Tag Archives: Makkot (Tractate)

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.

The One Commandment of the Torah

The Revelation at Sinai

This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, famous for its account of the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. For the first time, the Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments, directly from God. Commenting on these verses, Rabbeinu Behaye (1255-1340) describes how God actually revealed the Torah gradually, starting with Adam.

To Adam, God revealed the very first six commandments: (1) not to deny God’s existence, (2) not to blaspheme God, (3) not to murder, (4) not to engage in immoral sexual relations, (5) not to steal, and (6) to establish just legal systems and courts. These may sound familiar, as they are part of the Seven Noahide Laws. Yet, Rabbeinu Behaye writes that Adam and Eve were given these commandments before Noah. These six are the basic laws of humanity so, naturally, they must have been given to the first humans.

To Noah, God added a seventh commandment. Originally, God instructed man to consume only fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29-30). In God’s original perfect world, nothing at all had to die. (Thus, the third commandment of “not to murder” likely applied to all living things at the time!) Yet, ten generations after Adam, we read that God permitted the consumption of meat, albeit in a limited way. There are deeply profound reasons for this, which we have addressed in the past.

From the time of Noah onwards, man was permitted to consume meat, so God added a seventh commandment: “do not eat the limb of a live animal”. The basic meaning of this law is that an animal should be carefully slaughtered (and as painlessly as possible) before its meat is consumed. However, the commandment takes on much broader implications, and is regarded as a general prohibition of not being cruel to animals.

From 8 to 613

Another ten generations after Noah came the eighth commandment, given to Abraham. It was Abraham who was first instructed to circumcise himself and the males of his household. God declared that henceforth, every newborn male should be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Appropriately, this was the eighth commandment.

“Jacob wrestling with the angel” by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

Jacob received the ninth commandment: not to consume the gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. This stems from Jacob’s famous wrestling match with the angel, where he was struck in the thigh, and “Therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh until this day…” (Genesis 32:33).

Finally, it was Moses’ generation – the twenty-sixth generation from Adam – that received the entire set of Ten Commandments. Of course, these Ten are quite different than the previous nine. However, the Ten Commandments are only the first of the entire set of 613 mitzvot in the Torah, which do encapsulate the previous nine as well. Jewish tradition holds that these Ten, in fact, allude to all 613. It is often pointed out that the text of the Ten Commandments in the Torah contains exactly 620 letters, corresponding to the 613 Torah mitzvot, plus the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the Sages.

Going in Reverse

Rabbeinu Behaye teaches us that the Torah was revealed step-by-step, progressing from six in Adam’s time, to seven in Noah’s, eight in Abraham’s, nine in Jacob’s, ten in Moses’, followed by all 613. Interestingly, there is a passage in the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) that appears to neatly continue the Torah’s evolution, but this time in reverse!

The passage begins by reminding us that “…six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Moses” before stating that “David came and reduced them to eleven.” King David was able to condense the entire Torah to eleven central principles, which he recorded in Psalm 15:

A Psalm of David. Hashem, who shall sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Your holy mountain? One who (1) walks uprightly, and (2) acts righteously, (3) speaks truth in his heart; (4) Has no slander upon his tongue, (5) nor does evil to his fellow, (6) nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour; (7) In whose eyes a vile person is despised, and (8) one who honours those that fear Hashem; (9) one who swears to his own detriment, but does not renege; (10) One that does not lend his money on interest, (11) nor takes a bribe against the innocent. The doer of these will never falter for eternity.

“Isaiah” by Gustav Doré

David saw that all of the Torah boils down to these 11 principles. But the Talmud doesn’t stop there. The prophet Isaiah “came and reduced them to six.” He taught that it all came down to:

One that (1) walks righteously, and (2) speaks uprightly; one that (3) despises the gain of oppressions, that (4) shakes his hands from holding of bribes, that (5) stops his ears from hearing of blood, and (6) shuts his eyes from looking upon evil. He shall dwell on high… (Isaiah 33:15-16)

From 6 to 1

Along came Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Micah, and further reduced the commandments to three! “What does Hashem require of you? Only to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God…” Apparently, upon hearing this, “Isaiah came again and reduced them to two, as it is written: ‘Thus said Hashem: preserve justice, and do righteousness’” (Isaiah 56:1).

