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    Butler & baker – Vayyeshev

    December 11th, 2022

    The dreams of the butler and baker were evidence that Egyptian royalty needed trustworthy servants who could be relied upon to handle a Pharaoh’s food without suspicion of trying to poison him.

    A great deal of commentary explains what each servant’s dream was about, but that is not the aspect we will focus on. Instead let us look at Butler and Baker as Jewish surnames.

    The history of some surnames is easy and obvious. If a person has a “Jewish” surname like “Chazan” or “Shochet” we have few problems. Sometimes a name is geographical like “Berlin” (which in Israel is “Bar-Ilan”).

    Sometimes a name is made up of initials such as bet-resh-dalet, leading to “Bard”.

    Occupational names tell us a great deal about Jewish social history, e.g. names that indicate involvement in the textile trade.

    “Baker” is a straight translation of “Becker”.

    “Butler” is more difficult and might even be an anglicisation of “batlan”, a layabout!


    Why fight with angels? – Vayyishlach

    December 4th, 2022

    One of the most dramatic moments in the Torah narrative is Jacob’s all-night struggle with the angel.

    An impossible scenario? An unthinkable event? Surely angels are our friends and not our enemies.

    Even when we say that the angel in the story is an agent of the Lord, we still have not solved the problem. Indeed we have made it more and not less perplexing, indicating that it was God with whom Jacob was struggling.

    The Jewish people – the nation of Jacob – are constantly engaged in an encounter with God. Actually we find ourselves struggling on four fronts – with our enemies, with the factions within our own people, with ourselves and our conscience, and with God.

    Why do we struggle with God? Most often because we agonise over whether He is fair to us. We expect His blessings of peace, truth and justice. He responds that human beings have to prove themselves worthy of rewards from On High.

    Fair enough, but doesn’t it seem that God is using an earthly antagonist to make us suffer?


    Changing his name – Vayyishlach

    December 4th, 2022

    Abraham’s name was changed from Abram: the Torah says, “Your name shall no longer be called Abram” (Gen. 17:5). Hence from this point onwards we only hear of Abraham and the name Abram is just history.

    But there is a problem when Abraham’s grandson Jacob is given a new name, “Israel”. Thereafter we sometimes hear of Jacob and sometimes of Israel. Why is there one law for Abraham and a different one for Jacob?

    The explanation offered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe is that there were two stages in the service of God. The patriarch was “Jacob” (from a root that means “to supplant”) when he was engaged in acquiring material benefits but “Israel” (from “struggle with God”) when he sought the spiritual benefit of a blessing from the Almighty.


    Finding a Jewish answer to the gun problem

    December 1st, 2022

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 1 December, 2022.

    For years now, guns have been doing immense harm in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Hundreds of innocent people have been killed; thousands have been wounded.

    Whatever the perpetrators’ motives, they have turned normal daily life, like going to school, the shops or praying in shul, into something over which they are frightened. They have made ordinary members of the public into vulnerable and shaky individuals whose lives are in constant peril.

    Whoever the victims are, whether Jewish or gentile, black or white, male or female, whatever sexual orientation, young or old, they can no longer hope to “sit under their vine and under their fig tree with none to make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

    Everyone is in danger of being wantonly mowed down, which is probably the worst crime there is (Exodus 20:13), even if the killing is unpremeditated (Numbers 35:11).

    This article is not primarily concerned with government gun policies but with the moral issues that arise from the point of view of Jewish law, tradition and ethics.

    There are four main problems with guns:

    The gun itself is a means of doing harm. In Jewish law, a person must not own a dangerous dog (Bava Kamma 79a). Someone who has a dangerous dog must keep it under restraint at all times (Choshen Mishpat 409:3). Even a dog that is unlikely to do harm must be kept under restraint because it can frighten people (Shabbat 63b). The gun is like a dangerous dog, if not worse.

    The best policy is that nobody should own a gun and if they do, they must keep it under severe restraint. Not only guns but any potential means of harm, though guns seem to have a worse potential for harm than many other dangerous dogs.

    Once upon a time when we were children we used to point toy guns at each other and say, “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” These days, however, it’s no game, the guns are for real and they’re far worse than toys.

    The gun-runner with a neurosis: No one can arrogate to themselves a right to disown, dismiss or disrespect another person. No one can claim (in the words of Talmud Pesachim 25b) that their blood is redder than mine or anyone else’s, and that the world is better off without the people they have killed or maimed.

    Perpetrators of harm must be findable. They must be found, identified and shown no mercy. Society must teach them a harsh lesson in relation to any crime they have committed and deter them from wrongful acts in the future. The rule in Jewish ethics is that the community has a duty to remove or prevent any safety hazard (Bava Kamma 15b).

    The motivation: those who bear guns and use them against other people are entitled to disagree with others but they have to realise that the issue is not only Black Lives Matter (BLM) but All Lives Matter (ALM). Society must train all its members to handle differences decently, in a law-abiding and peaceful manner. It cannot let people resort to violence even if they are aggrieved, angry, anxious or afraid.

    Education must train people towards good citizenship with concern for the rights of others. If people want to be prejudiced, let the prejudice be constructively discussed.

    The potential victim: a person must not place him – or herself in a position of danger (Deuteronomy 22:8). That doesn’t mean that nobody should go to school or the shops. Since schoolchildren are now especially vulnerable, the adult community must protect them as firmly as possible by appropriate security measures at school gates.

    This does not imply that teachers should be armed, which simply makes the problem worse. Visible measures must be put in place at centers of business and commerce and at entertainment or sporting arenas. Everyone should have the Bible-given right to enjoy their own vine or fig tree (Micah 4:4). Nobody may “sit by when your fellow’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16).

    Some gun owners will insist that they have valid reasons to possess weapons and that gun ownership is a mark of human liberty. Their case may occasionally have an element of validity but because a society must remove or prevent any safety hazard (Bava Kamma 15b), we cannot have any sympathy with those who think that all gun-toting is kosher.

    Guns are dangerous dogs that put everyone at risk. They should be placed on a register that will be regularly checked and monitored. Until the time comes that life can rid itself of weapons, when “none shall hurt or destroy” (Isaiah 11:9), it might be necessary to allow an interim ethic that occasionally tolerates gun ownership.

    But in this interim, decent gun owners will have to be prepared to abandon their weapons and recognize that citizen discipline (and self-discipline) are essential in order to make life livable. The historian Arthur Bryant wrote, “The real problem is not how to ensure the survival of the human race, but how to ensure the simultaneous survival of both civilised society and human and political liberty.”


    Glory of the Lord – Vayyetzei

    November 28th, 2022

    Jacob lays down to sleep, by José de Ribera, 1639

    When Jacob left home he found himself out in the wilderness and slept with a stone for his pillow. The Torah says that the Lord stood above him (Gen. 28:13).

    Instead of “The Lord”, Targum Onkelos says “the glory of the Lord”. As usual the Targum avoids anthropomorphic terms for God. Both versions have the same aim, showing that Jacob was in no danger because he was protected by the Almighty – but the Targum insists that we should not say that God Himself was watching over him; the protection came through a Divine attribute.

    The general practice is that when the Bible uses an image of God we interpret it metaphorically.