Tag Archives: Noah

Understanding Yourself Through the Letters of Your Name

The bulk of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, describes the gifts that each of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration of the Mishkan. Although each tribe brought the exact same set of gifts, the Torah nonetheless repeats the gifts each and every time. Some say this is because God held dear what every single tribe brought and wanted to properly acknowledge each one—even though it was all the same. Others say that while each tribe brought the same thing, the way they brought it was different, with each tribe displaying their own unique qualities.

The Midrash famously parallels the Twelve Tribes with the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. In Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot 418), for example, we are told that

The tribe of Yehudah was in the East, together with Issachar and Zevulun, and corresponding to them above are Aries, Taurus, and Gemini… The flag of Reuben was in the South, together with Shimon and Gad, and corresponding to them above are Cancer, Leo, and Virgo… The flag of Ephraim was in the West, together with Menashe and Benjamin, and corresponding to them Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius. The flag of Dan was in the North, together with Asher and Naftali… corresponding to them are Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces…

Another version puts the tribes in order of birth as opposed to their encampments in the wilderness. Thus, Reuben is Aries, Shimon is Taurus, and so on. A third version (noted by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz) also follows the order of birth, but starting from Rosh Hashanah, so Reuben is Libra and Shimon is Scorpio, etc. Nonetheless, the Midrashic version above is the most common, and the one most frequently adopted in Kabbalistic texts. It was the system used by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), and appears as early as Sefer Yetzirah, generally considered the oldest known Kabbalistic text.

As we’ve written before, Sefer Yetzirah goes through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explains how God fashioned the universe through them (together with the Ten Sefirot). It divides the alphabet into three major groupings: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. The mothers are the three letters aleph, mem, shin, corresponding to air (avir), water (mayim), and fire (esh). The doubles are the seven letters that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (and veit), gimel (and jimel), dalet (and dhalet, like the English “that”), kaf (and khaf), pei (and fei), reish (and the hard ‘reish), tav (and thav, like the English “three”). Most modern speakers have dropped the jimel, dhalet, and ‘reish from use, while Ashkenazis pronounce the thav as “sav” (much like all Eastern Europeans with an accent, when speaking English, would say “sree” instead of “three”). The remaining single-sounding letters make up the twelve elementals.

On the mystical Tree of Life, the three mothers are the three horizontal lines, the seven doubles are the seven vertical lines, and the twelve elementals are the twelve horizontal lines, as follows:

Sefer Yetzirah gives us further details, paralleling each letter to a cosmic force or entity. As already mentioned, the mothers are the three primordial elements of Creation: fire, water, and air. The seven doubles correspond to the seven major celestial bodies that are visible to the naked eye: the sun and moon, plus Mercury (kochav), Venus (nogah), Mars (madim), Jupiter (tzedek), and Saturn (shabbatai). They also correspond to the seven days of the week. This is why, in most cultures, the days of the week are named after these seven bodies: Saturday for Saturn, Sunday for the sun, Monday for the moon, and so on. In his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) comments that these seven bodies “rule” over the days of the week, and provides a siman, or mnemonic, to remember them: KaNTzaSh ChaLaM (כנצ״ש חל״ם). The Ramban concludes that Jews, unlike the pagans, name our days of the week in memory of Creation and Shabbat (ie. yom rishon, “first day”; yom sheni, “second day”; yom shelishi, “third day”, etc.)

Finally, the twelve elemental letters correspond to the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac, and the twelve months of the year. To these, we can add the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The result is the following:

Letters and Biblical Figures

If the Twelve Tribes correspond to the twelve elemental letters, which Biblical figures correspond to the mothers and doubles? Sefer Yetzirah (3:2) does suggest that from the three mothers come the “fathers” (avot). However, it does not explicitly say that the fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generally, the seven doubles are paralleled with the seven lower sefirot, and the seven lower sefirot correspond to the Seven Shepherds of Israel, among whom the patriarchs are already included. So, the three mothers must parallel some other figures. Indeed, we see three major figures in the Torah before Abraham. These are Adam, Noah, and Enoch.

Adam is, of course, the first civilized human, the first to be created, and originally a towering figure whose body shone with blinding light. Noah is at the other end of the pre-Abraham period, and was the righteous one in his generation that merited to recreate a new world. In between is Enoch, of whom the Torah curiously states that he “walked with God and was no more, for God had taken him” (Genesis 5:22).

In mystical traditions, Enoch was taken up by God’s blazing divine chariot (much like Elijah would be far in the future), and was transformed into an angel, usually identified with Metatron. Although the Torah gives us essentially no information on Enoch, the Book of Jubilees (4:17-20) explains that Enoch was the first true sage in history. He was a scribe and an astrologer, created history’s first calendar, and taught people how to accurately count months and years. He was a great prophet in his own right, seeing all of the past and all of the future. So holy was he that he never died, and was transfigured into an angel.

