Tag Archives: Berakhot (Tractate)

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

Making Babies: Is it Possible to Influence Gender?

Note: for the purposes of this article, the terms “gender” and “sex” are used interchangeably.

This week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metzora, begins with the laws of when “a woman conceives and gives birth to a male…” (Leviticus 12:2) The actual Hebrew wording here is ishah ki tazria, literally “when a woman gives seed”. Based on this, our Sages taught that if a woman “gives seed” first, the child will likely be male, whereas if a man “gives seed” first, the child will likely be female (Niddah 31a). How exactly is this to be understood? Continue reading

The Bone of Resurrection and the City of Immortals

This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob’s famous vision of the Heavenly Ladder. This occurred at a place called Beit-El (literally “House of God”), which our Sages identified with the Temple Mount, where the House of God would be built in the future. The Torah makes sure to point out that the place was originally called “Luz” (Genesis 28:19). The same word appears one more time in this week’s parasha, when Jacob stimulates his sheep to produce different spots, and uses luz as a visual cue for them (Genesis 30:37). Rashi comments that luz is a type of nut, and says that in (Old) French it is called “coldre”. The Old French Anglo-Norman Dictionary defines “coldre” as a hazelnut. In Modern Hebrew, egozei luz refers to hazelnuts, too. Alternatively, it may refer to an almond, as the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 12:5) says:

“…and the almond shall blossom” (Ecclesiastes 12:5) Rabbi Levi says this refers to the luz of the vertebrae. Hadrian (may his bones be crushed and his name blotted out) asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah: “From what will man ‘blossom’ in the future?” He replied: “From the luz of the vertebrae.” He said to him: “Prove it to me.” [Rabbi Yehoshua] had one brought; he placed it in water but it did not dissolve; he put it in fire, but it was not burnt; he put it in a mill but it was not ground. He placed it on an anvil and struck it with a hammer; the anvil split and the hammer was broken but all this had no effect on the luz.

The wicked Roman emperor Hadrian (who crushed the Bar Kochva Revolt, during which Rabbi Akiva was executed, among countless others) once questioned Rabbi Yehoshua as to how people could be resurrected in the future if their bodies completely decompose. Rabbi Yehoshua answered that there is a special, tiny, nut-like bone in the human body, along the vertebrae, that is indestructible. From this bone, God will rebuild the entire person. Anatomically-speaking, which bone is this? Continue reading