Tag Archives: Sukkah (Tractate)

Do the Deaths of the Righteous Atone for the Sins of Others?

‘Nadav and Avihu consumed by fire’ by M de Brunhoff (1904)

In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we read of the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. The Torah states that they brought an incense offering that God “had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1) and as a result were consumed in a blaze of fire. The simple meaning here is that they had performed a priestly service that they were not supposed to, or were not worthy of performing, and this is why they were consumed. Rashi brings a number of other opinions as to why they perished: One is that they brazenly “rendered halachic decisions before Moses”. Another is that they had brought the offering while intoxicated, which is why just several verses later the Torah prohibits priests from being inebriated while serving in the Temple (Leviticus 10:9).

The Arizal, in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, brings a number of explanations, too. One is from an older Midrash that Nadav and Avihu refused to get married, believing that no women were worthy to marry them. Based on this, the Arizal states that Nadav reincarnated in Samson (ch. 36). Samson, too, didn’t marry any Jewish girls, and instead married Philistine women that brought him nothing but trouble. This may have been his punishment for refusing to marry a good Jewish girl in a past life. The Arizal adds that because Nadav had served while drunk, Samson was born a nazir, and was forbidden from consuming even a drop of alcohol his entire life. The proof that Samson was a reincarnation of Nadav comes from Scripture, where in one instance (I Samuel 12:11) Samson is actually referred to as “Badan” (בדן). This name is the reverse of Nadav (נדב), hinting to their spiritual connection.

Having said all that, the Arizal gives another reason for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and in this case not because they were sinful. Instead, he explains that Nadav and Avihu correspond to the sefirot of Netzach and Hod, emerging from the highest level of Adam’s soul (ch. 33). They died to atone for the sins of the nation, and to remove the zuhama, the spiritual impurity that the Serpent (Nachash) in Eden injected into the world. (For a deeper analysis of exactly which sin Nadav and Avihu died for and why, see ‘The Holy Souls of Nadav and Avihu’ in Garments of Light.) This idea predates the Arizal, and is found in the Zohar (III, 56b), which compares Nadav and Avihu to the two goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur. The Zohar states that the two brothers were equal in greatness to the entire Sanhedrin of seventy elders, and their deaths atoned for the sins of Israel.

‘Joshua Burns the Town of Ai’ by Gustave Doré (1866)

The Zohar’s description brings to mind a similar one from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a), where the Sages discuss the deaths of 36 Israelites in the Battle of Ai (Joshua 7-8). Recall that Joshua led the Israelites into battle to conquer the Holy Land. The first battle, for the city of Jericho, was a flawless victory, with not a single Israelite casualty. The second battle, however, was initially a defeat, with 36 Israelites losing their lives. While this is certainly a small number in military terms, the fact that there was any casualty at all was a shock for the nation. The Sages state that, in reality, it wasn’t even 36 soldiers, for “surely it was said, ‘about thirty six men’ [Joshua 7:5] which refers to Yair, the son of Menashe, who was equal to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”

The Sages state that actually just one person was killed in the Battle of Ai, and he was equal to 36 of the 70 wise and righteous elders of the Sanhedrin. They extract this from the words of the Tanakh itself, which states k’shloshim v’shisha ish, literally translated as “like 36 man”. In other words, the casualty of the Battle of Ai was one man likened to 36. The Sages use the same expression elsewhere, in describing Avishai, the nephew of King David (Berakhot 62b):

…“Satan stood up against Israel and stirred up David to number Israel.” [I Chronicles 21:1] And when he did number them, he took no ransom from them and it is written, “So God sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed.” [I Chronicles 21:14]

… And He said to the Angel that destroyed the people: “It is enough” [I Chronicles 21:16] Rabbi Elazar explained: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Angel: ‘Take a great man among them, through whose death many sins can be expiated for them.’ At that time died Avishai son of Zeruiah, who was equal in worth to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”

The Torah forbids taking a census of the Jewish people. The only way it is permitted to count Jews is if each person gives some kind of “ransom”, such as a half-shekel coin, and the coins are counted, not the people. In an infamous episode from the Tanakh, Satan enticed David to sin by taking a census without collecting any ransom. As a result, a plague struck the nation, taking the lives of 70,000 people, shiv’im elef ish [I Chronicles 21:14].

