Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2

April 1, 2020 at 5:58 pm | Posted in Tzav, Uncategorized, Vayikra | 2 Comments

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra mention repeatedly that God enjoys the smell of smoke, especially the smell of burning animal fat.1

Six types of offerings at the altar appear in the portions Vayikra (“and [God] called”) and Tzav (“Command”).  For five out of six, the donor must bring an animal, lean a hand on its head, and slaughter it.  Then the donor watches a priest butcher the animal, splash its blood around the altar, and burn all or part of it to generate smoke.  (The other offering is made out of grain, and is sprinkled with oil and frankincense before it goes on the fire, so the smoke will smell good to God.)

Killing and burning animals was the usual technology for worship in the Ancient Near East, and the ancient Israelites probably found fire-offerings spiritually moving.  Today some people view the slaughter of animals as an unfortunate necessity, and others find it unethical to kill animals for human food.  Can we apply the Torah’s six categories of offerings to a more ethically refined set of procedures?

Last week I suggested a new way of interpreting fire-offerings in general.  This week I propose six kinds of practices to replace the six kinds of fire offerings.


In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the six types of fire-offerings are:

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering.

(From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up.)

Altar, “Treasures of the Bible”, Northrup 1894


This is the instruction of the olah: It is the olah which burns on the altar all night until the morning …  (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2)

In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up, so olah is often translated as “burnt offering” or even “holocaust offering”.  The olah is the only offering which stays on the altar fire all night, until it is completely burned up into smoke.  An olah is required twice a day as a matter of routine, perhaps to keep a sustaining level of smoke rising to the heavens.

And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out.  The priest shall kindle wood on it every morning and arrange the olah upon it …  A continual fire shall burn on the altar; it must not go out.  (Leviticus 6:5-6)

A holy day calls for an extra olah.  This type of offering is also prescribed for individuals who have been isolated and need to return to a normal relationship with God and their community.2  Perhaps a normal relationship includes continuous, unflagging dedication to serving God, day and night.


For a physical, animal body, fat serves as a reserve source of energy in lean times.  But accumulating too much fat is physically unhealthy, just as accumulating too much wealth is spiritually unhealthy.  How can we burn up the excess fat in our lives?  How can we avoid selfish hoarding? How can we keep our souls directed toward making our own best contributions in a world full of other individuals?

The Jewish practice of mussar calls for a daily review of our actions before bedtime.  We record every time we succumbed to an undesirable character trait (such as hoarding) and every time we practiced a good trait we want to acquire (such as generosity).  It takes continual self-examination to change a habit.

During our isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, we could start a journal noting when we acted selfishly, and when we acted generously.  We can think about what we will do differently next time.  Then when we come out of social isolation, may we offer the olah of a pledge to pay extra attention to our own behavior to make sure we do not lapse back into selfishness.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect; tribute.

Frankincense (Boswellia sacra tree resin)


The Torah prescribes an offering of grain, loose or baked, as a minchah to God.

A person who offers a minchah to God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it … and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God.  (Leviticus 2:1-2)


When I burn my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm.  But before I eat my toast, or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it.  My blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.

During the pandemic, may we express gratitude and allegiance not only to God, but to all human beings who are keeping the world fed.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering.

(From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace; and shalom (שָׁלוֹם) = peace.)


And if his offering is a shelamim, if he offers it from the herd, whether male or female, he shall offer it unblemished in front of God.  And he shall lean his hand on the head of the offering …  (Leviticus 3:1-2)

The Torah gives three reasons for offering a shelamim:

(Electronic handshakes only during the pandemic please.)

todah (תוֹדָה) =  thanks,

neder (נֶדֶר) = fulfilling a pledge to make that offering if all goes well, or

nedavah (נְדָבָה) = donating out of generosity.

And this is the instruction for the shelamim offering that he shall offer to God.  If he brings an offering of todah, then he shall offer, along with the todah slaughter-offering, unleavened loaves mixed with oil and unleavened crackers anointed with oil and fine flour loaves mixed with oil.  Along with loaves of leavened bread, he shall offering his offering along with his shelamim slaughter-offering.  (Leviticus 7:11-13) 

The same assortment of grain products accompany neder and nedavah animal offerings.  The slaughtered animal and the unleavened loaves are divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence (i.e. in the courtyard in front of the altar).  None of the leavened bread is burned for God; it is all eaten by the priest and the donor’s party.

The difference between a shelamim for a todah and and a shelamim for a neder or nedavah is the time limit for eating the meat and bread.  The donor and his family and guests have one day to eat the meat and bread from a todah.  They have two days to eat the meat and bread from a neder or nedavah.3  One theory is that these time limits ensure that the donor invites more guests to share the feast.  This increases his generosity.


Today we can say blessings to thank God for our lives and for everything else in the world.  (Even though the world includes things we consider bad, I am grateful that there is a world with people in it, and so much beauty and wonder.)

But it is also important to show our appreciation to the human groups and individuals that improve life on earth.  We can give individuals thank-you gifts, and give groups our pledges and donations.  The more often we do so, the more we add to the world’s supply of generosity—and that brings more wholeness (shaleim), and holiness into the world.

During the pandemic, consider leaving a gift on someone’s doorstep.  Pledge or donate to a good cause to help our battered world recover.

4) chattat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering.

(From the root verb chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)


If one soul from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the [negative] commandments of God, [doing something] that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—  If the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished female goat for his chatat that he chata …  (Leviticus 4:27-28)

A different animal must be offered according to the person or group who unintentionally violated one of God’s rules: priests, leaders, the whole community, and individuals.  All the animals are offered in the usual way for fire-offerings, from leaning a hand on the living animal’s head to burning up the fatty parts on the altar to give soothing smoke to God.

And the priest shall make atonement for him and he shall be forgiven.  (Leviticus 4:31) 


What can we do today when we realize after the fact that we violated a moral or religious rule we want to live by?

