Tag Archives: Rav Sherira Gaon

Secrets of the Pesach Seder Plate

This Friday evening marks the start of Passover. At the Passover seder, it is customary to have a plate upon which all the symbolic Passover foods are placed. According to one arrangement, on the top right we place the zeroa bone; parallel to it on the left is an egg; then the maror (bitter herb) in the centre; the sweet charoset on the bottom right, opposite the karpas vegetable; and in the bottom centre the chazeret, horseradish or another serving of maror (which is used in the korech “sandwich”). In addition, we have three matzahs and the cup of wine, to be filled four times. What is the significance of these Pesach elements?

The zeroa represents the fact that God took us out of Egypt “with an outstretched arm” (b’zeroa netuya), as the Torah states. It also represents the korban pesach, the Pesach offering that would be brought and consumed in the days of the Temple. For this reason, it is best to have a zeroa from a lamb shank, since the Pesach offering was a lamb. The lamb itself was in commemoration of the fact that the Israelites smeared the blood of the lamb on their doorposts on the eve of their Exodus, to protect their homes from the tenth and final plague. It was a lamb in particular because the astrological sign for the month of Nisan is Aries, a ram or sheep. This is tied to Egyptian idolatry, where a number of Egyptian gods were depicted as ram-headed, or with the horns of a ram, including Khnum and Osiris. The slaughter of a lamb was thus symbolic of destroying the idols of Egypt, like the Ten Plagues themselves (see ‘The Ten Plagues: Destroying the Idols of Egypt’ in Garments of Light).

The egg symbolizes another offering brought on Passover: the chagigah, or holiday offering. This was the standard offering brought on all festivals in the days of the Temple. The reason that it is specifically an egg is because a whole egg is one of the foods traditionally consumed by mourners. (The round egg represents the cycle of life.) In this case, the egg is a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Intriguingly, Rav Sherira Gaon (d. 1006) wrote how it is customary to eat meat, fish, and egg at the Pesach seder to represent the foods that will be eaten in the End of Days at the Feast of Mashiach. According to the Midrash, in that time the righteous will eat the fishy flesh of Leviathan, that great sea-dragon that Mashiach will slay; as well as the meat of the beast called Behemoth; and the egg of the mythical bird Ziz. So, eating an egg at the Pesach meal is symbolic of that future messianic feast.

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

The maror famously represents the bitter oppression of the Jews, just as the Torah states that the Egyptians “embittered” (v’imareru) the lives of the Jews with mortar and brick, and hard labour (Exodus 1:14). The need to eat maror actually comes explicitly from the Torah, which commands that Jews should eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). The Mishnah (Pesachim 2:6) lists five possible maror herbs, though their identity is not entirely clear. The only one that appears to be undisputed is lettuce, and hence it is lettuce that is used for maror in Sephardic communities. Another possibility is that maror is horseradish—not the mustard-like sauce but an actual horseradish root (since maror must be a raw vegetable, as the Shulkhan Aruch states in Orach Chaim 473:5). There are other traditions for maror’s identity as well.

Interestingly, the Midrash states that the consumption of maror on Pesach is one of the few things King Solomon did not understand! In Proverbs 30:18, Solomon wrote that “Three things are wondrous to me and four I do not know.” Although the passage continues to state what it is that Solomon wondered about, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) has an alternate explanation: The three things wondrous to Solomon were the Pesach offering, matzah, and maror; and the four he didn’t know were the mysteries behind the four species of Sukkot!

The Mystery of Karpas and Charoset

The maror is dipped into the sweet charoset. This paste is meant to resemble the clay mortar that the Israelites used, or the mud that was baked into clay bricks. The word charoset comes from cheres, “clay”. There are vastly different traditions as to the ingredients of charoset. One tradition is to use the fruits mentioned in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, among them: apples (2:3), figs (2:13), nuts (6:11), dates (7:7), wine (1:2), and cinnamon (4:14). The romantic lyrics of the Song are interpreted as an allegorical “love story” between God and Israel, and the fruits are used throughout the text in metaphorical fashion to describe that passionate love. It is particularly appropriate to use the Song of Songs recipe since it is customary to read the Song of Songs on the holiday of Pesach. (There are five megillot, “scrolls”, in the Tanakh, and each is read on a particular holiday: Shir HaShirim on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, Eichah on Tisha b’Av, Kohelet on Sukkot, and Esther on Purim.)

