Tag Archives: Tanakh

Is Kabbalah Kosher?

In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we read that “The hidden things are for Hashem, our God, and the revealed things are for us and our children forever, to fulfil the words of this Law.” (Deuteronomy 29:28) The verse is a significant one for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is used as Scriptural proof for the Jewish mystical tradition, commonly referred to as “Kabbalah”, those esoteric secrets—“hidden things”—of the Torah. The Torah cautions that these secrets are best to be kept for God, while the revealed parts of the Law are for us and our children.

And yet, Jewish mysticism has been a very popular area of study for millennia. We know of the existence of multiple “mystery schools” in the Second Temple era. Some of the earliest mystical texts were composed in this time period, and have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, a number of new mystical texts appeared, known as the Heikhalot, Heavenly “Palaces”.

The main protagonists of the Heikhalot are Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary, Rabbi Ishmael. We know from the Talmud that these two were great mystics. The Talmud (Chagigah 14b) famously records how Rabbi Akiva led three other rabbis to the Heavenly realms of Pardes. This is traditionally taken to mean that they plunged into the depths of Jewish esotericism, where “Pardes” is an acronym for pshat, remez, drash, sod, the four main levels of Torah study: the simple, surface meaning; the sub-textual allusions; the allegorical, metaphorical, and extra-Scriptural narratives; and the mystical secrets of Kabbalah.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

The three rabbis that went along with Rabbi Akiva didn’t fare so well: Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma apparently lost his mind, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “exited in peace”. There were many other mystics in their day. The Talmud (Sukkah 28a) states that although Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (whose students were the teachers of Rabbi Akiva) was the least knowledgeable of Hillel’s eighty disciples, even he was an expert in Ma’aseh Merkavah, “the Work of the Chariot”. Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to the opening account of the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet describes God’s “Divine Chariot”. Similar holy visions were beheld by the other prophets, including Isaiah and Daniel, while Elijah was taken up to Heaven in such a fiery chariot (II Kings 2:11). Thus, Ma’aseh Merkavah is believed to be concerned with attaining prophecy, or with spiritual ascent to the Heavens. This is precisely how one might elevate to Pardes.

The other major area of mysticism in Second Temple and early Talmudic times was known as Ma’aseh Beresheet, “the Work of Creation” (Chagigah 11b). This refers to the opening account of Genesis, and the secrets of God’s formation of this universe. The study of Ma’aseh Beresheet would presumably allow one to attain certain divine creative powers. This is what the sages Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaia delved into every Friday afternoon, and were able to produce a lamb out of thin air—then barbecue it for lunch! (Sanhedrin 65b)

Such great power exists within the study of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Beresheet that the Sages caution these subjects must not be taught publicly, and not to all those who wish to learn them: “Maaseh Beresheet must not be expounded upon before two, and Maaseh Merkavah even before one, unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge.” (Chagigah 2:1) Even to the understanding scholar, the Sages permit only the “chapter headings” to be revealed. The master points the student in the right direction, and nothing more. In this way, only the truly deserving wise one will come to understand the mysteries. Perhaps this is why the study was eventually called Kabbalah, from the root meaning “to receive”, for one could only receive it through divine inspiration from Above, and after having received the chapter headings from a master.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon

Interestingly, the term Kabbalah in the Talmud refers not to mysticism but to the Tanakh, specifically to the books of Nevi’im and Ketuvim which follow the Five Books of Moses. This actually makes a lot of sense, since most of Kabbalah is built upon verses and passages in the Prophets and Writings. One who studies Kabbalistic texts will quickly recognize how most of the passages open with Scriptural verses, with concepts supported by Scriptural verses, especially from the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Shir haShirim, and of course, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Other texts of Tanakh are frequently cited, too. In fact, it is said that the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), among the greatest of Kabbalists, studied nothing but Tanakh after a certain age, since he could derive everything directly from Scripture.

This may be one reason, among others, why study of Nevi’im and Ketuvim is so rare in the Orthodox yeshiva world today. Since Kabbalah is often seen as taboo, especially for young minds, it may be best to avoid study of Scriptural passages that may bring up uncomfortable or mystical questions. Indeed, it is the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes that is most commonly used as proof that the young, the uninitiated, or those that have not mastered every facet of Torah must not delve into Kabbalah. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies this as law.

The Sages of the early generations commanded that these matters should not be explained except to a single individual [at a time]. He should be a wise man, who can reach understanding with his own knowledge. In such an instance, he is given fundamental points, and an outline of the concepts is made known to him. He [is expected to continue to contemplate] until he reaches understanding with his powers of knowledge and knows the ultimate meaning and depth of the concept. (Yesodei HaTorah 2:12)

The Rambam is an interesting case, for he was no Kabbalist by any means. A strictly rationalist thinker, he rejected any notion of evil spirits and demons, thought superstitions to be silly at best, and made sure to expunge all sorts of mysticism-based rituals from his code of law. For the Rambam, Maaseh Merkavah simply refers to the various spiritual entities that God created, mainly the ten types of angels (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 2). What the prophets saw were just “visions and parables”, not actual concrete things. Maaseh Beresheet, meanwhile, is essentially science and physics—the study of the elements and their properties, the various “spheres” of astronomy, the nature of the luminaries, stars and planets—these are the things he calls “Maaseh Beresheet” (Yesodei HaTorah, ch. 3-4). The Rambam believes this is what is meant by “Pardes” (4:3). For him, Kabbalah is not an exercise in amulets or magic, exorcism or demonology, astrology or fortune-telling—all of which he expressly rejects as irrational, unreal, and absurd.

Ironically, it was the Rambam’s own son, Rabbeinu Avraham (1186-1237), who became a great mystic and played a huge role in the development of modern Kabbalah.

The New Kabbalah

A 17th-century illustration of a Sufi meditating

Rabbeinu Avraham wrote a monumental 2500-page philosophical work called Kitab Kifayah al-Abidin (“A Guide for the Servants of God”). Scholars note how Rabbeinu Avraham integrated a great amount of material from Muslim Sufi mystics. Incredibly, Rabbeinu Avraham himself writes in his book that the ancient mystical tradition of the Hebrew Prophets was forgotten among Jews, “because of their iniquities”, and has been carried forward by the Sufis! He argues that the Sufis “imitate the Prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps.”

The fusion of Jewish and Sufi mysticism continued strongly in Egypt for several generations. Rabbi Gavin Michal beautifully traces how these traditions made their way to Tzfat: Rabbeinu Avraham’s great-great-grandson, Rabbeinu David, the last official nagid of the illustrious Jewish community in Egypt, packed his bags and resettled in Aleppo, Syria in the early 1400s. He brought with him his massive Sufi-inspired Jewish mystical library. This library was a key source of literature for the early Tzfat Kabbalists, who lived a short trip away from Aleppo. Amazingly, historical sources suggest that one of these early Kabbalists was a Sufi convert to Judaism.

