On Translation, the Fasts of Tevet, the “December Dilemma,” and the Hebrew Language

Some thoughts on reviewing an essay I wrote back in 2002 about Asarah b’Tevet

Seth Ward

I posted this essay two days ago, as I wanted it to be posted before the Tenth of Tevet. I realized later that there were a few important corrections to minor points, and removed it to be reedited, which I have now accomplished.

While editing this morning I learned of the passing of Miriam Goldberg, the mother of Rabbi Goldberg, whose comments I discuss in the essay. Mrs. Goldberg was quite a lady, for decades and decades, the publisher of the Intermountain Jewish News. May her memory be a blessing.


This post is largely an essay I wrote some time ago. Even these remarks, before the essay, are based on something I wrote some time ago, although this introduction has been more carefully edited in 2017 than the essay below.

This essay – as it stands – talks about the importance of Hebrew and connects it to a “season” of fasts referred to in the liturgy of the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet. The starting point was a talk at the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue by Dr. Hillel Goldberg, also published as an essay in the Newspaper of which he is the Editor, the Intermountain Jewish News.

I have used some of the ideas I first developed in this essay in various ways in talks around the time of the Tenth of Tevet, a minor fast that falls in late December or early January. I have used this and related material about the Tenth of Tevet often over the past years to talk about one or more of five themes: Translation and Hebrew; the December Dilemma; Laying siege to Jerusalem (or learning about its destruction); Ha-Kaddish ha-Kelali and the way we remember the Holocaust; and Chaim Nachman Bialik. The first two relate not to the 10th of Tevet but to the 8th and 9th of the month; Bialik’s birthday was the 10th of Tevet, and it has been declared a day for remembering him.  Usually these talks—most often at the Allied Jewish Senior Apartments (now Kavod Senior Living), where I have run Sabbath morning services for over two decades, or at the EDOS or similar locations, and they are very limited in time, so I do not have the scope to develop the ideas at length.

I strongly support arguments for the necessity of Hebrew to understand Bible, and by extension, all of what we call “Torah” in the widest sense, and as a central value in Judaism. Perhaps this should be linked to the fast of the 8th of Tevet, found in an appendix to Megillat Ta’anit and copied into the Shulhan Arukh. Megillat Ta’anith is usually considered quite early; mostly assembled in the early first Christian assembly and completed in the early 2nd century, but the Hebrew commentary and appendix are usually considered to be much later.

It has not been possible to edit the essay below very much from that time, and I do not believe that I ever published it or posted it on a weblog. I did, however, collect primary sources, and organize it as a very brief “Shiur” in the EDOS. According to my records, the source sheet was prepared at the end of 2011.

The Fast of the 9th of Tevet may have been observed in the time of the Tannaim—the putative time of Megillat Taanit or in the early Islamic period, the time in which the appendix was written down, although I do not believe there much evidence for this. The most important reference to it actually being observed may well be Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud’s discussion of the death of Joseph Ha-Nagid in Spain (30 December 1066) at the hands of a popular uprising against the powerful vizier, inspired by an inflammatory antisemitic poem.

Some modern sources (including Internet discussions) talk about a “season” described by the 8th-9th and 10th of Tevet. There is some justification for this as some of the Selihot for the 10th of Tevet mention events such as the death of Ezra which are usually ascribed to the 8th or 9th, but I am not sure that this should be considered more than an erudite reference to some fasts listed in the list of fasts included in editions of Megillat Taanit and more importantly, in the Shulhan Arukh. These are fasts that are no longer relevant and mostly forgotten by the Jewish people. It seems to me important that our normative tradition has included references to these other observances in liturgical poetry, including the poem by Yosef ben Shmuel Bonfils (Tov Elem) recited in the Selihot for the day,[1]  but resisted the proliferation of references such as “five things[2] that happened on or near Asarah Be- Tevet” as a frequently-invoked passage in Mishnah Taanit (4:6) does with the 17th of Tammuz and especially with Tish’a Be-Av, when events of the 7th and 10th of Av are included. At least it has resisted doing so until the advent of the Internet.

In modern times though, the 10th of Tevet has added some new dimensions. It is also used to mark the Holocaust, without implying that anything happened on this day. The Israeli Rabbinate has declared it “The day of General Kaddish” and, for example, the British Book of Authorized Selihot by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld has included in the ritual for the Tenth of Tevet a modern piyyut by S. Fundaminsky (and edited by Rosenfeld) memorializing the victims of the Holocaust.[3] Perhaps it is significant to note that in November 2005, the United Nations adopted a Holocaust Memorial Day on the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, January 27, closer to the 10th of Tevet, rather than Israel’s Yom Ha-Zikkaron laSho’a ve-lagevurah “Holocaust and Heroism Day” in Nisan, usually April or May—although I would not argue the General Kaddish is linked in any way to the date of the liberation of Auschwitz or conversely, the Israeli initiative to have the UN establish January 27th as an international day of remembrance is linked to the 10th of Tevet in any way, without further research; neither linkage seems particularly likely to me at this stage.

As it happens, I had the opportunity to ask Rabbi David Stav about Ha-Kaddish Ha-Kelali this morning, after Shaharit on the Tenth of Tevet—and with Rosenfeld’s Selihot open to Fundaminsky’s poem. “מדברים על זה –“—“People speak about it” he said, but no one actually does anything about it

The 9th of Tevet has been suggested to be a dies natalis “birthdate” related to what was perceived as a calamity (see my essay); in our own times the Tenth of Tevet is noted as the natal day of Chaim Nachman Bialik, whose contributions to Hebrew language in general, to poetry, to awareness of Aggadah, to Hebrew literature and Zionist thought could easily be seen as nothing less than playing a key role in the restoration of Hebrew, part of the “beginning of the flowering of redemption.” Of particular note is Bialik’s important work of translation of the Aggadah from an archaic Hebrew register with many Aramaic words difficult for modern readers of Hebrew, into a more modern Hebrew retaining the flavor of Rabbinic language but fully accessible to contemporaries.

Looking over the essay, one of the thoughts that deserves better development than given in this essay is the whole “December Dilemma” idea. I referenced this concept in the title of the essay, but it is a more serious issue that deserves more than a reference to the Ninth of Tevet (or for that matter to the curious practice of Nittl Nacht, another topic I have lectured on and posted sources about).

Finally—the source sheet I developed for the talk at EDOS was not really designed for circulation. But I have edited it and posted it as well.

Seth Ward

On Translation, the Fasts of Tevet, the “December Dilemma,” and the Hebrew Language

Seth Ward

“. . . There is no short cut to the penetration of the Hebrew Bible. There is no escaping the study of the Hebrew language.”-Dr. Hillel Goldberg, Intermountain Jewish News, December 20, 2002

The centrality of Hebrew language study to understanding the Bible—and indeed to any Jewish endeavor—was eloquently voiced last year at this time by the Executive Editor of the Intermountain Jewish News, in the framework of an editorial largely based on a Devar Torah he had offered the previous Saturday morning. Based on the date in the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Goldberg used the occasion to discuss the Fasts of Tevet, including not only the Tenth of Tevet, a fast day observed in 2002 on Sunday, December 15, but the Eighth and Ninth of Tevet, using especially the Eighth of Tevet to argue passionately for the importance of the Hebrew language to understanding the Hebrew Bible and the values it mandates for Judaism. Indeed, Goldberg grounded the importance not merely in Rabbinic thought, but in Divine inspiration: He spoke of the Tenth of Tevet, as “marking a season, not simply a day;” in which case, the prophetic establishment of the Fast of Tevet—underscored by Goldberg—would include the message of the 8th and 9th as well. (I am not necessarily convinced that there are Prophetic grounds for either the establishment or meaning of the “Tevet Season” beyond the Tenth of Tevet, and tend to prefer the idea of Ibn Ezra (on Zechariah 8:18-19) that the fasts mentioned in that verse were instituted by the community, much as had been the fasts and feasts of Adar mentioned in Megillat Esther (9:27).[1]

The crucial value of Hebrew is indisputable in some circles, yet the reality of the American Jewish community is that it bears repeating from time to time. Goldberg’s talk suggests that the fasts of the second week of Tevet are a good time to reflect on Hebrew, on translation issues, and on understanding the Bible in the Diaspora, points to be addressed in the present essay. Indeed, it may be that this “season” relates explicitly to what is often called the “December Dilemma”—and offers better correctives.

  1. The Fasts of Tevet

While Jewish tradition knows of several events commemorated in the first half of Tevet, they are independent of each other. Jewish tradition recognizes only the 10th of Tevet as an obligatory public fast. Before the Internet, the 8th and 9th were sidebars to study of fasts and feasts in the Jewish calendar—miscellaneous dates put in postscripts and marginal notes, as we shall see. The Internet has not really changed this, but it has made several essays mentioning them more readily available.

The 10th of Tevet is one of four mandatory fasts mentioned, which are discussed at the very beginning of the section on laws of fasting in the Shulhan Arukh. (549:1). The four fasts are mentioned in the Biblical book of Zechariah (8:19), which also refers to the fasts of the fourth, fifth and seventh month. While the days of the month observed as Fast Days were presumably known in Zechariah’s time, they are the subject of Rabbinic discussion, including the precise date of the “Fast of the Tenth Month.” The discussion of this issue in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b) starts with the assumption that the fast is on the 10th of Tevet, the day in which G-d commands Ezekiel to “write the name of the day for on this very day the King of Babylonia set himself against (samakh) Jerusalem, this same day.” (Ezekiel 24:1-2). The date of the siege is also referred to in Jeremiah 39:1, and the nearly identical  passages Jeremiah 52:4-5 and 2 Kings 25:1-2. (Many commentators on the Shulhan Arukh passage combine language from Ezekiel and Jeremiah/Kings, but this is not done in the Talmud). A second view assigns it to the 5th of Tevet, when Ezekiel heard about the fall of Jerusalem from a refugee (Ez 33:21). This view is rejected.[2]

Both viewpoints recorded in the Talmud consider the Fast of the Tenth Month one of the four fasts instituted around the occurrences of the fall of Jerusalem. There is no assumption that there were multiple events associated with the same fast—as is the case for Ninth of Av and the 17th of Tammuz (Rosh Hashanah 18b). In modern times, however, the Israeli Rabbinate has declared the 10th of Tevet to be “The day of General Kaddish” (without indicating that anything in particular happened on this day. Presumably this is the reason that Rabbi Abraham I. Rosenfeld composed an elegy for the Six Million to be recited on this occasion, included his Authorized Selihot.