Some have pointed out that charoset may have a Greek origin, as it was common to eat fruit and nut mixtures in the Greek symposia, which the Pesach seder might be loosely modelled on. Similarly, karpas has a Greek etymology (as does afikoman) and means “vegetable”. This vegetable can be celery, parsley, water cress, green onion, or even boiled potato. It is commonly said that the karpas symbolizes, once again, the difficult labour of the Jews. In the word karpas (כרפס) appear the letters פ-ר-כ, as in the Torah’s statement that the Egyptians worked the Israelites בפרך, b’farekh (Exodus 1:13), exceedingly hard. It is customary to dip the karpas in salt water, which represents the tears of the Israelites.

Having said that, there may be a better explanation for the karpas, and its secret lies in an alternate custom to dip it not in salt water, but in wine vinegar. The Hebrew word karpas (כרפס) actually appears in one place in the Tanakh. This is in Esther 1:6, amidst a description of the feast of King Ahashverosh, where his palace was draped with chur karpas u’tekhelet (חור כרפס ותכלת), “white linen and blue thread”. So, while the Greek karpos means “vegetable”, the Hebrew karpas means “linen” or “fabric”. Dipping the karpas in wine vinegar is therefore like dipping clothing in blood, symbolizing the tunic of Joseph which his brothers dipped in blood and presented to their father Jacob. It was that act which sparked the sequence of events leading to the Israelites descent to Egypt, and their ultimate enslavement.

The sixth spot on the seder plate is sometimes missing altogether, and other times holds horseradish (sometimes the creamy kind), salt water (for dipping karpas), or another serving of maror which is used in the korech, the “sandwich” made up of matzah, charoset, and maror. As the Haggadah states, this was the custom of the great Hillel, who used to make such a sandwich to literally fulfil the word of the Torah to eat the Pesach offering together with matzah and bitter herbs.

In addition to the plate, we have three matzahs. These symbolize the three patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as the three divisions of the Jewish nation—Kohen, Levi, and Israel. (We have explored in the past why it is the middle matzah, corresponding to Isaac, that is broken in half.) They can also be said to symbolize the three siblings who led the Exodus: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

The Four Cups

The four cups of wine symbolize the four expressions of salvation that the Torah uses (Exodus 6:6-8) in describing the Exodus:

I am Hashem, and I will [1] bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and [2] I will deliver you from their bondage, and [3] I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and [4] I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am Hashem your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am Hashem.

We see a fifth expression here, too—“and I will bring you to the land…” This is why we do pour a fifth cup, but we do not drink it. It is left for the prophet-turned-angel Eliyahu. In the Talmud, it is common for the rabbis to leave an unsettled debate “for Eliyahu”, who will come in the Messianic days and finally resolve all the Talmudic disputes. Since there is a debate whether to drink four or five cups of wine on Pesach (based on a variant text in Pesachim 118a), we drink four and leave a fifth “for Eliyahu”. The deeper meaning behind the debate here is whether our salvation is complete or not. Although we were taken out of Egypt, Jews have continued to experience oppression for centuries ever since. We will not be totally redeemed until the coming of Mashiach. Our presence in the Holy Land will not be secured until then either. This is why the fifth cup is for Eliyahu, who is the harbinger of Mashiach.

It has also been pointed out that in Genesis 40:11-13, Pharaoh’s cupbearer mentions a cup four times in his dream. Joseph interpreted the cupbearer’s dream in the positive, and prophesied that he shall return to his position, while the Pharaoh’s baker would be put to death. Joseph asked the cupbearer that he remember Joseph and help to get him out of his imprisonment. Although the cupbearer forget all about Joseph, he later remembered the young dream interpreter when the Pharaoh’s own dream was inexplicable. This led to Joseph’s release from prison, his ascent to Egyptian royalty, and the eventual settlement of his family in Egypt, leading to their enslavement. So, the dream of the “four cups” sets in motion the events that lead to Israel’s descent to Egypt.

Likewise, when Joseph tests his siblings and places his special goblet in the bag of Benjamin (Genesis 44), the word “goblet” is mentioned four times. Better yet, the numerical value of “goblet” (גביע) is equal to the value of “cup” (כוס) when including the kollel. And the value of “cup” (כוס) itself is 86, which is the number of years that Israel was enslaved. (Israel was in Egypt a total of 210 years, of which the first 94 were peaceful. Then came 30 years of persecution, followed by 86 years of hard slavery. For a detailed analysis see ‘How Long Were the Israelites Actually in Egypt?’)

Some say the four cups parallel the four types of kelipah, the impure “husks” in Creation. Kabbalistic texts often speak of Pharaoh as the ultimate force of kelipah. It just so happens that the Torah speaks of four pharaohs altogether: the first Pharaoh was the one Abraham encountered upon his descent to Egypt; the second was the one that took Joseph out of prison and appointed him viceroy; the third was the wicked one who enslaved Israel and later decreed the drowning of the Israelite babies; and the fourth is the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus.