If I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and taste bacon in my mouth, I push the plate aside and say a short prayer for discernment in the future.  Both actions help me to accept that I made a mistake, and forgive myself.

But if I realize I did something that hurt another person, I need to find reconciliation not only with my conscience, but also with the person I wronged.  I find what I hope is a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize.  (Finding the right time may call for extra sensitivity during a period of social isolation during a pandemic.)

Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them.  If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego.  Then I ask what I can do to make up for the wrong I did.  If there is something concrete and reasonable, I do it.  Only then can I be forgiven by both the other person and myself.

5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering.

(From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)


If a soul who does wrong commits treachery against God and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth …  And he shall bring his asham to God: an unblemished ram …  And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for everything that he did to become guilty.  (Leviticus 5:21-26)

Pinocchio, by Enrico Mazzanti, 1883

In a case of theft or fraud, the Torah requires both reparations to the person who was wronged, and an offering to God for atonement.  Someone who has stolen or cheated and then lied about it bears extra guilt, so that person must give the victim extra compensation and offer an asham to God.


When we have made reparations for our original misdeed, but we still feel guilty about the way we did it, what can we do to clear ourselves?  For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor.  For others, the answer might be a period of saying prayers from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.  Words make a difference, even when we speak them only to ourselves and our God.

6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering.

(From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill.  Filling someone’s hands is the Biblical Hebrew idiom for ordaining that person as a priest.)4


And God spoke to Moses, saying:  Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the chataat bull, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread, and assemble the whole community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  (Leviticus 8:1-3)

Leaning hands on a bull in an ordination ritual

Moses washes the five men who are being ordained as priests, dresses them in their official vestments, and anoints them and the sanctuary and its altar.  Then come the fire-offerings: first a chataat with a bull, to atone for anything the new priests might have done wrong inadvertently; then an olah with a ram.

Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram.  And Moses slaughtered it, and took some of its blood and placed it on the edge of Aaron’s right ear and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. (Leviticus 8:22-23)

The ritual continues with both the altar and the five new priests being anointed with blood as well as oil, the fatty parts of the ram burned into smoke to please God, and the meat of the ram roasted for Aaron and his sons to eat in the holy place at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.


If our goal is to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give milu-im, ordination-offerings, whenever our hands are filled—i.e. whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.

What can we give today in return for the grant of authority?  Humble service, regular prayers or meditations on becoming worthy, and the sacrifice of stepping down again at the right time.

When we have opportunities to elect people to positions of authority, may we choose leaders who will serve with humility, act for the good of everyone, and give a higher priority to the well-being of their people than to re-election.


Ancient Israelites who wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, could come to the altar and follow the established rituals.  They knew what to do; and the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive.

Today we have to think harder about our practices.  Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts.  We can practice rising above selfishness (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).

Let’s keep on giving our own offerings!  And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.

  1. See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. An individual must bring an olah at the end of a period of social isolation because of seclusion following childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8), because of the skin disease tza-arat (Leviticus 14:1-11 and 9-20), because of genital discharges that require staying away from the sanctuary (Leviticus 15:13-15 and 28-30), and because of a nazirite vow (Numbers 6:9-14).  A new priest brings an olah for his ordination (Leviticus 8:18-21).
  3. Leviticus 7:15-17.
  4. For more details about the ordination of the first priests, see my posts Tzav: Oil and Blood and  Tzav: Seven Days of Filling Up.

Repost: Vayikra

March 26, 2020 at 4:09 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment

And [God] called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1)

The opening of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra leads us to expect an important announcement.  Instead, God explains how to make six kinds of offerings at the altar of the brand-new Tent of Meeting.  The only technology on offer for pleasing or appeasing God involves slaughtering animals at the altar, splashing their blood around, butchering them, and burning them.

My 2014 posts on the first two Torah portions in the book, Vayikra and Tzav, reinterpret the six types of animal sacrifices from a vegetarian viewpoint.  You can read a revised version of the first one here:  Vayikra & Tzav: Fire-Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.  (I will rewrite Part 2 for next week.)

This year I feel sadness and disgust once again at the gratuitous slaughter of innocent animals.  I feel gratitude once again that Jews now serve God with prayer and good deeds instead.  I stand by my earlier interpretations of fire-offerings as ways of dealing with anger, and of rising-offerings as ways of continuously directing our desires toward doing good.

But the let-down of learning that God’s first words from the new tent-sanctuary are instructions for animal offerings hit me harder this year.  It reminds of the let-down I went through when I reached the climax of our journey, Jerusalem itself.

Men’s side of the western wall (kotel) on March 13, 2020, after most tourists left

My first disappointment was that although I prayed at the Western Wall (Herod’s retaining wall for the Temple Mount) three times, and stuck my own heartfelt written prayer into a crevice, I was unable to feel holiness emanating from the stones.  I was sad, but not surprised.  I have always been a practical person, capable of flights of imagination but untouched by the world that mystics sense so vividly.

My second disappointment was the abrupt end of my time in Israel.  I wanted to attend a third teaching by Avivah Zornberg, one of my favorite biblical commentators.  I wanted to go to several more archaeological sites and museums.  I wanted to see some places outside Jerusalem that I had read about in the Torah and in later Jewish writings—the  Dead Sea, the Negev, the Galilee, the kabbalistic town of Sfaat, the northern cities on the Mediterranean.

But like the United States, Israel shut down all public places in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus.  Museums closed, tours ceased.  There was no point sitting in our apartment day after day, watching teachings online that we could watch from anywhere in the world.  And what if we could not return to the U.S., where we have health insurance, when we need medical care for our pre-existing conditions?