These three figures in Genesis neatly parallel the three mother letters of Creation: Adam being aleph, the first man, made in God’s image (which the letter aleph represents); Noah being mem, alluding to the flood waters; and Enoch being shin, alluding to the flaming chariot that took him to Heaven, and his transformation into a fiery archangel (joining the seraphim, literally the “blazing ones”).

The seven doubles, meanwhile, are the Seven Shepherds. On the Tree of Life, the letter beit leads to Chessed, personified by Abraham; the letter gimel to Gevurah, personified by Isaac; the letter dalet to Tiferet, personified by Jacob; kaf to Netzach, which is Moses; pei to Hod, Aaron; reish to Yesod, Joseph; and tav to Malkhut, David.

To summarize the above:

On a practical note, one can use this information to explore their name (or any Hebrew word for that matter) based on the meaning of its letters. If one understands the qualities associated with each letter, they may derive deeper meaning from their name, and how it may affect their own qualities, strengths, weaknesses, or even their destiny.

It is important to note that although Sefer Yetzirah has Saturn for Friday (and Joseph), and Jupiter for Saturday (and David), there are other traditions. Jupiter (Tzedek) is more fitting for Joseph, called Yosef haTzadik, while Saturn (Shabbatai) is more fitting for Shabbat and King David. Yet another tradition has the moon for King David. On the level of Sefirot, this makes most sense, since the moon is a reflection of the sun much like Malkhut is often said to be a reflection of Tiferet.

For example, Moses (משה) was famously thrown into the waters (מ) of the Nile as a newborn, led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea, and later had his fatal error by striking the rock for water. Meanwhile, he first encountered God at the burning bush (ש) and as a child burned his mouth with a smoldering coal (according to the Midrashic explanation for his later being “heavy of tongue”). In fact, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa) that Moses was a reincarnation of Noah, while other mystical texts compare him to an earthly Metatron. Finally, the hei in his name corresponds to Aries and the month of Nisan, symbolizing the pesach offering and the Exodus which happened in that month, under that sign. Thus, we see in the letters of Moses an allusion to essentially every major event of his life, and even his past life.

Thankfully, Sefer Yetzirah provides us with the exact qualities associated with each letter. The seven doubles have both positive and negative aspects clearly stated (4:2-3). The twelve elementals, meanwhile, have a certain “foundation” (5:1), which may be used for good or for evil. The three mothers are described (3:7-9) based on the qualities of their element, fire being “hot” and water being “cold”, etc. They are also paralleled to a body part. While the qualities given in Sefer Yetzirah are not always so clear, there are many commentaries which help to extract the proper meaning. These are elucidated in detail in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s monumental Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice.

Putting it all together, we have:

One can use the chart above to explore the features associated with each letter of their name, as well as the qualities associated with their astrological birth sign, birth month, birth day of the week, and even birth time of day. The positive qualities are potential traits that one has within and should work to express to the fullest, while the negatives are traits that one should be aware of and particularly focused on to repair. 

Torah Laws You Really Should Keep – Even If You’re Secular

This week’s parasha is Yitro, most famous for the proclamation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. In the past, we’ve written how some of the Torah’s commandments are impossible to observe today, while others were never meant to be eternal to begin with. We wrote how God gave us the ability to reinterpret the law when necessary—as our ancient Sages did so skillfully—but at the same time, we critiqued those Reform leaders who essentially abrogated the mandatory observance of mitzvot. Many Jews today argue that they believe wholeheartedly in Hashem, and accept the divine nature of the Torah, but they do not accept rabbinic interpretations, or believe that God did not intend for us to keep the law today as it was millennia ago. Let us take this argument to its extremes.

Ignoring everything outside of the Five Books of Moses, let us look into the Torah and find only the laws that are clearly, explicitly, and undoubtedly proclaimed by God to be eternal. Indeed, what we find is that sometimes the Torah says a certain law is chok olam or chukat olam, an “eternal law”, or a brit olam, an “eternal covenant”, while most times it does not. Perhaps, just for a moment, we can entertain the possibility that God only intended laws affixed with this “eternal” description to be observed forever, whereas the rest might no longer be necessary. If so, what are the laws in the Torah which God explicitly says are eternal?

The Torah’s Eternal Laws

The Torah uses different language to affirm that a law should be kept in perpetuity. Sometimes it says the law should be kept l’dorotam or l’dorotechem (“for generations”) and other times it says mi’yamim yamima (“from day to day”). We will avoid such terms, for one can argue that they don’t necessarily mean for all generations or for all days. We will only use instances that undeniably say l’olam, “forever”.

