Problems with Jewish belief
There are many problems with Jewish belief. Below is a reproduction of the essay A List of Some Problematic Issues Concerning Orthodox Jewish Belief by Naftali Zeligman, as published on Talk Reason. Talk Reason is a collection of articles and essays which analyze and break down many aspects of Jewish belief with rationality and reason.
This essay seems to be a more formalized version of Zeligman's Letter to my rabbi.
The Written Torah's Alphabet
In which script was the original Torah written?
Nowadays Torah scrolls are written in a square alphabetic script consisting of 22 letters and quite closely resembling the printing-type script used in modern Hebrew. But scientific evidence shows that the Jews started to use this script much later than 1313-1273 BCE, when Orthodox Judaism believes the Torah to have been written. The script of the contemporary Torah scrolls, called in the scientific literature "the Jewish script," evolved from Aramaic – the script used by the Aramaean kingdoms in Syria which was accepted as the official script of the ancient Persian empire. After the death of Alexander the Great, what before his conquests had been the Persian empire broke up into several independent and half-independent kingdoms, and since the cultural unity between them ceased to exist, in each kingdom the imperial Aramaic script evolved into distinct national scripts, sometimes barely recalling their Aramaic origins. Among those new scripts there was the Jewish script developed in Judea, and which is basically same one in which Torah scrolls are now written. In the late 3rd century BCE the Jews started to use that script for writing Scriptural texts (Joseph Naveh, "Early History of the Alphabet").
Before that time a very different script – called in the scientific literature "the Hebrew script" – was used for this purpose, and that script looked quite different from the "Jewish script." But even after the 3rd century BCE scribes used the "Hebrew script" to write the Tetragrammaton in many Torah scrolls because of the holiness of both the script and the scrolls. For example, in several "Jewish script" Torah scrolls found in Qumran, the name YHWH is written in the "Hebrew script." Apparently, the "Jewish script," considered by all the Rabbinic leaders most holy, was not considered holy enough by the ancient Jewish scribes. What follows from this is that all the Kabbalist homily on the form of the letters of the "Jewish script," as though these are the letters in which the Torah was given and as though the whole world was created through these letters, is baseless.
No Hebrew alphabet at the alleged time the Torah was written down.
The alphabet of the "Hebrew script" consisted of 22 letters as did the "Jewish script," and though the form of the letters was different, their names, alphabetic order, and the sounds they denoted remained basically the same. (The non-terminal forms of the letters kaf, mem, nun, pey, and tzadi appeared even after the "Jewish script" was adopted for writing the sacred texts; before that time, the current terminal forms of these letters were also used in the beginning and in the middle of words.) Basically, the Torah could be rewritten from the "Hebrew" alphabet to the "Jewish" without much trouble.
However, the "Hebrew" alphabet itself did not appear from nothing. Archeological evidence shows that it evolved sometime during the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE from the Canaanite (Phoenician) alphabet. For some 200 years the Israelites used the Phoenician script without changing it even a bit: the Gezer Calendar of the 10th century BCE, the first inscription known to date in the Hebrew language, contains no distinctive features of Hebrew script. The first time features like those of the "Hebrew script" appear is on the stele of Mesha king of Moab ("Early History of the Alphabet," p. 65). This stele, dated to the 9th century BCE, was inscribed by the Moabites, not by the Israelites, and its language is not Hebrew but Moabite – "a Canaanite dialect akin to Hebrew, but not identical to it" (ibid.). It was only about 800 BCE that inscriptions written both in the Hebrew language and the Hebrew script appeared. We come to the conclusion not only that the Israelites started using the alphabet only about 300 years after the alleged time of the Torah writing, but that it is quite evident the Israelites adopted the alphabet from the Canaanites: though more consonants existed in the Hebrew language than letters in the Canaanite alphabet, the latter was adopted without any change (the consonant ś had no sign for it in among the Canaanite letters and it was only in the first centuries CE that it started being denoted by the specific letter form sin, obtained by adding a dot above the left upper corner of the letter shin). Were the alphabet an original Hebrew innovation, it would obviously contain signs for all the Hebrew consonants ("Early History of the Alphabet," p. 54). Moreover, as we have seen, the earliest Hebrew-language inscription known to date is written exclusively in the Canaanite/Phoenician alphabet.
But the Phoenician script itself appeared only in the mid-11th century BCE. It developed from the more ancient Proto-Canaanite script which was structurally different from the Phoenician: it had 27 letters instead of 22, the letters hardly had established graphic forms, and one could write in it either left-to-right or right-to-left, sometimes even vertically. The number of the letters was reduced to 22 in the 13th century BCE, but the forms of the letters were fixed and right-to-left became the sole direction of writing only about 1050 BCE. These changes, however, occurred only in Canaan, and thus the Israelites could not have been aware of them before they entered the Land of Israel. During their wandering in Sinai they could only have been acquainted with the unstable Proto-Canaanite alphabet of 27 letters used by the population living there (see "Early History of the Alphabet," pp. 23-42). Before the Israelites entered Canaan, and actually before the 11th century BCE, they could have no alphabetically written book or, at very best, they could have a book written in an alphabet structurally different from the one we use now. This being the case, the Torah as we know it nowadays could not have been written down in 1313-1273 BCE as it is believed to be.
Transmission of the Torah text
To this very day there are different versions of the Torah text. The Torah scrolls of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, though based on the same Masoretic formula (following the Mesorah of the 10th century scholar Aaron Ben Asher; the most famous printed text based on this formula is the Koren edition of the Scripture), still differ by one letter – in Deuteronomy 23:2 Ashkenazic scrolls have the word daka with an aleph and Sephardic scrolls with a hey. The Torah scrolls of Yemenite communities are nine letters (all vowelizing letters: aleph, hey, vav, and yud) different from the Ashkenazic scrolls. The books of the Holy Writ given to Israeli soldiers, printed by the Adi publishing house and proofread by Aharon Dotan, are based on the Leningrad manuscript – a manuscript written in Egypt in the 11th century CE, also based on Ben Asher's Mesorah, in which there are many differences from the Koren edition: in four places where the Adi edition spells the word hi [she] as hey-yud-aleph Koren spells it as hey-vav-aleph, and in two places where the Adi edition spells the word vehi [and she] as vav-hey-yud-aleph Koren spells it as vav-hey-vav-aleph. In Leviticus 19:4 Koren spells the word elilim [idols] as aleph-lamed-yud-lamed-mem sofit while the Adi edition spells it as aleph-lamed-yud-lamed-yud-mem sofit (that is, with an extra yud). Even the Rama – Rabbi Moses Isserles – admits that we are not expert on defective and plene spellings in the Torah: "Because of plene and defective spelling one should not bring another [Torah scroll when reading the Torah in public], for our Torah scrolls are not so accurate that we can say the other scroll will be more kosher" (Orach Chayim, paragraph 143, section 4). And though all the differences in plene and defective spelling listed above do not change the words' meaning, it is obvious that all of the present-day Torah texts cannot be a letter-by-letter copy of the original Torah (whatever that was), and there is no evidence suggesting that one of these texts is closer to the original than the others. So it must be concluded that no precise letter-by-letter tradition of the Torah text exists nowadays.
Partition into verses
Another category of discrepancies between present-day Torah texts is the partition of the Torah into verses. Thus, the text in Exodus 20, "I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me," is presented in Dotan's edition of the Scripture as one verse (Exodus 20:2), while the Koren edition separates it into two verses (Exodus 20:2-3). Though this discrepancy does not change the text's meaning, changes in punctuation often change the meaning very significantly. And besides, such kinds of discrepancies also raise a Halachic problem: when reading the Torah in public, one should pause at the end of each verse. The partition of text into verses is said to originate from Moses himself (Taanit 27b, Megillah 22a). So how should we read the above sentences – as one verse or two? And which version matches the original partition into verses: Koren or Dotan's edition? Again, both of these versions are based on the Mesorah of Ben Asher, adopted by the Rishonim as the most trustworthy of the Masoretic schools, despite Ben Asher most likely being a Karaite (see Encyclopedia Hebraica, Ben Asher, v. 9, pp. 40-41). In the Torah manuscripts based on the Mesorah of Ben Naftali (a contemporary of Ben Asher) there were yet more differences compared with present-day Torah scrolls, both in defective and plene spelling and in punctuation.
The number of letters in the Torah – Leningrad manuscript
As for the Leningrad manuscript on which Aharon Dotan's edition of the Scripture is based, in the Mesorah remarks at the end of that manuscript it is written: "The total number of letters in the Torah is four hundred thousand nine hundred forty-five." However, in each of the manuscripts and editions of the Torah we possess, dating from Middle Ages until now (including the Leningrad manuscript itself and all the editions based on it), there is a bit more than 300,000 letters – the discrepancy between the text and the Mesorah of the Leningrad manuscript is about 100,000 letters! If even such a basic Masoretic manuscript suffers from a 33% discrepancy between the Torah text and the Mesorah, there hardly seems to be any reason to believe that the Mesorah succeeded in preserving the Torah text in its original form.
The middle letter, word and verse of the Torah
More evidence of the changes which the Torah text underwent over the course of history may be found in the Talmud. In Tractate Kiddushin 30a the Gemara brings what it considers the middle letter (vav of gachon in Leviticus 11:42), words (darosh darash in Leviticus 11:16), and verse ("Vahitgalach..." – Leviticus 13:33) of the Torah. However, in the contemporary Torah text (as represented by the Koren edition of the Scripture) the middle letter is aleph of the word hu in Leviticus 8:28, the middle word is achat of "...vechalat lechem shemen achat..." in Leviticus 8:26, and the middle verse is "Vayiten alav et hachoshen..." – Leviticus 8:8. All these "middle points" are dozens of verses distant from their counterparts mentioned in the Gemara. And moreover: on the same page, Tractate Kiddushin 30a, the Gemara brings a Tannaitic statement that there are 5888 verses in the Torah. Not only is this discrepant with the contemporary Torah text, in which there are 5844 (in Koren) or 5846 (in Dotan's edition) verses, this also contradicts the above statement of the Gemara, which speaks of "Vahitgalach..." as the middle verse of the Torah – for the latter obviously presumes that the number of verses in the Torah is odd, while 5888 is an even number. On the other hand, in Tractate Soferim 9:2 it is written that the verse "Vayishchat..." is the middle verse of the Torah. And though in the current Torah text there are five verses beginning with "Vayishchat" – Leviticus 8:15, 8:19, 8:23, 9:12 and 9:18 – none of them is the middle verse of the current Torah text, and obviously all of them are quite distant from the verse "Vayitgalach..." which the Talmud in Kiddushin 30a thought to be the middle verse of the Torah. Thus the issue of the middle letter, word, and verse in the Torah appears to be full of very significant discrepancies.
Melachah, melachto, and melechet in the Torah
In Tractate Shabbat 49b the Talmud speaks of 40 occurrences of the words melachah [work], melachto [his work], and melechet [the work of] in the Torah. On the other hand, in commentaries of Rabbeynu Chananel and some other Rishonim on this issue we find that in their Torah scrolls there were 61 occurrences of these words, and in current Torah scrolls there are 63. Another Rishon – Raaban of 12th century Germany – also copied the figure of 61 occurrences from Rabbeynu Chananel, but was thorough enough to take the Torah text and count those occurrences. In his count (see Sefer Raaban, paragraph 350), not 61, but 60 occurrences of melachah, melachto, and melechet are brought. To these, for reasons unknown, Raaban also added 2 occurrences of melachtecha [your work], which totals 62 occurrences. So Raaban's Torah text was different from that of Rabbeynu Chananel as well as from the text which the Talmudic Sages possessed and the one now used in Jewish communities.
Of course, the numbers brought in the Talmud and by the Rishonim may be explained by assuming that the Talmudic Sages and the Rishonim simply did not count very well. This, however, would imply that the Talmudic Sages were mistaken in their count by dozens or even hundreds of words, and that several different Rishonim could not arrive at the correct count of the 63 instances of melachah, melachto, and melechet in the Torah text. And moreover: if the explanation of a miscount is reasonable, then it should be noted that the Rishonim themselves, instead of admitting that the Talmudic Sages erred in their count, preferred to appeal to rather lame excuses, omitting occurrences of melachah, melachto, and melechet from the count without any consistent criteria. If this is the wisdom of those who are responsible for the correct transmission of the Torah text through generations, it leads to quite pessimistic conclusions concerning their ability to preserve the text in its original form.
Changes in whole words admitted by Judaic sources
Actually, Chazal themselves openly admitted that not only plene/defective spellings, but even whole words could be changed in the Torah text. Thus it is written in Tractate Soferim 6:4:
"R' Simeon the son of Lakish said: once they found three [Torah] scrolls in the Temple court: the scroll of maon, the scroll of zaatutei and the scroll of hu. In one [of the scrolls] it was written 'Maon,' and in the other two – 'Meonah E-lohei kedem' (Deuteronomy 33:27), so they adopted [the version of] two scrolls and rejected [that of] one. In one [of the scrolls] it was written 'Vayishlach et zaatutei benei Yisrael,' and in the other two – 'Vayishlach et naarei benei Yisrael' (Exodus 24:5), so they adopted [the version of] two scrolls and rejected [that of] one. In one [of the scrolls] it was written eleven times 'hu,' and in the other two – eleven times 'hi', so they rejected [the version of] one scroll and adopted [that of] two."
Three different Torah scrolls were found in the Temple court and the Sages used them to create a new scroll, which, as one can easily see, was different from all three of the scrolls. One of the three scrolls was different by a whole word – zaatutei – from the others, where it was written naarei. And though these two words are almost synonyms (zaatutei means "infants," while naarei means "boys"), there is yet another version of this story, brought in the responsa "Ginat Vradim" (Orach Chayim, rule 2, section 6), according to which in one of the three scrolls it was written zaatutei instead of atzilei in Exodus 24:11 (Veel atzilei bnei Yisrael lo shalach yado – "But [God] did not raise His hand against the noblemen of the children of Israel"). Here the discrepancy zaatutei/atzilei obviously changes the meaning of the verse, as zaatutei means "infants" while atzilei means "noblemen." Thus, both R' Simeon the son of Lakish and R' Abraham the son of Mordechai Halevi (the author of the responsa "Ginat Vradim") openly admitted that discrepancies of whole words are quite possible in the Torah text. This alone should be enough to lead to the conclusion that the Torah text underwent significant changes, including some that changed the text's meaning.
Non-Masoretic Torah texts
The above (excluding the baraita of Tractate Soferim) deals with the Masoretic text(s) used by the Jewish communities after the Second Temple destruction. However archeological findings reveal that at earlier times (about the commencement of the Common Era) Jews also used other versions of the Torah text, significantly different from the Masoretic:
- Since 1947, hundreds of fragments of ancient scrolls containing various portions of the Scriptural books were found at several sites in the Judean Desert: Qumran, Wadi Murabba'at, Nachal Chever, and Massada. Among those scrolls, called the Dead Sea Scrolls, there were 225 manuscripts containing fragments of the Scriptural books, 215 of which were found at Qumran, the site of an ancient Jewish community that lived there between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE. Of the Qumran manuscripts 89 contain fragments of the Five Books of Moses, covering the majority of the Torah text (Martin Abegg, Jr. et al., "The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible," pp. XV, 3, 23, 77, 108, 145). Many formulations in these manuscripts are quite discrepant with those of the Torah text now used by Jewish communities. For example, in one of the Qumran scrolls Exodus 1:5 reads, "And all the souls that came out the loins of Jacob were seventy-five souls," while in Masoretic Torah scrolls this verse reads, "And all the souls that came out the loins of Jacob were seventy souls, and Joseph was already in Egypt" ("The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible," p. 25). Another scroll reads, at Deuteronomy 5:15, "Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day to hallow it. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them and rested the seventh day; so the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it," while in Masoretic Torah scrolls this verse reads, "Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to perform the Sabbath day." And though yet another scroll of Deuteronomy found at Qumran corroborates the Masoretic wording of this verse, it contains other discrepancies with the Masoretic text: for example, in that scroll the verse of Deuteronomy 5:24 reads: "Go near and hear all that the Lord our God says to you, and tell us all that the Lord our God speaks to you; and we will hear it, and carry it out," while in current Torah scrolls it is written: "Go near, and hear all that the Lord our God says, and tell us..." without the first "to you" ("The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible," pp. 154-155). There are many more examples of such discrepancies, which leads to the conclusion that neither the uniform Masoretic text nor any other uniform text of the Torah was to be found in the Qumran community, which existed until a mere century before the Mishnah was written down.
- Besides the Dead Sea scrolls, we possess yet another ancient manuscript containing a part of the Torah text – the Nash Papyrus, discovered in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. Though it is hard to consider it a part of a Torah scroll, as it juxtaposes the Ten Commandments and the Shema Yisrael (which are 15 verses apart in the Masoretic Torah text), it is thought to be a part of an ancient Jewish schoolbook or a prayerbook where the Ten Commandments and the Shema were quoted as the credos of Judaism. Researchers date the Nash Papyrus to the 2nd century BCE–2nd century CE. The full Hebrew text of the papyrus (more precisely, of the part of it that survived) is brought in Stanley A. Cook, "A Pre-Masoretic Biblical Papyrus," Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, v. 25, pp. 34-56. Though the Nash Papyrus contains only 24 lines of text, this text is significantly different from the Masoretic wording of the Ten Commandments and of the Shema. The most noteworthy of differences may be the order of the sixth and the seventh commandments: "You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit murder" in the papyrus vs. "You shall not commit murder. You shall not commit adultery" in the Masoretic Torah, and the rewording of the first verse of the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, one Lord is He" [YHWH echad hu] in the papyrus vs. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" [YHWH echad] in the Masoretic Torah. Objectively we cannot be sure that the present-day Masoretic text is closer to the original text of the Torah, and therefore one cannot rule out the possibility that even such basic issues as the wording of the Shema and the order of the Ten Commandments were subject to variations over the course of generations, and that in general, the original text of the Torah was very different from the one Jewish communities now possess.
Could Moses have written the Torah?
Genesis 14:14 says that Abraham pursued his enemies "unto Dan." Deuteronomy 34:1 says God showed Moses "all the land of Gilead, unto Dan." However, a place named Dan appeared only in the period of the Israelite settlement in Canaan, as the Scripture itself states (Judges 18:26-29). The Israelite settlement, according to the Scripture, occurred after Moses's death. Whether Moses knew the future topography through prophecy or not, the whole People of Israel could hardly have been presented with these verses before they entered Canaan.
"On the mount of the Lord it shall be seen"
Genesis 22:14 says: "And Abraham called the name of that place 'YHWH-will-see,' as it is said to this day: on the mount of the Lord it shall be seen." The mountain spoken of is Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. The name "mount of the Lord" was given to it because the Temple was built there, as the Talmud (Berachot 62b) and the Rabbinic commentators admit. But the Temple was built long after Moses's death – so the popular saying "On the mount of the Lord it shall be seen" could not have been used in Moses's lifetime – and Moses, therefore, could not have written down this verse.
Exodus 16:35 says: "And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan." This verse uses the past tense (they did eat) to tell us that eating the manna continued until the Israelites entered the land of Canaan – so it must have been written after the Israelites entered that land. If so, it could not be written down by Moses, who died, according to the Scripture, before the Israelites entered Canaan.
"Until they were finished"
Deuteronomy 31:24-26 says: "And it came to pass, when Moses ended writing the words of this Torah in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying: 'Take this book of the Torah, and put it in the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, that it will be there to witness about you...'" It is written, again in the past tense, that Moses had actually finished writing down the Torah and presented it to the Levites, so the verses just quoted were written after Moses finished writing down the original "book of the Torah."
The death of Moses
Deuteronomy 34:5-8 says:
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth Peor, and no man knows of his sepulcher unto this day. And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days – so the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended."
The death of Moses and the 30 days of mourning for him are described here in the past tense – again, these verses could not be written and presented to the whole Israel before the 30 days of mourning for Moses had actually passed. Moreover, Deuteronomy 34:6 tells that "no man knows of his [Moses's] sepulcher unto this day" – this, obviously, was written many years after Moses's death. Some of the Talmudic Sages held the view that Moses could not have written down these verses:
As we have learned: 'So Moses the servant of the Lord died there' – is it possible that Moses is dead and yet writes 'So Moses died there'? But until here, Moses wrote, from here and on Joshua wrote – these are the words of Rabbi Judah, and some say: Rabbi Nehemiah. [But] Rabbi Simeon said to him: is it possible that the Torah scroll lacks even a single letter, and it is written 'Take this book of the Torah' (Deuteronomy 31:26)? But until here God spoke and Moses wrote, from here on God spoke and Moses wrote in tears." (Tractate Bava Batra 15a)
And even one of the greatest Rabbinic commentators of the Scripture, R' Abraham Ibn Ezra, wrote on this verse "'Unto this day' – these are the words of Joshua. And it is possible he wrote them at the end of his days." So the belief that Moses wrote down the whole Torah, shared by most of contemporary Orthodox Jewry, appears to be baseless and erroneous.
Contradictions in the Torah's text
The order of the Creation
In the 1st chapter of Genesis we are told that on the third day of Creation God created the flora, on the fifth day the sea fauna and the birds, and on the sixth day He created the animals, the beasts, the vermin which live upon the land and, finally, the first couple – man and woman together. But in the 2nd chapter of Genesis we have quite a different picture: first Adam (the male person only) was created, then flora was planted, then God created the beasts and the fowls, and when Adam had not found an helpmeet for himself among them, God created the first female person – Eve. These two accounts seem quite obviously to be written by two different authors, each of whom had his own story of the Creation. Which of the two was Divinely inspired is meaningless in this case.
The Egyptian Captivity
In Genesis 15:13 God says to Abraham: "Know surely that your seed will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them; and they shall enslave them and make them suffer for four hundred years." But Exodus 12:40 says: "Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years." This contradiction can be solved by claiming that 400 years are the actual time of enslavement and suffering while 430 years is the whole length of the exile, or that 400 years is only a round figure while 430 years is the precise one (as Nachmanides says). Yet we have Kohath the son of Levi among those who came to Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46:11). Amram was Kohath's son, and Moses was Amram's son. Kohath lived 133 years, and Amram 137 (Exodus. 6:18-20). Moses is said to have died at the age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7) after the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years. At the time of Exodus Moses was 80, and the total duration of the Egyptian captivity cannot therefore have exceeded 133+137+80=350 years. The Rabbinic tradition reduced the time of the Egyptian captivity to 210 years (Seder Olam Rabbah, chapter 3) and interpreted the verse of Exodus 12:40 as referring to the time from the Covenant between the Pieces until the Exodus from Egypt (Rashi ibid.). But this "explanation" simply contradicts the verse itself, which speaks of "the sojourning of the children of Israel" – Israel is another name of Jacob (Genesis 32:29) and the Covenant between the Pieces is said to take place well before Israel (Jacob) himself was born, let alone his children.
Who bought and sold Joseph?