We canceled our flight to Athens, the next stop on our itinterary, and booked an earlier flight to the United States.  Now we are repatriated in our home state of Oregon, looking for a new place to live.   I remind myself that while the whole world is shut down, I will have time to work on both of the books I was writing when we left last September: my book on the ethics of free will in Genesis, and my fantasy novel.  Staying home to write will not be so bad.

But I was expecting something bigger when I reached Jerusalem.  I suppose I wanted a divine voice to call to me from a holy place and tell me something important.  All I got was instructions on making sacrifices.

Now I will have to make my own meaning out of life during the pandemic.


Repost: Vayakheil

March 18, 2020 at 8:34 am | Posted in Kings 1, Terumah, Vayakheil | Leave a comment

Every part of the portable tent-sanctuary that God describes in the earlier Torah portion Terumah, the Israelites make exactly as specified in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”).  Here is a link to my 2018 post on God’s description of the menorah or lampstand: Terumah: Tree of Light.  The portion Vayakheil uses an almost identical description for the menorah the artist Betzaleil makes.1

Both descriptions leave room for argument about the actual appearance of the menorah.  We know it is made in one piece out of pure hammered gold.  A central shaft rises from a base and has three branches on each side. The shafts and each of its branches ends in a bowl for oil, so there are seven lamps across the top.  But are the branches curved or straight?  Smooth or knobby?  Neither Torah portion makes these details clear.

Here is what this week’s Torah portion says about the shaft and branches:

Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the branches going out from the menorah.  And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it and a kaftor under a pair of branches from it—for the six branches going out from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:21-22)

Almond tree in Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = made like part of an almond tree.

kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר) = a drupe (a fruit with a pit, such as a peach, plum, or almond), a knob, a capital of a column resembling an almond drupe; a native of Crete.

We arrived in Jerusalem when the almond trees were blooming, and I took a picture of one that still had last year’s dried-up almond drupes as well as this year’s flowers.  Inside those dark fruits are almonds.

Menorah drawing by Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishneh

So the two shapes used to ornament the stems under the lamps are the flattened oval of the almond drupe, and a flower with five oval petals.  But do the branches curve?  And are there smooth tubes of gold between these decorations?

12th-century C.E. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides or Rambam, drew this interpretation of the menorah’s shape in his “Commentary to the Mishneh”.  His son, Rabbi Abraham ben HaRambam, wrote that the branches of the menorah were straight lines, like his father drew, not arcs.  Rambam’s abstract geometric drawing also shows the ornaments on the branches as continuous, the top bowls for oil at different heights, and the base as a potentially sturdy slice off the top of a sphere. But obviously the line of the central shaft in the drawing is not intended to represent an actual shaft of gold that could support the structure.

A mosaic in a 5-7th century synagogue in northern Israel depicts a menorah with long smooth curved branches.  But it also shows a graceful base with thin legs that could not support the weight of the necessary gold.  (See my photo below.)

Mosaic from Bet Shean synagogue, 5-7th century C.E., Israel Museum

How much further can we go back in history for evidence?  If only there were another clue about the shape of the menorah later in the Torah!  But all we have is this:

And thus Aaron did: toward the front of the menorah Aaron brought up its lamps, as God commanded Moses.  And this was the making of the menorah: hammered-work of gold from its base to its fruit is was hammered-work; like the form that God had shown Moses, thus he made the menorah.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 8:3-4)

Then the original menorah Betzaleil made disappears from the bible.

When King Solomon builds a temple in Jerusalem to replace the portable tent-sanctuary, he replaces most of the holy items and adds more.  (See my post: Haftarat Pekudei—1 Kings: More, Bigger, Better.)  Instead of the original single menorah, he sets up ten new ones inside the middle chamber of the temple, five on each side.2  Their shapes are not described.

According to Jeremiah 52:19, these ten gold lamp-stands are among the holy objects the Babylonian army carries away when it loots and destroys Solomon’s temple in 597 B.C.E.  In 538 B.C.E. the new Persian empire lets Jews in exile in Babylonia return to Jerusalem and build a second temple.  The book of Ezra says they even get to bring back thousands of gold and silver vessels and utensils that the Babylonians had taken with them, but the only gold items the book specifically mentions by type are 30 basins and 30 bowls—no lamp-stands, no bread table, no incense altar, and no ark.3

So the second temple in Jerusalem had to be furnished with another new menorah, if only so the priests serving inside the windowless room would have light.  Its designer may have tried to follow the same instructions as Betzaleil did in this week’s Torah portion.

But this menorah, too, was replaced.  In 169 B.C.E. the soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanes looted the temple, and after the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.E.) Judas Maccabeus had new utensils made for the re-consecrated temple, everything except the irreplaceable ark.4

Herod built the Temple Mount platform and rebuilt the second temple between 25 and 10 B.C.E., while the priests continued making offerings on the altar, and carried out the rebuilding of the temple interior.  A gold menorah, bread table, and incense altar remained in the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies behind the curtain in back remained empty.

Roman soldiers putting down a Jewish rebellion sacked and destroyed this final temple in 70 A.D.  Eleven years later a stone relief was carved on the Arch of Titus depicting soldiers carrying away the menorah and other trophies.  The real menorah was on display in a temple in Rome—until that city was sacked by Vandals in 455 C.E.  Nobody knows what happened to it after that.

Arch of Titus (photo by M.C., 2019)

For many centuries the relief on the inside of the Arch of Titus at was the oldest depiction of the second temple menorah.  Old photographs of this relief show clearly that the menorah’s branches are rounded.  Thanks to the air pollution in Rome, the menorah looked this when I saw it in December:

Commentators have questioned whether the menorah on the arch is an accurate likeness or an artist’s fantasy.  Now we have a more authoritative drawing, discovered scratched into a plaster wall in an archaeological excavation of an upper-class house on the hill right next to the Temple Mount.This house, like the three adjacent houses or mansions, had mikvot (ritual baths) in the basement indicating that it belonged to a family in the caste of priests.  Priests, and only priests, served inside the temple.  They saw the menorah; some of them lit and tended its lamps.

