Tag Archives: Sanhedrin (Tractate)

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.

One, Two, or Three Calebs? In Search of the Primordial Torah

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

This week’s parasha, Shlach, is famous for the incident of the spies. The Israelites send a representative from each of the Twelve Tribes to scout the Holy Land. Of the twelve spies, ten return with negative reports, faithlessly arguing that the nation will be unable to settle the Holy Land. Only two spies, Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim and Caleb (or Kalev) from the tribe of Judah, present positive reports. This is one reason why, in the future, it will be the tribes of Judah and Ephraim in particular that dominate the land of Israel, each becoming synonymous with its own kingdom—Judah in the south and Ephraim in the north. While the identity of Joshua is relatively clear, the identity of Caleb is quite murky.

The Torah actually speaks of two Calebs. The first is introduced in this week’s parasha: “For the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Yefuneh.” (Numbers 13:6) The second, Caleb the son of Hetzron, appears later in I Chronicles 2:18. The genealogy of the latter Caleb is made explicitly clear: he is a son of Hetzron, the son of Peretz, the son of Judah (through Tamar). The genealogy of the first Caleb, though, is not clear at all. For one, we do not see anyone named Yefuneh from the tribe of Judah. (We do see a person named Yefuneh in I Chronicles 7:38, among a list of descendants of Asher.)

Later, in Numbers 32:12, Caleb is called “Caleb ben Yefuneh HaKenizi [the Kenizzite].” This is how he is referred to several more times in the Tanakh. At first glance, the title is problematic, since the Kenizzites were one of the peoples living in Canaan (or Edom) before Abraham arrived, as we read in Genesis 15:18-21. Caleb is not a Kenizzite in this sense, but rather a descendent of a person named Kenaz. Indeed, we read of Kenaz from the tribe of Judah in I Chronicles 4:13. How Kenaz is descended from Judah is not exactly evident. Kenaz had two sons: Othniel and Seraiah. Yet, we read in the book of Judges (1:13) that Othniel is a brother of Caleb! Two verses later in Chronicles, the text suddenly speaks of “Caleb ben Yefuneh”. Rashi is troubled by this, too, and cites the Talmud (Temurah 16a):

But was Caleb the son of Kenaz? Was he not the son of Yefuneh? The meaning of the word Yefuneh is that he turned [panah] from the counsel of the spies. Still, was [Caleb] the son of Kenaz? Was he not the son of Hetzron, as it says: And Caleb the son of Hetzron begat Azubah? (I Chronicles 2:18) Said Raba: [Caleb] was a stepson of Kenaz. [This can also be proved, since it says: Caleb the son of Yefuneh the Kenezzite, but does not say the son of Kenaz.] A Tanna taught: Othniel is the same as Yabetz. He was called “Othniel” because God answered him [‘ana El], and “Yabetz” because he counselled [ya’atz] and fostered Torah in Israel.

‘Othniel’ by James Tissot. Othniel was the first Judge of Israel following Joshua.

So, either Caleb was really the son of a person named Yefuneh, but was adopted and raised by Kenaz (hence his title of Kenizzite), or there was no such person as Yefuneh at all (since we see no mention of such a Judahite) and this title was given to him because he “turned away” from the other spies. In that case, Caleb would be the biological son of Kenaz. Perhaps we can identify him with Seraiah, which would fit neatly with the statement that Othniel and Caleb are brothers.

The final possibility presented by the Talmud is that Caleb is the same as that other Caleb, ben Hetzron, of I Chronicles 2:18. There, we read that Caleb married a woman named Azuvah, and when she died, took a new wife called Efrat. Caleb’s son with Efrat was Hur, whose son was Uri, whose son was the famous Betzalel, craftsman of the Mishkan.

Where it takes an interesting turn is that our Sages say (see for example Shemot Rabbah 1:17 and Sotah 12a) that Azuvah and Efrat are one and the same person. In fact, “Azuvah” and “Efrat” were two nicknames for Miriam, the sister of Moses! She was initially called Azuvah (“abandoned”) since no one wanted to marry her, perhaps because she wasn’t physically attractive. Caleb decided to marry her not for her exterior beauty, but for her holiness and her great family. As soon as he married her, she miraculously became exceedingly beautiful. Thus, people ceased to call her Azuvah, and instead called her Efrat (“beautiful”).

One or Two Calebs?

Can Caleb ben Yefuneh really be the same person as Caleb ben Hetzron? Did Moses appoint his brother-in-law as one of the spies? The possibility is intriguing. Yet, taking this approach results in multiple issues. The first is chronology.

Caleb ben Hetzron was the fifth generation from Jacob (Jacob-Judah-Peretz-Hetzron-Caleb), like Moses and Miriam (Jacob-Levi-Kohath-Amram-Miriam/Moses). It is therefore very apt that he would be Miriam’s husband. That would make him at least 80 years old at the time of the Exodus (just as Moses was 80 and Miriam was 86). Keep in mind that Betzalel is a great-grandson of Caleb ben Hetzron. At the time of the Exodus then, this Caleb would have had to be old enough to sire three more adult generations after him.

‘Caleb before Joshua’

As we saw above, the spy Caleb lived far longer into the future, well into the period of Judges. If he was Caleb ben Hetzron, it would make his lifespan impossibly long (at least for that time period). Caleb ben Yefunah, on the other hand, is listed in Chronicles among much later descendants of Judah, which would make him a young man when sent as a spy. Joshua 14:7 confirms this, with Caleb stating that he was forty years old when Moses sent him to spy out the land. This would easily allow him to live throughout the forty years in the Wilderness and the many years of conquest that followed into the period of Judges.

Maintaining that these were two different Calebs also solves the difficulty of the two different genealogies in Chronicles. In I Chronicles 2, Caleb ben Hetzron fathers Yesher, Shovav, Ardon, and Hur. In I Chronicles 4, Caleb ben Yefuneh fathers Iru, Elah, and Na’am. These are clearly two separate people. And so, of the various Talmudic opinions presented, the correct one must be that the spy Caleb was really the son (or stepson) of Kenaz. It may be best to identify Caleb with Seraiah, one of the two sons of Kenaz. It is possible that just as Yabetz was called Othniel because “God answered him”, Caleb was called Seraiah because he was seen as a righteous emissary or “prince of God” (שר-יה, sar-Yah).

