In this week’s parasha, Bo, the Israelites are finally freed from their subjugation in Egypt. We read that in their haste to leave, they bound up their unleavened dough in their garments (Exodus 12:34). Intriguingly, the very next verse says that the Israelites took from the Egyptians “silver items, gold items, and garments”. This is significant in light of the famous Midrash that the Israelites merited to be saved because they preserved three things throughout their long enslavement: their cuisine, their language, and their clothing (see Pesikta Zutrata on Ki Tavo, 46a).* In other words, the Israelites preserved their unique Hebrew foods (included in which is observing the mitzvah of not consuming the gid hanashe, which began with Jacob), their divine Hebrew language, and also their unique mode of dress. What was this dress, and how was it different from the garments of the Egyptians?
In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, the Israelites are presented with a list of curses that they would bring upon themselves if they did not fulfil God’s commands. In the first set of curses, the Israelites answer each statement with “amen”, a term connoting agreement and acceptance. The now-ubiquitous term is actually quite rare in the Tanakh. In the Torah itself it appears in only one other context with the same meaning (Numbers 5:22). What does “amen” really mean, and why is it recited at the end of blessings? Why does it have the power to include its reciter in another person’s mitzvah? Continue reading
In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we find the Shema and its first paragraph. The Shema is undoubtedly the most important text recited by Jews. It sets out the fundamental creed and purpose of Judaism. It is the first thing that a Jewish child should be taught (Sukkah 42a). According to one opinion, reciting the Shema is what distinguishes a person from being an ‘am aretz—one of the unlearned masses (Berakhot 47a). The Midrash states that one who properly recites the Shema is like one who fulfils all Ten Commandments! (See Otzar Midrashim, pg. 489.)
That last statement is particularly significant since there was a time when the Ten Commandments were recited together with the Shema (Berakhot 12a). The Sages eventually removed the Ten Commandments and replaced it with the current third paragraph which discusses the mitzvah of tzitzit. This was done because of the growing Christian movement that had abandoned essentially all of the mitzvot and focused only on the Ten Commandments (with Shabbat moved to Sunday). The Sages instituted the new third paragraph to lessen the emphasis on the Ten Commandments and to make it clear that we are obligated to keep all of God’s commandments, as the third paragraph states explicitly.
The Shema’s importance cannot be overstated. It is the very first topic discussed in the Talmud. It is the last verse to emerge from the lips of a dying Jew. Kabbalistic texts speak at length about the Shema and its power, the endless meditations and intentions associated with it, and the incredible secrets buried within it. The following is a tiny sample of some of those mysteries.