How Judaism Emerged from Hebraism

And Other Stuff About the Talmud That You Might Not Know

The “written” Torah, or TaNaK, contains the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings, or scrolls). The Oral Torah, or Mishna, was created long before the Hebrews were taken to Babylon in captivity, ca. 586 BCE. (The word mishna comes from the Hebrew root for “repeat” because it was transmitted orally from teacher to student.) The Mishna was put into writing ca. 200 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi.

Discussions about the Mishna, which include the parts of the Torah from which the Mishna is derived, are called the Gemara (from the word mara, meaning to learn or study.) The Gemara is written in Aramaic. Unlike the Mishna, which is relatively brief, the Gemara is long, convoluted, and meanders off topic – as, for example, in the rules for blessings, in which we find a lesson about why it is wrong to embarrass another person. Together, the Mishna and Gemara comprise the Talmud.

In the Gemara, the rabbis dissected the Mishna to determine what it said about Torah law. Although we find 36 ways to incur the death penalty in the Torah, and many in the Mishna, the rabbis in the Gemara gave so many rules to the courts that it became almost impossible to carry out the death sentence. They said any court handing down one death sentence in seven years is a bloody court.

The Mishna contains six sections, called orders or sederim (as in seder or siddur). These sections are:

Zeraim (seeds) – laws about agriculture and blessings over food;

Moed (times and festivals) – laws for the sabbath, holidays, and fasts;

Nashim (women) – laws about marriage, divorce, contracts, and vows;

Nezikin (damages) – civil and criminal law (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, is in this section);

Kodashim (holy things) – laws of kashrut and Temple sacrifices;

Toharot (purity) – ritual purity laws.

Each Order is divided into smaller books called Tractates. The Tractates are divided into chapters. The chapters are divided into smaller numbered sections called Mishnayot. The entire Mishna is made up of thousands of Mishnayot. Parts of the Mishna do not have a Gemara, as in Pirkei Avot, but where it appears, the commentary refers to both the Torah portion from which it is derived, and the Mishna itself.

Our rabbis lived in both Babylon and Judea, and discussed the Mishna in both places. Hence, we have two Talmuds – the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. Citations from Talmud indicate which of the two (the Bavli by default), the Tractate and folio (or daf, an Aramaic word for plank, board, or oar – because the arrangement of words on the page resembles an oar, with the Mishna at the top, the Gemara below, together forming a T-shape, with comments of later medieval rabbis to the sides.)

The Talmud is the beginning of Jewish law (the Torah describes Hebraic law). In it, the rabbis needed to determine the best way to preserve their religion once there was no longer a Temple at which to worship. The dinner table replaces the altar. Prayer replaces sacrifices. Jewish law was discussed in the Gemara over a 1000-year period, from about 586 BCE – 500 CE. The laws don’t appear in order, due to the meandering nature of the rabbis’ conversations. A rabbi from one century might argue with another from an earlier time, but their comments appear side by side as if they are together in the same room. The Gemara presents different perspectives on every issue. Some decisions remain up in the air until Elijah comes to provide a definitive answer.

12th century physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides, AKA the Rambam, compiled a summary of Jewish law in the Mishneh Torah. Joseph Caro, in 15th century Spain, put together his own separate list. Each of them chose what he liked, what made sense to him, probably, I would imagine, in the spirit of offering a concise overview much as I am attempting to do here. Both books omit the nuanced and multifaceted discussion that characterizes the Talmud, leaving us with plain legalism. When people study only the works of the Rambam and Caro, they miss the context. From these men, one might learn how to kasher a plate, but perhaps not the importance of feeding the hungry.

According to tradition, Israel was a small tribe under the Patriarchs. We lost our freedom in Egypt, sprouted a new nation under Moses and Joshua, and continued as such until the end of Solomon’s reign. Two Jewish states, Israel and Judea, emerged side by side. Israel was lost.  Judea was captured by Babylon.

The term “Sadducees” comes from the name of Zadok, the first High Priest of Solomon’s Temple (950 BCE-ish). Sadducees practiced the religion of Hebraism. Hebraism accepts only the Five Books of Moses; it discards the Prophetic texts and the Rabbinic texts, including the Talmud. The Hebrews didn’t believe in resurrection, an Afterlife, or a messiah. They did believe in a cult god who punishes in this lifetime, but this is not the universal God of Judaism. The Sadducees didn’t believe in direct prayer to God, but in the intercession of the priesthood through animal and grain sacrifices.

When the Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, and the two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, were taken to Babylon, they could no longer worship as Hebrews. Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the conditions of exile. While some of our people stayed in the Persian empire, others returned to Judea, where they lived under Greek rule and later Roman authority, with a short-lived period of independence in between, following the Bar Kochba rebellion.