Despite all this, Rashi, following Sanhedrin 69a, still wants to maintain that there is only one Caleb. The result is an absolutely bizarre, legally problematic, morally disturbing—and biologically impossible—explanation that Caleb had his first child when he was eight years old, and each generation on had their first child before eight years! (See his commentary on I Chronicles 2:20.) The reason Rashi resorts to this conclusion is because of a troubling verse suggesting that, in fact, there is a third Caleb.

A Third Caleb?

In I Chronicles, we read how Hetzron later took another concubine, and had more children with her. The firstborn was named Jerahmeel, and then we are told that “…the sons of Caleb, the brother of Jerahmeel, were Mesha, his firstborn, and the father of Zif…” (I Chronicles 2:42) Here we apparently have another Caleb altogether, with a different set of progeny. It is very possible that Hetzron had two children named Caleb. This may be what I Chronicles 2:24 means when it mysteriously mentions Kalev Efrata, ie. it is referring to that Caleb whose wife was Efrat, and not the Caleb whose concubines were Eifa and Maacah (I Chronicles 2:45, 48).

The big problem is that we then read how this third Caleb, apparently, was the father of Hur and Achsah (v. 49-50). That means he was the Caleb ben Hetzron who fathered Hur, as well as the Caleb ben Yefuneh whose daughter was Achsah and whose brother was Othniel! (Judges 1:12-13) It makes no sense! It is probably because of these troubling verses that Rashi and Sanhedrin 69a want to insist there is just one Caleb after all.

Of course, the simplest (but most unpalatable) conclusion is that these couple of verses in Chronicles are just plain wrong. Perhaps some kind of scribal error crept in over the millennia. A scribe who didn’t know how to reconcile the three Calebs tried to unify them, and in so doing opened up a whole new set of issues. Although today we are generally quick to defend all Scripture as being immaculate, with a perfect transmission from generation to generation ever since Sinai, our Sages of old were not so adamant about the text’s exact accuracy.

One example is the case of Chapter 21 of the Book of Joshua. In some versions, there are two extra verses that don’t appear in other versions. The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235) writes in his commentary on Joshua 21:7 about these two verses that “I have not seen these two verses included in any ancient and authentic manuscript, rather they have been added to a small number of texts.” A lesser example is Isaiah 27:3 where our current text has pen yifkod, while Rashi comments that his text has pen efkod. Rashi’s disciple, the Mahari Kara (Rabbi Yosef Kara, 1065-1135), notes in his commentary that Sephardis and Ashkenazis have different versions of the word, and “only God knows which is the proper version.”

Even the Chumash isn’t safe. Today, the Yemenite Torah has nine one-letter differences compared to the Ashkenazi Torah. The research of J.S. Penkower shows that the Yemenite Torah is essentially the exact same one used by the Rambam, and the only one considered by him to be the authoritative text. (For a detailed analysis, see Marc B. Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology, ch. 7.) Meanwhile, Rav Amnon Bazak of Yeshivat Har Etzion notes that there are some 100 minor variants today between the different Torah texts across the Jewish world. In his essay “Fundamental Issues in the Study of Tanakh, he also cites J.S. Penkower, who found some 65 differences between Rashi’s Torah text and today’s Torah text. For example, Exodus 20:5 in Rashi’s text has the word notzer in place of the current oseh, and Rashi’s Exodus 24:17 has kol Israel in place of the current bnei Israel.

These issues go way back in time. The Midrash (Tanchuma on Beshalach 16) admits that even the Knesset HaGedolah, the “Great Assembly” of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, had to make modifications to the Torah. Another Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 6:5) provides an example, saying how the ancient scribes added a verse to Genesis (18:22) so that people wouldn’t confuse the angels that visited Abraham with God Himself. A third Midrash (Beresheet Rabbati, 209-212) speaks of a variant “Severus scroll” that “came out of Jerusalem in captivity and went to Rome and was stored in the synagogue of Severus”. The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 4:2), too, provides an account of how three slightly different Torahs were once found in the Temple, so the Sages produced a new text by comparing the previous three and seeing where they agree with each other. The Radak explains in his introduction to the Nevi’im that

…during the First Exile, the texts were lost, the scholars were dispersed, and the Torah sages died. The men of the Great Assembly who restored the Torah to its former state found differences in the texts and followed the reading of those which they believed to be in the majority…

Chatam Sofer

All of this has practical, halachic ramifications. For example, the Sha’agat Aryeh (Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gunzberg, 1695-1785) states in his work of that name (siman 36) that there is no longer a mitzvah to write a Torah scroll, since we are unsure of the exact text. The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) adds that this is why we do not say a blessing before writing a new Torah scroll (see his She’elot v’Teshuvot on Orach Chaim, siman 52 and 54) while the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572) holds for this reason that we do not need to take out another Torah scroll if we suddenly discover that the one we are publicly reading from is defective (see his comments on Orach Chaim 143:4).

It is important to stress, of course, that the variations are slight. We are not talking about major differences spanning whole passages. The vast majority of the variances are only in singular letters which do not even change the meaning of the word or verse. Occasionally, there is a substitution of a word (again, not necessarily changing the meaning of the verse), and in only a few places there is an extra or missing verse or two. The overall integrity of the text is undoubtedly preserved. One should not at all lose faith in the Torah’s authenticity, or its message.

Having said that, all of the deeper mystical sources speak of a “primordial Torah”, a perfect Torah, or the original Torah of Creation whose return we await. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429) states that Mashiach will bring a “new Torah” and (Kohelet Rabbah 11:12) that our current Torah will be “vain” compared to the new one. The Zohar attests to the same, and Rabbi Isaac of Radavil (1750-1835) comments in his Ohr Yitzchak (on Pekudei):

Regarding that which is stated in the Zohar Hadash that in the future God will give us a new Torah in the days of the redeemer, may he come speedily and in our days, it is not the Torah which is currently in our possession, and also not the Torah which was given on Mt. Sinai. Not this shall God give us, but a new Torah which was in existence two thousand years before the creation of the world. The Torah which God will give us in the future is hidden in the Torah currently in our possession…

A classic example of the Torah written in “black fire on white fire”: Within the “black fire” letter Pei, we see an inner “white fire” letter Beit.

