Sunday, 12 September 2021

351) The Conquest of the Land?



The conquest of the Land of Canaan from the seven nations and the apparent decimation of all its inhabitants, followed by its appropriation by the Israelites, raises some interesting questions. Why did Israel’s history in the land have to begin with a violent conquest? Could not the epic tradition surrounding the founding of a just and moral nation under the guidance of a just and moral G-d, be something other than a conquest that is so typical of the founding traditions of other less moral nations?

In this article, we shall explore some of the primary texts of the Tanach, and try to establish what the biblical verses themselves have to say about this conquest.

Sunday, 29 August 2021

350) Messianic Parallelisms



In this article I want to show fascinating parallelism between the twelfth-century story of David Alro’i; the seventeenth-century episode of Shabbatai Tzvi; and a modern event from a completely different culture and context. By comparing these three stories, we might come to a better understanding of modern messianism which is popular within the Jewish world today. And, surprisingly, it may have a stronger component relating to basic sociology and psychology than to spirituality.

Sunday, 22 August 2021



Here's another example of the innovation-heavy Tzfas mindset at work in modern Jewish life.
The way most communities perform the mitzva of shofar on Rosh Hashana is an excellent example of the spread of the Tzfas ideology and mindset. Here, based on Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim 590:1, is what the Torah requires:

כמה תקיעות חייב אדם לשמוע בר"ה, תשע; לפי שנאמר: תרועה ביובל ובר"ה ג' פעמים, וכל תרועה פשוטה לפניה ופשוטה לאחריה, ומפי השמועה למדו שכל תרועות של חדש השביעי אחד הן, בין בר"ה בין ביוה"כ של יובל, תשע תקיעות תוקעין בכל אחד משניהם: תר"ת, תר"ת, תר"ת

How many tekiyos must a man hear on Rosh Hashana? Nine, for it mentions the word “terua" three times (in the passages concerning) Yovel and Rosh Hashana, and each terua must have a simple sound (i.e., tekiya) both before and after it. And from tradition we learn that all teruos during the seventh month (i.e., Tishrei) are the same…tekiya-terua-tekiya; tekiya-terua-tekiya; tekiya-terua-tekiya.

Sunday, 15 August 2021




What is the view of Halachic sources regarding parents who tell their children not to mourn for them? This article is based extensively on the research by Rabbi Dr Shlomo Brody[1] from Bar Ilan University who writes that his parents did not want their children to observe mourning practices for a full year. He then set about researching the matter in Halachic sources and these are some of his findings.

NOTE: This is a purely academic exploration of various sources and is not meant as an authoritative guide. For practical purposes, as always, the reader should consult with his or her competent Halachic decisor on matters of this nature.

Sunday, 8 August 2021




As we have seen in a previous article, the theology of  Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) - leader of Spanish Jewry at the time of the Expulsion in 1492 - is difficult to define and characterise.  He seems to have vacillated between rationalist and mystical ideologies, but he also had some interesting views on who wrote some of the books of the Tanach.  This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[1], deals with some of Abravanel’s views on biblical authorship.

Sunday, 1 August 2021



The Regensburg Codex from around 1300.


The Regensburg Torah scroll (Ms. Jerusalem IM 180/52) was written in around 1300 and reflects some of the mystical writing practices of the German Pietists known as Chasidei Ashkenaz. Of interest is the unusual use of taggin (crownlets) that differs from our style today and other peculiarities that emphasise the mystical theology of Chasidei Ashkenaz. The Masora notes in the margins include many commentaries that clearly go beyond the usual scope of Masora notes. This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Hanna Liss[1] from the University of Heidelberg.

Saturday, 24 July 2021



Did Yosef's brothers want to encourage their dogs to kill him?

                                     GUEST POST BY RABBI BARUCH CLINTON

Note: I'm unsure how to even translate the word "derush". Words like "research" or "investigation" come close, but the way it's used in Torah literature has a clear overtone suggesting greater authority. And then, as we'll see, there are two distinct ways the word is used even within the context of Torah.

What exactly is "Torah"? Are there limits to the kinds of explanations and interpretations that can reasonably be included and, by extension, connected with the Mt. Sinai revelation? It goes without saying that modern efforts to understand how Torah law (halacha) should be applied to our lives are legitimate parts of the process, as are ethical works (mussar) that are designed to inspire us to properly observe halacha. But is any derush-based interpretation automatically included? What about commentaries that claim to fill gaps in the Biblical historical record? Are they "Torah"? By what mechanism could they be included?

Monday, 19 July 2021


Antikythera Mechanism from second century BCE. This was an early analog computer which could calculate positions of astronomical objects.


Much has been written about the idea that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are united under the general banner of Abrahamic faiths. This is a good thing because we would all rather live in a world where there is more harmony than disharmony and there are certainly many areas where we have much in common. However, testing the notion of Abrahamic faith from a technically theological position reveals some interesting fault lines.

