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The number 40 occurs many times in the Bible but what is the significance of 40 as opposed to another number such as 30 or 60?

I hope I will not offend too many people if I suggest that the significant numbers in the Bible may be derived from the previous cultures of the Middle East.
There were certain numbers that were significant to the ancients - to the Babylonians and Sumerians which I think were inherited by the people of Israel.

It was mainly about what they had access to observing.
These fall into 3 categories:
1. Astronomical - eg they could see 5 planets that did not twinkle and "wandered" in the sky, plus the Sun and the Moon
2 Biological eg most basic measures are hands feet or cubits and we most of us have 10 fingers
3 Agricultural - there were time periods that were important because they told farmers when to plant harvest or when the rains would come

The lunar month and its quarters, I think led to the 29/30 day lunar month and the seven day week;
The number of digits on the hands [5, 10] and the number of fingers bones of one hand [12]
probably led to counting in 10s and in 5 sets of 12 ie using base 60, which was the Babylonians method of doing arithmetic.

But where does the number 40 get its significance?

I found a number of possibilities:
A) Astronomical observation
1)looking for astronomical occurrences of the number 40 I found that the "retrograde of Venus"
[ie the time the planet appears to go "backwards" in the sky] takes approximately 40 days.
I have confirmed with a Professor of astronomy that the ancients could have observed this, though the middle section of Venus' retrograde motion would have been hidden by the sun, they would have had clear sight of the beginning and the end.
While I have not found any clay tablets in Cuneiform recording this so far, there is a famous cuneiform tablet of observations of Venus over a 21 year period
- which at least shows the Babylonians took a keen interest in observing the planet.

2) An alternative quite interesting theory found here:
posits that 40 days was a period of the Sun passing through the constellation of Cancer - though I do not understand how that would have been observable? The author also appears to have had to "fiddle the figures" a bit to get 40 days rather than the 30 days that each constellation normally lasts suggesting this cannot be a primary source for the number 40.

B)Three other ideas I came across was an association with childbirth:
1) There are 40 weeks a pregnant woman can count from her last period to the expected date of birth
2) In many cultures eg Indian, Biblical and Eastern orthodox 40 days was the traditional time a woman took care of herself to recover from giving birth.
3) There is a comment by Rashi on Genesis 7:4 "For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I blot out from off the face of the earth.'" which reads
"FORTY DAYS — corresponding to the period of a child’s formation... (Genesis Rabbah 32:5)."
[Genesis Rabba 32~:5] ' Rabbi Yochanan said "They spoiled the shape that was given at 40 days" ';.
He seems to be referring to the 40 days for the fetus to take an identifiable shape with organs visible.
At 6 weeks - The baby's nose, mouth and ears are starting to take shape, and the intestines and brain are beginning to develop.

C) Finally there is also an association with death and mourning customs:
It occurs in the Bible and in Indian culture the Greek rites of Persephone[?] and in Islam and in Eastern orthodox Christianity as a period of mourning after death.
[Genesis 50:3 states that it required 40 days for embalming, in Egypt].
Interestingly 40 days did not become the mourning period for the Jewish people
- Moses and Aaron were mourned for 30 days and Jewish practice still reflects this.

I think however, that if we assume the number 40 came from astronomical observations of Venus,
the third most significant object in the sky for the ancients [after the Sun and Moon],
then all these associations come together.

The Babylonians associated the goddess "Ishtar" with Venus.
The Babylonian Culture was inherited in large part from the Sumerians
The Sumerian name for Ishtar was Innana.
She was the goddesses of fertility which ties in with the connection with childbirth.
But she was not just associated with fertility but also with war.
She was connected both with birth and death.
[Perhaps because Venus is both "Evening star" and also "Morning star" and
because its retrograde motion includes a fading away followed by a "rebirth"]

Some of the Sumerian tablets referring to "Innana" are not unconnected to floods and destruction:
"She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her, speeding carnage and inciting the devastating flood, clothed in terrifying radiance. It is her game to speed conflict and battle, untiring, strapping on her sandals."
and "Her wrath is ……, a devastating flood which no one can withstand. A great watercourse, ……, she abases those whom she despises. "
Inanna also was associated with rain and storms.
See "The literature of Ancient Sumer" by Jeremy A Black

So from the ancient Mesopotamian links to the significance of Venus, and the connection of Venus to the number 40, out comes a relationship to death and to birth and a connection to the catastrophic destruction of the flood, as well as to the womb-like rebirth of humanity and all living creatures coming out from the Ark.
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I recently listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 "Religion and numbers" in the "Beyond Belief" series.

It was such an ill-informed attempt by three [all Jewish?] presenters to explain the significance of "special" numbers in Bible and Judaism, that it made me think that even I could do a better job
- so here are my quickly produced notes on that topic - please feel free to comment and correct

Significance of numbers in the Torah and in Judaism

First of all it is worth saying that in Biblical and Talmudic times Jewish numbers operated on the basis of a mix of a decimal system Units of 10s 100s etc and the Babylonian system based on base 60.

The Babylonians and before then the Sumerians were amazing mathematicians and astronomers and they knew Pythagorus' theorem a thousand years before Pythagoras, calculated Pi and the square root of 2 with some accuracy, invented or pioneered alphabetic writing and knew about musical chords and harmonies. Our Semitic ancestors inherited much from their culture.

1 Unity, God
2 witnesses, tablets of stone [sides of a covenant]
3 comes up a lot – a rhetorical number eg “x said 3 things”.
4 corners of garment, of the earth, 4 amot = 3 paces – a person’s space, 4 expressions of redemption
4 x 4 tephachim a minimum measure of an area
5 one more than four [fifth expression of redemption, future redemption]
5 fingers on a hand
6 one less than seven
7 days in a week, days the world was created, seven years to the sabbatical year – a quarter moon
[Babylonian Astronomy – The five visible planets planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn + moon + sun = 7, each corresponding to a deity and a day of the week]
8 one more than seven – circumcised on 8th day
10 men making a congregation – 10 bad spies, 10 righteous men to save Sodom
10 sayings to create the world, 10 commandments [speakings]
10 plagues
10 generations from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham
10 digits on two hands
10 tephachim – a minimum height dimension for a succah [size of main part of a human body]
12 tribes, spies
12 hours in the day [from Babylonian system]
12 bones in the fingers of one hand [& a way of counting on the fingers of one hand using the thumb]
15 half way through month, full moon, commencement of many Jewish festivals [Akkadian mid-month SABBATTU]
18 Chai [life], 18 benedictions, 18 minutes added to start of Shabbat, time it takes a man to walk a talmudic mile?
20 amot, maximum height for a succah
28 days in a month [approx]
30 days in a month[approx]
39 one less than 40 [In the Mishnah the primary types of “melacha” creative work that may not be done on Shabbat, less the one that only God can do ie [yesh me-ayin] “the creation of something from nothing”]
40 days and nights of rain in flood, Moses on Sinai,
“Forty is associated with almost each new development in the history of God’s mighty acts, especially of salvation, e.g. the Flood, redemption from Egypt, Elijah and the prophetic era,.. The following periods of 40 days may be listed: the downpour of rain during the Flood (Gn. 7:17); the despatch of the raven (Gn. 8:6); Moses’ fasts on the mount (Ex. 24:18; 34:28; Dt. 9:9); the spies’ exploration of the land of Canaan (Nu. 13:25); Moses’ prayer for Israel (Dt. 9:25); Goliath’s defiance (1 Sa. 17:16); Elijah’s journey to Horeb (1 Ki. 19:8); Ezekiel’s lying on his right side (Ezk. 4:6); Jonah’s warning to Nineveh (Jon. 3:4);”
40 years for a generation to die out in the wilderness, land was at peace for 40 years
“For 40 years, the general designation of a generation, the following may be quoted: the main divisions of Moses’ life (Acts 7:23, 30, 36; Dt. 31:2); Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (Ex. 16:35; Nu. 14:33; Jos. 5:6; Ps. 95:10); the recurring pattern of servitude and deliverance in the era of the judges (e.g. Jdg. 3:11; 13:1); “
40 se’ot = volume of human body, 40 volume of a mikvah
50 one more than 49 = 7 x 7 Shavuot celebrated, Jubilee year
60 a Babylonian hundred
1 in 60 [in the Talmud] is the equivalent of 1% nowadays
70 descendants of Noah to repopulate the earth, 70 nations of the world, 70 understandings of Torah, 70 elders appointed under Moses, 70 men in the Sanhedrim, 70 years the span of a man’s life
“Seventy is often connected with God’s administration of the world. After the Flood the world was repopulated through 70 descendants of Noah (Gn. 10); 70 persons went down to Egypt (Gn. 46:27); 70 elders were appointed to help Moses administer Israel in the wilderness (Nu. 11:16); the people of Judah spent 70 years of exile in Babylon (Je. 5:11; 29:10); 70 weeks, ‘sevens’, were decreed by God as the period in which Messianic redemption was to be accomplished (Dn. 9:24);”
100 me’ah “mah hashem elohecha sho’el meimcha?” What does God ask of you? 100 berachot a day, 100 blasts on the shofar on Rosh HaShanah
“Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses tells the Jewish people: "What (mah) does God ask of you?” The Talmud explains that the word mah can be read as me’ah, meaning 100. In other words, God asks us to recite (at least) 100 brachot every day.”
365 the days in a year, the years in Enoch’s life – suggesting perfection? Number of positive mitzvot, bones + organs in the body [though that is not a fixed number]
600 is a Babylonian thousand
1000 a thousand years – a day in God’s sight. Adam lived 1,000 less 70 years [which he gave to his descendant King David].
600,000 is a Babylonian million [population of Israel in wilderness = the men, approximate number of letters in the Torah]

This is the first of two posts, as the exercise has led me to question

"What is special about the number 40 in the Bible?"

That will be the subject of PART 2.
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This is from the wonderful page of Talmud Shabbat 31a.

The Rabbis, Resh Lakish and Raba, are hanging interpretations upon the words of a verse from Isaiah.
The verse is Isaiah 33:6
וְהָיָה אֱמוּנַת עִתֶּיךָ, חֹסֶן יְשׁוּעֹת חָכְמַת וָדָעַת; יִרְאַת יְהוָה, הִיא אוֹצָרוֹ.
The faith of your times shall be, a treasure-store of Salvation, wisdom and knowledge of fear of God, that is his treasure.

I think that the references to “treasure” and “Salvation” lead them to think about how we earn spiritual reward, whether in this life or for the world to come

Here is the original from the Talmud [which unusually is in Hebrew, not Aramaic] with my attempt at translation:

(ישעיהו לג, ו) והיה אמונת עתיך חוסן ישועות חכמת ודעת וגו' אמונת זה סדר זרעים עתיך זה סדר מועד חוסן זה סדר נשים ישועות זה סדר נזיקין חכמת זה סדר קדשים ודעת זה סדר טהרות
ואפ"ה (ישעיהו לג, ו) יראת ה' היא אוצרו אמר רבא
Resh Lakish says this verse refers to the six sections of the Mishnah:
1. Faith – The section Zeraim [about agriculture]
2. Your times - the section Moed [The festivals]
3. A Treasure-store – the section Nashim [women]
4. Salvation – the section Nezikim [criminal and civil law]
5. Wisdom – the section Kedoshim [holiness]
6. Knowledge – the section Tehorot [the extensive rules of ritual Purity]
Yet even so, “Fear of God is his treasure”

בשעה שמכניסין אדם לדין אומרים לו
Raba says:
When a man is brought before the [heavenly] court he is asked:
נשאת ונתת באמונה קבעת עתים לתורה עסקת בפו"ר צפית לישועה פלפלת בחכמה הבנת דבר מתוך דבר
1. [Faithfulness:] Were you trustworthy in buying and selling?
2. [Your times] Did you set times for Torah [study]?
3. [Treasure-store] Did you try to be fruitful and multiply ?
4. [Salvation] Did you hope for the Messiah?
5. [Wisdom] Did you formulate legal points with wisdom?
6. [Knowledge] Did you discern things amoung other things? [I think maybe he means “Did you see the wood for the trees ?” Ed.]
אי יראת ה' היא אוצרו אין אי לא לא
And despite all this, “Fear of God is his treasure” [i.e. If he was God fearing] it is well,.. if not, not.
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As you teach, you learn...

I have just started, what I hope will be an ongoing project at least for a few months, of learning regularly with my youngest son.
We are learning "Middos" - good attributes of behaviour - and reading Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishna that records the "Ethics of the Fathers".

When I read the first verses with my son, all sorts of questions came to my mind that I had never noticed before, and I want to blog about them here.

Ethics of the fathers - Mishna Avot Chapter 1

כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא, שנאמר ועמך כולם צדיקים, לעולם יירשו ארץ, נצר מטעי מעשה ידי להתפאר.

Kol yisrael yesh lahem cheilek l’olam habah, she-neh-eh-mar, v’ameich koolam tzaddeekeem, l’olam yeershoo ah-retz, neitzer mah-tah-ai, mah-ah-say yah-dai, l’heet-pah-air.

