Saturday, January 29, 2011

What did the Stone Tablets look like?

I am doing some research into the interpretation of the stone tablets which Moses brought down from Sinai, and came across an interesting tangent. Try imagining Moses at and advanced age (or Even Charleton Heston in his prime) walking down a steep mountainside with those two stone whoppers! He then throws them down with enough force to smash them.
We could say that God gave Moses superhuman strength (the text does not indicate such), or we could look for a reasonable interpretation, even if it means relinquishing some of our favourite images.
Writing on stone was very common in Egypt of the late Bronze Age. Hundreds of examples have been found. Papyrus was very expensive, so for scrap paper or scribal excersizes, pottery shards and stone flakes were used instead. Here is but one example, recovered at the Valley of the Kings (Deir el-Medina).

Stone flakes of this size could contain around twenty lines of text on both sides, could be easily carried, and easily broken.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Milk and Meat- Why Not?

Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk.
-Exodus 23:19.

This short injunction forms a major part of the dietary (kashrut) laws in Judaism. Even people who are otherwise lax in their observance of those laws will generally not eat meat and dairy products together (or pork, but we won't go into that).
Regardless of whether or not someone accepts the latter rabbinic interpretations as valid, a significant question still remains. What was the reasoning behind the biblical injunction?
Maimonides, in the 12th, century proposed an ingenious solution, similar to the ones he came up with for other strange prohibitions in the Bible. It was meant to counter idolatrous practices.
As for the prohibition against eating meat in milk, it is in my opinion not improbable that— in addition to this being undoubtedly very gross food and very filling— idolatry had something to do with it.
Perhaps such food was eaten at one of the ceremonies of their cult or one of their festivals
-The Guide to the Perplexed 3:48.

In 1929, archaeological discoveries at Ugarit seemed to prove that Maimonides was right.
Claude Schaeffer discovered a Canaanite religious text which read in part "t\b[h g]d\bh\lb. annh[.]bhm’at". Charles Virolleaud translated the first three words as "Cook a kid in milk."[1]
H. L. Ginsberg picked up the ball and ran with it.
He wrote that the reason the Bible forbade cooking a kid in milk was because it had to do with pagan gods and goddesses. The ritual described in the Ugarit text
“symbolizes the suckling of the newborn gods!”[2]
Unfortunately, Ginsberg and his followers were quite wrong about the connection between the Ugarit text and the biblical injunction.
Basically, the entire reading is wrong. There is no room for an 'h', TBH means to slaughter, not to cook, and GD is coriander.[3]
There have been many other attempts to solve the biblical puzzle, ranging from it being a prohibition on incest, to animal cruelty prevention, to being a mere practicality.
Ethnoarchaeologist Gloria London has an intriguing theory on the reason for the prohibition. In Cyprus, observing how traditional potters work, she was approached by an old woman who told her that “you never put meat into a clay pot with milk.”
London explains that "in times when people used porous clay pots to cook, everyone avoided cooking meat in containers used for milk products."
She goes on to say that "Not only did “others” refrain from mixing meat and milk in antiquity, they do so to this day. From about 300 B.C.E. in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), the Hebrew word for “milk” was translated to the Greek word galaktos. To this day, traditional Cypriot potters make a goat-milking pot used by women, the galaftiri. It has an open mouth and side spout unlike jars used to process meat products. These pots are never used for meat. Nor are cooking pots ever used for dairy. The shape of the pot says it all—milk or meat. Rather than a dietary restriction limited to a single group of people, it was common practice to keep all ceramic pots used for milk versus meat separate...
Normally in antiquity, as in the Troodos Mountain villages of Cyprus to this day, meat is reserved for special occasions with family and friends. It would be terrible to ruin a fine meal with sour meat as a result of boiling it in a dairy pot. Simple logic kept dairy pots separate from pots used to cook meat. It’s possible that the Bible’s commandment to separate meat and milk boils down to good housekeeping. The straightforward, practical understanding of the Biblical passage originates in the prosaic perspective of a kitchen. It comes from those who make the pots, feed the animals, milk the goat, make the yogurt and cheese, cook the meat, and serve family, friends and community."[4]
The theory, interesting as it is, suffers from some fatal flaws.
First of all, if this was such a commonsensical and practical matter, "good housekeeping", why would it need to be regulated? Why include it in a list of laws governing a covenant relationship? Why the specific mention of kids and mothers instead of milk and meat?
The answer seems to lie in a different direction entirely.
Philo, the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher of the 1st century CE, nailed it on the head.
The reason was to avoid mixing life and death, for it is “grossly improper that the substance which fed the living animal should be used to season or flavor it after its death.”[5]
Jacob Milgrom expands this thought.
This prohibition is, thus, simply another instance of the emphasis on opposites characteristic of biblical ritual and practice: to separate life from death, holy from common, pure from impure, Israel from the nations. The reverence for life and Israel’s separation from the nations are ideas reflected throughout the dietary laws. For example, the reverence for life is reflected in the blood prohibition. Separating Israel from the nations is reflected in the prohibition against eating certain animals such as pig and crustaceans.
Thus the prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk conforms neatly with Israel’s overall dietary system.
The command not to boil a kid in mother’s milk is first set forth in Exodus, where the context in which it appears shows that it probably applies only to kids sacrificed on one of the Israelites’ pilgrimage festivals. By the time the command appears again in Deuteronomy, however, it is apparent that it has been transformed into something much broader, a new dietary law.
It is easy to see why this prohibition would have been so quickly integrated into the Israelites’ dietary system. It embodies two common biblical themes: reverence for life, even dumb animal life, and Israel’s separation from the nations.
This life-versus-death theory also completely and neatly elucidates the other biblical prohibitions mentioned earlier that, heretofore, have been explained as having humanitarian motives. However, the common denominator of all these prohibitions is that they prevent fusion of life and death. Thus, the life-giving process of the mother bird hatching or feeding her young should not be the occasion of their joint death (Deuteronomy 22:6). The sacrifice of the newborn may be inevitable, but not for the first week while it is constantly at the mother’s breast (Leviticus 22:27); and never should both the mother and its young be slain at the same time (Leviticus 22:28). By the token, the mother’s milk, the life-sustaining food her kid, should never become associated with its death."[6]

