Archive for June, 2014

There Are No Shortcuts in Character Refinement

In preparation for the fast of the 17th of Tamuz, 5774 (July 15, 2014), I offer here the words of Mishnah Berurah (549:1): “Every person is obligated to introspect on these [communal fast] days, and to examine one’s deeds and repent of them, for the principle obligation is not fasting… Fasting is merely a preparation for repentance (teshuvah). Therefore, those people who, when they fast, go on trips and engage in useless activities, have grasped the lesser obligation and forsaken the greater one. Nevertheless, one may not absolve oneself through repentance alone, for fasting on these days is a positive injunction from the prophets.”

“Choose for yourselves a bull!” Eliyahu called out to the crowd. Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal had arrived in response to the challenge of the lone prophet of the One God.

“Prepare yours first, for you are many,” Eliyahu instructed them, hardly concealing the tone of false deference, as though the Torah’s appeal to give preference to a majority extended to these adversaries of the Torah.

“Call out in the name of your gods,” Eliyahu continued, “but set no fire.” Nearby, a crowd of thousands of Israelites had gathered upon the mount, the precipice of which held Eliyahu and his opponents in this contest to determine to whom the hearts of Israel should pledge their allegiance — to the One God, or to Baal and his pantheon.

A rustle of voices emanated from the crowd of idolatrous prophets as a huddle of the leadership determined which of two similar cows to choose for their offering. After a brief murmur and shuffling of feet, a representative cadre of the prophets of Baal emerged from the mob and approached Eliyahu. Eliyahu stood back, gesturing toward the two bulls that stood dutifully and nobly together, awaiting their fate.

The Baalite group circled the pair of bulls, performing a careful perusal of the beasts with their eyes, assessing each creature’s worthiness. One of the men put his hand out toward one bull, looking up as he did so to catch the gaze of his cohorts. They looked back toward him, understanding his gesture, and nodded their assent.

The man took hold of the rope dangling from the bull’s halter and turned his back to Elijah, ready to proceed toward the waiting crowd of his fellows, and the men with him did likewise. He stepped forward, but as the rope grew taut, the bull, rather than follow, planted its hooves and resisted the prophet’s pull. The prophet stopped, confused, and turned back to face the bull. He tugged again at the rope, more forcefully this time, but with the same result. The bull did not budge. A third, more forceful attempt, the prophet’s face contorting in a reddish mix of frustration, indignation, and embarassment, could not overcome the bull’s tenacity.

The Baalite prophet’s companions, noticing the struggle, stopped to return to their friend’s side. As the one pulled the rope, the others pushed at the animal’s hind quarters, but to no avail.

Ashamed to look up at their opponent Eliyahu, they could nevertheless hear him stifle a chuckle. From his distant post, he stretched his arm forward warmly toward the second bull. As calmly and obediently as a faithful dog to its master of many years, the bull turned and trotted toward Eliyahu, allowing the prophet of God to caress its head and stroke its body as the animal drew itself up alongside the holy man.

A murmur came over the Israelite crowd as it witnessed the remarkable preference showed by the animals for the lone combatant.

But the matter was no wonder to Eliyahu. Given the choice of fates, to become an offering on the altar to the One True God, Creator, Sustainer and Master of the Universe, or to become the object of sacrifice to a false deity, and a disgrace to its Creator, what creature would choose the latter, or even go willingly if forced to do so?

The Baalites and their chosen beast remained locked in their contest of muscle and will. A second group of Baalite prophets dispatched themselves from the larger gathering to join their struggling cohorts. Taking up positions at all sides of the beast, they set upon it again, heaving with full force.

An audible crunch of gravel pierced the air as the bull, its breath heavy with resistance, began to slide forward, propelled by the combined force of its Baalite antagonists.

Desperate, the beast, letting out a mighty bellow, swung its horned head, throwing off those men restraining its front quarters. Upon seeing the ferocity of the beast aroused, those Baalites pushing at the animal’s back acted instinctively, some swiftly retreating to avoid becoming victim to the animal’s horns, others bracing the animal with even greater firmness. The latter group shortly regretted their bravery as the animal’s hind hooves, propelled by the leverage granted the beast by its liberated front quarters, transformed them into projectiles.

