillin, which may be a more fitting interpretation of that verse. After all, tefillin is a mark of devotion to Hashem, symbolizing a Jew’s dedication of mind, heart, and action towards the service of God. Just as the Rambam says a tattoo was meant to be a mark of devotion and submission to an idol, a Jew’s tefillin serves the same purpose with regards to Hashem. The only inked skin that a Jew needs is the dyed leather of tefillin.

And there are a handful of other good reasons to avoid tattoos, too.

“Jewish Tattoos” (Credit: tattoo-journal.com)

Physical and Spiritual Health

Firstly, tattoos are a health issue. Other than the pain of the procedure itself, injecting pigments can cause allergic reactions and itchy rashes. For some people, the itchiness can persist for years. Infections are relatively common, too, with hepatitis B and C being a particular issue, as well as less serious bacterial infections. Studies show that as many as 6% of people get an infection following tattooing. Tattoos can also be problematic if a person needs an MRI in the future. The strong magnets can shift the metals in the ink and cause pain or swelling. They sometimes distort the MRI image, too. Finally, tattoo inks can be toxic, and have been linked to cancer.

To be fair, some people do experience a positive mental or emotional boost from getting a tattoo. These “mental health tattoos” can be a good thing, and even bring a person out of a depressive state. However, there are undoubtedly much better ways to treat depression and mental health issues than getting a tattoo.

On a spiritual level, tattoos are an even bigger issue. As we saw above, tattooing was associated with idolatry. It was also associated with slavery, where a master would brand his servant with a mark of ownership. This is still happening today, especially in prostitution rings, where pimps often have their logos tattooed on their “property”. Cattle and other animals are also generally branded with tattoos. Of course, no one could forget the Jews that were tattooed with a number in the Holocaust. This alone should make a Jew cringe and stay away from ink. (It should be noted here that a person who is tattooed against their will is not culpable in any way, and bearing the tattoo is certainly not a sin—as the Rambam makes explicitly clear in the same passage cited above.)

Then there’s the issue of modesty. Jews are expected to uphold the highest standards of modesty, and there are few places on the body where a tattoo would even be visible to the public. Tattoos tend to be placed in areas that shouldn’t be exposed to begin with—which, in many cases, goes to show the real motivation for getting one. Tattoos are often just a means of attracting attention. Other people, meanwhile, have so many tattoos that the reasoning could be the exact opposite: It has been said that in a world where people are less and less covered by clothes, they subconsciously seek other means to hide their skin. In a strange inversion of modesty, there are those who hide behind their tattoos.

But for many people, a tattoo is done on a whim, or in one’s youth, or without too much forethought. The result is that about a third of people who get a tattoo end up regretting it, and about half of those seek expensive tattoo removal procedures. It is therefore better to stay away from tattoos entirely.

And lastly, it is important to keep in mind that the Mishnah states it isn’t just forbidden to get a tattoo, but also to tattoo “the flesh of one’s fellow”. The act of tattooing itself is problematic, and therefore, “tattoo artist” is not a kosher profession for any Jew.

Why is Judaism Matrilineal?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, God cautions His people about intermarriage (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Although the Torah is speaking specifically about intermarrying with the Canaanite nations, the verses have always been understood as prohibiting intermarriage with any and all other nations. This is especially true because the Torah goes on to say that intermarrying will lead to the children being led astray and being turned to idolatrous ways. In those days, the Canaanites were not the only idolaters, of course—just about everyone was an idol-worshipper—so all intermarriage was forbidden. The Torah phrases the prohibition in an interesting way:

You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for they will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship the gods of others…

While the Torah makes it clear that one must not marry their son to a gentile woman, or their daughter to a gentile man, it goes on to only mention that the son will be turned away from God, not the daughter. (The same is true in Exodus 34:16, “And you will take their daughters for your sons… and they will make your sons go astray after their gods.”) The Sages explain that women tend to be of greater faith than me, and as the primary builders of the home, it is the women who set the spiritual tone of the family. A faithful Jewish man who marries a non-Jewish woman will, sooner or later, be led astray. Such was the case with a great many Jewish men following the Babylonian Exile, and when they finally returned to Israel, they admitted (Ezra 10:2-3):

We have broken faith with our God, and have married foreign women of the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of Hashem, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.

