Tag Archives: Slavery

The Difference between “Jew” and “Hebrew”

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?

Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.

The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).

Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)

Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.

Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.

Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?

Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?

The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Babel to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.

An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.

“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform

From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”.  The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”

One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.

Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.

Rebels and Mystics

Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.

His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.

In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.

A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)

Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.

Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)

Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Israel and Jeshurun

The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.

The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.

Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.

What is a Jew?

By the middle of the 1st century BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.

As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.

Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!

All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?

It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).

So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.

And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:

Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…

There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.

Why Did the Levites Become Priests?

This week we start reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. The book is more commonly known as Leviticus—after the tribe of Levi—since most of it is concerned with priestly, or Levitical, law. The big question is: at which point did the Levites (including the Kohanim, who are from the same tribe of Levi) become priests, and why?

Temple Priests Bringing the Two Goats on Yom Kippur

The Torah does not explicitly answer this question. The traditional explanation (see, for example, Rashi on Numbers 3:12) is that the Levites were the only tribe not to participate in the Golden Calf incident, and thus merited to become priests. Before that point, the firstborn son of each family was meant to serve in the priesthood (and presumably anyone else who so wished), as God had originally stated that the entire nation will be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).* After the Golden Calf, everything changed and it was strictly the Levites who became worthy of the priesthood.

Yet, other traditions maintain that the Levites were already priests long before the Golden Calf debacle. It is commonly held that the Levites were not enslaved in Egypt (or, at least, not to the same degree) because they were recognized as priests, and priests were protected under Egyptian law (see Genesis 47:26). This notion is supported by Exodus 5:4 where Pharaoh tells the Levite leaders Moses and Aaron: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, cause the people to break loose from their work? Go to your own burdens.” Pharaoh essentially tells the brothers to mind their own business and let the others do their work.

Rashi cites the Midrash here in explaining that Aaron and Moses were able to freely appear before Pharaoh whenever they wished because Levites like them were not enslaved. In Gur Aryeh, a commentary on Rashi’s commentary, the Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, d. 1609) goes so far as to suggest that Pharaoh—perhaps the Pharaoh who actually enslaved Israel; not the Pharaoh of the Exodus—knew that Israel were God’s people, so he left the Levites to serve Hashem in an attempt to avert his own doom! This explanation may actually be a pretty good one, since polytheistic religions like that of the ancient Egyptians typically accepted the existence of other gods beyond their own pantheon. The Roman Empire famously absorbed the deities of the various peoples they conquered to the point where they had hundreds of gods in their pantheon. Doing so would appease the gods, and more importantly, help to subdue their conquered believers. For Egypt, allowing a portion of Israel to remain in God’s service would be a valuable political tool, hence the freedom granted to the priestly Levites.

There is a further issue in that the Levites are already commanded in priestly duties in the parasha of Tetzave, which comes before the parasha of Ki Tisa where the Golden Calf incident is recounted. This is generally dealt with through the principle of ain mukdam u’meuchar b’Torah, “there is no before and after in the Torah”, meaning that many events in the Torah are not presented in their chronological order. Still, there may be a way to solve the conundrum without resorting to this conclusion.

So, when and why did Levites become priests?

Surprising Answers from Jubilees

As discussed in the past, the Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one 49-year yovel, “jubilee”, period. While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty, and clearly influenced a number of midrashic texts, as well as the Zohar.

The Book of Jubilees offers three different reasons for the tribe of Levi’s priesthood. First (explained in 30:18), the Levites merited to become priests because their forefather Levi had defended his sister Dinah’s honour after her rape by Shechem (Genesis 34). Although Shimon was the leader of that mission, he later lost his merit when he suggested killing Joseph. This explanation is problematic because the wording in Genesis suggests Jacob was not at all happy with his sons Shimon and Levi for their impulsive, violent attack. Because of that, Jacob actually did not give these two sons a blessing as he did his other sons (Genesis 49:5-6).

In Chapter 31, Jubilees suggests a better answer. Here, we read how Jacob went to visit his parents after returning from a twenty-year sojourn with his uncle Laban in Charan. Jacob does not take his entire family, but is accompanied only by Judah and Levi (the reason why is not stated). Isaac then gives Jacob a blessing, and in this blessing Judah is conferred royalty and Levi given the priesthood. Thus, Judah’s descendants ultimately became kings while Levi’s became priests. That also explains why these two tribes alone would survive through history (the other ten—“The Lost Tribes of Israel”—having been extinguished over the centuries). Today, we have only Yehudim (ie. Judahites) among whom are Kohanim and Levi’im (ie. Levites).

