Vayikra & Kedoshim: Guilty Speech

March 10, 2022 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Kedoshim, Va-etchannan, Vayikra, Yitro | Leave a comment

I thought that when the Jewish cycle of readings reached the book of Leviticus, I would be too busy moving my 92-year-old mother to write a post. I also thought there was nothing about the Ten Commandments in the book’s first Torah portion, Vayikra.

I was wrong on both counts. But next week the packing and moving begin!

The Third Commandment

The “Ten Commandments” appear both in Exodus (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy (in the portion Va-etchanan). The first commandment prohibits other gods, and the second prohibits idols. The third commandment reads:

You must not raise the name of Y-H-V-H, your God, for a worthless reason,1 since Y-H-V-H will not acquit anyone who raises [God’s] name for a worthless reason. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)

“Raising” the name of God means using God’s name in an oath, vow, or promise, according to the Talmud tractate Shevuot (“Oaths”). This tractate distinguishes two kinds of worthless oaths:

  • empty oaths that use God’s name to declare something true when it is either false or impossible;2 and
  • false oaths that use God’s name to make a promise that the speaker does not carry out.3

One Talmudic example of an empty oath is attaching God’s name to the declaration: “If I did not see a camel flying through the air!”4

Kedoshim: Any Name

Does the third commandment prohibit swearing by any of God’s names for a worthless reason, or only swearing by God’s four-letter personal name? The text is ambiguous. A command from God in the “holiness code” which appears later in the book of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim elaborates:

Velo tishavu in my name for a falsehood; then you would profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19:12)

velo tishavu (וְלֺא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ) = and you must not swear, vow, or pledge. (From the root verb shava.)

The author of Sifra, a commentary on Leviticus from early in the Talmudic period, wrote that the third commandment could be interpreted as forbidding a worthless use only of God’s personal name Y-H-V-H. Therefore the command in Kedoshim says “in my name” — any name that I have. 5

According to this reasoning, the Torah tells us not to profane any name of God by misusing it. Yet people who are in the habit of swearing might argue that they are not demeaning God when they say something harmless.

A deceitful vow is unethical whether the speaker swears by God or not. But is it really so bad to use one of God’s names in an empty way?

Yes, according to both this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and the later portion Kedoshim.

Vayikra and Kedoshim: An Empty Oath

This week’s Torah portion lists the correct offerings to bring to the altar for various purposes, including two types of atonement for inadvertently disobeying God’s rules: a reparation-offering (chattat, חַטָּאת), and a guilt-offering (asham, אָשָׁם).6 The section on reparation-offerings specifically addresses a harmless or empty violation of the third commandment:

… Or a person tishava with the lips, to do evil or to do good—whatever a human [says] bishevuah—and it was hidden from him; and then he realizes that he is carrying guilt because of one of these [oaths]; then it shall be that he shall accept guilt for one of these, and he shall confess what he did wrong concerning it. (Leviticus 5:4-5)

tishava (תִשָׁבַע) = swears, vows, or pledges in God’s name. (A form of the verb shava, שׁבע = swore an oath, vowed, or pledged using God’s name.)

bishevuah (בִּשְׁבֻעָה) = in a oath or vow using God’s name. (Also from the root verb shava.)

In this case the person is guilty merely of misusing God’s name, even if the outcome is good. The text goes on to prescribe that after the person realizes what they said and confesses to using God’s name for a worthless reason, they must bring a female sheep or goat to the altar as a reparation-offering.

What needs to be repaired? Swearing a pointless or empty oath is like swearing a false oath in the portion Kedoshim; it “would profane the name of your God.” 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra wrote:

“Now the one who is constantly swearing, although there is no need for him to do so publicly, desecrates the name of God without deriving any benefit from his act.7

This forbidden act is different from the ninth commandment, which prohibits a witness in court from affirming a falsehood. Violating the ninth commandment can harm another person. Violating the third commandment cannot harm God, but it does demean God.

Vayikra: A Compounding Oath

The section on guilt-offerings in this week’s Torah portion considers a case in which one person inadvertently takes or keeps the property of another, and then the perpetrator swears they did nothing wrong.

And it shall be when he does a misdeed and realizes his guilt, then he will restore the robbed item that he robbed, or the deposit that was deposited with him, or the lost item that he found, or anything that yishava about falsely. And he will make amends for it by its principal and a fifth of it in addition; he will give it at that time to the one whose it is, as compensation for guilt. (Leviticus 5:23-24)

yishava (יִשָּׁבַע) = he swears in God’s name. (Another form of the verb shava.)

This time the perpetrator must compensate the victim, and also bring a ram as a guilt-offering to God.

Vayikra: Forgiveness

And the priest will make atonement for him in front of God, and he will be pardoned for everything that he did to incur guilt. (Leviticus 5:26)

The third commandment says God will not acquit anyone who swears an empty or false vow in God’s name. Yet God’s instructions in Vayikra say that after making recompense and offering the appropriate animal to God, the perpetrator will be pardoned. In other words, although the person who swears falsely will not be declared innocent, that person may still be forgiven.

This week’s Torah portion sets out the requirements for forgiveness: perpetrators must realize what they did wrong, confess it, compensate their victims, and make a public offering to God.

This model for forgiveness from God can also work to get forgiveness from a human. Although some crimes seem unforgivable to us, we are generally willing to forgive people for committing lesser crimes or doing personal harm if they recognize what they did, apologize, provide whatever recompense is possible, and—if they violated a civil law—serve their sentence.

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Although confession, apology, and forgiveness can be done all year round, Jews set aside the month of Elul (in the late summer or early fall) for searching our consciences, apologizing to our fellow humans, and accepting the apologies of others. After Elul ends, we confess our sins against God and beseech God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

I find that in real life, only some of the people who have harmed me apologize. I figure the others do not realize that they said anything wrong—but although I can pardon them for their ignorance, I do not fully forgive them in my heart.

This week’s Torah portion does not say what to do if someone transgresses inadvertently and does not realize it. But the portion Kedoshim, later in Leviticus, says:

You must not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your comrade, and then  you will not carry guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)

One standard interpretation of this directive is that you must alert your fellow human beings to the consequences of their bad behaviors, so they become motivated to change their ways. But perhaps it is also good to let people know what they did that hurt you, so they receive an opportunity to realize it and apologize to you.

I wonder if I will ever be both brave and thoughtful enough to provide this kind of information, gently, to someone I wish I could forgive?

  1. lashaveh (לַשָּׁוְא) = for a worthless reason; in emptiness or in falsehood. (The traditional English translation is “in vain”.)
  2. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  3. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  4. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 29a, Mishna.
  5. Sifra is a commentary on Leviticus written in 250-350 C.E. that influenced the Talmud. This quote is from Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:6, translated in sefaria.org.
  6. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  7. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.

 

Pekudei, Yitro, & Ki Tisa: Not Like Other Gods

March 2, 2022 at 1:21 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa, Pekudei, Yitro | Leave a comment

The Ten Commandments are delivered in thunder at Mount Sinai partway through the book of Exodus. As I wait to move my mother into assisted living (an example of obeying  the fifth commandment), I have been writing about how these famous directives play out in the rest of the book.

This week’s reading is the last Torah portion in Exodus, Pekudei, which confirms that the Israelites are finally on the right track about the first two commandments.  

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Edomite goddess, 7th-6th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The first two of the Ten Commandments in the Torah portion Yitro both warn the Israelites not to treat their God like other gods. By the end of the book of Exodus, they have succeeded—at least temporarily.

First Commandment

I am Y-H-V-H, your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods al panai. (Exodus 20:2-3)

al panai (עַל פָּּנָי) = over my face, above me, in front of me, in addition to me. (Panai is the first person singular possessive of panim, פָּּנִים = face, surface, self, presence.)

First God identifies “himself” in two ways:

  • as the god of the four-letter name that riffs on the verb for being and becoming,1 and
  • as the god who brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt with ten miraculous disasters.

Then God utters one of the following commands, depending on translation:

  • You must have no other gods above me.
  • You must have no other gods in addition to me.

It is not clear whether God wants to be considered the supreme god, or the only god.2 But the existence or non-existence of other gods is not the issue; the important point is that the God called Y-H-V-H is incomparable to any other god.3

Second Commandment

Idol of Hazor storm-god, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

One way that the God of the Israelites is not like any other god is Y-H-V-H’s objection to being worshiped through an idol.