The 8th of Tevet is indeed one of the dates on which “evil befell our ancestors and it is suitable to fast on them,” according to a postscript to the laws of fasting in the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayyim 580:1-2). The 9th of Tevet is also mentioned as a fast day, although “no one knows why.” (580:2). This passage follows the Tur and is based largely on an appendix to Megillat Ta’anit. The main part of Megillat Ta’anit is a list of days on which fasting and in some cases eulogies were not permitted, which mostly dates to the time just before the Temple was destroyed, but the appendix is from much later, perhaps after the close of the Talmud.[3] In any case, it was “cancelled” by the Rabbis;[4] perhaps the reason that there is no mention of the minor fasts, for example, in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, although it was cited in other major compositions.[5]

Thus we see that neither the Fast of the 8th nor of the 9th of Tevet are part of Biblical, Prophetic or Talmudic discourse, and must be firmly distinguished from the Fast of the 10th of Tevet, one of four fasts relating to the fall of Jerusalem.

  1. 9th of Tevet: “The Fast of the Dies Natalis

The link to the “December Dilemma” rests in part on the identification of the 9th of Tevet. The appendix to Megillat Ta’anit says “Our Masters did not write what this was about.” Some assume this was the date of death of Ezra or of Ezra and Nehemiah, but several other dates of death are given for these individuals, including 2 Tevet (Ginzberg, Legends 6:447) and 10 Tevet itself. Moreover, it is hard to imagine why the Rabbis would have refused to write down the reason for a fast based on this event.

The medieval historian Ibn Da’ud wrote that the ancient fast presaged the assassination of Joseph Ha-Nagid in Granada on this day in 4827 (Saturday, December 30, 1066):

Indeed, a fast had been decreed for the ninth of Tebet as far back as the days of our ancient rabbis, who composed Megillat Ta ‘anit; but the reason had not been known. From this [incident] we see that they had pointed prophetically to this very day.[6]

The late E.J. Wiesenberg, author of articles about the Jewish months and calendar in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, connected this date with what he calls “the dies natalis in 3761.” (Article “Teveth”). Dies natalis means birthday; according to the calculations used today, the 9th of Tevet in the Jewish year 3761 corresponded with 25 December, 1 B.C.E.  His comment is based on an anonymous informant cited in the commentary Tosafot Hadashim in the Vilna edition of Megillat Ta’anit 22b: “I heard from a great man that on that day Oto ha-Ish [‘that man’—a reference to Jesus] was born,” although Wiesenberg, with his interest in chronology, could and probably did check the date out for himself.[7]

The celebration of the birth of oto ha-Ish on December 25 did not become standard for several centuries in the Christian world, nor was the dating of this event to 1 BCE standard before the publication of the Easter calculations of Dionysius Exiguus in the early 6th century—but this is consistent with the post-Talmudic dating of the appendix to Megillat Ta’anit.

It is interesting to speculate about the relative value of marking this occasion by a fast determined by the Jewish calendar. In Eastern Europe at least, some Jews marked the anniversary of this event by playing card-games—but as far as I can tell, they did so on the day celebrated by their Christian neighbors, not on the anniversary of the date in the Jewish calendar. The practice of card-playing on Christmas was described, for example, by the adventurer and author of Hatikva, Naphtali Hertz Imber, in an essay for the Rocky Mountain News.[8]

  1. The Fast of the Faulty Translation

We next must explore more fully the fast associated with the Eighth of Tevet. Megilat Ta’anit says: “On the eighth of Tevet, the Torah was written in Greek in the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness came to the land for three days.” A parallel text is found in the tractate Sofrim, “Scribes,” one of the “minor tractates” of the Talmud, and, like Megillat Ta’anit, strictly speaking, outside the normal canon of the Talmud. [9]  We read in Tractate Sofrim 1:7: “Five Elders wrote the Torah in Greek for Ptolemy. This day was as difficult for Israel as the day in which the Golden Calf was made, for lo hayta ha-torah yekhola lehitargem kol tzarkah the Torah could not be translated adequately.” No date is given for this event.

The next passage in Sofrim refers to the translation of the Bible by 72 elders, also arranged by Ptolemy, in which miraculously, all 72 produced identical translations even though they worked independently, and Sofrim notes 13 places in which they diverged from the Hebrew. This story is known from the Letter of Aristeas and is also referred to in the Talmud, Megilla 9a.

Neither passage equates it with sin or darkness, thus leading us to suggest that there are two distinct stories of translations ascribed to this period—one by five and one by 72 scholars. It is not clear that the stories ought to be combined as, for example, was suggested by the medieval chronicle Sefer Yuhasin by Abraham Zacuto.  Zacuto wrote that Ptolemy originally commissioned the translation of the five scholars and, unhappy with the result, gathered the 72. (It should be noted, however, that the editors of the traditional edition of Sofrim were aware of a different manuscript in which there is only one translation). Without further details, it is difficult to know whether the result of the Faulty Translation was merely theologically problematic, linked to a physical event remembered as “darkness,” or led to a particular repression memorialized on the 8th of Tevet. (Borrowing a thought from the “Dies Natalis” idea, can this be a reference to the days surrounding December 25 in 1 BCE?) In any event, the three days of darkness—which would be the 8th, 9th and 10th of Tevet—is the only reference I found in classic sources that is consistent with the notion expressed by Dr. Goldberg of a “season” for the Fast of Tevet.

  1. Translations in Judaism.

There are many remarks about translation and alphabets in Rabbinic works, including languages or scripts which could be used, and comments about various Greek and Aramaic translators. These are highly germane but only a limited discussion can be attempted here. In practice, the Torah has been translated often since the Greek versions, and most traditional Hebrew editions of the Pentateuch include a translation—the Targum Onkelos—as well as the commentary of Rashi, who cites it liberally and has no qualms about translating individual words into French.  Translations also became intrinsic to other texts: in Eastern Europe, Torah, Talmud, the Passover Haggadah and other texts were often studied and recited with a Yiddish translation for each phrase; many Sephardic and Eastern Jewish communities had line-by-line or paragraph-by-paragraph translations into Aramaic, Arabic or Ladino. Interestingly, Soferim puts the difficulty in past tense and describes it as a partial problem, “The Torah was not able to be translated adequately”—not “The Torah cannot be translated.”

This latter opinion is in fact the standard Islamic attitude towards scriptural translation, which may be stated as “the Qur’an is itself a miracle and not able to be translated at all.” Although translations of the Qur’an into English are readily available today, traditional Islamic cultures produced Persian or Turkish extended paraphrases, rather than exact translations. Children who could not understand Arabic memorized Qur’an passages in Arabic, never translations.

Unlike the situation in Islam, translation has been an accepted part of Jewish culture. The story of the translations referred to above shows reticence about translations—which are likely to be inadequate and lead to disaster. But it also shows that translations can succeed and must reflect the unique needs of the audience. Whatever issues there were originally, Judaism has come to value a literal understanding of scripture for all, including those who needed to follow along in their everyday language, not Hebrew. In ancient times there were translators who translated each verse as it was read—and were required to do so orally, without a text. “What is written down must remain written down, what is oral must remain oral.” Written texts were no doubt used, and even oral translations may not have been extemporized but memorized, but presumably an oral translation would be more likely to keep in tune with popular understanding than a written one.

Nevertheless, the Torah is always read in the synagogue in Hebrew. The Targum, the Yiddish or Ladino, or for that matter the English is printed or recited together with the Hebrew text in books available to congregants, but an all-Hebrew Torah Scroll is retained. Torah is recited in Hebrew, but interpreted in the language of the people. The practice which the Jewish community has by and large come to adopt is thus not the Greek-only version prepared for the non-Jewish monarch, but one in which translations are available but the Hebrew text is still privileged and paramount. Understanding it—in the kind of detail that translations and commentaries offer—is also intrinsic to our approach, as is the presence of the Hebrew, telling us we must understand the interpretation only in conjunction with the Hebrew text.

Curiously, parallels with attitudes towards scriptural translation in Islam and Christianity are also instructive here. Lacking the privileged position of the Hebrew or Arabic texts in Jewish and Islamic ritual, issues of translation seem far more explosive in Christian churches than they are in Judaism and Islam, although, to be sure, different approaches to translation issues clearly differentiate the translations adopted in the various Jewish movements.

  1. Translation vs. transliteration

Dr. Goldberg’s illustration for the inadequacy of translation of individual words was the Hebrew word baheret, usually understood as a kind of bright spot in the flesh. (According to both traditional Eastern European pronunciation and the unique transliteration system adopted by Artscroll, this word is transliterated baheres). Readers of the translation in the Artscroll Bible will find the transliteration rather than a translation of this Hebrew word.

Baheret is part of a passage on tzara‘at (Standard Eastern European Hebrew: tzoro’as, Artscroll  system: tzara’as), usually translated leprosy. Here, too, Artscroll finds it better to transliterate than to translate, with a lengthy comment explaining why they did so. Of course, many of the predecessors of Artscroll, including the Targum and Rashi printed in the Artscroll edition, were able to translate this word. One could therefore say that Artscroll also “did not translate the adequately,” to paraphrase the failure of the five translators, as they did not translate it at all. In other words, one might even argue, contra Goldberg, that the position adopted by Artscroll is open to the same criticism as that which is leveled at the Faulty Translation of 8th Tevet. To be sure, the account of the two translations does not tell us more about how the five translators failed. But it does tell us how the 72 succeeded. To be sure, it required the miraculous intervention of heaven, but they rendered potentially confusing passages in ways that made the Bible palatable and understandable to Greek readers. (One might still, however, argue that Artscroll is correct to prefer not to translate, not merely because the Torah cannot be translated but because in our days ein somkhin al ha-nes “one doesn’t rely on the miracle” that their editorial board would come up with exactly the right translation, as was reported regarding the translation of the 72.)

ArtScroll came to the conclusion that we cannot translate tzara’at at all. Once having made this conclusion, it is easy to understand why they found it difficult to translate some of the markers of leprosy. While it may be that those who understand Hebrew will immediately connect baheret with bahir “clear,” as is typical of most translations, the purpose of transliterating the term is paradoxically to tell us that we cannot make this connection—for   otherwise presumably Artscroll would have translated it!

ArtScroll comes to similar conclusions about the Tetragrammaton (ArtScroll generally renders Hashem; the Hebrew means “the Name”),[10] and many other Hebrew words.

