Category: Bible

Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman says the text spoke in the language – דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם – but specifically in the language that would be accessible to that first generation of western Semitic people called the Hebrews, who heard the Torah. It uses a very specific type of imagery and language. It’s not going to talk about evolution, and it’s not going to talk about E=MC2; it’s going to talk in the language that’s common to them.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, “What is פשוטו של מקרא?” YCT Yom Iyun (New York City: 13 January 2014).


God proclaims, “I will utterly annihilate Amalek from under heaven.” We meet Amalek again later in the Torah, where God commands the Jewish people to kill the entire tribe of Amalek: “When the Lord your God grants you safety from your enemies around you… completely destroy the memory of Amalek from under heaven” [Deut. 25:19]. And the imperative to annihilate Amalek refers not only to the tribe’s male combatants, but also to innocent Amalekite women and children: “Attack Amalek and destroy all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and assess alike!” [I Samuel 15:3].

This biblical imperative became codified Jewish law, as did the commandment to exterminate all members of the seven Canaanite nations: “You shall not let a soul remain alive” [Deut. 20:16]. Not relegated to ancient history, these commandments apply in principle forever — even today.

The call to kill all members of the Amalekite and Canaanite nations violates the norms of a moral, just war, which dictate that innocent civilians cannot be legitimate targets. And as a people, we know tragic horror of genocide that seeks to exterminate all people of a group or the same genetic background.

Could the Jewish people ever become “a holy people” when obeying the commandments to commit genocide against the Amalekites and Canaanites?

This troubles us moderns, but it also vexed the Talmudic and medieval rabbinic authorities. None of them could live with the Torah commanding Jews to act immorally, and they showed remarkable creativity in shaping the correct way for us to understand these imperatives.

These rabbis believed that the entire Torah text was Divine, but they did not hesitate to engage in bold interpretation. Because they had keen moral sensitivities, the rabbis of the Talmud solved the problem of Jews killing innocent Amalekites or Canaanites by declaring that the ancient Assyrian ruler Sennacherib “co-mingled the nations that he vanquished” [Yadayim 4:4/Berachot 28a]. If so, it is impossible to identify anyone positively as a Canaanite or Amalekite. This effectively rendered the problematic commandments inoperative, telling Jews not to act according to their plain meaning.

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, “The Angst Over Annihilating Amalek”, The Jewish Week (10 January 2014), 45.

It seems that the translation “I am that I am” (ehyeh asher ehyeh; Exodus 3:14) does not do justice to the Hebrew original. The imperfect “ehyeh,” used here, means continuous being. … The Hebrew phrase says: “I am continually what I am continually.” It expresses the “jutting out” of the divine being into time or – to use some German terminology – the phrase does not speak of sein (Being) but of dasein (Presence). The correct meaning of the text, therefore, is: I am forever present (for man). The rabbis in the Talmud give it the right interpretation when they remark: “What is the meaning of ehyeh asher ehyeh? The Holy One said to Moses: Go and tell Israel that as I have been with them in this subjugation, so shall I be with them in their future subjugations by other kingdoms…” Brachot 9b. “I am that I am” is metaphysics, and so it was understood, for instance, by Thomas Aquinas…. The “I am continually present” or “I am forever with them” of the rabbis is religion.

Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History, 4th ed., ed. David Hazony (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2004), 171, n. 2.

In Isa. xxvi, 19, a restoration of the dead to life is mentioned. ‘Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing ye that dwell in the dust; for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall cast forth thy dead.’ In these words are discerned the earliest traces of the idea of a national resurrection. The prophet speaks of the time when calamity will overtake Israel’s enemies. Israel will endure long suffering, however, before the time of their inevitable vindication in the eyes of the nations comes (chapters xxv-xxvi). Nevertheless, it will come, and with it, will take place the return to life of numerous generations.

A. Melinek, “The Doctrine of Reward and Punishment in Biblical and Early Rabbinic Writings,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 282.

The Assyria of yesterday could, for modern Israel, be Turkey, Iran, India or China tomorrow. Being initially called in to resolve local differences or protect Israel from an attack by an immediate neighbor, they may find the temptation to meddle in Israeli affairs too great to resist. Perhaps none of these states would actually seek to control the Jewish state. Economic influence, however, is an entirely different matter, and a powerful outsider, initially viewed as a protector, might impose one-sided trade or economic agreements on a weakened Israel. The fact that the United States has never done so, despite Israel’s dependence on Washington for its support in so many ways, simply underscores the exceptionality of the United States and its unique role as a superpower. Others simply will not behave the same way.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 13-14.

