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Why the Sabbath Is Everything

This week, the Talmud’s rabbis explore possible holy day violations to determine the nature of the sinner

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This week, Talmudic rabbis seek righteousness in the Bible’s tales of vice, weakness, and human frailty

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day along with Jews around the world.

The idea that underlies the whole of Tractate Shabbat from the very beginning has been the melachot—the kinds of labor prohibited on the Sabbath. But it was not until this week, in Shabbat 73a, that the Talmud finally does what one might expect it to have done on the first page: actually list the 39 categories of melachot.

“The primary labors are 40 minus one,” the Mishnah instructs, and it divides them into several categories. First come the 11 kinds of work necessary to bake bread. This includes everything from sowing seeds and plowing the fields to sifting flour, kneading dough, and baking. Then come the 13 labors involved in making clothing, from shearing wool to weaving threads, tying knots, and sewing stitches. Next are labors involved in preparing hides (trapping a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it), and in writing, including erasing what you have written. Finally come the six most general categories: building and demolishing; kindling and extinguishing; “striking the final blow”—that is, putting the finishing touch on any piece of work; and the melachah with which the whole tractate began, “taking from one domain to another domain.”

We have already learned, in Shabbat 49b, that these 39 categories are derived from the building of the Tabernacle by the Israelites in the desert: Every kind of work that the mishkan involved is banned on Shabbat. The Gemara takes up the question of exactly how each category of work was involved in the building of the Tabernacle. One melachah, for instance, is baking, but no bread was baked in the construction of the mishkan: So, why is baking forbidden? The answer is that baking is a kind of cooking, and building the Tabernacle did require cooking—specifically, cooking certain herbs to obtain dye. This example, from Shabbat 74b, drives home the point that it is not the precise actions involved in building the Tabernacle that are prohibited but the whole genus of actions of which the Tabernacle offers a species.

The summary catalog is followed, as one might expect, by a series of glosses, in which the Gemara explains what kinds of activity fall into each general category. If you chop wood on Shabbat, for instance, you are liable either for cutting—if you are cutting the pieces of wood to a specified size—or for grinding, if you are simply chopping it to bits to use for kindling. In another hypothetical case, the Gemara imagines a man who has a small mound of dirt, and on Shabbat he shoveled it away. If the dirt was outside, this action would be considered a form of plowing, since it would have the effect of loosening the earth. On the other hand, if the dirt was inside his house, he would be liable for building, since he would be improving the quality of his living quarters. By the same token, however, only work that actually improves something can be considered work. If for some reason you decided to dig up the floor of your house on Shabbat—a reminder that in Talmudic times the floor was usually just packed earth—you would not performing the melachah of building, since you would actually be damaging your house.

The very first question the Gemara asks about the Mishnaic catalog of melachot, however, is an unexpected one—though after several months of reading Daf Yomi, I find myself recognizing it as a familiar example of Talmudic reasoning. “Why,” the rabbis ask, “do I need the number?” That is, why did the Mishnah preface its list by stating that it would contain 39 items? Surely the reader could have tallied them up himself. But it is a basic principle of Talmudic interpretation that every word, every sentence, of a text is there for a reason—whether it is a biblical verse or a line of Mishnah. What purpose, then, did the Mishnah have in mind when it gave this seemingly superfluous number?

“It is to teach,” replies Rabbi Yochanan, “that if someone performed all 39 of them in one lapse of awareness, he is obligated to bring a separate sin-offering (chatas) for each one.” In this way, Yochanan picks up the thread of the long and exceptionally intricate discussion that has been in progress since the beginning of Chapter 7. This is a debate over exactly how to calculate the number of penitential offerings a Shabbat violator is required to bring, which in turn depends on how you define a Shabbat violation.

According to Exodus 35:2, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.” As the Schottenstein Edition’s useful notes explain, the problem of capital crimes is taken up in Tractate Sanhedrin, where the rabbis hedge the death penalty with so many qualifications as to effectively ban it. A deliberate Shabbat violation is a matter for God himself to punish.