The now ferocious beast spun around and began a charge toward Eliyahu. A gasp engulfed the crowd of spectators. Any Baalite prophet who lay on the ground in the aftermath of the bull’s assault quickly scrambled before being trampled by the raging beast.

Eliyahu stood his ground calmly as the speeding animal swiftly closed the distance between them. Within just several bounds of Eliyahu’s post, the beast slowed its charge, and with a placid stride, approached the prophet with its head bowed.

Carefully avoiding injuring Eliyahu with its horns, the bull pressed its head against the Man of God, and, with tearful eyes, buried its face in his cloak. As though to comfort it, the second bull slid itself alongside the first, leaning its head upon its beastly brother in compassionate empathy.

Eliyahu squatted down, placing his hands on the cheeks of either animal. Looking into the eyes of the bull chosen by the prophets of Baal, Eliyahu whispered, “Go. You will both sanctify the name of God today.”

The beast returned the prophet’s gaze. With a deep breath and an understanding look that seemed to belie its animal nature, the bull raised itself on its haunches, and, holding its head high, began the march toward the Baalite camp with a regal stride. The prophets of Baal accompanied it alongside, unsure now who was leading whom.

(Based on Kings 18 v. 25-26 and Rashi’s comments there.)


Another source that the son of the widow of Tzorphath was Yonah (Jonah):

Pirkey d’Rabi Eliezer 33:

Rabbi Shimon said: It is through the power of charity that the dead are destined to be resurrected. From where do we learn this? From Eliyahu (Elijah) the Tishbite who would go from mountain to mountain and from cave to cave. He went to Tzorphat and a widow received him with great honor. She was the mother of Yonah (Jonah), and from her bread and from her oil he, she and her son ate and drank… After some days, her son became sick and died… The woman said to him, ‘Did you come to me to cause my iniquity to be remembered [i.e. because I am so deficient in merit compared to you, your presence causes me to appear wicked in G-d’s eyes (based on Rashi’s comments to Kings 17:18)] so that my son should die? Rather, take what you have brought me and bring me my son!’ Eliyahu stood up and prayed before the Holy One Blessed is He and said: ‘Master of the Universe, all the evils that have passed over me and over my head are not enough, but even this woman, whom I know has spoken against me harshly out of anguish over her son. Now the generations will learn that there is resurrection of the dead! Return the life of the boy!’ [G-d] accepted his [prayer].

Women and Tefillah

[NOTE: The word “tefilah” here connotes the silent meditative prayer, also called “Shemoneh Esreh” or “Amidah,” that forms the core of all Jewish prayer services.]

Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), Orach Chayim 106:1:

“Women… even though they are exempt from reciting the Sh’ma, are obligated in tefillah, because it is a positive commandment that is not time-bound.”

Mishnah Berurah, ad loc, 4:

“All this is according to the Rambam (Maimonides), that only the times for tefillah are from the Sages, but the principle commandment of tefillah is from the Torah, as it says, ”and to serve Him with all your heart’ — What is the service that is with the heart? This is tefillah,’ but that there is no known formula (i.e. wording) from the Torah, and one may pray with any wording that one desires and at any time that one desires. And once one prays, either by day or by night, one has fulfilled one’s obligation from the Torah. And Magen Avraham wrote that according to this reasoning it is the practice of the majority of women that they do not pray Shemoneh Esreh consistently by day or night, since they say in the morning, immediately after washing, some request (‘bakashah’), and they fulfill their obligation from the Torah with this, and it is possible that even the Sages did not obligate more. But the opinion of the Ramban (Nachmanides) is that the principle obligation of tefillah is from the Sages, that is, the Men of the Great Assembly, who established the eighteen blessings in their order, as obligatory to pray them morning (‘Shacharith’) and afternoon (‘Minchah’), and as optional in the evening (‘Arvith’). And even though this is a positive commandment from the Sages that is time-bound, and women are exempt from all positive time-bound commandments, even those from the Sages… even so [the Sages] obligated them to pray Shacharith and Minchah like men, since tefillah is a request for mercy, and this is the principle opinion, for this is the opinion of the majority of authorities… therefore it is correct to instruct the women to pray Shemoneh Esreh… All this is as regards Shacharith and Minchah, but the tefillah of Arvith which is optional, even though now all Israel has accepted it upon themselves as obligatory, nevertheless, the women did not accept it upon themselves, and the majority of them do not pray Arvith.”