All Israel have a share in the World To Come, as it is stated (Isaiah 60:21): ‘And your people are all tzadikim (righteous).’ They shall inherit the land forever. They are the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 90a)

The tradition is to open each chapter with the passage above which derives the [at first glance] very comforting idea [for Jews] that every Jew has a portion in the World to Come. A birthright, apparently.

This teaching is not part of Mishna Avot but is taken from elsewhere in the Mishna [Sanhedrin 11:1] and it uses a verse from Isaiah 60:23 to argue every Jew has a part in the World to Come.

My Questions:

1. Why is this added here?
2. What is meant by "The World to come" ?
3. How can one possibly say that ALL of the Jewish people are righteous?
4. What is meant by this "portion" in the World to come?
5. And how does the Mishna derive that conclusion from the verse in Isaiah which seems to be saying something totally different

I have been looking for answers:

1. "Why is this added here?" - I don't know - let's come back to that.

2. "What is meant by "The World to come" ?" - I always thought the World to Come meant Heaven / the afterlife - however the Lubavitche Rebbe argues that here specifically it means the life on earth after the resurrection of the dead. See
because those who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead forfeit it, according to the following section in Mishnah Sanhedrin.
Well, there goes my portion, I guess!

3. Clearly all peoples and nations have good people and bad people [and in-between people]. one reading of Isaiah would be "IF your people are all of them righteous THEN they will inherit the land forever" - a bit less reassuring, but nevertheless consistent with many other conditional promises in the Torah.

However this does not work so well with the context in Isaiah and certainly not with the interpretative reading in the Mishna. Reading the Radak's commentary on the verse in Isaiah he says that this means that in this ideal future time of which Isaiah speaks, God will have "refined the people of Israel like silver" Zecharia 13:9, leaving only the righteous surviving in Jerusalem!

A far less comforting thought...!

4. "What is meant by this "portion" in the World to come?" - One explanation is that it is a plot of land [maybe a metaphorical plot of land]

You have your plot of land but how good it is will depend on how you work on it.

5. "And how does the Mishna derive this...from the verse?"
- le'olam in the verse appears to mean "forever"
- the Mishna puns on this word to take it to mean "for the World [to come]" then the "land" in the verse is taken to be a plot of land - a portion that each person will inherit.
And of course the World to Come is well known to be for "the Righteous" so it all reads very nicely in this novel interpretation.

This brings us back to Q1. "Why is this added here?" at the beginning of the study of the chapters of Avot which deal with ethical behaviour.

I think it is saying - each of you has your metaphorical plot of land for the next World - but if you neglect to work on your character, ethics and good deeds in this life, your reward will be less in the word to come - your plot will be mangy and depleted. Work on character, ethics and good deeds contained in these chapters and your "plot of land" in the World to Come will be a rich and fertile one - you will reap your reward.
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Some years ago, I asked a question on a moderated Jewish newsgroup discussion, about the Lord's Prayer.
This slightly "spooked" the moderators of the group, but it was allowed through - and I have always treasured one or two of the answers - so I have decided to reproduce them here:

The Question

I have read (in a book by Edmund Fleg) that many, if not all of the
phrases in the Christian prayer "The Lord's Prayer" have their origins
in Jewish sources.
I am interested in learning to what extent this is in fact the case.

Here is a version of the Lord's Prayer ( from chapter 6 of the Gospel
of Mathew):

"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also
have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory

Can anyone help me by locating any relevant Jewish source-texts
Chapter and verse?



> I have read (in a book by Edmund Fleg) that many, if not all of the
> phrases in the Christian prayer "The Lord's Prayer" have their origins
> in Jewish sources.
> I am interested in learning to what extent this is in fact the case.

> "Our Father in heaven,

> hallowed be your name,
> your kingdom come,
> your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

The Kaddish says something similar: "Exalted and hallowed
be his great name. . . May he establish his kingdom. . . "

> And forgive us our debts, as we also
> have forgiven our debtors.

(Possibly a nice triple word play in Hebrew existed here,
in which "forgive " derives from the root "nasa", "debts and debtors"
from "nashah", and "temptation" --next verse--from "nasah".)

> And do not lead us into temptation,
> but deliver us from the evil one.

"Bring me not into sin, or into iniquity, or into temptation,
or into contempt." (Berakoth 60b)

> For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory
> forever.

Mishnah Yoma 6.2 (and in some other places, I think)
notes that the proper liturgical response to hearing the High Priest
pronounce the divine Name was for the assembled people to
say, "Blessed be the Name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever."
This response was also given after the saying of the Shema.
So, this phrase might at one time have been a reflexive response
after almost any prayer, much like "Amen".

Randolf Parrish


I'm posting this off the top of my head, simply giving phrases that
come to mind. The list is in no way exhaustive. I also assume that
you have access to a siddur [prayer book] with translation.

>Here is a version of the Lord's Prayer ( from chapter 6 of the Gospel
>of Mathew):
>"Our Father in heaven,

Mishna Rosh Hashana, end of 3rd Perek - "when they submitted
themselves to their Father in Heaven". Gemara Sota (IIRC - but I
can't remember the daf) - "we have no-one to rely on but our Father in

> hallowed be your name,

Kaddish - Yisgadal viyiskadash shemey rabbo [May His great name be
exalted and hallowed]

> your kingdom come,

I'm not sure what this actually means - perhaps the beginning of the
second para. of Alenu

>your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I'm not sure whether this is a statement or a wish. Either way, it
seems a bit unnecessary, not to say presumptious.

>Give us this day our daily bread.

Hatrefeni lechem chuki [give me my allotted bread], in the prayer one
can insert in Shema Kolenu in the Amidah.

>And forgive us our debts, as we also
>have forgiven our debtors.

I've never entirely understood this, in any of its various iterations.
Possibly the opening of Krias Shema al Hamita - hareni mochel kol
shechoto kenegdi... [behold, I forgive all who have sinned against me]

>And do not lead us into temptation,

Morning Blessings - velo lidey nisayon [and not to a temptation]

>but deliver us from the evil one.

ibid - misoton hamaschis [from a destructive enemy (Soton also = evil

>For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory

Alenu, end of second para. - ki hamalchus shelcho hi uli'olmey ad
timloch bichovod [for the kingdom is yours and you will rule forever
in glory].


Omein [Amen]

Sorry, but I don't have time at the moment to actually take down the
sefarim [books] and do some research.

M Glickman
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This was my contribution to the shul newsletter celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of my younger son who read maftir of Ki Tetze:

How can we relate to those of whatever persuasion who breach the peaceful sanctity of a House of G-d through acts of violence?

Today’s Sedrah concludes with the command: ‘Blot out the memory of Amalek’ (Devarim 25:19). On Purim 1994, a Jewish man, Baruch Goldstein, entered a mosque in Hebron and started shooting people, equating Arabs with Amalek. If we identify enemies of Israel today with Amalek, it is a short step to believing that we are commanded to ‘wipe them out’.

It is therefore important to teach our own children that Amalek is not to be identified with anyone today. We learn in the Talmud (Berachot 28a) that Sennacherib, King of Assyria, ‘mixed up the nations’ long ago. According to this teaching, since Amalekites cannot be identified today it follows that it is impossible nowadays to fulfil ‘Blot out the memory’ by killing Amalekites.

Nevertheless, historically Jews have identified Amalek with various nations such as Rome and Germany. We need a ‘fence around the Torah’ when we feel driven to ‘religious’ violence: the inner ear of conscience. HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt’l (d. 2015) wrote (in ‘Halacha VaHalachim’): ‘Of course, a Jew must be ready to answer the call “I am here” if the command “to offer him up as an offering” is thrust upon him [a reference to the Akedah – Binding of Isaac]. However, prior to unsheathing his sword, he is permitted, even obligated, to clarify if indeed this is what has actually been commanded. ...To the extent that there is a need and room for Halachic exegesis – and this must be clarified – a sensitive and insightful conscience is one of the factors that help to shape the decision-making process.’

I had to cut a lot out, as there was a word limit of 300 words.

I would have liked to reference the fine essay
by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgott in Mikra and Meaning,
“Amalek: Ethics,Values, and Halachic development”

Also worth a read for those troubled by the Amalek mitzvah are Gil Student's blog posts:
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Tomorrow Oct 2nd/Oct 3rd is not only the new moon, it is also the start of a new Jewish year.

A Christian friend asked me "Do Jews celebrate Harvest festival?"

I thought about this briefly and responded that most of our major festivals are Harvest Festivals originally. But then I wondered which harvest it was at this time of year in ancient Israel and when the harvests and planting seasons were?

Time to look it up in the Gezer calendar...

The Gezer calendar is a remarkable simple early Hebrew inscription from a site 20 miles west of Jerusalem dating from 925 BCE just after the time of King Solomon.
It is one of the earliest surviving bits of Hebrew of writing there is.

It could been translated as:

“Two months gathering
Two months planting
Two months late sowing (?meaning unclear?)
One month cutting flax
One month reaping barley
One month reaping and all
Two months pruning
One month summer”

So according to this document:

Harvesting took place in the first 2 months of the year (ie mid Sep to mid-Nov).
Sowing took place in the next 2 months of the year (ie mid Nov to mid-Jan).

Flax was harvested in the 7th month (mid-Feb to mid-Mar)
Grain (barley is mentioned) was harvested in the 8th and 9th months (ie mid-Mar to mid-May).

The festivals we are about to celebrate, starting with Rosh HaShanah, New Year, therefore correspond to the harvest period. They would have gathered in the harvest and brought up food to Jerusalem to eat and share at Sukkot time.
But I assume it is a harvest of fruit (olives dates pomegranates figs and grapes) as the grains would have been harvested in the Spring?

Checking online it seems grapes are still harvested in the Holy Land at this time.

though the harvesting of Olives seems to continue into early November.
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My son recently reached the age of Bar Mitzvah.

I had some qualms about saying the blessing "Shepatarani" “Blessed be ...who has exempted me of responsibility of this child)” - since I am not sure exactly when a father becomes free of responsibility for his son.

I noticed when the Rabbi instructed me to say the relevant blessing in Synagogue after his call-up and reading from the Torah that it is said b’li shem u’malchut (without the words "HaShem our God, King of the Universe") – so that it is not really a “berachah” – so I felt fairly OK to conform to convention and say it and I assume from this wording that the Rabbis had similar doubts about the blessing.

I found online this goes back to Moshe Isserles (the Gra) who is the Ashkenasi commentator on the Shulchan Aruch:
“There is, of course, a fairly simple way out of the objection against the violation involved in beracha l'vatala (wasted blessing). This is illustrated by the decision of Moses Isserles (the Rama) to Orah Hayyim 225:2 (in the Shulchan Aruch), where there is some doubt as to the validity of the blessing to be recited by the father at the son's Bar Mitzvah. Here, there is danger of a beracha l'vatala if, after all, the blessing is really not required. Therefore Isserles solves the problem by having the blessing recited, leaving out the words, "O Lord, our God, King of the universe." This is the method that the rabbis often follow when they are uncertain as to whether the blessing is required or not. They have the blessing recited without using the Name of God, or as they say, "b'li Shem u-malchus, " because the real objection to the "wasted" blessing is using the name of God in vain. When you leave out the name of God, the objection to reciting the blessing virtually vanishes.”

I read some more interesting further discussion on Judaism.stackexchange where it emerges that the use of “b’li shem u’malchut” for a blessing said in a case of a doubtful commandment or action or change of status is only used in certain restricted cases where it is not possible to say Amen to someone who is definitely obligated. The preferred solution to a case of doubt is for the person to say "Amen" to another who has a more definite obligation:
gives some examples:
“@joshwaxman I know of only 5 such instances in Shulchan Aruch: birkot hashachar if you didn't do that action, hagomel (the blessing said on surviving a danger), miracle location (blessing on a place where a miracle occurred), chalitza (the levirate marriage ceremony), and shepterani (blessing by a father on his child reaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah. (Orach Chayim 46:8 218:9 219:3 225:2 Even HaEzer Chalitza 57). “
In each case the person is in a situation where there is doubt about whether the blessing is required and they cannot say Amen to someone who is definitely obligated (which would be the preference).

There are other cases where people say blessings “without Name of Kingship” – there is the “Baruch dayan emet” one says on hearing of a death, and there is “Baruch HaMavdil” that people say before switching on the lights on Shabbat evening when they have not made Havdallah.

IN the case of “Baruch dayan emet” I imagine the doubt is about how sincere we are able to be when we say this. The saying "Blessed is the true Judge" on hearing of a person's death is a theological statement which rides in the face of our emotional response - there may be a recognition in say the blessing in short form that we are actually a bit conflicted when we say it.

As for Baruch HaMavdil - I do not understand this practice.

There is an interesting case discussed in Talmud Berachot of Benjamin the Shepherd and his Aramaic blessing after bread.

Benjamin's blessing is recorded as being (in Aramaic) "Brich malka d’alma marei d’hai pita. . The Rabbis ask "Was this a valid blessing?"

See my friend Alexander's blog and also Talmud, Berachot 40b.

I think the issue in Berachot 40b is that blessing after bread is considered to be a positive mitzvah d’orayta (from the Torah). The question the Talmud is discussing is whether Benjamin with his wording in Aramaic fulfilled his Torah commandment to bless after eating bread. (“And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD thy God for the good land which He hath given thee. Deut 8:10).