This type of question comes up, perhaps, most frequently with names of holidays or unique practices or items for which there are either no equivalents in English, or the English equivalents are considered cumbersome, archaic or “non-Jewish.” In works produced a generation ago, one may have encountered Tabernacles or Pentecost to refer to Sukkot or Shavuot; these would probably be considered more typical of Christian usage today, as would the use of “Festival of Lights” and “dietary observance” for Chanukah or Kashrut in most contexts directed at a Jewish, synagogue audience.

Dr. Goldberg’s other example is a midrash about the wagons (‘agalot) sent by Joseph to Jacob, which were said to have reminded him of the portion of the Torah they had been studying together 22 years before (about ‘eglot, “calves” or more specifically about the eglah arufa Deut. 21:1ff.). Midrash almost always addresses specific issues raised by the language of a Biblical text. As many who follow recent trends in modern literary criticism can attest, all too often the midrashic endeavor is misunderstood and misappropriated (especially by those with limited Hebrew ability). Some midrashim-like the one cited here-would not occur to anyone who studies only in translation, indeed cannot be understood by those who cannot read or visualize the Hebrew alphabet. Yet this interpretation still would likely occur only to those familiar with the midrash, and frankly, the midrash is not necessary to understand the simple meaning this of the passage.

Every page of almost any Jewish commentary on the Bible is likely to have remarks, midrash, grammatical points or other statements for which Hebrew knowledge is indispensable. Goldberg explained the midrash well, and argues that the lesson it teaches about the power of parents and children studying Torah together is an important part of the Bible text itself. I am not sure that when he suggests that such meanings are “encoded” into the Hebrew text, he means they represent the literal sense of Scripture. But all translations interpret. Indeed, even not translating, for example, by using a transliteration or by using Hashem “the [Divine] Name” to refer to the Deity (as discussed elsewhere briefly in this essay) is a kind of interpretation. And it is important to draw the line somewhere between what is in the text, and what is derivable from the text or even “encoded” in it. From a traditional point of view, perhaps we should say that anything less negates the sanctity of the interpretive process—for the interpretations, no less than the Sacred Text itself, were, according to tradition, handed down at Sinai. If it is all in the text, then why bother with noting the sanctity of the commentary?

Indeed, all Jewish values are “encoded” into the study of Torah, and this study is “encoded” into all Jewish history, into all Jewish life. The Hebraic element is more obvious in Israel than in the diaspora; even totally secular discussions by totally secular people will make use of terms taken from Jewish tradition—the use of Hebrew making the reference more obvious. The argument for Hebrew should therefore be far more powerful: “there can be no escaping the study of the Hebrew language”-not merely for penetrating the Hebrew Bible but for gaining meaning and understanding of the practices and beliefs, ethical teachings, history and community imperatives of Judaism. Hebrew language is essential for a Jewish reading the Hebrew Bible-but also for understanding the enduring cultural and ethical achievements of our tradition.

  1. Hebrew and Diaspora

The Tenth of Tevet is not “a season” but it and the other two fasts are very suggestive for us when taken together, living here in the Diaspora. Perhaps the Megillat Ta’anit edition and Professor Wiesenberg are right and the 9th of Tevet is “The Fast of the Dies Natalis.” In this case it represents a particular view of the religious culture that happens to surround us. (If we accept this, however, we should also note that this interpretation was unknown to medieval chronographers like Ibn Daud, is not preserved in the standard sources, and had to be “discovered” in modern times).

If fast of the 10th is considered to have been instituted by Ezekiel, it is especially meaningful to us as the earliest practice initiated in the Diaspora to express solidarity with Jerusalem. In any case, the Four Fasts retained their prominence, but the other Fasts of Tevet did not: ultimately it was the centrality of Jerusalem that won out over the values enshrined in the other fast days.

The Fast of the Faulty Translation reflects upon something we do every day: explain Bible and Judaism to our neighbors, and to ourselves. It warns us that translation is necessarily incomplete, and if we cannot translate it to meet our needs completely, we run the risk of bringing darkness where we hoped to bring light, indeed, of going the way of those who worshiped the golden calf. To do so, we need Hebrew knowledge.

Prophecy ceased with Malachi, but our Jewish community continues to be strong. We saw with the Fast of Tevet that Ibn Ezra emphasized the role of the community in instituting and accepting the practice. So too, here: in the absence of miracles or prophets, it is the Jewish Community which has to uphold and affirm the value of Hebrew knowledge-here in the diaspora as well as in Israel-in communal events, Jewish  identity, ethical teachings as well as Bible study. We cannot simply derive a lesson from an obscure practices based on non-canonic Rabbinic literature-or simply point out instances of transliteration or midrash. We must actively seek to integrate Hebrew study and to promote Hebrew awareness, in our schools and congregations, in our agencies, in organized courses of study and individual classes run for adults.

Newspapers such as the Intermountain Jewish News are addressed to the Jewish community and can and should also seek ways to increase the visibility and indispensability of Hebrew in our community. Perhaps they can institute a column in Hebrew, or list Jewish educational institutions and available Hebrew courses the same way they list synagogues. Merely stating the importance of Hebrew and tying it to a discontinued observance does not do justice to the transcendent value of Hebrew for which Dr. Goldberg’s essay argued.

Seth Ward

[1] Discussion of the prophetic standing is linked in some sources to the question of whether the fasts associated with the destruction of the Temple were observed while the Temple was standing, and who ruled that this should be so; all this is beyond our scope here.

[2] Although in other contexts (e.g. the date of the Flood, where the start of the flood in the “second month” is said by some to refer to Marheshvan, the beginning of the rainy season) there is a discussion about whether the enumeration of the months starts from Nisan or some other point in the year, I am not aware of any attempt to place the fasts of Zechariah 8:19 in different months.

[3] Megillat Ta’anit, Vilna 5653. Viewed on line http://www.shechem.org/torah/megtan/tsomot.html (last checked July 23, 2003). This edition suggests that the appendix may be post-Talmudic, 21b, an opinion shared by the Encyclopedia Judaica, article “Megillat Ta’anit.”  Authorship is ascribed to a pre-Destruction figure, Shabbat 13b, with the possible exception of two dates, the events in the main part of the work predate the destruction of the Temple.

[4] On the cancellation of Megillat Ta’anit: Rosh Hashana 18b, Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:13, 16a.

[5] The Vilna edition indicates it was cited by Halachot Gedolot, Siddur Rav Amram Gaon, Mahzor Vitry p. 271, Kol Bo paragraph 63, Shahal (?) 275, and Tur OH. 580, with the Levush, Bet Yosef, and Ba”h, who cites a commentary on this by Rabbenu Asher. It has not been possible to check these sources comprehensively at this time.

[6] This comment was also found in medieval glosses to Megillat Ta’anit. Gerson Cohen, Sefer Ha-Qabbalah by Abraham Ibn Da’ud JPS 1967, English, p. 76 n., references Neubauer and Zulay for this. On sources of the fast he references Lieberman, Shkiin 10, and refers also to Margoliot Areshet 1943-44 pp. 215ff. and Zimmels Ashkenazim and Sephardim, p, 160. I have not yet been able to examine these sources.

[7] A footnote reconstructs the calendar date for Tekufat Tevet, citing the work of Refael Gordon in Nahal Eden. I have not been able to examine this source. According to my computer program, applying today’s calculated calendar to the date 9 Tevet 3761, the corresponding date is Saturday, December 25, 1 BCE.

[8] Thanks to Jeanne Abrams for originally providing me with this reference many years ago.

[9] I have used the traditional Vilna Talmud edition of Sofrim.

[10] In editing these comments, I note that overall, ArtScroll’s rendering of the Tetragrammaton—the “four letter name” of the Deity—as Hashem, “the Name,” is somewhat dependent upon the way “the Name” is pronounced, and possibly on whether it is considered “holy” or “profane.” Obviously, the Tetragrammaton remains “The Name” regardless of the pronunciation used in synagogue reading of the Torah, or for that matter in the cases where tradition asserts that the Tetragrammaton in fact does not refer to God. For example, in Gen. 15:2, Abraham addresses the Deity in a way that is pronounced the same way, according to tradition, as the Divine reference in Gen 2:5; except the usage in 15:2 is often rendered “Lord GOD,” with the capital letters refer to the fact that the Tetragrammaton is used for the second term, unlike the usage for the first term in Gen. 2:5. ArtScroll renders the Divine reference in Gen. 15:2 as “Lord HASHEM/ELOHIM” (see also Deut. 3:24).

I note with interest that ArtScroll discusses profane and holy references to the Deity (See Talmud tractate Shevuot 35b) in Gen. 18. Interestingly, the first reference to the Tetragrammaton in this chapter is not discussed as “profane” vs. “holy” but is rendered “Hashem” rather than “HASHEM.”

But note that Hashem is used in ArtScroll Bibles designed for the public reading of Torah and in prayer books, even though one does not say “Hashem” in public reading of the Torah or in actual prayer, or pronouncing benedictions. In Hebrew practice (and the everyday English practice among many religious Jews), “Hashem” is an everyday reference to the Deity that may be pronounced without worrying about pronouncing a sacred name in a profane context—but would not be used when actually pronouncing a benediction or reading the Torah in public.

[1] Rosenfeld dates this poem to 1050, and it is found in all the liturgies for the Tenth of Tevet that I looked at.

[2] דברים “things”—although many of the references talk about five “events” or five “calamities” or Mishnah text has the more neutral “things happened.” Although all of them are treated as setbacks potentially worthy of declaring a fast day, I note the neutral-language introduction because I often include a discussion of Bialik and the recitations associated with Ha-Kaddish HaKelali when I have given short talks on the subject.

[3] The Authorized Selihot apparently dates form 1956 although I was able to examine only an edition from 1984. The piyyut is very beautiful. I could not quickly find much about Dr. Shlomo Fundaminsky, who was active for years in the London Board for Jewish Religious Education, and wrote books such as Modern Hebrew Composition Course and New Hebrew Grammar. A grammarian, he was cited by a blogger for publishing a letter-to-the-editor during a commenting that there is a dagesh in the ז אשכנזי that should be respected, and the term transliterated “Ashkenazzi” (with two z’s). I do not think that this necessarily had anything to do with Fundaminsky’s beliefs about whether religious education or synagogue pronunciation should or should not switch to modern Israeli pronunciation, as the blogger seemed to infer. But I am grateful to one of his respondents, who included a brief appreciation of Dr. Fundaminsky. . http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2012/01/on-hebrew-pronunciation-controversy-in.html

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Postings for Hanukkah


This is a posting with two versions of a Hanukkah Booklet. The first has two very short essays about dreidels, latkes and doughnuts, and about the “Daughters’ Festival” (עיד אלבנאת –חג הבנותId al-banat, or Chag ha-banot). The second variant lacks these short essays but has full Russian transliterations and translations of the songs.