During the first generation of religious teachers known as the Zugot (515 BCE – 70 CE), supporters of Hellenism gained control over the position of the High Priest, the Kohen HaGadol. Greek sympathizers were appointed to fill that role. The people elected a nasi, a chief of the courts, as an alternative to the corrupt Temple priests. Thus began a rift between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (separatists – the forerunners of modern Rabbinic Judaism). Pairs of Zugot led the Sanhedrin. One was the Nasi, and the other was called the Av Beit Din (literally “father of the court”) whose role was to oversee the judges.

Following the Hashmonian-Maccabean revolt (around 165 BCE), religious authority shifted from the priests to the courts. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Beit Din HaGadol, the High Court, ceased to exist. The Romans allowed the Sanhedrin to be re-established at Jamnia, but as the influence of Christianity grew, the Romans shut down the Sanhedrin in order to marginalize Judaism. Hillel (traditionally said to have lived from 110 BCE to 10 CE) and Shammai (b 50 BCE, d 30 CE) were the last pair of leaders of the Zugot period, and served at the time of King Herod (who lived ca. 74 BCE – 4 BCE).

The era of the Tannaim, 10-220 CE, began with the emergence of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, two schools of thought with very different perspectives on Jewish law. Disagreements between them appear throughout the Talmud. According to tradition, the Tannaim were the final transmitters of the Oral Law, which had been passed from teacher to student from the time of Moses. The Tannaim include approximately 120 sages whose views are recorded in the Mishna. The root tanna corresponds to the Aramaic word for the Hebrew shanah, which is also the root word for Mishna, meaning to repeat, or to teach. The Tannaim lived and taught from the time of the Roman occupation of Judea, through the destruction of the Second Temple, and the periods before and after the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Among them are Rabban Yohanan ben Zakki (40 BCE – 80 CE), Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, and Rabbi Judah HaNasi.

The Amoraim (200 CE – 500 CE) taught the Oral Law in Babylonia and Israel. Their debates were codified in the Gemara. 761 Amoraim are mentioned in both Talmuds. 367 lived in Israel from around 200-350 CE, and the other 394 lived in Babylon from around 200-500 CE. Amoraim is an Aramaic word that means “those who say.”

Savora, which means “reasoner,” is a term used in Jewish law and history to signify the rabbis who are credited with having given the Talmud much of its current structure, i.e. the editors. They did this work from approximately 500 CE – 700 CE. Modern scholars also use the plural stammaim for authors of unattributed statements in the Gemara. Classical rabbinic literature holds that the Babylonian Talmud was redacted into its final form ca.  550 CE. Some statements within classical rabbinic literature and later analysis suggest that the Bavli was smoothed over by the Savora’im, although little was altered.

The Geonim, from 589 CE to 1038 CE, preserved the transmission of Torah and halakhah, Jewish law. They taught the Talmud, and made legal decisions on issues for which no prior ruling existed. Geonim is the plural of Gaon, which means “pride” or “splendor” in Biblical Hebrew, and “genius” in modern Hebrew. The rabbis of the medieval period led the Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita in the Abbasid Caliphate. Their schools were the center of Jewish learning. They were consulted from abroad on matters of Jewish law. Their questions and answers were compiled to form what is known as the Responsa literature. Later Geonim consulted not only the Mishna and Talmud, but also the decisions made by their predecessors, whose opinions were generally regarded as authoritative. By the 10th century, as learning spread to other regions, Jewish communities consulted experts in their own countries.

The Rishonim lived in the 11th – 15th centuries. Rishon means “the first ones” and refers to rabbis who lived prior to the publication of The Shulkhan Aruch of Yosef Karo in 1563. The publication of the Shulkhan Aruch marks the transition from the era of Rishonim to that of the Acharonim, or “last ones” (from the 16th century to the present.)

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, the Acharonim cannot dispute the rulings of rabbis of previous periods unless they find support for their opinions in the positions of other rabbis from previous eras. The question of which prior rulings can or cannot be disputed has resulted in a need to determine exactly which rulings fall within this period. Some rabbis hold that Yosef Karo’s Beit Yosef has the halakhic status of a work of a Rishon, while the later Shulkhan Aruch has the status of a work of an Acharon.

The fervor and dedication applied to the interpretation of the Torah was a lot like a thousand-year chess tournament of International Grand Masters in which every square and every piece and every move and every conceivable arrangement of pieces carried enormous weight. The approach to the process of analysis pre-dates the Mishna. It was developed by many divergent schools of thought over an extended period.

Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, “This and also this are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). Eilu v’eilu emphasizes the incompleteness of any single opinion. The v’, which means ‘and,’ is essential, uniting and complementing the two opinions without choosing one or compromising the integrity of either. “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong” (Stephen Stills, 1966)

Commencing with the belief that the Torah comes directly from God, the rabbis determined that nothing in it could possibly be superfluous. They attributed significance to inflections, repetitions, forms of usage, and omissions in the language. No word, sound, verb tense, repetition of a passage, or letter was regarded as accidental. The rabbis investigated the gematria (numerological value of the words) to reveal information suggested by, but not explicit in, the Torah. For example, they infer that Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, took part in the battle at Damascus because the number of soldiers in the battle and the numerical value of the letters in his name are the same (318).