Menorah at Wohl Archaeological Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

This is a drawing of the Second Temple menorah by an eyewitness who lived during the time of King Herod.  (The incised drawing to the right might be a view of the bread table.)  This menorah has a base that is either a cone or a pyramid, and curved branches.  The branches and shaft have no smooth sections; they are made with a continuous ornamentation, alternating flat round shapes like drupes with flat shapes that might even be derived from petals.

I wonder if the homeowner drew it as an object of meditation before immersion in the mikveh, or as an object of instruction for his sons.  Either way, it is our closest connection with the sacred object that once lit the temple in Jerusalem.  And that menorah was a recreation of the sacred object that Betzaleil creates in this week’s Torah portion to light up a new sanctuary for God, the creator of light.


I write this today on a hill in Jerusalem that is too far from the Temple Mount to walk.  It does not matter, since now everyone in Israel is ordered to stay home except to get essential groceries and medicines.  I hope no new measures to fight the Coronavirus pandemic will prevent me and my husband from flying back to Oregon in a few days.

The current situation seems dim for all the world’s people.  I pray not only for healing, but for a new cooperation among all people, bringing new light into the world.

  1. Exodus 37:17-24.
  2. 1 Kings 7:48-49.
  3. Ezra 1:7-11.
  4. 1 Maccabbes 1:21.
  5. Wohl Archaeological Museum, Ha Kara’im Street, Jerusalem.


Repost: Ki Tissa

March 12, 2020 at 11:56 am | Posted in Ki Tissa | Leave a comment

Bull throne for a god 12th century BCE, Samaria, bronze, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

Aaron makes the golden calf.  Moses brings down the first pair of stone tablets and sees the people ecstatically worshiping the idol.  He orders the guilty slain (except for Aaron), and the Levites kill 3,000 men.  Moses hikes back up Mount Sinai.  God reveals the attributes of the divine nature, then inscribes the second pair of stone tablets.  Moses returns to the people with a supernaturally radiant face due to his exposure to the divine.

Ki Tissa, this week’s Torah portion, is action-packed.  Out of all my earlier blog posts I chose to rework this one:  Ki Tissa: Heard But Not Seen.  It addresses the question of why God orders the Israelites to make a pair of golden keruvim for God’s sanctuary, but completely rejects the golden calf.  What makes the golden calf, but not the keruvim, an idol?

The Torah says an idol is inanimate and useless.  For example:

Goddess Anat striking, 15th-13th century BCE, Tel Dan, bronze, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

     Their idols are silver and gold,

     Work of human hands.

     They have a mouth but they cannot speak,

     They have eyes but they cannot see,

     They have ears but they cannot hear,

     They have a nose but they cannot smell,

     They have hands but they cannot feel,

     They have feet but they cannot walk.

     They cannot make a sound in their throat!   (Psalm 115:4-7)


Goddess in the form of a throne, Philistine 12th century BCE, Ashdod, pottery, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The Canaanites and Israelites who used idols were probably not as unsophisticated as the psalm makes them sound.  Other writings from the Ancient Near East indicate that they did not expect the metal or pottery objects they made to see, hear, smell, feel, move, or speak.  Instead, they hoped a god would inhabit the image from time to time, or use it as a throne.  Then they could use the idol to communicate with the god behind it.  But in the Torah, idols distract people from serving the God of Israel.  So God forbids the creation or worship of idols.

Today we say people “idolize” a pop music star when they devote a lot of time to a useless fantasy.  Or they “make an idol” out of the pursuit of money when they dedicate their lives to an activity that does nothing for their souls.

I have seen some fascinating idols in Jerusalem.  I am not talking about metaphorical idols, though there are some.  I am fascinated by the artifacts that archaeologists have uncovered in the region.  I took all the photos on this post at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Not one of them is larger than my hand.  But they evoked gods—divine powers that ruled the aspects of life humans cannot control, such as birth and death, not to mention the weather. 

Asherah or Astarte, goddess for fertility and protection in childbirth, 8-6th century BCE, Judah, pottery, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

It must have been hard to give up these magical connections to various gods, and embrace the belief that a single intangible and invisible God is in control.

It must have been harder still, centuries later, to give up the “idols” representing the God of Israel: the Holy of Holies, the priests’ routines, the altar to turn offerings into smoke that rose to heaven.

Even today, I know people who cling to signs and omens, and people who strive perform rituals exactly the “right” way.  It is hard to give up the illusion that following the correct esoteric procedure can bring you the comfort of certain knowledge.  It is hard to embrace the mystery of the unknown.

Repost: Tetzavveh

March 5, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Posted in Tetzavveh | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion is Tetzavveh, which concludes God’s request for a tent sanctuary so God can dwell among the Israelites.  Tetzavveh also describes the special garments the priests will wear as they perform their roles at the sanctuary.

Approach to Western Wall, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

Special garments are also a feature of the book of Esther, which Jews read every year during the holiday of Purim.  In most of the world, Purim falls this year on the evening of Monday, March 9, and the day of March 10.  But in Jerusalem and ancient walled cities, we celebrate “Shushan Purim” the evening of Tuesday, March 10, and the day of March 11.  This is the first time in my life I will be able to celebrate Shushan Purim.  I plan to join a group of women reading Megillat Esther, the biblical book behind this holiday, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem!

Next year in this blog I hope to compare the costuming in the book of Esther and the Torah portion Tetzavveh.  But this year I wanted to repost my essay on the curious phrase “Tent of Meeting” which first appears in the portion Tetzavveh.  Why does God call for a tent-sanctuary that will be the place for scheduled meetings?

The question spoke to me after I visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and looked at artifacts from other ancient places where people went to meet with their gods.  So I spent some time rewriting my 2014 post.  You can find the improved version here: Tetzavveh: Meeting Room.