This post includes a booklet I prepared for Hallel at the Kavod Senior Living services, with full translation and transliteration.

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Thanksgiving Torah

Thanksgiving Values—Dr. Seth Ward—Nov. 2016.

From time to time Thanksgiving has provided an opportunity to study various perspectives of Thanksgiving from Biblical and Jewish traditions. This brief study guide is adapted from my classes reading Hebrew and what I now call “Wyoming Union Torah Study. It looks at a few Psalm texts (Including Ps. 100 the “Thanksgiving Psalm.” The KJV translation of v. 1 is more famous than the one used here: “Make a joyful noise.” This sheet goes on to cover prayer texts, the biblical “Thanksgiving Offering,” and the Thanksgiving Blessing as it is constituted in post-Biblical Judaism. 

Originally just a source sheet or a source sheet with a few web links, it has been possible only to add a few comments—more complete commentary on these texts is certainly indicated! But the comments I’ve added are about what I can manage at present. I hope those interested in studying Torah in honor of Thanksgiving Day will find this useful!


Thanksgiving Psalm–Psalm 100 (with the JPS1917 translation) Mechon Mamre website

א  מִזְמוֹר לְתוֹדָה: הָרִיעוּ לַיהוָה, כָּל-הָאָרֶץ. 1 A Psalm of Thanksgiving. Shout unto the LORD, all the earth.
ב  עִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה בְּשִׂמְחָה; בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו, בִּרְנָנָה. 2 Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing.
ג  דְּעוּ–    כִּי יְהוָה, הוּא אֱלֹהִים:
הוּא-עָשָׂנוּ, ולא (וְלוֹ) אֲנַחְנוּ–עַמּוֹ, וְצֹאן מַרְעִיתוֹ.
3 Know ye that the LORD He is God; {N} it is He that hath made us, and we are His, His people, and the flock of His pasture.
ד  בֹּאוּ שְׁעָרָיו, בְּתוֹדָה–חֲצֵרֹתָיו בִּתְהִלָּה; הוֹדוּ-לוֹ, בָּרְכוּ שְׁמוֹ. 4 Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise; give thanks unto Him, and bless His name.
ה  כִּי-טוֹב יְהוָה, לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ  וְעַד-דֹּר וָדֹר, אֱמוּנָתוֹ. 5 For the LORD is good; His mercy endureth for ever; and His faithfulness unto all generations. {P}

Some performances: settings by Janowsky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ytoibVs7NI

Lewandowsky (apparently sung as originally published, in German, but I am not sure) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbptV3f3_Ro  (S. Adler published an edition with the Hebrew text).

Leonard Bernstein, most of the 1st movement of Chichester Psalms is Ps. 100. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Yhnml4DW9g beginning at about 1:19.

Ps. 118 (short selection) again from the Mechon Mamre website:

א  הוֹדוּ לַיהוָה כִּי-טוֹב:    כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ. 1 ‘O give thanks unto the LORD, for He is good, for His mercy endureth for ever.’
ב  יֹאמַר-נָא יִשְׂרָאֵל:    כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ. 2 So let Israel now say, for His mercy endureth for ever,
ג  יֹאמְרוּ-נָא בֵית-אַהֲרֹן:    כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ. 3 So let the house of Aaron now say, for His mercy endureth for ever.
ד  יֹאמְרוּ-נָא יִרְאֵי יְהוָה:    כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ. 4 So let them now that fear the LORD say, for His mercy endureth for ever.


T’filat Modim

מוֹדִים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ שֶׁאַתָּה הוּא ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֶאֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֵד,
צוּרֵנוּ צוּר חַיֵּינוּ, מָגֵן יִּשְעֵנוּ אַתָּה הוּא לְדוֹר וַדוֹר.
נוֹדֶה לְךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתךָ עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדְךָ
וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ הַפְּקֻדּוֹת לָךְ,
וְעַל נִסֵיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָנוּ,
וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת, עֶרֶב וּבֹקֶר וְצָהֳרַיִם.
הַטּוֹב – כִּי לֹא כָּלוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ, וְהַמְּרַחֵם – כִּי לֹא תַּמּוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ, כִּי מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּינוּ לָךְ.

We thank you in that you are the LORD our God and the God of our ancestors for ever. Our Rock and Rock of our lives, the shield of our salvation are You for all generations. We give thanks to you and tell of Your praise over our lives that are bound to your hand, and our souls that are in your care, and on your miracles with us daily and your wonders and beneficence at all times, evening, morning, and noon. The All Good, for your mercies have not ceased, and the All Merciful, for we have always hoped in You.

This is hardly the only “thanksgiving” that is part of the daily prayer service. The Thanksgiving Psalm (Ps. 100) is included almost every weekday as well, for example. Psalm 118, a portion of which is given above, is part of Hallel, a Service of Praise recited on Hanukkah, Festivals, and Rosh Hodesh. We should not only ask for what we need—health, success etc.—but be grateful for what we’ve received. Most Jewish prayer books have a “thanksgiving blessing”—birkat ha-gomel—see below. And traditional prayerbooks include a chapter from Mishnah Zevahim about various characteristics of the Temple offerings, and of course the Thanksgiving Offering is found there as well. 


The תודה Todah Thanksgiving Offering is the first in the list of שלמים , shelamim, often translated as “fellowship” offerings.  These were clearly designed for personal or family celebrations with most of the offering consumed by those making the offering rather than completely burned or given to the priest.

The traditional understanding in Jewish texts — written down after the second Temple was destroyed– is that the Thanksgiving offering was made in recognition of various miracles, of surviving a journey by sea or through wilderness, being released from prison, or being cured of a dangerous illness– this reconstruction is based on Ps 107 21-22. If someone offers a Shelamim peace offering based on one of these occurrences it is a Thanksgiving offering and these rules apply.

Today there is no Qorban Todah (Thanksgiving Offering) and Jewish practice includes a short benediction recited within three days of an overseas journey, release from hospital etc. during the Torah reading. We will return to this in a moment.

The Biblical Todah offering–Leviticus 7:12ff.

“ ‘These are the regulations for the fellowship offering a person may present to the LORD:

12 “ ‘If he offers it as an expression of thankfulness, then along with this thank offering unction is based on he is to offer cakes of bread made without yeast and mixed with oil, wafers made without yeast and spread with oil, and cakes of fine flour well-kneaded and mixed with oil. 13 Along with his fellowship offering of thanksgiving he is to present an offering with cakes of bread made with yeast. 14 He is to bring one of each kind as an offering, a contribution to the LORD; it belongs to the priest who sprinkles the blood of the fellowship offerings. 15 The meat of his fellowship offering of thanksgiving must be eaten on the day it is offered; he must leave none of it till morning.

So we see four types of bread offerings! Rabbis ruled that there were ten of each type.

  1. Cakes of bread without yeast mixed with oil
  2. Cakes of fine flour mixed with oil
  3. Wafers without yeast
  4. Bread made with yeast.

    The first three are all basically different types of “matzah” although probably more like what we would make at home with a bread dough or cake dough or semolina, without yeast.

See also Lev. 22:29-30. (JPS 1917).

29 And when ye sacrifice a sacrifice of thanksgiving unto the LORD, ye shall sacrifice it that ye may be accepted. 30 On the same day it shall be eaten; ye shall leave none of it until the morning: I am the LORD.

  1. An interesting Catholic article.

English Wikipedia on Todah references an interesting piece that connects the Eucharist “thanksgiving” to the Todah offering.

http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/from-jewish-passover-to-christian-eucharist-the-story-of-the-todah.html . (This is not an official Catholic website run by the Vatican or an archdiocese).

The author of this piece suggests that the Todah offering might be a model for the Eucharist, although he stops short of adopting it completely. And of course it is rejected by Christian liturgical practice, at least to the extent that Lev. 7 11ff. require *both* leavened and unleavened bread (actually four different types of bread). Catholics use a single type: unleavened, and Greeks use leavened, I am not aware of any Christian tradition that uses both. Nor do Christian traditions address the volume expected in the bread of the Thanksgiving offering.  Note that these observations may not be significant as Christian tradition generally is not particularly interested in this level of legal detail in Old Testament sources. It is noteworthy though–as the article notes–the archetypical offering of Christian worship is called Eucharist “Thanksgiving” in Catholic and Greek traditions.  Nevertheless, it may well be that “giving thanks” here is a references to what today Jews would call “saying the blessing” that begins Barukh atta… “Blessed are you….”, giving thanks to God for “bringing forth bread from the earth.”

Leavened bread is required for the Thanksgiving Offering, and for this reason, Ps. 100 “The Thanksgiving Psalm” is not recited on the morning before Passover or during Passover.

The rabbinic understanding of the Thanksgiving Offering also suggests that the celebrant prepared 40 loaves, ten of each type, with one of each type going to the Priests—but the rest, like the meat—to be consumed immediately. The Todah schedule involved limited time for consumption–and no leftovers “he shall not leave any of it for morning.”  (Unlike our Thanksgiving dinners today, that usually have plenty of leftovers.)  

One of the sources cited by this article is a passage in Pesiqta deRab Kahana, in which the Thanksgiving Offering is considered the only Offering that will persist in “the age to come” – presumably a reference to the reestablishment of Temple worship. This may either be contrasted with many rulings that the entire worship service of the Temple will be reconstituted, or be compared with similar discussions of the limited preservation or cancellation of various offerings and observances in “time to come.”

Pesiqta deRab Kahana, 9:12

here in a translation by the late Jacob Neusner (with Neusner’s assessment of how the Pesiqta d.r.Kahana understood Jeremiah 33:11.)


Hebrew text http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/vl/psiktakahana/psiktakahana10.pdf, end of Ch. 11,  p. 79a.


The blessing and response

The person giving thanks says: Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the universe, Who bestows kindness upon the culpable, for He has bestowed goodness to me.

Those who hear the blessing being said should answer Amen followed by: “May He who has bestowed beneficence upon you always bestow every beneficence upon you.” 

It is found in most prayer books.

Traditional sources advise that it is said by

  1. a) One who has crossed the ocean (an overseas flight travel, etc.)
  2. b) One who has crossed the desert
  3. c) One who recovered from a very serious illness
  4. d) One who was released from prison.