Hamsas: not a Jewish thing

It therefore isn’t surprising that Arab and Muslim mystical beliefs strongly influenced Jewish mysticism. In his Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem points out numerous examples of this. While most of these concepts are valuable, some are most unfortunate: Arab demonology and superstition, too, neatly made its way into Kabbalistic literature. This is most evident in the plethora of Arabic hamsas and “evil eye” amulets that have sadly infiltrated so many Jewish homes. (We have also written in the past how Muslim ritual inspired the “mystical” custom of upsherin.)

At the same time that this was happening in the Middle East, a parallel Jewish mystical movement was rapidly developing on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Spain. Their Kabbalah, too, was not immune to the beliefs and practices of the neighbouring Christians.

Rise of the Zohar

In the 11th and 12th centuries, mysticism was slowly spreading in the Sephardic Jewish communities of Spain. It wasn’t until the late 13th century that Kabbalah received an immense boost with the publication of Sefer HaZohar, aka. “The Midrash of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai”. The publication was spearheaded by Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon (1240-1305), a great Kabbalist in his own right. He claimed that this book was the unadulterated teachings of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai, or Rashbi, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

While the Zohar was undoubtedly full of profound wisdom and authentic mysticism, it immediately aroused a great deal of suspicion. After all, no one had ever seen, or even heard of, such a text before. One scholar who took up the mission of discovering the Zohar’s real roots was Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco (“Isaac of Acre”, c. 13th-14th century). Rabbi Itzchak was possibly a student of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270), who had made aliyah after his famous Disputation and settled in Acre, where Rabbi Itzchak was apparently born. Rabbi Itzchak studied among those pre-Tzfat era Kabbalists in Israel. The Crusades made life difficult, and Rabbi Itzchak fled to Spain in 1305.

There, he met Rabbi Moshe de Leon, and questioned him about the Zohar, pointing out that the Kabbalists of the Holy Land knew nothing of such a work. Rabbi Moshe swore that he possessed an original manuscript from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, back in his hometown of Avila. He promised to fetch the text and show it to Rabbi Itzchak, but suddenly died. Perhaps this untimely death is itself proof enough that Rabbi Moshe de Leon swore falsely!

For Rabbi Itzchak, it was not enough, and he decided to continue his search in Avila. There, he met a rabbi who knew Moshe de Leon’s family, and the rabbi told him that de Leon’s wife admitted he had composed the Zohar by himself, attributing it to Rashbi so that it would be accepted as authentic (and sell more copies). Many later Kabbalists reject this narrative, and believe it is a legend meant to discredit the Zohar. The story appeared in the first edition of Sefer Yuchasin (by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, 1452-1515), and was censored out of all subsequent editions for over 300 years.

Over those centuries, the Zohar became the primary Kabbalistic text, so much so that it essentially became synonymous with Kabbalah. More ancient and once prominent texts like Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir fell far behind. The Zohar inspired a massive new wave of mysticism that made a permanent impact on Judaism. It was the Tzfat Kabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular that neatly analyzed, categorized, and made sense of the Zohar, producing a whole new worldview and publishing a vast array of novel mystical literature that took the Jewish world by storm.

While halacha was once clearly separated from mysticism, the distinction started to get blurry. We sometimes forget that the Shulkhan Aruch, still the most famous of Jewish law codes, was composed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a noted Tzfat Kabbalist. As such, he couldn’t possibly omit Kabbalah entirely from his laws, and mystical rituals and beliefs seep in on multiple occasions. The trend would continue, and reach even greater heights under the later Hasidim.

By this point, the authorship of the Zohar was seldom disputed. Still, the belief that it was written by Rashbi himself is false. After all, the Zohar clearly states that Rashbi charged his disciple Rabbi Abba with composing his teachings (see Zohar III, 287b). The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Galante (d. 1560) held that the Zohar was compiled sometime in the Geonic period (c. 589-1038 CE) from these ancient manuscripts of Rabbi Abba. The fore-mentioned Sefer Yuchasin holds that the Zohar may have originated with Rashbi, but was reworked and expanded by future generations of Kabbalists. No one knows exactly where it came from.

Some said it was the Ramban who discovered the Zohar when he arrived in Israel, then shipped it back to Spain (to save it from the Crusader wars or to reveal it to the Sephardi Kabbalists). The ship capsized or went off course, and the text ended up in the hands of Moshe de Leon! Others still believed that the Zohar was discovered by an Arab king, or by Spanish conquistadors, and sent over to the Sephardi Kabbalists for translation.

The Problem with Kabbalah

Gershom Scholem notes a number of issues within the Zohar that make it impossible to have been composed by Rashbi, Rabbi Abba, or anyone else from that time period. In fact, it appears that the person who put together the Zohar was not even a very good Talmudist. For example, the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) says that Pinchas ben Yair was Rashbi’s son-in-law, whereas the Zohar inaccurately says he was his father-in-law. Similarly, the Zohar is pretty confused about its Talmudic history, and in listing Rashbi’s ten main disciples, mixes together Amoraim and Tannaim from different centuries. Scholem also points out that the Zohar improperly uses the Aramaic language, while clearly incorporating many words with Spanish origin (such as esnoga, “synagogue” or gardin, “guardian”).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

These issues were already noted by earlier Jewish scholars. Rabbi Eliyahu del Medigo (c. 1458-1493), another great Italian sage, was part of a Kabbalistic circle before growing distant from the mystics. He noted how the Zohar has names of rabbis that lived long after Rashbi. A fellow Italian, Rabbi Leon da Modena (1571-1648) wrote an entire treatise, Ari Nohem, debunking the Zohar. He concludes that it must be only a few centuries old, and its Chokhmat haKabbalah is neither Chokhmah (wisdom) nor is it authentic Kabbalah! Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776) was most vocal in his attack on the Zohar, and stated it was a complete forgery. The Yemenite sage Rabbi Yichya Kapach (1850-1931) believed the same thing.

Others have staunchly defended the Zohar, of course. Those Spanish-looking words may be there because they come from earlier Latin words, which would have been familiar to Rashbi. The names of sages from different time periods may be mixed together in one passage, but we often find the same thing in the Talmud. Truly, one who studies the Zohar will find it hard to believe that it could have all been composed by one Kabbalist, whether Moshe de Leon or someone else. In fact, the Zohar isn’t a monolithic text at all, and is composed of various distinct parts (Raya Mehemna, Midrash haNe’elam, etc.) It probably was pieced together from earlier genuine manuscripts, and was probably edited by a circle of Sephardi Kabbalists in the 13th century, who firmly believed the teachings dated back to Rashbi in some way.