Also, it must be remembered that we are only looking at the Torah’s ritualistic laws, chukim, and not the ethical and judicial laws, or mishpatim (like theft, murder, etc.), which are not exclusive to Judaism and just about the whole world recognizes and understands their necessity.

The first case of an eternal law is in Genesis 17, where God forges the covenant of circumcision with Abraham. Here we see the term l’dorotam l’brit olam (17:7) and then again l’brit olam (17:13). The next case is Exodus 12, where God tells us to celebrate the Passover holiday l’dorotechem chukat olam, repeated in 12:14 and 12:17. In Exodus, too, we have the eternal law of lighting the Temple Menorah (27:20-21), chukat olam l’dorotam, as well as the priestly washing before the Temple service, chok olam… l’dorotam (30:21).* Then, of course, we have Shabbat, l’dorotam brit olam (31:16).

Next, the Torah says the priesthood will be eternal, l’kehunat olam l’dorotam (Exodus 40:15). It is unclear whether this is an actual law (the verse is speaking specifically of the special oil for anointing the priests) or the Torah is simply affirming that Israel must always have priests. Leviticus 7:34-36 says that the priests deserve their terumah (a portion for the priests donated by the Israelites) l’chok olam and chukat olam l’dorotam.** Amazingly, terumah appears to be so important that it is described as l’chok olam at least another five times (Exodus 29:28, Leviticus 10:15, Numbers 18:8, 18:11, 18:19).

Continuing in similar fashion we get a total of seventeen explicit laws, as follows:

  1. Circumcision
  2. Passover (also in Exodus 12:24)
  3. Menorah (also in Leviticus 24:3)
  4. Priestly washing
  5. Shabbat (also in Leviticus 24:8)
  6. Anointing priests/eternal priesthood (also in Exodus 29:9)
  7. Terumah
  8. Not to consume chelev (certain prohibited animal fats) or blood (Leviticus 3:17)
  9. The mincha offering (Leviticus 6:11, 15 and 23:21)
  10. Not to perform priestly service inebriated (Leviticus 10:9)
  11. Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31, 34 and 23:31)
  12. To sacrifice only to God/Not to sacrifice to demons or idols (Leviticus 17:5-7)
  13. Shavuot (Leviticus 23:21)
  14. Sukkot (Leviticus 23:41)
  15. Blowing the Temple trumpets (Numbers 10:8)
  16. Levites to serve God/prohibition for them to own land in Israel (Numbers 18:23)
  17. The Red Cow (Numbers 19:10, 21)

There are several more pertinent cases of “forever”: In fact, the very first instance in the Torah is with regards to Noah (Genesis 9), though that was a covenant over the rainbow with all of mankind, not strictly with the Jews. Secondly, Numbers 15:15 states that Jews and non-Jews should be equal before the law, chukat olam l’dorotechem, particularly with regards to sacrificial offerings. This is not necessarily a law in itself, but simply a proclamation of equality.

Thirdly, Deuteronomy 23:4 and 23:27 cautions Israel not to intermarry with Moabites or Ammonites, or even allow them to convert, ‘ad olam. This does not say definitively that the law is eternal, but that Jews should never accept these particular nations, or at least not to accept them for ten generations. The latter case makes the most sense, since we see that the righteous Boaz married Ruth the Moabite (the grandmother of God’s beloved David), and Solomon married Na’amah the Ammonite. Regardless, there are no more Moabites or Ammonites in our days to worry about.

Fourth, Exodus 19:9 has God promising Moses that the Israelites will believe in him l’olam, forever. This is not a law commanded to Israel; simply a promise made to Moses. And lastly, Deuteronomy 29:28 famously states that “the secret things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and for our children forever to do all of the words of this Torah.” Although the verse suggests we must fulfil the whole Torah forever, it can also be read to mean that we were simply given the Torah forever. The verse says we must “do” (or “complete”) its words—so one can argue it is not necessarily saying to fulfil its mitzvot. It may even be referring to Torah study and interpretation, hence the verse explicitly speaks of secret and revealed teachings. In any case, it can be argued there is no clear law stated here, just a general principle of the Torah’s eternity.