In many communities, women traditionally also say Birkat HaGomel after giving birth.

This is based on this Talmudic passage, which in turn is based on a passage in Ps. 107.

  1. Berakhot 54B

Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: There are four [classes of people] who have to offer thanksgiving: those who have crossed the sea, those who have traversed the wilderness, one who has recovered from an illness, and a prisoner who has been set free. Whence do we know this of those who cross the sea? — Because it is written, They that go down to the sea in ships … these saw the works of the Lord … He raised the stormy wind … they mounted up to the heaven, they went down to the deeps … they reeled to and fro and staggered like a drunken man … they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distresses. He made the storm a calm … then were they glad because they were quiet … Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy, and for His wonderful works to the children of men.18  Whence for those who traverse the desert? — Because it is written: They wandered in the wilderness in a desert way; they found no city of habitation … Then they cried unto the Lord … and He led them by a straight way … Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy.19  Whence for one who recovers from an illness? — Because it is written: Crazed because of the way of their transgressions and afflicted because of their iniquities, their soul abhorred all manner of food … They cried unto the Lord in their trouble. He sent His word unto them … Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy.20  Whence for a prisoner who was set free? — Because it is written: Such as sat in darkness and in the shadow of death … Because they rebelled against the words of God … Therefore He humbled their heart with travail … They cried unto the Lord in their trouble … He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death … Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercy.21  What blessing should he say? Rab Judah said: ‘Blessed is He who bestows lovingkindnesses’. Abaye said: And he must utter his thanksgiving in the presence of ten, as it is written: Let them exalt Him in the assembly of the people.22  Mar Zutra said: And two of them must be rabbis, as it says, And praise Him in the seat of the elders.23  R. Ashi demurred to this: You might as well say [he remarked], that all should be rabbis! — Is it written, ‘In the assembly of elders’? It is written, ‘In the assembly of the people’! — Let us say then, in the presence of ten ordinary people and two rabbis [in addition]? — This is a difficulty.

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב ארבעה צריכין להודות יורדי הים הולכי מדברות ומי שהיה חולה ונתרפא ומי שהיה חבוש בבית האסורים ויצא יורדי הים מנלן דכתיב (תהלים קז, כג) יורדי הים באניות וגו’ המה ראו מעשי ה’ ואומר ויעמד רוח סערה יעלו שמים ירדו תהומות ואומר יחוגו וינועו כשכור ואומר ויצעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וממצוקותיהם יוציאם ואומר יקם סערה לדממה ואומר וישמחו כי ישתוקו ואומר יודו לה’ חסדו ונפלאותיו לבני אדם הולכי מדברות מנלן דכתיב תעו במדבר בישימון דרך עיר מושב לא מצאו ויצעקו אל ה’ וידריכם בדרך ישרה יודו לה’ חסדו מי שחלה ונתרפא דכתיב אוילים מדרך פשעם ומעונותיהם יתענו כל אוכל תתעב נפשם וגו’ ויזעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וגו’ ישלח דברו וירפאם וגו’ יודו לה’ חסדו מי שהיה חבוש בבית האסורין מנלן דכתיב יושבי חשך וצלמות וגו’ כי המרו אמרי אל וגו’ ואומר ויכנע בעמל לבם וגו’ ואומר ויזעקו אל ה’ בצר להם ואומר יוציאם מחשך וצלמות וגו’ ואומר יודו לה’ חסדו מאי מברך אמר רב יהודה ברוך גומל חסדים טובים אביי אמר וצריך לאודויי קמי עשרה דכתיב (תהלים קז, לב) וירוממוהו בקהל עם וגו’ מר זוטרא אמר ותרין מינייהו רבנן שנאמר (תהלים קז, לב) ובמושב זקנים יהללוהו מתקיף לה רב אשי ואימא כולהו רבנן מי כתיב בקהל זקנים בקהל עם כתיב ואימא בי עשרה שאר עמא ותרי רבנן קשיא רב יהודה חלש ואתפח על לגביה רב חנא בגדתאה ורבנן אמרי ליה בריך רחמנא דיהבך ניהלן ולא יהבך לעפרא אמר להו פטרתון יתי מלאודויי והא אמר אביי בעי אודויי באפי עשרה דהוו בי עשרה והא איהו לא קא מודה לא צריך דעני בתרייהו אמן:

http://www.come-and-hear.com/berakoth/berakoth_54.html (if you look at this, scroll down towards the bottom of 54b).

The references in the Soncino translation edition online (from note 18 in the original) are
18. Ps, CVII, 23-31.
19. Ibid. 4-8.
20. Ibid. 17-21.
21. Ibid. 10-15.
22.Ibid. 32.
23. Ibid.

The formula used today is not exactly the one in the Talmudic passage. Many of the discussions I found on the internet were “not for beginners”—but the Chabad discussion is relatively easy to understand: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/115308/jewish/The-Laws-of-the-Blessing-of-Thanksgiving.htm The pronunciation of Hebrew used by Chabad is eastern European traditional (Tav with no dagesh is pronounced “s” etc.) – not modern standard (Israeli) Hebrew. The formula is found on many placards with the Torah blessings, as it is traditional to recite it when called to the Torah.

HAKARAT HATOV “recognizing beneficence” and other thanksgiving

Before leaving the topic of Thanksgiving, the related ideas of recognizing beneficence, of contentment with what he have been given, of being thankful for the bad as well as the good. A full discussion would include some additional perspectives from the blessings Shehecheyanu and Ha-Tov vehametiv and many other sources, but only a few ideas are possible here.

Avot 4:1

“Who is rich?” and then answers, “Those who rejoice in their own lot.”

Rabbi Salanter drinks coffee, understands a basic principle of Judaism. 

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) once noticed that a fancy restaurant was charging a huge price for a cup of coffee. He approached the owner and asked why the coffee was so expensive. After all, some hot water, a few coffee beans and a spoonful of sugar could not amount to more than a few cents.

The owner replied: “It is correct that for a few cents you could have coffee in your own home. But here in the restaurant, we provide exquisite decor, soft background music, professional waiters, and the finest china to serve your cup of coffee.”

Rabbi Salanter’s face lit up. “Oh, thank you very much! I now understand the blessing of Shehakol — ‘All was created by His word’ — which we recite before drinking water. You see, until now, when I recited this blessing, I had in mind only that I am thanking the Creator for the water that He created. Now I understand the blessing much better. ‘All’ includes not merely the water, but also the fresh air that we breathe while drinking the water, the beautiful world around us, the music of the birds that entertain us and exalt our spirits, each with its different voice, the charming flowers with their splendid colors and marvelous hues, the fresh breeze — for all this we have to thank God when drinking our water!”

Hakarat Ha-Tov and Moses

Moses did not start the plague of the Nile because he was saved in the Nile.
Jethro scolded his daughters for not inviting Moses to dine with them.

Thankful for the Bad

The blessing “Barukh Dayan Ha-Emet” “blessed is the Judge of Truth” is said after the death of a loved one, and according to some, when hearing various other tragic news reports. We are required to be thankful for the good and the bad!

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Address for Tisha BeAv

The Kavod Jewish Chapel (formerly known as Allied Jewish Chapel) has sponsored a Tish’a BeAv service from time to time. This year, and last, it was on Sunday afternoon and included readings from Lamentations and the Haftarah. Poems and responses to the Destruction of the Temples, the Holocaust, and other Jewish tragedies were recited. But last year (2015) was the 100th anniversary of the event that gave rise to the term “Genocide,” and the “great catastrophe” of the Armenians did not go unmarked, nor did a representative sample of other world tragedies.

This address is lightly edited from remarks made last year on the afternoon of Tish’a BeAv. 

Seth Ward
Kavod Jewish Chapel

Tish’a BeAv 2015 (with very minor editing August 2016)

Why Tisha BeAv? Why an ecumenical observance?

This is the day of national mourning for the Jewish people. Jews mourn, according to tradition, the Report of the Spies that led to 40 years’ wandering in the desert and the death of an entire generation, the Destruction of both Temples—Bar Kokhba rebellion and the Temple plowed under. Many elegies added over the centuries note other tragedies, such as the executions of leading Rabbis by the Romans, the crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the commencement of a period of World Wars in Europe, and the Holocaust.

GRIEF. We cannot go on to face the future without allocating time to grieve over the past. The Holocaust is fresh in our minds—indeed, it continues to shape modern thoughts about good and evil, about human inhumanity, about the possibility of eliminating an entire nation—genocide.  We remember it on Yom HaShoah (Yom Hazikkaron lashoah vehagevurah, “Memorial Day for Holocaust and Heriosim” on or about the 27th of Nisan), on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan 27, marking the liberation of Auschwitz); on Tisha BeAv, and on Yom haKaddish Haklali (10th of Tevet). And many mark it every day of the year.

Our tradition wisely though has us not merely remember, but to identify so totally that we are present, we participate in the grief in symbolic ways that go beyond readings and memories. On Tish’a Beav we adopt the posture of mourners—those whose memory of tragic loss is still vivid, those whose dead are “still in front of us.”  –Like mourners in the Jewish tradition, we do not wear proper shoes or take showers. Like mourners also, for religious Jews, the normal pattern of prayer is turned upside down; those who are about to bury their dead do not join a community for prayer, and those who put on tefillin daily do not do so—so too, Jews do not wear tefillin on Tisha BeAv morning, and do not greet each other or converse.

To bring home the point, our tradition also asks us to refrain from eating and drinking for twenty-four hours—the most serious of four fasts decreed to perpetuate the memory of national destruction.

Our tradition asks us to feel the deprivation, to experience the disaster, to internalize the hurt and pain. Tish’a beAv asks us to identify ourselves with the horror of those whose lives were upended by catastrophe, to be there with those whose loved ones perished, to bear witness to the tragedy. And, we are asked to bear witness as individuals, as family, as a people, and as part of wider humanity.

The ecumenical observance—our invitation to neighbors and friends at Kavod—reflects conversations in the Kavod Chapel. Following the words of Isaiah, we hope that our “House will be called a House of Prayer for all Peoples.” The book of Lamentations is part of Christian Scriptures as well as Jewish, and all of us are moved by calamities ancient and modern. The killing in today’s Middle East boggles our minds. (2016: In the past year, we have seen the spread of terror and destruction—violence seems increasing in geometric proportions, both domestic and global, in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere).

We all lived through news reports about atrocities in Darfur and Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia.