[1]Ugaritic Texts, 52:14.

[2]H. L. Ginsberg, The Ugarit Texts, pg. 77.

[3]Milgrom, Jacob, You Shall Not Boil a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk, Bible Review, Summer 1985, pg. 48-55.

[4]London, Gloria, Why Milk and Meat Don't Mix, Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2008, 66-69.

[5]Philo, De Virtute, 143.

[6]Milgrom, BR, Summer 1985, pg. 48-55.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

John the Baptist and the Essenes

One of the riddles posed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is what John the Baptist's relationship to the Essenes and the Qumran community would have been like. Was he a member of that community or not? Even if we approach this question cautiously, it seems a strange and striking coincidence that two groups in the same region (the Judaea, wilderness) at the same time (the early part of the first century CE) would be teaching a similar ideology (repentance, ritual purification, and an imminent eschatology), yet not have any contact or relationship one with another, be it positive or negative.
In a classic study, Otto Betz proposed that John the Baptist grew up in the Essene community, but left it to act as a prophet, preaching repentance to the wider Jewish community.[1]
I find this view not only appealing, but very persuasive too. It takes into account not only the similarities but also the differences between John and the Essenes.
I see no reason to believe that John lived in a cultural vacuum. Where and who we grow up around influences the path we take and the way in which we view things, be we prophets or be we laymen.
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
-Matthew 3:1-4.

The Gospel of Matthew describes John the Baptist in terms reminiscient of the prophet Elijah's physical appearance, but also as the fulfilment of Isaiah 40:3.
The Essene community saw the same Isaiah verse as a call to separate themselves from the community at large and live in the wilderness as part of God's true society.
When such men as these come to be in Israel, conforming to these doctrines, they shall separate from the dwelling-place of the men of perversion in order to go to the wilderness to prepare there the way of truth, as it is written (Is.40:3): ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God!’—this means the expounding of the Law, decreed by God through Moses for obedience, that being defined by what has been revealed for each age, and by what the prophets have revealed by His holy spirit.
-Manual of Discipline 8:12–16.