What concerns the rabbis in Tractate Shabbat, then, is only an inadvertent violation of the Sabbath, for which the rabbinical punishment is to bring a kind of offering known as chatas, a sin-offering. One effect of this restriction is to make it sound as if, in Talmudic times, deliberately breaking the Sabbath was simply unknown among Jews. The idea that there could be a Jewish community where a large majority of the population simply ignores the Shabbat laws—like, say, contemporary American Jews—would have been unthinkable to the rabbis.

The Mishnah begins by methodically asking how a person might be led to inadvertently violate Shabbat. There are three logical possibilities. First, a Jew might “forget the essence of the Sabbath”—that is, he might not even know that the Sabbath is a holy day on which work is forbidden. Practically speaking, of course, no member of a Talmudic-era Jewish community could really have been so ignorant, not with Shabbat woven so thoroughly into the fabric of Jewish life. The only occupant of this category the rabbis can imagine, then, is “a child who was captured and raised among gentiles”—a Jew who never had the chance to learn the most basic elements of Judaism. The rabbis differ about whether such a child is even guilty of violating the Sabbath he never knew: Yochanan and Shimon ben Lakish both argue that such a person is exempt from any chatas offering.

The second way a person might inadvertently violate the Sabbath is if he didn’t know what day Shabbat was. Such a person “knows the essence of the Sabbath,” he just doesn’t know exactly when the Sabbath prohibitions are in force; he is liable, then, for a sin-offering for each Shabbat he inadvertently violated. One way this might happen, Rav Huna says in Shabbat 69b, is “if someone was walking on the way or in the desert, and he does not know when it is the Sabbath.” In that case, he advises, the man should count six days and then observe the seventh as Shabbat, so he will at least be preserving the principle of a day of rest. (Chiya bar Rav, on the other hand, says that the man should observe Shabbat immediately, and then count six days of work.)

Finally, there is the third kind of sinner—a man who knows what Shabbat means and when it is, but doesn’t know the rules about the 39 melachot. Such a man is liable to bring a chatas offering, not for each single action he performed but for each category of action. That is, if he planted three times and transferred four times, he would only have to bring two offerings, not seven. This brings us back to Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation for why the Mishnah gives the total number of melachot: The maximum number of offerings a person could have to bring would be 39 if he had somehow managed to perform every kind of forbidden work inadvertently.

There is, however, a basic question one might ask about this third kind of sinner. What exactly does it mean to say that a man could know the essence of Shabbat without knowing about the 39 melachot? Isn’t the essence of Shabbat that work is prohibited on it—so that if a Jew didn’t know this basic fact, he couldn’t really be said to know what Shabbat means? It is a good question, to which Rabbi Akiva provides the answer: “He knew about the Sabbath with regard to the law of boundaries,” which limits the distance you can travel on Shabbat. One might doubt whether a Jew could actually be found who knew about the boundary law and not the prohibition on work. But here, as always, the Talmud pays as much attention to remote logical possibilities as to practical ones; only when every possibility has been addressed can the rabbis consider a subject fully understood.

Editor’s note: Adam Kirsch’s Daf Yomi column returns January 8, 2013, following federal holidays Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.


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dongszkie says:

Is observig a sabbath a God’s requirement for God’s people today. What really is God’s will for his worshippers today?

    dongszkie, we are told again and again in the Torah, including the Prophets and other Writings, that is, in the whole Hebrew Scripture, that the Torah covenant between God and the Jews is “le-olam,” an eternal covenant. (Jeremiah’s urgings to write this covenant “on the heart” is not a call for a really new covenant, as Christian exegesis claims, but simply a call for a renewed one, namely for repentance, and that Israel “returns” to him and the Sinai covenant seriously and fully for the first time, Jer. 3:12-23; it is obvious to any reader that Jeremiah suggests no single even slightest change or specific modification to the Sinai covenant, so it has no actual new content: he even states explicitly that the Torah covenant is an eternal one, akin to the laws of nature itself, which merely must be taken to heart and enacted. This will make it “new” to the pious: Jer. 31:31-37. In effect, anyone thinking of the Sinai covenant as “old” and surpassed is condemned by Jeremiah himself.)