The Minimal Torah

Of the seventeen eternal laws listed above, we find that ten are impossible to observe today because there is no Temple. Most of them can be reinterpreted ever so slightly to make them observable (for example, netilat yadaim, Shabbat and Chanukah candle-lighting, and charitable donations, as discussed in the footnotes below). Or, when Mashiach comes and the Temple is rebuilt, those ten will once more be observed. In the meantime, there are seven clear eternal laws left:

  1. Circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14)
  2. Passover (Exodus 12:14-20)
  3. Shabbat (Exodus 31:13-17)
  4. Not to consume chelev (certain prohibited animal fats) or blood (Leviticus 3:17)
  5. Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31, 34)
  6. Shavuot (Leviticus 23:21)
  7. Sukkot (Leviticus 23:41)

We can now go back to our initial question. For the Jew who accepts Hashem and His Torah, but wants only the scriptural laws that are undoubtedly eternal (assuming all others have become “outdated” and/or without any additional rabbinic interpretations), they are still obligated to observe these seven at the very least. That means keeping Shabbat, which even according to the plain, overt meaning of the Torah requires desisting from one’s weekday labour and not dealing with any flames (including a combustion engine vehicle and barbeque). It means keeping seven days of Pesach, with matzah and no chametz; fasting on Yom Kippur; commemorating Shavuot; and all seven days of Sukkot, in a hut. And while essentially all the laws of kosher seem to be gone, there is still a prohibition of consuming chelev and blood, thus basically invalidating the consumption of any meat that isn’t certified kosher!

Over the years, I’ve met many Jews who made the argument in question, yet none of them really kept these mitzvot. Oftentimes, this argument is only an excuse for not observing anything. If you really know there is a God, and believe in the Torah, even if only the Written, at the very least start with these. Otherwise, you are guilty of hypocrisy. And the Talmud (which you may not appreciate just yet) states in more than one place that God absolutely detests the hypocrite.

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)


*I believe that this phrasing is what gave the Sages the basis to establish the rabbinic mitzvot of lighting Shabbat candles, Chanukah candles, and netilat yadayim. These are three of seven mitzvot which are rabbinic in origin, yet we recite a blessing on them as if God Himself commanded, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav… God did command that we must light candles and wash before serving Him forever, so the Sages instituted these laws, as a way of fulfilling God’s eternal command.

**The Talmud implies in multiple places that in lieu of priests serving in the Temple, we have rabbis who are devoted to Godly service. Indeed, the non-Jewish world often sees rabbis as priests, and in most countries they are considered “clergy”. Perhaps the Torah means there must always be spiritual leaders for Israel. Similarly, although there hasn’t been terumah since the end of the Temple days, we are obligated to donate a portion of our income. While ma’aser (tithe) refers specifically to agriculture, the Torah uses terumah more flexibly, and it can refer to voluntary financial contributions as well. The fact that terumah is mentioned more than any other mitzvah with regards to being eternal should teach us that being charitable is of utmost importance.

Note: all of the above applies to Christians, too, who also accept the Torah (at least as the “Old Testament”) but generally do not fulfil its precepts. It is commonly believed that Jesus abrogated Torah law, or replaced it, or that it isn’t necessarily to fulfil Torah law because the path to Heaven is supposedly only through Jesus anyway. This is very flawed reasoning, especially when considering that Jesus himself explicitly stated (Matthew 5:17) that he did not come to repeal the Torah’s laws, but rather to ensure their fulfilment! On the validity of Christianity as a whole please read here and here.

The Names of the Torah’s Hidden Women

‘Shemot’ is also the name of the second book of the Torah, known in English as ‘Exodus’.

This week’s parasha, Shemot, literally means “names”. The Sages stress how important a name really is, so much so that the word shem and neshamah (“soul”) appear to share a root. The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that a person’s name affects their destiny, and changing one’s name can change one’s fate (Rosh Hashanah 16b). (Other things that can change one’s fate: moving to a new place, charity, prayer, and repentance.) The Zohar (II, 179b) further elaborates that the combinations of letters in a person’s name can reveal much about them.

Jewish tradition holds that an angel whispers a baby’s name to its parents. And yet, many Jews don’t have a Jewish name or don’t connect to their given name. Thus, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 23) that a person can have two names: a name from the side of kedushah, “holiness”, and a name from the side of kelipah, unholy “husks”. Meanwhile, the Midrash states that each person has three names: the name given by the parents, the common name (or nickname) called by close ones, and the name that a person acquires for himself. (The best of these, the Midrash concludes, is the name one makes for himself.)

The Midrash also states that Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt because they preserved their Hebrew names, among other things.* Fittingly, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the midwives Shifrah and Puah ensured the survival of the Jewish babies, so the gematria of their names equals 746, the value of shemot (שמות).

Where Are The Women?

Clearly, names are very important. Yet, while the names of Shifrah and Puah are mentioned, the names of many other important female figures are not! The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) is troubled by this, and even states that in those days people argued against the Torah’s authenticity by pointing out all those missing female names (especially because Judaism passes down through the mother). And so, the Talmud fills in the details and tells us some of these important names:

Rav Chanan bar Raba stated in the name of Rav: the mother of Abraham was Amatlai, the daughter of Karnevo [אמתלאי בת כרנבו]; the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Oravti [אמתלאי בת עורבתי]… The mother of David was Nitzevet, the daughter of Ada’el [נצבת בת עדאל]. The mother of Samson was Tzlelponit [צללפונית], and his sister was Nashyan [נשיין]…

What about the others? What was the name of Rachel and Leah’s mother? How about Lot’s salt-pillar-turning wife? The wife of Potiphar that tried so hard to seduce Joseph? It is said that one of the reasons Cain killed Abel is because of a dispute over a girl (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 21 or Beresheet Rabbah 22:7). What was her name? Luckily, other texts provide the answers.

