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Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Sukkot - Added Extras

"In addition to the Biblical commandment of taking the four species to rejoice on Sukkot, there are also two other commandments that were fulfilled in the Holy Temple during this festival. However, these two practices are not mandated by a verse in the Scriptures; they are included in that body of custom called halacha l'moshe mi'sinai - details of religious observance that G-d taught to Moses at the Sinai Revelation. Moses subsequently related these to Joshua, and on to the Elders of Israel, and likewise throughout all the generations they were transmitted orally. These two items are the "special commandment of the willow," and the water libation, which we will discuss further on."


It is claimed, and practiced by the Pharisees, that unwritten laws exist, outside of the Torah. In the festival of Sukkot,  2 ceremonies, one of the "willows" and the other of the "water libation"  have no basis in the Written Torah.  However, the Rabbis believe these to have been Oral Tradition from Moses.   In the days of the Sadducee High Priesthood , this led to physical violence, and according to Josephus, the civil war between King Alexander Yannai (Janneus) and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees, then led by  Alexander Yannai - the High Priest, - rejected the water libation, and was pelted by the Pharisees with Etrogim.

The water libation is naturalistically an interesting concept. It resembles a pagan rain prayer or sacrifice, for there to be rainfall during the upcoming winter.  the only problem is, that it is not included in the Torah.  And there is, unfortunately, no evidence that it was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. If it were, the practice would not have been forgotten by the serving Kohanim so easily.  And there are no records in the later books of the TNK of it having been practiced.

As previously mentioned,  in Devarim Ch. 30 it tells us that keeping to the written law will be rewarded and we will be loved by God.

9 And the LORD thy God will make thee over-abundant in all the work of thy hand, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, for good; for the LORD will again rejoice over thee for good, as He rejoiced over thy fathers; 

10 if thou shalt hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the law; if thou turn unto the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul.

 One additional argument is brought, namely that keeping extra rabbinic laws will make us more on guard about torah laws, since the rabbinic laws seem to act as some kind of buffer zone in transgression of Torah Law.

This is a possibility, but it also carries dangers.  A pre-occupation with non essential, and indeed unlawful  religious rites can cause a lot of harm.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Yom Kippur and Fasting – A Biblical Exegesis*

* The opinions or possible understandings here are entirely my own, and they do not represent normative Orthodox or Karaite Judaism.

In an online discussion with a Rabbinical student, I was asked how the Karaites derived from the Torah that a fast is required on Yom HaKippurim?

My answer was twofold – either there was an understanding of Biblical Hebrew at the time, that וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם means to afflict one's soul by fasting (perhaps)was an expression understood by speakers of Hebrew, or that the Torah does not specify how to afflict one's soul. And hence it is down to the individual to decide an appropriate method. The Rabbinical student was unable to understand my point. So it might be appropriate to look at how this question has been addressed by Karaites and how it is addressed by the Tanakh.

Certainly, Karaites agree that this refers to a fast, i.e. abstaining form food and drink. If anything,
the Karaites are stricter than the rabbanites, since there are less leniencies (e.g. for the frail , for children, pregnant women etc.)

also stresses the various references in the TaNaKh where people would afflict their souls by fasting.

But is this proof sufficient? Is refraining from food and drink alone, what is required?

In answer to the Rabbanite's question, it seems to me, that the Rabbanites have their tradition, which is the Oral Law, to rely on, and that defines what the Torah means for them; whereas, the Karaites have the kind of passages cited in the above website, where in the Tanach, afflicting one's soul was associated by fasting, i.e. this was the understanding of fasting by the Neviim. Hence, we don't need an oral tradition to tell us this, when the Written tradition provides enough clues!

And the use of the word Nefesh to describe appetite or throat is not totally convincing. There are other uses and meanings of this word:

For example - Leviticus 17:11
כִּ֣י נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר֮ בַּדָּ֣ם הִוא֒ וַאֲנִ֞י נְתַתִּ֤יו לָכֶם֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־הַדָּ֥ם ה֖וּא בַּנֶּ֥פֶשׁ יְכַפֵּֽר׃
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation.