Genesis 37:28 tells how Joseph was sold into slavery: "Then there passed by Midianite merchants, and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; and they brought Joseph into Egypt." Though it is not clear from this verse who exactly drew Joseph out of the pit – Jacob's sons or the Midianite merchants – it is clear he was sold to the Ishmaelites who brought him to Egypt. But in Genesis 37:36 we read: "And the Madanites sold him [Joseph] into Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh." All the Rabbinic commentators stated that the Madanites are actually Midianites, but this interpretation is based on nothing; the Scripture itself says that Madanites and Midianites were two different nations: "And she [Keturah] bore him [Abraham] Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah" (Genesis 25:2). So who sold Joseph to Egypt: Ishmaelites, Madanites, or Midianites? In addition, Genesis 39:1 says: "And Joseph was brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the hands of the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there." There is no explanation for this mix-up, aside from admitting that several initially different accounts are merged here into one. Again, even if one of the accounts is of Divine origin, the others are apparently not.
The sons of Benjamin
In Genesis 46:21 the sons of Benjamin who came with him to Egypt are listed: "Bela and Becher and Ashbel, Gera and Naaman, Ehi and Rosh, Muppim and Huppim, and Ard." However, in Numbers 26:38-39 we find another listing of Benjamin's sons: "The sons of Benjamin after their families: of Bela, the family of the Belaites, of Ashbel, the family of the Ashbelites: of Ahiram, the family of the Ahiramites; of Shupham, the family of the Shuphamites, of Hupham, the family of the Huphamites." Ard and Naaman are described in Numbers 26:40 as the sons of Bela. (Two other listings of Benjamin's sons are given in I Chronicles 7:6: "Bela and Becher and Jediael, three" and in I Chronicles 8:1-2: "Now Benjamin begat Bela his firstborn, Ashbel the second, and Aharah the third; Nohah the fourth, and Rapha the fifth."). It is an utter mystery how many sons Benjamin really had and whose sons Naaman and Ard indeed were.
Does God repent?
Numbers 23:19 says: "God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a son of man that He should repent; is it possible that He said and will not do it, or that He spoke and will not make it come true?" Yet in the Torah we find God repenting of what He did or thought about doing, and we find Him not doing things He spoke of. For example, in Exodus 32:9-14 we read:
"And the Lord said to Moses: 'I have seen that people, and they are a stiff-necked people. Now let Me alone so that My anger will burn against them and that I will destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.' But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God, saying: 'O Lord, why should Your anger burn against Your people...' And the Lord repented of the evil which He spoke to do to His people."
So here the Lord does repent. True, Ibn Ezra says in his commentary on Exodus 32:14, "Heaven forbid that God may repent. But the Torah spoke in a human language" – that is, the phrase "the Lord repented of the evil" should be understood as a metaphor only. However, whether it is a metaphor or not, here we find God abandoning something He said that He was going to do (destroying the Israelites) – in clear contradiction of Numbers 23:19.
Where did Aaron die?
In Numbers 20:27-30 we find:
"And Moses did as the Lord commanded; and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mount. And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, all the house of Israel."
And correspondingly, in the account of the Israelites' journeys in the book of Numbers it is written:
"And they went on their journey from Kadesh, and encamped on Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom. And Aaron the priest ascended to Mount Hor according to the commandment of the Lord, and died there, in the fortieth year after the Exodus of the children of Israel from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first day of it. And Aaron was one hundred and twenty and three years old when he died on Mount Hor."
But in Deuteronomy 10:6 we find:
"And the children of Israel went on their journey from Beerot Benei Jaakan to Mosera: there Aaron died, and there he was buried; and Eleazar his son became the High Priest after him."
Now, the question is where, according to the Torah, did Aaron die: on the top of Mount Hor or at Mosera? Almost all the Scriptural commentators tried to settle this contradiction, but all of them failed to produce an account consistent with all the verses. The most reasonable explanation of this contradiction is that the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy were written by two different authors, each of whom had his own tradition of Aaron's death.
The Torah's stories
Six days of Creation
The 1st chapter of Genesis tells that the whole universe – from stars and galaxies to the most complicated living organisms like human beings – was created in a mere six days (the sixth day, the day when Adam was created, is considered the first Rosh HaShanah by the Judaic tradition). Yet we know from scientific research that the process of the formation of galaxies, stars and planets took billions of years, and that the evolution of life on Earth took almost 4 billion years. If one accepts the scientific data, one of the most fundamental Torah accounts, upon which the commandment of observing the Sabbath is based, appears factually untrue.
Age of the Universe
Though the Scripture itself does not provide us with any consistent system of reckoning years, given its historical and biographical accounts we can conclude that the time from the creation of the Universe until our days is measured at less than 7000 years (Judaic tradition tells we are living in the year 5760 from Creation). On the other hand, scientific research reveals that the universe has existed for about 15 billion years, Planet Earth has existed for about 4.5 billion years, life on the Earth has existed for about 4 billion years, and humankind (Homo Sapiens) – for 200,000 to 400,000 years. This provided, the whole Judaic framework of reckoning years "since the creation of the world" is wrong.
Order of Creation
The 1st chapter of Genesis gives us the following order of the creation:
Day 1: The Heaven and the Earth were created, and the light was separated from the darkness.
Day 2: The firmament was created, whose task was "to separate between the waters" below and above the firmament.
Day 3: The waters below the firmament were gathered "into one place," forming the seas. The flora was created.
Day 4: The sun, the moon, and the stars were created.
Day 5: The sea fauna and the birds were created.
Day 6: The animals, the beasts, the vermin "which live upon the land," and man were created.
However, the universe did not begin with "the Heaven and the Earth" – the stars (including the sun) appeared first, and only then did the planets (including Earth) come into existence. Flora appeared on the earth long after the sun was formed, and birds appeared upon the earth after vermin and not before. This mix-up in the order of appearance of different things in the universe makes the Creation account altogether fictitious. (The order of Creation specified in Genesis 2 is even more discrepant with the real natural history of the universe.)
The whole second day of Creation, according to Genesis 1, was dedicated to the creation of the firmament (rakia in Hebrew), the task of which was "to divide the waters from the waters" (Genesis 1:6). Genesis 1:8 says that "God called the firmament sky [shamayim]." Yet above the earth there is no "firmament" of any shape or composition which separates waters that are under it from waters above it and the word "sky" does not denote any specific physical object, but is merely a word standing for the (sometimes) seemingly-blue cupola above our heads which actually is a mantle of gases with a density gradually decreasing as its distance from Earth increases. The whole description of the "firmament" is thus inconsistent with factual reality.
The sun and the moon
Genesis 1:16-19 says: "And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, and the stars. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and the night, and to divide the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the fourth day." Of course, the "great lights" – the sun and the moon – are not "set in the firmament" but are constantly rotating in the vacuum of open space (the sun around its axis, the moon both around its axis and around Earth), their place at each and every moment determined by the Universal Law of Gravitation. But the most interesting thing is that though the lights "to divide the light from the darkness" appeared only on the fourth day, the light and the darkness themselves had already appeared on the first day of the Creation! As on the first day there were neither sun nor stars, the "light" simply had nothing to come from. One might speculate that the "light" of which we are told in the account of the first day of the Creation is something like cosmic background radiation (the "initial radiation" of the Big Bang), but the Torah says that on the first day of the Creation "God called the light day, and the darkness He called night" (Genesis 1:5). "Day" and "night" are terms that denote the periods a place is or is not lighted directly by the sun's rays. No "day" and "night" could be possible without the sun, and it seems that besides his very faulty knowledge of natural sciences, the author of Genesis 1 simply could not make up his mind and produce a consistent account of the Creation in his own terms.
In Genesis 1:20 God ordered the waters to "teem with living creatures," and in Genesis 1:24 we are told: "And God said: 'Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that creep on the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.' And it was so." Living creatures are described here as emerging instantly from non-living matter, each species obtaining its permanent form from the moment of its emergence. This is totally inconsistent with modern biological science, which tells us that the evolution of life from non-living matter was a process which took millions of years, that new forms of life evolved gradually from older ones, and that each living species has undergone, since its appearance, an endless series of transformations which sometimes resulted in the appearance of new species.
Herbivores and carnivores
In Genesis 1:30 God creates all the living creatures as herbivores: "And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, in which there the living soul, I have given every green herb in food; and it was so." We know that carnivores existed upon the Earth millions of years before 3760 BCE, yet the Torah refrains from telling us when some of the herbivores become carnivores. All we are told is that after the Flood people were allowed to eat meat (Genesis 9:3); there is not a single word on when the animals started to use each other for food.
The four rivers
In Genesis 2:10-14 we are told that a river emerged from the garden of Eden and then parted into four heads:
"The name of the first is Pishon; it is that which compasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold... And the name of the second river is Gihon; it is that which compasses the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel; it is that which goes towards the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates."
There is no river in the world that parts into the four rivers mentioned. Although we are not acquainted with any river called Pishon, we know that Gihon is only a small spring in Jerusalem. The Hiddekel (which is the Hebrew name of the Tigris river) and the Euphrates are not two "heads" splitting off of one major river; the opposite is true: at Al-Qurnah (Iraq) these two rivers join to form the Shatt al-Arab. Some Rabbinic commentators on the Scripture (Rashi and R' Saadiah Gaon, for example) interpreted the name Pishon as referring to the Nile, but then the Torah's error is obvious: there is not, and never has been, any connection between the Nile and the Tigris or the Euphrates. In any case, the author of these verses, whoever he may be, demonstrated a very poor knowledge of geography.
The dawn of civilization
The Torah tells us about the first human innovations in handicraft, farming, and fine arts:
"And Adah bare Jabal: he was the first one of those who dwell in tents and shepherd cattle. And his brother's name was Jubal; he was the first one of all those who handle harp and panpipe [ugav in Hebrew; translated according to Targum Onkelos]. And Zillah, she also bare Tubal Cain, an instructor of every artificer in copper and iron." (Genesis 4:20-22)
According to the Torah cattle-breeding, musical instruments, and metallurgy "in copper and iron" were introduced during the lifetime of a single generation by the sons of Lemech, Cain's descendant. Yet archeological research reveals that agriculture was well underway by 7000 BCE (and animal domestication started thousands of years earlier), the earliest harps were made about 3000 BCE, and pipes were produced sometime during the Neolithic period (11,000-4000 BCE in the Middle East). Though copper tools appeared in 4000-3000 BCE, iron tools did not before 2000 BCE. So the events described by the Torah as nearly simultaneous are millennia apart from each other. It seems that the author (or authors) of the Torah had a very weak knowledge of human history.
According to the Torah (Genesis 5) the first generations of people (or at least some people in those generations) had outstandingly long lives – from 777 years (Lamech) to 969 (Metuselah). Of course biological science totally denies the possibility of the human body functioning that long.
The Flood – water
Genesis 7:19-20 tells us that during the Great Flood, "the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered. Fifteen cubits upward the waters prevailed, and the mountains were covered." The water level was higher than all the mountains. The highest mountain, Mt. Everest, is 29,028 feet high. Since the Earth's surface is about 201,000,000 square miles, the total amount of water that would have rained down during the Flood is about 10,000,000,000,000,000 (ten million billion) cubic feet – much more than exists in all the Earth's atmosphere. Therefore the Flood, as described in the Torah, could never have taken place.
The Flood vs. geology, history, and archeology
The Flood is reported by the Torah to have taken place in the 600th year of Noah's life, which can be easily calculated as the year 1656 from Creation – that is, about 2100 BCE. We have an almost uninterrupted account of ancient Egyptian history from about 3000 BCE until the Greek conquest in the 3rd century BCE, and there is no record of any flood more significant than local overflows of the Nile. Archeological research also reveals no traces of a major catastrophe circa 2100 BCE in which almost all the humans and animals upon the Earth died. And geologists, having explored the ground patterns for what corresponds to the appropriate period, found no traces of water spreading all over Earth. This leads to the conclusion that the account of the Great Flood in the Torah does not describe any real event.
Noah's Ark – shape
In Genesis 6:15-16 God commands Noah to build the Ark in the following way:
"The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. Make a window to the ark, and in a cubit finish it above; and the opening of the ark set on its side; with lower, second, and third stories make it."
The Ark had to be a rectangular box in its lower part, and a truncated pyramid in its upper part (with the lower base 300x50 cubits and the upper base 1x1 cubits). The length of the Ark had to be 10 times larger and its width more than 1.5 times larger than its height. Though the exact height of each part is not provided, it is clear that such a construction, were it really put on the water, would be subjected to extremely intense pitching and rolling, as well as steep swinging, rotating, and jolts, making it practically impossible for people and animals to stay aboard for any prolonged period of time. Moreover, given that the Ark was a very long but relatively low structure, it follows that to sustain its floatability when loaded the Ark had to sit very low in water, its upper deck being almost at the water level. Waves would roll over the Ark's upper deck, and a stronger waves would easily send the Ark to the bottom. The Torah's account of Noah's Ark does not describe a sea-worthy vessel.
Noah's Ark – dimensions
There are two different Rabbinic opinions on how big the Scriptural cubit (amah) is: 1.6 feet or almost 2 feet. By the most generous approach, the Ark's dimensions were 600x100x60 feet. On the planet Earth there are more than 2,000,000 species of living creatures, including hippos, elephants, rhinos and other animals of not-inconsiderable size. It is obvious that the Ark had no place for two individuals of each and every living species, not to mention seven of some, as described in Genesis 7:2-3.
Noah's Ark – how did the animals arrive?
It would be also simply impossible for animals of all species to get to Noah's Ark. The animals who are native to specific areas of the Earth could not withstand the climatic changes. If the Ark were located in a hot area, polar bears and penguins could not withstand the heat, and if it were placed in a cold part of Earth, then zebras and rhinos could not survive the chill (let's not even touch the question of what climate was maintained in the Ark so both polar bears and zebras could survive). Some animals eat only one particular kind of food, available only in their natural habitat. Pandas from the Chinese bamboo forests eat only bamboo, and koalas from coastal eastern Australia eat only eucalyptus. They would face starvation long before they would manage to reach the Ark. And most amazing: some animals from distant continents – sloths from the South America, for example – would have to have started their journey to the Ark long before the world was created in order to cover the thousands of miles. All the above means the whole account of the Great Flood – one of the basic stories in the Torah – does not fit reality.
The diversification of languages
According to the 11th chapter of Genesis, all humankind spoke a single language until the incident of the Tower of Babel. This incident is reported to have happened not long after the Flood, that is, about 2000 BCE. Yet we definitely know that centuries before that time the Egyptians spoke Egyptian (historians even mention a shift from Old Egyptian to Middle Egyptian circa 2200 BCE), the Semites of Mesopotamia spoke Akkadian, and the Sumerians spoke Sumerian (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, Egyptian language, Akkadian language, and Sumerian language). All these languages were totally different, each with its own writing system, and we have documents written in all of them which originate from long before the traditional date of the Flood. Moreover, we know that by 2100 BCE people inhabited most of the planet Earth, and any language-confounding incident in Mesopotamia would not influence the development of languages in such distant corners of the world as America, China, Australia, or Scandinavia. The Torah, however, tells us that it was only at the time of the Tower of Babel that all the people with their different languages were "scattered...abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth." This, too, is highly problematic: we know that human beings had already spread as far as Australia about 40,000 years ago (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Australia, history of, Prehistory). Thus, one more of the main accounts of the Torah appears to be fictitious.
In Genesis 11:31 we are told that Abraham, with his wife, father, and the rest of his relatives, "went out from Ur of the Chaldeans [Ur Kasdim]." According to Jewish tradition, Abraham was born in 1812 BCE and died in 1637 BCE – however, the Chaldean tribes reached the southern Mesopotamian city of Ur only about 1000 BCE, and the first historic reference to them appears only in 9th century BCE Assyrian documents (Encyclopedia Hebraica, Kasdim, v. 20, p. 1076). Therefore Abraham could not leave "Ur of the Chaldeans" and the account of Genesis 11:31 seems to be an anachronism perpetrated by a writer who mistakenly applied the geopolitical situation of his time to a time hundreds of years earlier.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Genesis 19:24-26 relates that God "rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire... from the sky. And He overthrew these cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground." According to the Torah all this happened when Abraham was about 100 years old, that is, some years before 1713 BCE. Yet geological and archeological research in the areas close to the Dead Sea (where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were situated) reveals there were no such major cataclysms in that area in the 18th century BCE. And though there are some data indicating that major earthquakes which could produce the phenomena described in Genesis 19 occurred in the Dead Sea area (D. Neev, K.O. Emery, "The Destruction of Sodom, Gomorra and Jericho," 1995, pp. 140-143), they describe "two severe destructive earthquakes within a period not longer than 50 years... about 4350 BP [i.e. about 2350 BCE]" instead of a single outburst of Divine wrath about 1700 BCE. This provided, one more tale presented by the Torah as history turns into a fiction with only the sparsest historical basis.
According to Genesis 21:34, "Abraham sojourned in the land of Philistines many days," and Genesis 26:1 tells that "Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines into Gerar." Gerar is in the Land of Israel; in the subsequent verses of Genesis 26 God even warns Isaac not to leave the Land of Israel. And yet the Philistines appeared in the Land of Israel (on the south of its Mediterranean coast) only in the 12th century BCE. By that time, according to the Scripture and to the Judaic tradition, both Isaac and Abraham had already been dead for centuries. Therefore neither of them could visit "the land of the Philistines" nor meet its king. The author of the Torah evidently had a very poor knowledge of history.
Joseph in Egypt
In Genesis 41 and 47 we are told of the reforms Joseph introduced in Egypt:
- Gathering of all the surplus food from the seven plenteous years into Pharaoh's storehouses.
- Selling the food to all countries during the famine.
- Centralization of all the money and all the cattle in the hands of Pharaoh.
- Purchasing all the land in Pharaoh's name and taxing each year's harvest: 20% of the grain would go to the royal barns. The only exemptions to this law were Egyptian priests and their lands and crops.
- Enslaving all the Egyptian population and moving them all across the country; the priests seem to be exempted from this policy, too.
Yet there is no mention of such reforms in any Egyptian source. The history of Egypt in the mid-second millennium BCE (when Joseph's adventure must have taken place, according to the Scripture and to the Judaic tradition) is well documented. Dozens of literary sources and monuments from that time are available, and we can reconstruct the historical and social picture of ancient Egypt at a highly precise level. Such major reforms as those reported in the book of Genesis would surely leave many traces in contemporary written sources – and the fact that not a single document speaks of the events described in the Torah, or even of something close to those reforms, leads to the conclusion that these reforms never really took place.
"The famine... in all the lands"
Moreover, Genesis 41:57 says: "All countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn, for the famine was sore in all lands." Were things really so, this would surely leave traces in the historical documents of the countries which bought corn from Egypt – "all countries," according to the Torah – and yet there is nothing. Babylon, at that time a highly developed civilization where literature flourished, left many historical sources, but none of them mentions a massive pilgrimage of Babylonians to Egypt to buy food and the Babylonian population's total dependence on Egyptian food supplies. Texts from the great Hittite empire of Asia Minor reveal nothing of this kind about the Hittite people. One can only conclude that the devastating famine "in all lands," which forced them all to buy corn from Egypt, never happened.
Exodus 5-12 gives a very impressive picture of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt: the Ten Plagues, starting with the Nile waters turning into blood and ending with the Plague of the Firstborns in which "all the firstborns in the land of Egypt had died, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, to the firstborn of a maidservant that is behind the mill, and all the firstborns of beasts" (Exodus 11:5). This is followed by 600,000 male adult Israelites leaving Egypt. As they were on their way out, at the coast of the Sea of Reeds, Pharaoh's army reached them. Then God divided the waters of the sea to let the Israelites pass "into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground" (Exodus 14:22) – and when Egyptians, pursuing them, entered the dry ground in the midst of the sea, the waters closed over them, "the sea returned to its strength... and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them" (Exodus 14:27-28). Thus the Israelites escaped Egypt, the Egyptians were crushed, and the story has a happy end.
Unfortunately, nothing like this story is found in Egyptian history. Egyptian history of the 2nd millennium BCE is very well documented, yet no papyrus, no stone pillar, and no inscription mentions the Israelites' enslavement in Egypt nor their escape. No mention is found of any of the Ten Plagues, of a total defeat of the Egyptian army in the waters of the sea, or of millions of people leaving the country at one time. Much less significant events (such as an escape of a couple of slaves from Egypt) were carefully put down in the chronicles by royal scribes – but not a single word mentions the great upheavals of the alleged Exodus. Historical documents of other peoples and kingdoms of that time (who would surely have paid attention to great cataclysms that devastated the powerful Egyptian empire) also remain completely silent concerning the Israelite enslavement or the Exodus, the plagues, the massacre of the Egyptian army, or the simultaneous escape of millions of people from Egypt. About the alleged date of the Exodus: Egypt engaged in a decades-long war with the Hittite empire, a war that led to the great Battle of Kadesh, in which some 20,000 Egyptian warriors participated on Egyptian side. That battle did not resolve the war, and after 16 more years of indecisive fighting a peace treaty and a mutual defense pact were signed between Egypt and the Hittite empire (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hittite and Ramses II, Military exploits). Were the Egyptian army indeed to drown in the Red Sea waters and were the Egyptian economy totally destroyed by the Ten Plagues, Egypt would not have been able to withstand such a war, especially as, according to the Torah, the Egyptian army was not able to recover for at least 40 years (see Deuteronomy 11:4 and Nachmanides's commentary there) – the same years that the army waged campaign after campaign against the Hittites and supplied 20,000 warriors for the battle of Kadesh.
The only possible conclusion from this is to confess that the Exodus, as it is spoken of in the Torah, never did take place. This means that one of the central events in the Torah is nothing more than a fantasy.
As said above, the Torah speaks of 600,000 male adult Israelites leaving Egypt (Exodus 12:37). Estimating a wife and two children for each of them, we arrive at about 2.5 million Israelites taking part in the Exodus. But towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE the whole population of the Egyptian empire was only two to three million people. The Exodus, as it is described in the Torah, would leave Egypt virtually devastated – which, however, did not happen. The account of 600,000 adult males fleeing Egypt is altogether fictitious.
On the march to the Promised Land
In Numbers 14:26-33 we are told that 600,000 male Israelites were sentenced by God to die in the wilderness. Their deaths, according to the Torah, took place over the course of 40 years, and then the second generation of Israelites went on their march to the Promised Land: "And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on the other side of Jordan by Jericho" (Numbers 22:1). The number of the Israelites ready to enter the land of Canaan is reported to have been 601,730 male non-Levites over the age of 20 (Numbers 26:51) plus 23,000 male Levites of one month and older (Numbers 26:62) – taking into consideration women and the children of non-Levites, we again have about 2.5 million Israelites ready to enter the Promised Land. The first book of the Prophets, Joshua, tells us they did enter the Land.
But that seems extremely peculiar. Assuming a very modest amount of 0.5 liter of water and a 0.5 kg of bread a day per capita, they would need 1,250,000 liters of water and 1,250,000 kg of bread a day. Obviously they had no source for such a vast quantity of provisions. The manna, according to the Scripture itself, stopped falling from the sky as soon as they entered the Land of Israel (Joshua 5:12). The remark that the Israelites "ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year" (ibid.) makes no sense whatsoever, for in order to eat of the fruit of a land, one has to conquer it first, and this, according to the books of Joshua and Judges, took the Israelites many years. Meanwhile, 2.5 million Israelites would have nothing to eat. This means that the Scriptural story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan also does not reflect historical reality.
Israelite conquest not substantiated by archeological research
In fact, modern archeological research leads to very skeptical conclusions about the Israelite population in Canaan at the supposed time of the conquest. The reknowned Israeli archeologist I. Finkelstein speaks of 21,000 sedentary Israelites living in Canaan in the 12th century BCE, while towards the end of the 11th century BCE their number increased to 51,000 (I. Finkelstein, "The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement," p. 334).