“Amos” by Gustav Doré

Sometime later, the prophet Amos came and was able to reduce the entire Torah to one single principle: “Seek Me and live” (Amos 5:4). The Talmud questions the meaning of this, suggesting that perhaps “seeking God” simply means fulfilling the 613 precepts of His Torah – in which case, we are back to where we started!

The Talmud concludes by telling us that the prophet Habakkuk came along and solved the problem, teaching that the one principle that the entire Torah boils down to is this: tzaddik b’emunato yichyeh, “The righteous shall live by his faith”. It all comes down to knowing without a doubt that there is a God in this universe, and having faith in Him every step of the way. When we fully understand God’s constant, absolute presence in our lives, we will surely live righteously – for how can one ever act unrighteously when they are gripped by God’s perpetual presence?

The Sages teach us that no person sins unless a spirit of folly – a temporary lapse in faith – rests upon him. Of course, if one constantly lacks faith, they will forever succumb to sin. Those who do not know God are doomed to fail. And knowing God is not so simple. The Kotzker Rebbe once beautifully taught that “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”

The righteous person is the one who does indeed see God everywhere, who “lives by his faith”, or to translate more accurately, “who lives in his faith”. And what is the purpose of the Torah but to cultivate a deeper understanding of God, and a closer connection to Him? The 613 mitzvot are there to guide us through this journey; to bring us closer to God. And so, the entire Torah can be reduced to this one principle. May we all merit to actualize it.

Tisha B’Av: Why Are We Still Mourning?

This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, which begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book (Deuteronomy), is written from the perspective of Moses, and summarizes much of what the Torah discussed earlier. At the same time, it also introduces many new mitzvot, and reveals deeper insights into the Torah’s previous narratives. For example, while the book of Numbers told us that Moses was forbidden to enter the Holy Land because he disobeyed God in striking the rock, here we are told that Moses was forbidden to enter the Land because of the incident of the Spies! (1:22-38) How do we reconcile these differences? The answer can actually be found in next week’s parasha, Va’etchanan.

Va’etchanan (literally “and I beseeched”) describes how Moses begged God to allow him to enter the Holy Land. The Talmud (Berachot 32b) states that Moses prayed so much that God actually relented and forgave him for striking the rock. However, it would have been wrong for Moses to enter the Holy Land at that time, considering that the rest of the men were condemned to perish in the Wilderness because of the sin of the spies. After all, Moses was their leader. Could a shepherd abandon his flock? Would a captain abandon his sinking ship? So, Moses didn’t enter the land not because of the rock, but because of the spies.

'Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem' by Francesco Hayez (1867)

‘Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem’ by Francesco Hayez (1867)

This is all the more pertinent now with Tisha B’Av right around the corner. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, along with a handful of other tragedies said to have happened on, or around, that date – the ninth of the month of Av. According to tradition, the origins of Tisha B’Av lie in the incident of the spies. It was on that day that the spies returned from the land of Israel, and reported negatively about the people’s chances of conquering the land. The faithless nation feared and cried needlessly on that day so, it is said, God subsequently gave the nation many good reasons to truly fear and cry on that day throughout history.

The Problem with the 9th of Av

There are many problems with this classic narrative. First of all, why would God punish generations far in the future for the sins of that one generation long ago? Deuteronomy 24:16 itself states clearly that “Parents shall not be put to death because of their children, nor children because of their parents. Each person shall be put to death for their own crime.” While the Torah does also mention a number of times that God “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children to the third and fourth generations”, the phrase concludes by saying this is only true to those that “hate Him”. In any case, it is only to the third and fourth generations, not millennia into the future! Even so, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) says the prophet Ezekiel came and repealed this divine decree anyway:

Said Rabbi Yose bar Chanina, “Moses pronounced four decrees upon Israel, which four prophets came and cancelled.”
…Moses said, “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children…” (Exodus 34:7) Ezekiel came and cancelled it: “The one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:14)

'The Spies With The Grapes Of The Promised Land' by Nicolas Poussin (1664)

‘The Spies With The Grapes Of The Promised Land’ by Nicolas Poussin (1664)

Second of all, did the spies really return on the 9th of Av? The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates that the spies went forth on the 29th of Sivan and returned forty days later on the 9th of Av. However, the Torah tells us that the spies went to Israel at the start of the grape harvest (Numbers 13:20) and the same tractate of Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) states that the grape harvest season lasted from the 15th of Av until Yom Kippur! How could the spies have returned on the 9th of Av when the grape harvest only began on the 15th? (A simple Google search reveals that the ideal time for grape harvest is September-October, which is right between the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.)