    Such is both the explicit teaching of the Written Torah, and of the Oral Torah which is its explication, and which first arose at Sinai to apply the Torah covenant to the actualities of life. The Talmud unfolds that Oral Torah as it was understood by that time. Its teachings still apply, therefore; according to the Torah’s own instructions it is God’s will that these teachings have never and can never be revoked, and no supplementation in terms of adding another covenant to or altering the Sinai covenant are valid (e.g., Deut. 4:2; 12:32; 13:2-6; 29:8-20). All religiously observant Jews therefore, whether Liberal or Orthodox, as a matter of fact still practice at least something of the sabbath laws. The non-Orthodox however do not consider the Talmudic rulings, at least in their details, as binding on them. They hold to what they consider the essentials of those rulings, their “spirit.” This has reached such a point that many do not even know what is in the Talmud at all, so this series of essays by Adam Kirsch is performing an important service for them.

      dongszkie says:

      Tzur, thank you very much! I am just flattered and appreciate that you give some attention to my small piece and availed it a slice of your precious moments. Let it be known that I respect your opinion and ideas,no matter how we differed and diverged,since I am a firm believer of tolerance and coexistence. No one has the right to monopoly on this beautiful planet that our Grand Creator has granted us accommodation. You’ve got your own conviction and I’ve got mine, on matters pertaining God and his Word. It is true that the only living and true God in heaven made a covenant with Abraham and to his seed w/c latter proved to be the sons of Jacob, the his special people, special property. He freed them from slavery from the hands of the Egyptian, through his appointed leader and mediator Moses, and made them into a nation and settled them into the land of Palestine. They proved to be the only covenant people,with special relation to the only living and true God of the universe.
      But that covenant was conditional. IF THEY REMAIN FAITHFUL TO HIM AS THEIR GOD. Through out their history. the Israelites repeatedly proved to be a stiffnecked, rebellious, stubborn, unfaithful and covenant-breaker people to their God who provided them so much. During Jeremiah’s day God was still exercising his patience and loving kindness towards his covenant people,but already foresee the right time to say,enough is enough(Jer.31:31,32) This was brought to bear and climaxed at their rejection of his only-begotten Son, the Messiah, when they killed him,at the instigation of their jealous,hypocritical, self-righteous religious leaders presiding at the temple (Matt.23:37,38; Matt21: 42,43)
      This was provened on the day of Pentecost in 33C.E. when the Holy Spirit was being poured, NOT to Jewish religious leaders at the temple, but to the fledgling small group of loyal and faithful followers of Jesus who were gathered at the upper room at Jerusalem. Now God demonstrated that his favor was now transfered from an exclusive Jewish System to one inclusive christian organization, the spiritual Israel. The natural, flesh and blood, Jew or Israelites were now being replaced with a spiritual Jew or Israelites,centered on the faithful apostles and disciples of Jesus. They were now the custodian of God’s intereses on earth,the true worship (religion),commissioned to preach God’s Kingdom to the whole earth. So no more Jew or Greek or Barbarians,for all are one in Christ Jesus,the composite spritual Israel or Jew to God. The fulfillment of Genesis 22:18. God’s rejection of the natural Jew or Jewish System was further emphasised when he punished the Jewish System for the rejection and murder of his Son in 70 C.E, when the Roman general Titus destroyed and razed Jerusalem and its temple and scattered the whole Jews into diaspora.
      God was not finished yet with his rejection of favor from the natural Jews. Now Jerusalem is back to the hands of Jews,but God does not allow them to have a temple for his worship further reminding them that their form of worship is already being forever rejected and the form of worship(religion) being established by his Son was now the one he accepted(John4:23,24) Now the Jews is being left to worship on crumb,the leftover wall,the wailing or western wall of the old temple, while the Arabs is lording over them with a complete and whole edifice in the temple’s rightful place w/ limited access to Jews. What a shame, insult and becoming a laughingstock to the nation!!! One cannot sit on his own house??? God wills it, and nobody can thwart God’s eternal purpose. But one can still acquire God’s favor by being humble and submissive to his will, his arrangement and purposes. Repent and accept his Messiah,Jesus Christ. Moses was the mediator of the the old covenant(Law Covenant) between Israel and God, now Jesus is the permanent mediator of the new covenant between God and the spiritual Israel, the one true christian organization.
      TZUR, that is what I learned from my study of the whole Word of God,the Bible, that is the Old Testament and the New Testament. Friend…Dongszkie or DADZ.

