Tag Archives: Josephus

Pinchas is Eliyahu—and So Much More

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The Midrash famously comments on the eponymous subject of this week’s parasha that “Pinchas is Eliyahu” (Yalkut Shimoni I, 771). This statement is echoed throughout rabbinic texts and, with minor exceptions, all agree that Pinchas and Eliyahu were one and the same person. There are many reasons for this. With Pinchas, we read that God gave him a blessing of peace and “eternal priesthood”, suggesting that Pinchas would forever be a kohen. We go on to read how Pinchas was the kohen gadol for centuries, throughout the period of Judges, and the Tanakh never records his death. Meanwhile, Eliyahu appears in the Tanakh quite suddenly without any background information, genealogy, or patronymic. He goes on to avoid death and be taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Most tellingly, we find a unique Scriptural statement used in relation to these two figures, and no one else. Pinchas is described as having stood up zealously for God (בקנאו את קנאתי, Numbers 25:11), and Eliyahu uses the same words when speaking to God, saying he was zealous for God (קנא קנאתי, I Kings 19:10). The Sages conclude that they must be one and the same zealot! If that’s the case, why and how did Pinchas become Eliyahu? Continue reading

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

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

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

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

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

The Perplexing History of the “Ten Lost Tribes”

This week’s parasha, Vayigash, begins with Judah’s confrontation with Joseph, and the latter’s subsequent revelation of his identity. The Torah tells us that Joseph “kissed all of his brothers and wept over them…” (Genesis 45:15) The Zohar (I, 209b) comments on this verse that Joseph wept because he foresaw the future destruction of the Holy Temples, and the exile of “his brothers, the Ten Tribes.”

The Zohar is referring to the ancient notion that ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel were lost to history. The Zohar notes how the Torah first says that Joseph wept over Benjamin’s shoulder, and then separately states that he wept over the remaining ten brothers. This is alluding to the tragedy of the Ten Lost Tribes, among which Benjamin is not numbered. The land of Benjamin bordered Judah’s, and Jerusalem was built partly on Judah’s territory and partly on Benjamin’s. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed, Benjamin was mostly spared, and is therefore not counted among the Lost Tribes. We see further proof of this in Megillat Esther, where Mordechai is described as being both a Judahite and a Benjaminite.

So, since Judah and Benjamin were spared, we are left with Ten Lost Tribes—supposedly. We know that the Tribe of Levi did not disappear from history either, and to this day the Levites know who they are. Are there, then, nine Lost Tribes? Or should Joseph be split in two, counting Menashe and Ephraim separately, bringing the total back to ten? On that note, Joseph weeping over his ten brothers because he foresaw their destruction is problematic, since Joseph himself is among the Lost Tribes! (Maybe he should not have wept over Judah, who survived and flourished.) The entire concept of Ten Lost Tribes is perplexing. Moreover, it has been used throughout history to support all kinds of audacious, sometimes bizarre, claims. Where did it come from? Continue reading