On the same note, when exactly were the Temples destroyed? The Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (II Kings 25:8-9) This verse suggests the First Temple was destroyed on the 7th of Av.

Another verse in the Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, who stood before the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem; and he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (Jeremiah 52:12-13) The verse is nearly identical, except that this one says Nebuzaradan came on the 10th and destroyed the Temple.

We have the 7th of Av and the 10th of Av, but no 9th! The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) notes this contradiction and tries to reconcile it this way: “On the seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth, and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day [the tenth].” Rabbi Yochanan goes on to say that if it were up to him, the mourning day would be the 10th of Av, not the 9th, since this is when the Temple was mostly destroyed.

And what about the Second Temple? Josephus lived through its destruction, and later wrote about it in detail. He says that it was destroyed on the 10th of Av, and writes that the Jews mourn its destruction on the same day that they mourn the destruction of the First Temple. However, he seems to admit that he is uncertain about the exact dates that the Temples fell.

What does the Talmud say? It, too, is uncertain, but concludes that since “good things tend to happen on good days, and bad things on bad days,” it is assumed that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same day as the First Temple!

Postponing, Abolishing, or Redefining?

This year, Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, so the fast is postponed, appropriately, to the 10th. While Rabbi Yochanan felt that the 10th is the correct day to fast anyway, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – the great redactor of the Mishnah – wanted to have the fast of Tisha B’Av abolished completely! Some say this was only when Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat and needs to be postponed, while others say he wanted it gone entirely (Megillah 5b).

This idea has been echoed in modern times. The primary reason for mourning on Tisha B’Av is because of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Jewish people’s exile. Today, the Jewish people have returned to the Holy Land and have rebuilt Jerusalem. While there’s no Temple just yet, we are free to travel to, and settle in, the Holy City whenever we wish. Why are we still mourning?

Perhaps Rabbi Yehudah felt the same way. In his day, Jews had also returned to Jerusalem and enjoyed relatively good terms with the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah himself was friends with the Caesar known in the Talmud as ‘Antoninus’ (possibly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or maybe a local Roman governor).

Meanwhile, far worse tragedies have befallen the Jewish people since then: crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, and the list goes on. Why focus on the temples and Jerusalem when there are more recent, greater tragedies? Indeed, former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin intended to combine all the days of commemoration, and move Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day to Tisha B’Av.

Perhaps this is what Tisha B’Av should be: one day to remember all of the suffering that has troubled the Jewish people, and all the suffering that continues to plague the world. A day to remind us that Mashiach has not come yet, the Temple is not yet rebuilt, and the world is not yet whole. A day to ask ourselves: what exactly are we doing to hasten the arrival of that magnificent, forthcoming time? What are we doing that will finally put an end to all the mourning? Tisha B’Av should be a day not about drowning in the sad tears of the past, but about actively working towards the happy tears of the future.

And this is precisely what Rabbi Akiva told his colleagues when they saw the ruins of the Temple. While Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah immediately fell into a bout of weeping, Rabbi Akiva was laughing. Surprised, they asked him to explain himself. He told them that while they were dwelling on the destruction of the first and second temples, he was dwelling on the vision of the coming Third Temple. The rabbis responded – and with this the tractate ends – “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”

Do Jews Really Follow the Torah?

This week’s parasha is the dual MatotMassei. We read in it how God commanded Moses to “take revenge” on the Midianites and smite them. Moses and the Israelites fulfil God’s word to a tee:

And they killed every male, and they killed the Midianite kings upon their slain… the children of Israel took the Midianite women and their children captive, and they plundered all of their beasts, and all of their livestock, and all of their possessions. They set fire to all of their cities and fortresses, and took all the booty and all the plunder of man and beast… (Numbers 31:7-11).

TorahEvery modern reader should be absolutely horrified to see this passage in the holy Torah. How could God command such seemingly despicable acts? To slay every single man without trial, and to abduct their women and children? To loot all of their possessions? To burn down their cities? Could this be the conduct of holy, moral people?

The Torah records a number of other instances that an ethical person would find reprehensible, including four types of cruel death penalties (stoning, burning, strangling, decapitating) and a call to commit genocide (Deut. 7:1-2), among others.