Other facets of the alleged Israelite conquest of Canaan are also incompatible with the results of archeological research. As Prof Ze'ev Herzog of Tel-Aviv University wrote,
"The most serious difficulties were discovered in the attempts to locate archeological evidence for the Scriptural stories about the conquest of the land by the Israelites. Repeated excavations conducted by different teams in Jericho and the Ai – the two cities whose conquests were told in the greatest detail in the book of Joshua—greatly disappointed. Despite attempts by excavators, it became clear that at the end of the 13th century, the end of the late Bronze period, in the age agreed upon as the time of the conquest, there were no cities at either tel and certainly not walls which could be brought down... As excavated sites multiplied... it became clear that the settlements were destroyed or abandoned at differing times, the conclusion that there is no factual basis for the Scriptural story about the conquest of the Land of Israel by the Israelite tribes in a military campaign led by Joshua was strengthened.
The Canaanite Cities: The Scripture magnifies the strength and the fortifications of the Canaanite cities that were conquered by the Israelites: 'great cities with walls sky-high' (Deuteronomy 9:1). In reality, all the sites uncovered remains of unfortified settlements, which in most cases consisted of only a few structures or the ruler's palace rather than a genuine city. The urban culture of the Land of Israel in the Late Bronze Age disintegrated in a process that lasted hundreds of years and did not stem from military conquest. Moreover, the Scriptural account is inconsistent with geopolitical reality in the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel was under Egyptian rule until the middle of the 12th century BCE. The Egyptians' administrative centers were located in Gaza, Jaffa and Beit She'an. Egyptian findings have also been discovered in many locations on both sides of the Jordan River. This striking presence is not mentioned in the Scriptural account... The archaeological findings blatantly contradict the Scriptural picture: the Canaanite cities were not 'great,' were not fortified, and did not have 'walls sky-high.'"
(Z. Herzog, "HaTanach – Ein Mimtzaim BaShetach," Haaretz, November 3rd, 1999)
As far as we can judge from the factual evidence, the Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the Scripture never took place, nor did the Exodus from Egypt – and thus the whole Scriptural narrative of Exodus–Sinai Revelation–wandering in the desert–conquest of Canaan appears to be sheer fantasy, the source of which is to be sought in the field of national mythology rather than history.
"The fewest of all the nations"
Ironically, in Deuteronomy 7:7 we find Moses saying to the Israelites: "The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor chose you because of your being more in number than any nation, for you are the fewest of all the nations." Again, the whole population of the Egyptian empire at that time was 2-3 million people; were the Torah account true, the Israelites would really be "more in number than [almost] any nation" at that time. But unfortunately, the author of this verse did not trouble himself to match his words with historical reality.
In Numbers 11:31-32 we find: "And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, about a day's journey on this side, and about a day's journey on that side, around the camp, and about two cubits high above the ground. And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers." The homer is a biblical measure, of which the minimal estimation in Rabbinic sources is 249 liters. So each Israelite gathered at least 2490 liters of quail, and even if we assume that only the adult males went out to gather food for their families, we get a total of 1,494,000,000 liters of quails brought "from the sea" for the Israelites. The biggest quail of the Old World, the so-called "common quail," is 18 centimeters in length, and even if we generously assume that the Scriptural quails were 18x18x18 centimeters = 5.832 liters each, this will result in over 256,000,000 quails waiting near the openings of the Israelite tents to be gathered. No such number of quails ever existed and the quails could not be "brought from the sea" for they are not sea birds; they prefer open country and brushy borders. The account of quails "brought from the sea" somewhat resembles the autumn migration of quails, but the story of the quails in the book of Numbers seems to occur during the spring Hebrew month of Iyar, as approved by the Judaic tradition. This means that the author of the story of quails had a faulty knowledge of nature.
The hare and the hyrax
Twice in the Torah (Leviticus 11:5-6 and Deuteronomy 14:7) the hare and the hyrax [Hebrew: shafan and arnevet] are described as chewing their cud. This is simply wrong – neither the hare nor the hyrax chew their cud, and this fact is well established in zoological research. Such a faulty knowledge of nature by the author (or authors) of the Torah leaves no possibility for believing in the Divine authorship of this book.
The Torah tells that after Moses' death God will raise for the Jews prophets "from among their own people" (Deuteronomy 18:18). A way to find out which prophet is true and which is not is also specified:
"And should you ask yourselves, 'How can we know that the thing was not spoken by the Lord?' If the prophet foretells something in the name of the Lord, and this thing does not come true, that prediction is one not spoken by the Lord." (Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
Unfortunately, many people considered by Judaism true prophets predicted things which did not come true, and even the Torah itself made predictions which were proven false:
- In Leviticus 25:2-7 the commandment of the sabbatical year (shemitah) is given. Then, the Torah says:
However, we do not have a single historical document confirming that such a miracle – the land giving a treble harvest on the eve of the sabbatical year –ever occurred. On the contrary, the book of I Hasmoneans (6:48-54) relates that the inhabitants of Beit Tzur and Jerusalem had nothing to eat because of the sabbatical year, and the Talmud (Sanhedrin 26a) says that Rabbi Yannai permitted the inhabitants of Judea to sow their fields in a sabbatical year so that they would be able to pay taxes to Rome. Were the land actually giving a treble harvest before each sabbatical year, such situations would not occur. Even in modern Israel there are religious farmers who observe the sabbatical year with all the strictness of the Halacha, and they do not gather a treble harvest in the sixth year; moreover, observing the sabbatical year brings them significant economical damage, for which they regularly ask the Israeli government for compensation.
"And should you say, 'What shall we eat in the seventh year? For we shall not sow, nor gather our harvest,' I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth harvest for three years. And you will sow the eighth year, yet you will eat of the old harvest until the ninth year." (Leviticus 25:20-22)
- The Torah says in Deuteronomy 11:24-25:
No Jewish tribe or state ever possessed any land on the bank of Euphrates, and the Israelites far from controlled every place their feet tread: despite their endless wars with the Canaanite and Philistine populations, many parts of the Land of Israel remained under gentile rule long after the Israelites appeared in Canaan. A lengthy list of such places is brought in Judges 1:27-36, and it seems that the cities of the Philistines did not lose their nominal independence until the Babylonian conquest in the 6th century BCE. The Scripture and Judaic tradition themselves admit that the prophecy "nobody will stand before you" did not come true: "Joshua made war a long time with all those kings [of Canaan]" (Joshua 11:18), "for seven years they had been conquering [Canaan]" (Seder Olam Rabbah, chapter 11).
"Every place where your feet tread will be yours, from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river – the river of Euphrates – even unto the uttermost sea your border will be. Nobody will stand before you; the Lord your God will impose the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land where you tread, as He had spoke to you."
- The Torah predicts what will happen to the Jews after the exile from their land:
The Judaic tradition, based on Nachmanides, sees these verses as referring to the Jewish exile and return to Zion after the Second Temple destruction. Though it is disputable whether the mass return of Jews to the Land of Israel and the emergence of the State of Israel during the recent century may be what these verses really intended (after all, the Jewish Diaspora persists and many Jews even emigrate from Israel), many Orthodox Jews see the recent events of the Jewish history as the fulfillment of this prediction. However the 20th century return to Zion was not preceded by a mass repentance, "returning to the Lord" and "obeying His voice;" to the contrary, modern Zionism has been, ever since its beginning, a mostly secular movement. Many of those Jews who actually returned "to the land their fathers possessed" altogether abandoned the observance of commandments instead of "returning to the Lord" with all their hearts and all their souls. If we consider this prophecy as meaning recent Jewish history, then the prophecy most surely failed.
"And you will return to the Lord your God, and will obey His voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul. Then the Lord your God will return you from your exile, and He will have pity on you, and He will return you and gather you from all the nations, among which the Lord your God had scattered you. Even if any of you is driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you will possess it." (Deuteronomy 30:2-5)
- Isaiah foretold the fall of Babylon:
The last king in whose time Isaiah prophesized was King Hezekiah of Judah, who died, according to the book of II Kings, about 100 years before the destruction of the First Temple. Babylon was actually defeated by Cyrus, king of Persia, 48 years after the destruction of the First Temple. It is rather difficult to correlate the 150 years between the prophecy and its fulfillment and the verse "her time is near to come, and her days will not be prolonged." But the other details of the prophecy fare even worse: Babylon was conquered neither by "kingdoms of nations gathered together" nor by Media, but by Persia (though Judaic sources refer to Persia and Media as one kingdom – see e.g. Esther 1:19 – these were two different nations and empires). The Persians did not come "from the end of heaven," but from the southern part of the modern Iran, quite close to Babylon itself. Nothing particular happened to the light of the sun and the stars during the Persian conquest of Babylon nor did the Persians turn Babylon into something like "Sodom and Gomorra" – in fact, Herodotus described Babylon under the Persian rule as the most beautiful city of the world. In 331 BCE, Babylon fell to Alexander the Great, who planned to turn the city into the capital of his empire, and died in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar. After Alexander's death in 323 BCE his empire broke up, and the next rulers of Babylon – the Seleucids – neglected the city, turning Seleucia in Mesopotamia and Antioch in Syria into their capitals. In Seleucid times Babylon started losing its greatness and people began leaving the city, but it seems there was always some settlement at the location of Babylon's ruins. When the German archeologist Robert Koldewey began to study the ruins of Babylon in the 19th century, he reported four Arab villages situated on the site: Kweiresh, Djumdjumma, Sinjar, and Ananeh (see R. Koldewey, "The Excavations at Babylon," pp. 11-12). This quite clearly contradicts Isaiah's forecast, "Neither will an Arabian pitch tent there, nor will the shepherds make their fold there." In the early 1980s, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein started rebuilding Babylon as a part of his megalomaniac belief that he is the present-day version of King Nebuchadnezzar. "As of February 1990, over sixty million bricks had been laid in the reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar's fabled city... On the exact site of ancient Babylon, he [Saddam] has reconstructed the Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, including the Procession Street [the main street of the ancient Babylon], a Greek theater, many temples, what was once Nebuchadnezzar's throne room, and a half-scale model of the Ishtar Gate" (Charles Dyer, "The Rise of Babylon," pp. 26-27). In 1987 and 1988 international festivals were held in Babylon. The last thing these events resemble is Isaiah's prophecy "And the wild beasts of the islands will cry in their desolate palaces, and hyenas in their pleasant halls." Isaiah's prophecy clearly failed.
"The prophecy of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw... The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like as of a great people; a tumultuous voice of the kingdoms of nations gathered together; the Lord of Hosts musters the host of the battle. They come from a far country, from the end of heaven; the Lord [brings] the weapons of His indignation to destroy the whole land... For the stars of the sky and its constellations thereof will not give their light: the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon's light will not shine. Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of its place, in the wrath of the Lord of Hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger... Behold, I will stir up Media against them... And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans' excellency, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It will never be inhabited, nor will it be dwelt in from generation to generation; neither will an Arabian pitch tent there, nor will the shepherds make their fold there... And the wild beasts of the islands will cry in their desolate palaces, and hyenas in their pleasant halls; her time is near to come, and her days will not be prolonged." (Isaiah 13)
- Another prophet who foretold the fall of Babylon was Jeremiah. The prophecy in Jeremiah 51 is very like the one in Isaiah 13, and it failed in the same way as Isaiah's prophecy did. However, Jeremiah's prophecy contains some details not brought by Isaiah:
Jeremiah called Babylon a "destroying mountain" but the site of ancient Babylon lies on a bare plain; the nearest mountains are about 100 miles away. As for "no rock will be taken from you for a cornerstone, nor any stone for a foundation," Koldewey found entire sections of the city being mined for bricks, which were then used for building new houses (R. Koldewey, "The Excavations at Babylon," p. 168). Jeremiah's prophecy about Babylon also failed.
"'Before your eyes I will repay Babylon and all who live in Chaldea for all the wrong they have done in Zion,' declares the Lord. 'I am against you, O destroying mountain, you who destroy the whole earth,' declares the Lord. 'I will stretch out My hand against you, roll you off the cliffs, and make you a burned-out mountain. No rock will be taken from you for a cornerstone, nor any stone for a foundation, for you will be desolate forever,' declares the Lord." (Jeremiah 51:24-27)
- In Jeremiah 25:1-13 it is written:
And though Nebuchadnezzar II indeed conquered the kingdom of Judah and even destroyed the First Temple, it should be noted that even after the Babylonian conquest neither the land of Judah nor "all the surrounding nations" were turned into an "everlasting ruin" and "desolate wasteland." Archeological research shows that even after the Temple's destruction by Nebuchadnezar "Judah was not empty after all. Most of the population remained behind, living in the same places they had lived before, except now under Babylonian rule. Just a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, there is virtually no sign of any destruction at all. In fact, archaeologists digging in these areas have discovered that many of those cities actually expanded and flourished under the Babylonians. The people living in them weren't all poor peasants either. Burial caves in use during the Babylonian period have been found to contain gold and silver jewelry, fancy and costly vases and pottery, and other luxury items that reflected the owners' considerable status and wealth" (Amy Dockser-Marcus, "The View from Nebo," p. 155). In Jerusalem itself, several tombs belonging to the period after the Babylonian conquest were found. According to the Israeli archeologist Gabriel Barkai, artifacts found in these tombs "showed incredible wealth. There were bone and ivory objects, and small cream-colored glass vases, expensive luxury items that were crafted by hand before the invention of glass-blowing techniques had made glass more widely available. There were more than 250 kinds of pots, gold and silver jewelry... Some of the jewelry contained precious rare stones" ("The View from Nebo," p. 176). Oil lamps also were found – "the light of the lamp" was definitely not banished from Jerusalem under Babylonian rule, and the city did not become "desolate wasteland" either. And of course, when the time of Babylonian rule over the Land of Israel ended, God did not bring upon Babylon all the things written in the book of Jeremiah, as was already shown in sections (d) and (e) above.
"The word came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, which was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon: ... For twenty-three years – from the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah until this very day – the word of the Lord has come to me and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened... Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: 'Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,' declares the Lord, 'and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon... seventy years. But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,' declares the Lord, 'and will make it desolate forever. I will bring upon that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations.'"
- Jeremiah also foretold:
Coniah is a variant on the name Jehoiachin (the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah), who was deported with the notables of Judea to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar 11 years before the destruction of the First Temple (II Kings 24:15-18). But in I Chronicles 3:17-18 we find: "And the sons of Jeconiah [yet another version of 'Jehoiachin'] were Assir, Shealthiel his son, and Malchiram and Pedaiah and Shenazar, Jecamiah, Hoshama, and Nedabiah." So this prophecy of Jeremiah was not fulfilled either.
"As I live, says the Lord, even were Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah a signet ring on my right hand, I would pluck you from there... Thus says the Lord: Write this man childless, a man that will not prosper in his days, for no man of his seed will manage to sit on the throne of David and to rule any more over Judah." (Jeremiah 22:24-30)
- Prophet Ezekiel predicted the future of Egypt:
Yet, from the days of Ezekiel until now the land of Egypt has never been desolate, wasted or uninhabited even for a single day, let alone 40 years. People and animals never ceased living in Egypt during this whole period, and of course, the ancient Egyptian nation was not "dispersed among the nations" or "scattered through the countries," but remained in its land and slowly assimilated the Greek conquerors and colonizers. Ezekiel's prophecy clearly failed.
"Therefore thus says the Sovereign Lord: Behold, I will bring a sword upon you, and exterminate your men and their animals. And the land of Egypt will be desolate and waste... And I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate, from Migdol to Aswan, and even to the borders of Cush. Neither foot of man nor foot of animal will pass through it, and it will be uninhabited for forty years. I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries." (Ezekiel 8:12)
- Another prophecy of Ezekiel:
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Ezekiel's Nebuchadrezzar is a variation of his name) indeed laid siege to Tyre in 585-573 BCE, but this siege brought him no gain, and Tyre remained unconquered until Alexander the Great managed to take it in 332 BCE. It was Alexander, not Nebuchadnezzar, who broke the walls of Tyre and ravaged its outlying settlements. But even Alexander did not destroy Tyre completely, nor turn it into "a bare rock... built no more." The city exists to this very day, occupying most of the area upon which the ancient Phoenician city stood. Tyre's population even grew from 16,000 inhabitants in 1961 to 70,000 in 1991. And the first time a coalition of "many nations" made war on Tyre was during the Crusades in 1124 CE – long after Nebuchadnezzar's death. Ezekiel himself admitted that his prophecy about Tyre failed:
"Therefore thus says the Sovereign Lord: Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you, as the sea brings its waves up. And they will destroy the walls of Tyre, and break down her towers; I will also scrape away her rubble and make her like a bare rock. She will become a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea, for I have spoken it, says the Sovereign Lord, and she will be loot to the nations. And her outward settlements will be ravaged by sword; then they will know that I am the Lord. For thus says the Sovereign Lord: Behold, I will bring upon Tyre Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, a king of kings, from the north, with horses, and with chariots, and with horsemen, and companies, and much people. He will ravage with the sword your outward settlements, and he will set up siege works against you, build a ramp up to your walls and raise his shields against you. He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and demolish your towers with his weapons. The multitude of his horses will cover you with dust; your walls will tremble at the noise of the war horses, wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city whose walls have been broken through. The hoofs of his horses will trample all your streets; he will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground. They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses, and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea... I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You be built no more, for I the Lord have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord." (Ezekiel 26:3-14)
"Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre; every head was rubbed bare and every shoulder made raw. Yet he and his army got no reward from the campaign he led against Tyre." (Ezekiel 29:18)
- As a compensation for his loss in the campaign against Tyre, Ezekiel promised to Nebuchadnezzar – in the name of God, of course – Egypt:
However, Nebuchadnezzar had never managed to conquer Egypt and plunder it "as pay for his army." This prophecy failed, too.
"Therefore thus says the Sovereign Lord: I am going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army. I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for Me, declares the Sovereign Lord: On that day I will make a glory for the house of Israel, and I will open your mouth among them. Then they will know that I am the Lord." (Ezekiel 29:19-21)
The problem of unfulfilled prophecies troubled the later rabbis, and they introduced several limitations on the inevitability of a prophecy coming true.
- The best known of these limitations is by Maimonides, in his Foreword to the Mishnah Commentary: only a prediction which a prophet said about other people (not a promise God gives to a prophet concerning the prophet himself) and which foretells good for those to whom it was said must be fulfilled. However, these limitations seem to contradict the Torah's description of a prophet, which says, "If the prophet foretells something in the name of the Lord, and this thing does not come true, that prediction is one not spoken by the Lord," without distinguishing between predictions of good and ill. And more than that: prophecies (a), (b) and (j) above are obviously predictions of good for those to whom they were said (i.e. for the Jews), yet these prophecies also proved false. So even Maimonides' limitations cannot save the Scripture from unfulfilled prophecies.
- Ridbaz, in his responsa (part 3, paragraph 638), wrote that "a prediction made for a multitude, even conditionally, must always come true, while a prediction made for an individual should come true unless one of two things happen: either a sin causes the prediction to be abandoned or the subject of the prediction brings himself into a dangerous situation." This limitation on the inevitability of prophecies' fulfillment contradicts, of course, that of Maimonides (the latter makes no distinction between predictions made for multitudes and for individuals), but Ridbaz's limitation is still insufficient to explain the failure of prophecies (a), (b) and (j) above.
- In the Gemara (Yevamot 50a) we find the following discourse:
According to Rabbi Akiba's opinion, the 15 years which were "added" to King Hezekiah's life were in fact allotted him from his birth, for it was in those 15 years that Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, was born, and since Manasseh was the grandfather of King Josiah, Manasseh had to be born so that the prophecy of the "man of God" concerning Josiah's birth and deeds in I Kings 13 would come true. From this R' Akiba concluded that Hezekiah was initially destined to live 15 years longer and to sire Manasseh so the prophecy might be fulfilled; when Hezekiah sinned these 15 years were subtracted from his life span as a punishment, but when he repented and prayed for God to forgive him, these 15 years were re-allotted to him. An obvious question arises in this context, which is indeed asked by the Tosfot on Yevamot 50a (s.v. Teda): "But if Hezekiah had not prayed for himself, he would die [and could not sire Manasseh], so the prophecy in that case would fail." The Tosfot's answer is really astonishing: "Inevitably, we have to admit: a prophet foretold only what was designed to happen, were he [Hezekiah] not sinning." That is, though the prophecy of the "man of God" was said to have been made long before King Hezekiah was born and did not deal with Hezekiah himself but only with his great-grandson Josiah, the deeds of King Hezekiah could lead to this prophecy remaining unfulfilled. Thus, in the Tosfot's opinion, a factor external to a prophecy may make the prophecy fail – and this, of course, makes the Torah's words about checking whether a prophet is true or not entirely meaningless. If a prophet's prediction fails, the failure can always be attributed to some external factor – that somebody sinned so his days were shortened and therefore he did not manage to sire the person needed for the prophecy's fulfillment, or anything like that. Thus prophecy, one of the main issues of Judaism, turns into a product of wishful thinking instead of being a testimony to God's supervision over the world and the Divine inspiration of the Scripture.
"'I will cause the number of your days to be full' (Exodus 23:26) – these are the years of generations [the years of life allotted to a person when he is born – Rashi]. If one attains merit, he lives all these years, but if he does not, his life is shortened – thus says Rabbi Akiba. But the Sages say: if one attains merit, his life is lengthened, but if he does not, his life is shortened. They said to Rabbi Akiba: it is written, 'I will add fifteen years to your [King Hezekiah's] life' (II Kings 20:6). [R' Akiba answered:] The years added to his life were allotted him since the very beginning; see for yourself, the prophet had already stood and foretold, 'A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David' (I Kings 13:2) – and Manasseh was not born yet."
The Lord is one?
Is Scripture monotheistic?
It is widely believed that Judaism was the first religious teaching to adopt and to introduce to the whole world the concept of monotheism. Indeed, the Torah proclaims "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4). However, reading the Scripture attentively one cannot escape the conclusion that at least in the beginning of the Scriptural period the power of God was considered to be extremely limited, and His worship, as well as His supervision, was limited to a specific geographic area.
Thus we find King David, forced to leave the Land of Israel, thinking that he left the domain of God's authority: "For they have driven me out this day from sharing in the inheritance of the Lord, saying: 'Go, serve other gods.'" (I Samuel 26:19). Of course later Rabbinic sources (e.g. Tractate Ketubot 110b, Rashi and Radak on I Samuel 26:19, etc.) stated that David's "Go, serve other gods" is only a metaphor for staying outside the Land of Israel or for living among gentile idolaters, but such an interpretation contradicts the meaning of David's words themselves. At the very least, were the monotheistic concept indeed basic for the author of the book of Samuel, he would surely find another, less provocative wording to express what the later rabbis claim he meant.
Likewise the prophet Jonah, not willing to bring God's message to the people of Nineveh, "rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord" (Jonah 1:3). (Tarshish is thought to be the southern part of today's Spain). Again, later Rabbinic commentators interpreted "the presence of the Lord" to mean God's revelation to a prophet – that is, Jonah fled to Tarshish so that God would not reveal His prophecy to him, as prophecy is possible only in the Land of Israel. However, this interpretation plainly contradicts the Scripture, where we find several major prophets (including Moses and Ezekiel) prophesying outside the Land of Israel. On the other hand, the plain meaning of the Scripture clearly shows that Jonah (or the author of the book of Jonah, whoever he may be) thought the land of Tarshish to be outside the domain of God's supervision. Therefore we see that the ultimate monotheistic concept was not shared by the Scripture.