        Dongszkie, thank you for your reply. Naturally, there is much in it that I cannot agree with relating to the New Testament, but I do understand that you present a Christian view. Nevertheless, insofar as it relates to Jewish Scriptures, which are in addition just matters of fact, I must clarify with all due respect that these views are simply in error. For example, the covenant is not conditional anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Mosaic books state clearly that it will never cease, regardless of the disobediences and sins of Israel; as is made clear in the concluding portions for example of Leviticus, after prophetically detailing some of the terrible things that will befall Israel when it commits idolatry and is punished by exile, it is added that those remaining will repent, and then the all-merciful God will forgive them and receive them back: “I will not destroy them nor break My covenant with them, since I am God their Lord. I will therefore remember the covenant with their original ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations, so as to be a God to them: I am God” (Lev. 26:44-45). All the prophets say the same thing, again and again; it is a central and entirely consistent part of their message: God’s covenant with the Jewish people will always persist, even if and when Israel plays the part of a faithless wife (as Hosiah says at length). God unlike Israel is always faithful and true to the eternal covenantal bond, and in his mercy will always gladly receive Israel back when it repents (this is why the Hebrew word for repentance really means “returning”). All that is conditional are the blessings and punishments, which depend on Israel’s behaviour. But these too are part of the covenantal bond that Israel entered into at Sinai, just as Leviticus and Deuteronomy as well make clear.

        I think a part of the problem, for you, is the either-or interpretation that if the covenant does not shift to non-Jews (rejecting the Jews as such), then salvation must be closed out for all the rest of humanity, which is why in your view the “universal” message of Christianity and the “New Covenant” is needed. According to this the Sinai covenant is all about personal salvation. So Judaism is particularistic, claiming all salvation for itself, which is why universalistic Christianity was a necessary part of God’s plan from the start. However, all this too, I am afraid, rests on a drastic misreading of Scripture and even of the purpose for the Sinai covenant to start with. According to the Torah itself, Gen. 9, God has already entered into covenantal relationship with all humanity at the time of Noah (actually already with Adam, but Noah received a more detailed version of the same covenant, which is binding on all his descendants). So you and everyone else in the world is already connected with God; you need no further covenantal bond to be saved. Anyone who fulfils the Noahite covenant, which the Talmudic rabbinic exegesis specified has seven basic commandments including belief in one supreme God (something even found in otherwise polytheistic religions of antiquity), is assured of life in the World-to-Come. In common Hebrew discourse, righteous gentiles are termed b’nai Noach, Noahites. Look up the Noachide Covenant or Noahite Covenant on Jewish sites on the internet for details, such as the on-line Jewish Encyclopedia. In summary, “The righteous of all peoples have a place in the World-to-Come” (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13: 2). Indeed, even those who just do some righteous actions will be saved, which means almost all of humanity (Sanhedrin 105a). Such is the abounding mercy of God, according to Judaism. These universalistic teachings of the Torah, as found in Gen. 9 and elaborated on in post-Biblical Judaism, have been entirely omitted from all Christian commentaries on the Bible. You will not have heard of it, therefore. Yet there is an entire book of the Jewish Scriptures, the Book of Job, which centers on the lofty righteousness of Job, who is according to the first sentences of the book (and later rabbinic tradition) a non-Jew from an Arabian region, the land of Uz. Job, as you know, is presented as entirely worthy of salvation, but he is a non-Jew. There are quite a few other righteous Noahites mentioned in the Torah. Go and learn.

        So it is not necessary to believe in any specific religion much less any particular messianic claimant to be saved, according to the Jewish Scriptures. Judaism is very universalistic, without being exclusivistic, which is, indeed, a sharp lessening of universalism.

          dongszkie says:

          TZUR, I know there will be permanent gap between our ideas and conviction and the lose end will never connect. Reason, you only accept the Hebrew Scriptures as inspired Word of God, while I accept both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as inspired by God. Unless there is no compromised between us on this juncture there will be no changes of the landscape of our individual stance and conviction. AND I DO NOT EXPECT A MIRACLE. The ONLY consolation is that WE agree to disagree,as I do not hope to win you to my side of the argument as you cannot hope also to win me to your side. What is wonderful here is COEXISTENCE, being tolerant of each others personal convictilon & belief.