Yet another explanation is that the four cups correspond to the four exiles of Israel: the Babylonian, the Persian, the Greek, and the Roman. Just as we were redeemed from the oppression of Egypt, we were redeemed from the future exiles (awaiting the final redemption). Appropriately, the Arizal taught that Egypt was the root of all future exiles (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Re’eh). Similarly, the Talmud and Midrash state (based on Exodus 14:13-14) that the Jews split into four groups when trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the approaching Egyptians on the other. There were those that lost all hope and wanted to surrender, and those that wanted to kill themselves rather than surrender; those that wished to arm themselves and fight the Egyptians, and those that simply prayed to God for salvation. Regardless of their faith or faithlessness, God saved all four groups of Jews, and we drink four cups in commemoration.

Lastly, if the three matzahs parallel the three patriarchs of Israel, then the four cups can be said to parallel the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. After all, the Talmud (Sotah 11b) states that “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.”

Sefirot of the Seder Plate

Etz Chaim, the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”

The Arizal arranged his seder plate according to the mystical Tree of Life that depicts the Ten Sefirot. The zeroa is in the top right because this is the position of Chessed, kindness, as it represents God’s compassion in taking us out of Egypt. The egg is in the position of Gevurah, or Din, strict judgement and restraint, since it represents mourning the Temple’s destruction. (Another symbolic explanation for the egg is that it represents the Jewish people: just as an egg gets harder the more it is boiled so, too, does the Jewish nation only grow stronger the more we are “boiled” and oppressed.) The all-important maror is in the central sefirah of Tiferet, balance and truth.

The sefirot of Netzach and Hod (paralleling the legs) are charoset and karpas, symbolizing our difficult labour. The salt water, chazeret, or additional maror below is for Yesod. Finally, the plate itself is Malkhut, since Malkhut is the receptacle for all the sefirot above, just as the plate holds all the foods. Alternatively, Malkhut may correspond to the cup of wine.

Finally, at the top are the three matzot, corresponding to the upper three mochin of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at (or Keter). This reveals a deeper secret as to why we break the middle matzah into two halves. The middle matzah is the middle sefirah of Binah, which actually has two aspects: Binah and Tevunah. While “Binah” is simply understanding a matter, “Tevunah” is internalizing that information more deeply. Tevunah is engraving that understanding into one’s mind, and it leads to being able to apply that knowledge in real world situations. Thus, we end the seder with the consumption of the afikoman—the Tevunah half—as we wish to not only understand what was discussed at the seder, but to internalize it on the deepest of levels.

Chag Sameach!

An Honest Look at the Talmud

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

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

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

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

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

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

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

Promiscuity in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

Science in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

History in the Talmud

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

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

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

Archaeological remains of the Beitar fortress.

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

Things You Didn’t Know About the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

An Oral Torah

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

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

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

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

The Mishnah

2000-year old tefillin discovered in Qumran

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

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

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

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

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

The Gemara

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

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

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

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

Placing the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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


Who Was Miriam the Prophetess, and What Did She Prophesy?  

This week’s parasha is Chukat, in which we read of the passing of Miriam, the older sister of Moses. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) lists Miriam as one of the seven major female prophetesses of Israel, and also states that she was so righteous that the Israelites had water for forty years in the Wilderness in her merit (Taanit 9a). Who was Miriam, why was she so great, and what exactly did she prophesy?

Bitterness in Egypt

'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts 1829

‘Departure of the Israelites’ by David Roberts 1829

The Israelites spent a total of 210 years in Egypt. This duration was prophetically hinted to by Jacob himself when he told his children to descend to Egypt (Genesis 42:2), where the numerical value of the word “descend” (רדו) is 210. While the sons of Jacob were still alive, the extended family was treated well by the Egyptians. After their passing, and as the family multiplied to ever greater numbers, persecution of the Jews began. These decrees started 94 years after the Israelites arrived in Egypt (or 116 years before the Exodus). Thirty years later, the Israelites were officially enslaved. That year – 86 years before the Exodus – was when Miriam, the firstborn daughter of Amram and Yocheved, was born. Not surprisingly, her parents named her Miriam, which literally means “double bitterness”, or “very bitter”.

It is important to point out that people often mistakenly think the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. The correct number is 86 years. This, too, has a numerical hint in that we drink four cups of wine on Pesach, and the gematria of “cup” (כוס) is 86. At the end, we pour a fifth cup that is not drunk, and altogether the five cups (5 × 86) make 430, which is the time elapsed since God decreed the Israelite sojourn in Egypt.