Following this, God told the Angel of Destruction to stop by saying rav, “it is enough”. The Sages interpret rav to mean “rabbi”—that God actually told the angel to take the life of one righteous rabbi instead. Again, the Tanakh uses the word ish, as if a single person was killed; one man equal to 70,000. This is a beautiful teaching of the Sages, and transforms what one might read as God’s strict, merciless judgement, into God’s kindness and mercy. Although 70,000 may have deserved to die, God took the life of one righteous man instead to spare all the others.

The fact that such people—Yair, Avishai, Nadav, Avihu—are always compared to a greater part of the Sanhedrin, meaning 36 people, is not a coincidence. As we’ve written before with regards to Chanukah (when we light a total of 36 candles), the number 36 is of huge significance in Judaism.

Greater Than Thirty-Six Tzadikim

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states:

Abaye said: “The world must contain no less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are worthy to receive the Shekhinah, for it is written: ‘Blessed are all they that wait for him’ [Isaiah 30:18]; the numerical value of ‘for him’ [lo, לו] is thirty-six.”

But that is not so, for did not Rava say: “The row [of righteous men] before the Holy One, blessed be He, consists of eighteen thousand, for it is written, ‘It shall be eighteen thousand round about?’” [Ezekiel 48:35] That is no difficulty: the former number [thirty-six] refers to those who see Him through a bright speculum, the latter [eighteen thousand] to those who contemplate Him through a dim one.

In every generation, there must be 36 perfectly righteous people in the world. There are an additional 18,000 very righteous people in each generation. The former can behold the Shekhinah—God’s Divine Presence—clearly, while the latter only dimly. The idea of the 36 righteous people, lamed-vav tzadikim, plays an important role in Judaism, especially in Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts.

The number 36 corresponds to the 36 hours that the Divine Light shone uninterrupted at the start of Creation. It is through this Divine Light that the Tzadikim are able to behold the Shekhinah. And just as this Hidden Light continues to uphold all of Creation, so too are the 36 Tzadikim said to uphold the world, as it is written: “The tzaddik is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25).

Meanwhile, we know that the Torah, too, is the foundation of the world (see, for example, Avot 1:2). Indeed, we find that there are exactly 36 individual texts in the Tanakh: the Five Books of Moses, nineteen books of Prophets, and 12 Holy Writings. (The 36 texts are usually combined into “24 Books of the Tanakh” for the sake of convenience. So, for example, the “Twelve Minor Prophets” are combined into one book, Trei Asar.) Each of the 36 Tzadikim corresponds to one “hour” of Divine Light, and to one of the Holy Scriptures. As such, they are the 36 pillars of the world. (It just so happens that there are also 36 sins for which the Torah prescribes the death penalty, though we shall leave that discussion for another time.)

From the words of our Sages, we can extract that in addition to these 36, there is one more, even greater individual who is equal to all 36 of them, to the “greater part of the Sanhedrin”. Between the two of them, Nadav and Avihu were greater than the Sanhedrin of seventy elders in their own day, as were Yair and Avishai. And it is such people that, ever so rarely, God chooses to take away to atone for the sins of many others.

The spiritual math is simple: if you have a thousand people, each with a “kilogram” of sin, and one person with 1000 “kilograms” of merit, the merit of the one can be “taken back” in order to neutralize the sins of a thousand. In this way, a great many lives can be spared. The idea makes sense in principle, and a person who is truly the most righteous of his generation would undoubtedly have no problem giving up his or her own life to save a multitude of others.

And yet, the idea is sometimes hard for modern Jews to digest because it has been hijacked, abused, and taken to an illogical extreme by Christians.

The Death of the Messiah

All of Christianity rests on the idea that Jesus, the supposed messiah, died for the sins of the world. We have already addressed the issues with Christianity on several occasions (see here, here, and here) so there is no need to do that again. What needs to be understood is where the idea comes from, and what it originally meant. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) records the following:

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days, as described in Zechariah 12:12]? Rabbi Dosa and the other Rabbis differ on the point. One explained: “The cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef” and the other explained: “The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.” It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef, since that agrees with the Scriptural verse, “And they shall look upon Me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son” [Zechariah 12:10]. But according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?

