Category Archives: Sabbath

concealed weapons

“The entire Torah is for the sake of the ways of shalom” says the Talmud (Gittin 59b) so we should not be surprised that the Torah shows an aversion to weapons.

In Exodus 20: 22 it is written:

And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if you lift up your sword upon it, and profane it.

וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, לֹא-תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית

כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ.

Rashi comments: and profane it Thus you have learned that if you wield iron upon it, you have profaned it, for the altar was created to lengthen man’s days, and iron was created to shorten man’s days [because it is used to make swords]. It is improper that the “shortener” be wielded over the “lengthener” (Middoth 3:4). Moreover, the altar makes peace between Israel and their Father in heaven. Therefore, the cutter and destroyer shall not come upon it. The matter is a kal vachomer [an argument from a lenient law to a strict law] -if [concerning the] stones, which neither see, hear, nor speak, because [of the fact that] they make peace, the Torah said, “You shall not wield iron upon them” (Deut. 27:5), how much more [are we certain that] one who makes peace between husband and wife, between family and family, between man and his fellow, will have no troubles befall him! [from Mechilta]

תחללה: הא למדת, שאם הנפת עליה ברזל חללת, שהמזבח נברא להאריך ימיו של אדם, והברזל נברא לקצר ימיו של אדם, אין זה בדין, שיונף המקצר על המאריך. ועוד, שהמזבח מטיל שלום בין ישראל לאביהם שבשמים, לפיכך לא יבא עליו כורת ומחבל. והרי דברים קל וחומר ומה אבנים שאינם רואות ולא שומעות ולא מדברות על ידי שמטילות שלום אמרה תורה לא תניף עליהם ברזל, המטיל שלום בין איש לאשתו, בין משפחה למשפחה, בין אדם לחבירו, על אחת כמה וכמה שלא תבואהו פורענות

The altar was to be made of natural “found” stones.

In a variation on this theme, all of the stone that was hewn many years later to build King Solomon’s Temple were to be cut off-site:

For the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready at the quarry; and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building. (1 Kings 6:7)

וְהַבַּיִת, בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ–אֶבֶן-שְׁלֵמָה מַסָּע, נִבְנָה;

וּמַקָּבוֹת וְהַגַּרְזֶן כָּל-כְּלִי בַרְזֶל, לֹא-נִשְׁמַע בַּבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ.

This variation against cutting stones at the Temple-site introduces a new element to the aversion with weapons.  Not only do weapons shorten, cut and destroy… they also make noise.   In striking contrast to the noise of violence, the alter and the Temple conveyed the peace and quiet of Shalom.

It is an powerful visual to think of a building being built in silence. As a poet in the 19th Century wrote:

“No workman’s steel, no ponderous axes rung;
Like some tall palm, the noiseless fabric sprung.”

In still one more variation on the theme of concealing the weapon is the notion and inherent value of  irregularity and serendipity.    The Altar after all was made of found objects.  Peace comes  when we live and let live…  when we grow to accept that which we cannot control with our tools and weapons… when we accept, nay embrace that which is alien to us.

The fact that all of the stones for the Temple had to be shaped off-site, meant that either the builders were great craftsmen, or once in a while they goofed.  According to the Midrash[i], the whole Temple was complete except one opening at the top, over the holy of holies.  The opening was irregular (pick your synonym, different, quer, strange, etc) and none of the pre-cut stones would fit.  Finally, one of the builders recalled a stone that had been rejected during construction and discarded, which was retrieved and became the cornerstone of the Holy Temple…

The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief corner-stone. (Pslams 118: 22)

אֶבֶן, מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים–    הָיְתָה, לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה

The Temple and its altar are long gone (they should rest in peace…) but according to Jewish tradition, the home has become our Temple and the dinner table, especially the Shabbat dinner table has become our alter (see Ethics of our Fathers 3:3).  The challah bread have become the Temple Showbread.

It is the home and the Shabbat table which now brings peace between Man and Woman, humanity and God and so it is at the Shabbat table, in the cutting of the Challah that the Torah’s aversion to weapons survives.[ii]

Some Jews have the custom of not using a knife at all, and tear the challah[iii].  Some have the custom of concealing the challah knife under the challah cover.  At a certain point in time, innovative craftsmen came up with the idea of creating a special cutting board just for challah which contained a sheaf into which the knife could be inserted and concealed when not in use… Many challah boards today have a channel cut into their side to hold (conceal) the challah knife.