Standing stone from Hazor temple, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The standard floor plan for shrines and temples in the Ancient Near East had a large front room and a smaller, holier room in the back where the god was present.  This is the plan of the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus, which is divided into a larger front chamber where the priests tend the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar; and a smaller back chamber, the Holy of Holies where the ark stood.

A Canaanite temple and a small shrine archaeologists discovered in Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee/Kinneret, follow the same basic plan.  Both were built during the 15th to 13th century B.C.E.  The temple’s back chamber or Holy of Holies contained a statue of the storm god and a standing stone or massebah carved with a horned sun disk.

One of the religious innovations in the Torah is the prohibition against making or worshiping either a god statue or a standing stone.  The God of Israel must not be represented with a carved image, and the people must not worship any other gods.

From a shrine in Hazor, 15th-13th century BCE, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

The smaller shrine in Hazor from the same period had only one room, and a shallow niche in the back wall for the holiest objects.  The niche was lined with standing stones, including a central stone carved with two hands and a moon symbol.  In front of the standing stones stood a table for offerings and a statue of someone wearing the symbol of the moon god Sin.  This shrine was a place to meet the moon god.

In the second book of Samuel, which is set in the 10th century B.C.E., the temple that King Solomon builds in Jerusalem follows the same pattern as the Canaanite shrines and the Tent of Meeting described in Exodus.  The temple’s Holy of Holies contains not only the ark, but also two carved winged figures based on the two figures on the lid of the ark in the Tent of Meeting.  These pairs of winged figures are not considered idols in the Torah, perhaps because God only manifests in the empty space above the ark.  (See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Holy of Holies, 8th century B.C.E. shrine in Arad, Israel Museum (photo by M.C.)

Given the biblical history of furnishing the Holy of Holies, I was not surprised to learn that when archaeologists unearthed the 8th century B.C.E. fortress of Arad they found a shrine with a standing stone inside its Holy of Holies—even though Arad was in the kingdom of Judah, where the God of Israel was worshiped.  For the people of Arad, the standing stone meant that God was present in their shrine, their own “Tent of Meeting”.

Eight centuries later, the people of Judah were building the first synagogues even before the Romans razed the temple in Jerusalem.  These synagogues were buildings where people could encounter God through prayer and study instead of through offerings on the altar.  The Israel Museum has restored part of the interior of an early synagogue built in Susiya, near Hebron.

Susiya Synagogue, Israel Museum

Its sacred enclosed space had three niches in the back wall, which held a Torah scroll flanked by two menorahs.  It is no coincidence that a Torah scroll inside its ark is reminiscent of the stone tablets of commandments inside the ark that stood in the Tent of Meeting’s Holy of Holies.

How different is the shrine in Arad, with its standing stone, from the synagogue in Susiya, with its ark?

Today Jews still come to synagogues to encounter God through communal prayer at appointed times.  The holiest place inside a synagogue is still the ark containing the Torah scroll.

It must be human nature to want an appointed place to meet God.  Perhaps that is why I am going to the Western Wall on Shushan Purim.

Repost: Terumah

February 25, 2020 at 10:14 am | Posted in Terumah | Leave a comment

We are in Jerusalem at last—or at least we are in an apartment in a suburb on a hill overlooking a freeway.  We have not yet seen the old city.  It’s raining today, and I just added illustrations to a blog post I wrote in 2010.  You can read it here: Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.

What did the keruvim on top of the ark look like?  This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, only mentions their wings and faces, and says they must be hammered out of the same piece of solid gold as the lid.  Other descriptions in the Torah are also sparse, though Ezekiel mentions calves’ hooves and says each keruv in his vision had four faces, only one of which was human.

from Neo-Assyrian palace at Kalhu, 9th century BCE, stone (Metropolitan Art Museum collection). photo by MC

Keruvim were probably similar to the guardian figures sculpted by other cultures in the Ancient Near East: hybrid beasts featuring the legs of lions or oxen, the wings of birds, and the faces of humans.  So I used one of my own photos from the beginning of our journey, when we visited the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City and saw a pair of guardian figures from a Neo-Assyrian king’s palace.  Here is a close-up of one of the stone sculptures.

The word keruv became “cherub” in English.  And over two millennia of Christian art, depictions of cherubs have undergone a strange metamorphosis.  Only their wings and their human faces have been retained.

One artistic approach was to infantilize cherubs, portraying them as small chubby boys or toddlers with wings too stubby for flying.  In the Renaissance they were conflated with Roman putti, chubby winged boys associated with Cupid.  The cherubs on Valentine’s Day cards are actually putti.

Titian, Madonna and Child with Saints, detail, Vatican Museums

Cherubs often appeared on painted ceilings surrounding someone rising into heaven, or trailing after God as part of a heavenly retinue.  Having lost their former roles as guardians of gates or steeds for mystical chariots, these cherubs are merely decorative.

Andrea della Robbia, San Marco Convento, Florence.  photo by MC

The alternative way to depict cherubs in Renaissance and Baroque art was to reduce them to floating faces with token wings on the side (sometimes in place of ears, sometimes below the ears), but no bodies at all.  Was this a way to erase anything corporeal, not to mention bestial, from Christian symbols associated with heaven?

Fra Bartolomeo, detail, San Marco Convento, Florence. photo by William Carpenter

Repost: Mishpatim

February 19, 2020 at 9:12 am | Posted in Mishpatim | 2 Comments

My heart was heavy three years ago when I wrote about this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws), and its injunctions to treat foreigners and resident aliens fairly.  Mistreatment of refugees who cross into my country, the United States, was on the rise.  So was intolerance of resident aliens already living and working here.  A demagogue had got himself elected president of the U.S.A. by encouraging people to blame immigrants for their problems instead of asking for reform.

You can read my post here: Mishpatim & Psalms 39 and 119: Foreigners.