Rav Yehudah explained: “In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!’ And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, ‘Thus says the Lord of Hosts: If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes.’” [Zechariah 8:6]

First, we must remember that according to tradition there are two messiahs (or possibly one messiah in two phases): Mashiach ben Yosef, and then Mashiach ben David. The former dies amidst the great battles of the End of Days. For this, the people at that time will mourn. Zechariah describes a great mourning like no other, with all the families of Israel in tears. This is enough to debunk Jesus’ identification with Mashiach ben Yosef: Jesus did not die in battle, and was not mourned by all of Israel (quite the contrary). The fact that Jesus’ “father” was named Joseph means nothing, for Jesus supposedly did not have an earthly father anyway.

Now, the more important event that will happen at that same time, with the death of Mashiach ben Yosef, is the destruction of the Evil Inclination. This is, after all, the very purpose of having an “End of Days” to begin with: to destroy evil for good and usher in a perfect world. When Evil will be crushed, the people will weep. As our Sages explain, those who overcame evil and did good will weep because they will be amazed at how they were able to conquer the great temptations, while those who were evil will weep because they will realize how weak they were in falling to mere temptation. Again, Jesus’ death did not end Evil on Earth. On the contrary, one might argue that even more horrible evils were done since then, many of which were done, ironically, in the name of Jesus!

Finally, the Talmud goes on to say what will happen to Mashiach ben Yosef next:

Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (may he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree… this day have I begotten you, ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance.” [Psalms 2:7-8] But when he will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him: “Master of the Universe, I ask of You only the gift of life.” He would answer him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life from You, You gave it to him…’” [Psalms 21:5]

After his death, Mashiach ben David requests of God to bring Mashiach ben Yosef back to life. It is important to remember that this is followed by a Resurrection of the Dead of all righteous souls, not just the messiah’s. From the wording of the Talmud, we might conclude that there is indeed just one messiah: Mashiach ben Yosef dies and is resurrected as Mashiach ben David. (We can extract this from the fact that ben David seems to be asking for life for himself, and God replies that it had already been granted to you.)

In the case of Jesus, he was apparently resurrected, but then supposedly ascended to Heaven, and hasn’t been heard from in two millennia. This is not how prophecy describes the coming of Mashiach. He is supposed to come once, at the End of Days, and needs no “second coming”. He comes once, and then reigns on Earth as king of Israel. Nowhere does it state that he will come and disappear for any long duration of time. He comes once, fights great battles that engulf the whole world (as described in detail by Ezekiel and Zechariah, among other prophets), dies for the sins of Israel specifically, and to destroy Evil once and for all (similar to the way the Arizal describes the deaths of Nadav and Avihu served to remove the zuhama), is mourned by all of Israel, and is then resurrected, finishes the great wars, brings peace to the world, reigns as king of Israel, regathers the Jews to the Holy Land, rebuilds the Temple, facilitates a Resurrection of the Dead, and completes his task once a perfect world is re-established.

There is no more need for him after that. He is not a god, and is never described as such. He is not supposed to be prayed to, or worshipped. He is a man. And although Scripture describes him as a child of God (as in the Psalm above), it clearly describes all of Israel as children of God (as in Deuteronomy 14:1, for example).

To summarize, the concept of unique righteous people dying to atone for the sins of others is an ancient Jewish one, and a valid one. Christians adopted it, to an extreme (ie. not to a specific generation of Jews, but for all mankind for all time), to describe Jesus. This is not surprising, for as we’ve written before, the character of Jesus was carefully constructed from Jewish texts, both Scriptural and extra-Scriptural. This is how some Jews unfortunately succumb to Christian missionaries who bring “proof” from Jewish texts. These prove nothing but the eventual coming of the true messiah—may we merit to see him soon.

Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read about the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda’s eldest son, Er, marries a beautiful woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was evil in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) As was customary in those days, since Er died without a son, it was expected that his brother, Onan, would perform levirate marriage and take Tamar as his wife. As the Torah describes, the purpose of this is to essentially provide a sort of heir for his childless brother. Onan was happy to marry Tamar, but

knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. And what he did was evil in the eyes of God, and He put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9-10)

As we know, Yehuda would end up being with Tamar himself, and out of that union would come Peretz, the ancestor of King David.

‘Judah and Tamar’

The big question is: what was it that Er and Onan did that was so despicable to God? The classic answer is that they wasted their seed (as the Torah states above), which is why they were punished so severely. This narrative is then used as proof from the Torah that wasting seed is among the gravest of prohibitions.