"YHWH Teman and his Asherah favored"
Furthermore, archeological research reveals that the name YHWH, which in the Torah is the holiest of names for the one and only God, as late as in the 9th-8th centuries BCE denoted in the Israelite circles a god who even had a family life! The excavations at Kuntillet 'Ajrud (called in Hebrew Chorvat Teiman), in the northeast Sinai desert, unearthed several inscriptions of that period:
"Your days may be prolonged and you shall be satisfied... give YHWH of Teman and his Asherah... YHWH of Teman and his Asherah favored..."
"A[shy]o m[lk] (the king) said: tell [x,y and z], may you be blessed by YHWH of Shomron (Samaria) and his Asherah"
"Amaryo said: tell my lord, may you be well and be blessed by YHWH of Teman and his Asherah. May he bless and keep you and be with you"
(The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East," ed. by Eric M. Meyers, entry Kuntillet 'Ajrud).
The pagan Canaanite goddess Asherah is described here not only as a deity blessing her believers, but also as the favored one of the deity YHWH – a title usually referring to one's female consort. Of course, such a perception of YHWH is in no way consistent with the picture that Judaism provides us.
Monotheism in ancient Egypt
On the other hand, we find the ancient Egyptians advancing towards the monotheism in the development of their religious concepts since the 16th century BCE. After 200 years of such development, about 1375 BCE Pharaoh Amenhotep IV "repudiated the authority of the old gods and their priests and devoted himself exclusively to Aton, the god appearing as the sun disk. He proclaimed himself the son of Aton, taking the name Akhenaton ('devoted to Aton') and he imposed this worship on others. By royal decree Aton became the only God who exists, king not only of Egypt, but of the whole world, embodying in his character and essence all the attributes of other gods" (Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. by Mircea Eliade, entry Monotheism: Egyptian religion). The latter of Akhenaton's concepts is much like the Judaic view, in which, though God is one, different attributes are ascribed to Him – the attribute of justice, the attribute of mercy, etc. And though ancient Egyptian monotheism lasted for only 25 years, and the worship of the old idols returned after Akhenaton's reign was over, his monotheistic ideas preceded by centuries the Scripture's proto-monotheistic theology.
The Sages and Scripture
The attitude of the Sages to the Torah
Contrary to the present Orthodox Jewish belief that each and every word of the Torah was dictated by God Himself to Moses, we find Chazal in the Talmud and in the Midrashim referring to several verses of the Torah as Moses' own words:
The Talmud in Tractate Makot 24a says:
"Rabbi Yossi the son of Chanina said: four edicts made Moses over Israel, four prophets came and abolished them. Moses said, 'So Israel will dwell in security, the spring of Jacob alone' (Deuteronomy 33:28) – Amos came and abolished it, as is written, 'How will Jacob arise?' (Amos 7:5), and it is written, 'The Lord has repented for this...' (Amos 7:6) Moses said, 'And among these nations you will find no calm' (Deuteronomy 28:65) – Jeremiah came and said, 'Go calm Israel' (Jeremiah 31:1). Moses said, '[God] visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children' (Exodus 34:7) – Ezekiel came and abolished it: 'That soul which sins will die' (Ezekiel 18:20). Moses said, 'And you will be lost among the nations' (Leviticus 26:38) – Isaiah came and said: 'And it will come to pass in that day that the great trumpet shall be blown...' (Isaiah 27:13)." (Tractate Makot 24a)
This passage treats Torah verses as Moses' own edicts. Though it may be said that Deuteronomy 28:65 and 33:28 are quotes from Moses' speech to Israel (just as the Torah quotes Abraham's, Jacob's, and Laban's words in other places), Leviticus 26:38 (as well as all of Leviticus 26:1-45) is said by the Torah itself to be God's own speech, and Exodus 34:7 is understood by all the major Rabbinic commentaries as God's own words. Yet the Talmudic Sages attributed these words to Moses, and, which is even more peculiar, they freely admitted that centuries after the Torah was given, somebody may come and abolish the Torah's words, in clear violation of one of the principles of the Orthodox Jewish faith – that the Torah will never be changed. Speaking of the portion which lists the impure animals and birds and which was written twice in the Torah – in Leviticus 11 and in Deuteronomy 14 – the Midrash says:
"Why were these things duplicated in Deuteronomy? The animals [were duplicated] because of the shesuah and the birds because of the raah vulture – to teach that one should not be ashamed to say he had forgotten. It is an inference from minor to major – if Moses, the wisest of sages, the greatest of greats, father of the prophets, was not afraid to say he forgot, a person who is not even one of a thousand millions, of multitude of myriads of his disciples' disciples – how much more so should this person not be afraid to say 'I forgot.'"
The Midrash claims that Moses forgot about the vulture called raah and about the animal called shesuah and for that reason duplicated the whole portion, more than a dozen verses, in the Torah. So either this midrash intended to say that God had also forgotten about the raah and the shesuah, or – which seems much more plausible – that Moses wrote this portion at least once without dictation from Heaven. It is written in the Talmud (Megillah 31b):
"Abaye said: this Tannaitic rule [that when reading the Torah in public, portions of curses should be read by one person only] is valid only for the portion of the curses in Leviticus, but the portion of the curses in Deuteronomy may be divided between several readers. Why? The first are said in plural, and Moses said them guided by the Divine, but the latter are in singular and Moses said them on his own."
So even for Halachic purposes the Talmud viewed some of the Torah verses as written by Moses on his own. This makes the present-day Orthodox Jewish belief in the Divine origin of each and every word of the Torah rather baseless.
"Halacha uproots Scripture"
In accordance with the above view, the Sages considered some of their Halachic traditions, of uncertain origin, to be more authoritative than laws stated explicitly in the Torah text:
"Rabbi Jochanan said in the name of Rabbi Ishmael: in three places Halacha uproots the Scripture: the Torah said, with dust [one should cover the blood of a slaughtered wild animal or bird] and Halacha says with anything; the Torah said with a razor [it is forbidden to cut a Nazarite's hair] and Halacha says with anything; the Torah said, on parchment suitable for use in a scroll [a get should be written] and Halacha says on anything." (Tractate Sotah 16a)
How the Sages canonized the Holy Writ (Hebrew Bible)
In the Mishnah (Tractate Yadaim 3:5) we find the Sages discussing whether the books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs are a part of the Holy Writ. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 13b) states that the Sages intended "to file away" forever the book of Ezekiel were it not for a man named Chananiah the son of Chizkiah, who elucidated it so that it would not contradict the words of the Torah. So despite Judaism's general attitude that the books of the Holy Writ are Divinely inspired and contain words of the Living God, we find the Sages discussing, hundreds of years after these books were written, which of them was in fact Divinely inspired and which was not. The Sages did not even conceal that they – and not the prophets – determined what the Holy Writ would look like.
The book of the Son of Sirach
There were indeed several books which the Sages left out of the Holy Writ while others were admitted to the canon. However, concerning one book – the book of the Son of Sirach – the Sages never did agree on whether to include it in the Holy Writ canon. On the one hand, in Tractate Sanhedrin 100b Rav Joseph mentions it among the "external books" which one is forbidden to read, and Midrash Kohelet Rabba (chapter 12) says that "everyone who brings into his house more than 24 books [of the Holy Writ], brings turmoil into his house, and this is said of books like the Son of Sirach and the Son of Tagla." But on the other hand, in Tractate Bava Kama 92b we find: "This matter is written in the Torah and repeated in the Prophets, and a third time in the Writings... And a third time in the Writings, when it is written, 'Each bird will resort to its like, and a man with those of his like'." But the verse "Each bird will resort to its like..." is not found anywhere in the Writings; the Tosfot there say that "perhaps it is in the book of the Son of Sirach," and the Masoret HaShas refers to it as a verse in the 13th chapter of the Son of Sirach. So the author of this Talmudic statement (Rabba the son of Marei) saw the book of the Son of Sirach as a part of the Writings! [However, the "verse" brought in the Talmud is actually a compilation of two different verses: "All flesh consorts according to kind, and a man will cleave to his like" (Son of Sirach 13:16), and "Each bird will resort to its like; so will truth return to those who practice it" (Son of Sirach 27:9).]
Several more times in the Talmud and in the Midrash the Sages give exegesis on verses from Son of Sirach as though it were part of the Holy Writ (see e.g. Chagiga 13a, Bereshit Rabbah section 91, etc.). In Ketubot 110b they even brought the saying "All the days of the poor are evil" as "written in the book of the Son of Sirach," though this phrase is found in Proverbs 15:15 and does not appear in Son of Sirach. Thus words of a book which according to some Talmudic statements one is forbidden to read are mixed freely with a verse of the canonic Holy Writ! In two other places in the Talmud (Bava Batra 98b and 146a) Chazal "quoted" from Son of Sirach words that are not to be found there.
Rav Saadiah Gaon, in his "Sefer haGalui," seems to have been the last Rabbinic leader who directly quoted the Hebrew text of the Son of Sirach, but even later rabbis indirectly quoted verses, citing the quotations brought in the Talmud and in the Midrash (see e.g. R' Joseph al-Ashkar's "Mirkevet haMishneh" on Avot 6:2). It is totally unclear when and upon what grounds the book of the Son of Sirach was finally ruled out of the Holy Writ canon.
Inconsistency in determining the canon of the Holy Write (Hebrew Bible)
Also, it is absolutely unclear on what grounds Chazal decided to include certain books in the canon of the Holy Writ and to exclude other books from this canon. Some of the books they excluded (the so-called "external books") are in our possession, and they are written exactly as the canonic books are. Like Prophets, the "external books" cite words of the Divine, and the phrase "Thus said the Lord" is not uncommon there (see Baruch 2:21, II Esdras 1:12, 2:1, 2:10, 15:21). It is very peculiar: how could the sages of the Mishnah and of the Talmud judge – centuries after all those books were written – which "Thus said the Lord" is valid and which is not? In any case, we find Chazal determining quite openly, and not always consistently, the composition of the Holy Writ – making it quite problematic to consider its books as words of prophecy, which, by the time of the Sages, had ended.
General unreliability of tradition
Many people – from major Rabbinic leaders past and present to ordinary believing Jews – claim that the very existence of a widespread Judaic tradition of the Exodus from Egypt and of the Sinai Revelation is a sufficient evidence that these events really took place as they are described in the Torah. If there were 600,000 witnesses to the Sinai Revelation, they say, it is impossible that the account is a fiction. And though the number 600,000 is known to us only from the Torah itself (and therefore cannot be used to prove the authenticity of the Torah), and the historical and the archeological research show that it would be impossible for 600,000 male adult Israelites to have left Egypt at the alleged time of the Exodus (1313 BCE) and to take part in the Sinai Revelation 50 days after the Exodus as the Torah tells it, it is nevertheless a fact that for thousands of years many Jews shared the tradition of the Exodus and of the Giving of the Torah. However, human history shows that traditions may reflect nothing but sheer fiction, and that multitudes of people may believe things which they could easily find wrong had they bothered to check the factual evidence. Thus, in Rome there is a pyramid-shaped building which is the sepulcher of Caius Cestius, a Roman official of the 1st century BCE. It is written on the monument itself to whom the sepulcher belongs, and the circumstances of its building are written there, too. Despite this easily available evidence, many people during the Middle Ages believed this building to be the sepulcher of Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, and others believed it to be the sepulcher of Remus, Romulus's brother (see S. Platner, T. Ashby, "A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome," Oxford University Press, 1929, p. 478). So a mass tradition of a certain event can definitely appear even if that event never happened.
"We will not testify falsely to our sons." Or will we?
Speaking of reliability of the Judaic tradition, the rabbis often say something like, "When we tell this story to our children, they will surely know that the story is true, without a doubt, as though all the generations saw it [the Sinai Revelation]. For we will not testify falsely to our sons, and will not bequeath them nonsense and useless things. And they will not have the slightest doubt about our testimony" (from Nachmanides' commentary on Deuteronomy 4:9). Not only it is clear to any reasonable person that this argument is very weak and that one cannot build his whole worldview solely on the personal integrity of people of previous generations – we also find several Judaic spiritual leaders stating explicitly that "truth is whatever leads to the good and to the will of the Creator" (R' Eliyahu Dessler, "Michtav MiEliyahu," v. 1, p. 94), and that "the difference between lie and truth is measured by the outcome of the things that follow from them" (Rabbi Yerucham of Mir, "Daat Chochma UMussar," v. 1, p. 113), or, to put it clearly, that "the end justifies the means." If this is the approach of spirituals leaders of Judaism, there is little if any doubt that pious Judaic believers would tell their sons (or any other people) things that never were and never had been, as long as they are persuaded that making their sons believe in those things will lead them "to the good and to the will of the Creator." Such believers would find no obstacle in describing their own innovations as "tradition which starts from Moses and the Sinai Revelation," and their personal integrity in transmitting any tradition can hardly be relied upon.
Judaic tradition is unaware of its own history
What is often claimed to be a characteristic of Jewish tradition's reliability – its awareness of the history of its own transmission – appears to be nonexistent. Tractate Avot claims the men of the Great Assembly, Simeon the Righteous and Antignos of Soho, to be the ones who transmitted the tradition from the prophets to the first Tannaitic pairs. Maimonides viewed the men of the Great Assembly (which he calls the Beit Din of Ezra) as belonging to one and the same generation, which spanned the whole period of the Persian rule over the Land of Israel. This is quite consistent with the length of the Persian period according to the Judaic tradition – 52 years (Seder Olam Rabbah, chapter 30), but that view is completely unhistorical. From several independent Greek historical sources, as well as from authentic Persian inscriptions found during archeological excavations, we learn that Persian rule over the ancient Middle East lasted from Cyrus's conquest of the Babylonian empire (539 BCE) until the defeat of Darius III by Alexander the Great (332 BCE) – more than 200 years (a discrepancy of about 150 years from the Judaic tradition). A single generation of "the men of the Great Assembly" could not survive all those years to transmit anything to anybody.
The tradition also gives us no clear historical account of the life of Ezra himself, despite the fact that he is considered the head of the Great Assembly, the resuscitator of the Torah, and the most prominent of Jewish sages in the post-exilic period. The Scriptural account of his life is self-contradictory, for though it is clearly written that he was active during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia (Artachshasta in the Scripture), some verses lead to the conclusion that it was Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE), while according to the others it could only be Artaxerxes II (404-358 BCE). The Judaic tradition "solved" this problem by stating that there was only one Persian king called Artaxerxes (Artachshasta), and that he was called also Cyrus (Koresh) and Darius (Daryavesh) – but this is clearly wrong, for seven kings called Cyrus, Darius (I, II and III) and Artaxerxes (I, II and III) ruled over Persia, each in different times.
The Judaic tradition does not provide a clear historical account of Simeon the Righteous either: in different places he is described as one who met Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, the father of the High Priest Onias who founded the so-called "Onias' Temple" in Leontopolis, Egypt circa 150 BCE, and one who was told by a heavenly voice about the recent death of the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula in 41 CE. Judaic tradition has no clear account of persons whom this tradition itself claims to be central links in the chain of the tradition's transmission. This makes the Judaic tradition quite unreliable.
Non-Judaic traditions of mass revelations
Judaism, of course, is not the only religion that claims its deity revealed himself to the mass of believers. Similar traditions also existed, and still do, in other religions.
- Herodotus wrote in his "History" (II, 91) about the people of the ancient Egyptian city of Chemnis:
Here the deity Perseus revealed himself to the population of a whole city, many times ("frequently within the temple"), which does not, of course, make the religion of the Chemnite people more trustworthy.
"There is a large city called Chemnis, situated in the Thebaic district near Neapolis, in which is a quadrangular temple dedicated to [the deity] Perseus, son of Danae; palm-trees grow round it and the portico is of stone, very spacious, and over it are placed two large stone statues. In this enclosure is a temple, and in it is placed a statue of Perseus. The Chemnitae [the inhabitants of Chemnis] affirm that Perseus has frequently appeared to them on earth, and frequently within the temple."
- In our times also there are communities that regularly hold religious ceremonies during which, they are persuaded, their deity reveals itself to them all – and this deity, of course, is not the God of Judaism. Here is what Prof. Aharon Katzir wrote of the Haitian voodoo cult in his book "BeKur HaMahapechah HaMadait" ("In the Crucible of Scientific Revolution"):
Here, as in the story of Sinai Revelation, there are people sanctifying themselves for the revelation, fires, thunder and loud voices (though provided by drums and not by the shofar), and the most important: the whole community, including even an enlightened stranger, is persuaded that the deity, in person, revealed his glory to them on that occasion. And all this happened not 3300 years ago, related to us only through tales and stories, but in our very days (the book was written in the early 1970s) and actually happens each month. These voodoo ceremonies are held regularly and are not something singular and unique, as is the Sinai revelation in the Judaic tradition. Of course, there isn't much sense in converting to voodoo because of scenes of the forest deity's mass revelation – these are best described in terms of the psychology of extreme situations. But in any case, a tradition of a mass revelation is not something unique to Judaism.
"An American anthropologist decided to research the voodoo ceremony of the creoles, held in honor of the forest deity. At the middle of the month, the cult believers light bonfires in the tropical forest and dance around them until they are exhausted – and then, at midnight, they see the deity. In order to prepare themselves for this great occasion, everybody sanctifies himself through fast and mortification – and the researcher, who found favor in the eyes of the tribesmen and earned their trust, fasted and mortified herself, too. At night she went with them to the forest and danced around the bonfires. At midnight, when she was already considerably hungry and afflicted, drums beat suddenly in a thunderous voice – and she, together with the rest of the tribesmen, saw the deity, and she became a believer in voodoo. All the beliefs and concepts she had as a modern enlightened woman were abandoned – and instead, she fervently adopted the worldview of idolatry." ("BeKur HaMahapechah HaMadait," Am Oved publishing, 1996, p. 54)
Judaism has no mass tradition
However, even if Judaism claims a tradition of mass revelation, it does not have a mass tradition of such revelation – that is, the Judaic tradition can in no way be considered a mass tradition. We do not have many independent personal accounts containing varied details of those events, each from the viewpoint of that particular participant, as one would expect were hundreds of thousands of fathers transmitting a record of events to their sons. All we have is the Scriptural text, the story of which fathers have told to their sons for many generations. All that this testifies to is those fathers' acceptance of the story as true, which may be because of religious devotion rather than because of any historical veracity to the account – just as hundreds of millions of pious Christians accept the story of the Virgin Conception as historically true.
Even during the Passover Seder, the backbone of Jewish tradition's transmission from one generation to another, nobody tells his children his own ancestor's personal account of those events, transmitted in his family through the generations – for there are no such accounts. All that one does on that night is recite once again the text of the Passover Haggadah, set and fixed by the Sages in the 7th-8th centuries CE (Encyclopedia Hebraica, Haggadah shel Pesach, v. 13, p. 341). And even the text of the Haggadah itself is not an independent story of the Exodus, but a mixture of Scriptural verses and Talmudic-Midrashic homily on them. It simply cannot be treated as a historical account, only as the reading for a popular religious ceremony.
Nobody argues from tradition when discussing major details of the Sinai Revelation
Indeed, wherever we find the sages, from the Talmudic Rabbis to Rishonim and Achronim, discussing certain details of the Exodus or the Sinai Revelation, none claims testimony he received from his father, but all his arguments and considerations are based on what he finds in the religious writings of previous generations.
- In the Talmud (Shabbat 86b) two opinions of the Tannaim are brought: the Sages said that the Sinai Revelation happened on the 6th of Sivan and Rabbi Yossi said on the 7th of Sivan. Then the Talmud brings three pages of discussion by Amoraim on when the Sinai Revelation really occurred. In all this lengthy discussion nobody brings arguments based on what he received through tradition (which would be quite expected, had these Amoraim heard their fathers' testimony about the event). The only arguments they use are Scriptural verses and Tannaic statements, which are, in turn, nothing more than homily on Scriptural verses.
- On the verse, "And all the people see the voices" (Ex. 20:15) Rashi wrote: "'See the voices' – they saw what is to be heard, that which cannot be seen anywhere else," that is, a real seeing, while Sforno and Chezkuni wrote that "see the voices" is a metaphor of knowledge and understanding, as in Ecclesiastes 1:16, "and my heart saw." And again, none of the commentators brings a tradition, received from his ancestors, which "voices" exactly were "seen" during the Sinai Revelation.
- There is even a discussion among the rabbis about what exactly God revealed to the People of Israel at Mt. Sinai. On one hand, after the Torah lists in the second time the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, it says, "These words the Lord spoke to all your public at the mountain from the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick fog, with a great voice that did not cease" (Deut. 5:19). From this one may understand that all ten of the commandments were revealed by God to the whole people. On the other hand, the Talmud (Makot 24a) says that only the first two of the Ten Commandments – "I am the Lord your God" and "You shall have no other gods before Me" – were said by God directly to the people, and all the others were told to Moses alone. The latter view may be supported by the wording of the Ten Commandments in the Torah (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). There the first two commandments speak of God in the first person while the remaining eight refer to Him in the third person ("You shall have no other gods before Me" vs. "Do not bear the name of the Lord your God in vain"). Nachmanides tried to explain this contradiction by stating in his commentary on Exodus 20:7 that all the Israelites heard all the Ten Commandments from the Divine, but they could comprehend only the first two, and therefore the last eight were repeated to them by Moses. But Maimonides in "The Guide for the Perplexed" (part 2, chapter 33), not troubled much by the verse of Deuteronomy 5:19, brought two different opinions on what the Israelites actually heard from God Himself during the Sinai Revelation – nothing intelligible (while Moses heard all the commandments and told them to the people later) or only the first two of the Ten Commandments – and Maimonides himself tended to the first opinion. Again, each commentator has his own view, but none of them makes claims from a tradition that he received from his ancestors and rabbis, and everyone tries to figure out his own view based on what is said in the Scripture, the Talmud, and the Midrash.
- Rabbinic commentators on the Scripture disputed even what the Ten Commandments actually were. R' Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Exodus 20:1, wrote that "I am the Lord your God" is the first commandment, and "You shall have no other gods before Me" is the second. However, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 5:16 Ibn Ezra stated: "Know that in the opinion of the Sages of previous generations the first commandment is 'I am'... But in my view, the correct meaning is that the phrase 'I am' is a foreword said by He who commands..." Thus, according to Ibn Ezra here, the first commandment is "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Ex. 20:3), the ninth is "You shall not covet your fellow's house" (20:14), and the tenth is "You shall not covet your fellow's wife, nor his male slave, nor his female slave, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything he has" (ibid.). Unfortunately, he himself said, in his commentary on Exodus 20:1, that this view "is nonsense," so Ibn Ezra's account of the Ten Commandments is self-contradictory. Obviously this account is not based on any historical tradition, but only on Ibn Ezra's own understanding of the Hebrew lexicon and grammar, which apparently had changed between the time he wrote his commentary on Exodus and when he wrote his commentary on Deuteronomy.
All the above shows that either a clear and consistent tradition on what happened in the course of the Sinai Revelation did not yet exist in the time of the Tannaim, the Amoraim, and the Rishonim, or that none of the rabbis thought such tradition to be reliable. In any case, to base one's whole approach to life on such a tradition is hardly reasonable.