Torah was God’s blueprint for the creation of the universe. In Tractate Eruvin 13a, Rabbi Yishmael cautions his student Meir, as Meir is transcribing a new Torah scroll, “My son, be careful in your work, for your work is Heavenly. If you delete even one letter or add even one letter, you may destroy the whole world!”

What follows is a brief excerpt from a much longer discussion, which, while ostensibly about an egg, is actually, by way of analogy, about the 13 rules of Talmudic hermeneutics, which I include to give you a sense of the flavor of the process.


TRACT BETZAH (rules about YOM TOV [holidays])




An egg laid on a festival may be eaten on the same day. So says the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel, however, says it must not.  



To what kind of hen does the Mishna refer? If to a hen designed for eating, why then does the school of Hillel prohibit the eating of the egg? Is it not a part of the eatables which were prepared (for the festival)? If to a hen kept for laying eggs only, what is the reason of the school of Shammai, who permit to eat it? Is this not Muktzah [non-permitted object to even have around on shabbat or yom tov]?


If we suppose that the school of Shammai does not hold the theory of Muktzah, even then the eating of it could not be permitted, as it is a newborn thing, and even one who denies the theory of Muktzah should hold to the theory of Nolad (newborn thing). No, R’ Na’hman has declared that one who denies the theory of Muktzah denies also the theory of Nolad.


If so, then the school of Shammai will be in accordance with R’ Simeon (who denies the theory of Muktzah), and the school of Hillel will be in accordance with R’ Jehudah (who holds it); but this would not be the case, because did not R’ Na’hman state (in Tractate Sabbath) that the school of Hillel is always in accordance with R’ Simeon and the school of Shammai with R’ Jehudah?


R’ Na’hman may say: Because we found an anonymous Mishna (in Tract Sabbath, p. 375) which is in accordance with R’ Simeon, therefore he declares that concerning the Sabbath the school of Hillel holds with R’ Simeon, and concerning the festivals we found an anonymous Mishna (Sabbath, p. 375) in accordance with R’ Jehudah, therefore he declares that the school of Hillel is in accordance with R’ Jehudah, who is more rigorous.


Let us see: Who makes the Mishna anonymous? Rabbi (its editor). Why does he make it anonymous in regard to Sabbath in accordance with R’ Simeon, and in regard to festivals (makes it anonymous) according to R’ Jehudah? This is no question. Relating to Sabbath, which is so rigorous that it has a capital punishment and there is no fear that anyone will dare to disregard its rules, therefore Rabbi made an anonymous Mishna in accordance with the more lenient R’ Simeon; but relating to festivals, which have no capital punishment at all, and the rules are lenient, for fear that otherwise they may be disregarded, Rabbi made an anonymous Mishna in accordance with R’ Jehudah.


Now, then, if the Mishna means a hen which is kept for laying eggs, and the reason that the school of Hillel prohibits it is because the egg is Muktzah, why do they not differ about the hen itself? (whether it is permitted to eat it or not).


Therefore said Rabba: The Mishna refers to a hen kept for eating, and to a festival which falls after Sabbath; and the teaching of the school of Hillel is not for the reason of Muktzah, but of preparation; i.e., an egg which is laid today. Rabba is certain that it was ripe the preceding day, and it is in accordance with his theory, thus: It is written [Ex. xvi. 5]: “And it shall come to pass on the sixth day, when they prepare what they shall have brought in”; i.e., only on a week day shall anything be prepared for the Sabbath or for festivals, but nothing should be prepared on a festival for the Sabbath, and vice versa.

They go on like this for quite some time, expanding into a discussion of parallels between rules about fruit trees and fallen branches, the relative sanctity of different holidays, the time and circumstances under which the eggs were laid, and whether or not the hen crossed the road on a plank. The real topic is how to think. The rabbis always credit the source of any comment out of respect to teachers and the tradition.



A Living God in Derek Eretz

R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel begins God in Search of Man with the following:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.

Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions….There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.

In the Talmud Tractate of Derek Eretz Zuta, we find inspiration for living in a way that opens us to receive the miracle of each moment. Jewish spirituality includes a desire to honor life, to be awake to its possibilities, to cherish the ordinary until we see its beauty, to be amazed by the leaves on the trees, the sound of rain, the eyes of another person, the food we eat, the intricacies of our bodies, the magnificence of the solar system, etc. We also find in Derek Eretz a discussion of core values that highlight what we owe to each other as a society, including beliefs about such concerns as worker’s rights, freedom of religion, and responsible stewardship of the environment. The book Great is Peace: A Modern Commentary on Talmud Bavli Tractate Derek Eretz Zuta, which I co-authored with Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal, provides a complete translation of this important Tractate along with a line-by-line explanation of the text in contemporary language. Some of the values we hold dear appear in Derek Eretz as follows:

Be a good merchant, pay well, and strive always to do good….Our business ethics never say caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, but lifne iver, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind.