You must not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters below the earth. You must not bow down to them, and you must not serve them. Because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am a jealous god … (Exodus 20:4-5)

Is God jealous of other gods? I think a better reading is that God is jealous of the privilege of manifesting only in sounds, earthquakes, and amorphous sights such as cloud and fire. Only other gods are willing to inhabit man-made idols.

A divine pillar of cloud by day and fire by night leads the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Then in the Torah portion Ki Tisa the people panic about forty days after Moses has disappeared into the cloud or fire on top of the mountain. They tell Moses’ brother, Aaron:

“Get up! Make us a god that will go before us! Because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)

So Aaron makes them an idol out of gold.4 The Israelites call the golden calf the god who brought them out of Egypt, and Aaron identifies it by God’s four-letter personal name, Y-H-V-H. They are not disobeying the first commandment and worshiping another god. Yet their God is furious.5

If the God of the Israelites were like other gods, Aaron’s only mistake would be making a golden calf instead of a golden bull. After all, a bull is more powerful than its juvenile offspring.

Gold calf from temple of Baalat in Byblos

Bulls represented Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite gods. And 1 Kings 12:28-29 reports that golden “calves” were placed in the sanctuaries of Beit-El and Dan in the northern Kingdom of Israel. (They were probably bulls, which the southern kingdom of Judah belittled by calling them calves.)6

Most idols in the Ancient Near East were shaped like humans, animals, or fanciful hybrids. Archaeologists have found many small enough to hold in one hand. Neither Egyptians nor Mesopotamians nor Canaanites appear to have believed that the statues or figurines were gods. What they did believe was that gods could be enticed into temporarily inhabiting their idols. A god inhabiting a statue was easier to address with promises and bribes so it would act for your benefit.

The God of the Israelites, however, refuses to inhabit an idol. God cannot be represented by the shape of any physical object in the world because God has an entirely different, transcendent, kind of being.

In the first four portions of Exodus, God manifests as a voice coming from a burning bush, and as a moving pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.7 During the revelation at Mount Sinai, God manifests as thunder and shofar blasts, earthquake tremors, and lightning, fire, cloud, and smoke.8 The visible—but intangible and unbounded—manifestation of God as cloud and fire reappears in the portion Pekudei at the end of Exodus.

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This gives the book of Exodus a happy ending. In the portion Ki Tisa, thousands of are punished with death for worshiping the golden calf. Then Moses tells the Israelites that God wants them to make a portable tent-sanctuary so God can dwell among them.9 The people eagerly donate materials and labor.

In this week’s portion, Pekudei, Moses assembles the tent and places the ark inside. Rising from the lid of the ark are two gold winged creatures called keruvim,10 but they are not considered idols, since God will speak from the empty space between the wings of the keruvim.

And Moses completed the work. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. And Moses was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelled in it, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus 40:33-35)

kavod (כָּבוֹד, כָּבֺד) = weight, impressiveness, magnificence, glory, honor.

The cloud covering the tent looks like the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai.10  The kavod of God inside is not described.11 Nevertheless, the people can see that God is with them again.

The book of Exodus concludes with a summary the movements of the divine manifestation for the next 38 years:

Pillar of cloud over the sanctuary, Collectie Nederland

And when the cloud lifted from the dwelling-place, the Israelites pulled out on all their journeys. And if the cloud did not lift, then they did not pull out until the day it did lift. Because the cloud of God was above the dwelling-place by day, and it became fire by night, in the eyes of the whole house of Israel on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:36-38)

In other words, God’s pillar of cloud and fire returns to lead the Israelites from Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan. The people get what they need, a God who provides a visible sign to follow—without violating the second commandment.

May we all find ways to invite the divine spirit to be with us, without trying to contain and idolize that spirit through magical thinking.

  1. Also called the “tetragrammaton”. See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.
  2. Jerome Segal, in his analysis of God’s psychology as presented in the Torah, wrote: “… it may be that God is happy to have the Israelites believe in multiple gods, as that makes it all the more significant that they worship only Yahweh.” (Jerome M. Segal, Joseph’s Bones, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, New York, 2007, p. 223)
  3. 16th-century commentator Ovadiah Sforno imagined God explaining: “I cannot tolerate that someone who worships me worships also someone beside me. The reason is that there is absolutely no comparison between Me and any other phenomenon in the universe. I am therefore entitled to stand on My dignity by refusing to be compared.” (translation by http://www.sefaria.org)
  4. See my post Ki Tisa: Golden Calf, Stone Commandments.
  5. Exodus 32:4-5, 32:7-10.
  6. See Rami Arav, “The Golden Calf: Bull-El Worship”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-golden-calf-bull-el-worship.
  7. Exodus 32:4-5.
  8. Exodus 3:1-17, Exodus 13:20-22.
  9. Exodus 19:16-20. A shofar is a trumpet-like instrument made from the horn of a ram or goat.
  10. Exodus 35:4-38:20 (most of the Torah portion Vayakheil).
  11. See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
  12. See my post Pekudei: Cloud of Glory.

Vayakheil+4: Not on Shabbat

February 23, 2022 at 4:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Ki Tisa, Mishpatim, Vayakheil, Yitro | Leave a comment

“Hurry up and wait” describes a lot of life. Two weeks ago I was frantically getting ready to move my mother into assisted living. Now my effort to fulfill the Fifth Commandment and honor my mother is on hold until I get a moving date from the center—and wouldn’t you know it, she had another fall while she was alone in her house …

Talmud Readers, by Adolf Behrman, 1876-1943. What could be more absorbing?

I wish this period of waiting instead of doing labor were like the day of shabbat, the sabbath day of rest, but these days my soul is too heavy to rise to either refreshment or holiness. So this week I took my mind off my troubles by researching the commandment about shabbat. Here is a new post for this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil—and four other portions in the book of Exodus, Beshallach, Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tisa, that include variations on the command to desist from labor on the seventh day.

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The first three of the Ten Commandments order us not to underestimate God.1 The last six are ethical precepts for human relations with other humans.2 In between, the fourth commandment combines holiness and ethics. It opens:

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. (Exodus 20:8) 3

shabbat (שַׁבַּת) = sabbath, day of rest. (From the same root as shavat, שָׁבַת = cease, stop, desist; stop working.)

This command is followed by explanatory notes in the Torah portion Yitro. More details are added every time the observance of shabbat is commanded in the book of Exodus—from the first time, in the portion Beshallach, when the Israelites are collecting manna, to the sixth time, in this week’s portion, Vayakheil, after God has given Moses a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments carved in stone.

1) Don’t move

Manna Raining from Heaven, Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250 C.E.

Moses first mentions shabbat in the Torah portion Beshallach, when God provides manna for the hungry Israelites to gather up from the ground six, and only six, days a week. Moses says:

“See that God has given you the shabbat. Therefore on the sixth day [God] is giving you food for two days. Everyone in his place! No one go out from his spot on the seventh day!” (Exodus 16:29—Beshallach)

This introduces shabbat as a day of rest, at least in terms of going out and gathering food.

2) Holy break

The next order regarding shabbat is the one in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. The full fourth commandment states:

The Creation, by Lucas Cranach, 1534, Luther Bible

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. Six days you may work and you may do all your labor. But the seventh day is a shabbat for God, your God; you must not do any labor, you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your immigrant within your gates. Because in six days God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything that is in them, and [God] took a break on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the day of the shabbat and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The emphasis in this commandment is on the holiness of shabbat. Since the day itself is holy, it must be set aside from mundane labor by all humans and animals in an Israelite’s household, and even by God.

3) Ethical refreshment

The third injunction about shabbat is in the portion Mishpatim:

Six days you may do your doings, but on the seventh day tishbot so that your ox and your donkey can take a break, veyinafeish, your slave and the immigrant. (Exodus 23:12)

tishbot (תּשְׁבֺּת) = you must cease, stop, stop working. (A form of the verb shavat.)

veyinafeish (וְיִנָּפֵשׁ) = and he can refresh himself, reanimate himself, catch his breath. (From the same root as nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ = throat, breath, appetite, mood, animating soul.)

This time Moses, speaking for God, gives a reason why even slaves, immigrants, and beasts must be given a day off from work on shabbat: so that draft animals can rest their muscles, and human laborers can rest their souls, becoming refreshed and revitalized.

Providing a day of rest is an ethical mandate; the moral principle of kindness calls for helping others to have a better life, and the moral principle of fairness supports giving everyone a day off when the landowner has a day off. Shabbat is the opposite of Pharaoh’s unethical subjection of the Israelite slaves to unremitting labor.4

4) Be holy or die

The fourth command about shabbat appears in the Torah portion Ki Tisa, after God finishes telling Moses what the Israelites must make to set up the sanctuary and the priests of their new religion. God warns that all of this construction must pause on the day of shabbat.