Birth of a Prophet

Six years after the slavery began, the Egyptians noted that the Israelite population continued to miraculously flourish. It was then that Pharaoh decreed the male-born be drowned in the Nile. Amram and Yocheved, along with many other couples, decided to separate to prevent bringing more children into the world, lest they be murdered. At this point, Miriam stepped in and told her parents: “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s. Whereas Pharaoh decreed against the males, you have done so against the females as well” (Rashi on Exodus 2:1). It was then that Miriam had her first prophecy, aged just six years: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel” (Megillah 14a). And so, Amram remarried Yocheved and she had Moses, who did indeed go on to save Israel.

The Talmud further explains that this is why Exodus 15:20 describes her as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron.” Why did the Torah not say “the sister of Moses” or “the sister of Aaron and Moses”? This is because when she had made her first prophecy, and received the status of a prophet, she was only the sister of Aaron, since Moses had yet to be born!

Prophecy for the Distant Future

Exodus 15:20 is the only place in all of scripture where Miriam is described directly as a prophetess. The Kli Yakar comments here that Miriam prophesied once more during the “Song of the Sea” following the Exodus. The Torah describes how she called out to the other women to continue singing, after the men had finished doing so. Miriam used the masculine term “lahem” in place of the feminine “lahen”.

The Kli Yakar explains that in this current world women have often been oppressed, disadvantaged, and generally treated as second-class citizens compared to their male counterparts (this was especially true in his day, having lived 1550-1619 CE). What Miriam prophesied is that a time would come when women would finally be equal to men in all ways, hence the use of the masculine lahem. (For a more in-depth analysis of this, read The Moon’s Lost Light, by Devorah Heshelis.)

Mother of Royalty

The Torah writes how two midwives delivered the Israelite babies in Egypt, and refused to follow Pharaoh’s decree of killing the male-born. The midwives’ names were Shifrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15). The Sages state that they were none other than Yocheved and her daughter Miriam, who were called Shifrah and Puah because they beautified (meshaper) the newborns and soothed (po’ah) them. Amazingly, archaeologists discovered an ancient Egyptian papyrus that mentions a woman named Shifrah among a list of slaves during the time of Pharaoh Sobekhotep III, who reigned not too long before the estimated time of the Exodus. (The papyrus is currently at the Brooklyn Museum.)

In addition to Puah, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:17) records the many names with which Miriam was called. One of these names – based on I Chronicles 2:19 – is Efrat, because she made the Israelites be fruitful and multiply (Efrat shares a root with pru u’rvu – God’s command to procreate). For doing such a huge mitzvah, the Midrash says that Miriam merited to be the mother of royalty, with King David being her direct descendent.

Miriam’s husband was Caleb ben Hetzron (not to be confused with the good spy Caleb ben Yefuneh), who was a great-grandson of Judah. (Hetzron was the son of Peretz, who was Judah’s son with Tamar.) Although it is actually Hetzron’s son Ram, and not Caleb, who is the forefather of King David (I Chronicles 2:10-16), the Midrash insists that David descended from Caleb and Miriam, and this is why I Samuel 17:12 describes him as “David, the son of an Efrati”, Efrat being Miriam. It is quite possible that Caleb and Ram are one and the same person, and this seems to be the suggestion of this Midrash.

Miriam at the Seder

It was once customary to place an additional item on the Passover seder plate that does not officially appear there today. The haggadah of Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006 CE) suggested placing a piece of fish next to the shank bone and the egg, and this custom was also cited by the Ma’aseh Rokeach (c. 1665-1742 CE). The shank, egg, and fish were meant to symbolize the three prophets of redemption: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, as described in Micah 6:4.

'Destruction of Leviathan' by Gustav Doré

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

This ties into the Talmudic dictum (Taanit 9a) that in the merit of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam the Israelites in the wilderness had manna, the protective clouds of glory, and water. They further parallel the midrashic beasts said to come at the End of Days: Behemoth, the land beast; Ziz, the great bird; and Leviathan, the sea dragon. These creatures will be slaughtered and served in the so-called “Feast of Resurrection” or “Feast of Mashiach” (Pesachim 119b).

By eating an egg, fish, and meat at the Passover seder, one is not only commemorating the role of the three great prophets Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and the three miracles in the Wilderness that existed in their merit, but also having a mini-Mashiach feast. After all, the Exodus was only the First Redemption, and we are eagerly awaiting the Final Redemption. May we merit to see it soon.