Deeply encrypted within our current Torah is that original Torah. And so, one who digs deep enough will discover a perfect Torah within today’s seemingly imperfect one—as the Mishnah says: “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is within it.” This may be tied to the classic idea that the Torah is “black fire on white fire”. Gershom Scholem (Kabbalah, pg. 174) cites a number of mystical texts which say that the Torah of White Fire is the authentic, primordial Torah, while the Torah of Black Fire is only its outward expression, or perhaps a “commentary” on the White Fire. Here we read how the primordial Torah was beheld by Adam in the Garden of Eden, but because of his sin, the Torah was jumbled—its letters rearranged, more prohibitions added, and mystical secrets removed. Mashiach will restore the world to a state of Eden, and with that reveal the original Torah of Creation, the Torah of White Fire.

May we merit to see it soon.

The Spiritual Significance of Israel Turning 70

This week we commemorate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the State of Israel’s Independence Day, marking seventy years since its founding. Although the State is certainly far from perfect, its establishment and continued existence is without a doubt one of the greatest developments in Jewish history. Many have seen it as the first steps towards the final redemption, and even among Haredi rabbis (which are generally opposed to the secular State) there were those who bravely admitted Israel’s significance and validity. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), for example, considered the State as Malkhut Israel, a valid Jewish “kingdom”—at least for halakhic purposes—while the recently deceased Rav Shteinman unceasingly supported the Nachal Haredi religious IDF unit despite the great deal of controversy it brought him. Rav Ovadia Yosef permitted saying Hallel without a blessing on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and some have even composed an Al HaNissim text to be recited. While we have already written in the past about the significance of the State’s founding (along with one perspective to bridge together the secular and the religious on this issue), there is something particularly special about Israel’s 70th birthday.

Al HaNissim for the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon provided by Rav David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo

The number 70 holds tremendous significance in Judaism. It is the number of root languages and root nations in the world (with Israel traditionally described as “a sheep among seventy wolves”). It is the number of Jacob’s family that descended to Egypt and from whom sprung up the entire nation. The number of elders that assisted Moses, and parallel to them the number of sages that sat on the Sanhedrin. Although Moses lived 120 years, he wrote in his psalm that 70 years is considered a complete lifespan (Psalms 90:10), and King David, who put the final edit on that psalm and incorporated it into his book, lived precisely 70 years. As is well-known, David was granted those 70 years by Adam, which is why the Torah says Adam lived 930 years instead of the expected 1000 years. (See here for how he may have been able to live so long.)

The Arizal taught that Adam (אדם) stands for Adam, David, and Mashiach, for the final redeemer is both a reflection of the first man, and the scion of David. More amazingly, as we wrote earlier this year it is said that David is literally the middle-point in history between Adam and Mashiach, and as such, if one counts the years elapsed between Adam and David then it is possible to find the start of the messianic era—which just happens to be our current year 5778. In this year, the State of Israel itself turns 70, and our Sages speak of “seventy cries of the soul during labour”, and parallel to these, “seventy cries of the birthpangs of Mashiach”. It is possible to interpret these seventy birthpangs preceding the arrival of the messiah as the seventy years leading up to the redemption. Thus, Israel’s seventy years potentially bear great significance.

Just as Psalms says that seventy years is one complete lifespan, for the State of Israel these past seventy years can be likened to the end of one “lifetime”, with Israel now standing at the cusp of a new era. Indeed, with all that has happened in the Middle East in recent years and months, Israel has undoubtedly emerged stronger and more secure than ever before. In this seventieth year, the world has begun to recognize Israel’s permanence, and affirm its unwavering right to Jerusalem the Eternal. We see more and more nations formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s rightful capital, and the United States plans to open its new Jerusalem embassy on May 14, which is Yom Ha’Atzmaut according to the secular calendar.

These seemingly disparate points—David’s seventy years, the completion of Israel’s first seventy year lifespan, and the recognition of Jerusalem—are actually intricately connected, for it was King David who established the first official, unified, Jewish state in the Holy Land, with Jerusalem as its capital. In fact, David’s kingdom was the only fully independent, unified Jewish state until the modern State of Israel! (Other Jewish entities, including the Maccabean and Herodian, were essentially always vassals to some greater power like Greece or Rome.) It is therefore quite fitting that the State of Israel has the Star of David on its flag, and it is this Davidic symbol that has become emblematic of not just Israel itself but all of modern Judaism.*

Living Prophecy

Perhaps the most famous seventy in Scripture is the seventy year period of exile in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples. It is said that God decreed a seventy year exile in particular because Israel failed to keep seventy Sabbatical and Jubilee years between the settling of Israel under Joshua and the destruction of the First Temple. While the Exile was certainly a “punishment”, we know that God never truly “punishes” Israel, and out of each devastation (which is nothing more than a just measure-for-measure retribution) emerges something greater.

As we’ve written before, it is in Babylon that the vibrant Judaism that we know was born. Unable to journey to the Temple, the Sages reworked each holiday to become more than a pilgrimage; unable to offer sacrifices, the Sages established prayers instead, “paying the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3); unable to fulfil the many agricultural laws, the Sages taught that learning the laws was as good as observing them. The Judaism of study, prayer, and mysticism was born out of the difficulty of the seventy-year Babylonian Exile. These past seventy years for Israel—also of great difficulty, and coming on the heels of another great devastation—was similarly one where Judaism has evolved considerably, and instead of dying out as some feared, has actually flourished.

Many have pointed out another modern “Babylonian Exile”, too. This is the communist regime of the Soviet Union, where millions of Jews were trapped for some seventy years. (The officially accepted start and end dates for the USSR are December 30, 1922 to December 26, 1991.) The histories of Russia and Israel are tightly bound, for many of Israel’s founders came directly from the Russian Empire, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Golda Meir, and the Netanyahus. Some even argue that the severe persecution by the Russians—unrivaled until the Nazis—is what gave the greatest motivation for the founding of Israel. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 was the final straw for the Zionists. The description of that pogrom by Bialik (another Russian Jew, and later Israel’s national poet) aroused the masses to take up the call and make aliyah, and convinced many more of the necessity of an independent Jewish state.