“Ezra reading the Law in the hearing of the people” by Gustave Doré

From all of the above, the Sages conclude that Judaism passes on maternally. Scripture makes it clear that only the non-Jewish mother will turn a Jewish man astray, and as we learn from Ezra, only those born to “foreign women” are not part of the Covenant. Aside from this, there are a number of other practical and spiritual reasons why Judaism must be matrilineal.

Since the mother is the one actually giving birth to the child, it is pretty much clear every single time who the child’s mother is. The same cannot be said of the father. Throughout history, when raping and pillaging was unfortunately very common, and there were no paternity tests, only the mother’s status as parent was evident. This may be why the ancient Greeks and Romans tended to be matrilineal as well.

Shaye J.D. Cohen points out (see chapter 9 of The Beginnings of Jewishness) that in Athens, only the offspring of an Athenian man and an Athenian woman could have Athenian citizenship, a law introduced by Pericles around 451 BCE. If an Athenian man married a foreign woman, the children would not be Athenians. Later, the Romans similarly held that only two Roman citizens can have a child who was a Roman citizen, and if a Roman married a foreigner or someone of a lower social class, the status or identity of the child would be that of the mother.

While these rules make sense from a logical perspective, they also recognize the profound connection that a child and mother have—far superior to that of child and father. And this ties into the deeper biological, and spiritual, reasons for why Judaism is matrilineal.

The Genetics of Motherhood

When it comes to the genes and traits of children, people tend to think that they are a 50-50 mix of mother and father. We learn in school how 23 chromosomes from the father (carried by sperm cells) meet 23 chromosomes from the mother (in the egg cell) to produce a new child. We are made to believe that even if the child may look more like one parent, they are nonetheless perfectly half-half. This is completely untrue.

A karyotype showing 23 pairs of chromosomes. (Credit: National Human Genome Research Institute)

First of all, when it comes to boys, the Y chromosome of the father is far smaller and carries significantly less genes than the mother’s X chromosome. Girls do have half of their father’s and half of their mother’s genes (receiving an X from each, along with the other 22 chromosomes). However, this only refers to nuclear DNA. The cell has other forms of heritable genetic material, too, most notably in mitochondria.

The mitochondrion is one of the most vital components of any cell, and provides the bulk of a cell’s energy. The main reason that you breathe is to provide oxygen for mitochondria. They are involved in countless processes, including calcium storage, cell signalling and communication, metabolism, hormone production, the breakdown of wastes (such as toxic ammonia in the liver), and apoptosis, or cellular death. A single cell could have over a thousand mitochondria.

Mitochondria under a microscope.

These mitochondria have their very own DNA, carrying hundreds of additional genes. This DNA, called mtDNA, is passed down strictly from mother to child. A father’s mitochondria play no role. In fact, because of this, geneticists are able to trace a person’s maternal lineage fairly accurately thousands of years into the past by analyzing mtDNA. (My own mtDNA—haplogroup U6a—dates back to a woman who lived in North Africa about 1000 generations ago!)

There are multiple other cellular components that are passed down almost entirely from mother to child. Because the sperm essentially donates only its nucleus (with its chromosomes) to the egg, it is the egg cell itself that begins to divide in producing an embryo. Thus, the bulk of a person’s cellular structure comes from their mother, too. Back in university, I had one biology professor who estimated that inheritance is not 50-50, but more like 80-20. From a scientific perspective, we are far, far more like our mothers.

This is one reason why mothers have such a deep and profound connection to their child. Amazingly, scientists have recently discovered that when a woman is pregnant, DNA (and whole cells) from the child actually goes into the bloodstream and ends up in the mother’s brain! Fetal cells have also been found in lungs, muscles, and heart tissue of mothers. A mother will literally carry the DNA of her children in her body for the rest of her life.

Just as children are physically more connected with their mothers so, too, are they more spiritually connected to their mothers. (After all, one of Judaism’s central principles is that the dynamics of this physical world are only a reflection of the spiritual realms.) And this is yet another key reason why Judaism is, and must be, matrilineal.

What About Conversion?

