Tag Archives: Moses

Is Playing Sports a Mitzvah?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we read the famous words: v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem, “Guard your souls very much…” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The plain meaning of the passage within which these words are found is to be careful not to descend into idolatry, nor to make any sculptures or images of any figures that might be idolatrous. However, since ancient times the phrase to “guard your souls very much” has also been used to mean that it is our obligation to stay healthy and in good physical shape. If the body is not healthy and dies, then the soul will depart it. Having a healthy soul therefore requires maintaining a healthy body, and a pure soul requires a pure bodily vessel.

Interestingly, it was the great Hillel who first pointed out the connection between the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) recounts how Hillel once took leave of his students and they asked him where he was going, to which he replied: “To do a mitzvah!” They asked which mitzvah, and he replied that he was going to the bathhouse. The puzzled students questioned him: is taking a bath a mitzvah? Hillel replied affirmatively, and explained: if all the statues and icons erected in public places needed to be constantly washed, and they are nothing but man-made objects depicting flesh-and-blood kings and nonsensical idols, how much more so must we keep our bodies clean since we were made in the image of God? And this is the deeper meaning behind King Solomon’s words gomel nafsho ish chassed (Proverbs 11:17), that a kindly or pious man makes sure to take care of his soul.

Our Sages had much to say about maintaining good health. For instance, in Gittin 70a, we are taught that there are 8 things that are healthy in small quantities, but harmful in excess. These eight are: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, labour, wine, sleep, baths, and bloodletting. When it comes to the latter, in those days bloodletting was a popular therapy and it was thought that draining out some “old” blood will stimulate the production of new, healthier blood. There may be something to this, with recent research showing that bloodletting may indeed have been beneficial, and was possibly even effective against bacterial infections. Today, bloodletting is no longer done, but there may be a way to reap the same benefits (and do a double-mitzvah) by going to donate blood. Continue reading

The Other Bilaam

‘The Prophet Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell (1859)

This week’s parasha, Balak, features the infamous gentile sorcerer and prophet Bilaam. We see him riding a donkey, being confronted by an angel, and attempting to curse Israel. The Torah later states that Bilaam was slain by the sword when Israel warred with Midian (Numbers 31:8), and according to tradition he was killed by Pinchas. In the Book of Joshua (13:22) we are told again that Bilaam was slain, and here he is called hakosem, “the magician” or “the diviner”. The Sages ask (Sanhedrin 106a-b) why Scripture uses this language; after all, was Bilaam not a true prophet? The answer is peculiar and seemingly makes no sense: “This is in accordance with what people say, that she came from princes and rulers, but was licentious with carpenters.” What does this have to do with anything? More perplexingly, the Talmud goes on to make two more bizarre points about Bilaam.

First, our Sages stated that Bilaam was killed by Pinchas Lista (Sanhedrin 106b). The word lista means something like a “criminal” or “gangster”. There is certainly no way that our Sages could refer to the great and holy Pinchas as lista! Second, the same passage in the Talmud says that Bilaam was killed when he was 33 years old. This is absolutely impossible. We know that Bilaam was an advisor to Pharaoh back in Egypt when Pharaoh had decreed to drown the male children, and we know that Bilaam’s sons instigated the Golden Calf incident some 39 years prior to the events of this week’s parasha. Bilaam must have been a very old man at this point. How could our Sages say he was only 33? How do we make sense of this puzzling Talmudic passage?

Long ago, scholars had pointed out that the description of Bilaam above does not at all match the Torah personality of this week’s parasha, but it does seem to closely resemble another ancient figure. That last number 33 may have given it away, since it is often associated with a person who was killed at that age: Jesus. Could it be that the Sages were actually speaking about Jesus in code, to avoid alerting the Christian censors? Indeed, Jesus was executed at the command of the cruel Roman governor Pontius Pilate—whom the entire Jewish people at the time despised as we know from historical sources—and this is probably why the Talmud says Bilaam was killed by “Pinchas Lista”, ie. Pontius the criminal! And now we can understand the cryptic statement about the woman who “was licentious with carpenters”, since Jesus and his father were carpenters. It seems abundantly clear that the Sages were not actually speaking of Bilaam, but secretly alluding to Jesus.

The big question is: why would the Sages use Bilaam as a stand-in for Jesus? And what is all of this even supposed to teach us? Continue reading

The Genius of Mishnah

This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).

The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.

Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)

On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest. Continue reading