They conclude that without the Name of God in the wording (and according to one opinion without the Name and Kingship of God) mentioned, he had not.

Blessing on bread is an unusual case, since most blessings are d’rabannan (ie instituted by the Rabbis) – though I am not sure that this makes much difference to the halacha, except in cases where there is a doubt about whether one should say the blessing. Perhaps also it makes any doubt about whether one had said the blessing “properly” more significant.

A shepherd might also be an interesting case because he would be someone who would be eating alone with his sheep, perhaps, so could not say Amen to the blessing of someone more educated with whom he was eating.

I like that Rav validates the blessing of this ignorant but pious 3rd century Jewish shepherd.

The Talmudic passage also establishes the idea that one can fulfill a blessing in translation in the vernacular – which when I come to think about it makes it possibly slightly problematic saying a blessing in both Hebrew and in English translation, as the second of these would be a wasted blessing.

On the other hand many things may be done for "chinuch" (for the sake of education of children).
my_torah: (Default)
OLD LIGHT vs NEW LIGHTS - A Philisophical debate in the Mishnah
Mishnah Berakhot, Chapter Eight, Mishnah Five

In this Mishnah Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel debate various details of the Havdalah ceremony.
I will focus on just one of these disputes.

"Bet Shammai says [the blessing over the havdalah candle concludes with the words],
‘Who created the light of the fire.’
Bet Hillel says:
‘Who creates the lights of the fire.’"

What is the point of their debate? It seems like hair-splitting at a first reading...until you realise that light is often used as a metaphor for “Torah” or "truth".

This, it seems to me, is actually a coded philosophical debate about the nature of truth (or in their terms perhaps they would have said the nature of "Torah").

Bet Shammai say that there is one single absolute Truth, created at the beginning of the world, never-changing. “Created” is therefore past tense and “light” is in the singular.
Bet Hillel say that there are multiple truths and they are constantly being created all the time. “Creates” is present tense and “lights” is in the plural.

As is the halacha, we follow Bet Hillel in this world, though in the world to come Bet Shammai's opinion may prevail.
The Havdalah candle with its multiple wicks burning as one flame symbolises these multiple truths that merge into one single ever-changing flame of Torah.

It is the Jewish equivalent of the story of the blind villagers and the elephant
my_torah: (Default)

My starting point was the question

“Why do we lift up our hands to the light when we say the blessing “Borei More Ha’aish” (who creates the lights of the fire).

My investigation of this question not only answered the original question but has led me into a deeper and I think fascinating understanding of the Jewish customs and practices of Havdallah, and also perhaps, of Shabbat and Friday night.

This is a relatively long article for my Torah blog, but if it succeeds in explaining to you what all the customs of Shabbat are about, isn’t it worth persisting and reading to the end?

I have quoted some Midrashim to form a flow of ideas and to propose a thesis for the origins of Shabbat & Havdallah customs. However I would not want to give the impression that there are not other contrary Midrashim. For every question there will be a plethora of Midrashic answers. The “truth” in Midrash is like the lights of the Havdallah candle - many lights forming a flickering fiery flame.

The First Light
First let us start at the very beginning:
The creation of Light on the first day of creation.

Sceptics about the Biblical creation story often pose the question:
“How could Light and Darkness, Day and Night have been created on the 1st day when the sun and moon are not created until the 4th day?”

The Rabbinic answer (dating back thousands of years) is that we are talking on the first day of creation about a wholly different type of “Light”:

Genesis Rabba XI 2.

6. It was taught : The light which was created in the six
days of Creation cannot illumine by day, because it would
eclipse the light of the sun, nor by night, because it was
created only to illumine by day. Then where is it? It is
stored up for the righteous in the Messianic future, as it
says, “Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light
of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the
light of the seven days” (Isa. xxx, 26)

With the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden there was a consequent diminishing of this primordial light. The light of the first day was “hidden away” for the “Olam HaBa” (the world to come) and the righteous will enjoy it.

Next there is the question of a curious act of chesed (kindness) by God to the first Man and Woman. At the end of the decree of punishment of Adam and Eve for disobeying the first mitzvah, and eating the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, the Torah says:

כא וַיַּעַשׂ יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ, כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר--וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם. {פ} 21 And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.

There are a number of oddities about this verse.
It seems slightly unexpected – an act of love at the end of God’s passing judgement on them.
The words “garments of skins” “kotnot or” are very specific. It could have just said “begadim” (clothes).

If they were of skin, where did the skin come from?
We imagine the Garden of Eden as being a place without slaughter of animals.
The midrashim offer several suggestions: it was made of the skin shed by the snake, it was from the skin of the Leviathan (that we know from another Midrash God slaughtered near the beginning of creation). It was made of wool (ie not actual skin but that which grows from the skin). And most ingenious and curious of all: before that Adam and Eve did not have skin they were covered with a fingernail like covering that shone with beams of light (like the Moses face after the giving of the Torah) and after they sinned they lost that, so God gave them skin instead as at this day, leaving the fingernails and toenails peeping out as a reminder of the original covering.

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer
“What was the dress of the first man ? A skin of nail,
and a cloud of glory covered him. When he ate of the fruits “
of the tree, the nail-skin was stripped off him,' and the cloud of glory departed from him, and he saw himself naked”

* The dress of Adam and Eve was, according to the Pal. Targum,
Gen. iii. 7, "onyx-coloured " ; cf. Gc-n. Rab. xx. 12 The legend of an
original skin of nail is preserved in the custom which still obtains
among orthodox Jews, who gaze at their nails with the Habdalah
light at the termination of the Sabbath.

And why did they need added clothing – given they had sewed themselves girdles (hagoroth) out of fig leaves? We know that Adam hid because he still felt naked in his fig leave kilt.

It feels to me like a transition from a warm sunny paradise where grass-skirts suffice to the cold harsh world outside.

There is a halachic reason explained in the Midrash too for why we hold our hands up to the Havdallah candle before we make the blessing (which is an unusual sequence as normally the blessing is said before enjoying the “fruit”):

Genesis Rabba XI
And God saw the light. R. Ze'ira, the son of R.
Abbahu, lectured in Caesarea 5 : Whence do we know that
you must not recite a blessing over a lamp until you have enjoyed (ie benefitted from) its light? From this: “And he saw the light... and
he pronounced a division”. 6 R. Judah b. R. Simon
said : He [God] set it apart for Himself. 7 Our Rabbis said :
He set it apart for the righteous for the future, just like
a king who had a goodly portion [served to him at table],
but set it aside for his son.

The halachic approach would seem to be that we hold up our finger to the flame in order to derive a use from its light. That use is to distinguish one shade (that of the finger nail) from another eg the skin – or alternatively to see he difference of the shaded area on the palm from the lit area of the palm.

It’s all about the Garden of Eden

To better understand Havdallah and its significance, however, we need to examine the Chronology of the Garden of Eden story:

From the text of the Torah, the timing seems to be:
• Adam and Eve are created late on Friday after all the other animals.
• They eat of the tree on Fri afternoon before Shabbat.
• They make girdles of fig leaves – but still felt naked.
• God confronts Adam towards dusk of Friday “at the breeze of the day”
• God makes coats of skin for Adam and Eve.
• He expels them from the Garden of Eden.

So one view (which Clive Lawton proposed) could be that they were expelled from Eden on erev Shabbat and we are still living in the final moments of the eve of the 7th day – awaiting the day (the world to come) which will be entirely Shabbat!

The classical Midrashim mostly take a different view that God, in an act of clemency, allowed the first couple to remain for Shabbat in Eden. Shabbat is a “taste of Olam HaBah (the world to come)” which is also associated with Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden) so it feels fitting that their first Shabbat should have been spent in The Garden of Eden, rather than in their having just been expelled from it.

Also the Midrash suggests that primeval light of Eden stayed lit for them on Friday night and continued throughout Shabbat, only vanishing at the end of Shabbat when for the first time Man saw darkness fall upon the world. So Shabbat is strongly associated with both Light and the World to Come.

Yet, Adam had lost his lustre:

"He (Adam, the first Man) was of extreme beauty and sun like brightness" (B. B. 58a).[2]
"His skin was a bright garment, shining like his nails; when he sinned this brightness vanished, and he appeared naked" (Targum Yerushalmi aka Targum Yonatan. Gen. iii. 7; Genesis Rabba xi.).

Adam and Eve were thus expelled from the garden of Eden on motzei Shabbat (at the end of Shabbat) at Havdallah time.

Man was afraid when the world began to get dark that the snake might bite him, but says the Midrash, God made him a pillar of fire – or in another version God made him find 2 flints and by striking them together he lit a fire.

Fire was thus created for the first time at Havdallah time after the creation.
So at Havdallah time we are exiting Shabbat into the working week and recalling the expulsion from Eden into the world of work.

It is also notable that apparently Man makes our Havdallah blessings for the first time at Havdallah, over the fire and over the distinction of holy from work-a-day.

Consider the following Midrash:
Genesis Rabba XI 2.

The Rabbis were suggesting ways in which “God blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy”:
“He blessed it with the light of a man's face : the light of a man's face during the week is not the same as it is on the Sabbath”
He blessed it in respect of the sun and moon. R. Simeon b.
Judah said: Though the sun and moon were “spoilt”1 on the
eve of the Sabbath, yet they were not smitten until the
end of the Sabbath. This agrees with the Rabbis
but not with R. Assi, 2 who maintained: Adam's glory
did not stay the night with him. 3 What is the proof?
But Adam passeth not the night in glory (Ps. xlix, 13). 4
The Rabbis maintain: His glory abode with him, but at
the termination of the Sabbath He deprived him of his
splendour 5 and expelled him from the Garden of Eden,
as it is written, Thou changest his countenance, and sendest
him away (Job xiv, 20). As soon as the sun set on the night
of the Sabbath, the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to
hide the light, but He showed honour to the Sabbath;
hence it is written, And God blessed the seventh
day: wherewith did He bless it? With light.

When the sun set on the night of the Sabbath (ie Fri night), the light continued
to function, 6 whereupon all began praising, as it is written,
Under the whole heaven they sing praises to Him (ib. xxxvii,
3) 7 ; wherefore? Because His light [reaches] unto the ends
of the earth (ib.). 8 R. Levi said in the name of the son of
Nezirah: That light functioned thirty-six hours, 9 twelve
on the eve of the Sabbath [i.e. Friday], twelve during the
night of the Sabbath, and twelve on the Sabbath [day].
When the sun sank at the termination of the Sabbath,
darkness began to set in. Adam was terrified, [thinking,]
Surely indeed the darkness shall bruise me
(Ps. cxxxix, 11): shall he of whom it was written, He shall
bruise thy head (Gen. in, 15), now come to attack me!
What did the Lord do for him? He made him find two
flints which he struck against each other; light came forth
and he uttered a blessing over it; hence it is written, But
the night was light about me — ba'adeni (Ps. loc. cit.), i.e.
the night was light in my Eden (be'edni). 1 This agrees with
Samuel, for Samuel said : Why do we recite a blessing over
a lamp [fire] at the termination of the Sabbath ? Because
it was then created for the first time.

1 Through Adam's sin it was decreed that the primeval light should be
hidden. Var. lee: cursed.

2 More correctly: R. Jose.

3 I.e. the primeval light, which was smitten immediately he sinned,
before the Sabbath.

4 E.V. 'But man abideth not in honour .

5 By hiding the primeval light. Others : He deprived Adam's countenance
of its lustre. 6 At night — this primeval light is meant.

12. And the Lord God made for Adam and
his wife garments of skin, and clothed
them (in, 21). In R. Meir's Torah it was found written,
' Garments of light (there is a pun here on the word “ ’OR” with an Ayin meaning skin and “OR” with an Aleph meaning light) ' 2 : this refers to Adam's garments,
which were like a torch [shedding radiance], broad at the
bottom (of the beam of light) and narrow at the top. Isaac the Elder said : They
were as smooth as a finger-nail and as beautiful as a jewel.

The classical commentators interpret the phrase “kotnot or” by utilizing rabbinic extrapolations. The Aramaic translation (targum) of Onkelos explains: "garments of glory on their skin." Rashi, based on midrashic sources, remarks that these clothes were smooth like a fingernail or scale, and shone like a jewel. That explains kotnot. Or is explained by Rashi as something that derives from skin, like the fur of rabbits, which is warm and soft. The skin for these garments is variously understood as coming from the skin shed by the sly serpent who seduced Eve (Aramaic Targum of Yonatan Ben Uziel), or from the Leviathan that God slaughtered, salted, and left for the righteous in the World to Come (Hizkuni). Ibn Ezra has an interesting formulation that blends several ideas. He writes that some explain that in the beginning man was made of bone and flesh, and now God made for them a covering of skin.
(Jewish Quarterly)

There is another complication. There is a midrashic source which claims that Adam was not created naked. "What was the clothing of Adam: scaly skin and the Cloud of Glory covering him. When he [Adam] ate from the fruits of the Tree [of Knowledge], the scaly skin came off and he saw himself naked, and the Cloud of Glory disappeared." So the verse: And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked (Gen. 3:7), means that they were denuded of the clothing that was already upon them.