Nevertheless, you must observe shabtotai, because it is a sign between me and you for your generations, for knowledge that I, God, have made you holy. And you must observe the shabbat because it is holy for you. Whoever profanes it must definitely be put to death, because whoever does labor on it, his life will be cut off from among his people. (Exodus 31:12-14)

shabtotai (שַׁבְּתֺתַי) = my shabbats.

This order not only reiterates that shabbat is holy, but adds that observing it is a reminder that the Israelite people themselves are holy, i.e. set aside for God.

In addition, profaning shabbat by doing labor on that day is such a serious transgression that God assigns it the death penalty.

This rule about observing shabbat is the source text for the Talmud’s list of 39 categories of labor forbidden on the seventh day. The rabbis assume that since God warns that the work of building the sanctuary and fabricating the priests’ clothing must cease on shabbat, the labors involved in doing those tasks are the labors forbidden on shabbat from then on.5

This injunction in Ki Tisa continues:

The Israelites must observe the shabbat, doing the shabbat throughout their generations as a covenant forever. Between me and the Israelites it will be a sign forever, because for six days God make the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day [God] shavat vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and he refreshed himself, reanimated himself, caught his breath.   (A variant of veyinafeish.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses every seven “days” for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post,  Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, & 2 Samuel: Soul Recovery.)

5) No farming

Shabbat comes up again later in the portion Ki Tisa when God gives Moses additional instructions for the Israelites.

Six days you may work, but on the seventh day tishbot; at plowing and at grain-cutting tishbot. (Exodus 34:21)

The book of Exodus gives no reason why agricultural labor in particular is prohibited on shabbat. One possibility is that this sentence refers to the ethical law about shabbat in Mishpatim, since landowners used draft animals (oxen and donkeys) to plow, and teams of underlings including slaves and immigrants to scythe down ripe grain.

Sheaves of grain

On the other hand, the list in the Talmud of activities prohibited on shabbat includes farming chores that eventually lead to the bread that must be displayed on the gold-plated table in the sanctuary.6 The first eleven of the 39 prohibited labors in the Talmud are sowing grain, plowing, reaping, gathering sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting the edible kernels, grinding them into flour, sifting the flour, kneading dough, and baking bread. By this interpretation, the ban on plowing and reaping on shabbat is about the holiness of the day surpassing the holiness of the sanctuary.

6) Light no fires

The sixth and final shabbat instruction in the book of Exodus occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil. Again the seventh day is called holy, and doing labor on that day is punishable by death.

Six days you may do labor, but the seventh day must be holy for you, a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does labor on it must be put to death. You must not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of shabbat. (Exodus 35:2-3)

shabbaton (שַׁבָּתוֹן) = most solemn shabbat, feast day of shabbat, day of absolute stopping.

Here Moses repeats God’s commands that the day of shabbat must be treated as holy and that anyone who does not desist from labor on that day must be executed.

The new information in Vayakheil is that lighting a fire is prohibited on shabbat. Before this, the only specific examples of labor forbidden on shabbat are agricultural: gathering manna, using draft animals, sowing and reaping . Now, in Vayakheil, Moses gives another example of labor: lighting a fire.

The purpose of this prohibition cannot be ethical, since lighting a fire is not in itself a heavy labor, and it benefits other humans by giving them heat, light, and a way to cook food.

Since the previous verse reminds us that the seventh day must be holy, refraining from kindling a fire must be another religious rule associated with holiness.

Kindling a fire is number 37 in the Talmud’s list of 39 labors banned on shabbat, right after extinguishing a fire. It may allude to the fire on the altar. Although burnt offerings continue during shabbat according to the Torah, the fire is not rekindled. In fact, it must never go out.7 The altar fire is holy because it is dedicated to God, and because God kindled it.8

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Thus the book of Exodus presents the law against working on shabbat as a religious rule (guarding what is holy) three to five times.9 It presents the law as an ethical rule (promoting kindness and fairness) only twice.10

Yet when we observe the day of shabbat we can remember that it is not solely a religious requirement reminding us of holiness. We will not be put to death for doing forbidden work on shabbat, since that part of the order in this week’s Torah portion is no longer followed. But when we try to set aside mundane concerns in order to elevate our souls on the seventh day, we can also remember the ethical values in the last six commandments, which address kindness, fairness, and respect for other human beings.

And I can pray that soon I will be able to obey the fifth commandment, and treat my mother with kindness and respect by moving her into a safe place.

  1. See my upcoming post, Pekudei, Yitro, & Ki Tisa: Not Like Other Gods.
  2. See my posts Yitro, Mishpatin, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 on the last six commandments.
  3. This is the opening in Exodus. When Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, the fourth commandment opens: Observe the day of the shabbat and treat it as holy. (Deuteronomy 5:12)
  4. Exodus 5:1-9, 6:9.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 73a, Mishna.
  6. Exodus 25:23-30.
  7. Leviticus 6:5-6.
  8. Leviticus 9:24 for the portable sanctuary in the wilderness.
  9. Exodus 16:29, 20:8 and 11, 31:12-13 at a minimum. According to the Talmud Exodus 34:21 and 35:2-3 are also rules for religious purposes.
  10. Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12.

Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 3

February 3, 2022 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Mishpatim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | Leave a comment

Ten Commandments by Jekuthiel Sofer, 1768

Universal ethical principles are relevant in all places and times. While the first four of the Ten Commandments1 are religious injunctions rather than universal ethical rules, the last six are sometimes considered universal.

In my last two blog posts I discussed commandments five through eight,2 and suggested that the following versions would be more comprehensively relevant:

  1. Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents. (To replace “Honor your father and your mother.”)
  2. You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed. (To replace “You must not kill-without-a-legal-sanction.”)
  3. You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first. (To replace “You must not commit adultery-between-a-man-and a married-woman.”)
  4. You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (To replace “You must not steal.”)

What about commandments nine and ten, on false testimony and coveting? Are they morally relative, guides to good behavior only within Ancient Israelite culture? Are they moral absolutes? Or do they, too, need some revision to become universal ethical precepts?

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The Ninth Commandment

Witness stand, by Ida Libby Dengrove

Lo ta-aneh against your fellow [as] a witness to a falsehood. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)

lo ta-aneh (ֺלֺא תַעֲנֶה) = you must not answer, testify; stoop.

Like the previous four commandments, the ninth is followed by more specific statutes in Mishpatim, last week’s Torah portion.

You must not take up an empty rumor. You shall not put in your hand with the wicked to become a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

In other words, ethical witnesses in a court of law must testify only to what they have perceived with their own senses, discounting anything they have heard that might be a rumor, and ignoring what other witnesses say. (In Torah law, a person cannot be convicted without the testimony of at least two witnesses.3)

You must not follow rabim for evil, and lo ta-aneh on a legal dispute to turn aside [and] follow the majority4 to mislead. (Exodus 23:2)

Using that definition, this law specifies that a witness must not support popular sentiment against the defendant by making misleading statements.

Ibn Ezra pointed out that even a large number of witnesses can be wrong: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil. If you see many people testifying concerning something that you know nothing of, do not say to yourself all of these people cannot be lying.”5

The book of Exodus continues by warning witnesses not to give misleading testimony in order to help out the poor.6

And you must not favor the powerless in his legal dispute. (Exodus 23:3)

Kindness to the poor is an important moral value in the Torah,7 but when someone is being tried for a crime, honesty is more important.

Is honesty always the best policy? Many cultures consider a “white lie” harmless and even ethical when it is used to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and has no negative consequences. A “white lie” might include rejecting an invitation by falsely saying you are busy that night, or complimenting someone on a new haircut that you actually think is ugly.

The ninth commandment only addresses giving honest testimony as a witness. But is honesty always the best, most ethical policy when you are testifying to legal authorities? What if you live in a society that punishes the crime of shoplifting with death or the loss of a hand, and you hold the conviction that this punishment is unethical? Should you tell a falsehood?

Your society would consider it ethical to report everything you saw the shoplifter do. But if your own belief is morally better, complete honesty as a witness cannot be a universal ethical precept.

However, the ninth commandment only says: You must not testify against your fellow as a witness to a falsehood. It does not require full disclosure in a morally difficult situation, but only prohibits lying when a falsehood could result in conviction and punishment of an innocent person.

This strict interpretation of the ninth commandment is relevant in all cultures. It could even be rephrased to cover situations outside of court, and remain a universal principle:

You must not speak falsehood in order to cause harm to another.

