Tag Archives: Pinchas

The Rabbi That Made Judaism as We Know It

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

This week we continue to celebrate Passover and count the days of the Omer. The 49-day counting period is meant to prepare us spiritually for Shavuot, for the great day of the Giving of the Torah. As our Sages teach, the Torah wasn’t just given once three millennia ago, but is continually re-gifted each year, with new insights opening up that were heretofore never possible to uncover. At the same time, the Omer is also associated with mourning, for in this time period the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished, as the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) records:

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua—and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot.

Rabbi Akiva is a monumental figure in Judaism. People generally don’t appreciate how much we owe to Rabbi Akiva, and how much he transformed our faith. In many ways, he established Judaism as we know it, during those difficult days following the destruction of the Second Temple, until the Bar Kochva Revolt, in the aftermath of which he was killed.

Rabbi Akiva is by far the most important figure in the development of the Talmud. From various sources, we learn that it was he who first organized the Oral Torah of Judaism into the Six Orders that we have today. The Mishnah, which is really the first complete book of Jewish law and serves as the foundation for the Talmud, was possibly first composed by Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) states that the main corpus of the Mishnah (including any anonymous teaching) comes from Rabbi Meir, while the Tosefta comes from Rabbi Nehemiah, the Sifra from Rabbi Yehuda, and the Sifre from Rabbi Shimon—and all are based on the work of Rabbi Akiva. Indeed, each of these rabbis was a direct student of Rabbi Akiva. (Although Rabbi Nehemiah is not listed among the five students of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmudic passage above, he is on the list in Sanhedrin 14a.)

In short, Rabbi Akiva began the process of formally laying down the Oral Tradition, which resulted in the production of the Mishnah a generation later, and culminated in the completion of the Talmud after several centuries.

It wasn’t just the Oral Torah that Rabbi Akiva had a huge impact on. We learn in the Talmud (Megillah 7a) that Rabbi Akiva was involved in a debate regarding which of the books of the Tanakh is holy and should be included in the official canon. Although it was the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”) who are credited with first compiling the holy texts that make up the Tanakh, the process of canonization wasn’t quite complete until the time of Rabbi Akiva. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva both “completed” the Tanakh and “launched” the Talmud. This may just make him the most important rabbi ever.

That distinction is further reinforced when we consider the time period that Rabbi Akiva lived in. On the one hand, he had to contend with the destruction wrought by the Romans, who sought to exterminate Judaism for good. They made Torah study and Torah teaching illegal, and executed anyone who trained new rabbis. In fact, Rabbi Akiva was never able to ordain his five new students after his original 24,000 were killed. He taught them, but lost his life before the ordination could take place. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) records:

The Evil Government [ie. Rome] decreed that whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, and the city in which the ordination took place should be demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed, uprooted.

What did Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava do? He went and sat between two great mountains, between two large cities; between the Sabbath boundaries of the cities of Usha and Shefaram, and there ordained five sages: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. Rabbi Avia also adds Rabbi Nehemiah to the list.

As soon as their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava urged them: “My children, flee!” They said to him: “What will become of you, Rabbi?” He replied: “I will lie down before them like a stone which none can overturn.” It was said that the enemy did not stir from the spot until they had driven three hundred iron spears into his body, making it like a sieve…

An illustration of Rabbis Akiva, Elazar ben Azaria, Tarfon, Eliezer, and Yehoshua, as they sit in Bnei Brak on Passover discussing the Exodus all night long, as described in the Passover Haggadah. Some say what they were actually discussing all night is whether to support the Bar Kochva Rebellion against Rome. In the morning, their students came to ask for their decision. They answered: “shfoch hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ucha…” as we say when we pour the fifth cup at the Seder.

In the wake of the catastrophic destruction of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and the unbearable decrees of the Romans, traditional Judaism and its holy wisdom nearly vanished. The “world was desolate”, as the Talmud describes, “until Rabbi Akiva came” and relayed that holy wisdom to the five students who would ensure the survival of the Torah. In fact, the vast majority of the Mishnah’s teachings are said in the name of either Rabbi Akiva or these five students. Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai alone is mentioned over 600 times in the Mishnah—way more than anyone else—followed by Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yose. Without Rabbi Akiva’s genius and bravery, Judaism may have been extinguished.

Meanwhile, Judaism at the time also had to contend with the rise of Christianity. Rabbi Akiva had to show Jews the truth of the Torah, and protect them from the sway of Christian missionaries. It is generally agreed that Onkelos (or Aquila of Sinope) was also a student of Rabbi Akiva. Recall that Onkelos was a Roman who converted to Judaism, and went on to make an official translation of the Torah for the average Jew. That translation, Targum Onkelos, is still regularly read today. What is less known is that Onkelos produced both a Greek and Aramaic translation of the Torah to make the holy text more accessible to Jews (as Greek and Aramaic were the main vernacular languages of Jews at the time). Every Jew could see for himself what the Torah really says, and would have the tools necessary to respond to missionaries who often mistranslated verses and interpreted them to fit their false beliefs.