Transmission from fathers to sons is considered unreliable by Judaism itself
The alleged witnesses of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation did not leave us any written testimony of those events, and we are supposed to believe that the account of events was transmitted orally from one generation to another. Judaism itself admits that such a transmission is unreliable – in Tractate Shabbat 145a-b the Talmud rules explicitly that hearsay testimony may not be qualified, at least in matters of Torah laws. This rule includes even testimony of a son based on his father's words. It is quite absurd to suppose that testimony invalidated by a Jewish religious court can be used to validate the veracity of Judaism as a whole.
Judaism itself admits that it has no uninterrupted mass tradition
Moreover, the Scripture itself states that for long periods the tradition of the Torah was forgotten by the people of Israel:
"And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe: 'I have found the Book of the Torah in the Temple of the Lord.' And he gave the book to Shaphan, who read it... Then Shaphan the scribe told the king: 'Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.' And Shaphan read it before the king. When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his garments... And the king gave this order to the whole people: 'Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.' For such a Passover had never been observed since the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah."
(II Kings 22:8-23:22)
"And on the second day the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to learn the words of the Torah. And they found written in the Torah, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month... So the people went out, and brought [branches], and built themselves booths, each on his roof, and in their courtyards, and in the courtyards of the house of God, and on the street by the Water Gate and on the street by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole congregation that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it this way. And their joy was very great."
The Torah scroll found in the Temple was a great surprise for the king and his scribes, and the basic commandments of Passover and Sukkot had not been observed by the Jews for hundreds of years. The great Rabbinic commentators of the Scripture admitted that the people of Israel forgot the Torah for long periods:
"Manasseh was king for a long time, for he reigned 55 years, and he did evil in the eyes of God, following the disgusting ways of the gentiles. He built altars to idolatry in the house of the Lord and he made the Torah be forgotten by the Jews. None turned to it, for all turned to other gods and the laws of the gentiles, and in 55 years the Torah was forgotten... so the Torah scroll was a surprise for them."
(Radak on II Kings 22:8)
"In our sinfulness, it had already happened in the days of the evil kings of Israel, such as Jeroboam, that most of the nation completely forgot Torah and the commandments."
(Nachmanides on Numbers 15:22)
Of course neither the Scripture nor the commentators exclude the possibility that select individuals preserved the original tradition even in times of mass forgetfulness, but from the texts above it is clear that Judaism does not even pretend to have an uninterrupted mass tradition of the Torah and the commandments. Therefore it would contradict Jewish tradition itself to claim that we have such an uninterrupted mass tradition back to the Sinai Revelation.
Evidence from ancient texts
During the past century dozens of ancient Hebrew texts (inscriptions, ostraca, and amulets) of the First Temple period have been discovered. It is not much compared to the number of ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian or Babylonian texts known to us, but even so, the picture arising from these ancient Hebrew texts is remarkable.
- The earliest texts which allow one to assume that their writer was familiar with at least part the Torah are two silver amulets found in Jerusalem which contain a text quite similar (though not identical) to the wording of the Priestly Blessing in Numbers 6:23-27 (see Gabriel Barkai, "Ketef Hinnom," pp. 29-31). The amulets date to the late 7th century BCE – 700 years after the alleged time of the Exodus – and they testify only to their author's acquaintance with a tiny fraction of the Torah text, telling nothing of the degree to which he was familiar with the Torah's law or narrative in general.
- The earliest text which reasonably suggests that its author had a good knowledge of the Torah's law is the Passover Papyrus from Elephantine (Egypt), in which the date and the laws of the Passover are brought in accordance with the Written Torah (though in contradiction to the Rabbinic Oral Torah, the laws detailed in the papyrus permit one to own leavened bread during the Passover if he does not bring it into his house). The Passover Papyrus is written in Aramaic and dated to 419/418 BCE – 900 years after the time when, according to Judaic tradition, the laws of the Passover were taught to the whole People of Israel (for the text of the papyrus see B. Porten and A. Yardeni, "Textbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt," v. 1, pp. 125-126).
- Another text, dated to 639-609 BCE, is the Yavneh-Yam Ostracon – the petition of a harvester complaining against somebody who seized his garment. Though the harvester mentions that he finished harvesting and storing the grain "before the Sabbath," he nevertheless makes (in a legal petition!) no reference to the law of the Torah under any guise, appealing instead to the local officer's sense of justice (for the text of the ostracon, see "Ancient Near Eastern Texts," ed. by J. Pritchard, pp. 568-569). One more ancient Hebrew legal petition known to us is the Widow's Petition Ostracon, dated to the 9th-7th centuries BCE. This petition, written by a widow to her local governor, reads: "My husband is dead, [having left] no children. And may your hand be with me; and may you place in your servant's hand the inheritance which you promised to 'Amasyahu. But regarding the wheat field which is in Na'amah: you have granted it to his brother" (for the text of the ostracon, see H. Shanks, "Three Shekels for the Lord," Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1997, pp. 28-32). From the text it follows that the widow's deceased husband had no sons but had a brother. In this case, according to the explicit law of the Torah (Numbers 6:9), the brother would inherit all the property of the deceased, so that both the governor's intention to promise a part of the inheritance to one 'Amasyahu and the widow's request to give the inheritance to her would be illegal according to the Torah's law. Moreover, the widow asserts that it was the governor's decision, and not the Torah's law, that gave the brother of the deceased the wheat field in Na'amah. This document leaves the impression that both the widow and the governor were unfamiliar with the explicit law of inheritances in the Torah.
- The Gezer Calendar, dated to the 10th century BCE, mentions a month of "harvest and feasting," but does not name the feast(s) celebrated in that month; moreover, since according to that calendar the month of "harvest and feasting" is three months before the month of "summer fruit," it is evident that this month is not parallel to the present-day autumn month of Tishrei, the most suitable candidate for the title "the month of feasting" using the Torah's list of feasts. Most likely the calendar refers what is now Nissan, but the Torah's name for that month – "the spring month" – is not mentioned. Neither are any of the other Scriptural names of months – "the month of Bul," "the month of Ziv," "the month of Eitanim" – mentioned (for the text of the Gezer Calendar see "Ancient Near Eastern Texts," ed. by J. B. Pritchard, p. 320).
- God's name YHWH appears in some texts, and some ostraca even mention "the house of YHWH" (e.g. the Beit YHWH Ostracon – see H. Shanks, "Three Shekels for the Lord"), but there is no way to find out whether they speak of the Jerusalem temple where YHWH is worshipped as one and only God or of a village sanctuary dedicated to YHWH as a local deity.
- And of course the inscriptions from Kuntillet 'Ajrud, speaking of "YHWH Teman and his Asherah favored" (see item 51), reasonably suggest that at least some of the ancient Hebrews considered the pagan Canaanite goddess Asherah not only a deity able to bless her believers, but also the favored one (a title usually referring to female consorts) of the deity YHWH. This is much more than yet another kind of paganism (which even the Scripture admits to be popular enough among the ancient Hebrew population): this is worship of YHWH himself as a pagan deity who has some kind of family life. Were there a concept of YHWH as the one and only God of the Universe – as we believe was revealed to the whole People of Israel at Mt. Sinai – in the collective consciousness of the ancient Hebrews, the appearance of such inscriptions would hardly be possible.
- To the above one can add the complete absence of any reference in Hittite sources of the late 14th–early 13th centuries to the plagues of the Exodus and to the drowning of the whole Egyptian army in the sea. The Hittites were then engaged in a continual and indecisive war with Egypt, and they would have surely been glad to record great disasters befalling their enemies. The absence of any such account in the Hittite documents of that period is most remarkable.
In short, among dozens of the pre-Exilic Hebrew texts, none can reasonably suggest that its author was familiar enough with any significant part of the Torah's law or narrative, and none of the documents authored by bitter enemies of Egypt at the alleged time of the Exodus mentions any disaster which befell the Egyptian empire. The most reasonable explanation of these facts is that the Torah as a whole was not known to the Hebrews before the Babylonian exile and that the Exodus did not really happen as described by the Torah.
Contradictory traditions about the Exodus
On the other hand, we find that as late as the beginning of the Common Era several contradictory traditions of the Exodus existed among Jewish writers. We have three detailed accounts of the plagues of Egypt written between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE by authors who considered themselves, and were considered by the Jewish community, faithful Jews and apologists of the Judaic tradition.
- The first of them, Artapanus – a Jewish writer circa 100 BCE and one of the greatest apologists of Judaism in Hellenistic Egypt – mentions only seven plagues in his book "On the Jews" not mentioning anything like the plagues of murrain, of darkness and of the firstborns! The waters of the Nile, according to Artapanus, did not become blood in the course of the first plague, the second plague in his account is the plague of the wild beasts (arov), not frogs, and the plagues of frogs, locusts and lice are described by Artapanus as starting simultaneously while in the Torah account these are completely different plagues – the second, the third and the eighth.
- Philo of Alexandria (1st century CE), also known by his Jewish name Yedidiah, was a faithful observant Jew and perhaps the most famous of pre-Mishnaic Jewish writers, In his book "Vita Mosis" ("The Life of Moses") he does speak of ten plagues, bringing them in the following order: 1) blood; 2) frogs; 3) lice; 4) hail; 5) locusts; 6) darkness; 7) boils; 8) wild beasts; 9) murrain of cattle; 10) plague of the firstborns. As Philo gives homiletic interpretation to chronological proximity of certain plagues in his account, we can be sure that he considered his order of the plagues real and accurate – yet this order is quite different from that of the Torah [1) blood; 2) frogs; 3) lice; 4) wild beasts; 5) murrain of cattle; 6) boils; 7) hail; 8) locusts; 9) darkness; 10) plague of the firstborns]. Another detail in Philo's account is that the plague of the firstborns does not hit the cattle, while the Torah says explicitly "And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die... and all the firstborn of animals" (Ex. 11:5).
- Yet another account of the plagues may be found in "The Antiquities of the Jews" by Josephus Flavius, written in 93 CE. In Flavius's very detailed story of the Ten Plagues ("Antiquities," II, 12-14) not a single plague, not murrain nor boils, hail nor the plague of the firstborns hits cattle – in contradiction to what we are told by the Torah. The most interesting in this context is the plague of murrain, for according to the Torah this plague hit cattle only (see Ex. 9:3-7). Instead of this story, Flavius brings a short, blurred and difficult to understanding account of people's sickness, which forms a single narrative with the story of the plague of wild beasts.
The existence of several contradictory narratives of the Ten Plagues within the Jewish circles suggests that the topic of the narratives is a subject of popular mythology rather than of history.
Unreliability of Halachic traditions
We find Chazal themselves admitting that laws described as Halacha given to Moses at Sinai – that is, Halachic laws supposedly given to Moses by God at Mt. Sinai and transmitted since then by oral tradition until they were written in the Talmud – were forgotten over the course of Jewish history:
"Rabbi Jochanan said: [beating] the willow [on Sukkot] was established by the prophets. But [we know that] Rabbi Jochanan said: [beating] the willow is a halacha given to Moses at Sinai? They forgot it, and then established it again." (Tractate Sukka 44a)
And the Tosfot on Tractate Eiruvin (21b, s.v. Mipnei) wrote that the laws which were introduced by the Sages were not given by God in advance as Halacha given to Moses at Sinai, because in that case they might be forgotten. So Judaic sources themselves admit that Halachic traditions may well be forgotten, and therefore it is also problematic to rely upon tradition in the matters of Halacha.
Halachic traditions contradictory to the Oral Torah as we know it
And indeed, Halachic traditions contradictory to the traditions of Rabbinic Judaism exist among world Jewry. The Ethiopian Jews, also called Falasha (or Beta Israel, as they call themselves) did not proclaim war on the Rabbinic tradition as the Karaites did; they just preserved their Halachic tradition for millennia – and the result is quite distant from Rabbinic Halacha. Since in the past two decades, due to extensive immigration of Beta Israel to the State of Israel (where they are subject to massive Rabbinical influence) and due to intensive activity of foreign Jewish organizations in Ethiopia, many Beta Israel customs were abandoned and Rabbinic ones were adopted instead, the information given below describes the traditional customs and practices of the Beta Israel community in Ethiopia, as given by Encyclopedia Hebraica (entry Falashim), and by Michael Corinaldi in his "Jewish Identity: the Case of Ethiopian Jewry."
- The Torah scrolls and all the Beta Israel Scriptures are written in Ge'ez (the ancient Ethiopian language), which is also the language of their prayers and religious literature. The Scriptural canon of Beta Israel also includes Apocrypha.
- The synagogues of Beta Israel are divided into two parts; one of them, in which the Torah scroll is kept, is called the Holy of Holies. Entrance to the Holy of Holies is permitted only to cohens and debthers (people who help lead prayer services and are engaged in religious education).
- Cohens are heads of local communities; one of them is elected to be the chief Cohen. To be a cohen, one does not need to be son of a cohen; all that is demanded of him is to be a male descendant of a respected family and to receive special education. The cohens lead 7 daily prayer services in the synagogue and other religious ceremonies. They also bring sacrifices and perform the regular shechitah.
- The calendar of Beta Israel is much like the Rabbinic one, though the year starts in Nissan. On Nissan 14th they bring the Passover Sacrifice on a stone altar situated in the synagogue courtyard.
- The feast of Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after the seventh day of Passover.
- Blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah – a positive Torah commandment, according to the Rabbinic tradition – is unknown to Beta Israel.
- Beta Israel do not celebrate Purim and Hanukkah, but they two have Fasts of Esther a year – in Kislev and in Shevat. In Av they have a 17 day long fast in remembrance of the Temple's destruction.
- Beta Israel observe the Sabbath; however, they consider pumping water and having sexual contact to be forbidden on Sabbath – in clear contradiction to Rabbinic Halacha. They also do not consider circumcision to be permitted on Sabbath – while the Talmud (Shabbat 132b) learns from the verse of Leviticus 12:3 that a child born on Sabbath should be circumcised the next Sabbath.
- Beta Israel have an institute of monasticism, and monks – male or female – live in abstinence in monasteries or (alone) in desert.
- The Beta Israel wedding ceremony includes the groom's parents giving presents to the bride's (and vice versa), but these presents do not signify an act of purchase; the wedding does not include an act of the groom "buying" the bride at all.
- The divorce ceremony includes writing a divorce document, however it is not written as a get nor given by the husband to the wife, and the divorce is valid even without this document.
The existence of a Halachic tradition so discrepant from the Rabbinic one testifies that there is no objective reason to view Rabbinic Law as the only accurate and true Halachic tradition of the Torah from Sinai.
The Oral Torah
Parts of the Oral Torah
Contrary to the popular belief that all the Oral Torah was given to Moses at Sinai, Maimonides in his Introduction to the Mishnah Commentary divides the Oral Torah into the following parts:
- "Traditional exegesis [perushim mekubalim] received through tradition from Moses; there are hints to these laws in the Scripture and they may be derived rationally. There is no disagreement concerning these laws, and when one says 'This is what I received from tradition,' it should not be disputed."
- The laws of which it is said 'Halacha given to Moses at Sinai,' and there are no logical arguments in favor of these laws... These laws, also, are not disagreed with."
- The laws derived rationally, and there was a disagreement [between the Sages] about them... and in these matters the law is determined by the majority; this happens when a matter is altered [two sides understand the matter differently]... And you can find them [the Sages] throughout the Talmud investigating the reasons and the arguments which caused disagreement between the parties."
- "The edicts [gezerot] which were established by the prophets and the Sages in each and every generation to make a fence around the Torah. God commanded us to follow these laws, for it is written 'Therefore you shall keep My guard' [ushmartem et mishmarti (Leviticus 18:30)], about which we had received from tradition, 'Make another guard around My guard [of the Torah commandments]' (Yevamot 21a)."
- "The laws that are based on paradigms of thinking and consensus about the things common between people, in which there is neither addition nor drawback of any commandment... These laws are called regulations and customs [takanot uminhagim]. And it is forbidden to violate them, for King Solomon had said already about the one who breaks these laws, 'One who breaks a fence, a serpent will bite him' (Ecclesiastes 10:8)."
So only the laws in categories (a) and (b) are said to have been handled down through tradition from Sinai, while all the rest are admitted to have been established by the Sages on their own accord – though Maimonides claims that the Scripture gave the Sages the authority to establish such laws.
Regulations and customs
The authority of the Sages to introduce regulations and customs originates, according to Maimonides, from Ecclesiastes 10:8. However, in the Mishnah (Tractate Yadaim 3:5) we find that it was the Sages who included the book of Ecclesiastes in the Scriptural canon and not without considerable dispute. So the Sages themselves established their authority to issue regulations and customs over the whole Israel, and this kind of Halachic law has no Divine authority whatsoever.
Regulations and customs vs. the Torah's laws
Anyway, Maimonides admits that regulations and customs are not learned from the Scripture, but were established by the Sages according to the "paradigms of thinking and consensus about the things common between people." Maimonides brings, as an example, that wherever it is written in the Talmud "Rabban Gamliel the Elder made a regulation" [hitkin Rabban Gamliel haZaken] a law of the category of regulations and customs is meant. However, in Tractate Eiruvin 45a we find that one of Rabban Gamliel's regulations was allowing Jews who went out of their Sabbath domain of 2000 amahs to save other Jews from enemies to walk 2000 amahs in each direction from the place they are upon ending their mission. The commandment of the Sabbath domain is a negative commandment of the Torah (see Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, negative commandment 321), so we find Chazal permitting Jews to actively violate a Torah commandment because of the "paradigms of thinking and consensus about the things common between people." This is not what one is supposed to do with Divine law.
Halacha given to Moses at Sinai – general approach
The laws of the Oral Torah that are Halacha given to Moses at Sinai have, according to Maimonides, no logical arguments in their favor. That is, they are not derived from the Scripture or from reason, but Moses received them from the Divine at Mt. Sinai, and from then until the composition of the Mishnah and the Talmud these laws were supposedly transmitted through tradition without any alteration or flaw. Yet we have already seen Judaic sources themselves admitting that Halachic traditions, especially those of Halacha given to Moses at Sinai, may well be forgotten. We have also seen examples of Halachic traditions contradictory to those of the Rabbinic Judaism. And of course, the common sense cannot accept the assumption of a scrupulous oral transmission of detailed laws through 1500 years. So we may well doubt that the laws recorded in the Talmud as Halacha given to Moses at Sinai are really laws that God gave to Moses at the Sinai Revelation, even if we assume that the Sinai Revelation really did take place.
Halacha given to Moses at Sinai – history or theology?
Yet if we examine the laws categorized as Halacha given to Moses at Sinai in detail, we will obtain much more problematic results. Thus Maimonides himself, relying on the Mishnah and the Talmud, brings as examples of Halacha given to Moses at Sinai the rules that "A mentor may look where the children are reading" by the light of a candle on Sabbath (Shabbat, chapter 1, mishnah 3) and that "[Those who live in] Ammon and Moab give the Tithe of the Poor in the seventh year" (Yadaim, chapter 4, mishnah 3). However, from the Talmud itself we learn that the first of these rules is naught but an exception to another Halachic law – the general prohibition to read by candlelight on Sabbath – which was established by the Sages of a period much later than the Sinai Revelation (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:3). The second rule was introduced by the sages of the Early Second Temple period, who deliberately refused to re-sanctify the lands of Ammon and Moab in order to leave them out of the domain of lands where observing the sabbatical year is obligatory. Before the Babylonian conquest the sabbatical year was observed in those lands too, and they were exempted from giving any tithe at all during sabbatical year (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, 16a). Both of these laws could be established only long after the Sinai Revelation, and it is clear that the term "Halacha given to Moses at Sinai" does not indeed denote the "historical fact" of these laws being transmitted through tradition from Mt. Sinai. Instead, the term merely refers to a specific legal-theological status. This hardly leaves us a choice but to conclude that the laws called Halacha given to Moses at Sinai were also introduced by the Sages on their own accord – and it is absolutely unclear by what authority they did so. Therefore, the use of the term "Halacha given to Moses at Sinai" referring to these laws smells of "inventing" Divine authority where no authority seems to exist at all.
One more part of the Oral Torah, according to Maimonides, is "The edicts [gezerot] which were established by the prophets and the Sages in each and every generation to make a fence around the Torah." Maimonides admits that these laws are also not from the Divine, but from the Sages' own minds – though, he says, the Sages were authorized to establish these laws by the Torah verse, "Therefore you shall keep My guard" (Lev. 18:30), the meaning of which is explained by tradition as "Make another guard around My guard [of the Torah commandments]," as described in Tractate Yevamot 21a. So to Maimonides, the explanation of this verse as giving such great authority to the Sages is itself a law from the category of "traditional exegesis, received through the tradition from Moses," who, in turn, received it from God at Mt. Sinai. Of this Maimonides said, "There is no disagreement concerning these laws, but when one says, 'This is what I received from tradition,' it should not be disputed." Yet this matter itself is very peculiar – why may we not dispute some statement just because somebody claims he has a tradition about it? We all know that traditions are subject to corruption, forgetfulness, and misrepresentations over the course of generations due to the imperfection of the human mind and memory, as was already shown above. And even the Talmud and the Tosfot admitted that traditions may be forgotten. As the authority of Sages to issue edicts obligatory for all Israel, "to make a fence around the Torah," is a very important matter which embraces virtually each and every field of a believing Jew's life, it is very strange that this authority was not stated explicitly in the Torah text, that it was left to the oral tradition to transmit this authority through generations. It is doubly strange that the Torah does refer to the matter of introducing new commandments, but its intention, at least in the plain meaning of the text, is quite opposite: "You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you" (Deut. 4:2). Why couldn't the Torah's author, whoever he may be, write something like, "You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it on your own, but if your Sages want to make a fence around My commandments, they may impose upon you their edicts and you shall observe them"?
But even if we accept the exegesis, "'Therefore you shall keep My guard,' – make another guard around My guard," as is, it still says nothing of the Sages' authority to issue edicts of any kind. It says, at the very most, that a Jew should restrain himself from certain actions which are formally permitted by the Torah but which could bring one in danger of violating Torah commandments. This seems to be something like what the "Mesilat Yesharim" (chapter 13) says about the virtue of abstinence [midat haperishut]: "To be abstinent and to take a distance from things – that is, one who forbids himself something [formally] permitted." This conduct, however, is not established by any edict, but every Jew practices abstinence from different things according to personal considerations. How the above exegesis gives the Sages any authority to define what all Israel should abstain from is an unsolved mystery.
Moreover, the Talmud itself, if one opens it to Tractate Yevamot 21a, clearly denies any possibility of deriving the Sages' authority to institute edicts mandatory for all Israel in each and every field of life from the verse "Therefore you shall keep My guard." Here is what the Talmud says:
"Rava said: where does the Torah hint about those [forbidden sexual contacts] which are of the second degree? It is written: 'For all these [hael] abominations the men of the land have done' (Lev. 18:27); 'hael' means 'greatly severe' – from here we learn that there are also less severe [sexual sins]. And what are they? Those of the second degree. From where do we know that 'hael' means 'greatly severe'? For it is written, 'And he took the great people of the land [eilei haaretz]' (Ez. 17:13)...