The Tenth Commandment

The other nine commandments all forbid or require certain actions. (Commandment five, “Honor your father and your mother”, requires certain actions rather than an internal feeling of honor or respect. See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) At first glance, the final commandment seems to be forbidding a feeling rather than an action.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s House, postcard by The Rose Co., 1908

Lo tachmod your fellow’s house; lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tachmod (לֺא תַחְמֺד) = you must not covet, crave, desire to possess. (From the root verb chamad, חָמַד = desired and tried to acquire, coveted, craved.)

Although many of the other commandments are elaborated by statutes given in the Torah portion Mishpatim, no laws in Mishpatim refer to coveting or craving.8

Another way to determine the meaning of the tenth commandment is to look at how the verb chamad is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.9 In ten of the twenty occurrences of the verb chamad, it is connected with taking possession of the thing coveted. Therefore some commentary has interpreted the tenth commandment as prohibiting robbery, under the assumption that coveting inevitably leads to an attempt to steal by force.10

The repetition of the tenth commandment in the book of Deuteronomy is worded slightly differently, putting another man’s wife first, and using a synonym to prohibit an unhealthy desire for any other possessions:

And lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, and lo titaveh your fellow’s house, his field, or his male slave, or his female slave or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:18)

lo titaveh (לֺא תִתְאַוֶּה) = you must not crave. (A form of the verb aveh, אוּה = craved, longed for.)

Why does Deuteronomy use the verb chamad only for coveting someone else’s wife, and the verb aveh for everything else? The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael claims that craving leads to coveting, and coveting leads to robbing.11 Certainly the verb aveh indicates a visceral desire; out of the 27 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible, thirteen are about craving a particular food or drink.12

But why does the tenth commandment prohibit coveting rather than the action that follows it, the attempt to take by force? I suspect that the Torah is distinguishing between taking a fellow Israelite’s possessions when one is obsessed with desire, from taking foreigners’ possessions when one is authorized to do so in war. The Torah is full of commands to the Israelites to strip the Canaanites of all their possessions as they conquer the land. Other rules in the Torah discuss the correct ways of taking booty in battles with other countries. This is not the kind of robbing the Torah would include in the Ten Commandments.

Those who covet what belongs to others also harm themselves; envious obsession does not make for a happy life.  But is it possible to legislate feelings?

Yes, according to 11th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra. He wrote that just as a man does not desire to sleep with his mother, although she be beautiful, because he has been trained from his childhood to know that she is prohibited to him,” sensible people may notice that certain people or things owned by others are desirable, but they dismiss any covetous thoughts about possessions that are obviously off-limits.13

The remaining question is why the tenth commandment prohibits a feeling, when the other nine commandments prohibit or require an action.

While classic commentary claims that the tenth commandment really prohibits the act of robbery, I would argue that this final commandment caps the Decalogue by implying that obsessive thoughts about illegal deeds can lead to everything the Torah considers evil, from worshiping other gods (Commandment 1) to murder (6), adultery (7), and theft (8). Failing to honor one’s parents(5) could be the result of nursing resentment against them for their own bad deeds, and giving false testimony (9) could be the result of a consuming desire for popularity in the crowd that is accusing the defendant.

Therefore an appropriate update of the tenth commandment could be simply:

You must not covet anything that belongs to another person.

An alternative that encompasses a wider range of negative obsessions is:

You must not dwell on desires that would cause harm to others.

  1. The “Ten Commandments” is the popular English designation for the ten precepts God utters at Mount Sinai, listed in both Exodus 20:2-14 (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy 5:6-18 (in Va-etchanan).
  2. See Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. At least two witnesses are required for conviction in a legal case according to Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15.
  4. Many English verstions of Exodus 23:2 including the standard JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation, interpret the word rabim (רַבִּים) as the wealthy, even though its usual meaning is “the many”. But the Talmud, Rashi, and at least two careful modern translations interpret rabim as the many or the majority.4 Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59b, Chullin 11a, Sanhedrin 2a. Rashi on 23:2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 448. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 383.
  5. 17th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.
  6. Exodus 23:6-8 instructs judges not to bend the truth to help or harm the poor, as well as to reject bribes—presumably from the wealthy. Also see Leviticus 19:15.
  7. g. Exodus 22:20-26 in the Torah portion Mishpatim, which also reiterates the commandment against favoring the poor in a legal case (Exodus 23:3).
  8. The laws in Mishpatim on theft (Exodus 21:37-22:3 and 22:6-8) are more closely related to the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, and are covered in my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2.
  9. See Leonard Greenspoon, “Do Not Covet: Is It a Feeling or an Action?”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/do-not-covet-is-it-a-feeling-or-an-action.
  10. The proof text given in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3 (2nd-3rd century C.E.) and other early commentaries is Micah 2:1-2. This line of reasoning considers the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, a prohibition against kidnapping a man who is not the property of anyone else. (E.g. Sanhedrin 86a).
  11. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3, from sefaria.org.
  12. Numbers 11:4, 11:34, and 34:10; Deuteronomy 12:20 and 14:26; 1 Samuel 2:16; 2 Samuel 23:15 and 1 Chronicles 11:17; Micah 7:1; Psalm 106:13-14; Proverbs 23:3 and 23:6.
  13. Translation of Ibn Ezra in sefaria.org.

Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2

January 27, 2022 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Mishpatim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | Leave a comment

Are the last six of the Ten Commandments universal ethical precepts, good for all places and times? Or are they morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture?

Last week’s post1 examined commandments five (honoring parents) and six (no killing). This week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven (no adultery) and eight (no stealing). Check in next week for the last two commandments, on false testimony and coveting.

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The Seventh Commandment

Lo tinaf. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tinaf (לֺא תִנְאָף) = you must not commit adultery. (From the verb na-af, נַאַף = committed adultery between a man and a married or engaged woman.)

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889. (King David, the peeping tom at the upper left, commits adultery with her.)

Adultery in the Hebrew bible is consensual sexual intercourse between a married or engaged woman and a man who is not her husband or fiancé. This type of liaison was such a serious transgression in Ancient Israel that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for both partners.

And a man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with the wife of his fellow, he shall definitely be put to death, the no-eif and the no-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)

yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Another conjugation of the verb na-af.)

no-eif (נֺאֵף) = the male adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

no-afet (נֺאָפֶת) = the female adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

Yet it is not wrong in the Torah for a married man to have sex with a woman other than his wife, as long as she is single and not living with her father—i.e. if she is a prostitute, or perhaps an independent widow. It is also acceptable for a man to have a second wife, a concubine, or a female slave acquired for sexual purposes.

A woman, however, can belong to only one man.

Most women in the Torah who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or their husbands. Therefore when a man commits adultery he is, in effect, stealing another man’s property.

What if a man has sex with a virgin who still belongs to her father? The law for this specific case is given in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), and it applies whether the man is married or unmarried:

And if a man persuades a virgin who is not engaged, and lies down with her, he must give her a marriage contract to be his wife. [But] if her father definitely refuses to give her to him, he must weigh out the same amount of silver as in the marriage contract for virgins. (Exodus 22:15-16)

Either way, the seducer’s payment goes to the virgin’s father, since she is her father’s property.

When a society grants women equal rights and autonomy, so they are no longer property, the Hebrew Bible’s reason for condemning adultery vanishes. Does that mean it is not immoral in Western society today for a married person to have sex outside the marriage?

In that case, adultery is unethical for a different reason. When people of any gender commit themselves to fidelity in marriage, they make a vow in front of witnesses. This is a promise and a binding contract. It is unethical to violate the terms of a contract while it is still in force. Only after divorce proceedings have been filed to end that type of marriage can a person add a sexual partner without committing an immoral deed.

The seventh commandment would be universally relevant if it were phrased this way:

You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first.

This version would cover not only exclusive marriage vows but all formal vows, including employment agreements and other legal contracts. The Torah also considers vows sacred obligations whether they are made to God or to other humans.2

The Eighth Commandment

After the commandment prohibiting the theft of a man’s wife or fiancée comes a commandment prohibiting other kinds of theft.

Lo tignov. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tignov (לֺא תִגְנֺב) = you must not steal, you must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (From the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole.)

Pickpocket detail from The Fortune Teller, by Georges de La Tour, ca. 1630

The eighth commandment covers kidnapping a man or boy,3 as well as stealing livestock, silver, or other goods. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, gives the penalties for several kinds of stealing.