My favorite solution came from what i imagine was an enterprising knife-smith who adapted and modified the pocket knife (also known as a jackknife[iv]) and created a Holy Shabbos pocket knife where the offensive blade could be concealed when not in use.

Shabbat Jack Knife

Pictured, is a rare folding Shabbat Challah knife, set with ivory or bone, and inscribed in Hebrew with the words “Holy Sabbath” Length 14cm. [v]

I have a collection of these knives which started when my Grandmother (Henrietta Stern) gave me hers and I hope to collect enough so that I can distribute to my children in grandchildren one day..

Whatever custom you follow (or choose to adapt) cut your Challah well….  There are ancient lessons to be learnt.  Lessons about the overwhelming importance of peace, the sounds of silence, the miracle of serendipity and the need  to honor things and people that don’t appear to fit in.

Shabbat Shalom!

[i] I need the original Jewish source for this… I have only found it quoted by Christian sources (See for example Acts

By H. A. Ironside page 58.

“The story goes that when the temple of Solomon was in the course of contruction all the stones sent up from the quarry below were practically of the same size and shape.  But one day a stone was found different from all the rest, and the builders said, “There is no place for this stone.  There must be a mistake.” So they rolled it to the edge of the cliff and tumbled it down into the valley of Kedron below the temple area.  As the years went on (Solomon’s temple was seven years in building), they were finally ready for the chief cornerstone, so they sent down the order for it.  They were told, “You must have it there.  We sent it long ago.” Their search proved fruitless.  And then an old workman said, “I remember now.  There was a stone different from the rest.  We thought there was no place for it and tumbled it down to the valley below.”  So as the story tells us, they went down the valley of kedron and there they found the stone, now covered by lichens and debris – the very stone the builders rejected.  So now they had to hoist it to the top of the cliff, then back to the platform and put it into place.  It fitted perfectly. The stone the builders rejected had become the head stone of the corner.

[ii] It should be noted that there is a morbid custom to remove all knives from the table prior to saying the Grace after meals.. (see The Book of Customs,  By Scott-Martin Kosofsky page 21)

“After finishing the meal, one should put away the knives from the table.  The reason for this custom is that there was once a man who recited the Grace after meals with great devotion, and when saying the section Uvenei Yerushalayim, he remembered the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, grabbed the knife on the table, and stabbed himself in the heart.”

[iii] Some say this is because the avoidance of using a knife is symbolic of the Biblical story of Abraham who in the end did not sacrifice his son Isaac with a knife when tested by God…. But I prefer the connection with the knifeless alter.

[iv] According to the Norwalk Hour May 31, 1961, the name jackknife comes from the shape of the “J” and describes a pocket knife when it is in the partially opened position… “Jack” is also used to describe things that are smaller than the norm which the pocket knife certainly is.

[v] You can buy it at Ivantiques, a very reputable Judaica store in Jerusalem down the street from the King David Hotel (21 King David St.) where I have purchased a few knives as well as Bezalel Judaica.  According to Ivan Halperin the proprietor and Judaica expert, the knife is a souvenir that was sold to Jewish guests in Karlsbad around the 1920’s -30’s, the folding feature made it easy to carry around. … Granted that it’s called a pocket knife, but does Ivan really think that observant Jews would design a knife to carry on the Shabbat?  I think not.  I stick with my concealed weapon theory… for more images of these folding challah knifes look here.

Shabbat Jack Knife - open


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah

animated gratitude

parshat va’era

The first three of the ten plagues were performed by Aaron and not by Moses to show Moses’ gratitude (hakarat hatov הקרת הטוב  ) to the water; which saved him as an infant in a basket and to the soil; previously used to dispose of the Egyptian slave-master Moses slew.