Sefer HaYashar states that the mother of Rachel and Leah was called Adina (עדינה), while the wife of Potiphar was Zuleikha (זליכא). There are two main opinions as to the name of Lot’s wife: either Idit/Edith (עידית), according to sources like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 25), or Irit (עירית), according to the commentary of the Ramban (on Genesis 19:17).

Another great source for names is the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. Here (4:2) we learn that the name of Cain and Abel’s sister was Aven (און). In traditional Jewish texts, Cain was born with a twin sister and Abel was born with two twin sisters, whom they were meant to marry. Cain reasoned Abel’s second twin should be his wife since he was the elder, and the firstborn deserves a double-portion. Abel argued that if that was the case she would have been born alongside Cain! This was one of their major points of contention, leading to Cain’s murder of Abel. The Book of Jubilees says none of this, and holds that Cain killed Abel out of anger that God did not accept his offering.

The Book of Jubilees also states that Noah’s mother was called Bethnah (ביתנה), and his wife was Emtzarah (אמצרה). Meanwhile, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 23:3) holds that Noah’s wife was Na’amah (נעמה), the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 4:22). Interestingly, Jubilees gives us the name of Shem’s wife, too: Tzedeket-Levav (צדקת לבב). This is fitting, since Jewish tradition identifies Shem with Melchizedek. Interestingly, Jubilees states that all three of Noah’s sons built cities for themselves, and named the cities after their wives!

The Mothers of Israel

The Torah devotes quite a bit of attention to the Four Mothers of Israel (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), but what about the names of the wives of the Twelve Tribes? The Torah only mentions the wife of Joseph (Osnat) and passively mentions the wife of Judah, calling her the daughter of Shuah. Seder HaDorot states that her name was actually Eilat, and fills in the rest:

The wife of the elder Reuben was a Canaanite woman named Elyarem. Shimon’s wife—according to this particular text; there are other opinions—was his sister Dinah, the daughter of Leah. (The Midrash explains that Shimon had to marry her because he killed Shechem, whom she was meant to marry.) Levi married Adina, a descendent of Ever, one of the forefathers of Abraham. It seems Issachar married Adina’s sister, Arida.

Zevulun married a Midianite named Marusha, while Dan married a Moabite woman named Aflala. Naftali married Merimat, a distant cousin descended from Nachor, the brother of Abraham. Gad married her sister Utzit. Asher married a great-granddaughter of Ishmael named Adon, and after she passed away, married a woman named Hadurah. Benjamin had two wives: one called Machlat, and another Arvat, the granddaughter of Abraham from his later wife Keturah.

Each of these names certainly carries deep meaning, as do all names and appellations. Jewish texts call God by many different names and titles, each of which captures a different essence of God, and thereby helps us understand Him. Similarly, all of a person’s various names and titles combine to make up who they are.

To conclude with a famous story that illustrates this, it is said that a three-year old Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866) was once sitting on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, 1745-1813). The Rebbe asked his grandson: “Where is grandpa?” The child quickly pointed to his grandpa’s head, to which the Rebbe said, “That’s just grandpa’s head! Where is grandpa?” The child tried again and again, pointing to other parts of the body to which the Rebbe similarly replied. Later on, the young Tzemach Tzedek was playing outside and called his grandfather. The Rebbe immediately hurried over to him, and the smiling child said: “There’s grandpa!”

The Alter Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek

*This is actually a problematic Midrash. Names like Aaron and Pinchas don’t seem to have a meaning in Hebrew but do in ancient Egyptian! Aaron is believed to come from the Egyptian aha rw, “warrior lion”, while Pinchas sounds like the common Egyptian name Pa-Nehasi, “the bronze one”. Thankfully, a variant Midrash preserves a different tradition. While Vayikra Rabbah (Ch. 32) states that Israel was redeemed on account of their names, language, abstaining from lashon hara and licentiousness, Pesikta Zutrata (on Ki Tavo, 46a) states that it was because of their clothing, food, and language.