And yet, the Torah itself does not actually prohibit wasting seed anywhere, at least not explicitly. Considering how strictly the Sages spoke about not wasting seed, we might be surprised to find that it is not one of the 613 commandments. So, what is the true extent of this prohibition? Where did it come from? And what was really going on with Er and Onan?

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

While the Torah tells us that Er was evil in God’s eyes, it does not explain why. Many commentators (including Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye) assume that he must have been evil for the same reason his brother Onan was: for wasting seed. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) clarifies that the sin was not the act of wasting seed itself, but rather for an ulterior motive. Er did not want to impregnate Tamar so that her beauty would not be ruined. He wanted her solely for physical pleasure. This is what was despicable to God.

Similarly, a careful look at the Torah makes it clear that Onan’s sin was not wasting seed either. What the Torah says is that Onan did not want to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage. He avoided impregnating Tamar because he “knew the progeny would not be his”, and the reason he spilled his seed on the ground was “in order not to give seed to his brother”. The sin here was not the act of wasting seed, but rather disrespecting his own brother, and refusing to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage.

Such is the opinion of Tzror haMor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508), and we see similar comments by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) goes even further, saying that Onan was really out to increase his share of land, for if he would have fulfilled the mitzvah, the child would receive Er’s portion of land, and if not, then Onan would be the inheritor. From these commentaries, and the Torah’s own simple reading, we can definitively conclude that the sin was not the wasting of seed itself but the evil ulterior motives behind it, especially the disrespect for a brother.

All of this is right in line with the Torah’s persistent theme of brothers failing to love each other, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Yehuda’s sons. The Torah takes every possible opportunity to remind us to love each other wholeheartedly (as we are all brothers), and that tragedies always befall the Jewish people when we lack brotherly love—as our Sages explicitly state countless times.

Going back to the subject at hand, nowhere else in the Torah is wasting seed an issue. The Torah does state that a man who has an “emission” is impure for purposes of going to the Temple. What he must do is bathe in water, and wait until the evening for the impurity to go away (Leviticus 15:16). No other punishment is prescribed, irrespective of why the man might have the emission.

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

It is in the Talmud where wasting seed takes on its grave overtones. The Sages compare one who wastes seed to a murderer, an idolater, and an adulterer (Niddah 13a-b). This is quite shocking, considering that murder, idolatry, and adultery are the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. These are the things one must give up their life for in order to avoid, even if coerced. The Sages are equating wasting seed with the worst possible sins.

In the same pages, we read how Rav Yochanan holds that one who wastes seed “deserves death”. Interestingly, he bases himself on the verses in the Torah concerning the deaths of Er and Onan! Yet, as we’ve seen, their sin was not the act of wasting seed, but their evil ulterior motives. In reality, the Sages are hard-pressed to find a good source for the prohibition. They resort to various colourful interpretations of Scriptural verses in an attempt to illustrate the evils of wasting seed. For example, Isaiah 1:15 says “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear, [because] your hands are full of blood.” Rabbi Elazar says that “hands are full of blood” is referring to those who masturbate, since spilling seed is like spilling blood! This is far from the plain meaning of the verse, which is obviously talking about actual bloodshed.

We should keep in mind that in these Talmudic pages, the Sages are not just prohibiting masturbation or wasting seed, but even for a man to simply touch their “member”—even to urinate! “Rabbi Eliezer said: Whoever holds his member when he urinates is as though he had brought a flood on the world.” Rabbi Tarfon later adds that his hand should be cut off! It goes without saying that the Sages were exceedingly careful to avoid any sexual transgressions, and raised many “fences” to ensure that no one should even come close to sinning so gravely. We must remember that the Talmud often uses hyperbole to get a point across and it isn’t always wise to take statements literally. The Sages themselves question Rabbi Eliezer, and say that not holding one’s member would be very impractical, for “would not the spray splatter on his feet…?”

The point, rather, is to teach us that “such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.” (Niddah 13b) The Sages are specifically referring to one who fantasizes to “give himself an erection”, and that such a person “should be expelled”. After all, the yetzer hara works in such a way that it gets a person to make a tiny sin, and slowly leads them to greater transgressions. It might start with a small thought, grow into a consuming fantasy, and eventually leads one to grossly misbehave. In short, the fear is that a person will get accustomed to bad habits, and it will end up leading to more severe transgressions.

