Archive for the ‘Talmud’ Category

To the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” these new lyrics (by me) capture the Biblical and midrashic stories about the enigmatic giant known as Og.

Og, the mighty giant, tall as he could be,

He held on tight to Noah’s Ark, to survive the mabul sea.


In the rain Og traveled, as the Teivah sailed,

It bobbed and rocked and shook and lurched, what a whale of a tale! Oh…


Og, the mighty giant, tall as he could be,

He held on tight to Noah’s Ark, to survive the mabul sea.


Og, the mighty giant, tall as he could be,

He held on tight to Noah’s Ark, to survive the mabul sea.


When Lot was living in Sedom, the Five Kings went to war,

Lot was captured when the five kings lost against the four.


Og tried to be clever, came and told Avram,

He hoped Avram would die but Avram fought with dirt and won.


Og, the mighty giant, tall as he could be,

He held on tight to Noah’s Ark, to survive the mabul sea.


Og, the mighty giant, tall as he could be,

He held on tight to Noah’s Ark, to survive the mabul sea.


Mighty King of Bashan, later Og became,

Everyone would tremble at the mention of his name.


Old King Og would try to destroy Avraham’s children,

Tried to squash B’ney Yisrael with a big mountain.


Humble Moshe jumped and struck Og’s ankle with his staff,

That’s how Og met his mighty end, he had not the last laugh.


Og, the Mighty Giant, thought that he was brave,

He didn’t know only Hashem has the power to save. Oh…


Og, the mighty giant, tall as he could be,

He held on tight to Noah’s Ark, to survive the mabul sea.


Og, the mighty giant, tall as he could be,

He held on tight to Noah’s Ark, to survive the mabul sea.

The Path of the Just (מסילת ישרים), Ch. 24:


We have already found that the great transcendent angels tremble and shudder constantly before the awesomeness of the Eternal, to such a degree that our Sages of blessed memory have said in a wise allegory (Chagigah 13B): ‘From where does the [Heavenly] River of Fire originate? From the sweat of the holy creatures [who serve the Eternal].’ And this is because of their awe of the exaltedness of the Blessed One that is constantly upon them, lest they detract, even if only in a small way, from the glory and sanctity that befits Him.

The matter of the controversy between the Academy of Hillel and the Academy of Shamai was a difficult matter for Israel, because of the great controversy that persisted between them. Ultimately, it was concluded that the halachah (law) would follow the opinion of the Academy of Hillel always. Therefore, that this conclusion should remain in full force forever and ever, and should not weaken under any circumstances, is the upkeep of the Torah, so that the Torah should not be made into two separate Torahs. Therefore… it is more pious to hold like the Academy of Hillel, even when this constitutes a leniency, rather than to act stringently like the Academy of Shamai. This principle should be as eyes for us to see upon which path dwells the light in truth and faithfulness to do that which is right in the eyes of God.”

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, The Path of the Just, Ch. 20

The virtue of piety also requires that one should not cause any creature to suffer, even animals, and should show mercy and compassion toward them. Similarly, it says (Proverbs 12:10): ‘The righteous man knows the soul of his beast.’ And there are those who are of the opinion that ‘causing an animal to suffer is a prohibition of the Torah’ (Shabbos 128B). And at the very least it is a Rabbinic enactment.

-Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Ch. 19

And every man should hasten to repent, and should be afraid that he will be punished for his sin before he [repents], as it is said, ‘Give honor to the Lord your God before it gets dark’ (Jeremiah 13:16), and it says, ‘And remember your Creator in the days of your youth, while the days of evil have not yet come…’ (Ecclesiastes 12:1). And it also is taught in Tractate Shabbath (153A), ‘Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘Repent one day before you die.’ Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him, ‘Does a person know on which day he will die?’ He said to them, ‘All the more so should a person repent today, lest he die tomorrow. Thence all his days he will be in repentance.’ And our Sages of blessed memory said in the first chapter of Tractace Rosh haShanah: ”Fortunate is the man who fears God.’ Fortunate is the man, and not the woman? It means, ‘Fortunate is the person who repents while he is a man.” And Rashi explains [this means] while he is a young man, in his strength, that is to say, he hurries to recognize his Creator before the days of old age, while he is a mighty man. And even though all repentence is excellent, even in one’s old age, as the verse states: ‘You cause man to repent until contrition (דכא)’ (Psalms 90:3), and our Sages of blessed memory said [this means] ‘until the time when life is crushed (דכדוכא) [i.e. old age]’ (Ruth Rabah to Ruth 3:13), nevertheless, the repentance that a man does during his youth, in his strength, is more desirable and acceptable before God.

