November 22nd, 2015
Rashi turned a Biblical verse into a rhyme when he quoted Gen. 32:5, Im Lavan gar’ti (Jacob’s statement, “I dwelt with Laban”) into Im Lavan gar’ti v’taryag mitzvot shamar’ti (“I dwelt with Laban and observed the 613 commandments”).
Who was Jacob talking to? His brother Esau. But since Esau was far from orthodox observance, why should he care whether Jacob was froom or not?
It all depends on how un-froom Esau was. If later historical experience is an indicator, Esau was not totally devoid of mitzvah-observance. He probably was what in our generation might be called “occasional orthodox”, not consistently or constantly observant of mitzvot, but once in a while finding himself keeping a mitzvah or two.
We find this phenomenon amongst countless people. They don’t daven regularly, but once in a while they say the Sh’ma. They don’t keep kosher all the time, but sometimes they consciously buy and eat kosher food. They don’t observe Shabbat every week, but sometimes (or more often) they light Shabbat candles.
If that’s the sort of person Esau was, he could well be interested in knowing that Jacob wouldn’t let the negative Laban-influences prevent him from maintaining his Judaism. One mitzvah in particular would impress Esau – the mitzvah of not hating your brother (Lev. 19:17).
November 22nd, 2015
Jacob sees Esau coming to meet him, by James Tissot
Gen. 32:7 tells us that Esau was supported by an army of four hundred men when he encountered Jacob. The story is supposed to be about the reconciliation of the two brothers, so why did Esau need to bring an army with him?
No wonder Rashbam remarks that Jacob distrusted Esau, more or less in line with the rabbinic advice, kab’dehu v’chash’dehu – “Respect him but suspect him” (a well-known saying that does not seem to have a specific source in the Talmud).
Why the four hundred men? Did Esau have them because he planned to attack and annihilate his brother?
That’s the approach that Sforno takes to the story, but more likely the army was part of a bargaining ploy. It’s not that Esau was definitely bent on wiping out Jacob, but he wanted to intimidate Jacob and show him how what strength he could utilise if he wished. The army represented a threat and not a promise.
What did Jacob have to counter them? Go back to the end of last week’s sidra and you find what he had – an army of angels. A host which – according to the description of angels in the Friday night hymn, Shalom Aleichem – represented peace and joy.
Jacob had no intention of attacking Esau. All he wanted was peace and brotherhood. Rashi says that Jacob would only contemplate armed combat as a last resort: he relied on peace offerings and prayer before thinking of war.
November 22nd, 2015
Q. Maccabi or Maccabee – which is the right spelling?
A. Both. The Hebrew word is spelled M-K-B-I, possibly from a word meaning “hammer”; a well-known interpretation sees it as the initials of the words, “Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord?” (Ex. 15:11). There is also a view that it is the initials of “Mattityahu Kohen ben Yochanan” – “Mattathias the kohen, son of Yochanan”.
References in English to the Mattathias family generally use the Maccabee spelling, but this is not essential.
General usage is to apply the spelling “Maccabi” to sporting teams, though there is a paradox; one of the things the original Maccabees opposed was the Greek athletic contests that valued physical form over spiritual attainment.
However, one might fittingly quote the words of Justice Brandeis, “The Maccabees’ victory proved that the Jews – then already an old people – possessed the secret of eternal youth: the ability to rejuvenate itself through courage, hope, enthusiasm, devotion and self-sacrifice.”
November 21st, 2015
During World War II when Rabbi Jacob Danglow was visiting Jewish internees in camp in Australia, he conducted a Chanukah service and innocently mentioned Jewish problems with the Greeks. Unfortunately there were Greeks as well as Jews at that camp and a riot almost ensued. Such is the result of people misunderstanding what they hear!
However, it may be that too much is made of the supposed antagonism between Judaism and Greece. The villain of the Chanukah story, King Antiochus, was not the first to introduce hellenism into Judea. All that he did was to be inept and provoke a crisis. Among the Jews there were many, especially in the upper class establishment, who believed Judaism and hellenism could be successfully integrated, and indeed similar Jewish attempts to live in two cultures have punctuated Jewish history.
In the London Jewish Chronicle in December, 1961, Professor Raphael Loewe asks if Jews really knew what they had against Greek culture.
Idolatry? Biblical history was full of idolatrous episodes. The human characteristics ascribed to the Greek gods? Judaism had its own problems with human descriptions of God. Immorality? The Greeks did not invent orgies and excesses, and classical Greek ethical teaching was not unimpressive. A perceived threat to Jewish national identity? Many Jews did not see it that way.
Loewe’s own view is that Jews were shocked at the representational art of the Hellenistic world which clearly contradicted the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God.
Another version of the same theory appears in the “Universal Bible” of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who says the Greeks saw beauty as an end in itself, where Judaism believed in beauty for God’s sake – the sages say that when the Torah speaks of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem (Gen. 10:27) it indicates that the beauty of Yefet (from yafah, beautiful) must be subject to the morality of Shem (the ancestor of Israel).
Samson Raphael Hirsch remarks that “Japheth (Greece) has ennobled the world aesthetically; Shem has enlightened it spiritually and morally”.
November 21st, 2015
Depiction of Philo of Alexandria by André Thevet, 1584
The traditional word for hellenisers is mit’yav’nim
, literally “those who became like the Greeks”. A Jewish parallel is mityahadim
, “those who became like Jews” (Esther 8:17), though some translators believe that this word may be better translated, “those who took the part of the Jews”.
The problem of the mit’yav’nim is that they tended to bring heathen ways into Judaism, forsaking the Torah or rather giving the Torah a hellenistic interpretation. An example is Philo of Alexandria, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, who tended to allegorise the mitzvot and remove their traditional character and authority in favour of symbolism without the symbol.