It should be mentioned that Rabbi Itzchak d’min Acco’s account does not end with Moshe de Leon’s family. He continued his search, and met at least two other rabbis that swore on the Zohar’s authenticity. Even Gershom Scholem held that Moshe de Leon was an honest scholar, and certainly no faker who was out to dupe others or make money. (Scholem nonetheless believed that de Leon and his circle were the Zohar’s originators.)

Rav Dessler

Today, the Zohar has seemingly become accepted by all Orthodox communities, and some claim that denying the authenticity of the Zohar is heresy. This is not true. Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) held that there is nothing wrong with believing the Zohar was composed by someone in the 13th century. Meanwhile, Rav Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) said that the Yemenite communities that do not accept the Zohar should not be considered heretics. After all, these communities existed long before the Zohar’s publication, and were never exposed to it. He even conceded that some of their arguments may have substance. (See Ma’ayan Omer, Perek 7, Siman 93.)

Illustrations of Sefirot in von Rosenroth’s ‘Kabbala Denudata’

One of their arguments is that the Zohar was influenced by Christian belief. Gersom Scholem illustrates multiple instances of this in his Kabbalah, especially when it comes to Christian demonology. Aside from that, some of the Zohar’s teachings may be seen as inadvertently supporting Christian theology. In fact, Christian scholars (like Picco della Mirandola, Johann Reuchlin, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, and even Newton and Leibnitz) actually took up the study of the Zohar themselves, and believed that this text would result in Jews finally converting to Christianity willingly. History shows that while some Jews may have done so, many more Jews instead started to believe in Christian ideas like man becoming god (or god becoming man), and that a messiah can die without completing his task, to return in a future “second coming”. This was a huge issue in the heresy of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), and continues to be a significant problem with certain Hasidim today.

One specific example of how Christianity influenced post-Zoharic Kabbalah is particularly relevant now, on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. It is customary to recite Tefillat HaParnasah, a prayer for sustenance, at the end of each prayer service during the High Holidays. In many Sephardic siddurim, a supposed “name of God” is invoked (though not recited aloud) during this prayer. The “name” is Dikarnosa (דיקרנוסא), which apparently comes from Malachi 3:10, though it is difficult to see how other than the appearance of the word די in the verse.

In reality, Dikarnosa means absolutely nothing in Hebrew or Aramaic. However, it has a clear Spanish (or Latin) root: dei (“god”) and karne (“meat” or “flesh”). Some believe karnosa is a combination of karne and sanguis, “blood”. Whatever the case, the meaning is pretty clear: either the name is invoking a “god of meat” or speaking of a “god of flesh and blood”. Dikarnosa may be the name of an old pagan Spanish deity of abundance (hence the association with parnasah) or, according to one Catholic priest, potentially rooted in an old appellation for Jesus who, according to Christianity, is God literally incarnated in “flesh and blood”.

While Dikarnosa is not explicitly mentioned in the Zohar, it emerged in post-Zoharic Kabbalah circles, and was already firmly accepted in the times of the Arizal. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), wrote about it in Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar HaAmidah, ch. 19). It isn’t surprising then that the Dor De’a of Yemen claimed that modern Kabbalah is contaminated with paganism.

Such are the possible dangers of studying the Zohar, and the Kabbalah that emerged from it. Some become imprisoned in demonic fears, others become extremists, or adopt all sorts of bizarre rituals, while others still are drawn to real heresy. This is one reason why the Noda b’Yehudah (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713-1793) went so far as to ban (unsuccessfully) the study of Zohar and Kabbalah. There are so many mystical texts out there that it isn’t clear which are genuine and which are not, which have been influenced by Christianity or Shabbateanism (or other heretical movements) and which have not. It is easy to be led astray.

That brings us back to the story of the Four Who Entered Pardes. We learn from that story that maybe one in four who delve into Kabbalah will emerge unscathed. The remaining three are in danger of being lead to heresy, mental issues or extreme asceticism, or worse, an untimely death.

In Search of Authentic Kabbalah

Having said all that, we mustn’t forget that there absolutely is an authentic Jewish mysticism out there. As already stated, the Tanakh itself is full of genuine mysticism, as is the Talmud. The schools of Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Beresheet are real, and existed. There were mystical texts that predated the Zohar, as did the central concept of Ten Sefirot. There is no doubt that much of this authentic mysticism made its way into the Zohar and subsequent works, which is why it became so popular, spread so quickly, and was accepted by so many.

Certainly, there are countless kernels of truth within the Zohar, which were further refined and polished by later Kabbalists like the Ramak and the Arizal. It is a repository of tremendous wisdom (and we have, of course, cited it frequently in this forum). It played a key role in preserving Judaism in the face of attractive Christian and Muslim mysticism in the first half of the last millennium, and in the face of enticing secular “Enlightenment” in the second half. (Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, 1728-1790, famously said that “the Zohar has kept me Jewish.”)

Today, Kabbalah has become inseparable from Judaism, and has engrained itself into every aspect of our faith—without most Jews even being aware of it. Simple things like doing netilat yadayim in the morning to rid of an impure spirit (something completely omitted in the law code of the rational Rambam), staying up all night on Shavuot, or just commemorating Hoshana Rabba are all based on mystical teachings. Any discussion of reincarnation, cosmogony, eschatology, or even a classic Torah-versus-science debate is impossible without Kabbalah. There is little doubt that the mystical tradition has immensely enriched Judaism.

But what do we make of those foreign influences? Some have argued that foreign influence is actually a good thing. After all, the Rambam himself had stated that we should “accept the truth from whomever speaks it”. There is an old mystical idea that the Torah, too, is in exile among the nations, and we must rediscover these true concepts from the nations, refine them, and restore them to their holy source. When looking from this perspective, we recognize that even the Talmud had adopted (or rediscovered) countless ideas from neighbouring Greeks, Romans, and Persians. And ancient Kabbalah, too, long before the Zohar, drew from other mystical traditions.

Like the critics of today, Rabbi Leon da Modena recognized way back in the 16th century that Kabbalah was essentially Greek Neoplatonism in Jewish clothing. Meanwhile, in his Jews, God, and History, historian Max I. Dimont argues that from the very beginning, Kabbalah “fed on noncanonized prophecy, Zoroastrian resurrection mythology, Greek science, numerology, gnostic heresies.” He concludes that “This was the material Jewish saints and scholars worked on for centuries, distilling it, shaping it, blowing life into it.” There is still much work left to be done in distilling, shaping, and refining Kabbalah. There are some ideas that are best to be buried and forgotten, and some truly profound ideas that should be disseminated further.