Vegoneiv a man and sells him, and [the man] is found in his possession, he shall definitely be put to death. If a man yignov a bull or a lamb and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay compensation with five cattle to replace the bull, or four sheep to replace the lamb. (Exodus 21:16-17)

vegoneiv (וְגֹנֵב) = and one who steals. (From the same root as ganav.)

yignov (יִגְנֺב) = he steals. (Another form of the verb ganav.)

A thief must also pay compensation for stealing an animal and keeping it:

If hagenavah is found alive in his possession, from a bull to a donkey to a lamb, he must pay compensation for double [the value]. (Exodus 22:3)

hagenavah (הַגְּנֵבָה) = the stolen item. (From the root verb ganav.)

In other words, someone who “steals” or kidnaps a male human being gets the death penalty;4 but someone who steals livestock (or an inanimate object) must pay the owner compensation worth significantly more than the stolen item.

Anyone but a sociopath would consider kidnapping a human worse than stealing an animal or object. And all human cultures consider it unethical to steal what really belongs to another. But cultures differ on what can be rightfully owned by an individual, and what is owned in common by the social group or the state.

When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote “Property is theft!”,5 he expressed his opposition to private ownership of land. Karl Marx opposed the private ownership of both land and the means of production.6 Socialism approves of individual ownership of land and businesses up to a point, but reserves ownership of the largest and most indispensable industries and utilities for the state. Capitalism, which is becoming the dominant economic culture in the world, supports individual and corporate ownership of almost everything except human beings, accepting state ownership only in areas that serve the interests of corporations.

Theft certainly covers one individual stealing from another. But is it theft when a corporation or a government entity legally takes something from an individual? Who rightfully owns what?

Another issue is that stealing, goneiv (גֺּוֵב), implies taking what belongs to another by stealth, covertly. Appropriating something that belongs to another overtly, by force, is robbing, gozeil (גּוֹזֵל) in Biblical Hebrew.

I proposed rephrasing the eighth commandment slightly:

You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another.

We form our own opinions about what rightfully belongs to the state, to a corporation, or to an individual, and judge the morality of a particular covert appropriation of something accordingly. However, the legality of the particular appropriation is determined by the state.

  1. Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.
  2. g. Numbers 30:2-10.
  3. A woman “steals” (vatignov) an underage boy and hides him in 2 Kings 11:2.
  4. One girl is kidnapped in the Hebrew Bible in order to be seduced (Genesis 34:1-4). Women and girls are also seized as booty in war.
  5. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou, Recherches sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement, Paris, 1840.
  6. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. III, Verlag von Otto Meisner, Publisher, 1867.

 

Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1

January 18, 2022 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Masey, Mishpatim, Shoftim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | 3 Comments

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

The “Ten Commandments”1 are fundamental precepts, good for all time, right? Well, maybe.

The first four of the ten commandments (which appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in the book of Exodus, and again in Va-etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy) are religious injunctions. They prohibit having other gods,2 making or worshiping idols, swearing falsely in the name of God,3 and working on the holy seventh day of the week, Shabbat. These four commandments are hardly universal precepts, since they do not apply to people with other religions (including atheism).

The next six commandments, however, are about ethics, i.e. the right way to treat other people:

  1. Honor your father and your mother …
  2. You must not kill.
  3. You must not commit adultery.
  4. You must not steal.
  5. You must not testify falsely.
  6. You must not covet …

Not all of these commandments are easy to interpret outside the context of the social customs of the Ancient Near East.  Does that mean they are morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture? Or are they nevertheless moral absolutes, still relevant today?

This week’s post examines commandments five and six. Next week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven and eight. The week after that, Part 3 will explore the last two commandments.

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The Fifth Commandment

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving to you. (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = honor, treat as important. (From the same root as the adjective kabeid, כַּבֵּד = heavy, weighty, impressive, oppressive, dull, hard.)

According to traditional commentary, if you honor your parents, your children will honor you.4 That means your adult children will make sure you are well fed and housed when you can no longer manage on your own, and therefore you will indeed live longer. (No wonder having children is a top priority in the Torah!)5

Maimonides wrote that in addition to making sure our parents have food, clothing, and shelter, we must be indulgent with them if they have dementia. When adult children can no long bear the strain of tending such a parent, they may hire others to take care of them.6

Honoring one’s parents goes beyond providing for their physical needs in the Torah. Next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, assigns the death penalty to the crime of hitting parents, or even speaking ill of them.

And one who strikes his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)

And mekaleil his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

mekaleil (מְקַלֵּל) = one who belittles, one who curses.

There is no penalty in the Hebrew bible for a parent hitting or belittling a child. Hitting children in order to discipline them is considered a good deed in the book of Proverbs.7 Elsewhere parents are required to teach their children certain laws and traditions from the Torah,8 but the bible is silent about child abuse or neglect.9

This silence reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East, in which underage children were the property of their fathers and had no rights of their own. In other cultures, child abuse and neglect are considered criminal, and the ethical standard is for parents to treat their children with kindness and respect them as individuals, while still teaching them acceptable behavior in their society.

The fifth commandment implies that we should treat our parents with respect whether they deserve it or not.10 This may be a worthy aspiration, but when parents have seriously abused or neglected children while they were growing up, honoring and taking care of these bad parents could make the lives of their adult children unbearable.

I believe the fifth commandment should not be a universal ethical rule as it stands. I would amend it this way:

Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents.

The Sixth Commandment

The Servants of Absalom Killing Amnon, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

This commandment is sometimes translated into English as “You shall not kill” and sometimes as “You shall not murder”. Does the Torah distinguish between accidental manslaughter and deliberate murder?

The death penalty is prescribed only for pre-meditated murder in next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.

One who strikes down a man so that he dies, he [the one who struck] shall certainly be put to death. [However, if it was] one who did not stalk him, but God let [the one who died] fall by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he can flee. But if someone plots against his fellow to kill him with cunning, from [even] my altar you shall take him to die. (Exodus 21:12-14)

More specifics are given in the Torah portion Masey in the book of Numbers, which also uses a form of the same verb as in the sixth commandment: ratzach.11 Here God orders the Israelites to set aside six cities of refuge once they have conquered Canaan.

… cities of refuge they shall be for you, and a rotzeiach who struck down a life inadvertently will flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

rotzeiach (רֺצֵַח) = someone who commits either  premeditated murder or involuntary manslaughter. (The participle form of the verb ratzach).

Then God tells Moses:

But if one struck with an iron implement and [the victim] died, he is a rotzeiach and the rotzeiach must certainly be put to death. … Or [if] in enmity he struck him with his hand and [the victim] died, he shall certainly be put to death. (Numbers 35:16, 35:21)

Someone who kills accidentally can live in exile; someone who kills deliberately (either out of hatred or by using an implement well-known to cause death) gets the death penalty. The executioner, in that case, is the “redeemer of bloodshed”, a designated avenger from the family of the deceased victim. The commandment against killing does not apply to the avenger.

Nor does it apply to soldiers who kill enemies in battle. The Torah never criticizes the Israelites for starting a war, regardless of the reason. Moses only rules (in the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy) that when the Israelites attack a town outside Canaan merely in order to expand their territory or get some booty, they must first offer the option of “peaceful” surrender.

And if [the town] answers you with peace and opens itself to you, then all the people found inside it will be yours for forced labor, and they must serve you. But if it does not make peace with you, and does battle, and you besiege it, and God places it in your hand, then you shall put all its males to the edge of the sword. However, the women and the little ones and the livestock and everything that is in the town, all its plunder you shall plunder for yourself … However, in the towns of these peoples [Canaanites] which God, your God, is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall not let a soul live. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:11-16)

These two approaches to conquest were considered ethical in the Ancient Near East. But today, an increasing number of people believe that even when a killing is legal, it may not be ethical.

Many people would agree with the commandment lo tirtzach, you must not kill without a legal sanction. But standards have changed for when it should be legal to kill someone. The death penalty is now banned in a majority of countries in the world, and is controversial in the United States.

War, on the other hand, is still an option for every nation. But some acts during war are now considered war crimes, and there is more interest in minimizing the deaths of non-combatants. Most people condone killing in self-defense, whether it is killing an individual who is about to kill you, or fighting a nation that has attacked yours. But is initiating a war justified if the purpose is to defend the citizens of an allied nation, or to defend a principle such as democracy?

A basic moral rule must be brief and express an ethical ideal, even if there are gray and cloudy areas in its application. The sixth commandment, which merely says “You must not ratzach” (You must not kill without a legal sanction) meets this requirement as it stands.