Love all creatures, and respect them….Jewish law requires us to prevent tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of living creatures.


Love doubtfulness (i.e. everything shall be doubtful to you until you convince yourself of it)….The love of doubtfulness – the love of critical thinking – leads us to the love of study.


Nine entered the Garden of Eden when they were still alive….Six of those allowed to enter Paradise were neither Hebrew nor Jewish. Two were converts. Three were ba’alim teshuvah, returning. “The righteous of all nations [religions] have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a).


Let your accounts always be correct, and your conduct excellent. Keep your promise….We must not relate to other human beings as if they are vehicles or obstacles to our goals.


Love righteousness….”Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Deut. 16:20). The Talmud explains that the first tzedek teaches us to judge by the letter of the law, and the second reminds us to live by the spirit of the law (Shnay Luchot HaBrit, Shoftim 101a.)


Seek peace, and pursue it….The pursuit of peace and justice are not time-bound [as are other commandments]. In places without them, we work to establish a peaceful and just environment.

The Actions Which Point to One’s Faith


The Torah is a Tree of Life, Aitz Chaim, to those who grasp onto it firmly (Proverbs 3:18). We first encounter the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9. It is one of two special trees in the Garden of Eden; the other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit of the second tree is forbidden to Adam. Eve eats from the Tree of Good and Evil, and Adam soon follows her example. Consequently, they lose their angelic purity, and become human. They acquire a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and a yetzer ha ra, an evil inclination.

Our Midrash tells us God intends for Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but not until after they eat from the Tree of Life. In other words, God wants them to first learn the ethical and spiritual message of the Torah, so that they will be able to listen to the yetzer tov and ignore the yetzer ha ra.

– Rabbi Arthur Segal

A year or so ago I began a series on Duties of the Heart, the 11th century classic by R’Bachya Ibn Paquda of Spain. In the first couple of hundred pages R’Paquda lays out his argument in support of the existence of God and our obligations to God. R’Paquda makes a distinction between what he calls “knowledge of the duties of the limbs,” and “knowledge of the duties of the heart.”  The duties of the limbs include the rituals which have been passed down by tradition. He argues that the duties of the heart, which “belong to the hidden, private realm” are no less obligatory than the ritual commandments, and in fact must precede them as the foundation of a spiritual life. “Since the very basis for an act, and what it revolves around, depends on the intention and inner life of the heart, the knowledge of the duties of the heart should come before the knowledge of the duties of the limbs.” The physical commandments are intended to serve as reminders to perform the spiritual commandments – ritual performed for its own sake, without kavenah, is empty. Furthermore, the duties of the heart are binding at all times, unlike the duties of the limbs which are schedule-dependent. What are the duties of the heart? For starters, R’Paquda finds five spiritual commandments in the Shema:  1) Hashem exists; 2) He is our God; 3) He is one; 4) we should love Him with all our hearts; 5) we should serve Him wholeheartedly.

In my search for texts on mussar, (Jewish self-improvement) I have found concepts identified but not described, i.e. character traits such as “humility.” What does that mean, exactly? Perhaps I know it when I see it, but how do I take my instincts to the level of intellectual understanding so that I can articulate my experience and check to see if I am living according to those ideals?

The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, by Rabbi Arthur Segal, provides a step-by-step guide to creating a spiritual inventory, or chesbon ha nefesh, an accounting of the soul. Rabbi Segal’s recent book, The Path and Wisdom for Living at Peace with Others, A Modern Commentary on Talmud Tractates Derek Eretz Zuta and Rabbah, Volume 1, offers the most precise and accessible working definition of spirituality that I have ever encountered. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how will we know when we’ve arrived? Derek Eretz was written approximately 1500-2000 years ago. The Sages describe, in great detail, a set of behavioral  ideals that can inform and illuminate one’s spiritual quest. Part history lesson, part mussar, Rabbi Segal’s commentary demystifies and explains these ancient texts in relatable, contemporary terms. This book has become my “go to” for clarity and peace of mind.

The Midrash teaches that all Jews are ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim, believers who are descendants of believers, but more important than faith itself are the actions which point to one’s faith. Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1810, Poland) said, “Whether a man really loves the Divine can be determined by the love he bears toward his fellow men.”

The Wisdom of the Inner Life (Part 3)

“What is too exalted for you, do not seek; what is hidden from you, do not investigate. Reflect on that which is permitted you; what is hidden is no concern of yours.” (Ben Sira 3:21-22)

At the core of the Jewish philosophical approach to living is a willingness to act as if God were unconditionally loving; as if the godliness in each person mattered; as if the universe were rich with significance.

R’ Bachya Ibn Paquda says all descriptions of God in the Torah should be recognized as metaphorical.