Some of us, especially the Russians among us, may remember atrocities internal to the Soviet Union, resulting from the Civil War about 100 years ago, from the Golodmor famines caused by Soviet policies, or the “doctors plot” delo vrachey that might have led to the killing of all Soviet Jews had Stalin not died in 1953.

What do we do in the light of such pain, such loss?

First—Memory is important—so is grief, giving memory urgency. We must not simply remember these events as ancient history, but also remember and internalize the pain and the sorrow and the loss. We must try, for a few moments, to see ourselves not as modern observers of the tragedies, but as eye witnesses, sharing in the horror and grief, of a world turned upside down.

Second—Words do not suffice, but we must articulate our grief in words and acts.  Fasting is accompanied by recitations of texts and poems, elegies and laments. Grief that is merely internalized—can that ever be enough? Sometimes it is. I go back and forth—considering the point of the words being to elicit the grief and tears, or considering the point of the grief as eliciting a context in which we can try to express our sorrow in words, valorizing articulate expression to our emotions.

Third–The central question we ask on Tish’a BeAv is “how can this be?” Aicha. “How?” (the Hebrew title of the Biblical book of Lamentations).  Which brings me to the third point—we focus on the “How can this be?” rather than on cursing those who brought this situation about, and rather than on “what if.”

We never justify evil, but the focus is not on the destroyers. Those who wrecked our lives, destroyed our heritage, are not forgiven, not understood as “merely instruments of the Divine plan.”  But our tradition does not focus on them, not on Tish’a BeAv, and generally not on Yom Kippur and not on other occasions. Rather, it returns again and again to ask ourselves whether we could have been better people—and ultimately this is really the only possible true response to the question, “How can this be?” — “What can we do better now?”  And to repentance for anything we did, or did not do; forgiveness for our own roles, whatever they were; for the destruction of the Second Temple, sin’at hinam “hatred for no reason” is often quoted, and removing this from our system—the evil of stereotyping, of preconceived notions, of evil generalizations—this is a good place to start.

Fourth—Already in the afternoon, there is a theme of consolation: we all know that we must move forward. There is reason for hope, need for hope. A beautiful legend says that when the Israelites were doomed to wander for 40 years, each year’s cohort of deaths occurred on Tisha BeAv—the anniversary of the spies report that doomed them.  The final year of wandering, the Israelites dug graves in preparation for the annual die-off, as they had each year and no one died. The day the Israelites realized that this was so was the 15th of Av, celebrated as a day of Joy—but remember that actually Tisha BeAv marks the end of the dying as well as its cause and beginning. Another midrash takes this theme even larger, linking the date of the destruction of the Temple to the date of the birth of the Messiah, who, according to Jewish tradition, is awaiting the call to restore the Temple.

On Yom Kippur, at Yizkor, on Yarhtzeits, our memories spur us to repent and change; so too, the themes running throughout the day on Tisha BeAv echo the great prophetic call to righteousness—to justice—and to mercy.  Indeed, one could say that the 7 weeks of prophetic readings of consolation read from Tish’a BeAv until Rosh Hashanah map a path from consolation to repentance, from the hard emotions of grief, to the even harder emotions of self-examination and recommitment to both justice and mercy, and to acts of tzedaka righteousness and charity.

This Temple shall, as Isaiah says, be, called a House of prayer for all people—and on Tish’a BeAv, as we mourn the destruction of our temples and our national existence so many centuries ago, we also hope for the restoration of the Temple—the Jewish Temple to be sure, with all that this entails—but perhaps even more important, a House for all peoples.

If our Temple is to be a house of prayer for all peoples, then we must keep all people in mind. We set aside time for grief, and to remember; to articulate our grief in acts and words, although none of this is ever sufficient; to ask “How can this be?” but not to focus on the perpetrators of evil and destroyers of entire nations, but on what we can do better: removing senseless hatred, insensitivity and stereotypes; by becoming the best people we ourselves as an act that honors the memories of people—of entire nations—who no longer are whole. Finally, we must grieve but also seek consolation and purpose: and start with increasing, in our own lives, justice, mercy and righteousness (expressed as words, deed and gifts of charity).

May the grief and despair we feel at the destruction, war and genocide, ancient and modern, ours and all humanities’ be matched by the hope for redemption, and that all people will turn towards the values of justice, fairness, equity and peace that it espouses.

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A response to a question about a Missionary in Israel, preaching to Jews about the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah.

A friend who is a local Pastor sometimes asks me questions about Hebrew or biblical texts. I am honored to discuss these issues with him; and even more honored when I hear, from time to time, that my responses have informed his sermons or teaching.

He wrote me today about a video “blowing up on Facebook.”

[slightly edited—SW] “I’ve been getting a ton of questions about and am hoping you can help. The video is in Hebrew and it’s basically a Hebrew speaking man using Isaiah 53 in an attempt to convert Jewish Israelis to Christianity. The claim is that Isaiah 53 is “forbidden” in Judaism or even removed from Tanakh.

“… I don’t recall ever hearing the chapter is forbidden or removed. Is there any validity to that claim?

“This link should take you to the video in question. https://www.facebook.com/MedabrimEnglish/

Here is my reply [also lightly edited].

Indeed, the passage is not part of the “annual lectionary”—passages read in synagogues. What the missionary is talking about is inclusion in the Haftarot. He is correct: Isaiah 52:13 through the end of Isaiah 53 (often called the “Suffering Servant” passage) is not included in the list of Haftarot. Although the missionary presents this as a “hidden” passage or something the Rabbis don’t want Jews to see, this is far from the truth: It has not been removed from the Bible, or prohibited from reading. Every Hebrew Bible, every Book of Isaiah, has this passage.

As is well known, all of Torah, (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is read from the Torah Scroll in most synagogues in an annual reading cycle. In addition, a selection from the Prophetic books of about a chapter or two in length is read each Sabbath and Festival. (The Prophetic books are defined as Joshua through Malachi, organized according to the Jewish tradition). The readings from the Prophets selected for the annual reading cycle are a small percentage of the total material in these books..

If you are interested, here is a fairly comprehensive List of selections read in synagogues today. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haftarah#List_of_Haftarot.

There is a list in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah that I also checked. This is at the end of his Prayerbook, at the end of Sefer Ha-Ahava. This passage is not included there either. (Most of the haftarot are the same as today’s practice, but he has a distinct list for the seven weeks following Tish’a Be’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple; he also gives the seven readings used today, discussed below).

There *are* Talmudic discussions about passages from the Prophets that are or are not read in public. This is not one of them.  Moreover, some of the passages that the Talmud suggests should not be read in public are in fact read in the Synagogue.

There are lectionaries associated with the practice of reading Torah in three years, in which there were three times the number of prophetic selections. Searching for this is beyond the scope of my answer today. Michael Fishbane is the scholar whose name comes to mind first regarding the actual history of the Jewish lectionary.

I won’t take the time to look at the other references cited by the missionary. In any case the response to his claim is clear: the passage is not read in the synagogue in the annual cycle of readings, but otherwise is not omitted from any Hebrew Bibles or included in any lists of prohibited readings.

It’s easy to see how a missionary could argue that the “Suffering Servant” passage should have been in the annual reading cycle. Haftarot called “the seven of consolation” are recited on the seven Sabbaths between Tish’a Be’Av and Rosh HaShanah–all from Isaiah 40 and following chapters. The passages before and after the “Suffering Servant” passage (i.e. passages ending Isa. 52:12 and beginning 54:1) are the readings for Shofetim, and the following week, Ki Tetze. Perhaps this all is especially meaningful if people suppose that the Messiah was born on the day the Temple was destroyed, which is remembered on Tish’a BeAv. But there are other passages from Isaiah 40 onward that are also not part of the haftara cycle.

Presumably the reference to Sanhedrin 98 mentioned by the missionary is to p. 98b and a possible name of the Messiah, see for example, http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html.  The Isaiah passage is referenced at note 31. In this passage “the Rabbis say” the name of the Messiah can be learned from Isaiah 53:4.

There are Targums and Midrashim that understand the Isaiah text as referring to the Messiah this way as well. However, it should be noted that there are numerous suggestions about the name of the Messiah in Sanhedrin 98b, just about all of which are fanciful (and hopeful) readings of Biblical texts. Note also that the Talmudic text postdates the emergence of Christianity and it is certainly possible that discourse about this passage reflects interaction with Christians about its meaning.

But most Jewish tradition does not look at the Suffering Servant as primarily a messianic figure; it is probably more common to see the figure as a poetic reference to Israel herself, suffering in Exile, yet loyal to God, and this is consistent with much of the context of this portion of the Book of Isaiah. Moreover, it is easy to see why a passage that refers to the suffering of Israel is not included in the readings that are part of the seven haftarot of consolation–perhaps the best argument that the Rabbis did not understand it to refer to messianic redemption but to Israel’s suffering.

A short, concise discussion of this passage with both traditional an academic perspectives is in the Jewish Study Bible. The classic Hebrew commentaries printed in most Rabbinic Bibles do not emphasize the messianic reading of this passage. To be sure, any commentary written or printed after the emergence of Christianity (including rabbinic bibles or the Jewish Study Bible of course) might easily be claimed by this missionary to have reflected a consciously anti-Christian agenda. But in fact, the argument should be the reverse: any reading of this text as solely Messianic in intention, rather than capable of diverse interpretations, clearly reflects a conscious Christian polemic.

In short, the missionary of this video is using a rather typical missionary trope, in which the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 is seen as a prefiguring of Jesus; and as you are well aware, the idea of finding Hebrew Bible passages that can be interpreted as prefiguring Jesus may or may not go back to Jesus’ actual ministry, but it certainly goes back to the time New Testament gospels were written down a few decades later.

You have probably come to rely on me for responses that are way longer and more comprehensive than called for yet have value and interest. I hope I did not disappoint.

Seth Ward

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Can we at least agree about Abraham?


Can we at least agree about Abraham?



APRIL 10 2011[1]


If we have Abraham, why do we need Moses, Jesus or Muhammad (and vice versa)? This question, suggested to me by Maimonides’ “Laws of Idolaters” chapter 1 and parallels, and by the discussion of Father Abraham in New Testament, weighs heavily on my attempts to teach students how to contrast approaches to the founding figures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is especially so in my teaching career at the University of Wyoming, a predominantly undergraduate teaching environment. It is, moreover, one in which some of the students are religious, and many are not religious or not believers. Somewhat like the famous canard a generation ago about secular Israeli insistence on a traditional brand of Judaism despite their personal indifference to religion, in Wyoming, the religion in which they do not believe is a strong brand of evangelical Christianity, but one only inculcated in Sunday schools up to about the age of 10.[2] I suspect this background is more common that I once thought, and recognition of this approach ought to shape how we present “Abrahamic” comparisons.