So it seems to me that the viewing the light reflected in the fingernails of the hand at Havdallah reminds us of the “scaly skin” Adam and Eve were clothed in before they sinned and ate the forbidden fruit. Perhaps the midrash is suggesting we have a little of that scaly skin left in our finger and toe nails?
Or another way to view it might be that before they sinned they were clothed in scaly stuff and light – then after the sin the light departed and so God clothed them in a clothing of skin (not animal skins, as often read, but literally in our skin) but the fingernails poke through the skin and that again is a reminder of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden which took place at the going out of the first Shabbat.

Or that the original skin of Adam and Eve was, as the quote from Targum Yerushalmi has it, “a bright garment, shining like his nails” – so by looking at the light of the fire of the Havdallah candle reflected in our finger nails, we remember that first covering, now lost, of Adam HaRishon – and link it with the creation of fire at the first Havdallah after the first Shabbat.

It seems that Havdallah is intimately connected through the Midrashic understanding of the text to the moment of expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer a very old Midrashic commentary attributed to the teacher of Rabbi Akiva mentions:
• The blessing "Bore me'ore ha-esh" (Praised be the Creator of the fire) recited during the Havdalah (ch. xx.; comp. Pes 59a).
• Contemplation of the finger-nails during this blessing (ch. xx.).
• After the Havdalah, pouring of the wine upon the table, extinguishing the candle in it, dipping the hands in it, and rubbing the eyes (ch. xx.)

At twilight on Saturday (evening), Adam was meditating in his heart
and saying : Perhaps the serpent, which
deceived me, will come in the evening, and he will bruise
me in the heel. A pillar of fire was sent to him to give
illumination about him and to guard him from all evil."
Adam saw the pillar of fire and rejoiced in his heart, and
he put forth his hands to the light of the fire, and said :
Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe,
who creates the flames of fire.

The symbolic connection of Havdallah to the Midrashim about the Garden of Eden are brought out by the following halachot:

Rabbi Mana said : How must a man say the Habdalah blessing ?
(He does this) over the cup of wine,
with the light of fire, and he says : Blessed art Thou, O
Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the various
flames of fire ; and when he removes his hand from the fire
(flame) he says : Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who divides
the holy from the profane.

If he have no wine he puts forth his hands towards the
light of the lamp and looks at his nails, which are whiter
than his body, and he says : Blessed art Thou, O Lord our
God, King of the universe, who creates various flames of fire ;
and when he has removed his hands from the fire, he says :
“Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who divides the holy from the profane.”
If he be on a journey, he puts forth his hand - to the
light of the stars, which are also fire, and says : Blessed
art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates
the various flames of fire. If the heavens be darkened,*
he lifts up a stone outside, and says : Blessed art Thou,
O Lord our God, who creates the various flames of fire."

Chapter 14 of Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer

עשרה ירידות ירד הב"ה על הארץ ואלו הן אחת בגן עדן ואחת בדור הפלגה ואחת בסדום ואחת בסנה ואחת במצרים ואחת בסיני ואחת בנקרת הצור ושנים באהל מועד ואחת לעתיד לבא אחת בגן עדן מניין שנ' וישמעו את קול ה' אלהים מתהלך בגן וכתיב דודי ירד לגנו לערוגת הבושם ישב בדין ושפט בדין אמר לו מפני מה את ברחת מלפני אמר את קולך שמעתי בגן ואירא כי ערום אנכי ואחבא מה היה לבושו של אדם הראשון עור צפורן וענן כבוד המכסה עליו וכיון שאכל מפירות האילן נפשט עורו וצפורן מעליו ונסתלקה ענן כבוד מעליו וראה עצמו ערום שנ' ויאמר מי הגיד לך כי ערום אתה אמר אדם לפני הב"ה רבון כל העולמים כשהייתי לבדי לא חטאתי לך אלא שהאשה שהבאת אצלי היא הדיחה אותי מדרכיך שנ' האשה אשר נתת עמדי וכו' קרא הב"ה לאשה ואמ' לה לא דייך שחטאת את עצמך אלא שחטאת את אדם אמרה לפניו רבון כל העולמים הנחש הסיח דעתי לחטא לפניך שנ' הנחש השיאני ואוכל והביא שלשתן ונתן עליהם גזר דין מתשעה קללות ומות והפיל את סמאל ואת כת שלו ממקום קדושתן מן השמים וקצץ רגליו של נחש ופקד עליו להיות מפשיט את עורו ומצטער אחת לשבעה שנים בעצבון גדול ואררו שיהיה שואף במיעיו ומזונו נתהפך במיעיו לעפר ומרורת פתנים מות בפיהו תתן שנאה בינו לבין בני האשה שהיו רוצצין את ראשו ואחר ממנו המות ונתן לאשה מתשע קללות ומות ענוי לידה וענוי דם בתולים וענוי הריון וענוי גדול בנים ומכסה את ראשה כאבל ואינה מגלחת אותה כי אם בזנות ורצע את אזנה כעבד עולם וכשפחה משרתת בעלה ואינה נאמנת בעדות ואחר כל אלו מות והוציא דומיס לאדם מט' קללות ומות וקצר כחו וקצר קומתו טומאת הזב טומאת הקרי טומאת תשמיש המטה זורע חטים וקוצר קוצים ומאכלו בעשב הארץ כבהמה לחמו בדאבה מזונותיו בזיע ואחר כל אלו מות אם אדם חטא מה חטא ארץ שנאררה אלא על שלא הגיד את מעשיה לפיכך נאררה ובשעה שבני אדם חוטאין בעבירות הקלות הוא מכה פירותיה של ארץ בעבור בני אדם שנ' ארורה האדמה בעבורך:
מהדורה אחרת: פרק ארבעה עשר מהדורת ונציה 1544 עשר ירידות ירד הקב"ה על הארץ ואלו הן אחת בגן עדן. ואחת בדור הפלגה ואחת בסדום ואחת בסנה ואחת בסיני ושתים בנקרת הצור ושתים באהל מועד ואחת לעתיד לבא. אחת בגן עדן מנין שנ' וישמעו את קול יי' אלהים מתהלך בגן לרוח היום וכתוב אחד אומר דודי ירד לגנו. ישב לו בדין אמת שופט צדק ואמת קרא לאדם ואמר לו למה ברחת מפני אמר לפניו שמעך שמעתי ורעדו עצמותי שנ' את קולך שמעתי בגן ואירא כי ערום אנכי. מה היה לבושו של אדם הראשון עור של צפורן וענן כבוד מכוסה עליו כיון שאכל מפירות האילן נפשט עור צפורן מעליו וראה עצמו ערום ונסתלק ענן הכבוד מעליו שנאמר ויאמר מי הגיד לך כי ערום אתה המן העץ אשר צויתיך וגו' אמר אדם לפני הקב"ה רבון כל העולמי' כשהייתי לבדי שמא חטאתי לך אלא האשה שהבאת אצלי היא הדיחה אותי מדבריך שנ' האשה אשר נתת עמדי היא נתנה לי מן העץ ואוכל.
Chapter 20 of Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer
ויגרש את האדם גורש ויצא מגן עדן וישב לו בהר המוריה ששער גן עדן סמוך להר המוריה משם לקחו ולשם החזירו במקום שנלקח שנאמ' ויקח אלהים את האדם מאי זה מקום לקחו ממקום בית המקדש שנאמר לעבוד את האדמה אשר לוּקח משם. רבי יהודה אומ' הקב"ה שמר שבת ראשון ואדם שמר אותו תחילה בתחתונים והיה יום השבת משמרו מכל רע ומנחמו מכל סרעפי לבו שנאמר ברב סרעפי בקרבי תנחומיך וגו'. רבי יהושע בן קרחה אומר מן האילן שנחבאו שם תחתיו לקחו עלים ותפרו שנאמר ויתפרו עלי תאנה. רבי אליעזר אומ' מן העור שהפשיט הנחש עשה הקב"ה כתונת כבוד לאדם ולעזרו שנאמר ויעש יי' אלהים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבישם. בין השמשות של שבת היה אדם ויושב ומהרהר בלבו ואומר אוי לי שמא יבא הנחש שהטעה אותי בערב שבת וישופני עקב נשתלח לו עמוד של אש להאיר לו ולשמרו מכל רע. ראה אדם לעמוד של אש ושמח בלבו ואמר עכשיו אני יודע שהמקום עמי ופשט ידיו לאור האש וברך מאורי האש. וכשהרחיק ידיו מהאש אמר אדם עכשיו אני יודע שנבדל יום הק' מיום החול שאין לבער אש בשבת אמר ברוך המבדיל בין קודש לחול. רבי מנא אומר כיצד חייב אדם לברך על כוס של יין לאור האש ואומר ברוך מאורי האש, וכשמחזיר ידו מן האש אומר ברוך המבדיל בין קודש לחול ואם אין לו יין פושט את ידיו לאור האש ומסתכל בצפרניו שהן לבנות מן הגוף ואומר ברוך המבדיל בין קודש לחול.וכיון שמרחיק ידו מן האש אומר ברוך המבדיל בין קודש לחול ואם אין לו אש פושט ידו לאור הכוכבים שהן של אש ויסתכל בצפרניו שהן לבנות מן הגוף ואומר ברוך מאורי האש ואם נתקדרו השמים תולה אבן מן הארץ ומבדיל ואומר ברוך המבדיל בין קודש לחול. רבי אליעזר אומר לאחר ששותה אד' כוס של הבדלה מצו' להטיל מעט מים בכוס של הבדלה ושותה כדי לחבב את המצווה ומה שישמר מן בכוס מן המים מעבירו על גבי עיניו למה משום שאמרו חכמים שיורי מצוה מעכבין את הפורענות. רבי צדוק אומר כל מי שאינו מבדיל על היין במוצאי שבתות או אינו שומע מן המבדילי' אינו רואה סימן ברכה לעולם וכל מי שהוא שומע מן המבדילי' או מבדיל על היין, הקדוש ברוך הוא קונה אותו לסגולתו שנאמר ואבדיל אתכם מן העמי' והייתם לי סגולה. באחד בשבת נכנס אדם במי גיחון העליון עד שהגיעו מים עד צוארו ונתענה שבעה שבתות ימי' עד שנעשה גופו כמן כברה. אמר אדם לפני הקב"ה רבון כל העולמים העבר נא חטאתי מעלי וקבל את תשובתי וילמדו כל הדורות שיש תשובה ואתה מקבל תשובת השבים. מה עשה הקב"ה פשט יד ימינו והעביר את חטאתו מעליו וקבל את תשובתו שנאמ' חטאתי אודיעך ועוני לא כסיתי סלה מן העולם הזה וסלה מן העולם הבא. ישב ודרש בלבו ואם כי אמרתי מות תשיבני ובית מועד לכל חי אמר אדם עד שאני בעולם אבנה לי בית מלון לרבצי חוץ להר המוריה וחצב ובנה לו מלון לרבצו. אמר אדם מה הלוחות שהן עתידין להכתב באצבעו של הקדוש ברוך הוא ועתידין מימי הירדן לברוח מפניהם וגופי שנבל בשתי ידיו ורוח נשמת פיו נפח באפי ואחר מותי יקחו אותי ואת עצמותי ויעשו להם עבודה זרה אלא אעמיק אני ארוני למטה מן המערה ולפנים מן המערה לפיכך נקראת מערת המכפלה שהיא כפולה ושם הוא נתון אדם וחוה* אברהם ושרה* יצחק ורבקה* יעקב ולאה* ולפיכך נקראת קרית ארבע שנקברו בה ארבע זוגות ועליהם הכתוב אומר יבא שלום ינוחו על משכבותם הולך נכחו.

Finally what was the fruit that Adam and Eve ate from in the Garden of Eden?
Many answers are suggeste: Fig, Apple, Tomato, the Etrog.
But one Midrashic answer is that it was a Grape vine. Eve ate of the fruit and pressed the grapes and made wine and gave of it to Adam.
This might provide a reason why we use wine to make Havdallah – another link to the Garden of Eden. It also explains the folk superstition that women should not drink the Havdallah wine as it could be a reminder of Eve’s “sin” and therefore unlucky, with dire consequences threatened such as growing a beard or, worse, infertility. (This practice is not necessarily the halachah - there are Rabbis who say or suggest that women may or should drink Havdallah wine. And it makes no rational sense either, since if that were the case a Man should not drink it either! Nevertheless it is interesting to note the possible origin of the custom).


What do we conclude from all this?

1. Havdallah is connected to the explusion from the Garden of Eden
2. The wine is connected to the tree Adam and Eve ate from.
3. Placing a few drops of wine on the eyes (some have this custom still) is perhaps symbolic of the fruit of the tree opening their eyes (a hint that this “sin” is not seen entirely negatively)
4. The fire is connected to the act of kindness by God to Adam when it got dark after the first Shabbat and to a reassurance that God is still with us as we leave Shabbat and enter the week.
5. Holding up the finger nails to the candle reminds us of Adam and Eve’s first shining clothing in the Garden of Eden and of how God lovingly clothed them on leaving that tropical paradise.
6. It is also a reminder of the First primordial Light of creation, now put away for the World to Come
7. Holding up the finger nails is also a halachic necessity to only make a blessing when we have a demonstrable benefit.
8. And the spices? They were added to the ceremony later
But I think there may be more:

Our use of wine on Friday night at Kiddush may be a remembrance of the eating of the fruit of the tree (here taken to be the vine).

