Tag Archives: Second Temple

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

This Sunday night we celebrate Shavuot, staying up all night learning Torah and showing our devotion to God’s Word. Previously, we traced the origins of this custom to the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century, based on the teachings of the Zohar that date back to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century CE. However, there is actually one more historical mention for a tikkun leil Shavuot, of sorts, that predates Tzfat, the Zohar, and even Rashbi. The first-century Jewish sage and philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE), describes a ritual where certain Jews would stay up all night on Shavuot:

And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night; and this nocturnal festival is celebrated in the following manner: they all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, the one of men and the other of women, and for each chorus there is a leader and chief selected, who is the most honourable and most excellent of the band. Then they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of God in many metres and tunes, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony and, uttering in an inspired manner, songs of thanksgiving…

The ideas were beautiful, the expressions beautiful, and the chorus-singers were beautiful; and the end of ideas, and expressions, and chorus-singers was piety; therefore, being intoxicated all night till the morning with this beautiful intoxication, without feeling their heads heavy or closing their eyes for sleep, but being even more awake than when they came to the feast, as to their eyes and their whole bodies, and standing there till morning, when they saw the sun rising they raised their hands to heaven, imploring tranquillity and truth, and acuteness of understanding. (On the Contemplative Life, XI, 83-89)

Philo calls this sect of Jews the Essenes, or the Therapeutae, the “Healers”. They have become more well-known in recent decades because of their association with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Who were the Essenes? What did they believe? Why did they stay up all night on Shavuot? And how did they come to influence Kabbalah and other mystical movements? Continue reading

Origins and Mysteries of Shabbat Candles

1723 Illustration of Shabbat Candle-Lighting

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, begins with the command to take “pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.” (Exodus 27:20) This refers to lighting the “eternal flame”, ner tamid, of the Temple Menorah. Since the destruction of the Temple, we are no longer able to fulfil this mitzvah exactly. However, the Sages say we can still fulfil this mitzvah through the lighting of Shabbat candles. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) presents some mathematical proof for this as well: the gematria of ner tamid (נר תמיד) is 704, equal to “on the Sabbath” (בשבת), while the gematria of tetzave (תצוה) is 501, equal to “[God] commanded the women” (נשים צוה). In other words, God commanded women to light Shabbat candles as a way to keep the Temple’s eternal flame going.

This beautiful teaching actually helps us pinpoint the origins of lighting Shabbat candles, since the mitzvah is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah. Where exactly did it come from, why was it instituted, and why is it women specifically that are instructed to light these candles? Continue reading

An Eye-Opening History of the Sanhedrin

This week’s parasha begins with the command to appoint shoftim v’shotrim, “judges and officers” who will enforce the law. The Torah warns that judges must not pervert justice, show favouritism, or accept bribes (Deuteronomy 16:19). If there is some kind of civil dispute, the Torah instructs the nation to turn to the “kohanim, Levites, and judges who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgement.” (Deuteronomy 17:9) From this the Sages derive that the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jewish people, must contain a mix of all three types of Jews: kohanim, levi’im, and Israel. What exactly is the Sanhedrin? When did it emerge, and why is it referred to by a Greek word? Continue reading