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their canals, over their ponds, and over all their bodies of water, and they will become blood, and there will be blood throughout the entire land of Egypt, even in wood and in stone.’  (Exodus 7: 19)

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם

עַל נַהֲרֹתָם עַל יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם

וְיִהְיוּ דָם וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים:

Rashi: Say to Aaron: Since the Nile protected Moses when he was cast into it, it therefore was not smitten by him, neither with blood nor with frogs, but was smitten by Aaron.  [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14]

אמר אל אהרן

לפי שהגין היאור על משה כשנשלך לתוכו, לפיכך לא לקה על ידו לא בדם ולא בצפרדעים, ולקה על ידי אהרן

See also Rashi to Exodus 8: 12

Say to Aaron It was inappropriate for the dust to be smitten through Moses since it had protected him when he slew the Egyptian and had hidden him in the sand. [Therefore,] it was smitten through Aaron [instead].  [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14, Exod. Rabbah 10:7]

אמר אל אהרן

לא היה העפר כדאי ללקות על ידי משה לפי שהגין עליו כשהרג את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול ולקה על ידי אהרן

While gratitude is certainly a wonderful thing, showing gratitude to inanimate objects such as water and soil smacks of animism.  Was not Abraham’s great achievement that he rejected the worship of the stars and of wood and stone (See Maimonides Laws of Worshiping the Stars Chapter 1) and recognized a singular higher authority?

It’s infantile to “make nice” to an object which is helpful and hit a “bad” table after we stub our toe on it.  If idolatry is ultimately misplaced faith, then showing gratitude to a clump of soil is misplaced affection if not outright idolatry. Since it was God who dictated that Moses not show a lack of gratitude, Moses can certainly be forgiven (as he was not forgiven many years later when he hit a rock without such a commend), but why sanction animism in the first place?

I am reminded of the wonderful story attributed to the founder of the Musar Movement, Rabbi. Yisrael Salanter who was invited to the home of a wealthy Jew for the Sabbath meal.  When the man of the house was about to recite the Kiddush, he realized that the two Challah loaves had not been properly covered.  In front of Salanter and the gathered guests, he shouted to his wife that she had neglected to cover the challah.  After an embarrassed wife rectified the travesty, Salanter asked his host if he knew why it was customary to cover the loaves. The host replied, “Sure… every heder (kindergarten) child knows that you cover the challah so as not to embarrass it, since on weekdays bread is blessed at the start of every meal and on the Sabbath it takes second billing to the Kiddush wine”.  Salanter replied “You fool, you should only listen to your own words.  You have embarrassed your wife so as not to embarrass an inanimate loaf of bread.  I’m sorry but the food in your house is not kosher.” And he left.

Moses’ show of respect for the water and soil and Salanter’s understanding of the true meaning of kosher certification are good bookends for 3,000 years of Jewish ritual observance. .. maybe, taking a license from Hillel we can suggest that the rest is commentary.

We need to acknowledge that every ritual act proscribed or prescribed in the Hebrew Bible is in a sense the assignation of holiness or taboo to an act that is human.. not divine.  There are numerous examples of inanimate objects which in the Bible and by the command of God are invested with spiritual power; positive or negative (Kadosh, Tahor, Tamei) otherwise known as a system of Totem or Taboo… one could argue that all of ritual is nothing more than vesting an action or an object with misplaced holiness or profanity.

But if we follow the trail from the first three plagues to Salanter’s redefinition of kashrut, the message is clear and consistent.  In the service of a higher good, the God of the Hebrew Bible can tolerate, condone or even prescribe activities that may include elements of misplaced-faith and animism similar to those found in idol worship.  It’s called “talking in the language of man”. דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם  (Sifre, Num. 112).  It may be that we are actually invited to ignore all the layers of theology, legalism and learning and react at a primal level when it comes to gratitude and respect for the dignity of our fellow man or woman.

What the Hebrew Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, has zero tolerance for is indifference to the suffering of others and hard heartedness. In the service of teaching Gratitude – recognition of the good that we receive, the Bible may turn a blind eye to the most primal and primitive rituals or superstitions.

The only act which is totally taboo… not-Kosher, is a ritual… an act in the name of God which shows a lack of gratitude (כפר בטוב  kofer baTov  literally: “denier of what is good” where kofer has the sense of a heretical denial cf arab kāfir  non-believer) or sensitivity to the suffering of another.

When, in Genesis (3: 12) after eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam answers God “The woman whom You gave [to be] with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate.” Rashi comments:

“Here he [Adam] showed his ingratitude.  [from Avodah Zarah 5b]” כאן כפר בטובה

In the haggadah the wicked son asks “what does this meant to you” saying “you” in such a way that it is clear he lacks all sensitivity to the suffering of his people and has no gratitude for what was done to save them.  This son is tagged as a kofer be’ikar;  a denier of the basic principle of our faith.