The idea that a man and his wife should be together on Fri night may also be associated with the recollection of the “sin” of the Garden of Eden, which in Jewish tradition may not be such “sin” at all.

The lighting of Shabbat candles (often attributed to the religious sectarian strife with the Karaites) may actually be a recollection of the Midrash describing the continuation of the primordial Light of creation through Friday night and then Shabbat.

Light is the particular “blessing” of Shabbat which in turn is associated with the Garden of Eden... and with the World to Come.


“Shabbat has ended, like the first Shabbat,
Flame newly kindled, flying up higher
Remember the kindness of the first clothing
Fingernails glint in the lights of the fire.”

Jonathan Samuel, after Eleanor Farjeon
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I came across the following in Midrash Rabbah Genesis ((4th to 5th century?) commentary on Genesis):

I. 15] MIDRASH RABBAH R. Johanan, reporting the Sages, said : As regards creation, heaven was first; as regards completion, earth was first. Said R. Tanhuma: I will state the grounds [of this opinion]: as regards creation heaven was first, as it is written, "IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE HEAVEN [AND THE EARTH]"; whereas in respect of completion earth took precedence, for it is written, "IN THE DAY THAT GOD MADE THE EARTH AND THE HEAVEN." R. Simeon observed: I am amazed that the fathers of the world engage in controversy over this matter, for surely both were created [simultaneously] like a pot and its lid, [as it is written], When I call unto them [sc. heaven and earth], they stand up together (Isaiah. XLVin, 13). R. Eleazar b. R. Simeon observed: If my father's view is right, why is the earth sometimes given precedence over the heaven, and sometimes heaven over earth? In fact it teaches that they are equal to each other. Everywhere Abraham is mentioned before Isaac, and Isaac before Jacob; yet in one place it says, "Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham" (Lev. xxvi,42): this teaches that the three are on a par. Everywhere Moses is mentioned before Aaron, yet in one place it says, "These are that Aaron and Moses" (Ex. VI,26): this teaches that they are on a par. Everywhere Joshua is mentioned before Caleb, yet in one place it says, "save Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, and Joshua the son of Nun" (Num. xxxn, iz): this teaches that they are on a par. Everywhere a father's honour is mentioned before the mother's honour, but in one place it says, "Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father" (Lev, XIX, 3) : this teaches that both are on a par. What can be the purpose of this neatly constructed Midrash?
Surely it's purpose is in the final paragraph ie to prove that a mother's honour is on a par with a father's honour.
On which basis I would submit that this is a very early (perhaps the earliest?) explicitly feminist Midrash.

But (to quote the cat in the hat)
"That is not all...oh no, that is not all".

Look at who is saying it.
Astonishingly the author appears to be Rabbi Shimon. Who is Rabbi Shimon wth no epithet?  Surely Rabbi 
Shimon bar Yochai.  The eponymous author of the Zohar who is connected by tradition with Lag Ba'Omer the 33rd day of the Omer.
In which case this is all the more remarkable, for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is that fiery character who was so uncompromisingly anti-Roman (and apparently misogynist - infamously saying "Women's minds are weak") that he had to hide in a cave for 13 years with his son.

Here is the story:
The Talmud reports how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai came to be set apart as an “enemy of the state” by the Roman governor.  

One day, Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together. Yehuda ben Geirim joined them.  Rabbi Yehuda said: “Look what fine projects this nation undertakes.  They built marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses.”  Rabbi Yossi remained silent and said nothing.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai replied: “They did everything for their own benefit. They set up the marketplaces for their own pleasure and good.  They built bathhouses to indulge in their own pleasure.  They built bridges so that they would be able to charge tolls for using them.”

Yehuda ben Geirim went and told his family what Rabbi Shimon had said.  Word spread from one person to another, and reached the ears of the governor, who declared: Rabbi Yehuda, who praised the Romans, will be promoted to chief spokesman everywhere.  Rabbi Yossi, who remained silent, will be exiled to Tzipori.  And Rabbi Shimon, who spoke against us, will be executed!”

When Rabbi Shimon learned of the governor’s intentions, he took his son Rabbi Elazar and hid in the study hall.  Each day, his wife brought them bread and water.

When the search for him intensified, Rabbi Shimon feared that his hiding place would be discovered. He told his son: “Women's minds are weak : I fear that the authorities will torture your mother, and she will reveal our hiding place!”

Rabbi Shimon and his son left the study hall and fled outside of the city.  They hid in a cave,  Heaven provided them with sustenance by creating a carob tree at the mouth of the cave, and a spring of fresh water.

While they were in the cave they removed their garments so that they would not wear out.  They covered themselves with sand up to their necks, out of modesty, and sat and studied Torah.  When it was time to recite their prayers, they donned their clothing again.

For twelve years, the two men, father and son, remained secluded in their cave, and no one knew of their whereabouts, except for Elijah the Prophet, who visited them twice a day and studied with them.  ...

For twelve years, Rabbi Shimon remained hidden. Finally, the Roman governor died, and his decree against Rabbi Shimon was annulled.  However, Rabbi Shimon himself was unaware of these developments. Eliljah the Prophet came to the mouth of the cave and said: “Who will inform the son of Yochai that the governor has died and his decrees are therefore annulled?”

Rabbi Shimon and his son heard these words and left the cave.

They came upon some men plowing the soil and planting seeds.  Rabbi Shimon was taken aback.  He asked: “How can people set aside eternal life and occupy themselves with earthly matters?  Every where the two glanced was immediately scorched.  A Heavenly voice said to them: “Have you come out of the cave in order to destroy My world?  Go back to your cave!”

They went back to the cave for another twelve months.  Then Rabbi Shimon declared: “We have been punished enough, for even the evil doers in Gehenna are not punished for more than twelve months.  A Heavenly voice said: “Go out of your cave!”

So they emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and  Thus.'; they issued: wherever R. Eleazar wounded,  R. Simeon healed. Said he to him, 'My son! You and I are sufficient for the world.'  On the eve of the Sabbath before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?' they asked him. 'They are in honour of the Sabbath,' he replied.  'But one should suffice you'? — One is for 'Remember-' and one for 'Observe.'  Said he to his son, 'See how precious are the commandments to Israel.' Then their minds were put at ease.

So the same Rabbi Shimon who before the 13 years in the cave declares of his wife "Women's minds are weak" seems to be arguing (after his 13 years of meditation and study, I trust) that
a mother and father "are on a par".

He seems to have mellowed somewhat.
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The Hebrew prayer:
 “Modeh ani lefanecha melech chai v’kayam”

can be translated:

“I give thanks before you, king who is alive and exists” 

“I give thanks before You

eternal and living King

who returns my soul within me

with mercy.

Great is Your faithfulness.”

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ |

מֶלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם |

שֶׁהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי |

בְּחֶמְלָה. |

רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ: |

Modeh ani lifanecha melech chai v’kayam shehechezarta bee nishmahti b’chemlah. Rabah emunatecha.

For the above text I acknowledge the excellent blog "Hardcore Mesorah" at

A woman says it using the feminine verb form “modah” thank (f.):

“Modah ani lefanecha melech chai v’kayam”

with the same meaning as above.(Though there is a halachic view that women should say it in the masculine as this is an established reading.)

 My wife when she is feeling like it modifies it further to :

“Modah ani lefanayich malka chaya v’kayamet”

i.e. I give thanks before you, queen who is alive and exists

 Some today are uncomfortable with the metaphor of God as a monarch, so “ruach” (spirit / wind / breath) is substituted ie -

“Modeh ani lefanecha ruach chai v’kayam” (said by a man)


“Modah ani lefanecha ruach chai v’kayam” (said by a woman)

ie “I give thanks before you, spirit who is alive and exists.”


“Ruach” is a classical Hebrew word for an aspect or name of God that occurs in the phrases “Ruach HaKodesh” (The holy Spirit), Ruach El (The spirit of God)  Ruach Elohim (The spirit of God) and Ruach YHVH (The Spirit of YHVH).

Personally, I do not have a problem with substituting the word “ruach” for “melech” or “malka”in the Modeh ani prayer (though I don’t really have a problem with the metaphor of God as King or Queen, I accept that others do).

 However I am not entirely comfortable with the wording people are using above, because “Ruach” is (almost always, but not quite always) a feminine word in Hebrew and so, I feel, the pronouns adjectives and verbs that relate to it should ideally agree and be in the feminine too.


For example in Genesis chapter 1 verse 2

“...Ruach Elohim merachephet al penei hamayim”

“...A wind of God hovered over the face of the waters”

Ruach (Spirit / wind) is feminine so the verb, merachefet (hovered), that follows it is in the feminine too.


So I prefer for the adapted “Modeh/Modah Ani” prayer to be in agreement with the feminine ie:

“Modeh ani lefanayich ruach chaya v’kayamet” (said by a man)


“Modah ani lefanayich ruach chaya v’kayamet” (said by a woman)


I give thanks before you (f.), spirit(f.) who is alive(f.) and exists(f.)

 The prayer then concludes “...shehechezart bi nishmati, b’chemla raba emunatayich”

“who has returned (f.) to me my soul, in pity, great is your (f.) faithfulness.”

My friends in the Jewish Renewal movement tell me that this is too complicated for the masses - so I suppose they can rely on the rare masculine form of Ruach also found in the Tenach. See the entry for Ruach in Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary
where Exodus 10:13 is cited as an example of the rare masculine form:
 יג  וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-מַטֵּהוּ, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיהוָה נִהַג רוּחַ-קָדִים בָּאָרֶץ, כָּל-הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וְכָל-הַלָּיְלָה; הַבֹּקֶר הָיָה--וְרוּחַ הַקָּדִים, נָשָׂא אֶת-הָאַרְבֶּה..

Another friend informs me that in Yiddish there was a strong tendency to simplify Hebrew words and assume that any word ending in a feminine-sounding Heh was feminine and any word ending in a consonant was masculine.  I think this is what Wikipedia is describing here:

Perhaps this explains why "Tallesim" are worn in Ashkenasi shuls whereas the more Hebraically correct Sephardim wear Tallitot?

"The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind... the answer is blowing in the wind"

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Are cats mentioned in the Bible?

There appears to be no mention of cats in the Hebrew Bible.  This is rather surprising as domestic cats were very widely kept in nearby  Egypt and even worshipped at some periods.  There is debate about whether the Babylonians had domestic cats from an early period - it is quite possible they did.  Certainly the Romans had domestic cats and from the Roman period they may have been introduced to Israel and if they were not already there, to Babylon.

Cats do get a brief single mention in some Christian bibles - they are mentioned once in the 6th chapter of the book of Baruch in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Bibles - a fragment of this book was found, written in Greek, in the caves at Qumran so it is at least 2,200 years old.  (The passage is also known misleadingly as the “Letter of Jeremiah”, being neither a letter nor by Jeremiah.)

 Talking disparagingly about graven images:  Bats, swallows, and birds of every kind perch on their bodies and heads, and so do cats.”

supra corpus eorum et supra caput volant noctuae et hirundines et aves etiam similiter et cattaeBaruch 6:21-22 (talking about idols)

 The Vulgate


This single mention seems to imply cats wandering around freely in either houses or temples at the location period it was written.  The book is generally dated to between 500 BCE and 100 BCE.  It is quite possible it was written in Babylon as it reads like a polemic targeted at Jews in the diaspora there are some references to Babylonian religion. 

Cats are mentioned fondly in the Talmud, which is written in Babylon somewhere around 500CE:   

“If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat.”

(Talmud Eruvin 100b)

Cats also get a good press in Islam which is written later still.

 It is really odd that they are not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, since cats were apparently widely domesticated (and worshipped) in neighbouring Egypt from very ancient times.

The Semitic languages have a common single word for dog but no common single word for cat.  This may suggest that cats were not generally present in Semitic countries. See for an interesting article on the etymology of the Hebrew / Aramaic word "chatul" (cat) and this article which is points to on the many Arabic words for cats 

One theory is that the worship of cats in ancient Egypt led them to be discouraged as domestic animals in ancient Israel – though I doubt if that would be sufficient to explain it.  Generally something being prohibited means it gets a mention or two!

So here it is:-
My speculative novel explanation of the absence of references to cats in the Hebrew Bible:
In a grain growing and storing culture like Egypt you need cats to keep down the mice, whereas in a (predominately) sheep farming culture like ancient Israel dogs were more useful to protect the livestock from Lions (and dogs can also keep down rodents to some extent).   So there may have been no domesticated cats in Israel in Biblical times, just dogs.

Similarly perhaps in ancient Wales, another sheep farming culture.   The Welsh the word for cat is from the Latin, where as the word for dog is pre-Roman - suggesting the Romans introduced domesticated cats to Wales (and probably to the whole of Britain).

Cat   =      cath
Dog   =     ci

Welsh: ciOld Irish  (dog, hound), from Proto-Celtic *kū from Proto-Indo-European *ḱwṓ (dog).