Interestingly, some scholars have pointed out that Rabbi Akiva may have instituted Mishnah and began its recording into written form as a way to help counter Christianity. Because Christians adopted the Torah and appropriated the Bible as their own, it was no longer something just for Jews. As such, it was no longer enough for Jews to focus solely on Tanakh, for Christians were studying it, too, and the study of Tanakh was no longer a defining feature of a Jew either. The Jewish people therefore needed another body of text to distinguish them from Christians, and the Mishnah (and later, Talmud) filled that important role. This may be a further way in which Rabbi Akiva preserved Judaism in the face of great adversity.

Finally, Rabbi Akiva also preserved and relayed the secrets of the Torah. He was the master Kabbalist, the only one who was able to enter Pardes and “exit in peace” (Chagigah 14b). One of his five students was Rabbi Shimon, yes that Rabbi Shimon: Shimon bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar. Thus, the entire Jewish mystical tradition was housed in Rabbi Akiva. Without him, there would be no Zohar, no Ramak or Arizal, nor any Chassidut for that matter.

All in all, Rabbi Akiva is among the most formidable figures in Jewish history. In some ways, he rivals only Moses.

How Moses Returned in Rabbi Akiva

We see a number of remarkable parallels in the lives of Moses and Rabbi Akiva. According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva also lived to the age of 120, like Moses. We also know that Rabbi Akiva was an unlearned shepherd for the first third of his life. At age 40, he went to study Torah for twenty-four years straight and became a renowned sage. According to the Arizal, Rabbi Akiva carried a part of Moses’ soul, which is why their lives parallel so closely (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36):

Moses spent the first forty years of his life in the palace of Pharaoh, ignorant of Torah, just as Rabbi Akiva spent his first forty without Torah. The next forty years Moses spent in Cush and Midian, until returning to Egypt as the Redeemer of Israel at age 80, and leading the people for the last forty years of his life. Rabbi Akiva, too, became the leading sage of Israel at age 80, and spent his last forty years as Israel’s shepherd. As we’ve seen above, it isn’t a stretch to say that Rabbi Akiva “redeemed” Israel in his own way.

More specific details of their lives are similar as well. Moses’ critical flaw was in striking the rock to draw out water from it. With Rabbi Akiva, the moment that made him realize he could begin learning Torah despite his advanced age was when he saw a rock with a hole in it formed by the constant drip of water. He reasoned that if soft water can make a permanent impression on hard stone, than certainly the Torah could make a mark on his heart (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2). Perhaps this life-changing encounter of Rabbi Akiva with the rock and water was a tikkun of some sort for Moses’ error with the rock and water.

Similarly, we read in the Torah how 24,000 men of the tribe of Shimon were killed in a plague under Moses’ watch (Numbers 25:9). This was a punishment for their sin with the Midianite women. Moses stood paralyzed when this happened, unsure of how to deal with the situation. The plague (and the sin) ended when Pinchas took matters into his own hands, and was blessed with a “covenant of peace”. The death of the 24,000 in the time of Moses resembles the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that perished, with Rabbi Akiva, like Moses, unable to prevent their deaths. In fact, Kabbalistic sources say that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were reincarnations of the 24,000 men of Shimon (see Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot, 20).

There is at least one more intriguing parallel between Moses and Rabbi Akiva. We know that the adult generation in the time of Moses was condemned to die in the Wilderness because of the Sin of the Spies. Yet, we see that some people did survive and enter the Promised Land. The Torah tells us explicitly that Joshua and Caleb, the good spies, were spared the decree. In addition, Pinchas was blessed with a long life (for his actions with the plague of the 24,000) and survived to settle in Israel. (According to tradition, Pinchas became Eliyahu, who never died but was taken up to Heaven in a flaming chariot.) We also read in the Book of Joshua that Elazar, the son and successor of Aaron, continued to serve as High Priest into the settlement of Israel, and passed away around the same time as Joshua (Joshua 24:33). Finally, the Sages teach that the prophet Ahiyah HaShiloni was born in Egypt and “saw Amram” (the father of Moses) and lived until the times of Eliyahu, having been blessed with an incredibly long life (Bava Batra 121b). In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) lists Ahiyah as a disciple of Moses, later a member of David’s court, and the one who passed on the tradition through to the time of Eliyahu.

Altogether, there are five people who were born in the Exodus generation but were spared the decree of dying in the Wilderness. (Note: the Sages do speak of some other ancient people who experienced the Exodus and settled in Israel, including Serach bat Asher and Yair ben Menashe, but these people were born long before the Exodus, in the time of Jacob and his sons.) These five people were also known to be students of Moses. The conclusion we may come to is that five of Moses’ students survived to bring the people and the Torah into Israel, just as five of Rabbi Akiva’s students survived to keep alive the Torah and Israel.

If we look a little closer, we’ll find some notable links between these groups of students. We know that Elazar ben Shammua, the student of Rabbi Akiva, was also a kohen, like Elazar the Priest. Caleb and Joshua are descendants of Yehudah and Yosef, reminiscent of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose (whose name is short for “Yosef”), the students of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Meir, often identified with the miracle-worker Meir Baal HaNess, has much in common with Pinchas/Eliyahu, while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explicitly compared himself to Ahiyah haShiloni in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 35:2). As such, there may be a deeper connection lurking between the five surviving students of Moses and the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva.