Abraham would seem to unite the three religions—hence titles such as the title for this panel. But in reality, even though Abraham plays a key role in each of these traditions, the Abrahamic covenant was never enough for any of them. Discussions of shared narratives need to celebrate what is common. While it is true that finding comparisons between traditions is a fertile source for deepening our comprehension and understanding of each, and of their interactions,  we cannot do so without emphasizing how different approaches to the fundamental religious issues shape the way the shared narratives are retold.  This is especially so when teaching this material, as our students—and often we ourselves – often tend to focus on the shared material and de-emphasize the differences in context and significance attached to the material. My students easily understand how siblings can tell narratives with essentially the same details, yet the stories are remarkably different—yet they lose the ability to make these distinctions when confronted with, for example, parallel accounts of Abraham, Moses or Jesus. We need not merely to point out the commonalities, but to emphasize, over and over, the need to respect the basic diversity in these approaches.

My thanks to Laurie Baron for encouraging me to present a paper within this panel, and to Khaleel Muhammad, whose wisdom in comparing Muslim and Jewish material has been evident to me since he was a graduate student in Montreal. I should also note that some of my comments are adapted from a lecture offered on Hussein Day in New York City some years ago.

I should also note that my comments reflect my findings in teaching and to a certain extent in interfaith work. It might be of interest to study dialogues and interactions where the term Abrahamic is used with those in which it is not, to determine whether the use of the term makes any difference—but this is beyond my scope here.

This presentation reflects some of my thoughts about the tendency to talk about the Judaism, Christianity and Islam as “Abrahamic” faiths. I do not know when the term was first used in the context of interfaith dialogue, but it was popularized in the late 1970s by Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (d. 1986), especially as a result of the “Trialogue of the Abrahamic Faiths” he organized at the AAR Meeting in New York City in 1979. The focus on Abraham in “Abrahamic” makes sense, as each tradition shares a claim on him. But we need to remember that Abraham is not merely the ultimate paradigm of the Founder and Source of each tradition, but the claims are substantially different, and moreover, Abraham is clearly not enough for any of these traditions. After all, if we have Abraham, as I like to ask our students, why would we need Moses or Jesus or Muhammad?

Indeed, the story of Abraham is a good place to start; not only is he shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we could easily add the “Ṣābi’ans”[3] and Druzes, Bahais, Mandeans, even Rastafarians. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the account of his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, promised by God, is a central theme. I think it may be significant that the “binding of Isaac” is called ‘Aqeda עקדה “binding” in Hebrew, the same root and nearly the same word as ‘aqīda عقيدة “belief”—indeed the kind of belief and faith which can be held by all men. The story of the ‘Aqedah is recounted by the Jews in the synagogues every year on Rosh Ha-Shanah, the “Jewish New Year,” the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishrei, in the fall, usually considered to be parallel to the Arab month of Muḥarram.[4] This is no doubt because Isaac was said to have been born in Tishrei, and the Aqeda to have occurred in Tishrei, but also because of the role that the memory of Abraham’s loyalty plays in the liturgy of the day. It also found a place in the daily recitations of Biblical passages found in the traditional prayer book as a prelude to the formal prayer, and thus was recited every day for generations by pious Jews.[5] Perhaps most important in our context, Rosh Ha-Shanah begins a ten-day period leading up to the tenth of Tishrei—the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Usually associated with the ‘Āshūrā’, Yom Kippur is, like the Shī‘ī observance of ‘Āshūrā’, closely tied to learning lessons from acts of faith and sanctification of the divine name: readiness to die or have your dearest ones die for the faith.

Of course the question most often asked in this context is not how Abraham fits into spiritual thinking of Jews, Christians or Muslims, but “Which son of Abraham was to be offered as a sacrifice? For Jews and Christians, the answer is simple: the Bible text says Isaac. For Muslims, however, the Qur’an does not specify which one; early Muslim historians and commentators, such as al-Ṭabarī, are convinced that Isaac is the better answer, although today most Muslims believe that it could only have been Ismā‘īl.[6] This is an important difference, and we must accept not merely that today’s participants in the Abrahamic dialogue may not be able to agree about the identity of the al-dhabīḥ “the one who was to have been slaughtered”—but ask why and how the Muslim community, well aware that its early scholars debated whether it was Isaac or Ismail for at least three centuries, came to agree almost uniformly on the opposite answer from that of Genesis.  I will not seek to resolve this difference here:  but urge us to respect difference.

I should add that, when I speak to Muslims, I often suggest that it may be instructive to examine two central questions about the response of Abraham’s son to his ordeal. What did he think about it, and what did he do as a result?

As for the first question—Was the son as prepared to be a martyr as was the father to offer him?—This is explicit in the Qur’an: Abraham tells the sacrificial son that he is to be sacrificed and the son tells Abraham “do as you are bidden” (37:102). As for the Biblical text, agreement goes unmentioned yet the Rabbis understand Isaac’s agreement as implicit. In Genesis 22:8-9, Isaac asks his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is; Abraham tells him that God will provide the lamb (Gen. 22:7-8), and it is understood by tradition that Isaac knew from this that he was to be the sacrifice. Then the Bible says “they went together” (Gen. 22:8, cf. 22:6)—the second time these words occur in the normally sparse Biblical discourse. This is understood by the commentators to indicate that Isaac knew and was at peace with God’s decree. The Aqedah is thus not only about Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice, but about Isaac’s acceptance, his readiness to die for what Jews call the sanctification of God’s name.[7] The loyalty of Abraham, and his readiness to do the divine will, and that of his son to be sacrificed, is indeed a shared motif in the three faiths.

But here too the second set of questions may be more important: What does one do after the Aqedah? Jewish tradition has several answers, as the Aqedah narrative is part of a longer, scriptural narrative of the Patriarchs. Reading scripture, sometimes with the help of Midrash, Jewish tradition asserts that Abraham’s son studied,[8] married,[9] prayed—indeed, introduced the Afternoon Prayer,[10] stayed in the Land promised to his father, and worked in the world, having children, digging wells, raising livestock, and even growing crops—an unusual profession among the Jewish Patriarchs; raising livestock was far more common. Moreover, Jewish tradition at least allows the question: Did Abraham really pass the test? Generally, the answer is yes, but it is sometimes observed that God never speaks to Abraham again after the conversation in which Abraham unquestioningly accepts the task of offering his son. This type of history was known to Christians through the New Testament, and to Muslims through Islamic historians—but how relevant is it? Far more important than the Arab historians, the Qur’an does not continue the narrative of Abraham and his son. Although the Qur’an refers to the asb­­āṭ the Tribes—the sons of Jacob and thus the tribes of Israel—it rarely portrays the stories familiar from Genesis as explaining how Israelites can trace their ancestry to patriarchs with Mesopotamian background who found themselves enslaved in Egypt. The Qur’an recounts the promise of the Asb­­āṭ always to be loyal to God—but the promise of Land, such an important part of the Patriarchal story in Genesis—is encountered in the Qur’an primarily in the account of Moses and the Israelites. Here, the promise of land to the Israelites is described as having been written—but not associated with Abraham. Instead, Abraham and Ismail are associated with the Ka’ba, and the rituals of Hajj and Id al-Adha are given an Abrahamic basis.

Other Stories of Abraham

Jewish tradition tells other stories of Abraham. One of the most popular—found not in the Bible but in the Midrash, is how he destroyed the idols of his father. The story is familiar from the Qur’an as well.[11] these stories play a role, interestingly, even in the Kitāb al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭiyya, supposedly a translation of a pre-Islamic pagan work[12] and reflect a motif found in ancient Egyptian literature as well. But it is important to note that they work quite differently: in the Midrash, the story testifies to Abraham’s strong faith, and his ability to use rational argument. It may even be an argument against relying on miracles as Abraham’s brother follows Abraham’s lead into the fiery furnace – presumably without Abraham’s faith – and dies there. In the Qur’anic version, God guides Abraham every step of the way.

Abraham is the paradigm of loyal belief in God, the ancestor of a holy people, willing to follow Divine precepts no matter how severely tested. Should not his mission be enough? If there is room for Moses or Jesus or Muhammad, this means there is a problem of Abrahamic insufficiency.

For Maimonides, it is simple: Abraham represents the possibility of knowing God through rational thought. But a system based only on rational thought is not going to be successful for all in the long term. It did, however, prepare the people so that Moses could codify practices based on Divine revelation that would make it possible for the people to maintain belief in God. Maimonides’ argument is particularly striking: Abraham only makes sense if he comes to Divine belief totally without a living tradition of monotheism: it has to be freely developed by Man rather than imposed by God.

The Qur’an is pretty much the opposite: God explicitly leads Abraham through the steps necessary to challenge polytheistic veneration of natural features and forces. Moses is mentioned in the Qur’an many more times than Abraham; and although the Muslims introduced the idea of Abrahamic ancestry of the Arabs, a kinship basis for national identity is ultimately rejected in favor of a religious one. Yet it is Abraham who is mentioned, for example, in daily Muslim prayer, and not Moses; and the Pilgrimage recreates the experiences of Abraham as well as Muhammad. (And it might be suggested that the Pilgrimage—connected with Abraham’s precedent—became far more important in ritual recollection (the annual Hajj) than the Hijra, which might be considered a Mosaic model, an Exodus from Mecca, and, to the extent that early followers of Muhammad were known as muhajirin—those who had left Mecca.

Abraham’s faith was not enough, though. Ibn al-Kalbi explains that at first and people fell away from true belief until the Qur’an came.

My father [Muhammad al-Kalbī] and others told me—and I confirmed all of their traditions—that when Ishmael b. Abraham had inhabited Mecca and had had many children… Mecca became too small for them, and wars and enmity broke out amongst them. Some of them drove out others and they spread out among the land…. What brought them to worship idols and stones was that no one would depart from Mecca without carrying stones from the Ḥaram (sacred area), as a means of honoring the Ḥaram and love for Mecca. And when they alit (at their homes) they set it down and circumambulated around it as they had circumambulated the Ka‘ba, showing loyalty to it and love and devotion to the Ḥaram. They afterwards were still giving honor to the Ka‘ba and to Mecca, making pilgrimage and ‘umra (an abbreviated pilgrimage, lacking the visit to the Mountain of Mercy outside Mecca), according to the heritage of Abraham and Ishmael.