The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer [Chapter 7] writes, “There is nothing harder for the Almighty to live with (as it were) than an ungrateful person.”  And brings the example of Adam’s lack of gratitude for the gift of Eve.

The Midrash continues that our ancestors in the Wilderness also angered God with their failure to recognize His Goodness towards them. They bemoaned the loss of the “good old days” in Egypt when they had melons, cucumbers, and garlic, and complained about the Manna bread.

The Midrash equates the sin of ingratitude with fundamental theological denial (kefira b’Ikar) of the Almighty. One who is ungrateful towards his fellow man is ultimately ungrateful towards the Almighty as well. (quoted by Yissocher Frand)

In the service of denying the suffering of others or of ingratitude, there is no ritual, theology, ideology or lip-service to piety that the Almighty will tolerate.

Thank God for that…



Filed under Bible, Judaism, magic, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah

gratuitous miracles

Parshat Shemot

Not until Book II of the Five Books of Moses do we have an incidence of a gratuitous miracle.

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3: 2)

Exodus 3-2

Gratuitous miracles like gratuitous sex or gratuitous violence are unnecessary…  they don’t add  anything to the plot but instead are just thrown in as a ‘freebie.’  Deep into the Hebrew Bible, we realize that all miracles that preceded the burning bush were either functional or medicinal (or should I say; punitive).  Sure, the creation of the world was miraculous, but like the Big Bang, necessary.  Certainly, people are not turned into pillars of salt, but Lot’s wife had been forewarned and like Pharaoh who suffered the ten plagues…  she had it coming.

The Hebrew Bible, especially the first five books are for a religious text, miraculously miracle-adverse.

The Rabbis were so uncomfortable with the miraculous that they attempted to neuter any super-natural biblical event by claiming that all so-called miracles were actually pre-ordained and thus written into the code that God wrote when He create the world:

Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam’s] well; the mouth of [Balaam’s] ass; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses’] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs. (Mishna Perkai Avot 4: 8)

10 miracles-avot

Since so much of what is commonly valued in religion and the world of the spirit is the miraculous, it is worth stopping to consider this ambivalence, if not downright adversity to the supernatural .

If it is claimed that the Eskimos have a multitude of words for snow, let us consider the Biblical Hebrew words for “miracle”.

The first word for miracle that we encounter is nes
see Numbers 26: 10

10 and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died; what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign.

, has less of a sense of miracle and more of a sense of a sign or a lesson.  In fact the word nes is closely related to a test nisayon
nes test
When God tested Abraham at the Binding of Isaac, the word used is nisayon.
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ (Genesis 22: 1)

The truth is that the Rabbis intermingled the word nes miracle, with nisayon test:

With ten tests our father Abraham was tested …
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt…
With ten tests our forefathers tested God in the desert…
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in the Holy Temple (Mishna Avot 5: 3-5)


It turns out that nes and the biblical connotation of miracle that it contains is less a magical break with the laws of nature as much as it is a sign.  As the Ramban (Nahmanides) writes in his commentary to the Binding of Isaac, it is for the one being tested an experience which brings “forth the matter from potential into actuality so that he may be rewarded for a good deed, not for a good thought alone.” A nes is an act which is an outward sign, first to the protagonist himself and secondly to the observer or the reader, that a challenge has been overcome and a higher level of existence achieved. “These aren’t just miracles for their own sake – they are trying to show something, to act as a sign.” [1]

Another word commonly taken as a miracle is ot

This word ot is used on a daily and weekly basis in reference to tefillin which should be “a sign for you upon your hand” (Exodus 13:9) and the Shabbat which you shall keep “for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31: 13).

Again, the connotation of miracle is subsumed under the larger meaning of a sign of a covenantal relationship.

Finally, the word mofet


which appears for the first time in Exodus 4: 21
21 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand; but I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.