(B’rith Avraham, Chapter 5)



From a letter by Samuel David Luzzatto, printed in a book in Hebrew titled “Karmey Shomeron,” on the topic of the “Samaritans” in Jewish history and literature.

Professor Luzzatto had become an expert in Syriac, the script of the ancient Samaritans, which was very similar to ancient Hebrew script. In this letter, he makes the case that the books of the Bible were originally written in this ancient Syriac script, then later adapted, based on an innovation of later Jewish scribes, to the “Assyrian” script in which our holy books are now written.

While this concept in itself is not novel, but actually is recorded in the Talmud, Luzzatto takes this one step further. According to Luzzatto, in transcribing the books of the Prophets from Syriac to Assyrian script, a number of errors crept into the text, based on the similarities between certain letters in Syriac script that became confused for one another. He uses this matrix to “correct” these errors and thereby explain a number of otherwise mysterious or inexplicable anomalies in these biblical books as we have them. Some in fact, are quite radical, and turn certain central Jewish traditions on their heads. But here and now is not the place to enumerate Luzzatto’s “edits,” nor do I endorse them, though I do find them interesting.

But what I really wanted to share here is Luzzatto’s defense of his strategy despite its seeming opposition to tradition. He pledges allegiance to Jewish tradition very powerfully and eloquently, stating that he only undertook these investigations to defend the Torah from its detractors among the Bible critics, Jew and non-Jew alike.

I wrote this explanation [of these biblical passages]… for my students over fifteen years ago, and from that time forward I made it known to the great wise men of the generation, so that perhaps they might find upright arguments to cast down my emendations and explanation, but they were unable. And even now, I do not proliferate this emendation to bring myself honor, but for the honor of the Torah and the truth of our faith, for after the opinions of Spinoza have spread throughout the world, and there have multiplied those who make themselves wise to prove the Torah false, and say Moses did not write it, rather that after a number of generations (once the stories had become distorted in the mouths of the masses) the stories were written in a book, I myself strove in all my writings… to put away and demolish these opinions, and to prove the antiquity of the text of our Torah, and the truth of the prophecy of our Prophets. I saw the need to make it known to the sly foxes (i.e. Bible critics), that while I am disgusted and abhorred by their counterfeit criticism, the upright and truthful criticism (i.e. analysis) has always been beloved to me, from my youth until this day. Even though I was not born upon the knees of the new German criticism (whose words I did not see or hear until I was twenty-eight years old), or on the contrary, because I was not born upon the knees of this counterfeit criticism, the purpose of which is only to ruin and destroy, and [whose perpetrators seek] only to increase their own prestige, rather I was born upon the knees of our Sages of blessed memory and Rashi and Rashbam, men of truth whose actions were truthful, who know their G-d is real, therefore they do not flatter him, therefore I merited that some hidden things have become revealed to me… and my faith in the antiquity of the Torah and the truth of the prophecy and the signs and the wonders is not because of an aversion to criticism, but because of honest criticism that seeks the truth and turns not away from anything, that is not shaken by the mockery of scoffers, and is not shamed by the scorn of the arrogant.

In the discussion of Solomon’s Temple in I Kings, a peculiar mystery of its architecture caught my attention.

וַיַּעַשׂ לַבָּיִת, חַלּוֹנֵי שְׁקֻפִים אֲטוּמִים.