Dogs are mentioned 29 times in the Hebrew Bible.

Lions are mentioned more than 150 times and 6 different words are used.

Cats are mentioned 0 times.


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 The story of "Dura Europos" on the Euphrates  (circa 3rd Century 256 CE)

"The Pompeii of the desert":Dura Europas is a remarkable archaological site in Mesopotamia.
On the banks of the Euphrates it was a cosmopolitan Romanised city which fell to the Persians in 256 CE.

Best Preserved ancient Synagogue, Oldest Christian building and a Temple of Mithras

(also some interesting well preserved Roman Armour).

The defenders piled up mud ramparts to try to save teh city but the Persians took the town and the mud filled houses were preserved - including the earliest Christian Building ever found a "house-church", and the Synagogue which is the best preserved ancient synagogue in the world.  to the surprise of everyone the synagogue is covered in murals depicting stories from the Tenach (Bible).
The pictures provide a wonderful insight into Jewish dress in the approximate  time and place where the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmudic were living.  

 Some pictures here:

From most of the studies of writings of the period we have the impression that Jews covered their heads or at least wore head coverings much of the time.  

However contrary to this  in most of the pictures the men are wearing Roman garb and are bare headed (even Moses). None of the men (apart from the High Priest) seem to have their heads covered and tsitsit are only worn by Moshe Rabenu.  (In the Persian scenes from Daniel and the book of Esther men are in Persian style dress including head covering. Dura was a Roman garrison on the border of the Persian Empire so the people were familiar with Persian dress).

I am unsure how to reconcile this with accounts from the Talmud Bavli that Rabbis or married men wore a head covering called a Sudar in Hebrew or Sudra in Aramaic (the Sudarium was a Roman "sweat cloth" worn by Legionaries).  Maybe this only came in later. Maybe it was worn in some regions but not in others.

Another feature of the pictures in the Synagogue at Dura is the pose adopted for prayer - a formal pose where the hands are uplifted and apart in petition.  I speculate whether this could be the reason we say "al netilat yadayim" (who has commanded us concerning the raising of our hands) when we wash before worship (prayer or eating bread).  Just a thought. 

my_torah: (Default)
I was just wondering why we are fasting, so looked it up…

(Credit where credit is due: this blog post relies on and includes a copy of the blog post
"The Origin of Ta‘anit Esther" by Mitchell First)

First wikipedia:
"The Fast of Esther (Ta'anit Ester, Hebrew: תַּעֲנִית אֶסְתֵּר‎) is a Jewish fast from dawn until dusk on Purim eve, commemorating the three-day fast observed by the Jewish people in the story of Purim. It is a common misconception that this fast was accepted by the Jews for all future generations during the time of Esther, as it is stated in the Book of Esther: They had established for themselves and their descendants the matters of the fasts and their cry (Esther 9:31). This verse actually refers to the four fasts which relate to mourning for the Temple. Rather, the first mention of this fast is a Minhag that is referenced in the Gaonic period.[1] Recently, Mitchell First has written a detailed study of the origin of the fast and provided an explanation for its arising in the Gaonic period.[2]
The Fast is observed on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. (When the year has 2 Adar months, it is observed only in the 2nd Adar). If the date of the Fast of Esther falls on Shabbat (Saturday), the fast is instead observed on the preceding Thursday, as is the case in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. (Shulchan Aruch S.686 s.2)
As the Fast of Esther is not one of the four public fasts ordained by the Prophets, the laws concerning its observance are more lenient; pregnant women, nursing mothers, and those who are weak are not required to observe it. (Note: per the concept of Pikuach nefesh, in certain situations a weak, sick, or pregnant person is not required or even permitted to observe any Jewish fast day; a rabbi should be consulted to determine the law for one's specific situation.)
It is generally accepted in the rabbinic tradition that the original three-day "Fast of Esther" mentioned in chapter 4 of Book of Esther occurred on the 14th, 15th, and 16th days of Nisan, these being the eve and first two days of Passover. They fasted on Passover because Esther reasoned it would be better to fast on one Pesach lest they all be destroyed and thus never be able to observe the holiday in the future. The 13th of Adar was a fast day for the warriors while going out to battle, as it is believed to have been customary to fast during the battle in order to gain divine favour. Because fasting during Passover would be inappropriate in almost all circumstances, the "Fast of Esther" became attached to the eve of Purim, the 13th of Adar."
(End of extract from Wikipedia 13 Mar 2014)

From the Megillah Chapter 9 verses 1-2 we can see the reference to the 13th day of Adar is in regard to the day the Jews gathered themselves “to lay hand on such as sought their hurt”:
1 Now in the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king's commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them;
ב נִקְהֲלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּעָרֵיהֶם, בְּכָל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד, בִּמְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתָם; וְאִישׁ לֹא-עָמַד לִפְנֵיהֶם, כִּי-נָפַל פַּחְדָּם עַל-כָּל-הָעַמִּים. 2 the Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt; and no man could withstand them; for the fear of them was fallen upon all the peoples.
Also in Chapter 8:
10 And they wrote in the name of king Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, riding on swift steeds that were used in the king's service, bred of the stud;
יא אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל-עִיר-וָעִיר, לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל-נַפְשָׁם--לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם, טַף וְנָשִׁים; וּשְׁלָלָם, לָבוֹז. 11 that the king had granted the Jews that were in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them, their little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey,
יב בְּיוֹם אֶחָד, בְּכָל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר, הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר. 12 upon one day in all the provinces of king Ahasuerus, namely, upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar.
The 13th Adar is the date of Haman’s decree:
13 And letters were sent by posts into all the king's provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.

However Haman’s decree was written on 13th Nissan, following which Mordechai called a fast in Shushan. That could be a moment to hold a fast. But it would be inconvenient and out of sync with remembering Purim since it is just before Pesach and we also have the “Fast of the Firstborn” on the 14th of Nissan.

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar the day following the victory of the Jews over their enemies (or in walled cities like Jerusalem on the 15th since the fighting went on in Shushan for a further day).

In Chapter 9:17-18:

יז בְּיוֹם-שְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר, לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר; וְנוֹחַ, בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר בּוֹ, וְעָשֹׂה אֹתוֹ, יוֹם מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה. 17 on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.
יח והיהודיים (וְהַיְּהוּדִים) אֲשֶׁר-בְּשׁוּשָׁן, נִקְהֲלוּ בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ, וּבְאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר, בּוֹ; וְנוֹחַ, בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ, וְעָשֹׂה אֹתוֹ, יוֹם מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה. 18 But the Jews that were in Shushan assembled together on the thirteenth day thereof, and on the fourteenth thereof; and on the fifteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness.

So it seems to me Taanit Esther (previously called “Taanit Purim”) is the actual day when we recall the moment of tension and uncertainty, when the genocide of the Jewish people was threatened, and on which there was a dramatic reversal.

Then we celebrate (read the story, feast & drink, send food, give to the poor) on the following day, when it was all over and everyone could relax.

It also does “echo” the similar tension of Esther’s fast, (Rabbinically assumed to be on erev Pesach and the first two days of Pesach) before the decisive moment of her going before the King to seek an audience.



The above Wikipedia article mentions a study by Mitchell First looking into the history and origins of the fast and arguing it is a Babylonian innovation from the Geonic period. Here is a copy of the summary from his blog:

The Origin of Ta‘anit Esther
By Mitchell First
The origin of this fast has always been a mystery. A fast on the 13th of Adar is not mentioned in the Megillah. Nor is such a fast mentioned in Tannaitic or Amoraic literature.Megillat Ta‘anit, compiled in the first century C.E., includes the 13th of Adar as a day upon which Jews were prohibited from fasting.
A widespread view today is that the fast arose as a post-Talmudic custom intended to commemorate the three days of fasting initiated by Esther in Nissan. There are Rishonim who take this approach.[1] But Geonic Babylonia is where the fast first arose and this approach is not expressed in any of the sources from Geonic Babylonia. Moreover, the statements in these sources are inconsistent with this approach. I am going to suggest an approach to the origin of the fast that is consistent with the material in the Babylonian Geonic sources.
I. The Earliest Sources That Refer To A Practice Of Fasting On The 13th
The earliest sources that refer to a practice of fasting on the 13th are the following:
- One of the four she’iltot for Purim included in the She’iltot of R. Ahai Gaon, a work composed in 8th century Babylonia.
- An anonymous Babylonian Geonic responsum that made its way into Midrash Tanhuma(Bereshit, sec. 3). (The discussion in this responsum and in the She’iltot is very similar.)
- A responsum of R. Natronai, head of the academy at Sura from 857-865 C.E. This responsum refers to the fast as פורים תענית. [2]
- The Siddur of R. Se‘adyah (882-942).[3] Here, the fast is referred to as אלמגלה צום (=the fast of the Megillah).[4] The Siddur of R. Se‘adyah was composed in Babylonia.[5]
- An index to a collection of Babylonian Geonic responsa.[6] The compiler of the index recorded the first few words of each responsum. In our case, the compiler recorded: לנפול אנו רגילין באדר יוש יג[7] ובתענית. The responsum itself is no longer extant. The responsum itself is no longer extant.
- A responsum addressed to R. Hai (d. 1038).[8] This responsum inquires whether, in the case of a hakhnasat kallah that occurs on a fast day such as the 13th of Adar, the one who makes the blessing on the kos of berakhah is permitted to drink.
- An anonymous Babylonian Geonic responsum that includes the following statement:השני אדר של כי"ג מתענין נמי הראשון אדר של וי"ג.[9]
II. Analysis
According to Robert Brody, the four she’iltot for Purim were probably not in the original She’iltot when it left the hands of R. Ahai in the 8th century. They were authored in a later stage.[10] She’ilta #79, the one which refers to fasting on the 13th of Adar, is even more problematic than the other three. After the first few lines in Aramaic, the balance of this she’ilta is almost entirely in Hebrew, unlike the rest of the She’iltot.
Careful comparison of she’ilta #79 with the Geonic responsum that made its way into Midrash Tanhuma suggests that the Geonic responsum is the earlier source.[11] It is reasonable to work with the assumption that this responsum dates from the eighth or ninth centuries.
This responsum adopts a very unusual interpretation of the sections of the Mishnah at the beginning of Tractate Megillah. These sections permit villagers to fulfill their Megillah obligation on the 11th, 12th, or 13th of Adar, on yom ha-kenisah, under certain conditions. In the plain sense of these sections, yom ha-kenisah refers to Mondays and Thursdays, and the teaching is that the reading for the villagers is allowed to be advanced to these days when the villagers enter, or gather in, the cities.
But in the interpretation adopted by the Geonic responsum, yom ha-kenisah means the fast of the 13th of Adar (= the day on which the Jews gather to fast). The reading for the villagers is allowed to be advanced because the date of the observance of the fast day is being advanced due to a prohibition to fast on Shabbat and ‘erev Shabbat that is being read into the Mishnah. In this interpretation, the advanced fast day is a day upon which the reading for the villagers is allowed.
The Geonic responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma reads as follows:
They asked: It was taught that the Megillah may be read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th, but not earlier or later. R. Judah said that this rule is only in effect when the calendar is established by the testimony of witnesses and Israel dwells on its own land, but in our times…the Megillah can only be read on the proper date (=the 14th or 15th). Does the halakha follow the first opinion or does it follow R. Judah?
They responded: According to both R. Judah and the first opinion, the Megillah can only be read on the proper date. The following is what the first opinion meant. Towns that were surrounded by walls at the time of Joshua son of Nun read on the 15th. Villages and cities read on the 14th, but villages may advance their reading to yom ha-kenisah. When the Mishnah taught that the Megillah may be read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, etc., that applied to one who is engaged in fasting, as it was taught at the end of the Mishnah: “but villages may advance their reading to yom ha-kenisah.” What is yom ha-kenisah? The day of gathering, as it is stated (Meg. 2a): The thirteenth was a day of gathering for all (Heb: yom[12] kehillah la-kol hiy), as it is written (Est. 9:1-2): “in the 12th month, the month of Adar, on its thirteenth day… the Jews gathered themselves (Heb: nikhalu) in their cities.” They gathered themselves and decreed a fast on the 13th of Adar. But the 14th was a holiday, as it is written (Est. 9:17) “and they rested on its 14th and made it a day of feasting and gladness.” In Shushan ha-birah, they only rested on the 15th. Therefore, Shushan and all walled towns read on the 15th and make that a festive day. When the Mishnah taught that “the Megillah may be read (on the 11th, 12th, 13th …)” that concerned one who is engaged in fasting, because it is forbidden to engage in fasting on Shabbat. If the 14th falls on the first day of the week, it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat. It is also forbidden to fast on ‘erev Shabbat, because of the necessity of preparing for Shabbat. Rather, the fast is advanced to Thursday, which is the 11th of Adar. If the 14th falls on Shabbat, it is forbidden to fast on ‘erev Shabbat because of the necessity of preparing for Shabbat. The primary reason for a fast day is the recital of selihot and rahamim, and reciting these (instead of preparing for Shabbat) will detract from honouring the Shabbat. Honouring the Shabbat is more important than a thousand fasts, for honouring the Shabbat is a commandment from the Torah, while the fast is a rabbinic decree (Heb: ta‘anit de-rabbanan). The Torah commandment of honouring the Shabbat takes precedence over the fast, a rabbinic decree. Hence the fast is advanced to Thursday, the 12th. If the 14th falls on ‘erev Shabbat, the fast is observed on Thursday, which is the 13th. This is set forth in the Mishnah. How does this occur? If it falls on a Monday, villages and cities read that day and walled towns read the next day. If it falls on Shabbat or the first day of the week, villages advance the reading to yom ha-kenisah, etc. But when the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed until after Shabbat, since this fast was instituted as a punishment. Therefore, the fast is postponed and not advanced.
One of the cases discussed in the above responsum is the case of the 14th falling on Shabbat. Almost certainly, this was not something still occurring at the time this responsum was composed.[13] This suggests, as does a close reading of the responsum, that the responsum is not describing a practice of fasting on the 13th that was occurring in its time. It is only interpreting M. Megillah 1:1-2, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther, and a statement in the Talmud (Meg. 2a: yod-gimmel zeman kehillah la-kol hiy), and describing a practice of fasting on the 13th that theoretically occurred in ancient times, according to the interpretations it was offering.
The interpretation of yom ha-kenisah expressed in the Geonic responsum is far from its plain sense. If M. Megillah 1:1-2 was referring to the advancement of the reading to a fast day, the term we would expect it to use would be yom ha-ta‘anit. Moreover, M. Megillah 1:3 includes the following statement by R. Judah:
“When [may the reading be advanced]? In a place where they enter (makom she-nikhnasin) on Monday and Thursday.”
This strongly suggests that the term yom ha-kenisah at M. Megillah 1:1-2 refers to Mondays and Thursdays. Finally, an anonymous Talmudic discussion at Megillah 4a-b understands yom ha-kenisah as a reference to Mondays and Thursdays.[14]
The interpretations expressed of Est. 9:1-2 and of the Talmudic statement yod-gimmel zeman kehillah la-kol hiy are far from plain sense interpretations as well.
The critical question in determining the origin of the fast of the 13th of Adar is what motivated these unusual interpretations. Obviously, one possible motivation was an attempt to justify an existing practice to fast on the 13th. But I am going to suggest something entirely different that motivated these interpretations. Then we can understand the practice of fasting on the 13th as having originated as a consequence of the interpretations.
As I mentioned, the responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma was from Babylonian Geonim, and it is reasonable to work with the assumption that it dates from the eighth or ninth centuries. As documented in my article, a major issue of halakha in this period was the permissibility of fasting on Shabbat.[15]
The unusual interpretations can be explained under the assumption that the authors were responding to and opposing contemporary practices of fasting on Shabbat and ‘erev Shabbat. Interpreting yom ha-kenisah the way they did enabled them to cite M. Megillah 1:1-2 as a source which prohibited fasting on Shabbat and ‘erev Shabbat. In their interpretation, the reading for the villagers is allowed to be advanced because the date of the observance of the fast day is being advanced, due to a prohibition to fast on Shabbat and ‘erev Shabbat that they were reading into the Mishnah.
The practices that the authors of the unusual interpretations could have been responding to could have been: 1) the practice in Babylonia of fasting on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, 2) practices in Babylonia of fasting on Shabbat as a form of repentance or piety, or by those whose ideal Shabbat consisted of studying or praying all day, or by those who enjoyed fasting, or 3) practices of fasting on Shabbat in Palestine in the above contexts. It is also possible that the main motivation of the authors of the unusual interpretations was opposition to a practice of fasting on ‘erev Shabbat.
I suggest that the unusual interpretations expressed in the Geonic responsum arose as a result of one or more of these polemical motivations. This led M. Megillah 1:1-2 to be interpreted to imply a prohibition to fast on Shabbat and ‘erev Shabbat. A new “tradition” about an ancient fast on the 13th of Adar was the result.
One clue that the authors were responding to contemporary practices of fasting on Shabbat and ‘erev Shabbat is that the responsum includes a polemical line stressing the importance of honouring the Shabbat: “honouring the Shabbat is more important than a thousand fasts…”[16] The early 9th century polemical letter of Pirkoy ben Baboy uses almost the same language:
“One who delights in one Shabbat is greater than one who sacrifices a thousand sacrifices and (fasts) a thousand fasts.”[17]
The main weakness with my approach to the origin of the fast is the argument that it is not likely that a Mishnah would be polemically interpreted to such an extent that the interpretation would result in the observance of a new (assumed to be ancient) fast day. My response is that those who authored the interpretation did not foresee that a new fast day would come to be observed as a result of their interpretation.
That the fast of the 13th of Adar did not arise as commemoration of the three days of fasting initiated by Esther is seen from the name for the fast day in the earliest sources. The responsum of R. Natronai is the earliest source that refers to the fast by a name, and it refers to the fast as Ta‘anit Purim. Of the four sources in the Geonic period from Babylonia and its environs that refer to the fast by a name, most likely none of them calls it Ta‘anit Esther.[18]
When the Babylonian Geonic sources express or imply something about the origin of the fast, what is consistently expressed or implied is that the fast is a rabbinic obligation, and not merely a post-Talmudic custom. For example, the Geonic responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma refers to the fast as a de-rabbanan. Moreover, an anonymous Geonic responsum takes the position that, in a leap year, one fasts even on the 13th of the first Adar. Most likely, it takes this position because it views fasting on the 13th of Adar as an obligation, based on the interpretation of Est. chap. 9 expressed in the Geonic responsum included in Midrash Tanhuma. If it viewed the fast as a post-Talmudic custom meant to commemorate fasting that took place in Nissan, a fast on the 13th of the second Adar would almost certainly have been viewed as sufficient.
In my article, I documented four sources that refer to a Palestinian practice of fasting three days (on a Monday-Thursday-Monday cycle) in Adar. These sources are: Massekhet Soferim (chaps. 17 and 21), and three other sources that have come to light from the Genizah. The Palestinian practice almost certainly was a commemoration of the three days of fasting initiated by Esther in Nissan.[19]
That the Palestinian practice was understood as a commemoration of the three days of fasting initiated by Esther probably contributed to the name for the Babylonian fast of the 13th evolving into Ta‘anit Esther.[20]

This essay is a brief summary of my recent article that appeared in Mitchell First, “The Origin of Ta'anit Esther,” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010): 309-351, and is adapted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.
[1] An early example is probably Maimonides. An erroneous period and vav (the vav of ובי"ג) made their way into the standard printed text of his Hilkhot Ta‘aniyyot 5:5, after the sixth word. (The necessary corrections have already been made in the Frankel edition.) The corrected text reads:
המן בימי שהתענו לתענית זכר באדר בי"ג להתענות אלו בזמנים ישראל כל ונהגו
(Est. 9:31) שנאמר דברי הצומות וזעקתם...
Maimonides clearly states that the custom of fasting on the 13th is only of recent origin, and that it is a commemoration of a fast that took place in the time of Haman, i.e., in Nissan. Maimonides is forced to cite to Est. 9:31 because chapter 4 does not expressly state that the Jews of Shushan fasted in response to Esther’s request.
[2] Robert Brody, Teshuvot Rav Natronai Bar Hilai Ga’on, 303-04, responsum # 177.
[3] Siddur Rav Se‘adyah Ga’on, eds. Israel Davidson, Simhah Assaf, and Yissakhar Joel, 258 and 319-338.
[4] Ibid., 319.
[5] It was not composed in Palestine, where R. Se‘adyah lived earlier. Ibid., intro., 22-23.
[6] Louis Ginzberg, Geonica, vol. 2, 67-68.
[7] Ginzberg suggests that the correct reading is shel or yom.
[8] Shelomoh Wertheimer, Sefer Kohelet Shelomoh, 14.
[9] Louis Ginzberg, Ginzey Schechter, vol. 2, 136.
[10] Brody, Le-Toledot Nusah Ha-She’iltot, 186 n. 5, and The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture, 209 n. 29. Structurally, they are deficient asshe’iltot. Also, there is some variation in the manuscripts with regard to their location in the work. This suggests that they were later additions, attemped to be integrated into an already fixed work.
[11] It is organized and concise, and seems to reflect an attempt to record an official interpretation of M. Megillah 1:1-2. She’ilta #79, on the other hand, seems to be taking for granted an already established explanation of M. Megillah 1:1-2 that it is reiterating and commenting upon.
[12] Megillah 2a and she’ilta #79 have zeman instead of yom.
[13] When the 14th of Adar falls on Shabbat, the upcoming Yom Kippur would fall on Friday. Already in the time of R. Yose b. Bun (c. 300), the 14th of Adar was not being allowed to fall on Shabbat or Monday, so that Yom Kippur would not fall on Friday or Sunday. See Y. Megillah 1:2 (70b), EJ 5:49, and Yosef Tabory, Mo‘adey Yisra’eil Bi-Tekufat Ha-Mishnah Ve-Ha-Talmud, 28. See also Rosh Ha-Shanah 20a. She’ilta #79stated explicitly that the 14th of Adar no longer fell on Shabbat in its time.
[14] The severe difficulties with interpreting yom ha-kenisah as the 13th of Adar are noted by many authorities. Interestingly, there exists a manuscript of Megillah 2a (NY-Columbia X 893 T141) in which this interpretation (taken from the She’iltot) is included on the Talmudic page. The statement included is:
למכתב צריך ולא בעריהם נקהלו היהודים שנ׳ היא לכל קהילה זמן עשר שלשה אחא רב פיר׳
…לתענית ישראל בו שמתכנסין תענית יום דהוא
It is therefore incorrect to state that the fast of the 13th of Adar is nowhere mentioned in the Talmud!
[15] See my article, 335-339. Much of the relevant material is found at Ozar Ha-Ge’onim,Yom Tov, secs. 41-49.
[16] The material in the Geonic responsum and in she’ilta #79 is very similar. But the passage “honouring the Shabbat is more important than a thousand fasts” is found only in the Geonic responsum. The fact that the responsum does not illustrate seven scenarios, but only illustrates the scenarios of the 14th falling on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, also suggests that the main motivation for its interpretations was related toshabbat and ‘erev Shabbat.
[17] Ozar Ha-Ge’onim, Yom Tov, 20, sec. 41. This was a polemical letter written to the Jews of North Africa and Spain, instructing them that Palestinian customs should not be followed. Pirkoy, a Babylonian Jew, tells us that he was a disciple of someone named Rava who was a disciple of R. Yehudai. (R. Yehudai was head of the academy at Sura from approximately 757-761 C.E.) Pirkoy writes that many of the Palestinian customs originated as emergency measures during times of persecution, or were customs resulting from ignorance. It was only in Babylonia that accurate traditions were preserved. Among the Palestinian practices that Pirkoy criticizes was their practice of fasting onshabbat.
[18] The four are: R. Natronai, R. Se‘adyah, Al-Biruni, and the expanded version of Seder Parshiyyot Shel Yamim Tovim Ve-Haftarot Shelahen. R. Natronai refers to the fast asTa‘anit Purim. R. Se‘adyah refers to the fast as אלמגלה צום. Al-Biruni, a Moslem scholar of Persian origin (writing in 1000 CE), calls the day “the fasting of Alburi” (Purim). Seder Parshiyyot probably dates from the late ninth or early tenth century. It includes a shortened version of the responsum of R. Natronai that had referred to the fast. There are only three manuscripts of the expanded version of Seder Parshiyyot, none of which was actually copied in Geonic Babylonia. Two of the manuscripts read Ta‘anit Esther, while one reads Ta‘anit Purim. Since R. Natronai’s original responsum read Ta‘anit Purim, it seems likely that the manuscript of Seder Parshiyyot that reflects this reading has preserved the original reading and that the other reading originated with a copyist altering the name to fit the name for the fast prevailing in his locale.
Massekhet Soferim refers to sheloshet yemey zom Mordekhai ve-Esther. But the reference is to the Palestinian practice of fasting three days on a Monday-Thursday-Monday cycle. Massekhet Soferim was most likely composed in the 9th or 10th century, in a community under Palestinian influence, such as Italy or Byzantium. See Debra Reed Blank, “It’s Time to Take Another Look at at “Our Little Sister” Soferim: A Bibliographical Essay, JQR 90 (1999): 4 n. 10, and M. B. Lerner, “The External Tractates,” in The Literature of the Sages, ed. Shmuel Safrai, 399-400.
[19] This Palestinian practice may even have preceded the Babylonian practice of fasting on the 13th, although this cannot be proven.
[20] See my article, 333, n. 98. The fast of the 13th was already known in some areas asTa‘anit Esther by the 11th century. Ibid., 332-333.

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Some part-formed ideas about Miriam the sister of Moses

may mean “bitter sea” - connected with bitter water of Marah. Perhaps also a connection to the Sea that drowned the Egyptians.

At Mara:
Like the “Sotah” ritual, God is jealous of Israel who has been in Egypt (“consorting” perhaps, as it were with another man – not her husband). The bitter waters of Marah are made sweet (peace between husband and wife is achieved) by dissolving the “Etz” – Etz chayim = torah in the waters, Bene Yisrael drink and all is well again. This is a parallelism to the dissolving of a scroll with the Name of G-d written on it in water and the wife of the jealous husband has to drink it. “There he tested them”.