The genetics perspective brings up an important question: what about converts? A person who converts to Judaism is, of course, a full-fledged Jew. But their DNA hasn’t changed! It goes without saying that Judaism is not genetic, and the discussion of genetics above is meant to only be an analogy for spiritual processes.

Having said that, we have an opportunity here to bust another common myth: that a person’s DNA is unchanging. People are often taught that whatever DNA they are born with, they are stuck with. If they have a defective gene for a particular condition, then they will definitely develop that condition. Today we know that this, too, is not entirely correct.

As discussed before in detail, our body has epigenetic machinery which allows gene expression to be controlled. Just because a person has a certain gene does not mean that the gene will be operational. It can certainly be “shut off”. While it was once thought that our lifestyle choices have no impact on our genes or epigenetics, new research continues to show that the choices we make have a tremendous effect on our genes. We’ve known for a long time that things like diet and physical activity impact gene expression, and now we even have evidence that prayer and meditation affects our genes.

Therefore, a person who sincerely converts to Judaism, and begins to live a Jewish lifestyle, eat like a Jew, think like a Jew, and pray like a Jew, will very likely experience changes on the genetic (or epigenetic) level as well. And these epigenetic changes are hereditary.

This is yet another reason why it is so important to convert to Judaism properly. Converting means not only converting in name, but becoming Torah-observant and living a Jewish life. Otherwise, what’s the point of the conversion? This is precisely why Orthodox conversions tends to be so difficult and time-consuming. The rabbis want to ensure (as much as possible) that the person is serious about becoming a Jew, and will actually live as one.

The process is far from perfect, and sometimes they do make it too difficult and tedious. We have addressed this in the past as well. Some point out that it was never so difficult to convert in past centuries. This is true, as the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) explains the procedure thus:

Once healed [from circumcision], we immerse him immediately; and two scholars stand above him, and teach him a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments. Once he has immersed and come up from immersion, he is part of Israel for all matters. If the convert is a woman, women sit her in the water up to her neck and two scholars stand outside, and teach her a few easy commandments and a few difficult commandments.

That’s all it took back in those days. A person was just taught a few introductory mitzvot while already immersed part way in a mikveh. They would pick up the rest when going on to live as Jews and marry into Jewish families. Even in the time of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) hundreds of years later, he codifies this exact procedure as law (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 14:6). Yet, in those days just about everyone was religious (whether Jewish or not). This isn’t the case in today’s secular society. A person who converts to Judaism wouldn’t necessarily learn how to be a Jew by simply marrying into a Jewish family. It is necessary to carefully teach them everything beforehand.

It is just as necessary to determine their real intentions, and affirm their absolute sincerity. In a world where people change their identities faster than they change their socks, it isn’t surprising that Orthodox rabbis take conversion very seriously and are extremely stringent about it. It is important to keep this in mind as we continue to hear about intermarriage and the “who is a Jew?” debate in the mainstream media.

The Jewish View on Cards and Gambling

In this week’s parasha, Matot-Massei, we read how the Israelites were supposed to divide up the Holy Land between the Twelve Tribes:

And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the more [numerous] you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the lesser inheritance; wherever the lot falls to any man, that shall be his…

We learn that the land of Israel was apportioned based on family size, with larger families logically receiving a larger share. Now, to determine which chunk of land a family would receive, the Israelites cast lots. The Talmud (Bava Batra 122a) describes how this was done: two urns were prepared, one containing the names of the Twelve Tribes, and the other containing the names of the various allotments of land. Elazar the High Priest would pick one name from each urn, thus designating a piece of land for a particular tribe.

Casting lots was very common in Biblical times, and is mentioned frequently in the Tanakh. For example, the Torah commands casting lots to determine which goat is sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:8). In the Book of Jonah (1:7), the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to determine who was guilty of causing the storm. In the time of King David, the kohanim were thus divided into 24 groups (I Chronicles 24). Haman cast lots to determine the best day to attack the Jews, and this is why the holiday is called “Purim”, since purim was the Persian word for “lots” (Esther 3:7).