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

As we continue to celebrate the festive holiday of Chanukah this week, it is important to remember that not all of the Greeks were wicked and immoral. We have already written in the past about the influence of Greek philosophy and language on traditional Judaism, and that the enemies of the Chanukah narrative were the Seleucids, or Syrian-Greeks, not the mainland Greeks of Europe. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:6-18) records an alliance between Jonathan Maccabee—the kohen gadol and righteous leader of Israel after the deaths of Matityahu and Judah Maccabee—and the famous Spartans of Greece:

Jonathan, the high priest, and the council of the nation and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people send greetings to their brothers, the Spartans. In former times, a letter was sent to the high priest Onias, from Areus who was then king among you, to say that you are our kinsman… And Onias showed honour to the man who was sent to him, and accepted the letter, which contained a declaration of alliance and friendliness.

So, although we are in no need of these, since we find our encouragement in the sacred books that are in our keeping, we have undertaken to send to renew relations of brotherhood and friendliness with you, so that we may not become entirely estranged from you…

Coin depicting King Areus I of Sparta (309-265 BCE)

Jonathan points out that Israel does not need the help of the Spartans to defeat the Seleucids, as God’s help is all they need. Nonetheless, Israel and Sparta were always good friends, and Israel wants to keep it that way. In his letter, Jonathan mentions an earlier letter sent by King Areus of Sparta to Onias the kohen gadol (Onias is the Hellenized name for Choniyahu or Chonio, the son of Yadua the high priest, mentioned in Nehemiah 12:11, and discussed last week). This letter is recorded in the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:20-23) as well, and also in the writings of Josephus:

Areus, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias the high priest. It is found in writing that the Spartans and Jews are kinsman, and that they are both of the stock of Abraham…

Incredibly, the Spartan king suggests that the Spartans are descendants of Abraham, too! Where does this bizarre belief come from?

Greek Sons of Abraham

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE lived a Greek historian and sage named Cleodemus, sometimes referred to as Cleodemus the Prophet. He also went by the name Malchus which, because of its Semitic origins, makes some scholars believe he could have been Jewish. Cleodemus wrote an entire history of the Jewish people in Greek. While this text appears to have been lost, it is cited by others, including Josephus (Antiquities, i. 15).

Cleodemus commented on Abraham’s marriage to Keturah (typically identified with Hagar), and their children. This is recorded in Genesis 25, which begins:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Yokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuach. And Yokshan begot Sheva and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Ashurim, and Letushim, and Leumim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah, and Epher, and Chanokh, and Avidah, and Elda’ah. All these were the children of Keturah. And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, while to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Isaac, while he was still alive, to the east country.

Abraham had six children with Keturah, from which came at least seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren which the Torah names explicitly. The Torah then makes it clear that Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac—including the Covenant with God and the land of Israel—while the others received gifts and were sent away from the Holy Land.

Cleodemus suggests that Epher (or another child named Yaphran), the great-grandson of Abraham, migrated to Africa—which is where the term “Africa” comes from! (This is particularly interesting because Epher was the son of Midian, and Tziporah the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and is described as a Cushite, or African/Ethiopian.) Cleodemus states that Epher, Yaphran, and Ashurim assisted the Greek hero Hercules in one of his battles. Following this, Hercules married one of their daughters—a great granddaughter of Abraham—and had a son with her. This son was Diodorus, one of the legendary founders of Sparta!

It appears that the Spartan king Areus was aware of this possible historical connection, and accepted it as fact. This connection may explain why the Spartans were so similar to ancient Israelites. (Others have suggested that because the Israelite tribe of Shimon—known for being fierce warriors—did not receive a set portion in the Holy Land, many of them moved elsewhere and ended up in Sparta, or ended up in Sparta after being expelled from Israel by the Assyrians alongside the other lost tribes.) In his book Sparta, renowned historian Hugo Jones writes that the Spartans held in the highest regard a certain ancient law-giver, much like Moses the law-giver of Israel. The Spartans celebrated new moons (Rosh Chodesh), and unlike their Greek counterparts, even a seventh day of rest! Of course, the Spartans themselves were very different from other Greeks, particularly those in Athens, whom Sparta often battled. The Spartan form of government was different, too, not an Athenian-style democracy but a monarchy that governed alongside a “council of elders”, much like Israel’s king and Sanhedrin.

Perhaps most similarly, the Spartans were known for their “stoic” way of life. The later Greek school of stoicism was modeled on the ancient way of the Spartans. This meant living simply and modestly, being happy with what one has, and most importantly, putting mind above body, and logic above emotion. This almost sounds like something out of Pirkei Avot, and is a teaching echoed across Jewish texts both ancient and modern. In fact, when Josephus tried to explain who the rabbis were to his Roman audience, he said that they were Jewish stoic philosophers!

Bust of Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Athenian school of Stoicism. Zeno taught that God permeates the whole universe, and knowledge of God requires goodness, fortitude, logic, and living a life of Virtue.