Here, Nefesh is blood and also the life force. So perhaps this verse indicates that the Nefesh of Yom Kippur is the blood, and that we should make a blood sacrifice?

Also, reading of Isaiah 58 in context reveals, at least to this reader, a different perspective altogether.

Verses 1-4 are criticisms of the people, who have atoned by keeping halachic fasts – similar to the Rabbanites and Karaites. They have not eaten or drunk water.
V.5 is a criticism of the very halachic fasting that is understood by both Rabbinic and Karaite yeshiva students:

5 Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?

The use of sackcloth and ashes were a typical mode of fasting, and are still in use by some ultra-religious people, e.g. on the Fast of Av. Why then, is Isaiah critical of the halacha? He is claimed to be either a Rabbanite or a Karaite, but he is critical of what is common between both sects!

Verse 6-10 actually provide an alternative reality, or understanding of the “fast” - presumably Yom HaKippurim.

7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

If Yom Kippur is about abstaining from food, then what is the point of giving food to the hungry?

י  וְתָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ, וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ; וְזָרַח בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲפֵלָתְךָ כַּצָּהֳרָיִם.

10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in darkness, and thy gloom be as the noon-day;

Here, Isaiah uses the word Nefesh-soul, in a totally different context from the halachic understanding. i.e. we have to use our means to help the ones afflicted. This is not about fasting, quite the opposite, it is about providing food and welfare to the needy.

These arguments presented by Isaiah provide a valid interpretation, and counter-interpretation to traditional halacha of fasting and self affliction, putting the context of self affliction into another dimension altogether.

Again, these are my personal views and I do not claim to have a binding halachic knowledge of what the correct thing to do on Yom Kippur is.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Karaism is the True Teshuvah

Devarim - Deuteronomy - Chapter 30

10:  when you obey the Lord, your God, to observe His commandments and His statutes written in this Torah scroll, [and] when you return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.

 The Orthodox Phariseeic world  speaks of, and has created a teshuva movement, where hitherto non-observant Jews become observant of Written  and Oral Torah, halacha - in the form of the Shulchan Aruch and Talmud. This teshuva will, they believe hasten the process of Moshiach.

The text of the Torah, however,   does not have these requirements. Instead, it asks us to observe what is Written in the Torah Scroll.  The many rabbinic laws, which are not written in the Torah - and they do not claim that these are written, are therefore not a requirement to fulfill Teshuva.

The Torah is asking us only to keep what is Written in the Torah - this is the true teshuvah.

Monday, 31 July 2017

9th of Av – a Radical TaNaKh Interpretation

The Fasts which are outside of Yom HaKippurim are observed widely across Rabbinic Orthodoxy and Karaite Orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, these are not prescribed in the Torah, and do not have status of a Torah commandment.

Furthermore, there is some discussion in the Book of Zechariah regarding the nature and status of these fasts.

Let us start with the problem – there are 4 fasts, plus the additional fast of Esther (which is not addressed by Zechariah, presumably because it had not been instituted in his day).

Ch.7 of Zechariah describes a Judaism that is unfamiliar to any practicing Jew of today, especially Rabbinic Orthodoxy.

2 When Bethel-sarezer, and Regem-melech and his men, had sent to entreat the favour of the LORD,
3 and to speak unto the priests of the house of the LORD of hosts, and to the prophets, saying: 'Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years?'

Contrary to the Rabbinic myth of the Sanhedrin, there is no Sanhedrin or collection of Rabbinic sages who are asked a legal / practical halachic question. The question is asked of the Kohanim הַכֹּהֲנִים and the Prophets. There are no Rabbis or Sanhedrin Sages. This is because the Sanhedrin is a Greco-Roman institution, and not part of the TaNaKh. There was no Oral Law, but Divine inspiration, the Kohanim and the prophets would consult to receive Divine inspiration -

4 Then came the word of the LORD of hosts unto me, saying:
5 'Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying: When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and in the seventh month, even these seventy years, did ye at all fast unto Me, even to Me?