But I believe that too many types of killing have been legal, in both ancient Israelite and modern Western societies. An ethical ideal, in my opinion, would be more restricted. So I would like to propose this amended sixth commandment:

You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed.

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Next week I will address what the seventh and eighth commandments mean when they prohibit adultery and theft—then and now.

  1. Exodus 20:1 introduces what we call “the Ten Commandments” in English with “And God spoke all these devarim”. Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls the ten “commandments” the devar of God; devar is the singular of devarim.
  2. See my 2011 post Yitro: Not in My Face.
  3. See my 2014 post Yitro: The Power of the Name.
  4. E.g. the Book of Sirach, 3:1-16 (second century B.C.E.)
  5. In first-world countries today, the whole society pays various taxes to take care of its aged population through various taxes. Yet when old people can no longer manage certain tasks themselves, their adult children are still expected to meet some obligations.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon or “Rambam”), Mishneh Torah, book 14, treatise 3, chapter 6:10, as quoted in Edward Hoffman, The Wisdom of Maimonides, Trumpeter, Boston, 2008, p. 114-115.
  7. Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 29:15.
  8. E.g. Exodus 13:8; Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and 11:19.
  9. One father, Jepthah/Yiptach, vows that if God gives him success in battle he will offer to God whatever comes out of his house first when he returns. He is dismayed when his daughter runs out to greet him. But this father is portrayed as foolish, not abusive. He immediately grants her request for a two-month postponement so she can “cry over her virginity”. The cautionary tale ends without clarifying whether Yiptach’s daughter was slaughtered at the altar or given to the local sanctuary. (Judges 11:30-35)
  10. See my 2015 post Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents. The Book of Sirach adds: Help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; Even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance …”
  11. For more on the words ratzach and rotzeiach, see Marty Lockshin, “Does the Torah Differentiate between Murder and Killing?”, thetorah.com.

 

Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law

February 5, 2021 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Vayeishev, Yitro | Leave a comment

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving you.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  You can read my blog post about it here: Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents.

Jethro (Yitro) and Moses, by James J.J. Tissot, ca. 1900

The portion Yitro also gives us a portrait of a father-in-law well worth honoring.  Yitro visits his son-in-law Moses in the wilderness around Mount Sinai, where Moses he has led the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  The two men exchange greetings, with Moses bowing to the ground to honor his father-in-law.1  Yitro, a Midianite priest, rejoices over the good things that Moses’ God has done for Moses’ people, without showing a hint of jealousy.2  Then he makes an animal offering to God, and all the elders of the Israelites join him in the ritual meal.3  Finally, Yitro observes Moses wearing himself out by serving as the only judge for all his people’s disputes, asks him the reason, and then suggests a system for delegating authority.4  He leaves his son-in-law in a better position than when he arrived.

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As I continue to write my book on morality in Genesis, I am now wrestling with the story of a less admirable father-in-law.  Judah, who once arranged to sell his brother Joseph as a slave,5 has three sons.  He chooses Tamar as a wife for his oldest son, Eir.6  But Eir dies after the wedding.

According to the law of yibum (also called levirate marriage), a woman who is childless when her husband dies must be given a place in the household of the deceased through an arrangement in which the dead husband’s brother or nearest male relative impregnates her, and when she has a son her boy inherits her dead husband’s portion of the family wealth.  Without yibum, the widow has no rights.

Judah dutifully sends his second son in to Tamar’s bed, but he refuses to perform, and shortly dies.  Now Judah has only one son left, young Shelah, and he is afraid that Shelah will also die if he gets near Tamar.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: “Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:11)

Tamar (veiled), by Marc Chagall

Tamar waits a long time in limbo, and then finally takes the yibum into her own hands.  When Judah goes to the annual sheep-shearing, he spots someone at a crossroad whom he assumes is a prostitute waiting for a customer.  It is Tamar, dressed like a prostitute and veiled so he does not recognize her.  She asks him to give her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge until he can pay her.  When Judah sends his friend with the payment, no prostitute can be found.  A few months later, when it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah condemns her to death for prostitution.  After all, she was supposed to remain chaste until he arranged yibum for her again.

At the last minute, Tamar sends Judah his own seal and staff with the message:

“To the man whose these are his I am pregnant.”  And she said: “Recognize, please: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”  (Genesis 38:25)

At that moment Judah changes.  He is the first person in the Torah to admit he was wrong.

And Judah recognized, and he said: “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:26)

He becomes an honorable father-in-law, returning Tamar to his household, where she has twin sons.  Judah also becomes an honorable man, who eventually offers himself as a slave to protect his innocent brother Benjamin.7

*

Not all parents-in-law, or all parents, are worthy of being honored.  But we can still treat them with respect, for being fellow humans and for who they might become.  The example of Judah reminds us that human beings can change.

  1. Exodus 18:7.
  2. Exodus 18:9-10.
  3. Exodus 18:12.
  4. Exodus 18:13-26.
  5. Genesis 37:26-27.
  6. Genesis 38:6.
  7. Genesis 44:32-33.

Repost: Yitro and Three Psalms

February 12, 2020 at 9:48 am | Posted in Yitro | Leave a comment

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, God descends on Mount Sinai in fire, smoke, earthquake, thunder, and the noise of horns, and proclaims the Ten Commandments, including the prohibition against having other gods.

Temple of Jupiter, Split, Croatia

This prohibition assumes that other gods do exist; God just wants exclusive worship.  A few years ago I wrote an essay on this commandment and three Psalms that say all other gods are all inferior and subordinate to the God of Israel.  You can read it here:  Yitro & Psalms 29, 82, & 97: Greater Than Other Gods.

Other gods have been on my mind during our stay near the palace the Roman emperor Diocletian built in Split, Croatia.  I walk past the Temple of Jupiter, built around 300 C.E. for Diocletian’s top god and metaphorical “father”, and converted in the 6th century into a Christian baptistery.  I’ve seen Split’s cathedral, which was once the emperor’s mausoleum; the Catholic art here is less gory than in many cathedrals, but the man on the cross still strikes me as an “other god” who has nothing to do with the God of Jews.

Lamp, 4th century C.E., Archaeological Museum of Split

And in the eastern cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, I’ve seen both five-branched menorahs and the letters “BAL” carved into wall stones.

The menorah described in Exodus 25:32-28 has seven branches and seven lamps, like the one looted from the temple in Jerusalem and sculpted on the 1st-century Arch of Titus in Rome, and like the ones decorating 4th-century clay lamps from farther north on the Dalmatian coast.

But the four menorah carvings in Diocletian’s cellars have only five branches.  Archaeologists have also found a relief of a five-branched menorah from a 4th-century sarcophagus in the Roman ruins of Salona nearby.

In Diocletian cellar 17e

The mystery about the number of branches is still unsolved, as well as the date and purpose of the menorahs scratched into the stones of two wide corridors in Diocletian’s cellars.  One theory is that they date to the 7th century, when the city of Salona to the north was captured by Avars and Slavs.  Both Jews and Christians fled and moved into the shell of Diocletian’s Palace, where they occupied the rooms that were still standing and also built stone houses of their own.  Some of the cellars were used as warehouses, and the marks on the walls might have identified the owners of various sections of storage space.

Another theory is that some of the stone blocks in the eastern cellar walls came from Roman buildings erected on the shore before Diocletian started building his retirement palace in the 290’s.  The site Diocletian chose for his palace complex sloped down to the sea, so he built the cellars under the south end to create a level ground floor for the entirety of the fortification (and to raise his own living quarters well above water level).  Other remnants of earlier Roman structures have been found in the cellars.  Could the menorahs have been scratched into the wall stones of a previous building to indicate ownership by Roman Jews?

Also in cellar 17e

Either way, it disconcerts me to see the menorah carvings interspersed with the carved Roman letters “BAL” in the same cellar hall.1

In Hebrew, baal (בַּעַל) = owner, lord, husband.  Local gods were called the baal of ____, with the blank filled in by a place name.  For example, in the book of Bemidbar/Numbers, the Israelites go to feasts for Baal Pe-or.2  Occasionally the Torah calls God baal, as in poetic passages comparing the Israelites to a bride and God to a husband.  But usually a baal is a foreign god, the kind that the Israelites are forbidden to serve.

The Hebrew Bible reports widespread worship of two foreign gods in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 7th century B.C.E.: Baal and Asherah.3  Were there Roman Jews five or six centuries later who still worshiped both the God of Israel and Baal?  Did the same people carve both symbols into the stones?