“It is impossible to apprehend any object of sensation without the sense that is suited for it; whoever tries to apprehend it with one of the other senses will fail. For example, if a person would try to apprehend a melody with his sense of sight, or colors with his sense of hearing, or tastes with his sense of touch, he would be unable to apprehend them, even a trace of them, even when they were present, because he seeks them by means of organs other than those suited for their perception….This is also true of the mind, which perceives intellectual matters directly and by way of [indirect] evidence. That which is close to it, the mind perceives directly; that which is remote and hidden from it, the mind perceives by way of evidence which implies it. Since the Creator, may He be exalted, is – in the essence of His glory – utterly hidden and infinitely remote from us, the mind can apprehend nothing of Him except His existence. And if the mind should try to grasp the true nature of the essence of His glory or to picture Him, [even] God’s existence – which is evident – will escape it, because it attempts something beyond its ability.”

He suggests a number of reasons for failure to recognize God’s participation in the universe: materialistic pursuits, self-seeking, taking the good things in life for granted, feelings of entitlement, or not viewing misfortune as an opportunity for growth. At the core of Jewish theology is the notion that everything comes from God, for God’s purposes, not our purposes. God owns everything. We don’t even own ourselves. Acceptance of this belief is the essence of the concept of humility in Judaism. Hence, R’Paquda suggests that we attempt to envision the final outcome of events. “You will discover something astonishing: Many things happen to us against our will, and yet we applaud their end result.” He’s saying that all events are inherently meaningful.

According to Paquda, we can verify the existence of God by reflecting on the wisdom embedded in the ordering of the natural world. We are to observe, analyze, and appreciate the workings of the human body, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the movement of the planets. The changing seasons, cycles of life and death, rain, the way plants grow from tiny seeds, and the way in which what we need for our survival is available in proportion to the need. R’Paquda cites numerous examples of the complexity of nature as proof of the existence of God. It is the “intelligent design” argument, but from centuries ago. When looking at the sky, “one beholds signs of power and wisdom which stagger the mind and are beyond description by the tongue.” The Creator organized the universe in a way that points to and reflects the Creator’s nature, “as a work of craftsmanship reflects the craftsman.” Existence is made of both material and spiritual elements, blended and fused so one sustains the other. He suggests that we think of how our bodies convert the plants and animals we eat into energy and flesh. We’ve been given a body made of rather mysterious ingredients. A soul has been joined to this body – the spirit of life (ruach ha-chayim). Yet, he continues, there was a time when humanity did not yet exist. A baby grows in the protection of its mother’s womb and is nourished until it’s time to be born – according to a schedule not our own. God gives the parents love to care for the child until he or she is capable of knowledge and wisdom. Somewhat poignantly, I thought, R’ Paquda believes it is a sign of God’s wisdom that a child doesn’t know about good and bad while dependent on others for his needs, because if the child knew, s/he would die of sorrow and anxiety.

Everything that comes from God, which means everything, is viewed as a gift. To repay God’s generosity, we should devote ourselves to God’s service, using what we need while abandoning luxury and excess. We should turn to spiritual growth as our primary focus. We should study human nature, and develop our intellects. The intellect allows us to understand things we can’t perceive with our senses. We can tell the difference between true and false, good and bad, what’s necessary, possible, or impossible. We can put other creatures to work for us. We can learn math, science, and the arts – abilities which reflect qualities God possesses. God gave us speech and language with which to communicate, form relationships, share our innermost selves, share information over the course of centuries, organize our thoughts, and manage our personal affairs. At the end of the day, all the things our bodies and brains can do are, for R’ Paquda, proof of God’s love. He says we should be further impressed by our God-given “faculties of the soul,” e.g. thought, memory, forgetting, shame, reason, speech. Although we innately “have shame before other human beings” (by which he means a sense of social obligation – to show kindness, to keep promises, etc.), we need to learn to feel “shame before God.” Why? God wants us to have free will. In effect, there’s no spiritual free lunch. If we want self-esteem, we need to earn it by doing acts of kindness, love, generosity, altruism, and compassion. When we develop this sense of “shame before the Creator,” and realize He is always with us, we acquire the humility to thank God for creating us and allowing us to be part of His universe. We become able to appreciate the love and care that went into every detail.

“…we come to know that we have a Creator Who is wise, everlasting, and one; Who has existed from all eternity, is infinite in power, and transcends time and space; Who is exalted above the qualities of His creatures and beyond their conception; Who is merciful, kind, and benevolent; Who is like nothing else, and nothing is like Him. Through the intellect we comprehend the wisdom, the power, and the mercy which pervade the universe; and we recognize the obligation to serve Him – as He is worthy of this and because of His benevolence.”

The ability of living things to move is spiritually significant. Every movement is tied to the Creator’s wish, guidance and Will “with the exception that” for human beings, God “has placed in your domain the choice between good and evil.”