Healing comes out of it – Miryam connected with God healing as in Moses’ prayer “El na refah lah” – God is first seen as a healer here at Mara. “I am the Lord who heals you”.
Miryam is also associated with bringing husband and wife back together again (as with the Sotah ritual in which allows his name to be erased for the sake of reuniting Husband and Wife):

1st with her parents in Egypt (The Midrash has it that they had separated after the cruel decree of the Pharaoh and Miryam chided them – “Pharaoh only wanted to destroy the boys – you would destroy the girls as well!” upon which they got back together again and Moses was born.)

2nd in her criticism of Moshe because she saw he had separated from Tzipporah.
In Talmudic tradition the sudden disappearance of Hur from the narrative of Exodus is explained by the claim that Hur was killed when he tried to prevent the making of the Golden Calf.

Dvar acher (Another idea): Hur is the grandfather of Betzalel and the wife or son of Miryam (and father, or maybe son, of Caleb). The murder of Hur might also be a cause of bitterness for Miryam. (Think of connection to Naomi who says call me not Naomi but Mara, after losing her men folk). Rashi quoting Misrash identifies Puah, one of the midwives of the Hebrews who saves the boy children from Pharoah's evil decree, with Miryam. Puah means "Splendid". God rewards them with "Houses" understood by tradition to be Dynasties of Kings (for Miriam) and Priests (for Yocheved).
If so Miriam is ancestress of King David (also a creative singer/songwriter). Possibly Ephrata is a synonym for Miryam (Targum). Like Shirat haYam, David’s psalms often do not come across as “universalistic and left-wing” but more as a man with enemies who has faith in God to destroy them. Also this makes another link with Naomi.
The name Ephrata and the association of Ephrata the place with Bethlehem is also a connection to Naomi, Ruth and David.

“Miryam’s well“

There was, according to the Midrash, a well that was associated with Miriam, that wandered around everywhere the Children of Israel went in the Wilderness.

Then God bade him go with some elders to the rock on Horeb, and fetch water out of it. The elders were to accompany him there, that they might be convinced that he was not bringing water from a well, but smiting it from a rock. To accomplish this miracle, God bade him smite the rock with his rod, as the people labored under the impression that this rod could only bring destruction, for through its agency Moses had brought the ten plagues upon the Egyptians in Egypt, and at the Red Sea; now they were to see that it could work good also. Upon God's bidding, Moses told the people to choose from which rock they wished water to flow, and hardly had Moses touched with his sapphire rod the rock which they had chosen, when plenteous water flowed from it. The spot where this occurred, God called Massah, and Meribah, because Israel had there tried their God, saying, "If God is Lord over all, as over us; if He satisfies our needs, and will further show us that He knows our thoughts, then will we serve Him, but not otherwise."

The water that flowed for them on this spot served not only as a relief for their present need, but on this occasion there was revealed to them a well of water, which did not abandon them in all their forty years' wandering, but accompanied them on all their marches. God wrought this great miracle for the merits of the prophetess Miriam, wherefore also it was called"Miriam's Well." But his well dates back to the beginning of the world, for God created it on the second day of the creation, and at one time it was in the possession of Abraham. It was this same well that Abraham demanded back from Abimelech, king of the Philistines, after the king's servants had violently taken it away. But when Abimelech pretended not to know anything about it, saying, "I wot not who hath done this thing," Abraham said: "Thou and I will send sheep to the well, and he shall be declared the rightful owner of the well, for whose sheep the water will spout forth to water them. And," continued Abraham, "from that same well shall the seventh generation after me, the wanderers in the desert, draw their supply."

(from Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews)

Numbers Chapter 20 verses 21 – 22
In v.21 Miryam died
In v.22 there was no water...Moses again has to do the striking the rock thing (told to “speak to it”...)
I fancy that he was going through bereavement anger following the death of Miryam.
There is also a connection to Rachel (Ephrata is first mentioned in connection with the death of Rachel – hence the pilgrimage site of the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem.

The following is from a Chabad article:
The image of the young woman standing watch in the thicket of rushes at the edge of the Nile, the hope of redemption persevering against the bitterness of galut (exile) in her heart, evokes the image of another watching matriarch -- Rachel. As the prophet Jeremiah describes it, it is Rachel who, in her lonely grave on the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, weeps over her children's suffering in galut. It is she, more than the male patriarchs or leaders of Israel, who feels the depth of our pain; it is her intervention before G-d, after theirs has failed, which brings the redemption.
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Psalm 87 is a very hard Psalm to understand or translate.

I believe that Rashi has the key to its understanding when he points to a reference back to Isaiah 66 verses 20 to 21.

read against this background it may be better translated not as it is usually construed:
"A Song of the sons of Korach: He has set his foundation on the holy mountain"
but rather:
"A Song for the sons of Korach, based on the "Holy Mountain" passage (in Isaiah):".

It also has a rather nice chiasmic structure:

Yeshayahu – Isaiah 66: verse 20-21
. וְהֵבִיאוּ אֶת כָּל אֲחֵיכֶם מִכָּל הַגּוֹיִם מִנְחָה לַיהֹוָה בַּסּוּסִים וּבָרֶכֶב וּבַצַּבִּים וּבַפְּרָדִים וּבַכִּרְכָּרוֹת עַל הַר קָדְשִׁי יְרוּשָׁלִַם אָמַר יְהֹוָה כַּאֲשֶׁר יָבִיאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַמִּנְחָה בִּכְלִי טָהוֹר בֵּית יְהֹוָה:
. וְגַם מֵהֶם אֶקַּח לַכֹּהֲנִים לַלְוִיִּם אָמַר יְהֹוָה:

Tehillim – Psalm 87

לִבְנֵי קֹרַח מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר יְסוּדָתוֹ בְּהַרְרֵי קֹדֶשׁ:
אֹהֵב יְהֹוָה שַׁעֲרֵי צִיּוֹן מִכֹּל מִשְׁכְּנוֹת יַעֲקֹב:
נִכְבָּדוֹת מְדֻבָּר בָּךְ עִיר הָאֱלֹהִים
אַזְכִּיר | רַהַב וּבָבֶל לְיֹדְעָי הִנֵּה פְלֶשֶׁת וְצֹר עִם כּוּשׁ זֶה יֻלַּד שָׁם:
וּלְצִיּוֹן יֵאָמַר אִישׁ וְאִישׁ יֻלַּד בָּהּ וְהוּא יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עֶלְיוֹן:
יְהֹוָה יִסְפֹּר בִּכְתוֹב עַמִּים זֶה יֻלַּד שָׁם

וְשָׁרִים כְּחֹלְלִים כָּל מַעְיָנַי בָּךְ:

Here is my attempt at an English translation:
Isaiah 66: 20 – 21
“And they shall bring all your brethren out of all the nations as an offering unto the LORD, on horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and on mules, and on swift beasts, to My holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD,
just as the children of Israel bring their offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD.
And of them also, will I take for Priests and for Levites, says the LORD.”
Psalm 87
For the Bene-Korach (temple-singers), a song with musical accompaniment, it’s basis being “The holy mountains” (Jerusalem):
The Lord loves the gates of Zion, more (even) than all the dwelling-places of Jacob.
You are ascribed (great) honour: “The City of God”
I shall remind the Dragon (of Egypt) and Babylon, of them that know Me, – behold (also) Philistia and Tyre with Kush, (saying): “This one was born there”.
And of Zion it will be said: “This person, and this person, was born in her” and He will establish her (as) the highest.
The Lord will count them when He inscribes the (fate of the) Peoples,
(saying of each): “This one was born there”.
Singers and Musicians: “All my innermost (yearnings) are for you”.
my_torah: (Default)
The Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) and our portion this week which begins the book starts with :

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:
ב שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם--בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם. 2 'Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls;

So it is about numbers and counting (– Rashi says “God loves us, so he counts us often” ).

At this time of year some of us are fulfilling the Mitzvah of “Sefirat Ha-Omer” – the command to count the 49 days (or 7 weeks) between Pesach and Shavuot. It is a seemingly very boring mitzvah, hard to see as meaningful and exceedingly difficult to do without missing a day and messing up somewhere along the line. [Some people inject meaning by connecting each day/week to a Kabbalistic “Sephira” or sphere – hmm.. [Sphere though similar in sound is probably an unrelated Greek word - my OED suggested that it comes from a word meaning the sphere of the heavens. Leo pointed out that the Kabbalists (who may have got it from the Greeks) thought of there being a series of concentric spheres - the 7 heavens. But I suspect the idea and connection to the Omer came later.]
In itself, “counting” appears at first sight mechanical and rather meaningless. Stories on the other hand can be very meaningful to us.

So my starter question is: What is the connection between counting “Lispor” and telling a story: “Le Saper” since both have the same root letters סְפַּר (S P R)?

It is interesting that the same co-incidence of meaning occurs in English. The verb “to tell” meaning to tell a story has the older meaning “to tell” ie to count or tally. Then there is the English verb “to recount” which also means to tell a story and is connected with “to count” and “to account”. What is going on here?
(…and why are we specifically commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot?)

One answer is that in all story-telling there is a sequence: “I went to the shop and I bought: some cream cheese, a bottle of vanilla essence, a bag of sugar, a pint of sour cream, and a packet of graham’s crackers….” (You can see where I am going with this…it all leads to cheese cake, of course!  ). At Pesach we tell the story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt – and perhaps it is no co-incidence that this service is called a “Seder” (an order, a sequence) – indeed I speculate S P R (Saper) and S D R (Seder) may perhaps be connected.

One aspect of counting is also sequence – we align the items being counted to a meaningless ordered list of words “One, Two, Three…etc”. So there is a connection between counting and story-telling.

However there is another aspect to counting which is one-to-one correspondence. I imaging the first counting being done by shepherds as their flock passed through a gate into a paddock. They might have moved pebbles from one pile to another as a way of checking they still had the right number of sheep. [Indeed this most basic of counting methods is used to this day by Cricket umpires who move 6 stones from one pocket to the other as they count the balls bowled in an “over”]. Afterwards you can do things like arranging the pebbles into patterns – e.g. rows of ten, or of seven – or you can assign word rhymes to them like “one two three..” or “yan tyan tethera methera pimp…”. In England, perhaps, after every twenty our shepherd would probably “score” a mark on a stick – hence the old term “a score” for twenty.

The days and weeks between Pesach and Shavuot can be counted by a similar method. I move 49 pegs from one peg-board to another.

Counting people, in ancient Israel was a bit different – unlike with sheep you can ask everyone to be counted to bring a coin, a half-shekel. Then count or weight the result. And we are thus elevating the people at the same time.
There is a negative view in Jewish tradition of counting people (King David counted the people and a plague ensued) Perhaps this was because by counting them he was assessing his own power as king (maybe for military or tax purposes) and that showed a power-hungry attitude or a lack of trust in God – Or are we reducing human beings to “a number” as was done in the concentration camps – stripping them of their humanity and personhood? In traditional Jewish circles counting people is done indirectly and to count 10 for a Minyan one is meant to use a ten word Torah verse - The verse usually used is from Psalm 28 : "Hoshiah et amecha u'varech et nachalatecha ur'em venas'em ad ha'olam." "Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever." This is maybe better than using “meaningless” numbers or words – we are connecting ourselves to something Holy.

It is worth noticing that in the verse “Take ye the sum…” at the start of Bamidbar (above), the literal wording is “Lift up the heads of the Children of Israel” – Moses was commanded to elevate them as he counted them. I imagine him lifting each person’s head by the chin and looking into their eye and somehow (maybe with a well-chosen word or two) raising each of them to a higher purpose.

We are not merely to count each person, we are to make “each person count”.

Turning now to the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot, there is a similar idea that can be extracted, I think.
Counting the days has a second significance beyond the aspects of counting (sequencing and quantifying) seen so far. It connects the two festivals and it gives added significance to the start and end points of our counting. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writing from Efrat in Eretz Yisrael (inside the separation barrier but in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967) writes interestingly about this in “The Omer Count a purely agricultural festival” .
He says we make the important link of freedom (Pesach - liberation from Egypt) to responsibility (Shavuot - receiving the Torah)
But also that in ancient times this count linked and spanned the very start of the Harvest season (bringing an Omer of Barley at the start of the Barley Harvest) with the end of the harvest (end of the wheat harvest) – something Jewish people living and farming in the land of Israel are again conscious of. This means that it was a time when people in Israel were receiving Blessings in the form of Barley Wheat Oats Rye Spelt Dates, Olives, Grapes, Figs and Pomegranates (the produce for which the land of Israel was famous) – which on Shavuot they would then put in a basket and bring “to God” (to the temple in Jerusalem).

I imagine they would have been “working their socks off” (ok I know they didn’t wear socks!) over this period – so I think that the counting is saying to them/ to us…to count the days of our blessings – as well as thanking God for them. (ie to value them).

Also, as with people, to make every one of those days count:

“So, teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” - from Psalm 90
(appropriately described as – “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God”)
Shabbat shalom,


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