          What I hope for being steadfast in our discourse is not about who wins who, for this is NOT realistic. I am hoping that I would be more acquainted to the driving principles or argument at the opposite side of the devide,and see the whole picture w/ understanding why it stand the way the picture stands. I would be satisfied to be more educated and informed. And I thank you for engaging me. My personal regards to you. DONGSZKIE

          Study a bit more about the Noahite Covenant. It is a key to the Torah view of history, the world, and non-Jews. It also contradicts the very foundation assumptions of the Paulinian Epistles, which in turn are at the root of our disagreement. After all, everyone has the right to claim their own views and religion as their own sovereign field, but no one has the right to falsify others’ religion and views in the course of doing so. If they persist nevertheless, conflict will inevitably result. Christians have always been faced with the dilemma that their religion rests upon another over which they have no right to impose their own self-originated and self-serving categories, demonizing whatever disagrees with themselves. So naturally Jews reject this as they have every right to do, and they may even point out the false interpretations and assumptions which underlie such “displacement theology.” When Christians learn at last to desist from supercessionist efforts, their own religion will be opened up, for the first time in regards to Jews, to tolerance and truth, and they will no longer be tempted to denigrate Jewish loyalty and love for their own Torah tradition. They will also learn from this a far broader and more universal acceptance of other religions and views too. I look forward to that day.
          With best regards, Tzur.

      A question for clarification and an invitation to all.

      You write, “…the Written Torah, and … the Oral Torah which is its explication, and which first arose at Sinai to apply the Torah covenant to the actualities of life.” Do I understand that the Oral Torah (“process” or expanding body of content) was launched immediately after the giving of the Written Torah? If so, I’d like to know more, and any sources to follow up (and spare you from adding details available elsewhere).

      Along with following Adam’s wondrous series and the many serious comments posted, and contributing to the conversation, I invite everyone, when in the neighborhood, to join our Hebrew-speaking Daf Yomi group from 9am to 10am daily, at Alma Home for Hebrew Culture, in Tel Aviv. We range from religiously observant to secular, and are either returning to, continuing study, or learning for the first time this wondrous ocean where we encounter all kinds of thought, life, instructions, open questions, and lore as we wrestle with the meanings and messages in the Talmud, at a pace of about one folio (two pages) at a time.

        Yes, this is a fundamental thing to realize concerning the Oral Torah, that it accompanied the revelation of the Written Torah from the start, and in fact was from the start actually necessary to understand the Written Torah and the enactment of the commandments themselves.

        A good overview is given in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, in the article on “Oral Law.” However, there are some important things to add to this overview or to emphasize in particular about it. For example, without oral elaborations there could not have been even a simple understanding of certain narrative passages or especially technical legal terms in the Written Torah, either to those not learned enough in Moses’ time, or to the entire Jewish people in later centuries. By the middle Biblical period the Torah text contained terms so archaic or whose meaning had so changed (as terms do in every culture over time — e.g. “gay” today means something quite different from a generation ago) that ordinary Hebrew speakers did not understand them and needed explanation from the scribes. The scribes preserved knowledge of their authentic original meaning. Rashi’s explanations of some of these terms indicate that this scribal oral tradition continued faithfully and truly right down to his own time in the 11th century CE, fully two thousand years later; now that we have excavated the proto-Hebraic archives of Ugarit (14th to 12th centuries BCE) we can verify that Rashi’s explanations for these terms were accurate.

        In any case, just about all the commandments need further explication before they can be applied in the complex situations of life. This extends even to each of the Ten Commandments: e.g., it says there to observe the Sabbath, the very topic that Adam Kirsch is now exploring in the pages of the Talmud. But the Written Torah does not fully explain HOW to observe the Sabbath as a distinct day apart from the weekdays. What qualifies as “work” for example, which we are told one must not do on the Sabbath? So right from the start there had to be an oral teaching explicating this subject, stemming from Moses himself and reflecting God’s will (on this very topic, see Num. 15:32-35, which further clarifies how to fulfil the Sabbath laws laid out in Exod. 31:14), or at the least coming from those Moses appointed to deal with such matters.