Unlike nes and ot, mofet is never used as a symbolic sign.  In the Bible mofet is inextricably connected to the shock and awe perpetrated upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  On the receiving end, mofet falls into the non- gratuitous miracle category of a functional and bitterly medicinal miracle. But to the beneficiaries of the ten plagues there is nonetheless a message:

And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever; (Deuteronomy 28: 46)
ot umofes
The root of mofet is unclear.  It has been suggested that its eytomology is from yafe

beauty…  “and that it properly means a beautiful or splendid deed”, albeit a bitter-sweet beauty given the suffering of the recipient (e.g. drowning Egyptians).

Returning to our burning bush, we are struck by the lack of a caption.  No mention of a nes, of an ot or even a mofet.  Is this not-consumed burning bush the first and possibly only instance of a gratuitous miracle or are we missing the point?  Was this Moses, the reluctant (and ultimately recalcitrant[2]) miracle-worker of the Exodus in need of a gratuitous miracle? Why not take another track? After all, there’s no mention of a miracle, maybe, for someone less than a Moses, there was no miracle?  Maybe it was all in the eye of the beholder.  Maybe we are seeing this lonely bush through the eyes of one who at the height of his powers saw God in all His glory (Exodus 33: 18).  Maybe in that moment, when time stopped it was that the bush was not consumed and Moses achieved what we all strive to achieve… a moment of wonder.

The narrative continues:

13 And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? what shall I say unto them?’
14 And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’

i will be

Everett Fox in his amazing translation and commentary on the Torah records that according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig God’s answer to Moses “ehyeh asher ehyeh” means “I will be there with you” in the present….  They interpret hayot as signifying presence, “being there” and hence see God’s words as a real answer to the Israelites’ imagined question – an assurance of his presence. .. and may we suggest, also an answer to our question of wherein lied the miracle… in the beauty of the moment.

Fox continues: “It is, however, also possible that ehyeh asher ehyeh is a deliberately vague phrase, whose purpose is antimagical and an attempt to evade the question (Rosenzweig speaks of this as well), as if to suggest that possession of the true name cannot be used to coerce this God.  In this interpretation, it would follow that, just as God is magicless, he is nameless, at least in the conventional sense of religion. (The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox page 270)

With that said…. Let the miracles, gratuitous and otherwise…. begin.

[2] Moses fatal flaw – he refused to do a miracle Numbers 20: 11


Filed under Bible, Judaism, magic, miracle, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

a blessing on your heads

parshat vayechi

The Jews have a rich liturgy, but most of the prayers are innovations of the Rabbis from the first century and forward.  The standard formula for a blessing beginning with “Blessed art thou oh Lord our God” is certainly not found in the Hebrew bible.  The Psalms found throughout the prayer book are technically not prayers but “verses of song”.  The Kiddush on Friday nights which begins with a recitation of the biblical account of the sanctification of the seventh day after six days of creation bears witness to this event and is not technically a prayer although it is followed by one.  Even the Sh’ma Yisrael is not actually a prayer, although it’s recitation is prescribed twice a day. Deuteronomy 6: 6-7

Similarly the recitation of the First Fruits where the Bible (Deuteronomy 26: 3,5) actually provides the liturgical text is less of a prayer and more of a testimonial.

There are only two liturgical texts in the Hebrew Bible which have been preserved in the prayer book; the priestly blessing and the blessing that Jacob gave his two grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh.

The one has all the grandeur we would expect from a biblical blessing:

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. (Numbers 6:24–26)

The other seems to have been written by Leonard Cohen’s “little Jew who wrote the Bible”:

“God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh”

The one blessing is said only by the Priestly caste, once in the Temple and now; daily in Israel or on holidays in the decrepit diaspora.  The other blessing, by parents of every caste, in every traditional Jewish home and every Friday night.

Here’s the context of this pithy little parental prayer:

1 And it came to pass after these things that one said to Joseph: ‘Behold, thy father is sick.’ And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 5 And now thy two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them. 13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near unto him. 14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly (literally; with sechel – common sense); for Manasseh was the first-born. 15 And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who hath been my shepherd all my life long unto this day, 16 the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’ 17 And when Joseph saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it was evil in his eyes, and he held up his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head unto Manasseh’s head. 18 And Joseph said unto his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.’ 19 And his father refused, and said: ‘I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.’ 20 And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.‘ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh. (Genesis 48: 1 -20)








The truth is that the blessing: “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” is a culmination of all the blessings of the Book of Genesis, a book which could just as easily be called the Book of Choosing. God chose Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and now two children, born in a strange land.  Two nondescript kids who are never mentioned again, didn’t amount to anything of note and who could be typecast as either the simple son or son who doesn’t know how to ask, of the Haggadah.