“When this has become clear to you, pay attention to every move that you make. Be conscious of the body by which the Creator has tied you to Him; feel abashed before Him always and be in awe of Him; surrender to His judgment and accept His decrees. And so you will attain His favor, and your future will be bright, as it says in Scripture ‘He who trusts in God will be surrounded with love’ (Tehillim 32:10)”

Overview of Passing Over

Passover, or Pesach, begins on the 15th of the month of Nissan. It celebrates the Exodus and the inception of Hebraism, the creation of the Jewish People. (The so-called “Jewish” New Year, which takes place in the fall, is actually the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, and thus humanity.)


For seven or eight days there will be no leavened products, or chametz, in the home (barley, rye, oats, wheat, spelt, beer, liquor, rice, legumes.) We clean our houses to remove them. Chametz represents ego – being puffed up. In order to be truly free from our Inner Pharoah, we need to sweep ego from our lives, and make room for God. Mitzraim means Egypt, or slavery – a narrow, constricted place, as in the emotional paralysis or apathy following external slavery – the inability to claim autonomy, or being stuck.

“Leaven represents the evil impulse of the heart.” (Talmud Bavli Tractate Beracoth 17a.) We should seek to be as humble as a flat piece of unleavened matzah. (Talmud Bavli Tractate Pesachim.) We remove chametz to prepare for the responsibilities, commitments, and obligations that bring out our humanity and which represent true freedom.

A candle is used to search for chametz, just as the human soul is God’s candle for searching the world. According to R’Ishmael, searching with a candle symbolizes God’s mercy, as God says, “I will not search Jerusalem with the light of a torch, but only with the light of a lamp, the light of which is much smaller, so that great wrongdoing will be found out, but petty wrongdoing will not be found out.” A feather, or the lulav left over from Sukkot, may be used to sweep away the chametz, so no one touches it directly. After it is collected, the chametz may be burned. This would include all pieces larger than an olive. Alternatively, the chametz (e.g. bread) can be temporarily sold and bought back after the holiday, or it could be donated.

The Four Sons

The four sons we speak of in the Passover Seder may represent one person with different aspects: wise, evil, simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask a question – as Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal describes in his book The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, “a non-integrated person.” He explains that the rabbis taught Passover reveals the way to liberate ourselves. The story of Passover is not truly about teaching someone else, but about our inability to teach anyone until we ourselves have changed. In Kabbalah, the gematria (numerological value) of the word echad (one) is 13. 13 x 4 sons = 52. The word ben means son. Ben = 52. So, they say, we are talking about one person.

These aspects may also serve to address four different topics for discussion – the wise son, for example, may stand for the reasons we keep Torah. Most of my sources (myriad books, which I wish I had footnoted when I did this research) indicate the four sons are different types of people with whom we would communicate differently when we explain the meaning of rituals in the Seder. The wise son asks about the law God commands. To him, we would explain that we were slaves to Pharoah and God led us out of Egypt. The wicked son asks what this event means to you, thereby excluding himself from the proceedings. The wicked son is a person who just doesn’t get it – supposedly one who would not have been worthy of redemption, although personally I think redemption is a choice open to anyone at any time. The simple son just wants to know what’s going on. To him we would say God took us out of slavery and killed the first born of the Egyptians, thus every first-born Jew is dedicated to God. (I believe that because Egypt stands for Mitzraim, a narrow place within ourselves, the first-born son of the Egyptians represents the first impulses of the yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination). The son who doesn’t know how to ask is a the one to whom we offer information without being asked.

The Four Questions

Between 200 CE and 500 CE, the Mishnah lays out questions to be asked by a child. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we eat only unleavened bread? Because our ancestors had to leave Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. Why do we eat bitter herbs? To remind us of the bitterness of slavery. Why do we dip our food twice? The first time, it goes into the salt water to replace tears with gratitude. The second time, it goes into the charoset (a paste of chopped nuts, apples, raisins, and wine) to sweeten or lessen the pain of bitterness. Why do we recline? Because that’s what free people do. (Originally this question was about the roast lamb of the sacrifice. In the Temple era everyone brought a lamb.)

In Talmud Tractate Pesachim 116a, the Rabbis Shmuel and Rav debate the meanings of degradation and oppression, praiseworthiness and redemption. What is the redemptive process? Shmuel says it is physical freedom. Rav says it’s an inner, spiritual experience of God revealing Himself.

The Four Cups of Wine, and a Fifth

The four cups of wine correspond to the promises God makes in Exodus 6.6. God says, “I will” 1.) Free you from the labors of the Egyptians, 2.) Deliver you from their bondage, 3.) Redeem you with an outstretched arm and through ordinary chastisements, 4.) Take you to be My people. According to Kabbalah, four forces of spiritual impurity are removed. The fifth cup, for Elijah, is a remnant of a debate the Rabbis had over how many cups of wine should be part of the proceedings. They decided to have four, pour a fifth, and wait for Elijah to come and explain how many are correct. We might pour some of our wine into Elijah’s cup to symbolize everyone’s role in bringing about redemption.

