• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    The threefold task – Va’et’channan

    July 18th, 2021

    Moses tells the people to listen to the commandments and do three things – to study, observe and do them (Deut. 5:1).

    The duty of studying the laws is discussed in the Gemara Kiddushin 40b. It asks which is more important, study or practice. It concludes that study is more important because it leads to practice. If you know what is required of you, your mind will lead you to carry out the task.

    Why then are there two words (ush’martem, “observe” and la’asotam, “do”) about carrying out the task? Is there a difference between observing and doing?

    It depends on how you understand the verbal root sh-m-r. Saadia Ga’on suggests that it means “to remember”, which means that we must not only study the laws but maintain them mentally.

    However, if we interpret the verb as “protect”, that makes a great difference. We must not let the law be whittled away or be squeezed dry of meaning.

    The opening chapter of Pir’kei Avot tells us to make a fence around the Torah.

    Body & soul – Va’et’channan

    July 18th, 2021

    The Torah portion begins with Moses speaking. He says Va’et’channan el HaShem – “I besought the Lord” (Deut. 3:28).

    The verb he uses is Hitpa’el, reflexive. The Hitpa’el is used in such phrases as “I wash myself”, “I dress myself”.

    In time of prayer, it suggests that the person (in this case Moses) does not stand or sit politely and quietly, and piously concentrate on his words and thoughts. It indicates that the whole person should be engaged in prayer, both body and soul.

    One of the best known Jewish prayer customs – shockling or swaying – is an illustration of this notion. It derives from the passage in the Psalms, kol atzmotai tomar’na, “All my bones speak out” (35:10).

    Samson Raphael Hirsch tells us that the words mean, “Every part of me shall speak”.

    Shema: The polemical prayer – Va’et’channan

    July 18th, 2021

    By the time of the Second Temple it was the accepted practice to say the Shema twice daily, evening and morning.

    Special importance was attached to the first line, with its affirmation of God and His Oneness. This line occurred and recurred on its own in many places, which, according to Jacob Mann, was motivated by polemical reasons.

    In Babylon it was almost surreptitiously inserted in the early morning passage, L’olam yehei adam, because Zoroastrianism objected to the unity of God. It was quietly inserted in the Kedushah for Shabbat and festivals because the full Shema was considered too blatant.

    When the Torah was taken out of the Ark on Shabbat and festivals, the Shema was a proud Jewish answer to Christianity.

    Giving a Book its name – D’varim

    July 11th, 2021

    Though the fifth Book of the Torah is generally called D’varim, which means “words” or “matters”, Jewish tradition uses the Hebrew name Mishneh Torah, a “repeated” Torah (equivalent to the Greek Deuteronomy), because it is Moses’ summing up and reiteration of the teaching contained in the previous four Books.

    The phrase Mishneh Torah comes from Deut. 17:18 and Joshua 8:32. Nathan Marcus Adler in his commentary on Targum Onkelos surmises that when the scribe wrote each word of the Torah he uttered or repeated the word to make sure that everything was included and there were no mistakes.

    From this we can learn that when studying the Torah text it is not enough to skim-read the words. One must go slowly and carefully, making every word at least minimally audible.

    The Name of God – D’varim

    July 11th, 2021

    In Deut. 4:33 the Torah calls God E-lohim but Targum Onkelos changes the word to the four-letter Y-H-V-H.

    The E name refers to God in his capacity of power and justice (middat ha-din); the Y name is God in his capacity of love and mercy (middat ha-rachamim).

    It is interesting that in the first line of the Shema (Deut. 6:4), we find both names, followed by two implied comments: the more personal Name is Y-H-V-H, and the two names jointly denote God, making the two Names one.

    What right does Targum Onkelos have to alter a word in the Torah?

    His problem is that people might think that there are several gods who all claim the right to the name E-lohim, and the second of the Ten Commandments warns us against allocating godship to no-gods, so in order to avoid misinterpretations of the verse.

    Onkelos makes sure that we realise that there is only one genuine God whose personal Name is Y-H-V-H.