This Manual of Discipline (Serech ha-Yahad, or the Community Rule) contains the rules of conduct to be followed by all those associated with the Essenes.
Josephus writes that although the Essenes did not utterly reject marriage, they would seek out "other persons' children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, esteeming them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners."[2] It seems more than likely that if John was brought up in an Essene environment then the same Isaiah verse that formed a large part of the Essene identity would shape the way that John (and his followers) conceived of his own mission.
Ritual purification was important to all Jewish groups, and Qumran was no exception, with several ritual pools (mikveh) being found there. still, the mere ritual of immersion was considered ineffective if the individual did not repent and accept upon himself God's commandments, as interpreted by the Yahad (the way the Essenes seemed to have refered to their community).
So shall all together comprise a Yahad whose essence is truth, genuine humility, love of charity and righteous intent, caring for one another after this fashion within a holy society, comrades in an eternal fellowship...
Yet he cannot be justified by what his willful heart declares lawful, preferring to gaze on darkness rather than the ways of light. With such an eye he cannot be reckoned faultless. Ceremonies of atonement cannot restore his innocence, neither cultic waters his purity. He cannot be sanctified by baptism in oceans and rivers, nor purified by mere ritual bathing. Unclean, unclean shall he be all the days that he rejects the laws of God, refusing to be disciplined in the Yahad of His society.
-Manual of Discipline 2:24-25, 3:3-6.

Josephus writes of John the Baptist that he was "a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to for the remission of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness."[3]
Otto Betz described another common thread between John and the Essenes, the combination of the priestly and the prophetic.
"In ancient Israel the spirit of prophecy often opposed the theology of the priests (see, for example, Amos 5:22; Isaiah 1:11–13; Jeremiah 7:21–26). The prophets warned the people not to rely too heavily on the Temple and on the atoning effect of sacrifice. Both the Essenes and John the Baptist, however, succeeded in combining the prophetic and the priestly ideals in a holy life, ritually pure but characterized by repentance and the expectancy of the final judgment. John’s disciples were known to fast (Mark 2:18) and to recite their special prayers (Luke 11:1). These two acts of piety also appear in the Qumran texts. Infraction of even minor rules was punished by a reduction in the food ration, which meant severe fasting (Manual of Discipline 7:2–15). And there are several special prayers in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among them are the beautiful Thanksgiving Hymns from the scroll found in Cave 1. Cave 11 also produced a scroll of psalms in which new prayer were inserted into a series of Psalms of David.
The Qumran Essenes separated themselves from the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrificial cult. The Temple’s offerings of animals were replaced by the “offerings of the lips” (that is, prayers) and by works of the Law. Man must render himself to God as a pleasing sacrifice; he must bring his spirit and body, his mental and physical capacities, together with his material goods and property, into the community of God. In this community all these gifts will be cleansed of the pollution of selfish ambition through humble obedience to the commandments of God (Manual of Discipline 1:11–13)."[4]
In ancient Israel, the temple linked God and man and the sacrifices in it atoned for Israel's sins and transgressions. The Essenes considered the contemporary priests who officiated at the temple to be corrupt and perverse. The separatist community of the Essenes saw itself as truly holy, and applied the role of the temple to their community.
When such men as these come to be in Israel, then shall the party of the Yahad truly be established, an "eternal planting" (Jubilees 16:26), a temple for Israel, and- mystery!- a Holy of Holies for Aaron; true witnesses to justice, chosen by God's will to atone for the land and to recompense the wicked their due. They will be "the tested wall, the precious cornerstone" (Isa 28:16) whose foundations shall neither be shaken nor swayed, a fortress, a Holy of Holies for Aaron, all of them knowing the Covenant of Justice, and thereby offering a sweet savor. They shall be a blameless and true house in Israel, upholding the covenant of eternal statutes. They shall be an acceptable sacrifice, atoning for the land and ringing in the verdict against evil, so that perversity ceases to exist.
-The Manual of Discipline 8:4-10.

John taught a similar doctrine.
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
-Matthew 3:8-9.