Gideon and Leonidas

Undoubtedly, the most famous story of the Spartans is the Battle of Thermopylae. Around 480 BCE, the Persian emperor Xerxes invaded Greece with a massive force. Xerxes first sent messengers to the Greek city-states to offer peaceful surrender. According to the historian Herodotus, Sparta’s king Leonidas told the messenger: “A slave’s life is all you understand, you know nothing of freedom. For if you did, you would have encouraged us to fight on, not only with our spear, but with everything we have.” Spoken like a true Maccabee.

The messenger then told Leonidas and his men to bow down, to which Leonidas, like his historical contemporary Mordechai, said: “We bow down before no man.” Later, when the Persian boasted that his empire was the wealthiest in the world, with gold reserves the likes of which Leonidas could only dream of, Leonidas replied: “Ares is lord. Greece has no fear of gold.”

This statement almost makes Leonidas seem like a monotheist. Indeed, the Spartans worshiped Ares—the god of war—above all others. Interestingly, the Torah commonly describes Hashem in similar military terms, like a great warrior riding a merkavah or chariot, as a “God of Legions” (Hashem Tzva’ot), and even as a “Man of War” (Ish Milchamah, see Exodus 15:3). Of course, the Spartans had their abominable statues and idols, which is perhaps the greatest distinction (and a critical one) between them and ancient Israel.

‘Gideon choosing his men’ by Gustav Doré. God told Gideon to choose worthy soldiers based on the way they drank from a spring. Those that went on their knees and bent over to drink were disqualified. Those three hundred who modestly took cupfuls to their mouth were selected. (Judges 7:5-7)

King Leonidas went on to assemble just three hundred brave men to face off against the massive Persian invasion. Although they ultimately lost, the Spartans fought valiantly, inspired their fellow Greeks, and did enough damage to hamper Persian victory. This story of three hundred, too, has a Biblical parallel. The Book of Judges records a nearly-identical narrative, with the judge Gideon assembling three hundred brave men and miraculously defeating a massive foreign invasion.

Which came first? The earliest complete Greek mythological texts date back only to the 3rd century BCE. By then, the Tanakh had long been completed, and in that same century was first translated into the Greek Septuagint. It isn’t hard to imagine Greek scholars and historians of the 3rd century getting their hands on the first Greek copies of Tanakh and incorporating those narratives into their own. In fact, the Greek-Jewish philosopher Aristobulus of Alexandria (181-124 BCE) admitted that all of Greek wisdom comes from earlier Jewish sources. The later Greek philosopher Numenius of Apamea said it best: “What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?”

Yafet and Iapetus

The similarities between Greek myth and more ancient Jewish texts are uncanny. Hercules was a mighty warrior whose first task (of twelve) was to slay a lion, like the mighty Shimshon who first slays a lion in Judges. Deucalion survives a great flood that engulfs the whole world as punishment from an angry Zeus. Like Noah before him, Deucalion has a wife and three sons, and like Noah, Deucalion is associated with wine-making (the root of his name, deukos). Pandora’s curiosity brings about evil just like Eve’s, while Asclepius carries a healing serpent-staff like Moses. Aristophanes even taught that Zeus first made man as male and female in one body, and later split them in half, just as the Torah and Talmud do.

Roman mosaic of Hercules and the Nemean Lion, and a Roman fresco of Samson and the lion, from the same time period.

In Jewish tradition, the Greeks come from the Biblical Yavan, son of Yafet (or Yefet or Japheth), son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). Yavan is the same as the Greek Ion (or Iawones), one of the Greek gods, and Ionia, referring to one of its most important regions, and the dialect of the great Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, as well as the scholars Herodotus and Hippocrates. Meanwhile, the Greeks worshipped Iapetus (same as Yafet) as a major god. Iapetus was the father of Prometheus, the god who supposedly fashioned man from the mud of the earth. So, not surprisingly, the Biblical Yavan and Yafet are firmly in the Greek tradition as well.

In the past, we wrote how Greece had a huge influence on Judaism. Now, we see how tremendous an influence Judaism had on Greece. The two civilizations go hand-in-hand, and between them gave rise to the world we live in. Indeed, this was prophesied by Noah, who blessed his sons: “May God make Yefet great, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). Shem is the earliest forefather of Israel, and Yefet of Greece. The two dwell in one tent. Winston Churchill said it best:

No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…

On Chanukah, we celebrate the Jewish victory over the Seleucids. Not of the Greeks as a whole, but of a relatively small faction of Syrian Greeks, far from the Greek heartland which always enjoyed a good relationship with Israel, starting with Alexander the Great and through to the Spartans and Maccabees.

Chag sameach!


New book! 