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law the prohibition of wasting seed, whether with one’s partner or on their own (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 21:18):

It is forbidden to release semen wastefully. Therefore a person should not enter his wife and release outside of her… Those who release semen with their hands, beyond the fact that they commit a great transgression, a person who does this will abide under a ban of ostracism. Concerning them, it is said: “Your hands are filled with blood.” It is as if they killed a person.

The Rambam makes a distinction between a situation of husband and wife versus a man doing it on his own, which is far worse and likened to murder. Having said that, many other great authorities in Jewish law were more lenient when it comes to wasting seed, especially when the intention is not evil. The Rambam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda haHasid (1150-1217), wrote in his Sefer Hasidim that while masturbation is forbidden, and requires a great deal of penance to repair, it is occasionally permitted if it will prevent a person from a more serious sin. On that note, the Rambam himself wrote elsewhere (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) that wasting seed is not an explicit Torah prohibition, and carries no actual punishment of any kind. However, he writes in the same place that although many things are permitted when done consensually between husband and wife, it is nonetheless important to be exceedingly modest when it comes to sexuality.

The later Kabbalists understood that the Torah carries no explicit punishment for wasting seed, but found an allusion to a more mystical punishment. They taught that wasting seed produces banim shovavim, literally “wayward children” (a term that comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and 3:22). These impure spirits—potential souls that are brought into this world without a body—attach to a man’s neck and cause him great damage, and can harm his children, too. There is no doubt that the Rambam, being a strict rationalist and staying away from anything “Kabbalistic”, would disagree with this approach. The Rambam did not believe in demons or evil spirits, and refused to accept the validity of many (if not all) Kabbalistic ideas and practices.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), perhaps the greatest of Kabbalists, was a major proponent of the banim shovavim notion. Since his time, it has become customary in some communities to focus on purifying from sexual sins and from wasted seed during the weeks when we read the consecutive parashas of Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim. Since the initials of these parashas spell “shovavim”, it is thought to be an auspicious time for such repentance. Yet even the Arizal taught that wasting seed is primarily a problem when a person does so on their own, for selfish, lustful reasons. If one is married, and there is genuine loving intimacy between husband and wife, the prohibition is no longer so clear cut. (See, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Noach).

Indeed, many authorities were lenient with regards to wasting seed in the context of a husband and wife being together—as long as they are not like Er or Onan. If the intention is pure, and the couple has fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation (so they are obviously not trying to avoid having children), then occasionally wasting seed is permissible. Among those that held this opinion include the tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Shmuel (c. 1115-1184, in his comments to Yevamot 34b) and the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, in his comments on Nedarim 20a).

In fact, even the Arizal taught that, in certain special cases, wasted seed can serve a positive purpose. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim (ch. 26), we read how the ten drops of wasted seed that unintentionally emerged out of Joseph (as per the famous Midrash) resulted in levushim, protective “garments” for the soul. The seed wasted indirectly by tzaddikim may similarly produce such protective garments, especially when it happens during proper, loving, holy zivug (union) between husband and wife. Such union, while not fruitful in this world, corresponds to “heavenly unions” that are spiritually fruitful. It is important to repeat that this entails being an actual tzaddik—being righteous, just, observant, modest, humble, selfless—and being intimate in a holy, loving, kosher, monogamous union.

On that note, it is worth mentioning that a couple that is childless, or already pregnant, is absolutely allowed to continue to be intimate, and this is not at all considered “wasting seed”. (The Talmud adds that intimacy during the third trimester is particularly healthy for both mother and baby, see Niddah 31a.) At the very start of Sha’ar HaMitzvot, the Arizal explains that such unions might not produce physical children, but they produce many spiritual children. This is one meaning for the verse in the Torah that says Abraham and Sarah “made souls” in Charan (Genesis 12:5)—although they were physically childless, they had produced many souls in Heaven, and these souls later came down into human form. In fact, there are those who say these souls are given to converts, who receive a Jewish soul upon their successful conversion. The souls that Abraham and Sarah made all those years come down into the bodies of converts, which is the deeper reason why all converts are referred to as “ben Avraham” and “bat Sarah”.