Acording to Betz, "this famous saying contains a marvelous play on words in Hebrew. “Children” is banim; “stones” is abanim. The saying thus presupposes the idea of a living temple “of men.” John is saying that God can create genuine children of Abraham “from these stones” and build them into the sanctuary of His community. In the Temple Scroll from Qumran, God promises that he will “create” a sanctuary at the beginning of the new age; this he will do according to the covenant made with Jacob at Bethel (Temple Scroll 29:7–10). At Bethel, Jacob had declared: “This stone [the pillar that Jacob had erected] shall become the house of God” (Genesis 28:22). Both the Qumran community and John the Baptist believed in the creative power of God that will manifest itself at the end of time, as it did in the beginning. Then God will establish the true sanctuary and the ideal worship, which are anticipated both in the life of the Qumran community and in the life that John preached."
There are many more similarities between the life and teachings of John and the Essenes, but there are also some important differences which need to be pointed out.
The Essenes were a closed community within Israel, concerned with their own salvation, whereas John saw himself as a reforming prophet reaching out to all his people.
He didn't turn the people into monks living in the wilderness, but after repenting and being baptised they went back to their lives, their families and their jobs. John was the voice in the wlderness, the people weren't.
John also was outspoken in his politics, attacking the Herodians for their moral depravity, something the Essenes do not appear to have done.
I will leave Otto Betz the final word.
Both biblical traditions—the priestly one and the prophetic one—influenced the Essenes just as they did John the Baptist.
I believe that John grew up as an Essene, probably in the desert settlement at Qumran. Then he heard a special call of God; he became independent of the community—perhaps even more than the Essene prophets described by Josephus. With his baptism of repentance, John addressed all Israel directly; he wanted to serve his people and to save as many of them as possible.
The Essenes of Qumran no doubt prepared the way for this prophetic voice in the wilderness. They succeeded in combining Israel’s priestly and prophetic heritage in a kind of “eschatological existence.” The Essenes radicalized and democratized the concept of priestly purity; they wanted a true theocracy and sought to turn the people of God into a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:5–6).
A particular motif of their peculiar piety was the eschatological hope. In the age to come, they believed, there would be only one congregation of holy ones in heaven and on earth; then angels and men would worship together. Therefore, the liturgy and the sacred calendar used in heaven for the time of prayer and the celebration of the feasts served as a model for Essene worship even in the present. In heaven, animals are not sacrificed and offered to God; the angels use incense and sing hymns of praise. Therefore, on earth they had no need of the Jerusalem Temple. The Essenes believed that a living sanctuary of holy men could render a more efficient ministry of atonement than animal sacrifices, offered by an unclean priesthood (Manual of Discipline 8:6–10; 9:4–5).
But the Essenes also incorporated the traditions of the prophets into their beliefs. The prophet had little if anything to do with the Temple and sacrifice; the prophet tried to accomplish atonement through his personal commitment and effort to change the hearts of his audience. Because the Essenes were a movement of repentance, they adopted the prophetic tradition, despite their leadership of priests. Their Teacher of Righteousness was a priest who acted in a prophetic way.
This was true as well for John the Baptist. He was the son of a priest and practiced the laws of priestly purity in a radical way. But in his ministry for Israel he acted as a prophet, as the Elijah redivivusf to announce the coming of the Messiah. In his baptism, both traditions were combined, just as they were in the Essene philosophy: the priestly laws of ritual purity were combined with the prophetic concern for repenting, returning to God and offering oneself to Him. Accordingly, it is reasonable to conclude that John the Baptist was raised in the tradition of the Essenes and may well have lived at Qumran before taking his message to a wider public.
-Otto Betz, Was John the Baptist an Essene?

[1]Betz, Otto. Was John the Baptist an Essene?. Bible Review, Dec 1990, 18-25.

[2]Josephus, The Jewish Wars, 2.8.2

[3]Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.5.2.

[4] Betz, BR, Dec 1990.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Introducing the Synagogue

Last week in Sunday school someone commented that "Jesus never taught in the synagogues. He went out to the people."
I held my peace.
Laying aside the fact that the gospels do state that Jesus taught in synagogues, I want to address the assumption that synagogues were some sort of stronghold of a distant, detached religious elite. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In Hebrew a synagogue is beit-kneset, or the place of the assembly, or congregation. Knesset Israel is one of the epithets frequently applied to the entire Jewish community. Another term for synagogue was beit ha-am, or place of the people.
The synagogue was a building for the community, built and maintained by the community.
Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and
an archisynagogos (head of the synagogue), son of an archisynagogosgrandson of an archisynagogos, built
the synagogue for the reading of
Torah and for teaching the commandments;
furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water
installation for lodging
needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid
by his ancestors, the
elders, and Simonides
-The Theodotus Inscription.

This inscription shows the dual role of the synagogue both as a religious building and as a secular one. The scriptures were read and expounded in it, but it also contained guest rooms for lodging strangers. Lee I. Levine describes the synagogue as "the Jewish public building par excellence," and states that it functioned "first and foremost as the central communal institution in each community."[1]
The synagogue was where the community gathered, where meetings of all kinds were held, where children were given an education, where the community dealt with internal discipline and legal squabbles, where communal feasts were given, and where visitors could be lodged. On sabbaths and holidays people would gather to the synagogue to offer prayer and to read and expound portions of the Pentateuch and other biblical writings.[2] This was particularly important for members of the community in an age where literacy rates were lower than today, and where scrolls were rare and costly.
The synagogue readings were their most frequent exposure to the scriptures.
Rabbis, as we understand them, did not exist during Christ's day. They grew out of a Pharisaic movement led by Yohanan ben Zakkai in Jamnieh after the temple was destroyed. Even during the 3rd century the rabbis did not control the synagogue.
Rabbi Simeon would translate (and expound in the process) the Bible verses read in the synagogue of Tarbanat. The congregation requested that he only translate half a verse at a time, so they could explain it to their children. When R. Simeon refused, the congregation had him dismissed from his role as preacher.[3]
This would have been unimaginable if the people did not control the synagogue.
There is much more that could be written about ancient synagogues, but this introduction should be enough to dispell some common misconceptions encountered by the reader of the New Testament.
A final word on the picture at the beginning of my post. This is part of the synagogue discovered at Capernaum. It is several centuries later than Jesus, but is probably built over the one he frequented.