A Tithed Son

The Book of Jubilees offers one more intriguing explanation for the ascent of the Levites to the priesthood. In Chapter 32, Jacob fulfils his previous oath to God (as in Genesis 28:22) to tithe everything God blesses him with. Since Jacob promised to tithe everything God gives him, that includes his children. So, Jacob lines up his twelve sons according to age and starts counting from the youngest, Benjamin. The tenth son, of course, is Levi, and therefore he is designated for God—to the priesthood. Following this, Levi sees a dream at Beit-El (in the same place his father had the vision of the Heavenly Ladder) in which God confirms Jacob’s deed and officially appoints Levi the family priest.

Finally, Jacob offers a host of sacrifices to God, and it is Levi who facilitates them. Levi accordingly becomes the first official Israelite priest. This may explain why later in history the Levite tribe in Egypt was already considered priestly and spared much of the slavery, and it also explains why the leadership of Israel in Egypt was composed primarily of Levites (Amram, Moses, Aaron). It gives a reason, too, for why it was the tribe of Levi in particular that did not participate in the Golden Calf, for they would have spent their time in Egypt in service of Hashem, making it highly unlikely that they would be drawn to idolatry like the common folk. Perhaps what happened after the Golden Calf is that God officially made the entire tribe priestly, and formally removed the responsibility from the firstborn.

Having said all that, there are those who maintain that having such priests was only necessary because of the Golden Calf, and sacrifices were only instituted to repair that grave sin, or to give the people an outlet to perform sacrificial offerings like they were used to (as the Rambam explains in Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). If not for the Golden Calf, there would have been no need for a sacrificial altar or priestly offerings. The entire nation would have been a mamlekhet kohanim—a kingdom of priests—as God intended; and serving God, like today, would have been through prayer, study, and mitzvot.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*It appears that occasionally non-Levites did become priests. In II Samuel 8:18 we read that some of King David’s sons somehow became kohanim. Rashi dealt with this perplexing statement by saying they were not literal kohanim but simply “chief officers”. Samuel himself is described as being from the tribe of Ephraim, yet is given over to Temple service by his mother Chanah and seemingly becomes a priest. The later Book of Chronicles deals with this by stating that Samuel really was descended from a Levite (see I Chronicles 6).

The Real Ten Commandments You’ve Never Heard Of

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

Tuesday evening marks the start of Shavuot—the second of the Torah’s pilgrimage festivals—commemorating the divine revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Not surprisingly, the Torah reading for the day is the text of the Decalogue, more commonly known as “the Ten Commandments”. It is well-known that the Decalogue text actually appears in two places in the Torah: Exodus 20:1-14, and Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The latter is in the final book of the Torah, written from the perspective of Moses. The two texts are nearly identical, with the only major difference being the description of the Shabbat commandment. In Exodus, we are told to remember (zachor) the Sabbath, while in Deuteronomy we are told to observe or safeguard it (shamor). The former explains Shabbat being in commemoration of God’s creation of the universe, while the latter ties it to God bringing the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.

If we have two different Decalogue texts, which one was it that the Israelites heard at Sinai? Some say they heard both simultaneously. (Every Friday night in Lecha Dodi we sing shamor v’zachor b’dibbur echad, “‘safeguard’ and ‘remember’ in one utterance…”) Others say the Israelites heard the Exodus version, and the Deuteronomy version is simply Moses’ recollection forty years later, or that Moses purposefully made slight changes to better reflect the needs of the Israelites at the time.

Whatever the case, few are aware that there is actually a third Decalogue text in the Torah! This one is in Exodus 34. Here, we are given a very different set of Ten Commandments:

[1] You shall make no molten gods. [2] The feast of unleavened bread shall you keep. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of spring, for in the month of spring you came out of Egypt. [3] All firstborn are Mine; and of all your cattle you shall sanctify the males, the firstlings of ox and sheep. And the firstling of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before Me empty. [4] Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. [5] And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, [6] and the feast of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year shall all your males appear before Hashem, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; neither shall any man covet your land when you go up to appear before Hashem, your God, three times in the year. [7] You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; [8] neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover be left unto the morning. [9] The choicest first-fruits of your land you shall bring unto the house of Hashem, your God. [10] You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Aside from idolatry and Shabbat, the above text is a totally different Decalogue! And just in case you thought that this was an unrelated set of ten laws, the Torah continues by emphasizing in the following two verses (Exodus 34:27-28):

And Hashem said unto Moses: “Write these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And he was there with Hashem forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

The Torah makes it explicitly clear that these ten are the Ten Commandments that Moses wrote upon the Tablets, and with these ten did God seal the covenant with Israel! What’s going on?