This flies in the face of the Rabbinic myth, which is most widely distributed in the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai. In that myth, the rabbis attack Rabbi Eliezer for getting Divine answers to legal questions, and they propel the new concept of “Not in heaven” regarding the Torah. The rabbinic concept of majority is introduced as the means of achieving legal truth. There is no evidence for it in the TaNaKh, and is refuted by our very own chapter 7 of Zechariah.

In any case, the Prophet answers Bethel-Sarezer and Regem-melech, asking whether in fact they fasted for God? This was the 70 years without the Temple. That is an important distinction, since
some would argue that in post 2nd temple times, the fasts would still apply. However, this is clearly questioned by Zechariah, and is in fact refuted. These fasts have not record of being instituted by Prophets. It is important to reiterate that it was the prophets and the Kohanim who were arbiters of the Law and not a Rabbinic Sanhedrin type institution.
Contrary to the false practice of Bethel-Sarezer et al, Zechariah says:

7 Should ye not hearken to the words which the LORD hath proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, and the cities thereof round about her, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?'

This is because the response to the destruction of the temple was incorrect – instead of listening to the prophets of the previous generation, e.g. Jeremiah, they instituted fasts and self-mortification, which was not part of the Torah. Indeed, one of the greatest Rabbinical commentators , Ibn Ezra, remarks on v.5 “ did ye at all fast unto Me” , “I did not command”, i.e. God did not command these man made fasts.

So, according to this interpretation of Zechariah, the fasts were never valid, and are not valid today.
The response to the temple's destruction is to see where the underlying error was. Fasting will rectify nothing.

The question of why the Temple was destroyed, remains the topic of further discussion.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Stones of Mount Ebal

In Deut. 27, Moses is commanded to set up an altar on Mount Ebal, and to write the Torah on plastered stones.

3 And thou shalt write upon them all the words of this law, when thou art passed over; that thou mayest go in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath promised thee.

We see in Joshua 8, that this is precisely what Joshua does when he enters the Land of Israel.

32 And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote before the children of Israel.

34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law.

לה  לֹא-הָיָה דָבָר, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה מֹשֶׁה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא-קָרָא יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, נֶגֶד כָּל-קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְהַגֵּר, הַהֹלֵךְ בְּקִרְבָּם.
35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that walked among them.

There is some dispute as to what was written on these stones, at least as far as Rabbinical exegetes are concerned. Saadiah Gaon – the great rationalist and also one of the fiercest opponents of Karaites claims that this was in fact a summary of the Laws, in the format of his own book of Mitzvoth! Others claim that the term מִשְׁנֵה תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה refers to the Book of Devarim.

Nachmanides, who was one of the greatest rabbis of all time, and also one of the greatest friends of the Karaites (along with Ibn Ezra) brings a source that says the entire Torah was written on the stones, which were every large stones.

The ideological nature of these rabbis are quite predictive of their comments. Saadia is of course fighting anything that has Mikra only implications, whilst at the same time self-promoting his own book. Nachmanides, is being intellectually honest and promoting the truth regardless of implications.

The last few verses of Joshua Ch. 8 state that he read all the words of the Torah of Moses.

It is not clear if he read from the stones or from the Torah scroll. Although it is possible that v. 34 is suggesting that what Joshua read from the stones was 100% in accordance with what was written in the Torah scroll.

Verse 35 tells us that everything that Moses commanded was read by Joshua. Nothing was left out.
This statement explains why Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the president of the Babylonian Gaonate, was trying very hard to degrade what is written in the Book of Joshua. Being a great philosopher and logician himself, Saadiah was well aware of the logical implications of this verse. It is saying the precise opposite of what he himself believes. It is saying there is no Torah outside of what is written in the book of Moses. Thus there is no oral law. This makes Saadia's entire world view redundant.
On the other hand, Nachmanides, who was a perfect model of Rabbinic Judaism at its best, has the trait of rigorous intellectual honesty (which is why he often disagrees with Rashi). Hence he accepts that the entire Torah was written on the stones, and by implication, the entire Torah is written in the Torah.