This year, although I still worry about the news from the United States, I am caught up in the experience of being a foreigner myself.  I am not exactly a geir (גֵר) = foreigner, stranger, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant, non-citizen.  I have my American passport, and eventually my husband and I will return to the country where we were born.  In case of a serious emergency, we have travel insurance and the promise of help from a U.S. consul.

Nevertheless we are strangers, and in each new country where we rent an apartment for two weeks to two months, we have to figure out how things work.  We find some people who speak enough English to answer some of our questions, but we pick up other rules for behavior by observation.

Laundry at the former Augobio Venetian palace inside Diocletian’s Roman palace, Split, Croatia

Our biggest challenge was our first country, Czechia.  That’s where we learned how to arrange our lives around laundry.  The European norm is to have a small washing machine in your apartment and hang up your clothes to dry.  In Prague you drape clothes over a drying rack.  Everywhere else we’ve been, you also have the option of pinning your wet clothing to a line strung outside a window (if you can reach the line and you know you won’t drop anything).  Either way, laundry takes a long time to dry, and must be managed carefully so your supply of wet clothing does not back up.

Czechia is also where we learned not to smile all the time, the way Americans do.  People respond better if you smile at them only when it is customary—and the customs are different in each country.

Food is also a challenge for us everywhere, thanks to the language barrier and the limitations in our diets.  At grocery stores, we go by the pictures on the packages as much as we can.  Asking our cell phones for translations of specific words can lead to humorous results.  Asking other shoppers can lead to blank stares, and asking store employees is a gamble.  One clerk might struggle through the language barrier to help us, and teach us how to pronounce a new word in the process.  Another might glare and snap something incomprehensible to us.

In all four European countries where we’ve lived so far, you weigh your own produce and the machine spits out a sticker to put on your plastic bag.  Sometimes.  And when you go through the cashier’s line, you bag your own groceries.  If you didn’t bring a bag, you buy one there.

As for restaurants, only those that cater to tourist traffic have menus with English translations.  Timing also matters.  In Croatia we learned that most folks eat their big meal of the day around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon.  We were the first customers at a fine restaurant that opened at 1:30, and not all the dishes on the menu were available yet.

Acting like a Croatian in Split

Before and after the big, late lunch, Croatians go to a café and sip coffee over a leisurely conversation, making one cup last an hour or more.  Many coffee bars also sell alcoholic drinks, and bar food after dark, but the slow sipping is the same.  As in Italy, you pay for your coffee or your meal when you are ready to leave, not when you order it, and you have to ask for the check.

Where do you buy a city bus ticket?  Which types of business are open on Sundays?  What is the procedure at a post office?  Where do you put your trash?  The answers to these questions have been different in each city where we’ve lived.

When I reread the post I wrote in 2017 on Mishpatim and two psalms, I smiled when I reached this sentence:  “The overall theme of Psalm 119 is the longing to understand what God wants—which is like the longing of geirim to understand how things work in the strange country where they now live.”

Next week we will be in Jerusalem.  Unlike most pilgrims from America, we will not be part of a guided tour, but on our own, living in an apartment for a month.  We will be puzzling out words in modern Hebrew, which is spelled without vowel markings, so my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew will not be much help.  I have heard that Israelis are outgoing and outspoken, but I do not know how things work in their country.  Even though we are Jews, we will be geirim in Israel.

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.


Repost: Beshallach & the History of Split

February 5, 2020 at 1:54 pm | Posted in Beshallach | Leave a comment

The Israelites Leave Egypt, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century Spain

The Israelites march out of Egypt beyad ramah, “with a high hand”, in this week’s Torah portion, Beshellach.  (To read my 2013 essay on that rare phrase in the Torah, you can click here: Beshallach: High-Handed.)

Beyad ramah, like the English idiom “high-handed”, means arrogantly doing something without consulting or collaborating with others.  In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite slaves march out of Egypt fearlessly, even arrogantly, taking their Egyptian neighbors’ jewelry with them.

Three days later at the Reed Sea, they see the Egyptian army behind them and they feel powerless once more.  Forty years later in Canaan, they kill, plunder, and conquer the native population in a way that could be considered high-handed.  After that a few Jewish kings act arrogantly in the Torah, but the Israelites as a people rarely have the opportunity.  Both Israelite kingdoms are small and eventually swallowed up by their powerful neighbors.

For almost two millennia, from the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. to the founding of the nation-state of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem and its surrounding province were subservient to the government of one larger empire after another.  Jews who emigrated to other countries were only rarely considered peers of the majority group; discrimination ranged from being charged an extra tax to being murdered by mobs.  An individual Jew could be high-handed in his own sphere, but a group of Jews could not pull it off until the twentieth century.

When I started working on volunteer committees I learned that if I just did something without consulting everyone who might be involved, I was being high-handed.  I remembered how I had hated being treated unfairly and without respect when I was younger, and I learned how to collaborate better.

Can whole groups of people live together with mutual respect?

Sometimes, in some places, Jews have been one respected group living in harmony with other groups.  Over the last two millennia, this was often the case in Split, Croatia, the city where I am living this winter.

A Short Illustrated History of Jews in Split

(all photos by Melissa Carpenter)

In the first century B.C.E. the Romans acquired both Syria (which included Jerusalem) and Dalmatia (which included Split).  Julius Caesar set an example by granting Jews an exemption from Roman religious practices and permission to follow their own customs.  In Jerusalem and the district of Judea, Jews protested in 66 C.E. against Roman taxes and soldiers, and the Roman governor responded by plundering the treasury of the temple.  During the war that ensued, the Romans razed the temple.

Menorah from Salona, 4th century C.E.,  Split Archaeological Museum

Meanwhile in Dalmatia, Jews came with the Romans and settled along the coast.  Jewish artifacts from as early as the third century C.E. have been found in both Split and the Roman city of Solana across the bay.