[1]Lee I. Levine, Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity, pg. 139.

[2]Lee I. Levine, From Community Center to 'Lesser Sanctuary': The Furnishings and Interior of the Ancient Synagogue, Cathedra 60.

[3]Lee I. Levine, The Galilee in Late Antiquity, pg. 212.

The Power of Names

The Maaseh Buch is a sixteenth-century collection of Yiddish legends revolving around Rabbi Judah ha-Hasid (the pious), a leader of the mystic movement known as the German Pietists (Hasidei Ashkenaz). This movement was started by members of the Kalonymide family- Samuel ha-Hasid, his son the aforementioned Judah ha-Hassid, and his cousin, Eleazar Rokeah of Worms. The Kalonymides had arrived in the Jewish communities of the Rhineland after leaving Italy during the 9th century. They brought with them the teachings, writings, and traditions of the Merkabah mystics. Some of these have been preserved only in the writings of the Pietists and those influenced by them[2].
The Italian families in the Rhineland also brought with them many piyyutim (hymns) originating in Byzantine Palestine, such as El Adon, and Untaneh Tokef[3].
Merkabah mysticism was spread throughout Italy thanks to men like Aharon of Baghdad, but its roots are in Palestinian synagogues of the first few centuries CE, among priestly circles. This point will be discussed more fully in a later post.
In the Maaseh Buch is a tale of how R. Eliezer, son of R. Amnon of Mayence, wishes to study with R. Judah, despite instructions from his father never to leave Mayence. R. Judah reluctantly takes R. Eliezer in, yet refuses to teach him mystical knowledge until R. Eliezer decides to return to Mayence for the Passover Seder. He would not be able to make it back from Regensburg in time, so R. Judah intervenes.

"Then R. Judah took his staff and wrote holy names in the sand. He told R. Eliezer to read those words, and when he did, R. Eliezer found that he knew as much as R. Judah himself. But a moment later R. Judah covered the words with sand, and at that instant R. Eliezer forgot everything. R. Judah the Pious did this three times, and three times R. Eliezer was filled with great knowledge, and three times he grieved when it was gone. The fourth time R. Judah wrote the words in the sand, he told R. Eliezer to eat the words of sand. And when R. Eliezer swallowed the sand on which those words were written, the knowledge remained with him, and he never forgot it again. Then R. Judah pronounced the priestly blessing, followed by a pair of holy names. And a moment later, R. Eliezer found himself at the door of his home in Mayence."[4]

R. Judah uses holy names- the various names of angels and God- in order to impart knowledge to R. Eliezer. R. Eliezer is in possession of this knowledge only as long as he is in possession of those holy names[5].
After using the names to impart knowledge, R. Judah says the priestly blessing,[6] and a pair of holy names, enabling R. Eliezer to travel great distances in no time at all.
Part of the use of holy names of holy names in earlier Merkabah mysticism was to enable the mystic to ascend into the heavens[7].
In Jewish lore the ability to cover long distances almost instantaneously by the use of holy names is fairly widespread, attributed among others to R. Shimon ben Tzemah Duran[8] and the Baal Shem Tov[9].
A name was considered to carry with it power.
Gershom Scholem wrote that, “the magic quality of the name relies on the fact that a close and substantial relation exists between the name and the name's bearer.
The name is a real, non-fictitious quantity. It contains a declaration about the nature of its bearer or at least something of the potency attaching to it; it is, further, identified with the nature and essence of what is named by it.”[10]
Ephraim E. Urbach went as far as to say that the name and the power were synonyms.[11]
It could be used either to wield power on its own, or to compel the bearer of the name to accomplish some task.
A classic example is that of the Sar Torah, or prince of the Torah. This was an angel who, when summoned, would reveal the secret of how to master the Torah and its secrets, as well as make it that the student would never forget the things he was taught.
The Chapter of R. Nehuniah b. ha-Qanah relates how R. Ishmael at thirteen years of age was unable to commit to memory any of the teachings of R. Nehuniah, his teacher.
R. Nehuniah took R. Ishmael to the chamber of hewn stone (lishkat ha-gazit) in the temple grounds, and there instructs him on how to summon the Sar Torah.