Probably not.  Although Jews living with Romans might well have learned the Roman alphabet, they would have used Hebrew letters for anything related to their own community.  Even if they wanted to add words to their menorah carvings, and chose the word baal to confirm that they were the baalim, the owners, of that hall, they had no reason to use an alien alphabet.

Furthermore, the letters BAL are carved more deeply into the stone than the menorahs, implying a different carver or a different technique.  And why does one BAL have its letters reversed?  Why is there another motif, a circle within a circle, in several of the eastern cellars?

So far I have been unable to find out anything about the “BAL” carvings.  Maybe Bal was merely the name of a family that lived and worked beside the people who carved menorahs.

I still hope to find out why the menorahs in Diocletian’s cellars have five branches.  A similar five-branch menorah carving was discovered in in Jerusalem during an excavation of an ancient drainage ditch in 2011.  Maybe by now the stone will be in a museum, and I can see it and read more about it than I could find on-line.  We fly to Israel only two weeks from now.

  1. The corridor labeled 17E by archaeologists.
  2. Numbers 25:1-3.
  3. 1 Kings 18:18-21, in which Elijah challenges the worship of two gods that Queen Jezebel imported from Phoenicia. The worship of either Baal or Asherah is also mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

 

Yitro: Rejected Wife

January 31, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Posted in Yitro | 4 Comments

Moses, the Israelites, and their fellow-travelers are camping in the wilderness of Sinai when visitors arrive at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.

And Yitro, priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses and for his people, Israel: that God had brought Israel out from Egypt.  So Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, took Tzipporah, wife of Moses, after her shilluchim, and her two sons … (Exodus/Shemot 18:1-3)

shilluchim (שִׁלּוּחִים) = dismissal of a wife to her father’s house; dowry or farewell gift when a woman leaves her father’s house to marry.  (This noun is derived from the verb shillach (שִׁלַּח) = send away, set free, let go—which is the piel form of the root verb shalach (שָׁלַח) = send, let go.)

After Moses received orders from God at the burning bush, he took his wife and sons on the first leg of his journey back to Egypt.  They spent the night at a lodging place where God came to kill Moses, and Tzipporah saved his life by circumcising one of their sons and smearing the blood on her husband, calling him a “bridegroom of blood”.1  (See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.)

Tzipporah’s decisive action indicates she would be a good person to have by his side in a dangerous situation.2  Yet something about that dramatic ritual made Moses change his mind about bringing his wife to Egypt.  Maybe he did not even believe her account of what happened while he was unconscious.  So he sent Tzipporah back to her father’s house after she saved his life, and before he met his brother Aaron on the road.3

Was it merely a separation, or a divorce?  Was he protecting or rejecting her?

Sending away versus casting out

The noun shilluchim appears in only two other verses of the Bible, once as a dowry, and once as a metaphorical farewell gift.4  However, Deuteronomy/Devarim uses the related verb form shillach in three laws about sending away wives.

If a man wants a female war captive, he must take her home and let her mourn unmolested for one month before he takes her as a wife.  “Then if you no longer want her, veshillachtah her soul, and you must certainly not sell her for silver; you must not treat her brutally, since you overpowered her.”  (Deuteronomy 21:14)

veshillachtah (וְשִׁלַּחְתָּה) = then you must set her free, let her go.

If a man tries to return his bride the next morning by claiming falsely that she was not a virgin, “… then she will be his wife; he will not be able to shallechah all his days.”  (Deuteronomy 22:19)

shallechah (שַׁלְּחָהּ) = send her away.

And if a man rapes a virgin who is not engaged, he must pay her father and accept her as his wife.  “… since he overpowered her, he will not be able to shallechah all his days.”  (Deuteronomy 22:29)

In all three of these laws, the verb shillach is used to mean divorce.

Separation

Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible does a man send his own wife back to her father’s house temporarily, without divorcing her.  Yet most commentary before the 20th century assumed Moses did this, either so that Tzipporah and their children would not suffer,5 or so that he could “devote himself entirely to the fulfillment of his mission”.6

One piece of evidence for this interpretation is that when Yitro brings Tzipporah back to Moses, she is still called eishet Moshe (אֵשֶׁת מֺשֶׁה) = wife of Moses, and Yitro is still called chotein Moshe (חֺתֵן מֺשֶׁה) = father-in-law of Moses.

The Hebrew Bible uses only two types of words for divorce:  variants of shillach (שִׁלַּח) = send away, set free, let go; and variants of goreish (גֺּרֵשׁ) = cast out, driven out.  In other biblical books a divorcee is called a gerushah (גְרוּשָׁה), a female who has been cast out.7  But Tzipporah is not called a gerushah.  Moses did not “cast out” Tzipporah; he “sent her away”.

Divorce

by E.A. Girardet, 19th century

And Moses went out to invite his father-in-law, and he bowed down to him, and he kissed him, and they inquired about one another’s welfare, and they came into the tent.  (Exodus 18:7)

Moses greets Yitro warmly, but he does not even acknowledge the presence of Tzipporah and their two sons.  Although there are no instances in the Hebrew Bible of a man kissing his wife or ex-wife in public, men do kiss their kinsmen in front of other people.8  Yet the Torah does not say Moses greets his own sons in any way.  He does not even perform the basic courtesy of inviting them to dismount and rest.

Inside the tent, Moses tells his father-in-law the details of God’s miracles in Egypt and afterward.  Yitro makes a burnt offering to Moses’ God, and feasts with Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel.  No provision for Tzipporah, Gershom, or Eliezer is mentioned.  The next day, Yitro gives Moses advice on how to delegate the legal cases his people bring to him.

And Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went to his own land.  (Exodus 18:27)

Do Tzipporah, Geirshom, and Eliezer go home again with Yitro, ignored and rejected?  Or do they stay with Moses and the Israelites, ignored and rejected?

The name “Tzipporah” never appears again in the Hebrew Bible.  A wife of Moses is mentioned only once more, when Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses “on account of the Kushite wife that he took; for he had taken a Kushite wife”(Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)  Elsewhere in the bible, a Kushite is a dark-skinned person from Kush, which may be either Nubia (south of Egypt) or part of southern Midianite territory (near the Gulf of Aqaba).  The commentary is divided on whether this wife is Tzipporah or another woman.  One tradition is that Miriam and Aaron complain because Moses is denying his wife sexual relations.9

Certainly Moses does not share his tent with a wife.  His tent becomes the Tent of Meeting (with God), and only Moses and his apprentice Joshua sleep there.

Moses’ sons, Geirshom and Eliezer, have no role in the rest of the story of Moses’ life.  Joshua inherits Moses’ position as political leader of the Israelites, and Aaron’s son Elazar becomes the high priest.  Geirshom and Eliezer are not mentioned again until the first book of Chronicles, which includes them in genealogical lists of Levites in charge of the temple treasuries.10

So I believe that Yitro does leave his daughter and grandsons behind when he says farewell to Moses and goes home.  Moses lets Tzipporah and their two sons travel with the Israelites, but he has little or no contact with his erstwhile family.  Although they travel with the Israelites, perhaps pitching their tent with the other foreigners on the edges of the camps, Moses maintains his separation from them.

And I think that when Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses “on account of his Kushite wife” in the book of Numbers, they are referring to his neglect of Tzipporah.  (I plan to explore this idea further when we reach Beha-alotkha in the Jewish cycle of Torah portions at the end of May 2018).

*

After Moses separates from Tzipporah on the road to Egypt, we never see him interacting with a wife or child again.  If he is married to anyone, he is married to God.  If he has any children, they are the thousands of children of Israel that he has become responsible for.  He misses out on the long companionship of marriage partners.

So does Tzipporah.  Her heroic act in the bridegroom of blood scene is ignored, forgotten.  She is treated like excess baggage, passed back and forth between Yitro and Moses.  Her name means “bird”, but she is never allowed to fly.

May we have compassion for all caged birds—and for all great leaders.

  1. Exodus 4:24-26.
  2. Pamela Tarkin Reis, Reading the Lines, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2002, pp. 101-102.
  3. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) follows the Mekhilta by adding dialogue in which Aaron advises Moses not to bring his wife and sons into Egypt. But the Torah says only that Aaron met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him; Moses told Aaron what God wanted them to do; and the two brothers went into Egypt and assembled the elders of Israel.  There is no mention of Tzipporah or Moses’ sons.  (Exodus 4:27-29)
  4. 1 Kings 9:16, Micah 1:14.
  5. Rashi, based on the Mekhilta.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century rabbi), The Hirsch Chumash: SeferShemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 301.
  7. Leviticus 21:7, 21:14, 22:13; Numbers 30:10.
  8. Jacob kisses his cousin Rachel in front of strangers when he first meets her at the well in Genesis 29:2, 29:10-12. Lavan kisses his daughters and grandsons farewell in front of his men and Jacob’s servants in Genesis 32:1.  Esau and Jacob, long-lost brothers, kiss and embrace in front of Esau’s 400 men and Jacob’s retinue in Genesis 33:4.
  9. Including Exodus Rabbah 46:3, Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10, Midrash Tachuma Tzav 13, Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki).
  10. 1 Chronicles 23:15-17 and 26:24-25.