Emperor Diocletian, who built his retirement palace in Split around 300 C.E., persecuted and executed local Christians, but left Jews free to observe their own religion.

5-branch menorah carved on wall stone in cellar 17E, Diocletian’s Palace, Split

The Roman Empire was collapsing when Slavs and Avars invaded Dalmatia in the 6th century and seized the city of Salona north of Split.  Both Jews and Christians fled across the bay and built stone houses inside the shell of Diocletian’s palace.  Archaeologists have yet to determine whether the menorahs carved into buildings stones in the cellars of the palace date from this time or an earlier century.

In the 1490’s Spain and Portugal expelled their Jews.  Some ports on the Adriatic Sea refused to accept these refugees, but Split made room for them, and these Sefardic Jews settled in the northwest quarter of Diocletian’s former palace.  Eventually that became the Jewish neighborhood of Split.

Jewish Cemetery on Marjan Hill

Split and the rest of the Dalmatian coast north of Dubrovnik were part of the Venetian Republic from 1420 to 1796.  In the 16th century one of the Jewish immigrants from Portugal, Daniel Rodriga, persuaded the Venetian government to turn Split into a major port by adding a lazaretto with warehouses and a quarantine building.  The doge in Venice agreed and put Rodriga in charge of building the lazaretto in 1572.  Rodriga got permission from local authorities to establish a Jewish cemetery on the slope of nearby Marjan Hill in 1573.

“Jewish Tower”

Split boomed thanks to Rodriga’s lazaretto, and in the 17th century the Venetians built a defensive wall with bastions to protect their valuable port from the Ottomans, who had captured the other side of the bay. When Ottomans attacked Split in 1657, the Venetian wall was still under construction.  The local Jews were trusted with the defense of Diocletian’s northwest tower.  The Ottomans were unable to penetrate the city center inside the palace, and townspeople started calling that tower Zidovska Kula, “Jewish Tower”.

At first the Venetian ruling class was remarkably tolerant of Jews compared to the Christians in other countries, and the Jews of Split were free to follow any trades they chose.  The only restriction imposed on them was that they could not own property; they had to rent, but they could buy long-term leases.  And although Venice itself established a ghetto in 1516, Jews in Split could lease houses wherever they wanted.  Most, but not all, chose to live in the old Jewish neighborhood.

This harmony between Christians and Jews lasted until the 18th century.  Then in 1738 the Venetian rulers of Split started requiring Jews to wear special hats.  In 1778 they ruled that Jews could no longer employ Christians, and created a Jewish ghetto by putting gates in seven of the stone archways over the narrow streets of Diocletian’s old palace.  The gates were placed so the ghetto included the buildings where most of the Jews already lived.  Jews had to be inside the gates from midnight to sunrise.

When Napoleon captured Split in 1806, all restrictions on Jews were eliminated.  But then the Dalmatian coast fell to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which did not grant Jews complete equality and freedom until 1867.

At the end of World War I,  Dalmatia became part of the new kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was conquered by the Axis powers during World War II.  In 1941 Germany installed a puppet government for inland Croatia called the Ustase, which shared the Nazi attitude toward Jews.  Meanwhile Italy annexed most of the Dalmatian coast, and the people of Split organized armed resistance against the Italian fascist occupiers.  The Jews of Split arranged for Jewish refugees from inland to escape through the port.

Although Italy refused to deport or murder Jews, in 1942 a mob including Italian soldiers attacked the Split synagogue and the people inside, and looted 60 Jewish homes. The following year Italy surrendered to the Allies, and Germany took over, assigning the Dalmatian coast to inland Croatia’s Ustase government.  Dedicated to exterminating Croatian Jews and Muslim Serbs, the Ustase created their own concentration camps.

Fort Gripe, Split (now a maritime museum)

In Split the Ustase found a new use for the barracks at Fort Gripe, which had been built by the Austrians on the north side of a Venetian fort, and occupied by Mussolini’s soldiers for two years.  In 1943 the barracks were converted into a prison for the remaining Jews of Split.  Two Split doctors, Andrija Poklepovic and Mihovil Silobrcic, managed to rescue some of those Jews by transferring them to a hospital and then claiming they were quarantined because of disease.

The rest of the Jews imprisoned in Split were deported to two Ustase camps, Sajmiste and Jasenovac, where they were all murdered.  About 150 of the 284 Jews living in Split in 1940 survived until liberation in 1945.

Croatia and its Dalmatian coastline were part of Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from the end of the war to 1991, and due to the country’s official atheism, no rabbis were allowed.  The first president of the independent nation of Croatia, Franjo Tudman, was known for his anti-Semitic slurs, and appointed former members of the Ustase to government posts.

Under the new Croatian constitution following Tudman’s departure from office, Jews are one of twelve “autonomous national minorities”, and elect a special representative to the Croatian parliament.  The only anti-Semitic incidents I could uncover in the 21st century were the chanting of Ustase slogans, particularly at soccer matches, and the carving of a swastika into the turf of the soccer field in Split in 2015, which resulted in a 100,000 euro fine.

Today the Jewish population of Split is small; about 100 families belong to the Jewish community, which restored the old 16th-century synagogue in 1996 and meets there regularly.

So does Split count as a place where the Jews are respected and live in harmony with other groups?  Not always, but more often than most places over the last 2,000 years.

(My thanks to Ivica Profaca, to “Albert” at the synagogue, and to the world’s biggest library, the Internet.)


Bo: To Serve Somebody

January 29, 2020 at 9:51 am | Posted in Beshallach, Bo | Leave a comment

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  (Bob Dylan)

The pharaoh of Egypt is an absolute ruler in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  His word is law, and everyone in the country must serve him almost as if he were a god.  There is no conflict between serving the pharaoh and serving Egyptian gods.  But the God of Israel is a “jealous” god, who requires exclusive service.1  One cannot serve both God and Pharaoh.

