Archive for April, 2010

In my rabbinic thought class, we have been tackling the interesting issue of divine justice. In the realm of historical Judeo-Christian thought, how exactly does God go about judging humanity? What are the basic criteria God uses? Is God, at its core, a loving God, or an angry violent God?

The answer I was raised with was pretty clear cut: God was both. On one hand he is loving, and on another he is so utterly exasperated with us, he might, in one angry flash, just hurl the surly lot of us into oblivion. God, in other words, is like that character Professor Quirell, in the Harry Potter books — a head with two faces, one on either side, and you are never entirely sure which one you are going to get.

Classic Christian dogma says that these two faces of God represent an evolution from an angry God in Hebrew scripture to a kinder, gentler God in Christian scripture. Just for fun, I decided to Google the phrase “angry God, loving God, Old Testament, New Testament” and I found over 100,000 links containing these words.

Randomly clicking on them yielded all sorts of “reasons” for this divine evolution. To paraphrase, they included such ideas as: “People needed strict rules and a heavy hand in the beginning but didn’t need them later on.” To be fair, there were also Christian websites and blogs that argued against this stereotype, and which quoted a variety of passages from the Hebrew Bible in which God is clearly loving, patient and forgiving.

The biblical texts are what they are. In Hebrew scripture, God does do a lot of smiting and his nostrils do do a lot of flaring. And, there are many softer, gentler passages to temper this image as well.

What is interesting from a Jewish perspective on this debate though, is this: How did the early rabbis perceive their God? Rabbinic Judaism rose up in the ashes of the fallen Second Temple — the same time as Christianity built its foundational texts. How did this next stage in Jewish evolution and textual tradition look back on Hebrew scripture?

It turns out, the rabbis had a pretty clear and unified vision on this. Their views were quite different from the angry, brimstone God so often attributed to them. Let’s take a look at one representative sample:

Bavli Sanhedrin 89b — a Talmudic text — tells a story of God going to Abraham and pointing out that humanity has sinned against him. Abraham basically throws us all under the bus, admitting this is true and saying “Let them be wiped out!” So, God goes to Jacob, who does the same thing, saying “Let them be wiped out!” Finally, God goes to Isaac, who finally stands up to God and offers a defense. Isaac says: “But are not my children also your children?!?” he says. “You called them Israel my son, my firstborn, but now you are saying they are my sons and not your sons!?”

Isaac then does a complicated mathematical deconstruction, arguing — in the best Jewish lawyerly fashion — for just how little we Jews have really sinned. An average man lives 70 years, but 20 of those you don’t punish for, so it’s now 50 years, he says. Half of those were at night — how could we be sinning when we’re sleeping? — so it goes down to 25. Half of that time was spent praying, eating and attending to “nature’s calls” (whatever that means), so it’s now down to 12.5!

So in other words, Isaac says, if you really want to punish us, you can only punish us for 12.5 out of the 70 years. Oh, and by the way, remember how I almost offered up my own life for you? Just wanted to mention that . . .

Does God punish humanity for the 12.5 years? The text mysteriously does not say. But we can presume not, as the topic shifts elsewhere.

What we see in this agaddah, this rabbinic tale, is a depiction of a God who even when egged on and urged to destroy humankind, keeps hunting until he finds someone to defend them. He seems to readily, and without argument, accept the defendant’s argument for a significantly reduced punishment, and then, seemingly, doesn’t level any punishment at all.

Not exactly an angry, fire-in-the-brimstone God!

This portrayal of God is the standard, not the exception in rabbinic-era literature. And this leaves us with a striking and important conclusion: For reasons unbeknownst to us, Jews and early Christians, living in the shadow of the lost Temple, both began to develop a conception of a more compassionate, caring, slow-to-anger God than the texts of their inherited tradition.

The idea that God maybe wasn’t so angry after all was not an evolution unique to Christianity. It was a fundamental idea of rabbinic Judaism too, which modern Jews are an outgrowth of today.

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Wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. Those are — as everyone knows — the five forbidden grains on Passover.

How is it, then, that the Bible tells us that on the second day of Passover, pilgrims are to bring a sheaf (Omer) of barley to the priests of the Temple as an offering!? If barley is one of the forbidden grains, how can people be commanded to bring it to the priests?!?!

This was an absolutely fabulous question that one of the participants in my Shabbes davenning group posed last week, during my lesson on the tradition of counting the Omer. And I confess, I was completely stumped! A few days of ruminating and a few hours of research later, I believe I have an answer. But please, weigh in, readers, if you have another angle on this vexing question!


I think what we have here is a case of mixing civilizations — overlaying rabbinic ideas and definitions on earlier biblical ideas and definitions, which one really can’t do when wrestling with a question of a historical nature.

