Tag Archives: Serpent

China’s Spiritual Origins

This week’s parasha, Beshalach, describes the climax of the Exodus, the great Splitting of the Sea, following which Israel began its sojourn in the wilderness. We are introduced to an important geographical region, midbar Sin, the “Wilderness of Sin” (Exodus 16:1, 17:1). Presumably, this is where the name of Mount Sinai comes from. In the past, we have already explored the true location of Mount Sinai and the Sin Wilderness (which is not where the “Sinai Peninsula” is today, in Egypt).

Sin does appear earlier in the Torah, in the “Table of Nations” that describes the 70 root nations that emerged from Noah and his three sons (Genesis 10). There we learn that the Sinites (Sini, סִּינִֽי) were descendants of Ham, through his son Canaan. Apparently, they were originally a subgroup of Canaanite! What’s more perplexing, however, is that today the term Sini refers to an East Asian person, and more specifically, a Chinese person. This is not just a Modern Hebrew appellation, but goes back at least to the time of the Rishonim. How did the Far East become associated with the ancient Wilderness of Sin?

A “Table of Nations” from the ArtScroll Stone Chumash

The First Shabbat

At first glance, it seems like China and the Far East make no appearance in the Torah. The simple explanation for this is that China was too far away to register on the radar of the Israelites. It would be irrelevant to discuss distant peoples who had no relationship with Israel. That said, we know that the Torah is eternal, the Word of God, and encodes all key aspects of human life within it. There is no way that the Torah does not, in some way, refer to the great peoples of the Far East, especially because they have played such an important role in human history. Today in particular, we recognize China as a global superpower that is instrumental on the world stage. Surely, the Torah (and our Sages) had something to say about this. Looking a little deeper, we find that this is, indeed, the case. In fact, China and the Far East are the subject of an intriguing halakhic discussion.

Our Sages taught that Israel is the centre point of the universe. Creation began with Even HaShetiya, the “Foundation Stone”, which lies beneath what is today the Dome of the Rock. From that initial point, the universe burst forth and expanded ever rapidly, eventually resulting in all that we have today (this expansion was first alluded to by our Sages in the Talmud, Chagigah 12a, and in much more depth in the Zohar). Thus, the events of Creation could be said to have first taken place in Israel, and spread outward from there. That being the case, the first Shabbat was surely marked in the Holy Land. Yet, that presents a huge problem: Continue reading

Identifying the Angel of Death

This week we begin reading the Torah anew with parashat Beresheet. Originally, God created a perfect world that was entirely good. He warned Adam not to consume of the Tree of Knowledge, for that would introduce evil—and death—into the world. The First Couple consumed the fruit anyway, thus putting a time limit on their lives, and the lives of all future human beings. A simple reading suggests that death only entered Creation at the time that Adam and Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit. According to tradition, that took place on the Sixth Day, the self-same day that they were created. It was on the Sixth Day that God completed His work, and said that “behold, it was very good [tov me’od].” (Genesis 1:31) The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 9:5) states that Rabbi Meir would read these words not tov me’od, but rather tov mot, “death is good”! God, of course, foresaw all of human history from the very beginning, and intended for death to exist. Therefore, the existence of death, too, is a good thing.

On a deeper level, God had always intended for Adam and Eve to consume the Fruit. Continue reading

Where in the Torah is Chanukah?

Chanukah is the only major Jewish holiday that is not found in the Tanakh. This is mainly because the events of Chanukah took place in the 2nd century BCE, while according to tradition the Tanakh was already compiled and codified long before by the Great Assembly at the start of the Second Temple era. In fact, historians date the earliest Greek translations of Biblical books to the 3rd century BCE. Historical records agree with the Talmud that it was King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BCE) who first commissioned the translation of the Torah into Greek, probably for his Great Library in Alexandria. How much of Scripture was translated at that point is not clear.

Although we see that the Sages continued to debate which holy books should be included in the definitive Tanakh nearly into the Talmudic period, the Book of Maccabees was never on the table. One reason is because the Book of Maccabees is not, and does not even claim to be, a prophetic work. It is simply a historical text and, contrary to popular belief, the Tanakh is not at all a history textbook. While it does record historical events—along with laws, ethics, prophecies, and more—its purpose is far greater. The Zohar (III, 152a) goes so far as to say that a person who views the Torah as a history book which simply relates “historical narratives” and “simple tales” has no share in the World to Come! “Every word in the Written Torah is a supernal word containing lofty secrets” it says, and “the narratives of the Written Torah are only the outer garments…”

Of course, it is a fundamental principle of Judaism that the Torah is an encrypted work that contains within it allusions to everything. As such, we should be able to find encoded references to Chanukah. And we do. Where did Moses hide clues to the future events of the Hashmonean Maccabees and the Chanukah festival?

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