The Golden Calf

The key to solving this mystery is understanding when the second Decalogue was given. This set came after the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf. That one monumental incident totally changed the course of history. The Arizal explains how the Israelites had affected many tikkunim (spiritual rectifications) during their long years of slavery in Egypt. The Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea accomplished even more rectifications. The preparatory period leading up to the Sinai Revelation ascended the Israelites even further, and when they witnessed God’s Revelation, they had climbed all the way up to the highest level, nearly repairing the entire cosmos. All that was left was to receive the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue which they had heard). This Decalogue was the whole Torah. Once they would have received it and wholeheartedly accepted it, that would have completed the entire rectification of all of Creation, and it would have ushered in the Messianic Age (Moses being Mashiach). Unfortunately, the people worshipped the Golden Calf which, the Arizal explains, now shattered the cosmos once more. Everything reverted to the way it was before the Exodus.

Israeli commemorative stamp of the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), better known as “Maimonides”.

The Sages teach that before the Golden Calf incident, every firstborn male was meant to be a priest. After the Calf, the Levites became the designated priests (since they were the only tribe to abstain from the idolatrous act), and among them, only the descendants of Aaron could serve as high priests. Meanwhile, the Rambam writes that God never wanted the Israelites to bring any sacrifices or offerings (Moreh Nevuchim, III, 32). It seems that this only became necessary after the Golden Calf incident. The Rambam explains that the Israelites could not separate themselves from the old pagan ways they were accustomed to. Offering sacrifices is what they knew; this was their way to connect to a higher power. So, God reluctantly gave them various sacrificial rituals, but only to wean them off this unnecessary practice. The Rambam bases his argument on the words of several prophets, including Jeremiah 7:22, which explicitly has God stating that He never commanded any sacrifices! A careful reading of this verse in Jeremiah shows that God said He never wanted sacrifices when He took the Israelites out of Egypt. Later, however, they became necessary, though only as a temporary measure.

And so, after the Golden Calf incident, God gave Moses a new Decalogue. He affirmed that it was with this new Decalogue that He was forging a covenant with Israel. Reading through these commandments, we see how they are all related to the Golden Calf incident.

The first one commands not creating molten gods. The phrasing here uses the exact same words that were used to describe the Golden Calf. The second commands observing the Passover holiday. Recall that at the Golden Calf incident, the people declared that it was the Calf that took them out of Egypt. Now, the second commandment makes clear that God took them out of Egypt. (This also explains why Moses modified the text of the original Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, changing it from remembering Creation, to remembering coming out of Egypt.)

The third commandment is to redeem the firstborn males. As we saw above, before the Golden Calf, all firstborn were priests; after, only the Levites and their descendants. Thus, each firstborn now had to be “redeemed”, since they would not be serving as priests. The fourth commandment is the only one to stay the same: keeping the Sabbath.

The fifth and sixth are celebrating Shavuot and Sukkot, the remaining two of three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover, which was the second commandment). The seventh command introduces sacrifices, and the eighth deals with the Paschal offering. The ninth is about bringing first fruits, another type of offering. All of these fit under the Rambam’s explanation of God giving the Israelites something they were familiar with, since pilgrimage festivals and sacrificial offerings were the two major staples of pagan religion at the time.

The final commandment is not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, or the prohibition of consuming a mixture of meat and dairy foods. There are many explanations for this enigmatic mitzvah. One of the mystical explanations is once again tied to the Golden Calf incident. It is said that the incident occurred just six hours before Moses returned from Sinai. The nation had only to wait several more hours to avoid the catastrophe. Therefore, waiting six hours to consume dairy after eating meat is seen as a spiritual rectification for that bit of impatience.

Restoring the Ten Commandments

The words of the original Decalogue of Exodus 20 have precisely 620 letters. This is famously said to parallel the 620 commandments in Judaism, 613 being derived from the Torah, and an additional seven that were instituted by the Sages. All of the mitzvot were included in the original Ten Commandments. The entire Torah could be found inscribed on the first set of Two Tablets through those 620 letters. From a mystical perspective, these Ten Commandments were all that was necessary. The 610 commandments that followed only came as a result of the Golden Calf incident, and the need to repair the cosmos from the beginning.