Then this brought them to worship what they had adored, and they forgot what the (stones) had been, and they replaced the religion of Abraham and Ishmael for something else. And so they worshipped idols, and had become like those nations who had come before, drawing forth the worship of the people of Noah, according to the heritage of what remained of them.” (Kitāb al-Aṣnām p. 6).

Maimonides’ explanation is more or less the same, at least in the stage of Adam to Abraham, in which the people began to praise the planets and stars as divine handiwork, then forgot monotheism and began to worship them as gods. But from Abraham onward, they found that the rationalist understanding was not enough—yet it was a necessary stage in preparing Abraham’s descendants to receive the Torah. Yet it was not enough: Moses was sent and crowned with the Torah, teaching divine laws and proper modality of worship.

The Qur’an offers other narratives about falling away: Jews and Christians received authentic Prophecy, but either changed it or cancelled it, or, rejected it, thus losing their identity: “tilka ummatun qad hallat” “This is a nation that has passed away.”  In any case, for Islam, the early revelations were confirmed by that given to Muhammad. The Qur’an hardly has the kind of rationalist discourse Maimonides offers: nevertheless, each verse is a sign (aya) attesting to its truth, and Muhammad is the seal of prophets. So, unlike Abraham, whose descendants did not keep up his revelation and faith, Muhammad’s revelation is clear, and protected from being changed or cancelled.

By the way, I believe it unlikely that Maimonides was unaware of the paradigms of both Ibn al-Kalbi and the Qur’an, and that his narrative in his “Laws of Idolators” can only be understood as a response to them.[13]

The Christian situation is more complex, in that as Christianity developed, the idea was that Abraham and all the prophets were but preparation for the coming of Christ. In the synoptic Gospels, Abraham symbolizes not the promise of land or total faith but the genealogical heritage of the Jewish people, and in several passages, as a kind of guardian in Heaven. Yet we find in Luke 16, Abraham is envisioned in heaven, telling someone enduring hardship there that Moses and the Prophets are a sufficient guide—here Abraham is portrayed as pointing to what Jews would call Torah, mitzvot u-masoret Torah, commandments and tradition.”[14]  Yet the passage also says that the doctrine of resurrection of the dead would not be able to teach them what Moses and the Prophets could not, and it implies that the Torah and Prophets were not enough.  Abraham foreshadows Jesus—but also, at least in some passages in the Gospels, Abraham also symbolizes the fact that Abrahamic genealogy and fidelity to Mosaic law are insufficient.   This is a reading of the New Testament itself; for Christian thought itself, Abraham’s readiness to offer sacrifice, even Isaac’s readiness to accept his fate, pales in comparison to Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac show unflinching loyalty to God (and get a reiteration of the promise of progeny, patrimony and blessing)—but it is only the latter that saves the world.

In thinking about Christianity’s difference from Judaism, it is too easy to focus on the questions put forth for example at the disputation of the Ramban, Rabbi Moses b. Nahman c. 1270,—and still asked today—about the person and timing of the Messiah. But we should be aware that there are other questions to be asked, and determining who is the Messiah and whether he has already come or not is not the only one. And is not particularly relevant to my questions about the role of Abraham and why Abraham is not sufficient.  Perhaps more important is to ask what the significance might be of the framing of the Messianic mission. A few years ago, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik framed the difference between Jewish and Christian attitudes not about the Messiah’s identity and timing, but about the possibility of performing God’s will: For Judaism, the Messiah will come when Jews do good—understood by traditional Jews as observing mitzvot: redemption results from the performance of God’s will. For Christianity, ultimately, redemption is a necessary prerequisite for the performance of God’s will. Abraham may have observed all the Torah (according to Jewish tradition) and taught about God, but the Torah—the source of mitzvot—was revealed through Moses. Abraham showed he was ready to sacrifice his son, but the redemptive sacrifice for Christians was that of Jesus. (There is also a very different approach here to the audience: the Torah is depicted as being revealed to the entire Israelite people at Sinai, whereas Abraham taught his family and those he may have met; Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice was witnessed by those who were at Golgotha and the resurrection by disciples and friends, not the entire people, but it is seen as being addressed to the entire world). Very different models—but in all of them, Abraham paved the way, modeled or foreshadowed the paths for salvation or redemption—but the process was completed by Moses or Jesus.

Abraham is a figure that unites monotheists, and it is easy to understand why these are called “Abrahamic traditions.” But Abraham is also a very problematic figure—one who is clearly superceded by Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. He is thus a superb icon for interfaith comparisons: seen by all as the start of the tradition, and by none as sufficient. Moreover, Abraham symbolizes very different things in each of these traditions—he is indeed honored in all, but we have seen many different ideas about why and how this is so. The different traditions honor the “one” Abraham, but are they really talking about “the same” Abraham. I pose the question this way—using a simplistic “one” vs. “same” dichotomy that I would normally find objectionably simplistic—to create a parallel regarding discourse about God. Muslims, Christians and Jews assert they are monotheists, that is, they assert they recognize the One God. Many in our society however, ask whether others recognize the “same” God, without considering that their assertion that there is One God renders the question meaningless. The question perhaps is better put as whether the others believe the same things about God. So too with Abraham. Although Abraham is usually considered to be the same Abraham—Jews, Christians and Muslims recognize the same Abraham, so to speak, they do not necessarily share the same values and conclusions when discussing him. Perhaps Abraham might not merely be a model for ways to redemption, but also provide an important model for discussing labels for theological differences about the very sameness and oneness of God.

Our students tend to harmonize disparate pieces of data, and collect information from different sources without realizing that apparent commonalities may reflect shared themes, but ultimately cannot be completely reconciled. Too often, they focus on black and white differences or similarities which represent a shared experience and shared narrative traditions. Like competing narratives of, say, a fight or breaking a window, told by competing siblings, the details necessarily similar, but the stories clearly have different “spin” and reflect different agendas. When judging sibling disagreements, it may be possible to create a most likely scenario. But in our case, it is likely that the stories have been told and retold so often that ultimately, whatever they may or may not tell us about the historical subject of the story is unclear and elusive, but the similarities and dissimilarities tell us volumes about those who chose to tell those stories and the values they want to transmit.

Our most important task, when teaching this material, is to model three sometimes-contradictory tasks.

  • To apply the best tools of analysis we can.
  • To point out the commonality of the traditions.
  • And, to help our students, disciples and, might I add the consumers of our research, to understand and truly respect the differences—not merely to point out how the stories in a tradition that is not our own differ from our tradition, but to do so in a spirit that nevertheless conveys both respect for what is different, and that it is different.

Seth Ward


[1] This essay was delivered at an invited conference session of the WJSA (Western Jewish Studies Association) in 2011. It was slightly edited, re-titled, and updated in 2016.

[2] This characterization is based on anecdotal reports such as “Well, my family went to church when I was young but we stopped going when I was in elementary school” or “I went to Sunday school only until I was about ten when I started soccer practice.”

[3] Nabatean Agriculture was widely known in medieval times in its Arabic translation, Al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭiyya, recently edited and published in Arabic by Toufic Fahd, Damascus, 1993-1998, and various Arabic paraphrases, and considered to be associated with the Ṣabi’an religion. Assuming that at its core the Arabic versions in fact translated an earlier, Aramaic work, it provides evidence of a group of star-worshippers who told many stories about the Biblical Abraham in late antiquity and early Islamic times. The term Ṣabi’an is not without its problems. In the Arabic speaking Middle Ages, there were a number of opinions about who the “Sabi‘ans” were. Some considered this to be the name of the ancient polytheism at the basis of Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian idolatry. Others considered it to be a form of monotheism based on a scripture. The relationship between this group and the “Ḥanīf” religion—supposedly monotheism—has been subject to much debate.

[4] Muḥarram is often thought to have begun in the fall in an ancient Meccan calendar which kept pace with the sun, unlike the Islamic calendar, which does not. I explored some of the issues and suggested solutions in S. Ward: “Teach us to Number our days: The Elusive Epoch in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Calendars.” Millennialism from the Hebrew Bible to the Present. (Studies in Jewish Civilization Vol. 12) L. Greenspoon and R.A. Simkins, ed. Creighton University Press, University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 63-90.

[5] See for example, P Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 19-22.

[6] Al-Ṭabarī noted that both views had been supported by statements reported on the authority of Muhammad, but suggests that the Qur’ān itself proves that the better version of the account is the one which Isaac is offered by his father.  1:290ff.; the Qur’ānic proof: 1:300.  For discussions of these stories the views of other Islamic scholars, see see, e.g., the brief note note to 1:290, (Brinner, The History of Al-Ṭabarī II: Prophets and Patriarchs, Albany: SUNY Press , 1987, p. 82). See also R. Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands, Albany: SUNY Press, 1990, 135-151, who notes that Ṭabarī’s choice has no following among contemporary Muslims. Khaleel Mohammed, Journal of culture and religion (Concordia University, Montreal), 13 (1999) 125-138.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 56:4, 8, and Rashi commentary on Gen. 22:8. Shalom Spiegel’s volume, The Last Trial: On the legends and lore of the command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, New York: Pantheion Books, 1967, is a study of many of the midrashic and poetic elaborations of this passage.

[8] Gen. Rabbah 56:11; Midrash Ha-Gadol on the verse, and numerous other places.

[9] Genesis 24:12-19.

[10] A reading of Gen. 24:63: Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 26b, Bereishit Rabba 60:14.

[11] Pesahim 118a; Qur’ān 6:74 and 21:51ff.

[12] See reference above, note 7.

[13] I also think he was aware of the Kuzari  by Judah HaLevi. HaLevi asserted that a tradition about God was transmitted from Adam to Abraham through individuals, in other words, Abraham knew about God via traditional teachings rather rational argument. I suspect but of course cannot prove that Maimonides’ use of Hebrew davar “thing” in the passage in “Laws of Idolators” can be seen as a response to HaLevi’s use of the Arabic al-amr al-ilahi “divine thing” (note that the classic Hebrew translation of HaLevi’s idea uses a different Hebrew word: Ha-Inyan ha-elohi; I am not aware of a translation as ha-davar ha-elohi.) My colleague Prof. Daniel Lasker has become well known for his discussions of the differences between HaLevi and Maimonides on these subjects, characterizing HaLevi’s approach to Judaism as inherited and transmitted as “Software” and Maimonides as ultimately based on personal rational exploration as “Hardware.”

[14] By Masoret, I am thinking here more broadly of the notion of Oral Tradition—the tradition handed down from Moses to Joshua to the Elders, etc. Avot 1:1.

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