This article, based extensively on the writings of Professor Jon D Levenson[1] from Harvard Divinity School, explores how differently Abraham is depicted within the three main faith groups of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


Sunday, 11 July 2021


A 1767 edition of Abravanel's Mashmia Yeshua.


The Portuguese statesman and commentator R. Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) had lived through the harsh period of the Expulsion of practicing Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively. He sought to inspire his people by encouraging messianic hope in order to counter the general feelings of hopelessness and despair. Between 1496 and 1498 he wrote three messianic works: מעייני הישועה, "The Wellsprings of Salvation", a commentary on the Book of Daniel; ישועות משיחו, "The Salvation of His Anointed", an interpretation of rabbinic literature about the Messiah; משמיע ישועה, "Announcing Salvation", a commentary on the messianic prophecies in the prophetical books. These form part of the larger work entitled מגדל ישועות, "Tower of Salvation". Abravanel counts Daniel - a symbol of the messianic idea - as one of the prophets, which goes against the Talmudic and rabbinic tradition which places the book under Ketuvin (Writings) and not Nevi’im (Prophets)[1].

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[2] deals with some of these messianic ideas expressed by the so-called ‘father’ of Jewish messianic movements, Abravanel. After the Expulsion, Abravanel believed that the messianic arrival was imminent. Most of Abravanel’s messianic writings took place in the post-Expulsion period.

Generally speaking, scholars have held that Abravanel’s messianism was influential in shaping future messianic trends within Judaism, but as we shall see, Lawee points out that that assumption is not always so clear.


Sunday, 4 July 2021



R. Baruch haLevi Epstein (1860-1942) is best known for his Torah commentary Torah Temima.  His father was R. Yechiel Michel Epstein of Novarodok, author of the Aruch haShulchan. R. Baruch Epstein moved to Pinsk where he remained all his life, besides for a short time he spent in America trying unsuccessfully to get a job as a rabbi. He worked as a bookkeeper. R. Epstein had studied at Volozhin Yeshivah under his uncle Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv (who later became his brother-in-law after being widowed and remarrying R. Epstein's sister[1]). He died in Pinsk during the Nazi occupation of that city, while he was a patient in the Jewish hospital which the Nazis had burned down.

Besides his Torah and other commentaries, he also wrote an autobiography entitled Mekor Baruch. Some of this work was translated into English under the title, My Uncle the Netziv. Surprisingly, this book was later banned, see Kotzk Blog: 053) Hey, Teacher Leave the Text Alone!.

This article, based extensively on the research by Don Seaman and Rebecca Kobrin[2], will examine one aspect of that autobiography, concerning R. Epstein’s aunt, Rayna Batya – the first wife of the Netziv - who was denied the Torah education she so longed for.

Sunday, 27 June 2021




The Portuguese Torah commentator Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) was an interesting exegete who was not afraid to pose penetrating questions or even criticise earlier texts.

During the 1460s, Abravanel wrote to R. Yosef Hayyun (d. 1497), the rabbi of Lisbon and presented a challenging question to him:

“My question and request is whether this book of Deuteronomy was given by the Lord from heaven, and its contents are like the rest of the Torah that Moses placed before the Israelites and everything from ‘in the beginning’ through ‘in the sight of all Israel’ are the words of the living God; or whether Moses himself composed Deuteronomy in order to expound what he understood of the divine intent in the elucidation of the precepts?”[1]

In other words, was Deuteronomy essentially the work of Moshe or was the authorship of purely Divine origin?

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eran Viezel[2], deals with some of the related issues that arise from this fascinating piece of rabbinic communication.


Sunday, 20 June 2021



Suzerain Vassal Treaty, as found in the British Museum, calling the sun and the moon as witnesses to land grants. These stones were often placed at the boundaries of the land indicating legal ownership.


Maimonides (1135-1204) writes that if he had access to ancient historical works, he would have had a much better understanding of the laws and institutions in the Torah. He refers, in particular to the writings of the ancient Sabians:

“I…say that the meaning of many of the laws became clear to me and their causes became known to me through my study of the doctrines, opinions, practices…of the Sabians.”[1]

However, writing over eight hundred years ago, Maimonides expresses dismay that these works were largely lost to history:

“[T]hey have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws….”[2]

The fact of the matter is that only since the time of Napoleon, have these types of writings, known as the traditions of the Ancient Near East, been discovered and analysed. We now know more about the practices of the Ancient Near East than ever before.

This article, based extensively on the writing of Rabbi Professor Joshua Berman[3], deals with an interpretation of Torah based on an understanding of the writing style of the Ancient Near East of which we now know much about. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has described Berman as “one of the most original biblical scholars of our time.”[4]