To summarize and conclude, the issue of spilled seed is indeed a serious one, and should not be taken lightly. There is room to be lenient in certain situations, such as a righteous married couple who already has multiple children, or a young, unmarried gentleman, whose frustration might reach a point where he is led to worse sins. The Sages recognized how incredibly difficult the latter case can be, and stated that a young bachelor who lives in the city and can still hold himself back from sexual sins is so praiseworthy that God personally calls out his name in Heaven every day (Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Chiya, meanwhile, said that it is best to stay married no matter what, and to always treat one’s wife exceedingly well—even if she is the worst possible wife—because wives “save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a). It is fitting to end with another famous adage from the Talmud (Sukkah 52b): אבר קטן יש לו לאדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב “There is a small organ in a man’s body—if he starves it, he is satisfied; if he satisfies it, he starves.”

Who is Samael?

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read of Jacob’s famed battle with the angel. According to many sources, Jacob battled Esau’s guardian angel. While the identity of the angel is concealed in the plain text of the Torah, Jewish tradition associates this angel with Samael. That name is one of the most famous—or infamous—of all angelic entities, not just in Judaism, but also in Christianity, Gnosticism, and other Near Eastern traditions. Who is Samael?

‘Jacob Wrestling with an Angel’ by Charles Foster

The Primordial Serpent

One of the most ancient Jewish mystical works is Sefer HaBahir. At the very end of the text (ch. 200), we are told that Samael was the angel that came down to the Garden of Eden in the form of a serpent. We read here that one of his punishments was to become the guardian angel of the wicked Esau. The Bahir explains that Samael was jealous of man, and disagreed with the fact that God gave man dominion over the earth. He came down with the mission of corrupting mankind.

The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14) seems to agree, describing how God “cast down Samael and his troop from their holy place in Heaven.” In the previous chapter of the same Midrash, we read how Samael is unique in that, while other angels have six wings, Samael has twelve, and “commands a whole army of demons”. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) adds that Samael is in charge of all the “male” demons, called Mazikim, while his “wife” Lilith is in charge of all the “female” demons, called Shedim (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Tehilim). He further associates Lilith with the sword of the “Angel of Death”.

A little-known apocryphal text called the Ascension [or Testament] of Moses (dating back at least to the early 1st century CE) states that Samael is the one “who takes the soul away from man”, directly identifying him with the Angel of Death. This ties neatly into his name, since Samael (סמאל) literally means “poison of God”. Indeed, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) states that the Angel of Death takes a person away by standing over them with his sword, before a drop of poison falls from the tip of the sword into the victim’s mouth. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) tells us that the Angel of Death is the same entity as Satan, and as the source of the yetzer hara (the Evil Inclination).

In his Kabbalah (pg. 385), Gershom Scholem brings a number of sources that state Satan and Samael are one and the same, together with another figure called Beliar, or Belial. There are those who say that while Satan simply means “prosecutor”, and is only a title, Samael is actually his proper name. The Zohar (on parashat Shoftim) appears to agree, stating that the two main persecuting forces in Heaven are Samael and the Serpent. Some sources depict Samael as actually riding upon the Serpent!

Belial, meanwhile, is a term that appears many times in the Tanakh. It is first found in Deuteronomy 13:14, in a warning that certain bnei Belial will come out to tempt Israel into idolatry. While the simple meaning (and the way it is generally translated) is “base” or “wicked men”, the Kabbalistic take is that it refers to impure spirits that come to lure Israel to sin. Note that the Torah says these bnei Belial will emerge from among our own people.

Not surprisingly, the Zohar (Raya Mehemna on Ki Tetze) says that there are a very small group of “Jewish” imposters who actually worship Samael. These are the ones that give all Jews a bad name, and aim to reverse all the good that Jews do in the world. We have written much of this small group of imposters before, as they are more commonly referred to as the Erev Rav. The Zohar states that Samael and Lilith were once good angels before their “fall”, and began to be worshipped as deities in their own right in the pre-Flood generation. The people in those days worshipped them in order to manipulate them to do their bidding. The Erev Rav aims to do the same today. Thankfully, God will destroy them all in the End of Days, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2:

“And it shall come to pass in that day,” says the Lord of Hosts, “that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered; and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.”

Which prophets is God referring to? Those leaders of the Erev Rav that attempt to convince the masses that they are “prophets”, only to lead the people astray.

With this in mind, Jacob’s battle with Samael takes on a whole new meaning. It reminds us that the job of each Jew is to fight Samael and all his evil minions—the bnei Belial, the Erev Rav—tooth and nail, unceasingly, all through the dark night, as Jacob did. We must always stand on the side of light and truth, holiness and Godliness. This makes us Israel, as Jacob was renamed, the ones who fight alongside God. The Jewish people are meant to be God’s holy warriors in this world.