Rav Judah said, here [is the hint about the forbidden sexual contacts of the second degree]: '[The preacher] handled things carefully, and investigated, and set order in many proverbs' (Eccl. 12:9), and it is as Ula said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar: before Solomon came, the Torah was like a pot without handles, until Solomon had come and made handles for it. [Rashi explains: a pot is made with handles so that one will be able to hold it at the handles and thus prevent it from falling down; so did Solomon forbid certain sexual contacts permitted by the Torah, to prevent people from falling into violation of Torah commandments.]
Rav Oshaya said, from here [is the hint]: 'Keep distance from it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away' (Proverbs 4:15) [That is, one should endeavor to keep distance from borderline issues concerning the Torah commandments, so as not to violate them accidentally (Rashi)]...
Rav Cahana said, from here [is the hint]: 'Therefore you shall keep My guard' (Lev. 18:30) – make another guard around My guard. Abaye said to Rav Joseph: in this case, they [the forbidden sexual contacts of the second degree] are from the Torah! [He answered:] they are from the Torah, and the Sages had elucidated them. But the whole Torah did the Sages elucidate! No, these issues were instituted by the Sages, and the verse is just a parable [asmachta bealma]."
It should be noted that:
- The Talmud here does not deal at all with the Sages' authority to issue edicts in order to "make a fence around the Torah," and obligate the whole of Israel. All the Gemara wants to find is a hint in the Torah about the specific issue of forbidden sexual contacts of the second degree [shniyot le-arayot]. (It is noteworthy that certain sages refer to the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs as the Torah – as will be shown below, Chazal had no clear concept of the status of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings in general and in relation to each other.) Actually, it is clear that Leviticus 18:30 relates to the issue of forbidden sexual contacts only: "Therefore you shall keep My guard, that you shall not commit any of these abominable customs [the sexual contacts forbidden in the verses before] which were committed before you, and that you shall not defile yourselves by them; I am the Lord your God."
- The Talmud itself states that "'Therefore you shall keep My guard' – make another guard around My guard" is not a real exegesis [drasha] of the Torah verse, but only an expression by means of parable [asmachta] – that is, a didactical method Chazal used to find symbolic expression of certain rules and laws in Scriptural verses so that people would remember them better. Or, as Maimonides himself defined it, "For that commandment a parable was found in that verse as a sign, to make it known and remembered, but the commandment has no actual connection to the verse. And this is what they [Chazal] meant by the term 'just a parable [asmachta bealma]' wherever they used it" (Foreword to the Mishnah Commentary). Therefore, it is clear that this parable cannot be an obligatory exegesis giving the Sages comprehensive authority to issue edicts upon the whole of Israel.
All the above leads to the conclusion that the Sages' authority "to make a fence around the Torah" was not derived by any "traditional exegesis" from the Scripture, but the Sages themselves introduced it for their own reasons. These reasons, in any case, are deductions and considerations of flesh and blood, not from the Divine – and therefore the Sages' edicts cannot be more authoritative than any other human laws.
Traditional exegesis – general approach
Maimonides claims traditional exegesis to be another part of the Oral Torah, transmitted through tradition from Moses, who received the appropriate laws from God at Mt. Sinai. But again traditions – Halachic traditions included – may well be forgotten, altered, or even invented "of whole cloth" over the course of generations, as we have already seen. If even concerning the text of the Torah – the most sacred book of Judaism – we have no constant homogenous tradition from the era of the Talmud and the Rishonim, let alone from the Second Temple period, how much more can we not rely on tradition about exegeses of the Torah – that is, orally transmitted interpretations of Torah's verses. It would definitely be unreasonable to accept certain exegeses of the Scripture only because it is claimed they are traditional, without analyzing the rational grounds of that exegesis, all the more so since Maimonides himself admits that "there are hints to these laws in the Scripture, and they may be derived rationally."
Traditional exegesis – characteristics
Maimonides also gives an essential characteristic of the laws that belong to the category of traditional exegesis:
"The [laws derived by the] exegesis received from tradition, which starts from Moses, are never disagreed with, in any way. As from those times until nowadays, in any period from Moses until Rav Ashei, we have not found any disagreement among the Sages." (Foreword to the Mishnah commentary)
From this statement by Maimonides it is unclear whether he thought his criterion to be exhaustive (that is, the laws belonging to the category of "traditional exegesis" are those and only those laws which are based on the Torah text and concerning which there is no disagreement) or non-exhaustive (that is, the laws belonging to the category of "traditional exegesis" are not the subject of a disagreement; however there may be laws belonging to other categories which are also based on the Torah text and concerning which there is no disagreement). In the first case the criterion does not hold up: how can the fact that none of Chazal disputed a certain exegesis of a Torah verse be an argument that this exegesis was given by God to Moses at Sinai and transmitted through generations, without change or error, until it was written in Mishnaic, Talmudic, or Midrashic sources? Maimonides himself wrote that "there are hints to these laws in the Scripture, and they may be derived rationally" – maybe the Sages all simply accepted the rational bases of these laws and did not dispute them for that reason, not because they had a tradition from Moses? In the second case the criterion is insufficient: it does not actually allow us to determine which of the laws derived by the exegesis of the Torah text were transmitted through tradition from Sinai and which were instituted by the Sages themselves, based on their understanding of the Torah (category [c] in Maimonides' list).
Traditional exegesis – conclusion
Generally, it is clear that there are neither reasonable and consistent criteria to separate traditional exegesis from the laws derived rationally by the Sages on their own (category [c] in Maimonides' list), nor is any tradition reliable enough to ensure that a law categorized as traditional exegesis is indeed a law given to Moses at Sinai. And as any law derived by exegesis of the Torah verses has rational arguments behind it – as Maimonides himself claimed – one would do better to rationally analyze the arguments behind these laws; if those arguments are reasonable, then it is understandable that the laws derive their authority from the Torah – but if the arguments make no sense there seems to be no connection between the Torah and the laws that the Sages formulated based on those arguments.
Authority given by the Torah itself?
The most common objection to the above statement is that the Torah itself gave the Sages the authority to determine Halachic laws which obligate the whole Jewish people, through any means the Sages wish – so any law the Sages issued (including laws based on the exegesis of the Torah) derives its authority from the Torah anyway. The Torah portion which is said to give such authority to the Sages is Deuteronomy 17:8-11:
"If there is a matter, the judgment of which is hidden from you, between blood and blood, between lawsuit and lawsuit, between affliction and affliction, being matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise, and ascend to the place which the Lord your God will choose. And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that will be in those days, and inquire; and they will tell you the verdict of judgment. And you shall do according to the verdict which they will tell you at that place which the Lord will choose, and you shall be strict to do according to all that they teach you. According to the verdict of law which they teach you, and according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do: do not deviate from what they instruct you, neither to the right hand nor to the left."
There are two basic approaches on how to use these verses to learn the Sages' authority to issue Halachic rulings according to their own considerations, whether or not these rulings have a reasonable connection to the Torah or indeed any reasonable grounds at all:
- The first is the view of Maimonides in the Laws of the Disobedient 1:1-2:
According to Maimonides' view, the Torah commands us to obey the Sages' rulings no matter what they are based upon. However, the verses of Deuteronomy 17 say something quite different from what Maimonides purports them to say. As one can see, Deuteronomy 17 speaks of a person or a group of people who do not know what the law is in a specific situation which has become matter of public dispute – "being matters of controversy within your gates." Such persons are commanded to go to the Beit Din sitting "in the place which the Lord your God will choose." There they are taught the law, from which they have no right to deviate. Thus, the only authority the Torah gives the Supreme Beit Din here is that of an arbitrator solving legal issues which become matters of public dispute. Nothing is said of legislative activity such as introducing new laws, be it through exegesis of the Torah or as Rabbinic edicts or regulations. For example, according to Maimonides the law that a woman may be betrothed with money is "the words of the Sages" (Laws of Interpersonal Relations 1:2), and in his responsa (paragraph 355) he explained that it is so because this law was not given to Moses at Sinai, but the Sages learned it later on their own through comparison of two Torah verses, as explained in the Talmud (Kiddushin 2a). [It is clear that Maimonides refers to the historical process of this law being derived from the Torah by the Sages on their own and not given "as is" to Moses at Sinai. Whether this law's Halachic status is that of "the laws of the Torah" (deorayta) or that of "the laws of the Sages" (derabbanan) is quite another issue.] That is, at a certain point in time the Sages came and introduced a new law, unknown before – that a woman may be betrothed with money. This is a legislative action, and the verses of Deuteronomy 17 seem to give the Sages no authority for such activity. Moreover: Maimonides' exegesis of the verses of Deuteronomy 17 ("'According to the verdict of law which they teach you' – these are the regulations and the edicts and the customs... 'And according to the judgment which they tell you' – these are the matters they learn from the Law in one of the methods of the Torah's exegesis, 'From what they instruct you' – this is the tradition they received one from another") seems to be his own, as it is not found in the Judaic sources preceding Maimonides' time. Maimonides was definitely not "the Supreme Beit Din in Jerusalem," so there is no Torah verse which obligates us to accept either Maimonides' exegesis or any ruling based on it – and thus Maimonides' derivation of the Sages' authority from the verses of Deuteronomy 17 is non-authoritative in and of itself, so that there is no objective reason that anybody should accept it. The question of the Sages' authority remains thus open.
The Supreme Beit Din in Jerusalem is the basis of the Oral Torah, they are the pillars of teaching and from them law and justice spread to all Israel. About them the Torah promised, 'According to the Torah they will teach you,' which is a positive commandment, and everyone who believes in Moses our teacher and his Torah is obligated to rely upon them in all religious practices. Whoever does not follow their instruction violates a negative commandment, as is said: 'Do not deviate from what they instruct you, neither to the right hand nor to the left'... The matters they learn from tradition, which are the Oral Torah, as well as the matters they learn on their own in one of the methods of the Torah's exegesis, if they see the issue this way or that, as well as the matters where they made a fence around the Torah according to what the situation demands, which are the edicts, and the regulations and the customs – in each and every one of these three categories, it is a positive commandment to obey them [the Sages], and whoever violates one of these laws, violates a negative commandment [of the Torah]. The Scripture says, 'According to the verdict of law which they teach you' – these are the regulations and the edicts and the customs, which they teach people to strengthen the religion and to put the world aright; 'And according to the judgment which they tell you' – these are the matters they learn from the Law in one of the methods of the Torah's exegesis; 'From what they instruct you' – this is the tradition they received one from another."
- On the other hand, several commentators on the Scripture tried to deduce the Sages' authority to issue Halachic verdicts, even if they have no reasonable connection to the Torah or indeed any reasonable grounds at all, from the phrase "Do not deviate from what they instruct you, neither to the right hand nor to the left" (Deuteronomy 17:11), as Nachmanides explained in his commentary there on this verse:
However, regardless of any "great necessity" that one may or may not see in it, the phrase "Do not deviate from what they instruct you, neither to the right hand nor to the left" does not mean what Rashi and Nachmanides claim. It only means that after one has asked the Sages' verdict on an unclear matter, he should not deviate from this verdict. Neither Rashi nor Nachmanides (nor Midrash Sifri on Deuteronomy, section 154, from which they took this viewpoint) explain the reason for this exegesis – and of course, any law learned by exegesis of the Torah's verses should be examined on the grounds of the logical arguments showing that it indeed follows from the text of the Torah, at least while the Sages' authority to give that exegesis a mandatory status is unproven – and one cannot consider it proven whilst trying to prove it as Sifri, Rashi, and Nachmanides do. Moreover, there is a contradictory Tannaitic interpretation of "Neither to the right hand nor to the left," to be found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Horayot 1:1): "As we have learned from the Tannaim: is it possible that when they [the Sages] tell you that right is left you would obey them? Of this it is said, 'to go left and right' – only when they tell you right is right and left is left."
"'Neither to the right hand nor to the left' – even if he [a sage] tells you that right is left or left is right, thus Rashi commented. And it means: even if you think in your heart that they [the sages] are wrong and the matter is clear for you as the difference between your right and left hands is clear, do as they command you... And this commandment [to obey the sages] is of a very great necessity, for the Torah was given to us written, and it is known that human opinions would not be the same in all the outcomes [of what is written], and disagreements would multiply until our Torah would become several different torahs. That is why the Scripture gave us the law to obey the Supreme Beit Din which stands before God in the place He had chosen, in everything they tell us interpreting the Torah – be it an exegesis they received through tradition from Moses and from the Divine, or anything they say from their understanding of the Scripture's meaning or intention – for according to their opinion He gives us the Torah, even if they seem to you mistaking right for left – and all the more so if they say right is right – for God's spirit is upon those serving in His Temple and He will not abandon His pious men, so they will forever be saved from error and obstacle."
In addition to all the above, the verses of Deuteronomy 17:8-11 clearly say that one should go for "the verdict of judgment" only "to the place which the Lord your God will choose" – and this description throughout the Torah refers only to the Temple or the Tabernacle (see e.g. Deuteronomy 12:11, 12:26, etc.). If these verses give any authority to anybody, they give it to the Beit Din which sits in the Temple court, as Maimonides and Nachmanides themselves admitted explicitly: "The Supreme Beit Din in Jerusalem..." There has been no such Beit Din since the Second Temple's destruction in 70 CE, but almost all the Halachic rulings of the Mishnah and the Talmud, even if they are based on interpretations of Torah verses, were determined by Sages who lived after the Temple's destruction – and they did not have the authority given to the Supreme Beit Din by the verses of Deuteronomy 17, whatever that authority is.
In fact, Maimonides himself admitted that, and wrote in the foreword to his "Mishneh Torah" about the authority of the Talmud:
"All the things written in the Babylonian Talmud are mandatory for all Israel to follow, and one should coerce each and every city and each and every country to follow all the customs which the sages of the Gemara followed, and adopt their edicts, and follow their regulations. For all Israel agreed about all the things which are written in the Gemara. And the sages who made regulations, issued edicts, introduced customs or determined laws, learning the way of judgment, are all the Sages of Israel, or the majority of them, and they received the tradition of main principles of the Torah, one generation from another, back to Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace."
So the authority of the Babylonian Talmud is derived neither from any Torah verse nor even from a legislative statement by earlier sages, but solely from the fact that the Jewish people adopted the Talmudic rulings. That is, the Halacha, while claiming to be Divine law, is actually determined by humans – not through elucidation of the Divine Torah by people authorized to so, but merely through a plebiscite for (adopting) or against (not adopting) laws. In this case, the Halacha appears to be no more Divine than the human-legislated laws of any country.
Authority based on tradition?
Conceptually, Maimonides' view seems to deprive the Talmud of Divine authority – and therefore he seeks to base the Talmud's authority upon tradition: "And the sages, who made regulations... or determined laws, learning the way of judgment, are all the Sages of Israel, or the majority of them, and they received the tradition of main principles of the Torah, one generation from another, back to Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace." However, as was shown above, tradition is too vague and too alterable a thing to base Divine law upon. So we find that Chazal had no more authority than any common person has to determine Halachic laws by exegesis of the Torah or by any other means.
Were the Sages outstandingly wise?
We find many religious Jews in our time saying that Chazal were very wise and intelligent men, and for that reason one should adopt their rulings, just as one who visits a doctor should take the pills prescribed, even if he has no idea of how the pills work and though the doctor has no legal authority to compel him to take the pills. Many people base such an opinion on the principle of "decline of the generations," expressed in the Talmudic saying: "If the previous generations were like angels, we are like people; and if the previous generations were like people, we are like asses" (Shabbat 112b). This being the case, it is necessary to analyze the statements and rulings of the Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud, as well as of the Rishonim and Achronim, and check whether these rulings speak of extraordinary wisdom and intellect or not.
In fact, the very methodology of the Sages concerning inquiry about factual reality leaves us little possibility to speak of their outstanding wisdom and intellect. This methodology was explicitly described by the Sages themselves in Midrash Bereshit Rabba (chapter 20):
"One philosopher wanted to know what the length of a snake's pregnancy is. When he saw them [a male and a female snake] copulating, he took them, put them in a barrel, and provided them food until they [i.e. the female] gave birth. When the elders came to Rome, he asked Rabban Gamliel: 'What is the length of snake's pregnancy?' The latter had no answer, and his face fell. Rabbi Joshua met him, and asked: 'Why do you look so upset?' He answered: 'I have been asked a question to which I have no answer.' He asked: 'What is it?' and he answered: 'About the length of a snake's pregnancy.' 'Seven years,' he said. 'How do you know?' 'A dog is an impure beast, and its pregnancy lasts 50 days, and pregnancy of an impure domestic animal lasts 12 months. It is written, "Cursed be you [the snake] more than every animal, and more than every beast of the field" (Genesis 3:14) – and just as the domestic animals are cursed seven times more than beasts [their pregnancy is 7 times longer], so are snakes cursed seven times more than domestic animals.' On that evening Rabban Gamliel went and told that to the philosopher. The later started to knock his head against the wall, crying: all that I labored for seven years to achieve this one came and told me in a single moment."
One may well doubt this story ever took place – and we know that there is no snake whose pregnancy lasts for seven years – but this story is very illustrative. It shows us that though Chazal were quite aware of the empirical way of knowing through experiment and observation, they ascribed it to a gentile "philosopher," while for themselves they chose the method of "knowing" reality by exegesis of Scriptural verses. In the Talmud (Bechorot 8a-b) we are even presented with a lengthy discussion on how to determine snake's gestational period through exegesis of Genesis 3:14 – depending on various exegetical approaches one may obtain pregnancy periods of 9 years, 7 years, or 15 months. Such "natural research" can hardly lead one to appreciate the "researchers" as wise and intelligent people. Continuing the example of a doctor, it is like a physician who tries to treat a patient with an ache in his abdomen – but instead of turning to medical research for a cure, the doctor tries to recall whether the wolf had a stomach ache after he ate little Red Riding Hood, and what the wolf did in that situation.
The Sages' methodology of inquiring about reality may be called authority-based – for it accepts certain statements on nature not because they were proven empirically to be true, but because they are quoted from writings considered authoritative (even if those writings are not based on empirical observations either). It is well known that this methodology is able to yield quite amusing results. Based on this methodology many Christian theologians (from Cosmas in the 6th century to Luther in the 16th) stated that the Earth is flat, though much evidence of Earth's spherical shape existed since the 6th century BCE. These theologians were not blind – they were devoted Christians, and they thought the Holy Writ, which speaks of the "four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12) resting on "pillars" (Job 9:6), to be literally true.
But what is more amazing is that in the Judaic sources we find some of the Sages also stating that the Earth is flat. The Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 94a) gives an explicit description of the flat earth under the dome of the sky – a dome which has actual thickness and in which there are "windows." Through those "windows" the sun passes upwards and downwards each morning and evening. According to the Talmud, the passage through the dome of the sky takes the sun the time of 4 mils. This picture is not an Aggadah – Rabbeynu Tam (see Tosfot on Pesachim 94a, s.v. Rabbi Yehudah) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 261:1-2) made Halachic rulings according to this Talmudic statement.
In the Talmudic period it was already known that the Earth is spherical. The ancient Greeks knew about this in the 6th century BCE, and after Ptolemy wrote his "Almagest" about 140 CE, knowledge of the Earth's spherical shape became quite common. Yet neither the Talmudic Sages themselves nor rabbis of subsequent generations found it necessary to check the veracity of the flat Earth concept. Rabbeynu Chananel (10th century CE) even wrote explicitly in his commentary on Tractate Pesachim 94a: "Despite the fact that astronomers in our times claim things which are contradictory to this [Talmudic picture], we must not pay them any heed, but adhere to our rabbis' words as they are, and not pay attention to anyone else"! Such an approach speaks neither of wisdom nor of intellect, since Halachic rulings intended to be put into practice in reality should obviously take into consideration reality as it is.
"A fowl has no lungs"
With such an original way of knowing reality, it is no wonder that Chazal had little or no knowledge of the simplest natural facts. In Tractate Chulin 57a it is written: "Chizkiah said: a fowl has no lungs; Rabbi Jochanan said: it has." And after the Talmud determines that a fowl does really have lungs, it says: "From the words of our master [Chizkiah] it seems he is not erudite in fowls." To know whether a fowl has lungs or not one need not be "erudite" – every farmer who slaughters hens for soup knows it. And even if Chizkiah did not like chicken soup, since the matter of fowl having or not having lungs impacts on certain Halachic issues (as the Talmud there says), one would expect any wise and responsible person to check the matter empirically before he makes such a statement. Ruling laws based on assumptions which one does not check, even if they can be easily checked, cannot be considered a characteristic of outstanding wisdom and intellect.
In another place in Tractate Chulin (page 45b) it is said, "Ameimar said in the name of Rabbi Nachman: there are three windpipes, one goes off to the heart and one goes off to the lungs and one goes off to the liver." Yet one need only to perform a section of the human body to see that the windpipe only goes to the lungs and divides in two: one to the right lung and one to the left lung.
"A mouse which is half flesh and half dirt"
Chazal also took for granted the existence of mythical creatures which had nothing to do with real fauna, and even learned from the Torah's verses laws concerning such creatures and used such creatures' characteristics to prove basic matters of the Judaic faith without troubling to ask themselves whether they knew what they were talking about. In Tractate Chulin chapter 9, mishnah 6, we find: "A mouse which is half flesh and half dirt – one who touches the flesh is impure, but one who touches the dirt is pure." Of course there never was and never has been such a "mouse," and it seems to be an invention of Hellenistic Egyptian mythology. Yet the Sages were not at all troubled by this fact. In the Talmud (Chulin 127a) they used the verse of Leviticus 11:29 to learn whether this "mouse" is pure or not – that is, according to the Talmud the Torah gives us laws concerning nonexistent creatures. And in Tractate Sanhedrin 91a they even brought this "mouse" as proof of the resurrection of the dead from the dust: "And if you disbelieve, go down to a valley and look at the mouse which is today half flesh and half dirt and the next day it teems and becomes all flesh." It might be asked whether we should abandon belief in the resurrection of the dead since there is no such "mouse" in any valley – but in any case it is clear that sometimes the Sages had no real clue what they are talking about.
Even in simple geometry we find Chazal determining laws and only afterwards trying to make the facts fit these laws. In Tractate Eiruvin 14a the Talmud says:
"Anything which has in its circumference 3 tefachs has one tefach in diameter. How do we know this? Rabbi Jochanan said, it is written in the Scripture: 'And he [Solomon] made a molten sea, ten amahs from one brim to the other... And a line of thirty amahs circled it' (I Kings 7:23)."
The Talmud rules that the ratio between a circle's circumference and its radius, known as pi, is 3. In fact, pi is irrational (impossible to represent as a finite common or decimal fraction), and taken to 10 decimal places pi=3.1415926536. However the ancient Greeks, centuries before the Talmud was written, already knew 22/7 as a much better approximation of pi. Moreover, the ancient Greeks knew that this is only an approximation, while the Talmudic Sages thought 3 (not even 22/7) to be the true and precise value of pi. In Tractate Bava Batra 14b they discussed how the Torah scroll of the Temple, which was 6 tefachs in circumference, could enter the Holy Ark, where only 2 tefachs of free space were left for it. The answer of the Talmud was that the scroll could enter the Ark only with a great difficulty. Were the Sages aware of the real value of pi – or at least of the 22/7 approximation – they would have understood that the real diameter of a scroll 6 tefachs in circumference is about 1.9 tefachs and that there would be no difficulty at all to put it into 2 tefachs of free space.