Lastly, we shouldn’t forget the Talmudic passage that describes how Moses visited the future classroom of Rabbi Akiva, and was amazed at the breadth of wisdom of the future sage. Moses asked God why He didn’t just choose Akiva to give the Torah to Israel? It was such a great question that God didn’t reply to Moses!

The Greatest Torah Principles

Of all the vast oceans of wisdom that Rabbi Akiva taught and relayed, what were the most important teachings he wished everyone to take to heart? First and foremost, Rabbi Akiva taught that the “greatest Torah principle” (klal gadol baTorah) is to love your fellow as yourself (see Sifra on Kedoshim). Aside from this, he left several gems in Pirkei Avot (3:13-16), which is customary to read now between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot:

Rabbi Akiva would say: excessive joking and light-headedness accustom a person to promiscuity. Tradition is a safety fence for Torah, tithing is a safety fence for wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.

He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in that image, as it  says, “For in the image of God, He made man” [Genesis 9:6]. Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of God; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of God, as it is stated: “You are children of the Lord, your God” [Deuteronomy 14:1]. Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious item [the Torah]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious item, as it is stated: “I have given you a good portion—My Torah, do not forsake it” [Proverbs 4:2].

All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, and all is in accordance with the majority of one’s deeds.

He would also say: Everything is given as collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the storekeeper extends credit, the account-book lies open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well-founded, the judgement is a judgement of truth, and ultimately, all is prepared for the feast.

These words carry tremendous meanings, both on a simple level and on a mystical one, and require a great deal of contemplation. If we can summarize them in two lines: We should be exceedingly careful with our words and actions, strive to treat everyone with utmost care and respect, and remember that a time will come when we will have to account for—and pay for—all of our deeds. We should be grateful every single moment of every single day for what we have and who we are, and should remember always that God is good and just, and that all things happen for a reason.

Chag sameach!

Time Travel in the Torah

This week’s parasha is Ki Tisa, in which we read of Moses’ return from Mt. Sinai where he had spent forty days with God. During that time, he had composed the first part of the Torah and received the Two Tablets. The Talmud (Menachot 29b) tells us of another incredible thing that happened:

…When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: “Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah [without these additions]?” God said to him: “There is a man who is destined to be born after many generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. He is destined to derive from each and every tip of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot.” [Moses] replied: “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God said to him: “Return behind you.”

Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row [in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom] and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, until [Rabbi Akiva] arrived at the discussion of one matter, and his students said to him: “My teacher, from where do you derive this?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to them: “It is an halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai.” When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease…

Up on Sinai, Moses saw a vision of God writing the Torah—this is how Moses himself composed the Torah, as he was shown what to inscribe by God—and he saw God adding the little tagim, the crowns that adorn certain Torah letters. Moses was puzzled by the crowns, and asked why there were necessary. God replied that in the future Rabbi Akiva would extract endless insights from these little crowns.

Moses then asked to see Rabbi Akiva, and was permitted to sit in on his class. Moses could not follow the discussion! In fact, the Talmud later says how Moses asked God: “You have such a great man, yet you choose to give the Torah through me?” At the end of the lesson, Rabbi Akiva’s students ask him where he got that particular law from, and he replied that it comes from Moses at Sinai. Moses was comforted to know that even what Rabbi Akiva would teach centuries later is based on the Torah that Moses would compose and deliver to Israel.

This amazing story is often told to affirm that all aspects of Torah, both Written and Oral, and those lessons extracted by the Sages and rabbis, stems from the Divine Revelation at Sinai, and from Moses’ own teachings. It is a central part of Judaism that everything is transmitted in a chain starting from Moses at Sinai, down through the prophets, to the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly” and to earliest rabbis, all the way through to the present time.

What is usually not discussed about this story, though, is the deeper and far more perplexing notion that Moses travelled through time! The Talmud does not say that Moses saw a vision of Rabbi Akiva; it says that he literally went and sat in his classroom. He was there, sitting inconspicuously at the end of the eighth row. As a reminder, Moses received the Torah in the Hebrew year 2448 according to tradition, which is 3331 years ago. Rabbi Akiva, meanwhile, was killed during the Bar Kochva Revolt, 132-136 CE, less than 2000 years ago. How did Moses go 1400 years into the future?

Transcending Time and Space

In his commentary on Pirkei Avot (Magen Avot 5:21), Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361-1444) explains:

Moshe Rabbeinu, peace be upon him, while standing on the mountain forty days and forty nights, from the great delight that he had learning Torah from the Mouth of the Great One, did not feel any movement, and time did not affect him at all.

As we read at the end of this week’s parasha, Moses “was there with God for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water, and He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant…” (Exodus 34:28) At Sinai, Moses had no need for any bodily functions. Rabbi Duran explains that from his Divine union with God, Moses transcended the physical realm. In such a God-like state, he was no longer subject to the limitations of time and space.

In this regard, Moses became like a photon of light. Modern physics has shown that light behaves in very strange ways, and does not appear to be subject to time and space. Fraser Cain of Universe Today explains how

From the perspective of a photon, there is no such thing as time. It’s emitted, and might exist for hundreds of trillions of years, but for the photon, there’s zero time elapsed between when it’s emitted and when it’s absorbed again. It doesn’t experience distance either.

Light transcends time and space. In this way, Moses was like light. And this is quite fitting, for this week’s parasha ends with the following (Exodus 34:29-33):

And it came to pass when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the Two Tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he descended from the mountain, and Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while He had spoken with him. And Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face had become radiant, and they were afraid to come near him… When Moses had finished speaking with them, he placed a covering over his face.

Moses glowed with a bright light, so much so that the people couldn’t look at him, and he would wear a mask over his face. Moses had become light. And light doesn’t experience time and space like we do. There is something divine about light. It therefore isn’t surprising that the Kabbalists referred to God as Or Ain Sof, “light without end”, an infinite light, or simply Ain Sof, the “Infinite One”. Beautifully, the gematria of Ain Sof (אין סוף) is 207, which is equal to light (אור)!

Travelling to the Future

While Moses was instantly teleported into the future, we currently have no scientifically viable way for doing so. However, the notion of travelling into the future is a regular fixture of modern science fiction, and the way it usually presents itself is through some form of “cryosleep”. This is when people are either frozen or placed into a state of deep sleep, or both, for a very long time (usually because they are flying to distant worlds many light years away), and are reanimated in the distant future. For this there is a good scientific foundation, as there are species of frogs in Siberia, for example, that are able to freeze themselves for the winter, and thaw in the spring. They can do this without compromising the integrity of their cellular structure, in a process not yet fully understood. If we could mimic this biological process, then humans, too, could potentially freeze themselves for long periods of time, “thawing” in the future. And this, too, has a precedent in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a):

[Honi the Circle-Drawer] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, “A song of ascents, when God brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like them that dream.” [Psalms 126:1] Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him: “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” He then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him: “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied: “I am his grandson.” Thereupon he exclaimed: “It is clear that I slept for seventy years!” He then caught sight of his donkey who had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. He there enquired: “Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?” The people answered him: “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.” Thereupon he said to them: “I am Honi the Circle-Drawer”, but no one would believe him.

He then went to the Beit Midrash and overheard the scholars say: “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer”, for whenever he used to come to the Beit Midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out: “I am he!” but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honour due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died…

“Honi HaMeagel”, by Huvy. Honi is famous for drawing a circle in the ground around him and not moving away until God would make it rain. Josephus wrote that Honi was killed during the Hasmonean civil war, around 63 BCE. The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631) said that people thought he was killed in the war, but actually fell into a deep sleep as the Talmud records.

Honi HaMa’agel, “the Circle-Drawer”, who was renowned for his ability to have his prayers answered, entered a state of deep sleep for seventy years and thereby journeyed to the future! This type of time travel is, of course, not true time travel, and he was unable to go back to his own generation. He prayed for death and was promptly answered.

Travelling back in time, meanwhile, presents far more interesting challenges.

Back to the Future

In 2000, scientists at Princeton University found evidence that it may be possible to exceed the speed of light. As The Guardian reported at the time, “if a particle could exceed the speed of light, the time warp would become negative, and the particle could then travel backwards in time.” This is one of several ways proposed to scientifically explain the possibility of journeying back in time.

The problem with this type of travel is as follows: what happens when a person from the future changes events in the past? The result may be what is often referred to as a “time paradox” or “time loop”. The classic example is a person who goes back to a time before they were born and kills their parent. If they do so, they would never be born, so how could they go back in time to do it?

Remarkably, just as I took a break from writing this, I saw that my son had brought a book from the library upstairs. Out of over 500 books to choose from, he happened to bring Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Now, he is far too young to have read it, or to even known who Harry Potter is. And yet, this is the one book in the Harry Potter series—and possibly the one book in our library—that presents a classic time paradox!

In Prisoner of Azkaban, we read how Harry is about to be killed by a Dementor when he is suddenly saved by a mysterious figure who is, unbeknownst to him, his own future self. After recovering from the attack, he later gets his hands on a “time turner” and goes back in time. It is then that he sees his past self about to be killed by a Dementor, and saves his past self. The big problem, of course, is that Harry could have never gone back in time to save himself had he not already gone back in time to save himself in the first place!

Perhaps a more famous example is James Cameron’s 1984 The Terminator. In this story, John Connor is a future saviour of humanity who is a thorn in the side of the evil, world-ruling robots. Those evil robots decide to send one of their own back to a time before John Connor was born in order to kill his mother—so that John could never be born. Aware of this, Connor sends one of his own soldiers back in time to protect his mother. The soldier and the mother fall in love, and the soldier impregnates her, giving birth to John Connor! In other words, future John Connor sent his own father back in time to protect his mother and conceive himself! This is a time paradox.

Could we find such a time paradox in the Torah? At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anything like this. However, a deeper look reveals that there may be such a case after all.

When God Wanted to “Kill” Moses

In one of the most perplexing passages in the Torah, we read that when Moses took his family to head back to Egypt and save his people, “God encountered him and sought to kill him.” (Exodus 4:24) To save Moses, his wife Tziporah quickly circumcises their son, sparing her husband’s life. The standard explanation for this is that Moses’ son Eliezer was born the same day that he met God for the first time at the Burning Bush. Moses spent seven days communicating with God, then descended on the eighth day and gathered his things to go fulfil his mission.

However, the eighth day is when he needed to circumcise his son, as God had already commanded his forefather Abraham generations earlier. Moses intended to have the brit milah when they would stop at a hotel along the way, but got caught up with other things. An angel appeared, threatening Moses for failing to do this important mitzvah, so Tziporah took the initiative and circumcised her son. Alternatively, some say it was the baby whose life was at risk.

Whatever the case, essentially all the commentaries agree that God had sent an angel to remind Moses of the circumcision. Who was that angel? It may have been a persecuting angel, and some say he took the form of a frightening snake. Others, like the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weisser, 1809-1879) say it was an “angel of mercy” as Moses was entirely righteous and meritorious. Under the circumstances, one’s natural inclination might point to it being the angel in charge of circumcision, as suggested by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Who is the angel in charge of circumcision? Eliyahu! In fact, Sforno proposes that the custom of having a special kise kavod, chair of honour, or “chair of Eliyahu” (though Sforno doesn’t say “Eliyahu” by name), might originate in this very Torah passage. Every brit milah today has such an Eliyahu chair, for it is an established Jewish tradition that the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu visits every brit.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

Yet, Eliyahu could not have been there at the brit of Moses’ son, for Eliyahu would not be born for many years! Eliyahu lived sometime in the 9th century BCE. He was a prophet during the reign of the evil king Ahab and his even-more-evil wife Izevel (Jezebel). The Tanakh tells us that Eliyahu never died, but was taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot (II Kings 2). As is well-known, he transformed into an angel.

The Zohar (I, 93a) explains that when Eliyahu spoke negatively of his own people and told God that the Jews azvu britekha, “have forsaken Your covenant” (I Kings 19:10), God replied:

I vow that whenever My children make this sign in their flesh, you will be present, and the mouth which testified that the Jewish people have abandoned My covenant will testify that they are keeping it.

He henceforth became known as malakh habrit, “angel of the covenant” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, 29), a term first used by the later prophet Malachi (3:1).

If Eliyahu is Malakh haBrit, and is present at every circumcision, does this only apply to future circumcisions after his earthly life, or all circumcisions, even those before his time? As an angel that is no longer bound by physical limitations, could he not travel back in time and be present at brits of the past, too? God certainly does transcend time and space, and exists in past, present, and future all at once. This is in God’s very name, a fusion of haya, hoveh, and ihyeh, “was, is, will be”, all in one (see the Arizal’s Etz Chaim, at the beginning of Sha’ar Rishon, anaf 1). And we already saw how God could send Moses to the distant future and bring him right back to the past. Could He have sent Eliyahu back to the brit of Moses’ son? Such a scenario would result in a classic time loop. How could Eliyahu, a future Torah prophet, save Moses, the very first Torah prophet? Eliyahu could not exist without Moses!

It is important to note here that there were those Sages who believed that Eliyahu was always an angel, from Creation, and came down into bodily form for a short period of time during the reign of Ahab. This is why the Tanakh does not describe Eliyahu’s origins. It does not state who his parents were, or even which tribe he hailed from. Others famously state that “Pinchas is Eliyahu”, ie. that Eliyahu was actually Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron. Pinchas was blessed with eternal life, and after leaving the priesthood, reappeared many years later as Eliyahu to save the Jewish people at a difficult time. He was taken up to Heaven alive as God promised. In the Torah, we read how God blessed Pinchas with briti shalom (Numbers 25:12). Again, that key word “brit” appears—a clue that Pinchas would become Eliyahu, malakh habrit.

While it is hard to fathom, or accept, the possibility of an Eliyahu time paradox, there is one last time paradox that deserves mention. And on this time paradox, all of our Sages do agree.

The Paradox of Teshuva

When we read our Sages description of the process of teshuva, “repentance”, it is hard not to notice the inherent time paradox lying within. In multiple places, our Sages state that when a person truly repents, the sins of their past are expunged from their record. They are not only erased, but it is as if they never happened to begin with. Some go further and state that not only are the sins completely erased, they transform into merits! (Yoma 86b) In other words, it is almost as if one’s soul travelled back in time and, when presented with that same challenge, actually fulfilled a mitzvah instead! It is much like the classic literary version of a hero going back in time to fix an old mistake. This is the tremendous power of teshuva. It may be the closest any of us will ever come to time travel.

That same page of Talmud goes further in saying that one who truly repents lengthens one’s life. To explain, when a person sins it may be decreed in Heaven that their life will be cut short. When they repent, the sin is erased and so is the decree, so their life is re-extended. Imagine such a parallel in the physical world: a person is a smoker or heavy drinker for decades, then quits and “repents”, and all the damage done to the cells and organs of their body simply vanish. They are instantly as good as new! It doesn’t happen in the physical world, but it does in the spiritual world. Repentance for the past actually has a real impact on one’s future, rewriting one’s destiny, much like time travel.

Finally, that same page of the Talmud states that one who truly repents hastens the Redemption. The Sages reaffirm countless times that the arrival of the Redemption is based solely on our merits. If Israel only “hearkens to His voice”, the Redemption would come “today” (Sanhedrin 98a). The fact that so much time has passed and Mashiach has still not come is a result of our own sins. By wholeheartedly repenting, we wipe away those sins of the past. Like time travel, this rewrites our destiny—our history—and we thereby hasten the Redemption.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

This week’s parasha is named after Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, who is commended for taking action during the sin with the Midianite women. Pinchas was blessed with an “eternal covenant”, and Jewish tradition holds that he never really died. Pinchas became Eliyahu, and as the Tanakh describes, Eliyahu was taken up to Heaven alive in a flaming chariot (II Kings 2). While we know what the name “Eliyahu” means, the name “Pinchas” is far more elusive. It doesn’t seem to have any meaning in Hebrew. Historical records show that there was a very similar name in ancient Egypt, “Pa-Nehasi”. Did Pinchas have a traditional Egyptian name?

When we look more closely, we find that multiple figures of the Exodus generation actually bore Egyptian names. For example, “Aaron” (or Aharon) doesn’t have a clear meaning in Hebrew, and appears to be adapted from the ancient Egyptian name “Aha-Rw”, meaning “warrior lion”. Even the origin of Moses’ name is not so clear.

Although the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter named him “Moshe” because she “drew him [meshitihu] from the water” (Exodus 2:10), it seems very unlikely that an Egyptian princess should know Hebrew so well and give her adopted child a Hebrew name. Our Sages noted this issue long ago, and grappled with the apparent problem. Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) writes that it was actually Moses’ own mother Yocheved that named him “Moshe”, and then informed Pharaoh’s daughter of the name. Yet, the Midrash affirms that Yocheved called her son “Tuviah”, or just “Tov” (based on Exodus 2:2), and Moshe was the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter. Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Munius”. Josephus takes an alternate approach entirely, saying that Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name was Thermuthis, before she became a righteous convert and was called Batya or Bitya in Jewish tradition) named him Moses because the Egyptian word for water is mo.

The most elegant solution might be that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Mose” (spelled the same way, but pronounced with a sin instead of shin), which means “son” in Egyptian. This is most fitting, since Pharaoh’s daughter yearned for a child of her own, and finally had a “son”. In fact, we see this suffix (and its close variant mses, from which the English “Moses” comes) used frequently in Egyptian names of that time period, such as Ahmose, Thutmose, and Ramses. Thus, he would have been known as Mose (or Moses) during his upbringing, but later known to his nation as Moshe, with a more appropriate and meaningful Hebrew etymology, yet without having to change the spelling of the name (משה) at all.

All of this begs the question: is it important to have a Hebrew name? And is it okay to have a Hebrew name together with an English name, or a name in the local language of wherever a Jew may live?

Why Are So Many Sages Called “Shimon”?

When looking through the names of the many rabbis in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, we find something quite intriguing. Although we would expect the Sages to be named after great Biblical figures like Moses, David, or Abraham, in reality there are essentially no sages with such names! Instead, we find a multitude of names of lesser-known Biblical figures, and many names that have no Biblical or Hebrew origin at all.

One very common name is Yochanan: There’s Yochanan ben Zakkai and Yochanan haSandlar, Yochanan bar Nafcha, Yochanan ben Nuri, and Yochanan ben Beroka. Another popular name is Yehoshua. While we might not expect this name to be so popular (considering its association with Jesus), we still find Yehoshua ben Perachia, Yehoshua ben Levi, Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Yehoshua ben Korchah, and many others. There are also lots and lots of Yehudas like Yehuda haNasi (and his descendents, Yehuda II and Yehuda III), Yehuda ben Beteira, Yehuda bar Ilai, and Yehuda ben Tabbai. And there are tons of Elazars: Elazar ben Arach, Elazar ben Azariah, Elazar ben Pedat, and many more with the similar “Eliezer”.

Perhaps the most common name is “Shimon”. There is Shimon haTzadik and Shimon bar Yochai, Shimon bar Abba and Shimon ben Shetach, Shimon ben Gamaliel (both I and II), Shimon ben Lakish (“Reish Lakish”), and more. We would think this is a strange choice, considering that the Biblical Shimon was actually of somewhat poor character (at least compared to the remaining Twelve Sons of Jacob). In fact, on his deathbed, Jacob did not bless Shimon at all, and instead said he wanted nothing to do with his violent nature. Moses, meanwhile, completely omits Shimon in his last blessings! So why would so many of our Sages be called “Shimon”?

A Good-Sounding Name

What might explain the strange selection of names among our ancient Sages? While no clear reason stands out, there is one plausible answer. It appears that the choice of names above was heavily influenced by the contemporary Greek society. Just as today many Jewish parents seek Hebrew names that also sound good in English, it seems parents back then wanted names that sounded good in Greek (since most Jews lived in the Greek part of the Roman, and later “Byzantine”, Empire).

We find that Greek names tend to end with an “n”: Platon (“Plato” in Greek), Jason, and Solon, for example. Numerous others end with “s”: Aristotles (“Aristotle” in Greek), Pythagoras, Philippos. Indeed, many of our Sages actually have such Greek names directly: Yinon, Hyrcanus, Pappus, Symmachus, Teradyon, and Onkelos. There is no indication that these great rabbis had some other “Hebrew” name.

Those that did want to bear Hebrew names could choose names already ending with an “n” like Shimon and Yochanan. Or, they could choose names where adding an “s” to the end would be easy: Yehoshua in Greek is Yeosuos (later giving rise to Yesus, ie. Jesus), while Yehuda is Yudas (Judas). Such names would be easy to convert between Hebrew and Greek. We know from historical sources that several people named Chananiah were simultaneously called “Ananias” in Greek.

The same is true for Elazar or Eliezer. Many Greek names transliterated into English and other languages simple lose their “s” and end with an “r”: Antipatros becomes Antipater, while Alexandros becomes Alexander. In reverse fashion, Elazar could easily become Elazaros (or Lazarus)—very palatable in the Greek-speaking world which our early Sages inhabited.

On that note, what do we make of “Alexander”? A great number of Jews both modern and ancient (there is Alexander Yannai and Rabbi Alexandri in the Talmud) have this name. Some cite a famous Midrashic account of Alexander the Great’s arrival in Jerusalem as being proof that while Alexander is not a Hebrew name, it is something of an “honorary” Jewish name. This requires a more careful analysis.

Is Alexander a Jewish name?

The Talmud (Yoma 69a) describes Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea. As he is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, Shimon HaTzadik goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol at the time). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle. Alexander proceeds to treat the Jews kindly, and leaves the Temple intact. The Talmud stops there, though it does mention that this event took place on the 25th of Tevet, which was instituted as a minor holiday on which mourning was forbidden. (The story is also attested to by Josephus, though with a different high priest—see here for more.)

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

According to one tradition, the priests at the time wanted to honour Alexander for his kindness, and named all the boys born that year “Alexander”. In another version, Alexander was given a tour of the Holy Temple and, naturally, wished to place a statue of himself inside. Since this was impossible (but they couldn’t refuse the emperor), Shimon haTzadik convinced him that it would be a greater honour for all the children born to be named “Alexander”. Either way, some like to say that “Alexander” has become a Jewish name ever since.

In truth, this suggestion looks more like a modern way of explaining why so many Jews were named Alexander. In reality, the Midrash clearly states that a Jew should not name his child Alexander. We read in Vayikra Rabbah 32:5:

In the merit of four things was Israel redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names*, nor their language, they did not speak lashon hara, and not one among them committed sexually immoral sins… They did not call Yehuda “Rufus”, and not Reuben “Lullianus”, and not Yosef “Listus”, and not Benjamin “Alexander”…

Apparently, when Midrash Rabbah was composed—just like today—it was common for Jews to have a non-Jewish name that they would use regularly, together with a Hebrew name that they would use only in Jewish circles. The Hebrew name “Benjamin” was often paired with “Alexander”.

We see from the Midrash above that it is important to have a Hebrew or Jewish name. But what exactly counts as a “Jewish” name?

Non-Jewish “Jewish” Names

Although today most Jews insist on having Hebrew or Biblical names (and rightly so), it seems that our Sages weren’t so strict in this regard. Indeed, many of them bore Greek, Latin, or Aramaic names with no second Hebrew name. Akiva, Avtalyon, Nechunia, Mani, Nittai, Nehorai, Adda, Papa, Simlai, Tanhum, Tarfon, Ulla, and countless others are cited in rabbinic literature. As we saw earlier, those that did have Hebrew names naturally chose names that would be palatable to the surrounding Greeks, much like many Jews today choose names that have easy English homonyms.

This trend continued for centuries, all the way up to modern times. The result is that many seemingly “Jewish” names are actually adaptations of very non-Jewish names. For example, one popular name among Ashkenazi Jews in the past was Feivel or Feibush. This name, meaning “bright”, comes from Phoebus, one of the appellations for the Greco-Roman god of light, Apollo. With this in mind, there may actually be a big halachic problem of bearing this name, since it is forbidden to recite the names of idols. (Some say the name was only meant to substitute the Biblical name Shimshon, the root of which is “sun”, thus having a similar meaning to Phoebus.)

Another appellation for Apollo was Lycegenes or Lukegenes, “born of a wolf” (possibly the source of the name “Luke”), which would be “Wolf” in Germanic countries, where the wolf was an important symbol in European mythology. Wolf also became very popular among Ashkenazis, who usually added the Hebrew translation Ze’ev to the name. The same is true for the classic German/Norse name Baer (“Bear”), to which Ashkenazis added Dov, its Hebrew translation. None of these names are Biblical or Talmudic, nor is their origin truly Hebrew. (Ironically, the name Ze’ev appears in the Tanakh [Judges 7:25] as the name of an enemy Midianite prince that the Israelites slayed!)

Having said that, many have linked these names to Biblical characters. For example, Benjamin is described in the Torah as a wolf (Genesis 49:27), so some carried the name “Binyamin Wolf”, where the former was their actual Jewish name while the latter was their social name. The same goes for “Yehuda Leib”, where Leib means “lion”, like Aryeh, the symbol of the Biblical Yehuda. It has even become common to combine all three to form “Yehuda Aryeh Leib”. Similarly, there’s “Naftali Tzvi Hirsch”, since the Biblical Naftali is described as a deer, ayalah or tzvi, and “Hirsch” is German for “deer”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

“Schneur”, too, is of non-Jewish origin, and comes from the Spanish name Senor (and is sometimes a German equivalent for Seymour). Chassidim have since reinterpreted it in the Hebrew as Shnei Or, “two lights”. It probably didn’t have this meaning when it was given to Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad. In his case, “Schneur” was likely meant to be his social name while “Zalman” (Solomon, or “Shlomo) was his traditional Jewish or Hebrew name.

Sephardic Jews are just as culpable. Many have Arabic names like “Massoud” (which means “lucky”) or “Abdullah”. In fact, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s birth name was Yusuf Abdullah, and it was only when the family made aliyah to Israel that “Abdullah” was replaced with its Hebrew translation “Ovadia” (which is a Biblical name). At one point, a popular female Sephardic name was “Mercedes”. This one is highly problematic, as it happens to be a Spanish appellation for the Virgin Mary! (The automobile brand Mercedes is named after a Jewish girl of that name, the daughter of the company’s founder Emil Jellinek and his French-Sephardi wife.) A similar problem lies with the very popular “Natalie”, which literally means “Christmas” in Latin.

Is it okay to bear such names? A distinction must be made between those that clearly have an idolatrous origin versus those that were simply adapted from non-Jewish names but still carry a good meaning. The latter are certainly permissible, since many of our great Sages had such foreign names. Over time, many of these evolved a deeper, Jewish meaning. For instance, Adele was a classic German name (meaning “noble”) and yet the Baal Shem Tov chose it for his daughter. He explained to his chassidim that he received this name through divine inspiration, and that it is an acronym (אדל) for the important words in the Torah אש דת למו—that God gave His people “a fiery Torah” (Deuteronomy 33:2). The Torah, like fire, purifies all things. The Baal Shem Tov’s daughter went on to become a holy chassid of her own, imbued with so much Ruach haKodesh that she was nicknamed Adele HaNeviah, “Adele the Prophetess”.

Jewish “Non-Jewish” Names

The opposite case exists as well: names that appear to be non-Jewish but actually have a clear Jewish origin. Take “Elizabeth”, for example. While it may sound like a classic European name, it is actually the transliteration of “Elisheva” (אלישבע), the righteous wife of Aaron (Exodus 6:23). Some Jewish name sources incorrectly write that John is a non-Jewish name, associating it with the “New Testament” John. Yet, even that John was originally a Jewish man living in Israel, and “John” is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yochanan”. (It sounds closer in Germany and Eastern Europe, where “John” is “Johan”, or “Yohan”.)

There are numerous other examples. Susanna is Shoshana (שושנה), and Abigail is Avigayil (אביגיל). In the Tanakh, the latter makes an important comment about names, pointing out that because her first husband’s name was Naval (“abomination”) he acted abominably (I Samuel 25:25). She later married King David and is considered a prophetess in her own right.

Many are surprised to discover that “Jessica” comes from the Torah. It is an English adaptation of Iscah (יסכה), mentioned in Genesis 11:29 and, according to our Sages, the birth name of Sarah. Rashi comments:

Iscah. This is Sarah, because she would see [סוֹכָה] through divine inspiration, and because all gazed [סוֹכִין] at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom [נְסִיכוּת], just as Sarah is an expression of dominion [שְׂרָרָה].

Interestingly, it appears that the earliest recorded use of the transliteration “Jessica” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Here, Jessica is the Jewish daughter of the play’s Jewish villain, Shylock. Although many see The Merchant of Venice as an anti-Semitic work, others actually see it as Shakespeare’s cunning manipulation of that era’s rampant anti-Semitism and his own “plea for tolerance”. After all, Shylock’s most famous speech (Act III, Scene 1) reads:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Shylock argues that his own villainy is nothing but a reflection of the villainy of the Christian world. Shakespeare recognized the cruelty that Jews had suffered, and tells his anti-Semitic audience that Jews are human, too.

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

Ultimately, it is certainly beneficial to have a Hebrew name of some sort, whether Biblical, Talmudic, adapted, or modern. After all, Hebrew is a holy language, and each of its letters carry profound meaning. The Hebrew term for “name” is shem (שם), which is a root of neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, and spelled the same as sham (שם), “there”, for it is there within a person’s name that his or her essence is found. For this reason, the Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells us that Rabbi Meir used to carefully analyze people’s name to determine their character. (This Talmudic passage was explored at length in Secrets of the Last Waters.)

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) also notes that changing one’s name is one of five things a person can do to change their fate. Indeed, we see this multiple times in Scripture. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed (from Abram and Sarai) to allow them to finally have a child. Jacob becomes Israel, while Hoshea becomes Yehoshua (Joshua). At some point, Pinchas becomes Eliyahu, and even Yosef (Joseph) becomes Yehosef (Psalms 81:6). On that last name change, the Midrash explains that it was only because Yosef had an extra hei added to his name that he was able to ascend to Egyptian hegemony.

Thus, having a name with a deep meaning, in Hebrew letters, and one that is actually used regularly (as opposed to a secondary Hebrew name that no one calls you by) is of utmost significance. If you don’t yet have such a name, it isn’t too late to get one!


*This Midrash presents a possible contradiction: how can it say that the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names when we see that some clearly did? Maybe most of the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names, though some did. Thankfully, another Midrash (Pesikta Zutrati on parashat Ki Tavo) steps in to offer an alternate reason. Here, Israel was redeemed in the merit of three things: not changing their clothing, their food, and their language. Changing their names is conspicuously absent.