Russia’s involvement is all the more significant when we consider the possibility of Moscow as the prophesied “Third Rome”. As explored in the past, the “Red Army” headquartered in Moscow’s Red Square brings to mind the villainous Edom. Just as Rabbi Yose ben Kisma taught long ago in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) that Mashiach will come when Rome/Edom falls for the third time, and there will not be a fourth, the Russian monk Filofey of Pskov (1465-1542) wrote of Moscow that “Two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth.” This is all the more interesting in light of what we see in the news today about the growing conflict between the West and the Russia-Syria-Iran axis. It is important to keep in mind that Iran (Paras or Persia) is explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the great wars of the End of Days, the wars referred to as Gog u’Magog. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah 60, siman 499) comments on this that

In the year that Mashiach will be revealed, all the kings of the nations of the world will provoke each other. The king of Persia will threaten the king of Arabia, and the king of Arabia will go to Aram for advice. The king of Persia will then destroy the world, and all the nations will tremble and fall upon their faces, and they will be grasped by birthpangs like the birthpangs of labour, and Israel, too, will tremble and falter, and they will ask: “Where will we go?” And [God] will answer: “My children, do not fear, for all that I have done, I have done for you… the time of your salvation has come.”

Those who follow geopolitics will immediately identify this midrashic passage with current events. The war in Syria is very much a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, just as is the war currently raging in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has joined the Western (Aram?) camp, and has even begun to speak positively of Israel in public. The prophet Jeremiah (49:27) further details that Syria will be the epicenter of the war, and the “end” will come when Damascus has fallen. Amazingly, Jeremiah calls the king of Damascus Ben Hadad (בן הדד), the gematria of which happens to equal Assad (אסד). And it also happens that the value of Gog u’Magog (גוג ומגוג) is 70.

Top right: Arab Coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia (and backed by the US, UK, and France) fighting in Yemen to defeat Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Bottom right: Today in the news we read about Saudi Arabia considering sending ground forces into Syria, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards are deeply entrenched. Some say Saudi Arabia secretly has forces in Syria already. It is highly likely that there are Russian and American paramilitary groups in Syria as well. Turkish and Israeli forces are heavily involved, too, and the US, UK, and France recently launched a missile strike on Syrian facilities.

Thus, Israel turning 70 carries remarkable symbolic meaning. The Midrash states that Israel has 70 names, and these correspond to the 70 names of the Torah (and the Torah’s 70 layers of meaning, to be revealed in full with Mashiach’s coming), as well as the 70 Names of God, and the 70 names for the holy city of Jerusalem. The last of these names, the Midrash says (based on Isaiah 62:2), is “a new name that God will reveal in the End of Days.” The struggle over Jerusalem and the Holy Land will soon end, with a new city and a new name to be reborn in its place.

May we merit to see it soon.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Judaism began with Abraham. In an amazing “coincidence” of numbers, Jewish tradition holds that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948. The State of Israel was, of course, born in the secular year 1948. Jewish tradition also holds that Abraham was 70 years old at the “Covenant Between the Parts”, when God officially appointed Abraham as His chosen one. This means the Covenant took place in the Jewish year 2018, paralleling Israel’s 70th birthday in this secular year of 2018.

An Honest Look at the Talmud

Earlier this week we discussed the necessity of the Talmud, and of an oral tradition in general, to Judaism. We presented an overview of the Talmud, and a brief description of its thousands of pages. And we admitted that, yes, there are some questionable verses in the Talmud (very few when considering the vastness of it). Here, we want to go through some of these, particularly those that are most popular on anti-Semitic websites and publications.

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

By far the most common is that the Talmud is racist or advocates for the destruction of gentiles. This is based on several anecdotes comparing non-Jews to animals, or the dictum of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that “the best of gentiles should be killed”. First of all, we have to be aware of the linguistic style of the Talmud, which often uses strong hyperbole that is not to be taken literally (more on this below). More importantly, we have to remember that these statements were made in a time where Jews were experiencing a tremendous amount of horrible persecution. Rabbi Shimon’s teacher, Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by being flayed with iron combs. This is a man who never hurt anyone, who raised the status of women, sought to abolish servitude, preached that the most important law is “to love your fellow as yourself”, and taught that all men are made in God’s image (Avot 3:14). For no crime of his own, he was grotesquely slaughtered by the Romans. Rabbi Shimon himself had to hide from the Romans in a cave for 13 years with his son, subsisting off of nothing but carobs. The Jews in Sassanid Persia didn’t fare too much better. So, the anger and resentment of the Sages to their gentile oppressors sometimes come out in the pages of Talmud. Yet, the same Talmud insists “Before the throne of the Creator there is no difference between Jews and gentiles.” (TY Rosh Hashanah 57a). Moreover, a non-Jew who is righteous, and occupies himself with law and spirituality, is likened to a kohen gadol, the high priest (Bava Kamma 38a).

In fact, the contempt that the Sages sometimes had for gentiles is not simply because they were not Jewish, for we see that the Sages had the same contempt, if not more so, for certain other Jews! The Talmud (Pesachim 49b) warns never to marry an ‘am ha’aretz, an unlearned or non-religious Jew, and even compares such Jews to beasts. In the same way that gentiles are sometimes compared to animals, and in the same way Rabbi Shimon said they should “be killed”, Rabbi Shmuel said that the ‘am ha’aretz should be “torn like a fish”! Why such harsh words for other Jews? Because they, too, do not occupy themselves with moral development, with personal growth, or with the law. Therefore, they are more likely to be drawn to sin and immorality. (This sentiment is expressed even in the New Testament, where John 7:49 states that “the people who know not the law [‘am ha’aretz] are cursed.”) After all, the very purpose of man in this world “is to perfect himself”, as Rabbi Akiva taught (Tanchuma on Tazria 5), and how can one do so without study? Still, the Sages conclude (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch. 16) that

A man should not say, “Love the pupils of the wise but hate the ‘am ha’aretẓ,” but one should love all, and hate only the heretics, the apostates, and informers, following David, who said: “Those that hate You, O Lord, I hate” [Psalms 139:21]