Seventy revealing essays that take you on a deeper journey through the Torah and Jewish holidays. Collected from some of the most popular essays posted on this site over the years, newly revised and edited, and conveniently organized by parasha and holiday. Makes for a perfect week-by-week reader, dvar Torah source, or Shabbat and holiday companion. Click here to get the book.

The Incredible Midrash of the Death of Moses

‘The Death of Moses’ (Illustration from the Providence Lithograph Company)

On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final portion, V’Zot HaBerakhah. This short parasha relays Moses’ final blessing to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo and returning to his Maker:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his vigour… And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face…

The Torah tells us that Moses was incomparable, and there was never a prophet like him. Indeed, in his 13 Principles of Faith, the Rambam has one principle (#6) stating that God communicates with man through prophecy, and a separate belief (#7) that Moses’ prophecy is the greatest of all. The Sages stated that while all the other prophets saw visions only through a blurry (or dim) lens, Moses saw visions through a perfectly clear lens. While all the other prophets only received visions while dreaming or entranced, Moses alone could communicate with God fully conscious and awake.

‘Moses Coming Down From Mt. Sinai’ by Gustav Doré, with rays of light shining forth from Moses’ face.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 11:3) presents an intriguing passage where various Heavenly figures argue with Moses on who is the greatest. Adam comes first and says: “I am greater than you because I was created in the image of God.” Moses replied that although Adam was initially very great, his honour was taken away from him, whereas the Torah says that Moses had not “lost his vigour”. The Sages teach that Adam initially glowed with a pure light. This light was lost after the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, leaving behind only frail skin. Moses reversed this: upon his return from the summit of Sinai, his skin glowed so brightly that he had to wear a mask (Exodus 34:35).

After Adam, came Noah and said: “I am greater than you because I was delivered from the generation of the Flood.” Moses replied: “I am far superior to you. You saved only yourself, but had no strength to deliver your generation, while I saved both myself and my generation when they were condemned to destruction at the time of the Golden Calf.”

Abraham arose next, and said: “I am greater than you because I used to give hospitality to all wayfarers.” Moses replied that while Abraham “fed uncircumcised men, I fed circumcised ones” and while Abraham “gave hospitality in an inhabited land, I fed them in the wilderness.”

Isaac argued he was greater than Moses because he was willing to die upon the altar, and witnessed the Divine Presence at that moment. Moses countered that he regularly spoke “face to face” with the Divine Presence, and his eyes had not dimmed from this, while Isaac had ultimately gone blind.

Finally, Jacob said: “I am greater than you because I wrestled with the angel and prevailed.” Moses replied: “You wrestled with the angel in your own territory [on Earth], but I went up to their territory, and they feared me.” The passage concludes by saying that this is what King Solomon hinted to when he wrote v’at alit al kulana, “…and you have excelled them all.” (Proverbs 31:29)

The Ascent of Moses

The Midrash continues to describe the moment of Moses’ passing. When the time came, God instructed the angel Gabriel to bring up Moses’ soul. Gabriel told God: “Master of the Universe! How can I witness the death of him who is equal to 600,000? How can I behave harshly to one who possesses such qualities?” So God told the angel Michael to bring Moses. Michael replied: “Master of the Universe! I was his teacher, and he my pupil, so I cannot witness his death.” God then had to summon the wicked Samael to bring up Moses’ soul. Samael took his sword and went gladly, for he had been waiting a very long time for that moment. However, when he approached Moses and saw the pure light shining from his face, he trembled and said: “Surely no angel can take away Moses’ soul!”

Samael tried to take Moses anyway, telling him that he should come willingly, for all mortals must die. Moses argued that he is unlike any other mortal, and proceeded to give a resume of his achievements. Convinced, Samael went back to Heaven. God insisted that Samael go back to bring Moses, and not take no for an answer. Samael returned sword in hand, and Moses drew his staff for battle. The Midrash says that Moses readily defeated Samael, blinded him, and “removed his beam of glory”.

At this point, a voice called forth from Heaven and said: “The time of your death has come.” Still, Moses would not relent, so God had to do the job Himself. As soon as He extracted Moses’ soul, the soul itself protested:

Master of the Universe! I know that You are the God of all spirits and all souls, the souls of the dead and the living are in Your keeping, and You have created and formed me and placed me within the body of Moses for a hundred and twenty years. And now, is there a body in the world purer than the body of Moses…? Therefore I love him and I do not desire to leave him.

The Soul continued to tarry until finally “God kissed Moses and took away his soul” with a Divine Kiss. It was then that the Divine Presence proclaimed: “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses…”

When reading such Midrashic passages, it is important to remember the old adage that those who deny the validity of the Midrash are heretics, yet those who take the Midrash literally are fools. Although this Midrash probably shouldn’t be taken literally, it certainly captures the incomparable greatness of Moses.

Chag Sameach! 

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)