To find that pi is significantly more than 3 one does not need extraordinary wisdom – just a ruler and a measuring rope – but the Sages preferred to determine reality from the law instead of basing law on reality. Again and again we find the Sages constructing a "virtual reality" for their purposes without being troubled about whether it fits the real one, and yet considering what they said to be actual reality.
"A louse does not reproduce"
Amazingly, sometimes the Sages based their statements on the common scientific concepts of their times, but when later experiments and observations proved those concepts to be wrong the Rabbinic leaders remained adherent to the old concepts which had become "sanctified" by Halachic rulings and the practice of hundreds of years. Thus, in Tractate Shabbat 107b the Talmud allows one to kill lice on Shabbat, since "a louse does not reproduce." In Tractate Shabbat 12a the Talmud states that the permission to kill lice on Sabbath was formulated by the Halachic school of Hillel, while the Halachic school of Shammai disagreed with it (both schools were active during the period of the Mishnah). The Rishonim unanimously accepted the statement that lice do not reproduce, but gave different explanations concerning their origin: from human flesh (Rashi), from sweat and from dust (Tosfot), from old clothes (Rosh), or from mold (Ran). Maimonides ruled explicitly, "One is permitted to kill lice on Sabbath, for they are [born] from sweat" (Laws of Sabbath, 11:3). The Shulchan Aruch also permitted killing lice, and as late as the end of the 19th century the Chafetz Chayim ruled that it is forbidden to kill on Sabbath "all creatures that reproduce, and this excludes the louse, which is born not of a male and a female, but of sweat, and therefore is not considered a creature" (Mishnah Berurah, paragraph 316, subsection 38).
The origin of this concept is quite clear. The whole ancient world believed, based on Aristotle, that certain insects, reptiles, and even fish and small animals like mice are born of inanimate matter. This theory of "spontaneous generation" or abiogenesis also influenced the Sages – one should note that permission to kill lice on Sabbath had already appeared in Tannaitic literature (see Tosefta, Shabbat 16:21) compiled in the Hellenistic atmosphere of the Land of Israel in the first centuries CE. The Amoraim continued the tradition, and even anchored it in a most explicit way in the Gemara, thus giving it tremendous authoritative status and making Aristotelian theory part of Jewish Halacha for generations. From that time on the rabbis – Geonim, Rishonim and Achronim – did not trouble themselves with an empiric verification of the Gemara statement, but continued to derive all their knowledge on the matter of reproduction vs. abiogenesis from the authoritative Halachic texts. And even after the 19th century, when Louis Pasteur proved, beyond any doubt that not only lice but any "living creature can be born only of a living creature," Halachic arbiters remained adherent to Talmudic statements, though a brief inquiry into scientific or even popular-scientific literature would show that the concept of abiogenesis had been proved to be sheer absurdity. A lack of awareness of reality, mixed with a dogmatic authority-based worldview, can lead to very peculiar results which are hardly compatible with "outstanding wisdom and intellect."
The Sages' exegesis illogical in their own terms
Not only is a great deal of the Sages' exegesis factually erroneous, sometimes it is illogical even in the Sages' own terms.
- In Berachot 31b the Gemara discusses the verse of I Samuel 1:11, "And she [Hannah] made a vow, saying, 'O Lord of Hosts, if You will only look upon your servant's misery...'" First the Gemara considered the emphasis "if You will only look" (Hebrew: im ra'oh tir'eh) an odd wording and tried to elucidate it through some homily. In the end the Gemara concluded that in this case "the Torah spoke in human language" – that is, there is nothing unusual in such emphasis, it is common in the Hebrew language and therefore there is no place for any specific homily concerning it. However, the Gemara's own wording is odd: how can it be said of Samuel, a book of the Prophets, "the Torah spoke"? The term Torah, when dealing with the Scriptural books, usually refers only to the Pentateuch. Why could the Gemara not say, for the sake of conceptual clarity, "the Scripture spoke" or "the Prophets spoke"? It seems that the Sages had no clear concept of a major issue such as the status of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings in general and in relation to each other.
- Indeed, in Tractate Sanhedrin 22b the Talmud learns that a regular cohen [not the High Priest] must have a haircut at least once every 30 days:
Analogy is one of the 13 ways of Torah exegesis, and many laws in the Talmud are determined through analogy between different verses – but here we have an analogy between a Torah verse and a verse of Ezekiel, one of the books to which the Sages themselves gave the status of Holy Writ after some dispute, as was shown above. Chazal drew here an analogy between what they considered to be a God-given text and what they knew to be a book they sanctified by their own will – and not simply an analogy, but one having practical Halachic implications, thus violating the clear and reasonable rule in Tractate Bava Kama 2b: "One may not learn matters of Torah from words of the Prophets and Writings."
"A regular cohen [should have a haircut] once in 30 days, for it is written: 'They should not shave their heads, neither let their hair grow wild, but they should poll their heads' (Ezekiel 44:20). And they learned it by analogy [gezerah shavah] from the Nazarite, based on the word 'wild': it is written here 'wild,' and it is written: 'He should let the hair of his head grow wild (Numbers 6:5). As there it is spoken of thirty days, so here it is spoken of thirty days, as we have learned from the Mishnah: one who makes a vow to be a Nazarite without specifying the time should be a Nazarite for thirty days."
- Another more striking violation of this principle may be found in Tractate Yevamot 89b. The Gemara there discusses the ruling that one who betrothed a young girl (under age 12), inherits from her and her father does not:
Thus Chazal annulled the law of the Torah (that father inherits from his young daughter) based on the verses of Prophets (Joshua) and even Writings (Ezra)! This is not some minor law we are dealing with, but as basic a principle as the right of a beit din to confiscate one's property – a principle which permeates Judaic property law. How can such a basic principle, which sometimes serves to bypass the Torah's commandments concerning property relations, be learnt from verses of Prophets and Writings? The particular verses mentioned by the Gemara seem not to have any legislative intent but serve a purely narrative function in the context of the stories of the Israelite conquest of Canaan under Joshua and of the Jews' return from the Babylonian exile.
"According to the Torah's law, her father should inherit from her – so how could the Sages rule that her husband inherits from her? Because a beit din can confiscate one's property, as R' Isaac said: where from do we know that a beit din can confiscate one's property? For it is written: 'Anyone who does not appear within three days will have all his property confiscated, according to the officials and the elders, and he will be expelled from the assembly of the [returned] exiles' (Ezra 10:8). R' Eleazar said, from here: 'These are the inheritances which Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun, and the chiefs of the paternal households of the tribes of the Children of Israel distributed by lot' (Joshua 19:51); what is the connection between the chiefs and the paternal relations? It comes to teach: as fathers bestow property to their sons, so chiefs bestow property to the people, everything they wish."
- Yet another Halachic discourse in which the Sages dealt with the laws of betrothal is altogether incompatible with the concept of the Torah as Divine law. In Tractate Ketubot 2b-3a the Gemara rules that "one cannot claim himself 'forced' concerning the get" and states that if a man gives his wife a bill of divorcement and says, "This will be your get if I don't come back here during the next 12 months," and after 12 months he wants to come back to his wife but he is unable due to an illness, the get is valid, though it is clear that the husband wanted to come back home and did not want his marriage to be broken. Since according to the law of the Torah a divorce is valid only if the husband wishes it, the Gemara comes to the conclusion that this ruling is the Sages' own innovation. Then the Gemara explains:
That is, since the Sages have the right to confiscate property, they ruled that if one betroths a woman with any property and later gives her a get conditional on his not returning home after 12 months, and if he then fails to return home because of circumstances beyond his control (illness or the like) – the property he betrothed his wife with should be considered confiscated since the moment before the betrothal (Rashi). In this case the marriage is considered invalid from the very beginning, and therefore there is no need for a get valid according to the Torah's law. Such an approach seems strange enough already: it is a retrospective confiscation of property. Because of a man's actions at one point in time (when he fails to come back home though he wants to) part of his property should be considered as confiscated at an earlier point in time (when he betrothed his wife). It seems a rather bizarre judicial situation. But more than that – according to the Halacha, one can betroth a woman in a way that does not involve property, as the Gemara immediately asks:
"But how can it be that a get is invalid according to the Torah's law, yet the Sages... permit a man's wife to be remarried? It is possible, since everybody who betroths a wife does it according to the Sages' opinion, and in our case, the Sages confiscate the property he betrothed his wife with."
A man may have intercourse with a woman in order to betroth her by that act, with her full consent and in accordance with the Torah's law, but the Sages give themselves the power to proclaim their intercourse merely an act of whoring – and they even do not bother to look in the Scripture for the authority to issue such a ruling. According to the Halacha, it is the law of the Torah that if a man isolates himself with a woman in presence of two witnesses and has intercourse with her, intending to betroth her by this act, it is enough to validate the betrothal (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:3 and Maimonides, Laws of Interpersonal Relations 3:5). No property is involved here – only the physical act of intercourse and the intention of the couple. What can one say: that the Sages can confiscate not only one's property, but also his thoughts retroactively? Or that they invalidate the Torah's law on their own, without even trying to look for the authority to do that? The Sages' ruling seems to testify that they did not take seriously the concept of "the Torah from Heaven;" more evidence leading to such a conclusion was already cited above.
"Ravina said to Rav Ashi: well, that is possible if one betroths a wife with money, but what can you say in a situation when he betroths her by having intercourse with her? The Sages gave that act of intercourse the status of whoring."
Can law determine natural facts?
Actually, Chazal even thought – and the most later rabbis adopted their view – that they could determine factual reality by issuing Halachic rulings. Thus they thought that if a girl under three years old had sex with a man her hymen would eventually regenerate. By "three years" they meant neither solar not lunar years, but three calendar years, the length of which can vary up to a month, and which were determined by the Sages themselves. Not only were Chazal aware of this fact, they even stated explicitly: "A girl three years old and a day, if the Beit Din determined that year as a leap year – her hymen regenerates, and if not – it does not regenerate" (The Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 1:1). If a girl became three years old and had sex with a man and then the Beit Din determined that year as leap, so that "according to the calendar" it would take her another month to turn three, her hymen would regenerate, and if the year was not determined as leap, her hymen would not regenerate! Thus the Sages' Halachic rulings determine biological processes in the body of a girl who may even not be aware of the Sages' existence.
Bizarre as it is, this view was adopted almost unanimously by the Achronim. The author of Pnei Moshe, the most accepted commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, wrote on this issue:
"God agrees with the earthly Beit Din, so that if she is three years and a day old, if she has intercourse, her hymen does not return; but if the Beit Din changed their mind and ruled that year or month to be intercalated, as said above – her hymen returns if she has intercourse, for she had not yet become three years and one day old. So the Writings teach us that even nature agrees with them [the Sages], according to His decree, glorified be He."
The Chazon Ish wrote something similar in his commentary on Orach Chayim (39:15).
Legislators who think that by the very act of their legislation they can determine biological facts can hardly be considered "outstandingly wise and intelligent."
The coming of the Messiah is considered one of the foundations of Judaism, and as Maimonides wrote, "One who does not believe in him [in the Messiah] or does not wait for him to come rejects not only the Prophets, but even the Torah and Moses our teacher" (Laws of Kings 11:1). It is obvious that in so crucial a matter, any error may lead to disastrous consequences. Some of Chazal understood this, and in Tractate Sanhedrin 97b it is written: "Rabbi Samuel the son of Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: woe to those who calculate the end of times, for people may say: since the moment of the end of times had came and [the Messiah] did not, he would not come any more. But instead one has to wait for him [the Messiah], as it is written, 'If he tarries, wait for him' (Habakkuk 2:3)."
Yet many Jewish sages – both Chazal and later rabbis – did not agree with the opinion of R' Samuel the son of Nachmani and tried to figure out the time of the Messiah's coming, sometimes even basing their predictions on high spiritual revelations.
- Thus on page 97b of Tractate Sanhedrin it is also written:
Since a jubilee is a period of 50 years, the Messiah, according to R' Judah, would come no later than in the year 50x85=4250 since the Creation, 490 CE. The Messiah, as we know, did not come then, so either Elijah the Prophet never said what R' Judah claims or Elijah the Prophet gravely erred about the time of the Messiah's coming.
"Elijah said to Rav Judah the brother of Rav Sala the Hasid: the world will exist for not less than 85 Jubilees, and in the last Jubilee the Son of David will come."
- On that same page of the Talmud we find:
Thus the Sages relied on a mysterious scroll possessed by an unknown man in their eschatological calculations. This kind of frivolity is unseemly from a responsible and intelligent person even on unimportant matters, and especially so concerning the coming of the Messiah, an issue so fundamental to Judaism. And of course in the year 4291 from Creation (531 CE) the world did not "come to its end," and it was not "renewed" in the year 5000 from Creation (1240 CE) as R' Acha the son of Rava said, so this whole Talmudic discourse seems something between fantasy and absurdity, as might be expected of predictions based on a scroll of unknown origin.
"Rav Chanan the son of Tachlifa sent a message to Rav Joseph: 'I have found a man who possesses a scroll written in the Assyrian [i.e. the Jewish – see above] script and in the Holy Tongue... and it is written in that scroll: 4291 years after the Creation of the world, the world will come to its end. Some of these years will be the wars of the leviathans, some of these years – the wars of Gog and Magog, and the rest of them will be the days of the Messiah. Then God will not renew His world until 7000 years [from Creation] pass. Rav Acha the son of Rava said: it is spoken of 5000 years [from Creation]."
- Unfortunately, the ill-fated predictions of the Messiah's coming did not end with the Talmudic sages. Rashi wrote in his commentary on Daniel 12:11 that the period from the beginning of the Egyptian captivity until the Final Redemption will last 2874 years. Judaic chronological tradition states that the duration of the Egyptian captivity was 210 years and that the Exodus took place in the year 2448 from Creation – so the Egyptian captivity began, according to the tradition, in the year 2238 from Creation. So the redemption should have occurred, according to Rashi, in the year 2238+2874=5112 from Creation, 1352 CE. Of course no redemption occurred in that year and the practice of bringing the daily sacrifice was not renewed. It is interesting to note that Rashi lived 1040-1105 CE, long before the redemption he predicted was due to occur.
- Nachmanides, speaking in his commentary on the Song of Songs 8:13 about the Ingathering of the Exiles – first of those from the Ten Tribes of Israel and then of those from the kingdom of Judah (together with those from the tribe of Benjamin and some from the tribe of Levi) – wrote:
Of course Nachmanides's prediction of the beginning of the redemption in the year 5200 from Creation (1440 CE) failed and no ingathering of the exiles happened in that year.
"And it is possible that between these two ingatherings of the exiles a lot of time will pass... This will be after 1290 years, which is the end spoken of by Daniel (Daniel 12:11), which is 5200 years since the Creation of the world. And it is also written, 'Blessed is the one who awaits and reaches the end of the 1335 days' (Daniel 12:12) – so the Redemption will be also 'purified and made spotless,' that is, it will not occur at once... and in that time, wars and great calamities will prevail, after which the times of condolence and of the wondrous, great and amazing promises will come."
- On the other hand, in his commentary on Genesis 2:3 Nachmanides wrote:
Here Nachmanides understood redemption as due in the year 5118 from Creation (1358 CE), and not 5200 from Creation, as he wrote in his commentary on the Song of Songs. Whatever the reasons for Nachmanides's change of mind, 1358 CE was not the year of the redemption either. Nachmanides himself lived 1194-1270 CE – again, long before any of his predictions was due to be realized.
"About the sixth day [of the Creation] it is said, 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures, each of its kind, animals, creeping things, and beasts of the earth, each to its kind,' and this creation took place before the sunrise... Then the man was created in God's image, and it [the daytime] is the time of man's power... All this corresponds to the sixth millennium [since the Creation], in the beginning of which beasts – that is, kingdoms that know not God – will rule; but after a tenth of that millennium has passed – which corresponds the time between the dawn and the sunrise – the Savior will come... and he is the Son of David... This will be 118 years after the fifth millennium."
- Since the dates of Redemption, as predicted by the earlier commentators, all came but the Messiah did not, the later rabbis might be supposed to have learned their lesson and ceased dealing with eschatological exegesis. Yet as late as in the 19th century R' Meir Leibush Weiser (the Malbim) wrote in his commentary on Daniel 12:11-12:
Needless to say no redemption began in 1913 CE, nobody started rebuilding the Temple in 1925 CE, and no daily sacrifice was brought in 1928 CE. Malbim was wrong in all his predictions – and it is noteworthy that he wrote his commentary on Daniel in the autumn of 1867 CE, when he was 58 years old, and there were still 46 years before the redemption was due to come according to his prediction. Yet another rabbi predicts the end of times occurring after he would die.
"In the year 5685 [1925 CE]... the promised wondrous end will come. And I have already explained that there are two more dates: about one of them it is written 'an age, ages and half an age' (Daniel 12:7) – which refers to the year 5673 [1913 CE], as I wrote above [in his commentary on Daniel 7:25], and the other date is given in the phrase 'For 2300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be vindicated' (Daniel 8:14), which was revealed to Daniel during his second vision – and this time will come in the year 5688 [1928 CE], as I wrote above [in his commentary on Daniel 8:14]. So we have the three dates uniting: in the year 5673 the Redemption will begin, and it will last for 14 years... and in the year 5685, three years before 5688, they will begin to build the Temple, and in the year 5688... 'the sanctuary will be vindicated' – the daily sacrifice will be brought again."
- Contrary to what might be supposed, even after the failure of this prediction the oracles of the Messiah's coming learned nothing. R' Menachem Mendel Kasher wrote in his book "HaTekufah haGedolah" (p. 441), published in 1969, that "the period of the Beginning of the Redemption [atchalta degeulah] will continue until the year 5750 [1990 CE], and it is the era of Messiah the Son of Joseph, but from that time on, the era of Messiah the Son of David will begin." Messiah the Son of Joseph is said to lead the Jewish people in the period preceding the final redemption and to be killed in the war of Gog and Magog near Jerusalem, after which Messiah the Son of David would come and bring the final redemption (see e.g. Maharsha's "Chidushei Agadot" on Sukkah 52b). The year 1990 CE has already passed; Messiah the son of Joseph did not come and the war of Gog and Magog, luckily, did not occur. R' Kasher's prediction also failed, and nobody knows how many ill-fated oracles of Redemption the Jewish people will have to face in the future.
From all the above it seems that many prominent rabbis did not and do not pay heed to the wise saying of R' Samuel the son of Nachmani, "Woe to those who calculate the end of times." Such recklessness concerning one of the basic issues of Judaism – a recklessness whose consequences may be disastrous for the Jewish religion – is at the very least puzzling, and definitely does not testify to the "outstanding wisdom and intellect" of the rabbis who made all these faulty predictions.
Moral Problems in halacha
Were Chazal outstandingly moral?
Another belief, common in present-day Orthodox Judaism, is that Chazal were outstandingly moral people. Yet, in fact, the Talmud itself admits that a high moral standing was not necessarily the Sages' greatest characteristic.
- In Tractate Nedarim 81a it is written:
So prominent Talmudic rabbis like Mar Zutra and Rav Ashi admitted that the Sages behaved arrogantly towards the ordinary people and even called people asses. Such conduct can hardly be called "outstanding morality."
"Why do Torah scholars not usually have sons who become Torah scholars? Mar Zutra said: because they act high-handedly against the community... Rav Ashi said: because they call people asses."
- Incidentally, of Mar Zutra himself the following account is brought in the Gemara:
Mar Zutra's action was intended to engage the slave in his service after R' Judah's death, since by taking off Mar Zutra's shoes and carrying them into the house the slave would be acquired as Mar Zutra's property by the right of possession [chazakah]. Rashi explains that Mar Zutra was especially careful to take the possession of the slave before R' Judah's death, since otherwise the slave would acquire freedom at the moment R' Judah died. The slave obviously did not know this rule – and so we find Mar Zutra, one of the exalted Sages, using his knowledge of the Halacha for his own advantage while defrauding another person.
"R' Judah the Indian [Rashi: the Ethiopian] was a proselyte and had no heirs. When he was ill, Mar Zutra called on him. Seeing that R' Judah was dying, he [Mar Zutra] said to his [R' Judah's] slave: 'Take off my shoes and carry them to the house.'" (Tractate Kiddushin 22b)
- However the above case apparently speaks of a gentile slave, and from the Talmud it seems that Chazal did not even consider gentile slaves people. As is said in Tractate Bava Kama 49a,
The very institute of slavery, adopted and legalized by the Scripture and the Talmud, can hardly be considered "outstandingly moral," and neither can statements calling people asses simply because did not happen to be born to Jewish mothers.
"If an ox gores a [pregnant] female slave and she had a miscarriage – [the ox's owner] has to pay [the slave's master] the compensation for the fetuses. Why? Because his ox injured merely a she-ass, as the Scripture said: 'Sit here with the ass' (Genesis 22:5) – the people who are like asses."
- Not only gentiles suffered from the sharp tongue of Chazal. In the Talmud the term am haaretz (literally: "people of the land") refers to a certain category within the Jewish people. The term is defined in Tractate Sotah 22a:
According to the Talmud an am haaretz is a Jew who wittingly or unwittingly does not fulfill certain commandments. And in Tractate Pesachim 49b Chazal said: "One should not marry a daughter of an am haaretz, for they are an abomination, and their women are like reptiles, and of their daughters the Scripture said, 'Cursed is he who lies with any animal' (Deuteronomy 27:21)." Women here are called reptiles and animals not because their own faults, but solely because their husbands or fathers are not meticulous in fulfilling some commandments. And here is what the Gemara says of an am haaretz himself: "Rabbi Eleazar said: one is permitted to slay an am haaretz on the Day of Atonement which occurs on Sabbath. His disciples said to him: Rabbi, cannot you say 'to slaughter like an animal' [which is a less offensive expression]? He answered: no, since a blessing is needed for ritual slaughter, but no blessing is needed on [slaying] an am haaretz" (Pesachim 49b) Ironically, one who violates the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself" is not called an am haaretz.
"Our rabbis had learnt [in a Baraita]: who is an am haaretz? Rabbi Meir says: everyone who does not recite the Shema and its blessings in the morning and in the evening, and the Sages say: everyone who does not put on tefillin. Ben Azai says: everyone who does not have tzizit on his garments. R' Jonathan the son of Joseph says: everyone who has sons and does not raise them to Torah study. Others say: even if one reads and learns but does not minister to Torah scholars, he is an am haaretz."
- And here is what Chazal thought of women – apparently, regardless of the degree of their religious observance:
This statement might be intended to prevent men from extreme lust, but the Sages could have chosen a less offensive phrase to express that idea. Calling people "sacks full of excrement," maintaining that some people are lower than animals since animals must be slaughtered with a blessing and these people without a blessing, and statements like those are hardly testimony to the "outstanding morality" of those who make them. And though some Sages spoke positively of women ("Rav Chisda said: ... so we learn that God gave a woman more intellect than He gave a man" – Niddah 45b), it does not help salvage the image of Chazal in general: are we supposed to think that while some of them were moral people the others had no problem damning all those who did not belong to their circle? And even if one calls somebody a "sack full of excrement" on one occasion and praises her on another, such a person can hardly be considered "outstandingly moral."