Rabbi Akiva is a particularly interesting case, because he was an ‘am ha’aretz himself in the first forty years of his life. Of this time, he says how much he used to hate the learned Jews, with all of their laws and apparent moral superiority, and that he wished to “maul the scholar like a donkey”. Rabbi Akiva’s students asked why he said “like a donkey” and not “like a dog”, to which Akiva replied that while a dog’s bite hurts, a donkey’s bite totally crushes the bones! We can learn a lot from Rabbi Akiva: it is easy to hate those you do not understand. Once Akiva entered the realm of the Law, he saw how beautiful and holy the religious world is. It is fitting that Rabbi Akiva, who had lived in both worlds, insisted so much on loving your fellow. And loving them means helping them find God and live a holy, righteous life, which is why Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani (the same one who said that the ‘am ha’aretz should be devoured like a fish) stated that:

He who teaches Torah to his neighbour’s son will be privileged to sit in the Heavenly Academy, for it is written, “If you will cause [Israel] to repent, then will I bring you again, and you shall stand before me…” [Jeremiah 15:19] And he who teaches Torah to the son of an ‘am ha’aretz, even if the Holy One, blessed be He, pronounces a decree against him, He annuls it for his sake, as it is written, “… and if you shall take forth the precious from the vile, you shall be as My mouth…” [ibid.]

Promiscuity in the Talmud

Another horrible accusation levelled against the rabbis of the Talmud is that they were (God forbid) promiscuous and allowed all sorts of sexual indecency. Anyone who makes such a claim clearly knows nothing of the Sages, who were exceedingly modest and chaste. They taught in multiple places how important it is to guard one’s eyes, even suggesting that looking at so much as a woman’s pinky finger is inappropriate (Berakhot 24a). Sexual intercourse should be done only at night or in the dark, and in complete privacy—so much so that some sages would even get rid of any flies in the room! (Niddah 17a) Most would avoid touching their private parts at all times, even while urinating (Niddah 13a). The following page goes so far as to suggest that one who only fantasizes and gives himself an erection should be excommunicated. The Sages cautioned against excessive intercourse, spoke vehemently against wasting seed, and taught that “there is a small organ in a man—if he starves it, it is satisfied; if he satisfies it, it remains starved.” (Sukkah 52b)

Anti-Semitic and Anti-Talmudic websites like to bring up the case of Elazar ben Durdya, of whom the Talmud states “there was not a prostitute in the world” that he did not sleep with (Avodah Zarah 17a). Taking things out of context, what these sites fail to bring up is that the Talmud, of course, does not at all condone Elazar’s actions. In fact, the passage ends with Elazar realizing his terribly sinful ways, and literally dying from shame.

Another disgusting accusation is that the Talmud permits pederasty (God forbid). In reality, what the passage in question (Sanhedrin 54b) is discussing is when the death penalty for pederasty should be applied, and at which age a child is aware of sexuality. Nowhere does it say that such a grotesque act is permitted. The Sages are debating a sensitive issue of when a death penalty should be used. Shmuel insists that any child over the age of three is capable of accurately “throwing guilt” upon another, and this would be valid grounds for a death penalty. Elsewhere, the Talmud states that not only do pederasts deserve to be stoned to death, but they “delay the coming of the Messiah” (Niddah 13b).

The Talmud is similarly accused of allowing a three year old girl to be married. This is also not the whole picture. A father is allowed to arrange a marriage for his daughter, but “it is forbidden for one to marry off his daughter when she is small, until she grows up and says ‘this is the one I want to marry.’” (Kiddushin 41a) Indeed, we don’t see a single case of any rabbi in the Talmud marrying a minor, or marrying off their underage daughter. Related discussions appear in a number of other pages of the Talmud. In one of these (Yevamot 60b), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai states that a girl who was converted to Judaism before three years of age is permitted to marry a kohen, although kohanim are generally forbidden from marrying converts. This, too, has been twisted as if Rabbi Shimon allowed a kohen to marry a three-year old. He did not say this at all, rather stating that a girl under three who is converted to Judaism (presumably by her parents, considering her young age) is actually not considered a convert but likened to a Jew from birth. Once again we see the importance of proper context.

Science in the Talmud

Last week we already addressed that scientific and medical statements in the Talmud are not based on the Torah, and are simply a reflection of the contemporary knowledge of that time period. As we noted, just a few hundred years after the Talmud’s completion, Rav Sherira Gaon already stated that its medical advice should not be followed, nor should its (sometimes very strange) healing concoctions be made. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim III, 14) expanded this to include the sciences, particularly astronomy and mathematics, which had come a long way by the time of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204). The Rambam did not state that the Sages are necessarily wrong on scientific matters—for indeed we see that they are often quite precise—nonetheless:

You must not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science.

Some scientific statements of the Talmud which have been proven wrong include: The earth’s crust is 1000 cubits thick (Sukkot 53b)—today we have mines that go down four kilometres, which is well over 5000 cubits at least! Lions, bears, and elephants have a gestation period of three years (Bekhorot 8a)—while the Talmud is right by previously stating that cows have a nine-month gestation period, lions actually have gestation of 110 days, bears of 95-220 days depending on the species, and elephants of 22 months.

On the other hand, the Talmud is accurate, for example, when describing the water cycle (Ta’anit 9a), with Rabbi Eliezer explaining that water evaporates from the seas, condenses into clouds, and rains back down. It is also surprisingly close when calculating the number of stars in the universe (Berakhot 32b), with God declaring:

… twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created for your sake.

Doing the math brings one to 1018 stars. This number was hard to fathom in Talmudic times, and even more recently, too (I personally own a book published in the 1930s which states that scientists estimate there are about a million stars in the universe), yet today scientists calculate similar numbers, with one estimate at 1019 stars.

History in the Talmud

When it comes to historical facts the Talmud, like most ancient books, is not always accurate. Historical knowledge was extremely limited in those days. There was no archaeology, no linguistics, and no historical studies departments; neither were there printing presses or books to easily preserve or disseminate information. This was a time of fragile and expensive scrolls, typically reserved for Holy Scriptures.

All in all, the Talmud doesn’t speak too much of history. Some of its reckonings of kings and dynasties are certainly off, and this was recognized even before modern scholarship. For example, Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes of the Talmud’s commentaries on the chronology in Daniel that “the commentators spoke falsely because they did not know the history of the monarchies” (Ma’ayanei HaYeshua 11:4).