Ephraim and Manasseh, in that order, are the culmination of the patriarchal narrative because, their choice, in that order, gives finality to the rejection, not of the birthright, but of a sense of entitlement.  This rejection is the essence of Genesis.  Rather than select the blessing of Abraham who is blessed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and whose seed shall possess the gate of his enemies (Genesis 22; 17), Jews who shall wander as strangers in strange lands will take Ephraim and Manasseh as their model… Little Big Men.

In a narrative full of sibling rivalry, more than Oedipal complexities, two brothers finally, both receive a blessing, together. In a narrative where the chosen son is given preference, here the chosen son; Joseph, is ignored… it’s not about you, it’s about the future, the generations to come, the unknown and that which lies beyond our control… your grandchildren.

I’m reminded of a comment by the Rabbi of my youth; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who said something to the effect that, Hitler declared you a Jew if you had a Jewish grandparent, so who is a Jew? He who has a Jewish grandchild.

So let’s bless our children every Sabbath eve for the children we pray they will have.  Let’s bless them not because we hope that they will be stars or because they will become masters of anything, let alone the universe, but because they will remain true to themselves and what is best of their patrimony.  Let us bless them not because they will walk with a sense of entitlement but because they will walk as strangers in a strange and mysterious world full of awe and wonder. Let us bless them not as priests, but as Jacob and other little, simple Jews who wrote the Bible, with sechel.

And as anyone who has attempted to raise kids, let alone grandkids… especially in this crazy world we live in… let us pray for mazel and hope along with Jacob, that there are angels above who will protect them and us, from all evil!


Filed under Bible, Chosen People, divine birth, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

of noah’s ark, cathedrals in time and jewish ships – parshat noach

Shabbat is a “cathedral in time” suggested AJ Heschel by which he meant that Judaism emphasizes the sanctity of time over space.  In making a distinction between the Sabbath and the cathedral, the iconic edifice of institutional religion Heschel was following a time-honored Jewish tradition.

The Torah follows the laws regarding the building of the Tent of Meeting (Mishkan) with an admonition to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 31: 12-17) from which the rabbis learnt that any of the 39 tasks used to build the Mishkan, were forbidden as work (melacha) on the Shabbat. The lesson is clear: The Mishkan and later the Temple were built as an accommodation to our need for edifice and to accessorize… or as Mel Brooks would say: merchandising.  The Sabbath – a sanctuary in time – with its aspiration to sanctify time, activity and state of mind supersedes any temporal temple.

The Mishkan was not the first biblical construction commanded by God. Moses & Bezalel were not the first master builders.  Biblical scholars have noted the parallels of the divine architectural specifications to build the Mishkan to similar specs provided to Noah to build an ark.

See: R. Jonathan Sacks: The Architecture of Holiness and a Mormon scholar who recently wrote an extended article on the subject: The Ark and the Tent: Temple Symbolism in the Story of Noah [especially notes 134-]

If Noah’s ark is the first biblical temple then as such it represents our tradition’s first clear compromise and recalibration to the shortcomings of humanity and our need for building campaigns, clergy, chapel and sacrifices to the Gods (see previous blog post honor thy sources and Genesis 8:20 ; the first biblical sacrifice burnt by Noah).  Noah was the first religious leader who had to quantify the message … (see: Bill Cosby’s “What’s a Cubic”)

But if Noah’s Ark was the first cathedral, where is the offsetting “Cathedral in time”?  Where is Shabbat and it alternative and aspirational message of the sanctity of time over thing?

Here at the emergence of organized religion where one man; Noah, was chosen from amongst others to lead, where sacrifices were brought and institutional religion and government, with corrupt (or at least, drunk) leaders were born… Where was the reminder that these were all accommodations, that the real ideal, the real prize … was the Shabbat?

Fortunately, there are those like me, who have Shabbat on the mind and who read the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 8) and found Shabbat:

ח  וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מֵאִתּוֹ–לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.

8 And he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground.

ט  וְלֹא-מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף-רַגְלָהּ, וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה–כִּי-מַיִם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה.