Casting lots suggests a large degree of chance or randomness in the process. Yet, people of faith are naturally quite averse to the concept of random chance, for isn’t everything determined by God? Not surprisingly, the word “lot” (goral) also takes on the meaning of “fate” in the Tanakh. For instance, Isaiah (17:14) prophesies: “At evening there will be terror, and before morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the goral of them that rob us.” The ultimate fate of those that harm the Jewish people will be utter destruction. The Sages, too, were uncomfortable with the idea of dividing the Holy Land by seemingly random lots. They therefore stated (ibid.) that the lots were really just a show for the people to see what God intended. In reality:

Elazar was wearing the Urim and Tumim, while Joshua and all Israel stood before him… Animated by the Holy Spirit, he gave directions, exclaiming: “Zevulun” is coming up and the boundary lines of Acco are coming up with it. [Thereupon], he shook well the urn of the tribes and Zevulun came up in his hand. [Likewise] he shook well the urn of the boundaries and the boundary lines of Acco came up in his hand…

Elazar would prophetically see which tribe needed which land, and when he then shook the urns those exact pairs that he foresaw would emerge! So, the process was not random at all, but simply a materialization of the Divine Will. Still, the Sages insist that in the messianic era the Holy Land will not be apportioned through this method of casting lots, but rather “The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, will divide it among them; for it is said [Ezekiel 48:29], ‘And these are their portions, says the Lord God.’”

If the Sages were not fond of casting random lots by chance, how would they feel about playing games of chance and gambling?

Gambling in the Talmud

In 1999 and 2000, the Muslim Waqf (Temple Mount authority) dug up 9000 tons of Temple Mount soil and unceremoniously dumped it in the Kidron Valley, creating one of the largest archaeological catastrophes in history. Thankfully, archaeologists did not give up on this precious soil, and began the “Temple Mount Sifting Project”. Among the many incredible finds are these Second Temple-era playing dice.

In a list of people that are ineligible to serve as witnesses or as judges, the Mishnah includes a mesachek b’kubia, a person who plays with dice, and mafrichei yonim, “pigeon flyers”. According to the Talmud, the latter most likely refers to people who bet on pigeon races, which were apparently common in those days. We know from historical sources that gambling with various dice games was very popular in Greek and Roman times. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24b) goes on to discuss what the problem with such people is.

Rami bar Hama teaches that the issue with gambling is that it is essentially built on a lie: each player agrees to pay a certain sum of money if they lose, yet they hope (and fully intend) not to lose at all! That means the initial agreement made by the players is not even valid. The losing gambler is entirely dejected, and gives up their money reluctantly, often with a nagging feeling of being robbed or cheated out of their money.

Rav Sheshet disagrees. After all, there may be some people who are not so sad to part with their money, or are simply addicted to the game itself. Whatever the case, Rav Sheshet holds that gambling is inappropriate because it is a terribly unproductive waste of time, and the gambler contributes nothing to “the welfare of the world”. This is why, Rav Sheshet says, the Mishnah above concludes by saying that only a full-time gambler is prohibited, but one who has an actual job and just plays for fun on the side is permitted.

Nonetheless, Rav Yehudah holds that regardless of whether the gambler has an occupation or not, or whether he is a full-time player or not, a gambler is disqualified from being a kosher witness or judge. Rav Yehudah bases his statement on a related teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, and on this Rashi comments that a gambler is likened to a thief. The Midrash is even more vocal, saying that gamblers “calculate with their left hand, and press with their right, and rob and wrong one another” (Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 26:10).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) goes on to state that the prohibitions above don’t only refer to a literal dice-player, but any kind of gambler, including one who plays with pebbles (or checkers), and even with nuts. The Sages state that such a person is only readmitted when they do a complete repentance, and refuse to play the game even just for fun without any money!

Halachically-speaking, the Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 370:2-3) first states that any kind of gambling is like theft and is forbidden, but then suggests that while it may not exactly be theft it is certainly a waste of time and not something anyone should engage in.

A Ban on Gambling

While the Talmud does not explicitly forbid gambling, later rabbis recognized its addictive nature and sought to ban the practice entirely. In 1628, for example, the rabbis of Venice issued a decree (to last six years) excommunicating any Jew who gambled. Part of the motivation for this decree was the case of Leon da Modena (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena, 1571-1648).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

Born in Venice to a family of Sephardic exiles, da Modena went on to become a respected rabbi and the hazzan of Venice’s main synagogue for forty years. A noted scholar, he wrote about a dozen important treatises. In Magen v’Herev, he systematically tore down the major tenets of Christianity, while in Ari Nohem he sought to discredit Kabbalah and prove that the Zohar has no ancient or divine origin. (The latter is probably why he isn’t as well-known in Jewish circles today as he should be.)