The Talmud has also been criticised for exaggerating historical events. In one place (Gittin 57b), for instance, the Talmud suggests that as many as four hundred thousand myriads (or forty billion) Jews were killed by the Romans in Beitar. This is obviously impossible, and there is no doubt the rabbis knew that. It is possible they did not use the word “myriads” to literally refer to 10,000 (as is usually accepted) but simply to mean “a great many”, just as the word is commonly used in English. If so, then the Talmud may have simply meant 400,000 Jews, which is certainly reasonable considering that Beitar was the last stronghold and refuge of the Jews during the Bar Kochva Revolt.

Archaeological remains of the Beitar fortress.

Either way, as already demonstrated the Talmud is known to use highly exaggerated language as a figure of speech. It is not be taken literally. This is all the more true for the stories of Rabbah Bar Bar Chanah, which are ridiculed for their embellishment. Bar Bar Chanah’s own contemporaries knew it, too, with Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish even refusing to take his helping hand while nearly drowning in the Jordan River! (Yoma 9b) Nonetheless, the Talmud preserves his tall tales probably because they carry deeper metaphorical meanings.

Having said that, there are times when the Talmud is extremely precise in its historical facts. For example, it records (Avodah Zarah 9a) the historical eras leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple:

…Greece ruled for one hundred and eighty years during the existence of the Temple, the Hasmonean rule lasted one hundred and three years during Temple times, the House of Herod ruled one hundred and three years. Henceforth, one should go on counting the years as from the destruction of the Temple. Thus we see that [Roman rule over the Temple] was two hundred and six years…

We know from historical sources that Alexander conquered Israel around 331 BCE. The Maccabees threw off the yoke of the Greeks around 160 BCE, and Simon Maccabee officially began the Hasmonean dynasty in 142 BCE. That comes out to between 171 and 189 years of Greek rule, depending on where one draws the endpoint, right in line with the Talmud’s 180 years. The Hasmoneans went on to rule until 37 BCE, when Herod took over—that’s 105 years, compared to the Talmud’s 103 years. And the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, making Herodian rule over the Temple last about 107 years. We also know that Rome recognized the Hasmonean Jewish state around 139 BCE, taking a keen interest in the Holy Land thereafter, and continuing to be involved in its affairs until officially taking over in 63 BCE. They still permitted the Hasmoneans and Herodians to “rule” in their place until 92 CE. Altogether, the Romans loomed over Jerusalem’s Temple for about 209 years; the Talmud states 206 years. Considering that historians themselves are not completely sure of the exact years, the Talmud’s count is incredibly precise.

Understanding the Talmud

Lastly, it is important never to forget that the Talmud is not the code of Jewish law, and that Judaism is far, far more than just the Talmud. There are literally thousands of other holy texts. Jews do not just study Talmud, and even centuries ago, a Jew who focused solely on Talmud was sometimes disparagingly called a hamor d’matnitin, “Mishnaic donkey”. The Talmud itself states (Kiddushin 30a) that one should spend a third of their time studying Tanakh, a third studying Mishnah (and Jewish law), and a third studying Gemara (and additional commentary). The Arizal prescribes a study routine that begins with the weekly parasha from the Five Books of Moses, then progresses to the Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim, then to Talmud, and finally to Kabbalah (see Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Va’etchanan). He also states emphatically that one who does not study all aspects of Judaism has not properly fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study.

A Torah scroll in its Sephardic-style protective case, with crown.

Those who claim that Jews have replaced the Tanakh with the Talmud are entirely mistaken: When Jews gather in the synagogue, we do not take out the Talmud from the Holy Ark, but a scroll of Torah. It is this Torah which is so carefully transcribed by hand, which is adorned with a crown to signify its unceasing authority, and before which every Jew rises. After the Torah reading, we further read the Haftarah, a selection from the Prophets. At no point is there a public reading of Talmud. As explained previously, the Talmud is there to help us understand the Tanakh, and bring it to life.

Ultimately, one has to remember that the Talmud is a continuing part of the evolution of Judaism. We wrote before how we were never meant to blindly follow the Torah literally, but rather to study it, develop it, grow together with it, and extract its deeper truths. The same is true of the Talmud—the “Oral” Torah—and of all others subjects within Judaism, including Midrash, Kabbalah, and Halacha. Judaism is constantly evolving and improving, and that’s the whole point.

For more debunking of lies and myths about the Talmud, click here.

Things You Didn’t Know About the Talmud

Judaism is famously built upon an “oral tradition”, or Oral Torah, that goes along with the Written Torah. The primary body of the Oral Torah is the Talmud. At the end of this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, the Torah states:

And Hashem said to Moses: “Ascend to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the mitzvah that I have written, that you may teach them…

The Talmud (Berakhot 5a) comments on this that the “Tablets” refers to the Ten Commandments, the “Torah” refers to the Five Books of Moses, the “mitzvah” is the Mishnah, “that I have written” are the books of the Prophets and Holy Writings, and “that you may teach them” is the Talmud. The Mishnah is the major corpus of ancient Jewish oral law, and the Talmud, or Gemara, is essentially a commentary on the Mishnah, with a deeper exposition and derivation of its laws. Today, the Mishnah is printed together with the corresponding Gemara, along with multiple super-commentaries laid out all around the page, and this whole is typically referred to as “Talmud”.

Anatomy of a page of Talmud: (A) Mishnah, (B) Gemara, (C) Commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105, (D) Tosfot, a series of commentators following Rashi, (E) various additional commentaries around the edge of the page.

Last week, we wrote how many have rejected the Talmud, starting with the ancient Sadducees, later the Karaites (whom some consider to be the spiritual descendants of the Sadducees), as well as the Samaritans, and many modern-day Jews whether secular or Reform. Such groups claim that either there was never such a thing as an “oral tradition” or “oral law”, or that the tradition is entirely man-made with no divine basis. Meanwhile, even in the Orthodox Jewish world there are those who are not quite sure what the Talmud truly is, and how its teachings should be regarded. It is therefore essential to explore the origins, development, importance, and necessity of the Talmud.

An Oral Torah

There are many ways to prove that there must be an oral tradition or Oral Torah. From the very beginning, we read in the Written Torah how God forged a covenant with Abraham, which passed down to Isaac, then Jacob, and so on. There is no mention of the patriarchs having any written text. These were oral teachings being passed down from one generation to the next.