For over three millennia, we have slowly been fulfilling the tikkunim once more. The events that surround Mashiach’s coming are the final steps of that process. Mashiach will come and usher in the grand finale. The Tanakh tells us that he will then establish a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:30-31):

Behold, days are coming, said Hashem, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429) says Mashiach will bring a “new Torah”, and the current Torah will be “vain” compared to the Torah of Mashiach (Kohelet Rabbah 11:12). Midrash Tehillim 146:4 is even more specific, suggesting that all non-kosher animals will become kosher, and intimacy with a woman still in the state of niddah will be permitted. A better-known midrash teaches that all of the Torah’s holidays will be abolished (with only Purim—which is not a Torah holiday—remaining).

So, which commandments will be left? The original ten of the first Decalogue; the one that was intended for a Messianic Age to begin with. A simpler set of laws for all of mankind, in an era when (Zechariah 14:9) “Hashem will be king over all of the earth; in that day, God will be One, and His Name will be One.”


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat haOmer

The Torah commands that each day between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot be verbally counted (Leviticus 23:15). Along with this counting, a bundle of barley was brought as an offering in the Holy Temple. The barley was measured in units of omer, with one omer being equal to approximately 3 litres. Today, we no longer have a Temple or barley offerings, but the mitzvah of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot remains, and is referred to as Sefirat HaOmer, “the Counting of the Omer”. Since there are exactly seven weeks between the two holidays, there are 49 days which need to be counted. What is the deeper meaning behind this seemingly mundane practice?

The Fifty Levels

There are a number of spiritual explanations for Sefirat haOmer. Perhaps the most popular is the idea that in Egypt, the Jews were so deeply mired in the immoral and idolatrous Egyptian society that they had descended all the way down to the 49th level of impurity.

It is said that there are 50 levels of impurity, rooted in (or at least suggested by) the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “impure” (tam’e, טמא) which has a gematria of 50. The Jews had stooped down to the 49th level, and had they reached the 50th, there would have been no hope of salvation for them. Thus, God cut short the 400 year period of slavery that was decreed upon them, and immediately took the Jews out of Egypt before they could fall any further.

Corresponding to these, the Jewish mystics teach that there are 50 levels of constriction in the world. Egypt represented these 50 constrictions. Again, this can be illustrated through Hebrew and gematria: Egypt is Mitzrayim (מצרים), the root of which is tzar (צר, meaning “constrict” or “narrow”) and the suffix of which is ים, numerically equalling 50. Egypt is the land of 50 constrictions.

Following the Exodus, the task of the Jews was to cleanse themselves of the 49 levels of impurity which they had acquired, and to break free from all those constrictions that were imposed upon them. This is why they needed a 49-day period – one for each impurity and constriction – before they were ready for the Divine Revelation and reception of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot.

The Tree of Life

The Passover Haggadah reminds us that each Jew must envision themselves as personally coming out of Egypt. Though we are thankfully no longer literally slaves, the truth is that each of us is still mired in some kind of constriction, be it a constriction to time or work, money or health, stress, fears, and all those others things that “narrow” our lives and confine us into various forms of spiritual slavery. The Torah commands each of us to break free, to remove all of those impurities and boundaries, and to elevate ourselves over this special period of 49 days. Each day is associated with a unique energy to help us in this path.

The 49 energies stem from the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life”. This Tree is composed of ten Sefirot (a term not coincidentally related to Sefirat HaOmer). These Ten Sefirot are regarded as the spiritual building blocks with which God created the universe (together with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet). It is said that all things in existence are permeated with these ten energies, and all things that are “ten” in the Torah correspond to the ten sefirot: the Ten Divine Utterances of Creation, the Ten Trials of Abraham, the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, etc.

The top three sefirot are called the Mochin – the mental or intellectual faculties. The bottom seven are referred to as the Middot – the emotional and practical elements. During the time of the Omer, we are meant to focus on the purification of the bottom seven sefirot. Meanwhile, on Shavuot – having received the Torah – we are then able to rise further to the upper three mental sefirot and focus on intellectual development.

Etz Chaim, “Tree of Life”, Showing the 10 Sefirot and the 22 Lines that Unite Them (Corresponding to the Hebrew Alphabet), as Depicted by the Arizal

Therefore, each of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot is associated with one of the seven Middot. The first week of the Omer corresponds to the sefirah of Chessed – kindness. The second to the sefirah of Gevurah – restraint and self-control. The third to Tiferet – balance (also called Emet – truth). The fourth is Netzach – “victory”, or persistence (often associated with faith). The fifth, Hod – gratitude, and the sixth, Yesod – literally “foundation”, referring to sexual purity. Lastly there’s Malkhut, “kingdom”, which is associated with the faculty of speech.

Each of the seven days of the week is further associated with one of these seven sefirot. So, the first day of each week corresponds to Chessed, and the second day of each week to Gevurah, and so on. This gives each of the 49 days a totally unique quality which one should be meditating on, and more importantly, attempting to rectify.