        This latter point is also crucial: the oral tradition was preserved from the start by authorities drawn from the entire community, even from the smallest clans and localities, people who had been given authority to preserve, administer and hand on this teaching. This ensured that no individual or sect could introduce arbitrary innovations and claim that this was the heritage from Sinai. Down through the centuries the entire people thus remained witnesses to the authentic practice of the Torah. This began right at Sinai, or actually, just before it!

        For we are told that when Moses met up with Yithro (Jethro), his father-in-law (who was the sheik over the whole tribe of Midian), and told him about the wonders of the Exodus that had just occurred, Yithro acknowledged God (thus making him the first named convert to Judaism), and then observed how Moses sat as judge to deal with the problems of the people he had led out of Egypt. When he saw that Moses was overwhelmed with this work, an impossible burden, he advised (Exod. 18:19-22, mostly using Aryeh Kaplan’s translation): “You must be God’s representative for the people, and bring [their] concerns to God. Clarify the laws and teachings for [the people]. Show them the path they must take, and the things they must do. But you must [also] seek out from among all the people capable, God-fearing men — men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them over [the people] as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. Let them administer justice for the people on a regular basis. Of course, they will have to bring every major case to you, but they can judge the minor cases by themselves.” These men, capable and discerning in judgement, and knowledgeable about the Torah, were in later generations the scribes and judges acknowledged in every community.

        Deut. 17: 8-11 states plainly that their authority in later generations to extrapolate and apply the laws to the situations of their time must be accepted by the Jewish people as being instituted from Sinai. So quibbles about their rulings deviating from this or that precedent must be set aside and must not be used for creating some new schism. For in any case, “the Torah is not in Heaven” as something too perfect to be enacted by human beings, something for angels alone. It is in our midst and is meant to be easy and near to us for us to apply in all our lives (the quote is from Deut. 30:12 and the Talmudic rabbis comments can be seen in the tractate Shabbat 104a). This gives the scholars of the Oral Torah in later generations Scriptural authority to adjust the laws with leniency to all future situations, for the sake of enhancing life and maintaining Torah preservation and applications.

          Your examples of Oral Torah embedded in Written Torah and even predating it gave me a whole new way of understanding Oral Torah. I understand that you are saying that Oral Torah does not “merely” explain or parse Written Torah but is sometimes its very content. Yes?

          Next, I’m interested that you call the Israelites in Egypt, Jewish people (and I thought the term came much later). While I don’t want to get off track, maybe you can reply briefly.

          Many thanks, Tzur, for your content (in depth and in context) and respectful tone (to audience, facts, traditions, history, and scholarship).

          Thank you for your kind comments; I am grateful for them. I apologize for only coming now, after a week away, to your query just above. And I apologize in advance if I am not brief enough: it is hard to be brief in answering such large questions.

          Yes, it follows from what I have referred to above that indeed many of the practices commanded in the Sinai covenant must have pre-existed Sinai, and Sinai only sealed much that was done beforehand. I am convinced of that. But Traditional Judaism has taken this much further, for it is often stated that from Abraham on, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and their descendants already followed the whole Torah in all its details. Here, I tend to think, there is a tendency to read ourselves back into the past, which all civilizations do. The Torah presents some problems for this kind of timeless Torah perspective. Abraham, for example, is said to have kept meat and milk separate as kashrut demands, so that it becomes a problem requiring halakhic solution that he is said to have hospitably offered the “three men” who visited him (who were really angels) “clotted cream and milk, and the calf which he had dressed” (Gen. 18:8). Rashi explains in his commentary on this passage that the cream and milk were given before the meat, which took some time to prepare (so this does indeed accord with the laws of kashrut, if one washes one’s mouth after drinking the liquid milk and cream, and waits for a stipulated period before eating meat — the explanation is plausible). More elaborate rabbinic debate and discussion concerned Jacob’s marrying the two sisters Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:25-30), for this is expressly forbidden in the Sinai covenant (Lev. 18:18), or even erected a pillar upon which to bring sacrificial offerings, also forbidden at Sinai (Deut. 16:22).