In 1637, he published Historia de’riti hebraici, an overview of Judaism for the European world, meant to dispel myths about Judaism and quell anti-Semitism. Historians credit this with being the first Jewish text written for the non-Jewish world in over a millennium, since the time of Josephus. The book was incredibly popular, and played a key role in England’s readmitting Jews to the country in the 1650s (after having being expelled in 1290).

More pertinent to the present discussion, Rabbi da Modena wrote Sur miRa (“Desist from Evil”), outlining the problems with gambling. He would know, since he was horribly addicted to gambling himself. He wrote of this problem in his own autobiography, Chayei Yehudah. And because such a high-profile sage was a gambler, his rabbinic colleagues in Venice issued that decree to ban any form of gambling.

Rabbi da Modena’s game of choice was cards. At that point in time, playing cards had become wildly popular in Europe. First invented in China in the 9th century, playing cards slowly made their way across Asia, and reached Europe around 1365. They have remained popular ever since, both for gambling and non-gambling games. While it is clear from an halachic standpoint that card games involving money (like Poker or Blackjack) should not be played, is it permissible to play non-gambling card games (like Crazy Eights or Go Fish)?

At first glance, it may not seem like there should be a problem with this. Yet, some rabbis have recently spoken out against all playing cards. Usually, this prohibition is connected not to gambling or wasting time, but rather to cards’ apparent origins in idolatry or the dark arts. Although it is true that some types of cards are used in divination and fortune-telling, it is important to examine the matter in depth and determine whether cards really are associated with forbidden practices.

The History of Playing Cards

Mamluk Cards

The exact origins of cards are unclear. We do know that they come from China, where paper and printing were invented. Card games are attested to in Chinese texts as early as 868 CE. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Muslims brought cards across Asia. They were particularly popular in Egypt during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The Mamluks created the first modern-style deck of 52 cards with 4 suits. The suits were sticks, coins, swords, and cups. In the 15th century, Italians started to make cards of their own, with the suits being leaves, hearts, bells, and acorns. The French had three-leaf clovers for leaves, square tiles (or diamonds) for bells, and pikes for acorns. Although these suit symbols remained, the English names reflect the earlier suits of sticks (“clubs”) and swords (“spades”).

The Muslim Mamluks did not draw any faces on their court cards (since depicting faces in art is forbidden in Islam). The Europeans did not have this issue, and adapted the Muslim court cards of malik (king), malik na’ib (deputy king), and thani na’ib (second deputy) to king, queen, and prince or knight (“jack”). In 16th century France, the four kings were depicted as particular historical figures: the King of Spades was King David, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, and the King of Diamonds was Julius (or Augustus) Caesar.

We see that playing cards have no origins in idolatry. The style of cards we know today were developed by staunchly monotheistic Muslims. They were further developed by mostly non-religious European renaissance printers, against the wishes of the Church which sought to ban cards on a number of occasions. Neither are playing cards known for being used in fortune-telling. However, a related type of card is used in divination today.

Tarot Cards and Kabbalah

In 15th century Italy, a different type of playing card developed. These were called trionfi, later tarocchi, and finally “tarot cards”. They, too, have four suits, but with 56 cards. These were, and still are, used for a number of different games, just like regular playing cards are. Outside of Europe, tarot cards are not well-known, and are generally associated with fortune-tellers.

In reality, the earliest mention of tarot cards being used in divination is only from 1750, and it was essentially unheard of until the late 19th century. Besides, most diviners actually use a different deck of 78 cards. Of course, such divination is entirely forbidden according to the Torah. So, it seems like some well-meaning rabbis have confused these tarot cards with regular playing cards. Ironically, many occultists actually claim that tarot cards come from Kabbalah!