"He adjured me by the great seal, by the great oath, in the name of Yad Naqof Yad Nakuy Yad Heras Yad Suqas; by his great seal, by Zebudiel Yah, by Akhtariel Yah, by heaven and by earth. As soon as I heard this great secret, my eyes became enlightened. Whatever I heard- Scripture, Mishnah, anything else- I forgot no more. The world was made new for me in purity, and it was as if I had come from a new world. Now: any student (talmid) who knows what he learns does not stay with him should stand and say a blessing, rise and speak an adjuration, in the name of Margobiel Giwat’el Ziwat’el Tanariel Hozhayah Sin Sagan Sobir’hu , all of whom are Metatron. Marg[obiel] is Metatron; Giw[at’el] is Metatron; Tanariel is Metatron; Hozhayah is Metatron; Sin is Metatron; Sagan is Metatron; Sobir’uhu is Metatron. Because they love him so much in heaven, they call him Ziwat’el servant of Zebudiel Yah, Akhatriel Yahweh God of Israel, Yahweh, Yahweh, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and full of faithfulness and truth (Exodus 34:6). Blessed be the wise one who knows secrets, the master of mysteries…
R. Ishamel said: When I was thirteen years old, I pondered this matter, and went back to my teacher, R. Nehuniah b. ha-Qanah. I said to him, “What is the name of the prince of Torah (sarah shel torah)?” He said to me, “His name is Yofiel.” I then arose and afflicted myself for forty days, and spoke the great name until I brought him down. He came down in a flame, his face like the appearance of lightning (cf. Daniel 10:6)."[12]

The Sar Torah is extremely belligerent, threatening and insulting Rabbi Ishmael.
Without the ability to control an angel summoned from above (again, by use of holy names and through personal preparation and purity) the results are potentially devastating.
An early 19th century folktale from Holland relates how a certain scholar was a master of Kabbalah, particularly the Zohar. If he did not know the answer to a question, he would pronounce a holy name, summoning a spirit who would reveal the mystery. One night the scholar fell asleep, and four of his best students decided to pronounce the name themselves. The spirit teaches them what they wanted to know, but not one of them remembers the name which would release the increasingly furious spirit, who threatens to destroy them if he is not released.[13]
Another danger arises from a careless pronounciation of a name, which, as in the case of the story about the Baal Shem Tov and R. Adam’s son, where the prince of fire is summoned instead of the Sar Torah.[14]
Maayan Hochma is a midrash relating how Moses ascended into heaven in order to receive the Torah. The angelic sentinels initially oppose him, until God himself defends and protects Moses and reveals to him the Torah and the proper way of reading it. The angels then become the friends of Moses rather than his enemies. Mayan Hochma serves as an introduction to a text known as Shimushei Torah (theurgic uses of the Torah), which, when read in the proper order, is actually the secret name of God himself.[15]
The Mishnah (t. Sukkah 4:5) relates how, “Each day they [the priests] made one circuit around the altar and they would say: "Please O Lord, save; Please O Lord, save us!" (Ps. 118:25). R. Yehudah states: [they would say] Ani wa-Ho, save us! Ani wa-Ho, save us!” Urbach surmised that this is a mumbled version of ana (please) and the Tetragammaton.[16] It was mumbled so that the unrighteous would not hear it because of the power inherent in it. As seen above, careless pronounciation of a name was dangerous, deliberate, malicious use was far worse. Cursing someone (always done by invoking a divine name) was punished severely, no matter what name was used. In the Qumran community it resulted in permanent expulsion from the group. When the curse used the ineffable name the results were considered deadly. Literally so.[17]
Using a name to wield power over its bearer is an essential feature of many sorts of amulets.
Hayyim David Yosef Azulai, in his Yosef ba-Seder 6, relates a tradition about the origin of amulets protecting against the demoness Lilith, who seeks to harm women and children.
“Lilith said, “O lord, release me from your curse and I swear by God’s Name to forsake my evil ways. As long as I hear or see my own names I will retreat and not come near that person.
I shall have no power to injure him or do evil. I swear to disclose my true names to you.”
Elijah said, “Tell me what your names are.”
Lilith said, “These are my names: Lilith, Abiti, Abizu, Amrusu, Hakash, Ode, Ayil, Matruta, Avgu, Katah, Kali, Batub, and Paritasha.”
Let them be written and hung about the house of women who are bearing a child, or around the child after it has been born.
And when I see those names, I shall run away at once. Neither the child nor the mother will ever be injured by me.”
And Elijah said, “So be it. Amen.”[18]
These beliefs are nothing new, but are rooted deep in biblical times.
The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible has this to say in its entry on names. “The name of a person or deity is especially closely associated with that person or deity, so that knowledge of the name is connected with access to and influence with even magical control of-the named… Certain deities in the Ancient Near East are celebrated for the multiplicity of their names or titles. e.g. the 50 names of Marduk in Enuma Elish, the 74 names of Re in the tomb of Thutmosis III and the 100-142 names of Osiris in Spell 142 of the Book of the Dead. The deities may also have hidden or secret names so as to emphasize their otherness and to guard against improper invocation by devotees. (Note the story about how Isis persuaded Re to divulge his secret name, thereby lending great power to her magic; ANET 12-14.).[19]