When Moses and Aaron first speak to the pharaoh, they only request a leave of absence for the Israelites so they can make a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer animal sacrifices to God, Y-H-V-H.2  The implication is that then they will return to the corvée labor the pharaoh has imposed on them.  But the ruler of Egypt refuses, sensing that there is a deeper issue.

And Pharaoh said: “Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice [saying] to send out Israel?  I do not know Y-H-V-H, and neither will I send out Israel.”  (Exodus/Shemot 5:2)

He increases the workload of the Israelites instead.  A demonstration miracle turning a staff into a snake does not change his mind.3  Following God’s order, Moses now warns the pharaoh about the first “plague” or miraculous disaster, which will turn the Nile into blood, and tells him that God said:

“Send out my people so ya-avduni in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 6:16)4

yavduni (יַבְדֻנִי) = they will serve me.  (A form of the root verb avad, עָבַד = work for someone, serve as a slave, employee, or attendant.)

Plague of Frogs, Golden Hagaddah,  1320-1330 CE

The pharaoh does not change his mind.  After the second plague, frogs, the pharaoh says he will let the Israelites go, then hardens his heart and refuses as soon as God has ended the disaster.  After the fourth plague, mixed vermin, the pharaoh offers to let the Israelites sacrifice to their god inside the land of Egypt, but Moses insists on the three-day journey into the wilderness.5  Again, the pharaoh agrees at first, but then refuses as soon as God removes the vermin.

During the seventh plague, hail, the pharaoh actually admits to Moses and Aaron that he is morally inferior to their god, Y-H-W-H:

“I am guilty this time.  Y-H-W-H is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.  Pray to Y-H-W-H and enough from being thunder and hail, and I will send you out, and you will not continue to stand [against me].”  (Exodus 9:28)

Moses agrees to do so, though he adds:

“But you and your avadim, I know that you still do not fear Y-H-V-H, God.”  (Exodus 9:30)

avadim (עַבָדִים) = servants, courtiers, slaves.  (Plural of the noun eved, עֶבֶד, from the root verb avad.)

Moses is right; once the hail and thunder have ceased, the pharaoh hardens his heart again and refuses to let the Israelites go.

This week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come!”) begins when Moses announces the eighth plague, locusts.

And Moses came, and Aaron, to the pharaoh, and they said to him: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?  Send out my people, so ya-avduni!”

In effect, Moses and Aaron admit that the contest is about who is superior, God or the pharaoh.

And the avadim of the pharaoh said to him: “How long will this be a stumbling block for us?  Send out the people and ya-avdu Y-H-V-H, their god!  Don’t you know yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  (Exodus 10:7)

ya-avdu (יַעַבדוּ) = they will serve.  (Another form of the verb avad.)

The pharaoh calls back Moses and Aaron and says:

“Go, ivdu Y-H-V-H, your god!  Who and who are going?”

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = serve!  (An imperative of the verb avad.)

Plague of Darkness, Spanish, 1490 CE

Moses says all the people will go, including the children and even the flocks and herds.  The pharaoh replies that only the men may go.  So the plague proceeds.  After every green plant in Egypt has been consumed by the locust swarms, the pharaoh admits his guilt.  Yet his heart is unmoved when Moses describes the ninth plague, darkness, in which blindness strikes everyone in Egypt except the Israelites.

After three days of darkness the pharaoh offers to let even the children go, as long as the Israelites leave their livestock behind.  Moses refuses, saying they need their flocks and herds to serve God.

“Because we will take from them la-avod Y-H-V-H, our god, and we will not know with what na-avod Y-H-V-H until we arrive there.”  (Exodus 10:26)

la-avod (לַעֲבֹד) = to serve.

na-avod (נַעֲבֹד) = we will serve.

Moses knows that God intends to take the Israelites out of Egypt and give them a new land.  Is he making up an excuse so that when the people leave for good they can take their animals with them?  Does the pharaoh ask them to leave their livestock behind because that it just what he suspects?  The pharaoh threatens to kill Moses if he ever sees his face again.

Then Moses gets angry, and tells the pharaoh about the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn.5  When it comes, the pharaoh and all the Egyptians practically push the Israelites out of the country.  But the pharaoh, accustomed to hardening his heart, changes his mind after they have left.  He sends an army to capture them.

Plague of the Firstborn, Spanish, 1490 CE

In next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, the Israelites believe they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the Reed Sea.

And they said to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you take us to die in the wilderness?  What is this you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?  Isn’t this the thing that we spoke to you [about] in Egypt, saying: Leave us, vena-avdah the Egyptians, because it is better for us avod the Egyptians than dying in the wilderness!”  (Exodus 14:11-12)

vena-avdah (וְנַעֲבְדָה) = and we will serve.

avod (עֲבֹד) = serving.

The Israelites would rather serve the reality they know, however grim, than serve the invisible source of the ten miraculous disasters.  God is an intangible idea that they are unable to trust.


I do not blame them.  Human beings are naturally suspicious of change and skeptical about new ideas.  We might experiment in small ways, but laying one’s life on the line is heroic and unusual—unless the boss orders it and everyone else is doing it, as in a war.  Given a choice between certain slavery and risking death, many of us would choose slavery and hope that things would improve in the future even if we take no action.

Yet when we read a story like the one in the book of Exodus, most of us root for the Israelites to stop serving the pharaoh and throw in their lot with God.  After all, serving God does not usually mean dying.  Only once in a while.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.  What if the choice is between going along with an immoral status quo or rebelling against it?  What do you choose?

  1. This jealousy appears even in the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:2-6.
  2. See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name on the sacred four-letter name of God, which I transliterate here as Y-H-V-H.
  3. Exodus 7:8-13.
  4. See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness.
  5. Exodus 8:21-28.
  6. Exodus chapter 11.


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