He made for the Temple windows that were shekuphim atumim.
(I Kings 6:4)

“Shekuphim,” in modern Hebrew would be translated as “see-through,” based on the Hebrew root Sh-K-Ph, meaning “to look” or to “scope” (as the English “scope” is clearly related to the Hebrew). “Atumim” would translate as “sealed.” So to me, “shekuphim atumim” conjures up imagery of modern glass windows, that are “sealed” and “transparent.” However, glass was not used for windows historically until much later. So either Solomon’s Temple had one up on everyone technologically, which, by the way, is totally possible (more on this in a later post, perhaps), or shekuphim atumim means something else. But a window being see-through (open) and sealed (closed) at the same time without being glass seems to be an oxymoron.

JPS translates as follows:

And for the house he made windows broad within, and narrow without.

So “shekuphim” means “broad,” hence you can see through them, and “atumim” means narrow, more “closed.” But how did the translator know that the broad side was the inner, and the narrow side the outer?

I somehow remember that castle windows were made broad on the inside and narrow on the outside so it was harder for enemies to shoot into the castle windows, while easy for the castle defenders to shoot out of them. Perhaps this was the thought of the translator, though since this was not a castle, but a temple, presumably this architecture would have been pointless.

I also remember there being a reason for ancient structures to have the opposite window design, that is, narrow on the inside and broad on the outside. As I recall, this functioned as “air conditioning,” causing air to be pushed inward into the edifice, cooling the interior. That would make more sense here. So why does the translator think the windows were broad on the outside and narrow on the inside?

Let’s examine the comments of Rashi:

Our Rabbis explained: ‘shekuphim’ is a term of seeing, openness, looking. [The windows were] open on the outside, and ‘atumim’ (closed) inside, narrow inside, unlike other windows that are made for light. [The windows of the Temple were thus constructed] to show that the Temple did not need light [from outside].

In other words, according to Rashi, a window designed to be wide inside but narrow outside was to facilitate the spread of light on the inside, and was the typical structure of most windows. This may explain the translation. Ironically, however, Rashi notes that according to our Sages of blessed memory, the windows of the Temple were constructed oppositely, to highlight (no pun intended) that the Temple did not need natural light, implying that its source of illumination was perhaps supernatural.

Let us examine this statement from our Sages in its original context:

‘He made for the Temple broad (shekuphim), narrow (atumim) windows.’ It was taught: Broad on the outside and narrow on the inside, ‘[for] I (G-d) do not require illumination.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Menachoth 86B)

This comports with Rashi’s commentary to our verse, but Rashi’s comments to this passage of the Talmud are even more “illuminating”:

The narrow side of the threshold of the windows faced inward, while the broad side faced outward, so [the light of the Temple] would go forth and illuminate the world. (Emphasis added.)

But where indeed did Rashi get this last insight, that the windows were thus constructed so that the light of the Temple would go forth into the world?

My surmise is that if the sole purpose of windows that were narrow inside and broad outside was to show that the Temple did not need natural light, why have any windows at all? Rather, the windows must serve a purpose, which, if it is not to let light in, must be for light to go out.

In fact, I discovered that a midrash says this explicitly:

The Holy Temple had windows, and from there light would go forth to the world, as it says, ‘He made for the Temple broad, narrow windows.’ ‘Broad, narrow’ — They were narrow inside and broad outside in order to bring forth light to the world. (VaYikra Rabah 31:6)

Similarly, and perhaps more dramatically, in B’Midbar Rabah 15:1:

We find in many places that the Holy One Blessed is He commanded regarding the lighting of candles… The Holy One Blessed is He said to Moshe: ‘Not because I need candles did I command you to light candles, rather to grant Israel merit.’ … Know that this is so (that G-d does not need the light of man), for when a man builds a house, he makes for it windows that are narrow outside and broad inside so that the light will enter from the outside and illuminate the inside, but Solomon, who built the Holy Temple, did not do this, rather he made windows that were narrow inside and broad outside, so that the light would go forth from the Holy Temple and illuminate the outside, as it says, ‘He made for the Temple broad, narrow windows,’ to teach you that He is all light, and does not need [the light] of man. And why did He command them [to light candles]? To give them merit… ‘And not only this, but if you are careful to light the candles before Me, I shall light for you a Great Light in the End of Days.’ Therefore it says, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come… And nations shall walk in your light, and kings in the brightness of your luminescence’ (Isaiah 60:1-3).

(Also see Midrash Tanchuma, B’Haalothecha 2.)