The Afikomen

This is the matzah which is hidden until the end of the evening. According to custom, children look for it and exchange it for a gift or treat. Historically, afikomen could have meant a dessert, entertainment, other foods, or partying. Late in the Second Temple period, Pesach became a ritualized meal, modeled on the pattern of the Greek/Roman Symposium, or discussion banquet. The idea of reclining is based on a Roman custom of lying down to eat dinner. A haggadah is supposed to be a study tool. The Rabbis discussed the meaning of not being allowed to eat dessert after the Passover offering. To paraphrase Rashi, don’t take your utensils and eat somewhere else; stay with the group you’re with. In Hellenistic terms “epikomen” was orgiastic partying, and a symposium consisted of booze, music, and intellectual discussion. The Rabbis said not to follow the eating of the paschal lamb with party hopping and whoring. We should stay focused on the spiritual dimensions of the holiday. The three types of matzah (symbolizing the shared fate of the Jewish people – the Levites, the Israelites, and the Kohanim) may be a more recent add-on.

The Seder Plate

The shank bone, zeroah, on the seder plate is a remnant of the sacrificial offering, although according to halacha we’re to use a chicken bone instead of a lamb bone, or something else – some people use beets. The egg, baytsah, is for the regular offering. The bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. The charoset represents the mortar that the Israelites used to lay bricks in Egypt. (There is a story that apples are used in memory of the Israelite women in Egypt who had to give birth under the apple trees to protect their sons.) The parsley or other green vegetable, like celery, karpas, is for Spring. The salt water represents the tears and sweat of slavery.

Ritual Steps During the Seder

  1. Kiddush, the blessing over wine
  1. Urchatz, hand washing
  1. Karpas, eating the green vegetable
  1. Yachatz, breaking the matzah
  1. Maggid, the telling of the story
  1. Rachtzah, hand washing with a blessing
  1. Motzi, blessing before eating the matzah
  1. Eating the matzah
  1. Maror, eating the bitter herbs
  1. Korech, the sandwich of matzah, bitter herbs, and charoset
  1. Shulchan orech, eating the meal
  1. Tzafun, eating the afikomen
  1. Barech, blessing after eating
  1. Hallel, songs of praise
  1. Nirtzah, conclusion

The Second Passover

On the 14th of the month of Iyar, there is a second Passover which allows those who were ritually impure during the first Passover to accept the Hebraic offering of the paschal lamb. The Rabbis say this proves God is always giving us second chances to change from our egotistical selves, doing our own will, to spiritual people doing God’s will. Talmud Sotah 5a quotes God, “He [the ego-driven person] and I cannot dwell in the same world.”

Rabbi Irving Greenburg wrote in his book The Jewish Way that God cares because He intervened on behalf of the Israelite slaves. Human beings are meant to be free, even if oppression makes us passive and apathetic. Messianic redemption is like a large-scale Exodus.

The Wisdom of the Inner Life – Part Two

Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda says a wholehearted belief in the unity of God is the foundation of the duties of the heart and is the central truth of Judaism. He also says we must arrive at our belief in the unity of God as a result of our own intellectual examination of the concept:  “Understand it today and reflect on it in your heart: Hashem is the God in the heavens above and on the earth below.” (Devarim 4:39). Tradition is not a substitute for critical thinking. We have a spiritual obligation to investigate and decide for ourselves whether, for example, God exists or if God is One. Further, we should be able to explain via logic why God exists. Pakuqa’s arguments are as follows:

  • A thing does not make itself. If it already existed, there was nothing to do. If it didn’t exist yet, it couldn’t do anything.
  • There must be a first cause for everything in the universe, because if we trace the origin of each thing back as far as we can, we find there cannot have been an infinite series of causes.
  • Anything made up of parts must have been brought into existence, because the eternal cannot be finite.  While we’re too small to measure the outer reaches of the universe, it is still finite.
  • To say the world came into existence by chance is like saying a neatly printed page of text is the result of a spilled bottle of ink. The world is too complex, amazing, interesting, etc. to be an accident.

When Duties of the Heart was written, people didn’t know about elements, molecules, atoms, or sub-atomic particles, but they recognized common ingredients in Nature. To earth, air, fire, and water, Paquda adds motion (which I believe may be equated with time.) The breakdown of elements to their simplest components, he says, leads to the categories of matter and form, and finally to the First Cause, one Creator. The complexity of nature and its uniformity of design suggest to Paquda the involvement of only one Designer. If the world had more than one Designer, he argues, it wouldn’t have seamlessly interacting parts. “A work written by two different authors would be marked by diversity, lack of uniformity, inconsistency of style, and would fluctuate in quantity and character.”