Ki Tavo & Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 2

September 5, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Ki Teitzei, Yitro | 1 Comment

A person’s inner state and outer garment should match, according to the Torah.

And God said to Moses: Go to the people and consecrate them, today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their semalot. Then they shall be ready for the third day, for on the third day God is coming down before the eyes of all the people on Mount Sinai. (Exodus/Shemot 19:10-11)

semalot (שְׂמָלוֹת) = plural of simlah (שִׂמְלַה) = a long, loose outer garment resembling a caftan or cloak. (A variant spelling is salmah (שַׂלְמָה), plural salmot (שַׂלְמֹת).)

If you are consecrated, made holy enough to behold God, then your simlah must also be purified. Although men remove their semalot to do physical labor, stripping down to a less bulky garment underneath, the Israelites in the Bible wear their semalot for public appearances, as well as for protection from wind, sun, and rain. At night one’s simlah serves as a blanket.

Three of the laws in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, assume every individual has the right to a simlah. Even an impoverished debtor and a captive of war must be allowed to sleep in their semalot. Depriving someone of a simlah would not only expose them to the elements, but deprive them of human dignity. (See my post Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1.)

Two other laws in the portion Ki Teitzei (4 and 5 below) show how a simlah can reveal something about the essential nature of the person who wears it. And this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you enter”), ends with miraculous semalot that reveal the nature of humankind.

  1. Abominable or godly?

One of the laws about the simlah in Ki Teitzei has become notorious:

The equipment of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not put on the simlah of a woman, because anyone doing this is to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

Head of a prince or princess from Ugarit, 13th century B.C.E.

to-eivah (תוֹעֲבַה) = abhorrent, abominable, anathema.

The first clause in this verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite myth (discovered in the ruins of Ugarit) about Paghat, a young woman who wears weapons under her female clothing and sets out to avenge her brother’s murder.1 The Bible frequently denounces Canaanite religions, and the Talmud (Nazir 59a) agrees that the “equipment of a man” consists of weapons of war.

The second clause in the verse may be a reaction against a Canaanite practice in which male temple functionaries cross-dressed and offered themselves as surrogates for gods in homosexual religious acts. According to the Bible, this happened even at the Temple in Jerusalem until King Josiah put an end to it.2

A man wearing a woman’s simlah may be to-eivah because the only men who appeared that way in public were those paid for sexual rituals from another religion—a practice God clearly abhors according to a later law in Ki Teitzei:

No daughter of Israel shall be a female religious prostitute, and no son of Israel shall be a male religious prostitute. You shall not bring into the house of God, your God, the fee of a harlot [female prostitute] or the price of a dog [male prostitute] for any vowed offering, because both of them are to-eivah to God, your God. (Deuteronomy 23:18-19)

Nevertheless, for more than two millennia people have used the law in Ki Teitzei about cross-dressing to promote the traditional gender roles in their own societies. (See my post Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.)

Today many people reject the idea that every individual must squeeze into one of two gender roles defined by a particular society. Some individuals in the 21st century C.E. choose apparel that blurs gender lines in order to reveal their own nuanced identities.

In the 7th century B.C.E. kingdom of Judah, a man who wore the simlah of a woman also revealed an essential part of his identity: he was dedicated to gods other than the God of Israel, and he served these gods by providing ritual sex for worshipers.

  1. Fraud or honesty?

The remaining law in Ki Teitzei that mentions a simlah is about the virginity of a bride. It begins:

If a man takes a wife and he comes into her, and then he hates her, and he brings charges against her and gives her a bad name, and he says: “I took this woman, and I approached her, but I did not find evidence of virginity in her!”— (Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Detail of “Hymen” by Marc Chagall

This was a serious charge in ancient Judah. A marriage was a contracted alliance between two households. The legal contract included the dowry paid to the groom’s household, and the bride-price paid to the bride’s household. When the bride and groom had intercourse, the marriage was completed. The bride (but not the groom) was expected to be a virgin (unless the contract stipulated otherwise).

So if a man claimed, after the wedding, that his bride was not a virgin, he was not only defaming her and her parents, but also suing her family for contract fraud. If the village elders ruled in his favor, he got a divorce, the bride (if she was permitted to live4) became unmarriageable, and the bride’s father had to return the bride-price to the groom. The grooms’ household, on the other hand, got to keep the dowry, the bride price, and the family’s good name.3

What if a groom tells a lie in order to get a divorce with a lucrative financial settlement? Then, according to Ki Teitzei, the bride’s parents should bring “evidence of the girl’s virginity” to the elders sitting as judges, and the bride’s father should say:

“But this is evidence of the virginity of my daughter!” And they shall spread the simlah before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22:17)

The evidence is the simlah the bride wore on her wedding night. When the couple goes to bed, she lies on top of her own simlah—and leaves a bloodstain if her hymen breaks.

In much of the ancient Near East, a bride’s parents collected her wedding simlah the morning after—just in case they would need to display it.

The law in Ki Teitzei affirms that a bloodstained simlah is evidence of virginity, and punishes the lying husband. He is flogged; he pays 100 shekels of silver to the bride’s father (to compensate for impugning his honor); and he may never divorce the bride.

The good name of the bride’s family is restored. The bride herself at least has the consolation of a salvaged reputation and a guaranteed home (even if she might prefer to be the property of a different man).

Thus the condition of the bride’s simlah proves something about her character: she was honest when she affirmed she was a virgin.

  1. Natural or miraculous?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses quotes God:

“And I led you forty years through the wilderness. Your salmot did not wear out upon you, and your sandal did not wear out upon your foot. Bread you did not eat, and wine or alcohol you did not drink, so that you would know that I, God, am your God.” (Deuteronomy 29:4-5)

During their 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites did not need to grow grain and grind it into flour; manna miraculously appeared every morning. They did not need to cultivate grapes and make wine; God provided fresh drinking water in the desert. They did not need to make leather for sandals, or weave cloth for semalot; God continuously renewed their clothing.5

Instead, the Israelite women wove cloth to make God’s sanctuary. All the weavers were generous volunteers.6  And God generously volunteered the small miracles that kept the people clothed and fed. All God wanted was acknowledgement “he” was their god.

The Israelites in the books of Exodus and Numbers did praise God for saving them at the Reed Sea and for giving them victories in battles. But in ordinary daily life, they complained about the food, were impatient when they ran out of water, and did not even notice the condition of their semalot.

Moses introduces God’s words at the end of Ki Tavo by saying:

But God did not give you a mind to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear, until this day. (Deuteronomy 29:3)

Only at the end of 40 years in the wilderness to the people notice God’s daily generosity.

The portrayal of God’s character must be taken with a grain of salt. The Torah sometimes portrays God as a patient parent, sometimes as an angry mass murderer. This is the result of trying to explain everything in terms of an anthropomorphic god.

Yet the passage at the end of Ki Tavo does offer insight into the character of human beings. Human nature takes good situations for granted—until we are deprived of them, or until we grow wise enough to see how fragile our lives are. To find that wisdom—a mind to know, eyes to see, ears to hear—might take 40 years. And we cannot force ourselves to become wise.  It comes as a gift.

  1. She emerges, dons a youth’s raiment, puts a k[nife] in her sheath. A sword she puts in her scabbard, and over all dons woman’s garb. (“The Tale of Aqhat”, The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, by James B. Pritchard, Princeton Univ. Press, 1958, p. 132)
  2. And he smashed the houses of the male religious prostitutes that were inside the house of God, where the women wove fabrics for Asherah. (2 Kings 23:7).  The book of Deuteronomy was probably written during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), and encouraged his campaign to wipe out the practice of other religions in Judah.
  3. Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social world of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 1993, p. 127-128.
  4. But if this charge is true, evidence of the girl’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the girl out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of the town shall stone her with stones. And she will die because she did a serious offense in Israel, fornicating in the house of her father. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
  5. Deuteronomy 8:2-6 and Nehemiah 9:20-21 report similar miracles. (See my post Eikev: Not by Bread Alone.)
  6. Exodus 35:20-29.
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