Later, the Written Torah was given through the hand of Moses, yet many of its precepts are unclear. Numerous others do not seem to be relevant for all generations, and others still appear quite distasteful if taken literally. We have already written in the past that God did not intend for us to simply observe Torah law blindly and unquestioningly. Rather, we are meant to toil in its words and extract its true meanings, evolve with it, and bring the Torah itself to life. The Torah is not a reference manual that sits on a shelf. It is likened to a living, breathing entity; a “tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18).

Indeed, this is what Joshua commanded the nation: “This Torah shall not leave your mouth, and you shall meditate upon it day and night, so that you may observe to do like all that is written within it” (Joshua 1:8). Joshua did not say that we must literally observe all that is written in it (et kol hakatuv bo), but rather k’khol hakatuv bo, “like all that is written”, or similar to what is written there. We are not meant to simply memorize its laws and live by them, but rather to continuously discuss and debate the Torah, and meditate upon it day and night to derive fresh lessons from it.

Similarly, Exodus 34:27 states that “God said to Moses: ‘Write for yourself these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’” Firstly, God told Moses to write the Torah for yourself, and would later remind that lo b’shamayim hi, the Torah “is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). It was given to us, for us to dwell upon and develop. Secondly, while the words above are translated as “according to these words”, the Hebrew is al pi hadevarim, literally “on the mouth”, which the Talmud says is a clear allusion to the Torah sh’be’al peh, the Oral Torah, literally “the Torah that is on the mouth”.

The Mishnah

2000-year old tefillin discovered in Qumran

It is evident that by the start of the Common Era, Jews living in the Holy Land observed a wide array of customs and laws which were not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, or at least not explained in the Torah. For example, tefillin was quite common, and they have been found in the Qumran caves alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls (produced by a fringe Jewish group, likely the Essenes) and are even mentioned in the “New Testament”. Yet, while the Torah mentions binding something upon one’s arm and between one’s eyes four times, it does not say what these things are or what they look like. Naturally, the Sadducees (like the Karaites) did not wear tefillin, and understood the verses metaphorically. At the same time, though, the Sadducees (and the Karaites and Samaritans) did have mezuzot. Paradoxically, they took one verse in the passage literally (Deuteronomy 6:9), but the adjoining verse in the same passage (Deuteronomy 6:8) metaphorically!

This is just one example of many. The reality is that an oral tradition outside of the Written Law is absolutely vital to Judaism. Indeed, most of those anti-oral law groups still do have oral traditions and customs of their own, just not to the same extent and authority of the Talmud.

Regardless, after the massive devastation wrought by the Romans upon Israel during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, many rabbis felt that the Oral Torah must be written down or else it might be lost. After the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), the Talmud suggests there were less than a dozen genuine rabbis left in Israel. Judaism had to be rebuilt from the ashes. Shortly after, as soon as an opportunity presented itself, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was very wealthy and well-connected) was able to put the Oral Torah into writing, likely with the assistance of fellow rabbis. The result is what is known as the Mishnah, and it was completed by about 200 CE.

The Mishnah is organized into six orders, which are further divided up into tractates. Zera’im (“Seeds”) is the first order, with 11 tractates mainly concerned with agricultural laws; followed by Mo’ed (holidays) with 12 tractates discussing Shabbat and festivals; Nashim (“Women”) with 7 tractates focusing on marriage; Nezikin (“Damages”) with 10 tractates of judicial and tort laws; Kodashim (holy things) with 11 tractates on ritual laws and offerings; and Tehorot (purities) with 12 tractates on cleanliness and ritual purity.

The root of the word “Mishnah” means to repeat, as it had been learned by recitation and repetition to commit the law to memory. Some have pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi may have used earlier Mishnahs compiled by Rabbi Akiva and one of his five remaining students, Rabbi Meir, who lived in the most difficult times of Roman persecution. Considering the circumstances of its composition, the Mishnah was written in short, terse language, with little to no explanation. It essentially presents only a set of laws, usually with multiple opinions on how each law should be fulfilled. To explain how the laws were derived from the Written Torah, and which opinions should be given precedence, another layer of text was necessary.

The Gemara

Rav Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy – a depiction from the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv

Gemara, from the Aramaic gamar, “to study” (like the Hebrew talmud), is that text which makes sense of the Mishnah. It was composed over the next three centuries, in two locations. Rabbis in the Holy Land produced the Talmud Yerushalmi, also known as the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud, while the Sages residing in Persia (centred in the former Babylonian territories) produced the Talmud Bavli, or the Babylonian Talmud. The Yerushalmi was unable to be completed as the persecutions in Israel reached their peak and the scholars could no longer continue their work. The Bavli was completed around 500, and its final composition is attributed to Ravina (Rav Avina bar Rav Huna), who concluded the process started by Rav Ashi (c. 352-427 CE) two generations earlier.

While incomplete, the Yerushalmi also has much more information on the agricultural laws, which were pertinent to those still living in Israel. In Persia, and for the majority of Jews living in the Diaspora, those agricultural laws were no longer relevant, so the Bavli does not have Gemaras on these Mishnaic tractates. Because the Yerushalmi was incomplete, and because it also discussed laws no longer necessary for most Jews, and because the Yerushalmi community was disbanded, it was ultimately the Talmud Bavli that became the dominant Gemara for the Jewish world. To this day, the Yerushalmi is generally only studied by those who already have a wide grasp of the Bavli.

The Talmud is far more than just an exposition on the Mishnah. It has both halachic (legal) and aggadic (literary or allegorical) aspects; contains discussions on ethics, history, mythology, prophecy, and mysticism; and speaks of other nations and religions, science, philosophy, economics, and just about everything else. It is a massive repository of wisdom, with a total of 2,711 double-sided pages (which is why the tractates are cited with a page number and side, for example Berakhot 2a or Shabbat 32b). This typically translates to about 6,200 normal pages in standard print format.