For example, tonight we will count the third day, with the corresponding sefirah of Tiferet sh’b’Chessed, “Balance (or Truth) in Kindness”. This suggests developing a harmonious approach to kindness: being a more giving person; charitable, helpful, sympathetic, but also making sure not to be taken advantage of or tricked into false kindness. Unfortunately, misplaced kindness has become a staple of Western society. (How often do we see well-meaning liberals supporting the “poor and disadvantaged” terrorists?) Tonight’s sefirah might be summarized well by the old Midrashic teaching that “those who are kind to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the kind.”

Similarly, each of the remaining 49 days has a powerful message to teach us, hence the tremendous importance of Sefirat HaOmer – counting and meditating upon each and every one of these very special days.

What is Freedom?

This evening we usher in the final day (or two days, in the diaspora) of Pesach. The last day of the holiday commemorates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea, the point at which they were finally free of Egypt. Pharaoh’s armies were annihilated, and he abandoned his pursuit of his former slaves for good. The Israelites were now completely free.

Or were they?

The message that God instructed Moses to carry to Pharaoh was: “Let my people go so that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16). The verb that is used is identical to that describing our service to Pharaoh; we were avadim l’Pharaoh and became avadim l’Hashem. Were we really freed from slavery, or did our slavery simply transfer from one master to another Master?

Defining Freedom

There are many ways to define ‘freedom’. The term might mean different things to different people at different times. A Talmudic definition of freedom is the ability to control one’s own time. A slave is told what to do and when to do it (for this reason, Jewish servants were exempt from time-bound mitzvot). A more modern definition of freedom – particularly in our capitalistic world – might be tied to amassing a vast fortune. There is a great deal of truth in this, as the Talmud (Nedarim 38a) tells us that all of our forefathers and prophets were exceedingly wealthy. For a child, freedom might mean staying up past their bedtime, or eating as many sweets as they wanted. For an adult, freedom might be a week off work or spending quality time with family.

To find a singular, all-encompassing definition of freedom, one has to zoom out and find a common denominator. The simplest (and most common) would be to say that freedom is the ability to do whatever a person wishes to do. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of freedom is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action”. In other words, one is free to act as they wish.

The problem with this definition is that it is difficult to separate from simple instinct. For example, if one suddenly has a desire to consume a large piece of cheesecake, and does so, is this really freedom, or just a submission to their inner compulsion? What if this person is lactose-intolerant and grossly overweight – would eating that cheesecake be an act of freedom, or an act of slavery to their body’s desires?

It appears that we need to refine the above definition of freedom. Instead of phrasing it in the positive – the ability to do whatever one wishes – a better way to look at it might be in the negative: the ability to restrain one’s self from doing whatever they wish, even though they are completely free to do so.

The wise sage Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is the great person? The one who can overcome his inclinations.” (Avot 4:1) Ben Zoma bases this teaching on the words of King Solomon in Proverbs (19:32), “Better is one who is slow to anger than one who is mighty, and [better is] one who can conquer his own spirit than one who can conquer a city.”

Apotheosis

Ultimately, it is very easy to say “yes” to one’s self; it is far more difficult to say “no”. The latter is the real test of free will, and often the truest expression of freedom. It is only when a person has developed the ability to overcome their inner instincts and their base bodily desires that they are truly free. Otherwise, although they may not be slaves to a Pharaoh, they are still slaves to themselves.

And so, when God freed the Israelites from Pharaoh’s slavery, He did not simply let them “go free”, but rather, gave them a Torah full of mitzvot, to “serve God”, so to speak. Of course, God requires no service – He is infinite, eternal, needing absolutely nothing at all. When we “serve God”, we are really just serving ourselves.

The mitzvot were given only to refine the individual; to perfect one’s character and to free a person from the confines of their body, making them as Godly as possible. God commanded the people: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We are meant to be like God, for in God’s image we were fashioned. And this is the key to true freedom, since the ultimate source of freedom is God – who is infinite and limitless – and we are commanded to become like Him – infinite and limitless. The potential is seeded deeply within all of us, for we were all made in God’s image.

Next week, we begin reading Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers”, as is customary between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. One of the most profound maxims in these pages was spoken by Rabban Gamliel (2:4), who reveals the secret to definitive freedom. Every person who is serious about attaining true freedom should meditate upon these words every day:

“Make your will like His will, and He will make His will like your will; nullify your will to do His will, and He will nullify the wills of others to do your will.”

Chag sameach!