Battling 365 Days of the Year

Commenting on this week’s parasha, the Zohar states that there are 365 angels ruling over each of the 365 days of the solar year. These further correspond to the 365 gidim (“sinews”, or more accurately, major nerves) of the human body, as Jewish tradition maintains. In Jacob’s battle, Samael struck him in the thigh, on his gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. For this reason, the Torah tells us, the Jewish people do not eat the sciatic nerve “until this day” (Genesis 32:33). Removing this sinew is a key part of koshering meat. In most places, since removing it is so difficult, they simply do not include the back half of the cow or sheep in the kosher meat process.

The Zohar says that since there are 365 days corresponding to 365 sinews, the gid hanashe corresponds to a specific day of the year, too, of course. Which day is that? Tisha b’Av, the most tragic day in Jewish history. The Zohar concludes that Samael is the angel that rules over this day, which is why it is so “unlucky” and sad. At the same time, it suggests that Jacob fought Samael on that same day, so even when Samael is at his strongest, each Jew has the power to defeat him.

Interestingly, the Talmud has a different approach. There we read that Satan rules 364 days of the year! (Nedarim 32b) This is why the gematria of HaSatan (השטן, the way it appears in the Tanakh) is 364. According to the Talmud, the one day a year that Satan “rests” is Yom Kippur. Thus, Yom Kippur is a particularly favourable day to repent and to have God accept our prayers. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 46) takes it one step further and states that not only does Satan rest on Yom Kippur, but he actually crosses the floor in the Heavenly Court and joins the defense!

How do we reconcile the seeming contradiction between the Talmud and the Zohar? Perhaps Samael, before his “fall”, was originally appointed to rule over Tisha b’Av. After his rebellion, he sought to dominate as much of the year as possible, and remains at large 364 days of the calendar, being particularly strong on Tisha b’Av. Only on Yom Kippur does God make sure that Satan has no dominion at all.

This should remind us that, at the end of the day, God is infinite and omnipotent, and there is none that can stand before Him. Satan or Samael can be winked out of existence instantaneously if God so willed it. Alas, the impure spirits still have a role to play in history. They will soon meet their end:

Kabbalistic texts state that Satan will lead one last battle in the End of Days, against Mashiach. He will come as the dreaded Armilus. In Sefer Zerubavel, Armilus is identified with Satan himself in bodily form, while in Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, he is the son of Satan. He will seek to kill Mashiach, and he may succeed in killing Mashiach ben Yosef, before being in turn extinguished by Mashiach ben David. This is why the Arizal instituted a custom to insert a short prayer for Mashiach ben Yosef, that he should survive, in the blessing for Jerusalem in the Amidah. We have written elsewhere, though, why Mashiach ben Yosef must die to accomplish an important tikkun (see ‘Secrets of the Akedah’ in Garments of Light).

Until then, how do we keep Samael away? The Arizal (Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Shemot) taught not to pronounce his name out loud, for this attracts him. In Jewish tradition, we instead say the letters ס״ם, “samekh-mem”. The Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) stated that eating too much red meat during the week gives power to Samael. It is generally best to leave red meat consumption for Shabbat and holidays if possible. It goes without saying that one should eat kosher meat to avoid the gid hanashe. Meanwhile, the Talmud (Shabbat 30b) famously recounts how David kept the Angel of Death at bay by constantly being immersed in Torah study. We should be focused on study of holy texts, prayer, repentance, doing mitzvot and good deeds. Finally, we must do everything we can to defeat our own inner evil inclinations, struggling as long as it takes, unrelenting, as Jacob did in his battle. In the same passage where the Talmud speaks of the death of Mashiach ben Yosef (Sukkah 52a), it tells us:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep: the righteous will weep saying, “How were we able to overcome such a towering hill?!” The wicked also will weep saying, “How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread?!” And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, ‘If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes…’” [Zechariah 8:6]

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.

The Talmud on America’s Solar Eclipse

NASA image from the August 21st solar eclipse

Earlier this week, people across America experienced a unique event that has not occurred there in a century: a coast-to-coast, total solar eclipse. While partial solar eclipses are generally visible from somewhere on Earth twice a year, a total eclipse is harder to catch—the last one in the US was forty years ago, and the last to be visible across the entire span of the country was in 1918.