Angels can’t be part of the moral universe. Only humans can be. If we go in the direction of the Eitz Yosef, melakhim aren’t moral; they have no ethical language; they do exactly what they’re told. Human beings introduced the realm of the normative or the ethical because, for the first time, it’s possible not to do what you’re told. Animals don’t do what they’re told, but they do what they’re driven to do. Angels do what they’re told. And, in the middle, are human brings who are right in between.

Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard, “Created Human Being: A Rabbinic Look at the Human Condition” YCT Yemei Iyun 2006 (June 2006: Teaneck, NJ) {,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,191/Itemid,13/}

Just as the Rav commented that that it would be impossible today to (successfully) teach Talmud to students who are secularly educated if not for R. Chaim’s approach, something similar can be said regarding Tanakh. For those with a secular education, who have read great books, it is very difficult to connect to Tanakh without the new approach that has been developed in the last forty years or so. As R. Yoel Bin Nun puts in his preface to Helfgot’s book: “It is impossible to study Tanakh in the land of Israel as if we are still residing in Eastern Europe prior to the Holocaust.”

Marc B. Shapiro, “Answers to Quiz Questions and Other Comments, part 2”, The Seforim Blog (25 March 2012) {}

The belief in a…

The belief in a future age when the righteous who had passed from this world would be resurrected to enjoy eternal bliss in a new and wonderful universal earthly kingdom of God, while the wicked would receive the punishment they had escaped before death, first took shape in the last centuries of Israel’s biblical history.

A. Melinek, “The Doctrine of Reward and Punishment in Biblical and Early Rabbinic Writings,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 281.

Women and men cross-dress for very different reasons, to the point that in many cases what a particular society considers transvestitism will be different for each gender. This explains the variation of both the nouns and the verbs in sections 1a and 1b of Deut 22:5. The verse is much more than a simple prohibition of particular wardrobes, and indeed in no way addresses the issue of women wearing masculine garments, since in the culture of ancient Israel the clothing of men was less associated with gender than was the clothing of women. Rather, the verse reflects the most basic ideology of gender in Israelite society, and to this end it distinguishes not simply between male and female but also between different qualities of men. The ideals of manhood and masculinity were not considered either simple or innate; one had to achieve them through action, behavior, and a good relationship with Yahweh.

Harold Torger Vedeler, “Reconstructing Meaning in Deuteronomy 22:5: Gender, Society, and Transvestitism in Israel and the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, No. 3 (Fall 2008), 473.

The problem, frequently mooted in the Bible, of reconciling the ideal justice of God with the sufferings of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked in the world, was forced inescapably on the attention of the Rabbis by the downfall of the monotheistic Jewish State and the triumph of heathen Rome. They solved it by assigning capital importance to a factor which in the Bible is only vaguely and obscurely hinted at – the hereafter or future world. It became an article of faith with them that the righteous suffer only in this world, the reward for their good deeds being reserved for them in the hereafter, while the wicked receive all their rewards in the present world for their few good deeds, and await their punishment in the future world. The spheres of the righteous and wicked in the next world are designated the ‘Garden of Eden’ and ‘Gehinnom’ respectively. This view was first clearly stated by Rabbi Akiba, who finds in the biblical ascription ‘A God of Truth’ (Deut. xxxii, 4), a categorical affirmation of divine justice. God is very particular with both the righteous and the wicked. For He exacts payment for the few evils which the absolute righteous perform in this world, in order to give them a goodly reward in the future. Likewise, He gives abundant peace to the absolute wicked and pays them for the few good deeds they perform in this world, in order to punish them in the future.’ Similarly, when Rabbi Ishmael was being led out to execution together with Rabbi Simon b. Gamliel, he ascribed the latter’s fate to the offence which he had committed in delaying justice, implying that he, himself, too was about to suffer in this world for his sins.

A. Melinek, “The Doctrine of Reward and Punishment in Biblical and Early Rabbinic Writings,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 284-285.