Artwork by zbush --

Yonah ben Amitai being swallowed by the “big fish.”

In an earlier post, I quoted from Tana d’Vey Eliyahu Rabah a story about Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet) visiting a widow and instructing her to separate a portion of bread for him first as a sign that he (Eliyahu) would first come to the exile, followed by the redeemer. (Please read that story to understand my comments here.)

One interesting point in that midrash was that it identified the widow’s son as “Mashiach ben Yoseph” (see there), the title for a quasi-redeemer in Jewish oral tradition. We remarked there, amid our confusion, that there was no indication in the text as to the identity of this child.

However, upon perusal of another text, Yalkut Shimoni (Yonah, Ch. 1), we do find an interesting opinion regarding the identity of the widow’s son:

Yonah (Jonah) ben Amitay was from Asher, as it is written: ‘Asher did not remove the inhabitants of Ako and the inhabitants of Tzidon’ (Judges 1:31), and it is written (regarding Eliyahu): ‘Get up, go to Tzorphath which is of Tzidon… Behold, I have commanded there a widow to sustain you’ (I Kings 17:9), and Rabbi Eliezer taught: Yonah ben Amitay was the son of the widow of Tzorphath.

A second opinion there has it that Yonah is from the tribe of Zevulun (Zebulun), and the conclusion appears to be that his father was from Zevulun and mother (the widow) was from Asher.

Be that as it may, this midrash indicates the identity of the widow’s son as none other than the prophet Yonah (of the book of Yonah, or “Jonah”). Is this midrash at odds with Tana d’Vey Eliyahu?

Was this boy Yonah or Mashiach ben Yoseph? If he was from either Asher or Zevulun, then he was from neither of the tribes of Yoseph (Menasheh or Ephrayim). And in what way did he fulfill the role of Mashiach ben Yoseph?

While I admit ignorance regarding the full extent of the role of Mashiach ben Yoseph, I understand that he may be a redeemer for the nations of the world (as opposed to a redeemer for Israel particularly), as was Yoseph, who saved Egypt from a bitter end by famine, and rather, was able to sustain the entire world during the years of famine with the stores of food he had saved. “Son of Yoseph” could mean not a biological heir but a spiritual one, one who carries the mantle of Yoseph by also being a redeemer of the nations.

Yonah very much fulfilled this role as one who came to the people of Nineveh, a gentile city, to warn them of their impending doom. They repented and were saved. In this way there need not be seen any conflict between the two midrashim.

Perhaps now we understand the relevance of Eliyahu’s “sign to the world.” Since this child would become a harbinger to the nations of the world, it would be appropriate for him to carry Eliyahu’s message to them.

And what of Eliyahu’s message? Why should the nations of the world know that Eliyahu will come first and then the Son of David?

I don’t know, but my offhand guess is that just as Yonah came first to Nineveh to warn them, allowing them to repent and be saved, so too will the nations have a similar opportunity in the future, to return to the One True G-d before the arrival of Mashiach ben David, by which time it may be too late for repentance.

Dunno, just a thought.


6th installment in “Pinchas is Eliyahu” series.

Another source similar to the previous, but with noteworthy differences:

Tana d’Vey Eliyahu Rabah 18:

One time, our sages and other wise men were sitting in the study hall and arguing with one another, and they said: ‘From where does Elijah come?’ This one said from the seed of Rachel and this one said from the seed of Leah. While they were arguing with eachother, I came to them and stood before them and said to them: ‘My masters, I come from none other than the seed of Rachel!’ They said to me: ‘Offer a proof to your words!’ I said to them: ‘Does it not say in the genealogy of the tribe of Benjamin: ‘And Yaareshyah and Eliyah (Elijah) and Zichri the sons of Yerucham’ (I Chronicles 8:27)?’ They said to me: ‘Are you not a Kohen (priest)? Did you not say to the widow: ‘Make for me from there a small cake first and take it out for me, and for you and for your son make last’ (I Kings 17:13)?’ [NOTE: The Torah obligates that a small portion of dough must be separated out as a gift for a Kohen before the rest may be consumed. The Sages inferred from Elijah’s command to the widow in this verse that he was Kohen and therefore she must separate out a small portion for him first. -Me] I said to them: ‘That child [of the widow] was Mashiach ben Yoseph (Messiah the son of Joseph) , and I was alluding to the world that I will descend first to Babylon and afterwards the Son of David will come.’

Let me first say that I have no clear understanding of this passage. I am familiar with the concept of Mashiach ben Yoseph as a kind of quasi-redeemer that may come prior to the final redeemer, Mashiach ben David (Messiah son of David). I do not know the relevance here of the widow’s son being Mashiach ben Yoseph. It is difficult to understand how the boy was Mashiach ben Yoseph considering there is no indication of who this boy was and in what way he brought about any redemption. Furthermore, Eliyahu goes on to say that apportioning a loaf for him first was a sign to the world (not to this boy in particular) that he (Elijah) would come first to Babylon, and then the redeemer would come, and the redeemer he names is Mashiach ben David, not Mashiach ben Yoseph. So if you’re confused, so am I.

The point, however, of quoting this passage, was to bring out the following points:

-Here again, according to the text in front of me, Elijah declares his lineage as being from Binyamin (the seed of Rachel).
-The text states explicitly that the opposing opinion (that Elijah was of the seed of Leah) is that he was a Kohen, as we suspected based on the passage from Eliyah Zuta. This opinion would align with the view that Pinchas is Eliyahu. Nevertheless, Eliyahu rejects this suggestion.

The conclusion of this source, therefore, appears to score another point for the view that Pinchas was NOT Eliyahu.

5th installment in the series exploring whether Pinchas and Eliyahu are the same.

I feel it noteworthy that the title of this midrashic work, Tana d’Vey Eliyahu, literally means, “The Teaching of the House of Elijah.” This midrash purports to be information transmitted from Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet) himself to Rav Anan, a sage of the Talmudic era (circa 5th century CE). If true, this teaching represents the authoritative word of Elijah himself and ought to be granted especial weight, particularly on this subject.

From Tana D’Vey Eliyahu Zuta, Ch. 15:

Our Sages were sitting the study hall and saying, “From whence does Elijah come?” Some of them said that he comes from the seed of Rachel, and some of them said that he comes from the tribe of Gad, and some of them said that he comes from the seed of Leah. While they were sitting involved in this, Elijah came and stood before them. He said, “Our Sages, why are you distressed over this? I come from none other than the seed of Rachel!”

Note the similarity to the story from Midrash Rabah. I have quoted this midrash as well because of the addition of the opinion that Elijah was of the seed of Leah. This is a gamechanger because the Kohanim (priests) were of the tribe of Levi who was of the seed of Leah. Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron (Aharon) the High Priest, was of the seed of Leah. If Elijah was of the seed of Leah, then it becomes possible that he and Pinchas were the same. This opinion among the Sages may indeed be that voice from which the view that Pinchas is Elijah originates.

But what of it, you may ask. After all, Elijah appears at the end and clarifies the issue, concluding once and for all that he is a descendant of Rachel, confirming that view that he is of the tribe of Benjamin. So that’s that, right?

What complicates this conclusion is that there are alternative manuscripts of Tana d’Vey Eliyahu that indicate the opposite. In these versions, Eliyahu announces that he is of the seed of Leah, confirming the other opinion.

I have merely quoted the Tana d’Vey Eliyahu according to the standard printed version, which conforms to the Midrash Rabah quoted earlier. But as widely accepted a source as the midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni presents the text according to the opposite manuscript.

The conclusion from Tana d’Vey Eliyahu remains, therefore, ambiguous, scoring a full point for neither side, but setting an important precedent as the first source that does not absolutely contradict the possibility that Pinchas is Eliyahu, but might, according to some versions, even support it.