Dimont goes on to credit the Zohar and subsequent Kabbalistic texts with having “a large share in the sudden efflorescence of science…” and “laying the intellectual foundations for the seventeenth-century rebirth of philosophy and the establishment of scientific methodology…” A multitude of scholars share his conclusions. At the end of the day, Kabbalah has had a tremendous (mostly positive) impact not only on Judaism, but on the whole world.

What can we conclude from all of this? At the very least, that Kabbalah should be studied carefully, with a grain of salt and an open mind. It is very important to temper the study of Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts with more rationalist sources like the Rambam. We shouldn’t confuse Kabbalah with halacha. We should keep in mind the many authoritative voices in Jewish history that cautioned against, if not outright rejected, the Zohar, and we should never forget those Four Who Entered Pardes.

Those who choose to enter, beware.

Gog u’Magog & The Secret History of Zionism

This week’s parasha begins by stating: “And it will be, when you come to the land which Hashem, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it, and settle in it…” (Deuteronomy 26:1) The term “when you come”, ki tavo, appears at least three more times in Deuteronomy as a preface to various mitzvot. In fact, out of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, nearly half are only possible to fulfil in the Holy Land. Judaism is completely inseparable from the land of Israel.

For this reason, when the First Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled for the first time, there was a deep confusion as to how Judaism would continue to be practiced, and a great fear that the Torah would simply not survive the catastrophe. After all, how could the Jews continue to keep the Torah in a foreign land? How could they continue to serve God without a Temple? Without a priesthood? Without the dozens of agricultural laws that are dependent upon farming in the Holy Land? Without the pilgrimage festivals, the tithes, and the first fruits?

The Sages and Prophets of the day, two-and-a-half thousand years ago, had a mission to preserve their ancient faith and practices. This is precisely what they did. They taught that we don’t necessarily need to give sacrifices anymore, for we can “pay the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3). Daily prayer was thus instituted in place of daily sacrifices. Similarly, they taught that we don’t necessarily need a physical Temple, for God Himself had stated that the Temple was nothing but a means to “dwell among you” (Exodus 25:8), and God’s Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, remains among us in exile.

The Talmud (Berakhot 55a) would later state how in lieu of the Temple altar, each person has their mealtable, and the Sages modelled much of the mealtable procedure on the Temple ritual. For example, just as the Kohanim would wash themselves before and after the sacrifices, we do netilat yadayim and mayim achronim before and after the meal. Just as each sacrifice had to be brought with salt (Leviticus 2:13), we dip the bread in salt before eating it. And just as the altar used to atone for us, the Talmud says, now the mealtable atones for us. (For more on the mealtable-altar connection, see Secrets of the Last Waters.)

Instead of making pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Shalosh Regalim, the three major festivals were adapted with new types of celebrations, gatherings, and customs. Holy texts were collected and canonized. Charity replaced tithes; rabbis and scholars took the place of priests; and studying the Torah’s mitzvot (especially those that could no longer be done) became synonymous with actually fulfilling them. New holidays would be instituted (like Tisha b’Av and Purim), as would new mitzvot like reciting Hallel and lighting Shabbat candles. In these ways, Judaism not only survived, but thrived.

Still, it was impossible to forget God’s Promised Land. While Judaism could be adapted to the diaspora, no one could erase what the Torah stated: we must fulfill all of these mitzvot “when you come to the land which Hashem, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it, and settle in it…” Jews are meant to live by the Torah in Israel. It is our indigenous land, and our God-given inheritance. And God Himself told us that if we are righteous and live by His Word, we will merit to dwell in His most special territory, and if not, the land itself will “vomit” us out (Leviticus 18:28), as it does all of those who are impure.

It is amazing to see how history corroborates this incredible prophecy. For thousands of years, the Holy Land essentially lay desolate, save for small Jewish and non-Jewish communities here and there. No empire was able to hold onto this territory for long, and no foreign kingdom was able to establish itself in any kind of perpetuity or prosperity.

The Babylonians very quickly lost Israel to the Persians, and the Persians soon lost it to the Greeks. The Ptolemys and Seleucids fought over it unsuccessfully for decades until the Maccabees restored a prosperous Jewish kingdom. Their sins and infighting led to the Roman takeover of Israel. But the Romans, too, had an extremely hard time holding onto it. After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, their fate was sealed as well. Their golden age was behind them, and Rome was henceforth on a steady decline. The Byzantines and Sassanids would fight over Israel back and forth until the Arabs took it. Then the various Arab caliphates fought over it, until the Crusaders decided it should be theirs. The Crusader era was one of indescribable violence and bloodshed, following which the Holy Land remained fallow for centuries. When Mark Twain visited in 1869, he wrote that it is a:

Mark Twain

desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent mournful expanse… A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action… We never saw a human being on the whole route….There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country… Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince… Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. (The Innocents Abroad)

On that note, it is important to remember Twain’s account when dealing with Pro-Palestinians who falsely (and quite humorously) claim that Israel was full of Arabs when the Zionists arrived and “displaced” them. The historical reality, confirmed by accounts like Twain’s and other travellers, is that there was hardly “a human being” there. The Ottomans didn’t have too much of a problem allowing Jews to buy land in Israel or to settle it, for there wasn’t much going on there anyway. (When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them to his domain, and reportedly said, “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Many Jews would settle in Ottoman Israel at the time, and soon transform Tzfat into the world’s epicentre of Jewish learning and mysticism.)

Sultan Bayezid II

Ironically, the vast majority of “Palestinians” only came to settle in Israel when the Zionists arrived and created new prosperity and work opportunities. Occasionally, the Arabs admit this themselves, as did Fathi Hammad, Hamas’ Minister of the Interior, when he passionately spoke in a television address (see here) and said:

Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis. Who are the Palestinians? Egyptian! They may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta, from the North, from Aswan, from Upper Egypt. We are Egyptians. We are Arabs.

History makes it undoubtedly clear: Israel is the land of the Jews, for the Jews. No other nation has ever been successful in Israel except for the Jews. No other nation has ever established any lasting, flourishing presence there except for the Jews. Just as there was a vibrant Jewish kingdom in Israel three thousand years ago in the time of Solomon, there is a vibrant Jewish state there today.

It is important to keep in mind that the Torah clearly states that those who are impure—whether Jews or not—will be expelled from the Holy Land. We can therefore reason that those who do dwell in it securely are permitted to do so by the Land, which is not expelling them, and are its rightful inhabitants. Based on this, the great Rabbi Avraham Azulai (c. 1570-1643) wrote:

And you should know, every person who lives in the Land of Israel is considered a tzadik, including those who do not appear to be tzadikim. For if he was not righteous, the land would expel him, as it says “a land that vomits out its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 18:25) Since the land did not vomit him out, he is certainly righteous, even though he appears to be wicked. (Chessed L’Avraham, Ma’ayan 3, Nahar 12)

In this light, we can understand that even the most secular Zionists—who may appear to be “wicked” and “impure”—are still considered tzadikim in some way. With that lengthy preamble, let us try to understand the Zionist mindset and vision, and explore the true, little-known origins of Zionism.