Despite the fact that a solar eclipse is a regular phenomenon, and one that can be predicted long in advance, the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) seems to suggest it is a sign of human misconduct:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable: To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became angry with them he said to his servant, “Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark”.

Our Sages suggest that God brings about eclipses (or more accurately, total eclipses, the only kind that would bring about the kind of darkness described above) when He is unhappy with man’s sinful ways. This apparently contradicts the notion that eclipses are a cyclical, recurring event. Yet, the Talmud is full of discussions illustrating the astronomical expertise of our Rabbis, who could perfectly calculate the arrival of new moons, knew the cosmos like the backs of their hands, and accurately estimated the number of stars in the universe centuries before scientists came up with the same numbers (see Berakhot 32b).

In fact, the current Hebrew calendar that we use was affixed by the Talmudic sage known as Hillel II (not to be confused with Hillel the Elder), who calculated the months far into the future, and was only able to accurately do so by taking into account the dates of predicted solar and lunar eclipses. That means that the sages of the Talmud were certainly well aware of the fact that eclipses are a regular, predictable phenomenon. This was also long known by Greek and Roman astronomers. So, how could the Talmud state that eclipses depend on man’s ways?

Map showing the paths of solar eclipses over a 25 year period. Most do not pass through inhabited areas.

To deal with this conundrum, multiple answers have been proposed. One of these is that the Sages are referring to visible eclipses only. The Torah tells us that the luminaries were created, in part, to serve as signs for humans (Genesis 1:14). If God wanted to make known that He is unhappy, we would obviously have to be able to see the eclipse. Although eclipses can happen multiple times a year, they are seldom visible from habitable locations. Some 71% of Earth’s surface is covered by water, so eclipses are most likely to be visible only from some marine location in the middle of the ocean. Further still, of the remaining portion of Earth that’s covered by land, only 10% is actually inhabited by humans. There could be other factors as well, like cloudy weather. Or, the moon simply does not cover enough of the sun for people to even notice. (As anyone not in the path of the total eclipse probably learned on Monday, when they were unable to look at the sun for more than a split second because it was still way too bright without eclipse glasses—which no one had in Talmudic times.) This is indeed what the Talmud later clarifies:

Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and idolaters by the sun. If it is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west…

An eclipse is a bad sign only for that specific place where the eclipse is visible. In His Infinite Wisdom, God pre-programmed Creation so that eclipses would be visible at the precise time and place where they are necessary to give people a wake-up call. As such, it isn’t surprising that America had a coast-to-coast eclipse precisely at this moment, with everything that’s recently been going on in the country.

What exactly is it that God is unhappy about when an eclipse occurs?

Our Rabbis taught: On account of four things is the sun in eclipse: On account of an av beit din who died and was not mourned properly; on account of a betrothed maiden who cried out loud in the city and there was none to save her; on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time.

The United States has been plagued with all of these things: fellow American citizens—brothers—at each other’s throats, “shedding” each other’s blood for silly ideological reasons; the rampant sexual immorality; the tremendous amount of injustice and apathy, where there is seemingly no one to save a “troubled maiden”.

And what of the av beit din? In early Talmudic times, the leader of the Jews was the nasi, the “president” of the Sanhedrin, and his “vice-president” was the av beit din, literally “head of the court”, the top judge of the land. (Appropriately, this week’s parasha is Shoftim, “judges”.) Last year saw the mysterious sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose death was unexamined and quickly swept under the rug, triggering a flood of conspiracy theories. This is a sign of far greater societal issues. All of the above is reminiscent of a famous Talmudic prophecy (Sotah 49b) describing the time before Mashiach’s coming:

In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality. Galilee will be destroyed, and Gablan desolate, and the “people of the border” will go about from place to place without anyone to take pity on them. The wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.

With everything that’s happening around us right now, it certainly feels like there is none left to rely upon but our Father in Heaven. It is quite fitting that the solar eclipse happened at the end of the Hebrew month of Av, literally “father”, which is precisely meant to remind us of our “Father in Heaven”. As long as we recognize this, and take upon ourselves to be good “children”, there is no need to fear, as the Talmudic passage on solar eclipses concludes:

… When Israel fulfils the will of the Omnipresent, they need not have fear of all these [omens] as it is said, “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them”—the idolaters will be dismayed, but Israel will not be dismayed.


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