"The Baraita says: a woman is a sack full of excrement and her mouth is full of blood – yet everybody longs for her." (Shabbat 152a)
The status of non-Jews
The above statements by Chazal do not necessarily have practical Halachic implications. But the situation is much worse: many practical Halachic rulings harshly discriminate between different categories of people. Let us consider, for example, the status of a non-Jew according to Halacha:
- Though one must violate the Sabbath to save the life of a Jew, it is forbidden to violate the Sabbath to save the life of a non-Jew (Yoma, chapter 8, mishnahs 6-7; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 330:2; Mishnah Berurah, 330, subsection 8). The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 26a) tried to explain this law: Jews who observe the Sabbath one is permitted to violate the Sabbath to save, but gentiles who do not observe the Sabbath one is forbidden to save by violating the Sabbath. However, this "explanation" is not worth much: how can one hold it against gentiles that they do not observe the Sabbath if they are not commanded to? Only Jews are so commanded – and can it be a reason to forbid saving people from death?
- Moreover, this is the fate of a non-Jew who wants to observe the Sabbath, according to Halacha:
Actually, this law is set by the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 58b, and Rashi there explains: "They [the non-Jews] are forbidden to rest not only on Sabbath, which is a day of rest for the Jews... but any rest is forbidden to them, so that they must not relax from their work even on a day that is not a day of rest." So people who happen not to have been born to a Jewish mother are treated by Halacha worse than animals – a Jew's animal, as we know, must have a rest on the Sabbath.
"A gentile who observed the Sabbath, even if he did it on a weekday [and all the more so if it was actually on Sabbath], if he behaved on this day like a Jew behaves on the Sabbath, he ought to die." (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 10:9)
- The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 154:2) goes even further in ruling on how to treat non-Jewish women and children:
Here one does not deal even with desecration of Sabbath: it is simply forbidden to breast-feed non-Jewish children – it is all right to let them die unless breast-feeding them will bring some physical relief to a Jewish woman! Nor are we permitted to help a gentile woman give birth at all – except for a renowned midwife, for if she refuses to help a gentile woman the gentiles would be hostile to the Jews and would not help Jewish women to give birth (Shach on Yoreh Deah 154:2). And even a renowned midwife may help a gentile woman give birth for pay only – that is, the common human virtue of charity may not be applied to non-Jews.
"A Jewish woman may not breast-feed a gentile child, even for pay (except if she has too much milk, which makes her suffer – then she is permitted to breast-feed him). And she also may not help a gentile woman give birth, except if she is known as a midwife – then she is permitted, but only for pay and not on Sabbath and holidays."
- However, nowadays one can see observant Jewish doctors healing non-Jewish patients, on weekdays as well as on Sabbath and holidays. Why? Here is the answer:
That is, the only reason to save gentiles from death is that if we abstain from doing so, it may harm the Jews. No human values, no decency and no compassion.
"In our times, when there is fear of more than just animosity if Jewish doctors forbore from treating non-Jews on the Sabbath and left them to die, even this issue is one of saving Jewish lives, for if non-Jewish doctors heard this they would stop treating Jewish patients." (Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef, "Yabiah Omer," part 8, Orach Chayim, paragraph 38)
- In property issues, too, there is injustice to non-Jews in Halacha:
And though Maimonides (Laws of Property Damages 8:5) tried to explain this law as a fine to gentiles for their irresponsible conduct (in not preventing their animals from damaging), it is clear that this law applies to all non-Jews at every time, independent of how this or that gentile population treats their animals – and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 410:1) ruled this mishnah as a plain practical Halachic law without even mentioning fines, gentiles' irresponsibility, and the like.
"A Jew's ox that gored an ox of an idolater – [the Jew] is not liable. An idolater's ox that gored an ox of a Jew – may this ox be harmless before, or already proclaimed dangerous, [the idolater] must pay the whole sum of the damage." (Bava Kama, chapter 4, mishnah 3)
- Halacha includes a legal system for non-Jews – the seven Noahide commandments – however, these are super-draconic laws: "A Noahide should be killed even for [robbing or stealing] property worth less than a prutah [a coin of a very low value]" (Avodah Zarah 71b). In comparison, a Jew that robbed must only return the robbed property, and if he stole, he must pay the double, quadruple or quintuple value of the stolen property, depending on circumstances. A gentile is liable to death if he violated any of the seven commandments, and he "may be sentenced to death by one judge, based on the testimony of one witness, and even if he was not warned [before he violated a prohibition]" (Sanhedrin 57b). Again, in comparison a Jew may be sentenced to death only if committed one of the relatively few prohibitions for which he is liable to death, only by a court of 23 or 72 judges (depending on circumstances), only if he was warned before he violated that prohibition, and only if two observant Jews testified before the court that he violated it. Were such a "system of justice" ever applied to a non-Jewish population it would lead to something much like wanton bloodshed.
- Indeed, the Sages even ruled that the commandment "You shall not murder" does not apply to non-Jews:
As "Sefer HaYereim" explained (paragraph 175): "For [in order for one to be liable] he needs to intend to commit an action for which one is liable. And the term murder applies only when a Jew is murdered, as it is written: '...who kills his fellow' (Deuteronomy 4:42) – one who murders his fellow is called a murderer, but one who murders an idolater is not called a murderer."
"One who intended to kill an animal and killed a person, one who intended to kill an idolater and killed a Jew, one who intended to kill a newborn unable to survive and killed one able to survive – this one is not liable." (Sanhedrin, chapter 9, mishnah 2)
- Even to give a gift to a non-Jew, or to praise his good deeds, is forbidden by Halacha:
And though in their plain meaning the words of Deuteronomy 7:2, "Give them no mercy," speak only of the Seven People of Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest, the Halachic arbiters ruled it to be a law applicable to all non-Jews in every era (Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 10:4; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 151:8-14). According to these Halachic arbiters a Jew is strictly forbidden to give to his non-Jewish neighbor any present (even if he himself has nothing he can do with it, like non-kosher food) and to speak in a gentile's praise – even if this gentile did many good deeds and perhaps even saved the Jew's life.
"'Give them no mercy' [lo techanem] – do not give them estate [chanayah] in the land; another meaning: lo techanem – do not ascribe to them grace [chen]; another meaning: lo techanem – do not give them a gift." (Avodah Zarah 20a)
- In general, Chazal's attitude to the people whose only sin is that they had happened to be born non-Jews is best described in the words of the Talmud in Tractate Yevamot, 61a:
"'And you, the flock of My pasture, you are men' (Ezekiel 34:31) – you are called men, but idolaters are not called men."
But it is not only non-Jews who "are not called men." Even a Halachically Jewish person may be treated in a manner which hardly can be called humane:
- The Talmud states in Tractate Sanhedrin 57a: "A gentile and a shepherd of small cattle – one should not lift them nor push them down," and Rashi explained: "One should not lift them from a pit to save them from death, nor push them down into a pit to actively kill them." "A shepherd of small cattle" here, according to Rashi, is a Jew who is accustomed to commit sins, like the shepherds who are used to pasturing their small cattle in others' fields – and thus they commit robbery. One is forbidden to save the life of a Jew who is used to sinning – and it is not spoken of severe sins like murder but of minor ones like pasturing cattle in others' fields!
- Yet the above speaks only of a believing Jew who violates some specific commandment. A deliberately secular Jew deserves a much more harsh attitude, according to Halacha:
A similar ruling may be found in the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 425:5.
"Heretics, that is Jews who do not believe in the Torah or in prophecy – it is a commandment to kill them. If one can kill them with a sword in public he should, and if not – he should act against them with cunning until he causes them to be killed... But gentiles who are not at war with us and Jewish shepherds of small cattle and all the like – one should not cause them to be killed, and it is also forbidden to save them from death if they are in mortal danger. For example, if somebody sees one of them fallen into the sea, he may not pull him out of it, for it is written: 'You shall not stand against the blood of your fellow' (Leviticus 19:16) – and he is not your fellow." (Maimonides, Laws of Murderer and Protection of Soul, 4:10-11)
- Of course, nowadays even the most Orthodox rabbis do not want their congregations to start a massacre of secular Jews, and so the Chazon Ish ruled in his commentary on Yoreh Deah (paragraph 2, section 16):
It is quite clear that the whole excuse of "special perverseness" of the heretics in ancient times has no leg to stand on. One may speak of miracles and the Divine voice during the times of prophets, or at the very most in the Talmudic era, but not in the period of Maimonides, and certainly not in the time of the Shulchan Aruch. So the Chazon Ish abolished a definite and well-established Halachic ruling, accepted for generations, because it conflicted with the modern human conscience of even the most observant Jews. It was a good and reasonable act by the Chazon Ish; why shouldn't other immoral Halachic laws be abolished, too?
"It seems that the law obligating to kill [the secular Jews] is valid only in those times when His supervision is clear, like in the time when miracles were frequent and the Divine Voice was heard... At that time, clearing out the evildoers was considered guarding the world, for everybody knew that leading the generation astray [from the ways of the Torah] brings calamities to the world... But in the time of concealment, when faith has been uprooted from the poor people, pushing [the heretics] down into a pit would be considered not as guarding the world, but as a deterioration... And because our main goal is to fix things, we should not apply this law when it would not lead to improvement, but we have to return them [the heretics] through ties of love and put them in the rays of light as much as we can."
- However, even the approach of "ties of love" was used only to permit not killing deliberately secular Jews. In other matters they are still treated as aliens: it is permitted to save their lives on Sabbath only because of the danger of the secular public's hostility against religious Jews ("Tzitz Eliezer," part 8, section 15, essay Meshivat Nafesh, chapter 6), their testimony is invalid ("Igrot Moshe," part 1, Even HaEzer, paragraph 82), the wine they touch is forbidden for drinking (ibid., part 4, Yoreh Deah, paragraph 58), and a husband who has become religious may divorce his secular wife without paying her the sum stated in her marriage contract ("Yabiah Omer," part 3, Even HaEzer, section 21). And of course none of the modern Halachic arbiters has ever thought to apply the principle of "ties of love" to non-Jews, and all the inhumane Halachic laws which concern them are still considered valid.
One more group of people that is harshly discriminated against by Halacha are women:
- The Mishnah in Tractate Kiddushin, chapter 1, speaks of "buying" a woman as it speaks of buying slaves, cattle and the like. That is, the relationship between a couple being wed is seen by Halacha as an act of purchase in which a man purchases a specific kind of property – a wife. Likewise, in Tractate Berachot, 57b, we find: "Three things bring man a good mood: a nice home, a nice woman, and nice clothes."
- Moreover, a married woman is severely limited concerning the basic right to property:
That is, all that a woman earns for her labor, or even finds in the street, belongs to her husband. If she inherits any property it is considered hers – but practically, all the profit this property brings belongs to her husband. And even if somebody damaged or embarrassed her, according to Rabbi Judah the son of Beteira he should pay a part of compensation to her husband – and the part due the husband is paid him immediately, but the part due the wife is invested in real estate, and all the profit of this investment belongs to the husband! And the Halacha was ruled according to the son of Beteira (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 83:1). Though the Sages' regulation is that in return for giving him all his wife earns the husband is obligated to provide his wife money for living, a woman's find was ruled by the Sages to belong to the husband so that there would not be animosity between him and his wife (Bava Metzia 12b). It is a rather peculiar way of settling family quarrels, to give one family member's property to another. And for some reason, the husband's property is not given to the wife, only vice versa.
"A woman's find and her handwork belong to her husband, and of her inheritance he enjoys the benefit while she is alive. Money which one should pay if he embarrasses or damages her belongs to her. Rabbi Judah the son of Beteira says: if she is hurt in a covered part of her body, she gets 2/3 of the sum and the husband gets 1/3, but if she is hurt in an uncovered part of her body, the husband gets 2/3 of the sum and she gets 1/3. The husband's share should be given him immediately, but the wife's share should be used to buy land, of which the husband enjoys the benefit." (Ketubot, chapter 6, mishnah 1)
- On matters of inheritance, too, women are discriminated against:
"This is the order of inheritance: one who died, his sons inherit from him, and they are privileged over all the others; males are privileged over females. Anyway, a female does not inherit where a male inherits. If one has no children, his father inherits from him, but a mother does not inherit from her sons – and this law is known to us from the tradition... A wife inherits nothing from her husband, but a husband inherits all his wife's property..." (Maimonides, the Laws of Inheritance 1:1-8)
- If in property issues a woman is merely discriminated against, in all concerning interpersonal relations Halachic sources actually treat her as her husband's servant:
Of course, nowadays no man treats his wife as a servant, and during the last centuries the average religious Jewish husband has treated his wife much better than his gentile neighbors have treated theirs – but this only means that the average Jewish husband was and is much more decent and sensitive than Orthodox Jewish Halacha.
"The woman has no value in and of herself in Creation, for she is only something additional to the main entity [i.e. man], taken from him and designed to serve him. That is why our rabbis OBM called her 'a tail'." (Rashba, Responsa, part 1, paragraph 60) "Every woman should wash her husband's face, hands, and feet, pour him a drink and make him a bed (and according to some opinions, she has to make all the beds in the home). She also should stand before her husband and serve him, i.e. bring him water or a tool he needs, or take it from him, and all the like." (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 80:4-5) "If any woman abstains from doing the work she ought to do [to serve her husband], one should force her to do it, even with a whip." (Maimonides, Laws of Interpersonal relations 21:10)
- Though in matters of inheritance several customs and regulations were introduced in recent centuries to give women inheritance rights by bypassing the laws of the Torah and earlier Halachic rulings, in many fields of life Jewish women are still discriminated against. They are forbidden to study Torah, except the Halachic laws which apply to women (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 246:6). Consequently, women cannot be religious judges or Halachic arbiters (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 7:4). Moreover, they are generally not accepted before a religious court as witnesses (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 35:14). Maimonides (Laws of Kings 1:5) even ruled that a woman may not be appointed to any public position, and most contemporary Halachic arbiters adopt this opinion. In Ashkenazic communities women are not permitted to perform ritual slaughter simply because of an age-old custom, without even a Talmudic source behind it (see Rama on Yoreh Deah 1:1). Women are also forbidden to read the Torah in public, "because of the honor of the public [i.e. men]" (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 282:3), though it is a mystery why one would consider it an insult to his honor if he hears a woman reading the Torah in the synagogue.
- The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 373:4) rules that a cohen may not impurify himself to participate in the funeral of his daughter if she was raped. Not only did she undergo a horrible and traumatic event, she is also punished for being a victim. Of course if a male cohen is raped (which can also happen) or even if he himself is a vicious rapist, his father may impurify himself to attend the funeral.
- Heavy restrictions are made on women's wardrobes: their thighs and forearms, and even their hair if they are married, are considered "pubes" (see Mishnah Berurah, 75, subsections 1-13) though at the time of the Shulchan Aruch (see Even HaEzer 83:1) a woman's forearm was considered "an uncovered part of her body." Even a woman's singing voice is considered "pubes," and a man is forbidden to listen to a woman (who is not a first degree relative) singing if he is forbidden to have sex with her or even if she is permitted to him but his intention is to have pleasure of her singing, "lest he comes to a sinful thought" (Mishnah Berurah, 75, subsection 17). This, obviously, means that a woman is forbidden to sing at any public event, even within her family circle if a stranger is present. Obviously, Halacha does not speak only of women singing songs with sexual content while dressed in something particularly provocative. The prohibition also refers to a 12 year old girl dressed in a long blouse and a long skirt singing the United States' national anthem. It really seems impossible that somebody would think of having sex with that girl under such circumstances. Was the author of the Mishnah Berurah so much more obsessed with women than the average man is?
- Many rabbis try to explain the restrictions placed on women's dressing and singing by exegesis on the verse "A king's daughter, all her honor is inwards" (Psalms 45:14), that is, a woman should practice chastity not because of worry about her safety from potential rapists and not because of men's problems with their libidos, but because she is like a queen and her honor depends upon parts of her body remaining unseen. The earliest source for this view may be found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Yoma 1:1. However, the problem is that Psalms 45:14 has nothing to do with a king's daughter's honor. The Hebrew wording there is not kvodah [her honor], but kvudah [her chattels, treasure, or precious things]. The Scripture uses the word kvudah in this sense only, and this meaning is approved by the Rabbinic commentators on the Scripture themselves (see Radak on Judges 18:21). And indeed, this meaning perfectly fits the context of Psalms 45, the wedding of a king with the daughter of another king – and during the wedding ceremony the royal bride brings her dowry into the groom's palace, of which the verse of Psalms 45:14 speaks. Obviously it has nothing to do with any woman's chastity.
- Returning to the matter of saving a life, the Mishnah (Horayot 3:7) rules:
And the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 252:8) adopts this as practical Halachic law: "And if they both [a man and a woman] are going to drown in a river, one should save the man first." So if one sees a man and a woman drowning in a river and he can save only one, he should save the man simply because he is a man. Pitchei Teshuvah on Yoreh Deah 252, subsection 7, brought a Halachic ruling that if gentiles take two Jewish children into captivity, a boy and a girl, and want to convert them but agree to release one of them for ransom – one ought to redeem the boy. Though the girl's children, even if she converts away from Judaism, would remain Halachically Jewish and so in redeeming the girl one loses only one Jew (the boy), and in redeeming the boy, the girl and all her offspring on the female line would be lost forever among the gentiles – it is nevertheless obligatory to redeem the boy. If this is not discrimination against women, what is?
"A man has privilege over a woman, to be saved from death and to return his loss."
According to Halacha there are even thoughts that one is forbidden to think! Judaism teaches that what distinguishes human beings from animals is the capacity for thought and understanding (see Rashi on Genesis 2:7) – yet the following rulings exist in Halachic literature:
"And not only it is forbidden to turn in our thought to idolatry, but about each and every thought that may bring one to abandon one of the Torah foundations we are warned not to let it enter our minds."
(Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 2:3)
"And they OBM said that not only is the thought of idolatry forbidden, but each and every thought that brings one to abandon anything from the Torah [is forbidden]. And the Scripture warned about it explicitly in another place, where it is written 'And you shall not stray after your heart.'"
(Sefer HaChinuch, commandment 213)
"There are six commandments which we are obligated to fulfill constantly... And here they are: ... 6) [A commandment] not to follow the thoughts of our heart and the sight of our eyes, as is written, 'Do not stray after your heart...' The Sages said, 'after your heart' – means heresy... and heresy is all the alien thoughts that are the opposite of the Torah's outlook."
(Chafetz Chayim, Biur Halacha, paragraph 1, second reference).
Halacha obliges one to deprive himself of his human nature if a certain thought may undermine "one of the Torah foundations." Not only is this an inhumane and absurd ruling (for a ruling forbidding a person to think can hardly be upheld), it is also highly suspicious – for as it was shown above, many things considered "Torah foundations" have no leg to stand on if they are subject to a reasonable and intellectually honest inquiry.
No positive evidence
Thus far we have seen much evidence suggesting that most fundamental beliefs of Orthodox Judaism are simply wrong. One may ask whether there is any positive evidence in favor of these beliefs. It appears that no real evidence of such kind is available. Indeed, there are numerous organizations engaged in kiruv – inducing secular Jews to the belief and the practice of Orthodox Judaism – and one of the basic trends of such activity is presenting the secular public with various arguments suggesting that the main principles of Orthodox Jewish belief are factually true. However, the arguments of outreach organizations originate in ignorance at best or in charlatanry at worst.
- For example, outreach people claim that the four animals listed in the Torah as each having a single sign of purity – the pig, the camel, the hare, and the hyrax – are the only animals in the world with only one sign of purity, and not only that, but that Chazal knew of this from Divine tradition and stated so explicitly in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Chulin 59a). If Chazal's tradition were not of Divine origin, the outreach people argue, how could they dare say that no other animal in the world has only one sign of purity and how could they be correct? Unfortunately, instead of containing a proof of the divinity of the Torah, this issue seems to show gross inaccuracies in the Torah text. The Torah explicitly states that the hyrax and hare (Hebrew: shafan and arnevet) "bring up the cud" (Leviticus 11:5-6), which clearly means rumination. But as we have already seen above, neither hare nor hyrax ruminates. And though there are some Rabbinic authorities who claim that shafan and arnevet of the Torah are not the hare and the hyrax familiar to us, or who interpret the term "brings up the cud" (maalat gerah) as some action or quality other than rumination, all these excuses cannot stand up to the scrutiny of reason. Moreover, there are definitely more than just four animals with only one sign of purity. The Torah's list does not include the warthog, the babirussa, the peccaries, and the llamas. One can say that from the Torah's viewpoint all llamas are camels, and the warthog, babirussa, and peccary are all pigs, but we have specific criteria for distinguishing between different species (minim) of animals. We consider the horse and the mule, for example, or the mule and the donkey to be different species, and there are fewer differences between the mule and the donkey than between the pig and the peccary or between the camel and the llama.
- Another example of outreach argumentation is their claim that while the whole world believed for millennia that the Earth is flat, the Jewish sages knew (from the tradition of Divine origin, of course) that the Earth's shape is spherical. However, the earliest Jewish source speaking of the spherical Earth is the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3:1), written in the 4th century CE; the Greeks already knew in the 6th century BCE that the earth is spherical. The Jerusalem Talmud itself uses the statement that "the world is made like a ball" to explain why a statue of a gentile deity holding a ball is forbidden (the ball symbolizes power over the whole earth); that is, the Talmud admits that knowledge of the Earth's spherical shape is initially gentile knowledge. Moreover, this is the view of the Jerusalem Talmud, while the Babylonian Talmud, as we have already seen, gives in Tractate Pesachim 94b an explicit description of the flat Earth under the dome of the sky – a dome which has actual thickness and in which there are "windows." Through those "windows" the sun passes upwards and downwards each morning and evening. According to the Talmud, the passage through the dome of the sky takes the sun the time of 4 mils. This absurd picture was even adopted as the base for practical Halachic laws by Rabbeynu Tam and the Shulchan Aruch, as was shown above.
- One more argument of the outreach activists is what they claim to be fulfillment of the prophecies stated in the Scripture. However, as we have seen above, too many of these prophecies were unfulfilled, and close analysis of this topic would lead one to conclusions quite different from acceptance of the Divine origin of the Torah.
- But perhaps the most outrageous field of the outreach argumentation is the so-called "Torah codes." They claim various information relating to personalities and events long after the Torah was written is "encoded" in the Torah text by various methods (mostly by ELS – equidistant letter skips). However, all the accurate statistical analysis performed until now shows that no more occurrences of such information may be found in the Torah than in any other written text of equal length, and the textual research shows that any of the Torah texts used now by various Jewish congregations seems to be very different from the original version of the Torah, so that any information "encoded" in the original text could not be found in contemporary versions. However, when the scientific dispute on the matter of the "Torah codes" tended to conclusions unfavorable to the outreach activists, and when it became known to them that many of the scientists opposed to the idea of the "codes" are observant Jews, the outreach people did not hesitate to appeal to the haskamot given by leading rabbis to their activity as weighty arguments in the scientific dispute. Not only is this charlatanry; it is quite silly.
No other positive argumentation
However, even if we cast away the outreach arguments, we will find no factual evidence supporting the correctness of Orthodox Jewish belief. So we remain with an unsupported dogmatic belief which contradicts factual reality at multitude of points, as we have seen. This is a rather disappointing conclusion for anyone who wants to check the veracity of that belief.
- Letter to my rabbi, by Naftali Zeligman
- The original article on Talk Reason
- Feedback and discussion relating to Zeligman's article on Talk Reason
- Retrieved from Talk Reason on 30/3/2021. Originally posted there on 16/03/2003. Reproduced here with minor edits for clarity. We contacted Talk Reason to ask permission to reproduce this article here, but received no response.