The Tarot “Tree of Life” (Credit: Byzant.com)

These occultists tie the 22 additional divination cards to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths on the mystical “Tree of Life”. The ten numeral cards (naturally) correspond to the Ten Sefirot, while the four suits correspond to the four olamot, or universes. Finally, the four court cards and the ace represent the five partzufim (with the king and queen appropriately being Aba and Ima). While these parallels are neat, there is absolutely no known historical or textual basis to support these claims. Tarot cards have nothing to do with traditional Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. (There is a concept in Kabbalah of a negative set of Ten Sefirot belonging to the Sitra Achra, so perhaps there is some connection between these tarot cards and certain evil spiritual forces.)

Having said all that, to forbid playing with cards (or even standard tarot cards) just because some people recently started using them in divination is like forbidding drinking coffee because some people recently started divining with coffee (a practice called “tassology” or “tasseography”). While playing cards copiously is certainly a waste of time, there is nothing wrong with the occasional—no gambling—game.

Ba’al HaTurim

It is fitting to end with the words of the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) who writes in his commentary on the Torah (Tur HaAroch on Deuteronomy 1:1) that Moses himself cautioned Israel about gambling in his final speech before passing away:

Before Moses got ready to relate all these various commandments, he used the present opportunity, a few weeks before his death, to admonish the people, and to remind them of past sins, and how they had caused Hashem a lot of grief during these years. He reminded them how God had treated them by invoking His attribute of mercy and loving kindness time and again. He warned them not to become corrupt again by gambling… They should not rely on the fact that because they were human they were bound to err and sin from time to time and that God, knowing this, would overlook their trespasses.

Secrets of the Pesach Seder Plate

This Friday evening marks the start of Passover. At the Passover seder, it is customary to have a plate upon which all the symbolic Passover foods are placed. According to one arrangement, on the top right we place the zeroa bone; parallel to it on the left is an egg; then the maror (bitter herb) in the centre; the sweet charoset on the bottom right, opposite the karpas vegetable; and in the bottom centre the chazeret, horseradish or another serving of maror (which is used in the korech “sandwich”). In addition, we have three matzahs and the cup of wine, to be filled four times. What is the significance of these Pesach elements?

The zeroa represents the fact that God took us out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (b’zeroa netuya), as the Torah states. It also represents the korban pesach, the Pesach offering that would be brought and consumed in the days of the Temple. For this reason, it is best to have a zeroa from a lamb shank, since the Pesach offering was a lamb. The lamb itself was in commemoration of the fact that the Israelites smeared the blood of the lamb on their doorposts on the eve of their Exodus, to protect their homes from the tenth and final plague. It was a lamb in particular because the astrological sign for the month of Nisan is Aries, a ram or sheep. This is tied to Egyptian idolatry, where a number of Egyptian gods were depicted as ram-headed, or with the horns of a ram, including Khnum and Osiris. The slaughter of a lamb was thus symbolic of destroying the idols of Egypt, like the Ten Plagues themselves (see ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light).

The egg symbolizes another offering brought on Passover: the chagigah, or holiday offering. This was the standard offering brought on all festivals in the days of the Temple. The reason that it is specifically an egg is because a whole egg is one of the foods traditionally consumed by mourners. (The round egg represents the cycle of life.) In this case, the egg is a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Intriguingly, Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) wrote how it is customary to eat meat, fish, and egg at the Pesach seder to represent the foods that will be eaten in the End of Days at the Feast of Mashiach. According to the Midrash, in that time the righteous will eat the fishy flesh of Leviathan, that great sea-dragon that Mashiach will slay; as well as the meat of the beast called Behemoth; and the egg of the mythical bird Ziz. So, eating an egg at the Pesach meal is symbolic of that future messianic feast.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The maror famously represents the bitter oppression of the Jews, just as the Torah states that the Egyptians “embittered” (v’imareru) the lives of the Jews with mortar and brick, and hard labour (Exodus 1:14). The need to eat maror actually comes explicitly from the Torah, which commands that Jews should eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) lists five possible maror herbs, though their identity is not entirely clear. The only one that appears to be undisputed is lettuce, and hence it is lettuce that is used for maror in Sephardic communities. Another possibility is that maror is horseradish—not the mustard-like sauce but an actual horseradish root (since maror must be a raw vegetable, as the Shulchan Arukh states in Orach Chaim 473:5). There are other traditions for maror’s identity as well.