While the idea of a First Cause suggests the universe has at least one Creator, the presence of more than one, he says, would be A) unnecessary; B) a possible source of disagreement (you know how hard it is to get anything done by committee); and C) if there were multiple creators with different characteristics, there would be separation between them, and if there were separation between them, they would have to be finite, and therefore would have had to be brought into existence. If more than one Creator were necessary, that would mean each would not be capable by itself, but would be dependent on the others, and therefore not omnipotent.  He writes, “The idea we should form in our minds of oneness is of absolute uniqueness and solitariness; that which has no association or comparison whatsoever, is totally devoid of plurality and number, and has been neither combined with anything nor separated from anything.”

The characteristics of oneness may be what Paquda calls accidental, in the sense that things collected or classified in groups may be called one (one group), or be of a composite nature such that they are “subject to creation and destruction, division, metamorphosis, combination and separation, change, transformation, and association.” Oneness may also appear in an absolute form, which Paquda describes as either theoretical, as in an abstract numerical concept, or actual, which is where he places God. Thus, the Jewish conceptualization of God “cannot be increased, changed, or transformed; nor can it be described by any one of the physical attributes. It is not subject to creation and destruction, or to any ending. It neither changes position nor moves.”  He also says that any property that exists in partial form in one thing must exist in pure form somewhere else, as heat can be transferred to water from fire, but heat is part of the essential nature of fire. The oneness of the Creator is transferred to various creations, but cannot exist within them purely.

He divides the Divine attributes into those of essence and action; essence referring to God’s unity and eternity, and action referring to behavior described in Scripture, as in the phrase, “God heard.” Our Early Masters, he explains, understood all such descriptions of God to be metaphorical. “We would all agree,” he writes, “that it was necessity that brought us to anthropomorphize the Creator.” The use of metaphor allows us to relate to a Creator we are not capable of imagining. “If it were possible for us to conceive of God’s true nature, He would not be identified to us by way of anything else.” We should take care never to take literally any description of God, because trying to comprehend the nature of God is like trying to hear a color or smell a sound. We are limited and incapable; “…for whatever can be imagined in our thoughts is something other than God.” We come to know Ha Shem (“the Name”) only through observation of Ha Shem’s works and through the traditions of our ancestors.

The Wisdom of the Inner Life – Part 1

“Counsel in a man’s heart is deep water; but a man of understanding can draw it out” (Mishlei 20:5).

Spanish rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda wrote Duties of the Heart in the latter half of the 11th century. In his book, he identifies what he considers to be spiritually obligatory. He writes, “Wisdom is the life of man’s spirit and the light of his intellect; it leads him to the will of God….” Because we can’t see God, we can only come to know God through observation of the world, and through the study of science, mathematics, and theology. To understand Torah and religion, we need an open mind, free of the obstructions of ego.

Paquda divides the wisdom of the Torah into what he calls “knowledge of the duties of the limbs,” and “knowledge of the duties of the heart.”  The duties of the limbs include the rituals which have been passed down by tradition. R’ Paquda argues that the duties of the heart, which “belong to the hidden, private realm” are no less obligatory than the ritual commandments, and in fact must precede them as the foundation of a religious life. “Since the very basis for an act, and what it revolves around, depend on the intention and inner life of the heart, the knowledge of the duties of the heart should come before the knowledge of the duties of the limbs.”

He finds five spiritual commandments in the Shema:  1) Ha Shem exists; 2) Ha Shem is our God; 3) God is one; 4) we should love God with all our hearts; 5) we should serve God wholeheartedly. Five physical ones: 1) teach them to your children; 2) speak of them; 3) bind them as a sign on your hand; 4) let them be a frontlet in the center of your head; 5) write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. The physical commandments are intended to serve as reminders to perform the spiritual commandments. Ritual performed for its own sake, without kavenah, true spiritual intention, is empty.

Other examples of spiritual commandments:

“Love Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words which I command you today must be on your heart (Devarim 6:5-6); To love Hashem your God, to obey His voice, and to attach yourself to Him (ibid 11:13); After Hashem your God should you walk, and Him should you fear (ibid. 13:5); Love your neighbor like yourself (Vayikra 19:18); And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God ask of you? Only that you fear God (Devarim 10:12); You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (ibid. 10:19.) Do not desire your neighbor’s wife. Do not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (ibid. 5:18.) Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people (Vayikra 19:18); Do not hate your brother in your heart (ibid. 19:17); Do not stray after your heart and eyes (Bemidbar 15:39); Do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted (Devarim 15:7).”

From the Talmud:

  • “The Merciful One wants the heart.” Sandhedrin 106b.
  • “The heart and the eye are the two agents of sin.” Yerushalmi, Berachos 1:8.
  • Throughout Pirkei Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers, found in the tractate on Damages)
  • Responses of the Sages to the question “On what merit have you reached such a ripe old age?” Megillah 27b.

The duties of the heart are binding at all times, unlike the duties of the limbs which are schedule-dependent.