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    Egyptian shame – B’shallach

    January 25th, 2015

    ten plaguesThe Torah readings in recent weeks dealt with the ten plagues. We find them listed in short form in the Haggadah. They are part of Jewish history. But they don’t seem to figure in the Egyptian records. Strange, since they must have devastated the country and brought immense suffering to the local inhabitants.

    There is a popular view that ancient peoples preferred to boast of their victories and to downplay their defeats. Probably true, but there is an extra dimension in the case of the land of the Pharaohs.

    It was a culture that believed in gods (possibly it was even on the way to a form of monotheism). No wonder Dr Duncan Hoyte says in an article in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1993, writing about the tenth plague but with relevance to the whole series, “There is no Egyptian record of the plague because, after all the previous plagues, it represented yet another failure of their gods to protect them”.


    Singing the song – B’shallach

    January 25th, 2015

    Israelites crossing the Red Sea, from a 1907 Bible card

    Israelites crossing the Red Sea, from a 1907 Bible card

    On Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, the centrepiece of the Torah portion is the song of triumph of Moses and the Children of Israel (Ex. 15).

    The phrase, “Moses and the Children of Israel”, indicates that Moses led the singing and the people followed or responded to him. They couldn’t have used a written text because the song was clearly spontaneous, a lyrical upsurge that arose from the moment. The composer was Moses, inspired by God the Redeemer. It is possible that whatever the people heard from Moses they then repeated.

    How, then, were the words and phrases recorded?

    In the course of the redaction of the Torah text, the immortal words of Scripture were given permanent shape and God’s mighty saving power was remembered from year to year.


    Plagiarism – Ask the Rabbi

    January 25th, 2015

    Q. I read an article which sounded familiar. I checked and found that the author had lifted and passed off as his own work whole sections from something I had written. This is against Jewish law, isn’t it?

    plagiarismA. Plagiarism, the theft of another person’s words, transgresses the law of “Do not steal”.

    There is an associated but more complicated issue – the adoption of someone else’s ideas. Jewish law requires that one’s source should be acknowledged: “He who quotes a thing in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world”. This applies even though ideas disseminated by their author are meant to become part of mankind’s cultural heritage.

    The question is whether the author has a legal as well as a moral claim. If the author or their associates expend time, money and material on publishing a work, others must not adversely affect the publication by causing a loss, e.g. by producing a pirated edition.

    In the 16th century when the Maharam of Padua issued an edition of Rambam’s “Mishneh Torah”, Rabbi Moses Isserles forbade the purchase of a rival edition. Opponents of the ban said that it would only hold validity if it were clearly stated to have geographical or personal limitations.

    There is an issue in regard to photocopying. If you buy a book it is yours and in most cases you can copy or even destroy it (though there is a problem if the text contains the Divine Name), but if the book belongs to a library, there are restrictions on copying.

    When I was a Jews’ College student in London, I found that the file copies of the “Jewish Chronicle” had been defaced; the weekly sermon had been cut out, presumably by an aspiring preacher (not me) who had no ideas of his own. I guess the College could have considered legal action against the malefactor if they had caught him.


    When we get there

    January 18th, 2015

    The Ten Plagues, Venice Haggadah, 1609

    The Ten Plagues, Venice Haggadah, 1609

    As the plagues unfold things get more and more desperate for Pharaoh and the Egyptians until Pharaoh is almost ready to cave in (Ex. 10). He actually talks about letting the Israelites go to worship God in the wilderness but he asks who will be going and what would they be doing, and he doesn’t like the answer.

    Commenting on this impasse, Pinhas Peli quotes a story of Rabbi Chayyim of Sanz. Rabbi Chayyim asked his disciples, “What would you do if you found a purse of money on Shabbat – would you pick it up?”

    “Of course not,” said one young man. “You fool!” said the rabbi, who then turned to the second student. “Rabbi,” said that one, “I would pick it up.” “You sinner!” said the rabbi, who then looked at the third student.

    “Rabbi,” said the third student, “I just don’t know. I would struggle with myself before deciding. I hope I would be able to decide properly!” “At last we have the right answer!” said Rabbi Chayyim.

    Pinhas Peli applies this story to the dilemma of the Israelites in Egypt. What would they be doing when they encountered God in the wilderness? Textbook answers aren’t necessarily the answer. In Peli’s words, what the Israelites could have said was, “We shall not know how we are to worship the Lord until we get there.”


    Beginning the calendar – Bo

    January 18th, 2015

    Jewish liturgical calendarChapter 12 of Sh’mot inaugurates the Jewish calendar: “This month (Nisan) shall be for you the beginning of the months” (Ex. 12:2).

    As far as the years are concerned, tradition dates them back to Creation, with a view proposed by some scholars that the start point is when human civilisation commenced. In Judaism this year is 5775 and there have been many attempts to link up events in Jewish history with dates in the civil calendar.

    There will always be problems with the civil calendar because of its inbuilt faults. For 1600 years the nations used the so-called Julian Calendar, but this was just over 11 minutes too long each year, which added up to an extra 7 days every thousand years, driving the solar and lunar calendars apart. In the 16th century Pope Gregory XII ordained that 5 October was to become 15 October that year, years were to begin on 1 January, and leap years would be every 4th year and in centenary years. The Gregorian calendar took centuries to spread through the known world: in England it was not adopted until 1750.

    When rabbis get asked, as I have often been, for the exact date when certain events happened in early Christian history, there is no way the question can be precisely answered. The questioners don’t always understand that the Gregorian calendar simply did not function in those days, and to think of birth and death certificates in ancient history is an impossible dream.

    In some cases the early section of Mishnah Avodah Zarah tried to identify events in the reigns of gentile kings, but events in the lives of ordinary people cannot be determined. We in Judaism are fortunate that tradition ascribes Hebrew dates to great moments, such as to say that 7 Adar was Moses’ Yarhzeit.