A Religious Movement

It is commonly believed that Zionism essentially began as a movement of secular Ashkenazis in the late 1800s, with Theodor Herzl (wrongly) credited as the movement’s founder. The surprising reality is very different.

While it is hard to credit any one person with lighting the spark of Zionism, the best candidate is probably Rabbi Yehuda Bibas (1789-1852), the scion of a long line of illustrious Sephardic rabbis. Rabbi Bibas was the head of the renowned Gibralter yeshiva, and later the Chief Rabbi of Corfu, Greece. Throughout his travels across the Mediterranean, both in Southern Europe and North Africa, Rabbi Bibas witnessed constant persecutions of Jews. Regardless of whether Jews tried to fit in with mainstream society or not, or whether they were productive good citizens or not, the anti-Semitism would not abate.

Rabbi Bibas became convinced that the only solution is for Jews to return to their Biblical homeland and rebuild their kingdom. Like Mark Twain a couple of decades after him, Rabbi Bibas recognized that the land of Israel was lying fallow, accursed, devoid of inhabitants, and was ripe for Jewish resettlement. In 1839, he embarked on a world tour to convince Jews to make aliyah, and to gain support for a mass movement of Jewish settlement and nation-building.

Sir Moses Montefiore

Rabbi Bibas’ trip was funded by fellow Sephardic Jew Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), who was born in Livorno, Italy, where Rabbi Bibas had studied in his youth. Montefiore became exceedingly wealthy in England, and later served as the Sheriff of London before being knighted by Queen Victoria. During his first trip to Israel in 1827, Montefiore was deeply touched and resolved to become a fully Torah-observant Jew. He established a Sephardic yeshiva, and built what is now the Montefiore Synagogue in Kent, England. He was known to bring a shochet with him on every trip to ensure he would have kosher meat. (A wealthy anti-Semite once told Montefiore that he had just returned from Japan, where there are “neither pigs nor Jews.” Montefiore replied: “Then you and I should go there, so that they should have a sample of each.”)

Montefiore made a total of seven trips to Israel, and like his friend Rabbi Bibas, was convinced that the Jews must return to their homeland and rebuild their nation-state. In fact, Montefiore laid the groundwork for the later Zionist movement. He paid for the construction of Israel’s first printing press and textile factory, rebuilt a number of synagogues and Jewish holy sites (including Rachel’s Tomb) and established several agricultural colonies. He commissioned censuses of the Holy Land’s population, which are still valuable to historians today (you can scan them here). His 1839 census of Jerusalem, for example, found that more than half of the city’s population were Sephardic Jews (over 3500 people). These statistics show that Jews were already the majority in much of the Holy Land, long before the Zionist movement officially began.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer

One of Montefiore’s most vocal Ashkenazi supporters was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874). Rabbi Kalischer was a student of the renowned Rabbis Akiva Eiger and Yakov Lisser, the Baal HaNetivot. Rabbi Kalischer saw firsthand the struggles that German and Eastern Europe Jews were living through. He was also frustrated by the abject poverty experienced by the Jews living in Israel. At that time, it was common for Jews to collect funds from the diaspora to send to their brothers in Israel. Rabbi Kalischer believed that Israel’s Jews must return to an agricultural life, and learn to cultivate the rich land on their own, so that they could become self-subsisting. He believed that the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe should go back to their homeland, too, where they would finally be safe from pogroms and expulsions.

In 1862, Rabbi Kalischer collected his ideas and plans in a book called Drishat Tzion. In this book he outlined, among other things, the need to build a Jewish agricultural school in Israel, and to create a Jewish military force to protect Israel’s inhabitants. He concluded that the salvation of the Jewish people, as prophesied in the Tanakh, would only come about when Jews start helping themselves instead of relying entirely on God and waiting passively. God is waiting for us to make the first move and show our deep yearning to return to our land, much like God had waited for Israel to make the first move at the Splitting of the Sea, as per the famous Midrash (see Nachshon ben Aminadav). Rabbi Kalischer’s activism was successful, and in 1870 the Mikveh Israel agricultural school was opened on a tract of land now within the boundaries of modern Tel-Aviv.

Rabbi Yehuda Alkali

Finally, the most influential proto-Zionist was Rabbi Yehuda Alkali (1798-1878), whom some scholars actually credit with being the true founder of Zionism. Rabbi Alkali studied under the great Sephardi kabbalists of Jerusalem, and went on to serve as a chief rabbi in Serbia. It was the 1840 Damascus Affair that inspired him to take up the cause of aliyah. That summer, 13 Jews in Damascus were arrested following a baseless blood libel accusation. Riots followed, resulting in attacks on Jews, the capture of 63 Jewish children, and the destruction of a synagogue. The imprisoned Jews were tortured to try to get them to confess. Four of the 13 Jews died during that torture, so it isn’t surprising that seven others ultimately “confessed” to the absurd crime.

The international community was aware of what was going on, and the story was covered by Western media. Many governments attempted to intervene and stop the madness. A Jewish delegation—led by Moses Montefiore—was sent to deliberate with the authorities in Damascus.  They were ultimately successful, and the nine surviving Jewish prisoners were exonerated and freed.

Rabbi Alkali was horrified at these events, and saw how Christians and Muslims in Syria had conspired together against the Jews. This was the last straw for him. By a stroke of fate, he happened to meet Rabbi Bibas right around this time. The conclusion was obvious: the Jews must have a strong state of their own. There was no other way to prevent the ludicrous, unceasing anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews. That same year Rabbi Alkali established the Society for the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael. It was 1840, or 5600 on the Hebrew calendar, precisely the year that the Zohar prophesied to be the start of the Redemption.

Incredibly, Rabbi Alkali made a prophecy of his own based on the words of the Zohar: that the Jews have exactly one hundred years to bring about the Redemption. If Jews do not take on this challenge, he warned, then God would bring about the Redemption anyway, but through much more difficult means, through “an outpouring of wrath”. Of course, this is exactly what had happened one hundred years later.

In 1857, Rabbi Alkali published Goral L’Adonai (named after the Biblical lots—goral in Hebrew—that the Israelites cast before settling the Holy Land). This was a step-by-step manual for how to re-establish a Jewish state in Israel. In it, he proposed the resurrection of Hebrew as the spoken language of all Jews, the piece-by-piece purchase of the Holy Land from the Ottomans, and the necessity of the Jews to return to an agrarian lifestyle and work their own land. All of these would, of course, materialize in the coming decades.