[1]More on the Pietists can be found in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

[2]See for instance my earlier post on Enoch the shoemaker.

[3]Untaneh Tokef is one of those rare instances in which a text is dated later than it really is, rather than earlier. Popular legend ascribes it to R. Amnon of Mayence, martyred in the 12th century. The piyyut though has been found in old manuscripts of the Cairo Genizah.

[4]Howard Schwartz, Gabriel’s Palace, The Words in the Sand, pg. 171-172. See also the note on pg. 322.

[5]In practice, holy names were only imparted after preparation, involving fasting, ritual purification by water, and prayer. See Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, pg. 135-137.

[6]Numbers 6:23-27. Gersonides, in his commentary on this verse, sees the priestly blessing as another form of God’s name. “It should be said, the priests will place the mystery of My name on My people in such a way that all will know it, and then I will bless them…”

[7]Rachel Elior, The Priestly Nature of the Mystical Heritage in Heykalot Literature, in Experience et Écriture Mystiques dans les Religions du Livre, edited by Paul Fenton and Roland Goetschel.
“The knowledge and command of arcane divine names (shemot) was perceived as a prerequisite for mystical ascent, for conjuring the angels and for gazing upon the divine chariot.”

[8]Schwartz, Gabriel’s Palace, Rabbi Shimon’s Escape, pg. 126-127.

[9]Ibid, The Tree of Life, pg. 192-193.

[10]Scholem, The Name of God and the Linguistic Theory of the Kabbala, Eranos lecture, 1970.

[11]E. E. Urbach, The Sages, pg. 124. In Acts 4:7 the question the high priest and his circle asked the apostles was “By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?”

[12]David J. Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot, pg. 378-379. A work dealing solely with Sar Torah traditions is Michael D. Swartz’s Scholastic Magic.

[13]Schwartz, Gabriels Palace, The Secrets of Kabbalah, pg. 155-156.

[14]Ibid, The Prince of Fire, pg. 187-189.

[15]Yehudah David Eisenstein, Otzar Midrashim, pg. 306-307.

[16]Urbach, Sages, pg. 127-28.

[17]Ibid, pg. 131-33. Several traditions are mentioned where a Persian cursed his child by the ineffable name, resulting in the child’s death.

[18]Howard Schwartz, The Tree of Souls, Lilith and Elijah, pg. 224-225.

[19] For more on Isis and Re, see David Tayman’s superb blog post at

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

We're Alike

My friend Walker recently posted an excellent essay on how the Jewish sages conceived of the trishagion (holy, holy, holy) being said to the righteous in the world to come.
It is not the only example of such sentiments in a monotheistic environment.
Judah Goldin has the following to say in an article entitled “Of Midrash and the Messianic Theme.”[1]
One particularly daring passage in the Sifra deserves more than paraphrase; it is the comment on “I will be ever present (we-hithalakti) in your midst” of Lev. 26:12 (and see also Deut. R. 1:12 and 5:8, 110c) –

It is to be expressed by means of parable; to what may this be likened? To a king who went out to stroll in his orchard (pardes[!]) with his tenant farmer, and [out of respect] that tenant kept hiding himself from the presence of the king. So the king said to that tenant, “Why do you hide from me? Behold, I, you- we’re alike!”
Similarly in the Age to Come the Holy One, blessed be He, will stroll with the righteous in the Garden of Eden, but when the righteous see Him they will tremble before Him; and the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, “Why is it that you tremble before me? Behold, I, you- we’re alike!”