Interestingly, the Midrash states that the consumption of maror on Pesach is one of the few things King Solomon did not understand! In Proverbs 30:18, Solomon wrote that “Three things are wondrous to me and four I do not know.” Although the passage continues to state what it is that Solomon wondered about, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) has an alternate explanation: The three things wondrous to Solomon were the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries behind the four species of Sukkot!

The Mystery of Karpas and Charoset

The maror is dipped into the sweet charoset. This paste is meant to resemble the clay mortar that the Israelites used, or the mud that was baked into clay bricks. The word charoset comes from cheres, “clay”. There are vastly different traditions as to the ingredients of charoset. One tradition is to use the fruits mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, among them: apples (2:3), figs (2:13), nuts (6:11), dates (7:7), wine (1:2), and cinnamon (4:14). The romantic lyrics of the Song are interpreted as an allegorical “love story” between God and Israel, and the fruits are used throughout the text in metaphorical fashion to describe that passionate love. It is particularly appropriate to use the Song of Songs recipe since it is customary to read the Song of Songs on the holiday of Pesach. (There are five megillot, “scrolls”, in the Tanakh, and each is read on a particular holiday: Shir HaShirim on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Eichah on Tisha b’Av, Kohelet on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.)

Some have pointed out that charoset may have a Greek origin, as it was common to eat fruit and nut mixtures in the Greek symposia, which the Pesach seder might be loosely modelled on. Similarly, karpas has a Greek etymology (as does afikoman) and means “vegetable”. This vegetable can be celery, parsley, water cress, green onion, or even boiled potato. It is commonly said that the karpas symbolizes, once again, the difficult labour of the Jews. In the word karpas (כרפס) appear the letters פ-ר-כ, as in the Torah’s statement that the Egyptians worked the Israelites בפרך, b’farekh (Exodus 1:13), exceedingly hard. It is customary to dip the karpas in salt water, which represents the tears of the Israelites.

Having said that, there may be a better explanation for the karpas, and its secret lies in an alternate custom to dip it not in salt water, but in wine vinegar. The Hebrew word karpas (כרפס) actually appears in one place in the Tanakh. This is in Esther 1:6, amidst a description of the feast of King Ahashverosh, where his palace was draped with chur karpas u’tekhelet (חור כרפס ותכלת), “white linen and blue thread”. So, while the Greek karpos means “vegetable”, the Hebrew karpas means “linen” or “fabric”. Dipping the karpas in wine vinegar is therefore like dipping clothing in blood, symbolizing the tunic of Joseph which his brothers dipped in blood and presented to their father Jacob. It was that act which sparked the sequence of events leading to the Israelites descent to Egypt, and their ultimate enslavement.

The sixth spot on the seder plate is sometimes missing altogether, and other times holds horseradish (sometimes the creamy kind), salt water (for dipping karpas), or another serving of maror which is used in the korech, the “sandwich” made up of matzah, charoset, and maror. As the Haggadah states, this was the custom of the great Hillel, who used to make such a sandwich to literally fulfil the word of the Torah to eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs.

In addition to the plate, we have three matzahs. These symbolize the three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as the three divisions of the Jewish nation—Kohen, Levi, and Israel. (We have explored in the past why it is the middle matzah, corresponding to Isaac, that is broken in half.) They can also be said to symbolize the three siblings who led the Exodus: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

The Four Cups

The four cups of wine symbolize the four expressions of salvation that the Torah uses (Exodus 6:6-8) in describing the Exodus:

I am Hashem, and I will [1] bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and [2] I will deliver you from their bondage, and [3] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and [4] I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am Hashem your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am Hashem.

We see a fifth expression here, too—“and I will bring you to the land…” This is why we do pour a fifth cup, but we do not drink it. It is left for the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu. In the Talmud, it is common for the rabbis to leave an unsettled debate “for Eliyahu”, who will come in the Messianic days and finally resolve all the Talmudic disputes. Since there is a debate whether to drink four or five cups of wine on Pesach (based on a variant text in Pesachim 118a), we drink four and leave a fifth “for Eliyahu”. The deeper meaning behind the debate here is whether our salvation is complete or not. Although we were taken out of Egypt, Jews have continued to experience oppression for centuries ever since. We will not be totally redeemed until the coming of Mashiach. Our presence in the Holy Land will not be secured until then either. This is why the fifth cup is for Eliyahu, who is the harbinger of Mashiach.