At the same time, the Torah records far more laws dealing with kindness and charity, peace, love, justice, and holiness. How is it that the same God that commands vengeance and extermination also commands to “judge your fellow favourably… do not take revenge or bear a grudge… and love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:15-19)?

What’s going on?

Not in Heaven

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b) recounts a famous incident that happened in the study halls during a debate on the cleanliness or uncleanliness of one tanur shel akhnai, the “oven of Akhnai” or “oven of the snake”. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus declared the oven clean, while the majority of rabbis declared it unclean. Although the majority is always followed, Rabbi Eliezer was certain he was right, and said, “If the halacha agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Amazingly, the carob tree that he pointed to uprooted itself and moved some 800 feet.

The rabbis, seemingly unfazed, told him: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.”

Rabbi Eliezer then upped the ante: “If the halacha agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it!” Immediately, the river switched courses and miraculously flowed backwards.

Again, the rabbis told him: “No proof can be brought from a stream of water.”

Rabbi Eliezer continued: “If the halacha agrees with me, let the walls of the study hall prove it.” As soon as the words exited his mouth, the walls started to shake violently and begin to tip over.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah interjected and told the walls: “How can you interfere when scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute?” So the walls stopped their descent and remained standing on an incline.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said: “If the halacha agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Lo and behold, a Heavenly voice emanates from above and states that Eliezer is indeed correct.

At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua looked up and said: lo b’shamayim hi, “It is not in Heaven!” Rabbi Yehoshua was quoting Deuteronomy 30:12, where Moses tells the Israelites that the Torah is not in Heaven; it is not distant from the people, but here on Earth for them to use and benefit from. The halacha went with the majority, and Rabbi Eliezer was overruled.

The Talmud continues by telling us that Rabbi Nathan later met Elijah the Prophet and asked him what God thought of the whole incident. Eliyahu told him that God had laughed heartily and said nitzchuni banai, “My children have defeated Me!”

This incredible story illustrates clearly how God’s intention in giving us the Torah was not to have us obey it blindly. Instead, we are meant to ponder it and grapple with its dictums, debate it, and come to our own conclusions as to what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. This is a key part of what the Talmud is all about.

For example, many of the Talmudic Sages found the Torah’s death penalties quite unpalatable; Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon said that they would never issue a death penalty at all (Makkot 7a), and ultimately, the death penalty was abolished from Jewish courts. Similarly, wars were replaced with debates in study halls; sacrifices were replaced with prayers; and the Torah’s caste system (where a select few priests lived in opulence and glory off the backs of the common people’s hard labour) was replaced with one of complete equality, where no distinction is made between even the greatest rabbi and the simplest Jew.

Struggling with God

So, do Jews really follow the Torah? When it comes to literally fulfilling its precepts – absolutely not! Of the 613 commandments that are derived from the Five Books of Moses (the nature and validity of which we have discussed in the past: see ‘The Puzzle of the 613 Commandments’ in Garments of Light), well over 300 are impossible to keep today, and have not been possible for two millennia. Even if they were possible, very few people (if any) would actually want to return to an agrarian, slaveholding, militaristic, polygamous society. Those laws ceased to exist long ago for a good reason.

But do Jews continue to uphold the spirit of the Torah? Certainly. It is clear from the words of the Torah itself that God wanted us to question His commands and develop them on our own towards a clearer, more moral end. We see this at least as far back as Noach. While God commanded Noach to build an Ark, He also expected him to go out into the world and inspire people to repent so that a flood would be unnecessary. Noach failed, and the Sages say the Flood was called mabul noach, “Noah’s Flood” (or mei noach, “Noah’s waters”, as in Isaiah 54:9), because he was partly responsible for it.

We see it again with Abraham when God told him that Sodom would be totally destroyed. Abraham did not simply bow his head and accept; he questioned God’s decision and argued with Him. Moses argued with God for seven days during his first encounter with the Burning Bush at Sinai. Following the Golden Calf incident, Moses refused God’s suggestions again and brazenly told Him, “erase me from Your book!” if He would not agree to forgive the people. Rabbi Yehoshua’s bold rebuttal to the Heavenly Voice was just one in a long line of rebellious acts.

This is precisely the meaning of the name given to our forefather Jacob: He was called “Israel” ki sarita im Elohim… va’tuchal, “for you have struggled with God… and prevailed.” Jewish history is nothing but a centuries-old struggle with God. And for the most part, we have prevailed.