Here is a dizzying prospect, God describing Himself as hareini kayotzeh bachem, I, you- we’re alike! (This may mean: You and I have the same interests, or, the same terms of praise are applied to God and to the righteous,) No wonder the Sifra adds immediately, “Is this to say that you will no longer have fear/reverence of Me? The verse [ibid.] reads, ‘I will [still] be your God, and you shall be my people.”

That God and the righteous were alike and could be praised almost alike was not a repugnant sentiment to ancient Jewish monotheists.

[1]Judah Goldin, Studies in Midrash and Related Literature, pg. 369-370.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Prophetic High Priest

But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done.
Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.
If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.
And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,
Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;
And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.
Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.
-John 11:46-53.

Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, which alarmed the religious and political elite. Raising the dead was a distinctly messianic act, and the leaders were afraid that the majority of people would follow Jesus as the king and probably attempt to reestablish a Jewish kingdom. The Romans most certainly would come down like a ton of bricks on anything they considered a threat to their political hegemony. In the ancient world, where religion was public and political, this would mean that Jewish practices, such as temple worship, dietary laws, festivals and circumcision would have been abolished. The reign of the seleucid Antiochus Epiphanes and the disastrous aftermath of the Jewish revolts against the Romans bear ample witness that such fears were justified.
Caiaphas, the high priest at the time, spoke up, offering realistic political advice. By killing Jesus you would stop the popular movement. The author of John, however, interprets this as an unconscious prophecy of Jesus' true role.
John connects Caiaphas' ability to prophecy true prophecies with his role as high priest.
This is in keeping with how the high priesthood was understood in the Judeo-Hellenistic millieu, as the following quotes will show.
Photius, patriarch of Constantinople in the mid 9th century AD, compiled the Bibliotheca, reviews of a couple hundred books he had read. He provides many extracts, including one from the Roman historian Diodorus, quoting On the Egyptians, a work of ethnography by Hecataeus of Abdera, a member of Ptolemy I's court.
Authority over the people is regularly vested in whichever priest is regarded as superior to his colleagues in wisdom and virtue. They call this man high priest [archierea], and believe that he acts as messenger [angelon] to them of God's commandments. It is he, we are told, who in their assemblies and other gatherings announces what is ordained.
-Diodorus, Library of History, 40.3.

Josephus relates an incident involving the Hasmonean high priest and ruler John Hyrcanus.
Now a very surprising thing is related of this high priest Hyrcanus, how God came to discourse with him; for they say that on the very same day on which his sons fought with Antiochus Cyzicenus, he was alone in the temple, as high priest, offering incense, and heard a voice, that his sons had just then overcome Antiochus. And this he openly declared before all the multitude upon his coming out of the temple; and it accordingly proved true; and in this posture were the affairs of Hyrcanus.
-Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.10, 3.

Josephus also describes an earlier incident of prophecy which occuredwhen Alexander the Great fought at Tyre and Gaza. The high priest Jaddua, a vassal of Darius, was reluctant to aid Alexander. This naturally did not sit well with Alexander, who planned to march on Jerusalem and punish its inhabitants. Jaddua called for public penitence and supplication in hope that God would avert the approaching disaster.
Whereupon God warned him in a dream, which came upon him after he had offered sacrifice, that he should take courage, and adorn the city, and open the gates; that the rest should appear in white garments, but that he and the priests should meet the king in the habits proper to their order, without the dread of any ill consequences, which the providence of God would prevent. Upon which, when he rose from his sleep, he greatly rejoiced, and declared to all the warning he had received from God. According to which dream he acted entirely, and so waited for the coming of the king.
-Josephus, Antiquites, 11.8, 4.
Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, says of high priests that they were also prophets.
The real genuine priest is at once also a prophet, having attained to the honor of being allowed to see the only true and living God, not more by reason of his birth than by reason of his virtue. And to a prophet there is nothing unknown, since he has within himself the sun of intelligence, and rays which are never overshadowed, in order to a most accurate comprehension of those things which are invisible to the outward senses, but intelligible to the intellect.
Philo, The Special Laws, 4.36.

In contrast with John description of Caiaphas prophesying, the above accounts are all positive, revolving around pious, virtuous high priests. This contrast shows how intertwined the idea of prophecy with the high priesthood was in John's time, that even a wicked high priest could make true prophecies.