          However, traditional exegesis has generally prefaced their explanations by referral to Gen. 26:5, in which HaShem assures Isaac that the blessings he promised him through Abraham will be given, “Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and safeguarded My Ordinances, My Commandments, My Decrees, and My Torahs.” Rashi strongly emphasizes in his comments on this passage that each of the various terms applies to the various kinds of divine decrees, for example those that can be confirmed through reason and those that cannot but were revealed as divine commandments at Sinai in the Written Torah, etc., so this means that the whole Torah was known and obeyed before Sinai. For rather full discussion of these matters, with citations from many Torah scholars down through the centuries, see for example the Artscroll Tanakh Series volume on Bereishis, Vol. 1a, p. 638 on Gen. 18:8 and especially pp. 1083-85 on Gen. 26:5.

          As for the terminology we use for the Jewish people, it is true that we often refer to the B’nai Yisrael, the “Children of Israel” (sometimes given as “Israelites,” especially by Christians) down to the late First Temple period, but this is strictly speaking a misnomer even for the early and middle Biblical periods. It is also true that after the 8th century BCE we seem to be dealing almost solely with the Judeans, since the Ten Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel were deported and we lose sight of them henceforth (but there are hints later on that they rejoined the Judeans in exile and some even came back with them to Judea). So from that time, and especially during and after the Babylonian Exile, it is customary in recent generations to refer to the Jewish people back then as “Jews,” i.e., from Judea, even though this too is a misnomer, since as mentioned some of them were from the northern kingdom of Israel (on all this, see Ziva Shavitsky, The Mystery of the Ten Lost Tribes (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012 — she shows from Torah references, archaeological findings, and non-Jewish accounts, that some portions of the “Ten Lost Tribes” reintegrated into the “Judeans,” i.e., the “Jewish” people quite early). And it must be added that from early times, too, even before Sinai, the same people were called “Hebrews,” Ivri’im.

          However, the truth is that only one people is being referred to by all these terms, the Jewish people as such. The B’nai Yisrael were not a different people. In fact, as I said, the term is strictly speaking a misnomer from the start: they were never only “the children of Jacob/Israel.” Even during Abraham’s time, the Torah tells us, others were drawn to his teachings and joined him, serving as servants in his household. “Abram the Hebrew” (ha-ivri: Gen. 14:14) became a great sheik, able even to lead an army of 318 trained disciples, ready for battle, young men “who had been born in his house” (same verse) to rescue his nephew Lot who had been carried off by four kings and their hosts. So later on when the 70 “Children of Israel” went down into Egypt, they too were great sheiks with enormous herds, and a large number of others serving and accompanying them, requiring a considerable portion of northeastern Egypt to be set aside for them. They all became part of the “Children of Israel” who left Egypt under Moses. Furthermore, other slaves and free Egyptians, tradition tells us, joined the Exodus under Moses as well, a “mixed multitude” (Exod. 12:38) so we really have to do not just with tribes but with a true people as such that fused together definitively at Sinai: the Jewish people, defined by Torah as a single people including all converts, all equally under the same law (Exod. 12:49, Lev. 19:33-34, etc.). And we need not do more than mention that intermarriage with the peoples of Canaan also expanded the Jewish people, so that the whole population when it was deported by the Babylonians were “Jews.”

          So the Jewish people are not just the B’nai Yisrael, the Hebrews, or the Judeans, but in every age they were one Jewish people and their distinctive religion and heritage was the one Jewish religion, Judaism, whether Biblical or post-Biblical, whatever their idolatrous tendencies might have been in any generation. I tend to think that Christian commentaries, in particular, like to be very strict about separating these terms so as to suggest that the “Jews” and their “Judaism” only emerged AFTER the time of Abraham, Moses, David and the Prophets, and that this constituted a particularistic decline from the prophetic “Israelite religion” of the “Hebrews” or the “Children of Israel” that Christianity alone revived and continued. For a long time it was customary to read Christian histories of “Judaism” that begin with the Exile (so to them real “Judaism” did not exist in the time of Moses and the Prophets), and end with Pharisaic and the fall of the Second Temple, supposedly producing Talmudic religion. For, according to this viewpoint, by the late Second Temple period, we have to do with “Late Judaism,” which then became entirely “fossilized” in Rabbinic Judaism. E.g., Emil Schuerer’s “The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ,” long considered the standard text on the period, takes this viewpoint for granted. So there is a hidden polemic, a kind of de-Judaization of Biblical religion, that sometimes motivates the Christian use of these (and other) terms relating to the Jewish religion. Often Jews, too, in all innocence, may echo the same terms. But I do not. I hold that it is the same people and the same religion from Sinai (and, as just explained, even before) right down through the millenia, changing as do all peoples and civilizations but still amazingly consistent, continuous and coherent, as well as creative and vigorous right up to the present day. That is the reason for my usage of “Judaism” (whether Biblical or post-Biblical) and “Jews” for that entire sweep of history.