It has also been pointed out that in Genesis 40:11-13, Pharaoh’s cupbearer mentions a cup four times in his dream. Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream in the positive, and prophesied that he shall return to his position, while the Pharaoh’s baker would be put to death. Joseph asked the cupbearer that he remember Joseph and help to get him out of his imprisonment. Although the cupbearer forget all about Joseph, he later remembered the young dream interpreter when the Pharaoh’s own dream was inexplicable. This led to Joseph’s release from prison, his ascent to Egyptian royalty, and the eventual settlement of his family in Egypt, leading to their enslavement. So, the dream of the “four cups” sets in motion the events that lead to Israel’s descent to Egypt.

Likewise, when Joseph tests his siblings and places his special goblet in the bag of Benjamin (Genesis 44), the word “goblet” is mentioned four times. Better yet, the numerical value of “goblet” (גביע) is equal to the value of “cup” (כוס) when including the kollel. And the value of “cup” (כוס) itself is 86, which is the number of years that Israel was enslaved. (Israel was in Egypt a total of 210 years, of which the first 94 were peaceful. Then came 30 years of persecution, followed by 86 years of hard slavery. For a detailed analysis see ‘How Long Were the Israelites Actually in Egypt?’)

Some say the four cups parallel the four types of kelipah, the impure “husks” in Creation. Kabbalistic texts often speak of Pharaoh as the ultimate force of kelipah. It just so happens that the Torah speaks of four pharaohs altogether: the first Pharaoh was the one Abraham encountered upon his descent to Egypt; the second was the one that took Joseph out of prison and appointed him viceroy; the third was the wicked one who enslaved Israel and later decreed the drowning of the Israelite babies; and the fourth is the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.

Yet another explanation is that the four cups correspond to the four exiles of Israel: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. Just as we were redeemed from the oppression of Egypt, we were redeemed from the future exiles (awaiting the final redemption). Appropriately, the Arizal taught that Egypt was the root of all future exiles (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh). Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash state (based on Exodus 14:13-14) that the Jews split into four groups when trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the approaching Egyptians on the other. There were those that lost all hope and wanted to surrender, and those that wanted to kill themselves rather than surrender; those that wished to arm themselves and fight the Egyptians, and those that simply prayed to God for salvation. Regardless of their faith or faithlessness, God saved all four groups of Jews, and we drink four cups in commemoration.

Lastly, if the three matzahs parallel the three patriarchs of Israel, then the four cups can be said to parallel the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. After all, the Talmud (Sotah 11b) states that “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.”

Sefirot of the Seder Plate

Etz Chaim, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”

The Arizal arranged his seder plate according to the mystical Tree of Life that depicts the Ten Sefirot. The zeroa is in the top right because this is the position of Chessed, kindness, as it represents God’s compassion in taking us out of Egypt. The egg is in the position of Gevurah, or Din, strict judgement and restraint, since it represents mourning the Temple’s destruction. (Another symbolic explanation for the egg is that it represents the Jewish people: just as an egg gets harder the more it is boiled so, too, does the Jewish nation only grow stronger the more we are “boiled” and oppressed.) The all-important maror is in the central sefirah of Tiferet, balance and truth.

The sefirot of Netzach and Hod (paralleling the legs) are charoset and karpas, symbolizing our difficult labour. The salt water, chazeret, or additional maror below is for Yesod. Finally, the plate itself is Malkhut, since Malkhut is the receptacle for all the sefirot above, just as the plate holds all the foods. Alternatively, Malkhut may correspond to the cup of wine.

Finally, at the top are the three matzot, corresponding to the upper three mochin of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at (or Keter). This reveals a deeper secret as to why we break the middle matzah into two halves. The middle matzah is the middle sefirah of Binah, which actually has two aspects: Binah and Tevunah. While “Binah” is simply understanding a matter, “Tevunah” is internalizing that information more deeply. Tevunah is engraving that understanding into one’s mind, and it leads to being able to apply that knowledge in real world situations. Thus, we end the seder with the consumption of the afikoman—the Tevunah half—as we wish to not only understand what was discussed at the seder, but to internalize it on the deepest of levels.

Chag Sameach!