Placing the Talmud

With so much information, it is easy to see why the Talmud went on to take such priority in Judaism. The Written Torah (the Tanakh as a whole) is quite short in comparison, and can be learned more quickly. It is important to remember that the Talmud did not replace the Tanakh, as many wrongly claim. The following graphic beautifully illustrates all of the Talmud’s citations to the Tanakh, and how the two are inseparable:

(Credit: Sefaria.org) It is said of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) that past a certain age he only studied Tanakh, as he knew how to derive all of Judaism, including all of the Talmud, from it.

Indeed, it is difficult to properly grasp the entire Tanakh (which has its own host of apparent contradictions and perplexing passages) without the commentary of the Talmud. Once again, it is the Talmud that brings the Tanakh to life.

Misunderstanding this, Jews have been accused in the past of abandoning Scripture in favour of the Talmud. This was a popular accusation among Christians in Europe. It is not without a grain of truth, for Ashkenazi Jews did tend to focus on Talmudic studies and less on other aspects of Judaism, Tanakh included. Meanwhile, the Sephardic Jewish world was known to be a bit better-rounded, incorporating more scriptural, halachic, and philosophical study. Sephardic communities also tended to be more interested in mysticism, producing the bulk of early Kabbalistic literature. Ashkenazi communities eventually followed suit.

Ironically, so did many Christian groups, which eagerly embraced Jewish mysticism. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) translated portions of the Zohar and Arizal into Latin, publishing the best-selling Kabbalah Denudata. Long before him, the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), one of Michelangelo’s teachers, styled himself a “Christian Kabbalist”, as did the renowned scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522). Meanwhile, Isaac Newton’s copy of the Zohar can be still found at Cambridge University. It is all the more ironic because Kabbalah itself is based on Talmudic principles, as derived from the Tanakh. For example, the central Kabbalistic concept of the Ten Sefirot is first mentioned in the Talmudic tractate of Chagigah (see page 12a), which also outlines the structure of the Heavenly realms. The Talmud is first to speak of the mystical study of Ma’aseh Beresheet (“Mysteries of Creation”) and Ma’aseh Merkavah (“Mysteries of the Divine Chariot”), of Sefer Yetzirah, of spiritual ascent, of how angels operate, and the mechanics of souls.

Having said all that, the Talmud is far from easy to navigate. While it contains vast riches of profound wisdom and divine information, it also has much that appears superfluous and sometimes outright boring. In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a) itself admits that it is not called Talmud Bavli because it was composed in Babylon (since it really wasn’t) but because it is so mebulbal, “confused”, the root of Bavli, or Babel.

Of course, the Written Torah, too, at times appears superfluous, boring, or confused. The Midrash (another component of the Oral Torah) explains why: had the Torah been given in the correct order, with clear language, then anyone who read it would be “able to raise the dead and work miracles” (see Midrash Tehillim 3). The Torah—both Written and Oral—is put together in such a way that mastering it requires a lifetime of study, contemplation, and meditation. One must, as the sage Ben Bag Bag said (Avot 5:21), “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it; see through it, grow old with it, do not budge from it, for there is nothing better than it.”

Defending the Talmud

There is one more accusation commonly directed at the Talmud. This is that the Talmud contains racist or xenophobic language, or perhaps immoral directives, or that it has many flaws and inaccuracies, or that it contains demonology and sorcery. Putting aside deliberate mistranslations and lies (which the internet is full), the truth is that, taken out of context, certain rare passages in the vastness of the Talmud may be read that way. Again, the same is true for the Written Torah itself, where Scripture also speaks of demons and sorcery, has occasional xenophobic overtones, apparent contradictions, or directives that we today recognize as immoral.

First of all, it is important that things are kept in their historical and textual context. Secondly, it is just as important to remember that the Talmud is not the code of Jewish law. (That would be the Shulchan Arukh, and others.) The Talmud presents many opinions, including non-Jewish sayings of various Roman figures, Greek philosophers, and Persian magi. Just because there is a certain strange statement in the Talmud does not mean that its origin is Jewish, and certainly does not mean that Jews necessarily subscribe to it. Even on matters of Jewish law and custom, multiple opinions are presented, most of which are ultimately rejected. The Talmud’s debates are like a transcript of a search for truth. False ideas will be encountered along the way. The Talmud presents them to us so that we can be aware of them, and learn from them.

And yes, there are certain things in the Talmud—which are not based on the Torah itself—that may have become outdated and disproven. This is particularly the case with the Talmud’s scientific and medical knowledge. While much of this has incredibly stood the test of time and has been confirmed correct by modern science, there are others which we know today are inaccurate. This isn’t a new revelation. Long ago, Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006) stated that the Talmudic sages were not doctors, nor were they deriving medical remedies from the Torah. They were simply giving advice that was current at the time. The Rambam held the same (including Talmudic astronomy and mathematics under this category, see Moreh Nevuchim III, 14), as well as the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, c. 1635-1682, on Orach Chaim 173:1) and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. One of the major medieval commentaries on the Talmud, Tosfot, admits that nature changes over time, which is why the Talmud’s science and medicine may not be accurate anymore. Nonetheless, there are those who maintain that we simply do not understand the Talmud properly—and this is probably true as well.

Whatever the case, the Talmud is an inseparable part of the Torah, and an integral aspect of Judaism. Possibly the greatest proof of its significance and divine nature is that it has kept the Jewish people alive and flourishing throughout the difficult centuries, while those who rejected the Oral Torah have mostly faded away. The Talmud remains among the most enigmatic texts of all time, and perhaps it is this mystique that brings some people to fear it. Thankfully, knowledge of the Talmud is growing around the world, and more people than ever before are taking an interest in, and benefitting from, its ancient wisdom.

A bestselling Korean book about the Talmud. Fascination with the Talmud is particularly strong in the Far East. A Japanese book subtitled “Secrets of the Talmud Scriptures” (written by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer in 1971) sold over half a million copies in that country, and was soon exported to China and South Korea. More recently, a Korean reverend founded the “Shema Education Institute” and published a six-volume set of “Korean Talmud”, with plans to translate it into Chinese and Hindi. A simplified “Talmud” digest book became a bestseller, leading Korea’s ambassador to Israel to declare in 2011 that every Korean home has one. With the Winter Olympics coming up in Korea, it is appropriate to mention that Korean star speed skater Lee Kyou-Hyuk said several years ago: “I read the Talmud every time I am going through a hard time. It helps to calm my mind.”