It is with this book of Rabbi Alkali that the Zionist story comes full circle. Rabbi Alkali was the chief rabbi of the town of Semlin in Serbia. One of the congregants of his Semlin synagogue was a man named Simon Loeb Herzl, a dear friend of his. Rabbi Alkali presented one of the first copies of Goral L’Adonai to him. Three years later, Simon Loeb Herzl welcomed a new grandson: Theodor. It was in his grandfather’s study that a young Theodor Herzl came across Goral L’Adonai, and it was this work, scholars now conclude, that planted the seeds of Zionism in his mind.

By that point, the foundations of the Jewish State had already been laid by Rabbis Alkali and Bibas, by Moses Montefiore, and by the many that they had inspired, including Rabbi Kalischer. And so, Zionism did not begin as a secular Ashkenazi movement at all, and instead began, quite ironically, as a religious Sephardi movement. Of course, it was the Ashkenazis that took the movement to the next level, and without that great push the Jewish State would not have materialized.

This brings to mind an old Jewish idea: we see a pattern in the Tanakh based on the interplay between the children of Rachel and Leah. Back in ancient Egypt, it was Joseph (a child of Rachel) that set the stage for Israel to come down there. And it was Yehudah (a child of Leah) that then took the reins of leadership to bring the family together, and ensure their successful settlement in the land. Several centuries later, it was Joshua (a descendent of Rachel) that led the way to conquer the Holy Land. But it was only Othniel (of Yehudah, a descendant of Leah) that completed the resettlement. Later still, when Israel’s monarchy was established, it was Saul (a Benjaminite descendant of Rachel) who was the first king, and laid the framework for a Jewish kingdom, before David (of Leah, of course) unified all the tribes and established an everlasting dynasty. The same is said for the future messiah, who is said to come within two figures (or two phases): first Mashiach ben Yosef (of Rachel), then Mashiach ben David (of Leah).

It has been said that Sephardis are the descendants of Rachel (from the tribe of Joseph), while Ashkenazis are the descendants of Leah (from the tribe of Judah)—not biologically, of course, for we all come from the same singular Judean lineage, but perhaps spiritually. Not surprisingly then, when it comes to the Jewish State, the children of Rachel set the foundations, as they always do, before the children of Leah complete the process. Some believe this is the meaning of the famous prophecy in Ezekiel 37:15-21:

And the word of Hashem came to me, saying: “And you, son of man, take one stick, and write upon it: ‘For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions’; then take another stick, and write upon it: ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and of all the house of Israel his companions’; and join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. And when the children of your people shall speak to you, saying: ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’ Say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his companions; and I will put them unto him together with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in My hand.’ And the sticks upon which you have written shall be in your hand before their eyes. And say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land…’”

Redeeming Zionism

We began this journey with the verse in this week’s parasha which suggests that the Torah can only really be fulfilled in Israel. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) spoke of this explicitly (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah), and went so far as to suggest that keeping the mitzvot in the diaspora is only practice for when we can properly keep them in our Promised Land. At that point, it will be possible to fulfil all the mitzvot, and we will restore a more Biblical style of Judaism. Similarly, numerous Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts speak of a future time when Judaism will not be practiced as it is today, but will either revert to its Biblical style, or an even more primordial variety, or evolve to a completely new phase, or a combination of these. (See, for example, Vayikra Rabbah 13:3; Kohelet Rabbah 11:12; Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429; Midrash Tehillim 146:4; Raya Mehemna on Nasso, 124b-125a)

This brings us back to Zionism. The interesting thing about those later, secular Zionists is not that they wanted to abandon all religion and have an entirely secular state (though some certainly wanted this), but that they wanted to restore a more Biblical style of Judaism. They sought to rid of the weak, diaspora Jew and replace him with the strong, ancient Israelite as described in Tanakh: a land-owner, a farmer, a warrior. This is why study of Tanakh was actually considered very important among many Zionists. It is known that David Ben-Gurion had a passionate Tanakh study group, and he even wrote a Tanakh commentary! Professor Nili Wazana argues that the aim of the Zionists was to replace the “diaspora literature” of the yeshivas with the ancient Scriptures of Israel, and to make the Tanakh the sole religious text of the Jewish State.

Of course, this is highly flawed thinking, for that “diaspora literature” is precisely what brings the Tanakh to life, and makes sense of it all. The secular Zionists were wrong about this one for sure. The idea here is only to highlight that the majority of Zionists had no intention of destroying Judaism, as some believe, but rather sought (perhaps naively) to restore a more ancient type of Judaism. Even the ultra-secular Herzl, in his Altneuland, dreams of a reconstructed Third Temple in Jerusalem. He describes in his vision (Book V, Ch. I) how

Throngs of worshipers wended their way to the Temple and to the many synagogues in the Old City and the New, there to pray to the God whose banner Israel had borne throughout the world for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, Zionism went on to take a very secular turn. While Herzl had no problem speaking of God, the composers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence didn’t want to explicitly mention Him. (They ultimately conceded to the more religious voices and included mention of the “Rock of Israel”.) This variety of atheistic, ultra-secular Zionism simply cannot work. Zionism without God is doomed to fail, and there are those who argue it already has.

Rav Kook

The only way to ensure the survival and success of Israel is through religious Zionism—which is how it was always intended by its earliest founders, those great rabbis that are sadly so little-known today. Rav Avraham Itzchak Kook (1865-1935), possibly the most well-known religious Zionist rabbi, believed that it was the holy work of these sages—along with others like the Vilna Gaon and multiple Chassidic rebbes who encouraged their disciples to make aliyah long before—that set the spiritual wheels in motion for Zionism:

… the lofty righteous of previous generations ignited a holy inner fire, a burning love for the holiness of Eretz Yisrael in the hearts of God’s people. Due to their efforts, individuals gathered in the desolate land, until significant areas became a Garden of Eden, and a large and important community of the entire people of Israel has settled in our Holy Land.

… Recently, however, the pious and great scholars have gradually abandoned the enterprise of settling the Holy Land… This holy work has been appropriated by those lacking in [Torah] knowledge and good deeds… Nonetheless, we see that their dedication in deed and action is nourished from the initial efforts of true tzaddikim, who kindled the holy desire to rebuild the Holy Land and return our exiles there.

Rav Kook, too, believed that secular Zionism will fail unless we “energetically return it to its elevated source and combine it with the original holiness from which it emanates.”

This is the task at hand. The first stage of the Redemption has already been ushered in. Indeed, the Kabbalists always spoke of two phases to the Redemption. The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 1707-1746) clearly elucidated these stages—Pekidah and Zechirah—in his Ma’amar HaGeulah (‘Discourse on the Redemption’). The source of this two-stage process may very well come from that same prophecy of Ezekiel cited earlier, part of the longer “End of Days” narrative commonly referred to as Gog u’Magog.