Let’s start at the beginning. What EXACTLY are the Torah’s rules for Passover as related to food? They are found in four key passages, and they basically say two things 1) don’t eat anything leavened, and 2) eat matzah. Here are the texts:

And they shall eat the meat on that night, roasted over the fire, and matzos, with bitter herbs, shall they eat it.
—Exodus 12:8

In the first month, in the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, you shall eat matzos, until the evening of the twenty-first day of the month.
—Exodus 12:18

You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat matzos, the bread of affliction; for in haste did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
—Deuteronomy 16:3

Six days you shall matzos and on the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD your God; you shall do no work therein.
—Deuteronomy 16:8

You will notice the conspicuous absence here of any mention of the five forbidden grains! Furthermore, the text leaves us with two key questions: What exactly IS “matzah” and what exactly QUALIFIES as “leavening”?

We know how the rabbis answered those questions, but the rabbis — the authors of Mishnah and Talmud and basically all we know of Jewish law today –lived a good 700-1500 years AFTER the Torah was written down. The Pentateuch is generally dated to around 500 BCE. The Mishnah wasn’t redacted until 200 CE, and the two Talmuds came even later, in the 500 and 600s.

It was the RABBIS who decided that there were five grains susceptible to leavening, and thus forbid them across the board. And it was the RABBIS who decided that 18 minutes was the magical number needed to keep the wheat in matzah from being “leavened”. For that matter, they were the ones who decided what matzah even was, and that it was even made out of wheat!

Were the Israelites in the desert really eating flat, bland, wheat-made slabs that some rabbi hovered over with a spotwatch, and which could be easily confused with cardboard? Technically no one will ever know, but personally, I doubt it.

All of this suggests to me that in the biblical times, barley was probably NOT a forbidden grain on Passover. If it were, the text wouldn’t tell us that they were commanded to bring it to the Temple on the passover . . .

Oh, but wait — even THAT theory is based on an assumption. It assumes that the “Omer” — the sheaf — that was to be brought was actually a barley sheaf, and not a sheaf of something else. Virtually everything I read in preparation for my lecture said the sheaf was barley, but in looking at the passage itself, one discovers that the text doesn’t actually say that either. The Hebrew word for “barley” is not found in the passage; the word is שעורה

Lev 23:15-16: “And you shall count from the next day after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete; To the next day after the seventh sabbath shall you count fifty days …”

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה: שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.

Do we know through biblical scholarship or some other avenue of insight that an Omer in this Levitical text is talking about barley in particular? If we do, I’d love to hear how we know. For, until we do establish that, then this text does not serve as evidence that barley was (or was not) being consumed during Passover in the biblical era.

For me, this whole exercise was great fun, and it was also a good lesson and reminder: When in doubt, go back to the sources!

Artwork: This beautiful picture, titled “Pass the Matzah,” is available for purchase here.

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According to Lev. 23:15, Jews are obligated to count the days from Passover to Shavu’ot. This period is known as Counting the Omer. In the days of the Temple, an ‘omer’ of barley was cut down and brought to the priests as an offering. The grain offering was called an ‘omer’ — thus the name of this period.

What does it mean to count the Omer in this day and age? I confess, it’s a question I wrestle with every spring. When I first began attempting to count the Omer a few years ago, I had a lot of fun with the tradition simply because it was something new. It gave me a chance to learn a new Hebrew blessing, and it was a vehicle for better learning the Hebrew numbering system! (To see a transliteration of each day’s Omer recitation, check out this handy site on the OU.)

Once the newness wore off though, I was back wondering what it all means. What can I walk away with from this exercise?

The “traditional” answer to this question is that the counting is intended to remind us of the link between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, and Shavu’ot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah. It is supposed to remind us that the redemption from slavery was not complete until we received the Torah. But, as someone who cannot accept this “traditional” meaning of the holiday of Shavuot (and I say “traditional” in quotes because the oldest meaning of the holiday of Shavu’ot was as an agricultural pilgrimage festival — not the day Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai), this explanation for the Omer isn’t particularly meaningful.

What I have found meaningful instead, however, is using the Omer as an opportunity for inner reflection. A variety of writers have come out in recent years offering interpretations of the kabbalistic (mystical) interpretation of the Omer.

In kabbalah, each week of the Omer we move through one of the seven lower sefirot (emanations of God that are associated with a particular divine quality.) So, for example, we would focus the first week on the sephira of chesed (lovingkindness). Week two would be the sephira of gevurah (strength). This blog post by the New York Jewish Culture Examiner offers a helpful guide. The question becomes, in what ways do we experience or manifest the holy qualities of lovingkindness or strength in our day-to-day life? In what ways can we strive to experience or embody these manifestations of holiness?

One book on this topic is Counting the Omer, a Kabbalistic Meditation Guide by Min Kantrowitz.

Another beautiful practice you might consider adopting is to finish your daily Omer recitation by singing Ana B’Koach. On neohasid.org, you can find several recordings of this traditional and haunting melody.


Addendum: In response to Ahuvah’s recommendation of Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s counting the Omer book, I went on an online hunt in search of it. I couldn’t find it for purchase anywhere, but it is available as a free PDF download from his website here: http://web.mac.com/rabbirami/Rabbi_Rami/Read_files/Omer%20Journal.pdf

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