Luiting says:

I’m renting a basement unit owned by an old couple, who are Orthodox Jew. I’m a Christian but I have high regards with the people of GOD. I respect the Sabbath and recognize it as Holy. We have the same GOD, the Great I am.

On Fridays, their daughters and husbands come together with their grandchildren to join them to celebrate the worship. I don’t really care if they make noise stomping their feet while praising and worshiping because it’s a sacred act of faith. On Saturdays, while the time of rest is still being observed, they would stomp their feet, or bang the floor using something heavy (stuffs).. and they would laugh. At first, I thought, it was unintentional, but it’s becoming a habit. It even got worst, because even on weekdays night when they drop-by to visit the old folks, they wouldn’t miss to make heavy noise,, right at the place where my basement unit (there are two) is located.

I’m an Asian, and now, I wonder WHY?, these people,- who are supposed to be cloth with the glory of GOD, cloth with humility, who observe and follow the word of the Father, the HOLY ONE of Israel would have time to annoy another human being, particularly during the Sabbath. I’m not talking in general, however it changed my perception on the kind of character the Jews have. Some, may look religious, but they don’t really “follow what they preach.”

    judahdan says:

    It is true that some Jews look religious but do not actually act religious. Please do not judge Jews based on your landlord- it would be like me judging all Koreans based on the jerk that owns a Korean grocer next to my former apartment. We had an emergency and needed to use his phone and he said no.


      Luiting says:

      It’s not my landlord (who are so nice), but their younger generation. I’m not referring to Jews in general, that’s why I used the word “some”.


        Consider addressing directly the people who are disturbing you (without attaching to them labels such as religion, age, gender, national origin, etc.) By focusing on offending behavior and shunning unrelated associations or expectations based on your stereotypes or preconceived ideas, the chances to resolve the matter increase.

          Luiting says:

          Thanks Tamar,

          No one should be “the subject of holocaust,” even those who are obnoxious. Surely you would not really “laugh on their misery” if they were tormented and killed by Nazis? (The recourse to such generalized highly stereotyped demonizations whenever dealing with specific Jews is not a good practice.) If as seems to be the case discussion with your landlord does not solve this problem, then in the absence of other available options it may be best for your own continued peace of mind to move elsewhere. Their loss of a paying tenant is its own sufficient punishment, and you are freed from a very difficult situation.

          Luiting says:

          Thanks Tzur.. yes that’s the last resort. I stayed because I’m trying to consider my landlady. She’s so fond of me, and verbalize that I’m the “nicest tenant she ever had”.. ouch I’m not flattering myself.. that’s exactly the words that she said. I’m decided to move to another place though.

          Some of the jew’s younger generation forgot about the past of their ancestors. They don’t have consideration on others, particularly for far eastern asians like me. They treat us like second class citizen. Everybody has the right to be treated as a decent human being, anybody who goes beyond is uncivilized.

          Generalizations are not facts, and personal ideas about Jews, younger generations, far east Asians, and people who are civilized or uncivilized, as examples, are stereotypes of the most dangerous kind. The nicest tenants I ever had respected not only my property but our fellow human beings, none neither more nor less than another.

          Something is terribly wrong with your thinking, and I am sorry for your burdens — your noisy neighbors and your free-floating antisemitism.

Hey, have you seen this?

$10,000 Torah Challenge !!!

Can You Prove from the Torah that Judaism Does Indeed Pass
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Why the Sabbath Is Everything

This week, the Talmud’s rabbis explore possible holy day violations to determine the nature of the sinner