Ezekiel uses cryptic names to tell us that the villain “Gog” (who hails from the land of “Magog”, hence the name of the prophecy) will come upon Israel in the End of Days:

in the Last Years [he] shall come against the land that is brought back from the sword, that is gathered out of many peoples, against the mountains of Israel, which have been a continual waste; but it is brought forth out of the peoples, and they dwell securely… (Ezekiel 38:8)

It is precisely when the Jews already return to Israel, “back from the sword”—from a great catastrophe (the Holocaust)—“gathered out of many peoples”, returning to a Holy Land that had been a “continual waste”, as seen earlier, that the Gog narrative takes place. God further confirms that this will happen in “the day My people Israel settles securely, you shall know it.” (38:14) After the Jews have already firmly settled in Israel can the final End of Days sequence of events occur. Ezekiel goes on to describe a tremendous war that will forever change the whole world. Only after this will God finally bring all the Jews to settle peacefully in Israel:

Now will I bring back the captivity of Jacob, and have compassion upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for My holy name. And they shall bear their shame, and all their breach of faith which they have committed against Me, when they shall dwell safely in their land, and none shall make them afraid… neither will I hide My face any more from them; for I have poured out My spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 39:25-29)

These are the concluding words of the Gog u’Magog prophecy. What we clearly see is that many Jews already return to settle in Israel before the final calamity occurs, and only after this will come the complete Ingathering of the Exiles, when “the whole house of Israel” will return to the Holy Land. This time, “none shall make them afraid”, and God will never again “hide [His] face.”

Redemption comes in two phases: the initial, incomplete return of the Jews to Israel, followed by the Final Redemption when the process is complete. History confirms that we now stand between the first and second phase. Each person must do everything they can to prepare for the imminent conclusion. How do we do so? Rav Kook had a few suggestions. To paraphrase one of his famous quotes, we must study not only “the Talmud and the legal codes” but also aggadah and ethics, Kabbalah and Chassidut, science and “the knowledge of the world”. And it isn’t enough to work on our intellectual and spiritual heights, for we must be physically strong, too:

Our return will only succeed if it will be marked, along with its spiritual glory, by a physical return which will create healthy flesh and blood, strong and well-formed bodies, and a fiery spirit encased in powerful muscles.

We must live up to our name, and be not just Yakov, the quiet one who “sits in tents” (Genesis 25:27), but Israel, who “battles with God, and with great men, and prevails” (Genesis 32:29).

Courtesy: Temple Institute

An Honest Look at the Talmud

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

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

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

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

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

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

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

Promiscuity in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

Science in the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

History in the Talmud

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

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

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

Archaeological remains of the Beitar fortress.

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

Things You Didn’t Know About the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

An Oral Torah

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

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

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

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

The Mishnah

2000-year old tefillin discovered in Qumran

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

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

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

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

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

The Gemara

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

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

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

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

Placing the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending the Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who Was the First Rabbi in History?

Tuesday evening marks the start of Chanukah. This is the only major Jewish holiday without a basis in the Tanakh. However, there is a scriptural Book of Maccabees—which recounts the history of Chanukah and the chronicles of Matityahu, Judah and the Hashmonean brothers—but it was not included in the Tanakh. Some say it was not included because by that point (2nd-century BCE), the Tanakh had already been compiled by the Knesset haGedolah, the “Great Assembly” which re-established Israel after the Babylonian Exile. Others argue that the Tanakh was not completely sealed by the Knesset, since it appears that the Book of Daniel may have been put together around the same time as the Book of Maccabees, but was included in the Tanakh, while later still the rabbis of the Talmud debate whether certain books (such as Kohelet, “Ecclesiastes”, and Shir HaShirim, the “Song of Songs”) should be included.

It is possible that the Book of Maccabees was not included for the same reason why there is no Talmudic tractate for Chanukah, even though there is a tractate for every other major holiday. (Chanukah is discussed in the Talmud in the tractate of Shabbat). Some argue that the events of Chanukah were so recent at the time that everyone knew them well, so having a large tractate for Chanukah was simply unnecessary. The other, more likely, reason is that although the Hashmonean Maccabees were heroes in the Chanukah period, they soon took over the Jewish monarchy (legally forbidden to them since they were kohanim) and actually adopted the Hellenism that they originally fought so valiantly against!

The first Hashmonean to rule was Shimon, one of the five sons of Matityahu. He was the only son to survive the wars with the Seleucid Greeks. He became the kohen gadol (high priest), and took the title of nasi, “leader” or “prince”, though not a king. Although he was a successful ruler, Shimon was soon assassinated along with his two elder sons. His third son, Yochanan, took over as kohen gadol.

Yochanan saw himself as a Greek-style king, and took on the regnal name Hyrcanus. His son, Aristobulus (no longer having a Jewish name at all) declared himself basileus, the Greek term for a king, after cruelly starving his own mother to death. Aristobulus’ brother, Alexander Jannaeus (known in Jewish texts as Alexander Yannai) was even worse, starting a campaign to persecute rabbis, including his brother-in-law, the great Shimon ben Shetach. Ultimately, Yannai’s righteous wife Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion) ended the persecution, brought her brother Shimon and other sages back from exile in Egypt, and ushered in a decade of prosperity. It was Salome that re-established the Sanhedrin, opened up a public school system, and mandated the ketubah, a marriage document to protect Jewish brides. After her death, the kingdom fell apart and was soon absorbed by Rome.

‘Alexander Jannaeus feasting during the crucifixion of the Pharisees’ by Willem Swidde (c. 1690)

Sadducees and Pharisees

While Alexander Yannai was aligned with the Sadducees, Salome Alexandra was, like her brother Shimon ben Shetach, a Pharisee. The Sadducees (Tzdukim) and Pharisees (Perushim) were the two major movements or political parties in Israel at the time. The former only accepted the written Torah as divine, while the latter believed in an Oral Tradition dating back to the revelation at Sinai. Thus, “Rabbinic Judaism” as we know it today is said to have developed from Pharisee Judaism.

Because the Sadducees only accepted the written Torah, their observance was highly dependent on the Temple and the land of Israel, since most of the Torah is concerned with sacrificial and agricultural laws. When the Romans ultimately destroyed the Temple and the majority of Jews went into exile, Sadducee Judaism simply could not survive. (Later, a similar movement based solely on the written Torah, Karaite Judaism, would develop.) Meanwhile, the Pharisees and their Oral Tradition continued to develop, adapt, and flourish in exile, resulting in the Judaism of today.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan states that the Sadducees get their name from one Tzadok, a student of the sage Antigonus. Antigonus famously taught (Pirkei Avot 1:3) that one should serve God simply for the sake of serving God, and not in order to receive a reward in the afterlife. It is this teaching that led to Tzadok’s apostasy. Indeed, we know that the Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead or apparently any kind of afterlife at all. This makes sense, since the Sadducees only accepted the Chumash as law, and the Chumash itself never mentions an afterlife explicitly.