9 But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her in unto him into the ark.

י  וַיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מִן-הַתֵּבָה.

10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark.

יא  וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב, וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה-זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ; וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ, כִּי-קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.

11 And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

יב  וַיִּיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיְשַׁלַּח, אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, וְלֹא-יָסְפָה שׁוּב-אֵלָיו, עוֹד.

12 And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; and she returned not again unto him any more.

As if the reference to the dove not finding Menucha “rest”, the fact that the name Noach is a cognate of the word rest-menucha and the repeated seven day intervals were not enough, the Rabbis calculated that by the calendar the dove actually landed on Shabbat.

Based on this tradition, we sing a song  called Yom Shabbaton attributed to Yehuda Halevi  on shabbat afternoon (see verse 11 above “eventide”) which celebrates the magnificence of the Shabbat with a refrain that connects Shabbat to Noah’s Ark:

The day of rest should not be forgotten: On it the dove found rest, there shall rest exhausted​​ ones.

For Halevi, the Shabbat was not only a sanctuary in time; it was also a refuge in time that transcended the daily humiliations and exhaustion of his particular time and space.  Shabbat was a weekly refuge from the Inquisition and the indignities of the exile from his beloved land of Zion. (press to hear my favorite melody for this zemer).

For Halevi and for generations of our people, the Shabbat was a life raft…. The Shabbat provided relief not only from a misreading or compromise of the world of the spirit, but more critically, it provided a refuge from physical persecution, poverty, hunger and pain suffered by a people. It was a Jewish boat.

The father of my VERY good friend Eileen Posnik was a Yiddish writer named Usher Penn who lived in Cuba and in 1943 wrote the following poem called Di yiddishe shif.  It is about a ship that was not built in time to save the six million, but is a ship… a fleet of ships, that represents the power of an ideal… the ideal of the weekly Shabbat and the ideal of the return to the Jewish homeland.  Heschel’s Sanctuary in time, Halevi’s ark of refuge and Penn’s Jewish boats represent that which transcends time and space, institutions and edifices, persecution and insult.  In them lies the secret of our survival.  After all the necessary accommodations, humiliations and physical and moral exhaustion of the work week and the construction of institutions, structures and states (and associated compromises and accommodations) we need to refresh ourselves with Shabbat menucha …Shabbat rest

The Jewish Boat – Usher Penn 1943

I have learned to design ships

Pleasure ships and warships

Now, after thousands of years, the time has come

To build a ship for the wandering Jews

A wondrous ship, a new design

With all the latest modern techniques

A ship that can swim deep under water

And soar over the stars

A new ship for a very old people

Whom the sea has swallowed more than once,

Hounded from shore to shore

And drowned like disease-ridden rats.

I will build you a ship, my brothers,

Refugees from the Shturme and the St Louis

You, upon whose heads has fallen the rage

Of all the vampires and wild beasts

I will build you a ship,

An entire fleet,

And I will hide it deep it the depths of the sea;

It will come to save you,

When it hears the cry of the ancient wandering Jews.

Di yiddishe shif

Ich hob gelerent tzu shifn, tsu tsaich’nen

Shifn far kreig un far frid’n.

Di tzeit iz shoyn raif

Efshr toizenter yor’n

Tzu boyen a shif

Far farvoglte idin.

A shif gor bazunder

A plan gor a nayer

Loit der letzter technik un modern,

A shif, vos zol shvimen tif unter’n vaser

Un zol kenen oich fliyen

Heit iber di shter’n

A shif gor a naiye

Far a folk gor an alten

Vos hot shoyn nit einmol

In yam zich getrinken,

Getrib’n gevor’n fun alerlay breg’n

Vi kretzike shtoshures

Gevor’n gezinken

A shif vel ich boyen

Far eich, meine brider

Ir vogler fun  “shturme” un fun “st louis”.

Vos oif ayere kep

Iz gefal’n der tzor’n

Fun alle vampir’n

Un chayus royus.

A shif vel ich shaf’n

A flot gor a gantz’n,

Tif oif dem opgrunt

Vel ich im bahalt’n

Er vet kum’n aich dinen

Ven er vet derher’n

Dem ruf fun dem idish’n vogler

Der alten.

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Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah