Tag Archives: Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi

Perspectives on Hell

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

This week’s parasha, Vayera, begins by telling us that following Abraham’s circumcision, he was “sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day was hot.” (Genesis 18:1) The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1340) offers several interesting possibilities as to why the Torah had to mention this seemingly superfluous detail. One of the answers is that k’chom hayom, the heat of the day, is actually alluding to the heat of Hell. As is characteristic of the Ba’al HaTurim, he proves it mathematically, pointing out that the numerical value of k’chom hayom (כחם היום) is equivalent to “this is in Gehinnom” (זהו בגיהנם), when including the additional kollel.

The Ba’al haTurim also draws on a Talmudic teaching (Eruvin 19a) that Abraham sits at the “entrance” to Gehinnom and pulls out all who are circumcised from there! There is an exception to this, though, for being “circumcised” is more than just the one-time passive active of getting circumcised. A man also has to “uphold” his circumcision, meaning not to abuse that organ. Anyone who was promiscuous over the course of their life has their foreskin grow back in Gehinnom—and those people Abraham does not save!

That said, what exactly is Gehinnom? Is it the equivalent of “Hell”? Does Judaism have a concept of such an eternal place of torment? It is common to hear that Judaism does not have such a notion, and that the Tanakh does not describe such a place. Yet, later Jewish literature is actually quite rich with discussion of a hellish torment of some sort for certain wicked individuals in the afterlife. What is the truth? Continue reading

The Caesar Who Saved Judaism

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s parasha, Toldot, begins with the births of the twins Jacob and Esau. Their mother, Rebecca, felt trouble brewing in her womb, and received prophecy that “two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will emerge from your innards” (Genesis 25:23). Jacob, of course, is the forefather of the Jewish people, while Esau would become the spiritual progenitor of the Roman Empire, and then the entire Christian world as a whole (see ‘How Esau Became Rome’).

The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) comments on the above verse that the words shnei goyim b’vitnekh (שני גוים בבטנך), “two nations are in your womb”, has the same gematria as “this is Rabbi Yehuda and Antoninus” (זה רבי יהודה ואנטונינוס). Recall that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was the president of Israel in the 2nd century CE, and is credited with composing the Mishnah, the first complete corpus of Jewish law, while Antoninus was a Roman official who was his close friend. The Ba’al haTurim is telling us that there is a profound connection between these two sets of people that are separated by nearly two millennia. What is the connection between the pair of Jacob and Esau, and the pair of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi and Antoninus? Continue reading

The Genius of Mishnah

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

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

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

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