In that same first chapter of Pirkei Avot, we read that Antigonus was the student of Shimon haTzadik, the last survivor of the Knesset HaGedolah. Antigonus passed down the tradition to Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan, who passed it down to Yehoshua ben Perachiah and Nitai haArbeli, who passed it down to Shimon ben Shetach and Yehuda ben Tabai. This means that Shimon ben Shetach, brother of Queen Salome Alexandra, lived only three generations after Shimon haTzadik, the last of the Great Assembly. This presents a problem since, according to traditional Jewish dating, the Great Assembly was about 300 years before the rule of Salome. (It is even more problematic according to secular dating, which calculates nearly 500 years!) It is highly unlikely that three generations of consecutive sages could span over 300 years.

The rabbinic tradition really starts with Shimon haTzadik, the earliest sage to be cited in the Talmud. He is said to have received the tradition from the last of the prophets in the Great Assembly, thus tying together the rabbinic period with the Biblical period of prophets. Yet, Shimon haTzadik himself is not called a “rabbi”, and neither is his student Antigonus, or Antigonus’ students, or even Hillel and Shammai. The title “rabban” is later used to refer to the nasi of the Sanhedrin, while the first sages to properly be called “rabbi” are the students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the leader at the time of the Temple’s destruction by the Romans.

Despite this, the title “rabbi” is often applied retroactively to earlier sages, including Shimon ben Shetach, Yehoshua ben Perachiah, and others, all the way back to Shimon haTzadik, the first link in the rabbinic chain. Who was Shimon haTzadik?

The Mystery of Shimon haTzadik

The most famous story of Shimon haTzadik is recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 69a). In this story, Alexander the Great is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, so Shimon goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle.

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

While it is highly doubtful that the egomaniacal Alexander (who had himself declared a god) would ever bow down to anyone, this story is preserved in a number of texts, including that of Josephus, the first-century historian who was an eye-witness to the Temple’s destruction. In Josephus, however, it is not Shimon who meets Alexander, but another priest called Yaddua. Yaddua is actually mentioned in the Tanakh (Nehemiah 12:22), which suggests he was a priest in the days of the Persian emperor Darius. Of course, it was Darius III whom Alexander the Great defeated. It seems Josephus’ account is more accurate in this case.

In fact, in Sotah 33a, the Talmud tells another story of Shimon haTzadik, this one during the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula. We know that Caligula reigned between 37 and 41 CE—over three centuries after Alexander the Great! The Talmud thus gives us three different time periods for the life of Shimon haTzadik: a few generations before Shimon ben Shetach, or a few centuries before in the time of Alexander the Great, or centuries after in the time of Caligula. Which is correct?

The First Rabbi

The Book of Maccabees (I, 2:1-2) introduces the five sons of Matityahu in this way:

In those days, Matityahu ben Yochanan ben Shimon, a priest of the descendants of Yoariv, left Jerusalem and settled in Modi’in. He had five sons: Yochanan, called Gaddi; Shimon, called Thassi; Yehuda, called Maccabee; Elazar, called Avaran; and Yonatan, called Apphus.

Each of the five sons of Matityahu has a nickname. The second son, Shimon, is called “Thassi” (or “Tharsi”). This literally means “the wise” or “the righteous”, aka. HaTzadik. It was Shimon who survived the Chanukah wars and re-established an independent Jewish state. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 14:41-46) tells us:

And the Jews and their priests resolved that Shimon should be their leader and high priest forever until a true prophet should appear… And all the people agreed to decree that they should do these things to Shimon, and Shimon accepted them and agreed to be high priest and general and governor of the Jews…

Apparently, Shimon was appointed to lead the Jews by a “great assembly” of sorts, which nominated him and, after his acceptance, decreed that he is the undisputed leader. The Book of Maccabees therefore tells us that Shimon the Maccabee was a righteous and wise sage, a high priest, and leader of Israel that headed an assembly. This is precisely the Talmud’s description of Shimon haTzadik!

Perhaps over time the “great assembly” of Shimon was confused with the Great Assembly of the early Second Temple period. This may be why Pirkei Avot begins by stating that Shimon haTzadik was of the Knesset haGedolah. In terms of chronology, it makes far more sense that Shimon haTzadik was Shimon Thassi—“Simon Maccabeus”—who died in 135 BCE. This fits neatly with Shimon ben Shetach and Salome Alexandra being active a few generations later, in the 60s BCE as the historical record attests. It also makes sense that Shimon haTzadik’s student is Antigonus, who carries a Greek name, just as we saw earlier that following Shimon the leaders of Israel were adopting Greek names.

Thus, of the three main versions of Shimon haTzadik in the Talmud, it is the one in Avot that is historically accurate, and not the one in Yoma (where he is placed nearly three centuries before Shimon ben Shetach) or the one in Sotah (where he is in the future Roman era).

‘Mattathias of Modi’in killing a Jewish apostate’ by Gustav Doré

Furthermore, we must not forget that Shimon the Maccabee was one of the instigators of the revolt against the Greeks and their Hellenism. He was the son of Matityahu, a religious, traditional priest, who fled Jerusalem when it was taken over by Hellenizers (as we quoted above, I Maccabees 2:1). Shimon was certainly aligned with the traditional Pharisees, and it was only his grandson Alexander Yannai who turned entirely to the more Hellenized Sadducees and began persecuting the Pharisees. As Rabbinic Judaism comes directly from Pharisee Judaism, it makes sense that the tradition begins with Shimon the Maccabee, or Simon Thassi, ie. Shimon haTzadik.

Interestingly, the Book of Maccabees states that Matityahu was a descendent of Yoariv. This name is mentioned in the Tanakh. I Chronicles 24:7 lists Yoariv as the head of one of the 24 divisions of kohanim, as established in the days of King David. The same chapter states that Yoariv was himself a descendent of Elazar, the son of Aaron the first kohen. Thus, there is a fairly clear chain of transmission from Aaron, all the way down to Matityahu, and his son Shimon.

Shimon continued to pass down the tradition, not to his son Yochanan—who was swayed by the Greeks and became John Hyrcanus—but to his student Antigonus. (Depending on how one reads Avot, it is possible that Yose ben Yoezer and Yose ben Yochanan were also direct students of Shimon haTzadik.) It appears we have found the historical Shimon haTzadik, and closed the gap on the proper chronology of the Oral Tradition dating back to Sinai.

If this is the case, then Chanukah is a celebration of not only a miraculous victory over the Syrian Greeks, but of the very beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, with one of Chanuka’s central heroes being none other than history’s first rabbi.

Chag sameach!